Chapter 4: Encounter
The moment the demon's head flew from its shoulders, launched across the road by an inhumanly strong punch, the rest of the street erupted into chaos. Bystanders that had been frozen in shock at the first demon's casual killing shook themselves back to reality, letting out a chorus of screams as they scrambled back into their respective homes, the combined sounds of doors slamming shut reverberating like the music of a percussion ensemble.
Giyuu himself took a moment to even process what he'd just seen. Demons fighting other demons wasn't uncommon; territory disputes were quite frequent. Still, something struck Giyuu as off about the boy, mostly about what he'd said as he detached the other demon's head from his shoulders.
Focus on protecting the villagers, Giyuu told himself.
Giyuu kicked off the ground hard, drawing his blade with one smooth movement. He connected the action of drawing his blade with a fluid swing, slicing through the now-headless body of the first demon, cleaving through the spine easily and causing the body to start to disintegrate. He was about to swing again, this time at the second demon's throat, but something stopped him.
The other demon had turned his attention to Giyuu, having taken on a defensive stance a few meters away and holding one hand out to his side, outstretched in front of the family that the first demon had nearly killed. "Get back inside! It's dangerous out here!" he called over his shoulder. His other hand was held in front of him, almost like an invisible barrier between himself and Giyuu.
Giyuu hesitated, letting his sword come to rest by his side, held out just slightly, a silent warning that he was ready to attack at the first sign of hostility. The demon met his eyes, his animated, fiery pupils boring into Giyuu as the remaining villagers fled from the streets, leaving the two alone under the faint luminescence of the moon.
Giyuu's gaze flickered over to the wall that the demon's head had splattered against, and to his relief, he saw no movement. Giyuu knew that the demon wasn't dead, without special help, demons could not kill other demons, but it seemed to be incapacitated for the time being, at least until he regenerated. The last thing he needed was to have two demons to keep track of at once.
He turned his attention back to the boy, who hadn't moved much and was just glancing around the street rapidly. Giyuu watched as the demon's eyes paused on his blade, before glancing down to the demon's body burning away into dust. When he looked back up, he had a panicked look on his face.
"You're a demon slayer, aren't you?" he said, his voice wet with fear.
"Yes." Giyuu replied flatly. He clenched his sword grip even tighter.
The boy's hands started to tremble, and to Giyuu's surprise, he took a step back. In response, Giyuu took a step forward, as if to say 'you're not running away'. They stayed like that for what felt like an eternity, Giyuu ready to strike down the demon whilst the demon looked around in fear, eyes darting around the empty street. A glance over to the other end of the street showed that the first demon still had not regenerated.
Now that Giyuu got a better look at the demon, he wasn't quite sure what to make of the boy. His long maroon hair was tied back in a ponytail and an oddly shaped scar sat on his forehead, shaped almost like a flame. It was like a demon's marking, one of the ones that appeared on demons while they used their blood demon art, but...different in a way. Of course, there was still the fiery, slitted eyes, fangs, and claws, advertising his nature as a demon. Yet, even outside of that, something struck Giyuu as...off about this demon. It wasn't just the line about protecting the villagers or the calculated motion, but just the demeanor of the boy was something unlike Giyuu had ever seen from a demon.
Usually, demons fell into two categories. The first was still too weak to develop a personality and acted primal, like an unchained beast. They didn't show any complex emotions or any evidence of deep thought, usually just lashing out when they felt threatened or saw a human they thought they could kill. The other type was the more dangerous type: demons who had eaten enough humans to regain a normal level of cognitive thought, albeit a twisted, insane one. These demons were the same demons that were strong enough to develop blood demon arts and come up with more complex battle plans than "run at the enemy and try to eat them".
This boy, however, seemed very human. He was surely not the first type of demon, he'd shown the ability to think logically and talk at the very least. He couldn't be that strong, though. Some demons had an air of insanity to them, one that weaker demons didn't have but stronger demons never failed to, and Giyuu wasn't sensing any hostility from the boy.
Eventually, the boy's gaze settled on something for the first time since Giyuu had pointed a sword at him. A look of shock and horror found its way onto the boy's facial features, replacing the panicked one he'd worn just a few moments before. Giyuu traced the boy's gaze to the body of the man that the first demon had ripped the throat from moments before.
Blood was still gushing from the wound, but Giyuu realized with a start that the man was still alive, convulsing slightly.
In his moment of distraction, the demon boy moved, lunging towards the bleeding man.
Shit, he's gonna devour him, Giyuu thought. He whipped his sword around just a moment too late, narrowly missing the boy's neck, instead cleanly chopping off the ponytail his hair had been done up in.
You've done it again, let yourself get distracted and now somebody is going to die because of you, part of his mind thought even as he whipped around to try for a follow-through swing. Time seemed to slow as he watched saliva drip from the corners of the boy's mouth while he got down on his hands and knees by the convulsing man's side.
Then, Giyuu watched as the boy frantically pushed his hands against the man's neck, ripping part of the victim's own haori off and stuffing it against the wound.
"Stay with me," Tanjirou chanted, having all but forgotten the demon slayer's presence altogether. "Stay with me, don't you die on me, Suriichi-san."
Tanjirou wasn't sure if the man was fully conscious, his eyes half-lidded and tired-looking, but he kept talking anyways. The small piece from the man's haori that he'd ripped off was becoming soaked with blood alarmingly quickly.
Tanjirou wanted to vomit. The smell of human blood was all that was filling his nostrils and absolutely nothing else was able to get through. The scent made his mouth water and he absolutely hated that, even as saliva dripped from the corners of his mouth.
With one hand still on the man's open wound, applying a careful amount of pressure as to not crush the man's neck with his newly discovered strength, Tanjirou reached down towards the rest of the man's clothing, using his claws to tear through the fabric and get more makeshift bandages.
The fact that he was running out of haori to rip off didn't bode well for the amount that the older man was bleeding. Tanjirou knew the villager since he was a kid, he was the son of the local blacksmith and had bought charcoal many times from Tanjirou. He had a wife and two daughters. The corners of Tanjirou's eyes started to become wet as he struggled to stop the surge of bleeding. The man was gurgling, the convulsions in his body slowing down.
Tanjirou looked around, only to see the street in front of him completely empty, seemingly devoid of any sign of life. He turned around, still putting pressure on the man's wound, and only then did he remember the demon slayer's presence. The older man was standing there, completely frozen and staring at Tanjirou with a flat, dumb look on his face.
"Help me!" Tanjirou choked out, "Please, help me."
The man paused for a second, the confused, flat look stuck on his face. The younger boy bit back a curse, turning back to the task at hand.
"Come on, stay with me," Tanjirou pleaded again. He wasn't sure if the fact that the flow of blood slowing down was a good thing or a bad thing in this situation. Realistically, it could be either, but based on the size of the blood pool on the ground, Tanjirou was leaning towards the latter.
"Tilt his head back and open up the airway," the demon slayer said, kneeling to the ground on the other side of the villager as he stuck his sword into the dirt right next to them. "You need to let as much air as possible get through." Tanjirou did as he was told, tilting Suriichi's chin back and opening the airway.
"Lift the bandage for a moment," the demon slayer said, staring intently at the wound. Tanjirou did as he was told, deciding that questioning the validity of the demon slayer's instructions was the last thing he needed to be doing right now. If anyone knew something about first aid, it would be someone who fought against demons for a living.
For just a moment after the bandage was removed, he got a clear look at the state of the wound. A solid chunk of flesh was missing from where the man's neck should be, showing a disgusting, mangled mass of torn flesh. It was hardly a second before the wound was no longer visible, blood filling the gaps. Tanjirou replaced the cloth. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the demon slayer flinch. It didn't help that Suriichi had gone almost completely still, the trembling that had been filling his limbs a few moments before now absent
Even as Tanjirou grabbed for more clothing to use to soak up the blood, he saw the older man's limbs fall limp at his sides.
"What are you doing?" Tanjirou cried, "We can still save him!"
"There's no saving him," the man mumbled, "he's missing half his windpipe, blood is probably filling his lungs."
The young boy's hands started to tremble. "Then we'll just soak it all up!"
"At that point he's just bleeding out!" the man snapped. His voice went quiet. "We can't save him."
Even as the bleeding slowed and the villager's pulse disappeared, Tanjirou still wanted to help. He'd gone his whole life living peacefully, and to jump from that to the amount of death he'd witnessed in such a short time, well, it was a system shock, to say the least. Tears started to run down the corners of his eyes and he leaned away from the lifeless body, blood staining his hands and clothes.
Tanjirou was so engulfed in the sudden surge of emotion that he didn't even notice the demon slayer stand until his sword was removed from the ground and levelled at Tanjirou, the blue and black edge mere centimeters away from his face.
"What's a demon doing trying to save a human's life?"
Giyuu had seen a lot of different types of demons during his time as a demon slayer. He'd run into the rabid ones, the insane ones, even ones with some semblance of sanity up until the moment when their source of food was threatened. Out of all demons he'd met, every single one had one thing in common: a complete lack of regard for human life.
Humans to demons were the same as cattle were to humans: livestock. The monsters just saw humans as some sort of lower life-form to be feasted upon and acted as such. No demon would ever try to save a human's life, much less shed tears at their failure to save them.
At least, no demon he'd met up until now.
"What's your goal here?" Giyuu prompted, moving the tip of his blade around a little more. The boy's eyes flickered between the tip of the sword, the dead body of the man they'd failed to save by Giyuu's feet, and the empty street. Eventually, the kid gulped.
"These people are my friends," he said, voice quivering, "I grew up around here, why wouldn't I try to save them?"
Giyuu ignored his counter-question. "Why didn't you try to devour him? You could have done it easily."
An expression flashed across the boy's face. Disgust? When he opened his mouth again, he yet again subverted everything Giyuu had come to expect from demons. "You're a demon slayer, right? Is there a way to turn someone who was turned into a demon back into a human?"
"What?" The simple statement was all Giyuu could muster.
"My sister," the boy continued, "I want to turn her back into a human."
Giyuu would have gotten even more confused if he'd had time to think about what the boy had said; before he could process the situation further, rustling from across the street caught his attention.
Giyuu's vision snapped over to the sound of the disturbance, only to find that the demon from earlier had partially regenerated and was trying to run away, naked. He was still missing his arms, but the demon had managed to reacquire legs, which was enough.
Damn it, Giyuu thought, pulling his sword away from the boy's neck. He took off at a sprint towards the first demon, who had started to shriek like a banshee once he realized he'd been noticed. It only took a single, swift strike to relieve the demon's head from its shoulders, and this time it would stay that way.
When Giyuu turned around to find the demon boy, he found the street where he'd been kneeling a moment before empty.
Just my luck.
When the demon slayer took off, Tanjirou didn't question what was going on. He didn't have the time to sit around and think about why the man suddenly ran off, if he wanted to survive and be able to actually work towards finding a cure for Nezuko, he'd need to avoid getting his head chopped off.
So, as soon as he registered that the demon slayer was gone, he ran. He stood and bolted into the network of alleyways between the village's buildings and didn't even look back. As he ran, he took sporadic, random turns in an attempt to make himself as untrackable as possible. The snow that peppered the ground didn't help to cover his traces, so whenever he could, he ran where there wasn't any. As he fled, he only had escape on his mind.
He wasn't sure if it was a good or bad thing that the demon slayer hadn't killed him immediately. The moment he'd smelled a person's blood on the air, Tanjirou had rushed in to help, his legs moving before he could really understand what they were doing, and the fact that there was a demon slayer on the scene was just an unhappy coincidence.
One thing had been made clear to him the instant that the demon slayer levelled his blade at Tanjirou: he could not count on the corps being an ally, at least not for the time being. Sure, he hadn't been killed on sight, but the treatment he got wasn't much better.
Eventually, Tanjirou made it out of town. A glance over his shoulder showed that he wasn't being followed, at least from what he could see, so he doubled down and forced himself to run as fast as his legs could carry him. He needed to get back to where he'd left Nezuko and then take her and relocate before the sun rose.
If the demon slayer was on his tail, he didn't have much time.
There's a second demon in the area, Giyuu thought as he stalked the back alleys of the town, looking for any signs of tracks or anything of the sort that he could use to track the demon boy, I should've remembered that!
He looks like a fresh demon, can't be more than a few weeks old, but…Giyuu paused for a moment, based on the carnage left at the Kamado family home, that was done by a very powerful demon, one who felt like playing with his prey as it killed them. That rules out the boy, and the demon from the village was far too weak, not to mention in the wrong place. Does that mean there's three demons in the area?
Giyuu shook his head and muttered to himself. "No, there's something off here."
Once he finally found a set of footprints, it wasn't hard to follow the trace. The path deviated a lot, weaving between buildings seemingly at random, but the snow helped to cement the footprints, even when there were long patches of dirt between drifts. Eventually, the prints made their way out of the village and towards the mountains.
Giyuu had no intention of killing the demon right away, not unless it showed signs of aggression, something that it hadn't even so much as hinted at yet. He had too many questions that he needed answered, especially after that scene in the village.
Not once in Giyuu's three years of being a demon slayer had he seen a demon show anything but bloodlust towards humans. Be it the most primal, freshly turned demons or the smartest, most insane demon he'd fought to date (one who had essentially turned an entire small village into a meat farm that worshipped him like a god), not a single demon showed any level of compassion towards humans, not a single demon showed any level of sympathy of human life.
Not a single demon up until now, with this boy.
The tracks led to a small cave in the mountains. It wasn't too far from the village, probably about half the distance from Saburo's home, but it was hidden pretty well. If there wasn't a set of footprints leading directly into the cave, as well as a set of footprints leading out of it that looked a little bit older, he doubted that he'd have found it.
Giyuu slowed to a stop outside the cave, being careful to not let himself be seen. The demon boy was inside, of that much he was certain, but he wasn't sure if there was a trap of sorts. For the time being, he wanted to see if he could get an idea of what was going on inside before he engaged.
Giyuu leaned up against the rocky entrance and strained his ears. Echoing from the inside, he heard the same voice as earlier. "Nezuko?"
A name? Giyuu thought, furrowing his eyebrows. He kept listening.
"Nezuko, come on, you've gotta wake up, we need to leave." The boy's voice seemed panicked and he was talking quickly, fumbling over the words.
Giyuu rested his hand on the hilt of his blade as he heard shuffling from inside the cave.
"I'll carry you if I have to, come on!"
The shuffling and ruffling inside the cave got louder, and Giyuu took that as his cue. He turned the corner, standing in the opening to the rocky interior. What he saw on the inside, while difficult to discern due to the poor lighting, was what looked like the demon boy attempting to haul a smaller girl onto his shoulders. He barely needed to look at her to see the pale skin and fangs and claws.
"I'll repeat my question from earlier," Giyuu said, obviously startling the boy, "what is a demon doing trying to save a human? And who is this?"
The instant the demon boy recognized Giyuu, he went into a panic, setting down the demon girl and scrambling back, holding his arms out in front of her defensively.
"Stay back, we don't want any trouble!" the boy said. Even in the dark, Giyuu could see that his arms were shaking.
He's...afraid? Looking past his arms, Giyuu also took note of yet another odd thing: the demon girl looked like she was asleep. He'd never met a demon that slept, they all always just ate humans to recover their energy.
"Look," Giyuu said, "the sword is away, I'm not going to kill you unless you attack me first."
I can't believe I'm saying this to a demon, Giyuu thought. After everything he'd learned demons to be, after everything they'd done to him, it just felt weird. Yet, at the same time, something had consistently struck Giyuu as off about this demon, mostly based on how he acted. There was something different about this one.
Giyuu's assurance that he wasn't going to attack the boy seemed to cause him to relax, even if just a little. He still stood defensively in front of the girl, but his posture wasn't so aggressive.
Before Giyuu could ask his question again, the boy spoke up. "Did you kill the demon that killed Suriichi-san?"
"Surii - " Giyuu paused, taken aback, "You mean the man from the village?"
The boy nodded.
"Yes, I killed it."
A combination of emotions washed across the boy's face at that moment, part relief, part sadness, and part...anger? It was hard to tell, between how bad Giyuu was at properly reading people and the lighting.
"Why did you try to save him?" Giyuu prompted.
The boy looked up, animated irises meeting Giyuu's own. "I already told you, I grew up with those villagers, why would I not try to save them? Suriichi-san had a wife and two children and he was the blacksmith's son. I sold charcoal to them every trip, why wouldn't I try to save him?"
"Because you're a demon." Giyuu said flatly.
Charcoal, the word echoed in Giyuu's mind, That seems important, where do I remember charcoal from?
The boy's shoulders slumped forwards, eyes falling to the ground. "You don't need to remind me."
Silence fell between the two of them once more, the boy still standing defensively in front of his sister and Giyuu still standing at the entrance to the cave.
So many things were going through Giyuu's head at once. Everything the boy had said so far defied everything he'd come to know about how a demon's mind worked. He wasn't acting insane, he was acting perfectly human and it was throwing Giyuu off. Who is this boy?
What came out of Giyuu's mouth, instead, was a completely different question. "Who's the girl?"
"My sister," the boy said, "There's something wrong with her, she won't wake up. The actual reason I was in town was that I was trying to get medicine for her."
"She won't...wake up?"
The boy shook his head. "So much has happened in the last day, I just...there's too much to think about," he looked up from where he'd been staring at the ground. "Please, just leave us alone, we haven't done anything, we don't want any trouble."
Giyuu clenched his fist, "It's against the demon slayer corps code to let any demon who has harmed humans go."
At this, the boy's eyes lit up. Giyuu wasn't quite expecting what came out of his mouth next. "Then you can let us go! I haven't ever hurt anyone, and neither has Nezuko! We'll never hurt humans, no matter what, so you can just let us go!"
A demon...who hasn't hurt any humans? Pieces started to come together in the back of Giyuu's mind, the dots connecting. Charcoal, him mentioning the last day specifically…
"Hey, boy," Giyuu said, his throat tightening, "What's your name?"
The boy paused for a moment. "My name is Kamado Tanjirou and this is my sister, Kamado Nezuko. We were both turned into demons just yesterday when our family was attacked by a demon in the mountains."
Kamado, same last name as that family I buried. That damned Saburo, Giyuu cursed, I knew there was something he was hiding!
Giyuu took a deep breath. This changed just about everything. In front of him sat two demons that were simultaneously defying everything he had learned about the monsters up to that point, and they were asking him to let them go.
He couldn't let them go, that much was certain. If he let them go and then they proceeded to attack somebody, it would be on Giyuu's head for letting them free in the first place. At that same time, if what they were saying was true, he couldn't very well kill them, either, at least not without it weighing on his conscience.
There isn't protocol for this, Giyuu thought, probably because this situation has never been thought of.
Demons were supposed to be rabid, unruly creatures when they were first turned. Tanjirou was not. Demons were supposed to be insane, merciless killing machines with no regard for human life. Tanjirou obviously was not. If what Tanjiou said was true and neither he nor his sister had killed or even harmed a single human, well…
"I need to take you back to headquarters." Giyuu said. It was the only thing he could think of. He had no doubt that the rest of the pillars would vow to kill the children on sight, no matter their situation, but he trusted Oyakata-sama's judgement, no matter what and under every single circumstance.
If Oyakata-sama wished to kill them, then that would be the end of that.
If Oyakata-sama had other plans, though, then it would be worth it to Giyuu in the end.
"Headquarters? You mean the demon slayer corps headqua-"
Tanjirou didn't get to finish his sentence, because a moment later, Giyuu was on the other side of the cave, smacking the boy on the head with the butt of his katana handle. It wouldn't kill him, far from it, but it would incapacitate him for at least a few hours, which is exactly what Giyuu needed.
Giyuu pretty much only moved at night. He still wasn't sure how he was going to get the two children all the way back to the corps headquarters considering that they were about three days of travel away, and that was when he was alone and could move at full speed. Hauling two unconscious demon children significantly slowed him, so he was looking at a week of travel at the absolute minimum.
He wasn't sure if he'd be able to keep tabs on the two demons for that long, especially if either of them woke up. Sure, he could keep knocking them out over and over until they got to their destination without worry of causing any lasting damage (they were demons and would just regenerate from any significant harm), but Giyuu also had to sleep. He could skip a few nights but an entire week of travel without rest was impossible.
So, after settling down in a cave in the mountains for the day, he began to contemplate how he could go about things. He'd already sent his crow ahead to notify Oyakata-sama of the situation and that he was en route, so he wouldn't be able to request a retrieval until the crow was back, and by the time that happened he'd be nearly back to headquarters. Giyuu wracked his brain for some sort of solution to make his job easier.
Finally, it came to him. Giyuu knew that he couldn't trust most of the pillars to not immediately kill the two demon children; he himself had taken a lot of convincing and hard evidence that Tanjirou was different than any other demon he'd encountered to not do the same. Without that knowledge, he had no doubt that somebody like Rengoku or Uzui would try to strike the siblings down the moment they understood that they were demons. Sometimes the hatred of demons just ran that deep that it was impossible to convince people otherwise.
There was one fellow pillar that he felt like he could trust, though. Her words echoed in Giyuu's mind. If a demon who has never harmed a human exists, a demon that chooses to starve itself rather than harm a person, I will take them in and nourish and care for them.
She'd certainly still take some convincing, but Giyuu felt that he'd at least be able to keep her from killing the children until Oyakata-sama could make a decision on what to do regarding the situation.
Pulling out his map, Giyuu confirmed that the estate was indeed much closer than the headquarters were. If he rushed and made good pace, he might be able to make it in a single night of travel.
Giyuu glanced between an unconscious Tanjirou and the sun outside. All that was left was to wait for nightfall again.
Tap tap tap.
Koucho Shinobu was a light sleeper. She'd almost been forced to be because of all the time she'd spent as a child with her sister on the run. Waking up at the sound of somebody shuffling into a room in the middle of the night could mean the difference between life and death for two young, orphaned girls, afterall.
Tap tap tap.
She was a light sleeper, so it was no surprise that she woke up at the sound of rhythmic tapping from somewhere else in the estate. Turning over in bed, Shinobu tried to drown out the noise with her pillow. It's probably just a branch hitting the house in the wind, she thought.
Tap tap tap.
She tried again to drown out the noise so that she could fall back to sleep. She had a mission she needed to leave for in just a few hours.
Tap tap tap.
The irritation began to set in
Tap tap tap.
"Ugh," she groaned, pulling herself out of bed. She threw on something light to cover up and headed for the exit of her room. Wherever the tapping was coming from, it would be best for the sake of her own sanity to double check on it. As she was about to slide the door open, her eye caught a glimpse of her personal, modified nichirin blade.
May as well, she thought, grabbing the sword and holding it under her arm. She doubted that there was a demon outside making the noise, but she figured she'd be safe. Although there was a ring of wisteria trees surrounding the butterfly estate to keep most demons out, there'd been a few times in the past where one or two slipped through, as the perimeter on the estate was far weaker than the protective rings around somewhere like headquarters or the mountain where final selections were held.
Tap tap tap.
With that, Shinobu slid her door open softly, trying to make as little noise as possible, not wanting to wake any of the girls. She followed the incessant tapping, eventually finding that the source of the unbearably consistent sound was actually the front door.
Carefully, Shinobu slid it open.
Standing right outside was a person Shinobu wasn't exactly expecting to see. Tomioka Giyuu stood in front of her, arm outstretched as if he were about to tap on the door once more.
Even more odd than his presence were the two figures he had with him. On his back was a girl in a pink-flowered yukata with a black haori over the top of it, and under his arm was a boy with maroon hair, odd, flame-like scar on his forehead, and a green and black checkered haori over his shoulders.
"Tomioka-san?" she said, voice flat but tinged with annoyance "What are you doing at this unholy hour?"
When Giyuu spoke, his voice was dead-serious, not at all like his nonchalant tone he usually held.
"I remembered what you said."
"Remembered what I…what are you saying, Tomioka-san? Who are these children?"
Giyuu continued. "I remembered what you said about demons. What you said about a demon that has never harmed a human."
Shinobu's heart skipped a beat and her fake smile was replaced by a look of genuine surprise.
Giyuu gestured to the two children. "I have two right here. I hope you'll keep your promise."
It had been hard to tell before, but now that Shinobu looked a little better, eyesight adjusting to the darkness, she noticed it. The boy and the girl, they both had claws adorning their hands and fangs where their canines should've been.