The first time, it is as though something has taken hold of his ribs and pulled, closed fingers around his heart and squeezed. He cannot breathe, heat pouring down his throat and crushing the wind from him. Silent and nerveless, the whole of the world tearing itself apart at the seams. When the sword sheathes with a bell-sound, the world flows and recedes and darkens and instantly becomes less: the sunlight is thinner, the air duller, the leaves and sky and slopes of mountains greyed and lightened. He is left with a faintly sweet, dusty taste on his tongue, like a woman's powder or pollen shaken from a flower that spreads itself wide to the sky. Like ash from a field of ripe wheat or an old, rich wood.
The air around him is acrid and scorched, and wisps of smoke twist and waver, rise from his skin and dissipate into the weak breeze. He presses his hand to the blackened ground and feels the acid of the mononoke's ichor. He can feel it as though he can push his hand into its substance (into its corpse) and feel it writhing and breathing still, its grudge drumming a steady rhythm of fear--hate--regret against his flesh. He sifts his fingers through the silky ash of his charms, their cinders sparking as they brush his fingers, and he feels the echo of a human soul, the last breath of pride, of willpower.
Rest, he whispers, spreading his fingers over the dirt and ash and blood. Find peace. He presses his hand to the dirt, leans into his palm, and he feels the stain of the mononoke's hate drain and fade. He feels it dwindle and disappear beneath his weight, and when he lifts his hand, his palm burns.
He rises, his legs unsteady, and takes a breath of the burnt air. There is human blood, as well, the reek of fear and sweat painted over the ground. Their hate, too, stains the dirt, but it is stupid hate. It is hate that shifts and twists like smoke, loyal to nothing. It is not the sorrow, nor the anger, of the mononoke. (It is not so pure.) He salts the ground where human corpses begin to rot beneath the winter sun, he takes that much precaution, but it is to the small pile of ashes, already stirred by the breath of wind, that he bows, his hands tucked into his fluttering sleeves.
He says no word of prayer, but he turns and walks away. The wind is not so cold, now.
(But even so, a butterfly must spread its wings, let the air dry them and make them strong, like fabric stretched tight over a wooden frame. If the wind is too harsh, if the air too brittle, wings tatter and tear, and all is lost.)
He can see the humans see him, how their mouths gape, how their eyes widen. They think they have never seen anything like him. They think he is special. And he smiles at them, says ahh and hmm, and he laughs softly and tells them nothing until things begin to go wrong. And when the time comes, when they have cringed in terror from their ghosts, have babbled out their pathetic lies and finally, finally, there is some truth, and his sword's teeth chime as they snap shut, if there are any of them left alive, he sees that they fear him, as well.
In their eyes he sees himself blooming and bursting into something made of flame and blood and ash. Something terrible and vicious and fast, burning like a star and sharp like a blade. Searing, molten gold brands him and suffocates him in white-hot light. His dark other boils up from within and pries him apart through layers of bone and muscle and flesh, like the thunder and tumble of a storm, and as everything rushes from him, he crumples and falls and falls and falls.
And sometimes he wakes curled in a mess of his own blood, feeling cold and new to the world, and sometimes, there are enough of the humans he protected left alive that one of them sees him, calls to him, helps him. (Kayo helped him. She screamed when she saw him and she ran to his side and she pressed her small hands against his stomach, cried for him, asked through her tears if he was dying. And he gave a thin laugh and said, No, Kayo-san. Not this time. He did not ask her to help him, but she did anyway, pulling him up and demanding a doctor, holding the wound slashed across his middle, his tattered obi sliding into a train of loose fabric, her fingers against the loops of guts that threatened to spill out.) Sometimes, those survivors flinch away from him and the blood in his mirthless smile, watch him ignore them and pick himself up and limp away, no words of thanks upon their lips. They disregard his charms that he leaves on the walls, the ones that will protect them for years to come, and he hears later, in the next town, that this or that family or shop or inn suddenly shut down, the owners trekking off for some better land.
Most times, there is no one left alive to have seen him.
And when he does not hunt those pathetic, cunning creatures, fashioned from the very real grief of mortal life and vying for some sense of purpose or satisfaction, for fulfillment drawn from tearing apart humans who weep and beg and shame themselves, when he is not a reaper of those already dead, he is a simple medicine seller. He travels in caravans or alone, sleeps in spare rooms or in the open air, and he trades trinkets and rarities for food or supplies. He crushes leaves and roots and carefully funnels pungent mixtures into paper envelopes, orders the vials and capsules in his pack and he spreads a cloth beneath a tree along the roadside and sits in its shade, waiting for passers-by.
There he passes his days, smoking absently as travelers pore over his wares, and sometimes they give him brassy coins or a gold piece, and he bows and thanks them. No one remembers him, no one recognizes him. Sometimes, men or women seek him out with a sick mother-in-law, a sick child, and he listens to them with little interest and he gives them something if he has it and they can pay (unless they say that it was a curse, that they are haunted, that there is something wrong that medicine cannot fix, and then he feels the stirring of his sword, the muffled chiming of his scales, and he rises and smiles and says that perhaps he should see for himself).
Little ayakashi and youkai stumble upon him by accident a few times: there is a tiny frog spirit that gave a terrified chirp and hides behind the roots of the tree; and another time, a spirit of a baby bird that lurks, trembling beneath the leaves, watching him. He can feel others, watching him from a greater distance, though none of them dare to come close. He does not speak to them, does not tell them that he cares nothing for what they do, that they are not his prey. He ignores them and leans against the tree and feels their fear like a faint itch.
When night falls, he finds a place to sleep, and sometimes, it is beneath another tree, or close to a river. He lies alone, but when he closes his eyes, he sees black and gold and he can feel his other within him, a sleeping creature that may unfurl or uncoil and rip him to pieces. He knows that if he wished, he can trace the hairline fractures that must exist, that must splinter and crack like the shell of an egg when, at the end of things, his mortal skin will not be enough.