“What do you think he’ll do with it once we’ve all taken our price?”
“He’s a human. He’ll probably try to keep it alive anyway. You know how they are.”
“Pathetic, you mean? It’ll die in minutes.”
Murmurs of agreement echoed through the Hall of Hell as the denizens considered their latest deal. Many had entered in the past, and had offered them many interesting things as part of a bargain. This was the first time someone had willingly given them human flesh, however. And if the flesh didn’t precisely belong to the one giving it, who wanted to quibble over semantics like that?
“He must have been desperate, to offer something humans find so precious.”
“Or maybe he knows there’s always more of them. You’ve seen how humans are. They have so many children, they can’t feed them all, so they abandon the lot.”
“You can’t possibly be complaining about such an easy food source.”
“It doesn’t matter what it’s worth to him. You know what it’s worth to us. Giving one mortal the power to create more bloodshed is a trifle, and works in our favor anyway. I’d say we got the better end of the bargain.”
A rumble from the back of the hall silenced the rest of the demons.
“It’s time to take our price.” The largest statue’s eyes flashed. Excited laughter rose from the rest until the hall echoed with it. Forty-eight intangible hands reached out and plucked a piece of flesh from the body of a child, moments before it entered the world.
They heard the father’s laughter echo theirs.
Minogame paddled through the river, enjoying the sensations that came with having a corporeal body. The sunlight on his back, the water through his webbed feet. He stretched his neck further from his shell and sniffed the air.
Hmm, he smelled meat nearby.
He sped up, claws slicing neatly through the water. Ahead he spotted a cypress tub bobbing along on the water’s slow current. It was an odd sight, but perhaps some careless peasant had left their meal too close to the water’s edge. Minogame drew abreast with the tub and guided it to shore, pushing it onto dry land with the side of his domed shell. With some difficulty, he reared up, placing his foreclaws on the rim and craning his long neck as far as it could go to peer inside. His jaw dropped.
“Hey, guys!” He called out to his compatriots. He wasn’t sure where they’d scattered to after leaving the Hall of Hell, but they would hear him regardless. “You’ll never guess what I found in the river.”
“It had better not be another cucumber, you glorified kappa.”
Minogame turned to glare at the figure who had appeared behind him.
“There’s no need to be rude, Bandai. You wouldn’t have come if you weren’t interested.”
The she-devil rolled her eyes, but didn’t argue. She bent over to inspect the tub’s contents. A cruel amusement settled onto her face as she reached in and moved the blanket aside to reveal a tiny, squirming lump of flesh.
“Well, how odd indeed. Who could have predicted it would survive?”
“Good thing, too.” Minogame studied the child. “Fresh meat is always better, and there’s enough here for a snack.”
“That seems like an awful waste,” a third voice cut in. Both looked up at the fox now sitting before them, all nine tails swishing in vulpine interest as she stared at the tub. Bandai swished her own tail in clear agitation.
“What would be a waste is letting it die without tasting it.” Minogame craned his neck forward further. Was it his imagination, or did the baby recoil? He didn’t have time to ponder before Bandai’s hand shoved his head back into his shell, knocking him backwards.
“Not fair!” he cried, rocking as he tried to get his feet back under him.
“Tamamo no Mae has a point. That this child survived at all is incredible enough. To find it like this…” Bandai straightened and tapped her chin. “It feels like the workings of fate to me.”
“We took its body.” The fox’s voice was cool, calculating. “It is drawn to us, and we to it.”
Flames in vague form of a horse stepped around Tamamo no Mae’s many tails and sniffed at the infant, which definitely tried to squirm away, its remaining facial features pinched up in fear.
“If allowed to grow up, it could prove to be trouble,” The horse said. Bandai finally took pity on Minogame and kicked him hard enough to flip him back over. He huffed in indignation.
“How’s it gonna do that? It doesn’t have any limbs to come after us with, or eyes to see us, or anything.” He crouched next to the tub, pulling his limbs back into his shell until only his claws brushed the dirt. “It’s probably gonna die anyway.”
The horse shook their fiery head.
“Surely you can feel how strong its will is.” They studied the infant. “Its will to survive has carried it this far. I have no doubt fate will find a way to bring it back to us someday. Unless we find an alternative, we may very well end up losing our newfound prizes to their original owner.”
Minogame shook his head, feeling like he was missing something.
“But if we eat it, that’ll solve the problem.”
“What Sagari means to say is that fate is rarely so straightforward,” Tamamo no Mae’s wicked smirk exposed her fangs. “Would you like to take a chance with reincarnation?”
Everyone shuddered. The only thing more annoying than a human with a vendetta was a human who reincarnated solely to continue one.
“So we can’t kill it. But if we let it grow up, it may come after us, and I don’t want to take that chance.” Bandai extended a hand as if demanding an answer be placed into it. “So what do you propose?”
Tamamo no Mae’s canine grin grew wider.
“Think about it,” she said. “What is the only emotion humans are even more annoyingly stubborn about than hatred?”
Sagari tilted their head at the fox.
“You suggest we somehow make this child… love us?” Their tone implied exactly how implausible they found this idea. “How could we ever achieve such a thing?”
Mae hummed, though it sounded more like a growl.
“Good children love and fear their parents. This child has none anymore.”
“You want us to raise this child as our own?” Bandai’s face asked a different question, more along the lines of has your foxfire lit any suspicious weeds on fire lately?
Minogame hadn’t thought foxes could roll their eyes.
“There are forty-eight of us. Maimai-onba already has children. We have observed and meddled with humans for centuries.” She sniffed. “Figure it out.”
Maimai-onba studied the group before her and shook her head to emphasize her words. The creature in Bandai’s arms squirmed, mouth gaping in an imitation of a healthy infant’s cries. She winced.
“How is it still crying? I’m certain one of us took its voice.” she handed her own infant over to her eldest daughter and clapped her hands over her ears. This did nothing to muffle the psychic cry in her head.
“It has a strong heart, and it would seem it can speak to us through sheer force of will.” Tamamo no Mae’s ears lay flat against her scalp. “It is that same strong will which allowed this child to survive.”
“Spite, you mean,” Minogame grumbled.
“What other reason is there to do anything?” Sagari snorted. “The child is practically one of us already.”
Maimai-onba lowered her arms and crossed them in front of her chest.
“Even if I did agree to this hare-brained scheme of yours— which I don’t, by the way— none of you are equipped to care for a human baby.”
Bandai tried holding the baby out to her again.
“That’s why we’re asking you. You’ve got a ton of kids. What do they eat?”
“How much blood do they need to consume?” Sagari asked.
“Or rice?” Minogame craned his neck to study the squirming lump of flesh.
“ My children eat what you’re holding right now. Human kids? I have no idea.”
“I have seen human mothers suckling their young the same way we foxes do.” Tamamo no Mae gave Maimai-onba an appraising head tilt. “Perhaps if you—”
“ No. ” Maimai-onba slashed a hand through the air to cut off that line of thought. “I may have taken a human disguise, but I am not actually equipped to do that. My babies eat flesh and mulberry leaves from the moment they are born. You and Bandai would have more luck suckling that thing.”
The fox and Bandai both made a face at the suggestion.
“I suppose I am possessing the body of a human girl…” Bandai hedged, holding the infant away from her chest and staring at it as though it might attack her nipples through her robes. Tamamo no Mae barked in displeasure.
“I have suckled cubs before.” She frowned, considering. “But I don’t know what the magic in my milk would do to a human. For all I know, my inner fire would char it to ash from within.”
“Well, then find a human who knows what to do. If it survives, bring it back some time. Maybe my children can play with it.”
Maimai-onba took her infant back into her arms and walked away, leaving the group and their charge at the edge of her bamboo grove, looking lost. Growing weary of the indecisive silence, Tamamo no Mai flopped over on her side and raised a foreleg, giving Bandai an expectant look.
“We may as well try. Hurry up.”
Bandai gave her an apprehensive frown, but set the infant down in front of the fox. It immediately latched onto one of her teats and suckled hungrily. Tamamo no Mae gave it an appraising head tilt.
“Did one of us take its teeth?” She sniffed the baby’s head, licking it tentatively. “It doesn’t have any.”
“Human children are born without them!” Maimai-onba’s voice drifted out of the bamboo. Minogame snickered.
“Oh, she’s interested now.”
“Find a human, you morons! ”
“It can’t hurt to get a little outside advice. There are plenty of people in my village whom we can ask.” Bandai tucked her hands into her sleeves. “I can talk to one of the women.”
“How will you do that without blowing your cover?” Sagari eyed her. “We need a human who is more… removed from society.”
“There are plenty of people who live on the river, spaced out from one another.” Minogame wandered over to the infant and watched it suckle with detached interest. “Let’s look there.”
“Yes. If one isolated human goes missing, should we need to make that happen, there will be little suspicion.” Tamamo no Mae licked the baby’s head again, settling into a rhythm of long, grooming strokes. Sagari nosed at it as well before straightening its neck and snorting.
“I shall go scout.”
They faded from vision as a dying fire does, from flame, to embers, to nothing. The others stared at the place they had stood and back at the child.
“This had better be worth all this trouble.” Minogame poked the infant with a foreclaw. “We wouldn’t be in this situation if you had let me eat it.”
The fox kicked the turtle demon with one powerful hind leg, sending him sprawling onto his back as he screamed in indignation. Maimai-onba’s cackles filtering through the grove only added insult to injury.
Jukai stared at the horse— he was pretty sure it was a horse— in front of him. His head still hurt from the tumble he’d taken down the riverbank earlier, but he hadn’t thought he’d hit it hard enough to cause hallucinations.
“I believe I may have a concussion.” He rubbed his eyes, but the flaming horse still stood there when he lowered his hands.
Was it his imagination, or did the horse snort a laugh?
The creature bowed its head fractionally.
“You do, but I am not some vision created in your mind. I am Sagari, and I believe you have knowledge which my compatriots and I require.”
…The demon horse could speak. Sure. Why not. Jukai bowed his head back. There was no need to forget his manners, and perhaps the creature would let him live a little longer if he acted polite.
“Jukai. I am only a country doctor for humans, though. I am not sure what help I can be to you.”
“Perhaps now, that is what you are. But I smell the blood and regret on you. You have much you wish to atone for, do you not?”
The horse— Sagari— seemed to stare into Jukai’s heart with their blazing eyes. He fought to keep his back straight and voice level, cursing himself for going in this direction to gather herbs.
“If you know that, then you must know I will not help you to harm more humans.” He wondered what would become of his workshop after this demon killed him for his defiance.
To his surprised, Sagari’s appraising expression morphed into one of satisfaction— and the fact he could read the emotions of a flaming demon horse only made Jukai more suspicious that perhaps he had gone around the bend at last.
“More to the point, however; a human doctor’s knowledge is exactly what I need. Why else would I have come to you?” Sagari tilted his head as if listening to something Jukai couldn’t hear. “Your knowledge would not be used to harm humans. We demons have other goals than simple destruction, though I cannot blame you for not realizing this.”
Jukai considered this. He wasn’t sure he could trust the word of a demon. He had always heard that the only time a demon tells the truth is when it will hurt you more than a lie. But demons were bound by the words of any deal they struck.
“What exactly are you proposing?” He asked the horse. “You want my expertise? And in exchange, I get— what? The simple promise no one will use it for evil?”
The horse bared their teeth in a mockery of a human smile.
“That,” they said, “and the chance to atone.”
Jukai stared at the horse. How could they possibly know what he longed for most? They gazed back at him, waiting for an answer.
“What… kind of knowledge do you require, exactly?”
That seemed to be enough of an answer for Sagari, because they turned their head behind them and bellowed out one sharp whinny. Three more demons emerged from the trees, though Jukai could swear they hadn’t been there a moment ago.
“You don’t have to shout,” the woman-shaped demon scolded the horse. Jukai might have mistaken her for a beautiful noblewoman if not for the fat, warty tail peeking out from under her furisode. That, and the horns sprouting from her forehead under a mane of white hair. She carried a bundle of fabric in her arms which the kitsune and the hairy turtle who accompanied her kept gazing up at, as if to make sure it was still there.
“So this is who you have chosen?” The fox gave Jukai the same assessing look that Sagari had. “I suppose he’ll do.”
“I still don’t know what you need from me.” Jukai fought to keep his voice low. It seemed a safer option than screaming.
“We have recently come into possession of a human infant.” The woman indicated her bundle with a jerk of her head. Jukai had to hold his body stiff to keep from recoiling in shock. “We do not know how to care for it, but you do.”
Jukai stepped towards her on shaking legs, eyes fixed on the bundle.
“May I see?”
She thrust the bundle at him, and he was tempted to think she was relieved to pass it off. He pulled the swaddling clothes away from the infant. Nothing could have prepared him for what he uncovered.
“Oh, Kami-sama, how is he still alive?”
“Spite,” The turtle demon said.
“A strong heart,” Sagari corrected.
“He?” the woman asked, leaning over to inspect the naked infant. “How does one tell?”
“Well, you—” Jukai cut himself off and pulled the fabric back around the infant. “Let’s go back to my place. We can talk there.”
“Do you agree to our terms?” The fox’s golden eyes stared him down. Somehow, with the baby in his arms, he no longer felt scared of these demons.
“I am going to help this child.” He met her gaze steadily. “So, yes. I do.”
The fox gave him a grin full of sharp teeth and smug triumph.
“Lead the way.”
After a round of introductions, Lady Bandai had taken him up on his offer of tea, but the others had not. Minogame and Tamamo no Mae— and was she truly the Tamamo no Mae or legend? — seemed to enjoy the kayu rice porridge he had offered. Sagari browsed on the grass near the porch where they all sat, as it would have been rude to meet inside where the horse couldn’t fit. Jukai held the baby, now asleep, on his lap.
“So, you see, infant care is straightforward, but it is also fairly involved.” Jukai concluded his briefing on the bare bones of infant care. He didn’t think he had given them enough to care for the baby without his continued help, but at least now they knew how not to kill him.
“I can’t believe human infants are so utterly helpless.” Tamamo no Mae flicked a tail. “How you as a species have survived is a mystery.”
“How did you come to have him in your care, anyway?” Jukai had more questions about the child, from the state of his health to how old he was, but those could wait until the most pertinent questions were out of the way.
“His father sold him to us, the forty-eight demons of the Hall of Hell.”
Jukai stared at Bandai, trying to figure out if she was serious. Her face told him she absolutely was.
“Sold him— what for? And why is he in this state?”
Bandai took another sip of her tea and blew the steam out towards the clouds overhead.
“He wanted power. The power to conquer and crush his enemies. To make his land and people prosper.” She eyed Jukai’s ashen face. “He is a minor lord, desperate for more. He offered this child to us without hesitation and demanded we split his body between us.”
“His own child…” Jukai stared down at the peaceful infant on his lap.
“Does it surprise you that a samurai lord would do such a thing?” Sagari’s voice held no pity. “You, who have seen the horrors they willingly put those below them through?”
Jukai shook his head sadly. It didn’t surprise him at all. He pulled the infant in close to his chest and felt his tiny, even breaths. They reassured him in a way he hadn’t expected.
“So after you took his body, you decided to raise what was left?” Such a task seemed foolhardy. “Would it not be kinder to kill him?”
Even now, in his new life, Jukai was no stranger to mercy killings. Sometimes patients were too far gone to save, and prolonging their suffering was the crueler course of action.
“We did not take the infant from his parents.” Tamamo no Mae primly folded her paws in front of her. “He found his way back to us.”
Jukai blinked at her.
“I found him floating in a tub on the river this morning.” Minogame stretched out on the warm wood of the porch, bathing in the waning sunlight. “The father’s final sin against his son was to send him off to die in the elements immediately after his birth, rather than having the courage to kill him by his own hand.”
“But he survived, and fate brought him back to us. If not now, it would have happened in the future.” Sagari stepped closer. “Better to keep him in our sight than to leave to chance what he will become by the time we meet again.”
Jukai wasn’t sure he liked what that implied about their motivations for helping the child, but none of that was important. The important thing was that the child had lived, and he now had the chance to make something right.
“If you wish for him to stay safe and alive, perhaps it would be best if this was his home. That way he could have stability, and you would always know where to find him.” Jukai hoped the demons wouldn’t take his proposal the wrong way, but now that he held the child he didn’t think he could let them take him away again. The four demons exchanged glances.
“That is acceptable.” The fox stood and stepped forward, craning her neck to groom the child’s hairless, skinless scalp. “But I will stay and assist. The child needs milk, does he not?”
Jukai nearly balked at the idea of a kitsune living in his home, sharing in parental duties. It was too odd an image to comprehend.
“My patients might… object to a powerful demon living in my clinic,” he warned her.
Between one blink and the next, a beautiful young woman took the fox’s place in front of him. She sat in proper seiza, with only a hint of a furry tail peeking from under the hem of her silver kimono.
“I… suppose they won’t. But they may wonder what a noblewoman would want with a country doctor.”
Her smile still contained an unnerving amount of teeth.
Jukai tilted his head down towards the baby to avoid her predatory stare.
“What’s his name?” he asked, both to change the subject and because he did need a name to call the child. When only silence greeted him, he looked up to find that the four demons around him all seemed to have expressions ranging from confused to sheepish.
“Why would we know his name?” Minogame tilted his head. “It’s not like he’s told us.”
“Humans give each other their names, kappa.” Bandai tossed back the rest of her tea like it was sake and ignored the turtle’s offended spluttering. “If his family gave him one, which I doubt, we didn’t have the chance to learn it.”
“I’m sure we can figure out an appropriate name somehow.” Jukai tried to take a diplomatic approach. “I’ll also need to make him prosthetic limbs, and a substitute for skin… and eyes…” he trailed off, thinking about how he should approach the process of building the child a body he could use to interact with the world.
“That shouldn’t be too difficult,” Sagari said. Jukai quirked a brow at them, wondering what their definition of difficult entailed. The horse snorted. “Between the forty-eight of us, I’m sure we can make acceptable substitutes. Especially with the power his body parts grant us.”
“You simply need to show us where the pieces go.” Bandai’s smile was smug. “You didn’t think we would leave him like that, did you?”
Jukai hadn’t known what to think, because he didn’t know how much these demons knew about human biology, or how necessary things like skin and limbs are to a body. Instead of voicing this, he gave her a wan smile.
“We can get started on that tomorrow. For now, it is nearly time for supper. I don’t suppose any of you care for more human food?”
“I do!” Minogame shouted. Bandai and Tamamo no Mae rolled their eyes.
“How are you with cooking rabbit?” The fox stood and brushed the knees of her kimono with her hands. “I like mine … rare.”
Jukai tilted his head.
“I’m afraid I don’t have any. Meat is expensive, and I don’t indulge often.”
“Leave that to me. I merely ask if you can cook it.” She smiled. Jukai nodded.
She left in a blur of pearl white fur and flashing teeth, bounding into the woods.
Jukai stood and handed the baby to Lady Bandai. He may as well start the rice while they waited.