It was too late to get out of the way. Mira flinched, fully expecting a wash of heat to char her skin. When it didn’t come, she cracked open one eye and peeked at the demon. It stood, wobbling in place, the flames dribbling from its mouth and splattering across the dirt.
It was the minstrel who saved her. A single, piercing note came from the woman’s throat, accompanied by a discordant melody strummed on the instrument she carried. Her face was strained, and by the time Mira scrambled to her feet, the note had cracked. The demon’s mouth snapped closed and its eyes refocused on the two of them.
“Can you do it again?” Mira asked, backing away from the demon.
“I… maybe. I don’t know.”
“I’m out of ideas,” Mira told the minstrel, gesturing to the blue and white puddle that used to be a frost basilisk. “Unless we can restrain it or knock it out, I don’t think there’s anything else I can do.”
Her first stint as a demon hunter wasn’t going well, but then, she really didn’t have a clue what she was doing. Taking the heart stone from the demon in the forest had been an accident, plain and simple, and Mira didn’t know how to do it again. Her attempts to figure it out on the fly had failed.
If they could incapacitate the demon though, that might give her the time she needed to figure it out. She wondered if the maljubo stalks she’d used on Drey would work on this creature too. It didn’t matter though. Even if she got away, by the time she ran to the arbor and back, it would be too late to save the town.
The minstrel was singing again, something different this time. As Mira focused on the music, a sense of calm washed over her. The demon, on the other hand, only looked more angry. It roared, and the fires burning through the town shot up with the reverberations. The effigy fire towered so high that Mira was sure everyone within five miles could see it.
It came forward in a terrifying rush of white scales and muscles. The demon was so fast that it caught up Mira before she even realized what had happened. It lifted her off the ground with one hand and made it look easy. Her stomach dropped, the same sickening sensation roller coasters had always given her, as the demon hauled her back and then threw her.
An instant later, pain blossomed in her arm and chest. She cried out, her voice mingled with the minstrel’s as they both went down. Mira landed on top with something hard digging into her. She managed to get one hand against the ground and push herself off the minstrel to roll over onto her back.
“I’d say we’re dead,” the minstrel wheezed out. “Thanks a lot. That’s what I get for trying to save you.”
“I never asked for your help,” Mira wheezed back. “I’ll distract it. You run.”
“The hell I will.”
The minstrel propped herself up and tossed aside the broken pieces of her instrument. It was nothing more than three sections of wood held together by a knot of strings, far beyond the point of repair. She climbed to her feet and faced down the demon.
“My name’s Amura, by the way.”
Mira winced in pain as she pulled herself back to her feet and stood next to the minstrel. “Mira. So, got any ideas?”
“Think we could outrun it?”
Mira snorted. “Doubt it.”
The demon stalked over to them while they talked. Their conversation broke off when it planted itself directly in front of the pair and drew itself up to its full height.
“I guess we’re fucked then,” Mira said. “Only one thing left to do.”
And she leaped at the demon.
* * *
Drey dragged himself toward the square, one limping step at a time. Each breath was a fight to draw, and he couldn’t feel his left side at all. His thoughts were black with a cold rage. The things he wanted to do to that girl were evil enough that they shocked him. He hadn’t thought himself that bad of a person.
All that washed away when a gout of flame lit the night sky. “What in the world…” he muttered as he stared up at it. Sudden tension gripped his chest, and even with the maljubo’s paralytic effect, he could feel his heart hammering inside his ribs.
More than once, he saw people running away from the town square, and each time, Mira’s warning echoed in his mind. Almost sick with dread, he hurried as fast as his numbed leg would let him. His imagination painted scenes of death and horror with every step.
The reality fell far short of his expectations, though he’d built the scene up so bad in his mind that he wouldn’t have been surprised to see the entire town’s population turned into dead bodies and stacked like cord wood around the effigy’s base while a whole ring of demons danced around it. In actuality, there were a handful of bodies and the sharp smell of blood in the air, mixed with the charred stink of burning homes.
There were only two people in the square with the inferolisk. One was Mira, and the other Drey assumed was the traveling minstrel the town had hired. The demon stalked toward the women as they exchanged words too low for Drey to hear. When it reached them, it stood towering over them, drinking in their obvious fear and glorying in it.
Drey’s jaw nearly hit the ground when Mira charged. It was the bravest, stupidest, most reckless thing he’d ever seen. The girl had no lack of courage, at least. The demon was surprised by the sudden suicidal charge as well. That didn’t stop it from swatting Mira down with contemptuous ease.
The minstrel’s magic was the only thing that kept Mira from dying right then and there. Drey had only a vague understanding of how such things worked, despite her magic and his own being closely linked. The sound made its way into the victim’s mind and influenced its actions by inciting a barrage of emotional reactions that overwhelmed the victim’s rational thinking.
Drey’s own magic was more closely linked to smell. At least, that was what his experimentations had shown him. Everyone thought he hated winter because all the plants withered and died, but really he just got annoyed with people who had stuffy noses. They were so much harder to deal with.
The minstrel blasted emotions through the demon’s head, probably emotions that it had never felt in its life and had no idea how to process. The problem was that rage was a fantastic fall-back when things got confusing. The inferolisk had no problem deciding life was too complicated, and that the best solution was to break things until it felt better.
It was enough to distract the demon from killing Mira. It stomped right over her and charged at the minstrel, who yelped in fear and scrambled away. There was no escape though. It was too fast and too strong. They’d managed to hold it off for all of thirty seconds.
That gave Drey the time he needed. As the demon closed in on the minstrel, it got too close to one of the many buildings covered in seltharis blossoms. It obviously wasn’t slowed down by the smell of the flowers, but the beautiful thing about them was that they were climbing plants.
With Drey’s magic coaxing them, they lashed out from the wall and tangled themselves around the demon. At first too surprised to fight back, and probably still off-balance from the minstrel’s magic, the demon let the flowers wrap around the arm and leg closest to the wall. By the time it thought to start tearing at them, it was far too late.
Hopelessly snared and increasingly covered in seltharis flowers, the demon couldn’t even let out another roar. It tried, but the moment it opened its jaws, the creeping vines had invaded its mouth and choked it. More of them tightened around its throat. The demon gnashed its fangs and spit out chunks of plant matter, but not fast enough.
“Get over here,” Drey yelled to the two women. Their head snapped around in unison to stare at him. The minstrel hurried toward him, but Mira gave him a wary look and didn’t move.
“Come on, Mira. That’s not going to hold that thing forever. We need to get out of here while we still can.”
“How long?” she called back, staring at the demon.
“A minute or two at most. Now come on.”
* * *
A minute or two might be long enough. It was probably enough to escape, if she was willing to let the town burn. Mira saw the way that Drey was limping though. He was still feeling the paralytic she’d hit him with. She could escape. He might not.
If he’d listened to her from the start, they wouldn’t be in this situation. Some people might say it was poetic justice that he had to pay the price to let them escape. Mira would be lying if she said she didn’t just consider running. But she didn’t. She wouldn’t. Maybe she was just too stubborn. Maybe she was just too stupid.
Mira didn’t know, but she did know that if they were going to stop the demon, it had to be here and now. They’d never get another chance.
She turned to Amura. “Hit it again. Everything you’ve got. I want that thing to be a drooling vegetable for as long as you can make it that way.”
Amura bit her lip. She glanced back at Drey. “We should run while we still can.”
Mira shrugged and turned away. “Fine. Do what you want then.”
She walked to where the demon was still struggling to free itself from the wall. It had almost torn one arm free, and she had no doubt that as soon as that happened, it would tear the rest of the seltharis flowers off the trellises, maybe even rip the entire wall out of the house if that’s what it took.
Amura started singing again, though it wasn’t a song with any words. Without the music to accompany it, it sounded sad, lonely even. It quivered in the night air like a living thing, and when it washed over Mira, she felt the bitter ache of lost loved ones nestle into her heart.
She only caught the outer edges of it though. Amura’s song was meant for the demon, and it landed hard. The demon visibly slumped against the wall. It let out a keening howl that lasted for several seconds before the seltharis flowers choked it off.
Mira approached it and wormed her fingers through the vines covering its chest. Before, she’d been frantically patting it down, trying to find a spot to access its heart stone. Now, she was calm. Or maybe it was just that the demon’s defenses were down.
Either way, her fingertips brushed against the smooth scaly skin of its chest. She hesitated a moment, then dipped her hand in. Something hot shifted under her hand. It burned her, like grabbing onto a rock that had baked in the sun all day, but she pulled it out. The heart stone got caught on the vines, but she worked it free.
“By the Fourth Son,” Drey whispered. “What are you?”
Mira held the heart stone up. It glowed white hot as it seared her bare flesh, but she refused to release it. The heat flushed through her, and each pulsing wave of it lit tiny fires in her brain. It took precious long seconds before she made sense of it and realized she could actually feel every fire that had spread through the village.
With an effort of will, she smothered them. The sudden change in light was startling. With nothing but the bonfire, which she brought down from a towering colossus of flames to more reasonable levels, the damaged homes looked sinister. Some were bare skeletons of charred black wood. Others were intact, but with holes in their roofs and walls. In the dark, the damage gave them faces that stared at her.
The demon wasn’t dead. It stared at her with something akin to hatred, but its fear was obvious. “Give it back,” it croaked, the first words she’d heard from it.
Amura and Drey came over to flank her. “It looks pitiable,” the minstrel remarked.
“What do we do with it now?” Drey asked.
Mira stared down at the glowing white heart stone in her hand. It was an oblong lump, much smaller than the first one she’d held months ago. It was still hot, but she harnessed its power to redirect that heat through her and into the earth. It couldn’t harm her unless she let it.
Someone had told her that demons didn’t die from having their heart stones removed. She could almost hear the sneer in Shy’s voice at the remembered words. She didn’t know what happened to the heart stone if the demon died though. It might crack and turn to ash in her hands.
The fires were out. The threat was ended. And Mira was unbelievably tired, the kind of bone deep weariness that she’d discovered when her family had died. It was a lack of will to keep going, the knowledge that she could just lay down and die. The only difference was that this time it was because the work was done, rather than not being able to see a reason to keep going.
Of course, the work wasn’t done. It hadn’t even begun yet. “I’m leaving,” she announced. “Do what you want with the demon. I don’t think it has the strength to be a threat anymore, but I could be wrong.”
“But, what about-” Drey started to say.
“I won’t be welcome here come sunrise. I’ve already learned that lesson. Everything that’s happened between us, Drey, let’s just call it even. Go back to your life. The people here need you.”
He didn’t look happy, but he didn’t say anything else. Mira fetched her backpack from where it was still sitting on the barrel she’d waited on. Then she walked away. At the edge of town, she saw the demon who’d shown up in her room at the inn watching her from the shadows.
He bowed his head and tugged his hood up. Mira gave him a tight-lipped glare in return. Even if the dark, even with the cloth mask covering his face, she could see his mouth move, though he was too quiet to hear his words. She didn’t have to though. She already knew what he’d said.
“Go ‘vuh kora’ yourself,” she muttered.
Then she left the devastated village of Rohaim behind and disappeared into the night.