Laiko once painted women’s faces in one city of the land of a thousand demons. She was so good in her profession that one day she was recommended to the empress. Unfortunately, the empress didn’t take kindly to the suggestion that she needed any beautifying. She had as little power as the emperor in those days, but no one cared about the loss of a few servants and a woman with a bag full of crushed make-up and fineries. Those who made the suggestion, as well as Laiko herself, were banished from the imperial city.
Setting her sights on women of a lower class who might not be offended by her trade, Laiko looked to the small towns she found on the road. The peasant women longed to change their looks, but had no money, and Laiko was forced to travel onward in hopes that she would find another city where noble women might want her services.
Three people she met on the road didn’t have any money either, but they were seeking opportunities for changing that. Only a few coins sat in Laiko’s bag, but the three brigands who appeared from behind a rock were willing to take what they could get, and she could see on their faces that the money wasn’t all they had in mind.
To her left spread a sloping valley of tall grass leading to a distant coast. She could try to run and hide, but the brigands had swords and they’d find her quickly enough. To her right stood a dark, tangled forest, the kind of place where demons were certain to lurk. Of course, demons were known to wander the lonely roads as well and Laiko had been chancing those for weeks since she left the city of the empress.
The brigands laughed at first when the young woman plunged into the dense underbrush, her beautician’s bag clattering like a pot being whacked to sound for supper time. They stopped laughing as the clattering softened, growing distant, and they realized their prey was serious about escaping through the demon-infested woods. Their leader charged in after her and his cohorts followed, not for their honor, but for worry that they’d be excluded from the spoils.
Laiko ran for some time, barely hearing the bandits’ shouting above the clanking of delicate instruments and tonic bottles within her bag. When she stopped to rest by an old, pale tree, she heard their voices and their swords cutting through the underbrush. “I would’ve thought men like them would fear woods like these,” she said softly.
Pale roots surfaced from the black soil beneath her feet and branches of the tree behind her swung around her front, pinning her to the trunk. “All mortals should fear this place,” a rasping voice said, echoing from within the hollow tree. “Now I’ll drain your blood and you’ll live immortally within my bark.”
Thinking quickly, Laiko examined the pale branches, the sparse, black leaves, and looked up at the tree-like demon. “Do you catch many mortals, looking like this?” she asked. “All I see is a dying tree.”
“This was enough to capture you,” the demon said.
“I was caught by luck. Let me beautify your leaves and bark. Mortals will see how special you are and believe treasure awaits them, only to be caught as you’ve caught me. All I ask for in return is my life.”
The demon pondered this proposal. “I’ll see the results and then judge if they are worth sparing you.”
The branches loosened around Laiko without entirely releasing her. She opened her bag and applied a make-up of crushed red petals to the tree’s black leaves. She then brushed the tree trunk and branches with a gold-colored dust that once covered rich women’s eyelids. When all was finished, both woman and demon were pleased. “You look alluring now,” Laiko said.
“You have done well for me and it’s worth your life,” the tree said. “Be warned, should you venture farther—I can be bargained with, but respect the harionago.”
Laiko hurried away from the tree as soon as its branches released her and her bag resumed its clattering, telling the bandits where she had been. They appeared at the pale tree soon, their eyes scanning the woods for the woman, when the tree’s allure caught one man’s eyes. Its gold-tinted trunk arose beautifully from the black soil and red leaves spread like rays of the sun. “This tree is special,” he said, wandering from his fellow brigands. “It is a blessed tree of the gods.”
Before the others could call him back, the tree’s branches swung around the man, dragging him to the gold-tinted trunk. A long, wooden tooth stretched from the tree, burrowing between the brigand’s neck and chest, and his body withered into a dry husk within moments. The tree was hollow no more.
“These are demon woods,” the brigand leader said, though he led only one man now. “We must be wary or we’ll lose our heads.”
Laiko ran for another long while, her bag clattering as before, and soon she came to rest under another tree. This one appeared lush and colorful, like a normal tree, and she was about to relax when women’s heads began to drop from the branches. She shrieked, shoving herself against the trunk, and they smiled and laughed, bouncing toward her with their pointy teeth spread wide. “You scream in fear,” one said. “All mortals should fear this place. Now we’ll eat your body. You’ll be one of us and live as an immortal head in our tree.”
These heads were not the harionago and Laiko guessed they could be bought like the demon tree. “Do you catch many mortals by bouncing down and surprising them?” she asked. “Had I not been so tired, I’d have run away.”
“But you’re tired and that was enough to catch you,” one head said.
“I was caught by luck. I can show you how to lure men up into your branches if you’re eager to feast on mortals. Let them believe you’re women with bodies. All I ask for in return is my life.”
As before, the hungry demon heads wished to see results before letting Laiko go. A few of them remained at her feet, while others bounced back into the tree’s branches. Laiko removed every paper fan she had from her bag and planted them in the tree’s leaves, spreading them in front of many of the heads to hide their grisly incisors. She then painted the faces to appear more like those of wealthy ladies. “Your modesty will bring out your eyes and lure many men,” Laiko said.
The heads examined each other, complimenting each one’s appearance. “You have done well for us and it’s worth your life,” one head said. “Be warned, should you venture farther—we can be bribed, but respect the harionago.”
Laiko hurried away, her bag clattering much more softly now, and the brigands took more time to find where she’d been. When they found the tree of heads, the faces emerged immediately, their mouths hidden behind pretty paper fans, and they called sweetly to the two men. The leader stood his ground, but the other man drew close. “I see many women,” he said. “They may not have gold, but they have the same other goods as the woman we’ve been chasing, and at least these ones are cornered into a tree.”
Before the leader could say a word, the other man scrambled up the tree trunk, and then a scream tore through the branches and across the forest. Blood painted the heads’ mouths and teeth as they ate up their mortal prey, but paper fans quickly hid these imperfections and their eyes gazed at the last mortal man present. The heads were hungry no more.
“These are demon woods,” the leader said, though he led no one now. “I must be better than my allies or I’ll lose my head.”
Laiko went on running as the foliage darkened above her, casting a gloom across the forest floor. Tree branches tangled together and leaves pressed so densely that she wondered if she should turn back despite the brigands hunting after her. When she came to rest once again, keeping her distance from any individual tree, she heard laughter. Not wanting to come across as fearful this time, she forced an awkward laugh up from her throat and hoped she wouldn’t have to convince any demon not to eat her.
The forest hissed from all directions and a woman’s voice snarled through the trees. “Is that laughter?” she asked. “You dare to laugh? All mortals should fear this place and all should respect me. Now the harionago comes for you. Your mortality will trouble you no more.”
The trees came alive, only no branches grasped at Laiko this time. What she’d thought were vines, leaves, and roots twisted up on their own and she saw thick, barbed locks of hair worming after her through soil and air. Limbs of writhing hair spread throughout all the forest like a great spider’s web. Skulls, femurs, ribcages, and shoulder blades fell around Laiko, all polished white of any meat whatsoever, and only the skulls showed any hair, tied to strands of the great hair web. She darted deeper into the woods, her bag clattering as loud as ever, but her steps jerked to a stop when prehensile hair grabbed its leathery surface. Her arms slipped away from the bag’s straps just before the barbs dragged the bag up into the trees, and she skidded under a hollow stump to hide from the hunting hair. Vines of hair swept from above like giant’s arms, hoping to blindly catch the young woman, but they quickly retreated without mortal meat tangled in their strands.
The harionago’s cool, feminine voice echoed through the woods again. “Seek her. Bring her.”
Clean, white bones dropped from above, clattering as noisily as Laiko’s bag, and thick chunks of living hair followed. They slithered and hissed, like serpents chasing a small, weak animal that might be hiding in a dark hole. Laiko didn’t want to be that animal. She scrambled out of the trunk, hoping to run back to the road, and then hair snagged her ankles. Before she could kick it away, more hair hooked into her clothes and the skin of her arms, and then all the hair dragged her upward, shrieking painfully, into the high branches of the trees.
Illustration by Momijigirl.
“Fear is more respectful,” the harionago said. The demon rested in a tangle of blackness, the spider at the center of the spider’s web. She appeared as a pale woman wearing a dirty kimono, her dark hair spreading into the barbs and locks that formed the hairy forest around her. Then she laughed and destroyed the peaceful illusion, revealing teeth much sharper than those of the bouncing heads and eyes as thin and bloodthirsty as the pale tree.
“Do you catch many mortals this way?” Laiko asked, cringing as the sharpening hair cut into her skin. She didn’t need to hear an answer. “I could comb your hair. Give your face a touch of color.” The harionago said nothing, but her eyes glowered and her barbs dug deeper into Laiko’s flesh, reminding the young woman of the insulted empress. “Your kimono is dirty.”
The demon shook her head. “I can’t even eat you with an attitude like this. You may appear refined and you may carry many oddities in your bag, but your manners are filthier than my hair and clothing.”
“I meant no disrespect,” Laiko said, trying to bow, but unable to move. “I only see opportunities, for both of us. You don’t have to hide in the woods, living in squalor. Am I right that your hair will do whatever you wish, even when cut off?” The puzzled harionago nodded curtly. “Many women, and perhaps even some men, would gladly pay good money to have hair that could be styled and changed at a whim, or great beards that reach down to their waists. You could have new, clean kimonos every day, eat meals that taste much better than human meat, and live in a fine house instead of this cluttered little forest, shared by other demons.”
The harionago stared into Laiko’s face, discerning if there was some trickery to her words. “And what of the mortals who hunt demons? Won’t they come to kill me when they learn I’ve set up shop in a human village?”
“I’ll be the face of our store, speaking with customers and anyone who visits. All they’ll see of you is a diligent worker with a gifted touch for hair. You’ll be a respected businesswoman and looked well upon by our society. No one will harm you.”
The harionago paused again. She looked over her grimy, bone-laden hair, her filthy clothes, and the forest matted with her web of blackness. “Your tongue might be as accidentally sharp as my hair, but it’s just as quick and clever.” The hair loosened, lowering Laiko gingerly to the ground, and the demon followed, her barbs and locks uncoiling from the forest’s trees. “You have a deal. If it’s not to my liking, I’ll take your life in town as I would have done here.”
Laiko decided that would have to be good enough, especially if she had a new business partner. This journey would yield profit and promise after all. She began heading back the way she came when the leader of the brigands stepped abruptly into her path, his sword pointed at her chest.
“These are demon woods,” the last of the bandits said. “I could’ve been killed as easily as the others, but I’ve kept my head. If you wish to keep yours, you’ll give me your money and lead me out of this place. Your damn bag led me here, it can show the way out.”
Laiko’s bag clattered again as hanging hair shook it loose from the harionago’s barbs, dropping it to the ground between the young woman and the armed man. “I doubt even her oddities could improve a brigand such as yourself,” the demon said, stepping close behind Laiko. “But I imagine I could help.”
The man laughed, turning his blade toward the demon, and all the amusement vanished from her face. Long strands of sharp hair slid from the tree branches above, first catching the bandit’s hands and pulling them away from his sword, and then they gripped his head. A chunk of black hair severed itself from the rest, forming a bushy beard around the man’s face. Then it stretched up to the top of his head and folded into a samurai’s knot.
“Release me!” he shouted, the skin stretching from his hands. “I beg of you!”
“I will teach you to respect me,” the harionago said. “That chonmage does you no good—you have no honor.”
The hair on the man’s head tightened against his scalp and his shouting halted abruptly. Hair wriggled into his skin, and then beneath his skin, as if a hundred long worms were spreading through his body. His limbs moved clumsily like a marionette, and awkwardly lifted his sword from the ground. The harionago smiled, her hair writhing from her head, and the brigand swiftly cut off his own, severing bone, flesh, and the hair within that forced his limbs to move. The man’s headless body trembled and dropped next to Laiko’s bag. She looked away, knowing no one would come to touch up the corpse before any funeral.
“I believe I’ll get along quite well in your society,” the harionago said. She pried the sword from the dead bandit’s hand and severed the main hair web from her scalp, leaving only enough attached to droop down to her knees. “Lead the way, my business partner.”
“Yes, mistress harionago,” Laiko said softly. She carefully lifted her bag, checking to ensure all its contents remained intact, and then stepped slowly through the trees. Her bag clattered gently, much quieter than when she ran, and the hair demon followed close behind, as eager to taste the benefits of mortal living as Laiko was to leave the demon woods.