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“My name,” I begin, “is-” or should that be was? “Cassidy. Cassidy Livingston.” I say it defiantly, waiting for Mima to react the way of so many others.
She doesn’t, though, merely nodding. Maybe she doesn’t realize the implications? “Foreign, on both counts. Were you an Outsider, then? Or did you just have parents who shouldn't have been allowed to choose names for a boy?” Her lips curl upward into a small smirk.
...So much for blissful ignorance. “Can’t it be both?” I respond, rewarded with a chuckle. “Yeah, I was one of those people known as Outsiders, for the last few years of my life. Grew up in the west, to parents in the sort of situation where they thought their kid might need a ‘special’ name to stand out. I got a lot of crap growing up as a result, of course. Tried to get ‘Cassy’ going for a bit, and then ‘Cassy L.’, but-”
“You’re no angel, dear.” Mima interrupts, rolling her eyes.
“Who said anything about angels? I just wanted a nickname that sounded cool.” I cough, not deigning to acknowledge that ‘cool’ half a lifetime ago bears little resemblance to now. “Anyway, though, neither of those worked too well, so I’ve gone by Cass since then.”
“While this little history lesson on your naming is fascinating, Cass-” Mima yawns- “forgive me if it also seems rather unimportant compared to other details about yourself.”
“Spoken like someone who’s never been disrespected due to theirs,” I mutter. “First impressions mean a lot to people, and getting the acknowledgement owed you is hard enough without a handicap like that.”
Mima pauses at that, then nods. “...Fair enough. Go on.”
“Right. So, growing up I-” might’ve had a bit of an inferiority complex “-had to work hard to show up some of the idiots I had for peers. I did it, though...worked hard, studied hard, top of my class and then a good university. I felt at home there, for a while...got a degree in engineering, and ended up being headhunted by a big company in Japan. I moved over here, got set up in my new, finally successful life: everything seemed to be going well.”
I approximate a grimace. “...And then, naturally, I got pulled into the backwoods land of Gensokyo, rendering all of that pretty much useless.
“Can you believe that most people in the village had never even heard of electricity when I arrived here?” Of course, since then those mountain goddesses have taken the credit for introducing energy, in the form of nuclear fusion and even cold fusion… I reflect bitterly.
“Actually, yes.” Mima drawls, observing a cage of yellow lines now crackling around her open palm. “Until recently, the tengu and kappa’s toys have been the only real uses for electricity.”
“Uh, you don’t seem much like a kappa or tengu,” I note sardonically. “Too tall, hair’s the wrong color, and you don’t have the dog ears or wings-”
My voice dies away as a pair of glassy black wings unfolds from Mima’s back, and she cocks her head.
“...Well, my point still stands,” I grumble. “Those aren’t crow tengu wings.”
“How astute of you to notice. There are several youkai like myself, as well as at least one human, skilled enough in magic to control the elements.” Mima acknowledges with a nod, extinguishing her electrical display. “You’re decently versed in decent species of youkai, aren’t you? I wasn’t aware many tengu came to the Human Village, especially not the wolves.”
“They don’t, no. But I eventually got to know some kinds of youkai better, once I realized that they weren’t all...” I halt, recalling that Mima’s just referred to herself as a youkai too.
“...Weren’t all soulless monsters out to kill and eat you, not necessarily in that order?” The ghost extrapolates wryly, but with no malice to her tone. “Although I won’t deny that there are some of us like that.”
“Pretty much, yes. Having one’s first experience after arriving here be nearly fatal running from a clawed monster contentedly singing about how they were going to eat me-” in the shape of a young bird-winged girl, at that, adding levels of confusion and humiliation to the whole thing- “makes a fairly strong impression, in my defense.”
“If you managed to survive that, your predator can’t have been especially competent,” Mima observes. “...Oh, don’t look at me like that. Gensokyo’s home to youkai that could kill you as easily as swatting a fly and with less care, you must have learned that.”
A memory wells up of gnashing teeth and ripping, bloodstained claws, and I force it back down with a shudder, feeling phantom pains in limbs no longer there. Yes, indeed I have.
“Well, this girl wasn’t one of them, at any rate,” I mutter. “In fact- as I learned after seeing her in the village the next day and shooting her in a panic- she owned a rather popular food cart outside the village, and people cared more about what was going into their stomachs than her own.”
“Shooting? You learned to use danmaku so quickly?”
“No, but I could use a gun, which I’d hastily bought from that shopkeeper after realizing the impending danger of being torn to pieces. I couldn’t use it very well, mind you, and I’ve learned since that it wouldn’t have done anything in the long run even if I could...”
“Yes, youkai are notoriously hard to kill in ways that don’t allow them reformation.” Mima says.“...Using conventional means, at least.”
“I’ve had that point thoroughly driven home since, yeah. Anyway, the shot wasn’t anywhere near lethal, but there was a lot of blood and screaming, enough to get me dragged away by an angry mob.” Admittedly, assaulting someone in a crowded marketplace and in broad daylight might not have been the best idea, but I can hardly be blamed for panicking a bit.
“At which point this woman, Kamishirasawa, broke them up and took me back to her home to explain that, even if youkai preyed on humans and humans fought youkai, I couldn’t deal with it like that.” I can still recall the patient look she had on her face, as if calmly disciplining a child that had struck one of his playmates. Except that in my case, said playmate would be more like a forty-year old man predisposed to promises of candy in the backs of vans.
“It doesn’t sound like you were especially happy to learn that.” Mima says mildly.
“Hearing it from her was bad enough, but worse was the entire village backing her up, those that weren’t willing to throw me to the forest’s youkai themselves. Several of ‘em – the youkai, I mean- were really pissed at me for hurting their friend and out for my blood, and nobody seemed to find anything wrong with this. An entire settlement of people, apparently indoctrinated into behaving like so many cattle, and trying to force me to think the same way. I couldn’t deal with that. So, I-”
“Shunned them?” Mima asks, nodding sympathetically.
“What?” I look at her, askance. “No! No, I tried to help them. The other humans might have been willing to live under fear and oppression, I thought at the time, but if that was the case it was up to me to convince them otherwise, as the only one enlightened enough to intercede.”
“I see. And you didn’t feel at all...resentful of how they’d been behaving toward you?” Mima says doubtfully. “Nothing but pure altruism untempered by any lesser urges, for instance, wanting to prove them wrong, or show that you were right...?”
I remember the bitter thoughts that filled my head, both on that day and many others, and say nothing.
Mima smirks. “There’s an old saying about roads and good intentions which I think to be appropriate here, Cass. Might things have escalated from your initial goals, perhaps?”
“They wouldn’t listen,” I growl, quashing unheeded thoughts of regret at the…unfortunate conclusion to my plans. “I had to find some way of showing them, it’s not my fault if things ended up getting out of hand…”
“Of course not, of course not.” Mima says soothingly. “You were trying to help, after all, and in a strange world with a century’s worth of differences from your own. You weren’t wrong in your ideas, merely too different from the status quo to be believed.”
“I suppose…” It’s tempting to believe her words, I won’t deny that. Still… “The gods on the mountain came from the Outside too, though, and they’ve had people flocking to them since.”
“Ah, but the humans of Gensokyo are used to dealing with gods.” Mima says, holding up a finger. “This is a land where deities walk amongst their worshippers, and shrine maidens consort with many more. It’s easy for someone to adapt to worshipping a new god like Yasaka, with great charisma and greater promises; they’ve been doing it for more generations than you can imagine.
“Outsiders, however…those like you have always been on a lower rung of the societal ladder. The average unwary human transported into Gensokyo has a life expectancy of minutes before becoming a youkai’s meal, and this is common knowledge to any resident. Any Outsiders who make it to the village swiftly adapt to the local way of doing things, or else they die. You were willing to do neither, Cass, and thus exceeded the villagers’ expectations- they didn’t know how to deal with you.”
“So, because I didn’t conform to their ideas of how the world works, I couldn’t live among them like a normal person?” I ask bitterly. “That hardly seems fair.”
“The world has little care for whether its happenings are fair, Cass. The sooner you realize that, the better.” Mima gives me a sidelong glance. “There are those who would undoubtedly agree with you, however. Many of those youkai here in the Underground, to start.”
“ ’The Underground’? Is that a euphemism for Hell?” My curiosity is piqued, though, and I moderate my tone’s sarcasm to reflect this. “Can’t say I’ve heard of it, otherwise.”
“The Hell of Blazing Fires is the deepest part of Gensokyo’s underground, and rather characteristic of the region as a whole. Just as our current location is the designated jail for vengeful spirits, the entire Underground is the domain of those youkai exiled from Gensokyo proper, many decades ago, and sealed away since.”
“Exiled, huh…what for, exactly?” I wonder aloud. “They were feared and disliked by the humans and youkai on the surface, I’m assuming, but there’s plenty of diversity among those I’ve seen there. What was so bad about these ones?”
“The reasons for banishment varied across different species, and I’m not familiar with them all,” Mima says quickly. “I do know that many of the now-underground youkai had behaviors differing from the norm. The oni, for instance, who have a major presence here, used to challenge humans to contests and abduct the losers, rather than hunting them conventionally.”
“What’s so bad about that?” I demand, frowning as Mima shrugs noncommittally. “So they were just youkai that didn’t fit in, then, like me with the humans. Didn’t have a remotely valid reason for being exiled, like posing a danger to others…”
A look like she’s about to say something flashes on and off Mima’s face as I continue. “Yeah, I guess I can empathize, as a matter of fact. But- they’ve never stood up for themselves, though? Never tried resisting the terms of their exile, or rebelling…” I trail off, because the expression on Mima’s face has finally registered.
Namely, that she’s grinning widely. “Thank you for so neatly arriving at my point, Cass. No, they have not: save for one short-lived incident by a single hell raven, there have been no attempts to stage any sort of uprising. But even if they have become inured to it, the subterranean denizens still remember that they are exiles, prisoners. I believe it’s long past time that they acted on that knowledge: by revolting, and retaking their rightful place in Gensokyo. I’m sure you can understand.”
And I do, of course. However- “You said that you wanted my help with this,” I note. “Is that still true? I mean, I can accomplish some pretty great things within my areas of expertise, but I think I’ve made it clear that talking people into things isn’t one of them.” And on the occasions when I’ve actually succeeded, it ended up making things even worse.
“There are always alternate means of persuasion when direct conversation fails, but I suppose you wouldn’t have been familiar with most of those as a human. Onryou, however, have nigh-exclusive access to one method in particular: possession.” Mima smirks.
“Poss…oh. Oh, I see.” I nod slowly. “You want me to literally get inside these youkai’s heads, and incite them to rebel in that way. So…how much would I be able to do like that, exactly?”
“As I understand it, a very great deal. You could place your thoughts into their minds, heighten feelings of resentment or induce them from nothing; long-lasting effects, if you so wished, and ranging from subtle suggestions to completely changing their characters. Vengeful spirits have much power over youkai, and are widely feared for it.”
“If they’re- we’re, I mean- that dangerous, then how do the youkai keep us corralled up in this part of Hell?” I ask.
“Good question. I doubt they easily could have, except for a pair of youkai at the forefront of the forced migration down here: satori, who could read the minds of any being in their surroundings. The simple minds of the onryou were laid bare, scaring them down to the lower levels, one of which we’re in now. There’s only one path downwards, so the satori were situated in the palace above it-”
“How do you know all this?”
“-to block the spirits from coming back up- What?” Mima stops to glare at me, affronted: I get the feeling she’s not used to being interrupted.
“You haven’t once referred to yourself as part of the underground‘s youkai, Mima, and you’re too familiar with events aboveground to have been sealed away from it. So how do you know so much about this place and its inhabitants, if they were sealed away? And how did you even come here, for that matter?”
There’s a moment’s silence in which Mima does nothing but stare, and I feel the onset of regretting voicing my suspicions. Then she chuckles.
“I suppose I have been overdoing it a bit with the explanations, haven’t I…apologies, I’m still not quite used to the idea of an onryou being able to reason on its own. You’re correct that I was not one of those exiled to the underground. However, I was once bound to this place, back when it was still just Hell, and I’ve kept a scrying eye on it since. That was many decades before you could possibly have been born- I know, I don’t look my age-, and I’ve been watching since then, waiting for the right time to put my plan into action.
“As for your latter question…look around.”
I do as she bids, skeletal jaw setting itself in a frown as I scan the cavern. I don’t see anything of note, though; it’s just the hellfire flames, no magical portals or suddenly-appeared stairways…
…Or other spirits.
“Where did all the others go?” I ask, spinning back to face Mima. “I know I wasn’t the only onryou here, you mentioned earlier how you’d seen others like me, and…freed…them.” I say slowly.
Mima nods smugly, wearing a slightly patronizing smile. “You’re halfway there, keep going.”
“And you already said that there’s only one path up into the underground, which was blocked by those mind-reading youkai, so they couldn’t have gone that way. They must have had a different exit: up to the surface, for instance. And given that exits aren’t generally one-way…” I think aloud, watching Mima’s reaction.
The green-haired ghost applauds briefly. “Yes, I let the Furnace’s onryou out the same way I came in. Very good. There is indeed a path up to the surface, one which you’d be more likely to know about from your life in Gensokyo. Does the name ‘Hell’s Valley’ sound familiar?”
“The geyser that popped up a couple winters ago?” I ask. “But that’s where the mountain’s nuclear research center is…what, you mean it’s connected to here of all places?”
“Indeed it is: or, very close by here at any rate. You’ve been imprisoned in part of the Nuclear Furnace, adjacent to its reactor core. Normally, this area’s heat would be too much to withstand even for me, but I convinced the Furnace’s keeper to turn it down for a short time.” Mima simpers. “And by short time, I mean more than long enough for me to enter and orchestrate a little jailbreak.”
“And let all us spirits out the chimney. Will you show me where the exit is, then?” I ask.
“I could~” Mima hums. “But the kasha will be up that way shortly to recollect all her escaped onryou, and she’d be more than capable of tracking you down with them. There’s enough out there to let her overlook one missing if you stay here, however; besides, I have need of you here, not aboveground.”
“Right, with the would-be revolution you’re orchestrating.” I say, frowning: the prospects of that are rather less tempting when balanced against immediate freedom. Not to mention… “People are going to get hurt if I help you with this, aren’t they?”
“Oh, no one of any consequence, I’m sure.” Mima says airily. “There’s no such thing as a bloodless revolution, but one can get rather close when most of the participants can heal from fatal injuries.”
“The humans don’t have that luxury.”
“You mean the same humans that were, and I quote, ‘willing to throw you to the forest’s youkai themselves’ for defending yourself?”
“Well, some of them yes, but they’re still…” Mima holds up a hand to quiet me, sighing.
“Cass, dear, what it really comes down to is this. My plans are already set in motion, and I will be proceeding with them regardless of your decision. As such, do you choose to side with the aboveground society that shunned you …or those fellow outcasts like yourself? The choice is yours.”
Well, when she puts it like that…
I suppose that for now, my allegiance would lie:
[ ] With Mima: she did help me out a great deal, and I think I can trust her.
[ ] On Mima’s side, but keeping my own thoughts in mind.
[ ] With my own decisions, not Mima’s. (Write-in optional.)
Sorry to anyone that was looking forward to having the nickname of an archangel, but I decided it might be better to avoid that, all things considered.
I'd appreciate it if nobody brought up the terms "pro-human" or "pro-youkai".
On a similar note, characters' memories and/or assumptions may not match up entirely with in-story reality.