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The concept of "free time" was new to me. Up until then, I always did what Master ordered me, and she would tell me how to do it. But now I had none of her guidance, none of her directions. What I was supposed to do now? I only could knit dresses and prepare tea. Was this supposed to be some kind of test, where I had to do either of them without hints? Or did I have to another completely different thing she hadn't taught me yet?
I spent the next half an hour sitting in the living room, pondering about which one of the limited activities I could perform should I partake on, while the other dolls flew by doing their usual chores. They happily washed the dished, cleaned the floor, moped the furniture without any worry in the world... I felt a bit jealous of them; it was nice not having to think about what to do.
And then, as if to break the imagery of order and homeliness, the main door blew up in an explosion of magic and stars. Some of the dolls were caught up in the following wave and crashed into the walls, but I was luckier and faster, and managed to grab onto the chair I was sitting and braced the force shock.
When the smoke began to clear, a figure emerged from the cloud. The girl was blonde and slender like many of us, but her hair was rather unkempt, and her eyes were of a hazelnut color instead of sky blue like ours. She didn't carry herself with the grace and elegance Master taught us; rather, she was overflowing with a certain boyish confidence and presence. Her attire was also most curious: a white apron covering a black dress, and an enormous black pointy hat with frills under its brim - like a witch from the fairy tales I'd read. All of that, coupled with the obvious height difference and the distinct lack of external joints, made me realize I was gazing upon the first human I had ever laid my eyes upon, barring Master herself.
My fascination quickly vanished when the witch girl opened her mouth, and roared in a rather intimidating tone:
"Alright, where's Alice!?"
In response to this intrusion, my sisters immediately conjured their weapons and valiantly lunged towards the witch, in what looked more like a desperation attack to stall her rather than a proper combat maneuver - though I was not knowledgeable in battle tactics for me to judge them. Of course I wanted to stop them, but who was I to prevent the coming massacre? My sisters could be repaired, but humans do not heal so easily, and no living being that I knew of could survive the resulting explosion of a dozen kamikaze dolls blowing up at once. I could only pray for it to be quick and painless for the poor witch, and lament that it would take ages to wipe the resulting blood and gore off the parquet.
"Oh, you wanna throw down, huh!? I'll throw down!"
However, my expectations were cruelly subverted, as I saw the girl pulling a sort of hexagonal box from one of her pockets and aiming it towards her attackers. At first I was clueless about her intentions, but it all became clear when I saw the bright spark that emanated from the witch's furnace - and the immense magical energy in it. In retrospect, I should have expected it from someone who managed to blow a hole through the house's concrete and the magic wards protecting it. But I didn't, and if it weren't for Paris, who immediately dove to tackle me down to the ground, I would have suffered the same fate of my brave sisters.
Only when the blaring of raw magic let loose stopped I dared to open my eyes. There was absolutely no trace left from the dolls after the big energy wave hit; only little heaps of cinder and their charred weapons proved they once existed. And in the middle of it all, the witch stood there completely unscathed, even angrier than before. In the face of absolute obliteration, what could I do but to cower in fear?
Fear. It was the first time I was experiencing it, and it was... strange. I already knew what it was from the books: an emotional reaction induced by a sensed threat in response to what is perceived as risk to well-being, which causes a change in brain and organ function and, ultimately, a change in behavior. But that's only the textbook definition. To actually feel it on my own was a radically different experience compared to what the books foretold; they did it no justice. Seeing that witch holding that smoking furnace of destruction, the remnants of my brave sisters who I thought invincible, and the impotence derived from that knowledge; it all gnawed on my chest and froze my whole body, unable to move even if my life depended on it. Which it did.
"What, over already? I thought you had more spunk in ya!" The witch boasted. "Seems like Alice is slacking off on- huh."
And that's when she saw me. Maybe it was because I was somewhat bigger than my sisters, maybe because of my dress, but the thing is, something in me caught her attention. And I had seen enough of her to know I did not want to be the focus of her attention.
"Hey, haven't seen you before. What's yer name?" She spoke softly and amicably, but I wouldn't be fooled so easily. "You know, you look a lot like her when she was..."
The witch took a couple of steps towards me, but she stopped on her tracks when she saw Paris walk between in me and her, raising her sword at her. I could not understand how could she stand up to her so fearlessly after seeing what that human did to our sisters, while I could do nothing but tremble in terror. Was she built that way? Or...?
"Tch, annoying piece of junk!"
The witch's face quickly turned into an angry scowl as she pointed the hexagonal furnace at Paris. But the doll did not move out of the way; in fact, she gripped her sword even tighter, ready to lunge towards the witch even if it meant throwing her life away. Why was she doing it? I could not stand it, I could not bear the thought of another one of my sisters being vaporized to ashes by that thing.
Finally, I managed to will my body to move despite the grip panic had on me. The fear of losing Paris surpassed the fear of losing my life. Funny thing, fear: sometimes it leaves me unable to react in any way, and others it makes me do things I thought impossible under normal conditions. Case in point, I disregarded my own well-being for Paris', and before either of them attacked the other, I grabbed Paris' sleeve and hugged her against my leg, using my frame to shield her just like she did before to me.
The witch arched her eyebrows, undoubtedly amused by the scene, and she even cracked a dry, but heartfelt smile. Even though I had no vocal chords to communicate with her, I stared at her eyes, trying to convey my message with my own: Please stop. I'll do whatever you want, but please do not harm my sisters. She seemed to get it, because after a few tense seconds she started to cackle.
"Ahahahahaha, clever girl!" She laughed, twirling her furnace on her palm. "Why don't cha take me to yer 'master', eh? We need to have a... serious conversation."
I did not like the tone she used to denote the urgency of her matters with Master. For all I knew, she could have come here to hurt her like she did my sisters! And even though I knew Master was capable of defending herself on her own, I had a feeling not even her she would be match for that personification of wanton destruction and laser beams. But what other choice did I have? If I didn't comply, she would have destroyed us all!
So I did what I had to do: Leaving Paris behind, I guided our uninvited guest to Master's room, where she was the last time I saw her. But when we arrived, she was nowhere to be seen. That only left one place possible, but...
"Alice, where the heck are you!?" The witch shouted impatiently. "Do I hafta bring yer whole mansion down till I find ya or what!?"
It went completely against Master's orders to not let any stranger into the "secret compartment", but that was a critical situation. I hoped she would understand. Fearing the wrath of the black witch, I quickly crouched under the desk and introduced the super secret combination in the dial. I heard the familiar sound of the bookshelf turning, and the hidden entrance was revealed before us. The witch let out a surprised whistle; she clearly wasn't expecting that to happen.
"You gotta be kidding me! This is what Alice made Nitorin build? That's awe-! Uh, I mean," she coughed, and corrected herself: "I knew she was up to something shady!"
When she got herself over her initial surprise, I walked her through the narrow hallway and the long staircase leading down the basement. But instead of entering the enormous room ahead, I took the semi-concealed door on the left, where the freight train was.
"Wow, she sure didn't spare no expense, huh," the witch commented aloud. "I kinda reminds me of that gap hag's attack."
Obviously, I didn't know who that "gap hag" was at the time. I guessed it was an acquaintance of both Master and the witch. Which beckoned the question: was the witch an acquaintance of Master as well? When I thought about it, the witch's face was actually familiar, but where did I see her before? I was sure that was the first time I saw the witch in person. Perhaps it was a picture of her?
The two of us got on the wagon, and remembering what Master always did, I pulled a lever on the operation panel. The engine whirred, the locomotive was put into motion and the wagon slowly built up speed, spiraling down the endless tunnel. For me, the routine was devoid of interest after the umpteenth time, but the witch was utterly fascinated by the machine she was mounted on and her surroundings.
After a couple of minutes that seemed hours to me, the train finally arrived at its destination: the white station, where Master spent most of her time whenever she wasn't with me. I had been there countless times, but I still wasn't sure about the true purposes of that 'secret' basement, due to Master's obsession with privacy and secrecy. At that moment, I realized it was nothing more paranoia, justified paranoia. Most probably, the witch had come to see whatever Master was keeping inside those locked rooms, hidden to the unwanted eyes.
And I was revealing that hideout Master had gone through great pains to keep secret. I was such a bad doll.
"You gonna open the door any time soon?" The witch's impatient voice snapped me back to reality. "Coz I have my master key ready, if ya know what I mean," she added, throwing that dreadful furnace up and catching it in the air.
Right, I had spaced out a bit in front of Master's studio. Biding my time as much as I reasonably could, I introduced the code on the panel, making sure to linger on each key for a few seconds. For what, I wondered. I was only delaying the inevitable, I knew, but still, I didn't want to witness what was about to happen. But the witch's patience would run out eventually, so I finished inputting the passport, and the door slid open.
Master was sitting at her desk inside, talking to a strange black box. I could clearly see how startled she was by my unexpected appearance, and she went silent all of a sudden. Her expression was a mixture of surprise, anger and disappointment; a cocktail of emotions quite different the inexpressive facade I was so used to seeing.
"What are you doing here?" Master exclaimed. "I thought I told you to leave me al- oh."
By the way her shoulders slumped, I'd say she just saw the person standing behind me. And as I predicted, it was not a sight she wanted to see.
"Alice," said the witch, all her previous haughtiness replaced by a hint of sadness.
"... Marisa," in contrast, Master's voice was nothing but a disheartened whisper.
Master and Witch stared at each other's eyes for who knows how long, and meanwhile I stood there, not daring to move a muscle. The tension in the air could be cut with a butter knife, but nobody wanted to take the first step, to throw the first stone... to say the first word. It was Marisa the one who finally broke the silence:
"Uh... Nice base you got here!" She waved her arms awkwardly, encompassing the room we were in. "I wish I had one in my own-"
"Spare the small talk," Master interrupted her. "We both know what's the true reason of your visit."
Master's cold words really hurt the witch, who could not bear to keep looking at the one who once was her dearest friend. Marisa shook her head, partly in disbelief, partly to dispel any doubts holding her back.
"So it's true, then? You're the one that has been kidnapping people from the village?" She asked, although I suspect she already knew the answer.
"That's right," Master nodded. "And I'm not going to stop. Not until I've reached my goal."
"But why!? What's so important that you must do this!?" The witch cried.
Master took a deep breath, steeling herself for what she was about to say - which I reckoned it wasn't going to please Marisa.
"If you forgive the cliché, I did it for science."
"Their sacrifices are necessary to bring my long-sought dream to fruition: the ultimate act of creation!"
The witch stood there frozen, unable to return one word at that revelation. She blinked one, twice, coughed a bit under her fist, and then she finally managed to mutter something in utter disbelief:
"Are you for real?"
"But it's nothing you should be concerned about," Master scoffed. "You've come here to strike me down and save the day, am I right? My goals and motivations do not matter in the slightest, as long as the heroine beats the bad guy and solves the incident. That's how things work in Gensokyo, no?"
"What are you waiting for? Come on, shoot me!" Master beckoned. "Blast me with that hakkero of yours and put an end to this!"
But Marisa did not move. She just stood there, trembling in frustration, and gripping her hexagonal furnace tightly. In spite of how exposed Master was leaving herself, the witch could not bring herself to shoot her like she did my sisters. But why did Master say that? I didn't understand what was going on, and I didn't know what were Master's intentions. Did she really want Marisa to kill her, or did she have something else in mind? Should I protect her if the witch finally decides to open fire, or not?
"Now you're having second thoughts?" Master kept taunting her. "Must I spell it out for you? I kidnapped those villagers, I did terrible things to them! I deserve to be exterminated, Marisa! Isn't that enough reason!?"
Marisa looked down, trying to hide her tears behind her hat's wide brim. But I could see them clearly from where I stood, and I had a feeling Master also knew she was crying.
"No, no, no! You're lying! The Alice I know wouldn't do that!" She whined and retorted in denial, but even I knew she didn't believe her own words.
"Then you don't know me as much as you think," Master replied coldly. "I am a youkai. It's in my blood, my soul, to harm and kill humans. And I am a magician as well. My research is the only thing that truly matters to me. You, of all people, should understand better than anyone else."
Marisa flinched at Master's harsh words, incapable of accepting what she was telling her. Seeing how she gritted her teeth in futile denial, how tears of frustration ran down her rosy cheeks, how her knees struggled to not fall to the floor, how her trust and faith were betrayed and crumbled to trust; I secretly enjoyed how Master broke the haughty in her former friend. It was my way of revenge for all the sisters I lost to her.
But on the other hand I wondered: Did Master really mean what she said? She was usually so kind and gentle to me and the other dolls, if a bit cold at times, but I had never seen her do all those "terrible things" she spoke of. Maybe she was exaggerating things to goad Marisa into shooting her, but again, why would she do that? Was there something I was missing?
"Show me," hissed Marisa.
"I said, show me!" The witch raised her voice. "I wanna see what's the big deal. I wanna see what turned you into a psycho, shut-in, cold-hearted bitch. I wanna see what's your 'long-sought dream' with my own two eyes. I want to understand you, dammit!"
Now it was Master's turn to be surprised. But unlike Marisa, she was able to keep her composure, not showing any signs of being affected by Marisa's insults, no matter how close they hit home. Instead, she just let out a weary sigh, left her grimoire on the desk, and walked towards the witch.
"Oh, Marisa, how could I say 'no' if you put it like that?" For a moment, I thought there was a speck of emotion in her voice, but it might as well have been a mirage. "But I warn you, you will not like what I hide in these facilities. Do you still wish to see what I've done so badly?"
The witch didn't say anything for a few seconds, probably thinking she was going to regret it, but in the end she nodded in consent.
"Then follow me. I will show you the fruits of my work."
Master took Marisa's hand, which the witch reluctantly squeezed for much needed emotional support, and the two walked out of the room. I was about to follow them, but Master stopped me with a gesture of her free hand.
"You will stay here until I return, am I understood?"
As much as I wanted to be at her side, her order was clear and absolute. If that was what Master wanted, then I would wait for her in her studio. I watched them enter one of the rooms, and the door slid closed after they passed through. Normally, I wouldn't mind waiting until Master's next order, but that time I was restless. I had a very bad feeling about all that, as if I sensed a tragedy that was about to happen. Master told me she would come back for me, but what if that witch...?
No, I had to go there. I couldn't let her be alone with that witch, regardless of their previous relationship. I had to make sure Master was alright, even if I didn't know what to do to ensure her well-being. But going after them meant disobeying a direct order from Master! I already did wrong by bringing Marisa to the secret underground basement; Master would get very angry if I broke the rules twice in a row.
Doubts ate me as time went by, but in the end...
I decided to look after Master, orders be damned.
I stayed put like a good and obedient doll.
There was something important Master forgot in here...
You've seen enough. Stop reliving this memory.
Whew, that was a load of writing! I'm glad I finally managed to post an update.
Took you long enough.
Well, what did you expect? This is probably the biggest update I've ever written in one go, so of course it would take time! Besides, I had a lot of other stuff I had to take care of...
Nothing relevant to you.
Anyway, I wish I could go back to writing short and quick updates like at the beginning, but there's so much plot to introduce!
Hm, is that so? I have a feeling you will return to that pace in a short notice.
It's only a... what do you call it? A 'hunch'? A premonition of sorts.