The bright orange sun beat down upon his back; the very air shimmered under the intense heat. Gusts of wind swirled searing, scouring, sand against his tough leathery skin. His water skins were as dry as the sand stinging at his eyes. For nine blisteringly hot days followed by freezing nights he had tracked his prey, when I kill him I will savour and be sustained by his soul. The hunt had been good experience; he had encountered wild beasts of the sands and dispatched them with ease. Nothing could compare with devouring his foes very essence though.
However as he stood and scanned the arid landscape he felt doubts, this did not become him, but even now his strength was waning. To die alone in the sands and not at the hands of an opponent was the closest he had come to fear. He must go on, step by burning step.
His quarry’s scent on the wind, a smell that drew forth the battle rage within him. Leather, stale sweat, piss and shit, good, the warrior thought. He increased his speed to a trot, fury feeding his strength. As he finally caught sight of his opponent he roared a challenge across the desolate waste. Even now he cannot find the courage to stand and face me. He closed the distance and finished at a dead sprint his body pulsing with excitement and anticipation at what was to come, previous fatigues forgotten. His opponent made no move to defend himself, he made no move at all. He rolled the coward over onto his back, no, no, not this! A screaming howl of anguish and pain emerged unbidden from the mighty Oni. Dead, soul departed, he stood, condemned, looking down, his face contorted by contempt, at the carcass. He descended upon it pounding it with hammer like fists. The last of his energy used to beat and brutalise the deceased, smashing each rib at a time before caving its head in. Depleted he lay down, to die.
He had dreamed during his fitful sleep, the same dreams that had plagued him for cycles. They came unbidden and he found that he had no control over them. He liked being in control. Like before he had felt powerless and yet he wouldn’t have changed it if he could. His dreams guided him, perhaps it was his own subconscious helping him, he thought, I’m lying to myself if I think I have become a god. For that is what I would have to be. He had felt the pull, the power that was his to be taken, in the mountains to the north. He liked power.
So he had gathered a couple of followers and prepared to set off from the small fishing town of Fujima. They’re as glad to be leaving as me, the smell of rotting fish pervades the air here.
Northwards and mountains and power, his dreams could be clearer he pondered, as their strange little trio departed.
He dreamed he was swimming. Water rushed over his head, cooling and refreshing. He awoke with a start, I should be dead, Araka’s not dead… Rain fell against his face, he leapt to his feet his senses screaming.
Araka crouched into a fighting stance, sounds filled his ears from every direction. Furry animals howled and swung from the trees, the biggest trees he had ever seen, startled by his presence. Bird calls trumpeted and broadcast their presence all around him, So many colours, so many birds, this is not home. As he absorbed and processed the world around him, his parched throat grew more insistent in his thoughts. Araka stood under a tree directing cool rainwater from a giant leaf down his throat. No longer thirsty, his belly took precedence, growling at him. A low rumbling sound, Araka laughed, it was good to be alive, and a warrior’s death still awaited him, now, food he thought.
Araka wandered the forest for days, nothing to fight, nothing to eat. What is this cursed place where everything just scurries away, afraid? He had no chance of catching anything as tired as he was, and anyhow his grumbling belly announced his arrival long before he turned up. Sat under a huge twisted tree another growl broke the crisp air, this time not his stomach. He turned slowly, a giant beast stood looking at him. Covered in fur, the beast walked on four huge feet, each adorned with razor sharp claws. “My stomach growls louder than you” Araka told the beast, quickly standing and adjusting his weight in preparation for the fight. The animal reared on to its back legs, drawing itself upto an impressive height and roared at Araka again, showing a maw filled with sharp hungry teeth. Not an Oni but it will do, Oni and bear took two steps forward before launching themselves together into a deadly embrace. The bear’s claws raked flesh from Araka’s back, shredding lumps of red flesh to the damp forest floor. He attempted to lock his fists around the beast’s back, it reared backwards while swatting at Araka with its giant paw. The blow struck like thunder into the Oni’s head, snapping it back and sending him sprawling across the forest floor. On one knee he shook his dazed head, suddenly diving into a roll as dinner was on him again. Close, they circled now. The bear struck out again, Araka had anticipated the attack but still been hit, too slow, it would have spilled my guts. The strike had left deep, blood gushing gouges across his stomach. The bear came on again, swinging its heavy paw in a wide arc, Araka ducked inside the careless attack, landing a sharp uppercut under the beast’s heavy jaw. This time the beast rocked back, stunned by the power of the blow, a chance. Hurling himself forward at its exposed throat, sharp teeth tearing at hair and flesh, his head a blur of movement as he ripped and snapped. The bear struggled as only those close to death can, but Araka’s grip was iron and as the life force flowed from the bear it envirgorated the furious Oni. Araka stood victorious, the hulking carcass twitching at his feet. Blood dripped from his mouth running down his body and mingling with his own. Araka smiled and closed his eyes, the animals soul was strong and he could feel its strength as the tendrils of its very being, wafted into his cavernous nostrils, lingering on the air in the now still forest.
Having feasted, Araka decided this place wasn’t so bad. He did need somewhere to regain his strength, I won’t survive another of those. His guts were closer to being spilled than he had realised. The claws had bit deeper and further than he felt comfortable with. Grasping his wounded belly he struck onwards, slow steps, each time his belly bounced he felt as if his innards were trying to burst through.
Araka’s wandering brought him to the forests edge, off in the distance he spied something different. He made his way, stumbling closer. A house, he guessed, larger than any he had seen before, made of wood. Wearily now, he was in no fit state to face the type of lord that could command a structure such as this. He smelled life now and everything that went with it. He saw the doorway and paused, Small, Araka need not fear, he could hear voices inside, one high, the other higher, Women? He burst through the thin screen walls and into the house.
The farmer and his wife jumped as their entrance screen exploded inwards. A demon from their nightmares, huge muscle bound torso, ripped and disfigured, two long sharp horns crowned its enormous head. The farmer bravely positioned himself between his wife and the demon.
Araka leapt upon him. Tearing his arm from its socket and flinging him against the wall. As Hyoto Kiroto, a simple man, lay dying, his last moments were filled with his wife’s screams as the monster beat her with his bloody arm. Araka felt their soul’s boost his strength and his wounds somewhat heal.
Kato had made good time, they had kept their heads down and avoided trouble on the way North. Stopping in towns only when necessary, the last thing he needed now was an overly ambitious Prefecture patrol interfering with his plans. Now on the southern edge of the forested mountains, he was at a loss and so he had left his Burakunin camped, and headed to the small hamlets only tavern. The bar keeper, like most country folk, eagerly exchanged news from the Southern cities for local gossip. Kato sat through tales of the miller’s wife running away with one of a travelling merchants guards and such like. An hour or so was all he could take, with a sigh he paid the keeper and gathered his belongings, tucking his pipe carefully away. “Erm, one more thing, do be careful,” offered the keep.
“Oh,” replied Kato questioningly.
“It’s just we had a bear killing recently, poor Hyoto and his wife, in their own home.”
“How awful,” prompted Kato, returning to his seat.
“The strange thing was they found a bear nearby, a huge specimen by all accounts, already dead, its throat ripped out and savaged as if by a pack of wolves, but our local Yoriki says that no wolf pack he has ever seen could bring down a bear like this in its prime.”
“Maybe I could help, I know about wolves,” Kato offered. The keep’s eyes narrowed slightly.
“That shall not be necessary, the Kyunin have already sent to Ataka to seek help from the magistrate there, sorry I missed your name?” The keep replied suggestively, Kato ignored the implied question,
“Ah the magistrate, then my help surely is not needed. Could you help me san, where is this farm, so I may avoid it?” The keep weighed his words momentarily before grudgingly conceding,
“The Kiroto farm, about ten leagues north of here as the crow flies, at the foot of the mountain forests.” Kato quickly dismissed himself trying to remain as calm as when he’d left the first time, thanking the man for his help and concern, bowing deeply, he was away.
Kato stood at the entrance to a cave, alongside him his Burakunin were growing skittish. As night had fallen, the swollen moon threw demonic shadows through the trees, spindly fingers reached across the little clearing towards the cave. A spot of luck at the farm found the couple in hastily prepared shallow graves, the Karai stood patiently. His hunt had come to a dead end, he sat on the porch and wondered what to do next, press on to the mountains perhaps? He lit his pipe to help him think, the smooth, thick smoke soothed his disappointment and calmed his uncertainty. He arose with improved confidence, striding away from his group and into the woods. And here they were, the wait doing nothing to dull his excitement. He was growing impatient though, considering sending in the Karai, that pair of bloody Burakunin are as like to slit my throat as enter that cave first, Kato decided. As he weighed his options, the decision was taken from him. A ground shaking roar echoed out of the cave, thrilling and scaring him in equal measure. The Burakunin were ready to bolt, he tapped a gentle rhythm on one of his porcelain masks, the eerie little tune issuing a sinister reminder that he was also to be feared.
Then from the inner shadows of the cave the demon emerged, as if from the pits of hell itself. Its strong body rippled with muscle, threatening horns jutted from either side of its head, it had a grotesque stomach, intestines bulging at the surface of deep gouges. It stood eyeing the group in front of it, intelligent maybe? Possibly just animal instincts, thought Kato.
It was armed with a human limb, Kato looked to his one armed Karai, “perhaps you can get it back?” The Karai led the attack, fearlessly approaching the beast. Shambling into battle, rake in hand, Oh dear, thought Kato. The demon stalked forward to meet them, he roared as he swung the arm, landing a heavy blow on the side of the rake wielding Karai’s head, a resounding snap as her neck broke, down she went rake and all. The Burakunin had joined the fray now, circling to maintain a position on either side of him. The demon tried to maintain an eye on both of his quicker opponents. One darted in, too close, the demon grabbed him by the shoulder, pulling him forward it smashed its head through the man’s face, bones splintered and cracked. He launched the lifeless man at the Karai, corpse and fresher corpse went down in a bundle together.
One more, thought Araka, distracted he had not heard the first Karai’s slow ascent back to its feet. The Burakunin arced around him, Araka following until finally he saw the Karai, too late! It was already lunging with the rake, piercing his wounded belly. He roared in anger, Dead should stay dead. He clubbed the woman with her husband’s arm again, all his rage focussed in that one blow. Thrown from its feet again, the Karai held fast to the rake, ripping the last of his stomach muscles with it. Intestines and guts tangled in the rake burst forth, trailed across the floor.
Araka dropped down on one knee, his life spilling out onto the forest floor. The Burakunin ran in to finish him off. Fool, thought Kato. The Oni’s hand shot out and grabbed the man by the throat, Kato heard him gurgle as his feet lifted from the ground, kicked then stopped. The demon dropped him, took one leg in each hand and literally ripped him in half, with a deep grunt. With that it rolled over onto its back.
Kato was reticent to make the same mistake as his foolish companion. Amidst the death and destruction he sat, crossing his legs beneath him, taking out his pipe he felt quite at home. He waited patiently, its breathing slowing until he heard the pleasant sound of its death rattle. Now it was time for him to go to work. He placed his mask on the beasts face and concentrated… nothing. He tried again and again to no avail. He cycled through emotions, childlike excitement leading to confusion in turn giving way to frustration. In his anger Kato dashed his useless mask against the floor, the pieces of the broken mask scattered. An idea, Kato broke two more masks, gathered the pieces of the other and applied them all to the hulk’s face. It shuddered and then rose again before Kato. Strange, he thought as he wrestled with its spirit even now in death, raging against him. He quietened and quelled it, taking full control, although he could still feel it bubbling below the surface, wanting to destroy him.
Exhilaration filled Kato; he felt one giant step closer in his plans.