I'm one of the many dolls in service to my master, Alice. Every morning without fail she comes to our room and wakes us . We dance at the end of her strings, carrying out her every command. She praises us when we do well, scolds us when we don't, and mends us when we break. And every night she returns us to our shelves, and we sleep.
...so why can I see her sleeping?
I hear noises. Dolls falling, plates shattering. But I'm not falling. My vision is getting brighter instead of darker.
Master is lying face down on the floor.
The violet doll, Hourai, reacts before I do, diving to Master's side. I quickly follow her. Together we carefully roll Master onto her back.
She's still breathing, Hourai says.
Breathing. Yes. That's good. I don't remember why but I know it is.
Master? I try. Master, can you hear me? Master, wake up!
What's going on? Why has everyone stopped? another doll asks, walking toward us. Orange dress... Amsterdam. Her name is Amsterdam.
Something happened to Master, Hourai replies.
Master!? Amsterdam cries. She finally notices Master lying on the floor and starts panicking. Wha-wha-wha-what do we do!? Master!?
Calm down and let me think! Hourai shouts. She turns to me, frowning in thought. I don't know anything about medicine, do you?
No, nothing, I reply.
Well, she'll catch a chill if we just leave here here... but we can't exactly move her. Hourai turns to Amsterdam. Go get one of Master's bedsheets, we'll cover her with that.
Right! Amsterdam says, turning around...
...and flopping face-first onto the floor. For a moment, nobody moves. Then Amsterdam climbs back onto her feet. She makes a few odd hopping movements and flaps her arms.
I can't fly!
Hourai rubs her forehead. ...I'll get it. She shoots off up the stairs so fast the backdraught nearly knocks us over.
Amsterdam turns to me, wringing her hands anxiously. Is Master going to be okay?
I look down at Master's face in silence, thinking furiously. There was a place in the bamboo where they could treat the sick and injured... Eientei, that was it. Master's taken me there with her several times. I know the way.
But it's a really, really long way. Possibly the furthest from home I've ever been. I'm not sure I can make it that far. And how many monsters might be waiting for us on the way? Hourai is stronger than me. If any of us can make it, she can. But Master isn't awake to power us, and if Amsterdam already can't fly... how long before we all stop completely?
Somewhere closer, then. There's someone else living in this forest. Her name was... Marisa. Marisa Kirisame. But she's... troublesome. She even tried to steal Hourai once! I don't know if she'd listen, if she could do anything to help, or if she'd even be home. But she's nearby, at least; I could probably even walk there if I had to.
Where else has Master taken me... there was another one like her around here. Named after a herb of some kind. Sage? Lavender? No, Patchouli. Patchouli Knowledge. Has a huge library of books, knows everything about everything. She lives on the other side of a lake in a house full of really scary people, but she's good friends with Master and she never goes out.
Hourai comes back with a neatly-folded sheet, flying just as fast as before. It only takes a moment for the three of us to drape it over Master, tucking her in so she won't get cold.
How often would one of Alice's dolls show up at her place trying to get her attention without Alice? At the very least it'd warrant investigation. Also would Shanghai even be able to get into the mansion grounds, let alone find her way through it to the Library?
Somebody has to protect Master, I point out, and we seem to be the only two left that can even fly.
That's... logical, but where will you go? Surely not all the way to the bamboo place?
The mansion across the lake. Someone there is bound to help, or at least pass the message on.
Hourai nods slowly. That sounds reasonable. But be quick, and stay out of trouble.
A few moments later I'm outside, swiftly rising above the treetops. The sky is clear and the moon is almost full so I can see my way easily. That said, it's surprisingly cold outside tonight. I hope Master doesn't get cold... wait, is it getting colder?
"Ahahaha! I see you hidin' there! Hang on, what are you?"
"Ah! It's a cute little dolly!"
Oops. Fairies. Just the two of them though. I wasn't on the lookout for them, since they don't normally come here at night.
"I don't see the creepy doll lady anywhere, so this one's mine!"
"Wait, Cirno! Don't break it!"
The louder of the two sends a hail of ice needles at me. They're as long as I am tall! On one hand, being big makes them easy to dodge, but on the other, if they hit...
The other fairy suddenly appears right in front of me, arms outstretched. I dive straight down, letting gravity speed me to avoid her and the ice at the same time.
"Ouch! Cirno! Watch where you're shooting!"
"I'm shootin' straight ahead! Don't pop up in front o' me!"
The second fairy appears directly ahead of me again and lets off a bright spiral of danmaku. I can't dive this time without landing in the lake, so I pull up. I fire a haphazard shower of bullets in her direction, both to distract her and to push me away from her. It works, but it's draining.
"It knows danmaku! All right, game on!"
...I'm not sure I should have done that. The loud fairy seems to have taken it as an excuse to go all-out. The lake itself is starting to ice over, and some of the shards she's throwing now are bigger than she is. I can't dodge everything and keep an eye on the teleporting one at the same time.
I try shooting at the weaker fairy some more, and she teleports out of the way. But it seems she can't do it too often, so that means I get to decide when she uses it, giving me time to focus on dodging. It also makes a very distinctive noise, which starts a fraction of a second before she disappears.
I stop shooting and put on a burst of speed, making a break for open air. Wait for it... wait for it... now.
There's a loud yelp as the second fairy teleports straight into the strongest laser I can manage. Blinded by the beam, she also fails to dodge the wall of ice the first one sent after me.
"Shut up! It's gettin' away!"
The teleporting fairy gives up on her trick and starts shooting constantly like her friend. I'm too spent to shoot back. Even my flying is slowing down. A quick glance backwards tells me I'm almost over the lake. I just need to shake these two.
I stop. The ice fairy loses me among the bullets and flies right past. The second fairy doesn't notice me until I'm right on top of her.
I spend all my remaining energy on one last laser. It hurts. It sucks the life out of me and turns me inside out. My body goes limp and I start to fall.
Then the fairy explodes. The blast wipes out the bullets and flings me high in the air. I crash headfirst into the grass and roll several times, ending up on my back.
I lie there for a minute or two, silently watching the sky. There's no sign of the loud fairy. Either she chain-reacted with her friend or she gave up and wandered off.
I lift one arm up and flex the fingers. It feels heavy, but it moves. I slowly roll over and get up. I'm exactly where I wanted to be, on the lawn in front of the big red mansion.
I make my way over to the gate. The only sign of life I can see anywhere is the woman leaning against it. She's standing perfectly still and her face is in shadow.
Excuse me, I try. I have an urgent message for Miss Patchouli.
No reaction. Wait, is she asleep? Her eyes are closed. With nothing much else I can do, I cautiously reach out and tug on her skirt.
Her eyes snap open. They flick left, right, up, and finally, down.
"Oh! Hello there!" I take a few steps back as she leans down. "You're one of Miss Margatroid's dolls, aren't you?"
"Do you have some business with Lady Patchouli?"
I nod vigorously. She laughs.
"Don't let me keep you then!" She straightens up and puts a hand on the gate. There's a click, and she swings it open. "In you go. You know your way to the library, right?"
I shake my head. She laughs again.
"Don't worry, Sakuya will show you the way then."
I stand there for a moment, not sure what to do. Then I quickly bow and hurry inside. The gatekeeper laughs yet again as she closes the gate. She's a very cheerful person.
I walk to the front door as quickly as I can without falling over on the gravel. I pause for a moment, not sure how I'm going to open them, but then they open by themselves.
I step inside.
Everything is red. Red carpet. Red walls. Red lamps mounted at regular intervals. The lamps are too dim to light the high ceiling, and the floor on either side of the carpet is black, making the hall look like it's floating in an endless void.
"Oh? Are you by youself today, Miss Shanghai?"
I turn around quickly. Someone is standing between me and the door. She's almost entirely white, a stark contrast against the red.
"Are you here to see the Mistress?"
I don't think she means Patchouli, so I shake my head slowly.
"Then perhaps Lady Patchouli?"
"I see. This way, please."
Even though she's purposefully walking slowly, I still have to run to keep up with her. It's tiring, but much easier than flying. The halls are long and the lamps only light as we get near, making them seem even longer.
Eventually we come to a large door, the first one I've seen since I came in. On the other side of it are books. Shelves stretch as far as I can see to the left, right and up. In front of us there is a gap, through which I can see row after row just like this one.
The lady in white keeps walking straight ahead. I try to count how many rows we pass, but I lose track at about fifty.
Eventually we come to a... desk. It's mostly a messy pile of books, but there is a desk underneath.
"Lady Patchouli? You have a visitor," the white woman says.
"Oh? How rare," the pile of books replies.
There's a shuffling sound, and a person emerges from the pile. I recognise her right away: Patchouli Knowledge, the very person I'm looking for.
The white woman steps to one side and gestures in my direction. Patchouli stares at the space above me for a few seconds, then finally looks down.
I bow politely. Hello, Miss Patchouli. My name is Shanghai. Please excuse my interruption.
Patchouli tilts her head to one side. "Magical signalling, similar to the impulses used to direct semi-autonomous constructs but broadcast in an omnidirectional fashion." She bows very slightly. "I apologise, Miss Doll, but while I am aware that you are attempting to communicate with me, I cannot interpret what you are saying."
...oh no. Why didn't I think of that sooner!? I cast about for some means of explaining myself. Maybe I could write in the dust...?
Patchouli kneels and places her hand in front of me, palm up. I figure out what she wants in a moment and step onto it. She lifts me up with some effort.
"You're heavier than I was expecting."
She carries me back to her desk, where she puts me down and starts moving a few book out of the way. She finds a blank sheet of parchment and holds a pen out to me.
"I assume you are familiar with the written word?"
I take the pen and, holding it like a broom, scratch out a message on the parchment.
mAsTER coLLAPsED、 HElP
"Miss Alice is unwell?" Patchouli asks shaply.
I shake my head.
"Skin discoloration, rash or swelling?"
"Diffculty breathing, sweating or convulsions?"
"Recent indications of illness? Behavioural abnormalities?"
"Recent contact with unusual magical reagents or environmental anomalies?"
"Recent altercations with Marisa?"
"I see. Koakuma!"
A winged figure appears behind Patchouli. "Eh?"
"I will be going out. Please inform Sakuya that I may not return until tomorrow, and that I may be found either at the Margatroid residence or Eientei."
"Are you currently able to fly?"
I shake my head.
"Do you object to being carried?"
Patchouli picks me up bodily and rockets out the door. The halls pass in a flash and we're high over the lake a moment later. No fairies interrupt us as we return to Master's house in less time than it took me to walk from the library door to Patchouli's desk.
"Excuse me," Patchouli says as she opens the door.
Master is exactly as I left her. Hourai and Amsterdam are slowly cleaning up fallen dolls, broken dishes and spilled food. They stop what they're doing as Patchouli puts me down and kneels beside Master. She mutters some strange words, making glowing circles and symbols appear in the air beneath her hands.
"...I see," she says after a while. "It is not as severe as I had feared."
She pauses, looking around the room for something, then shakes her head, slides her arms under Master and lifts her up.
Hourai follows her upstairs, towards Master's bedroom.
What's going on? Is Shanghai back?
Two more dolls walk in from the kitchen. It takes me a moment to remember their names; the one in red with the black hair is London, and the yellow one is Berlin.
Miss Patchouli is here, she's taking care of Master, I explain.
Oh good. Is she going to be okay? Berlin asks.
I think so. She just carried her up to bed, so it can't be that bad. How many of us are still moving?
Just us, Kyoto and Matryoshka. Kyoto can still fly, so she's on watch outside. The rest of us... Berlin jumps. She floats through the air more slowly than normal, but still falls back down.
I can't fly either for now. I used up all my energy fighting fairies.
Whaat, really!? All by yourself!? London exclaims.
I nod. I only just managed to make it across the lake. Patchouli had to carry me back.
Hauuu, I wish Master would wake up... Amsterdam says.
Hourai returns from upstairs.
Master should be up and about in the morning, she says. Patchouli said she'll stay the night.
We all heave a sigh of relief.
She wants one of us to stay in Master's room tonight, too keep an eye on her.
I'll go, I say. I don't think I can do much else right now.
Nobody objects, so I...
Er, Hourai? Could you...?
Hourai picks me up and carries me up the stairs.
Sorry to be a burden like this... I say.
Just don't let it become a habit, she replies.
I walk quietly to Master's room. Master is lying in bed, and Patchouli is sitting in a chair beside her.
"Your Master is in no danger for the time being," Patchouli says softly. "However, she must not attempt to get up or do anything until I've spoken to her about her condition. I would like you to remain here and ensure she stays in bed. If she needs anything, call me first. Can you do that?"
"Thank you. I will be waiting in the living room downstairs. I do not sleep."
She gets up and moves the chair back to Alice's desk. I grab her attention before she leaves, and motion at Master's bedside table.
"...ah. Of course."
She lifts me up and places me on the table, where I can see Master's face.
[ ] Heart [ ] Mind [ ] Body
Are cryptic dream votes better or worse than no votes?
"...Shanghai?" Master says, staring at me wide-eyed and open-mouthed.
Yes, Master, it's me. Please get back in bed, you're not well.
"You're awake... and moving... but I only just..." Master reaches out and gently catches me with both hands.
MASTER. Please lie down before you fall down.
Master wobbles back and sits heavily on the bed, setting me on her lap.
"...th... these aren't my pyjamas. How did I end up in bed? Did I get drunk?" Master asks, looking lost and confused.
You fainted, before dinner last night.
You wouldn't wake up, so I went to find Patchouli. She carried you to bed, and told me to watch you.
"Patchouli? She's here?"
"I-it must be serious, then."
I don't think so. She'd have taken you to Eientei if it was, right?
"Yes. Yes, you're quite right. How silly of me, ahahaha." Master's laugh is tense and nervous, and her eyes are darting frantically around the room. "Oh, I feel so dizzy..."
Master. Please take a deep breath and calm down. You're going to be fine.
Master closes her eyes and does exactly as I said. When she opens them, she's looking at me.
"I'm sorry. It's just... I'm not dreaming this, am I? You really are here, talking to me?"
I tilt my head to one side in confusion. I think so? I've spoken to you before, haven't I?
"You remember, then? It wasn't like this. You didn't really... understand."
I think about it. I know I've spoken before. Master gave me a mouth so I could speak. But... I don't actually remember anything I said.
I remember yesterday though. Realizing that Master had fallen, talking to Hourai, fetching Patchouli... everything.
I nod slowly.
I didn't know how to think, I say, only do.
Master stares at me, a strange expression on her face.
Then she hugs me.
"I... I'm so glad. I finally... finally..."
Master? Are you crying?
"Yes. But they're happy tears."
I don't say anything. I try to hug Master back, and settle for awkwardly patting either side of her neck.
Am I interrupting something?
I flail free of Master's arms. Hourai is floating in the doorway. She has her lance slung over her shoulder.
"Hourai? You too?" Master asks.
Er - pass, Hourai replies quickly. Patchouli's waiting downstairs; should I tell her you're awake?
"Oh! Yes. Yes, of course. She came all this way for me, I shouldn't keep her waiting."
Hourai zips away. Master quickly wipes her eyes with her sleeve. Then she looks at me again.
And smiles. The biggest, brightest smile I've seen on her face in a long time.
I smile back.
"Good morning. How are you feeling?" Patchouli asks.
"A little weak and light-headed," Master replies, "and I don't remember last night very well. Shanghai told me I fainted, but why?"
Patchouli moves the chair next to Master's bed again and sits down.
"May I?" she asks. Master nods, and Patchouli casts the same spell she used last night.
"...improving, good," Patchouli says. She dismisses the spell. "To summarize, you are physically uninjured, but a large portion of your spirit is gone."
"Gone?" Master echoes. Patchouli nods.
"There are many creatures that can cause such damage in humans, but few that affect youkai, and to my knowledge none of them have been reported in Gensoukyou. If that is the cause, it would merit the attention of the Hakurei."
"However, given the lack of contamination or possession, I suspect it is more likely to be the result of overuse of certain classes of spells."
"I certainly haven't been doing anything like that," Master scoffs.
"Nevertheless, would you permit me to examine your research notes? It's possible there may be something you overlooked."
"Of course. You're hardly likely to steal them, unlike someone I know."
The corners of Patchouli's mouth twitch.
"What about treatment?" Master asks. "I can be cured, surely?"
"While I'm certain Eientei would be willing to sell you some form of quick-fix or remedy," Patchouli replies, "what you really need now is rest. You must abstain from all magical activity until you have fully recovered."
"And how long will that take?"
Patchouli shrugs. "I cannot say. Everyone heals in their own time. It could be days, or it could be years."
Master frowns. "I see."
"I feel I need to impress upon you the seriousness of your condition," Patchouli says. "If you continue to use magic in your current state, you will die."
Master's face goes white.
"You may be as physically active as you wish, however, I would like you to remain in bed until I'm reasonably certain you're not going to pass out again. A fractured skull, though not lethal to a youkai, will do little to improve the situation."
"I get the picture, thank you," Master says quietly.
Patchouli's face softens. "On to lighter matters, then. You appear to have made significant progress." She gestures at me.
Master smiles again, and strokes my hair. "Yes."
"May I examine you, as I have Alice?" Patchouli asks me. "It is quite harmless."
I nod. Patchouli waggles her finger, and magic circles appear in front of me.
"Interesting. She is self-powered?"
"The strings are a weak point of my technique," Master explains. "If the connection is severed, the dolls lose power and become inert. Since they can already follow simple verbal instructions without my direct supervision, I devised an energy reservoir to keep them going." She smirks. "The look on Marisa's face was priceless."
"Her energy levels are higher than they were last night. Have you attempted to recharge her?"
Master blinks and looks back down at me. "No, I haven't."
"You have not intended for them to be able to maintain themselves?"
"Not at all. In fact, they're only supposed to last for a few minutes."
Both of them stare at me for a moment. I look from one to the other uncomfortably.
"How is this 'reservoir' constructed?" Patchouli asks.
"It's complicated," Master replies. "You'll find all the details in my notes."
"Then I think I'll take a look at them as soon as possible," Patchouli says. She stands up. "But before that, is there anything I can get you? I'm sorry I can't be of more direct help, but if there's anything else I can do..."
"Well, I did miss dinner last night," Master says, "so I'm rather hungry."
Patchouli smiles. "That I can manage." She puts the chair away again. "Would you show me where everything is, Shanghai? Your sisters aren't very talkative, as a rule, and I'm not sure where they've gone."
[ ] Stay with Master. [ ] Go with Patchouli. [ ] Go look for the others.
I float into the air. It's good to be able to fly again. I follow Patchouli down to the kitchen.
"Now then, what does Alice like to eat?" Patchouli asks.
I start showing Patchouli where Master keeps her ingredients and cooking utensils.
"Let's see... plenty of eggs, bread... any bacon? Oh. At least I don't have to cook Japanese. Does she have milk? Excellent. I'll need a mixing bowl and a frying pan - ah, thank you."
Patchouli neatly cracks two eggs.
"Do you cook, Shanghai?"
I nod. I've helped Master with the cooking many times.
"I see. I imagine your size must make it quite challenging."
I nod again.
"Do you eat? Or taste, perhaps?"
I shake my head, then tap my nose.
"No, but you can smell?"
"Interesting. I really must find a way to communicate with you more freely; there are many questions I would like to ask an autonomous doll, if you would answer them."
I mime writing on my palm with a pen.
"That's certainly one way to accomplish it, though the difference in scale may be an issue."
I frown and rub my chin, staring into space.
"You demonstrated a form of speech when you came to the library; can Alice understand it?"
"I see. Perhaps I should study that as well."
Do you think you could learn it? I ask hopefully.
Patchouli turns to look at me. "Could you repeat that, please? Slowly, if possible?"
Do you think you could learn it? I repeat.
"If it is as simple as I now suspect it is, yes, that is certainly possible."
You understood that?
"I'm not terribly proficient at lip reading, I'm afraid; though that in itself may be an option. Alice's attention to detail is quite the feat."
We work in silence for a while. I get the teapot and measure out the leaves; I can do that much by myself. The water's too heavy for me though.
I find a tray to put everything on and Patchouli carries it upstairs.
"Breakfast is ready."
"Oh my," Master replies. She sits up. I clear space on the bedside table.
"Sorry to trouble you with such trivial things," Master says.
Patchouli puts the tray down. "Not at all. Magicians may not strictly need to eat, but it's better that you not rely on magic for a while, so I recommend regular meals."
"I never thought I'd be hearing that from you," Master says.
Patchouli smiles. "If Sakuya were here I'm sure I'd never hear the end of it." She draws a glowing pattern on the wall with her finger, which quickly fades. "Call if you need anything; I'll be using your workshop for a while."
I follow Patchouli back downstairs. Master never orders us into her workshop and the door is always tightly closed. I don't think we're actually forbidden to enter, but we avoid it anyway. I'm not really sure why.
Patchouli opens the door. It looks just like it did in my dream (was it a dream?). There's a table, shelves, drawers, tools and materials for dollmaking, and books.
A doll in green is sitting on the floor. Her dress is thick and fluffy and she has a furry hat on her head. It looks too warm for summer, but I suppose that doesn't matter to us dolls.
Matryoshka. That was her name. There's a book open on the floor in front of her.
Sh-Sh-Sh-Shanghai! Good morning! I - um - this isn't what it looks like! I was just - you know - everyone was cleaning and I thought I should check the workshop and I sort of found this book on the floor and I just -
I put my hands on my hips and look pointedly at the obvious gap in the bookshelf next to her.
...got distracted? she finishes, smiling desperately.
I stare at her. She slowly wilts until she's looking at the floor.
I'm sorry. I was curious, okay?
Patchouli picks up the book.
"The floor is not a good place to read books," she says. She turns the book around and looks at it. "Interesting. Do you understand any of this?"
Yes! Matryoshka says.
She can't hear us, I tell her.
Matryoshka nods energetically.
"I see. Well, I see no harm in it, and it will be interesting to see if you can actually make use of it." Patchouli puts the book on the table, still open. "If Alice asks, I'll tell her it's an experiment."
Matryoshka's face lights up. Really? She glances at me. Is this okay?
Why are you asking me? I ask.
Matryoshka hops up onto the table. She can fly a little, but flaps her arms wildly to stay in the air.
"Now then, Alice's notes should be..." Patchouli chooses several more books from the shelf and looks through them. She sits down at Master's workbench, spreading some of them on the table and making the rest levitate above it. Pages flip by themselves. They're far too complicated and never stay still long enough for me to read anything.
Matryoshka's book is much simpler. It's a spell book, written in Master's handwriting, or at least I think it is. It describes a long list of basic spells in great detail. There are lengthy explanations of how and why they were designed and comparisons to other methods, most of which are meaningless to me. But the spells themselves are very easy to read.
I don't know how long I sit there reading with Matryoshka. We only stop when the door opens.
Patchouli snaps out of her reading. "Alice..."
"Don't worry, I feel much better now," Master replies. She looks it too.
Master! Matryoshka squeals, and leaps at her.
"Ah!" Master catches her easily and holds her up. "So you're up and about too, Matryoshka?"
Matryoshka just beams and snuggles into Master's hug.
"Have you found anything?" Master asks.
"I can find nothing untoward in any of this," Patchouli replies. "Your work is as meticulous as always."
"I told you that," Master huffs. She puts Matryoshka back on the table.
"But to call this project merely 'complicated' is something of an understatement," Patchouli continues. "You have designed not one but seven unique storage vessels, each using different reagents, and been equally successful every time. On the first attempt, might I add."
Master brushes off the praise. "I wanted to observe the different properties of each core and compare their effects on the carrier."
"Your observations don't appear to be recorded here."
"I haven't finished making them; most of the differences are quite subtle. As far as capacity goes though, the stones I bartered for in Former Hell are vastly superior to the rest."
Patchouli's eyebrows go up. "You've been to Former Hell?"
Master nods. "Tensions between the surface and the underground have fallen since the geyser incident, so I managed to arrange a visit with Marisa."
"Who did you obtain these stones from?"
"A fairy, if I recall correctly. One of the pale subterranean kind; I think Marisa called them zombie fairies. Much quieter than their above-ground cousins."
"I know of them. Did you encounter any native youkai?"
"A tsuchigumo, a hashihime and a few oni. I spied a few more at a distance, but none of them bothered us."
"How were you recieived?"
"The hashihime was exceptionally foul-mouthed but not actively hostile. The others were quite courteous, even friendly."
"I see." Patchouli pauses for a long moment. "Are you aware that Former Hell likely contains most, if not all of the creatures known to be capable of causing your current condition?"
Master opens her mouth, then closes it again.
"Including ones sufficiently intelligent to do so without the victim noticing?" Patchouli continues.
"I took every possible precaution!" Master protests. "I had Marisa escorting me!"
Patchouli rubs her temples. "And I can attest to her continued wellbeing." She stands up, and the books she was reading all slot themselves neatly back into the shelf.
"Little use debating it now," she says. "More importantly, how do you feel?"