' ... well,' you address Shanghai; trying to include Hourai is difficult, she's looking down at her sister's feet, glum and disinterested. 'How about you tell us where your mother wants us to meet her, and we'll head there later? We all need to go home for a little bit first.' 'Oh, um ... ' Shanghai bites her bottom lip and bunches her skirt in both hands. 'I don't know if we can do that ... ' She trails off, glancing at Hourai for help. The red sister barely looks up, but frowns gently all the same. 'Mom would be sad.' Hourai mumbles. 'Yes, our Mother would be a little upset if we gave out her current address, you see. I'm really sorry!' Shanghai gulps and puts her hands together, trying to smile through the nervous tension in her face. Yoshika keeps a level gaze at the twins; the muscles in her back are like a coiled spring.
'So either we come with you now,' you let the suggestion hang in the air. 'Or else what?' ' ... or else nothing! Nothing! No, no! That's not what we're here for!' Shanghai's bubbly expression turns into a mask of distraught horror at the suggestion, but Hourai doesn't react. 'We were only supposed to see if miss Yumemi here was in the office, and if she was, well, Mother would like to speak to her.' Shanghai regains some of her brightness, but her eyes keep flicking down the corridor, toward the back doors of the physics building.
Yoshika sees that too.
'What do you keep looking for, doll?' Yoshika rumbles at Shanghai, speaking through her teeth. The blue sister almost jumps out of her skin at the deep-throated growl. 'We're- we're not supposed to- I mean we're-!' Shanghai stumbles over her words, eyes wide. 'Mom said,' Hourai interrupts, not even bothering to look at Yoshika. 'We have to go straight home again.' 'Yes! Yes we do!' Shanghai touches her sister's fingers in thanks. 'We're just supposed to come here, and then back again, we're not to stop or go anywhere else, especially if somebody asks us to.' ' ... like Red Riding Hood.' Hourai adds, speaking at the wall. 'Ahaha, yes!' Shanghai giggles softly. 'Except our big bad wolf could be anything. So sorry to bother you all, we're just quite eager to go and ... well, um- w-we found you, so ... ' 'Don't wanna lie to mom and say we didn't.' Hourai sighs heavily, radiating boredom and the desire to be elsewhere.
'So if we leave now, and you leave, we'll never see you again?' You cross your arms across your chest, finally letting Yumemi go. She stands slightly behind you, but looks a little more confident now that you're in control. 'Renko, I think it's okay-' Mary leans forward to whisper in your ear, but you hush her softly, reaching back to put your hand on hers.
The twins share a glance at your question. Shanghai gulps. 'W-we can't lie to mom.' She says. 'Mm.' Hourai grunts. 'Mom might send ... ' 'Mm.' Hourai frowns, looking uncomfortable. 'Uh, um ... ' Shanghai gulps again, meeting your eyes and struggling to speak. 'Your mother will send what?' You ask, a sinking feeling in your stomach. 'Ah ... ' Shanghai wets her lips with a flicker of pink tongue. 'I don't really-'
'One of our brothers.' Hourai mutters. She looks up briefly; there's nothing but nervous teenage girl behind her boiling eyes.
The wind howls along the ground outside as you and Yoshika look at each other. She rolls her shoulders and flexes her fingers. 'Sounds like a threat to me.' You say. Yoshika grunts. 'I-it's not!' Shanghai holds up both hands, panicking. 'She- if you don't come see Mother, she might think you're with the b-b-b-um ... er-'
Shanghai trails off as Hourai grabs her hand and squeezes hard, terminating the sentence.
'Sister.' Hourai says, suddenly on edge. Shanghai stares at her sister with wide eyes. 'You don't-' She glances at your group, mouth open a little. ' ... ' Hourai takes a step back, toward the doorway.
They're going to run for it.
[ ] 'Wait, wait! We're not with anybody! Stop! We'll come see your Mother!' [ ] 'Yoshika, grab them!' [ ] Give chase!
[x] 'Wait, wait! We're not with anybody! Stop! We'll come see your Mother!'
Well, if I had known the modification wouldn't be considered, I would have voted yes from the start. Hell, asking for a day would have gotten a better answer than that. HY, do you refuse all write-ins?
Anyway, I propose we go try to make an ally rather than have someone else after our lives.
[x] 'Wait, wait! We're not with anybody! Stop! We'll come see your Mother!'
They're not going to be thinking rationally now. Being aggressive is not the answer, so we can't send Yoshika after them. And chasing would almost be as bad, especially considering that we might lose them, or one of the things we're carrying.
'Wait, wait!' You say before they take off, holding both hands up, palms out, trying to look nonthreatening. Shanghai's eyes dart around like a spooked fawn, but Hourai stares at you with all the intensity of a cornered wolf. 'We're not with anybody!' You continue. 'I swear, cross my heart and hope to die, we're just what you see here.' Shanghai gulps, drawing closer to her sister for protection. 'Really,' you take a deep breath and carry on, gesturing at Yumemi. 'We're basically acting as bodyguard to Yumemi here, sort of. We're all travelling a nice big group, all together. We'll come talk to your mother, okay? Maybe straighten things out?'
'Renko, no!' Yumemi hisses, hanging on your sleeve. You glance back at her quickly. 'You wanna meet their big brothers, hm?' You whisper to her. 'I don't.' 'Mm.' Yoshika grunts with impassive approval, and then breaks into a sing-song. 'Better the sweet faces and honeyed lips than the dagger in the dark. I think we'll follow, Renko. I think we will.'
'Oh.' Shanghai gulps, her cheeks a rosy red of tension and embarrassment together. 'Well, that's lovely then!' She chirps, and then wavers slightly, biting her lower lip and looking to Hourai for support. The red sister's expression has relaxed now, but she still keeps Shanghai's hand tight in her own. 'One last thing, both of you.' You interrupt as Hourai opens her mouth. 'Finish that sentence from before, please. Who might your mother think we're with?' 'A-' 'The-' They both start at the same time, then stop. ' ... you say, sister!' Shanghai looks deeply uncomfortable, one hand at her own throat like she's protecting herself.
' ... mm.' Hourai pouts with the same grumpy boredom as before. 'Woman on a black motorbike. Keeps following mom, sisters, stuff.' She shrugs.
You look at Sakuya and raise an eyebrow. 'Not me.' She shakes her head. 'I don't travel by machine. I have no need for it.' She corrects herself with a sudden frown: 'Had.' 'Right.' You nod, and turn back to the sisters. 'We've seen nobody like that.' 'That's quite a relief then!' Shanghai beams at you, her expression broken only by her nervous glance at the door.
' ... 's get back to mom.' Hourai mutters, sensing her sister's unease, eyelids drooping as she already begins dragging Shanghai toward the back door. 'Ah! Hourai! Ahaha-, um, it's a bit of a walk, I hope you don't mind!' Shanghai's bubbly voice pulls you onward.
You share a glance with Mary first, then the others.
You follow the sisters in red and blue.
They stay a safe six paces ahead as you all exit campus together and head out into the wind-blown city; the trees along the wider roads shake and shiver like the pale hands of death in the constant howling wind, and the twins' hair is picked up, blown into lashing snakes and whips that twist around their heads. You keep one hand on your hat. Yumemi scurries in the centre of your group like a rat.
The sisters take a curious route, nearly a full twenty minutes walk - slowed by you making sure Sakuya is able to keep up - down the wide main road outside of campus, toward the heart of the city, and then a slower meander down redbrick residential streets and out into the lesser core of the city. Leftover rainwater sits in black pools in the gutters and on the pavement, and lichen studs the walls with white flowers of cancer. You swear that once or twice you spot an dark orange, white-tipped tail vanishing around a corner here or a garbage can there; flickers in the corners of your eyes that barely even register. You covertly point them out to Yoshika, but she just nods and keeps her eyes fixed on Shanghai and Hourai.
The sisters say nothing as you enter the dilapidated old town centre; they're probably not even aware of the looks they're getting from the occasional passer-by. At least the sight of two stunning girls is keeping anybody from looking too closely at the colour of Yoshika's face. Except nobody really looks at them. You watch the next man whose eyes flicker to their perfect curves and rosy-pink lips, and then keep watching as his attention seems to slide off them, like slippery fingers failing to find a grip. Nobody looks back at them. Nobody stares.
[ ] Mention this to Yoshika. Is there any magic going on here? [ ] Mention this to Yumemi. Is there any magic going on here? [ ] Ask the sisters themselves. [ ] Say nothing. Concentrate on getting where you're going.
Which brings up an interesting point. In Phantasmagoria of Dim. Dream, there were two of Chiyuri, one native to Earth, and one native to wherever Yumemi was from. I'd wager that Yumemi would also have a double native to Earth, and this Yumemi is that double.
'Yumemi?' You lean back and whisper to the smaller girl, nudging her gently in the ribs. 'Nuh!' Yumemi jumps, blinking up at you and swallowing three times in rapid succession. 'Y-yeah?'
She doesn't look much like a novice sorcerer right now; she's gone waxy-pale with a terrified trance, just managing to put one foot in front of the other, mostly staring at your back, or the ground.
'Hey, hey, relax.' You whisper softly, putting one hand on her head gently. 'I wouldn't have brought us all here unless I was sure we'll be safe. I'm still armed.' You pat your gun - tucked safely inside your coat - with your other hand. 'Y-yeah.' Yumemi repeats, taking a deep breath. She doesn't look very reassured. 'We need information. And we need not to get hunted by one of their "brothers".' You remind her, and she nods in difficult acceptance. 'I know.' She manages to squeeze out. Mary catches your eye, silently asking if you want her to look after Yumemi, but you shake your head just enough so she can see. Mary can comfort her later; right now you need an opinion.
'Listen, Yumemi.' You draw her forward, level with you. 'Watch how people look at the twins there.' It takes her a couple of goes to understand it, to see the effect in motion. But Yumemi's eyes light up when she realises what's going on. 'Yes!' She hisses, straightening up a little. 'They're under some kind of protection - look!' She covertly points at another person who glances at the twins, a woman standing inside the first-floor window of a building opposite. 'She's staring, she's allowed to. Men aren't. Mother is looking after her daughters, I'd guess.' ' ... I didn't spot that, yeah.' You mutter, nodding, thankful for Yumemi's input. 'Probably a minor ... I don't know, I'd need more information. But yes, they probably have several spells or ... something, on them, on their clothes. I don't know.' She continues, speaking quickly now, gritting her teeth at her own pauses. 'They're not very smart are-'
'Here we are!' Shanghai finally speaks for the first time since leaving campus, stopping just as the road starts to narrow. The streets here are very old indeed, and this part of the city melds seamlessly with its own ancient past self, the roads taking the same routes they did hundreds of years ago, descending into a twisting maze of broken asphalt and tilting walls. 'Here?' You raise an eyebrow as your group halts. The twins turn toward the building set back from the road here, easily the largest building for several blocks around. Shanghai presents the place with a flourish of one arm. Hourai just blows her cheeks out and stares at the upper windows.
The place is a near-ruin.
The crumbling hotel must have been grand once, but now it's a sun-faded, wind-beaten shell, wrapped in abandoned steel scaffolding like a brace to support shattered bones. Most of the windows are boarded up, sprayed with crude graffiti on the outside; there's almost no untouched paintwork left, what hasn't been vandalised has peeled away to reveal grey pre-fab concrete underneath. The roof is naked underneath a tattered blue tarpaulin, the tiles and insulation long since stolen or ruined. A single car sits in the glass-and-rubbish strewn parking lot, with no wheels and all the windows smashed. An upturned shopping trolley sits near the front doors of the hotel, like a turtle left on its back.
The front doors are wide open, like a gaping black maw with a slow, firelight glow coming from somewhere deep inside.
Wind shakes the scaffolding.
' ... you're kidding, right?' You stare at the girls, a little thrown off by this place. 'It's not much, I know!' Shanghai puts her hands together in apology. 'But it's home for the moment.'
Hourai sets off toward the doors without a backward glance.
[ ] When in Rome, etc. Follow Hourai. [ ] Smile at Shanghai, gesture for her to lead you inside.
Yeah, I wondered that too after I voted. She might simply be amused, but I think she would realize we were just playing around and trying to improve the mood. That, on top of taking control over a situation we have rapidly lost control of.
But something tells me she'd just copy us and grab Yumemi and Yoshika and stride in right behind us. At least, that's what I have happening in my mind.
There's no turning back now; if you leave, if you refuse to go inside, then the sisters' mother might think you were scoping the place out. It doesn't matter if you want to or not, one way or the other, you're walking into that ruined hotel.
A strange feeling wells up in your chest, something you haven't felt many times before; it's the rush of freedom that comes with inevitability. When faced with no choice you can do anything.
Shanghai blinks nervously at the grin that splits your face. 'Um- mother's just upstairs, so-' 'I know, I know, why don't we all go inside, yeah?' You flash your grin around at the rest of your companions to make your point. Mary gets your look instantly, her eyes lighting up. Yoshika frowns, but then begins to grin too, her expression like looking into the sharp edges of a broken mirror.
'Of course! Ah, Hourai, wait!' Shanghai turns to follow her sister, but then you step forward and capture her raised arm in your own. Shanghai jumps with a delicate, feminine start of shock, blinking rapidly. You link arms with her, properly, like you're walking up the red carpet into a grand reception. You even tip your hat down with your other hand, feeling the haze of smoke, the flash of black-and-white cameras, and the grainy texture of old film cover the world around you. Escorting two lovely young ladies home? Why not, it's all in a day's work.
Shanghai is warm and soft, and the side of your arm sinks into the curve of her right breast. She feels completely human; you try not to let yourself believe.
'Shall we, then?' You grin and gesture up toward the dark rectangle of the hotel doors. 'Oh!' Shanghai pulls herself together with a little flutter of her eyelashes, delighted at the contact. 'Of course, lets!' You lead her up a velvet walkway of broken glass and chipped asphalt, underneath a sky sagging like a pregnant belly with the promise of rain, heavy clouds rolling and churning in the wind. 'Come on then, ladies!' You hear Mary chirp behind you, clearly as infected by the style bug as you are. You glance over your shoulder to see her linking arms with Yumemi on one side and Sakuya on the other. The former assassin does her best to hold her chin high and wield her crutch as gracefully as possible.
Yoshika lopes alongside like a hound. You keep an eye on her.
'Sister, sister!' Shanghai calls out as you catch up with Hourai. But you've already got other plans. Hourai doesn't even bother to look around as you draw level with her; she almost jumps out of her skin when you interrupt her dragging pace. Looping your arm through hers and pulling her to your side earns you a slow frown. She hesitates, half pulling away, staring at you with heavy-lidded eyes like sullen teenage girl. 'Come on, Hourai!' You give her your best pearly-whites smile, a blast of charm that - if she even has such a thing as sexuality - she's not going to be able to resist. 'I can't have one of you without the other, now can I?' You look between the sisters. 'Let's go see your mom, yeah?' ' ... yeah.' Hourai looks away, muttering softly, but you catch her cheeks turning a dull rose-pink. ' ... 's go see mom.' 'Wonderful!' You smirk, holding that expression as you mount the cracked concrete steps, and sweep into the hotel's entrance hall, one girl on each arm.
The inside of the hotel is just as bad as the exterior: the reception desk is a woodworm-riddled carcass, the once-plush carpet is threadbare and covered with dust, the wallpaper has peeled off like broken wings captured mid-flap, or has worn down to nothing, spots of bare wood showing through. Little light filters through the grime-encrusted windows, lending the space a shadowy, enclosed feeling, a sensation that makes you feel as if you've stepped somewhere beyond the city entirely. To the left, a giant set of stairs curls up and around to the second floor, brass banisters dull and dented with age. On the right, the corridor stretches away into darkness, doors opening into empty rooms and echoing caverns long past use.
In the middle, straight ahead, two massive white doors stand like faded sentinels, their paint chipped and flaked. They're open just a crack, enough to allow the wavering glow of distant firelight to seep into the entrance hall.
'Is your mother in there?' You ask, trying not to hesitate or show any anxiety. The hotel feels like a giant rotten log, dead at first glance but teeming with unseen activity. You expected grave-like silence, but you can hear distant footsteps, something dragging along the second floor, the creak of a tap turning in a far corner, the crackle of fire, and the constant slow rattle of the wind through all the gaps and rents in the wrecked building.
'Yes, that's the way!' Shanghai chirps, flashing you a bubbly smile. Mary peers over your shoulder, Yumemi gulps loudly enough for you to hear.
Something blocks the firelight glow between the doors for a moment; a flash of pristine white, a streak of red, motion in the dark beyond.
Yoshika loops around before you can stop her, head low like a wolf, heading for the doors.
[ ] 'Yoshika. Wait.' Down, girl. [ ] Let her open the doors. She's just protecting you by going first. [ ] 'Wait- wait! Shanghai, Hourai, what was that?'
'Wait-' The word shoots from your mouth and hammers Yoshika between the shoulder blades, your first instinct to stop her from going too far. But she doesn't stop. 'Wait!'
Yoshika stops and straightens up, casting a glance back at you. She shakes off the wolfish impression, rolling her shoulders as of rising out of a trance. ' ... Renko.' She purrs under her breath, raising her eyebrows and waiting for you to go first. You notice her hands are still curled up like claws though, and the tension remains visible along her body. She's coiled up like a steel spring, all sharp edges waiting to unfold to slice and rip. 'Stay sharp, Yoshika. But take it easy.' You flash your grin at her. 'Mm.' She grunts, nodding once. 'Shanghai, Hourai,' you continue quickly, eyes on the gap in the door that Yoshika is backing away from. 'What was that just now?' 'Uh?' 'I'm sorry?'
They both look at you with confusion, Shanghai's polite question and Hourai's disinterested pout.
' ... there was something behind the-' You stop short as a flicker of white moves across the gap again. The flicker becomes a ripple of fabric, and the ripple becomes a small pale hand, fingers wrapping around the edge of the door. 'Oh!' Shanghai's expression lights up with delight. An eye joins the hand, peering through the gap like a child watching adults; a big red iris with no pupil in the middle, wide and staring, surrounded by mushroom-pale flesh like something kept out of the sun for too long.
Yoshika visibly grits her teeth, staring back at the watcher in the dark.
'Little sister ... ' Hourai mumbles, and wriggles free of your grip. You let her go, and she heads for the doorway. 'That's only our youngest!' Shanghai reassures you. 'She's very shy, I don't think she's used to seeing other people.' 'Hello there sweetie!' Mary leans over you and gives the white watcher a cheerful smile and wave. The thing behind the door doesn't react. 'What's her name?' 'Mossy, you can come out and say hello!' Shanghai croons to her little sister. 'Mossy?' Yumemi asks, momentarily stunned out of her fear-trance. 'Moscow. Come out.' Hourai answers in a mutter. But she's not answering, she's talking to the white-clad girl as she gently opens the door.
The watcher in white doesn't react well. In a flurry of spinning white - fabric and hair and chalk-dust aura - she jumps away from the door as Hourai pushes it open. You catch the briefest glimpse of a small girl running across the room toward the back, skirts held up in her hands, tiny shoes clapping on the rotten floorboards of the ancient hotel dining room as she weaves between the dust-caked tables. She vanishes up the stairs near the back quick as a blink. But first she gives you one last glance of those huge red eyes.
Moscow is dressed like a doll. She is the colour of death in snow and empty midwinter skies.
'Mossy! Don't be scared!' Shanghai untangles herself from you as well, intending to follow. But her little sister is far away now, the sound of her footsteps vanishing into the creaking of the wind. Yoshika drops back quickly, standing next to you and leaning toward your ear. 'That thing is a mage-killer weapon.' She hisses low, her voice full of unreleased tension. 'A real one. Not like me. Designed for one purpose.' 'What, a little girl?' You whisper back. 'It is not a little girl.' Yoshika grunts through her teeth at you, eyes wide with scorn. She straightens up as soon as Shanghai looks back.
'Don't worry about her! She's just shy.' Shanghai repeats. Mary nods understandingly.
Shanghai and Hourai lead you through the long-disused hotel dining room, where a large open fireplace crackles away to itself in the rear. One set of rickety looking stairs - the ones Moscow just took - lead up to some kind of upper level, but the top of the stairs are shrouded in grey darkness. Instead the sisters take the door at the back of the dining room, which opens out into some kind of function space. The windows here are framed with faded gold leaf, the floor tiled with alternating black-and-white marble all the way across the massive room.
All the way over to the crackling fireplace at the back, a huge roaring inferno of logs and newspaper, easily taller than Yoshika. The fireplace itself is cracked and buckled from the heat, probably never intended to be used for anything except show. That end of the room is bathed in orange glow and backwashing heat, trapped by the moth-eaten velvet drapes over the windows and the various bits of furniture that have been dragged down there, but still buffeted by the wind outside, flames stuttering and whirling.
The floor has been carpeted with blankets and rugs, a patchwork mess that clusters around a huge, queen-sized bed. On a nearby sofa sit a pair of girls, talking softly. Even from a distance you can see they look vaguely similar to Shanghai and Hourai, but their hair is brown where the twins are blond, and their features are subtly different, slightly thicker here, thinner there. One of them is dressed in a deep grey, the other in light, sky-blue.
A third girl, her hair and clothes both a rich dark red, hovers by the side of a huge armchair. Probably taken from the best suite in the hotel, the chair has retained a shade of its former glory, plush red upholstery and dark brown wood both shining in the firelight.
A figure sits in the chair, feet up on a stool, her face and body obscured by the shadows cast by the angle of the chair. Her legs and feet are covered by a blanket.
You can't see her face, but you can feel something turn its attention toward you.
The sensation makes you stop walking. Mary reaches forward and fumbles for your fingers, her palm slick with sudden cold sweat. You squeeze her hand. 'Mummy!' Hourai smiles, the first time you've seen her do so; her face rolls with a lazy sort of happiness. Shanghai beams at you, and then hurries forward.
The wind howls on outside.
[ ] Wait here. Wait to be called forward. [ ] 'Hello.' Speak. [ ] Keep walking.
...A Benevolent French Doll and a Foggy London Doll? Orleans and London? That's just my guess.
But still, I'm wanting to join team Alice more and more. Sweet little Moscow... A Chalk-White Russian Doll. Of course, we have to make sure to be careful. If Yoshika is saying that Moscow is more dangerous than even she is, designed only for one purpose... Could she even take her in a straight fight?
But what to do. Walking would be rude, but perhaps she is waking for us to make the first move. We're here to talk, aren't we? So in that regard...
Of course! What do you think happened to Medicine? Alice reverse-engineered her to create all of her other living dolls. And when she was done, she began force-feeding her in a plan to make an extremely strong, extremely fat doll.
Ok, enough being sarcastic. I was just noting something that I observed and struck me interesting, that's all.
Your breath catches in your throat as you watch Shanghai and Hourai cross the space to their mother, leaving you and your little group standing alone in the vast hall. You try to summon the words, to say something, to introduce yourself, but you can't stop staring at that curve of shadow thrown by the back of the chair. It's as thick as night; you know that Mother is looking back at you from just inside the darkness.
Mary squeezes your hand, and that snaps you out of it just long enough to summon a breath into your lungs. 'Hello.' You say, your voice carrying and then seeming to stop suddenly, absorbed by the furniture and the rolling heat from the fire. The hidden figure in the chair doesn't respond - she's too busy accepting quick embraces from Shanghai and Hourai. They each bend down in turn, their upper halves vanishing into the shadow for a moment before surfacing again. Hourai plods off to join her siblings on the sofa, but Shanghai beams a smile at you, and then turns to whisper something into the ear of the scarlet-haired sister.
The silence stretches on for one long, uncomfortable moment, filled with the crackle and spit of burning logs, the howl of the wind, and the spider-skitter whispers of the girls.
Suddenly Shanghai and the red-haired girl stop, both of them looking down at the chair, at Mother. Something passes between them, and then the red-haired girl looks up, right at you. Her face is neat and serious with kind of look that only grows on the truly dutiful. She goes up on tip-toe, peering over your shoulders at Yoshika and Sakuya too, and then looks back down to her mummy and shakes her head softly. You're about to lean back and whisper a question to Yoshika. But then an intake of breath snaps your attention back.
' ... speak up.'
The voice comes from the shadow of the chair, soft and unhurried, filled with slow languid relaxation, as if the speaker is very old or very ill, but has accepted her fate.
'Uh,' you gulp. 'I said hello.' You raise your voice in answer. 'Greetings, and all that.' You trail off awkwardly, still haunted by the feeling of something watching you. An image comes to your mind, of walking into a cave and finding a mother bear reclining in the back, surrounded by her cubs. That is what you're looking at. Mother sees you. ' ... come closer.' Mother says. You share a glance with Yoshika, and she nods once. Then you hold onto Mary's hand nice and tight, trusting that she's got Yumemi in her other.
Approaching the chair is harder than you thought. Shanghai cocks her head at you, clearly confused by the tension in the room. The other sister, the redhead, watches you with more intelligent eyes, one hand resting on the back of her mother's chair. Hourai has curled up in the corner of the sofa, head on the armrest, eyes closed. The pair of brunettes barely even spare you a glance. 'It's alright, Renko!' Shanghai chirps, still confused. 'Why don't you come around this side, it's nice and warm by the fire!' 'Thanks, Shanghai.' You manage, clearing your throat and stopping a dozen paces from the chair. Mary presses against your side and Yumemi stands between your back and Sakuya.
To your sudden alarm, Yoshika steps forward and to the side. But she stops again before you can open your mouth. She locks eyes with the redhead girl, and then gives an almost imperceptible bow of her head. The scarlet-clad sister replies in kind, silently.
'Mmm ... ' Mother - the girls' mother, you have to forcibly remind yourself - makes a slow thinking noise, deep in whatever passes for her throat. You hear the rustle of fabric on fabric, and notice her legs move under the blankets as she settles down into her chair. 'All girls, yes, all girls. Good. I do so like young women.' She speaks slowly, ending with a unmistakable sigh of relief. 'Amsterdam?' 'Mother dearest?' The redhead doll - Amsterdam - leans down slightly, inclining one ear toward the shadow in the chair. Her deep red hair shines in the whirling firelight. 'Introductions all round, if you please.' Mother speaks with feather-softness; Amsterdam nods with efficient attention. She straightens up, clears her throat, and looks at your group.
For a moment her eyes don't know who to settle on, but then she meets your gaze personally. You nod to let her know she's gotten that part right, at least. You're in charge. Sort of. 'Welcome to our home.' Amsterdam speaks with the practiced pleasantness of an experienced servant, gently hushed in the presence of the fire. 'You've met Shanghai and Hourai already. My name is Amsterdam, I am the eldest here,' she nods to you. 'The two over there are Orleans and London, our middle sisters.' She gestures at the girls in sky-blue and grey, but they ignore you, continuing their hushed conversation. 'Shanghai tells me you also met Moscow on your way in. My congratulations, she is often difficult to find. The one in the far corner,' she gestures over your shoulder, toward the distant back of the room where the walls meet in grey shadow. 'Is our brother, Carinae.'
There's nothing there except a vague shape, the merest suggestion of a tall human figure draped with shadows, unmoving and unbreathing. Yoshika stares with special intensity.
'Our other brothers and sisters are too many to list, but doubtless you will see more of them if you are to spend any time in our company.' Amsterdam's smile is polite, tight, and cautious.
She waits a beat.
[ ] Introduce yourself, go ahead. Address yourself to Amsterdam. [ ] No no. Address yourself to Mother. [ ] Wait. Wait.
Only time for this one today! More tomorrow evening though.
You almost open your mouth, but the momentary silence holds, poised like a raised knife, razor-sharp point dangling in the air before your face.
'Good girl, Amsterdam.' That same hushed voice croaks from the shadow in the chair. 'I can always rely on you, can't I.' ' ... yes, Mother dearest.' Amsterdam answers, showing the first real emotion you've seen on her face: she blushes softly and struggles to keep the corners of her mouth from turning up in delight at her Mother's praise. 'Good, good.' The figure in the chair takes a deep, slow breath before continuing again. 'Help me sit round, girls.' She requests, so softly; Amsterdam and Shanghai respond instantly, both of them reaching down toward the chair and assisting their mother. The rustle of fabric accompanies a creak from the wood of the chair, as she settles her body back down again.
You can't see her eyes, or her face, but you can feel her looking at you.
What you can see is Mother's hands - both of them a dark healthy pink, as if she's just bathed, with wrists vanishing up into splayed white lace - and her belly, a huge heavily pregnant mound that rises up out of the shadow like an island from a dark sea, clad in blue cotton. She strokes it slowly with one hand, the other resting on the arm of the chair.
'Ahhh, five.' She speaks again with that slow, relaxed murmur. 'All good things come in threes, or fives, or sevens. It is sweet and fitting that there are five of you.' Her voice communicates her relaxed smile, even if you can't see her face, but her words are too hushed to reassure. 'My name is Alice, and I am mother to all within these walls. Welcome to our home.' ' ... thank you, Alice.' You manage to pick up your tongue before the moment of silence stretches on long enough to become awkward, bowing your head slightly to the thing in the chair. The pregnant-mother-thing. You can't think of her as human. Her mere presence is a pressure on the senses, the sensation of standing before something very large and very old. Not to mention that - judging by the point her voice comes from and where you can see her feet on the stool - she's incredibly tall. Seven feet? Eight feet? You don't suppose she'll be standing up with that belly to carry around. 'I-uh, I accept your welcome on behalf of us all.' You add.
'Delightful. Oh, a delightful young woman, yes, yes.' Alice lets out a long, satisfied sigh. 'Tell me your name?' 'I'm Renko.' You speak into the shadow, looking at where you guess her eyes might be. 'This is Mary, my best friend.' You give Mary's hand a squeeze as you glance at her, leaving out the "and lover" part; you're not sure you want to include that in front of Alice. 'This girl here behind us is Yumemi. The silver-haired one here is Sakuya, and this is Yoshika.' You run through a quick introduction.
Alice doesn't respond for a moment. You glance up at Amsterdam, looking for guidance. She just blinks slowly and inclines her head every so slightly: wait.
'A pleasure.' Alice speaks with overt delight, sighing delicately with an intake of breath. 'And you have all been outside, you have had a long walk here. Would you care to sit?' A rustle of fabric and several creaks from the chair indicate Alice is trying to move again, twisting around to talk up to Amsterdam. 'Tea, Amsterdam, tea, and chairs, and-'
'Of course, Mother dearest.' Amsterdam interrupts with all the unobtrusive subtlety of a real servant, loud enough for Alice to hear but soft enough that Mother does not stop talking.
[ ] 'Yeah, I think we'd love to sit down. That sounds wonderful.' Polite, welcoming, normal as can be under the circumstances. [ ] The others can sit, but you're staying on your feet: a silent statement of position. [ ] 'Actually why don't we actually get right down to business?' Careful, you don't know what she wants yet.
' -bring several cushions, too.' Alice finishes; Amsterdam nods with earnest attention to her mother. 'Yeah, actually, I think we'd all like to sit down for a bit.' You let a smile creep back onto your face. You can do this. You can play this part. 'Isn't that right, Yumemi?' You glance back, catching her eye. After all, she's the real reason you're here. ' ... ah, yeah.' She gulps, but her waxy-pale look has softened in the firelight and the calm tones of Alice's mother-voice. 'Wonderful.' You give her a big smile, flashing the same at the shadow in the krook of the chair.
Alice stares back at you from inside the darkness.
Amsterdam clicks her fingers at London and Orleans, and with a little hesitation and some silent shared grumbling, they get to their feet and help her set about dragging some of the furniture around, setting chairs in a loose semi-circle facing their mother. Shanghai flounces off into the shadows toward a smaller door in the rear of the room, presumably for that tea her mother requested; Hourai, on the other hand, has begun to drool in her sleep. When London plods over to the sleeping sister, looking like she's going to turf her out of her seat, Amsterdam stops her with a short sharp "shh!" London puts her hands in her skirt pockets and looks grumpy, but Orleans swishes about with little flicks of her hips, casting furtive, interested glances at you and Yoshika. You try to smile at her, but she looks away again with fawn-like skittish nerves.
'Sit, sit.' Alice starts once all the chairs are in place. You share glances with Mary and Yoshika, and raise your eyebrows at Sakuya. Nobody raises objections, and Mary keeps a firm grip on Yumemi's hand. The fire-heat roars behind you as you settle into one of the armchairs. Mary takes another, with Yumemi right next to her. At the sight of Sakuya's crutch, Orleans flutters over like a moth and fusses over the silver-haired assassin, silently helping her to her seat. Sakuya stares at the girl, but Orleans avoids her eyes and hops away again swiftly.
Only Yoshika stays standing, a pace behind your right hand, mirroring the position that Amsterdam takes by her mother's side; it's too late to tell Yoshika to sit down now, the gesture is clear. At least her expression is neutral. Sharp, with her eyes cold and staring. But neutral. 'Much better, girls, much better, yes.' Alice speaks.
From this angle you can finally see her properly.
Shrouded in the kind of shadows that come only in the darkness cast by fire, she is just as tall as you estimated. Perhaps more; unfurled, those limbs could make her nine feet in height. And her belly is huge. Far larger than even than the latest of late-term deliveries in a normal human being. The skin of her face and hands glows a healthy, ruddy pink, but the rest of her body is wrapped in blue and white, lace and cotton, a thick shawl over her shoulders. Like a mother hen trying to incubate an egg.
Her face is a paradox: her cheeks and lips and nose and the skin of her throat are all young, soft and healthy and bearing a faint resemblance to her daughters. But her eyes are set in dark pools of smudged and sagging skin, aching with age and weariness, like two holes punched in a pristine surface to show the truth underneath. Her eyes are ringed worse than the most far-gone opiate addict, and if she was human you'd instantly place her as a terminal case of addiction.
Alice's eyes have no whites, and no iris. You stare back at two pure-black orbs as a smile creases her lips.
'Isn't this cosy?' She asks softly, and then settles back in her chair, stroking her belly with one hand. ' ... yeah!' You grin back at her, trying to lead the others and ignore the vastness of the hall and the howling of the wind outside. Nothing to be afraid of here, nope! Perfect hospitality even! Right. Yeah. Yumemi just stares at the mother-thing in the chair opposite, but Mary makes the effort to smile. Sakuya's expression betrays nothing.
'Tell me, girls, tell me ... which one of you is the magician?' Alice asks gently.
Yumemi says nothing.
[ ] 'Yumemi would be our mage.' [ ] 'Yumemi's the mage, but I'm in charge.' [ ] Say nothing. [ ] 'That would be me.' Bluff!
The moment of silence stretches on just a second too long; Yumemi still doesn't answer. Deep in her shadowy recess, Alice's benevolent smile fades just a fraction into soft, feminine confusion. You speak up before her face falls further, afraid to see what might happen.
'Yumemi would be our mage,' honesty, best policy. 'But I'm in charge.' You add. Yumemi gulps loud enough to hear over the crackle of the fire, and glances to Mary for support. 'Ahhh, yes, Yumemi.' Alice's smile brightens again, and she looks at Yumemi. At least you think she looks at Yumemi. It's hard to tell where she's directing her gaze with those all-black eyeballs. 'You're quite the sweet little button, aren't you?' ' ... ' Yumemi just stares at the mother-thing, eyes wide. ' ... sorry?' She manages after a moment. 'Had a rough time all alone as well, didn't you?' Alice continues, her voice lowering down to a soft, feathery purr. 'You're lucky you were found by such nice young women.' ' ... yeah.' Yumemi gulps again, looking at you for help. 'Certainly lucky, yeah.' You nod in agreement, beginning to feel awkward.
Only one thing for it; your instincts kick in, and you keep talking.
'She just happened to bump into us, you know? Poor little thing all on her lonesome, nowhere to sleep. Couldn't just leave her outside in the city on her own!' You explain to Alice, appealing to her motherly instincts, to her sense of ... whatever inhuman values she holds. 'Of course, of course!' Alice suddenly becomes more animated, taking a deep, slow breath and nodding at you. 'You understand how I feel, then, Renko. Yes.' 'Is that why you wanted to see her?' You ask directly, staring back into those blank black eyes, reflected firelight flickering on their surfaces.
Amsterdam's jaw tightens as you ask that question. Orleans and London slip further away, into the shadows.
Yoshika doesn't move a muscle yet.
'Yes, yes.' Alice nods slower than before. 'And that we seek the ... same ... thing.' For the first time since she started speaking, Alice almost stumbles on her words. Your heart catches in your mouth, expecting a change any second, until you realise she's trying to decide who to talk to: you or Yumemi. 'We do?' You lean forward, directing her attention your way. Her huge black eyeballs swivel to look at you again. 'Yes, yes ... one must protect one's family. Yes.' Alice strokes her belly with one hand, and with the other reaches out toward Amsterdam. The redhead sister takes her mother's hand gently between both of her own, eyelids fluttering with adoration. 'I'm sure you understand, Renko.'
'Sure, yeah. It's important, isn't it.' You play along, a sinking feeling settling into the pit of your stomach: she's stalling. Trying to feel you out before revealing anything. Behind her exterior of honey-soft voice and glowing skin there are only those ancient, staring eyes, cold calculation running beneath their glassy surfaces.
'Amsterdam, love, where has Shanghai got to with that tea?' Alice ignores you suddenly, craning her neck up toward her daughter. The only one left here with you now, except Hourai, and she's fast asleep. 'I don't know mother, she'll-' 'Go help her, Amsterdam, sweet. Our guests need a drink.' Alice speaks with a soft purr. Amsterdam's eyes flicker to your group, worry crossing her face before she carefully smooths it over and assumes a neutral expression. Her eyes linger on Yoshika for several moments longer. 'But, mother dearest, I should stay-' she starts. 'Amsterdam, please, do as your mother asks?' Alice interrupts her with infinite softness. 'Of course, mother dearest, of course.' Amsterdam stops her protest instantly, bowing her head with apology. 'I shall be right back, mother.'
Alice does not speak again until Amsterdam's footsteps vanish off into the dark, through the door at the back, following the same route as Shanghai. You glance around, but London and Orleans have run off somewhere too.
'Now,' Alice speaks, her voice the faintest shade rougher, but still on the side of benevolent warmth. 'Quickly, girls, quickly, while delicate ears are not here to hear the dark details.' She claps her hands together with a soft pat.
'You are finding an old magician by the name of Rika, who came to this old city many years ago. And so am I.' She speaks, her voice slowly loosing all its happiness. Her lips turn downward, and you get that impression again; you're facing a mother bear, huge and powerful and easily enraged. 'I intend to kill her, or whatever is left of her, or whatever she has become. You understand, of course, Renko? I must look after my daughters, and sometimes that means looking after the world.' ' ... right.' You answer when you realise she's waiting. You've no idea how to react to that.
'Have you found her?' Alice asks.
You shake your head.
[ ] 'We have no idea where she is. Only an abandoned office.' Bluff away as much as you can, pretend you know nothing. [ ] 'We're on her trail, sort of. We're just trying to figure out what she left behind.' As close to the truth as you can make it. [ ] 'Why do you want to kill her?' Well, Alice did say let's get the horrible details out of the way.
[x] 'Why do you want to kill her?' Well, Alice did say let's get the horrible details out of the way.
Let's get the why out. See the reason behind this. Is Rika a danger to the whole world?
Good news is that if Rika is her goal, then she wanted Yumemi because she was following Rika's trail. And maybe, just maybe, we'll have a magician ally in all this. Would probably only want to help if it concerns Rika, but still.
And Alice may have a trick or two to access Rika's vault.
[x] 'Why do you want to kill her?' Well, Alice did say let's get the horrible details out of the way.
Well, she's not after Yumemi, so that's the important distinction. We can breathe slightly easier. And it's good to see that there is still some wit in the... thing that Alice has become/has always been.
So, let's get it out of the way while the girls can't hear. Although, I do have to wonder... are the girls all so independent that they might turn against her if they don't like what they hear? Or is she just protecting them from the cruel world outside?
And is that 'bum' looking for Rika too? Is she working against Alice towards less noble goals (supposedly) Or is she actually working for Rika, and covering her tracks?
If this Rika is the same Rika as was in Story of Eastern Wonderland, she built Evil Eye Sigma as early as that game, while the story appears to be set some time later than any Windows Touhou Project game if Alice's use of living dolls is anything to go by.
Evil Eye Sigma was the first to use curving lasers, wide lasers, Danmaku Paranoia-style player-orbiting traps, and the pattern used in Flaw of Forgiving Shrine. All of these had various advantages over their later variations: the curving lasers were ridiculously fast and wide, the wide lasers had no warning line, the orbiting trap's associated shots were random and very fast, and the Forgiving Shrine type move had no gaps in between the cards, and was followed up with an obliquely aimed variation. Also, the extra stage associated with Evil Eye Sigma is widely regarded as being the hardest extra stage in the series, including Yukari's phantasm stage, raising the possibility that Evil Eye Sigma might have been even more powerful than Yukari.
If she's advanced from there, being a threat to the entire world is no stretch at all.
Alice's dark, sunken eyes smoulder in the ruddy flesh of her face, staring at you, waiting for an answer with all the intensity of a true protective mother. Your mouth grows dry and your hands sweat under the attention of the thing before you. She sits there, gravid and heavy and bloated with strange life, like some fecund goddess awaiting an offering before she is able to give birth.
But she is alone, and you have Yoshika with you; at your right hand stands a potent weapon. You hope.
'Why do you want to kill Rika?' You lead the conversation onward, leaning forward slightly in a futile attempt to make yourself feel more in control here. 'Between us, we know almost nothing about her. Except her work, I guess, which Yumemi knows more about.' Then you add, a little sardonic: 'And that she's completely vanished.' Alice studies you with those huge glassy black eyes for several moments longer before she speaks again. She takes a very slow, deep breath, making the dome of her belly rise and fall like an ocean of flesh.
'That question makes me feel guilty.' Alice speaks slower, her face sagging toward melancholy; she bears a fleeting resemblance to Hourai in that moment, but the impression is blotted out by the way her soot-ringed eyes seem to darken, etched with pain and exhaustion. 'It is not a thing I can discuss for long,' she sighs, belly rolling with her breath again. You share a quick, worried glance with Mary at the sound of this. Yumemi's face is pale but focused. Yoshika stands like a statue, but you know she's a coiled snake; you feel as if you could make her strike merely by lifting your fingers.
'All creation is beautiful, you see, girls? All creative acts are acts of beauty.' Alice's voice loses the sorrowful bent as she continues, filling with the deep warmth of satisfaction and relaxation again. The muscles in her face regain their softness; her eyes remain in shadow. 'And the highest act of creation is giving birth, giving life, making life, yes, yes,' she swallows, hands fluttering over her belly like engorged, fat moths. 'I'm sure you girls all understand.' She smiles wide at you with obvious happiness. 'Even you, old one,' she looks at Yoshika. The bruise-coloured girl doesn't respond; doesn't even twitch. 'Yes, no matter how far you are, you still understand, yes, you understand what it means to give life. You feel it in your body.' Alice inhales an excited breath, but when she breathes out again, her voice shudders.
'Rika has birthed a true monster.'
' ... go on.' You nod. Yumemi sits up straighter, suddenly interested.
But then Yoshika finally interrupts.
'Monster? Monster.' She lets her voice rumble with all the power of a stalking tiger. But she doesn't move from her spot. 'Monster is relative, brood-mare. I see a monster in the corner of this room, watching us with more senses than it should have. I saw a monster on the way in, with venom sacks to make flesh rot and the kind of fingers made for strangling in the dark.' 'You speak of my children. You will watch your tongue.' Alice breathes heavily, expression darkening with offense taken. 'Woah, woah,' you hold out one hand, alarmed at the change of atmosphere. 'Let's not start-' 'Define monster for me, egg-sack.' Yoshika grunts.
[ ] 'Yoshika, down.' Not now, dammit. [ ] Wait, let her keep going. At least it might make Alice speak truth. [ ] 'Yoshika has a point. How do we know you're not just feuding with another sorcerer?'
[x] 'Yoshika has a point. How do we know you're not just feuding with another sorcerer?'
Skepticism is the answer here I think. Yoshika won't just back down from this, but there's no reason to pick a fight with Alice over this. Besides, we can't just blindly accept everything at face value. Hopefully, Alice will understand this.
Yup, see, I should have figured that out on my own. I remembered there was a brother, but I forgot that he wasn't sent out with the rest of the girls. Note to self: Alice has more dolls besides the girls. Need to staple that to my forehead to remember.
Alice takes another deep breath, but now her nostrils flare with growing anger at Yoshika, and the coal-dark flesh around her eyes wrinkles with emotion. Yoshika holds her gaze with razor-sharp attention, face unmoving. You suddenly feel like you're between a pair of very large animals about to have a fight. The urge to get out of the way is overwhelming.
Instead, you stand up.
'Wait,' you hold out both hands, one to Yoshika and the other in the general direction of Alice. 'Just. Wait. Don't.' 'Don't?' Yoshika rumbles, but the curve of her lips tells you she's already backing down. But only just. She seems to slink back like a hunting dog called off for the moment. 'Alice, I'm sorry, but Yoshika does have a point.' You continue, turning back to the mother-thing in her birthing-chair before the thread of conversation can be lost in another one of her deflections. 'What exactly has Rika given ... birth to? And how do we know that you're not having a private feud with her or something?'
Alice waits several beats, taking long, almost-shuddering breaths, until she blinks slowly and shuts her eyes. 'Mother?' Hourai's sleepy voice comes from the sofa, and you glance over to see her waking, eyes bleary and bloodshot, drool wet in one corner of her mouth. 'Mummy?' 'It is alright, Hourai, dear.' Alice answers, her voice a mask of calm. 'It is alright.' ' ... s'not.' Hourai mutters, wiping her mouth on the back of her sleeve, staring between you and Yoshika with a grumpy pout. 'Mummy, are you telling them?' 'I am, Hourai, I am.' Alice lets out a long breath. 'Ah, sorry.' You frown, confused by this. 'I thought you said- er, about delicate ears and ... ?' 'Hourai is the most robust of my daughters. Isn't that, right, Hourai?' Alice asks, eyes still closed, her face peaceful as if tired and on the verge of sleep. Hourai nods, looking away shyly. ' ... m'not delicate at all.' Hourai mumbles at the floor, blinking and yawning to punctuate her sentence. She occupies herself by raking her fingers through her mane of blond hair. 'Mm, one must allow a mother her indulgences.' Alice says as if in answer, and then opens her eyes again, half-lidded with heavy exhaustion.
Before Alice can speak, Yumemi opens her mouth.
'Excuse me,' she gulps, her voice shaking softly as she forces the words out. 'I'm ... I know what I'm talking about- I mean, I'll know what you're talking about. There's no need to ... layman it, uh ... what did Rika make? What did the professor do?' Her lips quiver with anticipation. Alice regards her cooly from the depths of her inky black eyes.
'She killed several of my children, to steal the secrets of their creation, to unpick what made them.' Alice speaks low now, stoking the flames of a long-burning fire. 'The wonder of life was not enough for her.' Alice's deep black eyes bore into Yumemi, and then slide to you with glacial slowness, like some ancient creature dragging itself across the ocean floor. Alice's expression is total cold. 'I wanted revenge for my murdered children, and I followed at a distance. I watched her steal the secrets from a dozen magicians, and ... improve on their work. She could only take and twist, never give back, never let growth flourish.' 'Rika was never a true sorcerer.' Yoshika interrupts, eyes slit-narrow sharp. 'She was a scholar. Examine and observe and test.' 'She killed my sisters.' Hourai mutters darkly. Her interjection somehow strikes you far more than all of Alice's self-indulgent dramatics.
' ... no.' Yoshika frowns hard at Alice. 'I don't believe you.' 'Believe what?' You glance up at Yoshika to find her eyes burning. 'It is true.' Alice sighs out through her nostrils. 'Rika found her own ascension, with stolen ways and stolen lives. She remade herself into something ... ' Alice trails off, shaking her head slowly. 'Gone beyond the human.' Yoshika explains to you in a low, teeth-gritting mutter, quiet enough that it's for you alone as she leans in. 'Whatever she looks like, Alice here is still human at the core. Blood and guts. Motherly instinct. Revenge. She's saying Rika found a way out of the cycle of humanity. I don't believe her. Not with Rika's methods.'
You stare back at Alice.
[ ] 'Okay then, where is she?' [ ] 'Hourai?' Talk to Hourai, get her to speak. Sounds like she was there.
I'm... not sure about those choices. I don't see the point of asking where Rika may be now, nor do I see the point of asking Hourai what happened exactly. But second is probably a bit better.
[x] 'Hourai?' Talk to Hourai, get her to speak. Sounds like she was there.
What got into Yoshika anyway? She say the way of sorcerers give either madness or death if they can't reach their goal and now she say Rika didn't go nuts enough to modify herself at some point without knowing what Rika may have stolen or not?
To be honest, now I would have wanted the option to tell Yoshika to back down and ask her why she's saying that. Politely if possible.
At least, glad to know Alice has no bone with us (that is if Yoshika doesn't push her too far). We may be able to ask for her help later on some of the stuff we found.
We should probably tell Alice foxes followed us too. I would hate for something bad to happen to her or her family because of us.
'Alice ... I ... ' You try to say something, to say sorry she lost children to Rika, to ask her more details, to re-insert yourself into the conversation before Yoshika uncoils her claws again, but this has all gotten too complex, you-
'Hourai, sweetie?' Mary's voice breaks through the confusion with a ray of clarity, her tones seeming to match the roar and crackle of the fire, spreading a gentler heat as everyone turns to look at her. It's the first thing she's said since sitting down, and that familiar bubbly smile lights up her face as she tries to peer over at Hourai. The red-clad sister doesn't meet her eyes. 'Do you mind if I come sit over there?' ' ... 'kay.' Hourai looks disinterested and sad, drained after her tiny outburst of dark indignation. 'Mary?' You hiss as Mary stands up, dusts off the back of her skirt, and saunters over to the sofa with Hourai. You almost reach out and take her wrist, or protest, but your caution is for nothing; Mary sits down next to Hourai with a little sigh and leans over toward her.
'Will you talk to me, Hourai?' Mary asks softly in her same old honey-bright voice. Hourai wavers, looking up at Mary like a morose teenager. ' ... about ... this?' Hourai seems unsure, glancing at her mother. Alice nods slowly, and Hourai laces her fingers together nervously. You sit back down gingerly, watching Mary work her own brand of magic.
Mary puts a finger to her lips and raises her eyebrows, looking across all of you - Alice included - before she leans in close to Hourai, to whisper in her ear. For Hourai only[, is what that look said. In that moment you can't help but admire Mary's guts. They're a different kind to yours. Hourai looks uncomfortable for a moment at how close Mary gets, but then she relaxes and frowns at something Mary is saying. The slow whisper flows just on the edge of your hearing. 'But-' Hourai says out loud. Mary quickly shushes her and indicates that she should whisper too. Hourai blinks at Mary and then copies her, and their hushed conversation continues.
' ... rather than watching what is obviously a private exchange,' Sakuya clears her throat gently and fixes her gaze on Alice. 'Why don't we discuss what unholy thing Rika has become?' 'No, no, we're almost done!' Mary looks up and flaps one hand, resting her other on Hourai's back. 'You are a delightful young woman, Mary, yes, I think so.' Alice purrs, filled with obvious pleasure at the sight of her daughter talking like this.
A moment later, Hourai and Mary break apart again. Mary clears her throat, and Hourai looks at the floor between her feet, wobbling her knees back and forth with nervous tension. 'Go on.' Mary encourages her softly. Hourai looks away and pouts; but then she speaks.
'Rika was making a thing, to put her mind into.' Hourai speaks in a slow mutter, bored or tired or beyond carrying, but Mary's brightness doesn't falter. Whatever passed between them seems to have brought the red sister out of her shell a little. ' ... a, like a sort of ... machine, I guess.' 'How do you know this?' Sakuya interrupts. 'I was ... mostly following her around.' Hourai glares back at Sakuya with a pout. ' ... jus' saw what she took.' 'What kind of machine?' Sakuya presses again. Mary's brow creases with a little frown.
'Dunno.' Hourai shrugs. ' ... she killed a lot of people.'
Hourai's innocent voice, her naive tone, lends this statement an uncomfortable weight.
'Sakuya,' you speak up into the silence that follows. 'If you had a list of the various techniques Rika stole - is that possible to get -?' You glance at Hourai, then Alice. The latter nods slowly. 'Then would you be able to work out what she was doing?' 'We have already attempted to divine that.' Alice sounds tired now.
Sakuya fixes her with a cold gaze; you can see the experience behind those bright blue eyes.
[ ] Don't interrupt this. Let Sakuya her piece. [ ] 'Let her try anyway. Sakuya's quite experienced with this.' Speak before she makes a boast about how many mages she's killed.
You speak before Sakuya can continue; you're not sure how well Alice would react to Sakuya speaking about her former occupation. Or current occupation, if she's going to help you once she's fully recovered.
'Let her try anyway.' You say, holding one hand up and taking charge of the situation. 'Sakuya's quite experienced with this sort of thing, it's why she's here with us. And I assume you want our help?' 'Yes, yes.' Alice takes a deep breath, seeming to calm herself some. 'Hourai can speak about that, can't you, dear?' 'Mm.' Hourai grunts, eyes flicking to Sakuya for a moment before sliding away again. ' ... in a bit.' 'Of course, girls, of course. There's no rush. We'll have tea soon.' Alice breaks into a benevolent smile again. 'I'm glad you understand.'
'We haven't agreed to anything yet.' You say in a level tone, which takes a lot of effort when staring down the bloated mother-thing in the chair opposite. Her glassy black eyes reflect the firelight in miniature. 'But, provisionally,' you glance at Yoshika and raise your eyebrows in question. She senses the suggestion in your words, and doesn't object. 'How about we help each other? We're stumbling around without much info, and you need ... ' 'A longer reach.' Alice sighs and closes her eyes. 'It is difficult when one must protect one's children from predators.' 'Yeah, about that.' You remember what Shanghai and Hourai said about not staying out for too long. 'Your daughters mentioned there was somebody dangerous, a woman on a motorbike or something?'
Alice goes quiet.
Hourai averts her eyes, staring into the fire.
' ... ah, um,' you struggle to recover after that. Alice still doesn't answer. 'Well, if you-' 'You had better talk to little Moscow.' Alice says in a near-whisper. 'She is a capable girl, and dealing with such ... pests, is her occupation.' 'Yeah.' You gulp, slightly intimidated by the quiet disgust in Alice's voice. 'Mossy could tell them 'bout Rika too.' Hourai says, then sniffs loudly. 'I'd rather speak with you first.' Sakuya looks up at Hourai again, eyes soft and polite once more. She's putting on her best face for the grumpy girl.
You cast about for a second.
'You are free to go wherever you may in my home, if you are going to look for little Moscow.' Alice says softly. She turns the last two words of her sentence with an affectionate twist, and in your mind's eye you can see her petting the mushroom-pale girl.
[ ] Wait for tea. You have more things to ask Alice. [ ] Sakuya's right. Sit with her and talk to Hourai about Rika's previous movements. [ ] Go look for Moscow. If she's a mage-slayer she probably knows more than her youthful appearance earlier suggested.
'Actually yes, I think I'd like to speak with Moscow.' You say, feeling decisive. You need information. You need it straight, and clear. You need it from a mouth unclouded by being in the same room as Alice. Perhaps away from the direct influence of her mother, hiding in whatever corners she prefers, little Moscow the mage-killing weapon will speak some sense. You glance over at Hourai. 'You said that Moscow knows about Rika, too?' ' ... more than we do.' She mutters, her gaze flicking to her mother. More than Alice? That's promising. 'Right, that's settled then, I'd like to speak with Moscow if I can.' You smile at Alice, trying to look nonthreatening as you clap your hands to your knees and rise to your feet. 'Do call her Mossy, if you like.' Alice purrs softly and returns your smile, blinking her sunken, coal-dark eyelids. 'Yeah, I will.' You look around as Yumemi hesitates, about to get on her feet.
Yoshika leans in toward your ear. 'I'm staying here with the brood mother. Keep the safety on your weapon off.' She whispers through clenched teeth. You turn and meet her eyes. 'Yoshika, never split the party.' You whisper back, but she just raises an eyebrow. 'It needs watching.' She growls. ' ... alright, alright.' You agree. In this instance, Yoshika's knowledge outstrips yours. 'Am I going alone, then?' 'Something the matter, girls?' Alice asks, her voice a honey-soft trap. 'No, no,' you lie, breaking out of the whisper. 'Just figuring out how to go find Moscow.' 'Ahhh, I'll get one of my daughters to go with you. This house is rather old and rather large, after all.' Alice nods to herself, stroking her belly with a distracted look on her face. 'So many empty rooms to fill.'
'Take a hunter to track a hunter.' Yoshika hisses in your ear again, gesturing at Sakuya. 'Perhaps they can share what you cannot. Leave our budding chick here, though, she may be too tempting a morsel.' You glance at Yumemi. 'Good point.' You mouth back silently, and then raise your voice again. 'Sakuya, why don't you come with me, this is sort of your, uh, area? And Mary, are you-'
'Making a new friend, Renko!' Mary pats Hourai's hand; the red sister blushes so faintly that it's almost not visible in the firelight. She still doesn't look up though.
'Indeed, Renko.' Sakuya answers. 'I might need a hand, but-' 'My daughters can help.' Alice purrs, and then claps her hands together. 'Orleans!' She can barely raise her voice. 'Orleans, dear!'
A few minutes later - after Hourai hopping off the sofa to actually go find Orleans, buried deep in the shadows of the room - you look back over your shoulder at Yumemi and Mary, with Yoshika acting as their guard, facing down Alice. Before you got up, you exchanged a few hurried, hushed words with Mary. She understands. She'll keep the situation pleasant. If anybody is suited to doing that, it's her.
If something goes wrong, you're trusting Yoshika.
To your side, Sakuya hobbles along, supported by Orleans' silently fussing hands. The sky-blue daughter is nervous-eyed, her hands fluttering like moths chasing each other. She looks up and down at you, glancing sideways, looking away again when you look back, avoiding and inviting contact at the same time.
The hall grows colder as you retreat from the fireplace, and the sound of the wind replaces the crackle of fire. The dark recesses of this ancient, ruined building rise up to meet you as Orleans carefully pushes open the door to the dusty dining hall and helps Sakuya through.
You keep one hand in your pocket, on your gun.
Just in case.
[ ] Try to talk to Orleans. [ ] Talk to Sakuya, don't worry about Orleans. [ ] Don't speak other than to ask where to find Moscow. Focus on the task.
Okay... Yoshika has one hell of a beef against sorcerers to distrust everything. Or maybe she know from experience. And she was the one saying an invitation may just be an invitation without murderous intent behind it.
Whatever. Let's see if we can get more girls to open up to us.
You speak her name out loud once you're a third of the way into the dining room, surrounded by the ancient, woodworm-riddled tables on all sides, deep enough that she won't be able to just scatter back to her mother if she gets truly spooked. Sakuya's crutch makes a dull thunk against the threadbare carpet with each step.
Orleans twists her head to look at you without letting go of Sakuya's arm. Her eyes go wide with fawn-like fright at being addressed directly. One of her hands flutters to her pale throat and back to Sakuya's arm again. Sakuya herself says nothing, concentrating on walking with the crutch and maneuvering around the tables. 'Orleans, relax.' You smile: a real smile. Away from Alice's oppressive bulk - her sheer weight and the way her mere presence presses on the senses - your breezy confidence returns in a sudden rush. If there's one thing you're good at, it's flighty, nervous dames. And whatever else Orleans is, she's certainly beautiful. Her dark chestnut hair falls in a long wave over her shoulders, and bright, intelligent eyes flicker back and forth in her pale, freckled face. Her silence certainly isn't because she's got nothing to say. She's just easily spooked. Only a shade better than Moscow earlier.
'Don't be scared, Orleans.' You continue as the sky-blue sister glances rapidly back and forth, transferring her gaze between helping Sakuya and trying to watch you, like a rabbit keeping an eye on a fox. You close the gap and walk just ahead, making it easier for her. 'Neither of us bite, I promise.' She just stares at you with wide eyes, almost stumbling for a moment.
'I used to bite.' Sakuya adds, her voice a melancholy sigh even as she turns a sad smile on Orleans. 'I have been a dog too long.' Orleans puzzles at her for a second, and you decide to follow Sakuya's lead. 'She's not kidding.' You gesture at the silver-haired woman. 'Sakuya used to - as in, yesterday - be an assassin. She's the scariest thing in here by far.' ' ... ' The nervous sister looks at Sakuya with the whites of her eyes showing, widening in horror. But Sakuya hobbles onward and shows Orleans a soft little smile. The tactic works, although slow enough to make you hold your breath in anticipation. Slowly, Orleans relaxes, peering at Sakuya. When the ex-assassin doesn't turn into a monster and eat her, Orleans glances back at you and opens her mouth.
'You are very strange people.' She says, straight-faced and with the kind of seriousness on a child can muster. Her voice is very high and very light, almost a whisper. She blinks several times and then concentrates on helping Sakuya toward the far doors again. 'Strange is relative!' You grin, echoing Yoshika from earlier. 'You're all lovely, don't get me wrong, but this is all very strange to me as well.'
' ... mm.' Orleans replies in a tiny noise, and then opens and closes her mouth twice before continuing. 'That isn't what I meant.' 'Oh?' You raise your eyebrows, showing her you're interested. 'None of you are ... close.' She pauses, looking sidelong at you and biting her lower lip. 'Except you, and Mary.' 'Well, me and Mary are uh, you know.' You shrug. 'How can you tell, anyway?' 'It is obvious.' Orleans frowns lightly. 'You are all strangers, almost.'
You share a glance with Sakuya; it's true. You've known Yoshika and Yumemi for about twenty-four hours, and Sakuya less than that.
Orleans senses the sudden tension over her head. She shrinks down slightly, averting her gaze to the floor.
[ ] 'We share the same goals. That's what really matters.' [ ] 'What can I say? I make friends easily, and quickly. I trust Sakuya here.' [ ] 'Sakuya? Tell Orleans why you're sticking with us.' Let her talk.
'Sakuya, tell Orleans why you're sticking with us.' You say as casually as possible as the three of you finally reach the other side of the room. Orleans swings the large wide doors open - the ones you saw Moscow through earlier - and Sakuya hobbles into the ruined entrance hallway. She stares up at the windows for a moment, lost in thought, her eyes reflecting the hazy dance of light rain dusting the windowpanes with a thin sheen of water. The rain isn't heavy enough to make a sound, instead enveloping the building in an aura of damp. Away from the fireplace now, the chill in the corridors of this ancient wreck cannot be ignored. You tug your coat a little tighter.
Orleans seems an unaffected by the cold.
'Because Renko is in the right.' Sakuya says eventually. She waits several more moments before looking at you and Orleans again. When she does, her face is set with decision. 'Imagine, for a moment, if you lost your mother. Or if you went somewhere without her for a very, very long time.' Orleans tries to open her mouth, but cannot. She puts both hands up to her own throat and stares at Sakuya. 'Now imagine,' Sakuya continues, holding up a hand gently and placing it on Orleans' shoulder for support again. 'If after that you met somebody who seemed to speak with your mother's voice, who she would have approved of a great deal. Would you follow that person?' Orleans glances nervously between you and Sakuya, and then takes a little breath before nodding. 'Well then.' Sakuya inclines her head gently. 'Now you understand.'
The moment of silence extends until you clear your throat; if you wait much longer, Sakuya will keep inflating your head until you can't get through the door. 'So, Orleans,' you gesture up the sweeping staircase to the darkness of the second floor. 'Where might we find Moscow?'
'Up.' She says.
Orleans leads you into the dark.
There aren't any lights on the second floor. The bulbs that once lined the ceiling have long since been removed, stolen, or smashed. Ripped-out electric wiring hangs down in several places, sagging from the ceiling in great rat-gnawed bunches like rotten grape vines. The only sources of illumination are the the few grime-encrusted windows which haven't been boarded up, and the very occasional room you pass with a fire burning in the grate. The wind scrapes along the outside of the building, whispering through the gaps in the concrete and the cracks in the windows, sending ethereal fingers snaking up your legs.
Orleans peeks into the first lit room you reach, and you copy her, peering around the door frame with curiosity. The huge mound of the double bed is lit on one side by the flickering firelight, like a mountain at dusk; some scraps of blond hair and red hair show over the top of the covers, and a foot sticks out at an angle from the bottom. Clothes are folded neatly, and also strewn around. You spy a long green skirt over the back of a rickety arm-chair 'Shhhh.' Orleans places a finger to her lips and waves you on: girls are sleeping. No Moscow here.
You pass two more rooms like this, with fires burning low in the grates and several of Alice's many daughters sleeping, dressing, combing their hair, talking in whispers or staring out of the windows. One girl - her hair a mass of silvery curls, the skin of her face rich coffee-brown - sits in the room with the largest window, painting at an easel. Orleans' gaze lingers on this sister until they share a glance, and then break away again silently, back into the corridors. More than one girl you spot writing, on notepads and loose-leaf papers. Several are knitting or sewing. One is meditating. Another is exercising, performing some kind of slow, yoga-like motions. All in all you count at least a dozen, probably several more. The ones who are awake greet Orleans with a nod or a wave, one with a blown kiss, another with a flutter of her eyelashes. But even those that open their mouths shut them again quickly at the sight of you and Sakuya. Every sister watches you go with wide eyes, until you are safely out of sight.
The first closed door in the upper corridors has more firelight brimming around its edges.
'No.' Orleans hisses and shakes her head, one hand reaching out and taking yours before you can touch the door-handle. 'That room is for my brothers. Moscow won't be in there.' She holds your gaze for a second and then looks away, eyes flitting around the door hallway. ' ... she'll probably be along in the end room. This way.' 'Wait a sec,' you hold back as she gently tugs on your hand. 'Are your brothers dangerous or something?' 'By the sounds of it.' Sakuya mutters softly. ' ... no.' Orleans gulps and glances between you and the door. 'Just ... different. Not like me and my sisters.' 'Different how?' You insist as hard as you dare.
' ... mummy doesn't ... doesn't ... hug them, or ... ' Orleans frowns, having trouble expressing herself. 'She doesn't like them as much. I ... I think.'
[ ] Open the door. You want to know. [ ] Alright, let Orleans drag you on.
Okay, even if we open the door: then what? Dunno for you, but it would seem pretty rude to barge into their room because we wanted to know about them. There's one brother back where Alice is, right? Let's see if we can speak to him later.
The only closed door in a house full of open rooms: you wouldn't be you if you didn't want to know what was behind it. But it's the only closed door. Alice's daughters, for all their spooked looks and wide-eyed staring, are open and at least privately playful. Whatever they really are, they're made - crafted, born, summoned, whatever - to be as much like real young women as possible. The Brother you saw in the corner downstairs didn't look like he was made to imitate real life.
No sound comes from inside the room other than the slow crackle of a small fire. Any other noises are quickly blotted out by the swirl of the wind and Orlean's shaky breathing.
'Later.' You whisper back to Sakuya as you allow Orleans to lead you onward by the hand. She doesn't let go until you're at least twenty paces from the brothers' room, Sakuya limping behind.
The end of the corridor opens out into a wide space, flooded with grey light from the long bank of filth-covered windows along the back wall; a tea-room, second-floor dining room, hotel common room. Something like that anyway. Most of the furniture is mouldering quietly to itself, sagging remnants of floral patterns and age-worn wood dotting the dust-covered carpeting. A few items have survived the years with only minor slow decay. A dark leather sofa. A low, glass coffee table. A single blue teapot sitting on a sideboard. To the right, the room stretches off and then vanishes into the darkness where the windows run out.
To the left, the furniture has been moved.
Three sofas have been dragged close together in a semi-circle facing the wall, and a large armchair wedged in the remaining gap so that nobody may enter the miniature fortress. The nearest window, accessible from just inside the sofa-ring, has been half-covered with a pinned-up sheet, keeping the light inside a gloomy dark grey. One of the sofas has a blanket draped over it, trailing down and vanishing inside the child's play-fort.
Orleans stops at the entrance to the room and goes up on tiptoe, trying to peer over the edge of the sofas. She gulps and hesitates before opening her mouth. 'Mossy might be in there.' She speaks in a whisper. 'Might be?' You raise an eyebrow. 'Shhhh, please!' Orleans frowns at you with indignant irritation. It's the first time you've seen her anything but nervous. You raise your eyebrows in question as Sakuya takes a step toward the ring of sofas.
'Wait, wait!' Orleans reaches out to stop Sakuya as well. 'You can't just wake her if she's sleeping!' You and Sakuya share a glance. 'Why not?' You whisper. 'Because Mossy needs her rest!' Orleans stares at you, a shade of her mother in her eyes. 'She's only little!' 'Promise not to.' You raise both hands in a gesture of surrender, almost laughing.
Orleans pouts at you, suddenly protective.
'I am good with children.' Sakuya interrupts in the softest whisper so far. ' ... or I was, previously.' Orleans shoots a concerned look at Sakuya. 'I was a maid, for a long time.' 'Oh,' Orleans relaxes, suddenly looking at Sakuya with a mixture of respect and understanding. She nods and smiles a tense little smile.
[ ] 'Check for us then, Orleans?' Gesture to Moscow's furniture-fort. [ ] 'Sakuya, if you like?' Let her go first? [ ] Just go, take a look inside the furniture-fort.
'Okay, well, Orleans?' You ask in a whisper. 'Why don't you go check then? See if Moscow is awake. If she's sleeping then we won't bother her.' 'Yes, of course. Just wait.' Orleans' big dark eyes swivel over to the furniture-fort, and she sets off carefully across the dust-streaked carpet, treading lightly so as not to wake the sleeper. She almost seems to meld into the grey light of the room, all the colour draining from her chestnut hair and her sky-blue sweater.
Sakuya moves to follow her anyway, but you reach out and softly take the assassin's hand, holding her back. 'Wait, wait.' You whisper so quiet that Orleans won't be able to hear. Sakuya frowns at you, so you lean in close and tell her exactly what Yoshika told you about "little Mossy", filling Sakuya in on what you're about to talk with. Her eyes don't go wide, and she doesn't go pale, but her face takes on a more serious set, and she nods once before joining you in watching Orleans walking across to the den of the lurking white terror.
Orleans leans over one of the sofas, peering inside. You see her mouth - or whisper - something very quiet indeed. She waits a beat, then straightens up, hesitates as she looks back at you.
She shakes her head.
Sakuya narrows her eyes as Orleans glances over her shoulder again, back into the space between the sofas. 'She's not sleeping.' Sakuya murmurs. 'How can you be sure?' You still speak in a whisper. 'Orleans is not a discreet servant, or in fact a servant at all. I recognise the look on her face.' Her tone of voice has a hint of disapproval buried deep. 'I would be willing to wager that Moscow is wide awake, and has just requested that we be told she is sleeping.' ' ... really?' You raise an eyebrow, but then decide to trust Sakuya's judgement. 'Really.' You repeat, and then take deep breath. Decisive action sends an electric shiver down your spine; the excitement of breaking an unwritten rule makes you grin like a maniac.
'Mossy!' You say out loud, breaking the whisper, your voice crashing through the grey air like a truck through fog. Orleans almost jumps out of her skin, staring at you and shaking her head in dismay. 'We just want to talk, that's all. We need your help. Will you help us?' 'Better.' Sakuya whispers, catching your eye with a look of quiet, intense approval. 'Shhhh!' Orleans puts a finger to her lips.
But the ruse is already rumbled; no dame can hide from your posse. Slowly, ever so slowly, a moon-pale face peeks up over the top of the closest sofa, surrounded by a halo of chalk-white silken hair, and punctuated by those huge staring red eyes. Moscow the sliver of white death stares over the lip of rotting furniture, like a creature peering at you over the end of your bed at night, like something looking at you around the side of a tree in the middle of a dark forest. 'Hello, Moscow!' You smile and wave at her, trying to shrug off the feeling. 'Can I call you Mossy? Is that okay? My name's Renko, you can call me whatever you like. This is Sakuya.'
Moscow says nothing. She stares.
' ... uh-' Orleans looks totally lost. 'It's alright, relax.' You gesture to her. 'We knew she was awake, it's okay.' 'B-but-' Orleans stammers. 'I said,' you repeat, firmer. 'It's alright.' ' ... Moscow said she doesn't want to talk.' Orleans explains, gulping. 'Oh?' You cock your head to one side, trying to look genuine and nonthreatening, and addressing Moscow herself. 'Why's that?' 'I don't ... I don't know.' Orleans looks back and forth with flitting eyes, looking like she wants to pick herself up and scurry out of the room as fast as possible. Something roots her to the spot. 'Mossy?' You prompt with a smile, looking back at the white shape, her body almost all hidden behind the sofa.
She doesn't answer. Instead, Moscow sinks back down, little hands and feet scuffing on the deflated cushions of the ancient sofa, until you can see only the side of her head, a tuft of fluffy white hair and nothing else.
'She really d-doesn't want to.' Orleans looks almost faint with tension.
[ ] 'You can go, Orleans, we'll be fine.' Get her out of here and maybe Moscow will speak for herself. [ ] Keep talking to Moscow, explain your situation. Maybe if she hears some details she'll respond. [ ] Approach her fortress, peer inside, find out what she's all about.
You stare at the little white dome of hair for a moment, and then turn to Sakuya and speak in a whisper. 'Experienced with children?' You repeat her earlier words. 'What do you think?' Orleans watches your exchange with nervous eyes. ' ... not petulant. I don't think.' Sakuya responds in a whisper after a moment's thought, leaning heavily on her crutch. 'She's scared, most likely, but doesn't want to show it to strangers. Wants to be a big girl.' Sakuya's brow creases as she adds: 'That is, if she really is a little girl. One cannot tell without significant intimacy.' ' ... intimacy?' You frown at Sakuya with curiosity, but she ignores the question. 'I wonder.' You mutter, and then look back at Moscow again. 'Engage her. Don't speak to her as a child. It will only frustrate her further.' Sakuya leans toward you as you open your mouth, imparting one more piece of advice.
You pause, rethink, and then take a step forward.
'Moscow, sorry we're disturbing you, it's just your mother did say you'd be able to help us. Your sister Hourai said the same thing. See, we met this magician- '
You speak out loud about Yumemi and Rika, about what you know and what you don't. As you speak, Sakuya stares with a disapproving expression at Orleans, exerting all the pressure of a superior servant upon a young maid who is committing a faux pas. Even though you barely spare the assassin a glance, you can feel the sheer pressure of her gaze over your shoulder. Orleans slowly shuffles away from Moscow, head down, wringing her hands, avoiding Sakuya's gaze until she's standing demurely several feet behind and to the side of you. You try not to pay her any attention, though you know she's still listening from the back.
But now there's nothing between you and Moscow except empty, grey air.
'- so your mother has agreed to help us, but we need ... technical information. Sakuya here used to hunt mages, so perhaps-' 'No, she doesn't-!' Orleans hisses urgently from behind, but a sharp glance from the silver-haired assassin silences her words. You stop. 'Doesn't what?' You turn to Orleans with a frown. ' ... doesn't-' she instinctively glances at Sakuya, eyes flitting around the room with fawn-like skittish fear. She looks like she wants nothing more than to flutter away from you, back down into the darkness of the corridors to join her sisters. 'She's only little.' Orleans finishes.
'Right.' You give up again and turn back-
To find Moscow looking over the back of the sofa; not peeking like before, but sitting with her head turned toward you, big bright red eyes staring into yours with all the intensity of blood on snow.
She raises one hand and beckons to you, inviting you inside her fortress.
When Sakuya starts forward as well, Moscow's mushroom-pale face shakes from side to side in a quick, sharp denial. She points at Sakuya with one long white finger, indicating she is not allowed.
'Be careful.' Sakuya whispers to you. You smile at Moscow, and in a few paces you're at the chair-doorway to her private little den. She's got all sorts of things on the circle of exposed carpet between the sofas: moth-eaten blankets and misshapen pillows left in a rumpled sleeping-nest, a small pile of very old looking hardback novels with a large encyclopedia open nearby, a colouring book open to an untouched picture of some kind of bird of prey, with a brand new packet of coloured pencils left on top of it. She's left her neat black shoes just outside the entrance, and you do her the courtesy of slipping yours off as well.
Moscow stares at you for a moment longer, shrinking back slightly. Then she hops down off the sofa, little feet clad in white socks padding silently on the carpet. She almost flies over to the chair, holding her lily-like white skirts up with one hand.
She waits, staring up at you. One last moment of childlike fear and hesitation.
Though none of it shows on her expressionless face.
[ ] Say nothing. Let her decide. [ ] 'May I come in, Moscow?' [ ] Lean a little closer, whisper conspiratorially. 'It's alright, Sakuya won't come over here. Promise.' [ ] 'What are you reading there?' Point to the books, make conversation.
Moscow's gaze does not waver. She stares unblinking. The red of her eyes swallows up the grey world around her.
'May I come in, Moscow?' You ask, smiling pleasantly.
She holds her crimson eyeballs pointed at your mind a moment longer, and then relents; Moscow pushes the chair aside with one small, child-like hand, admitting you to her private space. You bow your head just a little in thanks, and then step inside. Her white, ankle-length skirts rustle gently in the silence of the room as she hurries to push the chair back into place again, closing herself off from the outside, alone with you.
Of course, you could leap any one of these sofas from a standing start. Sakuya is right there, several feet away and watching, with Orleans just behind her, hand at her own throat again. You haven't gone anywhere. You're in the same room.
Doesn't feel that way at all.
Inside Moscow's den, the air seems somehow thicker, absorbing all the sound from outside; the wind is further away, and the gentle patter of rain on the windows is blotted out by the soft rustle of Moscow's skirts, her socks on the carpet, the wet click of her lips opening. Sakuya and Orleans are so far away, and your world is now bounded by one wall and three mouldering sofas. ' ... ' Moscow opens her mouth, but closes it again, and then suddenly moves into the center of the space and sits down on the floor among her sheets and books and colouring pencils. She sits as if trained how, like the daughter of aristocracy, tucking her skirts underneath her legs and putting both hands in her lap. She stares at you for a moment, and then gestures for you to do the same.
You sit about three feet away from the white creature.
Up close - now she's neither hiding nor fleeing - you see that Moscow is not just child-like, she is a child. All of Alice's other daughters you've seen were clearly young women, maybe in their late teens, but certainly no younger than a very mature sixteen. Moscow, however, has a little girl's features and a little girl's height and a little girl's clothing. What she doesn't have is a little girl's expression. The intense, unblinking power of her stare is unnatural on a child's face. ' ... thank you, Moscow.' You say, feeling awkward, hoping you're not going to have to coax her further. She pulls part of the nearby blanket-nest over her legs; her seeming vulnerability clashes with the way she stares. Her eyes bore into yours, and you feel your heart start to catch in your throat.
'I like you.' Moscow finally whispers. Her voice is feathery and ethereal, like the sound of snowflakes settling on a half-buried body. She doesn't stop staring. ' ... well, thank you. I'm glad you do.' You answer after a moment. 'I'm glad too.' She echoes you, and then her eyes - her entire body - relaxes. Like dropping out of a trance, Moscow's staring eyes blink, waver, and then stay sleepy and half-lidded. The tension falls from her shoulders and arms, and she cuddles up to the blanket on her lap, touching it to her lips. She sighs into a yawn, and stretches her small feet out under the blanket.
Now she looks like a child. You're hit with an overwhelming urge to tuck her into that bed, pat her head and make her sleep. Or help her with that colouring book. Or- or ... something similar. This is Mary's department really, not yours. You remind yourself why you're here, but Moscow is already speaking. 'Can you do it?' She asks. 'Do what?' You lean forward a little, listening to the whisper of her voice. 'It.' She blinks heavily again. ' ... uh.' You're out of your depth. She's not-
'Can you play the game?' She continues, staring at you from under her eyelids, so tired, so in need of comfort. You just want to reach out and pet her. Poor thing. 'Mommy can't. Sisters can't. My brothers can, but they're so clumsy. They lose a lot.' 'Oh. You mean ... with mages?' You avoid the word. Maybe she doesn't know it. Maybe she doesn't know what she is. 'Mmhmm.' Moscow nods. 'Can you play it?'
' ... I don't know.' You answer truthfully. 'I've ... sort of tried.'
'That's not an answer.' Moscow replies with the kind of serious tone that only a child's voice is capable of. Humourless.
[ ] 'I don't know.' You don't know if you can kill somebody. [ ] 'Yes.' You think you can, if you had to. You didn't hesitate with Sakuya. [ ] 'No, I suppose not.' Now you've seen it up close, you don't think you could kill.
[x] 'If it were a matter of life or death, if some person, entity, or thing threatened those who I know and love, I know that my fear of losing desire to protect them from harm would give me the strength to pull the trigger.'
You think back to last night, to the pouring rain and the power of the storm all around you, to the woman clad in black in the garden; you recall how you took aim and squeezed the trigger twice, without even thinking about it, like you were shooting at a target on a firing range. She's standing in this room right now. But she could just as easily be a slowly cooling corpse hidden in Mary's basement.
Except, you did know what you were doing.
For a single moment you feel colder inside than Moscow's death-in-snow countenance could ever suggest. You feel like you need Mary. But she's not here now.
'Yes.' You say simply, holding the white creature's sleepy, heavy-lidded gaze. 'I can play, if I have to.' ' ... okay.' Moscow nods again after a second, still relaxed. 'I thought so.' 'You did?' You frown at her, curious and chilled further by the thought you look like a person capable of murder. 'Of course.' Moscow wriggles one small white hand out from under her blankets and reaches across. You stay perfectly still, hoping she's just going to indicate something, something childish. A spot of blood on your front. A scuff on your skirt.
She reaches inside your jacket pocket, and you almost recoil to keep your pistol out of her hand.
Your subconscious flinch makes her stop and withdraw her hand again. 'There.' She says by way of explanation. You frown at her. 'Just because I'm armed doesn't mean I'm ... playing the game.' You shrug. The little white girl just shakes her head, and says nothing more about it. Instead she pulls the blankets further up her body, cuddling down in them like an animal trying to nest.
'I'm good at games.' She says when she's settled again. 'But I can't teach other people how to be good at games.' 'Okay, well, your mother obviously has faith in you, if she sent me to ask you about what to do.' You say, hoping this isn't just one big wild goose chase. ' ... my mother is an idiot.' Moscow says, looking down into her lap. You blink, surprised. 'Why do you think that?' You ask. Moscow just shakes her head. 'My sisters are all airheads. Empty nothing.' She continues, staring at you with the remaining half-moon blood of her eyes. 'People are awful. I hate them.' 'You- well, you said you liked me, didn't you?' You prompt, unsure what you're dealing with here. Is she a child, or a teenage girl suffering angst? Or a monster coming to terms with what she is? You don't have the faintest idea.
' ... you're sane.' She says eventually, nodding. 'Not many people are.' 'Well, thanks.' You try to smile at her again. 'So,' you scratch your head awkwardly. 'You're saying you can't help us with information?' 'I can.' 'You can? About Rika? And this other ... pest, magician, the one I mentioned to your mother, the one on the motorbike?' You lean forward.
' ... do you want to see?' Moscow whispers, her eyes widening again. 'See what?' You ask. 'How I play.' Moscow continues. 'I'll tell you, as well. Don't you want to see?'
[ ] Sure, as long as she's not going to hurt anyone right now. [ ] No, you'd rather not have a live demonstration.
' ... sure.' You say, almost automatically. A little girl wants to play a game. She wants to play with you; why refuse?
No, wait- Moscow is not really a little-
'Okay.' She whispers.
The corners of her mouth twitch. Just enough to break her expressionless mask for a brief, flitting moment. Enough to see the childlike joy beneath. Enough to know what her face would look like if she really, really smiled.
And then she's gone.
You stare dumbly at the bundle of blankets and pillows: no Moscow. There was no flicker of motion, no brush of wind, no puff of smoke, no trick. She's just not there anymore. 'Moscow?' You say out loud. 'Mossy? Where'd you go?' You turn and shift on your backside, but no, she's not somewhere else within the semi-circle of sofas. She's just not here. 'Renko? Is everything okay?' Sakuya's voice floats out of the grey light of the room. 'Yeah,' you call back as you stand up, feeling awkward. 'Moscow said she'd ... show me, what she does. She just ... ' You trail off, an unfamiliar feeling growing in your stomach. 'Just what?' Sakuya takes a step closer, looming out of the darkness, a pale watcher in the grey. Orleans lurks behind her. ' ... she's gone somewhere. She can't wander around on her own ... ' You frown. ' ... what am I saying?' 'She can't wander around on her own?' Sakuya echoes your words, her face suddenly dropping into a mask of concern. 'Why? What did she tell you? Renko? Renko?'
' ... told me nothing.' You gulp, glancing over your shoulder again. Nothing but grey air and rotting furniture, and the rain outside. Something makes your skin crawl. 'But she shouldn't. I mean ... this place.' 'Renko.' Sakuya snaps down hard on your name, and you jerk your head to look at her, heart pounding suddenly. 'You're being influenced. Focus on my voice.'
You stare at her. Great grey looming shape with three legs, hobbling along like a malformed demon. You take a step back and clutch your throat in horror.
'Oh ... oh.' Orleans' eyes grow wide behind Sakuya. Wide and staring, skittering thing in the darkness off to report to her bloated brood-mother. You should ... you should strangle her before she has a chance to run. Yes. But you can't even move. If you take a step in any direction ... all this grey air, anything could be lurking there.
You feel yourself hunching over defensively, arms over your chest, stomach churning with nervous pain. You start to hyperventilate.
'Renko. Get her off your side!' Sakuya looks panicked. She brandishes her crutch. You hold out a hand to ward her off, gritting your teeth. Your eyes swivel wildly in their sockets, trying to see everywhere at once.
Except behind you.
Can't look behind you now.
If you look-
A tiny cool hand touches yours.
A scream tears itself from your throat; an instinctive wail of pure terror, a noise you haven't ever made before. Not even as a child, not even after the worst nightmare. All the twisted emotions of the last minute come rushing up to a crescendo, peaking sharp and cruel, paralysing your mind and body with fear.
Then it all ebbs away as quickly as it began, and you find yourself crouched in a ball on the floor, drenched with sweat and shaking with a powerful adrenaline rush. You start crying gently from the release.
'Sorry.' Moscow kneels next to you, her little white hands around your shoulders, her face close to yours. 'That was only the beginning.' 'No- no more, no, thank you- uh, don't do that again, please, Moscow.' You gulp out as you get your breath back. 'I had to stop.' She looks a little sad.
'Renko.' Sakuya's crutch clunks down on a carpet with a dull thud as she leans over the sofas. 'Are you alright?' Then she shoots a deeply disapproving look at Moscow. 'Get off her.' 'It's fine. It's fine.' You hold up a hand to calm Sakuya. 'I asked her to show me ... what she does.'
[ ] Yes, actually, peel Moscow off your shoulders now. You don't want to get too close to this ... thing. [ ] It's okay, she's okay where she is. Just relax. Cool down. [ ] It's fine. She did as you asked, and she stopped when it got too much. Give her a hug, she's almost doing it anyway.
>>28150 you should have said that before Renko got pretty friendly with Sakuya. And Alice makes her female dolls better than some tools (The "Brothers" on the other hand...). Moscow might have been made with a particular purpose but she has a personality of her own.
' ... Renko, I advise as strongly as I can that you shouldn't stay-' Sakuya starts, her voice hard and cold. 'It's fine.' You repeat, a little sharper. 'Did the same thing with you, didn't I?' You hold one hand out in a lowering gesture, telling Sakuya to just calm down. The adrenaline still rockets through your body, but you need to force yourself to be calm. Sakuya shuts her mouth and grits her teeth, but she doesn't say anything more. You take a deep breath and wipe the half-dried tears from your cheeks, clearing your throat as you look back at Moscow.
She's not paying the slightest attention to Sakuya; those big red eyes are only for you right now. The look sends an aftershock of reflexive nervous fear rolling deep in your bowels.
'Just- please don't do that again, Moscow.' You repeat, trying to keep any pleading edge out of your voice. 'Okay.' She looks down, finally breaking the stare. 'It's okay, though, it's okay.' You mutter, reassuring yourself as much as her. She's a little girl. She's small and vulnerable looking. Whatever she did, it won't happen again.
That's not enough; you're torn between an instinctive desire to get her off you as quickly as possible, to get far, far away from her, and the more rational approach, the thing you know you should do. You need an anchor, something you can refer to here, something that-
What would Mary do?
You clear your throat gently and then lean in to Moscow, mirroring the position of her arms on your shoulders and giving her a light - but unhesitant - hug. She's tiny under her clothing, a slender slip of girl, without any puppy fat or muscle mass and barely transmitting any body heat at all; a shard of ice wrapped in insulation. She smells of dust and starch. She hugs you back. You pat her shoulder. 'Promise?' You ask, managing to keep your voice level. ' ... only to other people playing, then.' Moscow sounds awkward: sad, embarrassed, like she messed up. 'Yeah, of course, just not to me or any of my friends, okay?' 'Okay.' Moscow nods into your shoulder. She doesn't move.
'Renko, are you sure about this?' Sakuya hisses. You glance sideways at her. 'If I don't trust anybody, where would I end up?' You reply with another question, but the truth is you're not sure about this. You're just going with what seems right. ' ... ' Moscow opens her mouth and then finally relaxes out of your arms, sliding back to sit down in her blankets again. ' ... so, that's how I play.' 'Right,' you take another deep breath before forging ahead. 'So you're planning to do that to Rika, or-?' Moscow shakes her head. 'Can't play with Rika. She doesn't know the rules.' You share a glance with Sakuya.
'You mean she's probably beyond the rules?' You ask. Moscow seems to think for a second, then nods slowly.
[ ] Ask specific question, about Rika, about the mage on the motorbike, about what Moscow thinks you should do. [ ] Just let Moscow talk, see what she has to say.
[x] Ask specific question, about Rika, about the mage on the motorbike, about what Moscow thinks you should do. -[x]"There's one more participant in this game: the person on the motorcycle. Do you know anything about them?"
You wait a beat, silently inviting Moscow to continue. The heavy grey air of the room seems to thicken and darken, the light dimmed for a moment by the swirl of the wind through the clouds outside.
'My mother thinks Rika is here.' She says softly, her eyes heavy-lidded and drowsy again. 'But I don't know. I can't find her alone.' 'That's what we're for.' You nod. 'And you mean here, in this city?' 'Mm.' Moscow replies with a petite grunt. 'And what if you find her?' You ask. ' ... have to find a way, I suppose.' Moscow looks down at her lap for a second, expression sagging with a child's worry and a child's anxiety.
You reach over and touch her shoulder, fighting against your lingering distaste of the white creature and the fear she wove from nothing.
'Go on, Moscow, just tell us what you know.' You say softly. She looks back up. ' ... I met Rika once. Just the same as everybody else on the outside. But all the things inside her were different.' 'Different? Like in her head?' You frown; was she insane? Moscow shakes her head sharply, and then reaches for her colouring book. You wait patiently as she flips back through the pages.
The book is all animals and creatures, nothing else, and Moscow's efforts are singularly unsettling: lots of blacked out parts, legs and heads scribbled out, replaced with crude hand-drawn versions elsewhere on the animals, with too many legs added, with mouths in the flanks, eyeballs scrubbed with red, all covered in mad rainbows of colour, the shades melding together as if she's taken water to the page and smudged the pencil-marks.
Moscow holds up a picture of a butterfly. She's added eight wings, and you can see where another one of her sisters must have helped her with the perspective. The insect's head is a mass of faceted eyes and nothing else, overlapping with each other in a frantic, insane hand. The whole thing is coloured with red and orange and yellow, but Moscow has surrounded it with a thick black line, like a shell. A flaming mote within a cocoon of darkness. 'Rika.' Moscow says by way of explanation, offering you the book. 'Uh, thank you.' You take it awkwardly, not really wanting to touch the mad tome. ' ... you mean this is meant to be her?' 'How I saw her.' Moscow answers as if this is completely normal. 'One for every magician I know.' 'So this is what she was on the inside, you mean?' You ask, but Moscow shakes her head. 'What she was becoming.' 'Does this all mean anything to you, Sakuya?' You look up and ask. ' ... transformation?' She shrugs. 'I don't know.'
'She will be difficult to play with ... ' Moscow says slowly. 'Sore loser. She'll ignore the rules.'
[ ] Is Alice in this book? Was Moscow about to draw Yumemi? [ ] 'Well, she can't ignore the rules if we all play together, can she?' [ ] 'Who helped you draw the extra parts on this one?'
You stare down at the colouring book in your hands; Moscow's words take a few moments to sink in.
"How I saw her."
' ... one of these pictures for every magician you know, Moscow?' You repeat her statement back at her, looking into those heavy-lidded eyes. Deep pools of unknowable red stare back at you. 'Mossy.' She mumbles. 'Mossy.' You smile at her, wondering with horrible clarity what she really sees when she looks at you. 'Yes.' She replies to the question simply. Your fingers sweat as you consider turning the pages, flipping further back. 'Do you mind if I look?' You hold the book up. Moscow shakes her head; wants you to see. 'Did you draw your mother in here too?' You ask, unsure if you really want to know the answer.
Moscow nods, and then scoots up close to you, settling by your side. Sakuya reacts with a visibly sharp intake of breath, but manages to restrain herself from saying anything. You meet her eyes quickly over the top of Moscow's snow-white head, letting her know it's okay.
Moscow's powdery white fingers turn the pages for you, right to the start of the book. The very first animal in the colouring book is a cat. Almost none of it remains. It's been drawn over with a massively bloated version of itself, huge engorged belly dragging on an imaginary floor and filled in with red. The head is nothing but black, entirely taken up by two huge scribbly circles for eyes, the pen jammed down with enough force to indent several pages subsequently. The tail and the paws have been covered over with black. A giant mouth yawns on the cat's back, with blunt, slab-like teeth and no lips.
'My mother.' Moscow mutters. ' ... I see.' You manage, at a loss as for how to react. Moscow's expression stays the same, unreadable neutral. 'I don't really like my mother.' She continues softly. 'Uh! M-mossy!' Orleans' voice floats from further back behind Sakuya, filled with a note of pleading. 'You mustn't ... '
She trails off as Moscow turns her head. The line of sight between them is blocked by the height of the sofa. There's no way Orleans can actually see Moscow, or the other way around. But Moscow's childlike face tightens with something much deeper than simple irritation. She stares at the source of her sister's voice with a child's hate. 'Shut up.' She says clearly as Orleans starts again. The older sister stops abruptly.
Moscow looks down, then back to you. 'That's mother.' She repeats, staring at the picture again. She begins to leaf through the pictures, leaning over your arm, and you're treated to a slow slide-show of horrors. The modifications to the animals get more complex as the book progresses, as Moscow learned how to draw. Occasionally an animal has only a few changes, or is simply coloured in a particularly bizarre way. But the majority are twisted, black-stained monsters out of a child's screaming nightmares. Too many eyes. Mouths where there should be none. Blank faces. Eventually you place a hand on Moscow's to get her to stop turning the pages. 'Were you about to draw Yumemi?' You ask, putting two and two together. You look up at Sakuya quickly, making sure she heard. The silver-haired assassin raises her eyebrows, understanding the significance of this.
Moscow nods, looking over at her coloured pencils.
[ ] 'Would you show us? Now?' Get her to continue. [ ] 'Could you show us later?' There will be time for that. Ask her about the other mage, the one on the motorbike.
'Well, I'm sorry we interrupted that.' You apologise as casually as you can. 'You can continue right now, if you like. Would you mind if I watched you draw her?' You ask, burning with curiosity, both about Moscow's process, and about Yumemi.
Moscow blinks several times and then looks up at you; her eyes shine, her whole expression seems subtly different somehow. She's delighted. It barely shows through her expressionless exterior, but it's as clear as day to you. For just a moment, she can't speak. 'Mossy?' You prompt gently. She gathers herself, speechless, but simply nods quickly; she takes the book from your waiting hands and places it flat on the floor.
She flicks it back to the page with the untouched bird of prey.
Moscow grabs her pencils, lies down on her front, and begins to draw.
You move beside her for a better angle as she works, and Sakuya leans over the sofa behind, peering as close as she can to the picture that comes to life underneath Moscow's childish hands. The effect is unsettling, like watching a child draw anything they shouldn't have to be exposed to; but you make yourself watch, and keep silent. Moscow doesn't hum, or wave her legs in the air, or twist her hair between her fingers. She focuses on the task with an intensity that makes you want to distract her, to take her mind away from what she sees, despite your lingering distaste for what she's capable of.
Moscow turns the bird - some kind of buzzard or hawk - into a true nightmare. She's surprisingly skilled with the pencils, but at the same time horrifyingly childish in the way she draws such bizarre things. She completely blocks out the bird's head with a series of angular black shapes - blades, extra beaks, talons, you can't tell - turning it into a nightmare of forward-sweeping razor-edges, like a dicing machine bearing down on a piece of meat. She colours the plumage with a mixture of yellow and green, somehow blending the pencil shades together into a sickening disease-colour. She crosses out the legs and talons, as if trying to exclude them. Then she pauses, and spends several moments staring, thinking. You almost interrupt, but then Moscow grabs a red pencil and replaces the legs with two crooked red shafts. You let her continue.
She does her real work on the wings; it takes several long minutes of drawing, filling in, pausing, and then adding more. She connects the wings with long loops of black, draws tiny gears and wheels and erects an entire machine on the Yumemi-bird's back. A nightmare apparatus of blades, screws, angles that reconnect with themselves impossibly, lines that vanish into other lines and- and-
You have to look away for a moment, blinking as the optical illusions she's using make your eyes water slightly. When you look back, she's finished. Moscow sits up and puts her pencils away neatly.
'Yumemi.' She mutters, staring at the drawing.
'This is what you see her as?' You ask, frowning with an unsettled heart at the creation in the colouring book. ' ... not quite there yet.' Moscow shakes her head. 'She'll be it soon.' You reach forward, silently asking Moscow's permission with your eyes, and then you close the book softly, shutting the vision away inside.
'Um ... uh ... ' Orleans' voice penetrates the gloom once more. You glance back, catching Sakuya still staring at the closed colouring book. 'I ... may I ... Mossy ... ' ' ... ' Moscow doesn't answer her sister's voice; she completely ignores it, tugging her blankets back up around her legs again. 'What is it?' You call out.
' ... can I go?' Orleans asks, her voice suddenly turning breathy with the nervous tension of a fawn about to flee.
[ ] 'Sure. Tell your mother we'll be down in a bit.' [ ] 'No, wait. We'll come back down with you shortly.'
My logic is that Yoshika was initially against Mary using her own blood in the bloodwork spell of Yumemi's to protect Mary's house, but she wouldn't tell us why. Here we have a person who may be able to conceptualize in some abstract way whatever onus lies upon Mary, so that we can better protect her from it.