Heart of Shadow

Villages destroyed; towns bereaved of life; people dying. The witches have returned in full strength, and they leave death in their wake...


4. Akuma







     By the time they finally managed to light the fire, it was pitch black and they were both freezing cold. The wind had tried to steal all warmth from their bones, and it might have done so, had they not huddled by the flame, with Akuma laughing at the sense of liberty and Yukiyo smiling softly at her joy. He always seemed happier when she was laughing.

    "I wonder what the first city will be like," Akuma giggled. "It'll be huge, won't it? With towering buildings made of stone and those really massive ones... Castles, right?"

    Yukiyo nodded in confirmation, and Akuma continued. "Well, the castles will be amazing."

    For a moment, there was quiet. When Akuma spoke again, she realised her voice was strangely soft.

    "You know, they used to call the Kojin 'Familiars'?"

    "Really?" Yukiyo asked, tilting his head. "That sounds kind of strange." Akuma watched as he rolled the word over his tongue. It sounded gentle, calm. But then Yukiyo's voice was always like that - rarely used and yet so soothing. He had never failed to reassure her - not that she needed reassuring often, but it happened. Sometimes.

    "Yeah," Akuma laughed, leaning against him. "I think it sounds better calling you my Kojin than my Familiar." Yukiyo gave a faint murmur of agreement, and Akuma could feel the comforting weight of his head resting on her shoulder; the soft strands of snowy white hair as they brushed against her cheek. For a while, she simply remained like that, completely relaxed and calm as she watched their breath emerge, mingling and eventually dissipating into the night.

    "Akuma," Yukiyo said, after a while. "I wanted to thank you."

    "Why's that?" What did he possibly have to thank her for? 

    "For treating me as an equal. Some of the other Majo treat their Kojin as their slave. Like Hisa. Her Kojin has become a tool for her to gain her necessary means; nothing more than that. You have given me a purpose, Akuma, and for that, I thank you."

    The words touched her with warmth, a gentle fire that spread through her chest to fight away the cold. "And I couldn't have asked for a better Kojin," she smiled in reply. "You're more loyal than any of the others."

    "That's only because I have a reason to be loyal," Yukiyo replied without thought.

    For a moment, Akuma didn't reply, instead choosing to let the words seep into her. A wider smile found its way onto her lips. And then,

    "I'm glad you think so. I've never wanted to be like Hisa, or any of the others who just abuse their Kojin. Besides," she added. "Shouldn't we be going to sleep?"

    "Probably," Yukiyo replied smoothly, his voice almost melodic in her ear. "But are you tired?"

    "A little," Akuma admitted.

    "Then we'll get some rest," Yukiyo agreed, shifting slightly. Akuma stretched out her limbs, crawling over to the tent and kicking off her boots in the entrance. Behind her, Yukiyo moved inside, securing the flap of the tent with nimble fingers before pulling two of the blankets from his pack and passing one to Akuma. She took it gladly, taking a fur sleeping mat from her bag and tossing another to Yukiyo. Spreading the furs out beneath her, Akuma sunk down, wrapping the blanket around her shoulders.

    "Night," she called out softly.

    "Night," Yukiyo replied in a lullaby voice.

    Akuma closed her eyes, and inside, she was still filled with warmth.



    Another five days of heading northeast through the forest finally freed them from the Majo territory, and for the first time in her life, Akuma could see the world.

    It was beautiful. There was no other way to describe it - the vast, majestic stretch of emerald before them, dotted with flowers of red and orange and white; the mountains standing like giants in the distance; the glimmer of sapphire that could only be a massive lake.

    After a few moments, Akuma realised her breath had been stolen from her, and she burst forwards, grinning widely.

    "It's amazing!" she laughed, her eyes sparkling brightly as they reflected the light of the open terrain. "Let's go!"

    She ran through the meadow, admiring everything she saw. Never before had she been allowed freedom from the forest, and the real world seemed even bigger than she could have imagined. Glancing back, Akuma noticed that Yukiyo's pale blue eyes were wide with wonder at the land that spread before them like a blanket of beautifully selected gems.

    "It even smells different!" Yukiyo called out from behind her. Akuma paused for a moment, breathing in the scent of the meadow. A pleasant aroma of fresh grass and the mingled flavours of flowers filled her mouth and nose, and a laugh escaped her lips. Never had she felt so free!

    "I love it here!" she grinned, and Yukiyo gave a murmur of agreement. The forest had been home, yes, but it had been a home with boundaries. Out here, there was nothing to constrict them, nothing to chain them to the shackles of Hisa's rule.

    She took off again as Yukiyo reached her side, and together, they ran to the lake. Beauty filled their surroundings, and the air was fresh and gloriously new.

    "This must be why Hisa lets us leave the forest for a while," Yukiyo mused as they ran. "So we know exactly what we're fighting for."

    "Smart as always," Akuma smirked. "Can we just enjoy it without mentioning Hisa?"

    Yukiyo's lips formed a small, apologetic smile, though his eyes were dancing with the liberty. She'd always loved his eyes - how she could tell what he was thinking just by glancing at them, whereas everybody else would see the shy, quiet Kojin they thought him to be.

    They finally reached the lakeside, with Yukiyo smiling and Akuma giggling. Free. Content. What could be better?

    Akuma looked at the water for a brief moment, before shrugging, throwing her head in, and taking a deep gulp of the water. The cooling liquid slid down her throat, a refreshing taste of purity. "Try it," she urged Yukiyo. Nodding, her Kojin knelt by the waterside, cupping his hands and slowly tasting the water. Before he could comment, Akuma dived at him, shoving him into the water. For a moment, he only flailed about, but the next second, his hand was on her wrist and they were both in the water, floundering and struggling for control. Akuma laughed in exhilaration: for the next minute, there was simply she and Yukiyo and a flurry of limbs.And when they finally dragged themselves - completely drenched but blissfully joyful - from the water, there was still only she and Yukiyo.

    For a while - for Akuma, at least - the world was wonderful.

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