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Batyushka

Chapter Text

A storm raged in the mountainy region of Northeast Japan. On the right, beaches stood with sand and rocks being thrown about from the force of the Japanese sea. Within the island, thick branches snapped and fell to the moss covered ground. The forest was old and looked barren from any human soul.

So in these seemingly isolated forests, with mountains and hills covering the land as far as the eye could see, one would not expect a tall fortress to stand on the highest hilltop, booming with life. Although it seemed rusty and abandoned, like an old Buddhist temple from the Edo Period, fires beaconed from its verandas and men in black uniforms with katanas marched through its hallways, some energized, but most exhausted, rightfully so.

To be awake through the night, exchanging shifts and always keeping on guard for potential demon attacks was more mentally draining than physically exhausting. More so because of the rain, which was great ambient for a good nap. Every third demon slayer had their eyes closed, their breaths were shallow with their shoulders slacked, because sleep seemed so welcoming…

But their leader, Hiiragi Daiki, wouldn’t let them.

“Wake up.” Daiki slapped a man half-kneeling from exhaustion with the back of his hand. The demon slayer yelped and fixed his posture. “No slacking on the job, newbie. The shift ends at sunrise.”

“A-apologies, Hiiragi sir! I won’t do it again!” the young slayer quickly bowed before immediately wobbling down the opened hallway, his gloved hand gripping his katana, and the other holding his red cheek. Daiki continued the other direction, repeating this process of waking up the demon slayer members of his station until he finally came to a set of staircases. Walking to the upper floor, he took out his bottle of sake and sat himself down by the nearest campfire, next to a man close to his age, Hiiragi Hayato, Daiki’s cousin and second in command. Hayato revealed his own bottle of sake, greeted Daiki and took a sip.

“Been reading about the war going on between the Russian Empire and our country.” Hayato shook his head. “It hurts me to think our nation has to defend itself from our Russian ancestors. We blame the demons and their creator for a lot of things, but I still think humanity is its own worst enemy.”

“Humanity is not my enemy. I don’t have an interest in their political affairs, and neither should you.” But Daiki followed Hayato’s gaze far away into the horizon. Even in the darkness of the thick fog, in the city of Aomori, lights and large army ships could be seen everywhere. The ships were docked, unfit to leave in the heavy storm.

“I like to know what’s going on outside in the real world. Plus, I would love to retire soon. I need a hobby.” Hayato squinted at Daiki. “You do too, Daiki. We’re getting old.”

Daiki grumbled.

Time had indeed caught up with him. He was nearing his late sixties. The stress of his work added to his already wrinkly skin, and made his once dark beard as white as snow. But with age came wisdom, respect, and many responsibilities.

As a member of the Hiiragi family, a family of warriors and defenders of the Northeast border, Daiki had no right to retirement. Not with so many young demon slayers, members of the Hiiragi station, looking up to him and looking for guidance.

“We retire when we’re unfit for combat, Hayato. And age is no obstacle. That’s the Hiiragi family way.” Daiki stated, his icy blue eyes never leaving Aomori.

“I miss my wife. I haven’t seen my nieces and nephews for months-” Hayato immediately froze when he noticed Daiki’s shoulders tense. “Sorry.”

“Why the hell are you apologizing?” Daiki scoffed, jugged the last few drops of his sake and placed the bottle back into his uniform pocket. “Keep that sentimentality for your wife and the kids when you get back home.”

It’s not your fault Mayu died.’

Her untimely death wasn’t Daiki’s fault either. He had fallen for a woman whose body was frail since the day they’d met, and who couldn’t bear the stress of childbirth.

It’d been more than thirty years since that day – Daiki had grown distant to his deceased wife, but the happy memories of their time together brought him a mixture of melancholy, peacefulness and dread.

Many had cursed at him after her death. To this day, Mayu’s family hated him for the way he acted at her funeral. Apparently, he was emotionless and seemed unmoved. His eyes, they said, were as cold as ice.

And though they denied this, Daiki was certain they hated Mayu as well – because she married into a different religious life.

They didn’t know about his and Mayu’s connection. She knew that the day she married into the Hiiragi family, it was duty that was valued above everything else.

That didn’t mean Daiki didn’t miss her. Oh, how he missed her. Mayu was once his sweetheart, one of the rare things that made his stone heart beat just a bit faster. Though he seemed cold, sometimes even cruel, Daiki showed his love for Mayu through his deeds - and never sought another wife after her.

It was a good thing he had so many younger brothers and sisters to continue the ‘Hiiragi dynasty’.

 “Well, I better go scout the fields south of the tower. Haven’t been there in a while.” said Hayato, finally breaking the silence Daiki wasn’t even aware of. A storm was still raging, and he was deep in thought. “I hope it stops raining soon. It’s even harder to spot a demon in these awful weather conditions. We can’t even use our crows.” Hayato grimaced. “And I don’t like getting my uniform wet.”

“If you’d learnt to use your sixth sense properly, you wouldn’t even need a crow.” Daiki scoffed. Hayato could easily sense a demon’s presence in a radius of a few hundred meters, but he would never be as good as his older cousin, because he never perfected the skill.

“My God, at least act likable Daiki.” Hayato laughed. He fixed his belt and his weapon, a black, silvery sheathe decorating a curved saber. The handle of the saber was blood red. It was identical to Daiki’s blade – because all Hiiragi family members had a similar sword. Made by selected swordsmiths from within the Demon Slaying Corps, the Hiiragi members had them customized not only for their unique swordsmanship, but to represent their Russian roots and their representative colours – Black, red and silver were the symbols of this warrior family.

Disciplined in duty, courageous in battle.

“Make sure to wake the others. Throw them in the rain if they’re slacking off.”

“Haha, good one!”

Daiki wasn’t joking.

Once Hayato was out of sight, Daiki leaned on the pommel of his sword and closed his eyes. It looked as if he was resting, but all his focus was on the open field of ancient trees before him. The atmosphere was heavy from rain. He waited for movements between the loud droplets and claps of thunder – he searched for a demon’s presence in a form of a red silhouette in the darkness of his vision. His mind prickled, but otherwise it was clear.

His breathing stilled as his focus deepened. From an outsider’s perspective, it looked like Daiki wasn’t breathing at all.

For now, there were no demons surrounding their mountain. If it weren’t for the rain, Daiki could easily spot one a mile away.

Focus on your intuition. Don’t think, just listen and feel the atmosphere around you, Daiki. A demon has a heavy, ugly presence. The air around it turns red and misty, as red as the fog on a crimson moon. Its silhouette is that of a deformed monster. When it’s near, your skin will crawl.’ Daiki remembered his father’s words to the pitch of his tone. He let his body do the work for him – it would react accordingly if a demon dared get too close to him.

We'll hunt it down if it does appear.’ Daiki opened his eyes and leaned against the wall. He placed the sword on his knees and stared into the dark, rainy sky. ‘But for now, it seems safe.’

He gave himself a moment of piece before returning to his duties and disciplining any demon slayer that dozed off.

Soon, he was down to his last, fiftieth member, and Daiki stood at the top of his tower station. The sky had started to lighten, indicating morning was nearing, and the storm had ceased, the strong wind from before turning into a soft breeze.

Daiki stepped into the square space of the tower and entered his office. It was a small space, with two futons and two desks. It was decorated in traditional Japanese furniture, but a few shelves were decorated with Russian ornaments and two religious icons – Mary with baby Jesus, which was Hayato’s, and Jesus, which was Daiki’s. This, along with their footwear, leather boots, and their swords, a Cossack saber, was what distinguished the Hiiragi family from the rest of demon slayers – they were orthodoxian.

Daiki sat down at his desk, took a quill and began writing the monthly report to the honourable family responsible for the Demon Slayer Corps’ existence.

‘March 14th, 1904

Master Ubuyashiki,

this is the monthly report from the Northeast border, Hiiragi station.

There are no cases of escaped demons. This month we had killed only fifteen demons, and the number is decreasing. Luckily there were no serious casualties. Some uniforms had gotten damaged. If possible, we would like you to escort a tailor to us for repairs. The Hiiragi family will pay in advance.

With respect,

Hiiragi Daiki, commander of the Northeast Hiiragi station’

Putting down his quill, Daiki folded the letter into an envelope and marked it with the Hiiragi family crest. He then walked to a large golden cage, where his messenger bird rested. As soon as he opened the small door, the raven woke from its slumber and flew onto his shoulder.

“To Ubuyashiki.”

The bird grabbed it, spread its large black wings and flew south when Daiki opened the door. It would take four days for the letter to return if there was anything the Ubuyashiki family needed, and if not, his raven would return with an empty beak.

A dim light shone through the blinds. It was morning. His shift had ended and he would sleep in the comforts of his bed soon, when the sun was high enough for it to be safe. There were still a couple of things he had to do – write bills and checks, check if the Hiiragi tower had all the necessary resources like food and water... there was always so much to do, even outside of his demon hunting expertise.

God, he was getting old. So old that whenever he tried to relax, he felt every joint in his body pop.

But no one would ever find out that Hiiragi Daiki, The Frost Pillar, liked to grumble about back-pain.

He flipped through the bill-book while massaging his lower spine. He would occasionally yawn and scratch his nose – it was itchy, and the boogers bothered him. Plus, he was a little bored. Sometimes the boogers would come out in interesting forms. A great way to pass the time before bed-

Sounds of rapid stomps echoed outside the tower's hallway. The door slammed open, shaking the office walls.

“Sir Hiragi!” A boy no older than seventeen dashed into his office. Daiki vaguely remembered him as Kanai, one of the newer recruits. He made it a rule for himself to remember every name.

 Daiki knew his glares could be deadly, so he made sure to show the child just how pissed he was for disturbing him and almost breaking down his office door. “What the hell are you doing, newbie? Get out of my room before I-“

“Sir, this is urgent!” Kanai was fidgeting, Daiki noticed that immediately. He let him speak, but he stayed sat.

“O-one of our comrades is… dead…”

Dead?

There’s no way that’s possible. ‘Dead? He must be hallucinating. What could possibly kill a demon slayer, other than a demon?’ And Daiki couldn’t sense any demons. The air around him was clear and brisk, the atmosphere light. But the boy before him was skittish, his hands were shaking.

“Yes sir. Come quickly, you need to see it for yourself…” Kanai’s eyes were wide and frantic, completely exposing his beginner qualities of a demon slayer. Daiki would have commented on his ‘pathetic’ behaviour, but stayed silent to not cause more stress to the boy. He could tell from the atmosphere that the young demon slayer was near a panic attack.

He followed closely behind him, running down the stairs, and Daiki noticed how firm Kanai's grip was on his katana.

“What happened? How?” he didn’t exactly believe the younger slayer.

“I-I don’t know sir! He was with us on patrol before it happened – I swear I never thought this could happen-“

What happened.” Daiki was getting impatient and he grabbed the demon slayer by his collar and turned him around – only to see him crying and hyperventilating. “…”

Tsukasa was w-with us on the final shift… he said he was just going back to the tower, so we waited for him… a-and then he didn’t come back-!”

Tsukasa. Daiki knew all of his members’ faces, and he thought of a man in his twenties, charismatic and who followed his orders diligently. Daiki liked him, he was a good 'soldier'. And clearly, these two were good friends.

Daiki put both of his hands on Kanai’s shoulders and squeezed. “Calm yourself. Breathe, junior.” Daiki still wondered if this boy just had a terrible nightmare and was at odds with reality. But once he evened his breathing, his tears became endless. Daiki would usually never tolerate crying, but it hadn’t seemed like an appropriate time to play general.

“W-we went back to the station, and Tsukasa was never there. W-we asked sir Hayato for help, a-and he sent out a search party –“

‘Why didn’t Hayato come to me?’

Then again, it was Hayato’s turn to look over the lower terrain surrounding Hiiragi tower, while Daiki disciplined the rest of the demon slayers.

Besides, he should have sensed if something was wrong. A death of a demon slayer in the hands of a demon attack? Daiki would never make a mistake like that.

“Show me the way, Kanai.”

Kanai nodded slowly and as they ran to their destination, Daiki noticed many squad members followed towards the same direction, towards the very bottom of the cliff. He also noticed that the sun had barely revealed itself. The sky was still a murky grey and the ground was layered with a dense fog.  He couldn’t see his own feet.

During their run, Kanai managed to calm himself enough to speak with coherent sentences. He wiped away his tears and tried doing what every member of the Hiiragi station had to abide by – duty before emotions. Daiki learnt Tsukasa had been found only minutes ago, and that Kanai was sent to get him immediately.

“Tsukasa’s body is in the cave, sir…”

All station members were gathered before the entrance of the cave. It was a secluded area, surrounded by moss covered boulders. The steep ground was slippery from last night’s storm.

As soon as Daiki came to view, the slayers stepped aside and made room for their commander. They whispered amongs themselves. “How could this happen…” “What now…?” "Where was the commander...?"

“Daiki!” Hayato ran out of the cave, his usually pale face even paler than usual. “You’re finally here!”

“What’s going on, Hayato?”  

“So you don’t sense anything either… shit.” Hayato furiously pinched his eyebrows. He stepped aside and walked alongside him into the cave. Another demon slayer followed them, torch in his hand.

The further they walked, the wider the trail of blood had gotten, but worse was the smell of a deceased body.

“We found him like this…” Hayato said, trying to keep his emotions at a minimum, but he was distressed.

Daiki’s heart plummeted to the pit of his stomach and not because of the dismembered corpse of Tsukasa that lied before him in a puddle of blood, urine and faeces. He’d seen many gruesome examples of bodies in his forty-five years of demon hunting.

But Daiki was horrified to realise he couldn’t sense any demonic presence. Despite standing only feet away from Tsukasa’s naked corpse, with demon claw marks all over his body, there was absolutely nothing. No evil, dreadful atmosphere.

Daiki looked at Hayato in shock, his mouth set in a firm line. He was speechless – this had never happened before, not in the Hiiragi station.

“We found him and hour later after I sent out a search party. I’ve made some assumptions during the time Kanai got you here. His limbs were torn off before he died.” Hayato grimaced, looking away from the corpse and onto the blood-soaked ground. “He was terrified and in a lot of pain. And look – his katana and uniform are gone. The demon took it, that I’m certain.”

“A demon. Hayato, we couldn’t sense it. Christ, we couldn't even hear him scream! This makes no sense-“

“I know. I don’t know what’s happening – something unnatural. Whatever the case is, there’s a demon on the loose, wielding a katana and dressed in a slayer’s uniform – Why would it do that?”

Daiki cursed. “Gather his body and prepare it for cremation. I’ll write a letter to his family.” Daiki looked into Tsukasa’s lifeless eyes one last time before marching out of the cave, gripping his sheathe with a deadly force.

He was furious.

Rest in peace, honourable slayer.’

He was devastated and abashed. He still wasn’t able to process fully what had happened. There was a serious demon attack and it had only happened an hour before sunrise. The demon couldn’t be far away. There was still time to catch it.

Stepping into the misty light of the forest, Daiki took his saber and smashed its bottom sheath against a boulder to get the demon slayers’ attention. Their gossip stopped and they all turned to their commander, hands against their sides and ready to act out his next orders.

“You’ve all seen the body of our fallen comrade. I’ve no doubt the tragedy of his gruesome death wrought fear into your hearts.” Some slayers stood firm, but many shook on their feet. This wasn’t like any ordinary demon attack. Their comrade was tortured before being slaughtered like a pig. “But don’t let your fear mislead you – for there’s a demon on the loose, hiding somewhere in the forest. Search for it in groups, look for footprints, claw-marks – anything. Now scatter!”

“Yes sir!” they shouted in union and ran in all directions.

Daiki looked calm, as if Tsukasa’s death had no effect on him. But his thoughts were scattered.

‘I still don’t sense anything. This doesn’t make any sense. No demon ever come so close to the station before–‘

And suddenly the atmosphere became so heavy.

Daiki stumbled to his knees and gripped his neck because he couldn’t breathe. His head was spinning, the forest around him turned darker and suddenly, all he saw were red silhouettes.

“What-?!” he heaved. He was paralyzed, as if suddenly, an army of demons surrounded him. His head was splitting from the overwhelming pressure-

“D-Daiki-“ Hayato practically crawled out of the cave, his face covered in sweat. “Don’t come into the cave… you’ll pass out.” Seconds later, he tumbled to the ground and wouldn’t move. Daiki took his advice and leaned against the nearest wall, as far away from the cave as possible. He couldn't think with such a severe headache. 

He felt sick, close to falling unconscious. Everything around him was red.

The slayer that was with Hayato, who unlike them hadn't posessed a sixth sense, walked to his second commander’s side, worry masking his face, completely oblivious to the evil lurking from the darkness of the cavern and spreading like a plague.