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[ ♫: http://listenonrepeat.com/watch/?v=HXj6yYA5Ke8 ]
[仰空哀歌 - 東方魂花～The first acceleration～ (STEP×STEP)]
He moved toward the Bamboo Forest, located on the opposite side of the human village, as discreetly as he could, taking preference to open areas where he could see around himself well. He flew short distances here and there, and walked where he felt flying would make him stand out too much. He wasn’t sure which a more tempting target for youkai was: an Outsider walking around, or an Outsider floating in the sky. In either case: a meal. He really did need to be discreet.
Since leaving, he had an extra goal aside from his simple task of exploring the strange and ever-growing grove of bamboo stalks. That was too find “special” shoots to eat and bring them back to the Mansion. The Head Maid had agreed to insist Patchouli go to bed... if he did that much. More importantly, he was still within his final month of servitude in compensation for the Maid; he could not refuse a request, and had not for almost four months since he’d apologized to her for his many foul actions. It hadn’t been particularly bad, to be a butler of Scarlet Devil Mansion.
Now he approached his destination. He had taken a road around the Human Village, uninterested in touring it today (and most days, actually), thus the one entirely human place in Gensokyo that he had never visited now sat a fair distance behind him. Now he stopped to read a large wooden sign beside the dirt road he’d been walking.
To those who aren’t bamboo harvesters, enter at your own risk.
To those who are bamboo harvesters, enter at somewhat less risk.
He blinked, and looked up. Far, far up. Risk it is, I suppose.
The bamboo was the tallest he’d ever seen personally. Here and there in modern Japan he could find bamboo growing either randomly or through deliberate cultivation, but he’d not gone to Kyoto or somewhere for a bamboo forest. He’d gone to Kyoto of course, but not for the forest at least. Temples... the usual.
The emerald sight was more unnerving than breathtaking. Eerily thick stalks rose seemingly higher than he was able to see, leafy and entirely ungroomed. He hadn’t actually seen bamboo with sprouted branches, either. Or rather, he hadn’t seen branches so significant that they reached out from the trunk so brazenly, sometimes a meter or more. He’d also heard the forest had bamboo growing at angles, and that there was regularly dense fog that rolled in. Knowing he’d need to prepare a little more before stepping inside, he brought his eyes down to ground-level.
“Jesus!” Gen yelled and fell back on his right foot, almost falling down but managing to keep steady enough to be ready for fight of flight. In front of him was a short-haired, winged woman. Her hair and feathers were black, her white, short-sleeve shirt had a distinct gold design of red leaves on only one section of it, and that fanciful pattern was shared on a section of her (noticeably short) dark skirt, frilled white below. Importantly, her ears were pointed and her eyes were crimson. More importantly, she stood on one leg and wore strange red shoes that seemed to be hybridized with single-tooth geta. Most importantly, atop her head was a twelve-surfaced box of the same color—a tokin, carrying three large, colorless pom-poms—bonten-fusa on either side by a pair of similarly red strings... certainly: yuigesa. A gust came along delayed, kicking up dust. A tengu had appeared.
Shameimaru Aya, smiling very politely, reminding him of a McDonald’s waitress (perhaps because of the clothes he now wore).
“...” He looked at her silently.
... No, he decided, and he began to walk around her. For her reputation, and that I’m not on the Mountain, she shouldn’t attack me.
Aya appeared before him again, stopping him and looking greatly concerned, hands up. “Hey now, listen here, honored human! Don’t you know it’s dangerous in there?” she insisted. “I simply cannot let you through.”
“Gensokyo is dangerous,” he told her, then fell silent again. Looking at her with irritation, he eventually asked, “... What do you want?”
“Well that makes things easier,” she answered, the concern vanishing from her face immediately. “I just wanted to ask you some questions.”
“I see the camera behind your back,” he said, looking, “I’m not letting you spread pictures of me in my old clothes. Some youkai in Gensokyo still don’t know about my origins.”
“Oh, I already got your picture,” she replied. He looked at her in anger and disbelief, and reached for a book attached to the back of his belt. “Hold on, hold on! It wasn’t of you in what you wear now... Itou Gen, was it?”
“Why take a picture of me at all? Tch... Come on, let me through,” he begged, trying to walk forward again. She tapped a feathered pen to his forehead and smirked lightly.
“I’ll protect you as you go through the forest if you just give me some information,” she offered.
“Forget it,” he refused without waiting for a breath. He was now rather annoyed, especially as it seemed like he would have to enter the forest without having prepared what he needed, if only to get away from the bothersome and dangerous tengu.
He finally walked past her with success, and she spoke up to try to stop him this time. “Did you think I wouldn’t notice?” she asked, her arms folded. “The culprit behind the latest event—I’m calling it the ‘Night Parade of One Hundred Youkai Every Four Days’ Incident—took an interest in a human, and you thought this would just escape my notice?”
His spirit sank, as did his shoulders. He finally, grudgingly, turned to look at her.
“At one time,” she continued, “though you didn’t seem to realize it, one of those parties lasted three entire days. There was no way I was going to ignore it, no matter how much everyone else was, or was compelled to. That the power behind it seemed so familiar... I certainly wouldn’t pass it up... Oh?”
Gen’s face had gone red.
“S-So you saw me... when? Last night? This morning?”
“This morning I saw you, having learned Ibuki no Suika had not only returned, but come to visit those of our newest comers: the Scarlet Devil Mansion.”
“Oh gods... a-and you took a picture...!?” he asked, unable to look at anything but his feet.
“If I am being honest, and I am ever the pure and honest Shameimaru, I took several pictures, as any good photographer ought,” she said both matter-of-factly and proudly.
He became despondent.
“Fine...” he said, “I’ll answer your questions...”
“Delightful! Let’s get right to it!” she exclaimed. She hopped (literally) toward him and readied her words.
“So you have become Ibuki Suika’s lover?” she asked, opening a notepad and lifting her pen.
Gen’s reaction was manga-esque. It was as if the question had blown him back, and his cheeks were almost glowing with heat. He balled a fist and threw out the answer, “Y-You’re mistaken! We’ve become f-f... f-f-f-friends!”
“Close friends?” she asked with a smile, looking up.
“New friends,” he answered, looking to the ground again, his brow in chaos.
“So the oni has made two new friends already. Chummy as ever,” said Aya, writing something down.
“How much do you recall of the past Incident overall?”
“Little...” he admitted, calming a little as well. “Mostly, the last month has been a haze of celebratory events.”
Still scribbling, the tengu asked, “You said you met Ibuki Suika last night?”
“I didn’t,” he told her, which was true: he had only implied as much.
“Sorry, you implied that you had?” she asked. He groaned, and said nothing in reply. Taking this as a “yes”, the tengu followed with, “What happened last night?”
“... I just met her,” he relented, “nothing more.”
“That’s quite something. Miss Suika had been very deliberately hiding until she began selectively showing herself to certain individuals,” Aya commented. Writing quite a lot, she told him, “It’s a very exceptional chance meeting, I would say.”
“Sure...” he vaguely agreed.
“Did she ‘show’ herself to you? Was it only happenstance?”
“I stumbled across her by the Lake.”
“You said she showed herself to certain individuals? Who?”
“About everyone who matters right now, so certainly not you,” she answered, not looking from her notepad. He wasn’t sure if he should feel insulted.
Aya kept on, “Now the Head Maid told me to get out when I tried seeing why Miss Suika had not come back out after learning that she entered the Mansion the night before, so I was unable to confirm what transpired. Your Maid is very rude, and does not seem to understand the value of truth.”
“Uh huh,” he answered dully.
“So? What happened?”
“Sui... umm, Miss Suika took me back home when I collapsed from tiredness and drunkenness, but she basically intruded to do that. She was bothering my Master... Lady Patchouli Knowledge, and an altercation started in the Library. I assisted my Master, and eventually ended up suggesting to Miss Suika a game.”
“Really?” said Aya in confirmation, looking serious.
“We played a fairly lawless game of tag, in which Miss Suika was allowed to use whatever she could to win, and I was as well. I’m an apprentice magician, so... I know some things,” he explained. “Ultimately, I won the game, and escorted Miss Suika out of the Mansion.”
“Wait... really?” she asked, suspicious. “You beat an oni at a game? You? An Outsider?”
“Yes, but if you’re writing an article don’t mention I’m an Outsider. I’ll get my Master to make yakitori out of you if you do.”
“Goodness,” answered Aya, not writing that down. “Don’t worry, Itou Gen: I find your existence much more interesting the less people know that you’re from the Outside World.”
“Really?” he asked, somewhat dubious.
“Truly, in fact,” she replied, tilting her head and smiling as ever, “you’ve almost slipped under my radar several times, but I know that you’re not as subtle as you wish to be. I know about your hand in the Spring Snow Incident, for example, and that you were directly involved in why it was able to transpire in the first place. I let that truth remain quiet. Do you know why, Itou Gen?”
He shook his head.
“Once it is known throughout Gensokyo that Patchouli Knowledge’s student is a human, let alone one from the Outside World, it won’t be long before he is killed and his adventures end. That would be troubling, because then an opportunity is wasted,” she explained smoothly, and he found her explanation paralyzing. “You see, I am betting on you, Itou Gen, and if what you said is true—that you won against an oni—then my expectations and predictions for your growth are absolutely correct. You will make for a fantastic subject... once you become a youkai.”
“... Excuse me?”
“‘The Untold Story of Patchouli’s Magician’ will most definitely be a hit if you survive long enough for me to tell it. My, I wish I had been able to photograph your match with Miss Suika. I will have to settle for a confirmation from her, I suppose. But, an oni’s confirmation is very much worthwhile.”
Aya finished taking notes and put her things away, swinging the camera slung around her neck to her front. She did not take a picture; she simply beat her wide wings and was ready to be off. “Thank you for your time,” she said, saluting him, “please do your best to continue to survive.”
She gestured with her salute, and shot into the air, almost instantly becoming a dark and distant shadow in the sky as winds tossed everything around him. Gen looked at her disappearing figure completely motionless, and unsure of what to think about her arrival.
... He decided to ignore her “youkai” comment, and finally begin preparing to enter the forest, opening up his suitcase and taking from it a half-foot scroll.
Due to the Bamboo Forest being known as a place where people would be lost, this was how Gensokyo “rendered” it. Thus, if you yourself were not something or someone that “belonged” to it, you would invariably lose your way... or so was the rumor becoming fact.
He theorized that “belonging” was merely becoming so used to the forest, either by living there or working there, that you could understand its layout in spite of how it regularly changed due to the rapid growth of the bamboo. Rather, he wanted to believe that. If there was a god of this forest, and its faith was based in its ability to make people “lost”, supporting the idea wouldn’t do him any good. Thus, he laid a marker on the earth, inscribed in the scroll, that he would be able to locate with only a little bit of magic. Even if it was moved, he’d still be able to find it from within the forest. It was a simple precaution that he felt may prove invaluable... if nothing strange happened inside. He activated the marker, closed his suitcase, and entered the Bamboo Forest.
Stepping inside, it was oddly both gradual and rapid how the scenery started to blend together. The path he had been walking was lost in a few steps, while he still felt like the exit was only a hop, skip, and a jump away. It had to have been less than two minutes before he realized he had no idea where he was, and had lost his sense of place. Rather than panicking, he began to explore as he’d been instructed, intrigued. He actually thought the shimmering green plant life, showered by the sun, was quite beautiful.
Over time he observed that the bamboo forest was home to many rabbits. They were often white, which surprised him. This did not seem an ideal color given the environment, but aside from a few chestnut-colored bunnies, the ones darting out of his sight were near always shining and pale. They seemed to him to have the run of the place, and as he became more entrenched in the bright forest, he wondered if there were truly any predators in this place at all.
On his way he did find some, however. Abandoned human goods he would occasionally spot seemed to be frequently attractive to youkai and wolves. He made his way carefully, and seemed to be safely avoiding most anything that could attack him.
While he did indeed entirely lose his sense of place shortly after entering the forest, he did not feel as put off by the place inside of it as he had outside. The sun filtered into the forest well and gorgeously, with there never being a solid canopy to block it. With that, it additionally became an easy matter to breathe here, unlike in the Forest of Magic. Also unlike the Forest of Magic, there didn’t seem to be many fairies causing mischief in this area. In fact, if not for the frequent sounds of birds and summer insects, as well as the often-spotted rabbit, he might have even gotten the impression that this place was almost devoid of life.
He eventually found a small pond in a clearing and took a seat on the earth before it, setting some magical traps around himself just in case. The pond looked almost untouched, and the water was startlingly clear. He did not drink, because it made him rather suspicious.
By this point, he had concluded that he enjoyed the Bamboo Forest of the Lost, and he had determined that what beasts and youkai he could find within it were likely not threats at his current degree of mastery over the Art. It was a relaxing and rather pretty area with a level of danger only slightly above that of the Forest of Magic that he could easily, and gladly, get lost in funnily enough. If he could end up “belonging” here, he imagined he might come often, really. He’d not gathered much in the way of useful ingredients (as he had expected, as this forest wasn’t known for “magic” like another in noted forest Gensokyo), but he had relaxed after the whirlwind of experiences he’d had in so few hours before. He’d have to thank his Master again. This said, he hadn’t found what the Maid had requested of him either. He really had no experience whatsoever with finding bamboo shoots, and to spot anything specific in this monotonous (though dazzling) place was a tall order.
He also didn’t want to look at his feet very often when he needed his eyes all around him, just in case.
While thinking about a resolution to this conundrum, he heard distant movement. Unconcerned, he looked to the source, and raised his eyebrows.
“A youkai rabbit...” he muttered absently, “first time I’ve seen one.”
The barefoot youkai moving behind bamboo stalks looked like a young girl with messy hair, and the clearest way to tell she was not human was to look at the large and white, floppy rabbit ears on her head. She didn’t seem to notice him and was only moving through the forest as seemed to be the norm for her, judging by her carriage.
He followed the sight of her light and pink dress, as well as her fluffy-looking tail, and wondered where she might be going.
He didn’t know how much time had passed, but it felt to him now like the afternoon.
He blankly stared at the rabbit.
 Follow the white rabbit.
 Go back to thinking about whatever else.