It was nothing but a twisted parody of a forest – dark trees covered in cruel spikes, cracked ground without a hint of grass, and ominous silence devoid of any sign of life. It was an abomination spreading across the land, bringing nothing but mindless destruction.
And yet some still strived to oppose it.
The unnatural stillness was torn to shreds by the sound of hooves repeatedly striking the ground, neighing of horses, and metallic clank of weapons and armor. The emperor himself led his best warriors to fight against the infectious evil that had stricken his land.
But the evil could fight back.
The cracks in dry ground widened, bubbling with dark sludge. The mass of mud-colored goo spilled out, entangling the hooves and crawling up the legs of terrified animals, dragging the horses and their riders down into the darkness.
Nobody paused, the survivors riding forward without a second glance. They all knew the stakes, and they all were ready to give their lives in order to vanquish this evil plague. The noble warriors were relentless but so was the primordial evil.
The earth opened once more, cruel trees rising from the depths and more goo spilling out, threatening to destroy anything it touched.
They rode forward, ignoring the screams of the fallen, until only one man was left – the emperor himself. But his destination was already in sight.
He stopped on the edge of the dark pool, dismounting his trusty steed. Carefully, he opened the vial filled with blessed liquid, prophesized to banish evil itself, and dipped an arrow into it. The green glow dulled considerably, absorbed into the metal, but the feeling of righteous power remained. Steadily, the warrior took aim then paused and quickly shifted the angle, letting the arrow loose. It flied upwards, higher and higher, until the light of sun itself ignited the arrowhead. From great height the arrow fell down and plunged into the foul pool of darkness.
For a moment nothing happened, and it felt as if the world itself was holding its breath in anticipation. Then slowly, surely the muddy sludge shifted, moving away from that single point of contact like a ripple from a rock thrown into the water, and the sole spectator dared to hope that the sacrifices were not in vain.
Faster and faster the foul sludge was chased away like mud under the rain, revealing the pool of clean liquid. The emperor frowned, his heart fluttering in trepidation, for it wasn't water that was revealed. The liquid looked darker than the moonless sky, yet the aura of evil permeating the whole wretched place felt weaker than ever. He watched as the same coal-black color filled the wide cracks cutting through the ground farther than the eye could see. Then the earth rumbled and the wicked trees jutting out like spears slowly receded, pulled underground by some unseen force.
Soon the evil forest was no more.
The black liquid was receding from the numerous fissures, and the jagged openings were closing behind it. Only the pool of darkness remained, its still surface reflecting no light.
The warrior dared to smile, inhaling the clean air, free of the evil miasma that had filled it for so long. His task here was complete.
A small red flame appeared in the middle of the dark pool, immediately joined by another. The earth rumbled and out of the bubbling darkness shot the twisted shape of a tree, reaching towards the sky. The man stared in trepidation at the enormous shape, his only consolation being the lack of evil aura.
The angled branches grew and shifted with loud crackle, taking the shape of spiky shoulders and great antlered head. The flames ignited once more, and the giant form slowly turned around, revealing green face and crooked fangs shown in a horrifying grimace.
The great beast opened its eyes and stretched as if after a long sleep. Finally, it noticed the human warrior standing below. "You!" the creature bent down, its black body folding into impossible angles until its bearded chin and crooked claws rested on the ground, and grinned at him. "Thank you!"
The warrior reacted as any human would upon seeing such a terrifying creature inches away – he slashed at its green face with his sword.
The creature reeled back, stretching to its whole towering height, and blinked at him, scratching the long gash that was already healing, "What was that?"
The samurai stared in mute horror at his sword quickly dissolving into black goop and grabbed his bow, sending arrow after arrow at the monstrous form.
The creature only stared at him in bewilderment, "What are you doing?" Receiving no answer, it shrugged, "Well, if this is what makes you happy…"
Paying no heed to numerous arrows sticking out of its black skin, the creature wiggled oddly and squinted, poking at the bottom of its body with one claw. It wiggled again, swaying back and forth, and scratched the place where feet should have been if it had any.
Now weaponless – and completely ignored – the human watched as the creature made the movements reminiscent of a person trying to shake a pebble out of their shoe. After almost losing its balance, the creature growled and plunged its clawed hand inside its own body. It searched around, frowning in concentration, before yanking its hand out with a large grin, "Got it!"
The emperor felt white-hot rage overcome him when he saw what the creature was holding – a rider and his horse were lying limply within the cage of sharp claws. The giant monster put the bodies on the ground and had the nerve to ask, "Is this yours?"
With a scream of fury he lunged at the startled creature, intent on fighting it with his bare hands if he had to, but a simple sound stopped him in his tracks.
Then a groan and a weak whinny.
Not daring to believe, he turned around.
The rider was covered head to toe with black goo, even more of the substance pouring out of his throat with each painful cough, but he was alive! Even the horse was moving, trying shakily to stand up.
A fragile hope made him look up at the giant creature, "Where are the others?"
"So this is yours!" the creature cheered and with a sharp move ripped a ragged hole in its own body. A wave of black liquid poured out, carrying human and equine forms that coughed and struggled to stand up.
The samurai was ready to cry, so overjoyed he was that all his warriors were alive. He spoke to each of them and after seeing that none were injured turned to the creature, "Thank you."
"What are you?" the emperor asked. Now that his men were safe and sound – and seeing how little his weapons affected the great beast – he was more inclined to peaceful talk.
"I am Aku!" the creature proclaimed loudly, raising its – his – arms dramatically. "I am-!" he paused with a frown. "I am-" He hummed thoughtfully tapping his fangs. Then scratched his head. Folded his hands behind his back. Yanked on his horns. Tapped on his shoulder. Finally, he raised one claw proclaiming, "I…! Have no idea."
The giant black form deflated, sinking in misery to the bottom of the pool. A second later Aku sprang out, claws digging into the ground, his unsettling grin widening, "Do you know what I am?"
The human raised an eyebrow, "If I knew that, I would have no need to ask."
The grin slid off his face, "Oh." Aku shrank down, flopping onto the ground, and looked up at the human warrior. "What are you?"
"I am the ruler of this land," he responded. "I am a samurai. And I am human."
"Oh," Aku turned away and stared at one of the horses. The animal snorted and sniffed the shapeless mass of the supernatural creature. His interest piqued, Aku copied the sound. He slinked around, his form rippling and shifting into a four-legged shape distantly resembling a horse. The real animal reared back with a startled whinny, and Aku dropped to the ground, once more melting into a puddle of black goo.
The samurai frowned in thought, observing the strange creature. Aku was deeply unsettling, but he didn't seem malicious despite having been born from primordial evil. He glanced at the vial that once held the mystic liquid. Perhaps it truly banished the evil, leaving behind nothing but a blank slate.
And yet he was still dangerous. Those who knew nothing of the world could not be trusted with power.
At the same time, destroying the creature was not an option. Normal weapons didn't work, but trying to find something capable of hurting Aku could easily incite his wrath. The human warrior shuddered to think what the repercussions of such an action could be.
It seemed that he had no choice. He was responsible for this odd creature now.
"It's a bird! It's a butterfly! It's a mouse!" Aku shouted gleefully, his black form constantly changing to mimic every animal he came across. "…How do I know all this?"
The human warrior sighed loudly and resisted the urge to rub his temples. The entity of pure darkness behaved like an excited toddler or a hyperactive puppy.
He got a headache just thinking about it.
"It's a grasshopper!" Aku yelled, hopping into the field. Unfortunately, he forgot one little detail – his flaming eyebrows. The crops ignited, the mystic fire spreading quickly. Aku reeled back in shock, changing into his enormous true form, and glanced guiltily at the samurai, "I can fix this!"
Before the human could respond, the bottom edge of his body rippled and liquefied, covering the field with a wave of darkness that smothered the fire. Just as quickly the darkness receded, leaving behind nothing but ash and charred plants.
Aku scratched his head in confusion before twin blasts of light emerged from his eyes and struck the field. Under his arcane power the plants emerged from the soil, stretching towards the sun.
Aku grinned and gestured widely, "All fixed!"
The emperor raised an eyebrow, looking at the restored sea of crops. He plucked one and studied it intently. Aside from pure black color, it seemed completely normal.
Until it started moving in his hand. And opened tiny eyes. And mouth. And bit him.
Staring at the towering form of Aku, who grinned guiltily, twiddling his thumbs like a child who broke a vase in full view of their parents, he felt the headache intensify.
At least he managed to convince the overly excited creature to remain in the non-threatening shape of a frog. Of course, it didn't stop the constant chatter.
"Look, a dog! There's fish? Hi, fish! Is this a hat? Can I have a hat? This tree is tiny! Well, all trees are tiny for me, but this one is tiny even when I'm tiny too! There are words here! Why are there words here? Pretty colors! Ohh, long stairs! Can I hop on them? This house has a funny roof! Hi, little orange men!"
To say that the monks were startled when presented with the small but loud creature would be an understatement.
Aku didn't mind being carried around, poked and prodded, but he strongly objected to being separated from the first human he saw in his life. Likewise, the samurai preferred to stay close and keep an eye on him, and as such he witnessed every test the creature was subjected to. The results were expected, but startling nonetheless.
Aku was undeniably a being of magic and darkness, but despite his name, there wasn't a drop of evil in him.
The samurai learnt to dread certain words. 'I improved it!' or 'I fixed it!' from overly excited Aku, especially directed at something that didn't need fixing or improving in the first place, made the top of the list.
"At least he is trying," his wife – a wise woman – often said.
Privately, he agreed. Obedient and eager to please, if somewhat clueless, creature was much better than the shapeless mass of evil he originated from, but Aku still remained the main source of his headaches.
A twisted shadow fell across him, and the emperor sighed in exasperation. Speak of the devil.
He looked up from the scroll he was studying. Aku – in his normal shape but scaled down to human size – grinned and waved his hand. The human squinted at him suspiciously, more than a little familiar with such grins, "What did you do now?"
"Why do you always blame me?" Aku asked in such perfectly innocent voice that only increased the suspicion. The samurai raised an eyebrow silently, and the dark entity visibly deflated, hurrying to explain, "Well, I was near the river, and some guys were trying to teach a bunch of kittens to swim. Really stupid, I know, but-"
The human sighed, "What did you do?"
Still wearing that fake grin, Aku plunged one clawed hand inside his own chest and took out several tiny forms covered in black sludge, "I improved them! They can swim now!"
There was no doubt that they could swim, what else could those fins, gills, and webbed feet be for?
'Please, let this be all,' the emperor thought in exasperation, looking at the little meowing forms crawl all over his desk, leaving black footprints. "Is this all?" he asked out loud.
The incredibly shifty look he got in response was not particularly reassuring, "Um, you remember the bridge?"
"Aku! That bridge was centuries old!"
"Exactly! It was really old! Practically falling apart!" Aku wilted under the hard glare. "Uhhh… I repaired it?"
The bridge was indeed repaired but no longer recognizable. The polished grey stone and smooth curves were replaced with the black metal-like monstrosity, dark sludge dripping from the jagged spikes. The sludge was slowly spreading across the river, and the fish, visible clearly even from the distance, were much bigger and held more teeth than they were supposed to.
The glare intensified.
Never let it be said that Aku was stupid. "I'll fix it!" he promised quickly, slinking away.
The emperor sighed and returned to his desk, absentmindedly petting the strangely adorable fish-kittens that shed most of the black goop, revealing glimmering blue and green scales underneath.
This was his life now.
The scary thing was, he was slowly getting used to it.
Aku's magic was unpredictable, and using it for even the most straightforward purposes always had strange side-effects. However, even without it Aku was still a shapeshifter bigger than any building. And he did want to be useful, he just had no clue how.
Setting him loose near anything flammable was out of question, and so was any complicated or minuscule work. But he could do the heavy lifting.
Mining became easier than ever, with Aku burrowing deeply into the ground and bringing out the large chunks of coal and ore. The long road around the mountain ridge and the treacherous pass across it were replaced with a tunnel through the solid rock. The roads were paved almost as fast as they were drawn on the map, the canals dug and fields plowed.
The work of years was done in days.
Aku never got tired, his enormous form constantly brimming with energy. He never grew bored, every task set before him met with childish enthusiasm.
He was also curious, reading every book and scroll he could get his clawed hands on, observing the work of artisans and pestering them with questions, listening eagerly to the travelers telling tales of distant lands.
Time passed by, and soon Aku became a well-known figure, recognized and mostly accepted across the land.
Aku loved travelling, letting black wings carry him into the distant corners of the world. He watched the people of faraway lands and took their form, soaking in their language and culture, his thirst for knowledge never diminishing. He hid his true nature, often leaving the people none the wiser. Just as often something happened that he could help with, so he shed his disguise without a second thought.
Always he returned home to the people he thought of as family.
Always he came back to visit those he started to call friends.
"You are getting quite good at magic," the aged warrior praised.
Aku preened, his cat-like form puffing up with pride. It took him decades to learn the control necessary to perform even the simplest of tasks, but it was becoming more and more easy. The sheer amount of power he held at his fingertips was astonishing.
"Tell me of your travels," he asked, and Aku launched into a tale of adventures and wonder, his form shifting to accompany his wild gestures.
Hours passed, and comfortable silence stretched between the two.
"I am glad that I freed you that day," the aged man said, breaking the quiet.
"I am glad it was you who freed me, and not someone else," was the response.