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File 140808164475.jpg - (250.85KB, 900x1200, 8070bc8bd36406c557b641f665813003.jpg) [iqdb]
Veterans, your stories go here. See the rules thread at >>/gensokyo/13365
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"Do you regret it?"

My throat hurts. My body feels heavy. I'm not cold or shaking any more, because right now, I'm not anything. And I'm smiling.

'Do you know where you are?' had been her first question. What she was really asking me is if I remembered how I got here. I remember a night-time trade, a knife, Fatty Hotaka's crooked, tooth-deficient grin as the world slid sideways and fell away. So, yeah, I croaked, I had a notion. A notion I had just gotten my throat slit over a shady rice merchant's dirty business.

My smile split into a grin, probably just as ugly as that greasy bastard's. I grinned to rictus, until it hurt, and my cheeks ached and my eyes burned and the tears started. I was dead. I was dead, and so were the two members of my crew I took with me. And probably the rest of them, without us to keep the idiots out of trouble.

"Yeah," I finally answered, my voice squeezing its way out of my chest as the ache in my gut blooms into a knotted rafflesia. "Yeah, I do."

The woman's sharp gaze beats down on me, cold and impassive--or, well, studious. I know the look of someone trying to be professionally disinterested. She's watching my reactions. I dunno what she's looking for. We're a little bit past deception and keeping face, aren't we?

"What, exactly," she continues, her voice as measured and calm as ever, even as I shake myself to pieces at her feet, "is it you regret?"

And here's where I start laughing. It comes out somewhere between a hyena laugh and a sob. I have no idea how long I sit there braying at her, but she waits patiently for however many eternities it takes. After I manage to get a handle on myself, I look back up at her, seeing my bleary eyes turn back at me through the mirror in her hand. "Would you like me to start listing them?"

For the first time her expression twitches, just slightly--her brow furrows and her neutral expression dips into the barest of frowns. "Don't be glib. You know what I mean."

Oddly enough, it makes me feel better--I'm used to angry. I'm used to making people angry, as well, so there's that. What can I say? I work better under pressure. The pounding of my cold heart fades to a dull throb as I screw up my courage and force myself to look her in the eye. More than that, I force myself to actually think about her question. I suppose I owe her that much, for waiting through my little self-wake.

"'Do I regret being killed, or what I did to get me there,' is what you're asking."

Her expression returns, mostly, to blank and even. Only the slightest pout in her lips remains. "Yes."

"I won't say I don't regret being dead--because I do--" Oh, how I do. "But...I knew that this was where I was headed. If it wasn't this job, it was going to be the next, or the one after that, or... you get my meaning." Distantly, I wonder if my body is as cold as the cobblestones it's probably being dragged across--and oh damn it, here come the tears again. I force myself not to look away, not to feel any shame--I'm dead, damn it, what do I care?--and I bleat out the rest of my answer. "I guess my regret is... is that I thought I was doing what I thought I had to do."

And there it is. That thing I never said to anybody, least of all myself. Every night in my little slum palace, when doubt came whispering at my ear, I would roll over and go for the bottle, or go for the opium, or go for a man, or a woman, or for something--anything--to keep me from being alone with my thoughts. Anything to keep me from admitting the truth to myself.

There it is. There it was. Watch it as it sails by, the confession that Komachi Onozuka had been wrong so hard, it destroyed her whole life twenty years before it caught up with her. I can't even see the lady any more through the tears. No reason not to look away any more, I guess. There's nothing left for me up there.

"You've killed people," I hear her state quietly, punctually, somewhere above the rainclouds. "Stabbed them. Poisoned them. Drowned them. Burned them. Stolen, tortured, cheated." I nod. I know what comes next.

...No, I don't. I feel her hands--surprisingly gentle--on my shoulders, pulling me up, and then on my wrist, gently guiding it to hers. Her skin is a cheery, cherry red ember in a cold blue rain. "Hold this," she says. I feel my fingers close around something--feels like wood, soft, carved decoratively, might have fetched a good price--

And all at once she lets go, the warmth of her presence departing, and I crash to the ground like a stone, this little hunk of lumber impossibly heavy. I feel sinews strain and stretch and tear and break, bones crack, my wrist breaking (again) as it's crushed to pulp under--this. The pain brings back the heat, but it's different and terrible--lancing across my body in waves, ripping a choking scream from my lips, more from surprise than anything. That--that bitch...!

The pain brings with it clarity. I can see again. That same tall, green-haired beauty towering above me as I babble incoherently. But--she's smiling. Not like I smile, not smug like she just got one over on me, not like Fatty Hotaka and his horrid, fetid beaming.

"That," she explains, with the poise of a doting mother, "is what you've done. Those are your sins."

Those are my sins. And I can't carry them.

She must have seen my expression a thousand times--ten thousand? How many stiffs have there been, anyway?--and she plucks the thought from my head like a biwa string. "You can't, no." She kneels beside me, taking the gravity stick and--gently, lightly, like it were nothing, she frees my shattered wrist from it. She helps me to my feet, casually one-handing the brick of injustice as she does.

"But I can."

And I think, there and then, is where I fell in love with her.
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Enlightenment, she told me, isn't something you find. It's something you make. You don't go out and meditate under waterfalls until they can see through your shirt and you can see through reality, you have to go out and toil. Dirty your hands, break your back. Plant it and grow it and harvest it. Mine it and smelt it and smith it. Cut it and saw it and chisel it and sculpt it. Crack it from the stone, peel it from the shell. If it sounds like a pain in the ass, you're on the right track.

"I've sent souls to hell for less than what you've done," she warned, even as she gently bandaged my hand. "You've damned yourself--and helped damn others--many times over."

What's a lady to do in that situation but get indignant? By the way, bad idea to do that to the living embodiment of justice. "So why me?" I asked. Not that I was complaining.

The answer, in short, was that I was an idiot. An idiot with flawed perceptions, just like all the rest of us idiots. My words, not hers, I should stress. She's much more tactful (and verbose) when she calls people idiots. Anyway, idiots. The thing about being an idiot is that you really can't help it. You can try, but at the end of the day you're really just being slightly less of an idiot.

That, apparently, was my saving grace. Not that I was under some minimalistically idiotic threshold, but because I made the wrong calls with the right intentions.

"You tried," she emphasized. "It's like you said yourself--You thought you were doing what you had to do. Every step of the way."

I found myself turning pink when she told me that I'd lived and died a life hard-lived (personally, I thought it was cute the way she had 'life' in that sentence three times, but the grammar was sound).

At any rate, that's how I got my job. First day, I got bandages and her name. Second day, I got my oar. It was a long time before I got the scythe.

"Hold this," she said one day, as I came ashore--before indulging in the briefest, sunniest of giggles as she watched my face twist. "No, no, take it, really. Today's the day."

It--well, it was fucking heavy. Heavy, but... fluid. Natural. Eminently wieldable. And, incredibly familiar.

"This is it, isn't it?" I asked, testing the weight, feeling my body strain inward, even as the scythe bobbed daintily, blade dancing lightly on the air like a calligrapher's brush across the paper. "My sin."

Shiki nodded. "You've come a long way. It still hurts, doesn't it?"

I grinned at her. No more ruefulness, not after so long. I no longer apologized for making her carry my burdens for me until I was strong enough. She knew. "You have no idea."

"I have one more thing for you," she said, slowly withdrawing a small bundle, wrapped in silk. Carefully resting the haft of my new duty in the crook of my arm (I didn't need those tendons anyway), I remember taking the almost hesitantly offered item. Seeing my hands full, Eiki helpfully unwound the silk from around it, and...

"...Dear gods, boss, I thought you wanted mortals to stop killing people." It was a knife--not just any knife, clearly one meant for dirty, dirty work. A gleaming kris, edge slithering, like the kind they used in blood rites and bad movies. Nowadays, of course, it isn't nearly so wicked, just a simple fighting dirk. But at the time, all I could think was "this is not a holy thing."

"It's not for flesh," she'd said hurriedly. "It's for that."

"My scythe?"

"Your oar." I stared at her blankly until she gave up her cryptic routine with a sigh. "How long have you been crossing the Sanzu?"

"Every day, back and forth, for however many hundred years. The distance is getting smaller each trip as I yadda yadda redemption."

She blinked. "... 'yadda yadda redemption?'" I shrugged, wincing as the sickle dug into my shoulder.

"Ahem. Yes. And every day, you steep that oar in the waters. It's quite saturated by now."

"And I'm going to be..." I eyed the wicked dagger critically. "...Whittling it? Sacrificially?"

She giggled again. "No, Komachi. You're going to turn this," she lightly tapped the oar at my back, "into this."

And with that, she ever-so-gently bopped me on the nose with her Rod of Remorse.
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0400 hours.
Five men are crouched deep in the forest night, a good nine-hundred feet from a vampire's mansion, checking over the weapons and equipment that are the only things that give them even a remote chance of success in their fight against the supernatural.

Considering I'm the stupid bastard who's leading them, however, I suppose I should try to be more optimistic.

The barest hint of the full moon's light filters through the thick canopy of the treetops, casting a bluish-grey glow over the plants and the grass. The air is quiet: no birds, no insects, not so much as a cricket chirping, only the sounds of plastic and metal clattering against each other as we make sure we're all ready for the mission. It's an eerie thing, all right, being in a silent forest, especially if logically speaking you know there has to be something else out there in the distance. I'd normally brush it off, but normally I'm not about to reenact classical Bram Stoker, albeit more with bullets and grenades than a crucifix and a stake. I also normally wouldn't be in a Japanese fairyland to shoot the one and only Remilia Scarlet, but the pay is good and merc work is hard to come by 'Outside' nowadays.

Heh. Never thought I'd be complaining about peace on Earth.

I check my assault rifle over one more time to focus myself before my mind wanders on another tangent: silencer screwed tight, magazine full, round chambered. Everything looks in order. I switch my attentions over to my pistol, pulling it out of my hip holster and finding it to be the rifle's miniature twin in terms of status. Holstered opposite the pistol is my grapnel gun, excellent for scaling walls and other obstacles in a hurry, and I quickdraw and holster it several times to make sure it comes out smoothly.

The thought of Lady Scarlet tearing my head off with her bare hands spurs me to draw my shock-baton from its sheath peeking over my back, and a simple flick of my wrist extends it from its half-foot compact form to a mighty three-foot steel bludgeon. A push of the switch at the pommel sends electricity sparking up the entire rod, and I give it a few experimental swings. Anyone coming into contact with this will have a really bad day, but considering we're up against a vampire, melee is an oh-shit-dumbass-what-are-you-doing last resort against the lady herself. On that cheerful thought, I disengage the prod, push it back into its compact form, and sheathe it.

Next on my equipment check is my belt-pack, filled with plenty of disposable double-cuff restraints and masking tape, an optiwand for peeking around corners and beneath doors, and a lockpick for sneaky entrances.

Finally, I make sure my flashbang grenades and spare magazines are affixed securely to my vest, and that they come out easily. It wouldn't do to fumble around trying to reload when someone's trying to take my head off, which is nigh-guaranteed to happen if, or more likely when, we blow our cover.

Going over all of this frankly amazes me that I'm able to carry everything without it being horribly awkward. Satisfied everything checks out, I rise, leaving the men to keep inspecting their own gear; more than fine by me, considering I stand to be horribly bludgeoned if they missed a vital piece of equipment.

"What've you got for us, Sigma?" I say, my voice muted to outside ears by my helmet, transmitted through a communications network to my squad and all support elements. The mute can be toggled with a simple tap on my earpiece; it's easier to plan a breach without worrying about any tangoes inside hearing you, after all.

"Mansion outer grounds are clear of hostiles, save the gatekeeper at the entrance," Sigma replies, the man himself set up in one of the taller trees near the mansion and peering down at the world through a rifle scope. "She's scanning for intruders, but your route doesn't cross her field of view. Want me to take her out anyway?"

"Negative, Sigma, maintain cover. Over."

I turn to face the squad. We're all identically armored head to toe in the finest suits we could afford, a quintet of faceless goons in grey helmets and matching armor thick enough to stop standard rifle munitions and protect against both lacerations and blunt-force trauma. We've also got shock-absorbers built-in to protect against long drops; you never know when some slavering monstrosity might carry you into the sky and decide to see how much you'd splatter once you hit the ground.

The only way I can tell the difference between my men at a glance are by the white callsign initials on their shoulderpads: B, G, D, and E, for Bravo, Gamma, Delta, and Echo, respectively. I personally have claim to Alpha; the acronym BADGE was both unintentional and inaccurate, considering A should come first due to me being the lead, but general consensus among the squad was that having our company's other fireteams call us 'Badge Squad' was pretty good compared to 'Abdeg Squad,' not to mention much less embarrassing.

"We set to move, boss?" Bravo asks, a slight Texan drawl coloring his voice. "I'm ready whenever you are."

"You know it," I reply. "Everyone else set?"

"Copy," Echo says quietly, finishing his weapons check and standing to face me.

"Ready and willing, sir," says Delta, standing at attention.

Gamma twirls his pistol around several times, then shoves it into its holster. "Always ready, boss."

"TOC," I say, directing my next words at our Tactical Operations Center radioman. "This is entry team. We are beginning the operation."

"Roger that, Alpha," is the man's reply. "We're getting paid big for this one, but don't let that rattle you. Play it by the numbers and you'll be in and out in no time."

"Copy, TOC, we've got this. Over."

I disengage communications, order the squad to follow me, and begin our slow, circuitous advance through the forest, our planned route keeping us under tree-cover until the last stretch before we hit the mansion's side wall, well out of sight of any hostiles. Even this far from the mansion, caution is paramount; wild fae attacking us because we stomped around like morons wouldn't be a threat, but the noise from putting them down could jeopardize any chance of a silent breach, even with silenced weaponry.
0414 hours.
"Take cover," I whisper. The train of men behind me spread out as one, hiding behind the towering trees at the edge of the forest. Ahead, the grassy plain between us and the Scarlet Devil Mansion stretches out a rough hundred feet. The mansion looms over the sizable red brick wall encircling the place, the building itself jutting up far enough to block a fifth of the horizon from here. Towers stand proud amid sloped rooftops, flanking the massive clock tower rising from the center of the mansion. In this light, the bright crimson coating of the mansion is dulled to a rusty shadow of itself.

"Ostentatious as shit, isn't it?" Gamma says.

"No one asked your opinion," I say, scanning the area. No hostiles present themselves. "But yes, you're absolutely right. Let's move in quick."

I break from cover, the men trailing me step for step as I sprint towards the walls. My heart pounds against my ribcage as I keep running, rifle held close to my chest. Any second, someone might fly up from inside the mansion grounds, or look out a window, or spot us from atop a tower - and if I bog myself down worrying about it, I might not react in time if someone does appear.

Keep your head on, Alpha.

Fifty feet to the walls and closing.




The five of us come to a halt in the shadow of the mansion's outer wall. The brickwork goes up exactly thirty feet, according to a previous survey. It shouldn't take more than a few moments to scale, but better to make sure we won't be interrupted first. "Sigma, any contacts near our position?"

"Negative, Alpha, you are clear to ascend, over."

Good so far. I sling my rifle over my shoulder in favor of my grapnel gun, take aim at the top of the wall, fire, and wait as the hook soars, glinting steel flying up and up and up, until it lands near the top the wall and latches on firmly. I'm jerked off the ground as it begins rapidly hauling me up, the whirring of cable on cable the only noise around as I ascend, and I hit the top in mere seconds. I grab hold of the ledge before holstering my grapnel, then climb onto the flat-topped wall.

There's a stony side path circling around the mansion, flanked on both ends by healthy grass, flower beds, and the occasional bush. Unfortunately, there are also a quartet of fae boozing about below, having evidently decided to sneak an early drink before the workday. They keep passing a bottle between them, and they're taking their time draining it. Fragments of conversation drift up, but nothing legible.

If you tried a year ago to tell me about magic fairies and monsters, I'd have punched you in the jaw and laughed at you, and now I'm lurking above four of the damn things. The times, they are a-changing.

"What's the hold up?" Gamma asks, his voice buzzing in my ear.

"Four contacts blocking my drop," I reply, considering my options. "They're not looking up. I don't think they heard me." If they keep their eyes low, we might be able to simply grapnel onto the mansion roof proper, or they could look up while we're moving and blow our cover to hell. Waiting for them to leave could also work, but that might expose us to other guards passing by. I frown as I think over my last option, but I only waste a moment in hesitation. "Squad, ascend. We'll take them in close-quarters."

Moments later, four more grapnels clinch into the brickwork, two on either side of me, and the men swiftly arrive. They climb atop the wall proper, stowing their grapnels and readying their rifles.

"This could go bad," Bravo says, mildly apprehensive. "Sure we shouldn't just shoot 'em?"

I shake my head. "Only fire if one tries to break for it. Prepare to drop on my mark."

I disengage my helmet's mute.

"Three," I whisper. "Two. One. Mark."

As one, my squad and I hop off the wall, hurtling towards the earth before we can come to regret this course of action. Our landings send up small clouds of grass and dirt, the impact painfully vibrating up my legs, and the fairies have all of a second to be startled before they have five rifles trained on them.

"Don't make a sound," I say, my sights dead-center on the closest girl's forehead. "Put your hands up and get down."

The four girls stare up at us in a mixture of awe and horror, one of them looking absolutely ridiculous with the bottle clenched firmly between their teeth. The lot of them hardly look over twelve, and for just a second, I grimace at what we're doing.

"D-don't shoot," says the one staring down my rifle, her voice very quiet and her eyes very wide. She slowly spreads her hands, palms facing out, and gets on her knees. "Please don't shoot."

The rest follow her lead save the one with the booze, who gives her drink a mournful look and gently sets it aside before following my demand. "I was just about to finish it, y'jerk."

"Restrain and silence them," I order, and after a moment add, "but do it gently. We don't need them raising a fuss." The squad cautiously moves in to cuff them hand and foot. Our new hostages don't struggle while they're being tied up, cowed by our entrance, but they do wince and mutter complaints about the tight restraints before tape is liberally applied to hush them. I point out a nearby bush large enough to hide them from passing inspections, and the squad hauls them up without any trouble.

"Man, this would look all kinds of unfortunate if someone saw us right now," Gamma says, effortlessly carrying one of the girls over his shoulder.

Once our hostages are hidden, set on their backs so they can't simply crawl away, the group forms back up on me. I glance down each path, half-expecting someone else to come down and spot us. Once I'm satisfied we're clear, I re-engage my helmet's mute. "Everyone, ready grapnels. We're taking the high road."
0419 hours.
While traveling on sharply-slanted shingles is precarious, we make good time. The five of us move at a steady jog, hopping between dips in the rooftops and grappling up to higher ground whenever the chance presents itself. Once we scale a tower and come to rest on its open top, I order the squad to halt and scan for hostiles.

From this vantage point, we've got a good view of the whole surrounding area. To our left is the main gate of the mansion, the front path leading to the mansion's doors surrounded by an array of flowers that would be breathtaking by day; right now, the garden's veritable rainbow of colors are muted, but no less pleasant to look at. If it weren't for our job here, I'd love to take a tour of the place.

Far off to our right, more slanting rooftops accentuate the clock-tower that overshadows us by at least another fifty feet, its spiked top impaling the sky, gigantic hands moving with quiet, ponderous purpose.

Straight ahead is a balcony playing host to a patio with a table and several chairs around it. Behind them, a pair of glass doors stretching up ten feet high and wide apiece lead inside. According to previous observations before this op, that should be our target's bedroom.

The most peculiar thing about all of this is how there are absolutely no night watchmen - a mansion this size, with its reported levels of manpower, should at least have a token guard presence against intruders. It's likely just sloppy work, but better to seek confirmation before we continue. "TOC, entry team here. We're not seeing any hostiles. Something might be wrong. Should we continue?"

There's a brief pause before the reply comes. "Affirmative, entry team, but be careful."

"You heard 'em, boys," I say. "We're moving on the target."

We advance across the rooftops with utmost care, and several minutes pass before we're on the balcony. Once we arrive, I move towards the doors. Peering through the glass reveals no one present, so I pull out the optiwand and snake it underneath the doors; the wand's monitor reveals no contacts. I try the door, but the knob proves uncooperative.

"Delta, Echo, cover this door," I order, swapping the optiwand for my lockpick. "Do not enter until I give the order. Bravo, Gamma, you're with me. We're doing this quietly."

My men take position as I work on the lock, and after about ten, twelve seconds, it clicks open. I stow my tools, ready my rifle, and gently pull the door open. Nothing immediately moves to tear my face off, so I cautiously step inside, Bravo and Gamma quietly following me.

The bedroom, from what I can see in the moonlight, is quite large. A four-poster bed, curtains drawn, dominates the far end of the room, well-placed to be safe from the light spilling through the windows. My boots sink into the soft, dense carpet as I press further inside, looking about for any sign of ambush. The walls and ceiling are a matching shade of plaster white, and there's plenty of dressers about alongside precisely one nightstand set next to the bed, all of them decorated with doilies and other flowery little things.

If I were shown this place out of context, I'd say it was a spoiled rich girl's room. Granted, that's exactly what is is, but the 'vampire' modifier makes everything a little more intimidating.

"Aren't vampires supposed to sleep in coffins?" Bravo asks. "This is a betrayal of all the vampire literature I've ever read."

"If I had a bed like that, I'd want to sleep in it too," Gamma says.

"Cut the chatter and cover me," I say. "I'm checking it."

I advance, slipping my finger past my rifle's trigger guard, sucking my lips in from apprehension. If our target's awake and merely waiting for her chance to gut me, I don't think I'll get more than a round off, if that.

When I'm close enough, I reach for the curtain, but hesitate. Sucking in a breath to steady myself, I cautiously pull the covering aside, and freeze.

The bed is empty, and the blanket is slipping off at the corner.

"Eyes up!" I order, all of us shifting our aim towards the ceiling to see - nothing?

"No contacts," Bravo says. "Room clear?"

"Looks like," Gamma concurs. He sighs and lowers his gun. "Christ, boss, I thought we were gonna be in some real shit there."

The tension flows out of me as I ease my knuckle-popping grip on my weapon, and I take another look around the room. "TOC, entry team here. We're inside the target's room, but there's no sign of her. We might be dealing with a possible roamer. Continuing s-"

The bedroom door opens.

"Contact!" Bravo says, the first man to whirl on the doorway and bring his gun up. The rest of us follow him perhaps a fraction of a second slower, and we train our weapons on a willowy silver-haired maid.

"Eh?" She stares blankly at us, bearing a silver tray carrying a pair of filled teacups.

"Sakuya, now!" shouts a young voice from behind me. I spin around in time to see a blur fly from atop the bed's roof and crash down on Gamma. He's floored with a shout, and struggles uselessly against the slender figure pinning him down. Bravo's focus is disrupted for just a moment by the commotion, a distraction the maid takes advantage of to vanish from her position and reappear in front of him, knife held at his throat, tray held effortlessly in her off hand. I was already sighting in on Gamma's attacker when it happened, and I dare not jerk my weapon away now; the girl on Gamma's chest looks up, narrow red eyes glaring at me through messy blueish hair.

"Well, sir, I'm afraid you've caught me at an awkward time," Remilia Scarlet says, one of her slender arms wrapped around Gamma's neck in a headlock, the other gripping the hand still closed around his rifle's grip. The vampire is maybe half his size, clad in nothing more than a nightgown, and yet shows no sign of actual effort in keeping Gamma down. Her pair of leathery wings twitch every few seconds. "Now, I can either snap your man's neck right now, or we can have a nice, civilized talk about what you're doing in here. What'll it be?"

"I recommend talking," Sakuya says. She presses her knife closer to Bravo's throat. "As for you, would you mind dropping that weapon? I'd hate to have to stain the carpet."

Bravo obliges, his gun falling to the floor as he raises his hands.

"Talking's good!" Gamma says eagerly, having apparently forgotten his mute was still engaged.

"Delta, Echo," I say, not daring to even twitch. "Prep a bang. Breach on my mark. Sigma, you're to eliminate the gatekeeper when Delta and Echo move in." I slowly reach up and tap my earpiece, disengaging the mute. "So, Miss Scarlet, Miss Sakuya, I'd appreciate it if you could let them go, but I'm fairly certain that's not in your plan."

"And what's yours, hm?" Remilia retorts levelly, keeping her gaze on me. "When a cadre of heavily armed men break into one's room waving rifles about, a woman might think them intent on doing her harm."

"Your grasp of the obvious astounds and amazes, Miss Scarlet," I say. "Let him go or I will open fire."

"And if you do that, this one dies," Sakuya says, pressing her knife just barely closer to Bravo's neck, her expression infuriatingly composed. "Drop your weapon. You can explain yourself properly then."

"Oh, I like the sound of that idea, Sakuya," Remilia says. She wrenches back on Gamma's neck, and he make an outraged choking noise. "I really don't feel like murdering anyone just yet, but I don't need all of you alive, either. Please drop the weapon, or I will thin the crowd."

"I suppose you don't like your gatekeeper with her head attached, then," I say.

The way their expressions stiffen gladdens my heart.

"That's right," I continue, keeping my tone free of any emotion. "If either of my men die, my sniper ensures you'll be attending a closed-casket funeral."

Remilia's expression grows thoughtful. "Well, it seems we're at quite the impasse. None of us can make a move without losing someone."

My lips curl up. "Mark."

I'm perfectly placed to see the flashbang sail through the balcony doorway and detonate with a bright, blinding flash and ear-bleeding bang.

Thank God my helmet's flash-resistant.

Remilia yelps, pushing off Gamma to take airborne, clutching at her pointed ears as she goes. Gamma rolls onto his back, drawing his pistol free, while Bravo smashes the knife out of a stunned Sakuya's grip, already drawing his pistol with his off-hand. The maid was insulated from the worst of the grenade's visual effects due to Bravo being between her and it, and she pulls another vanishing trick just as Bravo brings his gun up, her tray clattering to the floor.

Delta and Echo storm into the room at the same moment a crack of a high-caliber rifle resounds in my earpiece. "Target down," Sigma reports tonelessly.

"Drop her!" I snap, sighting in on Remilia.

Before I can shoot the disoriented vampire, Sakuya reappears to my right, another of her blades slicing the air on a killing course toward my neck. I jerk aside even as I spin towards her, the steely knife scraping the edge of my helmet and leaving one hell of a scratch.

The quiet plinking of silenced pistols and the typewriter chatter of silenced rifles fill the air, all my men unloading rounds enough rounds at Remilia to handily ventilate her had she mot been bouncing around the room like a heroin-injected pinball. I'm too busy backpedaling from Sakuya's bladework, swift as lightning and twice as deadly, to help them; it's all I can do to avoid getting seriously lacerated.

As another strike nearly cuts through my armor, I sling my rifle over my shoulder and draw my baton. She keeps the pressure up, not allowing me to flick my weapon out to its full length, and as such I'm forced to stay in knife-fighting range, quick footwork and a quicker arm the only things standing between me and enough holes to make Swiss cheese envious.

My backpedaling ends up working in her favor when I bump up against a dresser, throwing me off-balance for a critical moment, and Sakuya takes full advantage of the opening to lunge at my gut. I catch her blow at the wrist with my empty hand and swing my baton at her face; she ducks with inches to spare between her and a concussion, and a flick of her left hand sends a knife flying from up her sleeve and into her waiting grip. Thus armed, she stabs at my leg, and I'm forced to release her as I hurl myself aside barely in time to avoid a crippling blow, stumbling over myself as I try to steady my footing.

Seeing me off-balance once again, she wastes no time in coming for me.

Fortunately, I bought myself just enough.

I flick the baton to its full length, electricity sparking across the metal, and hold it ahead of me in a defensive position, causing Sakuya to come up short so she doesn't zap herself. With this scant moment of peace, I fall back on my CQC training: left foot back, right foot forward, left hand held loose to intercept any strikes that get past the baton in my right. Her eyes dart between her knives and my club, and we share a moment of uneasy silence.

I shrug. "Mine's bigger."

Her reply comes in the form of a spinning whirlwind assault, steel flashing in the moonlight, and it's all I can do to keep deflecting the rapid-fire strikes from those deadly blades. Sparks shower over us both with every blow, yet, even with my reach advantage, she weaves between my attacks and slices at my armguards, her blades shearing armor off like it was made of paper-mâché.

I'm saved when Bravo comes in like a man on fire and body-checks Sakuya hard enough to knock her spinning. I swing, but she rights herself just in time to flip her knives into reverse grips and bring one up to block my strike, our weapons locking together as I press down on her. Bravo draws his baton and comes to my aid, jabbing the sparking club at Sakuya; a well-timed parry with her other blade knocks his attack aside, but he's smart enough to maintain his distance and await another chance.

While all this is happening, I spot Remilia fleeing the room out of the corner of my eye, flying deeper into the mansion. Gamma chases after her, while the rest of the men turn on our ongoing brawl; they don't have a shot with us like this, and maneuver to correct that.

Sakuya glances aside at the changing tactical situation, then focuses her full attention on me. "I'm afraid this is goodbye for now, sirs."

She breaks contact with me and kicks off the ground into a backflip, flicks of her wrists sending her blades flying at us; Bravo swats aside a knife meant for his head, and I sidestep the one aimed at me, the blade nicking my helmet as it flies past.

"Think again!" I say, unclipping a flashbang and hauling back with it. Sakuya lands in a crouch, brandishing a golden pocket-watch as she does so, and looks up just in time to see the grenade connect with her forehead, jerking her head back with a crack of metal on bone. She makes a wordless noise of pain and surprise before Bravo's on her in one long stride, baton pulled back over his shoulder.

"Fry!" he snarls, catching her full atop the head with a skull-cracking strike.

She topples, eyes and mouth locked wide open as she convulses on the floor, utterly incapacitated by the voltage anything running through her.

"You smell like bacon!" Bravo adds.

"Stop being so unprofessional and restrain her," I say. As Bravo sees to that, I turn on the rest of the team. "Report!"

Gamma looks towards us, profiled in the doorway, and smacks a fist into the door frame. "Target just went down the bend on the right, boss. She was shouting for reinforcements."

"TOC, entry team here," I say. "Target is aware of us and is fleeing further inside the premises. We have the go-ahead to give chase?"

"Copy, entry team. Proceed with the mission, over."

"Let's shut this down before she alerts the whole building," I say. "Everyone, get your kit together and stack up on the door. I want us moving in five seconds."

We all move into position, Gamma and Bravo last in line since they had to grab their rifles. I take and step through the door. The hallway stretches out both to my right and left, dimly lit by lanterns spaced at regular intervals along the walls. We're just about to give chase to Remilia when the pounding of innumerable feet becomes audible.

A dozen fae in sleepwear, carrying with both hands tower shields taller than they are, are the first to round the corner, flanked by a formation of musket-wielding fairies, fifty guns held in the hands of barefooted girls in hastily-donned greatcoats. The shield-bearers raise a great rallying cry upon spotting us, echoed by the musketeers, and charge while the gunners hold position.

I don't need to give the order to shoot, every rifle in my squad chattering death at the oncoming swarm. Our rounds spark and bounce off the shields, a few lucky rounds dropping a pair of the charging maniacs, but the fairies behind them aren't as fortunate, a solid dozen of their number exploding outright from our fire.

"Honor Guard!" their commanding officer shrilly bellows over the screams and gunfire, distinguished from the rest by a peaked cap. "Take aim!"

Half the musketeers kneel, the rest remaining upright, and they all bring their guns up. The remaining shield-bearers close together and drop to their knees, turtling beneath what protection their steel offers them.

"Fire!" yells the fairy officer.

A deafening series of reports sound off, a vast cloud of smoke rising up from their weapons, and a wave of musket balls slam into our formation; our armor protects us from the worst of it, but we're knocked reeling, and my visor cracks from one bullet smashing into the glass over my right eye.

"Affix bayonets!" is the brigade's next order, the group obscured by the musket smoke.

The shield-bearers rise up and charge once again, but we recover before they're on us. Our rifles click dry as we spray fire into the crowd, with limited success.

"Squad! CQC!" I order; no time to reload, and pistols won't be enough to deal with the shield-fae and musketeers both. We sling our rifles away and draw batons, flip them to their full length, set them to humming with electricity, and rush the enemy. The first wave meets us, but for all their gusto, they're exactly as strong as they look; a thousand combined pounds of angry men ram into their shieldwall, high voltages surging through their defenses with every strike from our batons.

"They'll remember us for this!" the musketeer officer screams. "Charge!"

We dispatch the rest of the shield-bearers in a handful of exhileratingly violent seconds, their bodies falling limp at our feet. Just as we wipe them out, the musketeers emerge from the smoke, around ten pounding across the space on foot, and at least two-dozen, maybe more, flying high, their formation spread out, and all of them screeching as they rush us.

My foot nudges a shield as I steady my footing for their attack, and an idea hits.

"Shieldwall!" I say, hauling one of the massive things up and gripping the straps tightly in my left hand, no time to buckle it on properly. The rest of the team follows my lead, the five of us forming a wall of steel, batons held high. I'm at the center of the formation, flanked on the left and right by Delta and Echo, who are respectively flanked by Bravo and Gamma.

They're almost on us by the time we finish preparing.

"Attack!" I order.

"Fuck 'em up!" Gamma adds, and the rest of us echo him with wordless cries as we charge
File 140993193836.jpg - (249.84KB, 988x690, image.jpg) [iqdb]
0425 hours
Our forces meet in one brilliant clash, my boys and I stampeding through the footsloggers without slowing, their bodies slamming up against our shields and being thrown aside like children's toys. The ones who avoided being bowled over are no less fortunate, great sweeping blows from our clubs knocking them off their feet with every hit. The airborne let us barrel through the infantry before they swoop down on our flanks, bayonets thirsting for blood. They're lead by the officer, saber held high, either too cowardly or too smart to attack on foot.

"Halt!" I say, and we grind to a stop. "Shift one-eighty! Brace!" We turn in a half-circle to face the incoming fairies, gossamer wings beating hard as they come for us, but the swarm splits in two instead of dashing themselves to pieces against our shields. We swing at them as they flow past us, batting aside their stabs of opportunity and striking a handful of them from the sky, their senseless bodies carried past us to crash in twitching heaps.

But there's still dozens of them, and they're turning back on us with remarkable speed.

"Shift one-eighty!" I repeat, and we turn about once again.

They're faster.

One of them sticks Bravo in his shield-arm as he's turning, tearing through his armor like it wasn't even there, and he lowers the shield with a grunt of pain. The fairies, sensing weakness, shift their assault towards his position, and five bayonets are jammed into the man before we can cover for him, piercing his chestplate and carrying him to the ground from sheer kinetic force. The rest of the fae keep the pressure on, hovering just out of reach and darting in and out to stab at our heads, forcing us to hold formation or leave ourselves open.

"Get off me! Get the fuck off me!" Bravo screams, flailing his baton at the pile of fairies atop him. Delta twists his body while keeping his shield straight in line, the better to furiously strike at the fae on Bravo; I smash aside a bayonet headed for Delta's neck, then jab the fairy responsible in the throat before she can retreat, sending her choking to the ground as electricity surges through her. Echo and Gamma do a commendable job holding my right, knocking aside any attackers that threaten me or each other.

A solid chunk of the musketeers lock our fronts down with cautious, probing stabs, while the rest split off to flank us once again.

And then I spy the officer holding back, hiding behind her fellows.

"Break formation!" I say, launching myself forward with shield and baton held high, swinging as I go. Gamma and Echo follow my lead and lay into the fairies with gusto, the musketeers off-guard from our sudden attack, while Delta dislodges the last of the fairies atop Bravo's motionless form and then stands over him, shield held up.

The officer's eyes widen as I barrel towards her, swatting aside a pair of fairies as I go, but then she grins and flies down to meet me, drawing her sword back to strike. I swing as she does, and we lock baton with sword, glaring eye-to-eye at each other. The crackling of electrified metal smashing flesh, steel on steel, battle cries and moans of pain, all fill the air around us.

"I'm going to gut you!" she says, still wearing that same mad grin, even as she strains to overpower me. Electricity arcs from my weapon to hers with no appreciable effect, but it looks suitably dramatic.

Sadly, practicality outweighs drama; I drop my shield and sock her in the jaw.

Her eyes stretch wide in shock as she reels back, trying to put her sword between us, but the damage is done; I follow the punch up by swinging my baton down on her head, nailing her full on the skull and sending her to the floor in a heap.

Officer dealt with, I turn around to see Delta steadfastly holding his ground against three separate fairies darting around him, and the back-to-back Echo and Gamma swinging wildly at the remaining seven. The fairies attack with cautious, probing stabs, unwilling to chance further losses. They're so focused on guarding themselves against my men that they're not paying any attention to me, which is a mistake I'm about to correct.

Without my shield to limit me, I disengage my baton and sheathe it in favor of my rifle. Once I've reloaded, three short bursts deal with Delta's aggressors, and the rest swing about at the noise in time for me to hose them down with the rest of the magazine. All but one explode, the lone survivor cringing in the air and holding her musket before her as a shield, her eyes screwed tightly shut.

She made the error of freezing up within reach of the men, and Echo reminds her of that fact when he grabs her by the leg and throws her to the floor. She lands on her back, her gun flying from her grip, and curls up on herself, covering her head with her arms.

"You- you win! Don't hurt me!" she pleads, not daring to look at us. Echo drops his shield, the better to lurk over her with baton held ready.

"Remilia," he says dispassionately. "Where?"

The girl lowers her arms just long enough to see him looming above, and immediately hides her face again. "Library! She said she's getting Patchouli!"

He nods. "Directions?"

"You'll have to go through the foyer and head straight down the main hall!" she says, rushing over her words in panic. "Just keep going until you see the big library signs! You can't miss them!"

"Appreciated." Echo brings his baton up for a blow, but I hold my hand out to stop him.

My eyes linger over Bravo's body for a moment, Delta attending to him, and I scowl as I nudge the girl with my boot. "Get out of here."

She peeks out at me from between her fingers, and what I said clicks after a few moments of shocked silence. "Oh, thank you, thank you thank you thank-"

I aim at her. "Don't try my patience."

She doesn't waste any more time babbling as she scrambles to her feet and runs away, so panic-stricken she apparently forgot how to fly. We watch her go, and Echo glances towards me. "Why?"

"Our cover's blown anyway," I say. "I don't think she'll make a difference."

Bravo groans. "Aaaagh, Christ, this hurts."

"Still with us, Bravo?" I ask, my expression somber as I make my way over. There's no blood, unlike what I'd expect from someone with that many holes in him.

Delta looks up from his spot kneeling next to the man. "Doesn't look good, sir. His suit protected him from the worst of it, but he's not going anywhere fast."

"No shit?" Bravo says, content to merely lie there.

"We can't bring you with us," I say. "You'd just be a liability."

A deep, rough chuckle leaves him. "Guess I'm sitting the rest of this out, huh? Give 'em hell for me, boss."

"Ever and always, Bravo," I say. "Delta, set him up over there; he's not useless yet."

Delta nods, then drags the crippled man to the wall. Once that's done, he goes the extra yard by reloading Bravo's rifle for him and setting it in his waiting grip.

"Knock 'em dead," he says by way of encouragement, clapping Bravo on the arm. He then falls back in with the rest of the men.

"I'll report if anyone comes through here," Bravo says, cradling his gun to his chest. "Maybe you guys can pick me up on the way out, huh?"

I nod. "We'll do what we can." I turn to the squad, all going over their weapons. "How's everyone holding up?" I ask, ignoring the sting of the bullets that hit as best I can, not in the least looking forward to the bruises that I'll have tomorrow.

Echo pats his chest, where five small holes can be seen in his armor. "Ow."

"We're good, boss," Gamma says. "But let's not let them hit us like that again, please?"

"Agreed," I say. "All right, we've likely got the whole mansion mobilizing after this mess, but our mission is still the same. We bug out the moment we bag the target and not a second before, understood?"

The nods from my men are all I need to know they mean business.
0432 hours
We make our way to the mansion's foyer without incident, having evidently eliminated the entirety of Remilia's upper guards, and find ourselves on a balcony overlooking the room below, two flanking staircases curling downward to the floor below. The foyer is a nexus for at least ten separate hallways that we can see from up here, with no doubt more below. Dozens of lamps burn merrily, not a trace of shadow to be found on the crimson walls and black-white checkered tiles.

I half-expected there to be a solid guard presence waiting for us, but it seems Remilia decided to go straight for the library instead of wasting time rousing the fodder. We book it downstairs and, following the fairy's intel, take the hall directly opposite the main doors. Our steps echo across the tiles as we hustle towards the library. We don't find any trouble along the way, fortunately, but we do soon find signs directing us towards our destination, guiding us through the twisty halls.

We eventually stop in front of a pair of oaken doors towering overhead. One is wide open, a suspiciously Remilia-sized dent in the center. I'm the first through, and Delta shoves the door back into place as the rest of us survey the area.

The library is - well, massive is both accurate and vastly understating the sheer size of this place. The ceiling is at least a mile up, and for good reason; the bookshelves are all giants, the tallest of them brushing the roof of this place, the shortest a 'mere' hundred feet or so, all of them bearing books upon books upon books as far as we can see. Sandwiched between the shelves are claustrophobic aisles scarcely wide enough to fit all four of us abreast. The whole room is lit by countless lanterns set in the walls and on the bookcases.

"This shouldn't be physically possible," Delta says, staring upward in dismay. "It literally should not work."

"This is awesome," Gamma says, sounding like a giddy schoolboy.

"No time to sightsee," I say reluctantly. "Everyone, ready grapnels. We're going for high ground."

It's a simple matter for us to zip atop the smallest of the nearby shelves, which is still a hundred feet of wood. I had hoped we could get some sense of direction in this place, but our vantage point only serves to accentuate how tiny we are, bringing previously-hidden bookcases into view that stretch on as far as we can see.

"Keep your eyes on," I whisper, the utter quiet in this place almost demanding silence on my part as we advance in step, straining to hear any contacts before they come out to kill us. I drum my fingers across my rifle's barrel as we move, glancing around apprehensively, but we reach the limits of this bookcase without incident, the structure hardly fifty feet long. Standing on the edge allows us to look down on the world below, and we find absolutely nothing.

It's only when a book snaps shuts above and behind us that we know anything's wrong.

"At least you lot have the decency to keep quiet in the library," speaks a woman, her tone soft and clipped, and we whirl around on the source.

The first impression we get is just so much purple. Purple hair trailing down to her hips, purple eyes staring at us half-lidded, purple pajamas with white stripes, even fuzzy purple slippers. The witch floats a short distance ahead and above us, holding a sizable book closed in one hand, her sleepy eyes without a singular trace of any emotion.

"...She's a living grape," Gamma says, full of tact as usual. He taps his earpiece, allowing himself to be heard. "You are literally a grape, lady."

The corners of her mouth twitch down. "The only reason your heads aren't on fire right now is because I wish to talk. Do not make me regret it."

I disengage my own mute. "Then I take it you have terms for us, Miss... Patchouli, was it?"

"Correct on both counts." She looks at each of us in turn. "I can understand the rationale behind attacking at night, but that doesn't mean it's not damned annoying when I'm woken up to deal with it. So I'm giving you a choice: get out before I make you get out."

We glance at each other.

I shrug.

We turn on her as one, spraying her down with gunfire. Twisting sigils flash into existence ahead of her, our rounds ricocheting off with no appreciable effect, and only after we've expended our magazines do we stop. The sigils fade, and once they are gone Patchouli sighs heavily.

She shakes her head, still expressionless. "I did, of course, raise a shield before talking to you. I am not a moron." She turns her attention away from us in favor of cracking her book open and flipping through the pages. "As you have rejected my offer, I am afraid I must now kill you all."

Delta's the first of us to finish reloading, but his burst of fire merely brings Patchouli's shield back online. She holds the book outstretched, and it floats out of her grip to spin in front of her. Fire crackles into life around it without doing any harm to the book itself, and Patchouli doesn't stare at us so much as through us, her lips twisting around silent incantations.

"Break, break!" I say, and we all take off in different directions: Delta leaps over the ledge, Gamma one-hands his rifle so he can ready his grapnel, and Echo falls in with me as I sprint back down the shelf.

Delta's scream is carried over my comms, and I risk a look over my shoulder in time to see him carried up into the air by Remilia; son of a bitch, she must have been waiting for Patchouli to make her move.

"She's got me!" Delta transmits in a panic, kicking uselessly as the two rocket toward the ceiling.

"I'll go for him! You two deal with the grape!" Gamma says, his grapnel speedily carrying him from shelf to shelf as he chases them.

This is when a great stream of fire erupts from Patchouli's book, which limits my options to run or die. The flames crash down behind us as we sprint, before coiling up and arcing and twisting through the air as they give chase. I snap-fire back at the witch as I run, more as an attempt to discourage her than anything, my rounds sparking off her shield and doing precious little else.

"Flank?" Echo suggests.

"Copy," I reply, slinging my rifle away in favor of the grapnel. "I'll go high."


Echo jumps off this shelf to a lower one, while I quickfire up at a shelf to my left as I run, the structure at least a dozen stories higher than my current one. It takes a few seconds for the hook to land, but once it does I'm jerked back and up through the air, the fire snapping at my legs. Patchouli climbs after me, evidently unwilling to give up the high ground.

As I zip upwards, all I can do is watch as Remilia pulls a one-eighty turn in the air, flailing Delta about like a toy as the two of them turn upside down, and pitches him towards the floor. He hurtles downward at a meteoric rate, until Gamma disengages his hook and dives off his current shelf, intercepting Delta's tumbling fall. He grabs the man by the arm before they plummet out of sight.

Patchouli reminds me of the issue at hand when she gestures at the place my hook is attached, and the wood shifts and crackles around it, dislodging the claw and allowing gravity to try and murder me. The hook quickly retracts into my grapnel launcher, but before I can fire again, I pass Patchouli by. She extends a hand, and my fall is violently terminated by a wall of invisible force, the air itself holding me in place. I try to shoot at her, but another gesture from her pins my arms to my sides, and I can't so much as lift them an inch away from me.

"Rule one of fighting a magician: never engage them on their own ground," she lectures, flipping through her book once again; the flames below us extinguish themselves of their own accord. With her eyes off me, my bindings slacken slightly. "So," she continues, "what should I do? Water would dispose of you without much fuss, but you might have an air-supply in that armor. Maybe... does metal sound good?" She looks back up at me, and my arms are once again pinned. "I think it would suit you."

"What've you got in mind?" I grind out, waiting for her to return her attentions to the book so I can try for a flashbang.

"Oh, nothing spectacular. I'd simply crush you with a rock." Her eyes wander over my suit. "Although it might take me a few tries before you're well and truly squashed, I suppose."

Behind her, Echo climbs atop the bookcase in silence. He holds a finger in front of his mouth, then unslings his rifle and takes aim.

"I'd rather you didn't," I say, grateful my face can't be seen. "And wouldn't a rock be made out of earth, not metal? I think you're mixing your elements up."

"You've obviously never seen me work my magic," Patchouli says. "Allow me to demonst-"

Echo chooses now to open fire, but Patchouli's shield flashes to life behind her, deflecting his rounds. She half turns to face him, lazily extending a hand palm-out, and once again, for just a moment, my invisible bonds slacken. She mutters something inaudible, and a lance of white-hot flame flies from her hand, catching Echo full in the chest and carrying him off his feet; he flies through the air and tumbles over the ledge, falling out of sight.

But he bought me enough time.

Patchouli turns back to me.

I jerk the pin out of the flashbang.

It detonates. Patchouli reels back with a cry, book falling from her hand as she clutches at her face. Her concentration disrupted, the spell holding me in place dies, leaving me to fall. A quick, hastily-aimed shot from my grapnel latches onto the bookshelf slightly above her, harshly arresting my drop before reeling me up. Patchouli's doubled over on herself, eyes screwed tightly shut and clutching at her ears, and is as helpless a target as any I've ever seen. When I reach the hook, I grab onto the shelf, brace my legs against it, and holster the grapnel.

And then I use the wood as a launching point to leap at the witch, my arms held wide.

Her shield flares to life, but where bullets failed, I succeed in smashing through it, the sigils shattering to pieces against me. I catch Patchouli about the shoulders, pulling her close to my chest, and we spin through the air on our course to a rough landing. We crash onto the bookcase where she revealed herself, my body taking the majority of the impact. I roll her off me, draw and activate my baton, and slap her with it before she can recover; electricity arcs through the woman, rooting her in place, locking her eyes open in shock. I give her a moment for the electricity to die down before I handcuff her.

"Witch is pacified," I say wearily, standing up. "Echo, you still with us?"

No reply.

I grimace. "Gamma, Delta? Report."

My comms are silent for only seconds before Gamma's voice crackles through them. "Hey, boss. We're doing good over here. I think we shook the vamp."

"We should regroup, sir," Delta says. "Come find us, and we can- Contact!" The comms erupt in gunfire for a brief, terrible second, and then there's a pair of thumps.

Everything falls silent.

"Team! Report!" I say, already knowing the answer I'll get. The silence stretches on and on, and I growl in frustration. "TOC, I think I'm the last man standing. Continuing with the mission.

I ready my grapnel and sight in on the tallest bookcase around as a vantage point, and a pull of the trigger sets me skyward, leaving the electrified witch behind.
0445 hours
There's nothing to occupy me but a thick, dull dread in the pit of my stomach as I kneel on the edge of this bookcase and scan the library for any signs of my target. From here, the ground floor is a labyrinth of bookcases that I'm amazed anyone could possibly navigate successfully, all twisty passages and cramped corridors sandwiched between the monstrous load-bearing titans that occupy this place.

I shut my eyes and listen; straining my ears for a trace of Remilia; she may be able to stay out of sight, but those wings still have to beat through air.




There's a rush of air behind me, and I'm already hurling myself aside just in time for the tip of a blood-red spear to pass me by. I land in a roll, coming to rest on one knee and bringing my rifle up as I face my attacker. Remilia, standing on the opposite edge of the shelf a few mere strides away, retracts her weapon, gripping the ten-foot impaler in both hands.

She smiles. "Excellent reflexes."

I sight in on her forehead and pop off a quick burst; Remilia flits aside in a blur of motion, my rounds passing through thin air. She comes to a stop mid-air, her wings beating steadily as she looks down on me. "That's incredibly rude, I'll have you-"

I fire again, and again, and again, but she just keeps dodging, not even trying to attack. She stops once my gun clicks empty, yet makes no move as I reload.

"Can we have a talk or not?" Remilia asks, arching a brow.

I fling a flashbang at the vampire, and she neatly slices it in half with her spear. I come up short at that, struck silent by the sheer bullshit of that maneuver.

Remilia clucks in disapproval, shaking her head. "All right, I'm quite tired of letting you have all the fun here."

And just like that, she's on me, spear thrusting at my heart. I twist aside, leaving it to scrape my chest, only for her to pull back and stab again at my head. A duck on my part keeps my head on my shoulders, but she just keeps stabbing at me. A pattern emerges, every one of her attacks coming in just slow enough I can evade it, although it takes my every effort to do so.

"Don't toy with me!" I say, unclipping another flashbang; the moment I do, her spear darts in and impales it, retracting just as swiftly without even touching my hand.

"No cheating, sir!" she chides, flicking the ruined grenade off her weapon.

Oh, hell, she really is just playing with me.

I sling my rifle over my shoulder and draw my baton, knowing full well just how suicidal this is, and launch myself at her. She brings her spear's haft up to block my first overhead strike, but I pull back and swing again and again and again. My blows come down on Remilia every second, sparks flying off her spear with every attack she blocks.

The entire time, she's smiling.

And then, after ten straight seconds of this, after she blocks yet another of my attacks, she dispels the spear while I'm hauling back for one last strike. I bring the baton down on her head, and she claps it between her hands. Electricity surges through her whole body, but she merely grits her teeth and wrenches the baton from my grip, pulling me stumbling along. She flings the weapon aside, over the shelf, and lays into my jaw with an uppercut; my world explodes in pain as I fly upwards, flipping end over end.

On one of my revolutions, I catch sight of Remilia resummoning her spear.

She thrusts.

It catches me full in the gut, piercing through me with a meaty squelch, leaving me stuck on the pole like a hog to roast and sliding down fast from sheer momentum.


Oh, God, it hurts.

"Valorous, certainly!" Remilia says, her words coming in dull and muffled to my ears. "Skilled, perhaps less so."

She slams the butt of the spear into the shelf, embedding it upright in the wood. My descent slows with every second, until I'm merely sliding down by inches, yet no matter how I grasp at the pole and try to hold myself up, I keep slipping. Every breath I take feels like trying to suck in air through a crumpled straw, my stomach burning up like her spear was coated in white phosphorous.

And yet, despite all this, one thought rises above the rest.

I still have my pistol.

But I can't reach for it with her watching.

It hurts to whisper, but I manage to choke out, "Re- Remilia."

She blinks in surprise, her eyes flicking up to my own for a crucial second.


I quickdraw on her and pull the trigger as many times as I can, plinks sounding off as rounds smash into her head and body and wings. She jerks back with every bullet, her expression locked in shocked surprise, and a vengeful, vindictive glee surges through me as I riddle her with bullets.

My pistol clicks dry after three sustained seconds of fire. Remilia, swaying drunkenly, looks me in the eye. She manages the barest trace of a smile before toppling onto her back.

"Tie," I growl.

My pistol slips from numb fingers, clattering against the wood.


This went about as well as could be expected, I suppose.

And then Remilia's laugh cracks through the air, bright and merry as she sits up grinning widely at me. "Oh, well done!"

She claps her hands together, and the spear vanishes from existence, leaving me to drop to my hands and knees gasping for air. My stomach is sore, but that's otherwise the only effect of my skewering.

"All right," Remilia says, jumping to her feet. "I suppose this really is the end; you managed to score your hits upon me, as previously agreed." She offers a hand up, still smiling. Welts swell on her forehead, but she doesn't seem bothered. "That was quite the match, sir!"

I take her hand, and she jerks me to my feet as though I weren't twice her size. "Your money's good, we weren't going to half-ass it," I say, patting my stomach. "Thank God you people know how to set your weapons to stun."

"Magic!" she says, waggling her fingers theatrically. "Allowing me to live out my horrifically violent whims without actually murdering anyone! And you had those... what were they?"

I withdraw a pistol magazine and show her the top. "Rubber bullets. I didn't expect our rounds to outright kill your honor guard, however."

Remilia rolls her eyes. "Pshh, they're fairies, they die if you nudge them wrong."

"Whereas we die if we get stabbed or incinerated," I say, tucking the magazine back. "If we hadn't agreed on your... Spellcard rules, correct?"


I nod. "Right. If it weren't for those, I'd have been seriously worried."

Her eyebrows disappear into messy hair. "Considering you'd all be dead men if we didn't, I'd say that's a good thing."

"You know it." I cough into my fist. "And, ah, sorry for electrocuting your maid and the witch. Please make sure they don't try to kill me later."

Remilia waves my concerns off. "Oh, they'll be fine. I thought that voltage was invigorating, personally!"

I hold up a hand to forestall further conversation. "Mind giving me a second? I want to check in on my team."

"Go ahead!" Remilia says, folding her hands behind her back.

"Team," I say, turning away, "we've officially got a tie. Get ready to move out." Four weary but distinct cheers rise up through my comms. Next up is Command. "TOC, entry team reporting. Our mission is officially complete."

"Copy, entry team. Return to base."

"Affirmative. Out." Something that had been niggling at me comes to mind, and I turn to Remilia again. "Out of curiosity, when we first met, what would have happened if you did snap Gamma's neck? Or if Bravo got his neck sliced open?"

She shrugs. "It would have been painful, but again, magic! Ultimately they'd have been fine."

"Ah." Another question occurs to me. "So, how long were you hiding on top of your bed waiting for us?"

The look she gives me is pure, honest smug. "I woke up when I heard that lock click open."

I whistle. "Impressive."

"I try." Just like that, her demeanor shifts from playful to serious, her lips pursing as she looks me over. "So, what are your official recommendations for my security forces?"

Right, time to be professional. I stand at attention. "I'll draft a full report for you once we're out, but until then, consider assigning night watchmen to the towers and hiring sturdier guards. If you're interested in contracting us for further work, we're always available for any security, consulting, training, or military needs you may have." I nod, my mental checklist crossed off. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to go collect my squad, get my baton back,"-she has the courtesy to look sheepish-"and release the people we've restrained. After that, we'll be on our way."

She's quiet as I retrieve my gun, and speaks only once I've shoved my pistol into its holster. "Ah, Mister...?"

"Just Alpha is fine," I say, readying my grapnel.

Remilia nods, her expression pleasant. "Well, thank you for services rendered, Alpha." She honest to God giggles. "It was very exciting, make no mistake."

"Any time, Miss Scarlet. If you ever want my boys in particular again, just ask for Badge Squad, and we'll be right over." I tap my grapnel against my helmet in salute. "And with that, I must go."

I hop back onto thin air, and the last I see of Remilia is her (very briefly) astonished face before I plummet.

It's the little things that make this job worthwhile.
0450 hours

Operation complete.
File 141022308245.jpg - (217.71KB, 850x1127, captain flan.jpg) [iqdb]

The final frontier.

These are the voyages of the S.D.S. Tepes. Its... uh... well, I forget the timeframe, but its long-term mission to... wait, wait, lemme double-check here.


That is the dumbest mission I've ever heard of! Who the hell wants to do something like that?! No, you know what, we're doing this my way.

This is my awesome ship's mission to do awesome things for as long as I feel like it! Yeah!

"...Captain Scarlet?" Commander Iku Nagae sighed wearily, "That really isn't the ship's motto."

Captain Flandre Scarlet spun in her chair and smiled cheerfully. "A fine point, First Officer Nagae! But I have a counter-point for you! To whit: I'm in command! And I say that this is the ship's motto from now on!"

Gunnery Officer Cirno raised her hand. "I like the Captain's version better."

"See?" Captain Flandre nodded confidently. "You need to have a little more faith in my brilliance." Iku just sighed wearily, and turned back to her console, muttering about how easy she had it when all she had to do was babysit a rich little brat. Flandre just shook her head. Poor Iku needed to get laid. Badly.

Spinning in her chair, Captain Flandre proudly surveyed the command center of her starship, the S.D.S Tepes. A mighty sword-shaped cruiser, it cut through space with confidence and might, crewed almost entirely by fairies. Well, and there were a bunch of hobgoblins. But the fairies were much cuter, and made for better PR. Still, Flandre made sure that the gobbos got a good paycheck, the ship probably would've fallen apart without them, and that kept them happy.

Yeah, being in command of a starship was a hell of a sweet gig. There was only one real problem: space could get kinda boring. "What are we doing out here again?" The Captain asked, idly twirling her hair around her finger.

Iku sighed wearily, turning to her leader. "It's a routine-"

"-Survey mission for minerals, yadda, yadda, I know that," Flandre interrupted, waving down her first officer. "I just hate these routine patrol dealies, you know? Give me something exciting any day of the week..."

Helmswoman Marisa glanced over her shoulder. "Hey, Cap? Now coming up on the next system on our patrol route. Preparing to decelerate from warp speeds "

"Oh joy. A whole bunch more rocks to look at," Flandre said dully. "Woo-fucking-hoo. Well, take us in." There was a brief vibration as the Tepes dropped out of warp travel. "Kaguya, see anything?"

Lieutenant Kaguya Houraisan, the ship's science officer, consulted her displays carefully. "Well, there's a couple of potential colonization prospects... they'd need a lot of terraforming, mind... as well as a few a few mineral-rich planetoids. And..." her eyes lit up with excitement. "Hey! A Lunarian battlecruiser!"

Captain Flandre sat up straight, the promise of a fight filling her with a sudden excitement. "Onscreen, now!" Iku complied, and an image of the Lunarian vessel appeared on the command center's main viewscreen, long and slender, hull plating shining in the starlight, and also-

"GYAHAHAHAHAHA!" Marisa shrieked with laughter. "Omigod, it looks like a fucking dick!"

"It most certainly does not," Iku sighs. "The Lunarians have simply implemented an efficient design-"

"It totally looks like a dick!" Captain Flandre giggled helplessly. "I mean, you've got the main hull, and those huge orb-shaped nacelles, and the main gun cluster right at the tip."

"Sexual repression," Lieutenant Houraisan said helpfully. "Every single last Lunarian needs to get laid. Badly. It sometimes expresses itself like this."

"So... the Lunars are all closet perverts?" Cirno asked carefully.

Kaguya shrugged. "That's my take on things. There's a reason I deserted, you know."

"Okay, okay, let's focus," Flandre spoke up, taking a deep breath. "This is a delicate situation. Every encounter with the Lunarians is. We need to deal with this with as much delicacy as we can muster."

Gunnery Officer Cirno raised her hand. "I vote we shoot everything in sight."

"I like that plan let's do that plan," Flandre said eagerly.

Commander Nagae cleared her throat. "If I may? We are currently at a state of peace with the Lunarian Republic. Unprovoked aggression could have massive consequences. We need to move with caution."

Flandre sighed. "Spoilsport. Okay, okay, are we currently in Lunarian-claimed space?"

Security Officer Inubashiri spoke up. "Negative, Captain. This is technically free space. However, a free trader aligned with us did stake some claims in this region, which gives us the right to claim primacy here."

"So we have an excuse to open fire!" Captain Flandre said excitedly. Commander Nagae just facepalmed. "This is great! I love shooting things."

"We have the best Captain," Cirno said with a huge smile.

A monitor flickered on, and Doctor Inaba gave the Captain a stern look. "You know, as ship's medic, I really have to protest you taking us into combat so easily."

Flandre sighed wearily. "Okay. Fine. We'll... talk to the Lunarians, then." Several groans went up at this. "Sheesh, I thought you were okay with us fighting them, Reisen."

"Eh, I don't mind you shooting at them," Doctor Reisen shrugged. "I just hate it went my workload goes up. And it always does, every single time you take this ship into combat. Just please try to talk them down first? For the sake of my blood pressure?"

"Yeah, yeah," Flandre muttered. "Open a channel to the Lunarian vessel." A crewman complied, and moments later a purple-haired woman appeared on the display, dressed in a red uniform and glaring angrily at the Tepes' bridge crew. Kaguya and Reisen both quietly cursed at the sight of the woman.

"Earther vessel, this is Yorihime Watatsuki of the Lunarian Republic. You are trespassing on claimed Lunarian space, and- Kaguya?!" The Lunar stared at the ship's science officer in shock. "Wha... what the hell are you doing on an Earth Ship?!"

"Uh... hi, Yori," Kaguya chuckled weakly. "Nice to see you too."

"I can't believe this! Desertion is one thing, but to willingly serve on an enemy warship?! What are thinking-" The Lunarian commander was gearing up for a good rant when Captain Flandre cleared her throat, interrupting.

"Yeah, I'm glad you two know each other, but Yori Whateveryourname is?" The Captain sniffed derisively. "Yeah, Captain Flandre of the Tepes here, and we kinda claimed this spot already. So get lost. 'Kay?"

Yorihime glared at Flandre, outraged. "You dare speak that way to a senior officer of the Lunarian Defense Corps?" she said haughtily. "Are you totally mad, Captain?"

"My sister totally made those psych profile reports disappear!" Flandre shouted angrily.

There was a moment of silence.

"...What?" Yorihime asked, utterly confused, and now a bit worried.

"Uh..." Captain Flandre looked around worriedly, hoping that no-one else had seen her psych profile. "I mean, yes! I'm mad as hell! Prepare for combat, moonie!" Jabbing a button, Captain Flandre closed the channel.

Iku cleared her throat nervously. "Um, Captain, what was that about your psych profile...?"

"Less talky more shooty!" Flandre snapped. "Officer Cirno! Combat mode!"

Chuckling evilly, Gunnery Officer Cirno began operating the controls that prepped the Tepes for combat. At her direction, the ship began to unfold, and weapons ports emerged and elongated... and emerged... and emerged...

"...Why is our ship's mass approximately 65% weaponry?" Iku asked dully.

"That you have to ask that is truly disappointing, Iku," Flandre said sadly.

"Enemy ship firing!" Marisa shouted in alarm. "Engaging evasive maneuvers!"

"Return fire, now!" Flandre commanded.

An exchanged of weapons fire took place in the void. The Lunarian battle cruiser fired its beam lances, weapons carefully and lovingly made by the finest weapons-artisans of the Lunar civilization, each delicately calibrated to achieve absolutely maximum performance, bypassing shields and armor to cut at the heart of the enemy. The Tepes, meanwhile, had its own powerful weapons array, built with the following motto in mind: more guns is always better.

A blueish-white pulse of energy shot out from the Lunar ship. Moments later, it was impacted by an absolute wall of obliteration form the Tepes, and vanished into a sea of explosions.

"Damage report!" Flandre shouted, as her ship rocked from the Lunarian lance fire.

"The enemy ship destroyed our primary defense relay," Officer Inubashiri said tersely. "We won't be firing again anytime soon."

"Status of the enemy ship?" Flandre asked. Cirno just pointed at the viewscreen. "Oh." The Lunarian battlecruiser was crippled, floating helplessly in space, atmosphere venting from several rents in the hull. "Well, good. I guess we win."

There was an awkward silence on the bridge. "So, what now?" Marisa finally asked. "I mean, do we just blow them up or something? Seems kinda cruel."

"We could always try to capture the ship," Kaguya suggested. "Command is always looking to get its hands on Lunarian technology."

"Capture how?" Reisen asked, walking onto the bridge. "Lunarian infantry may not be the best, but their elites are deadly, and we only have fairies. Besides, if Yorihime's on that ship, her sister has to be there as well. I don't think we'd do too well against them."

Flandre stared at the screen in silence, mind working. It sucked to just leave things at this, but what more could she do? It would take time to repair the weapons array, during which time the Lunarians would repair their own ship. And a boarding action would be costly in lives...

A gasp came from the captain as a plan came to her. It was so obvious! "I just had the best idea..." she breathed.

"Oh gods no," Iku moaned, covering her face.

"Nagae! Kirisame! Udongein! Cirno! Inubashiri! Houraisan!" The Captain gave an order with all of her authority. "Gather in front of me and strip down, ladies!" It took a moment for the bridge crew to realize that their Captain was, in fact serious. And that was how Flandre came to survey a half-dozen half-naked women.

"Cirno, no, you're way too loli. Marisa, great butt, not enough boob, sorry. Kaguya, very nice, but not in the way I'm looking for. Momiji, I love your abs, but that's not the look I need. Reisen... lots of badonka-donk. Hey, how hot would Lunarians find you?"

"They see us rabbits as pets." Reisen replied, trying fruitlessly to preserve her modesty. "So... not very."

"Thought not." Flandre turned to Iku. "Commander, it's clearly all on you."

"What's all on me?" Iku asked flatly.

"Seduction," Flandre explained." I need to to throw on some green body paint and a metal bikini. You're going to beam over and seduce the Lunarians, probably by dancing. You have ten minutes to get ready."

Kaguya gave a thumbs-up. "I like this plan."

Iku just stared into space with a dead look. "I should have just stuck with Tenshi. Fuck me so hard..."


"I want our weapons array on line at once!" Yorihime Watatsuki shouted at her subordinates. "We could have mere minutes before the Earthers launch a second attack! We must strike first!"

"I've heard of this Flandre Scarlet before," Toyohime Watatsuki said thoughtfully at her side. "Her sister holds a high rank in their government... she could be a valuable hostage- wait, we have a transporter signal incoming!" Suddenly tense and serious, the blonde Lunarian drew her destructive fan. Yorihime grit her teeth and drew her sword, preparing a battle cry to-

Her thoughts vanished into nothingness as the green woman materialized on the bridge, hips swaying to a jaunty beat, body on display, and a rictus smile forced onto her face. Iku Nagae was not having a good day.

There was a stunned moment as the Lunarians stared at the dancing woman.


"Think it'll work?" Marisa asked Flandre on the bridge of the Tepes.

Frowning in thought, Flandre pulled a twenty-sided die from a pocket and rolled it on one of the consoles. It came up a natural twenty.

"She'll be fine," The Captain said confidently.


Iku Nagae, much to her dismay, was now surrounded by drooling admirers. The Lunar Rabbits just gaped at her with dumb smiles on their faces, while the Lunarians themselves were unable to take their eyes off of her.

"My god, when was the last time you saw actual boobs?" One breathless Lunarian asked his fellow.

"Fifty years," was the muttered reply. "And my wife gave me merry hell for walking in on her while she was changing. I was pent-up for weeks."

"Stop oggling the Earthling!" Yorihime screamed at her crew, blushing with a combination of outrage and embarrassment. Toyohime was just rubbing her temples in exasperation.

Gritting her teeth, Iku realized that it was time for phase two of the plan. With a sigh, she tapped a transmitter on her wrist.

It was then that HE appeared.

Six feet tall. Piercing golden eyes. Silky silver hair. Clad only in a loincloth, his freshly-oiled, perfectly chiseled body made all who gazed upon it gasp in awe. Rinnosuke Morichika, the embodiment of MANliness itself, had arrived.

He gave the Watatsukis a heart-throbbing smile. "Ladies," his smooth, deep voice came forth. "Surrender now, and you get five minutes in a room with me. All. Alone."

Toyohime looked at him in disgust. "You have got to be-"

"I surrender completely," Yorihime murmured, eyes glazing over.

"S-SIS?!" Toyohime shrieked.

The purple-haired Lunarian whirled on her sister. "Oh, fuck YOU, sister! Do you have any idea how long it's been since I've gotten laid?! FIVE. FUCKING. CENTURIES. That was the last time I got some from my husband, and he really sucked at it! Do not get in my way here!" Toyohime just stared blankly at her sister, unable to comprehend how things had come to this,

Rinnosuke, embodiment of manliness, just laughed proudly. Truly, his work here was done.


Captain's log, Stardate... I don't know. I have know idea how stardates work. Mission successful. We have captured a Lunarian Battlecruiser, and a number of valuable Lunarian officers as well. I'm very proud of my crew for a job well done; I always knew I could rely on them. However, Commander Iku is refusing to leave her room, and the captured Lunarians are in an uproar, demanding to see their 'Goddess' once more. I may need to apply alcohol to rectify this situation. Also, Rinnosuke needs more body oil. I swear, the guy goes through it ridiculously fast...

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Alice Margatroid sips her tea while sitting on her veranda. Today is a good day. There's plenty of sun, even in her small clearing in the Forest of Magic, making everything around her a bright green. Her Shanghai doll brought her some cakes to snack on, as well. The perfect picture of a relaxing afternoon.

"Yo, Alice!" Marisa's brash voiced called out from above, audible before she was visible. A few seconds later, she shoots down from the sky, practically falling in from the opening in the trees while riding her broom. Her method of flight is always so rough and unpredictable, but she still somehow manages to not crash into the ground.

"Good afternoon, Marisa." Alice cordially greets her fellow magician. While Alice is not the biggest fan of Marisa, she is still somewhat endearing. Annoying at times, but impossible to truly hate. "Back from terrorizing the Scarlet Devil Mansion again?"

"Hey, I'm an honored guest!" Marisa asserts, in start contrast to her usual reception. "Patchy let me borrow a ton of her books, she loves me so much!" Marisa emphatically pats a large gray sack tied to the back of her broom, no doubt containing a large number of grimoires stolen from the poor Patchouli Knowledge.

"Yes, I'm sure she did. Anything interesting?"

Marisa grins, eager to share the details of her haul. "You betcha! Let's see..." she opens up the sack and searching through it, pulling a few books out of it. "Uhh... dunno what this is. Or this. Not this one..." With each unfamiliar book, she tosses it into the air without any concern, leaving it to Alice's dolls to rescue the poor objects before they fall into the dirt on the ground. She's not paying any attention at the moment, and she doesn't seem especially interested in these books, so Alice commands her dolls to bring them inside while Marisa isn't looking.

"Aha! Here! This one is the big catch!" She triumphantly pulls out a thick, red book from her pile. The cover describes it as Theories on the relationships between N-dimensional magical planes.

"Hmm. Interesting," Alice comments. It presumably is indeed an interesting topic, but not one she is familiar with. Definitely outside of her specialization, and probably not related to her sole drive of creating an autonomous doll. "Will it be useful for you, Marisa?"

"Yeah! Well, I gotta read it first, make sure and all, but it should be. I think I can use it to make my Master Spark stronger!" Marisa exclaims happily. Unlike Alice, who has but one goal, Marisa does not appear to have any. She simply works on whatever is nearby and currently occupying her interest. It's a definite contrast, one that Alice can't quite get used to.

"That's good. Would you like to join me for tea?" Alice asks. Marisa accepts her invitation, and the two magicians quietly drink their tea and eat their snacks, served by Alice's army of dolls.

"Hey, I was wondering," Marisa asks after a while, "You are doing research too, right? I visit Patchy a lot, but I never see you there too. It's a treasure trove of books! So why don't you ever use it?"

Alice is pretty sure Patchouli would let her visit the library, as an actual honored guest. After all, she never tries to steal from it, unlike some people. But there's never any need.

"There's nothing in that library that interests me. Well, I shouldn't say nothing, that's too much. But very, very little." Alice pauses to take a sip of tea, while Marisa watches her closely, eager for her to continue. For Alice to dismiss Marisa's treasure trove of books... what could Alice be thinking? "You do know what my goal is, correct?"

"Yeah, you're making a doll that moves on its own."

"A bit more than that, but that is close enough. A fully autonomous doll. That is what I'm after. No one has accomplished this before. Or, at the very least, no one has done so and left any record of it. Nothing written, no surviving artifacts, nothing. Thus, I am treading new ground. Patchouli's library is amazing, yes, but it's all from the past. There are no answers in there for me, so I must do my research elsewhere."

"So you do do research, then? Do you have more books in your house, then?" Marisa's eyes don't visibly gleam with the excitement of finding a new place to rob, but Alice is certain that her mind is still lighting up.

"No, not like what you're thinking." Alice dismisses Marisa's statement. It's the truth – but even if it wasn't, she'd say the same thing, in order to protect her assets. "I do a very different kind of research. In fact, I'm doing it right now."

"Doing what, drinking tea?"

"Yes. More generally, being alive. That is my research. Just living. If I am to create a doll that can function as a person could, the only source of inspiration would be other people."

"Hmm." Marisa sits and digests Alice's explanation. She doesn't like it, but that's understandable considering how much it clashes with her approach to magic.

"But that's not enough, is it?" She adds after a minute. "Just being alive. I mean, everyone does it. It's not the same as researching from a book. Maybe you learn something, but do you learn magic?"

"Yes, that's certainly true." Alice smiles bitterly and finishes her tea. "Progress is slow. Maybe non-existent. But the answer isn't in the past, so all that's left is the future."

Once both girls have finished their tea, Marisa picks up her broom and flies off again, blissfully unaware that her sack is now a good deal lighter. Today was a good day, Alice thinks to herself, and hopes that the experience with be valuable in the future.


"I've brought some of your books back, Patchouli," Alice says after finding the librarian in her library.

"Ah! Thank you so much, Alice," Patchouli responds with relief and a genuine smile. It's rare to see emotion from her, and when she does show it, it's inevitably tied to her books. "Thank you for doing this so often. Really!"

"It's not a problem at all. Marisa never notices if some of 'her' books go missing. It looked like she was actually going to use about six of them this time, so I left them behind."

"More than usual. I take it she's actually doing some research?" Patchouli is back to her usual calm self.

"Yeah, seems that way. I wouldn't have the heart to take books she was legitimately using, even if I didn't think I'd get caught. I just wish she was more sensible in picking them."

"Yes... That girl is quite troublesome." Patchouli sighs before continuing, "She's just a compulsive hoarder. If I could trust her to return them in her lifetime, I would loan them to her. Instead, she wants everything, especially things she'll never use."

"It's a good thing I have nothing that interests her, then," Alice adds with a chuckle. "Well, I'm just glad I can rescue some of your books for you. It'd be a travesty if they simply got eaten by mold, or blown up in one of her experiments."

"Hmm?" Patchouli responds with a confused interjection. "Oh, you don't need to worry about that. I'm grateful that you regularly return them to my possession, but they're not in any danger in her house. No matter how chaotic it is."

"Are you sure? Stuff blows up pretty regularly in there. She even has fires every once in a while. And you know she isn't caring for anything properly."

"I am absolutely certain. I enchanted all of these books myself. There is very little, if anything, that Marisa could do to damage them. They are absolutely immune to anything as trivial as fire, mold, or physical impact. I don't want to underestimate her extremely potent master spark, but I am believe that they could even survive a direct blast. Fortunately, I can't imagine any reason why she would ever do that."

"Oh. Hmm. I guess I should've realized that you would protect them. I just hadn't noticed anything myself."

"It's a necessity when your life's work is so close to a childish, temperamental vampire with an instinctive desire to wreak havoc on everything. Flandre's a bit of a handful, too."

"Yes, those vampires are certainly troublesome," Alice said with a laugh. "But if you're able to protect your books from those two, why can't you just use a similar enchantment to stop Marisa from stealing them?"

"Such an enchantment would just cause problems. It's simple to protect a book from fire, for example, since I wouldn't ever deliberately set them alight. But that's not the

But to stop a thief? Enchantments aren't able to identify legitimate readers from annoying rats. Anything I do would simply affect me as well. At best, I could prevent them from being opened by humans, but I fear that would simply encourage her to abandon her humanity immediately. Then I would never get my books back."

"I see. It figures that there isn't an answer as simple as that."

"By the way, Alice," Patchouli says while staring at the visiting magician. "If you weren't able to detect the enchantments on my books, then perhaps you need more practice on magical enchantments and detection yourself. Allow me to loan you some books on this."

"Ahaha, I was afraid you'd say that. I suppose I have grown rusty on some things."

"It's good to see you so eager." Patchouli gave a detailed explanation of their location to Alice, then added "If you find Koakuma, she can help you as well."

"...That's a lot of books. Okay, um, I'll grab them and be sure to study."


"Sanaaaaeeee!" Reimu cried as she ran towards the Moriya shrine. Tears weren't quite streaming down her cheeks, but she did look close to crying. "Comfort meeeeeee! With your body."

"Umm..." The wind priestess was somewhat troubled by Reimu's request, but unfortunately, used to it. "Okay. There, there. You can rest your head on my lap."

"Can't you spare something... softer? Like maybe your b-"

"You can rest your head on my lap," Sanae repeated, more firmly this time.

Reimu sniffled. "Thanks, Sanae. You're the best!" Following her suggestion, Reimu placed her head on Sanae's lap and relaxed. It was pretty soft, Reimu thought to herself. She quickly calmed down, a testament to Sanae's healing powers. Or Reimu's terrible acting. Sanae sighed, and began scratching the back of Reimu's head. She didn't really mind this situation, but she did wish Reimu would stop trying to go after other parts of her body like that.

"So? What's the matter?" Sanae asked after a minute had passed.

"Oh. Right. It's the villagers! They wouldn't treat me to a free dinner when I asked."

"...That's it? Did they ever say that they'd feed you?"

"Well, no... But I still helped them! I saved the village from aggressive youkai by maintaining the seal this morning."

"That's part of your duties as the Hakurei shrine maiden. You'd be in trouble if you didn't do it."

"I still did it! And I stopped that werewolf girl from rampaging too!"

"That was a month ago, Reimu. And from what I heard, she wasn't really 'rampaging' or anything."

"It was still an incident!" Reimu sat up to argue better, but gave up quickly and returned her head to Sanae's soft lap. "Part of one, anyway," she continued. "I do plenty of stuff for the village, and Gensokyo, and everyone, and I never get anything in return."

"Well, why do you think they owe you things? It's good that you're helping them out, but why do they need to feed you? I know you can afford to treat yourself, if you just wanted to eat more lavishly."

"No, not that. I'd be fine with just ramen or something. It's the principle of the thing, really. I go beat up Remilia and save everyone from her stupid mist, and no one even accepts that I did it. Then again when spring never came. I tried to go to the village so I could loudly proclaim that I was going to fix the moon, but Keine hid it or some nonsense.

"People finally admit that I'm actually doing the things I say I am, but they still don't care." She continued her rant. Sanae just let her speak, saying nothing but continuing to gently scratch her head. "I just want some recognition. A 'oh, thank you, Reimu, you did a good job, saving us from certain destruction. Again' or something. Or a gift. Like paper for my ofuda, or an exquisite meal so I'm full of energy for youkai extermination. But I can't even get anything related to my work."

Reimu stayed silent after that, just enjoying Sanae's headscratches.

"It's almost like..." Sanae began, "like you're an RPG heroine. You do all these important things, and you're trying to save the planet, or, uh, Gensokyo, but they still make you buy the swords you use to save the planet, and charge ridiculous prices to sleep at an inn."

"A what? What are you talking about, Sanae?"

"Oh, yeah, I guess you've never played one. Well, it's a type of game. You control a character... uh, like a character in a play, I mean. Not a real person. And you have them do stuff. There's a plot that the author made up, and typically the entire planet is in danger. Or just your town. Something needs to be done, so you fight and solve the problem. And there's all these friendly people around, but they rarely recognize you for helping them. They sell you weapons that you need to win, and charge ridiculous prices, and they don't give you stuff for free. Even though it'd help them in the long run, they make you pay for everything."

"Uhh, I don't really get it. But I guess it describes me, if you say so."

"I suppose you'd have to play one to understand. It is hard to explain with just words. But it's a game; it's supposed to be challenging for the player, so they can't just give you everything you need for nothing. You need to work for it, or something. But for the people in the game, I bet they think the same thing you do. 'I'm doing so much for these people, and I just don't ever get any thanks. They won't even help me help them.' Like that, right?"

"Yeah," Reimu agreed, still not really getting it.

Sanae thought for a minute. "Y'know, I still have my old Super Famicom. I wonder if I could get it working. It'd be fun, watching you play an RPG for the first time."


"I just think it'd be a good business opportunity for you!" Sanae argued to Remilia. The two of them were walking through the hallways of the Scarlet Devil Mansion together.

"I disagree. I feel that it lacks the necessary appeal to the general public, both human and youkai. There's also the lack of infrastructure. Building the necessary facilities for this, and I fear they would be far more numerous than you anticipate, would be very costly and it is not likely I would see a return on the investment in a reasonable timeframe. Furthermore, there's the potential problems of having the infrastructure in the first place. I'm sorry, Miss Kochiya, but I must continue to decline."

"Does the timeframe really matter? You're a vampire. And you'd understand the appeal if you'd just-"

"Miss Kochiya, as you said, I am indeed a vampire, and more than twenty times your age. Do you really think that I've never played a – ah." Remilia abruptly stopped where she stood.

Sanae looked around her surroundings and quickly discovered why. To her left was one of the mansion's few – but massive – windows. It was early in the morning, so sunlight was streaming through the beautiful stained glass. It certainly wasn't a big deal to Sanae, but Remilia would turn to dust if she took another step forward. Probably. Sanae obviously hadn't seen it herself, but supposedly that was what happened. It would explain why Remilia stopped... but not why she had this huge window in the first place.

"Excuse me a moment, dear." With that, Remilia leapt onto the ceiling and spread her body out, crawling on it like it was the floor. It was unusually undignified of her to move in such a manner, considering how insistent she usually is of showing off her opulence and superior upbringing. She slowly inched forward, keeping her body flat against the ceiling. It made progress slow, but it was necessary – the stained glass reflected the sun, leaving only a tiny area in the dead center untouched by the light. Were she half a foot to the left or right, or let her body drop an inch, she would assuredly be cooked by the sun.

Sanae walked past the window, making an exceptionally slow step to not pass Remilia, but otherwise walking normally. Only the vampire was inconvenienced by her own mansion.

Remilia dropped down to the floor once she had cleared the window and straightened her dress. "I apologize for the wait. Now, where were we?" She acted completely normal, despite having just crawled across the ceiling in front of a guest.

"Uhhh... if you don't mind me asking..." Sanae began. She was certain that Remilia would mind, but her curiosity insisted that she ask about the bizarre display. "...What was that? You're a vampire, so why do you have any windows in your house?" Most of the mansion was windowless, as expected of someone who would die in the sun. But there are a number of similar windows scattered throughout. They certainly look beautiful, which is fitting for Remilia, but that can't be worth the inconvenience.

"You wish to know why a vampire would let the sun in?" Sanae nodded. "Very well. It is one of my favorite designs of my mansion; I'll explain one of its secrets. But first, do you believe that I am put into any danger by this window?"

"Um, well, if you walked into the sun... yes." Sanae answered immediately, but Remilia's frown immediately informed her that that was the wrong answer. "But you wouldn't ever do that. Is that it?"

"Correct. Next, what is the single greatest threat to a vampire?"

Sanae thought it over, not answering right away. Her experience with vampires was limited to fiction – although, in Gensokyo, maybe that's exactly the expertise needed. A vampire's greatest threat? That would be a vampire hunter, like in those games... wouldn't it? But no, that wouldn't explain anything.

"Another vampire." Sanae answered with conviction, and Remilia smiled.

"Exactly. It is a defense mechanism against other vampires. There are a number of other traps in the mansion – all of them disabled at the moment, I assure you that you are in no danger – but this is what I am the most proud of. I designed the window myself; ah, not the artwork, that was commissioned, but rather the light refraction. It depends on the time of day, of course, but if the sun is up it is very difficult for a vampire to make it past any of these windows.

"The very sight of light is enough to make a lesser vampire falter. I am an exception, of course. But even I must take a very specific path. An assailing vampire would be forced to do the same, but if they misstepped, the pain of exposure would send them crashing to the floor, towards a very quick demise. Even if they moved perfectly, they would be extremely vulnerable to attack from a non-vampire... for example, my chief maid. And someone who didn't even know they were a vampire would walk into the sun and immediately jump back, cowering from fear."

Sanae thought it over. It was an impressive setup... but were vampire attacks really a threat? Was it worth the inconvenience? And if Remilia was attacked, she could just as easily be forced into the same vulnerable position she described.

...Wait, "Someone who didn't even know they were a vampire?" But then, why would they attack Remilia?

"Such as your sister?"

Remilia glared in response. “Did Reimu tell you about Flandre?” she finally asked after ten seconds.

"Yes..." Sanae answered, unsure. "Um, was she not supposed to have?"

"No. I'll have to have a little 'talk' with her later. Flandre is my responsibility, as is protecting others from her. I don't know how much Reimu told you, but she is confined to this mansion for a reason. And yes; the main purpose of the windows is for her. She is not fully aware of what it means to be a vampire, and would certainly not be able to get past a single window."

"Uh, but isn't that only effective during the day?"

"Of course. The windows are simply one of many. Everything about my mansion is designed to keep my poor sister from escaping, from the labyrinthine design to the staff working in it. My chief maid is a knife expert and exclusively uses silver, a vampire's greatest weakness. My close friend Patchouli Knowledge is a master elementalist, and can easily restrain my sister or otherwise restrict her movements. The gate guard is a chi-using adept, and can unleash the power of the sun as needed. Even the fairy maids are here because of Flandre, as they alone are effectively immune to her unmatchable destructive power. Everything is for her sake."

"Isn't that all a bit much? Sunlight and silver knives and solar flares? Are you trying to kill her?"

"Of course not. It's intended as a deterrent. Mostly. She wandered into the sunlight, once. Once. The outcome was as I described, and she will never attempt to cross a window again. The intent is solely to keep her from escaping. Patchy can summon rain to keep her completely trapped, but this requires her to be aware of the threat and to be in sufficient condition to take action. All I can do is hope that it never comes to anything more."


Satori dined alone in her palace, the only one seated at the massive table. It was inherited, so to speak, from before when she took up her current position in Old Hell. The previous occupants would have had plenty of residents and guests to sit at the table, but Satori was usually by herself. Her sister would occasionally sit with her, but she was prone to constant flights of fancy, and hard to notice even if she was there.

She was not truly alone, as she had her multitude of pets, but none of them were allowed on the table or chairs. They wouldn't enjoy it, anyway. The solitude didn't bother her, as it was far preferable to the alternative. Satori dined alone, with only the distant chewing of some of her pets making noise in the quiet palace.

Once her meal was finished, Satori pushed the dirty dishes aside and stood up. There was plenty of work to do before she could go to bed. She stood up and walked towards her office to begin filling out paperwork for hours, as was required of her daily. Along the way, Orin found Satori and followed her with her tails held up high, occasionally brushing her fur against the girl's leg.

When she reached the office, she found Okuu lying on the bed. She was naked and in her human form for some reason, sound asleep with a blanket partially covering her back. It wasn't good for her to sleep in here, as her sleep-mumbling-thoughts were somewhat distracting to Satori while she worked, but the raven girl tended to fall asleep in here so often regardless that Satori added a simple bed for her. Satori straightened out the blanket and sat down at the desk, then picked Orin up off the ground and set the cat down on her lap.

Orin purred while nestled on top of the girl's thin legs, louder during the occasional head scratch in between writing. Orin and Okuu were Satori's two favorite pets – even if she shouldn't play favorites – and also the two whose thoughts came through most clearly. This was likely because they were also the only two to possess a human form. Even though Satori could hear the thoughts from almost all living creatures, most simply come through as simple feelings. "Hungry," "tired," "excited," "love." Simple concepts that almost all creatures are capable of.

Orin and Okuu were the only ones to have more complex desires. Even if they were only things like "I want some more hard boiled eggs, they're so good!" or "Having fish with milk would be amazing!" or "I love Satori so much, I need to work hard for her sake!" Even if they were closer to humans than most animals, they were still animals. Their desires were needs, just stronger and more intricate.

Not that there was anything wrong with such base desires. They're necessary to fulfill, and are a source of joy.

Once her work was finished, Satori got up from her chair. Orin jumped off her lap and followed her close behind. Time for bed. The work took longer than she had hoped, and it was getting late. Satori yawned on the way to her room.

Her room was a bit more lavish than most other rooms in the mansion. Despite being a grand palace, there weren't very many decorations that weren't an intrinsic part of the architecture. Stained glass windows were the biggest draw, with the painting and expensive vases and whatnot likely carried off by the previous inhabitants. Satori's room was a bit less bare; it had a large canopy bed, a few well crafted tables and chairs, and a large painting of Satori with her multitude of pets spanning an entire wall.

Satori pushed the canopy of her bed aside and went to get in. There was already a Bengal tiger, a pair of foxes, and a raccoon sleeping on it. It was a massive bed for the small girl, and yet it still always felt crowded. Orin jumped up and joined the others, curling up next to the sleeping raccoon. Satori finally got into her bed and hugged her tiger, its warmth better than any blanket.

She awoke the next day to the thoughts of an intruder. Someone had barged into her palace. They were too far away for their thoughts to come in clearly, but Satori could still tell that they were... annoyed? Not angry, not full of desire – not that there was much to steal – not scared and lost and wandering in to shelter. Certainly not a typical intruder. Satori got up from bed, quickly got dressed, and walked towards the source of the atypical thoughts.

The intruder was also looking for Satori, so the two met quickly. Her thoughts reached Satori first, coming in clearly once there was a single wall separating them. "Damn that Satori, why's she live so far away? And in this giant mansion. So much better than my shrine, too, argh! Too hot, though. Gotta find her so I can get out of here soon." It's Reimu, Satori realized instantly. She walked to the door and opened it, revealing the red-white shrine maiden rampaging through the hallways, looking for her.

"Good morning, Reimu. What brings you to Old Hell?"

"Gahh!" Reimu shrieked, surprised by Satori's sudden appearance. "Don't just show up like that!"

"I don't know of any way to appear except suddenly. There's more trouble with the hot spring?"

"And don't do that either! But yes."

"Hmm. 'the water started boiling all of a sudden and almost cooked Suika alive?' No, that shouldn't have anything to do with us. The temperature here is perfectly under control. Okuu is still asleep, and certainly not misbehaving. Orin as – oh, here she is."

Orin was peeking out from behind a door and watching the two girls talk. Once she realized who the intruder was, she ran towards her and leaped towards Reimu, changing into her human form mid jump. She pounced on Reimu and hugged her tightly, almost toppling her over, but the shrine maiden barely managed to hold steady.

"Reimu! I've missed you! Did you come to play with me?"

"Yes, yes, I missed you too, Orin. We can play later, I'm busy right now. Come visit the shrine if you want... but get off me! You're too heavy!" Reimu squirmed her way out of the catgirl's embrace and let her fall. She landed on all fours and then sat down on the floor.

"It's good that you're here, though, Orin. Did you do anything strange with the temperature again? Or have you noticed anything unusual going on?"

"Hmm? Nope. Nothing. I didn't do anything this time. Everything's perfectly normal that I can see."

"Orin says that she hasn't noticed anything. But you still want to check yourself to be certain?"

Reimu sighed. "Yes. I'm sure you guys have nothing to do with it, but this is still my only lead."

"Very well, I can guide you around. But first, would you like some tea?"

"Yes, thank you. I don't suppose there's anywhere cooler I could wait?"

"Not really, no. It'll just be a moment. Orin, come with me and help."

"'Kay." Orin responds, then stands up and follows after Satori. She waves goodbye to Reimu on her way out of the room.

"Orin, there's something I need to ask you," Satori says once the two of them are well enough away from Reimu.

"Hmm? What is it, Lady Satori?" Orin was puzzled by her master's request. It's rare for Satori to ever ask anyone else for information – there's usually no need for her. It's very difficult to keep a secret from a mind reader, and this is something Orin has long accepted. Even when she's does something wrong, she never makes an effort of hiding this from Satori. What could her master ask of her?

"It's about you and Reimu," she continues after a short pause. "Do the two of you have a... special relationship?"

"Umm... she pats my head, calls me cute, and gives me milk sometimes if I visit her shrine. That's about it." The same as most humans, or at least the ones either that look past or don't notice her twin tails. It was a very strange question, as their relationship is exactly what would be expected between a cat youkai and a flying shrine maiden.

"It's just that... she seems to know what you're thinking. I should be the only one able to do that; I know she isn't a mind reader. But she still seemed to know how much you missed her just a minute ago. So I was just wondering... if the two of you were just close enough to 'feel' each others thoughts..."

Orin stared at her master in confusion for a few seconds. She had told Reimu that she missed her, so she couldn't understand how a mind reader managed to miss that.

And then realization struck.

"Um, Lady Satori... You do realize I can talk, right?"
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She was waiting for him at the dock. It felt like an eternity since they had seen each other last. The shortest eternity yet, he noted. She could not have been waiting long, one crown of bright red flowers still incomplete in her small hands.

No words were exchanged between them for a time. None were needed. When she finished the crown, she placed it upon his head and he helped her aboard the boat.

“There, now we match,” she said, handing him the crossing fare. And indeed they did.

Her fare was more than typical. That it had grown brought no small joy to his heart. He began to row, leaving that she would never reunite with most of the ones paying her way unsaid.

“Have you been well?” she asked, breaking the peaceful silence.

“I’m the same as ever,” he said. “What of you? You look different from when I saw you last.”

She thought about it for a moment. “What a meaningless statement. I always look different when we meet.”

He smiled at that. “Naturally. You had a beard when we first met. And were taller.”

“Rude.” Laughter, bright and clear. “But you do remember when we first met.”

She had dodged the question. No matter, there would be time. “Alas, not so well as you might. The dreadfully stiff old men tend to blend together after a while. I rather prefer you as you are now.”

She blinked at him in confusion before they both broke into laughter. She grabbed hold of his waist, dragging him down to her level as the boat rocked in protest. He soon found himself seated, his companion resting her head on his lap.

“I wish we could stay like this forever,” she said dreamily.

“We’ll see each other again. You always return here in time.”

“But how many more times? That we meet more frequently as time goes on isn’t just for desire.”

Her words rung true. With each meeting, she was more pallid and frail. With each meeting, she was younger.

“I’m scared,” she whispered. “I can’t keep doing this. It feels hollow, like being pulled apart piece by piece.”

He said nothing, just held her in his arms. There was nothing he could say.

When the boat reached the opposite shore, he slowly helped her out.

“I’m sorry,” she said, “I brought down the mood and…”

He held a finger to her lips. “It’s alright. Everything will work out. I’ll make sure of it.”

She clasped his hand in her own. “Thank you.”

“Just don’t let the Yama work you too hard, alright?” he said with the best smile he could muster.

She she gave him a tearful smile before releasing his hand and heading inland among the endless pale flowers. He watched until she was out of view, then headed back to continue with his duty. His nature was not one of words so much as action. Still, for her sake, he might speak his mind at times.

Thus passed another eternity, the longest and shortest one yet. He oft thought of her, how she fared in life, brief as it was. To imagine endless eternities without her…

Once more he found her waiting at the dock. She had taken to skipping rocks this time. Judging the finesse of her throws, she had been waiting a long time. When he moved to help her into the boat, she leapt into his arms.

“I missed you,” she murmured, pressing her face to his chest.

He was taken aback by her forwardness. Her personality changed with time, but this felt different, purposeful.

Her heart, frail as it was, shone with a defiant vitality. She had changed for sure, yet he did not know why.

The paltry few coins that made up this journey’s fare were nonetheless worth a great deal. He had come to know these particular coins well. Turning the brightest of them over in his hand, he set the boat in motion.

After a time, she spoke up. “Do you ever get lonely doing this?” She still had not released her hold on him.

He hesitated a moment before shaking his head. “There are always people to ferry.”

“I hate being lonely. My duty keeps me from meeting people much, but…”

“I’m sorry.” With those two words, he embraced her.

A squeak of surprise, then she gripped him tighter. “I always look forward to it, you know. To this. To you.”

He held her close. She smelled of higan flowers and old paper.

“Why must I always wait to see you? I’d trade my all my years to be right here.”

“It doesn’t work that way. Your years are too precious for that.” Precious and few.

She said nothing for a time, the silence only broken by the rippling water. After all this time, he still could not read her as he ought.

“I won’t just answer to fate,” she finally said. “I will live as hard as I can, for however long I am able.”

So that was why she had changed. She was strong, stronger than he.

“But to live on my own would be meaningless.”

Then there was quiet. He should say something now, he thought. Tell her what she wished to hear. That he should stand beside her for all the years that she lived. That he should see her each day, not garbed in the whites of the beyond, but instead all the colors of the earth. Her colors.

He knew he should say these things, yet he did not. It was not his nature, they would feel empty. Instead, he held her in his arms until they reached the far shore.

When he made to help her out of the boat, she instead pulled him down to her level. That her lips tasted faintly of grave dirt mattered not to him. For that briefest of eternities, all that mattered were they.

And then the eternity came to an end. They parted without a word, an unspoken promise hanging in the air. He watched until she was out of view, then headed back to continue with his duty.

His duty permitted him little time to himself, not enough to go far. Still, he would find a way. He had already transgressed in his interactions with her. One more blemish upon his soul meant little by comparison.

He wondered what sort of flowers she liked. He would think of something. After all, he had most of an eternity to think on it.
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“I'm sorry about the vase, Master.”

“Don't worry about it.”

“I'm sorry about the dishes, too, Master.”

“I know you are. Now go to sleep, okay?”


“What now?”

“Was I useful today, Master?”

“Yeah, sure. Good night.”

“Good night, Master.”

//end playback
//last input: user “Hakurei”, 5736 days 2 hours 56 seconds ago
//open last active file
//beginning playback...
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It’s been fifty years since I discovered we both lived here.


She shouts in frustration as the pixelated monster’s flame breath immolates her electronic self-insert. The music suddenly stops, to be replaced with a familiar tune. The failure tune.

“I fucking told you not to go for a naked run on this guy with a low mobility weapon.” I set the handheld down on the table and reach to the bowl of tangerines, turning them over for inspection. “Now we lost our registration fee, and I have to go farm more ingredients for buff items.”

“Oh, stop complaining. We both know you were going to go on a gathering run next anyways.” She mimics my motions, almost mockingly. “Besides, it’s just not us if one of us doesn’t piss the other one off somehow.”

So, as she turns over the same fruits I had just turned over myself, I grab her by the wrist and fling her over my shoulder.

“What was that for?”

“This,” I reply with a shit-eating smirk a mile wide, “is your karma.”

She laughs.


It’s been thirty years since I learned that the two of us were part of the same sealed world.


I curse as the flaming uppercut connects with my pixelated champion. She smirks at me - I mean, really smirks, as insufferably as possible - before turning back to the screen.

"You're too predictable," she tells me. "I saw that jump-in coming a mile away."

The electronic announcer declares the second round, and we're fighting again, trading pokes on the screen and insults on the kappa arcade's floor. A bespectacled, greasy-shirted mechanic pumps her hand and cheers as I finally make a successful grapple, knocking a massive section of my opponent's health bar into nothing.

"The hell were you saying about predictability? Keep trash talking me; I'll keep making you face the consequences." The gloating is second nature by now, just like hers. It'll be turned around soon enough, I'm sure, but it's part of what makes our eternal back-and-forth enjoyable.

A few moments later, the announcer declares round three. About thirty seconds after that, the announcer declares that the match is mine.

"What the hell was that match about?"

"Didn't I tell you?" My voice is calm, even, and carries an insufferable smugness. "This is your karma."

A low, muted tsk escapes her lips.


It's been ten years since that day.

I stand across the village square from her, and I recognize the look on her face because I've seen it in the mirror. That is the face of exhaustion. Of not wanting to continue an endless grinding march through eternity, or at least not in the same way it's been done for the last far-too-long.

"This has to stop," I tell her.

She nods, silently.

"No more dead bystanders. No more burned land. No more ruined homes. We're done."

She nods, silently.


She nods, silently.

This time, nobody tries to get the last murder in.


It's been five months since the killing started.

I look down the length of my arm at her, and I recognize the look on her face, because I've seen it a hundred times by now. It's the look she gets when she knows the next death is hers.

"This has to stop," I tell her.

She glares, silently.

"No more dead bystanders. No more burned land. No more ruined homes. We're done."

She glares, silently.


She glares, silently.

“Well, if not...”

This time, I’m gone as soon as the fire is done. Before she can rise up and try to get the last murder in.


It’s been two days since the first fire.


I try to force words out of my lungs, but there’s too much damn blood in the way. The sword pierces messily through the side of my neck. Missed the spine, sure, and even the jugular - thank you, absurdly thin blade - but my windpipe isn’t the clearest thing in the world right now.

“You’re too predictable,” she tells me. “I saw your choice of escape routes coming a mile away.”

And then I burst into flame. And then her pet assassin follows suit. I let my new body form in the space the vorpal rabbit used to be occupying, just to fuck with her. The look on her face is priceless.

"The hell were you saying about predictability? Keep spouting that shit, you spoiled little brat." That disgusted sneer says she thinks I’m gloating, instead of planning the next five minutes out. She probably thinks she’s about to turn it around on me, to make her ambush worth more.

This is probably related to the fact that I just went from being two feet to her left, to being two inches from her left with my fist rammed through her chest.

“How did-”

"Didn't I tell you?" There’s nothing in my voice but disgust and contempt. "This is your karma."

A sound of blood bubbling up escapes her lips.


It’s been three hours since I discovered she was trapped in here with me.


The pain takes form as sound and claws its way out of her throat, and I fucking LOVE the sound of it. So fucking much. Her howls of agony, the snap-crackle-pop of her attendants burning, the crashing as her mansion collapses... aaaaah, such a sweet symphony.

“They may not have figured it out, but I did.” I drop her broken body to the ground and reach to my side, palming the knife. “There’s no way to keep someone from finding a one of a kind treasure quite as effective as having it yourself, after all. No better way to make sure every single man with the temerity to fall for your looks, like a fool, looks like a fool.”

“What the hell was I supposed to do, then?” The words are the typical whining off those who are born blessed, but not born blessed with creativity. So self serving. "There was no other way to make them stop!"

"Except maybe, y'know -" -and here, just for emphasis, I jam the knife blade into her forearm and leave it there- "telling the truth. Which, according to that couple who took you in, you couldn't even do for your godsdamn parents."

Her gaze is filed with hatred and terror as I being my fingers down to hover juuuuuuuust above her eyes. And then I let myself catch on fire. Just a little, and just in a very specific place.

"This," I declare, my face split by a snarl of victorious wrath, "is your karma."

She screams.
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She comes to see him in a year. He does not remember which it is anymore. The humans say it is Meiji 18 and 1885 and one begins to sound as well as the other.

You've grown a few grey hairs, she says.

He pretends to laughs.


Once upon a time, there was a youkai who opened a doorway to the moon. She promised conquest, and she promised power.

He wanted neither, but he followed her anyway. She was just that kind of person, even if she wasn't a person at all.


I didn't think I would see you again, he says. He is sitting on the veranda, and so is she. The door is open behind him. He would rather it be shut.

Last I heard, he says, there was that idea about a barrier. Is that going well?

Well, there are the difficulties, but well enough, she says. Actually, that's why I'm here.

Oh? Is there something I can do to help?

There is nothing he can do to help, and he knows this. She knows he knows this.

She smiles.

It's time, she says.


When he was younger but still old, he split a tree in half, up the trunk. It was easy. He pressed his thumb against the bark and the bark gave away first.


He says, I've been thinking about this for a while.


He finds the old bottle, the one he has saved for a reason to save a bottle. She waits on the veranda and he does not shut the door behind him.

Do you remember, he says, when you led us all to the moon? The speech you gave? We all thought we would win. You made us certain of it.

But not you.

Not me, he admits. But you made me certain I could be certain, even if I wasn't. I'm sure it was like that for a lot of us.

Not as much as you'd think, she says, and she drinks and smiles, and he drinks and smiles. He drinks less than she drinks, and notices her noticing.


They are building wires in Tokyo and Edo. They are taking miracles and putting them into boxes. He reads the small newspapers and sorts them, one pile to keep and one pile to throw away.

Someday he will decide which is which.


You didn't have to go out of your way for me, he says.

I'm not, she says. I had a few errands to run in the area, so I thought I'd see you in myself. Consider it a gesture between friends.

They have never been friends, and have never been enemies. He watches her put the bottle on the veranda and stand, and do more than stand.

Well, she says, shall we go?

Her feet do not touch the ground. He hasn't flown for the longest time.


The day before yesterday, he strained his back lifting wood.


I think I'm going to stay a while longer, he says.

Her hand is still stretched out to him. I'm afraid there isn't the time, she says. The barrier will be closed, soon. If you hurry, you just might make it in time.

Wouldn't that be exciting? she asks.

Once upon a time, he was young.

Somebody needs to keep an eye on the outside. There's been a lot of interesting things happening lately.

She is no longer smiling. Any action to break through the barrier from the outside after it closes will be dealt with harshly, she says. Even I won't interfere. There won't be another chance.

You're probably right, he says.

You've grown a few new wrinkles since last I saw you, she says. A few new grey hairs.

She's probably right.

He looks at her until the hand falls away.

I suppose this is goodbye, then, she says. She is smiling again.

Yes, he says. Goodbye, and good luck.

The world opens behind her, and closes, and she is gone.


The bottle is almost empty. He takes it inside, to finish before he goes to bed.

He closes the door very carefully. His daughter is a light sleeper.
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“Reimu~!” The black-white witch calls as she bursts dramatically through the shrine’s wall. The shrine maiden in question simply sighs and sips her tea, starring out the newly formed window. “Wanna play?” The blonde witch asks, ignoring Reimu’s blank stare.

“No,” Responds the shrine maiden, her attention turning back to a book sitting on her kotatsu. “Can you believe what Yukari wants us to do?”

“Huh? What’s she want us to do?” Marisa sits on her broom as it floats around the room.

“She wants us to go back to school.” Reimu sighs, turning the page. “How many times is this now?”

Marisa snags a tangerine from the table as she floats by. “No clue, I stopped keeping count.” She floats by and picks up another one. “Why’d we stop going the first time anyway?”

“Flandre and Patchouli.”

“Oh, right. That was fun.” Marisa winces as she picks up a third tangerine. “Oh, did you hear about Keine’s boyfriend?”

Reimu looks up with a grin, “You mean Mokou?”

“No,” Marisa smiles and begins juggling the fruit, “I mean the Wizard.”

“Oh, him, is he dead yet?” The maiden asks bluntly, tossing the witch another tangerine.

She catches the miniature orange and keeps juggling. “I don’t know if he’s dead, but he hasn’t been around for a while. Kinda like Ran’s boyfriend.”

“You mean Youmu’s husband,” Reimu laughs. “Anyway, how’s your library?”

Smiling proudly, Marisa declares, “It’s doing great! Better than Patchoulis!”

“How do you even find time to run the library? It must be hard to work there and that bar.”

“Well, the bar is undergoing renovations at the moment, so I’m not really working there right now.” Marisa says blithely as she starts juggling even faster. “So, you and Remilia doing okay?”

Reimu smiles, and blushes, “About as good as you and that fairy.”

“Ooooh, that good huh?” Marisa replies jokingly. “So, any idea when Yukari’s going to have us go to school, again?”

The two suddenly fall through space and land on top of a large wooden desk. “Right now!” The blonde gap-hag cackles cheerfully.

The witch and shrine maiden glare at the youkai and in unison shout, “God dammit Yukari!”
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My mount was flagging, and I was running out of time.

I'd left the Czechs a half mile behind, spraying lead to cover my mad dash through the roadblock. Now I spurred my steed through the ghostly streets of Yekaterinburg, the meager moonlight playing on half-glimpsed street signs and the shadowed bulk of landmark buildings. My horse's sides heaved raggedly but I spared not the whip, knowing it was useless all the while.

I was within sight of the hillside when my steed finally gave up, slowing to a stumbling canter. Yanking my boots from the stirrups I hit the ground running as it collapsed, muzzle wreathed with foam. Up the street I sprinted, my heart thundering madly in my ears as I reached for that house on the hill with every mote of my soul.

They're going to murder the children.

The war, the great nation, the fulcrum of my existence, even the fate of humanity itself hung in the balance. But as I bolted up that street only one mad screaming thought filled every chamber of my being.

They're going to murder the girl.

I saw my goal at last, the harsh dark line of a tall wooden fence cutting across the bright white facade of a large house. There would be sentries, but I had a silencer and a wire, and of course my old friend. As long as I was on time, Dear Iwanaga, tell me there was still -

- the muted crack of pistol reports came drifting down the street.

Something savage tore loose within me, raging against the agony that flared alight in my breast. The sentries at the gate stared at me like startled deer as I emptied my first brace of revolvers at them; splinters spraying from the fence as they fell against it, eyes wide with the shock of their death. I snatched up one of their rifles as I charged the gate. A soldier came bolting through the front door and I shattered his face with the steel-plated butt of my rifle, bone and cartilage crackling with impact. Into the entry hall I charged, then right into the courtyard as another man emerged from his own portal. The muzzle of his rifle snapped up as he fired from the hip, the slug whistling past my ear before he lunged forward with a bayonet thrust. I slapped the spike down and right in reflexive parry followed by thrusting to his breast, the wound burbling as I punctured his lung. A shadow moved behind him; I wrenched the rifle butt up over my shoulder to level the muzzle, twisting the man on the bayonet before I pulled the trigger and killed them both.

I couldn't hear my own thoughts, much less pistol reports over the ringing in my skull. I didn't know where the family was. I could only rage through the dark house, tearing through rooms and men in my madness as I screamed defiance at fate; if I was fast enough lethal enough mad enough I might paralyze the murderers with fear before I arrived, I might project my might through this damned dungeon faster than I could fly, I might reach them, might save them, the children-

- another came at me down the hall and I lunged forward in a crouch, his shot going high they always shoot high before I swung my bayonet up to parry, knocking his thrust upwards, letting the rifle butt follow through in a short, brutal arc to his jaw. I let him fall and was descending on him, the stock cocked over my shoulder to smash his skull open when a bullet smashed it, the splinters of wood and lead blinding my left eye and ripping my forearm. I dove forward onto the fallen man and threw my third gun up and out, waiting for the next shot, the muzzle flash that would silhouette the soldier -


- and fired thrice center-mass before bolting past him as he slid dying down the striped wallpaper. I dove diagonally through the doorway into a roll, automatic fire ripping with a BRRAAAAP! as I sprang up not four feet from a Bolshevik swinging his handgun to bear. I swept my gun into his wrist as the hammer fell, my right eardrum rupturing as the muzzle blast burned my skin. Drawing and firing from the hip with the left, I shoved my right hand over his shoulder and emptied it into the man fumbling to reload his machine-pistol.

Through the ringing in my remaining ear I heard a woman screaming.

They were just turning when I entered, the tiny cellar packed with murderers. The air was choked with cordite stench and sulfur-smoke; their round, wide eyes staring at me through the haze in disbelief – before the guns came up.


Always too slow.

Almace sprang from its scabbard and through the throat of the nearest man, the flawless iaido flowing into lunatic, frenzied butchery. Bullets buzzed and sang off the brick walls, blood splattered and sprayed and through it all the screaming; burbling wet death gurgles, terrified wails and my own mad maledictions ricocheted about the abattoir.

I burst through the double-doors into the second chamber of the cellar, a maelstrom of blood and bullet wounds, to find the murderers still at their work. Two were hunched over Anna, the maid, taking turns thrusting with dismounted bayonets as she screamed her last, trying to block the blows with a little embroidered pillow. A third was twirling, his pistol swinging towards me, and through, and past, the severed wrist trailing blood as it arced through the room. Almace embedded itself in the spinal column of the second as I hewed his neck; he reeled away, blood spurting high into the air with each beat of his fading heart as the last one lashed out with his bayonet, snake-quick. He caught me in the shoulder and I seized it, keeping him from withdrawing for another thrust, drawing his own revolver from his shoulder holster with my free hand. The hammer fell on an empty chamber. He wrenched the bayonet away with terrified strength and raised it in a double-handed grip before I smashed his face with the revolver barrel, spinning it in my hand to bring the butt down again and again and again as we fell to the cold stone floor. The wet crackling sound of metal and wood smashing his face open filled the little room, and then all was silent.

My blood had gone. A pale, shambling corpse as dead as those who's pulses I checked and eyes I closed. They had been shot multiple times, the men clearly finished with bullets to the head after the first barrage. My detachment held until

the children.

They'd finished them – the daughters – with bayonets. The maid had expired during the final melee, but Anastasia was still alive when I reached her. Anastasia, my favorite; her sharp wit and sharper tongue now stilled. She'd been shot, shot so many times, her clothing soaked with blood. Her shallow breaths whistled through a ragged hole in her face where a bayonet had been thrust. Her eyes found me, and in that moment I could have gazed into her fading eyes and spoke with the confidence of experience that there are countless realms beyond the veil, that there was nothing to fear.

But I said nothing.

I just watched her die.

The flame I'd carried for so many lifetimes, nurtured through gale and tempest, used to light guide-lamps and cannon fuse was finally snuffed out in that cold, blood-drenched basement.

With cold fingers, I reached out and closed the eyes of the last Romanov.

The fingers of the severed hand felt shockingly hot as I pried them off the grip of the C96. Placing my boot on the half-severed neck of the other, I wrenched Almace free and went stalking out of the room, my boots splashing in the blood pooling on the floor. My shoulder bled, my eye weeped as I tried blinking the shrapnel out of it, and I felt the cold lump where a ricochet had flattened against my shoulderblade. The wounds screamed with pain, but it was just more chaotic sensation, sound and fury to mingle with all the rest and be ignored in turn. I was only human, but that was no handicap.

Only mortality can bind a man – and I had been unchained.

I emerged into the street, a pistol in one hand and blade in the other, a trail of bloody bootprints in my wake. I lifted my weary eyes to the waxing gibbous moon, looming over the grisly night like a vulture.

And then – the faintest glittering thread, winding its way down from the sky.

The world became a long, dark tunnel rushing past as I accelerated for the ghostly quicksilver playing on the surface of the lake. Against that dancing ephemeral radiance the silhouette of a man was suggested, a shining ribbon stretching upwards from his raised hand. I surged forward with every fiber of my being, my one remaining emotion expanding to fill the void.

“WATATSUKI!” I screamed, my voice thundering down the dark tunnel. “WATATSUKI! WATATSUKI! WATATSUKI!” I emptied the Mauser, forcing him to drop the Veil and shield himself. Before he could take it up again I was upon him, Almace in both hands. His blade glowed with wicked portents as I felt the cool, sickly power of a sealing creep over me. His expression warped into terror when I pressed the attack, driving him towards the water.

I had left the light of Iwanaga behind in the blood-soaked cellar. I was just a soldier now, a man, a human, and he couldn't seal that, try as he might. His form was flawless, each motion executed with a mechanical beauty to make any practitioner weep; but I was born of the flawed and impure earth. I had traveled it and rolled in it and soaked in its sin. I knew the dirty tricks of fighting as only a sinner could. I pressed him into the shallows, taking his space, threatening his guard with kicks and jabs and thrusts I'd learned on the receiving end. He wasn't stupid; rather than trying to predict strikes he didn't know he kept retreating into the shallows, preserving the precise distance his katas required and no more – relying on his perfection. He slipped through my guard several times, never striking a disabling blow, dancing away as Almace swept past his nose an eight-inch short every time.

Until he tripped over an underwater rock.

He thrust at me, trying to force a parry till he regained his footing, but the thrust had been perfected and defeated by swordsmen of the West, men born two thousand years after he'd left the Earth. I riposted, thrusting three inches of Almace into the pectoral muscles on his sword-side. It was over then, but not finished; I batted away his weakened parry and stepped into his guard to begin the butchery. The arms went first, then the legs, then his viscera spilling into the shallow water as his screams came bubbling up from below. I hacked and slashed and stabbed until I stood in a rubescent foaming froth, the water turned to blood about me.

And still the moon, the damned murdering moon shone on, cold and inevitable.

I had turned back the Moors at Tours, and again at Lepanto. I had won through the shot and shell of Waterloo to corner the Lunarian emissary and end the Revolution at the last possible moment. I had labored and slain and suffered for thirteen hundred years to guard my race against the schemes of the murderers.

And at last, I had failed.

Without a banner, the Whites would never rally. The Bolsheviks would rule one of the worlds perennial superpowers; the scales were forever beyond my ability to tilt. I had foreseen that for a long, long time.

But not this.

Not the girl.


I knelt in the Stygian pool, the silver moonlight playing on the bloody water as I wept for the last time.

My name is Tsuki no Iwakasa. And I am very tired.
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