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Batyushka

Chapter Text

A small, white-coated house on the edge of a hill could easily be seen in the thick snow. It was one of those rare days when a storm didn’t howl through the barren lands of the Soviet Union, and if you stepped into the right spot, you could see an industrial town on one side, and an area of far apart houses on the other. On one side, life was a booming firework, on the other a quiet, forest-hilled land, where the fireworks could only be heard as a distant echo.

Batyushka preferred the distant echo. At nights, if the air wasn’t unbearably cold, she would take a stroll through the pathway made by other villagers, enjoying the crunching echoes of snow and the occasional wind, like she did now. Batyushka huddled into herself when a stronger breeze came by, but not because of herself.

Мой мальчик… my baby boy.” she dotted her baby, nuzzling his nose into the softness of her furry coat so he wouldn’t be cold. He was a year old now, and a splitting image of his father. The only thing of hers he had was the colour of her eyes, a vibrant green.

“I’d say it’s time for use to go home, little Bok.” Batyushka kissed the top of her son’s dark head and turned towards the house on the hill.

Meters away from the house she heard her husband’s axe furiously hacking away the firewood. He was a diligent worker for a woodsman, even in the evening hours.

“You should come to bed soon Ilyusha. I don’t want you to strain yourself too much.”

“Just have to cut Alinka’s firewood and I will be with you shortly.” Ilyusha wiped the sweat from his brow and kissed the top of Batyushka’s head for goodnight, a serious expression never leaving his face. He was always serious, his frown frozen in place, but Ilyusha’s actions spoke volumes. Whether he cut wood for longer hours, or went on a longer trek to Vladivostok for better supplies for her and Bok, he was a man who gave all his time for his family. “Sleep well, Batyushka.”

Batyushka loved him for the honest man he was. Smiling, she first placed Bok in his wooden crib next to their wheat and wool covered bed. She covered him with two blankets, in case the night got too cold and the furnace didn’t warm the room enough.

“Sleep well my darling.” Bok gurgled one last time before turning with a snore.

Batyushka undressed to her evening gown, a woollen garment, and snuck under the covers. To a Vladivostoksky citizen, the bed would be rough and tough. She’d know, she was once one, but this bed, this whole house, was the most comfortable place in all of her 20 years of life.

She was barely awake when Ilyusha joined her and took her into his chest, and in return, she wrapped her arms around his waist. She loved the sound of his beating heart, it lulled her to sleep.

“Tomorrow I’m free of woodwork, and Badyak is going to the city with his wagon. He’s willing to take passengers.” Ilyusha played with the end of Batyushka’s long braided hair. He did that whenever he was in thought. “We could keep Bok with my babushka*, and go out. It’s been a year…”

True, ever since the birth of their son, Bok was all Batyushka saw. He was hers, to care for, to keep company, to scold, to keep happy. “Hm…” She was drowsy, but tiredness couldn’t push away the feeling of worry from her gut. That subconscious protectiveness she had ever since she became a mother. “He is still so young… maybe, in spring. I want him to see the city with us.”

“I knew you would say that.” His chest vibrated from his chuckle. “You really are a mother bear.”

“Every mother should love her child.” Batyushka said in her defence, but she couldn’t deny the truth. Nothing was more important to her than her baby boy, and the man that made it all possible. “… I’ll think about it. Since you offered so nicely. But for now, let’s sleep.”

“Whatever you say, wife.”

Soon followed his peaceful snores, and soon her own.

She wouldn’t give this peaceful life for anything.

Chapter Text

The next early morning, like all mornings, Batyushka woke up before Ilyusha. She checked her boy’s crib before proceeding with her morning chores. First, she made baby food – a mixture of wheat and goat milk to make porridge for Bok, and put it in the pantry of their little fireplace. They didn’t have electricity like the city, but Ilyusha cut enough firewood to last them at least two years of Soviet winter, if not more.

венок на воду … Venok na vodu…” she hummed to herself, loud enough for her two loved ones to wake up to a song if they wanted to in the one-room cottage. But they didn’t, only getting Ilyusha’s snore as a response, so once she prepared everyone’s breakfast and put it inside the pan of the fireplace, she dressed in her thickest, warmest clothes, kissed both foreheads, and walked outside.

The first thing she did was take two iron buckets and went to their small barn. They had a few chickens, a rooster, three goats, and another was soon to come.

“Morning, Baschka. How are you feeling?” She giggled when the mother goat bleated. “Yes, you’re tired with that extra weight. I was too. But you will see soon, it’s all worth it…” she patted her stomach and went to the other goat.

“You’re not pregnant yet, so I’m milking you.” Batyushka laughed because she was sure the goat glared at her.

The male goat was lying in the wheat, eating it as lazily as always.

“You make sure to impregnate Ludimila as well. Otherwise we’ll have to send you to Damyan’s farm.” He tossed his head aside, sparing Batyushka little mind.

She put the buckets aside, opened the barn door and let the goats and chickens outside to the yard. She picked up the eggs and put them in a wooden box before following the animals outside. Batyushka struggled to keep the yard clean from snow for at least a little grass to grow for the goats, so every morning, afternoon and evening she’d shovel it and put it in the water bin.

She shovelled around the house as well, so the snow didn’t sink into the wood too much. After that, she put the goats back in the barn and closed it before returning to the house.

“Morning Ilyusha.” Batyushka was amused each time she saw Ilyusha’s usually serious disposition slacked and drooled.

“Hn… Eggs.”

“Yes, eggs. Come darling.” She went to wake up Bok before joining her husband at the table. It all came so natural, to care and feed her babe and baby.

Their morning was a reoccurring ritual. Ilyusha then left to deliver the cut firewood to Alinka, while Batyushka played with Bok and taught him to speak. He loved it when they went to the barn and he could point at and play with the goats.

“коза… goat!”

“Da da, goat!” Nothing made her more happy than seeing her baby boy grow.

When Ilyusha returned, the wind picking up from behind the opened door, he brought gifts from Alinka and his grandmother.

“Babushka wants us to visit soon.”

“We will darling, after the storm.”

The storm lasted longer than they expected. Bok whimpered when the windows shook, and cried whenever a particularly bad current banged against the door.

“There there, darling…” Her voice eventually calmed Bok enough for him to fall asleep.

“This winter will be worse than the previous. I can feel it.” Ilyusha grumbled, cutting at a wooden piece with a small carving knife. On the right was a shelf filled with his figurines, and one was displayed in the centre, a figurine of Batyushka holding little Bok. It was his favourite.

“We will survive.” Batyushka could have said ‘we have each other’, but things never were like that in the Soviet winter. Last year, Ilyusha’s cousin Ivanko died from a fever, leaving behind his wife and daughters. Batyushka realises that could have easily been her role. “We will only go out when we really need to.”

“No going to Vladivostok, then.” He lay on the bed and patted his side. “Get over here.”

“Alright.” She lay Bok next to Ilyusha, and the husband raised his eyebrows. Batyushka laughed. “If you think I’m leaving our boy alone in his crib in the middle of a storm, you don’t know this momma bear.”

That night, Bok slept soundly between his two guardians. Circled in his parents’ arms, a barrier like nothing could get between them.

If only Batyushka hadn’t kept all of her attention on her boy. If only she’d gone to the barn an hour later. Because in the dim light of their fire, she would have spotted a pair of red eyes looking at her loves through the thick glass window.

Chapter Text

When Batyushka woke up, it was in the middle of the night. Bok was gurgling in his sleep, like always, almost as if trying to imitate his father’s snores. But that wasn’t what woke her up.

She lay back down and closed her eyes. She listened to the quiet crackling of fire and noticed it was a bit cold in the room. Was that why she woke up? Slowly dragging herself out of bed, expecting to be dizzy from drowsiness, Batyushka was surprised to find herself fully rested.

The hairs on the back of her neck rose. She shivered, but she also began to sweat.

“I must be getting a fever…” Batyushka won’t lie she was a bit worried of getting sick. She got up to the fireplace and added a few logs. She sighed at how heavy her arms were.

“It must be a cold… I’ll just lie back, I’ll be better tomorrow-“ She looked up from the fireplace, through the window.

The barn door was open.

Did she forget to close it? She always closed it. Batyushka broke out in cold sweat, and had this urge to wake up Ilyusha.

No, she’ll keep him rested. Tomorrow he has to go woodcutting again. He’ll be grumpy if she wakes him for something as minor as going outside and closing the barn.

This part of Russia didn’t have wolves, the industrial town and hunters made sure of that. Before going outside, Batyushka took the table lantern.

The snowstorm ceased. Flakes fell down from the dark sky, which gave off an eerie feeling. Strange, she usually really liked how the flakes fell.

“No paw prints…” she sighed in relief, going to the small wooden barn, the door half open so she couldn’t see inside. She was now only a few feet away, and that’s when she noticed them.

Bare footprints.

“A poacher..?” It could have been one. Or it could have been someone homeless, taking shelter in her family barn. Batyushka couldn’t ignore the tight feeling in her chest, and she didn’t even notice she held a heavy iron shovel in her bare hand before entering the barn.

The air outside was so cold she couldn’t smell anything but frost, but in the barn, it was slightly warmer, barely from the opened door.

Batyushka smelt the faintest scent of blood. The deeper she got, the heavier that scent became. She was afraid to speak, afraid to breathe, and feared the shovel in her hand wasn’t enough to protect her. She shakily took out her pair of keys from her coat pocket, unlocked the metal chest near the entrance, and took out Ilyusha’s axe.

“…Baschka?” she whispered when she spotted the silhouette of her pregnant goat. Batyushka came closer, the grip on the axe tightening when she saw a large gash in the goat’s swollen stomach. The stomach was emptied of her baby. This made Batyushka cling to her own stomach.

“What… what did this?” ‘Who did this?’ She quickly remembered the bare footprints in the snow. Why? She placed the lantern in the centre of the barn, and saw it all.

All the animals were dead. The other two goats lay on their sides, their throats slit from mouth to their chests with claw marks. Batyushka didn’t need to look long to spot the few chickens they had torn and thrown about the barn floor.

“… I-Ilyusha… I need to wake Ilyusha-“

As soon as she heard a loud, ear-piercing crash of a window and Ilyusha’s scream, her vision went dark. Batyushka didn’t know how she got back to her house, didn’t feel the weight of the axe in her arm even though she knew it was there, tight in her grip until her knuckles went white. What she noticed, though, was the puddle of blood beneath the crashed window of their house, a limp body of a man dangling on the pierced edge of the frame, and Ilyusha’s head barely holding itself attached to the neck. Time seemed to slow down for her as she ran past him, torturing her with the image of her dead husband and how lifeless his eyes were.

‘Smile for me, my darling Ilyusha. We shall survive this winter, and the next.’ Batyushka’s eyes stung from tears.

She ran into the house, unable to fathom the nightmare that was before her.

Their once white sheets were gored with the ugliest red she had ever seen, and pieces of flesh lay strewn about the floor and beneath a kneeling man, whose feet were bare and bloody. He turned around showing off his canine teeth and red, beast-like eyes, one darker than the other. He… it growled, clutching a piece of a red, shiny substance in its claw like hands.

“… B-Bok…?” Batyushka’s voice cracked and she did the only thing that seemed sane to her at that moment. She felt so heavy, as if her legs were tied down by boulders. She walked forward, only seeing the pale face of a child that was no older than one.

That couldn’t possibly be her boy? But Batyushka’s vision turned black again, when she saw a dot beneath the blood stained face. The birthmark she kissed every night.

Batyushka didn’t hear herself scream. She didn’t feel the monster’s claws cutting deep into her shoulder, and didn’t see its teeth going for her neck.

She just swung. She swung, and swung, and swung until the handle of the axe broke. Even then, she took the axe head, her fingers cut open for gripping the sharp metal so hard, and slammed down against the monster’s head. She didn’t stop even after its face became unrecognizable. She didn’t stop even after its head was clearly decapitated from its body, and even after she heard every bone in its torso break. She stopped only when the axe head fell from her battered hands and she had no more strength to hold it.

“Ah…” Batyushka reached for the boy, her vision blurry from tears. “Bok…” She took his body from its claw like hand, and stared at him in disbelief. She must be hallucinating. This isn’t real. It can’t be real. “My baby…!”

Batyushka choked on tears and blood as she pressed her baby against her chest. She was unable to cry out, unable to comprehend the situation before her, unable to tell if he was alive. Her instincts just kept screaming at her to keep her boy safe. He was alive. He had to be.

Batyushka didn’t move until she saw the body she battered moving again. The sight of a half-headless, broken-ribbed corpse and a gurgling growl snapped her out of her shock. This was a nightmare. Batyushka had to run away from her nightmare.

She hurriedly wrapped Bok beneath her coat and ran out of the house, into the darkness of winter. She sprinted into the open fields, across the stone bridge and towards the nearest house. She thought it was the nearest, Batyushka didn’t know what the right direction was anymore. But she felt the pain in her shoulder now, and her survival instincts finally kicked in. A monster attacked her home, and now it was at trying to kill her and her baby.

“Help! We’ve been attacked! Help!” She screamed. Batyushka was exhausted, the heavy snow making her muscles cramp. Her lungs never stung so much before, and the pain in her shoulder felt like boiling water splashing over her bare skin, over and over again. But she could hear rapid footsteps closing in on her, and she didn’t dare look back at the headless monstrosity that was chasing after her and her baby.

That’s right, she had to keep her baby safe. At least get to the nearest house and then run. Maybe the beast will only chase after her.

There was a small but steep hill at the edge of the village. Batyushka only had a little more before she reached the first house, and she crawled through the tall snow, trying her best to not tumble over.

“AGH!”

Batyushka felt her body shut down for a split second at the horrible pain on her back and neck, from where she was slashed. The monster growled behind her as she climbed even faster. It grabbed her ankle and squeezed with a deadly force, but Batyushka, with a desperate cry, kicked it in its headless neck, and it tumbled down the hill with her boot in hand. She scrambled herself atop and didn’t give herself time to breathe. She knew if she rested now, she’d fall over.

“Help…! Someone… my baby!” Batyushka went to the nearest house. She held her baby with one hand, to reassure herself he was still under her coat, and knocked with what was left of her strength. “I need help! Please!”

Soon, the room went alight, and the door opened to reveal an elderly woman with a dog. The dog’s face was crunched in a growl for only a second before it whined and put its tail behind its legs.

“Batyushka-? What are you doing here? What happened, you’re bloodied-”

“H-help… My… my son….” Batyushka’s legs shook as she tumbled into the house. She was barely able to open her coat to reveal a limp Bok. She didn’t hear what the old woman said. She doesn’t think she knows her, because everything but her boy is a blank image. Is he alright? Is he alive?

The lady seemingly struggled to do anything. She kept looking between Batyushka and Bok before finally doing what the mother herself was afraid to. She placed her fingers on the boy’s neck, closed her ear on his pale mouth, and stilled.

“… I’m sorry.”

“W… what are you sorry for? Help him! Can’t you see he’s hurt!” she scrambled to his side and wanted to push the woman away.

“Batyushka… he’s not… he doesn’t even have a heart!” the old lady struggled to speak, her own voice wavering from grief.

Batyushka looked closely at her son. The area around his bare chest was darkened with a hole. His stomach was slashed. Worst of all, his once rosy cheeks were now covered in a crimson red, soaked with his tears.

Batyushka stepped back, out into the dark field. She gripped her shoulder and squeezed. When the pain seeped all the way to her brain and blood oozed out, she hoped she’d wake up from this nightmare. But she didn’t, and she cried.

Her sobs could be heard throughout the whole village. Her body was filled with gashes and bruises, her fingers were stuck together from axe wounds and frost, but she never knew a heart could hurt this much.

She was pulled in by the old lady into a heavy hug, she felt her tears soaking her coat, but all Batyushka could do was stare at the tattered body of her little boy.

She took one foot forward and her knees gave in. Her head hit the stone floor.

She had no more will to stand, no reason to stay conscious.

She hopes this was all just a nightmare.

Tomorrow she’ll wake up, and everything will be alright.

Chapter Text

Batyushka opened her eyes, and she wished she never did.


The dim light of the fire was almost too much to bear. She couldn’t think, and even when she tried to remember how she wound up in a bed that wasn’t her own, it made her headache that much worse. She would have turned to the side, away from the light, if it weren’t for the stabbing pain in her left shoulder.


“You’re awake!” An old voice emerged from the only other room in the cottage, and Batyushka visibly cringed, covering her eyes with her arm. That was a mistake. She hissed when a sharp pain emerged from her elbow, and went all the way to her right shoulder, then to her left, then to her neck and head.
“You must be in a lot of pain… You are badly hurt, so don’t move.”


She quickly realised everything hurt.


“Why am I here, babushka…?” At this point, Batyushka realised she was at her Ilyusha’s grandmother’s house. She noticed from the Slavic and protestant décor, and how she was one of the rare village women to still have her shelves filled with religious icons. It may have been the smallest frame, but Batyushka’s chest tightened at the sight of mother Marie with her baby Christ.

“Babushka…?”


“I…” The elderly woman’s hands were shaking. Batyushka wanted to comfort her, for it pained her to see the mother of her husband so distraught. But she noticed that her hands were shaking too. She barely had the strength to support herself on her good elbow.


“I’m so sorry Batyushka…” Babushka took hold of her hand and squeezed.
The door of the cottage opened, revealing a large figure of another elderly person, his hand holding a finely polished axe.
“It’s not looking good, Balalaika.” He grumbled, his voice rough from age and hoarse from sorrow. “Our men had looked all over for his body, but we couldn’t find it even with the dogs-“ he froze in place at the sight of Batyushka’s conscious form. “You’re awake?!”


“Be quieter you fool, can’t you see the state she’s in?” Babushka hissed at the man, her hand squeezing Batyushka’s own tighter.


“Body…?” With her heavy headache, Batyushka struggled to even speak well. Her speech was slurred, and she could tell she was suffering from a heavy blow to her temple. But she had to wonder whose body the two were talking about.


“Poor soul, oh…!” Babushka hugged her. “It will be alright, please, just stay strong Batyushka.”


What was she saying? Stay strong for whom? And why did she feel so weak and sick? Why was she so hurt?


“I’ll keep searching for Ilyusha… keep her safe until I get back, Balalaika.” said the man, she realised it was Ilyusha’s father, Igor. At the mention of her son’s name, babushka’s hand squeezed tighter. The door closed, leaving the two women alone.


“How much do you…” the elder woman coughed, trying to wipe away her tears. “How much do you remember? Of last night?”


“I…” Batyushka’s mind had never been so blank before. She stared at her mother in law, blinking rapidly and unable to process the usually tough woman crying like she did. “I don’t…”


“You must be in shock… I should not ask you these things right now. Here, try and drink this.” She offered her a wooden bowl of warm soup, it must have been her specialty because it brought a pleasant feeling to Batyushka’s growling stomach.


“Thank you… but I can’t.” she remembered she left her soup in the pan to heat yesterday. She’d hate for it to get spoiled. “I still have some left at home. Besides, Ilyusha and Bok must be worried for my wellbeing…”

Batyushka was shocked when babushka hugged her again, this time much tighter.
“No, no, you cannot go back, not now…!”
Why was she keeping her away from her baby and husband? Batyushka didn’t like this at all.


“If it’s because I’m hurt, I will manage-“ She rubbed her throbbing temple and slowly got out of bed, making sure not to move her shoulder too much, wobbling to her bare feet. She noticed one foot was a tad redder than the other… and where was her other boot? “May I borrow your shoes? I seem to have lost one… I promise I’ll return them to you shortly, I do have another spare at home…”
“I can’t-“ Babushka’s voice cracked, and she leaned against her table for support. Her wrinkly face was shiny from tears and all of her tough exterior was replaced by a broken sob. She gasped between her words, and each word made Batyushka’s heart sink further and further.


She wondered why she felt so lost and confused.


“Your home had been attacked – Last night, you sought help, you were so bloodied and beaten, and Bok-“ babushka was catching her breath, but Batyushka could hardly breathe. “I-I placed him in a safe place, and cleaned his body while you were unconscious-“


Batyushka limped into the other room. She didn’t know where else to find her baby boy, if he wasn’t in this room, he had to be in the other one.


In the makeshift crib of a box, the one Bok slept in whenever she and Ilyusha would visit babushka, lay a lacy white bundle of cloth. Batyushka came closer and barely stopped the shaking of her hand enough to pull down the blanket. The first thing she noticed was the resting face of her adorable boy. It was too pale. She pulled the blanket further down.


“-he doesn’t even have a heart!”

Bok didn’t have a heart.


The tragic events of last night hit Batyushka like an avalanche. She knew she was screaming, she could tell it apart from the loud ringing in her ears, but all she really felt and heard were the screams of Ilyusha, and the monster eating out the life of her baby boy. What she saw now was the empty shell of her love.


Her baby was dead.


Batyushka ran out of the house and followed the pink droplets of her and Bok’s blood back to her home. She didn’t hear babushka’s begs to come back. Unlike yesterday, when the urge to protect her baby was so grave she was willing to run over mountains to keep him safe and was able to ignore the pain, Batyushka felt every nerve of her body stabbed. Her throat hurt from breathing in so much cold air, and her shoulder cracked under the stress of the sprint.


The sight of her shambled house surrounded by hunters and guards was enough to make her topple over.


“Batyushka! You… you shouldn’t be here.” Said another man, throwing his shovel aside to place his coat over her shivering form. She knew he was her friend, she could tell from the familiar pitch of his voice. She just wasn’t able to tell his face from her blurred vision.
She was bare-footed, and although her whole body was absolutely aching, she’d welcome that pain over the one in her chest. It hurt so much.


“W-where is he… Ilyusha!” She already lost her precious baby. She knew she was the most wretched example of a mother, to let her boy slip so easily out of this world. How could she? How could she let such an innocent life die so easily? “Where is my husband!?”


‘Don’t take Ilyusha away too.’ But Batyushka feared that the images of her beheaded husband were not just hallucinations.
The men looked at each other, then at the man with the black fur cap. He walked to Batyushka, and offered her his hand.

“I will show you.” It was Cossack Dragomir, Ilyusha’s best companion. Even his rough face and thick eyebrows couldn’t hide his teary eyes.


Batyushka followed him behind her home, and he stopped her from proceeding.


“I’ll be frank. Ilyusha… is dead. If you wish to see his remains, I will show you the way.”


Batyushka didn’t know how else to respond than to sob uncontrollably.


She accepted Cossack’s help, because she knew she didn’t have the strength to walk by herself anymore.


In a hole, dug like a mutt digs its new marking place, lay her lover’s head. Ilyusha’s dead eyes stared into her own.


‘Why did you leave me and your baby? Look at us now. We are dead, and you are alive. You could not protect us. You cannot protect anything.’

Chapter Text

Batyushka thought she knew pain.

She thought that because she had an absent father and a horrible mother. Not horrible in a sense that she was beaten or neglected, no. Her mother was a wonderful person, great to converse with and good company. She was just a bad mother. She never had time for her daughter, too busy with making free time for her city-friends.

“I’m hungry, mom…” she remembered a scene of herself as a ten year old girl. Her mother flipped her gorgeous hair and fixed her earrings. The beautiful woman only turned around enough to smile the kindest smile.

“Don’t worry sweetie, I’m sure your father will have something to eat once he gets back.”

Hours upon her father’s return, Batyushka asked him the same question. She could even remember how much her stomach hurt.

“I’m hungry, papa…”

“Oh? I thought your mother made you something to eat…”

That night, Batyushka went to her room and learnt to cook herself.

Maybe she was being a brat. Born to a middle-class family, she was never cold, never truly hungry if she didn’t want to be.

But what was a fancy table without people to share it with? She didn’t care for pretty dresses and dolls – she wanted her parents. But she learnt quickly that what she couldn’t get from them, she could fill the emptiness herself.

She would be the mother she always wanted.

Batyushka met Ilyusha when she was 16, and he 25.

He was a simple man in a simple, traditional suit in a city of complex dresses, looking for potential job offers. Batyushka was immediately intrigued by him.

They would get together on the field between Vladivostok and his village, and go for long walks. She loved his tales, and the peaceful life in his village. She met Balalaika and Igor fairly early into their relationship, and Batyushka realised what Ilyusha was planning. At 18, she was wed, and a year later she gave birth to Bok.

Her parents didn’t object, but they didn’t come to the ceremony. Batyushka tried not to think about such sad turn of events. She has her own family to care for.

She had her own family to care for.

Batyushka stared with barely opened eyes at Bok’s empty crib, and her hand circled on the empty spot of the bed.

The funeral was too short. Bok and Ilyusha were buried in the village graveyard, next to their other relatives. The tombstones read:

Ilyusha Pavlov(17.4.1875-20.11.1905†)

Bok Pavlov(31.10.1903-20.11.1905†)

Batyushka barely remembered the priest from the funeral. His mournful psalms and words of condolences from villagers did nothing to soothe her shame and agony. She couldn’t bring herself to look at Balalaika, because she didn’t deserve to break into tears before the mother of her husband – not only did she let her own child die, she also abandoned the son of the dearest babushka.

The pain never left her, and it didn’t numb even months after that faithful night. She didn’t want it to. The emptiness and sorrow in her heart reminded her of her failure, and of her unforgivable mistake.

The voices in her head were loud and screeching, they haunted her. She wanted them to.

Why was she alive? Why was she alive and Ilyusha and Bok were dead?

Batyushka had no will to live anymore, but that would be too easy of an escape. She deserved this punishment. No matter how horrible her nightmares were or how much her body hurt from lack of nourishment, no matter how unbearable and overwhelming it was to sleep next to an empty crib and in an empty bed she would suffer until the end of her days.

Until her body gave out.

The worst times were when Batyushka found herself wandering the forest at nights, searching for the monster that stole everything from her.

Batyushka needed to blame something, anything to be able to survive in her isolation. She’d take out an axe, sometimes a useless shovel and wander the dark Russian forests, screaming at the top of her lungs for the demon to reveal itself, so she could kill it, or be killed by it.

Cossack and Igor would get her out of the forest, but after so many failed attempts of trying to save the grieving mother, they stopped searching for her.

“She’s a lost cause. Her soul died with Ilyusha and her child.” once said Igor to Balalaika, tossing firewood somewhere into the corner of Batyushka’s cottage. He would occasionally visit her alongside Balalaika, but each time he was more impatient. “Look at her.”

Batyushka looked at herself, and saw bony wrists, hands covered with scars and blisters. Her hair was greasy and unkempt. Her belt was loose around her waist, barely holding her skirt from slipping off.

“You imbecile, you talk like it’s her fault! You have no say in how a mother feels about her lost child!” screamed Balalaika, her strict voice laced with emotions, and Batyushka thought she was going to puke from guilt again. It was clear the elder woman missed Ilyusha, he was her baby once too.

That evening, just before Balalaika and Igor left, Batyushka took hold of the babushka’s sleeve and made eye contact with her for the first time in two years.

“What is it, Batyushka?” The babushka was so surprised by her sudden courage. But Batyushka slowly shook her head and let go of her sleeve.

“Igor was right, Balalaika. You can’t save a wretch.”

“Batyushka, you are not a-“

“No, Balalaika. I let your son die. I left him behind, and only thought of my own flesh and blood. Don't hide your hatred for me because of your kindness. Please,” Batyushka stepped back into her home, and a tear fell down her emotionless face. “Forget about me.”

Balalaika didn’t deny what Batyushka said.

She would still visit her, if only to make sure the widow wouldn’t starve herself to death. But Balalaika never smiled, because in her love and compassion hid a fury she couldn’t express with words.

Because Ilyusha was dead, and Batyushka was alive.

Chapter Text

Silence was a painful, hateful thing.

Batyushka woke up to silence. Even though the sun shone brightly through the window, a rarity in the otherwise dark Russian winters, the room was still cold enough for skin to sting. She got up slowly to add a log from her small pile of firewood.

Her bones creaked from exhaustion and she sighed.

Yesterday she had another ‘psychotic episode’, as the villagers liked to put it. She went to the forest with an axe. For a good month now, she had only been taking an axe, something that with enough force could cut off a head, because she believed and swears she could sense a dark aura from deep within the forest.

‘Avenge Bok and Ilyusha. Avenge your family. The monster is in the forest. Chase it. Kill it.’

Finally, after months, maybe years, the voices in her head started making sense and she welcomed their loudness because she had a will to do more than just lie in her bed and starve from grief and self-pity.

Years. It’s been three years since that night. Bok would have been four years old. Just a few days ago was his birthday. Batyushka felt tears well up in her eyes at the thought again, but she quickly wiped them away.

Batyushka earned herself the nickname псих вдова – crazy widow, a cruel nickname that made her eyes sting even more. None of the villagers believed her when she finally mustered up the courage to tell them about the monster that killed her family, when she finally started blaming something other than herself.

“Poor woman, the tragedy had wiped her senses…”

“It must have been a bear! I’ve seen some on my hunting trips.”

It wasn’t a bear.

It was a demon. It had to be. She remembered how human it looked.

Batyushka hadn’t gone to the village for a long time, fear, shame and grief keeping her from seeing the other children.

She savoured whatever food Balalaika brought her, whenever the babushka decided to come. Batyushka still couldn’t understand why she hadn’t given up on her, even though Balalaika despised her.

These depressing thoughts had become quite numb. Always present, she wasn’t able to handle so much negativity.

Batyushka grunted when she got up to full height. Her head was always spinning, her knees always at the verge of giving out unless she was in the forest, looking for that ‘demon’. Her house didn’t have a mirror, but she could easily judge from her thin hands just how sickly she was.

Batyushka took a shovel, repeating her routine of shuffling snow from around the house. It’s the least she could do for Ilyusha, keeping a home he was once so proud of from rotting away.

Opening the door, Batyushka was blinded by the sun. She had to cover her eyes from the brightness, and stayed that way for a long moment.

It surprised her how nice it felt. So warm. She couldn't even remember the summer sun being this warm.

But opening her eyes, Batyushka was surprise again, this time by an old man clad in black. He stood out like a sore thumb in the white sheet of her yard.

“… Hello…?” Batyushka held the shovel closer to her chest and walked forward, but not too close to the man. She was cautious, he was a trespassing stranger, and his silver sword could easily be noticed against his black attire, which covered him from head to toe, only revealing the light complexion of his face and hair. But when she made eye-contact with his icy blue hues, the hairs on the back of her neck rose.

For a moment, they stared at each other. Waiting for whoever would make the first move. The elderly man grabbed the pommel of his sword, his expression calm and wise, but eventually he looked elsewhere. He strode to the barn door, and Batyushka swore he positioned himself the same way she stood on that faithful night.

“I thought so.”

His voice was deep, rough and calm. What he said next made Batyushka estatic, something she hadn’t felt in a long time.

“I sense the presence of a demon.”

His accent was prominent, but his Russian was fluent.

Her breath hitched, and Batyushka thought she was going to cry from relief and disbelief.

“W-what did you say…?”

“There was a demon here. I can sense it. You sense it too, I can feel it.” His spoke in a monotone voice, but there was also a lingering anger and sadness. He looked at Batyushka again, his every word like a choir to the empty space of her heart. “You are a victim of the demon’s violence.”

“Who are you?” Batyushka whispered and her shovel fell to the ground. She felt tears falling down her cheeks from so many emotions.

“My name is Hiiragi Daiki, I come from Japan.” The man, Hiiragi, continued to walk around Batyushka’s yard and stopped again before the fixed window where Ilyusha’s dead body and decapitated head hung. “I came here to fulfil my duty as a demon slayer.”

“Demon slayer… demon… Y-you don’t… you mean you believe it was a demon? And I’m not crazy? This isn’t another hallucination?!” Batyushka grabbed his shoulders and shook him desperately, afraid that he would vanish. Hiiragi stayed silent, his stoic face masking whatever emotion he was feeling, but his eyes displayed sorrow and sympathy Batyushka hadn’t seen before – as if this man understood her pain, her loneliness, and above all, the guilt.

“I…” Batyushka hiccupped and did her best to compose herself. She picked up the shovel she dropped, put it next to the wall and opened her cottage door.

“Please, come inside, I have some left over stew, if you have time...”

Hiiragi followed without a word.

Chapter Text

Hiiragi expected her cottage home to be as messy as herself – understandably so, clearly her form of survival’s guilt revolved around starvation and paying little attention to her personal hygiene. But upon entering, he was surprised by how spotless her home was, but also minimal in furnishing. There was a large bed with an uncovered blanket - indicating the woman just woke up, despite it being midday - that stood alone in an empty square space. There was a table with three chairs, only one slightly moved with her clothes messily folded over it.

“P-please, make yourself comfortable…” He doubts she even realised the weakness of her voice. “A-also, I forgot to introduce myself… my name is Batyushka.” Batyushka smiled weakly, her damaged smile stung Hiiragi’s heart, and she wobbled to the fireplace, adding logs to warm up his promised soup.

“Thank you.” Hiiragi very quickly decided it was best not to comment on such things.

He sat in silence, waiting for Batyushka to give him an steaming bowl and a wooden spoon. He couldn’t help but observe her, and the damage that had been done by that demon’s attack. Hiiragi didn’t need to focus or use his senses to know she was a childless and widowed mother – an empty crib stood next to the right side of the double-bed. The right side of the bed looked neat, but unused. Hiiragi then noticed the scars on the exposed parts of Batyushka’s body. There were many that were inflicted from nature and hard labour. A furious red line was stamped into her right palm, and he connected that with a woodsman axe placed near her bed.  But the one that got his attention the most was a deep hole in the back of her left shoulder. Surely the tissue was healed, but Hiiragi had plenty of experience with scarring, from his own experiences and from the injuries of his comrades.

‘The demon’s claws.’

If he focused hard enough, he could still sense its lingering presence.

‘Her survival was a miracle… she managed to survive the demon attack head-on?’

“Here you go…” Hiiragi took the soup with a nod and sat down on the floor, next to the fire.

“You should eat too. I can hear your stomach growling.”

“…” Batyushka stood awkwardly for a while, before sitting on the other side of the fireplace, facing him. If he wasn’t so good at reading people’s emotions, he’d say her eyes were cold. In reality they were distant, lost in the mental darkness she was experiencing.

“You say you come from Japan. How come you know our language, um…?” 

Of course she would avoid the topic.

“Hiiragi.” He took a sip of her soup and grunted. It wasn’t that tasty, but it was warm. “My family has Russian roots. It’s in honour of those roots that we learn the language and the culture from an early age.” It would also explain his appearance – true, his hair turned white from age, but his eyes were blue, some say as blue as ice. As cold as his personality.

Hiiragi…” she repeated, playing with the ends of her greasy, hip-length hair. “Is the soup not to your liking?”

“It’ll do. I can’t be a picky wanderer.” He’d prefer Miso soup from his home-country. But right now, friendly banter was the last thing on Hiiragi’s mind. He placed the empty bowl on the floor and looked at Batyushka, and this time didn’t look away. He needed to observe her reactions, how well she was going to take in the information, and how severe her mental state truly was.

“I will be frank, and I want you to be frank.” He decided he would make his gruff voice even gruffer. Batyushka listened carefully, and Hiiragi could hear her heart beating faster. “If you have questions, ask them. Otherwise I’ll have to start from the beginning, of how that demon managed to escape to Russia-“

“Have you been in the village?”

Hiiragi wasn’t expecting to be interrupted so suddenly. “Yes.”

“They must have told you about me, about the ‘crazy widow’.” Batyushka looked at the ground, at him, at the wall. Her gaze was everywhere.

“They have.” His sixth sense wasn’t his only guide to Batyushka’s home. The villagers made her hermit, lonely life clear to him, along with how ‘unstable’ she had become. How she scouted the forest with an axe or a shovel, how her once sweet voice turned hoarse from screaming, that she sounded like a ‘witch’, like Baba Yaga from the child’s folk tale.

“Sometimes I wonder if I really am crazy. You see Hiiragi, I’ve had my fair share of hallucinations.” She said it so nonchalantly. Had she accepted them? Hiiragi worried how severe her detachment from reality was. “Some were more severe than others. To wake up to the sounds of my crying son, only to look at an empty crib…” Her shoulders began to shake. “I still find it hard to believe you’re real… A hunter who hunts demons… I’m going insane…” Batyushka was on the verge of tears.

I am real.” He made sure his voice and his grip on her shoulder were strong. “And I’m here to destroy the demon that killed your family.”

Batyushka finally looked him in the eyes, and she sobbed. It was heart-wrenching to see a once bright person, mother and wife, to fall so deep into the pit of despair. Hiiragi squeezed her shoulder more, to reassure her he was still real.

“That won’t bring them back…!”

Hiiragi had no idea what to say. Comforting her wouldn’t do her any good, neither would being cold and tough.

‘A lost soul needn’t be lost forever. All they need is guidance.’

Those were the wise words of his father, whose spiritual presence was always there to guide Hiiragi whenever he felt lost, even in the most difficult times.

“It will not. So what will you do?”

It was such a simple question, yet it made Batyushka halt in shock. “Huh? W-what do you mean?”

“What are you going to do once the demon has died?” Hiiragi was certain he was going to kill it.

‘I can tell that bastard’s demonic presence here with ease…’ He subconsciously gripped the sheath of his saber to calm himself. Hiiragi looked calm, but in reality he was seething.

‘Four years… I’ve been chasing you for four years…”

“Have you the will to continue living?”

Batyushka was so shocked from his questions that her tears completely stopped and her eyes shone in disbelief, anger, but Hiiragi was certain there was a glimmer of hope behind those light greens.

“… have I even the right to live?” Batyushka wiped her tear-stained cheeks and sniffed into her sleeve. To be asking guidance from a stranger must have meant she had little to no support over the past few years. Hiiragi’s heart sunk at the image of a once bright mother losing her child in such a cruel way. “After what happened? I-I couldn’t protect my husband, I couldn’t protect my baby. What good am I, Hiiragi? Other than to suffer in my meagre existence…” She had to cover her mouth to stop herself from sobbing again.

“I don’t undermine your tragedy, Batyushka. But I have seen many souls, young and old, who have suffered in the hands of the demons. Demons are a plague on this world. As a demon slayer, it’s my duty to protect civilians from harm.” The guilt weighed heavily on his shoulders too.

For it had been his mistake the demon escaped Japan in the first place.

“I’m sorry.” Hiiragi did only what any sane person should do – he turned to Batyushka, went on his knees and bowed. “I’m sorry for failing you.”

Hiiragi was a man of honour. Dare say prideful and stern, even from an early age, but it was his father that taught him to be respectful to those that have lost their dear ones, and that there was more honour shown through compassion than from anything else.

Hiiragi’s shoulders were so heavy from grief, but besides killing demons, that was also his duty. He would take full responsibility for his mistakes, he had been and still would be cursed for them. He would die and go to hell for all the innocent lives that had been lost because of his mistakes. But he would keep on fighting, for that was his desire and duty as a demon slayer, and as a member of the Hiiragi family.

Batyushka stayed silent. Seconds passed and Hiiragi’s head was still low, but then he heard her shuffle and felt her hands on his shoulders. Slowly, they both stood to their full height, and Hiiragi noticed, now that Batyushka wasn’t as slouched as before, she was taller than him.

“Please don’t blame yourself for my mistake, Hiiragi. If anything, I’m thankful.”

“Thankful?” Hiiragi’s eyes widened, as much as their sharp silhouette would allow them. “Why would you be thankful?”

“Before you asked me what I will do once the demon that killed my family and so many others, has died.” as if still trying to cope with their loss, Batyushka closed her eyes and sighed heavily. Maybe, just maybe, that alone was a small step forward to forgiveness. “Honestly, I don’t know. But I know what I want to do now. I want to help you kill it.”

Hiiragi thought that was what she wanted. He could sense how determined she was. “I understand. But demons are powerful. This one in particular is special. I don’t doubt if it found you, you would have been slaughtered in an instant-“

“But I’m alive.” Batyushka’s determination faltered and she hugged herself, looking away again in shame, but anger quickly masked that. “And when I go into the forest, I swear I can hear it…”

“How did you survive?”

Batyushka told him about that faithful night. She had to stop a few times to calm her frantic breathing and talk normally. Hiiragi could easily guess it was her first time speaking of the death of her son and husband in such a detailed and honest way. And although the demon slayer wished he didn’t have to know these things, he needed to know everything. The more information, the easier it would be to find the target, especially from a survivor who had direct contact with it.

Minutes, maybe half an hour had passed. Hiiragi learnt Batyushka had a great memory. They went outside, where she showed him the pattern of the demon’s attack, from the barn to the window. All of his assumptions from the first time he set foot on Batyushka’s yard were made to be true.

‘It attacked from the roof. It waited for Baytushka to go to the barn before attacking her husband and child. It was like a tag game… it still is, it must know she’s alive.’

Hiiragi gritted his teeth.

‘That scum just loves games, doesn’t it?’

Although it was hard, Batyushka knew time was of the essence and that the demon had to be killed before it hurt anyone else. 

They returned to her home and sat down at the table.

“… I remember a lot of red. Its eyes were really red. Bloody red…” She faltered again, tears flowing freely down her red cheeks. The red must have reminded her of her dead son in too vivid of an image, and Hiiragi hated himself for needing to ask how he was killed – ‘his heart carved out’. He had to know. Intelligent demons could form a pattern for killing.

And he remembers the countless corpses he saw during his four year chase - he was right to assume that the demon was the one who left them with a hole in their chest.

'It has appetite for hearts.'

“What else, Batyushka?”

“The eyes were… different. One was darker than the other, But I don’t really remember...” Batyushka looked as if she was trying to remember an unimportant detail, but that detail meant everything to Hiiragi. He gripped the edge of her table.

“This is very important, Batyushka. Think about the left eye. Was there a symbol in it?”

Hiiragi had to make sure his assumptions about this demon were true.

“…” She furiously wiped her tears again. “I… think. All I remember is red… but…” she furrowed her eyebrows. “I could see dots. Some strange lines. I can’t form an image, when it looked at me, I don’t exactly remember how it attacked…”

“Look at this.” Hiiragi took his sword and unsheathed enough to reveal a symbol he had carved into the metal a long time ago.

守備

“Do these symbols remind you of anything?”

Batyushka sat frozen in place. “I remember now. One eye was darker. I saw it in my dreams so many times, it was staring from the shadows. I know one eye had a mark,” she pointed at the second letter. “but I never knew what it meant.”

Hiiragi thought his heart was going to burst.

‘Calm your breathing, or else it’ll notice you’re here.’ he told himself, keeping his presence as minimal as possible. “I knew it. That scum was one of the twelve demon-moons all along.”

“Demon-what?” Hiiragi stood up and paced around, and Batyushka followed him. “Is that a bad thing?”

“It’s very bad.”

‘How many humans has it eaten in the past four years?’

“But at least now you’ve made my assumptions clear – I know what I’m facing is a lower-moon. Now I know why it took me so long to find that bastard.” Hiiragi dressed back into his black, fur-lined haori and went for the door.

“W-wait, I want to help!” Batyushka scrambled for her own coat and Hiiragi wondered how such a malnourished body could run like that. It surprised him even more at how she gripped her axe – it was a double-handed woodsman’s axe, and she picked it up with one hand, holding it up with ease.

‘Interesting…’

“There’s nothing you can do,” he said, making his voice gruffer to hide his sympathy. “you’ll only be an inconvenience.”

“I know this forest! I’ve searched all the caves! The villagers said the piles of bones were left by a bear…” Batyushka shook her head. “But I know it’s that demon’s doing! Y-you said you can sense it – I can too! It’s in the forest! Right there!” She pointed behind him, where dark spikes of trees shadowed over the white-coated ground.

No wonder the villagers thought she was crazy, with those wide eyes brimmed red from crying and sleep deprivation, and the way she held that axe, as if it was the only thing keeping her within reality.

But Hiiragi also knew she was special. Her memory was great, along with a sixth sense Batyushka herself was barely aware of.

“I remember flakes falling… the air was heavy, and I began to sweat… I knew something wasn’t right.” was what she told him. The way she described that particular scene made him wonder just how good of a sixth sense she had.

But to him, what he can feel is the darkness and malice radiating from within the forest, even at daytime. He can’t concentrate on a specific location, the bloody aura is spread everywhere.

“Please, Hiiragi. Let me do this…!”

“Your presence is too strong.” He spoke calmly, his gaze so serious that it made Batyushka flinch. “The demon we’re facing has the ability to manipulate its presence, and it can sense others’ presence. Yours is very strong.”

‘It feeds off of your grief, pain and hatred. I’ve no doubt the demon enjoys the way you scream, for it to observe you and not kill you. It’s all a game.’

“I-I don’t understand…”

 “And if you stay by my side, it will find us. I must stay hidden, Batyushka.” Hiiragi doubts she understand anything that he’s saying.

‘I’ve been chasing that bastard for too long to mess this up.’

Batyushka stood at the entrance of her door, her axe still in her right hand. Hiiragi took a deep but concentrated breath, readying himself to dash into the forest, when he heard Batyushka run to his side.

“I’ll be the bait.”

Hiiragi stayed silent and let her speak.

“If that demon is as infatuated by me as you deem it to be, then it’ll reveal itself. It has to be in the trees, I see no other way, because I never spot any footprints.”

He wanted to stop her foolish idea, but she wouldn’t let him.

“I don’t understand what you mean by sensing my presence, but if it’s going to get that demon’s attention, I’ll make sure I’ll be all it sees. You’ll hide, wait until it shows itself. Then you kill it.”

Hiiragi stared at her, thinking about her proposition. The idea wasn’t a horrible one – in fact it was genius. He could keep watch of the terrain while Batyushka made herself exposed. He had no doubt he could spot the demon that way.

But how could he endanger an innocent woman?

“That’s suicide. It could take you hostage.”

“And you will slice it in half. Weather I’m hostage or not.” Batyushka frowned, her eyes teary again. “I’m not important Hiiragi. Please, do this for me, and for all those that lost their lives to that monster.”

Hiiragi knew Batyushka didn’t value her life at all. She’d be glad to have a reason to throw it away if it meant she could avenge her dead son and husband.

‘Father, what should I do? I don’t want this woman to throw her life away. She’s so young and I can still see a light in the darkness of her soul. And she has a hidden talent, I know a determined heart from a lost one. She’d be worthy of a Demon Slayer.’

Hiiragi closed his eyes for a brief moment, seeking guidance from his deceased father’s teachings.

“Speak from experience. What saved you from your demise?”

Hiiragi remembered his younger days, when he was still a naïve demon slayer. The deaths he could have prevented, how many friends had given their lives for his sake. What had saved him?

“I have a condition.”

Batyushka was genuinely surprised he accepted. Hiiragi wished he didn’t have to, but his gut was telling him that if he didn’t use this woman’s help right now, he would be coming back to her cottage disappointed from an unsuccessful hunt.

“When that demon dies, and it dies today.” nothing would stop Hiiragi from finding it. He’d been tracking and learning the demon’s moves for years, and now that Batyushka offered herself as a sacrifice, a decoy, his chances of finding it were even higher. It was the only demon in the whole continent, and it was only a mile or two away from Batyushka’s home, in a forest she knew like the back of her hand. And it was still sunny, a few hours before night would befall Vladivostok. “Before dawn, its head will lie before our feet. And when it does, you will become my apprentice.”

Batyushka wanted to speak, but Hiiragi didn’t let her.

“I’ll show you there’s a reason to live, even when everything you ever loved was taken away from you.”

“…” Batyushka looked him deep in the eyes and Hiiragi, for the first time in a long time, let his vulnerability show. If she was as capable in sensing emotions as well as he was, then she’ll understand.

‘I’ve disappointed so many. I let so many die. I should have died instead of my friends, instead of my father.’

He closed his eyes, and opened them again. He was cold again. “Do you accept?”

“Why would you do something like that for me?”

‘A lost soul needn’t be lost forever. All they need is guidance.’ It’s what my deceased father taught me.”

“What…” Afraid to overstep her boundaries, Batyushka spoke carefully. “Happened to your father?”

“He died protecting me from demons.” It was a sensitive topic, but Hiiragi had very little time to waste. A minute more and he’ll have to leave Batyushka behind.

Batyushka’s eyes shone from compassion, even when Hiiragi thought she was clouded by hatred and grief. Strangely, her soft gaze didn’t make him feel bad, but warmed him. Even made him feel less lonely in his guilt, if only for a moment.

“Batyushka, we haven’t the time. I gave you an offer. Do you accept?”

‘Accept. Give yourself a second chance.’

Batyushka looked frantic, sweat forming on her temple, as if this was the hardest decision she ever had to make.

 “A… Alright!” She was unsure, but Hiiragi knew, even though she tried to deny it with all of her being, she wanted to live again. She just needed a little push forward, and Hiiragi would be glad to teach her how to use her tragedy for good. “I’ll… I’ll try. I accept!”

“Good. Now-“ despite the flurry of emotions, Hiiragi’s demeanour changed and he made his heart cold as ice.

‘Think of that demon. Only that demon, who has killed so many because of your mistake, Daiki. Kill it.’

“You’ve accepted me as your teacher, Batyushka, so follow my orders.” Hiiragi started walking towards the forest with the woman in toe. Though she was confused, she was also determined to put an end to this.

“I will protect you. The demon will have to reveal itself to lay its hands on you, and when it tries, I will attack it. But before that-“ Hiiragi turns around and gives out his first order. “you’ll put on the show of a lifetime.”

“What do I have to do?”

The flame in her heart lit up like a beacon.

“Show it just how ‘crazy’ you truly became for what it did to your family.”

Batyushka’s grip on her axe was so tight the wood beneath her palm cracked.

Hiiragi kept her close until they entered the darker part of the forest. Batyushka went forward, and Hiiragi climbed up a tree.

‘I hope this works.’ Hiiragi was confident in his skills to protect Batyushka, he just hoped, prayed that finally, that demon would be cut down and sent to hell.

‘Soon I’ll win this game of tag, and fulfil my duties.’ Hiiragi jumped from tree to tree, so silent that even the rodents didn’t flinch. He held his sword in his left hand, ready to strike as soon as he had a glimpse of the demon’s body. Not far away, Batyushka’s screams echoed through the forest, so loud that even the villagers could hear her.

What Hiiragi noticed most was how her sorrow and grief was replaced by rage. Her meek voice from before sounded nothing like the lioness she was now.

“How dare you take them away from me! When I find you I’ll rip out your guts and feed them to the wolves, you monster!”

An hour had passed, maybe two, and Batyushka hadn’t stopped screaming. From time to time, Hiiragi would notice a thin tree shake from the impact of her axe. She made an incredible commotion, and the greater the sounds of her hatred for the demon, the better.

“Hehehe…”

And then he heard it. A voice so sickening, so full of gluttony and evil it made his vision go dark for a moment.

Hiiragi had the highest grounds. And a few measly feet below him, so close it would only take a second to slice its head off, sat the ugliest display of a humanoid monster he had seen in the past four years. Hiiragi’s breath stilled completely, and like a predator, he waited for the perfect moment to attack.

But he was angry, veins in his head popping form rage, and he used his remaining willpower not to scream out the demon’s name.

“She’s extra crazy today… last time must have really gotten to her. I wonder how I’ll play with her now… maybe mock her on how I ate her lover?”

Hiiragi unsheathed his sword, the letters on the nichirin blade shimmering - the defender.

‘I finally found you, you lowly scum…’

Hiiragi raised his sword, the leather straps of his handle squeaking beneath his grip.

‘The hunt is over, Ubegat.’

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 new cases of escaped demons. This month we had killed only forty-five 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. He was a kinoe ranked demon slayer, well-respected for his skills in combat and coordination. But no one would ever find out that Hiiragi Daiki 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.

 

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