Both lies and truth can be ugly things. That's one of the reasons honesty can be scary.
Screaming in two voices, the Nuckelavee landed heavily upon the ground, sharpened talon-hooves shrieking across stone scarred by their passage.
Twisting, the skinless, misshapen behemoth rose to its full height, towering over them all as its two heads twitched at random, gazing to and fro at the terrified party 'surrounding' it. The 'mount' let her upper body slump to one side, and the rider let her body slump to the other, a stance that would have looked comical if the ones doing it weren't so grotesque.
Three lidless, bloodshot eyes shared between two women rolled audibly in their sockets as the creature let out strange, creaking sighs.
No one dared to move, not until the dizzying roll of those eyes came to a sudden halt, and the Nuckelavee went completely, utterly still.
Haruhiro flinched, and if they'd the presence of mind to think such things, no one would have blamed him.
With mounting horror, everyone realized that the Nuckelavee was focussing.
Focussing on Haruhiro.
Without a single warning, the Centaur half of the Nuckelavee thrust out the solid iron lance protruding from her forearm, straight for Haruhiro's throat. There was a heavy thunk, and a gurgling croak of surprise as the Nuckelavee's arm retracted with a boneless, whip-like motion.
… And Centorea, pale cheeks glistening with cold sweat, lifted her sword in front of her once more, setting herself between master and monster.
That she had managed to deflect that merciless strike was as shocking to her as it was anyone, to the point where Centorea herself wasn't entirely certain when she had moved to begin with.
It did not matter at all that parrying even a single blow had left her fingers numb. It did not matter at all if she was terrified, facing the greatest monster known to her people.
It did not matter in the least, because Haru was standing behind her.
"We… have come too far to fall against some rotting corpse without the sense to stay dead," with every syllable, her voice gained strength, Centorea standing taller with every word until those present could have sworn she was eye-to-eye with a monstrosity half again her height. "Fear, but do not falter! If any of us are to live, then all of us must fight!"
The last word was accompanied by the sharp crack of a hoof striking down, and everyone jumped in place as the [Rallying Cry] echoed off the once silent stone.
Reigniting some semblance of courage in quavering hearts.
Sensing the violence it craved was soon at hand, when the Nuckelavee screamed its two-voiced scream once more, each voice carried a monstrous undercurrent of anticipation.
Rachnera had never really thought of herself as a brave person.
Bravery got you killed.
She'd have bolted the moment she laid eyes on that horror if she were alone.
Centorea's inspiring little speech had mostly just reminded her of things she was more afraid of. And that 'running' from that greater fear meant fighting this one.
The Knuckle-whatever looked foul, sounded disgusting, and smelled awful, plus, whatever thin haze had started to leak off the thing made her webbing rot off its body.
She hadn't even known that webs could rot.
But, worst of all, despite numerous attempts from her sturdier friends to hold its attention…
The monster, or perhaps monsters they were fighting, seemed almost fixated on Haru, switching focus just long enough to fend off whatever one of them attempted.
Grotesque, fast, strong, skilled, and murderously obsessed with the only man she'd ever loved.
… Maybe fear was just losing to anger.
Haru slid low, stone chipping from the ravine wall as he dodged another harpooning attempt from the mount-half, nearly getting clipped by the lance as the rebound made it flail at the end of an elongated, rubbery limb.
At the same time, the rider-half of the Nuckelavee thrust out its remaining limb at Tio, forcing the Crusader to block that over-sized palm with her greatclub. The dark limb promptly latched onto the weapon, and the large body of the Nuckelavee slammed its flank into her in a maneuver identical to the sort of side tackle Centorea sometimes used.
Tio stumbled but held firm, grimacing as that strange miasma darkened the armor over top her stomach, and then her eyes went wide as the Nuckelavee lifted her partially off the ground with one hand. In an effortless display of brute force, it twisted its wrist and slammed Tio to the ground, cross-checking her with her own weapon.
Only Yukio's quick reaction saved Tio from being smashed into the stone, as a bed of snow burst to life beneath her- even then, Tio gagged as the steel of her breastplate buckled slightly beneath that misshapen fist.
A parry and riposte from the mount drove Centorea back, and it wheeled away from her, rearing up over the stunned Ogress with monstrous hooves poised above her stomach.
But in a thunderous impact, an orb of seawater the size of a small boulder slammed into its flank, knocking it off its back legs and sending the Nuckelavee tumbling away. Iormu, the source of the orb, quickly slithered to Tio's side, hauling her onto her feet.
Almost immediately after its momentum had played out, the Nuckelavee was twisting back up onto all fours, the eerie maneuver more reminiscent of a many-limbed insect than anything else. Three eyes burning with hate, two heads swaying to and fro as it sought out Haruhiro once more.
But this time, Haruhiro narrowed his red-stained eyes right back, and met its glare without wavering.
That thin miasma of rot surrounding the Nuckelavee was a problem, that was for certain.
It was said that the Nuckelavee 'spread illness and decay wherever it went', yet this Nuckelavee was different from the tales.
The miasma was thin, yet potent. Honed and focused, as if both armor and weapon.
That must have been why it was blocking Haru's Eyes, and why the rot advanced so rapidly when given the chance.
'The creature lived up to its legends in all the worst ways, Centorea could not help but think after a ringing clash of sword and lance left her numb from fingertip to forearm.
Even thus engaged, the Nuckalvee managed to smash down the [Icicles] fired its way, though one pierced clean through the rider's over-sized limb.
Two minds working in tandem, both covering each other's blind spots and capitalizing on every opening left by their counterpart.
A perfected perversion of what a Knight and Master were meant to be.
It was… a complex form of resentment that Centorea was feeling.
And yet her own struggles had not been without result, and a fierce sense of satisfaction followed when she gashed the mount's abdominals, keen edge slicing deep.
And then it reared away, and the mount opened her misshapen jaws wide, inhaling deeply as her belly swelled strangely, and-
From Centorea's blindspot, a heavy glob of web smashed into the mount's open mouth, just as it slammed back down onto all hooves and thrust her head forward.
The result was… grotesque, yet spectacular.
The mount gagged so violently that both joined bodies convulsed violently, arching in the middle like some malformed feline. Skinless flesh ruptured and split, spewing forth thin jets of smog in strange directions- when the mount flailed its arms about, Centorea smashed the flat of her blade into its lance, driving it down to smash against the ground.
"Great Mother, grant your wayward daughter strength!"
At the same time, there was a flash of golden light, brilliant but not blinding, as Tio brought her war club howling in across, slamming it into the Nuckalevee's side where the rider's missing arm left a gap in their defenses.
Radiant ripples reverberated from the point of impact, with an echoing ring that called to mind church bells.
It was as if a giant, invisible hand was sweeping the ground clean- the Nuckelavee was torn from its feet, its gangly bulk serving as no defense against the god-driven blow.
With a hideous, two-toned wail of agony, the Nuckelavee slammed into the rock face nearly a dozen feet away, pus and mist spurting in every direction, only to vanish in shimmering motes of gold.
The monster staggered and slumped, the grimy lance serving as an impromptu crutch as the rider slumped against the mount, emaciated figure gleaming with cracks of soft golden light.
It was only for a moment, a hallucination none of them fully believed until much later, when they learned it was shared by all.
For a brief moment, what they gazed upon was not some conjoined monstrosity, but a woman and her rider, gasping from exertion yet gazing their way with matching sets of clear blue eyes narrowed in defiant hostility.
No… not gazing their way.
Gazing his way, the creature's odd fixation with Haru carrying through to the echoes of what that monster once was.
"Human yet… again?" The human rider rasped out in a tone of dignified disdain. "How many stolen bodies… Does this make, demon?"
The Centaur drew in her breath, clearly intending to give voice a condemnation of her own.
And yet the last of the golden light flickered away, just then, and what escaped was a high-pitched gagging sound as the monster lost what it once was.
Flickering strands of white rotted free of drooling jaws as the Nuckelavee staggered to its full height, its screams of fury serving to shatter the strange spell that had gripped them all.
All save one.
When it screamed, Haruhiro did not move, though the shrill sound must have pained him as it pained them all.
When it made to skewer him where he stood, Haruhiro did not move, and only Iormu slamming into him spared the motionless Haruhiro from death.
The lance retracted with the blood of a demigoddess dripping from its tip, and Iormu pushed herself up onto her hands, still above the prone Haruhiro, biting back a hiss as she felt a stinging heat bloom lengthwise across the small of her back, only an inch or two above where skin gave way to scale.
The monster's focus had been stolen away by the combined efforts of the party (Yukio had briefly frozen one of its hindlegs to the ground, and Rachnera had broken one or two of its ribs with an impromptu flail made of webbing and a rock that must have weighed a few dozen pounds), Iormu put her faith in them, and turned her attention to Haruhiro.
Those deep, dark brown eyes she loved so much were vacant and glassy, akin to wood polished to a mirror shine.
His lips were in constant motion, but the barely audible words were… gibberish, as Iormu scooped him up off the ground, whisking him away from the fight and behind the cover of a good-sized boulder. It certainly lacked the space to easily hide all of her tail, but Iormu coiled herself rapidly with Haruhiro on top of her coils to make do.
With her impromptu patient out of harm's way, Iormu was able to give his babbling proper heed.
"Sales on at the supermarket- better stop by for a drink- what the hell, why is the floor made of stone? Who are you people- sure, I'll pick the Warrior's Guild then- please don't- it hurts it hurts it hurts did I remember to lock the door? I'm scared, it's scary, what is that, what are you, stay away-"
… Iormu used it sparingly, but swore by its effectiveness for good reason, and thus did not hesitate at all when her mind was made up- she slapped Haruhiro sharply across the face, using the back of her hand to keep her claws clear.
His head twisted to the side, and, with the same surety of motion, Iormu pressed her red lips against reddened skin.
Forcing down a sigh and quickly glancing out from behind cover, Iormu met Haru's gaze to find his expression puzzled but his eyes cleared.
"Have you returned to us, Haruhiro?" Iormu questioned, wine-red eyes gazing at him intently.
"... Hm? Yeah, yeah, I'm okay now, I think," Haruhiro admitted, blinking rapidly a few times.
… Being lied to so blatantly was somewhat of a refreshing experience, but at the very least, he seemed 'stable' for the moment.
A sudden, sharp cry of pain stole their attention away as something black bounced past their hiding spot, scraping the ground every time it hit.
It was black, and segmented, and one end tapered off into a sharp, gently curving point.
And it was quite clearly the leg of a large arachnid.
… Or an Arachne.
In that brief instant where her gaze had locked onto the still twitching limb, Haruhiro vanished entirely from her awareness.
'He' didn't know who that leg belonged to, but seeing it so clearly detached from… who it belonged to had made 'him' scared, and worried, but most of all, so very, very angry.
A rage cold and sharp, like the dagger in 'his' hand.
'He' didn't know where the hell 'he'd' gotten that knife from, but it was a comfortable weight in 'his' hand and 'he' just knew somehow that the killing edge was every bit as dangerous as 'he' wished it to be.
'He' wasn't supposed to be here.
'He' wasn't meant to be here.
'He' didn't know why, though, and trying to think about it made 'his' head hurt… like 'his' brain had grown so crowded with thoughts that those thoughts were pushing up against the edges of 'his' skull.
… It didn't matter.
There was nothing 'he' needed to think about… 'he' had a knife in 'his' hand and hate in 'his' heart.
And a fitting direction for both.
Those bitches had killed 'him/her/them/his friends/her sweetheart' after all, so a little payback was due.
It had hurt like hell when she shoved a lance in 'his' chest.
'She' remembered screaming when the hoof lifted above 'her' head, and screaming up until the hoof came down.
The arrow in 'their' back.
'His' fall from the cliff.
It hurt every time.
Again and again those two had killed…. It had hurt, a lot.
The pain kept coming.
The deaths kept coming.
And if there was one thing 'á̢͠͞l̸̡̀͟͡l̨ ̴̨͟ơ͠f̢͢͞ ́t̵̕͢͝͝h̢͝҉͠e͏͜͞m҉̡̧͠ were certain of, it was just that…
-E͜҉Ǹ̶͜O̶̷U͢͡G̶̵̷̶̨H̵͢͢͏ ̵̡͢͠W̕͞A̧̕͡S̸̸̸͡ ҉̶̨͞E̢͜N̡͘O͏͢U̧͢͠͝͡G̨͘͘H͝͡-
One in body, mind and purpose, t̡̛h͝͝͠é͘͡҉͏ ́̕d̵́͝e̴̛͟m̧͞͏́o̷̵̢ņ̸̢͘͢ ͏̢͡m̷̷̡͜͡o̸͘͘͘͏v̴̀̕͜͡ȩ̴̸̶͟d͜͝.
'Something was cut'.
As if it were a self-evident truth, each and every one of them understood that at the exact same moment, without knowing why.
'Something was cut, and then something was there'.
A thin, ragged darkness streaked through with crimson veins of pulsing angry light, was there on the back of the Centaur-half of the Nuckelavee, back to back with the rider. 'It' perched there, tilting 'its' head this way and that as 'its' three red eyes gazed up curiously at the thing in 'its' hand.
That thing in 'its' hand… which was a head with no neck.
A skinless, strangely elongated head, dangling by a grimy blond rope that protruded from the back of its skull.
It was only when one of the severed necks of the Nuckelavee started spurting out noxious, rotting blood that they made sense of what 'it' had done.
And when both heads of the Nuckelavee started to scream, the voices screaming with them were too many to count.
And yet, from that tragic chorus of screams, somehow, they managed to pick out just a single voice that they recognized.
-A tower, they'd woken up in a tower.
The woman had told them that if they wanted to avoid starving, they had two options-
Become her 'things' or fight.
Even if she was pretty hot, he'd chose to fight, of course, and-
No one told him that a measly goblin could actually fight!
Ah, come to think of it, the goblin probably didn't want to die either, huh-
-Somehow, she'd managed to survive.
Herself and a bunch of total strangers had formed a 'party' and learned how to fight to survive.
They'd beaten goblins, and wolves, and kobolds down in the mines-
But this… this… 'Death Spots' was no kobold.
Its hands were big enough to wrap around her entire torso, big enough to squeeze her to death with just one hand.
… then something, maybe several somethings deep inside of her started going 'pop' as it proved just that.
-Damn… he was so hungry.
No one would want to read a story about being sent to another world, just to starve to death in a cave-
- Screaming futilely past the blood in her throat, she writhed and flopped against the strangely shaped hoof that had stomped through her stomach to grind her spine into the ground.
Twin leering faces that must have been beautiful once stared down at her in delight, watching her choke the last of her life away-
- It happened too fast.
The grimy lance punched through his back and out his chest so quickly that he had a single second to wonder where it had-
- Screaming all the way down, interrupted only by the rocky outcropping that stopped the plummet early-
-What kind of shitty luck was this? She'd managed to drag herself away from the scene of where that… thing had trampled all her friends to death, only to be met with this.
She had managed to stop the bleeding, but they could still smell it.
One howl was followed by another, and another, and another until the sounds of the pack drowned out the screams that followed-
- The concrete was hot.
Lying on it was painful, almost as painful as being hit by a truck.
… It kind of sucked.
His neck really hurt, and he was sure it would feel better if he could just straighten it out from the odd angle it was at, but he couldn't move.
Couldn't breathe, either, and he'd really like to start doing at least one of those, if it wasn't too much to ask.
But even if he could have asked, there was no one to listen.
Probably wouldn't have heard him over the approaching sirens anyway-
- The feeling vanished so quickly that it slipped from his mind before he could really consider it, but…
When he woke up on that cold stone floor, it was being able to open his eyes in the first place that seemed the most strange.
Odd how easy it was to forget things when he couldn't remember anything in the first place.
In fact, the only thing he could remember with certainty was his name, which was-
A space between the Fates of two worlds, two worlds once meant to be distant but pushed up against one another by the blind whims of Chance.
A little crack formed from the contradictions between two sets of 'what was meant to be'.
Due to what fell into that thin, deep 'fissure', the contents of that space between could best be described as a discard pile.
A waste pit containing the pitiful remnants of those who had been stolen from one world, only to be miserably slaughtered in the next.
Into that crack fell the dregs of their dreams, the tattered shreds of their wishes and hopes.
Scraps of soul and memory, tossed aside like refuse.
A pit steadily, quietly being filled with misery, madness, and misfortune.
Until one day, something changed.
The hand of blind Chance swept a piece from the board, bringing further chaos to a place unseen by order.
It was an object.
It was, for the first time, a physical thing that slipped between the cracks.
A human body.
The empty husk of some pitiful teenage boy.
A body that should have been dead but was not, a vessel that should not have been empty, but was.
Down into the maddened dark fell an empty vessel, just waiting to be filled.
And so… filled it was, filled with all the half-formed things cast down into the space between.
Those bits and pieces of desires and dreams, of hope and hate, of fear and fury.
What resulted was something too makeshift to call a miracle.
It was something that would taint 'the way things should be' with every breath it would take, every choice it would make.
A transgression given life.
A demon given form.
And its name was…
"Haru!? Haru are you alright?"
… What had just occurred was too surreal to make sense of, allowing Centorea to focus her attention solely on Haru.
Or rather, allowing Centorea's dizzying swirl of thoughts to slow itself down enough for her to focus on anything.
It couldn't be helped.
They had reached the end of a fever dream that a passive observer might have mistaken for a battle.
A hallucination that some might mistake for a fight to the death.
Barring Haru, who lay on the ground, unharmed yet unresponsive as if in a deep, peaceful sleep, they were standing, and their enemy was not.
The state of her fellows, beyond mutual wide-eyed shock, was hard to determine.
It was of course due to all the blood.
Whether it herself or one of the others, be it ground or wall, rock or shrub, every solid object within sight had suffered the exact same fate.
Save for Haru, where the blood had formed a neat circle around his prone body, without so much as a single drop having landed on his person…
Seemingly everything and everyone else in sight was absolutely covered with a thin, bright sheen of fresh blood.
… And of the Nuckelavee, there was not so much as a single hoofprint to be found.
Reality yielded to her will, and Lala ran right through the wall as if it were mist and not stone.
She continued on through the bed, skidding to a halt and fumbling with the object she'd left resting on top of her sheets.
A stone frame creaked within the trembling grasp of slender hands as Lala stared wide-eyed into the polished surface of the mirror, casting her gaze into the mortal realm.
It was a miracle she managed to maintain her grip on the mirror as malevolence without direction found a vocal point in her.
There it was, emblazoned angrily upon the ground like a wound upon the mortal earth.
A single great eye aligned vertically in her perspective, its color the vivid crimson gleam of freshly spilled blood, and its 'pupil' a circle of stone stained a deep dark brown.
The eye of the demon that would never close, glaring up hatefully at the heavens above.
The site of 'Haruhiro's' awakening.
He had awoken in truth.
The 'real' Haruhiro had opened his eyes, this time for good.
And she… could do nothing but hope that those at his side would be enough to keep that awakening from breaking him.
… What a useless creature a Dullahan was.
The blood had vanished from their bodies without a trace the moment Iormu had enacted [Purification] with Tio's aid, but even Iormu couldn't deny feeling unbearably filthy to the point where she wished to shed every last one of her scales (and no small measure of jealousy for the mortal Lamia, who actually could shed their scales).
And thus, battered both mentally and physically, the party had left the Thousand Valley, guided by Iormu and her ability to intrinsically sense fresh running water.
Carefully wrapped up in a spare cloak to keep off the blood, Haruhiro, tied to Centorea's back, had not responded, nor even moved of his own will.
He'd just laid there with his sightless brown and crimson eyes, even breath and steady heartbeat the only sign of life.
They'd taken turns watching him while the others 'cleaned' themselves, the cool water made colder by Yukio's presence doing much to bring a sense of relief.
When her own body was clean, Centorea had gently carried the near catatonic Haruhiro to a rock at the edge of the stream
The measure of success that followed him at least sitting properly upright was quickly dashed when it became clear that anything else was too much to ask for.
Simple instructions got through, but any other words received not even a blink in response.
But at the very least, by the time an otherwise unresponsive Haruhiro was wrapped back in the cloak and leaning motionlessly against a rock, the rest of their minds had cleared enough to begin properly thinking things through.
And the first thought to be voiced out loud was "you know something, don't you?"
Even a gesture as tiny as a flinch was rather noticeable when it involved over thirty feet of tail.
"Don't you, Iormu?" Centorea asked in a flat voice, gazing expressionlessly at the silent serpent.
Iormu closed her eyes.
"Not everything," she admitted, her voice quiet but clear. "But I know enough."
When her eyes opened, it was not Centorea she was looking at.
Iormu was silent for what was only a few seconds but felt like much, much longer, a complex hint of something unfathomable peeking out from behind the tender gaze she directed Haruhiro's way.
And then she gave a long, bitter sigh, her head turning their way as if even the twisting of her neck was a trial to be endured.
"You must understand, what I am about to tell you is something I would much rather take to my grave, never once speaking it aloud no matter how many millennia pass." Iormu admitted frankly. "And before you say anything, know that Haruhiro himself is one I would protect from this truth above all else, if only I still could."
It was a dizzying sensation- Iormu could not possibly be looking all of them in the eyes at once, and yet the feeling of being submerged collectively into the deep red eyes of wild divinity was unmistakable.
"That I find myself compelled to speak when I would just as rather choke on my own tongue is proof enough that now, ignorance is a blessing denied to you all."
The bitter vehemence in her voice left them all taking one step back, yet feeling like their feet had touched the solid earth after a weightless eternity.
"The man you… no, that we love, trust, rely on, fret over and dream over… the man never far from our thoughts," Iormu began, a strange whimsy in her voice. "The Demon known as Haruhiro is all of these things, as I am sure you do not need telling."
At first, they thought they must have imagined it, but Iormu did not give them the chance to ponder.
"No, you did not mishear me," she spoke as if enunciating a self-evident truth, the same tone one would use to mention that the sun rose and the birds flew. "Haruhiro is a Demon above all else."
The silence that fell in the wake of those simple words felt much, much longer than it was.
It was a word that invoked an instinctive, inexplicable dread.
A sense of the forbidden, as if the mere utterance of the word promised unavoidable consequences.
And with the context provided, a sense of rebellion was fostered almost immediately.
"A Demon!?" Tio burst out, waving her arms. "No way, that doesn't make any sense, Demons are supposed to- supposed to be-!"
"Terrifying?" Rachnera finished, her tone mild but her expression somewhere between a frown and a sneer. "The Demons I know of are primitive superstitions- even Goblins call unexplained disasters the work of Demons. Hard to imagine Haru having anything in common."
"In our stories… fallen Yokai… fallen Gods," Yukio said softly, shaking her head. "Enemies of… the natural order. Haru is… human."
Not one of them could avoid weighing in on the topic that none wished to speak of, and every word spoken on the matter deepened that sense of wrongness that suffused the air.
… Even as the 'subject' of their talk sat motionless against the stone.
"Beings from a mythic age," Centorea recalled, after a moment. "The most great and terrible of foes for the most great and noble of heroes." There was something brittle about her gallant features, even as she met Iormu's gaze without falter. "But perhaps you know different?"
"If only it were so," Iormu replied, her flat tone brushing aside any embers of hope. "A Demon can be all of those things, and more."
"... 'Can', instead of 'is'?" Tio latched onto those words almost immediately, and just as quickly felt ashamed for doing so.
"They have that right," Iormu said with a catch of sorrow in her voice. With delicate motions, she briefly stretched out her upper body just enough to gently stroke Haruhiro's cheek with her hand. "Demons above all, have the right to oppose whatever they see fit."
"And why is that?" Centorea asked, surprised her tone was level. There was an almost… self-destructive impatience roiling within her breast. The desire for a terrible end to arrive with haste, just so that an end could be reached.
"Because more than anything else, a Demon is a victim."
"A-a… victim?" No one could have said whose lips those words were stammered from, such was the confusion that followed.
"Indeed, a victim." Iormu repeated. The way her upper body withdrew away from Haruhiro's side felt like a clear retreat.
"A Demon is… Haruhiro is a victim of Grimgar itself. The greatest victim of the world itself." Iormu revealed. "And that is why a tale of Demons is beyond good and evil. Beyond heroes and villains, far from justice and further still from anything resembling salvation."
At last, Iormu lifted her heavy head to face them once more, the composure in her voice a stark contrast to the pain in her eyes. "At its heart, a tale of Demons is nothing but a tale of wounds and scars."
They wanted to deny her words.
It wasn't like that.
It couldn't be like that.
Haru's life was more than that… it had to be.
But in the end, they did none of those things, because Haruhiro chose that moment to 'wake up', and things went downhill from there.
Scraps and scars.
He was made of scraps and scars.
His reflection in the water was a stitched-up Frankenstein monster with glowing red seams, missing only the bolts in his neck.
How was he supposed to call himself human when every inch of his body was just a single piece of a dead one?
It looked like one of those collages they'd had him make in grade school, cutting bits and pieces of faces from a magazine and gluing them all together to make the shape of a human body.
… Hell, even now he was acting like those memories were his.
Acting like calling himself 'Haruhiro' had an ounce of truth to it.
The only thing that was his were the eyes.
And even then, only three of them- the three blood-and-brown eyes, two of which at least sat more or less where eyes were supposed to sit.
Maybe that's why he'd suddenly started 'adjusting' so quickly to Grimgar, after struggling to scrape by.
It had been like a switch had flipped in his head, and even the moments he'd been 'afraid' seemed suspicious in retrospect.
Deep down, he must have realized that he was the biggest monster around.
The Nuckelavee certainly had, when they recognized the 'pieces' of him that they'd slain.
That must have been why killing it felt like vengeance.
Looking back, killing Death Spots had been the same.
He'd avenged some of the people who had made him.
Satisfied their wishes, and set them free.
But more had replaced them.
More always replaced them.
He was just… a vessel, a tool to vicariously appease the unlucky ones who had been fucked over by this twisted ball of rock called Grimgar.
'Haruhiro' was just a method of petty revenge against Fate itself.
Even what he did for Centorea and the others… even what he meant for them was probably a lie.
He'd become what they needed him to be, because someone else had failed to do the same for someone else.
He was just a fake, made of scraps and scars.
He didn't even know if… calling himself Haruhiro was right.
The one thing he thought he knew about himself was wrong.
Maybe that was why he'd struggled to fit in with Manato and the others- because deep down he'd realized that they were 'human' and he was….
A Demon. A Demon with a shell named Haruhiro built around it like a disguise.
That was his truth.
"... Haru?" Someone hesitantly called out.
"Don't call me that," 'he' instantly snapped back. "That's not my name. My name is… I guess I don't even have one."
Those angry red lines were everywhere, pulsing like heartbeats.
He'd called them 'seams' before, but that was wrong.
Each angry red line was a wound waiting to happen.
A scar waiting to be carved.
"At least the eyes are mine," 'he' said. "They're the only thing I didn't steal from someone else."
One of 'them' spoke again, one of those shapes that meant everything and nothing all at once.
"I'm… not Haruhiro. I'm not anyone.
"I'm… like that thing 'we' just fought, but way, way worse. I'm not two people stuck together in death, I'm strips of too many people to count, stuffed into some empty body like a fucked up pinata!
"'The real me'!? Get real! There is no real me!
"They always wondered why it never bothered me, turns out my answer was bullshit and even I didn't know! Half-horse, half-spider, so what!? I'm pure, unfiltered, 100% freak!
"I'm a trash pile stacked up from all us unlucky little 'volunteers' that didn't make it! The ones who starved, the ones who died with a Goblin knife in their gut, I'm just the scraps left over from all the fucking failures!"
Somehow or another, 'he' had ended up on his hands and knees.
It felt fitting for someone who had just finished 'throwing up', even if what 'he'd' thrown up were just words.
Ironically, letting the poison out made 'him' feel a bit better.
Lighter, somehow, light enough that if a good breeze kicked up, it might sweep 'him' off the ground and into the sky, never to return to earth.
Heh… if only.
One of the bigger shapes had moved closer.
Before 'his' addled vision could make sense of what it was doing, hands had cupped 'his' cheeks, gently lifting 'his' head-
… They were real.
For the first time since he realized that everything about him was fake, he was able to see something undoubtedly, undeniably real.
Those eyes, as clear and blue as the spring sky.
With painful slowness, the weeping red wounds that had blinded him to everything else receded.
And there she was.
He knew who she was… how could he not?
But her name caught in his throat, and he choked the word back down.
Someone made of scraps and scars shouldn't, couldn't give beauty voice.
He'd just ruin it.
… Belatedly, it occurred to him that the music in his ears were words.
… No, not just hers… theirs.
He was surrounded by things real and beautiful, like he was a piece of litter in a flower garden.
He strained his sense to hear, to make sense of just one word.
"... and if you truly believe that all you are is a lie, then let us be your truth." Centorea Shianus said in a voice as tender as a lullaby and as unyielding as the mountains. "If you have nothing to believe in, believe in our love. Believe in… the choices that led you to us."
"Maybe you're not the Haruhiro you think you are," Rachnera Arachnea's voice was sharp somehow, sharp yet not cruel. "But you're the only real Haruhiro we've ever known. The only one we need to know."
"If you don't know who you are, we can help you out!" He'd never imagined a voice could sound like sunlight's gentle warmth, until he'd heard Tionishia speak. "We'll tell you all about the person you who we see, and maybe that'll help you figure out who you see, when you look in the mirror!"
"You have… never given up on us… even when we have given up on ourselves," Yukio's voice was faint, yet undeniable, like the inexorable advance of winter, year after year. "If returning the favor… will ease your heart, even the slightest, then… gladly. As many times… as you need."
She had many names, and yet the name 'Iormu' bore the most weight, by simple virtue of that being the name she had given him. "There is worth to be found in every choice we make. The good brought into the world by your will and your choices is no lie. No matter where the path through life may lead you, every step you take upon that path belongs to you, and no one else."
Perhaps they would have been disheartened to know that their words did not truly reach him.
He could not have repeated back a single syllable.
But he latched onto the sound of their voices, as if listening to the most beautiful of melodies in a language utterly foreign to his ears.
He latched onto those voices with all his might, because they were something undeniably real, and listening to them made him feel just the smallest bit real as well.
Perhaps the fact that he could see just the faintest glimmer of salvation in something so simple was the truest tragedy at play.
In the end, they couldn't do it.
They could not just wait while a daughter of the village and her friends braved danger on their behalf.
It came to no surprise to anyone that the parents of said daughter led every step of the way, barely mustering the patience to allow others to accompany them.
A member of the search party had made the casual remark that they all had plenty of time to make it to the Thousand Valley and back before dinner, to the agreement of many.
It went unspoken that he wasn't truly considering the daylight they had left any more than the rest of them, despite how every one of them was unnerved by the prospect of being out after dark when a dreadful something was roaming about.
But as luck would have it, in the end they didn't need to travel far.
The spirits of the forest had been all too eager to guide their steps when, frustrated at the knowledge she would slow their search with her presence, the Miko Sayaka had rather firmly 'facilitated' the spirits' efforts.
Yukine saw them first, and broke into a dead run that nearly left her bursting free of her own garments.
There they were by the river bank- battered and unresponsive, yet their bodies clean and their expressions serene.
It… could not have possibly been comfortable, the positions they were sleeping in, but you could not tell that by looking at them.
Loath to move their daughters and her companions, Yukine and Gorou watched over them for hours after the other much-relieved members of the search party had trickled on home.
The little group just seemed far too peaceful to interfere with, even if…
Even if Haruhiro, surrounded on all sides, looked exactly how they remembered yet nearly impossible to recognize.
Remember how last chapter I pointed out that Death Spots was the first to refer to Haru as a demon?
Turns out Death Spots real class was Prophet and not Champion, who knew?
So as it turns out, Haruhiro was never human to begin with! Or was he? Maybe he wasn't and now he is?
Let's just say that the identity of a Demon isn't something as cut and dry as species.
After all, he's a patchwork made up of dead people in a world where Undead exist, but none of the spirits seem to recognize him as an affront to the natural order?
But you know, as a writer, this chapter felt way, way longer than it actually was. There was just so much going on.