Reflections on the Scarlet Night Brickman 2010/06/29 (Tue) 03:29 No. 119898 ▼
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I'm planning to start a CYOA soon, but I figured as a combination writing practice, warmup and proof that I don't suck, I'd put to paper (err, text) an old idea I had bouncing around my head. In theory this is the first part of long series which would take a lot of liberties with cannon, but I doubt I'll actually write any of that and this chapter more than stands on its own as a short story. So here goes:
I’m not going to be writing about the incident of the scarlet mist. It’s not that what I will be writing about is more important; the mist that blotted out the sun itself threatened every soul in Gensokyo, and not one person failed to notice the return of daylight. It wasn’t the first incident I resolved as a youkai exterminator, but it was the one that made me famous. But that’s precisely the reason I won’t be writing about it; by this point anyone likely to read this text (a group I currently plan to have consist of those sifting through my belongings after I die of old age, though in a broader sense anyone living in Gensokyo) should know all the details I am willing to share of my encounter with the so-called Scarlet Devil. No, the events I’m going to write about here are of much less significance on a grand scale, though they almost made the scarlet mist incident my last.
I had set out from the human village towards the apparent source of the mist, a strange mansion in the middle of a lake which had sat uninhabited for generations but was now at the center of the spreading clouds. Had I known then that the source was a vampire I would likely have waited and made my assault in daylight, but all I knew at the time was that every hour I delayed was an hour longer that trees and crops throughout the country would wither and die when they should be growing. Thus it was close to evening when trouble found me on the nearly-forgotten path through the woods which led to the lake.
The first sign of danger was that it grew dark too quickly. The remaining hours of relative light fled within a span of a few minutes, as supernatural darkness gripped the woods. After cautiously continuing for a few more minutes with nothing but the sounds of a clumsy stalker to indicate the source, I lost patience and spun around on my heel. “I know you’re there! Show yourself!”
A singsong reply came from seemingly every direction at once, in a young girl’s voice. “Oh, is that so? And why would I take orders from a human who will surely be eaten by dawn?” When I gave no reply, she continued. “You’re hoping to reach the mansion on the lake, yes? You’re hoping to banish the darkness spreading through the land? Well, forget it. If you continue on, I promise that you will not live through the night.”
Although I couldn’t see the sky to tell whether this darkness was caused by the mist or some other source, the fact that a creature creating darkness had appeared as I sought the source of a plague which blocked out the sun did not escape me. I again issued a challenge to the voice: “Are you the source of the darkness across the land?”
In reply came a laugh. “Does it matter? You won’t end the darkness and you won’t escape me if you keep going this way. To be honest, I haven’t any appetite tonight—if you turn back right now, I might let you live.”
At this point, I’d had enough. Although time has proven me wrong on this point, there was nothing to suggest that this girl wasn’t connected to, if not responsible for, the incident I sought to resolve. And she had threatened to eat me. I’m sure that she expected her darkness to protect her from any attack, but I had other plans. Reaching into the bag I keep by my side during these missions, I pulled out one of my less-used spellcards. It would be useless in an ordinary confrontation, because the seals produced by it do little more than sting even the demons they were enchanted to harm, but they fly out in all directions and leave no chance for even the luckiest of opponents to escape a few hits. And this girl was not lucky. An undignified and undisguised squeal suggested that the attack had indeed been unexpected, and was all that I needed; in one motion my next card was in my hand and being directed at the noise. And unlike the previous, this card affects a very small area but causes quite a bit of harm to whoever fails to escape it.
The small youkai’s spell of darkness shattered as the spell connected and her scream of pain cut through the forest, but through an effort of will it was restored only a moment later. In that moment I saw my opponent—she indeed appeared as a young girl, with a black vest and skirt and blond hair, and was now injured quite severely. I rushed towards her to finish the job, but in the darkness tripped and lost several seconds; when I reached the spot where she had been I found only a trail of blood leading away from the path. It was her spell of darkness that saved her; following even such an obvious path was not easy in this light. Before long it led me to a river which feeds into the lake and became impossible to follow further. From here I could see to the sky, however, and though the spell of darkness was waning I saw that the red mist had not even thinned. Above all else this girl had been trying to keep me from the mansion; surely my goal lay there, whether she survived the injuries I had left her or not.
Upon reaching the lake, less than an hour later (with the last bits of daylight still illuminating my path), I found it guarded by the last thing I had expected: Fairies. Fairies who were acting not at all like fairies. In my time I’ve seen a lot of fairies; I’ve seen some who could take a nap in the palm of your hand and not have to worry about rolling over, and some who could pass as a human child if they found a way to hide their wings. I’ve seen some who possessed enough power to put many true youkai to shame, and some who could likely be beaten up by a human child. But I had never to this point, and have never since, seen fairies who acted organized, beyond the simple level of traveling and attacking in groups. Certainly I’d never seen fairies who appeared to be guarding something, but these fairies were indeed guarding the lake. Armed with clubs and rocks, as a group they rose into the air when I drew nearer and shrunk back towards the water’s surface as I stepped back. When I questioned their purpose I drew some confused chatter from a few of them but no answer and no end to their vigil. Sighing, I resigned myself to a fight.
The first card I activated was my spell for flight. I’ve developed that card a lot since then; at the time it lasted perhaps ten minutes on a half an hour’s worth of preparation, enough for a fight but not for travel. I also had considerably less practice fighting while airborne than I do now. Still, the maneuverability offered by the spell was likely my greatest advantage in any fight, doubly so when my alternative was a long, narrow bridge across the water. The fairies took this as a signal that it was time to fight and surprised me again by forming some loose formations in the air. A dozen at a time (how many were there? It must have been at least thirty or forty, possibly more) flew over my head to drop rocks from above, and as I was distracted a handful more would rush forward with their clubs, before retreating back until the next wave of rocks was prepared. My flight rendered what should have been an unrelenting assault quite ineffective, however; in the air I could move fast enough to dodge entire waves of rocks and meet those with clubs head-on. In return I used one of my favorite spells, which fires incapacitating seals which will home in on any target I can see; it takes many to bring even fairies out of the air but hitting small or moving targets could not be easier.
After trading attacks with the fairies until I was almost halfway across the lake I spotted what very well could have been the source of this unusual behavior. One of the largest fairies I have ever seen, with a blue dress and beautiful golden wings, was shouting herself hoarse and gesturing madly at the other fairies. I couldn’t hear what she was saying but it didn’t take much imagination. I changed my focus to her and fired off seals until the combined draining force of all the seals stuck to her body sent her plummeting from the air into the lake. The only immediate change in the behavior of the fairies seemed to be that none were willing to single themselves out anymore; almost all the ones with clubs immediately switched to gathering and dropping rocks with their kin. I considered simply flying up to thwart efforts to get above me, but then I’d have to deal with them when I landed.
It was a moot point, though, because moments later a fairy made herself visible who rivaled the one I had just beaten in size. With a much simpler blue dress and wings which appeared to be made out of ice rather than anything organic, she made her nature even less ambiguous by launching a stream of shards of ice at my location. Recognizing this magic as much more dangerous than anything the other fairies could muster, I dodged through the air and began matching her attacks with attacks of my own, which had surprisingly little effect considering how quickly they’d brought down the previous big fairy.
I’m not really sure which oddity I noticed first. The fact that the other fairies had ceased attacking when this one started may not be such an oddity after all, considering the difference in apparent power level. The fact that the few crystals which managed to hit me shattered harmlessly against my skin, as if they were hollow soft and only barely frozen, could have just meant she wasn’t as strong as she appeared. But the fact that she seemed to be aiming at a point several feet behind me, which it took me a bit of time to realize, had no such explanation. A theory presented itself in my mind, and to test it I pulled out one more card.
If the card I’d used on the darkness youkai earlier was lousy in a fight, this one was downright useless; in fact it was the first spellcard I’d ever designed, and I carried it only for posterity. Not to go into too much detail, it looks extremely flashy and will almost never miss but you could easily not even notice that anything had happened if you were facing the wrong way when it hit you. As I suspected, the fairy made little attempt to dodge it and when it hit let out a rather convincing cry and plummeted from the air. Before she had even hit the water, every other fairy in sight was fleeing.
As I set down on dry land on the small island containing the mansion, I looked over myself. A number of small scattered bruises attested to the fact that I still needed more practice with my flight, but the fairies had never really stood much chance. The entire ordeal had taken less than ten minutes; I hadn’t needed to burn through a second of my precious flight cards to finish the trip. After taking a moment to catch my breath, I proceeded to what will probably always remain the most famous exploits of my career.
Rather than spend time detailing that yet again, however, I will skip ahead to my departure. It was already mid-afternoon of the next day, and for the first time in weeks I was greeted with true sunlight rather than the red tinted gloom that could only even be described as daylight if you were comparing it to the even bleaker darkness of night. Another surprising sight greeted me. Waiting by the lake were a few of the fairies from the night before, and when they spotted me one gave a shout and within a few moments roughly twenty fairies were lined up before me (I suspect the remainder were still regenerating from the fight; the seals I was using aren’t fatal, but anyone I had struck down must have either fallen unconscious into the lake or from a great height onto the ground nearby. Indeed, many of the ones who had survived looked like they might have been supporting broken arms and legs, another sight I’ve never seen on a fairy since most will just kill themselves to let their regeneration speed the healing process). Both of the larger fairies I had seen during the fight were there too, though the golden-winged one shivered with what I suspect must have been a cold (again, truly a unique sight). I now had time to notice that her hair was an unnatural green color, and the other fairy (whose wings indeed looked like several shards of ice sticking out of her back) complemented her look with pale blue hair. The largest of the other fairies went up to their waists, with most barely reaching their knees; it’s a wonder they were able to carry their weapons by themselves, and I suspect the smallest among them must have worked in pairs to lift the rocks.
The ice fairy cleared her throat, and on cue, every other fairy present (including the golden-winged one) gave as deep a bow as they could without hurting themselves and murmured some form of apology. Then she spoke herself. “Sorry about all that. It seems some people have interesting ideas of what it means to ‘keep any humans from entering the mansion.’”
“We would have pulled her out of the water if she fell!” cried the golden-winged fairy, clearly continuing an argument which hadn’t quite reached its conclusion. “We weren’t gonna hurt her, we were just scaring her away like you said.”
“Really? And what if she was already hurt before she hit the water? Humans aren’t like fairies and youkai; just getting hit on the head too hard can be really dangerous.”
“What? Is that true?” The golden-haired girl turned to me for confirmation, and I nodded. “Oh. Wow. Err, I’m really sorry in that case. I just… didn’t realize…” a few of the other fairies, who had been too timid to speak up since the argument between their apparent leaders began, made slightly more sincere apologies.
Even to begin with I had been more curious than angry with these fairies, and seeing them act like normal human children melted away any anger that was left. “That’s alright. To be honest, you didn’t actually come very close to hurting me. Just don’t try anything like that again; not everyone is as skilled at defending themselves as me.” Stifling a laugh at the alternating looks of relief and embarrassed indignation among the fairies, I moved on to the big question in my mind. “Speaking of which, what were you doing anyways?”
“Isn’t it obvious? We were trying to keep humans away from that mansion. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but the youkai who moved in there are pretty powerful and their master isn’t the type to pull you out of the water and stick you in a warm bed and dry clothes for the night.” A slightly-too-loud “Maybe to keep them fresh” earned one of the smaller fairies a very unsubtle elbow jab from one of her comrades, but the golden-winged fairy ignored it and continued on. “We thought for sure that if a human were to charge in there trying to get rid of those red clouds they’d just get themselves eaten. But you,” she brightened up, “I didn’t even know there were humans that strong. How were we supposed to guess you’d make it?” She glanced up at the sky, reminding me that there was probably not a soul in Gensokyo who didn’t already know what I’d done; I would certainly have many questions to answer when I returned to the village.
“And as for you…” I asked, turning towards the ice fairy.
“You didn’t already figure this one out? By the time I got there they were all way too worked up to stop just because I told them to, but I knew I’d get everyone’s attention when I started fighting. So I got out there and made a big show of letting you beat me. There’s no way any of the rest would bother to keep trying if they saw you beat me. After all, I am the strongest fairy in all of Gensokyo!” If she hadn’t been holding back even more than I suspected then I think I’ve seen a few who I’d rank higher, but I certainly wasn’t going to contest the point in front of this crowd. “You caught on pretty fast, I think, unless that weird attack was really supposed to hurt me.” I shook my head and she laughed. “Didn’t think so.”
We continued to make small talk for a while, until I pointed out that there must be dozens of people waiting eagerly to find out what happened back at the nearby village. The fairies seemed even more fascinated that there were humans capable of taking on such powerful youkai than I was about them, so we talked far more about myself than them. When I returned to the village I indeed found myself drowning in praises and questions; since I was the only person to leave the village towards the mansion in the last four nights and I had made it no secret while there that I was a youkai hunter seeking this mansion, there was no question about who was to thank for the return of daylight. It wasn’t until late that night that, resting comfortably in the nicest room in the inn for no charge, that I had enough time to myself to come to a disturbing realization that was several hours overdue.
“If you continue on, I promise that you will not live through the night.” “If you turn back right now, I might let you live.” “We thought for sure that if a human were to charge in there trying to get rid of those red clouds they’d just get themselves eaten.” The youkai who had attacked me on the path (or had she? Didn’t I strike first to catch her off-guard?) had sounded a lot more concerned with scaring me away than eating me. At the time I had taken that as evidence that she was in league with the ones at the mansion, but in all the aftermath of my battle with the mistress not one mention was made of any person I didn’t see while there and, thus, any person who could have been this girl. The fairies had also been trying to scare me away, and their actions turned out to be a very misguided attempt at benevolence. Wasn’t it possible that this girl was the same?
I set out first thing in the morning to the spot where I had encountered the girl. The trail of dried blood was still there and easily led me back to the river. At least she had had the sense to follow the river to hide her trail, but I still had no idea in which direction. I spent most of the day following it both ways. A scrap of black dress caught on a very low branch some ways downstream told me that’s the way she’d gone, but by this point the river was already growing strong enough that it was difficult for me, somewhat battered from the previous day but still a good deal better off than she had looked during that brief glimpse, to fight the current. There were still no signs of any person climbing out, and a few meters further the current grew strong enough that I wouldn’t expect a grown man to be able to avoid being swept up, rather less an injured little girl. Just to be sure I followed it the rest of the way to the lake, finding nothing. A few of the small fairies were playing there when I reached it, I flagged them down and tried to describe the youkai to them and ask if they had by some chance seen her last night, but they shook their heads. In all fairness I know that many youkai are much stronger physically than humans, so I could not be sure, but I returned to the village that evening with no reason not to believe that she currently rested at the bottom of that lake, and no answers to my questions.
I returned to the shrine the next day and didn’t leave for nearly a week. I spent most of my time tormenting myself with questions about that youkai. It could well have been that the situation was exactly as it appeared, and she was simply yet another of the many youkai in Gensokyo with an appetite for humans and a penchant for playing with her food. Certainly that was how it looked at the time. But she also could have been no different from those fairies, seeking only to prevent any overconfident glory-seekers from marching to their deaths in that mansion. It would be a first for me, yes, but so were the fairies, and it’s not like there weren’t occasional tavern stories of benevolent youkai. Whether or not she had survived seemed almost irrelevant; if I hadn’t tripped I would have finished her off myself, right there. I wouldn’t have even given her time to open her mouth in protest.
Ultimately, what drew me back was a group from the nearby village, begging my help in putting a stop to a wolf youkai who had kidnapped three of their children over the past two weeks. It was exactly the reminder I needed of the way things really are in this world. I decided that the solution to this, and other problems, was simply to trust my instincts; they’ve rarely ever steered me wrong and have saved my life on many occasions. The darkness youkai was exactly what she seemed—a youkai who spotted a brave-looking traveler and decided to make a game out of scaring me before making me her meal. After all, how could I go on doing my job if I believed anything else?