So basically I will be posting the updates post-significant-divergence from AO3 onto here, as the story has reached a state where I feel like it needs to come back to its homeland for voting as many elements have changed. I will continue to update the AO3 copy along with updates here, but the voting options will only be on THP.
You split with Kagerou at the village gate. She walks away without saying anything at first, before turning around and giving you a reluctant wave. You wave back, not quite sharing her animosity.
You think for a bit as to whether she’s right to hold a grudge, before dismissing the thought. It’s time to get back to work.
Time: 10:40 AM
Date: June 28, 20XX
Location: Eientei Clinic, Human Village
Threat Level: N/A
The village is quite lively at around this time, and it takes you some time to navigate through the throngs of people to reach the clinic.
Unlike yesterday, there's a fair amount of customers lined up in front of the clinic. Villagers, visiting youkai and Outsider alike line up in front, some with visible ailments, others merely appearing inconvenienced. More than a few of them raise a brow at your bulky outfit and strange weaponry.
"Miss Tewi!" You call out as you enter the clinic, "I'm here to...what?"
Inside are four humans, none of whom you recognize. Judging by their hiking gear and ragged looks, you guess they are part of the group of Outsiders that Saromi and Keine conscripted into an involuntary labor force.
"Oh, you must be Mr. Wu!" A jolly, somewhat squeaky voice calls from your right. Turning, you see a black haired girl, whose height is just below your nose, standing to the side of the counter. A pair of floppy rabbit ears adorn her curly black hair, and a wide, innocent-looking smile graces her child-like face. You notice how much more she resembles the surrounding humans compared to Eirin and Reisen, whose visages now appear far more alien relative to the earth rabbit.
"I've taken the liberty of hiring a couple of these outsiders from the village for cheap.” She exclaims, sweeping an arm around the room, “Just 4000 yen a day for each one! One-fifth of your salary!"
You tug on your collar, nervous, "So...am I fired?"
Tewi giggles, "No, of course not, silly, you can patch a wound and set a bone, unlike these useless deadbeats."
"Hey!" One of the outsiders working at the back protests, "I go to school!"
"Quiet down! So anyway, Reisen just told me over the wireless that the Cuckoos are having a meeting, so off I go now!" She tosses you the keys to the cash register and safe, "All the recipes and instructions are in the stack of books by the counter, and have fun taking care of these useless boys!"
"I'm a girl though!" Another one of the outsiders complains, but you didn't hear it. At first you were about to argue about this new responsibility, but then you catch something more intriguing in her sentence.
You lower your voice to a hushed whisper, "What the hell are the Cuckoos?"
"The Cuckoos? Oh, once you prove ya'self to be trustworthy and capable they'll tell ya. It's kind of a secret club." She winks, and her innocent smile turns into a mischievous grin.
"At least can you tell me what kind of a secret club it is?"
Tewi's grin grows even larger.
"I'll give you one hint: That man you saw? He was supposed to be dead, having died an honest death. I'll let ya think about it, ~usa." She ends the sentence with a fake inflection as she skips out the door and casually hops onto the roof. You then hear the rafters creak a little, indicating her taking off.
It's a fairly obvious hint. Any Touhou fan worth their salt would know this. Assuming Tewi's not just fucking with you, that man is Tsuki no Iwakasa...the man Mokou murdered for the Hourai Elixir. However, this raises many, many more questions. Why is he in Gensokyo? Why is he alive? And most importantly, how does he have a relationship with Eientei? If anything they should be enemies, unless the Cuckoo Club is just a support group for those who touched the Hourai Elixir, which, considering Gensokyo, isn’t an unlikely outcome.
The only reasonable conclusion you can draw is that he took the elixir himself, but that alone does not tell you anything.
"So, you're that guy who fought Futo, right? Mister, uh, Wu?" One of the outsiders pipes up, distracting you from your train of thought. Right, you have work to do.
"Just call me Ming please, and yeah, that was me." You glance at the counter. Seeing only empty space in front of the line of patient but increasingly annoyed customers, you slide into position there with a false smile on your face. "Hi, Welcome to the Eientei Village Clinic, how may I help you?"
A tall, dark skinned villager is your first customer, he takes a moment to gaze at your armored outfit before beginning to speak, "You have anything which helps with insomnia?"
You look through the pile of books on the counter, pulling out a thick one labelled "Common Remedies". Flipping through the tome, you notice that it is translated, with every left page written in traditional Japanese, the sort with a high proportion of classical Chinese characters. The right pages, on the other hand, are in English. Not even old or Elizabethan English, but Modern English, written in the style of a medical journal. What's more, the words are not handwritten, but printed, as are the illustrations, though this copy bears many handwritten notes in its margins which you cannot decipher.
"Is she planning on publishing this or something?" You mutter under your breath.
"I'm sorry?" The villager asks.
"It's nothing," You quickly thumb through the book until you find the entry on insomnia, "Let's see, 'a powdered mixture of dried sour jujube seeds, poppies and...Lunar moth nuts. Ratio 2:1:2, about 2 momme or 7 grams per dose. Mix with water and drink before going to bed once per day. Five doses for the whole treatment.'. Hey! " You snap at your new underlings, "What did Tewi tell you guys to do?"
"Not much," one of the temp workers replies. "She didn't even bother to learn our names. To be honest boss, I think she was slacking off."
Crap, you have no management experience whatsoever. Running a clinic is a bit out of your league. Fucking Tewi. "Alright, one of you...you," You gesture at the person whose clothes are the most presentable, "Tend the counter, um, give a number to every guest and write down their requests, another one of you...the girl...you're the cashier when orders are taken, the list of prices is in that book over there on the stack and there's a notebook..."
"Already on it," she impatiently responds, "That is the one thing Miss Tewi told me to do."
"That's excellent. The rest of you go and look for the Lunar moth nuts and poppies. Are any of you proficient with a mortar and pestle?"
"No." Is the unified reply.
"Damn it." You haven’t used a mortar much before either. "Whatever then, just do what I said. I'll handle the medicine."
"Hey, are the moth nuts supposed to be glowing and doing...this?" One of the other temps holds up a clay jar, inside of which are filled with nuts, glowing with a silvery light from inside and...moving.
You look up the entry in another book, "Alien Flora", also written in Japanese and English. You silently wonder why she titled it 'Alien' flora if she's native to the Moon.
"Let's see...Moon rose, Mock Apple, ah, Moth Nut. ' A product of the Moth Nut Tree, the Moth Nut is in fact inhabited by a Lunar Moth larva...When the shell is cracked before maturity, the larva will quickly move out and dehydrate, leaving behind a pearl-like husk '.” You gulp as you consider what you have to do, “Uh, please put that on the table first."
The book says to crack the large nut with a pair of pliers, which was found fairly readily. Unfortunately, you neglected to read further to see the description of how the larva moves. As soon as you crack the nut, a bright silver blob shoots out onto your face and sticks there. You desperately attempt to peel the larva off for a few embarrassing—and for the watching customers and temps, highly entertaining—seconds, before succeeding and tossing it into a bowl.
"Hey boss?” A temp points out while trying not to laugh, “According to the book you need four more to fulfill the prescription."
You do better with the next ones, keeping a jar over them to prevent further mishaps. You then sheepishly present the ground up results in a bag to the villager, and move on to the next order. “Welcome to the Eientei Village Clinic, what seems to be your problem?”
“I got this wound on me back that ain’t healing.” A youkai this time. a dragonfly, judging by her wings, says through pained breaths, “Can ya take a look?”
“Sure.” You tell the temps to hold down the fort and measure out medications while you lead the youkai into the backroom. Laying her out on the examination table and lifting her blouse up, you grimace as you see the nasty, still bleeding wound that’s covered by a sloppy dressing between the part where the wings sprout. You quickly cut off the dirty bandages and rub some anesthetics onto the surrounding areas to stop the patient from squirming so much.
Weirdly, the wound appears to be slightly glowing.
“It feels better now...”
“That’s just the drugs...” You cut her off, “Can you explain how you got this wound?”
The youkai shifts slightly, somewhat uncomfortable at the question, “I...I don’t really know. I stumbled upon this weird, shimmering clearing in the Forest when I felt something hard stab into me. I turned back but all I saw was a brief shimmer and then nothing.”
You shake your head. Probably some magical bullshit, you think to yourself as you put on gloves and dig into the wound. “Alright, let me just dig through it for any foreign objects that may be blocking healing and, eh?”
The glow has vanished, and the wound is closing itself, at roughly half the rate of Kagerou’s self-healing. You hurriedly wash it out with saline and apply a fresh set of dressings. “There...it uh...it healed itself.”
“Really?” The dragonfly experimentally flutters her wings. “Huh, it is numb but definitely intact. What did you do, mister?”
“I...um...” You quickly make something up, “Applied just a bit of Eientei’s healing ointments. It doesn’t seem to be anything too serious, so just the examination fee will do for your visit here.”
The youkai beams at the quick resolution and the discounted visit, and eagerly palms you the bills at the counter. “Thanks! I’ll be sure to visit again!”
“Thanks for your business.” You reply, before turning to the next one in line, after a few who were here to pick up pre-packaged orders have left, “New prescription?”
The customer, one who’s dressed like a villager but with off-looking eyes, leans in close, “I, uh, need something for...problems...in...bed...”
“Say no more.” You make a dramatic gesture of flipping through Eirin’s medical manual, “Let’s see, impotence...aha!”
You leaf through the bins of herbs until you find the mandrake that you dug up yesterday. Chopping it up into pieces, you blend it in with some silphium and bag the mixture. “Here you go. Eat it, rub it in around the area, whatever. It will fix your problems down there.”
“Could you please keep it down?” He complains as he takes the bag and pays. The temp next to you lets out several laughing coughs.
The next bunch of customers/patients go by rather smoothly as well, all the way until it’s near noon. Eirin’s manual covers pretty much everything, including diagnostic and treatment methodologies that your rudimentary training doesn’t come close to. Eientei’s pre-formulated medicines also work wonders, serving as catch-all solutions to problems that would normally take an actual medic to resolve.
“Thanks for your business!” You call out to the woman whose emphysema you just diagnosed and prescribed a cure to. Taking a water break, you were just about to turn back into the backroom when you notice the temps clustering around the counter with their phones out and asking loud questions.
You stomp forward to see what’s going on, “Hey, hey, hey. What are you guys...Oh.” You can’t help but let a smug grin onto your face, “Hello, Miss Konpaku.”
Youmu was unaffected by the gawking attention that the temps were showering her with. But as soon as she sees you she steps back, crouches, and places a hand on her sword’s hilt. “You’re the one in the paper?”
“Yes. I am me.” You perform an insincere bow, ignoring the other patrons who had taken a step back at Youmu’s actions, “Apologies for my rudeness two days ago, but you were the one that started it. Aside from that, how may we help you?“
Youmu looks like something had just died in front of her, but regains her composure and straightens back up. “I would like a check-up for a sprained ankle from today.”
“Um...sure?” You say, puzzled, as you let Youmu through the door and into the backroom. The Eientei Clinic is for prescriptions and diagnostics that the normal Village doctors have problems with. Surely a sprained ankle is not something you need to pay Eientei’s premium to fix. You shouldn’t even need a doctor for that, really. And someone like Youmu of all people will not need it.
You only realize the position you placed yourself in when Youmu closes the door behind you. Suddenly recognizing that a sword-wielding girl who’s not fond of you had just shut off the exit. You cautiously turn around, using a clipboard as a (likely ineffectual) shield. “So...the ankle?”
You let out a breath of relief as Youmu does not draw one of her swords, and instead scans the room carefully. “No windows, good.” She mutters.
“Of course, of course. The privacy of patients is very important to us, after all.” You hurriedly say, “So, if you would get on the examination table...”
“No. Mr. Wu.” Youmu grits her teeth and averts her gaze, “I am seeking aid for another matter.”
“Is it STDs?”
“What? No! You are terrible!” Youmu angrily protests, “No wonder Miss Imaizumi was reluctant to recommend you!”
“Miss Imaizumi? Recommending me?” You ask, not quite comprehending what’s happening, “I thought she didn’t like me.”
“To be exact, she described you as ‘conniving’, ‘shady’ and ‘cowardly’, but also ‘expendable’ and 'can finish a job'.” Youmu says, forcibly calming herself down, “As much as a samurai like me would hate to admit it, I require the immediate services of someone with those qualities.”
“I would disagree with her, but go ahead.” You’re curious now, “What seems to be your problem?”
Youmu gives one more scan across the room, before leaning in and whispering, “I have an unwanted admirer.”
“That’s it?” You casually reply as you pick up your glass of water for a drink, “With all these informed Outsiders like me running around, I’m surprised there aren’t like a dozen of those.”
“This one is empowered. And obsessed.”
You choke on the water, “An empowered?” You exclaim as you recall the conversation you had with Reimu and Mima yesterday. “Okay, are we talking ‘knows magic’, or ‘mountain destroyer’?”
“I do not know the full extent of his powers.” Youmu’s other half quivers, nervous, “But he defeated me in a duel with his spear and some sort of empowered magic. He says he wants to prove himself so he could be another one of Lady Yuyuko’s retainers and so be...with...me....”
“If he beat YOU, who's probably the best swordwoman in Gensokyo, I’m not sure what I can do.” You press a hand against your forehead, “There’s no way I can kill him in a straight up fight...”
“Please do not try to kill him,” Youmu hurriedly clarifies, “He is a good man. I just...do not wish for him to be pursuing me, that is all.”
“Have you tried saying you’re not interested in him?”
“Yes. That only caused him to declare that he will ‘work hard to earn my love’.”
You lean against the wall, “And I suppose you haven’t found a fake boyfriend or girlfriend to throw him off?”
Youmu’s face turns red, and her phantom half coils, “I...I cannot perform such a masquerade, Mr. Wu. I attempted to do so with Miss Onozuka, but he quickly saw through the act.”
“Drat.” You scratch your chin, unable to think of any ploys for now, “So the most obvious recourse is already down the drain. Ploys…” A thought crosses your head, “Miss Konpaku, there are older and more clever individuals in Gensokyo. Miss Tewi, for example. Why not ask her?”
“I know he’s following my movements." Youmu says, giving a quick glance at the door to make sure that it's still closed, "He will know that trickery is afoot if I meet with people like her. That is why Kagerou recommended you, Mr. Wu. You are a newcomer. At the very least, you should be able to discuss a plan with them without drawing his attention.”
You raise an eyebrow, “Isn’t that stalking? Are you sure he’s a good person?”
“IS that the case?” The phantom half bobs up and down as Youmu processes your opinion, “Well...I still do not wish to confront him violently. Empowered outsiders like him are powerful, and seem to stand on the right side of history more often than not...until they fall. But before then, I do not wish for a murder to stain Lady Yuyuko’s name.”
Right, it would make sense for their gifts from Gensokyo to also warp their social standing, at least initially. And if she just wanted to kill the guy, she has a master who could do just that without any hassle. You ponder the issue for a few more moments, and then decide that you’ll need more information and more time. “Alright, Miss Konpaku, I’ll go ask Miss Tewi, Miss Futatsuiwa and perhaps Lady Yagokoro in your stead. We can meet at the clinic around sunset and hash out the details then. For now, can you give me a description of the Outsider and anything you know about him?”
Benson Ruby. Westerner living in Japan. Crossed the border intentionally like you. Extensive, abnormal amounts of martial and magical skill for one who had self-professed to have not undergone training. Has not done much of note other than pursue Youmu, aside from ancillary good deeds done to this end (according to Youmu, anyway). Wears a baseball cap over his mid-length black hair. Personality is described as affable and charming (though Youmu is convinced that he’s acting). Currently resides in a different inn on the other side of the Village.
“I will do my best to get more information by talking to him.” Youmu states with the seriousness of a soldier taking on a dangerous mission, “I hope you will have an outline of a plan by then.”
“Duly noted. Though Miss Konpaku, I have one final question.” You bite your lip, “Why do you trust me? You did say that I was cowardly and shady.”
“Ehhhh?” Youmu looks at you with confusion in her eyes, her ghost half staring in a similar manner, “Kagerou did say that, but also said that you volunteered to help her hunt down the monster with Reimu and dig into the monster's interior with her. Given how you are also the outsider Aya described in the paper, I think you are an honorable fellow, despite your faults.”
“I personally would say that I’m just an impulsive and stupid fanboy, but I guess yeah, that means I’ll stick my neck out for Gensokyo in the end.” You take in her compliment, allowing it to cloud your cynicism and sprout a genuine smile on your face, “Alright then, Youmu, I will do my best on this. We can worry about the reward later after I get a plan from somewhere.”
After carefully escorting Youmu out of the clinic in a nonchalant manner, it takes you a few more minutes to realize the gravity of what you’ve gotten yourself into.
“I am about to get myself killed again, aren’t I?” You quietly groan as the line of patients continues to move. You try to focus on preparing the prescriptions to take your mind off of the issue, but fail as you begin subconsciously scanning customers for any trace of the troublesome Outsider. Fortunately, nobody matching Benson’s description shows up...at least for now.
The clinic/pharmacy, despite the usage of underpaid temp workers and now this new distraction for you, manages to continue functioning. Sure one of the temps burned himself when trying to figure out how the heater works with the pitiful help of Tewi's decidingly unhelpful notes, and the unexpected motion of the X-ray machine knocked one of them out cold for a while, but you managed to pull through and pump out the prescriptions and examinations at an adequate rate.
"Hanshiro," You ask one of the temps once the line has finally cleared, giving you some free time, "Can you go fetch lunch for us?"
"Yeah sure boss," the young man weakly replies, exhausted from the nonstop work. Going out the door, he abruptly stops, "Hey, there's something going on down the street...OH HELL THAT IS A TANK."
"Tank?" You drop the pestle you were using and run over, with the other outsiders following after you.
It is indeed the Lowe rolling down the street, well, what's left of it anyway. There are gigantic holes ripped into its hull, and the main cannon is completely gone, seemingly torn off. The tread on the left side is missing multiple wheels, and judging by the damage in the front, its engine is likely crippled. Its movements lurch as the tank belches ever increasing amounts of black smoke out of its wounds. Villagers around it are actively staying away, while a pair of village guards tail the tank, but seeing how it has not done any harm or property damage and appears to be heavily injured, they have holstered their runed guns and are more curious than alerted.
Well, they don’t know that the tank is sapient, and judging by the looks of it, that thing could really use some help. You’ve been getting useful items out of it so far, so you might as well try to aid the golden goose.
"Panzer!" You cry out as you run towards the tank, with your confused subordinates staying behind, unwilling to get close to the machine. A couple of the villagers stare at you for approaching a clanking mechanical monstrosity like a friend.
The tank looks at you with its broken turret, its audio system makes a loud crackling sound that causes many nearby onlookers to cover their ears. It then drones down to a heavily distorted voice.
“ALERT: SELF-REPAIR SYSTEM DAMAGED, REQUESTING ASSISTANCE. ALERT: OVERALL SYSTEMS 30% FUNCTIONAL, CORE REMAINS SECURE."
As you get closer, you notice that the holes in the tank's hull conceal not gears and pneumatics, but meshes of thick metallic fiber bundles, in a structure vaguely reminiscent of muscles in living creatures. The mechanics are far from biological, however. Straight fiber bundles act as cams and cranks, while bundles twisted together spin like gears and wheels. Metallic tubing runs through between the gaps in the mesh, with smaller tubes branching off larger ones and going straight into the "muscles" of the tank. Strange spheres, bronze in color with a glowing light inside, form nexuses where the tubes come together, and larger tubes lead from the spheres deeper into the tank's structure.
Along the fibers crawl numerous small lizard-like constructs, apparently constructed out of a lesser grade of metal judging by their motley coloration. They appear to be internal maintenance drones, scampering throughout the inside of the vehicle and performing small welds and incisions with tiny spurts of green flame.
Just what are you? You silently wonder.
"REPEAT: REQUESTING ASSISTANCE"
"What sort of assistance?"
The tank does not respond, and plays the message again.
Seems like it does not have an audio input system. You decide to try an alternative method to communicate. Taking out a notepad, you write the request down and show it to the viewport on the turret.
"ALERT: COMMUNICATION ATTEMPT REGISTERED. EXPENDING RESOURCES....” It chugs a bit, spewing out a sudden burst of black smoke. “ALERT: AUDIO INPUT FUNCTIONALITY RESTORED. ART THOU A FRIEND?”
“Um, sure!” You agree without much thought, “At least, I could count on you to give me a good trade. You also called me friendly already.”
“CLARIFICATION: FRIENDLY NOT EQUIVALENT TO FRIEND. REQUEST: ASSISTANCE IN REPAIRS AND RESUPPLY.”
“What do you need?” You ask, eyeing the small lizards, “You seem to have some self-maintenance skills.”
"ALERT: SUSPENSION CRIPPLED, REQUEST TRACK REPLACEMENT. ENGINE FUNCTIONALITY AT 50%, REQUEST COMPONENT REPLACEMENT. HULL INTEGRITY AT 30%. MAIN CANNON OFFLINE. CO-AXIAL MACHINE GUN OFFLINE. FABRICATION FACTORY FUNCTIONALITY AT 30%. COMMUNICATION SYSTEMS 20% FUNCTIONAL. CORE INCUBATION COMPARTMENT SECURE..."
You perk up at the mention of an oddity, "Core incubation compartment? What?"
"...ESTIMATED MATERIALS REQUIRED: 5 TONS OF STEEL OR COMPONENT MATERIALS, 5 KILOGRAMS OF SCRAP ELECTRONIC MATERIAL. 20 KILOGRAMS OF COPPER. EXTERNAL SUPPORT IS REQUIRED."
You ask again, "What is the core incubation compartment?"
"ERROR: IDENTIFICATION MISMATCH, INFO ACCESS DENIED. REQUEST PERMISSION FROM CALLSIGN PRIMROSE TO UNLOCK."
Interesting. It seems like this tank is more than just a tsukumogami after all. As for its requests for assistance, there's really only two places you can think of that can repair the tank, and only one of them is within a plausible distance right now.
“Repairs, huh?” You pat the tank on its glacis plate, “Well I know just the shop to do it. You’ll probably want me to mediate for you though.”
“AID ACCEPTED. LEAD THE WAY.”
This is Gensokyo, so the villagers only gape at the young man leading a tank down the streets of the village when you pass by, rather than flock around at the unusual sight. Though that may be more because of common sense in avoiding a large deadly combat vehicle that can move by itself.
"Look Miss Asadura!” You call out from the front of the workshop, “I got you a replacement tank!"
"Wha...." Rikako murmurs as she stumbles out of the workshop, followed by Conner. "You...oh by the gods is that the German tank?!"
"Ayup," You rub the vehicle on the side, "The very same one that turned yours into a heap of scrap metal. He kind of got damaged by the...thing...I was fighting last night, so he's in a rather terrible condition."
"ALERT: HOSTILE DETECTED."
"Dammit!" you curse and quickly clarify, "They're neutral now."
"ALERT: TRUST PARTIALLY SUFFICIENT. ALERT: NO MEANINGFUL THREAT DETECTED. TARGETS NOW TENTATIVELY NEUTRAL."
"Are you in control of it now?" She asks, eyes wide as she watches you talk to the metal beast.
"Hardly. I'm only guiding it,” you say, “and I don't think it trusts me completely. It's wary of you guys because you tried to hurt it once."
"Interesting," Conner observes, "And you brought it here, why?"
"It needs repairs, obviously, Apparently it requires five tons of steel, about five computers worth of electronics and some copper to repair itself. I doubt you guys can do anything other than providing it with materials, as you can see by its internal structure, but I figured that out of the people in the Village you guys have the largest stockpiles."
The two engineers cautiously walk closer and peer through the gaps in the hull at the organic-looking machines and structures that make up the inside of the Lowe. Conner gapes, mesmerized by the alien-looking design and function, and Rikako looks the same, except after a few moments her brow scrunches.
"Ming, Felix, I've seen this kind of construction before."
"You have?" Is the simultaneous reaction from both you and Conner.
"It was in an antique tome,” Rikako recalls, pushing back her glasses, “back when I was still toying with the use of magic in controlling my robots. The book dealt with the construction of golems out of metal, and detailed methods such as how to forge sinew and bone out of metal. It was written in the 1700s, so the metallurgy is something easily replicated, but the quantity of magical energy it required was truly enormous, as the book even admits that it's only written for academic purposes. And that was for a human-sized golem, for it to power a machine of this size...it would require energy on par with an Outside World nuclear power plant. Magical energy follows its own square-cube law in regards to matter."
"This is Gensokyo, so that sort of energy is not unusual, right?" You ask.
"Not necessarily, but that amount of energy contained within something smaller than a building is. Judging by how we cannot even see the power source even with so much of its structure exposed, it has to be even smaller, and the last time Miss Margatroid attempted to store even a fraction of that energy in her Goliath Doll that it blew up in under a minute. Stranger still is the fact that the tank never appeared to consume any material that would be an energy source to my knowledge, so it's either somehow violating the laws of the universe or it's something else entirely."
"The tank said something about a core incubation compartment and denied me any access to information on it.” The tank keeps getting stranger, you think as you speak, “It also cited the authority of a 'Callsign Primrose'. Sound familiar?"
Rikako shakes her head, "I have about as much as an idea as you do on this 'Primrose'. I also do not see how an incubation compartment would answer the question of how it powers itself; if anything else it would be another strain on its resources. What would a TANK of all things be incubating anyway?"
"A tankette?" Conner jives, "An armored car? Anyway, we do not really possess that quantity of metal here. See if you can give a full diagnostic run down and I'll see if we could get some of its core systems back up. In exchange...what do you offer in exchange? You’re not just asking for some scrap metal we have.”
“NOTIFICATION: FABRICATION CORE FUNCTIONAL. PRODUCTION CAPACITY MAY BE EXCHANGED.”
“Interesting,” Conner states, “And what exactly can you do with your fabrication plant?”
“REPLICATION OF ANY OBJECT OR BLUEPRINT EQUIVALENT WHEN PROVIDED WITH SUFFICIENT MATERIAL.” The tank opens up a small hatch in the back. “IF THOU WISHES, A SAMPLE SHALL BE PROVISIONED.”
Rikako tosses in a small screwdriver, and a flash of light instantly occurs, followed by several screwdrivers clattering onto the floor, all identical to the one thrown in.
“LESS THAN TRIFLING.”
“Amazing!” The two engineers stare in wonder. “Hey Felix,” Rikako says, “We have that schematic for a laser cutter, right? This could be our chance to get one.”
“Speaking of schematics,” Conner says, “Tank, what exactly do you need? We cannot provide the whole order.”
In response, the tank shudders for a moment, then the hatch opens up again and spews out multiple sheets of crudely made paper (with the wood pulp still visible) with black letters printed on.
"Huh, it HAS a printing function. Didn't think that would work." You gingerly pick up the rather hot foils and read it, "Whoa, that's a LOT of components. Here, take a look at this."
Conner takes a sheet, "Uh, Ming, I can't read German, Rika?"
You, who had some rudimentary German skills from your program, take about twenty minutes translating and interpreting the diagnosis for them, after which they stare at each other and grimace.
"We have just enough material to get the suspension and communication interface back to an adequate condition, assuming the diagram is correct." Conner explains, "After that you have to go to the Southern Mines or the Youkai Mountain Mines to gather the metals you need. As for the electronics, I would also see if the kappa have anything to offer. If the mines don't have enough, then see if you could get access to Former Hell, as considering the amount of metal they needed to construct the Underground Geyser Center, they have to have a large source of it in that region."
"Gotcha, so how long do you think it'll take you to finish your end?"
"We should be able to finish it by tonight," Rikako says after poring over the translations, "I'll assume that the fabrication plant and its repair drones, however they function, will be doing the majority of the work since we have no idea how to manually repair any part on it other than the hull."
"Hopefully that will be the case. Lowe?" You ask.
“ALERT: TRADE ACCEPTED. ESTIMATED FABRICATION TIME PROVISION SATISFACTORY.”
Leaving the tank in their hands, you grab a couple of paper bento boxes of ready-made lunches from the village market for yourself and your underlings. It is quite amazing the way magic weaves itself into the mundane in Gensokyo these days, as even this simple food booth run by a single elderly man uses a basic alchemical furnace, likely mushroom fueled, to keep his lunches warm.
Your rather chemically depressed mind did not notice this on your first day here, but now you can see just how subtle magic is for everyday life here. Villagers light tobacco pipes and fires with a quick incantation rather than flint. The old fashioned wooden doors on storefronts gently open of their own accord when a patron steps near it. Butchers keep their wares cold not with ice, but what looks to be rocks inset with a dark blue crystal that faintly glows in the sunlight.
You wonder just how much advancement has been deliberately overlooked in the materials released to the Outside World. Is there a reason why they try to portray Gensokyo as low magic as possible despite the omnipresence of magic as a problem solving tool?
Passing by a tailor shop, you stop to gawk at the spindly contraption that looks to be a sewing machine of some sort, but more. It clamps over the edges of two pieces of cloth, and when it opens the pieces have weaved themselves into each other along that edge. Stopping to ask, the tailor explains that the device was bought from Alice, and that it actually uses less energy than sewing regularly because there's no need to push aside the fibers and force a thread through.
"It joins the threads by entangling each individual fiber, no more than a hair each, and concentrating force on them, pressing them together at the...what's that word again...ah, molecular level. The extremely small amount of material I affect means that it takes less effort to use than a sewing machine. I would rather not use that piece of junk, but stitches are often necessary for reinforcement."
He grumbles at the hand-cranked model on another part of his workbench, which is a conventional, albeit extremely outdated and old-fashioned, sewing machine. A small inscription on the side indicates that it was manufactured in Britain, 1863.
"I found THAT in the southern edge of Gensokyo. The Kappa make their own but they charge too much for it, and I never trusted Kourindou's products, no offense to the shopkeeper. It's just that anything Lady Yakumo touches is something I'd rather not be near."
"You're quite right on that." You agree, though for a different reason. The fake sword she indirectly sold you still makes you rather angry at the governor of Gensokyo.
You purchase some socks from the tailor, as you have neglected to pack enough this trip. You consider buying one of the frilly outfits, which has a few male selections, but decide against it for now as you’re basically glued to this set of armor.
You return to the clinic with the lunches, and the hungry temp workers begin to quickly devour the contents like starving dogs.
"Man, this shit beats the hell out of the ham sandwiches we packed for the last four days." Is the consensus among them.
You notice that the meat in the meals are like mutton, but much more gamey in taste, indicating it to be venison. Remembering the amount of deer parts lying around the butcher shops and the conspicuously small amount of domesticated livestock around the village interior save for chickens, you guess that the wildlife population in Gensokyo is large enough to sustain both its human and youkai population's demand for meat through hunting alone. It's only logical, as the magic infused soil makes for supernatural fertility, which you witnessed first hand in the silphium meadows. The fact that there are herds of wild cattle roaming about only reinforces this theory.
Given how nice things are here, despite the dangers, you idly consider moving here after finishing college and perhaps a few years of work. Maybe you'll end up working for Eientei permanently. The aliens aren't a bad lot, after all, just a bit sinister with the amount of information they're withholding. But it is not like that really matters considering the skeleton you have in your closet. In this day and age, you could do much worse than working as the manager of this clinic. Who knows, maybe in a few years this place will get Internet too and remove the only real complaint you have about Gensokyo.
Right now though, right now you have a problem. It's a problem that you’ve willingly walked into because you can’t say no as a fanboy. Eirin’s quite busy right now, but Tewi’s definitely not.
Ducking into the backroom, you flip your armband around and notice the small inlaid button. Pressing it, you talk into the hidden radio, “Paging Eientei, paging Eientei, can I speak with Tewi?”
It crackles to life after a few moments, “Um, sir?” It sounds like one of the lesser rabbits, judging by the squeaky tone, “What are you calling in for?”
“It’s something that I need Lady Tewi’s expertise in, so can you patch her through?”
“If you say so...sir...” Silence for a few moments, then Tewi’s voice comes through, “Hey hey, friend, what sort of problem at the clinic are you facing that you need me rather than Reisen to fix?”
“It’s not the clinic...It’s about Miss Youmu Konpaku,” you gulp, “She has an unwanted admirer, who’s an outsider. An empowered one, and stronger than her to boot. She’s asking for help to get rid of him.”
“Uh huh, uh huh.” Tewi seems vaguely amused by the situation. “And whaddya asking me for then, mister? I’m not some relationship guru, you know?”
“I mean, I thought that the White Hare of Inaba would have a good trick, or at least several useful...” you suddenly recall the basic facts about Tewi, “Right! Traps and pranks! You’re definitely good at setting up traps and pranks, aren’t you?”
“Ahaha, now you’re speaking my language.” Tewi happily affirms, “So, what are we talking about? Scaring him? Confusing him? Turning him off from Youmu entirely?”
“Preferably all of the above, I guess? Actually...” you tap your forehead, “I think our win state would be him getting out of Gensokyo and staying out. So scaring him away would be the best bet, though your suggestion of turning him off from his ridiculous quest for love would probably work better as a lasting solution.”
“That should be easy then.” Tewi says, “I’ve got a selection of friendship-ending pranks that’s been refined over centuries of practice. If Youmu pulls one of these on him, then he’ll never want to see her face again!”
“Um, Miss Inaba?”
“What, you see a problem with that?” Tewi’s voice loses a bit of its smug edge.
“Are you asking for Miss Konpaku of all people to pull a nasty prank on someone?”
Tewi falls silent for a few moments, “...yes, I see the problem. Our client is Miss Konpaku, the ever diligent gardener of the Netherworld. With a mind as straight as an arrow and a brain as smooth as a window. Hmm...I might have something she can do if I don’t give her the full details, but I’m going to need to talk to her...”
“We can’t do that.” You pinch the area between your brows in frustration, “The target, Benson, is apparently mildly stalking her. If he discovers Youmu consorting with people noted for their duplicity, like you, he’d know that something is up. She was only willing to confide in me because I’m a newcomer that he’s not familiar with that nonetheless has...some reputation.”
“Ah yes, the outsider who laid his life on the line to save kidnapped children...”
“Um, yes, let’s say that’s the case.” As much as this reputation is a weight on your back, it does seem to open some doors in terms of connections.
“Hey, you ain’t said anything about the target, mister.” Tewi perks back up, “What about the Outsider human? Do you know anything about him? His powers? His personality?”
“Nothing, I haven’t met him yet. Apparently he uses a spear, but that's it.”
“Then we gotta case him out! Say, let’s meet up in the alley behind the clinic after hours and we’ll get enough information to really personalize some trauma for that kid!” Tewi exclaims, “I’ll radio you when I get there. Don’t run off!”
You are about to say farewell and turn off the radio when another thought crosses your mind. “Um, Miss Inaba? This might be a very stupid question, but you seem a little too enthusiastic. Are you planning on pulling something over me? ...I’m sorry, but I’m kind of scared.”
Tewi giggles, “I know you lied to Reisen about your motives. Pretending to be a psycho is a silly idea when you’re not a real one. So trust me, if I wanted to ruin your vacation here, I wouldn’t need to talk to you to do so. So don’t worry and just follow what I say, okay? See ya.”
A cold shiver runs down your spine, “G-Got it, Miss Inaba. Over and out.” You stammer out, before shutting off the receiver. Leaning against the wall, you take a couple of deep breaths.
Turns out you can’t just rely on his peculiar personality to deal with the problems that occur in Gensokyo, since there are people here who can see right through your BS.
“Boss, whatcha doing back there?” One of the temps calls out.
“Just phoning Eientei.” You reply, coming back out to the front and to your lunch. “About our expended medications and such. Don’t worry about it, it’s my duty to handle these things.”
The five of you shoot the shit over the food until there are only singular grains of rice remaining in the paper boxes. Looking out, there are no customers coming over, likely to avoid the hot summer sun. So for now, the clinic can afford to take a little break, you think as you lean back in your chair.
A long desolate beach.
A lone figure standing before the waves.
Throwing rocks into the ocean.
Over and over.
"Can't we get some air conditioning or at least a fan in here?" One of the workers complains, waking you up from your light dozing, "All this tech and they didn't think of including one?"
You mumble a reply, "With the front window permanently open like that? Bad idea. There's an empty tub over there, fill it up with water and dip your feet in when you're sitting down."
The heat doesn't really bother you that much, what with the cooling system integrated into your armor, but a good cold soak is always nice in the summer. The temps quickly fill the tub, and sigh with relaxation as they cool off.
"Hey boss, do you know if they really eat humans here?" One of the temps says as she hurriedly pulls her wet pant legs up after initially forgetting to do so.
"Yeah, ZUN never really talked about it." The temp with big round glasses chimes in.
"It's right there in Perfect Memento you idiots," you sigh, "Of course they do, it's just that the people who actually live in Gensokyo never get touched."
"So do they have like a factory where they grind corpses up and distribute the product? Like that one doujin?"
"Nah," you lean back as you enjoy the soak as well, "Yukari just dumps murderers, rapists and other undesirables in here and have the youkai do whatever they want with them. The meat's better that way, or at least that's what Nue told me."
"Huh, no wonder why Keine warned us to stay away from any half-naked people wearing collars that have the word 'food' labeled on them." The cashier temp says with a shudder.
"That shit's pretty disturbing." The glasses temp chimes in.
"Not really," you shrug, continuing your relaxation, "the alternative is having the youkai go without human flesh, and that never ends well. Perhaps they'll figure out how to grow human flesh in vats or something, and then there would be no problem. It's not like they eat it every day, or eat anybody with a faction armband."
You could hear the collective sigh of relief from them. The mob of outsiders had been issued with Village armbands, more for identification than protection, but it is enough to dissuade the weaker sapient youkai.
"You know, I've noticed something." The one with the round glasses pipes up "The human villagers...they look different from us."
"That was stupid, how do they..." You stop. He is right. The villagers you've seen not only dress and groom differently, they also share some of the aspects from the youkai you've met. Their teeth are notably more pointed than normal, and their eyes have a sort of animalistic nature to them, though nothing you can really describe in physical terms. It's been subtle enough that you have not been paying attention, but now you've realized....
"Well they've been living here for a while," you speculate without much knowledge, "so some youkai blood could have mixed in. Or perhaps it's just the ambient magic."
According to the official works the Gensokyean humans DO have something different from a "baseline" outsider, but it was never really clear. Maybe later you'll ask somebody who has done research into this area. Like Eirin.
“Hey boss, it looks like someone’s coming.” The temp with a head of short blond hair informs.
“Customer. Good thing we’ve got tatami here or else working with wet feet’s gonna be annoying.” You step out of the tub and look out the front window, “Hello, dear customer. Welcome to Eientei’s Village Clinic, how may I help you...”
Caucasian. Dark hair down to his shoulders. Baseball cap. A confident smile on his face. An ornate looking polearm strapped to his back.
“Hello.” He politely says, “I’m looking for an alcohol suppressant.”
“Something to cancel out the effect of alcohol. So I can drink whole pots of sake without getting drunk, ya dig?”
You leaf through Eirin’s book, “...We do have something like that. It is a…” you quickly make up a lie, ”...prescription only formula. Experimental. I’m going to have to ask you some questions.”
“Eh? We have prescription-only medicines?” The temp tending to the money asks.
“Yes...yes we do, didn't Miss Inaba tell you that? Ahem,” you clear your throat, “First, I would take your name please, sir”
“Benson, Benson Ruby.” He states without a hint of hesitation.
Identity confirmed, he is indeed Youmu's problematic admirer, “Let me wager a guess, you’re about to get into a drinking contest with someone, and want any advantage you can get?” You slyly ask, winking at the man.
“Ah hah, no,” Benson says with confidence, though not without averting his eyes, “I’m just going drinking with friends, but I have work to do in the morning so a hangover would be really uncool.”
“Got it.” You scrawl down the false reason, along with a waiver that absolves Eientei of all responsibilities from the medicine.
Youmu challenged him to a drinking contest? What a reckless girl. Isn’t her alcohol tolerance like among the worst of the cast according to the official materials? You really should’ve talked to her more about how to deal with a guy like this. She’s still treating this as a competition of some sort rather than as an illegal stalker problem. “So, I’m just going to need you to sign here, and I’ll get the medicine out for you in no time.”
As he signs the form and waiver without hesitation, you begin digging through the massive inventory Eientei has provided this clinic with. You throw in some filler components to the pill machine, and then cautiously add in the most important component: two milliliters of tert-Amyl alcohol, more than enough to put a grown man under in a short time after drinking, or at least setting up the stage for normal ethanol to finish the job.
You wonder why Eirin keeps that chemical around, but regardless of the reason, you are now happy that she did.
“Here you go. Fresh off the pill press.” You happily state as you hand him the paper bag. “Make sure you take it in the shortest amount of time before you drink, since Lady Yagokoro’s tests proved that the effect fades quickly, within the hour.”
“Got it. Got it.” The young man states as he begins digging through his wallet, “So, how much?”
“Seeing as you are Mister Ruby," you fake a friendly and somewhat reverent voice, "I will offer a fifty percent discount. 1000 yen.”
The cashier temp flashes you a a confused glance, but you wave her off.
“Ah, that’s great! Thanks a ton, mate. Catch you later.” Benson tosses you the bills, turns, and strides off. You watch him walk down the street without a glance back, and disappear around the corner.
“Boss...that’s below the material costs...” The temp begins to say, before you cut her off by handing her a 1000 yen bill from your own wallet.
“Ring this up.” You order, “He paid full price, on the books at least.”
She protests, “Boss...Tewi specifically told us that if we mess around with the books, our asses are gonna be put to the fire!”
“We’re not messing with the books, are we? The total cash flow is the same. It’s for all of your benefits as well.” Your tone darkens, as you point at where Benson disappeared down the street. “That guy, he’s competition.”
“Competition?” The other temps ask.
“What did you all come to Gensokyo for?” You reply with another question.
“The cute girls.” The cashier temp responds without hesitation.
“Uh, the magic, and the girls.” The temp who was tending to the burner states.
“I was hoping that I could find a happier life here.” “I wanted to be stronger than I was outside” Are the answers from the other two.
“Well, realize this. Gensokyo has a limited supply of girls, magic, and happiness. Not everyone coming in can fulfill their dreams, and most will not. We’re all unpowered side characters here after all. But that guy is not. He’s an aspiring protagonist who wants to carve himself a slice of Gensokyo all for himself. That slice is a particular person, one whom I will not name out of concern for her privacy, but is one of the playables in the shooting games.” You inform them your take on the situation, your eye twitching, “And believe me, he has the power and position to pull it off.”
The faces of the temps fall, and curious expressions turn into snarling grimaces of jealousy and anger. “So he’s one of those ridiculously powerful empowereds that I’ve heard Rikako talking about.” The blond temp says, “Boss! How can we keep him away?”
“I swear if that bastard lays a finger on Marisa I’ll gut him like a fish!” The cashier yells as she slams a fist into her palm.
“I’m on the case. The best thing the four of you can do right now is keep this on the downlow and speak not a word to anyone else. I’m preparing a plan with somebody smarter than all of us put together, so just sit tight until tomorrow...” You see another customer approaching, and relax your face, “Back to your stations, folks. We’ll talk later.”
The workday resumes, now with an undercurrent of cold hatred going around the clinic. The correct attitude for the current situation, you think to yourself.
“Took ya’ long enough.” The white rabbit remarks as you duck into the alleyway, “I’ve been waiting here for nearly fifteen minutes.”
“I had to close the shop and pay the temps, okay?” You shoot back, “That takes time and I’ve never ran anything like a clinic before.”
“Ya’ still should’ve been faster about it.” Tewi turns to you, her ears covered under a brown flat cap and the rest of her body garbed in typical villager wear. “Good to see you’re smart enough to change out of your armor.”
“I feel...vulnerable.” You shudder. Risking confrontation with a protagonist without any protection just does not feel like a smart idea. “Let’s get this over with quickly.”
Tewi grabs ahold of your hand, flashing a wicked smile “You asked me for help first, and I feel like savoring the rare chance to work with someone else on a stratagem. We are going to be taking the scenic route, my dear human.”
She is unbelievably more experienced than you on this, you realize, as you probably would’ve stuck out like a sore thumb in the crowd even without your armor just from your nervous behavior. With Tewi holding your hand like a girlfriend or a younger sister, casually swooping by stalls, and emitting an endless stream of small talk (that always seem to end in you letting out some embarrassing detail of your life), the two of you blend in perfectly with the other villagers, enough so that Benson doesn’t notice you at all when you spot him.
His position was fairly easy to locate. A few questions about the spear-wielding outsider brings you to the Village’s main plaza again, where he’s checking out the inventory of a jewelry shop. The two of you purchase some snacks from a nearby stall and pretend to be lounging at the nearby benches.
“Ah.” Tewi smirks and nudges you after the two of you observe Benson for a while, “This is easier than I thought. He’s already leaking information we could use.”
“What?” You ask, confused, “He’s just poking around the section of bracelets and asking for...a gift for Youmu, right? I think? My Japanese is a little rough.”
“He is indeed saying that, don’t worry about your Japanese, and here’s the thing,” Tewi lets down her perked ears, letting the hat descend back to a normal position, “Miss Konpaku is very devoted to her role, and defines herself almost entirely as a retainer of Lady Saigyouji. And what use does a samurai have for decorative baubles?”
“Makes sense. So he’s wasting his time here.”
“More than that, didn’t you say that he was effectively stalking Youmu out of a hilariously boneheaded romance?” Tewi pops another peanut into her mouth, “A person with basic pattern recognition would have realized that Youmu wouldn’t want such a gift and decide on something better, like a quality whetstone or something. Our subject is continuing to make attempts with unfitting gifts, either because he’s as dense as a lead bar and thus of no difficulty to deceive, or...”
“Or what?” You ask as Tewi pauses for more peanuts.
“...Or, more likely, he has a preconceived notion of Youmu in his mind that does not match up with the reality. If he wanted to give a feminine gift appropriate for Youmu, a stylish pair of working bar shoes would’ve been a far superior option.”
A new sort of confusion takes you, “Working...bar shoes? Like Mary Janes?”
Tewi points at a nearby woman wearing just those, “See that? Apparently Outsiders are weirded out that adults wear these types of shoes here. It’s not important, just know that they’re fashionable and designed for practical use in Gensokyo, and are not the children’s formalwear they are Outside.”
It dawns upon you that it’s the small things about Gensokyo that you find off putting, not the grander magics. You had thought to yourself sometimes about how weird it is that the protagonists wear Mary Janes despite being in combat situations. “So, what you’re saying is that like many Outsiders, including me, he has a pre-existing conception?”
“A pre-existing conception that’s not changing despite having met the actual person, and having stalked the actual person. To put it simply, he’s delusional. And extra creepy for being into a human that’s still immature despite being nearly thirty.”
You gag a little on your manju, “Youmu’s thirty?”
“Half-phantoms age slowly, or at least that’s what Eirin told me.” Tewi tosses a peanut shell twenty feet away into a trash receptacle. “She’s still a kid, and I don’t mean just from my perspective.”
This combination of new and old information gives you a new picture of the situation. Not a very pleasant picture, but it at least gives you something to work with. A chink in the armor of this empowered Outsider.
Benson leaves the shop, with the bracelet in a box. You two follow him over to the north side of the village, where he enters a rather large and upscale household. The house has a proper courtyard with a fish pond, a series of gardens, and...are those servants?
“Tewi, you know this house?” You whisper as the two of you observe him from the balcony of a nearby tavern.
“It’s a rich landowner’s place, they bought a whole dozen pet rabbits last year.” Tewi states as she leans against the railing. “Their spending is rather extravagant even given their income, so they’ve had to convert part of their own residence into a boarding house for the affluent.”
You feel the insufficient bills you have in your wallet, “Man, I’m even more jealous of that Outsider now than before. Being able to afford such a residence at such an age...”
“You should be. Empowered ones always seem to be stealing my luck when they first come in.” Tewi says with a bit of uncharacteristic anger, “Though maybe he was always a rich kid.”
“So now we know he’s loaded.” You watch as Benson enters his room and closes the door. “You reckon we should try to spy on him in his private quarters?”
“Why, of course. You got an idea? Or do you want me to take the lead?”
You nonchalantly wander into the courtyard with a rabbit hidden in your pack. As the boarding house workers approach you, you pretend to be interested in the room and board and ask for a tour of the amenities. As they lead you to an unoccupied room, you stealthily let Tewi out in one of the bushes.
Feigning interest in their expensive futons and silk curtains, you have to stifle yawns as you keep asking questions, extending the tour to ten, then fifteen minutes. By the time it’s over, even the workers seem irritated, especially as you tell them that you’re “considering all options” and will let them know after you’re done surveying the rest of the Village’s accommodation options.
Tewi hops back into your pack as you pass by the bushes again, and the guard at the gate doesn’t even give you a glance as you leave the establishment.
“So, what did you find?” You say as you let Tewi out in a back alley.
“Quite a bit of juicy personal info.” She replies, upshifting back into her humanoid form, “For starters, h e’s bought a bunch of gadgets from the kappa, mostly trinkets designed specifically to sell to gullible Outsiders. He even got the rocket-propelled skateboard that will likely land him a broken neck if he ever tries to actually use it.”
“So we should try to convince him to get on that skateboard?” You suggest, hopeful in a quick and easy solution.
“Nah, he’s empowered. The aura of luck will save him.” Tewi leans back against the wall and stretches, seemingly out of habit, “That’s the problem when you’re dealing with these types who seem to be natural-born main characters. They will not get seriously hurt from just some petty accident, look, just watch.”
Benson comes out of the main doors of the compound, prompting Tewi to snap her fingers. A roof tile loosens itself from its peers and falls directly on the young man’s head...only to change direction mid-way and land harmlessly by his side, giving him nothing but a brief moment of confusion.
You stare, mouth agape, “...That’s fucking ridiculous, holy shit.”
“Now imagine having to deal with one when they really go bad.” Tewi relaxes and ceases her flow of magic, “I don’t envy the shrine maiden one bit for this additional duty. This petty success also works in a positive manner, meaning things they do will go alright as long as it’s background details in a story. Which is unfortunate for us.”
“No kidding.” You pick up and toss a clod of dirt over yourself, and wince as it breaks upon your forehead. “So if something bad happens to him, it will have to be dramatic and flashy, fit for the history books...how does that work?”
“Did you actually just test it on yourself? Hehehe..,ha,” Tewi chuckles at your now dirty face for a bit, before continuing, “It’s simpler than you think actually. Just get enough pairs of eyes on him when something happens and it will be significant enough to overcome this aura of luck. But then you’ve got to deal with his suite of powers, and I don’t envy you on that.”
“I...” You are just about to speak when you abruptly lock eyes with someone on the other side of the alley. “Oh hey there, please...Hey, wait a minute!"
Bowler hat with a ribbon on top. Black hair dyed to a chestnut color. A flashy cape with runes inscripted on the inside. There’s no mistaking it, you know this person, as do many others who came here.
“Hello there, Miss Usami. It’s a pleasure to see the one who open the gates for us here.” You greet the Ur-empowered Outsider in a carefully neutral voice.
“You...” Sumireko speedwalks over and invades your personal space without warning. “It is you! I was wondering why my esper senses were reaching a dead zone here. Tell me, do you dream?”
You are taken aback by her brash introduction, “Um...no, I don’t dream. Don’t think I can. Also, rude.”
“Well excuuuuse me if I don’t have much time to deal with other Outsiders during my limited time in Gensokyo.” She squints, as if trying to bore a gaze into your skull. “Eugh, this dead zone isn’t going away. It’s like you’re a corpse that still gives off enough lifeforce to interfere with my senses.”
That observation is way too close for comfort. “ Um, I’m kind of a magical null. Can’t cast magic at all without experiencing spell flux. Maybe that’s wreaking havoc with your ability? Strange how Reisen didn’t have any problems.”
“The moon rabbit? We operate on different dimensions of brain activity. Gosh...” Sumireko braces herself against the wall and takes a few deep breaths while loosening her shirt to let off heat. “...Okay, I can deal with this as long as I stop actively scanning on habit.” She straightens her glasses and makes eye contact again, “So, I’m sorry for being inconsiderate. What’s your name, and who is your friend here?”
“My name is Wu...Ming.” Your choice of an obviously fake name is getting inconvenient, “And, um, my friend here is Miss...”
“Shiro.” Tewi takes on a drastically different tone than her normal snarky one, going straight for a perfect mimicry of a child’s voice. “Heya Misses! I’ve heard of you before. You’re that Outsider who tried blowing herself up right?”
Sumireko’s face turns red, “So even kids in the Village...Yes, that was an unfortunate misunderstanding on my part. I am not going to be doing anything stupid like that again. Wait...” She throws you an accusatory look, “What are you doing with a little girl in an alleyway?”
“Looking at problems.” You give a quick answer before Tewi can ruin your life, “There are some Outsider-related issues that we have which...OW!”
Tewi gives you a sharp nudge and pinches you on the neck, before looking at Sumireko with a smile, “We’re just looking at an interesting mister! He has this funny spear that glows all the time and says funny things like wanting to love Miss Youmu! Isn’t he silly? Doesn’t he know that ghosts can’t love living people?”
“Oh...him.” Sumireko’s face falls. You feel some silent relief at Tewi actively helping you rather than calling you a pedophile or something. “So that’s what he’s after.”
“You know him?”
“Of course I know him! Reimu gives me an earful every time one of those show up! ‘Why did you release your findings on the Internet, Sumireko?’, ‘Do you know how much extra work I have to do, Sumireko?’ I swear if she finds out my real name I’ll be getting emails and letters straight to my house!” Sumireko smacks her palm on the wall, “It’s not like I knew that my unique astral projection capabilities weren’t completely needed to breach the Border! I was just trying to scout out some fellow espers to bring into Gensokyo, not unleash this flood of people!”
“Oh right, technically the current situation is an incident that’s your responsibility.” You can’t help but feel amused at this high school girl being burdened like this, “Good thing most of us either lay low or dispose of ourselves quickly. The one we’re gawking at isn’t one of those categories though.”
“I was wondering why Miss Konpaku gave me this really dirty look when I passed by her today.” The girl is sweating now, both from the heat in the alleyway and from her anxiety, “Another Reimu-patterned empowered...eugh.”
“Reimu-patterned?” You ask, interest flaring at this new term.
“A category I’m not fortunate enough to be under, despite being an empowered myself...I think, anyway, Lady Yukari never confirmed my status like the later arrivals. Anyway, what I mean is that most empowered are similar to Reimu in terms of the gifts they are given: Talents in various supernatural arts, and a cushion of passive fortune to coast through life on. This is oddly like a narrative.” Sumireko habitually snaps her fingers as she thinks, “You know, like those light novels where the hero arrives to a different world and just gets all of these amazing powers that make them better than everyone else and just coast along until they kill the demon king or whatever.”
“I mean, you’re one to talk. Miss I-made-friends-and-is-accepted-as-a-part-of-Gensokyo-despite-causing-two-unresolved-incidents.”
“Well I failed to achieve anything with them, and I’m stuck with the responsibility for the second one now.” Sumireko sighs, “So, you got anything on our spear-wielding empowered?”
“We know that Mister Ruby thinks Miss Konpaku is a proper lady, when she’s still just like me!” Tewi eagerly pipes up, “And from what I’ve just seen on his computer, he thinks she’s already in love with him, and is just too embarrassed to admit it!”
Both Sumireko and you groan at this tidbit of information. The man is more than just deluded. He’s living in a completely different world than reality. Of course, when you’re being treated like a main character by the land itself, it might be natural to assume that everything will just sort of work like a bad romance novel.
“Delusional. Absolutely delusional.” Sumireko mutters, clutching her head, “And not in a way that could be easily turned off from his path.”
You silently agree. A lot more prep work is needed before you could really carry out a plan to sever this one-sided red string.
Good thing you’ve already taken the first steps.
“Come on, let’s keep following him, he’s going to hit his first roadblock right about now.”
There are a few spectators around the bar, but not nearly enough to constitute a proper spectator crowd. Geidontei, a bar for old men that acquired rumors of being a youkai bar that serves oni sake (at least, that’s what Reimu told you). You do wonder why Youmu chose this place to serve as the site of their drinking contest though, when somewhere like the Hakurei Shrine would probably be a safer location with Reimu as a witness.
The three of you settle down under the awning of a nearby clothes shop, and watch as Youmu, dressed in a distinctly more plain outfit than her normal one, waits for Benson to show up with a massive pot of sake placed on the counter.
The girl tending the bar, who has a funny-looking whale hat that’s silly even by Gensokyo’s standards, has this massive smile on her face, as if it’s her birthday. Is she enjoying the business? Surely a single pot of sake for a drinking contest isn’t worth getting THAT happy over.
“It seems like he’s late.” Sumireko says after seeing Youmu impatiently tap her feet and look at the setting sun. “You said something about him hitting a roadblock here?”
“Um, yeah, I did...I think I did.” You’re unsure if the pills actually worked on him. Would his luck simply negate the effect?
Your worries are alleviated as Benson emerges from a nearby alleyway and awkwardly walks down the street. He’s not outright drunk off his ass, but he’s clearly having some trouble walking in a straight line as seen by his occasional bumps into the nearby buildings. Worryingly, he is still carrying his spear with him. Who the hell carries a weapon around them when going to a drinking contest? You yourself aside, of course.
“Hey Youmu! I’m herrrre...and ready.” He says, slurring his words. “Let’s get this contest...sssstarted!”
Youmu raises a glance at his swaying form, but doesn’t remark on it. “Let us begin then. As we’ve promised, if I win, you will stop following me around...”
"Really? Gee Youmu, grow a backbone!" You all but shout into the pillar near you.
“And if I win...you will give me a chance to confess to you for real...” Benson collapses onto a stool and fumbles for a sake dish, “And with that...start!”
He pours himself a dish, spilling sake everywhere as Youmu watches with apprehension. Downing it, he slams down the dish and wipes his mouth, and gestures for Youmu to take her turn.
Carefully pouring herself a dish, Youmu chugs it down without breaking eye contact. You are biting your nails now. Even with your prior poisoning, there is no telling if Benson will actually fall unconscious before Youmu does, just judging by their weight difference.
You watch them trade drinks for a few rounds. Benson is slurring more and more, but Youmu is growing red on the face. The waitress is eagerly refilling the sake pot, so there’s no danger of it running out any time soon and resulting in anything inconclusive.
“Did you spike him with drugs before this?” Sumireko asks, staring at you internally stressing over the situation. “Is that why he looked like he was pre-gaming?”
“I ‘recommended’ some medications to him. I ‘didn’t know’ that there would be side effects.” You say without a shred of sincerity, “I mean, it’s not like I can just conk him on the head, he’s too tough for that.”
“Isn’t that a crime?”
“Does it look like I care?” You brush off the accusation by the younger woman, “Quite frankly, I am willing to do anything as long as it makes sure that the other Outsiders stay in line.”
Sumireko is about to reply, but then you cut her off, “‘Shiro’, can you give me a boost? They’re taking too long and I need to take some direct action.”
“Sure!” Tewi smiles, and you feel a sudden wave of confidence physically come over you, almost as if the world itself has begun yielding to your will.
Taking out a coin, you flip it and guess the face. “Heads.” It lands on heads. You try it again a few times just to be sure, and much to Sumireko’s confusion you succeed every time.
With the aura of luck surrounding you, you saunter over to the bar, acting as if you were supposed to be there. Youmu nearly spits out her sake as she sees you approach, and before she can say anything you shout out, “Oi, proprietress! Get me a dish of your finest sake, I’m hella thirsty!”
“Eh?” Benson raises his head, but doesn’t recognize you. The whale-hatted waitress dutifully nods and disappears into the backroom. Now’s your opportunity.
“OI, Mr. Ruby! Nice little party you’re having here with the phantom gardener of Hakugyokurou!” You loudly declare, feigning drunkenness as you sidle up to him, “What sort of sake you got here, eh?”
“The strongest one they have on the house.” Youmu quietly replies, avoiding your gaze. Benson just nods.
“Oh that’s great! Mind if I try some?” You make a show of grabbing at Benson’s sake dish, and intentionally miss and plant your face on the counter, before picking yourself up. “Eh, forget it.”
The capsules you have in your hand did not miss, however, and found their way into his dish. Rohypnol is colorless and odorless when dissolved, which is why it is so popular as a date-rape drug. The legacy of those disgusting vermin (that you are kind of responsible for) turned out to be quite useful.
The waitress returns with your sake, and Benson downs his dish without noticing anything wrong. You carefully down your drink as well, keeping an eye on the Outsider as the roofies slowly kick in and exacerbate his already drunken mind. Right as you finish, you hear a satisfying clunk as he falls off of his stool, though unfortunately not directly onto his head. The amount of roofies you dosed him with would’ve been enough to put two men under, after all. The spectators that have been watching the contest pass around their bets to each other, and disperse.
"Congrats, you win.” You chuckle as you pat Youmu on the shoulder, while the waitress hurries to pick the passed-out Benson off of the floor. The phantom gardener lets out a deep breath, and chugs down the leftovers in her dish.
“I would like to ask you what you’ve done, Mr. Wu, but I feel like it is something horribly disturbing.”
“Eh, don’t worry about it. This isn’t over, and we still need to talk about how to get rid of him permanently since you probably won’t let me just stab him right here.” You turn around and order, “Waitress, can I get whatever the house special is once you’re done with him?”
“Of course! Of course.” The whale-hat nods as she sets Benson against the wall (needing only the strength of one arm despite her build, you note) “Why not invite your friends over there? We offer an excellent dinner special with complementary drinks!”
“Sure, let’s get that. Oi!” You call over to the other two. “Shiro, Sumireko, wanna chip in for dinner?”
“...I’ll pay.” Youmu cuts you off, “It is the least I can do for your efforts.”
“Well, sure then! Thanks a lot.” Getting a Touhou to pay for your dinner two times already is quite an accomplishment you can brag about, and you are in no hurry to turn down any free food.
“YOU USED WHAT?” Sumireko exclaims as you quietly disclosed your choice of drug.
“I mean, it’s not like it only works on vulnerable young women, you know? The chemical mechanism is gender-neutral.” You say as you clink your sake dish with Tewi’s cup of non-alcoholic beer. Youmu had recognized her instantly, but didn’t say anything.
The vegetable stew, flavored with a combination of a house-special miso blend and game meat, is absolutely delectable. You wonder why this place hasn’t been a hit with Outsiders yet. Likely because it hasn’t yet been depicted in the official material.
“Anyway, we should figure out what to do next.” You continue, gesturing at the unconscious Benson in the corner, “The stalking issue should be fixed, but the delusions are another thing entirely that can’t be resolved with a contest or anything like that.”
“Delusions?” Youmu asks, a bit of stew dripping from the side of her lips, “What delusions?”
“He basically has a completely different image of you than the reality, and thinks you’re already in love with him and is just too shy to admit it.” Tewi states, “He’s even got a plan typed up on his computer to get you to ‘open up’.”
“...Oh.” The phantom gardener shudders, “That does sound complicated...I’m sorry, my training did not cover matters of love like this.”
“One-sided love isn’t a love you should concern yourself with, it’s just creepy obsession.” You shrug as you down the drink, before going back to devouring the stew. “It is however an obsession that we’ll have to neutralize in some way. I’m not familiar with love either. Anyone else got any ideas?”
Sumireko looks as if she’s about to say something, then thinks better of it. You reckon that a high school girl likely doesn’t have much to contribute on this matter other than her powers.
“You have to cut the red thread.” Tewi pipes up, not even bothering to pretend that she’s a normal kid anymore, “There’s two ways of going about this. One, you establish that you really, really hate him, and not in a ‘I secretly like you’ kind of way. More like a ‘I will kill your whole extended family’ kind of way. Can you do that, Miss Konpaku?”
“My training...does not cover that either.”
“Well, in that case, we have the second way, and that’s through making you permanently unavailable.”
Youmu stops eating, “Explain?”
Tewi sprouts a very wide and very dark grin, “So starting off...we fake your death.”
Benson Ruby woke up on the bench with a splitting headache and a bitter taste in his mouth. Muddied memories crawled back into his brain. He was going to win that drinking contest with Youmu, why did he...pass out first?
He rubbed his eyes and stared at the blue sky. The morning sun was cresting over the hills, casting its yellow glow over the village plaza. Youmu had cared for him enough to carry him over to a proper sleeping place of sorts! He thought to himself, smiling.
Where is that girl...Youmu right now, anyway?
He crawled upwards, his feet clanging against the spear lying against the bench. Most villagers up this early are out in the fields, so the plaza was largely deserted. As such, he immediately notices the small girl with wavy black hair rushing towards him.
“Mister! Mister!” She called out, tugging at his sleeve when she reached him.
“Oh hi there. How can I help you, young lady?” He replied, uncertain. The sense of concern in the expression of the girl was giving him some bad vibes.
“It’s the monster, mister! It showed up and took my friends when we were playing outside the gates! The lady with the white hair and two swords went find the monster in the Bamboo Forest, but she hasn’t come back!”
Faster than a lightning bolt, Benson sprang up from the bench and grabbed his spear. “WHERE DID SHE GO?”
“She disappeared into the trees near the huge rock that looks like a hand. If you head out the west gate and go straight you’ll see it...”
Without another word, Benson leapt into action and began sprinting towards the gate with his enhanced stamina and agility. If he could help Youmu take out a youkai, or better yet, save her from the monster, she’d definitely fall for him! The young man can’t help but feel confidence building in his breast as he ran down the streets, a smile growing on his face.
Behind him, the little girl took off her hat and shook her rabbit ears loose, a smile of her own on her lips.
Benson ran all the way to the Bamboo Forest without needing to catch his breath, the lungs blessed by Gensokyo’s divine energy serving him well. Along the way, a few farmers stopped to stare at the sprinting man, but paid him no further attention. Such sights have become common around the Village these days.
Benson did not stop to think why they acted so casually with a monster on the loose. He was always more of a “do first, ask later” type.
It was when he cleared the first set of bamboo that he heard a yell, followed by an explosion. Trailing the sound, he rushed in, heedless of the Bamboo Forest’s tendency to disrupt the sense of direction of all involved. The sounds continued at regular intervals, further drawing the Outsider in, until he no longer recalled how deep he went in to the forest.
When he finally stopped to take a breather as his lungs began to protest, the sound of cracking bamboo jerked him to alertness. The air grew thick, and a sickly sweet smell drifted on the winds. He drew his spear and shifted into a fighting stance. Not a well-trained one, mind you, but the stance of a beginner who learned martial arts primarily through secondary sources. It was enough to fight and win against Youmu and a couple other Gensokyeans through his raw strength, however.
A blur of red-white flashed through the leaves, and Benson looked up to see the shrine maiden of paradise perched on one of the branches. “What are you doing here? Outsider?” Reimu asked, “You know there’s an abomination rampaging around, right?”
“I’m not one to back down from a challenge, especially not when the love of my life is here.” Benson cheerfully replied, twirling his spear, “Did you see Youmu?”
“She followed the monster deep into the forest, however, my intuition says they’re close.” Reimu stated, rather mechanically. “If you are willing, let us go together.”
Benson did not have any second thoughts as he followed the shrine maiden towards the direction of the sounds, which grew ever closer. He did not notice Reimu occasionally looking back to make sure that he’s following her and not wandering off in an undesirable direction.
His cheerfulness took a hit when he looked up to see a whole section of bamboo collapse, blown apart, as the thing revealed itself. Shrouded in black smoke, the beast unfurled its twisted black wings, and distended its abdomen, revealing rows upon rows of sharp teeth the size of traffic cones. Its claws slammed into the earth, kicking up clouds of loam. Its singular eye, affixed atop of a head too large for its spindly neck, glares murder at the duo.
Benson was too distracted by the form of the monster to notice that the bamboo seemed to fall just a tad bit later than the monster’s impact.
Not waiting for Reimu, the Outsider leapt into action, leaping off of a tree to strike straight at the center mass of the monster. To his surprise, the monster was extremely fast for its bulk, and appeared to simply flow away through the bamboo away from his blows. It retaliated with a claw swipe, and Benson responded by deflecting it with the spear...only for an explosion to go off as they clash, deafening him while forcing him backwards.
“Be careful, Outsider!” Reimu yelled as she threw out handfuls of ofuda, forcing the monster to dodge away and seek cover behind the bamboo. Benson recovered and went in for another strike, only to be staggered by a piercing cry from the maw of the monster, one that induced a sick feeling in his stomach. He recovered only to see another claw swipe at him, and once again he is forced back by the force of the explosion.
If even he and Reimu are having trouble handling this monster, then surely Youmu…
His thought was terminated as a streak of silver ran through the canopy, followed by the monster recoiling from the streak slicing straight across its body. Youmu landed by him, sheathing her sword while the monster exuded a massive spurt of blood from the cut. His love was always faster than him, Benson thought, but his intuition easily made up the difference. Still, in this situation, it seemed she had the advantage.
“Nice job! Youmu! Now let me finish this!” He said, leaping upwards to hit the monster with a flashy descending spear thrust. More concerned about showing off than the seriousness of the battle, the young man was.
It landed home, and Benson allowed the spear to easily cut through the monster’s flesh all the way down to the ground, spewing out yet more blood as he went. His divine spear was extremely effective, he thought, it cut through the monster’s flesh almost as though nothing was there.
The monster screamed again, reared back, and abruptly made an unusually quick strike, extending its arm like a robot. Benson raised his spear in defense, and, fearing a third explosion, instinctively closed his eyes.
No explosion came. A pained yelp did, however.
He opened his eyes, and looked to the side. There, pinned against the tree, was Youmu, the claws of the monster stabbing straight through her torso. Pure shock welled up inside of him, and he froze up, only being able to stare as the monster tore its claw out of the bamboo, and flung Youmu through the air like a ragdoll, sending the half-ghost gardener crashing against a bamboo stalk and sending her slumping down, lifeless, below a streak of her own blood.
He barely even noticed Reimu charging at the monster, cleaving it into pieces with her gohei while it recovered from that attack. By the time the shock had turned into fury and he let out a bloodcurdling scream, turning to charge, all he could see was Reimu standing there, amidst the rapidly dissipating remains of the monster.
The fury swiftly changed into despair as he rushed towards Youmu’s limp body. Yet he knew as he approached that there was nothing he could do. There was a gaping hole where her heart should be, and she’s bleeding like a punctured water balloon.
“Youmu! Youmu! Stay with me!” He screamed, raw desperation in his voice. “Eientei! Where’s Eientei when you need them?”
A flicker of life returned to Youmu’s eyes, and she weakly raised an arm. Her lips moved, and a muttered line came out with her death rattle.
The arm fell to the ground, and her head lolled sideways. Benson fell completely silent, not crying or yelling as an eerie coldness took him. Numbed, he mechanically reached out and gently shook Youmu’s rapidly cooling body, as if there’s some hope of coaxing her back to life, until Reimu grabbed his arm.
“She’s gone.” Reimu sniffled, tears in her eyes. Benson failed to notice her rubbing her eyes intensely beforehand.
Benson was silent as Eientei’s rabbits came along with a stretcher and threw the white cloth over Youmu’s corpse. He tried to follow them with leaden footsteps, only to trip and fall onto the loam.
And Benson cried, for half an hour straight.
“FINALLY!” Nue yells as she takes off Mamizou’s leaf, “I thought he’d just lay there for the whole day and we’d have to sit here watching him angst!”
“Shh...keep it down.” You snap at her as you watch Benson limp towards Eientei’s general direction through your binoculars. “He’s not that far away yet.”
“REPORT: AMMO STORES NOW EXHAUSTED. ORGANIC FEEDSTOCK REQUIRED FOR REPLENISHMENT. TIS SAFE TO BEGIN CONSUMPTION?”
“Go for it, Lowe. Just don’t make too much noise.” You watch the tank open its hatch and extend its feeding arm. “By the way, it’s weird calling you by the German designation. Do you have a name for yourself?”
“PROJECT IRON WING. BUT MINE CREATOR PREFERRED THE NAME…’AWYRGAN’.”
“Awyrgan?” You roll the name around your mouth, “That’s a weird name, but it sounds rather nice. Awyrgan...Awyrgan...”
“That was really taxing on my abilities, but that was also the first time I’ve gotten to yell like that this century!” Nue remarks, giving you a friendly smack on the back, “You still owe me one for this, you know.”
“Yeah, I know.” You’re still unsure if it was a good idea to call in your favor with Reimu for this skit. Your personal favor economy isn’t looking too good right now. “I’ll figure out some way to repay you. Not with my flesh, obviously.”
You look off to Sumireko standing off to the side, munching on the basket of fried chicken you bought her. Turns out that a high schooler is quite willing to lend her powers to this sort of questionable activity when it’s both her responsibility and there’s free junk food involved. At least you won’t owe her any favors.
Making a monster really forced you to call in all of your contacts from your brief stay so far, but it worked out in the end. Even you had to pitch in yourself, blocking Reimu’s projectiles with your shield to protect Nue during the act.
You turn around to see Youmu staring off in the direction Benson wandered off to. “So, about your ‘corpse’ that still has Mamizou’s leaf glued to it: we’ll have to ‘cremate’ it within three days. If you could get Lady Yuyuko down here to attend it’ll look more genuine...hey, Youmu, are you listening?”
“I...I feel really bad.” Youmu mutters, leaning on Awyrgan. “He seemed to genuinely love me, and torturing him like this is going to far.”
“If he really loved you, he would have respected your boundaries and backed off.” You sigh, poking at her ghost half, “Remember, you don’t owe anyone anything by default. A one-sided obsession isn’t something to be indulged.”
“SAVE FOR A RIGHTFUL OBSESSION WITH GOLD, THE NOBLEST OF METALS.”
“What would a tank need gold for, anyway? I don’t know if the Southern Mines has any gold when I go with you over there. If it doesn’t, I still don’t owe you one, do I?”
“TIS NO MATTER. THOU ART A FRIEND. THOU ART A MOST TOLERABLE SOUL. PRAY, DO NOT REGISTER THIS AS A LIABILITY.”
“Tolerable...soul?” A sudden feeling of unease seizes you, and you quickly move to switch the topic. “Forget about that. Youmu, you’ll need to lay low. Can you stay in the Netherworld until we can confirm that he’s left Gensokyo?”
You figured that he’s much more likely to commit suicide, but Youmu doesn’t need to hear that.
“I can. Lady Yuyuko would understand once I tell her. Still,” She looks down at her shoes, “Was this really the right thing to do?”
“Well it was the correct thing to do. Unless you really want to pay for his happiness with your own.” Flipping over your armband, you then turn on the radio, “Hey Miss Inaba, is there anyway we can get him out of Gensokyo faster? We can’t keep Youmu cooped up in...”
Tewi cuts you off, “This is the first step, remember? He’s not going to give up just because of this.”
“I’m older than all of you there put together, trust me, I know true obsession when I see it.” Tewi asserts, “I’ve dug through his belongings and his laptop while you were acting out Le Morte de Youmu, and you know what I found? Fanfiction, a four hundred thousand word long monstrosity all about him and Youmu being together.”
“Eugh…” Nue involuntarily shudders.
“I mean, I’ve seen longer…”
“But was it written by an empowered?” Tewi says, her usual jovial tone swapped for a more lecturing one, “Power amplifies desires, Ming, and someone with this much power isn’t just going to disappear quietly. He will go through the stages of grief, and Youmu’s not going to be able to stay dead throughout.”
Your stomach drops, “Explain?”
“We’re going to do step two now. We have the tools to setup a rejection that he cannot delude himself over. And you two: Ming, Youmu. You’ll have to do this by yourselves. Abilities and magic won’t help you here.”
Youmu sighs, and half-heartedly nods, “As you advise, Miss Inaba.”
You say nothing as a sudden onrush of fear sweeps over you.
You really had no clue of what you’ve gotten yourself into when you agreed to help the half-phantom.
When you went to ask for Nue’s help last evening. Mamizou, the tanuki with eyes everywhere, showed you some footage of Benson in combat, extracted from the memories of one of her lesser followers in a dreamlike state.
Quite simply put, it was a one-sided slaughter. The pack of feral youkai he chanced upon didn’t even get a swipe or bite in before being skewered through the head or heart in movements too fast for your eyes to really register, before the spear rends off to the side and rips apart the body. The spear cut through their tough hides like paper, and smashed their bones apart like porcelain jars. From the tanuki’s viewpoint, he could barely discern what was left after the battle as vague piles of torn flesh and bone fragments.
“Are you feeling alright? Mr. Wu?” Reisen asks as you stumble into the clinic. You reply to her inquiry with a dazed look, and continue moving into the backroom, where you slump onto the examination table.
“Mr. Wu? What are you doing?” She peels you off the table and lifts you straight up, “Are you drunk? Drinking so early isn’t healthy.”
“I fucked up.” You murmur. “I recklessly ran headfirst into something again.”
Reisen sniffs you over, “No alcohol, but you do smell like...Tewi.” The gears turn in her head, “Does it have something to do with the fact that she was gone since yesterday afternoon, and the wooden doll her rabbits carried in today?”
“How’d you know?” You wiggle out of her grasp and proceed to slump against the wall. “We’re just trying to help a friend, but the task is a liiiiitle more troublesome than what a normie like me could take.”
The moon rabbit grabs you again and turns you around. “Tell me, what did you do?” She says, while her red eyes send a burst of long waves into your brain.
Unable to resist, your lips loosen, and you tell Reisen everything.
“...So that’s why the wooden figure looked like Youmu.” Reisen sighs, her arms crossed. “Tewi...to think that she would willingly involve an outsider like you in one of her ploys. I don’t see how someone like you who feels no empathy and has willingly killed before are troubled by this though.”
“I selfishly don’t want to die again .” You groan, “Taking out some other unpowered outsiders in an ambush is one thing. Confronting that spear hero directly...that’s just asking for me to end up like a Turk in Vlad Tepes’s Transylvania. And no, I’m not willing to risk the lives of Sumireko or Awyrgan to serve the role.”
“You could simply avoid...who’s Awyrgan?”
You point with your thumb to the tank which had just rolled up the front of the clinic, as silent as ever, “That’s Awyrgan.”
“HAIL, RABBIT OF SELENE. THOU ART A FRIEND OF MINE FRIEND, IF I MAY ASSUME?”
Reisen blinks twice, slowly. “How did you get to know this thing?”
“I happened to be of help to it a few times, and now it considers me to be a friend. It’s been helpful to me too, so I’m not complaining.”
“And a war machine like that would be ‘risking its life’?” She asks, incredulous.
“A HERO WOULD PIERCE MINE HEART WITH EASE, I ASSURE THEE.”
“Same applies to the other youkai, with their natural weakness to heroic figures. So that just leaves us humans. Miss Hakurei doesn’t owe me a favor any more, and Sumireko is just a high schooler. That means, I, the adult Outsider, must take on this role.” You groan out, your heart sinking deeper by the minute. “At least I have a shield to extend my life expectancy by about five seconds, optimistically.”
Reisen purses her lips, thinking for a bit, “Let’s switch topics. Does anyone else know about Youmu’s ‘death’?”
Your stomach aches. You skipped breakfast today and your current situation isn’t helping. “No, but I doubt Benson would keep his mouth shut for long. That’s why we have to get things moving fast. Once someone unrelated to the whole thing catches wind, they’ll notice things that the grief-stricken stalker won’t, like how Lady Saigyouji and Lady Yakumo haven’t reacted much over how one of their closest companions died, or how this incident wasn’t publicized despite causing casualties. Tewi gave us plans to handle this, but she pranked me by foisting the role of being an anvil for his jealousy onto me.”
“Have you considered not letting Tewi control your actions like this?”
“Have you considered that I am a very stupid and manipulatable human Outsider with just enough skills to be considered useful? God! I really regret killing those fuckers even though I kind of had to to tie up loose ends ! Now everyone thinks I can just wade into an incident like I’m some sort of protagonist!” You curse, slamming your fist against the wall. “And it’s not like I’m in a position to shirk, you know? I have a reputation to uphold now because of this! I—-” Your stomach abruptly growls, putting an end to your little rant.
Reisen sighs, and digs out a bento box from under the counter, “Here’s my lunch. Sounds like you need it more right now. Try not to overwork that little brain of yours until you shake off the hunger clouding your thoughts.”
“I’ll buy something myself soon, don’t worry about it.” You wave away her offered meal, “I’m not going to ask anyone in Gensokyo to sacrifice for me.”
“It’s a lunch, not a sacrifice. Don’t be overdramatic.” She rolls her eyes and puts the box back, “Go and get some food then. In light of Tewi being involved, I won’t count this against your hours.”
Awyrgan silently follows you down the streets as you hurry to the area where the morning food stalls are. You had half a mind to tell it to stay put but then realize that you probably can’t order a sapient war machine around like that, especially as you are now neutral on favors owed with it. Awyrgan drove itself around the Village for a bit yesterday after Rikako and Connor finished their repairs, so currently it draws curious eyes, but not much in the way of fear, especially with you seemingly leading it on.
Still, the person running the okonomiyaki stall looked quite nervous as she serves you the pancakes. You try to make some small talk as you fork over the nine hundred yen for the food, but become distracted by the tank nudging at you with its extending arm, which had protruded from the hatch when you were not looking..
“What?” You ask.
“You want pancakes? Just say so and provide money.” You casually reply, before reminding yourself who you’re talking to.
“AFFIRMATIVE.” The extending arm retracts back into the hatch, and comes back out clutching a small can of brass coins. By the looks of it, these are cash coins from pre-Meiji Japan, except they look freshly minted with nary a trace of corrosion on them.
You pass the can to the vendor, who carefully takes it and runs her fingers through the coins, “These are...coins from great-great-grandfather’s time? Hmm...how much...” She thinks for a few moments, then shrugs and piles on a five stacks of pancakes onto a plate, “Would...this...do?” She says with the best English she could manage.
“ONE ADDITIONAL PANCAKE REQUESTED. OBJECTIVE VALUE OF PROVIDED COINAGE, ACCOUNTING FOR INFLATION, COMES TO FIFTEEN HUNDRED CONTEMPORARY YEN. ”
You translate for Awyrgan. “Oh, I see.” The vendor quickly decides that it’s not worth arguing with a tank in a foreign language and adds the additional pancake. The tank quickly scoops up the food with the arm, and deposits them directly into the hatch.
“ADEQUATE IN TASTE. COMPOSITION IMPAIRED BY PITIFUL QUANTITIES OF MEAT.”
You glare at the tank and translate for the vendor, who likewise proceeds to glare at the tank, her pride stung, “It’s already stuffed with bacon, what more do you want?” she says in Japanese, annoyed.
“ADDITIONAL MEAT. AN IMPROVEMENT ALWAYS.” The tank doesn’t even try to interpret her words.
Who knew that this machine had such exacting tastes in food? Hell, when did it appreciate food at all? “Well then,” You ask, “What sort of meat do you want then? Do you usually hunt deer?”
“VENISON IS ADEQUATE. TRUE DELICACY LIES IN THE FLESH OF YOUNG ROYALTY.”
You gulp. Of course, being a youkai, it was a coinflip as to whether it had a taste for human meat. “Have you...eaten a princess or something before?”
“NEGATORY. TIS MINE DESIRE TO DO SO SOME DAY. ”
You shake your head with a disturbed look on your face when the vendor asks you what it’s saying. “Trust me, you don’t want to know.”
Toyosatomimi no Miko might be in danger if she ever crosses paths with this monster. You think to yourself as you walk back to the clinic with the pancakes. And Princess Kaguya...and maybe Mokou. If the Watatsukis show up then they might be on the menu as well.
“You’re not going to eat me, right?” You carefully ask without making eye contact with its view port.
“THOU EXISTENCE ART ANTITHESIS OF THE CONCEPT OF ROYALTY AND NOBILITY, MINE FRIEND. REST ASSURED, THE FLESH OF A COMMONER SUCH AS THEE POSSESS NO PLACE WITHIN MINE PALATE.”
“Gee, thanks for reminding me of my position.” You sarcastically mutter as you take an experimental bite out of the pancakes. Awyrgan’s probably right in that comment though, and this does mean that you’re not on the immediate menu. Though you do wonder why this being which happily eats metal and wood has opinions about the taste of flesh.
As you open the door back into the clinic, you quickly think of how to deal with your new friend hanging around the premises now. “Hey, Awyrgan, if you don’t mind, can you stay at the workshop until noon? Scaring the customers aside, you are kind of taking up the entire street.”
“Actually,” Reisen cuts in from her position leaning on the counter, “You can be on harvesting duty today. Master has an orchard planted near the river and I need you to collect the medicinal fruits. I would normally advise that you get a cart, but you have a much better option right now.”
You consider the options, “Awyrgan, you okay with taking half of my pay?”
“TIS MOST PREFERABLE IF PAYMENT COULD BE RENDERED IN THE FORM OF METAL.”
Reisen shrugs, and pulls out a drawer at the bottom of the reagent rack, revealing a pile of small ingots. “Moonsilver,” she slowly explains in English, “Easily worked, superconducts magic and is no less durable than steel. I am sure you can make use of this in some way.”
“CONSIDERATIONS...MOONSILVER AS A CONDUCTOR FOR CREATION CORE PROCESSES...ACCEPTABLE.”
You begin to load up the tank with baskets, only for it to shove you away with the main gun. Awyrgan proceeds to rumble for a while, before suddenly erupting flanges on its rear, which then close up, forming an impromptu cargo bed.
“ACCESSORIES FOR BEASTS OF BURDEN...DISTASTEFUL. TIS AN IGNOBLE EMPLOYMENT, BUT EVEN SO, I CHOOSE MINE OWN TOOLS.”
You check over the cargo bed for gaps, “Looks good. That’s amazing, Awyri! I didn’t know you could do that!”
“Like ‘Awyrgan’, but shortened, you know?”
“TIS SLIGHTLY UNBECOMING, BUT I SHALL PERMIT SUCH A DESIGNATION FROM A FRIEND.”
The journey over to Eirin’s orchard was thankfully uneventful. Some fairies popped by to marvel at the giant steel beast you are walking next to, but no one dared to attack or prank you. You thank the heavens that there weren’t any more excitement.
The sky was still sunny, with wisps of clouds floating by. The air is noticeably more humid than when you arrived though, so it’s likely to rain soon. The landscape around the area of the path you’re taking is pretty. Meadows with blooming summer blossoms, trees broadcasting the sound of cicadas, the sandy shore glistening with the water of the valley’s river, all spectacles of nature worthy of photographing, but nothing particularly interesting by Gensokyean standards.
Still, with plenty of time to spare, you have Awyrgan stopping every so often so you can add to the collection of photos on your phone.
The orchard is an isolated patch on a hill overlooking the river. Upon approaching it, the now somewhat-familiar sense of lingering magic perks your hairs on end, and you spot many sigils inscribed on the wooden fencing surrounding the place. Thankfully, the Eientei armband glows as you approach, and the barrier put up dispels itself.
“Let’s get to work then.”
Awyrgan drives around the perimeter of the orchard, plucking at the trees within reach, while you dive into the interior, grabbing fruits one after the other and dumping them into your basket.
This is hard work, one that lends you a new sense of appreciation for the workers in the agricultural industry. The exoskeleton thankfully takes up most of the burden, plus allowing you to flit between the taller branches of the trees with the grappling fishing line, but you still find yourself panting at the exertion after going through roughly a third of the trees.
The trees begin to blur together, and the acrid scent of the fruits stinging to your nostrils. The gloves insulate your hands from splinters, but pieces of bark sometimes flick onto your exposed face, eliciting curses and forcing you to take time to brush them off.
The noon sun does not help as it reaches its apex position in the sky, straining the air conditioning of the suit to its limits through the rigors of physical labor.
Taking a breather, you lean back panting against a tree while unscrewing your canteen. The swig of cool water feels like heaven, you reflect while gazing at the hazy treetops and listening to the bird song.
One of the birds, an unusually colored one, lands on a branch in front of you. Is it not afraid of humans?
You give an amused wave at the creature.
“Aren’t you forgetting something?” The bird replies to your wave.
You mouth hangs open, water dribbling out. Did this bird just talk? Is it a youkai?
“The iron heart within your chest, do you remember? It is a hateful bulwark of the weak against the strong, one which you now actively wield.” The bird continues in its chirping tone.
“I have no idea what you’re talking about.” You mutter.
“Through the bulwark, you have set yourself down an absolute one-way street. Rejoice, for you shall burn as bright as a star...both of you.”
“You...” You reach forth to grab the bird.
Your hands never reach it . You blink, and the bird is gone.
“ART THOU CONVERSING WITH AN APPARITION?” The tank asks, poking its main gun through the branches.
“No, I was just talking to myself.” The water tastes a little sour now. “Let’s try to get half of the trees done before we head back for lunch. I forgot to pack one.”
You dump your load into the cargo bed and briefly consider riding on Awyrgan, before deciding that the tank has already earned its pay and you don’t need to owe it anymore than you already do. You have an exoskeleton to handle this, after all.
Your finances are also looking a little slim, especially considering your docked pay. When the deal with Benson is over, you’ll probably just ask Youmu for a nice lump of cash for solving her problem.
Nothing much happens on the way back, though you feel more uneasy than usual. Your gut feeling is confirmed when a shrine maiden descends upon you as you approach the Village gates.
You lazily wave at Reimu as she touches down, “Nice to see you Miss Hakur--”
“I can’t find Tewi, so this is your problem.” Reimu angrily interjects, “That Outsider is causing a ruckus in the Village’s main square, yelling obscenities and shouting for people to fight him. I’m not getting my hands dirty with such an individual, and I don’t fancy Miss Toramaru or Miss Mononobe’s chances.”
“He’s moved onto anger already? Damn it.” You shuffle yourself back upright from your slouch, “Well...looks like Tewi called it. It's time for me to do my part.”
“Moving him onto bargaining.” You grit out. “We need to give him just enough rope...I mean hope, to cling onto.”
“Are you trying to spill oil on the fire?” Reimu raises her voice, surprising some of the villagers passing by. “You do know that if you try to play around with the mind of such an individual, they’d cause another unpublicized incident?”
“It’s the price of trying to resolve something peacefully. We can just figure out a way to put a bullet in Benson’s head, but Youmu doesn’t want that.”
“You can’t just murder someone for being in love...er...” Reimu looks away as you glare daggers at her.
“You’ve killed for less.”
“You Outsiders are always going to be holding that fortune teller against me, aren’t you.” She sighs, “There’s a major difference between exterminating a newborn youkai and murdering a human.”
“I’ve done both in the short time I’ve been here.” You say, lowering your voice, “Functionally, I don’t see a difference. They’re both sapient beings.”
“For a fan, you are sure ignorant of the significance of the divide.” She crosses her arms.
“We’re both nipping problems in the bud, Miss Hakurei, and why are we even talking about this? I’m not going to kill him...it’s not like I can if I tried, anyway--”
“ALERT: MANUFACTURING COMPLETE.”
The tank’s hatch pops, and the arm comes out bearing what looks to be an ornate sword in a jeweled sheath. As you cautiously accept the offering, you notice that there is a trigger beneath the crossguard of the sword, which is blunt as you remove it from the sheath. Pulling the trigger produces a hum of electricity, and your hairs stand on end. This is a shock baton! But in sword form.
“AN IMPROVISATION OF A STUNNING WEAPON INTO A MORE KNIGHTLY FORM. APOLOGIES, THE DECOR ART MERE GLASS.”
“No, like, why are you giving me this?” You quickly eye Reimu, who is now gazing at you with some suspicion. “I have guns...well, a gun right now.”
“TIS NECESSARY TO DEFEND THYSELF WHEN MELEE IS INEVITABLY JOINED. ASIDE, TIS A GOOD CHOICE WHEN THOU ART NOT WILLING TO KILL.”
“I suppose?” You lost Eientei’s air rifle two nights ago, along with most of your chemical stock. This is not the worst option when your danmaku output is negligible, or when the opponent isn’t going to play by the spell card rules. “But right now? I shouldn’t be fighting.”
You relent. The tank has a point, after all, as a sharp piece of metal is better than a gun when it comes down to melee, even if you have no chance. Turning towards the shrine maiden, you give a slight bow, “Miss Hakurei, I can handle this problem. You trust me, right?”
She trusted you, just enough to let you through the gates. Of course, she asked you to take care of the problem in the first place after all.
The village is still operating like normal. Apparently, an empowered losing their mind has become a commonplace activity by this point. Benson’s activities are on the villagers’ lips though, and you can hear more than a few discussions about whether the tolerance for outsiders is appropriate given the amount of problems they bring.
Your presence with the tank still commands a wide berth. With shield primed and sword at your side, you feel sort of like a medieval knight strolling among the peasantry, even if your current status is more on the opposite of that. And the tank is your trusty steed, a true metallic monstrosity that can fulfill the purpose of a charger and linebreaker even in this environment of bullets and high magic.
The village guard has formed a perimeter around the square where Benson is venting, and you can hear his cries in English from a whole street over. Gritting your teeth, you move forward to where Shou and Futo are, as the village guard do not even attempt to stop somebody who has a tank following them.
“Wu Ming? And...the tank?” The tigress says in surprise, after noticing the two of you. “What are you doing here...what are you doing together, in fact?”
“We’re friends. Miss Toramaru.” You glance over at Futo, who is kneeling and keeping some sort of feng shui ritual active, sending up flicks of energy around the square. Likely some sort of barrier to keep Benson’s potential rage inside. “If you wouldn’t mind, can you let us through? We have something to take care of this man’s anger.”
Benson is not currently moving, but his spear is out and wreathed in divine energy. Gouges made by the spear can be seen on the paving stones, and he is rambling loudly on the unfairness of the world, in a manner between an angry drunk and a schizophrenic. Shou gives a worried look at him, and then back at you, “Are you sure? By my calculations, you’re going to get killed.”
“I’m not fighting him, Miss Toramaru.” You wave off her concerns. “Just let me talk to him. If anything happens I have Awyrgan here to help me out.”
“You gave that thing a name?”
“It has a name to begin with, Miss Toramaru. It would be very offended if it could understand Japanese.”
Shou seems taken aback by that remark, “Um, apologies...Awyrgan.” She gives a slight bow to the tank. “Just try not to escalate things, okay? I have confidence in you since you’ve handled problematic Outsiders before.”
You notice that the tank lowers its main gun in response, even though it did not understand what Shou was saying.
“Awyrgan, can you deliver the harvest to the clinic? I may take a while.” It doesn't have much of a role to play in the next acts of this play, so you reckon that leaving it with Reisen is probably the smart thing to do.
The tank rumbles, “WILL THOU BE SAFE?”
“You care that much about me?” It’s a funny feeling, to have such a being worried about you. Not a bad feeling by any measure. “I’ll be fine, don’t worry.”
The guards part and let you through as the tank departs down the street. You stroll forward. Your shield crackles with energy, and you keep a firm grip on Awyrgan’s provided sword.
Still, just judging by the aura given off by his spear, your gear is just going to be adornments on the shishkabob you will become if you confront him directly.
”I...I didn’t protect her…what kind of...am I?”
“Mr. Ruby,” you say, slowly but firmly with confidence you do not have.
He notices your approach and turns towards you, spear raised, “Who are you?”
He has already forgotten about you. Convenient, but irritating. “Mr. Ruby,” You say, through involuntarily gritted teeth, “I am here to tell you that you have an option to get her back. A remote possibility, but a possibility nonetheless.”
“Clarify.” He says as he wipes some tears and sweat off of his face.
“Miss Konpaku is a being of the netherworld.” You solemnly state, careful not to let the facade slip. “And it is there, not Higan, where her soul shall find its final resting place.”
“What does that change?” he shouts, infuriated by the lack of an immediate answer, “She’s still gone for me!”
You clear your throat. “If you wish to rescue your love from the stillness of death, make your way to her home and let the power of your love demonstrate how much she means to you. The red strings of affection can drag her soul back from death into the world of the living. All you need to do is go there, and pull her out from the river of spirits.”
“Is it...that simple? Why should I trust you?”
With trembling hands you dig into your pocket, feeling for the edge of Nue’s spell card. She had helped you modify it earlier today when Tewi called you about the next step, but you are rather wary of activating a piece of the nue’s power like this.
The card feels warm as you stroke and mutter an incarnation. Without warning, ghostly flames ignite all over your body, wreathing you with plasma. You barely manage to suppress a yelp until you remind yourself that this is an illusion, like the rest of Nue’s spell card mechanisms, and feel that the flames are heatless.
“I...” You stutter a bit as you continue the routine, and cover if up with another throat-clearing. “I go by a different name among the living, but I am one of Gensokyo’s psychopomps. You do not have to trust me, but without me you will not have Lady Saigyouji’s blessing to enter the Netherworld.”
He stares at you for a few moments, then says, “Wouldn’t Lady Saigyouji want...”
You quickly cut him off. “Lady Saigyouji can retain Miss Konpaku’s services in the Netherworld regardless if she’s alive or not. She has no stake in this match. It’s just you.”
Youmu actually has friends that would go save her. Not many, but she does have good relationships with the incident resolvers, the Yakumo household, and some villagers she regularly shops from. She told you this so you know to avoid bringing it up with Benson. Who, judging by what Tewi dug through while he was roofied, did not do his due diligence in this area, blinded by attraction as he is.
He also doesn’t know that everything you’ve said was complete and utter horseshit. Believable horseshit, but still horseshit. If she was dead she’d end up in Higan like everyone else, but that would be too complicated since not even Tewi can convince someone like Eiki to play along.
“You will lead me into the Netherworld?”
“I’ve already prepped a vehicle. All you need to do is follow me.”
Benson dismisses his spear into its Ethereal Sheath, and looks at you with gleaming, desperate eyes. “Let’s go then! Lead me!”
You nod, turn, and begin walking out of the square.
“Who’s dead?” Shou quietly asks as you pass by her, “I didn’t quite catch it.”
You’re quite glad that Benson did not call out Youmu’s name in his throes of sorrow, “Shhh…it’s not important. Just let me handle this, okay?”
“Alright...as long as you lead him away from the Village.”
The guards give Benson an understandably much wider berth than they give you, especially as he is practically twitching with irritated anticipation. They gave you no problems from them as you lead him out of the village gates and down the road towards the Netherworld gates.
Benson tries to ask you stuttering questions multiple times as you walk, but you ignore him. Mostly since you’re not quite good enough to improvise answers to them, but partially because you’re trying to make sure that you’re on the right path in the patchwork of roads that go through Gensokyo’s primary valley. You’ve walked this path before, but you’re trying to make sure that you don’t deviate, to avoid arousing suspicion.
It took quite a bit longer than your trip by bike, but you arrive back at the silphium fields. The work site Youmu was working at is mostly cleared up, and now you can clearly see what she was making when she held a blade to your throat: A large hot-air balloon...leashed to a very long magical length of chain that goes all the way up the sky to the gates of the Netherworld located above this point.
Youmu said that it’s so that people who can’t fly can get a chance to view the blossoms of the Netherworld. Odd that there are humans who want to visit the realm of the dead, you think, but a good reason to build it, and convenient for you too.
Good thing Benson doesn’t know how to fly yet, otherwise none of this would’ve worked and he would be stalking Youmu right at her house.
“Hop on in,” you say to Benson as you open the door. Benson dutifully comes on, and you light the burner. The fumes given off are multicolored, and the balloon begins to ascend rather quickly given the weight of its current payload, well, for a hot-air balloon, anyway.
It was right as the balloon left the ground that Benson asks a question you can’t just ignore, “Why are you helping me, shinigami?”
The honest answer is that you’re not, but obviously you’re not going to say this. You ponder on it for a few moments, then decide that it’s probably better to let off a little steam, rather than risk blowing your cover.
A little, personal steam, just enough to convince yourself of the deception for a bit.
“Mr. Ruby, let me tell you a very short story.”
He blinks, confused.
“Once upon a time, not too long ago, there was a young girl. This young girl was no half-phantom, youkai, or anything special. In fact, she was decidedly below-average as a human being, and was treated accordingly. She was abused, beaten, and shunned by the society around her, which only barely tolerated her existence. What do you think happened next?”
“...A kind person must have picked her up and moved her away from that horrible place, right?” Benson says hopefully.
“If this was a fairy tale, perhaps. But in this world, there is only a limited amount of happiness to go around, and this girl was at the bottom of the list for deserving happiness. For you see, this girl took all of her abuse in stride, for she had not the capacity to comprehend that what’s happening to her is wrong in anyway. Most people in this world suffer in such a manner, Mr. Ruby. You are an American, yes?”
“Then surely you would know that the relative luxuries you were born into already put you on the top of the list for happiness. I am not asking you to apologize, Mr. Ruby.” You cut him off just as he was going to do just that. “None of us had a choice in which womb we went into, and there’s always somebody better off than you. I’m simply asking that you recognize that there are many people with far less joy in life than you, and yet do not look at your position with venomous envy.”
You watch him breathe a sigh of relief at the psychopomp not pushing this issue. You don’t actually care much about the whole social inequality thing. You just wanted to subtly signal to him that most other Outsiders DO in fact, view people like him with venomous envy. You don’t really care if he picks up on the sign or not.
“As for the girl, well, you do not have to worry about her, for her blithe, abused life was quickly snuffed out like a candle by the world. Nobody remembers her name, and she was never given a proper name to begin with. Even her body, when found, was hastily cremated without ceremony. Not even her bones were left. Nothing for the world to put up with.”
Something was off about the way he said it. But you can't discern what. One of his eccentricities, no doubt.
“That’s just the way the world is, Mr. Ruby. This girl represents the experience of far more people than you. Do not mourn for her, she wouldn’t be able to appreciate it anyway.” A gust of wind blows by, straining the balloon against the chain briefly. “You are not that girl, Mr. Ruby. You have a chance at appreciating your happiness, and I see that I can help you to your goal with but light effort on my end. That’s why I am helping you.”
Silence, save for the sound of the winds this high up. You watch Benson attempt to discern the true intent of your little tale with visible consternation on his face.
“Why didn’t you help that girl then?” He asks, having found a flaw in your moral. "You didn't think she deserved that fate, do you?"
You decide to dismiss that question instead of revealing the real story, “I am a psychopomp, Mr. Ruby, not a superhero. I am bound to Gensokyo, first and foremost. It’s not a story I personally witnessed, but one told to me by another. Rest assured, I have a lot of these stories. Would you like to hear more?”
Benson purses his lips, then shakes his head, “No thanks.”
Everything in those last couple sentences were lies too.
The basket of the balloon brushes lightly against the edge of the floating island, having reached the top of the chain. Glyphs inscribed on the basket glow gently, allowing the balloon to dim its flame and dock at one of the great wooden pillars in front of the gate without issue.
You step out of the balloon, with Benson cautiously following behind. You’re just as nervous as he is. This is your first time stepping into one of the truly magical areas of Gensokyo, and who knows how the spirits residing within will react to your presence? Especially considering your previous...acts.
Still, you swallow down that nervousness and maintain your facade of iron. Surreptitiously flipping open your armband, you dramatically call out, “Lady Saigyouji, as a shepherd of souls, allow me entrance to your domain of the dead!”
You wait a few moments for Youmu, who has the receiver, to prep and tell Yuyuko, while you remain as still and stoic as a statue. Then, you see the hovering barrier in front of the gate flicker slightly, and the great doors unlatch, opening just a small, person-width gap.
Quietly taking a deep breath, you look back to make sure Benson hasn’t developed any ideas that would throw off the script. Seeing that he is just visibly nervous at the task before him, you turn back and stride forward.
The divine energy given off by his spear is pricking against your back. You’ve relieved some of the pressure building up in your heart by telling him that “story”, but you still don’t feel relaxed enough for this task.
The sword Awyrgan gave you feels more like a liability now, since it’s not like you can really defend yourself with it, and having a weapon may justify violence in his eyes. Still, you hold the hilt tightly, as a comfort object, while you proceed along the path.
The scene of the Netherworld before you is the not one from the fighting games, as this is the apex of summer, and the trees are lush with green. The foggy mist that clouds the landscape and hides the true area of the Netherworld is sparse in the summer heat, as Youmu told you during last night's dinner. You can see what appears to be an endless expanse of trees, beautiful yet oddly lifeless, giving way to tall, alien mountains in the distance. This is truly a different world, not like Gensokyo which is simply layered on top of Yatsugatake Mountains.
Stray souls flitter through the air like huge schools of fish, and a large number of them notice your warmth enough to gather around like curious pigeons, scuttling away from your (real and fake) auras but never going more than a few meters away. Are they attracted to you because of your warm body, or are they attracted to you because they are sympathizing?
You stroll like this down the path for a while in silence, before Benson pipes up again. “Can you tell me exactly what I need to do when we reach the river of spirits?”
“Confess your love and drag her out. That is all that is needed. Tis the way of the river of spirits.”
There’s a river in the Netherworld. It’s just a normal river that feeds the trees, not anything special. Benson would’ve known this if he actually tried to be friends with Youmu like a functional human being, you think to yourself.
“So, uh, Miss Konpaku,” you ask as you clink your sake cup with Tewi’s. “How did this man “pursue your hand” other than through stalking? We know that he was a massive fan of yours before he arrived in Gensokyo, but I don’t know what happened afterwards.”
Youmu looks up as she taps on her chopsticks, “Hmm...the first thing I remember is when I ran into him while shopping here in the Village. I heard my name being shouted, and I turned around to see him just running up to me with a box of chocolates...”
“Mmm...free chocolates...” you are briefly reminded of the box of chocolates you obtained from some other nitwits, “...Sorry, go on.”
“...and then passionately declared how much he loves me and how I was the one meant for just him. I did not know what to say! My training failed to cover this sort of thing!”
“You’re saying you haven’t gotten anybody interested in you before?” Sumireko asks, a bit red from the illegal drinking she’s doing.
“I did, but they were polite and I dealt with them by just saying no. This is the first time where somebody just lunged at me with a proposal, and then when I gathered my wits to say no, he declared that he would try harder to win my affection! That is when the stalking began, and the unwanted gifts. He even declared that his spear would be used to defend my honor, and went on a hunting spree of feral youkai...many of them not near the Village.” Youmu gulps down her cup and pours another one, uncaring for the fact that her hairband is getting lopsided. “I am getting worried that soon he might kill somebody sapient.”
You pick out a choice piece of stewed daikon. “Has he, you know, tried talking to you like a normal person? Apologize for his behavior?”
“I actually cannot recall any conversations other than confessions and declarations from him. He also talked over me almost every time.”
You take this opportunity to make a jab at Sumireko. “See? Sumi?” You don’t feel the need to say “Miss Usami” when she’s younger than you. “This is the type of people you’ve let in.”
“Without me you wouldn’t have gotten in either.” She shoots back.
“True, but I’m not the one who’s effectively built an identity around Gensokyo. I could still be happy staying Outside for the rest of my life.” You briefly pause to chow down on the daikon, “Experiencing Gensokyo is wonderful, but not my life’s goal. It’s more of a diversion than anything.”
The second sentence is only technically not a lie, but Sumireko doesn’t need to know that.
“You still took advantage of my notes and became another Outsider butting his head in this land.”
“I don’t contest that statement. I am just another Outsider butting my head in for kicks, and expect to be treated as such.”
“And are you sure we are on the right track?” he asks, brushing aside a branch as the trees grow thicker, blocking the way ahead with walls of green.
“Do you doubt me, mortal?” you say in your authoritative voice, “I have traced these steps more times than you have eaten in your life.”
You have taken this path exactly zero times, as this is your first time in the Netherworld. Youmu gave you directions to follow the stone path for three hundred paces then go straight east through the trees, but didn’t get more specific than that.
“Right, sorry.” He goes silent for a few moments, then pipes up again. “Shinigami, are you sure that this will work? That I just need to drag her out of the river?”
“If the two of you are truly tied together with the red string, then love alone would be strong enough to overcome the barriers of death. It is true love you two share, is it not? For an impure relationship is not sufficient.” You add on the last sentence in a vague hope to dissuade him without having to resort to the skit.
“Of course it’s true love!” He states without a shred of self-doubt. “Youmu loves me and I love her! I daresay there is no purer love that I have experienced!”
He had prior relationships? You and Tewi thought this man was a singleton loser like most of those obsessed with a “fictional” character. “Then tell me, Mr. Ruby, what makes you think that this love is ‘purer’?”
“Because there cannot possibly be a purer love in my life! The other loves I had were good to a degree, but flawed. They appeared true on the surface, but beneath there is only ugliness: conditions, demands, and other impurities which contaminated the love until it was no longer love.”
You take a few moments to process what he’s saying. “Are you saying that you and Youmu love each other unconditionally?”
“Yes! That is the pure love required, am I right?”
You suppress the urge to scream at him that there’s no such thing as unconditional love in this world, and that he’s simply projecting these delusions onto the phantom maiden to cope with his failed relationships that were probably his fault. Opting to deflect, you say, “I offered you an opportunity, not a guarantee. It remains to be seen if you have carved off a piece of the limited happiness...in this world.”
You mentally kick yourself for letting out some of your true thoughts again. Fortunately, Benson is just confused, “Limited happiness?”
“Yes. You don’t know? There is only a finite amount of happiness to go around in this world, that is why most human beings will end their lives in misery.”
“That’s not true! You even said so for me!” he protests, “Every human in this world can find happiness! As long as you strive hard enough for it like I do, you’ll be able to find it like me!”
A brief anger-induced blackout overwhelms your senses, and you stumble over a tree root in your daze.“EVERY HUMAN? DID I NOT TELL YOU VIA A STORY THAT MOST HUMANS WILL END UP DYING POOR, ALONE, AND/OR FORGOTTEN? HAS YOUR CUSHIONED RICH KID LIFE REALLY SMOOTHED OUT YOUR BRAIN SO MUCH THAT YOU SERIOUSLY THINK EVERYONE IN THIS WORLD CAN BE HAPPY? IF YOU COUNT BEING STRANGLED TO DEATH IN AN ALLEYWAY TO BE HAPPINESS THEN SURE! YOU FUCKING—-”
You feel a weight push on your back as Benson stumbles headfirst into you. “Sorry,” he says, rubbing his forehead, “This sudden wave of buzzing came over my ears and made me dizzy.”
“Tis fine. The land of the dead does strange things to your senses. Be on your guard.” You mutter.
The two of you continue walking, and before he can ask another question that irritates you, the sound of rushing water reaches your ears. Benson perks up, eyes gleaming with renewed vigor, and begins running towards the source, heedless of your attempt to slow him down.
“Youmu! I’m coming for you right now! Hold on!” he shouts, sprinting with supernatural grace. Following him, you struggle to keep up with his pace even with the exoskeleton’s help, as while you have lost weight thanks to Eientei bombing and reconstructing you, your cardio hasn’t improved much.
With burning lungs, you breach the treeline behind Benson, panting. You look to see that the man is standing on the edge of the shore, hands cupped around his mouth, shouting.
“Youmu! I’m here! Where are you?”
“Be silent.” With great effort, you slow your breathing down to normal levels. “Let me perform the rituals to coax her spirit from this river.”
You step into the water, allowing the eerily lukewarm waters to embrace you up to your ankles. Raising your arms, you wave them around in a random pattern. Opening your mouth, you let out some vaguely mystical-sounding syllables. The flame aura dances along with your motions like one of those inflatable tube men in front of car dealerships, adding to the verisimilitude.
Right as you start worrying that Youmu’s not in position, a figure begins emerging from the river. A ghostly, translucent version of the samurai girl. Her breath is chilled, frostier than the winter air. Her movements are stilted replications of the fluid motions of life, eerie and awkward. Her eyes are lifeless, mere glassy shells that bear no light or hint of vitality.
There is no mistaking this as one of the undead.
Because it is. It’s her phantom half.
Again, Benson would know that she can use her phantom half as a body double if he talked to her like a normal person. He would even know that just from playing the fighting games. However, Tewi wagered that even if he wasn’t a secondary, grief and desperation would blind his common sense enough to dispel suspicion.
And Tewi guessed right, for he lunged at the phantom without hesitation, with outstretched arms and a desperate plea on his lips. You watch with stifled laughter as he then proceeds to fall through the translucent form, landing face-first into the river.
Youmu stares at him with as much stoicism as she can muster. “Who are you?” She says with a ghostly voice, albeit not a practiced one.
“It’s me! Benson, your lover!” he shouts back, heedless of his now sopping wet hair and drenched clothing.
“I know not of such a person.” Youmu replies, some small cracks in her acting voice, “You must have mistaken me for another deceased.”
“No, that’s not true! Look at my face!”
The phantom half looks at his pleading expression for a while. “No...I do not recognize you. Grief must have disturbed your senses. I cannot be the one you are looking for.”
“But if you do not remember my face, then surely you remember the gifts I gave you, my beloved! Surely...”
“Gifts? I was dimly aware of trinkets being offered to me...was it you?” Youmu speaks in a monotone, though that’s less a deliberate choice and more due to the fact that she’s reading off of Tewi’s scripts. “I was not aware that those were meant for romance...for that is how worthless they were.”
Silence for a moment. Your Hunter’s Module is picking up Youmu’s physical signature behind a tree a little ways off, hunched over and trembling a little. She isn’t quite used to playing the bad guy.
“Worthless?” Benson seems to get a hint, and promptly discards it. “My beloved, I can understand, but even if they were worthless, can you not feel my feelings through them?”
“I felt nothing from them, just like how I feel nothing towards you. As I am no longer among the living...I never will.”
Benson recoils, as if stung. He stumbles backward, nearly falling onto his rear and forcing him to stabilize himself with his spear. “No...you...you must have forgotten the feeling! Death must have sealed away the feeling of love!”
“Well, then we have nothing to talk about then? Even if I was in love with you before, which I doubt, I am but a stranger now. Ah.” Youmu unwittingly lets out a sigh of relief at that last sentence.
“No...love always wins...doesn’t it?”
Good, finally some self-doubt. You can’t help but crack a smug smile as you watch the Outsider revert to his previous desperation.
“There must be a way. Shinigami!” He turns towards you.
“I said this would work if a red string bound the two of you. It appears now that you were mistaken.” You cross your arms and sigh. “You could speak with her spirit as long as you like, but the result won’t be any different.”
The young man stands staring at you in perfect stillness for a few more moments. Then his mouth opens, and a strange, deadened voice comes out. “You are wrong. Youmu loves me, and I love her.”
“I do not.” the phantom-half says, backing you up.
“I am sure of it...Youmu definitely loves me...if she doesn’t love me, then nobody ever will.”
“Huh?” You are genuinely confused by this statement. The phantom half reacts as well with a confused expression on her face.
Benson must have realized that he said something weird, as his face reddens. He purses his lips and scratches his head, then moves on as if nothing happened.
“Youmu.” He turns back to the apparition. “From the moment I knew of your existence, I was infatuated. The snow-white hair, the pure personality, the little bits of dorkiness, I knew that you were special. You were not one of those who wanted me just for my wealth.”
“But we didn’t know each other...” the phantom protests.
“We didn’t. Not until that fateful day this June when I caught sight of you in Toyosu. Despite you being in disguise, I felt the love between us blossom the moment we locked eyes with each other. It was a pure feeling I’ve never felt before, swelling from the bottom of my heart. It was a special feeling that I know only those who are truly chosen for each other can share.”
You are about to say that it must have been a cosplayer before you note that he mentioned “disguise”. You turn to the phantom to see her response, and to your surprise Youmu has completely frozen up.
“You remember this, don’t you?” he says, in a tone barely above a whisper.
The phantom swiftly dissipates as he says that, fleeing from the scene, while you can see Youmu’s physical outline slouching down in a panic on your Module. Benson turns towards you with a sigh. “Shall we try again sometime later, shinigami? As you can see I’ve made some progress here.”
“Uh, sure.” You’re not quite sure how to respond, but you know it’s probably a bad idea to just straight up deny his request. “The ritual only works once per day, so please come tomorrow.”
“Acknowledged. I shall be taking my leave from this place on the balloon then. I would like to visit Lady Saigyouji but I know it would be rude to interrupt her mourning.” He turns, spear over shoulder, and gives an offhand wave. “See you tomorrow.”
You watch him as he disappears into the trees, then you watch as his signature exits the range of your Hunter’s Module. Then, you let out a deep sigh of relief, and walk over to where Youmu is hiding.
“So, why did you freeze up there?” You ask the trembling phantom maiden sitting under the tree.
“He was not lying. I did lock eyes with him in Toyosu.” Youmu mutters, avoiding your gaze.
“You were Outside in Toyosu...” You scratch your head, “Around the fish market, right? Right, I think I saw you too there, though I didn’t recognize you since you had a wig or something on. What were you doing Outside?”
“I was there with Lady Yakumo’s blessing to stock up on seafood, since we do not have a sea in Gensokyo. Ugh...I could not have known this would happen.”
“What, that you made eye contact with some rando? Tch.” You can’t help but let out some disdain at her concern. “I made eye contact with lots of people. Does that mean I’m in love with all of them?”
“But that still means I am the one who gave him reason to think so!” Youmu’s frantically ruffling through her now-messy white hair. “That means I have to take responsibility for the consequences of tampering with a young mind like that!”
“Oh no no no. No you don’t.” You lean against the tree with one hand. “He’s the one being unreasonable here. You shouldn’t have to do anything.”
A gust of cool air from the side cuts off Youmu’s reply. You turn your head to see a figure, clad in a white-and-blue kimono and sporting wavy locks of pink hair, gently floating on the air through the trees.
“Youmu~, it’s almost lunch time,” comes a cheery, lilting voice from the throat of the ghost princess. “Oh, your new friend is still here? Why don’t you come over for a meal?”
“New friend? Uh, Lady Yuyuko, Mr. Wu isn’t really...”
You cut Youmu off. “Yeah, I’m more of an unpaid worker, Lady Saigyouji.”
“Unpaid? All the more reason to treat him to lunch then.” Yuyuko waves for the two of you to follow, “Youmu, hospitality and gratitude are important, friend or no.”
“Right, of course, Lady Yuyuko.” Youmu gives a glance at your face, which is mostly just reflecting a bit of gluttony, and begins walking behind her mistress.
Hakugyokurou, the Tower of White Jade. Well, there’s no tower or white jade, making its name rather non-indicative. It fulfills its purpose as a small palace for the princess of the Netherworld, readily staffed by one person. The traditional-style buildings are plain and unadorned, fitting with the generally simplistic theme of the Netherworld in general. The elaborate Zen gardens around the buildings only add to this feeling of minimalism, the grey gravel and short trees reminding you more of a desolate slice of urban life than anything spiritual.
The stairs up here were long, but nothing your exoskeleton can’t handle.
Youmu already hurried off to prepare lunch, so it’s just you and Yuyuko sitting on the veranda. A swiftly cooling cup of tea sits by your right side, the heat rapidly dissipating from the amount of curious spirits in the air around this area.
“Usually they are not quite so feisty.” Yuyuko comments, uncaring of you snapping a quick selfie with her. “But it is not often that normal humans visit the Netherworld. Your plain warmth attracts them.”
“I see, Lady Saigyouji.” you say, putting away your phone and going back to holding the tea, “It’s not the season for cherry blossoms either, so I assume visitors are rare.”
“You assume correctly, Mr. Wu.” says Yuyuko, sipping her own tea.
You look over to the north side of the building. There, with its barren branches spilling against the sky, is the Saigyou Ayakashi. It is easily larger than any other tree you’ve seen, including the redwoods of California you are familiar with. Even from this distance, you can feel the faint traces of its sealed power, a distinct tingle on your skin.
“Hakugyokurou is really close to that tree.”
“It is. In retrospect, my friend likely intended for me to stay close by building this shrine here. A ghost should not dwell far from its grave, after all. Don’t you think?”
You set down the teacup, frowning, “That’s an odd question to ask a human. In my opinion, a ghost can dwell wherever it wants, as long as it doesn’t bother people.”
“You would say that, Mr. Wu~” she says with a small smile.
“I’m just a believer in freedom. Blame my life in America for that.” you joke.
You watch a particularly brave spirit swim down through the air until it’s right in front of you. You touch it out of curiosity. Ice cold, and the texture feels like forgotten regrets.
“They don’t usually dare get so close, perhaps you have something they want, Mr. Wu~?”
“I don’t know, do I?” You wave for the spirit to go away, and it flies off. “I am happy that they’re not firing bullets at me, at least.”
“If you’re not stirring things up, they will not react with danmaku.” Yuyuko reaches for the teapot and fills your cup. “You’re not one to trouble others, I assume from your actions.”
You rap your knuckles against the floor in thanks for the refill, then firmly say, “I’m just a fan here to enjoy Gensokyo while I’m alive.”
“A simple tourist, hmm? Have you been eating well here?”
You give a quick thought over your diet these past few days. “I’ve been eating expired rations, sure, but also good food. Nothing as good as the expensive restaurants in Nagano of course, except for the stews at Geidontei. So...I guess I have been eating fine?”
“Good. It is important for those who persist in the world to eat.” You perk up at Yuyuko’s odd choice of wording as she talks. “Food keeps us bound to the material and free from the calls of the higher realms. To eat, is to live.”
“Eating as an anchor to the world of the living, eh? That’s your motivation?”
“No, I eat because I find it enjoyable.” Yuyuko opens up her fan and begins fanning herself, sending tiny butterfly specters flying out. “I am merely stating why it is important for us.”
You can’t ignore it, “You’ve been saying ‘us’, what do you mean...”
“Mr. Wu~” She cuts you off without breaking her carefree, sing-song tone, “I am merely stating the importance because you look a little pale in the face, which could be caused by malnutrition.”
You gulp, shrinking back from her gaze. “You...can see?”
“See what? Hmm?” Yuyuko flattens her lips and raises her eyebrows. “I’m just interested in the health of a child like you, that is all.”
“Right, right. Thanks for your concern.” You go back to your previous position and clasp your teacup. “‘Child…calling me a child...’”
The two of you sip tea in silence for a few moments, until you can’t stand it any more and have to broach the subject again...in a way. “Lady Saigyouji, is it right for an....Outsider to vacation in Gensokyo?”
“As you’ve said, as long as you’re not bothering anyone, it is fine.”
“Right, but Outsiders don’t belong in Gensokyo, they should be Outside. So isn’t it very selfish and wicked for an Outsider to disrupt this natural state of things?”
“That would be entirely your opinion, of course. If you want my opinion, if that Outsider has been through a lot, if that Outsider has choked upon the dust of the world, if that Outsider was battered and bruised by uncaring hands and feet, if that Outsider succumbed to their misery in nothing but agony...”
She extends a hand, and places it right on top of your head. Slowly, gently, she ruffles through your short hair.
“...Then that Outsider can decide for themselves if they should visit and stay.”
“Stay?” You let Yuyuko ruffle you without any resistance, “Are you saying that I can...stay?”
Yuyuko flattens her lips again, but this time she looks down with visible sorrow on her face, “You can definitely try, but I’m afraid any stay is already on borrowed time. You can feel this, can’t you? The clock ticking away, bit by bit until you have to leave?”
“You have a stock of time, but it is running out, bit by bit. And when it’s gone, you’ll have to consume your own life, and by then, will you remember?”
You close your eyes as you feel tears welling up, “So you’re telling me that I can’t stay.”
“I suppose I could tell you that you are fortunate for being the only one to visit, but that must be cold comfort.” She pauses the ruffling to wipe the tears that found their way past your eyelids. “When you do leave, I’ll make sure the Netherworld is open to you. You can stay here as long as you want.”
You force the tears back. This is no way to behave in front of someone like Yuyuko. “Again, thank you, Lady Saigyouji, I’ll be sure...to keep that in mind.”
“Food’s ready!” Youmu calls from the kitchen. “It’ll be in the dining room!”
“Well, shall we go then?” Yuyuko says as she gets up, “While you still can, do savor every morsel of life here.”
“Definitely, Lady Saigyouji.” Lunch beckons, and you allow the aroma coming from the kitchen to clear your troubled thoughts.
Youmu makes some damn good food. Definitely restaurant quality. Though given how you’ve heard that restaurant food gets its taste from unhealthy amounts of fat and salt added during the preparation, you’re not quite sure that this food, made for Yuyuko’s undead palate, is necessarily good for you.
“That’s a...lot of food.” You say, staring at the glistening golden pile of fried vegetables before you.
“It’s an average quantity.” Youmu says, while Yuyuko, being the eldest at the table, is already happily snapping up the tempura and sampling the fish stew (read: chugging it). With the food disappearing at a rapid pace before your eyes into the mouth of what you are now sure is actually a preta or something, you move quickly as well to eat.
The food is...very rich in flavor. Overwhelmingly so, even. Is it seasoned so heavily because ghosts have a diminished sense of taste? No, it’s more likely that Yuyuko simply prefers such foods. You are not used to tempura with the aura of cumin, but it is not a bad experience with Youmu’s handiwork, just different.
You eat as much as you can, savoring each bite. Food is, after all, one of the few things you can truly derive pleasure in.
“Eat as much as you wish.” Youmu says, piling on more vegetables onto your bowl before Yuyuko can disappear them. “Once again, it’s thanks for your aid.”
“I’m just doing what I should be doing. Safeguarding the virtues of Gensokyo’s fair maidens against the savages that would seek to defile them.” You say with a minstrel’s tone and a blatant lack of sincerity, provoking a glare from Youmu and another giggle from Yuyuko. “‘Tis no matter which would demand just reward.”
“You just feel the compulsive need to help, don’t you?” Yuyuko comments.
“Err…” You deflate as the ghost pokes at your inflated bravado, “No? Uh…maybe a little bit?”
“I don’t see why you would intervene in such a personal matter otherwise.”
“Personal matter? Um…speaking of that, say, Miss Konpaku, what do you look for in a partner, anyway?” You put it out bluntly, hurrying to change the topic, “Surely you must have thought of it, and from my understanding, the person transcribing your stories to the Outside World omits such details.”
Youmu turns red as Yuyuko muffles a laugh, “Th…that’s none of your business! You don’t have the same intentions as him, right?”
“No but I do have the insatiable curiosity of a fan…and maybe a desire to render myself a more suitable romance subject for other people…err…other Outsiders…for when I go back Outside.” You lean on your hand as you pick at the rice, “I had a cordial but cold break-up in my past, and I don’t want to repeat that again.”
“You have more experience than me then.” Youmu looks at you weirdly, “Why are you asking I, a reclusive gardener?”
“Just chatting, and I want your opinion on things since I’m involved with your unwanted admirer.” You think of a good reason, “Such as if I’m to solicit a stand-in partner to fulfill his dreams and resolve things happily and peacefully.”
Her phantom half rests on her head as she thinks, “Umm…I suppose I would like someone who can help me with chores and gardening? Someone who can handle the work I don’t like to do, sweeping the halls and such…”
“Or raising a family.” Yuyuko chimes in. Youmu pretends she didn’t hear that.
“...cleaning the bathrooms, gathering firewood during winter.” The half-phantom taps her chin, “Another pair of hands around here really would be welcome.”
“So you just want a hired worker then.” You drum your fingers on the table, “But what about the emotional aspects? Surely it gets lonely up here with just you and Lady Yuyuko.”
“Lonely? How so? If I want to talk with someone else I can just fly down, and from what I know plenty of humans only cohabit with a single other person.”
“I meant more of a, umm…figurative sense?” You’re stumbling over your words now, “Don’t you feel the need to have someone of equal status as you comfort you, hold you and offer you…love?”
Yuyuko giggles and waves her fan at your face, and you just realized that you’ve said more about yourself than anything else.
“No? I don’t feel that desire.” Youmu frowns, “Perhaps it’s like Reimu said, I’m not experienced enough.”
“Experienced…eh, you know what?” You decide to retreat and suck up a bit, “Youmu, you’re probably better off than most people then. There’s no point in believing in love, when all love does is push a rock in your face when you need it the most. Remaining stoic is the true way.”
The half-ghost gardener glares at you, “Are you joking again?”
“No, I’m just conceding defeat.” You finish stuffing yourself. Full, you feel, and quite satisfied. “Also, anything better to talk about?”
“How about something to do instead? A spot of activity?” Yuyuko suggests, even as (or perhaps because) she goes for the remaining food with gusto.
“Indeed, something we can do, whether it be our, uh, plan.” Youmu stumbles over that word, “Or just something beyond theoretical talk.”
You consider several possibilities, before deciding that you want to get up and move a bit. “How about some light exercise after the meal?”
“Oh! We can practice swordsmanship then!” A sudden burst of excitement comes into Youmu’s voice, “I’ve only been practicing with myself since Grandpa Youki left, and those who carry swords in this land are uninterested in proper swordsmanship. Even the White Wolves neglect any technique beyond what is necessary to dispatch a feral, despite their posturing.”
“Do you not instruct me in fencing, Youmu~?”
“Apologies, Lady Yuyuko, you…are more of an observatory learner.”
Yuyuko feigns a hurt look, which Youmu ignores.
“Swordsmanship?” You look down and see the sword Awyrgan gave you, “Sure…I’ll be interested in learning how to use this thing. I have no experience whatsoever though.”
“I’ll just be giving you a quick and gentle lesson then!” Youmu seems a bit less excited, but animated nonetheless as she grabs a shinai and heads out to the courtyard, “Come, let’s see what you’ve got!”
“Okay.” You follow her out and take up what you think to be a fighting stance, activating and guarding your front with your graviton shield and holding the sword to the side. “I am using a shield though, so it’s not the Japanese-style swordsmanship you are—”
“Legs down.” A smack from Youmu’s shinai hits you in the thigh, sending a jolt of mild pain through the armor somehow. “Many aspects are universal, and there’s no need to quibble about styles and forms when you don’t have the fundamentals.”
“Ow…okay.” You dutifully crouch more.
“Get your center of gravity low. This is more important since you can’t fly, and can’t jump and dash...” Youmu leaps and soars over your head, landing behind you and tapping her shinai on your shoulder. “So in a typical danmaku battle, or even a physical fight, you’ll have to stand firm and block the incoming attacks, which you can do with your shield and armor. Next step: Pivoting! You must be on the balls of you feet, and…”
Youmu is surprisingly gentle in instructing as she walks you through the basics, though you wonder if the Taichi-level pacing is because both of you just ate, and she would be a more formidable teacher if that wasn’t the case. While she does not hesitate in physically correcting your movements with strikes, she orders you slowly enough that you don’t even break a sweat as you go through the motions and gradually adjust your scrappy fighting form into something more presentable.
“Be sure not to slouch, and always keep your head turned towards your enemy’s whole body as you move, no matter if they’re flying and flinging bullets or in front of you swinging a sword. LIKE THIS!” You don’t lift your shield in time and earn a firm smack on the noggin. “Always watch their arms, but don’t forget about their legs!”
“What if I’m facing more than one enemy?”
“Then focus on their general positions, and watch the patterns in movements. Ideally, however, you should never face more than one without decades of training. Even simple ferals are lethal in numbers.”
“I mean, even one hungry feral is dangerous to me right now.” Another swing, but you just manage to block it this time.
“Understandable. You can’t use your own magic, and are otherwise a normal human.” Youmu goes in for a slow stab this time, which would be tricky to parry in your untrained hands, but you have a shield so this one is easily blocked. “As of now, just focus on…”
“Eh?” You straighten and look up to see an armored figure, held aloft by what appears to be thrusters mounted on its back, pull in from flight into a hover over Hakugyokurou.
“Who goes here?” Youmu shouts, flying up to confront the intruder, “Trespassers will be cut down without mercy!”
“Worry thou not. I show mine presence openly, for I am an associate of the one thou art sparring.” It flies down with its arms raised, landing gracefully, “ Cyfarchion, my friend!”
“Kh-Fark-iyon? To you too? Wait, that manner of speaking…” You narrow your eyes. “Are you Awyrgan?”
“A drone manipulated over long distances, connected by moonsilver ansible, this body is.” You can see now that the armor is actually the thing’s skin, barely concealing knots and cords of the same structures you observed under the tank’s plating. “Mine full form fit not on balloon baskets, and flight capabilities art yet be achieved in that chassis. Hmph, I see injuries none, and naught a puncture in thy armor. The villain hath left thee well alone?”
“I’m not stupid enough to pick a fight with him.” You grumble. “And don’t assume that I like getting into fights in general.”
“Nonetheless, thou art honing thy skills with arms, art thou not?”
“Just in case I need to use it.” You say as you settle back into the fighting stance, “I’m pretty sure that in 99.99% of circumstances, I’d just use a firearm like a normal person.”
“Thou cannot combat a spiritually-empowered being with such impersonal implements. When hast thou know of a hero who suffered death at the tip of an anonymous bullet spewed forth from an automatic?”
What is this tank talking about? “I’m sure plenty of war heroes died from things like machine gun fire. Aren’t you a tank? Your weapons are as impersonal as it gets without going into fire-and-forget missiles.”
“I hath loose-and-let slip munitions for animals and ferals, not for those versed in spiritual power. Thou art forgetting, too, that when the killer is cited in those deaths, tis the great war that is blamed, not the unknown soldier behind the gun nor the contraption itself.”
“What about accidents?”
“Self-inflicted, or occurring well after a hero has faded into retirement. And thou would be wise to discount accidents as an event that may befall your relevant target.”
You are about to say something when you notice Youmu, landing back in the yard, looking irritated. “Can you two please speak in Japanese instead of English?” she says, “It’s rude to speak a language your hosts cannot understand while in another’s house.”
“Mae’n ddrwg gen i, Lady Konpaku. We were discussing the implications of certain weapons and how they impact lethality against spiritual beings like heroes.” Awyrgan is obviously not an experienced speaker in Japanese, as it is mostly using simpler vocabulary in this language.
Wait, does that mean that Awyrgan didn’t need you to translate? Did it ask you to do so just because it didn’t want to?
“Mae…what? Nevermind.” Youmu shares in your confusion. The horrid combination of consonants makes you deduce that Awyri is likely speaking Welsh, for whatever reason. “You are informing him that his firearms likely won’t work on a hero or strong youkai, right?”
“Doesn’t Sumireko have a 3D-printed gun that was strong enough to count as a spell card?” You ask.
“That was a very personal weapon, filled with intent to injure.” The drone explains, “Other than the fabricated parts, she had to assemble not just the guns, but also handload the bullet. It’s analogous not to a modern storm-barrel, but one of these.”
From a storage compartment in its leg, Awyrgan pulls out a flintlock pistol. The stock and grip is made from what looks to be reconstituted bamboo, and the barrel is supernaturally smooth, but otherwise it resembles the antique museum pieces you’ve seen. “Each shot requires the shooter to clean the weapon, load each component of the shot by hand, and take aim only at a range where both shooter and target can lock eyes. Not as intent-filled as a blade, but better than the bolt-action you are using, and far superior to an automatic. A revolver may also suffice, but only under the condition of a gunfight.”
“I would prefer to use neither, but if that’s what it takes.” You sigh, “Since I’m not going to be throwing aside my best defense, and as I’m not a good shot with a flintlock, I’ll just keeping using a blade. Ugh…not being able to use danmaku natively.”
“Danmaku is designed specifically to be nonlethal. This wouldn’t help you.” Youmu says, twirling her shinai, “And your friend is incorrect on one part. Any attack, magical or physical, will be effective at point blank range against most youkai, as doing so carries heavy intention no matter the choice. Presumably, this also extends to spiritually powerful humans.”
“Oh, is that so?” The drone shrugs, “Perhaps. I never fired my weaponry at a competent opponent closeup, for none of them will close distance.”
“That explains how my Lunarian rifle did well against that feral bear then. So I CAN use a normal gun, just without its largest benefit. Then wouldn’t I be better off with a bayonet on my rifle?”
“Can you fend off a close-quarters attack, from a skilled combatant, while holding your rifle in both hands?” The half-phantom asks, as she settles back into a fighting stance.
“Uh, lemme try.” You deactivate your shield and pick up one of the bokkens in the yard, “Let’s pretend this is a rifle, and I hold it like thus, and…OW!”
Youmu jabs you in the stomach with the shinai, easily moving around your clumsy attempt to block with the thin piece of wood.
“Ow...I see your point, and given how previous experience has established that things going for my life can close into melee quickly, this is not going to go well.” You groan and put down the bokken, activating your shield again. “One-handed weapons…I guess I can just use a pistol then? I barely know my way around a blade as is.”
“True, your skill with a sword poses a danger mostly to yourself.” The half-phantom comments.
The drone looks disappointed, somehow, even without a face. “But a sword is the noblest of weapons…ah, but you do require a weapon more suited for your needs against ferals. That pistol you have, let me combine it with your blade with my skills.”
“Alright!” You remove your smuggled gun from your hidden holster and hand it over, as well as the stun blade, “So, what are you going to do to it?”
“Refinement into a weapon more suited for your needs.” The drone opens up its chest cavity, and inserts the weapons inside. “Since you’re more likely going to land a killing blow by shooting, improving the defensive capabilities of the weapon would be the priority. Ere, what I shall do is merge the two weapons into a one-handed tool capable of fending off a melee rush with both parry and shot. Some reinforcement will be added to prevent it breaking in your time of need…”
“And I know how that feels like.” You mumble.
The drone rumbles for a few moments, and you hear what sounds like liquids being sloshed inside. A minute later, its chest cavity opens up…and out pops a weapon that does not belong in this world.
Well, gunblades did exist. As semi-practical weapons in the black powder age where you only got one shot, and in the 20th century as just curiosities that were only theoretically useful. This one has none of the elegance of a sword, however. It consists of an oddly light gun (your pistol reconstructed with moonsilver, you wager based on the gleaming silvery bits on the receiver, but the weird off-white material constituting the furniture is not identifiable), welded in organic, disturbing patterns to a bardiche-like blade on the underside that extends beyond the elongated barrel. A pair of hooks adorn the sides of the barrel for easier parrying, while the topside of the gun remains untouched save for the adjusted positions of the sights. It’s clearly a tool meant for a novice to defend himself, with none of the elegance or nobility of a proper blade.
You wrap your hands around the pistol grip. Much like a fencing foil, it works well despite also serving as a gun. You can pull the trigger easily, only having to adjust your index finger to utilize the weapon.
“It's loaded with rounds of false bravado and powder for playfighting. You should swap out the magazine with live rounds when you’re not practicing.”
“So this...” You unload the gun, and see that the current magazine both has no bullets and is glowing bright with magic, “You made me a danmaku magazine?”
“Correct. A sliver of moonsilver gathering magical power from the atmosphere. This is capable of more output than the simple charm given to you by the shrine maiden.”
You point to the sky and let off a shot. Several bullets fly out, in a scattering pattern reminiscent of a video game shotgun.
“A pattern calibrated for maximum hit chance against flying targets. It will serve you well in danmaku fights.”
“Can I use special rounds that don’t fire bullets but vibrate the blade for increased cutting power?” You ask, half-serious.
The drone gives you a faceless stare. “That accomplishes nothing, as this weapon is no pile bunker nor fantasy thou possess in thy head. You should just fire bullets at point blank range as we said, assuming what the phantom maiden-knight says is true.”
“Phantom maiden-kn…knight?” Youmu looks a bit flustered at Awyrgan’s choice of words, “Disregarding that, yes, bullets would suit you better than vibrating the blade, whatever that accomplishes.”
Settling back into your fighting stance, you put your shield up and hold the sword back in the Wolf Tengu fighting stance Youmu told you to use. “Now that I can shoot with the sword, is there anything to change?”
Youmu thinks for a few moments, “It can be thought of as a very long range thrust attack with no warning. A useful tool, but not one that would work against most of Gensokyo’s stronger denizens. Shoot me.”
You know what’s going to happen, and don’t even blink as Youmu trivially dodges the shots with a single sidestep, faster than what you can see with your eyes.
“I’m not looking to fight somebody like you though. This still works well against ferals, right?”
“Oh ferals are predictable and slow, and obviously have no danmaku experience. Same goes with any hostile normal Outsider that may attack you.” She taps your stiffened shoulder, reminding you to let it relax. “A few more lessons, and you should be able to deal with any of those coming your way. For more advanced training in your style…the tengu may have some dusty manuals they clearly do not use, but I doubt you’re getting on the mountain proper.”
“I mean, I’m getting into places I didn’t dream of getting into. Hakugyokurou being one of them. Having tea in the land of the dead really wasn’t part of my vacation plans, you know?”
“Unless you can put one of the wolves or crows in your debt, you will not find ingress with them. You can ride the ropeway up to the Moriya Shrine, but humans are not permitted in the regions where the tengu dwell.”
You do want to visit all of Youkai Mountain, but dealing with border patrol isn’t an appealing prospect. Moriya Shrine is probably enough.
Tap, tap, tap.
“Oh, someone’s at the door.” In the blink of an eye, Youmu disappears from view, leaving just a trail of disturbed petals to mark her passing.
Everyone is faster than you in Gensokyo, huh? Such is the life of a normal college student coming in to a literal fantasy world. At least most of them don’t want to kill you…you think.
“Tis a pity that you are so fragile and slow, like a glass sloth.” The drone says in English, presumably guessing your thoughts based off of your expression at Youmu’s speed.
“Wow, thanks Awyri.” You mutter back.
A couple moments later, Youmu comes back around the corner…along with a tall woman sporting nine very fluffy tails.
You can vote on this oneRifle!8xr41kzjvM2022/06/28 (Tue) 08:44No. 32076▼
“Oh, hello Ran!” Yuyuko exclaims as she clasps her hands, “What brings you to Hakugyokurou?”
“A security scan.” Ran says, in a tone halfway between a text-to-speech device and what you imagine a traditional geisha to talk like. It is an incredibly odd tone. “A checkup due to the confirmed presence of foreign bad actors in our land, such as the one who attacked the were-hakutaku teacher in the Village”
“Oh don’t worry about that.” The ghost princess says, “I maintain full control over the gate, and there has been no influx nor exodus of spirits. If there has been mischief happening, the Netherworld is free of it.”
“That is good to hear. The shikigami positioned to log travelers through the gate corroborate your assertion that there have been no untracked visitors.” Ran turns towards the drone and switches to German, taking you aback, “Iron Wing, query development status.”
“Health checks showeth all viridescent. Worry not, the Netherworld hold no influence over mine spirit nor mine body.” It says the second sentence as if reciting a dramatic line in a Shakespearean play.
“Mmhmm. And why are you associating with this statistical anomaly…pardon my rudeness, this oddly resilient Outsider?”
“Eh?” You can’t help but speak out. “Me, resilient?”
“Faultless, the assessment is.” The drone besides you says in English, “Resilience thou possesses beyond reach of humans. Not in a physical sense, for thou art fragile, but in a more general sense, describing thine time within this land.”
“Err…” Sometimes this tank just doesn’t make sense.
“Your TTL, Mr. Wu.” Ran says, “You are surely familiar with that term, as an Outsider.”
“Time-to-live…am I a network packet?”
“In terms of existing for only a brief moment before being consumed, yes. You have, however, persisted beyond estimations.” Without warning, she seizes you by the shoulder. “I need to mine some more data points from you to address the error in my calculations.”
“Um…sure?” You look towards the drone to see if it will intervene, but it merely shrugs…it can shrug?
“Shall I get some tea ready?” Youmu asks, hands forward and slightly bowed. “Lady Ran?”
“Of course, effective queries must be made under some degree of civilization.” Ran begins leading you into the house, “In Japan, the teacup is the most basic of such amenities.”
The tea wasn’t too hot. It seems that Youmu brought in a pre-simmered pot. As such, it wasn’t the best tea, but as polite refreshment and a conversation punctuator, it is more than enough.
Ran starts off with some seemingly inconsequential questions, such as the type of shampoo you use, your opinion on Japanese food, and the color you prefer for your shirts. From the micro-pauses in her speech between questions, you guess that she’s appending the information to her algorithm.
Twenty questions later, she pauses for quite a while longer to take a drink. Seeing this, you take the opportunity to ask a question of your own. “Lady Ran, if I may ask. How did you get the initial data about me?”
“I had you tracked and recorded, like everyone else who crossed the border. You didn’t think that signing in near the Village was without ulterior motive, surely.”
“Lady Ran, I am not that paranoid.” You barely remember what was basically a basic customs check. “Did writing down a name do something special?”
“The pens I gave to the human take samples of your DNA and spiritual signature.” Ran says as if that’s not the most surveillance state thing ever. “The monitoring shikigami around Gensokyo log movements of people registered, and listening shikigami in the populated areas log the appearance of their names and description in conversations. A necessity to ensure that the deterrence methods are working.”
“And how does that get my ‘TTL’?”
“Big data analysis methods, the details in which are a secret.” She says, “What is important is that you had an expected time-to-live of 36 hours, with plus or minus two hours of variance, as calculated based on your capabilities and your recorded actions. As I have said, you are a statistical anomaly for exceeding the estimate by twice, ‘Wu Ming’.”
“Really? I haven’t done anything too flashy.” You tug on your collar. Ran’s presence in the room is making you feel rather hot. Is it because her tails look so warm? Or is it the teapot? “Shouldn’t those with powers be more within your concern?”
“The empowered currently alive are not deviating from my calculations, though I will admit that Miss Usami and the first wave severely disrupted the existing algorithms designed to calculate the expiration date of outsiders. Speaking of the empowered,” Her tails perk up. “Miss Hakurei likely gave you an explanation, but it is not complete. She intentionally omitted a crucial datum.”
“Something Reimu didn’t tell me?”
“Every human can become an empowered, given time and intent, usually within a month according to my recorded data for those who shine.” Ran smirks, “It is why this land is so attractive to young men and women from the Outside World. Their bodies instinctively know what can be achieved in a lost paradise, where fear and faith from the ages of myth exist in densities unprecedented Outside. A memory in your genetic data carried over from the age where gods roamed the earth.”
“The empowered you know, such as Miss Usami, are born into it. But every human can achieve greatness, some becoming rising stars shining even in the Outside World.”
You mull over Ran’s words. “Does that mean that empowered who get what they want and leave can become superheroes in the Outside World? But in that case surely we would have seen it on the internet at least, if not mainstream media.”
“Most can only act within Gensokyo’s borders due to a dependency on the environment, and are mere nebulae. For the exceptions, you are familiar with the tale of Houyi and the Ten Evil Suns, presumably?”
“Then you’d know that those who shine bright,” Her foxy smile grows wider. “Are shot down like any other extra star in the sky, no exceptions.”
“Is that a warning?”
“Perhaps, are you taking it as one?”
“No. I’m nowhere near close to a star. I can’t even use basic magic.” You shrug, “I’m just lucky and got to know the right people in a positive way.” “Which raises another question. If you are not seeking to be a star, why get involved in these matters that do not relate to you?” Ran asks, off-handedly pointing at you with a finger. “You, who claimed to multiple other people that you wish only to act as a tourist.”
“Because while I don’t want to be important. I do want to be useful. No society tolerates useless members, after all.” You lift up your medic bag and gunblade, “I want people to consider me an asset.”
“Why are you attempting to be an asset for strangers? You have asserted via your prior actions that you do not think of the fans’ parasocial relationship with Gensokyo’s denizens to be of actual relevance.”
“Because proving yourself to be a valuable asset to someone can get you pretty much anything you want. Isn’t that the truth?” You say, blind confidence in your voice, “I’m not going to ask anything of you, Lady Yakumo, but I might later if you can use me for something.”
Ran places a hand over her left cheek, “And what could a nine-tailed fox demand from a ‘simple’ Outsider?”
“Simple things like performing first aid, and in exchange you have to do nothing.” You place a hand over your chest, “I ask not of wealth or magical power. All I ask for is to enjoy a vacation in Gensokyo as a tourist, and perhaps indulge reasonably in some dumb fan activities such as photography that won’t disturb the locals.”
For the first time, Ran doesn’t look like she was expecting your response. “Mr. Wu, you are telling me that in your mind, rescuing lives are fair prices for being allowed to merely visit Gensokyo and play?”
“Isn’t it?” You’re confused now, “I thought that, given how this place is intended to be a sealed paradise, the entry fee must be high. Just because somebody found a way to sneak in through the backdoor doesn’t mean that security isn’t exacting a price, either by kicking them out or fining them, and I’m pretty sure Gensokyo’s ‘fine’ is in human flesh.”
The fox frowns, “That is most certainly one way of putting it. But in that case, why would you visit a place like that? Here’s a highly probable scenario: What if, despite being a useful person, we stab you in the back and take your flesh anyway?”
“I am sure that my flesh is completely undesirable, just ask Miss Houjuu.” Confidence you DO deserve echoes in your voice, “Whatever I am worth alive, I am certainly worth nothing dead. Indeed, I would like to declare that I have no inherent value as a human, and any value I provide would be through my actions.”
“And despite the fact that Gensokyo exacts a toll in human life, you equate it with a paradise?”
“It’s a step up over the Outside World. Out there, nobody has inherent value in the eyes of others. I know there are detractors who like to compare Gensokyo’s local humans to cattle, and perhaps the outside visitors to hogs, but Outside…” Your fist clenches, “Outside, most people are treated as vermin.”
Ran’s tails droop, and she lets out a deep sigh, “That is either a bleeding-heart’s conviction or a supremely arrogant statement. I say that since you came from a very comfortable life in a stable nation.”
That’s an unpleasant surprise. “Hold up, how do you have my personal information? I didn’t even share my name with anyone here!”
“Wu Zhenguo, that is not something I will disclose.” She steeples her fingers, “Just trust that the Yakumo household has numerous eyes in the Outside World.”
“Only the Yakumos then? That’s a relief.” You let out a breath of pent-up anxiety, “Then I will tell you something I won’t disclose. Your records don’t tell the whole story. But you can ask Lady Saigyouji, I couldn’t hide it from her.”
“Hm, what you just said in regards to Yuyuko is enough for me to deduce your status.” Ran’s eyes widen, and you can practically see the numbers flying around in her optimized brain over the course of two slow seconds. She then slowly begins nodding. “That would explain it. That would explain your outlier status and adds context for your…depressive…attitude. Even if it is still an immature and pointless attitude to have. If I plug that in as a factor to the algorithms….” She claps, “Your expectancy for existence went up a whole order of magnitude…then dropped back to 36 hours from your recent actions. So we’re back at square one.”
“My algorithms adjust for variances due to luck. Luck alone wouldn’t get you into the good graces of Eientei, among other events. Your data can now only be explained with the intervention of an external entity that is not accounted for in Gensokyo’s monitoring systems. Which is now the question: Who is it?”
“Does Awyri count?”
“That’s your nickname for it? Ha! Iron Wing has been part of the data for decades.” The fox grins with one side of her mouth, “It is within expected parameters, but I cannot believe it allowed a mere child such as you to give it a name.”
“It prefers Awyrgan, actually. Awyri is just me being stupid.” So Awyrgan is in fact a long-term project of the Yakumos? Seems like a cliche development. “Other than Awyri, I can’t think of anything that would be unaccounted for by you guys. I came to Japan alone.”
You expect her to call you out on that technical truth, but she doesn’t. “Then it seems like I’ll have to wait until other irregularities are observed to catch this third-party. Unknown factors in the delicate ecosystem of Gensokyo must be accounted for. Surely you can understand.”
You take a careful sip of tea. “On the topic of unknown factors, the person I am tangling with…”
“Oh, that one? Entirely within expected parameters.” Ran rolls her eyes around as she pulls up data from her memory banks, “He’s faking it. His pursuit of Miss Konpaku is largely an act.”
A chill runs down your spine, and your hair stands on end. “Say again?”
“An intermediate amount of knowledge in psychological analysis will tell you that he is not genuinely obsessed. His actions recorded thus far, including the machine-generated fanfiction he kept on the desktop of an unlocked laptop, are intended for others to perceive him as irrationally obsessed with Miss Konpaku. He is most definitely sound of mind, I assure you.”
“And how are you sure of this?”
“After Miss Inaba had finished digging through the surface files of his computer, I had one of our Outside World workers break into his social media accounts. Typical young human, using a password vulnerable to a shikigami-enhanced cracker. What he found is quite interesting. Turns out he has a girlfriend back home, with messages as recent as the day before his crossing.”
“That FUCKER.” You slam a fist into the table. “Is he just messing with us then? Did Tewi of all people not see through a prank like this?”
“That is an incorrect conclusion you are making with the data provided. Think, what would a normal young human with the common proclivities usually associated want when given virtually godlike powers?”
“Uh…” The gears in your head get stuck. You’re not used to thinking in the place of others, and your brain just spits out a barely processed result. “I suppose I would try to overthrow your master, or some other…”
“Normal young human, Ming, not megalomaniacal madmen.”
“Normal young men dream of playing the hero in a fantasy story, do they not?”
“In practice, normal young humans are ruled by their instincts and vices, especially when given power. Other than the fact that she is not the only Sage, overthrowing Master Yukari is not a goal that most would pursue, unless they perceive that my master has wronged them.”
You give a forced, flat smile of sarcastic wonder. “Does indirectly selling them a toy sword as a real sword count as a wrong?”
“It is your own fault for not having someone other than the famously unreliable Mr. Morichika take a look at the artifact.” She says, putting a palm up in a shrug. “Gensokyo is full of shady items and ignorant businesspeople. A prank item mistakenly sold as a genuine article is a mistake on the part of the shopkeeper, not malice.”
You ball your fist, but think better of showing more anger in front of Ran. If you get the opportunity to mildly inconvenience Yukari, you’ll do it later. “I still don’t know what you mean by what a normal young human would do.”
“Normal young humans have normal young human desires. For a simple mind such as yours, the heuristic to understand is to go for the most obvious and vulgar explanation.”
Realization dawns upon you, “Is he really just doing this…trying to get a side chick? Why go that far then?”
“Vanity and the appeal of rarity, common human logical faults. You are no exception to these issues, as a fan.”
You purse your lips, “I am aware of that. But to try and nab Youmu of all people really makes me wonder if he’s clinically insane. Getting shanked in his sleep when she finds out would really put a damper on his playing around.”
“Youmu is the sort of child to stab him in broad daylight after declaring her intent. Regardless of that, he is gambling that she will not find out. A reasonable assumption.” Ran tilts her head, “Gensokyo does not have internet, and despite being among the few who can come and go by Master’s permission, she rarely crosses the Barrier. He did not take into account how deeply the Sages are monitoring the Outsiders coming in with the Usami-induced influx, which was an error, but there is so much a young human can account for.”
She takes a moment to sip on her tea while you stare blankly in silence. The hell is this kind of development? If he doesn’t truly care, what was the point of intervening like this? Tewi may have overlooked things, but it is you who is responsible for telling her these assumptions. Wait, are they even assumptions since a normal person would’ve concluded that they were a usual fanatical obsessive?
“I can’t imagine doing something like this, and I’m a sociopathic…”
“Shut up.” You jolt upright at Ran’s sudden vulgarity, along with some anger weaved in, “Do not say such blatantly false things.”
“But I killed people with no…”
“A significant portion of normal humans can kill with no regrets or breakdowns.” She sets down her teacup and stares back at you, the black sclera of her bestial eyes adding an element of instinctual terror to her irritated visage. “Opportunistically killing evildoers for profit and deceiving wicked suitors can be construed as sociopathic behavior in the Outside World’s popular perception, but they are simple lusts of sadistic or bloodthirsty nature, with a notion of justice allowing you no cognitive dissonance.”
“And those aren’t psychopathic behaviors? I still think…”
Ran interrupts you by removing a small flesh-colored pouch from her sleeve and loudly clattering it on the table. A few items from it spill out: Teeth, small ones. “See this? The pouch is freshly-skinned from a child who found herself on the wrong side of the Barrier. I collect child teeth, you see, and she had some high quality pearly—.”
“WHAT THE FUCK, RAN?” You cry out as you scramble back.
She tilts her head again, “Reaction time within normal parameters. No possibility of a fake.”
“You…” Sudden realization, as well as pop-culture knowledge, floods your frontal cortex as your archival memories are queried. “Goddamnit!”
“You cannot argue against proof, surely.” She says as she shoves the teeth into the pouch, “In the context of a significant power difference between you and I, in addition to your desire of a subservient relationship, such a genuine reaction proves a lack of sociopathic thought processes.”
“Ugh, I concede then.” You should’ve noticed. Treated skin is not that color and it was too dry to be fresh. “So, what was it?”
“A cloth pouch lying around the household, and baby teeth from several individuals I played tooth fairy for.”
“And you just…carry that around with you?”
“I have it on me as I expected to talk to Mr. Ruby, but he refused. And I am not one to insist on speaking to someone who adamantly refuses.”
You watch as the pouch disappears up her sleeve. “You’re not?”
She ignores you, “So, now that we’ve gotten over that subject…”
You dutifully ignore her ignoring, “I still can’t believe that Tewi missed the signs that you caught. I mean, I wouldn’t expect her to read his social media, but surely the White Hare of Inaba of all people would’ve known the fakery.”
“Did she?” Ran says, looking straight at you.
You look down at your teacup, realizing the answer.
Tewi didn’t fail to notice.
Tewi screwed you by withholding information. What did you expect from a trickster? Honest cooperation? All your effort in screwing with the enemy was in turn her screwing you. For what? For laughs? Definitely. After all, what else does the White Hare need?
“You think he knows that I’m putting up a poor attempt at trickery?”
“He definitely knows you’re a fake.” She tilts her head for the third time, and waves one of her tails forward, “But judging by the voice recordings from the shikigami I installed in his room, he does in fact think Youmu’s dead. Good on you for pulling off that caper.”
“Even then…now what?”
“Now what?” The fox grins with both sides of her mouth this time. “Now he knows you have some relationship to her, enough to ‘bring her soul back from the dead’. But he believes none of your bluster about being a shinigami…even with you reeking of death.”
You bite your lip as the realization sets in, “I’m in danger…as a victim.”
“Yes you are. Your TTL might be longer if you stop doing that. Just a bit of advice.” Ran is looking slightly smug…or is that worry? Her face is an enigma in terms of emotion.
“Any advice for surviving? Or not getting kidnapped?”
“Get a friend who can fight or otherwise resolve incidents beyond your capabilities. Because this is just such an incident.”
Emptying your tea cup, you pour another one and chug it, letting it scald your throat. “I expected that much…ack, ack,” You cough as some of the tea gets in your airways. “Ah damn it, who would be willing to stick their neck out for me?”
“That is a question you’ll have to solve.” Ran gets up, “I am here to gather and share data. Personal issues are an Outsider’s own responsibility.”
“I see.” You get up and take the teapot to bring out. Feeling down, you decide to have a bit of a jest. “Last question, an extremely stupid one: Can I stroke your tails?”
“Not until you prove yourself by resolving this situation.” She replies with a faint smile as she steps out. Whew, Ran didn’t respond with instant dismissal or violence. Way better result than you expected.
If you survive, you are fluffing those tails.
“Leaving already?” Yuyuko asks as you say farewell.
“I’ve got pharmacy work to get back to.” You say, “I’ll come by later on if this issue continues, or if I just feel like it.”
Awyrgan’s already gone, presumably off looking for more scrap metal. Not much here in the Netherworld after all other than ghosts and trees.
Youmu notices the look in your eyes as you walk towards the gate, “Are you sure you’ll be fine? Did Ran say something?”
“Don’t worry about me, really. I got this under control.” You lie, “Lady Ran says that I have to deal with the next step myself.”
“By yourself? I…I can’t thank you enough.” She says, giving a stiff, deep bow that would make any Japanese grandparent proud. See? Yuyuko is smiling.
“Don’t mention it. Your food was more than enough thanks.” You lie again. “Perhaps next time you can treat me to a tea ceremony? I’ve practiced the routine on the guest side before.”
Yuyuko indicates that tea ceremonies are more under her purview…and not a common occurrence given Gensokyo’s origins as a backwater rural province. Still, such refined ceremonies are “good exercise” and she will have something prepared for next time.
She also told you to “invite friends”, but you doubt Connor is interested. That man is the type to trip over the table and knock every single one of the priceless tea utensils to the ground.
[ ] Tell Youmu what Ran concluded about the enemy.
[ ] Keep her in the dark for now. You don't want her acting out in anger.
As for false friends, on the other hand…well, Benson is hanging around near the Netherworld gate, probing at the wood with a strange device.
BENSON IS AT THE GATE.
[ ] Try to ignore him while you ride the balloon down.
[ ] Confront him directly. What could possibly go wrong?
[ ] Jump in the lake off the side of the Netherworld. Thou shalt be safe within mine grasp.
[ ] Quietly call for Tewi to handle this. She’s not going to screw you twice, right?
You pass by him without saying a word. He notices you and begins with a greeting, but stops as you keep going past him, all the way to the edge of the Netherworld.
“Hey, shinigami! The hot air balloon is over…” he begins to say.
You turn around, staring straight into his eyes. A few moments of silence, before you give a quick wave.
Leaning back, you give a quick hop back just to make sure you clear the edge. For a moment, all is still. Then the onrushing air resistance from below violently drowns out your hearing, such that you don’t hear what Benson is shouting as he runs over to see you plunging to the ground below.
Why did you do this again?
You should be panicking, realizing your utterly stupid and nonsensical mistake.
But you are not. A peculiar calmness has seized your mind. A feeling most unnatural. You are already an unnatural and unwholesome being, but this is something else entirely.
Oh well, if you splat, you splat. At least you’re going out on your own terms this time.
It is about when you’re halfway to the ground that something suddenly seizes your body and converts your vertical momentum to horizontal. Something hard, metallic, and…
“I trust thee hath confidence in thy absent wings?”
“No, I was trying to kill myself.” You say in the most overly sarcastic tone you can think of. “Why did you save me.”
“Hmph, save thy lip an’ crass sarcasm. Ideally, I shalt discipline thee in a traditional manner for such attitude, taking thee over mine knee, but this crude drone ith poorly suited.” Awyrgan doesn’t bother making the descent comfortable for you, going as close to freefall speed as possible without injuring you on landing. As when the drone touches the ground, you briefly feel your organs thump up against your bones.
You roll off of the drone’s arms. Stumbling upright, you watch as the drone compresses, components slotting into each other, until it resembles a tight tube. It then flies over to the tank parked nearby and enters the hatch.
“Thanks for the rescue. I mean it. Sorry for the sarcasm.” You apologize, mostly sincerely.
“TIS NO MATTER.” The tank drives over, “ONE SUCH AS I SUFFER NOT INSULTS, BUT THE RAMBLINGS OF A MORTAL ART NO TRUE BARB.”
“Yeah, I getcha, what I say isn’t important.” You sigh as you look back up to the Netherworld. “Man, Awyri, I am screwed.”
“I SHALL VENTURE A PREDICTION. THOU ART A TARGET FOR VIOLENCE?”
“Basically, and can you turn down the volume, please? We’re not in battle.” You lean on the tank, looking down, and then let out pained laughter. “What was I thinking? Talking about serving people in Gensokyo when I can’t even take care of myself. I’m pathetic.”
“Tis not true. Tis a noble desire to render selfless aid beyond one’s capability.” The tank blares out, quieter now.
“You think so? I can’t defend myself with nobility though.” You unsheathe the weapon the tank made you: It’s too thin and oddly shaped to get you sued by Square Enix, which means it’s likely to be actually practical in battle. “All I have are what any other human can do. I can use Last Resort to briefly surpass limits for ten seconds, but then I collapse. Just enough to lose a friendly sparring match.”
“Aye, tis a true pity.” Air hisses as the tank’s hatch pops open, “I do have an offer for thee to remedy this situation.”
You watch with some surprise as a mechanical arm snakes out, attached with a hose and tipped with what seems to be an oversized hypodermic needle. One dripping with some sort of fragrant-smelling, blue-greenish ichor, no less.
Of course, this tank was going to do something unsavory to you.
“So…what is that? Bone-hurting juice?”
The arm positions itself directly in front of your chest. “Fret not, tis merely a concoction of memories from ocean primordial fused with mine own internal nano-servitors. Lady Yakumo would not approve of me injecting a mortal human with this. She terms it…unethical.”
You stare at the dripping needle, “Another experimental medical product?”
“Similar. Terming it medical mayhaps be overly generous.” The needle wavers mid-air. “Tis, in truth, antagonistic to human existence. But thou, thou art not a truly ordinary mortal.”
“I’m still just as vulnerable as any other human.”
“Tis why offering thee this gift, I am.” The tank extends out two other mechanical arms, for no reason but to crudely imitate a shrug. “Tis a concoction that shall decouple thy peculiar existence from the dependencies of mortal flesh. I understand thy vessel is close to expiring, truly?”
You stiffen, “You can tell?”
“Mechanical analysis and fabrication art mine gifts. Simple analysis of biological systems is a skill of overlap…and a necessary secondary functionality in the process of weapons manufacture.” The tank’s two gesturing arms wrap around, one to the front and one to the front, in a very primitive approximation of the positions used in a bow. “Forgive mine manners, I have yet to introduce mineself in a manner befitting: Mine formal title is Prime Mobile Logistics and Peacekeeping Unit: Iron Wing, though I prefer the name of Awyrgan.”
Peacekeeping unit? That part sounds ominously evil, though you’re really not in a position to comment on that. “A pleasure to know your full title, Awyrgan.” You give a slight bow in return. “May I ask whose peace you are designed to keep?”
“Previously, and on paper, the Wehrmacht.” That’s odd, you think as it says that. Nazi Germany wasn’t known to call anything “peacekeeping”. “However, in formal service, never was. Presently, the names mine command parameters contain include Yakumo Ran, Kawashiro Nitori, y several persons beyond our scope. Mundane bureaucrats, mostly, of Ratatoskr Inc. and a particular country, not Japan.”
“Hmph, I can guess which country by your name, but…Ratatoskr Inc.?” You’ve heard that name mentioned in the context of space exploration startup companies. It’s a Japanese company that’s relatively quiet with little outside information disclosure. Was it related to Gensokyo the whole time? Other than something something Lunarians, you can’t quite think of a connection.
“Details art not part of thy necessary thoughts.” The needle hovers closer, . “Mine title is to inform thee of mine capabilities. Naught more.”
“In that case…” You give a formal bow, “My full, true name is Wu Zhenguo, a common tourist visiting Japan.”
“Tis not the truth.”
You sigh, then grumble, “...that’s just the name of my vessel. My soul is of no consequence. No title, no name, no value…. Why even bother suppressing the memories? Do you know how worthless people like me were, Awyrgan? Less than a dime a dozen. Born into a world as surplus souls, as spare parts for society at best. And the worst part is, I didn’t recognize how bad it was until after I came into a more privileged existence. Back then, I felt nothing at sleeping on filthy cardboard in an alleyway, and felt great joy when I found some chestnuts in refuse piles. Even when…that happened, I was confused more than anything. Now though, now that I can see things from another perspective…”
“Thou can augur that thy previous life was pure injustice. An existence as refuse and dregs…tis why thou seeketh a role as a servant? To prove thyself more than such?”
“You think so? I think I’m being self-destructive to spite God for tossing me into this world.”
The tank lets out a deep rumbling sound, one almost resembling the laughter of a stone giant. “Coat thine actions with childishly 'thoughtful' rhetoric all thy wish. Thy actions art merely what those of any mortal will perform, under the circumstances.”
She’s got a point. For all your posturing about devaluing yourself, you really do secretly see your actions as being somehow beyond mundane concerns, you bloody immature edgelord. You steady yourself with your sheathed gunblade to remind yourself about this fact. You are no different from the other chucklefucks running around Gensokyo right now in thought and action. You just happen to be a tad more successful.
You will fade. None of your successes will matter.
“But with the little time left, at least I’ll enjoy myself.”
Tis why I offer thee bliss. Reject thine feeble hold on humanity, and embrace the waters primordial.
“Would it really make a difference though?”
You promised me before that you will continue moving on at all costs! You can’t stop now! Remember, never give up on hope! You can do it! An unknown voice calls out to you.
“Eh?” You turn around just to catch sight of a strange-colored bird staring at you from a tree. Its green body contrasting with a fiery-looking plume and tail. It’s unusually large, but not any more so beyond normal avian constraints.
It stares at you. You stare back. The animal locks eyes with you for a full ten seconds, before It flies away. A strange, forgotten conviction rises in your heart.
“Let’s do this then.” You strip out of your spider silk armor, then take off your shirt. “Give me the injection.”
It happens in an instant. One moment, the needle was hovering in front of your chest. The next moment, it is plunged deep into your heart. Your blood suddenly turns cold, and you gasp for breath as your lungs seize up. You feel no pain, but an even worse sensation: Complete numbness, spreading from the puncture site to the rest of your organs.
“A question thou must answer: As mine sea rushes into thee, what prime directive shalt be bestowed upon the new circuits I carve into thy flesh?”
[ ] What? Uh, love, or some other primal feeling?
[ ] Huh? I guess rocks and minerals are pretty prime materials?