The world and its universe exist in a land of balance. Without balance, there would be no struggle— at least, no struggle that would be considered interesting to watch. One-sided battles are predictable; one-sided stories are boring. Therefore in a prophecy, the gods gave both the hero and the villain the same amount of hope. The same amount of opportunities.
If things were becoming too cruel, too overpowered— the gods would slight the victor. If things become too unstable, they will stabilise the narrative… at least until the story works in their favour. But in the beginning, when the casting is revealed, there will only be one. One Hero for One Villain. One Catalyst for One seer.
Even if the survivors of the last prophecy survived to see the current, they would be recast to something else. They would be made new. There will never be more than one hero, one villain, or more than one Catalyst or Seer. The universe would never allow it, and the one that came before will give way to the present. They would either crumble entirely or just enough to be remade. There will never be doubles… not in the title, not in their ability, not in name.
- Memoir #37: Marks and Prophecies by Tsuyuzaki Michiru
Shiori woke up, the lights blinding her. Her mind reeled, staggering reality with the past. The weight on her stomach reminding her too much too fast, of the lab that held her down. She raised her hand, relieved at how fast it flew up, the way the wind gave it that extra boost she didn’t need. Something in front of her clattered, falling over itself on a shelf but not to the floor.
She did nothing but breathe for a long time. She was somewhere— inside, on a bed. A soft bed, her mind noted when she sat up, the blanket on her stomach rolling down. She was in a bedroom— not her bedroom in her rundown flat— not the bedroom of a childhood she can barely remember. But she was in a bedroom. She was safe—
“She’s the hero,” the taller one hissed, spitting out Shiori’s role like it was mud. “If we don’t kill her now we’ll ruin the best chance we got.”
She was not safe.
Shiori looked at her hands, rubbing the wrist at the lingering red marks from the lab. There was no clock in the room, nor anything to tell her how many days it has been. The sun outside suggested it was near noon in the morning, and there was nothing but some apple slices with a cutting knife on a chair next by. A glass of water stood next to the bowl.
Shiori eyed the food, hesitating only for her stomach to make its demand, urging her to ignore the risk of poison to drink and eat. Shiori downed the water first— the crisp of the water acting as if it was flavoured with ambrosia with how good it tasted. The apples, though partially brown from a few hours of exposure, were sweet. Despite the fears for her life, Shiori allowed her eyes to close. She wanted to savour this flavour in case it was the last thing she would ever taste.
Shiori then picked up the knife, holding it carefully in her hand as she inspected it. This was a simple knife, sharp enough to cut through fruit, a short, almost curved blade specialised for slicing. Yet when Shiori held it, it felt comfortable in her hands— almost as if she held it before. This was strange when Shiori never held a knife before, not counting Mahiru’s cutting knife when she had to slice ingredients for potions.
Shiori shook her head. She’ll figure out that later when she’s safe. She gripped it in her hand, the fingers filling up the hilt perfectly. Then she put the blade down, pressed the palm of her hands onto the edge and surface of the bedside drawer and exhaled when she moved out of the bed. As she thought, her legs already gave way— the wind she can’t control pushing her back up to stand as she used the drawer as leverage.
Shiori took a deep breath, controlling the pace of her inhales and exhales before pushing off the drawer, stumbling but not falling. Progress. She can now walk— maybe run if she needed to. Was this being a hero had to entail? Being threatened each and every day?
She wondered briefly if this was what Fumi and Claudine had to deal with each day for their training. From the thoughts emerged an iron weight, like a dandelion from the cracks of Shiori’s heart. The gravity of the metal on such a fragile surface allowed Shiori to fall and stumble to the floor, barely able to stop a cry wretch through her throat as her eyes shut. “Onee chan… Kuro nee…”
She hated how much she missed them. She hated how she still cared. Even when for all their words and promises, they never acted like they cared back. The click of the door handle was enough for Shiori to snap back to the present. To dry the tears that never fell and stand up despite her struggles beforehand.
She reached for the blade on the table, her fingers filling out the hilt perfectly as she gripped it. Her legs moved to the door, behind the door— holding back her surprise when she felt the wind wrap around her ankles, the cold air muffling her own steps. No floorboard creaked, no sound was made. There was nothing but the cool air and the fluttering of curtains for a window that wasn’t open.
The door opened, the loud creak of the old hinges screamed in the silence. Shiori did not breathe when the door started to brush against her skin as it opened wider. Thankfully, the person did not open it wider, allowing it to close behind them as they walked forward to the curtains that continued to flutter.
The grip on the cutting knife was clammy, sweat starting to loosen the grip. Shiori launched herself forward, aiming for the back of the shoulder, pulling her hand back to take the plunge. A hand caught her wrist before she could even bring it forward past her body. Shiori’s eyes widened— she didn’t even catch how the person turned around. It happened too fast.
All she saw was red eyes and dark brown locks framing her face before something kicked in— familiar yet strange, like the reins of a horse she hasn’t ridden for a long time. Shiori head-butted the person in front of her, bearing the pain as the person hissed in surprise. She then yanked away her dagger, getting into a protective stance she used to take with old acolytes when they tried to hassle her as a child.
The person in front of her was tall. That was all Shiori could notice as she stepped back away from their range. They were frustrated the more Shiori dodged. It was expressed through their frown and the way her lips pulled back, stretching the scar on her cheek. Shiori took a swipe at their arms, eyes widening when the stranger grabbed it and pulled her in.
Shiori used her free elbow to knock her away, yelping when the stranger twisted her arm in a way that forced her to drop the knife. Except the knife was then kicked back up into the air, leather boot to the hilt, grabbed by the other person.
Shiori’s eyes widened as she twisted her body, the wind working in her favour as it bellowed a storm that blew the assailant into the wall. Unfortunately, it was the wall that had the door. The knife fell to the floor once more, and Shiori lunged to it. The stranger scrambled to it too, and their hands met, fingers touching— their nails clawing and scratching skin.
Shiori grunted as she rolled on top of the person, putting pressure on her kidney as she wedged her elbow into it. The red eyes burst open in pain, almost as if the winds were knocked out of her. Shiori snatched the blade from her hands and attempted to pin her down. Yet despite the elbow to the stomach, the assailant recovered quickly. Shiori struggled to keep her hands away from the knife, let alone lowering it fast enough to stab them.
Their hands met again. This time, the stranger’s callous hands were wrapped around her fingers. Shiori pushed the knife down, barely touching the linen before the stranger’s nostrils flared. Shiori yelped, a sudden heat drawing itself into the room as the assailant attempted to bite her. They missed, but that was all they needed for Shiori to lose concentration from sheer shock and allow the person to reverse the situation, rolling them over.
Shiori let out a grunt at the heavy weight on top of her. Her eyes catching the bared teeth and the canines that almost looked like fangs. The knees strangled her waist, almost daring to squeeze the life out of her abdomen. Shiori growled, reactively pressing her hands against the wrists that attempted to sink the knife down to her chest. The wind continued to bellow around them, objects flying in an attempt to push the person off.
A growl, boiled in ire like a cauldron of toxic poison, was the only response. The red eyes flashed, gaining a darker hue as the knife continued to edge closer to Shiori’s heart. The teeth were bared fully now, fanged and sharpened pearly whites were on full display. Shiori glanced down, trying to hide her surprise at the way her Heroes Mark glowed against her clothes, shining but not burning through the material. It pulsed violently, the flicker made to blind.
Shiori hissed, a sharp intake as the assailant tried again. Pushing further, the knife did sink, the razor’s edge skimming over the fabric for only a moment. Sweat bled down Shiori’s face, her breathing getting harder the further she pushed back. The wind grew frantic, the light flickering more and more in an attempt to blind. Shiori had no idea if it worked, but the ire— the hatred in the red eyes was too vague in motive to distinguish.
Was it hate for Shiori’s title in the prophecy— or was it hate because they haven’t killed her already.
Shiori thought the fight would end, climatically as all fights she envisioned would go. Granted, she imagined her sisters fighting her current battle, but it would end all the same. After a struggle, they— the hero, would win. The situation would be overturned, and they would end in nothing but brutal victory. That was not the case.
The door opened instead, and the wind died like it all fled through the opening. Both eyes snapped to the intruder to their fight, and the momentum died— Unnaturally so. Where all of the naturalness of a sudden private affair was ousted to the public eye. Underneath the stare, Shiori felt like a child being told off for roughhousing instead of protecting her own life.
Then again, what else could she feel under the observant stare of an old, smiling lady?
She was shorter than what Shiori expected, messier too. Ignoring the rough and tattered outfit of a hood, pouches and trousers. Her hair was a mess of blond and greying waves held back by coiling braids at either side. Its length dangled to the top of her shoulders in uneven chops, and a little ahoge stuck on from the very top.
The figure had red eyes too, something Shiori expected. What she didn’t expect was the look of calmness too, an emotion that terrified her. Wrinkles around her eyes and the slight sag of her cheeks gave away an approximation of old age amongst the subtle hints of grey within the blond mess of the hair. She looked like a veteran. She looked like the real problem Shiori had to overcome.
“Rui,” the woman said calmly, glancing at the assailant to whom Shiori finally could label properly. “Be a dear and let go of our guest.”
Shiori’s eyes widened at the familiar voice and pitch, remembering it so clearly as the reason why she was still alive. Did that mean? Shiori turned back to the assailant— to Rui. Only to feel slightly offended when the person wasn’t even staring at her; the cutting knife was already to the side.
Rui was instead looking back at the lady with blonde hair. Her red eyes were narrowed, her bottom lip was jutting out. “She tried to kill me.” Shiori knew that the person in front of her. It was the same voice that threatened to kill her when she passed out on the first night. Hearing it now, so close to her ears, made her feel faint.
The person who wanted to kill her— almost succeeded. If it weren’t for the mysterious blonde interrupting once again, Shiori could’ve been a goner.
“Dear,” The blonde smiled though it was not kind. “She woke up in a strange place, she would injure anyone who she thought was a threat.” Shiori wanted to point out that she wouldn’t, but she caught the wince in Rui’s brow, the way it pinched together almost with a hint of shame. Was there something she missed in words?
“Now,” The lady said, not even paying heed to the change of expression in Rui’s face nor Shiori’s confusion. “Would you get off the poor girl and get us something to eat? Perhaps you can explain the ruckus you were causing to the innkeeper?”
There was a mumble. Shiori almost didn’t believe her eyes that the person she fought against would stand up obediently, not even sparing her a glance and walked out of the door. The only time she even looked back was when she glanced back at the lady, almost for confirmation, before continuing to walk away, dejected.
“My apologies for Rui,” The lady said as she entered the room, fixing up a few things lying in the room and putting them in the right place. “She gets impulsive when she’s stressed.” Only now did Shiori notice the walking stick, a dark mahogany colour. She leaned on it heavily.
“It’s fine,” Shiori stammered before beating herself up at the instinctual apology.
“Maybe it is,” the lady hummed as she looked at Shiori, the red eyes almost peering into her soul. “For someone still in shock.” The accusation made Shiori laugh, more out of guilt and awkwardness than anything else. Her shoulders hunched together, almost trying to make herself small even though Shiori knew she would tower over the person if she actually stood up.
“Relax, Rui won’t harm you any time soon,” The lady assured. “For all her bark she has no or little bite.”
“What about you?” Shiori asked, the words leaving her tongue before she could stop herself. “For all your talk, would you bite?”
The lady turned to her, silent with surprise in her eyes. Then the tension broke apart with her laugh, the surprise in her eyes turning into something unreadable. “My my my, you have a bite to your bark yourself dear.”
“You haven’t answered my question.”
“That’s because I’m too old to play your game,” the lady grinned, almost pleased as she tapped Shiori’s leg with the tip of her stick. “My name is Tsuyuzaki Michiru after all.”
Shiori frowned, her eyebrows scrunching up in thought. “What does your name have to do with anything Michiru san?”
Shiori swore that she saw it, a frown that appeared too fast and ended too quick to hide away in a wince. Yet the second she blinked, the mirage of an expression was gone. The smile that was always there didn’t look like a smile anymore; it was a straight line straining itself to bend.
“It means nothing of your concern,” Michiru smiled. Shiori’s frown deepened, but the knock on the counter by Michiru’s stick was enough of a jump to snap her out of it. “Now, I’ll be double checking on Rui, you should come downstairs for lunch when you’re ready okay?”
Shiori nodded. Though she had apple slices beforehand, it was nothing compared to the idea of an actual meal. “Okay Michiru san.”
Michiru gave her one last grin, something hiding within the cracks of her dry lips. “I’ll see you there then Shiori.”
With that, Michiru closed the door, her steps and her stick fading away into the ambience. It was there that Shiori breathed. She fell back to the wooden flooring. Her eyes closed in the relief of peace. Birds were outside; below her was the muffled voices of the inn, reminding her that despite the sudden brawl, she was safe.
Only to sit up a moment later, all her appetite gone and the wind knocked out of her. Shiori had no idea who Rui was. She never met a person called Tsuzuyaki Michiru before.
But Michiru knew her name.
She knew her name before Shiori even revealed it to them.