I can give you anything you want.
The offer had been irresistible, really. Immortality. Eternal youth. Unmatched power. An alternate form. The life of a god, essentially. And all for one thing, one useless little thing, or so the demon had said.
What, he had asked.
Your soul, was the response.
That was what had made him pause. No, not pause; stop altogether. He'd drawn back, face clouded, and spat refusals at the tiny red demon on the ground. His soul wasn't worth that, he remembered saying.
Give it some time, the red demon told him. I'll come back later and talk to you again. And then it leapt up onto the back of a black-and-red bird, which flew away, leaving him alone under a cherry blossom tree.
He remembered thin pink petals fluttering down to rest in his hair, on his shoulders, on his outstretched hands, and then they continued their descent down to the ground when he had shook himself off and walked away, back to the temple where he lived.
That night, he'd had fitful dreams of black birds and red demons and the promise of eternity if he only gave up something dear to him. He tried to refuse, but the promises poured in, choking him and filling him so entirely that he had to give in, he had to. He'd woken up covered in cold sweat with his best friend shaking his shoulder, asking him if he was all right.
I'm fine, he'd said.
You're not, was the response. You're sweating. Were you outside last night?
Why do you think that, he'd asked, feeling ice swell in his stomach.
You have cherry blossoms in your hair, came the lighthearted response.
The day had passed without many problems, but he was troubled. All day his mind was on the offer. His teachers noticed it; his friends noticed it; and his best friend, the one closest to him, most certainly noticed it. Questions were pressed in on him every moment: What's wrong? Is there something troubling you? Are you all right?
I'm fine, he'd responded to every single one. I just had a nightmare, is all.
He knew none of them had believed him, but that was the only response he gave.
That evening, he remembered, he'd been meditating in his room - albeit unsuccessfully. He couldn't get the red demon's words out of his head, no matter how hard he tried to shut everything out.
You're strong. You're in the prime of your life. Of course you can say no now. But what will you be like five years from now? Ten? Twenty? You're human. You'll get old and weak and ugly. You don't want that, now, do you?
He'd broken out of his trance and moved over to the mirror attached to the wall. He could see himself in it: strong, proud, beautiful. He knew that eventually he'd get older, and he'd lose his strength in intervals, but some of the other monks at the temple - his teachers, the elders - were still unbelievably powerful, smashing apart entire mountains with a single bare fist. There was no reason to give up his soul if he could still do that.
But when he went out to observe new monks' training the next day, something twisted in the pit of his stomach.
They were strong, yes. The older monks in the temple were still very strong in both body and in mind. Despite their age, they had retained their strength.
But they were old.
And they were ugly.
Bald heads - not by choice - and wrinkles and spots and deformities and knobby bones sticking out everywhere and white hair that did not make them look refined. He'd turned away and rushed to the gardens, knelt down beside a reflecting pool, and looked in.
Is that what he would become in a matter of years, he remembered thinking. His own reflection stared back at him from the surface of the pool, and suddenly it warped, aging and deforming and laughing at him, telling him strength was one thing but did it really matter if nobody cared to even look at him and –
He'd smashed a fist into the face of his reflection, causing a splash and ripples to spread out around his hand. The mutated face fluttered in and out of existence.
His dreams had been even worse that night. Monstrosities lurked in the shadows of his mind, ancient withered crones called out to him in screeching voices, tearing at his body with hands like demons' claws. Again he'd woken up drenched in icy sweat, but it was too early in the morning for his best friend to be there, and so he was alone, staring up at the off-white ceiling of his temple room, blinking away the images of grotesqueries.
He didn't want to look like that. He couldn't. How he looked - it was a small part of the reason he got through each day. He was far more handsome than most of the monks at the temple, and while his teachers had ingrained the belief that what was inside was far more important than what was outside, he had continued to focus on his looks in secret. His best friend knew about this, of course, but didn't often make mention of it. After all, it had simply been something he Did.
Too many nights passed full of nightmares, too many days of distracted and troubled thoughts. Eventually he couldn't handle sleeping any more, and so one night he had traveled back up the hill to the cherry blossom tree where he'd first met the red demon. From there, he'd watched the moon rise until he nodded off.
In that dream, he saw the red demon again, but it was alone.
You look miserable, it had said. Tell me, have you thought about my offer?
I don't want to give up my soul, he responded. Even if it means I have to be ugly and weak.
Oh, really? Your mind tells me other things. The red demon tapped its head, grinning cruelly. You don't want to get old, do you? Come on. I wouldn't even take all of your soul.
You wouldn't take all of it? What does that mean? His confusion, he remembered, had only been half warranted. He knew there was a good half and an evil half to every person's soul - to their chi.
I'd only take the necessary parts. After all, you can't live without a soul, now, can you?
And so in his dream, he had agreed to the red demon's offer, and that night he lost something precious.
When he'd woken up, there was a hastily scrawled note before him.
It led to an ancient rock palace, worn down by time and disuse, not far from his temple. He'd heard of this place - a bastion of both good and evil in ages long past, a place not forbidden but avoided.
Inside, the red demon offered him food. There was an elegant feast spread out on a single stone table, but at the place where he stood was a bowl laden with an ugly green soup.
What is this, he remembered asking.
It's what will give you your power, the red demon had answered.
With only a slight pause, he'd reached down and taken a spoonful of the soup. It hissed and bubbled at him, its foul stench burning his nostrils. He drank the spoonful, nearly spitting it back out because of the disgusting taste.
This is terrible, he'd said.
Drink it all, or else you won't get what you want, said the red demon.
He remembered taking another spoonful, and then another, and finally grabbing the bowl itself and swallowing the contents as fast as he could. Despite the taste and smell, he wanted more of it; an addiction seemed to have grown inside him for this hideous drink.
He'd set down the bowl with shaking hands and wiped off his mouth with a nearby napkin. The red demon had been grinning, but just as he was about to ask what was so funny, a terrible pain erupted in his stomach.
He remembered screaming, much to his dismay. Every inch of his body had started to burn. His skin, muscles, tendons, bones had begun to stretch and crack and grow. It had felt like he was being torn apart from the inside out and the outside in, and over his screams, he remembered hearing the red demon's laughter.
When the pain finally stopped, he'd stood up, then almost instantly fallen back down again. Something heavy was holding down his back. He looked behind him, to see what was there, and saw a tail.
A green, scaled tail, connected to a green, scaled body.
He looked at his hands. They were green, they had scales, and there were claws.
A mirror, he remembered saying. I need a mirror.
The red demon pointed, and he stumbled in that direction.
Out of the glassian surface stared his reflection - but it was not his reflection. It was like nothing he'd ever seen before. A dragon on two legs - a dragon with no wings - a dragon hardly bigger than a human - a dragon that was him.
No. No! This couldn't be right! This creature was hideous! A deformity! A sin against everything the true noble dragons stood for! He remembered screaming again, this time in rage, and smashing the mirror apart with one fist. He'd torn the room apart, leaving huge gouges in the walls and shattered rocks everywhere.
Too soon he collapsed to his knees. Too soon he felt the scales slipping away, a much less painful transformation. The red demon had mounted its bird and come over to stand before him, still smiling as demons do.
You have what you wished for, it had said.
No, he remembered responding. No, I didn't want this. I didn't want this hideous body!
It's powerful, the red demon said. And now you are powerful. You are a dragon now. You have the power of a dragon - and more. Look at your eyes.
He'd stared into one of the mirror fragments on the floor, seeing his face again - his normal, human face - and realized that his eyes were no longer brown, but gold. His pupils were fine slits of black, so similar to a cat's - or a dragon's.
You're the most powerful of your age, said the red demon. Nothing and nobody can stop you now. I've given you everything you wanted.
He had youth. He had power. And he had beauty.
Not once did he regret what he had done.