Vaughn paced through the forest, dappled shadows chasing the sun patches through the swaying trees as he made his way down to the stream. He growled at a fox that crossed his path, his normal indifference to the woodland creatures fouled by the human who dared to enter his domain. At the river he drank deeply, ridding his mouth of the bitter taste of human blood.
It had been decades since anyone had been foolish enough to enter the Forsaken Woods (a stupid but apt name in his opinion). Well, anyone except the elf. Gavan still insisted on visiting, still trying to find a way to free him. Vaughn snorted. He didn’t need to be redeemed, those humans had deserved what he had done and Gavan would never convince him otherwise. But the elf was her friend, and he would never insult her by chasing Gavan away. No matter how annoying he was.
The water still as he lifted his muzzle, and he regarded his reflection for just a moment before his deep growl caused ripples to distort the image. Once he had been the strongest of all demons, a rare shapeshifter with almost omnipotent abilities. However, when the humans fell, after their betrayal and his subsequent slaughter of those involved – the races had acted to stop his blind rage. He glared at the silver cuff that circled his right paw, the infused magic shackling him to the confines of the woods, but worse, trapping him in the feline form he had been in at the time.
His fire orange feline eyes narrow in irritation at his reflection. His obsidian fur was broken only on his ears, twin tails and a diamond blaze on his forehead, where the fur’s amber hue matched his eyes. Red drops of blood, almost invisible against the black fur, were welling where the idiot human had managed to drag his hunting knife across his left eye. The eye was undamaged but the wound would likely scar. Not that it mattered, he had plenty of those already. He glared at the wound, thinking he could really use opposable thumbs but simply huffed in annoyance as he shoved his face in the stream to get the human stench out and clean the wound, knowing that it would heal in a few hours.
He started to wander, idly questioning why he hadn’t just killed the man and be done with it. Centuries ago, he would have without hesitation. However, letting the man flee, bleeding and broken from the woods, would remind anyone else foolish enough to return what awaited them. It was odd that it had been a human. They were rare in this world, most of them disappearing during that traitor Mateos’s uprising. But a few had survived. She had survived. Without meaning to, his feet had started taking him to the clearing in the woods where they had met and he stopped. He did not want to go there, not with the shame of one of her kins blood on his claws.
He turned back, taking only one step before a scent drifted in on the wind, another human scent, and it was coming from the clearing. He felt unbridled rage at the thought of some human trespassing on the last scared memory he had. He tore through the trees, his massive body far more agile than it appeared as he gracefully dodged the forest debris. He had a vision of another hunter, but something about the scent was different. It was younger, much younger than the hunter, female and – something almost, familiar. Not that it would matter, anyone who had ventured this far into the woods would get no mercy from him. But when he finally cleared the trees and emerged in the glade, all his anger vanished into stunned confusion.
Staring back at him was a wide-eyed girl, a child of maybe four or five years in age. Her hair hung in a mass of honey locks, framing a heart shaped face with two bright blue eyes staring widely back at him. Vaughan skidded to a stop ten feet from the girl, unsure of what to do. He had eviscerated men and women by the hundreds, slay demons and beasts who had challenged his power. Yet something about this child…
Vaughn leaned his muzzle close to the girl, summoning a tiny growl and bearing his fangs and claws half-heartedly. This child was not worth the effort of dirtying his claws again. The little girl’s eyes grew even wider, a tiny noise escaping from her lips before she turned and fled towards the edge of clearing. Vaughn turned to leave, but watched as the child made it as far as the edge of the clearing only to duck behind a boulder and stay there. He waited for the sounds of her footfalls to continue but was confused when, instead, she waited a moment before she peeked back out at him, hurrying to hide again when he let out another growl.
This went on for the better part of an hour, the little girl watching him from where she hid and Vaughn making a move or sound that sent her back to her hiding place. Vaughn just wanted the stupid tiny thing to run back to wherever it had come from, but for some irrational reason he found he didn’t want to leave the child alone in the woods. He may be the most dangerous beast in the woods, but he wasn’t the only one. He looked up at the sky, the west starting to sink into the oranges and purples of sunset as the east began to darken with blues and blacks. He flicked an ear at the steps, head falling to stare where little girl was frozen mid step about ten feet from him.
He let out an exasperated huff, getting tired of this game as the little girl stepped back, her hands held tightly behind her back. She looked back at the boulder, as if looking for someone then looked back at Vaughn with a cross of fear and determination on her tiny child face. She took the smallest shuffle step forward, flinging her hands out and Vaughn jumped back, unsure what she was doing and half expecting an assault of sorts. His movement had startled the girl as well and he watched as a handful of purple and orange flowers fell to the ground, followed swiftly by the little girl. She sat there staring up at him, her wide eyes frozen in fear. He slowly leaned down, sniffing the flowers and arched an eye at her when he realized they were in fact only flowers and not some cleverly hidden weapon.
“What, precisely, were you trying to do with these flowers little one?”
He watched the little girls mouth drop open, and to his surprise she leaned in a little closer, as if – in awe.
“Ano, you can speak English Neko-san?”
Her voice had an odd accent mixed in with the breathless way he remembered most children spoke, and she used words he wasn’t sure he quite understood. He arched a brow, wondering if she was perhaps too young to understand a full conversation.
“What is English Neko-san?”
Vaughn was shocked when the little girl rolled back and started to shake. He leaned forward, wondering if she was having a seizure of sorts, and to his horror found that the little brat was, laughing. He narrowed his eyes at her, wondering how she went from being terrified of him, to staring up at him with that stupid grin on her face.
“No silly, English Neko-san isn’t a thing! Oh! Gomen- I mean sorry. Mama says I mix up my Nihongo and my English too much.” She scrunched up her nose, speaking each word carefully as if to make sure she was using the correct one. “I said you speak English Mr. Cat!”
The little girl beamed at him, as if she had just announced she was a princess. Vaughn scrunched his muzzle in annoyance, his voice laced with a growl.
“My name is not ‘Mr. Cat’ and I do not know what this ‘English’ is.”
“It is what you speak! My name is Hikari, what’s your name Mr. Cat?”
Vaughn flicked an ear in irritation, trying to remind himself that children were not always the most intelligent creatures to speak with. He laid where he was, eyeing the tiny being when she scooted closer, exasperation evident as he.
“Stop calling me that. How did you get here, little one? Where is your family?”
“Mama and Papa and Kenshin Ji-chan are at home. My friend said that they couldn’t come with me here.”
Vaughn frowned, wondering what the child meant by that. He absently twitched his two tails while he thought, and jumped up as the little girl gasped. Vaughn’s head swiveled as he scanned the clearing for some sign of danger, looking back at the child to find that she was staring at him, or more specifically, at his tails. Gone were any signs of fear she had as she ran forward, stopping just a foot or two away from him and staring intently at his tails. Her closeness stirred some unknown feeling in him and he flicked an ear at her, his voice rumbling in aggravation as he stood to put space between them.
“What are you all worked up about, you stupid brat?”
He watched the little girl point up at his tails, nothing short of amazement in her voice.
“You have two tails! All the cats I know only have one.”
“They are clearly inferior beasts.”
She scrunched her face up, her gaze shifting from Vaughn’s ears and the mark on his forehead as she frowned.
“Does it hurt?”
Vaugn looked at her in confusion.
“Does what hurt?”
“Your tails, and your ears. They are on fire!”
Vaughn felt the corner of his jaw tick up in something that was absolutely not a smirk. He sat back on his haunches, his tails wrapping comfortably around his paws as he cocked his head to Hikari.
“I assure you, little one, my fur is not on fire. It is just naturally that color.”
She threw him an exceptionally skeptically glance for someone so young as she went back to staring at his tails, and Vaughn rolled his eyes as he flicked a tail over at her landing just a in front of her.
“See for yourself.”
Hikari reached slowly down, her hand hovering just above the proffered tail when she glanced quickly back up at the feline demon. He watched her take a breath as if preparing to face death itself and thrust her hand into his fur. She giggled, a smile lighting up her face running her hands through the velvety fur as if it was the softest thing she had ever felt.
Vaughn stiffened at the contact. He could not remember the last time anyone had willingly come so close to him, let alone touched him with such casual ease. Memories of midnight hair and dark eyes began to surface and he shook them away, whipping his tail away from the girl. She pouted a little but he ignored it his voice a little gruffer as he moved to lay down, putting a few more inches between them.
“As I said, no fire.”
The little girl ignored the fact that he had moved away, moving to plop right in front of his face completely oblivious to the fangs that were likely longer than her arms. He let out a small grumble and she gave him a quizzical look, those blue eyes open and honest and so innocent.
“Are you sad Mr. Cat?”
Vaughn balked at the question, putting his nose right in her face and blowing her golden hair back with a snort.
“What an imprudent question. I am a demon, I do not get sad!”
To her credit, Hikari didn’t back away from his hostile tones, just rocked back on her heels and squinted as if she were studying him. She put her face right up to his left eye, assessing the wound that was already starting to knit itself together. A tiny arm rose as if to touch the wound and he let out a soft warning growl, but she just pointed to a small scar on her arm and then back his scar.
“A bully must have done that so you must be sad. I know I am sad when the other kids bully me. Mama says it’s cuz I am different because she and Papa are from America but we live in Japan. But we all go to the same school and do the same things – I don’t get why we are different. So, they push me sometimes and call me weird and it makes me sad.”
Vaughn stared at this tiny human as if she were an alien being. For someone so young she was already learning the cruelty that can come from others. He huffed uncomfortably, unsure of what to say but Hikari jumped up and started running around the clearing, gathering the flowers she dropped. She began to talk animated, her previous melancholy vanishing as she chatted away.
“But it’s ok because I have Rika-san who is with me and she is really nice. And Kenshin Oji-san is fun to play with. He teaches me karate and kendo!” Vaughn felt his mouth twitch up as he watched her flail her arms and legs wildly, petals from the flowers scattering as she waved them around like a sword. “I’m getting super good. And today I met a real nice lady who said you were lonely and she said that me and you will be bestest friends!”
Vaugn jumped back as if the words had scalded him.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” his narrowed eyes blazed with power, the orange in his fur starting to glow like an auburn sunset as he growled, “I am a demon, little one. I have no need of friends.”
He had had enough of this. He wasn’t even sure why he was still entertaining his involvement with this child. He leapt to the other side of the clearing, flicking his tails at her as he spoke.
“You are lucky I don’t eat you. Go back where ever you came from and never disturb my forest again.”
He ignored her shout as he moved into the forest, his mood darkening as he moved deeper into the forest. He was not foolish enough to get involved with the humans again, no matter how bite sized they may be. But before he could make it very far, a tiny scream pierced the darkness. He looked to the west, surprised to see the last of the sun slip beyond the horizon. The little brat was probably afraid of the dark. He let out a huff, moving further away when another inhuman screech followed. He froze for only an instant as he recognized the cry of harpy, his feet moving before he even realized what he was doing.
When he broke out through the trees, he could see the little girl huddled by the boulder, a harpy circling above her. He could smell the blood before he saw the talon wound on the girl’s arm, and rage flooded his vision. In one leap he was across the clearing, the harpy struggling where his claws pinned it to the ground. He would have ripped the winged beast into pieces but the feeling of tiny hands on his back leg as Hikari buried her face into his fur stopped him. He let his breath fall hot on the harpy’s face, his voice low and sharp as a blade as he said, “Do not come back.”
The harpy let out a fearful cry, twisting and disappearing into the sky as soon as Vaugn moved his paw. Vaugn eyed the little girl as she peeked out, shaking a little as she watched her attacker disappear. He saw the child slump to the ground, and her eyes shone in the moonlight, tears brimming on her eyelashes. Vaughn leaned back, something akin to panic starting to creep into his mind.
“S-stop that!” he hissed. “You cannot – there is no – crying in the Forsaken Woods!” He uttered the word ‘crying’ as if it were acid. Hikari sniffed, unable to stop the tears as Vaughn grumbled, “Hell’s bells child what’s the matter?”
Hikari rubbed at her nose, her face becoming blotchy as she stuttered through the tears “I was s-so scared!”
Vaugn sighed, grabbing the child by the scruff of her shirt and dropping her on the boulder so they were eye level. He examined her wound, unbidden relief setting in when he realized it was only a scratch. She let out a tiny hiccup and Vaughn grumbled at her.
“Enough. I do not associate with beings who blubber like a new born kit.” Vaughn flicked an ear in annoyance, turning his head as if to ignore one of his tails lifting to wipe the tears from her face. A small giggle escaped from Hikari, and the noise lightening some of the turmoil in Vaughn’s chest. When he looked back, the moonlight that lit the clearing glowed of her and he could see the smile that lit up her face.
“You saved me!”
Vaughn grunted. “I do not abide harpies poaching in my territory.”
“You saved me! So, we are now friends Mr. Cat.”
Vaughn arched a quizzical eye at the child’s logic, but inside he felt something he had not felt in nearly four hundred years. Even in the dark, he could see light and hope in Hikari’s eyes, the same essence that he had seen in one other human. Saya. With a heavy sigh, Vaughn sat on his haunches, twin tails wrapped around his paws, his next words heavy with reluctance.
“If we are going to be – friends – you must start by calling me by my name. Vaughn.”