It’s a beautiful summer day, and Akeha believes it may be her last.
Her basket of herbs abandoned somewhere far behind her, she runs, her pulse throbbing in her head as she hurriedly gathers up the long, trailing fabric of her kimono. The thing is somewhere behind her; she can hear it, nearly feel its hot breath behind her—
She stumbles, almost falls, catches herself on a rock and keeps running. If she can just make it back to her village, she thinks, then everything will be alright. How foolish of her, to go alone into the woods without anything to guard herself, but she only has to find her way back. Akeha doesn’t allow herself to dwell for long on what may happen otherwise; the demon’s talons stabbing straight through her, raising her to the sun to study her as she struggles weakly, in her last moments, before finally dropping her into its gaping maw.
Akeha wipes her eyes swiftly on her sleeve, grits her teeth, keeps running.
There’s a man standing across the river.
She doesn’t think he’s looking at her, or at the monster, but she sees a sword by his side, and for a moment feels desperate hope. But he doesn’t move, and Akeha curses her stupidity. He’s probably just passing through this area; what would he care whether she lived or died?
Regardless, she curses him silently.
Out of the corner of her vision, she sees him move. Only moments later, she hears a terrible shriek, and dares to turn around.
The demon’s talon writhing uselessly on the ground, the man (no, she realizes, just a boy) stands before it, his sword dripping with blood and sludge. He leaps forth, with inhuman agility, dodging the monster’s swipe by a hair, and poises his arm, the sword gleaming in the sunlight—
It connects; the monster lets out a dying screech, trembling in its death throes before collapsing altogether. He turns around, and Akeha sees that the blade is in his arm, somehow; he wipes it off expressionlessly with his cloak, slides what must be his prosthetic back on, and walks toward her. She realizes, with a jolt, that she’s alive, that she’d been saved. The relief is more than enough to make her shake, if only for a moment, before she takes a deep, calming breath.
In her distraction, the boy had already moved past her. She’d expected him to stop in front of her, make sure she was alright, possibly demand compensation for saving her life. But his eyes are fixed on a faraway point of the horizon. She feels a burning desire to show her gratitude to the lone traveler, repay his act of kindness with one of her own. Her small shack isn’t too spacious, but it’s large enough to host a guest for a night. Now, without the imminent threat of death looming behind her, she feels a tidal wave of embarrassment wash over her. How foolish, that her life is now indebted to this boy who won't even look at her.
She wipes away a stray tear and jogs to him. Before he can disappear into the woods, she tugs at his prosthetic hand -- the wood is cold, but not too harsh -- and begins to gently lead him east, toward her village. "I have to repay you somehow," Akeha says, although she feels more like she's convincing herself.
The boy doesn't move to acknowledge her words, but he doesn't resist, either, so she feels it's a small victory.
Who taught this boy how to eat properly, she thinks, watching him with slight disgust as he demolishes the meal they’re sharing.
It’s simple, but it’s enough; chopped radishes over some millet. She chews through it slowly. It’s not exactly tasty, but that’s to be expected. All the vegetables and herbs she had gathered had been left behind in the woods, so she really hadn’t had much to work with. It’s a small price to pay for her life, she thinks. Initially, she’d been worried that he’d think her ungrateful from the offering. Her village isn’t the wealthiest, and Akeha herself was no exception. That worry hadn’t lasted longer than a minute.
Only minutes after being given his bowl, he sets it down. “I’m glad you liked the food,” she mutters dryly, raising an eyebrow at the licked-clean bowl. As seems to be usual, he doesn’t seem to notice.
His eyes still unblinking and unmoving behind his mask— and that’s what it is, she’s certain of it — he lies down on the floor, still and silent. His ragged cloak is gone. Akeha had taken it to wash, the reek of the monster blood being nigh unbearable, though he hadn’t seemed to protest. He didn’t seem to protest much, really, until she accidentally jostled his odd pendant in taking the cloak off; he’d grabbed it protectively, leaned away until she stepped back, then reluctantly let her close once again to remove the cloak. “I’m only washing this,” she’d tried to explain, seeing his dejected body language. “I’ll give it back, I promise.”
Once again, he didn’t seem to hear.
His false eyes stare straight up at the ceiling, unblinking, unmoving. She can only tell he’s asleep because of the steady rise and fall of his chest. She tosses a blanket onto him, quietly shuts the door behind her.
Akeha stands by his side, drapes the cloak gently over him, and quietly says her goodbyes. After all, she knows he’ll be gone by morning.
She never sees him again, but she hears the stories.
He sweeps across the countryside like a summer storm, the townsfolk whisper, a force of nature for the short time he remains, until once more he has disappeared, guided by no other master but the wind.
She wonders how he’s doing, sometimes, the strange boy who saved her. She wonders if he’ll ever find what he's looking for, settle down somewhere, finally find peace.
She hopes he someday will. She hopes he’s happy, wherever he is.