Written By KC Widdoes
Cover Art by Kiana Kremer
An unrelenting afternoon sun beat down on the small town of Yasoi. The unbearable heat of summer had begun to fade, replaced instead with crisp autumn winds that crept through cracks in the walls and under doors to steal warmth from every home. Hard packed dirt roads wove throughout the entire town like the veins of a body, each filled with workers from the rice fields hurriedly making their way home or to one of the taverns bound to be better heated. Very few citizens seemed to notice the faint shiver that went through their body as the silver haired Yaksha walked by, thinking it nothing more than the chill wind kicking up. Those who did spot her quickly turned away for fear she might cut them in half, or drink their blood, or some other rumour they had heard and now recited as fact.
After years of practice Sana had gotten used to the hostility, there were very few places welcoming to those like her, people who walked hand in hand with the weirdness of the world. Ironically, she now felt more kinship with the creatures she was hired to hunt than those who hired her. And in the back of her mind each night she wondered if tomorrow would be the day they put a bounty on those like her.
Loud laughter and chatter drew her from the street toward a tavern situated along the main road. A worn sign hung just over the door, faded letters spelling out the phrase 'Nightingale' followed by the essence of what was likely a beautifully painted bird at one point in history. Pushing open the door she stepped inside, paying little mind to the stench of sweat, ale, dirt and the faintest hint of urine.
It was clear just from her attire that she was an outsider. Most of the townsfolk dressed in loose fitting, breathable cotton clothes fit for working the fields. Sana however was clad almost entirely in armour. Much of it was made of dark leather, with her stomach and upper arms offered extra protection in the form of a thin sheet of mail. A leather bandoleer stretched across her chest which was almost entirely filled with vials, and if one looked close enough they could see the pulpy viscera floating within. Attached to her back was a wooden box decorated with seals, the faintest sound of scratching coming from within. At her side were her weapons, a long barrelled revolver on her left kept in it's holster with a simple leather strap, and at her right was a slightly curved sword in an onyx sheath.
Conversation and laughter became hushed as she walked across the floor toward the counter opposite the door, once she had reached the other side of the tavern her leather boots seemed to be the loudest sound in the entire place.
Catching the eye of the middle aged woman behind the counter she was not surprised to see the woman's eyes flit down to the medallion pinned to her armour before returning to Sana's piercing violet eyes. The woman offered the faintest of smiles before speaking.
"What can I get you?"
"Just directions, if you'd be so kind. To the lord's manor."
The woman smiled and Sana was certain there was relief in her eyes.
"Of course, it's just-"
"Yer kinds not welcome 'ere."
A gruff voice spoke from behind Sana, laced with disdain. She let out the softest of sighs before responding.
"I'm just here for directions, then I'll be on my way. Go back to your drink."
Her hands balled into fists, fighting back anger that burned in the pit of her stomach. Her eyes fell to the counter, staring intently at the wood grain there that had soaked up many years of ale.
"Yer not in charge o' me ya freak! Gods damned monsters ye' are. Drinking tha blood o' newborn babes for yer demonic powers."
Sana could not help the small chortle that escaped her lips at that statement. That was certainly the strangest falsehood she'd heard about Yaksha.
"Oh, think it's funny do ya freak!?"
"I find your lack of intelligence amusing, yes." Turning her gaze back to the woman at the bar, who had begun to twist the small towel in her hands anxiously. "The directions, please."
A meaty hand slapped down onto her shoulder, gripping with what she assumed was all his strength, though she could barely feel it through her armour.
"Think ye'll get away with tha' insult?"
The question was followed by the sound of several stools shifting on the wooden floor. Sana could hear several bodies standing up, she guessed it was no more than four individuals drunk or stupid enough to think they stood a chance against someone like her.
"I think you should remove your hand."
Without any warning Sana spun on the spot releasing the burning anger in her stomach. With her right arm she hit the man who had touched her square across the jaw with all the strength she could muster. He crumpled to the ground clutching at his jaw which bulged out to the left, clearly broken. Blood pooled from the man's mouth as he wailed in pain. She looked from the body on the floor to the three other individuals surrounding him, her violet eyes curious if they were going to be smart and sit down or choose to attack her.
They chose stupidity.
The first man rushed at her with fists raised. She grabbed the nearby stool from the bar and smashed it across his face, the wood almost completely shattered as she swung it into him, only the leg survived which she held firmly.
As the second man came toward her she raised her foot swiftly, bringing it as hard as she could between his legs. He screamed momentarily before falling to the ground and vomiting up the contents of his stomach.
Before the final individual could even consider moving toward her Sana flung the stool leg toward him as hard as she could. It collided with his nose and she heard the crunch of cartilage. Blood spurted from his face like a geyser and he fell to the floor shrieking in pain.
With a sigh of annoyance she turned to face the woman at the bar whose face had gone pale with fright.
"The directions." Sana's formerly gentle voice had been replaced with a more chill edge.
"J-just follow th-the main road un-until you s-see a stone pat-pathway." The woman's eyes were pleading, almost like she was expecting Sana to lash out at her next.
With a nod of thanks Sana fished out her coin-purse and produced a single silver coin which she set down on the bar.
"For the stool."
Taking a glance over her shoulder at the four bodies she'd left on the floor, which were now being attended to by some of the other patrons, she fished out another three and set them down next to the first.
"For the trouble."
Now armed with directions it was not difficult to find the lord’s manor. Located just off the main street the dirt roads were replaced with cobblestone pathways, though several of those paths looked to have been crushed by something quite large. Sana made her way inside the walled estate and up to the manor, knocking loudly with the large heavy iron knocker in the shape of a dragons face. Overall the estate was not as opulent as she had expected, with only two stories it was not even the largest building in town. Though the lush greenery she had walked passed in the front certainly marked it as a place of at least some wealth.
The door creaked open and a young woman poked her head out, gazing curiously up at the figure who was at least two heads taller than her.
"May I help you?"
Sana nodded and produced the writ that she had been assigned to perform the job in question. "I'm here about the job your lord requested."
The woman took a moment to look over the writ before opening the doors wide enough for Sana to enter. The entry way was about what she had expected, large yet moderate in it's decadence. Small tapestries lined the front chamber detailing history of Yasoi, several of which Sana suspected had been done here in the village and passed down through the generations. At the far end was a painting in a regal golden frame, the stern looking middle aged man it depicted Sana guessed was either the lord or his father.
She was led into a smaller room off the entrance which had little more in it than a single table and a few chairs. It was the kind of room one would conduct meetings in, lacking in any frivolity that might distract from the important matters at hand.
"Can I bring you anything while you wait, miss?"
Sana almost choked at being addressed with such formality. The woman did not even seem to be forcing the words through clenched teeth either. It was rare to be addressed with the respect a regular citizen might be, rare but always appreciated.
"Just some tea, if it's no trouble."
The woman offered a nod of acknowledgement before sliding the door to the room closed and shuffling off to fetch the lord and the requested tea. Sana took this moment to unburden herself of the box on her back, resting it against the wall nearest to her. She produced a long metal pipe from her pack and began stuffing it with blue-green roseweed, her eyes constantly shifting back to the box at each faint scratch made from within.
Before long the door to the room slid open again and the woman who had greeted her was accompanied by a man whom Sana suspected was not the lord of the manor at all. He was a man of middle age, his face bearing not only the lines of age but scars to indicate he had seen at least a few battles. Though he wore a fine tunic Sana could hear the faint shifting of mail underneath his garb. He seemed to be carrying no weapons though she suspected he had at least one hidden on his person. The man eyed her curiously before engaging in a quick whispered dialogue with the attendant who had shown Sana in, after which he seated himself across from the Yaksha.
Silence filled the room, broken only by the shuffling of the attendant as she set Sana's tea in front of her before excusing herself and shutting the door behind her. Sana had already lit the pipe and was drawing heavily on it, aware that the man across from her was eyeing her intently. She exhaled the blue smoke, blowing smoke rings to entertain herself.
"You are not exactly what I pictured." The man's voice was careful, as if he had been calculating the best words to properly phrase his first statement.
Sana paused from her pull on the pipe, turning her gaze to the man and watching as he stared unflinchingly back at her. She knew exactly what that statement meant, it was not the first time she had heard it nor did she think it would be the last.
"Well, we Yaksha come in all shapes, sizes... and genders." She took another long pull on her pipe, silently enjoying the very faint way the man squirmed from her response.
"Yes, well anyway. I am captain Byron. I command the guards here in Yasoi and serve as Lord Taloi's adviser in matters such as these. As you know from the request there has been a large beast causing havoc in the town for nearly a fortnight."
"Looks to me the rampage is mostly contained to the stone pathways outside."
The man known as Bryon raised an eyebrow at her statement. "There has also been significant damage to the outer walls of the village, and unfortunately we have lost the lives of at least three citizens."
Shifting slightly in her chair Sana tapped the ashen contents of her pipe out onto the table, ignoring the annoyed look Byron shot her. She began packing the pipe with more roseweed before speaking again.
"You mentioned in the writ that it was an ogre?"
"Yes. Well, we believe it to be from limited sightings. It is large, nearly three metres in height. And the reports we received from the unfortunate citizens caught in it's path, before they passed on, were that it walked almost like an ape. And it's hands were like the size of boulders."
"That certainly sounds like an ogre."
"You seem unconvinced."
"Ogres are solitary creatures, and tend to stick near their burrows... they're also only violent when provoked."
Byron scoffed at the statement, waving his hand as if it was no matter. "You call me a liar then?"
"No, but I don't think I'm hearing the full story." Taking a long pull from her pipe she blew the smoke directly toward Byron as she stared into his eyes, watching as the man squirmed uncomfortably once more.
"You have been hired to do a job, Yaksha, not to pick apart the information I have given you." He reached inside his tunic and pulled out a leather sack that jingled with coin. Tossing it across the table it opened and some of the contents spilled onto the table. The golden coins were engraved with the Imperial seal, the image of two dragons encircling a sword. "Now do what you were hired to do."
Picking up one of the golden coins Sana examined it before rolling it across her knuckles. "If you want me to get rid of this ogre I'll need some kind of assistance."
Having stood up Byron was almost to the door before he turned, staring at her quizzically. "Assistance with what?"
"Laying traps. Chances are it'll be back again by nightfall, and I won't be able to lay them all myself."
"Fine, fine. I'll have Anaise meet you when she is finished with the laundering."
"I'll be out by the pathways."
Sana was pleased to learn that Anaise was the woman who had greeted her at the door. A woman likely around the same age as herself, with long raven coloured hair held in place by a rather lovely hairpin carved from some kind of polished bone. The woman smiled politely as Sana nodded to her, and once again she was pleased to see that the woman did not recoil at the idea of meeting eyes with a Yaksha.
"Sorry to make you wait, miss."
"No apology needed, sorry to pull you away from your duties." Sana knelt by the part of the pathway that had been crushed by the ogre, she examined each piece carefully with sharp eyes.
"It's not a bother at all. Truth be told I was happy to get some sun. I'm normally inside most of the day."
Standing up Sana moved further along the pathway, examining each piece of stone thoroughly. Anaise didn't seem to mind standing around doing nothing, yet there was a curiosity bubbling in her eyes.
"Can I ask, miss, what-"
"Please just call me Sana." Looking up at the young woman she smiled before returning her eyes to the stones.
"Well, Sana then. Can I ask what you're looking for? Captain Byron told me you needed assistance setting traps for the ogre."
"That's partially true. With two of us we'll be able to set them in less than two hours. But I wanted some time beforehand to examine these stones first."
"Why?" There was no judgement in Anaise's voice, just unvarnished curiosity.
"Like I told the captain, ogres are solitary creatures. For one to come out of it's burrow just to cause havoc doesn't make sense."
"But... it's a monster isn't it? Monsters kill."
With a slight sigh Sana paused her examination and looked up to meet Anaise's stunning green eyes.
"Monsters, as you call them, are just animals that have been warped by magicks. There's little difference between a hellhound and an actual hound, aside from one having two heads."
Sana smiled before returning her eyes to the stones. She carefully shifted each one, prodding with her dagger to look at every side of each one of the finely cut stones.
"How long ago was this pathway put in?"
"Quite awhile ago actually. Though much of the stonework has been replaced recently."
"Perhaps just over a month?"
"And the attacks started almost a fortnight ago?"
Having worked her way down much of the path already Sana paused at one of the stones that seemed to be surrounded by a faint pink tinge. Putting the dagger in between she carefully began prying the stone up. Turning it in her hands she was not at all surprised to see the outlines of what looked like a face stretched in the stone. Anaise shrieked yet Sana ignored it, running her gloved fingers across the small stretched face with a look of sadness on her own.
"What...what is that?" There was audible disgust in Anaise's voice.
"It's a baby."
Sana held the piece of stone carefully as she stood up, shaking her head as suddenly everything began to make a bit more sense.
"Ogres reproduce asexually. They search for very specific rocks that resonate with their core, and once they find that rock it becomes a cocoon for their spawn... it takes several years for ogres to reproduce this way, and they guard these rocks with more ferocity than anything else."
Silence fell between the two until Sana let out a small sigh. "The lord must have decreed the rockspawn be made into his new pathway..."
"But it...it was just a rock."
Sana stared at Anaise for a moment, thinking about the best way to word her response.
"Every healer knows that a pregnancy cannot safely be ended after a certain month, the same is true here." She turned the stone face toward Anaise who cringed at the sight, "and this was no longer just a rock."
Silence fell between the two of them for quite awhile before Anaise finally spoke.
"What are you going to do?" There was uncertainty in her voice.
Another sigh escaped Sana's lips before she spoke. "I'm going to complete the job I was hired to do. I have more than just my own reputation to uphold." Taking a look up at the sky she looked back to Anaise. "Can you go get us a pair of shovels? We better start digging these traps."
Night fell upon the town of Yasoi almost as swiftly as a hawk snatching up it's prey. The chill autumn winds bit harder without the warmth of the sun to assuage it. Streets formerly filled with pedestrians were now empty, Yasoi had become like a ghost town in a manner of hours. The captain of the guard had ordered his men to relay the message that every citizen was to remain indoors tonight no matter what they might have heard, and those living in the section of town Sana and Anaise had set traps in were relocated to other abodes. Only one figure remained exempt from the order, and she remained perched on the roof of a building near the stone pathway.
No matter where the ogre entered the town Sana knew the creature had but one destination in mind. Like a bloodhound it could smell the remains of it's child laying in the ground that people now walked upon without care. It still churned her stomach, yet she could not refuse the work for fear of bringing a black mark upon the guild. She checked her stock of potions almost every hour, a habit she had picked up from one of her teachers, her anxiety rising with each passing moment.
To ease the rising anxiety, she ran a string of prayer beads through her fingers, whispering a small mantra as she rotated each bead. The beads had been crafted from the bones of the first monster she'd ever slain, a perpetual reminder of how far she'd come as a warrior. There was a total of one hundred and eight beads, with each one having a specific mantra connected to it; each passed down from the Children of the Forest, the first to take the title of Yaksha.
In the early hours of the morning it began, first with the sound of boards shattering from the west side of the town. There was a feeling of tension rising in the air as Sana removed a vial from its place and swirled the contents around. Each one had a very limited span of time and needed to be consumed either during or just before some kind of engagement, and she wagered it would be difficult to consume one during confrontation with an ogre, especially one looking for its child.
Loud stomping warned of the ogre's imminent arrival, each footfall growing increasingly louder. The occasional crash could be heard as it stumbled into buildings, followed by a growl of annoyance before it continued trudging forward. After several agonizing minutes it came into view. Standing well over three metres in height, with limbs as thick tree trunks, and skin a blend between grey and green. The creatures bulging eyes scanned for any sign of it's child while it walked, and Sana noticed that one was nearly completely shut. She shifted closer on the roof until she could see the faint remains of arrow shafts sticking through the much thinner hide near its eyes, shafts which it had tried to pry out but only succeeded in digging further in.
It moved ever closer to the traps Sana and Anaise had spent the better part of the afternoon digging, set just before the stone pathway.
Sana's hand fell to the hilt of her blade, carefully and silently sliding it from the sheath.
Iron bands snapped sharp on the ogre's foot, the teeth of which had been laced with a poison meant to dull a creature's senses. A roar of frustration shattered nearby windows. There was loud grunting accompanied by the grinding of chains as it tried to yank its stump-like foot free of the bear trap yet only succeeding in causing it to clamp down harder.
Pulling the cork of the vial out with her teeth, Sana downed the contents in a single gulp, ignoring the acrid taste and trying to put her mind beyond the pulpy viscera that was now making its way down her throat. Closing her eyes, she took a long, slow breath as the potion took effect, expanding her lungs and increasing the oxygen she could intake. She could feel her own body temperature rising and her muscles straining underneath her skin.
Opening her eyes she launched herself from the rooftop at the ogre, drawing her blade back to strike. Having seen her from the corner of its eyes the creature brought its meaty arm up to block the only way it could. She struck with all her strength, swinging the blade down hard. She could feel her blade moving through muscle like a hot knife through butter, cutting mostly through bone before feeling resistance.
The ogre swung its half-severed arm launching Sana back several feet and spattering the ground with black blood. She rolled with the momentum, ignoring the minor pain as her shoulder and side collided with hard ground. Springing back to her feet she held her blade ready to strike again just as the ogre tore the chain keeping the bear trap in place free of the walls. It turned to face her, one arm dangling, almost completely severed, the muscle fibres straining to keep it held on.
It roared at her before charging, though due to its arm being so damaged it crumpled under its own weight and fell to the ground.
Taking in another deep gulp of air Sana rushed at the creature, aiming her blade to take its head off in one clean strike, this time foiled as it twisted slightly and shot out with the boulder-sized fist still firmly attached to its body.
Leaping she twisted her body in mid-air narrowly missing the full force of the impact. She stabbed her blade down into the creatures arm to stop herself from moving toward it's snarling maw, gripping the hilt hard as it began to try and shake her free.
Placing her legs on its muscular arm she pulled her blade free as it shook, launching her up and into the air. She spun in the air to readjust herself and came down with the entire force of her momentum. Her aim was true as the blade cut cleanly through the creature’s thick hide. The resistance from its spine was barely noticeable from the severe momentum of the drop. It's flailing ceased as a pool of blood slowly began to seep out from its body.
She slumped to one knee, the effects of the potion beginning to wear off. Her muscles ached and she could feel that her bones had been bruised from the initial fall, possibly even broken. It was slightly more difficult to breath and she knew it would be for the next several minutes, but she had completed her task.
It was at that moment she heard the booted footsteps of people approaching.
Half a dozen armed guards made their way toward the body of the dead ogre. Led by Byron who had replaced his modest tunic and chain with attire that very clearly marked him as captain of the men and women following him. The squadron of guards looked relieved to see the dead ogre, some even managing a relieved smile. Byron gestured to the body.
"Fetch a cart for the beasts head. We'll put it on display in front of the lords manor, show the people who protects them."
The sudden sound of an explosion rang throughout the street, the smell of gunpowder hung heavy in the air as a lead pellet kicked up dirt less than a foot away from the approaching guards.
Sana stood on slightly shaky legs, her revolver in hand aimed at the approaching guards, whose hands instantly went to their blades. Byron looked on in utter shock.
"What in the nine hells do you think you're doing Yaksha!?" The man's face was turning red with anger and small flecks of spittle left his mouth as he shouted.
"I will not...allow you to desecrate this creature...more than you already have."
"De...desecrate!?" Some of the guards laughed at Sana's statement, yet none removed their hands from their weapons. "We have done nothing of the sort."
"You stole it's baby...probably forced it into its burrow during sun up...turned it's kin into stone." Sana was beginning to regain her strength. "And now you wish to mount it's head on display?"
Shaking her head she assumed a readied stance, aiming her gun at the figures and keeping her sword level in case any got close.
"I will not let you near this creature."
Byron's face had gone even redder from Sana's response, clearly a man who had never been told no in his life.
"You would defy your writ!?"
"Your request said nothing about letting you have your way with the body."
There was silence between the two parties.
"You would risk your life for this... this dead thing?"
Sana's lips twisted into a small smile, and the only answer Byron needed. With a wave of his hand he shook his head.
"Come on then... we'll leave these monsters be."
Sana stood ready for attack until she could no longer see the guards anymore, it was only then that she sheathed her blade and holstered her revolver. Putting her fingers to her lips she gave a soft whistle and smiled as Anaise appeared from a nearby alleyway, carrying the slab of stone they had pried up from the pathway.
"You're crazy to have gone against the guards like that."
With a shrug of her shoulders she smiled, a much more pleasant smile this time. "Sanity is overrated."
Taking the stone from the young woman Sana laid it down next to the dead ogre before Anaise handed her a pitcher of oil which she spread across the body. Standing back she lit a tindertwig and tossed it onto the bodies, watching as it erupted into a column of flame. The smell was unpleasant, but slowly the body began to burn away. Yet neither woman moved from their place.
"Thank you, Anaise."
Looking over at the young woman Sana saw legitimate confusion in her eyes. She either didn't understand the risks she had taken to help her, or didn't care.
Shaking her head Sana smiled.
"I will admit, I didn't do it entirely out of selflessness..."
Meeting Anaise's golden eyes Sana could see the slight hint of guilt in them. She had intended to pay her for her service, there was no shame in that. With a nod Sana took hold of her coin-purse, opening it she began taking out some of the gold before the young woman spoke up.
"No not money!"
It was now Sana's turn to be confused. She looked up at the young woman who seemed to fidget under the gaze of Sana's violet eyes.
"I...I want to come with you when you leave."
The surprise on her face grew even more apparent at Anaise's declaration.
"Well I... I never really fit in here. My parents have both passed on and... I really would like to learn more of the world. Maybe I could help teach people that there's more to these creatures than they know." She gestured at the still burning corpse.
There was silence between them for a moment as Sana considered the request. After a few moments she put her hand out and the smile returned to her face.
"I'd be glad to have you travel with me."
The two of them shook hands, each smiling as the corpse of the ogre burned behind them. The sun had begun to hint at rising on the horizon, and the chill of autumn began to lift ever so slightly.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
KC (they/them) is a professional writer with a focus in comics and prose, and a masters in procrastination. They have been creating stories to escape the monotony of reality since they were ten years old and writing professionally since their mid twenties. Their passion for storytelling is matched only by their passion for good food. They are still waiting for their digivice and Digimon partner.