Took a little unplanned break from writing for a good chunk of December, but ready to hit the ground running.

It had been two days since they embarked on their roughly week-long trek from the Hidden Village to the Lonesome Field Outpost.

Two days since Yukio left the home of her birth for the second time, this time, with a proper farewell.

Her mother had cried and hugged all of them (multiple times), which had flustered the more withdrawn members of the party… Iormu most of all, who could fully appreciate the irony of being fussed over by a woman a third of her age.

Her father had fussed over them as well, just with less hugs and crying. At least until his 'sweet little girl' was actually walking away, after which loud bawling could be heard for a long, long way into the start of their journey.

Despite blushing for the first fifteen minutes of the trip, Yukio didn't really seem unhappy at the send-off.

Sayaka had been there to see them off as well, and had rather shyly asked if they'd visit again in the near future, blushing rather intensely when he confirmed as much.

Guess it took her a lot of courage to ask, he knew he'd been bad at asking things like that back before he'd met the girls.

One of the girls had murmured something along the lines of 'number seven, huh?' when that was going on, but Haruhiro didn't have a clue what that meant.

Since then, their days on the road had been quiet and peaceful. They'd seen a few monsters here or there once they left the confines of the forest, but none willing to have a go at a group their size, so the only violence to occur had been a quick hunt when Rachnera got in the mood for catching her own breakfast.

Through an icy door, Shu'ni would join them whenever they made camp, so it ended up feeling more like a vacation than an adventure.

Fitting, as their voyage from the Hidden Village to the Lonesome Field Outpost would be one of their most peaceful journeys.

… Everyone in the group wondered if that was a bad sign at least once, given their luck, but no one gave it voice, content to appreciate the good times when it lasted.

… And the very moment they made it to the Lonesome Field Outpost, Rachnera was ambushed.

"So tall!" "Pretty!" "Look at 'em, they're bigger than my head!" "Bigger than her head too!"

A small mob of what Haruhiro had first assumed were Arachne children had practically surrounded Rachnera, looking up at her with rapt fascination.

… Rapt fascination that soon found Rachnera turning into a curvy jungle gym.

"The Weavers are just as charming and rambunctious as ever, I see," fond amusement was evident in Iormu's voice as she watched with a hand on her cheek.

"'Weavers'?" Tio said. "Oh, are these the small-breed Arachne we've been hearing about?"

The adventurers of the Lonesome Field Outpost had befriended a nearby colony long ago, and lived in harmony with them ever since.

Aside from the tallest being about a foot shorter than Haruhiro, their most distinct trait was their mono-chromatic complexion. Unlike Rachnera, the color of their hair, skin, and chitin all matched, with soft pink being the most common color but purples and blues present as well.

And where Rachnera had lush curves and sharp chitin, the small breeds were more slim and adolescent in profile, and didn't seem to possess any sharp edges at all, whether it be claws or the tips of their eight legs. Twintails seemed to be the standard hairstyle, and it had been a long time since Rachnera had grown her hair out enough to pull off that.

"W-would you get off me!?"

"Okay!" "Sure!" "Roger roger!"

Six eyes were left blinking in confusion as Rachnera abruptly found herself unburdened, clearly not having expected to have her request promptly obeyed.

"... Weren't you nervous at all?" Rachnera softly asked the expectant little crowd, after a moment. "What would you have done if I was Feral?"

Small breed Arachne were one of two breeds that were Liminal-only, so she suspected they might have just forgotten the possibility in their excitement-

"Nah, we knew already." "Uh huh, could tell right away." "Too many friends for one." "Also, you're hot." "Ferals are scary and hot, you're just hot." "Well not just hot, like… super hot." "Super duper hot." "Yeah!"

Several seconds of silence passed, and Rachnera gave a brief huff of laughter.

"Alright, alright, you've made your point." Rachnera said with a soft smile that soon twisted into a smirk. "But you know, I'm not the only person around here who you can climb all over, and my friends are way more touchy-feely than I am."

Almost a dozen twin-tailed heads swiveled in unison to gaze at the party with clusters of big round eyes that glittered like sapphires or emeralds.

"Turn around is fair play," Haruhiro nodded, accepting that he'd had all too much fun watching Rachnera get crawled on.

Seconds later, the party was learning that, just like Rachnera, Weavers were a lot lighter than their comparatively large lower bodies suggested.

The party very quickly discovered that Lonesome Field Outpost did not live up to its name.

Mostly because the place was more lively than 'lonesome'- the first clue had been how Centorea had been able to hear the settlement long before anyone could see it. Dominating the center of a sprawling field covered in coarse, scraggly grass was a walled-in military encampment nearly the size of Altana, and sounding more like a bustling marketplace than anything else.

When Tio said as much, Centorea suggested that the place had probably gotten its name before the alliance with the Weaver colony, and no one had seen fit to change the name.

Because it quickly became apparent that the friendly Weavers were at the heart of the festive atmosphere.

For Rachnera most of all it was a culture shock- where medium-breed Arachne such as herself tended to be fiercely solitary (and never a day passed where she couldn't appreciate the irony), she hadn't seen a Weaver yet moving on her own, whether her company was Weaver or Human.

Not that she had any way of knowing, but even Rachnera herself was almost abnormally social by medium-breed standards.

She was drawing a lot of gazes from her smaller kindred, but it was fascination not fear, and even the Human gazes that lingered mostly seemed to stem from seeing an Arachne a solid two or three feet taller than they were accustomed to.

When she thought about it, though… of the four major settlements she'd visited in her life, Altana alone was the only one that had been less than welcoming. Probably something to do with being the only one without a prominent Liminal population, but honestly, she was kind of fond of the place anyways.

It was Haru's 'birthplace' after all, and the reason they'd all been able to meet.

So with wry amusement, Rachnera found herself briefly distracted with happy reminiscing about a place she could happily never return to.

Blissfully unaware that the next time the past caught up with her, it wouldn't be nearly as pleasant.

"... Did anyone else forget we were part of an army?" Tio asked casually, looking up at the sign for the Crimson Moon Volunteer Army as they moved down the main road towards the big wooden building.

"Iormu and I never got signed up, so really, you're part of an army." Rachnera shrugged with her arms crossed.

"Do you want to?" Haruhiro asked. "Makes it easier to get paid for doing the things we'd be doing anyways." He was pretty sure no one really cared about whether everyone in the party was Crimson Moon or not, but being a full member did come with a few perks.

"Sure, why not."

Iormu offered a nod of assent, saying "If memory serves, from time to time we may be drafted into a larger conflict, but there's little use of only you and I having the option to decline." Since they'd never make use of that right.

Rachnera accepted the point with another shrug, before flashing a smirk as she got a better look at the place they were going to. "Well at least we don't have to worry about doors. Also, it smells just great."

The first floor of the Red Moon Office had an open-front design, so as far as they could see, there weren't any doors on the first floor.

But it wasn't a tavern, like Brittany's place back in Altana.

… The first floor of the Red Moon Office was…

"A butcher shop?"

It was indeed a butcher shop or something similar- rows of what looked like oversized chicken drumsticks hung from the rafters on heavy meat hooks that Yukio noted had a faintly pleasant 'chill' of magic.

'Oversized' in the sense that they'd be impressive if none of the party had seen a Storuche. In comparison, the birds of the plains yielded drumsticks as tall as Haruhiro, while whatever these were had legs just about as long as Haruhiro's legs.

Once again, Haruhiro had been unable to escape his fate as a unit of measurement.

Perhaps because it was midday, the shop was empty save for the man behind the counter… or maybe the shop was empty because of the man behind the counter.

Because somehow, the bloodstained apron the man was wearing felt like a fairly minor and innocent detail.

He was both enormous and intimidating enough in appearance to be Gorou's long lost brother… enough so that Yukio confusedly murmured 'uncle?' under her breath. A silhouette so broad with muscle that Haruhiro was left with the odd but fitting mental image of a square mountain. Even his bushy black beard looked solid somehow.

Looking up at them from the cleaver he was sharpening (hefty enough to still be a cleaver for Tio and a sword for everyone else), he gave a snort like a bull and thunked it down into the chopping board on the counter.

Rachnera and Iormu, their sense of touch more acute than the rest, each lifted an eyebrow briefly, a little taken aback to have actually felt the vibrations of the impact.

"New faces, hm." the man rumbled as he sized them up. "Good work making it all the way out here."

It was immensely confusing how he could speak those words like a threat, yet still make them somehow sound like genuine praise.

"Sig Curtis, by the by," he pointed to himself with a thumb thicker than any two fingers of Haruhiro's, "Vice Commander." He paused for a moment as Haruhiro and the group introduced themselves, then said "you folks just checking in, or got more business?"

"Vice Commander?" Tio cut in curiously. "Who's the Commander, then?"

"That'd be my wife," the big man said with a smile that vanished behind his beard. "She's… out and about."

"A married couple running the show? That's romantic!"

A warm, rumbling chuckle was offered by way of agreement, before Sig turned his gaze back to the leader of the party.

"Right, so checking in is the main thing," Haruhiro stepped forward to say, "but we do need a few more badges, not all our group are signed on with the Crimson Moon."

Which two was readily apparent, since Iormu and Rachnera were the only ones without Crimson Moon badges on display.

Sig met their gazes in turn, bushy eyebrows lowered enough that his dark eyes were shadowed. Iormu and Rachnera met that glower without falter, arms crossed beneath ample busts and a hint of a smirk on glossy lips.

"... Alike." Yukio murmured softly, looking between her two friends with a shimmer of amusement in her cool blue eyes.

"You ladies leave from Altana with 'em?" Sig asked after a moment, his own log-like arms crossed also.

"Sure did," Rachnera casually replied.

"Skip the training then, if you don't want it," the Vice Commander rumbled. "And the Trainee badges. Fetch your Corps Badges in the morning, or when you've got the cash on hand."

Evidently, they'd passed the unspoken test.

"Bunkhouses won't fit you, but we've got some pavilion tents that should work for now, if you haven't figured out accommodations."

"That helps, thanks." Haruhiro said. "We had a few questions about the Wonder Hole, if you don't… mind?"

Haruhiro trailed off as Sig held out one big hand to stop him.

"You don't have to go in, but it's tradition to not answer questions until you've seen it with your own eyes."

Maybe if they hadn't grown accustomed to someone with facial expressions as subdued as Yukio, they would have missed it, but for only a moment, they caught a twinkle of mischief in the big man's eyes.

All of them curious, but some (mostly Tio) more open about it than others, they followed the directions given, and made their way to the Wonder Hole.

Sturdy fortifications hemmed the location in with sentries posted here and there, but although they could see right through the wide open gate, nothing was visible even to the tallest of them, until they'd made it through the gate.

And the moment they did catch a glimpse of the Wonder Hole, they stopped dead in their tracks and took a moment to rub their eyes (which was a lot of work for Rachnera).

What lay in front of them was a… a field in a cave. That was the best way Haruhiro could describe it- a pasture with a roof over top and sitting on a diagonal, like someone had taken a long stretch of the Quickwind Plains and tried to tuck it just beneath the soil. The slope was so long that Haruhiro wasn't certain he'd see the other side even after a half hour of walking.

Complete with large, seemingly flightless birds roaming and grazing here or there.

Basically the Quickwind Plains, just submerged.

He decided to ignore for the time being that the birds looked like ordinary chickens, if ordinary chickens were somewhere around seven feet tall. Turned out they really weren't smaller than Storuches, Storuches just had much longer legs in comparison.

Here or there, 'holes' in the streams of sunlight from above, which didn't really explain how the grass below was so lush and uniform despite the uneven access to light, but he could accept that.

But most of all…

"The grass is purple," Rachnera sighed. "Why is the grass purple?"

Yeah, that.

Having satisfied 'tradition', the party briefly asked a few questions of the Weavers and volunteers they crossed paths with along the way.

They also quickly discovered that Weavers were generally the more forthright, so asking a mixed group seemed to get the best results, since Weavers themselves tended to stay away from the Wonder Hole.

From even that short walk back to the butcher shop, they learned enough to be ready to explore the first area, what was known as the Valley of Holes

It got its name from being a veritable honeycomb of tunnels and fissures, some of which led straight up to the surface. Though the ceiling was far too high up for anyone but a Weaver to consider an access point, the little Arachne guessed that maybe 'Miss Big Sis' (the nickname they kept giving Rachnera) could climb down from above if she wanted to.

Roaming the Valley were three races of Ferals hostile to both each other and any intruders-

Duergar, squat, bearded humanoids who looked part Goblin and part Dwarf and wielded clubs larger than themselves.

Bogies that resembled fuzzy, tailless monkeys about the size of a Human child, which the Weavers described as 'sharp-clawed and bouncy'.

And lastly, the Spriggans, which were not just the size of an emaciated child but resembled one in silhouette… if ordinary children had obsidian skin and gemstone eyes, while preferring crystalline knives instead of toys.

However, the Ferals had a reputation of being rather cowardly, and tended to avoid attacking any group that they didn't have a clear advantage over.

In other words…

"They'll run." "Scared." "Spooked even!" "Yep, uhuhu, they're small and you're not!" "Boobs too big." "That makes it sound like they're scared of boobs." "Well… no one's ever asked if they are or aren't, maybe?" "Huh." "Huh." "Huhhh."

… The information they received from Sig was more detailed and coherent, though admittedly less amusing to listen to.

But the Wonder Hole was also a problem for another day, because it was about time for their last companion to 'catch up to them'.

The pavilion tent was a lot more bland in color, but it kind of reminded Haruhiro of a circus tent in shape. He was pretty sure it was much smaller than a circus tent though, because fitting a crowd in the tent would be pushing it big time.

He'd never seen a circus tent, but someone who was a part of him had, so to the Demon it felt like something he'd seen from a picture rather than with his own eyes.

Despite being smaller than Haruhiro's inherited memories, the tent was just tall enough that Tio could walk around in it without worrying about her horn catching on anything. She could only lift her arms up overhead in the middle of the tent where it was highest, though.

They'd been directed to an empty lot (the Outpost had a surprisingly large amount of those), and set-up had taken a bit of work, but now they had their own private space.

And though the tent didn't have any 'rooms', there were curtains that could be set up as partitions to serve the same effect, and-

"Oh, it worked." Haruhiro said, as he stuck the Manor key into a partition wall, at the corner where it would 'open'.

"It worked," Centorea agreed, as he pulled open what had become a canvas curtain on one side and a thick wooden door on the other. "But how did it work?"

"I mean, these partitions are basically the 'walls and doors' of a tent, right?" Haruhiro said with a shrug. He'd honestly tried it without thinking, and was glad it worked so he didn't have to feel silly. The smile Iormu hid behind her hand suggested his inner thoughts had been seen through, but before anything more could be said, they caught sight of Shu'ni flowing down the hall.

A warm smile on her lips and a very large picnic basket under one arm, Shu'ni greeted them with a liquid curtsey.

"Good evening," she said in her soft and clear voice. "I hope the rest of the trip was pleasant?"

"It wasn't bad," Haruhiro replied with a smile of his own. "Place has been pretty friendly so far."

"And not just cuz Rachnera has a fan club!" Tio chimed in.

"A 'fan club'?" Shu'ni tilted her head to one side, big pale eyes blinking slowly as she tried to make sense of the unfamiliar term.

"You'll find out soon enough," Rachnera said with a helpless sigh. "My 'fans' are pretty friendly."

And adorable, though she wasn't going to say that part out loud.

"I… see," Shu'ni said politely, though she was clearly still processing.

"But first, what do you think, Shu'ni?" Tio asked with barely restrained excitement. "Do you think you're gonna be able to… you know?"

Another blink, and Shu'ni went very still for a moment, before slowly and stiffly directing her gaze downwards, to where the carpeted floor of the Twilight Manor gave way to dry earth.

The party watched quietly, anticipation blending with appreciation for how cute the otherworldly maid was when her joined hands began to fidget, wide hips giving little rippling twitches from side to side.

Though not quite able to muster up the courage to give her wishes voice, Shu'ni's furtive glances weren't nearly as furtive as she thought they were.

Thus, it was Haruhiro's turn to conceal a smile, as he responded to the unspoken request.

Slowly, he stepped forward while extending his hand, and Shu'ni's blush deepened in time with her fidgeting growing still.

Daintily, she placed her hand in his, drawing quiet courage from that firm and gentle grip.

And then, for the first time in almost eighty years, the Shoggoth known as Shu'ni entered Grimgar in full.

Timidly at first, holding onto her beloved master's hand like a lifeline.

But the hesitation bled away when they left the tent, and Shu'ni's pale moon eyes caught sight of clear blue sky as far as the eye could see.

For a long while, she didn't move and didn't speak.

And well after that point had come and gone, her grip on Haruhiro's hand remained firm.

They decided to celebrate in the evening for Shu'ni being able to leave the Twilight Manor, but ran into a few potential issues.

The biggest of which was convincing the maid that no, she couldn't cook for her own celebration. Or rather, since serving others was a fundamentally satisfying task for her, it became less about her 'not cooking' and more about her trying something new with the rest of them.

Shu'ni wasn't really used to doing things for fun, but she did like to be included in things from time to time…

And she had zero compunctions about stealing recipes the party liked, so everybody won.

That aside, a bit of asking around let them find a tavern they could all fit into, which turned out to be easier than they'd expected.

Not that there were a whole lot of options, but fortunately the Arachne population meant that establishments had plenty of legroom. Weavers may have been shorter than adult Humans, but they took up more space horizontally by virtue of all their legs.

And when they were done with the meal, Haruhiro took Shu'ni by the hand as he led them out into the night, and up onto a grassy knoll he'd spied while looking around earlier in the day.

Haruhiro never forgot the promise he'd made to her what seemed like a long time ago, and so they sat together in silence for hours on end, gazing up into the sky while twinkling starlight illuminated the dark.

And there, under the stars, he made good on another promise he'd made, this time to himself.

They hadn't been able to do it at the festival after all, but he was confident the occasion was just as good.

And so one by one, he took the women he loved by the hand and danced with them under the open sky.

... It was a little tricky, given all that made them unique, but so very, very worth it.

… What a luxurious problem to have.

A beautiful day had given way to a beautiful night, and though it had come to an end, Shu'ni was confident the memory would be no less cherished and vivid regardless of how many ageless years might pass.

Now, if only she could actually bring herself to sleep.

Allegedly, that was what she was supposed to be doing, but cuddling up to her slumbering master was too fine a privilege, and she was loath to let herself drift off and end her awareness of the moment early.

But as he often did, Master Haru soon resolved her dilemma with effortless ease, despite being fast asleep.

A shift of an arm found her head resting against his chest, her ear pressed right above his heart.

A liquid body transmitted that steady rhythm in muted ripples, until she was 'hearing' with her entire body that irrefutable proof of life of the one she cherished most.

It was a hypnotic sound that she was sure she could listen to for hours, but in reality, barely lasted a minute before she nestled in closer and drifted off to sleep with a smile on her face.

… A smile shared by the one arm in arm with her, who'd been waiting in silence for her to fall asleep.

The party had decided to take a full day off before delving into the Wonder Hole, briefly going their separate ways with the intentions of reconvening for dinner.

So while Haruhiro was off on his date with Shu'ni, Iormu had followed a curious scent on the wind, and found herself at a hole-in-the-wall apothecary run by an elderly Weaver, though she showed little signs of advanced age beyond white hair and the muted shimmer of her six eyes.

The ownership was to Iormu's benefit- not simply because the little senior was a charming woman, but because the usual clutter of an apothecary was more vertical than horizontal, allowing her to move around the shop with relative ease.

… In the sense that she was coiled in the center of the shop, and simply moving her upper body through the air to peruse the shelves, but as the only customer, it gave her a fair bit of freedom.

The workshop of each healer and alchemist told a story, both of the practitioners themselves and the land in which they worked their craft.

Where the shop of Kejouro in the Hidden Village had carried with it a subtle and serene aroma of herbs meant hailing from across the sea, the Weaver's shop carried with it a scent of deep, damp earth. Of roots and bulbs, carefully cultivated from within the dark of the soil.

Each in their own way calling to mind an unbroken link of tradition from the huts and caves of Iormu's day.

It was a comforting link to a past she had once lived yet would never witness again.

But as Iormu would discover, she was far from the only one for whom herbs and tinctures called to mind that which had been left behind.

A hand covered in night-black chitin brushed open the curtain of the open storefronts favored in the Lonesome Field Outpost, and a familiar face with an unfamiliar expression came into view.

There was no way the two of them would have fit in the apothecary side-by-side, and so Rachnera waited alone in the deserted street while Iormu made her purchases.

"Had you intended to shop as well?" Iormu asked, somewhat curious.

"No, just looking around," Rachnera shook her head. "The last one we were at was a bit too exotic, but the shop here has a bit of a nostalgic scent to it."


"... The first Human I ever met was an Alchemist named Ren," Rachnera admitted with a wistful smile. "Charming, noisy little thing that would talk off anyone's ear if they let her. Didn't even stop to think that the hungry Arachne might consider her edible."

"You sound fond of her."

"Fond?" Rachnera gave a brief huff of laughter. "She's someone I owe my life to, and someone I'll never forgive until the day I die."

Rachnera went about a dozen more paces before she realized she was walking alone.

Eyebrow raised, she turned her head over her shoulder to look back, and nearly flinched away.

Of all the expressions she had expected to be greeted with, understanding was not one of them.

" I truly, truly detest how relatable I find your words," Iormu said in a whisper that would have sounded bitter if it wasn't so impossibly tired.

"... You too, huh?" Rachnera gave a harsh little not-quite laugh. "... Sorry. I shouldn't have said anything. I didn't mean to bring up bad memories."

Iormu shook her head. "They say time heals all wounds, and there is some truth to that. All pain fades with time, and I am no exception."

Rachnera breathed a shallow sigh, relaxing her shoulders.

"But for yourself, the wound is still rather fresh, is it not?"

And just like that, anything approaching relief fled from her mind.

Driven away by a sickly, dangerous heat, as if the venom in her veins was boiling.

"... What do you want me to say, Iormu?" Rachner slowly turned to face her fully.

"You do not need to say anything," The other woman shook her head slowly. "Not if you do not wish to. Perhaps speaking it aloud will do you no good at all."

Why was she always so goddamn… patient about everything?

Her expression giving nothing away, Iormu crossed her arms beneath her breasts, the slight motion causing them to bounce slightly in spite of their enormous size.

"But if you feel the need to speak, then I shall listen," the Jormungand continued on. "I can offer nothing more, and nothing less."

Rachnera could grudgingly admit that it was a good answer, because she would have laughed in Iormu's face if she had offered anything more concrete.

Honestly, her confession didn't come from a good place at all, and the moment was just as impure. If anything, it was just a little bit of unwarranted hostility, just her lashing out.

"She drugged me, so I killed her and ate her," Rachnera said, giving her trauma the briefest and least flattering explanation she could think of.

… Iormu didn't so much as bat an eye.

Because unlike Rachnera, Iormu was intimately acquainted with the various stages of grief, and if lashing out was what Rachnera needed, then she was all too happy to be the target of her ire.

"'Drugged you', was it?" Iormu repeated mildly. "Saffron, I take it?"

Rachnera's jaw dropped.

"H-h-how the hell did you guess that!?"

Iormu tilted her head, giving her a puzzled look. "It is the most readily available method of making a Liminal lose control of her instincts that I am aware of?"

"... Saffron for me, valerian root for her," Rachnera murmured in a small voice, shoulders drooping as she curled in on herself like a wilted flower. "She told me that… certain herbs affected humans and Liminals differently, and so that's why we were eating different ones."

And that 'Ren' girl had spoken truthfully, if only in that regard- whereas valerian root would leave a person of any race slumbering soundly, saffron served as an aphrodisiac of sorts… for Humans. For Demi-Humans, it would set all their instincts into overdrive.

Back in Iormu's day, Lizardfolk Berserkers would imbibe it before battle to whip themselves into a frenzy.

"We were… going to close our eyes and never open them again," Rachnera continued on slowly. "We were trapped, you know? Bottom of a ravine that even I couldn't climb out of without my threads, but I'd been barely just scraping by for too long, and I just… couldn't. So as the days dragged on and it became clear that the next time we fell asleep we probably weren't waking up, Ren decided to help things along."

"But only one of you fell asleep," Iormu softly concluded.

"I lost my mind, and she lost her life," Rachnera gave another harsh little laugh. "There was barely enough for me to bury. The first ever person to treat me like a person, and I repaid the favor by tearing her to pieces."

"She sacrificed herself for you, didn't she?"

"Of course she did," Rachnera snapped. "Drifted away with a smile on her face, knowing damn well what was about to happen to her. Honestly, little psycho was just lucky that the drugged up Arachne made it quick."

Iormu didn't say a word.

"I was… more than willing to die with her, you know? She was… not just the first person to treat me like a person, but the first person to ever love me. We… well… neither of us wanted to die without ever having… you know…"

Ren wasn't just her first friend, Ren was her first love, and Rachnera had ended that relationship with her own two hands.

Rachnera couldn't forgive Ren for her part in that, anymore than Rachnera could forgive herself for her part in that.

And somehow, she wasn't surprised at all that Iormu hadn't reacted any one way or another to her having admitted to eating another sentient creature.

"... Doesn't it bother you?" She honestly wasn't sure what she was referring to when she said that.

"Were I in your position, I doubt I'd be able to forgive either," Iormu chose to answer. "Admittedly, I have not forgiven my own people for drugging me."

"... And how'd things turn out in your case?" Rachnera asked, then immediately regretted.

"They died, just as your Ren did," Iormu's tone gave nothing away. "Not by my hand, however- a plague not entirely mundane in nature had swept through the village, and I had worked myself to the bone unable to save even one person. A Demigoddess, a 'mighty' Jormungand above such mortal frailties, yet powerless to keep it from ravaging those in her care."

A sickness so virulent that no Human was spared, and though she could cure them once, twice, even three times, the illness would simply not stay gone. Iormu had been trapped in an endless cycle of six falling ill for every three she cured, over and over until her patients took matters into their own hands.

Her temple flooded with the thick smoke of incense, falling into a deep slumber surrounded by the sick and suffering…

And waking up alone at the heart of a mass grave that had once been her home, with the spirits of her people surrounding her resting place.

She would have been devastated to know she had prolonged their suffering to the point they rebelled against her, seeking relief.

But that had not been the case.

They had rebelled to end her suffering, to set free their useless guardian deity before she worked herself to death in a futile attempt to repay their love.

"It was a noble sacrifice," Iormu said in a tone that suggested she was the one most in need of convincing. "An act of love. And yet some small and ugly part of me cannot help but whisper that, were they destined to die for me, perhaps it would have been best if we never met at all." Iormu's lips twisted into something approximating a smirk. "And another part of me wishes I could truly believe that."

They both had the same thought and were fully aware, but neither chose to give it voice, merely sharing a pair of nostalgic, fond, resentful smiles.

It didn't matter how noble or pure-hearted the sacrifice may be.

Being left behind as their loved ones died on their behalf was a truly miserable experience.

"... I guess there's nothing we can do but promise not to give up," Rachnera said eventually. "Flail and scream so that no matter what happens, we never end up dying for our friends."

"Indeed, if I have but one moment more, I would devote it to living for them until I no longer can," Iormu agreed as they shared another, more rueful smile.

As resolutions went it was a bit bitter in nature, but baring their scars had served to lessen the sting somewhat.

"This feels like one of those 'I need a drink' moments that I overhear from Humans," Rachnera drily commented, "but it's barely lunchtime and alcohol doesn't do anything for me."

"High tolerance or…?" Iormu asked, accepting the somewhat forced change of topic with more eagerness than she cared to admit. Both women had found themselves keenly aware that the privacy of their conversation had merely come down to a matter of luck.

"Think it's an Arachne thing, I've tried hard on one or two occasions in the past, and didn't even feel anything at all." Rachnera's attempts with alcohol had mostly been spoils of war- both times from bandit groups she'd defeated or robbed in her earlier travels.

"Curious," Iormu blinked. "But not unheard of for the effects of certain substances to vary wildly between Liminals." 'Liminal' was a fairly expansive blanket term, at heart.

Nevertheless, an unexpected alternative soon presented itself as they wandered.

"... Is that coffee?" Iormu's forked tongue flicked the air. "it's been centuries since I've caught that scent, I'd begun to wonder if it was lost to the ages."

"... Coffee, huh? Can't say I've ever heard of it, but if you're that excited then count me in." Most wouldn't be able to tell that Iormu was excited, but the brightness of her eyes told a clear tale to Rachnera.

… The disaster that would follow from that bit of harmless curiosity was one that not even Iormu, for all her wisdom, could have foreseen.

While unbeknownst to him, another part of town was on the verge of being overtaken by the sort of chaos he'd feel responsible for, Haruhiro was enjoying his date with Shu'ni.

In a word, their plans could be summed up as 'exploring' or rather 'touring'. As per Shu'ni's request, they were wandering through the part of the Outpost that had come to be known as the 'dinner district', where most of the restaurants and food stalls were concentrated.

She'd expressed a desire to sample more of the local cuisine to continue her own cooking repertoire, and discover dishes that Haruhiro himself might want her to try making. Though they were moving separately, the others had been asked to take note of anything that took their fancy as well.

It was a strange state of affairs to know that Shu'ni had only given her own desires voice because he had asked her to. And not just in preparation for their date- the rare other occasions where Shu'ni had spoken of her own wishes had been, at their core, her efforts to always meet Haruhiro's expectations.

Because while she'd eased him into it in her own way, Shu'ni had since made it clear that carrying out his instructions was her primary interest. It wasn't as if she had no desires or preferences of her own, it was just that all other 'interests' were secondary in her mind.

Her former master had once presented the theory that the Shoggoth were a 'servitor race' of sorts- having a master to obey was as fundamental to a Shoggoth as an Arachne's silk was to an Arachne.

And what that all meant was that Haruhiro now fully understood the responsibility he had to Shu'ni, though he kind of doubted that she herself saw it that way.

Among other things, it meant that he was solely responsible for not pushing Shu'ni further than she was truly comfortable with… because Shu'ni herself would readily accept being pushed beyond her comfort zone if she believed that was what he wanted.

What maybe surprised him the most was how much fun that careful push and pull could be.

… Maybe embracing the Demon within was turning him into a sadist, but Shu'ni was cute when she was flustered (all the girls were) so it couldn't really be helped.

Content in his justifications, Haruhiro re-centered his attention on the present, and his date, and found himself distracted in a different way almost immediately.

Unbeknownst to Haruhiro, it had been 'inspiration' and not 'persuasion' that Shu'ni needed to dress up a little for their date- wanting to look good for the boy they fancied wasn't limited to women of any particular world, it seemed.

She retained her usual hip-hugging 'skirt' that seemed to meld into the ground, but there the similarities with her usual attire ended.

Above the waist, Shu'ni wore a clinging black halter top- really more of a triangle of material that tied off at the neck and below the shoulder blades. It left her smooth back and pleasantly taut midriff on full display, while also revealing entirely the pillowy side-swell of her large breasts.

Her hair had been gathered up into a loose bun, kept in place by a pair of pure white chopsticks, courtesy of Yukio. She'd also swept her bangs to one side of her face, partially concealing one pale moon eye to add an alluring hint of mystery to an already enigmatic appeal.

All in all, an outfit that was exotic and sexy in a different, but complementary way to how Shu'ni herself was exotic and sexy.

And, as predicted, her discomfort at appearing in public 'out of uniform' had mysteriously vanished, right around the same time Haruhiro had gotten a good look at what she was wearing.

Truth be told, though Shu'ni was drawing many admiring eyes, Haruhiro himself was getting more than a few lingering glances. Neither of them noticed the attention at all, however.

Because while the Demon had three eyes and the Shoggoth possessed countless more, neither had a single eye to spare for anyone save the person they walked with through the streets, arm in arm.

Not for the first time in recent memory, Shu'ni found herself facing down the looming threat of 'death by happiness'.

The blissful lurking doom that reared its head every time Master Haru smiled at her, and her alone.

The deep gaze that seemed determined to capture every inch of her being, the firm and sinewy arm looped around her own… if he did not show some measure of restraint in the 'warmth' he offered, Shu'ni was certain that her core would happily melt down to nothing, along with the rest of her body.

Getting to feed her master by hand was delightful on an almost spiritual level, but… having him turn it around and then feed her by hand was so… so… sinful!

She had never in all her life imagined that the words 'say ah' could sound so… depraved!

And then, before she knew what had happened, he had lured her away out of sight, into the dark shadows of a tall building, pressing her back against the wall as his smile gleamed sharp with mischief.

As he leaned in, ever so slowly, Shu'ni was forced to accept that maybe she knew nothing at all about sin or depravity.

For the first time in her life, a maid who remembered each and every word her master found that turned into a delightful weapon against her, as each and every syllable seeped through her senses like the sweetest of all poisons.

And above all, the way he made her feel, when he instructed her to close all of her eyes, so that she could not see just what it was he intended to do with her?

The memory of the way he made her feel would surely outlive the stars themselves.

Their date lasted most of the day, but they returned to the 'pavilion' (Twilight Manor) around mid-evening to reconvene with everyone for dinner.

Though Shu'ni admitted to having grown a bit more comfortable monopolizing Haru's time, monopolizing Haru's time and skipping out on cooking duties twice in a row was a bit much for the service-minded maid.

To the surprise of both, what greeted them at the door was Iormu looking harried and just a little disheveled, yet faintly amused in spite of her disarray.

"... Oh thank the horizon you're here," Iormu's words tumbled out in one explosive, chest-heaving sigh as she slithered aside to let them in.

"... Uh… busy day?" Haruhiro ventured carefully, making a note to ask about that phrase later on.

"... I learned something new," Iormu began in lieu of an explanation. "It would seem that it is coffee, and not alcohol that leaves an Arachne in an intoxicated state."

"... Coffee?" Shu'ni tilted her head to one side, repeating the unfamiliar word.

Haruhiro, meanwhile, had arrived at a more pressing concern.

"Rachnera's drunk right now, isn't she?"

"Nuh uh, I've never seen drunk in my life!"

Discordant skittering kind of sounded like hail drops falling from the sky, it turned out.

Rachnera came swaying down the hall, cheeks flushed and smile wide, waving her hands in greeting.

… Hands that had been webbed together quite firmly.

"Haru!" Rachnera's already giddy expression brightened further. "Hugs me!"

"Uh, sure, I don't mind, but why are your hands tied together?"

"Wobbly eyes and sharp fingers!"

"She's kept her Skill active without fail," Iormu whispered out of the corner of her mouth, "but I do not believe she remembers its existence." She hadn't received so much as a single scrape carrying the spider home, despite Rachnera constantly and loudly warning her to be careful.

Smiling softly, Haruhiro stepped forward as Rachnera wobbled in, though he was forced to sidestep to catch her by the waist as she fell forward, draping her arms over his shoulders.

"Looove you~" Rachnera sung out while cuddling up.

… The moment her forehead came to rest on his shoulder, Rachnera sagged against him, legs skidding outwards in all directions as she went limp.

"... She's asleep, isn't she?"

"Dozing happily," Iormu confirmed from behind him.

"I do believe this is the most off guard I've ever seen Miss Rachnera," Shu'ni murmured softly. "A sign of trust more than inebriation, I suspect."

"... Right, someone help me with her legs."

Dark tendrils stretched themselves out in response, easily lifting and rearranging the Arachne's large lower body.

Following Haruhiro's instructions, she helped tuck Rachnera's legs in as he put his arm under her back- both were soft skin and hard chitin covered.

The result was a princess carry that looked more than a little silly given the size differences, but to the biased eyes of those present was simply adorable in a cutely awkward way.

And for all that she towered over him, Rachnera had barely thirty pounds over Haruhiro, so he could easily carry her all the way upstairs like that.

But before he did…

Iormu stilled, her smile falling away somewhat as those keen brown eyes locked searchingly onto her own wine red gaze.

"... You sure you're alright?"

A soft sigh and a helpless smile were the response he received.

"... Thank you, Haruhiro," Iormu said eventually. "For everything."

Haruhiro held her gaze for a long moment before relaxing subtly, flashing a warm hint of a smile before directing his attention elsewhere.

"Had a lot of fun on our date today, Shu'ni," he murmured softly. "Let's enjoy the next one just as much, yeah?"

"I eagerly await, Master Haru," the maid replied, her adoring smile accompanied by a liquid curtsey.

Having said his piece, the Demon carried the drunken spider away.

"'Coffee', was it?" Shu'ni tapped a finger to her chin. "Is that perhaps something we should see about keeping in stock?"

"I would be appreciative if you did, though I'm uncertain Rachnera would agree," Iormu said with a light laugh. "To the best of my knowledge, that was her first experience with intoxication."

"I confess it's something of a surprise, but did the Weavers not speak up?" Shu'ni inquired. "I would assume coffee affects them in a similar fashion."

Iormu shook her head. "It does, but Rachnera and I visited the 'outdoor cafe' just before the lunch rush. Though they tend not to partake on days when they have work, Weavers have no culture of drinking during the later hours of a day, so those who noticed us saw nothing amiss until it was too late."

"Ah yes, I do seem to recall that Humans consume most of their alcohol at night, is it similar for Liminals?"

"More or less, though it's hard to generalize," Iormu said. "Weavers for example, don't drink coffee at night because web-swinging, intoxication, and low visibility are a recipe for disaster."

Shu'ni was silent for a moment as she pondered the mental image.

"That is… entirely reasonable."

"I thought so as well." Iormu nodded. "Now, since I have you to myself… how was it?"

Smiling blissfully, Shu'ni cupped a cheek that was steadily flushing with color.

When a quiet, lyrical chuckle escaped soft lips, Iormu crossed her arms and regarded the Shoggoth with fond amusement.

"... What an exceedingly straightforward explanation," and though her tone was teasing and dry, Iormu meant every word.

Shu'ni let out another tinkling little laugh, twisting subtly in place.

But she went entirely still at the next mild inquiry.

"Hm, am I right to believe that the next outing will be a longer one?"

After a moment of stillness, Shu'ni shivered, a motion that sent ripples from top to bottom as her composure slipped.

Here or there, smiling lips and twinkling eyes dotted a form that had momentarily abandoned any claim to consistency.

"Much longer, and much later," overlapping voices purred in assent.

Iormu merely raised an eyebrow as the momentary lapse came and went, leaving a bashful looking maid covering her mouth with her hand as it regained its usual width.

"Pardon me, Miss Iormu," Shu'ni quietly apologized. "But yes… yes, it seems I have managed to resolve that small 'problem' of mine."

That the maid's chosen form was a deliberate appeal to her master's preferences was no secret to anyone, but Shu'ni herself had found herself struggling to connect the idea of 'being desirable as a woman' with the idea of 'being desired as a woman'.

Despite seeking to expand her relationship with Haru beyond that of maid and master, Shu'ni didn't really understand that being more than Haru's maid was not only possible, but had already happened.

In short, Shu'ni's self-perception hadn't quite caught up to Shu'ni's current circumstances.

In a way, it couldn't be helped- Shu'ni had a good deal of experience with servitude, and very little experience with romance.

Long-lived races tended to grow more and more set in their ways as the decades turned to centuries, and it seemed that even ageless shapeshifters were not immune.

But Demons were said to be bringers of change, and Haruhiro had once more proved that to be true.

Demons were also said to be bringers of chaos, and while no one really believed that about Haruhiro…

It was hard to deny that Haruhiro's luck was neither good nor bad, just… weird.

Because the very next day, not even an hour into the party's first proper foray into the depths of the Wonder Hole…

Tio brushed aside an unassuming cobweb with her hand, and the empty air began to crack like glass.

"... I dunno if I'm supposed to apologize for breaking things, but it's about to get real weird again, huh?"

… Closing the distance and stepping sharply to the left at the last second, she snapped a hand up to catch the robed arm that had just dropped down onto her shoulder, while her other hand plunged her knife beneath that arm.

There was a muffled wet cough as her opponent spat blood onto the inside of their mask before going limp.

Letting her blade slip free as the corpse fell, she took a quick moment to catch her breath, eyes roaming to assess the battlefield.

An incredibly long arrow arced in from on high, piercing neatly behind one of those white swirling masks that the creepy cultists liked to wear, putting an end to the fight. Wiping a hand across her brow she swapped her attention to checking her teammates' condition instead.

Cathyl; check, Doppel; check, Zombina… putting her arm back on so check, Manako; check.

Sky… cracking ominously in the distance.

"We gonna check that out, Boss?" Zombina asked with all too much enthusiasm.

"Actually, I was thinking we could ignore it, and hope it goes away." She replied.

"... Boss, there's an entire new building showing up," Manako called down from the rooftops. "An expensive looking one… maybe a mansion?"

"... It's about to get real weird again, isn't it?" Kuroko Smith grumbled. "I don't get paid enough for this."

Or at all, but since their neighbors were either monsters, cultists, or monster cultists, it wasn't like there was anywhere to spend the pay she wasn't getting.

"... Ugh, look alive girls, day isn't over yet."

"Or started!" Doppel chimed in with a smirk.

Or that.

It was called the Dusk Realm for a reason, after all.

Tadah, there's the rest of the main cast!

But let's leave it on a cliffhanger as the party falls into the last arc of the story.

Lots to unpack here- a glimpse into Rachnera and Iormu's past traumas, with a more subtle hint towards just how long Shu'ni was waiting all alone.

But they have people to lean on, now, and that makes all the difference.

Anyways, writing the Weavers was a lot of fun, them all talking as a group seemed like a cute little quirk to give them, so hope you guys enjoy that.

Writing Shu'ni being adorable was also fun, and sets the stage for steamier scenes down the road.

Sig Curtis is a lowkey cameo- he's a character from Full Metal Alchemist, and the husband of the brother's teacher. No prize for guessing who the Commander is.

Ren is from Monmusu canon, a member of the original family Rachnera home-stayed with.

PS: valerian root is used to help people sleep, while saffron is used in aphrodisiacs, among other things. I just ramped up the effects via convenient Alchemist bullshit.