Though it was the middle of the night before Mira finally found her way out of the woods, she did eventually stagger to the inn and to her room. Rohaim was a very different place in the dark, without all the vibrant colors. The slightest breeze set everything moving, which made the buildings look alive in a way that creeped her out.
A few months ago, she would have laughed at the thought of monsters going bump in the night, but she’d met too many of them first hand not to be just a little bit paranoid as she walked through town. Nothing jumped out at her though, and the only noise she heard was that of the night watch a block over patrolling the streets.
Once she was in her room, she lit the lamp hanging from the wall and turned to kick her boots off. There, sitting in the room’s only chair, was a tall, lanky man with the bottom half of his face hidden by a cloth mask and the top half shadowed under a hood.
“Who the hell are you, and why are you in my room?” Mira demanded.
“Ko ruh tuva sira?” the man asked, without moving.
“I… what?” The words sounded familiar, but she couldn’t place them.
“Vuh kora.” The man stood up then. He looked even taller upright, and somehow too thin, with arms that dangled too far down. He pulled the hood back to reveal grey skin textured like sandpaper and hair that was white and brittle. His eyes were the same shade of white.
“You’re that demon from the forest outside Vinmarch,” Mira said. “You said the same thing there.”
“Yes, and you didn’t understand me then either.”
“No… What do the words mean?”
The demon shook his head. “You’re not afraid. That’s a good start.”
Mira wouldn’t have agreed with that, but she didn’t see any reason to admit it to the demon. She had the serpent tattoo to protect her, but she didn’t know if it would be enough. It was better all around for let him think she wasn’t intimidated.
“Are you the one who burned that patch of seltharis flowers outside of town?”
“Those little blue things? This whole town reeks of them.”
“So it was you?” Mira pressed.
The demon shook his head again. “They’re nothing more than an inconvenience, something to lull the humans into a false sense of security. They only serve as a deterrent to the weakest of demons.”
“That so? I feel like it’s an awful big coincidence to find out someone’s been torching them and then you show up in my room in the same night.”
“That’s probably because it’s not a coincidence,” the demon said. “I’m here because you’re in danger, and you’re valuable to us.”
Mira cocked her head. “Did Jorath send you?”
The demon’s sneer was visible even through the mask that covered his mouth. “Jorath is a disgrace. I’d sooner rip out my heartstone and break it than do anything for him.”
“Ok, I’m confused. If you’re not working for Jorath, then who the hell are you? And how do you know anything about me?”
“Ko ruh tuva sira?”
“Stop saying that! What does it even mean?”
“If you understood, you wouldn’t have to ask. You will, someday. For now though, you’re in danger here. You need to leave before the Piroku Festival starts tomorrow night.”
“Look, I’m tired. I’ve had a long day. I’m not in the mood for this shit. If you’ve got something to say, spit it out. Don’t play these cryptic warning bullshit games with me.”
The demon shrugged. “You are important to my order, Mira Tanner. Bringing you here is probably the only redeeming act of Jorath’s long, miserable life. I will do what I can to protect you until you are strong enough to protect yourself. It would be easier if you fled this town before it is destroyed.”
“At the festival? What makes you think that’s going to happen?”
“Take my advice. Get a good night’s rest and leave town tomorrow. Learn to control your power, and when you do, you’ll find us.”
The demon swept past her and opened the door. He paused at the threshold and looked back. “Vuh kora.”
Then he was gone. Mira looked out into the hallway, but there was nothing there to see. “Vul kora this, asshole,” she said, giving the finger to the darkened hall.
* * *
As exhausted as she was, Mira couldn’t sleep. Getting cryptic warnings from mysterious demons that were apparently stalking her kept her mind racing throughout the night. None of what he’d said made a lot of sense to her.
She was willing to bet the demon knew more than he was letting on about the destroyed seltharis flowers. She’d found three other patches that had been burned away while she was trying to get back to town. Once could have been an accident. Three had to be deliberate. Strangely though, Mira found that she believed the demon when he said he hadn’t done it.
If nothing else, he didn’t need to. There were a hundred times as many flowers in the town itself as there were in those patches out in the forest. Of course, just because one demon was immune to the flowers didn’t mean his friends would be. That still didn’t explain why the demon had come to her room to warn her away.
The obvious explanation was to take what he’d said at face value. For some reason, she was important to him. That didn’t necessarily mean his intentions were friendly. God knew that Jorath certainly wasn’t on her side. When he protected her, he was merely protecting his investment in her. It could be the same with this new demon.
Mira spent the night going round in circles in her head, trying to figure out what was going on. Before she knew it, the sun was up and she was no closer to having any answers. The only thing she knew for sure was that Shy had told her to stay in Rohaim until she returned, which wouldn’t happen for another week or two at the earliest.
When the sun came up, she trudged off to the arbor to get her first assignment from Drey. When she found him, however, he pulled up short and stared at her.
“Don’t take this the wrong way, but you look awful,” he told her. “Why don’t we have a cup of tea before we get started?”
“Yeah, sure,” Mira said. “I didn’t get much sleep last night.”
“Oh?” Drey started off toward the house, Mira trailing behind him. “Anything you want to talk about?”
“No. I just… A lot on my mind, I guess. Honestly, I’d rather talk about anything else.”
They entered the house and Mira took a seat at the table while Drey started the tea. Once he got the kettle on, he sat down opposite of her. “So, what do you want to talk about?”
“Why don’t you just give me a run down of today’s jobs?”
“There’s not much to do, I’m afraid. With the celebration being tonight, it’s nothing but nausea medicine and preparing for the flood of hangovers tomorrow. People who overindulge make for good customers the next day.”
“Speaking of the celebration, what exactly is a Piroku Festival?” Mira asked. “I’ve never seen one before.”
“Well, the story goes that when the first demons appeared, the five brothers called upon their families to become the demon hunter clans. And mostly they fought demons, killed them, and protected humanity, right? Well, that’s great, but in the mean time, while they were fighting, someone had to defend us. Piroku used his magic to cloak our towns and cities, and taught his descendents to do the same. One thing in particular they devoted resources to was hiding us during the red moon phases, so every time a red moon comes up, we have a Piroku Festival to honor his work afterwards.”
“Oh. That makes sense, I guess.”
It didn’t, but Mira had been careful to avoid asking questions about this world’s religious beliefs. If it was anything like Earth, religion was a dangerous topic, and she didn’t want to offend anyone by saying the wrong thing. More than that, she wasn’t sure how much of it was common knowledge. For all she knew, this Piroku story could be their Adam and Eve, or Noah’s Arc.
“Anyway, when dusk falls, the effigy gets lit up. Then it’s an outdoor feast around a big bonfire and a lot of drinking, and.. uh…” Drey trailed off and gave her a sheepish grin.
“Yeah, I get the picture. People with alcohol want to have fun.”
“At least it’s good for business,” Drey said. “But like I said, it’s a pretty easy day for us, and we close up early. Besides, you look beat anyway. I’ll pour you a cup in a minute here, and then you just relax while I get things set up.”
“Wait, is that why you have that huge patch of ginger root growing in the corner of the east garden that we haven’t touched? For this festival?”
Drey grinned at her. “I told you, I make a lot of stuff for nausea and hangovers. There’s a berry patch over by the orchards that I grow exclusively for festivals and celebrations too.”
Drey poured two cups of tea and passed her one. “If you don’t already have plans, you could come to the festival with me tonight,” he said.
Mira flushed, and her heart rate sped up. “I’m not so sure that’s a good idea. People are already talking.”
“Let them,” he said over his cup, one eyebrow cocked. Mira’s face got redder and she looked down at her tea.
“I’m not going to be here much longer,” she said. “Best not to start something we can’t finish.”
“Mira, I’m not asking you to marry me. Come to the festival. We’ll have a good time. The rest we can make up as we go along.”
“I’ll… I’ll think about it.”
Drey made it seem reasonable, and she wanted to say yes, but she couldn’t help but notice how much easier it was to think clearly when he wasn’t around. Things that seemed like a good idea right at that moment sounded a lot different as soon as she left work, and she didn’t think that was just a coincidence or hormones.
It was clear he was disappointed in her answer, but Drey accepted it with a smile. If anything, he seemed puzzled over the whole thing. He finished his tea and stood up. “I’ll see you out in the garden when you’re done. Take your time.”
Then she was alone with her thoughts again. She didn’t feel any better than she had before her talk with Drey.
* * *
Drey asked her again at the end of the day when he came to pay her, but Mira dodged the question by claiming she was tired and that she wasn’t going to go. He made no attempt to hide his disappointment and assured her that she’d be missing out. Even though she had no intention of going, she told him she might see him there if she felt better.
Instead, she retreated to her room at the inn. She was so tired that not even her concerns about demons infiltrating the town or her strange attraction to Drey could keep her conscious. Her sleep came quickly, and it was a dark, dreamless slumber.
Dreamless it might have been, but it was also short. A knock at her door a bare hour later pulled her back awake. She answered it with a angry frown, expecting to find Drey there to badger her again.
The demon with the grey skin and white hair stood in the hallway. “You are still here,” he said. “That is not good.”
“Yeah, well, so are you.”
“It is my job to watch over you.”
“I never asked for that,” Mira said. “In fact, I don’t want you to. You should just leave me alone.”
“I can not. If you will not leave voluntarily, then I must take you against your will.”
Mira took a step back and her eyes narrowed. The demon was close, almost too close. By the time she could bring Shy’s tattoo to life, he would already have grabbed her. If it came down to a fight, she thought her best chance was to take his heartstone. The only problem was that she wasn’t sure if she could. The only time she’d done it, it had been an accident, and when she’d tried to do it to Jorath, it hadn’t worked.
“I would rather not be forced to take you from here, but you must leave. Please, leave of your own free will. I do not care where you go, but you must not be here when the villagers light their effigy.”
“Tell me why,” Mira said. “You can’t ask me to trust you when you haven’t given my any reason to.”
“The dryad-spawn has been experimenting with the seltharis blossoms. He believes he has grown a new, stronger strain, and that he can spread their aroma to drive the demons away from this town. I have seen this before. It will not work. There is an inferolisk in the forest. The human hunter has seen it. It will attack the town, and destroy it, when the effigy is lit.”
“Then we have to warn them! If that’s true, then all we have to do is convince them not to light the effiy.”
The demon spread his hands in a helpless gesture. “Would anyone here believe either of us?”
“Drey might,” Mira said. As much as she didn’t want to, it sounded like he was the person she needed to talk to.
“You are holding on to foolish human sentiments,” the demon said. He reached out a hand toward Mira. “Come with me and leave them to their fate. You are meant for better things than dying in this backwater village.”
“I’ll decide what I’m meant to do, thank you,” Mira said. “And right now I’m deciding not to turn my back on people who might need my help.”
“Then you don’t leave me with any other options. I can’t let you die here. Vuh kora.”
Then the demon lunged forward to grab her.