We are ever by each other's side, Searra and I and the darkness. Sometimes, so much so that it is difficult to tell one from the other.
The breeze blew softly in our faces as we approached town. We had lost much time getting here. I cursed the limp in my left leg that slowed us down. The limp was not without its advantages, however. Most people tended to be courteous to two traveling young women, more so when one was frail and lame, and the other person - well, suffice it to say that Searra stands out in more ways than one.
We made our way into town, part of a steady stream of people. The lights of nearby homes beckoned invitingly, a welcome sight in Kuro's everlasting darkness.
When the Sun Goddess, Amaterasu-ōmikami, disappeared mysteriously a thousand years ago, she left Kuro a blighted land.
We passed a few taverns. The smell of the roasters tempted us, the chicken turning on spits, the fat hissing as it fell and hit the hot coals.
I hobbled faster, leaning heavily on my staff, ignoring my limp as best I could. I noticed a good crowd had already begun to gather about one of the taverns. This tavern was bigger than the others, and noisier too, sturdily built with heavy oak doors. A wrought-iron sign above the entrance proclaimed its name: The Alehouse.
The great oak doors swung open. In the room, people were talking animatedly, basking in the warm glow of the hearth. I motioned for my sister to follow. She nodded and followed along meekly without a word, her long robes trailing her. I was careful to make sure we were as inconspicuous as we could be, for we tended to attract attention wherever we went.
The aromas of food, ale and smoke mingled in the air. My stomach grumbled, but I forced myself to focus. Food was not the only thing on our agenda. Gathering information was just as important.
We caught a few sidelong glances as we passed. Two young girls wandering alone were a rare sight, and the white cloaks of the Order even rarer. But my sister in particular, was enough to spark hours of conversation. Strikingly beautiful, with long, dark hair that tumbled past her shoulders, deep blue eyes, a dainty nose and ruby red lips, Searra was anything but normal. But her beauty wasn't what called attention to her. A thin white piece of paper was affixed to her forehead, running down the middle of her face, partially veiling a third of it. Characters were inscribed on the paper, symbols of the moon god, Tsukuyomi.
I took my sister's hand without a word, guiding her past rows of tables toward the end of the room. Searra liked windows. The Alehouse was full and it was hard to get the attention of the tavern wenches. Searra followed obediently and silently, her hand holding mine as we passed more tables. I could feel the eyes on us. I cursed a little to myself.
I noticed everything, from the little pickpocket who made his way around the room, to the burly drunk who had taken up the west end of the room, his dour face staring blankly into open space, his hands stroking his cold drink almost affectionately, as if the ale were a lover he hadn't seen in a long time. I saw the couple in the middle having a spirited conversation -- a lovers' spat, in fact. They hid it from everyone, but I could see the truth clearly from her reaction to him.
The rest of the room was what I expected to find: warriors, mercenaries and their ilk.
We found a table with a pair of unoccupied chairs. It was fine to share with total strangers. I pulled up a chair and sat down. Searra followed suit. No sooner had we sat down, than we were immediately accosted by one of the barmaids.
"Some ale, m'lady?"
I nodded. "Aye, and fresh bread and butter. What's roasting?"
The wench frowned. "She'll be extra, you know."
The wench straightened up self-righteously. "Your Familiar. We charge for that too. They're just like horses."
I smiled. "Of course."
The wench curtsied clumsily. "We have some tasty chicken tonight. I can get some roasted beef too, or even in a stew if you so desire. A big crowd tonight, yes." Our wench nodded at me with satisfaction.
"The chicken would be great." I smiled, handing the serving girl a couple of coins. Her face lit up and she curtsied again before disappearing into the crowd.
One of the strangers at our table, an older, mustached gentleman in armor, was looking at Searra intently.
"So, what's her story?"
"My sister," I replied simply.
"What brings two pretty young things like yourselves to this forsaken place? This is no land for little girls."
"Same reason you are here. To hunt the demon down."
Upon hearing that, a few of the hunters within earshot began to laugh derisively.
"I think you two better run back home to mommy and daddy before someone really gets hurt. Your little costume parade fools no one."
"There's something off about your sister there." The other man at our table spoke now, a mousey gentleman clad in leather armor. His face was gnarled, like well-worn leather, covered in a bearded stubble where he had haphazardly shaven the day before.
Our wench returned, carrying plates of food: warm bread and butter, two mugs of ale and half a chicken.
"She's just starin' out into open space, ya know? Is she blind and mute?"
I shook my head. "Our business is our own, good sir."
"Now, now, don't be hasty, just making friendly banter. I didn't mean to offend the young lady." The mousey one put up his hands apologetically.
"Still, the seal that covers her face, she'd be a lot prettier without it."
"That's her familiar. Ryker, you're a goddam fool."
Another gentleman from the nearby table had spoken. Ryker looked decidedly offended.
The man at the next table continued. "Those robes, that's the Order of Talthys, ain't it? I thought your kind was gone from Kuro. Is the Order gaining a following again?"
I cursed to myself. I wasn't expecting someone to recognize the Order. Still, it was my one idiosyncratic vow. I would wear the robes still, no matter what.
I shook my head. "It's as you say. We are two young girls seeking a revival of the Order."
I took a sip of my ale. The cool brew tasted delicious after a long day of walking. I tore off a piece of the soft, warm bread, heaped a generous helping of butter onto it and took a bite.
The man at the other table shook his head. "It's a shame. Order's been gone nigh a hundred years. There are very few left now that know the arts."
"What the hell's a familiar?" Ryker wouldn't let it go.
"See the seal covering the young lady's face? That's a seal of binding. It holds whatever is there bound, to obey the Sealer."
"Why would you bind your own sister?"
The conversation was not going well.
I took a long draught and nearly emptied my mug. "She is...unwell, as you can see.
Perhaps it's best to leave us to our supper, sir."
Ryker nodded and went back to his drink.
"Perhaps I might ask a few questions of my own, gentlemen," I ventured, quickly changing the subject.
"Aye, ask away." The first man winked at me.
"What do they say about the demon in this town?" I asked, tearing off a chicken leg and biting into it.
"Villagers first noticed it two months ago. Cattle and other livestock started disappearin' at first. They thought it was raiders, until people started vanishing as well. Over a hundred hunters have come down in the last month. Their bodies are found the next day, the blood drained from them. Every last drop. Whatever it is, it's powerful enough to stop even the most seasoned hunters. Villagers go to bed wondering if this night will be their last.
"It's receiving quite a bit of attention really, attractin' us all in droves, yeah?" Ryker smiled mischievously. "We don't see many girls, and certainly not as pretty as the likes of you two. Though, one might say you're a little too young for my likin'."
"Ryker's lying. He'll take either one of ya."
Loud guffaws echoed through The Alehouse. So much for being discreet. We were now the center of attention once again. Damn it, Searra.
I hastily finished my meal, taking my remaining bread and using it to wipe the chicken drippings before I put it in my mouth. Recon was impossible now, for we had attracted far too much attention. Best get moving and find our quarry on our own. I stood up, took one last swig of ale, smiled to the gentlemen at the table, and made for the door.
We stepped out to find the town finally winding down. The darkness of Kuro was pervasive. As the powers of darkness grew stronger, hunting and killing the demons of the Yami had become a lucrative profession.
It wasn't as though we were entirely defenseless. The Goddess had left her people, a parting gift, remnants of her presence we called the Goddess Essence. To the few that were talented enough to use it, that is.
The streets were mostly empty now. I walked briskly, unconcerned about being attacked by thieves in the dark. No one ventured out during the hours of the Slumber anymore. The demon could come out at any time, and the Slumber was perfect for it. No one would be able to sense its approach.
I drew one of the seals from my pouch, a Seal of Lighting, and activated it, releasing the Goddess Essence stored within it, so that I could see a little better in the darkness. Light filled our surroundings with a warm glow that followed us around. An odd smell wafted past us as I surveyed my surroundings.
We had entered the industrial sector of town. I peered through one of the windows. Rows of looms filled the room. Bolts of cloth sat undisturbed, the women that worked them gone for the day. They would return in a few short hours to resume the vicious cycle. Pallets of hay were neatly stacked into one of the storage cabins, feed for the mules.
The smell returned, overpowering at this point. It was foul, but oddly familiar.
I felt a presence behind me and whirled around quickly.
It was Ryker. I knew he had been following us for quite some time, but I decided he was not a threat.
"What do you want?" I asked.
"I hear you're lookin' for the demon," he said, smiling.
"Make it short. We are in a hurry."
"Relax sweetie, why not take some time to have a little chat? Maybe I could get to know you both a little better..." Ryker approached menacingly.
I drew my dagger, eager to end this swiftly.
It was a mistake.
Ryker changed, his form shifting suddenly, the flesh dropping off like cast-off pieces of plaster, the dark flesh revealed underneath, the demonic face forming a grotesque caricature in the darkness. He had grown too, by several feet, until he towered a good seven feet. The demon bared sharp fangs at us, the spittle spraying across where I could see it clearly. Red humanoid eyes glared at us from a long pointed snout.
Ryker howled in the night air. "What does the Order of Talthys want with the Servants of the Yami?"
"That is simple, demon. You are hereby condemned in the name of Amaterasu-ōmikami."
A loud, resounding laugh echoed through the industrial area.
"Seek and ye shall find, Priestess." The demon pointed a clawed finger at me. "Be careful what you ask for."
The demon moved swiftly, like a blanket sweeping over the darkness. Were it not for the light of my seal, the movement would have been undetectable. In the same instant, a white light flashed from the corner of my eye, light moving to face the dark.
Like white paper draped over the darkness.
The demon was grinning from ear to ear now, its advance stopped, the massive talons blocked by a slender left arm as Searra stood defiantly before it.
"You are...quite strong for a little girl."
The large muscles shifted, the raw sinew bringing its full force to bear upon my sister, but Searra was unmoved. Her slender arm, almost pitifully small in comparison, cast the demon's claw aside. The demon, caught by surprise, jumped back swiftly, cautious now.
"You are no Priestesses of Talthys." The demon Ryker looked fearful
now. "Who are you?"
The white engulfed the dark once more, the wind moved - Searra, acting on my thoughts. I really needed to learn how to get that under control.
She was down on one knee behind the demon now, her right arm extended sideways. Once slender, it had grown huge and muscular. The skin tone had changed too - it was now a pallid purple hue, smooth in appearance. Fearsome talons extended out from each finger. Ryker looked down at the ground at his right arm, now severed from his body. Blood sprayed from the open wound, staining Searra's pure white robes like an ink wash painting, the violence turning into art against the backdrop of the darkness. Ryker looked back at her, a look of fear on his face.
"You recognize me now, lesser demon." Searra rose as she spoke, her voice deep, rumbling, other-worldly, and sinister.
"My...my lord, forgive me...I did not recognize you in this form."
Ryker knelt before Searra. "Lord Enma-Dai-Ō, greatest of the Demon Lords before the Dark One."
"Indeed," Searra responded calmly.
Ryker continued, "But...my lord, we are your kindred, why do this?"
"The whorelet has me bound. The power of the moon god compels me to obey. You must end the whorelet and free me from this despicable seal. I will see to it that you are most generously rewarded by the Dark One."
Ryker nodded and attacked once more. He had no choice but to obey.
Searra disappeared into the darkness once more, her speed
By the light of the seal, I witnessed the demons fight each other for a few moments. Like a well-choreographed dance, Searra's movements were graceful, flowing like the water, the white and crimson-stained cloak of the Order of Talthys moving about the miasmal darkness like an angel of death. The aberrant right arm, the only incongruence, an eerie contrast to Searra's other-worldly beauty.
Ryker's left arm dropped to the ground and he bled profusely from his wounds. He stood up with great effort, compelled to fight to the death.
Searra stepped forward, slowly this time, an evil smile on her face, as she approached a now defenseless Ryker. In one smooth motion, she jumped, pulled back her fist, and with sudden force extended it forward, her giant claws tearing a massive hole in the demon's torso.
The demon Ryker looked dumbly at the gaping hole and then at me.
"Such power... who are you?" Ryker fell to the ground on one knee,
"Wait.." Ryker struggled to speak as he bled to his death. "I know who you are." The demon's breath was raspy, the speech almost incoherent.
"That limp, the white robes, your companion, the young girl bound by a cursed seal that exacts a heavy price." Ryker grimaced in pain. "You are the Dark Priestess." Ryker forced himself to speak through his pain. "I was there that day, you know."
"There, when?" I wondered, though I knew the answer.
"The day Talthys fell to ruin. I was there when you and your sister fought valiantly in its defense, and failed." The demon grinned in the darkness. A burbling gurgle escaped the demon's throat. It was laughing. "You are one of us now. You cannot escape what you are, what you have become. You cannot atone for your sin by hunting down your brethren."
"Enough!" I said. "By the power vested in me, I, Vannah Searra von Talthys, priestess of the Order of the Light, hereby sentence you to death. You have come under my justice."
Ryker chuckled softly. "Priestess of the Light, you say?"
I turned to my sister. "End it."
"As you wish, whorelet." Searra moved toward the demon Ryker, and with a quick motion giant claws separated head from body, the artist making one last brushstroke, one final crimson flash where the droplets of blood met the light and the darkness. The wind blew shrill into Searra's face just then, the seal of the moon god Tsukuyomi fluttering in the wind.
For a brief moment, I beheld her beautiful blue eyes by the light of my seal. Eyes that stared forward, seeing nothing.
I am reminded once again that I am alone.
"Our work is done here, I said, turning to Searra. "Let us move on to the next town."
By the time the hours of the Waking came around, the townsfolk would find the demon's body and identify it as Ryker, the demon's unfortunate host. There would be talk of two beautiful young girls who had passed through there the night before, wearing the white robes of a long-dead Order, only to vanish without a trace.
We walked slowly and silently, Searra following in my footsteps meekly and with bowed head. The light of the town disappearing behind us as we were once again swallowed by the darkness.
We are ever by each other's side, the Demon and I and the darkness. Sometimes, so much so that it is difficult to tell one from the other.