Merry Christmas from our team! Our gift to you? A new Burning Sky short fiction! Enjoy! And don’t forget to check out Burning Sky: The Story of Gaea – the official foreword of the series.
It isn’t only the West that finds itself razed by the flames of war. The Uprising’s reach spreads across the globe, even to those in the Far East. The island region of Sunaka is no exception. As evidenced by the pitter-patter of small feet along the forest floor, joined with exhausted panting. A young boy, maybe ten years of age, races through the deep woods, a younger girl, about six, in tow. The both of them are wrapped in rags, rather than nice clothing. But, more importantly, both children have horns protruding from their foreheads. The girl’s are barely stubs, being more like bumps than anything. But the boy’s are more developed, sticking out and curving upwards.
More and more, the girl begins to trail behind a meek “Koga-kun!” squeaking out on her tiny voice. “Koga-kun, you’re going too fast!” She stumbles along, eventually tripping and falling amidst the leaves.
Koga slides to a stop and looks over his shoulder before turning and rushing back to help her up. “Mikoto-chan! Are you okay?” The girl nods and he looks around, sniffing the air not unlike a hound. A faint scent graces him from a distance. A pungent, spicy aroma. “Come on. It’s not much farther. We can rest soon.”
It’s not long before the pair stumble across a small shack in the woods. Koga peaks through the window without a problem, Mikoto just barely tall enough to see over the windowsill on the tips of her toes. It appears to be a hunter’s shack. Largely empty, but with some food ingredients and such lying around. Including a jar of dried ginger. The source of the aroma from before. “It looks abandoned,” Koga says, checking that the coast is clear before guiding Mikoto inside. “We can hide here for a bit.”
As he takes to rummaging through the shack, Mikoto stands behind him, gazing through the door. “Koga-kun?”
“What is it?”
“What are we gonna do?”
Koga stops. No. More accurately, he freezes in place, having detected the notable tremor in her voice. When he finally turns around, there she stands, face scrunched, eyes puffy and red, her entire body jittering. And, to make matters worse, ripples of heat form in the air. In a panic, he waves around his arms. Shoot! “Hey, hey, don’t do that! We’re fine! We’ll be okay! Really!”
Meanwhile, Mikoto sniffles, doing her best to wipe her face with her ragged sleeves and whimpering whilst Koga frantically tries to calm her. “I’m scared, Koga-kun.”
At that utterance, Koga dials it back and composes himself. Then he stands and steps over to her, resting his own forehead against hers, forcing her to take notice of exactly how serious he is through the look in his eyes. “Oi. We’re gonna be all right.” He reaches out, taking her face in his hands and wiping tears from her eyes. “What have I told you for as long as we’ve known each other, huh?”
“T-that you’ll always take care of me?”
Koga smiles. “Right! So do you believe me?” Though hesitant, little Mikoto nods, her eyes still puffy and red. The boy pats her on the head, then looks around the shack. “Why don’t you have a seat? Hey, there might even be food in here!”
With the girl climbing into a seat, Koga wanders around the small room, opening drawers and cupboards. But his every motion is jittery, despite his confident face, his body trembling whenever he reaches for a door. When he catches his hand shaking, he reaches out with the other, grabbing his own wrist to stop it before taking a breath. I just have to calm down. That’s all. I can take care of us. Easy. For now, just focus on finding things we can use. He nods to himself. I won’t let them take us back. The place is filled with jars upon jars of pickled meats and vegetables, dried spices hanging from the ceiling, and sacks of salt. There’s some rope, lanterns, even… a hunting knife. The boy gulps and, hesitantly, extends his hand to the tool, picking it up and eyeing it. “I won’t…” But a sudden grumbling noise snaps him out of his trance. He turns around to find Mikoto lying down across her seat, looking rather pitiful.
“Koooga-kun… I’m hungry,” Mikoto moans.
Koga laughs to himself. “Right, right. Food. I’m getting to it,” he says, slipping the knife under his belt, for the time being and moving back to all the canned and pickled items, lying around. “We definitely have our choice, huh?”
A bit later, Koga stands by the door, munching on jerky strips from a jar whilst Mikoto sits in her chair, kicking her feet and nibbling on dried apple crisps and honey. “I think we should keep going for the night. We’ve got to reach Nihara, to the Northeast. I heard that people like us are free there. But… ” He stops to ponder, looking at a map on the wall. Sunaka and Nihara, combined, are an archipelago. The ocean divides the lands into a great many islands. “We’re going to need a boat.”
“A… boat?” Mikoto says, almost seeming to shrink in her seat.
But Koga trots over to her, patting her on the head with a grin, bearing his still-developing Djinn fangs. “Don’t worry. Not like the ones those bad people were going to put us on. We’re just going to have to sneak on. It’ll be pretty tough, though…”
Then little Mikoto hops up from her seat, bouncing in place. “Koga-kun, Koga-kun!”
“I’ll help! I… want to take care of Koga-kun too!”
Koga stares at this for a beat, observing the rather spirited look in the small girl’s eyes and the genuine eagerness of her body language. So far removed from the frightened girl of just moments ago. “Ah,” he says, bringing a hand to his chin and craning his neck back as he looks off into the ether. “In that case… you can help me carry some things. How does that sound?” As the girl’s eyes light up and she nods with practically her whole body, Koga grins and stands upright. “Arigatou, Mikoto-chan.”
Before long, the pair stand by the door. Strapped to Mikoto’s back is a basket, filled with pouches of the jerky and a few cans of dried fruits, along with a handful of jars. To her side, Koga stands with a large, heavy jug on his back, filled to the brim with water and plugged with a cork. “All right,” Koga says, placing his hand on the nob. “Ready, Mikoto-chan?”
Mikoto thrusts her fist into the air with a light cheer. “Un!”
Koga throws open the door and steps through with Mikoto right by his side, only for both of them to come to a dead stop, not even a full two steps outside. Their eyes sink and their skin goes flush. “So. There you are.” A cavalier voice reaches out to them from across the way. Leaning there, against a tree just outside of the shack, is a tall man with blonde hair and blue eyes, clad in full steel plate armor, helmet and all, bearing the Templar Insignia. His arms are folded but his visor is up and his face and expression are… uncannily pleasant. “The two of you certainly have managed to drum up no shortage of trouble for me. Do you know that?”
Djinn possess an abnormally high body heat, even when calm. When flustered, though, that temperature rises. And yet, when Koga feels a pressure around his right arm, he glances to find Mikoto wrapped around it… shivering. All the while, the Templar looks around as the waves of heat ripple through the air. He whistles. “Oh my. That’s quite the furnace you’ve got, yeah?” he says, maintaining a rather jovial tone. But Koga grits his teeth. That tone. That face. It’s all a lie. The boy sees it, clear as day. The soullessness behind those friendly eyes.
Pushing off of the tree, the Templar casually walks toward the two. “This has been a fun game, I’m sure. But it’s getting dark out. About time the two of you come back, wouldn’t you say?” He extends a hand to the children. “So let’s be off, ah… what was it? These Sungo words always do trip me up. It was… Nijuuyon, yes? And Kyujuunana. That’s it.”
Nijuuyon and Kyujuunana. 24 and 97. Not names. Numbers. And Koga returns that address with only a glare. “My, but aren’t you the defensive one. There’s no need for that. Just come along home and I promise no harm will come to you.”
But Koga steps forward, hiding Mikoto behind himself, looking right past the hand that the knight has extended to him. Instead, he focuses on the hand that the knight’s holding over the hilt of his sword. “Usotsuki…” the boy says.
Over the next several seconds, nothing but an eerie silence passes between them. Then the knight retracts his hand, brushing it through his hair as he stands upright and sighs, turning away from the children. “I suppose I don’t need to fully understand you to figure out what that was. How unfortunate. I wasn’t able to make you believe me.” He doesn’t even pretend to sound genuinely concerned about it. “Very well. I suppose if things must go this way…” He turns his head back to the kids, glancing at them through the corners of those soulless eyes. “So be it.”
Though his body trembles, Koga grabs the hunting knife from beneath his belt and holds it up, glaring at the knight. “Mikoto-chan. Run.”
“E-eh?! B-but… Koga-kun will-!”
“Go! Run away!” Koga snaps. Then he hunkers down and charges forward, roaring as he draws nearer yet to the Templar.
The knight watches Koga’s vigorous approach with a rather unimpressed look in his eye, even despite still smiling. “Hm? Deciding to fight, instead of run? What do they teach you imps, here in the east?”
Just before Koga reaches his target, though, something stops him dead in his tracks. The sound of something whipping through the air, joined with a faint clash of metal. Koga’s eyes widen as he watches his hunting knife break, the blade sent flying in the opposite direction. Before him stands another man, clad in a traditional black hakama, having appeared as swiftly as the wind, one arm stretched out and that hand straightened. “We teach them to hope, westerner,” this samurai says, his head down. “If they possess hope, they will seek strength. But then we remind them…” He raises his head and Koga’s face is overcome with sheer terror.
Koga stares at his now bladeless knife. A chop. That man had done this… with a barehanded chop. Then the boy convulses at a sudden impact. The samurai’s knee now rests in his gut. “That there will always be someone stronger.” Koga vomits before being let go to collapse onto the forest floor, his eyes rolled back in his head, all sound around him reduced to a ringing in his ears.
“Koga-kun!” Mikoto screams. But she stops herself running to him when their pursuers approach his motionless form.
The samurai lifts the boy by the skull as the Templar approaches. “How quaint,” the knight says, closing a pair of shackles around Koga’s wrists and a collar with a chain leash around his neck. “And silly. Honestly. Why risk such a thing on these demons? Better to break whatever spirit they have so they won’t even think of causing trouble. Otherwise you get situations like this.”
“It makes them better workers,” the samurai says, again dropping Koga and leaving him to the knight. “This one will be strong when he’s older. But his friend…”
Mikoto backs away as the samurai gets closer. Meanwhile, Koga gradually comes back to his senses. His vision is fuzzy and the ringing is still little more than an irritating buzzing noise. But his consciousness returns. “Ah. You’re awake already? You’re quite sturdy, aren’t you?” The Templar says in his happy-go-lucky demeanor. “Not to worry. We’ll get you back home soon. And we’ll even bring your little friend along. How’s that?”
Koga grimaces, in part due to the pain in his stomach, in part due to the yanking of the chain around his neck, but mostly because of the sight, however hazy, of that samurai bearing down on Mikoto. The girl backs away from the samurai slowly as he approaches, eventually stopping when she bumps into the wall of the shack behind her. The man looms over her, casting a shadow that engulfs her tiny body. “K-Koga-kun,” she whimpers, eyes watering.
“Yamete kudasai…” Koga chokes, gripping at the collar around his neck, only for the Templar to yank the chain again.
“Hm? What was that? I’m afraid I didn’t understand you.”
The samurai reaches down, grabbing Mikoto by her hair and hoisting her up to the sound of a small girl’s agonized screams. Hearing this, Koga wakes right up, his eyes shooting wide open and he lurches forward. “Yamero!” But he’s stopped with a firm yank of the chain, forcing him to fall over.
“A bit late for that,” the Templar says, kneeling down to Koga, forcing the boy’s face back into the dirt when he raises it. “To be fair, you could’ve avoided all of this. But you decided to make things violent.”
“KOGA-KUN!” Mikoto cries.
At that moment, something in Koga… clicks. His eyes shrink and smoke begins to rise from the ground beneath him. The Templar looks on curiously, only to then realize that he’s broken out into a sweat. Then a sizzling catches his ear. Looking down, it’s the boy’s collar, all the way to the end of the chain, now turned red hot. So hot, in fact, that he lets go. “What-?”
Without another second’s warning, Koga erupts, his entire body engulfed in an explosion of fire, forcing the knight to back away. The resultant roar of not only the flames, but the boy inside of them, draws the samurai’s attention. And, in seeing this, his jaw falls open. “Impossible. He’s too young to have…”
The bulk of the flames die, leaving only embers and ash drifting through the air in their wake with Koga standing, hunched over, a burning glow traveling through his veins. A single leaf falls from a tree over the samurai, several meters away, burning up long before it ever reaches the ground. Suddenly, Koga comes alive, snapping the chains that bind his hands like twigs. A faint glow deep in his hair follicles ignites, turning his hair into a raging mass of hellfire. He brings his head down and the samurai sees. His eyes are whited out, casting a glow of their own, and his face is contorted into a snarl.
Koga hunkers down and, without a single moment of delay, launches himself forward, leaving a jet of fire in his path that scorches the forest floor behind him. The samurai drops Mikoto, leaving the girl to rub her head with tears in her eyes. But when she looks up, what she sees next leaves her utterly shocked. Koga winds back one hand, his fingers curled and flames rolling off of them. But the samurai grabs his arm before he can strike. Powering through the burning of his hand. But that isn’t the end of it. Koga’s arm sparks with flame and, before the samurai knows it, that fire surges forward in a mighty vortex that hits him directly in his stomach, eventually drilling a hole straight through his core and continuing, leaving a spiraling stream of fire piercing through the shack behind the samurai and trailing off into the woods.
When it ends, the samurai lets go of Koga before slowly looking down at the hole left in his body. His insides now thoroughly charred, he soon falls over, Mikoto yelping as his body hits the ground with a thud. All the while, Koga stands over the body, his face still wild and consumed with nothing but unbridled fury. “Koga…kun?”
Then Koga turns, his devilish gaze finding the Templar that’d so tormented him, backing away. His smile has long since vanished. Now only a look of absolute dread remains. The knight shakes his head, quivering. “You… you’re not serious. What kind of monster…?” He sucks his teeth and pulls a vial from a chain around his neck, drinking down its contents. Then he flips down the visor of his helmet, his eye giving off a blue light through the slits, and pulls out his sword. “Damn it! Whatever, already!”
Koga charges like a wild animal, blazing a trail with every step. The Templar grits his teeth beneath his helmet and plants his feet, digging his heels in such that the earth buckles beneath him. Drawing back, he takes a broad swing as Koga reaches the end of his charge and leaps towards him.
The next movements take only a split second, over so quickly, Mikoto barely sees any of it, leaving her at a loss for breath. There is the snuffed sound of a metal impact. It doesn’t ring. It’s cut short. Beneath his helmet, the Templar’s glowing blue eyes quake. Before him, Koga stands with his arms extended, claws out. Molten lines appear in the steel of the knight’s sword before the entire thing falls to pieces at his feet, reducing him to a whimpering, cowering heap who peers at Koga in pure horror, only to find Koga glaring back at him with those hateful eyes.
The knight stumbles back. A desperate, unhinged smile cracks its way across his face and he snickers. “See? This is what they’re really like. Why you have to break them. Otherwise, they’ll burn down everything you care about. Right?” he laughs. Then he lurches forward. “Isn’t that right, you little monster?!”
Koga bears his fangs and throws both hands forward, into the Templar’s breastplate, his very touch turning the steel malleable in an instant. Then his growl turns to a blood seething roar as a red hot light travels up his arms before exploding outward into a massive jet of fire that completely engulfs his quarry. Mikoto plugs her ears and squeezes her eyes shut as the area turns to night around them and the wail of the flames drowns out the gutwrenching screams of the knight under the fire. The odor of burning metal and flesh tints the air. But Koga doesn’t stop. The stream of flame intensifies. It grows larger, the sound like a stampede on the charge. And then, as suddenly as it’d begun… it ends.
Koga yields, breathing heavily. The flames atop his head revert to hair. The glow in his eyes dims. The light in his veins dies out and smoke rises from his cooling body. Across from him stands the charred husk of the Templar, his armor red hot and molten, now melted to the body underneath… whatever remained of it. The boy is left to watch as the Templar falls over, unable to scream any more, or even writhe. The agony overpowers everything, leaving him utterly paralyzed.
With this now over, Mikoto opens one eye to scan the area. Indeed. The worst of it has passed. She picks herself up, unplugging her ears and approaching the scene. Sure enough, she sees the charred knight on the ground across from Koga, but then something else catches her attention. The clearing Koga had just made in the forest. Where once there were several trees, there was now only ash, much of it settling as it rains from above. Her eyes widen as they follow the path of this devastation, traveling a few kilometers and leaving a large, burning crater in the side of a nearby mountain.
She turns back to her friend, reaching up to him from behind. “Koga-kun?”
But before she can even touch him, he snaps around, snarling at her, his eyes regaining their glow. The girl screams and falls back, looking up at him with fear in her expression. Upon seeing this, Koga winces. He backs away from her, holding his head and shaking himself before dropping to his knees, his hands resting in his lap. “Mi…Miko…to…” he stammers. That hellish light now gone completely, his eyes look… dead. “Go…Gomen na.” It’s at that point that Koga finally collapses.
“Koga-kun!” Mikoto cries, getting up and rushing towards him. The last thing he sees before the world goes black around him.
Later on, Koga begins to stir. In time, he’s able to sit up, holding his still-throbbing head and looking around with one eye open. “Ugh… where…?” He’s lying on a futon in what appears to be a room with traditional Sunakan architecture. Throwing the sheets off of himself, he rushes to the door, his broken chains clattering around his wrists. Soon enough, he finds the exit and throws the doors open, only to immediately run headlong into a tall human man in shrine priest’s robes, holding little Mikoto’s hand as he escorts her back inside.
“Ah. You’re awake,” the man says.
“Koga-kun!” Mikoto cheers, uncontrollably throwing herself around her precious friend. Koga blinks, utterly confounded. “Koga-kun! Koga-kun! I thought you’d never wake up!”
“Mikoto-chan? Where… are we?”
The priest smiles upon the two of them. “A shrine for one of the lower deities. You were rather exhausted. Your little friend carried you quite some ways until she found me,” he says.
Koga looks down to Mikoto, who’s buried her face in his arms with a content look he can’t recall having seen out of her since she was a toddler. Hazy though it is, there are vague flashes of memory – Mikoto carrying him with his arm over her shoulder. “You… did all that?”
“I told Koga-kun that I’d take care of him too,” Mikoto says, lifting her head and beaming up at him.
But that only leads Koga to winge, returning Mikoto’s embrace and squeezing her tight, his eyes watering. “Mikoto-chan… gomen,” he says, much to the girl’s surprise. “I wasn’t able to keep my promise. Even worse…” His mind drifts back to that image of a terrified Mikoto whose frightened eyes are aimed not at the samurai or the Templar, but at him. “I scared you as much as they did.”
But Mikoto simply goes back to burying her face and nods. “Un…” she squeaks.
The priest turns his head. They appear to be on a mountain. “This place is… on the other side of the mountain you marked. I saw day turn to night and went to investigate. That’s when I stumbled upon the two of you. The power you must have… and so young. Most Djinn don’t awaken their Blaze until adolescence.”
But the shrine priest kneels down and tips up Koga’s head. “Not at all,” he says with an inviting smile. “But I can probably do one better. How would you… like to stay here? The both of you?” The offer takes a moment to sink in. But, the moment it does, Koga doubles back in shock. “Ah. I suppose that is a rather alarming statement.” The priest raises both hands. “No worries. You’ll be completely free. I’ll even pay you, if you’d allow me to.”
A wriggling feeling floods Koga’s stomach. “But… why?”
“Hm… that is a good question. Well, I honestly could use a hand around here, making sure the shrine stays pristine. It’s also rather lonely, out here, on this mountain. Sore yori… come.” The priest stands, folding his hands in his sleeves as he proceeds down the mountain trail. Koga and Mikoto glance to one another, both with a shrug before following suit. In time, they arrive at the foot of the mountain and the priest stops, turning around and looking up. When Koga turns around, his jaw drops and hangs open. Up close, that crater he’d made in the side of the mountain is absolutely massive. “I would like to help you develop your abilities. That way something like this doesn’t happen again, unnecessarily.”
Koga gapes at this hole in the side of the mountain. “I… did this?”
The priest nods. “You’re powerful, indeed. But with some guidance, you could be something better than that. You could be strong. So… what do you say?”
Koga takes a moment. He looks down at Mikoto, who appears to be lost in her own head, at the moment. Then he clenches his fist and pivots to the priest. “All right. I want to stay!”
“Mee too!” Mikoto exclaims, shocking Koga. What… had gotten into her?
The priest smiles, then claps his hands together. “Excellent! I look forward to our time together,” he says.
Both Koga and Mikoto bow. “Yoroshiku onegaishimasu!” they both chime.
Later that night, Koga and Mikoto stand out in the shrine’s garden area, gazing up at the stars and the Sky Fire. Koga finds himself lost in the beauty above him. But then he takes a deep breath and reaches over, placing his hand atop Mikoto’s head. “Oi. Mikoto-chan.”
“Do you still believe me?”
Mikoto turns to Koga, then smiles and nods, again with her whole body. “Un!” she says.
But Koga continues, bringing his other hand up before his face and letting small traces of flame dance in his palm. He smiles, then nods. “Yokatta. I really meant it. I’m going to take care of you. No matter what. But that’s probably just going to get harder. So… that’s why I decided. I’m going to make a place where we don’t have to fight anymore. Where we can live how we want.” Then he turns to Mikoto with a toothy grin. “How’s that sound?”
Mikoto giggles. “I like it!” she cheers. But that joy doesn’t last long. Stricken with a sobering thought, she reaches up and grabs the hand that Koga’s rested atop her head. “But… I wanna help. I told Koga-kun. I told Koga-kun that I would take care of him too! And I couldn’t…” Something in her voice cracks and quivers, but she continues. “And Koga-kun almost turned into a monster… So I’m gonna get strong like Koga-kun and help him! We can make that place together! Okay?”
Hearing this, Koga can’t help himself. “Pft…” He barely stifles his laugh. But soon it just bursts forward from within him.
Not sure how to take this, Mikoto flails her arms about, eventually stomping her feet and pouting at him with puffed-out cheeks. “Koga-kun! It’s not funny! I really mean it!”
Koga laughs until he’s able to compose himself, clearing his throat and leaning his head forward, resting his forehead against hers once again. “Yeah… I know,” he says, still collecting himself, wiping a joyous tear from his eye. “Gomen. It was just funny that I was worried for no reason.” Then he stands upright and extends Mikoto a hand with his pinkie finger outstretched. “All right. In that case, it’s a promise, right?”
Lighting back up with ceaseless glee, Mikoto bounces in place and extends her own hand, wrapping her pinkie around Koga’s. “Un!” she nods.