PART 1 - CRUELTY.
Deep in the recesses of rural Japan, and tucked safely at the base of a mountain that was small enough to be called a hill, there was a little town called Haiko.
The days moved sluggishly here. A war had happened recently, but it had happened on foreigns lands, and no one knew much about it besides from what they gleaned from the occasional broadcast the radio spat out, once the carpenter or one of his sons had got it to work. The few men that had returned from the war admitted precious little: they would not speak of the things they’d seen, the ghosts of the people who never came back. It was a strange period of adjustment. Life was sombre in Haiko, this town where nothing really happened, but at least there was peace.
For the family who lived on the mountain, however, all that was about to change.
Today the townsfolk awoke in high spirits: pathways were cleared of snow, businesses opened at the crack of dawn, and children played in the gardens while their grandfathers gathered over boardgames and cups of fresh-brewed tea. A note of excitement stirred the air. The new year was on the horizon, and finally, Haiko was rousing from its slumber.
“Is this for your feast preparations, Hitama-san?” The woman who owned the pottery store enquired of her customer. A stained apron fronted her kimono, and she wiped her hands on it before wrapping linen around a set of black lacquered bowls. It was one of her plainer pieces, but she was proud to see it go nonetheless. “Say, why don’t I throw in some decorated plates? It would go beautifully with these bowls.”
“Ah, Chiyo-san, you know I love your designs, but…”
“Don’t worry about paying.” Her eyes creased. “Consider it my gift to your family, for the new year.”
Hitama softened at that. She hoisted her basket onto the counter, flipped the lid, and extracted a bundle of bright red wool. “Well, I accept, but only on the condition that you take this scarf I made.”
“Hah? Don’t say that, Hitama-san, this is far more valuable than my silly bowls.”
“Your bowls are the most beautiful in town! Plus, look at this, this red goes so well with your complexion.”
“Complimenting an old woman like this, really now…!”
A splintering shatter from the storefront cut their conversation short. Chiyo’s eyes bugged straight out of their sockets. She rounded the counter in a flash, her concerned customer hot at her heels, and there, strewn tragically across the floor— “My vase!” She shrieked.
It was one of her larger pieces; elaborately patterned, newly made. There was no time to mourn her loss. She zeroed in on the young man hovering by the door, whose face was slack with shock.
“It - it wasn’t me,” His hands flew up in surrender as he backed away, but Chiyo was not in the forgiving mood - not when it came to the destruction of her precious goods. She grabbed him by the scruff of his neck and almost pushed his face to the floor.
“Do you know how long this took me?!” She seethed. “Three days! Three whole days!”
“Ow, ow! You’ve got the wrong idea old lady!”
“Chiyo-san, maybe there’s been a misunderstanding…”
“Pick it up. Now!”
She jerked him forward and he landed hard on his hands and knees, barely managing to avoid the scattered shards of clay. Face flushed with humility, he scooped the remains into a patch of linen that Chiyo dropped.
“What will you do, huh, you punk? How will you make up for three days of my life?”
“It’s not my fault, I’m telling you. It was that damned cat!”
Her nostrils flared. She clamped a heavy hand down on his shoulder “Telling lies now, ohoh, you shitty brat—”
“Chiyo-san? Is everything okay?”
The words were spoken softly. Everyone in Chiyo’s shop, hell, in the general vicinity stilled. The boy took advantage of the moment and wrested free from shop owner’s grip, and he all but fell at the feet of this newcomer. Surely they would be the one to save him from the witch’s wrath. Surely! He looked up…
… and saw a girl’s eyes, bright as amethyst, framed by ringlets of black. She tilted her head in question. His mouth went dry.
“Are you… a goddess?”
Kamado Tanjirou was a selfless person.
Naturally, as the eldest boy in the family, all his siblings looked up to him. He chopped wood with Takeo. He read with Hanako, he played with Shigeru. He cradled Rokuta to sleep, who wanted nothing more than to toy with his hanafuda earrings and his long red hair. He took care of his family with a smile and a laugh, as if nothing was amiss, but Nezuko knew better. She caught the grimaces he failed to conceal, the way he favoured his right side, the peculiar way he chose to sit.
Kamado Tanjirou really was a selfless person; his family knew it, and that was why they all worried for him.
“Onii-chan, where are you going?”
The strap of his charcoal-filled basket was slung over his shoulder. He wove an arm through the other strap, and glanced over his shoulder at his younger sister.
“I’m going to town,” Tanjirou said cheerily. “To sell some charcoal.”
“Don’t worry, Nezuko, I won’t be gone for long.”
“That’s not what I meant.” She placed herself in front of him, looked pointedly at his left knee, and crinkled her nose. “You can’t go anywhere when you’re hurt.”
“W-what? Hurt? Me? I feel fine!” Then he did that. He pulled the ugliest face she could imagine, his gaze wandering skywards to avoid eye contact. Nezuko thinned her lips to stop herself from laughing. Her brother couldn’t lie even if his life depended on it.
He seemed to sense the insistence in her tone, and he dropped the act. “You were able to tell, huh…” he trailed off with a weak laugh, looking slightly embarrassed.
“You shouldn’t go.”
“I’ll only go sell a little charcoal.”
“It’s dangerous enough with all this snow, and what if you make your knee worse? What if—”
Tanjirou patted her head and smiled, reassuring. She quietened. “Thank you for worrying about me, Nezuko, but please… could you let your brother off just this once? It’s almost the new year, and I want everyone to eat to their heart’s content.”
She didn’t know how to respond to that. Tanjirou was just as stubborn than she was, and he wanted nothing more than to make his family happy, especially on the first new year since their father passed. Then an idea occurred to her. “Why don’t I go in your place?”
“What?” Clearly he didn’t expect that. “Alone? You’ve never gone alone before.”
“I’ve went with okaa-san plenty of times before, I know my way around, and the townsfolk know me as well. ”
“Yes, but… I’m the eldest, how can I let my little sister do the hard work?”
“Hanako and the others are too small and they get tired easily, but I’m old enough, I can definitely do it.” The more she thought about it, the more reasonable it sounded. It was the perfect solution. Why didn’t she suggest it sooner? “You know I can. Okaa-san knows it too, and she would be happy if I started working.”
Still Tanjirou was unconvinced. “It’s dangerous - you said so yourself - and it’s a long way down the mountain.”
“And you’ll be quicker than me, I suppose, with your bad knee?”
That shut him up. She grinned.
“The basket, please.”
Truthfully, it had been a while since Nezuko last visited the town. Ever since their father died she had her hands full with caring for her younger siblings and helping her mother in any way she could, and since Mother didn’t often leave the mountain anymore, she didn’t either.
“Be careful, little bunny,” Mother had said when she told her about her plan. She straightened the ribbon on her hair, as she usually did, and waved her farewell with the children at her side, and Nezuko had promised to come back soon. It felt strange, saying goodbye. Now taking in the emptiness of the snowy plains did she realise that she had never been apart from her family. Ever since she was born, there was always someone nearby; her mother, her father, her brothers and sisters. I’ll be back soon, she promised again. I’ll bring lots of goodies for you, Takeo, Hanako, Shigeru, Rokuta. I’ll sell even more coal than Tanjirou. Mother, we’re going to eat a lot of yummy food for the new year.
She arrived in town an hour later. Despite it being so early, there were several people about; they threw glances her way and whispered to each other, but otherwise did not approach, regarding her as though she were a stranger. She adjusted the strap on her shoulders, feeling awkward.
“— how will you make up for three days of my life?!”
A commotion at the pottery store nearby drew her attention. She wandered closer, but no one else cared to watch the scene unfold, as if this just an average occurrence in Haiko. They were yet to notice her.
“It’s not my fault, I’m telling you. It was that damned cat!”
A dishevelled-looking boy, hugging a bundle of linen close to his chest, caught in the mercy of the shopkeeper. Nezuko didn’t recognise the boy, but… was that Chiyo-san looming over him? She had become larger since she last saw her, and she had a few more lines on her face - though that may very well be because it was contorted in fury.
“Telling lies now, ohoh, you shitty brat—”
“Chiyo-san?” Nezuko stepped forward. “Is everything okay?”
The activity slowed to a halt. Chiyo’s fierce scrutiny pinned her at the threshold, but after a beat, her expression blurred into confusion. Who is she? someone whispered. Taking advantage of the turn in situation, the boy jerked himself free and fell to Nezuko's feet, an appeal for help ready to spring forth - until he raised his eyes, and met her gaze, and his words were robbed from him. The customer in the shop covered her mouth. People stopped, and they stared.
“Are you… a goddess?”
The comment earned him smack on his head. Chiyo stepped over him and grasped Nezuko’s hand, her face bright and jovial, the polar opposite to how it was a moment ago. “Oh my, how embarrassing! Have you come to see my wares? Please, come in, come in, I’m so sorry for the mess.
“Thank you for the invitation, Chiyo-san, but I’m here to sell coal. Would you like some?”
“Coal?” She frowned. “What is a pleasant young lady like you doing with coal? Only the Kamado family makes… coal…”
Slowly, realisation sunk in.
“That’s Kamado Nezuko!”
“You mean that little girl from the mountain?”
“Nezuko…chan?” She bobbed her head in confirmation. Chiyo looked aghast.
“Well, why didn’t you tell me?!” She blustered, cupping her face. “You’ve grown so much! Oh, you must be so cold, coming down from the mountain on a day like this - let’s talk inside, yes?”
“Wait, I’ll take some coal!”
“Me too, me too! Say, why don’t you stay at my house for tea? Have you met my son?”
Nezuko ended up selling a lot of coal that day.
Nezuko hummed to herself as she ascended the mountain path. Fatigue wore at her joints but her spirits were lifted high after her day in town. Shop owners tried to press gifts into her hands, grandmothers flagged her down to introduce her to their grandsons, and everywhere she went the townsfolk expressed their concern over her hefty luggage, insisting over and over that they carry her basket for her. You’re a good girl, they said. Kind and hard-working, just like Tanjirou.
She accepted the compliments graciously and gave as she received. The rest of the day she spent browsing through the whole of town to catch up with familiar faces, saying hello to the younger kids who shied behind their mothers’ skirts, doing the odd job for the less-abled townsfolk. The basket had emptied itself of charcoal to be replaced with all sorts of goodies, and it was imagining the delight on her younger siblings’ faces that kept her going.
Nezuko was very proud of herself. The only problem was she stayed a little too long; Chiyo-san was fervent in her efforts to keep Nezuko at her house, so apologetic she was for not having recognised her straight away. But it was getting dark. Her family would want her back home as soon as possible.
Nezuko started. She glanced over to the left, where a house was camouflaged by a ring of trees, betrayed now by the lamp light glowing from the now-open window. It cast shadows on the face of an elderly woman, who was frowning at her.
“Who else would I be talking to?”
Nezuko hopped down from the path and approached, somewhat timid. “Are you okay, Grandma?”
Grandma waved her hand dismissively. She closed the window, leaving Nezuko alone in the dark, and she shifted uncomfortably from foot to foot. What a strange person. Before she could turn and resume her ascent, the door opened, and a beam of orange light cut through the night.
“You’re Kie’s daughter, aren’t you? Come inside, I’ll let you stay the night.” Her tone was stringent with urgency. Nezuko hesitated. It was a sweet gesture, but her family were waiting for her…
“You must. You know it’s dangerous when the sun goes down.”
“Grandma, I may be a girl, but I know this mountain. I’m not too far from home, actually.”
“Their kind don’t care if you’re a girl or a boy. They will eat you up and spit you out, and you won’t know what hit you. Now stop arguing and come inside.”
Nezuko blanched. “I don’t understand. What do you mean, ‘their kind’? Who are ‘they’?”
“Listen closely, little girl,” The old woman’s face was grim. “I’m talking about the demons.”
It was dark now, and Kamado Kie was worried. She had one eye on her children who were resting in the main room and one eye on the window, waiting for her eldest daughter to reappear from the woods. Rokuta was dozing in Tanjirou’s arms, and so was Hanako, her little hands fisting her big brother’s sleeve, snoring soundly despite her earlier insistence to stay up till Nezuko got back. Shigeru and Takeo were egging each other on on who would fall asleep first, and even Tanjirou was struggling to keep his eyes open.
“Okaa-san,” Tanjirou said, suddenly. “Something smells weird.”
“That was just Takeo.”
“Shut up, no it wasn’t!”
“Shigeru, stop teasing your big brother. Tanjirou, what do you mean?”
Tanjirou changed to a more comfortable position, careful not to jostle the two kids in his arms. A dull ache racketed up his knee when he moved. Nezuko was right to make him stay at home; if he had made the journey up and down the mountain, the pain would have debilitated him. While he was grateful she had offered to go in his stead, he too worried for Nezuko, as an older sibling should. She should have been back by now. And then there was that peculiar smell…
“I don’t know. It’s sort of sticky. Like bad eggs, or something.”
“Onii-chan, you’re really bad with words.”
“I guess you’re right…”
“I’ll get it!” Shigeru declared, and Tanjirou made a noise of protest, but the little boy was already at the door, Takeo half-a-step behind. He reached up on his tip-toes and pulled the door handle, using all his weight to open it.
“Onee-chan, onee-chan, what took you so long? Did you…”
And he trailed off.
“Hey, you’re not Nezuko!” Takeo shouted.
“No,” a velvety voice replied, faintly amused. “I’m not.”
Kie quickly wiped her hands, a knot growing in her belly. Across the room Tanjirou was getting up too, Hanako and Rokuta stirring in his arms. She pointed her chin at him. Stay there. She drew up behind Shigeru and Takeo and tugged their arms behind her skirts, face hardened.
The man at the door was certainly not familiar. He smiled politely at Kie, but the expression was offset by the look of his eyes; they were bleeding red, slitted like a snake. They pierced right through her. She tightened her grip.
“Is this the Kamado residence?” Again, he spoke formally, in an accent far removed from their rural region. He asked, yet his eyes were expectant, as though he already knew this was the right place. Kie couldn’t lie.
“Yes. Is there a problem?”
It was the wrong thing to say.
The stranger grinned a terrible grin, revealing fangs that pricked his rouged lips, and Kie realised too late, far too late, that this man was no man at all. He answered smoothly, “No, no, there is no problem at all.” Then he plunged his finger into her skull.