In retrospect, I really shouldn't have expected robbing a palace in Hell to have gone smoothly.
Now, there's a lot I could say about how Sully and I flew to Japan, smuggled an open four-by-four into Gensokyo (and how we found out about that place is another thing entirely), drove underground, and broke into this 'Palace of the Earth Spirits' (a place I'd have loved to explore more but for, you know, the shooting and everything), but I'll just cut to the part where we were driving said four-by-four back out, my satchel loaded down with-
Well, let's just say it was something that'd leave us sitting pretty for a long, long time to come, yeah?
Anyway, you wouldn't think you could easily drive a car around inside a building, but whoever built the place really, and I mean really, went all-out here. I'm talking hallways you could fit a tank in with room to spare, something Sully was taking full advantage of as our ride squealed through the tiled hallways. While that crazy old son of a bitch drove, I was taking wild shots with my pistol at the people chasing us.
Now I've dealt with a lot of crazy stuff in my time, but I don't think they hold up to a woman with a giant orange rod stuck on her arm and raven wings carrying her through the air, and that's not counting the fist-sized Eye of Sauron she had on her chest, and also there was her cape with stars flowing on the inside? I was too busy being terrified of the freakin' laser beams she was shooting out of that arm-cannon to get a better look. In comparison, the little redheaded kitty-girl flying next to her and pitching fastball skulls at us just seemed tame.
"Incoming!" I yelled, ducking just as one of those flaming skulls smashed against the back of the four-by-four and exploded, face-meltingly hot blue fire rising high for a split second. "Holy crap!"
The key word was in comparison.
"Hold still!" Utsuho bellowed (the crow woman, just to be clear (and how I learned her name, as well as her friend Rin's, was another story entirely)), taking aim ahead of us. Sully jerked us aside just as a ray of solar death raked across the floor, painting the ground for a series of explosions to follow; they rang out through the air, golden domes springing upwards from nothing, their blast force lifting the four-by-four onto two wheels for a horrific moment.
"Jesus H. Christ!" Sully said, his baritone rattling as we crashed back down. "Get them off us, Nate!"
"I'm trying!" I said, but getting a bead on the two flying women was almost impossible with the way they bobbed and weaved. I cracked off a few rounds anyway, but they just kept flitting between shots like mutant, bullet-dodging ballet dancers.
"Coming through!" Sully yelled, and a glance back revealed a bunch of zombie fairy maids (really?) diving out of our way and screaming like little girls, which fits because they were.
Seriously. Zombie fairy maids.
Freaking Gensokyo, man.
I returned to taking shots at the women chasing us when Sully pulled a hard left around a corner, jerking me to the right and leaving me without targets.
"Sully," I said, keeping overwatch, "you do remember where the exit is, right?"
"I'm looking at it!" he said. "Now hold on!"
I spared a look over my shoulder to see us flying towards a stained-glass window wide as the hallway.
I screamed a panicked "Oh craaaaaaaaaaaaaaaap!" as we crashed through it, scattering glass as we sailed outside, a good story of empty air below us. For a long, long second, I was breathless at the sight of the city below sparkling in the dark, and not just because I was still screaming. Then our ride crashed hard onto the cobblestone path winding down from the front of the palace, scattering stone as it bounced up and landed again, and I thought, however irrationally, that my white-knuckle grip on the car's overhead bar would snap it off. Tires screeched for purchase and found it, and we tore down the road towards the city.
"Yeah!" I shouted in exhilaratingly terrified triumph, waving goodbye at the mansion with the wrecked front door (that happened we drove in). "Suck it!"
Our pursuers, of course, just flew out of the window a moment later, but we still had enough of a lead that they couldn't easily catch up. Rin tore ahead of her buddy, flinging more of those skull-bombs our way, which left me wondering for a brief moment just where she was pulling them from; that was a luxury I didn't have time for, so I took aim, stead as I could manage with us bouncing along at fifty miles an hour, and started cracking shots off. I didn't score any hits, but I like to think that she slowed down a little.
We sped out the estate gate (that we'd knocked off the hinges on our way in (I think you've realized by this point we hadn't exactly been subtle)), and straight into the Underground City, which is named as such from either a refreshingly straightforward outlook on life or sheer laziness, your pick. Still, even with the dirt streets being wide enough to fit three cars in, and even with everyone scrambling for cover, Sully had to slow down to avoid plowing anyone over with two tons of roaring metal.
I think it was more for our benefit than theirs; I mean, have you seen those oni? I'm pretty sure a single collision would have killed us, not them.
Sully took a few turns, expertly weaving around the pedestrians, until we were deeper in the city, stone buildings looming in every direction. About a minute went by like this, me keeping an eye out behind us, before he raised his voice. "How we doing back there?" he asked, steering around a conga-line of drunks.
"Don't quote me on this," I said, "but I think we lost them."
Rin leapt into view above us, pitching a pair of skulls at us as she sailed across a gap between buildings, and just as swiftly vanished from sight.
"Oh, crap!" I said, and then the skulls hit the side of our jeep in rapid succession, the first rocking us onto two wheels, and the second hitting the underside with enough 'oomph' to knock the car on its side.
"God damn it!" Sully cried as we skidded along and bled speed, metal screaming as the four-by-four kicked up torrents of dirt. I pressed my feet against the floor hard as I could and clung to the overhead bar, barely holding myself in place until, just a few incredibly long seconds later, the car finally came to a stop.
I swung my legs down until my feet were against the bottom door, let go of the bar, and sidled out of our overturned ride with all the casual ease of a guy who's been in more flipped cars than is really healthy. Sully fell out a moment later, landing on his hands and knees and muttering a brief curse under his breath.
"Sully, you okay?" I said, offering him my free hand as I scanned the rooftops for any follow-up attack. He took it, and I hauled him up.
"Thank God for seatbelts," he said, looking around at the rapidly-forming crowd of curious oni. "We should get going before-"
A blur of movement above us.
My pistol barked as I repeatedly pulled the trigger, catching a pouncing Rin full on the chest with a salvo of 9mm fire. I ducked, and she sailed just over my head to land with a loud thud behind me. I spun around and trained my gun on her limp body, because if my trip through Shambhala taught me anything, it was that you couldn't drop something superhuman with half a pistol mag.
"Oooooooow," Rin groaned, rolling onto her back to glare blearily at us. "You outsiders and your frickin' guns, man."
"Goddamn," Sully said, rubbing the back of his head. "You're something else, little lady."
She winced, hugging herself as dark red spread across the front of her green dress. "It's gonna take forever to wash this blood out, you know that? I hope you're happy."
"That- that's really what you're concerned about here?" I said, lowering my gun in amazement. "Sure, you're a-- and I still can't believe I'm saying this-- youkai, but damn."
"Yeah, this is fascinating and all," Sully said, exasperation mounting in his tone, "but I think we should get going, don't you?"
"Probably a good idea," Rin wheezed, a sickly grin on her lips. "Because I'm so totally gonna waste your ass when I get back up."
"Wow, you just destroyed any sympathy I had," I said.
"Uh, Nate?" Sully said, pointing towards my right, and the urgency in his tone caused me to tense. "We need to move now."
A look at what Sully was so worried about revealed Utsuho rocketing our way, propelling herself to insane speed by blasting that solar laser behind her without care for the (no doubt massive) property damage she was racking up along the way.
I really only had one response to that. "Oh boy."
"Run!" Sully said, and he quickly followed his own advice by charging towards the open door of the closest building. I gave chase a second later, reloading as I ran; the bystanders didn't seem particularly bothered with how I just blasted Rin, so we quickly cleared the crowd and barrelled into the safety that four solid stone walls could offer.
Sully slammed the wooden door shut the moment I was through, and we kept hauling ass through the occupied, smoky bar, very carefully moving around circular tables filled with patrons that would probably smash us into paste if we shoved them. The big, suited bouncer near the door, horns jutting from his forehead and all, thanfully didn't make any move to stop us, because I don't think we could have taken him. We made it about halfway through the room when there was the noise of wood splintering behind us, and I spun around, gun raised, to find the door flying off its hinges.
"Sons of bitches!" Utsuho screeched. When she stomped inside, cannon raised, was when the bouncer evidently decided she was a problem. She confirmed that when she lashed the rod into his face hard enough to flip him head-over-Oxfords, which was everyone else's cue to clear out of her way. By the time Utsuho swung back to us, Sully had already cleared the doorless entryway to the kitchen, and I was on his heels. I dove through, which was probably unnecessary but sure felt better than giving the crazy woman a clear shot, and scrambled around the doorway on my hands and knees.
The cook, a towering fella in cliché chef uniform, paused in his work at the other side of the room to stare over his shoulder at us, cleaver raised above some unidentifiable piece of meat. "You two ain't supposed to be here, you know?"
"Don't mind us, pal," I said, taking Sully's hand and climbing to my feet.
"Yeah, we'll be out in just a second," Sully said, and drew that massive revolver he loves from its holster. I, meanwhile, grabbed a hanging frying pan off the wall, holstered my pistol, and pressed my back against the wall next to the doorway.
Utsuho chose right then to burst through, wild-eyed, teeth bared, and ready to kill.
"Jesus, take the hint!" I said, and then I smacked her across the face. Unlike most people I've brained with a blunt object, she spun around and came right back at me, rod outstretched, and the next thing I knew, I was on the floor, everything dull and fuzzy except my head, which was throbbing like a son of a bitch.
"That's what you get!" she cried triumphantly, raising her concrete leg to stomp my brains out.
A deafening thunderclap cracked through the air, and Utsuho jerked backwards, shocked eyes stretched open, pupils shrunk into pinpricks. Another thunderclap echoed across the room, then again, and again and again and again, every one knocking Utsuho back another step, until the final one slammed her against the wall. I stared dumbly at her as Sully lowered his smoking revolver, his face set grim. Utsuho stood on trembling legs, blood blossoming across her white shirt from six separate holes, for one second, two, three, before the eye on her chest pulsed. She growled, face drawn tight as she hunched over, planting the rod against the floor to brace herself, and golden energy started radiating outwards across the floor from the barrel.
"Oh, that's not good," Sully said, grabbing my hand and hauling me up.
"Go!" I said, stumbling along with Sully supporting me, my head still not fully cleared up from that smack with the rod. The cook had, thinking wisely, run away, leaving the back door to an alleyway hanging open. We'd just gotten out when an eardrum-destroying scream rang out from behind us.
And then the building exploded.
"Goddamn it!" Sully yelled as I pulled loose, and he launched ahead like he didn't have twenty-five years on me. Chunks of rubble large and small flew past us as I booked it after him, hunched over and holding my hands over my head as I ran, for what little good it might do me. He tore around the corner, and I'd just followed suit when a rock big as I was sailed through the alley, bouncing across the ground and leaving me with a grim reminder of how close I came to becoming a stain. We hunkered down in relative safety, waiting for the sounds of rock smashing against rock to die down.
It lasted only maybe ten seconds, but by God were they long ones. Sully doubled over, hands on his knees and panting for breath, and I chanced a peek around the corner. The bar, of course, was nothing but rubble, dust coasting through the air, but everything was otherwise still until stone started to shift. My suspicions were confirmed when an orange cannon was thrust upwards from the wreckage.
"Oh crap," I whispered, unable to tear myself away from the sight.
"She's still kicking?" Sully asked, resigned.
Utsuho sat up, coated in dust and dirt, wreathed in a golden glow. I ducked back and looked at Sully, deadly serious. "Run."
"Don't need to tell me twice!" he said, jogging down the alley. I followed, drawing my pistol free; I wasn't sure how much good it would do against someone who could eat magnum bullets and just come back stronger, but it made me feel better.
We quickly emerged onto a street crowded with people, all sorts of oni making their way to the bar to see what just blew it up. They didn't pay us much attention as we slipped into their midst, surprisingly, even though we weren't NBA-sized like they were. Not that blending in mattered much when Utsuho just flew overhead, wings beating heavily to keep her aloft. Her shirt was entirely red by this point, but the blood-loss was apparently no obstacle.
"You!" she bellowed, singling us out with her cannon; the crowd around us swept away in recognition of this suddenly becoming a bad place to be. "One more step and I'll-"
I shot her.
What can I say? I was taking the direct approach.
She jerked back as the bullet landed, but the-- aura, I suppose you'd call it, around her just flared brighter. Even from here, the rage on her face was just plain scary. She hunched down on herself, the radiance grown blinding, and a golden sphere erupted from her chest, engulfing her entirely. The globe swelled and swelled, blindingly bright, and all that could be seen of the woman inside was a pitch-black silhouette.
"She's making a sun!" Sully all but screamed, the realization sinking in for everyone around. "She's making a sun!"
"God!" I said, taking a step back on pure instinct as the crowd went insane, oni fleeing on foot and taking to the skies. "We- we need to get to the car!"
"The car?" Sully asked, shooting me an incredulous look.
"We can't outrun that thing!"
We turned around as one and ran, trying our best to avoid being trampled by the crowd; I'd never been so thankful that people here could fly, since it took the streets from deadly to merely dangerous. The shadows cast by the artificial star growing behind us were stark, jagged black, giving the scene a nightmarish edge as we fled.
Turns out you can clear a lot of ground at a full sprint, as Sully and I found ourselves back at the scene of our crash, the jeep still resting on its side and Rin curled up nearby on the ground. Ignoring her, Sully took to the hood while I headed for the rear, and we slipped our hands under the car, dug our heels in, and started lifting as hard as our adrenaline-soaked bodies could manage. As it stood, however, two men weren't exactly enough against two tons of metal, which wasn't the greatest thing to discover in the heat of the moment.
"Lift, god damn it!" Sully wheezed, but even with his ox's strength and my youthful vitality, we'd only managed to raise the jeep a few inches; at this rate, we'd be better off taking our chances on foot.
So imagine our surprise when Rin lurched between us and, on shaky legs, pressed her back against the car, grimacing as she dug her heels into the dirt and pushed.
"What the hell?" I said, looking askance at her even as I kept straining against the car.
"Can't fly," she gasped, eyes bulging, "and Okuu'll blow me up too, so shaddup and lift!"
I don't know how Rin packed so much strength into such a little body, but she pushed and we lifted and somehow, some way, the jeep rose onto two wheels, and with one last mighty heave of effort, we shoved it upright. It was scarred and dented from the crash, but I'd have taken a truck on fire at this point.
"Get in!" Sully said, hopping into the driver's seat and buckling himself in. I breathlessly vaulted onto the back seat, but when I turned around Rin was sagging against the door, too out-of-sorts to do anything else. While she might have been trying to kill us a few minutes ago, I couldn't leave her after what she just did, so I reached over and bodily hauled the exhausted, bloody catgirl into the jeep (and there's a sentence I bet you'd never thought you'd see).
Above us, Utsuho's sun flared and burned, nearby buildings crumbling apart and flying into the newborn star. Everything it ate only made it grow larger, the sun building-sized and growing at an exponential rate, and with it its pull. If we stuck around much longer-
My feet left the ground, and not because I jumped. A panicked grab at the overhead bar, alongside hooking my feet underneath my seat, kept me from leaving the jeep, if only just. Rin yelped as she started to drift upwards, but she braced her feet against the car door and clung to a seatbelt with grim determination.
"Jesus!" I manfully yelled, because saying I shrieked in terror would be a complete lie. "Sully, for God's sake, go!"
"I'm trying!" Sully snapped back, repeatedly turning the key in the ignition only to get choking rattles from the engine. "The crash screwed up everything! It won't start!"
As if things weren't bad enough, the four-by-four started rolling back towards the two-story star.
"Sully!" I said in panic, gritting my teeth as I resisted gravity's pull with all my might.
"I know, goddammit!" Sully swore, still desperately trying the key.
"Nnngh!" Rin grunted, her legs slipping from the door to float upwards.
In that moment, sweat dripping up my face and soaking into my hair, I chuckled quietly in pure, unrelenting horror, because this had to be it.
It wasn't the mercenaries that were going to kill me. Wasn't the pirates, either. It wasn't even the zombies or the yetis.
I was going to die from being sucked into a sun.
"This'll make for one helluva tombstone," I said below my breath, full of manic, brittle cheer.
Just as I said that, the engine roared, and Victor Goddamn Sullivan whooped as we sped forward, wheels squealing. We cleared a dozen feet, then two, before the star's pull on us faded; I relaxed my grip on the bar as my feet dropped to the floor, and I winced as Rin's legs came back down hard on the door, her strangled cry clearly showing her opinion about that.
Yet, even as we sped away, the sun had doubled in size yet again, sucking up buildings and people to feed its terrible hunger. We moved as fast as the jeep could take us, tearing down the straightaway at upwards of a hundred miles an hour, just barely staying ahead of the star's pull. The sounds of stone breaking apart and people screaming were almost deafening behind us.
"Why does every ancient city we visit blow up?" Sully yelled, taking a corner so hard we briefly tipped on two wheels.
"Just keep going!" I said, hope daring to reign supreme as the edges of the city appeared ahead of us.
We cleared the last of the buildings, breaking out into the open, rocky wilderness, and Sully drove for the bridge ahead like all the forces of Hell were after us; in a sense, I suppose they were. The smooth ride suddenly became very rough, not helped by our speed. Rin was curled up into a ball, face buried against the seat when she wasn't bouncing up with each bump we hit, white knuckles gripping seatbelts just for the sake of something to hold onto. I couldn't fault her for her reaction, since I was only holding up better by virtue of actually having ridden in a car before this whole mess.
The jeep's suspension rattled as we sped across the stone bridge, and it was only because I had eyes on the city that I saw when the sun, now the size of several city blocks, contracted.
For a brief, horrible moment, it was still, before it erupted outwards, a supernova in miniature.
"Hang on!" I yelled as the blast wave hurtled through the city, blowing buildings apart, faster than we could ever hope to be. Sully eked out any last bits of extra speed he could, buying us a few extra seconds, but the wave raced out of the city.
I breathed out.
The wave blew across the bridge, the structure somehow holding.
And then it hit us.
The back end lifted up off the ground, flipping us upwards a dozen feet to fly like a leaf in a strong breeze. As we tumbled, I was being flailed around like a doll with Velcro hands, my grip on the bar the only thing preventing me from just flying straight out of the car and breaking my neck. Rin was even worse off, clinging to those seatbelts like they were her children, and I had a brief spark of envy for Sully, the only one of us smart enough to buckle in. Everybody was screaming at this point, myself included, but I dare you to keep your cool when you're in a jeep that's pirouetting through the skies and your only hope to survive is by clinging to a steel pole.
It felt like we were up there for years before we crashed back down, by some miracle landing on our wheels, but any joy I felt as we bounced along was destroyed after a very quick, very painful lesson in gravity.
Turns out, when you're poised over a metal bar, you hit your face on it when you come back down.
God, that hurt.
I hit the floorboard in a senseless heap, so I couldn't tell you exactly when we rumbled to a stop, but we did. I was just happy to lay there and breathe, my ears ringing and my face throbbing and I was pretty sure my nose was broken, but I was alive, and just knowing that made me... I hesitate to say grateful for the pain, but it was the closest emotion that fit.
I was happy to just stay down until we eventually stopped moving, even if I couldn't say exactly how long that took. When it did, though, I pushed myself to my hands and knees,crazed little giggles threatening to overwhelm me. "Hoo, boy. Sully, you all right?"
"Jesus, Mary and Joseph," Sully said, his voice shaking.
"Cool, you are," I said, using the seat to pull myself upright. "How 'bout you, kitty?"
I don't know exactly what Rin sobbed out, but it sounded vaguely like "Ieeuhuwandaiee," whatever that meant.
I patted her on the shoulder. "Okay, you can still make words, that's good."
Now that I knew everyone was varying degrees of all right, I looked towards the city, although that was a bit of a misnomer for the crater in its place. Christ Almighty, there was nothing left standing except the Palace, and even that looked like it'd fall over if you breathed on it.
"Holy shit," I said, nausea roiling in my gut at the sight; it's one thing to have an ancient city crumble to bits around me, but it's another for it to still be populated when it blew up.
And it wouldn't have happened if we didn't come here.
Oh, Christ, this was our fault.
"Hey," I said numbly, pulling Rin up despite her weak protests. "What- what was the death toll there, d'you think?" I asked, pointing towards the crater. Depending on her answer, I was tempted to shoot myself.
Rin blinked the tears out of her eyes and looked, and her jaw dropped. "Wow! She, uh, she blew up everything!"
"Yeah, we noticed," Sully said, resting his head against the steering wheel.
"Hey," I said, elbowing the girl in her side. "Hey, seriously, how many people just died because of this?"
Rin winced. "Right, um, well, given magic and oni and all that, I'd have to say zero. Hopefully."
I blinked. "No way."
"You're shittin' us," Sully added, looking over his shoulder.
"Nope!" Rin said, her smile tiny but sincere. "That's magic for you, I guess."
I squinted at the crater, and, to my amazement, I could spy tiny figures moving around inside. Just a few at the moment, but more and more started to crop up as time passed.
"Holy shit," I said, almost unable to believe it. "Holy shit."
"Yeah, uh, the city kinda gets wrecked on the regular," Rin said, awkwardly rubbing the back of her neck. "Never quite like this, though."
"You're serious?" Sully asked, waving a hand vaguely through the air. "You- your entire city just gets destroyed? Often? How the hell do you rebuild it?"
"The oni are really industrious," Rin said. "Give 'em a week, and this'll be mostly fixed."
"Well, uh," I started, searching for something else to grill her on, and failing. "I can't say I'm opposed to everybody living."
"All the same," Sully said, "I think we should get going. I'd really rather not explain why we're here to someone twice my size."
"Sounds good to me," said Rin, laying back down.
"Whoa!" said Sully, glaring back at her. "Whoa, whoa, whoa, hold on, no, you're getting out!"
"Whaaaaat?" she whined, cracking an eye open and pouting at him. "Why?"
"Hey!" I said, giving her a stern frown of my own. "You did try to kill us, and if you hadn't knocked our jeep over we probably would have made it out of the city without everything exploding."
She rolled over, raised a shaky finger and jabbed it at me. "I also helped lift this thing up, you know? If it weren't for me, you wouldn't have made it out in the first place. And this was after you shot me, remember? With real bullets?"
"...Lady has a point, Sully," I said, frowning for a different reason entirely as I looked her over. "Christ, but how much blood do you have?"
"I'm tougher than I look, Mister," she said with a wink and a smile, something that contrasted sharply with how the entire front of her dress was soaked raspberry red.
"Still doesn't answer why we should let you come along," said Sully, and I couldn't blame him for not wanting to let it go.
Rin propped herself up on her elbows. "Okay, look, if I go back there right now Lady Satori is probably going to murder me, even though this is technically you guys' fault."
"Our fault?" Sully exclaimed in righteous outrage. "Your crazy friend's the one who decided to pop a sun in the middle of the goddamn city!"
"What happened to her, anyway?" I asked. "Like, this is a running thing with her?"
"She's probably sleeping the explosion off," said Rin, waving our concerns away. "Anyway, all I'm asking is that you guys maybe just give me a ride topside so I can lay low for a bit, and also deal with these bullets that someone"-she glared pointedly at me for a moment-"filled me with. I'll even let you keep the stuff you stole, all right?"
I shared a glance with Sully, and shrugged. "Well, when she puts it like that, I don't think it'd hurt to let her tag along."
Sully coughed in disgust, turning back to the wheel. "Just so long as she cleans the blood off the seats when she's done."
I couldn't help but grin at that. "Still worried about that deposit, Sully?"
"It's worth trying to salvage!"
"Blech, you two are too loud," Rin groaned, curling back up.
So, with a catgirl dozing in the back seat, Sully driving us to beautiful daylight, and me with a throbbing blunt-trauma headache, that's how we robbed the daylights out of an underground palace and survived yet another city being destroyed around us in the process.
“She knew about this, you know,” Lyrica whispers. They sit huddled by the safehouse windows, four in a row. (Not under—they learned that rule the hard way, when the missiles tore through the last rest stop. No windows, no hats.)
“Who did?” Reimu asks.
A long time ago (a week ago), Lyrica's smile was sly and quiet. Today it is filled with teeth. Reimu thought Merlin would crack first across the three of the sisters, Merlin with her boundless energy tumbled into restraints, but it is the thinker Lyrica who is the closest to faling over the edge. She can hear Lyrica during the nights, when they're pretending any of them can sleep—Lyrica, muttering at the walls, creaking louder than the floorboards, with plans and plans and nothing to execute them with.
“Layla,” says Lyrica. “Layla knew about this, I mean. She told us stories.”
And Reimu is the last of the Hakurei at the moment, keeper of the Shrine, guardian of the Border (and you sure did a bang-up job of that this time, didn't you, dear), but it's dark and she's tired and she's spent too many hours already cooped up shoulder to shoulder to a girl who's only barely on this side of real, so she snaps, “Told you stories about Gensokyo and an army of clowns?”
“We weren't from Gensokyo,” Lyrica hisses back. “None of us are. I was just going to ask—” She stops, looks away, lips twitching, and Reimu has the sudden feeling she's gone too far, like maybe she's spent so long watching Lyrica at the precipice that she forgot her own feet were there, too.
“I wanted to ask if you wanted in, but forget it,” Lyrica says. We'll get our things back on our own. Come on.”
She leaves the safehouse, shoulders high until the moment she crosses the doorway and she has to watch her back again (the difference between pride and stupidity). Her sisters follow behind her, single-file, like students on a field trip—Merlin first, then Lunasa, who pauses at the light to look one last time at Reimu and Reimu can't tell if it's disapproval or an apology before she's gone, too.
And then there's a lot more room.
Reimu puts her head into her knees.
Crises in Gensokyo have always been kind. The symptoms come before the sickness. First the red mist rolls across the sky, then the vampires out to play. First the winter's a bit too long, then the soul-eating tree starts to bloom. It's a good system, in Reimu's opinion. It gives the responsible problem-solver (don't kid yourself, dear) just enough time to finger the guilty party before the serious problems start.
Reimu remembers arguing with Keine. She can pull the images out of time and into the undersides of her eyelids, if she tries, play them back in order like something out of a tengu filmstrip. Keine, one hand gesturing broadly in Reimu's direction, the other at odds with that ceremonial hat perched on her head. It kept slipping askew, Reimu remembers, and it was hard to take Keine seriously or even listen to a word she was saying with it slipping off every second. Her mouth was struck in a grimace. Her eyes were on fire.
The next images are blurred, overexposed. Something blue, flashing almost invisible against the sky. Keine's mouth going limp. The fire going out. It went out slowly. Reimu remembers that, too. It went out slowly.
The flush of anger in Keine's face fading out to gray.
There aren't any images after that. (That's when the screaming started.)
It isn't the missiles that are the worst, and that's the funny part. The missiles you can see coming, if you know what to look for, and what you can see coming, you can dodge (and the people who don't know what to look for don't have to worry too long.)
Reimu can dodge. Reimu has done nothing but dodge since she was a kid, thunder and fire and sharp teeth until she was old enough to make the Rules and then danmaku every day after. The problem is the clowns.
The clowns do not follow the Rules.
Reimu encounters a clown up close only once, days into the incident. She is flying too low, trying to avoid sight in the underbrush, when one rattles into her path—rattles, like the wind-up toys the kids set into the road to run down against the other side. Reimu has time to take in the painted blue face, the red lips curled back too far, too high, the teeth too tall—
“Fire one,” says the thing on its shoulders, and presses the clown's glowing red nose.
The explosion happens between her body and the ground, lifts her straight into the air like a puppeteer yanking a doll's strings. (Alice still, seven colors gone.) For a moment, Reimu feels nothing, no weight, no pain—and then her head finds something hard and pain makes up for lost time, ringing its way through her skull and behind her eyes as she looks up at the thing on its perch—the thing, not human, not youkai, blue-faced and red-lipped as the clown itself, writing her off through that rictus grin.
“Fire two,” it says, and doesn't it sound smug about it.
The danmaku cuts through the trees like a miracle from the god she's never worshiped.
The thing screeches, twisting around on the clown's back to avoid the rain of magic, hammering at the big red nose as it goggles through the branches with the air of a betrayed child. “Fire two-three-four,” it huffs with each button-press and Reimu can hear the matching whumph for each one, a lot of air very far up blowing apart very quickly. “Fire five. Fire six—”
She realizes: It's forgotten I'm here.
She doesn't stay to find out who saved her (someone with more heart than sense), just lifts, quick and high, until her feet are skimming over the boughs with her head pounding toward who-knows-where-next.
There is another tengu filmstrip tucked away in Reimu's mind. She doesn't give them names, but if she did, this one would be The Last Time I Saw Alice. Or maybe What Happened to Marisa. The date on the side is barely a day into the invasion, and when she unspools the canister there's barely anything to it.
“I only saw the end of the encounter.”
Reimu remembers pressing herself into the thin cushion of the chair by its armrests, pressing down the urge to leap up and press her thumbs into Alice's throat instead. It was the dull, clinical tone in the way Alice talked, in the way most magicians talked—like they didn't think your life was worth much if they couldn't wring a new spell out of it.
“Her broom broke. And from then it was a matter of time. You understand, of course.”
“The dog ran her down. It sat on her.”
Reimu hadn't seen it, didn't understand then (a dog? A dog, beat Marisa down?). It isn't until later that she spies the animal herself, taking shelter in the cavernous debris of a bombed-out shop, eye pressed against a gap where the wood was just strong enough to splinter but hold. For a second she doesn't know what she's looking at, her first impression a mass of writhing, blue-furred muscle. And then she sees the heads—and it has heads, four of them, moving in circles as the body rotates, large, flat snouts pressed to the ground for tracking. At the neck of each of the heads is a spiked collar, and attached to one of those collars (one collar, how do you decide which one) is the end of a leash, going back all the way to another of those gun-toting things that just appeared one day, as you please, primed and ready to upend the happy enough life Reimu knew.
Reimu has a thought then, has had the thought before, while tucked away in makeshift cubbyholes, dodging sentries and missiles and glass: They were prepared for this. They must have been. They must have been planning this for a long, long time.
One of the dogs lifts its head and growls, a deep, guttural sound. There's a thunderbolt of fear down Reimu's spine (Keine, mid-tirade, fading out to gray), but whatever prey the dog's caught wind of, it isn't her. She watches the animal go, snarling and baying, biting at the air—three heads in front, dragging the fourth—and its handler—behind it.
She can imagine that dog pinning Marisa down. Marisa, broom broken beside her, beating at the animal's body, trying to worm herself free before the things arrive. And then—point-blank with lightning-flash guns, maybe. Or maybe not—it isn't just the bulbous, furry things anymore, not just them and the clowns and the dog that's a dog by technicality. There are other things now, too, things that she's seen from a distance, things with snapping jaws in all the wrong places, things that even look human except not human enough—stretched out of proportion, like the idea of a human pulled too long at the ends.
All the wrong color.
She goes back to Alice's after that—to check back? To apologize? (Sorry I didn't know what you meant when you said it sat on Marisa; sorry I hate you; want to come with?) It doesn't matter—the roof of the cottage is cracked, broken in, like the end of a emptied eggshell. In the middle of the rubble, Alice stands, neck craned, looking at the sky. Looking at nothing. Her clothes and skin have gone a dusty, light gray.
She looks like a doll.
And then her luck runs out (ran out a long time ago, dear).
They pin her down at the Village. It's bad timing, that's all, almost an anticlimax. She's in the middle of one of her food runs, searching building to building (and some buildings are emptier than others—small favors), when one of things comes stumbling in through the door the same time she's stumbling out. There's a second of mutual, comic astonishment—and then it snarls an alarm, reaching for its gun with one clawed hand, but Reimu can dodge, Reimu has always been dodging, and when the first shot goes whizzing over her shoulder she ducks in low and shoves the thing hard against the wall, sending the weapon flying out of its grip and skittering across the wooden floor. There's a part of her that wants to grope around in the dark for it and see how it fits, see if it works as well on them as it does on anyone else, but she junks that idea before it can sound good—better the door, the familiar safety of open space, open air—
She makes it two steps out before the sea of blue faces rushes over her, and then she's at the bottom of it. (There's dodging, and then there's numbers, and anyway miracles never happen twice.)
They lead her out of the Village in chains. She tries to fly, but she's wrapped up like a kite, and one good yank's enough to ground her. The second time she tries one of the things cuffs her in the back of the head—not a real blow, just enough for her to feel it—and she gets the hint and follows, the odd man out in the malevolent blue parade winding up the mountain wilderness, thorns and branches picking at her legs as she passes. Soon, though, the land levels out, and Reimu gets an eyeful that makes her heart do a swan dive into her gut.
If she ever needed any more proof that this is no incident, no loose consolidation of badniks scratching at Gensokyo's peace before life swings back into easy rhythm, this would be enough to give it up in spades. It's an army laid out in front of her, all the things she's seen wandering the countryside—the bulbous footsoldiers, the stretched-out men, the walking, jagged-toothed, leering grins, all of them here and grouped into formation, ready to march down the mountain at a moment's order. Something streaks through the sky in the distance, something that reflects light like lantern oil and paints a trail of thick, dark smoke behind it.
It's blue, of course. They're all blue. And the thing at the head, perched on a wooden stool like a massive fightless bird, looking Reimu over like she's yesterday's leftovers, is the biggest and bluest of them all. “What's this?” it asks, smiling. “What's this?” Its voice is reedier, loftier than anything that ought to come out of something so large.
At the front of the line, one of the things snaps to a salute.
“Prisoner, your Blueness!”
The thing, still saluting, bobbles its head. “No, your Blueness!” it says.
The head thing's smile broadens, a crescent window into rows of neat yellow teeth. “Well, what are you waiting for?” it says. “Finish her!”
“But your Blueness—”
And then the head thing is looming over them, her and the soldier both, the stool toppling in its wake, ruby lips snarling. “'But'?” it sneers, and Reimu can see those yellow teeth grinding against each other like a set of worn gears.
The underling flinches, but keeps its footing—and its salute. “It's the Hakurei, your Blueness!” it says, before the last of its courage fails it, and it scampers cowering behind the next in line.
The scowl drains away from the head thing's face, replaced by a strange calmness. It begins to slink around Reimu, looking her over again with deliberation this time, more than that first cursory glance. Reimu barely notices. They know who I am, she thinks, and something sparks in the muscles of her limbs, like cold sweat tinged with electricity. She knows this feeling—the feeling of high stakes and last chances, of now-or-never, of fate swerving to dive at the other path, and as the head thing passes behind her and can't see what she's doing with her hands Reimu takes that spark and puts it in her wrists where her chains are wrapped and pulls.
The chains don't even budge.
One more miracle, she thinks. “Who are you?” she says. “What do you want?”
The head thing finishes its lazy circle, bringing itself back face-to-face with Reimu. When it leans in, Reimu can smell something pungent wafting on its breath. “Who am I?” it says, and giggles. “Tell her!”
One of the things—the same one, maybe—raises its head out of the parade. “Chief!” it calls out. “His Blueness, Chief of the Meanies!”
The head thing, Chief, Blueness—preens, turning its head away, a parody of bashfulness. Reimu has just the time to feel a roll of disgust—and then its head snaps back toward the crowd, back to business. “And what do we want?” it calls.
The voices come in waves.
“A blue world!”
“You see?” The Chief turns back to Reimu. “We've suffered too long, living through a multicolored existence. Some of us have even fallen to the wayside and thrown in their lot with euphony. But they'll get theirs—soon! Oh, yes.” It giggles again, louder, higher—and then it pulls in Reimu by the shoulder, leaning in even closer than before.
Its forehead touches hers, cold and greasy.
“We've seen the pictures, you see,” the Chief whispers, like it's sharing a deep secret. “The photographs. It's a blue planet. And when we saw, we knew there was never any doubt. This is destiny, Hakurei. A blue world, just waiting for us to color in the corners.”
The thing is insane, she realizes with sudden clarity. The thing is insane and invaded Gensokyo insane and succeeded at it, and Reimu can feel an uninterrupted line of Hakurei priests and priestesses glowering at her from somewhere around the cycle of rebirth, all but her mother, and that's only because her mother would never pull anything so cut-rate as a glower. Mother, Reimu knows, is smiling, all the way up to the cheeks but no farther, words dripping out like honey—
You screwed it up, dear, Mother Hakurei is singing. You screwed it up and you've been screwing it up from the start, from the moment I died and left you to pick up the slack. Not by choice—never by choice; do you think I would have left the safety of Gensokyo and a thousand-odd villagers to you if I'd had the choice? Do you think I can't tell what you're doing every time you let that oni drink itself to sleep on the shrine steps like it was born there? Well, you thumbed your nose at your mother—see what it's gotten you now.
“Did you drag me up here for a reason, or did you just want me to choke on your breath?” Reimu asks, and it isn't loud enough. It never has been.
The head thing's giggles rise to a whirling cackle. “That's it!” it cries, slapping her past the shoulder in its hysterics, sending her almost falling. “That's it! That's the Hakurei I've been watching!” The laughter continues long and hard, the thing's other hand pushing at its knee to support itself, and then it runs down and the thing looks at her straight and still, grinning up to the gums.
“Join us, Hakurei,” it says.
Out of everything Reimu was expecting, this isn't even on the list. “What?” she says, before she can stop herself.
“Join us,” the thing says again. “You've worn our colors before, haven't you? I knew you, the first I ever saw you—you're a natural Hakurei Meanie, as nasty as the worst of us! What do you say? You and me—let's paint the town blue.”
The Chief of the Meanies' hand travels up from Reimu's shoulder, up to the side of her face, cupping her cheek, the image of a parent proud of their child. It's the first time anyone's touched her like that.
The thumbnail presses into the flesh below her eye.
You don't know me at all, Reimu thinks, and spits.
The thing screeches, stumbling back, taking its hands and its noxious breath with it. It claws where she got it, like she's the one with the poisoned mouth. “You—you dare?” it cries.
“I dare a lot of things,” Reimu says. When she smiles, it's the first time in a week.
The thing's face twists, the veneer falling away, and there's nothing underneath to see but the howling rage, barely unconstrained. “O-blue-terate her!” it snarls, and Reimu feels what she expected all along from this trip: cold and metal, pressed to the base of her skull.
She doesn't close her eyes. She won't give them the satisfaction. Or maybe she just has something to prove.
It's a sound like thunder.
It isn't thunder, of course. The sky is cloudless, blue deepening overhead to evening. There's nothing to thunder from, and for a second Reimu thinks it must be the gunshot instead, then, the last instant of awareness before the gray runs into her head and she turns as still as the rest of them. Then the second passes, and then a second more, and she still feels complete. Real. Alive.
The head thing turns its head away, toward the horizon. Reimu hears it mutters, a slip past the theatrics:
The sound comes again, and this time it doesn't sound much like thunder at all. It's too full for that, too clear. Not a sound out of nature with its faded edges but something maintained, a single, held—
“What?” roars the head thing, and now its mouth is gaping, its eyes wide enough Reimu can see the whites around it, head still turned upward like it's frozen that way, like it's the one that's been shot. “That's impossible!” it says, “Impossible!”
And Reimu thinks: You shouldn't have come here, then, not to Gensokyo, not if you couldn't handle impossible. We locked ourselves away because common sense was killing us, Blueness. What did you expect?
She raises her own eyes.
There, in the air, grinning to the edges, dressed to the nines in something that might have been a uniform before it was dipped into most of a rainbow, stands Lyrica Prismrover, keyboard floating at her waist like it never left her. Beside her, cheeks pink, Merlin lowers her brass from her lips, and in back is Lunasa, casting a wary gaze, violin tucked at her chin, blow poised and ready, both of them dressed just the same as their youngest sister. Except that's not the same keyboard Lyrica's always carried with her, and that's more brass turning around Merlin than Reimu's ever seen at any concert, and whatever wood that violin is made of shines.
“Impossible!” screams the head thing again, and Reimu wonders if it's set on using that word up. “I got rid of your instruments! Crushed them! Destroyed them!”
“Layla knew!” Lyrica screams right back, and maybe her smile still isn't sly but Reimu likes it better than the one from the safehouse, wide and sharp now, the smile of someone springing the trap and watching it go off the way they planned for ages. She's smiling like that herself, and she doesn't care that she doesn't deserve it. “Layla knew, you bouncing blue creep, and she hid the rest away! She put them in the nooks!”
“And crannies!” Merlin adds, and raises the mouthpiece of her instrument up again (no trumpet; too grand to be a trumpet). When she blows, the sound rolls over Reimu, low and deep, and she can feel her whole body resonate with it, like someone else's excitement flowing into her bones.
When she pulls at the chains this time, they shift.
The head thing jumps as if stung. “Stop it!” it shouts, and Reimu can hear something like the first waverings of fear in its oice. “Stop that noise at once! Don't you dare go any further!”
Lyrica smile becomes even sharper. She laughs, not all sane, but who is anymore? “Can't stop now!” she says. “We've already tuned up!”
“And we gathered the whole orchestra, too!” says Merlin.
“You know, the whole ensemble—can't you hear?”
And Reimu can hear, off in the distance—see it, too, a new cloud in that deep blue sky, moving in from the horizon. Only it's not a cloud at all, but an ever-shifting mass of people, a crowd, sweeping in from nowhere in the last minute, bringing with them the sound of laughter, of cheering, the sound of music—
And there's Yukari who went missing at the start, right in front (she cursed them, the Yakumos, for naming themselves for color), lounging in air in that irritating way she always has but speeding toward them just the same, something settled in her lap that Reimu can't recognize—some kind of instrument, like a biwa but with a longer, thinner neck, and a hole in the body—
And right next to her are Ran and Chen, and Reimu recognizes that instrument but she can't say she would have expected Ran to tote a flute, of all things, and Chen presses her hands together and the object in between squeezes and compresses and expands again, like some kind of bellows—
And Byakuren has something, too, something with a neck and for a second Reimu thinks shamisen and for a second she thinks that's the biwa after all, and she's tired; she knows she's tired because neither of those instruments even look the same but before she can squint to see better the head priest's lost among her followers, each of them raring to protect their leader, each of them carrying an instrument of their own (except for Kyouko, of course; of course Kyouko wouldn't need an instrument)—
And Yuyuko, floating in with that expression of serenity, like she's just where she's always been meant to be, and she pulls her bow across the length of the erhu but whatever sound it gives off Reimu doesn't expect to hear anytime soon, not with Youmu right behind her, saddled with some great double-sided drum that looks like its going to send her rolling over, even in midair—
And then there's Marisa, jockeying for the front, and Reimu wonders if she's gone crazy all the way because there's Marisa, jockeying for the front, riding in on her broom and grinning like the idea that anything could have happened to her is nothing short of nothing, only Reimu's sure she can't be crazy, not yet, because never in a million years would she have imagined Marisa with something like that strapped to her back, something gleaming with too many turns and a great maw of a horn opened out over her head, Marisa alive and real and there's Marisa, there's Alice, there's Keine, there's everyone Reimu saw taken from her, back in living color and then some, and it can't be real but she knows it's real and Reimu can't breathe.
“Fire,” she hears the head thing scream. “F-fire!”
Most of the things are in no state to try—covering their own ears, burrowing their faces into the ground, some of them even turning tail to flee—but some of them manage, aiming unsteadily at everyone Reimu's ever loved, and she wants to laugh. That won't work anymore. She's sure, even if she doesn't know why.
“Lunasa!” Lyrica shouts. “It's your measure!”
Lunasa looks at her youngest sister with something like fond exasperation. And then, as the first shots begin to fly, she touches her bow to her strings, draws it out along the length in a single, sweet note, and the missiles seem to twist in midair, shrink, until they aren't missiles anymore but roses, bouquets of them, thrown in offering for the performance to come—
The head thing has time to moan, and then the new philharmonic is on them.
There's the impression of standing in a river as it rushes around her, a river of light and color and beautiful chaos and shining faces, but it's that music that Reimu really notices, that she'll think of, later, when it's all over and done and the after-party's winding down and the stars over the Shrine steps are fading out to morning. Because it's the music of a hundred people and youkai playing at once, no sheet music, no rehearsal, half of them blowing and plucking and strumming instruments Reimu doesn't doubt they've never touched before, not in their however-long lives. By all rights—by all sense—it ought to be nothing but sheer, ugly noise.
But this is Gensokyo, where sense was shut out, and the sound around her is—melodious? Wonderful? She can think of a thousand words, but they all fall short, and they'll fall short forever. The closest she'll ever come won't be for years, a murmur in the back of her head like a trickle of water as she watches the bustle of the Village playing out before her, joys and little tragedies.
Sugar water, she'll think, just in that moment. It fills you up like sugar water.
She tugs, one last time, and the chains tear like paper. And somewhere in the edge of hearing the head thing screams, one long, unbroken note of its own, the pitch never changing but the volume dwindling to nothing in an instant, the scream of something being pulled away that knows full well what's waiting for it on the other side.
And then gone.
The cloud disperses into people. The instruments are lowered, or set down, or packed away and there is the idle after-battle chatter that Reimu is used to, and the laughter—not the laughter of certain victory but the laughter that comes after, the laughter of weary relief, of normality reasserting itself. Reimu listens to it all, massaging her wrists where the chains pressed in, a different kind of music.
No one's looking at her that hard, but when she sits down she does it slow, anyway, so she doesn't look like she's collapsing. She's got that much self-control left.
“Hey,” says a voice.
Her body tenses up, but she makes it relax. She can do that, too (there's a sleep with her name on it; she's owed it). “So,” she says, without turning her head up, “Layla knew about this?”
“I told you—we weren't from Gensokyo,” Lyrica says. She might be smiling. She sounds like it. “Are you okay?”
“Fine.” Like she'd say otherwise. “Just give me a second. What's left?”
“Nothing?” Reimu says, and if it comes out louder than she meant, it's only because it's always been up to her to sweep the last of it up. There's no one out there except maybe Yukari who knows better—that an incident isn't really finished, even when it's finished. There are always dregs at the bottom of the cup.
But maybe not today. “Nothing,” Lyrica says again. “This is a pretty high place—high enough for the music to carry, especially when you play it fortississimo. Or even fortissississimo. And any Meanies left were swept away in the Sea of Sound.”
“Are you trying to be a poet?”
“It's a lot less metaphorical than you think.”
Reimu knows about metaphors that aren't really metaphors. “Come by the Shrine and tell me about it,” she says, not a request, but more polite than an order. “It doesn't have to be for a day or two, though.”
“Yeah,” Lyrica says.
And Lyrica leaves her sitting there apart from the rest, joining in on the on-the-spot celebration where Reimu won't. And why not? She's the hero of the hour—her and her sisters. A new cheer starts up—the kind that ends with somebody hoisted on somebody else's shoulders—and Reimu lets the seconds tick by, until she's sure Lyrica won't be doubling back to float over her again anytime soon.
And then the last of that self-control slips and she's going through the motions of laughter herself, silently, into her knees. How's that for a miracle, Mother? she thinks. A band of poltergeists to save the day.
She'll have to start saving up. It'll take a chunk out of her pocket—a good flute.