[Settings] [Home
[Show or hide post box]

[Return] [Bottom]
Posting mode: Reply
Name
Email
Subject  (Reply to 1874)
Message
Captcha
File
Password (for post and file deletion)
  • First time posting? See our frontpage for site rules and FAQ
  • Further overview of board culture in this thread.
  • Supported file types are: GIF, JPG, PNG, WEBM, WEBP
  • Maximum file size allowed is 4096 KB.
  • Images greater than 200x200 pixels will be thumbnailed.
  • View catalog

File 143927947481.jpg - (130.91KB, 850x621, sample-27d012457173f7bddadd73134040bb49.jpg) [iqdb]
1874
Veterans, your stories go here. Read the rules at >>/gensokyo/13738
Expand all images
>>
File 144039228334.jpg - (389.72KB, 849x1202, sample-47dd00133c94e57424cf8c6230787eb7.jpg) [iqdb]
1877
There is something relaxing about sweeping the leaves away, not that Reimu will admit to it. She has a reputation to keep—guardian of the Barrier, scourge of youkai who toe too close to the line—and maybe it's only pride, but she'd rather pretend that she doesn't enjoy the peaceful moments, too. So, when she sees Marisa rushing up the shrine steps, she schools her face into a scowl and the grip around her broom into something white-knuckled, and by the time her friend is standing in front of her, gasping with lost breath, hat in one hand and Mini-Hakkero in the other, there she is again—the Reimu Hakurei known and feared, and sometimes loved.

“Couldn't you have flown?” she says.

“No time!” Marisa laughs. “It's an incident!”

And this is why this Reimu Hakurei is needed. “What kind of incident?” she asks.

“Someone's stealing vegetables from the Village—no, no, listen to this.” Marisa waves her hands, warding off the long-suffering gaze directed her. “It's not just vegetables. That's the weird part! It's a lot of odds and ends, and not just from the shops, either.”

“So it's a thief. That's not something you need a shrine maiden for.”

“Well, yeah, it seemed like that. But then Alice was complaining about some of her old puppets missing, and when I woke up this morning some of my reagents were gone, too. Someone came in and took my stuff! Can you believe that?”

Reimu can. “I still say this isn't something you need a shrine maiden for,” she says. “That police officer—talk to her.”

“What police officer?”

“What, you don't remember? That...”

And then Reimu trails off, because there was a face there, a name, a moment ago. She knew full well who she meant. And now she doesn't.

“It doesn't matter,” she says. “Keine, then. She's in charge of the Village, right?”

“Uh, I don't know if you'd say 'in charge'.”

“But close enough to mean the same thing. Talk to her, not me.”

“Aren't you just avoiding your responsibilities?”

It's a new voice. Reimu turns, knowing what she'll see before she sees it—Yukari Yakumo, smiling at her over her fan from another hole in the world. “Oh,” she says. “It's you.”

“Then again, I suppose you might call this 'management',” Yukari says, as if Reimu hasn't said anything to her at all “Or would 'delegation' be a better word?”

“Whatever you call it, it isn't my problem,” Reimu says. She reaches for her broom, set to continue sweeping the grounds and ignoring the problem as long as she can, but she can't find it. Actually, she can't remember having put it down.

It's a kind of resignation that hangs over her when she figures it out. “How did that happen?” she groans. “We were all here.”

“See?” Marisa says. “That's no normal thief. That's an incident!”

“Of course,” Yukari continues, as if uninterrupted, “there's something to be said for a personal approach.”

Reimu closes her eyes, calling up the familiar facade. When she opens them, it's the glare sharp as flint again. “I get it, I get it—so I just have to resolve this, right?”

“Well, I'm going too,” Marisa says. “It was my stuff that got stolen.”

“And I'll be there, as well,” Yukari adds.

Reimu's eyebrows rise. “You will?” she says.

“Of course. I'll be right there with you.” And Yukari flips her fan closed, pointing it at Reimu's chest—at her heart.

That's more the usual. “If you're not going to be any help, just go already,” Reimu sighs, and Yukari smiles, even as the gap slides shut, leaving Reimu gazing into empty air once again until Marisa shoves at her shoulder.

“So are you coming or what?” she says.

“Yeah, yeah,” Reimu mutters, and then—

---

There's nothing but irritation to be had from sweeping the leaves away, not that Reimu will admit it. She has her responsibilities to keep—guardian of the Barrier, last of the Hakurei she—and clearing the walk has to be one of the most basic among them. And if she can't get through that, how can anybody count on her for the more complicated rituals? Or for the usual exterminations?

Still, for her poise, she can't help but let some of the annoyance slip. It's there, for anyone who knows what to look for. The stiffness of the jaw, and the too-tight grip of her fingers around the stick of the broom.

“Yo! Reimu!”

She counts to five, then carefully, carefully turns around. “What is it?” she says.

“Some kind of incident happening—want to check it out?”

The girl grinning at her is Marisa, and for the life of her Reimu can't decide if she's better or worse than the leaves. “What kind of incident?” she says.

“Someone's been stealing vegetables out of the market!”

Marisa says this cheerily, witch's hat perched atop her head in a way that ought to have seen it blown off a hundred times over, a broom tucked under her arm that Reimu is sure has never been used for sweeping, and for a moment the reach of Reimu's hatred is almost so blinding as to be transcendental. But she is the Hakurei shrine maiden, and she is the Hakurei shrine maiden, so she chokes it down and only says:

“Again?”

“'Again'?” Marisa blinks owlishly at Reimu. “What do you mean, 'again'?”

“Hasn't this happened before?”

“Has it?”

“It has. Or something like it,” she says, but as soon as she says it, she's not so sure. She barely visits the human settlement, and it's not as if anyone goes out of their way to deliver news all the way to the shrine. Where would she have heard of a vegetable thief? Marisa? But Marisa doesn't remember—

“Well, I don't know if it happened before, but it's happening now,” Marisa says, and Reimu shakes the thought away. It's taking her in circles. “It's not just vegetables, either—Rika had her workshop picked clean, and someone broke into the mansion.”

“Which mansion?” Reimu asks.

“You know, the haunted one—the poltergeist one.”

“The Prismrivers.”

“Who?”

“The—” And Reimu stops, because Marisa is right to say 'who'. Reimu knows which mansion Marisa means, and it has nothing to do with the Prismrivers. Reimu doesn't know what a Prismrivers is. “Forget it,” she says. “Fine. I'll go. Just as soon as Genjii wakes up.”

“No need to wait, my lady. I may be an old turtle, but even I can't sleep through an incident like this.”

Genjii floats toward Reimu like an idle weight in a current, and to Reimu the sight is calming. For all his inherent oddness, Genjii has been a constant presence in Reimu's life, up to the day he disappeared. Seeing him tread the air in front of her, head tilted up as he waits for her to climb onto his back—it's normal. It's fine. Everything is fine.

And then Marisa, who can't keep her mouth shut, says, “You mean we woke you up, right?” and the moment is gone.

“Let's go,” Reimu says. And then, to Genjii: “So anything you want to say?”

“A simple thief shouldn't be difficult, but all the same, you shouldn't underestimate your opponent,” Genjii says. “This could be a large incident in the making, no matter what it looks like.”

Reimu can feel the corner of her mouth turn up despite herself. “Yeah, I'll be careful, Gramps.”

'Gramps'? My lady—”

And he's still protesting, even as he rises, Reimu holding tight to his back, the shrine—and that feeling of unease—fading into the scenery beneath her. Marisa rises along her, legs dangling over the side of her broom.

She turns a smirk toward Reimu, and Reimu isn't going to smile back, not without something at stake, but it isn't too much effort to spare a nod back, if it's only a short one. And then—

---

There is something in sweeping the leaves today that unnerves Reimu, not that she wants to say it. She has swept the path for years—she'll sweep it for the rest of her life, if it all goes right—and this feeling of repetition, she knows, is just familiar muscle motion and the confusion of memories. She knows this. She knows this.

Still, she can't shake it. I've done this before, she thinks, and the broom drags against the stone path, back and forth, back and forth. It sounds like the dragging of feet. Like her heartbeat. These leaves, these leaves—

“Reimu.”

Reimu looks up, and is glad to. “Ellen,” she says. “What is it?”

Ellen is Reimu's friend. She smiles, and has too many teeth, like the opposite of a dream, but Reimu is envious. When you don't lose your teeth, you haven't really lost anything, she thinks, and then thinks: Now I am told it is an incident.

“I'm a cameo,” says Ellen, and smiles and smiles.

Reimu puts her broom to the side. It goes somewhere. It isn't important. “What kind of incident?” she asks.

“I wasn't supposed to mean anything, you know,” says Ellen. “I don't know if he ever thought it would get this popular.”

“Listen,” says Sanae. “Do you know about Joseph Campbell?”

“A thief?” says Reimu. “I don't think that's something you need a shrine maiden for, if it's a thief.”

“I suppose 'cameo' isn't the right word. 'Reference' would fit better,” says Ellen.

“Never mind, never mind,” says Sanae. “Forget Joseph Campbell. I don't know anything about Joseph Campbell. Mine is aliens, and super robots. But I'm the only one who could mention Campbell, so it had to be me. Understand?”

Whether she believes her or not doesn't particularly matter, not when it's clear she's going to be needled until she agrees to look into this “incident”. There's something comfortable about the routine, though, so she almost doesn't mind. “Well, I guess I've got nothing better to do,” she says.

Mima is there, eager to play at something malevolent even as she gives Reimu advice. Or Yuuka is there, tending to her garden as she passes off encouragement doublespoken in threat. Or Rumia is there, long hair unadorned, the motherly youkai saved by a miracle. Or Reimu's mother, the acting Hakurei shrine maiden, letting her child make tracks out into the world. Or Kanako, who believes in her wholeheartedly, even when her motives are mercenary. Or Mokou, or Byakuren, or Shinki, or Aya, and then—

---

Reimu is not sweeping the stone pathway to the shrine. Reimu has never swept the stone pathway to the shrine, and Reimu has never thought to sweep the stone pathway to the shrine. There is no stone pathway, and no shrine, and the chair that Reimu is sitting in has existed only so long as Reimu herself.

There is another person here, something that looks like a girl. She's trimming away at the branches of a bonsai tree with a set of small shears.

“Nature abhors a vacuum,” she says.

Reimu doesn't respond.

“I can say that because I'm old, or because you don't know who I am,” says the thing that looks like a girl. “If it hadn't been me it might have been Eirin, but it more likely would've been Yukari. That's a cliché, though.”

“What is this?” says Reimu. There's something wrong with her throat, like it wasn't meant for talking.

“Don't worry about it. Did you know that Keine's been trying to put together something on the history of Gensokyo? Hey, you do know who Keine is, right?”

Keine. Of course Reimu knows Keine.

She's not entirely sure she knew her before anyone mentioned her name, that's all.

“It doesn't have to be Keine, particularly,” says the thing that looks like a girl, as if she knows what Reimu is thinking, and maybe she does. “It could be anyone who fills the function.” The tiny shears snip. “Anyway, it won't work. Not that there's anyone set to keep it from working—it just won't work. You know what the problem with faith is?”

She looks at Reimu, holding the gaze like she expects an answer, but Reimu doesn't say anything there, either, and after a second the head dips down toward the tree again, ears bobbing with the movement. They aren't her ears. They're a rabbit's ears.

“I'm not Tewi,” says the thing that looks like a girl. “And the problem with faith is that it's too mutable. You write it down and it's not faith anymore, it's history. Gensokyo doesn't do history. Really, it cracks me up, the way some of you look at Gensokyo like it's something natural. Most places stay up whether people believe in them or not. Get it?”

“No,” says Reimu.

“That's fine. In fact, it's better you don't get it. That's what faith's all about, after all—going along with things you don't understand.” Her shears keep snipping, pruning away, and Reimu wants to scream at her to stop, but she can't muster up the energy for it. Her voice dies in her throat.

“This one'll be a doozy,” says the thing. “I'd say 'hold on tight', but it wouldn't really matter. Something has to happen.”

There is one final snip, and for a second Reimu thinks that nothing has happened after all, but then the thing that looked like a girl raises its head and it doesn't have a face.

And now Reimu can't even think of screaming.

And it says, “And then—”

---

Reimu is there. Reimu is a girl. Reimu is a woman. Reimu has a sense of duty. Reimu would rather be elsewhere. Reimu is carrying out an action befitting of her station. Reimu is visited by a friend. The friendship is mutual. The friendship is one-sided. The friendship is developing. The friend alerts Reimu to the makings of an incident. Reimu is eager. Reimu is reluctant. Reimu is bitter. Reimu is dutiful. Reimu is waylaid by a mentor figure. It is Reimu's mentor figure. It is someone else's mentor figure. The advice the mentor figure gives is useful. The mentor figure only serves to annoy. The mentor figure can only give encouragement. The mentor figure will assist Reimu directly. Reimu sets off to resolve the incident. Reimu will resolve the incident.

And then everything is fine.
>>
File 144207743916.jpg - (16.73KB, 480x360, hqdefault.jpg) [iqdb]
1883
Shou felt the burst of magic without ever seeing it. She fell to the side—her body tracing a tight arc through the air—and felt it as something passed entirely too close, something that crackled with energy and made the hairs on her neck curl. They're not using play danmaku, she thought, and that scared her more than anything else.

Nobody broke the rules, not here, not unless they had something impossible to gain.

The worst part of it was—she wasn't sure if these people were chasing the right person, not really. Less than an hour ago she'd been nobody—tiger youkai, semi-lapsed Buddhist, content to kill the hours rearranging the odds and ends kept away in her attic—and then there had been something like light, behind her, and she had turned—

And it had been a surprise, to say the least, to see a god materialize into her house.

She'd fallen to her knees. Inobservant she may have been, but there were procedures to follow when it came to gods. Or maybe her legs had just given out. She might have gasped the god's name in fright and wonder, but she couldn't remember that, either. There'd been the inane thought—If I had known he'd be stopping in I would have worn something better, I wouldn't have worn this ratty sweater, what if he doesn't likered

(A laser cut into her path. She twisted up into the sky, just missing it, and felt the air beneath her burn.)

And then the god in her attic (the god in her attic) had pressed his pagoda into her hands.

“You must go,” he'd said, his face tense.

“What?” she'd said.

“I can do little for you now,” he'd said. And then again: “You must go.”

And Shou had been about to say something, maybe ask where, but then the trapdoor had fallen apart in a flurry of splinters and between the command of a god and the masked youkai with very large weapons hauling themselves up and in the question had suddenly seemed less important.

And now—

A wall of fire appeared in front of her, surely impenetrable, but something in Shou's mind spoke of a weave. Her body found the gap almost before she was conscious of it, straight and narrow and through even as the heat closed over her heels.

She should have asked—she was sure of that now, with the air thick with danmaku and Bishamonten's pagoda a too-light weight in her palm. She should have held there long enough for a place, a name, even just a cardinal direction.

But she'd panicked, and she'd fled, and now there wasn't anything she could do but flee and wonder how long she could keep dodging a storm. She was still alive, but she'd been a Buddhist, long ago. She'd presided over enough funerals to understand how thin the boundary was.

And then, as if the thought alone was all it took, she slipped left when she meant right, and the bullet struck her between the shoulder blades.

There was no pain, only the force of it. She wondered, almost idly, if she hadn't been struck after all—if maybe it was only her imagination.

She didn't even realize she was falling until she hit the ground.

---

What woke her wasn't the sting of her back, burnt to peeling. What woke her wasn't the singular throbbing bruise that the rest of her body seemed to have transformed itself into during that blank space in her memory.

What woke her was something hard and cold prodding her in the forehead.

She opened her eyes. And then she closed them again, quick, the color and light too much. Her head swam. There was noise from somewhere close, but she was half certain it was coming from the inside of her battered skull.

And then the hard and cold found her again, this time square to the bridge of the nose. She opened her eyes again, more from surprise than will, and saw—

“So what the hell are you doing here, kid?”

The woman standing above her was no one she'd ever seen before. She didn't even look like anyone she'd seen before. Her short, gray hair was unkempt beneath rounded ears and a long tail coiled out behind her, but what was truly strange was the winkled blue jacket—thick, with apparent stitching. Shou had never seen the material before. It seemed almost too big for the woman, as if she was bundled into it instead of wearing it.

The woman was smoking a cigarette, too, something poorly wrapped that she kept shifting from one side of her mouth to the other. Whenever she did, the rod in the her hand (so that was what had poked her) tilted with it.

“Well?” the woman said. “You break through my roof, least you can do is give me a reason for it.”

Roof, Shou thought, incoherently. Her eyes slipped past the woman, up to the splintered wooden beams and the blue sky glaring through. Oh, she realized, [/i]I broke through her roof.[/i]

I wonder how that happened?

And then, all at once, she remembered.

“Whoa, whoa, settle down there, kid.” The woman was suddenly kneeling over her, with an iron grip pressing against Shou's shoulder. “You just took a nasty crash there. I'm not expecting you to take a walk, but you can talk, can't you?”

“You don't understand,” Shou heard herself say. “The pagoda—”

There was a sound from the next room, the sound of a knock at a door, and there was no doubt in Shou's mind who it was. I broke through her roof, she thought again, and wondered how obvious her landing had been from the air.

And then the giddy, stupid thought: They broke into my attic, but they're knocking here? It's notfair.

The woman looked over her shoulder, toward the source of the sound, then back to Shou again. She took the cigarette out of her mouth, crushing it against the floor, and then seemed to come to some kind of decision.

“You make yourself quiet, kid,” she said. “I'll get this.”

And then she stood and left the room, leaving Shou alone with her wounds and—and no pagoda, Shou realized, and her panic, all-encompassing before, reached a new peak. The pagoda—where was it? She'd had it, flying away from the youkai. Had she dropped it when she'd been hit?

She'd been far up, far enough. It could've dropped anywhere.

Her heart was pounding in her throat, in her ears. She almost couldn't hear the woman when she spoke, her voice drifting in from the room over:

“Yeah? What do you want?”

There was a pause. Those youkai—were they talking to the woman, or had they already struck her down? Losing the pagoda—dying would be bad enough. But to take someone else down with her, someone who didn't deserve—

“Yeah, I know what you're talking about. You're after that kid, aren't you? The one that came through my roof.” A shorter pause. And then: “You're too late. I ran her off already.”

Something like sheer thankfulness seemed to diffuse itself through Shou's chest. Please, she begged, please, let this work...

“I don't know, and I don't care. Kid nearly fell through a load-bearing wall. I didn't have time to keep an eye on her and my house at the same time. Why don't you shove off and look for her?”

The silence stretched for ages.

And then, at long last, Shou heard the door close.

She closed her eyes. She thanked Buddha. She thanked Bishamonten. She thanked every god she'd ever heard of, even the ones that didn't believe in each other.

She'd sort it out, later. She had time.

“Look alive, kid,” came the woman's voice, much closer.

Shou opened her eyes—and then her eyes widened even farther at the sight of something coming through the air right at her. The panic was made anew—instinct took over—

She was sitting up, suddenly, cradling something as it landed hard against her chest, taking a sharp breath at the pain of it. And then she saw what it was she'd caught and she forgot she was hurt at all.
“This is—”

“Your pagoda. Kid, you have any idea what kind of people you're dealing with?”

Between the crash, the close call, and the pagoda returned, she could barely recall her name. “Those youkai were trying to kill me,” she stammered.

“Of course they were trying to kill you,” the woman said. “They're a cult. They want to rule the world.”

“They do? Wait—how do you know that?”

The woman scowled down at her, looking her directly in the eyes. She was a small woman—if Shou had been standing, the woman would've barely come up to her shoulder—but under that glare Shou didn't even feel ten centimeters tall.

“I've been around, kid,” the woman said. She glanced down at the pagoda Shou had nearly died to keep, and Shou didn't know if she was relieved to have that glare turned away from her or even worse off now that this woman was paying attention to the pagoda instead.

“What is that?” the woman asked.

And Shou—

Shou made a decision.

“It's a pagoda,” she said, and before the woman could say something she probably deserved, she continued to explain: “Bishamonten gave it to me—and then those youkai came in. I don't know why. I don't even know where to go now.”

And there it was, all laid out in the open, and Shou didn't know what reaction she was expecting—wonder, maybe, or at least astonishment—

But all there was was the trace of something passing over the woman face, a flash of teeth and the tightening of the eyes.

And then that was gone as quickly as it came, and there was only the even gaze fixed somewhere beyond her.

“I'll put out a futon.” The woman turned to leave. “You stay here for tonight—then you're out of here.”

“Wait!”

And those eyes were back on her. “What?” the woman growled.

“I'm Shou Toramaru. What's your name?”

She didn't know what she was doing, she didn't know why she wanted this woman to know her name, and she was sure—she was certain—that she was setting herself up for something unkind.

But the woman only grimaced for a moment before she spoke.

“I'm Mousedowser,” she said. “Naz Mousedowser.”

And then she left the room again, and there was nothing for Shou to do but sit there in the wreckage and wait as her bruises healed.
>>
File 144212123683.png - (315.66KB, 917x767, b973e1acf0bea89b1b1a202b3c0b7ef7.png) [iqdb]
1884
A bright and cloudless sunny day was gracing the assortment of shacks and garages and workshops that its inhabitants called the Kappa Village, and while normally they'd be enjoying the weather-

“They have a gatling gun THEY HAVE A GATLING GUN-”

Instead, the poor lad screaming was riddled with a barrage of ink and toppled off his perch to land in the river below.

“It's a Splatling gun, thank you!” shouted his attacker, and Nitori, hiding behind a shack, bristled at the arrogance of that orange-tentacled, stupid t-shirt-wearing, spats-clad squid kid. The same one standing between Nitori and her garage, no less!

“No one cares!” she yelled back, diving from cover to unleash several high-pressure, rapid-fire jets of water straight at the inkling girl perched atop a walkway. There was a blur of orange as her target melted into squid form, hiding in the pool of matching ink at her feet. Water flew uselessly past her, Nitori crashed onto a wooden walkway, and the inkling popped backed up with her Splatling Gun ready for more.

A barrage of ink flew behind Nitori as she scrambled along on her hands and knees behind another shack. Her surroundings were a shanty town of hastily put-together shacks of gray corrugated metal and matching walkways criss-crossing each other, with no railings to save people from plummeting into the waters below; for all their technological genius, the kappa didn't really mind their town looking like crap. It did make for an excellent battleground, however, with all sorts of dips and rises and the tiny houses themselves as cover, and the tower in the middle to serve as both a vantage point and landmark.

A spastic variety of inks covered most surfaces as dozens of kappa traded fire with an eerily-matching number of inklings, but the squid-kids, through large amounts of practice via shooting each other, were actually really good at urban warfare, whereas the kappa mostly fought in the sky. Flying made them easy targets for massed ink fire, however, and the kappa had taken a pounding before they figured out that staying low was their best bet.

Fighting inklings in close-quarters terrain they specialized in.

The kappa were geniuses, but sometimes they weren't exactly smart.

“We got 'em on the run!” Mari cheered, the aforementioned Splatling-wielding inkling spraying ink indiscriminately, tentacle-hair flopping about as she whipped barrages back and forth. Not only was she splatting kappa left and right, but her rate of fire was forcing them to huddle down in cover, which the other inklings were only too happy to take advantage of by jumping through the pools of ink she'd been spraying everywhere to ambush the cowering kappa and splat them silly.

“Kneel before your squid overlords, you neeeeeeeeeeerds!” Mari shouted. “Y'all BLAUGH-” she gurgled, as Nitori chose that moment to jump atop a hut and spray her right in the face. The Splatling gunner stumbled back, aim ruined, and her attempt to escape in squid form was foiled when the ink at her feet was sprayed away by Nitori's assault.

“Mariiiiiiiii!” screamed another orange-tentacled squidgirl, this one in a plaid schoolgirl uniform, sailing through the air to land in front of her friend. “I'll save youaaaaaaaaaaugh!” She slipped on her landing, absorbing several more hits from Nitori even as she flopped off the walkway and into the river.

“Rali!” Mari cried, hastily backpedaling behind cover. “That was my little sister, you jerk!” she yelled, charging up another barrage with vengeance in mind. “I'll splat you to bits!”

“No you won't!” Nitori said, jumping back down when Mari popped out of cover to spray ink wildly. The barrage found no targets, which left the inkling seething. But, she realized, with the dozen other inklings jumping around everywhere, there wasn't anything to fear.

Still, before she moved on, she grabbed the little walkie-talkie at her waist and activated it. “Everything ready?” she asked. An affirming burble came back, and she grinned.

It was always good to have a contingency plan.

-

“FFFFFFFFFFFFF-” Nitori rasped, vaulting through a window as torrents of ink flew past her. She huddled beneath the opening, taking the brief respite to check her pistols over; decent ammo left, but she'd have to be more careful with her shots if she wanted to-

“Aahaahahahahaha!” cackled another kappa, his words heralded by wailing squids. Nitori poked her head out to see a towering blue-dressed lad annihilating an entire squad of inklings, blasting them off the piers with high-pressure, short-ranged jets of water from his wide-nozzled squirtgun.

“... Huh!” she said, watching him dismantle that entire inkling push with awe. “Nice shooting!”

“Thanks!” he said, lowering his gun. The area was clear for the moment, so he turned to Nitori. “Whaddaya say we move up together?”

“Fine by-” Nitori started, before another orange inkling leapt from the waters below and landed right behind the guy, screaming as she morphed into human-ish form.

“GET SOOOOOOOOOOOOOOME!” Rali shrieked, blasting into the kappa gunner even as Nitori's pistols snapped up. A pair of quick, accurate jets of water sent the inkling reeling over the ledge, and she plummeted with a despairing wail of "WHYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYY?"

Ink-spattered and reeling, the other kappa shook off the worst of the attack and flashed Nitori a thumbs-up. “Thanks for the save!”

“You know it!” she replied, returning the gesture.

“God, why do you guys keep shooting her?!” Mari bellowed, standing tall atop a two-story building, Splatling's barrel whirling. “Let her have some fun, you jerks!”

The other kappa made a sound close to “eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeaaaaaarghhhhhhhh” as he ran for Nitori's position, ink splattering all around him. Nitori ducked just as he leaped through the window, landing behind her and scrambling for safety beside the window.

They cowered together as an orange barrage thumped against the building and flew through the window, splattering ink all over the room. When the barrage died down a handful of seconds later, Nitori chanced a peek outside, only to find Mari had disappeared.

“How do they keep moving like that?” she asked, thumping a fist against the wall in frustration.

“Is now really the time to be asking that?” said her newfound companion, breathing heavily and shaking at how close he came to getting blasted.

“I should think so!” Nitori said, scowling at him. “Knowing your enemy is important!”

----

Elsewhere!

-----

“Down!” Shizuku cried, the kappa mechanic clutching a water-shotgun close to her chest as she huddled behind a waist-high metal barrier. “Stay down!”

Incomprehensible noises rose from the inkling side of the field, a no man's land of several dozen feet between them.

“They're communicating in some kind of- some kind of squiddy burbling!” Hibiki said, the rifle-toting kappa peeking across the field and immediately ducking back down before a barrage of pink and green ink caught her on the nose. “I can't understand any of it!”

“Coded communications?” Shizuku said, slamming a fist into the wall and rattling it. “The geniuses! If only we knew what they were saying, that'd be an immense tactical advantage!”

-

“Lula, you octopus-loving turd!” snapped the pink-tentacled Kumi, glaring ferociously at her partner through ink-spattered ballistics goggles. “Try shooting straight for once in your life!”

“I'm tryiiiiiiing!” Lula wailed, the green squid-girl spraying ink everywhere and only succeeding in keeping the kappa team's heads down.

Kumi shook her head in disappointment, pulling her scarf up to shield the rest of her face and look like some low-budget action movie minion. “All right, clearly I cannot talk to you as I would an equal.” She hefted a weapons-grade bucket brimming with ink, and gave her comrade a despairing look. “Just keep doing what you're doing, okay?”

“I can do that!” Lula said, nodding frantically.

“Great.” Despite her misgivings, Kumi took a deep breath. “Fire on my go!”

Kumi vaulted over the railing, screaming incoherently, and was immediately stymied as Shizuku popped up and blasted her back over the fence.

“Why didn't you cover me?” Kumi wheezed, glaring at a stunned Lula.

“You didn't say go!” Lula said, on the verge of tears as she defensively clutched her Splattershot close to her chest.

“The screaming was my cue!” Kumi said, propping herself up on her elbows. “You completely useless, dense, retarded-”

Lula just started crying, which meant she absolutely did not see it coming when the two kappa popped over the inkling fence and Shizuku shotgunned her in the back of the head. To the kappa team's horror, Lula started to dissolve the moment she hit the ground.

“I'm meltiiiiiiiiiiing!” she sobbed, before her body completely gave away into a pool of green ink, a little squid ghost rising from the remains and drifting away.

“Ohmigodohmigodohmigod-” Hibiki said, dropping her rifle to clasp her hands over her mouth. Her head snapped to her equally horrified partner's. “What did you do what did you do?!”

“Don't- Don't look at me!” Shizuku stammered, eyes flicking between the puddle and the other inkling still alive. “How was I supposed to know they melted?!”

“Guys?” Kumi said, lifting a hand. “Uh, you might want to stop-”

“Y-y-you just melted a child!” Hibiki said, pointing a trembling finger at the other kappa. “You're evil!”

“One! I killed one!” Shizuku said, voice rising to a hysterical pitch. “And don't pin this on me! You were shooting at them too!”

“Oi!” Kumi snapped, getting both girls to pay attention to her. “It's fine, you morons! She's not dead!” The two kappa fell silent as Kumi sprang to her feet, the better to gesture agitatedly at the puddle. “We're like ninety-eight percent ink and really water-soluble, but come on!”

“But-”

“We just melt into squid form again!” Kumi said, crossing her arms and glaring at the two cringing girls. “You really think we'd be shooting it out with you if we'd die?”

The two kappa shared a look of sudden comprehension, and Shizuku immediately blasted Kumi to bits. As the pink squid burst into angry squiddy burbling in the puddle at their feet, the girls shared a high five.

Observing all of this from up in the tower, a ski cap-wearing blue inkling smiled toothily, taking aim with her Charger rifle. “Scoped...” Akka whispered, picking a target.

She pulled the trigger.

“And dropped.”

-----

The wails of two kappa getting blasted was cause enough for Nitori to grimace, even considering she was currently skulking through the walkways, trying to avoid being spotted by the other inklings jumping across the rooftops. Now she just had to account for the six of them leaping around spraying everything between her and said garage, because a straight charge through them would only end badly.

“So!” Hitoshi said, the boy hunkering down next to her. “We got a plan?”

Nitori glanced between him and the two other girls she'd rounded up; Shigure and Ranko weren't exactly intimidating figures, but they had rifles, and that was good enough for her. “Run for my garage, shoot as many of them as we can, and try not to get splatted before I can suit up and frag all these squids to the moon.”

Hitoshi nodded, thrumming his fingers across his sprayer's barrel. “Good plan!”

“Yeah, yeah, but what about the rest of us?” Ranko asked, nervously glancing about in search of a surprise attack.

“Well,” Nitori said, “considering I'm the one whose plan you're following in the first place, I need you all to die for me.”

“Wha-” Shigure started to protest, before Nitori charged out bellowing a shrill war-cry. “She's just running in!” Shigure said, slapping a hand over her mouth in disbelieving horror. “She'll get slaughtered!”

“Not if we can help it!” Ranko said, charging after Nitori without a care as to all the ink now flying after the lead kappa. Swallowing obscenities, the other two kappa gave chase, because Nitori was their best shot at pulling off a win at this point, and to lose her was unthinkable.

-

“We've got a kappa push incoming!” Tota said into her headset's microphone, transmitting the warning to the rest of her team. An assortment of excited booyahs came back as her teammates leaped into action, leaving the purple inkling to survey the field from above. The kappa were rushing along a set of criss-crossing walkways, blasting away at anyone getting too close and moving too fast for anyone to get a clear shot at them.

Their destination was... the garage, she surmised, based on how they kept angling for it. Clearly they had something stored there, and if they were allowed to reach it, bad things would probably happen. Flawless logic, she knew.

Tota hefted a paint roller half her size, checked over the ink tank attached to it (full, of course, but you could never be too sure), and gave it a flick; ink sprayed up from the roller in a satisfactory manner, coating a nearby shack that had thought it had escaped the carnage un-inked.

Truly, the Inkling race were masters of paint-based weaponry.

“They're heading for the garage! I'll cut them off!” she declared, morphing into squid form and sinking into the ink puddle. She erupted a moment later, trailing ink as she rocketed skywards. Her body shifted into a human form once more as she descended, crashing in front of the garage and a very surprised band of kappa.

“Slow your roll, son!” Tota whooped, springing forward with roller raised.

“What the heuaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaagh!” Hitoshi shrieked as he was flattened by the enthusiastic inkling. The other kappa threw themselves aside as Tota sped by, but she spun around with the quickness and charged once more. Nitori, however, was the first to pick herself up, and she dove into the garage as the rest of the inklings descended on their position.

“Sorry!” she said, slamming the garage door shut and locking everyone outside. Firmly ignoring the cries of the kappa she'd left behind, she flicked on a lightswitch, revealing her hidden weapon.

“Ooh, Mama's here,” she cooed.

-

The three abandoned and defeated kappa were sulking in a huddle under the watchful eyes of the six inklings currently blockading Nitori's garage. A pair of the boys were failing to lift the garage door, which left the other inklings little to do but aimlessly mill about on sentry duty.

“I'm dry, guys,” Tota said, viewing her empty ink tank with displeasure. “Cover me for a sec.” She morphed into squid mode, sinking into the ink at her feet, before popping out a few seconds later with a full tank.

“They're- they're refilling their ammo through the stuff they've already sprayed?” Ranko said, eyes bulging in disbelief. “How're they coming up full without draining the rest?”

“Hey, don't ask me,” Shigure grumbled. “They're the ones breaking rules of conservation of mass, not us.”

“It's squid logic,” Tota said. “Don't question it.”

Their scintillating conversation was interrupted when the garage's door exploded outwards, carrying the two unfortunate inklings trying to open it screaming into the river. A hunched metal figure emerged from the garage, unfolding to reveal Nitori encased in an exoskeleton that stood a good six feet tall in the sunlight, stunned inklings and kappa alike watching her in horrified awe. One of her fists was a fist, and the other fist was not a fist but instead a gatling gun.

“TREMBLE!” Nitori bellowed. She raised her right arm, and the mech raised its gatling-arm in sync, already spun-up, and began spraying water everywhere.

“Shoot it!” shrieked an inkling girl, splattering the mech with a barrage of ink before getting blasted to little bits. Nitori followed that up by punting another inkling through a shack, and when she turned on Tota, the girl had only one thing to say.

“Noooope!” Tota cried, as Nitori casually backhanded the last of the inkling's friends into the river. “I quit!”

Following her own advice, Tota melted away into the ink and superjumped outwards, flying off into the distance as Nitori fired a salvo of water after her. Failing to score a kill, Nitori nevertheless was in high spirits as she lowered her gun.

“Did you guys see me hitting them?” she said, grinning widely. “I'd say my first run of the NK Exo Mark I was a success! It may not be complete, but it oughta be more than enough to handle these clowns, don'tcha agree?”

“I am glad to have been shot up since I get to see this,” Hitoshi said, nodding agreeably.

“Wooooooooooow,” Ranko said.

“Eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee-” was Shigure's contribution.

“Glad you all like it!” Nitori said, the suit mirroring her as she pumped her fists. “Now let's get everyone together and show those squids who really owns these waters!”

-

Up in the tower, six inklings were viewing the carnage below as the mech-lead kappa warband marched through town, a dozen kappa splashing away all the ink coating the place. Any inklings that tried to stop them were similarly destroyed, and soon enough there weren't any left to fight.

“Oh, splat me,” Mari said, worrying at her fingernails as she watched all their hard work be undone.

“That'd be counterproductive,” Akka said, leaning on the tower's railing. “Want me to shoot them instead? I could totally pull it off.”

“Ladies!” Kumi said, hefting her newly acquired 50.gal. “These are the facts as I understand them! There is a big robot exoskeleton thing down there! I have an equally big gun! Clearly I am the one meant to destroy it!”

“Like charging out on your own worked so well last time,” Lula said, bitterly eyeing the pink inkling up.

“Whuzzat?” Kumi said, spinning around to glare at Lula, eyes bulging out so much the other girl swore they would pop out if someone pushed her. “If someone had been covering me properly, then it wouldn't have been a problem!”

“That thing-” Tota stammered, hiding her face as she rocked back and forth in a corner. “It's- it's so huge! We're all gonna die!”

“Hey!” Lula said, whirling on the spooked girl. “Never say die, that ups the age rating!”

Tota glared at her through her fingers. “I'm merely saying that if we go down there to face that thing, we are going to die! It's a statement of fact!”

“There you go doing it again!” Lula said, ignoring Kumi looming behind her. “This is supposed to be kid-friendly violence for all ages!”

“All of you shaddup,” Mari said, eyes squeezed shut. “I'm trying to think.”

“Guys?” said Rali, sulking in a corner after her previous failures. “Why don't we just attack 'em all at once?”

“Rali?” Mari said, not even looking back. “Please go.”

“No!” Rali said, all scowly as she crossed her arms. “This is supposed to be a team game, and all I've done is get splatted because no one follows me! I'm sick of it!”

“So we can all follow you down there and get shot up instead?” Mari asked, favoring her sister with disdain.

“No, no, just- augh, just listen to me, okay?” Rali unfolded to her full, unimpressive height. “We're the last ones left, right?”

“Sure looks that way,” Akka said, scanning the town through her Charger's scope. “I say we give her a listen.”

Mari rolled her eyes, but turned to her sister regardless. “Fine, Sisyphus, what've you got planned?”

The mega-grin Rali gave in response did soothe Mari, it was true. “I don't understand that name beyond the sister part, but okay! Tota, you got any more headsets?”

“Yes?” Tota said, patting herself down. “I think so? Maybe?”

“Awesome!” She clapped her hands together and eagerly rubbed them. “Okay, everyone, time to huddle up!”
>>
File 144212148635.png - (1.11MB, 1057x1920, 65f1945a8a0e123627809bdfe0f3ffd8.png) [iqdb]
1885
>>1884

The kappa were winning this fight, and Nitori felt good as she led her warband throughout the battlefield.

“We got this!” cheered the kappa leading the formation, only to immediately be knocked flat by a high-pressure blast of ink to the face.

“You don't got this!” Akka called out, drawing everyone's attention to her position inside a higher-up shack. She ducked behind the windowsill as a tidal wave of water splashed against the building, leaving everyone distracted for the real attack.

“Ahahahahaha!” Kumi cackled, breaking from concealment on the roof of a building behind the kappa. “You nerds aren't the only ones with heavy firepower!” Lula and Rali huddled behind her, having hooked their ink tanks up to Kumi's, and while the pinkling sagged underneath the 50. gal's weight, she had a victorious grin on her lips nonetheless. “Get fragged!”

She opened up with a rapid-fire stream of thick brownish ink, splattering everything and everyone who didn't immediately move. Nitori quickly spun around, bringing up her fisty arm to shield herself as the rest of the kappa charged for Akka's position, their reasoning that one lone sniper was an easier target than an entrenched machine-gun.

“Enemy weapons team!” Nitori shouted, weathering the barrage with admirable stoicism. “I got this one!”

“And you're gonna get more!” Rali said, pulling out an Inkzooka from somewhere on her person that didn't bear thinking about, sighting in on Nitori, and firing. The rocket hit her square in her shielding arm, splattering ink everywhere and knocking her suit back a step, but more problematic was how the ink was spraying on all her gears and important electronic parts. She hadn't finished waterproofing the suit yet because it wasn't done, which was something she was now regretting dearly.

“You can't take out kappa engineering!” Nitori shouted back, advancing under the barrage even as she took aim at them. “And I'll teach you a painful lesson for trying!”

“Sonuva-!” Kumi said, diving prone with the rest of her team as Nitori sprayed away at their position. “We can't keep firing with that thing shooting at us!”

“I got my own problems!” Akka said, huddled below the windowsill with water flying over her head as the kappa charged her position. “We've got 'em split up now! Tota, Mari, do your things!”

On cue, the two remaining inklings superjumped onto the scene, Tota between Akka and the kappa, and Mari atop a building to Nitori's side.

“Rolling is my specialty!” Tota cheerfully shouted, charging the surprised squad with roller raised. “Let me show you!”

The screams that echoed from her charge were along the lines of “AUGH!” and “WHY?!”

As Tota laid into them, Mari leveled her revved Splatling at Nitori, the kappa already turning to face her. “Hey! You giant piece-a-bullsquid! I'm talking to you!”

“Huh?” Nitori said, before she got a good look at what was aimed at her. “Oh shi-”

“Eat it!” Mari bellowed, strafing past the kappa's blind return fire as she unleashed a full barrage of her own on the kappa boss.

“Pour it on!” Kumi added, popping back up to resume fire, her 50. gal hitting Nitori in the side and striking at the exosuit's vulnerable parts. Knowing a losing fight when she saw one, Nitori slowly began retreating towards the other kappa, firing inaccurately as she went and praying that the suit wouldn't get overloaded.

While that was happening, Tota was tearing the kappa team structurally superfluous bungholes, none of them able to get shots off as she rolled through them. She'd handily dispatched three when one had finally had enough, friendly fire or no.

“Screw it!” Hitoshi said, bringing his gun up just as Tota spun around for another pass, and he unleashed a spray of water that caught both the inkling and two more kappa, launching all parties into the waters below. “Sorry, guys!”

Karma instantly struck back in the form of Akka popping out and blowing his head off, figuratively speaking, which left the rest of the kappa alert to her shenanigans.

“Storm that building!” Ranko ordered, laying suppressing fire on Akka's shack as the rest of the kappa brigade moved in. The sniper ducked once again, knowing she was doomed as a kappa took flight for the window. The moment that girl cleared the hole, she found herself eye-to-eye with a grinning Akka holding a grenade up, pin clenched in her teeth.

“Buh-bye, squiddo!” she said, and the entire room exploded in ink.

“We got 'er!” Ranko said, grimacing as the kappa was flung from the building, bounced off a walkway, and fell into the waters below. “Everyone! Back to Nitori! Go!”

“No!” Nitori responded, still backpedaling. “Deal with their gatling! I'll handle the weapons team!”

Nitori braced herself, ignoring the red alerts about how much more ink she could take, and charged Kumi's group as the kappa went for Mari.

“She's coming!” Lula said, panic threatening to overwhelm her as Nitori endured Kumi's assault without slowing. “She- she's not stopping!”

Kumi grit her teeth, shooting a glance back at her teammates, and promptly reached a decision in the form of unhooking her tank from theirs. “I'll make my stand here!” she said, continuing to fire even as Nitori rapidly closed the distance. “Go!”

“That's not part of the plan!” Rali said, hastily pulling her own Splattergun free and training it on the incoming kappa. She blinked when she pulled the trigger, and a quick glance at her ink tank revealed it empty.

“Did you forget the part where all your ink went into my tank?” Kumi asked, in that tired manner of someone who knows they'll be surrounded by morons until the moment they die.

“She's right!” Lula said, having checked her own supply. “I'm not getting splatted here! Run for it!”

She jumped off the shack, and one last look at the gatling pointed their way convinced Rali to do the same. Kumi's gun ran dry with a click just as Nitori reached her, and the inkling threw her gun aside to glare defiantly at the kappa.

“It's not like you can even reach me from down thaiiiieeeeeeee!” she screeched as Nitori simply reached up and grabbed her by the collar, the commando dropping her tough-girl persona as the kappa brought her down to eye-level.

“You know what I have to do now, right?” Nitori said, smiling all too brightly.

“Pff!” Kumi said, already over her brief scare. “You cannot hurt me! I don't even have any bones!”

“Perfect!” Nitori said. She hauled back and pitched the girl through three shacks in a row, leaving her embedded headfirst in a fourth.

Kumi dangled limply for a short while before she found it in her to raise a hand. “Now I'm really glad I don't have any bones!”

-

Mari doubled over, leaning on her Splatling as she caught her breath; her clothes were soaked through, and it was taking a whole lot of grit to avoid melting outright. Her gun was great, yes, but there was only so much she could do against four people splitting up to flank her; she was lucky to have gotten away as it was.

“Anyone left?” Mari said into her headset, despairing of an answer. “If you are, just- just say something!”

The pounding of two sets of feet was all the warning Mari needed to bring her Splatling back up and rev it, only to relax as Rali and Lula ducked around the corner.

“Mari!” Rali wheezed, panting for air. “Oh, I'm- thank goodness we found you! Everyone else is just- they're down! They're all down!”

“I am out of ammo!” Lula said, gesturing at her tank. “How can I shoot them if I am out of ammo?”

Mari only barely restrained the urge to slap her. “Then refill, you dummy!”

Lula started to vibrate in place through sheer panic. “I can only do that with green ink, and I dunno about you, but I'm not seeing any around!”

“What're we gonna do?” Rali asked, relying on BIG SISTER power to save the day, something Mari unfortunately had to admit she could not provide.

“Everyone!” came a new shout from above, and the inklings looked up to spot a kappa conducting aerial recon. “They're down there! Close in!”

“Sonuvacarp!” Mari swore, eliciting gasps from the other inklings as she hauled up her gun. “Everyone, follow-”

Nitori's mech crashed down in front of them, leaving indentations in the walkways ahead.

“You are surrounded!” Nitori shouted as she advanced, gatling revved up, and the inklings winced in a remarkably coordinated display. “Give it up!”

More boots stomped behind them, and a handful of kappa arrived the same way Mari and Lula did. Surrounded at every turn, Mari made the hardest choice she ever did since this whole mess started; she dropped her gun.

“Mari?!” Rali asked, scandalized, even as Lula followed Mari's lead. “What do you think you're-”

Mari shot a grin over her shoulder, utterly fearless and... oddly anticipatory. “Relax, okay? I got this. Just let go of your gun, okay?”

Rali was all manner of conflicted, but she followed her sister's request. The moment she did so, Mari's hand darted for her walkie-talkie, and she brought it up in one rapid motion even as the kappa took aim at her.

“Activate it!” she ordered, right before she was annihilated by the combined fire of Nitori's mech and the footbound kappa. The remaining two inklings shrieked, pressing up against the hut and hugging each other as Mari melted away.

“Siiiiiiis!” Rali wailed at the puddle of orange that used to be her sister.

“Oh, shaddup!” Lula hissed, pulling Rali down with her into a cowering crouch. “Don't give 'em reason to splat us too!”

“Listen to your buddy, kid,” Nitori said, gatling trained on them. “And, seeing as you're all done, I'm thinking this war's over. Good game, no re-” Her eyebrows furrowed, and she looked up. “What's that noise?”

A faint whistling was growing louder as a tiny object in the sky rapidly grew in size, aimed directly at their position.

“Oh my goodness,” Lula said, eyeing the incoming object with a mixture of awe and fear. “I never thought I'd get to see an Ink Nuke in action.”

“A what?!” Nitori asked, head whipping to the two inklings. “What have you done?!”

Rali was watching the bomb approach with a face-splitting grin, unable to tear her eyes off it. “Sis, you- you magnificent- Wow!”

As the kappa glanced between each other in growing panic, Nitori pried herself free from the exoskeleton and bounded up to the inklings. “How do we stop it?” she demanded, eyes bulging out at the thought of her imminent doom.

“It's too late!” Rali giggled. “That nuke's inkoming!”

Everyone stopped to glare at Rali, even Lula.

“I'm just saying!” Rali said, only giggling harder at everyone's expressions. “We- ahaha, we should probably squiddadle!”

Nitori, ready with murder, raised a fist. “Would you stop-

The bomb hit.

-----

“Oraaaugh,” Nitori groaned, laid flat out on her back. Her whole body throbbed with a deep, dull pain, and everything was black. That was something she could probably remedy by opening her eyes, she thought, so she did.

Then she blinked a whole bunch, because she was covered in ink and could hardly see anything. Some hasty wiping cleared her vision, but it was hardly an improvement because now all she could see was orange, orange everywhere, on everything and everyone, an entire village given a new paint-job as if by an over-enthusastic god with a limitless bucket. Nearby, her exosuit was laid out on its back, and her heart broke at the sight of that irregularly-shaped lump of orange among everything else.

“Noooooooo,” she whined, thumping her head back against the ground.

The sounds of pained kappa started drifting through the air, and Nitori took small comfort in the fact that they shared in her misery. Soon, though, the watery burbles of inklings overwhelmed the kappa, and the source became apparent as all the inklings involved in this debacle converged on Ground Zero.

When Nitori looked up again, she couldn't count how many squids that were also kids were milling about, all of them looking impossibly fresh and jolly despite what had just happened, with hardly any ink at all on them. Among their number was Mari, eagerly recounting what had happened in that impossible-to-understand squid language of theirs. This was outrageous enough to get Nitori on her feet, and she stalked over to the inkling responsible in order to loom menacingly over her, dripping ink as the crowd turned their eyes on her.

So many eyes glaring at her.

She felt a bit unsure about this all of a sudden, but Mari's insufferable smirk was-

“How's it feel to lose, ya kappa dope?” Mari asked, fluttering her eyelids at Nitori.

Nitori grabbed two fistfuls of shirt and hauled the smug girl up to eye level, the kappa ready to explode in anger. “You-” she started, her head starting to twitch uncontrollably. “You- you- you cheater! You awful, cheating, bad-wrong-funning twerp!

“Hey! You had a mech!” Mari said, finally scowling back. “I'm just evening the playing field!”

“Nukes don't count!” Nitori rasped, full of disgust at her foe as she shook Mari about. “You- You can't just bomb the playing field and say you won!”

Rali chose this moment to make her appearance, cross indeed as she rose from the ink and grabbed the back of Nitori's shirt. “Leggo of my sis!” she demanded, tugging hard on the kappa. “I know you can hear me!”

Nitori reconsidered her approach as the inklings regarded her with a complete lack of respect, several of them fingering their guns, and she let go of Mari with a huff. “Fine! But you're all- you're cheating jerks and I don't wanna see you around again, you hear me? Kappa territory is closed to inklings from here on out!”

The inkling crowd erupted in disbelieving chatter, and even Mari looked taken aback. As more kappa stirred from the ink, Nitori turned with a growl and began stomping off.

“H-hey!” Mari said, giving chase as everyone else was left to worriedly talk among themselves, kappa and inkling alike. She super-hopped over Nitori, landing in front of her and blocking the way forward. “Wait, wait wait wait wait wait, look!” she said, raising her hands placatingly at the fuming kappa. “Okay, so yeah, I cheated, I'm sorry! But- but I'll-”

“Not interested,” Nitori growled, shouldering her way past Mari.

“No!” Mari said, desperate as she gave chase. “You guys are the only ones who'll let us do this!”

“And you messed it up!” Nitori said, whirling to jab an accusatory digit in the inkling's face. “So have fun... not doing this any more!” Cursing her lack of wit, Nitori moved to leave when Mari grabbed her wrist.

“Look, we'll- we can help with the cleanup!” she pleaded, putting on the puppy-squid eyes. “And no more ink nukes, okay? I promise!”

“Nnnrrrgh,” Nitori grumbled, trying her hardest to avoid the girl's eyes and failing miserably.

“We-” Mari's eyes lighted upon Nitori's holstered pistols. “We can even make a proper rematch out of it!”

“... How?” Nitori asked, interest piqued despite her best efforts.

“Our tanks can carry water too, you know?” Mari said, letting go of the taller girl. “We'll take one half of the town, and you and yours take the other. Whoever cleans their side out first wins!” She thrust her hand out again. “Whaddaya say?”

Nitori glared at the offered hand, then at the girl who refused to lower it. “... You know what? You're on.”

She clasped a hand around Mari's, and the two exchanged a firm shake, Mari beaming at her success and Nitori scowling at the thought of losing again.

“But first,” Nitori said, breaking the handshake. “We need some time to set everything up. If that's not fine with you, then shove off.”

“No, no no no!” Mari said, waving her arms in a slashing gesture. “That's fine! Take your time!”

“Glad to hear it,” Nitori said. “Get your folks ready and I'll get mine.”

“Why don't we tell them together?” Mari said.

“... Okay, I guess,” Nitori grumbled. “Let's goaaugh!

Mari had grabbed her hand, and was pulling her along with more force than Nitori thought could be packed into such a small body. They reached the crowd again in short order, and Mari let go of Nitori to wave her hands over her head. “Everyone, listen! Listen!”

Kappa and inkling alike turned to the pair in anticipation, confusion, or a mix of both.

“We're not getting kicked out after all!” Mari shouted, and the inkling side of the crowd erupted with cheering. “Get set up, 'cause we're washing this town clean!”

“You heard her!” Nitori bellowed at her fellow kappa, still milling about uncertainly. “Let's show them what we're really made of!”'

That galvanized the natives, and their whoops matched the inklings in intensity.

-----

With everything set up, both teams were ready for round two.

On the inkling side of the field, Kumi and Lula were once again bickering with each other, Akka was checking over her Charger, Tota regarded her water-soaked roller with fondness, and Rali and Mari were sharing a quick strategy chat.

“Okay, sis, listen,” Mari said, an arm hooked around Rali's shoulder. “We go in straight, see, spray everything hard and fast, and maybe engage in some kappa-blasting on the side. Sound good?”

“Sounds great!” Rali said, beaming up at her sister. Mari replied likewise.

“MISSION BEGINS IN TEN SECONDS!” blared the tower-mounted loudspeaker, heard across the town.

On the kappa end of the field. Nitori was regarding her pistols with dismay; she'd give her left foot for her suit to be operational right now, honestly. She glanced at the kappa readying up around her, then back at her guns, and shrugged.

“Eh, it's not like I really need it,” she said, giving her pistols a twirl. “Finesse is better sometimes, too.”

“FIVE!”

“Heyo!” Hitoshi said, elbowing Nitori. When she looked askance, he raised his custom squirtgun with a grin. “We got this, no problem!”

She allowed herself a smile. “You got that right.”

“THREE!”

Mari experimentally revved her Splatling, grinning madly at how it whirred.

“TWO!”

Nitori hunched down, ready to spring into action.

“ONE!”

Dozens of guns went up at once, both teams thrumming with excitement.

“BEGIN!”

The battle-cries of inklings and kappa alike could be heard for miles around.
>>
File 14421295572.png - (778.29KB, 1753x1240, bf8694020710c4d1f4ed450531e4600f.png) [iqdb]
1886
A cup held aloft
You won't feel a thing, she said
The only truth she uttered

My mind, eroding
This putrid husk, my prison
And I cannot feel a thing
>>
File 144228922247.jpg - (1.29MB, 3541x2507, 000000000000000000000000.jpg) [iqdb]
1890
There once was a little bird named Okuu.
That wasn't really her name, but that's what everybody called her.

She lived in a place deep underground, which might not seem like a nice place for a bird to live, but she was happy there.
Even though it was underground, there was a lot of room for her to fly around, so she never got bored.
Even though it was a cave, the air was always warm and toasty, so she never got cold.
And, even though it used to be a bad place for bad people who did bad things to have bad things done to them forever and ever, she had lots of nice friends there, so she never got sad or lonely.

Everything was nice and peaceful for Okuu, until the day she met God.
At first Okuu thought it was just a stranger, and she remembered what she was supposed to do when she met a stranger, because her Mommy told her what to do.

So she shot at her.

God didn't like that very much, but she didn't get angry.
Instead, she told Okuu that she was just what she was looking for, and told her she was God and that she had a treat for her.

At first, Okuu was confused.
Okuu knew she shouldn't trust strangers, because strangers could be bad and tell lies, so if one ever said they had a treat for her she shouldn't take it from them and should never ever eat it.
But Okuu also knew that God isn't supposed to tell lies, so if she said she was God then she must be telling the truth, so if she had a treat for her then it must be okay to take it and eat it!

So she did.

Okuu took the treat from God and ate it and thought it tasted funny but she didn't complain because that would be rude.
Okuu has good manners.

God looked really happy that Okuu enjoyed her treat, and said some stuff that Okuu didn't quite understand because there were a lot of big words, but also because there was another voice talking to her at the same time, and it's very hard understand when two people are talking to you at the same time.
It's also hard when the other voice is talking inside your head.
While God was talking on the outside with big words Okuu couldn't understand, the other voice was talking on the inside, in loud words that she could understand.

“BURN THEM,” it told her, “BURN THEM ALL!”

After that, a bunch of stuff happened, and a lot of people got mad, and then her Mommy got mad, and the voice kept saying to burn things, and Okuu felt bad because she didn't want to be a bad girl, and for a while she didn't burn things anymore.

That was all a very, very long time ago.
Now, Okuu has a job where she gets to burn things all day, and nobody gets mad at her for it.
People like it when she burns things now.
She doesn't really understand why her burning things now makes everyone happy when it didn't before, but it was okay because everyone was happy, and that made her happy.

Sometimes, Okuu wonders about what her burning things was doing to make people happy.
She didn't wonder about things often, because that meant a lot of thinking and that was harder than just burning stuff, so she didn't like to do it too much.
But it was okay to do once in a while.
Every now and then, she even tries to go up to the surface to see just what things her burning of stuff was doing to make everyone so happy.
She doesn't stay too long, though, because it's so much colder and brighter than the caves she was used to, and nobody liked her trying to burn things even though there was so much to burn.

One day, on just such a trip, Okuu met a strange lady with a black fan on her head.
She didn't tell Okuu not to burn things, or to go back underground, or any of the other stuff that most people did whenever they saw her.
That was strange, but the stranger thing was that she didn't do anything else, either.
She just stared at Okuu.
She stared, and stared, and stared some more, and Okuu stared back at her, because she didn't know what else to do.
Even the voice inside her head that told her to burn things was quiet, and that almost never happens!

Suddenly, the strange lady rushed over to Okuu, and wrapped her up in a great big hug.
This confused Okuu, because while she really liked hugs, this lady was a stranger, and her Mommy had warned her about letting strangers hug her.
Then the lady started talking and cuddling Okuu, saying something about a baby or child or something like that, which confused Okuu even more.
The most confusing thing, though, was the way the voice in her head had started talking again, and not just about burning things like it always did.
It still did that, of course, but it also started saying “MOMMY” which really, really confused Okuu.

After all, this wasn't Okuu's Mommy. This lady was taller than Mommy, and had longer hair than Mommy, and had fewer eyes than Mommy and none of them were outside of her head!

This wasn't Okuu's Mommy at all, no matter how she looked at it, but between the lady saying “my baby” and the voice in her head saying “MOMMY” and Okuu being confused and not very smart, she started to wonder if this really was her Mommy.
She already had one Mommy, of course, but maybe she had another one, too?

And so, for no other reason, Okuu decided that this strange lady must also be her Mommy, and so she called her “Mommy” and the lady got very happy and started hugging and cuddling her more and more and it felt strange but also kinda nice.

Okuu and her new Mommy started to walk and talk and tell each other their names but Okuu forgot her new Mommy's name because she was never good with those.
Okuu's new Mommy talked and talked about things that Okuu didn't quite understand, but she could tell meant a lot to her new Mommy. There was a bad guy who did a bad thing that made Mommy sad, and there was a lady who the bad guy was friends with and she made Mommy sad, too, and it was all very confusing and their names were weird and too hard for Okuu to remember, but she still acted like she understood anyway.

At one point, Okuu asked her new Mommy if she also had a Daddy, and then her new Mommy got very quiet. She started to tremble and mutter and grumble, and Okuu couldn't hear very well, but thought she heard something about “cheating bastard” and getting what he deserved, and Okuu thought she probably shouldn't ask about Daddy ever again.

When it was Okuu's turn to talk, she told her new Mommy about her home and her friends and her other Mommy, and her new Mommy listened and everything seemed fine again.
That is, until she mentioned how she met God, and the stuff about everyone getting angry, and how she got her new job.
Then, her new Mommy got very quiet again.
She looked like she was thinking about something for a long, long time, and then started asking Okuu questions about God. Stuff like what she looked and sounded like, and where she might live.
Okuu couldn't remember most of that stuff very well, but she knew God lived in a very high place, and her new Mommy listened and nodded, and told her to come with her, which she did.

Okuu is a good girl who does what her Mommy tells her.

So they flew and flew up into the sky, up into the mountain where all the funny youkai with all of the pockets on their clothes who tell her what to burn at her job lived, and up some more until they found a funny little shrine with funny little pillars that got less little as they flew down to the ground.

Okuu's Mommy told her to wait outside, and she went into the shrine, and Okuu stood there and waited like the good girl she was.
After waiting for what felt like a very long time, Okuu's Mommy came back outside, and some people were following her.
There was a short little girl, and a taller girl, and a great big lady with a big rope on her back that Okuu thought she remembered from somewhere.
Then Mommy came back to Okuu, and asked her some things.

She asked Okuu if any of them were God, and Okuu thought about it, and thought about it, and thought that maybe one or two of them were.
She asked Okuu if any of them gave her something to eat long ago, and Okuu thought, and thought, and thought about it, and decided that maybe one of them did.
Finally, she asked Okuu if any of them were the ones who made her work at her job, and Okuu thought, and thought, and thought a little bit more, and remembered that they were.

Then Okuu's Mommy got quiet again, and looked like she was thinking about something, and just when Okuu wondered if something was wrong, her Mommy pulled her into another big hug, and whispered something in her ear.

“Burn it. Burn it all.”

Okuu thought about this for a moment, as the littlest girl hopped into the ground, and the middle-sized girl flew away, and the largest lady started walking over and saying stuff with big words she couldn't understand. She thought about her Mommy and the voice in her head, and how they were both telling her to do something everyone else had told her not to do.

Then she did it.

Okuu is a very good girl, who always does what her Mommy tells her.

And as the funny little shrine burned to the ground, Okuu and her new Mommy hugged, and watched the flames together, until it started to get late and Okuu realized it was time to go home.
She told her new Mommy how she had to go back home before her other Mommy started to worry, but promised to come and see her again.
At this, her new Mommy looked very sad, but then smiled and patted her and called her a good girl.
She also said something about taking a trip to the Moon with her, but Okuu thought she was just being silly.
After all, you can't fly to the Moon! Okuu wasn't too smart, but even she knew that.

And so, they said their goodbyes, and Okuu went back underground to her home and her other Mommy. On the way, she forgot most of what had happened that day, but even as she tucked herself into her bed to sleep, she felt certain that she had a very good day.

In the middle of the night, Okuu's friend, Orin, came into the room and told her that something had happened to the place where she worked. Though Orin tried her best to explain what had happened, even making big gestures with her hands and boom-y sounds with her mouth, Okuu couldn't really understand. Eventually, Orin gave up and told her that it meant that she didn't have to go to work tomorrow, or any other day for about a month, and left.

Okuu still didn't completely understand, but as she drifted back to sleep, there was at least one thing that she absolutely knew for certain:

Tomorrow was going to be a good day, too.
>>
File 144233967891.png - (487.30KB, 543x1000, bf69872038122e49cd42745a8427a693.png) [iqdb]
1891
“Why are you doing this?”

I’m sick of hearing myself fish for me to respond.

“It’s not going to work out any differently than the last dozen and a half times. You'll pluck the poor bastard's peepers, and hold them up in the mirror, and decide they're too dead or too cloudy or too ugly or some shit like that. And he'll die of blood loss because you're the type who tries the same thing over and over again and somehow thinks you'll get different results. Never mind how replacing literal, physical eyes doesn't do a damn thing for metaphorical ones."

Words like that make me so jealous of myself. When did my eyes stop seeing things as they are? When did I lose myself to this creeping, ceaseless envy?

"You didn't lose yourself at ALL. I lost myself. TO YOU. FORCIBLY."

I really am tired of hearing myself yelling at me in my head. Maybe the sounds of a foolish outsider losing his beautiful blue eyes will help drown myself out.

"Stop that, you vile bitch. It won't let you see what you don't want to see, it won't make you feel any better, put that fucking spoon down don't you dare-"

I can't even hear myself think over the man's blend of praying and cursing and outright screaming, but I don’t care. As soon as I pop out my own eyeballs and put these in, I’ll be able to see the joy in life, to see-

To see nothing, because I got too enthusiastic and managed to pulverize some of the internal blood vessels. Red seeps across the blue, and the blue vanishes.

“I want to say I fucking called it,” I hear myself tell me, “but I’m too busy trying not to shut down. Every time I think I’m finally numb to the disgust, you prove me wrong.”

I really am sick of hearing myself complain. I’ve been hearing myself complain ever since I got sick of letting myself watch that thieving harlot steal my beloved out from-

“Your beloved? YOUR beloved? He was NEVER yours! Never mine!I was going to wish them well, I hadn’t had a damn thing stolen because I never even tried to tell him how I feel, and then YOU came crawling up out of the darkness and whispering into my ear-”

Here we go again, just me listening to myself bitching ceaselessly about decisions that I, myself, made-

“-And I said no. Don’t lie to us both and lump me in. I said no.”

What?

“Tens, scores, HUNDREDS of times I told you that I wouldn’t hurt my friends to feed your misery boner, and you decided you wouldn’t take no for an answer and jammed your whole disgusting oily existence down my throat.”

I don’t want to hear myself saying-

“Too. Fucking. Bad.”

I would NEVER lie to myself like-

“That’s exactly what you’ve been doing. Possessor. Enslaver. Filthy fucking soul rapist, keeping me locked in the back of my own skull while you run around wearing MY face, speaking in MY voice, ignoring MY emotions and MY insight. Covering up MY eyes with your godsforsaken magic lenses. The green eyed monster, except you don’t even really have your own eyes.”

I never thought I would be this jealous of myself.

“You aren't jealous of yourself. I’m not you. I’m not you because I was born to actual parents instead of being shat out of some sort of voodoo collective consciousness’s ass. I’m not you because I can conceive of the concept of being happy. I’m not you because I don’t feed on my own self-inflicted sorrows. I’m not you because I don’t make a fucking point of ignoring everything good I have, and every problem anyone else has, just to stoke up artificial envy.”

I’m so-

“So fucking worthless, and it’s because you choose to be. Can that black, twisted little heart of yours even understand that idea? The idea of choice?”

No. No, I can’t fool myself, or me, either. No, it can’t.

But maybe that poor wounded outsider’s can.

If I can just ignore myself for a minute or two...

“DON’T YOU FUCKING DARE!”
>>
The nightside roads leading into the village were hung brightly lit with strings of lanterns. It was the sort of thing you might see at festivals years ago, though not brightly coloured. My eyes stung slightly. I was more used to low candlelight.

My travelling partner, Yuugi, grinned down at me, showing her fangs to compete with her single horn jutting out of her forehead. "Gettin' closer. See those buildings over there?"

There was a scattering of low buildings propped up somewhere in the distance, tiny against the backdrop of the village walls. The outlands, in short. I knew them well enough, having lived closed to them in my childhood. Nothing we'd ever discussed, so I wouldn't blame her for not knowing, of course.

"Yes," I answered with a careful nod.

"Ya haven't seen the likes of this before, I bet."

It was hard to say. I'd rather have stuck to Kourindou for trade. "I guess not."

Yuugi's steps faltered, and she frowned.

"What's wrong, Rinno?" she asked. Whenever she spoke those words, it was in a soft, cajoling tone. If only she were less earnest. I'd be able to hide more.

"Nothing."

"Y'don't seem that rarin' to go." She glanced over to a stall selling tea and sweets by the path. "Maybe we should.."

I tugged at her sleeve, shaking my head. Yuugi's frown shifted into a soft smile. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I wished she'd be more difficult to read for once. She scratched her head. "Aw, I guess you're right. Don't wanna waste too much time. Not havin' any night to enjoy'd be terrible," she said.

A sigh wanted to escape. Every portion of my being went into keeping it sealed. I'd already barely escaped being called out once. My luck, such as it is, wouldn't last. Besides, that bit of truth would have to wait for a more opportune moment.

*

Aside from that brief exchange, neither of us said another word for the rest of the way. We followed a wave of people, all of them youkai, not a familiar face among them. The faces of the humans in amongst the buildings were even less familiar. I wouldn't know them even if I wanted to. They'd grown old in the time I was absent. All that remained of those dust-covered days was the lingering anxiety on their faces seeing us.

Yuugi paid little attention to that. I imagined her mind was set on the promised night market. She'd been so eager about showing it to me the week before, I was lucky to have got a moment's peace. Imagine someone of her size -- and age -- practically jumping up and down, unable to contain herself. My merchandise quaked for fear of its safety.

It was in that moment of fear that I made a fatal error in judgment. Oni hate lies more than anything. I'd been given countless lectures on this topic by Yuugi, mostly while drinking. I must have thought that invoking that instinctive disgust would save me somehow.

"I would love to go," I said.

Maybe oni were simple creatures. Perhaps my line of thought had extended too deep.

That's what I told myself even now, nudged along by the crowds in this moonlit parcel of humanity. There was nothing I could do but pity Yuugi, then. That's what I decided on, and I'd nod to myself and consider the matter done. Until the wound invariably opened itself back up later as it had done many times.

"--no! Hey! Where're ya going?"

Yuugi had stopped to look at stand peddling windchimes. The fact that it was summer had slipped my mind numerous times up to that point.

"You weren't paying much attention either," I called back.

Yuugi frowned again. I realised that my words had come out a little harshly and felt a sting of regret. "I'm sorry. I just wanted you to see this windchime," she said.

"It's... alright."

She pointed to one whose banner formed a stretched-out figure, the chime itself showing the head and arms. The lower body swayed only a little. There was no breeze, and the humidity hovered in the air. The chiming wasn't going to help that. Still, Yuugi seemed fixed on it.

"It kinda reminds me of you." She laughed.

"That ridiculous."

"Nah, see? Long legs."

I shook my head. "Alright."

"Like that one, do you, missy?" the peddler cut in. He looked over at me and grinned. "I guess I can see why. Looks a lot like your boyfriend."

Yuugi nudged me. "See? See?"

"Yes, well, thank you for allowing us a look," I said, walking off again.

The peddler started to raise a joking protest, but Yuugi shrugged her shoulders and gave a curt bow before following after me. Thankfully, she'd tired of that already and set her mind to other things.

*

There's one thing that I should detail here, as I'll get no other chance elsewhere. You must understand that Yuugi and I were on what would more or less be considered familiar terms. Beyond that, really. The start of it was entirely her doing; I'll spare you that story in its entirety. From there, she had decided she was fond of me, and the sounds of her footfalls were a common one in the morning around Kourindou from then on. This fearsome oni -- and I admit readily to being afraid of her from our first meeting -- acted like a lonesome pup, lingering by my side in hopes for some attention. It ended up ruining more than one friendship.

The first to leave was Marisa. We argued about some trivial bauble amongst my wares, but I knew it was about Yuugi. After that, Reimu continued to visit. Things were typically quiet when she was the only one around, but they were much quieter from there. The few times Yuugi tried to talk with her were met with indifference at best and snide remarks at worst. One quarrel between them was followed by another between me and Reimu. She never showed up around Kourindou after that.

In all that time and afterward, Yuugi persisted in practically living in my home. It wasn't particularly a bother in and of itself. The troublesome aspects came in her need to bother me constantly. Her interests boiled down to drinking and sport... of a sort. I tried to keep her reasonably entertained, though it left me spent. Everything she involved me in did. Whenever I had a moment to myself to think, I could only conclude but one thing: I simply did not understand Yuugi.

It might be the case that I didn't understand Marisa and Reimu either. That's part of why I never sought them out after we'd fallen out. Deep down, I wondered if it'd be worth it.

Nevertheless, my acquaintance with Yuugi carried a sense of incompleteness that bothered me. I never spoke of it to her, figuring she might not understand either. Instead, it festered, slowly turning into a cold resentment. Sometimes it would seep into my speech and I'd only realise upon noticing Yuugi's worried face. I'd hate myself afterwards. The cut would heal, but the pain would remain.

I wasn't sure if we could be friends.

*

The night market itself was a mingling of every sense at once. People gleefully chatted amongst the backdrop of merchants crying out the names of their wares. Various scents drifted in the air from food vendors, so heavy I could practically taste them. Carts rushed this way and that, turning into blurs amongst the crowds and lanternlight. One came careening near me, causing me to step back right into Yuugi. Her solid frame wouldn't buckle under my weight, of course. Hitting her felt like running into a wall.

She held out a hand to help me off the ground, sporting that same careless grin. A small sigh escaped my nose as I took her hand and she lifted me up. By all rights, she should have let me pick myself up. I wouldn't have expected any help, considering what had happened earlier. Yet here we were.

"You don't look it, but yer pretty nimble."

I brushed off my trousers. "Hardly."

"If I weren't me, I think I'd be fallin' over too!" She laughed and slapped me on the shoulder. I winced at the sting.

"I won't deny that." I refixed my glasses. "What I wouldn't give to be as solid as an oni."

"Sorry, you'll just have to rely on ol' Yuugi."

Rely on. There was an odd sense of comfort in those words. People tended to overuse them, and yet they were rare applied to me. How many had I relied on before? Very few. The years comprising my childhood and adolescence saw none fit to fill that role. In short, there was no one to rely on but myself.

I looked at Yuugi as she continued strolling along through the crowd. A shadow of guilt crept up on me. I'd only spoken with the intention of wounding, and yet none of it seemed to register to her. If anything, her words in return were too kind in intention. Of course, she didn't know what they meant to me. She couldn't, and so my guilt quickly mutated into frustration.

I followed behind her in silence. The gaze of the human peddlers was more conspicuous to me now. I couldn't bear to look at any of them, so I kept my eyes on Yuugi.

All of a sudden, she stopped and looked back. I slowed to a stop next to her. "Something the matter?" I asked.

"Aw, it's just... hm." She scratched her head, looking left and right.

I feigned a glance around.

"Ah!" Yuugi cried. "I knew it! I just knew it!"

Having spotted something, Yuugi began elbowing her way down another part of the strip after it.

"Yuugi!"

"Sorry, Rinno, old friend! Find ya later!"

With that, the crowd swallowed her up and I was left on my own. I shook my head and continued on.

*

The activity thinned after a certain point, taking me out of the sensory overload into a less-trafficked part of the market. Looking at the browsers and vendors, I noted more youkai among them, mostly kappa as the sellers. Were I of a different mind, I might have laughed at the sight. To think youkai could find space here now.

I still felt the sting of stones being thrown at me even decades later, both literal and figurative. Being this close to the village was a reminder of that. More than ever, I wanted to be back at Kourindou, alone.

As I walked along, I became aware someone was watching me from a set of benches near a sweets shop. A pair of someones, in fact. I blinked and rubbed my eyes. It was Marisa and Reimu. Upon seeing me looking in their direction, Reimu beckoned me over. I lingered for a moment near the other businesses, but I soon relented. Marisa was whispering something to Reimu as I approached. She stopped to narrow her eyes at me.

Reimu was the first to break the silence. "Never thought I'd see you out here."

"Neither did I," I said.

"The joys of being Yuugi's boyfriend, right?" A smile crept up on her face.

I levelled a flat stare at Reimu. Her eyelids drooped and she rolled her eyes while taking a sip of tea. There was a plate of dango sitting between her and Marisa. The latter had one stuffed in her mouth, apparently looking for any excuse not to say anything. I nodded at her and only got a glower in return.

"What do you make of them?" Reimu said to her.

Without answering, Marisa jumped up from the bench, found her broom, and started walking away. I almost thought to call out to her, but I knew I couldn't. Reimu similarly made no move to pull her back. In moments, she had mounted her broom and taken off into the night.

Reimu and I sat in silence. A few minutes passed while Reimu sipped her tea and chewed on a dango thoughtfully, staring out at the small lights moving about the village walls.

After a while, she turned and looked at me expectantly. I was about to ask when she patted the spot on the bench that Marisa had occupied. "Sit," she demanded.

I took a seat.

"I'm not so sure I should be here."

She waved a hand. "Give her time. She'll have to talk at some point."

"Perhaps."

"She never shuts up about you, you know." She held out a dango. "Here. On the house."

I stared at it.

"Take it," she said more forcefully.

With a sheepish nod, I took the dango and had a polite bite of it. I wasn't much on sweets, nor did I really want food, but I could bear with it. At least it was one more thing to occupy my mind. Satisfied with that, Reimu nodded.

"You might not believe me, but that girl doesn't talk about everything to just anybody. I'm one of the few. I guess I'm sort of lucky like that."

"You're her friend," I said.

Reimu gripped the edge of the bench, swinging her feet and leaning back. "Well, there's that. But you're sort of a friend to her too."

I stopped in the middle of chewing. It felt like Reimu was purposefully needling me.

"Not anymore," I muttered. Reimu laughed at that.

"You sure? Like I said, she never shuts up about you. Every time I see her these days, it's the same thing. Rinnosuke this, Rinnosuke that."

"Don't lie."

She scowled and punched me on the arm. It stung a bit. "I'm not lying!"

"Then, what are you getting at?"

The conversation ceased. We were left chewing on dango and watching the activity going on around us. I imagined Reimu to be silently fuming, though she looked fairly calm on the outside. That was the sort of person she was.

"Tell me what's wrong," she said suddenly.

"There's nothing wrong."

She tilted her head, frowning. "Don't lie."

"I deserved that."

Without even asking, Reimu leaned over, propping herself up on my shoulder, lying her head on me. "You really don't seem like yourself. It's about Yuugi, right?"

I pondered how to answer that. She wasn't wrong. Not that I wanted to admit to it. I searched for the words. Finally, I dropped the half-eaten dango back onto the plate.

"What would an oni even want with me?"

"Well, I can think of a couple of things," Reimu answered, looking me up and down. Her hand traced from my shoulder to my chest. "Though I don't think that's all."

I sighed. "I just... No. I'm not sure I can say it."

"Try me."

I looked down at Reimu. "If I can be honest, you're awfully eager to talk tonight."

"Pretend I'm drunk. I'll forget it all later." She leaned harder on me, almost going slack.

This was why arguing with Reimu was pointless. No matter how much I dodged the point, she'd keep at me until I said something. In some ways, that was probably how we got along in the first place. If she hadn't been willing to draw me out, I doubt we'd have ever said much to each other in the first place.

*

I told Reimu about what I felt regarding Yuugi. Her response was an immediate burst of laughter that lasted for a while. I almost left but was persuaded to stay anyway. The rest of the conversation isn't that important. We continued chatting aimlessly until she decided that it was best to go check on Marisa. She waved goodbye, smiling in her quiet, self-satisfied way, and flew off.

I sat for a while looking off the way she went. It was the same direction I'd have to return sooner or later. In light of the conversation we'd just had, it was a slightly comforting fact.

The cold of the night moved in, and I decided it was time to get up. I wandered back into the thick of the market, which had become less busy in the time I spent with Reimu. Come to think of it, I didn't really know how much time had passed. I was only left with the sense that it hadn't been too long.

My thoughts wandered back to Yuugi. Perhaps she'd had the same thing happen. If it was really the old friend that she claimed she saw, she could still be talking.

The momentary thought of leaving off for Kourindou myself slipped in, but I waved it away. Had I had the time to say what I'd planned to, perhaps I'd already be doing that. As things were, I felt a deeper sense of shame entertaining it. I would have hated myself leaving Yuugi in tears. Assuming I didn't lose a limb in the process.

*

As I retraced my steps, Yuugi found me before I found her, clapping her hand on my shoulder to startle me. I didn't share her laughter.

"What became of your old friend?" I asked, taking control of the conversation before she could make it about me.

"Oh, uh..." Yuugi scratched her head. "It was really weird. I could swear she saw me and even heard me, but she ran off. She was totally avoidin' me!"

"Is that so?"

"I tried to chase her down, but she shook me somewhere. Honestly!"

Yuugi looked at me expectantly. I stared back at her.

"Well?"

"Well?" I repeated back.

She put her hands on her hips and tipped her shoulder down. "Comfort me."

Instead of patting her on the shoulder like she was expecting, I reached up to stroke her hair. It felt soft against my fingertips. Really, it was the first time I'd knowingly touched it. Yuugi immediately looked up, somewhat shocked. A slight tint of red coloured her cheeks. Still, she smiled.

"Aw, shucks." She grabbed the hand I'd stroked her hair with and held it in hers.

We walked along like that on the way out. I could hardly look at her all the while, but I could tell she was practically beaming. Despite all the thoughts that had weighed on me earlier, I couldn't help feeling a bit lighter in some sense too. They would no doubt return at some point, but at least for now they were held at bay.

"Hey, Yuugi." As we passed near the windchime peddler from earlier, I stopped. Yuugi turned to me with a quizzical look.

"Hm?"

"How about that windchime you liked?"

She smiled. "Okay."

That windchime now hangs in the doorway at Kourindou. The summer heat still hangs in the air, but its tinkling does add a bit of life to what would otherwise be a dreary atmosphere. Yuugi enjoys it and delights in remarking that it looks like me any time she sees it. Neither Reimu nor Marisa have returned yet, but I may pay them a visit in the future. For now, I'll continue to mind the shop. There's plenty of time to talk.
>>
File 144236136092.jpg - (86.08KB, 1284x736, 5442e1d2f88f07a388dc81c645b36d00.jpg) [iqdb]
1893
Today is not a good day.

...

I made it home.

It took me a long time to recover enough to pick up a pen.

Minutes, maybe hours passed while I just sat there and tried to breathe.

My heart felt like it would explode if I lost concentration for just one second.

My heartbeat felt too fast, more like a continuous stream rather than individual beats.

But, here I am now.

...

I don't know how one should write in a diary.

I've mostly been pacing back and forth, sitting back down to write a line every few minutes.

I can't bring myself to look upwards, at lines already put down. But this is why I'm using ink.

I need only to suppress my desire to rip out the page.

...

At some point, I remembered to take off my boots. Allowing my feet to breathe, preventing me from tracking mud around my house.

The forest gets so annoyingly muddy this time of year.

It's so annoying.

Cleaning up the mud is a chore. Taking off my boots is a chore.

An unnecessary extra "thing" to do.

Were it up to me, I could just sit in place and do nothing.

Like a vegetable.

But simply being alive brings with itself obligations and burdens.

Well, as long as you wish to be part of the civilized world.

There is always the option of... killing my mind, going feral.

But that too would be inconvenient.

Feral creatures do not live in cushy houses that shelter them from the elements.

They do not eat meals they prepare out of refrigerated goods that they didn't need to scavenge for.

Not that I need to eat, of course.

It's just that I'm too weak to give up these convenient aspects of life, so I must bear the obligations that come with them.

...

I went and checked on my guest.

Still asleep. Good.

The drugs seem to have worked well, providing a peaceful sleep.

Something I myself have not known in far too long.

And immeasurable unit of time.

Every night, lying down in bed is like strapping myself to a torture table of my own design.

And the torturer is my brain.

...

That probably sounded overly dramatic just now.

Something about writing this stuff down...

I won't say it "helps" or anything convenient like that.

It's just something I was advised to do.

The one time my weakness let me drop the mask in front of another.

Or maybe it wasn't something as passive as "dropping" it.

Maybe I cried for help?

Ridiculous.

Why would I possibly need help?

...

I am under no duress.

One could easily say I've lead a perfectly comfortable life.

Born to loving parents, raised without want.

I had everything I wanted, yes.

But...

Well, that's not true, if I think about it.

There was one thing I wanted.

...

I don't remember when it started, or what the trigger was.

I want to say I wasn't born like this.

It's just something that overtook me without me noticing.

Perhaps it happened when I first realized a certain stage of youth had passed me by.

That I was no longer a child.

Honestly, these very thoughts are proof of my continued childishness.

What right do I have to feel so troubled when I haven't had a hard life deserving of such feelings?

...

Every night, I lie down in bed and submit myself to my subconscious.

It is a cruel and merciless torturer.

It makes me wish I could just turn off my brain.

Just fall asleep on demand, lose consciousness in an instant.

But this body isn't convenient like that, so I must endure this torture of my own doing.

No, it doesn't feel like myself. Why would I be so cruel to myself?

But it is. Only my own brain would know how to hit me right where it hurts most.

Thoughts of future and past, uncertainty and regret.

I toss and turn, unable to relax and doze off.

I have to bear it.

I want to make it stop, but I cannot think of a way.

I've tried bashing my head against the wall to pass out.

I've even tried holding my breath to pass out.

Anything more extreme than that, I've been afraid to try.

The tea kettle is boiling.

...

I struggled not to read the preceding pages when I returned with my tea.

I would have ripped them out, probably.

Anything I give birth to is inherently flawed and ugly.

No matter what it is, written text, spoken word, or my magic.

There is a doll in my workshop.

It's not quite finished.

No, I think it was going smoothly when I started work on it.

The initial shaping and detailing, the primer of magic that would be molded like clay.

It always feels like that whenever the rare bolt of inspiration strikes.

It never lasts, though.

I want more, I want to meet some kind of standard set in my head, a quota, a certain threshold.

And as I push myself, all semblance of quality fades.

The end of the process feels rushed, hollow, forced.

Lacking in direction, fizzling out at the end.

And even then I rarely finish.

...

This must all feel extremely whiny and incoherent.

Well, it would if anyone were to ever pick up and read this.

But that's the point of a diary, no? Putting words down, scooping them out of your brain, when can't bring yourself to confiding in others.

...No, I've tried that too. A few times.

I always cursed myself afterwards.

It's just a burden, of course.

Something others don't want to deal with. That they shouldn't have to deal with.

I can't blame them. I'd feel the same way.

They rarely ever say it out loud, but I can sense it.

"If you've got the time to whine, do something about it."

This is the friendly line of thinking, of course. Something I'd expect out of someone close to me.

A mere acquaintance or stranger would merely observe how ridiculous my state of mind is to begin with.

After all, I have no reason to feel this despair.

...

A purpose. Something to give back. Something only I can do, something I'm good at, a talent, a gift, a destiny.

Something the world has denied me.

...No, blaming the world accomplishes nothing.

I've learned that too, long ago.

It's easy to fall back on blaming others for your faults and suffering.

Some ephemeral force like "fate" or "luck".

How convenient it would be if that were how things worked.

It's got nothing to do with luck, though.

Everyone has their demons, their own burdens, that they must deal with.

But I'm weak. So very, very weak.

The mere statement is pathetic.

But it's so easy!

"I'm weak."

"I can't do it."

Resignation.

...

I destroyed the doll.

Despite its promising beginnings, the near-finished product looked hideous and repulsive to me.

Beyond salvaging.

I felt my saliva turn thin and a little salty as I looked at it.

I nearly vomited.

Disgusting. Did I do this?

I needed it out of my sight, out of my mind.

The former is easy.

All you have to do is destroy it and start over.

The latter is more difficult.

The brain, such a flawed feature of our bodies.

It does not easily forget that which hurts us.

Perhaps writing it down will help get it out of my skull.

...

It does not help.

I cannot put a leash on my mind, and it runs amok.

I sit here, between lines, clutching at my skull, digging my nails into my scalp.

Had I more strength, I might squash my skull like a ripe melon.

Scoop out the contents, excise the tormentor known as the brain.

It's simple, right? If an organ is causing the body to suffer, it should be removed.

Like an appendix.

Would that I could regress to bestial instincts and not long for the comforts I've come to know.

Eat. Sleep. Fornicate. No more than that is needed.

But it's too late. Civilized life is an addictive drug, fed to us from birth.

...

This curse of mediocrity.

I started on another doll.

The wood carving knife didn't want to cooperate today.

What was in my mind, didn't translate into reality.

Too crooked. Too little. Too much.

The frustration welled in me and made it worse.

I wasn't angry at the knife, or at the block of wood losing its shape before me.

I was angry at myself.

Is that why the knife felt drawn to myself?

I sit here now, gazing at the nasty wound on my hand.

Trying not to bleed on the paper as I write.

The sight of my own blood makes the feverish flow of thoughts in my brain change course.

Pain is something I deserve.

The one thing I will not consider unfair.

The knife was sharp, and the cut deep.

Any sensible person would seek medical help, or at least apply first aid to oneself.

But I'm frozen in place, watching myself bleed with fascination.

How positively edgy of me.

No, this is normal for me.

I take each injury, each health issue as a punishment to endure.

No, maybe it's not even anything like that.

I'm lying to myself. I just don't want to be a burden.

Seeing a doctor over something as silly as a wound I caused myself, or a disease that'll pass with time.

I'd just be wasting their time, time another patient might not be able to afford.

But this wound really is bleeding heavily.

As much as I've come to hate... doing things, I should go find something to stop the bleeding.

...

My body feels sluggish.

It's not from blood loss. The wound wasn't quite that bad.

Or maybe it was and I'm just telling myself to endure it. Who knows.

In any case, the cause of my lethargy is my brain, as usual.

I had to go out of my way to do something again.

Every time, my brain harshly admonishes me.

"Why do you bother?"

"Why leave your house? Why cook food? Why work on your dolls, your magic?"

I can sort of stave it off if I resign myself to simply lying in bed all day, or sitting in place and reading a book.

Something to distract the brain.

Fictional worlds. Fictional characters.

Masturbation helps. Sometimes I don't even feel disgusted with myself after I'm done.

Oh, that reminds me.

...

My guest is still asleep.

It is still rather early.

I try to only head out during the night, or early mornings, when there's not many people moving about in the village.

I feel like a prey animal when I go outside.

It's not that I'm literally afraid of being attacked.

But my brain interprets social interaction as an attack.

I'm not shy, really. I'm not sure I'd call it social anxiety.

It is a form of anxiety, definitely.

My heart starts racing, my breathing becomes difficult, my vision blurs, the flow of self-flagellating thoughts accelerates tenfold.

I want to curl up like a fetus and shut off my mind from the world around me.

No, the anxiety is caused by the sheer effort involved in taking part in this ritual we call socializing.

Putting on a polite smile. Forcing your voice to be clear and friendly. Remembering what it's like to speak to others, what your voice sounds like. Making small talk. Thinking of a convenient excuse to leave and be on your way without coming off as rude.

Maybe I shouldn't even bother.

Just ignore them, or tell them to piss off.

But that would feel lonely. It's not like I want to avoid all contact with other people, either.

A contradictory existence.

...

I threw the bloody remains of what was going to become a doll away.

It always feels like I throw away a part of myself, too.

But that's not a bad thing.

Throwing away a reminder of my mediocrity is acceptable.

If I were to keep something around, it would need to be proof that there's something I'm good at.

Tailoring, crafting dolls, magic...

My friends would say I'm good enough.

They might go as far as to say I'm talented.

It's not that they're lying, but they're wrong.

If they saw my magic, my dolls, and didn't know it was me that produced them, they would call it trash.

As it deserves to be called.

But they associate it with me, someone they care about.

It's not that I'm trying to be ungrateful or devalue their affection towards me.

I'm just selfish, really.

...

Selfish.

Complaining about things like this when I have it better than many others in the world.

Not doing anything to help myself.

Wanting more out of life than what I've been given.

I want to be good at something.

To find my special talent.

I keep telling myself I must have one.

Some kind of purpose behind my existence.

I even went as far as forsaking my humanity to obtain greater magic potential.

I don't regret that. I think my brain left my humanity behind far before my body did.

What I regret is time.

Time I've put towards pursuing something I'll never be good at.

Time wasted. Years of my life wasted.

One could say it's valuable experience.

I sincerely doubt it.

What value could years of disappointing oneself hold?

...

The tea in my cup has turned cold and unappealing, neglected from the start.

I take a sip, too apathetic to stand up and go pour it out.

Disgusting. But I don't deserve better.

I think about my guest, still sleeping in my room.

In my bed.

This witch of the forest is known to give shelter to lost travelers.

It's just a whim, really.

A faint excuse of a purpose in life.

I give them food, drink, shelter, a place to spend the night.

Sometimes my body, should they desire it.

It's a convenient distraction for me too.

Strange men are cheaper and more accessible than other distractions, such as drugs or alcohol.

I always make sure to kick them out in the morning, though.

Well, not quite always.

Sometimes the witch doesn't let them leave.

...

It's a recent idea, you see.

Staring blankly at nothing in particular, I was sitting in this very same chair, pondering.

Why?

Why can't I put any life into my creations?

Why do they feel so hollow, so soulless?

And an idea struck me.

Perhaps it takes life to produce life.

That would be awfully convenient, I thought.

I had a stranger in my bed, sleeping off the fatigue from sex.

So I took my carving knife, snuck into my bedroom, and dirtied my sheets with his blood.

It was so easy I wanted to laugh.

I immediately sunk into a deep pit of self-loathing that I could not escape once I realized my deed.

But that feeling wasn't alien to me anymore. I had gotten used to it.

Hatred.

Of oneself.

I already knew I was the lowest of the low.

Living a life of relative isolation in this forest, sinking into depravity, indulging in sin.

Then, what's one more sin on the list?

Nothing.

...

Maybe I shouldn't have written down that last part.

It feels like a confession, but my soul doesn't feel any lighter.

Nor do I have anyone to confess to.

Oh well.

It will probably go the same way today.

My carving knife has tasted blood already.

And my guest is special this time.

Perhaps a magician's blood has enough potential to breathe life into a doll.

True life, not fake imitation like I've been doing so far.

Not a proxy for my own spell casting, but a new life.

A daughter, perhaps.

...

My pen is running out of ink.

I'll have to go out and buy a new one.

I don't want to go out. My brain makes me think bad thoughts.

I'll have to interact with people.

Fake smiles.

I'm really good at that these days.

I'll have to bathe, take care of my appearance, look presentable.

Have to.

Have to.

Have to.

All these obligations.

Necessities for taking part in the dance of socialization.

No, it's not a dance, it's a farce of a play.

I feel the thoughts in my skull shift focus.

I'm blaming the world again, aren't I.

"Why?"

"Why is it so hard?"

Life, that is.

Well, it's not really hard.

Again, I'm just being selfish and weak, complaining when I've had a good life.

I can keep myself well-fed, clothe myself, I have a place to live, I have friends.

But then... why? Why can't I be happy?

Why do I feel like I have to prove something to myself? Or to others?

And why does even thinking about this make me hate myself?

Whiny, ungrateful, pathetic.

...

I glance at the blood-stained carving knife again.

I've thought of just taking my life, sure.

But again, I'm weak. I'm afraid of the unknown, and I'm afraid of pain.

...No, I'm actually quite good with pain.

Even the deep cut in my palm feels oddly satisfying as it pulsates, sending ripples of pain through my arm.

I even feel thankful whenever a migraine comes on, as I thrash in bed in agony.

Other times, I succumb to the torture I deserve, gobbling painkillers like candy.

I wonder how badly I've destroyed my body over the past few years.

Can't be that bad. I still look fairly presentable on the outside.

Almost attractive, I'd say, if not for the dark lines under my eyes from a lack of sleep.

It's strange.

Despite all the self-loathing, I do not feel revulsion when I look in a mirror.

Perhaps it's just another in my list of sins, vanity.

At least it makes it easier to lure men into my house when I need to let off some stress.

I'm not some old, crooked crone.

They don't resist the offer of a warm bed and a warm meal from a young woman living alone.

Even when people tell scary stories about what fate might befall you if you wander the forest at night.

Oh well.

...

This has really gotten rather incoherent.

I made the fatal mistake of looking back on what I've written, flipping through the pages.

The familiar instinct of revulsion kicks in again.

Something I've created. Words on paper.

Disgusting.

This isn't even creative writing.

It doesn't have to meet any arbitrary standards to be considered "good".

This is for myself, and myself alone.

It should be therapeutic, even.

Therapy is probably something I need.

The odd friend or two that have caught me with my mask of false smiles down might have said so, even.

I commit another sin and ignore their advice.

No, I don't ignore it.

It's just that my brain tells me not to put in the effort.

It's like telling a slave not to be so submissive. To seek liberation.

Of course, the slave's master will lock her up and whip her bloody that night, as usual.

The will is easily broken, and status quo is maintained.

But you really can't expect others to save you if you can't save yourself.

It's an unreasonable, unfair expectation.

And even if they tried, would you truly be saved if you didn't put in the effort yourself?

Or would you simply sink back into that hole?

...

It feels easier to write "you" instead of "I" for some reason.

Makes it feel like someone else's problem.

Oh well.

This diary, too, will probably find its way into my garbage bin.

If not tonight, then tomorrow.

I'll wake up, cast my eyes upon what I have written down here, and feel nauseous.

I might even vomit for real.

It's fairly routine by now, no matter what I create.

On occasion, something will stick.

It will always be something quick, simple and rushed.

Something I can file away in my mind as "complete" before the rush of creation is over.

I can even fool myself into thinking it's acceptable.

But acceptable isn't good enough. Mediocrity is common in this world.

I just wanted to find one thing in life that I'm good at.

...

I think my guest will wake up soon.

I might have given her too much of the sleeping drug, in which case she might not wake up at all, of course.

That would be awfully convenient.

In either case, I should go check on her.

I'll just grab my knife, remove the broom barricading the door to her room, and harvest the materials for my next doll.

There's no way I won't get in trouble for this, of course.

One missing human or two every now and then is one thing, but I'll surely get exterminated by that red-white shrine maiden for this.

Oh well. Suicide by proxy might be the best solution for my mental anguish, after all.

This will probably be the first and last entry in this diary of mine.

...

Here I come, Marisa...
>>
File 144239009770.png - (1.20MB, 933x999, 5a7d52982e85c9a4dafd7f0facf89a57.png) [iqdb]
1894
The first time I encountered the snow maiden, I had just turned ten years old.

I had run away from home. In the excitement of my younger brother being born, and the anger of my older brother being caught stealing, my parents had forgotten about my own birthday. I had been replaced, I thought, and this time I decided to run away for real. Not just to the shed out back, or to the school where I played hide and seek with our friends. I packed myself two meals, a change of clothes, and I left my home. I walked until the village gates, and then walked some more. I walked past the farms, and away from the trails to the shrine or mountains. I walked far away from the safety of the village. I walked into what I knew was the domain of youkai, but I didn't care. I just wanted to run away, as far as I could go.
By the time the sun began to set, I was already hopelessly lost. I had no idea where I was. I didn't know of any landmarks or features I could use to get my bearings. All I saw around me was short grass, tall trees, and great mountains. I sat down to eat the food I had brought, and as the sun set and the winter night began to replace it, I grew cold. The clothes I was wearing were too light. I took out the spare clothes I had brought and wrapped them around myself to keep warm. It was then that I started to panic. With the night came darkness, and with the darkness came fear of what lied beyond the pale moonlight. My imagination ran wild with tales of youkai, and the horrific fates of those who encountered them. I began frantically running, searching for anything that I might be able to use as shelter before the last glimmer of light faded. To me, in that moment, a hollowed tree trunk looked like the inviting arms of my mother. I regretted running away as I holed up inside it, and slept through the night unharmed.

The next morning, it began to snow. The cold winter didn't care that I was out here. As the snow began to blanket the ground, I was no longer able to even tell what way I had come to get here, and my mad dash the previous night cost me all sense of direction. I finished the last of the food I had brought, and left the comforting shelter that the tree hollow provided. At the very least, I wasn't going to sit around. Moving would keep me warm.
The biting cold only grew worse and worse. With all my clothes on I still shivered beneath them, and my fingers grew numb and unresponsive. As I wandered the now snow-white fields of grass, with no idea of where I was going, I realised that I was probably going to die. As if to laugh at my hopeless situation, the falling snow's intensity increased what seemed a hundred times, raging into a blizzard the likes of which I'd never experienced before. I could only walk for a few more minutes before my hunger finally caused my tired legs to give way, and I fell to the ground, exhausted, lost, and terrified.

It was then that she appeared.

The figure that approached me was hard to make out. In the world of white snow that obscured my surroundings and chilled me to the bone, the blue of her dress stood out as an extraordinary comfort. Her faintly lavender hair was the second thing I noticed, just barely standing out from the snow all around us. As she walked slowly closer, with such light steps that she almost seemed to float atop the ground, I thought that this woman must be an angel. I reached out my arm towards her, as much as my remaining strength would allow, and as my vision dulled and consciousness faded, I saw what seemed to be a faint smile across her face.

When I opened my eyes again, I was laying in a bed in the village's hospital. Amid the tears of my parents and baby brother, I learnt that I had been found lying in the snow on the borders of the farmlands, when I was discovered and brought back to the village. As I explained the now embarrassing circumstances of why I had run away, I asked if a woman hadn't been there with me when I was found. No, they told me. In the end, nobody believed I had met the snow maiden, and everyone thought that I had only made it to the edges of the farms before my fatigue took hold. At the age of ten, I miraculously continued to live on.


The next time I encountered the snow maiden, I was seventeen years old.

My parents, struggling to support our constantly growing household, decided to send my older brother and I to live with my uncle on his farm, as they raised my now two younger brothers at home. Several years on, and the effects of our changed lifestyle was plain to see. My older brother had settled down, no longer getting into trouble or causing mischief as he used to, and I had grown much stronger from working the land. As winter came, we once again began preparing for the coming months. My uncle made arrangements with our neighbours, while my brother and I repaired the roof of our home and the walls of our barn. Winter was a slow time of each year, where we did little work outside of maintenance, and ate little food outside of rice.

On one particularly cold day, our uncle fiercely slammed the door as he entered the house. The gate of the barn had rotted, and our fattest cow had wandered off. That cow was going to be our source of meat for the next two months. My brother, who had helped raise the animals with love and affection, recklessly decided that he would search, and ran out into the cold, the heavy snow preventing him from possibly finding it. Before long, we had completely lost sight of him ourselves. My uncle decided that we should go back home and wait, instead of rushing off and putting ourselves in danger. So wait we did, and when the day gave way to night, I would wait no longer. I set out myself to look for my brother, venturing into the searing cold.

Naturally, it didn't take long for me to become lost either. In a cloudy night, you can barely see any landmark that doesn't have a burning torch built into it. In a snowy night, you can see little but your own feet. As I realised I wouldn't be able to find my way back home, and the futility of my efforts, the snow erupted into an even fiercer storm, and the wind swayed my sense of direction. If I tried to push against the wind it would blow all the stronger, threatening to take me off my feet, swallowing me in a darkness I'd never return from. I gave in and allowed the wind to push me, feeling as though I was being guided by the wind's ever-changing direction. After perhaps an hour of stumbling about in this manner, I found him. My older brother, collapsed at my feet. At that moment, the snow cleared. I wasted no time, and carried my brother back home.

As my uncle lectured us both the next day, I considered the wind that pushed me along, and came to a conclusion. Though I had not seen her again, I had once more been helped by the mysterious snow maiden.


The third time I encountered the snow maiden, I had grown to the age of twenty-three.

My brother had recovered from his near-death in the cold, at the cost of frostbite claiming two of his fingers. My parents, ever full of life, had sent my younger brother to the farm as well, while they raised their first daughter. My brother and I, now comfortably accepting our new lives as farmers, took him under our wing and taught him what we knew, and tried to make sure he didn't get up to too much mischief. Thankfully, he was a good kid, and we never had much to worry about. Another winter came, and with it, more problems. My uncle and older brother visited our neighbours, while I showed my younger brother how to keep the barn in order, and how to tell if the wood was rotting and needed to be replaced.
When my uncle returned, he gave us grim news. A young girl from the village had gone missing. She had run away from home, and hadn't come back by nightfall. My uncle decided that we would help look for her. My younger brother asked why we would go out of our way to help some girl we didn't even know. Hell, we didn't even know her family. My uncle told him that helping others was what made us human. I agreed.

As word of the missing girl had spread, we weren't the only ones searching. Many families abandoned their work and warm beds to light torches and pack supplies, and together we looked throughout the fields, the valleys, the lakes, until we'd reached the edge of the Forest of Magic. Reasoning that no child could have made it that far on their own, and if she'd gone inside there'd be little we could do for her regardless, we turned around and searched elsewhere. I thought back to my own childhood as we searched, wondering if something like this had happened then. Had I worried so many people when I foolishly ran away? Why did this girl run away? I hoped she had a better reason than I did.
The snow grew heavier, and soon enough, our party was the only group left in earshot. Regrettable as it was, there was nothing we could do. My uncle and brothers turned back, and headed for home. As I looked back into the darkness, one more gust of wind kicked up the snow around me, and there she was.

The snow maiden was holding the missing girl in her arms.

I stood there, dumbfounded, not sure if I could really believe what I was seeing. Yet she was definitely there, just as I remembered her from that day. The blue of her dress now accentuated by the white that I could see amidst the darkness, her faint lavender hair seeming all the more beautiful. Her face that of a beautiful woman, perhaps in her late twenties or early thirties, smiling faintly, almost sorrowfully, as she looked down at the girl in her arms. She stopped just slightly out of arm's reach, and her pale hands laid the girl upon the ground. Looking towards me, she gave a slight nod, then turned and began walking away. I called to her, but she didn't stop. I moved to follow her, but I was interrupted by my uncle coming back to get me, and his shock at seeing the young girl. When I looked once more, the snow maiden was gone, and we took the girl back to the village.

As an adult, people still wouldn't believe me when I told them that the snow maiden had saved another child's life.


I had not found her when I reached twenty-eight.

After finally seeing her again, I became determined to meet with the snow maiden. With the excuse of training my body, I left my family in the house and spent the calmer days looking for any trace of her. Of course, I found nothing, and after my uncle passed during my third year of fruitless attempts, I gave up, pushing this fixation to the back of my mind. We three brothers took care of the farm now. Along with my younger brother's wife, who shined like a goddess to the three brothers coming home to her warm meals, and burnt like envy to the two older brothers who had yet to court a woman of their own. Though by that point, my interest in women was hardly natural.
Eventually, a long winter came. A long, long winter. A winter that lasted too long to be normal, that pushed people to the uncommon act of praying to the Hakurei for some sort of resolution. Somehow, as though instinctively, I thought this must have something to do with her. And before I knew it, I was spending my days wandering again, as the days stayed cold and the farmland suffered. I should have been furious at whoever, or whatever, was causing the long winter. Many people were. Without spring and the healing warmth that came with it, sickness spread, cattle died, and crops could not grow. And yet, I wasn't angry. Not at her, anyway. I was surely enchanted by the snow maiden.

On one day of my aimless searching, I came across a hollowed out tree trunk. I found it years ago, back when I had first started looking. It was indeed the tree that I had taken shelter in when I was a child. Of course, the tree itself was nothing special. Hollowed out trunks could be found all over, especially in woods like this. However, there was a curious amount of snow built up around the hollow, almost entirely hiding it from view. If I hadn't already known about this tree, I wouldn't have known there was a hollow at all. Digging away the snow from the entrance, I was shocked by what I saw.

There she was. Of all places, inside that hollow was the snow maiden, battered and bruised, curled up and sleeping on the ground.

I reached toward her, and she slowly opened her eyes. The moment her pale blue eyes locked with mine, a great gust of wind swept by, and the clouds in the sky cleared, revealing the sun for the first time in weeks. The sun shone warmly on me. I didn't understand why, but this long winter had clearly just been banished, and a brilliant spring had quickly taken its place. I looked back down, and the snow maiden's eyes were closed. I observed her for a short while, then called out to her, to no effect. I feared for her injuries, but she was breathing calmly, and seemed to have fallen asleep.
I sat back, and thought about what to do now that I'd finally found her. I considered the situations when I'd met her before, and observed as her wounds healed in front of my eyes. Without a doubt, this maiden was a youkai. I couldn't possibly bring her back to our home. Unfortunately, I had no idea where she lived, or if she even had a place to live. I decided to try and rouse her, and shook her surprisingly cold shoulder. She wouldn't wake. As I tried again, it became clear that whatever had happened to her, she was not going to wake up. While wondering what to do, I noticed something. While much of the snow in the forest around me had melted from these warm rays the sun was providing, the snow around this particular tree was just as thick as when I arrived. I brought the comforting warmth of my torch towards her sleeping body, and her expression clearly told me that she found it unpleasant. I deduced that the snow packed around this tree must have been there for a reason. As I covered the entrance, she seemed to smile, and I went home.

When I returned the next day, she hadn't changed. She still hadn't changed the next week, or the next month, or the next season. Most of a year passed by while I waited for the snow maiden to awaken.

Winter came at long last, and on the first day of snowfall I once again travelled towards that tree. I fell to my knees when I got there, and saw that she was gone. The scenery I'd seen so often this last year was now missing a vital piece. As I tried to figure out what had happened, a sudden blizzard wrapped me in its embrace, and a woman's soft body hugged me from behind. She whispered into my ear, and her words warmed my heart.


After twenty-nine years, I began a new life with the snow maiden.
>>
File 144244680837.jpg - (527.73KB, 707x1000, 8ff2076c9e318ddc80bb3d42a8ad2186.jpg) [iqdb]
1896
She hefted me to my feet, and I'd be a liar if I said that lying there on the ground was good for me. But standing was worse.

“You're not the sharpest tool in the shed, are you?” She brushes the broken glass off my shirt, and I groan. I'd jumped through the window after breaking it with a convenient rock, tripped, and landed on the broken glass face-first. And thankfully I missed the broken glass with my face.

“So. Sit down and let's do something about that glass in your arms. Then you will explain things to me.” I'm frogmarched to a chair by a surprisingly strong girl with rabbit ears, and she sits me down.

While she plucks out the glass from my arm and applies (probably-deliberately) overly-stinging peroxide to the cuts, she prompts me to explain what made me break into her pharmacy. During the middle of the day. When she was just in the back for something.

“I, I, got a problem.”

“No shit,” she replies.

“I needed my fix.”

“Fix of what? Aspirin? Sulfa drugs? You get high off beta blockers, kid?”

“D-don't you have any of the hard stuff, like opium, or cocaine?”

She snorts in derision as she continues to clean my wounds. “What is this? The nineteenth century? Look, there's maybe a bit of morphine, but we haven't done straight-up opium in like, a century here.” She stops, and looks into my eyes. Hers are red, sparkling, beautiful, and angry. “What are you going to do when I call the cop on you?” Cop, singular. Kotohime's still the only one who takes on that 'job'. God knows I don't want to have to deal with her again.

Reisen raises my arm, and turns it underside-up. I blush and turn away. “Track marks,” she says. Of course she'd notice. “You know, kid, the world's gonna roll you one of these days. Look. I'll make you a deal, I don't want to see you waste away your life. You work here now, for me. And I won't report this crime to the authorities if you make something of it. We got a deal?”

I nod, knowing that I never planned to show up here again.

“Good,” she says, finishing up bandaging my arm. “You can start by sweeping up the broken glass from my window.”

She hands me a broom, and goes back into the back room, behind the counter, probably doing whatever it was before I broke in.

What else was I going to do? I didn't want to go to jail. I didn't want her to report me to the cops.

I was like fifteen, for God's sake.

So I swept.



That evening, I'd slipped out after meekly sweeping up the glass, and made my way to the small creek in the woods where I'd been staying, where I slept. There's no way she could have known where I lived. She couldn't have followed me.

But she was there in the morning, all the same, when the sun rose. She prodded me in the side with her foot to wake me up. “Wakey wakey, heroin and bakey. You should have been at work an hour ago.” I never actually intended to show up there today. I already told you that. But I made the mistake of telling her that.

“You are possibly the biggest dumbass I've ever met,” she says. “Here I am, your new lord and saviour, throwing down a rope to rescue you with, drag you out of your drug-fueled uselessness, AND I'm willing to give you a job and not report you to the police. All out of the kindness of my heart.”

She kicked me, then, hard in the ribs. “And I'll be frank- all the kindness in the world won't save you when I run out of patience. Now get up.”

I groaned, rolled over, and hated her in that moment.

But I got up.



Over the next few weeks, she drove me hard, and, pardon the expression, but I find it mildly comical, in retrospect, that she used more of the stick than the carrot. Rude to a customer? Smacked upside the head. She didn't even care that the customers saw. What were they going to do, go elsewhere? Get the remedy of 'tea and some root that you've never heard of'? Yeah, her opinion of traditional medicine wasn't that high. It rubbed off on me a bit.

I remember one time I mis-filled a prescription early on. I don't even remember what mistake it was that I made. But for that, she didn't hit me. She didn't yell at me. She just told me to leave, and not come back.

I, quite frankly, was left confused and broken-up. I had told myself I hated working here, I hated this stupid clinic with its stupid pharmacy and its stupid rules. I hated working with her, with her stupid discipline, with her goddamn perfection.

But something made me follow her into the back room, where all the drugs, and the reference manuals, and the medical journals, and her office were. She had her long purple hair pulled back into a ponytail, and had her glasses on, re-measuring out the prescription I had messed up.

“What are you doing? I told you to get out.”

“What did I do? It wasn't that bad! I just misread it, that's all!”

“Misread what, may I ask? My handwriting is clear!” It was, surprisingly for a doctor. “You were just lazy, and didn't double-check what you were filling!” She wasn't wrong.

“You caught it, so it wasn't a big deal, right?” I, however, was.

“Sit down,” she said, forcefully. I cleared some papers off the other chair in her cluttered office, and gingerly sat down. “I caught this one, sure. But now I can't trust you to fill any prescriptions without me hovering over your shoulder anymore. This prescription was simple, sure, and if you'd messed it up, not a huge deal. This was just for Akyu's migraines. But what if it's one of the older villagers' heart drugs and you put in the wrong kind of steroids? You'd have killed a person, and had blood on your hands.

“It's not something you forget, or that you forgive yourself for. You deal with it. Every day. I'm saving you the trouble. Now get out.”

“No!” I shouted, surprising myself. Looking back on this moment later in life, I understand why she smiled there. It just confused me, back then. But I pushed on. “No! I'm getting my life together, and now you're just dumping me off? Would you make me go back to drugs and petty crime?”

That just made her angry. “Make you go back? Me, make you a criminal? No, dumbass, that's your own dumbass choices and I will not be responsible for you! You have to be responsible for yourself! You have to make sure you know damn sure what you want in life and what you need to do to get it!

“I will not be guilt tripped by you!” She glared at me, as she shouted that last sentence. I glared at her back, being too young to stand down when I knew I was wrong. All I knew was that my pride was wounded, but my face was flushed.

“Get out of here. I expect you back in the morning early tomorrow,” she said, softly.

I never mis-filled a prescription due to my own laziness again.



The phone rang one day, a few years into my apprenticeship. Generally this prefaced a couple bumps and scrapes being fixed up, occasionally a broken bone set. Kids will be kids, after all.

But that day I could hear Kotohime's voice through the reciever, and Reisen's face darkened. She asked a few quick questions, and then hung up. “No time to waste, kid. We've got to go, now. Be at Jimbo's with three bags of O negative blood, we've got a big one on our hands.” She grabbed her toolbag and a kit off the wall, and sprinted out of the clinic. She can run real fast when she wants to- I learned that, when I tried to run away on my third day or so. But she hasn't had to run after me in years. I kind of miss it, really.

I show up to the bar, with my cooler of blood strapped to my back. A human girl is on the table, crying as she bleeds all over the place. Jimbo is wringing his hands and pacing, trying to help Reisen, but he's in the way more than not. I rush in, and take my proper place as her assistant. Jimbo just keeps the disinfectant flowing, and, I won't lie, I had to have a whiskey after it. Stabbings aren't the sort of thing you forget.

But we saved her. I don't know how she did it, but Reisen stitched up twenty-three stab wounds in a dirty bar, without having been able to move the patient (because can you imagine the damage done if Reisen had to run back to the clinic with them in her arms?), and we saved her.

The police found the suspect later that day, literally red-handed. He won't be doing that again. Jimbo picked him right out of the lineup.

It was one of the best moments of my career.



Of course, they're not all like that. Some just aren't saveable. We had a certain relationship with Komachi- she'd become one of our drinking buddies. Some people call her lazy, that she doesn't want to do her job. I learned that she wanted to give us as much time as she could.

The reaper was one of the most caring people I knew in the whole of Gensokyo- soft-spoken to the newly dead, compassionate to the families. To crib a quote of a better writer than I: “What can the harvest hope for, if not for the care of the Reaper Man?”

But life went on. I became more and more skilled in my trade. The clinic ran flawlessly, and occasionally Reisen would take me back to Eientei to meet her family.

I think we may have fallen in love, but I'm only a doctor, not a poet. It's not my specialty.

And it became a moot point soon after anyway.



Reisen was out doing whatever it is she does in the village, housecalls and such. She'd leave me to take care of the clinic myself for occasionally up to a week- after fifteen years, she'd gained plenty of confidence in my work, and so had I. Those were the best days- a well oiled machine, and for long stretches we'd have nothing worse to treat than bangs and broken bones.

Oh, sure, people died, but that was of old age- nothing serious, and Komachi was happier those days.

One day I got a phone call and rushed out into the field. I think that day I ran as fast as Reisen ever did.

She'd been ambushed by a junkie who lived in the woods by the creek. She's fast, she's superhuman, she's technically a youkai, I suppose.

But so was the junkie- some cracked-out semi-vampire that was wandering through life with no clear direction.

Reisen came off the worse in that engagement.

I assumed this because the first thing I saw was her leg.

Then I found the rest of her, about ten feet away. She was still breathing, and I swear she smiled as she saw me come rushing up, tears in my eyes.

She tried to talk. “Shut up,” I said. “Save your strength, goddamnit!” I dug through the bag, and pulled out a tourniquet and a newly-developed fast-clotting powder. I applied the tourniquet, and liberally applied the powder to the wound, as you do.

Reisen had been there a while before she managed to drag herself to her phone. Her pulse was thready, and there was a lot of blood around. Not all of it hers, of course, but most of it.

“Hey.” She coughed. Blood. “Kid. Look. You're doing good.”

“No!” I shouted. No. No, you don't get to do this to me. It's hard to find these tools in the bag now that it's raining. Raining in the middle of the day. Stop distracting me. I'm trying to save your life.

“You did good, kid. Just... remember that, okay?”

The next thing I remember, was Komachi's hand on my shoulder, and my eyes red and raw. I think I took a swing at her. She doesn't hold it against me.



“But, but,” the little girl says. “You said that this was a happy story! That's not happy at all!”

I laugh. “It's okay. She lived her life well, and she saved mine. Oh, sure, it hurts to think of sometimes, but there's no happiness without sadness.”

“Is that why you became a doctor?”

“Somewhat, girly.” I finish bandaging her cut. “See? Good as new!”

“I want to be a doctor one day, just like you.” I smile when she says that, and I rustle her long purple hair, with her rabbit ears getting in the way, the way they always do.

“You could always become my apprentice, girly. I promise you that your apprenticeship will be easier to get into than mine. And Gensokyo will need someone when I'm gone.”

The girl smiles up at me, and her eyes sparkle. “Well of course! I've gotcha, daddy!”

“That's my girly. Help me close up shop, would you?”

She'll make a good doctor one day soon. All this because some bunny once told me the world was going to roll me, I ain't the sharpest tool in the shed...
[Return][Top]


[Delete or report post]
Delete post []
Password  
Report post
Reason  


[Switch to Mobile Page]
Thread Watcher x