He was dead.
Granted, some part of Sanemi prepared itself for every breath he took in the presence of these creatures to be his last, and sheer blind rage had forced him out of the claws of death more times than he could count, but this time, he’d really done it. He prayed that God would let him see Genya one last time, even as a guardian spirit.
The demon slammed his head against a tree trunk, once, twice, thrice, rocking his brain in his skull. He could smell nothing but its mangy flesh with its palm over his nose; its claws dug into his temples. He couldn’t tell if his eyes were open anymore.
The demon wasn’t particularly intelligent, only speaking in snarls and howls, but, Sanemi supposed, neither was he. After all, he hadn’t been smart enough to protect his family, the one thing he’d sworn to do. A pathetic end to a pathetic life, he supposed. The static around the corners of his vision spread.
The thought struck Sanemi, through a spinning head, that if he died, this demon would continue to live. It would live, burning everything in its path, on the same green earth as his little brother lived. Could he really stop a demon as a ghost? Could he protect innocent lives as a dead man when he couldn’t even do so alive?
The black static in his eyes turned to red.
Appendages numb from lack of oxygen, Sanemi fumbled for the knife at his side. Only, the tingling in his fingers made it impossible to distinguish between the blade handle and the roots of the tree against his back. He felt drool dribble down his chest as the demon opened its mouth for a bite. Hot breath crawled on his neck.
Sanemi closed his hand into a desperate fist and swung.
Immediately, several things happened:
First, his vision cleared. The demon’s teeth were tinged with blood as they’d barely descended upon his neck, although now, they closed around something else.
Next, white-hot pain shot up his arm, travelled through his spine, and exploded behind his eyes.
Then, his vision was once again obscured. By his own blood.
Sanemi might have screamed as the demon’s teeth ripped through his hand, but he couldn’t tell. He hoped not--after all, he wouldn’t want to disturb the people sleeping in their homes nearby. The thought spurred him to struggle, pedaling his legs to push the demon off, pulling at his captured arm with all his might. Luckily, the demon seemed as stunned stupid by the flavor of his blood as the rest of them. Blood squirted on its wide-eyed face as he ripped his hand free.
Sanemi kicked the demon’s chest with both legs, knocking it down on its ass. With not a moment to spare, he rolled onto his feet.
Keep moving, keep moving, keep moving, keep moving--!
He fumbled for his rope in the dark with his uninjured hand--
The demon grabbed his ankle. Sanemi felt his nose crack as it slammed against the dirt. The rope tangled uselessly around his arm.
This was it.
With an ounce of remaining strength, Sanemi flipped himself over with shaking arms. The demon’s ugly, rotten face grinned down at him, salivating.
“Fuck you,” Sanemi muttered.
He closed his eyes and hoped he’d be reborn a stronger man.
“Oi! You alive?”
Something poked at his cheek. It was cold, like leather.
“Geez, that’s a lot of sharp stuff. You carry all this around?”
Sanemi cracked an eye open.
His head spun with the disorientation of having been ripped from unconsciousness prematurely. The sky was still cerulean beyond the black trees, lightening in forewarning of dawn. It could only have been a few minutes--maybe even seconds.
The demon was gone.
“The demon’s gone, so it’s okay now,” a voice assured. “I already cut off its head. Are you alright?”
Sanemi snapped his head up too quickly, making his brain wobble around in his skull like gelatin. He blinked away the spots.
A boy knelt next to him, blinking innocently. He had dark brown cow eyes and even darker hair. Deep dimples adorned his cheeks. Twin scars beneath his left eye vaguely resembled gills on a fish. He donned a military-style gakuran, though, even disoriented, Sanemi didn’t believe for a second that he was a police officer; he looked to be fifteen or sixteen, barely older than Sanemi.
“Aah, your hand’s bleeding like crazy,” Dimples remarked, blabbing on. “Better put pressure on that. Here, hold this there.” He wrapped a cloth around Sanemi’s massacred hand.
Sanemi couldn’t bring himself to question it; his body could trudge on another day to kill more demons, and that was what mattered. However, one thing Dimples had said stuck out. He noted the absence of a body. His gaze landed on the sword in his hands.
“They… die… when you cut their heads off?”
Dimples paused cleaning the sword, blinking back at him. Most people on the street who Sanemi fixed with such a glare would flinch and stay out of his way; Dimples only brightened in fascination.
“You mean you’ve been fighting demons this whole time without even knowing that? Wow!” He examined Sanemi’s trusty blood-stained rope with a new appreciation. “You’re lucky to be alive, you know!”
Sanemi curled in on himself the way a wounded animal might, hissing. Nonetheless, Dimples sheathed his sword--which took on an almost green tinge in the dying moonlight--and leaned in unfazed to poke some more at Sanemi’s hand.
“Doesn’t look like the bleeding’s stopping,” he tsked. “Oh, well. Let’s just bandage it for now, and we can get it stitched up properly in a little while. Infection is a serious thing, you know.”
Sanemi reeled at the audacity. He ripped his hand away. “Forget it!”
“Oh, relax. Here, hold out your hand--I’ll be gentle.” He pulled bandages out of his uniform pocket.
Sanemi’s problem wasn’t with fear that he’d be rough, but rather with the presumption that he’d follow this stranger for long enough to get treatment from another stranger, potentially one with a needle. The sight of the bandages, however, dissolved his protests when he remembered he’d run out of first aid supplies the night before. He kept his mouth shut.
True to his word, Dimples took extra care to wrap the wound gently. He paused running his mouth while he focused, so Sanemi lowered his guard, until:
“It’s you, isn’t it?”
Sanemi looked up.
“The guy who’s been running around here,” he elaborated, “hunting demons with brute force alone?”
Sanemi faltered, despite himself. “... ‘Guy’?”
“Yeah. You’re him, aren’t you?”
A strange twinge of euphoria fluttered in Sanemi’s chest. Yes, he was the guy--but he’d never been called such without having to beat it into the speaker beforehand. He had cut his hair a long time ago. And, he supposed, the jagged scar and permanent scowl carved into his face did make it a little less pretty. Hard work had beaten callouses into his skin and, while malnutrition stunted his growth, it also delayed certain developments that he could not say he looked forward to. He hadn’t noticed through the blur of his own bloodthirsty rage, but he must have really grown to look like a guy. He wished he had it in him to enjoy it.
“Yeah,” Sanemi said, “I’m him.”
Dimples didn’t seem to notice his bewilderment. “Well, you shouldn’t be so reckless,” he scolded, like a mother to a child. “Demons really will kill you. Why are you so suicidal, anyways?”
Finally, those stern, dark eyes bored into his, and Sanemi found himself at a loss. No one had asked him that before, most just squirming out of his way or appeasing him with food or supplies until he left their sight. The rage inside him had turned him into a monster people feared; all thirteen years, ninety-nine pounds, and one hundred and fifty six centimetres of him.
Sanemi wasn’t suicidal; he was already dead. The only thing left tying his tattered undead corpse to the mortal plane anymore was the obligation to kill every rotten thing that stood in the way of his last remaining family and a long, happy life. A guardian spirit; a vengeful spirit.
Sanemi met the boy’s gaze with piercing sincerity.
“I want to rip every last one of those ugly fuckers into shreds.”
Dimples didn’t flinch. “Is that so?”
Unfazed at the molten hatred pouring out of Sanemi’s bitter soul, Dimples continued to reprimand. “But you’ll never make it that far going as you are now. Even just now, that demon was as weak as the ones in the Final Selection, and you barely made it with your skin.”
“I mean, of course it’s impressive that you made it this far outside the Corps without a Nichirin sword. Stringing them up like livestock so they’ll burn in the sun? I’ve never seen that before! I can only imagine how you managed to incapacitate them all--”
“Oh, but I’m getting ahead of myself. Sorry! You probably don’t know what I’m blabbing on about. Right, then.” Dimples stood, brushed the dust off his uniform with purpose, and offered Sanemi a hand. “If you want to get stronger, I’ll help you. You want to kill all demons, right?”
Sanemi eyed the hand with suspicion. But beyond it shone a smile the sincerity of which he hadn’t seen since the day his heart died.
Without knowing why, Sanemi took the boy’s clammy hand, and resolved to die another day.