Ran was trying to feign nonchalance, but from her posture alone I could see that her body was wound up so tightly it looked almost painful. Her nails had lengthened themselves into uncomfortably sharp, claw-like protrusions, and even the hairs on her tail were set into bristling layer of fur. Seija, whoever she was, clearly got under her skin in ways that I didn’t think possible. Heck, last time it took a midnight break-in from me to get her to fly into rage like this, but Seija? With just a few words she set Ran off like a firecracker.
“You, uh… you alright?” I asked, tentatively.
Ran heaved a slow sigh, and from my viewpoint behind her it was like watching air leak out from a battered tire.
“Yes, Mr. Thief, I’m… fine. Let’s just— let’s just keep walking.”
And so we did. The stone steps served as a silent witness to the awkward atmosphere, and each step I made just seemed to make me more and more uneasy. I replayed the rather one-sided conversation over in my mind, going through all the words, and the expressions that they both had on their faces. Seija’s taunting grin. Ran’s infuriated exasperation, then anger.
“So…” I began. “What did your master do to get your family banned from using gaps? On the shrine grounds, anyway.”
“Well that certainly is a story to tell, short as it is.” Ran chuckled, though it sounded rather strained. “A few months back, when Reimu was bathing, master opened one end of her gaps—a large one, at that—right in front of the shrine maiden’s face. The other end was connected to the bottom of the Misty Lake. This happened… sometime midwinter.”
I winced. “Any specific reason she did this?”
Ran shrugged. “None, unless you include ‘Reimu’s taking too much time bathing and not enough chatting with me’. Seriously, Lady Yukari could stand to be just a bit more—”
She stopped herself, and bit her lip.
“You don’t have to talk about her if you don’t want to,” I ventured hesitantly.
Ran looked at me with the oddest look on her face, like she couldn’t understand what my notions were. The tiredness and fatigue from her injuries, as well as from her lack of rest showed on her face for a single second, before vanishing quickly behind a mask of mild apathy. It was the face of someone hardening their own resolve.
“What is the meaning of a human life, Mr. Thief?” she asked, almost as if talking about the weather. Her steps were deliberate and measured, her shoes making no sound as she walked.
I was caught flatfooted by the abrupt change in topic. “What?” I asked, confused.
“Exactly. For all we know? There is none. Nothing, no end goal to reach or purpose to strive for. Survival? Propagation of the species? Those are biological imperatives, bound to the group and not to the individual. A man can cast himself off a building, and he will not have gone against any known rule of the universe.”
“I… guess so? But what does this have to do with—”
“Then is it satisfaction in life, and the fulfillment of the enjoyment it provides? Those too, are not a man’s prime purpose. Many people turn their heads against such things, seeking instead a muddled existence, or one that is unknowingly devoted to their own suffering,” she continued on, adjusting her sleeves. “And how about religion? Justice? They are important constructs, but were created for man, and not the other way around. But you know something?”
“Because of all this, among so many things in the world we live in, humans are truly free. They can choose whichever they wish to place their efforts in, whether it be bettering themselves, bettering the species, or lazing about in a fishing boat at three o’clock in the afternoon. They have choice, making their restraint all the more admirable; and they can choose to destroy, making their efforts to build all the more laudable. Even those that suffer from their choices were the ones that made them, once upon a time. But above all, they can fling themselves into whatever they wish, and taste all that life has to offer with wild, reckless abandon. That is something extraordinarily beautiful, don’t you think?”
I thought of the decisions I’ve made in my life. My career. My mistakes.
“And your point being…?” I said slowly.
“Youkai have none of that,” she responded, voice brittle. “We are bound to our myths, and our entire existence surrounds them. We can even gradually change without our own knowledge—you should see the wild changes some western dragons have undergone this past millennia, in size and intelligence alone—and everything we do is designed to further our myth, one way or another. It is a base, ignoble life to live; from the point that Yakumo Ran came into being as a kitsune, my path was sealed. I was to become a trickster, a cheat, and a seducer of men. And so I did.”
“But you aren’t a—”
“It’s true. Before I met Lady Yukari, that’s all I was.” She glanced up, and following her gaze I discovered that we were nearing the end of our climb. “She was different. She had goals, a dream, something greater in mind, something that was above the petty amalgamation of vices we are. Yukari was something different from all the youkai that I had met before, striving for something beyond what she was; and she gave me purpose. For that, I am forever grateful. And the trivial problems I face while serving her mean nothing to me.”
She smiled, and I could see her usual liveliness return to her face. I smiled back at her, trying to not let my uncertainty show on my face. Then, a voice drifted over to us just as we reached the top.
“—still though, I’m really sorry. I know that she likes to follow me around, and that means I led her here.”
A grunt. “Sukuna, cut it. She deserved that kick, and I was already running late in dishing it out.” This voice was Reimu’s, flippant and lazy. “You could have joined in though, instead of hanging back. Beating up Seija is practically a Gensokyo pastime at this point.”
“Ah well. I mean, I still…” Hesitance. “It’s what she does, so I can’t really… hit her, if you understand. I don’t dislike her.”
We passed through the tori, stepping directly onto the shrine grounds. I saw Reimu’s distinctive color scheme from a ways off, and beside her was a childlike figure in red. And a bowl on her head, of all things.
“Look Sukuna, if she does what she does, which is pissing me off— then I’ll do what I do, which is kicking her down mountains. There are no conflicts here. And don’t tell me that you couldn’t see from her face that she was begging for a spanking. You of all people should know—oh, hey Ran.”
“Reimu. Shinmyoumaru Sukuna,” said Ran, bowing to them both in turn. “Keeping well?”
“Well enough,” said Reimu. Then her eyes narrowed. “Who’s that—wait, haven’t I seen you before?”
“Yamazaki Ren, at your service,” I replied immediately, going into a deep bow. “I am here to express my gratitude. You saved me from certain death, Miss Hakurei.”
Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Ran’s eyebrows disappear into her hairline. To be expected, really, as I have never told her about my first day here.
Reimu peered at me suspiciously. Then she crossed her arms and said, “Huh. Judging from the company you keep though, I’ll say that you’ve more or less crossed the barrier intentionally. Am I correct?”
Woah, scary sharp. “More or less.” I admitted, putting my hands up in front of me. “But as you can see, I’m not here to do anything problematic (I heard Ran snort quietly behind me at this point), and you did save me that day. As all friends of mine can attest, I never let my debts go unpaid! And therefore…”
Reimu’s breath caught in her throat. “Therefore…?”
“It’s only fair that I give you recompense. Especially since I did take some money from you that day, accidental as it may have been.” I walked over to the donation box, took out my pouch, and started dropping large, heavy coins in, one by one. The shrine maiden followed each one with her eyes, unblinkingly. “It’s only fair, after all.”
“It’s only fair,” repeated Reimu, dazedly looking on as coins dropped one after another into her painfully empty donation box. “It’s… only fair.”
Behind her, I saw Ran and Sukuna both roll their eyes in exasperation. But I ignored them. Doing this was oddly cathartic, almost like feeding a pet. A pet who was trying desperately not to grab the can from you, and was trying to wait patiently while you spooned out the food slowly into the bowl on the floor. It gave me a flowing sense of superiority, as I watched Gensokyo’s protector watching me like a—
Wow, I’m a hopeless asshole aren’t I?
I hurriedly threw in a couple more coins and bowed again, and Reimu returned the gesture, still slightly stunned. Ran coughed.
“So Reimu, anything happen lately? Anything we can do to help?” she asked.
The shrine maiden shook her head, clearing her mind of the money-induced cobwebs. “Well, nothing big. Sanae came by yesterday to tell me about a spider-golem or something prowling around Youkai Mountain, but that can’t be anything that the tengu can’t handle. They’ve got the place locked down tight.”
“That they do,” acknowledged Ran. “Even my master’s influence has limits there. But I didn’t come here to talk business. How are you doing lately? Eating well?”
“Er, truthfully… no. But I will. In a bit.” Reimu snuck a glance over to her donation box, now filled with a decent number of coins. “Tell your master to stop worrying about me. It’s strange for the shrine maiden to be doted on by youkai.”
“Speaking of Yukari,” cut in Sukuna, “she up to anything recently? I always feel nervous when she’s away for too long, and it’s been a while since I last saw her. Feels like she’s planning something again.”
Ran twitched. “I haven’t seen Master in some time, truthfully speaking. So I can only say—”
The voice came from above, and in a flash, its owner landed on the shrine grounds, braking only at the last moment. She hopped a few steps to break up her momentum, and hurried over to Reimu’s side. She was a young girl, around Reimu’s age and dressed similarly as well, but did not carry her maturity. She looked almost outside-worldish even, with her bright green hair and her hair ornaments.
“Sanae?” said Reimu, eyebrow raised.
Oh… yes, I recalled this one from Akyu’s books. The other shrine maiden from a rivalling faction, but from what I have heard they cooperated often and were friends of a sort. What was she doing here, all of a sudden?
“I’m sorry, I wanted to deal with this myself, but…” Sanae kneaded her hands worriedly, over and over again. “This is bigger than me. Far bigger. Reimu, the youkai can’t see the rover!”
I felt Ran stiffen up by my side.
“Rover? Sanae, you aren’t making sense. What’s a rover?” asked Reimu, putting her hands on her hips.
“It’s a— well, it’s a— urgh, it’s that spider thing that I told you about! It’s eating up the mountainside, and the tengu don’t even acknowledge that it exists! Reisen contacted me earlier, and wanted me to get you. She’s getting Marisa, and wants us to meet up at the foot of Youkai Mountain.”
I could feel the air around us change with each word that came out of Sanae’s mouth. Sukuna looked apprehensive. Ran was biting her bottom lip so hard it was drawing blood. There was a distant, quiet rustling in the trees, the wind, the ground. Distantly, I could hear the eager cries of hundreds of fairies, excited and ready for mischief. Something had riled them up. Something was happening.
She stood at ease, almost ethereal in her mannerisms. She walked over to the porch, and picked up her purification rod. It dangled loosely in her hand. She swung it a few times, testing its weight and flexibility.
“I’ll meet you there, then,” she said, distantly.
Then she floated up… and flew away. Not too fast, nor too slow. Like she had all the time in the world.
Sanae quickly followed her, sprinting and hopping into the air, speeding after the red blur in the sky. Sukuna called out as they left, saying that she would take care of the shrine in their absence. Ran dragged me to the side, her fingers digging painfully into my arm. Her eyes were wild, nervous. She grasped me by my shoulders, and looked at me, face to face.
“This is an incident. An incident has happened, and Lady Yukari is nowhere to be seen.”
[ ] I usually know about incidents days in advance. Sometimes even weeks. Lady Yukari always, always fills me in. But she’s not here, we need to know more, and two sets of eyes are better than one. We have to tail Reimu and the others. The incident resolvers must reach their destination, no matter what happens. That is the rule.
[ ] Or, we could help the incident resolvers as they go. We need not fight their battles, but diverting a few fairy flocks would put them in a much better condition to fight the instigators. Once they reach their destination, it will be resolved; but they must, must reach it!
[ ] Alternatively… if that rover is any indication, this incident is almost one hundred percent Lunarian in origin. That means a gap in the barrier, or a portal to the Lunar Palace. We should go strengthen the portal, to let the resolvers cross; or alternatively seal it, to block off reinforcements.
[ ] Lunarians mean that the Eientei is involved. We need answers. And we are going to get them.
I cannot emphasize this enough, Mr. Thief. With Lady Yukari gone, we are the custodians now, and making sure this incident runs smoothly is our responsibility. Where do you think we can be of most use?