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File 138689459673.jpg - (111.43KB, 850x816, sample-c760e5abd8bf2a5feb80c5cf10ff6822.jpg) [iqdb]
1413
Veteran shorts go here!
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1418
My name is Tewi Inaba, and I've never been more scared in my life.

I've been in here for what feels like days, but I know it's only been a few hours, tops. It's not here right now. I can't hear it.

The light- well, the light keeps it away. Mostly.

It never gets pitch-dark around here, not during this time of year. The snow always gives the woods some light. Even if there's no moon, there's always the slightly orange-tinged light.

You'd think that'd be comforting.

I wish it was comforting.

Let me start from the beginning.

It's duck season, and we in Eientei decided to take a trip up north to go duck hunting. Eirin, Reisen, Kaguya and I all crammed into a truck and headed up to the cabin that's been up there. Nobody knows who actually owns it, but we've kept it up these past couple years.

That's beside the point, though.

We get up there, and it'd been snowing. Not 'snowed so much that the doors don't open', but snowed enough that everything's coated in a fresh layer of snow. No animal tracks. It wasn't snowing when we got there, but I assumed that it had just snowed, and that's why there weren't any animal tracks.

That wasn't the last time I'd be wrong.

So we set up some duck blinds off near the lake, and we sat and waited. Kaguya had already complained about the cold, and had begged off going with us. This wasn't surprising: she's never been the 'outdoorsy' type. She mostly comes up here to get away from the world for a bit. So she was in the cabin, and she'd promised us she'd have dinner ready when we came back at dusk.

Eirin, Reisen and I sit around in the duck blind for a couple hours, not seeing a single thing. We weren't particularly quiet, so I assumed we'd scared everything off.

That's okay. None of us really come up for just the hunting anyway. It's not serious business- we come up here to get away, have a few beers, and maybe shoot something.

The sun starts to set, and the wind blowing off the lake becomes even more unpleasantly chilly. So we get up, and chat about things while we're disassembling the blind. I don't remember what we talked about.

I wish I could. I'd rather remember that.

So we crunch back through the snow, back to the cabin. Everything's as it should be- the cabin's not far from the lake, honestly. It's probably only a half-mile to the edge of the lake. The truck's sitting by the shed, the porch has a few footprints in it leading from the door to the woodpile. Judging from the smoke coming out of the chimney, Kaguya's started a fire.

So we sat and ate and drank beer. Pork chops and Kirin. Why do I remember that?

Shit, thought I heard something. Just the snow falling off a branch. I hope.

Anyway. So we finish dinner, and start beering it up. Sometime around 10 or so, we're drinking and watching the fire and swapping stories when we hear this keening, unearthly scream. Sets all my hair on end. Kaguya goes white. Eirin's lips draw tight. Reisen tells the two of them to stay inside, and asks me to go with her.

She grabs her shotgun and I my rifle.

We're standing out on the porch.

In front of us is a relatively clear area- the clearing of the 'front yard'. There's a fluorescent light probably about a good 50 feet in front of the house. The light for it's always on, because you never know if you're going to see something crossing under it. Beyond that is the dirt road we came up on, and across that road is woods. Woods for God only knows how far.

That keening scream comes again, and I immediately shoulder my rifle, looking for the source of the noise. Reisen, on the other hand, relaxes visibly, and pats me on my shoulder. “It's only a fox,” she said. Goddamn foxes make the worst noise, I remember thinking, as I do my best to unwind. Reisen chuckles, and lights a cigarette.

“I'll be right back,” she says. “Gotta answer the call of nature.” So she walks off to the side of the cabin, to the edge of the woods.

I stand there on the porch and wait. It'd be rude to leave her out there herself. She might be fine being left out there by her lonesome tonight, I remember thinking, but I sure as shit wouldn't want to be.

So I wait.

And I wait.

I look to where she walked off to. “Reisen?” Nothing. The snow muffles the echoes.

I pop my head into the cabin. “Guys, Reisen's gone.” Eirin frowns, and walks out onto the porch with me. Kaguya huddles on the couch in the cabin.

I point off in the direction that I saw Reisen walk off. “She went over there a while ago to use the bathroom... and then she didn't come back.”

Eirin crosses her arms, and looks over there. Obviously, Reisen isn't there. “Where could she have gone?” I hear her mutter to herself. “Reisen?” she shouts. Nothing. “This isn't funny, Reisen.” Silence.

While Eirin's shouting for Reisen, I notice a thing. It's not been snowing. But the footprints that Reisen left when she walked over to the edge of the woods are gone. Not like they'd been filled in by snow- but like they were never made in the first place.

I point this out to Eirin. She decides that it'd be best for us to stay inside, where it's warm, well lit, and wait for Reisen to come back. “Pranks are more your thing,” she had said. “Didn't expect Reisen to be pulling something.”

Yeah. Pranks.

By this time, my pleasant beer buzz has completely disappeared.

But we sit.

And we wait.

And we doze off, waiting for Reisen to come back.

I'm awakened by a loud thump and a shockwave- felt like something heavy had fallen over above me. Which was weird, as there was only the roof above me.

Eirin and I silently walk out, into the weird night snow-glow and scope out the outside of the cabin. Nothing seems out of place, but there was definitely an explosion of some sort. No fallen trees, no nothing.

I step back a few paces to get a good view of the roof. Apparently the top of the chimney had blown off, and was sitting a few feet away from the rest of the chimney on the roof.

I wish we'd cleaned the chimney more regularly. None of this would have happened if we had.

Eirin and I come back into the cabin, and something's off. The fire's still smouldering a bit inside the wood-burning stove, but it's oddly quiet.

Kaguya had slept through the explosion, and neither of us wanted to wake her. But we realized that her steady sleeping breathing was gone.

Kaguya was gone.

“Okay, Reisen, you got me,” I say, voice quavering. “Good job, pranking me.”

No reply.

Eirin picks up her shotgun from the wall, and says that she's going to go downstairs to check and see if Reisen or Kaguya might be down there. The cabin's two stories, but set on a hill- I like to think of it as first story and a basement. The first story faces the front yard, but you can only see the first story from there. The backyard, where the boat is kept, you can see both the basement with its large picture window and the small deck we built there last year. I walk out onto the deck, rifle in hand, as I see Eirin come out the back door. “Anything?” I ask.

She shakes her head, and walks over toward the boat.

The boat is under a little awning that we built this year- it's near the old satellite TV dish that the old owners left there. We hadn't bothered to get TV installed- feels like it'd be missing the point entirely. The place doesn't have any cell phone reception, no internet, so we'd have to walk up the dirt road a ways to get any signal. It's probably about a two mile walk down the road to get signal, and neither of us want to make that trip in the eerie near-darkness.

It's odd. As a kid, I always liked the weird way that it never quite got dark when night fell when there was snow on the ground. You could see almost as well as you could in the day.

And then you sometimes see things that you wish you hadn't seen, that you wouldn't have seen if it was pitch-black out there. Ignorance can be bliss.

Eirin turns to me, on the edge of the woods, and shakes her head. I frown, and look down at her footprints.

They're disappearing.

I open my mouth to tell her this, to tell her to come back, to tell her that something's not right. But before I can do that, a voice whispers in my ear, familiar yet strange. “Hello, old friend,” it says.

My mouth had opened to warn Eirin. Instead all I can do is scream. Eirin's head jerks up to me, and concern written on every line of her face, she starts running back up to the cabin. I tear ass back into the cabin, through the doors onto the deck. I hear Eirin come in through the lower level's back door. I hear her coming up the stairs.

I stand at the top of the stairs, waiting.

There's a curtain set at the top of the stairs- to keep the warmth on the upper level, since we weren't using the basement.

I stand at the top of the stairs, waiting.

Her footsteps stop. I don't hear them anymore.

I stand at the top of the stairs, waiting.

My heart is racing.

I stand at the top of the stairs, waiting.

Like it wants to jump out of my chest.

I steel my resolve, and stop standing at the top of the stairs, waiting.

I part the curtains. There's a figure at the bottom of the stairs, shrouded in shadows. “Eirin?” I say.

“Pranks are more your thing,” the figure says. “Didn't expect Reisen to be pulling something.” Eirin's voice.

Sort of.

A little.

Not at all.
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1419
>>1418
The figure takes a step onto the bottom stair. It's not Eirin. It can't be Eirin. Something's wrong. Something's not right. I can't tell what's wrong, but it's not Eirin.

So I do the sensible thing. The smart thing. I don't go haring off, screaming at the top of my lungs.

No, I shoulder my rifle, aim for center of mass, and pull the trigger. What was I going to do, anyway, even if that was Eirin? Kill her? Yeah. The bullet hits home with a meaty thwack, and the figure stops mid-step.

I work the bolt and pull the trigger again. Thwack.

The figure finishes its step onto the next stair.

Work the bolt. Pull the trigger. Thwack.

The figure drops to a knee on the stairs. No sound of pain. No screaming. No grunting of air getting knocked out of it.

Work the bolt Pull the trigger Thwack.

The figure stumbles, and falls prone on the staircase.

WorktheboltPullthetriggerThwack.

The figure is motionless.

worktheboltpullthetrigger

click

I'm not going down there to figure out what the fuck it was that I just put five bullets into.

No, I'm going to the dinner table, grabbing a few more clips of ammunition, and I am going to wait for dawn by the goddamn fire and the light.

I push five more bullets into the magazine, stripping them right off the first clip I grabbed from the table.

Work the bolt. The first bullet slams home into the chamber.

I point it towards the stairs and wait. I don't want to be here. I, however, don't want to be out in the woods more. And I've just proven those things can die. Kind of. Maybe. I don't know.

This wasn't the best decision I could make.

I sit. And I wait. The fire is warm and comforting, even if it is just a few flickering embers.

I sit. And I wait. The fire keeps the chill at bay better than I'd imagine.

I sit. And I wait. The smell of woodsmoke has always calmed my nerves.

I sit. And I wait. And the smell of woodsmoke grows stronger.

I sit. And I wait. And the fire grows warmer.

I sit. And I wait. And the fire grows lower.

I sit. And it hits me.

The cabin is on fire.

The smoke and fire licks from below, behind the curtain, down in the basement. I stand up, shove my feet in my boots, throw on my coat, grab my gun and ammunition, and run out the door.

I didn't want to be outside tonight, in the strange orange twilight snow glow.

I didn't want to be inside more, in the orange fire glow.

I run for the pool of fluorescent light, the only real light, the light that's set up in the front yard. I can't get rid of the feeling of eyes on my back, no matter what direction I turn.

Fire begins to slowly consume the cabin.

The fluorescent light shuts off with a soft pop, leaving me in the glow of the snow and fire.

“Hello, old friend,” a voice whispers in my ear, a hand caresses my face.

I whirl and fire a round. Nothing's there. I run to the truck, determined to get the fuck out of Dodge, and get help. Why none of us thought to do this earlier is beyond me. The door is unlocked, the keys on the center console.

Awesome. Let's get the fuck out of here, Tewi, I say to myself.

I turn the keys, the truck turns over, and doesn't start.

It's okay, I say. It's cold out. It probably won't start the first time. That's normal.

I turn the keys, the truck turns over, and doesn't start.

I just need to pump the gas pedal, I say. The engine just needs a little help getting started.

I turn the keys. The click of the solenoid is the only sound I hear.

I sit, and I stare. “Gotta answer the call of nature,” Reisen's not-voice whispers behind me.

Except Reisen isn't in the back seat of the truck.

It's one of the... things.

The same one I shot?

A different thing?

The response is the same anyway.

Work the bolt, pull the trigger, thwack. Having distracted the monster so, I kick open the door of the truck, and run.

Run to the woods.

Run to the place where I heard that keening scream.

It's only a fox, I say to myself.

Nothing to be afraid of.

I'm terrible at lying to myself.

My headlong flight through the woods terminates in a clearing- there's a small power substation here, with a single light illuminating the area.

I turn to look at where I came from. There's a faint glow over the horizon where the house is burning. But that's not what I'm looking at.

The important thing isn't actually what I'm looking at at all. The important thing is what I'm not looking at.

I am very much not looking at my footprints.

They're gone.

I decide that I'm going to get into this substation- there might be something inside that can help. I start to level the rifle at the door's lock, when I decide to try the knob first.

It's unlocked.

I slip inside, the harsh yellow light of the lightbulb outside streaming in through the one window.

As I shut the door, I hear the keening scream again.

That's not a fucking fox.

That's not a fucking fox.

I've been in here a few hours. It feels like days. Dawn can't come soon enough. When dawn comes, I'm getting the fuck out of here by any means necessary, even if I have to walk my ass down to the closest town.

I heard something.

I haven't heard anything for hours.

But I just hea



You put down the journal that you found in this old power substation.

Your snowmobile broke down this snowless night, with a couple feet of snow on the ground.

You look out the window, at your snowmobile, sitting in the puddle of harsh yellow light, surrounded by the orange glow of a snowy twilight.

The tracks are disappearing.

“Hello, old friend,” a voice whispers in your ear.
File 138765672537.jpg - (194.50KB, 800x600, P_I_chun.jpg) [iqdb]
1436
The wind snuck up and blew loudly in my ear, making me bolt upright with a start at my desk.

Grumbling, I pulled my coat tighter and huddled in closer to the desk, checking the urge (yet again) to open the third drawer, right side, and fetch a little bit of liquid warmth. While the whiskey would certainly stoke a fire in me, money was tight, and I knew that once I saw the bottom of that bottle, I wouldn't be having anything to drink for a long, long time. Heh. "Money was tight." Probably the biggest understatement about this entire song and dance. Let me begin again.

The name's Hakurei--Reimu Hakurei, private investigator. Well, that's what I hung on my door, but this town needs detectives like horses need glue. Gensokyo's a rough neighborhood--they don't want an investigator. What they need is someone to do a dirty job. When something needs doing, when there's a problem to solve, but they can't--or won't, the lazy bums--they call me. That's what I do. I solve problems.

They call me a...well, not a troubleshooter. An 'incident resolver,' that was how they prettied it up. Whatever you call it, it's the same thing--dealing with lousy business no one else feels like taking care of. But things gotta get done, and so they call Reimu Hakurei, PI. But all that changed the day she walked through my door.

I started upright as the door opened--the bellchime had long since fallen off, but the draft from the leaky window behind me kicked up, a sure sign of company. I was sure it was Marisa, coming to mooch another favor, sure enough that a not-insignificant part of me was considering removing my shoe and winging it at the source of the disturbance. Lucky thing I didn't.

Her legs ran to eternity and the clock stopped as I found myself gawking--my woefully dingy office faded away into obscurity as she brought grace and class, like moonlight, into the world. Her blue skirt rose with my heart, revealing a tantalizing flash of thigh, bare white skin barred behind the black silk of a garter strap, like prison bars, telling me "Not yours. Hands off." Thigh-highs without so much as a ripple still managed to run, conforming tightly to her gorgeous, toned calves. The last of the melting snow trickled down her high heels, as if apologizing for dirtying them in the first place. I was about to get Victorian on peeping her ankle, when I realized I should probably be looking up, not down.

Well...the upstairs wasn't as fun as the downstairs, but it was better furnished. For all that gam, the dame was dressed like a prude--not that I could blame her, with frost spiderwebbed across the inside of my window--plain and almost homely, a thick blue dress, something to do work in, clearly made for someone who actually does things for a living. Someone like me.

So of course, I didn't trust her. She came in armed with nothing but a smile, which only made me more leery. She looked innocent enough--big, bright eyes under silver braids--but everything about how she held herself told me she was trouble. It was subtle, but I could tell that she was putting a lot of work into looking harmless. The way she shifted her weight, the poise, the way she turned on her toes, the barest hint of tension in those calves; all of it told me that she was dangerous. With just a glance, I knew that she could cross this room in three bounds and kill me in less than a second.

It kind of excited me.

"If you're lookin' for the tailor's, you're about two streets and three tax brackets off," I said by way of greeting. The old Hakurei charm, never failed (to earn me a slap).

"Oh, no," she said, with a voice like polished china, as measured and practiced as everything else about her, "I assure you, Miss Hakurei, I am in the right place."

"Is that a fact?" I asked, leaning forward.

She smoothed down her skirt and turned to face me, sending frills and lace spinning right back up again. "Quite. My employer has heard good things about you, and wishes to hire you to help her with a task."

"Your employer?" I ask. Only a few people talked about their bosses like that, and they were all bad news.

"I work for Lady Remilia Scarlet, head of--"

"Head of the Red Devil Gang, the most dangerous crime family (and hangers-on) in the wharf district." I knew this broad was trouble. "And I never got your name, Miss...?"

She just smiled, like I hadn't just pulled the top off her bunker and thrown the bomb right in. "Sakuya Izayoi, Miss Hakurei. And my lady's ... checkered past is what brings me here."

With a resigned sigh, I leaned back in my squeaky, battered office chair. "Well, go on, then. It's your dime."

"My Lady wishes to get out of the organized crime business," Izayoi said calmly. "Though, as I'm sure you can imagine, it's never that simple."

I reclined before I declined, arms behind my head. "Uh-huh. And where does a glorified snoop below the poverty line factor into this?"

That same calm, wifely smile never wavered. Right now, she was the warmest thing in my office, and probably the hottest. "Your particular method of 'problem-solving' caught her eye. The word about Reimu Hakurei is that she's the best duelist in Gensokyo. That she wrote the book on it." A pause, a furrowed brow, a look of concern. "Were they wrong?"

"Flattery will get you nowhere," I replied, "but I'm listening."

"Lady Remilia wishes to establish a more respectable business. But leaving the old business behind--you must understand the power vacuum that would create. There would be chaos. Chaos, gang war, investigations... investigations that would lead to questions about my Lady's character. Questions with... unfavorable answers."

"And how, exactly, do you plan to stop them from finding the truth?"

"One version of the truth," Izayoi corrected, actually looking briefly annoyed (it somehow only made her more appealing). "And, simply enough? Leave the competition in no shape to make any power grabs. By the time they recover and fill the gap, there will be no trace the Red Devils were ever there."

I looked up at that. "Slow down, Missy. You're telling me that the Fishing District's biggest crime boss wants me to team up with her and take on a bunch of small-time smallfry so she can find a better line of work?"

"I have been instructed to ask you for precisely that," she replied smoothly. "And if you'll come with me, I assure you that myself and my Lady can make it rather worth your while." She smiled impishly at me over her shoulder as she turned 'round on her heel, a whirl of her dress showing me exactly what she meant. This lady didn't do anything by accident, especially show me some frilly black lace and the promise of a good time.

Still, you don't call yourself a P.I. in this burg and jump blindly into risky business for nothing more than a pretty girl and a hitched-up skirt. Naturally, that's why I did it for the money. And boy, did she reek of money--she carried that old-world elegance, the only kind that lets you get away with so much on so little. The check she flashed me had more zeroes on it than the streets did.

The Red Devils--Remilia Scarlet was old money, with an emphasis on the old--rumor had it she came from European nobility, helmed the family for well over five centuries, and hadn't aged a day. They called her the Dead Princess. Her front was ice--the cold kind--and her real business was ice--the shining kind. Diamond smuggling, pointless little rocks that men killed and died over. Outwardly, she was a philanthropist and an upstanding member of the community. She ran soup kitchens and shelters for wayward youths, taking fairies off the streets, feeding and clothing them, putting them to work. Inwardly, of course, she pressed them into a life of crime, owning the shirts on their backs and adding them to her gang. The other crime families--your Uptown Ghosts, your Temple Street Saints--said she took in strays, called them her dogs. But there was no denying that the eldest Scarlet had her own, private army. And there I was, heading into the thick of it, fae with sub-machineguns flanking either side of the doors as I went to meet Big Red herself.

Well--she certainly did like her red. Red carpets, red curtains, red upholstry. Hell, the head of her security team was a redhead, a Chinese number with fiery hair and a fighter's stance. She was no trophy piece, I could tell that right away--those baby blues of hers were sharper than a knife, and gutted every shadow. You didn't get enforcers like that with money--you earned them. To own a woman like her, someone loyal past the paycheck? This Remilia Scarlet had to be dangerous. She gave me a nod as I walked by--fighter-to-fighter--as my silver-haired escort led me into the lion's den.

She had her back to us, looking out the window at the gently tumbling snow. "The Red-White herself," she said, sweeping her arms out grandly. "Incident resolution specialist turned hired gun. I must tell you, I adore your style. It fits the environs, don't you think?" She cast a hand out at the window, on which she cast no reflection. "A beautiful city skyline as far as the eye can see, beneath a pristine blanket of white, and a warm red hearth welcoming you inside. And, indeed, welcome," at this she finally turned 'round, her wings sailing through the air with a leathery snap, "to my estate."

"It's, ah," I fumbled. To me, home was a tea kettle and my back to a wall. "Nice. Better than my digs."

She didn't smile, not like her gentle maid. No, the Dead Princess grinned, baring the devil's teeth, glinting in the firelight. "Indeed. I know you're a woman of business, Miss Hakurei, so shall we get right down to it?"

I nodded, and the beautiful eye candy by my side curtsied and whisked out of the office. "What's the job?"

The job was to hit her three biggest rivals, all in one night, before the word went out. First would be the easiest, rough up the Nightwalkers, run by the self-declared Dark Lady. Then we'd hit the Big Fairy, a local importer who ran the chop-shop garages up and down the east side. And last, we'd go after Scarlet's biggest competition in the ice business, and shoot up Nine-ball's weekly pool shoot.

The Dark Lady--Rumia. No one knew her real identity--she burned her name, her past, and her warehouse about four years ago. Anyone in the know was keeping quiet, and given what happens to her detractors, I couldn't rightly blame them, if there were even any left. She left everything, forsaking her big businesses to run a small crew. A rogue agent--and from everything I could tell, she was happier that way. She and her Nightwalkers were somewhere between delinquent hooligans and petty supercriminals, working seemingly at random. Apparently she knocked over one of Scarlet's delivery trucks last week, which is why she was in the old bat's crosshairs at all. No real coordination, but doing that takes power.

Fortunately for me, Rumia does things personally. All it took was a walk down her turf and she showed up standing at the intersection of Cristo and Cavalry. She was a short blonde, some kind of fashionista, swathed in a stylish heavy black overcoat that made her seem even smaller. A matching black hat crested her head, Russian made, warm and comfortable like I've never been. It made me envy her. But for just a brief instant, it made me hate her, and that was all I needed.

"This place isn't safe for a private investigator," she said calmly, the cherry on her cigarette flickering in the wind, foiling my night vision and shadowing her face. "I know who you are."

"And I know who you are," I replied, ignoring the snow seeping into my leaky boots. "And we both know why I'm here."

"I suppose I do," she replied, lightly tugging off her gloves. "It's not too late to leave. Otherwise, you might get home to find it burnt down."

I laugh at that, with no small amount of bitterness. "What are you gonna do? Burn down the mold?"

She grunted in response. "You're brave, lady, I can respect that. But you're on my streets, now--the Saints were crucified here." The street light behind me fizzled and popped, shorting out. Then the next. Then the one above me. Finally the last light died over Rumia herself, plunging us into utter darkness.

"Just the one," I returned, nonplussed, standing with my legs wide as my hand hovered over my deck, burning a hole in my pocket. "And as I recall, she got better."

Ahead of me in the dark, the last light bobbed in the air as she took one last drag--the cigarette glowing bright before tumbling end-over-end into the darkness as she flicked it away. And with that, she lunged, talons and red eyes slashing through the night, demarcating the line between life and death. "Only half."

The fight was on--I dived aside, trusting my shoulder to the snow drift as my arm snapped up, throwing a scattering of amulets. Amulets--one of my old standbys, weaponized prayers of the righteous, banishing evil with all the force of a double-barreled shotgun and none of the tact.

The effect was, as ever, gratifying and instantaneous. Rumia snarled in pain as the blast threw her clear across the street and slammed her back into the wall of a condemned tenement. Windows shattered and icicles fell, and the Dark Lady fell slack, a sizzling hole in her nice coat (and torso). She tried to stand and failed, legs going slack as I approached, another amulet tingling between my fingers.

"I always was," she coughed, "a fan of your methods. Funny," she grimaced, struggling to move her arms. "I've burned--so many--so much--and this is my first..." her little body was racked with spasms as she coughed up a wad of blood, shining black as the moon peered down from behind a cloud, asking if it was over. "My first... breast pocket."

I nodded, getting the hint, and fished her pack of cigarettes and a battered silver lighter from her jacket. I lit her smoke for her, slipping it between her pretty, bloodsoaked lips and, after a moment's consideration, took one for my own. The lights came back to life with a buzz as I sat down beside Rumia, half-buried in the snow.

"Not gonna finish me off?" she rasped.

I tucked the cigarette behind my ear--one to save for the office. "No, because you're gonna live. I called an ambulance before I got here."

"For you, or for me?" I shrugged. That one was always up in the air, but the only sure bet was that one of us was gonna need it. She grunted in approval. "Always did... like your methods. Suppose I'll be... joining the Ghosts?"

"It's not too late to get out of the business," I offered, pressing the amulet into her hand. My calling card, in more ways than one.

We sat there a moment, demon and dame, dame and demon, her breath smoke, my breath fog. "I'll remember this," she grimaced. It wasn't a threat.

"See that you do," I replied, standing up and dusting the snow off my bony backside. "Thanks for the cigarette, Rumia."

"Could make a nice ribbon out of this..." she murmured, as I trudged back off into the dark. I was gone by the time the red flashed against the walls, the ambulance lighting up the night. One down.

I had to work fast. The Big Fairy had her ear to the ground and her finger on the pulse. She knew everything that went on in this part of town, and kept her position with a combination of cordial relations and cutthroat business. Rumor had it she was in bed with Nine-Ball, sometimes literally. I mind my Ps and Qs, but in either case it didn't matter. I would be making an enemy of both of them tonight. With violence on my mind, I ducked into my next destination--Lakeside Repair, a garage and one of the Big Fairy's first holdings.

"We're closed," the fairy at the counter said by way of greeting thumbing through Big Wing magazine. Girl hardly looked 180 to me, must have grabbed it off the rack and run.

"I'm here for business," I replied. She cast an eye up at me from a foldout of a model who put the 'fair' into 'fair folk.'

"What kind of business?"

"I need a car 'fixed,'" I explained. "It's a 1998 Plymouth Chrysler, purple, moves about as fast as a tortoise."

She scoffed. "Lady, you don't know nothin' about cars. First, Chrysler is a make, not a model. Second, it's Chrysler-Plymouth, and third, if you want a specific car boosted or parted, you'd have to talk to the boss. Why don't you go home and let your wife handle this kinda thing from now on?"

I smirked, placing my card down on the counter. "No need, I just wanted to make sure I had the right address." She looked up just as it exploded between us, setting off the sprinkler system and blowing her out of her greasy overalls.

"The purple car's mine, by the way," I added lightly as an afterthought, hauling her out of the burning building.

"Why're you...what..." she sputtered.

"Easy. When the alarm goes off in one of your boss's chop shops, the call goes to her, not the fire department."

"Who the hell--do you think--you..." She gasped and coughed as I dropped her nonchalantly on the street. I guess they really were closed, if she was the only one on duty tonight.

Sure enough, we're not out there two minutes before a black limousine pulls up, skidding around a corner. Six goons in suits pile out and level guns on me as the driver goes 'round back and holds open the door for the boss. The Big Fairy herself.

If Rumia burned her name, the Big Fairy never had one. In a low-cut blue gown with a white boa, she steps out of her car, buxom and beautiful, looking like she just left the opera. For all I know, she did. She can't be pleased to be out here freezing her wings off in her backless dress, staring down a grubby, flat-chested arsonist in the middle of a blizzard.

"You have some nerve," she huffed, flicking the long, luxurious green hair past her ear. "You could have at least fled the scene, instead of standing out here waiting for me like some frostbitten desperado. I still would have found you either way, but at least pretend to have some decorum."

"These things are done a certain way, then?" I asked. This whole situation only got more ridiculous, and still the absurdity piled higher and higher, like the drifting snow.

"Precisely. I do suppose this expedites things a little, though, doesn't it?" Turning her back with a flit of the wings, she addressed her fairy squad-- "Waste her."

They didn't hesitate, opening up with full-auto blasts from those SMGs the criminal element can't seem to get enough of. I only just had time to throw the hapless, slightly-singed garage fairy to safety before they cut us both down. I tucked and rolled, coming up behind a half-buried car. Gunfire pinged off the paint as the glass shattered and the driver-side mirror was shot off over my head. Serves him right, he was double-parked anyway.

Fairies--lifeblood of Gensokyo. Cheap labor, easily bought or bullied, able to pick up any job, and always in supply--it's no surprise that most of the big ticket criminal groups use them as grunts. Take them in, promise them a place to warm their wings and some steady work, and you have a worker. Put a gun in their hands, and you have a shock trooper. Problem is, they need a commanding figure to keep them in line, someone like that redhead or Izayoi. Most of these clowns have never so much as seen a shooting range. These thugs are just the same--they shoot 'til it goes click, and the only thing they do is deck the halls with flying lead.

"Right," I growled, "That's about enough of that." As they all--as one--ran out of ammo for their chattering, clattering tommies, I turn 'round the hubcap, two fistfuls of needles in tow. My mom taught me--hauled me up at 5 in the morning, lined up the bottles of milk, and had me throw and throw and throw until my arms burned and my legs ached, day after day, year after year. By now, it was second nature. My wrist flicked, and three fairies found the barrels of their guns jammed with a spike of steel. The others fumbled their reloads in panic, and three more guns jammed. I walked up to the driver as he half-heartedly raised a pistol and slid the needle down the muzzle myself, leaning in over him. "Shoo."

They didn't need telling twice, scattering to the four winds and suddenly leaving a very, very alone crime boss out in the cold. She turned to face me, bewildered. "Who--who are you?" she demanded, incredulous.

"A nobody. A hired gun. A cheapskate. Who are you?" I asked, kicking over a discarded uzi, metal already clouding over in the cold.

"...Daiyousei," she mumbled, defeated. "My name is Daiyousei. You--you're the first who knows. The only one who knows."

"Daiyousei. Heh. Hiding in plain sight, huh?"

"What are you going to do with me?" she whispered, still stunned. Still stunning, but I was on the job, here.

"Why, Miss Daiyousei," I replied grandly, "I'm going to send you home. Can you drive?"

"I--yes," she breathed.

"Then go on. Stay out of business for a little while, lay low. There's trouble coming tonight, and I need all hands out of the game, or things are going to get bloody. Hell, I probably did you a favor. I know all your holdings are insured."

"I--I will. I promise," she added. Part of me wants to bully the poor, ridiculous thing a little more, but I didn't get where I am teasing terrified criminals.

"Go on, then. And, Dai?" She turned back, eyes wide like a deer in the headlights. "Drive safe."

"Y-you too," she mumbled as she scrambled ungainly back into the still-running limo, giving me a lovely view of her curvy little derriere. What can I say, I'm weak. Two down, one to go, but the memories would last a lifetime.

Nine-Ball was another fairy who had clawed her way up through the ranks. Rumor had it she knocked off the leadership of a street gang and took over. She'd taken all comers like some sort of oni pit-fighter, with the title (and her rep) on the line. So far, she'd laid them all out. Hell, half her lieutenants and capos came from the thugs she bested. It left her command somewhat top-heavy, but she had no end of cronies to do the thinking for her. Just as well, she was dumber than a brick. Hits harder, too--she once elbowed me out of the way when I got between her and the bar.

Nowadays, though, the bar was hers, a pool hall that served as her base of operations. I walked into The Misty Lake like I had a hundred times before, and took the corner stool, like I had a hundred times before. Like a hundred times before, I propped my elbows up on the counter, and like a hundred times before, I sighed and grumbled until the barkeep showed up--another old, familiar face.

"She told you she'd kill you if you ever came back," he warned.

"Good to see you too, Kourin," I replied. "And yeah, I know. Mix me a double, would you? If I'm gonna die, I'd rather not do it sober."

"Sure," he replied, with the same old tired, lazy grin. "And let me guess, you'll put it on your tab?"

"I better not," crowed someone from the back, "have heard the word 'tab.'" Pushing her way through the milling drinkers, the woman herself swaggered to the fore, scowl on her face and pool cue in her hand.

"Evenin', Cirno," I greeted, raising my glass.

"You've got a lotta nerve showing your mug around here, Reimu," she growled dangerously.

I spun around in the stool once. "Yep. Join me for a drink?"

After a tense pause, Cirno guffawed--a short bark followed by a whoop as she burst out laughing. "See, girls? Now that's how you make an entrance. I always liked that about you, Reimu. Nothing puts a scare in ya."

She hopped up on the stool beside mine and held out her hand expectantly. The barkeep turned around with two doubles, whiskey on the rocks--just the way we like it. We each took our drinks and took a deep pull, side-eyeing each other. Our grins grew until we coughed on our booze, laughing and sputtering, just like old times. "Gods damn, Reimu," Cirno cackled, "I just can't stay mad at you. What the hell are you doing here, you skinny bitch?"

"Getting into trouble and making a mess, same as ever," I replied. "I'm calling you out."

That gave the fairy pause. She leaned on her pool cue, using it to turn her seat back and forth. "You told me you didn't want the job."

"I don't. And if I win, you can keep it."

"Never thought I'd see the day. What'd you go and get yourself into this time, eh?" she asked.

"One of your competitors needs to leave the scene without making a scene," I explained--I owed Cirno that much, from the days we ran together. "And to do that, I need to make sure no one--but no one--is in a position to do anything about it."

"So that's it? You're even dumber than I am."

I traced my finger along the edge of my glass. "Yep."

Cirno turned to face me, more serious. "If it were anyone else I'd have the girls rough you up and throw you in a snow bank," she said. "But you--for you--I can't disrespect ya like that. But you realize--this ends in blood."

"No," I said, turning and taking her outstretched hand. "This ends in billiards."

"Come on, now. No one's beaten me at shooting pool for sixty years," she warned. "I was schooling poolsharks while your mammy was in diapears."

"Yeah, I know. But I know you play for keeps, and I'm not gonna fight a friend."

"Well shucks, you sure know how to make a girl tear up. House game, then. Still got your cue, you know."

"I know. It was evidence in a case I was on last year. I'm surprised you didn't break it on that poor youkai's head."

Sure enough, there she was, just how I left her--chipped, battered, and worn, but mine. The old stick, with the paper streamers trailing off the end like war plumes. It reminded me of better times with worse people. It reminded me of bank jobs, life on the run, and feeling alive. People change, though. I know I did.

The house game, as always, was nine-ball. Challenger makes the break. Cirno wins on the second turn. No one, man or fae, had ever gotten a game to turn three against her. I circled the table, examining the diamond. The placement was perfect--I'd expect nothing less. Cirno always shot straight with me, and if there was one thing she hated, it was an unfair fight.

What she didn't know, though, was that all those years we played and strayed, I was holding out on her. Still, it had been a long time since I shot pool. I was rusty. The hope was that it had been so long that the rust flaked right off.

Testing the weight of the Gohei in my hand, I twirled it once, twice, hunched over the table, lined up my shot, squared my hips, sent up a prayer, and shot.

One-ball. Break.

Left bank. Dark-side.

Right bank. Light-side.

Nine-ball. Balance.

Side pocket.

The room went silent and cold, and suddenly I wished I was out in the storm. Snow was less likely to break your neck in a fit of rage.

"Reimu," Cirno called, voice tight, "What the hell was that?"

Standing up and wiping the sweat from my brow, I grinned. "Don't have a proper name for it, yet. I was thinking of calling it the Yin-Yang Ball."

"You beat me," Cirno whispered. The patrons began to back away cautiously, sensing the explosion. "You beat me."

And then, all at once, she was on top of me--wrapping her arms around my waist and hefting me into the air like a sack of potatoes. "You beat me!" she cried, twirling me like a ballerina. "Little Reimu beat me!"

"I did," I wheezed, "but you're currently beating my kidneys."

"Oh, whoops. Sorry." She dropped me unceremoniously in a heap on the floor. "Still, I can't believe it. I never thought I'd see the day. Gang's yours, Reimu. What do you want to do?"

"While we transition leadership, for the next two weeks," I declared, "I want everyone to go on vacation. Take a powder, ladies and fellas. After that...well, Cirno will be challenging me to a rematch, but I won't be available due to a pre-existing appointment, sleeping off a hangover in the gutter. She'll win by default, and business resumes as usual."

Cirno whooped again. "Round of drinks on me for the 'new boss,' gang!" A cheer went up, and my job was done.

I should have known it wouldn't end in celebration.
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I got back to Scarlet's place to find the fairies mobilizing. It was a hectic mess of activity, girls marching this way and that, and no sign of the maid. Up ahead, I saw the redhead again. This time, she didn't meet my gaze.

That was trouble.

I pushed into Scarlet's room again, and found her swirling around a glass full of something that wasn't wine. I forced it out of my mind as she stood up, setting it down and clapping slowly.

"The hero returns! Bravo. Bravo, miss Hakurei. You have performed exceptionally well tonight."

"Where's Izayoi?" I asked.

"Right here," came a voice--and a knife--at my throat.

"Of course," I muttered drily.

"I suppose I owe you an explanation," Remilia said around a smug victor's grin, lifting her glass again as she turned to look back out that window. "You see, the empire I've built--it's all so small. Ready to expand. But the locals--they're all in it together, you see. Rumia goes after anyone who gets too big. The Big Fairy--well, she's head over heels for that rough Nine-ball and her rogueish charms. The two of them watch out for each other and take cuts of combined ventures. Me?" She whirled around, sweeping her hand out. "I want it all. But moving against one meant moving against them all."

"So you needed me to come in and take them all out. Naturally. Should have known you wouldn't change your spots, Scarlet."

"What I needed, in point of fact, was a deniable asset, a smoking gun with no prints on it. Someone who works cheap and fast--and quite efficiently, I might add. I needed you, in short."

"So what now? You turn on me like some dimestore thriller villainess and the Red Devils reign supreme?"

Remilia chuckles. "Red Devil Gang is so coarse, don't you think? No, with Rumia and her brigands out of commission, the Big Fairy in hiding, and Cirno and her mob out of town already...I think that a hostile takeover of a few assets is in order. The Scarlet Devil Syndicate has a much better ring to it, don't you think?"

"I think," I muttered into my lapel, "that your maid is very beautiful, your plan was very shrewd, and you are batshit insane."

Remilia paused mid-sip, frowning. "Pity."

"You could have had it, you know. A week from now, I'd read the headlines, connect the dots, and you know what I would have done? Precisely nothing."

The vampire studied me intently with crimson eyes for a moment before replying. "Precisely nothing, Miss Hakurei, is precisely what you're going to do. Slit her throat, please, Sakuya."

She tried, bless her, but her knife cut nothing but air. My last, best trick--sometimes the best way to win a firefight is not to be there. I fade back in across the room, cards at the ready.

"How did...? No matter. Dispose of her. I'll be supervising the operations. Don't disappoint me, Sakuya."

"Yes, my Lady," the maid, ever elegant, ever dangerous, said calmly. Scarlet turned and departed as we faced off.

"You don't have to do this, you know," I offered--pleaded, really--"Come away with me. I can protect you."

"No," the maid shook her head sadly, the faintest of emotion tracing her face. "You can't, Miss Hakurei. I really am sorry, though. Some things...you can't fight against fate."

We drew at the same time--I had my amulet, she had her knife. Unfortunately for her, today paper beat silver. Izayoi--no, Sakuya--tumbled across the carpet in a slow, almost graceful arc, tumbling to a halt in a sprawl.

Despite myself--despite the legion of fairies, the psychotic vampire, the Chinese bodyguard, and the deadly silver knife--I ran across the room, scooping her up in my arms.

"Miss Hakurei..." she murmured.

"Reimu. It's just Reimu," I insisted.

"Reimu...I like that. Reimu... I'm fated to win."

"Fate," I murmured, "can be fought. And I'll show you." Our eyes met--hers stinging with pain and regret--and then our lips did, as I pulled her into a slow, gentle kiss. "Put the knife down," I breathed, not needing to see it to feel impending death wavering inches away from my spine. "And I'll prove it to you. I'll kick your boss's ass and take you away from all this. Back to my glorious apartment full of holes, and my luxurious office with a busted radiator. I got out. You can too."

"Fate can't be--" I cut her off with another kiss--deeper this time, pulling her into me. She swooned and clutched at my coat, moaning into my throat. Her leg wrapped around my back reflexively as she returned it, eyes going hazy. "Can't you see, Reimu? You didn't get out. You're right back in it, and I brought you here. It's--it's all my fault."

"Then come with me anyway," I urged. "And we'll face Fate together."

Outside, the snow fell down in gentle, lazy arcs, not caring about criminal power plays, or lovely servants, or lonely gumshoes. Sakuya looked up at me, elegance and grace forgotten, poise abandoned, a blush in her cheeks and conflict in her eyes. "Reimu...I...my answer is..."

WILL REIMU TAKE DOWN THE SCARLET DEVIL SYNDICATE AND SOLVE THE INCIDENT SHE HELPED CAUSE? OR WILL THE BEAUTIFUL AND DEADLY SAKUYA REMAIN TRUE TO HER MASTER AND PUT AN END TO THE RED-WHITE DETECTIVE?
FOR THE THRILLING CONCLUSION TO THIS SORDID TALE OF LOVE, CRIME, AND TREACHERY, PLEASE SEND 299 YEN TO THE HAKUREI COMIX COMPANY, 123 GENSOU LANE, WALLAWALLA, WASHINGTON. YOUR ORDER COMES WITH X-RAY GLASSES!

With a frustrated roar, Akyuu threw the pulp novel across the room, letting it impact the far wall with a hearty slap. "Kosuzu! This story sucks!"
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It's cold.

And it's snowing.

Why is it even snowing? This doesn't make any sense. You're traveling underground in the former hell. Shouldn't it be hot? And how is it snowing underground?!

You came down here to avoid the stupid cold at your shrine, only to discover even more cold and snow below. There's already a foot or so of this ridiculous snow on the ground. You can float over it, but it's still coming down pretty quickly. It helps, but doesn't solve all of your problems.

The cave is understandably deserted. You're the only one foolish enough to be outside in this weather. But you came down here for a purpose, so there's no turning back. Besides, even if you did, you'd just have to deal with the cold there instead of here. No, you need to fight for your warmth and conquer this stupid winter.

After a few minutes you come across the snowed over bridge. As expected, there's no signs of life, nor any trails in the snow of other fools crossing this bridge. A faint light can be seen through the falling sheets of snow and fog, coming from the small house built adjacent to the bridge. Someone's definitely in there. It must be warm in there. And you're stuck out here! Stupid cold! Stupid snow! Stupid, stupid winter!

You finally come across the former capital from atop the overlooking hill. The roofs are all covered in snow, causing them to partially blend in with the ground, but you can still make out the houses. There's only a few lanterns outside, but they're enough to give off a light that's just barely visible to you from 500 feet away. No one is outside, but you can see trails of footsteps in the snow. They're faded from the continual snowfall, but it's still a sign that there are people around. Most of the tracks lead to a single large building near the center of the capital.

The cold is really starting to get to you. As you approach that large building, you can hear the raucous laughter and off-tune singing coming from inside. Their silhouettes are visible through the grates of the mushikomado windows.

It's a drinking hall.

Full of drunken oni.

Fuck it, you're cold and miserable and need a break. And it wouldn't hurt to have a little sake.

You walk inside the hall and close the door behind you. A number of the inhabitants glare at you as soon as they notice you, but you pay them no mind. The others continue their laughter and singing, so your intrusion hasn't upset the mood, at least. Hopefully no one will start any trouble, and you don't need to stick around long either – just enough to thaw out. First, you need to get this snow off of you. You unwrap your scarf and take off your hat, shaking the collected snow onto the ground. There's a big fire in this building which is keeping it nice and toasty warm, so if you don't get rid of the snow then it'll melt and seep into your clothing.

Two oni walk up to you as you're busy brushing the snow off of your jacket. A red male oni and a female blue one. They're both about a foot taller than you, have a typically thick oni build that is bulging with muscles, and look pretty drunk. Uh-oh.

“A humaan?! What brings you ere, girlie?” The red oni speaks first. He's carrying himself fairly well, but is slightly slurring his speech.

“Thish, thish ish no place for youuu, wenchh.” The blue oni joins in, barely about to speak properly and having trouble standing. She absolutely reeks of strong sake. She's probably in no condition to fight, but is liable to fall over on top of you instead, which wouldn't be much better.

You stand tall and glare right back at them, but don't say anything. These two are weaklings. Even sober they wouldn't be a match for you. They're alone for now... but if you fight back, you might end up fighting every single oni in this building. You're far less confident about your ability to defeat fifty or more oni all at once. Maybe this wasn't such a good idea.

“You – huh? What the?” Before he can say anything else to provoke you, the red oni looks around in confusion as he floats about a foot off the ground. Someone is standing behind him and is lifting him up. “The fuck are -” Without giving him a chance to finish, the red oni is lifted even higher and tossed to a corner of the room. You watch him sail through the air towards a table of oni drinking merrily, whom quickly pick up their drinks and run out of the way before your assaulter lands hard on the table and passes out.

Your “savior” stands in the place of the red oni and takes a sip of sake from her sakazuki, grinning from ear to ear.

“Yuu- Yuughi?!” The blue oni stammers in response to the blonde's sudden appearance and staggers off, barely managing to run away past the crowd of other oni and out of sight, although a loud thud makes it clear that she didn't get too far.

“Reimu! Good ta see ya again!” Yuugi starts slapping her hand on your shoulder hard, in what you assume is a greeting. She's probably drunk too, but is in perfect control of her movements. Her strikes hurt a bit, but they're what you'd expect from an overenthusiastic human. You don't want to even think about what she'd do to you if she wasn't holding back. “What brings ya down here? Come to fight me again, or did ya just get tired of your human booze?”

“Nah. I'm in the underground on business. I just needed some shelter from the snow. Speaking of, why is it snowing outside?”

“Huh? Whatdya mean? It's winter. Of course it's snowing.”

“No, I mean, we're underground. And this is the former hell. Why is it so cold? Why is it darker than usual? Where is the snow even coming from?”

“Welll, i's cold cause that bird alwayss turns tha heat down durin tha winter. So 'en it snows. Iaunno where it comes from. Same plaicce az the rain.”

Rain? Down here? Whatever, this is pointless to ask. She doesn't know the answer, and it wouldn't help you anyway.

“Uh, thanks. Hey, could I get a little sake while I'm here? None of your oni sake stuff though; I can't handle that.” Too many side effects on top of it being really strong. Not something you want to deal with while on business.

“Gahahahaha! Of course!” Yuugi wraps her arm around your back and slaps it twice, using the same amount of force as before. She then leads you towards the counter where a somewhat smaller blue oni is calmly drying out a small glass with a handcloth. He's probably the only oni in the building that isn't drunk. “Bartender! Give this girl a tokkuri of your finest human sake! Anyone that can hold her own against me in a fight deserves nothing but the finest!”

The bartender stops drying the glass for a second after Yuugi's declaration and gives you a quick once over. You can tell that he's torn between Yuugi's claims of your strength and his own impression of you, but he's too calm and collected for you to tell what he finally decides to think. He gives her a polite “At once, Yuugi,” but this guy makes you think he's just always like that. He's somehow able to make even the standard animal pelts look sophisticated.

He walks into a backroom and returns after a minute with a tokkuri and a single choko on a wooden platter, then sets it down in front of you and bows. “Here you are, ma'am. Please, enjoy.”

Yuugi picks up the tokkuri and pours some into your choko, filling it to the brim. She then pours some more into her sakazuki for herself.

“Cheers, Reimu!” You both lift up your vessels and drink them dry. The warm sake flows over your tongue and fills your body with its heat as you drink it. Ah, that feels good. Yuugi filled yours to the brim, so you couldn't help but spill a little as you brought it up to your mouth. Even when slightly drunk, her movements and speech are perfect when it comes to dealing with alcohol. You pour yourself some more and slowly sip it.

The warm sake is perfect for someone coming in from the snowstorm. That and the heat from the fire quickly revitalize you and dispel the cold from your body. You're not directly in front of the flame while sitting at the counter like this, but that's not a bad thing. This way you can warm up slowly, without feeling flush from the excessive heat of the large fire. Much nicer this way.

You've finished about half of the sake by now. Most of it by yourself, but Yuugi has helped herself to a few cupfuls as well. The other oni have long since begun to ignore your little incident, most likely the result of sitting next to the great Yuugi Hoshiguma. They've returned to their drunken talks, laughter, and loud, off-key singing. It's not a song you recognize, but they're singing it loud enough for you to easily make it out over the other din.

    We made the mountains shake with laughter as we played
    Hiding in our corner of the world
    Then we did the demon dance and rushed to nevermore
    Threw away the key and locked the door


You have no idea what it's about, but don't really care either. All in all, the atmosphere isn't that bad, and the sake is fantastic. This worked out rather nicely.

“Eyyy Reimu, what're you down ere fer anywayz?” Yuugi asks after a long period of quietly drinking. She's a bit more drunk, but still doing fine.

“Hmm? Ah, I have some business with Satori to take care of.”

“'Business', eh? With lil' Satorin? Ahahahaha! You gonna beat er up again?” Yuugi smacks her fist onto the counter, shaking it and rattling all of the dishes on top. Nothing breaks, though – you're sure this wooden counter is designed specifically to handle fists that can effortlessly split boulders.

“Yeah, probably.” That's usually how things go, isn't it? Especially considering what you're after, you can't see Satori surrendering it without a fight.

“Gahahahaa! Oh, she'sa tough one, that girl! Haha, I can never win again' her!” She smacks her fist on the counter a few more times as she laughs heartily, apparently considering her admission of defeat to be the funniest thing in the world.

“What, really? I've fought her, and she's strong, but...” It's ridiculous to hear Yuugi admit to being weaker than anybody. Especially someone as frail as Satori. And yet, she's laughing her ass off about it.

“Oh yeah! Can't ever beat er!” She pauses to take another drink from her cup. “She's too tiny! Can't even land a hit! Gahahahaa! I try, and the wind from my fists blows er out of reach! Hahahahaha!”

You should've known better than to think she was being serious. Oh well.

The two of you drink together, occasionally making small talk but mostly keeping quiet. There really isn't much to discuss, considering how little you two have in common. Once the tokkuri is down to about a third, you stand up.

“Alright, I'm leaving. I've got work to do, so I can't spend all day here. Thanks for drinking with me, Yuugi. What do I owe for the sake?”

“Nothin'. My treat. Jus come on down here sometime when ya ain't busy and fight me, alright?”

Geh, you'd rather just pay. “'Kay. I'll try and find time someday. First, I gotta take care of Satori. See ya, Yuugi. Thanks again.”

“Gahaha, no problem! Just go give Satorin what for!” She gives the air a quick one-two punch, then laughs again and gives your back a hard slap. The impact pushes you forward a step, not that she notices or minds. Now that she's finished with her display, she turns back to her drink. Time to leave. You walk back to the entrance and put your hat and scarf back on. Your clothes are mostly dry, thanks to the heat from the fire, but are still a tiny bit damp. It probably won't cause any problems, though.

You open the door and step back out into the damned snowstorm. It's coming down just as hard as before, but now that you aren't accustomed to the cold it feels even worse. The harsh wind blows the heat off of your clothes immediately, allowing the snow to start accumulating again. Great, that's just great. The palace isn't too far away, so maybe if you hurry you can get there before the cold actually pierces through your clothing.
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>>1441
Well, there's not much else to do. You lift yourself off the snow and fly forward as fast as you're able. Which isn't very fast – as long as you're around all these buildings, going full speed would just result in you crashing into a wall due to the decreased visibility. So until you get out of here, you're stuck at this slower pace.

Fortunately, the capital isn't too large, and you're already through half of it. You clear the dense area of building in just ten minutes. The light from the lanterns fades and darkness returns as you fly away from the last set of buildings, but at least now there isn't anything in front of you. You start flying as fast as you can, causing the falling snow to splatter against your face. Annoying, but this'll be over soon. It won't be long before you can attack Satori and steal her warmth.

Twenty more minutes pass before you reach the palace. There are never any guards or attendants, of course, leaving you alone to open up the massive wooden doors. It's ridiculous for such a tiny girl to have some big doors, but then again, she doesn't get out much either. She probably never has to deal with them.

Once the door is securely closed and the obnoxious cold locked out, you collapse against the wall. Flying that fast isexhausting, and opening that stupidly large door is no simple task either. The cold seeped through your clothes by the time you got here, but at least it's fairly warm inside. Not nearly as nice as the drinking hall, but at least a far cry from the freezing wind outside. Panting heavily, you wait for the aching to subside before finally brushing the snow off of your clothes. Some of it has, again, melted and soaked into your hat and scarf, but whatever.

Twenty minutes pass before you feel good enough to confront Satori. No one has come to greet you... not that there is anyone in the palace to do so. Satori doesn't actually have any servants, just her army of pets, and they don't count. None of them investigated the noise of your appearance or anything. You have no idea if Satori knows if you've arrived or not – there's no way for you to know the limits of her mind reading, or if she has any other methods for detecting intruders like you. In any event, a sneak attack is still impossible, so you might as well just walk up to her directly as if she does know you're here.

You walk through the massive palace, trying to remember where Satori might be. You've been here a few times after the hotsprings incident, so the layout isn't completely alien, but you still don't know where you're going. The décor is nice at least – the intricate stained glass on the floor beautifully reflects the torchlight as you walk past each section. They're arranged in pairs to the side of the “path”, and as far as you can tell, every window is unique. Some of the pairs seem to describe a single scene, but most are unrelated. There are a few sculptures up against the walls, but the lighting isn't good enough to properly make out the details. Everything is far darker and subdued compared to the SDM, which makes it harder to appreciate the beauty of it, but at least it isn't so damn red.

A few of Satori's pets notice you as you wander around, but they pay you no mind. They haven't bothered attacking you since your first encounter and treat you as a guest of a mistress. It's not like they can read your mind and realize that you actually are assaulting Satori again. Good thing, too – fighting lions and tigers and bears is interesting, but still terrifying. Sadly, you can't take further advantage of their misconception by asking them for directions. Orin and Okuu are the only ones that can speak, to your knowledge at least.

You finally discover Satori's throne room after half an hour of searching. It took forever, searching through all these nearly empty rooms, but you recognize the ornate pattern on this wrought iron door. You firmly plant your feet on your ground and push as hard as you can, slowly but surely forcing the heavy door open. Why the hell does that tiny girl have all of these huge doors?!

“Satori!” You shout at the small pink girl, seated on a brass throne that is far too big for her. Orin is in her cat form and is happily sleeping on her master's lap while she slowly pets her back. “I have come for your -”

“Be silent. You're too noisy.” Satori interrupts you, speaking quietly but forcefully. “There is no reason for you to speak at all. I already know your ludicrous intentions, and I obviously refuse.”

“And that's why I'm here to fight you, to force you to surrender it to me!”

“Yes, and that's what I refuse to do. Good day.” Without another word, Satori quickly stands up, carrying the sleeping cat against her chest, and walks towards a normal sized wooden door. She opens the door, steps inside, and closes it behind her with an audible click.

You run after her and try to turn the knob, but it refuses to move. She locked the door! Dammit, she won't even fight you properly. You'll have to find a way to break it down first. That'll show her. You give the door a few kicks, but it doesn't budge. Even without being stupidly huge, the door is solidly built and won't break down easily. Hmm.

After a quick examination, you conclude that the wooden door is indeed quite sturdy. Knocking it down isn't an option, but that just means you need to find an alternative. The hinges are on the outside. If you can just remove those, the door will fall down effortlessly. You don't know much about hinges and definitely lack the tools to do anything with them, but maybe you don't need anything. This is the former hell, primarily inhabited these days by youkai. So, maybe the hinges were crafted by youkai, or the iron smelted by youkai, and maybe your divine powers will work on a youkai's handiwork. It's a lot of maybes, but it's definitely worth a try.

You take out a handful of talismans and place them on the door's hinges. Once you've covered everything that is visible, you close your eyes and clap your hands together and begin a prayer. A faint sizzling can be heard after a minute, muffled by the cover of talismans. It's working! Just a little bit longer and you'll have Satori cornered.

A sharp clang echoes through the empty room as one of the damaged hinges breaks off from the door and drops onto the stone floor. You open your eyes just in time to watch the bottom hinge fall off... causing the door to tip forward. You nimbly jump to the side, just in time to avoid the wooden door crashing down right where you were standing.

“Are you out of your mind?!” Satori yells at you from her room. She's standing about 3 feet away from where the door was, and certainly looks upset. Orin was sleeping on Satori's bed, but woke up either from the door crashing or Satori's yelling. There's no escape, just as you hoped. She'll have to fight you now.

“Yes, I am. It's really frickin cold up there, dammit! Now surrender your warmth!”

“Who would give up something so precious?! Fine, I'll fight you, you brute!” Good, that's what you want to hear.

You open the fight by throwing a volley of yin-yang orbs at the small girl, but she cancels out the attack with her own conjured orbs. She counterattacks by firing off a spread out stream of bullets, which you avoid by flying up towards the ceiling. However this leaves you pinned – there isn't much room to maneuver in this small room, making you an easy target for a second burst of bullets. There's nothing you can do, so you just take the hit.

This is not someplace you can fight. It's far too cramped. There's plenty of space in the massive throne room, so you need to lure her out there. She's disadvantaged too, so hopefully she won't try to hole herself in here somehow. You drop back down to the floor and run outside, firing off a continuous stream of homing talismans to annoy her. As before, she simply cancels them out by firing off her own conjured projectiles. Right before moving out of her sight, you fire off a pair of talismans instead of just one, and enchant it to move faster than normal. As you hoped, she doesn't react to your change quick enough – a flicker of light shoots out of her door as the last projected talisman misses its mark and dissipates in the air. Neither of the two actually hit Satori, though. She must've managed to dodge it at the last second.

Satori flies out of her room a few seconds later. Good; it'd be really annoying if she just kept trying to run away from you. Now you have room to maneuver. You greet Satori with a series of waves of basic danmaku, but she floats out of the way before you even finish casting them. Her mind reading is really annoying, but you beat her once and you'll do it again. Even if she already has a one-point lead.

She attacks you with a wide stream of homing talismans which quickly converge on you, and conjures several more large streams as each moves on its own. It's dodgeable, but the massive number and distance between waves makes it too difficult to be worthwhile. You'd need to narrowly dodge each to subvert the homing ability, and that'll just leave you open to a different attack. Instead, you take out a handful of talismans and set up a powerful barrier. Satori is still busy with her Recollection, so you toss one of your yin-yang balls over the barrier in an arc towards her. She opens her eyes too late to avoid the attack, and it bounces off of her head, ending her attack. The bullets that she did fire off are all absorbed harmlessly by your impenetrable barrier. Only two hits left.

Her attack was sound, even if you beat it, so there's no harm in shamelessly copying her. You open your next attack by firing off several thick waves of basic talismans with homing ones mixed in. There's no need to have them all home in on her – this'll reduce the strain on your mind and also spreads the bullets out more. Satori counters the usual way. She fires off a massive number of her own talismans, exactly enough to cancel out all of your projectiles from the first wave that would hit her. With the extra time, she closes her eyes to concentrate and mimics your barrier, causing light to pulsate from both of her hands. Her barrier doesn't require the use of any talismans, but otherwise seems identical to yours. The second and third waves of talismans crash into her barrier and burn out, forcing Satori to brace herself against the impact. So, her barrier isn't as effective as yours.

If she's just defending, then she's an easy target. Doubly so as she won't be able to dodge with this strenuous barrier up. All you need to do is overwhelm her. You fire off another two waves of mixed projectiles at half speed, then quickly fly off to her side and shoot off strafing fire. She anticipates your attack and extends the barrier off to her side as well, but you continue firing regardless. Her shield is now protecting her front and her side, and the strain of holding it up on multiple angles is beginning to show. Now to make it worse.

You set off another wave of half homing projectiles and fly above her. The first wave of projectiles smashes into her shield, which stays up but flickers from the strain. Her shield extends above her as well before you reach her top. She doesn't have a third hand to aid in her projection, so she's forced to use her mind exclusively for the additional angle. It won't hold for long. The second wave of your first projectiles smashes into her front a second later, and you throw a yin-yang orb at her with full force at the same time.

Satori shrieks from the pressure exerted on her from holding up the wide-angled barrier, but it doesn't fade. Your yin-yang orb simply bounces off of the barrier without shattering it. Still, she's panting and looks like she's about to pass out. There are still bullets aimed for her, so she can't even lower the shield to conserve her energy. She's being stubborn, but she will fall.

You fly down to her back and throw a single fast talisman, aimed straight for her head. She manages to extend the barrier to a fourth angle, but that's all she's able to do. The projectile hits her barrier, but immediately causes the entire thing to shatter. It protected her from the one, but not from the four full waves of projectiles you had fired off earlier. Every single one of the bullets that were aimed for her connects, as there's nothing she can do anymore with the mental shock of having her barrier destroyed. It only counts as a single point, but it's still satisfying to watch her be pummeled by hundreds of projectiles at once.

She recovers quickly, since her mind isn't being taxed by the shield anymore. Her attack begins immediately with a burst of large orbs in all directions. It's trivial to dodge on its own – you simply float above them – but they're just to prime the field. A flurry of talismans suddenly appear from behind her, flying towards you at moderate speed. They're too thick for you to dodge through them, so you quickly dash towards the left to avoid them.

And then they stop, midair, only to change their trajectory to your new location. So that's what she's copying now. Another flurry of talismans explodes from behind her, aimed straight for you. These seem to be traveling a little bit slower than the first set. It's going to be a problem if she keeps varying the speeds of her projectiles, as it'll throw off your timing. And she's somehow able to simply will the talismans to move without throwing them or anything, giving her an advantage over you. That'll make it harder to land a hit, as you can't simply wait for her to be preoccupied.

Both sets of talismans close in on you. Time to dodge again. You shoot straight up to avoid them, but only escape the first batch. The second freezes right as you start moving, and then refocuses on your new position when you stop. You're forced to fly to the left to escape them again. And Satori just fired off another set of projectiles.

You won't get anywhere if you spend all of your time dodging, but these damned partially-homing talismans aren't giving you much chance to attack. It's your spellcard, so you should know its weaknesses, but this is the first time you've ever had it used against you. They can only refocus twice, so the most Satori should be able to put out is three or four at once. It's safe to ignore them once they can't change direction again.

Satori is standing about twenty feet away, focusing on controlling the projectiles she has out. You don't have enough time to dedicate to a proper attack, so you simply take out a yin-yang orb and toss it towards her. She simply steps out of the way, causing the orb to miss. It bounces off the walls a few times, but doesn't come anywhere close to hitting her again. The room's way too big for that.

Time to dodge again. The talismans are on two sides of you now, since you dodged past the one group. Still, there's plenty of room to maneuver. Satori will likely shoot off another batch of projectiles, but you nonetheless charge towards her to escape the current ones. As expected, she fires off another round of talismans. The talismans you avoided before refocus on you from behind, and Satori throws in a double shot of the omnidirectional orbs as well to try and pin you down. Still, that's only two directions, and you avoid them by darting off to the right, firing off a few talismans of your own in a vain attempt to hit her. None of them hit their mark.

Another batch of projectiles from Satori. You need to go on the offensive, but you still don't have time for a proper attack. Maybe if you didn't have to aim...

You fly upward to avoid the talismans, stopping about halfway between the floor and ceiling. This puts you about ten feet above Satori. This should be good. For the next four seconds, you scatter as many yin-yang orbs throughout the entire room as possible, throwing them in every direction with as much force as you can muster. The talismans approach again, so you shoot off towards the right to avoid them. Another four seconds of peace, which you spend by scattering another thirty or so yin-yang orbs across the massive room.

This repeats itself about four more times. Soon, you have hundreds of yin-yang orbs bouncing about. Almost all of them are nowhere near Satori, but a handful of them do ricochet off the walls or ceiling and come close to her. The probability of each is low, but with so many threats, Satori is forced to waste precious mental energy tracking those that approach her. And that's all you can hope to do – distract her enough to create an opening. Her mind reading does nothing to help her predict the paths of hundreds of erratic bullets. So far she's just been able to step aside and keep up the assault, however.

Another burst of talismans from Satori. A quick glance shows at least three of your orbs coming dangerously close to her, and one of them looks like it'll actually hit her. Now's your chance! You avoid the incoming talismans from your sides by charging towards her, slightly angling yourself upward to avoid her newest batch.

But, of course, she sees you coming. A mind reader always does. After stepping aside to avoid the one orb that was about to hit her, she quickly fires off another volley of seeking talismans – far sooner than her usual pattern would suggest she was capable of – and tops it off with a series of fast moving bullets headed straight for you. Damn her! You quickly shoot upward to get out of the way of the fast bullets, but she simply fires off another volley of fast projectiles. And there's five sets of seeking talismans all around you, all of them aimed for you at this point. She's close – only ten feet away now. You're about to get cornered, so you might as well go all out.

You drop to the floor, using gravity to aid your descent, and instantly fire off a flurry of persuasion needles aimed at her entire body, head to toe. The seeking talismans have already reoriented themselves towards your new position, but you simply drop down and press your body flat against the floor, without ceasing to fire off your needles. Those talismans will now stop just above you, but there is absolutely no escape from their next move. Satori jumps aside from initial burst of needles, but struggles to dodge your continued fire. You fire them erratically, trying to cover as much area as possible, vaguely leading where she seems to be heading but trying to cover all other directions too.

And then one hits her. Right in the foot, as she was stepping away from others aimed for her chest. The impact breaks her balance and she falls to the floor on her face, softening the fall a bit with her short arms. Half a second later, the massive torrent of talismans crash into you from above, but they do nothing to you. You've already won.

You stand up and walk over to the defeated youkai. She sits up and rubs her head, but fortunately looks more upset about having lost than actually injured.

“It's over, Satori. You've lost. Surrender Orin to me!”

“How can you barge in like this and steal someone's cat?!”

“I'll give her back! I promise.” In like four months, once it's not so damn cold. Satori glares at you as you think this, but you ignore her. It's not like she can actually refuse you now. “Besides, if you really want to be with her so badly, you can just come with me to the shrine.”

“...No thanks. I have responsibilities here, plus too many other pets to look after. I can't simply abandon them all.” Also it's really cold up there and I'd prefer to be in this nice warm mansion with my cozy hell raven. She conveniently forgot to say that part. And she glares at you again as you think it. “Fine. Go ahead and take her. I trust you enough with her, I suppose.” Satori adds with a sigh. She's finally given in.

“Thanks. Now to collect my portable lap warmer.” Satori sighs again, but doesn't stop you.

You walk into Satori's room and find Orin awake on her master's bed. She hisses at you as soon as she sees you, obviously not thrilled with your treatment of her owner.

“C'mon kitty, let's go for a walk!” Orin is not at all lured in by your sweet talk. Not that you expected it to work. She stops hissing and jumps off the bed, changing into her human form mid leap.

“No! I'm not leaving my wonderful master for a brute like you!”

“Oh come on. You used to come up to my shrine before. How's this any different?”

“You just attacked my master in front of me! Of course I won't go along with you. You may have her permission, but you don't have mine! Defeat me, and we'll see.”

She lost the last time you fought; does she really think she would ever win? Not that it matters – you have an ace up your sleeve.

You open up your jacket and pull out the plastic Tupperware contained you borrowed from Sanae. Orin's eyes lose their hatred and they focus on the contents that are visible through the transparent container. Next, you open up the lid, letting the delicious smell of the fish fill the air.

Orin's mouth waters as soon as her sensitive nose catches the scent of the treat, and she loses all of her earlier signs of hostility. You pick up the slimy dead fish by the tail and toss it into the air, aiming for just above Orin's head. She jumps up and grabs the fish midair with her mouth and drops down to the floor on all fours with an expression of total bliss on her face as she savors the first bite.

You run up to Orin and wrap your arms around her in a tight hug. “Nyaa~ I've been captured~” she says, her voice muffled by the fish but still audible. All traces of resistance have been destroyed by that simple fish.

“I've got some more at the shrine. Hurry up and finish that, then change back to your cat form so I can carry you home. Alright?”

Orin simply nods.

“Good. You'll be living with me for a while, then. Remember to say goodbye to Satori!”

-------------------------------------------

You let out a contented sigh as you drink your tea while sitting at the kotatsu. Orin is asleep on your lap and is keeping your legs nice and toasty warm. Ah, this feels so good.

“Oy! Morning, Reimu!” Ah, it's Marisa.

“Good morning.” Marisa walks into the room a few seconds after calling out to you, but you can't be bothered to stand up and properly greet it. It's too cold for that! She's wearing a black scarf and mittens in addition to her usual long winter coat.

“Got room fer me? It's freezing out there!”

“Sure. But I only have the one super special lap warmer, sorry.”

“A what? You don't have one for me?”

“There is a cat sitting on my lap. It is wonderful. I highly recommend it, but sadly cannot share.”

“A cat? Since when do you have a cat?”

“I beat up Satori and stole Orin from her for a few months. She's fine with it as long as I give her a fresh fish every once in a while.”

“...That does sound nice. Man, I'd love to get me one of those!”

“You could beat up Ran and take Chen, if you really want to. I don't recommend trying.”

“Actually, that sounds like a good idea. Maybe I'll go have a little 'chat' with Ran.”

“Suit yourself. But you'll need to get your own fish.” You only have a few left. You'll need to go out and get some more... but dammit, it's too cold for that!

“Oh, I won't need fish. I'm gonna need some tofu.”
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“And remember that at this time of year many people- You aren’t listening, are you?”

Nope! Not a word. In one ear and out the other.

Why stop to listen when the surface that way glistens?

It’s that time of year again!

“Honestly. Fine. Go. Stay safe and don’t cause too much trouble. I don’t want Reimu coming down here and-”

Freedom!

As fast and quick as an over-large cat! And there is a cat!

The cat gives a wave but she’s stuck in the cave so she disappears out of sight like-

Snow!

Snow~

Snow.

Snow?

It’s all the same.

Is there something special about snow?

The world is white, covering whatever the eye may see.

Nonunique, unspecial, nothing spectacular to behold.

But it’s celebrated?

Oh well!

The world is covered in snow! Seasons change and people change. It’s all different, new!

There’s so much to understand!

Like there! Far below, diminutive figures kneel in the fluffy white, crafting a sinister minion with all their might. They enchant it with eyes of rock and arms of wood. Then one of them transforms it, covering it in ice for good. The other girl jumps on her freezing friend, attacking her face with a ferocity the all could commend.

Or there! A different man, with a different minion. He packs snow into the bony frame, his female companion mimicking him like a game. Then, with a gesture of his hand, the snow man jerks to life, its snowy filling falling away like sand. The man shakes his head before being tackled by the girl, head meeting head in a rush.

Farther away there are several figures huddled together. They sit around a fire, bundled up in a wrap of blankets filled with feather. Some lean in close while others keep apart. One of the smaller figures fidgets, revealing her ears to the cold. The taller one next to her reaches out and adjusts the quilt, earning her a jumping head-butt delivered without guilt. Then the taller one slaps the smaller one with a loud whap!

Thataway, three ghosts have the battle of their lives! They swing and spin, each wielding their weapon of choice in that rambunctious fling. One by one they fall into the snow with a poof, acknowledging their defeat to their foes. The victor stands, putting on her imaginary crown, but then the losers rise up and drag her down. They laugh while they tumble around with much passion, occasionally touching heads in a sisterly fashion.

What are they doing? How do they benefit?

Watching carefully is all there is to it!

Over yonder on the lake is sliding snow battle. The line is drawn and the forces are rattled! They sling balls of snow and knock each other down, the littlest warriors unable to frown. Then the two commanders meet and crash into one another, rolling in the snow and looking to smother the other!

Closer to the mountain is a slightly pair. They sit in their house and give off signs of despair. They probably aren’t enjoying this snowy weather, yet they manage to tough it out together. They’re already tucked away all warm in their bed and simply encourage the other with a tap of their head.

A different sort of pair is travelling through the woods, a spinner and a prance enjoying the mood. All alone, one their own, with no one around, they can be themselves without a care to be found. She picks up her friend and spins him around and then holds him close and sets him down!

“You!”

Everybody else must understand what they’re accomplishing.

“Hey! Listen to me!”

As sister always said, there’s much to learn by copying!

I push my face into hers. Our lips mash together.

She stiffens, frozen in place until I back away.

She slowly raises a hand to her lips, brushing them lightly. “Wh-Wh-Wha-?”

She reaches up and pulling a mask over her face. It’s a monkey!

It’s strange.

It’s weird.

It’s new!

But there’s one thing that I know for sure.

Alone, there are far too many feelings to address.

Exploring emotions with another must yield some amount of progress.

I hope we find some great success~
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The following piece of fiction is an excerpt of the "Epic of The Nine Horsewomen, of their deeds in the land of Gensokyo, of the singular affairs they were involved in, and how they uninvolved themselves." Because of the artistic merits of this work, the authors chose to remain anonymous, not out of false modesty, but of authentic prudence. Suffice it to say that this narrative appears in Voile and Suzunaan's annals not as 'registered', but as 'denounced'.

Nine horsewomen ride in silence. They keep on plodding the snowy lands after six months of brave obstinacy and fruitless effort. Their mission: to stop and apprehend Seiga Kaku, the maleficent hermit that raided Sinterklaas' ark, the Saint Spirit of Winter, and stole all the treasures inside it. The nine horsewomen had combed league after league in search of the evil hermit, but to no avail yet. Nevertheless, they hadn't given up hope yet. The harsh, unending snowstorm had taken most of their studs away, but they were still united by the same ideal, united by the same goal, and above all else, united because they were all mounted in the same horse. The poor animal bore the extenuating effort with nary a word of reproach, but it mentally cursed the nine horsewomen and their respective mothers.

Nine horsewomen ride in silence, searching for their enemy. In front of the group, hanging onto the horse's mane the best she can, goes Momiji Inubashiri, the best scout in that side of the mountains. The white wolf tengu was an expert huntress, and she knew each and every scrub of these frozen, barren steppes like the back of her hand. With her acute senses, she could tell the footprints of a great tanuki with three fairies on its belly, from the trail of a squirrel. A month earlier, she sniffed an old pair of panties that once belonged to Seiga Kaku, and ever since, she had followed its trail without rest, leading the rest of the group through awful hails and mountain paths.

Behind Momiji sits Keine Kamishirasawa, renowned historian and scholar. Her vast knowledge allowed her, among many other things, to recognize any bird by the way it flies. No matter how fast it glided across the skies, Keine followed it with her studious gaze and, without hesitation, she called it by its name: "Bird!" But unbeknownst to her companions, every full moon she turned... to Taoism. Because of that, the Myouren Temple had put a price on her head, but Keine hid the tag with her silly hat. The rest of the group grab whatever part of the horse they could reach for dear life. Brave mercenaries whose names and feats were lost to history, much to their relief. And then, watching the rearguard, there was Yumeko, perhaps the only one in the band who actually knew how to use a sword properly.

Only a charismatic and cunning leader could lead such a band of misfits, and General Shou Toramaru had neither of these qualities. In everyone's minds was seared the memory of the Battle of Misty Lake, where Seiga Kaku sent her legion of three thousand zombies to wreak havoc in the nearby villages. Shou, tasked with recovering Sinterklaas' treasure and stopping the zombie army, led a battalion of a hundred hardened soldiers and hunters. Her strategy left much to desire, though, as she just galloped straight ahead to the enemy's front line, shouting:

"Those of you who are scared to fight ought to turn back in shame with your tails between your legs! Victory or death!"

To which her men responded:

"Good luck, General!"

In the end, the only ones who faced the undead army were Shou and a bunch of really absentminded soldiers that did not realize everybody else was retreating. Although the result was foregone, the General fought bravely, hellbent on taking down as many zombies as she could with her.

"To arms, my brave brethren! Let us fight with our courage, with our swords... with our teeth. Our honor is at stake, and here we will stay!"

Firm in the face of the enemy! Firm, Shou Toramaru! And Shou... firmly signed the capitulation. That marked the beginning of Seiga Kaku's tyranny over the land of Gensokyo, the arrival of eternal winter, and Toramaru's fall of grace. Disgraced and disrespected, Shou swore to have her revenge, no matter the cost. And so, she reunited what was left of her army, promised them fame and profit, and set off to hunt Seiga Kaku down, recover Sinterklaas' treasure, and restore Gensokyo's peace - and her own name, while she was at it. But up until then, the nine horsewomen had only met cold, snow, hunger, and fatigue.

---------------------------------------------------

Nine horsewomen ride in silence. With half-closed eyes and a heavy burden in their hearts, they remember their former comrades who once marched at their side. Some of them were lost to unfortunate causes, like Suika Ibuki. After stopping at the Night Sparrow inn to rest, eat and drink, the horned fighter tried to stand up to her fellows, even though she was on the brink of alcoholic coma... but she fell, and instead asked for more sake at the cry of "Life sucks sober!" , thus sealing her fate.

Although the loss of a valuable soldier and friend weighed heavily on Shou's mind, she had to admit that their visit to the Night Sparrow also brought something good. For they also stumbled by chance with Mima, a legendary ghostly magician who was also staying the night there. By virtue of pleading and groveling, the haughty spirit agreed to teach the horsewomen a magic spell to turn the balance to their favor against Seiga.

"I will tell you the magic words to achieve immediate success, and make your audience kneel before you. With voice as clear as the sky, you must say... Xyngeeh Ingtoom!"

Immediately after hearing that, everybody in the room started to applaud and hoot enthusiastically at the surprised ghost mage.

"Bravo, bravo!"

"That was marvelous!"

"Encore! Encore! Encore!"

"That's enough!" Shouted Mima. "Stop clapping like retarded seals and listen carefully: Xyngeeh... Ingtoom.""

"Yes! Yes! Incredible!"

"She must be an angel from the heavens!"

"You are the best, Mima!"

"I am surrounded by idiots..." The magician sighed. "Oh, I know! Xyngeeh..."

Under the expectant gaze of her "audience", Mima stared at her nails nonchalantly, for no apparent reason. Once she deemed enough time had passed, she finished the phrase:

"... Ingtoom."

And finally, Shou and the others nodded in comprehension.

"About time!" Mima groaned. "But be careful! You must pronounce the magic spell exactly as I told you, because if you were to change even a simple syllable, the effects could be wildly different. For example... Xyntooh Ingymee."

"Boooooooo!"

"Awful!"

"You suck!"

Mima was promptly kicked out and banned from the Night Sparrow thenceforth, and she was never heard of again. But at least, Shou and company had learned of a spell that would prove very useful in their crusade against Seiga.

---------------------------------------------------

Nine horsewomen ride in silence, remembering their fallen. However, there were other mercenaries who outright deserted the group in the face of adversity, like Tenshi Hinanai. Looking for refuge, the posse stumbled upon the Lotus Pavilion and asked the patrons to let them stay for the night. Unfortunately, they found out too late that the "respectable" workers were actually zombies under the orders of Seiga Kaku, and that they had fallen straight into her trap.

When she woke up after a "wild" night, Tenshi found herself entangled in a young lady's skirt, and seeing as she could not escape her "terrible" fate, she offered to sacrifice herself, stall the zombies and buy the posse time to run away. General Shou was pained to leave the brave celestial behind, for she had seen too many of her men die under her command, and so she tried to talk her out of her suicidal intentions:

"I will not abandon you like this, Tenshi!" The tiger warrior shouted. "You are in great peril!"

"Bah, I don't think I am," the swordswoman put on a courageous front, as she tried to untangle herself from the zombie's skirt.

"Yes, you are! You are in terrible peril!"

"Then allow me to stay and face the peril!"

"No! It's too perilous!"

"General, it is my duty as a celestial knight to sample as much peril as I can."

"Our duty is to find Seiga and stop her! Come on, Tenshi!" Shou pleaded.

"Oh, let me have just a little bit of peril, please?"

"Feeling up dead people is how you get germs."

"As long as it's pink and doesn't stink..." Tenshi shrugged.

"Ew. Ewwwwwwww!"

"I didn't peg you for a sybarite, Toramaru. Or are you, by any chance, straight?"

"Am not!"

Shou tried to drag Tenshi out of the 'fight' by force, but she discovered that the zombie's skirt was laced, and that it would take her a lot of time to untangle the celestial out of it. Time she did not have, as the other zombies were getting closer, but that didn't stop Shou from trying.

"Have at thee, foul abomination!" The tiger General roared as she punched the undead with all her might. "Our honor is at stake, and here I will stay!"

In the middle of the struggle, Shout accidentally got a peek under the undead's laced skirt, and...

"Sweet almighty Vaisravana, retreat! Retreat!"

Unfortunately, in her shock and terrified escape, Shou completely forgot about Tenshi. But after seeing the mind-breaking unmentionables under that piece of cloth, who could have blamed her? And so, the celestial was left behind at the Lotus Pavillion as punishment for desertion, blissfully unaware of her cruel fate. Some say she actually enjoyed it, however. Other accounts tell that Tenshi took over the Lotus Pavilion by herself, applied tons of make-up to the zombie workers, and ran the brothel successfully, earning a lot of money and thus becoming "the pimpest celestial in Gensokyo". But that's another story for another time.

--------------------------------------------------------

"Halt!"

Momiji's sniffs alerted the other eight horsewomen, snapping them out of their reveries.

"What is it, Momiji?" Asked Shou.

"Our target is nearby."

"Seiga Kaku?"

"That I do not know, but her panties are, forsooth."

"Then let us scout the area and pinpoint her location," ordered the General. "Our quest is coming to an end, my fellow comrades!"

The nine horsewomen, with their hopes renewed, let out a cry of zest at the prospect of finishing their job after so long. However, the horse itself could not enjoy this second wind, for it had already given in to exhaustion and exhaled its last breath. With grief in their weary hearts, the nine horsewomen held a brief parting ceremony for their not-so-tireless-after-all equine companion, and then proceeded to skin it and butcher it for food and hide.

Following Momiji's indications, the group stumbled onto a seemingly abandoned graveyard. The nine horsewomen took point, hidden behind some bushes, and scouted the area, looking for any signs of unlife.

"Is this the place, Momiji?" Asked Yumeko.

"The scent is stronger here," the tengu nodded.

"'Tis only fitting that a necromancer like her makes a cemetery her haven," commented Keine, scorn evident in her voice.

"Shhh! Get down!"

Momiji's urgent whisper shut the nine horsewomen silent, and they all crouched down in unison behind the bushes. Shou looked at the tengu in confusion, who kept sniffing the air for a scent only she could perceive.

"The enemy is patrolling there," Momiji said, nose twitching. "I can smell the putrid stench of death."

"Well, this is a cemetery, after all," snarked Keine.

"That's not what I meant..."

"If it's only one enemy, we can beat him!" exclaimed Shou confidently.

"Ah, I see her," Yumeko pointed at one of the graves at the far side of the field.

Shou and the rest had to strain their eyes to distinguish the lone figure appearing from behind a tomb, walking with rigid, mechanical movements. There was no doubt that it was a jiang-shi, but somehow it looked different from the ones they faced before. Maybe it was its surprisingly pristine skin showing taut muscles; maybe it was the elaborated clothes it wore - especially that cap with a star on its head, which gave it the appearance of a well-trained soldier or a cab driver. Everything about that vampire zombie spelled trouble, and everybody knew it all too well.

"We must exercise caution," warned Yumeko. "There might be more patrolling around, waiting in amb-"

"Alright, comrades, onwards to battle! Victory or death!"

But not Shou, who didn't even wait for her companions to get ready before she charged at the graveyard alone, howling her characteristic battle cry to the skies. The other eight horsewomen could only stare in resignation as their leader ran towards the already alerted undead guard, armed only with a petty makeshift spear.

"Hundred yens to her running away in two minutes," sighed one of the nameless horsewomen.

"Double that to just one," said another, already preparing her purse.

"People, shouldn't we... I don't know, stop her before she gets killed?" Momiji interrupted the impromptu betting table.

"Leave her be," Yumeko waved her hands dismissively. "She'll come back before that happ- See? There she comes."

Just as the swordswoman said, Shou ran back to the gang's hiding place in retreat, sporting numerous scratches, lacerations and bruises all over her body, and only carrying half of her spear. The aforementioned bettors tossed their bags of money around to the winners, while the tiger warrior caught up to the group, fuming with anger towards her subordinates.

"Why in the holy name of Vaisravana didn't you follow me!?" The General complained between heavy pants.

"We were trying to warn you, but you would not listen," responded Momiji.

"What happened to the 'victory or death' part, General?" Yumeko didn't miss the chance to poke fun at her incompetent superior. "Thirty seconds you lasted out there. That has to be a new record."

"I would have beaten that accursed jiang-shi, if it wasn't for this feeble polearm!" The General showed her broken spear to the group, and threw it to the ground. "She just ate it like a candy bar!"

"Disregarding the obviously inefficient tactics of our leader, she does have a point there," said Keine. "We cannot hope to defeat Seiga and her minions with these mediocre weapons."

There was some truth to Keine's words. Ever since their defeat at the Battle of Misty Lake, Shou and her posse had experienced great difficulties to adquire proper weaponry. Before they set out, engineer Nitori Kawashiro gave them three sawed off guns. Sawed off from a magazine, that is. Later, Merchant Mamizou Futatsuiwa promised Shou long arms, and gave the horsewomen fishing poles. The group, not satisfied with the transaction, asked the tanuki merchant for a refund, but since the fishing poles were long and could be used as weapons in a desperate situation, Mamizou was technically correct, and thus their demands were baseless.

"If only we had some decent blades..." Shou sighed.

"Ho ho ho! Did someone say 'presents'?"

A cheery, baritone voice laughed just behind where the nine horsewomen were hiding. Surprised, the group turned around and readily adopted a defensive formation. Keine, thanks to her vast knowledge, was able to point out who it was before they went on the offensive:

"It's a man!" She exclaimed.

Indeed, a big bellied man, wearing a full red costume with white cotton cuffs, greeted them with a jolly smile hidden behind his long white beard. Shou recognized who thay man was, and quickly knelt before him.

"Sinterklaas!" The General saluted him. "'Tis a surprise to see you in these distant lands. What brings you here?"

"I was wondering what was taking you so long to recover my treasures, and I came to take matters into my own hands," the Saint Spirit explained. "But I see you are about to storm the evil hermit's lair, so I changed my mind. Instead, I brought you some presents to help you in your mission! Ho ho!"

"We need weapons, not presents," said Yumeko.

"Ho ho ho! Wait until you've opened them!"

Thereupon, Sinterklaas laid down the huge bag he carried over his shoulder, and from it, produced an assortment of long, thin presents wrapped in red paper with motifs of bells, reindeer and snowflakes. Curious, the nine horsewomen tore the papers open, and revealed what was inside the presents: an assortment of swords and spears of the finest quality. For the nine warriors, they would have been the perfect gifts, if it weren't for one detail:

"We appreciate it, really, but why are they made of candy?" Asked Keine.

"Not any candy, my dear! It's magical candy!" Exclaimed Sinterklaas, ever so cheerful. "Enchanted specifically to slay undead monsters! Besides, zombies love to eat, and everybody loves candy, so they will throw themselves at their edges like kids to... well, candy! Ho ho ho!"

"Magic, of course. The universal solvent," Scoffed Keine.

"I see no problems here," commented Shou, completely sincere, while giving her new polearm a lick to taste it. "And his logic is sound too. I mean, these are quite tasty."

"And I also brought you new clothes!" Sinterklauss said, taking some suits from the bottom of his bag. "You seriously can't expect to fight the evil hermit with those rags, so I made some special vests for you! Try them for size, although I believe I got them right! Ho ho!"

The vests in question were practically identical to Sinterklauss' outfit: a plain, red dress with white cuffs and frills, leaving most of the arms and legs exposed to the open.

"Let me guess: they are magical clothes too, am I correct?" Asked Keine, though she already knew the answer.

"Ho ho ho! It's like you've read my list!" However, the scholar's sarcasm was completely lost on the big red man. "Do not be fooled by its appearance; they will protect you even against the most terrible hex! And they will keep you warm and cozy too!"

"I am not sure. These look a tad too revealing, don't you think?" Said Momiji, examining the vests with critical eyes.

"Aye, they do," Yumeko agreed. "They do not offer protection for the arms and the legs. I think you just want to see us in these skimpy clothes for your personal plea-"

"Ho ho ho! I do not know what are you talking about!" The Saint Spirit interrupted her. "Oh, and you might want to get changed quickly. Your boss has already taken a nice lead!"

Upon hearing that, the gang looked at the graveyard, and as they feared, they saw Shou charging at the enemy, already clad in Sinterklauss' attire and pointing her candy spear at the undead that defeated her the first time.

"Ugh, not again..." Sighed Yumeko.

------------------------------------------------------------------

"Have at thee, foul abomination!" The tiger General roared as she stabbed the jiang-shi with all her might. "This spear you cannot eat this time!"

Despite its frail appearance, the candy spear delivered much pain to the capped vampire zombie every time it pierced and slashed its body. The jiang-shi tried to defend itself by attempting to bite Shou wherever it could reach with its overly big jaws, but for some reason, its sharp teeth never found their mark on the General's exposed limbs. It was almost as if there was an invisible hand pushing the zombie away, and its limited intelligence couldn't guess why. The only thing it knew for sure was that it was in huge trouble, and that dying for a second time would be awful, both for it and its master. The smartest thing to do then, thought the jiang-shi, was to run away, and so it did, fleeing towards the graveyard's mausoleum nearby.

"Oh no you don't!" Shouted Shou. "You will not get away from me!"

The General, deep in her battle high, did not remember what her experience taught her after so many fights with the living corpses: that screaming at the top of her lungs, in the middle of a graveyard where the dead slumbered, was not a wise idea. Shou regretted her rashness when she found herself surrounded by dozens of zombies rising from their graves, their eternal sleep disturbed by her battle cries. The General stabbed, slashed, blocked, fought back the best she could, but even with the protection of her magic clothes, she soon found herself overwhelmed by the undead horde. Memories from her defeat at the Misty Lake assaulted Shou's mind, as the zombies opened their giant gaping mouths, about to get a good mouthful of her...

... Instead, they got a good mouthful of candy knives to their rotten heads. The walking corpses dropped dead for real as the cold and sharp sweets pierced their brains, saving Shou from a gruesome death.

"Honestly, General, we take our eyes out of you for only a second, and you are already getting yourself in trouble!"

Never the cold, harsh voice of Yumeko sounded more angelical for Shou than that very moment. Throwing the slim candy swords Sinterklauss gave her with lethal precision, the blonde swordswoman took care of the zombies that were surrounding Shou. Following closely behind her, Momiji with her buster candy sword, Keine with her hard mint buckler, and the others with various sweet weapons, were also partaking in the undead slaughter. All of them were wearing the same tight, short red dress the General was wearing herself, and Shou noted how obscenely arousing was seeing the sculpted bodies of her subordinates bathed in blood and gore. That old lecher surely wanted that eye candy in exchange for the literal candy, she thought, but she had more pressing matters to attend than telling Sinterklass off. With a thankful nod, Shou took Yumeko's hand and stood up, ready to fight again.

"About time! What did it take you so long?" The General asked.

"Making proper preparations for battle, you dimwit," Yumeko responded wryly, while throwing another blade at an approaching zombie. "Honestly, we take our eyes out of you for a second, and you already get yourself in trouble!"

"And you love me for it!" Shou laughed jokingly, joining the fray. "So what's the plan?"

"That's not something a General should be asking, of all people."

"We do not have time for quips, Yumeko!"

"Sinterkrauss' treasure is somewhere below us, underground," Keine appeared just at Shou's side, blocking a lunging zombie with her hard mint shield. "We fight our way in, we find it, we take it back. He even lent us his flying reindeers to help us haul it."

"That's very nice of him! But where is he?" The General looked around the battlefield for the bearded man in red, but couldn't find him among the horde of zombies. "Did he leave us?"

"He said he had to deliver a shipment of coal to someone!" The scholar punctuates her sentence with a painful headbutt to the undead. "He trusted us to retrieve his belongings, so we cannot fail this time!"

"Seiga's undergarments are down there too. I smell them nearby," Momiji remarked.

"Good, then we can kill two birds with one stone!" Shou exclaimed. "No quarter shall be shown hither! Our honor is at stake, and here we will stay!"

The nine horsewomen fought fiercely wave after wave of undead, leaving a mountain of blood and gore around them. However, even with their magical candy weapons and their enchanted red vests, the sheer number of zombies threatened to overwhelm the brave warriors.

"We cannot stay here any longer!" Shouted one of the horsewomen above the undead's grunts. "They will be upon us! Literally!"

"General, we need to move! Give us the order!" Said another one.

Shou was too focused on fending off the enemy, so her comrade's plead caught her by surprise. "A-a-a-a-alright, fall back, fall back!" She said almost automatically.

"But where!? We're completely surrounded!"

"I don't know! Just follow me!"

"What!?"

"Trust me, I usually make a lot of progress for not knowing where to go! Honestly!"

With no better plan, and accepting that they were in that point in life where their best option would most likely not work at all, the group resigned themselves to follow the clueless General as she mowed down zombie after zombie, trying to open a path to somewhere even she didn't know. In the end, be it by sheer coincidence or dumb luck, the posse ended up at the doors of the graveyard's mausoleum, but unfortunately, the doors to the inside were closed shut, and the undead mob was slowly getting closer.

"Drats, locked!" Yumeko tried to pry the doors open with her weapons, but they didn't budge an inch.

"There is no time! Use the 'Hakutaku Ram'!" Shou ordered.

Upon hearing that, Keine's face went all pale, knowing what was to come. "Ah! No! Let us rethink that, comrades..."

"Disregard what she says, she's a Taoist!"

"Wait, you knew all alo-?" The scholar's surprised retort was suddenly interrupted when three of her comrades swept her in their arms and aimed her head at the shrine's door. "Wait, no no no no no nononononon-ack!"

Thanks to Keine's impressive skull thickness, the ramming attack had enough force to bust the shrine's door open, resulting only in a small concussion for the poor scholar. The posse quickly entered the mausoleum and closed the doors behind them to block the horde, though they knew it would be a matter of time before they would overpower them.

"Find anything that is not nailed down and barricade the doors, on the double!"

The General began to bark orders to her soldiers, much to their surprise. They had been under her command ever since the Battle of Misty Lake, but to see Toramaru act like a true leader was such a rare and extraordinary moment, they all stood there frozen in place, not believing what they were witnessing.

"Get moving already! This remodeling will improve the quality of our lives a hundredfold! What are you waiting for!?"

Spurned by their superior's urgency, the group began to tear apart the old, abandoned shrine for any big and sturdy piece of furniture that could be moved. Shelves, statues, pillars, tables; nothing was left untouched, everything was desecrated, all to prevent the zombies from entering the formerly sacred building. It was in the middle of this search when Momiji found a secret passage below a Buddha statue.

"Hey, you should come see this!" The tengu called to her companions.

Leaving the heavy lefting for the time being, the group went to where Momiji was pointing. The hole in front of them was dark and narrow; not even the tengu could see what was at the bottom, nor how deep it was.

"The smell is stronger here," said Momiji. "I am certain what we seek lies beyond this way."

"It is only wide enough for one person," pointed out Keine.

"Then one of us has to go down there, while the rest stay here and hold the line," Yumeko mused aloud.

The swordswoman's proposal lingered in the air for a moment, and an awkward, tense silence filled the room, only interrupted by the grunts of the zombies outside, and the occasional knock on the doors. Finally, Shou voiced everyone's concern:

"The question is, who will venture to the catacombs which are very likely infested with undead abominations at every corner?"

To Toramaru's consternation, nobody offered to take one for the team. A quick glance confirmed her fears: everybody was looking at their valiant General expectantly.

"... Doesn't my title of General account for something in these kind of situations?"
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"Apparently not," Shou answered her own question bitterly, as she climbed the stairs down to the crypt under the shrine.

The catacombs were even narrower and darker than she expected, and the humidity and cold soaked all the way into the General's bones. If she didn't get out of there soon, she was sure to get suffer from rheumatism, but that was not what worried Shou the most. In such a cramped, pitch black labyrinth, being taken by surprise by a zombie were potentially deadly.

"I expect a certain level of safety and comfort when I break into the enemy's lair!" Shou shouted to the nothingness. "Seriously, for what I have been through this year, the next room should contain chocolate cakes and party balloons. Champagne. Something along those lines. But nay, I doubt it. I am sure I will go around this corner and find nothing but a stack of dead bodies with smiley-face masks attached- Ah!"

Her muttering was interrupted by the surprise attack she was half-expecting all the time. The jiang-shi she faced minutes before approached from behind, taking advantage of Shou's distraction, and lunged with her jaws open, ready to clutch the General's jugular viciously. Thankfully, Shou was able to react in time and put her candy spear between the jiang-shi and her own body. The vampire zombie's sharp teeth mauled on the polearm and, albeit with much difficulty, managed to break it in half, much like the first time.

"You wish to devour me whole, fiend?" Shou said, pushing the undead away. "Sadly, I am not here to give you a free meal. I do not work at the Night Sparrow!"

The General ducked to avoid the jiang-shi's menacing claws, and seeing an opening, used her two halves of her spear and stabbed the undead in its torse, pining it to the walls as it wailed and grunted in pain.

"You had no chance against a seasoned warrior like meself!" Boasted Shou. "Though I have to admit, I was not ready for a vampire zombie sneaking up on me like a ninja. Who is ready for vampire zombie ninjas? No one, that's who! Because they are ninjas. That is the whole deal about ninjas."

"Oh, poor Yoshika!" A cold, sing-song whisper echoed through the hallway. "Who could have done this awful thing to you?"

"Hark! Who goes!?" Toramaru shouted to the walls.

"I see, a lone tiger, wandering into its prey's den with no caution whatsoever. All roar and no bite."

"Is it you, Seiga? Show yourself!"

The moment Shou called for her rival, the temperature dropped several degrees immediately. A freezing chill ran through the General's spine, preceding the appearance of the mysterious presence. To her surprise, it was not the person she expected all along. Although she was wearing the same blue teal dress the wicked hermit had, the woman standing in front of the General had lavender hair and pale skin - more akin to the color of the snow than the paleness of unlife.

"Your nemesis is in another castle, unfortunately. I will take care of you in her stead," chuckled the woman. "My name is Letty Whiterock, the Youkai of Winter."

"The Youkai of Winter?" Parroted Shou. "Did you know that it has been winter for a year? I do not know how long have you been in these catacombs, but we have been suffering from blizzards and snowstorms for too long. Did you forget to turn your powers off?"

"As a matter of fact, winter began a couple of weeks ago," Letty corrected. "And I assure you, I have not forgotten to 'turn them off'. It is entirely intentional."

Letty's grin became devilish, and Shou swore the hallway became even cooler.

"... Of course. You are allied with the Wicked Hermit. I understand it now," The General muttered when she fully understood the implications. "That is the reason you wear her same attire."

"I am surprised you didn't realize sooner."

"And I assume you have Seiga's panties on as well?"

Letty flinched a few steps back, her stone cold composure shattered to pieces. The red blush of embarrassment in her cheeks contrasted with her white skin, to the point it was almost luminescent in the dark.

"W-w-w-w-what are you saying!? Where did you infer that from!?" She exclaimed, completely flustered.

"My teammate has been following the scent of Seiga's panties for three months, and the trail has led us here. Her nose does not lie!" Shou waggled an accusatory finger at the Youkai of Winter. "If you are allied with her, and even wear her clothes, that only means one thing!"

Letty swallowed a mouthful of saliva nervously, watching with deer's eyes how her most embarrassing secret was about to be exposed by the seemingly idiotic Tiger general.

"It is obvious! Seiga knew we were following her, so she made you wear her own undergarments to throw us off track! A devilish, cunning plan indeed! I would not expect any less from my archnemesis!"

"... Uh. A-aye, that... that was her plan all along, yes," Letty nodded weakly, relieved that Toramaru was even dumber than she imagined.

"We may have fallen for her deception, but since we are here, I will take Sinterklaas' treasure back. Tell me where do you keep it, Letty Whiterock!"

"Do you really expect me to betray Seiga that easily?" The Youkai asked sarcastically, having regained her composure. "Thanks to her, I can spread eternal winter as I please! And I, as the Youkai of Winter, will reign over the frozen lands for all eternity!"

"I did not want it to come to this, but you have made your allegations clear," Shou sighed, and readied herself for the imminent battle. "I give you one last chance, Whiterock! Surrender now, and hand me the treasure of the Saint Spirit of Winter at once!

"You presume to command the Youkai of Winter?"

"I do, and you shall obey!" The General took a deep breath, and with a voice as clear as day, she pronounced: "Xyngeeh Tookxi!"

"What? How did you- urgh!"

The effect of Shou's spell was immediate: as soon as the magic words came out of her mouth, Letty was assaulted by a sudden pain, leaving her unable to do anything but hunch over, kneel and grab her belly in agony, while her face contorted in a grimace of pain.

"You forced my hand, Whiterock," said Shou. "I used a spell passed down to me by a powerful magician, which allows me to achieve immediate success, and make my enemies kneel before meself."

"You fool!" Letty grunted between squeals of pain. "That was the diuretic formula!"

"Diuretic?" Shou searched for the meaning of that word in her limited vocabulary, but soon gave up. "Well, close enough! Now tell me where you keep the treasure!"

Shou's demands fell in deaf ears. Overcome by the call of nature, Letty had scurried away and shut herself behind a door labeled 'Toilet'. No matter how strong Shou pulled or pushed it, it did not budge an inch. The General wished she could use the 'Hakutaku Ram' again, but aside from Keine's understandable reticence, something told Shou not even the scholar's mighty forehead could break inside.

"You cannot escape, Whiterock! Get out of there already!" Shou banged impatiently at the door.

"Can't a lady relieve herself in peace!?" Letty screamed back.

"You are no lady!"

"Leave me alone!"

"... Fine. I will wait for you to finish," the General grumbled, annoyed. "But mark my words! My honor is at stake, and as long as it takes, here I will stay!"

-------------------------------------------------------------

Far, far away from the cemetery, a battle between two sorcerers was taking place, leaving a trail of fire, death and destruction on its wake. Standing in the middle of a circle made of corpses and explosion marks, there stood a corpulent man clad in red, wielding two massive staves made of candy. In front of him, a voluptuous woman dressed in blue floated with an amused smirk on her face. The man in red, huffing and puffing, was full of scratches and burns all over his body, while the female sorcerer apparently was none for the worse after their exchange of spells and hexes.

"You have been a naughty girl, Wicked Hermit," said Sinterklaas, leaning on his candy staves for support.

"I shall take it as a compliment, Mister Papa Smurf," cackled Seiga Kaku. "Though you, of all people, should refrain for calling me 'wicked'. I remember before you domesticated those reindeers, your sleigh used to be fueled by the tears of bad children."

"Used to be?"

"... Really?"

"Ho ho ho ho ho- ugh!" A sudden fit of coughs interrupted Sinterklaas' loud laughter, and the Saint Spirit spat blood to the ground.

"What's wrong? You cannot take the heat any longer?" Taunted Seiga. "Maybe you should not have brought coal to this fight!"

Contrary to her intentions, Sinterklass began to chuckle to himself, as if he knew something Seiga ignored, or rather, as he had seen through her schemes.

"Enough playing around, hermit! I have already defeated you, before our battle even began."

"Oh?"

"General Toramaru and her team are storming your stronghold at the abandoned cemetery as we speak," Sinterklaas stroked his formerly magnificent beard, now charred after the combat. "I believe they should be taking the treasure you stole from me by now. Ho ho!"

"Ha! Those clowns cannot steal candy from a baby even if their lives depended on it."

"You would be surprised. Why don't you check for yourself, just in case?"

Seiga arched her eyebrow, still not buying what she thought a bluff from her opponent. But that beaming smile of Sinterklaas put her on her nerves, and the seed of suspicion and fear began to seed in her chest. In the end, she gave in to worry, closed her eyes, and tried to call her servant Yoshika mentally. How great was her surprise when she found out her most precious jiang-shi had fallen in battle! The wrinkle that appeared in the hermit's otherwise spotless forehead was enough indication for the big red man, who started to laugh merrily.

"I see. I underestimated that tiger," Seiga tried to sound as impassive as possible. "Is that why you came here? To divert my attention from your true objective?"

"Ho ho ho! This is what bad children get for Christmas, my dear Seiga," Sinterklaas said. "Now be a good girl and withdraw your undead army from Gensokyo."

Unwilling to admit her defeat, Seiga casted a cloud of smoke that covered her, and dissappeared from Sinterklaas' sight.

"This is far from over, Saint Spirit!" The hermit voice echoed from everywhere at the same time. "She who is last to be laughing laughs most loudly!"

"Aye, what you did to that sentence is what I will do to you if you ever show your face again!"

Satisfied with how the battle ended, the Saint Spirit left the battlefield and walked home. But unbeknownst to him, the Wicked Hermit was, in fact, having the last laugh at that moment, for she had ultimately outsmarted him.

--------------------------------------------

It took Shou two hours to get Letty out of the toilet. Even then, the diuretic spell she had accidentally casted on the Youkai of Winter hadn't gone off yet, which proved to be quite inconvenient, to say the least, when the General apprehended her. When she returned to her companions, she was surprised to see that not only had they managed to fend the undead horde off, but that all the corpses had stopped walking altogether for some reason - that reason being Yoshika's "death", but they would never know.

Up next, in order to learn of the location of Sinterklaas' treasure, the nine horsewomen proceeded to cross-examine Letty in the most literal way possible: they tied her up to a makeshift cross made of furniture, and threatened to poke at her with their candy weapons. The Youkai of Winter, however, didn't even flinch when they finally went through it. In fact, she even found it laughable, to the horsewomen's dismay.

"I think I know what is the problem," said Keine. "Our weapons can only hurt the undead. These are no more than simple sweet sticks when used against the living."

"You mean all this time we have done nothing but tickling her?" Yumeko exclaimed in frustration.

"This is not working..." Shou muttered, deep in thought. "Change of plans! Since it is obvious she will not talk, we are going to fusillade her! Prepare the guns and the firing squad!"

The order was immediately met by several dissenting complaints from practically everyone in the room:

"What!? She might be our enemy, but she is still a person! I do not want her blood on my hands!"

"Executing people in the spot is just wrong!"

"We are not a bunch of cold-hearted murderers!"

"We can always count her as 'collateral' or 'self-defense'," posited Shou.

"I do not believe it is self-defense when you have me crucified like this," Letty pointed out.

"That changes nothing! It is simply a more effective way to defend ourselves," the General argued. "Now bring me the guns!"

Reluctantly, Momiji gave Shou the three sawed-off guns, which the General proceeded to load with haste. Then she handpicked three soldiers, gave them the firearms, and organized a firing line in front of Letty.

"Since you are too much of a sissy to finish the job, I loaded two of the three guns with blank cartridges," Shou explained. "This way, no one will know who fired the killing shot, and your conscience will remain clean."

"Hey, I saw it!" Exclaimed Letty. "The one of the left has the loaded gun!"

"Oh, you shut up!" The General groaned, taking the three guns from her subordinates' hands and juggling them again. "We do not have all day, so I'd appreciate it if you stopped making it more difficult!"

"General, can we just stop this overused routine already?" Keine, clearly annoyed by the spectacle, pulled Shou away and talked to her in hushes. "This is getting us nowhere."

"And why would you believe that, Kamishirasawa?"

"Oh, I don't know. Maybe because our guns aren't real, cut off from a magazine?" Pure sarcasm oozed from the scholar's words. "We might as well be pointing pretend pistols at her."

"I know! It was just a ruse to scare her, if you haven't noticed."

"Letty sure did. She's playing with all of you. She won't tell you jack."

"Well then, what do you propose to do, o wise woman?"

"I say we try reverse psychology. Instead of antagonizing her, we get her on our side. We mellow her out, and she might help us out of goodwill."

"Do you really think that ice wench has any speck of goodwill left in her?"

"Better than making a fool of ourselves any further."

Shou closed her eyes, exhaled a deep breath, and nodded. "Alright, I will leave it to you."

"Thanks, General," Keine then turned to the crucified youkai and spoke to her. "I am sorry for the... rough treatment my fellow workmates subjected you to."

"Understatement of the century!" Scoffed Letty.

"I do not know what reasons you have to ally with Seiga, but I can assure you, as my name is Keine Kamishirasawa, that you will be treated fairly and hospitably at the Myouren Temple, if you agree to collaborate with us."

"And why, pray tell, should I join you, when you are clearly on the losing side?"

"Because your side only has unfaithful lovers and stinking walking corpses. We have hope, love and weapons made of sweets," explained Keine. "To be frank, that is not even a choice in my book. I would be spilling the beans already if I were you."

"Hahahahahaha, love and hope? Oh, that is golden!" Letty laughed her heart off. "Have you looked at a mirror lately? You can't expect me to believe all that baloney about 'love' when you are covered in bits of dead meat."

"Aye, you are right. We are probably carrying a few blood-borne diseases on our dresses. We are a walking doctor's nightmare!" Momiji conceded. "It makes me want to hug someone. Maybe you want a hug? I bet you want a hug. Everybody loves hugs! Give me a hug!"

Sporting a feral, devilish smile, the tengu scooted closer to their prisoner, making sure to smear her dress all over the youkai's body. Understandably, Letty was utterly disgusted and tried to squirm away, but the bindings impeded her to escape her punishment.

"No! No! Stay away from me, you filthy dog! Don't you dare to-Eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeek!"

---------------------------------------------

Nine horsewomen ride in silence. Mounted in the magical reindeers Sinterkraas lent them, they fly above the Human Village, carrying bags full of loot and treasure. Behind Shou, Letty Whiterock was hogtied and gagged as a prisoner, squealing in hopes that someone below would hear her muffled cries of help. After six months of brave obstinacy and fruitless effort, the nine horsewomen had finally achieved a major victory in their crusade against the evil hermit, and they also completed the task the Saint Spirit of Winter had commended. Their outward appearance was that of stoicism and professionalism, but inside they were filled with euphoria and pride.

That was, until Yumeko, who was closing the convoy, noticed a strange occurrence. As if they were given a life of their own, the different pieces of treasure were beginning to get out of the bags and slowly float down towards the chimneys of the houses below them. The swordswoman instantly suspected there was powerful wizardry at work - and she was right, though she would never know. For that was Seiga Kaku's last resort plan: she enchanted each and every item of Sinterklaas' treasure so that, in case they were stolen from her, they would move by themselves to the nearest fires and be burned beyond repair. And in that case, the nearest fires were the bonfires of the families enjoying the Christmas' Eve at home.

"Uh, people, we appear to be losing our cargo," Yumeko called to her companions and pointed at the falling treasure.

The other eight riders turned their heads back to check the unusual phenomena, all the while Letty stiffled her laughter.

"Oh drats. Who was the one in charge of tying up the bags?" Exclaimed Shou, annoyed. "I cannot trust you with even the most simple tasks, I swear!"

"General, that's not what we should be worried about," Keine said. "We ought to recover the treasure while we still can."

"Well then, what are you waiting for? Go get them!"

There was a silence, an uncomfortable, awkward silence, where Shou glared at the group just like at the cemetery's shrine. And just like that time, the group remained frozen in place, flabbergasted.

"Are you... are you seriously ordering us to go down those chimneys and break into people's homes?" Momiji asked, unable to believe what her ears heard from her superior.

In response to that, Shou rode her reindeer to Momiji's side, grabbed her shoulder with an iron grip, and pierced her with her eyes. The tengu could only gulp audibly, awaiting for the obvious answer.

"Lest you bring Sinterklaas' and mine fury upon ye, aye!" The General said, dead serious. "Now get bloody going!"

Without giving poor Momiji time to react, Shou pushed the tengu down, making her fall straight towards the chimney's pot. Momiji got stuck rather comically, wailing her legs helplessly, until she managed to squirm her way in and disappeared inside the flue. The rest of the group followed suit when Shou directed her glare at them, preferring to get inside by their own means.

Needless to say, the eight house-breaking horsewomen failed horribly. Although most of them managed to find the treasures that went inside the buildings, they were caught red-handed when they attempted to get out, and were forced to leave them behind to make their escapes. Later, the townsfolk would comment on the mysterious people dressed like the Saint Spirit of Winter, leaving presents behind and climbing up the chimneys in a hurry.

This infuriated Sinterklaas to no end, who saw his treasure get lost forever, but changed his mind when he discovered that the fiasco had an unexpected side-effect. The feelings of gratitude from the lucky humans resulted enormous flow of faith towards his figure, and the legends of the gift-giver in red spread like wildfire. Sinterklaas, taking advantage of this popularity boom, decided to open a factory in the North Pole, outsourced a bunch of slave elves for minimal wage, and began to hand out presents to good kids in exchange of faith, under a new alias.

As for the nine horsewomen, they made an agreement to never speak of this incident again and dropped their prisoner at the Myouren Temple. Letty would be disciplined by the head nun, but nevertheless she found comfort in her new "home", and spent her time playing with the younger inhabitants, using her powers over winter to create murderous snowmen and snowball catapults.

Knowing that the Youkai of Winter would be safe in the coziness of the Myouren Temple, the nine horsewomen - who from hence forth they would be known as The Nine Reindeer Riders - set out again to find Seiga Kaku, the Wicked Hermit. For even after the menace of eternal winter had been beaten, the true evil still hid in the shadows, waiting for the right moment to deliver the final blow to Gensokyo's stability. But evil will never win, as long as there are brave warriors ready to face and overcome the numerous obstacles in their way.

But that is another story for another time.
“What's Christmas?”

It was a cold day in the Human village, with fresh dusting of snow covering everything. Two men were clearing paths through the streets, talking as they did to pass the time. It was dull work, but not particularly hard.

“Ah... you haven't heard of Christmas? I guess it's kind of a new thing.”

Of the two men, one of them was from the outside. It was obvious not only from his clothes, which were made from some strange shiny material, but from his manner of speaking as well. Koishi knew that much.

“Well,” The man continued, “It's a holiday where you exchange gifts with people you care about, eat good food, and that sort of thing.”

“That sounds like fun. And it's a yearly thing?”

“Yeah, it sure is. It'll be happening in a few days, actually. Ah, but now I'm getting nostalgic for my mother's cooking...”

Koishi already knew what it was – all of that imagery was floating up into the man's subconscious, and like a sponge she sucked it right up. Candy canes, hot chocolate, bows, fat men in red suits... outsiders have the best ideas sometimes.

The men continued their conversation, but Koishi had already left. What's a good idea if it goes unused?

************************

“A what?”

“A Christmas party!”

Koishi made her way home, to the palace of the earth spirits, where she found her sister spending her time as she usually did, reading a good novel in the library.

Satori wasn't exactly thrilled to see her. She'd finally gotten to the climax of the story, only to have her sister burst into the room and start rambling about deer, pine trees, and tiny men in green clothes. After a few minutes of disjoint thoughts and random tangents, she finally found the right questions to get her sister to explain what she was talking about. As well as Koishi could explain anything, anyway.

“You want to hold one? Here?”

“Yep! It'll be fun!”

Satori was familiar with the idea, of course, but... well, the dark palace wasn't exactly the kind of place to hold a Christmas celebration.

“I don't think that would work,” Satori responded, going back to her book, “Why would anyone come to a party here?”

“Because we'll have eggnog and caramel popcorn.”

“...”

Satori knew that when her sister got this focused on something, stopping her was about as useful as stopping a flood with a bucket. There was no use fighting it. Damage mitigation was the best strategy.

“I'm going to go invite everyone. Can you make the treats?”

Satori nodded lightly. “Sure.”

“Great!”

By the time Satori looked up from her book again, her sister had already left. She had no intention of making the treats herself, but there was plenty of help around. With enough supervision, and easy recipes, she could make this work.

**********************************

Koishi spent the next few days buzzing about the underground, crashing conversations and brawls alike with promises of free food and alcohol. Different promises to different people, of course, and with the condition that they bring what she hadn't promised them as well as one gift.

No one knew what she was talking about, but Oni aren't known for turning down free wine and youkai in general aren't known for turning down free food. In her flight, though, she missed one lone bridge guard who had stepped away from her post for a few moments both times she passed through.

This bridge guard wasn't known for her humility, or her friendly personality. Quite the opposite, actually.

“Aaaah, why wasn't I invited?” She fumed, upon hearing about the party from a passer-by. “Why does everyone get to have fun tomorrow but me?”

As she stewed in her envy, an idea wormed it's way into her head. Why does everyone get to have fun, she asked? Well, it's because there's no one there to ruin the event, isn't it? And couldn't she do that herself?

A crooked smile worked it's way across her face. She could, and she would.

****************************

By the time the party arrived, the palace was much more inviting than it had ever been. Multi-colored spirits decorated the exterior, making the cold stone just a little more inviting. The inside has been decorated in red bows and strips of flowing ribbon, and a large pine now occupied the large main hall. Standing just before the tree was a massive table, loaded high with all kinds of imaginable sweets.

Fortunately, ravens are actually fairly good at tying bows and stringing ribbon, and cats can make excellent cooks when rewarded with a portion of the cooking. The entire thing was a sight to behold, and even Satori couldn't resist feeling a bit proud of the whole ordeal.

“Can we eat now?"

"Not yet."

"... how about now?"

"No. ...and don't even think about it."

Her pets were getting a bit restless, and even Satori could admit that the smell filling the palace was neigh irresistible.

It wasn't long, though, before the guests began to filter in. Oni, Spirits, youkai of all sorts, and even a few extraordinary humans... the main hall went from empty to the fullest it had ever been in the matter of hours. The sight was impossible, and yet here it was.

Satori was watching the sight unfold from the upper balcony. This was her sister's party, and not hers, although her sister hadn't joined it yet either. She was still getting ready.

"See? I told you it would work~"

"That you did."

Koishi had taken all the small trinkets she'd asked the guests to bring at the door, and then, when she was sure that she'd gotten most of them, headed upstairs. Unlike the other guests, she had to dress up for this party.

"How do I look?"

Satori turned around, and a small smile creeped along her face. Her sister was standing there, but those clothes...

"You really are something else, sometimes."

It was an outfit that Satori recognized immediately. That bright cherry color with pure white trim. Her skirt, jacket, and even hat were designed with the same pattern. Over her shoulder, she had a large sack bulging with all the small gifts she'd requested that the guests bring.

"Ho ho ho," Koishi said, walking past her sister to the upstairs railing. Then, with an even louder voice. "Merry Christmas, everyone!"

Koishi made her way down the stairs, gifts in tow, as everybody looked on in surprise.

***************************************

While the party goers had been gathering, an uninvited guest had been preparing something far more sulphurous downstairs. Still determined to ruin the party for everyone else, the green-hearted youkai had been working through the night and well into the afternoon on her plot.

The palace, you see, was built just over a vast sea of lava, ash, and brimstone. It was a place completely inappropriate for a party. By mixing that with the party above, well... she'd be able to feel a lot better.

That Kappa ha guaranteed that a few dozen of these small charges was all she'd need to do so. Just enough to install a little ventilation into the palace.

A single flame was all it took. The fuse lit and sparked its way across the floor, spreading out like a spider-web. Along the floor, along the walls, along the ceiling... although she really did want to watch, she also didn't want to be crushed if something did go wrong.

The green-hearted youkai made her way towards the side stairs. She would have to head through the main hall to get to the side exit, but it wouldn't take too long. If all went well, she'd slip out unnoticed.

*****************************************

*BANG*

The guests murmured amongst themselves, while Koishi seemed completely unfazed. Satori immediately looked around, but couldn't see the source.

"What was---?"

*BANG* *BANG* *BANGBANGBANG*

All at once, small holes began to appear all over the main floor. An eerie orange light shone through each one.

*POOOOFFF*

Then, all at once, a plume of white ash shot up from every single hole. It was as if a thick fog had suddenly shot up through the floor. No one could see a thing.

****************************************

The green-hearted youkai watched with glee from the corner of the stairs. Perfect. It wasn't quite as smelly as she had hoped, but surely, this would ruin their little party.

Even a good smoke bomb couldn't provide cover as good as this, so she began to edge around the back of the room before the ash could settle. However, there was one thing she hadn't counted on.

"Merry Christmas!"

Koishi, unable to focus on something even when it was placed directly in front of her, had noticed the uninvited guest. Reaching into her pack, she pulled out a neatly wrapped gift and handed it to her.

Not knowing what else to do, the ne'er-do-well simply took the gift.

"... thank you?"

"Thanks for the snow." Then, as she was turning away, she added, "Ho ho ho!"

Being completely oblivious the ash, Koishi continued on. By now, the massive plume of ash had begun to thin itself out, and the particles began to clump together. It was almost like...

"Oi, do you think this was planned?"

"Who knows? It does look pretty, though."

It was as if a snow storm had made its way into the palace. The flakes coated the stone floor, carpet, ribbons, guests... if it wasn't for the warmth, this could easily be mistaken for the human village.

Thanks to a few quick-thinking hell ravens, the food and drink had been covered by a cloth before it got too dusty to eat. The guests, too, were none the wiser - as they talked amongst themselves, the general consensus was that this had been the plan all along.

***********************************

"Oh, Parsse? What're you doing here?"

Her escape botched, and her entire plan foiled, Paree had taken a seat near the edge of the gathering.

"Just... enjoying the party. What else would I be doing?"

"Did you try the food yet? Those chocolate-fly cookies are delicious."

No one seemed to know that she had just spent the greater part of the last day trying to ruin all this. Enjoying it would just be strange, especially since she hadn't brought anything.

"I haven't."

"Oh, here, take one of mine," The spider laughed, taking the top one from the stack in her offhand, "I don't need all these."

Parsee did, and bit in after brushing off a piece of fresh ash that had fallen on it.

"Hmm. This is pretty good."

************************************

After the opening bang, Satori decided it was best to retreat from the main event. Although she hadn't detected any nasty thoughts from the guests at a glance, she was all but certain that they'd show up if she tried to join them. That was how it always went. She was under no illusions about her reuptation in the underground. So, sneaking away some snacks, she decided to finish her book away from the main hall.

"Ho ho ho!"

Her sister, though, knew all of her hiding places.

"How is the party going?" Satori asked, continuing her book, "Did you see what caused all that racket? Cleaning that is going to be a pain..."

Koishi didn't answer, and instead continued on with her act. Producing the last present from her now empty sack of gifts, she held it out to her sister. "Merry Christmas!"

"... hmm. Thank you," Satori said, taking the small box, "I didn't get you anything, though..."

As she unwrapped it, Koishi poked her sister lightly on the forehead. "Give me a dance, ok?"

"A... dance?" Satori asked, confused.

"We've got some ghosts who play music today~"

Satori couldn't say no.

She wasn't as unwelcome as she thought. Almost none of the guests paid much attention to her. It was the most fun she had had in ages. It wasn't just her, either - the party was a huge success. By the end, it was all but certain that there would be another one next year. This one lasted for four days, and only came to a halt because there was no more food or drink to be had.

Except for the fruitcake, of course.
File 138877162936.jpg - (246.04KB, 876x620, Blame this picture for everything.jpg) [iqdb]
1486
Blizzards at the Scarlet Devil Mansion were probably, Meiling thought, one of the worst things she'd ever experienced. She had to stay outside in the cold, her carefully-tended gardens were dead, and she couldn't even count on visitors braving the cutting wind and mounds of snow. She sighed, breath crystalizing in the air and fading away.

Her job for the past week had, essentially, been to stare into the snowdrifts and feel her face steadily go numb. It lost its appeal after the first hour.

Still, at least it wasn't all bad. She was able to stave off most of the cold; steady manipulation of her chi saw to that, although being bundled up in several layers of warm clothing certainly helped. She'd also supplied herself with plenty of reading material, thanks to Patchouli having the foresight to ward each and every book she had acquired over her lengthy stay, the better for them to withstand almost anything tha

Of course, while the snow and rain sloughed off the books on contact, that still meant Meiling had to read through the aforementioned snow and rain, which proved to be unreasonably difficult. She clapped the book shut with a growl of annoyance and stuffed it inside the bag slung over her shoulder.

Looked like she was stuck with nothing to do.

Wait, in the distance...

There was a man coming this way?

She immediately stood ramrod straight, watching the interloper's steady approach through the blizzard. He was large and burly, certainly, his outfit leaving patches of muscled arm and leg uncovered. The rest of his clothing consisted of a golden tunic atop chainmail, a metal helmet concealing his features, fur boots, and some sort of two-handed weapon strapped to his back that she couldn't quite make out from here.

She didn't bother suppressing the roll of her eyes; walking around exposed during a blizzard was a good way to lose your bits. Then again, he was pretty clearly an Outsider, and who knew what was up with them sometimes? Oh, she really hoped there wasn't going to be a language barrier issue; those were always a pain to work through. She briefly considered ordering him to stop, but instead opted to wait until the stranger had plodded within a dozen feet before she raised her voice.

“Isn't the weather a bit harsh to be out tonight?” She asked, bringing the man to a halt as surely as a kick to the gut. His response was completely incomprehensible, voice reedy and accent thick, leaving Meiling to curse internally. Well, this wasn't the first time she'd had to work through something like this; time to give sign language a shot.

She pointed a thumb towards herself, crossed her arms in what she hoped was a guard's pose, and motioned back at the mansion. The man flung his arms out in exasperation, and continued plodding towards her. Meiling frowned, this time holding a hand out, palm-first, in the universal gesture of 'Stop right there or I'll break you in half.'

The man drew a warhammer off his back in a smooth, practiced motion, hefting it in both hands.

So that was how it was going to be, huh?

Meiling slid her bookbag off her shoulder and set it on the ground. She wasn't going to bog herself down even against a human, because it didn't matter who you were, taking a warhammer to the skull was just a bad idea all around. If he was some sort of youkai or other monster with the strength to match, then she'd need every ounce of speed she could get. Still, her stance was relaxed, legs spread out, fingers dangling loosely apart as she sized up her opponent. His approach was steady, but cautious, the man clearly unwilling to take even an unarmed adversary lightly. Meiling couldn't help but smile a little at that; she could respect someone who took her seriously, even if he was still a damn fool for trying to force his way past her in the first place.

“You really don't want to do this,” She said, not moving an inch from her spot at the gate. He spoke again, frustration in his tone evident, and stopped again barely out of striking distance. From this close, she could see him shivering.

She shifted her posture slightly, and that one little movement was enough cause for the Outsider to charge. She rushed to meet him even as he hauled back and swung the hammer in a wide, horizontal arc, but she dropped to her knees mid-charge, leaned back, and slid a mere hair's-breadth below the strike, powder flying as her slide threw up snow. Up close, she could see his eyes widen through the slits in his helmet, and then flinch in pain as her fist found a home right in his gut. The man's hammer dropped from limp fingers as he stumbled back, clutching at his mid-section, but before he could recover, Meiling bounded to her feet, crossed the gap between them in a flash, and bodily threw the man over her shoulder.

Snow went flying on his impact, the man himself lying in a wheezing heap. He struggled to pull himself to his hands and knees, only to be greeted by Meiling looming above him. The man brought his hands up and gasped something she couldn't understand, but the sign of surrender was fairly obvious. Victory hers, Meiling offered the man her hand, which he accepted after a moment of confused staring. She hauled him upright without so much as a grunt of effort, and set to dusting off the snow coating him. The man, for his part, accepted the whole ordeal gracefully.

He nodded once she stepped back, then trudged past her in order to retrieve his warhammer, where he hoisted the maul up and fastened it to his back via a series of leather straps. As he started to head back into the distance, Meiling waved a hand and shouted wordlessly, once again stopping him. When he turned, he found himself on the receiving end of a bright smile.

“The name's Meiling!” She said, planting both hands over her heart. “Meiling!”

The man 'ah'd in acknowledgement and mimicked the gesture. “Ari!” He said. The next words out of his mouth were, once again, incomprehensible, but Meiling felt a shot of pride in at least getting a name from the man.

“Make a new friend, Meiling?” A woman asked, her voice enough to make Meiling spin around nigh-instantly. The new arrival, a maid with hair to match the ongoing blizzard, stood behind the closed gate, carrying a tray of warm food that nearly made Meiling salivate at the mere sight of it. She didn't seem all that bothered by the cold, the only concession she made to the weather being a scarf wrapped around her neck.

“I suppose you could say that, Sakuya,” Meiling said, sheepishly rubbing the back of her neck. “He tried to bash my head in, but after we got that outta the way, he seems like a decent fella.”

“Seems, eh?” Sakuya said, resting a shoulder against the gate. “Let me guess, we got another one who talks in gibberish?”

“Meiling?” Ari said, continuing on for the next few seconds in his unique dialect.

As he talked, Meiling stole a glance back at Sakuya, and smirked. “That answer your question?”

“Quite,” Sakuya said, “It's rather cold out here for him to be dressed like that, isn't it?”

“Figured that's why he came at me in the first place,” Meiling said, reaching between the bars to grab a cup of steaming tea. After taking a deep drag, she glanced around, and fixed the maid with a conspiratorial little grin. “Guy's clearly seen action, and he's not like all those other outsiders with their fancy modern toys, either. Figure he's got some interesting stories to tell?”

“That all depends on if we could get Lady Patchouli to go through, Gods forbid, actual effort to put a translation spell on him,” Sakuya said, lips quirking up just a little.

“Gods forbid,” Meiling agreed, not losing her smile at all.

“Oi!” Ari said, and the two women glared at him.

He backed down.

“Now, I can't let someone past the gate when they've tried to attack me,” Meiling said, after the moment had passed. “But I couldn't, in good conscience, leave a collapsed refugee out in the cold, either.”

“Ah,” Sakuya said, nodding sagely. “Naturally not.”

“Glad we agree,” Meiling said, tossing back the rest of her tea in a single gulp, then setting the empty cup back on Sakuya's tray.

“My word, what is that thing taking my attention away from the gate?” Sakuya theatrically called after her, as Meiling sauntered up to the man standing so still snow was piling on his shoulders. Meiling clapped him on the arm, then jerked a thumb back at the mansion, hoping he'd get the hint. He squinted at her, said something, paused, and then 'ah'd once again. He started towards the gate before Meiling grabbed him by the shoulder.

“No, no, see, you gotta work with me here,” Meiling said. She made a little walking gesture with her fingers, pointed at the mansion, then crossed her arms in a slashing gesture. Before he could voice any disagreement, she pointed at him, then at the ground, and used both hands as a mimed pillow. That done, she pointed at herself, and then walked towards the mansion holding an invisible cargo on her shoulder. When she turned back, Ari had folded his arms and, even through the helmet, she could tell he was giving her a look that said 'this is really stupid'. The two stared at each other for a moment more before he threw up his arms in exasperation and flung himself face-first into the ground.

Moments later, with the man slung over her shoulder, Meiling booted the gate wide open. “Sakuya, I've got someone!”

Sakuya blinked onto the scene, hand held over her mouth in shock, the other effortlessly carrying her tray. “Oh my goodness, what happened to this poor man, we simply must see him inside! I'll have some more fairies take over for you, Meiling, you just get him to a guest room!”

“Gotcha, Sakuya, I gotcha,” Meiling said, trudging through the snow-covered pathway to the Mansion's main doors. The maid behind her shimmered away in a blink, and moments later a trio of very confused fairy maids wrapped in thick clothing found themselves dumped in the cold.

The three fairies blinked, then looked back at each other in resignation. “New guy?”

“New guy.”

“Yep, new guy.”

One slapped a hand to her forehead. “Are you f-”
__________

“-ucking kidding me?” The purple-haired witch asked, flatly, half-lidded eyes staring over her book at Meiling. She was surrounded by literature, tea, snacks, and other sundry items as she sat at her desk, entirely unintimidated by the redhead looming above her.

“Such language, Lady Patchouli!” Meiling said, keeping a firm grasp of the limp man atop her shoulder. “I didn't know you had it in you!”

“And I've many more, besides,” Patchouli said, shutting her book with a snap. “Now, I'm almost completely certain I know what you're going to ask, but just for the sake of formality, what is it you want?”

Meiling rolled a muscular arm in a shrug. “ 'Fore this guy went and collapsed on me, he said a few things in some weird Outside language. Can you get him talking straight for me or what?”

Patchouli's lips curled downwards. “Even assuming I wanted to, you do realize I'm not some magic fountain you can just turn off and on every time you need something fixed, correct?”

“So?” Meiling said, giving the witch a merry wink.

Patchouli narrowed her eyes at the gatekeeper. “You're not going to go away unless I do this, are you.”

Meiling took one long look around the study before locking eyes with Patchouli. “It's that or we get into a fight about it, and I'd hate to accidentally make a mess of all your painstakingly arranged books in all the commotion.”

Patchouli blinked slowly. “You wouldn't.”

Meiling smiled. “Not intentionally!”

Patchouli heaved a great, rasping sigh. “Bring him here, I'll make it quick.”

In response, Meiling deposited the man on Patchouli's desk in just such a fashion as to rattle the bookworm's carefully organized table, but without actually knocking anything over. After Patchouli gave Meiling a stinkeye, she raised a hand, shut her eyes, and, in the span of several words, unleashed a quick burst of brightly-colored magic into the man's head.

“Was that so hard?” Meiling asked, hoisting the man back into his proper place.

“You owe me one for this, you know,” Patchouli said, bringing her attentions back to her book.

Meiling waved as she stomped away. “And I'll gladly pay you back! Later!”
__________

When she'd exited the library, Meiling looked around for any watchers, then set the man down. As he stretched, she gave him a bright smile. “Right, we're clear! How're you feeling?”

“It feels like someone just went and rubbed their fingers all over my brain,” Ari marveled, holding a hand to the side of his helmet. “What was that, some sort of alteration spell? Your... purple friend must be quite accomplished.”

“So you're familiar with magic, eh?” Meiling asked, walking ahead. “That's good! Means I don't have to go through the effort of explaining things!”

Ari fell in step beside her, studying his surroundings with unabashed curiosity. “I was never one for the magical arts; leave that to the mages at the Colleges. All I need is a hammer.”

“Replace 'hammer' with 'martial arts', and you'd really be a man after my own heart!” Meiling said, rounding a corner.

“I've not seen many practitioners of hand-to-hand, to be quite honest,” Ari said, glancing at her hands “But you must be effective with it, else you wouldn't be talking to me right now.”

“You're damn right!” Meiling said, thumping a fist against her chest.

“So, where are we headed?” Ari asked.

“Dinner's come and gone already, so you're out of luck there, but we can at least see you to a guest room until this blizzard blows over.”

“Wait, wait, let me make this clear,” Ari said, holding up a hand. “I tried to bust your head open, but you're letting me spend the night here anyway?”

“...Are you trying to make me regret letting you in?” Meiling asked, quirking a brow up.

“Well, no,” He said. “I just have to give thanks for such generous hospitality!”

“Hold your thanks until you meet the Mistress,” Meiling said. “Then you can decide whether you really want to be here.”

The two stepped away for a moment to give room for a fairy maid flying through the hall. As she passed, Ari stared at her retreating form. “Who was that? Were- were those wings on her back?”

“The fairies? Oh, don't mind them, they're harmless,” Meiling said, not missing a beat as something shattered behind them. “Mostly.”

Fae?” Ari asked. “I didn't think they worked for anyone.

“The Mistress can be very persuasive.”

“You keep mentioning her, but just who is she?”

“Remilia Scarlet, lady of the Scarlet Devil Mansion,” Meiling said.

“The Scarlet Devil Mansion?” Ari asked, torn between disbelief and amusement. “Sounds like some godsforsaken vampire lair.”

“And just why do you think that is?” Meiling asked, giving him a meaningful look.

“...Oh.” He said, glumly.

Meiling gave him a hearty slap on the back. “Don't worry about it! The Mistress is really quite agreeable once you get to know her!”

“I'm sure she is,” He said.

“Ooh, let me guess, you've had some bad experiences with vampires before?” Meiling asked.

“I've cracked a few of their heads open, but I've never liked fighting the bastards.” Ari said, folding his arms across his barrel-esque chest.

Meiling opened her mouth to say something else, but clicked it shut, deciding discretion was likely the better option here. The two walked on in uncomfortable silence for the next few minutes, until Meiling came to a halt in front of a door with a trio of numbers etched on the front.

“This oughta do for your room,” Meiling said, standing aside. “If you need any assistance, there's a service bell in there, and one of the maids'll check up on you. Is everything clear?”

“Quite,” Ari said, moving to head inside.

“Hey, look, I know vampires can be pretty scary,” Meiling said, giving him a disarming smile. “Believe me, I was more than a little tetchy around Remilia when I first met her! But she does mean well, and she'd never drink from a guest without their permission, believe me!”

“Your words don't fill me with confidence,” Ari said, pausing in the doorway to give her a dour look.

Meiling sighed, her smile fading. “Look, just try not to take her head off with your hammer, will you?”

“If she tries to chew on my neck, I'm making no promises. Good night, ma'am.”

He shut the door softly, and the click of a lock being engaged followed it shortly thereafter.

Meiling sighed, and spread her hands helplessly. At least he took the news about Remilia surprisingly well, all considered.
__________

The blizzard had redoubled its efforts to bury the entire mansion by the time morning had risen, but Meiling was steadfast in her defense of the gate no matter how much snow threatened to swallow her up. Which was, to be entirely fair, quite a lot; it was at least half-a-foot deep as far as she could see, and its growth showed no signs of slowing.

It was much to her surprise, then, that the gate swung open from behind her, and through it trudged Ari, still clad in his usual armor, but wrapped up with enough extra cloth that his eyes were the only thing Meiling could make out.

“I figured you'd be taking breakfast with the Mistress right now. What's up?” Meiling asked, looking him up and down.

“Your lady is an... interesting sort, for a vampire,” He said, voice light. “Of all the things I expected, her telling me to 'get my freeloading rear out on guard duty' was not one of them.” He shook his head ruefully as he took up position parallel to Meiling, so that the gate was flanked by both of them. “Even out here, I can't escape my job. That'll teach me to complain about it, I suppose.”

“What, you're a gatekeeper?” Meiling asked, raising her voice over the wind.

Ari shook his head. “No, a guardsman. Honest work, if a bit boring.”

Meiling pursed her lips. “I can't help but notice the past-tense, here.”

Ari shrugged. “Me and some of my friends were in the middle of being transferred to this little fishing village near the coastline, but then a damned dragon showed up.”

Meiling nodded, turning away and then rapidly pulling a double-take. “A dragon?

Now it was Ari's turn to stare at her. “How do you not know about the dragons? The bastards are everywhere.

Meiling splayed her hands in a helpless gesture. “Not here, they aren't.”

Ari shook his head again, this time in disbelief. “You have it better than we did, then. Anyway, this huge beast flew over us, right? The bowmen with me took some shots at it, but we had to scatter as it started breathing fire down. Gerlad was too slow, got caught full on by a blast as the rest of us ran.”

“Ouch.”

“I didn't say he died, did I? No, he kept running, ablaze, shouting accusations about the dragon's parentage while we took to the forests,” He sighed. “In hindsight, taking to the trees against something that spews flame was not our wisest decision, but we needed the cover.”

“How'd it go from there?”

“Well, to cut a long story down to size, poorly,” He looked up into the snowstorm, fists clenched. “The rest were either dead or scattered by the time it came for me. I thought I'd managed to shake it when it shouted something, and I went flying. Cracked my head against a tree, blacked out. When I woke up, it was snowing hard, and I started looking for a place to stay. Had to smash a few animals that tried to make a meal out of me, but that's how I made my way here.”

“You didn't happen to tell Remilia any of this, did you?” Meiling asked, suspicion creeping up on her.

“She asked very politely. Why do you ask?”

“Ah, just wondering.” Meiling said, fuming internally. Damn Remilia's sense of humor. No doubt the moment she heard the word dragon, she was going to send the man out here.

She was looking forward to hearing what crazy mishaps he got up to inside, too! That was always a thing with Outsiders at the mansion; farmers and super-soldiers and everything in between, whenever one showed up, things got eventful, and she usually got to punch something.

The two of them fell into silence.
__________

By midday, the snow was piling up to their knees.

“I think we might be in some serious trouble here,” Meiling said, watching the ongoing blizzard with a horrified sort of awe.

“In all my years, I've never seen a storm last this long,” Ari said, arms wrapped around himself.

“How many?” Meiling asked, looking at him out the corner of her eye.

“What?”

“How many years?”

“Oh,” Ari paused a moment to shake off snow on his shoulders. “Twenty-three.”

Meiling frowned, brushing off more snow off her cap. “Really? Figured you'd be younger.”

“And why is that?” He said, turning to glare at her.

“Your voice,” Meiling said. “I'd expected something... deeper?”

Ari grumbled something underneath his breath.

“Sore spot?” Meiling asked, smiling impishly.

“Shut up,” He said, looking away from her. There was silence between them for the space of a dozen breaths before he spoke again. “So why do you work for a bloodsucker?”

Meiling's smile fled in a blink. “I get three meals a day, a place to sleep, and the pay's good. Far as deals go, it's a nice one.”

“And you're not worried she'll try to suck you dry?” He asked, looking back at her.

Meiling shrugged. “If she tried, I'd punch her so hard she wouldn't have any teeth left.”

Ari grunted. “Bold words.”

“You think I can't back them up?” She asked.

“I think you'd be suicidal to try with your bare hands,” Ari said, putting a hand on the handle of his warhammer. “I've got this, and even I know she'd likely be too much for me. You? Forget it.”

Meiling's eyebrows rose up into her hair. “Buddy, I can knock down these walls if I really wanted to. What you saw earlier was me going easy on you.”

“Prove it.”

“All right then, I will!” Meiling said. She kicked away enough snow to move freely, then concentrated chi into her leg as she raised it up. Ari watched quietly up to the point where she stomped her foot down with enough force to send all the snow flying in a radius of several feet around her, and a torrent of powder buried the man instantly.

“PFUH!” Ari roared, rocketing upright after several seconds. Meiling, for her part, was barely holding back laughter as he shook himself off like a big dog. He thrust a finger at the quivering woman in indignant outrage. “What was that?

“Me proving how bad I could whoop you!” Meiling cackled, and then she ducked a handful of snow from the irked guardsman.

“I'll get you for this!” Ari said, shaking a fist at her even as he scooped up more ammunition. Meilng, for her part, simply cackled more as she dove deep into a snowbank for cover.
__________

The sun was lazily drifting towards the horizon when the snowstorm finally abated. Guardsman and gatekeeper had both drawn together for protection against the elements, and with the weather finally giving them a respite, Meiling had pulled something from her bookbag.

“What's that you've got there?” Ari asked, looming over Meiling's shoulder and staring down at the flimsy little booklet she was holding. “It's not like any book I've ever seen.”

“This?” Meiling asked, glancing up at him. “It's a comic book I borrowed.”

“A... comic book?” Ari asked, his tone implying furrowed brows. “Is it filled with jokes?”

Meiling chuckled. “Heh, no, it's more like a picture book. Look!”

She flipped it open to a random page, and Ari squinted at the contents. “I've seen heads fly, but cutting your foes in half seems another matter entirely.”

“How observant of you,” Meiling wryly noted, paging back to the start. “Wanna read it?”

“I can't make sense of the words,” Ari said, sheepishly. “Whatever that spell did, it's not enough to let me read.”

“Want me to narrate?”

“...Yes.”

“Then here we go!” Meiling cleared her throat. “ 'Long ago, in a distant land...'”
__________

The moon was shining brightly above the two, snow glittering and the odd flake drifting from the skies to become one with its brethren. The two guards reclined, side-by-side, against the great brick wall, staring out into the snowy wilderness. Without any more snow pouring down, the village across the lake was clearly visible.

“You know,” Meiling said, eliciting a grunt from Ari. “Today was surprisingly uneventful!”

“Describe 'eventful.'” Ari said.

“Eventful, here, usually involves explosions. What about yourself, huh?” Meiling asked, nudging the man in the ribs. “What happened with you when there weren't dragons around?”

“The most excitement I had was the occasional bandit raid,” Ari said. “Nothing like the stories I grew up with.”

“Oh? Like what?” Meiling asked, and she finally got him to look her way.

“Well, the tale of Jarl Forkbeard's last stand against the snow elves was one of my favorites as a boy,” Ari said, voice filled with nostalgic wistfulness. “The legend says a hundred fell before his wounds brought him low. Of course, then some explorer found his bones, and it turned out the legend was greatly exaggerated.”

“Oh. I'm so sorry,” Meiling said, laying a hand on his shoulder.

“Bah, it's nothing,” He said. “Once I got older, I figured it sounded too good to be true.”

He glanced at her hand, and with a sheepish little smile Meiling retracted it. The two remained in companionable silence for a few minutes more before Meiling squinted up at the moon. “Well, my shift's about done, so I'm gonna head back inside. You?”

“I'll keep watch for a little longer,” Ari said, eyes on the horizon.

“Eh, suit yourself,” Meiling said, opening the gate. “Try not to catch your death of cold, all right? I'd hate to have to drag you all the way to Eientei to get you fixed up.”

“Understood, mother,” Ari said, giving Meiling a sarcastic little salute as she slipped through the gate. He watched her retreating form until she trudged inside the mansion proper, and then, once he was sure no one was watching, set out through the snow and towards the village.
__________

The next morning saw the vengeful return of the snowstorm, but for all outside appearances Meiling was stolidly weathering the biting snow. Internally, of course, was a different matter. She'd only known Ari for a day, but she'd still be sore-pressed to say she wasn't somewhat worried about what had happened to him.

“Damned fool thing to do,” She muttered, shaking her head. If he'd wanted to leave that badly, she'd have gladly gotten someone to escort him. And he left at night, too! At least during the day there weren't any predators skulking around.

She shushed herself. The man was a fighter, that was true, and he'd made it to the mansion without much trouble. If he could manage that, then a clear walk to the village shouldn't be that difficult.

She squinted through the snow, anyway, on the off-chance he'd decided to come back.

Nope, nothing.

Well, if he got himself eaten, it was his own damn fault.

With that thought in mind, she settled back, tugged her cap over her eyes, and firmly ignored the nagging cold.
__________

It was noon when she heard footsteps plodding through snow. She brought her cap up enough to take stock of the intruder, only to come up short at the familiar man standing before her.

“Why am I not surprised you're back?” Meiling asked, smiling despite herself.

In response, Ari flung his arms out in exasperation. “You could have told me about this whole 'Gensokyo' thing!”

Meiling shrugged. “It never came up. How'd you find out, anyway?”

“The village buildings were all wrong, everyone looked foreign, and I kept being called an Outsider,” He said, his tone sour. “I asked around, and someone finally filled me in, and- anyway, that's not the point! How do I get back home?”

“Reimu can send Outsiders back easily enough if you ask her,” Meiling said, pointing out at an indistinct spot in the far hills. “I'll even take you there if you really want to get back.”

“Oh,” He said, sounding put-out. “Well, if it's that simple, I suppose there isn't really a problem.”

“Ahuh,” Meiling said. “So did you walk all the way back here for a reason, or did you just want to chat?”

Ari rubbed the back of his helmet self-consciously. “Well, I don't really want to go back home while there are still dragons about. Besides, a man needs to eat, and there's not much demand at that village for a head-smasher.”

Meiling arched a lone brow. “Are you getting at what I think you're getting at, here?”

He sighed. “You wouldn't happen to have any job postings open, would you?”

“Only if you promise to tell me when you're leaving next time.”

He nodded. “Swear it.”

Meiling, smiling openly, extended a hand. “Then welcome aboard!”
File 138888541267.jpg - (1.55MB, 2480x1754, In the snow with your loved.jpg) [iqdb]
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Winter this year has been rough. Yesterday a blizzard hit and covered the entire mountain in a thick layer of snow. Around the foot of the mountain lays a solid coat, six feet deep; whereas around here at the top, it’s only about two to three feet on average. The trees got off a little better though; only a thin layer can be found in a few of the treetops since the midday sun melted most of it away. The temperature seems to be dropping again though; I can see the melted snow forming icicles along the branches in the shadows. As I race through the treetops, only the moist branches can take my sudden weight. Even then, lingering for a moment could cause my sudden and embarrassing downfall.

So far I've been lucky to have only four broken behind me; each of those served to buy me a bit of extra time to get away from her. I think it’s the extra force I apply when I jump off a branch that causes it break. Landing on them is a much smoother process since I can reduce the stress of impact. You wouldn’t really understand it if you haven’t tried it yourself. I won’t recommend it though, not without proper training first. I’ve been doing this for centuries already; it’s practically second nature to me at this point.

“I’m going to catch you sooner or later. Just you wait!” The shout from the girl in pursuit brings me out of my reverie. I take off from a branch with a long jump; long enough to allow me to spin around mid-air to catch sight of her. Her hair may be short, but it’s still dancing beautifully in the wind as she runs.

As I land on the branch that was ahead of me, I slip a little on the ice before quickly regaining my footing and launching off again. “Not last time; not this time!” I yell back at her.

I think we’ve been running for over an hour at this point. Neither of us are willing to give up the chase, and both of us have the stamina to continue running. Between the two of us, I have the greater endurance. I can outlast her in most cases, but she edges me out when it comes to speed though. She’s more of a sprinter type, so over a short distance pursuit, she has the advantage. I’ve focused on developing my endurance since I was just a pup. My teacher taught me the importance of it by constantly hammering this quote into my head: “Raise your endurance and the rest will follow at its own pace.” Needless to say, I've taken it to heart.

From the sound of her footsteps I can judge that she’s closing in on me again. At this rate she’ll catch me. I’d rather avoid that all together. It’ll be easier once we get inside the village walls. There I have the advantage.

I could try a little trick to shake her off. It’ll be risky, but I’m certain that I should be able to pull it off as long as I get the timing right.

With a deep breath, I leap off the branch and feint a grab for a low hanging branch directly in front of me. I brush my fingers against it as I 'miss' it and begin a controlled fall.

The branch groans as she leaps off it to try and tackle me mid-air. I can’t help but let a smirk creep onto my face. She’s so easy to predict sometimes. Or maybe she’s just not taking me seriously. Even after all the years I’ve known her I still can’t tell whether she makes a fool of me or if she’s just that easy to predict.

I grasp the next branch with both of my hands and combine some additional force with my momentum, swinging up and around it to successfully land on top. I do so just in time to watch her fly past beneath me, looking up at me with her dark rose colored eyes. Her mouth is just slightly open from the amazement of my new move. Or maybe it’s open because she’s panting.

I watch her as she dives face first into the snow, landing with her entire upper body driven into the snow. It’s almost comical the way her skirt and tail gently land on her leg. Though, watching her black skirt fall on the snow around her, I wonder; how do girls get used to wearing a skirt when it’s freezing outdoors?

She plucks her head out of the snow and flicks her ears as she looks up at me. “That’s cheating,” she cries, “I didn’t know you could do that.” She shakes her head and tail to get the last bit of snow off before getting ready to pursue me again.

“Too bad.” I turn around to run as I see she’s getting ready to take off. “You should be prepared for this kind of thing, ‘patrol chief’.” I emphasize the last part. Teasing her usually staggers her for a few seconds.

Or not. She closes the distance with a sudden burst of speed and I feel her ramming me, wrapping her arms around me as she pulls both of us down into the snow. We don’t roll properly like if we had landed on the ground. Instead we just slump into the snow bank.

She holds me down by my shoulders as she sits on top of me. “Got you.” She exclaims with a triumphant glee in her voice.

I don’t offer any resistance. This time, I lost. I might as well accept it. “Of course you did, I mean it’s not like it’s against the rules to fly, is it now?” Thanks to my disability, we had to place a rule against flying in this game. If we didn’t she would’ve had a major advantage against me.

“Well, ‘prince’, you should expect something like this when you go and pull that kind of stunt.” She’s still gasping for air as she says it. We did play for a rather long time, and if we had continued just five more minutes, I know I would have won. “I’m just as willing to play dirty as you are. You should know that by now.” I can just spot her tail slowly dancing from side to side behind her.

“I should, shouldn’t I?” I smirk as I say it. Her underlying message is more than clear. It’d be just as clear even if she weren’t leaning closer; even if I couldn’t hear her heart beat faster; even if she didn’t have a bright blushing running across her face.

A wet thwack interrupts my thoughts as she suddenly falls straight into me, our lips meeting in a sudden, awkward kiss. A familiar scent of maple overwhelms me for a moment as her deep rose colored eyes meet my own. She quickly picks herself back up and shoots a glare at someone behind her. With how fast she turned her head, some of the snow from her white hair is thrown onto my face. I’d like to wipe it off, but she’s still restraining me.

“Aya!” I actually feel sorry for the crow now. But it is her fault. She should have learned to not piss off a white wolf by now. “Why the hell did you do that?” If not, then she’s bound to learn it now.

“Aww, come on, can’t you take a little fun?” She appears on top of one of the higher trees. “Besides, I did you two love birds a favor. What would you have done if someone other than me had come by?” She brushes the white pom-poms, hanging from her hat away from her face.

"Nothing! Nothing would have happened at all!” I can’t see her face, but from here I can see her neck flushing with a red, almost pink color.

“It’s not exactly a secret that we’re dating.” I comment. “And as far as I know, sharing a kiss or two is pretty normal for couples.” I prompt her to get off me, to which she complies now that the mood has been ruined. “In fact, I’d say it’s pretty unusual for couples not to show that kind of affection once in a while.”

Aya brushes a lock of jet black hair behind her ear and stares at me with a playful smirk for a while before saying, “Well it most certainly didn’t seem that way. It looked like you were about to do it at any moment, honestly.” She shrugs as she shakes her head. The pom-poms fly around as she does.

“Well we weren’t. Now go, would you kindly?” she calmly snaps at her. If words could kill…

“Even after I came all the way out here in the cold just to hang out with-” I silence her with a well-placed snowball to the face before she gets a chance to finish. The resulting “smack” is extremely satisfying.

“Nice shot,” comments the spicy wolf.

“Thanks. I’ve been practicing.”

“Now you’re just asking for it.” Aya wipes the snow off her face just in time for a new ball to connect perfectly with her forehead. This time said ball was thrown by my little sweetie. Well, big actually. She’s two years older than me, but that’s just a number at this point. She’s still physically smaller than me.

The crow jumps straight down from the tree. She uses a roll as she lands as cover for quickly making a ball to launch at me.

I react a split-second too late and take the snowball directly to my face. The next thing I know, I’m being pushed back down into the snow; this time deeper than before and covered completely.

God darn it, it is cold! Some of the snow even made it in under my clothes.

I flail my way back out of the snow. I instinctively go down on all fours and start trying to shake the snow off me. Though, the exercise only goes serves to scatter it throughout my shirt.

The two girls are already throwing snowballs at each other by the time I fix myself.

Aya mainly seems to throw fast balls, but they don’t appear to be created very well as most of them break mid-flight from the speed. The ones thrown at her however are slower, but far better aimed. If it wasn’t for her speed, she’d have a hard time.

I start my own little barrage towards Aya. The first shot actually manages to take her by surprise and staggers her for long enough to let a shot from another direction hit her. Through our combined bombardment of snow towards the crow, we manage to force her into the air, rendering her unable to make more snowballs.

“You two better watch your backs or you’ll soon find yourself at the bottom of this snow.” She exclaims with a grin plastered on her face. I may not like her all that much, but I’ll be the first to admit that it was actually a fun change of pace. It appears as though my companion doesn’t share my thoughts on the matter. It’s made rather obvious by the slight trace of a frown and a relieved sigh as Aya flies away. Once she seems certain that Aya is gone, her ears relax a little.

“Damn that Aya. Can’t she just learn to keep her nose out of other peoples’ business?” She huffs to emphasize her annoyance.

“I don’t think she ever will.” I tread my way over to her side. “That’s just who she is. Come on, those clouds are looking rather ominous. We should probably get indoors where it's warmer.”

“Yeah; it’s starting to get cold for my legs.” She gently floats up in the air and patiently waits for me to find a tree. I quickly scout out one fairly close, which I climb with ease. Now that we’re at equal height she proceeds to fly towards home, with me following right behind. “Why does she always have to be like that?”

“Aya? I think she’s just trying to be friendly, you know?” It’s just a half-assed guess to be honest. But it’s the only explanation I have as to why she keeps showing up at what appears to be random times, and then just acting like she doesn’t have a single care in the world.

“If that’s her way of being friendly, then I’d hate to be her enemy.” She grunts. “If she really wants to be friendly, then she can just leave me alone.”

I kind of know what she means. I don’t particularly like Aya, but I surely don’t dislike her either. I’ve known her for the better part of a century by now, but I’ve never been able to understand why they always fight like this; well, today was a calm day to be honest. Blood has been spilled before, and it’ll likely happen again; but hopefully not mine next time.

I’ve actually tried asking her about it a couple of times, but she always changes the topic to something else. It’s clearly a sensitive topic that she’s uncomfortable with, so I quickly stopped asking again. She probably would not give me a straight answer unless I pressed her uncomfortably. I tried going to Aya as well, but she always finds a way to turn the question around to me, even if I specifically tailored the question to her. I stopped asking her as well since it’s rather obvious she won’t say anything as well.

“I don’t know about that. I’d rather be her enemy than the shrine maiden’s.” I change the subject. “The red-white is even scarier than Aya.” Luckily, I’ve never faced her, and I don’t plan on trying any time soon. I watched her as she climbed the mountain some years back.

“No kidding.” She flies ahead and turns around so she’s facing me as I run. “Anyway, where do you want to go?”

“What about your place? I don’t think I can make it back home before the snow picks up again.”

“Sure. It’s closer anyways. I think I still have some tea as well. I’d offer you some warmed hazelnut brew, but… you know.” She gives me an apologetic look.

“Don’t remind me, please. It was enough to be bedridden for a week, but the way my stomach took it…” I shiver from just the thought of it. I definitely had better times than that, that’s for sure.

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to. I had it just as bad, and it sure wasn’t pleasant.” She places a hand on her stomach, just before flying ahead to her house.

One of the advantages of being part of the patrol squad is that you’re given a house out here. All of them are placed in such a pattern that there are few if any blind spots in-between. In case something happens, you can ring the alarm bell, and all of the surrounding houses will know. It’s easy to pass on alerts this way, or call for help in case of an emergency.

By the time I catch up to her she’s already fished out her key and unlocked the door. “If you’ll go light the fireplace, then I’ll go and prepare something warm to drink, if I have any.”

“Sure. Do you still have some of that powder or am I going to have to use the stone?” After neatly folding my winter clothes, I pick up hers and head towards the living room. I can see the snowfall getting heavier outside. I shiver instinctively; this is going to be a bad one.

“I just bought a new bag of the powder, so you should have plenty.”

I place both set of our clothes beside the fireplace and throw a few pieces of wood in there. I take the small pouch sitting on top and fish out a nip of its contents. As I let the small grains hit the wood, they shoot out a few sparks before bursting into flames.

Whoever made this stuff is a genius.

“Sorry. It doesn’t look like I have anything warm to drink.” She silently slips into room and sits down beside me.

“It’s quite alright.” I sit down as well, letting her lean against me. “Then we’ll just have to snuggle to get warm, won’t we?”

A cute little giggle escapes her. “I can think of a few other things to do instead.” The tip of her tail is tickling mine as it gently wags.

“Oh? Do tell; I’m curious as to what exactly you mean.” I can’t help but to add the false tone of curiosity.

“Well,” She looks up at me, “We could just do like we always do.”

“And what is it we always do?” It’s just teasing at this point. But I honestly can’t help it.

She leans in on me a bit more, causing me to (willingly) fall over, with her on top. “Do I have to refresh your memory?”

“Please do.” I barely get to finish before she presses her small, soft lips against mine.
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