CHAP 3: What left the hilltop?
Although the bell crickets' chimes were soothing, they weren't enough to placate the stinging defeats that left Sora glowering at Riku's back. The heavy weight of the gear that settled on his sweat damped clothes only served to feed to younger boy's irritation, festering throughout their trudge home.
"It's too hot!" Sora blurted out abruptly, removing his helmet to reveal slick brown hair plastered to his forehead, "I don't want to wear any of this!"
His companion turned, and although not as visible, Sora was sure there was a sly smirk hidden under Riku's mask.
"Would you rather carry all the gear walking back?" Riku asked, "If you are, carry mine too."
"What! Why would I'd do that?"
"It's an order from sensei."
Unable to retort, the other boy was left gaping before grumbling a remark.
"What did you say again? And remember what you're supposed to call me," Riku smugly quipped.
"No, I don't want to carry it back…sensei…" Sora muttered, slowly putting back on his helmet.
Smiling and content with the number of victories he had for today, Riku couldn't help but grind a little more salt in the wound.
"Don't be mad Sora. Five wins out of fifteen is still admirable."
"I–! I won a lot more than that!"
"Don't fool yourself. Come back to challenge me again in 100 years." Riku laughed.
Unable to counter and stand anymore of the older boy's taunts, Sora simply said, "Auntie is going to be upset seeing you come back this late."
Realization dawned harshly and suddenly on Riku, cutting his laughter short and souring his expression.
"We'd better hurry back then, our parents must be worried. Come on, pick up the pace," Riku ordered as he began to trot.
"You're the only one worried. Although, I wouldn't want a scolding from your mom or dad either if I can help it. Auntie and Uncle are scary when they get angry!"
"They are not, you're just a scaredy cat!"
"They are! Probably scarier than an oni! They're just missing the clubs, ha!"
"You'll probably get yelled at too if you don't hurry up. My mother told you to stay close by as well."
"You're the one who offered to come here so late!"
"Only because you wouldn't practice unless I did!"
"So? We could have done something way more fun."
"You're only saying that because you loss so many matches."
"You-you did some cheap tricks to win!" Sora's face flushed a vibrant red. His indignance only served to elicit snickering from his companion.
"Yeah, yeah…I'm going to leave you behind for the oni if you keep whining and slowing us down."
To prove that he wasn't bluffing, Riku transition the pace of his jog to a run. This not only put sizable distance between them but shot a jolt of jumpy nervousness into the younger boy, who believed in ogres.
"H-hey! Wait a minute!" Sora exclaimed, stumbling to catch up once he realized his friend wasn't joking.
Riku's growth spurt had blessed him with longer legs that carried him further, and Sora had the mind to yell at him once he caught up. Nightfall was already here and Riku had some nerve trying to lose him. Just as he was beginning to grow afraid of losing sight of his friend, the older boy thankfully jerked to a stop.
Sora slowed once he arrived a few feet away from his friend, and while his breathing was slightly labored, it did not stop him from voicing his annoyance.
"You idiot, what were you-"
"Be quiet," Riku hissed sharply while extending his left arm, making Sora jerk back.
"What? What's wro-"
Riku strained to hear, sure he had heard or someone or something approaching not too far away.
The older boy looked over at his companion and pushed the latter behind him. Not many people stray away from town to walk these woods at this hour. What could possibly be coming towards them? If a bear was to show itself now, Riku doesn't know if he'll be able to defend, much less protect Sora, who would only get in the way.
He drew out his shinai and found himself struggling to grip it with his sweaty palms.
I'm an idiot, Riku thought to himself. He shouldn't have been out with Sora for this long and he shouldn't have offered to go to the woods. A flash of his mother's troubled face zipped by his memory and he could remember her tight grasp on his shoulders. No words were spoken to tell him why, but Riku could not find himself to question why he needed to stay close to home.
The confidence that he felt in the late afternoon with being able to come back home in time before anyone noticed they were gone had faltered away.
"Riku…" Sora whispered, "What do you hear?"
"Just be quiet…and ready your shinai." Riku replied in a hushed tone.
Riku heard Sora's shaking breathing, but kept his eyes fixed ahead, darting them occasionally from the road to the woods on the left. Yet, although he kept his eyes focused, it was dark and with his helmet on he couldn't see clearly. Never mind that his sense of hearing was being disrupted by Sora's unsteady breathing, there was another rhythmic thumping by his ear, which he quickly realized to be his own heartbeat.
Riku suddenly tensedas for the briefest second, he caught a sharp yellow glow flash by.
Do bears eyes shine at night?
A crunching of leaves snapped the boys' attention to their left. Sora gasped sharply, and Riku jumped. The sound of rustling bushes prompted both boys to cluster closer. Riku's hand ached as he gripped the shinai. As the rustling of the bush continue and footsteps drew closer, he had the fleeting thought that the bamboo sword stood little chance against a bear.
The head of a deer emerged, and the boys stared back at it as alarmed as the animal itself. A beat later, the sense of relief crashed into them. Sora let out a breath, and like Riku, lowered his shinai. The deer only stared as Riku's shoulder slumped and the boy straighten himself.
After the deer decided to pass, Sora turned over to his friend, letting out a huffy laugh.
"It was just a deer! You were so worked up!" The younger boy cackled, wishing Riku could see the triumphant look he had beyond the helmet.
"I – Shut up." Riku snapped, secretly grateful to have his helmet shield his flushed face.
"Come on, I have to tell Kairi!" Sora insisted gleefully.
"You were the one shaking from head to toe!"
"Don't make that up! You couldn't have seen me; I was behind you remember? If it makes you feel better, I'll tell Kairi that you won a ton of matches against me if you let me tell her you got scared by a deer!"
"It could have been anything! We didn't know it was a deer, and don't make it seem like you weren't worked up either!"
"I was only like that because you looked scared! I wouldn't be like that if-"
"I was not scared. I was just being cautious. You'd be an idiot if you weren't."
"Yeah, yeah. Call it what you want, you were still scared."
They continued their bickering as they moved on, not aware of new faint footsteps that zipped past them, towards the direction the pair just came from. Although he was now too distracted to reflect, there was no mistaking it; Riku had heard something else. Whatever it was had passed.
Two figures ran side by side, disrupting the bell crickets' chime. A gruff voice rang, breaking the silence.
"You should have stayed at the hilltop. There might have been survivors."
"I sent a message for Ven to go there and check. Two demons of that class need to be dealt with quickly." The second figure responded tersely as she pulled up next to the first.
"He'll be fine. There haven't been any other demons sighted around this area according to the reports we've received from the scouts earlier this week."
"And the nearby town?"
"Vanitas and the corps have just arrived."
The pair ran in silence for a bit longer, eyes occasionally drifting down to the footprints that guided them to their targets. It was only for a minute before one of them spoke again.
"What is on your mind Aqua?"
"Two upper moons…what were they doing at a remote hilltop like this?" Aqua responded slowly, her eyebrows furrowed and blue hair rippling in the wind.
"Perhaps they didn't want to draw attention to themselves…they might have become aware we were tracking them and opted to change course from the town…"
"That's a possibility. However, what I'm more concerned about is the fact that there are two demons working together, especially that class. It's rare enough that we even encounter one." Aqua paused, lips pursed.
"How lucky for us, to encounter a situation no demon slayer has had the privilege of experiencing."
Aqua could only grimace at his words, thinking them too foolish to respond to. Her partner mistook her expression and tried to provide remarks of assurance.
"Master Eraqus is not far from here. We'll be able to hold our own."
"Upper moons are nothing like the demons we've faced so far." Aqua murmured. Shooting a quick glance over at her partner, she scoffed. "And you wanted to go alone. Don't be an idiot Terra."
"I'm not afraid of facing demons," was the only reply that came from her partner.
When Aqua closes her eyes to recall the scene from the hilltop, she thinks he should be.
Sora's teasing lasted all the way through the rest of the walk home and Riku found himself snapping at the former to keep quiet about the incident. They were after all, at the bottom of the hilltop, easy enough for anyone to overhear Sora's boisterous jests.
Riku had his own worries about receiving punishment from his parents for sneaking out so late. The only thing that could make this night worse for him is if Kairi was still awake…Riku couldn't bear the thought of her knowing.
"Can you be quiet? Granny should be asleep by now and you'll only wake her up!" Riku hissed as they both climbed up the hilltop.
"Please. I know who you're really worried about me waking up." Sora chortled.
Riku glanced back at his friend and shoved him lightly.
"I mean it, quiet down!" He huffed, speeding his pace as he trekked up.
Even when he stumbled, Sora wasn't deterred. It was rare he ever had an upper hand over the older boy and the fact that Riku acted more flustered only encouraged him to go about his teasing. As his companion made it to the top of the hill, Sora was struck by a brilliant idea of how to shed the punishment from his earlier kendo loss.
"You know, I can probably keep that secret for you if you decide to call me sensei," Sora sang out.
Riku froze on the spot.
"It won't be for too long, you can start calling me sensei now and stop when…well, whenever you think this night won't be as embarrassing for me to tell." Sora snickered.
"Hey, what's wrong?" Sora asked when the lack of a quippy reply became noticeable. Shuffling around his older companion, he did not need to strain his eyes far for the answer.
A moment of disbelief and utter incomprehension. Fear and chaos followed shortly after.
It was completely indiscernible to know who uttered the sharp shriek of anguished first, only that it was instantly joined by another. The bell crickets' chime could no longer be heard over both boys' wails.
Riku's vision blurred before he felt the sudden sharp pain that shot from his knees hitting gravel filled dirt. At last, his wails were muffled by bile and vomit, followed by hot tears that dripped into the puddle of sick. He couldn't lift his head to catch another glimpse of what he saw, otherwise, he had no doubt he'd faint. His arms were already shaking, but from the weight of his heaving body or the shock, he didn't know.
Sora had already collapsed, barely supporting his own weight with his elbows, fresh warm vomit coating the ground beneath him and the underbelly of his clothes.
Before resolve had the chance to crumble away, Riku glanced up, with lingering hope that what he saw was an illusion.
This must be a dream, a horrible, disastrous one.
A second view of his parents proved more devastating than the first. They laid there, unmoving, engulfed in a pool of black, their legs tangled together. His mother's face buried onto the shoulder of his father, whose mouth was agape, eyes opened but unable to blink. Although his calls were not met with replies, he could not help but continue until his voice grew raw hoarse.
What had happened? What could have possibly done this?
He looked around, frantically, for what he did not know. He was only met with the sight of Ms. Watanabe, who's body and blood spilled from the entranceway of Sora's home, and Kairi's grandmother, who laid not too far from his parents.
He gasped out, breath shaking before he heaved a sob. His head pounded from disarray, panic, and hysteria until it suddenly stopped.
Riku wasn't aware of when it happened, it was only until he heard the voice of someone else urging him to wake accompanied with a gentle shake that he realized he lost consciousness.
"Hey…hey…can you hear me?"
Light green eyes came to view, a hand tapping lightly in his face.
Once Riku showed signs of becoming aware of his surroundings, the same voice asked him, "Are you alright?"
As soon as he was lifted gently to a sitting position, Riku couldn't help but turn his head to the side to vomit deeply. Whoever by his side waited patiently, patting his back gently.
When Riku felt well enough to glance back, he found another boy staring, eyebrows knitted in concern underneath a tuft of blond hair. The look of pity from the other boy served as confirmation that what surrounded him at this very moment was real.
Riku was loss for words, so the other boy elected to speak first.
"My name is Ventus," He started, "I'm here to help you. Let's get you and other one to a safe place."
The boy's introduction wasn't what Riku wanted at all.
"What happened?" Riku blurted out, "When we came back, everyone was suddenly…" At this, he drifted off, unable to string words that indicated their current state.
The silence that hung after was punctuating by Sora, who gasped awake. The younger boy quickly stirred himself up to a sitting position, frantically looking around until he spotted his friend and a stranger that supported him.
The night's occurrence then hit the younger boy, he began to tremble, unable to control himself.
"Help…please help us," Sora sobbed, "Everyone…my mom…they need help…"
A flick of anger flashed through Riku.
Couldn't he understand what was happening?
"I'm sorry," Ventus finally spoke, "I can only protect and get you two get to a safer place. As for the others…I'm afraid I can't do much."
Sora heaved out another sob, his body racking forward from his kneeling position. Riku lowered his head, disregarding the pain as his fingers digged through the roots of his hair.
"I know this is a lot to take in, but I need to get you two out of here-"
"What did this." Riku's sharp inquiry cut through Ventus' instruction. Riku didn't know how the boy could possibly know but had blurted it out, nevertheless. The hard tone from Riku's voice startled the newcomer, and he paused briefly.
"Demons," Riku repeated, and then in a slower, deliberate, harder voice, "Demons."
"Yes," Ventus answered, looking off to the distance, "They've existed for a very long time, although no one knows exactly when they came to be. They're rare to encounter but are extremely blood thirsty and powerful."
"Demons…" Riku murmured, fingers now digging into the dirt. He stared up at Ventus, anger flashing through his eyes.
"You must think we're idiots." His voice climbed. "How stupid do you think we are?"
The commotion snapped Sora from his grief, and he looked up in surprise at his friend's sudden rare outburst.
"Demons." Riku was now openly scoffing. "You can tell us it was the bōryokudan."
Despite the boy's animosity, the older boy did not seem fazed and carried on.
"I'm sorry for your loss," he continued, "I will help you bury the bodies."
Riku deflated at his words, fully recognizing the depth of the offer. Sora only let out a choked sob.
"We'll need to go to the nearby town contact the police," Riku declared, "They're the only ones who can help us now and can find out what happened."
Riku stood and reached for Sora, the younger boy wiping away tears before grabbing his friend's hand. As they headed to leave the hilltop, a low whimper stopped Riku. He paused, certain that he heard it a few feet away, where granny laid.
Seeing the other boy's attention suddenly diverted, Ventus stared off to the same direction.
The hairs from the back of Riku's neck stood, and as if in a trance, he edged towards where he heard the sound. His heartbeat quickens once more, and he found himself glad his hand held Sora's.
His name might have been uttered nervously by the other boy but that didn't matter; if there was a voice coming from that direction, then he would follow.
An arm extends out to stop the pair once they were a foot from the body. The boys weren't sure when Ventus stood by their side, it was as if he appeared quickly without a sound. Wordlessly, the blond boy gently pushed them back, kneeled, and lifted granny's body.
Of the two, Riku was the only one successful in biting back a sob. He was sure that he heard a sound but looking at Kairi's bloodied torso, lying there, unmoving, made him curse his decision.
"But I…I heard a voice…" Riku faltered. Ventus spared another look of pity and maybe it was due to the distress felt by the pair that he hesitantly reached for the girl.
A flicker of surprise and then–
"She's still warm," Ventus announced before placing a finger before placing it under her jaw. "A pulse…but it's weak."
Riku nearly buckled over once more, a mixed flood of relief and amazement filled him to the brim.
"She...she's still warm?" Sora mumbled in bewilderment.
Still warm. Riku wanted to cry once more. Although his eyes were sore from the amount of tears that had flowed from them already, it still found more to shed.
"Still warm…still warm…" Sora kept muttering, still in his stage of dazed incredulity. With each repetition his voice shook more, until he broke to a new round of sobbing.
Because amidst it all, she was still alive.
"We need to get her out of here, to a doctor!" Riku announced, instantly kneeling over the girl to lift her. A strong grip on his arm stopped him, and he stared back at Ventus' solemn expression. "What are you doing!? Let go, we have to save her!"
"This changes things," Ventus declared, "We don't know if she-"
Riku threw off Ventus' grip.
"Every second that you keep us here is a second less we have in saving her. If you're not going to help, then leave." Riku angrily uttered.
Taking in the gravity of the situation, Sora finally spoke.
"Please just help us get her to the town or send for someone to come." He desperately pleaded.
"I'm not saying that we shouldn't help her," Ventus said, his voice adopting a hard edge, "But we should be cautious and wait."
A beat passed and Riku could only let out a huffy laugh of disbelief.
"What are you saying?"
"You both don't understand," Ventus urged, his eyes showing an alertness the boys haven't seen before, "Demons-"
"I don't know who you are, but you've gone far enough with this!" Riku exclaimed, "She's barely alive and yet you still speak nonsense!"
"Whether you believe me or not-"
An abrupt movement besides the boys alarmed them both. With bated breath, they could only witness as the girl's body slowly shifted.
"Ah! Kairi, she's-"
Sora's premature reprieve was cut short. The boys watched as the girl's movement became more erratic, seemly closer to convulsing rather than natural movement. Her body contorted, folded, and unfolded to their horror. Deep guttural grunts from Kairi soon followed, striking fear straight into Sora and Riku's bones.
"Wh-what's going on?" Sora squeaked, close to becoming sick once more.
Riku could only watch in terror until he felt a sharp tug, dragging him back.
"You two, stay behind me!" Ventus yelled, bringing Riku to his feet and hurriedly shoving him beside Sora.
The events of the night were happening all too fast for Riku, who still had no answers. All he knew was that when Kairi's eyes flashed open, they were no longer the sea blue that he was familiar with, but a sharp glowing yellow.