The boy ran at a dead sprint, driven by terror.
Under the sliver of a waning moon, darkness swallowed his surroundings with only the faintest starlight giving a silver sheen to the misty night. Silhouettes of trees flashed by. The lantern in the boy's hand flickered and sputtered, in danger of snuffing out. But it was not the darkness he feared.
It was the thing that stalked him in the darkness.
The boy had felt it first—a sudden chill in the summer air, a creeping dread that clutched at his heart. Sensations that he might have dismissed as symptoms of the late hour and a long night. On any other occasion, he would have chastised himself for indulging in his imagination. He was thirteen now, too old to be afraid of darting shadows and harmless spirits.
But this spirit had opened glowing blue eyes and stared into his soul. This shadow had whispered his name.
The boy risked a glance behind to see if it still followed, and promptly slammed into something. He fell back, the breath knocked from his lungs, and his lantern clattered to his side, its weak light fluttering wildly. Surprise and pain shifted quickly to fear as he saw the figure looming over him.
A, tall and lithe, stood with a bare torso, unfazed by the unusually chilly night. From the waist down, loose robes billowed in the wind, frayed from wear. An intricate belt of woven rope tied strange masks across his waist, monstrous visages trapped in alabaster. Bandages bound both his arms, and each hand grasped a blade—one of tempered steel, shimmering in the moonlight, the other shining an ominous red.
Yet it was the man's face that left the boy frozen.
Those cold blue eyes peered down through a cruel mask that radiated the same strange red as the man's blade. The mask grasped the man's face, nearly devouring his stern frown.
“S-stay back!” the boy croaked.
“It is not me you should fear,” the man spoke, his voice a soft growl, eyes fixed on some point beyond the boy.
Confusion knit the boy's brow as he followed the man's gaze. What he saw sent him scrambling to his feet.
A vague shape hovered in the mists. If the stranger hadn't pointed it out, the boy might have missed it altogether. The mist twisted into wide eyes and slitted pupils, and the outline of a lumbering body took form, visible where it pushed the fog away to leave a negative space. The boy squinted. Something else glistened in the foggy night… Teeth?
He had never seen anything like it, yet it somehow felt familiar. Like the boy knew this thing. It drew him, compelled him toward it. He took a tentative step forward.
Something cold pierced through his chest.
The boy looked down in shock at the tip of a shining red blade. His mind raced as his breath grew choppy from panic, expecting pain and blood. But neither came. Instead, a strange numbness spread through his body. Behind him, he heard the man mutter under his breath, and a strange sigil appeared in the air in front of them, as if painted by an invisible brush. A word—or name?—the boy did not recognize.
The man ignored him. “My blade sees your true name, azakana.”
The boy felt the sword pulled from his body, and he fell to his knees, gasping. His hands flew to his chest—but there was no puncture or wound. Even more strange, the boy felt lighter, as if some burden had been excised. He looked up, and a wall of teeth met his gaze.
The creature lunged.
A clash of steel rang out. The masked stranger stood before him, blades blocking the creature's massive, pale fangs. No—it was not the man, but a shadowy spirit in his form. The boy looked behind him where the man himself stood, eyes closed, as if in meditation. A shiver ran down the boy's spine as the chill in the air now seeped into his bones, and with each motion of the struggling monster and man, he felt his soul lurch and sway, their very existence exerting a palpable force over him. The boy stared in awe.
What is he?
The spirit swordsman pushed the creature back, then burst into swirling tendrils of smoke, washing over the boy as it returned to the body of the stranger. The hideous creature bellowed in rage. As the boy squinted, he could see other parts of the beast through the mist—matted fur, claws, a huge torso—but when he tried to focus on the whole body, parts would fade out from focus.
You dare deny what is already mine? A rasping, impossible voice reverberated in the boy's mind, cutting through the rattling growls he heard from the monster. The boy belongs to me.
The boy's stomach dropped. It can speak?
“Nothing in this realm belongs to you,” the man said, unfazed. “Cower, Taan Ko'au!”
Though the words meant nothing to the boy, their utterance made his skin crawl. Yet their effect was far more pronounced on the creature, which emitted an ear-splitting squeal. Twisting, sinuous muscle wrapped around pale teeth and claws. Four scarlet eyes narrowed on its horrific face, glowering atop a lumbering torso of gray hair that shimmered into existence, ephemeral wisps turned to flesh and bone.
“So you are named,” the man with the broken mask said. “So you are revealed.”
A defiant howl shook the ground. The man shifted his stance, crouching low as he brought both swords to bear.
“So you shall perish.”
The beast charged, but the stranger dashed forward so fast that the boy nearly missed him. Swords sliced through the moonlight, one flashing silver, the other leaving a blood-red trail in its wake. Ichor sprayed from the creature as it fell to the ground.
“Slumber, azakana. You are unmoored from flesh.” The man strode forward and plunged both blades deep in the creature. It roared, then wheezed.
The boy stared as its body dissipated into a swirling fog, its monstrous face contorting through a gamut of expressions as it shrank and calcified into an almost human-like appearance, finally assuming the shape of… a mask. His eyes widened in recognition. Though it still possessed the four eyes of the monster in a distorted, exaggerated pose, it looked almost mournful—and eerily close to his own face.
With a shudder, the mask floated upward toward the man's outstretched hand. With a fluid motion, he sheathed his sword and tied the mask next to the others on his waist. Then he turned to leave.
“What are you?” the boy asked.
“Once, I knew the answer. But now…” The stranger paused. He fixed the boy with a steel gaze.
A question tumbled from the boy's lips. “Was that thing… me?”
“Only a festered nightmare, feasting on your sorrows. But you aren't defined by it any longer.”
The boy bit his lip. “It's my fault. I'm weak—never good enough. My father was right.”
Without a sound, the man turned as though to approach, and the boy recoiled almost by habit. The stranger's expression softened ever so slightly.
“Those we love say the things that hurt us most.” The man pulled the mask from his waist, examining it. “Despair devours our own voice, wearing the guise of reason—claiming to show us who we are. But it only shows us a warped version of our true selves.”
He turned the mask around and held it aloft for the boy to see. It seemed small, fragile… Toothless.
“Pierce through its falsehoods to find your truth.” The smallest hint of a smile crossed the man's face. “You'll be just fine, Andu.”
With that, the stranger turned away, leaving the boy alone in the dark woods.