I just watched the KnY Entertainment District Arc a week ago, and... I have no words. I literally have no words. It was so utterly insanely good. The season gave me enough inspiration and motivation to finish writing this chapter... after a major cliffhanger in the previous chapter... eight months later...

If it's any consolation, when I reread the story to refresh my memory, I felt the same pain lmao

Hope you enjoy the chapter!


"I'm not alive."

Tanjirou blinked, distinctly wondering if he had misheard. Perhaps the exhaustion and pain of the training session had addled his mind. "I'm sorry, what did you just say? I don't think I heard you correctly."

Yoriichi turned to regard him with emotionless eyes. "I'm not alive," he repeated, his expression completely serious.

Tanjirou laughed nervously. "What are you talking about? Of course you're alive. You're standing here talking to me, aren't you? Besides, I don't think a dead man could beat me up like you just did ten minutes ago."

"I don't know," the elderly man mused. "With the way you fight, I think a dead man would have a decent fighting chance."

Tanjirou paused. Did – did Yoriichi just make a joke? Then his words registered in his mind. "Hey!" he protested. "What is that supposed to mean?"

Yoriichi's lips twitched. "I'm jesting. You've improved drastically in the last few months, Tanjirou." Then his gaze sharpened. "Anyhow, I meant what I said. I'm not alive, Tanjirou. I died four hundred years ago. Right now, I am here as nothing more than a spirit."

"A ghost?"

Yoriichi nodded. "In essence, yes."

"Huh," Tanjirou considered it. Well, demons existed, so why not ghosts? "Okay," he accepted before furrowing his brow slightly. "Hold on, so you've remained here at my family's ancestral home for the past four hundred years?"

Yoriichi nodded. "Yes."

"Why haven't you moved on to the afterlife yet?" Tanjirou asked curiously before his eyes widened. "Ah – I'm sorry! That was a rude question to ask."

"It's fine," Yoriichi looked up, gazing at the moon in the sky. "They say that people become ghosts when they have unfinished business left in life," he murmured. "Their spirits are tethered to the physical plane by an overwhelming sense of regret and the feeling that they cannot be allowed to move on."

Tanjirou frowned. "What do you regret?"

Yoriichi was silent for a long moment, so long that Tanjirou was worried he had crossed a line. Before he could apologize, however, his master spoke. "When I was alive, I was... strong. The strongest." He said this all in a matter-of-fact tone. "I was blessed with incredible abilities that were often described as godlike. From a young age, I had always wondered why. Why was it that I was the one chosen to possess such exceptional powers?"

He turned to Tanjirou. "I discovered the answer on the day I met Kibutsuji Muzan." His expression hardened, and Tanjirou unconsciously tensed up as Yoriichi's aura suddenly shifted. "The moment I laid eyes on that abomination, I understood. All my powers, all my abilities, all my skills – everything was for the sole purpose of slaying Kibutsuji Muzan. In that instant, I knew it was the reason I had been born in this world."

Tanjirou stared at him, speechless.

"However, I failed," Yoriichi's voice was low and full of self-loathing. "He escaped and hid away for the next century, and I never saw him again. I couldn't achieve what I was supposed to achieve. I am a man of no worth."

Tanjirou's heart clenched at his words. "That's not true!"

"It isn't? Why not? I was never able to protect anything precious to me. My comrades slowly perished due to the marks I had spread to them. Countless innocent lives were lost because I let him escape. My own wife and unborn child were slaughtered because of my foolishness."

Tanjirou drew in a sharp breath, eyes widening.

"I couldn't even protect your family because direct interference is forbidden to spirits by the natural laws of this world," Yoriichi closed his eyes in pain. "I'm a failure, Kamado Tanjirou. I appreciate you saying otherwise, but it is the truth. Otherwise, I would not still be here, living on as a spirit."

"So you're to stay here forever, doomed to never move on?" Tanjirou asked desperately.

Yoriichi hummed. "Who knows? I personally like to think that if I ever find someone to pass the torch to, someone who I fully trust will be able to end Kibutsuji Muzan, then I'll be able to finally move on."

Tanjirou was silent for a moment. Then his face set in determination. "I'll work hard and grow strong enough to kill Kibutsuji Muzan," he vowed solemnly. "You can leave it to me."

And Yoriichi smiled. "I'm glad."

「」

Now, years later, as he stood across from the three Upper Demon Moons, Tanjirou once again reflected on the promise he had made to Yoriichi. When he had set out with Nezuko on the journey, he had been confident that he would be able to defeat Kibutsuji Muzan.

Only for all his confidence to evaporate when he had fought Kibutsuji Muzan. If Kibutsuji Muzan hadn't run away like a coward, Tanjirou had no doubt that he would've lost. It had been a humbling experience, as well as a confusing one.

After all, why had Yoriichi allowed him to leave if Tanjirou wasn't ready? Why hadn't he trained Tanjirou for longer? Had he somehow misjudged Tanjirou's strength, or had Kibutsuji Muzan grown stronger than he had expected?

Tanjirou didn't understand. Yoriichi must've had a reason, but no matter how hard Tanjirou racked his brain, he couldn't arrive at an answer.

Regardless, Tanjirou didn't let his weakness crush his spirit. Giving up simply was not an option. Instead, he worked harder, trained harder, so hard his tendons tore and his bones cracked and his skin split. It hurt, but he had his demonic regeneration, and compared to the pain of losing his family it was negligible, and so he pushed on.

All so he could not only close the gap between himself and Kibutsuji Muzan but surpass him altogether.

And now, he had the chance to test himself, to see how much progress he had made and how far he had advanced.

The three Upper Demon Moons.

The three strongest demons under Kibutsuji Muzan's rule.

Kokushibou. Douma. Akaza.

Tanjirou narrowed his eyes as he readied his blade. A tense stillness had fallen over the battlefield as both sides regarded each other. It was immediately apparent to Tanjirou that the difference between the Upper Moons and Lower Moons was inconceivably vast. If there had been any hope that this battle would be as easy as the ones against the Lower Moons, it was immediately quashed.

The three Upper Demon Moons practically radiated power. From the relaxed martial art stance of Akaza to the lackadaisical smile of Douma to the overwhelming aura of Kokushibou, it was clear that even though they stood against two Hashiras and a practitioner of the Breath of the Sun itself, they were supremely confident in their abilities to crush them in an absolute victory.

An incredible pressure had settled over the clearing, weighing down on their bodies as if the air itself had grown heavier. Such was the raw presence the Upper Moons commanded.

It was fortunate, then, that they had Shinobu on their side.

Indeed, the collective auras of the three Upper Moons were nothing compared to the sheer hatred emitting from Shinobu's form. Veins pulsed on her face and neck and her purple eyes seemed several shades darker as she glared at the Upper Moon Two, pure unadulterated murderous intent rolling off her in waves. The tension in the air was nearly palpable, suffocating and chilling in its miasma.

It was rather terrifying, if Tanjirou had to be perfectly honest. She may not be the most powerful or the most skilled of them, but in terms of killing intent, she had them all beat.

"So Kibutsuji Muzan sent you three to kill Young Kamado?" Rengoku asked, stepping forward, his sword at the ready. All traces of cheer and joviality had disappeared from his face, replaced by a grim expression that told just how serious the current situation was.

"Yup!" Douma confirmed cheerfully. "That man is awfully set on having the boy's head be separated from his body."

"I see," Rengoku's eyes flickered. "Kamado, it appears that I owe you an apology – "

"Enough talk," Kokushibou interrupted, his voice cold and emotionless. "Under normal circumstances, I would offer to turn you demon slayers into demons, but unfortunately that man has commanded us to massacre every demon slayer here. A pity indeed, but unavoidable."

Moon Breathing, Fourteenth Form. Catastrophe, Temple of Crescent Moons.

Tanjirou's eyes widened as Kokushibou swung his massive blade. Monstrous arcing slashes of moonlight layered with countless spiraling crescent blue moons scythed through the air in a devastating vortex of death that spanned nearly fifty meters in radius. It was as if a small mountain of death had come to life and was bearing down on them. The entire attack smelled demonic in nature; had Kokushibou somehow combined his Moon Breathing with his Blood Demon Art?!

Whatever the case, the tempest of blades rushed at them from all directions, curving through the air and ripping everything it grazed into shreds. Total obliteration was the only fate for anything caught in its path –

The train!

Panic flashed through Tanjirou's mind as he suddenly realized that if they dodged Kokushibou's attack, then the derailed train behind them would take the brunt of the attack. Everyone inside would surely be killed. Which meant they had to block the attack in its entirety.

The demon slayers appeared to have realized this as well and were already in the middle of utilizing their forms. But... damn it. Would they even be able to block it all? The attack was so powerful and fast, and if even a single crescent moon got through, then lives would be lost –

Next to him, Nezuko stepped forward, blinking once as she stared down the murderous vortex.

Then she raised her hand.

Blood Demon Art. Exploding Blood.

Bright crimson pink flames exploded outward, meeting the crescent moons head-on a mere millisecond before they struck. Instantly, the vortex erupted into a whirling inferno, the flames negating the attack and halting it in place. Though they were close enough that they could reach out to touch the flames if they wanted to, none of them were harmed; indeed, it felt warm and pleasant.

Tanjirou blinked before he smiled. "Good job, Nezuko." She had saved the entire train with her Blood Demon Art. Nezuko beamed at him happily.

"Impressive," Douma remarked, rainbow eyes wide with fascination once the inferno died down. "A Blood Demon Art that targets anything demonic in origin? How interesting – "

He paused. Primarily because of the sword that had slipped past his hand and pierced his eye. "Oh?"

Kokushibou was already moving, having swung down even before Douma was stabbed. However, it was blocked by a black Nichirin blade.

"That was reckless," Tanjirou growled. If he hadn't already entered Transparent World, then he wouldn't have seen Shinobu launch the surprise attack and been able to move in tandem with her to defend against the counterattack.

They both disengaged a moment later, leaping backward as Douma and Akaza respectively sent out ice lotus flowers and destructive shockwaves. Tanjirou slashed his sword across the air, vibrant red-orange flames blooming into existence and blocking the attacks. Akaza tried to rush after them, only to be driven back by a tiger of flames, courtesy of Rengoku.

"My thanks," Shinobu inclined her head as she immediately sheathed her sword.

Click.

"I'm impressed," Douma smiled, touching his eye with his fan. Blood was flowing out freely and the kanji in his eye was distorted. "That was one beautiful stab. I couldn't stop it in time. It's unfortunate, really, that you can't kill a demon by stabbing..." He blinked. "Oh. This is poison, isn't it?" He sighed. "How irritating – "

He cut off in a scream of pain, dropping down to his knees as the veins across his entire body turned a sickly purple. Blood splattered to the ground as he coughed, his entire body spasming and seizing.

"Poison?" Akaza repeated, a strange tinge to his voice as he stared down at Douma. Whereas before he had had an amiable smile on his face, now his entire presence seemed to have shifted, a cold, clinical quality to his gaze.

"Douma," Kokushibou said. "Decompose it."

"A bit easier – hah – said than done," Douma gasped out before a violent coughing fit racked his body. "But, well, if – if you insist – " And suddenly, the tremors abruptly left Douma's body as his veins pulsed before returning to normal, the purple tint receding. "Ah, that's better," he smiled at Shinobu as he stood up. "Looks like it didn't work. Now..." His rainbow eyes flashed, a kaleidoscope of colors. "My turn."

"Tanjirou! The forest!" Rengoku suddenly shouted.

Tanjirou understood immediately. If he remained here, then the train behind them would be in danger of getting caught in the crossfire of their fight. Since the Upper Moons were after Tanjirou, then if Tanjirou ran into the forest, then they would have to follow.

Douma slashed his fan across the air and whips of ice lashed outward, only to be countered by Rengoku. A cloud of dust and ice slivers billowed outward from the ensuing impact, demonic art clashing against swordsman spirit.

When the dust cleared, the demon slayers and two demons were gone.

Douma blinked. "Did they seriously just all run away?"

He turned to the side, looking at the forest to the left where they had disappeared off into, his posture unconcerned. Slowly, his face morphed into a smile. "I haven't been on a good chase lately. This will be amusing – "

He paused when he realized both Kokushibou and Akaza had already disappeared as well.

Douma sighed. "One of these days, someone will let me finish a sentence."

「」

Mere seconds after they entered the forest, purple beams of moonlight cut fissures through the ground behind them, forcing them to scatter; Rengoku to the right, Shinobu and Kanao to the left. A few seconds later, Tanjirou's eyes widened as Kokushibou seemingly materialized in front of him. He was fast – but then again, that was to be expected.

After all, this was a demon who had been alive for four hundred years. The demon who had clawed up the ranks to gain the title Upper Moon One itself.

And, more importantly, this was Yoriichi's older brother. The same brother who had perverted the techniques taught to him and used it to slaughter innocents, all in some depraved path to become the strongest.

For Yoriichi's sake, Tanjirou had to slay him. His sword brimmed with crimson flames as he charged, his practiced footwork accelerating him until he was just a streak in the air.

Kokushibou watched him approach impassively, his six demonic eyes not revealing anything. For some reason, Tanjirou got the feeling that Kokushibou was looking through him... Transparent World, he realized. Kokushibou was Yoriichi's brother; it made sense that he too would possess this power. And the black mark on his neck... A Demon Slayer Mark.

Well then. Tanjirou wouldn't hold any advantages there, it appeared. It would all come down to who had the superior swordsmanship.

Breath of the Sun, First Form. Waltz.

Tanjirou swung his sword downward, Kokushibou effortlessly blocking it with his own blade. A moment later, the second part of Waltz struck; a delayed arc of flames that followed the sword's path. The Upper Moon One merely twisted his blade, causing crescent moons to fly out and cut through the flames and continue toward Tanjirou.

Tanjirou immediately leaned back to avoid his counterattack before rushing forward again. They traded dozens of blows. Stab. Block. Spin. Slice. Parry. Stab –

He jumped backward, barely managing to dodge the rotating crescent moons that expanded outward suddenly. He narrowed his eyes.

In combining his Moon Breathing and his Blood Demon Art, Kokushibou had created a style that was uniquely difficult to fight. Tanjirou not only had to keep track of Kokushibou's massive blade but also the countless razor-sharp crescent moons that changed size at will.

"You're exceptionally skilled," Kokushibou complimented as he blocked a stab before sending out a wave of razor-sharp crescent moons that Tanjirou barely dodged. "You possess the same mark as I do, and you see the same world as I do."

Tanjirou spun around on his heel and unleashed a horizontal strike. Kokushibou blocked it before slashing down diagonally – and narrowing his eyes when his sword passed through Tanjirou's afterimage.

"He wasn't lying when he said that you knew the Breath of the Sun," Kokushibou mused as he suddenly spun around to block Tanjirou's downward slice, reacting perfectly to the attack that came from his blind spot.

Two streams of moonlight pierced toward Tanjirou, who was forced to leap back.

"I must ask. Are you one of Sumiyoshi's descendants?" Kokushibou asked almost nonchalantly.

Tanjirou froze, his entire body going still. Memories that were not his own flashed through his head. Inherited memories passed on through centuries. "How do you know that name?" he found himself whispering, his eyes wide.

"I came across records a few years ago written centuries ago by a simple coal burner," Kokushibou recounted. "It told of a man who could wield the powers of the sun itself. Apparently, the coal burner had been a good friend of this man."

Tanjirou felt as if he was just drenched in freezing water. A terrible, horrifying sensation nestled in the pit of his stomach, and his vision seemed to tunnel inward until Kokushibou's face was all he could see.

"If my brother had any children, there was a small chance he had left them with the coal burner's family," Kokushibou continued in that cultured voice of his. "If my brother's children intermarried with the coal burner's children, then that would mean there still existed descendants of my brother in this world. It was of little difficulty to track down where the coal burner had resided and then pass on the location to that man for him to investigate." He tilted his head. "I take it that you were one of the descendants?"

Tanjirou was completely, utterly silent.

This demon...

He was the one who had sent Kibutsuji Muzan to kill his family.

It was his fault that his mother, Rokuta, Shigeru, Takeo and Hanako were dead.

Everything that had happened...

It was because of Kokushibou.

An emotion welled up within him, crackling and hissing and burning as it spread throughout his entire body. It was not anger, it was not rage, it was not fury. Those emotions tended to be much more forthright, passionate, explosive.

This, however... This was like a toxic wildfire, a malignant pestilence that made him want to annihilate the demon standing in front of him. No, not just that – death was not enough. The desire to cause pain to this demon, the desire to torture this demon, the desire to make this demon suffer...

For the second time in his life, Tanjirou felt the withering hands of hatred grip his heart.

"You..." His entire body trembled not with pain or exhaustion but rather inextinguishable hatred as he glared at the Upper Moon One. "I'll fucking kill you."

Several of his veins burst as he pushed his Total Concentration Breathing to and past its limits. He barely registered the pain, far too focused on turning Kokushibou to ash. A snarl tore its way through his lips as flames sparked to life in the air, Tanjirou letting loose every technique his master had taught him.

The two demons exchanged untold numbers of blows. Moon Breathing against Sun Breathing. Bright roaring flames against crescent blades of demonic moonlight. The air around them literally became a whirlwind from the tremendous pressure exerted from their blows as the ground underneath was torn asunder.

Tanjirou gritted his teeth as he unleashed a flurry of chain attacks, unwilling to let up even for a single moment. He needed revenge. He needed to tear Kokushibou apart piece by piece. He needed to crush his bones and shred his muscles and gouge his eyes out –

Moon Breathing, Fifth Form. Moon Spirit Calamitous Eddy.

It happened all in less than a second. As Tanjirou leaped back to avoid a devastating horizontal strike, Kokushibou flicked his blade and tens – no, hundreds of crescent moon blades intersecting with moonlight suddenly shot outward of his blade, instantly curving around and surrounding Tanjirou.

Tanjirou reacted immediately as the blades converged inward toward him.

Breath of the Sun, Tenth Form. Beneficent Radiance.

His muscles straining, Tanjirou leaped backward, spiraling so that the flames would coil around him, acting as a shield. The crescent moons were sharp and lethal, but the potent flames protected Tanjirou from harm –

Tanjirou's eyes widened as Kokushibou tensed up his upper body, bringing both arms backward before thrusting forward in a straight unbending beam of moonlight, his demonic sword lengthening as he manipulated the blade formed of his own flesh. It streaked forward, piercing through the flames and headed straight for Tanjirou's chest.

Breath of the Sun. Fourth Form. Fake Rainbow.

Tanjirou was already in the middle of utilizing advanced footwork to create an afterimage of himself and evade the thrust when Kokushibou stomped on the ground, sending tremors through the ground underneath and disrupting Tanjirou's footwork.

And then it was too late to dodge. Tanjirou hastily tried to block, but he could only offer up a paltry defense which Kokushibou easily penetrated. Tanjirou tensed up his body as he awaited for the blade to reach his chest.

He was a demon, fortunately, which meant it wouldn't be fatal for him, but it was still going to hurt immensely.

That was when the world around him erupted into bright crimson pink flames. The crescent moons were burned away as Kokushibou's blade was knocked away by a powerful kick, the sudden inferno warding the Upper Moon One off.

Nezuko growled at Kokushibou, her veins bulging and her normally calm pink eyes narrowed into slits. Then she turned around and –

Tanjirou blinked as his head snapped to the side. Kokushibou blinked as well, lowering his sword slightly. Slowly, Tanjirou raised his hand to touch his cheek. Unless he was mistaken, Nezuko had just slapped him in the face.

"Nezuko...?" he asked in confusion. "Why did you – "

He paused when he saw in her eyes blatant worry and concern and... frustration?

Ah. That was right.

After the fight against Kibutsuji Muzan, Tanjirou had promised Nezuko that they would defeat their enemies together, hadn't he? And yet, here he was once again rushing into a fight by himself, leaving her behind. Worse yet, she had watched him almost be impaled in the chest and had to save him.

He had really messed up.

"You're right," Tanjirou smiled. "Thank you, Nezuko. I'm sorry. Shall we fight him together, then?"

"Mmm!" Nezuko nodded, her eyes filled with more clarity than Tanjirou had ever seen before.

"How intriguing," Kokushibou observed, staring at Nezuko. "I can understand you being strong, as you possess breathing techniques. However, the demon girl cannot have eaten more than a few humans, yet she still holds such formidable power. And both of you are resistant to that man's control as well..." His gaze darkened. "It appears the world is still as unfair as ever."

"Huh?" Tanjirou frowned. "What do you mean by that?"

Kokushibou shook his head. "It is of no matter," he dismissed. "Come, Kamado Tanjirou."

Tanjirou breathed in deeply, feeling his entire body tense up like a coiled spring, before he shot forward, Nezuko close behind him –

When they both abruptly came to a stop as something flew through the air in front of them, crashing through several trees before finally coming to a stop when it slammed into one particularly sturdy tree.

Tanjirou froze. Slowly, he turned to look – and drew in a sharp breath when he saw Rengoku's battered and bloodied form.

The Flame Hashira was not in good shape. The left side of his face was covered in blood, and his left eye was shut and slightly sunken in as if the eyeball beneath had caved in. He was bleeding from the stomach, and his flame haori was ripped and covered in dirt and wooden fragments.

"R-Rengoku?" Tanjirou's eyes were wide with shock and disbelief as he stared upon the Flame Hashira.

There was the sound of ice cracking to the left, causing Tanjirou to shift his gaze toward the source of the sound. A second later, Shinobu and Kanao flew through the air as well, barely dodging the shards of ice that streaked after them and landing in the clearing next to Rengoku. Tanjirou's eyes widened further as he took in the sight.

Shinobu was heavily injured – she had countless cuts scattered across her entire body, and blood had completely soaked through the upper left part of her uniform. She was limping slightly, and her arm was slung over Kanao's shoulder as the younger girl supported her weight.

Not that Kanao was in much better shape; she too had countless lacerations covering her body. She had a strange mark on her left cheek, and her breathing was heavily labored. As he watched, she coughed up blood, suggesting damage to the lungs. There was a large gash across her back, staining her white cloak with blood.

Tanjirou took a single hesitant step toward them, nearly lurching forward. He couldn't breathe; he felt as if his lungs were constricting as the scent of blood, delicious and exquisite and sickening, filled his nose. His mind couldn't comprehend what he was seeing.

"... w-what?"

「」

When the purple beams of moonlight tore through the forest, Rengoku was forced to separate from the others in order to avoid the attack. He spared a brief moment to glance at the damage caused, his eyes flickering when he saw the massive fissures left behind. So this was the strength of an Upper Moon.

He quickly tried to regroup, but something crashed down to the ground before him, sending up a cloud of dust. Rengoku raised his sword as the dust slowly cleared to reveal the Upper Moon Three –

Total Concentration. Flame Breathing. Fourth Form. Blooming Flame Undulation.

Rengoku reacted immediately to Akaza suddenly crossing the distance in a flash, swinging his sword down in a circular arc in front of him and cutting off Akaza's hand. Not fazed in the slightest by the loss of his limb, the Upper Moon Three delivered a powerful punch with his remaining hand to Rengoku's head which he dodged – and Rengoku's eyes widened as Akaza's other fist suddenly streaked toward his stomach.

Total concentration. Flame Breathing. Fourth Form. Magma Storm.

Planting his foot into the ground as a pivot and twisting around, a whirlwind of flames burst into life around Rengoku. Akaza immediately disengaged, displaying astonishing agility as he flipped backward several times without making a sound, putting some distance between them.

"As I had thought," Akaza smiled in satisfaction. "You are strong. Your fighting spirit has been honed to the utmost limit, and I can tell that you are close to the realm of the highest. You shall be my opponent tonight. What is your name?"

"I'm the Flame Hashira, Rengoku Kyoujurou," Rengoku introduced, his impeccable manners taking over even as he inwardly analyzed what had just transpired. In less than a second, Akaza had instantly regenerated his severed limb. As expected of an Upper Moon.

"I'm Akaza," Akaza returned before sliding into a stance. "It is a pity that that man ordered us to leave no demon slayer here alive. Otherwise, I would make an offer to turn you into a demon so we could continue fighting forever."

"It wouldn't have mattered," Rengoku responded resolutely, not bothering to even consider such a proposition. "I would have never accepted such an offer."

"Oh? And why is that?" Akaza tilted his head. "If you become a demon, then you'll be able to train for a hundred, two hundred years, perhaps more, and ultimately achieve the realm of the highest. As a human, however, you are doomed to grow old and lose your strength and die. Knowing that, wouldn't it be better to be a demon than a human?"

"To become a demon is to trample over the lives of the weak," Rengoku stated. "It is to destroy innocent lives and crush precious dreams. My duty is to protect the weak, and becoming a demon would be the very antithesis of that."

"Protect the weak?" Akaza shook his head. "Such childish ideals. Protecting the weak is pointless. A wasteful effort. They only exist to be trampled over. I would've expected this foolish sentiment from someone like that poison wielder, not someone of your caliber."

Rengoku narrowed his eyes. "Kochou is an admirable Hashira, and it is an honour for me to fight alongside her – "

"She is weak," Akaza hissed. "All humans are weak. No matter what pretty words you use, the reality is that humans are nothing more than contemptuous weaklings," he snarled vehemently. "And weaklings are disgusting, abhorrent creatures – "

He stopped abruptly as if suddenly realizing what he was saying. "My apologies," he said, his voice returning to a calm tone. "I've been stuck in the same room as Douma for about a week now, and my sanity is getting rather strained." He bowed his head slightly. "Forgive me for that unsightly outburst."

For the past week, Akaza had been ordered by Kibutsuji Muzan to stay together with Douma and Kokushibou in the Infinity Fortress while waiting for Kamado Tanjirou to appear. Considering how Akaza could barely stand being in the Upper Moon Two's presence for three minutes before wanting to punch him through the face, it had been a living hell. His patience had quickly evaporated after just a day, and he had found himself unconsciously becoming more discourteous and crude, his speech and demeanor deteriorating into a manner that was strangely familiar.

It was certainly odd, though. Akaza was confident he had never met the poison wielder before, but for some inexplicable reason he found her existence utterly loathsome...

"You and I have fundamentally different values," Rengoku spoke up, breaking him out of his thoughts. "You believe the strong exist to trample over the weak. To use them as food." His expression hardened with iron conviction. "But you are mistaken. The strong exist, not to feed off the weak, but to protect them!"

The Flame Hashira raised his sword and pointed it at Akaza, his expression burning with unfaltering resolve. "I will say this again: I will never, ever become a demon!"

Akaza sighed in disappointment. "Kyoujurou..."

"There is one thing, however. You said that protecting the weak is pointless. A wasteful effort. So tell me, Akaza..." Rengoku's voice grew soft. "Why did your eyes look so pained when you said that?"

Akaza froze, his entire body stilling.

"Could it be because you once failed to protect someone precious to you before?"

As if a barrier was just shattered, the sound of voices suddenly filled Akaza's mind. They were faint, barely audible, as if they were yelling from across a large distance, but he heard them nonetheless. He thought they were trying to say something but he couldn't tell; their voices were far too quiet and all blended together into one incomprehensible stream, but he could swear he somehow recognized the voices, and along with that recognition came unexplainable emotions of sorrow and sadness and guilt that hurt

He didn't want to feel that pain anymore.

The ground beneath cracked as Akaza stomped down, a light blue snowflake-shaped compass expanding outward, his stance emitting pure lethal skill. The voices instantly vanished, his mind clearing of all extraneous thoughts as he entered the flow state, becoming hyperperceptive of every minute fluctuation of Rengoku's battle spirit.

Technique Development. Destructive Death. Compass Needle.

"Let us fight, Kyoujurou!"

「」

Moments after they had split from the others due to the Upper Moon One's attack, a wall of ice immediately rose up in front of Shinobu and Kanao, blocking their paths. They whirled around to see the Upper Moon Two standing there.

"Now, now," Douma smiled, expertly twirling his fan in his hand. "You can't stab me in the eye and poison me like that for free, you know."

"Kanao," Shinobu said quietly as she kept her eyes on Douma. "You should return to the others. I'll handle him."

Kanao didn't move.

"Kanao," Shinobu repeated, her voice tense. "You don't need to be here – "

"He murdered Kanae, right?"

Shinobu blinked. She cast a glance at the younger girl, and was surprised to see Kanao's typically blank gaze replaced by an intense expression of – hatred?

Indeed, if anger had been the emotion Kanao had felt while facing Rui, then standing before the demon who had killed her sister, the emotion she was feeling now was pure overwhelming hatred. It washed over her, pulling her under in its oppressive tide, threatening to overflow her – and she welcomed it. After all...

"This demon was the one to kill Kanae, wasn't he?" Kanao said, emotions long thought forgotten leaking into her voice. "So now we must kill him in turn."

Shinobu stared at her for a long moment. Then, she smiled, grim, but also with a trace of sadness to it.

They truly were sisters.

"Very well."

She turned back to Douma, who had been content in watching them. Quickly, she flashed through several hand signals. Kanao blinked before nodding in understanding.

"Oh! What was that?" Douma asked excitedly. "Secret hand signals? How fun! Why don't you let me in on the secret as well?"

Shinobu smiled. "Sure. We'll share it with you."

And then she vanished.

Total Concentration. Insect Breathing. Dance of the Centipede. Hundred-Legged Zigzag.

A series of rapid explosions ruptured across the ground caused by seemingly nothing as Shinobu moved at speeds that rendered her little more than a blur. Douma's eyes flickered around as he tried to track her, but her weaving movement pattern made her approach entirely unpredictable. Douma didn't even have any time to blink before she was on him.

The Upper Moon Two slashed outward with both his fans, unleashing two devastating arcs of ice. A smile began forming on his face as the ice cut into Shinobu – only for him to blink as her form shimmered before disappearing. An afterimage created by her sheer speed. But where was she-?

His eyes widened as the ice in front of him shattered and Shinobu burst through. He didn't have any time to react before he felt a sharp excruciating pain in his chest as Shinobu thrust her sword into his solar plexus. He was forced back by the powerful blow, Shinobu continuing to charge forward with him impaled on her blade. A split second later, he slammed into a large tree behind him, splintering the bark underneath.

Ice lotus flowers and crystal shards exploded outward but Shinobu was already gone, leaving nothing behind but a shadow on the ground – hold on. Shadow on the ground?

Douma snapped his head upward, shock spreading across his face.

Above him, Shinobu spun in the air, her body nearly parallel to the ground, and in that single still moment she appeared to be a flying butterfly, the moon a shining backdrop behind her.

Douma smiled. Beautiful.

Then she completed her spin and with all her speed, she stabbed downward.

Total Concentration. Insect Breathing. Dance of the Dragonfly. Compound Eye Hexagon.

Even as six strikes struck Douma virtually simultaneously, Shinobu was already flitting through the air again, instantly switching directions and flipping back, landing lightly and sheathing her sword to refill the poison.

Douma fell to the ground, folded over as blood spurted out from wounds on his face, throat, and chest. "You really are fast!" he complimented with a wide grin. "Perhaps the fastest Hashira I've faced so far. Not fast enough, sadly."

Shinobu let out a gasp of pain as her left shoulder and chest flared up in searing pain. Douma had... cut her? She hadn't even seen him move!

Even as she collapsed to her knee and blood started gushing out, she ignored the pain and forced herself to stare forward, her keen eyes observing Douma.

Three. Two. One.

"Now!" Shinobu shouted.

Douma's entire body gave a shudder as the poison took effect, his veins once again pulsating with a sickly purple color. Kanao moved immediately, pushing herself past her limits as she breathed. Shinobu had given her this opening, temporarily incapacitating Douma with her poison. She needed to make it count.

Her encounter against Rui had been an eye-opening experience. If even the Lower Moon Five could nearly kill her, albeit due to a trap, then what chance did she have against her sister's killer, an Upper Moon?

And so she had trained, harder than she had ever trained before. Though it had only been about a month, she had improved so dramatically that even Shinobu had remarked on her progress, saying it was reminiscent of the meteoric rate of growth of Muichirou himself.

Everything had culminated in this single moment. Douma in front of her wide open, still struggling to decompose the poison.

Total Concentration. Flower Breathing. Third Form. Nightshade Trumpet.

Purple petals fluttered from her as she spun, gathering more and more momentum with every rotation. Like its parent Breathing Style, Flower Breathing and Water Breathing both tended to be softer forms, preferring to utilize an elegant stream of movements to take down their opponent instead of forceful, powerful blows like Sound Breathing or Stone Breathing. However, both styles still recognized the importance of having a form capable of utterly annihilating their enemy.

For Water Breathing, it was the roaring water dragon of the Constant Flux.

For Flower Breathing, it was the deceptively powerful petals of the Nightshade Trumpet.

In the blink of an eye, Kanao crossed the distance between her and the Upper Moon Two, a whirlwind of flower petals swirling around her light pink blade, Douma staring at her with wide numbered eyes –

Blood Demon Art. Freezing Clouds.

Kanao's eyes widened as the air in front of Douma suddenly chilled to subzero temperatures, shining ice particles billowing outward in a white cloud. She was forced to slam her eyes shut to avoid her eyeballs being frozen as her entire body instantly began shivering, and though she tried to finish the attack, her sword met something hard that was decidedly not flesh.

Leaping backward, she opened her eyes to see that a humanoid woman formed from ice with the base of a lotus blossom had blocked her attack.

Kanao had failed.

"My," Douma stood up as his wounds healed, the poison neutralized. "That was a close call. Well done, you two!" he beamed. "A magnificent display of teamwork. Tell me, what are your names?"

"I... am Tsuyuri Kanao," Kanao said, her limbs still shivering from the residual effects of the immense cold. Her lungs hurt, and when she coughed, blood spilled out from between her lips. She must've inhaled some of the demonic ice mist. Regardless, she carried on. "And she... is Kochou Shinobu. We are Kochou Kanae's little sisters, and we shall be the ones to end your life tonight."

Douma blinked. "Sisters? But you two clearly aren't blood-related... Well, whatev – not this time!"

He blocked Shinobu's surprise attack with his fan before slashing outward with his other fan, unleashing a torrent of ice shards and lotus blossoms.

Shinobu leaped back, landing next to Kanao before immediately dropping to her knee, breathing heavily. Blood was soaking heavily through her uniform now, and while she had dodged the largest ice shards, countless little ones had still struck her, causing numerous gashes to open up.

"Shinobu!" Kanao rushed to her side.

Shinobu gave her a weak smile. "Sorry. I was careless." Her eyes flickered. "He was a lot faster in neutralizing the poison than before. It appears he's slowly growing more and more immune every time he's exposed. I estimate I can poison him at most one or two more times before it becomes completely ineffective – if it hasn't already."

It was unfortunate she had yet to implement her plan in which she ingested poison in order to make her body itself a weapon. She had been planning on getting started after this mission, but now, she may never get the chance to.

Damn it. Shinobu wanted to kill him so badly it physically hurt. If only she wasn't so small. If only she didn't need to rely on poisons. If only she was strong enough to cut off his head.

Too late for regrets now, though. It appeared she would meet the same fate as her sister. Even now, she could feel herself growing weaker and weaker.

Shinobu's purple eyes flickered over to Kanao. Well, even if she no longer had a future, she was still going to try her absolute hardest to save her little sister. It would be fine if she died, but Kanao... Shinobu wanted her to live.

"Run, Kanao," Shinobu said, her breath growing ragged. "In our present state, we can't defeat him. I'll hold him off as you find the others and – "

"No."

"Kanao, listen to me!" Shinobu snapped desperately. "This is a direct order. We can't defeat him! Just obey my command and run – "

"I won't!" Kanao said adamantly before reaching into her uniform and withdrawing a familiar coin. "You and Kanae always told me to follow my heart, didn't you? To make my own choices for myself?"

With that, she flipped her coin high into the air, the metal glinting in the moonlight.

"Well, I've decided!" Kanao declared, her lilac eyes filling with determination and resolve, her voice strong and unflinching. "I won't run away! I'm going to fight!"

Shinobu's eyes widened in shock, and for a brief moment she almost couldn't recognize the girl standing in front of her. Was... was this really Kanao?

Then, the coin still falling through the air overhead, Kanao blurred into motion.

Total Concentration. Flower Breathing. First Form. Fluttering Rose Petal.

Douma laughed in delight as ice lotus flowers streaked through the air, but Kanao dodged them all, smoothly flowing between the lethal projectiles with her irregular footwork. It was like watching a flower petal flutter down to the ground, capricious as it drifted back and forth.

"How heartwarming!" Douma cried as he blocked Kanao's slice with his fan. Ice whips lashed out a moment later, but she was already gone. "Disobeying your older sister's orders in an attempt to save her. Futile, but heartwarming!"

Kanao assaulted him from every direction, utilizing Fluttering Rose Petal to its fullest. Tiny ice powder hung suspended in the air around Douma, forcing her to hold her breath whenever she got near in order to prevent further damage to her lungs, and if it weren't for her regulating her body temperature, she would probably freeze. Her eyes were working in overtime, her supernatural sight allowing her to predict and dodge his constant attacks. She had to. A single misstep would mean her death.

Icicles formed over her head and speared down, but Kanao was already on the opposite side of the clearing.

Total Concentration. Flower Breathing. Fifth Form. Peonies of Futility.

A massive flower blossomed into the air, its outline being traced by Kanao's blade as she unleashed the combination attack. She narrowed her eyes as Douma seemed to anticipate where her sword would be. With her eyesight, she could see that he was moving before she attacked, almost as if he knew where she was going to strike –

"I remember this one!" Douma smiled, his tone completely relaxed as he fended off her strikes. "The previous Flower Hashira used this attack on me as well. It nearly cut off my arm last time, so I won't make the same mistake with you."

Blood Demon Art. Scattering Lotuses.

An honest-to-gods blizzard formed out of nothing, thousands of ice shards in the shape of lotus petals crystallizing in the air, spiraling around a central point in a vortex formation three times taller than the trees around them. The lotus petals hovered in the air for one peaceful moment before Douma swung down with his fan in a grand sweeping gesture and they shot forward.

Kanao was once again reminded of Mount Natagumo, where the Lower Moon Five had unleashed a similar attack. Flower Breathing was countered by large powerful area-of-effect attacks like these, lacking a technique able to instantly brute force through. Even Nightshade Trumpet required some preparation in the form of footwork and rotations to gather momentum.

It was fortunate, then, that Kanao had spent the last month creating a new technique.

Well, perhaps creating wasn't the correct word. It would be more accurate to say she had derived a technique from the parent Breathing Style, Water Breathing.

An original technique of the current Water Hashira, no less.

Total Concentration. Flower Breathing. Seventh Form. Meadow of Tranquility.

Like a single tiny flower weathering a harsh unrelenting storm capable of felling trees, Kanao stood completely still. Rather than attempting to face the attack directly, her swordsman spirit instead formed an invisible barrier around her, the spiritual energy redirecting the lotus petals around her like the wind flowing around the delicate flowers in a meadow. While there were several differences from Tomioka Giyuu's original technique, Lull, the general mechanics were extremely similar.

And then it was over. Douma looked surprised as the blizzard dissipated and Kanao was revealed to have not perished. Numerous cuts and tears had opened up on her body due to the technique not having been perfected yet, but she had managed to avoid the worst of injuries.

"Now that's new," Douma remarked. "I must say, I'm impressed. If only you had an extra year to grow stronger, then perhaps you would be able to surpass your older sisters in strength." He sighed. "Sadly, you're still far too weak. But don't worry!" he added, smiling. "I'll accept you anyway. First things first, though, before I forget..."

In a blur of speed, Douma disappeared. Kanao's eyes flickered around, trying to detect which direction he would attack from –

Her eyes widened as she heard Shinobu let out a small gasp.

Kanao whirled around to see Douma gripping Shinobu's throat, smiling down on her as Shinobu clawed at his hands, struggling to breathe.

In her mind's eye, Kanao could see what was going to happen. In less than a second, Douma was going to crush Shinobu's throat. Blood would fill her windpipe and lungs as she suffocated on her own life fluid. It would be a painful, excruciating death, and there was nothing Kanao could do to stop it.

After all, she was too slow, far too slow. She wasn't fast like Shinobu or Tanjirou or Rengoku. She wasn't even on the level of a Hashira yet. As Douma had said, perhaps if she had had another year to train, she would've become strong enough, but she didn't have a year. She didn't even have a second.

Kanao needed speed. Kanao needed speed right now.

Otherwise...

Images flashed across her mind, of Shinobu throwing the money into the air on the bridge that day, of Shinobu always making time to talk to her no matter how busy it got in the Butterfly Estate, of Shinobu smiling at her with warmth and love.

Kanao didn't want to lose another sister.

And something within her detonated; a roaring unquenchable heat that exploded out from the center of her core to the tips of her fingers, her heart rate instantly skyrocketing, beating so fast and hard that she heard it in her ears –

"Huh?" Douma blinked in confusion. One moment, he had been about to squeeze the life out of the Insect Hashira. The next moment, she was gone, and he was missing his two hands. Slowly, he turned his head to see Shinobu in Kanao's arms several meters away.

"Kanao?" Shinobu breathed as Kanao set her down. "How did you...?" She trailed off as her eyes focused on something on Kanao's left cheek.

In the fraction of a second, Kanao had somehow severed both of Douma's hands and saved Shinobu. Kanao had no idea how she had managed it; all she knew was that her mind had gone blank in that instant as she moved. She felt hot as if she was burning up from a strong fever, but she didn't feel weak at all; instead, an unknown strength seemed to be flowing through her entire body.

"I stand corrected," Douma looked bemused as his hands regenerated. "It appears you are strong, after all. Where were you hiding this speed?"

Kanao ignored him as she analyzed the situation. She and Shinobu were both heavily wounded, and despite her sudden second wind, she wasn't sure how long she could sustain it. They needed to retreat and regroup with the others.

"Can you run?" she asked quietly.

Shinobu hesitated, her eyes flickering down to a particularly grievous wound on her left thigh. "Not well."

Kanao nodded. "I'll support you."

"Running away?" Douma called. "And here I thought we were becoming friends."

Thorny whips of ice lashed out, but Kanao and Shinobu were already gone. The landscape around them blurred as they ran, Shinobu's arm slung over her shoulder. If it weren't for Kanao's sudden inexplicable increase in speed, they probably wouldn't have been able to escape.

Even now, Douma was chasing after them, ice shard petals and lotus blossoms shooting through the air. Kanao let out a gasp of pain as she shielded Shinobu with her body, a large gash opening up in her back, but she pushed through the pain and continued running. They just had to make it back to the others –

Kanao and Shinobu burst into a clearing, and immediately Kanao's eyes flickered around and took in the scene. Rengoku was heavily injured, the Upper Moon One was observing them with his six demonic eyes, and Tanjirou... Tanjirou was staring at them with an expression of disbelief and fear on his face.

「」

Tanjirou remained unmoving as he stared at them with a horrified gaze, utterly transfixed. It was only when Kanao suddenly collapsed to her knees that he was snapped out of his trance. "Kanao! Shinobu! Rengoku!"

He rushed to their sides. The strange marks on Kanao's cheek – had those been dark pink flower petals? – had disappeared, and she was practically hyperventilating, blood spilling out her lips with every gasp. Standing right in front of them, their injuries seemed so much worse, and as Tanjirou stared at the blood, his vision flickered slightly, images from that day superimposing over the present reality. "Oh gods. Oh gods."

His hands trembled as he hovered around uncertainly, not sure what he should do. He wasn't a healer or doctor like Tamayo. He didn't know any medicinal techniques. Damn it. Not again. Not again.

"Tanjirou," Shinobu said weakly, and for a second Tanjirou didn't see Shinobu but rather his mother and he couldn't breathe –

"No, no, no," Tanjirou said, his voice frantic. Kanao, Shinobu, and Rengoku were all humans. Strong humans, as strong as demons due to their Breaths, but humans nonetheless.

Unlike Tanjirou, they couldn't heal from fatal attacks like it was nothing. They didn't have inhuman regeneration or functional immortality. Their wounds didn't close up that easily. Their bones didn't instantly heal once broken. Their limbs didn't regrow once lost.

They were human – strong, yet so incredibly fragile.

Tears burned at Tanjirou's eyes from sheer frustration. It wasn't fair. Why was he perfectly whole, not even a scratch on him, while these three were falling apart?

"You've finally finished," Kokushibou spoke as Akaza and Douma meandered into the clearing. Both of them were in perfect condition, undoubtedly already having healed whatever wounds were inflicted onto them. "You two took longer than I expected."

"Sorry, sorry," Douma clapped his hands together in apology, smiling apologetically. "I ran into some unexpected difficulties – but nothing too troublesome in the end."

Akaza was silent, his expression unreadable.

"That was certainly a fun fight though," Douma smiled, licking the blood on his fan, his multicolored eyes focused on Shinobu and Kanao. "I look forward to becoming one with you two forever~"

"Douma," Akaza said, his voice low. "Please, cease your depravity."

"Oh? So polite," Douma raised his eyebrows. "Just yesterday you would've attempted to rip out my throat. You must've had an enjoyable fight just now if you're in such a good mood." His gaze then shifted over to Tanjirou and Nezuko. "Hey, hey, Kokushibou. How come they're still standing? Are your skills getting rusty?"

"Hardly," Kokushibou said smoothly. "I merely wished to test the boy. I have seen everything that I needed to see, however. It appears that compared to my brother, he is nothing but a pale imitation." He glanced at the setting moon for a moment. "Daybreak will come soon. Douma, Akaza, don't interfere."

Tanjirou tensed up, eyes narrowing and flames flickering to life on his blade as he stood protectively in front of the three demon slayers –

It happened in slow motion. Literally. The supernatural lens of Transparent World distorted time itself, which meant Tanjirou saw with crystal clarity how Kokushibou's form flickered before shooting forward. However, despite him being fully aware of the incoming attack, Tanjirou's body wouldn't respond to his commands, not due to a poison or a Blood Demon Art, but simply because he wasn't fast enough.

Kokushibou's speed had doubled from before, and with a sinking feeling Tanjirou realized that the Upper Moon One had probably only been toying with him this entire time.

With all his strength, he managed to bring his blade up and block the first strike, but the force behind the swing knocked him off his feet, ramming him to the side. He flew through the air, breathing in as he prepared to –

Moon Breathing, Sixth Form. Perpetual Night, Lonely Moon – Incessant.

A barrage of crescent slashes slammed into him, too fast for him to react to. A cry of pain escaped him as the moons tore into him, cutting into his shoulders, chest, arms, legs, blood spurting out. Kokushibou didn't even give him a second's respite, already moving onto his next attack.

Moon Breathing, First Form. Dark Moon, Evening Palace.

A single monstrous slash twice the size of his body exploded outward from Kokushibou's blade, swordsman spirit and Blood Demon Art combining in a formidable manner. Pushing through the pain, he brought his sword up.

Breath of the Sun, Sixth Form. Burning Bones, Summer Sun.

Tanjirou unleashed a circular slash in front of him that countered Kokushibou's attack – and his eyes widened as even more crescent moons materialized. He cycled through forms, his muscles straining through their injuries, but it was futile.

Kokushibou was a force of nature itself. Trying to stop him would be like trying to stop the moon from pulling on the tides; it simply wasn't done, and to attempt such a thing would be nothing but sheer mortal arrogance.

That didn't matter to Nezuko, though.

Exploding Blood!

Crimson pink flames roared to life, burning through Kokushibou's moons as Nezuko jumped in, growling in rage as she kicked away Kokushibou's blade – and she blinked as she found herself suddenly missing a leg.

"The same attack won't work on me twice," Kokushibou said coldly.

"Nezuko, cover me!"

"Mmm!" Nezuko nodded, her leg already regenerating as Tanjirou breathed.

Breath of the Sun, Eleventh Form. Solar Halo Dragon Dance.

He vanished in a blur of speed, spinning around rapidly as a crimson dragon of flames ignited into existence. His injuries screamed at him but he refused to slow down, instead pushing himself to go even faster.

Tanjirou refused to lose here. He couldn't lose here. For the sake of Kanao and Shinobu and Rengoku, he needed to win.

In the blink of an eye, Tanjirou was in front of Kokushibou. The Upper Moon One was already counterattacking, crescent moons forming, but they erupted into flames a moment later, Nezuko's Blood Demon Art negating his defense.

Tanjirou's blade neared Kokushibou's neck, the dragon's fangs about to strike –

Oh.

So he's that fast, huh.

"It's simple, really," Kokushibou spoke calmly. "All I have to do is not combine my Blood Demon Art with my Moon Breathing. After that, it's just a straightforward matter of being fast enough to cut you before her flames can negate my attack."

In that single moment, Kokushibou's blade had blitzed through the air like moonlight itself, too fast for Tanjirou to react, and sliced clean through Tanjirou's upper arm. The attack hadn't given off a demonic scent, indicating that Kokushibou had only used his Moon Breathing.

Tanjirou's eyes flickered to the side as he watched his arm still gripping his blade fall to the ground, no longer connected to his body. Behind him, Nezuko let out a scream, a blazing firestorm rushing toward them, but Kokushibou reached out and grabbed Tanjirou by the throat before jumping up, dodging the attack.

"Once you no longer have your sword," Kokushibou continued evenly as they fell through the air, as if he was merely discussing the weather, "then it becomes a relatively easy matter of incapacitating you to prevent you from running."

The world became pure agony as Kokushibou's blade flashed and Tanjirou found himself suddenly missing the rest of his limbs. He crashed into the ground a moment later – then coughed up blood as Kokushibou formed a fleshy cylindrical spike in his hand and speared it through his chest, pinning him to the ground. Blood gushed out from his wounds, soaking into the earth.

He needed to heal. He needed to heal. Why wasn't he healing?

Because you haven't eaten any humans, a traitorous voice whispered in his mind. Because you haven't slept for two years to build up energy.

Nezuko screamed as she charged at Kokushibou, only to be bisected at the waist by a casual blow too fast for the naked eye to perceive. She crashed into the trees off to the side. A moment later, beams of moonlight crashed down from the sky onto her, sending up a cloud of dust and wood splinters.

"Nezuko!" Tanjirou cried, and he felt something inside him shift. His limbs twitched before beginning to slowly regenerate – only to be immediately severed once again by Kokushibou. He roared in pain, physical and mental anguish overwhelming him.

He was weak.

He was far too fucking weak.

How could he possibly hope to defeat Kibutsuji Muzan if he couldn't even cut down Kokushibou?

Damn it. Damn it!

Despair flooded him as he fully realized just how doomed they were. His eyes dimmed and his strength ebbed as the will to fight slowly began dying out within him.

The situation was hopeless. It was over. They had lost. He was pinned to the ground, completely helpless. Nezuko was cut in half, struggling to regenerate. Shinobu and Kanao were both heavily injured, and Rengoku was –

Wait.

Tanjirou drew in a sharp breath as he turned his head to stare at the Flame Hashira. Rengoku had assumed a stance, a fierce, determined smile on his face.

"Kyoujurou..." Akaza breathed out, his eyes wide. He and Douma had been silently standing off to the side, obediently watching Kokushibou fight, but now the Upper Moon Three stepped forward, gazing at Rengoku in shock. "You..."

"Do not give up hope, Kamado Tanjirou!" Rengoku shouted, his voice strong and thunderous. "The fight is not yet over! No matter how much despair you feel, no matter how devastated you are by your own weakness, no matter how much you want to give up..." Flames exploded out from his form, illuminating the entire clearing in its indomitable light. "Set your heart ablaze!"

Esoteric Art. Ninth Form. Rengoku.

And the Flame Hashira shot forward in a beam of flames, the very forest trembling from the sheer pressure emitted from his charge. Bright flames coalesced into a destructive dragon, snarling through the air.

Moon Breathing, Tenth Form. Drilling Slashes, Moon Through Bamboo Leaves.

A cyclone of curving crescent moons formed in front of Kokushibou, rotating rapidly as it expanded outward – only to dissipate as Rengoku burst right through, the maws of the flame dragon overwhelming the whirlwind.

Kokushibou narrowed his eyes and was forced to raise his blade to block. A shockwave tore through the clearing as their blades clashed, a sharp ringing sound accompanied by a massive gust of wind.

It wasn't enough, however. Rengoku's arms trembled as he poured in all his strength into the attack, but it was clear that his attack didn't possess enough power to break through. Already, crescent moons were emerging, ready to tear Rengoku apart –

Then, Rengoku roared.

Breath of the Sun, Fourth Form. Burning Bones, Summer Sun.

Tanjirou and Kokushibou's eyes simultaneously widened in absolute shock as flames of a different shade erupted across the surface of Rengoku's blade, vibrant and potent. At the same time, a dark red mark formed on Rengoku's face, a flame design that stretched up to above his eyebrows, nearly covering the entire left side of his face.

Kokushibou's demonic sword let out a crack before shattering under the exponentially more powerful attack, and before the Upper Moon One could take a step back, Rengoku was ripping into him, his blade cutting into the demon's chest and slicing through flesh, nearly cleaving Kokushibou in two –

Gigantic blades of flesh burst out of Kokushibou's midsection and would've skewered straight through Rengoku if Shinobu hadn't suddenly blurred out of nowhere and knocked him to the side. Even so, the sheer shockwave generated by the explosive attack knocked them back, sending them flying through the air. They crashed into the ground next to Kanao, landing in a heap.

Kokushibou shot a glance at Douma, who raised his hands innocently.

"Sorry for letting her slip past!" Douma smiled apologetically. "I wanted to play with my food a little longer after you kill the boy, so I'm keeping them alive for now. I'll keep a closer eye on them."

Tanjirou's eyes were wide with shock as he stared at the Flame Hashira. Had Rengoku just used Burning Bones, Setting Sun? Was Tanjirou hallucinating things?

"Breath of the Sun," Kokushibou murmured as his wound healed, staring at Rengoku and confirming that Tanjirou hadn't temporarily lost his mind from the pain. "And the Demon Slayer Mark as well. Impressive. Truly impressive. To be able to unleash such a splendid Breath of the Sun form... you are undoubtedly one of the strongest swordsmen of this era."

But… how? Tanjirou didn't understand. Had Rengoku somehow managed to reverse engineer a Breath of the Sun technique after just seeing Tanjirou perform it once?! Just how skilled was the Flame Hashira?!

"However..." Kokushibou continued, and with dawning horror Tanjirou realized that Rengoku wasn't getting up. Rengoku's entire body was shaking involuntarily, and he was practically hyperventilating. "Your body isn't suited to wield the devastating power of the Breath of the Sun. Your attack was praiseworthy, but sadly it isn't enough."

Then, he turned back to Tanjirou. Belatedly, Tanjirou registered that his limbs were starting to regenerate once more. Before he could do anything, though, Kokushibou flicked his hand and crescent moons sliced down, once again cutting off his limbs. Tanjirou let out another scream of agony.

"Now then..." Kokushibou strode over to where Tanjirou's black Nichirin blade had fallen. He gazed at it for a moment, clearly recognizing it to be Yoriichi's sword. "This is... Well, it doesn't matter." He picked it up and walked back to Tanjirou, the blade looking comically undersized when held in the massive demon's hand.

"Farewell, Kamado Tanjirou."

Then he swung down the sword.

「」

For the longest time, she had dreamed.

Ephemeral scenes of smiles, of laughter, of warmth, of love were all she knew.

She didn't remember who she was. She didn't even remember her name.

She existed, and she dreamed, and that was enough.

However, no dream could last forever. Everyone had to wake up eventually, and she was no exception.

What initially prompted her awakening was the sound of trickling water. Amid the pleasant laughter of her dreams, she heard the unmistakable sound of flowing liquid. Then, a metallic scent hit her nose, and a moment later, she felt her surroundings heat up, the noise of crackling flames reaching her ears and causing her to stir from her sleep.

Slowly, she opened her eyes and sat up, and the reason for her awakening immediately became clear.

What she had believed to be flowing water was actually blood streaming into the room from an opening in the ceiling. The blood appeared to be burning, vibrant pinkish red flames dancing across the surface of the crimson fluid. The floor, walls, ceiling were all set ablaze, though instead of causing her pain, it instead made her feel warm and comfortable.

How curious.

She stood up from the futon she had been sleeping on and walked around, examining the room. There was a sphere hovering in the corner of the room, a muted yellow color, and she inspected it with an intrigued gaze.

What was this place? Where was she?

"Nezuko."

She whirled around to see a woman standing in the room with her. She had dark purple eyes, and she wore a purple and cream checkered kimono with a white smock on top. Her black hair was covered with a white cloth, and tears were streaming down her face.

"Nezuko, please. Wake up. You need to save your brother."

She blinked at the woman. What was she talking about? Brother? She had a brother?

The woman's face seemed to crumple as she stared at her blankly.

"Nezuko."

She whirled around again to see an old man standing in the corner of the room next to the floating sphere. He had long white hair tied back into a ponytail, and he had a strange dark mark on his forehead. His expression was stern, but it softened as he gazed at her.

"For a long time, you have slumbered," the old man murmured. "But now, it is time for you to wake up. Rise, Kamado Nezuko."

Then he set his hand on the sphere and breathed, and the sphere exploded in brilliant blinding light, so bright and intense it was like staring into the sun itself –

And Kamado Nezuko remembered.

「」

The black Nichirin blade sliced into Tanjirou's neck, drawing blood – and then was sent flying through air.

The Upper Moon One blinked but before he could react, his entire body exploded in a conflagration of flames and a powerful kick sent him skidding backward several meters.

Nezuko stood in front of Tanjirou protectively. Her entire appearance had changed; she looked older now, her size increasing to mature proportions. A horn protruded from the right side of her forehead, and vine-like patterns encircled her body. An onlooker might have thought she had fully embraced her primal demonic side if it weren't for the words that came out of her mouth a moment later.

"Don't you dare touch my older brother," Nezuko snarled.

The clearing was silent for a moment except for the crackling of flames.

"N-Nezuko?"

She turned around to see Tanjirou staring at her, his eyes impossibly wide. In his shock, he appeared to have forgotten completely about the blade still pinned through his chest.

Nezuko smiled.

"Hey, nii-chan."

Tears welled up in Tanjirou's eyes as emotions overwhelmed him. "Nezuko – "

Nezuko whirled back around and slashed across the air with her hand. Flames exploded outward, consuming the crescent moons that had streaked toward her.

"We can talk later," Nezuko said, her eyes narrowing. Her mind was still hazy, confusing memories whirling around turbulently, but she still understood enough to know that the demon standing in front of her was bad.

"So you've regained your sentience," Kokushibou observed. "Interesting."

"And you've seemed to enjoy carving up my older brother," Nezuko returned. "Allow me to pay you back. Tenfold."

She brought her arms in a cross shape and slowly dragged her claws across her forearms, drawing blood. Then, she flung her hands outward.

Blades of Blood.

The blood that had drenched her claws flung outward, expanding in the air until it was several meters long, ten curving slashes that streaked through the air.

Kokushibou raised his sword to block, but upon striking the blade, the blood lost all shape and cohesion and splattered onto Kokushibou's body.

Exploding Blood.

Kokushibou's body lit up in flames once more, the attack exponentially stronger than before. Nezuko didn't know how she knew how to perform this technique. The knowledge just appeared in her mind as if it was there all along. It was completely instinctual to her, like knowing how to blink or breathe.

Before the flames had even died down, Nezuko was attacking again, slashing her claws across the air over and over again.

Exploding Blood.

Exploding Blood.

Exploding Blood.

Every crescent moon Kokushibou tried to form was immediately burned away as he was engulfed in the unending inferno. It soon became clear that she didn't have enough power to completely burn him away, however. She had to engage in melee.

The ground underneath cracked as she shot forward, and briefly she was surprised at how fast she was moving. But, well, she was a demon now, so she supposed it shouldn't be that big of a surprise.

She kicked at his head, which he managed to block with his forearm, though not without injury. There was a loud snapping sound as his forearm fractured under the force of the blow. Nezuko continued to turn, spinning around to deliver a powerful kick with her other leg –

Pain exploded in her mind as her leg was cut clean off, but she gritted her teeth and paid it no mind. She was a demon now. These injuries should no longer matter to her. Sure enough, a split second later her leg regenerated instantly and she was able to finish the kick which slammed into Kokushibou's chest, feeling several ribs crack under her foot.

Without letting up for even a second, she detonated the blood that had splattered onto Kokushibou when he sliced off her leg.

Exploding Blood.

Kokushibou grunted in pain and jumped back. His regeneration had slowed notably, and exposed patches of muscle littered his body. Despite that, however, he didn't look concerned in the least. "Irritating," he said. "You are irritating."

Nezuko let out a growl as she bent her knees, preparing to rush after him again –

And then screamed as an excruciating pain exploded in her stomach. She tried to detonate her blood, but before she could concentrate a sword pierced through her head and she let out another scream as agony overtook her.

"Allow me to remind you," Kokushibou said as he methodically ripped her to pieces. "Before becoming a demon, I used to be a demon slayer. You only just awakened your demonic form and have not even come close to mastering your powers yet. Please do not think you are on my level."

Her vision went dark as he took out her eyes before moving onto the rest of her body. Ten, twenty, thirty slashes – she lost count as he rained down blow upon blow. Straining, she managed to muster enough energy to unleash an Exploding Blood, but even as Kokushibou undoubtedly started burning away, he didn't cease his attacks in the least –

"Nezuko!"

Her eyes regenerated in time to see Tanjirou push Kokushibou back with a fierce snarl on his face. His limbs must've finally regenerated. That was good. He could take over for now... right?

Tired. She was so tired. She wanted to sleep.

Yes. Sleep sounded like a really good idea.

「」

"Nezuko!" Tanjirou yelled again in concern as he saw her collapse to the ground, her body shrinking until she had returned to a child's size.

Breath of the Sun, Twelfth Form. Flame Waltz.

A massive shockwave boomed outward as flames met crescent moons. Tanjirou immediately used Fake Rainbow to dodge Kokushibou's next strike and materialized next to Nezuko's unconscious body. Picking her up, he vanished again, reappearing next to the demon slayers.

His mind raced as he took in the situation, trying to think of a way out of it.

Rengoku was completely incapacitated, still suffering from the backlash of using Breath of the Sun.

Shinobu was frighteningly pale from blood loss, and her leg injury seemed to have worsened from when she had saved Rengoku.

Kanao was in a similar state, and she appeared to only still be conscious due to her breathing.

Nezuko was sleeping, undoubtedly needing to recover energy after her fight.

It was all up to Tanjirou.

"This has gone on long enough. The sun is about to rise soon," Kokushibou spoke. "It's time to finish this."

Tanjirou swallowed heavily as he stood in front of the demon slayers and Nezuko. Across from him stood Kokushibou, Douma and Akaza to each side.

"Hold on," Douma protested. "At least leave the two girls alive for a little while longer – " His mouth snapped shut at the look Kokushibou sent him. "Man, you're scary," He sighed. "Fine, fine."

"Are you certain we cannot convince that man to let us turn them into demons?" Akaza asked. "Kyoujurou needs to become a demon."

Kokushibou shook his head. "That man was clear in his orders. They must all die."

Akaza seemed genuinely despondent, but accepted it with a nod. "Very well."

Tanjirou raised his blade, sweat trickling down his face as the three Upper Moons turned to him. Akaza lowered into a stance, Douma twirled his fan, and Kokushibou breathed in.

Moon Breathing. Sixteenth Form. Moonbow, Half-Moon.

Destructive Death. Annihilation Type.

Barren Hanging Garden.

Massive crescent slashes soared down from the night sky as powerful shockwaves shot forward with frozen streams of ice rushing close behind it, and in that moment Tanjirou knew with every part of his being that there was no blocking this combination attack. The unstoppable barrage would smash through whatever defense he attempted. The demon slayers would all undoubtedly be killed, and he and Nezuko would die soon after.

He wasn't strong enough. He wasn't fast enough.

And yet...

Set your heart ablaze.

Tanjirou couldn't give up. He refused to give up. Even if he was devastatingly weak, he still needed to find a way.

If he didn't stop this attack, then they would all die. Tanjirou didn't want to see anyone die in front of him ever again. The image of his mother and siblings' bloodied corpses flashed through his mind, causing him to grit his teeth. He couldn't let that happen again.

He needed to protect Kanao, Shinobu, and Rengoku.

He needed to protect Nezuko.

No matter what.

And within him, something stirred to life.

Blood Demon Art. Sacred Barrier.

Tanjirou roared as a crimson pink barrier materialized around them in a dome. A fraction of a second later, the attacks struck – and were completely negated. The shockwaves dispersed harmlessly, the ice turned into ash, and the crescent moons vaporized into nothingness.

It was so sudden that Tanjirou didn't even have time to blink. One moment, he was facing certain death, the air filled with a lethal barrage. The next moment, he found himself in a peaceful clearing, the three Upper Moons staring at him with almost incredulous looks on their faces.

"Well," Douma said slowly, blinking. "That's unexpected."

Tanjirou recovered quickly, his face hardening in grim determination. "I won't let you kill them," he growled, the barrier pulsing with energy. "I won't let anyone die."

Before the Upper Moons could respond, light began streaming through the forest canopy. They all turned over to stare at the sun which had slowly begun rising in the horizon, causing prickling sensations on their skin.

Kokushibou turned back to Tanjirou, his eyes narrowed. "You realize that you'll burn to death as well if you leave the barrier up."

"Only if you three stay here and force me to maintain the barrier until the sun rises," Tanjirou returned. "At which point, you three would burn up as well. And if that's what I must do to save them..." His eyes burned with unswerving resolve. "Then so be it."

There was a moment of silence.

"Well maneuvered, Kamado Tanjirou," Kokushibou finally murmured. "You get to live another day." He sheathed his blade. "However, the next time we meet – "

"I'll make sure to kill you," Tanjirou promised.

Kokushibou seemed amused. "We'll see."

"I knew I should've eaten those two while you were fighting," Douma muttered, looking truly saddened as he stared at Kanao and Shinobu. "This is truly tragic."

Akaza, for his part, shot Tanjirou a fierce stare. "Don't let Kyoujurou die. I wish to fight him again."

Then, the three Upper Moons turned around and vanished into the darkness of the forest.

Tanjirou remained still, not moving until he smelled that they were fully gone. Once he was certain they weren't coming back, he collapsed to his knees, breathing heavily as the barrier faded. He was exhausted, his body and spirit completely drained. But he couldn't rest yet.

In a blur of speed, he rushed back to the train and retrieved the two boxes Oyakata-sama had given them. Off in the distance, he saw the uniform of the kakushi and he relaxed slightly. Help was finally coming. He couldn't stop, however. Immediately, he rushed back and got Nezuko inside her box before shrinking in size himself and climbing into the other box. Just in time for the sun to fully rise and sunlight to stream into the clearing.

And inside the darkness of the box, safely shielded from the sun's rays, Tanjirou finally closed his eyes.

Against all odds, despite nearly losing hope multiple times...

They had survived.


Taisho Secret: It was rumored that a demon's Blood Demon Art reflected the essence of their soul itself. A manifestation of an integral part of their being. While never confirmed, it generally seemed to hold true. Douma, a demon unfeeling of the emotions of others, gained the ability to control ice as cold as himself. Akaza, a devoted martial artist, gained the ability to take his skills to the next level. Rui, a demon who wished to create familial bonds, gained the ability to create threads that linked himself to others.

So for Kamado Tanjirou, a demon whose entire purpose revolved around protecting others protecting Nezuko?

Was it really any wonder when his Blood Demon Art didn't manifest as a powerful attack, but instead as an impenetrable barrier that no demon could ever hope to break through?


When writing this chapter, I tried my hardest to capture the emotions I had felt while watching the anime because dear gods it was just so unbelievably amazing. I can't wait until the next season

I hope you enjoyed the chapter, and thanks for reading!