File I: The Masked Demon 2

Kuma wasn't crying anymore, nor was she thrashing around like a champion tantrum-thrower, but Ritz, not quite able to trust the little masked demon after she'd almost shattered her wrist, was careful to walk no less than a steady five feet away. Kuma had already proven her volatile nature, and while Ritz trusted Takius to keep her under control—not just anyone could calm a demon merely by talking to them—he was a maskmaker, not a demonologist, so his bond with her was shaky at best.

As much as she liked to believe in people, survival always came first, and Kuma was still a threat in her mind.

The sun burned overhead, for it was still early in the afternoon, but the air was crisp and a light breeze whistled past their ears, keeping them cool. Their group filed down the path, Takius in the lead, she and Monty at his back, and Kuma somewhere to the front and the right, dragging her polearm behind her. As she listened to the two men talk, Ritz watched the sun flash off the weapon with a wary eye. The blade was fashioned like a cleaver, sharp on one side and with only one purpose: to inflict major hurt.

Swallowing hard, Ritz focused a piece of her attention on the pockets in the air, just in case, and tuned into the conversation.

"Monty, was it?" Takius asked, looking over his shoulder. "You said you and Ritz are assistants of Bronzework Dragon?"

"Yes, sir."

He nodded and turned back to the front. "That's impressive. You're both still very young. I heard it takes nine years on average to earn a demonology degree."

"Actually, we're not demonologists yet."

"Yet?"

Ritz caught a glimpse of Monty's smile through his hair. It was straight and brown and fell to his shoulders, and was in drastic need of a trim. She'd even offered to do it for him. 'But I like the way it looks,' he'd whined.

"Yeah. Our university—Yur Cerrit—requires at least a year of study under the guidance of a mentor, either a demonologist or an elementologist, depending on your major. Ritz and I are sixth-year demonology students."

"So Bronzework is your mentor?"

"Yes, sir."

"Interesting." Takius' head bobbed; several strands of gray hair glinted in the sunlight. "Really interesting. It's nice that city people like you come out here to study and offer your services. I wouldn't think backwater towns like us have anything to offer you!" he laughed.

"Not at all! Part of our code is to help people wherever we can, especially when demons are involved! We might not be getting paid, but fortunately, it's an intrinsically satisfying job!"

Ritz half-rolled her eyes as Monty laughed. Speak for yourself. I just want to finish my credits.

Lacking any desire to listen to him rattle on about the kinds of classes they had at UYC, she directed her attention back to Kuma. The demon seemed to be purposely ignoring them—or maybe she was still sulking. By now, she'd hefted her polearm onto her shoulder and was staring at the side of the road, skipping forward every now and then to kick at a loose stone.

She still couldn't remember which demon Kuma was, and damn, it bugged her. Sure, sometimes the practical part of the elementology courses caused her a lot of grief, but there was hardly anything she couldn't learn, theory-wise. The week before her demon 4C exam, Ritz had glued herself to her desk and studied like a madwoman, sometimes so lost among descriptions of the Spade Demon and the Sandstone Demon and the Saw Tongue Demon that her roommate had to remind her to eat.

No way she could've forgotten any of those demons already. There had only been 4,000!

A mask. Four arms. Freaky strength. Come on, Ritz, it's not exactly easy to forget traits like these!

Nope, nothing. Ritz sighed. It was possible that whatever Kuma was, they hadn't gotten around to teaching her yet. But even knowing that, oh, how the mystery nagged her thoughts!

While she racked her brain for a name, Ritz observed the other villagers who occasionally passed. Interestingly enough, few of them gave their group much more than a glance despite the fact that they did have a polearm-wielding demon among them. Those who looked bore a more expected reaction: badly disguised fear.

"Oi, Takius."

Shuffling out from beneath the awning of his house, another man approached them and tipped his hat at the maskmaker. As they stopped and returned the greeting with respectful nods, Ritz noticed the man's eyes shoot towards Kuma for a moment before shifting back to Takius. He was smiling, but the way he looked at the two was… reserved. That formal polite mask everyone used with their acquaintances at some point. Almost icy.

"Doran," Takius said, smiling back. "How are you?"

"Just fine, just fine. Same with you, I hope?… Ah, I haven't seen these two around before." He nodded at Ritz and Monty. "Friends of yours?"

"Not quite. They're demonology students come from the city to work for Bronzework Dragon. I'm just showing them around."

Ritz's eyes narrowed a fraction an inch. Hm?

"Ah, that's interesting."

The cold stare swiveled onto Ritz, causing her smile to falter just a bit. There was something very accusatory in that look—she was quite intimate with accusatory looks—as if Doran was blaming her for some unnamed crime when she'd only just met the guy seconds ago.

"Well, I wouldn't want to bother you all. See you around?"

"Of course. Take care."

"Take care."

Call it paranoia, but she was positive that if she glanced back, Doran would still be watching them. The unsettling sensation of cold eyes drilling into her back didn't go away, not even after they turned the corner and started up the road to Takius' house behind the hill.

------

As far as a rural home went, the interior was actually pretty nice. The floor was clean, the shelves were dusted, the sink was plate and utensil-free—forgive her for having the thought, but Ritz didn't know a man living alone could keep a house so neat. Most eye-catching of all, the walls of practically every room were lined with masks of so many designs and colors, she might as well have fallen into a gigantic painting of folklore.

He'd promised to show them some more masks he had stored in the attic, but for the moment, Ritz and Monty were seated in his kitchen, having been unable to convince him they were fine and not thirsty and didn't need him to prepare some tea for them, thank you anyway. Kuma had retrieved a white cloth from somewhere and plopped herself down in a corner, where she set about polishing her polearm blade with unusual meticulousness for one so young, or at least one who looked like a ten-year-old. With four arms. And a scary mask.

"Uh, Takius? I wanted to ask you…"

He was pouring hot water by the sink and didn't turn around. "What is it, Ritz?"

Nervously fingering the stiff roll of bandages he'd swathed around her wrist, she said, "Back there with Doran, you said you were showing us around. But that's not… the truth…" She trailed off awkwardly.

"Indeed. I lied." He smiled at her from over his shoulder.

"Why, though?"

"Doran and I aren't on the best of terms, even if we seem like friends—"

No, you don't, Ritz thought but didn't say.

"—You see, about a year and a half ago, Kuma here tried to steal some grapes off his vines, and when he tried to stop her, she ended up destroying most of them."

From the corner, Kuma made a grumbling noise and gave her polearm an especially vigorous wipe. Takius issued a short chuckle.

"I hadn't taught her much Shamaranese yet. She heard his yelling and thought he was going to hurt her for taking his food, and well… You two know how strong her defensive instincts are. She went a little out of control then, and Doran's still resentful. Rightfully so, I believe. He's very proud of his grapes. If someone damaged my masks, I'd go crazy."

A heavy clunk sounded from the corner. Kuma had set her weapon down and twisted around, planting all four hands on the floor as she shouted in Takius' direction, "I sorry! Said Doran I sorry!" If Ritz could see Kuma's face, she would've guessed she was close to crying; there was a quiver in her voice.

"I know you did, Kuma," Takius said, smiling kindly. Steam billowed from the pair of cups he was holding. "You did the right thing, to apologize, and I'm proud of you for it."

This seemed to satisfy her, Ritz saw, for the demon lowered her chin, then turned back and picked up her polearm again.

"So, how long have you and Kuma known each other?" Monty asked, nodding in thanks for the tea.

"Oh, it's been about two years now. I found her unconscious out in the forest when I went to gather materials for my dyes—poisoned by snakebite, it seemed. So I took her back home and let her stay here while she recovered."

"Mm…" Kuma whined. A jolt ran through Ritz's heart at the sound, and she identified its overtones as guilt. But this time, it was Kuma's guilt, not her own.

"It's alright, Kuma." He fetched his own cup of tea and sat down with them. "We didn't get along at first," Takius explained. "She actually broke my arm the first time I tried to get her to eat. I don't blame her, but she can't forgive herself for it."

Another whine from Kuma was drowned out by the maskmaker's affectionate laugh.

"You certainly seem to understand her well," Monty remarked. Ritz had been thinking the same thing, for he did have a stronger bond with the demon than she'd given him credit for.

"Thank you. I've worked very hard to teach her as much as I can. I think I managed to curb her temper a little—or maybe not, haha—Shamaranese is coming along much more slowly. But seeing as how she didn't understand any Shamaranese when I first met her, I hope I don't sound boastful when I say I've accomplished a lot."

"No, you're right, you have."

"It's impressive," Ritz agreed, and sipped. She sighed quietly as the hot liquid slid down her throat and stole a glance at Kuma. Her blade apparently now clean as it could be, she'd switched to polishing the polearm's lengthy handle instead, which gave off a definite metallic tint. Ritz guessed the whole thing was made of metal. She was suddenly very grateful the gods had allowed her to get out of their fight with just a mean bruise.

As if reading her thoughts, Takius said, "You're lucky you weren't hurt badly, Ritz. Kuma sure can use that horsecutter. It weighs 68 pounds, you know."

68 pounds?! Geez!

"You're sure it's safe for her to have that thing?"

As if on cue, Kuma turned her head and angled a glare at Ritz, viciously sharpened by the grinning snarl of her mask. Ritz smiled back uneasily.

"Oh, not exactly, but she earned it herself." Takius paused long enough to swallow a small sip. "She set up a bargain with the blacksmith: she'd do some of his more intensive chores for him, like cutting wood or carrying ores, and he'd make her a weapon if she did a good job. She loves it very much, almost as much as her mask."

"Did you make it for her?" Monty asked.

"I did."

"It's a really… vibrant design," Ritz commented. Her foot twitched out of nervousness; Kuma was still looking at her through one eye as she ran the cloth down the handle. The thickly painted red and black swirls seemed to pulsate with the heat of her glare.

"Thank you! Kuma picked it out herself. I often use scroll paintings for inspiration and reference in my work. I have one with the Deity of War on it—she was so fond of that painting I decided to make her a mask. Incidentally, in that depiction, the Deity was holding a horsecutter… I suppose that's why she asked the blacksmith to make one for her. To copy that painting."

Monty nodded enthusiastically. "Idol worship, huh?"

"Right. No harm done, anyway. As far as I know, Kuma hasn't hurt anyone with her horsecutter yet—I mean, not badly, sorry Ritz—and she enjoys wearing her mask. It helps hide her face—"

"Don't say!"

Ritz jumped, hot tea splashing onto her hand as she jerked. Ouch! The sound of chairs grating across the floor told her Takius and Monty were just as surprised.

The maskmaker stood, eyebrows knitted and hand squeezing the back of his chair, though he didn't show any signs of anger. "Kuma…?"

"Don't say," she repeated gruffly. She threw her cloth down and spun around on her behind, voice rising. The teeth on her mask seemed to be grinding together. "Don't say! Don't want say! Don't want Takius say!"

"I understand, Kuma!"

He raised his hands to placate her as he spoke. Monty was holding his cup so hard his knuckles had turned white, and Ritz was wondering if she should arm herself with a shot in case the demon went nuts on them. He's a maskmaker, not a demonologist, she reminded herself. Takius simply didn't have the training to handle demons, no matter how well he got along with this one.

"Don't want say." An almost palpable wave of furious emotion brushed through the room as Kuma stared at Takius.

"I understand…"

"Don't say." The wave ebbed.

"I understand…"

"Don't say…" It fell back a little more.

"I won't. I'm sorry, Kuma."

And then Ritz could breathe again without feeling as though some creature had seized her lungs in its jaws. Giving a sniff that was more indignant than anything, Kuma turned back and resumed her work.

"I apologize." Slowly shaking his head, Takius patted his chest twice, over his heart, before seating himself again. "It's a sensitive subject for her."

"It's fine," Ritz said, because it was the proper thing to say, but inside, she wanted to ask more questions about Kuma, each one nosier than the last, she grudgingly admitted. The buzz of inquiries filled her ears as she edged her gaze towards Kuma, watching the demon's shoulders shake, probably in suppressed rage.

"Ah, Takius, what are you going to do now?" Monty asked, obviously trying to steer them back into conversation.

"About what?"

"Well, Ritz and I were sent here for her. Someone really doesn't want Kuma to stay—"

"DON'T SAY!"

Kuma suddenly leapt to her feet, gripping her polearm—a horsecutter, Takius had called it? Damn, how appropriate the name seemed now—with all four hands, the blade aimed in their general direction. Monty promptly fell out of his chair, Takius jumped back, and Ritz jumped forward with her right hand open, testing the pockets in case she was forced to defend them. The sheer volume of Kuma's bellow echoed inside her chest like an enormous drum.

"Don't say!" Kuma screamed again. She took a threatening step towards them, the head of her weapon waving threateningly. The kitchen suddenly seemed to have shrunk. A cage. Ritz held her breath, her fingers trembling.

"Don't say!" With this last utterance, the words accented by a sob-like note, Kuma whirled around and dashed out of the kitchen. Several heavy footsteps later, they heard the door break, the first of many crashes to fall through the house.

Then, silence.