And we're back- shit happens, but my living situation has improved, giving me more leeway for writing.
They'd… 'cleared'? 'Beaten' the Dungeon of Fallen Leaves? Smashed that big skeleton 'boss monster' or whatever, and kissed Haru?
Then they'd… ended up outside the Dungeon, and Yukio's parents had congratulated them, the village had congratulated them, they'd gone to the inn, taken a nap… victory feast?
They'd all been individually 'rewarded' by the Dungeon… probably?
Rachnera was reasonably certain that's how things had gone.
Logically, there were things that had occurred between the moment where she tried to shove her tongue down Haru's throat while in the Dungeon, and the moment where they'd ended up half-naked in her bedroom.
Obviously, the part where she ended up on top needed no explanation.
… Was it unreasonable of her to want Haru to put his clothes back on so she could take them off him again? She'd missed some of the details the first time around.
"... Honestly, it was kind of impressive how you managed to carry multiple conversations with just 'is that so', and 'sounds amazing'." Haruhiro recounted.
"Oh? Sounds like I managed to sneak through the day."
"Everyone noticed but we all thought it was too cute to interfere with."
"... You know, I've been thinking Haru, but you've been getting awfully cheeky, haven't you?"
"Must be your bad influence."
"You mean my good influence."
Rachnera rolled all six eyes with a feminine little snort. Haru definitely had grown more witty and confident in the few months that she'd known him (though it always felt like much longer), but she certainly wasn't complaining.
Really, what girl would complain when the man she fancied started getting sexier?
But, speaking of sexy…
"Hmm… small talk is fun and all, but I'm much more interested in how I've got you caught in my web once more," Rachnera began, leaning down to bring their faces closer together. "I hope you're not planning to escape this time, are you~?"
"Only if you're escaping with me," Haruhiro smiled up at her.
Rachnera leaned in further, so that her bare breasts were pressing firmly against his chest, rather than teasingly brushing against it when they swayed with her breath.
Whoever had taken her top off was clearly planning ahead.
Confident in the protection of her newly gained Skill but not using it as an excuse to be careless, Rachnera gently stroked Haruhiro's cheek with her long and slender claws, quietly savoring that she could do so safely.
"No, no… I think we've waited long enough, don't you?"
He met her halfway when she leaned down for another kiss, and that felt like a pretty good answer to her.
'Every moment is a gift'.
Though it was hard to say how truly intentional it was, Rachnera's stubborn focus on the moment at hand was a pivotal aspect of how she'd managed to endure a violent and lonely life, at least without losing that fundamental decency within her heart.
It was why she'd rescued a battered and wounded human within a mine full of monsters, even though she expected to be despised for it.
And it was also why, once she regained her focus, she could savor each and every fraction of a second shared between herself and Haruhiro.
The shiver of skin beneath her claws.
Breath that quickened or slowed with every tease or caress.
Deep brown eyes that remained focused even as they clouded from pleasure, like a knife cutting through fog.
And a smile that faltered only when she made him gasp.
She wanted more.
She wanted everything.
The buried greed she'd never dared release had finally found an outlet. Even if it was only for a night, even if it was only for a moment, Haru belonged only to her… and she belonged only to him.
Even without words exchanged, she knew he felt it too, because his fingers were sinking into the elastic curve of her butt as if the only reason it existed was to be touched by him.
… Maybe Haru was pretty good at 'living in the moment' too.
But enough teasing.
She could feel it pushing insistently against her lower stomach, so hard that it must have almost been hurting him, so hot against her skin that it was almost hurting her.
Arachne didn't need to learn how to please a man, whether through sex or foreplay.
Rachnera had about a dozen methods in mind to bring Haru to completion, whether quickly or slowly.
… And she discarded them all in an instant, because they'd both been patient enough, and she didn't want to waste a drop.
Rachnera dropped her hips and was filled, and the voices of two normally quiet people made the walls shake.
A bolt of white light in a dark room left her momentarily stricken blind in all six eyes, and in the absence of sight she relied on touch, of the sensation of the lean and study body she was clinging to tightly with every limb that could reach.
But her vision cleared soon enough, and then went for a little swim as the first thing it was greeted with were mischievous dark brown eyes and a warm smile.
That fire that had lit itself low in her core had spread to her cheeks, it would seem.
Unable to help herself, Rachnera squirmed, the motion intensifying as something hot and stiff rubbed spots she hadn't known could be rubbed.
Haruhiro's low groan did wonders to settle her mushy thoughts, even as it made her heartbeat quicken.
… So they were right.
Having Haru inside her really did feel just a little magical- like she'd been missing something all along, and only noticed its past absence when she'd found it at last.
"-Yeah, I love you too, Rachner-aa!?"
Gazing down at him, Rachnera flashed a sultry, unrepentant little smirk.
It had been just a whim on her part, but clenching was a fun little way to 'interrupt' someone, it seemed.
… It was also a small and pleasant bit of revenge on her part, for the embarrassment that came from triggering a little orgasm in her just with a few words.
"Hm? Sorry Haru, I missed that, mind repeating yourself?" Rachnera teased, shaking her hips lightly for emphasis.
Darling that he was, he gave it a pretty good effort, one that was for nought as she shamelessly sealed his lips with hers.
While she was investigating the difference in shape between his tongue and hers, Rachnera replayed the stilted conversation, and realized that she'd said some fairly important words without meaning to.
Well… not without meaning to, just not when she'd meant to.
So she broke the kiss without warning, looked Haruhiro dead in the eyes as she gently placed a finger against his lips, and smiled.
"I love you, Haru, and even if maybe I don't need to, I'm still going to prove it to you, with something… like… this~"
Rachnera began swinging her hips in earnest, and soon, neither of them could have used words even if they'd wished to.
He had planned to warn her, really he did.
Except that Rachnera was taking advantage of being able to reach through her bed to wrap herself around him as tightly as she could, her arms and pedipalps gripping his body almost as tightly as her pussy was gripping his dick.
She was also kissing him so deeply that he was pretty sure every inch of their lips were in contact, her tongue in constant, sensual motion.
He tried 'tapping out' in a sense, then realized his blunder as her butt rippled beneath his palm.
… Surrendering to the moment and his impulses, Haruhiro gave Rachnera's big, curvy rear another light swat, feeling her entire body tremble, just barely able to hear her legs clatter past the throaty moan vibrating into his mouth.
Every motion of her body or his seemed to cause those hot folds to wriggle and clench against his shaft in new ways- a relentless, seductive assault that he honestly couldn't tell if it was fueled by intention or instinct.
… Probably a bit or both, judging by her expression.
Out of nowhere, a sudden clamping instantly wrung out his orgasm, and someone screamed, delirious and loud with bliss as the kiss ended just as abruptly.
Trying to blink away the stars that were abruptly dancing in the dimly lit room, Haruhiro was dimly aware of hot, uneven breath tickling his chest, and slid one hand up to stroke the smooth curve of a trembling back.
Hands clinging to his shoulders from beneath, Rachnera gave a contented hum, her expression hidden at that angle but hardly a mystery.
Savoring the brief lull of the afterglow, Haruhiro gave voice to a slightly off-key thought he'd had sometime earlier.
"Considering we're on a hammock, the bed is a lot less bouncy than I expected." It had bounced beneath them, obviously, but not really much more than a normal bed would.
Sliding her arms around so that she was resting her hands on the front of his shoulders, Rachnera pushed herself up to smirk wryly down at him, a few strands of lavender hair from her bangs clinging to her cheeks.
Haruhiro kind of wondered just what it was about girls that made them look even more attractive when their appearance was a little disheveled.
"Heh, I added a few extra 'anchors' from below, I guess you could say. Breaking the bed during sex has a certain appeal, but I can't say the same about bouncing like a leaf in a gale while we're joined at the hips."
"I'm open to experimenting, but that would be a little much for my first time." Rachnera admitted casually.
Haruhiro froze, and she gave him a funny look as he stared up at her.
"... Is it that surprising I've never been with a man?" Rachnera looked away.
"Sorry, I didn't mean it like that…" Haruhiro apologized with a shake of his head. "You're just so confident that it seems like you've already got it all figured out, at times."
"Heh, if only," Rachnera murmured under her breath, features softening.
Getting offended when it was Haru of all people was foolish of her.
… She'd figured out a long time ago that she didn't need to fear his true thoughts about her.
"Well, admittedly, I'm not one hundred percent sure if I am a virgin or not," Rachnera admitted carelessly, something she'd berate herself for more than once in hindsight.
Haruhiro froze, but the air around him was very, very different this time.
It made her skin prickle.
"Sorry, that was worded poorly on my part," Rachnera shook her head, smiling as gently as she could and lamenting that it probably wasn't all that gentle, "All I mean is, well… girls."
Haruhiro's tension was replaced by confusion almost immediately.
"Well…" Rachnera lifted her hands, forming a ring with the fingers of one hand and thrusting two fingers back and forth into that ring in a blatantly suggestive gesture. "It's pretty obvious at what point you stop being a virgin when it's between a man and a woman, but I've honestly never considered how it works when your first time was between two girls?"
"... Huh, yeah, I've never really thought about that," Haruhiro admitted.
"Right?" Rachnera lifted her hands with a shrug. "But I really am sorry, Haru, I didn't mean to imply that something… 'bad' might have occurred, guess my pillow talk needs a little work, huh?"
"Oh no, I guess we'll have to practice," Haruhiro complained with a deadpan voice and a twinkle in his eyes.
"Ufufu~ well… speaking of… practice~"
And just like that, the erection he didn't know he still had was snugly engulfed by the Arachne's dripping folds, her smirk widening at his reaction.
"Mm, yes, I like that expression much better…" Rachnera purred, gaze hot with desire as she loomed over him. "Don't hold back on my account, Haru… Let. Me. See. You. Squirm~"
He didn't really get a chance to answer, but Rachnera seemed to like that just fine.
Unlike Centorea, Rachnera could lay on her back quite comfortably, as her multi-limbed lower body was both much lighter and much more flexible.
It gave them a few more positions they could try, and Rachnera could admit to herself that she liked having Haru on top more than she expected.
… Maybe because if she was going to be 'preyed upon' by anyone, Haru would be her first choice.
Or it was kind of fun that she could 'counter attack' much more than expected, who knew she could appease her sadistic side while on the bottom?
Not that she was doing much of that- a bit of teasing was fine (and probably expected, really), but there was a big difference between an assertive lover and a selfish one.
And Haru was far from a selfish lover- and good with his hands to the point where she couldn't tell if it was him or her that was enjoying the way he played with her boobs.
… Speaking of boobs, she kind of wanted to try that thing Tio mentioned…
Later, maybe when she needed a break from having Haru inside of her.
… Okay, so they probably weren't getting to it tonight, but there was no need to rush.
Haruhiro shifted angles a bit, and then, even Rachnera's inner voice couldn't find its words.
Even naked, Rachnera managed to make lying on her side with Haruhiro as a body-pillow look surprisingly graceful, but if anyone had peeked in on them, that wouldn't have been the first thing they noticed, if it were someone who knew her.
No, what they'd notice was her innocent and carefree smile, and perhaps be a little (pleasantly) surprised at how at home it looked upon features far more accustomed to wearing a smirk.
[Silken Embrace] was the name of the skill Rachnera had acquired after helping defeat the Gashadokuro and clear the Dungeon of Falling Leaves.
The relation between the boss and her Skill was… pretty much non-existent, but she wasn't going to complain.
The sole purpose of the Skill was to 'blunt' her claws, like there were invisible, chitin-tight sheathes over her claws, and the sharp points of her legs that kept her from cutting anyone she didn't intend to.
It meant that she could hug, and caress, and make love without worrying about slicing Haru open. It also didn't hinder her from using her claws for what they were for- all perks and no drawbacks.
Sure, there were 'limitations' in that it seemingly had no effect on her venom, but it also had 'leeway' in that for the first time in her life, Rachnera could leave hickies without leaving scars.
… So many hickies.
No silly scarf (even a quality silly scarf she'd woven herself) was going to hide that she'd staked her claim at long last.
Haru was a good sport about it too, striking the cutest balance between proud and embarrassed.
Really, it was a wonder they'd made it out of her bedroom at all.
… And, well, if her desire to 'try out' different locations was a part of that, who could blame her?
Victory highs were fluffy emotions, it seemed.
At least for the party.
Oh sure, they'd beaten some dangerous foes in the past, and triumphed in moments where one wrong step could lead to death, but…
The feeling of having beaten a so-called 'boss monster' and cleared a Dungeon on purpose somehow sweetened the victory, and not just because they weren't still reeling from surviving said victory.
"Probably doesn't hurt that this is the first time we got into a big fight all together, and at the same time," Tio pointed out.
"... Huh, yeah, come to think of it, I guess you're right," Haruhiro agreed.
"Speaking of gaining confidence, it seems to me that you've grown rather less bashful about being in our presence during… certain occasions," Iormu pointed out.
"... Huh, yeah, come to think of it, I guess you're right," Haruhiro agreed.
"... Experience?" Yukio suggested in a mild tone.
""... Huh, yeah, come to think of it, I guess you're right,"" everyone agreed.
… Tio's giggle broke the silence first, and the others each took their cue to join in the laughter.
Yukio probably had the right of it, they could all agree.
It wasn't that strange for Haruhiro to be more comfortable with them while naked, when he'd been inside of most of them while naked.
If anything, Shu'ni was the most shy, but that was easily balanced out by the muted joy she displayed at being able to join in more group activities- that 'safety line' trick she'd used to help care for Haruhiro when he was hurt allowed her to join them all in the onsen.
Of course, she could freely accompany them for group baths within the Twilight Manor, and often did, but being able to join them outside of that little otherworld was understandably more special for her.
Slowly and subtly, Shu'ni was growing accustomed to being viewed as 'one of them'- learning to take pride in the role she played, to always ensure that they had a 'home to return to'.
And though the day she admitted it seemed far distant, she had come to take some small, ever so slight measure of pride in that her master looked at her the same way he looked at the other women in his life.
For the first time in her long life, Shu'ni was beginning to feel a glimmer of pride in being a woman.
… Now, if only she could keep her heart in its proper place whenever Haruhiro smiled at her.
They'd all agreed to take a few days to rest and relax after clearing the Dungeon, enjoying the festive mood that had resurged with a vengeance after the Dungeon had been cleared.
Contrary to its name, the Hidden Village, didn't take a lot of encouraging to get into a festive mood.
And the party would have likely ended up at the center even if they weren't the stars of the show, moving everywhere at once as if they could experience absolutely everything at once.
… And doing a good job of pulling it off, too.
Perhaps understandably, Yukio had some clear hesitation, but…
"Ah… go ahead without me… I think I will sit this… out."
"Of course, if you wish to sit I do not mind," Centorea nodded, as Yukio was placed upon her back by a helpful Tio.
'That was not quite what I meant' was somewhere along the lines of what Yukio had intended to say, but…
Then Haruhiro vaulted up onto Centorea's back behind her, and the words never passed Yukio's lips as warm arms encircled her waist.
The last of her hesitation was forgotten entirely by the time lunch rolled around, and did not resurface again.
"Are you sure this is alright, Master Haru? What of the others?"
"Hm? Yeah, it's fine, the others are all doing their own thing, and I'm doing my own thing," Haruhiro explained. "With you, that is."
Shu'ni covered her mouth with one hand, giving a soft giggle.
"Well then Master Haru, I will happily accompany you in 'doing your own thing'," she smiled.
Haruhiro grinned back, settling in against the tree, and Shu'ni did the same, close enough that their hips were almost touching.
He'd taken advantage of their rest break to take Shu'ni on that picnic date they'd talked about, seating themselves on a blanket beneath the low hanging branches of a darkwood tree.
A warm and gentle breeze was blowing from who knows where, and the soft light that mimicked an early morning sun lent a peaceful glow to the manor garden.
It was a good way to take a bit of a break from all the celebrating- fun though it was, Haruhiro wasn't really used to or comfortable with all the noise and the crowds. Rachnera wasn't either, which was why she'd elected to take an afternoon nap back at the inn.
Despite the relaxed nature of their little date, Shu'ni's demeanor quickly turned serious, almost grave.
"Daifuku, was it?" She murmured, staring intently at the small, roundish rice cake clasped between her fingers, the one she'd taken a bite out of to better reveal its 'inner secrets'. "It pairs most excellently with the green tea you favor, and with Miss Yukio's aid, I have begun to get a handle on prepare this 'rice' that has been appearing in our pantry…"
"... We have rice?"
"Forgive me Master Haru, I did not wish to inform you of the new ingredient until I could actually prepare it for you," Shu'ni apologized, glancing briefly away from the pastry she was examining so carefully. "I would be a failure of a maid if your estate adjusted to your palate before I did."
"I like everything you make, so I don't think you have to compete there," Haruhiro commented drily.
"Ah, thank you for your kind words, Master Haru." Her examination seemingly concluded, Shu'ni popped the rest of the daifuku into her mouth, closing her eyes blissfully as she bit into the red bean paste filling.
It truly did pair well with the green tea, and as the treat had met the approval of both her master, and their foremost expert on sweets (Miss Tio, naturally), Shu'ni intended to learn to make them as early as possible.
Madame Yukine had provided a recipe, but being able to eat the finished product herself was a vital step in understanding the sweet.
… Her first and arguably most important observation was that anything tasted better when she was sharing it with her master, but she had learned other things as well!
Truly… she felt so incredibly blessed to have her master desire her company.
To perhaps… even if it was for only just a moment… to have her master desire her.
No… no, it was best she not be too greedy.
Though… perhaps if he himself wished it, then it could not be helped… if perhaps he wished to…
"I'd like to-" Master said "-as well, if you don't mind."
"Yes Master, that sounds lovely," even if she had not precisely heard all of what he had just told to her, Shu'ni was sure her response was appropriate.
… A hand on her cheek, gently turning her face his way… ah, he truly did have the most fascinating eyes, and…
His lips were just warm enough for their touch against her own to feel soothing-
Shu'ni's thoughts came screeching to a halt as Haruhiro responded to her unintentional but true request by kissing her gently on the lips.
Haruhiro leaned back and withdrew, and Shu'ni slowly lifted a quivering hand to her lips, where his warmth still lingered.
… Ah, she must have been dreaming the whole thing after all, perhaps she had dozed off after finishing her preparations for their date, and anticipation had led her imagination astray in delightful fashion.
"No, no, that really happened."
"... I understand, Master Haru," Shu'ni replied past her finger tips, which didn't hinder her speech at all, somehow.
Haruhiro smiled patiently, and said nothing for a moment or two while the maid's mind caught up to the situation.
And when it did, it was impossible to miss.
Shu'ni's nature as an amorphous shapeshifter meant that certain 'reactions' of hers manifested in ways that no one else could pull off, Haruhiro was then reminded.
With no small amount of fascination, he watched the bloom of vivid red that had appeared upon her cheeks spread… and spread… and spread.
Until the furious blush on the dizzily swaying maid covered everything above her shoulders, even to the liquid tip of her ponytail.
Shu'ni had once explained that her 'blush' was a change of color associated with a change in internal temperature, which, Haruhiro couldn't help but notice, handily explained the faint but visible steam rising off of her head.
With a whimper, the Shoggoth slowly closed her eyes, and covered her burning cheeks with her hands, finding herself equal parts dismayed and elated at how that didn't hinder her view of that warm and gentle smile in the least.
"... You okay, Shu'ni?" Haruhiro asked amusedly.
"... M-Master Haru, I am aware t-this is terribly rude, but please do not speak to me for a moment," the maid pleaded. "I fear that if I grow any happier, my heart may beat its way from my breast."
Trying not to laugh, Haruhiro sat himself back down at her side, reclining on his hands slightly as he waited for her to gather herself.
As the 'blush' began to recede, Haruhiro, without glancing her way, flipped over the hand he had resting on the blanket between them in a silent offer.
Slow and furtive, a delicate, pale hand placed itself atop his, shivering somewhat when his fingers closed around it.
…. Another night where the village shone brighter than the stars above.
… Where the boughs and branches danced with spirits and echoes of laughter, the forest sharing in the mirth of those it kept tucked safely away.
… Warmth… and love… and light…
How they loathed it.
How they longed to smother each and every light, trample each and every life.
Yet the ever shifting trails had denied their passage time and time again… and thus, only those who strayed out from beneath the forest canopy had been theirs to take.
Even the demon at the heart of the woods had ignored their trespass, a maddening slight upon their honor that only its death would atone for.
A challenge? A slaughter? Kill? Die? They were desperate, and anything would do.
Even if that night had offered the most 'respite' and the bloodstains on their hooves had yet to dry, even if they were certain the forest could not deny them for much longer, it was not enough.
It would never be enough.
As was often the case, Centorea was the first of the party to awaken, rising with the sun.
So admittedly, she was somewhat surprised to find that Yukio's parents had seemingly been and gone, breakfast covered and left out in the dining room, with a note on the table saying that Yukine and Gorou would return soon.
Seemed a bit odd, but hardly a cause for concern.
… If only that impression had proven correct, they all would have been better off.
Regrettably, it wasn't all that strange for people of the Hidden Village to go missing.
The Forest of Spirits may have looked kindly upon them, but that did not necessarily extend to the Yokai within, and it was undeniable that even a somewhat friendly forest was dangerous to the unwary.
But even still, they had let their guard down, let themselves be swept up in the festive mood.
It had been a long time since the Dungeon of Fallen Leaves had been bested- for most, it was the first time in their lifetime.
And… it wasn't all that strange for their village's lone Kunoichi to vanish for days on end.
Goryu wasn't exactly the sort to announce her return to begin with, but still…
It was pushing the limits of how long she went unobserved, and the early-rising and sociable woodcutters also hadn't been seen. At least, not since they drunkenly excused themselves from the party last night.
So the villagers had gathered in the village square to organize search parties to seek them out and bring them home.
That had been their intention, but-
The whole square jumped in unison as a breathless voice screamed that out from behind, and they turned as one with still racing hearts to find that Sayaka had arrived, the Shirohebi leaning on her hands, breathless and disheveled.
"S-Sayaka?" Yukine stammered out as she made her way over, offering her hands to pull the serpent upright. "What's wrong, sweetie?"
"Y-you can't leave!" Sayaka stammered, voice cracking. "None of you can! I-if you leave to… if you leave to search for them y-you'll…"
"Sayaka, take a deep breath," Yukine gently urged, masking her own alarm. "We're all listening, so take your time."
Sightless eyes closed, and a long deep breath stilled the shivering of serpentine scales.
"You Witnessed something, didn't you, Sayaka?"
"Yes," The Shirohebi replied, a single word heard by all.
"It does not matter if you leave alone, or in numbers…" Gravely her voice carried as her milky white eyes opened. "The first 'search party' from the village to leave in search of our missing neighbors…"
The Oracle took one long, shaky sigh before she revealed her Prophecy to all.
"No matter which direction they travel, and for how long, no matter how carefully they move, each and every member of the search party will die."
She didn't know what to do.
No mother could easily make up her mind when her choice could put her only child at risk.
And so Yukine was at a total loss.
Exhausted from serving as a vessel for a Prophecy as painfully precise as the one she had revealed, Sayaka had barely made it back home, and collapsed the moment she did.
But before the Shirohebi had surrendered to slumber, she had haltingly revealed the rest of her vision to Yukine alone.
… That there had been only one exception to the unknown demise she had Witnessed.
Of those born in the village, it was Yukio alone who was not certain to die if she set forth.
… But it was not guaranteed that she would survive, only that her chances of surviving existed.
Her chances of surviving could be one in a hundred, for all they knew.
The method to increase those chances was obvious, and equally hard to swallow.
Sayaka's Prophecy carried no warning of how their guests may fare if they went out to search.
… Not a single hint, whether of success or ruin.
… And just what was Yukine to do, with knowledge like that?
Upon her return, Yukine walked into the dining room and straight into her daughter's arms.
"Y-Yukio?" The older woman questioned, confused but far from unwilling, as her arms encircled her daughter by reflex.
"Feel better… Okaa-san?" Yukio asked without inflection.
"Ufufu~ what a cute daughter I have~!" the Yuki-Onna squealed, somehow without raising the pitch of her voice at all, nuzzling her daughter's hair affectionately.
Yukio accepted the escalation with good grace, able to feel some of the tension vanishing from her mother's body.
"... While I have you… Okaa-san, tell me what you want me to do."
Yukine went rigid, but her daughter's intentions were blatant from the way the hug tightened.
"... It might be dangerous."
"But I'm strong… and more importantly… not alone." It was a big step for Yukio in a sense, realizing that she had people she could ask for help.
"... You're a century too early to be all grown up, young lady."
"... Rejected. Century is too long to wait… for Haru to hold me."
"... You've got me there~" Yukine conceded with a little laugh. Another century was way too long to wait for grandbabies.
The two women relaxed their grip on one another, Yukine twisting so that she could look to the rest of the party, who had watched the exchange in silence.
… Yukio had such good friends, didn't she~?
"... During your time exploring the Dungeon, there started to be strange sightings around the Thousand Valley…"
"In a sense, I am glad we were informed," Centorea admitted as they reached the edge of the forest. "If it is in fact a Centaur and their master causing trouble, then I am duty-bound to see them answer for their misdeeds."
What the villagers assumed to be a Centaur and rider, spotted from afar but keeping to the mists that constantly pervaded the Thousand Valley, in any season and any weather.
In truth, the assumption was only made due to how the silhouette roughly resembled herself with Haru or Yukio on her back, but Centorea took no offense- if she was the only Centaur to have visited the village in recent memory, then it couldn't be helped.
Naturally, they could not assume guilt, either, but one of her people skulking about an abandoned place bore investigation- it really wasn't something the average Centaur did, and even if they were not the culprit, it was possible they might have some inkling of who or what was the culprit.
It had to be a serious threat, if its mere presence was enough to keep the village prisoner.
It had to be, but Centorea had no idea how far her imagination was destined to fall short of the truth.
The Thousand Valley reminded her of her birthplace, which was why Rachnera could confidently confirm that she hated it.
All rock and ravine, tall cliffs wearing mist like a veil.
The trails hadn't been overly treacherous in spite of that, it was less that it was hard to see where they were going, and more hard to see just about everything else.
… As if the stupid place wanted people wandering all through it.
Which was precisely why, as Rachnera took point, it was scent and not sight that alerted her first.
Perhaps it was the huntress in her speaking, but no scent would ever come close to being as rich and heady as blood.
Even if the scent wasn't entirely fresh.
Lifting her arm without looking, she brought the group to a halt, them going silent behind her as they waited on her words. A few more paces, and there they were vivid against the chalky-white stone.
The tracks somewhat resembled the cloven hooves of a deer, the shapes both thicker yet sharper in a way that reminded Rachnera almost of bird talons.
And that was before she got to the part where whatever it was had hooves almost twice as large as Cerea's.
"Well, I hope no one was hoping for a normal explanation," Rachnera joked softly to hide her discomfort.
She was aware that there was plenty out there that she hadn't seen, but even so… those hoofprints were just wrong on some deep level, and she both did and didn't wish she understood why.
Though Centorea confirmed that they didn't belong to a Centaur (as no Centaur had cloven hooves), even Iormu didn't have any idea what those prints may have belonged to.
… Unfortunately, the place where those tracks led to was impossible to miss.
They could tell she was a woman with dark hair, and what they could make out of her outfit resembled Yukio's combat outfit, though with a preference for purple and black, with a clear emphasis on ease of movement.
Yukio hesitantly identified the woman as the Kunoichi, Goryu, trying not to look too closely at what had become of her.
Something heavy had struck Goryu on the top of her head with dreadful force.
Hard enough that what was left of her skull had been driven through what was left of her ribcage.
The bloody hoofprints suddenly made too much sense.
Grimacing, Haruhiro gently pulled the body from its sitting position, laying the corpse as flat as he could in its ruined state.
"... Yukio, freeze her over. We'll bring her back after we find the others." Haruhiro tonelessly instructed, and the Tsurara-Onna flinched forward, spurred out of her sad daze by his words.
Ice crept over the corpse a moment later, coarse in order to hide the devastation that had been wrought.
"Two days, give or take," Rachnera was the first to speak, several long moments later. With one finger, she tapped the side of her nose by way of explanation. "Depending on how active… whatever that is, the others might still have a chance-"
A sharp gasp, accompanied by a brief clatter of hooves cut her off.
Everyone's gaze whipped in the same direction, to find Centorea with her gaze directed slightly high and to the side, her face ghostly pale and her long ears quivering ever so slightly.
… The last time Haruhiro had seen an expression like that, they'd faced the possibility of an entire mountain falling on their heads.
Centorea showing actual, genuine fear was so shocking that looking at whatever she was looking at honestly slipped his mind for a moment or two.
But when he dragged his gaze away, the first thing he did was wish he hadn't.
It stared down at them with bloodshot eyes from across the chasm, its side elevated by about a dozen or so feet.
Its body was arranged perpendicular to them, only its heads twisted to face them.
In silhouette, it would have looked much like a Centaur and her rider, both torsos clearly feminine in shape, matching, filthy blonde ponytails hanging from the back of their heads like frayed, grimy ropes.
But the Centaur's head was elongated strangely, as if pulled into the shape of a horse's head instead of a woman's, and while her hooves were long and sharp… the rider… didn't quite have legs at all.
Instead of a saddle, it was as if the rider's legs had simply melded with the Centaur's flanks, blurring the distinction between rider and mount.
The handle of the broken lance in the Centaur's 'hand' had been driven into her forearm like a crude splint, caked blood and grime welding it further in place. The rider, meanwhile, bore no weapon, but her sole remaining arm dragged its elongated fingers upon the ground, as if the limb had been stretched to the point it scarcely resembled its original state.
Both rider and mount were dreadfully thin, to the point of emaciation, but it meant little when the duo were tall enough to make even Tio seem short.
Bared ribcages with an uncanny resemblance to wide open maws, and… Between the two of them, seemingly not a single scrap of skin, meat and muscle glistening wetly in the feeble light of the valley.
It was Tio who broke the horrified silence, and she did so by being violently ill.
That no one moved to help her was proof of how the awful sight transfixed them.
The next to speak was Centorea, and she managed but one word, her normally clear and gallant voice trembling and weak.
"... You recognize those Undead, Centorea?" Iormu questioned thickly as the wretched thing continued to stare, motionless.
"Our greatest fear and our greatest shame…" Centorea shot a stricken glance Haruhiro's way. "When the Curse of the No-Life King grips both Knight and Master together, this… this is the result."
Soul and corpse all a-tangled in a desecration of loyalty and devotion.
A two-souled monstrosity galloping forth in endless pursuit of callous slaughter and twisted honor, bound to the form of the most gruesome cavalier.
It remained motionless as a sickly wind swept a drab cloud of mist over the chasm, obscuring it from sight.
Only when those burning, bloodshot eyes faded from view could they breathe again.
"W-we have to fight that!?" Tio's voice was cracked and shrill.
"Spirits reject the Undead," Iormu murmured. "The forest must be keeping it out, but… it is only a matter of time. The dead will always pursue the living. We must… we must…"
… They had to stop it.
The Gashadokuro, that towering giant of bone that they had bested days prior, seemed almost cute now, in comparison to the unliving horror they had just witnessed.
"Is… it gone?" Someone asked, the voice too feeble to make out."
"No," Centorea denied immediately, her face still pale but her eyes narrowed and unblinking. "I can see it, but only just… it seems to be backing… away…"
It was backing away…
No… it was backing up.
Her eyes snapped wide, and then she was shouting, fear bringing strength to her voice.
That was the only warning they were given before the mist fled before a hulking, soaring body, and Nuckelavee came screaming over the ravine to land in their midst.
The Nuckelavee probably just wants a hug, hopefully the party doesn't jump to conclusions.
… But damn, I've been waiting to write a Nuckelavee for so long, and they're creepy enough without making both 'halves' of the creature people. There's a very good reason they speak and think in plural.
To put things in further perspective, the first creature to refer to a 'demon' was Death Spots, all the way back in Chapter 13, and Death Spots was terrified by the thought.
Meanwhile, the Nuckelavee caught wind of the demon as well, and developed the desire to throw hands with it.
Good indication that it's an existence of a far higher order.
But I gave you fluff and smut to help ease you into it (like Shu'ni's supernatural power of blushing violently), so next chapter we're down to get wild.
PS: Rachnera's reference to her 'other' romantic partner, as well as her birthplace, will be important later, so keep those details in mind.