Humidity made the evening summer air so thick it felt as though it could be parted and moved aside with human hands. Moisture pooled around his neck and dripped down his back and chest as sweat. His whole body felt sticky and confined, even though he was surrounded by nothing but open space. It was on days like this when he rather disliked the leather armor that he wore.
The people of this village were quiet that night. The only ones he could see as he slipped into a back alley were a few studious stall vendors that were still hoping to catch even one more customer before the town's bell sounded the curfew call.
Doumeki Shizuka flexed his gloved hands as he checked his gear again. It was perhaps a nervous habit, but it was one that helped calm his nerves whenever he was about to walk into an uncertain and likely dangerous situation.
This village had been mostly quiet in regards to trouble, but the Hunter's Council had received an anonymous tip about a suspicious individual that went to the market very early in the morning every other day. There had been nothing outwardly wrong with this person, but apparently their aura alone was enough to frighten someone. Someone with connections, and someone that could make the Hunter's Council take notice if they complained enough.
Captain Doumeki of the 4th Division was asked to investigate this tip personally when a scout confirmed the aura of a witch in the market district of South Cross Village three days later. Doumeki thought it was ridiculous that he needed to be the one to go when he had three green recruits himself that needed a job just like this one to really sink their teeth into and gain some experience, but he didn't question the Council – no one did. He'd never even met any of the people on the Hunter's Council, even though the men in his family had been hunters for nearly seven hundred years. No one met the Council unless they were invited to join it.
A small gray cat ran across his path in the alley as he worked his way around the usual debris that littered the streets of poorer villages like this one. From behind him he heard the sound of gravel crunching. When he looked over his shoulder he just caught the sight of a bushy orange tail before it disappeared behind a wood picket fence, the gray cat from before not far behind. There was definitely something strange going on, as the animals were acting oddly. His suspicion was confirmed when a bird cawed loudly above him, unable to stop itself from flapping its wings furiously without ever actually taking off. Doumeki checked his gear once more. He had his bow, his long sword and his daggers, protection bells, spell wards, and keystone powder. His will power was tested and unbending. He was sufficiently well equipped to handle anything a witch might throw out at him.
Even though it was his job to hunt these creatures, it was not a job he particularly relished. He was a hunter as his father had been, and his grandfather before that. Part of him felt it was something that he had to do and could not quit no matter his distaste, but that was perhaps because he was seeking some sort of atonement for his grandfather Haruka. It was a family disgrace that he'd fallen prey to the binding curse of a witch fifteen years ago. Doumeki remembered nothing but a brief flash of his father yelling, the walls of the house pounding, and his mother sobbing as she clutched his four-year old self to her chest and refused to let him see the fight.
A witch had taken Doumeki Haruka for their own, and it seemed Haruka had not put up a fight at the end. Shizuka's father had explained, many years later, that it was the curse the witch had used that had altered his grandfather's ability to think, so in the end Haruka wasn't to blame for what had happened. He had become nothing more than a puppet, unable to question and reason on his own. It was the most powerful binding curse their generation had ever seen, and no one that knew Haruka actually blamed him for falling prey to such power.
Shizuka would find justice for that, even though the witch that had taken him was likely already dead. Witches did not live long once they succumbed to the wicked magic they lusted for. They were usually very pretty women and men that were targeted to continue the practice. Once they succumbed, they became mad. They killed with relish and without reason, they stole anything that pleased them, and their magic ripped the natural world in devastating ways that allowed hungry spirits to gain purchase in the physical world and wreak their own havoc. The Hunter's Council had been develop nearly a thousand years ago in a desperate attempt to organize a defense against such utter chaos. The Doumeki family had been fighting as hunters since their first son had been cursed by a witch and stolen seven hundred years ago.
Removing his mind from thoughts of the past, Captain Doumeki looked at the lot across from him at the end of the alley. At first glance it appeared to be just that – and empty lot. As he walked closer and focused a house suddenly came into view. The architecture did not match the other ramshackle homes around it. There were crescent moons on the top of the traditionally styled roof, large hydrangea bushes in the front garden, and a colored glass pathway that led up to a set of double doors of mahogany wood.
This house had a very powerful notice-me-not charm. Doumeki was certain this was where the witch lived. It was no surprise no one could find him or her, once they disappeared from the market in the mornings. While this charm itself was powerful and note-worthy Doumeki was certain that he would be fine going in alone. As the youngest captain in the past four hundred years, Doumeki Shizuka was hailed as a prodigy. If the memory of his grandfather's failure had not always been a quiet, looming shadow on his reputation the barely there whispers that he'd be promoted to general soon would likely be much louder. If there was only one witch here he was in no danger, and it was likely that he wouldn't be able to capture the witch once he left this area again. There was more to warding a house from viewers and trespassers than charms. Doumeki was certain that should he return later he would meet more resistance than if he simply went in now.
Without preamble Doumeki walked up the immaculate glass trail and opened up the front door. He drew one of his spell wards and held it at the ready by his chest. Immediately a rush of cool air hit him as the door opened. The relief it brought from the oppressive heat and humidity he tried to ignore, even though the sweat cooling against his skin sent pleasant sensations down his body. His nose tickled with the magic buzzing in the air. Doumeki closed the door and slapped the ward over the seal. Immediately some of the cool air melted away to more summer heat. In response he pulled out another.
The hallway he found himself in was dark. In his other hand Doumeki pulled out his dagger. There was no telling what he'd find further in.
A light spilled in from a sliding door up ahead, and there was noise and the pounding of feet-
Doumeki blinked when two young girls rushed up to him and bowed lowly. They had oddly colored hair of pink and blue. Their eyes matched their hair. They grinned up at him as if they'd been waiting for him.
"Master's been expecting you!"
"He's been expecting you!" They chorused together.
"What?" He managed to find his voice. While his face was carefully schooled to let no emotion show, he found himself a little flabbergasted. These girls had no aura at all – none that he could detect. Had they no souls? He had always been adept at detecting auras, even from things as mundane as grass and trees. Even witches had souls, twisted and bent as they were. Illusions, then?
The girls grabbed his hands, one for each of them, and pulled him towards the sliding door in front of him that was made of nothing but a wood frame and decorative paper. They seemed utterly careless that he had weapons in each hand. Before he could even protest he found himself in a lushly furnished sitting room. The motif seemed to be butterflies and smokey swirls. There was a man sitting on the couch, surrounded by pillows. He wore an elaborate kimono that was perhaps a size too large for him. It was slipping a bit off his frame to reveal perfect shoulders, a delicate neck and a small peak at a pale chest. One of his legs was propped up on a mahogany coffee table in front of him, the slit of the kimono revealing skin clean up to his thigh. He was lazily smoking from a long teak pipe in one of his slender hands, a smile on his lips. Doumeki couldn't even smell tobacco, but merely a strong scent of cloves and incense.
The man was achingly beautiful. His coal black hair looked baby fine and small strands were fly-away. The cool air was unaffected by Doumeki's earlier ward in the hallway. A pair of eyes so blue they could have been windows to an ocean gazed coolly back at him. "Witch," Doumeki greeted. There was no denying what this creature was.
The man chucked, rich and breathy. "Ah, hunter. So good to see you." He took another drag from his pipe, completely at ease.
Doumeki felt his senses increase with panic. If this witch was so calm, even in the presence of a captain like him, it likely wasn't out of arrogance. This was not a typical response from a witch.
One long hand beckoned him forward. "Come closer, let's get a good look at you."
Doumeki's feet obliged all on their own, even though he did not tell himself to do so. He gritted his teeth in frustration.
"Hmm..." the witch smiled, as if he'd just sipped a fine cup of alcohol. "Black leather armor, weapons, a spell ward in hand..." He chuckled again, as if the attempts at defense were funny. "Strong chin, striking gold eyes... A Doumeki son, then."
He knows. Words and names contained power. Every hunter knew that. Doumeki was careful to never let his given name be known to anyone he didn't fully trust, so no one could have full power over him.
The witch laughed again as he pushed his back against his cushions. "Doumeki Shizuka." He puffed his pipe. "I've been waiting for you."
Doumeki forced his will to make his body work for him again. There was magic in this room as well, and he could feel the witch trying to wrap it around him. He flung the spell ward towards the man sitting on the couch and jumped backwards. Without waiting he threw a fistful of his keystone powder in a half circle in front of him and drew his longsword. With one uttered word of power he drew fire from the powder and thrust it forward, the gold flames licking up like a viper striking out at it's prey.
The air become cold like a frozen winter day and his lungs closed tightly in his chest. His eyes flashed with white and gray and blue, his heart pounded when the earth under his feet went boom! Then he was on his knees and invisible rope pulled him forward, back towards the witch. His thrown powder parted around his knees and legs and stuck to his clothes. His arms were pulled roughly behind him in the same invisible bindings. His fingers dug into the tatami mats under him.
The man laughed like a child with a new toy. "Oh, you are a feisty hunter! Delightful!" He clutched his hands together in glee and laughed again.
Doumeki struggled against his invisible bonds but his body would not move. "Who... what are you?" He ground out.
The witch smiled as he slid off his couch to kneel in front of the hunter. His hands slithered up Doumeki's shoulders and his fingers tickled at the hunter's hairline. "I, dear hunter, am not a what, I am Watanuki Kimihiro."
"You are a witch," Doumeki growled in frustration. His body twitched as he continued to struggle.
Watanuki giggled and pressed his partially exposed chest against his captive. "A witch? Perish the thought... No my hunter. I am no witch." He pulled back and dragged his right hand along Doumeki's jaw line. He looked extremely pleased with himself.
Doumeki recognized the sense in the statement. Whatever the man was doing to him, it was nothing he'd ever seen a witch do before. He was utterly powerless to do anything, and such a situation had never happened to him before. That didn't explain what he was though.
"I am a Traveler."
Doumeki narrowed his eyes and tried to ignore the sensation of thin, feminine hands running along his neck, through his hair, across his shoulders and down his chest. "Traveler?" He asked.
"Hmm," Watanuki chuckled again. "Yes. Dimension Traveler. I am free to move about from world to world as I wish. As it turns out, this world has been my favorite for a while."
A Dimension Traveler. Doumeki had only ever heard about such creatures from myth and passed down folklore. They weren't supposed to exist. He struggled harder. This could not bode well for him. He would not be able to actually defeat a Traveler, if this was indeed what this man was. "What do you want with me?"
"Want with you?" Watanuki repeated, as though it was a question he'd never expected to be asked. He chuckled with a heavy breath and pressed his face into the crook of Doumeki's neck. The hunter felt lips run feather light against his skin. "Oh, Shizuka...that you even need to ask." The hunter gasped lightly when a tongue licked up his neck to the shell of his ear. "You're mine. I intend to keep you."
Doumeki did not even need to think about it to know what this meant for him. His life was essentially over if this was the Traveler's intentions. A curse would be placed on him and his mind would lose the ability to think on its own. He would be subject to the will and suggestions of this Watanuki with no active memory of who he really was.
His family would be in disgrace. While it was inevitable for every clan to lose a few of its members throughout the years to exceptionally powerful foes, it was rare for it to happen so frequently. There was only one generation separating Doumeki Shizuka from his grandfather Harkua. It would appear as if their family had grown weak. Would the Council punish his mother and father? Banish them? Ignore them? Doumeki didn't even want to think about what would happen to that girl he was betrothed to.
Hunters lived very short lives due to their line of work. It was essential that each hunter create offspring to pass down their abilities to fight witches and keep the rest of society relatively safe. It had been determined early on that this might be a difficult task for many hunters. The training usually left a hunter as a cold, detached person that was quick to temper and slight on words. Any woman of proper birth would not want to marry such a man. He would never be home, usually wounded when he was, and likely not very attentive.
No, marriages for hunters were arranged as soon as a the child exhibited the ability to fight magic. Women were picked that would be suitable to bare their children and raise them. The woman would be well taken care of as far as material needs, she would never want for food or clothes or shelter, and the hunter's bloodline would continue. Hunters must marry at nineteen, become fathers at twenty, and usually died by the age of fifty. The body could only handle so much trauma from magic that witches used to fight them. Eventually their heart would simply give out if they did not succumb to insanity first. Doumeki had never seen very many old hunters. The ones he had seen when he was younger were so senile it had been frightening.
Kunogi Himawari was a nice enough girl, though Doumeki never had any desire to accept a wife. As usual, though, he was not given a choice, and he supposed he could have been stuck with worse. Kunogi was a good fit for a hunter. She had been strangely cursed with bad luck. Only herself and her parents were immune to the devastating effects of her curse, and any hunter who's spirit was pure enough could touch her without harm coming to him. For normal society she was a scurge to avoid. For a hunter that would never be home, die young, and be unaffected by her condition, she'd be perfect.
What would the Council do with her afterward? Would they give her to a different hunter? Would she be exiled, since there might not be any more hunters in need of a wife her age? Would they suspect she'd been the cause of his capture? Would they torture her?
The muscles around his heart tightened with pain and his stomach dropped to his knees. Doumeki's body continued to twitch as he struggled against his bonds. "You can't-"
"Oh, yes, Shizuka. I can," Watanuki practically sang. Teeth nibbled at Doumeki's ear as Watanuki started to trail his right hand down the front of the hunter's chest.
Doumeki tried not to think as he felt his armor ripple away from the man's hand like it was becoming water. His armor parted without fanfare and dangled uselessly at his sides. Cool air hit his skin and revealed his toned abdomen.
The nibbling teeth trailed slowly and languorously down his neck, always accompanied by a slick tongue slipping over the taught skin. "Shizuka," Watakuki breathed heavily. The other arm not tracing patterns on Doumeki's chest tightened around his side. "It must be hot outside. I taste the sweat all over you..." The man chuckled lowly, his teeth scraping the area just above Doumeki's clavicle by his shoulder. "Invigorating..."
It was the only warning he had before those very blunt human teeth bit down hard enough to break skin. His muscles seized around the area in protest. Doumeki chocked back a scream, though some of it still slipped past. His hair raised on end and his body buzzed as the magic entered him, swirling around and inside. His blood felt hot under his skin and everything hurt but there was such an intense pleasure that emerged in the whirlwind of agony that it caused him to cry out a second time, though he would not remember doing so. He felt invisible fingers probing at his mind and his ability to think, coaxing him to relax, enjoy...breathe, my Shizuka. Breathe and cry out for me...
A tear slide out of the corner of one brass colored eye as the sting of a tongue ran over his new wound. His whole body trembled as the episode came to its close.
Watanuki laughed as he pulled away. There was a drip of blood that clung to the bottom of his lower lip. "You should be heading home now, my dear hunter. Your general will likely be looking for your report soon, won't he?" The Traveler cupped his face like an old lover. "Do not worry. You will find me again, in time."
"I'll never look for you," Doumeki managed to gasp out.
Watanuki merely smiled more widely. He licked the blood from his lip and his eyes twinkled like it was melted ice cream he'd just tasted. "You won't even have to look. It is your fate to be mine. It is...inevitable."
Just as the man leaned forward in an almost kiss, oceanic eyes trained solely upon his, there was a whirl of hot and cold air around him and then everything was gone. Doumeki crumbled to his side once his invisible bindings vanished from around him, his body weak and spent from the binding curse placed upon him. The last remainder of his keystone powder lay around him in the grass of the empty lot the house once occupied. His very bones vibrated with exhaustion.
He'd been a fool to enter that house at all. How he or any of his fellow hunters could stop such a creature, he did not know. If he was honest with himself he didn't think anyone was powerful enough to stop a person with the ability to cross time, space, and dimensions at will and ensnare any that they chose. It was inevitable that someone would fall prey to this Watanuki Kimihiro, but why did it have to be him?
When Doumeki came to, he realized someone was calling out his name. He blinked his eyes open, but they felt dry and sticky. It was difficult and painful to open his eyelids and feel the intensely moist air hit him. The sting caused his eyes to water with moisture. He blinked rapidly to try and clear his vision.
It was the aura of a hunter that was over him and calling for him. The earthy smell in his nose told him he'd fallen asleep in the empty lot at the end of the alley. His limbs were stiff and it felt like a piece of hot iron was pressed against his shoulder still.
He recognized this aura... "Subaru?"
"Captain!" The young man above him said in relief. "I've been trying to wake you for a while now. It's nearly daylight. What happened to you?"
Doumeki looked at his subordinate and tried to formulate a response. He was still too tired to think clearly. "Hnn..." was all he could manage. His head flopped back onto the chilled morning ground.
Subaru's young face twisted with worry above him. Doumeki felt hands and arms lifting him up. He grunted and gasped in protest as his shoulder was moved and jostled. "I need to get you back to the barracks, captain, before everyone wakes up."
Ensign Sumeragi Subaru half walked and half carried his wounded captain over to his waiting horse. Doumeki was not well enough to sit upright on the tall beast, so Subaru settled for flinging the prostrate man over the horse's back before mounting himself. He guided the black creature quickly and quietly out of the village before there were any witnesses.
When Captain Doumeki had not returned to the barracks that night Subaru became worried, and as it turned out it was with good reason. Everyone knew that he'd been given orders by General Monou to investigate the reports of a possible witch in South Cross Village. It should have been simple and routine. It was also strangely suspicious, as it was usually a much lower ranking hunter that would have been sent out. The fact that Doumeki was singled out by the council to be the one to take on the mission was...worrisome. Ensign Subaru decided it would be practical of him to go out and look for his captain once the witching hour had passed and still Doumeki was nowhere in sight.
Subaru had never seen Captain Doumeki so injured before. While it didn't appear that he had sustained any truly heavy wounds, Subaru could detect the curse that had been placed on his captain. The only problem was that he couldn't tell what kind of curse it was. He knew a binding curse when he saw one. Every hunter was trained to detect them and fight against them. This curse looked like a binding curse – it certainly held all the right characteristics at first glance. There was a bite mark on his right shoulder that was crusted with blood. It had drained his energy and left him weak. It wreaked of magic. It was there, however, that the similarities ended. Subaru could not detect the aura of the witch that placed it on him. There was no malevolence around the mark the way there was supposed to be. When he'd tried to use a spell ward to slow down the effects the paper burned to a crisp the moment it touched the captain's affected skin. When Subaru tried to use keystone powder and place his own seal around the curse a bright sharp pain raced up his arm and left his muscles feeling weak, as though he'd just been electrocuted.
Almost...it almost felt like a protection spell, but he'd never seen a protection spell applied so brutally before.
"Nrrrrgh..." Doumeki grumbled from behind him on the horse.
"It's all right, captain. We're heading back. You've been wounded. I'll have the medic take a look at you when we reach the barracks."
"Nnn..no..." Doumeki rasped behind him. He was just coherent enough to know that he couldn't let the council know about the curse on him. They'd lock him up for good, or punish him for his stupidity.
"Captain!" Subaru pressed.
"N-No," he managed to say more firmly.
Subaru sighed. "What happened?"
When Doumeki attempted to speak next he felt his throat constrict around his windpipe. Of course. The Traveler wouldn't want him to speak about him. Things could become troublesome for Watanuki Kimihiro if the Hunter's Council became aware of his presence, even if there was very little they could do to hamper him.
"Was it a witch?" Subaru pressed again.
Doumeki fought against the spell placed on him. "...no," he was finally able to gasp. "Nothing...nothing I've..." he was forced to stop as the magic battled against him. "...I've seen before." The moment the words were out of his mouth his teeth snapped together and his muscles seized again. He wouldn't be able to say anything else about it, he knew.
Subaru's eyes widened with the new information, but he didn't comment any further.
When Doumeki came to again, he opened his eyes to see a sterile white ceiling hanging above him. He was back at the barracks. He grunted as he moved to rest on his uninjured shoulder and gathered his bearings. It appeared that he'd been relieved of his ruined armor and his wound had been cleaned and bandaged. The summer air was still achingly hot during the day, but it was bearable now that he was wearing just a cotton shirt and was only covered with a thin but clean set of sheets on his bed.
Doumeki sighed. He did not know what he was going to do about this new situation, and he also didn't know how he was going to address it with his subordinate. Subaru couldn't say anything to anyone or he'd find himself in a lot of trouble, even if it wasn't his fault.
The sound of creaking hinges from behind him informed Doumeki that someone was entering his room. Padded feet shuffled along until a body made itself known in front of him. Doumeki released a barely detectable sigh at seeing Ensign Subaru.
"Sumeragi," he intoned.
Subaru met his eyes and bowed lightly. "Sir. I'm glad to see you awake."
Doumeki rubbed his eyes and gingerly sat up on his bed. "What time is it?"
"The dinner hour, Sir. You've been resting all day."
Lovely. The commander was going to have words with him, Doumeki was certain.
Subaru visibly fidgeted with the sword holster strapped to his waist. "I informed Commander Sakurazuka that you were resting, as you'd been up all night searching for the witch."
Doumeki narrowed his hawk-like eyes at Subaru. "And?"
Subaru's hand twitched again. "I said you didn't find anything."
The breath the captain released this time was visible. Doumeki was grateful for the lie that his ensign invented for him. "Thank you."
Ensign Sumeragi's posture relaxed, though he still stayed rooted to the spot. What else could he want? "Sir..." he hesitated. Doumeki could see the question coming from three leagues away. "How are you feeling?"
Doumeki grunted and rolled his injured shoulder experimentally. The pain was very nearly gone. "I'm fine."
"Is there anything else?" He cut off Subaru's next question before it could even be asked.
Subaru swallowed. "Commander said a new squad of hunters from the academy are due in tomorrow morning. He asked that I relay your orders to get them oriented in our barracks at daybreak."
Doumeki internally winced, though his face gave nothing away. He hated new recruits. "Thank you, ensign. That will be all."
Subaru bowed jerkily, then left. Doumeki tried to ignore the concerned eyes that stared at him until his door was closed. Between running from this Watanuki fellow, yelling at wet-behind-the-ears recruits, angry and suspicious generals and commanders, a fiance he didn't want and the Hunter's Council breathing down his neck after this highly suspicious mission, Doumeki could almost see his death by insanity gazing happily back at him through the mirror that hung on the wall in his quarters, merrily waving and winking at him. This death from madness looked suspiciously like the slim, elegant lunatic that had cursed him that very night.
Doumeki was a dead man.