File I: The Masked Demon

I couldn't wait to leave when we got the news. Could you blame me? I mean, I'd been here two weeks and done absolutely nothing even remotely interesting. At all. Well, okay, I take that back. Bronzework's library is jammed full of cool notes about his research, and sure, the food tastes far better than anything from the dining halls back at the university, but they're very short-lived novelties.

If I'm going to take a year off from school to work for a demonologist, I better pick up some damn useful tips about the occupation. I'm not somebody's secretary. Clerical jobs and I have never gotten along.

So when we were told we had a real assignment to do, an assignment that didn't involve a date with a filing cabinet, I was excited. I probably should've considered the slight danger factor, too, but hey, I am studying to learn how to do stuff like this, and besides, whatever we were supposed to take care of, it had to be better than more filing. Right?

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She stared, open-mouthed, at the gigantic polearm hovering above her head for a full second before her instincts snapped her out of her stupor and threw her to the side. As she rolled away to safety, clouds of dust and pebbles washed over her, and the tremendous crash of blade meeting earth roared through her ears. It was followed by a real roar, a howl of fury.

"Uwwaaooo!"

The sound was a little too close for comfort. Ritz coughed dirt and sprang to her feet, resisting the urge to lick her lips. Even as she hastily backed away from her rampaging target, she pressed the air with her fingers, searching for the largest pockets to tap into. She needed as much energy as she could get for this.

The clouds cleared. Returning the howl with a battle cry of her own, Ritz lunged forward a step and thrust a battering ram of air at the shadowed figure.

A crunch.

"Graagh!"

More dust and flying pebbles. Pulse racing, she nudged her feet a little wider and squinted, willing her eyes to see through the clouds. Had that done the trick? Or would she need to prepare for another shot? Just in case, Ritz pressed the pockets again, borrowing their strength and concentrating it in her palms. Okay, now all she needed was—

"Ritz, behind you!"

The urgency of her partner's warning made her suspect she wouldn't have enough time to look and act; heart bouncing up into her throat, she quickly flattened the air in her hands, spreading it as far as possible without making it too thin. She set the barrier in place behind her and prayed.

An insanely powerful force slammed into her shield, rattling every bone in her body in time with her quivering heartstrings. Ritz gritted her teeth and pushed back harder, but to no avail: she felt the strings holding the air together snap and vanish.

Crap.

It might be a good idea to turn around now. So she did.

The demon's stance was a little unsteady, but its weapon—her weapon? Underneath the armor and that creepy painted mask, the shape of the body suggested that it was a girl—was swept behind her hip, gripped by three of the demon's four hands, already prepared to lash out again. Ritz flicked her gaze onto the demon's, calling the pockets to her aid while suppressing her rising panic.

Such anger blazed inside those blue eyes.

The enormous polearm was swung in a mighty horizontal arc that promised to cleave her cleanly in two. Unable to dodge in time, Ritz could only counter it with a block. A cushion of air clung for dear life onto her left wrist, and this she planted by her side, sucking in what hopefully wouldn't be her last breath.

Impact.

Getting thrown off a building would've been less painful. Rainbow spots streaked across her vision; for a moment, she couldn't tell if she was falling, fallen, or floating, but that question was answered when she hit the ground and kept skidding, limbs bent every which way until her shoulder hit a tree trunk and stopped her.

Her left arm screamed the loudest, enough to bring tears to her eyes. I wonder if I broke anything, Ritz thought through the haze, gingerly touching her arm with a trembling hand. She winced. Her wrist was one throbbing mass of pain, but she could move it if she got desperate. Maybe she hadn't broken anything after all.

Somewhere in the back of her mind, a wry little voice muttered that she should've stayed at the institution and filed paperwork. Danger was minimal there, limited to papercuts and the rare staple to the thumb. Obviously, she wasn't suited to this kind of physically demanding job.

Another howl shook the forest around her, pulling her back to the situation at hand. That's right. She didn't have time to assess the damage right now or daydream. She had to stay alive and subdue this demon. Stitches and regrets happened after victory was secured.

Though, how come the demon hadn't crushed her yet?

It hurt, but Ritz forced herself to stand, albeit more slowly than before. Dirt slid off her clothes as she sought the tree trunk to lean against, cradling her wrist against her stomach. Up ahead, she could see the demon fighting against earthly binds, ropes literally made of earth that were anchoring her to the ground. Her huge polearm had thankfully been dropped. No doubt, this was Monty's doing, and she was grateful for the backup, even if it had taken longer than she liked. Seemed he was only a slacker in non-life threatening situations. What a relief.

"You alright?" he called, standing a good fifty feet away from his target. As the demon screamed again and surged against the ropes, Monty gathered more dirt onto them, making them thicker and replacing the gaps where her struggling had caused the earth to crumble away.

"Yeah," Ritz called back. Technically, she wasn't, but it was already a given that she couldn't take this bad a beating from a demon and still be alright. All that mattered was relative okayness, and relatively, she was okay.

Inch by inch, her heart slid back into its proper place inside her chest, and while it still shook to listen to the demon's cries, Ritz was calming down. She took the opportunity to examine the thrashing figure, trying to recall which demon she was. She was very humanoid; if not for her extra pair of arms and decidedly superhuman physical abilities, she could've been your average preteen. A preteen with armor, a mask, a giant polearm, and one hell of a bad attitude, but your average preteen nonetheless.

Ritz quietly watched, still trying to put a name to this demon. She was flailing with renewed urgency, long black hair whipping everywhere in her rage. The fanged grin on her mask seemed to move, gnashing its teeth, opening to allow more howls to pass through.

That mask. It bothered her—sure, there were demons who covered their faces, but she was certain she'd never heard of one with such an elaborate mask as this. It covered the demon's entire face save the eyes, just a thin slit that ran across the bridge of her nose. Red and black lines flowed thickly in swirls, drips, branches, and slashes all across the cheeks and forehead. And of course, there was that grin. That creepy painted snarl like a hungry beast's stalking prey, each tooth sharply displayed, the canines most prominently of all.

It reminded her of the Deity of War, his face permanently red and black with the new and old blood of his enemies.

Anyway, they could figure out her identity later, after they'd subdued her. Ritz raised her uninjured hand and tapped into the pockets.

But before she could finish gathering enough air for a shot, the demon gave a particularly ferocious lurch and broke four of Monty's earth ropes, prompting the dirt to shower back onto the ground. The remaining two ropes around her right arms tugged her back a few steps at Monty's command, but it was too late; the demon snatched up her weapon and destroyed the last bindings with a single stroke.

"Monty!" Ritz shouted, frantically backpedaling as the fanged snarl turned in her direction. She really didn't want to get hit again.

"I know! Hold on!"

The ground rumbled as the demon charged for her, lifting her polearm over her head. Ritz hesitated—wait for it, wait for it—then lunged and released her shot.

Apparently, the same trick didn't work on this demon twice. She slowed, then launched herself into the air so that the battering ram passed beneath her, simultaneously swinging her weapon downwards. Only the tip would hit Ritz, but considering the demon's sheer strength, even that could knock her dead.

Ritz hit the floor and scampered for what she was worth, biting back the stabs of agony in her left wrist. "Monty! Do something!" She snapped her gaze over her shoulder. The demon was only a few feet away, more than close enough to strike with that damned huge doom instrument of hers. "Monty!"

"I know!"

He acted not a second too soon; just as the demon swung, a wave of dirt rushed up in front of Ritz, halting her attack, then swept forward, shoving her away and pinning her down. Again, she struggled, clawing wildly at the earth, but her work was cut out for her now. It wasn't just six ropes holding her down, but a heavy constrictive blanket.

"Graagh… Uwaoo!"

This howl was different, the last drawn note hitting a higher pitch than before. It formed a lump in Ritz's throat and watered her eyes; the sound said something her primitive mind understood without a need for invented human words. This howl wasn't so much angry as… sad?

No. Not sad. Frightened. The demon was frightened.

Quivering, she glanced at Monty. He could sense this change, as well. His lips were pressed tightly together as if he'd eaten something really sour.

Damnit. Guilty twinges assaulted Ritz's heart, annoying her. She couldn't even take down this demon, this demon who had been trying very hard to kill her, without feeling bad? When she got back to the university, she definitely needed to take more mental arts classes.

"Stop!" came a new voice behind them. "Stop, please!"

She whirled around just as a man from the village ran past them, heading straight for the demon. He was either crazy or blind; though she was restrained, she still had room to flex the hand that was holding her polearm. She was still dangerous.

"Stop!" Monty shouted.

"W-Wait!" Ritz called, taking off after him. "Don't go near her!"

She wouldn't reach him in time, he was faster. Helplessly, Ritz watched the man get closer and closer to the thrashing demon, closer and closer to getting his brains bashed out by a good blow…

"Kuma, calm down!" the man said. "Calm down! It's me!"

And the demon… surprisingly, obeyed him and gradually ceased movement. To Ritz's amazement, the deadly polearm was lowered to the ground, each of her six limbs came to a reluctant rest, and as Ritz slowed to a jog about four feet or so from them, she saw (with another guilty twinge) that the demon had turned her cheek to the forest floor, head hanging in defeat. A low, familiar bubbling noise had replaced the howls of fury.

Then she realized.

Oh gods above, the demon was crying.

"S-Scared! Scared! Scared!"

… And talking?

"I know," the man said. He took one of her hands in his own and squeezed it gently, reaching over with his other to brush her hair away from her mask, which was trembling from her sobs. "I know. It's okay now. Calm down. I'm here."

Ritz shut her mouth and cautiously approached the two, glancing back only once to shoot Monty a 'what the hell is going on' look, which he returned in kind. "Um… Excuse me?" she said softly, suspecting that any loud noises would rile up the demon again, despite her current tamed state. Idly, she was glad that Monty hadn't stopped channeling the pockets in her earth prison yet, just in case.

The man nodded and looked at her. His smile was sad, apologetic. "Yes. I'm so sorry. Kuma is in my care. I don't know why she attacked you, but I'm terribly sorry." He shook his head. "Normally she doesn't bother strangers at all."

"It might be because we attacked her first?" Ritz jumped when Monty spoke beside her ear; she didn't know he'd come over, too.

"What?" The man's eyebrows arched, then wrinkled in distress. From the corner of her eye, Ritz noticed the demon—Kuma—tense up. "Why would you do something like that?"

"We're Bronzework Dragon's assistants," Ritz said, inclining her head to humble herself to him. "We were hired to come here and capture a violent demon who was causing trouble around the village, and when we saw her, we assumed she was the one."

"And since our client did say the demon was violent," Monty added, sheepishly rubbing the back of his neck, "we figured it was smarter to strike first. Ah, please forgive us." He also inclined his head, casting his gaze downwards. For good measure, the dirt holding Kuma down relaxed, then rolled off her body. She didn't get up right away.

"I see…" The man nodded once, still holding onto Kuma's hand. "May I ask who your client is?"

"I'm sorry, we're not allowed to say," Ritz said, hoping she sounded genuinely so.

"I understand."

A prolonged silence fell between them, interrupted only by Kuma's sniffling.

Ritz dipped her chin lower. Geez, their first assignment and they'd already messed up! What was Bronzework going to think? Bah, it was partially his fault, sending them off on this sort of job straight away. He could've given them some easier tasks first, but no, he was 'behind on his filing'…

"Again, I'm sorry about this," the man said.

"No, no! Please don't be. It's our fault, we should've made sure we had the right demon before attacking," Monty insisted.

"Kuma is the only demon for quite a few miles," he said. "Which is why I'm concerned that you two were asked to come here… Oh, did she hurt you?"

"Hm?" Ritz followed the man's stare to her limp left wrist. "Uh… I'm fine, really." It pulsated after she said this, as if arguing the contrary.

"No, please. Like I said, I'm Kuma's caretaker, so she's my responsibility. Why don't you come to my house and get that treated? We can talk some more there, as well." He petted Kuma's hand. She was still lying on the ground, staring at something to the side with watery eyes.

Sulking, Ritz thought.

"Alright," she agreed, glancing at Monty for his approval.

"I'm Takius, the local maskmaker. Again, I'm very sorry about this…"

"No! We're the ones who should be sorry…"

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3/10/07: Reading back, the beginning seemed much too abrupt, so I added a little prologue-blurb from Ritz to hopefully ease the introduction. A few more sentences were also added throughout the chapter.