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Like a Dragon


“If you ever start thinking you’re something, roll onto your back. You can’t get up without someone helping you, right? That’s what you are, don’t forget it. You’re a turtle, who can never fall on her back.”

Those were the words she was given while lying in the rain-filled mud, dirtied and bruised, facing the sky.

“Oh, and I’ll be taking this,” the youkai lifted a chain, dangling from which was a polished, jade stone. Seeing it, she felt magma bubbling in her gut. It flew up, into the fangs she now bared—into the gaze she fired at that oni.

“GIVE THAT BACK...!” she screamed, and she reached out.

The youkai smiled, put their foot to her side, and kicked her. She slid back, turned over, and fell into a puddle. Splashing, she forced her nose up from the water before it could get in her nostrils. She coughed, and wanted to get up, but her legs were aching. Everything was aching. Still, she bared her fangs.

“Nice bite, little turtle,” the youkai said, and it took to the air. It turned and entered the storming skies. She watched that figure recede, getting swallowed in the clouds. She only felt rage, and a ceaseless heat flowing from her eyes, before her consciousness ebbed, and forcibly left her.

= =

No one helped her up. She helped herself, having covered her mouth through the night and now waking in the dry day, under the sun. Every day was some sort of miserable. Yesterday was only the latest low.

Her knees were feeling better, so she stood. She pulled at her musty shirt, and nearly fell, still hurting all over. Her tail swished, trying to keep her upright.

She didn’t remember anything like a “family”.

There were other creatures fighting for themselves ever since she could remember. There were beasts, fighting for scraps. She was a snapping turtle, people told her, so that’s what she called herself. She was also called just a turtle. How people said that... told her it wasn’t praise.

The person who first called her what she called herself, the same one who had given her jade, actually showed her this book called an “encyclopedia”. After he had found her in his library, chewing on a leather tome, he’d picked her up by the back of her collar and called her a snapping turtle.

“Here. It’s green; like your shell,” he’d said, when he gave her that necklace. When she’d calmed at the color, he showed her the “encyclopedia”.

“I can’t do very much for you,” he’d said, while she sat on his floor with the stone in her hands and the chain fallen in her lap, “I can’t let people see me as ‘weak’.” He laughed a little when he said that. He said he was an “alligator”, or “gator”, and that he didn’t appreciate her “chewing on one of his brothers”. He had a nice smile, she thought. It glittered. When he smiled, it was like watching fire.

“This is you,” he pointed at a picture in the book, and she studied it. There was a toothless animal there, though its mouth looked dangerous. Its shelled back was covered in strong-looking spikes, and the long tail off its behind was covered in similar scales. Its claws were frightening, too. She looked at hers. It seemed right. “Though some might call you this,” he pointed at another picture, just below the first. “This is a turtle.”

It looked round, tasty, and “cute”.

“You look hungry,” he noticed, smiling again. She sat up straight to see the light catch it better. “They are delicious, if you find the true beasts in the rivers and seas. Is your bite good?”

She showed him her teeth.

“Bite,” he said, and she chomped once with a loud clack. “I’d say it’s good but could be gooder.”

She cocked her head.

“You look... four or five, girl. You’ve seen a few other beasts by now. You need to be able to bite or claw them up, so you can keep going. Have teeth like mine,” saying this, he leaned forward and bared his fangs, pointing at them. They were sparkling... they had her enraptured. After a few seconds, he brought his back into his seat. “Let’s teach you about some other animals,” he said, “though... you should learn a spell or too as well—no, I think any more care I take of you you’ll get attached.”

He then said:

“You know times are changing, but some ways are just stubborn. This is no place for families, I think. No place at all.”

She still remembered that. He taught her about many animals then. He even answered her questions when she spoke. When he set her outside once all was done, she looked back at his grand home just once. But, she never looked at it again.

The girl grabbed the front of her shirt once more. Under it, usually, was the necklace. Right there, over her sternum: the stone. She didn’t feel calm without it. Noticing that, she felt angry again.

I’ll kill her.

That’s what she thought.

How do I kill someone who has horns...?

Deer were easy to kill, but the girl wasn’t a deer. Oni didn’t like this place much—so they said whenever they came in. That girl had said this was a “lark”. Not a bird; a “lark” in this case was a random trip for random curiosity. She had kicked down someone for random curiosity, and stolen their possession for the same. Not for survival, for “fun”.

She was scum.

So, she had to die.

And maybe, just maybe, she would taste good as well. But, how to kill her?

Thinking on that, she wandered toward the market, where people talked often, and didn’t often look down.

= =

“Yachie...” one of her friends, a hound, saw her as she approached the market through a little-trafficked alley. He was about as small as her, and shaggy, and his name was “Sako”. She put her hand down on Sako’s head and rubbed, saying:

“Yes?”

He closed one eye and let her pet him. He asked, “Are you okay?”

She asked, “Do you know about grimoires?” while grabbing one of the floppy ears hanging off the side of his head.

“No... What are they?” he asked.

“Do you know about magic?” she asked him, ceasing her petting, though still holding his ear.

“That hippo near the fountain says he sells magic,” Sako told her.

“You’ve gotta go eat something,” she said, and she let him go as she trudged past.

“I don’t got nothing to eat,” he called after her.

“I smell blood,” she replied, glancing back over her shoulder, “take something away from the butchers.”

“That’s scary!” he shouted after her, but she had already passed into the market proper.

“Yachie” was what people called her when not calling her what she was, so she supposed it was her name—like how everyone called Sako “Sako” when not calling him “mutt” or “dog”. She didn’t tend to use it herself, but she answered to it. Did a name even matter? She didn’t even know what letters it used.

That didn’t matter, what mattered was finding that oni again and cutting her throat.

The street was crowded with stench and delicious smells alike, and feet everywhere pounding past and stopping at stalls, walking into buildings and kicking down children. She wasn’t the only child in the crowds, naturally—she never was at all. Though she’d told Sako to steal, she also didn’t steal unless she had to here. This was the last place to ever steal from, after all. Waru, a leopard, had gotten her hand cut off when she’d stolen bread for them once. None of them had asked for bread, they were just happy that Waru was still alive after having her hand severed.

Still, even with that threat, most children stole. It just made sense: hunting could lead to death, while you could get away with stealing. She did steal... but she would never do it here, herself.

She shook her head roughly, and blinked hard.

She couldn’t see well through the dirt haze and massive bodies of the market, but as she moved on – briefly clutching to the looser clothes of taller people here and there for passage – she could hear the sound of water. There was a fountain people drank at, and shoved children away from. She always drank from rivers or puddles. When she first tried to take from the fountain, someone shouted “Tax, child? Do you pay tax?”

She didn’t know what “tax” or “pay” were. The beast, whatever it was, was one of the few figures that had ever scared her. She still remembered its voice, and even now she hated the fountain.

“No parents, have you?” he asked. He then said, “Well, we’re kind. Drink! Drink!” and he grabbed her up, and shoved her down.

While he held her head in the water, and she screamed bubbles and struggled futilely against him, she felt her lungs tighten to a painful extent. As things began to fade, she heard a smothered question from above, and mockery: “Turtles can breathe underwater, can’t they? Or was that through their assholes!? Ahh, am I putting ass in the water right now!? Hahaha!! Oh no!”

He threw her on the floor and she ran while coughing for air as he called after her, “You can take what you want, but you’d best be able to keep it!”

Over time, she figured he was referring to how, when she was truly growing frightened, she’d let go between her legs, and peed herself.

... She’d drink out of ten puddles before ever nearing that fountain again.

Though, she had to get a bit close today, to see the fat hippopotamus (that was the full name) merchant.

She found him soon, and once she spotted him she stepped over to his stand, got on her toes, and dug her claws into his counter. Looking him right in the eyes, she told him, straightly: “Give me magic.”

The fat and dark-skinned proprietor just asked, “What are you?” and looking closer he said, “A turtle.”

“Give me magic or I’ll bite off your fingers,” she said. “I’m a snapping turtle, look at my teeth.”

She bared her fangs, never turning her gaze from his for a second.

“Turtles don’t have teeth, girly,” he said. “Get outta here. You got money?” He put his hands down on the counter before hers, unafraid.

So she grabbed his hand and opened wide.

“GET!” he shouted, pulling his hand away and slapping her with the back of his other. The blow shook every part of her. She fell, making sure to land on her front. “If you want something pay for it,” the hippo told her, “and if you want to steal it you’d better be faster with your bite than that, you little shit!” She slinked off. “Don’t come around again! Wait ten years if you even live that long! Fucking... brats in this city.”

Damn.

She thought, fuming as she continued to slip away.

Damn it.

That that hadn’t worked just meant it was as the magic-seller said: her bite was too weak—too slow.

Damn...!

She wanted to bite through his arm. But, she knew that would kill her. She wanted... “spells”. She’d heard about spells, and spells that could find people. Spells that could hurt people. She wanted those! She needed something else to get them. Something...

Her eyes settled on “something”, and a plan hatched at once in her head. She snuck over... to someone’s horse, not properly reined in. She snuck over to its rear.

She’d learned that in this society she was called a “spirit beast”. Her body was... “special”: different from plants, rocks, and water. She could turn into a color and fly, though it didn’t help much. As a “spirit beast”, the alligator had told her she was the “core crop of the world”—like him. Below even her in society were the “true beasts”: those usually eaten, ridden, and whipped. Those without “intelligence” (a “good brain’, “being smart”), who seemed to just be fodder for the “core crop”—for the better. And, she was a better. Making sure the horse was aligned with the hippo’s stand, she readied her teeth, and harshly chomped on its bottom.

“HIIIIRR!!” It roared, and it ran off. She entered the crowd and watched it smash into the hippo’s store, and then collapse. Water flew from the direction of the fountain. People yelled. She went to the broken stand and started taking things that had scattered. She took a book, a clear ball of glass, and a scroll. She wiped the blood from her mouth and ran—wincing. Her stomach was rumbling. She felt, she should have bitten the horse’s bottom off. But a victory was a victory, and she had hers for nearly one whole minute.

After forty seconds, she was grabbed up by the back of her collar while dashing through a hidden alley. The tug elated her, washing away the excitement, and the building hate from knowing her revenge was coming soon, in a rush of happiness. With her heart glowing, she cried “You’re...!”

She turned her head to see the face of who was carrying her. She was smiling... but she was not an alligator, and she was certainly not a “he”.

A woman with a giant red hat, and short red hair, was holding her and looking at her with red eyes.

“That’s quite the interest in magic,” the woman said.

She said nothing in return.
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= =

“I’m Hecatia,” that’s what the woman in dark robes told her while she crouched with her stolen things, not looking that woman in the eye. They were in a shallow cave. The sky had turned, and the woman had said they should find shelter. Not wanting to get anything she’d stolen wet... she stayed. “I’ve noticed the kids on the street here don’t like being asked their names,” the woman went on, “You only give your names to your friends, right? I should ask, ‘what beast are you’?”

“I’m a snapping turtle...” she said, still not looking at the woman. But, thinking: something the woman said annoyed her. She turned her eyes on the foreigner and told her, “And that’s not true. Nobody has friends.”

“You aren’t friends with that dog?” the woman asked.

“Nobody has friends,” she repeated. “This is no place for families,” said the child.

“I,” began the adult, “never said ‘family’.”

She flinched, and turned her eyes away again, gritting her teeth openly and glaring at the crag walls.

“Well! But I get it, like, absolutely! Totally get it!” the woman said. Out the corner of her eye, she could see the woman’s arms lifted in a weird way. There were these weird orbs, like on that hat, floating by the woman and chained up, to the neck. One orb was yellow, and the other was blue. The woman... wasn’t an animal. “Don’t worry,” the odd woman repeated, “I really get it.”

“Stop. Shut up,” she said. “I don’t trust you,” she fired at the woman, meeting her eyes, “Why’d you find me? Why were you watching me before?”

The woman seemed to relax. Though she was trying her best to intimidate the foreigner, this odd visitor clearly felt no threat at all. “Y’see,” the woman began, slouching and resting cheek to knuckles, “they say there’s this story about how when a certain beast gives birth, it always has two children. Two eggs.” So, two fingers the woman raised.

She was confused. “Who’s ‘they’?” she asked, and she was ignored.

“I had heard of one hatching,” the woman went on, with one finger up on the other hand, “but not the other. The beast was special, and nobody takes rumors of them lightly. So, I wanted to find it.” The second finger was raised, and the woman looked chipper, as if holding two fingers like that meant something.

“What was it? What was the animal called?” she asked.

“A dragon,” the woman answered, and brought the two fingers down. She frowned, and glared.

“We’re only beasts out here,” she said, hugging her plunder and crouching into herself, “we don’t live ‘fairy tales’.” The gator had showed her a few. “Dragons... Something m... majestic like that wouldn’t ever get born here. Not here, in... in hell,” she hissed. How gross. The suggestion alone was almost infuriating. “And you’ve got bad eyes, Miss,” she said, meeting them now. “I’m a snapping turtle.”

“That you are,” the woman replied ordinarily. However, there was a pitying and sympathetic look on that face. Seeing it, and hearing that, she brought her brow low.

“You’d better quit messing with me,” she said. “Don’t mess with me. I’ll kill you,”

“... Ohoho, well now that’s...” breathed the woman, sitting up. “When people usually say that... they mean it, you know? I can hear some hate, but... you’re not pointing it at me?” the woman asked. She frowned, and looked at the stone floor. “You’ve got someone you want to kill? ... Did I interrupt?”

“... I have to kill them,” she admitted. “She’s scum, and she has to die.”

The woman slouched forward and started to look like that statue—the Thinker. She knew it. “Hmph. Right, I’d expect that kind of awesome drive from a ki—... keHEHHEM! Mmh! A snapping turtle! Yeah! Yeah... very fierce,” the woman said, making a show of speaking.

She just nodded. She was fierce.

“So, can you use that?” the woman asked, pointing at the glass ball. She looked at it, and she answered:

“No. I can... cast spells from it?” she thought.

“You can use it in magic. Do you know anything about magic?” the woman kept on.

She squinted, her brows easing, and after thinking about it, she shook her head.

“You can’t use any of it that suddenly. Can I see that ball?” the woman asked.

She looked up from the ball, then back to it.

I think it’s fine.

Determining that, she lifted the orb and held it out to the woman. The woman took a step forward and plucked it from her grasp, returning to the trunk the woman was sitting on (the two in the cave weren’t far apart). That odd trunk was just something the woman was carrying around. She wondered how she’d gotten snuck up on by someone carrying something that big.

The woman swiped two fingers over the orb’s surface, and with half-lid eyes began to whisper.

And... soon... the image of a purple-skinned oni arose in its surface. Her eyes glowed and she leaned forward, clutching the stolen goods.

“That her?” the woman asked. She nodded. “... Did she take something from you?” The woman... Hecatia... met her eyes again.

“My treasure...” she said. Hecatia smiled, only slightly but she noticed it. Feeling like ice under the sun, she looked away.

“‘Treasure’,” Hecatia repeated. “I guess you mean that necklace, then.”

“How come you’re figuring all that stuff out? You knew I was friends with Sako, too,” she asked.

Hecatia chuckled, and then repeated, “‘Sako’?”

She nodded.

“Is that the dog’s name?” Hecatia asked. She nodded. “I know about the dog because I just caught you with my own eyes. I know about the rest because I saw through this,” Hecatia lifted the ball up. “A crystal ball,” Hecatia said.

Crystal ball...

“It’s good you picked this up, but why did ya? You didn’t know it was called that, right? You didn’t know what it was, hm?” Hecatia was doing something that she didn’t understand, but whatever it was was truly strange. The questions reminded her that it was stupid to try to steal tools she didn’t know how to use, and that reminding was painful, but the leveled nature of Hecatia’s voice... the sound of it was...

... She felt like this woman only had her in that heart, in that chest. And, she liked being there.

“I didn’t know... I thought it had power,” she admitted.

“Mysterious power, yeah, but it can’t kill people...” Hecatia whispered, eyes drifting back into the crystal ball. “... Hm. So you got it from an alligator huh... And she... Hmph. This oni really is scum.”

She nodded.

“... You really want to kill her?” Hecatia asked, looking up from the ball again.

“I have to kill her,” she insisted.

“Then, I’ll help you,” Hecatia said.

“We don’t help each other here,” she replied. That was the one lesson she’d been absolutely made to learn, by every other person teaching it.

“Times change,” said Hecatia, standing up. The woman’s robes flowed down, and caught her eye.

Absently, she said, “Some ways are just stubborn...”

“I’m even more,” Hecatia replied. “... What’s your name? I like to know the names of the kids and grown-ups I work with.”

She looked up.

“I think it’s ‘Yachie’,” she said.

“Let’s go punish her, Yachie,” said the kind woman, reaching out a hand.

Dropping the stolen goods then and there... Yachie reached out in return, and took it.

= =

They found her standing alone in the same plains where she’d found and struck Yachie. They were hid in the brush behind her, Hecatia with her hand laid on the snapping turtle’s shell.

“Go get her,” she said. Yachie crouched deeper, and with no fear sprung from the brush, claws out.

“Oni—” the oni began, turning casually as Yachie flew forward. She grabbed the beast’s face when it got close and there ended her sentence with, “don’t fall to beasts.”

Yachie did not wait. She opened her jaw wide and bit hard on the oni’s hand: between the thumb and forefinger. She threw her hands forward, and dug her claws into the youkai’s arm.

“That rock is worth your life?” the oni asked her, unflinching. Yachie growled her words with the flesh in her mouth:

“It’s... worth... more than... yours...”

She was dangling from the ground, feeling magma in her belly again. She dug, and dug, and pressed, and pierced the oni’s skin.

“What!?” the youkai shouted in shock. Yachie dug in deeper, and pulled both her hands, scooping hot blood, skin, and flesh, and feeling alive. “You worthless—!”

The oni flung her away, and Yachie fell on her back despite all effort. “Look at you!” the oni spat, holding her arm and glaring. “It’s been one goddamn day, and you’ve forgot what I told you!?”

Get up...

She told herself.

Up...!

“You can’t! Really... really, look at you! Rolling around like that... FUCK!” the oni spat.

Yachie bent, and suddenly felt a hand behind her golden hair. “Come on” said a steady voice, “fight her.”

Hecatia helped her onto her feet, staying crouched behind her. That... confused her.

“I’m helping,” said the woman, meeting her eyes and smiling. She put her hand to Yachie’s shell again, looking at the oni. “Get her.”

So she ran forward.

“Don’t even...” the oni began, lifting her good arm to the slithering beast’s approach, “try!”

The fist flew, and Yachie slipped past it. The arm bounded off of her shell, and in the resulting confusion she threw the claws of her left hand between the oni’s chest and armpit, through her shirt, and through what was called the “tendon”. When the oni screamed she threw the claws of her right hand at the youkai’s throat, feeling a pulse of joy to hear that gurgling, “Gkk...!”

The oni lifted her newly wounded arm to strike the beast away. Yachie opened her mouth wide and bit into the flying wrist. It rocked her head like the tremors of the earth but still she continued to bite, until something warm and thick filled her mouth.

With her wounded arm, the oni beat her attacker’s face in and knocked her loose. As she fell, Yachie found herself grinning. Things... were going different. She swallowed, and began to get back on her feet. Before, yesterday, the oni had surprised her. Today she had been the one surprising. She laughed... She knew what a laugh was from seeing it before, but this was the first time one had come out of her stomach. She really laughed. She’d be eating oni tonight.

When her grin got wider, the oni kicked it away.

The child spat and fell over again, and the oni pushed her to the muddy earth. She clawed and clawed and heard, “Wait. WAIT!” from her assailant (another word for “attacker”). Blood was dripping down from the oni’s wounds—staining the rags the child wore. In her right hand was the jade stone. Yachie froze, and watched. “I want you to see this,” the oni said in a rattling, gravel-voice. She squeezed her hand closed, slowly and carefully. She moved her fingers oddly, and in a few seconds the stone snapped.

The small pop that it made... cut something across the beast’s heart. She watched as the stone was reduced, gradually, to dust, and all the while wasn’t sure how to word what it was that she felt. She only knew that she was crying. Her ears were wet and her mouth had twisted, and open. The oni blew the dust from her hand, smiled darkly, and with that the child knew she had lost something which she would never have again. No, not just a “thing”, but the memory with it. She knew that when people grew old, they lost what they used to remember, and that those little things kept kept certain memories safe. If she forgot the man... If she forgot his smile... If she forgot his lessons...

The dust flew away.

It felt as if the knife over her heart had plunged in.

At once, she grabbed the oni’s neck and squeezed as she looked into the those gray eyes. She squeezed, and tore through the wounds she’d left.

The oni could fight back, but instead she went stiff, and seemed confused. She could not close her eyes, only almost shutting them as pain like a blaze burned from her throat.

The beast below her told her, “I’m never going to remember. That was my heart you got. I’ll take yours. I’m taking it. You bastard. You whore. I’m going to tear all of you out. You’re never... never going to breathe again. How dare you, you bitch. You BITCH...”

Or, she tried to talk. Her arms were shaking. Her thumbs, in the oni’s body, were shaking. The beast was overwhelmed: her wrath distorted everything that she said into a growling, angered sound and she continued to squeeze. She quaked with the wrath of a mountain, spewing fire, no part of her body steady as the blood flowed down.

Except for her eyes.

Her eyes were firm.

The oni then grabbed her throat, and her own grip loosened. At once, she could feel something inside of her at risk, and if not for her rage perhaps it would have frightened her.

Her hands fell, but she stared, hateful, and she saw as a small beam of light pierced the oni’s side. It quickly grew.

In seconds, the youkai was completely engulfed.

She thought, that youkai could’ve moved from the aura, but for some reason she didn’t. Yachie was sure of it: the oni had gone still once again and she did not fight it. There, she was swallowed in power, and rapidly turned to dust.

And as soon as the light passed, that dust flew away.

“Wha... Wha...” Between sobbing and returning breath, Yachie tried to voice her confusion. She heard footsteps, and turned her head. “Miss... Hecatiaaa...” she cried, “My... I wanted it... It’s... It’s gone... It’s all... all...”

“I’m sorry,” said the woman. She crouched and picked the animal-child up. That child clawed through her robes, and just like that she bawled into her chest. She held the child around her shell, and put a hand atop her flaxen head. “I should have helped you more. I got too caught up in your pride and let you suffer... I’m sorry.”

Yachie cried, but tried to listen. In a voice that started to calm her, Hecatia said—

“It’s good that you’re crying.”

And then, she told the child—

“You’re never going to have that back.”

And that made her sob. She gripped at the cloth more, and growled in sadness, moaned and yelled. Pain usually quickly began to leave her after an ordeal, but this pain stayed, and it wasn’t carved through her flesh. It hurt, and she wanted the woman, Hecatia, to know that.

And Hecatia did know. Rocking her gently, the older woman explained something. “It was precious,” she said. “You’re allowed that. This world isn’t Hell, don’t let it be. Try to remember what you had with that stone.”

Hugging the child, she quietly waited for her sobs to soften, and shorten. When they had...

“Okay, Yachie? Lie to anyone else if you have to, but never lie to yourself. What he meant to you... you were right to never want to let it go.”

Her tears flowed hotly into the woman’s robes, and she took those words into her heart...

... as the sun fell, and the moon rose...

= =

“I was just here on a trip,” Hecatia told her, standing before her in the air, above a flowing yellow river, and lifting her trunk from before, for explanation. Yachie looked up to her, and listened. “I can’t mess around here any more... it wouldn’t be right, right?”

“I don’t know,” said Yachie.

“I do,” said Hecatia warmly, and Yachie nodded. The woman laughed. “I... couldn’t find a dragon... And rather than me, someone who lives here should change up the place,” she said, “Ah—I mean, if it needs changing, right?”

“Okay...” said Yachie.

“I mean you, you know,” Hecatia pointed at her. “You can do it.”

She nodded.

“Yeah...” said the woman with a cool, half-smile. “I won’t leave you any presents. It’s fine if you forget me.”

“I won’t forget you, or Mister Gator,” Yachie vowed.

“Yeah!? I’d be so flattered!” the woman said with a grin. She palmed the space behind her, and the world wavered. “Be seeing you, if you do alright,” the woman—no... goddess, said. Yachie nodded again, the god vanished, and the world went still. She was alone again.

“... I’m not alone,” she said to herself. Looking at the palm of her hand she said, “Mister Gator, I’m stubborn too.”

She closed her hand into a fist, and looked behind her...

... to the world of Beasts...

... to her home, and her Kingdom.
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Held over a mountain valley by a string.

I fell away from the window, tired of looking out at a bunch of mist and trees. Who even knew how long we’d been stuck up here already. All I knew was that my partner was fuming; even this far away, her presence was radiating from somewhere way up above, prickling at my skin like a sunburn.

”I’m really sorry. They’re not real cooperative right now. It’s hard to say why. They keep saying they’re waiting on word from someone on the other side. I really don’t get these kappa, honestly.”

Ah, yes, the turtles. Hard to rely on in the best of times. Who knows with them. How’s you-know-who doing?

A feeling like static in my brain. I winced. She knew when she was being talked about, of course. I was just lucky she wasn’t blasting her anger through both barrels into my head.

”You-kno—Oh. Bad as you think, I’m afraid. She was already pretty annoyed when you weren’t here twenty minutes before. The envoys were looking nervous after they spoke. So I wouldn’t come flying back if I was you.”

And the other you-know-who?

”She’s… hard to read. Doesn’t help that I can barely get a word in. Her advisors are a real pain, you know. If I’m there longer than a few seconds, they chase me off. I know tengu don’t have the best manners, but these ones are particularly bad.”

Just knowing what little I knew, I slumped into a seat, regretting even being there in the first place. My partner was right to be mad. I’d skipped off to go play with a few of my friends despite knowing we had this whole meeting set up. Could really she blame me, though? There’d been so many other things that needed doing between now and setting up the ropeway. A few thousand humans – and I don’t know how many tengu and others – had been on before me. I needed to get my turn sometime.

That skin prickling feeling continued. It was like checking in on the big furnace down below but less immediately hazardous. Not that there was any difference in how it made me sweat. Being under such a glow of sheer fury was basically like being under a sun. The small space of the ropeway car didn’t do any wonders either.

Too bad I couldn’t (easily) die. That was one escape the rest of this car had.

Just checking, but you couldn’t just miracle me up there somehow, could you?

Radio silence, unsurprisingly. Despite sharing in my lineage, that girl somehow resembled my partner more in temperament. She just wore a much politer face about it most of the time. Just another one of those little things that came from neither of us having much exposure to each other until recently, I guessed.

I curled up in my seat, pulling my hat down over my head in an attempt at blocking out the waves of blame beating down on me.

Just in time for everything to lurch hard. Splat. Ouch.

From the floor, I could feel the car slinging along the rope – for a few seconds before it swung to a stop again. A collective groan issued from everyone inside. The only part that surprised me was how much hitting the floor hurt.

Looking around, I wasn’t the only one who’d taken a tumble. Just about everyone had gone to the floor. A dressed-up crow tengu was cursing as he picked up the pages of a scattered newspaper. Irritating practically everyone around them, a young human boy who should have been beyond that age was crying from a bump taken, his mother scolding him quietly. One small gathering of village women had decided to stay seated on the floor. A smart move in light of what’d just happened.

Oh, and someone was sitting on me. Thankfully, nobody heavy, but there was still a very pointy elbow dug straight into my back. I aimed up to try and pat them around the shoulder.

“Oh dear, sorry around that,” said a woman’s voice.

The weight moved off my creaky, complaining old bones, and I got a hand up to my feet. A snowy white hand half covered by the long sleeve of an embroidered kimono. When I stood up, I found myself face-to-face with a remarkably young-looking woman with silver hair and deep red eyes.

“You aren’t hurt, are you? I didn’t notice you until you started moving.”

“Nothing I haven’t been through before,” I said, rubbing my smarting elbow. One of my shoulders disagreed with me, but I wasn’t going to dignify it with a response.

“Allow me to help you to your seat, at least.”

“I’m fine, really.”

The suited tengu looked up from reassembling his newspaper. His lip curled as he shot the silver-headed young woman a look of extreme irritation. “Hear that? She’s fine. Now, leave her alone and sit down. Don’t forget you took a spill yourself.”

Her face remained placid despite obviously being a bit irked by the rebuke. “Fine, I’ll take my seat. With this young lady.”

Before I could say anything, she’d grabbed me by the hand and led me, rather forcefully, to the other side of the car, putting us across from the snappy tengu. He rolled his eyes and stuck his nose deep into his newspaper. With a quiet smile of satisfaction, my abductor turned to me.

“I hope you’ll pardon my rough handling.” She lowered her voice. “My travelling companion is an utter pain. Always getting on my case. Absolutely no patience at all, that man. As far as I’m concerned, it’s his fault I fell. If he weren’t such a lout, I’d feel more comfortable sitting next to him.”

“You two know each other, then,” I said, not knowing what else to say.

“Not as such. I wouldn’t be acquainted with such a man voluntarily. ‘Circumstance’ is the best way of putting it.”

“Is that so?” I glanced sideways at her apparent minder. He was peeking at us over his newspaper. Even though she was talking quietly, it was clear he could hear every word with those pointy ears of his. Based on the slight smirk she wore, she knew that full well. “I’m guessing you’ve got business at the shrine,” I said to change the subject, uninterested in getting in the middle of their spat.

“As do all on this car, I would imagine.”

“Ah, yeah, true.” I forced a laugh, regretting bringing the shrine back up. It brought my attention back to the stinging presence of my partner. “Gotta go get, uh, blessed by the Moriya god in all her wisdom and power, am I right?”

I could feel my partner groaning at my lame attempts at flattery. It was still cool water on the burn, at least for a minute or two, as far as I was concerned. In the meantime, I could refocus my thoughts on anything else.

My eyes fell to a pochette that the young woman was carrying, a red little thing covered in black cats. It was rough territory for a frog-lover like me to go, but anything was worth a shot if I was going to be stuck here.

“You have a thing for cats?” I asked, pointing at the bag.

There was a sudden gleam in her eyes that would have been chilling in a dark space. “One might say I take a liking to them.”

That liking turned into an entire monologue.

By the time the ropeway was fixed and the car had pulled into the summit station, I had lost track of all sense of time. The silver-haired little lady had carried on for what felt like hours. It could have been minutes for all I knew, but it never stopped for a moment. Cats, cats, and more cats was the gist of what ran through her head. Her entire jaunt down the mountain was apparently a spur of the moment thing when she heard about the kappa putting on some kind of cat-related exhibition at the foothill station. After hearing every detail about it, I felt sorry for her poor minder.

Even when we had disembarked, the story continued while she followed me, her companion following silently behind, doing his best to tune it all out. At that point, I would take a full-on strike from my partner over any more cat nonsense. I tried to excuse myself and pull away towards the shrine, but she kept following me deeper into the grounds. We were at the threshold of the house when I finally butted in.

“Well, this was a great chat, but don’t you have some business to take care of?” I asked without any hint of question in my voice.

“Oh, yes, I do.” Having ceased talking for a moment, the fact that we were standing just outside my house seemed to sink in. “Say, you wouldn’t happen to live here, would you?”

“Moriya. Moriya Suwako. Yeah, I do kind of live here.”

The woman clapped her hands, looking overjoyed. “What a pleasant coincidence! I’m here to speak with you and Lady Yasaka. Why, we should have introduced ourselves earlier.”

“You what.”

“Right, beg pardon. I really should give my name.” She cleared her throat and stood up straight, offering a dignified bow. “Most pleased to meet your acquaintance, Lady Moriya. I am Tenma, overseer of this mountain. I look forward to our discussions.”

I stared blankly ahead. It was funny in a way. I’d said I regretted not meeting Tenma in the last talks. I’d wondered just what sort of person she was. Now, I was going to be stuck in between her and my partner in a meeting that would probably last hours, knowing the usual ways of things.

I was still on the string but there was no valley below me now.
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* * *

The basement flooded.

The fact of it was made known to the noble lady of the manse some twelve minutes into the new calendar day, or six minutes after Remilia’s wine-soaked head had made blessed contact with cool satin pillow, or two hours after the lady Scarlet had begun indulging in earnest in the privacy of her quarters for reasons she tried hard and presently was failing to keep secret: quarters which were summarily invaded by an indignant younger sister, who felled their arcane protections as if like Roman walls before Ottoman guns, and who marched in with the heavy footfalls of Ottoman Janissary troops, and who seized her in her bed like dared none other than Flandre Scarlet, sister to and only extant kin of the Scarlet Devil, and began to shake her.

“Wake up and get your wits about you you sorry drink-sotted excuse for an elder sister why here you lay crocked in bed like a jelly like a pickled fish in aspic like the refuse of decent society you can’t even keep your own self in order much less your own house well don’t you know the basement is flooding.”

“Flandre stop it I tell you to stop it here what’s the matter the basement is what.”

Flooding, damn you, taking in water, you must be deaf as a bat, Patchouli, make yourself of some use and transport us there, do catch your breath you matchstick woman, desist with that ghastly wheezing.”

It would be well to note that teleportation, performed under ideal conditions, by a well rested magician, in clement weather, over largely flat ground, with proper equipment and time ahead to prepare, might reach just shy of gentle.

Teleportation, conducted by Patchouli Knowledge plus two flights of stairs (upward, at forced march), passing through the floors of the Scarlet Devil Mansion (stately Queen Anne style, but if the Queen were the subject of an Ilya Repin painting, together with her son Ivan), was otherwise.

O, Astaphaios,” said Patchouli, and it was done.

“Oh, God,” said Remilia, and vomited. Sakuya, she nearly called, before she remembered. No Sakuya. Not anymore. Sheleft. By Jove why did she have to leave? And for the Underworld, of all places?

Concurrent with this thought, her eyes landed blearily upon the basement entrance, and the now full-foot of water lapping its unhurried way up the stairs.

“Oh, God,” said Remilia again, and, ten miles away and up a mountainside, Yasaka Kanako vomited.

“If you think passion unto the Lord’s side will deliver you from having to deal with this then you are sorely mistaken, I tell you this right now,” said Flandre, and lifted the elder Scarlet to her feet, pressing a handkerchief to her mouth. “Here, spit, get it out of your mouth. I’ll make damned sure of it, I’ll storm the gates and drag you back here by the waist of your frilly—”

Stent thee,” growled Remilia, who by now had recombobulated herself somewhat. She took the handkerchief and wiped away the last traces of vomit from her face and neck, and then tossed the soiled cloth onto the remaining pool on the floor, incinerating it with a gout of flame from her fingertips. “Patchouli, can you ack.”

“Imbecile,” said Flandre, and extinguished the noxious creation of burning 40-proof vomit.

“Patchouli,” Remilia continued on heedless, “are you not able to stem this flow?” She paused. “The day is?”

“Friday,” answered both sister and magician. “Metal,” added the magician.

“If you are still conscious of days other than Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow, and Pancake Tuesday,” added Flandre.

A sigh was not emitted by Remilia, nor groan, nor whine, and neither did she desire dearly to emit one. “Then, stoppering it?”

“Would require knowledge of the whereabouts of the source,” said Patchouli.

“And you are unable to descry it from afar,” asked Remilia, perfunctorily more than anything else.

“Indeed not,” said Patchouli, grateful for the question, in the manner of one who is enchanted by her own exposition. “As well you know,” she straightened her posture, “the basement carries the property of terra ignota, by consequence of the ritual murders performed around its construction. One may not scry into it, nor chart its lay, spells are broken, maps and instruments confounded. It cannot be navigated in any way except by the person herself.”

All present took appropriate pause at the declaration.

“Then,” said Remilia, “if that is what must be done.” She spoke the words with gravitas, in the manner of one who by default understands herself to mean anyone but herself, and, in specific, a horde of disposable fairies.

Patchouli nodded with understanding. The Great Unmoving Library was of much the same species in this regard. “I shall have Meiling gather the help,” she said, and floated sedately off.

The Scarlet Devil ran a hand through the top of her lavender hair, and began combing and curling it with her fingers. This was only the beginning, she knew, and a permanent solution would be a larger undertaking still. She would need to invite builders, the word thought with a vehemence grown only from experience, to ascertain the extent of the damage, arrange for the necessary repairs, and oversee restoration of the interior space. Remuneration was, of course, a matter at every stage, and a concern, even, with the state of their coffers. It would be weeks or months before a satisfactory conclusion could be had. She closed her eyes, parted her hair with both hands, letting cool air grace her forehead, and then covered her face. If Sakuya were here,

“Dear sister,” said Flandre sweetly, reasserting her presence and breaking the elder Scarlet away from the thought. “While the matter is to be attended to,” she leaned forward girlishly, with shoulders pushed forth and arms held behind her back, “I shall require someplace to live.” She paused, placing a finger to her lip, faux pondering. “Perhaps one might be so gracious as to offer up one’s own—”

“No,” said Remilia, and summoned Gungnir precisely in the intervening space between her neck and Laevateinn’s point.

Laevateinn’s master clicked her disappointment.

“Suitable quarters will be prepared for you,” said the Scarlet Devil.

“One is grateful, as it were,” said Flandre, and swished the sword to her side with a casual moulinet.

“And if you think you have won yourself any favours with such a display,” continued the Scarlet Devil, not lowering her own spear, but levelling it in return of the earlier provocation, “you, dear sister, are bitterly mistaken.”

If a posta di donna, distra could be sarcastic, then thus, in challenge, was Laevateinn raised up; and, “Prove it,” was the whole of the reply.





Battle was joined, and decided.





“Damn fool sister,” muttered Flandre as she stalked up three flights of stairs, paying no mind to her own bruises and aches. The Scarlet Devil was draped insensate over her shoulders, in a pose which might possibly be considered dignified if framed next to an oni with a facial tattoo and also chronic gout. “Even you have got your own limit. What were you thinking, bloody-minded idiot, you’ll make a fine mountain goat in your next life. It’s what you should have been, you’ve got the bony skull for it.”

She entered the room and deposited her sister gingerly into her bed, glowering down at her sleeping face.

“The most charismatic mountain goat in the Andes.”

But the animus which had driven her earlier was drained from her. In its place were deeper frustrations, their roots grown gnarled over her years so that she could not remember where one began and the other ended. She wondered when it had come to pass that she had lost her reverence for her elder sister, and then her elevation for her, and then her respect. That she had lost all of these things was evident enough to her, and perhaps even right. Perhaps, being incomplete abstractions, they contained and presupposed within them their own contradictions, and could not have persisted so. This was as unsatisfying as it sounded.

Remilia slumbered now. The lady Scarlet wore many things when she was awake; a noble air; a mercury tongue; fearsome reputation and bloodied annals; crimson eyes that saw all things and saw all that was between all things; but all of it was to be shed at the limit of the waking hours. What remained was Remilia, soft and a little round in the face, as if five centuries of being had not laid finger upon her.

Disgusting, thought Flandre, and felt her hand well up in a fist.

She closed her eyes, and waited for the urge to pass, shaking her head at herself. Instead, she inked her finger with a murmured spell. Tomorrow, she knew, would see its own share of quarrels, and as would the day after that. Tonight, Remilia would sleep, and Flandre would direct the fairies in her place. And, in the morning, Remilia would awake, rested, fresh, and bearing facial adornment worthy of another Ilya Repin painting. (Yes, the one about the Cossacks.)









* * *



Dahlia was a fairy, with sea-green hair and sea-green eyes.

Fairies, as they come, tend to be small, inconsequential creatures, who, with a few noteworthy exceptions, well, noteworthy for fairies, anyway, quite enjoy and in fact revel in their status as small and inconsequential. It is a benefit to them, like poverty is a benefit to the martial prowess of the Hakurei. And for a fairy in the employ of the Scarlet Devil Mansion this was true most of all, finding her decent clothes, regular meals, a soft bed, and a sense of dignity and camaraderie uncommon to fairies in the wild.

But even a fairy has the sense of when something greater than herself is happening. And even a fairy (with sea-green hair and sea-green eyes) knows to be worried, when she is handed overalls, galoshes, and an oil lantern (fairies are never to be trusted with fire), and the fairy beside her (with burgundy hair and burgundy eyes) is handed the same overalls, galoshes, and a fireplace poker (trusted with sharp implements neither), and this even before they are hustled two by two through a scorched and pitted passageway into an unlit, flooded, labyrinthine basement where ill-boding shadows played beneath the surface.

Two orders had been given her. The first was simple enough.

Find the leak, immediate.

The second could stock libraries with volumes unspoken.

Retrieve survivors, if any.

To say Dahlia was a worried fairy, then, would fall somewhere short of adequate. To say Dahlia was terrified enough to jump out of her own skin if she were startled, conversely, would be an abuse of hyperbole. But when a hand clamped down on her shoulder from behind, she certainly did what terrified, startled fairies are wont to do, which was to shriek and run her gossamer wings fast enough to hum.

“Steady on!” exclaimed the fairy behind her. “There’s no need for that.”

Dahlia turned around, finding herself face to face with what was indeed another fairy. And if there is another law of fairies, it is that they gain no greater confidence than from the company of their own.

“I’m sorry,” she said, and ceased to imitate a chainsaw murder. She would have bowed by reflex, but she was stopped by a bracing hand from the other fairy. Following her gaze, Dahlia remembered the lantern in her hands, and jerked it up from where she had been about to submerge it.

“I’m not fond of this any more than you are,” said the other fairy (with the burgundy hair and burgundy eyes, and who was bigger, and so had been handed the poker), “but it looks like we’re together, so let’s get along, shan’t we?”

“Yes,” said Dahlia. “I’m Dahlia,” said Dahlia. She made sure not to bow again. “I take care of the gardens.”

“Hortensia,” said the fairy who was Hortensia. “The kitchen, for me.”

“Oh,” said Dahlia. Kitchen fairies were a hand-picked cadre, she knew, selected for the rare twin attributes of self-control around the Mansion’s food stocks and ability not to injure themselves when handling kitchen equipment. They seldom commingled with fairies of other stations, largely due to the predictably incessant clamors for extra food with which they would be accosted, and were especially unsympathetic of library fairies, who clamored twice as loud as other fairies and used words like class traitor and reactionary when they did so. “I take care of the gardens,” Dahlia said again, just to be sure Hortensia remembered it.

“Mind you keep that lantern dry,” said Hortensia, glancing around. “It’s caliginous in here.”

“Dark, too,” added Dahlia. The shadows made themselves oppressive somehow, swallowing light instead of being banished by it. She could make out the walls only by where the water’s surface found its end, and that only by the glimmering of lamplight over it. “And the damp. Is there nowhere dry we could stay?”

“Stay?” asked Hortensia, blinking. “You don’t mean for us to hole ourselves up somewhere, do you?”

“Well,” said Dahlia, “it would be easier, wouldn’t it?” She paused, thinking. “We could play rummy.”

Hortensia clicked her tongue. “That won’t do,” she said, and twirled the fire poker, looking at it meaningfully. “I dare say it’s more than just us fairies down here.”

Dahlia blanched. “You don’t mean?”

“I do mean,” said Hortensia. “If what you mean by what I mean is the same as what I mean by what I mean, of course.”

The garden fairy pouted. “That’s fundamentally unknowable.”

“Well, what I mean is,” said Hortensia, and then she thrust the poker down into the water in a twisting low-guard point, leaning what weight she could muster onto it as something furious began to splash beneath the surface. When it subsided, the kitchen fairy lifted it up, and what it was took a moment to arrive to Dahlia. It was a snakehead fish from the Misty Lake, fully as long as the kitchen fairy was tall. The poker had stuck it right through the flat centre of its namesake head, and its jaw leered open in death, loop of pointed teeth on full display. “This,” said Hortensia, pointing.

“Ah, deixis,” said Dahlia. And then she screamed.





(What Dahlia had meant was ghosts.)



* * *

“I found her sleeping under the honeysuckles,” said Meiling. Her lip twitched into a frown at the distant shriek echoing from the basement. “But that’s really the last we can spare until morning comes around.”

“I see,” said Patchouli Knowledge blandly, though her brows were furrowed deeper than usual.

Hong Meiling sighed, leaning against the doorway of the cabinet room. “Like I said, if you’d just let me,” she began, but let go of the sentence when Flandre glanced over to her. “Yes, yes, I am needed in the interest of her ladyship’s defence.” If there was one thing the lady Flandre did not do, it was to reverse a decision once made. Privately, she supposed she was grateful of it, on balance. It did something to fill the void which had grown of late, as much as it perturbed her to see so uncharacteristic a seriousness from the younger sister.

“It would seem that the influx is constant,” said Patchouli, “if not tarrying. Anything that is on the floor is already waterlogged; contrariwise anything that is off the floor is like to remain safe past dawn, at the least.”

“Hm?” Meiling looked up. “That can’t be right. Then how are there fish getting in?”

“I have taken measurements every quarter hour,” said Patchouli, testily, but at least that was usual, “for the past five hours. It is right.”

“I mean they won’t,” said Meiling, and held up her hands, “fit.” The reports she had received told of fish up to several THIS long! and presumably proportionally wide, and both the descriptions and the specimens Meiling had caught were every bit alike the ones she usually fished up from the lake. At present, the specimens lay in the kitchen, smoking while fully disrobed. (But what sort of manners can one expect from a fish, really.)

“I wonder if there is an Eastern medicine for those who are allergic to certain words or phrases,” said Flandre acidly, and cast a side eye at Patchouli who called herself Knowledge. “We don’t know how,” she continued, turning back to Meiling. “That is why you are needed here, and not meandering about down there.”

“Of course, your ladyship,” said Meiling, before she could stop herself.

Flandre chose to ignore it.

“The water sample is identical in every regard to lake water,” said Patchouli, and she frowned meaningfully as she did so.

She waited for a response.

When Flandre only raised an eyebrow in the Gallic fashion, the magician sighed, and continued, “It is identical. The expected result would indicate a change in solved substances after penetrating the intervening soil and collecting upon the basement floor.” Patchouli Knowledge paused, and flicked her tongue in anticipation of the words to come: “I have a theory.”


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* * *









“We’re lost,” moaned Dahlia. “Utterly and hopelessly lost.” The garden fairy was soaked from head to toe, and her left side was spattered with red from one close call with a fish that she knew in her heart of hearts must have been fathered by an alligator. She had shot it through from tonsil to tail, just as its jaws were about to snap shut on her arm. Life was never fair to you, Gilliam the Bastard.

At least the lantern was still dry.

“That won’t do,” said Hortensia. The kitchen fairy sported a more even, primered, coat of blood. She was chirurgical with her poker, to a degree that almost frightened Dahlia, but then again Dahlia supposed she must have had experience slaughtering fish. Meiling typically fished with her bare hands, and the Kitchen demanded freshness, so she delivered them still flopping and more than a little untoward. “Besides, we can hardly be lost if we don’t know our destination. Then it just chalks under Progress.”

“That’s rot,” Dahlia continued to moan. She pointed, “Look, it’s the third time we’ve seen that icebox now.”

“There could be more than one,” said Hortensia.

“It’s got a fairy in it,” said Dahlia sullenly, and what she had meant by icebox was solid upright block of ice.

“There could still be more than one,” said Hortensia.

“I recognise her,” said Dahlia, more sullenly. “It’s Cirno.”

“Who?” said Hortensia.

“She doesn’t work here,” said Dahlia. “Actually, she just doesn’t,” said Dahlia, “work.”

Muffled snoring was heard.

“Shall we chip her out of it?” said Hortensia. “Perhaps she knows what’s going on?”

“Huh huh huh,” said Dahlia, which is the sound one makes when laughing but actually despairing.

“Well, now, look,” said Hortensia, “which way did we turn the last time we saw it? We’ll just turn the opposite way this time.” She clapped once. “Simplicity itself.”

“I don’t,” said Dahlia, “remember.”

“Well, I happen to think it was left,” said Hortensia.

“Liar,” said Dahlia.

“Then we’ll save left for next time,” said Hortensia, and turned the right corner.

What was around the right corner was a glitterstained corpse, (with delphinium hair and delphinium eyes,) perched up on a crate.

Hortensia plugged her right ear (Dahlia was to her right) for the requisite three and a half seconds, and then said, “Gruesome.”

“Gruesome yourself,” said the gruesome. “You’re no succour for weary eyes.” It shook its head. “Or ears.”

“You’re alive,” gasped Dahlia. “Y-You’re hurt!”

“Oh, very astute,” said the fairy, who was a fairy, and spat a mouthful of haemoglitter. “I’ll not be either for much longer, so rest your little head.”

“No,” said Dahlia, and clutched the lamp in front of her chest. “How can you say that?”

The fairy rasped a sigh, raising a hand to shield her eyes, which were behind round-lensed glasses, and turned to Hortensia instead. “Theodosia, from the library. We were the first ones they sent.” She saw the poker in the kitchen fairy’s hand, and smiled bitterly. “They didn’t give us any weapons. Not that it would have done us lot any bit of good.”

Dahlia lowered the lamp. “I’m Dahlia,” she said, by default. “I take care of the gardens.”

“Hortensia,” said Hortensia. After a pause, she added, “The kitchen.”

“O Fates,” muttered Theodosia. “A yokel, and a dragoon. Let me just expire right now, by the grace of Finvarra.”

“Pettish one, isn’t she,” said Hortensia, cocking a brow. “And have you found the leak, then?”

“Sure,” said Theodosia. She waved a hand behind her. “Up in the very back, through a good third, maybe half, of the entire north wall. The leak.” She scoffed. “It just seeps through wherever it pleases. Go and see for yourself, if you want to end up like me. Or like Chrysanthe. I’ll not forget that in a lifetime. Hello, is that her jaw floating right there?”

Dahlia didn’t look.

“Come on,” said Hortensia, and reached out a hand. “Let’s get you out of here.”

Theodosia smiled again. Her teeth glittered direly. “Sooner drink a salamander under the table. I can keep them away, which is why we’re able to carry on like this, but there is no mistaking it: I am to die of my hurts.”

Hortensia rolled her eyes. “What, pray, befell you, then?”

“If you must know,” said Theodosia, and lifted up her shirt.

“Oh,” said Hortensia.

Dahlia didn’t look.

“Now,” said the library fairy, “if you please.”

“You don’t have to,” said Dahlia, still not looking, “die.” She squeezed the ring of the lantern. “I can help you.”

“You’re off your chump,” said Hortensia. “She’s mince.”

“Crude,” said Theodosia, grimacing, “but possessing the quality of truth.”

“I have to try, at least,” said Dahlia, closing her eyes. “J-Just let your shirt down, and give me your hand.”

“Oh, very well.” Theodosia acquiesced, holding up a limp hand and looking away. “What shall you do, then? Pray for intercession?”

Dahlia ignored the question and turned the hand over, handing the lantern to Hortensia. She placed two fingers on the wrist, taking the pulse at three places along the arm, while at the same time regulating her own pulse and breathing, and tried to align their energies and meridians. Then, she laid a palm on Theodosia’s wounded side, which glowed with placid light. The library fairy fluttered her eyes, but, finding her pain lessen, opened them wide again, breathing deep.

“That is marvelous,” said Hortensia, watching on. “Where did you learn a corker like that?”

“Miss Meiling allows us to watch while she does her keeping fit,” said the garden fairy. “Sometimes she teaches us things like that.”

The kitchen fairy opened her mouth, and then clicked it shut. “I see,” she said. She tried not to dwell upon the interregnum at her own post.

“I,” said Theodosia, “th-that is— Thank you.” She repeated herself, “Thank you.”

“You are welcome.” Dahlia smiled, helping the library fairy to her feet. “Let’s not tarry.”

They were interrupted by the sound of crumbling ice from their left, and siren song from their right.



* * *

Flandre Scarlet retrieved another measuring glass, and ground at the remnants of the previously-one with her heel.

Flandre Scarlet had very good ears.



* * *

My word, said Cirno, except it sounded a good deal more like: “HUH!! WHAT’S GOING ON!! IT’S DARK!! WHERE AM I!!”

“OOooOOoooOOaaAAaaAAaaAAA,” said the siren.

“Oh, blast,” muttered Hortensia.

Theodosia narrowed her eyes, clutching at her formerly wounded side. “The Kraken awakes.

“There’s also a fish woman,” muttered Dahlia.

Kitchen fairy glanced at library fairy glanced at garden fairy glanced at kitchen fairy.

To advance was to do battle with the siren. This was a certainty. Fairies, owing to their distantly shared heritage, suffered no disturbance from a siren’s song, save for what might be inferred from its prior representation in text. Fairies were also, cousinhood among fey being what it is, a preferred prey of sirens, or, at the very least, ecological competitors who also made for a healthful vitamin afterwards.

To retreat was, well, they would have to meet Cirno.

“What chance do we have with the fish woman?” asked Dahlia.

Theodosia stared into her soul.

Dahlia looked anywhere but back at the library fairy. (Or at the discarded jawbone.) “Please forget I asked,” she said.

Theodosia didn’t forget. Theodosia couldn’t forget. Theodosia poked at Dahlia’s navel. “They start from here,” said Theodosia. “I don’t mean the fish tail.”

“I’m sorry,” said Dahlia.

“They like to eat from the inside out,” said Theodosia.

“I’m sorry,” said Dahlia.

“And from the bottom up,” said Theodosia.

I’b sorwy,” said Dahlia, sniffling.

Theodosia reached out and began patting the garden fairy’s head.

“And so,” said Hortensia, after a while, “this Cirno blighter. What’s she like?”

Cirno, in point of fact, had been carrying on as usual the whole time. Her lung capacity was outstanding. She could have made a nice career in the opera house, if she had the patience for it, which she didn’t, and, really, it’s pointless to consider. Presently, she was saying something along the lively spirit of, What a conundrum! I suppose I am left no option but to transmute the whole nine yards to ice, which was a perennial choice in the toolkit of the winged bag of hammers.

“I see,” Hortensia began to say, when at once a skin of ice snaked around the corner, threatening to glaze the room over. Kitchen and library fairy raised their hands in unison, elfshot gathering in their palms, when, as abruptly as it came, the ice shattered, floating in flakes on the water.

Most curious, said Cirno. One is learned by now in the art of interpretation.

The ice grew again, and shattered again. Some of the shards floated into, or perhaps through, the walls. Theodosia widened her eyes, and was about to speak.

“One of her friends is all right, I suppose,” said Dahlia, belatedly. Then, after blinking a few times, she brightened up, and handed her lantern to the library fairy.

“Hello,” Theodosia said instead.

Dahlia cupped her hands around her mouth, and breathed in:

“ONE ICE FAIRY IS WORTH TEN FISH WOMEN!!”

By pure reflex, Hortensia and Theodosia cupped their hands around their own mouths, deeper natures boiling to the surface in an instant:

“ONE FISH WOMAN IS WORTH TEN ICE FAIRIES!!”

An angry-coloured blue rocketed past them, skating over the water and leaving twin wakes of ice in its streak.

I beg your pardon??!!!!





When the laughter had subsided, well, mostly subsided, they were lost again, and cared not a whit.

“We’ll get the Saint George’s Cross for this,” said Theodosia.

“I hope not,” said Dahlia. “Having just one Saint George upset with you sounds frightful enough. I didn’t know there were more.”

“We’ve trounced Silly and Charybdis,” said Hortensia. “We can trounce this Georges crumb.”

“You are both idiots,” said Theodosia.

“Idiots who scooped your sorry onion from the scallops,” said Hortensia. She laid a hand over her forehead. “Risk not thy noble and puissant selves, O gallant sirs! I am doomed to death from to die of mine perishing hurt.

“I don’t sound like that,” grumbled Theodosia.

“You do sound a little bit like that,” said Dahlia.

“Okay, a little bit,” said Theodosia, and raised up her chin. “One doesn’t get by in the Library,” she trilled the word, “if one doesn’t.”

“Eugh, really?” asked Hortensia, scrunching up her nose. “Makes this place seem not so bally rotten after all.”

“At least it isn’t haunted here,” said Dahlia, blithely as could be.

Hortensia and Theodosia stopped, and looked at each other.

In the kitchen, as she spatulated another crepe onto the plate, Flandre Scarlet, for no reason that she could discern, chuckled to herself, and shook her head.





(There were no ghosts in the basement.)





(Not anymore, anyway.)



* * *

Flandre Scarlet, actually, was in the kitchen spatulating crepes for two reasons. The first, and the lesser, was to find herself a reprieve from the presence of, to dip briefly into her mind, layabout asthmatic Chaldeans with the loathsome habit of believing themselves omniscient-in-progress.

The second was that dawn was soon to rise, and Remilia likewise with it. Here it was an abominable habit, Flandre believed, to govern oneself by daylight, owing to her general experience of it. She found that the light of the Sun imparted a paradoxical sort of warmth, which sapped the warmth from warmth, by perishing from one the very notion that anything could ever be cool or cold again. It stifled the mind and the senses. Yet such was the practise of the Scarlet Devil, and Flandre knew by this point that she would not be convinced of to do otherwise.

The crepes were modestly topped with butter, lemon juice, and blueberries.

Flandre stood by the door, and waited.

“Come in,” said Remilia, from behind, “Flan.”

“One was born with a mere two hands,” said Flandre. She held a pot of hot posset in the other.

There was the clinking of things being moved, and then Remilia Scarlet opened the door, slightly less rumpled than her nightclothes were. The bottles which had previously colonised her room now formed a glazed fairy circle in one corner of it. Flandre stepped in, and lifted up the crepes at Remilia, artificially raising the corners of her mouth briefly in the manner of one trying to swindle a genuine smile in return, before setting the breakfast down on the table reserved for the occasional such purpose.

“I know that barbarian maid of yours liked to salt the earth with garlic in every dish,” she said, “but I don’t see how you can stand the taste of it.” She sat down and draped herself over the back of a chair. “Either way, we seem to be out.”

Remilia blinked for a fraction of a second longer than usual. “I see,” she said. “Thank you, Flandre,” she said. “You needn’t worry about it, Flandre,” she said, and spoke nothing further on the matter. (It never had been garlic.)

Neither spoke while the Scarlet Devil ate.

“Thank you, Flandre,” Remilia said, again, when she had finished the posset. “It is excellent.”

“Of course,” said Flandre.

Remilia smiled, and it was genuine.

Flandre smiled back.

“I suppose Patche must be waiting,” Remilia said, and her smile grew tired a little.

“The Chaldean has meditated upon the transcendental nature of the waters of the Flood,” said Flandre, which was both true in every word, and a gross abuse of periphrasis. “She is desirous of your ladyship’s audience.”

“I’ll thank you not to speak like that,” said Remilia, “of, to, or in the audible presence of any person who is innocent of a capital crime.” She shook her head. “I will be ready in,” she said, and stopped.

Flandre stood by her dressing table, an upright deck of playing cards placed against the surface. She turned the pack to face Remilia, leering like the torchbearer lampad on its cover.

The Scarlet Devil raised an eyebrow. “You are proposing?”

“A game,” said Flandre. “Poker,” she said, “heads-up.”

The Scarlet Devil pursed her lip, her crimson eyes narrowing. “And the medium of wager?”

“Time,” said Flandre.

“Time?” the Scarlet Devil asked, and raised a hand below her chin, cupping the elbow with the opposite hand, which she was wont to do when she was intrigued.

“Time,” repeated Flandre. “Each minute I win becomes another minute the game continues, and another minute where you, dear sister, are kept safe away from whatever it is,” she fluttered a contemptuous hand, “that’s causing you to look like that.”

“Like what?” asked Remilia, smiling darkly.

“Oh,” said Flandre, smiling darkly back, “I shouldn’t say.” After all, Remilia Scarlet owned no mirrors.





They played from first light through to the full break of day.





* * *

They tramped through the exit, up the stairs, still drunk with the heady liqueur of victory, and threw off their galoshes.

“Finally,” sighed Dahlia.

Sing to me of the fairy, Muse,” orated Theodosia. “The fairy of twists and turns.

“I’ve already told you I won’t take dictation of your autobiography,” said Hortensia.

Meiling found them, and led them into the cabinet room, where Patchouli Knowledge waited.

Theodosia saw the magician, and took a deep breath.

“We found the leak,” Hortensia began. “It—”

“I found it,” Theodosia spoke over her, and raised a hand.

“Now look here,” said Hortensia, but the library fairy shoved her way forward, closing her eyes.

“Report,” said Meiling.

“There’s no need,” said Patchouli Knowledge. She unsheathed a leaf-bladed dagger of copper from a glowing palm, and levitated Theodosia into it. “O thou, Astaphe.

“What,” growled Hortensia, raising up the fire poker, and burst into glitter.

Meiling pressed her lips thin, and set the poker down, turning to the garden fairy.

Dahlia sat down on the floor and didn’t move.

“I see,” said Patchouli Knowledge. “I see,” said Patchouli Knowledge again, and this time her brow unfurled a little. She released the library fairy, who fell limply in front of Dahlia. “Well done,” the magician said, as an afterthought, while she busied herself with the things in her pockets.

Meiling knelt down beside Theodosia.

Theodosia turned her head to Dahlia. The library fairy smiled feebly, delphinium eyes growing faint. She whispered something to Dahlia.

Meiling allowed it to happen, and then touched her forehead, and then Theodosia, too, was glitter.

Dahlia was silent. She stared where Theodosia’s lips had been, remembering them.

What had she said?

Anodyne, was it, perhaps?

No.

That wasn’t it.

Another time.

Dahlia nodded back, seven seconds late.

“You’d better get yourself cleaned up,” said Meiling, when Patchouli had left the room. “There are sandwiches in the hall.” After a moment, she added, “I’ll save some for you.”





And lo, by one’s guilty conscience, came some to form mountains.





Dahlia smiled softly to herself, over a mouthful of tilapia and cream cheese. She swung her legs back and forth freely in the chair.

There came to her a singular thought, which nestled comfortably in her head.

Tomorrow always comes.

It was a small, inconsequential, sea-green-haired thought, for a small, inconsequential, sea-green-eyed fairy of luck.





(“My lady has an admirable moustache,” she said, when Remilia entered the hall.)


File 159587026793.jpg - (551.89KB, 1190x1670, the merchant.jpg) [iqdb]
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* * *

















1 The world is every state that is the case.

1.1 The world is the totality of real states, not of things.

1.11 The world is determined by the real states, and by these being all the real states.

1.12 For the totality of real states determines both what is the case, and also all that is not the case.

1.13 The states in configural space are the world.

2 What is the case, is a real state, is the existence of elementary states.

2.1 An elementary state is a configuration of objects (entities, things).

2.11 It is essential to a thing that it can be a constituent part of an elementary state.

2.12 In causality nothing is accidental: if a thing can occur in an elementary state the possibility of that thing must already be prejudged by a prior state.

3 The temporal realisation of a state is the instant.

3.1 The totality of instants is time.

4 Fifteen minute pause for refreshments.

5 Instants are truth-functions of elementary states.

5.01 Elementary states are truth-arguments of instants.

5.1 The truth-functions can be ordered in series. That is the foundation of cause and effect.

5.2 The structures of instants stand to one another in causal relations.

5.3 All instants are results of truth-operations on the elementary states. Every truth-operation creates from truth-functions of elementary states another truth-function of elementary states, i.e., an instant. The result of every truth-operation on the results of truth-operations on elementary states is also the result of one truth-operation on elementary states.

5.4 Here it becomes clear that there are no such things as free will or motion.

6 The general form of spacetime is: (ds[k,n])² = (cdt[1])² + . . . + (cdt[k])² − (dx[k+1])² − . . . − (dx[k+n])²

7 Whereas time cannot move, therefore it must stand still.



Sakuya slipped the pocketwatch back into its pocket, and admired the Scarlet Devil Mansion from afar.

She didn’t need the pocketwatch for time to stop, of course. For time to stop was just a matter of perspective, and Sakuya had a remarkable amount of perspective for a human her age. But her pocketwatch still ran when time was stopped, which meant it would run off course. She then had to get it back on course, which meant taking it out when time stopped, so she could remember the correct time, and taking it out again when time was about to resume, so she could wind it back. To anyone else, she just fiddled with a fancy pocketwatch she never actually checked.

That had been the case in the past, that is. But she had lately moved Underground, and whenever Sakuya moved somewhere, she made it a point to familiarise herself with the local shops and markets. On her first trip to the open-air market, or open-cavern market, rather, there had been a particularly insistent peddler who had tried his level best to convince her to purchase a small device which he had claimed was a cell phone, or cellular, mobile telephone. Sakuya had known it was a fake even without having to see the rest of it because the people there didn’t have cars to keep them in. The peddler was an oni, however, and probably did not know the strength of what he had thought to be a friendly hand on the shoulder, so Sakuya had found herself needing for time to stop to avoid a possibly serious injury, which would have spoiled her settling in. When time did stop, of course, she’d therefore had to adjust her pocketwatch, and it had caught the peddler’s eye. For the peddler was a great admirer of mechanical timepieces, and he had made sure to specify mechanical timepieces, because, as he had explained, these cellular, mobile telephones had of late become popular in the Former Capital, and one of their myriad apparent features was that they told the time, which greatly obviated the need for devices, like clocks and watches, which could tell the time and only tell the time. This, of course, had saddened the oni greatly, but he had been heartened indeed to see a fellow adherent of the old ways of timekeeping, and indeed as Sakuya had become aware of the situation, she had begun to feel some degree of solidarity herself with the passionate oni. So she had confided in him thus, that her pocketwatch had this trouble about it, of running off and winding back every time. Now, the oni had not quite fully understood her explanation of how time night stop (and perhaps had regretted a little his haste in reaching out to what had turned out to be a madwoman), but oni, as they come, are a flexible and tolerant bunch, and Mr. Horologe (as he exuberantly titled himself, the paint curdling off his glass house) was no exception. So he had humoured her, and shown her one of the pocketwatches in his collection, which had a special button on the side that one could press to halt its advance, and press again to allow its resumption. It was quite the stroke of engineering, though rather more workmanlike in design, having a case of stainless steel, in contrast to her then model, which was an elegant thing in an alloy called Alumigold. But the brushed gunmetal look had quite appealed to Sakuya’s sense of style, and the whole thing had been between fellow enthusiasts, so they had agreed not to pay too much heed to the difference in material value. Instead, the trade was that the oni would give Sakuya information about the Former Capital, and especially about its sense of business, to help her settle in with a minimum of trouble and establish her mushroom business with a running start. This, of course, and the watches.

She still checked it every time, to make sure it properly stopped. But it did save on the fingers.

In any case, time, and timepiece, were indeed stopped.

Nobody really knew what Sakuya was like when time was stopped. Sakuya herself was quite chuffed by this idea, that she was a person of true mystery, and sometimes made a joke of appearing out of when time was stopped in an unusual state which implied something likewise unusual, yet indeterminate, about her activities while time had been stopped. She did this mainly when she was alone, however, because it wouldn’t do for a maid to be seen, for example, smouldering.

But now that she had decided to become a mushroom seller, she wondered if she wouldn’t let loose a little. (And she had decided to become a mushroom seller, alongside with being a maid, for rɇasǫńs she didn’t terribly understand, but she accepted that the basket of chanterelles under her arm spoke for itself.) Since it was unheard of for a maid to be a mushroom seller on the side, it followed that when she was a mushroom seller, she would not be seen as a maid, and vice versa, and so she did not have to concern herself with the usual proprieties right now.

She decided to whistle while she walked.

Sakuya was a good whistler. She was an excellent whistler, actually, and could faithfully reproduce the songs of some sixty-eight bird species. Actually again, and to cut to the butter of it, like with chicken Kiev, she had a gift, for reproducing sounds with her voice. This extended to whistling, animal calls, impressions of people, accents in general, and enka singing.

She decided to whistle cowboy movie motifs.

Time was still stopped, of course. This was a trial run, before the real thing. While people wouldn’t see her whistling as a maid, they would see her whistling as a mushroom seller, and the competition in the whistling sector among mushroom sellers was cut-throat, and, unfortunately for Sakuya, not literally.

Sakuya also, and this was critical, had to decide whether to give Remilia the gift (the chanterelles were a well-wishes gift, of course) as a maid or as a mushroom seller. On the one hand, if she did so as a maid, Remilia might take it as a sign of a lack of commitment towards her new mercantile endeavour. On the other hand, if she did it as a mushroom seller, she would be trespassing.

Eventually, she resolved that she, as a maid, would escort herself, as a mushroom seller, briskly in and out of the premises, with the understanding that if she, as a mushroom seller, caused any disturbance, she, as a maid, would have to eject herself, as a mushroom seller, from the property, and ban herself, as a mushroom seller, that is, as a maid banning a mushroom seller, from the Mansion altogether. She didn’t want that to happen.

She took a breath to compose herself, and would have crossed the threshold of the Mansion then, but she had been so deep in her thoughts that she found herself, to her not insignificant surprise, already standing by her lady’s side. Remilia’s back was seated before her, alone, in the smaller dining room, which was where her lady had most of her chicken Kiev.

Sakuya panicked, which was a rare moment for her. And which, for her, meant placing the basket in Remilia’s lap, and stepping back to her usual position behind her lady.

Time started again.

In the library, Patchouli Knowledge spat her tea, and not just because the Great Layabout Asthmatic could not brew tea to save a drowning kitten.

“Guh,” said Remilia, suddenly be-mushroomed.

“Freshly cut chanterelles,” said Sakuya. “They are in season Underground. I thought milady might like some.”

“Oh, certainly, thank you,” said Remilia. “That’s very thoughtful of you,” she said, “Sakuya.”

Remilia Scarlet blinked, and jerked her head back over her shoulder.

1 The world

But Sakuya was gone.
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