There was something I wanted to know though – no, needed to know – and that was his name. Eavesdropping was the only way to learn it aside from jumping out of the bush and trying to make his acquaintance.


I timed my movements with the demons’ boisterous laughter and the sound of wood being piled up as they started to set up camp. The stream proved to be a powerful ally as I crawled forward into the dense array of bushes. The soft, shuffling noises of the leaves brushing against me were completely masked by the sound of the water bustling over and around the bedrocks.


“–got lucky running into this boar. He’ll keep us fed for days!”


I stopped immediately when I heard the voice. This was close enough. I thanked the spirits for blessing me with sharp ears. If they all talked that loud I’d hear every word.


With a slow, deep exhale I curled my spine, hunching over like a rabbit to minimize my presence while still being ready to flee at a moment’s notice. Nobody cares about the rabbit. They’re harmless, easily dismissible.


Then I slowly shut my eyes, sacrificing one sense to enhance the other. I didn’t want anything to get in the way of my ability to hear the demons speak.


“Not if you don’t quit yappin’! We’ll starve to death before you get around to cookin’ the damned thing, Wushi,” said another voice.


There was a smattering of chuckling.


“Careful, boy.” The voice was rough and raspy, and I assumed it was this Wushi replying.


“Or what?”


“You really wanna find out?”


“Hah! Bring it, old man.”


I was completely enthralled by what was happening before me. I couldn’t believe I was listening to a conversation between demons. Demons. But it still wasn’t enough to satisfy my curiosity. I opened my eyes and shifted about, trying to see if I could sneak a peek through the thick wall of leaves. It took a bit of maneuvering, but I finally caught a partial glimpse of the demon with the stone-colored skin and broken horn sitting on a fallen log. I couldn’t see much, but I was sure it was him. The leader. Spirits, I wished I could get a better look, but any closer and I’d reveal my position.


“Oh Zaijin, make them stop, or we’ll never get to eat,” said a deep, sickly sweet voice. Two arms wrapped around the leader’s neck and a very ample bosom came to rest on his shoulder.


Zaijin. So that’s his name. The female demon’s chest was so distracting I nearly missed the exact thing I was hoping to hear.


Zaijin smirked, baring the teeth on the left side of his mouth. “Or maybe you could make yourself useful and finally learn to cook.”


There was cackling, a low whistle, and a few hoots coming from the other demons.


The female demon moved off of Zaijin, leaving just her hands on his shoulders.


“If that’s what you want, Zaijin, you know I’ll do whatever you say. But if I’m learnin’ how to cook these boys better be learnin’ how to suck their own dicks.”


There was an uproar of unruly laughter in response. Spirits, they were a crude bunch.


“Mamiko, we’re sorry, we’ll get this boar cookin’.”


“That’s what I thought,” Mamiko, the busty demon replied, leaning her weight back down on Zaijin again. “Though if you keep bein’ sweet maybe I’ll keep you occupied while we wait. It’s a big boar, after all.”


I blushed darkly. I had no idea how much of that was a joke or not.


“And what of the hunter?” Asked another female voice.


The sound of it made me shiver from head to toe. It was cold, smooth, and whispery, yet somehow had no trouble crossing the stream to me.


“The hunter?” asked another demon, male again.


“Yes, the hunter. Boars don’t typically run around with arrows sticking out of them.”


I couldn’t help but smirk a little at that.


“You think it’s just a lone hunter?” a different demon asked, his voice was a bit higher than the rest. Perhaps he was younger? Smaller?


“If it wasn’t, then they are travelling with very inept company. They only landed one arrow. How embarrassing, even if it was just one hunter.”


I let out an indignant huff. Well excuse me, lady, but I don’t have the benefit of being a damned monster whose wounds close up on their own!


My hand shot to my mouth as I realized too late that I had accidentally made a sound. Idiot! This is what my master was always hounding me about, letting my heated emotions get the better of me. Thankfully, it didn’t appear that any of them noticed, but I might not be so lucky next time.


“Maybe they weren’t done. Could be taking their time. Savouring it.” Zaijin said.


Exactly. Thank you, Zaijin. Though it was your fault I didn’t get to finish what I started.


“Well they’re done now,” came the crackly voice of Wushi once more. “Finders keepers.”


I rolled my eyes, but I couldn’t bring myself to be all that annoyed or angry. He was right. They found it and killed it fair and square. And the boar did try to take a chunk out of Zaijin, I couldn’t really blame him for killing it in return. The boar’s fate was sealed whether its death was by my hand or Zaijin’s.


“At any rate, Kujo will sniff them out if they’re nearby,” said one of the male voices again.


That comment snapped me back to attention. Kujo? Was he a scout?


I stepped back from the bush and took a quick look around me, but wasn’t surprised when I didn’t find anything out of the ordinary. If he was a scout it was highly doubtful he’d linger so close to the group.


“I dunno, that boar had some blood on its tusk before it even got to Zaijin, that hunter might be limpin’ back home already with his tail between his legs,” said Wushi.


“Or maybe they–” Iseya started.


“If they haven’t left already, they will as soon as they lay eyes on us, assuming they’ve even got the balls to get that close,” Zaijin said, cutting the demon woman off. He stood and disappeared from view for a moment. When he sat back down he was holding my iron arrow. It looked like a twig in his massive, gnarled hand. “Or are you really that worried about a lone, human hunter, Iseya?”


Tension returned to the air. Was he testing her? Seeing if she’d talk back to him?


“You know I prefer to be cautious, Zaijin. It is, after all, a lone human warrior that we’ve been trying to find for weeks. One that’s apparently roaming around our territory, killing demons. We don’t know if this hunter has his own deadly tricks.”


Zaijin twirled the arrow between his thumb and forefinger before suddenly flicking it with his inhuman strength, sending the arrow flying out of view. I heard the dull thud of it lodging itself in a tree further down the stream.


“He doesn’t.”


The comment hung in the air for a moment before Wushi broke the uneasy silence.


“Speaking of that lone, human warrior, we haven’t caught his trail for a while.”


“Kujo thinks he’s heading for the faerie territory,” the demon with the higher voice said. “I hope he’s wrong though.”


“Same,” said Mamiko. “I was hopin’ to get a good look at that boy before Zaijin got his hands on him.”


“Just a look?”


Mamiko chuckled deeply. “Well, maybe more than just a look. Last human I tried to have a little fun with broke on me. Perhaps this Nheo is made of sturdier stuff.”


My face turned hot again. The woman was shameless. Were female demons typically like her? Or were they more like Iseya? The folktales only described their appearance and ferocious fighting abilities, not their typical social behaviours.


“And perhaps our lone hunter might have heard the name before,” Iseya said.


Nope, I hadn’t. Not even a whisper. I wasn’t entirely sure if I pitied or envied this Nheo. He had to be quite the man for Zaijin and his party to think hunting him down was worth their time.


“You do know that there are lots of humans, right?” Mamiko asked, clearly teasing the other woman. “It’s not as if they all know each other. Do you know the name of every single demon?”


“Every demon we’ve come across, yes.”


Wushi chuckled and ended it with a wheezing cough. “Ain’t that a scary thought. But the point is, Iseya, we already made the decision not to go botherin’ the humans. They’re like bees, ya know? Only annoying once you go kickin’ their nest.”


“Not bees. Flies,” Zaijin said. “And I don't need the help of bugs to catch my prey.”


“There ya have it,” Wushi said. “Now head on back to that berry bush with Mamiko and get me a bucket full. Gonna make us a sweet sauce to dip this boar in. Mmm, mmm!”


I tensed, shifting my weight in case I needed to make a quick exit.


Luckily, I never heard them cross the stream, and didn’t see them along the path to my right. Still, I could tell this was my cue to leave. I needed to have my wits about me to avoid this Kujo and my joints were getting stiff from sitting for so long in this awkward position.


Slowly and carefully I started to back up through the bushes. If they had any chance of spotting me, it was either right now or when I passed through the open clearing where my net was. I couldn’t tell if my mounting paranoia was justified, but I couldn’t help but think about one of the folktale songs the children liked to sing.


The open fields make a faerie wary, their magic will surely tarry. But here, a demon’s heart will strum, so into trees and forests, run!


At the very least I was glad that Iseya was gone. I had a feeling that very little escaped her notice, and if she spotted me I was sure she’d drag me in front of Zaijin by my hair. If she didn’t just kill me on the spot, of course.


It was a slow and agonizingly tense retreat, but I finally got far enough away that I felt confident in turning around. But as I turned my back to the demon camp, my fears of never seeing Zaijin again returned in full force. Stupid girl! You should be thinking about survival, not fantasizing about the next time you’d catch another glimpse of a demon. Who knows what would happen if I were caught? I could easily end up a slave, dinner, or a strung up as a reminder not to go past the damned wards.


The wards! Did they do anything at all? Would they actually help? If demons were real there was a chance those stupid markings and their powers were just as real. Spirits, I wasn’t eager to have Jashni lord that over me if it was true.


I kept my pace slow. As much as I appreciated not having a giant, angry boar to worry about anymore, my current threat was even more bothersome. I didn’t know their tricks. Did demons hide? Or did they walk in plain sight? Would this Kujo be up in the trees? The folktales made me believe he’d prefer to keep his feet on the ground, but I wasn’t exactly thrilled to have to rely on myths for my information.


Regardless of what he did, my plan was to stay low. A dull pain was beginning to spread through my right arm. I was in no condition to be climbing trees and I would be lucky if I could get one more shot off with my bow, though I doubted it would do any lasting damage to a demon. My best chance at escaping was to simply run.


Eventually I reached the large oak tree with the black and white painted wards and whispered a soft prayer. “Please, give me a chance to get home safe. I don’t want to–” I stopped abruptly as I realized what I was about to say. I should have said “I don’t want to die”, but instead the words I was about to utter were “I don’t want to be unworthy”. If I was brought back in front of Zaijin by Kujo I don’t think I could stand the humiliation.


I shook my head and kept moving, shocked at my confession, yet I couldn’t bring myself to change my prayer. That was what I truly wanted – to be worthy. But not just to anyone. I wanted to be seen as worthy by a demon, of all things. It was the first time in my life I truly, desperately wanted anything at all. I felt sick at the idea of merely chasing down deer for the rest of my damned life, season after season, in an endless, depressing cycle. I wanted more.


But first I had to get past this cursed clearing and away from Kujo. I already hated this area, but I hated it even more now that it was etched in my memory as the place where the boar had bested me. And I had a sinking, horrible feeling that if the demon was going to find me anywhere, it was going to be here.


“Not bad, human.”


My soul momentarily left my body.


When it returned I looked to my right. Squatting down only a few spear-lengths away from me was a demon. Kujo. His skin was a dark grey with a sickly green undertone and out of his forehead grew three small, yellowed horns. He was smaller than Zaijin, but still a head taller than any man I’d met. When he grinned I could see a row of sharp, pointed teeth, but unlike Zaijin he didn’t have any tusks.


“Had you been trying to get past anyone other than me, sweetheart, you might’a made it.”


I swallowed hard. Should I talk back to him? Or bolt? Would running even work at this distance? There was no doubt in my mind those long, wiry arms would reach me in a flash.


Spirits be damned. I wasn’t about to give up. He could tell Zaijin I was a crazy fool when he brought back my lifeless body, but he wasn’t going to tell him that I was gutless.


“You haven’t caught me yet,” I said with a smirk of my own. “Kujo.”


I thrust my body forward. Towards the demon. I saw his grin widen as he shifted his stance to a defensive pose. Good. In one swift motion I abruptly planted my feet in the ground and crouched down, grabbing a handful of dirt with my good hand. With my left foot forward, I pivoted with all my might and threw the dirt at the demon, creating a cloud of debris as I bolted in the opposite direction.


I ran faster than I’d ever ran in my whole life. My body felt weightless. I was the wind itself.


And I wasn’t out of tricks yet.


I dashed towards the location of my previously installed trap. My palms were slick with sweat, but I managed to draw my bow and one arrow as I ran. I prayed, to whatever spirits or gods would listen, that my arm wouldn’t fail me now.


I could hear him behind me. Howling. Laughing. He was close. But that was perfect.


I ran through the clearing directly below the net and slid through on my thigh, using my other foot as an anchor to rotate my body towards the trap at the last moment. I grit my teeth, fighting through the stabbing pain as I locked my arm and took aim at the trap mechanism up in the tree.


I fired.


The arrow found its mark, and with a click, the net fell and slammed to the ground. The weight of it created a cloud of dust, but through the haze I could see the net writhing from the demon caught beneath.


As I scrambled to my feet I risked a final glimpse. The net was being ripped to shreds. Kujo’s dark eyes were manic, a wicked smile taking over his whole face. I flashed him one last sly grin before dashing away.


The forest was swaying before me, melting into strange brown shapes as I fled through the narrow deer trails, but I wasn’t frightened. I’d never felt so focused. It was as if every tree was bending out of my way, their leaves whispering wordless directions as I darted past.


There was still a chance he wouldn’t catch up to me, but there was no way in hell I was going to underestimate him again. I’d have to lose my scent. There were two spots. Either I could go to the cave west of my village and cast aside my clothes and quickly douse myself in the waterfall or I could go to the rotwood shrubs to the south and have a good roll in them. Washing at the waterfall would take longer and I’d have to return home stark naked, but I was confident my scent would be gone. On the other hand, the rotwood would mask my scent without a doubt, but if Kujo was clever he’d figure out that the strange smell that carried on down the trails was me, and not more bushes.



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