Dragons are the uber monster in literature. There are so many roles that they can fulfill, be it a divine presence that protects and guides, a force of nature that doesn’t even notice the existence of the characters, or even a demonic being that demands to be worshiped by those it views as lesser to itself. It’s hard to pinpoint just one purpose for dragons, but if I had to, I would say their main purpose is to wow the reader with their grandeur.
If I couldn’t tell a story with featuring a dragon, I needed to replace it with something far more sinister. In Eastern folklore, you will often see dragons depicted as guardians and protectors. This led me to some interesting questions: What happens if you strip a land of its protector? What happens when a creature that is not so benevolent takes its place? These ideas were the basis of this short story.
While dragons can be used for so many roles in literature, using one can easily restrain the author and stifle creativity in storytelling. When every story has a dragon, the grandeur of them lessens. Freeing this story from the restraint of dragons opened up countless possibilities to find another creature to fill the role.
You always take me to the most romantic places, the woman’s voice inside Kujo’s head said.
“Now is not the time,” Kujo said. He kept his voice to a low murmur.
I don’t see why not. There’s not much else to do in this hellscape, she said.
Kujo crept from the Iron Forest’s ancient trees and onto a rise above a barren valley wasteland. This land had once been sacred, beautiful. Protected. Long ago, morning mist had kissed the rolling hills, and the villagers offered prayers to their guardian deity.
Now, it was a tundra of death. The screams of offerings replaced the chanting of prayers. Misshapen rocks jutted out of the dry, cracked ground, and black veins of slime spread across the land like a spiderweb of tar – blight veins.
One of these veins had climbed the slope into the forest and slithered up a tree. The wood was dull and crumbling, the tree’s life consumed by the vein.
Lightning streaked across the blackened night sky casting a long shadow across the landscape. What trees remained clawed out of the dying land towards the sky. Their charred branches smoked like gnarled incense, a sad offering to the dead gods of this land.
Are you really taking us in there? she asked.
“I took a job,” Kujo whispered as he adjusted his straw-hat’s strap under his chin. He pulled his gray kimono tighter around his chest to shield what little it could against the cold wind that swept across the valley.
Yes, she said, you have a weakness for tears. That soldier did nothing to stop the other sacrifices. He only cared when it was his own daughter.
“What would you have him do?” Kujo asked.
Take a stand.
“He did, by hiring me.”
Not soon enough.
“There is no point dwelling on that,” Kujo said. The land had started to die the day the gods died. Without fertile ground to grow their rice, how else could they survive? Those who could leave did. The rest lived off what food their new master provided, for a price. Kill the Oni and life would return to this land in time.
The common folk didn’t understand that the Oni that ruled over them only saw them as a butcher sees a fat pig.
Can you even count that as standing up if he hired you in secret?
Kujo did not respond. They were often at odds, him and that voice in his head. When had she started speaking with him? It must have been around the time his humanity abandoned him. Perhaps she was part of his penance.
Well, you better get down there and earn our pay, she said.
Kujo adjusted his straw hat and gripped the wooden scabbard at his hip. His scarred hand throbbed as he thought on his task for the day. He took a step and descended the slope into the dead valley.
Lovely, it’s worse than we thought, the female voice said, I don’t think we’ve ever seen one so bad.
In their time together, the woman’s voice never gave Kujo a name. He didn’t mind – not knowing her name made her easier to ignore. Like now for instance. She prattled on about the area and the coming storm. Meaningless words. Words were for scholars and thinkers. Not hired killers.
Lightning split the night sky again, lighting the dark land for a heartbeat.
Get down, the voice said.
Kujo dove behind a rock outcrop, each step avoiding contact with a blight vein.
A group of lesser Oni are approaching from the east.
Another reason Kujo put up with the voice was because she was far better at noticing danger than he. They would be dead a hundred times over if not for her sharpness. At times he thought she used more than his eyes to see. In that momentary flash, she saw far more than he possibly could.
Kujo looked down at his hands. He formed his scarred fingers into the shape of a claw. “How many?” he asked without words.
Four or five imps. Maybe servants of the Oni. Maybe a passing war party.
Most likely leeches, feeding off the blight veins. They would have to be dealt with before they could move on. Imps weren’t powerful, but in a group, they were deadly. If they caught his scent, they wouldn’t stop until they found him. That last thing he needed on the night of a storm was imps stalking him.
Kujo moved his hand to his katana. Closing his eyes, he opened his mind to the world. The rumbling of storm clouds far above embraced him. The strength of lightning shook him. The rain hiding behind the clouds washed him. He felt the imps. Their stench filled his nose. Their foul breathing cupped his ears. He felt beyond them, above them, through them. He was them as much as he was the storm.
And in that moment, he seized the world around him and the world expanded his soul beyond his body. Kujo released his Aura.
Kujo opened his eyes. The world had sprung to life. Shapes were more defined, colors more vivid, smells more potent. Where once there was nothing but the rumbling of thunder, Kujo felt the presence of five imps.
He had to act quickly. His Aura gave him great strength, but at a cost.
Kujo took his Aura and pushed it into his scabbard. His blade began to hum as a crimson light leaked out.
The imps approached.
Kujo let them.
He held still, not even breathing.
The imps passed Kujo’s stone.
Kujo drew his blade.
He struck fast and hard. The first one died instantly as he slashed through its spine, an arc of red lightning following the path of his glowing sword. In that moment Kujo saw the face of a young woman in tears as a yari pierced her breast.
He brought the weapon up and sliced through the skull of the second. This strike brought the vision of a man being struck down in a rice paddy, a blade slicing open his throat, demonic laughter filled his ears.
By now the imps knew they were being attacked. The third dropped as it tried to raise its yari against Kujo, his blade severing the muscles in its neck. As it died, Kujo saw an elderly couple burning in their cottage as other imps danced with him in jubilation.
The remaining two jumped back and turned their weapons on Kujo.
Ignoring the voice, Kujo stared down his enemy.
The two remaining imps circled him.
Kujo raised up his katana to the level of his head, with both hands gripping the hilt, the tip pointing heavenward.
The imps sneered with sunken eyes behind long, gnarled noses. They growled at him through their sharp, misshapen teeth.
The one in front of him lunged.
Kujo spun around and cleaved the surprised imp, slicing through the wooden yari shaft and the imp’s chest. He saw a flash of a woman being devoured alive, her screams ringing in his ears.
He stepped just as a sharp pain sliced his side. He shoved the pain away as he turned to face the remaining imp. Its long yari had struck along his ribcage.
Fortunately, the wound was shallow.
Kujo’s head throbbed. His time with Aura was running out. He needed to end this now.
Fear broke across the blue-skinned imp’s face. Its red eyes quaked in terror.
Kujo kicked off the ground as the imp turned to flee, screaming for its life.
He rammed his katana through its back, piercing its lungs. The imp spat up blood, its arms flailing to grab hold of something, anything as it died. A final vision came, one of a young boy, flailing about as an impish arm held his head under a river.
Kujo released his Aura and fell to his knees. He dropped his katana and the imp it impaled. His muscles screamed at him and the pain he had been ignoring exploded through his right side.
And then the real cost of Aura hit him.
As if he was the Imps, targeted by his own strikes, wounds opened all over Kujo. A slash burst along his back, another split the back of his head. The third sliced his neck and then two more as if he had been sliced on his chest and punctured through the back.
Warm blood ran down out of the fresh wounds, soaking into his gray kimono. The wounds were shallow, but he needed to close them.
You need to devour these imps before they start to reform.
Kujo sneered as he spat out blood.
He reached out to the closest corpse. Arcane marks, in the shape of demonic claws and fangs, appeared on his forearms. They burned with purple light that seared his soul.
Kujo’s arms winced as he touched the imp. His muscles were already starting to spasm. The purple light enveloped the corpse, consumed it, pulled it into the marks on Kujo’s arms. He felt the corpse enter his body, like a surge of bile rising in his throat.
A powerful heat enveloped his side, burning the pain away and closing the wound. This sensation repeated each time a wound closed, leaving a scar in its place. He spat away the taste of vomit.
The vile demons that feed off the land became Kujo’s meal in this way. They were his prey.
One down, four to go, the voice said.
* * *
Kujo sat with his back against the rock after devouring the final imp, his wounds throbbing, but closed. He sighed and cleaned his katana off with a rag at his hip.
Why do you do it, Kujo?
Kujo paused. He looked ahead, at nothing in particular, and thought. She had never asked that before in all their time together. Why now?
“In all our years together,” Kujo began, picking up his hat, “have you ever seen anyone that can do what I do?”
“Then that should answer your question.”
That says you can do it, not why.
Thoughts of his penance came to mind, his banishment from his clan, his failure, the pact he made to atone – his curse to extend his life by killing as many Oni as he could.
A sour taste coated his tongue. He hated thinking of that time. He blinked and shook his head.
“Honor,” he said.
The voice said nothing.
He did not expect her to understand. His failure demanded this of him. This curse was his to bear. Kujo was still a warrior. Samurai no longer, but ronin. He would live by his code and atone for his mistake. Kujo’s failure led to his lord’s death. But he could still do something here.
A few moments passed where the only sound was the storming clouds throwing lighting between them.
Well, she finally said, don’t get yourself killed. You’re the only one that can hear me.
“Would you be lonely without me?”
A joke? she laughed, I wasn’t expecting that. No, for some reason you’re the only one I can speak to. Maybe I have a penance as well. It’s foggy, but I made a mistake. I can remember hurting people I was supposed to protect. A lot of people.
She must have been nervous about tonight’s hunt. He wasn’t joking. It was a serious question, but if laughing it off made her feel better, that was enough. It wasn’t like her to talk about her past.
Kujo put on his hat. “Then let us atone. Come, we’ve rested enough.”
* * *
An hour after he devoured the imps, Kujo found himself before an unnatural cave. Instead of a hole in a cliff or a mountainside, a slab sat in the middle of this desolate wasteland. Slabs of rock stacked against each other like an angular building of stone made up its walls. The shattered remains of a shrine crowned the top of this profane structure. Stone pieces of a scaled, serpentine creature lay scattered across the ground. Remains of a statue of one of the gods? Kujo could not remember what they once worshiped in this land.
Lightning lanced across the sky throwing a twisted shadowy face of pain across the cave. The reek of human flesh and blood vomited out of the entrance like alcohol on a drunkard.
The entrance was large. The Oni living inside must be massive indeed.
Well, it would have to be to cast out so many blight veins.
The numerous veins all webbed here. In truth, there was no need for Oni to devour humans. They feed off the land itself, defiling all they touched with their foulness, claiming to be a guardian and keeping further corruption at bay. If only the people who lived under the Oni’s protection knew what they ate.
Kujo spared a glance for one of the vile, thick veins at his feet.
And of course, it’s starting to rain, the voice said.
The heavens opened releasing a torrent of water on them.
“The skies weep for what has happened here,” Kujo said.
Poetic, she said, Well, you might as well let him know we’re here.
Kujo drew his katana. In a flash he sliced through one of the blight veins. A foul stench coated the air, mingling with that of blood, as a black tar oozed out of the cut.
A cry of anguish erupted from the cave.
“WHO DARES?!” a voice bellowed in anger and pain.
The land shook at the thunderous voice. A piece of the serpentine idol fell from its delicate perch atop the stone structure, crashing down just outside the blackened, massive entrance.
Kujo gripped his hilt.
The ground beneath his feet trembled with each step the unseen Oni took, throwing small pebbles into the air. The rainfall hardened, as if the heavens were trying to wash the land clean of the false master. The air around the doorway narrowed and twisted trying to reject the unnatural beast within.
The veins beneath his feet pulsed, feeding the Oni the life of the land. Their beat was slow at first, but then it grew faster.
The veins gripped the ground forcing the land to lurch. Kujo shifted his balance to keep standing. He would face this Oni on his feet.
Lightning struck somewhere behind him, lighting up the entrance for a brief moment. In that heartbeat, he saw a gnarled face beyond the entrance smirking at him atop a massive body.
“Help me, please!” a young voice screamed. A girl ran from the cave towards Kujo. Her kimono was torn and muddy.
No, the fool. The Oni is playing with you.
“Help!” she cried.
No sooner had she taken a few steps than she vanished, her screams becoming a wet gurgle.
Lightning struck again, outlining the Oni and the headless body of the girl in a hand. His smirk had become a demonic smile.
The Oni took a step out of the cave, ducking to miss the top of the huge entrance. The downpour slammed against his massive frame. Rising to his full height, Kujo’s stomach twisted. The Oni stood at least fifty feet tall. Five horns crowned his head. His skin crawled, as if it was a living oil painting of swirling red and black strokes. No less than sixteen eyes covered his hulking fame: six on the face, one on each shoulder, three on the torso, as well as others on various parts of the arms and legs. Blight veins ran up his tree-thick legs, feeding him the land’s life. In one hand, he held a massive stone club. In the other, he held the partially eaten body of the girl.
I hope that wasn’t the soldier’s daughter, the voice said.
It was times like this that Kujo wished she could read his thoughts.
“Focus, else we join her,” Kujo said just loud enough over the rain for his ears to pick up.
“HMM, A SAMURAI?” the Oni’s voice bellowed. He bit the body in his hand and tossed the uneaten legs behind him. Chewing on human flesh and bone, he spoke. “DID YOU BRING ME THE NEXT OFFERING?” he asked, chuckling.
“I have come to claim your head,” Kujo said.
The Oni scowled. He spat the chewed skull at Kujo’s feet.
Kujo did not move.
“YOU MAKE MY FOOD TASTE FOUL. NO MATTER, AFTER I KILL YOU, I’LL DEVOUR YOUR BODY IN FRONT OF THE LAST ONE. SHE SOILED HERSELF AS HER FRIEND SCREAMED FOR HELP,” he chuckled, “ONCE I EAT YOU, HER TERROR WILL MAKE HER EVEN MORE DELICIOUS. MAYBE I’LL FIND HER FATHER, AND HAND HER HIS HEAD.”
This one likes to talk, the voice said.
Kujo kept the irony of her statement to himself.
He moved his katana to his side, one hand on the scabbard, the other on the hilt, preparing to draw.
The Oni’s smile widened, a wicked expression that would send shivers down the spine of any human.
Kujo closed his eyes and opened his mind to the world. His mind saw the Oni, terrible and tall, the rain, piercing and cold, the lightning, powerful and swift, the girl in the cave, shivering and small.
It lasted no longer than a heartbeat, and in that instant the world around him was just as much of him as his heart. In that moment, he seized the world, and his Aura expanded.
The Oni charged Kujo, a horrific bellow erupting from its lungs.
Kujo felt the Oni approaching before the creature had taken the first step. Only through the expanded senses that his Aura granted him allowed Kujo to dodge to the side. A rock kicked up by the Oni’s burst of power cut Kujo’s arm.
The shockwave from the Oni’s movement followed a brief second after it passed. The rain exploded upward from the force. Pushing the pain in his arm down, Kujo shifted his Aura to his feet to keep himself tied to the ground, but his straw-hat flew up into the storming night.
Half a second later and the rain crashed back down.
“YOU’RE A FAST ONE,” the Oni said. One of the black eyes on its back stared at Kujo.
No blind spots on this one, the voice said.
“Then we move faster than it can see,” Kujo whispered.
Kujo shifted his Aura to his legs and burst forward.
“WHAT?!” the Oni cried out.
Kujo swung his blade against the leg.
The red and black twisting flesh moved to block the attack. No matter how good the steel, it would not cut Oni flesh without help. His katana scraped along the hardened flesh, sparking as if it struck steel.
Kujo felt a thud hit his own calf. No blood drawn meant no blood split. If he did not cut the flesh, he would not pay the price.
It was not his current intention to cut flesh.
Kujo flashed past the Oni and ran. Lowering the tip of his katana to the ground, he sliced the blight veins as he moved.
The Oni bellowed in pain. The veins were an extension of the Oni, part of him. It would not kill him, but it was more than enough to enrage him.
The veins suddenly cleared in front of Kujo.
You got his attention.
Kujo’s head throbbed. His time was short.
He turned and saw the beast fuming. The Oni hefted that massive club and charged Kujo.
Kujo, his Aura still in his legs, flashed towards the Oni.
“I HAVE YOU!”
The Oni turned and swung the club down onto the ground, smashing where he expected Kujo to pass through.
But Kujo was not there.
Standing beneath the Oni, Kujo shifted the Aura to his katana. The blade shone crimson once more, and he slashed through the tendons of both legs in a single fluid slice. The gnarled flesh went white.
The Oni screamed as black blood washed the ground. He collapsed under the force of his massive weight. At the same time, Kujo felt the pain of having his flesh sliced.
Kujo bit the pain down and forced himself to dash to the Oni’s face. The hulking demon struggled to stand. His face twisted in laughter as he saw Kujo’s matching wounds. “YOU CAN’T KILL ME WITHOUT KILLING YOURSELF,” he bellowed, raising a fist.
“We won’t know until we try.” Kujo drove his crimson blade into the Oni’s skull through the central eye.
The Oni gasped as it began to turn white.
Kujo’s eyes began to bleed as if he had stabbed himself. He lost vision in one eye. In his mind, he saw the young girl in his massive hands pleading for help as he raised her up and bit her head off.
Kujo dropped his Aura and the vision passed. Pain surged through his body anew. He fought through it and grabbed the Oni, the arcane marks reappearing on his forearms. The Oni shone. A brilliant light engulfed the bleak valley as the white light shifted into purple. Bile rose in Kujo’s stomach as the markings began to devour the corpse.
Kujo! the voice shouted.
She sounded more distant than usual.
She cried out again.
And then Kujo collapsed.
* * *
“Kimiko, you’re still alive,” a familiar voice said filled with joy.
Kujo opened his eyes. Ah, this again. He was not in his own body when he awoke. He looked down and saw he was dressed in the kimono of the girl who had just died. This was her memory then.
Kujo looked at the young girl who spoke. She was a girl on the verge of womanhood, a favorite meal for Oni. She wore a kimono of black with yellow ichou leaves. Her black hair had been rolled up with golden combs. Her face had been painted white and her lips painted a deep red.
“Ami?” Kujo said with the voice of Kimiko, “So you’re next.”
Ami shook her head. “If the gods are watching us, we will both be home soon.”
“Keep your voice down,” Ami said. She leaned in and whispered. “My father is going to hire a samurai to help us.”
“What good will a samurai do? Kimiko asked. “The Oni slaughtered everyone that could fight except your coward father.”
Ami’s eyes widened in anger. “My father had a duty to his family that he lives for, and that duty will see us both saved. For now, eat.” Ami handed her a blackened loaf of bread.
Kimiko shuttered. “I cannot eat that anymore. I have seen how the Oni makes it.”
So, she had witnessed the truth behind what the Oni feed the people with, with dried husks of blight veins. What better way to keep your prey docile than by becoming its only source of food?
“Eat,” Ami said pushing the loaf towards Kimiko, “You will need your strength when the time comes to run.”
The vision faded as Kujo’s consciousness returned.
* * *
“Thank you, thank you so much,” the soldier that had hired Kujo said.
He huddled over the body of his daughter. Her once beautiful kimono was covered in dried blood and human excrement. She stared upwards, as if watching something beyond the ceiling of her home. Still, she lived. Maybe she’d recover.
“Was there anyone else?” the soldier asked.
“No, she was the only survivor,” Kujo said. After he woke, he buried what remains of Kimiko he could find.
The man nodded.
“Their deaths are on your head,” Kujo said.
The man blinked. “What?”
“If you had hired me sooner, I could have saved more. Remember their faces. Their lives were the cost of your inaction,” Kujo said as he tucked a bag of silver into his blood-stained gray kimono.
The man’s face contorted. Tears formed in his eyes and he nodded.
Kujo stood, forcing down a wince. He would be sore for some time.
“She’s a good girl,” Kujo said.
“The best,” the soldier said.
The soldier nodded.
He stepped out of the hut, leaving the soldier to his thoughts, and started down the muddy road.
People stared as he passed. They always did. Some stared in respect. Others in contempt, blaming him for their own cowardice. Their reasons mattered little to him.
Where to now? the voice asked.
“We follow the wind,” Kujo said as they left the village to hunt their next prey.
Andrew misspent his youth in Virginia and Utah where he ignored his teachers and wandered around mountains with his friends, cultivating an imagination. He began writing his own stories in middle school, and neither college nor adulthood have cured him. He now writes western steampunk.