Mira could see the bonfire as soon as she left the arbor. By the time she reached the village square, the flames were half way up the effigy. “Aw crap,” she muttered as she stared up at it.
There were perhaps forty or fifty people in the square, with an unknown number circulating through the tents and pavilions that had been set up for the festival. If the demon was right, they were all in danger. It was too bad that Mira didn’t know the first thing about what an inferolisk was. It made it hard to prepare any sort of defense.
As she walked across the square, Mira noticed that her shadow had returned to her. That was oddly comforting, but only until she realized that if it had reattached itself, that probably meant that the demon it had been holding was free. Plus, Mira didn’t know exactly how much control Jorath had over her shadow, whether he could see her through it, or how close he had to be.
It was frustrating to come up against a wall of ignorance over and over again. Mira just didn’t know enough of anything about the world she was stuck in. Its dangers, its people, and its customs were all a mystery to her, and she was too afraid to ask anyone to explain anything. The last thing she wanted was to draw attention to herself.
She settled onto a barrel pushed up against a wall and cradled her tattooed arm in her hand. If and when the demon showed up, the frost basilisk was her best chance of driving it off, or at least restraining it so she could attempt to take its heart stone. It would mean revealing herself to whoever didn’t run away, but her time in Rohaim was at an end either way. No doubt Drey would make sure of that.
Mira tried to phase out the noise, but the minstrel that the town had hired kept catching her attention. The woman was seated on a platform and strumming an instrument that looked familiar, but Mira couldn’t place what it was. Her voice was pitched to carry as she half-sang, half-spoke while accompanying herself.
“…and the demon hordes broke onto the mainland when the Dark Father sundered the bluffs overlooking the sea. They spilled out in every direction, too many to be contained. The Five Sons met in council to determine their best course of action. After some arguing, Torim, the eldest, decided that the Venn Mountains that split the continent in half would be their standing point.
“But Piroku argued with him for the people who would be left to the demons. There was no way to evacuate everyone in time, and no way to feed them even if they could. The other sons could think of no way to save the people, but Piroku had an idea. He left the council, his children and grandchildren with him. They traveled to village after village, always ahead of the demon masses.
“Piroku wove enchantments on the villages to hide them from the demons. Thanks to his magic, tens of thousands of lives were spared. As he traveled, he left his descendents behind to maintain the spells he crafted, and though Piroku himself would not live to see the end of the demons’ invasion, the Fourth Son did more to shelter humanity than any other.”
As the minstrel spoke, flashes of light rose over the heads of the crowd. Mira was too far away to make out what the light was, but appreciative gasps and scattered applause with each new light made her suspect it was part of the show. As the minstrel finished her story, she stood up and Mira got a good look at her.
It was the woman she’d met in the forest her first day in the new world. Instinctively, Mira sunk back deeper into the shadow of the house, though there was no way the minstrel was going to see her. Even with the bonfire’s light, there were too many shadows and too many people moving about. If the minstrel hadn’t been drawing so much attention to herself, Mira doubted she ever would have noticed the other woman.
She was so focused on the minstrel that she didn’t even hear the first scream. The festival was noisy enough that no one else reacted to it either, but the screams that followed it were enough to get everyone’s attention. The minstrel’s song broke off mid-note, and the entire crowd turned in unison toward the west side of the square.
Something stood there, its skin a scaly white over a heavily muscled frame. It was eight feet or more, easily towering over the people that were running away from it. A flat, reptilian head swiveled around on a long neck and its eyes narrowed as it took in the crowd. Its nostrils flared and it flexed claws stained red with blood.
A long tail lashed around behind it, drawing Mira’s attention to a teenaged girl at the demon’s feet. The girl was covered in blood and clutching at her stomach while she tried to crawl away. She didn’t get very far before the demon’s foot came up underneath her and blasted her through the air to land with a heavy thump ten feet away. The girl didn’t get back up.
A group of village men rushed at the demon carrying spears. Even from the other side of the square, Mira could see how drunk they were. Their attempts to drive the demon back resulted in nothing more than several of them being eviscerated before the rest broke and fled.
A second group of men, these ones from the night watch, attacked the demon. Unlike the first group, they were sober and coordinated. They used their spears to prod the creature and herd it back, and they wore armor to protect them when it bulled through and slashed at them with its claws.
It was a losing battle, though. There simply weren’t enough of them, and the demon was too fast. It had taken everyone by surprise, and all the night watch was doing was giving Rohaim’s townsfolk enough time to flee the square. That might even have made it worth it, except that the bonfire had shot up to twice its previous height, and fire was raining down on the rooftops and into the streets.
Most of the townsfolk were gone, but Mira was surprised to see how many had remained behind. They’d started a bucket brigade from one of the town’s two wells and were busy trying to contain the fire even as the night watch attempted to drive the demon back not twenty feet away.
All of it left Mira at a loss. Her plan to release the frost basilisk seemed foolish with so many people around to see it. She wasn’t handy with a weapon, and while the people attempting to douse the fires were certainly brave, it was obviously a lost cause. The demon had affected the bonfire somehow, and until it was dead or driven off, there would be no saving the town.
“Come on,” a woman said, grabbing Mira’s arm. “It’s not safe here.”
Mira blinked and looked over to see the minstrel trying to pull her to her feet. “No,” she said, “I have to stay and help.”
“Don’t be stupid, girl. Just get out of the way before you cause problems.”
“You don’t understand. I can help. I just need-”
Mira cut off as the minstrel let out a string of blistering curses. She let go of Mira’s arm and started singing softly, her words just under Mira’s range of hearing. It went on for several seconds, and she felt herself growing light-headed. Something grabbed her arm again and pulled her to her feet, then pushed her away from the fight.
Mira took a few steps and stopped, confused. “What are you doing?” she asked, her speech slurred. “Stop that.”
“Stubborn, aren’t you?” a voice said from nearby. The singing started again, but this time Mira shook her head and fought her way back to lucidity.
“Don’t,” she said, casting a glare at the minstrel. The woman’s eyebrows were up in an expression of shock, but they narrowed quickly enough as she studied Mira’s face.
“Do I know you?” she asked. “You look familiar.”
“I saw you once in a different town,” Mira said. The statement was generic enough that she hoped the minstrel would take it at face value. It didn’t look like she was buying it, though.
The minstrel took a step back and pulled her cloak tighter around her. “You were that girl with the heart stone, weren’t you? I thought they killed you.”
“Still alive, no thanks to you,” Mira said. “Now stay the hell away from me. I don’t need any more of your kind of help.”
The minstrel’s eyes flickered from Mira to the demon, over to the bonfire that was still reaching a hundred feet into the night sky, and back to Mira. “You’re doing this,” she said. “You’re the one who called the demon here.”
She took in a deep breath to yell something, but before she got it out, Mira’s shadow snapped up and filled her mouth like a gag. The minstrel’s eyes widened and she flailed about for a moment before more of Mira’s shadow latched onto her limbs and brought her to the ground.
“I don’t have time for this,” Mira told her. She hadn’t commanded her shadow to do that, hadn’t even thought to remember that it could now. But she was glad it had. The minstrel was a distraction she didn’t need. “Just stay out of the way while I try to clean this up. And for what it’s worth, no, I didn’t cause this problem. I tried to stop it, but I couldn’t.”
The night watch was at its breaking point. Three of them were down, their leather-and-steel jackets shredded. The ones that were still up were spread out in a loose half circle, but there weren’t enough of them to keep the demon penned in. With a flick of its tail, it leaped forward and swiped two spears to the side. Before the men could respond, it was on them.
That was all it took for the rest to run. With the square finally starting to clear out, Mira felt safe to go back to her original plan. When she thought about it though, it didn’t really matter. Between Drey and the minstrel, there was no way she was still going to be in Rohaim come daybreak, even if she survived the next few minutes. Hesitating like that had done nothing but give the demon more time to kill.
The basilisk uncurled from her arm and ran down her hand like water. It dribbled off her fingers and grew to life-size as it pooled on the ground next to her. Mira didn’t have the fine control that Shy had exhibited, but she was able to communicate enough of her wishes to the basilisk that it lunged at the demon.
Roaring a challenge, it rushed to meet the basilisk. The two of them grappled, but it was immediately clear that the basilisk wasn’t a match for the demon’s sheer strength. Where their skin met, blisters formed on the demon and bursts of steam hissed into open air. The basilisk’s fangs clamped down on the demon’s shoulder, but it couldn’t get its coils around the demon to crush it.
Mira raced forward and threw herself on the demon’s back. It roared and whipped around in a tight circle, so fast that her legs actually came free and only her arms around its neck kept her from flying away. The distraction cost the demon though. The basilisk finally got a loop of its body around the demon’s legs and brought it to the ground.
Mira let out a pain-filled squeak when the demon rolled over on top of her, but she didn’t let that stop her from running her hands across its body. Somewhere inside it was a heart stone. She just had to figure out how to get at it. She assumed it was in the demon’s chest cavity, but that’s all it was: an assumption. For all she actually knew, its heart stone could be in its foot.
The demon climbed back to its feet, Mira still clinging to its back and the basilisk still looped around it. Its jaw unhinged and fire poured out of its mouth in a brilliant red and white waterfall. The basilisk’s coils immediately loosened as it thrashed about in pain. The flames licked across Mira’s hands too, but she refused to let go.
The demon slipped a foot free and stomped down on the basilisk. From there, it had all the leverage it needed to pry the serpent-like creature off of it and hurl it away. The basilisk landed in a heap and melted into a blue puddle on the dirt when the demon breathed more fire onto it.
“Ah shit,” Mira said as she watched it happen over the demon’s shoulder. Frantically, she slid one hand up and down the demon’s back, but there was no place for her probing fingers to slip through. Then the demon reached over its shoulder and grabbed the back of Mira’s shirt.
With casual ease, it flicked her forward to land flat on her back in the middle of the square. A sharp intake of breath reached her ears, and Mira looks up just in time to see hot fire pour of the demon’s mouth again.