The Lady Koi

Originally printed in Darkly Never After: Fairytales for Adulthood

Long, long ago, there lived a demon hunter by the name of Sairyu. To the evil forces of the world he was well known, for there was not a demon alive who could stand up to his might. In fact, Sairyu was so well known that mother demons and father demons would tell their demon children that if they did not behave, Demon-Queller Sairyu would visit them in the night to lop off all their toes.

This was not far from the truth. When Sairyu was only three years old, a shoe-dwelling akuma bit off his little toe. They say that Sairyu grabbed the little creature so forcefully that he ripped its head from its body. He made hair ornaments from its bones, and a magical belt from its hide, until all that was left was fat and muscle, forcing the akuma to tie its severed head under an armpit. Afterward, Sairyu decided to keep the demon as a wretched pet, and after removing all of the poor demon’s toes for good measure, gave it the undignified name of Worm.

Of course, Sairyu’s own toe could not be recovered, and so he grew up with a limp which in turn cultivated in him an intense hatred of demons. He trained until he was peerless in the art of slaying their kind. However, killing was not enough for him. After he disposed of one, he would poach its corpse to ensure it could not pass on to the next life, or reincarnate on any plane.

Despite his great violence, in the human world Sairyu was considered noble. After all, is it not a noble deed to kill a demon? Sairyu, of course, relished his notoriety, and not long after his hundredth slaying, began to charge obscene amounts for his services, until he catered to no one but those whose pockets ran as deep as the roots of the oldest trees in the forest. Money was all that mattered, and since there was no hunter better than Sairyu, the princes and emperors who appointed him were more than happy to pay his sums — so long as the demons that plagued them were eradicated.

But our story is not about the noble deeds of the great Demon-Queller Sairyu, nor is it about the thousand demons he slayed in his profitable career. Our story is about the day Sairyu killed the demon King Himoji, and the ruination of his fortunes thereafter.

The final journey of the sword through King Himoji’s neck met little resistance. Sairyu looked on, eyes mad in their delight, as the demon’s body stilled, blood flowing torrid from mutilated veins. Himoji had been a foul demon, and Sairyu needn’t have felt any remorse. All about his feet lay the bones of children, their skulls crushed open so Himoji could dine upon their brains like eggs. Sairyu’s stomach lurched a little each time he heard the crunch of chalk-colored bone under his leather shoes. The sound echoed out into the yawning depths of the cave Himoji had called home.

The battle had been a hard one. Himoji had lived up to his name as the strongest demon in the east. Though the demon’s servants had fled at the start of the fight, Himoji had met Sairyu head on. It was all for not, of course, and Sairyu had known it from the start. Long ago he had a witch doctor charm the ornaments he’d made from Worm’s flesh, so that any creature of the same ilk would be powerless to harm him. His fame as a demon-hunter was borne entirely from the cheat — no demon stood a chance against him.

He smirked as he looked at Himoji’s grisly remains. The great, boar-like tusks would fetch a sterling price, as would the scaled and furred pelt. His skull would make a lovely bowl for divinations. Indeed, after he showed the head to the daimyo who had paid him to dispatch this mountain demon, he intended to keep it for himself. Sairyu sheathed his sword and, hefting up the bloody head, placed it inside his traveling bag. The bag — the leftover carcass of a frog demon — was charmed, and as Sairyu stuffed Himoji’s head past the frog’s lips, its belly expanded proportionally to accommodate the bloody cargo.

Worm, who had remained hidden during the battle, returned to Sairyu’s side, looking at him nervously as his teeth nibbled a gnarled finger.

“What is it?” Sairyu snapped, returning to Himoji’s corpse, hacking away claws and hair, as well as the demon king’s gizzard and heart. He took particular pleasure in slicing his prey’s testes and toes off, dropping them with a little thud-thud into his frog pouch.

“Oh, Master,” said Worm, bowing with a shudder, his forehead smeared by the blood on the cave floor. “Let us leave at once. I fear to stay another minute!”

“Wretched creature,” Sairyu snorted his displeasure, “We will leave when I say, and not a moment sooner. Speak no more, or I will use your fat as gristle in my dinner tonight.”

“Oh, Master!” Worm wailed, “Please let us leave. I smell power here, power more than even Lord Himoji, and I fear we shall be cursed!”

“I’ll not have more nonsense from you, Worm. There is money here. A fortune! Enough to make me more powerful than all the daimyo in the region.”

“Oh, but Master,” Worm entreated, one last time. “Surely your life is more important than fame! Lord Himoji was a strong enemy, but whatever else is here will surely be the death of us!”

“I am scared of no demon, Worm.” Sairyu’s eyes narrowed and his chest filled wide. “Let them come and find me if they dare, and we will see if they can kill me.” Then he kicked Worm harshly in the side for spreading ill omens, sending the demon in a tumble down the mountain of skulls.

Not in all the kingdoms of this world or the next has a scream been as terrible and haunting as that of the Lady Koi’s upon returning home and finding her husband Himoji in pieces on the floor. He had kept the demons of this mountain safe for centuries. He had saved her, when she had been no more than a jikininki, a hungry ghost doomed to devour men’s corpses. He made her his wife, and the Lady Koi had never known greater peace than what she felt in his arms, despite her continuing, insatiable appetite. In times of war, her needs were easily met, but these were days of peace in this province, and so Himoji had gone further and further from their home to find her meals.

They had thought themselves blessed to find a city overrun with cases of the Red Cough. Himoji had brought her back the corpses of the victims, but the villagers must have seen him. They had blamed Himoji for the incurable illness, and the daimyo had hired a slayer. But the slayer had gone too far — Himoji’s corpse was more bone than flesh, picked clean by a greedy vulture. There was far too little to bury; to perform rites over.

Despair was all that King Himoji’s court could know. The Lady Koi’s cries rocked the very earth, and from her tears sprung the Great Eastern Sea, until all the land around her changed utterly. To see her nebulous eyes weeping broke the hearts of even her most stout servants, until all despaired with her at the loss of their master. She vowed that she would not let such a crime rest, nor allow such a criminal go unpunished. But, most importantly, she could not bear the thought of her husband’s soul trapped in the worlds between, and vowed to recover the parts of him that had been taken.

As her servants prepared what remains they could for cremation, the Lady Koi procured from a witch doctor the very rarest variety of hangon-ko, or spirit-recalling incense, in order to learn from her husband his killer. She prepared some steamed buns to draw her husband’s spirit to her, and then placed the incense on her very best lacquered tray before lighting it. Gray smoke rose up in swirls that soon took the shape of the slain Himoji. The Lady Koi prostrated herself, the image of her husband tearing another mournful wail from her.

“My Husband, oh, dearest of all to me on this earth! You have been murdered! Mutilated! Pray, speak the name of your killer, so I may see justice done!”

The incense swirled, and Himoji’s terrible face contorted in anger as he howled in return. “Dearest Wife! If only I could answer your plea. My tongue has been cut and charmed, so I may not speak his name.”

Lady Koi’s tears spilled freely, fearing her efforts would be lost. However, the demon queen was nothing if not resourceful, and soon found strength in cleverness. “Then speak his worst crime to me, my love, so I may learn it another way.”

“Cunning Wife,” Himoji answered, pleased, though his voice was already struggling against the Veil. The incense smoke began to recede, taking with it his likeness. “Look at my feet!”

“Your feet?” The Lady Koi clutched at the ghost of his image in the incense’s ashen tails, “What will I find?”

“My killer, Dearest Wife! My killer took all of my toes!”

I t was on the sixth day of the sixth month that Sairyu came to a bridge that would take him to the province of the daimyo. At the foot of the bridge, an old tea peddler was fussing with his cart, walking on geta sandals so tall they made him look like a large stork strutting across the road.

“Fine day,” the peddler called as Sairyu passed him. “Won’t you take some tea?”

The great demon-queller considered the old man and his cart, and the long road to be traveled, before he inclined his head just so. “I will,” he answered. The peddler was delighted, and poured Sairyu a cup of sencha tea so aromatic the trees around them sighed in envy.

“Good tea,” Sairyu murmured flatly after taking a sip, even though he found the taste to be better than anything else he had ever drunk.

“The very finest!” The peddler laughed. “This tea was grown in the southern provinces of Wa, on a mountain guarded by a jade dragon. It was watered with dew from a honey pitcher plant that birthed a fairy queen.”

“Rubbish!” Sairyu snorted, not about to be taken for a fool.

“Not at all.” The peddler snapped his fingers. “The tea is so fine, in fact, that it can tell your fortune. Here, here, give me your bowl.” And Sairyu did, watching as the peddler’s yellowed fingernails curled around the clay cup. The peddler stroked his thin, white beard and pondered. But for every second he spent gazing into the bowl, he only frowned more deeply.

Losing patience with the peddler’s tall-tale, Sairyu stood again to leave, tossing a few copper coins into the cart. “Your tea does not work for you, peddler. Perhaps you should stick to brewing,” he said.

“Oh no,” the peddler replied, shaking his head with great gravity, “Your bowl shows me much. Too much, perhaps.” Pausing, the peddler lifted his eyebrows to get a good look at the man before him. “It tells me you are Demon-Queller Sairyu.”

“An easy guess! You need only look at my cargo, and my company,” Sairyu said, patting the bloated frog demon pouch on his hip and nodding to Worm at his side.

“Ah yes. Your companion.” The peddler’s eyes turned to Worm, until the demon shrunk and slithered between Sairyu’s legs. “You should be rid of him. Ill will come of having him in your company.”

“Worm?” Sairyu barely glanced down, “He is harmless! I’ve seen to it.” He laughed and turned back to the road. “Thank you for the tea, old man, but I’ll have you keep your fortunes.”

“Sairyu, you must listen!” the peddler called at his back, “Abandon your mission for glory! Go back to your home now, or surely misfortune will befall you!” But Sairyu did not respond to the peddler, pulling Worm by his exposed tendons across the bridge.

Worm had never been on a bridge like it. Though he and Sairyu had started across it an hour before, there was no sign that they were getting any closer to the end. Mists lingered on either end of the bridge’s limitless expanse. He scraped his wounded feet across the planks, the monotonous shish-shish making him sleepy. In the clear waters of the endless river below, colorful koi fish nestled in reeds, their scales glittering like gold coins and a thousand bolts of the most precious silk. Their presence soothed him, until he forgot the pain he experienced with every step of his battered body.

Almost.

Today, like every day, Worm looked longingly up at the bone dressings in Sairyu’s raven-colored hair, and the leather skin belt notched tight around the slayer’s waist. He thought of the toes Sairyu had cut off his feet, and the thousand beatings he had received since then.

How unfair it was, to be tortured for so long, and so cruelly. If only he had vomited up Sairyu’s ugly little toe all of those years ago. Was it so wrong that he obeyed his stomach when he got hungry? Was he evil because that sustenance came from humans? What then of the spider, or the dog, or even humans themselves? How is it that they were exempt from the laws of nature? He remembered how Sairyu had tasted; there had been nothing holy, or even particularly delicious, about his flesh. He’d certainly tasted better.

“Keep up, Worm.”

Worm bit back a sneer of contempt. “Oh yes, Master. As fast I can.” And he limped a little harder, to complete the effect and please Sairyu’s temper.

“It seems we will never reach the end of this bridge, doesn’t it?” Sairyu gave the mist a deep frown.

Even though there was no one else with them, it took Worm a moment to realize Sairyu was speaking to him. “It does seem that way, Master, yes. Perhaps it is enchanted?”

Sairyu turned his nose up high, his usual sign that he thought Worm was saying something idiotic. “Come, we must go faster.” And Demon-Queller Sairyu reached down and picked Worm up by the scruff of his neck, preferring to carry his servant than be slowed down by him a moment more.

No sooner had Sairyu picked up Worm, however, than four demons descended upon him. Each held in hand a long cleaver, with which they readily swung at Sairyu’s neck in an attempt to free his head from his body. Worm shrieked as he was thrown like an old coat to the bridge. He watched as Sairyu drew his sword. Like fingers parting a spider web, his blade sliced through the tender belly of the demon to his right.

Worm cowered on the bridge, making himself as small as he could against the trestles. He may not have liked Sairyu, but in this case, the enemy of his enemy was not his friend. These demons had a mad light in their eye, possessed by a need to kill.

Sairyu crouched and spun, sandal and steel sweeping out to knock his assailants off balance. He dove forward, driving his sword deep into the chest of the one in front of him. The blade slid into the demon’s ribs, skewering him, but the thrust extended too far. Sairyu cursed as it lodged itself in his flailing opponent’s chest cavity.

His opponents took advantage of his disarming at once. Shrieking like mountain apes, they flung themselves at him, tearing at his legs and arms, but the belt Sairyu had made from Worm’s hide protected him. The demons’ claws could tear the fabric no better than they could shred crystal. The blade closest made an awkward swoop toward him, grubby, scaled fingers pulling on Sairyu’s topknot. Sairyu pulled his head forward as the cleaver came down, leaving the demon with nothing but a fistful of the man’s black hair.

Sairyu unsheathed a second, shorter sword and spun wildly. His blade slit a throat with terrible precision, the skin parting and blood pouring out like a bloated fish belly just cut. The next swing was for his last opponent — but the demon was already running along the railing in retreat, the fistful of black hair and demon bone still clutched tight in his hands as he dove into the water. Sairyu spit to the side, running his calloused hand over his ruined hair, feeling the lack of his ornaments. “Kisama!” he cursed, “I’ll want those back.”

Worm slunk out from the shadows, glaring at Sairyu’s back. Me more than you, he thought, and looked forlornly over the edge of the bridge. The koi, and any sign of the demon with his bones, were gone.

Sairyu’s rough hand returned to his scruff and yanked harshly. “Come, Worm. The mist is clearing.”

The water demon yammered on, jumping up and down as he repeated the events of the bridge. The Lady Koi stood at her dresser, combing out her long locks as her chambermaids changed her gorgeous, scaled robes.

“He was protected by magic, my lady!” cried the only servant that had returned. “A belt at his waist defended him against our sharpest swords.” The other demons in attendance all cried out at the injustice, for their master had died protecting them from Sairyu. They were as eager for vengeance as their lady.

The Lady Koi frowned, considering her rouge as she spread the tori orange across her lips. “Then we must get him to take it off himself.”

“But how, my lady?” the demon asked. “A warrior does not part with his armor readily.”

The Lady Koi’s dark eyes turned down to the bones that he had given her, piled in a heap on her vanity’s counter. “Sairyu expects violence, but battle is not the only way to disarm an opponent,” she answered.

The demon’s bulging eyes stared in pale blankness, bewildered. The Lady Koi smiled, and stepping away from her chambermaids, drew a long, pale finger up the side of his emaciated jaw. The demon shivered, heart racing, body swooning toward her.

“I will go myself.”

I t was on the seventh day of the seventh month that Sairyu came to a bridge that would take him to the central district of the daimyo. This time, there was no tea seller to stall him, and Sairyu set to cross it immediately. Worm followed behind as quick as his lame body would allow.

The cool water in the river below tempted them, gurgling across the pebbles in its bed, ignorant of the oppressive humidity of the summer air. Worm watched as a school of koi fought the current to get upstream. Their orange-and-black-speckled bodies brushed against each other, breaching the surface with fins and mouths in ways that inspired images of breathless passion.

Both the demon hunter and the demon found their eyes drawn even further upstream, where a lady stood marooned on rocks between the rapids. She clutched her long sleeves tight to her lips, her robes shimmering with the patterns of summer calligraphy. It took Sairyu only one look at the woman to see her as worth saving. Surely a woman so beautiful — so richly adorned — could be nothing less than a noblewoman. Rewards as rich as rain would tumble easily from such elegant and helpless hands. Abandoning Worm, he crossed the bridge and rushed to assist her.

When the stately woman saw his intent, she called out to him in desperation, “Oh, noble warrior, please save me before I fall!”

“Fear not,” Sairyu replied, crossing the roaring river with a shuffling limp, the rough current of the waters pressing hard against his weaker leg. When he reached the woman, he turned, offering his back and refusing to move until the lady’s arms were tight around him.

Sairyu took her to the bank of the river, where she slipped off his back and pressed her cheek to his chest. Sairyu felt stirrings in places he hadn’t had much use for since picking up the sword.

“I surely would have drowned had you not shown up,” the woman said, her eyes gazing up thankfully at the demon-queller’s brutish face. “Please come with me to my father’s estate, so you may be rewarded. He is the shogun of this province.”

His intuition had been correct. He grinned, a sly arm curling around the lady’s fair waist. He knew, should he play his hand right, he could bag far more than the plum her rich and powerful father would give him. Why not have the woman — and all of her dowry — too? “Are you quite all right?” he asked, twisting his features into something resembling concern.

“Scared,” she answered in a meek whisper, lowering her sleeve as she lowered her eyes, and for the first time Sairyu noticed the tori orange tint to her lips, ripe as an October persimmon. The urge to bite into them was overpowering. “And cold.”

“Then let me warm you.” Grinning, he lay her down on the grassy hill, eager to establish terms her father could not ignore. While she did not reject his advance, Sairyu thought, her sensibilities as a proper lady required a certain resistance. The lady’s sleeve covered her lips again as he settled over her, and she shoved him back with an imperceptible whimper. Sairyu put a stop to that, grabbing a wrist with one hand and a sleeve with the other, exposing her lips long enough to touch his own upon hers. Her lips were frozen against his own, and soon she turned her face from his. “Do not forget your debt,” he said, lips curling as her dark eyes pouted up at him.

“I haven’t,” she said, a quiet sound as she stilled beneath him, letting her arms drop to her sides when he released them, until the form under her damp robes became apparent.

“I will make you my wife,” Sairyu said, eyes dancing in mad dreams of power and prestige. His hand fell to his belt and undid it, kissing the lady’s throat as he dropped it carelessly beside them.

No sooner had he done so than he began to smell the pungent quality of fish. His eyes widened as the lady below him changed. Her robe, suddenly covered in scales, cut his hands as they tried to undress her. Her hand latched onto the belt he had just removed.

“Master Sairyu!” It was Worm. “Master Sairyu, get away! She is a demon!”

He jumped back as the lady thrust a small dagger toward him, her orange lips set in a deep scowl.

Now Sairyu saw no difference between the ugliest of devils and the she-demon before him, no matter how beautiful: he hated them all the same, and to have been tricked made him doubly furious. He drew his swords, one in each hand, and charged.

The Lady Koi could do little to defend against the two blades thrusting toward her, and gasped as trying to avoid one only led her straight into the path of the other. Sairyu’s hilt bumped against the soft flesh of her belly; the rest of the steel nested straight through her. Pain crept upon her like scalded skin. She thought of Sairyu’s ugly face, and the gleeful expression he held for having impaled her. His smugness disgusted her. Had he laughed, like he did now, when he’d murdered her husband?

Was this really how her life was going to end?

She suddenly noticed the frog carcass on Sairyu’s hip. Or rather, the frog’s intense stare made it impossible for her not to notice it. The frog’s pale eyes bulged and its throat pouch expanded as it took a small breath. Time seemed to slow all around her, drops of blood suspended in the air like little crimson bubbles.

Do not die yet, Lady Koi, it said, rasping, for it had no lungs to fill with air. Escape now. Return in a month’s time, for the Obon Festival is upon us. I carry King Himoji’s flesh in my belly, and will keep it safe. Come back in a month, and you and your husband can pass into the next life together.

“But how will I survive until then?” the Lady Koi asked, certain that this demon frog had been given the boon of a second life for devouring her husband’s flesh.

Take Sairyu’s belt and wear it. It will protect you. The frog took another pained breath, and time resumed its terrifying pace. Blood soaked the front of the Lady Koi’s kimono in crimson as dark as great, blooming camellias.

Sairyu withdrew his swords, taking a new stance for another strike, but the Lady Koi dove away, tying Worm’s old skin tight around her waist, just as the frog had counseled her. Then, in a flourish, she ran toward the river. Sairyu followed, but before he could catch her, she burst into thirty spotted koi in the water’s currents, each too fast and cunning to be caught.

The demon-queller cut his blades pointlessly through the water, cursing. Back on the bridge, he looked down at the distraught Worm and snorted. “It seems that old tea peddler was wrong. I’d have gained quite the uncomely hole in my guts if you hadn’t been here.”

Worm’s face turned up in surprise. Sairyu could see him trying to place the words as compliment or sarcasm.

A kick from his sandal answered, he hoped, any of Worm’s lingering questions as to his worth in Sairyu’s eyes. “Kudzumono. Next time work faster. That she-devil took my belt because you were not quick enough.”

Worm nursed his wound as Sairyu frowned down at the useless, pink hide of his pet. He lamented that the demon could not grow another skin for him. He would miss that belt.

Obon was coming, and it was all the Lady Koi could do to draw one breath after another, hoping the magical belt that had protected Sairyu for so long would perform its duties as faithfully for her. She loathed to think about how close she had been to Himoji’s remains, only to fail to recover them in the end.

The demon frog had given her sound advice, however. Now that she was not in the middle of a battle fighting for her life, she could see the wisdom of it. Obon, the Festival of the Dead, was the only time all year when the roads between the worlds were traversable, and if she meant to rescue her husband from limbo, that would be the best — nay, the only — time to do so.

She felt weak. The beauty that had so well-served her throughout her life was withering; every action took great effort to accomplish. She knew she was lucky to be alive, and that if she ever removed the belt, she would die. She also knew that in her current condition, she had no chance of overcoming Sairyu by herself.

She needed help.

Her thoughts turned to the companion that had called out to Sairyu. A miserable thing; deformed and without skin. But unless her eyes had deceived her, the cripple was a demon himself — why should he feel so compelled to rescue their kind’s most notorious murderer?

Her fingers brushed across the belt around her waist, and for the first time she noted the leather was crude: merely braided strips of hastily cut flesh. Was this made of that demon’s own skin? Had he seen her stealing the belt? She thought of his jelly-like limbs, and the way he stooped like a half-broken reed. Below her mirror, the pile of small bones caught her eye. Were those that demon’s own bones?

Slowly, an idea began to form, filling her mind as slow as the smoke of hangon-ko. The Lady Koi had known she was going to need help; now, she had a good guess as to where she could get it.

I t was the eight day of the eighth month when Sairyu entered the village of the daimyo. Red lanterns hung everywhere: on long chains across the thoroughfare, under stone passageways; in front of every door. The smell of incense was so thick that Worm had to cover his sensitive nose.

All around them people laughed and clopped around on their geta sandals through the food stalls. The scents of broiled organs and chicken meat wafted through Worm’s fingers. His mouth salivated. What a nibble of a stick of juicy grilled chicken skins would do for his mood! Of course, just thinking about asking Sairyu for anything of the sort gave Worm a sharp pain of premonition in the ribs. Better not to ask. He meandered behind Sairyu, moping along in his master’s muddy footprints.

“Skinless one,” a whisper reached the little demon. A woman. In the shadows of an alley Worm could make out pale skin and lips of tori orange — the she-demon from the river.

He hesitated, looking around for Sairyu, but he was already several stalls ahead. Worm was certain the lady was there to kill him, but she only smiled at him from the darkness.

“You have nothing to fear, brother demon,” she said, extending her pale hand, “A gift for you.”

Worm could have wept. He scrambled toward her, feverishly grasping at the pale bones in her palm. His bones.

“The Demon-Queller took these from you, did he not?” the Lady Koi asked, her voice growing dark. Worm slid a femur with a sickeningly sweet pop back into his leg.

“Yes. Yes, my lady, he did,” Worm said. He sobbed in relief as he felt rib bones sliding back into place, improving his posture after decades of a forced slouch.

“And the skin I wear now — this he stole from you as well?” the Lady Koi asked, gravely.

“Oh, yes, my lady!” A ravenous desire filled Worm’s bulbous eyes as his hand reached for the belt at her waist, but the lady slapped his fingers away.

“Not yet, brother demon,” she warned. “I must get the pouch on your master’s hip. Help me, and this skin will be yours again.”

Worm wriggled his fingers and stretched his spine to see how tall he could stand. He wobbled, still having no toes, but it was already an amazing improvement. “What do you need me to do?” A drunk sort of happiness filled his words and expression.

“I will confront Sairyu at the next bridge he crosses. Help me put an end to him however you can, and I will return to you this — “ Her fingers traced Worm’s leather hide.

Worm didn’t need time to think. He had suffered enough over a single toe. He owed Sairyu nothing. “You, of course, may count on me, my lady.” With one measured sweep, Worm bowed — for the first time since Sairyu had mutilated him — and only to prove he could.

The daimyo’s castle was only a little further. Sairyu was looking forward to getting paid. It had been a long journey, and if his quarry hadn’t been the demon king Himoji, it might not have been worth all the hassle. But the demon-queller grinned, self-satisfied. He could already see the mountains of gold and bags of rare gems he would collect for all of the demon’s various parts.

Just one more bridge.

By now, Sairyu was a little wary of bridges. But it was a very tiny bridge, no longer than a man was tall, and he could not imagine any harm would come from crossing its length. He could hear Worm dragging his feet behind him, the steady shish-shish grating on his nerves.

“Come along, Worm.” Sairyu found himself taking a deep breath before he stepped up onto the bridge’s platform. Foolish, he thought, I’ve nothing to be afraid of. And yet, something in the hairs on his arms, the blood in his veins, was reacting strongly. He proceeded with caution.

The pungent odor of incense still clung to his skin, filling the air, even though they were far from the town. Sairyu looked around for a shrine but saw none. Then, he stopped walking altogether. Down in the dry riverbed below, smoke was coiling, tumbling down the rocks, as slow as mists breaking over a mountain’s peaks. The smoky gray filled the ditch with a vaporous river, which soon rose up through the planks under their feet. Sairyu’s hand gripped his sword’s handle, slowing pulling the steel free.

In front of him, of the very smoke, rose the image of Himoji. The demon king’s horrible tusks swayed with every step, his body revealed in whispered tangles of incense smoke. Hangon-ko. The sword would do nothing against him.

Sairyu dropped it, listening as the blade clattered against the wood panels.

“My head, Sairyu!” growled Himoji, rushing toward the demon-queller like a bull on a charge, “My head!”

Sairyu ducked out of instinct, panic filling his heart when he realized Himoji’s claws had cut him. There was trickery here.

Unsheathing his second blade, Sairyu spun, slicing into the broad, ape-like chest charging him yet again. The incense smoke filled with splatters of red. Mortal, Sairyu thought. This gave him courage, and he cut at the demon again and again.

Himoji made no attempts to preserve himself. He hacked viciously, pushing Sairyu toward the railing, spitting acid through the smoke. With his bare hands, he took hold of Sairyu’s last sword, tearing it from the warrior’s grip. Bloody palms rose again, this time seeking Sairyu’s neck.

Sairyu ducked and spun, pulling himself out of the closed space and whipping out behind Himoji to ram his shoulder into the demon’s back. Himoji’s body tottered, stumbling forward. A final shove from Sairyu and the demon fell over, back into the milky smoke that had borne him.

Sairyu grinned, laughing at his own prowess, opening his mouth to shout down a curse, but all that erupted from his throat was a scream.

At his feet, Worm had sprung upon his toes, small, gnashing teeth tearing each plump little digit off with a violent snap.

Sairyu’s balance failed him. Just as Himoji had, he stumbled over the ledge —

— and right into the waiting embrace of the lovely, bloody Lady Koi.

Himoji’s remains spilled out of the frog demon pouch and into the waiting pool of incense. The Lady Koi wiped her lips, staring distastefully at how much of Sairyu’s blood remained. She could not remember having ever devoured a man more foul-tasting.

His companion, Worm, paced the creek’s banks, waiting for her to remove his skin from her waist and return it, as promised. Soon, she told herself. There was still one more task at hand.

The Lady Koi’s pale hands dipped into the deep folds of the hangon-ko’s smoke, retrieving her husband’s severed head. The cloudy tendrils clung to his cadaverous flesh, and she knew her husband was present. From inside her robe, she procured a small corked jar and removed the nub with her teeth.

King Himoji’s ashes fell into the vapors — the eyes of the beheaded opened, and the Lady Koi wept, cradling Himoji’s head to her bosom, kissing his brow as her free hand undid the knot that held Worm’s skin around her. Peace was with her to have her husband back in her arms.

“Let us go together, dearest husband, most precious to me of all,” she whispered. She tossed Sairyu’s belt to Worm, and then the frog demon pouch afterward. “Keep that safe as well.” Worm nodded, crawled back into his skin, and then hung the pouch across his boney shoulders. The frog’s eyes swiveled and blinked. Worm watched as the Lady Koi lifted her husband’s head, kissing the cold blue of his lips with her own tori orange.

The smoke rose up around them, and they were gone.