Vertigo - Chapter 5 - WabbitTurtle - 鬼滅の刃 (2024)

Chapter Text

Ava recalled the first night she arrived in this new world–barefoot and cold in the dead of night–in a dark forest with only a flashlight.

It was quite possibly the most scary moment in her entire life. She still had nightmares of the demon’s approach, swift and reaching. For some of those nightmares–Cinder wasn’t there to rescue her. Ava often woke from her restless sleep with a start–heart beating rapidly in her ears as she slowly regained her composure and breathing. It was a struggle she had not told anyone, not even Cinder. Ava hadn’t seen the point–they were just dreams, and eventually, they passed.

And now–a little over a week later–here Ava was walking with Cinder into the darkness of night with a sword at her left hip. Dawn would inevitably approach soon, yet the moonlight guided their way.

The village had gone to sleep–all shops closed and children tucked into bed. A curfew had been established, Chise had added later that same day. A paper thin attempt to lower the death count.

As Cinder and Ava approached the village gates, Ava cast the taller redhead a swift glance–noting Cinder’s slight frown on her lips and focused gaze. Her shoulders were pulled back, her steps near silent. She looked so natural–in her element.

Cinder paused just as they stepped past the gate, taking a steadying breath before speaking.

“Before we move forward, I need to lay down some ground rules.” Cinder started, turning to face Ava fully on her right, peering down at the girl with her pale green eyes. Ava blinked in response at the sudden shift, turning her head to stare up at the redhead who seemed more serious than Ava had ever seen her before thus far.

“If I tell you to run–you run.” Cinder said first. “If the worst case scenario ever happens and anything happens to me–just run.” Cinder continued, earning a brief horrified look from Ava at the mere thought of Cinder dying. “Run back to grandma Chise and let the crow know what the situation is. Do not engage the demon alone. Understood?” Cinder spoke, tone firm. If the demon managed to kill her, then it was definitely not something for Ava to try and solo.

Cinder’s voice was authoritative. It only made Ava more nervous. Everything suddenly snapped into a sharp focus–demon hunting.

Ava immediately nodded. “Yes.”

“Alright then.” Cinder spoke, sighing. “When we find this demon, I’ll be the one to engage it. You can…observe.”

Ava nodded, throat suddenly feeling closed off and tight with nerves. Cinder turned and began to walk forward along the elevated dirt path before veering to the right–towards the edge of the rice fields and the treeline.

Chise had told them attacks were always to the right.

Ava trailed after Cinder, eying the taller woman's back. Cinder’s hand was at her hip, resting on the purple hilt of her sword. Ava offhandedly wondered how many times Cinder got scared.

Ava was scared.

The duo walked along the treeline, the rice fields stretching on for blocks upon blocks of land on their left. Little to no noise was heard around them save for a stray fox call in the distance or a random bird, and of course crickets. The air felt humid–the tail end of summer managing to remain just warm enough to be slightly uncomfortable.

Ava began to wonder if perhaps they’d find nothing–and felt a little ashamed at the thought and feeling of relief she got from it. Chise wanted her son's killer found. She wanted justice. Going back empty handed would feel…rude, almost.

Cinder stopped abruptly, nearly causing Ava to collide into the taller womans’ back from the sudden halt.

Ava was prepared to question Cinder, but her words died in her throat when she realized it had grown deathly quiet. Even the crickets and insects all ceased their noise.

Ava’s mind flashed back to her first night–when all of the forest grew to a standstill and no sound filled the silence except the demon's footsteps rapidly approaching. Ava’s heart clenched within her ribcage, prepared for the same fright to erupt from the trees. Her brown eyes scanned the green foliage in the dark, waiting.

Yet nothing ran out.

Cinder stood firm with her gaze trained into the darkness of the woods, unblinking. Ava had yet to develop a sense for demons–but Cinder felt it–a presence that hadn’t been there moments prior.

For something to hide itself so well–it could only imply it was a strong demon.

After what felt like eons, Ava heard it.

Crack.

The sound caused Ava’s entire body to recoil. Another sickening crack followed, blended with the sounds of ripping flesh.

It was then that the scent struck Ava–acrid and heavy. Metallic.

It took everything within Ava not to fall to her knees as her legs grew more weak beneath her while fear settled in. Her hand unsteadily reached for her blade's hilt, but Cinder lifted her right hand to halt the movement. She’d told Ava she could observe–not engage.

Silently, Cinder stepped in front of Ava, then forward.

Ava briefly marveled at the bold movements–the bravery. Ava remembered when she would watch horror movies with Cinder and joke about the protagonist not running the other way from danger or monsters, yet here Cinder was, blatantly going towards it to kill it. This was the same redhead woman who startled easily from jumpscares and refused to play horror games. At least, she had four years ago.

Ava felt like she wasn’t getting enough air to her lungs–a slight ring in her ears as her heartbeat picked up its pace.

Panic. Panic was setting in. Ava focused more on her breathing. She couldn’t f*ck up here–if this demon was anything like the one in the words Ava first encountered, it would be fast. She had to be able to move.

Ava trailed after Cinder, mirroring her steps atop the grass. The duo eased into the treeline before gradually reaching an open area where trees were knocked over haphazardly, their snapped ends jagged and sharp.

Strange–Ava thought at that moment–that no one mentioned such a detail around the murders. A few splatters of blood were even visible atop some of the bark, as if something were flung or smashed into it.

At the center of the area was a figure knelt down on their left knee–holding an arm to their face and tearing off more flesh from bone–the remains of yet another man spread below them in a morbid display. Their back was towards Cinder–giving the redhead the perfect opening.

Ava waited, sure that Cinder would strike first, but when nothing happened, Ava peered up at her best friend, just barely able to see the right side of Cinder’s face over her shoulder.

What Ava saw was not Cinder’s carefully controlled focus and calm bravery–no, what Ava saw on Cinder’s face was absolute disbelief. The redhead's eyes had widened, eyebrows raised with her mouth agape slightly to convey her shock.

Cinder hesitated.

Another deafening crack sounded ahead as another bone was snapped within the demon's jaws–the sound far louder thanks to the proximity–causing Ava to involuntarily flinch back, the motion snapping a twig beneath her feet.

The figure ahead paused mid-bite, lowering the arm in their grasp just enough to audibly sniff the air, then sigh–as if disappointed. They tossed the half eaten arm aside, sending it splatting against a nearby tree, and stood up fully, just as tall as Cinder herself.

Cinder’s prior theory to it being a female demon was quickly proven false–it was male.

“Smells like a hashira.” The demon spoke, a slight lilt to their tone as if they were glad someone showed.

Cinder, however, took no enjoyment from the current situation; the demon was one she recognized, but not one she had ever met.

The demon turned to look at them, all the while licking blood from their right arm. The entire front of their body was covered in crimson. Ava felt her stomach churn at the sight.

The demon's skin was so fair, it almost appeared sickly green-white under the moonlight. A short sleeveless purple-pink haori hung around his figure, cut off at the waist, left open and exposing his blood-covered skin.

The demon's baggy pants were white–and blood-stained–held up with a blue rope belt with the legs rolled up to just below the knee. He stood barefoot, without even socks, yet Ava saw large pink pearls chained around both of his ankles.

His hair was short, and bright pink. His pink eyelashes were some of the longest ones Ava had ever seen. His eyes' sclera were like shattered glass, with his iris’ appearing yellow in the dark–unnervingly bright–yet seemingly overlaid with some sort of writing Ava couldn’t see from her position.

The demon's smile was broad, his lips pulled back just enough to reveal large fangs.

Across his whole body were lines of dark blue; around his upper arms, extending to his wrists, curved over his face, eyes and neck. The tips of his fingers and toes even looked as if he’d dipped them in dark blue ink.

The demon peered at them curiously, letting his eyes wander, but his expression soured when he looked between them.

“A hashira and some weakling. And women at that.” The demon noted aloud, his prior interest in them seemingly dulled.

“Are you the one responsible for the string of murders in this village?” Cinder spoke up, tearing the demon’s attention away from Ava entirely at the direct address. Cinder was pretty sure it was his doing–but she wanted to keep him talking and distracted.

The demon peered at Cinder critically, noting the hand on her blade, the stance she had fallen into–left foot slightly back, right forward. The demon slowly grinned once more.

“...Unlike your trembling companion, you have the makings of a fighter. It’s no wonder you’re a hashira.” The demon spoke, placing his hands on his hips as he stared the two women down.

“I’ve come to slay you.” Cinder stated, but if she were honest, even she doubted herself in that instance. The demon remained silent–yellow eyes staring at Cinder, before his gaze flickered to Ava once more.

Seeing this, Cinder shifted to block his view.

“Big talk, but slaying me will take far more strength than a single human hashira has.” The demon spoke, sneering towards Cinder, yet he shifted, bending his knees in a half crouch while his right arm extended, fist partly clenched while his left arm bent at his side, palm open.

“One way to find out. Wanna go for a round?” Cinder challenged–it was too late to back out now, and it was her duty as a hashira to slay all demons. Her eyes focused on the demon ahead of her, while her right hand gripped the hilt of her blade tightly.

The tension was pulled, all it had to do was snap.

“I suppose you won’t give me much choice.” The demon spoke up, his smile broadening as his eyes blew wider with excitement despite his words. Even if she were a woman, she was still a hashira, and likely had a unique breathing style given the color of her blade. He’d see just what sort of pillar she was–then leave.

Cinder met the demon's gaze, and then he was gone in a burst of kicked up dust.

Ava blinked as everything suddenly became slow motion–her mind trying to catch up with the rapid movement around herself. Ava’s eyes widened when she saw the demon suddenly reappear in front of them–right fist shooting forward towards Cinder as the redhead dodged to the left–yet the demon continued with his momentum, unclenching his fist in favor of an attempt to grab Ava by the front of her uniform. The sight of his hand reaching for her immediately reminded Ava of her first night in the woods once more–this demon was fast

Almost equally as fast, Cinder unsheathed her blade in a single motion, then swung her blade upward vertically–cleanly severing the demon's entire right arm just past the elbow.

Blood splattered towards Ava, hitting her clothes and left cheek–dragging her back to the present as she stumbled back. The severed arm flew to her right, landing on the ground with a dull thump.

The demon leapt back from Cinder’s blade, grinning as he lifted his stub of a right arm. In a single moment, it regenerated with a snap. A fully functional new right arm appeared in the blink of an eye.

Ava felt her throat tighten, she could hear her heart in her ears. If he could heal so rapidly, how would they hurt him? Vaguely, she could hear Cinder amid her panicked heartbeat.

“So–you’re an upper rank. What might your name be?” Cinder questioned, even if she already knew the answer. She wanted to keep his attention. She recalled from her original reading of the series that he liked to talk. At least, that's what she hoped she remembered correctly. So, they’d talk.

“Upper rank three. Akaza.” The man spoke, already falling back into his fighting stance. Cinder shifted back into hers, lifting her sword, braced for any sudden moves. “And who might you be, miss hashira?”

“Cinder. Stardust hashira.” Cinder replied simply, eyes flickering to Ava beside her before refocusing on Akaza. “Calm down Ava. Remember what I said at the gate?” Cinder started, inhaling so loudly it managed to pull Ava’s focus. “Run.”

Immediately Ava turned her back on the enemy–and fled–leaving Cinder behind with tears in her brown eyes. Ava had been so afraid–whatever kind of demon that was, it had a presence. That thing was not human, it was so far from being human, it was otherworldly.

Ava was out of her element.

Ava ran–hard and fast–out of the woods and into the rice fields, splashing across the shallow water and rice shoots. Cinder’s crow, Sutaraito, sailed down to fly beside Ava as she ran, cawing as he did. “Danger! Caw! Upper rank!”

Ava didn’t need to be told it was dangerous–even if she had no idea what an upper rank was. The air alone when she was standing near that demon felt suffocating.

Ava could hear the clash of fighting behind her along with the cracking of trees decimated in the crossfire, but she was too afraid to look.

Cinder deflected blow after blow, lifting her sword each time. Akaza struck with his fists–uncaring if they were cut on her blade–he’d only regenerate anyway. Cinder grit her teeth–she’d never faced an upper rank before, only lower. She never anticipated running into Akaza.

As soon as Cinder saw an opening, she slashed upward from below, managing to cut off both of Akaza’s arms–yet he regenerated so quickly that she might as well have been slicing water.

“Ha! Keeping up with me? Pretty good! Ya know, I’ve never fought a stardust hashira–is that a new style?” Akaza yelled, somehow finding enjoyment in the situation. Cinder decided she couldn’t keep playing the defensive. She had to do more.

Cinder braced herself, using one of Akaza’s own blows to her sword to help throw her backwards. As soon as her feet hit ground again, she took a deep, controlled breath before she propelled herself forward once more in a spin.

“Sixth form! Black nova!” Cinder yelled–her sword arching towards Akaza’s head as she spun in a burst of stardust, just narrowly missing his neck when he tilted back. Maintaining her momentum, Cinder dropped herself lower on the second spin, letting loose a horizontal slash across his legs, severing them just below the knee.

The blow radiated heat–yet didn’t burn–particles erupted from the arc of her blade like glitter in the air with clouds of illuminated dust in various colors.

The sight brought a grin to Akaza’s face–it certainly was fitting for a stardust hashira. Part of him wondered if he had seen it before–it looked familiar, yet the upper rank demon was certain he’d never killed a stardust hashira before.

Not skipping a beat, Akaza fell backwards onto his palms in a swift handstand–nubs for legs in the air above him quickly regenerating the severed lower part of his legs as he propelled himself back from her, narrowly missing another swing of her blade attempting to sever him in half.

Cinder was quick to follow, bouncing herself from a tree stump into the air above Akaza as she followed, inhaling deeply as she moved while tightening her grip on her sword.

“Fifth form! Stardust storm!” Cinder called out, turning her body once more so it spun counterclockwise in a burst of stardust–her sword gaining momentum as she closed in on Akaza within seconds.

Cinder’s blade fell hard against his left side–Akaza’s attempt to block her from decapitating him using his arms to dull the blow proved successful. Her movements were generally predictable–demon slayers always go for the neck–Akaza doubted he would even need his compass for now.

A burst of stardust exploded outward from the blow, glittering in the air as it shot towards the left.

“Your swordsmanship skills are impressive, but you should train more! Make an encounter worthwhile.” Akaza spoke, wondering what Cinder might fight like in two, three or even four more years. It was as if she were just starting to get a grasp on her style–yet there lacked a certain spark Akaza was hoping to see. Maybe she’d pass on her style to another and eventually Akaza could face a warrior of greater calibur.

Cinder grit her teeth before adding more strength behind her blade, tearing the sword horizontally through Akaza’s form. The demon quickly tipped himself back to avoid the tip of her blade from reaching his neck, using his own arms to keep the blade at bay all while his hands were nearly severed at the wrist in the process–yet they healed immediately as soon as he bounced back a step. Cinder refused to slow down, feet planted firmly beneath herself.

“Eighth form! Shooting star!” Cinder called out, maneuvering the blade in her grasp so that she could perform a quick curved upward slash. The blade drug across Akaza’s form, starting from his right hip and exiting at his left shoulder. Not skipping a beat, Cinder repeated the motion, redirecting her blade to his left hip up to his right shoulder, cutting into Akaza in an swift x formation, yet he merely healed. Really–upper rank regeneration was leagues ahead of what she was used to.

“Rapidfire strikes huh! My turn!” Akaza called out, just as Cinder shifted her weight, bracing herself and going on the defensive once more. Another barrage of fist strikes came at her, much like the first, yet somehow faster. Akaza even threw in a few kicks–the blows were just as strong as his fists.

At this rate, Cinder’s sword was liable to snap in half. The redhead scowled at the thought–Akaza’s pure strength was bone-rattling. It didn’t help that Cinder knew he could do more. The realization he wasn’t was almost insulting had she not had other things to worry about–like Ava.

“Fourth form! Swift comet!” Cinder called out, clenching her teeth as she inhaled sharply, then moved. In a split second she shifted around Akaza’s form, dodging the onslaught of swings and went under his left arm, prepared to cleave off the limb entirely, yet Akaza saw through the maneuver.

Got you!” Akaza called, expression full of thrilled excitement as he spun on his left foot and threw out his right leg before Cinder could swing her sword, catching Cinder in the stomach as he did. The sudden force nearly caused Cinder to bite her tongue, teeth clicking together from the blow. The inhale she’d taken left her in a sudden forced gasp–the air knocked from her lungs.

Beyond the treeline, Ava ran, making a mad dash across the rice fields towards the village, but tripped in the muddy water with a splash. Cinder’s crow had flown off ahead. “Must inform the corps!” Sutaraito had squaked in a panic. Ava wondered if the crows cared about their masters. It sounded like it was worried.

The sound of snapping wood caused Ava to look back just in time to see Cinder’s form pushed out from the woods with considerable force–seemingly having collided through trees on her forceful ejection out given the pained look on her face.

Cinder hit the ground in a roll, her momentum carrying her across the muddy rice field, yet she stuck the landing and rolled back onto her feet immediately. Her sword was still in her hands somehow, and Ava could see blood on the left side of Cinder’s face, likely from striking a tree.

The sight caused Ava’s heart to sink.

Akaza leapt from the treeline, a gleeful laugh echoing across the field, unnervingly full of joy despite the situation. Without pause Akaza rushed forward towards Cinder and started striking at her with quick and rapid fists once more. Ava had no idea how Cinder managed to keep up.

Cinder–to her credit–was deflecting each blow, but he moved at such a speed, finding an opening was proving more and more difficult the longer it was drawn out. Whenever Cinder did manage to deal a blow, he immediately regenerated. Even Ava could see how one-sided it seemed–Cinder would tire out before Akaza did. Maybe that’s what made demons so deadly when enduring long encounters. With each impact, Cinder was pushed back further, her footing unsteady in the ricefield’s mud.

Inevitably, Cinder lost her balance.

The ground slid beneath Cinder’s feet and gave Akaza a perfect opening. Akaza quickly threw out his right leg, catching Cinder in the ribs in the same spot from his previous kick and sent her figure further across the fields, almost like a skipping stone.

Despite Ava’s horror at Cinder’s treatment–Ava noted that Akaza’s leg was also severed in that moment, the limb falling to the ground as he paused while it regenerated within less than a second. Akaza shook his leg as he lifted his brow–a decent cut. He watched Cinder’s form in the distance, struggling to stand again, yet somehow once more rising to her feet. Akaza was sure he’d broken some ribs–lower ranking slayers would already have given up and fled thanks to his upper rank status. He wouldn’t expect less of a hashira. He leapt closer, landing a dozen feet from Cinder.

Ava trembled from her spot further away. When Cinder stood, Ava could see the woman grip her right side. The repeated kicks were definitely taking a toll.

“You’ve managed a few solid hits. More than most slayers can say.” Akaza spoke, eying Cinder through his thick lashes as she lifted her blade once more, evening out her breathing so it steadied.

“...Really? Nice.” Cinder retorted, considering her options as she released a short scoff. She could think of one way to throw Akaza off–bring up his human life. “Do you treat all the girls this way? Aren’t you someone’s fiance?”

Cinder knew she was taking a gamble. He’d either get upset and more aggressive or possibly reminded of his aversion to killing women and leave. At best, regardless, talking at least wasted time.

Cinder knew Akaza wouldn’t devour or kill women, yet Cinder still couldn’t help but worry there was an exception somewhere. They were demon slayers, and she was a hashira. Akaza was a demon and an upper rank.

Ava was still in the area, and thus in danger. That thought alone kept Cinder on her feet. The redhead truly expected some no-name demon of little importance or skill–it was why she was eager to show Ava her work. To take her out to handle the usual–all while getting to spend more time together, maybe answer questions without an audience, including ones for the world they came from.

As a slayer, it was Cinder’s duty to slay this demon, or at the very least, protect Ava. As a hashira, it was Cinder’s responsibility to slay this upper moon demon specifically, but part of her didn’t care to nor thought she could. Cinder knew her limits–she was nowhere near as skillful as some of her peers yet.

Slaying a lower moon was one thing. Sometimes Cinder thought she just lucked out on that victory. She hadn’t even intended to become a hashira. In that sense, she could sometimes understand Tomioka. Even relate a little.

The lower rank demon had been nowhere near as fast as Akaza–some increased regenerative abilities sure, but nowhere close to this. Upper moons were an entirely different ball park–having lived for decades, centuries.

The only sort of adrenaline boost Cinder got was from the sheer fact she was somehow still alive, when most slayers would have already died in the woods. It gave her a morbid sense of satisfaction in the moment, even if he was going easy and avoiding actual death blows. Even if she was a woman.

Cinder was pretty sure by this point, she had at least two broken ribs and perhaps a fractured third. Plenty of bruising too. But those weren’t unusual injuries–she knew he could do worse.

At her remark, Akaza’s expression soured, shoulders lowering slightly as a noticeable hostility bled into the tension between them. “The hell you know about me? Fiance?”

Cinder rushed forward during his lapse in stance, lifting her sword to her left.

“First form, stardust wave!” Cinder shouted, dragging her sword in a horizontal arch, a cascade of sparkling dust left in its wake. She watched as Akaza shifted back, just narrowly missing the tip of her blade across the front of his neck. Akaza scowled, brows knit in focus–that’d been unexpectedly close.

Cinder inwardly cursed. So close.

Akaza leapt backwards six paces–leaving a distance between himself and Cinder. Immediately, Cinder lifted her sword again, rushing forward.

“Third form, rising star!” Cinder arced her blade up–a perfect vertical slash into Akaza, yet it suddenly came to a halt mid-swing.

Cinder gasped, seeing the blade held between Akaza’s palms, unmoving as the stardust dispersed at the sudden shutdown.

As soon as Cinder realized this, Akaza released his hold on her sword, only to grip the blade with his left hand, uncaring if it sliced into his skin, and yanked her forward before he grabbed her by the throat with his right hand.

Without any hesitation, he lifted her up, wrenching her sword from her before tossing it aside–and then slammed Cinder’s form into the ground below.

Ava shrieked from her spot at the sight of Cinder smashed downward–rising to her feet–wanting to run over, yet Ava hesitated. She could hear her heart pounding in her ears as her gaze locked on the two combatants ahead of her.

Akaza crouched down as he lifted Cinder up by the front of her black shirt. “What the hell do you know about me?” He questioned, tone venomous.

While Akaza was positive he’d never met the hashira before–she spoke as if she knew him. It was annoying. He didn’t know her, regardless of how familiar her stardust style seemed, and she certainly shouldn’t know him to such a degree.

“I know Koyuki would be disappointed in you.” Cinder shot back through bloodied teeth, really hoping she remembered the woman's name correctly after four years. Akaza recoiled at her words, dropping Cinder back to the ground as if burned.

Standing above her, Akaza glanced towards the horizon, then clicked his tongue. Dawn was approaching–he’d need to find cover. Maybe it was for the best, he’d have choked her out if things continued. He had no interest in killing her.

Cinder already knew it was game from the way the sky grew more light above her. Every fight was always on a timer till dawn, and it was already late to begin with by the time they’d found Akaza. Cinder hadn’t left the village the moment the sun went down–they patrolled within the walls at first for a time.

“Alright Cinder–we’re done here.” Akaza stated, briefly scowling towards the village itself in the distance as if it were a disappointing venture. Turning his attention back to Cinder, Akaza spoke as his yellow eyes peered down at her. “Consider yourself lucky. You’ve got more guts than most slayers. I’d do you the honor of killing you here–but I don’t kill women, and you’ve got some potential.”

Akaza paused, as if considering something more, but seemingly decided against it. It didn’t really matter–the odds of them meeting again were slim, but he would remember her–the stardust hashira.

Akaza leapt back and into the forest, leaving the scene of the battle in the blink of an eye. Ava watched him retreat, momentarily relieved by the sight, but quickly scrambled to her feet.

Ava rushed to Cinder, collapsing beside her right on the ground atop her knees, brown eyes roving over the redheads form, unsure what to do first. Was this normal? Did Cinder usually get hurt?

“Three broken ribs, another might be fractured. A fractured shoulder, I think.” Cinder paused to move her shoulders before frowning with a nod when her right side met her with a spike of pain. “A possible concussion?” She had hit her head a few times. “And lots–like–lots of bruising.” Cinder spoke while under Ava’s gaze. As Cinder listed off the damage report, Ava winced.

“What do I do?” Ava asked–was she supposed to go find Chise? A crow? How was she supposed to tell a slayer crow from a normal crow?

Cinder hummed at that–briefly thinking on how she usually wouldn’t have someone fretting over her after a fight, except for kakushi. “Nothing–the kakushi should be here soon. Sutaraito should have informed the corps of the upper rank.”

Ava didn’t like the suggestion that she do nothing. Shouldn’t she perform first aid?

“Man, look at you!” A familiar masculine voice piped up, drawing the two womens’ attention.

Uzui stood to Cinder’s left–having appeared within a blink–arms crossed as he took in the sight of them with assessing magenta eyes. Mostly Cinder’s haggard form and Ava’s tear-streaked face.

“Not really a good first mission run there, shortie. Sure you ain't cursed on top of being un-flashy?” Uzui jabbed, eying Ava as he spoke. “You’re alive–and it's dawn so you’re fine. You can stop the waterworks.”

Ava scowled–prepared to throw insults Uzui’s way after the night she just endured–but the sound of more approaching footsteps gained her attention.

Cinder’s crow Sutaraito flew down to land beside Cinder, tears in his small beady black eyes as he flapped his wings frantically while bouncing on his feet. “Caw! Cinder! Glad you’re alive! Very glad!”

Four figures appeared shortly after Sutaraito landed, rushing down the center path in the rice fields before veering towards the trio. They wore all black, their faces shrouded by masks and headwraps, leaving only their eyes visible.

“Cinder!” One called, feminine voice filled with concern as they paused beside the redheads left, leaning down to inspect her. Ava stepped back, giving the new black clad strangers space to work, but watched closely as they did. “Headquarters received word of the upper rank demon for your mission. It’s a relief to see you’re alive!”

“Yea, man, what a busy day!” Another black clad figure said, lowering himself on Cinder’s right side to begin inspecting her fractured right shoulder. “There was another kizuki over at mount Natagumo too–it was a lower rank. It formed a whole group, though! Tomioka and Kocho went to assist the slayers there too. They should be wrapping things up as we speak.”

For a brief moment, Cinder got a dazed look in her eyes–mind registering their words.

“...Did you say Natagumo?” Cinder questioned, to which the kakushi nodded.

“Yea?” The kakushi on Cinder’s right said, blinking.

Cinder stared at the sky for a moment–if something happened at Natagumo than the plot started fully. She knew of one lower rank that formed a group–the spider demon. Which ultimately meant Tanjiro was on the move.

Cinder clicked her tongue and scowled, then released a loud groan at the thought of the future. She expected to be gone before any of it–hopeful she’d either have found her way back home or saved enough to retire and accept her fate of permanent residency.

She never bothered to look for Tanjiro for that specific reason. Aside from the fact he was the main character and she didn’t want to alter his path, she just…didn’t know where he was. She only remembered he lived on a mountain–and there were plenty of those. Plus it wasn’t like she could have done much–he’d spent years training if she could recall correctly, which meant she wouldn’t have been able to help save his family anyway given the time constraint. She was more focused on keeping herself alive.

Cinder released an exasperated sigh as she clicked her tongue. “Damn it!” Cinder hissed, hating the thought of what the kakushi’s words implied for what’s to come. And now she had Ava to weather the future with as well–Ava who was sorely unprepared both in skill and awareness.

At Cinder’s outburst, everyone flinched back in surprise aside from the sound hashira. Uzui only looked mildly alarmed as his brows lifted–finding the reaction unusual. Cinder was only really vocal when she was upset, but the ninja couldn’t really see a reason for her to be upset over the kakushi’s words.

“Hey now, what’s the issue?” Uzui asked, tilting forward to peer down at Cinder more closely with an eyebrow raised.

“This sucks.” Cinder said simply.

The blatant statement made Uzui blink–all the while Cinder’s own mind raced over the last two years.

Cinder couldn’t recall noticing any difference in Tomioka’s behavior–given he was the reason Tanjiro was alive and training. Tomioka was never vocal and even if the slayer did meet Tanjiro and set him on his path, Cinder wouldn’t know. The water hashira kept Tanjiro’s situation mostly a secret due to the boy's demon sister–Tomioka broke corps rules leaving her alive for Tanjiro to harbor, after all. Tomioka wouldn’t have told or hinted at his actions to anyone.

“...Cinder?” The female kakushi on Cinder’s left questioned. “Are you alright?”

“Amazing. Now, let's get up and move. I didn’t defeat that upper rank–but there will be more chances.” Cinder spoke, knowing full well there’d be plenty given the frequency of upper rank appearances in the future. A stark contrast to the last few years of relative silence involving the kizuki’s upper rank movements. Not that she had any particular interest in them, yet she felt a mix of excitement and anxiety stir at the thought.

Ava stared at Cinder, a little concerned over her word choices, yet somehow reminded of the old Cinder, four years ago. Cinder felt less stiff suddenly–more her. Despite the observation, Ava did want to know if everything was okay.

“Cinder? Are you alright?” Ava repeated the question for the kakushi, to which Cinder finally looked at her.

“I’m alright, especially knowing you’re safe and sound.” Cinder said, smiling at Ava–after the night they’d had, she’d consider it a win. Cinder went in expecting a normal demon–not a kizuki.

Whoa.” Uzui noted, watching the exchange with slight interest. At this rate, he could think of a certain few who’d be jealous of the attention Cinder was dishing out to Ava.

The kakushi paused upon witnessing the displayed concern and relief from the otherwise distanced stardust hashira. It was unexpected–but somehow made her feel less intimidating suddenly.

“Cinder! We’ll get you back up and running in no time! You’ll show that upper rank what’s what!” The third kakushi spoke as he stood at Cinder’s feet, giving Cinder a thumbs up. The kakushi were nothing if not supportive.

“Excuse me, Ava. Are you injured?” A feminine voice asked from Ava’s right.

The voice belonged to the fourth kakushi–a woman an inch shorter than Ava herself who leaned forward into Ava’s line of sight to gain her attention.

Ava blinked, looking at the shorter woman before registering her question, then slowly shook her head. Ava was unharmed. Just dirty from falling. Cinder was the one in a shallow crater with broken ribs.

Ava slowly frowned–she felt absolutely useless.

Cinder did tell Ava to run. Cinder told Ava not to engage the demon. Ava didn’t need to be told twice–she could tell the pink haired demon was worse than that one she’d first encountered in the woods on her arrival to this world.

It didn’t make Ava feel any better, though.

“Just Cinder in need of treatment, then. We’ll still take you in for a checkup, Ava. Can’t be too safe.” The first female kakushi on Cinder’s left spoke, gesturing for the others to begin preparing for their departure. “We’ll be heading directly to the butterfly estate. The other surviving slayers should also be funneling in from Natagumo. It’ll be a busy day.”

“Roger!” The other three kakushi parroted back, already beginning to do temporary mending for the trip back–breaking out a few bandages for scrapes. One even had a towel to clean some of the mud off of Ava.

“Might not have beaten that upper rank, but I’m sure you put in some decent effort, Cinder. Don’t sweat it too much–you at least get to tell us all about it later.” Uzui spoke casually, looking out over the field. Sometimes surviving with information was worth more than going all out and dying. Cinder was still a relatively fresh hashira–and an upper rank was far worse than a lower rank. It was a wonder she was even alive.

Ava lifted her gaze to follow Uzui’s–feeling her mouth fall open slightly in surprise. The treeline they’d begun in was littered with snapped wood. A few trees were even tipped over. A trail led outward where their fight bled into the rice fields. Craters in the mud from Akaza’s missed blows or landings, slashes, skid marks.

Ava couldn’t tear her eyes away. That was the result of a fight with a demon–a stark contrast to the swift execution Cinder dealt to the demon Ava first saw on her first night in this world.

And Cinder wanted to do it again.

Ava felt herself grow a little… awestruck. She didn’t recall Cinder being so brazen or brave. A little hot headed at times, sure, but she knew her limits. She had her anxieties and fears.

“Hey, Uzui.” Cinder spoke up from the ground, gaining the ninja’s attention. “I want some agility training when I’m able to train again. Please help me?”

Uzui blinked down at her simple request, before a large grin spread across his face. “Already looking to get the upper hand! As expected of you, Cinder!”

Vertigo - Chapter 5 - WabbitTurtle - 鬼滅の刃 (2024)

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