File 138039333918.jpg - (504.11KB, 857x774, Other Gatekeeper.jpg) [iqdb]
Another day had begun. A woman moved through her home, never quite vanishing in the endless sea of red that formed the halls. She moved with ease, unhindered by the scythe blade draped over her shoulder like a shawl, enormous shaft curved as if it were barely firmer than a length of rope. The world was utterly silent as she floated toward her destination, as nothing save herself moved.
Her expression was dour. The daily routine – if it could even be called that, when time seemed so meaningless in nearly half of the mansion – had already been disrupted. The ages spent guarding the place had attuned her to it, letting her simply feel the intruders. She already knew exactly who they were; only one person had the audacity to enter so blatantly as an uninvited guest, and only one other would have dared accompany her.
No, that was wrong. The two humans had been just as outrageous. But they would have entered from the other side.
It couldn’t be helped. Had they arrived at any other time, she would have responded immediately and sent them back on their way, but their timing had been flawless; the new day had begun, and the gate had not yet been attended. Were it any other task, save perhaps one given her by her lady, she could have waited. But not tending to the gate.
The ceaseless crimson ended as she reached the doors of the mansion, giving way to the darkness beyond its walls. She could still see the ever-present streaks of crystal blue stretching off into the distance, slowly twisting up even as they moved beyond her field of view. She stepped out onto the porch before her, tiles like glass that simply ended in the darkness several feet away. Slowly lifting the scythe from her shoulders, she took it in both hands and began to focus. She began her routine at the gate, slowly swinging her scythe as if dancing.
Most people did not truly understand gates. They just assumed they were there to let certain people get through a wall, however restricted that group was. Certainly, she understood such a definition was adequate for most, but it annoyed her nonetheless to think so few realized the alternative. Gates meant something. Fundamentally, they meant someone didn’t want just anyone passing through as they pleased. But they could also mean other things. Some were a grudging concession to reality, which refused to let them just build a wall and be done with it.
The atmosphere slowly changed as she worked, pulling apart the tangled threads around her. The glass-like platforms in the distance lowered, her focused power dragging them back down. Gradually, almost painfully slowly, they were all flattened back into place. Never quite level with each other, but oriented the same. A final sweep of her scythe accompanied the end of her routine, and she gazed out into the darkness as she pulled out a small cloth, wiping the sweat from her face.
Mugenkan had been split off from the normal world once again, to the extent it was even possible. It barely mattered to anyone, save the two interlopers. They were, in fact, almost the entire reason the routine was necessary.
She turned on one heel, grumbling as she shut the doors behind after reentering the mansion. Even when Lady Kazami was present, none of them could reliably keep the demons out of Mugenkan. Naturally, with the Lady out for the foreseeable future and most of the help scared off after the rampage that woke her, they had gotten bolder. They had made her rush the division process – if they hadn’t started the day by intruding, she could have gone through it at a reasonable pace and not ended up dripping sweat that early.
She was supposed to visit the vampire later!
She glided through the corridors, making her way through the mansion toward the probable closer of the two intruders. She was never certain. She could pinpoint the younger well enough, but the older was unpredictable, difficult to trace, and prone to vanishing. The thought made her scowl, worsening her expression.
She was near the inner mansion when she slowed, approaching one of the doors with care. She could sense one of them within the… kitchen? That was where she was, but why linger in the kitchen? It was likely the younger. No, it was hopefully the younger – she didn’t want to think what might have already happened if it was the older; it would be enough to send her into a rage if she dwelled on it. Throwing open the door, it slammed into the wall as she stepped into the room, and the sister within immediately turned to face her.
The kitchen was not in ruins. Nothing was shattered, splintered, wrecked, broken, burned, burning, splintered, stained, or otherwise ruined. The room itself had not been twisted halfway out of alignment with the rest of the mansion. No bizarre foreign elements had been dragged in. Only a few things were out of place, resting on a counter instead of in storage, which was accounted for by the growing smell of cooking food. The woman staring at her, gold eyes framed by hair much the same, was dressed like a maid. Tense and ready to fight, if necessary, but like a maid nonetheless.
Yes, it was definitely the younger sister.
“Mu,” the gatekeeper said.
“Elly.” The demon was unflappable. Her voice was neutral, her expression almost absent – bored was how she would characterize it, had she not seen Mugetsu genuinely bored and disinterested before.
“You’re not supposed to be here, Mu.”
There was a long pause before the demon finally responded. “Sister was bored. I thought it better I intrude as well than let her come unaccompanied.” Her gaze remained locked on Elly, but her shoulders began to relax.
“Yet she is elsewhere. Doesn’t that defeat the point?”
She looked away, biting her lip slightly. “She slipped away. I’m afraid I lost track of her after that.”
Elly let out an exasperated sigh. “Am I going to find her digging through Lady Kazami’s undergarments again?”
“No.” There was a comforting certainty in Mugetsu’s voice.
“Am I going to find her digging through mine?” “No.” Less certain. A long pause. “Probably not.” Much less certain, and much less comforting. Elly simply stared at the demon until she finally resumed speaking. “I don’t think it likely, at least. I think she only did that because Yuuka was going to be back soon and she always loved getting a reaction from her, though she did tell me later she really liked seeing what kind of things she wore. Said they were quite lovely. She might go through yours out of curiosity, but you two really aren’t as close as sister and Yuuka, so even if she felt like bothering I suspect she wouldn’t care as much.” She wasn’t even looking at Elly at that point, instead staring off slightly to her side, more focused on her train of thought than anything in front of her. Until she realized what she had just aid.
“Not that I mean to say yours are necessarily bad or even less lovely than Yuuka’s but sister is really very particular and since your relationship isn’t quite as close I just think that perhaps…” She was growing increasingly flustered as she spoke, an embarrassed blush slowly spreading, until she finally just threw up one hand, burying her face in its palm. “We’ve spent too long alone together.”
Elly allowed herself a slight chuckle at the demon’s embarrassment. It was rare that she could enjoy such moments; the elder sister was usually present when she was causing them, and usually embarrassing everyone. “I wouldn’t mind your company if you’d just arrange it ahead of time, like you’re supposed to.” It was difficult to hold Mugetsu’s intrusions against her, though. She was polite, well behaved. Courteous. As much a proper guest as she could be. “So why the kitchen?”
“I thought I would find somewhere quiet to wait until I could sense sister again, and it was nearby.” She removed her hand as she spoke, but did not meet Elly’s eyes again, prompting an amused smirk. “And when I recognized where I was, I thought it would be appropriate to try and make you something, since we’re just intruding again.”
“Breakfast isn’t going to placate me if she destroys anything, you know.” Elly said it as if she was teasing, but it was entirely true. If Gengetsu started breaking things for one reason or another, it almost never stopped with anything small.
“Even so, some token of appreciation is still appropriate. If you do not mind, it might be better to wait here until she reappears.” Mugetsu fully looked away as she finished, turning her attention back to the still cooking meal. Elly wordlessly took a seat at a nearby table, letting herself relax as best she could. Letting Gengetsu wander the mansion unattended was almost horrifying, but neither of them could sense her. But it couldn’t be helped. The mansion was huge, and the elder demon could doubtlessly evade both of them almost indefinitely if she truly desired. Leaving her was a hideous proposition, but waiting and trying to put herself at ease were about the best she could do.
In the long silence that followed, her thoughts turned toward her plans. If there was not too much of a mess, she still had a chance to meet Kurumi that day. They would have a nice chat, and the vampire would try to regale her with stories of what had happened around the lake. Perhaps they would even have a chance to start work on making her a proper house again, or at least renovating the little niche she had been using lately. It would not be exciting by any means, but it would be a pleasant change from routine.
Mugetsu eventually brought food to the table. The food was delicious, Elly thought, but it was as unidentifiable as always – some bizarre blend of Makai’s ancient styles, ideas picked up from scattered dreams, and the demon’s own whims mixed into something that was “breakfast” solely by virtue of the “time”. They ate in relative silence, until Mugetsu eventually spoke. “You are seeing someone, then?”
Elly paused. How had the demon guessed that? She had only started visiting the vampire with any regularity recently. Even then, the way she phrased it – was she trying to suggest they were in a relationship? No, it was Mugetsu, not her sister. It was an innocent question from her, and she probably meant it only in the immediate sense. She was going to visit Kurumi later, after all, presuming they could find Gengetsu. But that didn’t answer the question of how she knew to ask that, or –
“You were daydreaming.” Mugetsu finally cut her train of thought off, the slightest hint of amusement showing on her face as a thin smile. Elly simply stared at her for a moment before it clicked.
Daydreaming. In Mugenkan, inextricably tied to the Dream World proper. In front of a demon who had spent the last several ages living in and manipulating the very same Dream World.
“Yes,” she said with a quiet sigh. “It’s been terribly quiet here lately. Most of the help fled after that incident a little while ago, and Lady Kazami was about the only thing keeping the rest here. So I sometimes head into the normal world for a little while and visit Kurumi. She’s a nice girl, and barely has anyone to talk to herself.”
Mugetsu gave a small, satisfied nod as she listened, and the silence resumed. It continued until they had finished, with the young demon staring blankly toward a wall for several moments before she spoke.
“Sister seems to have settled somewhere.”
Elly simply looked at the demon for a moment before reflecting. Yes, she could actually locate the elder sister again. There she was.
At the front door.
Elly stood up immediately, bolting out of the kitchen almost as quickly. She flew through the corridors as swiftly as she could manage, desperately hoping Gengetsu was not about to actually try anything. It was impossible for her to actually get out through that side of the mansion was the gate had been attended for the day, but she had still tried in the past.
She had blown the entire front wall apart in the past, only to be sorely disappointed it was a far less tangible barrier that stopped her. Elly had no doubt the elder demon would remember that, but did not trust her not to try and break through it anyway.
It was thus to her immense relief that when she finally reached the foyer again, the winged demon was simply floating near the door, pouting with her arms crossed. Then she noticed the gatekeeper’s arrival, spinning around in midair before dashing toward her with arms outstretched.
“Elly!” The force of the flying hug knocked the wind out of her, and with Gengetsu not even bothering to try to suspent them, gravity saw them both to the floor only a moment later. The demon was soon kneeling on Elly’s legs, pouting once more. “Your front door is locked again.”
“It’s supposed to be, Gen.” She straightened her hat as she slowly sat up, not bothering to hide the irritation on her face. “No one needs anything from the deep dream world getting out into the normal. And that includes you.”
Gengetsu responded by dramatically resting the back of one hand against her forehead and letting out a cry. “So cruel! A poor maiden trapped in an endless dream by a dreadful, merciless gatekeeper!”
“Right, the poor maiden that sparked the entire wall apart trying to get out. Off.”
The demon floated upward, sticking her tongue out at Elly as she did. “That was ‘cause you locked the door to begin with. And it was still locked even when I blew it up!” She glared at the gatekeeper as she spoke. “You’re cheating when you make locks work without a door.”
Elly did not bother to respond to Gengetsu’s statements, simply standing up and brushing off her dress. “I hope you haven’t damaged anything this time.”
“Nope!” Her expression instantly changed from a pout to a cheerful smile, and she drifted closer to Elly, almost pushing their faces together. “I remembered how upset you and Kazamin always got when things got out of hand and didn’t even try! I just spent a while looking all over these walls and seeing if there was a weak point before sparking anything.” So she was having one of her more normal days, bothering to actually check before just trying to muscle her way through any perceived obstacles. That was good. The nickname, however…
“Kazami.” Even Yuuka alone would have been a better alternative. That the Lady was so close as to allow the sisters her personal name, particularly Gengetsu, had always irked her, but an actual name was still better than such an irreverent nickname.
“Kaza – actually, no. Forget it.” It couldn’t be helped. The demon was stubborn, and no amount of arguing was about to change her mind. “What are you even doing here?”
“Bored.” She began slowly drifting away from Elly before suddenly lurching into a standing position, shouting. “Mu!”
“Sister,” came the response, at a somewhat more appropriate volume. Elly stepped to the side, turning in place to see the fake maid approaching. The elder darted over to her sister, pouting once more.
“Mu, Elly doesn’t want our company!” She was practically hanging off the younger sister’s shoulders. It was an amusing sight, particularly given the slight size difference; Gengetsu was visibly smaller as she did so. The contrast was amusing, as she usually appeared taller – by floating when her sister was standing.
“We did arrive uninvited. She has a right to be annoyed when we ignore our arrangement.” A thin smile appeared on Mugetsu’s face as she spoke, and a frown on Elly’s. She wasn’t actually about to scold her sister.
“That was for visiting Kazamin! We never set one up for Elly!”
“It was for Mugenkan in general. Though…” Mugetsu’s gaze shifted toward the gatekeeper. “I understand we also delayed other plans.” Gengetsu immediately looked up, locking eyes with Elly.
“Yes, you did.” Elly’s response was icy, and she returned Gengetsu’s stare. “Now, since we seem to have sorted out where you both are –”
“I bet it’s a girl.” A grin had replaced the earlier pout.
“So I understand.” The younger’s thin smile remained, but she was otherwise unreadable.
“Could you please –”
“Is she blonde?”
“Get… what?” Elly paused. The question had caught her off guard. She had expected something more vulgar.
“We’ve got a pattern! We’ve got Kazamin, and then the three of us! And now there’s a potential fourth!” She was speaking as if it was the most obvious thing in the world. “So is she blonde?”
Elly was quiet for a moment. The logic was off, but the train of thought seemed relatively innocuous compared to what she had expected. “Yes, I suppose she is.”
Her response prompted a satisfied nod from the elder demon. “Well, that’s good. Kazamin would like that.” She pulled herself off of Mugetsu, landing lightly on one foot and giving a polite curtsey. “You have my deepest apologies for troubling you on the day of such an important meeting.”
Mugetsu responded by mimicking her sister, curtseying much the same. “I shall try to ensure we can arrange something properly the next time sister is restless. “
Elly stood there in silence for a moment, dumbfounded by the sudden politeness the elder was showing. She knew – she had seen her behavior change that dramatically with little to no warning, but this felt new. “…thank you?” was the extent of what she could think to say.
“Just make sure she’d like the rest of her too, alright?” said the elder, a broad smile on her face. It was an unusual way of phrasing it, Elly thought, but seemed innocent enough. Kurumi was a pleasant enough girl, discounting the peculiarities and eccentricities to be expected with vampirism. There was little reason to think Lady Kazami would really find her disagreeable, so while the demon’s advice was perhaps well intended, it struck her as…
No. That wasn’t it. It wasn’t a smile. It was exactly the expression she had seen entirely too many times on Gengetsu. The slight contours to her face, the tiniest differences form a decent, proper lady’s smile. Those tiny differences that changed everything.
That smug little lecherous grin.
“This isn’t a goddamn harem!” Gengetsu leapt into the air as Elly shouted, laughing as she grabbed her sister’s hand. What was worse was that Mugetsu was also smiling, however slight it was. “Just leave already!”
The pair vanished almost immediately, as did the awareness of their presence. Elly half-regretted not trying to hit Gengetsu with her scythe, but doubted she could have thrown it faster than the demon could have teleported. It had to be reflexive, given how fast she had done it in the past.
She took several minutes to calm herself. The awareness of intruders did not come back, and once her anger had cooled she decided they likely would not return the same day. It wouldn’t have been consistent. Whether Gengetsu had anything specific in mind when she had started that morning, she got the amusement she had wanted. It would probably be…
It was anyone’s guess. The demon would try something else whenever she felt so inclined. It was enough to put her on edge if she worried about it too much.
But she had other things to do than worry! After taking some time to clean herself up again, Elly left the mansion, flying through the darkness before it. The occasional spirit wandered near the crystal platforms nearby, but little of interest was there, as was always the case. It stretched on, quiet and uneventfully, until the smell of blood finally reached her yet again.
Elly landed on one of the platforms, staring above her. The lake of blood waited, suspended over the boundary space by the interaction of magic, Mugenkan’s dubious connection to the normal world, and her own handiwork. Slight ripples were faintly visible in the dim reddish-black of the vast lake above.
It was lovely security, but made outings so unpleasant. Fortunately, it was almost indescribably easier to divide a lake, of blood, water, or otherwise, than a dimensional boundary space. Lifting her scythe, she focused on the lake above before giving a mighty swing.
She then immediately flew upward as fast as she could manage, racing through the forming gap in the lake almost as it formed. She emerged from the surface soon enough, accompanied by a great shower of churning blood around her. The surface rippled violently around her, even once the lake filled the division beneath here only a few moments after her emergence.
Near-black blood stretched out all around her, its smell approaching overpowering. Kurumi was a lovely girl, but her choice of locale left something to be desired.
But on one level, Elly was thankful. If the vampire had better taste, she wouldn’t have been there at all, and Mugenkan would have been very lonely indeed.
She floated across the surface of the lake toward the shore she most remembered, noon sun beating down on her. She arrived at the shore soon enough, but once there only lazily began drifting over to the vampire’s current home. It took her several minutes to get there, more than was really needed. But it gave her time to enjoy the day on the normal world’s surface. With the sun bright as it was, she doubted they would spend much time out of the vampire’s little cave until the evening. Elly had no qualms with the sun, but the vampire understandably did.
The cave Kurumi resided in was something the vampire had made with her own hands – somewhat literally, as she had blasted most of it straight out of the stone after growing bored with her previous home near the lake. More impressive than the pure demolition was the texture, as the floor, walls, and ceiling had all been painstakingly smoothed, save at the mouth of the cave. Elly stepped inside and turned the corner, coming to a familiar sight.
The actual living chamber was simple enough. A bed, a desk, a couple chairs. Even a shelf, occupied with books, spare clothes, and an assortment of other things the vampire had collected. Relatively little, really. It had surprised Elly the first time she saw the place. Kurumi struck her as someone with a certain level of class, distinct from but not entirely unlike Lady Kazami, however great the gulf in power. Yet she lived in such simple conditions. She suspected there was a reason for this, but had not yet asked.
But most significant of all, waiting in the back of the chamber, was Kurumi herself. Seated in a chair, head resting against the smooth stone wall behind her, quietly sleeping.
It was slightly disappointing, but perhaps not surprising. She should have been able to predict it from the sun when she emerged. What else would a vampire be doing at that time of day? She chuckled softly to herself, resting her scythe against the wall before quietly moving forward. Slowly, gently placing her hands underneath the sleeping vampire, she lifted her from the chair.
“At least use your bed, dearest,” Elly murmured, laying her there as gently as possible. Kurumi failed to stir beyond quietly mumbling for a moment, wings slightly twitching. A surprisingly deep sleep; perhaps she had eaten well that night?
Sitting in one of the other chairs, Elly simply watched the vampire for several moments. It did not seem likely she would awaken soon, but it would hardly have been appropriate to rouse her. It was only natural she rest at that time of day, and denying her that would have been the height of selfishness. And she could not very well just wait there until the vampire awakened. Even if Kurumi might have accepted it on one level, it would be impolite without invitation, however entertaining the vampire’s flustered awakening might have been.
It couldn’t be helped. She would have to return later. Rising from her seat, Elly quietly made her way to the mouth of the cave, retrieving her scythe on the way. It was annoying, on one level, that she had left the mansion only to return so swiftly, due solely to her own mistake – had she thought more, she would have waited a while longer after sending the sisters off. But it was ultimately inconsequential. The lake was only a couple brief minutes from the mansion, and Kurumi’s cave only a couple more.
No, it couldn’t be helped, but there was no great problem. She left the cave, making her way back to and through the lake of blood. She could take some time to enjoy herself in Mugenkan again, perhaps after checking to ensure Gengetsu really hadn’t wrecked anything. She could consider how to present what had happened that day; there was little doubt it would make an amusing little tale to share, however irritating it had been. And, when the time came, she would leave again.
But until then, until the sun had begun to set, she could wait. Lonely as the empty halls of Mugenkan were, she found it was not quite so bothersome knowing she would see a friend so very soon. And that this time, they would be awake.
File 138049872372.jpg - (59.18KB, 849x637, chen is sad.jpg) [iqdb]
“I’m really sorry Lady Yukari!”
Clearly, Chen was distraught. This in itself was not very surprising as Chen found herself distraught on a regular basis. Usually this was because Chen had accidentally broken something while she was playing, resulting in her being scolded by Ran. When this happened, Chen would tearfully apologize and then Ran would give her a hug and allow her to snuggle within the soft, comforting embrace of Ran’s nine fluffy tails. Thus all would be forgiven and peace would reign in the Yakumo household for another day.
This time however, Chen found herself distraught over a far more worrisome matter. Chen had failed in a special mission given to her by Yukari Yakumo herself. The plan had been simple: Gensokyo lacked males, so Chen had been tasked with helping to get more males. To do this, Yukari would locate a human male in the Outside World capable of using magic and gap him into Gensokyo near the outskirts of the Forest of Magic. Chen’s job was then to jump out of the forest, give the hapless man a good scare via a Danmaku demonstration, and then chase him towards the safety of the Human Village. It was hoped that by doing so the man would come to appreciate the dangers posed by the wild youkai and thus stay within the safety of the village, hook up with a nice village girl, and proceed to produce more magically inclined males to combat Gensokyo’s growing gender ratio discrepancy.
The first part of the plan had gone off without a hitch. Yukari had gapped the unsuspecting man into the forest and Chen had jumped out, declared her intentions to eat him, and bombarded him with a barrage of Danmaku. It was at this point that the plan had broken down. As it had turned out, the man was a professional sprinter, and also an utter coward. Thus when Chen began firing upon him, the man had completely panicked and bolted in the direction he had been facing, which unfortunately had been in the exact opposite direction as the Human Village. Naturally, Chen had attempted to catch the man and herd him back towards the village, but the man’s running experience combined with his latent magical abilities (which the man had unconsciously activated in his desperate attempt to flee for his life) had resulted in Chen losing the trail somewhere deep within the Forest of Magic. Chen had desperately followed the man’s panicked screams for a good 45 minutes, but the man’s magically enhanced speed had proven to be far too much for her. Thus Chen found herself standing before Lady Yukari, bawling her eyes out while desperately begging for forgiveness.
Yukari, for her part, found herself conflicted. She was of course incredibly disappointed that Chen had failed to accomplish the simple task which Yukari had given her. Yukari also found herself incredibly frustrated, for she knew that whenever an Outsider ran loose in Gensokyo they would invariably cause an enormous mess, which she would ultimately end up having to clean up. Just thinking about all the problems this Outsider would cause made Yukari want to tear her own hair out. However, Yukari also realized that getting angry with Chen would do nothing to solve this problem. Plus, it was incredibly difficult to stay angry with Chen when she was making her cute little crying face. Still, Yukari had to provide some form of punishment, as doing otherwise would cause Chen to become even more spoiled than she already was. Ran coddled the child far too much for her own good.
“Do you realize the severity of what you have done Chen?” Chen’s only response was to nod and sniffle.
“Gensokyo cannot survive if it remains along its current path,” Yukari continued. “We desperately need to improve the magical male population. If we do not, Gensokyo will slowly wither and die due to lack of magical childbirth.” The knowledge that her failure had contributed to the destruction of Gensokyo only made Chen sob harder.
“Crying will not help matters Chen. If you wish to make amends, you must find this Outsider and see him safely back to the Human Village. Until then, as punishment you are not allowed to play with any of your toy yarn balls. Do I make myself clear?”
Chen, now thoroughly chastened and utterly horrified at the prospect of never being able to play with her favorite yarn balls again, nodded and promised to find the missing Outsider as soon as possible. “I’ll fix this Lady Yukari! I promise! I won’t rest until I find him and bring him home!” With that, Chen flew out of the house and began her search for the Outsider anew.
Yukari sighed to herself as she watched the determined young cat youkai disappear over the horizon. Yukari knew that it would be no easy task to track down the rogue Outsider. She only hoped that they could find him before too much damage had been done.
Unfortunately for Yukari, her hopes had all been in vain. During the intervening weeks, the Outsider had managed to single-handedly overthrow the entire power structure of Gensokyo. This was achieved entirely by accident on the part of the Outsider, and was accomplished through unknowing exploitation of certain loopholes inherent within the magical Danmaku system. The first of these loopholes involved abuse of the “stat point” system.
Every magical being was infused with a certain amount of “stats,” for lack of a better term, which determined the amount of magical power one could unleash (attack), how much damage one could take (defense), how fast one could dodge (speed), and how long one could continue fighting (stamina/HP). These magical “stats” could be improved upon through Danmaku experience and magic use. The Outsider, fearing for his life and being completely unaware of how magic worked, had somehow managed to unconsciously reroute his magical stats into the only thing he understood while he was fleeing in terror: speed. There were many reasons why this should not have worked, as it was much akin to increasing the speed of an army tank by imbuing the treads with the power of the turret, ammo, body armor, and air conditioning system. Still, by fearing for his very survival and never realizing that Danmaku was nonlethal, the Outsider had achieved the impossible. After several weeks of pure terror, the Outsider’s ordeals in Gensokyo had transformed him into a veritable dodging deity, at the expense of being completely incapable of firing even a single bullet.
This directly led into the abuse of the second loophole, which was an exploitation of the spellcard rules. The rules stated that the winner of a Danmaku duel was the first person to successfully capture or destroy all of their opponent’s spellcards. However, there was absolutely nothing in the rules preventing one of the duelists from winning by simply outlasting all of their opponent’s spellcards, without themselves ever firing a single bullet. This became the Outsiders claim to fame. Every time the Outsider was forced into a duel, he would be convinced that his opponent was actively trying to murder him, which caused the Outsider to run around like a headless chicken screaming at the top of his lungs in a blind panic, while unconsciously managing to avoid every bullet thrown at him. This would result in a truly humiliating defeat for the opponent, as they had lost to a man who ran around screaming like a maniac and who adamantly refused to fire so much as a single bullet in his defense.
Thus, as the Outsider wandered aimlessly about Gensokyo, he began to amass a truly spectacular reputation. Those who lost to him became convinced that the Outsider was some sort of unbelievably powerful cosmic being, who possessed such immense destructive power that he would simply toy with his opponents, taunting them with “fake” panic as he effortlessly avoided everything they threw at him, declaring his opponents to be so weak as to not even be worth wasting a single bullet on. Thus it was reasoned that any youkai who could force the Outsider to fight back would be instantly recognized as the most powerful being in all of Gensokyo.
As more and more youkai sought out the Outsider for fame and glory, the more and more adept the Outsider became at dodging. Eventually, his skills and reputation became so great that many youkai attempted to achieve glory by following his example, and so began trying to win Danmaku duels without ever firing a single bullet themselves. This ultimately proved to be the downfall of Gensokyo at large because, while the “do not shoot” strategy worked perfectly fine when your opponent was willing to attack you, it proved to be far less practical when neither side was willing to fire. In light of the Outsider’s success, the youkai of Gensokyo had come to view firing the first shot as an admission of weakness. Youkai, being an ancient race of proud and honorable warriors, would sooner die than admit weakness. This would invariably result in a stalemate in which the two duelists adamantly refused to shoot at each other. The end result was that youkai all across Gensokyo would start duels in which they would proceed to hover in the air glaring at each other for days on end, until one or both of the combatants succumbed to the effects of hunger and collapsed from sheer exhaustion. As the exhausted bodies of prideful, starving youkai continued to climb, Gensokyo soon found itself on the brink of collapse.
In the wake of this disaster, Yukari found herself busy nursing a steadily growing headache. “The plan was supposed to be simple. Find a magical male and get him to produce more magical males. Why does nothing ever turn out the way I intend it to?” Yukari groused to herself while drowning her sorrows in booze.
“Come now Lady Yukari, surely things are not that bad,” Ran replied in a futile attempt to prevent the powerful gap youkai from continuing her alcohol binge. “Chen has sought out Reimu’s aid in her search. I’m certain that together they will have this incident resolved shortly.” Yukari’s only reply was to groan and begin downing another bottle.
“Stupid Outsiders. Always causing trouble whenever I gap them in,” complained Yukari as she continued to sulk.
“Lady Yukari, forgive me for questioning your wisdom, but if Outsiders cause so much grief why do you continue to bring them into Gensokyo?” This question caused Yukari to pause in her drinking and fix Ran with a hard stare.
“Let me ask you something Ran. How many men do you think are capable of using magic here in Gensokyo?”
“I’m sure there must be several. There’s Rinnosuke, Unzan, and…Youki Konpaku…and, um…Genji the, er… turtle,” Ran answered lamely.
“There you see! You can’t even count to five!” exclaimed Yukari, as she slammed her bottle onto the table in frustration. “Do you know why there are so few magical males, Ran?” Ran could only shake her head. “It’s because magic, despite how chaotic it seems, follows certain rules. One of those rules is that females have a far easier time accessing magic than males do. For instance, if Rinnosuke had been born a female, he would be at least 1000 times more powerful than he is now. Likewise, as powerful as Reimu is now, if she had been born a male she would barely even have enough magic to float. This wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t for the second rule of magic.” Yukari briefly paused in her explanation to take another sip from her bottle before continuing, “The second rule of magic is that magic forcibly compels those who are imbued with it to seek out others who are magical in nature and reject those who are non-magical.”
“I am sorry Lady Yukari, but I still do not quite see how this is a problem,” replied Ran.
“Think about it for a bit. A bright shikigami like you should be able to piece it together,” said Yukari as she began drinking yet another bottle.
Ran thought hard as she slowly puzzled the pieces together. Then her face suddenly lit up in understanding as she declared, “If magic forces magical females to become closer to each other, then they would never feel the need to associate with men.”
“Exactly,” slurred Yukari. “Magic essentially forces women to become lesbians. The more magic a woman possesses, the less desire she has to consort with a magic-less man.” Yukari hiccuped and continued, “Hell, I’m so magical that the very thought of sleeping with a man makes me sick to my stomach!” Yukari did indeed look somewhat green at this point, though whether this was due to the conversation or the alcohol Ran couldn’t guess.
“So now you abduct magically inclined men from the Outside World in order to make the youkai of Gensokyo comfortable enough to reproduce,” Ran summarized as she suddenly realized certain aspects of herself which she had denied before. Suddenly her strange more-than-motherly attraction towards Chen made far more sense. The thought of being magically compelled to form a relationship with her cute little shikigami both excited and terrified her. Ran mentally vowed to date and bed the next man Yukari abducted, before she did something to Chen that Ran would regret for the rest of her days.
With her explanation finished, Yukari began draining her alcohol with renewed vigor. “Stupid magic. Actively trying to destroy itself. Is heterosexuality really too much to ask?” she muttered to herself while nursing her nth bottle.
It was then that Chen returned home, happily shouting, “Lady Yukari! Lady Yukari! I did it! I did it!”
“Good work Chen,” replied Ran, since Yukari was far too drunk to reply herself. “Did you see the Outsider safely to the human village?”
“Yes!” Chen replied as she jumped into Ran’s arms for a victory hug (Ran was somewhat uncomfortable with this thanks to her newfound knowledge). “Reimu helped. Together we herded him right into the village. He was really fast, but Reimu corralled him no problem. We even managed to get all the other Outsiders into the village too!”
This news sobered Yukari up quickly. “Other Outsiders? What other Outsiders!?”
“It was amazing!” Chen answered. “The first Outsider ran so fast trying to get away from us that he tore open a hole in the fabric of space-time about halfway between the Human Village and the Forest of Magic. The portal led to the Outside World. Did you know that there’s a big human city standing in the same dimensional space as the Human Village? The humans from the city came through to see what was going on and they really hit it off with the village humans. They’re all really nice. One of them even gave me a mechanical toy mouse and scratched me behind my ears,” Chen exclaimed as she pulled out her new toy and began cuddling with it. “When I left, Reimu was having tea with some of them while Marisa was giving everyone a fireworks display using Danmaku. Isn’t this great! Not only did I catch the first Outsider, but I led a whole bunch of new Outsiders safely into Gensokyo too!”
Yukari and Ran could only stare at Chen in horror. “Chen, are you saying that there’s a hole in the Hakurei barrier, and now Outsiders are pouring out of it?!” Yukari frantically screamed on the verge of panic. If one Outsider had practically brought Gensokyo to its knees, she dreaded to think of the damage a horde of them would do.
“Don’t worry Lady Yukari, I took care of it," Chen proudly declared. "I made a sign pointing the way to the Human Village and everything. Outsiders will never get lost now!” With her explanation and mission complete, Chen giggled in triumph before happily scampering away to play with her precious yarn balls once more.
Yukari’s only response was to wearily press her head against the table and sob.
He crept through the shrubs, watching, hunting. The good eye that was left scanning, watching the surroundings, his ears listening to the sounds of the forest. It was quiet and the heavy downpour helped covering their approach , glistening black fur brushing against trees and leaves. Quietly closing in on his target, his pack mirroring his motions at the sides. They closed in on their unsuspecting prey, gorging itself on the wet brown-green grass on the forest floor. Closer, he saw the dull, brown eyes of the deer, a dumb animal to stray so far from its herd, leaving its protection for a chance of a full belly. A young one that never learned from its mother about the dangers of the forest but still fat enough to be a good meal for the pack.
A branch snapped and the young deers head whipped up in shock, quick enough to see the row of teeth flying at its face as iron jaws snapped shut around its neck a second later. He tasted iron as the liquid life gushed from his prey and waited until the trashing stopped, the pack waiting patiently around him. He tore out a chunk of flesh and quickly devoured it, stepping back and allowing the pack to feast. This thrill of the hunt, the thrill of killing, the admiration of the pack, the freedom to live as one wants. This was what he lived for. He howled into the storm, challenging anyone who might be dumb enough to step into his territory. It was a good day to be a wolf.
She stood under an old oak for protection against the rain, watching the pack of wolves tearing into their bloody price. Both them and her got soaked by the rain because the trees were not close enough to provide good cover, yet they chose to get soaked. She had no choice. Every day, year by year she would be ordered to stand on this mountain, during sun, snow and rain, the latter seemingly endless since the one atop the mountain arrived. Yet she, a captain, stood here. To guard the mountain, they said. To protect the village. And yet they knew, sneering and leering behind her back, that no one travels up this thricedamned mountain. Despicable creatures.
The humans never strayed far from their village, too afraid to leave and yet clinging to their so called hunters who mostly patrolled inside the village. Glorified guards with rusty weapons that can barely defend themselves against the local wildlife, let alone a feral youkai. A non feral could probably lay waste to half their village before the halfblood could react. No danger at all. Yet difficult to reach without disturbing those around it.
The vampire dwelled in her mansion, barely leaving it while holding up her masquerade of power, yet too blinded by her own delusions of perfection to start a conflict. Even though her household had strong fighters, vast archives of deadly magic and trained hordes of fairies wielding cold steel. A formidable force, but only when provoked. She would not set her eyes on the mountain.
The princess of the dead, accompanied by a half living servant. Hordes of ghosts, undead and other creatures of the other side at her command, yet bound by chains made of rules enforced by the judge and the ferrywoman. A force restrained like this is no threat to the mountain, especially when its leader is too busy quenching her bottomless greed.
The brain of the moon and the eternal princess. Their forces cowardly, yet equipped with superior weaponry and deadly chemicals, waiting for the right moment to strike. A strong opponent with an eternity to wait until its opponent grows weak and old, fully making use of its power as the supplier for most medical supplies and remedies inside the border. They would not make the first move, there is still profit to be had.
The mindreader and the horned ones, trapped underground by fear and their own word, foolishly given hundreds of years ago. Powerful without question, yet useless at a distance. And even with the eye and her pets as the head, a body this powerful can not move if its organs and limbs are fighting amongst each other, too intoxicated to follow orders. Yet the one atop the mountain sees possible allies in them out of all people, giving them the gift of light. Curious.
The preacher in the wargods favor. Preaching peace and equality, yet some seem to be more equal than others. Lead by a tiger of war without fangs, advised by a devious rat and supported from the unknown lurking in the shadows, their human followers would gladly throw their life away. Faith is a dangerous enemy.
The sleeperprince and his followers, masters of secret arts and forgotten techniques. Loathing the preacher and yet placing their main stronghold below thiers. Powerful on their own. Yet they lack a force to support them as they feed off the human scraps the buddhist leaves behind. Maybe the wicked one would use the expired goods in their favor? Only time would tell.
There were others of course. Powerful ones and weak ones, youkai, fairies, gods, celestials and even a human. Yet they had no allegiance and posed no threat to the mountain, choosing to follow their own agendas over anything else. Possible enemies and allies but they barely ever came up this high.It was an insult to be standing here while the crows sat in their homes, drinking tea and making fun of her and her kind. The wolves had always be considered lower class, it was no secret. But why?
Was it not the wolves who guarded and built their homes? Who hunted and worked for them? Who performed the hardest labor, mostly for the crows entertainment? Even for their highly praised information network the wolves were the ones searching, listening and sneaking. The wolves were loyal to those who deserved it, the crows on the other hand backstabbed each other freely if it meant to have a chance at a seat in a round made up of criminals, holding titles they themselves made up, decorating themselves with shiny metals and bright cloth, fueling the jealousy of each other. A neverending circle lead by the oldest one, a forgetful old man who slept most of the day whose only job it was to nod or shake his head at the endless bickering of his flock. The kappa, though not soldiers and as powerful as the wolves were still better than them and their machines could have easily removed that avian menace choosing to reign over them years ago, but they lacked the courage and a leader. The only wise ones of the flock were considered outcasts by their own kind, some of them her friends. They made the right choice to leave that place even if the rags they printed as their livelihood were questionable at best.
It was disgusting and shameful to be considered servants to the ones in the village. The wolves were warriors and hunters,masters of siege and warfare. Yet they should be lead by birds of prey, feeding off the corpses of those left behind, writhing on the ground? That would not do. Not at all. She thought about what the one on top of the mountain had said days ago when they met deep in the forest. Childlike in appearance and yet her ancient words ringed true. She had a power that caused the mountaingod to heed her words and the priestess to follow her. A frightening and dark power, causing unease in those around her. And yet she did not command or expected her servitude. She merely suggested, like she considered the wolf an equal. She suggested treason of course, but deep down the wolf shivering under the unrelenting rain knew that she was right. Maybe it was for the better? A powerful ally instead of a decadent master? A trade she was willing to make.
It was time for change from the hollow and fragile peace encompassing this land and maybe the wolves should be the ones to throw the stone. All it would take was one speech to her brothers and sisters. One evening. Maybe just one hour of the others considering her words could change everything. She would try. It could not be worse than this and she was not willing to serve her life at the whims of cowardly masters feeding her scraps of food through the bars of a golden cage. She was not destined to be a dog. She was so much more.
The rain was cold upon her skin. She watched the dark clouds above her in the sky, veiling the land below and encompassing it in deep twilight. For her though it did little to hide the sight in front of her. Her eyes pierced the darkness and she watched. She watched how her brothers and sisters, old and young stood around her, eying their, and her, handiwork. How the smoldering remains of once proud structures turned into black mud and ash. How rain washed away the iron smell lingering in the area and its source. How crows feasted upon crows and dogs.
It had pained her to kill her own, but sacrifices had to be made. Without their restrains they could finally truly live. They were free to do what they wanted with the winged ones dead along with their bootlicking dogs. To live as they wanted. To take what they wanted. They were strong and with the help of the remaining crows, the kappa and both the gods atop and below, they could expand. Why should they stay on this infertile piece of rock? Gensokyo was big and the shrine maiden would not act until humans were threatened. The gapmeddler would only watch if the border was not threatened. They could defeat any force in this land and she knew it. It was time to find new friends and enemies. There was much to be done and this world was within her grasp. She smiled as she wiped away the blood on her face, clouds parting as the rain lessened more and more.
It was a good day to be a wolf.
The first rays of sunlight touched down on the smoldering remains of a village at the side of a mountain, a smiling frog accompanied by a snake watched the bloodstained crowd, lead by a white haired woman with sword and shield, cheering as their opponents bodies cooled down. The stone had been cast, now it was time to wait and pick up the pieces. An interesting time was going to come, and she planned to observe it from the front row.
Change was about to come to Gensokyo, and it would be bought with blood.
“With the power of all those I’ve sacrificed to the aether, I divide soul and body!”
The spirits envelop the unfortunate woman. Try as she might to struggle, the undying mage’s binding spells prevent her escape and his congregation seems endless and impossible to avoid. Before she can even feel the chill of the spirits, she stops feeling altogether, and seeing, and hearing; it all goes dark.
She awakens with a start, as if from a nightmare.
An odd sensation to her, she is used to long and peaceful dreams. Although nothing has been peaceful since the war started. Damned machines and their monsters! It was pure luck that they even found out about Gensokyo, how could such a fate ever purposefully befall an idyllic wonderland such as this? Even with forewarning and a carefully honed champion, the wicked army of technology and magic very slowly, almost meticulously, tore Gensokyo’s defenders asunder.
This is, and hopefully not was, the native’s last chance at victory. If they failed today the Great Border, the only thing that separates Gensokyo from the normal world and the full force of their enemy, will be shattered by the machine. Today has to be the last battle, and it’s all up to the champion now. Everyone else is occupied with the massive aerial battle outside, and most of Gensokyo’s most powerful have been captured or, or ….
They were too ready.
The woman, now somewhat more composed, looks around. She finds nothing, nothing at all. A void has replaced the spirits. The woman silently berates herself, what else did she imagine would happen if a soul mage of that power completes an invocation?
The woman, with little else to do, takes inventory of herself: long blond hair, long violet dress, ribbons, gloves, lace, and frills, she seems fine—no, she quickly notices things that aren’t supposed to be there. That sleeve burned away, that part of the skirt was filled with holes, all of the marks of today’s battle were gone.
She wishes that she was just having a nightmare.
She reflects on the battle, the one she hopes is still ongoing. What had gone wrong? Were too many troops left outside to draw the defenders away from their leader, or were the wrong people sent inside? How can she get out of—
“That’s enough. People like you are dangerous when they think for too long.” She feels that damn mage speak into her head with that mocking voice. That condescending voice! The woman looks around to meet her opponent once more.
Things appear out of the nothingness.
She saw gears of all sorts of shapes, colors, sizes, and cog types.
There is a colossal machine composed of many hundreds of gears, all meshed with at least one partner. It is perfectly noiseless and grinds with seemingly no purpose, whatever imparts energy to the machine must nest deep within the mass. Atop this machine is that vile soul-ensnaring mage just sitting, motionless, on an ever-spinning worm gear, giving the woman a knowing look.
Surrounding the machine are many free-floating gears, slowly drifting towards the central mass. Her eyes follow a continuous chain of gears that leads from the center of the machine towards her.
Towards a violet spur gear beneath her feet.
The mage seems to have regain his human form, but older than how he looked before their fight. Wrinkles line his face, his black hair is now silver, and a lab coat has replaced his battle dress.
The woman, being neither blind nor stupid, quickly connects the mage’s proficiency with souls to her surroundings. Each gear is a soul and a source of power, but to control so many souls, so many individual wills! This man must have considerable power even before factoring in the enslaved beings.
But perhaps here she could fight his will, him without the aid of the powers mastered by the people that once were. Perhaps here she could win.
Thousands of plans form in—
“Oh, ho, ho, ho, don’t even try. This realm,” he waves both hands, “isn’t a symbolic representation of our wills, as you would suppose. I don’t simply attach souls to my own, I completely integrate them. Yes, that makes it harder to conjure them to fight, but I can access their knowledge, the little I haven’t mastered, instantly. I also have complete control of them, because it is, after all, my soul. In short, there isn’t any way to fight, and, if on the off chance you could resist me, there is nothing to fight for. ”
Must he talk so much! The woman had had enough of his voice long ago. However, she has more pressing matters to attend to and decides to voice her complaints instead of allowing him to steal from her thoughts, “Then my body is just lying on the steel floor?”
“It’s not steel,” he says matter-of-factly, “and no, I’m learning how to use your powers. Specifically, I’m trying to gain access to the dimension you use to transport things and people—monsters—you know.”
“But you said—”
“Oh, you are still separated from your body. Did you think that I, with my mastery of all things magic and otherwise, would not have invented a method for analyzing one’s body, mind, and soul while guaranteeing perfect control?”
The woman seethes silently, so he absorbed her soul and possessed the body. Such an act usually needs a specialized and much longer ritual, not a chant in the middle of combat, but this does not surprise her. This man seems to know everything and have an infinite amount of artifice, to think he said he was human once!
Nevertheless, the mage is surely combing through her memories. She understands how dangerous it would be to have her secrets revealed. She wants out, now, “You might as well put me back into my body, my champion will defeat your leader—”
“Then the deal will be settled, exactly as agreed on. Until then, if your ‘champion’ even succeeds, I will learn as much as possible from you.”
This is what the woman feared, but it is hard to balance caution with how infuriating this mage is: always condescending, never lets anyone talk for more than two sentences, always flaunting his intelligence.
“Much like your mind reader, the satori, yes?”
Damn him! The woman lashes out, “Bastard! How many have you slain and tortured for this!” The woman points at the gears and the machine. She realizes that this is an obvious and weak stalling tactic and that she should collect herself and think of something that would anger the mage more.
“You do realize that—oh.” The mage stops sheepishly, “In any case, you should calm down. None of these souls are from this planet,” he pauses. “I only take from strong and worthy foes. Oh, ho, ho, ho, ho.”
He laughs on and on, taking in the glare of hate from his captive. Eventually, he composes himself, “Hm. Yukari, tell me, does my Boltzmannian friend scare you?”
Yukari does not immediately answer, more caught up that he actually called her by name more than anything. Although she actually is unsure to what he is referring to.
“O’ mastermind of Gensokyo, does that obsidian plague, the one who crippled the immortal, the black cloud that fights your god-dragon even now, scare you?”
“Oh,” she says slowly, “that one. I didn’t know to which monster you were referring to, your civilization seems to create so many.” She chooses her next words carefully, “I acknowledge its power.”
“Are you sure? Do you not fear it because of how it reminds you of something, or someone?” He stops again, “For all my knowledge and wisdom, how could I have missed the similarities between how the two of you travel!” He looks down past Yukari and stares intently at the gear beneath her feet, “But why do you have a body of flesh, whereas it does not?”
“You should stop,” she warns, “I know things that no mortal—”
“Really? You say that to me? Me! Along with the more obvious fallacy in your warning, I have refined selective perception to a science. Knowledge can only empower me!”
Yukari can feel him probing her mind. This must end here.
“Stop this charade, my champion has surely defeated your leader by now. I demand to be put back in my body.” The woman’s shouts do not faze her captor. She must do something. She jumps towards the mage.
She freezes mid leap and falls back down onto her gear. No! The information she knows can’t fall in to his hands, “The things I know will consume your very soul!”
Nothing. It was a bluff.
There is a deafening silence as Yukari hopes the mage will stop or just fall over dead. He doesn’t.
Yukari notes that all of the free-floating gears, all but the chain that connects her gear to the massive machine, have attached themselves in various places to the larger mass. Those particular gears are most likely the souls that were released to fight her only minutes ago.
The silence is maddening. Such a giant mechanism shouldn’t be allowed to make no noise at all. Yukari finds solace in the fact that it isn’t real and hardly the strangest thing she’s seen in her lifetime.
Yeah, why is she intimidated by this sole mage? Yes, he bested her in combat, but he cheated, really. Yukari is sure that he won’t find anything that he won’t eventually discover in time. She feels silly for ever doubting herself or the champion, the war will be over and Gensokyo will return to a relatively peaceful, normal life. So silly.
What could he find? She thinks back an eon, but nothing of alarming note comes to mind. It all sort of blends together.
Time silently ticks onwards. The mage loses his intense stare.
He looks at Yukari, “Is that why you are friends with a ghost?”
“Excuse me?” Yukari regains her usual aloof tone, and she feels the table turn to her favor.
He brings a hand to cover his face, but Yukari catches a glimpse of his pained look. A sly smile comes on Yukari’s face and she takes the opportunity to gloat, “I don’t know what Yuyuko has anything to do with this, but I told you that my vast collection of eldritch knowledge would overwhelm you.”
He jumps down from his perch and lands a few gears away from Yukari, absolutely furious, “You! You cursed me for taking souls. How dare you!”
He raises an accusing hand, and Yukari feels an intense, stabbing pain throughout her body and falls face forward onto a massive crack in her gear. Thousands of minute gears from within ensnare her hair, but they do not pull and rip. Instead, Yukari feels a powerful burn seep up through her hair.
The burn is nothing to her, “Don’t try to compare me to you, you are—“
“Yes, we are nothing alike. If you were to look deep within my collection you would find my soul!”
Yukari quietly gasps. How deeply could he have looked in mere minutes?
“Were you not content with finding your way to this universe of your own power? You were not. Were you not content with meddling in the growth of a solar system to suit your whims? You were not. When your envy of the human form consumed so deeply, could you not be assuaged by twisting a form for yourself? No, no, of course not.”
He sighs, “But when you realized you did not have a soul! Our Boltzmann was infinitely grateful just by extracting it from its lonely existence, but you! You are a Frankensteinian creation, at first abject to the world, but soon a blight that destroys to fulfill its desires! Do you really believe your ‘Gensokyo’ can absolve you now? You, I can’t, why…”
Yukari tries to protest over his ranting, “You—”
“Why can’t I find a definite number of beings that you fragmented to form your mockery of a soul? Do you not remember? Were they so insignificant to you? Can you feel their hate now? Can you remember them, or were they never people to you?”
The burning sensation flares into an inferno, traveling beneath her skin. She shouts in sudden pain, “You don’t know the first thing about me!”
“Teratogen upon this universe, Yukari Yakumo,” the soul mage begins feverishly yelling, “how I wish I could end your wretched existence right now. How could the fates ever find sympathy with you? Damn that weaving devil! Damn you, damn your champion! Begone! Begone!”
With a tremendous shattering Yukari’s gear blows apart, and countless miniscule gears fall into the surrounding void.
The woman—monster, you know—sees through her body’s eyes again. She sees the metal room quickly shoot away from in front of her, and feels the familiar but now cold embrace of her dimension enveloper her from behind.
The air had cooled. Summer's warmth had begun to fade as fall settled itself into the harvest god's hearth. Even as the land changed, from the the shrine, it seemed as if nothing did. From atop the mountain, I could stand on the torii, and trace the weathered stone steps down to the human village. The forests were alight, dressed in their fall robes. The gold colors spread, rolling in brown and yellow hues as the Forest of Magic cut away into the valley river, rushing down from Youkai mountain. Even so far away, I could see the outlying farms, the fields of rice and grain that spread in their own wandering paths around the village walls. If I squinted, I could see farmers loading their wagons, pulling out preserved stores in preparation for the fall harvest. Guards patrolled as the farmers went, acting as the early defense for the village. I felt sorry for Kotomine's men; the villages most prominent officers were also the butt of the fairy's jokes, especially those who's routes took them by the Misty Lake. The cooling air must have excited Cirno. Even from my perch, I could see on the lake, a giant crystal the fairy had erected for her fun. Hopefully, it'd resolve it's self. I didn't need the fairy invoking the anger of the merfolk or Suwako. Rather, maybe I should thank her. Trouble for the rivals is never unwelcome. I took a deep breath, letting my senses reach into the border, scanning the country. I felt nothing amiss. She wouldn't be returning to me today.
I floated back to the shrine. As it changed, it was no different from the year before. Incidents came, factions arrived to the land, and arguments brewed, but as she oft said, the land, our land, was the paradise it had always been. Gensokyo. It was our paradise. And it would be so as long as I lived. I spared a glance towards the donation box as I passed by. The days when I relied on the donations alone were far in the past. She'd always see to that. Yet it still held a place in my heart. Even now, I still felt my heart jump when the sound of coins or paper bounced in it's core. A little extra spending money was never bad, though, if I were to be honest, money was something we had far too much of. A running breeze ran by me, bringing with itself a fresh arrival of leaves, leaving the shrine grounds a mess once again. I sighed, reaching for the broom; I had yet to sweep today.
The setting sun set the valley ablaze. The light spilled over the forests, drenching them in soft shadows as it broke the curves between the mountains. Far off, the Fall of Nine Heavens glimmered as the rays bounced off its rushing stream. I poured my self tea, pouring it slowly from the pot, making sure the flavor would properly settle. It was a peaceful moment and I savored it, knowing it'd be soon broken. I could feel in the border, the fairy brats moving around the shrine's forest. The leaves, I had gathered them into a large pile in the afternoon. And then the magic popped and I heard Sunny Milk cry out as she fell to the ground, ofuda slapped on her forehead from my trap.
"Stupid Reimu! I just want to hug your leaves!" The sound of gibberish floated my way, as Sunny's sisters dragged her away. I smiled. Today was another peaceful day.
The morning light filtered through the window, sun beams warming my cheeks as they fell on me. My body felt warm, my hand especially so. I turned fruitlessly, wishing for sleep to reclaim me, only to find it had flitted away. Reluctantly, I sat up, and huffed, blowing my bangs out of my eyes. The sheets were a mess, the half next to me haphazardly strewn about. I sniffed the air. Even now, I could taste her faint perfume, lingering - I wrapped the sheets around me, and giggling, let my self fall, lips curved in contentment. It felt nice, surrounded by her warmth, enveloped within her lavender scent.
The cold air emptied my thoughts as it rushed around me, carrying my worries away as I flew. Nothing could touch me as I flew, the sun kindly telling the cold air to, "fuck off," as it graciously warmed my back. I let go of my self to the magic holding me afloat, meandering from side to side, before scooping over the misty lake. I laughed as the merfolk raised a rabble as I passed by, leaving wakes in the formerly still lake. I giggled at Wakasagihime's indignant rage, and blew her a raspberry before I looped back into the clouds. She'd tell me I was being childish with my antics, and I'd have to agree. Then again, I admonish her plenty for her own mischief. If she were here with me, she'd join in. No, she'd make it worse to relieve her boredom. Yet, even alone up here, I could feel Gensokyo speaking below me, telling her stories; I let her tales take me, meandering through the sky in lazy arcs.
"Yes, let's begin. Secretary, please read us the minutes of the previous meeting."
"Of course Chairman. A regular meeting of the Village Committee of our Town was called to ord-" I let the droning speakers wash themselves out, different frequencies of boring colliding and meshing into an anti-tone that warped time itself. The Hakurei served as peace keepers and diplomats, working with the human and youkai factions. Though, if mother's journals were of note, most of the "diplomacy" took place with her fists. A seat on the Village's committee was reserved for my family; it had been since the village was founded.
"Seconded? We move to vote on resolution R-13-201, description of which is recorded by Lady Heida," I smiled at the young historian. The girl was bored, eye twitching as the elders went through resolution after resolution. I turned to my own notes. Mother would have been dismayed. Fancy scribbles adorned the page, sketches of flowers and landscapes interspersed through the pages. Boredom had set in far long back. Nothing I could do but suffer through the meetings as the council debated on the village's yearly budget, as usual, to no avail.
I found my self wandering the town square after the council meeting. Akyuu had bolted the moment the meeting ended. I wished the young girl luck in escaping her retainers for the moment. She had looked exhausted as the meeting ended, half asleep on her scroll table. Around me, the village had entered its peak. I flicked my parasol above, letting its shade shield me from the afternoon sun as I walked.
Villagers were streaming in to the market. Shopkeepers set up stalls along the square, selling their goods beneath colorful tents. A spinner sat quietly, tending to her needles, as her neighbor boasted about the quality of his woodwork, his painted masks on full display for the upcoming festival. I spotted Kosuzu over at her library's porch, animatedly talking to Akyuu in between stacks of her favorite books. Byakuren was tending to her disciples, mothering over one pink haired girl as she helped her meditate. Further off, Cirno was half-fluttering, half dying of laughter next to Keine as the teacher yelled at her boyfriend. He seemed to be doing the best he could to hide himself within his fancy hat and robe. A few months back, he had begun to write about his stories in the Bunbunmaru but it'd had been months since he last published anything. I hoped this admonishment was over that. The village had been clamoring for more of his writing for weeks now.
Nearby, Mokou stood out as a sore thumb at her teriyaki stand, her silver hair tied up in a tight bun as she worked. The cart was parked near the wealthier and established stores. Maybe it was appropriate. The woman had been nobility for over a millennia. The tailors, the clothing shops, even the jewelers were open and drawing a fair crowd but they were dwarfed by the numbers the newest shop was bringing in. Meiling's adopted daughter and her fairy had a knack for business it seemed. The girl's life seemed to be righting it's self around under gatekeeper's care ever since her father had disappeared. Around the corner, Marisa's father had opened up shop as well, his doors open to the fall breeze.
"'lo there, Reimu. You be free fo' a moment?" He called out to me as I strolled by.
"Of course Mr. Kirisame, do you need help with anything?" I stowed my parasol as I walked into the store. The large man was jovial and good natured, but as stubborn as his daughter. The two had butt heads more than once in the village, over some trivial spat or the other. Such was fate when a parent wished for their child to follow their own path, and the latter was determined to decide her own fate in life.
"Yes, I've been meanin' to ask, you seen my daughter 'round? Somethin' been goin' on in the village and the supernatural has always been her speciality." His voice was hushed as he led me through the isles. "Been an erie feelin' the last few nights. People been findin' them selves sleepwalkin' at the oddest hours and not rememberin' what they were doin' before."
"Think it's a specter or the sort? If you have any clues of its whereabouts, I could seal it now." My mind quickly settled into its business track. I made note to look into the village, maybe Keine would have more information.
"I've been discussin' it with the Fujiwara gal. She ain't too worried yet but she reckons there isn't enough a trail to find the source of it yet. She's got a tight eye on the forest though. Said she'd rope the werewolf into helping her sniff around." He disappeared behind the counter as he rummaged around. Mokou's involvement eased my worries a bit, I could rely on the immortal to help keep the village safe. "Ah, and if you've be headin' that a way, mind deliverin' a letter to my kid?" I accepted the thick envelope he had fished out, putting it away in my bag.
"I'll visiting them in the afternoon. You want me to drop of anything for her?" The man fidgeted, fighting the urge to smother his daughter and send a large care package. The last time he had done so, Marisa had turned red as Koakuma's hair and socked him in the face with a book, before hugging the man and running off. He thought it over, before heading to the back of the store. He returned with a pair of books and a small bag of cookies.
"Here, mind givin' these to her too?" He said, passing over the items, "I found her mother's old recipes in the back storage. I hope I remembered how to make 'em as good as she did. The other's for you, a thank you for all the trouble."
The Forest of Magic was unique in its ability to change it's self over night, rearranging it's terrain to suit its mood. As of late, the woods had been pleasant, a far cry from the impassible forest they were when Remilia kicked up a fuss with her mist. Trails developed themselves too, meandering through hills and across rivers. Even with all the relative peace, the core of the forest remained uninhabitable. Not even Marisa or Alice dared venture in there for too long, despite the rare bounties it guarded. Gensokyo found ways to balance itself, and deep within the forest, the wildest of youkai, and that giant doll Alice lost control of, lived, preying on each other in their habitat. But at the outer rings, life flourished. The path to Alice's home was one of the nicer ones. I suppose it was the forest's way of thanking the magician for dealing with the feral youkai that tried to leave for the village. Wild flowers littered the path as I walked, twirling my parasol. Blue bonnets mixed themselves with dogwoods and primroses as they created a meadow near the old, english styled house.
I knocked on the door, and it swung open to reveal Shanghai. The little doll invited me in, bobbing in excitement, before fluttering away to find her master. I set my sandals aside in the foyer and sat down in a recliner near the fireplace in the den. The sound of boots clacking on the floor gave away Alice as she joined me.
"Welcome Reimu. What brings you about?" She asked me. Shanghai and Hourai were floating at the back, seemingly arguing with each other, as they left for the kitchen. Alice looked disheveled despite her attempts to look prim. The make-up couldn't hide the the bags beneath her eyes, or the fact her cape and dress hadn't been ironed as of late.
"Delivery! Is Marisa around? Or has she disappeared to God knows where once again?" I pulled the grimore-like book and cookies out of my bag, handing them to the puppeteer. "Speaking of which, what's kept you up? It looks like you haven't slept in days."
"Marisa? I'm not sure where she is. She was home a week ago, moving her things in, but she grabbed Reverie and rushed out the door muttering something about 'I found her! She'll be back in the next installment!' after finding an old journal in her boxes" Alice said, running her finger along the spine of the grimoire. "A Study in the Theoretical Applications of Evocation by Madame Patchouli Knowledge, dated 1653, original edition." She laughed to herself, looking pleased, "I wonder, exactly how it is he was able to obtain an original of the one book Patchy refuses to lend."
"Mind if I ask why Patches refuses to let anyone read it?" The sisters returned to us, carrying a tray of pastries and a pot of strong coffee. They fluttered between us pouring us our drinks. I reached for an eclair, as I talked, "And you still haven't answered as to what you've been so enthralled by as of late."
"Oh, that's because it's terrible. Patchy was barely older than Marisa was when she wrote her first grimoire. Seventeen year olds don't write very good magical texts. Especially love struck and boy-crazy, anemic magicians." Alice laughed, taking a sip of the strong drink. "I apologize for not serving tea, Reimu, but I'm need of something strong and I still have a bag of the Moroccan blend Marisa managed to find… Steal? I'm not sure how she got that off Kourin." She flipped through the grimoire, settling on a page. "Here, let me read you a passage. She scribbled this into a margin. 'Oh my, I must have this one. A traveling merchant named Lawrence visited us at the French estate, hoping to gain a contract with Remi. He. Is. Fine. A shame that dratted wolf goddess seems to be into him. It'll take a bit of effort, but soon, I'll have my dear merchant under my spell and he'll be with me forever. It cannot fail. I've practiced talking to men a dozen times in my magical simulations. I've conquered the hearts of over a thousand male arcane constructs designed for training sorceresses in social graces!' If you're wondering, she failed spectacularly. Remi says it became a… Noodle incident of a sorts, literally and figuratively, one Patchy could carry around in her pocket."
I chortled on my coffee, the bitter drink burning my tongue as I tried to cough and laugh at the same time. Across the table, Alice was busy trying to control her laughter. Even Shanghai and Horai had paused stirring the pot with a comically large spoon to silently giggle.
"That's not the only gem Reimu. Patchy wrote some amazing Altria-Mordred fiction in here." Alice continued; that statement brought about another round of laughter. "You were asking what I have been researching as of late, yes? Not all trespasser into Gensokyo come through the border. The appearance of Toyosatomimi no Miko and her followers is proof that there are many legends sealed within our country. Marisa and I were looking into it before she ran off to do what ever it is it she needs to do."
"It must be hard. Marisa never seemed to the type to settle down." I said, "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to interrupt."
"No, it's fine." Alice said, "It's simply one of those things I've come to accept about her. She'll always be the one drifting in and out of our home. I'm rather the opposite. Marisa's keeps trying to drag me out to the village when all I want to do is my research. But you know how it is. We find ways to make it work. She's gone for now, but I know she'll always come back to me. You're the one who said, 'What use is to lock a bird within a cage? If she loves you, she'll return to you. If she doesn't, she never was yours to begin with.'"
"Don't remind me." I blushed in embarrassment as Alice had brought up memories from our childhood. "I used to say such silly things. All those trashy romance novels I borrowed from Rinnouske gave me such inane thoughts."
"Hey now, doesn't make them any less true!" Alice seemed intent on defending my younger selfs naive views on love. "Regardless of your belief, I visited the Taoist's mausoleum. Marisa recalled seeing a collection of masks when the two of you broke in. They are most definitely missing now. And I highly doubt they were moved until recently. The seals on the mausoleum were broken. From the inside."
"So we got a youkai of sort wandering around the village." The pot was empty and Alice had taken the last of the pastries. I glanced at the clock. I still had to perform rituals at the shrine. "Thanks for the tip Alice. I'll keep a close eye on the border the next few days. See if I can find and exterminate this incident before it really starts up"
"Of course Reimu. I'll let Marisa know when she shows up again. Hopefully, things will resolve themselves." The puppeteer saw me to the door, the dolls fetching my parasol and sandals, and I left the forest for my shrine.
"And I'm telling you that the Bhudda was a jovial old Chinese guy!"
"And I'm telling you that he was thin, old man with unmatchable kindness who helped every soul he could!"
"And I have a sneaking suspicion that the both of you are loony old hags who are both wrong." I shouted at the bickering religious leaders behind me. "And arguing with each other over such trivial things isn't the best of choices when we're surrounded!" That part was most definitely true. We were boxed in by the villagers, all adorning haunted theater masks. Off to the side, Ichirin and Futo had collapsed into a heap after slugging it out to defend the honor of their respective sister figure.
"You're right shrine maiden." The Crown Prince seemed more smug than usual, her cape fluttering around behind her. "Let us rather question how much dye our dear nun uses. Tell me Byakuren, is that gradient natural?"
"Hey Owl Hair, wanna take my fist in your mug?" Byakuren had a dark look on her face, her body glowing with dark magic. I sighed. Here we were, mysterious youkai right where we could grab her, and these two were busy snarking at each other. I could feel the sexual tension in the air.
"Lets just get this over with." I said, and threw a charm into the crowd, aiming for the villager with the strongest aura. It smacked her straight on the forehead and a part of the illusions was revealed. A young girl with pink hair and poofy pants lay rubbing her forehead before me.
"Oh! Kokoro!" I heard Ichirin in the back somewhere. "There you a-"
Anything she might have said was drowned out as Reverie shot by, carrying her master. A giant shark made out of danmaku followed her. "Out of my way! Out of my way!" I heard Marisa scream as she kept shooting down the street, leading the shark. The witch blasted past the Kokoro, only to double back and float at eye level with the girl. "Hey, you, mask girl, I've timed out a bunch of freakin spells before but I have to say, that shark thing is the most bullshit fuckin card ever. Like seriously. Fuck you. Now if you'll excuse me." And she was off, cursing out the angry shark hot on her tail. As for Kokoro, she seemed confused.
"Hey you bitch! Don't talk to my daughter like that!" Two voices behind me were besides themselves in synchronous, parental anger.
"Your daughter? She's my daughter!"
I sighed for the thirteenth time that hour. I trained for many things but child custody was something I left to the village court.
The two women were about to go all out. In the middle of the village no less. Paternal wrath and jealousy were forces I did not want colliding in the square. Their followers egging them on from the sides did not help the slightest.
"The Myouren temple has adopted Kokoro into our family! She's converted to our faith and she belongs to us."
"That's fuckin bullshit nun! I made her! I crafted her Mask of Hope! She's my kid!"
I looked over to the girl, still completely confused as to what was going on. I didn't blame her. If these kind of things didn't happen with regularity in Gensokyo, I'd be as lost as her.
"Hey kid, are those your parents over there?" She nodded. "Well, mind getting them to settle down so we can all go home? And let these villagers go too, while you're at it." Kokoro complied, walking over to Byakuren and hugging her.
"Mother." Miko was aghast. Her face was mix of absolute horror, betrayal and sadness. Her cape dropped in sadness, piling at floor.
"Father." Kokoro reached over and pulled Miko into the hug. Now both of the women were giving each other dirty look as they tried their best to keep a smile for the young girl.
"Well, this is their responsibility now." Marisa reappeared at my side. "Timed that card out too! It was a doozy, ya hear me!" She waved the captured card in my face, bragging about her achievement. The villagers were thankfully beginning to disperse.
"All's well that ends well I guess." I said "Have you seen Alice yet? She's been missing you. And mind telling me what hair-brained adventure you were up to before tonight?"
"I'm headin' home right after this Reimu. I'm not that mean to her! And as for what, or rather who, I found." She wagged a finger in my face. It annoyed me. "It's Mi-"
I punched her in the face.
The sun fell scattered spots round the shrine patio. A tea kettle hummed happily beside me, leaves freshly stepped. The day was an amiable one. I lounged on the porch, book set aside for the moment. The mask the young girl had given me still sat on a table within the shrine. It's empty eyes somehow radiated with emotion. I hoped the best for her. Her family was bound to be a clashing one. A eagle soared over head, light glinting off its white dome. The bird circled around the lake behind the shrine, searching for its meal. I couldn't help but follow him, watching as he soared. And then he dived, skimming over the water and stealing Genji's trout out of the old turtles mouth. I laughed. The turtle replied with a look. That look. The "I'm going to lecture you about this later and there's nothing you can do to stop me" look, before he floated off after the thieving bird. I felt the border ripple as he left, a slight shimmer-
"Welcome home, Yukari." I smiled at the faint sound of a gap opening itself behind me. Arms wrapped in silken gloves wrapped themselves around my waist; A large bosom weighed upon my back as she buried herself into the nape of my neck, golden hair tangling its way around me in long, fluttered tresses.
"I am home, Reimu." Yukari hummed as she nuzzled my neck, tracing her way up to my ear. I took her hand in my own, and a felt a longing squeeze back, as our fingers intertwined.
"Hey, Yukari, tell me, how did your trip go? Were you able to secure the treaty?"
"mmmmmhmmmm, Reimu, business later~ The Pantheon was very accommodating as always if you must ask. All you can eat nectar and ambrosia too~"
"Oh, is that it Yukari?" I poured her a cup of tea as we sat in our haven. "Doesn't it taste different for every individual? You said it carries the same taste as what you crave most, right Yukari? Tell me." I leaned into her, rubbing my cheek against her own. "What. Were. You. Craving. The. Most?" I felt the woman's face light up, heat radiating from her cheeks. It felt warm, like the lazy morning a week past.
"Uh,uh, like tofu. Yes! Tofu, Reimu, it tasted like tofu!" Yukari said, her voice toned with embarrassment.
"Is that so? I'm glad to know you love tofu so much Yukari. I'll make sure Ran prepares tofu with dinner every night! Tofu fried rice, tofu sushi, tofu tempu-"
The color seemed to drain from her cheeks as quickly as my words are brought it in. The horror of bland tofu every night had sent her pupils wide in fear. "No, how about no, Reimu. Not in this lifeti-"
"But Yukari~ Think of Ran! She'll be so happy to know we'll be having her favorite every night."
"Reimu." The Youkai Sage pulled herself out of her gap, turning me to face her. "Reimu. Listen to me. No matter how much I love Ran, not even for her, will I suffer tofu." I laughed, pulling the vain woman into my embrace.
"Speaking of which, where are the shikigami?"
"Oh?" Yukari fidgeted beneath me. "I, uh, there was still work to do with at the conference and the treaty is important and my name should grace it but I thought of hopping a gap and coming back here so I could see you again then we could… and, I, uh, and eat dinn…" I watched as her she settled into a ramble, "but I kinda already signed it without them knowing and I know Ran can handle the negotiations without me and I mean Chen's a lot of work and I'm terrible for leaving her like this but she's a shikigami and duty to her mas-" I shut her up with my lips, taking her in a soft kiss, before letting go, only to take them again, massaging her lips in delicate touches. I could feel Yukari smile as I withdrew, her blush returning at full force. I touched my nose to hers, enjoying the warmth of her heavy breathing.
"Miss me?" I asked her. She replied by locking her lips with my own, pushing me back with her need for contact. Our hands intertwined as she brought us closer together, angling herself above me. Her tongue flicked over my lips, begging for entrance; I complied, letting her enter, and felt a shiver run up my spine as she deepened the kiss, her tongue locking itself around my own. I moved a hand to her waist, taking a hold of her curving hips and pushed ourselves tighter together, relishing the feel of her skin touching mine. The other hand snaked its way to her derriere, giving it a firm squeeze. Yukari moaned, breaking the tongue play as she arched her back. I hummed in pleasure as Yukari kissed back, nipping at my lower lip and begging to gain entrance to my mouth again. I suckled back, drawing her lips tightly as I could, before letting her go with a pop.
"Reimu! So mean!" Yukari pouted at me, unhappy over breaking the kiss she had so desperately craved.
"Later." I turned around, letting my self fall once again into her arms, looking back over our land. "Paradise never changes, love, watch it with me."
"Yeah… Paradise," she said. I let my self sink into her embrace, letting worries go. The forests kept turning and fall was running its schedule. The golden colors waved through the country in painted shades as song birds chattered in the evening light. Even incidents couldn't change Gensokyo, our home, our paradise, forever the same. I wished in my heart this moment would never change.
“You shouldn’t, Sakuya. He’s in enough pain as it is. It’s just a table after all.”
“As you wish, milady.” Her knives disappear and she resumes her calm behavior besides her mistress.
“And you’re sure there’s nothing you can do?” As much as I try to avoid it, my frustration enters my voice. I’m not mad at her in any stretch. I’m not mad at her lack of ability to help me. I’m mad at myself for not doing anything to help myself sooner.
“There’s nothing I can do to help you, I’m afraid. I could get Patchouli to research a possible cure. But I can see that it would be pointless.” Despite all the rumors I’ve heard of this little vampire, she’s surprisingly polite. She’s supposed to act like a spoiled little brat who possesses far more power than she should. But she’s actually facing me like an equal.
“Indeed it is. I’m sorry to have bothered you with such a request.” I stand up from my chair. What little time I have should be used right. “I should get going. If you’ll excuse me.”
“By all means.” She gestures at me while looking at the maid. “Sakuya, if you don’t mind.”
“As you wish milady.” With a light bow she walks towards the door with me following close behind.
Remilia Scarlet, the eternally young vampire. With her ability to control fate, she should have been able to help me. But it appears that not even a devil can lift this wicked curse of mine. Besides her Eirin Yagokoro, Yuyuko Saigyouji and Yukari Yakumo are my best options to seek help from. Eirin because of her unmatched medical skills. Yuyuko because of her control over death. And Yukari because of her ultimate ability. She’s last on my list because I just don’t like her. Owing her a favor like this is beyond what I’m willing to do if it can be avoided.
“It’s out of line for me to ask, but if you don’t mind.” The maid stops in her track to turn and face me. “Just what did you ask of my mistress?”
“You are right. It is out of line for you to ask. If you want to know about it, you’ll have to ask her yourself. She has my approval, if she’s concerned about that.”
“I see. My apologies for asking.” she gives me a light bow.
“No harm done. Oh. And could you please tell lady Remilia that I’ll be replacing the table as soon as I can?”
“As you wish.” With that she leaves for the mansion again. I exchange a quick greeting with the gate guard before taking off to the air.
Reaching Youkai Mountain I greet the tengu patrol dog with a wave but don’t stop otherwise. Some of those wolf tengu are actually pretty cute. It’s likely the ears and those fluffy tails. The one on guard today was the young one with the round leaf shield. I forgot her name. Not that it matters anyway.
What does matter, however, is a certain green haired human calling out to me from the mountain shrine.
Making a swift landing I kneel in front of her. “Your knight in not so shiny armor has returned. To what do I owe the pleasure?”
She merely giggles. “So, did you finish your business with Remilia?”
“More or less. She wasn’t able to help me though, so I haven’t made any progress.” I dust off my pants as I stand up.
“Hmm. Too bad.” She crosses her arms as she thinks about something. “But you will be home for dinner tonight, right?”
“I plan on calling it quits for today. I’ll be vising Eirin next, so I’ll need to get in contact with the bamboo guide. And to do that I’ll need to talk with Keine first. I wouldn’t be able to make it before sunset.”
“So you’re free for the rest of the day? Great.” She claps her hands together and gives me that smile I’ve come to love so much. “Oh. Before I forget to ask; is there anything special you want for dinner?”
Anything special, she asks. Let me think. “What about those flat dough things you fry. What are they called again?”
I snap my finger. “That’s what they’re called. Would you mind making those tonight?”
She shakes her head. “I wouldn’t mind. We will just have to hope the village has everything I need then.” With a light spring to her step, she runs past me. “I’ll be back in about an hour.”
And she’s gone. Good. I don’t think I would have been able to hold it in much longer. Out of habit, I bring my hand to my mouth in an attempt to stop it from overflowing. The all too familiar taste of iron comes along with a scratching pain reaching deep into my throat. And like usual, my attempt to hold it back proves useless as both my hands and the ground in front of me become stained in crimson. Just a little longer. I just need to hold on a little longer.
“She’s going to find out sooner or later.” A familiar childish voice speaks up from behind.
“She knows something is wrong, you know. Sanae is not as ignorant about all this as you might hope. As recent as this morning, right after you left, she came to me asking about this.” Suwako walks up closer placing her small hand on my back.
“Did you tell her?”
“She’s going to find out eventually. And I would prefer it if she did before it happens.” A warm sensation replaces the abrasive one.
“Then what should I say? How are you supposed to tell anyone this kind of thing?”
“You’re asking the wrong person about that.” Silence falls between us as I simply let her do her thing. “Done. This should keep you steady for another day or so.”
“Thanks. I don’t know what I would’ve done without you.” I stand up again. I better get to wiping the blood away before Sanae gets back.
“Without me you’d be long gone. Now, go fetch a mop. I’ll get some water.” I do as I’m told.
I find myself gently stroking her hair. I can with all honesty say that there’s nothing I enjoy more than what we are doing right now. Simple stargazing from our yard. It’s just so relaxing. And the way you can snuggle into each other brings a nice way to comfort along.
“Sanae.” I let my hand find hers. She just responds with a silent ‘hmm’. “I love you.” I give her hand a light squeeze as I say it.
“I know.” She returns me squeeze. “I love you too.” She moves around a little so she’s resting her head against my chest. “Think we can stay like this for a little longer?”
“For as long as you want.” Wrapping one of my arms around her we simply fall into a comfortable silence.
In the end she falls asleep like this. And as much as I want to stay like that, I carry her to her room. After I’ve done all that needs to be done, I make my exit as silently as I can. Right outside the room stands both Kanako and Suwako. The latter giving me a look that practically says ‘why didn’t you tell her’, but the former gives me more of a concerned look. All I can do is shrug. I couldn’t bring myself to tell her. Not at dinner, and not in the garden.
“So what was it you wanted to talk about with Remilia?” It’s high-noon. I’m just waiting for Keine to stop teaching. And what better way to spend it than at the shrine? This is after all where Sanae is.
“Oh nothing too big. It’s just something related to an old enemy of mine.” And that’s the truth. With a few things left out, that is.
“Really?” She stops sweeping. “You had an enemy? Was it like one of those ‘hero and villain’ kind of relationship?”
I finish my cup of tea before answering. “Maybe. If I knew what those were like I might know. I think we were acting more like the two immortals in the bamboo forest. I can’t really remember why we started fighting, we just continued for a long time.”
“And where’s he now?” She walks over to sit beside me, grapping her own cup.
“That’s the thing. I don’t know where she is. I’m sure I killed her off last time, but she’s showing signs of being alive.” My health being the prime example. “If the vampire could see her fate, then I could confirm whether or not she’s alive.” No, this isn’t the truth. Yes, I had an enemy. Yes, I did kill her. No that’s not why I visited Remilia.
“Hmm, I see, I see.” She takes a quick sip of her drink. “Wait, ‘she’?”
“Yeah, I’m pretty sure it was a girl. Just trust me because I won’t go into details.” To be blunt; both of our clothes got a little more than shattered doing multiple battles. Little was left to the imagination. But there's no way I can say that to her.
“Hmm.” She seems to think for a little while before speaking up again. “You were going to see Eirin today, right?”
“That’s the plan at least, yes.”
“Care to share why?” She takes another sip.
“It’s nothing big really.” I hadn’t considered she’d ask. Think of an excuse, quick.
“You don’t visit a doctor because of nothing. Come on, tell.”
“…” Think. Think faster. “A checkup; just a physical examination.” Why do I feel a sudden relief coming from behind the corner?
“A check up? Is something wrong?” She leans in closer to get a better look at me. Looking for any sign of illness I guess.
“Well, you see…” This might be the best chance I get to tell her. “The truth is…” Come on, it’s just 3 little words that’s not ‘I love you’. “If she’s alive, then I’m going to face her again.” IDIOT! “I won’t be able to fight her unless I’m at my peak.” I’m such and idiot.
“Well that does make sense. I can’t exterminate youkai if I’m not also at my best.” The sound of some-thing hard hitting wood over and over can be heard faintly in the background. I don’t need to be a genius to figure what, or rather, who is causing the noise. “Then shouldn’t you get going now?”
“Isn’t it still a little early? School might still be in session.”
“Yeah, but if you’re there when school gets off, then you’ll be able to catch her quickly. If you’re going to fight, then you should be at your best.” She states it matter-of-factly with her trademark smile.
“Guess you’re right.” I hand her my cup and stand up. “It might get late, so don’t wait around for me.” After she’s agreed I take to the air and head for the village.
Approaching the school grounds I see no kids. None playing in the yard, none going home. Which probably mean school is still in session. Well I hate to disrupt class, but this should be important enough.
I walk over to the open window. Leaning on the frame I stick my head in. A few students seem to notices, but don’t make much of it. It takes a little while before Keine notices my presence.
“The next few pages contain some problems. Just sit back and make those while I attend to our guest. You can take a break afterwards, I’m just expecting them to be done by tomorrow.” After that she closes her book and walk out through the door to speak with me.
“I’m sorry to bother you like this, but it’s kinda important.”
“Oh, it’s nothing for an old friend. What was this favor?” She guides me to one of the benches.
“I actually need to get a hold on Mokou. And you’re really the fastest way to reach her.” She raises and eyebrow. The look in her eyes; it’s probably because I’ve known her for a long time that I know this, but that’s her ‘I want to ask, but I don’t want to pry’ look. Basically, she’s asking me without asking me. “I need a guide to Eientei. I have some business with Eirin, you see.”
“Ah. But didn’t she say she couldn’t help you? Why are you going back to her?”
“She said she couldn’t cure it. But I want it delayed. A year, a month, a week. Even a single day will be enough for me.” I wish I had something to drink. Or just something to occupy my hands with. It’s kind of stressing to not have something.
“Is it really getting that bad?”
“Suwako is starting to get pushy about it. Remilia Scarlet had ‘that’ look in her eyes when I spoke with her.”
She places her hand on mine. Its first now I notice I’m trembling. “I’m sorry. I should have done some-thing earlier.”
“There’s nothing you could have done. Things would have turned out the same. But there’s still time.”
She bites her lip, averting her eyes from me. “There’s just a slight problem.” Her grip around my hand tightens. “Mokou is going to fight against the princess today. I tried talking her out of it, but you know how she is.”
So Eirin is out of the question today. “Then what about tomorrow? As soon as possible.”
“I know. If I meet her I’ll say it to her.”
“Thanks.” I lean back just taking a brief moment to calm my mind and relax. “You should get back soon. Your students are going to miss you if I keep you for too long.”
She giggles. “You’re right. You should come to visit more often. Bring Sanae next time, okay?”
“Sure, sure. See you later then.”
Remilia is unable to do anything. Eirin is out of the question since I can’t even get to her. And getting caught in the crossfire doesn’t sound too fun either. Next on my list is the princess of death herself. So the netherworld it is then.
The entrance to the netherworld; it’s not what you’d expect nor where you’d expect it. My first guess was that it would be on the other side of the Sanzu River, but alas, I was mistaken. All that’s over there is Higan and your final judgment. And I’m not quite ready for that yet. No, the entrance is in the sky. You can’t normally see it, but if you get close enough to it while searching for it, it’ll become clear. “It’s a big hole in the sky.” That’s the best I can describe it. If you can imagine that, then you can imagine the entrance.
The trip up the ten thousand steps is nothing really special when you can fly. I expected to be stopped here like Hakurei and co. were when they came around. But I’m not seeing any little green girl who ‘you could just eat right up’ as they phased it. In a figurative way of course. I may be a youkai, but the idea of eating humans never really appealed to me. If it did, being with Sanae might have proven difficult. That and staying friends with Keine.
“Are you perhaps a visitor? Or maybe you’ve come to disrupt my mistress’ peace.” The ‘so cute you want to eat her’ girl stops sweeping when she notices me. “In case of the former, then I’ll have to ask you to leave. We’re not taking visitors at the moment. If it’s the latter, then I hope you know what you’re asking for.” She places a hand on one of her swords, as if to say ‘this is what I mean’.
“It’s quite sad to say it, but I’m not here to visit you, nor your mistress.” The grip on her sword tightens. “However, I most certainly wouldn’t want to disrupt any peace. I personally find it too enjoyable to disrupt.”
“Then if you have no business here, please turn back. This is no place for someone alive.” She seems to loosen up some. At least enough to let go of her sword.
“But I do have business here.” And her hand is back on the sword. “I’m not here to try and make friends. I have a request to ask of the Princess of Death herself. It’s a matter of life and death.”
“And if I still say no?”
“Then I’m willing to force my way through. I won’t like doing it, but again, this is a matter of life and death.” I take a stance that, if I remember correctly, is effective against armed opponents. I haven’t faced one in decades, so it’s likely I’m a little rusty.
“I see. Then if you would please follow me, I'll lead you to the mistress. But please make it quick.” She starts walking and I follow closely behind.
“I appreciate it. Thank you.” She doesn’t say anything in response. Just leads me to the mansion, where she asks me to wait.
It takes a lot longer than I expected, but the lady herself finally shows up. Both of us freeze as we see the other. Her? I don’t know. And I’m sure I wouldn’t want to know. Me? Because I didn’t expect someone with ‘Death’ in their title to be the incarnation of beauty itself.
“So you’re the guest Youmu told me about? I certainly didn’t expect someone like you.” Those eyes. It’s just like how Suwako, Kanako and Keine look at me.
“It is. I was asked to make it quick, so I’ll skip the pleasantries and get straight to business.”
She raises a hand. “I know. I know why you’re here, what you seek, and why you seek it. And there is nothing I can do.”
“Tsk. There has got to be something. You’re the Princess of Death for crying out loud.” Both of them look at me in surprise. The little one ready to draw her sword at any moment, the busty one on the other hand is just standing there. “My apologies. I didn’t mean to raise my voice.”
“Apology accepted. I know it’s hard to stay calm in your position.” She flicks open her fan and, to my honest surprise, she actually uses it. “Besides, no harm was done.”
“If that was all, then would you please follow me? I’ll escort you out.”
I recompose myself and follow the young woman. Or at least that was the plan. Yuyuko held a hand in front of the green girl. “Not yet Youmu. I wanna talk a little longer. Could you fetch us some snacks?”
She takes half a second to quickly process the order before bowing and heading for the kitchen. At least I think that’s where she’s going. This is my first time actually being up here.
“There’s something you want to talk about? I’ve exhausted my own topics of conversation.” I sit beside her as she gestures me to do.
“Actually, I just want to hear your story, if it’s not going to bother you, that is.”
“My story…” I trail off thinking about what has actually happened doing the last two centuries. “There’s nothing much to know, really.”
“Then maybe a question could get you started.” She takes a snack and chews it down before Youmu, I think her name was, even gets to put down the salver. “When did it start?”
When did it start, indeed? I’m not even sure myself. I never cared much about it. I knew it was there, but it was so easy to ignore. So what if my time got cut short. I’ve always lived each day to its fullest. After all, I could be killed by anyone who decided to fight me, so it didn’t really change much.
When Sanae came along, things changed. I changed. I wanted to- I want to spend as much time with her as I can. Just all the sudden a joy I’ve never felt filled my life. It made me want to secure my tomorrow. To be able to get through one day, only to use the next with her. The amount of fights I participated in dropped like a rock in water. I stopped visiting the bars in the village to pick fights. Ever since she showed up, I’ve never actually fought for fun. Not even once.
“Thank you for the talk, Yuyuko.” I bow at her as I say it.
“Don’t mention it. It was nice to have an actual guest for a change.”
“No. I mean it. This was something I needed to talk about.” I give Youmu a quick glance. “I’ll be showing myself out. I’ve taken enough of your time already?”
“If that’s what you wish.” She gives me a stiff, yet smooth bow which I return, hopefully not as strict as hers.
Even as I head for the stair, their still fading voices reach me. “Lady Yuyuko, why did you use so much time on him? We’re quite busy as it is.”
“Couldn’t you tell Youmu? He’s part of our trouble. Besides, I can’t turn away a lost soul who’s sought me out…” The rest of it becomes too silent for me to hear. I don’t even think I was meant to hear any of that at all.
“So how was your day?” I hardly even get to land before Sanae starts asking. I’m not complaining mind you. In fact, I’m happy she seems so eager. But it’s annoying when I can’t respond with something equally exciting.
“Nothing to write home about. I had to break up the order I had planned since Mokou wasn’t available. How was yours?”
“Ah, you know. Just like usual. So, who’d you talk to instead? The celestials? The Buddhists? Or maybe the mighty Gensokyo Sage.” I think I see a gleam in her eye as she mentions Yukari.
“No, no. None of those. Especially not the last one. No, I went to see the princess of-“ My throat. Pain.
My eyes widen as I realize what it is. Sanae seems to catch on quickly. “Ah, Wha- What’s happening? Are you alright?” Well quick enough. “No, never mind. Don’t speak. Oh. What to do, what to do?”
The urge keeps building up. Right along with the need to vomit all of it out. Not now. Not right now. Not in front of her. Anyone but her. Why couldn’t it wait another two minutes? NO! Fight it. I know I- My thoughts are interrupted by the sticky wet feeling running through my mouth, leaving a silvery tasty of iron behind it.
I’ve grown used to seeing a growing pool of crimson blood right in front of me. I’ve grown used to knowing that it’s my own blood. But the look on Sanae’s face tells me she wasn’t ready for this. Her eyes stating widely at the puddle. Her mouth gaping enough to almost reach it. The fact she’s trembling just enough to notice. Or maybe that me?
Then it happens. A loud ear piercing scream echo’s through the mountains right before the maiden falls to her knees with tears running down her cheeks.
“Sanae! What hap-“ As the tiny goddess spots me, it takes her less than a second before she’s standing beside me, starting her usual treatment.
“Wha- What’s going on? I don’t… I don’t understand. He was… then he…”
“Shh. Don’t talk.” Kanako embraces Sanae in an attempt to get her to calm down. No. You do that in this situation to comfort, not calm down.
“This is it kiddo. You gotta tell her now. There’s no way you can worm your way out it now.” She stops healing me. I don’t feel all that much better though. “That’s all I can do. This was the last time.”
“Last time? Wha- What is she talking about?” She’s still trembling. It’s painful to watch.
“Well, you see, Sanae.” I dry my mouth in my sleeve. “The truth is… Geeze, how are you supposed to say this? Well, I’m going to get to the point and get it over with. The truth is, Sanae, I’m…”
Ally had awoken, not by any outside disturbances, but by ones of her own. Her mind was troubled, and whenever such things occurred, sleeping for long periods of time was nearly impossible.
Quietly slipping out of her bed, Ally approached the window of the camper that was her current home. Pulling back the blinds revealed little light. It must have been very early. That, or extremely late. Though, one was probably a synonym for the other. She couldn’t see the moon, only clouds, so she could only guess at the time. Maybe some fresh air would help clear her mind.
She was careful to move quietly as she exited the camper, since Daddy was still asleep. Her shared the curse of being a light sleeper like her. She didn’t want to risk waking him up.
The scent of pine cones assaulted her the moment she slid open the door. All around the camper were trees: they were parked in a forested area about fifty feet off from the road. Donning her sandals, the girl exited the vehicle.
As she walked, she thought about her predicament.
Ally and her father had finally settled in one place. She had had good friends. Nice things. It was quite peaceful, that is, until Daddy messed it up. Earlier that day, he had packed up their things, drove by her school to pick her up, and off they went. They left the town without stopping for anything. She didn’t even get to say a proper good-bye to her friends.
She was furious at Daddy for the sudden relocation. He had tried to keep his distance from her during the drive, but her smouldering fury had gotten to him, and so he had barked back at her. The end result was a pair of upset campers driving on a road in the middle of nowhere. Finally, they had stopped for the night, but neither slept well.
Not that this was the first time it had all happened: it had been like this for as long as she could remember; moving, settling, moving, settling, and then moving again. He was running from something; had had to be. Ally was sure of it. Yet, she didn’t know what it was.
Part of Ally was angry at father for being so obsessed with this eternal journey, but another part of her appreciated that he even bothered to drag her along with him. After all, all they had were each other. They had stuck by each other, through thick and thin, for the entirety of her short life. Even when she was mad at him, she couldn’t deny that she loved him.
Breaking from the crowd of trees, Ally glanced towards the sky. The clouds had cleared somewhat, releasing the full moon to cast an eerie glow over the lands below. She watched the moon for a few moments, then brought her eyes back down to the ground.
Her heart jumped; a person, of all things, was standing a few metres away from her, also gazing at the moon.
The person was a young girl, maybe the same age of Ally. She had mint-green hair that dropped to her shoulders, adorned by a black hat with a yellow bow tied on it. For clothes, she wore a yellow shirt and green skirt, the latter decorated with patterns of roses. The light from the moon amplified the look of her skin, giving it an ethereal appearance.
Ally couldn’t decide whether to be frightened or curious: on one hand, this area was so far in the wilderness that nobody should be here, watching the moon. Though Ally had just been doing that, so maybe it wasn’t that odd.
“Hello?” Ally called apprehensively, her blood racing.
The girl turned at the sound of Ally’s voice. Her eyes were an intense emerald green.
Ally noticed a small purple orb floating over the stranger’s heart, connected to the girl by two long cords that wrapped around her body and ended at her ankles. The orb appeared to be an eye, but it was closed very tightly.
“Ah~ You’re here~” the girl sang, skipping up to Ally.
Ally almost fell backwards in her surprise. “Um... who are you?”
“Oh, yeah. I’m Koishi,” the girl replied. “You’re Ally, right?”
“How do you know my name?”
“I’m a friend of your dad’s!”
Koishi pointed at the moon.
“Lovely night, isn’t it?”
Ally took a tentative step back.
“You know my dad?”
Koishi nodded and skipped back out into the open moonlight and sat down, cross-legged. She beckoned for Ally to follow. Warily, the latter decided to humour the stranger, and joined her on the ground.
“Well, me and your dad... a long time ago, we used to be friends. I haven’t seen him in years, though. Last time I saw him, you were a cute little baby~”
But that doesn’t add up, Ally protested silently. Koishi couldn’t be much older than Ally.
Suddenly, it clicked. Koishi wasn’t human. That explained that eye thing floating around her, and her apparent age. It was impossible, but she wanted to believe it so much. Proof that she wasn’t the only one.
“...you’re not a human, are you?”
Koishi grinned. “Nope~ Sharp one~”
A moment of silence passed. The revelation was too much. Ally had always believed in the supernatural, because wherever she seemed to go it followed her around. Ghosts in the attic, or possibly fairies in the garden: these were the things she almost saw. And sometimes, she thought she could sense the feelings of those around her. She could never confirm whether the ability actually existed, or if it was just her imagination. Either way, she revisited the idea often.
If Koishi was telling the truth, she had apparently met Daddy. Her father, the one who had denied the existence of any kind of supernatural for her entire life. He avoided the supernatural like the plague.
Almost as if he was running from it...
Then Ally could hear Daddy’s voice, calling her name from the forest. Indecision froze her limbs: one side of her wanted to respond to Daddy’s call, but another side of her wanted to stay and speak with this abnormal being alone.
“I... I should go,” she mumbled. “But maybe you... you can come with me. You’re Daddy’s friend, right?”
Koishi jumped to her feet. “Yes, yes~ It’s been so long~ Let’s do that~”
Nodding to herself for reassurance, Ally took Koishi’s hand, and together they walked back to the camper.
Despite the thick canopy of trees, the moonlight still broke through to the forest floor below. It gave the camper a lonely, spooky feel. The presence of Daddy standing at the camper door gave the picture a sense of warm familiarity, however.
“Ally, what were you—”
He stopped as soon as he noticed Koishi.
“Hey, Jonathan,” she said coolly.
Instantly, Daddy’s features contorted into a mask of rage.
“You!” he exclaimed. “I ordered you to stay away from my daughter!”
“Oh, yeah. I forgot.”
He approached the two girls. Placed a concerned hand on Ally’s shoulder.
“Ally, she didn’t hurt you, did she?”
“No, Daddy, I’m fine.”
“She was fine, until you started screaming at us,” Koishi deadpanned.
“Get out, now, Koishi! I mean it!”
“I’m already outside!”
Without another word, he took Ally’s hand and led her back to the camper. She glanced back, frowning. Koishi returned her frown with a smile and a wave.
When they were both inside, door locked, Daddy hopped into the front seat and started up the engine.
“Daddy! Stop! Stop! What are you doing? We can’t just leave her out there!”
He didn’t stop. A few moments later they were back on the road, speeding away from the moonlit forest.
After a few minutes, he slowed down a bit, but didn’t stop.
“What did she say to you?!” he demanded.
“Daddy, stop it, please! Why are we out here, in the middle of the night? Why did we leave our home? Why are you running from Koishi?”
He kept his eyes on the road. It was not for driving safety, but rather to avoid her gaze; he found it easier to resist her when he wasn’t looking at her, and she knew it. She continued to glare at the back of his head, willing him to stop.
And then he did. Slowing to a stop, he parked the camper on the edge of the road.
“Okay. Fine. Fine! I’ll tell you!”
He was still watching the road, avoiding her eyes.
“That girl... her name is Koishi. I used to... know her, before. When I was a few years older than you are.”
He moved from the driver’s seat and sat next to her, on a stool. He stared at his hands on his lap for a long time, which tried at Ally’s patience, but eventually he looked up. His brow, creased by age, was further burdened by heavy thoughts.
“A lot of things happened, but ever since then, she’s been following me, off and on. I haven’t seen her in person since you were a baby... that’s when I decided that for you to be safe, we would have to keep moving, so that Koishi wouldn’t find you.”
He stood up and approached the curtained window. His eyes scanned the road for any sign of movement.
“Koishi is the reason we don’t stay in one place for long. She is very dangerous. I couldn’t risk you getting to know her, and getting hurt...”
“Dangerous? How is she dangerous?”
“She wants to get to know you, and me, possibly bring us to her world.”
“Her ‘world?’ ”
He sighed. “She comes from a land filled with magical creatures like her.”
Ally inhaled sharply. A world for magic?
“It sounds like paradise.”
“No, it’s not. It’s dangerous beyond belief. I couldn’t stand for us to go there, and then have you snatched up and eaten by some... monster. No, Ally. We can’t mingle with her kind. We can only move on and forget about Koishi and her world.”
“Daddy! I’ve been looking for this all of my life!” she shouted, fists balling subconsciously. “Listen, sometimes... sometimes I feel things! Thoughts, ideas, from other people. And I see things! Remember when I saw that ghost in the attic? I wasn’t crazy! Tonight confirms it. They’re real. Maybe I’m just like them. I need to meet Koishi. I want to know what I’m missing.”
“You can’t, Ally! I forbid you from meeting her. Please. For your sake. For my sake. Let’s just move on.”
“Is that it? Move on, just like we’ve done my whole life? Start over again, and again, and again? I’m sick of it!”
“It’s better than getting mixed up with all of those freaks!”
They stared at each other, his face dominated by fury, hers a steely glare. The silence was deafening; time itself seemed to stop.
“You can’t always run from your problems, Daddy,” she said, with as much malice as she could muster.
And then she ran. Out the camper door, down the road, towards the forest they had left behind. Towards Koishi, the girl with the answers to so many of her questions.
Her father shouted her name, but Ally didn’t turn back.
Reimu sighed with contentment as she stretched her legs out on the veranda.
It was certainly not a very ladylike pose, that much is certain, but with the sun long since set behind the treetops, the possibility of someone visiting grew more and more unlikely. More importantly, she thought, after having her free time so rudely interrupted some six weeks prior, she damned well deserved some rest and relaxation. Reaching for the cup of fresh tea next to her, she sipped it, feeling it purify her thoughts, with only the song of countless crickets emanating from the surrounding forest for company. Breathing deeply of the night air, tinged slightly by the sweet smell of the incense burning nearby, Reimu closed her eyes and began.
It began as a radiant green flame, one deep within that pulsed and danced with every heartbeat. Then, as her concentration deepened, dots of green fire began appearing , some large, others infinitesimally small, until they blanketed the entire horizon in a wavering mass. Exhaling, Reimu cast out with her mind, reaching down down down until she found what she sought - a presence so incredibly ancient that even she could only touch the fringes. It filled her consciousness like a slowly flowing river, swirls and eddies of energy joining together in a sluggish current that forked this way and that and filled the earth at Reimu's feet. However, there was something-
"Ah, the sound of a thousand insects so desperate to procreate. How quaint."
The shrine maiden sighed, gently dropped the image from her mind, and opened her eyes, turning and craning her neck slightly to see. There was little mistaking the identity of the speaker. Even if she hadn't been able to place the voice that enunciated every word with an amused lilt, there was only one person who considered such a pink bonnet and dress to be the very height of fashion, and only one being in Gensokyo who had wings like that.
"Remilia Scarlet. To what do I owe the pleasure?"
Remilia's answering grin, illuminated by the moonlight, was positively vicious. "I was out on an evening stroll, and I saw a certain shrine maiden who looked like she could use some company," she replied. "I thought I would impose on you for a little while, since it seems you're not busy planning another grand feast or anything of the sort."
Reimu felt a brief flash of irritation at having her evening crashed in such an inconsiderate fashion, but she realized that the young lady was probably going to insist. She folded her legs up underneath herself, grumbling, and gestured aimlessly to the open stretch of the veranda next to her. With a faint flutter of her wings, the countess landed almost noiselessly on the polished hardwood, wrinkling her nose with distaste briefly at the smouldering coil of incense and seating herself at the edge, her legs dangling freely over the side.
Remilia frowned for a moment, then shook her head.
"Well then, if you're not here for tea, then why -are- you here? I somehow doubt you are here just for the pleasure of my company, or that the great scion of house Scarlet would come all this way just to discuss the reproductive habits of local insect life."
There was total silence from Remilia. Reimu poured herself another cup of tea, looking curiously at the young vampire, who was swinging her legs back and forth rhythmically. With a certain amount of surprise, Reimu realized that the other girl was worried about something, and furthermore, that she was worried about it enough to let it show on her face. This was almost more unnerving than her sudden, unannounced appearance at the Hakurei shrine.
Remilia sighed, folded her hands in her lap, and stared down at them, completely motionless. "There were two things I wished to discuss," she replied. She opened and closed her mouth several times, then turned to face Reimu, her eyes still downcast. "The first is that... it occurred to me that I have not, strictly speaking, shown the proper gratitude befitting of my station, when taking into consideration the inconvenience I caused you and your friend in the... events that transpired last year."
Reimu's eyebrows shot up. Was she about to be offered an apology? From the Remilia Scarlet? The notion was so laughable that she couldn't prevent herself from snorting into her tea, causing her to recoil in pain as some of the tepid liquid shot up her nose, coughing and laughing all the while. Remilia furrowed her brow, her face covered with a barely discernable blush. “I work up the nerve to broach the subject, and you respond by chortling in my face?!” She harrumphed, crossed her arms and stared across the open clearing to the woods, some several hundred yards distant.
Eventually Reimu managed to get her laughter under control - and her nasal passages cleared - and she drained the rest of the cup in one gulp and set it down. Staggering to her feet, she shook one foot to clear off the lingering numbness, making her way to stand next to Remilia.
“It’s not unwelcome, not by a long shot, but it was… a bit unexpected. I wouldn’t normally expect a person to apologize for something they did over a year ago, especially not an immortal vampire like yourself. No one was seriously injured, so I wouldn’t lose too much sleep over it. Provided that the incident doesn’t repeat itself,” Reimu added, glancing meaningfully at her.
“Even I have standards to adhere to, Reimu,” Remilia replied loftily. “A certain reputation to maintain, if you will. Moreover, I’ve found myself quite busy over these past few months. Even with your and Yukari’s help, there are still certain… hiccups, as far as establishment of my domain in this place is concerned.”
Reimu scratched her head. “Problems with the border? I didn’t think-”
Remilia shook her head, waving her hands back and forth. “No, no. It’s not that. The problem is that, well, as you know, the library at the mansion houses very nearly every book that has ever been written, and, indeed, some that technically shouldn’t even exist.”
“I see,” Reimu replied, pinching the bridge of her nose in contemplation.
“And, as you know, Flandre has been behaving very well lately, so we’ve allowed her to roam the halls of the mansion,” Remilia continued.
“Uh huh.” Reimu sighed, letting her shoulders drop. “Why don’t you just go ahead and tell me, Remilia, I’m sure I’m prepared for the worst now.”
“Well… she’s been reading many books lately, and she apparently decided that emulating the mannerisms of one of the dragons she had read about would be quite fun. She tried her hand at it in the library early one morning. The damage was... quite extensive, to say the least.. As far as I know, nothing irreplaceable was lost - preservative magics, I assume - but Patchouli was absolutely livid.”
Reimu stared at Remilia incredulously, then let out a low laugh, an image filling her head of the countess’ younger sister kneeling with a sullen pout on her face as the purple-haired librarian stood over her, lecturing, hair frazzled by some unimaginable heat. Remilia seemed a bit stupefied at Reimu’s mirth at first, but then she turned slightly, covering her mouth with one hand, her eyes crinkling.
Reimu’s laughter faded after a moment, as she frowned, trying to recall some snippet of conversation. She turned to Remilia. “You mentioned there were two things you wished to talk about, right? What was the other?”
“Ah, yes, that!” The young lady kicked off the veranda, landing several feet out in the grass, her dress flaring out as she did a pirouette. “Don’t tell me you haven’t noticed!”
“Ah, perhaps it is that I am much more sensitive to it than you day dwellers, being a lady of the night and such.” Remilia extended one hand languidly and pointed straight up, towards the night sky. “Look.”
Reimu followed her finger with her gaze, looking this way and that into the inky darkness as her eyes narrowed suspiciously. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary, except…
“The moon. It should be a full moon - a harvest moon.” Remilia nodded sagaciously, looking at Reimu expectantly. “Shall we?”
Reimu walked out into the field and closed her eyes for a moment, staccato bursts of her heartbeat calling out. She exhaled sharply as she held out her right hand, then opened her eyes as she felt the familiar weight of her gohei fall into it. Straightening out her skirt, she turned to Remilia.
- Well mercifully I'm starting to forget the whole thing, just a fade to another episode I guess. All that time did was fill up my trousers with unrelenting grit and terrified piss. Don't look like that, it's true. See? I've got pits on my knuckles from scrubbing them out with gravel and tallow.
-Don't pooh-pooh my ordeals like that! I died several times in getting here you know. Well in the metaphorical sense, emotionally and such. I was really tired yeah? Ah, go chase yourself; I know you're just trying to get a rise outta me.
-Fucking hell, I came all the way down to this cursin' frightful place and alls I get is your scorn as the crowning moment in my life? Goddess almighty!
-Sorry- -I'm sorry. I didn't mean to get short-it's all the niter building up in the walls outside. Rain season's making it trickle down here; making me cough and putting me off in a bad way.
-It's not so bad now with you now though.
-Move over a bit yeah? My arm's falling asleep. Thanks. Hmm? No I don't mind it, your hair smells nice. Like lilies. Tickles a bit too. I'd breathe your neck in if I could you know?
-Right, see reason I brought it up was I found the journal I kept on before I came here. Slipped right through the cracks of my mind when I found you. I'd rather suppress the whole thing -- at least the week before meeting you. That just wouldn't do though would it? Gotta keep it on for posterity's sake and all that haha. There it is. Now don't feed me that line, no one blushes that easy.
-Well I'll read it off, my script's too shit for you to read by yourself. Pinch out that candle will you? bit too bright to read this.
A lantern. It was all led up by a blistered can that never burned straight.
As a child I had purposed to become a digger. Though any sensible clod in the village would call them by their real profession, I felt that was not reverent enough -- hence diggers. It had a bit more romance to it. These were men carving out their fortune for themselves, plotting the expansive underneath like true pathfinders. At some point I contrived an image of swinging down caverns by the romantic aid of a rope ladder.
Their camps were set far past the matted roots of the forest's hazel thickets and the teeming bogs. It was understood that the wilds beyond were a place of dank and horrid mystery. Bears, wolves and - worse yet - demons were reported as ruling the dark woods just beyond our encampment. The hunters spent at most two days in the brush whereas the diggers threw up their tents for intervals that could span weeks with a mail pony as their only contact home. I awaited their return at the week's end, ears eagerly scanning for the rough chuckle of the stage wagons that announced their coming. Their itinerary put them at the southern entrance to the rampart by the evening prayer bell.
Now that would not be so bad were it not situated along the scattered timber piles of the levee. On days when the nearby mills swung in operation mounds of saw-dust littered the fairway leading in. Were they to arrive on such a day, the jarring snarl of the saws and intermittent slap of falling lumber tensed the horses, bringing them to paw nervously at the road and upset the mounds into the wind where they, without fail, bristled bitterly into my face.
Those with families, the minority of the group, were swiftly whisked away by the promise of warm food, coddling and a lengthy sleep. The rest burdened the weight of their rucksacks and set themselves on achieving a quick and imposing drunk. I scuttled along after them, weaving behind the den they frequented with its inn-sign teetering on a broken hinge with a stag crown in arabesque.
Though they kept grimly to themselves, making charges and swearing luridly at me whenever I took near, the mystique held. If anything these acts of aggression tempered my resolve to emulate them. The muscle they boasted was prodigious; the sticky smell of syrupy liquor that oozed from them did not mitigate the fact. The calves of their legs refused to go completely into their top boots. They drank with impunity; the blood of youth sustained their deep chests and sinewy arms.
-What? Not in the slightest. If all it took to was a stretch of tendon to seduce me I'd have slogged after that ogre friend of yours.
-Ahh, Ahh! I'm sorry, sorry, sorry let go please ahh! Damn those nails of yours; they're claws are what they are. Damn near gouged me out. Right right I won't say more.
-What brought me on were the lanterns.
See, each man came equipped with a bull's-eye lantern leashed at the waist. These I scrutinized with childhood intensity -- like fetishes really.
It was from them that I got the hint. Nearly every profession employed the bulls-eye in some manner. Thing was, I never much played at being sentry-men, fisher, or part of the militia. No, at the core I had a disposition for hardiness and bravery. I had already taken the boyish motions of lionizing the hunters tracking their quarry over grassy banks, the swordsmen with a stripped branch of hickory -- even the toiling blacksmith at the forge won my affection for a week or two. I'm unsure what it was that drew me away, maybe some uninspired fantasy.
Truth told, there was no real perceivable reason for unimaginativeness. I lived in a place that seemingly thrived on my diversion. My home sat on pleasant, airy, up-hill country that received the vigorous forest air in full. Past the fields but afore the forests waited flowery glades through which fireflies darted and popping rabbits arose in the cool, odorous dusk. I used to use clear-glass water vessels to trap clusters of the bugs in a makeshift lantern. The delight of these lasted so long as the fireflies did. However. scouring the black, lucent specks from the bottom for the third time discouraged me from trapping them again.
The lamps had only recently been passed from the water sprites to us and yet were already wearing a rut in the village's economy. Multiple stores in the marketplace hung them among their wares. Not once did I hold the prospect of owning one. At my young age I could scant hope for more than enough coin to afford a luncheon bread-roll. My parents peddled trinkets and downy garments to any who approached. Very few did. My father and I supped by candlelight while my mother spun the loom in her corner. Soliciting for more than what they already spared for me shamed me enough in thought that I never asked.
- I'm missing a few pages here. Hmm, there's not much for a skip though. Well the next part rolls up with me having one of the ungodly things. Can't remember the bit though. I'll leave it to your imagination --see what your fancy comes up with. No I still have all my extremities.
So I boasted the checkered glimmer of a bulls-eye lantern. The rich steam of the thing wafted to my face whenever lit. It smelled horribly of tin and never burned straight, though it managed to gnarl my fingers into scabrous burns whenever I handled it. I had swindled myself with a fascination for the thing.
-I was suffering from one of those symptoms, I heard Keine mention it once. Coga-dispers, cog sympa, cogna associates? Ahh it's beside the point. What I'm trying to say's that I ended up tricking myself into enjoying it after a while.
I set out over the hollows of the southern bridge to the lake. With toes exposed to the cold sand I signaled the bobbing fishing-boats running the final dragnet of the evening by opening and closing my slide. On the occasional response my gratified shouts rang all the way to that insular crag looming at the lake's center.
The pleasure I took from those excursions was substantive. Nothing else would ever thrill me as they had.
My father passed on in my fourteenth summer, taken by the epidemic of the season. It was fearsome in those days; a fever that choked the lungs, much more fatal than now. I recall my mother grieving with puffed eyelids as he took to bed. She would motion me to leave the room before I caught ill whenever I tried to see him. Near the end of it he would rush out in front of the house, delirious and wet with the sweat of night terrors, shouting, 'Get back you blackguards!' to the neighbors.
My mother fell ill with grief shortly thereafter.
-Touchy subjects give me pains. Leave it at that alright?
Magistrate bylaw dictated that I be put under the care of one of a number of halfway houses in the village. I cannot recount my state of mind at the time, heavy with cold and sleep as I was; the nighttime murmur of geckos put me right in a daze. Stout, beetle-browed men shuffled me from one building to another. Each time they sat me at the foot of a dimly lit hall, outside reach of their bantering chat. I had to wait for them to finish doing fuck-all and carry me off to their next drinking party and, with luck, remember that I was out both home and parents. It must have been well into the third hour of the night that I resolved to break away onto the street than wait to get blindsided into a covenant by those muffs.
Were she to have arrived a minute later I would have stepped out to the end of the night, and the story would have ended there. She came about taller and more picturesque than I ever recalled from the times she stood afont the schoolroom.; her firm, wiry legs deliberately padding across the hall. The hem of her dress billowed past my shoulder and took her into the room behind me. She brought a hush to the room. Her voice, low but firm, commanded an authority stronger than whatever drink they were invested in at the time.
'I'm taking him into my home,' she said. They responded with a light patter of coughs. The door flew shut thick and fast enough behind her to splinter the frame. Her lips slowly curved into a gentle smile as she picked me up by the hand and pulled me outside with an ambitious grip.
-Oh come off it she was like a second mother - family like. She already had a companion in any case. Damned frightful one at that.
I still had on my lantern when we arrived, buckled to the waist on a leather belt and draped between my unbuttoned top-coat. Her house was long and narrow, wainscoted with varnished boards. The crunch of pestle on mortar greeted us at the door. She sat in a straggle near the kitchen, fingers curling into the bowl as she worked a stray tea leaf into grit.
'You shouldn't be bringing strays about.'
-First thing she says in that hoarse voice of hers.
Keine responded, 'I can do as I please in my home'. She turned to me and directed me to a table. 'Here, sit down and I'll get you something to eat. Mokou.'
Mokou sighed. 'Aye princess?'
'The stove's almost out, go bring in some wood. The hand saw is by the terrace. Thank you,' she said and went pottering about with some pots and pans.
Mokou held for a moment, kneading the last of the leaves into a bag which she tied and strung with horsehair. Her eyes, discolored from drinking spirits, trained on me in cold reserve as she stood and slowly squared her shoulders. 'I'm hoppin' to it. Would you or the kid care for something else while I'm outside? Something to drink? A punnet of flowers? Maybe just a coddle and a kiss when I come back t-' Keine's arm whipped sideways and sent the tine of something serrated wheeling towards Mokou. It clipped her above the eye -- a little graze. 'I thought you were making like a rabbit or is something amiss here?'
-Now that I remember; they both had some fear about them.
As Mokou left I exhaled in absolute, weightless, almost compulsive relief. That trick of violence did it for me, gave me something akin to a tranquility to attribute to her. She had pillared herself into my life; cumbered the trouble of my future on herself. She turned slightly to me, curling her lips into that selfsame smile and took to scaling a fish. The meal went quick, some little dish of fish and rice; a staple meal. Keine sat opposite and started feeding me a line of how there will be nothing brutal or tragic to unsettle me while I'm under her care, all things will pan out for the better, life will provide so on-so forth. Mokou kept near the counter, fingers tucked beneath arms, nodding in assent when prodded by Keine.
Having filled my stomach with warm food they put me to bed. My thoughts, staggering and sprawling, kept me from sleep. After a time I heard Keine's voice. She spoke softly because of the echoes.
' It's not pity.'
'What is it then?' Mokou asked.
'A duty; a service.'
'As a teacher,' said Mokou.
'As a guardian,' she responded.
A chair groaned under new weight. 'Did you know them?'
Did you know them -- our fondly deceased friends that left the miracle of child sans birth at our door.'
'I've spoken to them, yes,' she said obliquely.
'In passing you mean.'
A few pregnant seconds passed before Keine responded weakly, 'yes.'
'Well it's a kindly gesture but how about you? You really want to go hard and coarse like some poor maid 'cause of some self-imposed obligation? Do you think you have enough to be going on with now that he's here?'
'We will. Us and him.'
'Same as before.'
'Just a bit new, you're good at new.'
'No, I'm outdated -- too invested in the times.'
'You can learn.'
'I've been learning for a long while Keine, I don't care to butt heads with this though. It's ungainly.' Mokou let the silence hang then added, 'I hope you stick to it then, otherwise you're not going to have much to stick on you afterwards.'
When I awoke late the next day they were gone, the stove humming friendlily in their stead. It was not yet the week's end so I imagined them to have left to the school. Feeling plaintive, I laid back into the covers once more and succeeded in a few short snaps resembling sleep before hunger moved me out to the kitchen.
Though books were scarce in my home I remember piles of newspapers and bound volumes chocking her halls. Some were nothing but small, badly-printed, patent newspapers, each with a loop of string at the corner so that they may be hung on a nail behind the stove should the owner be featured in an article. These advertising bulletins could be seen in heaps on the counter at the apothecary. They were given out freely but whatever contents they sold inside ran up lurid prices. The claims made were of little credibility, often embellishing simple truths for effect.
I set to pecking an apple and reading whatever volumes required the least fuss to pluck onto my lap. So passed the day. And several more in like manner.
Each evening they came to find me slumped over a new stack with that damned bull's end lamp as my light when dusk settled. Keine delighted in my interest in her selections, skirt swishing as she sat aside to guide me through the passages. At such times I forgot my squat little body and shortcomings. She gave me my first taste of dignity and grace.
-I never admitted to her why I took on reading. There was some guilt warm in my conscious then and, by simple expedient, I could forget it and imaginatively displace myself. I didn't find out till a time after how dangerous I was treading there. She kept it in check though -- put me away from those dark inklings and onto something more savory-- an education. I never told her. Should I ever see her again, I don't well intend to either.
Harvest passed and winter came on. It had been months since my last lecture at the school. I did not mind, warm food and warmer evenings spent reading made me complacent. The snowy aisles leading away her home, the impudent bark of squirrels and quavering voices of the owls. When a larger, more ferocious animal offered it's hungry yowl she would calmly state it's meaning, sometimes showing me the means to cup my hands and respond to its cry. The sound of the clattering poker on those nights gave me peace.
I had even come to accept Mokou and her iridescent mannerisms as natural. Though she seemed a bit deaf whenever I spoke to her, I still found some repose knowing her indomitable spirit guarded us.
-I've mulled it over since and I still can't place why she was the one that pulled me back into school. Must've been taking up too much space for her in the day.
She came in shaking the snow from her crinkling off-white hair. ' You can't keep pampering him like that Keine.'
We were going over that evening's recitations by the stove. 'What's that?' she asked, guiding her finger over the lines for me.
'I said you can't keep coddling him like this. It's unhealthy. Boy needs company his own age. Ain't it time enough for him to get back to school?' She took her cracked boots from her feet and laid them at the door.
Keine paused and slowly curled her finger back into a soft fist. 'Is it?' she asked. 'I'd reckon so. He's doing well by himself but what about in other's company? It won't be bad, you'll be there and all.'
'I suppose so. I just…just hope what we've been doing has been enough.'
'I wouldn't think otherwise, way he reads we won't have much left for him in the house.' That gave her a smile.
-Wasn't even able to get a word in edgewise, not like I would of but that's of little consequence. Any case, following morning and near every morning after I had to troop on in the blasts of wind to the school with Keine.
The school house of her district stood out to the west. The walls indoor were of neatly cut red oak that still glowed in subdued luster. A long square stove that stood on slender legs warmed the lecture hall in the winter, a wooden chair, and a simple table for the use of the teacher completed the front of the room. As I recall that crowded little school-room, smothering in the indoor heat of winter with familiar half-lit faces murmuring around me, I wish to acknowledge my deep obligation and resentment to Keine. She gave no time for me to re-ingratiate myself into the class. No, she cared only to flaunt what her private tutelage had accomplished.
I was scared almost voiceless when it came my turn to read passages before the class. Keine had imposed a high ideal in me of the way in which these selections should be read. An excess of desire to do it just right often left me gasping over words. Regardless of the outcome, I would fall back into my seat in disgrace, the titter of the girls adding to my pain.
No matter, I was taught to feel the force of these selections and deference to the masters who wrote them.
Before long I could follow almost word for word the recitations of the older pupils. And surpass them.
-We had dodged the subject for a while but my future came up. My time at school had ended and Keine looked to have me continue with literature, working the village's archives or as a teacher of some nearby district. I'd have done it to. Problem was I still had some darkness about me. And that fucked lamp.
-I kept it on through the years. Never figured to toss it since I held onto that selfsame purpose from childhood. Didn't know even become aware of it till then. I still had to go on underground.
-Mokou took it as a load of rot.
She wrapped her thumb and forefinger around my arm, nearly making them touch along the curve. 'What are you hoping with this? You wouldn't even be able to swing a mattock twice over, let alone for the day. Where'd all the sense we gave you go to?' Exasperation was near her voice. Keine looked on, eyes glazed over as she fixedly held back her tears.
-I asked again.
'You've never even been outside the rampart, you know what's out there even? A week'll end you.'
She struck me with the flat of her hand on the side of my head, hard but without heat, exactly as one would urge a mule at work. 'Get your ear out your ass and listen that it'll be the death of you!'
-I exhorted, pleaded, begged even. I don't know how I kept my voice charged and sincere with Keine drawing her sleeve across her mouth. But it went on for a time, neither of us let Keine near to wipe the blood before it dried.
-A few days passed without our speaking to another. While outside on an evening, Mokou waved to me, indicating with her hand to follow.
I trailed behind her to the yard.
'You're set on this.'
'Good. You need to stick to your blood. It's all you've got. Don't stick to it and you won't have any left in you. I don't intend to stop you, and Keine will let you go after a while anyways. But I won't have you curling up out there 'cause of your damned wooden head. You've got a year left here, let's see if I can't fix that.' With that she set me to a run, pushing me forth with resounding kicks when I lagged.
-She kept me on like that for a year: working the wood, fixing the house, goading me into scraps on the streets and the taverns. Anything to get some muscle on me and sweat the softness out. 'spite what she said, I ended up losing a good bit of my blood.
We numbered twenty and two, all bleeding new, at the line for the fall slate. We were culled for hardiness and strength of back, though lack of literacy was grounds for exclusion if you could not properly respond to their orders and situational hazards right quick. They granted nine of us an undertaking for the next day as relief for a group already a month due to return. They informed us of the location where we would be equipped and driven out to the encampment. "Prepare for a lengthy time out boys," they had said without cheer.
-I said little when I left, didn't want to have haunting thoughts trailing after me while I was there. Promised to write and keep well. Still, I felt hollow seeing them off like that.
I arrived early the next day on a lack of sleep. The chattering tongues of people rolling out their wares hummed close to where I waited. The remnants of the summer monsoons hovered in the chilled morning air, threatening to break open in a final downpour before the winter.
Two wagons arrived with the sharp bitter clatter of weathered and ungreased wood and metal -- carrying the same gaunt procession of workers I had known them to since childhood. From atop the leading wagon the team leader, a small headed pugnacious man with a mouth spread taut, drove his horses to a halt near us. The rear wagon carried the men's rucksacks, canvas sheets, lamps, stones and jewels, coal, damaged equipment to have repairs carried out, and such middling fare. At his instruction, the group exited the wagon. A pair of hired hands tossed the retiring workers their gear while the rest set to feeding and unbridling the horses' traces under the wagon leader's continuous bark. Once the horses settled and the wagons freshly loaded with return goods, the team leader alighted from his perch and spoke directly to us for the first time in what I assumed was half an hour. From his breast pocket he drew a small sheaf of creased, off-white papers and impassively recited our names.
' If yeh pick me fer a fool, I'll fool yeh,' he said. 'Dat's what's what. I don't want yehs to take me fer no easy bum. You all hain't got nothin' t' do with me, have yehs? Well den, go set yerselfs on deh wagon.' He glowered at us and ended his oration with one elegant word, 'Nits.'
We scampered into our seats. They rode high in the wooden spring seat while we jounced up and down in the bottom of the box or clung desperately to the side boards.
'I own want yehs fixin' and fussin'. I won't go savin' yez if you plop off deh wagon. I got my own fambly to take so yez bist shtrapp an' wind yerselfs tight to deh boards.'
The trip was made fast for fear of the feral animals and demons said to cross paths at interval to us. The wind began whistling in a wet, clamorous burst as we passed onto the grassy vales. The teamsters handed back an oilskin canvas to hold over our heads. The squidgy fabric made the canvas hard to hold and pools of collected rain would wash down over us in intervals. We made a splattering rush through the road. It was dark as pitch but I was fully awake now. The dash of rain against my face had cleared my mind but I still felt separate from the events occurring. Though the road showed only in strips of water which filled the wagon tracks, they kept whipping the horses forward with branches of peeled willow, never missing a beat in their conversation.
'--great job out'n North. Boss keep yeh hustlin' through all time. Was there three days and made 'nuff to keep on for a month.'
The rain had turned to a hanging faint vapor when we arrived later that night. Far-sighted torches specked the camp in dim light. The plot was rent up by fissures, tumbled boulders crowing next to tents and a pit carved into the mountain's side.
We unhitched and were told to set our tents and wait for the sun to drain the cavern's entrance. I raised my tent on a cleared spot and banked it snugly with rocks. Blowing out my lantern I hung it on a peg I had fashioned on the center pole. The trip had left me grotty and covered in a watery film. I slept as I was, shirt unbuttoned on my back. I had been too tired to dream, and would be for months to come.
-It's a damned thing it is, knowing that it was time to get up, although it was not yet dawn.
I would lay in my bed roll, all hollow from sleep, waiting in those pregnant seconds for the morning call to snap me awake.
'Wake up boys, and pay y'r lodging!'
The smell of coal scuttle and pancakes frying drifted in skeins around our tents. We ate by the kerosene lanterns held by shafts as it was not light enough to see. We took our meal quick for the burning moths that tumbled over us, threatening to catch fire to our clothes.
-Nothing brings memories to surface like smells and flames.
So we waddled into the cold inbreath of the mouth, the buckles of our belts striking the weathered tin of our lanterns noisily. The floors were padded with damp clay; the ceilings hung with cocoons.
The work was rough, but not vicious. After a time an hour's work or so I always managed to fall into some private reverie. It passed time quick. We took outside around noon to eat our bread and milk each day.
-The team leaders were muffs and bastards, but they didn't care for much so long as you made quota and followed the tenets.
In case of trouble: 1) Don't run-there'll be nowhere to run. 2) Avoid the sulfur springs-you'll choke. 3)Clot your wounds-blood will attract beasts. 4)NEVER go deeper.
We left the caverns coated in dust, grained like wood where the sweat had trickled down. I rested near the sparse trees, quietly napping and smoking in the shade. I took those times and the hour afore bed to read what I could find and write home. I kept it brief, plugging in little vignettes for them to entertain an d believe I was doing well.
-In a sense I was, but at the core, I don't know, there was a subtle change going over me.
Long before the nooning was up we were culled back: "Time's up, grab a mattock." And so, lame, stiff and sore, with knees bent like an old man I hobbled right back into the smut. Once inside, I felt better. A relief, a mellower charm came over me. I wished for leisure to explore. To go down farther…
-The damn disastrous impulses of mine.
It arrived as a noise; more than a hum it was a rumble. I was musing then, about some rot or another. I did not suspect a landslip.
The sighs and moans awoke me. I felt a cracking head-split wending its way aback my head. All the noise made me swell, I called for quiet. I was alone, shouting for my own mewling to stop.
Slavishly I picked myself up and collapsed into the grit again on a knee jerk reaction. I had slid down to some unfrequented pocket of the cavern, floor soft with dank moss with muddy whirlpools swirling around it.
-I'd have starved if it weren't for the blind fish lolling around in those pools. Their eyes were nothing but jelly. They're all like that down here aren't they? Took on a bit of luck with the flint slates there too --too damp for matches down there. Had enough oil to keep on for a week. A week in that bulb-shaped hole.
-The casting had become warped and dented from the fall, but it could still light. Only way I could eat was chunking out the fish with a blunted knife and roasting what I could over the open shutter. I took to pacing around placidly and writing while I was there. I had a soft-tip pencil and a few sheaves of a journal on my person. Thoughts, happenings, some past worries--nothing definitive. I ended with this-- a lead up to what I thought would be my death.
"But it wasn't."
-No, what makes you say that?
"You're not witty."
-Not in the slightest.
"And how did it end?"
- By one of the pools there was a hole warped by the water that led down. Must've been on the last day when I decided to ram it open and go down. Was desperate then, either going to die in the hole or die in a crevice. I tied up my hangings and pushed them in front of me. Must have spent half a day squirming down there, staring down the darkness till I could make out the blurry shapes of footholes to push forward on. And then…
"Then you just…plopped."
-Aye, just fell into the river. It was nice, gave me a feeling of cleanliness as though I had bathed.
"But you hadn't."
-Not for a time, no.
-How do you think it was on me? Anycase, I broke surface, had relief wash over me. Till I saw an girl with ridiculous elfin ears bristling down at me while she played with the sandals on her feet.
-She clicked her tongue in disgust when I sprawled out of the water, berating me with the voice of a trained cynic because I came off as 'cagey 'to her.
"And did you?"
-Mayhaps. I don't furrow my brow without good reason to. Can't blame for it in the end though, I was delirious. Delirious enough to stay on with her.
"What made you stay?"
-Hmm, her slowly curving lip and half-closed eyes, the way she always raises her eyebrow to a lovely angle when she gets waspish, that giggle-snort she lets out when she laughs, her shaky breath when I nip those ungainly ears of her--need more?