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...


1. Kisaro







   The rain lashed down on Kisaro's shoulders, each drop a streak of bleakness in an even bleaker land. Before him, the ruined remnants of the tiny village was still smouldering, though the rain had apparently quenched most of the fire. Not a single building had been displayed mercy in the camicazi; perhaps the luckiest house had escaped with three scorched, crumbling walls remaining. A few corpses had been heaped together in the centre of the village, their flesh incinerated and blackened with smoke.

    Perhaps the only positive thing in the ocean of misery was the survival of over half the villagers. There were certainly more mourning survivors than the corpses they wept for: that much was obvious as Kisaro trudged through the valley pass behind the others.

    He pulled his cloak closer around him, trying to cease the shivering that ran through his body. The early winter wind attacked his bare hands and pale face, stinging him with needles of freezing rain.

"It's slippery down here! Watch your step!" the man at the head of the party called up. Since when was it not slippery? The entire mountain path consisted of rocks, made yet more difficult to descend thanks to the torrential rain. Damn the weather.

    Making his way down, Kisaro navigated the terrain beneath his feet, swiftly finding the safest footholds, evading the rocks he thought most likely to cause his fall. The wind wasn't helping, either. Each gust smashed against him, relentless and unyielding. Then again, it would be worse for the remaining. They'd fled, returning to find their lives crushed into tiny fragments of sorrow; their friends and family dead along with their homes. And he knew what that felt like.

    A yelp suddenly cut through the air, and Kisaro whirled around. Raiyo was falling forwards, his legs sliding from beneath him as he tumbled towards Kisaro. Lunging for his friend, Kisaro grabbed Raiyo's wrist and somehow steadying them both.

    "You could at least try not to crush me every five minutes, idiot," he grumbled, releasing Raiyo's wrist.

    "Sorry," Raiyo grinned, apparently the only one unaffected by the wind. "And thanks!" 

    Rolling his eyes, Kisaro turned back to walking, trying to ignore the irritatingly repetitive tune Raiyo was humming absentmindedly. The task proved impossible.

    "Do you have to be so positive?"


    "Next time you fall, I'm letting you hit your head on a rock, and I'll leave you here unconscious."

    "Nah, you'd catch me," Raiyo said, and Kisaro knew he'd be grinning as he said it. Clearly, he'd been spending too much time around that idiot. "Besides, we're almost at the bottom, now, so I won't fall again. Probably."

    Kisaro grunted, but the realisation of how far down they were was slightly encouraging. The bitter wind was doing little to help him climb. The sooner they reached the village, the better. Kisaro needed a rest, if only five minutes to catch his breath as the survivors explained about the Majo. Then, they'd be off again, hunting down the ones who'd burnt the village and slaying them.

    Clearing the last few rocks, Kisaro glanced again to the village. Two of the remaining victims were shuffling towards them, wrapped in singed coats with hoods casting shadows over their faces. Judging from the way they walked, they both had lost loved ones. Kisaro had seen a man who had lost a house, and he had seen a man who had lost a family. These people had lost something more precious than a house.

    Raiyo joined him, with an almost smug,

    "I told you I wouldn't slip over."

    Kisaro ignored him, but rather continued to follow the others towards the villagers. Raiyo fell into stride at his side, swinging his arms despite the relentlessly hateful weather. His hood was down, enabling the rain to plaster his hair to his forehead and stream down his face, dripping in a steady stream from his chin. Seemingly, he didn't notice the cold either, because he wasn't shivering at all, and his eyes hadn't lost any of their usual gleam.

    As they neared the two villagers, Kisaro couldn't help but glance at their faces. Tears streaked silently down their cheeks, falling to the floor and congregating with the fallen raindrops, a forgotten part of an insignificant puddle beneath their feet.

    The woman on the left opened her lips to speak, but apparently couldn't summon the strength. Instead, she swallowed, beckoning for them to follow. For a moment, her body seemed to glimmer, becoming slightly hazy. Blinking twice, Kisaro refocused his vision, and the woman's body had returned to normal. Wonderful. Now he was not only perilously cold, but seeing things as well.

    Dragging his exhausted feet through the grass, Kisaro followed the two villagers, too tired to tell Raiyo to just shut up. It wasn't like the idiot would listen, anyway.

    As they got closer to the ruined settlement, the foul odour of blood and smoke filled his nose, clouding his mind with unpleasant thoughts. He could see the village more clearly now: the splatters of crimson blood across the remnants of the stone houses; the smouldering, charred remains of missing limbs; black wisps of smoke as they writhed from the debris in an almost serpentine manner.

    But the worst was yet to come. From here, Kisaro had a clear view of the fallen. Their corpses had been thrown carelessly into a giant mound of blood, flesh and entrails in the village square.

    That was the first thing that struck Kisaro as strange. There were people crowded around the bodies, and the way they stood was shameful, defeated, mourning. But they were not clinging to the hands of their friends and crying into their chests. Besides, what sort of a person would cast their own mother into a mass of bodies? The survivors stood like people who could find nothing left, no remaining fragment of their old life to cling to and wail. People like this - normal, mundane people - would be clutching the hands of their fallen relatives, would not simply throw them aside as though they had meant nothing.

    "Rai, be careful," Kisaro muttered. "Be ready to fight."


    Kisaro looked closely at their two guides, centering his attention on the movement of their coats. Just as he'd thought - they looked as though they were being battered by the wind, but the direction in which they were flowing seemed to be slightly different from the direction of the wind.

    "Because I think this is illusion magic," Kisaro said in a low voice. "And there are probably Majo waiting to ambush us and slit our throats."

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