"True Names have power; they are seared into a person's very being at birth, part of themselves intrinsically tied to their very existence. To know another's name is to control a part of that person, the essence of their very being, to hold it captive, a victim to the whims of the one who holds such knowledge. True Names offer powers like none other, the power to subjugate, to control, to command the very life and death of one if you so choose.
True Names will always hold this power, regardless of the way in which they are found. However, the ultimate folly is to offer another your name. Stolen names are dangerous it is true, but present gap holes, the ability to wrestle back ones name from the one holding such knowledge. However, if a person were to offer another their name, their dominion over them would be absolute. No power, no matter how great in this universe, can restore what was offered freely. True Names are not ever offered among spouses; it would be as though one tore out their very soul and presented it to another to do as they wished to them. Once a True Name is uttered aloud, once it is heard by another, it no longer belongs to its owner. Rather it belongs to the person that heard it.
This is why each child is spellbound, their knowledge of their name locked until they are of age; to protect them from those who would take advantage of their innocence.
To lose one's name is to court death. To offer one's name to another is to surrender yourself completely." ( On the Power of Names, by Mage Harasawa )
It is a well-known rule, one drilled in the minds of all from the moment they are old enough to comprehend. Do not tell another your True Name, do not give them power over you. To offer a True Name is the sign of ultimate trust. To demand another's True Name is the sign of ultimate malice.
Perhaps this is why the Beast demands both every year. An Offering and a Name, complete power over the victim stepping past the iron wrought gates, along with the promise that should both sacrifices be met the village will be left in peace forevermore.
Perhaps this is why none of the Offerings ever return; why the village must offer yet another sacrifice each year. For offered the choice, all preferred the sweet kiss of Death to the loss of their names.
The shadows had started creeping over the land one day, wrapping tendrils of darkness around all they found in their path, be it man, beast or plant. Crops withered under their touch, the weather soured and a numb coldness replaced it all. The world turned grey; grey fields and homes tended by hopeless people going through the mechanics of each day, mere puppets on strings ruled by the circumstances they now had to adhere to.
The forest bordering the village echoed with the howls of wolves and beasts, fear given voice and form, freezing the very blood in the veins of those unlucky enough to live nearby. There was no talk of hunting anymore; how could it when the best archers the village had to offer entered the forest one day never to be seen. Bones returned now and then; severed limbs and caved in skulls frozen in a rictus of fear rolled past the borders of the village, pushed by unseen hands. A warning and a message: do not step past your boundaries least you wish to lose your lives.
And then there was the castle, the old, derelict vestige of bygone times that had gone uninhabited for so long. The shadows seemed to thrive there the most, locking it in a loving embrace and snuffing out even the slightest sliver of light that dared attempt to pierce the gloom.
A Beast lived in the Castle, it was well-known. A demon spewed by the shadows, a wretched being of evil that demanded a tribute each year. An Offering and a Name. Always both if the village was to be spared forever. Just an Offering if the village was to be spared another year. The Beast was never seen, yet its voice was heard drifting over the gloom of the forest, icy and commanding.
It was folly to try and go against it; yet it has ever been in human nature to rebel and rebel they did. When the Command first came, the villagers took up arms, poised to fight the very darkness that threatened their lives. They did not make it past the outermost border of the woods; the forest ate them up and did not even bother spitting the bones. Crippled by loss, the remaining survivors decided to wait another year, to gather their forces and try anew. And so they sent the first Offering… and another and another.
Decades have passed since then.
The Beast did not care who was to be his Offering; he cared little what passed his threshold, be it man or woman, elderly or in their prime. He cared little for their past or present, for those left behind or those that bid them riddance. The Beast cared only for their answer to his question. Will their relinquish their name freely?
As such, the Beast had no rule but one regarding his Offerings: never will a child pass the iron-wrought gates.
The villagers had tried, of course they had; desperation, grief, fear, cruelty, all had made strong adults push young children in the woods, breaths kept as they waited for the cries to come and the howls to pierce the night. They never did; come morning the children would be back in their midst, confused looks filling lost gazes and in their place a sacrifice would be chosen randomly, blank eyed and spellbound, dragged in the woods by strings handled by a master puppeteer. These Offerings were not even asked for their choice; their lives were brought to a swift end.
It was such a rule that had spared Kuroko till then. But no longer…
He had expected to be chosen.
He had expected to be chosen ever since his mother had died and his father had been sent in the woods as an Offering. As a child, he had not been eligible, but Kuroko was no longer a child so the villagers could finally do as they wished. Be rid of the one they so desperately wished to see the last of…
The forest path sprawled beneath his feet; overgrown roots and sharp rocks peppering the way forth. The shrill hoot of an owl rang from a nearby branch. His breath coalesced in small, white wisps, dissolving in the frigid air of the woods. It got progressively colder as he made his way forth, the soggy ground giving way to ice and snow as he neared the gate. All around him, in the foliage, golden eyes watched with hungered gazes; he trudged through the snow, one step in front of the other, breathing becoming more and more laborious while he made his way forth. Steps echoed in the air behind him, the crunch of the snow beneath clawed paws sending chunks of ice through his veins.
The shadows became darker as he got closer and closer, oppressive and thick, curling around his ankles while he walked, a sinister grip making him stumble here and there. The gates loomed above him as he neared them, covered in thorns, thick vines curling around the rusted metal almost as though they wished to crumbled it beneath their fury.
Kuroko took a deep breath. The lump longed in his throat refused to dislodge so he covered the few steps left until the fence with his heart hammering like a hummingbird in his chest. A howl echoed to his right, sharp and hungered. His hand – pale and trembling – rose to touch the metal, to push it open, but the gates swung open out of their own according, a mocking beckoning of welcome. Past the gates, the grounds seemed silent. An unnatural stillness kept everything frozen; no hint of life permeated the emptiness of his surroundings.
It was well known. Birds did not sing in the realm of the Beast. Animals did not thrive there. All scurried in fear of the darkness surrounding the castle and its master.
There was no turning back. Without a moment of hesitation, the blue haired boy squared his shoulders and marched forth in the awaiting gloom. Behind him the doors swung shut, a rusty screech of disuse echoing in the air before all became submerged in silence once more.
If it's a Beast it can be slain. If It's a Demon it can be banished. If it's a curse it can be lifted.
Such had been the mantra of the villagers in the very beginning, back when their fearful letters had been sent to the king, begging for aid in face of the terror that usurped them. Knights had come then, clad in silvery armor, with sword hanging at their hips and the lust for war, for glory ripe in their eyes. Clerics had come as well, garbed in their flowing black robes, holy books in hand and the light of faith shrouding them in a wave of confidence. Last had come the mages, power cracking beneath their fingers, golden eyed and solemn, their march forth neither as boisterous as that of the knights, nor as confident as that of the priests. They, of all three, knew there was something inherent wrong in the woods, but they had come to try and try they did no matter the outcome.
The forest still tosses their belonging back to the village now and then; rusty sword bent at unnatural angles are brought to the border by twisting vines slithering over the ground. The thorn pages of holy books drift in the wind, floating lazily before combusting as they reach the main square. Wands and staves, broken and splintered, their magical conducts devoid of power roll at the feet of children who pick them up and use them as weapons in their makeshift games.
The forest does not allow fools to weather its paths. It takes and it takes and it takes until all that is left is a husk of the being that once was or a shambling corpse lying in a ditch somewhere. And those are the lucky ones; for there are some that are not fools. Some that are strong and witty, that know to navigate its paths and evade its dangers. For those, the castle remains as final destination. One from which they can never return.
They may be strong. They may be smart. But the Beast has never tasted defeat. And none of those that had passed the threshold of the castle have ever returned.
It was perhaps jarring to think that no matter what he would have done, the outcome was to always be this. A lonely march past the gates of the castle, through the dead garden shrouded in shadow and silence. It should have been disheartening, Kuroko thought, but all that he was able to feel as the snow gave way under his steps and the seemingly sentient vines parted for him, was relief.
Relief to be away; relief to break free of the vitriol spewed by the villagers each time they laid eyes upon him.
Demon child, damned child
The jeers had started ever since he had been a mere babe, swaddled in his mother's arms. From the very first moment they had laid eyes upon him, blue hair and cerulean eyes making a stark contrast with the visage of the other inhabitants.
Moon child, cursed child
A waning moon had gleamed above their heads as his father had beheld him the first time, the joy of a newborn eclipsed by the looks of horror, of disgust plastered on the faces of those near them. Superstition had ever ruled the village and with the appearance of the Beast all that looked different was deemed otherworldly, tainted.
Ghost child, blighted child
He realized early on that they were not able to see him at all times. They looked through him, a veritable living ghost treading the paths of the village, unseen and often unheard. The shadows protected him, the light of the moon hid him and as he found himself alone, Kuroko learned to use them more and more.
His mother had been his fierce protector. She had loved him with every fiber of her being until sickness has stolen her from him; the scent of her lily perfume, the warmth of her hug and the brightness of her smile still clung to his memory.
His father must have loved him too, for he had fought for Kuroko when the villagers had damned him with merely a glance, raged against their bigoted, superstitious views. He had been chosen as Offering when Kuroko had been a toddler still clinging to his mother's skirts, been ripped apart from his family and sacrificed to the woods. There were no memories of him left, but his scarf hung loosely around Kuroko's neck as he made his way forth.
Demon child, ghost child
To be unseen is not to be unknown. As soon as he had passed the threshold past childhood, Kuroko had realized what was to come, the sealing of a fate long in the making. He had preferred to leave on his own terms, to strip them of this ultimate victory. Satchel in hand, he had remained elusive until the day had come and when it did, he had passed the border by himself, under the furious eyes of the villagers.
Hours from that moment, with the forest and the gardens left behind, he moved past the imposing stone fountain and reached the bottom of the stairs to the castle, twisted gargoyles guarding them on each side. Ice coated the stone surfaced, the air more frigid than anywhere else, the shadows present as always. His hand grabbed the railing tightly, gloveless fingers almost blue due to the weather's capricious nature. A step, another and another, careful footsteps seeking purchase on the slippery surface and finally the journey was at an end.
The doors swung open by themselves as the gates had, a single flickering candle beckoning him inside. A shaky breath wrecked his body; the instinct to flee when met with dangerous circumstances gripped his heart tightly. Inside, the castle was dark and dusty, cobwebs illuminated by the pale light. He shook, trembling from fear and cold, his limbs almost numb. The wind picked up pace as he stood undecided, pressing at him mercilessly, making his mind up for him.
No turning back, no turning back, no turning back.
Steely resolve washed over him, determination bursting over apprehensive features. His feet moved out of their own accord, leading Kuroko inside, deeper and deeper as the candle that had lingered almost in the doorway before, moved further and further away. A loud bang echoed in the castle, a signal that the doors had been closed.
A chuckle echoed from the darkness, the sound of icy amusement and Kuroko froze, eyes flickering to every corner, squinted gaze trying to discern anything in the gloom.
"Such a tiny offering," darkness wrapped around the words uttered, the promise of danger bleeding through seemingly soft spoken syllables. "Were I not to know better, I would peg you for a child still."
Kuroko froze, his body tuning immobile as the voice came nearer and nearer, bringing the shadows along with it, obscuring the remaining vestiges of light. The boy alone seemed to be illuminated, a tiny gleam in the encompassing darkness. "My servants reassured me otherwise. What is it that they called you? An Offering that offered itself. Most curious indeed. How many of your peers had to be forcefully pushed past the threshold? How many broke down and wept, begged for mercy as they ventured in my woods? How many tried to turn back, not realizing it was too late? And yet you moved past the border out of your own volition…"
A hand broke out of the gloom, resting on Kuroko's shoulder and making him flinch at the sudden touch. The skin was pale, milky white, long, elegant fingers framed by black claws resting in the simplest of grasp on the woolen cloth of Kuroko's clothes, and yet betraying a deceptively strong grip. "Impressive and yet so utterly foolish," the voice continued, a derisive edge to the utterly inhuman tone. "Tell me, little offering, are you a fool to walk such into the Beast's lair? Do you love your peers so much?" A scoff at the word love, vitriol coating the four letters spoken almost with fury, though the tone remained calm, yet commandeering. An answer was expected and one had to be given.
"I wished to be rid of them. There are not many ways in which that was achievable," the boy replied, voice calm and collected, betraying none of the turmoil he felt inside. His blue gaze remained blank, unfeeling, features schooled into a mask of uninterested politeness that had kept him alive till then.
He did not expect the Beast to come closer out of a sudden, echoes of feet shuffling forth, dragging the shadows with him. He did not expect the grip on his shoulder to tighten and a pair of eyes to glint in the darkness – mismatched, one red, one gold. Neither did he expect the laughter coming from the other, rich with amusement as his features seemed to bleed out from the shadows, coalescing into a deceptively human face.
"Interesting. You are an interesting Offering," a grin split the other's features, a glimpse of sharp teeth given as his lips parted briefly in amusement, gaze riveted on the blue haired boy. The rest of his body remained firmly surrounded by darkness, a caressing embrace of a deadly lover and Kuroko wondered briefly whether the Beast commanded the shadows or whether the shadows themselves chose to subject themselves to his rule.
"Tell me little Offering, will you give me what I seek? Will you give me your name or shall I devour you whole?"
Kuroko did not need time to think; his mind had been made up the moment he had stepped through the circle of trees, the cold forest accepting him as Offering.
"Tetsuya. My name is Tetsuya," and his blue eyes glinted with a new sort of determination, cerulean gaze meeting the mismatched one of the Beast squarely. The Beast laughed, a chilling crow of amusement and the shadows parted, revealing him fully for the first time. Black wings, leathery and spindly, unfurled at his back, their tips brushing the cobbled floor. Red hair gleamed in the semi-darkness, a dying sunset scarlet as fey like as Kuroko's own sky blue, tousled strands. A pair of ivory black horns jutted out above the Beast's slightly pointed ears, arching back in wicked sharp tips. He looked demonic, otherworldly, and yet Kuroko did not quail nor cower at the sight.
"Tetsuya," the Beast crooned, a crooked grin twisting his features. "Tetsuya," he repeated, the syllables rolling off his tongue as if tasting them, victory palpable in the simple word. "You may call me Akashi."