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A land of illusions on the brink of civil war meets the man who once declared he would plunge the world into chaos.

This is a crossposting of a fic I have been writing on AO3. It is a crossover between Touhou and the VN/anime Steins;Gate (part of the broader Science Adventure franchise). The original can be found here: archiveofourown.org/works/35380462
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Chapter 1

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Rintaro Okabe’s life had gone off the rails in a remarkable variety of ways in the last few months, but this was not something he had been expecting.

When he heard a voice he did not recognise loudly call out the name “Hououin Kyouma” from behind him, his entire body tensed up in a fight-or-flight response. A second later, his mind caught up and he reminded himself he had left all that behind him, tried to remember the advice his therapist had given. What had he even been anticipating, a bullet? Goons trying to kidnap him? To get pushed forward into the path of a train? He was in the middle of a sidewalk, no-one would attempt a kidnapping with this many witnesses around. And the only way a train could hit him here was if it came falling out of the sky. He got his breathing under control, but remained on guard as he slowly turned around to see who had spoken to him.

The young woman who stood there seemed unaffected by the embarrassingly public panic attack he had just suffered. She seemed a few years younger than Rintaro, maybe around Mayuri’s age, and smiled broadly even as she breathed heavily. Had she just been running to catch up to him?

‘Nice to finally meet you, Kyouma! I’ve been a fan of your work for a while now!’ How the hell did this person he had never met before know that name? Was she a spy for the Organisation? Or rather, SERN’s Rounders? But they shouldn’t even know he existed in this worldline… In any case, Rintaro took a step back, to put himself out of arm’s range from this suspicious girl.

‘I think you have the wrong person. I am not Hououin Kyouma,’ he replied carefully.

‘No, no, you can’t fool me like that!’ She pointed a finger at him in an overdramatic fashion, as if she was accusing someone in a courtroom, but thankfully she did not get any closer to him. ‘I have read your many writings on @channel and I have seen the scientific projects you have reported on your Future Gadget Laboratory website! You really are the most insightful writer I’ve found on modern mysteries and the occult! Now I see you, I know you could not be anyone else!’ She coughed, and seemed to calm down a bit. ‘Ahem, aside from that, you’re the person leasing the address mentioned on the Laboratory website’s contact page, and you seem to have gone there a lot.’ Okay, that answered some questions, but raised a lot more. Had this girl been stalking him? Daru might have found the idea of a high school girl peeping on the Lab attractive, but Rintaro knew better than that. Furthermore, she was interested in him because of his activities on @channel? He hadn’t even touched that site in months; the interminable forum arguments he’d gotten into over nonsensical scientific theories and conspiracies seemed infantile now after all that had happened to him. Then again, @channel had been where Suzuha had tried to communicate her story to the world, so maybe not everything there was as crazy as it seemed.

He didn’t think there were many high school girls on those parts of @channel – even though Kurisu had been, but he quickly reminded himself not to think about that now – but now he took a closer look at the girl she did look weird enough to be a @channeller. She wore a purple plaid jumper and skirt that looked like they could be part of a school uniform, but she also had a large black hat and a cape, the inside of which was bright red and covered in an array of runes. Had they been at ComiMa, Rintaro might have complimented her for the witch cosplay, but here in the middle of Tokyo it looked a little ridiculous. He was uncomfortably reminded of the lab coat he used to insistently wear wherever he went.

Regardless, this girl definitely knew more about him than she ought to. ‘How do you know all that? Who even are you?’ Rintaro asked, not really caring if he sounded blunt.

‘Ah, I have not introduced myself, have I? Well then, Hououin Kyouma, I shall tell you my name!’ She performed a flourish of her cape before stepping forward and offering a handshake, except she did this by shoving her hand way too close to Rintaro’s face for him to actually shake it. ‘I am Sumireko Usami, the Esotericist of the Present World! The ultimate high school psychic, peerless enthusiast of the occult and founder of the Secret Sealing Club, I have come to you for I require your aid with a matter of great interest and mystery!’ Yup, she was definitely a chuunibyou. Rintaro felt as if he was back in one of Faris’s roleplaying games, except this girl was somehow even more eccentric in her fantasies. Was this what he had sounded like to others, back when he still used that other name?

Rintaro noticed she hadn’t actually answered his first question at all, but he put the issue of her potentially being a stalker aside for now and decided to try and see if he could just get rid of her quickly by bursting her bubble. He was just coming back from tennis practice, it was already getting late and he really didn’t have the energy for a roleplaying session right now.

‘I’m sorry to tell you this, but the Future Gadget Lab is defunct. Hououin Kyouma is dead. I am Rintaro Okabe, a humble university student. I wish you a good day.’ He turned and started to walk away, ignoring her still outstretched hand, but Sumireko quickly recovered and blocked his path.

‘I don’t really care what name you’re using, I just want your help! My research on @channel has suggested that you are the single most knowledgeable individual in the field of esoteric sciences and inventions. Well, except maybe for the legendary John Titor, but nobody has been able to reach him for a while.’ He almost had to laugh at that one, but he quickly pushed the thought away to focus on the matter at hand.

‘So what is this mystery you so want to talk about? I’m sure you could find other… experts on @channel who would be more than willing to share their paranormal knowledge with you,’ he said. Although, for a pretty high school girl like you it’s probably best not to go anywhere near them, he added in his mind.

Sumireko gave a sly grin but remained silent as she held up a small backpack and lifted out from it a spherical object about the size of a classic crystal ball. ‘This darling here is a very interesting artefact,’ she said, with a manner akin to a car salesman. ‘Some call it an “Occult Ball”. I don’t understand exactly how it works yet, but if I could borrow your expertise and inventing prowess I intend to use it to open a portal to the land of illusions, Gensokyo.’ Rintaro took a moment to process this. The sphere looked at first glance to be made of glass, but it had a dark purple colour and there was something peculiar about the way light was reflecting in it that he couldn’t quite put his finger on. “Gensokyo”… he recalled seeing that name before somewhere on @channel, but he didn’t think it had ever been a major topic of discussion and he couldn’t remember anything else about it. Sumireko’s strange presentation definitely created a spark of interest in his mind, like when he first read the posts of John Titor. However, that spark was immediately followed by a pang of irritation, as much at himself as at the girl.

‘Portals don’t exist,’ he snapped. ‘All of those paranormal stories on @channel are garbage. You shouldn’t believe everything you read. And you’d better stop messing around with stuff like this before you hurt someone you care about with it.’

He walked away again, a little more forcefully this time, but Sumireko clearly wasn’t done yet. She ran in front of him, her face now also marred by a sneer. ‘Oh, so you don’t “believe” in the paranormal anymore, huh? Think you know how everything in the world works now, huh? Well, how about this?’ She came to a halt abruptly, forcing Rintaro also to stop in order to avoid a collision. She lifted up her cape with one hand, creating a sort of curtain between them and the rest of the people on the sidewalk, and with the other she set down the Occult Ball on the concrete. She then stood upright and wiggled the fingers of her free hand a bit. Without warning, the sphere floated into the air and, after hovering at the level of Sumireko’s face for a moment, settled itself back into her hand. ‘Is that “normal”, do you think?’ she said with a grimace.

Rintaro was frozen to the spot. He tried to look for strings attached to the ball, tried to see if she had anything else in her hands, but he couldn’t see anything. He told himself there could be many different rational explanations for what just happened, but it did nothing against the overwhelming sense of panic that was building inside him. The last few days had severely strained the sense of normalcy he’d worked so hard to build for himself, and this apparent display of telekinesis just broke the camel’s back.

‘I… I have to go,’ were the only words he could muster. He couldn’t be dragged into this shit again. The last time had cost him so much. One of his dearest friends was never coming back. He couldn’t let this happen again, couldn’t let his friends get hurt because of his stupid obsessions again. He ran.

‘Hey, where are you going? Come back!’ came Sumireko’s voice from behind him. A glance over his shoulder confirmed that she was giving chase. Great. He ran the length of a city block before his otaku stamina started to give way, and he also found the sidewalk ahead blocked by a group of young women huddled together. ‘I show you all that and you just run away? What the hell, that’s rude!’ Her voice was a lot closer now. He needed to find another escape route. Crossing the street? No, there were too many cars, he knew all too well what could happen. Wait, he knew this area, wasn’t there an alleyway around here somewhere? He looked around and spotted it, but he’d already ran past the alley entrance and Sumireko was between him and there now.

Rintaro had begun thinking of an elaborate plan to dodge around Sumireko and then gain enough distance on her – which involved knocking over a storefront sign to create a barrier and all in all was probably not something he could actually pull off without the dexterity of someone like Suzuha – when he received a stroke of luck as a businessman on his phone stepped right in front of Sumireko. She had too much momentum to stop and slammed into the businessman’s shoulder before tumbling to the ground. The man immediately began yelling at her, which drew the attention of the group of women behind Rintaro, and several of them got angry at the businessman in turn. It was the perfect distraction for Rintaro, and before his pursuer could even get to her feet, he’d disappeared down the alleyway. He’d passed through these maze-like backstreets a few times to visit electronics stores, and he used his knowledge of the area to take a complicated path he was sure Sumireko wouldn’t be able to follow, before emerging again onto a larger street.

Once he was confident he’d shaken his tail, Rintaro slumped down onto the pavement, sitting with his back against a nondescript concrete wall. He needed a moment to calm himself down and get a grip on the situation. He needed to get a grip on everything that had happened this week, really.

Attending a public lecture where scientists demonstrated an advanced artificial intelligence based on a person’s memories was an abnormal occurrence, certainly, but manageable. But then, two days ago, those same scientists invited him to their lab and showed him the AI version of his dead friend Kurisu, and that was a little further beyond normality. Not only that, but they’d talked him into becoming a tester for their AI, so now he had an app on his phone in which resided a digital version of his dead friend for him to talk to. And now today, he had been suddenly accosted by a stalker who reminded him uncomfortably of his own old identity, and this person seemed to have shown him that telekinesis was real.

Had he hit his head or something? Was he hallucinating? It was like he’d been thrown into some desperate fantasy the chuunibyou part of his mind had cooked up. Kurisu was dead. He had tried to save her. Repeatedly. He had failed. But now suddenly a very much not dead Kurisu had been served up to him on a silver platter. Even if it was all on his phone behind an icon labelled “Amadeus”, it was her, he could feel it. And then some kind of new John Titor had showed up with some kind of new supernatural phenomenon that with his genius mind he would be able to use to save the world. Because, you know, the gift of time travel clearly hadn’t been useful enough. It all seemed too good to be true, and at the same time unpredictable and dangerous.

Rintaro sighed and dragged his hands down his face. He remained sitting on the pavement for a moment, until he remembered something. He had been asked to help test Amadeus by talking to the AI, and if there was anyone who could bring back a little rationality into what he had experienced today, maybe explain how this telekinesis thing really had just been an illusion, it was Kurisu. A digital recreation of her would suffice, he supposed, if it really was accurate. He pulled his phone out of his pocket and started to navigate to the Amadeus app when he found his way blocked by a message telling him that the device’s battery was down to five percent. With a groan, he put the phone away again. He wasn’t sure what would happen if the battery suddenly shut off while he was talking to the AI, but he could imagine it having damaging consequences like corrupting Amadeus’s data stream and he didn’t think Maho and Dr. Leskinen would be very happy if something like that happened.

He stood up, dusted himself off and began to walk. Before he encountered Sumireko he had just been heading back to his apartment, but he really needed to talk to someone now. Furthermore, he had to deliver a warning.
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A few minutes later, Rintaro found himself standing in the doorway of the Future Gadget Lab. ‘Daru?’ he called out as he stepped inside. The main room was dark, but he could see light seeping from under one of the doors. There was a thump, followed by some soft cursing in a familiar, deep voice. ‘Are you okay, Daru?’

The lit door swung open, and out stumbled the large form of Itaru Hashida, known as Daru among his friends. ‘Aah, you startled me, Okarin,’ the self-proclaimed hacker said, rubbing his knee. ‘Wasn’t expecting you here tonight!’

‘Did you hurt your leg?’ Rintaro asked. Here you go again, inflicting pain upon your friends, thought a part of him, but he pushed it down. There were bigger issues at hand right now.

‘Meh, it was just that stupid desk. Always been too small for me!’ Looking past Daru, Rintaro saw a lit-up monitor on the table and immediately decided not to look too closely, lest he scar his eyes again with some of Daru’s… interests. ‘Never mind that – it’s been a while! What’s up, Okarin?’

‘I… well…’ He struggled to find the right words for a moment. ‘The past few days have been strange, and quite troubling.’

‘Heh! I told you, you were gonna get an allergic reaction hanging around all those normies–’ Daru stopped as he finally looked Rintaro in the eye and seemed to catch on to his expression. ‘Dude, you look like you’ve seen a ghost! What the hell happened?’

That’s not too far off the truth, actually, Rintaro thought. But, while the Amadeus project itself had been shown to the public, his participation in it was supposed to be confidential, so he couldn’t tell Daru about that. The other thing that had happened, though… ‘I found out some alarming things. Someone is spying on the Lab.’

‘Seriously? What are they after, the PhoneWave? My new research?’ Luckily, Daru seemed to understand how serious the situation was, which wasn’t always a given when it came to him. Rintaro sighed and reflexively looked to a workbench across the room, under which he knew lay a certain electrical appliance, the damn thing that had gotten them into all of this mess to begin with.

‘I really don’t know. There shouldn’t be anyone who knows about it in this worldline, at least not at this time. But this girl seemed to know more about me than she should be able to, so we can’t rule it out.’

Daru immediately perked up. ‘A girl? You’re saying a girl has been spying on us? Is she cute?’

Rintaro had to stifle a groan. He should’ve known that would be the part his friend paid attention to. ‘She’s bonkers, Daru. She talked about opening portals and fake worlds or something, and she wore this big hat and a cape with runes all over it…’

Daru chuckled. ‘Sounds like you, Okarin! Or, I guess, how you were…’ He trailed off awkwardly.

‘Anyway,’ Rintaro said, a bit of an edge creeping into his voice, ‘I wanted to warn you about this. That girl has been paying way too close attention to this place. I have no idea quite how much she knows about us, or if she’s working for anyone. We need to make sure this thing doesn’t fall into the wrong hands. Again, that is.’

Frustrated, he kicked the air in the direction of the PhoneWave. That the Future Gadget Lab held things which needed to be kept out of the wrong hands was a prime indicator of just how far his life had slid away from what had once been its path, how far it had spun out of his control. The Lab was never meant to be such a place. In spite of the fanciful name his chuunibyou self once bestowed upon it, it had begun as just a hobby workshop where he and Daru tinkered with household appliances after school while Mayuri sewed costumes on the couch. They made things like a toy ray-gun that functioned as a TV remote and a bamboo camera drone that lacked stability control, and tried to sell these useless gadgets online to little avail.

Then one day, four months ago in the heat of late July, they inadvertently made something which was not only not useless, but quite exceptional. Rintaro and Daru had been trying to make a mechanism for remote-controlling a microwave using a phone, but it turned out that under specific circumstances this mechanism could send text messages back in time. Back then he had not realised the gravity of this discovery and had let his friends use it to improve their lives by adjusting their pasts. Unfortunately, their reckless messing about with the fabric of time caught the attention of a ruthless scientific organisation called SERN, who wanted to seize the technology for their own gain and in the process killed Mayuri, his oldest friend.

After repeated failed attempts at saving her using more advanced temporal inventions, Rintaro had eventually realised that Mayuri was doomed to die unless he could convince all of his friends to revert their changes to the worldline. Even after he painstakingly persuaded all of them, however, this only brought him to a worldline where Kurisu, another friend, was marked for death instead. He could not find a way to save both Mayuri and Kurisu and, after many more time leaps and loops of trying and failing, he’d gotten to a worldline where he’d ended up unintentionally killing Kurisu with his own hands, and at that point he had broken down and given up. Nothing he tried worked, and he could not handle even more blood on his hands. It had all been the fault of the hubris and recklessness of his chuunibyou self, so he cast that self aside. The mad scientist Hououin Kyouma was dead, and now Rintaro Okabe was left to pick up the pieces of his life and not make the same mistakes again.

Suzuha had been furious at him for giving up on Kurisu, had tried to get him to keep on looping, keep on trying, but he knew futility when he saw it, and he’d left the Future Gadget Lab alone for… what had it been now, three months? He’d tried to live a “normal” life, but it seemed that the madness of the supernatural would not leave him alone. He didn’t want to go through this again, didn’t want to let another vague glimmer of hope fool him. Rintaro slumped to the floor and buried his face in his hands.

‘Oh God, Okarin, I’m sorry! Is this a panic attack? What did Suzuha say I should do if this happens, again? Oh no, I can’t remember…’ Belatedly, Rintaro remembered there was someone else in the room with him. He sighed and clambered to his feet.

‘I’m… okay, Daru. Guess I just need few more sessions of therapy still,’ he said with a hollow chuckle. ‘But really, we cannot let our research be stolen, and I fear this girl may attack the Lab. We should talk to Suzuha tomorrow.’ He started to move towards the door, but then stopped. ‘Before I forget, this girl did something quite strange.’

‘What, did she raise an event flag?’

…Rintaro blinked. ‘She had a sort of glass ball with her, and appeared to be able to levitate it with her mind.’

‘What, like an ESPer? That’s an unexpected flag!’

‘I know it’s quite unbelievable. I suppose there might have been some kind of string that I could not see, or maybe there was some kind of machinery inside the ball, but even that would be technologically impressive given its small size…’ Rintaro had to pause and take a breath, he’d started to ramble in his nervousness to rationalise what he had seen.

‘Is it unbelievable, though? Aren’t you kind of an ESPer too, Okarin, with your Reading Steiner and all? And then there’s Faris-chan and her–’

‘I guess so.’ Rintaro grit his teeth. “Reading Steiner” was the nonsensical name he had once given to his ability that, when they altered the worldline with the PhoneWave, allowed him to keep his memories from the previous worldline instead of having them overwritten by the new one. None of his other friends seemed to be capable of that except to very limited degrees, so it was definitely an unusual ability and, he supposed, kind of an ESP. ‘But in any case, this means we don’t understand what this girl could be capable of, so we need to be very cautious. Daru, you hadn’t even locked the door of the Lab when I got here.’

‘Sorry, Okarin, I’ll make sure to do that next time. Unless… what you’re saying is if I leave the door unlocked I get to meet this cool ESPer girl–’ A glare was sufficient to shut him up. ‘Sorry, sorry, I’ll do it!’

‘Actually, to be safe maybe you should push some furniture in front of the door, too, when you’re alone in here. I’ll have to go talk about this with Suzuha tomorrow, she should have some knowledge of how to make effective fortifications.’ He glanced at a clock on the wall. ‘But, it is getting late now, so I should head off. I still need to eat dinner, actually.’

‘Wait, Okarin!’ Daru called out, stopping Rintaro in his tracks just after he started walking towards the door. ‘I just remembered, the Bit Particle Gun broke.’ Rintaro was lost for a moment, until he recalled that name. Future Gadget No. 1, the Bit Particle Gun, was that toy ray-gun they’d turned into a TV remote. Daru continued, ‘It just stopped working suddenly. I tried changing the batteries, but that didn’t help, so I think it might be something with the wiring. I looked at that, but couldn’t find anything obvious. Could you take a look at it?’

‘Uh, Daru, is this really important right now?’ The change in subject had been so abrupt it had nearly given Rintaro whiplash.

‘Well, I couldn’t find any other remotes in the Lab, and I’d have to spend a lot of time searching in shops for one that works with this old TV, and the new season of Blood Tune is coming out in a few days…’

Rintaro sighed. Despite his intellect, Daru never seemed to have quite grasped the concept of “priorities”. But he was also Rintaro’s friend, and Rintaro knew he’d been neglectful of their friendship in the past few months, so this not particularly bothersome chore was the least he could do. ‘Okay, fine, I’ll see what I can do.’ He took the Bit Particle Gun from Daru’s hand and shoved it into the pocket of his jacket. Maybe a little fiddling about with electronics would be a good way to take his mind off his recent stress. ‘Now, I really should get going. Please make sure to stay safe, Daru!’ After a final exchange of waves, Rintaro closed the door of the Future Gadget Lab behind him.

By the time Rintaro got back to his university apartment, it had gotten so late that he couldn’t be bothered to cook a proper meal, so he just heated up a cup of instant noodles. While eating, he sat down at his computer and disinterestedly browsed some news sites until he remembered something. That strange girl Sumireko had talked about opening a portal to something called “Gensokyo”. He’d definitely heard that name before, somewhere in his visitations of various forums about the paranormal and supernatural, but he couldn’t place exactly what it was, and given her display of apparent telekinesis he couldn’t help the nagging feeling that there might be something important hidden within the girl’s arcane ramblings. After all, even the ostensibly nonsensical roleplaying conversations he’d used to have with Faris usually held “real” information in disguise.

He typed the name Gensokyo into a search engine and was greeted with a list of @channel forum threads. Upon closer inspection, it appeared that most of them had been started by a user calling themselves “Secret Sealing Club’s First President”. Rintaro recalled that one of the chuunibyou titles Sumireko had introduced herself with sounded a lot like that, so that user was probably her. The predominance of her posts suggested that this was a topic she was passionate about, but possibly that few others were.

Rintaro scanned through one of probably-Sumireko’s threads, but found the subject matter hard to wrap his head around. He figured he could get a grasp on it if he read through all of the threads from top to bottom, but he didn’t want to do that at this time of night. For now, he was able to gather that the name Gensokyo referred to a location, a supposed place where mythological creatures and phenomena were hidden from sight from the rest of the world.

As he scrolled back up to the top of a thread, his eyes landed on the top-right corner of the screen, where he saw that @channel had automatically logged him into his old account, which was named simply “Hououin Kyouma”. He groaned. As recently as a few months ago, when the Future Gadget Lab had been just a hobby workshop making useless trinkets, he had been a classic chuunibyou case, pretending to be a mad scientist called Hououin Kyouma who would fight a sinister Organisation and overthrow the social order of the world with his genial gadgets. However, in retrospect, back then he didn’t truly know what those things meant, the whole thing was just an affectation. Now that he had actually fought a sinister Organisation and done things that unintentionally could lead to the social order of the world being overthrown, the performance of Hououin Kyouma felt childish, almost offensively so. Furthermore, his delusions of grandeur had made him naive and arrogant, and now he wished he’d had more clarity and caution at that time, then maybe he would have noticed the danger before it was too late and his friends would not have suffered as they had.

Even with time travel, there were some mistakes he could not take back, but at least he could prevent Hououin Kyouma from making any more. He had resolved to stop pretending to be who he was not. He’d thrown away the stage mask, as it were, and decided to live as who he really was: Rintaro Okabe, a university student living in Tokyo.

Rintaro brought his mind back to the present, shook off the scowl that had formed on his face and moved his cursor to the settings icon, in order to find where he could change his username. However, as he did so he noticed that the “private messages” icon was lit up, with an indicator showing he had ten or more unread messages. Clicking on it revealed they were all from “Secret Sealing Club’s First President”. Great, more Sumireko to deal with.

Looking back at what he had seen today, Sumireko Usami did not necessarily seem like someone who was evil, but she reminded him too much of Hououin Kyouma. Additionally, though he couldn’t claim to understand her yet, much like his Reading Steiner she seemed to have some kind of ability beyond the norm, and he feared what kind of disaster her delusions could lead to.

Rintaro glanced again at the long list of messages, decided it was too late at night to deal with this, and shut the computer off. The events of this evening had exhausted him. He collapsed onto his bed, not even bothering to take off his day clothes.

Rintaro woke up in the middle of the night and at first he wasn’t sure why. He immediately had a bad feeling, though. He opened his eyes, and something was definitely wrong. There was something at the foot of his bed that shouldn’t be there, but he could not see it clearly. He blinked. It was a person. He saw a lot of purple, and long blond hair. This was bad. He tried to get up, but he couldn’t. His mind knew that he needed to get up, as soon as possible, but his body did not respond.

Oh wait, he’d heard about this. Sleep paralysis. If you got sleep paralysis, you were not supposed to open your eyes, because you’d see hallucinations. Well, he’d already messed that one up. He squeezed his eyes shut. He heard a strange sound, like something made of cloth was being ripped apart.

It’s just a hallucination, it’s just a hallucination, it’s just a hallucination, he repeated to himself. The sound stopped. Now he felt something, like something was touching him, but he couldn’t tell what or where. It changed to a feeling of weightlessness, and he couldn’t feel the bed under his back anymore. Hallucination, hallucination, hallucination.

For some reason, even though he had just told himself not to, he opened his eyes. Just a little bit. He couldn’t tell quite what he saw, but it looked like a hundred eyes were staring at him from the darkness. Okay, that was a mistake. He closed his eyes. He didn’t feel the touching sensation anymore. He could hear his heart thumping in his chest, but nothing else. Was it over? He was not going to open his eyes again to check. He started to count in his head. Deep, slow breaths. There was nothing there, it was just a hallucination.

Gradually, he managed to steady his breathing and his heartrate. It took minutes, maybe even hours, but eventually he managed to drift off again.

When Rintaro next awoke, thankfully it appeared the nightmare was over, and the night too. He could feel the warmth of sunlight on his face. He opened his eyes and saw the clear blue sky. Wait a minute, the sky? What the hell had happened to his ceiling?
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Chapter 2

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Rintaro Okabe closed his eyes. Opened them. Closed them. Opened them again. However, what he saw did not change: there was undeniably no bedroom ceiling above his head, only an expanse of sky. The surface under his body did not feel like his bed, either.

He lay stock skill, all of his senses on alert. His mind raced through several scenarios of abductions, but reached a catch. Namely, he was lying on the ground somewhere outside, and it would rather peculiar for kidnappers to keep a captive in such a position.

Rintaro wiggled his fingers cautiously and to his relief found that he was no longer paralysed. Gingerly, he sat up and examined his surroundings. He was in a small clearing in a forest, a bed of orange flowers underneath him and tall trees marking the perimeter. Well, there was certainly nothing like this within a sleepwalking range of his apartment, so someone else had to have placed him here. He considered whether somebody could have gotten hold of the PhoneWave and caused this, but that required an electronic device as a target, so there was no way it could have sent a message far enough back in time for the city of Tokyo to entirely vanish. Thus, it seemed most likely someone had physically taken him, but then why leave him here of all places?

The confusion he felt upon waking in an unfamiliar place gradually changed to a sense of dread. Who the hell was responsible for this? Had the Rounders somehow managed to find him after all? Was someone after him because of the Amadeus project? Or was his predicament the fault of that stalker girl who might be an ESPer? He couldn’t decide who or what the most likely culprit was, and his train of thought only highlighted how many potential threats were hovering at the edges of his life, no matter the barriers he’d tried to construct over the last few months. It only got more unnerving the more he thought about it.

Now is not the time to have a panic attack, Rintaro forcibly told himself. After all, speculating on what had caused his present situation wasn’t very useful if he didn’t fully understand what that situation was. He began looking over himself for signs of injuries. He was still wearing the black shirt and trousers from the previous day, which had now gotten a bit wrinkled from lying on the damp ground. He was pretty sure he’d taken his jacket off before going to bed, but now it lay on top of him, draped across his torso and legs. It was like someone had placed it there as a makeshift blanket, but what would the meaning of such a gesture be?

Though he’d woken up with the warmth of the Sun shining on him, Rintaro now felt a chilly breeze of early winter blowing through the trees and started to put on his jacket, when something in its pockets bumped against him and he had an idea. He quickly went through the pockets and to his relief found his phone was there. Calling emergency services seemed like a good idea in this situation, he only had to hope there was reception wherever he was now. However, he did not get to find out whether there was, as no matter what buttons he pressed the phone refused to activate. Of course. When he had gotten back to his apartment last night, he must have been too tired and distracted to remember to put the phone in the charger, and now the five percent battery had gone down to zero.

Why did… whatever this is have to happen the one time I forget to charge my phone? I’m always careful about those kinds of things, Rintaro thought. Now he was stuck in an unknown place and had no way to call for help. Frustrated with himself, he tossed the effectively useless piece of plastic onto the flower bed before pocketing it again. He decided to inventory the rest of what he had with him, which turned out to be not very much. He still had his wallet, which surprised him. Whoever had kidnapped him hadn’t robbed him? So perhaps their goals were unrelated to money? Rintaro wasn’t sure what to make of it. Still, the plastic cards and spare change weren’t immediately useful.

The other notable item he had was the Bit Particle Gun that Daru had asked him to fix. Amazing, more useless plastic. He couldn’t find anything else in his pockets, aside from a ballpoint pen and some scraps of paper, like a flyer from the Amadeus presentation last week. Altogether, not the greatest kit for surviving in a forest.

Eventually, Rintaro concluded that he did not have any physical injuries and got to his feet. He brushed dirt off his shirt and trousers before pulling on his jacket, having returned his items to various pockets. As he started to think about what his plan of action should be, he spotted a puddle at the edge of the clearing and walked over to use it as a mirror. He saw he had more stubble than usual and his short black hair had gotten a bit messy, but overall his face also appeared to be unscathed.

With his phone dead, staying put where he was wouldn’t accomplish anything, so Rintaro decided he was going to explore in order to find his way back to civilisation. Rintaro carefully looked around the perimeter of the clearing. The forest seemed about equally dense in every direction, not giving him any clues as to which way he should go. The homogeneity would make navigating difficult, too. He figured if he walked in a straight line for long enough he would eventually reach something, be it the edge of the forest or some navigationally useful feature like a path or a stream, but even doing that would be a challenge.

Rintaro ultimately decided he would walk outwards in a spiral pattern, which would allow him to keep using the clearing as a landmark while investigating the surrounding area. Without anything better to do and with a subtle sense of panic creeping up every time he stood still for too long, he checked one more time he hadn’t dropped anything in the flower bed and set off.

Half an hour later, a sense of panic was advancing on him even when he was walking. Rintaro still had a pretty good idea of where the clearing was relative to his position, so he wasn’t lost, but he hadn’t managed to find anything in the forest, either. The trees and shrubs looked the same wherever he went. He had spent a few moments examining the plants to see if that could give him any clues on his location, but he didn’t know enough about the subject area and the only thing he’d managed to conclude was that all of the greenery looked vaguely like it could be found in a Japanese forest.

I should relax. I’ll find a trail or something soon enough. Whoever put me here had to get here somehow, so there must also be a way back, he told himself. Regardless, his heart was pounding, and not just because of the physical exercise.

Not helping his anxiety was a particular unsettling sensation the forest was giving him. He couldn’t identify precisely what was causing it, but he distinctly felt like he was being watched. A memory of the eyes he saw in his nightmare appeared in his mind, but he pulled his thoughts away from it. That had been a hallucination, it could not have anything to do with what was happening here in this forest.

Several times Rintaro glimpsed movement out of the corner of his eye. It seemed like small animals scurrying off, but he had not been able to see them clearly. Or any animals, for that matter, which he thought was a bit strange for a Japanese forest.

Rintaro was considering whether he should climb a tree so that he could look over the canopy and get an overview of the forest – not an idea he was very enthusiastic about, because even with his recent participation in a tennis club he doubted he was agile enough to pull that off – when he saw a sparkle of light ahead of him. Another clearing? He quickened his pace, and found the source of the light was entirely different from what he expected. In front of him was a group of mushrooms that were glowing in a bright cyan colour. Not only that, the mushrooms were huge, the largest nearly a metre across.

I may not be an ecologist, but I’m pretty sure there aren’t mushrooms like this in Japan, Rintaro thought. In fact, he hadn’t heard of mushrooms like this existing anywhere on Earth, and he was pretty sure that ones that looked like this would garner media attention. Had he just discovered a new species? A small part of him became excited at that prospect, but was quickly overridden by the observation that this didn’t help him much with getting out of the forest, apart from giving him another landmark to use for navigation. He stayed a few metres away from the mushrooms, since they definitely looked like they might be poisonous.

Rintaro heard a twig snap behind him and spun around. A typical set of trees and bushes greeted him. He couldn’t spot any movement, though he did hear some faint rustling sounds. There was a pause, and then an even fainter sound that almost seemed like a giggle. Irritated and battling his nerves, Rintaro walked forward, but there was still no visual evidence of any kind of animal being there.

I can’t understand this forest. A total absence of birds, giant glowing mushrooms and whatever these little things are that keep skittering around the bushes. What the hell is this place going to throw at me next? he ranted internally. He really needed to get out of here. He turned back around to–

‘Hi there!’

One second Rintaro was standing upright, the next he found he’d thrown himself backwards into the bushes. He realised he was yelling and forcefully shut his mouth. Having regained control over himself, he focused on what had scared him in the first place: the sudden appearance of a person.

In front of him stood a young woman who looked to be of high school age like Mayuri or Sumireko, a little bit younger than the university freshman Rintaro. She had short blond hair with an off-centre red bow, and wore a black vest and skirt over a white shirt. White socks and black Mary Janes completed her outfit. Those were not hiking clothes, and overall she seemed rather out of place in this gloomy, untamed forest. What was this girl doing here?

Belatedly, Rintaro remembered that she had spoken to him. ‘H-hello,’ was all he was able to utter in reply, as his voice was still caught in his throat from the surprise.

‘Did I give you a fright?’ the girl asked, perplexingly cheerful. He cautiously nodded. ‘Tee-hee, Kogasa will be jealous!’

Rintaro wasn’t sure what to make of that statement, so he decided to cut to the chase and ask the girl about where they were – after coughing a few times to clear his throat, that is. ‘Could you please tell me–’

The girl interrupted him in a nonchalant manner. ‘Your disguise is really great!’ What disguise? ‘I really thought you were human, right until I got really close to you. It’s only the scent that gave you away!’

Rintaro raised an eyebrow. ‘Excuse me? I am human.’ And what the hell did she mean scent, anyway? He may have lost a lot of his dignity with his ridiculous reaction to the girl’s arrival, but he was not just going to let someone call him inhuman and smelly.

‘Hahaha, I’m not falling for that one! But you don’t have to pretend around me, y’know? I’m a youkai too!’ She grinned broadly, and Rintaro felt a shiver run down his spine. The darkness made it a bit difficult to see, but her teeth looked strangely sharp. But regardless, this girl was calling herself a youkai? He was immediately reminded of his conversation with Sumireko, but this was an entirely new level of chuunibyou. However, this girl didn’t have the pompous air typical of chuunibyou, she had said it as if it was perfectly natural. She continued, ‘Your disguise must be really good for fooling humans. I was only a few seconds away from eating you when I realised you were a youkai!’ A comment about his human status died on Rintaro’s tongue. Had he really heard that right?

‘E-eating me?’ He almost tripped over himself again, but managed to grab a tree just in time to steady himself. What on Earth was wrong with this person? Her sharp teeth glinted in the light from the mushrooms.

‘Yeah, you look like you’d make a decent meal! A bit bony, but with that young flesh that always tastes the best, y’know? But then I saw through your disguise. Imagine eating another youkai, ewww… Okay, I may have nibbled Mysty’s wings once, but that was one time and I was very hungry and she got healed, I swear!’ That last part was rattled off under her breath while she stared somewhere off to the side. ‘Still, very good disguise, you’d really pass as a human!’ Her cheery smile was back in full force. Rintaro, meanwhile, was investing a lot of effort in not throwing up, and he was sure he was pale as a sheet.

Not only was he nauseous, he was also terrified. This girl was batshit insane! Nonetheless, he came to the realisation that something which had made him appear non-human was the only reason he had not just suffered a brutal attempt on his life, so he decided he’d better not challenge that idea while this girl was still in attacking range. He considered just running away, but he had no idea where to go and this forest had way too many things he could trip over.

‘Do you… eat humans often?’ Perhaps the worst attempt at small talk ever, but Rintaro figured a little more information would be useful to parametrise just how dangerous his situation was. That, and he feared that if he did not keep this girl occupied she might try to eat him after all.

‘Nah, not any time recently! My friends might get upset. Or worse, that mean shrine maiden might try to beat me up again! But I still get by feeding off fear, and Mysty makes really tasty food!’ That was… good? He supposed? However…

‘You just said you had been planning to eat me, though,’ Rintaro remarked, unable to stop himself. A second later, his mind caught up and informed him that he really shouldn’t be snarking at someone who might be a cannibal.

‘Well, I’m just feeling really hungry, okay?’ she huffed. ‘Maybe I should go to Mysty’s food stand… actually, I will!’ She promptly turned around and started walking away. While part of him was glad to be away from this unnerving individual, Rintaro realised he still had very little information on how to get out of this forest and back to Tokyo, and this crazy girl at least seemed familiar with the area.

‘Excuse me?’ he called out. ‘Before you go, could you give me some help? I’m afraid I’m a bit lost.’

‘Is that so?’ the girl sing-songed as she turned back around.

‘Yes, I’m not very familiar with this area. Could you tell me, where are we right now?’

‘The Forest of Magic,’ she stated plainly. That was a weird name, but it didn’t tell him very much.

‘Okay, but where is the forest?’ He made a broad, sweeping gesture with his arms.

‘In Gensokyo, duh.’ The girl raised an eyebrow.

Rintaro nearly lost his footing, even though he had been standing still this time. Gensokyo? The mythical location that Sumireko seemed obsessed with? It was actually a real place? And somebody had chosen this supernatural locale to abduct him to? A rationally-oriented part of his mind (which sounded ever so slightly like Kurisu) told him that this girl could just be lying, and that it was suspicious that this all happened only one day after he had learned of the concept of Gensokyo. But that train of thought could not explain all the weirdness of this forest.

Rintaro was not quite as surprised by this revelation as an ordinary person might have been – his experiences with time travel, along with the recent events with the Amadeus project and Sumireko, caused him to develop somewhat of a tolerance for seemingly impossible phenomena – but he still could not prevent his astonishment from showing on his face. The girl looked confused at his confusion.

Suddenly, her face lit up. ‘Oh, you must be new to Gensokyo, right?’ Rintaro gave a vague mumble of assent, not trusting his voice at this moment. ‘That’s cool! I heard about youkai from the Outside before, but I hadn’t met–’

‘Do you know Sumireko Usami?’ he blurted out, anger involuntarily creeping into his voice, but not at the girl in front of him. If this really was Gensokyo, then the person who barged into Rintaro’s life the previous day, showed off ESP abilities and said she wanted to open a portal to this place would seem to be the prime suspect for causing his spiriting away. How dare this Sumireko use me in her experiments, he thought as he tried to deduce why he had been sent here.

However, the self-proclaimed youkai in front of him shook her head. ‘Nope, doesn’t ring a bell.’

‘About yay high, brown hair, glasses, big hat, purple chequered clothes?’

‘I don’t think I’ve met anyone looking like that.’

Hmm, that doesn’t really give any evidence for or against Sumireko being my kidnapper. Regardless of that, there was another issue he needed to address. ‘Could you tell me, where can I leave Gensokyo?’

‘I dunno!’ she replied immediately. Rintaro resisted the urge to facepalm.

‘Do you know anyone who might know?’

‘Eh, maybe that shrine maiden? But she’s really mean to youkai. She’d probably beat you up if you tried to talk to her!’ She paused, putting a finger on her chin in an exaggerated thoughtful pose. ‘Oh, Mokou might know! She lives in the other forest and is always guiding people around. She’s a bit weird as well, but not as bad as the shrine maiden.’

‘I see.’ Rintaro committed this information to memory. It wasn’t as directly useful as he’d hoped, but it was a start, at least. The question now was what to do with it. He couldn’t yet be sure whether the place he was in was really the mythical location Gensokyo – though it was certainly a weird place – but in any case it wasn’t Tokyo, which is where he was supposed to be. He needed to find a way back, and to find out how he had ended up here in the first place.

Though… against his better judgement, he could not deny that this place was interesting, very much so, and part of him wanted to learn more about it, to understand it. Gensokyo, a place hidden from the world where the supernatural roamed freely… the potential of such a concept was endless. What strange creatures might one come across? What unnatural phenomena might one witness? The scientific part of his mind saw countless possibilities, so much potential for discovery. Not only that, but amongst the mystical secrets of this place might perhaps be the key to accomplishing what he had so continuously failed to do with his technology; that is, to break free from the converging worldlines that always led to his friends getting killed.

Rintaro clenched his fists. Another side of his mind told him he was getting ahead of himself once again. When would he learn? This supposed Gensokyo might just be some random forest inhabited by a few nutcases. And even if it really was the place of legend, that could just as easily turn out to be bad for him as good. There could be many ways he could get himself killed here – such as the maybe-cannibal he was still standing close to – or end up getting his friends hurt again. Didn’t he know by now not to let himself get swept up in delusional fantasies like mad science or the supernatural? His fingernails dug into his palms. He should just get out of here as fast as possible, before he made things worse. But yet he could not help being curious…

His agonising, tangled decision-making process suddenly received an interruption when his stomach growled. Ah, that’s right. He had not eaten anything since last night, and he hadn’t eaten much then either. For that matter, the only liquid water he’d seen in this forest had been a few murky puddles, so he also hadn’t drunk at all yet. That probably wasn’t a good thing. Maybe, instead of pondering on how to get back to Tokyo, it would behove him to first take care of his body.

‘You said you were going to some kind of food stand, right?’ Rintaro asked the girl, who had been idly looking around while he was occupied with his internal debate, seemingly unbothered by the stall in their conversation.

‘Yep, Mysty’s place! Her food’s always delicious!’ She had been facing away from him, but sharply turned to look at him over her shoulder. ‘Hey, do you want to visit too? Mysty’s always happy to see new customers, she doesn’t get very many.’

‘Yes, I would like that. It has been a while since I last ate.’ Rintaro gave a smile that he hoped looked friendly despite his lingering nervousness.

The girl chuckled. ‘Is that so? I did say, you look a bit bony!’ She spun around on the ball of one foot. ‘My name’s Rumia, by the way. What’s yours?’

‘I’m Ri–’ he started to say, but stopped himself. Wasn’t it a common element in various myths and fairy tales that you should be careful with your real name? That telling it to a supernatural creature could give them some kind of power over you? Of course, he didn’t really believe that this girl was actually a youkai as she claimed, and there was probably some rational explanation for the weird things in this forest. Still, one could never be too careful, especially in new, unpredictable circumstances like this. He should come up with an alias of some sort to use here. And quick, before the pause grew unnaturally long.

‘Hououin Kyouma,’ were the words that came out of his mouth. Why the hell is that awful name all you can think of? He began yelling in his mind a moment later, though he was careful to keep his outward expression neutral.

‘Oh, like “phoenix”? That’s a pretty cool name!’ Rumia said with an earnest grin.

‘Thank you,’ Rintaro replied through clenched teeth, affecting a polite smile even as he felt the urge to punch himself. Why couldn’t he think of anything else? Why couldn’t Hououin Kyouma just stay dead?

‘Anyway, Kyouma, we need to go…’ She turned her head slowly as she scanned the trees, until her eyes landed on something. ‘…that way!’ Rumia pointed her arm in a direction that to Rintaro did not look different from any other. She walked forward a few steps, before stopping and… lifting into the air, much like Sumireko’s glass ball. Once she had reached a height of about two metres above the ground, she spread her arms and started to float slowly towards where she had pointed, without bothering to look back at Rintaro.

Huh. Maybe she really is a youkai. Or an ESPer, at least, he thought. He felt like he should be more surprised about this than he was, but it seemed his capacity for surprise might have shorted out a bit after all that had happened to him in the last few days. He stared at the hovering girl for a few more moments, before hurrying to catch up with his ground-bound feet.
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Chapter 3

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

After tripping over a tree root for the third time, Rintaro Okabe got to his feet and managed to reach Rumia, who was standing on the ground again.

‘That would’ve been a lot easier if you had just flown like me,’ Rumia remarked with her arms crossed as Rintaro rubbed his painful knees.

He bit back a sarcastic remark so as not to give away his human status to this girl, who was probably a youkai. Instead, he remarked politely, ‘I don’t know how to do that.’

Rumia’s eyes widened. ‘Huh, guess you really are new. Flying’s pretty easy to get the hang of, actually! You just have to…’ She fell silent as she carefully stretched her arms out sideways at shoulder level, and started slowly hovering up and down. ‘…well, fly, y’know?’

‘I see.’ Rintaro couldn’t prevent his sarcasm from showing this time as he held his arms the same way and made a small jump, immediately brought back down by gravity as he expected.

‘Meh, I’ve never really been good at explaining things,’ Rumia said with a huff as she returned her feet to the ground. ‘Or flying, for that matter. If you want someone to teach you, you should ask maybe Mysty or Wriggle, they’re good flyers, much better than me.’ She had looked a bit sullen, but a smile appeared on her face when she mentioned what were probably her friends.

If I want that, maybe I should become an ESPer first, said Rintaro’s inner snark, though he reminded himself of his unusual Reading Steiner ability and part of his mind promptly went on a tangent wondering if ESPers could teach each other new abilities. He shook it off and took stock of his surroundings. They had reached a path that cut through the forest. It was in the opposite direction from the clearing to the mushrooms where had met Rumia, but he had been searching not too far from here earlier and was a little annoyed that he had not noticed it.

The path was quite dark as only small patches of light pierced the canopy. He peered in one direction and then the other, but could not see where it led.

‘Mysty’s stand is over there,’ Rumia said, noticing Rintaro’s gaze, and pointed to his right. She then turned the other way. ‘You don’t want to go in that direction. It goes to some houses where witches live, and one of them likes to attack youkai and steal from them. And if you go even further, you get to this creepy, quiet place with all these red flowers.’

‘That sounds intriguing, but obtaining food remains my priority at the moment.’

‘Right, follow me!’ Rumia grinned and set off down the path, in the direction she had pointed. She walked on the ground now, perhaps out of sympathy for Rintaro’s plight, or just because there were no obstacles to trip over here. In any case, it definitely made it easier for him to keep up with her.

After several minutes of walking, there was little change in the scenery. However, something else had changed, quite subtly. It took Rintaro a few moments before he was able to put his finger on what it was. The feeling of being watched had come back. He came to a halt and focused on his hearing. Apart from Rumia’s continuing footfalls, there were those little skittering noises in the bushes again. Then, a bit farther away, a deeper, heavier thump. Silence. Then another one.

‘Is something wrong?’ came Rumia’s voice. Rintaro glanced to the side, and saw that she had noticed he was no longer following her and was standing still about ten metres from him.

‘Rumia, what kinds of creatures live in this forest?’ he asked, keeping his gaze pointed ahead of him.

‘Eh, mostly little fairies. They can be pretty annoying, but it’s easy to get rid of them.’

‘Are those what I’m hearing over there?’ He jerked his thumb in the direction the sounds came from.

Rumia remained quiet for a while, aside from a thoughtful hum, until all of a sudden her demeanour shifted. ‘Oh crap, run!’ she yelled. Rintaro’s entire body went on alert as he tried to figure out what the threat was. There were more thumps, and he could see something moving between the trees. The movements resolved into a dark shape that was coming towards him at high speed.

He knew he had to get out of the way, but his reaction time was too slow and before his limbs could agree on which direction to go the shape was upon him. It slammed into his torso, and he felt something sharp strike his side. He was briefly launched through the air, landed, rolled over several times and came to rest lying face-down in the mud. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw flashes of light in multiple colours. Suddenly, his vision went entirely dark, only to return to normal a second later. What the hell was happening? He heard a loud, animalistic howl, followed by a short scream that sounded like Rumia’s voice. After that, just as abruptly as the chaos had started, there was silence.

Though his whole body was aching, Rintaro pushed himself off the ground, aware that he was still in danger. He turned his head to the side. On the path, he could see the figure that had assaulted him, which he could now make out as a person, an adult woman. Not a normal-looking person, though. On top of her head, poking through her long brown hair, were a pair of large canine ears. Those, combined with the feral grin she wore and the sharp red claws she brandished on her fingers, screamed one thing: wolf. Oh, and her eyes were glowing a bright crimson.

Okay, maybe this is sufficient evidence that I really am in a mythical land, Rintaro thought wryly as he struggled to get to his feet. The wolf-woman cackled as he finally managed to stand upright by clinging onto a tree.

‘You’re hilarious, little human! How pathetically frail your weakling body is!’ the wolf-woman said. He slowly turned to face her as she remained standing in the middle of the path, wiggling her claws almost nonchalantly.

At least she recognises that I am human, Rintaro thought. Not that it actually seemed to help him.

‘What’s a pitiful creature like you doing in the Forest of Magic? You don’t belong here! This is the realm of youkai!’ she continued with a haughty sneer. Rintaro warily stood his ground. The wolf-woman wasn’t making any moves to attack him – again, that is – but she clearly wasn’t here to be friendly. ‘You’re from the Outside, aren’t you? No human from the Village would be stupid enough to go wandering about with a man-eater!’ There was a village of humans here?

‘I was brought here against my will, and I’m trying to get out. What’s it to you, anyway?’ Rintaro responded, folding his arms.

‘Hah, you don’t even know what it means, do you?’ The woman bared her teeth. ‘The Village is not to be attacked, but you? You have no protection. You are nothing but prey!’

Well, shit. Rintaro supposed he was lucky he had gotten through one encounter with a youkai without any trouble. The stories about youkai generally did not paint them in a very nice light. There had been a period in middle school when he’d read a lot about Japanese mythology, including youkai, but he couldn’t remember anything about wolf-based ones, so it was of little use to him now. He started to slowly back away, until his foot unexpectedly touched something, and looking down revealed it was his phone. Rintaro chanced a glance over his shoulder and saw that several objects that had been in his jacket pockets were scattered on the ground. They had probably fallen out when he had been launched by his assailant.

The conversation was beginning to stall, so he quickly said the first thing he could think of. ‘I only want to get out of this forest. I don’t want to interfere in your affairs or anything.’

The wolf-woman laughed again. ‘You still don’t get it! The moment you arrived here, you forfeited your life, Outsider. A feeble human like you is nothing compared to a youkai! Here, let me show you.’

Rintaro prepared to dodge out of the way if she lunged at him again, but she did something entirely different. She raised her right hand and swept it in a wide, horizontal arc. A line of glowing red spheres, a bit larger than a human fist, appeared in the air in front of her and shot forward. Rintaro was able to react just in time and ducked, the spheres passing narrowly over his head. He briefly glanced backward, but the projectiles were no longer in sight.

What on Earth was that? Some kind of ESP? Magic? He had no idea, but one thing was clear: that this wolf-like woman was somehow able to create projectiles out of thin air, on top of being very physically strong, and so he definitely would not be able to beat her in a direct fight. Therefore, he decided on an alternative strategy: he turned around and ran for his life.

Or tried to, at least. As soon as he began running, pain flared up in his legs from his earlier tumble and he was reduced to an awkward hobble. Hearing another laugh from his attacker, he looked over his shoulder and saw she had launched a second volley of spheres. These spread out vertically as well as horizontally, meaning ducking would no longer be sufficient to avoid them. Rintaro carefully stepped sideways in order to position himself in a gap between two spheres. He managed this just in time for the balls to pass him and stumbled immediately afterward.

‘You’re a crafty one, aren’t you, little human?’ the woman called out as he hastily clambered back to his feet. ‘Hah, not bad for a weakling! Maybe this will give me some entertainment after all!’ Rintaro glared at her, but did not stop moving. She made a sharp movement with both her arms, and as expected more of her spectral bullets appeared. However, this time there were a greater quantity, coloured in both red and purple, and they did not fly towards him all at once, but rather in multiple waves. Rintaro ducked and weaved around the first few projectiles that came close to him, but the chaotic mass of glowing spheres soon became overwhelming and he felt a sudden stab of pain in his left leg.

The impact of the projectile sent a sort of shock through his body, and he lost control of his limbs, crumpling to the ground. Was this what being tased felt like? The pain in his leg slowly changed to numbness, and Rintaro really hoped he hadn’t broken something.

‘I guess that’s your limit, isn’t it? The body of a human really is no match for danmaku,’ came the wolf-woman’s voice. What did that even mean? Rintaro turned his head and saw that she was wearing a savage grin, the crimson glow of her eyes piercing through the shadows under the trees. She began to slowly walk towards him with a manner that was almost casual, except for the way she held out her claws.

I need to get away, or I’m going to be killed! Rintaro realised. He tried to stand up, but his right leg felt weakened and his left leg wouldn’t respond at all, so he flopped back down. He looked around for the nearest tree to pull himself up with, until he spotted something else. He was still close to where the items from his pockets had been scattered on the ground, and one of them in particular was only about a metre away from him. One that gave him an unexpected idea.

Rintaro dragged himself to the Bit Particle Gun, grabbed it and sat up. Pointing the gadget at his opponent, he yelled, ‘Don’t come any closer! I’m armed!’ Hopefully he could use this to buy enough time until his legs started working again. Please don’t notice that this is only a toy gun, he pleaded in his mind. This person lived in a hidden fantastical world so perhaps she might be less likely to notice the difference.

To his credit, it did appear to confuse the wolf-woman for a moment, as she stopped walking and narrowed her eyes. Then she let out a short bark of a laugh. ‘With some tiny hand-axe? Really? Or is it a club? That doesn’t look sharp or heavy!’

Rintaro couldn’t believe it. She didn’t even recognise it was supposed to be a gun at all! Did she even know what a gun was? His plan had failed more utterly than he had thought possible.

What the hell was he supposed to do now? He wasn’t able to run away yet – he was getting some feeling back in his right leg but still nothing in his left – and there was no way he could physically fight this woman in his current state, either. It would take a stroke of genius or an outright miracle to escape from this situation without becoming youkai food. How ironic. He could personally alter the fabric of time itself, escape mercenary squads and secret organisations bent on conquering the world, but some errant monster would be what did him in.

With little alternative, Rintaro decided to take one more shot at his previous strategy. ‘This is a gun! Don’t come any closer or I will shoot!’

The wolf-woman scoffed. ‘A little human from the Outside, wielding danmaku? Don’t be ridiculous.’ There was that weird phrase again. “Bullet” something? But she didn’t seem to recognise the shape of a gun. Did it have something to do with her projectiles? His thoughts were interrupted when he noticed, to his alarm, that she had resumed approaching him. ‘Ugh, I’m tired of you,’ she continued. ‘I’ll show the fate of an Outsider in the domain of youkai!’

Her posture shifted, leaning forward on one leg like a runner at the start of a race. Her intention was clear. Please, somebody help me! As he expected, the wolf-woman began to sprint towards him. The glow of her eyes increased until they seemed like balls of fire. Rintaro kept on holding the Bit Particle Gun in front of him, as if a small plastic trinket would make a good defensive weapon in a melee. ‘Stop!’ he yelled, though it came out more like an unintelligible screech, while his attacker let out a roar. He flinched bodily as she got closer, and he felt his fingers involuntarily squeeze the “change channel” button on the toy-gun-turned-TV-remote. Which happened to be located where the trigger would be on a real gun.

Without warning, the forest was lit up by a bright flash of pink-coloured light, followed in rapid succession by several other unexpected events. Rintaro heard a strange sound, though he couldn’t properly make it out between his own screaming and that of the woman. When his eyes adjusted to the light, he saw that her momentum had been entirely reversed, as she was hurled through the air away from him before colliding with a tree with a bone-crunching impact. The wolf-woman tumbled to the ground and lay unmoving. Meanwhile, the only effect the explosion, or whatever it was, had on Rintaro was to push him slightly backward in his awkward sitting position.

He sat motionlessly for about ten seconds as he processed what had just happened, then let out his breath in a gasp. He had survived! Only a few moments ago he had been sure he was facing his imminent death, but now here he was, alive. That did, of course, lead to the question: how?

What was certain was that something had exploded, but what? And where did it come from? Rintaro looked around wildly to see if a third party had arrived and intervened in the fight. However, from the canopy of the trees to the muddy ground, he could not see anyone and there was nothing that appeared to be suspicious. After all the noise of the fight, the forest had grown eerily quiet.

He continued to look for the source of the strange flash until his eyes slowly came to rest on the object he was still clutching in his hand, the Bit Particle Gun. Right at the moment the wolf-woman had leapt at him, he had unintentionally pressed on what was the trigger of the toy ray-gun. But that was just it, it was a toy ray-gun retooled to function as a TV remote, not an actual weapon, even though he had tried to pass it off as one.

Still, the timing lined up perfectly, and he could not yet see any other possible source for the unexpected deliverance. Rintaro took one more look around, at the slumped form of his assailant and at the silent trees around them, and decided that no matter how weird this was he needed clarity about it as soon as possible, before he got into more danger.

He turned and pointed the Bit Particle Gun at a nondescript tree some distance away. Paying close attention, he gingerly squeezed the trigger button. A pulse of pink light appeared at the tip of the ray-gun and shot forward, striking the tree with an almost corny “pew” sound. It moved a lot slower than a bullet, but faster than the glowing spheres that the wolf-woman had used as projectiles.

Rintaro stared blankly at the object in his hands. I just shot a laser burst from a TV remote, he thought to himself. A broken TV remote, even! How is this possible? Was it somehow a result of the circuitry breaking? That didn’t seem plausible – Daru would have noticed it when he was testing it, and the mechanisms didn’t have remotely enough power to function as a laser weapon, anyway. Had travelling to Gensokyo imbued the Bit Particle Gun with some kind of magical quality? Or had his kidnapper swapped out the toy for an identical-looking weapon? All of the explanations seemed equally ridiculous.

He shook his head to clear his thoughts. Whatever the reason, it seemed quite likely that the Bit Particle Gun had been what stopped the wolf-woman’s attack, which meant that he now had a means to defend himself from youkai.

Speaking of youkai… Rintaro glanced over to the wolf-woman, who still had not moved since hitting the tree. Was she dead or just unconscious? He did not want to get close enough to her to check, but he thought he saw her move slightly as if breathing, and there was no visible blood, so it was most likely the latter. Which meant she could wake up and resume attacking him at any moment, so he needed to get out of here. Part of his mind burst into anxiety at the concept of having potentially killed a rather human-like being, but it was overridden by general adrenaline and the desire not to become youkai food.

Rintaro clambered to his feet. His left leg was still caught between numbness and pain and wouldn’t entirely support his weight, but his right seemed to have returned to normal. He grabbed his phone and wallet off the forest floor, returned them to his pockets and limped back onto the path.
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After looking carefully in both directions, Rintaro was moderately confident he knew which way to go and could navigate out of the forest by himself, but there was something else he needed to do before that. Just after he’d first been attacked, he’d heard what sounded like Rumia screaming. He hadn’t seen her after that, and couldn’t help but wonder if the wolf-woman had attacked her, too. He felt it would be exceptionally rude to just leave without checking on her, especially given the kindness she had shown in offering to guide him out of the forest and to a place where he could obtain food. Also, he may have found a way to defend himself but it certainly wouldn’t hurt to have an ally who was familiar with this mysterious realm.

First though, he had to find Rumia. He started by calling out her name, but received no response. She might be hurt, he thought. His own concern surprised him somewhat. He walked to roughly where he had seen her last and began systematically searching the surrounding foliage. All the while, he paid attention to where the wolf-woman lay, in case she awakened.

It didn’t take long before he spotted Rumia’s form, lying face-down behind a bush. ‘Rumia? Are you okay?’ he called out. After a few seconds of silence, he heard a muffled groan, then nothing else. Hesitantly, he took a step forward and poked her in the shoulder. Another groan. He was going to have to take a risk here. Rintaro sighed, braced himself, and pushed Rumia’s shoulder so she flopped onto her back.

He was promptly greeted with a mouthful of spit and, as he discovered when he touched his hand to his cheek, mud. Below him, Rumia went into a coughing fit – thankfully pointed away from his face this time. It took several wipes on his sleeve to get the mess off, but Rintaro was still relieved he hadn’t gotten his arm bitten off or something. Those teeth looked sharp enough for that.

By the time he had cleansed his face of pre-eaten dirt, his companion seemed to have recovered from her coughs and was doing the same. ‘Kyouma…?’ she muttered, blinking heavily as she wiped her forehead with her hand.

‘Are you okay? Did that wolf-woman hurt you?’

‘Yeah, she did,’ Rumia replied as she slowly sat up, pain written clearly on her face. ‘That damn werewolf hit me point-blank with danmaku! She didn’t set up a proper spell card duel or even say anything beforehand! Can you believe it, such rudeness? Does she want to get beaten up by the shrine maiden?!’ Okay, how the social structure of this place worked was definitely something Rintaro was going to have to ask about, just not right here while their attacker was still nearby. After a brief pause, Rumia’s eyes widened, and she continued, ‘Are you hurt? I saw that werewolf run into you and toss you through the air!’

‘I… have been better, yes.’ Rintaro stretched his arms and felt that pretty much every part of his body was aching in some way. ‘Thank you for asking. That woman threw projectiles at me, and then tried to kill me, but I managed to knock her unconscious, I think.’ He waved the Bit Particle Gun around demonstratively. Realising he had been nervously clutching on to it ever since the fight, he shoved it back into his pocket, a bit embarrassed.

Kill you?’ Rumia looked outraged now, and launched into a tirade. ‘A youkai behaving like that to another youkai, is she insane? Does she not even know the spell card rules? The shrine maiden might exterminate her for something like that! What’s her grudge, anyway? I don’t even know her! Do you know her?’ She folded her arms and pouted, which Rintaro had to admit looked cute but seemed like a silly way to react to an attempted murder.

‘No. Like I said earlier, I only just… arrived here.’

‘Ah, that’s right. Well, just so you know, youkai in Gensokyo normally don’t behave so barbarically! If there’s a conflict between youkai, we have a civilised spell card system for that!’

Rintaro peered again at a certain spot between the trees, and decided to interrupt. ‘Much as I would like to know what that entails, we are still quite close to where that woman is, so we’re in danger if she wakes up.’

‘All right, let’s go to Mysty’s place,’ Rumia said, and jumped to her feet. As they resumed walking on the forest path, Rintaro continued to have some difficulty with his left leg, which Rumia appeared to notice. ‘What’s up with your leg?’ she inquired, pointing at it.

Not much for politeness, is she? Rintaro thought. Outwardly, he replied, ‘I was hit by one of those flying spheres when that wolf-woman attacked me.’ He stopped, lifted up his leg and saw that at the back of his calf a hole had been torn in his trousers, and the skin underneath was red. I hadn’t noticed that before. Is that a burn wound?

‘Oof, that looks painful,’ Rumia remarked, bending over to take a closer look. ‘But don’t worry, danmaku injuries usually go away pretty quickly, from my experience at least.’ She started to walk again, and pointed at something on the ground. ‘Could be worse, at least you didn’t fall into that.’

Rintaro cautiously stepped forward and looked down. At the edge of the path there lay on the ground what appeared to be a large, round leaf, nearly a metre across. ‘What is that?’ he asked, keeping his distance from the object.

‘It’s a pitcher kind of thing. There’s this hollow chamber under it and it tries to digest whatever falls in. Cirno fell in one of those a few months ago and she only got out by freezing the whole thing.’ So this forest had giant carnivorous plants? Great, as if crazy youkai weren’t enough of a threat to wandering humans. Clearly, he had to keep his guard up in this place. Rintaro looked at the pitcher plant’s innocuous lid a little while longer before continuing on his way.

About five minutes of walking later, it seemed they were getting closer to the edge of the forest. The canopy of trees was getting thinner, and more patches of light appeared on the path ahead of them. Rintaro mulled over the things he had seen in the past hour, and the number of questions that he wanted answers to was only increasing. One of them, of a relatively urgent concern, floated to the front of his mind.

‘Rumia, that woman who attacked us, you called her a werewolf?’ he asked.

‘Yep!’ Rumia said, bringing her finger to her chin thoughtfully. ‘She definitely had wolf ears, like a wolf tengu, but all of the wolf tengu in Gensokyo have white fur while hers was brownish, so she must be a different kind of youkai. I’ve heard of werewolves in Gensokyo, so she’s most likely one of those, but I’m not sure.’

Interesting, this realm seems to have a large variety of different creatures, Rintaro thought. He recalled something from his general knowledge of supernatural tales. ‘But I thought werewolves are supposed to look entirely human most of the time, and then transform to a form that’s entirely a wolf. This person had both human-like and wolf-like features at the same time, though. Was she really a werewolf?’

Rumia sighed and threw up her hands. ‘Ugh, I dunno! I’m not an expert on youkai species! If you want that, you should talk to… eh, who is an expert on that, actually? Maybe that really smart lady who lives in the red mansion by the Misty Lake. But, she hardly ever leaves her house.’

Rintaro thought of something else, but wondered if it would be impolite to say. ‘If you don’t mind me asking, what kind of youkai are you?’ He could see only a small number of traits that seemed to set Rumia apart from humans, and her ability to fly was the only definite one.

‘Uh, I don’t know, actually!’ she said with a shrug. ‘I’ve never met another youkai like myself, at any rate.’

Rintaro tried to think back to his studies of youkai and mythology in middle school. ‘Hmm… what would you say are the characteristics that are different between you and other youkai?’

Rumia frowned. ‘That’s a weird question, I’ve never really thought–’ As they reached a point where the canopy above the path opened up, she stumbled backwards and flailed her arms. ‘Ack! The Sun! I wasn’t paying attention!’ As Rintaro opened his mouth to ask something, he suddenly couldn’t see anything, only blackness, and now it was his turn to panic. Spikes of pain flared up at his temples, much like what he felt when he changed worldlines with the PhoneWave and his Reading Steiner activated. He squeezed his eyes shut and nearly doubled over.

However, the pain faded more quickly than that from changing worldlines and after a few seconds Rintaro stood upright again. He blinked repeatedly, and some of his vision returned. Everything still appeared very dark, as if it was the middle of the night, but he could make out the path and the shapes of the trees. Looking around revealed Rumia was sitting awkwardly on the ground.

‘Rumia, what is this darkness?’ Rintaro asked, his voice made somewhat harsher by panic.

‘Sorry, that’s me,’ she said sheepishly. ‘Direct sunlight on my skin feels unpleasant for some reason, so I activated my, um, darkness shield? I don’t really know the proper term for it, it’s my ability. It’s like a sphere of darkness around me.’

Rintaro experimentally stepped away from Rumia. It turned out that the darkness abruptly cut off several metres away from her, and beyond that the forest looked as normal, with sunlight shining down between the trees. From the outside, Rumia’s “shield” looked like a large, spherical cloud of some kind of smoke or dark mist, with her at the middle of it. Whenever he looked through the darkness, he could feel a slight pain at his temples again, and he wondered why that was.

Aversion to sunlight? That reminds me of the Western myths of vampires, he thought, analysing what Rumia had said. Though, she doesn’t seem to have fangs or wings. He kept those ponderings to himself, and instead said, ‘I suppose we can count this as one of your distinguishing characteristics.’

Rumia started to get up, and Rintaro walked back into her darkness, offering her a hand. Confusion took over her face. ‘You can see me? Through the darkness?’

‘With some difficulty, yes. It’s a bit like looking through a cloud of smoke.’

She looked surprised. ‘You must have really good eyes! None of my friends can do that, and even I can’t see through it very well.’

‘I see,’ Rintaro said, one of his eyebrows raised. He didn’t recall ever being complimented on his eyesight before. It seemed strange that he, as a human, would be less affected by this magical ability or whatever it was than youkai. Maybe non-magical beings had a resistance to magical effects that magical beings did not? But that didn’t line up with the myths of youkai, wherein they frequently used their supernatural abilities to fool humans. Perhaps the other youkai Rumia knew just had unusually poor vision? That didn’t seem like a satisfactory explanation either, but Rintaro couldn’t think of anything else, so he decided to drop it for now.

After he helped Rumia to her feet, they proceeded along the path. Rintaro walked just outside of the sphere of darkness, which followed Rumia as she moved. She was now flying again, though only about one metre above the ground this time.

‘I’m flying so I don’t trip over tree roots, okay?’ Rumia said indignantly when Rintaro shot her a questioning glance. ‘It’s hard to see stuff on the ground within the darkness shield.’

As they kept walking, the path gradually widened, until the gap between the boundaries of trees on either side was wide enough to encompass fields. They reached what Rintaro supposed was the edge of the forest, and in the distance he could see some buildings, beyond which the path sloped down into a valley and out of sight.

More nearby, he spotted a yatai, or traditional Japanese food cart, at the edge of the trees. There were two people at the food cart, and as they spotted Rumia’s sphere of darkness approaching they cheerily waved. As he got closer to them and their eccentric appearances came into focus, Rintaro concluded that this mysterious realm had plenty more surprises up its sleeves.
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Just want to say that I greatly enjoy this story and I am excited to see where it leads. Thank you for writing this.
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>>68680 Thank you very much!

Chapter 4

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Rintaro Okabe observed the peculiar scene before him. At the food cart he was walking towards were two individuals whose appearances, even with all he had seen in the past twenty-four hours, gave him enough of a surprise that he had to take a moment to process what he was seeing.

‘Hey, Rumia!’ yelled one of them, waving at the spherical cloud of darkness that had emerged from the forest alongside Rintaro. The speaker was a woman standing behind the cart’s counter, who looked about the same age as him. She wore an apron over a simple brown yukata, and had reddish hair in a bandana.

The first strange thing Rintaro noticed about her was her ears, which stuck out from her head in a long, pointy shape and seemed to have a fuzzy texture distinct from her skin. That on its own was a degree of weirdness that he had seen before – the maybe-werewolf who had attacked him in the forest had similar animal-like ears, after all – but when the woman behind the counter turned, she revealed that sprouting from her shoulder blades were a pair of feather-covered wings, about equally long as her arms.

Rintaro blinked a few times. He hadn’t really looked at the wolf-woman’s ears for any length of time, given that surviving the fight had been just a little bit more important, so maybe they could have been rationalised away as fakes, like the cat ears his friend Faris liked to wear. But, as the woman in the food cart moved about, her wings gently twitched. Even the most Kurisu-like part of his mind couldn’t find a way to explain that other than this person actually being… some kind of bird–human hybrid. How did that even come about? Maybe he should have taken his middle-school youkai studies more seriously.

He was jarred out of his thoughts when something smacked into the back of his head. ‘Hey, quit staring!’ Rumia said before he had a chance to respond to her having evidently just slapped him. ‘I know Mysty’s pretty, but don’t they teach you some manners out there?’

After several seconds of indignant spluttering, Rintaro found his voice. ‘I’m sorry, I simply had not realised the variety of forms youkai could take here in Gensokyo. You can understand that, surely?’ The other response he had been considering, about how ridiculous it was for someone who went about eating humans in a forest to try to school him on manners, he shelved for later.

‘Tch, Mysty’s not weird!’ Rumia pouted, folding her arms for emphasis. ‘You really haven’t seen much, have you? It’s not like she’s a giant toad, or an earthquake-causing catfish, or an oni…’ Rintaro gulped. Those were creatures that existed in Gensokyo? None of them sounded like fun to come across, especially not the oni, who were some of the most feared creatures in all of Japanese mythology.

‘Rumia, are you okay? You’re talking to yourself!’ called a new voice. Rintaro turned and saw it was the second occupant of the food cart, who was sitting on a bench mounted to its front. This person was another young woman, who did not look as obviously inhuman as the first, but eccentric enough in her own right. Her short hair was bright cyan – definitely not a natural colour – and adorned with a large blue ribbon. She wore a jumper dress the same colour as her ribbon, the back of which bore strange glassy decorations that Rintaro could not quite make out with her facing towards him. The girl looked to be of high-school age like Rumia, a little younger than her companion, who at that moment reached down to lightly smack her with the back of her hand.

‘Don’t be silly, Cirno!’ said the bird-like woman, who was apparently the “Mysty” who Rumia had been talking about. ‘Didn’t you see there was another person with her? They’re just hidden behind her darkness now. You’ve got to pay a little more attention to your surroundings!’ Her words were stern, but there was a hint of amusement in her voice.

‘Oh come on, don’t talk like that. You sound like Letty or Miss Keine!’ As the cyan-haired girl giggled, Mysty let out an exaggerated huff followed by some vague grumbling, but Rintaro clearly saw a smile threatening to emerge onto her face.

I should probably go and introduce myself before this gets too awkward, Rintaro thought. He increased his pace, but just before he could emerge from Rumia’s sphere, the darkness-bringer herself took the initiative.

‘Heeeey, birdy!’ With an energetic yell, she broke into a sprint, overtaking Rintaro. ‘Heeeey, icy!’ As her impromptu companion looked on, impassive yet curious, the inky sphere arrived at the food cart and engulfed it.

‘I can’t see!’ said someone. Cirno, Rintaro guessed based on the sound of the voice, since it was difficult for him to see through Rumia’s darkness at this distance.

‘Um, your darkness thing is still on, can you turn it off?’ That was most likely Mysty.

‘Sorry!’ That was definitely Rumia. Fortunately, the yatai was located in the shadow of some trees, so she did not have to suffer from direct sunlight as she dismissed the sphere. ‘Anyway, have you got anything to–’

She did not finish her sentence, for at that moment Mysty, smiling broadly, held out a skewer bearing… some kind of food. What exactly it was Rintaro did not have time to determine, for the instant Rumia laid eyes on it she leapt forward and tore it from the stick with her teeth. As she chewed sloppily and loudly, all the while laying sprawled over both the counter and the seating bench, Mysty and Cirno burst into laughter.

‘Ha! I know a hungry Rumia when I see one,’ Mysty proclaimed, folding her arms with a self-satisfied grin.

Cirno blew a raspberry at that. ‘That’s no achievement, she’s always hungry!’ This immediately provoked an indignant response, but while Rumia’s tone was unmistakeable, her actual words were entirely obscured by the food still in her mouth. The other two laughed again, and eventually she joined in, reddish fluids dribbling from her mouth.

As he slowly walked towards the food cart, Rintaro felt himself smiling at their tomfoolery. That warm kind of camaraderie was something he himself had not experienced in a while, not since… well, there went his good mood. He took a few deep breaths to clear his mind before dark thoughts could well up again.

The trio were starting to calm down, and he decided this was the right time to make his introduction. He got to about two metres from the cart before he hesitated. The bench looked wide enough to seat three people under normal circumstances, but Rumia’s awkward sprawl meant there was not enough room left for him. As Rintaro debated whether it would be weird to just remain standing behind the others, one of them mercifully took notice of the newcomer.

‘Ah, hello!’ Mysty said with the affable politeness expected of a salesperson, though her eyes betrayed some puzzlement. At what, his appearance? Shit, did she realise he was human? Was he in danger?

Don’t go panicking and jumping to conclusions, Rintaro reminded himself. Let’s just play it safe for now. After another deep breath, he began, ‘Greetings, I am–’

‘Oh, right, Mysty! I met this guy in the Forest!’ Rumia hurriedly interrupted his introduction after glancing over her shoulder in a way that suggested she’d almost forgotten he was there. She was also still chewing on her food as she spoke. And this was the person who had tried to tell him off for bad manners? After finally swallowing with a big gulp, she continued, ‘He’s a youkai who just came to Gensokyo from the Outside. Cool, right?’

Now the confusion on Mysty’s face changed to outright suspicion. ‘Really? That’s a strange story.’ Rintaro could feel droplets of sweat starting to form on his skin, and it only intensified when she turned her attention back to him. ‘You’re a youkai, huh? You look pretty human.’

‘I know, right?’ Rumia said, thankfully covering for his inability to form a response. ‘That’s what I first thought, too! I even almost attacked him, but I noticed just in time. Like I said, your disguise is good, but it has some flaws.’

‘It’s not meant to be a disguise…’ he muttered half-heartedly. That was the truth, if not in the way the others might think. He shrunk back slightly under the piercing, studious gaze of Mysty, who was soon joined in a less intimidating way by Cirno.

‘Yeah, something’s weird about him!’ The cyan-haired girl held her hand under her chin in an affectation of thoughtfulness. ‘It’s like… an aura kind of thing? You seem powerful, strange guy!’

Huh. He hadn’t heard that one before, and it wasn’t the same as what Rumia had said about him in the Forest, either. Rintaro couldn’t stop a little hesitation from creeping into his voice as he replied, ‘Um, thank you?’

Mysty looked over at Cirno, and then back at him. ‘I think I see what you mean. I don’t know what it is, though. All that magic theory stuff goes way over my head.’

‘It’s a bit like that woman with the dolls, from the Forest,’ Rumia supplied. With the back of her hand, she wiped off the drool that was still on her chin from her messy eating. The red colour suggested the food that Mysty had given her was most likely meat.

Continuing that train of thought, Rintaro glanced at what appeared to be a currently empty grill inside the cart, but he cut himself off upon realising he was only trying to distract himself from the oddly intense attention the three young women were giving him. Daru might be envious of this situation, he reflected.

‘Ah, you mean Alice,’ Mysty said to Rumia after a brief lull in the conversation. ‘She does have this magical energy about her, or something like that. She’s a magician… wait, are you a magician?’

There it was. Ever since he’d asked Rumia what type of youkai she was, he’d known someone could easily ask him the same thing. It was a risky matter, but the answer Rumia had given provided him an inspiration. ‘I don’t know, actually. I know neither what being a magician entails in this case, nor what my own nature truly is. I only just arrived in Gensokyo, so I have no experience with any of this.’

Rumia’s eyes widened. ‘So you’re like me, then.’

‘Yeah, you could be doing worse!’ Cirno said, grinning. ‘Rumia’s been here all her life, and she still hasn’t figured out what she is!’

The blonde got up from her position hunched over the counter to throw an arm around Cirno’s neck and lightly shake her. ‘Hey, don’t make it sound like I’m stupid!’ She didn’t sound truly upset, though, and soon the both of them and Mysty were laughing vigorously. Even Rintaro found a chuckle escaping his lips.

After Rumia released her and she had a moment to catch her breath, Cirno turned back to Rintaro. ‘Hmm… I think, maybe you’re a crow tengu.’

‘What?’ Rintaro and Mysty burst out simultaneously. The latter continued, ‘How in Gensokyo does he look remotely like a crow tengu?’ The former silently, and somewhat despairingly, contemplated his supposed resemblance to a long-nosed, red-faced avian monster. Rumia, meanwhile, just giggled softly as she chewed on something again, despite Rintaro not having seen her actually grab any food.

‘Well, he has the right hair,’ Cirno replied, ‘and he has the whole tall, thin, stretched-out shape that the male ones have.’ Rintaro could not deny that he was lanky, but that was not exactly an inhuman trait!

‘Cirno,’ Mysty said flatly, ‘don’t you think that if he were a crow tengu, he would have wings?’

‘They could be, like, folded up and hidden behind his body! They can do that, can’t they?’

With a sigh, Rintaro walked lamely in a little circle, showing the others his unadorned back. ‘I do not have wings.’

‘Alright, fine, maybe you just have some tengu ancestry, crow-looking guy,’ Cirno pouted, flapping her hand dismissively. Rintaro felt offended for a moment, until the ridiculousness of the conversation and, really, the situation in general caught up to him, and he slowly let out his breath.

Mysty smiled at him, more genuinely than before. ‘Anyway, foolish comments about crows aside–’


‘–I believe what you’re saying now. I’m sorry if I came across as rude earlier, it was because your appearance seemed a little suspect. I thought you were a human trying to trick me!’

He had to stop himself from wincing, but Rumia again came with a fortunate intervention. ‘He’s not tricky at all, Mysty! When we were attacked by a wolf, he fought her off when I couldn’t and helped me, so I think he’s pretty noble.’

At that, Mysty and Cirno looked at him with a mixture of surprise and awe in their gazes. And though he had, not too long ago, been an attention-seeking chuunibyou, this reaction was still somewhat daunting. Fighting back his embarrassment, Rintaro managed, ‘Thank you, Rumia and, er, Mysty, was it?’

‘Mystia Lorelei,’ she clarified, with a slight bow.

I suppose that “Mysty” is an affectionate nickname, then, Rintaro thought. He also noted that her name didn’t sound Japanese at all, and neither did “Rumia” or “Cirno” for that matter.

‘Oh, I forgot to introduce you!’ Rumia said, and pointed a finger at him. ‘This is Rio… Riho… Rihououi… ehm, hang on…’

Rintaro could only stare in bafflement at the mangling of his name, until he remembered his own indecision when he had introduced himself to her. She must have interpreted that stumble as part of my name. Before any further misnaming could take root, he stated, ‘Hououin Kyouma, pleased to meet you.’ Much as it annoyed him, he had to stick with that alias as long as he remained in this realm, lest he sow any distrust by switching to a different one.

‘Haha, you’re all being so formal!’ said the last member of the group. ‘I am Cirno! I’m a fairy, and I’m the strongest in Gensokyo!’

A fairy? That’s more an European kind of supernatural creature than a Japanese one, isn’t it? Rintaro wondered. Looking at her more closely, he saw that what he had assumed to be decorations attached to her dress were actually translucent, bluish crystals that hovered in mid-air about ten centimetres behind her. And yet when she moved, they moved consistently with her as if they were attached. They were arranged in pairs, symmetrical about her spine, like a peculiar kind of insectoid wings. Fairies in myths always have wings, so is that what they’re meant to be? But then why do they look like crystals? Why are they separate from her body while they behave as if they’re part of her? This doesn’t make any sense!

‘My wings are pretty impressive, right?’ Cirno said proudly, seemingly unphased by his confused staring. ‘They’re made of ice!’

How does that even– No. Rintaro decided this detail was not worth any further questioning. “This place is weird” was a sufficient explanation, for now.
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With a slight shake of his head, he turned back to the stand and its owner. ‘Now that we all know each other – Rumia told me I could get food here, is that correct?’

‘Certainly, that is what my business is,’ replied Mysty – no, Mystia, he reminded himself. Some of the demeanour of the well-mannered but detached shopkeeper had come back, but she seemed to notice it, and when she next spoke her tone returned to a more familiar one. ‘Afraid I only have one dish to offer right now, though.’ She reached under the counter and lifted up a skewer bearing something long, floppy and a greyish brown in colour. ‘Would you care for some grilled lamprey eel?’

That wasn’t something he expected, and Rintaro wasn’t even sure whether he had ever eaten that before, but food was food and he was definitely in need of some. ‘I suppose, yes, I would like to have that, please.’ As Mystia nodded and set to work on the grill, Rumia gave a thumbs-up, her mouth still occupied by her mysterious mastication.

A few seconds later, the blonde finally clambered off the countertop and moved to a normal sitting position. This left enough space in the middle of the bench for Rintaro to sit down, which he did eagerly, allowing him to relieve his tired legs and talk to the others more naturally.

While she prepared the lamprey, Mystia looked at Rumia. ‘What was that you said about being attacked?’

She piped up immediately. ‘It was terrible! I was walking through the Forest with Kyouma here, after we met. We were just minding our own business, going towards this place, when all of a sudden, bam, this wolf youkai lady comes out of nowhere, throws Kyouma through the air, and starts shooting danmaku at us!’ She mimed the events with wild arm movements, and Rintaro rubbed his ribs, still aching from the painful attack. ‘I have no idea who she was, and she didn’t even say anything! I wasn’t prepared at all, so I ended up getting knocked out from her danmaku.’

‘Wow, that was very rude!’ Cirno said, at which Rumia nodded emphatically.

Mystia frowned and leaned forward on one arm, while she continued minding the grill with the other. ‘That sounds odd.’

Rintaro, meanwhile, saw an opportunity to address something which had been bothering him ever since the fight. ‘I’m sorry to interrupt you, but could someone please explain to me what “danmaku” means?’

For several seconds, a stunned silence reigned at the yatai, until it was broken by Cirno. ‘This!’ she said simply, lifting one of her arms and pointing away from the cart. Three crystals, about as long as her forearm with a narrow shape akin to the tip of a spear, appeared hovering in front of her hand. They looked quite similar to the objects that were apparently her wings, though these new ones were pointier and glowed faintly. Cirno moved her fingers a little, and the crystals flew across the field, vanishing about twenty metres away from her.

Well, that clarifies one thing, Rintaro thought. When that wolf-woman was talking about danmaku, she was likely referring to those spherical projectiles she was using. ‘I see, but what is it?’ That was the key part he couldn’t figure out.

‘Uh… magic? Probably?’ Cirno shrugged. ‘I don’t really know how it works, I just know how to use it.’

That sounded familiar. Like Rumia’s darkness ability, huh…

‘Danmaku is what is used in Gensokyo to fight in duels,’ Mystia added. ‘I guess if you’re from the Outside, you wouldn’t know. They probably have deadly battles out there.’

Rintaro thought back to seeing his childhood friend get shot to death by a bunch of paramilitary goons all because he had drawn their organisation’s attention with his time travel experiments, and said in his mind, yes, that is correct.

He opened his mouth to speak, but was beaten to it by Rumia. ‘And those danmaku duels are meant to be held according to the spell card rules, but that wolf completely ignored them! She even tried to kill Kyouma!’ She slammed her fist onto the counter, her anger from just after the fight clearly having come back to her.

‘Very odd, indeed,’ Mystia remarked in a soft voice. As she bent down and, by the sound of it, moved some things around in a cupboard, she pre-empted Rintaro’s next question as she continued, ‘Kyouma, so you know, the gist of the spell card rules is that they’re supposed to stop youkai from killing each other in disputes, which used to happen a lot. I can’t remember how the whole list goes, but the basic idea is that the youkai involved have to agree to the duel, and sometimes on the specific danmaku rules too. And then, whoever wins the duel wins the dispute.’

He pondered that for a bit. Did that mean that someone who was really good at these duels would automatically gain some sort of authority? Before he could vocalise that thought, he was struck by one of more immediate concern. ‘Could you tell me, is this danmaku?’ He took the Bit Particle Gun out of his pocket, pointed it at a nearby tree and pulled the trigger.

As before, a burst of pink-coloured light shot from the tip of the weapon and hit the tree without leaving a visible mark. Rintaro did notice the light seemed to be slightly weaker than when he had fired it in the Forest. I hope it’s not running out of power, that would be dangerous for me.

The three Gensokyans observed his display with courteous, if not particularly enthusiastic, gazes. Rumia was the first to offer her comment. ‘Seems like danmaku to me.’

‘Usually you wouldn’t need an object like that for danmaku,’ Mystia added.

Cirno raised her hand, as if she was in a classroom. ‘What about Marisa’s thingy? With the big laser?’

‘Ah, that’s right, that thief witch does have a weapon she uses in her attacks, kind of like a small box. So, Kyouma, what you just did probably counts…’ Mystia trailed off into silence, but then startled, at the same time Rintaro suddenly smelt smoke. ‘Oh, crap! You all distracted me!’ Hastily wielding a spatula, she lifted a blackened piece of eel from the grill and tossed it aside.

‘Pfft, who’s the one who needs to pay attention to her surroundings now?’ said Cirno, her arms folded and her expression smug, while Rumia coughed violently and Rintaro covered his face with his sleeve. With a flurry of apologies, Mystia handed the scientist a skewer with another lamprey, this one thankfully unburnt.

He turned the stick around several times, examining the fish, before somewhat gingerly taking a bite. Truth be told, ever since he’d seen his friends get murdered violently on numerous occasions during his time travels a few months ago, he’d felt averse to eating anything that was overtly a dead animal. However, he didn’t have much of a choice now, and at least the fact that the lamprey had been grilled reduced the resemblance.

For all of the fuss about it, the taste of the food turned out to be fairly unremarkable, a bit meatier than he had expected for a fish, though the seasoning worked well. After he’d eaten his fill for the moment – and almost dropped chunks of lamprey on his clothes, because biting pieces off a long object at the end of a stick wasn’t the easiest task – Rintaro tuned back into the conversation around him. It seemed the three had shifted from their amicable bickering back to a more serious topic.

‘What did she look like?’ Mystia was saying to Rumia.

‘I only saw her for a little bit, but she was tall and she had glowing red eyes and long brown hair, so she was definitely not one of the white wolf tengu.’ Oh, they were talking about their lupine assailant.

Surprise appeared on Mystia’s features, accompanied by a jolt of her wings, and she stepped away from the grill. ‘Wait, was she, by any chance, wearing a dress with parts of blue and white and red?’

Rintaro went through his memories of their encounter. He hadn’t paid much attention to her clothes, but now that he was thinking about it… ‘Yes, actually,’ he said after a moment’s deliberation.

‘You know her, Mysty?’ Rumia asked, leaning forward on her elbows.

‘That wolf has been here at my cart, three times or so,’ Mystia said as she wiped her hands on a cloth. Rintaro noticed that she had long, claw-like fingernails – not unlike the wolf-woman. ‘But she was always calm and polite, not like what you’re describing.’

‘Is that so? Well, she was really aggressive to me, and to Kyouma!’

‘She also didn’t have glowing eyes when I saw her, though I guess that could’ve been caused by her using some kind of magic.’

Cirno, who until now had been munching on a lamprey skewer that Mystia had given her while Rintaro had been occupied with his own, joined the discussion. ‘Maybe the youkai who attacked you was not her, but some kind of shapeshifter! Or, she could have been possessed.’

‘Both of those could be possible,’ Mystia acknowledged.

Rintaro silently observed the exchange, particularly focusing on the information about potential dangers. So there are youkai with those powers? That’s pretty terrifying.

‘The whole attack was strange, that’s for sure,’ supplied Rumia. ‘It might be some sort of incident.’ She twirled what looked like a broken skewer between her fingers.

‘I hope not. Since, whatever this is, it’s happening in this area…’

‘…then the shrine maiden or the witch would probably come here to investigate,’ Rumia finished for her, saying the last word with such emphasis that an image of her making air quotes popped into Rintaro’s head. What did she mean by that? He recalled her saying that the shrine maiden beat up youkai and could “exterminate” someone for breaking rules, so maybe her “investigation” would not be a very friendly one.

‘You don’t need to have such long faces,’ Cirno said, holding out her clenched fist. ‘No matter if it’s some wolf weirdo or a bigwig bully, I can handle them, I’m the strongest in Gensokyo! I beat Marisa at danmaku before, you know. You can count on me!’ Given what he’d seen of her thus far, Rintaro wasn’t sure he shared her confidence, but it certainly cheered up the other two Gensokyans.

‘We sure can,’ said Mystia, as she gave Cirno a light punch on the shoulder. ‘If there is anyone who will always get up when she’s knocked down, it’s you.’ Both of them struggled not to laugh as Cirno retaliated with equal lightness, and Rumia reached behind Rintaro so she too could affectionately poke at the fairy.

The scientist sat very still. He did not feel entirely confident in engaging with these highly unusual people who he had only just met, which left him awkwardly in the middle while their ruckus went on around him. At the same time, their mirth diffused into him, along with a pang of a somewhat painful familiarity. No, the Future Gadget Lab can’t ever be the same again, I need to let it go.

When the girls settled down and their conversation petered out, Rintaro realised there was something crucial he still needed to ask them about. ‘Excuse me, do any of you know how to get to the Outside from here?’ He adopted the term he’d heard them use a few times.

However, even his lexical consideration could not spare him from being met with bewildered frowns from two of his companions. Rumia, who had already heard him ask a similar question, merely gave an unfazed shrug as she licked her fingers.

‘Getting to the Outside? Is that even possible?’ Cirno muttered, clearly thinking out loud.

‘The shrine maiden does something like that, doesn’t she, with the Barrier?’ offered Rumia.

‘Yes, I heard sometimes humans randomly get into Gensokyo from the Outside, and then Reimu takes them back,’ Mystia said. ‘But only if they don’t get eaten by youkai first,’ she added with a low chuckle.

So that wolf-woman wasn’t just talking nonsense when she said I had forfeited my life. Rintaro suppressed a shudder. This realm certainly proved itself to be a dangerous place.

‘She doesn’t do that for anyone else, though,’ the cart-owner continued. ‘Youkai aren’t supposed to cross the Barrier. Gensokyo is the only place where we can live safely.’

‘Why do you even want to leave Gensokyo? It’s awesome here, isn’t it?’ Cirno tilted her head as he looked at him.

Rintaro had still been pondering Mystia’s statement, so he had to scramble for an answer. ‘Ah, well, I still have… ties out there. My arrival here was very sudden. I can’t just… not go back.’

Rumia shrugged again. ‘I don’t really understand. Maybe it’s because I’ve never met a youkai from outside Gensokyo before.’

‘Kyouko told me there’s a youkai like that at the Myouren Temple, but I haven’t met them,’ Mystia said. ‘Anyway, I don’t know anyone except Reimu who could get you to the Outside. I don’t think she would help you, though.’

‘She might beat you up just for asking! She’s mean like that.’ Rumia echoed her earlier sentiment.

‘I see,’ Rintaro said softly. Would the shrine maiden recognise him as human? If not, the situation could turn bad for him, but how likely was that? In any case, he recalled one more potentially useful piece of information, from something his wolfish attacker had said. ‘I think I heard there’s a village of humans in Gensokyo, is that right?’

‘Yeah, over that way.’ Mystia pointed down the road that led away from the Forest. ‘Nearly of the native humans live there.’

‘Thank you. I’ll head over there, I suppose they may have useful… resources.’ He wasn’t quite satisfied with that phrasing, but hopefully it would sound plausible, without giving away that he was actually human.

‘Do they even let youkai in there?’ Cirno asked, apparently at no-one in particular as she stared off to the side.

‘There are a few youkai that go into the Human Village often, I’ve seen them,’ Rumia replied.

Mystia gave Rintaro a quick once-over. ‘You look human enough, Kyouma, I’m pretty sure the guards would allow you in.’

He allowed himself a small smile at the irony, before pausing to think. He’d had a good meal and learned a number of useful things that should help him protect himself for as long as he had to stay in this strange land. The company had been pleasant – here at this food stand at least – but there was clearly a lot of danger lurking about. Given the circumstances of his seeming abduction and his encounter with the eccentric Sumireko before that, he couldn’t shake the thought that his friends might be at risk, too. Hence, it was time to get a move on, to return to the real world or at the very least get in contact with his friends.

‘Thank you all for your hospitality,’ Rintaro said, while making as much of a bow as he could while still sitting down. ‘I’ll be taking my leave now.’ He began to get up from the bench, but came to an abrupt halt. He hadn’t paid! He had a credit card with him, but he doubted that was of any use here. ‘I’m so sorry, I don’t think I have a way to pay you–’

‘Oh, that’s alright.’ Mystia waved off his concerns as he started to look through his wallet for spare change. ‘I get enough money fleecing those dumb humans that come by here, so youkai can eat on the house.’

Rintaro gulped, and stumbled over his words. ‘Thanks again, I wish you a good day, bye.’ He immediately turned away and took a few steps to recover his composure.

‘See ya!’ Cirno called, followed by similar goodbyes from the other two. As he started to walk, Rintaro looked over his shoulder and exchanged waves with them.

A moment later, he was back on the gravelly path that led out of the Forest of Magic. Looking ahead, he could see the distant shapes of buildings. He fixed his eyes on them, and set off.
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SERN when?
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This is at the beginning of Steins;Gate 0 timeline (specifically, at the point indicated by the dates at the beginning of each chapter), so rather than SERN, a different organisation is a more immediate concern. But yes, we'll check in with what is happening in the Outside in Rintaro's absence in due time.
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Chapter 5

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Rintaro Okabe swept his gaze along the wall of palisades in front of him, and the roofs poking out above it. As he had been walking along the road, passing between groups of buildings, there were a few times he’d wondered where exactly the Human Village began, but now this wooden perimeter made it quite clear.

Right in front of him the wall was interrupted by a large but simple gate, consisting of two doors with a small roof above them. The doors were made of wooden planks and didn’t look very sturdy; Rintaro figured they might not be able to withstand a ramming from an average car, let alone a serious military attack. Yet, two men stood stiffly in guard positions on either side of the gate, as if it was an important defensive position. Really, the whole construction, palisades and all, seemed a few centuries out of date. Rintaro wasn’t sure he had ever seen a fortification like this in active use in Japan, only ones that were purely for historical or ornamental purposes.

As he walked towards the wall, he saw that the guards, too, seemed out of place, or rather time. They were wearing what looked like soldiers’ clothes from the Meiji era, complete with swords strapped to their belts. When I was taken to this place, was I transported through time as well? Given his experiences with time travel, that had to be considered as a possibility, though none of the technologies he knew would be capable of taking someone all the way back to the nineteenth century.

Now that he thought about it, there were more inconsistencies with that theory. Rumia’s clothes, for example, looked too modern and too Western for Japan in that time period. And when he had been walking towards the Village, he’d passed a shop with what seemed to be second-hand electric appliances for sale, though he hadn’t looked at them very closely. Rintaro decided he could not yet draw any conclusions, and his best for learning more was what he had been planning to do anyway – going into the Human Village.

On that note, he approached the two guards and greeted them in a way that he hoped would be seen as friendly. ‘Hello! I would like to enter the Village.’

‘Hmm, I don’t think I’ve seen you around here before,’ one of the guards said as he stepped forward, while the other hung back near the gate.

‘This is my first time here,’ Rintaro acknowledged. ‘I’m just passing through, I don’t intend to stay for long.’

‘Hold on a moment.’ The watchman blocked his path with an outstretched hand. ‘Something seems off about you. I know trouble when I see it. You aren’t some kind of youkai, are you?’ He looked at Rintaro with an expression somewhere between a frown and a sneer.

‘Yeah, you do look pretty weird, kid,’ added the other guard.

Crap, even the humans here doubt my species! Rintaro thought, while another part of him bristled at the insults. He struggled to keep his face neutral as he hastily said, ‘Yes, yes, I am human! I don’t come from Gensokyo, and I’m not sure how I got here. I’m Rintaro Okabe from Tokyo. Here, I can prove it to you!’ He pulled his wallet out of his jacket and started rummaging through it, searching for his ID.

Before he could find it, the guard interrupted him. ‘Oh, you’re one of those weirdo Outsiders,’ he said, glancing at the wallet and Rintaro’s phone, which he had accidentally grabbed at the same time. ‘Ugh. Guess we do have to let you in.’

‘Thank you,’ Rintaro said, at once relieved and irritated at the man’s attitude.

With a sigh, the guard looked over his shoulder at his colleague. ‘Alright, let’s open ’er up.’ The other guard opened a small hatch in one of the doors, and yelled something Rintaro couldn’t quite make out. For about five seconds, there was no reaction, and then the doors slowly began to open inward, their hinges creaking loudly. As they waited, the first guard turned to Rintaro again. ‘Listen, guys like you can be almost as much of a nuisance as the youkai sometimes. So keep your head down, okay? There will be eyes on you.’

‘Of course, I won’t make any trouble.’ He just wanted to get back to his friends in Tokyo, for crying out loud!

When the opening in the gate was wide enough, he hurried through, feeling the gazes of the watchmen on his back. On the other side, he came to a halt and took in a deep breath. As he put his wallet and phone back in his pockets, a thought struck him. If I want to find out more about this place, and how to get back to the real world, then I might as well start by asking those guards.

He spun around on his heel and began, ‘If you don’t mind, could…’ He trailed off when he saw that the gate was already closing behind him. A few seconds later, the two doors met with a dull thud.
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Will we get the real Kyouma in this fic? Epigraph/0 Okabe is fine enough but the original was as legendary as it got. Especially for a VN character.
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I don't want to give too much away, but Okabe will get character development in this fic, like he does in S;G0 itself – though obviously it will not be identical because the circumstances are very different.
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