Ritsu wakes to the sound of screaming.
They’re here, is the first thought in his groggy mind, still shaking off the pull of sleep, and nii-san! is his second. But when he yanks open his bedroom door to wake his brother up, Shigeo is already standing there, bundled up and holding out Ritsu’s satchel. His expression is grim as Ritsu takes it, his eyes wide.
The monsters have only started appearing within the last few months, but Ritsu knows that they’ve already left a trail of blood and lost lives in their wake. It was only a matter of time before the monsters set their sights upon their tiny village.
With their parents out of town for the week, forced to continue their jobs as traveling merchants despite the danger and dropping temperatures, Ritsu doesn’t know whether their absence makes him relieved or sick to his stomach. Because on the one hand, there are two less people to protect. But on the other hand, he has no idea if they’re okay.
“Ritsu,” Shigeo says, taking his hand, and Ritsu’s head snaps up. “We have to go.”
Their house is on the far side of the village, closer to the forest than the main road, but the carnage has still managed to reach them in no time at all. Their once-peaceful village is awash with flames. A few dying screams permeate the air. The stench of blood and the sight of their fallen neighbors makes Ritsu gag.
Not everyone was able to protect themselves. Not everyone was as gifted (lucky, something inside him insists) as he and Shigeo were to be born as mages.
“Don’t look, Ritsu,” Shigeo whispers, pushing him ahead—in front of him, always in front of him—and closer to the edge of the forest. “We can’t help them.”
The words are so unlike his kind, pacifist brother that Ritsu is shocked into moving ahead, and tearing his eyes away from the remnants of people he used to know.
(He wonders if there will be any survivors that make it to the morning. Would the royal guard even bother saving a village as tiny as theirs?)
They crouch close to the ground as they make their escape, weaving shadows around their bodies to muffle their footsteps and conceal their frames, and do their best to block out the shrill screeches from the monsters pillaging their childhood home. Despite the bitterly cold winter night, Ritsu sweats.
In the months since the creatures’ first appearances, not a single person has figured out their origins, or even the reason why they’ve started hunting down humans. Their previous killings, examined broadly, seem indiscriminate—they range from babies not even a month old, to the elderly who’ve already lived their lives.
And his and Shigeo’s deaths could just be another number, Ritsu finds himself thinking, the thought flitting through his mind without his consent. With a shiver, he draws the shadows closer around himself.
So far, their cloak has held. The monsters’ sense of hearing and sight are by far their most dangerous ones, and Ritsu and Shigeo have done their best to negate both of them. But still, their boots squelch unpleasantly through the stained, melting snow, and Ritsu dreads the footprints they leave behind.
Before their parents left, they came up with an escape plan just in case the worst was to befall them. Deep in the woods, there was a powerful sorcerer that owed their parents a debt—a return service after they saved his young son from death one day. Shigeo barely remembers the occurrence, and Ritsu doesn’t at all, but this story was all they could rely on once the whispers of death and destruction arrived at the edge of their village.
“He will protect you,” their mother had said, pressing a token into Shigeo’s hands. “This is how to find him—it will glow brighter with every step closer.”
“And you must never leave each other behind,” their father continued. Ritsu remembered that his voice was uncharacteristically stern, making the two of them sit up straighter with the gravity of the situation. “You have to protect each other. Stay safe.”
“But what about you?” Ritsu had protested as Shigeo stared blankly at the token in his palm. Neither of them had missed the obvious flaw in the plan. “Aren’t you coming too?” Ritsu expected them to follow up with a quick apology, immediately rectifying their lack of presence in the previous instructions, but the shared glance between them was… not.
Their mother had sighed heavily, and the words that passed her lips wouldn’t leave Ritsu for weeks after. “Your otou-san and I will not be part of this,” she said, her smile sad. “If the monsters do come, you are to leave us behind.”
Ritsu remembers very little of what happened after that, but what he does remember is the ache in his throat as he shouted the feeling of betrayal, sharp and acidic, the flashes of pain in his parents’ eyes, and his hand shaking in Shigeo’s.
And later that night, with angry tears dampening his pillow, Ritsu heard a quiet conversation between Shigeo and their father.
“I think you know as well as we do… the reason why we can’t come with you and Ritsu,” their father had said gently. “Your okaa-san and I aren’t mages. We aren’t fighters. We can’t make you protect us when you are supposed to come first.”
Shigeo must’ve said something in response, his voice too soft to make its way upstairs, because their father chuckles. It wasn’t a happy laugh, Ritsu remembers thinking. It was to humor him, rather than because of humor.
“You’re a good boy, Shigeo. I know you’ll keep you and your brother safe.”
But then the month his parents were scheduled to travel for their jobs arrived, and he and Shigeo were left alone.
And a week later, their village is going up in flames.
A week later, Ritsu and Shigeo have to pack up their lives and run.
A week later, they’re nearly to the edge of the darkened forest when everything goes wrong.
Ritsu, still taking the lead, accidentally takes them into the middle of a slaughter, still too caught up in the thoughts swirling around his mind. There are about seven monsters here, and they range from small and rather stupid-looking, to hulking beasts with eyes that glint with intelligence. He can’t quite control the small scream he makes at the sight of things he should never have had to see, and that tiny sound draws the attention of the monsters to them.
They can’t see him nor Shigeo, as covered with shadows as they are, but Ritsu is still all-too-aware of how the smallest touch could alert the creatures to their presence. He glances back at Shigeo, who looks eerily calm as he gazes at their surroundings, and wonders how his older brother can keep his composure in a situation like this.
Then the monsters creep closer, their feast forgotten as they sniff the air, and Ritsu’s mind goes blank. What do they do?
And without warning, Shigeo drops the shadowed cloak, his closed fists sparking with violet light. “Come and get me!” he yells, his voice louder than Ritsu has ever heard it before, and Ritsu can only watch with horror as his brother gears up to fight.
The monsters screech with delight, their investigation forgotten as they converge on Shigeo instead. Ritsu immediately drops the shadows around him as well, panic clawing up his throat as Shigeo flings burst after burst of purple magic around him. The monsters are close, their teeth and claws sharp enough to slice through skin like butter, and Ritsu can’t hold back a shout when one lunges for Shigeo’s calf and bites. None of them seem to notice Ritsu though, too enraptured by the promise of Shigeo’s blood to pay attention.
Bright blue tendrils of magic begin to curl around Ritsu’s hands and without thinking, Ritsu throws himself into the fray as well.
“Ritsu, no, get out of here!” Shigeo shouts, and Ritsu feels the back of his cloak being pulled as sharp teeth snap at the space where he was just a second earlier.
“You’re hurt and I’m not leaving you!” Ritsu yells back, taking out a monster that had crept up behind his brother. “Okaa-san and Otou-san said we have to stay together, remember?”
They’re back-to-back now, their mana now fully manifested and glowing in the midnight air. There are still four monsters left standing now, their lips pulled back in gleeful grins and soft chitters spilling from their throats as they creep closer, but Ritsu does his best to stay calm. Even though he knows it’s his fault that they’re in this situation now and that Shigeo’s hurt, there’s no point—or time—to wallow in self-pity.
All they can do is defend themselves long enough to make a run for it.
“…Thank you, Ritsu. For staying,” he eventually hears Shigeo murmur, and Ritsu huffs out a laugh, despite the situation.
“Of course I would. So what’s the plan now?”
Shigeo sweeps another tendril of magic around them like a whip as Ritsu is asking, frightening the monsters back just for a moment. “I’m going to try to blind them so we can get away,” Shigeo says under his breath, a violet orb beginning to pulse and glow in his other hand, “so you need to close your eyes.”
“Will that even work?”
“It has to,” his brother says grimly.
So on Shigeo’s count, Ritsu squeezes his eyes shut. The brilliant purple light still manages to slip through his eyelids, but he knows it would have been much worse for anyone who wasn’t expecting it.
A hand clamps around his wrist, and Ritsu lets himself be pulled along as his eyes readjust to the darkness. Shigeo is already weaving shadows around them as they run, the sounds of their footsteps muffling with each step closer to the edge of the forest.
The night seems to swallow them up as they stumble deeper into the forest, and they don’t stop running until the sound of howls and the sight of flames from the remnants of their home fade into the distance. Ritsu doesn’t even realize he’s crying until Shigeo pulls him close.
And Ritsu sobs, the tears freezing on his cheeks as they fall. He hasn’t cried this much since he was young and unsteady on his feet, but he’s so overwhelmed—how are they going to survive when everyone they know has died? How do they even know that the sorcerer their parents told them about is real?
Shigeo’s arms tighten around him, and Ritsu realizes he’d said those words aloud. “We’ll make it, Ritsu,” he whispers. “As long as we’re together.” Shigeo then leads Ritsu next to a tree, pulling out blankets from their satchels to keep them warm even in the freezing night.
It’s quiet as they set up camp, but it’s comforting knowing that his brother is next to him. “I’ll take first watch,” Shigeo offers, tugging Ritsu’s hat over his ears. “I’ll wake you in a few hours. Don’t forget to keep yourself warm.”
Ritsu is too tired to give more than a token protest, but he acquiesces and burrows under the pile of blankets they’d packed.
He falls asleep instantly.
It’s still dark when Shigeo wakes him up, and their blankets are covered with a thin layer of snow. Ritsu tries to make his brother take his turn to sleep, but Shigeo refuses, insisting that they should keep going before the snowstorm gets worse.
“Nii-san, ” Ritsu says, frowning, but Shigeo takes his hand and places something in his palm.
The guide their mother gave them is pulsing with light. Shigeo then maneuvers his arm, demonstrating how the color changes in intensity depending on the direction.
“It wasn’t like this last night…” Ritsu says, “or at least, I didn’t notice it was doing this.”
“I experimented while you were asleep,” Shigeo admits. “I had to put some magical energy into it first for it to work. It looks like we have to go north.”
They pack up their meager camp, pulling slices of bread and salted meat from their bags to eat as they walk. But as soon as Shigeo takes a step forward, he stumbles.
Ritsu catches him. “Nii-san! What’s—” Then he freezes, taking in Shigeo’s grimace and the way he’s favoring one leg. How could Ritsu have forgotten that he’d been hurt last night? They’d never treated the wound, he realizes with mounting horror. “Nii-san…”
“I wrapped the bite while you were sleeping,” Shigeo says, his slight smile not enough to assuage Ritsu’s worry. “I’m okay, so we should get moving before the snow gets worse.”
“Okay,” Ritsu reluctantly agrees, and they set off.
The next few days pass like this. Ritsu now understands the stories that the elders would whisper about the forest at the edge of their village—it’s deceivingly deep, and it seems like there’s no end in sight.
And though they come across a few monsters as they travel, it’s only ever one or two at a time, unlike the army that seemed to storm their home. Fighting them still terrifies Ritsu, but after so many close calls he’s almost gotten used to the act of releasing the energy churning under his skin without a second thought.
But in the meantime, Shigeo’s wound has gotten worse. They’d quickly discovered that the bite was infected, festering with dark magic, and they didn’t have the resources to deal with it at all. Medicinal herbs just weren’t something that common people had lying around their homes—not like apothecaries or even in places like the royal palace. Much to Ritsu’s concern, their pace has significantly slowed even when they needed to travel as quickly as they could.
And on top of that, the snowfall has only gotten heavier. Keeping warm at night is harder, but they’re afraid of lighting a fire in case it attracts the wrong kind of company.
The only good thing is that they’ll never run out of water with how much snow has fallen (though their food supply is dwindling rapidly), and their guide glows brighter with each hour they walk.
But on the fourth day, Shigeo suddenly collapses into the snow. When Ritsu rolls him over, his cheeks are unnaturally flushed, and a cold weight settles in Ritsu’s stomach when he places the back of his hand on his brother’s forehead and feels an unnatural heat radiating off his skin.
This isn’t good. Not good at all.
“Nii-san,” Ritsu calls, shaking his shoulder, but Shigeo is unresponsive. “Nii-san!”
Panic climbs up his throat, shaking off the exhaustion that’s accumulated over the past few hours. Ritsu is back on his feet in a heartbeat, looping their bags around his neck and pulling his brother on his back. They need to move. They need to move now.
The token is glowing brightly enough that it now shines through his pockets, and has even begun to emit a faint hum. It’s the thought of how close they are that keeps Ritsu on his feet. The snow rises higher and higher every minute, but Ritsu still trudges through them even as the level climbs past his knees. He’s not going to lose his brother. Not when they’ve made it this far already.
It’s a struggle to breathe now, and his arms are screaming from holding Shigeo’s weight, but he keeps walking. In the haze of Ritsu’s worry, time ceases to exist. Nothing matters except getting Shigeo and himself to safety. They hadn’t even considered that the sorcerer might turn them away when they show up at his door, but Ritsu refuses to give up hope. It’s one of the few things he has left.
And when lights finally appear in the distance, Ritsu nearly sobs with relief, and he pushes himself to move just a little faster. To take bigger steps. To stay upright, no matter how much he wants to fold like wet paper.
Ritsu crumples at the door of the little house with a thud, his legs finally giving way. We’re finally here, he thinks, resting his head against the wood. We made it.
The “sorcerer” that their parents sent them to meet is not actually a sorcerer at all. He’s a normal man with a thick scarf in an interesting shade of light pink, and his name is Reigen Arataka.
“The sorcerer in this house would technically be my husband,” the not-sorcerer tells Ritsu as they sit together by the fireplace. “I mean, I am the one who your parents met, but I don’t have a drop of magical energy in my body at all!”
He laughs, and Ritsu thinks he should be upset that their supposed safe house was owned by a fraud, but the relief at regaining feeling in his frozen fingers far outweighs that. “Can you still let us stay here?” he asks, curling into the thick blankets he’d been given earlier. “At least until Nii-san gets better and… and until the monsters leave.”
“I did promise your parents anything if they ever needed it,” Reigen agrees. “Taking care of two kids for a few days should be nothing. And besides, Teru, my son—the boy who let you in earlier—needs more friends besides Katsuya and me. You can stay here for as long as you need.”
“Thank you,” Ritsu mumbles.
Then the sound of footsteps makes Ritsu look up to the doorway, and make eye contact with the man standing there. “We’ve managed to pull the poison from Shigeo-kun’s body and stop the infection,” Serizawa—Reigen’s husband—says, giving Ritsu a warm smile. “He’ll be just fine.”
“Thank you,” Ritsu repeats. “So much.”
“Don’t worry about it. Go join your brother in the other room,” Reigen says, standing up and clapping Ritsu on the shoulder. “I bet you haven’t had decent sleep in a few days. We’ll wake you later when the food’s ready, and then we can talk more.”
Ritsu dips his head in acknowledgement, exhaustion washing over him.
Shigeo is still asleep when Ritsu tiptoes into the room, and stays asleep when Ritsu curls up next to him. What happens next for them is still uncertain, but there’s plenty of time to think about that when they wake.
For now, it’s time to rest.