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Surprise Sanae? Count me in!
"Yes!" I say.
Nue grins. "Well come on then!" She resumes dragging me along at full speed.
"Wah! Where are we going?"
Nue leads us straight to Myouren Temple. She makes a gesture to be quiet, and we slip soundlessly in though the back door. There's just barely enough light inside for me to see where I'm going, so I stick close as we float down the halls and sneak into the storeroom.
"Where is it, where is it..." Nue whispers, hunting quickly and quietly through the shelves. "Aha!"
She shoves a jar of some kind into my hands. It's followed not long after by what feels like a large writing brush.
"Now all we need is..." she zips out of sight. A rustling sound comes from somewhere, and she returns holding what looks like a thick wad of paper. "Got it! Let's go!"
We're halfway back out again when a voice comes from behind us.
"And just what do you think you're doing?"
Nue and I both freeze, and turn around slowly. Ichirin is standing behind us. Even wearing plain white pyjamas and without Unzan looming over her shoulder, she's still scary!
"Papercrafts," Nue says innocently, holding up the paper.
Ichirin's eyes narrow. "In the middle of the night?"
"It's a surprise," Nue says, nodding towards me. I grin nervously.
Ichirin scowls and folds her arms.
"Completely harmless, wouldn't hurt a human," Nue adds. "Honest."
"You expect me to believe that?" Ichirin asks.
"It's just paper!" Nue insists. "You won't even hear about it. I promise."
Ichirin keeps glaring. Then she sighs. "Alright... but if I do, you're in big trouble."
"Thank you~" Nue sings, already pulling me along again.
We fly through the sleeping quarters, towards what is presumably Nue's room, but once there Nue abruptly picks up speed and loops back to the other side of the temple. She gently eases open a heavy door and closes it again behind us.
"Soundproof meditation room," Nue explains quietly, "shouldn't wake anyone up in here. Just don't break anything or Hijiri'll skin us alive."
She darts over to a well-hidden closet at the back of the room and returns with a thin mat, which she puts in the middle of the room, and drops the paper on top of it.
"What are we doing, anyway?" I ask.
"What, you haven't figured it out yet?" Nue asks. "We're making a monster!"
I look at the paper, then at the jar and brush in my hands.
"You can make stuff move on its own, right?"
"Uh, sort of?"
"Right! So we make something scary, and you make it move."
"What kind of something?"
Nue holds up a sheet of paper, grinning from ear to ear. "Something with eight legs, a long tail and roughly this color."
My eyes widen. "...oh! But, um, paper isn't going to look very scary..."
"Hey, who do you think you're talking to? Once I work my magic, she'll see what she's expecting to see! And after what you said..."
"...she'll be expecting the real thing," Sekibanki finishes, and shudders.
"Exactly." Nue grins smugly.
"Umm, I don't think I can make something that complicated move right..." I say.
Nue shrugs. "You'll figure something out. Now come on, let's get started!"
Nue, it turns out, is really, really good at paper maché. I have no idea why, and I'm not sure I want to know. But between the two of us we manage to turn a stack of paper, a pot of glue and and a few clumsy dabs of magic into something that actually looks a lot like the hatchling from the movie.
But then I have to make it move around somehow. That... doesn't go so well. I can't just control things remotely like Alice and her dolls. I have to kind of... well, I'm a tsukumogami. An umbrella that can move on its own. I can't actually make more tsukumogami, at least not easily, so I just tear off a bit of my own spirit and put it in something else.
It's not all that different to splitting my power to make my humanlike form, but that's something I do all the time. This isn't. It's not a natural ability, and it isn't something I'm really all that good at. The hardest part is it's not really me anymore. It's kind of like splitting yourself into two seperate people, except one is really weak and stupid and in a completely unfamiliar body, and you can only communicate by finger taps.
Needless to say, it takes a long time, a lot of mistakes, and several paper limb reattachments before I manage to get it to walk around convincingly.
"Man, this is awesome!" Nue gushes, following the paper alien as it scurries around the room.
"Guh..." I reply, face screwed up in concentration as I furiously try to guide my blind quasi-tsukumogami clone between Nue's legs without tripping over its own.
"The wall! Do the wall!"
I move my trail of mental 'taps' up the wall, and the 'monster' obediently scurries after them.
I bounce a strong burst of my own energy off the construct, making it fling itself off the wall. This time it spreads its legs properly, and latches onto Nue's face perfectly. Nue stumbles back a step from the impact, then flips me a thumbs-up. I signal it to play dead, and it goes limp, dropping off into Nue's waiting hands.
I collapse onto my knees, panting with exhaustion.
"Wow," Sekibanki says. "I'd, uh, applaud, but I'm a little short on hands."
"This is really hard work," I groan.
"It only has to work for a few seconds," Nue reminds me.
"But if Sanae starts shooting at it..."
"Then that means you've already freaked her out, and you'll just have to settle for that," Nue finishes. She grins. "Ready to try it for real?"
"Ready as I'll ever be," I reply.
After a moment to clean up after ourselves - and double-check we didn't spill any glue - we're on our way back to the shrine.
"How am I even going to get close enough?" I fret. "Every time I try to sneak into the shrine she spots me. It's like she can feel me coming."
"She can," Nue says. "She has some kind of connection to the shrine, lets her know where everyone is. I don't know exactly how it works." She grins again. "But I know for a fact she can't tell exactly what everyone is. All you gotta do is make yourself feel different."
"And how do I do that?"
"You ever freaked someone out by making them feel like they're being watched, without actually seeing you?"
"Ooookay then, what about the opposite? Doing like Mamizou does, keeping humans from noticing you're a youkai?"
"Loads of times!"
"Great! It's just like that. Except instead of trying to make yourself feel human, you're trying to make yourself feel... smaller."
"Like a youkai wolf or something?"
"Exactly!" Nue grins yet again.
"...I think I can do that," I decide.
"Well, it's now or never."
Nue reaches over and does... something, to the paper monster I'm carrying. I don't notice any change, but that's because I already know what it is.
"Good luck!" she says.
I take a deep breath, and fly down to the shrine.
I lower myself to ground level outside the shrine proper, and float in cautiously, keeping an eye out to make sure I'm not spotted too soon. There are a few lights on inside. I listen carefully at the door for a moment, and let myself in.
The room I'm in isn't lit, but the adjoining one is, so there's plenty of light for even me to see by. And in the late-night silence, I can hear someone moving around. Coming from the... kitchen, I think? I try to remember the exact layout -
"Who's there? Hello?"
- practically right next to me! I make it into the next room, also dark, and watch Sanae's shadow approaching. I put what I'm carrying on the ground, and slip carefully through another door, out of sight in the dark.
"I know you're there, you can't hide from me!" Sanae calls. She sounds confident, but I don't think she knows it's me. Yet.
Tap. Tap. Scuttle.
Sanae comes into view. She's still wearing her miko outfit, but she doesn't have her gohei with her. She turns in a slow circle, scanning her surroundings.
I direct my 'spider' through the door behind her. She whips around, obviously having seen something, but not sure what it was yet.
"I don't have time for games. Stop fooling around and show yourself!"
Sanae follows the spider back the way she came, looking a lot more wary than she did a moment ago. Carefully probing both its surroundings and mine, I follow. Sanae's confidence rises again once she's back in a fully-lit room.
"Alright, that's enough. You've got until three to come out, or I'll exterminate you for real! One!"
Following Nue's advice, I reverse my usual concealment, making my youkai nature flare up as obviously as possible. Sanae freezes, and slowly turns around, looking right at my hiding place.
The spider scuttles up the wall behind her. Sanae whips around again, hand raised - and the spider hits her squarely in the face.
Sanae staggers backwards, almost falling over, arms flailing wildly. Then she finally gets a grip on it and tears it off, throwing it on the floor. I wince as a blinding flash of divine power incinerates it, leaving not even a whiff of smoke.
Sanae sways slightly, breathing heavily. Then she takes a deep breath -
- and screams at the top of her lungs.
Next thing I know the door is flung open and Sanae slams into me, gibbering hysterically.
"It was a prank!" I blurt out.
"Th-the alien! That was me!"
Sanae stares at me, still shaking and hyperventilating. "You... you..." She squeezes her eyes shut and -
- starts pounding her fists on my shoulders why is Sanae as strong as Ichirin I think something just broke ow ow ow ow -
"I s-seriously th-thought I was g-going to diiiiie!" she wails, before finally breaking down in tears and sobbing into my shirt.
"I'm... I'm sorry..." I say uselessly. Sanae squeezes me uncomfortably tightly, but only for a moment.
"What's going on here!?"
I look up at the sound of another door being thrown aside, and see Kanako and Suwako standing in the doorway, both in their pyjamas and looking very worried.
"Sanae? What happened?" Suwako asks, making a beeline for us. Sanae just shakes her head.
Kanako pads past us and peers through the other door, frowning anxiously as she looks around. The simple sunset-red nightdress she's wearing somehow makes her look younger than her usual severe outfit, almost as young as Sanae.
"Sanae, talk to me," Suwako says, putting a hand on Sanae's back.
"'m fine," Sanae says, lifting her head. "It was nothing." She wipes the tears from her eyes and abuptly stands up. "See?"
"That didn't sound like nothing," Suwako says, obviously not fooled.
"There was a youkai in here," Kanako says sharply. "I could feel it. Did it do something to you? Are you hurt?"
"No, it just caught me by surprise, that's all," Sanae says. "It's gone now. Kogasa got rid of it, right Kogasa?"
Wait what why would she -!?
"R-right!" I say, scrambling to my feet, trying to play along and not wince because I just put weight on my shoulder and it really hurts owwwwwwwww.
"Why are you here, anyway?" Suwako asks, glaring at me suspiciously. "You weren't here when we got back..."
"Well, umm, actually..."
"She was trying to surprise me. Again." Sanae says, smiling. "But she ended up helping instead."
"Urk..." I don't even need to pretend to look guilty!
"Really, I'm fine. I'm just a little jittery after watching that movie, and, well..." Sanae scratches the back of her head, looking actually embarassed. "Sorry I woke you up. Can we just forget about it, please?"
Suwako stares for a moment, then chuckles and grins. She floats off the ground to hug Sanae.
"Geez, don't scare me like that," she says.
"False alarm, then?" Kanako says, looking relieved.
"Sorry," Sanae says, grinning weakly.
"Sorry," I echo, looking sheepish.
"You need a good night's sleep," Suwako says, letting go of Sanae.
"I'll be along in just a minute," Sanae says.
Kanako and Suwako head back to bed, and I follow Sanae back outside. She walks quite a way from the shrine and uh is she going to -
"Umm, I'm really so-"
"Thank you," Sanae says, turning around.
"...bweh?" I reply. "Uh... what are you thanking me for?"
"For reminding me what it means to be human."
"...I don't understand," I finally manage.
Sanae smiles. "It's... it's a long story. Maybe later, okay? Just..."
She puts a hand on my shoulder. My knees reflexively buckle in an effort to shake it off as I flinch hard from the pain.
"Ouch! Um... I think you broke my collarbone back there..."
Sanae's faltering smile is instantly replaced by a mixture of dread and horror. "Oh no... no no no no please not again -"
"Sanae? What's wrong?"
"I can't... I don't..." Sanae takes a deep breath. "Promise you won't tell anyone." She glances meaningfully at the shrine. "Anyone at all."
"Lady Kanako..." Sanae begins, then hesitates. "...she's been trying to get me to, well... to be more of a goddess. To keep more faith for myself, instead of just passing it all on to them." She takes another deep breath, and lets it out in a rush. "I can't handle it. I can't control it, I keep going overboard, first your friend, now you -"
"I'm fine," I interrupt. "Really. I'll be all healed up by morning. You don't have to -"
"But I do have to worry!" Sanae insists. "What if it's a spiritual attack next time? I'm practically leaking faith everywhere, and youkai are weak to -"
"Do you have any of your ofuda on you?" I ask. "Youkai extermination ofuda?"
Sanae reaches into her sleeve (Why always the sleeves? Is it some shrine maiden thing?) and draws out one of her ofuda, with the familiar star symbol.
I pluck it from her hand and hold it up, uharmed. To prove my point, I close one eye and stick out my tongue.
"See? I'm surprisingly sturdy!"
Sanae's eyes widen. Then she giggles. "How are you doing that? What's the trick?"
"No trick," I say, passing it back to her. "I can even pick up Reimu's yin-yang orbs."
Sanae frowns slightly. Then she presses the ofuda lightly against my forehead.
I keep smiling.
She pulls it away, revealing no injury whatsoever.
"See?" I repeat. "You don't have to worry about hurting me. Not accidentally, anyway."
Sanae giggles again. Then she takes a step forward and gingerly pulls me into a rather awkward hug.
"...sorry for causing trouble again," I say, returning the hug as best I can without making my shoulder hurt even more.
"Don't be," Sanae replies. "I needed that. Really. Thank you." She lets go. "I should get back before Lady Kanako and Lady Suwako get worried again."
Sanae waits until I've flown clear of the shrine before turning around and going back inside.
Nue and Sekibanki are waiting for me where I left them. Nue is grinning from ear to ear, but Sekibanki's smile fades once she catches sight of my face.
"So? How did it go? We heard a nice scream~" Nue says.
"...I'm not going to try to surprise Sanae anymore," I reply.
"...eh? What?" Nue says, her grin giving way to confusion.
"You, um, probably shouldn't let Sanae find out this was your idea," I add. "She might exterminate you. For real."
I start flying back to the village.
"Hey, wait! What happened!?" Nue calls after me. "...what'd I do this time?"
She doesn't give chase.
"Hey," Sekibanki says, floating along beside me as usual, "you okay?"
"...yeah," I say eventually. "Just tired. And sore."
The village is dark and quiet by now. I stick to the rules and pass by the guardhouse anyway. Normally a youkai would have a lot of trouble getting into the village at this hour, but now that I'm living here they let me through with nothing more than a bit of grumbling about night shifts and paperwork.
Back at my house, we find Medicine curled up on the floor next to the table. I don't think she's moved from that spot since we left. I get that she seems to like sleeping on the floor, but it feels wrong to just leave her there, so I carry her into the bedroom anyway, using a bit of magic to compensate for my injured shoulder. She doesn't stir at all.
I fall asleep almost as soon as my head hits my pillow.
I wake up very suddenly.
There doesn't actually seem to be a reason for it, though. No loud noises, no nightmares, nothing unexpected. In fact, it's surprisingly quiet. I'm just instantly wide awake. Well, it's morning anyway, so I sit up, stretch and test my shoulders. They're stiff and a bit cramped, but fully healed.
I hear a rustling noise, and turn to see Medicine sitting up and rubbing her eyes. A small doll is lying on the ground next to her. It looks exactly like her, so I guess it must be her main body? I've never seen it before, though.
"Good morning," I say.
"Good morning," Medicine replies, looking around sleepily.
Medicine nods, and yawns.
"Where's Sekibanki?" I ask, noticing her pillow is empty.
Well, I do seem to have slept in later than I usually do, so it's not impossible she simply woke up before me for once. I get up and go about my normal morning routine, before heading into the kitchen to make breakfast.
"Oh, there you are!" I say, spotting Sekibanki. "You should've woken me up if you were hungry."
Sekibanki doesn't reply, and continues biting at a cupboard door.
"Hey, don't do that, you'll damage your teeth." I gently pull Sekibanki away from the handle. "Are you still half a sleep or something?"
Sekibanki lets out a frustrated moan and snaps at my face.
"Wah! Hey! What are you doing!?"
Sekibanki still doesn't answer, instead struggling uncoordinatedly and trying to bite my fingers.
"What's gotten into you!? Cut it out!"
I slap her. Hard.
"Sekibanki? Can you hear me? What's wrong?"
Sekibanki's eyes finally focus on me. She looks dazed and woozy.
"...I feel like shit," she slurs.
"You look awful too! What happened?"
"...I 'unno. I woke up, I was hungry... and it's all kind of a blur..." She shakes herself, then reels. "Urp. Think I'm gonna be sick..."
A shrill scream comes from outside.
I spin around, but spot only an equally-startled Medicine standing behind me, doll floating next to her.
"That's... we're in the village, right?" Sekibanki says.
All three of us rush outside. It's immediately apparent that something is very wrong; a small stampede of panicked humans are scrambling to get away from something near the west gate. I immediately run in the opposite direction.
"What's going on!?" I ask one of the less-frantic humans.
He doesn't answer, instead fleeing from me as well.
A moment later I'm through the crowd and into the open. A small group of village guards are trying to fend off a shrieking, winged youkai, and are very clearly outmatched. Shredded armor, broken weapons and at least one of them has a savage red gash across his chest -
"Mystia, what are you doing!?" I shout.
Mystia shows no sign of having heard me, still hellbent on eviscerating one of the guards. I take a flying leap over his shoulder and kick Mystia hard in the face, sending her sprawling.
"You okay?" I ask.
The guard nods, too out of breath to talk, and frantically points behind me.
Mystia is on her feet. Her eyes are wild and bloodshot. Her talons are fully extended. She lets out a loud, grating screech, completely at odds with her normal singing, and charges at me in a blind rage.
"What's going on!?" I yell, dodging her first clumsy swipe. "Mystia, snap out of it!"
Mystia lunges again. I take another step back and bash her across the face with my umbrella. She spins all the way around and swipes in my general direction. I twist under it and plant my foot in her stomach, kicking her flying again. She clumsily backflips, lands on all fours, and charges again.
I grip my umbrella with both hands.
"I'm really sorry about this," I say.
Mystia takes a flying leap, reaching for my throat.
I sidestep at the last possible moment.
Mystia thuds limply to the ground behind me.
Mindful of where I am and who's watching, I quickly flick the blood off my sword and snap my umbrella back together before turning around.
Mystia's head is lying a foot away from her body. The guards are hovering warily at a safe distance, weapons raised.
"Is she dead?" one of them asks.
"Not permanently," I say, moving closer to double-check. "But she won't be getting up any time soon."
The guards breathe a collective sigh of relief.
"You should clean any wounds she gave you as soon as possible," I say, eyeing the blood on one of their chestplates, "and maybe pay a visit to the shrine afterwards, just to be on the safe side."
The oldest of the guards - presumably the one in charge, though I haven't really paid enough attention to figure out what ranks they have, if they even have ranks - nods slowly, and opens his mouth to speak, before being roughly shoved aside.
Next thing I know I'm pinned to the wall by someone's forearm crushing my windpipe.
I try to speak, but I can't even breathe. One arm frantically tries to lever Keine's off me while the other catches her fist before she can pound my face in. She leans back for her trademark, but I wrestle her free arm across, jamming her fist under her chin. I'm clearly stronger, but she's in a much better position -
"Nobody kills humans on my watch!" she snarls furiously. "Nobody!"
"I'm - trying - to - help!" I manage to gasp out.
"She's telling the truth, Miss Kamishirasawa. She was defending us."
Keine's eyes dart sideways, toward the guardsman I can't see. Then she locks eyes with me again.
I loosen my grip on her fist. Slowly, she releases the pressure on my throat.
I sag against the wall, panting for breath.
Keine pops her dislocated knuckles back into place with a sickening crunch.
"What happened here?" She demands, not taking her eyes off me.
"Miss Lorelei entered the village looking dazed and confused," the senior guardsman efficiently reports. "When we approached her she became agitated and began attacking anything that moved. We were able to avoid serious casualties until Miss Tatara arrived on the scene. As soon as she ascertained that Miss Lorelei was not to be reasoned with, she took steps to neutralize her."
Keine glances back at Mystia. "How?"
I twist the bottom segment of my umbrella's handle and slide it out, just enough to show the blade. Keine glares at it, then at me. I put it away again.
"What's going on?" I croak.
"All the youkai in the village have gone beserk," Keine replies, "attacking humans and each other like mindless beasts." Her eyes narrow. "Why aren't you affected?"
I raise my hands defensively. "I don't know! I feel fine! Medicine is fine too. Sekibanki was... a bit weird, but she snapped out of it. We didn't even know there was anything wrong until we heard screaming."
Keine glares at me a while longer, considering something.
"...I'm going to have to ask the three of you to leave the village."
"What!?" I exclaim, jerking upright. "If there's some kind of Incident going on we should be helping to protect it! You can't be everywhere at once -"
"I can't trust you!" Keine snaps. "What if it's only a matter of time before you end up like them? Think of the damage you or Medicine could cause all by yourselves! I can't protect the village against either of you! Keeping both of you around is madness!"
"I could say the same about you!" I retort.
Keine growls. No human, or even a humanoid youkai, should be able to make a sound that deep.
Then her eyes widen and she takes a step back. She looks down at her hand, flexing it slowly, then at her shadow, where her horns are clearly visible.
"...you're right," she says quietly. "I'm already more affected than you are."
She looks around. The guards are still hovering nearby, though most of them are busy, and a few other humans have returned and are watching the scene from a safe distance.
"...we need someone we know we can trust," Keine says.
"Reimu? Marisa? Sanae?" I suggest.
"Probably already searching for the cause," Keine says. "Or if not, they soon will be."
"Who else is there?"
"...Mokou promised she'd come to the aid of the village if it was ever needed. Imaizumi is half human, so she should be... relatively unaffected. Eieintei... probably wouldn't help, but it couldn't hurt to ask. And as much as I hate to owe them anything, Toyosatomimi and her followers would be all too eager to help. If they don't have problems of their own."
"But how are we going to contact them? If the youkai elsewhere are affected too..."
"...then one of us is going to have to go."
Keine looks at me uneasily. She opens her mouth again, but hesitates.
[ ] I'll go.
[ ] Mokou.
[ ] Kagerou.
[ ] Eientei.
[ ] Senkai...?
[ ] Somewhere else (write-in).
[ ] I'll stay.
Fuck it, incident arc is go. Hope I haven't given anyone mood whiplash.
Also shit's busy like you wouldn't believe. Apologies in advance for any unscheduled delays or drops in quality.
...heh. Quality. That's a good one.