Night had fallen across the small village, bringing with it the soft cries of crickets and fireflies dancing on the gentle breeze. The trees in the forest rustled softly, caressed by the kiss of the wind, their lover of the moment.
In the village itself, however, the celebration continued. The Demon Slayer Katsume had killed Tong, the evil demon that had haunted the woods, and eaten many of the villagers. Tonight was a night in her honor, and one of great relief for the people.
They sang and danced, toasted and feasted, all at the expense of their Lord, a man called Tso, and cheered the name Katsume, who had freed them of fear. Tomorrow, a plaque would be raised in the town square, immortalizing her deed, where now the story of the fierce battle she had waged was retold and embellished over and over again.
From her perch in a tree, Yukiko made a disgusted face and laid back. No mention was made of her at all, though she had battled Tong for over an hour before Katsume had shown up and finished him off with a single blow from her magical sword, Shoki.
Her stomach rumbled and she curled on her side. From where she rested, she could see the fine rooms the Demon Slayer had been given. Just outside them, in an open air spa, the woman bathed herself in crystal clear water that sparkled in the lamp light, singing some old tune.
Already she had feasted at Tso’s table, and drank enough that she was oblivious to the open manner she bathed in. Yukiko thought of throwing a rock at her, but was determined to be bigger than that. Katsume may have won the reward, but Yukiko knew she had done what was right.
That doesn’t fill my stomach, though, she thought to herself as it growled again. But at least I’m not some arrogant air head.
It wasn’t much, but she took it, for it was all she had gained. The old monk who had nursed her back to health and given her a purpose in life would no doubt tell her that sometimes one must suffer to travel the road of dignity.
I doubt he meant starve for it a well, she thought, watching the flame haired Slayer as she frolicked in the pool, half drunk and completely indecent.
Angry at the woman all over again, she rolled over on the wide branch, pulling her knees under her chin. Perhaps she had been hasty to refuse the barn as a bedroom after all. The night would be cold, and she had not even a blanket to cover herself with.
She wondered what Father would say to her being so petulant. Her mind turned to the old monk, with his heavily lined face and gentle smile. When she had awoken at his monastery, no memory of who or what she was, he had taken her in and treated her as his own child. Taught her the difference between right and wrong, and shown her love.
Was she wrong to refuse a warm place to sleep out of spite? Probably. Looking over her shoulder at the idiot Demon Slayer as she argued with a towel, Yukiko felt that well of anger again, then sighed and collapsed back.
It was done, and there was nothing for it now. She had, quite literally, made her bed, and must now lie in it, even if it was just a tree branch. There were worse things, she supposed, than sleeping in a tree.
Peeking over her shoulder as Katsume fell in the bathing pool, then came up gasping for air, she could think of at least one off the top of her head.
“Mistress?” Inari whispered as he hung over her head. “Are you asleep?”
“How can I sleep with all this racket?” she asked back.
The nine tailed white fox smiled at her, but she couldn’t help but see that he wasn’t actually looking at her. His eyes were fixed on the view behind her, of the naked, drunken, stupid Demon Slayer. She grabbed her sword and banged the fox in the face with it, sending him falling from the tree.
“I deserved that,” he called up to her.
“At least,” she growled.
He clambered back up, trying very hard not to stare at the voluptuous woman behind them as he spoke, “Mistress, if it would be alright, I thought I’d go down to the celebration and fetch us some dinner.”
She rolled away from him, even though it put Katsume back in her view. “Do as you please, Inari. You always do.”
“Mistress, please, don’t be angry,” he whispered softly, patting her head. “Your chance to prove yourself will come.”
“What if it doesn’t?” she asked in return. “What if everyone always just sees me as a demon and nothing more?”
Inari sighed. “I see you as more, Mistress.”
She hugged herself tighter and didn’t answer. Inari sighed again, knowing well the burden Yukiko carried. If the old monk’s prophecy was to be believed, then Yukiko could not lose faith in herself, or she would become something terrible.
“I’ll bring you something to eat,” he told her as he slid down the tree. “You’ll feel better after that.”
“I’ll feel better if she drowns on her own idiocy,” Yukiko muttered as Katsume rolled around in the pool, looking for all the world like a child at play.
A tall, busty child. With a magic sword. And the accolades of people too relieved to notice she was an arrogant oaf.
Yukiko turned her back again, muttering several curses at the woman. The important thing, she knew, was that the village was safe. She tried to comfort herself with that as she sought desperately for sleep, only to discover it wanted to elude her.
Inari wandered through the village, listening to the various embellished tales of Katsume’s fierce battle with Tong. He shook his head in disbelief at some of them. Humans were such strange creatures.
He understood easily enough what was eating at Yukiko, though he knew there was little he could do about this. His Mistress had wanted to prove herself a good demon by saving the village from Tong, and though Inari doubted strongly that Lord Tso would have really rewarded her, it was her belief he would have that made her sad.
He climbed onto a stool and surveyed the spread of food before him, his own stomach rumbling at the scents. Since he had been called from Heaven to watch over Yukiko and guide her on the path of light, he had come to genuinely love eating, and the finer the meal, the finer he liked it.
Gathering a few things for himself, he pondered again if Katsume could be the one he had been waiting for. The old monk had told Yukiko all he felt she could stand to know of what he had learned of her during his vision, omitting the things he felt she needed to learn on her own.
More than just the old monk, was the one Inari truly served. She, more than any, wanted Yukiko to find the path of light, and shed the darkness with in her soul. Somehow, Katsume was tied to that path, though just how eluded the nine tails.
“A warrior of flame,” he murmured to himself, food dangling from his forelegs. Katsume certainly fit that bill, with little room to spare.
But, Yukiko hated her, and Katsume herself was arrogant and dismissive of the small demon girl. Perhaps this was not the one he was waiting for after all. Time would tell, surely.
He put the thoughts from his mind. Yukiko stood at a crossroads, her slumbering demonic powers that which would either save, or destroy the world. The path was ultimately hers to chose, and though for now, she sought to tread the path of light, the darkness beckoned her with an insidious voice.
When the old monk had learned this, Inari had been sent from Heaven to aide the girl. Somehow, he knew, he must find a way to keep her on the right path, or the entire world would suffer for his failure.
No pressure at all, he sighed to himself.
Having stuffed his mouth as full as he could stand while pondering the various matters that plagued him, Inari gathered up some extra for Yukiko. She would grumble about accepting it, he was sure, but she would eat it.
After all, she couldn’t ignore the rumble of her belly forever just to spite Katsume, could she? Especially when the cocky Demon Slayer didn’t even notice any of it. Surely, even Yukiko couldn’t be that stubborn?
Returning to the tree, he found her fast asleep and smiled. Setting the food aside, he brushed her short, dark hair from her face, and curled up against her.
If only, he thought. If only others could see her as I have, then she would never know anything but joy, for all would love her as I do.
Katsume lay back in the pool, breathing a deep sigh of contentment. All was as it should be, she felt. She was relaxing in a castle, had a bottle of rice wine, and could hear her name being chanted in adoring voices from the village.
Although most of the wine was gone. That wasn’t good. She stared into the bottle for a minute, then shrugged and drained the rest of it. At least it had been good while it lasted.
She belched loudly, remembering that dinner had been equally good. Though she had cleaned up before hand, and worn the silky soft kimono Lord Tso had been kind enough to provide her with, the pool had beckoned her back after she had eaten her fill.
The warm waters had eased the ache from her muscles with tender loving fingers that she simply could not refuse to be embraced by a second time. Especially not when the pool provided her such an excellent opportunity to hear her own name chanted so vigorously.
If only father could see me now, she thought in her half drunken stupor.
That sobered her more than she would have liked. If he could see her, she somehow doubted he would be pleased. She pushed that thought away, sinking to her neck in the soothing water.
Father had never been pleased with her. He had loved her, just as her mother had, but her brash nature and tomboy antics had infuriated him to no end. It wasn’t fitting for a woman of her station.
“Screw station,” she slurred, slapping the water. “I’ll make my own station, then return home as a mighty hero!”
Return home to what, she wondered. Mother and Father are gone, long dead now, and there is no joy in the house I grew up in. Only ghosts and memories.
There were obligations to be attended, some day. She knew that, though she denied it as frequently as she could. They would wait. Iwao would tend to matters as he always had.
Katsume sighed, wanting to push the memories of home from her mind. She was a Demon Slayer now, with a growing reputation! Why, already she had slain how many demons?
She sat up a bit, her fuzzy brain trying to count. She knew it was a lot. It had to be a lot. She was Katsume, the Demon Slayer, a living legend!
“There was the one at the river,” she muttered to herself, holding up a finger. It wavered in front of her a bit, but she could see that it was one.
“Then there was the one at the gorge,” she added, holding up a second finger. It joined the first in swimming before her eyes.
“Can’t forget the one in the forest,” she pressed on, holding up a third finger.
She stared at her fingers, then glared at them in anger. Just three? She had only slain three demons, and none of them the one she sought. None of them the one who had claimed her parents lives.
“Dammit!” she snarled, slapping the water before collapsing back.
She’d had too much to drink, and she knew it. Drinking always made her melancholy and forced her to confront the truth. She didn’t like the truth. It lied sometimes, she was certain.
Rubbing her face, she sighed again. The villagers chanting her name had begun to sound hollow to her ears. She had slain some pathetic demon, to save that girl. She had hoped to question the beast before he had died, but Yukiko hadn’t had time for that. If Katsume hadn’t acted, Tong would have killed her.
Of course, she hadn’t realized at the time the girl was a demon herself. A scrawny, pitiful demon, but a demon all the same. She had only seen a brave girl, fighting for her life against a monster, and acted to save her.
Katsume looked at her hand, sadness creeping into her face. Would she have acted any differently, all things considered, if she had known the girl was a demon? She knew the answer to that, and found she regretted the shoddy manner in which she’d treated Yukiko.
The girl had stood up to Tong with nothing but a battered old sword and her sense of what was right. She was more a hero than Katsume, and the Demon Slayer knew it. It was why, she was sure, she had treated the girl so badly.
She was jealous.
Snarling at herself, she punched the water. She hated being jealous of people, especially demons. They got to be what they were while she had to hide and lie. It wasn’t fair!
But if people knew, Katsume thought. If they knew the truth, would they treat me as they do? Or would they shun me as they do Yukiko?
Anywhere but her home, and she knew they would shun her. She was only a half demon, but still, she wasn’t human, and people would fear her. At least Yukiko had the courage to walk openly, her heritage bare for all to see.
Katsume sank down in the water again, glaring at nothing in particular. All of this, her thoughts, were brought on by too much wine. She didn’t care what anyone thought of her. She was going to find the demon that had killed her family, then return home as a mighty Demon Slayer.
Yukiko, the villagers, and even Lord Tso were nothing. Her revenge, for the gruesome slaughter of her parents, was all that mattered. She may be a half demon, but she was entitled to avenge them, and the whole world could go to all the Hells if it wanted to get in her way.
Standing, she waded from the pool, grabbing a towel and drying as she went. She paused, looking over her shoulder, wondering if Yukiko had found a place to sleep for the night, or eaten for that matter.
She wasn’t sure why, but she hoped the girl was well. She had fire in her, determination, and had cared about the well being of these people. She was no ordinary demon, that was for certain, and for a moment, Katsume allowed herself to feel a bit of kinship with the girl.
“Be well, Yukiko,” she said softly to the night.
Stepping inside, she pulled the door shut and went to bed. She was asleep as soon as she lay down, snoring and dreaming of the day she avenged her parents spirits.
Yukiko was jerked awake by a terrible roar. Rising, she sent Inari toppling from the tree, but she only barely registered his yowl as he fell to the ground. Something was wrong.
She felt it, the tremor that shook the tree. She heard it, as well, a bellow of rage that echoed through the forest. Narrowing her red eyes, she scanned for some sign of whatever was coming, but found nothing.
In the village below, people who had been celebrating now stared in fear at the dark forest that surrounded their village. With Tong not even dead a full day, something else had come, something even worse, they feared.
Yukiko leaped from the tree, landing on the ground easily. Inari lay in a heap by her, moaning. She didn’t have time for the selfish nine tail’s antics, however, and jerked him up by his tails.
“Inari!” she cried.
“AAAHHH!!” he screamed back at her.
She dropped him. He landed on his head and sobbed at the shoddy manner in which he was treated. A Heavenly Being, reduced to such cruel torments as Yukiko heaped on him. It wasn’t right!
Weary of the nine tail’s self pity, and with the tremor in the earth growing, she pulled him up and slapped him. He stared at her in shock for a moment, then shook himself.
“Something is coming,” Yukiko replied. “Something big.”
Inari cringed. “We should run away.”
“No,” she told him. “You go get Katsume. Whatever this is, her magic sword should be able to defeat it easily. I’ll go and get the villagers to safety.”
“Yukiko,” Inari called as she turned to run to the village. “Perhaps this is an opportunity for you to show your skills to the villagers?”
She frowned. “No, this is no time for that. Whatever is coming, it’s bigger than Tong. Katsume will have to battle it. All I can do is make sure no one loses their life.”
Inari nodded and headed away, secretly proud of his young charge. She was willing to let go of her anger and resentment when lives were in danger, putting her squarely on the path of light.
Reaching the village, she found many people gathered, staring in terror as the trees shook, not from the gentle kiss of the wind, but from something monstrous coming through them. As she stared as well, a flock of birds lifted and flew away, crossing the moon.
There was no more time.
“You there,” she called to a tall and broad shouldered man. “Don’t gawk! Start getting these people to safety!”
He pulled himself together at her sharp tone. “Where would be safe? Listen to the roars of it!”
“The castle, then,” she replied, waving a hand at Lord Tso’s manor on the hill. “Flee there, where the guards can protect you!”
“It’s a trap,” a woman cried. “She’s a demon! Lord Tso must already be dead!”
Yukiko snarled under her breath. “Just today, I fought Tong to avenge your loved ones! Why would I betray you now?”
“Lady Katsume fought Tong, not you,” another man barked.
“It doesn’t matter,” Yukiko yelled. “We haven’t much time! We have to get to the castle before the creature gets here!”
“I tell you it’s a trap! We should flee for the woods!” the woman cried again.
“No,” the first man she had spoken with said. “The demon girl is right. The Demon Slayer and Lord Tso’s guards are at the castle. If we’re to be safe, that’s where we’ll find it.”
Yukiko bowed to him slightly. “Thank you.”
The look he gave her was uncertain, but warm. “No, thank you.”
“Let’s go,” one of the villagers cried. “Leave everything, make for the castle!”
As a wave, they fled the village, climbing the hill, seeking their Lord’s protection as the tree line shook, and the beast began to emerge. At the back of the crowd, Yukiko stared at it in horror, at first, then grim determination.
No more innocents would die. No matter the price.
Inari scrambled over the wall around Lord Tso’s castle, huffing and panting as he reached the top and fell to the ground. Perhaps his love of food had gotten out of hand. He’d have to look into that, another day, after a good meal.
Racing as fast as he could across the lawn, he reached the bathing pool he had seen Katsume in earlier. That thought warmed more than his belly, but he shoved it away. Already, the creature approaching the village was almost at the tree line. If he didn’t wake Katsume, and fast, there wouldn’t be a village left to save.
“No pressure, no pressure, no pressure,” he whimpered as he scrambled across another low wall.
What was the fascination with walls, anyway? He didn’t have long to wonder before he fell in the pool. Spitting water as he broke the surface, he swam across it as fast as he could, seeing the door of Katsume’s room just ahead.
Climbing from the pool, he shook and went to the door, standing long enough to slide it open. Inside, Katsume, the Demon Slayer and hero of the village, was naked and snoring.
“I think this is a good time to point out I’m weak willed, and not a person of character,” he told the Heavens.
When no one answered, he nodded and squared his shoulders. Yukiko was counting on him, and he wasn’t about to let her down. Not even if he had to grope the powerfully built red head on the bed.
“No, no, no! Bad Inari!” he chided himself. “Now’s no time for losing focus!”
Taking a deep breath, he stood over Katsume’s head and shook her gently. She snored some more. Inari frowned.
“Katsume,” he called, shaking her again. She kept snoring.
Inari heard the cries of the villagers now. Yukiko must have gotten them moving towards the castle, where the Lord’s guards could protect them. A smart plan, as it meant the girl was embracing the idea of saving lives over personal glory.
“Katsume,” Inari called again, shaking the woman as hard as he could.
She kept snoring. He groaned and pulled back her eye lid, but still got no response. He pinched her nose, but that only muffled her snores. The Demon Slayer had drank far too much, and was too deep asleep.
“What do I do?” Inari cried. “What can I do?”
Glancing around the room, he spotted the Demon Slayer’s magic sword, Shoki, and nodded to himself. If Katsume was too drunk, and Yukiko too weak, then it was up to him to save the village.
“I wonder if there will be girls for a reward,” he mused as he scramble across the room to where the massive blade rested.
Climbing a small table to reach the hilt, he grabbed it in both hands and tried to lift it. This turned out to be pointless. No matter how hard he heaved on the sword, it refused to budge. Screams were echoing to him now, and he knew he had to do something.
“I’m a Heavenly Being, you stupid thing, now do as I say!” he yelled, kicking the sword as hard as he could.
When that did no good, he grabbed it again and jumped off the table, dangling. He had enough sense to feel very silly for a minute, before he felt the blade move.
“Yes!” he cried triumphantly as the sword fell forward.
All he had to do was plant his feet, and then he, Inari the nine tails, would wield the Demon Slaying sword Shoki, for the good of all peace loving beings!
It flattened him when it landed on him.
“Crap,” he muttered.
“What the hell are you doing?”
Inari turned his head as far as he could to see Katsume glaring at him. She didn’t look happy to see him at all, which he felt was a bit unfair. After all, he hadn’t touched her anywhere inappropriate when he’d had the chance!
“Yukiko needs your help,” he gasped as Katsume stood, lifting the sword off him.
“Does she now,” she slurred, still a bit inebriated. “With what?”
A loud crash rang from the village, followed by screams. Soldiers voices could be heard as well, barking orders. Katsume turned, fully sober now, facing the open door Inari had come through.
“Something’s coming, Lady Katsume,” he told her. “Yukiko sent me to warn you, while she gets the villagers to safety.”
“Huh,” the Demon Slayer laughed, dropping the sword over her shoulder. “Trying to hog all the glory for herself, is she? Well, I’ve a thing or two to say about that!”
“Where did you get that idea?” Inari asked as Katsume grabbed the kimono and slipped it on, half tying it around her waist.
“Never mind that, nine tails,” she told him as she threw the hallway door open. “Looks like I’m not done saving this village after all.”
Inari watched her go with more than a little confusion. What in the world had she been ranting about? Finally, he shook his head, and fell backward, exhausted.
Yukiko pulled her battered old katana, looking up at the demon that loomed over her as it emerged from the forest. Behind her, the villagers panicked, fleeing for Lord Tso’s castle at a run, barely caring if they trampled their fellows along the way.
The demon looked down at her, the hammer resting on its shoulder as big as she was. Twelve feet tall with ease, covered in red gold fur, and sporting a head she found a little too familiar, especially when the beast spotted Tong’s head on a pike.
“Tong,” the demon snarled. “My brother! What have they done to you?”
“Oh, crap,” Yukiko muttered.
The demon looked back down at her, hammer swinging to point at her. “You there, little demon, did you do this to my brother?”
“No,” Yukiko admitted. “Though I tried.”
“Tried, was it?” the demon growled. “Then why do you live while Tong lies dead?”
“Does it matter, ugly?” she snarled, raising her sword. “You’ll be joining him soon enough.”
The demon growled in rage. “Tell me your name, little one, so I will know who it is I slay today.”
“I am Yukiko,” she replied. “And I will not let you pass.”
“I am Rekko,” the demon growled. “And I will smash you to dust!”
His hammer came at her, blindingly fast. Yukiko had believed Tong to be quick, but Rekko was a blur of movement, too fast for her to even think of countering, or dodging, before his massive hammer was on her.
Will they remember I died for them? she thought as her sword shattered in her hand from the force of Rekko’s blow. Will they think kindly of me?
Yukiko spun through the air, crashing into the steps leading up to Lord Tso’s castle, ripping the stone apart as she rolled across it. Her head swam and she tasted blood in her mouth as she struggled to right herself, to stand.
Before her, the villagers stared in horror, the small demon ravaged from that single blow, bloody and weak as the monster began to approach. Yukiko stared up at them, tears in her eyes as she braced for death.
“Run,” she gasped.
“Die,” Rekko roared, swinging his hammer up.
“Pick on somebody your own size!” Katsume bellowed, leaping across the crowd, Shoki wreathed in fire in her hand. “Ravaging Flare!“
For a moment, as the Demon Slayer swung the mighty sword down, fire exploding from the blade, Yukiko thought her beautiful. Wild, untamed, and awe inspiring as the force of her sword ripped through the earth, reaching hungrily for Rekko and engulfing him.
He roared, staggering away, and was lost from sight as he fell, crashing into a building. Smoke billowed as Katsume swung Shoki high, the living fire wrapping the blade dancing for her. In that moment, Yukiko adored her as much as the villagers.
“You okay, pipsqueak?” she asked Yukiko, looking down at her.
The moment passed, and Yukiko remembered that she couldn’t stand the woman. “I’ve been better.”
Katsume gave her a wide smile as she rested her sword over her shoulder, the half tied kimono billowing in the breeze. “That much, I believe.”
“Why is it you keep showing up while I’m already on the flat of my back?”
“Dunno, but it makes you look kind of slutty.”
Yukiko glared. “I hate you.”
Katsume reached out a hand. “Don’t waste the energy. You saved the villagers. You did good.”
Yukiko stood, her body a throbbing ache. Already, she was feeling better, her demonic power healing her far faster than a normal human could. She looked at her hand, grasping the Demon Slayers, and found it easy to return the smile, and the shake.
“Now,” Katsume said.
Rekko’s hammer struck her full on, throwing her aside like a rag doll. She crashed into the village, tearing through buildings with terrible force. Yukiko gaped, staggering back as Rekko rose once more, eyes burning.
“You think a little fire is going to stop me, Demon Slayer?” he roared. “Let me show you fire!”
It wreathed him, wrapping around him, snaking its way across his massive limbs. Yukiko sucked in a gasp, realizing she faced a fire demon, and was down the only person who could possibly kill it.
She raised her shattered sword, then grimaced, tossing it aside. Katsume was dead, no doubt, or dying, having taken the full brunt of Rekko’s blow. There was nothing now, save her, bare handed, standing between the demon’s wrath and the innocents clustered in the courtyard of Tso’s castle.
Snarling, she raised her hands, and made ready to fight.
Copyright © 2013 Cain S. Latrani