He didn’t need to say anything to show he was serious. The flames licking at the palms of his hands were taking care of that. The inn’s guests and staff cowered behind whatever paltry cover the dining area provided, for all the good it would do them. Still, he supposed, fleeing bodies did make for prettier statues. He smiled, pleased that, once again, his models were all so compliant.
All, that is, except one.
“Thought I might find you here.” Her voice pierced through the gentle crackling of the fire. A girl, one, single girl, stood by the entrance, unfazed. Sharp pink eyes, raven hair with a single streak of red, and a sword at her hip, ready to be drawn. “Are you going to surrender now, or do I have to hurt you?”
The man’s smile only widened, before cracking open to release a mirthless laugh. “Foolish child! You should know better than to interrupt an artist at work! These people will have far more value as statues, preserved by my masterful flame, than they ever would as--”
He was interrupted by a sound he hadn’t heard in a very long time. It took him a moment to realise it was his own scream. The girl - she was upon him now, and - his left hand was impaled on her sword. A flame of rage burned even brighter in his right before suddenly being snuffed out, replaced with only a searing pain, shortly followed by the wet slap of bloody flesh against wooden flooring. He stumbled back, his left hand rendered useless by its gaping wound, and his right lying limp on the floor several feet away. The girl spoke again.
“Now will you surrender?”
He looked into those pink eyes, their expression unchanged, as though she had done nothing more than squash a spider. Then he looked at her sword, caked in blood - his blood--
And then he fainted.
* * *
The reward money would be good for a month or two. Maybe even three, if she was smart with her spending. Either way, Ran Mitake knew she’d have to hunt another bounty eventually. It was an irritating necessity, but by the same token, it’s not like it was hard. Besides, being a hero came with certain advantages when it came to dealing with people.
The inn already seemed to be back to normal. People of all stripes bustling about, checking in, buying lunch as though a sorcerous serial killer hadn’t just been apprehended here. In just the few short hours Ran had spent collecting her reward from the Haneoka City Guard, it had been fully cleaned and fixed up to its state before the incident, which is to say, not particularly clean or fixed up at all. The blood was gone, at least. And so was the hand. “For The Thrifty Traveler” the sign outside proclaimed, and the place’s thrift was evident in every moth-bitten curtain, leaky pipe, and mouse hole it had to offer. No wonder the killer had chosen this place as his target - this place’s clientele didn’t have the kind of money or status for the Guard to bother doing them justice.
Ran’s musing was interrupted by the sudden realisation that she had been standing at the bar for several minutes now, seemingly unnoticed. So much for the advantages of being a hero. She coughed awkwardly, hoping to catch the bartender’s attention. A few moments passed. She tried again, slightly louder, and this time he finally glanced in her direction.
“Whaddya want?” he grunted.
“Oh-- I was, just, um-- I mean--” Without a proper target, her voice lost its confidence, falling to barely over a whisper.
“Hey, ain’t you that girl what did that murderer in earlier today?”
Finally. Something to start from. Now maybe she could actually talk.
“Yeah-- um, yes. That was me. I--”
“Alright, mate, fair enough. Guess I owe ya one. Want anything? On the house, ‘course.”
“Just information.” The bartender raised a bushy eyebrow. “A lot of people pass through here; I assume you hear a lot of idle gossip, rumours…?”
“Have you heard anything,” her glare intensified; she could almost smell her goal-- “about a man with a sapphire eye?”
The bartender narrowed his eyes and looked to the ceiling, as though the answer might be written up there. A few moments of consideration passed before he looked back at her, shaking his head. “Sorry, mate, can’t help ya. Anything else, or…?”
Ran sighed and turned away, her disappointment palpable. She’d felt so sure , this time, there had to be a lead here… if not here, then…? “No. That’s all.” Her back drooping, she slowly made her way out of the inn, out of Haneoka, back into the wilderness, all the while failing to realise that she was not alone.
* * *
The campfire was warm, and bright, fending off the oppressive darkness of night on the plains. Unfortunately, it was also small. Ran wrapped her cloak tighter around herself, doing her best to combat the bitterly cold winds. She looked back at Haneoka, about half a day’s walk away now, and at the enticing, hazy glow it seemed to emit. Maybe she should have just stayed at the inn, she thought to herself. Then she looked up, at the swirling, majestic, endless starfield above her, the infinity of tiny, blazing pinpricks of pure light, and remembered that they didn’t have stars in Haneoka. They certainly didn’t have stars in the inn. She supposed she had made the right choice after all.
All of a sudden, a gentle thud beside her.
In a split second, she was on her feet, her sword was in her hand and at the newcomer’s throat - a silver-haired girl, around the same age, wearing elaborate black robes.
“Well, that’s rude.” She remarked, pouting, completely unfazed by the imminent threat of death.
“Who are you? Why are you following me?” Ran snarled, pressing the blade just a little harder against its target.
The new girl’s childish pout became a mask of exaggerated, mocking despair - still hardly an appropriate reaction. “Awwww, Ran doesn’t recognise me. My plans for a beautiful reunion, ruined… poor, lonely Moca…”
“Moca…?” Ran’s arms relaxed a little. The name rang a bell… “...Wait, Moca Aoba ?”
Finally, a warm smile as the sword lowered. “Hi, Ran.”
“I… What? How? How di-- what? How did you find me? It’s been-- god, I don’t even know... what are you doing here?”
“Aww, poor Ran’s confused~” teased Moca, ruffling Ran’s hair. “I tracked you with magic! Thanks for dealing with that serial killer, by the way. He was giving us dark mages a bad name~”
“Magic-- dark ma-- you’re a dark mage now? Since when?”
“It’s been ten years since we last spoke, Ran, not for lack of trying. I’ve had some time on my hands. Besides, doesn’t look like I’m the only one.” she gestured at Ran’s sword, lax at her side. “You were never that handy with a sword.”
Suddenly self-conscious, Ran sheathed her blade. “Had a good teacher.” She sat back down, and a decade’s worth of silence filled the air, broken only by the crackling of the campfire. After a minute or so, Moca removed a pack from her back, began rummaging around. She soon found what she was looking for.
“Bread?” she held a bun out to Ran. It looked remarkably good for something that had been rattling around in a backpack for at least half a day. Ran shook her head.
“Your loss. More for me~”
Ran watched as her old friend - ex-friend? - began eating the proffered bread. This was surreal. They’d been inseparable once, but they hadn’t seen each other in years, hadn’t spoken in even longer, and now here she was, sitting by her campfire, eating what was, by all appearances, plain bread. And she had magic powers. Moca was fully absorbed in her task - she never did let anything distract her from her eating - and Ran watched for as long as she could bear to. But she knew she had to put a stop to this. She muttered something under her breath, still scared to say it out loud, or perhaps just scared of the conversation that would follow.
“Hm?” Moca questioned, brushing the last few crumbs from her hands. Ran sighed. She had to put a stop to this.
“I said, why are you here?”
“Oh! To help, obviously!” she smiled, looking at Ran with too much love in her eyes. Ran turned away.
“I don’t need any help. Go away.”
“Oh, please. You obviously need help. You just don’t want it.” Moca frowned at her friend, still stubbornly facing the opposite direction. “You always did just want to do everything by yourself. You haven’t changed a bit.”
“You don’t even know what I’m trying to do.”
“You’re looking for the man who killed your father.” Ran snapped her head back around to face Moca, her eyes full of shock.
“How do you--”
“Oh, please, Ran. Any idiot could figure out your whole two-bit revenge quest schtick. And Moca,” she gestured at herself proudly, as though she were some amazing device she’d invented, “is a genius~”
Ran turned away again. “So, what? You’re here to talk me out of it? Don’t bother. I’ve heard it all before. From people a lot smarter than you.” Ran winced a little at her own harsh remark, but it had to be said. She couldn’t let anyone else follow her, especially not Moca of all people…
“Ouch. Mean.” Moca pouted again. “But, no, I told you. I’m here to help. I have a lead.” And Ran’s eyes were on her once again.
“What do you mean, a lead ?”
Moca smirked. “A contact, who can help point us in the direction of our quarry. We’ve arranged a meeting place, just on the other side of the Circle Woods. And I’ve already told her I may have a companion…”
Ran stared into Moca’s eyes for a moment, then down at the ground. She couldn’t let Moca join her… but… she needed to know…
She sighed deeply, and turned back to Moca.
“Fine. I’ll come with you. But only until I get the information I need, okay?” She lay down, pulled her cloak around her like a blanket. “Trust me, you don’t want any part of this.”
“Yay~! Ran and Moca, together again~! The dream team~” Ran heard Moca lie down behind her. If Moca was anything like she remembered, she’d be asleep pretty soon. Ran wished she could say the same. Morning couldn’t come quickly enough.
“Hey, Ran?” Moca piped up. She already sounded half-asleep.
“I like what you’ve done with your hair.”
But Moca was already asleep.