Chapter 18

Mira threw herself backward, but not fast enough that the demon didn’t grab hold of her shirt anyway. She grabbed his wrist with both hands in an attempt to break his grip, resulting in nothing more than abrasions across her hands where they rubbed against the demon’s skin.

It really was as rough as it looked, so rough that Mira wondered what his clothes were made out of that he didn’t shred them just by walking around. Then he jerked her off her feet and tried to pull her through the doorway out into the hall. Mira grabbed the frame and fought back, but the demon’s strength was frightening.

Mira’s shadow whipped around her into ropy black tendrils that grabbed the demon. They wrapped around his arms and neck and legs while his eyes widened in surprise, then slammed him backwards into the wall opposite the door. His head lolled while her shadow held him pinned several inches off the floor.

“Oh shit,” she breathed out. “What the hell is that?”

Her own eyes wide, Mira raised a hand up and looked past it to where its shadow should have been cast against the wall. There was nothing there. She looked down at her feet, twisting as she did to see all around here. There was no shadow there either. It had somehow completely detached itself from her body and was several feet away holding a struggling demon immobile.

A vision of Jorath’s shadow leading her and Shy through that ruined city entered her mind, followed by one of Shodo’s shadow rising up and killing him. Somehow, Jorath had done something to hers. Mira wanted to be angry about it, but whatever it was had saved her from being abducted and probably worse.

Unless she could find some way to kill this demon quietly, there was no way she could stay in Rohaim. Telling people about him would draw the wrong sort of attention, and there was no way she was going back into a jail cell. There was one person who might be able to help her though.

If things didn’t work out like she hoped, she wanted to be able to move quickly, so Mira packed up her meager belongings while the demon watched her. He’d ceased struggling against her shadow, which had spread to cover his chest and hips. “You’ve changed your mind?” he asked. “You will flee this town before it is destroyed?”

“I’m fleeing you,” she said. “I’m not letting you take me anywhere, even if I believed you.”

“But you are leaving?”

“Maybe. Maybe not. Not with you either way. And it’s none of your business what I do. So why don’t you just hang there for now.”

* * *

The Piroku Festival was just getting started when Mira walked outside. The effigy was little more than a towering shadow looming over the town, but there were already people scurrying around it, preparing to light it up.

Mira plucked at the sleeve of a passerby. “Have you seen Drey?” she asked.

“Beer tent,” he told her. “Always is at the start of the festival. He likes to make his money early so he can relax for the rest of the night.”

The beer tent was actually a pavilion that the town had set up using some wooden posts and a tarp strung up to them. A steady stream of townsfolk went in one side either empty handed or with empty cups, and came out the other side with freshly topped off. Just outside the pavilion, making his way down the line with a basket held in one hand, was Drey. Every few people or so, he’d stop and hand out a packet of medicine in exchange for a handful of spanners.

“Mira,” he said with a smile as she hurried over to him. “Decided to join us after all, huh?”

“What? Yeah, sure. Look, I’ve got a bit of a problem and I don’t know who else to talk to. Can I steal you for a few minutes?”

“Alright. I’ve got to get another basket from my house anyway. Walk with me?”

Mira fell into step beside Drey as he veered away from the line and crossed the square. She did her best to ignore the knowing smirks some of the townsfolk were wearing as they walked to the arbor.

“What’s going on?” Drey asked.

In a hushed voice, Mira told him about the demon showing up in her room and his warning about the seltharis flowers. As she talked, Drey slowed down and glanced back over his shoulder at the still unlit effigy.

“How did the demon know about the flowers?” he asked.

“Is it true then? Did you do something to change them recently?”

“I’m always growing new strains of plants,” Drey told her. “That’s kind of what I do.”

“So the demon might not have been lying after all,” Mira said.

Drey shook his head. “There’s no reason to believe a demon. If anything, it just proves that the new strain works and it’s trying to stop us from driving all of its friends away from our town.”

“I don’t know. Maybe we should talk to that hunter who was in with the broken leg about the demon he saw. The one that showed up at my door said there was… um.. an… inferno… something… damn it.”

“An inferolisk?” Drey asked.

“Yes. That’s it.”

Drey led her around the side of the house to a shed where he stored bundled herbs. “What I don’t get,” he said as he fished a set of keys out of his pocket and sorted through them, “is why this demon is talking to you.”

Mira had been hoping Drey would have too more concerned about the flowers to think of that. She didn’t think that admitting she was a person of interest to a demon that apparently represented some mysterious order was a good idea. “Maybe I’m just the first person he ran into,” she lied.

“Maybe. There’s something special about you though, Mira. I can’t quite put my finger on what it is.”

Drey flashed her a grin and pulled the padlock off the shed door. He ducked inside for a moment and came back out with two baskets. “Here, hold these for me,” he told her before disappearing back in to grab another pair. Then he relocked the shed.

“Look, here’s the thing. The new strain of seltharis blossoms is already strung up on the effigy. They’re going to be lighting it up any minute now. I doubt we could stop it even if we wanted to, which we don’t. I suggest you relax, enjoy the festival with me, and forget about a demon that’s not going to be able to come within a thousand yards of Rohaim anyway.”

“What if the demon wasn’t lying though?” Mira asked. “What do we do then? Shouldn’t we warn the town guard at least?”

Drey sighed and set his baskets down. He placed his hands on Mira’s shoulders and looked into her eyes. “Listen to me,” he said, his voice almost hypnotic. “Everything is fine. You’re safe here. Come back with me. We’ll have these herbs sold out in ten minutes, then we can drink our faces off, listen to the minstrel the town hired for the festival, and stay out having fun until the sun comes up.”

A large part of Mira wanted to just forget about the demon and do what Drey said. But she recognized it as the same part of brain that always had problems thinking of anything but Drey whenever she was around him. Before, she’d been hesitant, never quite convinced that she wasn’t just fooling herself. This time, it was blatant. The more Drey spoke, the more it all felt wrong to her.

“You’re doing something to my head,” Mira said. She tried to pull away from him, but Drey kept his grip on her shoulders. “Stop it, Drey. Let me go.”

“Mira, please! Just listen to me. You’re working yourself up over nothing.”

“No, I’m not. What are you doing to me?”

Drey kept talking, but Mira stopped listening. She ignored the squirming sensation in her stomach and the heat in her flushed face. Instead, she dug her nails into her palms, into the abraded skin she’d gotten from grabbing the demon’s wrists. The pain sparked something in her mind outside Drey’s influence, a place she could anchor her thoughts to.

She swung her arms up, almost drunkenly, and smacked the two herb baskets into Drey’s face. He staggered backward with a surprised cry and released her. Her head still groggy, Mira hurled the baskets at him and spun away. She sprinted off into the dark, weaving back and forth as she ran. With every step, her head cleared up.

“Mira, wait! Come back!” Drey called out behind her. She just ducked her head and ran faster.

* * *

Drey looked down at the mess of herb packs around him and swore. He’d never had the kind of trouble with women that Mira gave him. Sure, the larger the age gap, the less he seemed able to charm them, but Mira was only a few years younger. He was her boss, besides, so an authority figure to her too. At first, it had made for an interesting challenge, a pleasant distraction from the day-to-day routine.

She’d resisted his every attempt though. She’d flirt back, sometimes, but as soon as they stopped talking, it was like her mind reset and he had to start all over again. Drey had never met anyone like her. He was starting to wonder if she actually was human, or if she had some magical blood in her a few generations back.

Then she’d found him at the festival and spun some ridiculous story about cryptic demonic warnings and was trying to undo the project he’d spent three years working on. There was no way he was going to let that happen, not when he finally had the chance to purge Rohaim of its demons once and for all. The fire would release the seltharis flowers’ aroma and send pollen up into the air, where the wind would catch it and spread it all over the forest.

He’d placed the seltharis wreathes near the top of the effigy, as high as he could get away with. Hopefully it was high enough to get the spread he wanted. All of his tests showed that it should work, but there was really only one way to find out.

Drey needed to stop Mira first, though. He strode through the herb packs, kicking them away as he hurried into the darkness after her.

* * *

Mira wasn’t sure which green house she’d ducked into in the dark. All she knew was that she could hear someone running after her, and if it was Drey, she didn’t want to come face to face with him again. If it was someone else, some demon, perhaps, then she definitely didn’t want to see it.

There was enough light coming in through the green house roof for her to make out the shadowy outlines of the plants. She retreated from the door and crouched down between two tables to hide from the silhouette that passed by outside. Even as she watched, it disappeared into a green house farther down the row. Mira silently cursed her luck and creeped toward the door. Before she could open it, the silhouette appeared again and opened the door to the green house next to hers.

There was no way she was going to sneak out without being spotted. Her only chance was to hope that whoever it was, and she almost couldn’t believe she was hoping it was just Drey, wouldn’t make a careful inspection and would miss her. She backed away from the door slowly and bumped into a storage cupboard.

Mira’s eyes lit up. She looked around and grinned at a little shadow in a potter that twitched and danced around. Working quickly and quietly, she opened the cupboard door and grabbed a pair of gloves. Then she scurried across the green house floor and waited.

* * *

Green House One had been empty, probably. Drey had given it only a quick glance, but he was confident that he would have known if something was out of place. Mira wasn’t in the orchard or the berry patches. Unless she’d run off into the forest itself, she had to be in one of the green houses.

It was possible she’d hopped the fence. If anyone could, it would be her. But if that were the case, it was already too late to stop her. It wasn’t that Drey thought anyone would believe her crazy demonic messenger story. It was that he didn’t want to have to refute any claims she made about his attempts to charm her. That was a worst-case scenario though, and he was confident that even then, he could smooth over any damage she might cause.

Green House Two was just as empty as the first one. He spent a little bit longer checking it out, partially due to the layout, and partially due to paranoia. Once he was satisfied that Mira wasn’t hiding there, he moved on to the next one.

As soon as he walked through the door, Drey knew he’d caught up to her. He’d always seen better in the dark than most people, and she’d left a dozen little clues that she’d come through the green house. The storage cupboard door hung ajar. One of the planters on the table next to it had been pushed off center. She’d stepped in some soil and left a partial footprint leading deeper into the green house.

Drey kicked the door closed behind him and looked around. Wherever Mira was hiding, she’d found a good spot. Moving slowly, he checked under tables and behind work benches. He made is way down the first aisle, one eye always on the door behind him while he looked for her.

He looped all the way around the back table and was starting back to the front when she popped up in front of him. Drey recoiled instinctively and raised a hand to block as Mira swung something at him. He had only an instant to see that it looked like some sort of bouquet of leafy stalks before it slapped into his hand.

Bulbs snapped off the maljubo stalks and sprayed across his face. Mira yelped and hopped backward as several of them rebounded at her, but Drey couldn’t take advantage of it. Numbness had spread from his blocking hand all the way up to his shoulder and his facial muscles were locked in place. He tried to cough, but all that came out was a strangled gurgle.

“Sorry,” Mira said. “I hope you’ll be alright, but you’re bad news for me. Just stay away from me, ok?”

She dropped the stalks on the floor, where more of their paralyzing bulbs scattered in every direction, and walked away from where Drey had collapsed and lay wheezing on the ground.

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