As he walked through the forest on his way back up the mountain from selling charcoal, an unusual but nearly unnoticeable smell made its way to Tanjirou one early evening.
It smelled a lot like rotten eggs.
It was a windy day, hard to tell where the odor was coming from, but when he first smelled it, he naturally assumed a chicken farmer near the village was having a bad day.
As he continued on his trek home, he kept getting whiffs, interestingly enough. And the odd smell started to become more specific. By the time he had reached his front door and been welcomed back by his family, he was certain it was not actually a bad egg - but he wasn’t exactly sure what else it could be.
“Did something happen in town today, Tanjirou?” his mother asked him in her gentle voice as he removed his shoes. “You look a little troubled.”
“No, no - everything is alright,” he replied. “Just a weird smell that’s been following me, it seems.”
“Not my dinner, I hope.”
Tanjirou chuckled, but he still lightly sniffed the air, just to check. “No, I can tell you’re cooking with fresh ingredients! What I smell is something rotten.”
His mother made a face he didn’t see often - it was still calm, but worry was creeping through, for some reason. He suddenly felt slightly concerned.
“Rotten? Like a dead animal or more like food?”
“It’s like a bad egg, but it’s not that exactly.”
His mother put down the spoon she was stirring with. She was quiet for a moment.
“Like a bad egg? You’re certain, Tanjirou? Where is it coming from?”
“It’s... “ Tanjirou stepped towards the open window, trying to gather a direction. “It’s pretty dispersed from the wind, but I think it’s coming from further up. Definitely not the valley.”
It was strange. His family’s home is the furthest out for some while. What else was out there?
His mother picked up the wooden spoon again and began plating a meal.
“Eat quickly, Tanjirou. Then put your shoes back on. You and I are heading back down the mountain tonight.”
“Wh-what? What’s the matter? Why?” He took the bowl that was handed to him.
“Nezuko!” his mother called out to the next room. “Please come in here.”
“Mom, I still don’t understand…”
His sister appeared at the doorway, holding folded clothes. “Yes, mother? Did you need help with dinner?”
“No, there’s something else.” Their mother spoke a very quiet voice. “Please, both of you come closer.”
Nezuko looked at Tanjirou, whose eyes could not give any indication of what was happening. They both came closer to their mom and knelt next to her.
“Nezuko,” she started, “your brother told me he smelled a rotten egg on the mountain today.”
Nezuko nodded slowly, taking in that bizarre sentence. She looked incredibly confused.
“He’s likely not smelling an egg, but sulfur. It’s said they share a similar smell,” she explained in a hushed tone. Her children continued to listen. “As you know, it is an old charcoal-makers' tale that we learned the trade from watching dragons. They say the first warning of a dragon is its smell.”
Nezuko covered her mouth. Tanjirou closed his eyes in concentration.
Their mother continued. “Tanjirou and I are going to warn the village leader. Nezuko, watch the home for the night. Do not tell your siblings my suspicions.”
Nezuko nodded distractedly. “I understand…”
“Tanjirou, finish and start getting ready to go.”
“Yes, ma’am,” he whispered.
There was a pit in his stomach.
* * * * *
Kamado Kie was a reserved woman, but she was not unknown in the town below. The widowed mother of six had once been a talk of pity during her husband’s passing, but her strength through the hardships in the time afterwards earned her much more respect than pity in the eyes of many.
Her first born son Kamado Tanjirou was an obvious case of an apple that did not fall far from the tree. He had inherited his parents’ hard working characters and kind demeanour. And from the gods, he had inherited a heightened sense of smell. While a modest boy, it was accurate to say Tanjirou was a bit famous for it, in fact.
This all said, the town’s head still had his doubts when Kie and Tanjirou arrived at his door that night and told him what Tanjirou could smell.
“A dragon, you think? Why, there hasn’t been one in these parts for hundreds of years.” He sniffed the air. “And I don’t smell anything out of the ordinary.”
“I didn’t notice it either, but Tanjirou insists,” Kie pleaded. “I trust my son’s nose.”
The town leader looked tired and hesitant. He started to close the door slowly and apologetically.
“Look - I know you came a great way, but let’s talk more at a later date, maybe when there’s a bit more evidence, hmm? And not as late? Please,” he stops when his door is but a crack, “have a nice night.”
Tanjirou darted his foot out to catch the door, and started to try and peel it back open with a fight.
“Sir, please forgive me, but listen! There’s something dang - “
“Tanjirou!” his mother scolded. “Please, don’t cause a scene!”
Tanjirou looked at his mother but did what he was told. He stepped away from the door.
The door shut.
It was incredibly frustrating to not be heard and have their worries acknowledged, but only two days later there was a change of heart.
It was an incredibly cold day, the sun blocked from thick clouds unlike anything anyone had ever seen that time of year. This wasn’t at first taken as a bad omen - just a delightful surprise to have a rest from the hot sun.
However, by noon, a light, white film had begun to coat the town. At first glance people thought it was snow - a crazy phenomenon in the summer month of June.
But this was quickly revealed to be ash.
It was ash that was falling from the sky. And as those with better noses started reporting more faint hints of sulfur in the air, suddenly Kie’s theory did not seem so irrational. Many of the older residents backed this up with their own knowledge and tales of dragons. The younger crowd insisted a volcano was nearby, getting ready to erupt.
It is a stranger from the next town over that confirmed suspicions, however.
“It’s gone... “ he mumbled to himself. A crowd stood around him, some people giving him food and water. He was barely clothed and badly burned. His body was covered in soot and ash.
“Everythings gone! The great Dragon Lord Muzan came down last night! It’s - “ the man choked, trying to restrain his tears. “it’s all gone !”
The ash from this morning was the remains of the town across the river.
As fear and rumors started to spread from household to household like wildfire, a town meeting was called that very night to discuss the situation and what could be done about it.
Tanjirou and his mother were among the crowd, representing their family.
“Legends say some dragons will take peace offerings!
“Screw that! Let’s get a dragon slayer!”
“There’s no time! If we don’t do something quick, our village will be the next to go up in flames!”
“Let’s just leave!”
There’s many voices shouting, panicking. Some families rush to leave everything behind, but for the majority, there was nowhere else to go.
Kie spoke up.
“There have been legends in my family for generations about dragons,” she spoke to the crowd. “They seek riches, if they aren’t looking for food. I say we make a peace offering.”
“But how will we even find the dragon to give him the offering?” someone rebutted.
“I can do it,” Tanjirou’s voice speaks above the crowd. “I’ll be able to find where the dragon is hiding and find my way back without getting lost. And I’ve been carrying heavy loads for most of my life.” Tanjirou looked determined. “I can do this, I’ll deliver it.”
Kie gave her son a horrified look. “This isn’t your duty, Tanjirou…”
There were whispers. No one wanted to doubt Tanjirou, who was both reliable and strong - but could such an important task be left to a boy?
However, with a ticking time bomb up in the mountains, there was no time to lose. The smoke in the sky grew darker and the ash began to fall heavier with each passing hour.
Villagers began to grab and give up what they could from their homes and businesses, something from each family. Neighbors held each other accountable, and throughout the night, heavier than the film that was piling on the ground was the tension in the air. Money, jade, gemstones, prized statues, and Buddist scrolls all went into the offering pile.
The Kamado family gave up a sword, passed down from generations and used for the family’s Honokami Kagura. It was unclear where his ancestor got it, as they have always been a charcoal-making family with no need for such a violent artifact - but it was valuable and beautiful, and so it was put into the pile.
Soon, everything was packed into two large bags. One strapped to Tanjirou’s back and the other to be carried in his arms.
The next morning from the village, Tanjirou set off. As he headed towards the mountain, he stopped at his home to say goodbye to his family - and that he was sure he’d see them soon.
His siblings cried, not sure where he was going, but sure there was a secret being kept from them. Takeo insisted he would make this mysterious trip with him, but Tanjirou managed to convince him it was his place as the man of the house while he was gone. Nezuko and Hanako had prepared him a snack for the road.
With these final goodbyes, Tanjirou sets off beyond his home and life into a dangerous unknown.
* * * * *
Up and up the mountain side he went. The road before him (if it could be called that) was not an easy one. The air began to get lighter, and his calves ached from the increasing elevation. The weight on his back and in his arms seemed to grow heavier with every hour.
He wondered, if not for him, who could’ve made this trek.
Even with these pains, Tanjirou was confident he was going the correct way. He was lucky the wind was light today, so when he closed his eyes and used his sense of smell to see, it was like a faint red ribbon appeared to guide him on his journey.
Even in the thinning air, the scents became stronger, the ribbon thicker.
Sulfur. Fire. Blood.
These scents danced in his nose. It made his stomach hurt as he grew closer.
He took short breaks every couple of hours, but Tanjiroud pushed on.
Soon, as the beginning of twilight came near, Tanjirou was miles up in the rocky cliffs of Mt. Ryuu-san, one of the largest mountains in the area.
He could smell that his journey was about to come to an end, and soon he arrived at the mouth of a large, creepy cave.
Sulfur. Fire. Blood. Death.
This was it. This was the dragon’s den.
“Hello?” He spoke out, a little weakly. His voice echoed down the dark cave.
The red haired boy approached the entrance, stepping inside tentatively. The area was well coated in the beast’s scent, but it wasn’t as vibrant as it should have been for someone that should’ve been home.
He turned over his shoulder and looked out into the mountain range around him. Dragons awoke at night. Was he already too late?
Tanjirou moved slowly inside and walked for a couple minutes. In the pitch black, he took great care to feel out the floor with his feet before he committed to a step. He was so focused on the ground, in fact, that he wasn’t cautious of the ceiling.
“Oof!” Tanjirou yelped. He had run face-first into a stalactite, breaking it with his hard forehead. It hadn’t particularly hurt, but he had dropped the valuables in his hand, spooked from the hit. They spilled from the bag onto the ground.
When he reached down to grasp blindly for them in the dark, he touched something very soft on the floor. He put his whole hand on it, petting it softly with his palm.
“It’s…” he twirled a couple fibers with his thumb and index finger. “A carpet?”
In a cave?
He mused maybe that wasn’t so strange, given what his own mission was. Tanjirou did not have long to think about this though.
A dark, vicious bloodlust flew in around him, encasing him, choking him.
The Dragon Lord Muzan, master of the mountain, had returned home.
He groped for the items, stuffing them back into the bag, and started to run back to the mouth of the cave. It felt like suicide running into that aura, but he was trasspassing, he had to get out, he didn’t want to be trapped in a dead end with that beast .
The cold night wind hit his body as he exited.
It felt calm around. His heart was still racing - but maybe he had imagined it? That wave of hate?
No, that couldn’t be faked - Muzan, the Dragon Lord was here.
Tanjirou let out a scream as suddenly a near bone-crushing force whacked him into the mountain, knocking the breath out of him and sending the town’s offerings flying off of him. Pushed even harder into the side of the mountain, when he got the strength to open his eyes, he caught sight of long, jagged claws caging him against the stone.
“Pathetic brat,” he heard. It was a smooth voice, more icy than enraged. “You dare steal from me?”
The dragon, in the flesh, was striking . The largest animal he had ever seen, probably 20 meters tall. A bringer of fear, an essence of evil. And despite the growing pull of fear wrenching his gut, to gaze upon the black scales and fiery red eyes, Tanjiro was reminded of coal burning in the night that he was so accustomed to.
His heart beat against his chest rapidly.
“No! No please, I would never!” Tanjirou begged between coughs. “I have brought an offering for you! An offering of my village, south of the river!”
“Do not insult me with your casual tone. Refer to me only as Lord Muzan.” Tanjirou felt a hot breath against him. It singed the hair on his face.
“And you would not only steal, but lie?” The force grew harder on Tanjirou’s body. He legitimately thought he was going to snap.
“I - ” he stuttered for the words, losing his breath. “I can prove it, Lord Muzan,” he managed to choke out.
There was a pregnant pause. And then the dragon spoke.
“Oh?” The pressure loosened, but was not removed. “Can you now? I own legions of treasure, more than any man does. You think I can recognize everything I own? How can you prove such a thing?”
“I have something unique - something you wouldn’t have, Lord Muzan.”
“I have everything,” Muzan replied. He sounded bored. But he removed his claw, and Tanjirou slid to the floor to recover. “Do not disappoint me, human.”
Tanjirou crawled to the bag that had been strapped on his back. He opened it and started shifting through it.
He feels the leather of the sword’s sheath, and he knew he had found it. Out came part of his family’s own offering, an item passed down from father to son to use during the Kagura dance. He held it up clumsy, so the tall dragon could take a look.
“This is a one of a kind sword - I’m certain you don’t own any like this. There’s a dragon etched into the side, as my family respects the dragons that taught us our craft.” Muzan slit his red eyes, and immediately Tanjirou bows his head respectfully. “These bags are filled with new things for you. We were trying to appease you. My name is Kamado Tanjirou, I come from the village on the southern side of the river. We offer our most prized possessions in exchange for your mercy, Lord Muzan.”
The great dragon breathed out a slow, burning breath. Tanjiro felt the heat surround his body again and the light frying of his arm hair.
“An interesting proposal, brat.”
Suddenly, the dragon began to wilt, shrinking down smaller and smaller. It’s horns and spikes dwindled, onyx scales morphed into a familiar shade of human flesh. Now before Tanjirou stood a handsome man with pitch black hair dressed in a black kimono - no dragon to be seen. All that remained unchanged were the piercing of his red eyes, cold and reptilian in the moonlight.
“Kamado Tanjiro, was it?” Muzan asked in a smooth voice. The new, softer voice startled Tanjirou.
“Y-yes. That’s correct.”
“Put these things away in my abode. It looks like I have much to inspect.”
Tanjirou quickly placed the sword back gently into its sheath and picked up anything that had been knocked away. Muzan then turned and walked into the cave. Tanjirou followed several steps behind. It hurt to move, after taking a hit like that.
The thought of taking this moment to defend himself and strike Lord Muzan from behind passed through his mind as they walked - but every instinct he had told him that would be a death sentence.
This dragon - man? - was so powerful, he did not even seem concerned Tanjirou had a weapon on him.
Further into the cave, Muzan suddenly stopped. He took a deep breath, expelling fire from his lips, bright in the darkness, and a giant glass structure unlike anything Tanjirou has ever seen before was lit. Some kind of lantern? It looked priceless.
The room glowed in a soft light. All around, there was shimmering gold and gems, books and scrolls in bookcases. Fine art on the walls, fine china next to them. Many objects Tanjirou had never seen before - foreign perhaps.
“Remove your shoes before stepping onto the carpet, dear. It’s Persian.”
Not even knowing what that meant, Tanjioru did what he was asked quietly.
He did not expect to see this beast transform into something so - so human. But he wasn’t. He still smelled like bloodlust, like sulfur, like flames. This was the apex predator of the skies above and the land below - wherever he sought to rule.
Tanjirou held everything in the middle of the floor, feeling more awkward than frightened now.
“Now on your knees and bow. Show your respect to the Great Lord.” Muzan clicked his tongue in annoyance. “Know your place.”
Tanjirou, again, did what he was told, although his body was now sore and bruising on his side.
Muzan picked up a treasure from the top of the bag Tanjirou placed before him. A carved Buddah. Tanjirou swallowed as he watched the dragon run his finger over the details in the face.
“Tanjirou, amuse me for a moment and answer a question.”
Tanjiro listened carefully.
“What do humans value more than anything?”
Tanjiro was silent for a moment, thoughtful. He looked Muzan in his eyes - the first time since he first arrived - and spoke his answer, fairly confident.
“Each other. Family.”
Muzan rolled his eyes, annoyed. “ Money , fool. Treasure, things.”
In such a moment, a life threatening situation such as this, it took everything Tanjirou had to not disagree with this dangerous monster. His face started to morph as he tried to come up with a response that wouldn’t be rude, but in the end, he just bowed his head to hide.
“I suppose I’m just a little naive - my family was always happy with each other.”
“You mean to tell me you have nothing physical you treasure?”
Before Tanjirou could even stop his hand, the limb moved on his own to touch the Hanafuda earrings he wore, as if to protect them from Muzan.
A wrong move. Sharp red eyes watched like a hawk.
“What’s this? Did you not give up your own prized possession?” Muzan placed out his hand. “You’re so rude to your host. Give them to me.”
Tanjirou did not want this monster to know just how valuable these were to him.
“These?” He pulled at the earring. “They aren’t valuable, they’re just from my father - ”
“I won’t ask again.” Muzan interrupted. “Are you begging for a punishment?”
Defeated, Tanjiro slowly started to take them off. He passed them to Muzan in silence.
Muzan inspected them briefly, ending his critique with a look of disgust.
Shock. Tanjirou was shocked as he took in those words. He tried to contain the anger that spiked in him.
“You seem upset, boy,” a bored Muzan observed, “but that’s to be expected.” The earrings disappeared into a pocket in his dark kimono. “Tell me. What reason does a dragon have to collect the riches of the world? What have I to spend it on? What reason does it hold.”
Is this a riddle? Tanjiro wondered.
“You don’t have one?”
Muzans eyes widened and slit again, and Tanjiro swore he saw smoke flare in his nostrils.
“Do you think I waste my time, brat?” His voice didn’t raise - it didn’t have to to show his irritation. The shallow echo on the wall was haunting. “I should eat you where you stand.”
“I've misspoken, forgive me -” Tanjirou rushed to amend, bowing deeper. “What I meant to say - you don’t waste your time, but humans do, yes?“ He gripped the carpet in his hands, not even taking note of the intricate pattern. “Humans collect riches. We thrive on money to survive. You don’t have to. So the fact that you have it all - it’s just evidence of your power, ” he swallowed, “Lord Muzan.”
Tanjirou felt relieved that Muzan smelled pleased at the flattery. He let out a breath he didn’t know he had.
“It seems you’re not as dumb as you look.”
Tanjirou jumped as he felt a cold hand run the tip of it’s fingers through his hair. He breathed shakely.
“I am the grandest force of nature, living magma to erupt as I see fit, to speak my blazing blessings on everything below me.” He continued to pet Tanjirou’s head, who did not dare look up. He felt a single strand of sweat drip down his face. “Of course I have no use for trinkets. But if man covets it, I shall have it all.”
He walked away then, taking a seat at an ornate Victorian chair nestled between bookcases in a corner. He leaned his face against his hand, looking at the boy bowing on his carpet.
“You know I’m feeling amiable today, Tanjirou. How about a reward for my delivery, hmm? I have an opportunity for you. Should only take a day or so.”
Muzan slid Tanjirou’s earrings out of his robe, and jingled them in his hand.
Tanjirou’s eyes stayed glued to his father’s earrings, growing wider with hope.
“These things are worthless to me, so I’d be willing to gift them to you - on account you do a couple favors for me first, of course.”
Tanjirou did not want to play into this game where his most prized possession was being teased in front of him - he wanted to go home.
But his father’s earrings.
It wasn’t worth risking his life to stay longer in this cave with this killer just to get his earrings back - he knew this. People back home depended on him.
But his father’s earrings.
“Alright, Lord Muzan. I’ll do it.”
“Good decision, Tanjirou,” Muzan smirked. “Now crawl over on your hands and knees. I want a footstool while I inspect my new belongings.”
* * * * *
Tanjirou stayed for two hours beneath the Dragon Lord Muzan’s feet, and he knew this because he watched a glass clock tick by. But he was determined to be the best footstool he could be if it meant he could get his earrings back. Still, he was glad his family wasn’t here to see this; it was the most degrading thing he had ever done.
Most of the orders following were not so bad. Once Muzan was finished, he was ordered to put his fellow villagers’ possessions away where they belonged, polish the silver, buff the new gem stones, dust the books and scrolls.
It was a good opportunity to look at valuables around the cave. It was like a museum - no a palace. Tanjirou looked on with wide eyes while he completed his tasks, but slowly the feeling of awe left when he remembered where they had come from.
How many lives were taken just to have all these sparkly things?
“Do you like my possessions, Tanjirou?”
Tanjirou stopped dusting when he heard the master of the cave, but he obediently did not look over to the chair where he sat watching him. “They are marvelous, Lord Muzan,” he said quietly.
“There is something that I cannot understand about you, human.”
Tanjirou’s ears perked up.
“Your village was not the first to try and send someone up to me and bargain for their lives - but you were the first to make it.”
“I have a good sense of smell - ”
“Not that,” Muzan growled. “Turn and face me. Did you not think to take these treasures for yourself and flee?”
Tanjirou turned, and the look on his face told Muzan all he needed to know.
That thought hadn’t so much as even scratched the boy’s mind.
“I could never betray them like that,” Tanjirou said. “My family, my neighbors. I treasure them. I would never risk their life.”
“My, my. A loyal little thing, aren’t you? Perhaps they’ve sent me a diamond in the rough.” He curled his hand, beckoning the young boy. “Come here, pet. Crawl.”
Tanjirou got back on his knees and clumsily crawled over, his face red from embarrassment.
Muzan ran a hand over the scarred part of Tanjirou’s forehead, looking disgusted. “Here you are doing all you can to keep what you hold dear. And so you’re like any other mortal - trying to keep your little worthless treasures safe.”
Muzan’s hand on Tanjirou’s head moved from scar to eye, making him flinch. Muzan exceled a soft, hazy smoke in a long excel.
His thumb and index finger stretched his eyelids open. Tanjirou’s pupils dilated as he felt his warm breath on his face
“But these are not bad,” his velvet voice said as gazed into Tanjirou’s eyes. “Not bad at all… They’re no rubies, certainly - garnet, perhaps.”
He released Tanjirou’s face.
“I believe I owe you a reward, Tanjirou.” Muzan dove into his pocket again and took out the two red and white ceramic earrings. He tilted Tanjirou’s chin up, and carefully inserted the earrings into the piercing. “Be grateful.”
Tanjirou was red by the time he had finished. He had been so close .
“Ah - t-thank you, Lord Muzan. I am very grateful...”
It was quiet for a moment, peaceful.
“And thank you for your hospitality.” It had been terrifying, but he had survived this ordeal, at least. “If there is nothing else you need,” Tanjirou stole a glance at the clock, “I suppose I will take my leave now.”
The change in the atmosphere changed so heavily that Tanjirou knew he had messed up before he had even finished that sentence. He could smell the master’s rage.
“What makes you think you earned the right to leave?”
“Before… you said if I finished…”
“I said I’d give you the opportunity to get your trash back,” Muzan said curtly. “I never granted you permission to leave.”
He stood up, towering over the kneeling boy. And before his eyes, Muzan’s pale skin started to darken, scales starting to come out. His fangs were bared.
“You said yourself there’s other forms of treasure, Tanjirou. And anything of value belongs to me.”
He gripped Tanjirou’s face one more time, making him meet his eyes.
“I own you now,” he condemned in a smooth voice. “You’re mine.”