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“Our time ends; the era draws to a close. As we surrender ourselves back to eternity, I look back at the world and wonder if the sun will ever shine on Gensokyo again like the days of old. Perhaps, in some ways, the world had decided enough was enough. She would soon draw her children back into her fold and return to a time beyond primeval, where legends would once more be rewritten in the stars to herald a new beginning.
But it is in our nature to fight the inevitable. Perhaps the world’s greatest mistake was her act in giving the gift of thought to humans and youkai.”
-Suwako, conversations with Kanako
They could smell the stench of battle even before they had cleared the last ridge hiding their homes from the prying eyes of those undeserving of such grandness below the mountain. A cloying smell of ionized air intermingled with emotions far from benevolent, almost a killing intent in its intensity. Alarmed and spurred by her guardian instincts, Momizi broke off abruptly from their paired flight to hurtle past the thick mists, assisted by gravity in her forced descent. Aya managed a quick warning shout but the inu was already well beyond earshot by then.
She followed suit without a second thought, silently cursing at whatever it was that had decided to invade their homes with such impeccable timing. Things were bad enough after the first siege by creatures unknown; they did not need another threat out of the blue to antagonize their weary people.
Breaking through the moist veil obscuring her sight, she came to hover before a mountainside-turned-battlefield, eyes widening at the small fracas below. A solitary figure zipped through the rugged mountain landscape, sending up a trail of dirt in its passage followed by a few tengu. The close pursuit would occasionally end abruptly as the figure barrelled straight into boulders the size of their typical dwellings, imploding them with sheer force of strength before sending waves of stony fragments spiralling backwards as deadly shrapnel, forcing the small group of converging tengu to rapidly disperse from the cloud of death.
Two scattered quickly while the rest executed quick turns to head straight back for the rampaging figure, only to be greeted by hurtling rocks twice their size the figure would send in their direction as it spun in a deadly whirlwind of gravel. Caught off-guard in their momentary overconfidence, the majority of the pursuing tengu were gradually picked off by the catapulting boulder fragments, brought crashing from the air to roll down the steep terrain in a small avalanche of earth.
Seeing Momizi angle directly towards the centre of the fight heedless of the danger from the sustained hail of rocks, Aya took a quick dive towards her as well. A few yards short of reaching the inu, she caught the sound of a muffled grunt as one of the remaining tengu from the duo dodged too late, receiving a goodly-sized fragment straight in the face before careening out of control to crash downwards in an eruption of gravel. The last tengu turned quickly to note the loss and Aya recognized Tenma’s familiar features in him as the dim moonlight illuminated his strained face.
Momentarily surprised by their presence, Tenma spun to face the two new arrivals only to shout a quick warning to them before going into a rapid spin mid-air to evade several more of the arcing missiles. Spared from the attack but unable to break his momentum from the forced aerial acrobatics he crashed into the ground hard, temporarily disabled by the impact as he struggled to shake loose his dazed senses.
The remaining earthy hail continued in their deadly trajectory towards both Aya and Momizi, several which went wide but one cloaked by the heavy fog managed to catch the inu unexpectedly and she disappeared instantly as the boulder slammed into her, sending the two hurtling as one in the direction of their mountain home. Only the small impact on the far-distant outpost walls marked the site of the inu’s crash. ‘Momizi!’ Aya’s scream ringed loud and clear in the still mountain air.
Her voice caused the whirring figure to come to a complete stop, and for the first time Aya could see who their antagonist was between the gaps of the settling debris. A grim face focused on her suspended form in the air, the alabaster features punctuated by a single horn rising from her forehead.
‘Yuugi,’ Aya breathed with a catch in her throat as she watched an ugly grin spread on the oni’s face.
In an expanding shockwave of force, Yuugi ripped off of the ground to hurtle straight towards Aya. The tengu tore a veritable tunnel in the mist-laden air before coming to a perfect stop mere inches away from where Aya hovered in confusion. The grin had quickly taken leave to be replaced with a contorted face staring down on Aya impassively. A dull fire in her eyes spoke of a fury beyond ken. Almost withering underneath the intense heat of her masked hate, Aya backed away slowly with a hiss at the oni, ‘What do you think you’re doing!?’
Yuugi gave her downed fodder nothing more than a cursory glare before focusing her cool hostility back on Aya. ‘You worry much? Fear not, they’ll live. I do not take lives as idly as you do. It’s the only reason why I resorted to such crude, physical attacks instead of something far more lethal, a courtesy you never bothered to extend to Reiji.’
At loss for words, she halted her gradual retreat, vaguely thinking about a way out of their confrontation even as she tried to work out Yuugi’s anger. Glancing back at the dead cold expression the oni wore, Aya finally understood why she was here amidst a sinking feeling in her heart.
Yuugi had most likely found out from the witch. She was here for the dead boy from that night.
‘You came to kill me,’ Aya answered her own question, her confusion clearing and voice growing steady in understanding.
‘Kill? Kill you?’ Yuugi repeated harshly, her forced composure breaking at last to reveal the distraught oni underneath. ‘I didn’t come here to kill you. I came here to tear your wings off and ensure you would never fly again, pound your bones into powder so never again would you lift a hand to kill another innocent boy. No, death would be too easy for you.’ She edged closer, brimming with anger as she spat the rest of her words at Aya, ‘I’m making sure you spend the rest of your pathetic existence as nothing more than an empty, paralyzed shell with barely any life left in it.’
‘Yuugi! Stop!’ Tenma roared from the ground, hobbling over from where he had hit the ground. Aya darted a quick glance at the felled tengu, noting the hand he held braced against his other with concern. His crash had probably dislocated his left arm.
Yuugi gave him nothing more than a pointed finger followed by a hoarse warning, not even bothering to look down at the other tengu. ‘Stay out of this Tenma, if you value your life.’
‘I never meant to harm the boy,’ Aya stated coolly, forcing herself to remain calm despite her apparent danger. She was no stranger to the wrath of the normally jovial oni and the fact that when one was incurred to such heights, the only outcome would be the least pretty one. Nevertheless, she saw no other choice at the time but to confront Yuugi, knowing full well they could barely match the oni in an actual battle, much less in her unhinged state.
‘Ahh! The obligatory excuse!’ she sneered in return, reaching out suddenly to grab Aya by her arm in a violent shake before drawing the tengu towards her harshly. ‘If only life were that simple, where the dead would return over the power of some half-hearted words spoken out of fear! It’s easy to say it’s an accident when you’ve already killed him, isn’t it!?’ the oni spat into Aya’s face with undisguised ennui, the vise-like grip hardening with her breaking voice.
Aya bit her lips to fight back the pain of the constricting hold, praying the oni wouldn’t give a strong enough tug to rip her arm right off as she closed her eyes against the mask of hate before her. Far below, Tenma decided to take a risk seeing the oni’s unquenchable fury, launching himself into the air and into Aya, barely managing to tear her away from Yuugi before spinning back to face the unmoving oni some distance away. ‘That’s enough! The boy’s death wasn’t something we ever wanted!’
Regaining her composure, Aya pushed herself away from Tenma, not wishing to deflect the overflowing hate towards her love. Steeling herself, she lifted her head to meet the oni’s wilting glare, numbly bracing herself for the inevitable. ‘I regret the boy’s death. Call me a liar if you will; I can see no amount of explaining would satisfy you but his senseless death is no less sad to me than it is to you.’
‘Regret!?’ Yuugi howled in return before blurring once, slipping into a speed impossible for the naked eye to follow. Tenma recognized enough of the tell-tale signs to know the oni was barrelling straight towards them and he lifted his arms up too late to ward off the attack. With a single blow, Yuugi struck him with a downward swing as she broke to a stop before them, instantly separating the two tengu as she returned Tenma to the ground in an unceremonious cloud of dust. She spun back to face Aya once more, forcing the word through her gritted teeth like jagged glass ripping through tender throats. ’SAD!? You know nothing of my sorrow, murderer!’
The sight of a battered Tenma finally undammed her pent-up emotions over the past few days and she broke out in a hoarse shout of her own, throwing some distance between her and Yuugi with a hard push on her. ‘The boy was never supposed to be involved! If you have to have someone to fault then blame the witch who was with the boy! The only reason we were there was to retrieve the Hakurei girl the witch stole from us, not to indulge in the murder of innocents!’
‘”Stole from you?”’ the oni chuckled humourlessly before fixing a disparaging glance on her nemesis. ‘You really don’t know what’s truly going on, do you? You’ve been following that monster for so long you can no longer tell right from wrong. If you lot ever bothered to open your eyes to see what the world is really like now instead of hiding behind that tyrant to survive, then perhaps the tengu would still be the proud race they once were in the past!’
Her words almost forced a flinch from Aya, but she steeled herself against the painful scrape of the ignoble fact nonetheless. ‘What right do you have to pass such judgment on us, oni? We do what is necessary to live, to survive like anyone else and unlike you we choose to do so no matter how distasteful. If you people had actually bothered to resist Vana’s initial incursion underground years ago then perhaps all of you wouldn’t be doomed to wander Gensokyo as homeless nomads to slowly wither away in your solace.’
Yuugi recommenced her advance threateningly, forcing Aya to adopt a counter-stance as the two circled each other. She directed her broiling ire at Aya with a raised finger, meeting the edge of Aya’s retort with her own. ‘So speaks the one who took the underground city away from us. The Komeiji sisters wouldn’t need to turn to Iyen-Shuren if we had been left to ourselves! You forced them out just as much as you did to the rest of us underground. Why do you think they turned so bitter and willingly opposed Vana alongside a creature they hated just as much for taking Utsuho from them? The Komeiji sisters were good people once, until you lot robbed them of the place they belonged to, and Orin as well.’
‘We-‘ her reply caught in her throat and she swallowed hard, trying to say something equally forceful in return only to find herself at a complete loss for words. She was unwilling to admit to herself that the long-buried guilt had resurfaced, much like the bleached bones of past sins finally revealing themselves after the torrential rains of reality washing the earth and mud of reason away. How did we ever end up dirtying our hands so? Trying to achieve a greater good? The broken thoughts ate away at her as she unconsciously bit her lower lip.
‘Stung by the truth?’ Yuugi sneered at the tengu in vindication, her hands closing into hardened fists. ‘Thought so. Be freed from your worries; like I said I won’t kill you. You can reflect on your sins as a cripple for the rest of your sorry life.’
Aya saw no way out of her predicament now and even less of a chance in talking the oni out of her rage. She realized rather belatedly that Yuugi was beyond reasoning at this point; the only thing in the oni’s mind now was to carry out her act of judgment, screaming in its vengeful insistence. Briefly, the thought that she could simply outrun the oni had crossed her mind but she discarded it just as quickly, not wanting to risk abandoning Tenma to the oni’s company. There was no telling what she would do to him in order to get to her, or even her people.
Guardedly dropping into a braced stance, she tried one last time to talk some sense into the oni with a voice cracking in her anxiety, ‘Damn you, I don’t want to hurt you, Yuugi!’
Yuugi’s response was as swift as it was wordless, her form briefly rippling in the still air as she spun to one side, scattering more of the still fog in her sudden lurch. Aya turned instantly to mirror her manoeuvre almost reflexively, half expecting the oni to assume the customary confrontational position in a classical spellcard duel. Instead of putting some distance between them, Yuugi dropped her altitude before arcing back towards Aya in a feint, catching her by surprise as the oni slipped past her side before she could turn to follow her blurring silhouette.
‘You think you can?’ the oni whispered into her ear before latching onto her collar, breaking into an abrupt spin to gain some momentum before Aya could counteract the hold. The warm furs of Aya’s clothing snapped back instantly from the oni’s revolution and for the next several seconds she fought ineffectually against being swung about, flailing her arms breathlessly as the world was thrown out of balance. Dimly, she realized what the oni was trying to do; disorient her before flinging her towards an appropriately hard surface. It was all too apparent that the oni was making good on her promise to cripple and not kill.
Her merciful release came at last as the oni finally let go. For a moment her swirling view steadied into a single frame before receding rapidly from Yuugi in the involuntary flight. Forcing her eyes shut to ignore the maddening tumble her senses had temporarily descended into, Aya went into a series of clumsy somersaults, trying to turn the momentum she had gained from Yuugi’s throw to her advantage. The desperate move succeeded to a degree, leeching off enough of her uncontrollable momentum for the ensuing impact against the hardened mountain earth to be tolerable instead of crippling. In crashing bounces, Aya ricocheted off the ground several times before flipping painfully into a guarded crouch, instinctually bringing a sweeping hand up to fill the skies with a tidy spread of annihilating light before she stopped herself with a short curse.
The incomplete barrage provoked an unexpected reaction in Yuugi. Fully anticipating Aya’s reversal, Yuugi was instead caught off-guard by the messy counter-attack, pausing in her charge through the maze of streaming light. Letting the last of the heated bits of air tear harmlessly past the space she had stopped in, Yuugi gave the grounded tengu a disparaging glance in their brief lull. ‘Guilty conscience working against you? Don’t go easy on me, by all means, because I guarantee you won’t get the same treatment from me.’
Aya fell to one knee before righting herself once more, pressing a hand down on her right tibia as she swayed unsteadily. The sharp pain was evidence of some internal damage sustained despite her earlier manoeuvre. Fixing her glare back on the oni she gritted the words through her teeth in desperation, repeating her earlier plea, ’Enough! I don’t want to have to hurt you, Yuugi!’.
The oni treated her words as nothing more than an annoying breeze, scattering uselessly as it impacted her unyielding frame. Yuugi allowed a moment of silence to pass before dropping down to the earth in an easy motion. She closed the distance between the two of them in several strides, forcing Aya to steady herself before drawing away from the oni’s intimidating approach. She wouldn’t get far; a quick sweep from Yuugi’s foot tripped her retreat and Aya found herself flat on the ground once more. This time, her antagonist stopped any further attempts at an escape by reaching down and twisting hard on her right leg in a single, fluid motion.
Her scream resonated in the surrounding rocks as joints dislocated. Aya would have kept her cry of agony ringing if it wasn’t for a sandaled feet slamming into her chest, cutting the outburst short as all the air went out of her lungs. She stared back at the oni’s grim face leaning down to confront her pain before her body went slack from the stunning blow. The oni’s once-elegant features blurred through the tears washing down Aya’s vision. Dimly, she felt something wet splash against her cheek and for a moment, she thought the oni had spat on her as she felt her left arm being lifted free of the ground. Pinching her eyes shut, she braced herself against the incoming agony and waited helplessly for the oni to wrench her arm loose from its bodily mooring before the rest of her limbs followed suit.
Nothing. The pain never came. Tense seconds crawled by before another wet splash ran down Aya’s cheek. She barely registered the oni’s curiously ragged voice. ‘… just… boy…’
Unexpectedly, the pressure on her chest lessened somewhat. Aya took the opportunity to draw in a quivering breath even as she strained to listen to the rest of the oni’s suddenly repeating mantra. A third splash, warm and heavy, ran down her lips and she tasted the salty flow dimly before realizing what it was.
Tears? The oni was crying.
All the force pressed against Aya drained away abruptly as she stared listlessly at the oni, who loosened her grip on the tengu’s limb before staggering back a step, collapsing into an awkward sitting position next to Aya to bury her face in one open hand. Her sobs mingled freely with her words now, repeating in their rote sorrow as the oni seemingly lost all sense of her surroundings.
‘Reiji was just a boy… why must you take everything away from us?’
She tried to reach out to the oni in futility, only managing to twitch her fingers as she did. Swallowing the growing lump in her throat, she tried to speak to her instead. In seeming defiance, the only sound which she could utter was an incomprehensible gurgle instead of the pent-up feelings she had wanted to word to the oni. The only thing she could do was stare at Yuugi’s disconsolately sobbing form before another set of desperate hands latched on her to drag her away. Her tear-stricken vision focused on the frantic and battered face of Tenma as he altered his gaze between Aya and the oni. In a series of bobbing wrenches, she felt herself pulled away amidst the heaving grunts of a breathless Tenma.
Disturbed by the sudden noise of shifting gravel, Yuugi looked up quickly in time to catch Tenma escaping with the fallen Aya. The gesture did not miss the frantically crawling Tenma and he froze instantly at the oni’s lifeless glare, glancing fearfully at her as he pulled Aya’s inert body close to him in a semi hug. For a moment, he looked down at the tear-laden eyes blinking up at him before returning his attention to the unmoving oni who was inexplicably still bound to the ground some distance away. ‘Please,’ he rasped hoarsely to her in a desperate plea, ‘Please stop this. She’s in enough pain already.’
Yuugi allowed her gaze to linger on the couple for a full half minute, watching Tenma fidget about as he tried to shield Aya from her wrath. Wordlessly, she returned to her feet, once more reassuming her imposing posture as she cleared away the last few streaks of her own tears before moving towards them in halting steps, whispering to Tenma harshly, ‘Why? Why protect a murderer?’
Tenma gave no answer beyond a quick glance up at the oni. Stopping just before the two tengu, Yuugi alternated her gaze between a recovering Aya and Tenma, who continued to keep as much of Aya out of her view as he could. ‘Why?’ she repeated softly to the cornered pair.
‘Because she’s the only thing I have left,’ came Tenma’s answer in a low voice, carefully keeping his head averted from the oni standing before them. Aya reached up to caress his face weakly as their eyes met.
Aya watched the oni’s face dissolve into a stoic mask, perhaps falling into some sort of internal debate with something. Much of the rage drained away from Yuugi’s face in the full minute of silence which had proceeded to settle over them. She caught a brief twinge of regret in the corner of the oni’s eyes before she abruptly turned away from them, walking away from the entwined pair with faltering steps speaking heavily of resignation. Above her, Tenma breathed a sigh of relief at her sudden departure, not understanding but choosing well not to question Yuugi’s sudden choice in sparing Aya any additional torment.
‘Wait,’ Aya forced out a croak, ignoring Tenma’s warning hand pressing her back down. ‘Yuugi, wait.’
The oni grounded to a halt, the only indication of having heard her broken voice. She made no attempt to turn back to face them or offer words of any kind.
She tried to push herself up as she murmured to the oni’s back, ‘Vana never had the Hakurei. The child was with Iyen-Shuren all this time.’ Tenma glanced down at her in alarm, the unspoken words clearly echoed in his widening eyes. Shush!. She ignored the warning, not understanding why she was telling Yuugi that herself. ‘The witch came to the underground city looking for her and disappeared afterwards. If there’s anything I know about her, it’s her persistence. She will go for Iyen-Shuren next, and she will find a way in stealing the Hakurei away from him.’
Yuugi broke her silence with a sideways glance, ‘Why are you telling me this?’
‘You said I know nothing about what’s really going on. Perhaps I don’t; I no longer care now.’ Tiredly, Aya allowed herself to lean into Tenma, feeling the strong arms brace her in a comforting cradle in return. ‘We cannot trust Iyen-Shuren, for he means to harm the child. Siding with Yukari would be a foolish mistake and Vana’s intentions are no longer entirely clear as well. If we have to choose the lesser of evils, then I’ll damned well cast my lot with the witch and you instead of the elders.’
Yuugi drew a disgusted snort before throwing back her retort, ‘Is this your sorry attempt at atonement? You’re sadly mistaken if you think telling me all of this would somehow right your wrongs.’
‘You’re right, it won’t,’ she admitted with a sigh, closing her eyes. ‘We’ve done things you claim to be questionable, things I won’t bother to deny. The tengu can no longer turn back to the ways of old and if there’s one last thing we can do of our own free will then let it be my request to you. Vana will strike at Iyen-Shuren by the next moonflow. Take the Hakurei away before he does and keep her safe. There is no sanctuary for her here anymore. If you won’t do it for me then do it for my people and Reimu’s memory at least. With the Hakurei gone, Vana loses his reason for using us in the senseless raid as well.’
She had barely finished her words before the oni returned to her silent departure, disappearing into the soft embrace of the settling mists. Aya had no way of telling if the oni had discarded her words just as easily as she did earlier, but there was at least one reassuring thing she could sense about the oni before her silhouette vanished into the mist-laden darkness.
A small sense of purpose perhaps.