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Light. Such an annoying glare.

I toss around uncomfortably in my sleep, trying to get the light away from my still-closed eyes. For a few moments, I'm awarded a small measure of comfort as I escape from the overbearing glow only to realise that I was being attacked by something else; the unbearable heat that accompanied the sunlight beating down on me. With a small sigh I force my eyes open and shield them with an arm numbed from sleeping on the hard, uneven ground.

Looking up at the sky I guessed that the time would probably be around midnight by now, not that I could tell for certain since the perpetual daylight started countless years ago. I had been able to accurately keep track of the time in the beginning with the random clocks and time-pieces I ran across in the ruins of the human cities I happened to pass-by, but that quickly lost its meaning through the meandrous years. It was always day, the accursed sun was forever pounding everything beneath its harsh reign with its punishing glare. The heat stayed as a constant reminder of whatever the unnamed calamity that befell this world was, and the crumbling remains of human civilization served as a bitter refuge for my lone figure wandering on the blasted earth.

Just another day I guess.

Forcing myself into an upright position, I massage my protesting muscles feebly. My first attempt at standing up ended with me falling down to one knee and I quickly became aware of the total lack of feeling from my right leg. Whoops. It seems like not all of me has woken up yet. Pulling myself against a baked concrete wall that was now shaded by the partially-ruined building I took shelter in, I waited for the blood to circulate in my sleeping limb and contemplated my fate again as I had so many times before. It was rapidly becoming a habit for me to think about the past whenever I started to idle and it was only recently that I recognized the fact that I did that to keep my sanity intact instead of a conscious effort at trying to formulate an explanation for the mess that was this world.


<i>Once, many lifetimes ago, I had been an ordinary human. In an age when gods still walked the earth and the power of faith could create miracles I existed as nothing more than a single candle-flame amongst the burning pyres of mortals. I've long forgotten what we called our nation during those memory-shorn times nor do I bother to remember the person that I was during that divine age. Like so many others I sought to carve out an existence and make a mark on the world. I had no particular reason to do so, perhaps it was just a way to ensure that I'd earn a life worth living from my deeds or perhaps it was a more selfish desire such as the pursuit of power that drove me.

In the name of the one I had called my goddess that time I had committed countless atrocities. At first, it was just the simple tasks of murdering those who opposed the faith in their sleep that granted me the tiny feeling of self-fulfillment. As I continued to slaughter, kill, and even commit genocide with the fanatics I had gathered and led, I came to recognize the exponentially growing sense of self-fulfillment as a sign that my goddess was favoring me. Eventually, as a reward for the bloodbath that I had brought about, she had granted me a measure of her divinity in the hopes that I would now serve as her avatar of murder and death. For many years after that I would continue her crusade against her diametrically opposed brother and the faithful who was loyal to him.

I suppose it was inevitable that my patron would lose the struggle. Her believers were quickly dwindling from the war of attrition she waged against her erstwhile sibling and towards the closing days of the age of gods she had been reduced to nothing more than a shadow of her former self; a nearly-dessicated corpse barely functioning from what little faith she was able to gather from the meager leftovers of her once-bountiful believers decimated by horrifying, devastating plagues unleashed by a mad god allied with her brother. It proved to be the undoing of the gods themselves, as the diseases and sickness spread to virtually every faction of the faithful, reaping lives in unbelievable numbers. In time, the divine spirits themselves would cease to exist as their faithful died out, both from the plagues and losing faith in their patrons, blaming them for the unmitigated flood of death that had visited them.

In extension, I had also lost the essence my goddess had infused into my being. Though no longer an avatar to the dead goddess, I still retained an uncannily-long lifespan far beyond that of the surviving humans left over from the debacle. A parting gift I suppose, from she whom I had kept company for much of the lonely decades of her existence. I didn't mind and to be honest I no longer cared much at that point. I had grown sick with all the deaths I brought about and wanted nothing more than to return to the lighter days where the most important thing in a day was to fill my stomach with food instead of worrying about how much faith was needed for my patron's next act of miracle. The desire to murder and urge to take lives had been replaced with an infinite weariness, regret, and a deep need for solitude.</i>
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[x] Fix broken html tags.
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[X] Remember that italics, bold, etc. use closed brackets here instead of chevrons.
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Noted. Posted on an iPhone. Pretty sure it was a bracket when I did.
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There, debugging done.
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The cracked and winding road continued on for some time. Instinctually I knew it would eventually lead me to the next city ruin or town that is linked with this major artery. The road had evidently been a well-used one judging from the number of rusting vehicles lining it like tomb markers; a testament to the human
will to presevere in the face of adversity. Ironically, the paint-peeled human transportations would outlast their owners this time, until the elements would finally reclaim the silent hulks in the years to come. I gave them nothing more than a passing glance as I nagivated my way through the sad road-turned-junkyard, munching on some biscuit I had scavenged from the building I had taken refuge in earlier.

The confectionery wasn't too bad for something that might've been lying around for 20 or 200 years. I was amazed at first that the foil package was so perfectly preserved despite everything else around it looking like some prop out of an old Mad Max movie. Nonachantly I glanced at the still-visible expiry date on the
package and winced. '19/2/2022'. Oh well. Not terrible for something that's been sitting in an airless bag for so many years.

Tossing the package aside, I licked my fingers and looked around for some source of water. Even with the permanent daytimes, the weather system was largely unchanged and occasional rainfalls still happen.

Spotting a little pond that had formed at the far side of the road a few hundred metres away, I hurried over and knelt beside it. The water was almost brackish but I still scooped up a few handful of the nasty liquid and forced it down. Better to walk around with a stomach-ache later rather than dehydrate.

The heat grew increasingly unbearable as I continued on; looking upwards at my tormenter I noted that the sun was nearly at its zenith and theorized that it would be roughly evening by now if the world still had a normal day-night cycle. Time to get some sleep.

Looking around I could see that there was very little in the way of shelter from the sun; a few ruined vehicles that would serve more as an oven rather than provide a decent shade, rocky outcroppings that were mostly rounded and would not shade the same spot for more than two hours at most, or that peculiar looking booth sitting forlornly next to the road. With a sigh I wedged myself between the remains of a water tanker and another unidentifiable wreck instead and closed my eyes, bringing up the familiar and comforting images of the past into my mind again. Lying prone on the hard basalt, I waited for sleep to come. And dreamed of the old days once more.


I had walked the earth alone after the twilight of the old gods' passing. The years passed uneventfully for me. I watched from a solitary hill as primitive barbarians fought each other over small patches of land. I lived in countries that rose to their glory and subsequently fell into ruin. I marvelled briefly at new technologies that was continually being introduced into the daily lives of humans; metallurgy that made iron stronger, black powders that flared like the stars in the sky when ignited, buildings that evolved from simple huts into intricate structures of beauty. I grew reminiscent over poignant reminders of the old world I had left behind when nations waged wars with one another with metal and human innovations, only this time people fought using technology over resources of value instead of using divine miracles to win a battle for faith.

As the world passed from the old to the new, the disappearance of the old gods also brought forth a new breed of divine entities. The new gods and goddesses that emerged were far more benevolent and passive compared to the unfeeling monsters that were their forerunners. Although the need to build faith from belief remain virtually unchanged, these virgin gods took much less drastic measures at gathering faith.

Instead of attempting to gather as much believers as possible through the elimination of other gods and their faithful, they were content with the slow trickle of accumulated faith from their existing subjects and winning over misbelievers with small acts of miracles. I had been momentarily charmed at how naive and
innocent these newcomers were; I was convinced for a small period of time that these gods would in time grow into the horrors that were the old gods as their addiction to faith grew with their existence, but this conviction was dispelled as I observed them over the years they were individually worshipped.

Believers were now even capable of worshipping multiple deities without their patrons becoming jealous over their divided affection. Apparently even divine beings have evolved into a far more favourable version of the gods of old, something I never would have believed was possible with the emergence of a new pantheon.

Some of the new gods, in return, had taken notice of my existence. In their senses, I was still very human but my air of agelessness had probably given me away as something more than human. They were curious at first, visiting me in my dreams and asking me mundane questions about why I was human but inhuman at the same time. A few had even offered me the opportunity to serve in their shrines, believing that I was something of a unique freak amongst mortals and that I'd be smitten by such a grand proposal from divinity itself. I had been secretly amused by them; I doubt they'd want me to spread their word if they even had an inkling as to what sort of 'service' I had provided in the name of my original patron. To be honest, if they had known that I used to drop humans left and right like flies on a daily basis I very much doubt they'd want to associate themselves with a murdering abomination like myself. Ignoring the initial offer of 'gifts', I led them to believe that I believed they were just fragments of a dream. The visitations continued on for a time, until they finally stopped altogether. I had chuckled to myself then; not only were they young and naive, they were also quite apparently fickle and impatient in their courtship of priests and priestesses.

Divine entities were not the only facet of this new world, a variety of non-human beings had also evolved into existence over the years. People in general knew them by a lot of names; djinni, spirits, faeries, shaitan, youkai, and were-monsters were only one of the few terms attributed to them. Over the many years after they came into being I learned to single them out when they chose to walk amongst mortals in human form; I had become quite adept at looking for the tell-tale signs that gave them away as being something more than human. Nevertheless, I never had any compelling reason to interfere in whatever they were doing, whether it was trying out a human-made snack or snacking on humans themselves. In fact, watching them flit about humans doing whatever they fancied had given me a measure of mild amusement as I watched humans and youkai play a game of Catch-Me-If-You-Can that lasted for hundreds of years. Unlike the flimsy gods that disturbed my dreams, these inhuman creatures never saw me as anything more than just another human, a fact I greatly appreciated even today. I was content to be nothing more than a passive observer for the entirety of history and the rest of the future and as long as these disparate factions left me to my own devices, humans included.
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It had taken me almost four hours to reach the vehicle depot I had spotted much earlier during the day when I first arrived here in this ghost town. I had scaled a rather sturdy-looking water tower which evidently survived decades of exposure to the elements for a better view of the surrounding area and the vehicle compound had immediately caught my eye. Unfortunately, the better part of the four hours was largely spent getting lost in the confusing jumble of streets and buildings, as well as finding ways to get through areas blocked by debris. In the end, I had found the depot through sheer luck rather than some misguided navigation using logic and blindly stumbling about.

Looking for an entrance of some sort, I circled the compound twice before I realized the gate for vehicles wasn't even locked or jammed in any way. I gave the rusted barrier a strong tug and it reluctantly moved a little with a loud metal groan. A few more tugs and pushes finally made a space large enough for me to fit through. Moments after I cleared the entryway a large crash startled the living daylights out of me. I spun around, mixed amounts of terror and suspense boiling inside of me as I readied myself to confront whatever it was that was about to pounce on me.

Self-preservation quickly deflated as I realized my attacker was nothing more than the old gates which had fallen apart after my crude attempt at opening them. The hinges hadn't weathered the years well and rust had obviously eaten them down to the very core. I felt stupid and amused at the same time. I gave it a stylish middle finger-flip and continued on into the shaded interior of the depot. Now why on earth did I just do that? I hoped my grip on sanity wasn't really slipping and shook my head.

Exploration of the interior was pretty much what I had expected it to be; grimy walls and ruined rooms caused by years of neglect hosted their equally well-aged contents. I had inspected the two vehicles sitting at the back of a garage as well, harboring slim and unrealistic hopes that they might somehow still be operational. They looked like something out of an automobile museum and popping their hoods confirmed what I suspected; these were antiques that ran with combustion engines, not the newer fuel-cell engines which had become mainstream since the world's supply of fossil fuel nearly dried up and became too expensive to support the world-wide thirst for gasoline.

I slammed the hood down with a soft curse. It's not that I had high hopes to begin with, but with this new development it would mean I had to ascend the mountain road using more conventional means. The prospect of hill-climbing in the sweltering heat immediately turned me off from attempting the last leg of my journey now. Grumbling to myself I made my way back to the interior offices to look for something edible. I'd think about how to manage the climb tonight.

A cursory glance through what appeared to be a small kitchen dashed all hopes for food. Not only was the food containters one would generally expect to find in a kitchen gone, a good part of the kitchen was also gone. Specifically, it had fallen through the floor into the basement. I was sure there would be nothing in the way of food left there by now; underground scavengers would've made short work of any and all food.

Dejected, I collapsed onto a decaying armchair in an adjoining room and sighed. I would go without food today, water I would look for after I rested a bit from the excursion to get to this place. Settling into a more comfortable position I looked out through the grimy window at the distant mountain I was trying to reach since I started travelling months ago. The built-up dirt and scratches made it look like it was still very much alive and beautiful rather than the mostly-barren rock it had become. Memories assailed me again as I slowly slipped into a light slumber induced by disappointment and my exertions in finding this place.


The world itself would continue to grow more and more interesting. It was essentially a melding pot of magic and technology now, of humans and their not-so-human neighbours secretly cohabiting in what was essentially a shared existence. My feelings of apathy gave way to curiosity in the face of so massive a change and I started to find myself increasingly attracted towards the pursuit of the unknown and unknowable. With all the time left to this lifespan, learning everything and anything about this little rainbow soon became a new obsession of sorts. Ironically, even I had undergone some sort of evolution from fanatical genocidal maniac to apathetic lone wanderer to a wannabe-sage of sorts. I welcomed the change; it was something to fill the empty void within me after so many lifetimes and I gladly embraced it as a sign of a new beginning for me. A sort of rebirth if I daresay.

My wanderings were no longer entirely random. I now had specific destinations and goals spurred by my desire to explore and learn. I visited legendary as well as lonely places across the world; the City of Pillars, Irem, was made no stranger to me as I left my footsteps behind in its hollow pathways. Shangri-la, which most mortals believed to be nothing more than fragments of a myth, showed me that its moldy antechambers and dank tunnels was not the glorious paradise most people made it out to be in dreams and ancestral stories. New discoveries continued to astound, amaze, and amuse me as I came to realize how such a small world could hold such a veritable treasure trove of hidden places and legends, and how much I had really missed out during my period of self-imposed isolation from the world itself.

Even then, one of the most memorable places I had stumbled across would be the little piece of folded reality somewhere in the Yatsugatake mountain range of modern-day Japan sometime during A.D. 1989. It was a rather unexpected discovery; I had been on the trail of one mountain goddess the locals knew as Sakuya Hime, being rather curious of the fate that befell the lost deity as she had been one of the first few to dream-walk to me with her offer to serve in her shrines. The locals could only provide the usual legends and stories about why she had vanished. Something about disappearing due to humans encroaching on her mountains and disturbing her rest or some such. I suspected the real reason behind her disappearance was the simple fact that she had expired from lack of faith and returned to Black Fimbulvetr, the source of all divine spirits. A little bit of knowledge I had gained during my servitude to higher beings.

It was hardly a surprise to me that time; humanity had largely abandoned and ridiculed most of the gods as nothing more than pretentious symbols due to the various advancements and innovations humankind had engineered by then. In some ways, humans saw themselves as gods as they brought about massive changes to the world and themselves. A few of the remaining deities would persist as they found alternative ways to prolonging their existence, but by now modernization and technological discoveries had largely forced humankind's hidden neighbours into seclusion or extinction. As the number of humans exponentionally increased, so would the amount of non-humans decline as an inverse reaction.

With the dawn of the new millenium, so too comes the twilight of those who live in the shadows of humans. Some would still stubbornly remain, but most of the others was content to pass peacefully into oblivion. Or another form of refuge, as I had found out.
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Are there going to be any choices here? A 'no' is fine, as I'm enjoying this either way, but just wondering.

Polite sage.
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Yeah I don't mind this, and i'm starting to suspect this is the aftermath of a SA bad end of sorts.

And I'm curious what role this wanderer will have in the flashbacks, especially once Gensokyo becomes involved.
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Makes me think of Ayreon, sort of, but less depressing.
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I originally wanted to write something as a homage to Curiosities of Lotus Asia in a similar style, but having to write short disjointed segments with nothing much in the way of story-relation between them didn't sit well with me.

Choices might be implemented depending on how this turns out in a few more updates, but for now I'm still gunning for that CoLA feel.
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I was almost there. The back-breaking climb up the mountain road on a bicycle wasn't exactly the brightest idea I ever had and I abandoned the rickety device exactly three minutes after I had gotten on it. I consigned myself to just hike up the roadway on foot and not even the sweltering heat would damp my enthusiasm now. Soon, soon enough, I would be able to return to that verdant paradise and escape this dead world. This time, there would be no reason to come back. There was nothing left here now. I would be free from breathing the atmosphere contaminated by decades of death. Free from scavenging for preserved food and free to drink all the clean water I could ever want. Most of all, I would be free from this abominable heat and finally see what a real night would be like on the other side.

I quickened the pace, taking care not to drop the hypodermic needles I had brought along. They were tranquilizers I had found from ruined hospitals and they would be the key to the paradise I had so desperately sought for so many months. The road continued on for several hours as I made painstaking progress up the barren mountain. Soon enough, just as I had remembered, the road began to even out and the hike no longer took effort to maintain. I moved with a more sedentary pace now; no longer in a hurry now that my goal was so close. Although the landscape had become mostly barren, I still remembered the way as I filled my imagination with the illusionary trees that would've been growing abundantly here many years ago.

The object of my desperate quest soon came into view and I momentarily stopped and stared at the area. It had evidently changed a lot. The place was essentially a giant shallow pond now. Wading into it, I found that the water level barely went past my ankle. Of the shrine, nothing was left. Only the torii stood and maintained its solitary vigil over the pond. I wasted no time as I went up to the torii and sat against it in the shade it provided for now, caring little about getting wet. As I began to clean the hypodermic needles with a dirty sleeve I noticed the water was not brackish like most other water sources I had come across despite being in a still pond. It was clear, almost pristine. Shaking my head, I didn't bother to think too much about it. Soon this wouldn't matter as well.

Praying that it would work just with the needles this time, I stuck the first, then second, and subsequently the rest of the needles into my arm, I emptied the contents and waited for paralysis and its companion, deep sleep, to come and claim me. I remembered the first time I had attempted this, and memories of it still terrify me even today. Involuntarily, my first attempt at entry resurfaced in my mind as sleep took over me.

Depthless darkness claimed me as my senses went out.


I could recall the time when I came here on a whim following the stories and legends of the mountain goddess. It didn't take long for me to get side-tracked from that mission as I encountered an astonishing amount of missing people report which trailed the stories. I was curious at first as the rate of people who had vanished was highly irregular compared to any other place on average. Even if they had fallen prey to human predators there would be signs and left-overs to indicate their demise, but strangely nothing ever turned up on searches every single time a person went missing. The only other probable explanation would be being trapped in alternate spaces. The possibilities interested me, and I was determined to find out just what this place was.

My first contact with the world-within-world of Gensokyo was made possible only after months of careful observation and research. Initially, from what I could gather via reports of people who've gone missing in the mountain range I had surmised that some form of protection or system was actively hiding and maintaining a bounded area apart from the rest of the world. I knew from past knowledge that the creation of such an intricate isolated space came at the cost of occasional fluctuations with its boundaries. That same system was also probably responsible for the disappearance of people who had wandered too close to the boundary and had the misfortune to encounter such an anomaly triggering at that time. It made sense, in a way. The whole place had probably seen a fair number of human traffic over the years, yet only a tiny few vanished when they had crossed the overlapping space.

With that in mind I had to find out when such anomalies would manifest or at least, artificially induce them in order to be able to cross over to the 'inside'. I spent a fair amount of time hiking the mountain range hoping I would meet the same fate as those who were swallowed up but it apparently wasn't going to be that easy. To make matters worse, I had no idea just how often an anomaly would pop up, nor could I tell for certain just what sort of physical manifestations of such an anomaly would look like. Probing for gaps that arbitrarily opened and closed in the boundary would be like looking for a needle in a galaxy-sized haystack. I needed a better plan than blind luck so I had returned to poring over historical records of the area.

Eventually a pattern started to emerge from the compiled reports of missing people from the past century; most of them had disappeared in the vicinity of a shrine long abandoned and largely unvisited by people except for the rare curious soul. That was as good a hint as any at that time. Several times I had visited the dilapitated shrine but nothing ever happened. No blinding flash of light engulfed me and spat me out 'inside'. The world didn't fold inside out for me and deposited me in a new reality. There was no mischievous demi-human who came out of nowhere to steal me away to places unknown. The same old moldy shrine and its arching torii greeted me uneventfully whenever I chose to disturb the sanctuary. Apparently getting past wasn't going to be as easy as I had expected it to be.

The lack of development greatly frustrated me; I suspected this was the weakest link between the outside world and whatever lay beyond the boundary. Either something was actively rejecting me from passing through or there was something within me that did not identify me as an entity the invisible boundary could interact with. For the first time in so many years, I was angered and agitated by something I could not comprehend nor defeat. The world within was mocking my impotence and I was prepared to do anything to give it a veritable slap of humility.

To that end I had planned to use taboo rituals that no human had witnessed nor knew of since the old world had died out. It was a closely-guarded secret and its practitioners had long since been consumed by the ravages of time. I was the sole human who still retained the knowledge to use the unorthodox methods required to invoke the calling. I didn't need to be a theoretical magus of legend nor required a link with a higher existence for it to work; any normal human could have done the same thing with the proper know-how and preventive measures but committing the blasphemy also carried an equal risk of annihilating one's soul for those who did not have a firm understanding of the alien laws involved in the ritual.

For three days and two nights I prepared to weaken the boundary at the shrine's location. I hauled almost five kilograms of salt and tumeric all the way here and gave the entire place a generous sprinkling in a precise mixture. Purifying the place had the added benefit of momentarily blinding whatever horror was going to take notice of my actions aside from ensuring a clean flow of prana between this world and wherever it was I was going to breach.

Next would come the process of creating a protective circle composed entirely of small rounded abelsonite minerals doused with pitch for myself. A normal person would encounter no difficulty in simply stepping over the circle but for these eldritch creatures I was about to disturb they would be greatly hindered in trying to cross the circle. I hoped it would repel them long enough for the last part of the weakening to take effect.

For the last and most risky part I had prepared a syringe with enough tranquilizer to knock an elephant out. I had no margin for error and giving myself that big a dose would ensure that I'm out cold long before the immaterial dwellers between spaces can get past the circle. Their intrusion would greatly agitate the boundary I was trying to destabilize and before they could get past my circle of protection I would make sure that I had no form of a conscious mind left for them to feed on or enslave. Once I disappeared from their sights they would cease to heed the Call and hopefully when I finally awaken, the boundary that enclosed the hidden place would be weakened enough to grant me some form of safe passage.

Evening of the same day came at last and I waited for a few hours staring at the stars. Soon, they would be in an acceptable alignment for the Call to be effective. Momentary panic attacks still terrorized me as I tried to go over the entire process to ensure I had not missed anything out. There would be no second chance should the ritual go wrong. I had no great love for life, but I wasn't keen on the prospect of being a snack or plaything of some unearthly creature for the rest of eternity. The hours rapidly dwindled and it was now or never as I huddled in my warded circle and began the Call.

Giving a low whistle, I momentarily fingered the custom tuning fork I had commissioned from a seasoned blacksmith, hoping he had gotten the Archimedean spirals I had asked for on both arms of the tuning fork to be at least roughly accurate according to the mathematical formula I had provided. I closed my eyes and struck the tuning fork against a small rock, repeating the process at specific intervals of four minutes. The dull metallic thuds were unspectacular to the human ear, but for these creatures it would sound like the hammering of a bell the size of London with a massive pneumatic hammer. Within the space of a few minutes the air grew heavy and even the sound of nature disappeared and I could no longer feel the caress of the mountain wind on my face. They would probably come for me soon, wanting to silence whatever was disturbing their eternal slumber.

I felt them now; eldritch eyes attempted to gaze on me through the miasma of the purifying salt and it wasn't that I could see them. Rather, it was the inbred sixth sense inherent to all humans that alerted them to dangers in times primordial that told me I had finally attracted their full attention. My eyes flew open and I frantically groped for the syringe next to me in the cloudless night. I cursed as I nicked myself on its sharp needle and ripping the hypo free from the ground, I jammed the needle unceremoniously into my right buttock and pressed down on the plunger. Immediately I could feel the tranquilizer taking effect, feeling numb all over and collapsing onto my side. Inwardly I had grinned to myself as I felt the invisible tendrils scraping and testing the circle of abelsonite for any weaknesses. They would break through in a few minutes but it would matter little; I would long be unconscious before they did. This would work.

But something had gone terribly wrong. Instead of falling into an unconscious sleep I was still very much aware of everything that was happening despite my unresponsive body. The probing tendrils were starting to adapt to the circle of abelsonite as they had to the purifying miasma and with cold horror I realized I was nowhere near being unconscious. I did not have the luxury of time to ponder what went wrong as I sensed the invisible tendrils slip past the circle and began feeling my head for orifices to reach my brain. One tendril went up my nose and I wanted to scream as another slipped into my right ear. They have me now, I thought with emotionless regret. Everything ruined because I couldn't fall asleep on a hypodermic syringe filled with elephant tranquilizer. And I couldn't even utter a scream or protest as my inert body submitted itself to the horrors.

Something else happened as I had given up fighting off the paralysis; a sense of someone slamming the equivalent of a frying pan into the back of my head with good force. It didn't give the feeling of pain but it did an excellent job where the tranquilizer had failed spectacularly, knocking me out cold instantly.

Merciful darkness finally claimed me as my senses went out.
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I had the sensation that something was out of place before I opened my eyes. I was surrounded by a hazy gloom and I suddenly realized there was no sunlight in this place. Abruptly sitting upright, I stared in wonder at the sky but I couldn't find the sun anywhere I looked. It was nothing but a gray nothingness that stretched into the infinite horizon. The brown earth likewise went off into all directions with nary a hint of greenery. Something about this place seemed very familiar and I struggled to dredge up memories or recollections of any sort.

'Don't tell me you forgot what this place is,' a voice penetrating the haze came from the side.

Staring hard at the silhouette in the haze, I willed the haze to lift and clear like fog being blown away by strong wind. In response, the gloom dispersed and a very familiar figure sat on a boulder staring at me with a mocking smile. 'That was a fantastic but very stupid stunt,' she said while wagging a finger.

Rilofene, my old patron.

I stiffened. 'You were supposed to be quite dead.'

The mocking smile disappeared, but came back in a flash. 'I am. I still am.' she grinned.

That didn't make any sense. 'Your landlord evicted you or something? Or did Rogalhast find sharing the Source with his little sister a little too exciting for his retirement?'

Her expression grew stormy but just as quickly dissipated. 'I'm glad to see you still have your sense of humor. You were a very different person when we first made the pact in this place, don't you remember?'

Hopping off the boulder, Rilofene padded softly towards me. Throwing her arms wide, she exclaimed, 'Ahh, so nostalgic isn't it? How long has it been? Never you mind. You remember, don't you? On this very spot you swore fealty to me and promised me loyal servitude! That look of absolute submission is something I would never leg go of! Sweet memories, no? I still remember your face back then. Curious, you look much younger now. Or is memory failing even me? Curse of the elderly, feh.'

I stared at her while she continued her tirade. She hasn't even changed a bit, at least before she started to die and looked more and more like a corpse. The same angular eyes fortified the perpetual frown framed on her neutral face. The same waist-length hair she had worn till the day she expired. Even her clothes were relatively unchanged; still the same remarkably simple and humble hoodless robe. Catching my gaze, she finally quieted down and knelt down next to me.

'So tell me. Just what did you expect to accomplish with that awe-inspiring feat of offering yourself as dinner to Elder Dreamers?'

I averted my eyes from her stare. 'And why would that be of any interest to you? Or rather, how did you even know about that?'

She gave me a curious look and cupped her chin with her hand. 'You don't know why you're still alive? Never wondered why you could continue to persist long after a human's expected lifespan came to an end? Of course I knew. A fragment of my former self remains with you from the pact. So long as you continue to live, so will I. So long as I choose to exist, so will you. This is the mutual bond we share and while I'm technically dead to the real world, I continue to exist within this lousy patch of earth just as you would continue to persist in that dreary world out there. I see everything you do and experience and I must admit, that little bit of 'excitement' just now was a little too much for even me to stomach. So I tried to give you a little hand. I'm glad that worked; surprised actually, I didn't know I could still affect you in any way.'

I was incredulous, 'You knocked me out?'

'That I did. Glad, aren't you? We would've been a pretty fat feast for Them by now if I didn't try that.'

'Smart-ass.' I mumbled. 'And what's with the flippity attitude? That's not like you at all.'

She didn't immediately respond. Sitting down next to me she stared momentarily at the sunless sky and finally broke the silence, 'I'm no longer a divine spirit. You should understand that. You can't call what I am now what I was in the past. I've seen through your eyes and lived with your experiences all this time during my waking moments.' Staring sideways at me, she gave me a little grin, 'Gods aren't all that different from mortals. Even for us, time would mellow us out. With time, entropy would claim even both of us. Nothing is forever, for that would indicate a system is stagnant. There must always be a cycle for the universe to continue with the process of death and rebirth, whatever form that cycle might take.'

I was surprised by this. She's certainly a far cry from what she used to be, almost an entirely different being. The fact that she was spouting philosophies of universal cycles was enough to convince me of her words. In another far off time, she would've been too busy raining death and decay down on mortals to bother with such thought processes. But here she was sitting on a dirt ground looking like some forlorn damsel bantering with me despite the nearly-catastrophic accident I had caused earlier. I've heard enough. Lying back down, I murmured, 'Well that was rather educational. Do me a favour and stay dead, will you? Seeing your ugly mug again would probably give me a lifetime of nightmares.' Turning my back on her, I laid on my side and waited for the sleep that would ferry me back to the physical world to come.

I thought I heard a hint of sadness in her voice then, but she replied in the same mocking tone she had used earlier. 'That's a shame. I would've enjoyed taunting you some more. Don't go and get yourself killed now, will you? Can't have that happen when I'm enjoying my role as an observer in here.' Chuckling, she added, 'I find that to be a lot less stressful compared to living outside.'

Just before the embrace of sleep claimed me, I heard her faint voice reaching me in a small inaudible whisper before I lost the rest of it.

'I was...'
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I shivered a little. I felt something I hadn't felt before in a long time, an uncomfortable and clammy feeling that was the complete opposite of being tormented by unceasing sunlight. And it all struck me at once; it was cold, I was cold. And mostly wet to boot. I tried to move a little but not one part of my body would respond. Paralysis still numbed my body and I panicked as I remembered the tendrils violating my head. Did they get to me? Was I now in whatever limbo they had consigned me to as a flesh-toy?

No, I thought to myself confusedly. That was a long time ago, back when I had attempted my first entry. I had no idea if the tranquilizer had worked or not. I had the sensation of drifting slowly but I could not force my eyes open to see where I was or what was happening to me. Something blocked my ears and all I could hear was a dull gurgling. All I could do was wait for the paralysis to wear off and hope nothing horrible befalls me before it does.

Minutes after, I attempted to open my eyes again. This time, they responded and I pulled my eyelids open with great effort. They would have widened a lot more from the sight that greeted me had I the strength to do so.

I was seeing stars. Thousands of stars in a real night sky. My eyes could not adjust well to the darkness after the eternity that they had spent in daylight and it took some time for everything to come into focus. I spent a good amount of time just staring at the celestial light bulbs and tears clouded my sight for a bit. It worked. I got through. Finally, I would be free from that barren nightless prison.

I noticed the night sky had started to move faster and faster. Most curious. I tried to turn my head a little and they responded a bit.

Instantly, water invaded my left eye and I found out the reason why I could hear nothing but that steady gurgling.

I was in a river, floating face-up. And steadily picking up speed as my numb body flowed along with the currents. There could only be one explanation for this; somewhere further downstream, a waterfall awaited me. If I could raise my head a bit higher above the water-line I would probably be able to hear it.

Letting out a silent curse I tried to fight the paralysis again. It was a futile effort as I could manage nothing but little twitches and tiny jerks in the cold waters. I sighed inwardly. After everything I had endured in order to get back in here, my ultimate fate would be to go over a waterfall and drown as I land face-down in the body of water below, unable to swim or turn myself right-side up. How ignominious.

Grimly, I waited for it to come. I saw the stars for a moment longer before my whole view tilted and everything disappeared in a rush of water and a kaleidoscopic view of rocks. It would come anytime now, and I mentally braced myself for the impact as I held my breath as best as I could.

A brief glimpse of underwater rocks as I hit the river below in an earth-shattering impact told me I had been lucky; I missed most of the rounded outcroppings on impact and the pain had been mostly nullified by the tranquilizers I had pumped myself with. The pressure from the waterfall continued to push my body deeper and I waited for the inevitable drowning to happen now. I briefly wondered to myself if oxygen deprivation would hurt even through all that numbness. I suspected so.

Inexplicably, the pressure lessened and I felt myself begin to drift upwards. A moment of joy as I realized I might live through this after all was instantly dashed as I saw I was floating upwards in a face-down position. Perfect, I thought glumly. Now I'll still drown anyway. I prayed to whatever god was available at the moment for it to be over quickly.

My lungs started to burn, and the unavoidable reflex to draw a breath rewarded me with some water I could choke on. Despite the awful sensation I forced myself to continue holding my breath, but relented soon after. Why bother prolonging the suffering? I prepared to inhale all the water I could in a single go and fill my lungs, hoping that oxygen deprivation would soon force me to pass out and I would die without too much pain.

Just as I was about to force myself to draw in the water, I felt steady hands fasten themselves on my waist and I was dragged out of the river in short order. I coughed a little and sucked in lungfuls of air greedily as my rescuer dumped me on the grassy riverbank. I struggled to turn my head to look at whoever my unknown benefactor was.

A rather familiar-looking face came into view herself and I felt a sinking sensation. Impossible. She's long dead and no longer a part of the world and yet Rilofene was staring at me with visible concern in her eyes. I squinted a little, trying to see through the darkness my eyes couldn't adjust to, and I realized it wasn't her, just someone who looked a lot like her. Curious light hair which faded to a darker color near the crown of her head and she had lips that looked like they they were more accustomed to a lot of laughing and smiling rather than a perpetual frown. Those lips were moving now, but I couldn't hear a word past all the water that was still lodged in my ears.

I tried to speak myself, but all I could manage were small grunts. Her lips stopped moving and she simply looked at me with a small smile.

I felt a warm touch against my cheek and saw her lips move a little bit more, and she disappeared out of my view as she took her hand away and left me to myself. I waited a while, seeing if she would return, but after a few minutes it was evident that she had permanently left my side.

I wanted to sleep now, exhaustion replacing the adrenaline of trying to fight the paralysis and almost drowning. I knew it would be a bad idea to sleep out in the middle of nowhere as some of the youkai here were prone to feed on defenseless humans, but if my rescuer saw fit to leave me here alone I believed it would be a relatively safe area to get a few hours of sleep. Enough, I thought to myself. Keep worrying and thinking about everything and I'll never be able to get any sleep.

Under a real night sky, I finally slept.
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Waking up with a stiff neck I noticed it was still night. I surmised I had slept for no more than a few hours but my clothes were strangely dry, even in the region where I had lain on the ground. I had probably slept right into the next evening. Stretching and flexing my leg muscles, I was pleasantly surprised as I slowly realized I could more or less move normally now. I stood and glanced briefly at my surroundings, a small grassy riverbank leading up to a small lake where the waterfall that had almost killed me still thundered. All around the river, trees grew thick with reckless abandon. The source of light came from the solitary moon hanging in the night sky.

Wait... solitary moon?

I realized I had missed something blatantly obvious in the night sky on my first glance at it. In addition to the moon, there was something else floating high in the sky, partially obscured by thick clouds.

It was unlike anything I have ever seen before; an irregularly-shaped oval the size of a mountain floating without any form of support. What looked like incandescent veins lined the thing but it was difficult to tell from the ground. Underneath, a single baleful eye gazed down on the land and cast a dim glow on everything much like the moon itself. I couldn't tell if the thing was organic or not, but the thing was clearly alien to Gensokyo, or at least a newcomer of sorts as I don't recall ever seeing this thing the last time I was here. It was an imposing sight at the very least, a majestic behemoth that would unsettle those who gazed at it but are unaccustomed to the stranger aspects of the world.

Puzzling over it I tried to fathom what sort of creature could produce something such as this. I carried a veritable catalogue of the strange and curious in my head, but nothing would match up with this thing in the sky. Whatever. It would matter little at the moment. It was important that I find my way to the human settlement in Gensokyo as soon as possible assuming it still exists. I would worry about what the people there could tell me of this thing later.

Thinking about the village, I suddenly came to realize I never had a solid plan for anything after I had breached Gensokyo for the second time. I had been so obsessed with escaping from that dead world on the other side I never thought about any sort of plan on living here for the rest of my existence. What would I do here? Tend a field for many more lifetimes? Grow some corn and wheat? That sounded rather dull but anything was better than wandering a corpse-world alone with nothing left to interact with.

I tried to get a bearing on where I was but it was hard to tell. The geography might have changed considerably in the past few centuries and the stars no longer looked like they did when I first came. Using them to navigate would be useless. I debated with myself whether or not to wait for daybreak but I wasn't keen on sitting around for heaven-knows how many more hours waiting for it. I would have to take a chance going through the thick forest and hope I end up somewhere familiar. I doubted that my erstwhile rescuer would leave me here if civilization of any sort wasn't nearby.

I recalled the night before; strange fate to meet someone like that. Not someone I had ever met before but she could have at least waited around for me. She wasn't a youkai, or at least one who didn't want to snack on me. I couldn't make out any of the discerning features that would identify her as something inhuman but then again I honestly couldn't see much in the accursed darkness. If she saw me as nothing more than meat she would've waited for me to drown first and then feasted. Or she could have wanted to; I must have looked pretty dead back then in the water. If so shouldn't I be dead now already? Maddening questions and I didn't want to ponder on them any longer.

I started towards the forest, fishing in my pockets for anything that I could use as self-defense. One never takes the forests of Gensokyo for granted for that would lead to a quick death. Some of its denizens might be on neutral terms with humans but that doesn't necessarily mean those with a bad mood won't take the chance to let loose on solitary human punching bags given the opportunity. Some grimy coins, a bit of solidified chewing gum, pocket lint, a small spool of monofilament wire still in its protective casing, and toilet paper came out. I rolled my eyes. I could have been better prepared before coming in but when one is wandering all alone for months on end with nothing in mind but escape from that hell, being a kleptomaniac is the last thing he or she would be.

Pausing briefly at the line of trees I peered inside, still hesitant about stumbling inside with a half-assed vision. It would take a long time for me to become accustomed to nights again, but it was useless to worry now. Better to start moving and hope I would be able to get used to the dark soon.

The sweet sound of nature was all around as I progressed deeper and deeper into the forest. Occasional moonlight still broke through patches of leaves and I could at least move about without being in complete darkness. The hike was slow at first as I had to get used to the numerous obstacles native to such forests. Here a tree branch slapped my face as I walked headlong into it; there I tripped and stumbled a few steps as gnarly roots grasped at my ankles. I cursed as more than once some dangling vine saw fit to give me a good scratch across an exposed arm and cheek. If I ever got out of here I would come back in a Bigfoot and show Mr. Forest what Mr. Road would look like.

I shook my head. That was a rather random thought and it was something I usually wouldn't think of. These greeneries should be a treasured heritage now; almost all of their cousins on the other side is long dead or dying out in a few more decades and the only source of air would be produced by the seas of algae when they finally become extinct. Not that there would be any major life left which would have any use for oxygen by then. In time what's left of the biosphere would die and the world out there would become hostile to all life; not too different from what the hell Venus had turned into.

Banishing the dismal thoughts from my mind I pressed on. Parts of the dead world outside would be transposed in here, as the mysterious laws of this place would have it. Something dying out there would mean that it was given a new lease of life in here, for that was why this sanctuary was made in the first place; to give refuge against extinction outside. That is why the unnatural and mystical creatures are so abundant in here; the Outside had condemned them to oblivion a long time ago. Briefly I wondered if that thing in the sky had once been a part of the outside world. Surely it must have had some form of an origin to end up in here now. Useless to speculate. I would find out about it soon enough.

A sudden and brief rustling of the branches not in sync with the wind coursing through the forest told me I was not alone.
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Pausing, I tried to focus on the source of the disturbance. Nothing. Being half night-blind also didn't make me feel any more confident about breaking into a run. I waited for a moment longer, but I couldn't hear anything aside from nature's rhythmic buzzing. Taking a few more steps, I continued at a faster pace.

And the rustling came again. Much more persistent and sustained this time before quieting down once more. Whatever it was knew I had taken notice and was testing me now, ready to react to how I would react to it. I stood still, heart hammering and frantically thinking. Why hasn't it attacked already, if such was its intention? Was it merely playing with me or was it wary of me, thinking that a lone human would probably not be entirely defenseless if it had the guts to wander about its lair in the depths of night.

I had to formulate some sort of plan now. I wasn't sure what it was, but it was probably very agile if it would stalk from the trees. Flight-capable perhaps if it chooses to hunt in a forest. I rattled off a list of youkai in my head the girl who called herself the Child of Miare had given to me a long time ago to see if I could find something that might repel this thing, but gave up. I didn't have the luxury of time to play compare and match. I would have to outwit this thing one way or another if it was going to come after me.

I forced myself to feel fear now. It would be able to smell my fear and know that I was going to run away. And it would pursue me once I did. Instantly I broke into a staggering run and the thing abandoned all pretense of stealth. Branches cracking and snapping confirmed what I had suspected; it flew, and now it would be hindered by the overgrowth. It would not come any closer to ground-level as the ground offered far more obstacles for it than mere branches, leaves, and trees well-spaced out. Nor would it go any higher lest it risks losing my trail as the trees masked my fear.

I tripped, stumbled, fell, and burst through everything in my way like some native tribal on a forest hunt; only in this case I was the prey. Still I kept running despite the abuse my body was going through. I missed the tranquilizer's numbing properties now. Everywhere I had cuts, bruises, and was probably bleeding from some deep gash I had sustained when a dead branch tore into my right arm. The smell of my blood in the night wind would probably drive that thing into an unthinking frenzy. Good.

Actively I kept looking at the trees as I blazed past them and finally found something I could use; a grove of Commidendrum rotundifolium, a species of tree that became extinct sometime during 1986. All forms of youkai generally give these trees a wide berth as the sap which oozes from these trees are poison to them. Out of breath and heedless of anything else I dashed into the grove and continued on. Whatever was chasing me gave an angry howl as it stopped dead in front of the grove. An explosive rain of leaves behind me told me that it took off into the skies to track where I would come out from the grove and continue the chase.

I fished around in my pockets for the spool of monofilament wires, hoping I hadn't dropped them during my frantic escape. Good, still there. I quickly moved to the other side of the grove while my hunter waited with occasional screeches and howls. The grove won't stop it indefinitely. Once it has gotten over its bloodlust and is able to think rationally it would simply look for breaks in the grove and patiently move in here slowly for the kill.

Going up to the edge of the grove I spotted two trees spaced apart relatively well, the branches forming what looked like an archway of sorts as an exit from the grove. I would give that thing a warm welcome here. Pulling the spool of monofilament wire free from its casing I went up to the left tree and using some coins, pressed one end of the wire into the tree. The wire bit into the tree well, naturally. Almost invisible to the naked eye, these wires were used for molecular slicing and they would have no trouble eating right through my fingers if I got careless with them. Looping it twice around the trunk, I pulled the spool over to the other tree and did the same. I continued with the process until I had formed a web of sorts between the trees. By this time the thing in the sky had quieted down. It would probably be trying to find a way in by now.

I waited patiently. Crunching earth and loose pebbles knocking around told me that the thing was on foot now and making its way towards me carefully. Putting the web between myself and the incoming noises I waited until I was sure it was in close proximity to me. I could almost feel the creature's baleful glare at being forced in here but it was confident I had nowhere else to run. Outside, it would catch up with me in due time if I chose to run and if I stayed here, it would have me all the same.

A pleasured moan came from the undergrowth and I broke into another staggered run. Anger overcame the thing as it came towards me again with explosive speed. I kept running, forcing the fear to fountain outwards and drive the thing into going faster. The hunter was about to become the hunted. Anytime soon now, I grinned inwardly...

Halfway jumping over a fallen trunk I was rewarded with the sound of a sharp twang and the instant silence of my hunter. Slowing down to catch my breath, I listened a bit more. I was alone now. Leaning against a tree and gasping for more air, I pondered whether or not to go back and identify whatever meaty chunks were left from the dismemberment but decided against it. I was losing blood from the deep gash on my arm and had to find something to patch myself up soon. I may be long-lived but I was by no means immortal nor invulnerable. Even something as mundane as blood loss would be enough to permanently end me.

Ripping my other sleeve apart I bound the wound together, caring little for hygiene now. I've suffered much worse before. I could deal with this one. Taking stock of my situation once more, I saw that I had moved a lot further into the forest during my wild run. The overgrowth was thick enough to blot out all but a little of the moonlight and I stumbled on blindly.

By my reckoning I had walked for almost three hours before I started to feel light-headed from the loss of blood. I couldn't see any signs of the forest ending but I had to force myself onwards. The undergrowth wasn't as bad as it was earlier and for that I had to be thankful.

Dealing with more annoyances was the last thing on my mind as I struggled to keep conscious. Falling unconscious here would probably be my end once the smell of blood drew other predators to me and this time, I would have no fancy plan nor industrial trinkets to escape with.

It soon became a mindless march; one foot forward, now the other foot. I couldn't think straight anymore, much less work out a general direction to walk in. All I could do was keep going and soon enough even that became a gargantuan effort. Each foot felt like they were bound with training weights and every step elicited a curse from me. I was dead tired again and I wanted nothing more than just to get out of this stupid overgrown shrub. Shrub? No, forest.

I got my wish then. The last step just before my legs gave out brought me to a dirt road of sorts and I collapsed on the spot, no longer caring if it was safe or not.
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I woke up feeling like my head had fallen off. My teeth felt like someone had dressed them up in wool jackets as my tongue feebly felt around them. I was thirsty now and still ached everywhere. I didn't want to take a look at the mess that my arm had probably turned into.

Lifting one hand I shielded my eyes from a soft orange glow in the sky. Dawn perhaps? I was still too weak to get up so I let myself lie on the ground for a few moments longer, gathering strength.

Turning sideways, I noticed I wasn't alone.

There was a little girl in blue kneeling next to some flowers.

Freezing frogs.

I blinked once. Then twice. She didn't go away. I wasn't hallucinating after all.

She pointed an index finger at another frog and brought it close to the sleeping creature. Trails of pure cold streamed from her finger and in a flash of condensed moisture the poor creature was encased in a perfect pyramid of ice. Interesting. Youkai? Fairy? Boogeyman? I noted the translucent wings of blue protruding from her back. Fairy.

I tried to speak, but I could manage nothing but a hoarse croak. That got her attention, however, and she turned and looked at me.

'You sleep in weird places, miss.'

I tried again, swallowing a few times before I did. 'Water,' I finally managed.

She gave me a funny look and said, 'No, it's not water. It's ice. There's a difference.'

I wanted to roll my eyes at her, but I barely had any energy to do even that. I forced out another croaking 'Water.'

She hopped a bit closer to where I had collapsed. Pointing at a nearby flower, she turned it into an icicle with another flash of condensation. 'This is ice. When it melts, it turns into water. See?'

I supressed the urge to strangle her. I couldn't even squash a bug now if I wanted to anyway. Fine, we'll call it ice. I tried a different approach. 'Ice.' I said weakly.

She broke into a broad grin, 'Yes, ice. Isn't it pretty? I'm glad you like them too, miss. Normally, I like the pointy shapes more but I occasionally make rounded ice frogs...'

The rest of her words flew right past my head as anger clouded my thinking. I gave up and closed my eyes. I'll kill her after I get better.

Light stung my eyes again and I cracked them open. The girl in blue was gone but I noticed she had left a neat little stack of ice cubes next to me. I sighed. Guess I wouldn't kill her later. I popped a couple of the ice cubes into my mouth and slowly sucked on them. Despite her stupidity she wasn't half bad at making good ice. The things tasted pure, almost devoid of minerals which would normally give water a semblance of taste. They didn't burn my dry mouth and I enjoyed the slow trickle of cool water down my throat.

I sat up and checked on my arm. The wound was almost raw now, and I was sure infection would soon set in if I didn't clean it up. I tore the makeshift bandage apart and winced as some of the dried blood peeled and parts of the wound reopened. Grabbing a handful of the remaining ice cubes I gritted my teeth and rubbed them against the gash. The pain was excruciating at first, but the cold quickly numbed some of it. I looked down at the rags I was still wearing and looked for some other part I could use as another bandage. With my fine arm I proceeded to rip the bottom part of the left leg off of my pants and bound the gash anew. If I ever had some use for the other part of this pair of pants I would have a nice sleeveless vest and short pants at the end of the day.

Out of habit, I looked at the sky again to see if I could tell the time, but remembered that I had abandoned that world. Still, I could find no signs of a sun as I kept scanning the sky. The orange glow was coming from the massive eye of the thing floating in the sky but the moon was nowhere in sight, leading me to believe it was perhaps daytime now. Still, it was far better than the cruel overlord that sent down endless waves of heat in the other world. The atmosphere now almost felt like a sweet dawn with the warmth from the glow.

Standing, I looked in both directions of the road. Neither gave the indication of where they led to, but something about the road northward reeked of familiarity. That was better than nothing so I picked the north road and started down on it at a slow gait. I paused for a moment and went back to grab a few more of the little ice cubes. Best not to let her effort go to waste; these things turned out to be pretty good. Popping them into my mouth, I resumed the walk and thought about what to do once I come into contact with the humans in here, if they still exist that is.
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>'You sleep in weird places, miss.'
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Perpetual night in Gensokyo and an eternal day oun the outside. Seems like some serious shit went down.
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I followed the dirt road for a few hours before it started to widen. Not as big as the huge modern highways in the other world but the signs of heavy use was evident. Cart tracks, footprints, hoof prints, and the occasional pile of crusted black something I wasn't keen on inspecting dotted the road now. I'd venture to guess I was finally nearing some sort of community but I had already suspected that this was the correct way some time ago. Some of the landscape evoked feelings of familiarity and I had the suspicion that I had probably walked this road many times in the past. Time would tell if I was right or not.

Starting to think about what I'd do once in contact with other humans, I finally had the presence of mind to look at myself. Months and months of being exposed to constant burning sunlight had baked me into a fine shade of brown. Likewise, I had bathed very little and although I was probably long used to the smell of my own odor, I was willing to bet I reeked like a well-aged dirty sock to another person. My shirt and pants came from my last visit to an abandoned department store and by now they made me look more like a hobo than a decent human. Out of impulse I sniffed my armpit and wished I hadn't; that was a category above well-aged socks. If I was to be meeting people soon I would need a bath. A long one.

I still didn't know what I'd do after that. Previously, nothing but the obsessive thought of escape dominated my every single waking hour. The flight for survival after I had gotten back in here didn't give me room to think about it. Now that I was finally here I had no idea what the next step would be. I scratched my head and pondered about it until another turn of the road brought me to a sharp decline. Winding downwards, probably a few miles ahead in a small valley, sat the human village I remembered so well against the dying glow of the eye.
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It was night again as I finally made my way into the village. It hadn't changed much as I remembered it; not the layout of the buildings themselves but the general architectural style that had dominated these residential buildings the first time I had seen them. I couldn't tell if there was anyone about or not; all of the dwellings were dark and not a sound permeated the silent houses as I made my way through the village square. Was everyone asleep or just plain gone? I had no idea if the village was abandoned or not, but I would be cautious about checking it out. After what had happened yesterday I would take no chances and walk into some sort of ambush. I crouched against the wall of one rather well-built dwelling and moved silently to a window. I prodded the bamboo shutters a bit and they moved soundlessly. Pulling it outwards I peered inside slowly.

The dwelling looked mostly empty. I couldn't see a damn thing in the gloom and I had no way to tell if it was occupied or not. I resolved not to take a chance and call out to someone nor make any sort of noise. Here between these cramped building I would have little chance to escape predators should they become aware of my presence. I pulled the shutters close silently and moved away at a slow crawl. Once I was well clear of the village square I gave the other dwellings a wide berth and stayed in the shadows of nearby trees as much as I could. The entire village essentially looked like it was abandoned. Nothing but the wistful sound of wind blowing between buildings kept the silent village company.

Something else caught my eye then; there was light coming out of a distant solitary building on a higher tier of the village grounds on a plateau of sorts. I hastened towards a small dirt path leading up to the plateau and soon enough I came within distance of the light and I could make out the silhouette of a relatively big dwelling, but it didn't look like it had designs native to the village.

Within minutes I was standing in front of it; a rather imposing structure seemingly raised straight from the ground itself. Light streamed out from the cracks of a customary doorway made out of tatami serving as the front entrance of the building. Staring around for a bit longer, I made the decision and took a deep breath. Exhaling, I went right up to the door.

I knocked once, then twice. Nothing happened. I gave the door a good rap but still no one came to answer. I tried to pull the door open but it wouldn't budge and looked almost like it was jammed with something. It made no sense that something so flimsy would resist anything more than a small effort at pulling it open. I gave the thing a good kick and was shocked when it hurt my foot. It felt like I had kicked a boulder. I hobbled backwards and looked at the door, and then at the doorway. I noticed something I had missed in the dark.

Repulsion glyphs. The arch of the doorway was engraved with repulsion glyphs cleverly hidden as a part of the decorative design. I was impressed despite the pain. Whoever lived here had knowledge of eastern magic, probably a subset of ancient Akkadian practices under the Utukku Limnu texts from the looks of it. The stylized modifications to the basic design indicated that it had its origin sometime from before the middle-ages at least. Like many of the arcane practices, it had been lost to the outside world for a while. That got me worried as well, as its practitioners were usually people who had less than honorable intentions. It was what western cultures would have called 'black magic users'. Perhaps it wouldn't be such a good idea to disturb whoever was living here.

I shook my head. I didn't come all the way here to run off into heaven-knows where again. Here was the first sign of another person in so many months and I was about to just run away from it. I sighed and gave the door a series of long raps and knocks. When it became evident there was no one who would come to welcome me, I decided to just force my way in.

I knelt and fingered the decorative archway. Whenever I found a glyph I peeled a bit of the solidified chewing gum from my pocket and pressed it into the carving. They might be good at what they do, but such barriers easily fell prey to those who had knowledge on how to disarm them once they've been identified. The bits of gum would serve no other purpose other than disrupting the overall design of a glyph. Such an arrangement drew strength from their geometric design-within-a-design, greatly fortifying whatever it is that is enclosed within their designated zone. Once put out of shape, the strength of the object they enclosed would greatly weaken. I traced the archway from the left all the way to the right, filling them with bits of gum until I ran out of it.

Standing, I tried the door again. It still wouldn't budge. I cursed and gave it another kick impulsively. I almost cringed as I remembered what had happened when I last tried that, but this time the tatami door rocked back and forth a bit. It looks like the fancy roadblock was weakened well enough for a forced entry.

I brought up my right foot and prepared to give the door the good news. Summoning up as much strength as I could, I let loose with a powerful kick that sent the door flying inwards. Just before I did, a shadow fell on the door and it looked like something was preparing to brace the door against my entry. Too late to stop now.

I felt my foot contact something else then; something relatively soft and I couldn't stop myself in time to wonder what had just happened. It went full-force into the door and consequently into the something that was behind it.

Cracks ran into the stone archway and the tatami door flew a good four yards backwards. I caught the sight of something white and red with a large red ribbon as both sailed through the air gracefully and impacted the interior of the building with a sickening thud. I visibly cringed from the sound of the collision. What looked like a girl in a red and white hakama laid motionless on the floor amidst the wreckage of the door. Crap, I footballed someone.

Momentarily I stared slack-jawed at the mess I had made, worried that I might have unintentionally killed the girl. Hesitantly, I moved into the building bit by bit but abandoned all pretense of caution and rushed to the stricken girl's side. Kneeling next to her and cradling her head I tried to check for a pulse. Still strong, I sighed with relief. She was just out cold from the impact.

Young, probably no more than fifteen years old, and she seemed rather human. She had a rather big ribbon that looked a tad bit over-sized binding her short hair together. Wearing what looked like a shrine maiden's hakama she seemed pretty short for her age. I stared hard at her face; she reminded me of someone but I couldn't put a name to it. No, it's just someone who looked similar to one of the sea of faces in my memory. I've seen so many of them now they all look more or less the same to me.

I was interrupted by a prickling sensation on my neck. Something felt cold behind me and it wasn't the night wind. I turned my head slowly, not wanting to appear like I was going to make a dash for life and hoping it wasn't the residence's master coming back to find that I had broken his front door and knocked his Sleeping Beauty senseless.

And I stared right at another weird oddity that looked like it came straight out of a horror novel. An obsidian-black, pulsing torus with numerous ganglia dangling from it just floating in mid-air in front of me and Sleeping Beauty. What looked like viscous oil leaked from the core and formed a pouch just underneath it. The skin of the pouch pulled back in a slick motion to reveal an eye that stared unblinkingly at us.

I made a small movement towards a piece of broken wood from the door I had destroyed. The eye followed my every move and I froze. Whatever it was, it didn't look friendly and I was sure this freak of nature didn't call Sleeping Beauty its daughter. I had no idea if the thing was going to pounce on us or zap us or whatever it was planning on doing, but I was spared the dilemma of agonized thinking as the thing suddenly started to vibrate violently. White lines looking like a design of sorts started to appear all over it as it continued to shudder and tremble.

Heedless of my fate now I grabbed the stake and pulled Sleeping Beauty with me away from the thing. I didn't know what was happening to it but I wasn't going to stick around to find out. Just as I turned to better position myself in dragging Sleeping Beauty away I saw the creature expand into a perfect sphere. For a split second, what looked like a stylized lotus formed by the white lines was visible on its skin before it exploded into a fine red mist.

I coughed as I inadvertently inhaled some of the mist. Smells almost like... blood, I thought. As the remains of the creature cleared from the air, I could see a figure standing in the doorway imperiously, ramrod straight and staring at where the thing had been with intense concentration. I was at loss for words. It was the same person who had pulled me out of the river two nights ago. For a moment she stared at the remains of the entryway, at Sleeping Beauty, and then at me wordlessly. I was about to give her a friendly smile when I saw white flames flare in her pupils and the last thing I was smiling at was the ceiling as she gave me the same treatment I had given Sleeping Beauty.

I still had the presence of mind to count the seconds. One... two... three... four... wow, this is a long hallway.

Still wearing the silly grin, I slammed head-first into an earthen wall and wondered just how many times I had to pass out before I finally had some peace. I hoped this was the last time as the whites of my eyes showed.
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Rolling my tongue around I tasted blood and the pain from where I had bitten myself from the wall impact jerked me to consciousness. I gave myself a slap to check if my head was still attached. Pain told me it was. Looking around I found myself in some sort of room with some old furniture ringing it. A bamboo bookshelf stood against the far wall looking mostly empty. I was lying on something soft and a cursory examination with my hands told me it was a futon of some sort. I sat up and the first thing that struck me was a strange fragrance emanating from somewhere. I held up both arms and looked at them with surprise; someone had put me in a simple yukata and I realized the fragrance was coming from me. Looks like I got a free bath to go with my new wardrobe. Trying to stand earned me nothing but an awful headache and I collapsed on one of the short chairs.

Flipping the bamboo shutters of the window next to it open, I looked at my arm and inspected the fresh bandages in the glow of a new dawn. I prodded my wound a bit. Except for a slight stinging it didn't feel too bad; whoever gave me the royal treatment also cleaned and dressed the gash well. I thought back to last night. I'm glad I wasn't killed outright. I must have looked like some sort of insane pervert dragging Sleeping Beauty around wearing rags and holding a wooden stake in my other hand. Between that and whatever that thing my hostess had obliterated was, I couldn't blame her much for lashing out at me instantly. I wished she had at least given me a chance to explain myself before sending me flying into a wall.

Something felt weird with my hair and I grabbed a handful of them and sniffed. A curious lemonade smell, and I touched my crown. I felt something silky, almost like a piece of cloth. I remembered Sleeping Beauty's ribbon and I rolled my eyes. Pulling at the thing, I tried to rip it off but all I succeeded in was pulling some hair out. I resolved to find whoever it was that tied that thing to my head and force them to remove it at gun-point. Not that I had a gun, but I would show that I meant business. Remembering the flaring white pupils, I reasoned that it might not be such a good idea. Maybe I'll just try asking nicely.

Pushing at the door, it swung outwards with a wooden clack, and I peered around the corridor. Looking down at the end that branched off in both directions I saw an obvious depression in the wall and confirmed that it was Ground Zero for my aerial performance the night before. I winced thinking about it and moved off into the room that served as the hallway for the main entry.

The signs of my forced entry had been mostly cleaned up, except for the gaping hole that used to house the door. Clean light poured through it and the breeze was good. It cooled the place considerably without making it too uncomfortable and I sat down on another chair to enjoy the momentary sensation. Maybe my hostess would take my free remodeling of her humble abode as good interior design advice. With light pouring in from every orifice of the building I got the chance to check out much of the interior. Wooden scrolls with what looked like Buddhist scriptures hung everywhere. There were wooden pews arranged in groups of threes in a far corner and furniture sparsely adorned the room. Almost looked like a temple of some sort. I rolled my head around a bit and noticed I wasn't alone.

A small shadow fell across the entryway and I squinted into the light. Sleeping Beauty. Except with a rather black bruise on her left cheek. I thought guiltily that it was probably where my foot met her face last night. I tried to smile at her but it seemed too artificial. My face had probably settled into some sort of permanent sulking from all the months of suffering I had endured. Nevertheless I managed an inane greeting.

'Hey there, Sleeping Beauty.'

She looked at me with a mixture of confusion and fear. I almost felt sorry for the poor thing. I was sure that my hostess had told her exactly what sort of condition she was found in the night before and my involvement with it. She was probably terrified at the barbarian who had smashed her little hut's door and kicked her like a puppy.

'H..h...hello,' she managed.

'You alone, Sleeping Beauty?' I tried to keep the lively atmosphere going. As if.

Keeping her gaze averted from my eyes, she feebly replied, 'I.. I'm not... Sleeping Beauty. My name is Yuhiko.'

Oh, now we have a name. I wasn't half bad at socializing after months of being a hermit. 'Yuhiko, is it? Hey there Yuhiko. You can call me whatever you like.' That was half true. I didn't really have a name I stuck with for long periods of time. I changed it as often as nations and countries rose and fell.

I rolled my head around a little bit more thinking what to say and suddenly remembered. I pointed at the ribbon tied to my hair. 'This your handiwork?' I asked her.

She simply nodded once.

'I'm sure it must look nice and all but can you untie the damn thing?' Instantly I wished I had phrased that better. I didn't want to sound like a jerk, especially after what I had done to her. I guess my social skills still left much to be desired. She squeezed her eyes and mouth shut in an expression of pure denial and shook her head once. Was that a no? Why the hell not?

Seeing her timidness I relented from trying a hard approach. 'Look, this thing is giving me a headache. It's interfering with my radio reception and if I don't get my daily dose of radio talk-show I'll go insane and my brain will explode.' I lied.

I got nothing but a blank uncomprehending stare in return. I gave up. I'm going to have to live with this thing for a while longer until I can find a pair of scissors. The ribbon was coming off whether she liked it or not.

I stood and stretched suddenly and she took a quick step backwards. Looking at her strangely, I walked one step towards her. She responded by taking another step backwards. I hopped a few steps in her direction and she retreated further outside. Was she afraid of me? I squatted down to make myself look less intimidating and opened both my hands to show her I had nothing. 'You don't need to be afraid, Yuko. Mind if I called you Yuko?' No reply. 'I just want to go outside for some fresh air. I won't dismantle any more of your house, I promise.' As an afterthought, I added, 'Or kick you. Sorry about that.'

That convinced her somewhat. My reduced height probably did a good job at that. Now that I've gotten a good opportunity to check her out I noticed she really was rather short for her age. I guess she's more of a Short Stuff than a Sleeping Beauty at this point. She made no further attempt at shying away as I walked up to her and moved past her into the exterior of the dwelling. Her eyes were fixated on me until I was well past her and sitting on the veranda outside. I enjoyed the artificial illumination from the nameless thing in the sky as I appraised the building for the first time in good light.

As I had suspected the night before, most of the major support structures looked like they had grown straight out from the earth rather than built on a foundation. Aside from customary windows, flooring and what was left of the main entryway, everything else was essentially one lump of hollowed-out earth. The construction as a whole did give the vibes of a temple of sorts like the interior. It almost looked like someone had pulled the earth upwards into some semblance of a house and simply moved in. My nameless hostess perhaps? Possible. She had clearly demonstrated inhuman abilities last night. Maybe Short Stuff standing behind a pillar still staring at me could tell me who she was.

I tried to start another friendly conversation. 'So why won't you untie your ribbon? It looks a lot better on you, kid.'

'She told me to leave it on you,' came the reply.

At least she wasn't terrified to death anymore. 'Who told you to leave it on me? And why?' I fingered the silky ornament again. On closer inspection I found something I had missed out during my cursory examination of it. Solid lines forming some sort of design beneath the silk. Intriguing. Was it some sort of binding charm so I would be summarily punished if I attempted something crazy on Short Stuff during the absence of my hostess? Maybe that was the reason why it resisted my attempts at tearing it off. Suddenly I doubted even scissors would help now.

I repeated my question. It was obvious she didn't want to reveal too much without the approval of her absent mistress. I waited for a bit more but she kept her silence. Sighing, I let the matter drop. I'll just ask my nameless hostess later if she ever comes back.

'Protection,' she said suddenly. 'Byakuren told me to tie it on you for protection.'

Protection? From me? No, I reasoned. She had been wearing it last night. It was probably intended to protect Short Stuff from something else when she was wearing it. So why would this Byakuren fellow leave it on me then? 'Well that's nice. Thanks for the thought but I don't really need protection,' I said as I crumpled one end of the ornament absent-mindedly.

Tears formed in her eyes the moment she noticed her ruined ribbon. I froze and dropped my hand. 'What'd I do?' I asked aloud.

Giving a small hiccup, she replied 'Please don't do that. It's a gift from my great grandmother.'

'Oh.' I said simply. Pseudo shrine maiden outfit. Red ribbon. Mom of grandmother. Something told me I already knew the answer to what I was about to ask. 'Who was she?'

'Hakurei. Hakurei Reimu.'
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Interrupting this update due to an earthquake. 'Scuse me while I run out of the office.
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Sounds interesting... alot of time has passed, eternal night, a weird being that knocked our Zealot around badly.

I wonder if Reimu's old ribbon is affecting our lead in some way.
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Shit. You in Samoa or Indonesia?

I hope your workplace is still standing.
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Nope, but the tremors did a good job with the utility lines connected to our office complex. My PC suffered a brownout from the power failure and I lost my Hueg Wall o' Text I was in the process of posting.

Had to rewrite the Wall and it turned out to be a lot different than what I had written. Oh well.
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The day carried on without any indication of my hostess returning. Short Stuff spent most of the time scurrying around the place attending to menial tasks. We were mostly silent after our previous exchange. I simply sat and stared at her attending to the place like some sort of groundskeeper. I had a lot more questions than I cared to admit, but I would have to get the answers from someone else. Short Stuff was obviously still greatly agitated by my presence, trying her best to avoid meeting my gaze whenever she had to come anywhere near me so I tried to keep out of her way as much as possible.

Moving to the edge of the plateau I looked down towards the village. I couldn't see much this far away, but I glimpsed the tiny silhouettes of people who were milling about in there. It would seem like the village wasn't so abandoned after all. No matter. I would find out about that in due time.

I thought about going down to the village to check things out, but decided against it. I've had enough excitement to last a lifetime during the past few days and all I wanted now was to do nothing but eat, drink, and stop feeling like someone had eaten me, chewed me up good, spat me out, and ate me again. The numerous pains and aches had largely subsided but I would relax now and wait until they were entirely gone before deciding to wander off.

At any rate, I swore to myself I wouldn't be seeing anyone else until the abomination tied to my head was removed.

Short Stuff had brought me breakfast before beating a hasty retreat. Lunch was more or less the same business. I didn't complain, and accepted the meals with an artificial grin. That served to scare her more than anything else and I resolved to just wear a neutral face if she brings dinner later.

What appeared to be late afternoon came and went. There was virtually no way to tell the time of the day when the only source of light seemed to come from the thing overhead and it never moved from its stationary position. The only indication of the dying day came from the slow dimming of the thing's orange glow and the sight of the moon on the horizon.

Checking on the village again I noticed that it was mostly empty now. The people there apparently went somewhere else during the night and I could only wonder if this mass exodus was carried out on a daily basis. Were these people living like this day in and day out? Calling the village home only during artificial daytime and then hiding somewhere else during nighttime?

Back on the veranda, I noted a lone figure climbed the pathway towards the solitary dwelling here and I ventured a guess that it was my hostess; the one Short Stuff had called Byakuren, finally returning home after vanishing for the better part of the day. I was at loss as to how I should greet her. Hi, sorry for breaking your door and kicking Short Stuff? We continued to eye each other warily as she made her way towards the temple.

Within minutes we were face to face with each other. I still hadn't come up with a witty greeting as she stood staring at me. Her eyes roamed briefly up to the ribbon before settling down again on me.

'Would you care to join us for dinner?' she finally broke the silence. She didn't ask in a cold, unfriendly manner. Merely in a tone that betrayed some sort of deep fatigue. There was a barely felt sense of agitation about her, as if she wanted to dispense with the formality and run off to wherever she wanted to go as soon as possible.

'Uh, that sounds good,' I stuttered. I guess I'd play along for now and see what comes out of this.

Following Byakuren into the building I saw that in my absence during midday Short Stuff had somehow gotten a replacement door in place. Calling it a door would be an overstatement; it was mainly paper hastily stacked together and nailed into a frame of wood. Good for blocking the night breeze, but it would be a poor defense against intruders. Maybe Byakuren would simply reinforce it later using less conventional means like her fancy little archway I had defaced.

Dinner consisted of the same food I was brought for breakfast and lunch; plain rice and a small variety of vegetables soaking in what tasted like peanut sauce. I grimaced; don't these two ever eat meat or something? Still I supposed I should be thankful for the food. All I ever had in the past few months were preserved food and powder-substitutes. It was a great experience to be able to eat something fresh again.

Short Stuff and her erstwhile mistress sat and ate in relative silence as we dined in a room adjoining the one I had slept in. I didn't know if this was the norm with them or not, but I suppose my presence must be awkward for them. They were hardly touching the food and often gave me quick furtive glances before catching my gaze and returned to poking at their dishes. More often than not they would shift warily around their seats as I continued to attack the vegetarian dinner gracelessly.

I decided not to give them any more discomfort than I already did. Gobbling my meal quickly, I left them alone as soon as I finished and walked back out into the veranda. It was darker than usual and a quick glance at the night sky told me why. For some unknown reason the eye was shut tonight, and only natural moonlight lit the land of Gensokyo. Sitting at my usual spot, I closed my eyes and enjoyed the flitting night breeze. A bottle of scotch would be perfect now and I thought back with regret to the time I had raided a ruined liquor store and had passed out for two days imbibing half of the intact bottles I could salvage from the place.

I heard random bouts of giggles and laughter from where they were having dinner. In my absence they had loosened up considerably and had momentarily forgotten about me as they enjoyed their meal together. Peering back into the interior, I saw them sitting together and bantering cheerfully. It was a surprising change compared to the normal characteristic they had exhibited when around me. The two almost looked like a mother-daughter pair from the way they bonded. Free from having to keep up a guarded exterior around me they finished dinner rather quickly but it would seem that they tossed food at each other a lot more than they ate them.

I shook my head and returned to looking at nothing in particular. From looking at the two of them I felt like I had probably overstayed my welcome. I'm not sure where I would go now if I had left. The village perhaps. I would think about it for many long minutes later.
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My reverie was interrupted by another figure sitting down next to me. She handed me a small ceramic cup and I stared at it for a moment before taking it. Satisfied that she had broken the ice, Byakuren was content to just sit in silence next to me but I had questions. A lot of them.

I turned a bit and asked, 'It was you right? The one who pulled me out of the river.'

She confirmed it with a firm nod. 'My apologies for just leaving you back there, but I was sure you'd be fine alone. Youkai generally give the river a wide berth and you would've easily found your way here following the river. Looks like you did.'

I rubbed my forehead and sipped from the cup. Follow the river? I did the exact opposite. Why did I go bushwhacking in the forest instead? I wouldn't tell her how I had taken the hard road and had almost met my demise. I felt foolish at myself. I added as an afterthought, 'I almost forgot. Thanks for the bath and clothes.'

'It was the least I could do after the... unpleasantness last night,' she remarked offhandedly. Crossing her legs, she leaned backwards and rested on her arms before asking me her own question, 'So just who are you?'

I hesitated for a moment and pondered if I should answer her question or not. While she had done a lot for me I felt no obligation to answer her truthfully. It would be foolish to trust her with the truth when I knew so little about her, especially considering the fact that I needed every advantage I could find to carve out a new life in here. I decided to play with her using only half-truths just in case her fancy magic tricks could also detect lies.

'Tell you what. How about we just each answer a question in return for a question? Information is the only currency worth anything to me, the only sort of coinage I exchange.' I grinned and added, 'And in return for your hospitality, I'll answer the first three of your questions for free. To answer your first one; I'm just someone who got lost in some mountains and ended up in here. Don't ask me how or why, I don't even know myself.'

She thought about it for a moment before replying carefully, 'Fair enough. I've heard a lot about Outsiders but I've never met many of them. Many of the local people are long-time residents of Gensokyo, did you know that?'

I smiled inwardly. She was trying to bait or test me by casually mentioning Gensokyo, probably hoping I would err by not questioning what or where Gensokyo is if my initial statement was to be considered a falsehood. I guess she still didn't fully trust me.

I played along. 'Genso... kyo?'

I sensed some of her distrust vanish as she replied with a graceful sweeping gesture encompassing everything around us, 'This land. Everything under the sky. In times immemorial after the land was first torn from the outer world and enclosed in a border, its people came to know it as Gensokyo. That was its name hence, and what we continue to call our little refuge.'

She sat upright again. 'Now maybe you can explain just how you got past the wards on my front door if you were "just someone who got lost".'

I would have to choose my words carefully here. I had almost forgotten about it and didn't really think up a plausible explanation for it given all the time from morning until now. I would make something up anyway just to satisfy her for the time being. 'I'm what you would call a scholar of sorts. I make a living studying plenty of old and forgotten lore and practices. That ward was just something I read about as part of my numerous projects.'

She looked unconvinced. 'That sort of Art is nearly fifteen hundred years old. I find it hard to believe any remnants of them survived until your age.'

Shrugging, I simply replied, 'You're right. A good deal of it was lost. What I know of it are just bits and pieces. That's why I resorted to just kick your door down in the end. I couldn't understand how to get past the ward.'

It wasn’t completely true of course. I didn't kick it down because of a lack of comprehension and couldn't deface the glyphs she had engraved into the earthen rock. I did it because I ran out of chewing gum to stick into the rest of the glyphs. I prayed she wouldn't notice the bits of gum I had jammed into her precious glyphs if she happened to inspect the now-cracked stone archway that housed her flimsy new door.

Byakuren accepted the explanation with a slightly skeptical air nonetheless. 'I see. Small wonder that information is your primary coinage then. Most people would prefer something more on the material side but you value knowledge above all else. That is the mark of the enlightened.' She looked at me with newfound respect and added, 'I'm sorry for slamming you against the wall, young lady.'

Oh my, what a humble person. She was nice enough to forgive me and then follow it up with an apology as well despite the fact I broke into her home in the first place. I waved a hand dismissively, 'Don't worry about that. Sorry I broke your fancy door. I was desperate and hungry and I didn't want to spend another night out here waiting for someone to open the door.' As an afterthought, I added a question of my own. 'So how did you do that? Telekinesis? Or just voodoo mumbo-jumbo?'

Giving me a puzzled look, she replied, 'I'm sorry. I don't believe I'm familiar with those terms. It's just something I can do, like the wards on the door.' She wasn't going to offer anything better than that and I didn't want to press her for details.

'Last question then. What should I call you?' she asked.

It was a strangely innocent question. I had the impression she would've asked me something a lot more important, something like what's in the outside world now or some-such, but she chose to ask about something as inane as an unimportant name.

And that was the one question that stumped me. I racked my head for names I could use. I never bothered to remember my original name. It was as dead to me as the old world was. I always made due with whatever new name that caught my fancy at various times. What should I call myself now? Chosen One? Jane Smith? Spongebob? Ceiling Cat?

Noticing my silence, Byakuren quickly added, 'It's all right if you don't want to answer. Yuhiko told me that you said you'd let her call you whatever she wanted. I understand if you want to keep your name to yourself.'

I took the opportunity to change the subject. 'Yuhiko?' Oh... Short Stuff. 'Is she your daughter?' I just had to ask. Would that make Byakuren Reimu's daughter if that was the case? I could see almost no resemblance between her and Short Stuff.

She gave a little laugh, almost a giggle. 'No, no. Not daughter. I'm just her... caretaker, a guardian in other words. She lives with me and I teach her things. In return, she helps me take care of the place when I'm gone.'

Fingering the ceramic cup, I thought to myself. Not the mother then, but she was evidently awfully over-protective of Short Stuff given what I had seen of her last night. It didn't take a genius to figure that out. I suspected their relationship ran deeper than a mere master-apprentice pair.

'So just what was that thing you exploded last night?' I asked, twirling the cup around with two fingers.

She looked away from me. Interesting, sensitive question was that? I made a note of it. At any rate, she still answered, 'That's something someone else will have to tell you about. I'll send word to her tomorrow morning that you're on the way to meet with her. She can teach you a lot about survival in these lands. You will need her knowledge if you are to be trapped here for the rest of your life.'

Most ominous. 'And who's this knowledgeable person?'

Looking back at me now, she replied, 'Fumika, the 11th Child of Miare.'

I felt a pinch of anxiety. Of the people and youkai in Gensokyo some would probably still remember me from my last visit. The Child of Miare would most certainly remember and know who I am. Like me, she has lived numerous lifetimes but where I kept living within the space of a single continuous life, hers was a series of reincarnations of the same soul but in different bodies. These serial reincarnations would do little to help her forget me; her task as Gensokyo's chronicler also gave her the unique ability of perfect recall.

I gave a small nod anyway. This could work both ways. I would save the rest of my questions and the more sensitive ones for the Child of Miare instead of asking Byakuren now. She might find out about my true nature once we meet again but I decided the value of information she could provide outweighed the risks this time.

'One last question for me too.' I emptied the cup and stood.

Still seated, she made a gesture for me to continue.

I turned to face her and pointed at the ribbon. 'Would you kindly get this damn thing off of my head?'
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Daybreak came and I prepared to set out for the human village for my scheduled meeting. I was doomed to wander about in my new attire. There was no sign of my fashionable post-apocalyptic vest and pants anywhere in the temple and I wondered where Short Stuff had stashed them. Something told me they had probably secretly torched both articles because of the stench.

My head was finally free from the ribbon. Just before parting with her for some much-needed sleep the previous night, Byakuren had touched the ribbon and pulled lightly. It came loose easily and she took it with her without another word. I never got an explanation on what I was supposed to be 'protected' from and I didn't bother to ask. Probably just some crazy good luck charm Short Stuff had attached to me for fun when they played Dress-Her-Up after bathing my unconscious body.

I started down on the path towards the village. Byakuren was customarily missing again and Short Stuff was sweeping up fallen leaves around the place. The ribbon was back on her head and I gave her hair a little ruffle as I made my way past her. Surprisingly she didn't shy away this time and gave me a silly grin for the pat. Whatever they had talked about last night after I went to bed got rid of her fear of me. Maybe the atmosphere at dinner tonight won't be so frigid after all.

I felt a bit pensive about the upcoming meeting. I'm not sure if the Child of Miare would be as receptive as she had been the first time. We had parted on rather unfriendly terms the last time and I was fairly confident she wouldn't even entertain me this time. Actually, unfriendly would probably be an understatement. Useless to worry about it now, I would have to meet with her whether we liked it or not.

Finally arriving at the village I headed over to the village square. I saw real people now. Masses of real people moving about minding their own business and not paying much attention to me. So this place wasn't quite so abandoned after all, I thought. I stared for a bit longer than was appropriate. It had been quite some time since I last saw such a high volume of people.

Intercepting a random passer-by I asked for directions to the Hieda household. The man stared at me for a while before rattling off a general direction. According to him it wasn't hard to miss; a gardened building enclosed by wooden walls except for the entrance somewhere to the east of the village square. I thanked him and let him get on with his business but I noticed he still threw me several suspicious glances as he went away.

Wandering the populated streets now I marvelled at how much the village has changed in the artificial day. Nothing looked like what it had been many years ago. The relative size of the whole place has almost tripled and the buildings show some sign of modern renovation; possible architectural modifications brought in by other Outsiders after my last visit. The place now had a bustling feel despite the atmosphere still giving that impression of a traditional village, a synthesis of the old and new.

The Hieda household soon came into view. I invited myself in and went through the open gateway. Nice place she has here. She's gotten herself a good landscaper it would seem. A small pond ringed with rocks sat placidly in the middle of a well-tended garden. Boulders of all forms lay strewn about and had been chiseled into attractive motifs of mythical animals as well as other geometrical designs a designer would've been proud of. Against this elegant backdrop sat a rather large but old wooden building boasting the general architectural style people seem to favor around here.

I poked around randomly in spacious hallways and empty rooms before a middle-aged man in what looked like some sort of happi came out hastily to greet me before I wandered off into private areas. I asked to see the Child of Miare and gave him Byakuren's name. He seemed to find that satisfactory and directed me to a guestroom of sorts to await her arrival. The hallway leading to the guestrooms seemed rather deserted and devoid of fancy decorations like the outer rooms except for tapestries that hung here and there depicting the history of Gensokyo in simplified graphical designs. For a living encyclopedia she had a rather odd way of keeping recorded history.

Indicating that my seat was to be at one side of a modern-looking square table, he beckoned me to sit and I took the seat as a polite gesture rather than a necessity. I waited now, fiddling idly with the random oddities serving as decoration on the table while I kept trying to think of something to say to the Child of Miare that would stop her from going violent on me the moment she recognized me. Nothing came to mind and I began to wonder if this was such a good idea after all.

I considered leaving quietly and forgetting about the whole meeting until I heard footsteps, looking up at the doorway in panic just as another figure walked in. She had a smile on her face, a pretty face I'd say, with shoulder-length purple hair. She would grow into quite the winsome lady this time round. She was about to greet me with that smiling face of hers when I saw a flash of recognition in her eyes.

That pretty little face turned into a dull frown and within a few seconds, she wore an expression of utter fury lined with confusion.

'You... UH... WHAT... YOU! You shouldn't even be alive!' she shrieked. She started to make a move towards a candle stand, hands outstretched.

The meeting had barely commenced and this was already going too far. I didn't want to make an incident out of this. I had to silence her before she went ballistic and attracted the attention of her servants. With a quick step onto the table I launched myself straight at her in a flying tacke and pinned her to the ground, muffling her cries of surprise with my right hand and holding both her arms and body down with my whole left arm in a binding lock. I was grateful for the fact that she was still in a young body and it didn't take much effort to restrain her.

She bit my palm in an effort to get my hand off her mouth but I endured the pain. 'Listen to me! Listen! LISTEN!! Would you stop struggling and hear me out!?' I pleaded in a fierce whisper.

Stopping for a moment, her eyes focused on mine and I could see that she had no intention to comply at all. Hatred had burned away all manner of logic or reason and she was going to do everything she could to escape or cry out for help, even if it meant chewing a part of my palm off. I winced at the thought. I had to subdue her fast. But how?

A wall came to mind. A painful wall. And one with a nice depression made with my head.

Pulling my head upwards and gritting my teeth, I gave Screeches a head butt legendary Chuck Norris would've been proud of.

I almost passed out myself from the impact, but I struggled to hold onto consciousness. Screeches didn't fare as well. She made a small mewling sound before her eyelids closed and her eyeballs rolled upwards.

I cursed at myself. It was fast becoming a habit of mine to be constantly hurting little girls. First Short Stuff, now Screeches. Where in Short Stuff's case it was accidental, I had no choice for Screeches. I pinned her down for a few moments longer; wanting to make sure she wasn't faking it. She seemed to be genuinely out cold and I got off of her before I had the presence of mind to wipe my saliva-smeared palm on her kimono. I pinched her painfully several times just to reassure myself she wouldn’t suddenly get up and swing a candle stand at my head while my back was turned.

Stepping out of the room for a moment I made sure the commotion hadn't attracted the attention of the household. The coast looked clear so far and I moved back to Screeches's side. I thanked the gods she was still a child in this reincarnation. It would've been almost impossible to haul an adult body to whatever secluded spot I had in mind for our heart to heart chat. Moving the table out of the way I dragged the fur rug out from under it and rolled Screeches's limp body onto the rug. Picking one end of the rug up I proceeded to roll her up into the rug until she was hidden from plain sight.

Hefting the rug onto my shoulders my knees almost bucked. By the gods, she was heavy for her age. It was a surprise she didn't look the slightest bit fat in that kimono. A couple of hundred years ago women all over the world would die for her secret in keeping such a good looking body despite all that weight.

Making haste I headed for the exit while keeping a lookout for anyone I might come across. They might not see their precious Child of Miare being kidnapped but I was sure most of them would have an issue with a thief waltzing around the grounds with one of their expensive rugs rolled up on her shoulders. I had to dodge and hide a few times as I inadverdently stumbled into groundskeepers and servants alike but soon enough, I was able to make an undetected exit and I leaned against a wall in an alley to rest for a bit.

I needed a secluded spot for our chat now. Byakuren's temple wouldn't do; having Screeches blurt out all my dirty little secrets to either Short Stuff or Byakuren would get me evicted instantly, not to mention proving I was a lying scum all along to Byakuren. Using any one of the abandoned houses would likewise be too risky with the amount of people packed into the village. I thought about the river but discarded the idea. The locals would be making heavy use of it during the day. Cursing my lack of foresight I dropped Screeches on the ground and desperately tried to think.

In the end I chose an abandoned building I had passed on my way in near the outskirts of the village, having thought up a stupid plan. I had salvaged some rope and rags from the alley and took less trafficked paths out of the village. More than a few villagers gave me a weird look as I lugged the rug about with the paraphernalia from the alley but they didn't see fit to issue a challenge. I made my way unmolested to my destination and tossing the junk through the open door; I followed after and slammed the door close with one foot. Spotting a chair I could use I rolled Screeches off of the rug and proceeded to tie her to the chair with the rope and gagged her with the rags. Rummaging through the garbage the former residents of this place had left I found something I could use; a torch-holder. Time to wake Screeches.

Standing behind her bound figure I gave her head a few good slaps. She swayed back and forth limply and I sighed. Perhaps a face full of some nasty liquid would be needed but she started to stir a bit then and I clamped one hand on her head to keep her looking ahead while I prodded the torch-holder to the back of her neck.

Within seconds she had regained a measure of consciousness, trying to move her head confusedly. I bent down and spoke into her ear, 'Rise and shine Screeches.'

At the sound of my voice she resumed her struggle, trying to jump and toss about but she could manage nothing more than muffled shouts and curses while bound to the chair. I pushed the torch-holder firmly against her neck and spoke again, 'Stop struggling and settle down. I have an Outsider weapon pointed at your head now. With a simple movement of a lever I can force your eyeballs to implode and your tongue to expand so much it would boil out through your nose in a few seconds. Now nod once if you agree and I'll remove the rag. Don't even think about screaming or shouting for help. The device will kill you faster than you can open your mouth.'

She made no movement. Was she considering my words or did she even believe that fairy tale about eyeballs and tongues in the slightest? Or was she so furious now she was prepared to die rather than talk to me? I sighed inwardly. This was getting nowhere. Leaning down I whispered into her other ear, 'Look, all I want to do is just talk. It won't take up any of your precious time and I promise I'll be out of your hair in no time once I'm done. You can continue hatin' and all after I'm gone. Nice?'

Still no movement. Obviously I wasn't making any progress. I sighed out loud this time.

Moving into her view now I dropped all pretense of a game. I flung the torch-holder into a corner and knelt down in front of her. Her eyes followed my every move and I thought I caught a momentary gaze of fury that could melt ice when she realized my fearful Head Asploder device was nothing more than an ordinary tool. Despite the tense atmosphere I couldn't help but snicker a bit to myself. She had believed me.

We stared at each other for long moments. I was at loss as to what I should do. She clearly didn't want to chat and I didn't want to do resort to more drastic measures that could make this place a mess. Brushing a lock of hair that had fallen across my eyes I looked away glumly and propped my head against one open palm.

'Remember the first time we had met?' I began suddenly. I didn't know why I said that then, probably because it was fairly obvious I would never be able to be on good terms with Screeches anymore. 'I was sampling the village noodles the same time you decided to get some noodles for lunch. You sat down next to me and we started to talk about the finer points of making soba and udon. We had quite an argument going long after we finished the noodles and you kept telling me that noodles are better when pulled rather than stretched. You know, I still find that silly. You took me to your home and treated me some fine dinner. Didn't we spend almost two days teaching each other about the wonders of our individual worlds? In the end we had almost been like sisters.'

I noticed she was no longer trying to bounce around in her chair. Looking up again I saw her averted face and a trail of tears on her cheeks. I made a pistol-whipping motion I had done so many times on her before in the past and she turned her head towards me, staring back with red eyes. Against my better judgment I pulled the rags out of her mouth tenderly. Reflexively I bunched up one fist just in case she tried to call out for help. She made no noise. Well, I suppose we won’t need to resort to violence after all.

I wiped her tear-streaked cheeks with one hand. 'All calmed down now, Screeches?'

She finally spoke, 'I see you still haven't gotten rid of that habit. It's rude to give people nicknames based on their first characteristic that annoys or amuses you.'

I had to smile. 'Hey, you know me. Never good with names. You'll have to live with Screeches for now. I hear they call you Fumisomething these days.' She chose to remain silent.

We were both at loss for words during the next few minutes. I decided it wasn't worth treating her like some sort of prisoner anymore. Moving back to the rear of the chair I pulled on the tied knot of the ropes and they came loose easily. Tossing the rope into another corner of the house I sat down on the ground and propped myself against the back of her chair. Still, she made no attempt to run or exact unholy vengeance on me. Maybe that was a good sign.

Turning her head slightly, she asked me something I had been expecting, 'So how can you still be alive? It must have been almost three hundred and fifty yayoi months ago since we last saw you. I always thought you were human but seeing you now...'

I shrugged. She deserved the truth now given the fact that this time, I was probably going to be a permanent resident in Gensokyo. ‘About as human as you are. Well, perhaps biologically anyway.' I gave her back a playful nudge with my elbow. 'And you can't really call yourself human in a technical sense too, can you? Normal humans don't go through serial reincarnations.'

She was silent for a moment before replying, 'Evading questions again? Your bad habits don't go away with time do they?'

Fine, fine. You win. 'Atoning for my sins.' I replied simply.

Screeches turned back and looked at me now. 'Sins?' she repeated.

'This life is a punishment for all the past sins I had committed, of the people I had killed, the wrongs that I had done. Talking about every one of them is a moot point now. That world I came from has long ago passed into oblivion. I served an entity you would classically know of as a god and in her passing some divine twist of fate saw fit to curse me with an eternity of reliving those dead faces and crimes. I'm doomed to see them in my dreams and every single time I close my eyes.' Pausing, I added something as an afterthought, 'Maybe someday I'd find a real purpose worth living for and this cursed existence would finally meet a proper end.'

'Or when I find that good soba you always preached about.' I joked.

She didn't reply immediately. This was probably a lot for her to digest and I had all the time in the world to wait, so I did. There was a small tremble in her voice now as she asked another question, one she probably found to be the most painful of all.

‘Oh. So –now- you’re “atoning for your sins”. Was that why you killed Keine? I’m sure that’s a great way to start on the path to redemption,’ she hissed sarcastically.

I stiffened and reflexively grabbed a broken piece of pottery, hurling it against a wall. Screeches stood up suddenly and spun around to face me, shocked by my sudden anger.

I stood and faced Screeches in response. 'I don't know what the villagers or Mokou told you back then, but I didn't kill her. It was an accident. I was just trying to help her. If I could've turned back time I wouldn't have tried that. Did you honestly believe I would harm her? After what we've all been through? I think about her as much as you do! You're all so keen on looking for someone or something to fault, you just picked the missing person to blame!' I seethed some more before continuing, but gave up. I no longer felt like talking and just wanted to cool my head somewhere now. To be away from Screeches's accusing stare.

I marched past her and kicked the door open. She made no move to stop or respond to me. That was fine. We're finished here anyway.

Turning towards the temple, I began the little trip back to my temporary home.
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Lost in thought I trod the dirt path up to the plateau. The meeting was worth a try but I never had high hopes of anything good coming out of it. That's finished now, I thought. I was truly lost now after my last link to the past of sorts rejected me. I prayed Screeches wouldn't tattle on me to the villagers about how I kidnapped her. In a community of this size, word would travel fast and I had no doubt my landlady wouldn't take kindly to me once she found out about my little escapade with the rug and a certain Child of Miare. Would she tell everyone about the incident in the past too? Now that she realized I was still alive there was a high chance she would alert everyone about it. I was clueless as to what she would do but I wouldn't give a damn about that now. I would deal with it as I always had when things like these popped up. I had always been good at that.

Arriving back at the temple after the long hike, I noticed Short Stuff was absent and surmised she was probably taking a break inside or having fun outside, if she was ever allowed such time-outs. Instead, a stranger was wandering about the compound now looking rather impatient and agitated. Occasionally he would stop and scan the skies for something and then resume his pacing randomly. Incidentally, he happened to glance my way and ran up to me breathlessly.

With a bald head that almost looked like he had spent a great deal of time polishing it, he gave me a small bow. What looked like monkish robes in a dull brown covered his body from shoulder to toes. The most remarkable part about him would be his head; up-close it almost looked like it reflected light. An undeveloped beard lined his jaws but he looked pretty much like another ordinary guy with an easily forgettable face. Except for that cue ball head.

'Master! I have been waiting for you since morning! Where have you been?'

Master? I didn't remember being the master of anything. Crossing my arms, I kept my silence to see what he would say next.

Likewise, he was momentarily silent but spoke up soon enough, 'I'm sorry, I meant no disrespect with my words. I realize you have more important things to attend to but I must speak with you soon. Can we go inside?' Peering at me now he awaited some form of response.

On closer examination his pupils looked like they were covered in a milky sheen. Cataracts. Was he that blind to mistake me for his master? Hold on, I thought to myself. Did he mean Byakuren when he said master? If so, was he mistaking me for her? I decided to test my theory for fun.

'Drop and give me twenty!' I mumbled, trying to emulate Byakuren's pitch.

He had a rather blank expression as he asked confusedly, 'Twenty what?'

'Push-ups. Twenty push-ups. Now.' I replied curtly.

He didn't understand why but he did it anyway. Dropping prone to the ground he grunted away as he pumped twenty times. Cue Ball just brightened my day. Time to vent all that frustration on him. I thought about what I'd get him to do next with a snicker.

Finally done, he sat on the ground wheezing and stared at me with an expression of utter confusion. Not yet, Cue Ball.

I stuck my right foot at him. 'Now. Clean. My. Shoes. Lick it.' I waited a while to see if he would actually do it. I almost jumped with excitement when he brought his head down to my foot. Is this guy serious? What sort of relationship did he have with Byakuren to warrant doing things like this without question? Wagging my foot a bit I waited for his tongue to show up but I never got the chance.

A tired voice sounded from behind, 'What do you think you're doing?' The real Byakuren stood behind staring at us both and she didn't look the least bit happy with my prank. Cue Ball shifted his gaze from me to Byakuren and then back at me.

'Uhh... M-master...s?' Not so bright is he?

I apologized profusely to the both of them but it seemed like whatever they had to discuss was far more important than my little prank at the time. Ignoring me, Byakuren took Cue Ball's arm and pulled him up from the ground. Leading him to some stone benches at the side of the temple they went into a deep discussion about something and I resolved not to disturb them after my funny act. I'll just go see what Short Stuff is doing instead.

Rounding the other side of the temple I found Short Stuff sitting alone in the middle of a small clearing lined with broken logs. A small axe was embedded in what looked like a chopping block fashioned out of an old tree stump. So Short Stuff was also responsible for firewood then. I thought that she was a little too young for such back-breaking work but Byakuren apparently thought otherwise.

Holding what looked like an old gohei she occasionally swung the thing around a bit or rigidly pointed it at some trees. I stood and looked at her antics for a few minutes in the shadow of a tree and surprised her when I spoke, 'Firewood don't get themselves chopped you know.'

She dropped her little act and blushed furiously as she looked at me embarrassedly. 'I was just resting a little,' she said with guilt.

Walking over I joined her at the tree stump and took a seat. The footprint bruise on her face was still plainly visible and I gave it a little poke. She grimaced and brushed my hand away with a pout. 'Hey, sorry about that. I didn't know you were behind the door, see?'

She fingered the gohei absent-mindedly and said, 'It's okay. Byakuren always said to learn to forgive and forget. To harbor feelings of revenge or hatred is to be consumed by them for its internal fires will always feed more of them to you, resulting in a never-ending cycle one would be trapped in.' She looked up at me and added, 'Just quoting what she taught me.'

That was pretty deep. Did Short Stuff even understand the meaning behind the quote when she was taught that? I changed the subject. 'That belonged to your great grandma' too?' I asked, gesturing at the gohei in her hands.

'I don't know,' she admitted. 'The Kirisames gave it to me a few years ago, saying it was a prized gift to them from a very good friend. I didn't want it at first but they insisted.'

Kirisame? Memories of a girl with golden hair who always hung around the shrine maiden surfaced. Their later generations survived well into the future, I thought to myself. It didn't seem possible for people like that to have families given their temperament but it looks like it happened anyway.

I reached out for the gohei and she let me have it wordlessly. Spinning the gohei around with my fingers expertly I spoke without thinking, 'Do you know much about your grandmother?' She simply shook her head and I continued, 'She was a shrine maiden who looked after her family shrine which also served as a gateway into this place. People say she specialized in 'disaster resolution' but that's actually just another word for 'bored-and-looking-for-trouble'. She was involved with a lot of the little calamities that befell this place from time to time.' Idly I rubbed my thumb over the gohei. I felt small indentations on it, as if someone had carved something there.

She gave me a strange look and said, 'How would you know? You're barely four days old in here.'

Cursing at myself I realized I had spoken out of turn. 'That chronicler down at the village told me about her,' I lied.

'Oh. Fumika doesn't like me much. I tried to be friends with her but she was always seemed so mature for her age she never bothers to associate with other people around her age. Like me.' she said as she kicked at the stump rhythmically.

Naturally, I said silently. She's roughly a dozen centuries older than you or something, Short Stuff.

Hopping off the stump, she brushed her clothes and gave me a polite bow. 'I have to get back to work now. Come for dinner later,' she spoke respectfully as she disappeared around a corner of the temple.

I realized I had forgotten to return the gohei to her. Oh well, plenty of time to do that at dinner. I peered closely at the little carvings on the thing. They looked like inscriptions of a sort except I couldn't recognize the weird symbols but they almost looked like Sanskrit. The inscriptions were strangely out of logical order and it took a moment for me to realize they had been carved upside-down in a mirror-image of the original words.

I grabbed a handful of sand and rolled the carvings on it. I could finally make out the words.


'Purge the false dawn.'

Curious. I wasn't even aware anyone in here would have knowledge about Sanskrit, unless some random translator got trapped in here years ago. Then again, why would the Kirisames let anyone mess with the gohei if it was a “prized gift”? Poor Reimu might be tossing in her grave now if she saw her precious gohei defaced like this if this was indeed her belonging which was gifted to the Kirisames some point later in her family's timeline.

I twirled the gohei a bit more and tossed it into the air a few times. Catching it deftly I spun it around my palm a bit before flipping it up into the air again. I was briefly reminded of performing like this in ancient Greece where I impressed nobility with such circus skills. Throwing it high up into the air I caught its landing with a finger and balanced it vertically on my finger as I held my hand straight up in a spread-legged pose. Awe-inspiring. Maybe I would have a future as a shrine maiden in here performing such stylish exorcisms.

'What do you think you're doing?' It was Byakuren again, standing in the same pose when she had caught me messing around with Cue Ball earlier. It almost looked like she wanted to palm her face in light of my idiocy.

I broke my silly pose. 'Nothing. Just exercising. Getting blood flowing and all.' I tossed her the gohei and she caught it neatly. 'Short Stuff dropped that.'

'Who's Short Stuff?' she puzzled.

I replied nonchalantly, 'My bad. I meant Yuko-something.' I started to make my way past her and hoped she wouldn't bring up the prank I had pulled on Cue Ball earlier. No such luck.

'Not so fast young lady,' she growled as she caught my retreating sleeve. 'You're going to have to start working around here while we think about what to do with you, freeloader.'

Oh admit it already. You just want to punish me for Cue Ball, I thought to myself. I waited for her to continue.

'Now. Fix. My. Door. Do it,' she said, mirroring me earlier.
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Morning came and went by the time I reached the outskirts of the village. Jiggling a small black pouch with some coins in it I extracted one of them from the pile and examined the brass token as I was making my way towards the village. The dull coins were mostly unremarkable; they almost looked like someone had made them in a hurry without any regard for standard measurements or accuracy. Sifting through the pile I could see that none of the coins looked the same in neither shape nor design with the ones next to them. I suppose forgeries and counterfeits wouldn't be such a huge issue in a community this small, the fact that they had a monetary system of any sort was already amazing. It must have been something introduced along with outsiders who have integrated into the community long ago.

Byakuren had given me the pouch during breakfast, with specific instructions to 'get a new door' after my dismal attempt at building one yesterday. It had mostly turned out to be worse than what Short Stuff had put together, collapsing back into a malformed mess of sticks and paper every single time I thought I had the shape right and hammered the nails in. I would have to find a door somehow and drag it all the way back to the temple alone. I had tried to get Short Stuff to come along with me at first, but something in Byakuren's eyes told me that I would either have to lug that door back assuming I can find one or end up being evicted.

The few villagers I had come across so far hadn't exhibited any signs of hostility. I had been half expecting some of them to come after me with torches and pitchforks after my little exchange with Screeches yesterday but it didn't look like they treated me any differently compared to the day before. They still gave me the occasional curious glance as they usually would with new strangers but that was about it. No angry shouts, no rocks thrown, no swinging clubs, no nothing.

It made me uncomfortable.

Did Screeches tell everyone about me? It didn't look like it. For some reason she had chosen to hold her tongue and I found that to be a bit unbelievable. Was she saving that as an ace in the hole in case she would go up against me when the time was right? The last time I had fled from the angry mob of villagers was when Screeches practically sicced the entire village on me after finding Keine's bloody headless body lying at my feet, her blood still wet and dripping from Pandora's Thirst as I held it in my hands, all but implicating me with her murder. Involuntarily biting my lips, my mind went blank as I blotted out the memories. It wasn't something I wanted to think about now, not after all these years. Someday these people would understand why, but I was content to let them rot in ignorance for now.

I found the courage to move deeper into the village now, nervously idling past throngs of people who seemed oblivious to my presence. No one chose to pounce on me and I took that as a good sign. It would look like me and that door would be able to get back in one piece after all. It was time to start scoping the place out for stores or merchandizers of sorts.

Spending the better part of the next two hours wandering around I had failed to find anyone who would sell a sliding door. Understandably it wasn't something people would just have on display out in some store in a village this small. Most of their doors had probably lasted decades and there just wasn't a good market to be selling them en masse. I would have to try looking elsewhere for it.

None of the more unorthodox places I had visited later had anything resembling a sliding door for sale. Coming across a small noodle stand I decided to take a break and grab some food at the same time. That door would have to wait. I was pretty sure Byakuren wouldn't notice if I spent a little bit of her money on some udon. I never had the chance to eat these things in years and I anticipated the upcoming assault on my taste buds.

The owner looked like a jolly fellow late into his middle years, with a balding head still sporting tufts of hair here and there. He jovially tried to get some sort of conversation going but I largely ignored the fellow, responding with the occasional nod whenever he got too persistent in waiting for a response of sorts. Poor guy probably didn't get too many customers today seeing how pleased he was to see me. Soon enough he had prepared the steaming bowl of noodles and I idly poked at it, taking my time to finish it. Chatty Baldy also fell silent after that, finally getting the message that I was not in a talkative mood.

I spent a few minutes slowly eating my noodles, with the background noises of the street slowly fading away as I thought about that stupid door. I didn't relish the idea of going back empty-handed; I would have to find that door one way or another. But the day was still young; there would be time enough to come up with something before I had to leave the village.

'Hey McChatty,' I called out to him suddenly, almost startling him into dropping some bowls he had been polishing.

He scowled and set the bowls down before replying, 'Thought the cat got your tongue, ojou-chan.'

Did he just call me a kid? Ignoring the snide remark I pressed him a question I had wanted to ask for a few days now. 'Feel like telling me what that thing up there is?' I asked while I gestured at the eye in the sky.

He glanced briefly at what I had indicated and gave a small shrug. 'Beats me. It's been there even before I was born. Even before my father I heard. Legends has it that the sun disappeared one day and that thing just popped out of the clouds. Freaky eh?' He leaned closer to me and added, 'You're still new here aren't you? As in from the Outside?'

I just shrugged in response to his question and took a few more bites out of the bowl.

'Well you gotta be. You'd know about our giant lantern up there yonder if you weren't. We haven't had an Outsider in a long time y'know. Many decades since the last one people heard about.' He took his face and his sour breath away from me and moved to polish off another bowl. Inwardly, I breathed a sigh of relief.

'So where does everyone go during the night?' I prodded further.

'Underground shelters, deep below the village. If you don't know yet, you should now. When night falls, we go below. No exceptions, ojou-chan. Keep that in mind and follow the crowd when evening approaches,' came the reply.

Underground? So that's why the village magically repopulates during daybreak. The villagers were under the village all the time when nights came. I couldn't figure out what they were hiding from though. The earlier villagers I had known never had to build shelters underground to spend the night. 'So what're you hiding from?' I asked, earning me another annoyed glare from Chatty Baldy.

'Didn't whoever it was that found you send you to the chronicler to ask your questions? You've got an awful lot of them,' he said.

I gave him a little grin. 'I like questions. Sue me, McBaldy.'

That got me rapidly chased away from his noodle stand. Brandishing a broom angrily, Chatty Baldy shouted some obscenities and I took a hasty leave before he could move around the stand. It was only a few minutes later that I realized I had forgotten to pay him for the food. Too bad for him.

Starting to think about what I would say to Byakuren now if I went back door-less I almost missed a half-open building with what looked like huge kites haphazardly piled on one side of the interior. Out of curiosity I moved up to the open space where a wall should have been and stared inside. Carpentry tools and various primitive measuring devices littered the floor along with rolls of oiled paper and half-sawed lumber. The place looked like some sort of workshop but I had no idea what the owner builds. Huge kites from the looks of things.

A face with disheveled hair poked out from one of the pile of kites and stared at me for a moment. Likewise I returned the stare until he blushed and decided to come over to me. Brushing sawdust off of what looked like a makeshift raincoat he stood, brushed his hands and hair a bit and finally made his way towards me the same time I decided to step into the workshop.

'Can I help you with anything?' he quizzed me. He looked like some sort of foreigner, perhaps a descendant of an Outsider not native to Japan. I guessed he would be at most twenty five years old given his height and build, but his face still had boyish features for his age. This kid would take a few more years to man up, I thought to myself.

'Not really, just admiring your kites,' I replied. A thought occurred to me, 'Actually, scratch that. Are you selling any of your kites?' I figured a square one might serve well as a sliding door.

His face literally lit up as he gave me a broad smile. 'Wow... you... you like them? Most people find them to be a stupid idea. And they're not kites, no. They're wings. Want to see some of my newer ones?'

Did he even hear what I said? 'I asked if you're selling your kites... wings I mean,' gesturing at a random pile of kites. I mean wings. What was the difference anyway? They still looked like kites.

It didn't seem like he was even listening anymore. He shocked me as he took my hand and dragged me into the workshop and despite my protests he was still babbling away about his fancy wings and how he would be able to fly like the youkai when they were completed. I planted a foot firmly in the ground and ripped my hand away from his grasp with a glower. For a moment he stopped and gave me a puzzled look, stopping halfway in describing his frustration over how other people saw his work as the obsessions of an idiot.

Dismay sagged his features as he realized what he had done. 'I'm sorry! I just got carried away for a bit... well... maybe more than a bit. That was rude of me. But it's so rare when someone's interested in my wings...' he trailed off.

I spoke up before he got into another bout of apologies, 'Fine fine. Don't worry about it. I just wanted to buy a kite... uh, wing. Got a square-shaped one, roughly the size of an average door?'

He nodded and made another move towards my hand before I snatched it away from his grasp with a scowl. Irritably I motioned him to just lead the way and he proceeded to take me to another part of the workshop sheepishly. He has a disturbing fetish he needs to fix before he would be able to find himself a wife someday.

It wasn't just kites and workshop knick-knacks now; here and there half-assembled contraptions of some sort laid in their respective alcoves. I realized now why he called them wings, he was building some sort of aviation device using the kites as wings. No wonder the villagers saw him as an idiot. A human trying to take to the skies using a wood-and-paper contraption just goes against common sense in Gensokyo.

I stopped a while when I came across a nearly completed version of his device. Staring at the wingspan and frame I noticed he had grossly misjudged the proportions of the wings in relation to the airframe. I hoped he wasn't going to throw himself off of a cliff with one of these things tied to himself; the device would rip itself apart from the stress minutes after takeoff and he would experience first-hand the effects of gravity's miracle and the kiss of the ground below as he plunged to his death. I made a mental note not to explain to him the concept of aerodynamics.

'She's beautiful, isn't she? I hope to take her out for a test flight next week. Maybe... maybe you could come and watch?' he asked hopefully as he saw me looking at his contraption.

Boy, you're going to be seeing your maker in no time flat if you go up in that thing, I thought to myself. Maybe I would come and watch though, just so I could see him explode like a ripe tomato on his maiden flight. 'Sure. Love to see that. Look me up when you want to go,' I replied nonchalantly while snickering to myself.

Staring at me in gap-jawed wonder he finally blurted while blushing furiously, 'S-s-s-seriously!? Wow! I promise it'll be fun! You won't regret it!'

Fun tomatoes. 'So where's my door? Er, kite. I mean wing. Forget it, let’s just call it a door,' I reminded him.

In response he threw off a large piece of canvas covering another pile of kites; these looking to be perfect door-substitutes judging from their size, shape, and sturdiness. I would make do with these. He gave me a querying look and I nodded.

'How much?' I asked as I started to pull the drawstrings on Byakuren's pouch.

He grinned, 'Free. Since you'd come and watch my flight.'

I felt a little guilty now. Perhaps I should tell him about his probable destiny as a falling tomato as payment for his kindness. Moving next to him I tugged at the kite a bit to estimate how heavy it was, but he stopped me with a wave and proceeded to heft the entire thing up himself. Does this mean he's offering to carry the thing for me?

'Where to?' he asked and I stared at him for a moment.

'How much?' I asked in return, guessing he'd probably charge me for transportation.

Giving me the same boyish grin he just shook his head. 'Free, since you'll come watch me fly.'

I gave myself a mental kick. Maybe I shouldn't have agreed to that little date of his. Now this kid would start to get a little too over-friendly for comfort. It wouldn't matter much anyway as I would be finished with him after he drops my door off at the temple. I beckoned at him to follow and he hastened to catch up with me as I led him out of the workshop and back towards the path to the plateau.
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His steps fell into a methodic rhythm with mine as we made our way back together. I was mostly silent as he followed after me with the kite behind his back braced with both his hands. The moment we cleared the outer perimeter of the village and started up on the path to the plateau he quickened his steps to walk by my side for the little climb. I hoped he wasn't going to turn chatty on me but like all things in life, people never get what they wish for.

'My name's Flynn. What's yours?' he began.

'Kazuha Ferdinand von Rilm Magna Teppanyaki de Rosalie Snookie Mifune,' I tossed him a random collection of names.

He fell silent for a bit. 'Nice to meet you... uh... Kazuha Ferdinand von... Rilm Magna Teppanyaki de Rosalie Snookie Mifune.'

Did he just go and remember the whole thing? Good job, I thought to myself. 'By the way, that's just my first name. Want to know the rest?' I teased. His face fell.

Flynn. Not a name the locals would name their children with. 'Your parents were Outsiders?' I asked him casually.

He gave a short laugh. 'I guess it's blatantly obvious from my looks. My grandfather was from the Outside. He told me that he was some tourist who got lost in some mountains and wound up in here. I don't know much about that. He never talks much about it and I get the impression he never regretted not being able to return to the other side after he married and settled down in here.' Giving me a sideway glance he added, 'What about you? I've never seen you around before. Were you from the other side too?'

'Yeah. Same story. Wandering around in some mountain and I fell in here,' I lied as usual.

There was a fire of curiosity in his eyes as he asked, 'So what's the other side like now?'

'Nothing much. It's always summer. People are mostly dead I think. The world's just a hunk of scorched earth and all there is to eat there are preserved junk. Finding water sucks too,' I replied casually.

'Wow. You must've had a hard life there. It's a good thing you stumbled into this place.' He struggled a bit with the kite as he tried to scratch an itch behind his back and continued, 'We haven't had Outsiders visiting in a long time. You might be the first in decades I think.'

And I'll be the last one too, I thought to myself. Briefly I wondered if tiny pockets of humanity still existed somewhere in the world I had left behind. I never thought about looking for them and I reasoned that it would be pointless anyway; sooner or later they would all die out as the world itself was dying. Would the collective souls of humanity reincarnate in here someday when that happens? Gensokyo was a big place but it would never be enough to house the sheer amount of transmigrating souls from the dead world. If so, did Gensokyo exist on borrowed time then? Awaiting the inevitability of an unraveling existence as the mass of spirit from outside destabilized this sanctuary. What would happen then? Would we all return to a black emptiness of non-existence? Is there no refuge for me after all?

'... did I say something wrong? I'm sorry if I did. I'm bad with words,' Flynn's voice came back to me as I snapped out of my musings.

I shook my head and waved a hand dismissively. 'Nah, it's nothing. Just thinking about stuff.' I decided to change the subject, 'So whatever put the idea of flying in your head?'

'Oh, I just want to see what it feels like to soar the skies like the youkai. There was a girl a long time ago back when I was still a kid who occasionally came to the village to deliver a stack of her newspaper. I asked her to take me flying one day and she did! Boy I'll never forget what that felt like. That was an experience out of this world!' He emphasized his point by rocking left and right with the kite behind his back. 'Of course my dad almost killed me after that. He told me never to talk to that tengu ever again. After that we never saw much of her again and she stopped coming around to deliver her newspaper a few months later. So now I make these wings and maybe someday I'll get to return to the skies once more.' There was a distant longing in his eyes as he said that.

Tengu with her newspaper? I rubbed my forehead a bit. Could be Aya. Just another one of Gensokyo's celebrities I had pissed off before in the past much like Screeches back in the village. Was she still around after all these years? Sighing I wondered if I would ever have peace if they found out I was still alive and kicking and with nowhere left to escape to boot. Keeping a low profile from now on suddenly seemed like a very important thing not to forget.

I gave him a genuine smile of my own. 'Humans on the other side used to fly all the time. And it's not just individuals with their own 'wings'. Whole groups numbering almost a few hundred would cross the skies in massive birds of steel on a daily basis. As humanity neared its zenith they had built enormous towers stretching into the stratosphere and people could live in these sky-villages as they ran out of space to build on the ground.'

He listened to me in rapt silence, probably imagining the wonders that people in the dead world had achieved. Most of all, I could see he wanted more than ever now to sail the clouds like the people I had described to him did. 'How could they all have died off if they could build such miracles?' he asked after a while.

Giving him a shrug, I answered him honestly, 'Oh I don't know. I had been on an expedition to a place we called the Ural mountains and I suffered an accident. I went into a long coma caused by hypoxia and I woke up in some decaying hospital. No one was left by then and I simply wandered and wandered until I hit this place.'

He kept his silence, probably not understanding what I had just told him. Abruptly we arrived at the plateau without noticing that we had completed the long climb as we talked. Flynn set the lower end of his kite to the ground and leaned on it, slightly huffing and puffing from the exertions. Giving the place a brief glance it quickly dawned on him where we were now. 'This is the temple isn't it? I haven't been up here before,' he spoke in a low tone, as if afraid he would disturb the peace and quiet of the place.

I started towards the entrance. 'Come on, you can leave it over there at the veranda,' I said while gesturing at my regular hangout.

Short Stuff stood and stared at us from the doorway as Flynn set his kite down against the side of one pillar and sat on the veranda for a little break. He turned to look at Short Stuff for a bit and gave her a respectful nod. Guess the two of them would need an introduction. Sitting down on the other side of the entryway I proceeded with the formalities.

'Hey Short Stuff, meet Birdhead. Birdhead, Short Stuff.'

Both of them gave me a sour look. 'Birdhead?' Flynn echoed with dismay as Short Stuff exclaimed at the same time, 'I told you before, it's Yuhiko!'

Shrugging at them I replied, 'Fine fine, my bad. Let me start from the beginning. Birdhead meet Short Stuff. Short Stuff, Birdhead.'

Short Stuff grumbled to herself as she went back inside to return to her chores. I pointed at the patchwork door behind me with a thumb and smirked at Flynn, 'Want to help me replace that sorry excuse for a door? I'll pay you.'
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Late afternoon came just as we were more or less finished installing the new door in place. Flynn had decided to do the hard work himself, first sliding Short Stuff's door out of the wooden brackets and fitting his kite back into it. Even before he tried to slide the makeshift door in I could see that his kite was a little too tall for the door frame. Some short work with a hand axe and nails fixed our little dilemma and the door slid smoothly into place in the end. Short Stuff watched the work with interest; whatever chores she had been attending to was all but forgotten as she constantly poked at the kite and asked Flynn numerous questions about it. In return, Flynn was all too happy to explain to her his obsession with flight, glad to have found another person who was interested in it.

Sitting in my usual spot I left the two of them to their conversation. They were chatting animatedly now, talking about the wonders and fun in soaring the skies like swallows buoyed by the winds. Short Stuff's eyes held the same sort of curiosity and jealousy as Flynn's when I had told him about the people who flew in aircrafts earlier. It was rapidly becoming apparent to me that she had never been taught just how to bend the laws of gravity Gensokyo-style by her forerunners. I mused about this momentarily. As a heir to the Hakurei lineage it was highly unlikely she wouldn't have learned about all the unique quirks and abilities her heritage entitled her to, unless somewhere along the way something had happened to break the chain of inherited knowledge and caused her to be without a mentor this generation. Despite dressing like a shrine maiden, she looked to have absolutely no knowledge on how to be one judging from what I have been seeing so far.

I thought back to a few nights ago when Byakuren and I had been talking about Short Stuff. She had mentioned something about being a guardian to Short Stuff. Did this imply Short Stuff's real parents were gone somehow? That would explain why she was being trained as a groundskeeper instead of a shrine maiden now. For that matter, who was Byakuren? She seemed native enough to pass off as one of the locals but I knew better. Her mastery in the black arts told me she had been around far longer than she could possibly look. Practitioners of such arts would spend almost their entire lives learning to control just a fraction of what she could do. It stood to reason that she was far older than she looked given her level of expertise in it. I felt uneasy. I couldn't see anything of a youkai in her but it was obvious she wasn't what people would consider normal.

Letting the questions drift apart in my head I decided it wasn't worth pursuing at the moment. Everyone has their own secrets, including myself. As long as she didn't get in my way, I would likewise grant Byakuren her freedom in keeping her secret to herself. Briefly I wondered where she goes to during daytimes. She seemed to spend an awful lot of time away from her temple. Perhaps she was merely going out into the other regions of Gensokyo to preach her brand of Buddhism. What irony, to be teaching religion but practicing black magic in secret. I shook my head.

The two noisome creatures behind me had settled down somewhat. Short Stuff had brought us all some tea and Flynn looked like he was enjoying a moment of peace on the veranda sipping from his cup. Occasionally the two of them launched into another bout of excited conversation regarding the current gossip or a random topic only a local would have interest in. They certainly seem to be getting along well, having just met. I wondered if Short Stuff had friends at all, being stuck up here in the temple all the time must not allow for such luxuries. She's certainly a very different person compared to her great grandmother. Where Reimu practically oozed a sort of lazy over-confidence, Short Stuff was basically insecure most of the time. Her predecessor had been managing a shrine all by herself around Short Stuff's age while Short Stuff was nothing more than a maid of sorts now. As sad as it sounds, the great line of Hakurei mikos had been reduced to a mere shadow of their former selves. I stared at my reflection peering back at me in the cup. Things certainly have changed a lot around here, I thought to myself.

I snapped my fingers at the two of them to catch their attention and they turned to look at me simultaneously. I was still curious about what the chef had told me earlier. 'Hey, I heard the villagers are supposed to “go underground” when night falls. What gives?'

Short Stuff fell silent, but Flynn explained, 'We hide, of course. This is the term of the truce we agreed to with the youkai many years ago. They would leave us alone in the day but in return we would have to let them rule the night. So now we take turns living our lives in Gensokyo. We let the youkai roam freely at night while we pass the remainder of the day away in the second village underground. Conversely, the youkai keep to themselves and do not bother humans during the day, no matter where they are.'

Frowning, I wondered why such an arrangement was needed. Humans and youkai in the past had co-existed together well enough in Gensokyo but something must have happened to warrant such a thing. I was about to ask him what had happened for this truce to be enacted but stopped myself in time. I didn't want these two to know I was a former visitor to Gensokyo and accidentally find out about the crimes I had committed here as well. The villagers who knew me would be in their graves for over two generations by now but youkai were long-lived and they most certainly do not forget easily. Also, Screeches back in the village was essentially a time-bomb now; either she would choose to tell everyone about me or someone curious enough about me would go and ask her directly. I wondered again why Screeches kept her mouth shut. I prayed she wasn't planning anything against me.

I gave them a simple reply instead. 'Oh, I see.'

Flynn stood and stretched a bit, glancing at the sky as he did. 'I have to head back now. It's getting late,' he quipped. Bidding Short Stuff and me a brief farewell he started down towards the path back to the village but stopped after a few steps as he remembered something. Turning back to face me he added in an embarrassed undertone, 'Um... about what you said earlier. You're serious right? You'll come watch?'

Scratching my head idly I tried to work out what he was talking about. Watch what? Oh, that flying thing. So he was serious about it. Short Stuff paused in the middle of her clean-up to stare at us both. 'Watch what?' she echoed my thoughts.

'This guy plans to throw himself off of a cliff with some doors and a bunch of sticks tied together,' I declared casually.

Flynn's face turned glum. 'I'm telling you it'll work. I almost got the wings right this time.'

You're closer to 'pretty wrong' than 'almost right', I thought to myself as I remembered his little contraption back at his workshop. Still, it might be fun to watch him go splat. I hadn't seen the effects of massive blunt force trauma on a human body in ages. 'If you say so. Yeah, I'll come.'

He broke into a broad grin. 'Great, I'll come here in a few more days when I finish it.'

'I can barely wait.' I muttered sarcastically as he turned to leave and jogged down the path back to the village, leaving Short Stuff and me to ourselves.

Giving Short Stuff a glance, I queried her, 'Wanna tag along? Could be educational.'

Her only response was an emphatic headshake.

'I say, you looked pretty interested in his kite there. You like flying much?' I remarked, settling into a more comfortable seating position while leaning against the support pillar.

Short Stuff didn't reply immediately. Instead, she piled the empty teacups onto a wooden tray and set it down next to her as she sat near the opposing pillar on the veranda. 'I don't know. I'd like to, but I can't anyway. Humans just don't fly like youkai,' she said sullenly.

So I guessed right. Either she can't or she doesn't know how to. 'You're a Hakurei, aren't you? I thought you Gensokyo miko types can take to the skies just like the youkai in here.' I added hastily, 'Or at least that's what that chronicler of yours told me.'

She gave me a dumb look. 'I don't know how to.'

'So... you can't toss amulets like flaming shurikens of doom too, I suppose?'

She couldn't comprehend the metaphor. 'What?' she asked blankly.

'You know. The spontaneous generation and redirection of plasma bolts under normal atmospheric pressures, or shaping guided projectiles of ball-lightning without the aid of a gravimetric containment function.' I paused momentarily as she continued to give me that blank look of utter incomprehension. Why did I just explain all that in Outsider jargon? She wouldn't understand that crap anyway. What was that word they loved to use to describe such artificially manufactured phenomenon again? I racked my brain trying to think of it. 'Dan-something...' I trailed off, twirling a finger while I tried to remember.

'Danmaku?' she offered.

I snapped my fingers. 'Hey, you got it! Yeah that. Can't you do that? I heard your great grandmother and her kids down the line were supposed to be able to do that sorta thing.'

She grew silent and very still, looking down at her shoes. 'They never got the chance to teach me,' she finally said in a low voice.

Did I touch a sensitive subject? I leaned closer to her and pressed the matter, 'Why's that?'

Turning to speak to me directly, I saw no hints of sadness or emotion in her eyes as she said, 'That's because they all died before they could.'

'What happened to them?' I asked quietly.

'Dead,' she stated simply. 'Something massacred them at the family shrine in broad daylight. They never got the chance to fight or run and I never found out whom or what did it. I was only five that time. The only reason why I'm still alive was because my brother shoved me into the floor compartment where we stored the food. I hid there while I listened to... to... their screams.' Short Stuff seemed to be staring off into a far distant place as she recalled the memories. 'I hid in that cramped box for almost two days before I finally had the courage to come out. One thing led to another and I wandered into the village in a confused daze. No one wanted to help me or listen to me. They feared me, I think. Afraid of all that blood I had gotten onto myself when I was sobbing and sifting through what was left of the bodies of my family for any signs of life. Byakuren was the only one who took me in and sheltered me when all the other villagers shunned me.'

So that was how she ended up with Byakuren. It made no sense why someone or something would want to kill the Hakureis off. Perhaps the Hakureis had somehow violated this truce thing they had, but I doubted it. Short Stuff had mentioned they were killed in the day, not the night. Youkai as of late were generally ambivalent towards humans, but they were never sociopathic murderers unless one happened to trod into their territory. I had never heard of wild beasts acting in a way that suggests intentional slaughter in Gensokyo. That ruled out the non-human natives. It couldn't be someone from the village as that was almost unthinkable. Whatever it was that had taken the Hakureis out must have had a specific goal in mind and fairly powerful to be able to overcome them en-masse.

I didn't know what to say to Short Stuff now. Sorry for your loss? Cheer up, at least you're still alive? That sounded pretty cliché to me. Still I felt that I had to somehow break the silence Short Stuff had drifted into. Comforting or empathizing people had never been one of my strong points but I steeled myself as I said the only thing that came to mind. 'Don't live the past, kid.'

That brought her back from wherever she had drifted to. Still, the same emotionless mask stared right at me as she turned to look at me again. Did I annoy or anger her somewhat with my insensitivity?

I continued. 'What's done is done kid. You don't bring back the dead thinking about them or mourning them with your every waking hour. If there was one thing they could ask you to do from beyond the grave then it would be for you to live for tomorrow rather than dwell on their loss. I'm pretty sure Byakuren would want you to do the same. Remember what you told me she taught you that day, to forgive and forget? It's not all that different when it comes to something like this.'

She didn't look convinced but offered no counterpoint to my statement nonetheless. 'Maybe. That's easier said than done, but you're partially right about not being able to change the fact that they're all dead. I suppose there's not much of a point in moping about it.'

'Atta' girl,' I leaned over and jokingly gave her footprint-bruise a poke. She cringed and brushed my hand away.

Changing the subject would probably do us both a good turn and help dispel the gloomy atmosphere. I asked her something different for a change. 'So what exactly does Byakuren teach you to do around here? Lessons on how to be a maid nun?'

She made a face in reply. 'No. Just things children are supposed to learn. History, letters, numbers. Things we would learn from a school.'

'Shouldn't you be learning that stuff in a normal school instead of a Buddhist temple?'

Short Stuff shook her head. 'There hasn't been a school in the village for ages. The last teacher we ever had for children was murdered a long, long time ago, according to Fumika. Most people resorted to schooling their own children after that.'

I shifted uncomfortably in my spot. Was Short Stuff talking about Keine? Pangs of regret assaulted me as I thought about her. I had killed many in the past without evoking a shred of emotion and I had thought that I was immune to such human fallacies, but on that fateful night when I had inadvertently ripped Keine's life away from her I had felt a dull stab of pain in my heart, a sign that something had gone terribly wrong and someone I held dear was lost to me forever. I stared off into nothingness, wondering if she would forgive me from wherever she was now. Probably not. Not her, not Screeches. She would forever remain as another face in the wall of corpses I would see every time I slept or closed my eyes, moaning and cursing at my helpless self.

The sight of Byakuren walking up to us brought me back to reality. Short Stuff hastily excused herself and carried her wooden tray back inside, probably afraid that her mistress might be displeased to see her slacking off. From the look on Byakuren's face I was sure neglected chores would be the last thing on her mind. She sagged with the same infinite weariness she bore every time she came back from her daily outings and I wondered once more just what it was she did out there. Teaching wild rabbits how to chant sutra? I suspected otherwise.

'Rough day?' I remarked casually as she took Short Stuff's seat for a brief rest.

'Quite.' She glanced at her new door. 'Not too shabby. I didn't think there were people who actually sold doors in the village. Nice work finding one.'

Remembering her little pouch of coins I took them out and lightly tossed it at Byakuren who caught it with one hand without even looking. 'It's actually a kite or something. And it was free, how about that?'

She didn't comment on that. It didn't even seem like she heard nor cared about what I just said, so deep into her fatigue she was. Minutes passed by but there was no indication she wanted to continue with idle conversation. I stood and quietly stepped past her as I headed back inside, not wanting to disturb the still figure sitting there. Almost like a statue she gave no reaction whatsoever to her surroundings, remaining as rigid as a tombstone as the late afternoon breeze lazily tossed handfuls of her hair around. Wherever it was she had retreated to, it was evident she would take some time to return to us.

Turning to give her one last look I marched off into the kitchen to raid some food, hoping Short Stuff wouldn't be in there standing guard.
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I tossed around uncomfortably on the futon, plagued by the dreams of the dead and storms of blood once again. The sky was an overcast red with torrential rains in an even deeper shade of red. Corpses of men, women and children alike trapped in the muddy earth continue to twist and grasp at my feet feebly in a vain attempt at revenge. There was neither wind nor sound this time; their hatred buffeted me in endless waves replaced the lack of screaming winds. I had seen these visions countless millions of times and every single time I dreamt of them I could not escape from the fear and revulsion, at them and at myself. The twisting forms on the ground swore retribution silently, the empty sockets where their eyes had once sat stared emptily at me, mouths moving soundlessly and sinewy arms groping at the ground in a futile effort at dragging their bodies locked in the ichor-mud towards me.

I knew from somewhere deep within me that this was the ultimate fate awaiting me once I pass from this lifetime. Judgment awaited me in whatever nether world I was bound for upon death and every one of these dead souls would take turns ripping me apart again and again in a never-ending cycle as I had done to them in their own lifetime. They would bid their time for now, glaring at me soullessly with their hollow eyes and feebly trying to drag me down with them. They knew they would have their turn once my time was due. It was all but foretold.

I tried to run, but was thwarted by the flowing mud encasing my feet. In desperation I tried to pull one foot free from the ground to no avail. Bringing both arms up I saw the heavy chains binding them to the ground, the dull steel ingrained with glowing letters listing my every sin and crime. I didn't want to look, but looking elsewhere put another reminder of my black past in my sight. Every time I averted my gaze from one sin I would stare right into the face of another. Sinking to my knees I closed my eyes, arms dropping uselessly to my sides. Please, wake up soon and let this be over, I prayed to myself.

Waiting for the eternity of torment to pass I became aware of a subtle change in the still air. The stinging smell of blood no longer filled my every breath, my arms felt immeasurably lighter as the chains vanished and lifeless hands no longer groped at my feet. There was a breeze now, slow and gentle. I opened my eyes and real sunlight greeted me in a far kinder place than that nightmarish pit, blanketing the earth that had turned from that hellish ichor of death into a field of golden wheat that stretched off into unseen horizons. The individual strands of gold wafted in rhythm with the wind and I stared uncomprehendingly at the sight. Something was very different this time.

A shadow fell across my knelt figure and I looked up to stare right at Keine. Not an agonized face in a wall of death this time, but a person with her real body. She looked at me with eyes that held no hatred or malice as I lifted a hand beseechingly at her. 'I'm sorry,' I tried to say but I could merely mouth the words as no sound sprang forth from my throat.

She made no attempt at touching me or reaching out for my outstretched hand. In a monotonous voice she spoke to me.

'In life I despaired, forever a half of a whole rejected.
Bathed in a sea of lies, unwilling to see the light.
Choices I made, a dichotomy of good and bad.
In death I despaired, failures dooming my loved ones.
Never regretting, a second chance unwanted.
No longer a part of the circle, I pray still.
Break the cycle, purge the false dawn.'

One ghostly hand tried to clasp my hand now, only to pass right through it. Her expression turned into one of utter sadness. She spoke one last time as I felt the dreamscape disintegrating into a white void.

'They come now. Save her, for your salvation. Save her, for me.'

I wanted to scream at her, telling her to stay a bit longer. There was so much I wanted to say. As I lurched forward from my knees my hands went right through her body and I fell flat on my face on the other side. I spun around just in time to see Keine's visage fading into a phantom veil.

Everything turned white and I heard her voice one last time. 'Save her.'


I bolted upright, body bathed in sweat that soaked all the way into the futon. The nightmare was rapidly fading from my mind already but I struggled to hold onto that fragment of a dream that was Keine. I would have cried if I still remembered how to, but I could not. All that I had now was a little ache somewhere in my heart that faintly reminded me of her. I started to wipe my forehead with a sweat-soaked hand when the door to my room was violently thrown open with a loud crash.

Byakuren marched right in and came up to me in a few steps. Without a word she dragged me to my feet and whispered hurriedly as she led me to the rear rooms of the temple, 'I need your help. Now. Go and wake Yukiho and take her with you. Carry her if you have to. We don't have time.'

'What the hell? What's happening?' I protested as she continued to drag me towards the back, one strong hand fastened on my arm.

'Silence!' she hissed as we came to Short Stuff's room. She leaned closer to whisper into my ears, 'Take her with you, and run down to the village. Go to the village square and look for the old well. There will be wooden rungs you can climb down on once you throw the cover open. Under no circumstances is either of you to return to the temple until daytime, understand?' She repeated with a desperate emphasis, 'Stay below ground until daytime. Make no attempt to return here with Yukiho.'

I didn't understand. What the hell was happening and why was I supposed to run away with Short Stuff? I wanted to ask questions but I could see Byakuren would have none of it. Clouds of anxiety drifted about her and she fidgeted uncomfortably as if awaiting an inevitable fate.

She stood silently as her eyes suddenly glazed over, the same white lotus crest I had seen before spun in her pupils like little flames and was gone when she blinked once. 'They're here,' she whispered suddenly. 'There's too many of them this time. I'll delay them as long as I can. Get Yukiho and run, NOW,' she urged as she turned and calmly started walking over to the front door.

Nothing was making sense but it was hardly an ideal time to argue. Cursing at Byakuren angrily for dragging me into whatever mess she was in, I flung the door to Short Stuff's room wide open and rushed over to slap her sleeping form awake. Moaning and groaning a bit she looked at me in confusion as she asked, 'What's going on?'

'No time for questions, Short Stuff. Get up, or must I carry you?!'

She stood up herself on wobbly feet, intimidated by my sudden anger. I could see she wanted to go to Byakuren in her confusion and fear but I would have none of it. Grabbing her hand I half-dragged her over to one of the bamboo shutters and with a single hard push, broke the fragile hinges as the flimsy window tumbled outwards. 'Climb out,' I ordered Short Stuff.

She remained standing, starting to retreat a few steps away from me in wide-eyed fear. I lost all patience and jerked her forward with my grip on her hand and hoisted her up, nearly losing balance at how heavy she was and the two of us almost tumbled to the ground as she uttered a surprised cry at the same time. Cursing again, I braced one foot and flung her out through the window even as my arms screamed in burning protest. Hopping through the gaping hole in the wall I followed suit, finding Short Stuff's curled-up body on the ground. Slowly she got up with a dazed expression and mindlessly started towards the front of the temple when I grabbed her hand again and pulled her towards the edge of the plateau. She no longer tried to run away from me, being too preoccupied with the effort of keeping her balance as I pulled away at her hand running towards the edge.

Flashes of bright light constantly exploded with a seething sound from the front of the temple now along with the smell of ozone and ionized air. Above the cacophony of Byakuren's relentless barrages against whatever it was that came to the temple uninvited I could hear the familiar empty howls of creatures similar to the one that had preyed on me a few days ago. Just as we reached the edge of the plateau I turned back and looked at the pandemonium taking place at the temple grounds.

Massive shapes in black stood surrounding Byakuren with less substantial forms orbiting her in a tight dome-like formation, looking almost like fountains of dark liquid springing forth from the ground. She danced a dance of death in their midst, summoning forth countless fans of destruction in the shape of bolts of energy and arcing lightning with every movement of her body. The projectiles struck the formless shapes like bullets passing through water with explosive force and some of the smaller black shapes disintegrated in a shower of dark droplets from the onslaught, but the five immense towers cloaked in dark remain mostly unfazed as the holes in their bodies filled up with the black liquid almost instantly, watching her graceful ballet passively as she continued to spin and throw her arms around, generating more of the phenomenal projectiles which hammered their smaller brethren flitting all around Byakuren in punishing explosions of photons.

Still they watched her, caring nothing for the deaths of the smaller shadows. The black shapes that darted towards her met their demise in a spectacular light show or unceremonious splash of inky darkness. Once in a while the hulking masses would swirl and change positions in the pentagon they had trapped her in but made no other attempt at an assault, as if they were testing her or looking for an opening.

Short Stuff didn't even move at the spectacle, staring in wide-eyed wonder at Byakuren’s true powers. She probably never knew Byakuren could accomplish feats like these, bringing forth waves of death like a youkai could. She had probably always believed Byakuren was nothing more than some Buddhist nun. To be completely honest I had been caught by surprise as much as Short Stuff. So she wasn't quite as human as I had believed she was. Maybe we wouldn't have to run anyway, seeing how she was essentially tossing the shapeless forms around effortlessly.

But something else happened then. The five main mass of shadows started to converge on her and she grew desperate, stopping her frantic dance and throwing one of them the same glare with flaring white pupils I had seen her do when I first broke into her temple. She spun one last time in a shallow circle, both hands outstretched and the ground around her ignited in a white blaze. The black shapes shrank back momentarily. One lace covered hand lifted and pointed at one of the shadows and the shapeless mass began to vibrate violently as it stopped its advance, the familiar looking white-lined lotus design carving itself onto the mass of shadows. Heedless of the other four she focused her hate on it and the creature started to expand into a sphere-like shape, its vibrations growing more violent by the moment.

I half expected the thing to explode in a nova of black blood but it never did. In a split instant its brethren made an unexpected move and flung out innumerable spears of black arcing outwards from their bodies and straight into Byakuren. She tried to make a quick retreat jumping backwards to escape the attack but it was far too late. Tired out by her efforts she couldn't run in time as the black tentacles ripped through her body and impaled her upright, forming porcupine-like spikes jutting outward from the mess of her body. Her unworldly scream of pain echoed by Short Stuff's cry of despair alerted everything in the vicinity to our presence. The same icy cold I had felt on the night I broke into the temple settled on my awareness and I knew they had turned their attention to us.

Byakuren lifted her head to look at us, her face a mask of agony. She screamed one last time at us, her voice piercing the darkness of the night and through the formless shadows.


Another wave of insubstantial spears crashed into Byakuren and Short Stuff tried to break free of my grasp to run to her but I held on with an iron grip, hands somehow frozen and unmovable. Byakuren made no sound this time as the second set of spikes impaled her inert body, head slumping down in a mark of defeat, or death. The things lifted her body high as if she was a trophy to mark their triumphant dominance and three of them sprouted innumerable spikes of black and moved to crush her from all sides, extinguishing her protective flames forcefully. The only sound marking her final demise was a barely audible splash as they impacted and enclosed her body like an iron maiden.

Short Stuff went on her knees and gave a howl of her own, anguish echoing in the night. I stood frozen as the remaining two of the formless shape began to slide towards us, trying to break whatever paralysis they had cast on me. The cold permeated my body like frostbite and I briefly wondered why Short Stuff wasn't affected by it. Trying to move an arm or a leg earned me nothing but a tiny twitch as I stared hopelessly at the black tsunami coming towards us. I threw silent obscenities at everyone and everything, cursing my short-lived peace. After everything I did to escape a dead world, I would now die to something I had no involvement with. I shut my eyes. Make it quick.

'... giving up already? Move your legs and jump, idiot.'

Where the hell did the voice come from? Time crawled to a stand-still as the voice came to me again from some dark corner of my mind.

'Don't forget the origins of this place. Faith made it possible to exist.'

Faith? What does that have to do with anything!? I tried to move my legs again to no avail, as the cumbersome shadows continued their slow march towards us.

'The essence of faith is belief. Existentialism. Trust in the belief that you can move.'

I wanted to scream silently at the faceless voice that it wasn't working!


Everything came back to me in a rush of colors and odor. Short Stuff remained on the ground sobbing, ready for whatever fate that befell Byakuren to come to us. The oncoming shadows resumed their steady glide towards us. Involuntarily I took a step backwards before I realized I could move, for some unexplained reason. I was finally able to release my vice-like grip on Short Stuff’s hand. That made the shadows pause momentarily, swaying confusedly for a moment before resuming their advance with renewed purpose, as if eager to seek out the source that broke me free from their confining awareness.

I turned towards the plateau's edge and prepared to take a leap of faith, hoping I wouldn't break a leg from the fall downwards. Breathing in deep, I bent down into a crouched position, ready to hurl myself off of the plateau but I was interrupted by another bout of racking sobs from Short Stuff.

I could leave her. This had nothing to do with me. She would be nothing but a dead-weight if she no longer had the will to run and live, like she was now. Whatever issue these people had with these liquid shadows, it had nothing to do with me. They had no right to drag me into their problems. I could run to the village and hide; start a new life there and adhere to their silly truce with the youkai. I would be free to live out the rest of my extended life in relative peace and quiet. I didn't want any of Byakuren's troubles. I had left behind that sort of stuff a long time ago.


I'll let you decide if you want to go all anti-hero-ish or just plain rotten tomato.

[ ] Not worth it, leave her and go over the edge.
[ ] Drag her down with you.
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[JE] Drag her down with you.

Seriously, what would an adventure be without drama and danger dogging the protagonist just a few steps behind? Better to live in interesting times than be bored in loathing for another eon.
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[ ] Not worth it, leave her and go over the edge.
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[ℤℯ] Drag her down with you.

Jesus christ, this fucking wall.
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[x] Not worth it, leave her and go over the edge.
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[x] Drag her down with you.
Don't just leave her dammit.
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[x] Drag her down with you.

our redemption begins now

wow mega wall...

And I guess some serious shit went down since our lead's last visit... enough to have familiar people disappear, and Youkai running amok.
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Rereading (or skimming)... why did the outside world die again?
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Perpetual sunlight tends to mess with nature's cycles. I assume the cause is in Gensokyo if that huge fucking eye is any indication. Probably underground considering the board this story is on.
also [x] Drag her down with you.
She is the last of the Hakurei. I'm sure our character should know she is extremely important for Gensokyo's survival.
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Hard to say... it didn't go into real detail, just that there's a second sun out there roasting everything.

It's most likely related to what's happening in Gensokyo.

But I wonder what kind of event caused things to go so horribly wrong in Gensokyo, since it's widely known that wiping out the Hakureis would be bad for Gensokyo (and i doubt whatever is behind that attack knows of the infinitely sorry state of the outside world.)
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[X] Drag her down with you.
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As you command, Anon! Save her we shall.

And as a bonus for your votes, you get a free skit at the end. Your reconciliation with Screeches.

P/S: I have a bad habit of summoning Hueg Fcuking Wallz. I will moderate future updates into more manageable bite-sized chunks. For now, HAVE ANOTHER HUEG FCUKING WALL!1!1
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Short Stuff had ceased sobbing, bringing her head up and giving me a serene look. The fear and anguish was gone from her face and there was a glint of a sad smile in her eyes that told me she wanted to join Byakuren in wherever she had passed onto. 'Run,' she said in barely an audible whisper. She gave me that look again, sitting forlornly on the ground.

The same look Keine had given me before I killed her.

... I was going to regret this. I really was.

Turning in a quick roundabout I scooped her prone form from the ground and she gave a surprised yelp. ‘Don’t decide when to die, kid!'

This time I didn't even take a deep breath. In one small hop, we were both sailing through the air in the moonlit night and as we were about to hit the ground I pivoted into a rolling motion, with Short Stuff clasped in a tight embrace, stuffing her head into my breasts and shielding her head with one hand, making sure her fragile body wouldn't be injured by the impending impact. I hoped it would be enough to break the fall instead of bones and we hit the ground below with a resounding 'Oomph!' rolling a good distance down the decline into the woods enclosing the outer perimeter of the village. Laying on the ground in a daze it was Short Stuff's turn to crawl over and slap me into awareness, her face and night robe caked with earth and scratched everywhere.

I stood as waves of dizziness washed over me while Short Stuff tugged at my sleeve insistently. Oh so now she suddenly decided to live? Would have helped if she made up her mind earlier.

Briefly glancing at the plateau I could see the two formless mass swaying unsteadily there, as if unsure if they would survive the fall. Without warning they suddenly merged into a single mass with a sloppy slush and began pouring down the plateau like oil, reforming bit by bit below the drop. I grabbed Short Stuff's hand again and this time she made no resistance as we both bolted into the woods, following a rough estimate of where the village laid. I had to reach that well that Byakuren had talked about. It doesn't seem like hiding in some empty houses would deter these monstrosities.

The woods were rather sparse but navigating it with a child in tow made it difficult. There was no sign of the village yet after a few minutes and the all too familiar sense of growing cold behind my back told me the fiends were in pursuit now. Occasionally I glanced back to see bushes and trees smashed by something black leaping towards us, jumping amongst the greenery like a springing coil. Whatever they had merged and reformed into, it was a lot faster than the hulking shadows they had been up on the plateau. I quickened my run and Short Stuff struggled to keep up breathlessly.

Still, there was no sign of the village as we ran and ran, strength slowly sapping from our exertions. Within the space of a few more minutes Short Stuff could no longer keep up with my pace, her young body almost giving out in the face of such tremendous stress. She stumbled twice and crashed to the ground once, only to be dragged back on her feet by me frantically as we resumed our escape.

It was gaining now, suddenly picking up speed now that it was aware we were tired. I suddenly realized the reason why we couldn't find the village was because the thing had purposefully steered us in the wrong direction with its carefully guided chase, always ensuring we were just slightly out of reach and giving us the false hope that we were keeping our distance as it herded us away from the village. It would seem these things weren’t just crude monsters or random youkai. They possessed a cold, calculating intelligence as well as the probable ability to take on whatever form best suited for reaching their goals.

I cursed myself for falling so easily to its ploy. Now that we were well lost and far from the village it would pounce on us in a few more explosive leaps. With a final burst of strength from a well of desperation within me I pulled Short Stuff along deeper into the twilight greenery, with nothing else left in mind except to run and run and run.

Even I was losing my footing now, feet feeling like lead and lungs unable to draw in the air I needed. Short Stuff no longer seemed conscious of the fact that we were running for our lives. She was fully occupied with taking one step after another and had slowed down considerably. My painful grip on her hand had probably gone unnoticed in her suffering. I thought about leaving her again but slapped the idea from my head. It was a bit too late for that and I doubted even I could escape the fiends by myself now.

It would happen soon, I thought. The cold was growing into the same sort of frostbitten sensation I had experienced earlier at the temple and I expected my muscles to freeze involuntarily at any moment now. Whoever or whatever broke me free from their paralysis was no longer helping Mindlessly, I pleaded to a random god for some divine assistance. I'll become your shrine maiden or priestess or whatever, just get me the hell out of here.

As if in answer to my prayers something new burst into the foliage of the trees and abducted me in one fell swoop, matching my running speed and clasping my waist as it lifted me into the...

Air. I thought in disbelief. My feet no longer touched the ground now; something held me aloft as it sped amongst the trees, zigzagging with immense speed while I dangled in its grasp helplessly, looking for an opening it could break through into the skies. Whatever it was it was helping me escape my hunter as it hurriedly carried me away in the opposite direction of the fiend’s pursuit.

'Wait!' I screamed over the din of cracking branches as I realized I had lost my grip on Short Stuff. 'The kid...!'

'Don't worry, Momizi's got her. Hold still, we're going up!'

'Heads up, impact!' the voice cried in delight as we rammed into a patch of foliage. I brought up both arms to shield my face reflexively as we tore through the leaves and branches into the clear night sky, bits of wood and greenery biting into my skin as we burst through the foliage like dolphins breaking through a foaming sea.

I looked around frantically for Short Stuff and saw another silhouette rip through the trees; cradling another figure I hoped would be Short Stuff. My benefactor looked at them briefly before resuming the flight. My relief was short-lived as the hopping shadow followed suit bled through the trees in a new form, streams of shadows looking like gliding rolls of silk in the night as it took flight itself and made a beeline towards us.

'It's gaining on us!' I shouted into the night wind as my partner turned back to take a look.

'Bah, nothing’s faster than me in Gensokyo. Momizi, break off and head back with the girl. I'll get that thing's attention.'

The silhouette flying close to us obliged and went higher into the air. Strands of the shadows broke off in response to give pursuit.

‘Hang tight, we're picking up speeeeeeeeeed!'

Speed up we did as we made a sharp bank back towards the shadows. Despite my litany of protests that went mostly unheard in the roaring winds of our suicide rush we continued on a collision course with the inky blackness. The distance between us and the thing rapidly closed and I almost cringed as the tendrils of depthless black reached out towards us, the segments which had started to pursue Short Stuff and her benefactor arcing back towards us.

Without warning we made a sharp climb that almost blacked me out from the force of gravity and the flowing mass harmlessly ripped through the space we had been scant moments ago. The entire mass of black now flowed in our direction and my partner sped off the opposite way, gaining another burst of speed that continued to greatly widen the distance between us and the thing by the seconds. It tried to keep up, constantly reforming into something new that might give it an edge in sailing through the night sky but it was defeated by its own mass this time, unable to bring about the same sort of blinding speed we were in. I wheezed audibly, unused to the act of breathing during such an unprotected flight at such velocities.

We flew for a long time after that, the black speck in the distance finally faded into nothing as it gave up its pursuit and I got the chance to momentarily enjoy the sensation of unguided flight with a relieved sigh. Trees, hills and grassland zoomed past below us and I got the feeling I finally understood what Flynn had been chasing after all these years. This feeling of freedom and unrestricted space was clearly an experience normal people would never be able to comprehend, especially those confined in the tight space of a plane's cockpit or an airbus. I heaved another sigh of relief mixed with exhaustion. I never want to run like that ever again.

Abruptly we ground to a halt in midair as my rescuer checked the horizon behind us for the thing. Satisfied that we had outrun the monstrosity, my partner finally took the time to greet me.

Looking downwards at me I looked up at my savior at the same time.

A familiar looking face greeted me with a smile, 'Hey there, I'm...' which quickly turned into a frown.

'...Aya?' I finished her introduction timidly.

The frown turned into an expression of utter confusion, but it only took a moment to mutate into a mask of rage. I seemed to recall the exact thing happening with Screeches, except this time I was in no position to subdue her. Here we go again, I sighed.

Without warning she made a sudden ascent, bringing both of us further up into the night sky. The rapidly declining trees below me warned me about what Aya was planning on doing. She was going to drop me, and she was ascending to an altitude where she was sure I would die from the fall.

Desperately I screamed at her even as we went higher and higher, ‘Whoa whoa whoa hey wait WAIT! I can explain!’ That stopped her momentarily.

‘I don’t know how you could possibly still be alive, but it’s time to rectify that. Again,’ she replied coldly.

'...Uh...' I began, just as she released her grip on me.

The last thing I saw was her suspended form in mid-air framed by the real moon, looking at me as I crashed into the trees below painfully after what had seemed to be an endless fall.
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Something didn’t feel right with my body. As I tried to sit or move I realized nothing was right with my body. A torrent of vomit filled my mouth in a flash flood and I coughed it up as my senses recovered enough for me to open my eyes.

Light broke through some leaves overhead and the usual trees encompassed my view. Directly on top of me a rough hole of sorts went all the way through the foliage and I could see the sky beyond it. Last night’s events came back in a rush and involuntarily I tried to turn, get up, and run but a pain beyond reckoning rooted me to the same spot. Somehow, the trees had broken my fall enough for me to survive the immense drop but it didn’t look like it was going to help for much longer.

I felt my gorge rise again and I threw up a second time, only to realize it wasn’t vomit I was expelling; it was blood. Red, red blood I thought dimly as I coughed some more of it. Precious lifeblood escaping my body from some internal injury and it wasn’t stopping, I realized dimly.

A figure stood alone on a tree branch against the dayglow from above, watching me dispassionately. My heart lurched, fairly sure that it was a youkai coming to feed on some free, helpless food. Suddenly I wished I had died from the fall already, as it hopped off of the branch and drifted down slowly on translucent wings of blue, scintillating in the light as they waved gently.

‘Still sleeping in weird places? You should find a better bed sometime.’ Blue was the only word I could use to describe her now. Hold on, I’ve seen her a few days before. I blinked a few times against the glare amplified by her wings. It was Ice Cubes.

It felt like déjà vu; she had found me in an almost-dead condition and our second meeting wasn’t exactly an improvement. I was about to speak when another torrent of coughs brought forth a new fountain of blood.

‘Shush, shush. Try not to talk,’ she chided. She knelt next to me and looked right into my eyes for a moment. I saw it then; a glint of intelligence and a measure of cunning that quickly disappeared as she looked down at my legs. ‘It’s a miracle you’re still living after that fall. You have a compound fracture on your left leg and your right leg looks like it was twisted out of its socket.’ She felt around my ribs and lances of pain shot through me, prompting me to protest in the form of another bloody cough. ‘Broken ribs, I hope you don’t have a bone fragment piercing your lung seeing all that blood you’re throwing up. Best not to move too much if so; it’s the only thing keeping you from drowning in your own blood.’ Finally feeling up my arms she laughed as she remarked, ‘Right arm looks okay, but your left would also need a reset. I won’t envy not being you when a doctor starts to work on you now.’

No shit, Sherlock. And since when did generic fairies come equipped with so much Western medical knowledge? I tried to bring up my right hand to grab her like some sort of desperate link to a life that was quickly ebbing away but the only thing I succeeded in doing was bringing about more pain as contact with her arm seared my hand with extreme cold and I dropped it uselessly.

‘I know right? Ouch. You should be careful where you choose to touch me. I don’t warm up every part of my body when I go around feeling other people up,’ she chided me snidely.

One of these days I’m going to come looking for you with a flamethrower, I thought in pain. But I needed her help desperately. I was dying and I doubt I could live past noon today with the state my body was in. I didn’t want to see the hell that was waiting for me so soon, but what could she do for me? I tried to speak through the coagulating blood in my mouth and managed to mumble a painful, ‘Help me.’ Racking coughs tore through my body as a reward for my persistence. I wouldn’t even live until noon at this point.

‘Oh that’s a given. You see, you’ve suddenly become very important to a certain someone. We’ve decided we need you around a bit longer. You foolishly bonded with the child, and that will be your undoing. We could have let you die in peace here but I’m afraid we’re going to have to put you through some more suffering in the days to come,’ she rattled innocently while tapping her chin idly with a finger. She looked back at me; suddenly serious with an expression that belied her seeming stupidity in the earlier days I had met her, betraying the fact that it was merely an act at that time.

‘Bear me no grudge. I have as little choice as you do in the matter. But we need you now that Byakuren is gone,’ she spoke softly in my face. Her expression turned grim as she hissed, ‘She might have been foolishly mistaken when she entrusted you with her child. I saw you last night; saw that you were ready to abandon that child without hesitation to save your own skin. I don’t know what made you decide otherwise but it was a wise move. Much, much worse things than those specters would have gotten to you if you had run away without her, mark my words.’

I felt intimidated. I truly did. Despite looking like a mere girl she carried an air of dangerous maturity now and I suddenly realized it wasn’t so far from the truth. Fairies were supposed to live long like youkai and she would not be an exception. She could probably be as old as Screeches for all I knew. It would take very little effort for her to kill me now; all she needed to do was freeze my eyeballs and push them into my soft brain. Grabbing my neck she hammered me against the ground as she emphasized her every word with an additional pounding, ‘Do-we-have-an-understanding?‘ I tried to nod a few times to indicate I understood and she backed off with a satisfied smile.

‘You see? That wasn’t so bad. All we needed was a little understanding,’ she smirked. ‘I want you to do a few things after I send you back to the village. First, go back to the temple and look for Byakuren’s journal but do not bring anyone with you. Second, I want you to decide what you should do once you’ve gone through her journal. Either you choose to help us, or we make you help us, simple as that. Third, go retrieve the child. The individuals who have her now are not to be trusted despite what you may think or how they might come off as to you. I will be around to tell you where she is when the time comes.’

Send me back to the village? I could care less for what she wanted me to do. All I had on my mind right now was how she was going to transport me to a village that was probably dozens of miles away by now considering the distance I covered with that bitch Aya the previous night without dying from the shock of movement or dying before I could even get halfway there. My blank stare at Ice Cubes told her clearly what I was thinking.

‘Oh you’re hopeless. Even at a time like this all you can think about is your own skin. Very well. You needn’t worry about getting back in one piece. I got that covered and I assure you it’ll be as painless as it’ll get. You won’t even realize you’re moving and we’ll get there with plenty of time to spare before you bleed to death,’ she remarked.

‘How?’ I coughed up another word. I hope she didn’t have something outlandish like teleportation up her sleeve and I wasn’t keen on the thought of dangling from one arm as she brought me flying back to the village. I had enough of flying to last a lifetime after the events last night.

‘Why, I freeze you into a big ball and roll you there of course! You remember the frogs? Now I get to try it out on a human. That’s going to be exciting; I never tried it on a living person before. Hopefully you’ll still be half-dead when you thaw out rather than dead-cold.’ She laughed.

I gulped. The frogs came back into mind, with their terrified stare as they realized their icy doom had come for them. And what on earth, roll me around in the jungle frozen in a ball of ice? Where did all that menace and intelligence of hers went to? I wanted nothing more than to spit a mouthful of blood at her now but as stupid as it sounds, I realized it was a plausible way of keeping me alive. What she wanted to do was not too different from cryonics; the freezing and thawing of a human without any ill effects. Her flimsy figure probably couldn’t handle flying with the weight of my body plus the ice I would be entombed in, thus the sickening notion of rolling me around in a ball of ice. I gave her a single painful nod as a final mark of my submission.

She clasped her hands together happily. ‘Good, we’re in an agreement. So, ready for some fun?’ she giggled.

‘…will… make… you… p-pay…’ was all I could force out before my throat constricted involuntarily.

The threat didn’t faze her in the least. She gave a nonchalant reply, ‘I’m sure you would. Eeeeeeeveryone wants to get back at each other whenever they get the chance, don’t you agree? You will come to realize soon enough, however distasteful it might become, that we’re the lesser evil here. Enough chitchat now. Your little hourglass is rapidly running out of sand. Ready to get wet? Ha, get it? Wet. Heehee.’

Do your worst, Ice Cubes. Once I’m done with the flamethrower I’m going to find some way to throw you out of Gensokyo and into that scorching hell of Outside. We’ll see how you like the oven then, I thought darkly as I closed my eyes in preparation, resigned to my fate for now.

A feeling of cold permeated everything as I shivered involuntarily. The pain everywhere was quickly being replaced with a numbness preceded by an even more intense pain. She was freezing me far too quickly, I realized. Even as the icy coldness enclosed my head my brain almost screamed out on its own from the prickling needles of pain shooting into every corner of my wrecked body, teasing nerve after nerve with unending jabs. I heard a happy humming even as my brain started to freeze over.

Scant moments before I lost the ability to even think, I swore to myself I would return the snide fairy a good measure of the suffering she had wrought upon me someday.
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“They who fight with monsters should take care, lest they become monsters themselves.”

-Airi, 10th Child of Miare (Old Hunter’s proverb)

She hummed to herself happily as she continued to roll the ball of ice. It was rather well done, she thought to herself. Perfectly round and catching the light just in the right angles. The only flaw with her masterpiece was the frozen figure within the orb of frost, limbs misshapen and arms flung out in odd angles. The grimace on the figure’s distorted face told a story of pain and suffering beyond ken.

The hard part was basically done. She was finally clear of the trees and had reached the river with minimal fuss, except for the few times she had to push and kick the ball of ice free from getting wedged between trees. Now it would be a milk run all the way back to the village. Stepping gingerly onto the clear, flowing water which instantly froze over she gave one last push on the orb, tipping it over the water-smoothed rocks on the riverbank and onto the small iceberg that had formed around her.

Nudging the riverbank with one foot she slowly pushed the patch of ice free from its mooring and hopped lightly onto the orb, sitting on it with a satisfied sigh. It would take a few hours to drift downstream towards the general vicinity of the human village with her little prisoner. She wasn’t entirely sure how she would return the popsicle to the humans without coming into contact with them and gave an uncaring shrug. A plan is bound to come up sooner or later during the boring trip.
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“I had a whole kingdom, but I gave it all to my conqueror. What use would a kingdom have for a goddess who couldn’t even protect her children? ’
Suwako (Chronicles of a Fallen Deity)

The day was drawing to a close and it was time to close the place up. Business had been horrible for his dilapidated store today and he had spent a good portion of the day doing nothing but throwing pebbles at the occasional rat that happened to scurry into his wrath. He thought glumly about the family store and how he would remodel the place if only his parents would just let him tear it down. Just because it held sentimental values doesn’t mean it should stay like a moldy shack for the rest of eternity.

Flicking another pebble with an idle thumb he heard the characteristic rustling of another intruder seeking to make a meal out of his goods. It would seem one last vermin needed a pebble flung at it before he closed his shop. Time to punish the rodent; he thought to himself as he drew another pebble from the pile on the counter. Peering into the gloom he tried to pick out any signs of movement as he fingered the rock with relish.

Something didn’t seem right. More and more of the rustling sound permeated the silence and as it grew increasingly louder and he felt a sudden urge to retreat. Whatever rat it was it must be huge to be able to generate such a ruckus. Grabbing the pole that held up his folding screen-door he turned to face the source of the noise even as he kept up his gradual retreat from it as the noise increased its din, gripping his makeshift weapon cautiously while he backed away.

In an ear-deafening crash the rear walls of his store caved inwards from the force of something impacting it while flattening a good portion of the place as it continued to roll to a stop. It ground to a halt just as it crashed into the counter a mere few steps away from him. Hesitating for a moment, he took a few steps forward to inspect the boulder that had run parts of his shop to the ground and gasped in horror. What looked like the corpse of a girl was encased in the boulder he realized was made entirely out of ice. Her features were hard to make out through the refraction of the ice and the falling gloom didn’t help one but, but it looked like she wore a typical yukata a villager would.

He was filled with pity as he inspected the carnage. One bone jutted out from her leg and the look on her face told him that she had undergone unimaginable torment before dying. Some youkai had apparently had their fun with her and froze her in a boulder of ice before sending it rolling down the hill behind his store. Was this some perverted idea of a joke on their behest? He shook his head and started to pull the fragmented boulder outside. He would get some of his friends to help tug the thing close to a bonfire and give her a proper funeral come the morning. It was the least he could do for the poor soul.
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“When the sun first vanished from our skies we were afraid. Fearful of the eternal night that would give the youkai a permanent reign on the surface and thus, we dug deep. We hid within the earth’s cold embrace.”

Old Six Fingers (salvaged diary of a historian)

‘Will she live?’ Flynn asked with apprehension as he paced worriedly around the wooden bed.

The bespectacled figure stared hard at the body he had labored so much to save. ‘I don’t know, that’s up to her now. It’s a bloody miracle she showed signs of life after thawing out. They were planning to leave her out there overnight before burying her in the morning you know.’ Wiping his hands with some clean rags he would continue to wonder how the frail figure could survive with injuries that would have killed a grown man ten times over. ‘It’s a good thing they heard her cough once before they left for the tunnels. Took six men to carry her here from what I heard.’

Dragging an old stool out he took a seat, grateful at last to be able to get some rest after patching up the seemingly-mangled body. He gave Flynn a sideway glance, ‘Let me tell you something young man. I’ve been a healer for over forty odd years and I’ve seen plenty of deaths, much less injuries. The only people who would continue to force themselves to live after something like this are people who have the tenacity of demons or someone who greatly fears death.’ Letting his gaze wander back to the barely-breathing girl on the bed he added, ‘I’d wager your little friend here falls into the latter group. She looks far too young to have the willpower to endure this sort of abuse.’

Flynn took a seat himself next to the bed, looking at the still figure on the bed. Brushing the ragged hair that fell across her face with one gentle hand he caressed her face slightly, her skin was so cold she could easily pass off as a corpse at this point.

He had been as curious as everyone else when news of the dead returning to life spread quickly through the underground grotto where they had built their second village to spend the twilight hours. The shock of recognition had left him rooted on the spot as he watched the healer working on resetting her fracture and twisting her limbs back into their sockets with sickening popping sounds. He was glad for the fact that the girl was probably somewhere very far away from all the pain to be able to feel the old man’s ministrations.
Whatever had happened to her? A few days ago she seemed to be just fine along with the residents of the temple on the plateau. Now it looked like she had been the subject of a youkai game of Tag with the usual violent outcome. He felt infinitely sorry for her. After being in here for only a few days it would look like she wouldn’t be able to survive to see the next day. He had thought that she would find a new life in here and was genuinely happy to have met her. She had rekindled his passion for flying with her stories and he wanted her to be able to watch his maiden flight.

He became aware of another figure that came to stand by his side. A quick glance to the left brought the Child of Miare into his view. She stared at the corpse-like figure dispassionately for long moments and Flynn went back to staring at the ground uncomfortably. Why was she here, he wondered as he twiddled his thumbs.

The Child of Miare walked off without a single word, as silent as she had been when she came earlier. Flynn looked at the chronicler as she disappeared into an adjacent tunnel of the underground grotto, back to the residential burrows. The healer had fallen asleep sitting upright, probably wanting to catch whatever sleep he could before he had to wake up to deal with the girl or her corpse if things didn’t go well for her beyond the night.

Looking up at the crystalline stalactites that caught and reflected candle light like chandeliers he reckoned it would be well past midnight by now. He would come again during the following Exodus to see if she still lived. He could only pray she would.
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I hung on a thin thread. That was the only description I could possibly give if anyone had asked me what it had felt like. The void had neither a sense of time nor presence. The only thing that made me aware of the passage of time was my desperate grip on that single gold thread. Something told me that if I let go I would be gone from the world and well on the way to the fields of judgment. I feared that, I hung onto the fragile strand and I kept my grip on it no matter what the voices whispered to me.

Occasionally I would hear disembodied voices from somewhere, mostly unrecognizable, but sometimes a familiar one would be heard discussing about something. I caught bits and pieces of it but never really remembered it past the space of a few seconds. Gradual stabilization. Healing wounds. A foul stench. The Exodus. The grotto. Someone’s dinner menu. Voices of children playing. Occasional twinges of pain. A sweet aria from some flute. Someone dripping water into my mouth. Bad poetry.The sensation of being wiped with clean linen.

They comforted me whenever they drifted into the void of nothingness, telling me that I was somehow still alive and so I continued to hold onto the thread. I swore I would fight Death itself if it came to claim me. No, it would not have me easily. I would resist with everything I could muster in my dismal state.

Eventually I let go of the thread after another period of infinity, not through a conscious effort but rather, the sensation that I had been holding onto it for far too long and the time was finally right to crawl out from the void permeated my every sense.

Blinding light assaulted my pupils even before I had my eyes fully open and I closed them again. I heard someone stir near me and I tried to open my eyes again, giving them time to adjust to the brightness before trying to focus them on anything. Things slowly came into focus as the glare dimmed into a soft glow and I found myself staring up at what looked like crystalline growths on a rocky ceiling.

The sound of rustling clothes came from the side and I turned my head to look at the source. My heart constricted and I panicked as I realized Screeches was sitting on a chair next to my bed, staring at me impassively. I groped around with my other hand, looking for something to defend myself with or at least, get in a pre-emptive strike before she could murder me or something.

Screeches made no attempt at stopping me. She looked briefly at my frantic hands searching around and gave them no more than a passing thought as she looked back at me. Instead, she spoke for the first time, ‘Welcome back from the dead, onee-chan.’

I had no idea what she was planning on doing, but I realized I was in no position to resist her. Even if I had the strength to do so she had an entire village backing her up and something told me I wouldn’t even be able to fight a baby with my body now as it is. Returning her stare with an expression that signified ultimate submission I went back to looking at the pretty glowing rock on the ceiling.

‘Want some water?’ she asked emotionlessly. Without waiting for a reply she got up and poured water from a small pitcher on a table and returned to me with a filled cup. One silky hand held the cup out to me and she waited to see what I would do.

I tried to push myself up into a sitting position and could only get it right after my fourth attempt. Throughout the entire time Screeches made no effort to assist me but merely held onto the cup of water impassively. I made no attempt at accepting the cup as I gave it a suspicious glance.

‘It’s not poisoned if that’s what you were thinking. Believe me if I had wanted to kill you I’ve had plenty of opportunity to do that during the last three weeks you’ve been lying here,’ she remarked neutrally as she set the cup down on the bed stand and resumed her seat. ‘Although to be completely honest with you, I had thought about it a few times.’

Taking the cup I drank gleefully from it before vomiting out most of it again. Screeches gave me a look of annoyance and sighed as she took the cup to refill it once more. ‘Take it slow. You’ll just throw it all up again if you drink it in one go. Your gorges need time to wake up just as you do.’ Returning to her seat she held the cup out to me again.

Why was she suddenly being so nice to me? I tried to fathom her motives but nothing really made sense. Taking the second cup without a word I drank slowly this time, feeling the rejuvenating liquid flow down my dry throat in a substantial amount for the first time in weeks. Expelling a small sigh I leaned against the stacked pillows and closed my eyes. ‘Why?’ I asked simply.

‘Why didn’t I do it? Why did I let you lie here and heal in peace? Why did I come to watch your near-dead body so many times? I don’t know. It doesn’t mean that I’ve forgiven you.’ She stood and straightened out her kimono a bit before sitting back down. ‘At first, I had been elated when they found you near death. I came every night hoping to see you would breathe your last. I was overjoyed to see that you would soon pay for your sins against us. I wanted to plunge a pike again and again into your still chest after you died to return you all the pain you had brought us.’

Deep down, I flinched at the vitriol of her words. So not only did she remember after all this time but the years had done nothing but magnify her hate for me. ‘Must be disappointed that I still live,’ I remarked weakly.

Screeches didn’t reply, remaining still as she looked off into nothingness. Likewise I chose to remain silent, hoping she would go away soon. But she spoke in a hushed tone after what seemed like hours of silence, ‘A little fairy came to me. She told me a weird story. Want to hear it?’

My silence told her I didn’t want to but she went on nevertheless. ‘She told me a strange tale of shadows, of the death of a nun, and a child who was saved by someone who held so little regard for the lives of others. Isn’t it interesting?’ She leaned closer. ‘I went up to the temple to look for Byakuren that day. I saw how the place had been wrecked and there was no sign of the Hakurei child. We couldn’t find Byakuren’s body either. What happened there?’ she asked with a hard edge in her voice.

Little fairy? Words could not describe how I would love to get my hands on her right now. ‘Oh gee, I don’t know. I think I just got hungry and ate them both. You know how it is. All they ever served was vegetarian food and I wanted some meat so I tore the place up with my incredible strength bare handedly and cannibalized them,’ I replied sarcastically.

That brought a genuine smile to her face. ‘Never outgrew that smart-aleck mouth too, onee-chan.’ Growing serious again she went on, ‘Yes, we couldn’t find either of them. But the little fairy was right, wasn’t she? It might’ve been too late for Byakuren but did you really help the Hakurei child?’ She peered at me curiously now.

I stared back at her. ‘I did. So? What’s it to you? Why is everyone so interested in the kid?’

Screeches gave a small shrug. ‘I don’t know. I really don’t know about a lot of things despite people calling me a “chronicler”. There are hundred year gaps between my reincarnations. You don’t expect me to be able to learn about them by waving a magic stick do you?’ She stretched and relaxed on the arm rests briefly. ‘But I was truly surprised. If I knew you any better I’d have bet on you abandoning the child when whatever it was that assaulted the temple went on their rampaging spree. That made me realize you’ve changed somewhat after all this time.’ Falling silent for a bit she added, ‘Who knows, maybe even Keine would be able to find it in her heart to forgive you, wherever she is now.’

I continued to ignore her cold stare. Not that it would matter much but I muttered it anyway, ‘Still don’t believe me? I told you I didn’t kill her.’

‘I saw you with that bloody scythe. Her blood was all over you. You tell me what to believe,’ she responded, a hint of emotion creeping into her voice.

Slowly I glanced back at her, my voice steadying and hardening against the heat of her growing hostility. ‘Do you remember the story about the woman named Pandora I had told you before?’

‘What has that got to do with Keine?’ she replied with an exasperated air.

I went on regardless, ‘It was said Pandora was a woman who succumbed to the lure of curiosity and she opened a box gifted by the Grecan gods who told her explicitly not to open it. As a result of her foolishness she unleashed all of the world’s evils when she opened the box. That fabricated legend is not true, for it draws its roots from a far older legend during the time of the elder gods. The true Pandora’s Box was a tool the elders forged to retain the accumulated knowledge of the ancient deities when they realized they were dying out from their conflict, but using it comes with a terrible price. Those foolish enough to draw knowledge from the chest would be henceforth cursed to murder all the people they loved or would come to love as coinage for the exchange, for the high price of knowledge can only be balanced with the precious value of life itself. Do you understand what I’m saying?’

There was a glimmer of understanding in her eyes. ‘Are you saying you were Pandora?’

I looked away as I explained. ‘A very long time ago I tried to use the chest to attain the knowledge of true immortality. I had nothing to lose. I loved no one and I had thought that such human emotions had long ago burned themselves out within my soul. I thought it would save me from the damnation upon death I had been promised, but I had been lied to. Pandora’s Box was nothing but a cruel joke the fickle deities of old had dropped onto their mortal worshippers as a final reward for their failures during the twilight of the gods. There was no fountain of knowledge secreted within the box. There was only death, very true and terrible. And so I opened it. And so I was also cursed.’

Screeches’s face held nothing but a grim expression now. ‘Why did it have to be Keine?’

‘She could read the history of a person, Screeches. I was like an open book to her. Once she found out about my true nature and my folly in the past she tried to protect you from the accursed price. You and I had been getting a little too close before I became aware of it and she tried to save you by consuming that part of my past. Whatever she tried that night, it backfired and she had inadvertently claimed that part of my history for her own and thus, she had become the second Pandora. What do you think would have happened if I let her be? She was about to start slaughtering the villagers. Killing her beloved children who attended her school. Even you.’

I prodded at the blankets to see if my feet would hurt when I touched them. Nothing much except slight stinging sensations so I finished the last part of my pathetic little story that was sure to displease Screeches. I told her the truth that night. ‘And so, I did the only thing I could to help her. I wrestled Pandora’s Thirst away from her and loped her head off before she could start on her lust-induced campaign of genocide.’

She shot to her feet and shouted at me accusingly in a trembling voice. ‘You killed her all the same! You could’ve found some way to save her but you never tried, did you!?’

I glared back at her coldly. ‘I saved her from slaughtering everyone she loved. Saved her from a damnation she would never be able to recover from. And no, it was the only way. You think I wouldn’t know? I was the box’s first victim, fool. Could you have done the same for her? Or would you just stand by and watch dumbly as she proceeded to slaughter everyone she knew while she cried pitifully and begged you to stop her with every man, woman, and child she felled in her curse-induced rampage? The very same people she had loved to live with and had sworn to protect, the joyful children who treated her like a mother and the women who thought of her as a daughter they never had.’

She made no reply as she collapsed onto the side of my bed, anger and ennui gradually seeping out of her as she cried all the tears she had held back since Keine’s death. Centuries of repressed sadness burst forth from the emotional dam she had slowly built over the years and she wept freely now, sobbing for someone she would never be able to see again and for the lost sisterhood we had shared. I looked away from the pitiful sight, closing my eyes as I did.

I spoke softly as her sobs died down to small whimpers, ‘Do you understand now? All I tried to do was to save her, even if it meant killing her. She would rather kill herself than harm those she had come to call family even though she had a dual heritage of human and youkai. I made the choice she couldn’t. I took her life. Murdered her in cold blood when all she tried to do was help you and me, Screeches. Noble intentions rewarded with an ignoble, premature death. That was the old gods’ way of punishing me for escaping their insidious joke of a curse. One last death of the one I could love before I would be freed from the box’s legacy.’

Absent-mindedly, I patted the whimpering head still crying face-down on my bed. ‘You spoke of how I had taken Keine’s life without regard or reason. But don’t you know? We both felt the same way about her. This was why everyone in the village loved her. She had a pure heart and a noble character I could never hope to match, tainted as I am. I never wanted to hurt her but I’m afraid fate’s cruel hand never gives us the luxury of a choice when she chooses to act. ’

She gripped my hand in a sudden movement, startling me and I reflexively grabbed the pitcher on the bed stand, ready to bring it crashing down on her head if she tried anything funny. As she continued to whimper into the bed I realized she just wanted to reassure herself that someone was close to her now during this moment of weakness and I let her grasp the withered hand without another word. Slipping back down into a prone position, I shut my weary eyes and sleep came for me within seconds.


In the darkened hallway outside the healing warrens, a silent figure padded away, having inadvertently heard everything when he had come to check on the recuperating patient as he usually did during these hours.

He was going to have a hard time sleeping tonight, thought Flynn.
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Inhaling the cool air of a new dawn gratefully I hobbled around the spacious exit of the underground grotto, feeling good just to be able to move around on my own again after spending what seemed like weeks on that god-forsaken bed. I had to admire the job the villagers did with the grotto, which they had named Hakumei Kubochi, or Twilight Hollow. A modern comparison of the place, though rough, would make this place similar to an arcology; self-contained and self-sustaining. The underground river running through the grotto provided all the water they could ever want as well as irrigating the patches of mushroom and moss fields they sometimes used for food.

The villagers had, over the years, painstakingly carved out huge segments of earth from the grotto to house an increasingly bigger number of residents and although crude, they served well enough as temporary homes. Illumination was provided by the odd crystalline growths sprouting all over the ceiling of the grotto, amplifying the smallest glare of a candle into a brilliant rainbow of light as adjacent crystal stalactites caught the light and reflected it in a never-ending chain of illumination. At first it had been difficult to adjust to the light, which seemed to rob some things of their natural color but I had slowly gotten used to the dull hue on everything the artificial illumination cast its light on.

Cautiously I tried to shift my weight onto the foot they had reset my fracture during the earlier weeks. A stinging and burning sensation springing forth from the bones themselves told me they needed more time to heal before I could walk unsupported, but at least my other two limbs which had been twisted off more or less felt normal. Breathing still brought pain to my ribs every now and then but by now I had grown accustomed to the brief bouts of agony. I was grateful to still be alive.

Every now and then a villager would make his way out from the grotto back towards the village to attend to their daily business, giving me a respectful nod whenever they saw me lounging around the exit before continuing on. Stories about the living dead had spread like wildfire and pretty much the entire village knew about me now. I was uncomfortable about the fact that I was now a popular word-of-mouth but this time I didn’t think I had much to worry about. I was relatively sure Screeches no longer had any reason to turn the current villagers against me now that she knew what had really happened that night centuries ago.

As for little Screeches, her demeanor hadn’t changed much. After that night of confession she had came to visit me several times more but she had reassumed that rigid emotionless mask. Still, she didn’t look like she wanted to do me in anymore and I supposed that was an improvement at least. We had even less of a conversation after that but I could see that she had finally moved on from Keine’s death. A small part of her might still blame me for it but she had apparently been able to bury the matter and made her peace with me. One less threat I would have to worry about when my back was turned on her.

A voice hailed me from behind and Flynn came into the light of dawn carrying rolls of what looked like oiled paper or pressed starch. He was still his usual cheerful self whenever he came to talk with me but I caught an undertone of apprehension at times and he wouldn’t look at me much in the eyes during idle conversations. I had no idea what his problem was and couldn’t be bothered to figure it out anyway.

I gestured at the rolls of paper he had tucked under his arms. ‘Still planning on jumping down a cliff with those?’

He looked down at what he was carrying. ‘What? Oh. No. These are for making sliding doors. Some of the villagers had seen me carrying that wing for you the other day and they thought I made doors. Now I’m getting orders to make doors of all things.’ He rolled his eyes but grinned all the same. ‘I can’t complain I suppose. It’s good income.’

‘Good job. You’ll live a lot longer with your new career you know.’

‘Aw, there you go again. It doesn’t mean I’ve given up on flying. I still plan to take the trial glider out for a test.’ He glanced down at the paper he carried. ‘… as soon as I’m finished with these stupid orders.’

‘Well don’t let me get in your way Mr Doorman.’ I waved him away as I sat down on one of the stone benches carved out from the walls of the grotto.

He frowned slightly. ‘I have to get back to work, but you should get more rest until that leg patches itself up. You still look pretty pale anyway.’

‘I’ve been tied to a bed for weeks. The last thing I want to do now is go back to it,’ I scoffed. ‘Don’t mind me. Carry on. We can talk all you like once you come back during this evening’s Exodus.’ I didn’t mean it of course. I just wanted him to stop bothering me for now.

‘Uh well... bye then. I’ll come see you again later.’ He finally moved off and joined the rest of the late crew just coming out from the grotto milling back into the village. Within minutes the last of the stragglers had hurriedly rushed past me and I was finally left all alone, enjoying my moment of peace and quiet.

‘Enjoying a moment of peace and quiet?’ came a dreaded voice. I turned to look around but could find no one near me.

‘Up here froggy.’ Shifting my gaze I saw at last the source of the voice I had come to loathe. The fairy in blue was lying upside down on top of the mouth of the grotto’s entrance, the other half of her body poking into my view as she slightly slid downwards towards the ground.

I might be partially disabled this time but I had a good crutch lying next to me. Careful to keep my hand hidden away from her view as she continued to stare I felt for the bamboo crutch and grasped the article, slowly pulling it to my side even as she looked at me impassively. This time I wouldn’t be completely defenseless.

She saw it anyway. ‘Bamboo sticks don’t exactly make for great weapons, froggy. At any rate, I’m not here to play with you, just wanted to check on you.’ She crossed her arms, still suspended upside down. ‘Not bad. You make a great froggy after all. At least I know it works on humans now too.’

‘Go away. I don’t want anything to do with you,’ I muttered.

‘What’s that? Oh no, no, no that won’t do. Surely you haven’t forgotten our little chat that day. I saved you and now you owe me a favor, froggy. An eye for an eye, that’s what you humans always say isn’t it?’ she smirked.

Did she mean Byakuren’s journal and Short Stuff? I had never even thought about them during my period of recuperation. To be honest, the thought never crossed my mind a single time after I found out I was still alive. I felt a bit guilty as she continued to babble her nonsense.

‘Now that you’re all fine and dandy it’s time to get to work, my little froggy. I’ve been patient enough as it is already. I hate waiting.’ She added with a screech, ‘ESPECIALLY FOR A FEW WEEKS!’ Calming down, she continued, ‘Now go look for that book before I have to resort to something nasty again, like freezing your intestines or brain in your sleep.’

Swallowing the lump of fear that formed in my throat I knew they weren’t just idle threats. She looked casual enough spouting her threats but I knew these things better than she suspected I did. Somehow, she was also anxious and desperate that I did what she told me to. I could recognize the hidden undercurrent of duress under her seemingly nonchalant exterior. As impossible as it may sound, it would look like she was in more trouble than even me at this point from whoever she was associated with. I might be able to turn this to my advantage if I knew more.

Her expression grew hard. ‘I’ve met that chronicler of yours, froggy. Told her a fun little story but she also told me a bit about you in exchange. I know, for some reason, you have a very real fear of death. Oh, don’t bother lying to me now. Despite how old I might look to you humans, I understand humans very well. You in particular, don’t fear death, but what lies beyond death, am I right?’ She grinned. ‘That day when I found you broken and dying in the forest, you clung to me like some lost child clinging to her mother. Near dead people don’t bother with such notions of staying alive anymore. They just want death to take away all the pain and suffering away as soon as possible. But you? No, even with three torn limbs, ripped ribs and a collapsing lung you hung onto me pathetically, not wanting to go to the afterlife that could ease your suffering. What lies there that frightens you so much, hmm?’

I wanted to shut her up but felt impotent in my current state. Seeing my helplessness, she continued to taunt me, ‘And that night at the temple. When They came for you, you would rather save your own hide than take the Hakurei child with you. I wonder why, hmm? Did you believe saving her would get you killed? You were so desperate to run from that impending death you didn’t even think about just taking the child with you for the moment and leaving her elsewhere when you could. No, the only thought dominating your head that time was the notion to flee from death without any hindrance. Not even from the people who had found you and sheltered you, given you food and a new lease of life.’

‘Shut up!’ I hissed. ‘You know nothing about me!’

She gave a grin for that. ‘I know enough to threaten you with death if you don’t do as I say. I’m going to be honest with you. I’m tired of waiting and hiding in the fringes of this stupid human settlement. If I don’t see you going to the temple within the next three days I’m making sure you’ll see that afterlife you’re so keen on avoiding as soon as you sleep. Don’t even think about running away. I’ll be watching you closely.’ She scoffed at the thought. ‘There’s nowhere left for you to run to anyway.’

‘My eyes are on you,’ she giggled as she pulled herself up and disappeared from view.

I flung the crutch against the opposite wall in anger and swore silently. Whatever mess Byakuren had dragged me into, it had just turned into something far worse. Now I would have to doggedly avoid some random fairy who wanted to freeze my innards every time I decided to go to sleep. There would be no escape this time. No Outside to flee back to, no Byakuren around to fight off otherworldly horrors, and nothing but a tiny, insignificant, and unprotected village that would serve as my final refuge. I leaned against the cold grotto wall, energy draining out of me as I stared lifelessly at the cavern walls.

I spent long hours debating on what I should do as well as considering my available options but it looked bleak. Either I give in to the little fairy’s coercion or I would spend a very long time running and running from her. And she would live for a long time I was sure. The thought of constantly hiding from her, checking my back every single minute, and losing sleep for the next few centuries didn’t appeal to me. One way or another I would have to close my eyes and jump further into Byakuren’s mess. I decided I would just go and find that stupid journal for the moment. At least that would stop that icy abomination from breathing down my neck every opportunity she gets for a few days.

Crawling over to the crutch I had inconsiderately flung away, I picked it up and hobbled back into the healer’s warren, wanting to just sleep and forget about everything for the moment.
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Dawn the following day came again and I hobbled around in the same spot, wanting to exercise and get used to constant movement before I started back to the village and the climb up to the plateau where the partially ruined temple sat on. The night had been spent restlessly and I couldn’t get more than one or two hours of sleep at most. Waking up in a foul mood I didn’t bother with food or water as I went to the grotto’s entrance for my impending exercise.

The usual stream of villagers gave me a wide berth when they caught the expression on my face as I hobbled with them towards the exit. At least they were smart enough to leave me alone lest they earned a crutch swung into their faces. That might drop my popularity rating but I didn’t care; I was ready to lash out at anyone and anything in light of my injuries, hunger and thirst, lack of sleep, and Ice Cube’s threats the previous day. But at least one person wasn’t as smart as the other villagers.

Flynn caught up with me as he ran past the other villagers just starting out from their grotto homes. He was cheerful as usual as he greeted me with a grin, ‘Great day isn’t it?’

I gave him a look that told him it was anything but. I was being forced to climb a hill with a broken leg, wheezing lungs and half-shattered ribs to satisfy the whims of an ice fairy who wanted to kill me unless I read her precious book. I hoped he would catch the notion to leave me alone from the face I was wearing but he was apparently too thick to realize that as he continued to grin back at me. ‘Oh, just wonderful, my boy,’ I replied sarcastically.

‘It’s rare to see you up this early. Heading down to the village? Want to come to my workshop?’ he continued conversationally.

I resisted the overwhelming urge to swing the crutch into his grinning face. As annoying as Flynn might be, he was still a good person at heart, easily hurt and holding a kindness so similar to what Keine would have had. Heaving a little sigh inwards, I decided to just include him into the list of abuses I had no choice but to endure today. ‘The village. And the temple,’ I replied shortly before I could stop myself. Gritting my teeth in dismay I realized I had inadvertently disclosed where I was really headed for. Ice Cubes had specifically warned me to go alone. I dreaded what Flynn was going to say next and my fears came true.

He looked at me with concern as he continued to match my hobbled pace. ‘What? That’s going to be a long climb. You’re in no condition to manage that alone. Let me come with you.’

‘No,’ I replied immediately as I tried to think of a lie that would get him off of my back. ‘It’s something I have to do for myself. Those two gave me shelter when I had nothing to call my own. I have to see with my own eyes what happened to them.’ Was that really a lie, I wondered to myself. Perhaps a part of me truly was curious and I thought about Short Stuff. Was she fine now? Wherever she was now anyway.

Flynn looked unconvinced but he didn’t try to press the matter further. Something in my tone had brooked no argument and he understood. ‘Okay then. But I’ll be in my workshop. Come to me if you need help, hear?’

Nodding absent-mindedly I let him move on with the other villagers as I hung around the exit for my exercises. He gave me one last look of concern before walking away with a shake of his head. Sorry, Flynn, I thought to myself. This isn’t something he would want to be involved with. I would have to shoulder the burden myself, I thought with a groan. I just wanted peace and quiet, why must the gods continue to taunt me so?

In time I had started to make my way down to the village, crutch poking at the ground as I tried to adjust to my third leg. The return to the village was excruciatingly slow and I wondered if I would have enough time to manage the ensuing climb up to the temple before nightfall. I panicked momentarily as I thought about the things that had slaughtered Byakuren that night. Would any of them remain back in the temple? I tried to calm myself by reasoning that they would be long gone by now. Otherwise the villagers who occasionally went up to the temple would have reported the shadows.

Quickening my steps I settled into a rhythm of prodding the crutch on the ground and swinging forth for the next step. It felt a lot like riding a bicycle and once I got used to the pace it didn’t feel so bad. Progress became good and the pretty scenery down the path to the village swung by quickly. It only took roughly half an hour to get to the village in my condition. I guessed it would usually take a normal villager only ten minutes or so to make the trek. So their underground home was pretty close to the surface village after all.

The normal scene of the bustling village in daytime greeted me as I made my way past the village square. Most of the villagers would nod at me whenever I happened to walk past them. These people were sure friendly. A couple of days ago all I got from them were suspicious glances or ignorance. How quickly that had changed. I made no attempt at returning their greeting, fully occupied with maintaining a quick pace as I started down the path that led out to the village perimeter and up the hill to the plateau.

The ensuing climb had been harder than I thought it would be. No longer did my rhythmic pacing helped here; I had to make use of both the crutch and my good foot to brace myself for the next step of the climb and that quickly tired me out. As my hammering breaths pumped air in and out of my lungs with my exertions the pain in my chest grew worse and worse. I wanted to stop and take a short break but I didn’t want to lose any more time than I already had. I have to get back to the grotto before nightfall. With Byakuren gone I had no intentions of spending the night at the temple and possibly risk being visited by the liquid shadows.

At long last, after what had seemed like an endless climb, I cleared the lip of the plateau and wheezed in pain. Wobbling on the crutch I tried to fathom what the time was now, but unlike the villagers who had developed a biological precision in telling the time of the day I couldn’t say for sure how close I was to nightfall. Hurrying over to the entrance I resolved not to waste any more time and get the stupid task done so I could go back and recover from today’s pains.

The temple grounds had been blasted clean of debris from Byakuren’s onslaught. Carefully, I made my way past the little crater that Byakuren had died in. I realized I was stepping on some sort of hard silica as I made my way across it and I took a moment to look at the battleground in wonder. The earth had been mostly glassed over and trails of it extended out from beyond the hole. The energies she had summoned had been hot enough turn earth into glass. The small circle where she had turned into flames that night was essentially metallic. Her flames had been hot enough to vaporize even silicon and bonded the cocktail of iron left over into a metallic parabola of sorts.

I was not unfamiliar with danmaku but this was something going beyond raw power a youkai could summon. It proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that Byakuren had been very desperate when she fought these things to the point she spared no quarter when she tried to kill them. Very few of what the youkai called ‘spellcard duels’ escalated to these levels, if any. They never brought their full being into a fight and when one rarely does it was usually a mark that they were expending all their energies in an effort to survive, not win.

Or to protect someone… I thought about Byakuren.

Using the crutch I poked at the metallic ground, mulling about the loss of my good hostess. I never got the time to learn much about her and I suspected she would have preferred it that way. If we had more time to talk together we might have developed a friendship of sorts but it was too late for that now. Why did she ask me to bring Short Stuff to the village well? She could have just asked her to run to it directly. That would have eliminated all of Short Stuff’s hesitations that night. Did she saw something in me that suggested I would take care of her adopted daughter in case she wouldn’t live past the night?

I shook my head with a little smile. It would appear that she made a poor choice in her selection of the next guardian. I had no doubts that she would never even consider me if she knew even a fraction of the things about me. I spoke to the ground conversationally, ‘Sorry, lady. Things might’ve worked out better if you found someone else. Fate is cruel isn’t it? Of all the people that could have been, it was me you pulled out of the river that night.’

Only the glint of light off of the metal served as a reply of sorts. I chuckled to myself a bit as I scanned the area for her remains. Odd that there would be nothing left of Byakuren. I guessed the villagers would have properly buried her by now. Enough wasting time, I thought to myself. I started to make my way into the interior of the hole-ridden and stone-melted temple. I noticed most of the remaining wood in the hybrid structure had been fried to a nice, black crisp.

In the absence of the head maid the temple had collected a fair bit of dust and had fallen into quick dilapidation. It had only been a few weeks, but the place was already looking like some sort of haunted house. Ignoring the lack of maintenance I headed towards the rear rooms I never got the chance to explore during my brief stay here.

The two doors at the end of the hallway greeted me silently and I pushed the ajar door of Short Stuff’s former room. Nothing looked out of place and it still seemed clean in here despite of the gaping hole I had made out of the window that night. I tried the other door, reasoning that this would be my dead hostess’s quarters. It swung inwards without so much as a hint of a creak.

The dim interior was even more sparsely furnished than the guest room I had slept in. One dark corner housed a comfortable looking bed and a nightstand while a solitary window provided the light. A bamboo chest lay at the foot of her bed and the only other furniture present in the small room was a shelf stuffed to the brim with numerous parchments yellow with age. Idly I walked up to the shelf and started to randomly pull the parchments out and inspecting the contents. Hopefully this wasn’t her “journal”.

The scrolls held nothing but Buddhist scriptures and I tossed them aside disinterestedly. Examination of the other scrolls proved fruitless and I started to dig into the pile of aging paper to see if there was a book or something but aside from the scriptures the lonesome shelf held nothing else of importance.

Walking over to her bed I sat on it for the moment, wanting to take a break from a whole day of walking and standing around. I pulled the bamboo chest over to my feet and threw the cover open. The contents held nothing but numerous copies of her favorite attire, that familiar-looking laced white and black dress. She had an odd taste in fashion. She was obviously far too old to dress like some adolescent Lolita but I couldn’t complain. My own sense of fashion wasn’t exactly any better anyway as I thought about my old ragged vest and pants.

Something else caught my eye in the gloom. In one corner of the chest a little bit of paper stood out and I curiously dug the clothing out to find a book of sorts. I felt the covers of the thing and rubbed the edges. Leather, I thought. I felt a page on the book and the texture told me that it was probably made from polylith, a synthetic paper designed to last for years. Flipping it open I inspected the contents of the first page. Bold words were printed in capital letters, English to boot, of all things.

“2044 – 2045”
For company use only. Do not distribute.

A wry grin broke out on my face. How did she get a hold of this? Probably a random Outsider article she had gotten from someone or bought from some store hawking such things. A bit of a poor choice to use as a personal journal but it served her well enough. Flipping a few of the yellowing pages I scrutinized the neat strokes of her handwritings, trying to work out what sort of language or code she wrote her journal in but although it did look familiar it wasn’t something I could read. They almost looked like some sort of a joke for Sanskrit.

Sanskrit. Wait, I thought to myself.

I remembered Short Stuff’s gohei. The carvings were Sanskrit, mirror imaged. Peering closely at the swerving symbols I tried to mirror each individual word in my mind to construct a proper sentence but it gave me more of a headache than a sensible word. Byakuren’s head must have been pretty messed up to be able to write upside down and mirror-imaged for her entire journal. I was going to need a mirror while I painstakingly copied and translated the text word for word but there wasn’t enough time to do it here today. I would have to leave for the grotto and do it in private there.

Grabbing one of her dresses I wrapped the journal up in it and proceeded to go back to the grotto. I didn’t want curious eyes to see what I had and I most certainly didn’t want a particular ice fairy to see I had the journal in open view of everyone. Hobbling in a quick pace I hoped the trip back would take a lot less time. The prospect of another long walk didn’t thrill me in the least.
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It took many long hours to finally finish writing down the translation on the other side of each page and my eyes had already started to swim by then. For a few moments I could actually read her writing without the assistance of the basin of water and I worried if I would ever be able to read anything written normally with my brain turned inside out.

I hadn’t bothered to hide the journal as I worked on it. The healing warrens were practically deserted with me as the only patient. The villagers had retired a few hours ago and there was no one left to spy on me. Diligently using an old pen which looked like another Outside oddity I scribbled the translation on the other side using the language of the Venca, a tribe of people long dead who had a fetish for writing history on their own bodies and bones. The journal would just look unreadable to the locals this way.

Finally done, I flipped to the first few pages and began skimming the journal for only parts that would interest me. She had used a system of dates that the locals were so fond of using but it didn’t look like she had penned down specific days of her entries. It wouldn’t matter much. Flipping half the journal I was surprised that the dates basically covered the span of almost two centuries or more. Somehow Byakuren had been able to extend her lifespan, probably using that Art of hers, I surmised. It’s a shame she never penned down how she was able to do this. It would have been extremely useful for me in the future.

I flipped back to the page that had caught my attention as I had translated the book. It detailed the beginning of what seemed to be a string of incidents all the way till my arrival and I skipped unimportant and trivial entries as I read on.

- Minazuki, 284

In an unprecedented event, the eclipse had lasted for over four days. The people have become anxious. Panic was widespread and many of the locals are worried what this phenomenon signified. I had asked Shou for a favor, and she reluctantly agreed to investigate for me. Something didn’t seem right with Shou. She had always been honest with me but this time, she was hiding something. Time will tell.

- Fuzuki, 284

It has been near to a month since the sun disappeared into the eclipse. No longer does it shine through the sides of the moon, it has, in other words, vanished entirely. The people have become withdrawn, not even talking much with their neighbors and my students no longer visit the temple. They feel it is pointless. They tell me that doom has come to the world and not even Buddha would be able to save them.

Shou has finally answered my insistent summons. She did not look at all happy and I could see she was upset with me, thought she tried her best not to let it show. Her report was inconclusive, only that the vanished sun had something to do with a ceremony one of the youkai had conducted. Beyond that she offered no other information of use. I cannot understand why she has withdrawn from me. I let her return to the ship for now. I did not wish to agitate her further.

- Kannazuki, 284

A normal night at the village. They are calm for a change considering the state of anarchy the village had descended into two months ago. I had been able to reassure the people that they are in no danger and the loss of our beloved sun was merely a part of Gensokyo’s mysterious cycle. I wish I believed in that myself. The disappearance of the sun was anything but.

Shou no longer responds to my summons. Even little Minamitsu has started to ignore me, offering excuse after excuse to reject my summons. Of Nue there was no sign. She had left upon seeing the villagers’ barbaric behavior during the unrest a few months ago. What had happened to them? Was I that horrible a friend to them?

I will return to the village come the morrow. I have to make sure the people remain calm as we all adapt to our permanent twilight.

- Yayoi, 284

The attacks on the village had become more and more persistent. No longer was it a few isolated reports of people being abducted from their beds, but now the villagers would tell me of the lurking silhouettes that stalked the perimeter of the village. A few foolish souls had ventured out to challenge the stalkers but never returned. A single scream and their extinguished torches was the only thing that marked their demise. I had seen the bodies. Mutilated, scarred, and twisted. Was it youkai? Why would they want to attack humans without provocation? Why are they even stalking the village in the first place?

I am reluctant to go and confront the stalkers directly. I do not wish to harm the youkai and I have no desire to let the villagers discover my nature. Still I must do something before the villagers descend into another state of anarchy. Their spirits are fragile now. First the loss of their sun and now being stalked outside their very homes.

My summons can no longer reach my friends. They had somehow found a way to cut themselves off from my awareness. Why have they abandoned me in my time of need? Why Shou? You of all people. I need you now more than ever. Was it my fault? I’m sorry, my friend. I’m sorry if it was.

- Satsuki, 285

The head villager has approached me to advise me to retreat with the others. They would move into the caves in the hills behind the village for protection. The villagers had been suffering great losses in the past few months due to the continued attack by feral youkai. He told me this was my last chance to come with him. The village would be deserted once they begin the exodus in three nights.

I cannot believe this is happening. What is motivating the youkai into such aggressive behaviors? I might be able to accept the explanation if they were starving and hunting for food but simply attacking just to mutilate humans for the sake of killing did not make any sense. Even the youkai have become hostile to me now, although they dare not attack me directly. Trying to get any explanation from them is a lost cause; their minds seem to have gone as feral as their instincts.

I miss you Shou. Minamitsu. Nue. Would we ever live like the old days again?

- Minazuki, 285

A curious development today. A strange creature had somehow come into existence in the night sky of Gensokyo. It looks almost like a black seedling just hanging there and I flew up there for a closer look. It was alive. A barely-opened eye would stare down at the land of Gensokyo underneath the seedling. I touched a part the creature. Its skin felt almost like rocks. I tried to reach out to it mentally but I could sense nothing. It was not youkai. It was… something foreign. And I knew not what.

I feel so lonely. I never had the chance to feel such emotions before. I had no awareness of time when I had been sealed within Makai. But now I would start to question my sanity. I would walk down into the empty village and greet the occasional shadow like a villager. Sometimes I found myself preaching to the village well. Am I going crazy? It should not be possible, but whatever is driving the youkai into a feral rage is starting to affect me as well.

Please come back to me, Shou.

- Shimotsuki, 285

Found dirty stick. Ate it.
Tried to cook. Oh. Heeheehee.

- Kisaragi, 285

The mind the mind the mind the mind oh but I wrote there was something no water! I took cabbage redundant meat meat meat I crying oh I dropped that I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m so sorry pulling the door hello just fine twisted get more water jumping heehee why must you taunt me so hello Shou ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn beg pardon stepped on shoe oh flying I love this boat ripping tearing they cry shut them up no u I checked the ribbit on the rabbit but the wabbit lost the cabbit oh I could die for mutake stone dropped down pick pick pick stop go to bed.

- Yayoi, 285

(Incoherent doodling)

- Minazuki, 286

Tonight, it was the first time I had been able to think straight. I was shocked to find the temple in a mess. It looked as if the place hadn’t been maintained in long months and inspecting my journal confirmed my worst fears. I had been driven into the same sort of insanity afflicting the youkai for months and I thank Buddha that the village had been long evacuated. I feared I would have turned on the villagers as well if they had remained.

The creature in the sky had also experienced a great deal of growth. No longer does it resemble a seedling now; it looks like a hill and the eye has fully opened. It stares at everything below it with a dim glow now. I had no time to inspect the thing as I had to make my way to the caves to check on the villagers hoping they were still alive.

I was grateful for the fact that they were doing well, although food had been running low as of late. They had carved out a sort of temporary village deep in the grotto of the caves and had taken to living in there. I was sad for the fact that these people would never be able to return to their homes but they were greatly pleased to find I was still well. They had long feared that I had fallen prey to the ferals.

I need to find Shou and the others as soon as I can. If they were afflicted as well I could only shudder to imagine what they would do to each other without humans to prey on. I am confident Shou would at least retain the instinct to respect human lives. She would sooner die than harm another human no matter what her urges told her.

- Kannazuki, 286

The last of the villagers have finally moved back into the village. For some unexplainable reason the affliction was gone amongst the youkai and not a single report of an attack has surfaced. For once in many months, the people finally had their peace and a chance to go back to their lives. Most of them were sick from living in the grotto and running low on supplies.

I became aware of a brewing discontent amongst the villagers. They were less than happy with the persecution and psychological war the youkai had unleashed on them and many villagers had been overheard talking about organizing hunting parties, going as far as to suggest that the old Hunter Ways be reinstated amongst the villagers and a new generation of Hunters be trained to deal with the youkai who had hurt them so grievously.

I tried to talk them out of it and tell them to live their lives normally but most would scoff at me. They thought the notion of a Buddhist nun preaching peace was a thing of the past and would have none of my sermons.

- Shiwasu, 286

The invisible war between humans and youkai has just escalated to a new level. A group of youkai has retaliated by throwing burning meteors into the village square, severely injuring many people. Although they were rational again they justified their actions as an act of warning for the party of Hunters who had slain a number of youkai without provocation a few nights ago.

Like the humans I had tried to talk them out of violence and like the humans, they assumed the long peace between humans and youkai had been shattered. There would be no returning to the old days. They warned me against standing with the villagers. Although they still respected me to a degree I could see that their patience was at their limits as well.

Tomorrow night I would make the trip to visit their pseudo leader, the golden one they called Yukari. There mustn’t be any more senseless loss of lives, humans or youkai.

- Mutsuki, 286

Another strange phenomenon tonight. False Dawn’s eye was closed and Gensokyo was plunged into natural moonlight for the first time in months. I have been observing False Dawn for a long time and this was the first occurrence of the eye closing. Was it resting? Or is this a sign that it was dying?

I pray it would not give up on us. False Dawn has been the only natural source of replacement for the vanished sun. Its day-glow continues to nourish the plants much like true sunlight for unexplainable reasons and the villagers had at last more or less reassumed a pseudo day and night cycle thanks to its existence.

Shou, wherever you are, take care of yourself.

- Kisaragi, 286

After months of brokering for peace I have finally managed to convince Yukari to meet with the new village head. The previous head had died during the last hunt and perhaps this was for the best, for the new human representative was a lot less of a hothead and far more rational than his vengeful predecessor.

They came to the temple on my request that this should be neutral grounds for discussing a peaceful solution. Yukari came accompanied by what seemed to be a fox youkai and the new village head, Eita, had an entourage of Hunters as guards. I had protested against having escorts as this could undermine the meeting but both sides no longer cared for my opinions much. I had been lucky to be able to get them to meet in the first place.

The discussions were mostly one sided; it seemed that Yukari was mostly disinterested in the whole thing as her companion was the only one negotiating with Eita. We finally agreed to a compromise; the villagers are to retreat to their grotto-village during the night while the youkai are to stay within their territories during the artificial daytime for the next five generations. It would give each side time enough to forget their hostilities and hopefully, the emerging children of children would no longer harbor thoughts for vengeance.

And thus they agreed to the truce.

- Hazuki, 287

It would be time for me to leave tomorrow. In the hands of my new apprentice I leave the temple, hoping he would continue to teach the new students well. I am sad about leaving but it is necessary to allay the current generation of villagers’ suspicion of my longevity. I would return in the next century of course, once people have forgotten about me.

Now I would have time enough to seek out Shou and the rest. The peace so far seemed to be developing well and the people have grown accustomed to their second home during the twilight hours. I visited the grotto-village a few times and I had to be impressed with what they had done to it. Comfortable living quarters, adequate supplies, and they had found a way to light up the caves like daytime. They didn’t seem to mind so much about the need to stay underground during the night anymore and that put my mind to peace.

This will be the last entry for a while. I must leave my memoirs hidden in the temple until my eventual return in the future.

- Nagatsuki, 372

Finally found my old journal. The old grandmaster who had last taken care of this place had moved the wooden planks of the floor around much and my journal ended up in another room and I didn’t even realize it.

I think I’ve outgrown the habit of penning down my thoughts. I’ll just save future entries for important events.

- Shiwasu, 372

I have officially taken over the temple from the last caretaker as he passed away from a failed liver last night. The people were curious about me but accepted me as their new caretaker all the same. All of them assumed I was from the Outside. It would seem no one remembers me.

- Uzuki, 373

The tenth Child of Miare had passed away today. The villagers held a celebration in her honor for they would not mourn her. Their chronicler would return in a future reincarnation to further record the legends and lore of their people. In a way I am pleased I never had the chance to meet her tenth reincarnation. I would not want her to remember the nun who kept coming out from nowhere century after century.

I had the opportunity to meet Reimu’s great grand-daughter during the festivities. She looked like a splitting image of her great grandmother during her younger years and didn’t seem to know who I was. It was sad to see the Hakureis reduced into commoners. If Reimu could have survived until the days of False Dawn’s birth she might have been able to better deal with the crisis that time than I had.

My search for Shou, Minamitsu and Nue continue to prove fruitless, although I had been able to meet with Ichirin once. She mentioned that she had long ago lost all contact with them ever since she returned to her simplistic and solitary lifestyle, but she promised she would seek me out if there was news of them.

- Satsuki, 455

The time has come for me to leave the villagers once more. This time I would make sure my journal is better hidden.

- Nagatsuki, 541

My journal got moved again. The last caretaker had somehow found my journal and tossed it into a pile of old scrolls. It is a good thing he can’t read this and didn’t throw it away.

Back as the new caretaker. I had the misfortune to run into the eleventh Child of Miare during my visit earlier but she was no more than a few years old. She should not be able to recall meeting me.

Why had she been reborn so soon? Such mysteries.

- Yayoi, 546

Visited the Hakurei shrine today. The place had gotten a lot more visitors compared to earlier days and the Hakurei family was present to greet me. They were expecting a third child and wanted me to give them my blessings. I had thought about how odd it would for me to give Shinto priests a blessing but I did it all the same.

I saw their youngest daughter. Not much of a Reimu, but she would grow into a fine woman some day.

- Minazuki, 549

I found the Hakurei child today during my trip down to the village for supplies, alone and sitting at the edge of the village. She was covered in blood and would not speak of what had happened. She had gone through some sort of trauma and in shock. I had no choice but to take her back to the temple. The villagers would have nothing to do with the bloodied child.

I tried to clean her up but she would only cling to my leg and won’t let go. It took hours of persuasion before she finally let go of me and allowed me to bathe her in peace. She would not sleep alone in her room. She kept coming into my room to cling onto my leg in silence.
I had waited next to her bed until she finally fell asleep before I could take off for the temple. The shocking state of the bodies of her families told me why she had been rendered mostly mindless. Something had mutilated every last one of the Hakureis and left parts of their corpses scattered everywhere. There was blood on every single thing. Something had slain every one of them mercilessly and mutilated the bodies to ensure none of them would be left alive. It couldn’t have been youkai. The peace had been undisturbed for so long.

I would think about what I must do with the child soon.

- Minazuki, 549

None of the villagers were willing to take care of Yuhiko. They feared the same calamity which befell the Hakurei family would come for them if they had anything to do with the child. I would have no choice but to let her live here with me.

- Fuzuki, 549

There was something wrong with False Dawn tonight. The eye closed itself a lot more frequently these days than it had in the past century. The veins which had started to grow on False Dawn several years ago had thrown a whole network of them onto False Dawn in the space of a few nights. Something was happening to False Dawn and I knew not what. I could only pray we were spared another incident of the past from visiting us again.

- Hazuki, 549

Little Yuhiko spoke to me for the first time tonight after the only time she talked to me to give me her name several weeks ago. She asked if her family was really dead. All I could do was tell her the truth. She accepted it without breaking down. I suspected she had accepted the fact that they were dead ever since I found her that day.

- Kannazuki, 552

Something had been lurking outside the temple tonight. I knew it wasn’t youkai. There was something about it that felt like it didn’t belong in the natural cycle of Gensokyo. I couldn’t sense any form of coherent thought from whatever it was but somehow I felt that our visitor didn’t come for peaceful reasons.

I tried to look for the thing but it had vanished when I stepped outside.

Tomorrow I would ward the place just to be safe.

- Shiwasu, 552

More and more of our shadowy visitors have come every night and as always, they would melt away into nothingness whenever I stepped out to investigate. I’m beginning to fear that Yuhiko’s presence might be attracting these things. Why is the last Hakurei child subject to such attention and just what were they?

I have not told Yuhiko about them. She does not need another ghost to haunt her ever since the massacre of her family.

- Yayoi, 552

Another change with False Dawn today. It had grown exponentially in the space of two years and it’s almost eight time its original size after its maturity. Whatever it was that was afflicting False Dawn would not bode well for us. We needed False Dawn. Without it we would descend into a second age of anarchy.

The charm I had worked into Yuhiko’s little ribbon seemed to be effective in deterring the Visitors. They no longer stalk my temple and I have seen no signs of them since last month. It would appear that the Visitors could no longer notice her presence with the charm.

I will monitor her just to be sure. I would allow no harm to come to my daughter.

- Satsuki, 554

False Dawn continues to grow in size every few months and our dayglow would sometimes become erratic. There had been several occasions of missed daytimes and the villagers have noticed this. The incandescent veins on False Dawn have grown so large they are now visible from the ground. Still, everyone pretends that nothing has happened. The people have grown complacent and did not wish to see a potential problem with False Dawn which has become an integral part of their lives.

I have had to start going out at nights to hunt the shadows down after the attempted attack on Yuhiko last week. I was foolish to have let her wander away from the temple grounds at night and I dare not entrust her into the safe-keeping of the villagers. She could potentially bring more harm to them staying in the village or Hakumei Kubochi if these things were truly attracted to her. The safest place for her and for the villagers would have to be here, the temple.

- Minazuki, 554

I came into contact with one of the Visitors tonight. It demonstrated hostile intentions and they somehow recognized I was protecting Yuhiko as it attacked me without provocation. I dispatched it easily enough but I do not think this will be the last time I will meet these Visitors.

- Fuzuki, 554

The Visitors have become harder and harder to put down. They are quickly developing some sort of resistance or adaptation to my powers. They have become almost metaphoric now, capable of assuming various shapes and sizes depending on their mass. It took far more than I could muster just to destroy a Visitor the size of an average human.

- Fuzuki, 554

I am tired. My nightly forays to thin down the ranks of the Visitors do not seem to be working. They have in fact seemed to have increased in numbers rather than dwindled. I fear for my daughter but there is nowhere for us to run to.

I desperately tried to summon Shou tonight but I could no longer feel her as I once did. Was she somehow dead? I need her help now. I need her to take my daughter away to a safer place than I could ever offer.

-Fuzuki, 554

Barely a week after my last foray the Visitors came again; this time in a massive congregation of shadows. For the first time in so long I felt terror. I drew the thing into a protracted battle of attrition and it only disintegrated once False Dawn’s dayglow broke out. I had almost died. Nothing would work on the Visitors any more. They do not flinch. They do not break down. They constantly reform. Even burning them no longer reduces them into nothingness.

I will embark on a new plan come the morning. I will carve a massive circle of protection around the valley and charge it with a part of my soul. I pray this will deter the Visitors from attempting another direct attack.

I will ask for the help of some of the apprentices down at the village to help with the construction. Yoshino might be almost blind but he is a good mathematician. He can greatly accelerate the construction of the circle.

- Nagatsuki, 554

I came across a curious sight tonight while completing the Western segment tonight. I found the body of a young girl drifting in the river. She wore clothing like none I had ever seen before. It could be an Outsider. We had never seen one since False Dawn’s birth.

It didn’t look like she could talk but she was alive. I had to leave her there but she should be fine if she stayed with the river. I couldn’t spare the time to transport her to the village. I had to finish the Western segment before daybreak.

- Nagatsuki, 544

It was exhausting but the Western segment is finally complete. I had no idea it would tire me out like this. I pray I would have enough strength left to construct the other three segments before this kills me.

The young lady who had broken into the temple turned out to be the same girl I had pulled out of the river. We had a rather interesting talk tonight but I could feel that she was hiding something.

She had inadvertently led one of the Visitors into the temple during her attempted entry and had allowed it to gain entry because she somehow broke the wards on the door. Thankfully it was a mere juvenile instead of a fully massed Visitor. I won’t doubt for a second they would be able to survive an attack.

But the juvenile’s presence worries me now that it has seen Yuhiko. For many months they had thought Yuhiko had been gone from the temple and had stopped their stalking here. Now that the Visitors are aware of her presence in the temple, what would they attempt next?

For that matter, why would a juvenile shadow the young lady all the way back to the temple from the river? Were they somehow attracted to her as well? I had given her Yuhiko’s ribbon to test my hypothesis but it didn’t look like she adored it. Young ladies these days.

- Nagatsuki, 544

Something was happening this evening. I could feel them even now. The Visitors were massing in previously unimaginable numbers near the temple and I have no doubt now that the presence of the young lady and Yuhiko combined was somehow attracting a great number of the Visitors. I have to start working on the Northern segment ahead of schedule or I fear we may all be in peril.

There is no time left to look for a proper guardian. I do not trust our young Outsider enough to take Yuhiko away should the Visitors make an attempt at an attack. I have sent word to the tengu stronghold in the mountains, calling in some favors from them to come and take my daughter away tonight while I worked on the circle. With Yuhiko gone I might have enough time to finish the circle. They would not dare try assaulting the tengu stronghold to get to Yuhiko but leaving her there could also endanger the tengu community in time.

I am quickly running out of ideas on how to stem the flood of Visitors. I am so tired and the only thing I could focus on now is to finish the circle.

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That had been the last of her entry. I flipped the journal close and wrapped it back in Byakuren’s dress, hiding it from view under my bed and I collapsed back onto the bed. It felt strange reading about her last hours but at least now I had a clearer picture on what had happened and how Aya came to be at the scene just in the nick of time. Despite her last words about not trusting me, why did she make me take Short Stuff away that night? Was it just desperation clouded by her tiredness or did she run out of choices when the things she had called Visitors decided to attack?

I turned and groaned into my pillow, tired from reading her damned lengthy story book. It felt almost like the wee hours of morning now and no one was left in the healing warrens. Maybe that would make Ice Cubes happy now that I’ve read her stupid book. I started to close my eyes and get some sleep.

I felt a cold finger poking my back and sighed. Come on, can’t you come stalk me tomorrow morning or something, Ice Cubes? I started to bury my head deeper into the pillow and pretended I was sleeping. The cold finger grew a shard of ice and pricked me in the back. ‘YOW! Sorry! Ok I’m awake.’ I sighed. ‘What do you want, Ice Cubes? I read your damn book already. Let me get a good night’s sleep at least.’

She walked over into my view from behind. ‘Shush. Musn’t wake the humans up. And it’s a good thing you did. I was going to come for you tonight rather than wait three days, froggy.’

I didn’t even feel like glaring at her. ‘Gimme a break. I hiked all day with one leg and stayed up all night translating and reading that journal. You can freeze my bowels or something tomorrow.’ I turned over to face the other side.

No luck. She walked back into my view. ‘No can do, froggy. I have to leave today and I need to deliver my message now.’

Opening my eyes I perked up. Leave today? Thank the gods. Now I would have peace.

‘Now, you should-‘ she began.

I interrupted before she could go on. ‘Yeah now I should. But before I “should” whatever, how about you give me a chance to actually heal up first? I’m no youkai. I’m no fairy. I don’t pop up again from thin air after I die. I can't grow extra limbs spontaneously. I don’t mend broken bones overnight. I need food and water. I need sleep. How about you let me have all of that first before you want me to “should whatever”,’ I finished exasperatedly. Suddenly I realized I had spoken out of turn and had actually insulted her. I prayed she wouldn’t freeze my tongue and crush it right now.

Unexpectedly she remained calm and silent. Well, at least she was far more mature than she looked to be able to handle human mood swings. She spoke at last, ‘Very well. But one week, no more. We are running out of time. Take one week to rest, and after that I want you to go retrieve the Hakurei child from the tengu stronghold and bring her down to Moriya Shrine. Practice stealth and avoid the kappa settlements. I will be waiting there. And wear this, ‘ she nudged Byakuren’s dress out from under the bed.

I looked at it and then at her. ‘You’re joking right? There’s no way you’ll get me to wear that thing.’

Whistling innocently, she remarked, ‘Not even if you were going to turn froggy froggy?’

Gritting my teeth, I sank back into the bed. ‘And would you at least tell me why?’

‘Simple. They know Byakuren, not you. You show up in her attire and they won’t danmaku you on sight. All youkai have a deep respect and honor for Byakuren after all that she had done for them in the past. They would not go trigger-happy if they noticed you wearing this. Once they catch you up-close for an inspection, I’m afraid you would have to convince them not to put singed holes in you.’

‘Ooh, now that’s so reassuring,’ I remarked sarcastically. Suddenly I remembered something. ‘I uh… might have a little problem with that. You see, I sort of pissed off some people there…’ I trailed off.

She fell silent and looked at me in a new light. ‘… Problems?’ she repeated. ‘You’re barely a month old in here, froggy. Now enough excuses. Do it or I come froggy froggy you. Ask for directions from the other meats in the village when you’re leaving.’ She turned to leave.

‘Remember. One week,’ she whispered as a final reminder before she dissolved into a mist of condensed cold that wafted out of the grotto.

My despair was depthless. Just one pit leading into another pit which led to another pit that housed another pit. How deep must I fall into this hole before I could get out of it? I pounded the pillow with a bunched fist several times. Nowhere to run. No one to turn to. Trapped like a rat. Threatened at every turn. Any life seemed to be far better than mine now.

‘Hey Feeny. Can you hear me?’ I spoke softly.

No booming voice in my head replied.

‘Uh… want to swap places? I think I want to see what’s inside of me,’ I tried again.


‘It’s really fun out here. There’s stuff to eat, people to play with and guess what? You can actually kill the fairies here for fun and they’ll just reincarnate for you to kill them again! Neat huh? I know a particular ice fairy you can play with…’ I trailed off.

No reply.

Despairing, I slept.
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Whoa... this is interesting... I wonder what plans Cirno has, since she said not to trust the Tengu (though Byakuren did)

But if she wants redemption I think the quest involving the last Hakurei is the perfect way to do it

Better than wallowing in your own guilt.

But whatever the cause of the incident was, it was post SA... I'm surprised that Yukari didn't say more on the matter... or she might not have cared at that point.

But it seems that some folks are still around.
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I wonder who's chilling at Moriya Shrine. Maybe Yukari decided she wanted new digs. Doesn't sound like Suwako's still there.

I'm also unsettled and yet sort of unsurprised by Cirno referring to humans as "meats."

Here's my hastily-constructed theory:
Yukari saw or realized that the outside world was going tits-up, and decided that it was time to just cut out the Ms. Nice Youkai act, and take Gensokyo back for the youkai. She and/or some colleagues hooked up Evil Eye Sigma/Yuugen Magan AKA False Dawn (maybe a long shot here, but whatever) in the sky to blot out the sun more efficiently than Team Eientei did in IN.

After a while, youkai become bolder and stronger, and Yukari either directly or indirectly begins convincing more of them of her way of thinking: 'It's time to get back in touch with your youkai roots. Fuck being nice; be you for a change.'

Time goes by, shit gets worse and worse, and Byakuren pulls a PEACE IN OUR TIME, which doesn't really do much more than ensure that the youkai food supply doesn't dry out.

Shit gets slowly worse, and youkai take over more.

The Visitors, apparently a third party from outside of Gensokyo show up, and they see a ripe new hunting ground. The youkai are not happy about this, and want Byakuren to complete her circle and protect the feeding site village.

Outsider-chan shows up, and throws a wrench in things. Shadows fall, Byakuren dies.

Yukari knows (because Yukari knows everything except maybe about who or what the fuck the Visitors are) that Outsider-chan is the closest thing to Byakuren she'll find in terms of ancient crazy magical knowledge, and wants her to complete the circle.

I don't know anything about why there are two conflicting opinions of the tengu, but I'm going to wager that the fact that they still exist and seem to be doing all right-ish despite the utter hell that Gensokyo has been put through just miiiight be related.

Keine's death and her inability to eat False Dawn (on account of being too dead to be around to do so) may also have been an early straw on the camel's back that got Yukari thinking about how, hey, now she could pull shit without having to worry about it being undone by the damned teacher.
She didn't act on it for a while, maybe, but after enough visits to an increasingly fucked outside world, it was likely one of the more crucial events affecting her decision.

And of course, one more thing bears wondering about. Well, more than one, but it's the last one I have right now:
...Why is this story in /underground/? I haven't taken them into account in any of this whatsoever, but that this story is here suggests that the SA crew had, have, or will have a large role to play in this.
I can't think of anything except that Twilight Hollow is underground-ish, or that the Visitors reside in the Underground: "The Moriyans dug too far, and too deep."

...You know, I only used that line because it accurately summed up --and referred to something more or less along the lines of-- what I imagined may have possibly happened.
And then about ten seconds after I wrote it, I had the unsettling realization that Moriya and Moria sound pretty close to the same. I wonder if ZUN came up with that name intentionally, already having long term plot plans for SA in mind.


I'm sure this is full of holes and maybe even a few incorrect assumptions and/or premises, but that's why you should tell me about them now, or at least take a good look at what's been written so far, and come up with something better.
Either one works. I'm betting the author would love to have talk going on in here, as most of them seem to enjoy that sort of thing.
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But what explains the second sun? since that might have been a result of whatever happened in Gensokyo....

But there's a balance in gensokyo before hand... but who knows how events have changed it.

But I do see one thing: The last Hakurei is key to eventfully resolving things, and it's up to Miss Outsider to do things, and in the process redeem herself.

Far too long she's been wallowing in her guilt, not doing anything to offset her sins.

The Youkai mountain folk have always managed to do well regardless of other areas in Gensokyo.

But another question is what was the cause of the massive attack on the Hakureis? Since Yukari wouldn't do such a thing especially since chances are Reimu raised her descendants to be more friendly toward Youkai, provided they don't step out of line. That and she knows the value of the Hakurei too much to do such a thing.

It was most likely whatever the shadows are.

And remember what the journal said about insanity overcoming youkai? I wonder if the shadows are responsible for that.
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>what's been written so far
By the writer, right?

Speculate, don't wonder. Or at least condense it.
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Good hypotheses Anon. If I had read some of these sooner I might have been able to incorporate some of them into the general storyline.

However, I won't venture so far as to confirm or deny them for now. That would take the fun out of the story, except to confirm a few things.

First, everything is related to SA. To be precise, an extension from the outcome of SA.

Second, the general theme of the story, that everything is contained in a cycle and disrupting said cycle will always generate repercussions to re-balance things, whether good or bad.

And finally, nothing is always what it seems to be. Good and evil are merely definitions given by people who do not understand the true nature of things.

I'm in the process of breaking up another damn Wallz. Will post once I've formatted it enough.

Also, forgive the lack of screencaps. I'm usually more interested in writing than looking for screencaps to plug updates.
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I watched disinterestedly as Flynn milled about the workshop in his usual work attire; the gray apron dotted with the tools of his trade stuffed into every available pocket. His orders for sliding doors had been overwhelming and he was now having more trouble keeping new customers away compared to finishing his current orders in time. Every time he chased off a new customer, another one would take his place and he grew increasingly harried as he buzzed around his workshop.

Picking a small corner of the workshop for myself I had found a spot to call my own; a counter of sorts facing the entrance of the building. Flynn had used it to deal with his clients when he had been in the business of carving stylistic furniture. I relaxed on the comfortable wooden chair, an exquisite product of Flynn’s work, stretching my legs under the counter while I stared at nothing in particular. Unlike most of the furniture the locals favored, his chair had modern trappings to it and had arm rests to boot. Briefly I wondered why he moved onto inventing gliders; judging from the demand for sliding doors I gathered that the furniture business wouldn’t have been too shabby in comparison.

Almost all of the villagers knew me by sight now and they had given me a nickname which they whispered amongst themselves whenever a gossip about me popped up; Death Walker, in light of my feat in returning from the land of the dead. The occasional visitor to the workshop would nod to me respectfully before riling Flynn up with another order he couldn’t handle. Being the good-natured kid he was I could see that he fought with his annoyance hard and tried to deal with them as politely as he could.

I looked up at the ceiling as I pondered about what to do. Four days had passed since Ice Cubes had left and I had three days remaining before she would come back into my life to pester me unless I started on her little errand. Glumly I grabbed a protractor from the counter and played idly with it, considering my options once more. Maybe I could kill her, but she was just going to come back again and again to do something worse to me in return. Why did it have to be a fairy of all things?

The sound of another chair being dragged over to my side told me Flynn was taking a break at the counter as well. Collapsing onto the chair, another finely designed mahogany stool, he threw the paraphernalia he had been lugging around the workshop onto the counter and stretched as he spoke, ‘They finally stopped coming, phew. Bored?’

I replied idly, ‘Not really. Got a lot to think about.’ The only reason why I hung out in his workshop was because I got sick from staying in the grotto all the time. I wondered how these people could actually manage to live the entire half of their lives down there. The claustrophobic cavern walls had worked their magic on me in less than a week. I didn’t want to return to the temple and nowhere else held a sense of familiarity for me. In the end I had ended up back here.

We were silent for a few minutes as I experimented with my legs. I had tried to walk without the crutch in anticipation of my departure but it hadn’t worked out well at all. Although I was capable of standing without the crutch, movement was impossibly slow without it. I prayed I would be able to at least walk slowly by myself when my time was up.

Flynn broke the silence, ‘There’s been something I’ve been wanting to ask you but I don’t really know how to.’ He hesitated for a moment, seemingly trying to think of something else to say but nothing came forth.

‘Well that’s easy. You open your mouth and say the words, boy,’ I replied easily.

That didn’t help him too much but he soldiered on. ‘You… you told me before you were from the Outside, but this isn’t your first visit, is it?’

I froze. Time seemed to crawl to a stand-still as my mind worked frantically. How did he find out? What did he want from me? Was he going to blackmail me or something? Turning, I gave him a new look that completely shattered my façade of a bored and disinterested face; grim, cold, and calculating. ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’

He almost quailed from the look on my face but carried on nonetheless, ‘I’m sorry. I overheard your… conversation… with Fumiko that night in the grotto when you told her about…’ he gulped once, ‘about that Keine person.’

Bastard. And I thought he was a good kid. He just had to eavesdrop on our little chat that night. Why would it matter to him anyway? That was hundreds of years ago. Ancient history. Turning back to stare at the deserted street outside I ignored him.

‘That’s why you keep calling me a boy even though I’m older than you, isn’t it? You’re far older than you look. Are you part youkai as well?’ he persisted.

My bored and disinterested face fell back into place. ‘Nah. I’m actually a cyborg from the future, coming back to find my lost Energizer battery I had dropped when I fought with a big space hamster in the past.’

He frowned as he tried to digest it. ‘Uh… wow. Really? What’s a cyborg and Energizer battery? Space hamster?’

‘Just pulling your legs. I’m no youkai or monster. You really shouldn’t believe everything people tell you. You’re still a bit naïve for your age,’ I remarked.

His face fell. ‘Oh,’ he said simply. Flynn made no attempt at asking another question, not wanting to press the matter seeing how I avoided his inquiries. Good kid. I had a change of heart.

‘You really want to know?’ I suddenly asked conversationally and he turned to look at me instantly.

A brief pause before he answered simply, ‘Only if you want to tell.’

‘You know that chronicler of yours?’ I gestured in a general direction indicating the village. ‘She and I, we’re not so different. We’ve both lived for a long, long, long time. That’s why we were able to get along so well together in the past. We were kindred spirits, in other words. But only her soul and memories carry forward into a future reincarnation. Me? I’ve been around for an even longer time living this one single life.’

He stared at me with an open jaw. ‘How long?’ he finally managed.

‘A really long time,’ I replied.

‘The Child of Miare is almost sixteen hundred years old. You’re telling me you’re older than that?’ he asked in disbelief.

‘I don’t think the word “old” applies to me anymore. I predate the creation of your little patch of earth you call Gensokyo.’ I remarked off-handedly.

He rubbed his head as he tried to digest it all. ‘That’s impossible. How could you have been in existence for so long being only human?’

‘I had a friend in high places. She gave me this extended life for fun. Now I don’t know what to do with it,’ I rattled a simple lie.

‘That night, you mentioned something about a “promised judgment”. What did you mean?’ he asked with concern.

I flinched within. He just had to remind me of it. I stood and grabbed the crutch before turning back to face him and he shrank back in his char from the new look etched into my face. ‘Shut up boy. That’s none of your business. Never ask me that again. Never. Ever. Again. And keep everything I told you to yourself if you know what’s good for you.’

He continued to stare at me in fear as I hobbled my way back to the grotto. Well, that was a wonderful job, I thought to myself sarcastically. What had that accomplished? Nothing. Nothing but instilling the fear of the unknown in Flynn. I supposed now he would look at me like some sort of monster. I didn’t mind too much as I would be gone from this place in a few more days.

I thought a lot about how I should proceed with my impending departure as I walked back. Not only was I Ill prepared for travelling outside the valley, I was also clueless about how much the geography of Gensokyo had changed in the past few centuries. As I made my way past onlookers, residential buildings, and stores, I had to wonder how I would be able to reach the mountains at a reasonable speed. Procuring supplies would also have to come into consideration. Most of all, I needed a way to deal with the less-than-friendly predators, youkai or not, should they happen to decide to play with me. I doubted the paltry tricks of old would work on the youkai today. They evolve just the same as humans and whatever exploitable weaknesses they had in the past would probably no longer apply.

Out of curiosity I inspected the contents of a random store to see if there was anything I could make use of, not that I had the money to buy anything. I would filch the stuff if it came to that. Aside from the usual assortment of household items and foodstuff there wasn’t anything else on display. Disappointed, I continued on and made stops at some other stores but they also held nothing of value. As usual, nothing was working out for me and I made my way back, vengefully poking the ground hard with my crutch every step I took.

Something else caught my eye just as I was about to start on the road back to the grotto; a warehouse of sorts sitting at the end of an adjacent road I had missed a few times during my hurried trips up and down this path. It might be another waste of time but anything would be better than nothing at this point. Making up my mind, I made a beeline towards the warehouse.

The building was essentially deserted without a soul in sight. The villagers apparently do not make much use of the warehouse as the shelves and open storage bins were mostly empty. Except for the occasional pile of farming tools and fertilizer the place was more or less bare. Earthen walls made up the majority of the building and light poured in from windows interspaced regularly on the second level of the warehouse. I was about to start poking around a few of the closed storage bins when a voice interrupted me from an alcove I had been about to walk past, ‘Looking for something, ojou-chan?’

Turning back and peering into the alcove I could make out a figure sitting in what appeared to be a room of sorts, with a simple table and chair the figure sat on. Piles of books lay haphazardly around the table and I surmised this was probably some sort of makeshift office for the warehouse keeper to keep track of and record the inventory. The figure leaned forward into the light to get a better look at me and I realized it was the same man who had visited Byakuren the day I tried to make him eat a shoe.

I gave him a friendly greeting. ‘Oh hi Cue Ball.’

‘Hunh?’ he squinted at me. ‘Who are you?’

‘You forgot? You almost ate my shoe the other day,’ I snickered.

He looked less than happy now. ‘Oh, you. What are you doing here?’

‘I came to steal everything and make you eat my other shoe. Just joking. I was just wondering if I could find something in here I could use soon. Like a helicopter or a fifty foot robot,’ I replied idly, checking his little alcove out for articles of interest.

That made no sense to him and the only sort of reply I got from him was a disapproving grunt. I looked at what he had been working on in the alcove; an open book lay before him and numerous archaic measuring tools were scattered around it. The page that was open held several diagrams and drawings and on the other page a long list of numbers ran from top to bottom. At first I paid it no heed, but I took another glance at the diagram with considerable interest when it reminded me of something I couldn’t put my finger on.

The diagram detailed the construction of some sort of glyph. Stylized geometrical squares were drawn with precision within the triple semi-circle which held additional patterned designs within each individual square. Looking at the numbers and formulas on the other page confirmed what I had suspected; the plans indicated that the construction would span kilometers and encompass an area several hundred square kilometers. I recognized what this was; it was Byakuren’s last resort at protecting Short Stuff and the villagers, the one she had failed to complete in time. Looking at Cue Ball I guessed this would be the mathematician she mentioned in her journal.

‘It’s a bit too late for that, Yoshino,’ I gestured at his book.

‘What?,’ he exclaimed in confusion as he reached out to snap the book shut. ‘How did you know my name? How do you even know what this is?’

‘Oh I just accidentally read someone’s private diary and found out about you. At any rate it’s pointless now that Byakuren’s dead.’

Turning slowly to face me he muttered, ‘You think I don’t know that? I have to finish this for her. We will carve the rest of the segments ourselves with our bare hands if we have to. We must.’

Interesting. ‘Oho, so you knew what Byakuren really was?’

‘I know enough,’ he retorted.

‘Well Cue Ball, I’m afraid your little would-be-sacrifice is in vain. The circle is useless without Byakuren to bond with it. Finishing the circle, no matter how much effort you put into it or how precise it is, would make it nothing better than a pretty design you can see from the air,’ I remarked.

His face fell. ‘No! She said this would protect us from the Visitors!’

Giving him a condescending look I explained slowly, ‘Like I said, your pretty hieroglyph is useless without Byakuren. And I don’t think you’d need to worry anyway. The only thing your Visitors seem to be attracted to is long gone from the vicinity of the village.’

He was silent while he considered my words. ‘How do you know so much? Master never mentioned anything about another apprentice.’

I shifted uncomfortably with my good foot and Cue Ball was kind enough to push another chair out from the shadows towards me. Sinking down on it gratefully I waited a moment before speaking up. ‘To be honest I wish I didn’t. I want nothing to do with this. But your fabulous master sort of dumped her mess on me without giving me the benefit of a choice and ran off into the afterlife to escape her problems.’

That got him upset and he started to speak up for her, ‘Don’t you dare speak ill of her. Byakuren was a good person. She’s done a lot for us and that Hakurei girl, even coming to care for her like a mother,’ he finished out of breath, glaring at me.

I threw up both arms in defeat. ‘Beg pardon, Cue Ball. I’m a crude person at heart. I’ve a bad habit of speaking before thinking. I meant no offense of course.’

Pacified, he fingered his precious book before slumping back into his chair and running a hand through his bald spot. ‘What will we do now? What can we do?’

I gave him a simple shrug. ‘Carry on with your lives. Your master’s gone and the child as well. There’s nothing left for you and your apprentice friends at the temple.’ As an afterthought I asked him, ‘What are these “Visitors”?’

‘I don’t know,’ he admitted. ‘She was terrified of those things but we never got to see what they are. She would visit me often and urge me to finish the necessary calculations almost every single day. I think she got even more desperate a week before the… incident.’

Well that was rather fruitless. Cue Ball only knew as much as I did. I would find neither additional help nor information here. ‘Never mind that. Anyway, you happen to have anything good I can pick up for free from those bins outside?’ I pointed at the wooden containers with a thumb.

Shaking his head, he replied apologetically, ‘I’m afraid not. Those are empty too. Well, I suppose you could try the shed behind the warehouse. There’s a lot of junk we threw in there over the years. Most of it came from that abandoned store near the forest and nobody knows what all that garbage is anyway. You’re welcome to clean some of it out for me. I’ve been wanting to make some space in the shed.’

‘Much obliged,’ I stood and thanked him all the same. ‘My condolences for the loss of your master.’ He didn’t reply as he stared absent-mindedly at his precious book and I left him alone as I made my way to this shed of his.

His shed turned out to be a lot smaller than I had thought. A simple wooden hut with one window and a door that had to be persuaded with a strong push from my crutch before it would open. The gloomy interior held numerous objects dimly visible from the light streaming in from the sole window.

As my eyes adjusted to the gloom I could see that a lot of the paraphernalia were random items of no importance. Rather, they were random Outsider items of no particular use. Plastic traffic cones, a signboard, a rubber hose that has hardened from age, a handful of rusted batteries, and a basketball. Sifting through an assortment of other junk yielded nothing of value and I tossed the basketball disinterestedly into a corner.

A loud crash startled me as the ball knocked aside some iron poles and a broom. Hastily I started towards the fallen pile of sticks with the intention of straightening them out before I realized no one would probably care about these things. As I turned to leave I saw something else of considerable interest leaning amongst the collection of poles that were still standing.

Within the rusting junk what looked like a rifle of sorts stood out starkly like some black sheep. Setting the crutch down, I dragged the rifle out from amongst the other garbage and inspected it in the dim light. A VSS Vintorez, a Russian rifle which continued to be popular well into the 21st century. Ejecting the magazine I flicked out whatever was left in it with one thumb. Two rounds. The rifle itself looked to be in a bad condition and I hoped the rotating bolt hadn’t rusted into uselessness. The grimy scope had cracked and would be worthless for precision aiming. Inspecting the breech I saw that it had been jammed open with a spent casing and it would take a lot of jimmying to be able to free it. I resorted to just do it later back at the grotto as I replaced the magazine and slung the rifle over one shoulder.

I was about to reach down for my crutch when the aged leather strap snapped and broke in a small puff of dust. Piece of crap, I thought to myself as I picked up both the rifle and crutch. On my way out I had the presence of mind to grab a coil of rope and started back towards the grotto. I would have looked for something else but the rifle alone was already too heavy for my tastes as I wanted to travel light. I would have to make do with just the rope and rifle.

‘This little escapade will not end well for you. For both of us.’

Coming to a halt, I strained to listen. ‘Feeny?’

‘Who else, pipsqueak?’

‘Doesn’t look like I have much of a choice now, do I?’

’There’s always a choice. Run and hide in the wilderness. Forget all this madness.’

I scoffed at no one in particular. ‘Right. And leave me all the work of staying alive so you can live in comfort inside of me. Now where have I heard that before?’

’Don’t be insolent, child. I gave you life. I delayed your inevitability.’

‘The only thing you gave me was countless years of suffering wandering a world which eventually withered away,’ I retorted silently.

‘And you would prefer the fields of judgment instead? Then let us both die, right now.’

I bit my lips from her rebuke. ‘I hate you. I hate all that you ever made out of me.’

‘The feeling is mutual, pipsqueak. But it appears you have little choice in the matter, as do I. There is no escape for the both of us.’

Rilofene fell silent and I knew she had retreated back to wherever she woke up from. Whatever fragment of her that had been left behind inside of me only spoke to me once a long time ago in that faraway soulscape and ever since my return to Gensokyo she has been able to make her presence known twice in a few weeks. I experienced an uncanny fear that the events in Gensokyo lately were strengthening her internal existence and she might be establishing some form of dominion over me.

I gave up thinking about it and went back to the grotto.
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‘Maps?’ she repeated.

‘Recent ones. Whatever you have of the areas outside of the valley,’ I explained.

Screeches sat on her customary chair while I lounged on the bed in the healing warrens which had become my temporary room of sorts. She wasn’t exactly thrilled when I had asked some of the villagers to call on her but she came as I requested nonetheless. It was important that I checked to see if the geography of Gensokyo had experienced any changes in the years since I had left.

She thought for a while. ‘Our last cartographer died almost eighty years ago and he never passed on his skills. I’m afraid you’re not going to find anything newer than that.’

That has to be better than nothing. ‘It’ll have to do. Where are they?’

‘In the records chamber, near the residential hollows. I can get some people to carry them here in an hour.’ She gestured at the rifle I had been working on since she arrived. ‘What’s that?’

‘Oh, this? This, my girl, is my boom-stick.’ I hefted the weapon triumphantly into the air with one hand for her to see. ‘Well it won’t make much of a boom at the moment. This thing is a total wreck.’ That was true enough. Despite being able to free the jammed breech, much of the rotating bolt assembly had experienced a great deal of wear. The grimy antique wouldn’t be able to endure more than a single shot before jamming permanently.

‘You’re really leaving, aren’t you?’ she whispered slowly.

‘I don’t really have a choice.’ I rolled my eyes as I thought about a certain someone. ‘Otherwise I go “froggy froggy”.’ Maybe I should save that one shot for her. That would make me really happy before she came back to kill me.

‘What?’ she frowned. ‘If you’re under some sort of duress, don’t go. Stay here with us. We can shelter you at least. It’s better than going out into the wilds. No one has ventured outside of the valley in years. There’s no telling what lurks out there now.’

Now why had she suddenly turned so nice? Just a few days ago she had hated my guts inside out. I just had to poke at her. ‘My my, aren’t we being nice today.’

She retorted with a loud sigh. ‘Shut up about that already. I’ve made my peace. I’ve thought long and hard after that night. Even if I don’t fully understand it I realized you made a difficult choice for us all. It’s been so many years already. I think it’s time we all started to move on.’

I felt immeasurably lighter for a few moments. For once in a long time, a small piece of the burden I carried around had been lifted. ‘Atta girl,’ I gave her a mock punch in the face with a grin. ‘And no, I’m afraid the village will offer little protection for me,’ I remarked as I recalled how Ice Cubes had been able to pop up right next to me unnoticed a few nights ago.

She brushed my hand away, annoyed. ‘Will you ever come back to us?’

I could only shrug. ‘I don’t know. I hope so. I’ll find some way to get back alive. That’s about the only thing I’m good at; staying alive.’ Looking at her now I could see that she had regained a small semblance of the affection she had for me those many years ago. I decided to risk a possible outburst by asking for her assistance. ‘Look, I need your help. I’ll need a horse and rations if you can spare any, and a knife plus climbing hooks. Think you can manage those?’

Her eyes rose inquisitively, ‘It shouldn’t be a problem, but where are you going?’

‘The mountains. That tengu nest,’ I replied shortly.

The frown came back to her face, mixed with equal amounts of concern. ‘You’re insane! I know what you did there after you ran from the village. The tengu are going to kill you if they recognize you!

‘Actually, Aya has already tried that. It’s why I’ve been tied to this bed for the past few weeks.’ But I had to wonder just how I was going to sneak into an entire community of tengu and steal Short Stuff away from them. Despite Ice Cubes’s belief that I could walk up to them openly and negotiate for the return of the kid, she didn’t know the first thing about what I had done to their precious treasure and Lord Tenma many years ago. In the past, I had approached the tengu under the guise of a sage after escaping the human village, offering to teach their people the ways to manipulate and bend the weather for their own needs. They trusted me and welcomed me, and I had betrayed that trust by stealing their sacred treasure and drugging their Lord Tenma to use as a hostage for my escape.

I had broken their treasure, the lens they never knew was special, in my attempt to access the akashic records to secure a way back to the Outside and little did I know that Lord Tenma had a dangerous allergy to the piper methysticum I had poisoned him with. It almost killed the good lord instead of paralyzing him and the whole community had been more than thrilled at the prospect of hunting me down to skin me alive for stealing their precious trinket and my attempted assassination of their chief after my second escape. Aya had been one of the few that were particularly incensed with what I did to her little crush.

Still, there was no turning back now and I would have to enter the lion’s den regardless of the risks. ‘Get the maps here and let me have some time with them while you arrange for my other things. I’m leaving tomorrow night.’

Screeches made no indication of complying with my requests. It was apparent she stood firm against my decision she considered was suicidal. ‘Leaving the valley at night in your current condition with no guards and a wreck of a weapon for defense? If the youkai catch you out in the open you’re done for!’ Taking my arm with both hands she pleaded softly, ‘This is tantamount to madness. Remain with us and you’ll have the villagers at least to offer a bit of protection. We can work something out, I’m sure of it!’

It was a tempting thought and I had found myself briefly considering the possibility of her words. Seeing my silence as a sign of my reconsideration she pushed her suggestion harder. ‘You can stay deep in the grotto. Nothing can get to you here. You’ll be safe to live a life out with other people. Peaceful and free from worries. I’ll be here. We’ll be here! For many more centuries to come.’ Blushing, she forced out what she had been suppressing all night. ‘I… I want you to stay.’

That screamed of bipolar disorder. First she wants to violate my corpse with a pike and now she’s all lovey-dovey? At any rate, staying here would only endanger her and the villagers from whatever Ice Cubes might be tempted into trying in order to get to me. ‘Sorry, but I don’t really have a choice.’ Seeing her dejected figure I tried to make her feel better at least. ‘No need to fret, I’ll be back anyway. We can eat all the noodles you like by then.’

She was about to protest again before I silenced her with one hand. ‘Look, just do it. I don’t have time to argue anymore. Get the maps, then the horse and supplies. I need time alone to try and sort through this debacle.’

Screeches rose and left without another word, obviously displeased at my decision and I waited in silence for the delivery of my maps. They came just as I got impatient enough to think about getting them myself and I waved her curious servants away. Spreading one of the old vellum out on the bed the brittle paper actually cracked in a few places simultaneously as I smoothed them out and I froze in alarm, hoping the rest of the document wouldn’t fall apart. Pinning one end of the vellum down with the rifle, I held onto the other end and inspected the faded contents.

Whoever drew this had obviously been a master of the trade. Precise annotations and topographical details had been painstakingly fitted into the rather small map and were scaled accurately. I could easily recognize the village and the valley it sat in. Slowly tracing one finger through the landmarks I could remember I tried to imagine a general direction or path that would be the least risky. The geography remained more or less the same except for a few noticeable rivers which had popped up here and there. There shouldn’t be much of a problem in getting to the mountain by traversing the Night Road but going through the Great Youkai Forest might be somewhat of an issue before I hit the base of the mountain.

Inspection of the other maps provided nothing else of value; they mainly covered the other areas of Gensokyo I had no interest in. Sweeping the entire stack of vellum maps off the bed I reached down and extracted Byakuren’s journal from where I had secreted it as I stretched back on the bed. I flipped through the pages randomly trying to see if I missed anything before I tossed the book into a brazier. There wasn’t really a point in destroying it since no one could probably read the thing anyway; but I owed her enough to at least keep her journal out of the hands of people she obviously didn’t want peeking into.

Browsing through the pages yielded nothing of additional interest but on the last few pages of her journal I had missed out she had written short descriptions about the types of Visitors she had observed during her encounters with them.

The smallest form I had seen of the Visitors seem to be the juveniles. They are easily destroyed, requiring the least application of force before they disintegrated. Unlike their bigger brethren, juveniles are unable to assume other forms and vary mainly between looking like semi-transparent disks of black and hollow rings in a more solid black. This is the only form I had been able to deal with. The larger Visitors are simply immune to conventional means of destruction.

The Visitors are capable of merging into a bigger form in the presence of some sort of overseer. I have been unable to determine if such overseers have a definite shape or not but their presence is unmistakable as they are able to compel juveniles in the vicinity to congregate on them and absorb them to grow. Their maximum mass seem to be limited to the size of an average human but overseers are naturally drawn to one another and are capable of merging with one another for the next stage of their metamorphosis.

The biggest form observable is the tyrant, the result from the congregation of numerous fully-grown overseers. They are monstrous, hardy creatures of flowing dark and lambent shadows and they have remarkable resistance against destruction as I had the misfortune of finding out first-hand. Unlike the overseers they are capable of assuming virtually any form that would facilitate their survival or purpose.

I am unable to fathom how the Visitors have come into being, what they really are, or why they are singularly drawn to Yuhiko so much but I suspect these things could be responsible for the death of her family. But it doesn’t make sense that they would leave her alone when the rest of her family was slaughtered. I can never sense any form of consciousness or thought from the Visitors but they obviously possess cunning intelligence and are driven towards a single purpose.

Well that was rather interesting. Whatever these “Visitors” were, Short Stuff seems to be attracting them like iron to lodestone. Would she be doomed to run from these things for the rest of her life? Poor kid. Much like how I can never escape my eventual death, so shall she be condemned to run from the Visitors until her end. We would forever be hounded by an opponent we have no hope of defeating.

Shortly before I closed my eyes in fatigued resignation, I flung Byakuren’s final words into the brazier at the end of the chamber. The remainder of her journal dissipated in glowing embers when I finally fell asleep.
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Screeches had brought the horse and supplies just as promised and the expression she wore on her face was one of major disapproval mixed with distaste. ‘Why are you wearing the dead nun’s clothes?’

I gave her a little mock dance of joy. ‘You like it? I just have this fetish for dressing in dead people’s clothes I have to satisfy on a monthly basis,’ I replied sarcastically. ‘Never mind. Just give me the reins and go back home.’

She didn’t pretend to understand but she made one last ditch attempt at dissuading me. ‘I don’t know why you’re so keen on this foolish venture. What is it that frightens you so much you’d risk traversing the wildlands to keep it away? You still have a chance to abandon this crazy outing now.’

‘We’ve been through that before and frankly I’m tired of repeating myself. I just want to get this done so I can get back to my own life so drop the matter already, will you?’ I sighed as I moved to inspect the rations she had prepared. Flipping the harness pouch open I could see several packages of dried vegetables and preserved fruit. Great, more vegetarian meals ahead. Don’t these people ever eat meat or something?

Giving Screeches a short wave I said my farewells. ‘Eh, well, goodbye. Thanks for the help and all.’

Biting her lip she took a few steps forward, as if she wanted to do something. She stopped just a pace or two away from me and looked hard at the ground. Under the darkness I couldn’t make out much of her features but as she brought her head into the moonlight I could see the tears she had been hiding. Perhaps she was having difficulty in deciding whether to give me a good-luck handshake or to pound me senseless and drag me forcefully back to the village.

Oh what the hell. I made the decision for her. Taking a step towards her I gave her a light hug. ‘Thanks really. For the stuff. And most of all, for Keine,’ I whispered into her ears.

Gripping me hard she returned the hug, her tears staining my clothes. ‘You better come back alive, you stupid weirdo. You have a home here now.’

Cramming the rest of my stuff into the pouch I dragged myself onto the horse with great difficulty, an action that would have otherwise been effortless if it wasn’t for my fracture. Screeches continued to stare at me as I kicked at the horse wordlessly and started up the road leading out of the valley and eventually into the less hospitable regions of Gensokyo. Just before I made the turn that would hide the village from view I looked back once and saw Screeches still rooted to the same spot. I spurred the horse onwards.

I made good progress down the overgrown road leading to the great forest guided by both the natural moonlight of Gensokyo and the artificial illumination of the eye. Normally, navigation in Gensokyo is accomplished solely using the sun or moon; the stars were usually too unreliable as they tend to have a habit of shifting into new constellations on a yearly basis and a compass was all but useless due to the complete lack of a magnetic field. Fortunately for me, False Dawn proved to be a far better compass I could ever ask for. I didn’t need to carry anything and a simple glance upwards at it could tell me the direction I was heading towards.

Years of negligence had left the Night Road overgrown with small greeneries and even trees had started to grow sporadically. In time nature would reclaim the road and the only sign that humans had touched this part of Gensokyo before would be the occasional stone markers stacked at the sides of the road. Hands twitching, I pulled the rifle out of the pouch slightly, making sure I would be able to draw it in an instant should the need arise. Silently, I vowed to myself I wouldn’t be caught unprepared a second time.

I had purposefully picked the night to start on my journey so I would have plenty of time to get clear of the Great Youkai Forest in daytime. Most youkai in the past were greatly bothered by light and as such, tend not to disturb humans much during daytimes, preferring to sleep or engage in their own games. I prayed this was still true today. Riding through the youkai hotspot at night was just asking for trouble. If I would somehow reach the forest before daybreak I would just wait at the fringes of the forest until the time was right to move in.

The night passed uneventfully; the only thing that chose to attack me on the decaying road was some mosquitoes that earned a quick death with a slap or two and I made good speed despite the unfavorable condition of the pathway. There was no way to tell how long I had been traversing the overgrown road but I estimated it had been more or less four hours since my departure. I should be hitting the fringes of the great forest within the next half an hour or so if memory served me right. By the looks of things I was ahead of schedule by nearly two hours and I chose to make my stop at a nearby creek for a brief rest and to water the horse. Given the choice I would rather stay away from the great forest while night still ruled. The further I was away from the great forest the better I felt.

The shallow creek ran silently through a depression in the earth ringed by a rather sparse number of trees, probably a lost cousin of some river further upstream. Tying the horse to a tree next to the creek I settled down against a nearby tree and huddled into a small ball, trying to conserve body heat that the cold night air stole away with great efficiency. Unnatural, cold winds replaced the cool air and I began to realize something was rapidly lowering the temperature around this area.

I knew before she even showed up that the abominable fairy had come to check on me again. She glided slowly in the air, seemingly buoyed by the cold atmosphere permeating this place and settled down in front of me, arms crossed and blue eyes dimly glowing in the dark. I didn’t even look up at her as I rubbed myself for what little warmth I could generate.

‘Good to see you finally made a move. Smart choice. Now-‘ she began.

‘Go to the mountains and get the kid,’ I finished for her, still staring at the ground.

I could almost feel her glee. ‘Yes, yes, and-‘

‘Pick up the kid. Bring her to the shrine,’ I mumbled, not bothering to even stare at her.

‘Well I’m glad we’re off to such a good start. Remember, I-‘ she began anew.

I didn’t need to hear the rest. ‘Have your eyes on me so I shouldn’t try anything funny.’

She sounded a tad bit annoyed as she reaffirmed her earlier statement, ‘Uh, yes, and if you-‘

‘Try to run away you’ll froggy froggy me.’ I finished lamely.

And I finally set her off as she shrieked at me, ‘WILL YOU STOP DOING THAT?! IT’S SO ANNOYING, GODS! SHUT UP AND LET ME FINISH!’

I looked up at her now. The temperature seemed to have risen slightly, probably because she lost her cool, so to say. Smiling inwards, I experienced a moment of guilty pleasure from her anger, the only sort of pathetic retribution I could exact on her. ‘Well what do you want then? I already did everything you asked so far and I’m about to go and get myself killed from blundering about in a forest filled with youkai for your next “homework assignment”. If you’re going to hound me every step of the way how about you give me a hand with this stupid errand?’

Pausing momentarily in my tirade to gasp for some air, I screeched back at her out of patience, built up by the frustration and agonies from the past few weeks. ‘And while we’re at it HOW ABOUT YOU GO GET HER YOURSELF GENIUS?! YOU SURE AS HELL HAVE A DAMN EASIER WAY OF GETTING THE KID! I don’t know, go up to her in a fog and freeze her into a ball and roll it down to the shrine or something! Why do you even need me?!’

Gliding closer, she bent down to my level and lifted my head with a cold finger, staring right into my eyes with a cold fury she was trying her best to quench. I gulped as she hissed into my face, ‘I need you, froggy, because we are anathema to the tengu. You humans may see youkai as an undivided species but I assure you, numerous factions with their own agendas exist within the group. You demonstrate a desperate will to survive which will come to be very useful to us. You are a tool, nothing more, and you should watch your tone while you still retain some use.’

Ice Cubes removed her finger from my chin and I could feel the tiny bit of frost that had built up around it, rubbing it with one hand frantically to try and get some heat back in while I scuttled backwards from her. I’ve had it. I decided to just kill her right now and deal with the consequences later as I limped quickly to my horse and whipped the rifle out. Turning and bringing it to bear at where she had been standing, I found myself aiming at nothing but thin air.

Her disembodied voice drifted back from wherever she had gone. ‘Remember, I’m-‘

I screamed back into the night air, ‘Yeah yeah I know. Always watching me!’

‘… SHUT UP AND GET GOING, MEAT!!’ came the incensed reply.

Vengefully impaling the harness pouch with the rifle I climbed back onto the horse, giving it an angry kick as I nudged it towards the road. I found myself kicking the poor guy a lot more than necessary, probably some subconscious attempt at venting anger rather than intentional abuse and he galloped a bit too quickly before I could slow him down a bit. Hanging my head I tried to shove the infuriating encounter into the back of my head as I focused on more pressing issues, like how I was going to stay alive during the coming days.

I let the pack animal go at his own speed after pointing him in the right direction, mind working in full gear.
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The trek through the Great Youkai Forest had its fair share of dangers and took nearly four days to go through, though said dangers were exclusively those brought about by treacherous terrain and getting lost rather than dangers from youkai as I had originally feared. Fortunately for me there had been no chance encounters with them of any sort, although I had to attribute that to the river I made constant detours to whenever I had to stop for the night or travel in the dark, the very same river that eventually made its way down into the valley and through the human settlement. It took me out of the way but it was the safest bet for traversing the great forest since, according to Byakuren, youkai had a habit of avoiding this particular river for some unexplained reason.

Still, it was highly unusual to not run into a single unruly or hostile youkai that didn’t feel like terrorizing me during my trek. I half expected some sort of stalking or random noises rattling my nerves during the whole trip but things had been as peaceful as a normal hike through civilization-tamed woods in someone’s backyard. Nevertheless I experienced an occasional sense that something was not right, as if there was someone standing right behind me and staring at me. I would spin back in an abrupt turn only to find nothing but more of nature’s children swaying with the wind, spindly branches and fluttering leaves and all. Was it Ice Cubes, making true on her promise to “keep an eye on me”?

Rilofene too, had somehow felt my indescribable sensations and one time I thought I had felt a stir of recognition within her, but she made no attempt at communication like she previously had and faded away just as quickly. I tried to sense for her consciousness within me but it was a futile effort; it was like trying to drag out a specific moment out of the maelstrom of the entirety of my memories. Disturbed, I pressed on and wondered briefly if whatever was triggering my primordial sense for danger had also kept the youkai well away.

My horse saw little use during the trip. The only time he would serve me was when I had to move in the dark near the river. The dense growth of greenery did not allow for an easy time travelling on horseback and I had to resort back to walking during the day. It wasn’t a good experience but it wasn’t altogether bad as well. Walking gave me the sort of exercise I needed for my recovery and I was able to more or less walk normally now, though running was still out of the question.

The last leg of the trek I made in a straight dash from early morning until late afternoon, guided by the occasional glimpses of the mountain now in full view. It was still an imposing and majestic sight, highly reminiscent of the mountains of old that were still covered by nature’s blessings. Numerous waterfalls ran down its slopes hemmed by untold amounts of forestry and greenery. In the distant peaks that were partially obscured by pristine white clouds lay my destination, the tengu settlement of Tentou Youji, or Heaven Cradle translated crudely. The tengu were an arrogant and prideful lot, thinking they were the closest descendants to gods and thus, had made their homes there many long years ago.

The beautiful sight of the mist-shrouded mountain might have stolen the hearts of maidens and brought tears to the eyes of young men, but it brought nothing but a sense of anxiety and fear for me. I clung on to the unrealistic hope that they would somehow not recognize me if they ever caught me but that was just deceiving myself. Glumly, I picked my way towards the distant grasslands as I moved past the ever-thinning number of trees. In another half hour or so I would be clear of the Great Youkai Forest and in the rolling flatlands at the base of the mountain. From there, I would seek out the landmarks that had guided my escape those many years ago. I would have to follow them in reverse.

Within hours I had found my first landmark, a ring of bleached boulders in the middle of nowhere just as False Dawn’s dayglow continued to die and gave way to the night. Briefly, I considered the idea of making camp here but the notion of sleeping out in the open in full view of anything didn’t sit well with me. I would have to press on until I could get into the relative cover of the caves I hoped still existed. Several of the landmarks had disappeared with the passage of time but I didn’t worry too much about them; I already knew by heart what this path roughly looked like. As long as a few of the others ahead of these still stood, I would be fine.

In time, I stood before the gaping maw of the thing I sought, rhyolite caves of a brilliant white. A fine layer of mineral salt covered the ground within and the small amount that had spilled out glittered in the earth it had mixed in from the dual moonlight shining down. Taking the horse to a tree next to a little pond I hooped the reins three times around it and took the rifle and climbing gear out, groaning under the weight of it all. It won’t matter in a while; I would be getting rid of the climbing gear soon enough.

Picking my way through the entrance I chose a spot a little inside to rest as I waited for daybreak. Trying to navigate the caves now would be foolish without some light. I knew from past experience that daytime would light up the rhyolite caves in much the same way like torches illuminating the grotto from the village. The light would reflect and bounce in a daisy-chain of light show as it refracted off of the countless opal deposits forming in every crack and crevice. The cave was probably a result of ancient volcanic activity and they essentially formed a beehive of passages and tunnels under the skin of the mountain.

Drawing the deceased nun’s clothes closer about me I huddled into a small fissure between two boulders. The silk offered good protection against the cold and I was grateful for that fact at least, no matter how gaudily flashy it looked. I would have to decide on some sort of plan for getting the kid soon, but for now I would sleep. Thinking about Short Stuff made me wonder how she’s doing now. How were the tengu keeping her? Was she fine? Useless to ponder about it. I would find out soon, I thought as I tried to sleep.
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I cursed as I forced myself to wake up, having noticed the glow of day streaming in from all directions. I hadn’t meant to sleep for more than an hour or two but I could tell from the numbness of my arms and legs that I had slept a lot longer than that. Grabbing my stuff I had carelessly discarded at my feet the previous night I made my way towards the sloping passageways and stopped to recall which direction my escape route had been in. Light now poured in from the occasional natural fissure and lit the way as I picked the left tunnel. It wouldn’t matter which passage I took; this particular part of the rhyolite caves shared the same passageways that would eventually end up at a great wall of basalt as long as I kept going uphill.

Hours drifted by as I kept praying that the day wouldn’t end before I hit the wall. I didn’t want to bump my way blindly through the darkened caves lest I risk breaking a neck or dropping into a newly-formed fissure and break my legs anew. I began to sweat from the heat emanating through the walls or ground like some natural sauna. Somewhere close by, behind several hundred meters of volcanic rock, a magma tunnel had probably formed during the long years of my absence. Silently I wondered if the mountain might become active again in another few centuries; that would be an amusing sight seeing how the tengu and kappa essentially built their homes right on top of a ticking time-bomb.

Eventually the sloping tunnels evened out and I knew I was getting close to the wall. Absent-mindedly, I untied one of the climbing hooks from the length of rope and fastened one end of the rope to it, making a crude camming device out of it. As I tightened the knot the claustrophobic walls of the passageway opened out into a huge gallery of basalt and the all too familiar sight of the wall stood before me. The oppressive heat had largely abated and I took a moment to breathe in the cool underground draft while I made my way to the great wall.

All around me the bony remnants of unidentified creatures and humans littered the ground as far as the eye can see. Stepping on the old bones, they cracked and disintegrated beneath the pressure of my footsteps, a silent testament to the years they had mutely witnessed go by. I knew from the histories that this was an ancient dumping ground for the inhabitants of the mountains long ago, during earlier times when youkai were still savage creatures that delighted from feasting on humans as well as their own. The earliest tribe of youkai which had settled down on the mountains made this their dumping pit of sorts for the parts they found undesirable to gorge on.

I prowled the base of the wall, looking for spots I could hook the makeshift camming device into and eventually found a promising one; twin jagged basalt outcroppings near the top that looked like they would support my weight. The climb would not be difficult; the wall was anything but vertical, it more or less lay at a sixty degree angle and would be easily scalable by the smallest of children with the proper tools. Taking aim, I spun the camming device a few times to gain momentum before letting it loose at the basalt fangs. The first few times I missed the gap between the teeth but on my fourth try, the hook went right through the gap and landed on the other side with a resounding clang.

Giving the rope a strong tug, I felt the climbing hook on the other end catch an obstacle and gingerly applied some weight to the rope. It held; so far so good. Gripping the rope with both hands now, I gave it a tremendous pull that sent numerous pebbles raining down but still the paraphernalia stood rooted to its spot. Confident that I had a good perch up there, I started to scale the wall of basalt, using the remaining climbing hook as support.

The climb didn’t take more than ten minutes but the exertions made it feel more like an hour. With muscles burning in lactic acid and old injuries screaming in protest I finally cleared the lip of the drop and sat down to catch my breath. Looking downwards I could see the distant ground; a stark contrast in white compared to the basalt wall. As I was about to get up and leave, I felt another ripple of consciousness within myself, a tiny whiff of recognition, a sliver of panic, and then all was still once more.

That had been Rilofene stirring again. Something was obviously upsetting the dead god and I had no idea how I would be able to talk to her. Insofar, the only sort of communication we had been able to establish had originated from her and I suspected without her intervention she would never be able to hear me no matter how much I shouted into myself. Still, I had to try.

‘What is it?’ I queried silently.

No response.

I tried again. ‘Pizza delivery’s here! Open the door, will ya?’


I shrugged mentally. Best not to waste time hanging around trying to badger her into talking while I still had the light of day to illuminate the rest of my spelunking. Glad to be able to ditch the rope and climbing hooks at last, I flung the climbing hook I held against one wall and adjusted the rifle sling I had made from straps of rolled silk to replace the disintegrating leather before I continued on into the upper maze of passageways. Thirst and hunger started to gnaw at me now that the heat was no longer bothering me and I cursed the fact that I hadn’t saved one last parcel of the dried rations Screeches had provided. Shaking the nagging hunger from my mind I tried to concentrate on getting out of the honeycombed caves first.

There was no longer a singular direction that led to a specific finishing point here; instead, I would have to follow the ancient signs of habitation to get to an exit. The previous inhabitants of these caves, distant ancient ancestors of the tengu today, knew their way around well enough to make the upper tunnels their home. All I needed to do was follow the trail of old bones, odd formations of wood and rocks, the occasional pit ringed with stones, and other such oddities that indicated prior settlement in the tunnels. Eventually, they would lead me to an exit near the peak of the mountain.

As I kept track of the debris path, I noticed signs of recent travelers that told me these tunnels were not as forgotten as I had suspected them to be. Had the tengu decided to reopen the ancient passageways for use during the last few years? Or did some other creature of the mountains made this place their new home? Whatever the case I had no desire to run into either party and I quickened my pace as I noticed the dying artificial illumination within the tunnels. Day was once again giving way to night and I would have to make haste.

At long last, following the winding tunnels upwards in an endless spiral of sorts, I found something of an exit as the last bit of light dwindled away completely, a partially caved-in opening I had to squeeze through with great difficulty to get into open air, freedom, and the cold mountain winds. Once I had cleared the exit I turned back and poked at the rocks partially obstructing the hole with the rifle, hoping to make a big enough entrance for my return trip later while making a mental note where it lay from the massive structure shrouded in mist but still faintly visible in the moonlight.

I sighed silently as I regarded the monolithic shadows. Regretfully, I had returned to the tengu stronghold after so many years.
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I tried to stay within the shadows the massive walls cast on the mountain landscape as I made my furtive way towards the base of the southern parapets. Overhead, I could see gliding figures in the dense fog and surmised that it was a tengu patrol of sorts, meticulously combing the airways for intruders or perhaps, potential food. Crouching against a mossy boulder I waited for the silhouettes to drift away before I managed another small sprint to my next cover, piles of rotting timber that had once been a part of some sort of machine.

The settlement had undergone a tremendous change since the last time I was here. Instead of a smattering collection of earthen buildings ringed by crude wooden palisades, it was now truly worthy of being called a stronghold. Massive stone walls ran high into the thin mountain air all around the settlement and what looked like a gate of sorts had been carved into the eastern wall. Torches lined the parapets of the walls like some sort of medieval castle and I had no doubt that those would be patrolled too. Briefly I wondered what the interior would look like now; the outside was far too heavily fortified for any glimpses of the inside.

Fear and dismay sank into me as I realized they had learned from and adapted to what I had taught them of military reorganization as well as engineering. As much as the tengu had despised me, they knew well enough to recognize sensible knowledge and had quickly mastered what I had been able to impart to them during my brief stay with them years ago. It would now be my downfall, further complicating my assumed attempts at stealthily extracting Short Stuff from their care. I gave a silent curse.

I aimed the rifle at the distant parapets, adjusting the cracked scope as I did. The grime I had tried to wipe off of the magnifying lenses hadn’t come off completely but I could still make out the silhouettes of moving figures up there but it didn’t look like any of them stopped much to glance downwards at the surrounding land. I supposed I wouldn’t have much trouble moving right up to the walls even with the dim moonlight shining down on that face of the stronghold if the wall guards weren’t so keen on checking below. I made up my mind.

Cutting through the shadows of drifting clouds I slid silently through the rocky landscape and made it to the wall in a few short minutes, taking care not to make too much noise as the pebbles beneath my footing crunched and groaned. Pain stung my bones as the fracture reminded me that it hadn’t completely healed yet and I should take things slow. Pressing myself against the wall, I waited momentarily for it to subside and trained the rifle upwards once more. No guards this time; all was silent, no alarm of sorts rang out, no one shouted about intruders, nothing dove from the sky to rip me apart and best of all, the night was not getting any younger. They would relax their guard soon enough.

Checking to see if the coast was clear, I proceeded to move against the wall stealthily, looking for a particular something they must have built into the wall if they had truly used everything I had taught them. I found one of them shortly; small rounded grates designed to drain excess water that would otherwise seep into the walls with time and eventually weaken and crumble them once the waterlogged foundations gave out. Poking carefully at the grate I noticed the honeycombed iron had rusted greatly and some of it crumbled at my touch. They might have been able to build fancy walls but their skills at metallurgy were still piss-poor at best. Using the rifle as a crowbar I peeled the rest of the rusted grate away and peered through the hole.

Darkness, dank, and light at the end of the tunnel. I went on all fours and crawled into the hole, careful not to bump the rifle against the roof of the tight space. It took a few more minutes before I hit the end of the hole and I was greeted by the sight of numerous stone-worked buildings huddled together in the dark. Poking my head out from the drainage compartment I tried to look for signs of activity but there were none except for occasional lights in some of the buildings. The numerous gaps between buildings serving as streets of a sort looked to be as deserted as the lonely wasteland of the mountains. Waiting for several more minutes inside the hole I checked to see if there would be patrols within the stronghold as well but aside from the mourning winds there was no apparent activity I could observe.

I chose to make my move, crawling out of the slimy hole and creeping towards one of the lighted buildings. Peering left and right around the corners I couldn’t find a door of any sort and suddenly remembered that these creatures would have no use for doors. Open windows and rooftops served well enough as entrances for their flighty kind. Instead, I picked a window to crawl through and found myself on the inside in short order, landing on more earthen ground and greeted by the smell of burning incense.

I had infiltrated some sort of preparation area or storage room; numerous strips of skinned animals I couldn’t identify hung from hooks that swayed silently, some sort of dried brown grass lay all around bundled in clumps and there were human tools as well; axes, hammers, and plenty of knives. Padding stealthily to the collection of sharp things that was arrayed neatly on a sort of stone block I picked a particularly wicked-looking long blade that had probably saw a lot of use in skinning these unnamed critters and drew it from its cousins silently as I moved towards another opening leading into a lighted room.

Peering around the corner slowly, I could see a hairy shape crouched in front of a fire pit. From the constant nodding of its head I surmised it was probably falling asleep hunched in front of the warmth of the fire. Black tufts of hair grew out of its back and it had a human enough head; probably some sort of tengu I didn’t care enough to remember. Taking one silent step towards it, I held the skinning knife at ready and took another step towards it. I was glad for the fact that my shadows would be bouncing behind it instead of some place within its line of sight as I continued to close on the creature.

The rifle would be useless for threatening it; these creatures would never recognize an Outsider weapon as a threat but I was sure my pointy friend I gripped in my hand would convince the creature to stay silent judging from the amount of small animals it had ripped through. In one smooth motion, I took the last step, grabbed its head and yanked back with its hair and brought the skinning knife fully into its view, pressed against the creature’s temple. The creature’s face came into view and it stared back at the knife and then at me in terror, uttering a small gasp and arms flailing uselessly for a bit before bracing themselves against the ground to balance itself.

Looks male and young, but then again he might be as old as everything else for all I knew. His eyes remained fixed on mine and the look I gave him told him what I would do if he made a commotion. His body reeked of unwashed fur and his hair was of little improvement in comparison. Wafts of the stench of rotting meat drifted about him and I almost gagged from the smell. Nevertheless, I forced myself to bend down behind him and whisper in a menacing hiss. ‘Stay quiet or this thing goes right into your brain.’

A single blink was the only indication of his co-operation.

Good. ‘Now, I want you to blink once for “yes” and twice for “no”. Understand?’

One blink.

Now we were getting somewhere. ‘Was there a stranger brought here a few weeks ago? A mere human child.’

Another blink.

‘Do you know where she is?’

A blink in response.

I knelt and pulled his hair back even more, forcing tears into his eyes as I whispered into his ears, ‘I want you to tell me where she is, but quietly. Make a wrong move and don’t believe for a second that I would hesitate to plunge your pretty knife into your head. Understood? Now tell me.’

He tried to speak once, a bit too loud and I gripped his hair and yanked again, pushing the knife into his forehead slightly and drawing a tiny bead of blood. Freezing, he tried again in a low voice, ‘Sh.. she’s in Lord Tenma’s residence, near the middle of the village, the guest rooms. Follow the path northwards and you will s…see it.’

I whispered back with a grin. ‘Why thank you my friend. That was most helpful. Now I get to kill you.’ Drawing the knife perpendicular around his head, I brought the point against the back of his head now as he whimpered and cried, closing his eyes and bracing for the death he expected was coming for him. It didn’t even occur to him to scream and warn everyone since he was going to die anyway. I felt an ageless glee and a rush of unidentified emotions at the prospect of ending his life. Logic and rational thought burned away in the flames of my desires and I suppressed the urge to giggle and laugh as I prepared to push the knife into his head. I couldn’t think straight anymore and every nerve in my body screamed for me to murder him and I started to recognize the rising feeling of gratification as my ancient killer-companion from the age when I had served elder gods.

I wanted to give in to the urge and seek that moment of release when I had sudden flashes of the night in the village years ago, of Keine’s death by my hands and her saddened look during that one time I had dreamt of her. The knife clattered to the ground as my senses returned, the bloodlust subsiding and I stared at the hand that had held the knife in confusion. What was I doing? I had abandoned that past a long time ago. I wanted no part of it anymore.

The smelly tengu opened his eyes now, turning back to stare at me and scuttling backwards slightly in wide-eyed terror, and the situation came back to me in a rush. He was about to open his mouth to say something, or perhaps to shout and scream now that he realized I wasn’t going to kill him. Before his lips even parted, I hoisted my antique VSS Vintorez and swung the rifle full-force into his face like a baseball bat and he crumbled to the ground in silence, the impact knocking him senseless but also breaking my rifle from the wooden stock upwards and I found myself staring in dismay at the barrel of the former-rifle I now held. Shit, I never even got to fire a single shot with this piece of junk.

Tossing the gun barrel into the fire pit I nudged the inert body of the tengu with one foot. He looked to be out cold well enough to last into the next day judging from the brain-rattling I had just given him. Great, now I would have nothing but a dingy knife for self defense from now onwards instead of a sniper rifle. I swiped the skinning knife from the ground and proceeded to climb out through another window once I had checked the coast.

Darting between the shadows of buildings I made my way towards the center of the stronghold, being careful to avoid the buildings which were well-lit or had obvious occupants. The lone cry of some infant pierced the silence as I crept past one building and the sounds of laughter and conversation carried through another window I ducked under. My fractured foot was starting to sting again and I endured the pain as I gritted my teeth. Maintaining stealth in my movements was taking a heavy toll on it and I prayed I would not have to stop before I reached the central residence.

Fortunately, I didn’t have to travel far before I finally reached Lord Tenma’s holdings. The building was considerably larger than I had remembered and I had to attribute that to the expansions he had probably put into place after my escape. Spotting a portion of the building which had lost numerous segments of its mortar to expose interspaced pieces of granite, I slid over to the ruined wall silently and used the jutting granite as handholds as I clambered up towards the roof. In the space of a few moments I had reached the roof and pulled myself onto the flat surface as I surveyed my surroundings.

The roof had obviously been poorly maintained much like the wall. Holes littered the entire platform and while some of the bigger ones looked like they had been intentionally made, much of the smaller ones I could put two hands through seemed like a product of erosion. Crawling over to a few of the smaller holes I peered through them, only to find nothing but a darkened room or two or something equally unremarkable. I made my way to the other side and looked through another one with light streaming out of it. My eyes widened as I recognized the small figure slumbering on a blanket spread over several clumps of the same brown grass I had seen earlier.

It was Short Stuff, still looking no worse than the last time I had seen her except for her matted hair and unkempt clothes. Were they keeping her prisoner here or something or was she just a guest to the tengu’s rather crude hospitality? The small hole was far too small to crawl through so I hissed quietly down at her. ‘Pssst! Hey!’ She made on indication of having heard me and continued to sleep like a rock. I would have to find some way to get down there without alerting the resident lord and I moved to look for the bigger holes I had spotted earlier. On my way to the closest one I crawled over a series of holes looking like pores in a sponge and inadvertently spied someone.

Directly below me, in a rather lavish room for tengu standards, lay the naked figure of Aya and someone else on top of her. The two of them were engaged in a rather slow bout of lovemaking, the thrusting rhythm of the figure on top of Aya was echoed by her soft pants and groans of pleasure, looking like she was fully occupied by the sensations the figure was awakening in her. Occasionally the two would sway faster and Aya would sit up and grab the figure in ecstasy, her wings which she usually kept hidden and folded away behind her fully expanding now and as the other figure rocked into the moonlight I could recognize him at last.

I blanched visibly. It was Lord Tenma, erstwhile chief-leader figure of the tengu for the past five centuries at least and looking only slightly older from what I remembered him as. So the good lord had survived the poisonous herbs I fed him and it seemed like Aya had moved up from the position of Lord Tenma’s mistress to full-fledged consort during my absence to be making love in the tengu lord’s own residence. Good job, you whore, I thought silently as I backed away from the sight below and tried to inch towards the holes leading into the other rooms.

Something cracked loudly in the night air and I immediately froze. Below me, the two lovebirds continued their frenzied coupling, oblivious to the sound. Cautiously, I tried to move in reverse now and the cracking sound proliferated the silence of the night for several seconds and this time, they took notice of the sound, ceasing their lovemaking and staring upwards curiously. Shit, shit, shit. In panic, I tried to hop backwards frog-like before they could spot me but the pressure from my push did the exact opposite instead as the porous roof cracked asunder completely and caved inwards along with my falling body.

I landed on top of the two of them, still joined together as I crushed them amidst the salty scent of sweat and perspiration. Wings, legs, arms, and fists flailed in panic momentarily before they threw me off the bed in alarm. I finally had the presence of mind to start getting up and run, but a sharp pain from my aggravated fracture bogged me down and I crashed back to the ground in a sprawl. Turning, I came face to face with the imposing figure of Lord Tenma, still fully naked as he crossed his arms and stared down at me in anger. Likewise, Aya had pulled the blankets around her and lit a candle before coming to stand next to her boy-toy to see what sort of creature had the audacity to play peeping tom with the two of them.

Their expressions underwent a rapid current of changes, from anger to confusion and then to even more confusion that led to something a lot uglier. Before I could scuttle backwards and retreat, one enormous black wing extended from Lord Tenma’s back and swung into my face, karma coming full circle to haunt me after how I had swung my rifle into that tengu’s face earlier and I found myself seeing stars and tweeting birds before blacking out.
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‘Human witch!’ One gripped fist swung into my face again and I recoiled from the hit, mouth bloodied and bruised. I spat a mouthful of blood out before the fist came back for me from the other side, refilling my gums with new clumps of blood and phlegm.

‘Just wouldn’t stay dead, would you?’ More backhanded swings and a couple of kicks added in as well this time, knocking the wind out of me as they rattled my ribs. I gasped and coughed a bit as I brought my head up to look at Aya with a grin.

I just couldn’t resist the jab despite the torture I was undergoing. ‘Had fun with your boy-toy? I watched the whole thing.’ I gave Aya a huge bloody grin.

Her face flamed a crimson red as she lashed out at me again, throwing my head upwards and dizzying me for a few moments. ‘Shut your mouth, witch! You won’t be so smart-alecky once I’m done with you.’ She emphasized this with additional lashes and kicks. I could only take the abuse dumbly, with my arms and legs chained helplessly to the posts next to me. ‘I should have snapped your pretty neck when I had the chance instead of dropping you.’

I remembered the little bitch’s aerial acrobatics using me as a test subject and that set me off slightly. ‘Yeah well, your pansy drop couldn’t even break a roach’s leg.’

She stayed cool this time instead of being further incensed as she flung a retort at me, ‘And that would make you worse than a roach, witch. It doesn’t take a shaman to tell you’ve suffered grievous injuries.’ Grabbing and giving my clothes a look of disdain, she added before releasing them, ‘Even had to steal Byakuren’s clothes, did you? Truly, your decadence knows no bounds.’

‘Well that wasn’t even my idea in the first place, genius,’ I mumbled before she threw another punch towards me. I flinched in preparation before it hit me but a voice stopped her before she could let loose.

‘Aya, stop. I need her to be able to talk.’ She backed away in absolute obedience and Tenma came to stand in her place, giving me the same look of disdain. ‘Well well, you’ve a lot of guts coming back here after what you did. Tell me witch, how did you prolong your life this much? Stole some other secret from someplace else and made it yours as usual? Or is this merely another facet of those “powers” you proposed to have?’

I stared at him through red eyes, wondering what I could possibly say to him. I needed the lens so I could go home? Sorry I poisoned you; I didn’t think it would almost kill you? The time for explanations and excuses was long gone and I realized they weren’t even looking for those. They simply wanted to exact the vengeance on me which had been long overdue. My head rolled listlessly as I wondered whether or not they would kill me. Lord Tenma certainly wouldn’t hesitate and Aya would support her boy-toy’s decision wholeheartedly.

‘No answers? Still as stubborn as usual.’ This time, it was Tenma’s turn to throw punches into my stomach and face. I coughed up blood. He continued with his assault for a minute or two before he tired of it. The strength in my legs gave out and I fell down, only to have the chains on my arms snap taut and I hung suspended in a semi kneeling, semi standing pose as I continued to swing like a ragged doll bound to the chains.

Moving into the corner of his little room of horrors, he drew a long rod of iron from the fire pit and came back to stand in front of me. Aya moved behind me in response and pulled a handful of hair painfully, forcing me to see eye to eye with Tenma once more. He brought the hot poker close to my face and I tried to avoid it but Aya had me in a fixed grip, giving me no choice but to endure the uncomfortable singe.

He knelt down to my level. ‘This is something you taught us too, do you not remember?’ He quoted the phrases and despite my situation I was surprised he had remembered so well. ‘“Treat the captives well, and care for them. All the soldiers taken must be cared for with magnanimity and sincerity so that they may be used by us.”’ It was a quote by Sun Tzu and I had taught him that out of boredom instead of anything important. It looked like that was coming back to bite me in the ass too.

Pausing briefly, he continued, ‘I’m going to give you that chance then, and treat you well. In return for telling us where you hid the lenses, I will grant you amnesty and allow you to leave here in peace. What say you, witch?’

I say I will panic right now, I thought to myself desperately. I didn’t hide their fabulous treasure because there was nothing left to hide after I used the lenses to view the akashic records. They had simply become a part of the aether the Root lay in and was no longer in this world or the Outside world. Frantically, I tried to think of a probable excuse that would give me a chance to escape when the opportunity came. ‘Uh, I’ll tell you where they are after you release me and let me go in peace?’ I replied meekly.

The hot poker swung closer to an eyeball and Aya forced my head towards it slightly. ‘Wrong answer, witch. You will tell us where they are, and then MAYBE we would consider letting you live.’ Tenma stopped and frowned thoughtfully before lifting the iron away from my face. ‘Answer my next question and I will let you live through the night and give you time to reconsider my offer. What happened to Byakuren?’

‘Gee I don’t know, wonderboy. Something snacked on her and I really have no idea what they were,’ I retorted.

Unexpectedly, Aya spoke up for me this time. ‘She might be telling the truth. That creature I told you about had been chasing her and the Hakurei child away from the temple. Something must have happened to her there.’

Tenma frowned again, falling silent as he jammed the hot poker into the ground in one swift motion. He finally spoke in a low voice, ‘This is terrible news. No youkai would harm her and no human could possibly do the same. If she’s really dead, the humans could become aggressive again in time.’ Bending down once more, he lifted my head with one hand. ‘What were these “creatures”?’

I had no reason to answer him truthfully even if I knew. ‘Like I know. Why don’t you send your lovebird out to investigate instead of asking me questions you already know I don’t have answers to?’ Aya responded by giving me a vicious knee in my back before Tenma stopped her with a look.

‘That’s enough, Aya.’ He stood and flexed his arms as he looked down at my beaten figure. ‘We will have your answer tomorrow, and if you still refuse to tell us where you hid the lenses, do not blame us for passing judgment on you.’ Beckoning at the chains, he spoke to Aya now, ‘Let her go and tie her up in the other guest room. Bar the door from outside and come see me in my chambers after that. We need to talk.’ Having said that, Tenma disappeared into the hallway outside his torture room, leaving me and Aya alone once more.

She gave an indignant grunt as she unlocked one of the cuffs. ‘I respected you once. Looked up to you like a teacher and friend, and how did you repay us? You tried to assassinate my lord and stole the sacred treasure the goddess Kanako had left for us. Is this how you truly are? Merely a manipulative witch whose only concern is her own welfare?’ The last of the cuffs came off as she continued, ‘I pray for your own good you will agree to Lord Tenma’s terms. Perhaps there is still a chance to save yourself yet.’ Dragging me roughly to my feet, Aya ran some rope through my wrists and looped them tight, pulling me along as she moved out of the room like a beaten, obedient dog in tow.

We climbed a set of stairs to the second floor of the building and she shoved me into the darkened room adjacent to where I had spied Short Stuff earlier. My knees buckled weakly and I fell to the ground hard as Aya slammed the makeshift door hard behind me, plunging the windowless room into darkness illuminated by a tiny hole or two on the ceiling. Metallic banging sounds came from behind the door and I assumed Aya was throwing metal bars across the obstacle to prevent me from opening it from the inside. The room was stark and utilitarian, with a single one of those simple beds serving as the only furniture and I hobbled over to it, collapsing onto the uncomfortable cot as the sound of Aya’s footsteps vanished beyond the door.

A sharp noise sounded from behind and I spun back to see a square window of sorts built into the wall being opened, barely big enough to fit my head through the opening. Some sort of hole for the occupants of the guest rooms to talk to each other. Short Stuff poked her face into the window to stare in surprise at me. ‘Hello.’

At least she looked a hell lot better than me. ‘Hello yourself, kid. You doin’ ok?’

‘I’m fine. What did they do to you?’ She looked momentarily at my bruised face and frowned. ‘Why did they rough you up? Why are you here now? That lady wouldn’t tell me what happened to you after we got separated that night.’

Massaging my jaws, I tried to answer her questions, ‘I sort of pissed them off. I came to get you, kid.’

Her face disappeared and I heard her slide down against the other side of the wall and heaved a small sigh of resignation. ‘Get me and go back to what? There’s nothing left for me anymore. First my family, then Byakuren. Death follows me everywhere. Maybe it would be better for me to have died to those things that killed her.’ Her voice rose in sudden concern. ‘Will They come for me again? Will all of these youkai die as well?’

I shrugged. ‘Don’t ask me. I wish I was miles away from this debacle.’ I had more important problems to deal with first, such as how I was going to convince Lord Tenma not to execute me tomorrow. Lies would be worthless; they were wary of me and would not trust me easily. Would Short Stuff be able to help? I had to try asking her later. ‘Hey, why are the tengu still keeping you here?’

‘I suppose they extend me their hospitality only as a concession to Byakuren. Now that they’re sure she won’t be coming back anytime soon to pick me up, I don’t know what they’ll do to me.’ Her face reappeared in the window and I saw she had tear rimmed eyes as she asked, ‘She’s really dead, isn’t she?’

‘Fraid so. I went back to the temple. There was nothing left of her. Either the villagers had already buried her body or there wasn’t anything left to bury after those things finished munching on her.’ I replied crudely.

‘No. No…’ she moaned as she sat down again. I could hear her soft sobs. Poor kid must have been grieving for the past few weeks. Did she even realize she was the cause of Byakuren’s death? The Visitors had come for her and…

… the Visitors. Short Stuff. Wait…

A desperate idea rapidly formed in my head. Heartless, cruel and manipulative with no regard for the lives of others as usual. I sighed. Perhaps Aya had been right. Maybe I was nothing more than a manipulative witch who only looked out for her own skin. I whispered a silent apology to Byakuren for what I was about to do. I waited for Short Stuff’s sobs to die down before I spoke to her.

‘Hey Short Stuff. Give me your ribbon for a few hours.’ I asked her casually, careful not to let my tone give away any signs of deception or desperation.

She wiped her eyes and came back to the window. ‘Um.. why?’

‘Nevermind. I just need it for a few hours.’ She hesitated and stared blankly at me. I tried again. ‘Look, just an hour or two, I’ll give it back, promise. You let me have it for a whole day that time, what’s wrong with an hour or two? There’s nowhere I can run to with your ribbon anyway,’ I told her as I gestured at the barred door of my room. She looked at where I indicated and nodded.

A couple of rustling sounds and a hand extended through the window after that brought me her red ribbon and I almost felt like ripping it out of her grasp, but took deliberate care to just take it slowly. Pulling the silky ornament from her hands, I proffered her a fake smile, ‘Hey thanks. Lets talk again tomorrow. I need some rest after all that bruising.’ Without waiting for a reply, I lay on the cot and fingered her ribbon idly. Either not understanding or no longer caring, Short Stuff stayed silent and the sound of a blanket being drawn told me she was likewise going back to sleep after the commotion.

’What the hell are you doing?! Give it back to the runt, you fool!’

Huh? Oh… now why was she so agitated? ‘Relax Feeny. I got this under control. When those Visitor things come for her soon I’ll get her to open my door in the confusion of the attack. The tengu will be far too busy dealing with the Visitors and I can slip away with Short Stuff then. It’s our only chance for survival.’

’No! You don’t understand, pipsqueak! Throw it back to her or something, NOW!’

Why on earth was she so agitated? There was something she wasn’t telling me and I had the sneaking suspicion that she knew something important about the Visitors. ‘What are you hiding?’ I accused silently.

‘Something crucial for our survival. Now DO IT before it’s too late!’

Whistling silently, I sang to her in a sing-song phrase, ‘Not happening until you tell me why~’

I could feel her hesitation, deliberation, and finally resignation.

’The Visitors have become aware of me after I freed you from their dead zone that night at the temple. I can feel their probing eyes searching for me all the time after that but they do not know my “scent” yet. If you continue to expose the little runt to their senses now, they will come once more and this time, they will be able to single out my existence from our merged consciousness.’

Fiddling with the ribbon and thinking hard. Why didn’t she tell me sooner? Rilofene might have been my patron but she always had designs of her own she never made known to me. She must have taken a great leap of faith to have just told me about her connection to the Visitors. I had to ask before I made a decision, ‘Why would they be interested in you as well?’

’I know not. They “smell” the same thing in me as the little runt and believe me when I tell you we won’t see a mere five of the giants when they come. She and I are resonating like a massive beacon to these things without the ribbon to hide her from them. I suspect that was what triggered the initial attack at the temple when your good nun friend first took the ribbon away from the runt.

Fine, whatever. I peered through the little window and spotted a bit of Short Stuff’s slumbering form. Extending one hand through the hole, I dropped the ribbon on top of her and it glided gently down to settle on her prone form. ‘There, happy now?’ I asked Rilofene dejectedly in silence.

’You’re a fool. I’m not opposed to using humans and other beings as tools to an end but at least have the brain to think things through before doing something stupid like that again.

Her chiding hit me like a barbed lash and I felt embarrassed at the half-assed plan I had cooked up. How was I to know we would be at risk as well if Rilofene never told me about it, I thought to myself silently. Well, it wouldn’t matter anymore now. I curled up into a ball and tried to think of something else to delay my execution tomorrow. Nothing. ‘Well you have any bright ideas for tomorrow then? Because I’m all out of them.’

Silence. Great, she just had to leave me with all the work once more.

I buried my head in my arms in fatigue, clueless as to how I was going to weasel my way out of this one.
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‘Wake up! Hey. Hey! Wake up!’

I snorted in confusion as I looked around in the darkness. Something had hardened on the left side of my mouth and I wiped the stuff away with one laced arm. Just some drool. Opening my eyes wide, I waited for them to adjust to the darkness just as several booming sounds in the distance interrupted my sleepy daze.

‘Sobered up yet? Something’s happening out there.’ It was Short Stuff, peeking through the window at my sleeping form. The ribbon was back on her head. Probably had it tied back when she woke up earlier and found it on her.

‘Tell them to quit playing with the fireworks,’ I mumbled sleepily as I turned away from her gaze.

‘Those aren’t fireworks. I think it’s the sound of scatter-shots. Hey! Don’t go back to sleep. Wake up!’ came her worried voice again.

Bah. I dragged myself into an upright position and rubbed an eye idly. A few more sonic booms tore through the night and I snapped into full alert. Short Stuff was right. Someone was throwing danmaku around with reckless abandon outside. Turning to face her, I told her urgently, ‘Go to the window in your room. What do you see out there?’

She vanished for half a minute before coming back to our little hole, face ashen. ‘Some sort of black cloud directly above the settlement raining huge fireballs down into the stronghold. I… I think it’s those things at the temple. But this one is a lot bigger.’

Oh shit! Apparently the Visitors had sensed Short Stuff anyway despite losing the ribbon for only a scant few minutes and now they had come for her once more. I tried to fish for Rilofene’s consciousness and barely brushed her presence, but I could sense that Rilofene was engaged in her own desperate battle now, too busy to bother cursing my stupidity as she repeatedly dived into memory after memory embedded in my soul in an attempt to evade the Visitors’ eyes. I could feel the full force of their probing now. It was much like what I had felt during my journey through the Great Youkai Forest, except much stronger. It was too late. They knew now that Rilofene was a real entity apart from me and spared nothing in their attempt to isolate her “scent” from our hybrid existence.

Eventually, she gave up running and I felt the sudden sensation of being dropped into an abyss of staring eyes before everything exploded in a splotch of black. She was furious now and lashed out at me with the same sort of strength I had never been able to feel since her real-world counterpart had died. I literally reeled from the blow and dropped to one elbow as I gasped for breath.

’You pathetic, insignificant INSECT! You’ve done it now! The Visitors know me as well as the runt now. You’ve doomed us both, pipsqueak!'

I struggled to form words in reply, ‘I…’

'SILENCE! They will come for us soon, us both and the runt! I suggest you start finding a way to escape and run while I try to find some way to hide my presence from the Visitors once more.'

The revelation made me reel uncontrollably. Somehow, my foolish actions had made me the same object of desire as Short Stuff to these Visitors. I cursed and cursed and then cursed even more to nothing in particular. I would share Short Stuff’s fate now, forever being hounded by the Visitors and carrying death with me wherever I could run to. Rising to my feet and bounding over to the door, I threw my weight against it repeatedly, shouting out for Aya or Tenma or whoever, wanting nothing but to escape from this place of death and destruction now.

I heard the iron bars being pulled back slowly from the other side and dropping to the ground in loud clangs and I stepped back a bit. The last of the iron barricade dropped away and the door rolled to one side to reveal the figure of Short Stuff, staring at me with growing fear from the panicked look on my face. I ignored her and strode past her urgently, heading down the stairwell towards the torture room. There was no sign of Aya or Lord Tenma and I guessed they were fully occupied with organizing the defenses of the stronghold against the Visitors. Something told me it would be useless. The tengu might be able to resist for a few hours but their defensive actions would eventually provoke the indestructible Visitors into slaughtering them in return. I had seen these things in action and had no doubt that resistance would be futile. I had to escape while the tengu kept the Visitors occupied.

Reaching the torture room I stepped through the entrance and grabbed the key Aya had hung on the wall and unlocked the heavy chains bounding my feet, kicking them away into a corner as I proceeded to look for the skinning knife they had confiscated from me. I found it amidst an assortment of what looked like torture tools and using my feet to grip the handle, sawed through the ropes bounding my hands with the knife. Short Stuff had followed me all the way to the torture room blankly and stood looking at my actions without a single word. As the last of the binding rope fell away, I wrapped the skinning knife with the leftover rope and tied it to one leg before rushing off into the hallway to look for an exit.

Dashing amidst the darkened corridors I sought out a window I could climb through, no longer bothering to find a door of sorts in my desperation. I found one big enough for me to go through and started to climb out of it when a small tug on my dress stopped me. Swinging back I found Short Stuff staring at me blankly, her hand gripping the hem of Byakuren’s dress. Something in her eyes told me she had distanced herself away from whatever was happening outside, as if she knew what was coming and had retreated into her private place to avoid the promised sorrow that would come.

I had very little of a logical mind left after everything tonight. Ice Cubes’ threats were long forgotten and the only thing dominating my mind now was once more, to run, escape, and find refuge somewhere else. I was tired. So tired. Everything had been running, running and running from the start until now with little peace in between. I gave Short Stuff a withering look of anger and hissed at her, ‘Let me go!’

She held onto the hem like some sort of doll fixed in a rigid pose as her mouth moved soundlessly.

I lost all patience and I brought one fist up in reverse, preparing to strike her away with the back of my hand. The glow from my eyes must have told her I would not hesitate to hit her but she held on to me nonetheless, perhaps no longer caring if I discarded her once more. I gave her one last warning, ‘Let. Me. Go.’

Her hand remained.

And she reeled backwards from the impact of my slap, simultaneously releasing her grip on me in a cry of pain and I turned to hop out of the window, finally freed from this cursed place. I looked up as I ran, the massive cloud of black above crackled every now and then in a streak of crimson and a ball of fire would seep out from the fissure and plunge towards the settlement like a bomb. Giving the entire thing a quick glance, I could see numerous tendrils of pulsing black extending from the cloud and had anchored themselves to the mountain landscape all around the tengu stronghold. The thing was huge, far bigger than the tyrant-type Visitors Byakuren had written about.

Numerous youkai ran to and from within the settlement, carrying buckets and barrels everywhere they went in an attempt to quench the wrathful fires the Visitor above dropped constantly. High overhead, what appeared to be the tengu patrols from earlier buzzed around in the sky, throwing an endless stream of scatter-shots at the cloud ineffectually while others attacked the balls of molten bomb in an attempt to break them up before it hit their beloved homes below.

I felt the full fury of the Visitors focus on me suddenly and the same sense of creeping frostbite began to permeate my limbs as I dropped to one knee. For some reason, they could “see” Rilofene within me now and in extension, I had become the momentary object of their singular wrath. I twitched feebly as I tried to stand again, but I remain frozen in place. However, twinges of feeling and warmth seeped through my limbs and I realized the fallen god within me was desperately trying to fight off the effects of the “dead zone” she had mentioned like she had back at the temple. One leg suddenly kicked out in movement and I tried to push myself up as my other leg started to respond, sweat dripping and soaking into the earth as the both of us struggled.

They knew what had happened and what was going to happen. The Visitors would not allow me to escape a second time and directly overhead, a new fissure in the cloud of shadows broke open as they dropped another fireball right on top of us.

Fortunately another patrol had been close-by and they threw swirling vortexes of projectiles at the fireball as they chased after it, managing to break the makeshift bomb apart and the smaller fragments of the cooling slag landed harmlessly all around the area, but one of the bigger fragments stayed crimson long enough to impact Lord Tenma’s residence directly. The smell of sulphur and brimstone permeated the air and I realized the Visitors were somehow siphoning magma from the lava tubes deep beneath the mountain with those shadowy tendril-anchors and pumping the magma into the cloud directly above to rain the magma down as pseudo-bombs on the tengu settlement in an attempt to flush out the creatures they sought, namely Short Stuff and unfortunately, me, before catching us in that confining awareness of theirs.

In alarm, I returned my gaze to Lord Tenma’s residence. The magma was cooling quickly, but not quickly enough to prevent the wooden bones of the structure from catching fire and the flames quickly spread into the interior from all the added heat. The window I had escaped from remained free from the fires thus far, but if Short Stuff was still in there and refused to snap out of her disillusioned retreat, she would die from the ensuing blaze.

I brought one hand up and found that I could move again, standing upright in surprise as I began my escape anew. I couldn’t continue after a few steps, assailed by guilty thoughts of leaving Short Stuff to die all alone in the inferno.

'What are you doing? Get moving before They sniff me out again! I won’t be able to fight off another paralysis attack!'

I shook my head in conflict. A part of me wanted to run and another part wanted to go back for Short Stuff. ‘But the kid-‘

'Why are you still even thinking about that?! The runt is useless. She’ll bring us nothing but trouble now that we know the combined presence of the runt and me magnifies our attraction of these things! Leave and run while we still can, pipsqueak! I don’t want to die here!'

Rilofene’s disdain and disrespect finally got to me and I changed my mind. Ignoring her internal protests, screeching, and obscene curses, I ran back towards the building just as the flames continued to lick lower and lower from where they had began and reached the window about the same time Rilofene melted back into wherever she came from in disgust.

I hopped through the window quickly and found Short Stuff in the same position as I had left her, lying on the ground on her side and staring blankly at nothing in particular. There was no time for words, and I moved over to her side and she stirred slightly for a change, looking up at me with something indescribable in her eyes as life seemingly returned to her. Hate? Loathing for striking her and abandoning her? Or was it a spark of hope and emotion knowing that in the dismal world, someone still cared about her in the end. I knew not and didn’t want to waste time working it out.

‘Come on, we have to go. The house’s on fire.’ Instead of dragging her roughly to her feet and forcing her off at my own whims as usual, I gave her something I had never been able to have. I gave her a choice. Holding my hand out to her, I waited to see what she would choose. If she wanted to die right here and now, I would let her. But if she chose to come with me, we would at least have company when death finally came for either of us.

There was no hesitation this time. She reached out to me and took hold of my hand and I pulled her gently up. ‘Talk later. No time for it now. Follow me?’ I said to her on one knee. She gave a curt nod. ‘Good girl,’ I patted her lightly before turning back to the window, Short Stuff following me obediently like a lost puppy.

We made our escape amidst the chaotic throng of the stronghold’s residents. They ignored us completely in the confusion, the numerous flames was more important than the odd presence of a human and a child. I noticed that the Visitors could not find us in the flowing sea of consciousness since they had not made another attempt at paralyzing us. Whatever they were, they were probably incapable of “seeing” things in a classical sense. Instead, they relied on their sweeping sense of “smell” to find us, but much like using sonar as a form of sight. As alien as their form of sensing was, I realized it was in a way, similar to what was scientifically known as synesthesia, in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway.

I spared no time to puzzle it out as I ran for the drainage pipe I had infiltrated the settlement with. Short Stuff kept up her pace with mine as we weaved through the mob of youkai. Several times I almost lost her as the creatures pushed and pulled at each other and her petite figure drowned in the sea of bodies, only to re-emerge a short while later with a flushed face. The last time I had momentarily lost her and had to elbow my way back to her, finding her standing in confusion as she searched about for me. I offered her the hem of my dress, the same part she had been clinging onto when I tried to leave her and mouthed the words. ‘Grab on. Don’t lose your grip.’ She complied.

I could finally focus on getting my bearings and made a beeline for the drainage pipes. There were less and less youkai now and progress became easier without the need to constantly shoulder, elbow, push and pull my way through a mob of them. Overhead, the Visitors had resumed their bombardment, apparently having lost Rilofene in their unfathomable senses. Whatever she had been trying to do desperately just moments ago to escape their pervasive scanning, it had worked. Of Short Stuff, there would not be a problem. Byakuren’s charm would keep her hidden as usual.

Dropping onto all fours, I started to crawl my way down one pipe and Short Stuff followed suit, hoping a molten ball of lava wouldn’t erupt behind us and asphyxiate us as the magma ran down into the pipe. The notion frightened me and I proceeded to crawl faster and soon enough, we emerged on the other side of the wall. Taking Short Stuff’s hand now, I took her down towards the exit of the tunnel I had came in and we made our way across the rocky landscape in relative peace even as the tengu community tried to repel the Visitors. It was a shame, but they would all die in a matter of hours as the Visitors resorted to a quicker means of extermination, like breaking into a magma chamber underneath the mountain and flooding the stronghold with enough magma to cook the inhabitants alive.

We were just about to reach my hidey hole when a shrill whistle from above caught my attention. A winged silhouette plunged right down and impacted the ground between us and the hole with a tremendous crash, showering rocks and pebbles all around. Aya stood and regarded us in confusion, and shifted her gaze to me with the usual anger surfacing.

‘Just where do you think you’re going with the Hakurei child, thief?’ she demanded. Aya momentarily gave Short Stuff the same look of fury and Short Stuff shrank back from it, hiding behind me in fear.

‘We’re leaving,’ I said flatly. ‘Trust me, this will be the best thing for your people now. That, ‘ I pointed at the black cloud above the stronghold and continued, ‘will continue to attack your settlement until it can no longer sense us here. If you want to save your people, you will let us escape.’

She walked right up to me but I held my ground. ‘Trust you?! You’re lying aren’t you, witch? You just want to run from your execution with a new hostage.’ Grabbing the front of my clothes, she shook me violently as she continued, ‘Still the same. Coming here, bringing us problems and then running away! Why won’t you leave us alone? Why can’t you leave me alone!?’

I threw her grip off as I swung one hand at her and she backed away. ‘You can tattle all you like but your people are dying. And they will continue to die as long as we remain here. There are no lies this time, no deception, no reason to bring your people any harm. I know a lot more about those things than you and I will tell you honestly now that you have no hope of fighting Them off. So choose quickly, fool! Which do you want more, me or your people!?’

She wore a feral grimace as she fought with the idea, but common sense won out in the end. Turning her back on me, she grunted in anger. ‘Go. And never come back.’ Just before she took back to the skies to rejoin her brethren, she gave Short Stuff a backward glance. ‘Don’t trust the witch, child. She seeks only to use you for her own ends. You will always have a place here for you. Come back to us once this madness is over.’

In a shockwave of exploding air, she disappeared into the night sky and we were left all alone, free to dive into our hidey hole. I let Short Stuff climb down first before I followed suit, giving the tengu stronghold one last look. I had meant them no harm, I never even planned on coming back in the first place and now Aya’s people would pay for my presence with hundreds of deaths. She was right after all. I was everything she said I was. Monster, liar, witch, thief, murderer, and most of all, a major troublemaker.

Oh well. Forever the evil bitch to people it seems. I was used to that. I would be grateful at least for the fact that I managed to escape another impending death this time.

I clambered down into the claustrophobic tunnels once more.
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We travelled in the darkened tunnels slowly, being careful to walk cautiously. It was pitch black in here, the only source of light from the exit had long ago faded into the dark as we made our way downwards back to the basalt wall. After what seemed like an hour traversing the dark by navigating with one hand against the wall, I had to call for a break and wait for dawn. We should have walked far enough from the tengu stronghold to pull the Visitors away from the settlement as They finally realized we were no longer there. A small part of me hoped that Aya and her people had survived the onslaught, despite everything they had done to me.

We made our stop in the middle of nowhere surrounded by darkness, a dank chill permeated the stale air of the tunnels and I sat down wearily against one cold cavern wall. At long last, I had a few moments free from panic and danger and I savored every second of it. I didn’t want to think about what lay ahead; that would just kill my mood and thus, I pretended to have no worries left and closed my eyes, thinking about happier days. …Happier days? I don’t think I ever had any except maybe for those years I had lived like a useless hermit. Bah, the hell with it.

I could hear Short Stuff stirring in the dark, unsure of what to do next and I absent-mindedly released my grip on her hand to get some sleep. She fell into a panic and sought out my hand in the darkness once more in a frenzy, calling out to me, thinking I had left her again.

‘Shh. Your echoes will wake the dead in here.’ I grumbled.

She followed my voice and sat down next to me, still looking for my hand judging from all the searching she was doing on the ground. I snapped my fingers a few times to let her know where it was and she gripped my hand painfully once she finally found them. ‘Ow, easy. I’m not going anywhere.’ The grip relaxed.

‘Why are we stopping?’ she asked me uneasily. The complete dark frightened her, probably because it reminded her so much of the Visitors.

‘Gotta stop and wait for day. The caves will light up then and we won’t have to break a neck or some limbs stumbling about in the dark.’ I still had to bring her to Moriya Shrine once we were out, but I would leave that for much later.

She drew closer to me and I could feel her shivering. Oh, cotton clothing. Must be horrible for retaining body heat in the night chill of the rhyolite caves. ‘You’ve a poor choice in clothing for travelling in here. Gets beastly cold at nights.’ I joked with her crudely, ‘You know, people have died from hypothermia, that means losing too much heat by the way, in caves before.’ She gave a small whimper and I had to suppress the urge to giggle.

‘Can… can I sit closer? It’s cold.’ she asked hesitantly.

Why would you need to ask? It wasn’t like I was liable to eat you, Short Stuff. But I remembered the look I gave her back at the settlement as well as the slap and I realized she was afraid of coming closer to me, afraid that I would lash out at her again. Well the whole shebang of a trip wouldn’t be worth squat if I let her freeze to death in here and so, I drew her close into a little embrace and she resisted in surprise at first, but relented and settled down and slid closer, burying her face into my ribs.

I tried to sleep, but she poked another question at me. ‘Why did you come back for me?’

I replied tiredly, ‘Don’t know, don’t care. What’s done is done. We’re stuck together now. Those things have taken a liking to me as well.’ I didn’t tell her it was actually Rilofene they were attracted to, but explaining would just confuse her further.

Nuzzling into the warm silk of my clothes she drew closer and I closed my eyes again, waiting for sleep to come. Once more, she shook me out of it as she asked me something else, ‘Will you leave me again?’

I maintained my silence, not wanting to tell her the truth that I was going to abandon her once I dropped her off at the shrine into Ice Cubes’s care. She had been through a lot for a mere fifteen year old and I didn’t want her to feel any more distressed than she already was. I pretended to be asleep.

She gripped my chest hard as she asked once more. ‘Please. I want to know.’

‘I’m tired. We’ll talk about it tomorrow.’ I replied uneasily.

She wouldn’t give up. ‘Please.’

I had a change of heart. She had weathered the deaths of her family and her guardian well, repeatedly losing people close to her and had been hunted down like some mangy dog endlessly by things she couldn’t even identify, let alone fight off. But still, she persevered and chose to move forward in the end. In a way, we were very much alike. Everywhere and everyone we touched would meet an ignominious end but we had little choice except to move ever forward regardless of what the world threw at us again. I remembered giving her the freedom of a choice back at the burning house she had stayed in; to give up and die or to continue suffering in life. She deserved that much and I decided to grant her that once more.

I gave her a playful ruffle on her head as I spoke, ‘I’m going to let you choose again. On one hand, I can tell you about why I came for you and what I plan to do with you while on the other hand you can choose not to know and simply trust in my judgment and follow me. Which will it be?’

Her silence was a good enough sign of her deliberation and she surprised me with her answer. ‘I trust you. I won’t ask anymore.’

Such an innocent child. Did she really trust me? It was a sad choice. Byakuren had made the same mistake and almost lost Short Stuff from my attempts at abandoning her and now her adopted daughter was about to make the same mistake. Aya’s words came back to me. Manipulative, self-centered, witch, liar, murderer, thief. I shook my head. I was who I was, wasn’t I?

… Wasn’t I?

No. I was determined that this time, I would be honest with one person at least. This time, one person’s trust would not be in vain.

‘There was a fairy who found me near death.’ I spoke suddenly and Short Stuff stirred in surprise to listen. ‘She saved me on the condition that I took you away from the tengu and brought you to a place called Moriya Shrine. You know of it?’ A small nod, and I continued, ‘I was to bring you there and give you over to that fairy. I don’t really know why, but she would only leave me alone if I did as she told me to. Otherwise, she threatened to kill me.’

Short Stuff listened in silence. ‘And will you do that?’

Giving her an honest reply, I spoke softly, ‘I don’t know yet.’

She buried her head deeper into the silk and mumbled. ‘Just do it then. If it’ll save you, then I don’t mind. I don’t want to see another death again. I’m sick and tired of deaths.’

I couldn’t even give her an appropriate response, stunned by her willingness to be treated like some merchandize for my sake. She didn’t even care about what would happen to her once I handed her over to the abominable snowgirl. For the first time in my many long years, someone else other than Keine had tried to extend an honest hand out to me to help, expecting nothing in return. Not even if it killed them in the end. I wanted to say something to Short Stuff, but I fumbled for words in vain. You were right, Aya. I was a monster.

‘Thank you for telling me the truth,’ she spoke again sleepily.

At last, I found some words. ‘Get some sleep, kid. Long way to go tomorrow.’

She merely nodded as she leaned heavily against me, trying to draw as much warmth from the silk as she could. ‘You smell like Byakuren…’ she mumbled before trailing off and I knew fatigue had finally claimed her.

Instead of feeling sleepy now, I had become more alert thinking about Short Stuff. Was I really going to just hand her off like that? I had no idea what Ice Cubes was going to do to her, but it might not be a bad thing. Thinking back to all my meetings with Ice Cubes and her behavior every single time, I decided that yes, it could actually be a bad thing. But what would I be able to do for the child? I was a horrible choice for a guardian. I could count the people who actually liked me with one hand as opposed to the people who wanted my guts alive whose numbers couldn’t be counted with all the fingers I could ever ask for. Short Stuff would be the subject of the ennui and apathy I received everywhere I went.

In the midst of my musings, Rilofene finally spoke to me since our escape. She sounded drained, listless, and extremely tired, as if she had lost countless years of her vitality. I could no longer feel much of her initial anger and I suspected that she had resigned herself to the fate that I had condemned the both of us to.

’Even in her sleep, the runt retains that innocence, doesn’t she?’

‘That she does, old friend.’ I didn’t mean it as a snarky reply. I was as tired as her to not bother with such notions of implied insult anymore.

’The Visitors have lost sight of me for now. But they know me now. I can no longer fully hide us from them. Sooner or later, they will find us again. In time, it would not matter much anymore of we lived or died.’

There was a tone of despair in her voice and I briefly pondered what had happened to her. ‘What’s wrong? What do you mean?’

’I am dying and so will you when that happens. Not tomorrow. Not for years more to come perhaps. But I had expended much of my essence in my attempt to fight the Visitors’ influence both in here and outside. Our candle, once strong and tall, has been reduced to a mere pathetic stub.’

I stirred in alarm and Short Stuff shifted slightly in her sleep. ‘What? But you-‘

’No. I am technically dead and cut off from the Great Wheel if that’s what you were going to ask. What manipulations and counterbalances I can bring into effect on reality is powered solely by what’s left of my essence within you, instead of drawing strength from within the Maelstrom. We have lost many, many, many years worth of life from our encounter with the Visitors back there. We are dying soon, child. Death has taken a quantum leap towards us and even I can no longer tell how many years we have left.’

I hung my head in stunned shock. This wasn’t true. I still had many more millennia left before I could die. No, I would not see the end of my fate anytime soon. No. NO. NO! I refused to accept that. I screamed my denial to Rilofene in silence.

’Stop your sniveling, pipsqueak, and listen well. Now that we can no longer fully hide from the Visitors, take great care to stay close to the runt. As much as our combined presence magnifies the call to these things, the inverse is also true if she is invisible to their senses. She is like a walking void with her protective charm. As long as we are within the null-sense void she projects and you do nothing stupid like removing the charm from her again, there should not be any further troubles from the Visitors.’

‘What about Ice Cubes? I would need to hand the kid over to her eventually.’ I prodded at her.

’Then I suggest you rethink your little plan, child. The girl’s fate has become intertwined with ours now. I must leave you for a time to try and recover from all the damage you have done to us. I will try to salvage as much of our lost lifespan as possible. We will not be able to speak to each other for some time, I suspect. If you can, try to find out how to replicate the runt’s protection for us and kill her after that. We can eliminate the possibility of another resonance from ever happening and we will be protected from the Visitors’ sight. Two birds killed with one stone, child. It’s the only way to ensure our future survival.’

I blanched both at the thought of killing Short Stuff and Rilofene’s total disregard for the value of human lives. ‘You are insane. I would never murder the child in cold blood.’

’Have it your way. You’re good at ignoring everything I tell you to do anyhow. Such a shame too. You used to be so good at dealing death and murder.’

Her nagging presence finally melted away into the background noise of my numerous memories and I found myself in full silence wrapped by the twilight of the tunnels. Short Stuff continued to slumber undisturbed, occasionally twitching from whatever dream she was having and I envied her now. I wished sleep would come to me as easily as it had came for her but after Rilofene’s dreary revelation I could find neither rest nor comfort.

I needed long term plans now; first to somehow get rid of Ice Cubes’s insistent stalking to buy some time to think and then to work out some way of dealing with the Visitors so they would at least stop hounding the two of us. As long as I was able to deal with both immediate threats, I would have breathing room to formulate adequate countermeasures to prevent possible future attacks. Before that, I needed to find out what I can about the Visitors. What little I knew about Them came primarily from both Byakuren’s and my own observation but it was clearly insufficient. Briefly, I wondered if Ice Cubes knew more about them than she was letting on. She certainly didn’t seem surprised by the presence of the Visitors so far.

Tomorrow, I will decide on the best course of action.
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Harsh view of Aya in this, but I must say when you live this long you might stop to reconsider the effects of your actions, since as we seen here, it came back to bite her in the very worst ways.

Post SA, I wonder what exactly caused that since from the sounds of things it wasn't noticed until too much time has passed.
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The descent down the basalt wall had taken a lot more time than I wanted to spend, due primarily to Short Stuff’s fear of heights. Badgering, coaxing, and then threatening her to climb down didn’t work in the least and she remained crouched at the edge of the drop fearfully. I was getting impatient knowing that we were losing time as I didn’t want to spend a second night in the caves. In the end, I had to resort to climbing up for her and going back down with Short Stuff hanging onto my back in a little piggyback ride.

For now, the rest of the trip would not be much of an issue compared to the backtracking in the upper hives and I took it easy, leaving Short Stuff to catch up with my pace herself which she did with difficulty. She had experienced a great deal of change compared to the previous night, actually looking a bit cheerful rather than looking like a living corpse and constantly badgering me with questions when I wanted some peace and quiet to work out my problems. Maybe I should just threaten to leave her behind again just to get her to shut up for a bit.

‘So why did the crow lady hate you so much?’ she persisted with another question.

I sighed, deeming to just answer her annoying questions instead. ‘I stole their trinkets, spiked her boyfriend’s tea and crashed her love party. You tell me why she hates me.’

‘Oh, you’re bad.’ That sounds familiar.

Fortunately, she made no further attempts at pestering me after that, apparently realizing she was starting to annoy me with her questions and we were able to reach the entrance of the rhyolite caves while False Dawn’s dayglow remained strong. I tried to guess how much time we had left before dusk before realized I had the perfect clock following me. Turning to ask Short Stuff the time of the day, she replied that it was only midday after gauging False Dawn’s eye. We still had plenty of time left in the day it would seem.

The horse was still where I had left him, grazing on some grass idly as we made our way towards him. Spotting the Hieda family crest on the harness, Short Stuff gasped in surprise and wondered aloud if I stole the horse from them as well. I rolled my eyes at her assumptions that I was some sort of common thief. ‘Come on. I don’t go around stealing everything I see. It’s a gift from Scree… uh… Fumiko.’

I helped her up the horse before untying the reins from the tree and she rocked unsteadily on the creature, probably unused to horse riding. I tried to pull myself up, only to be interrupted by a sharp sting as I momentarily forgot about my fracture and tried to shift all my weight onto the wrong foot. Sheepish, I moved to the other side of the horse and with great difficulty, finally managed to drag myself onto it, with Short Stuff staring at me all the time.

We rode as fast as we can through my landmarks as we made our way towards the last one, the ring of boulders serving as the starting point of my path to the mountains and I thought I heard Short Stuff giggling once or twice during the high speed ride, momentarily forgetting about her problems and enjoying the sensation of the rushing wind and inhuman velocity of the horse as she gripped my waist tightly. Well, at least someone was having fun for now.

The return trip was a lot faster compared to the other time, mainly because I was already familiar with the landscape and knew where to go and we made it to the ring of boulders in due time. A quick inquiry of the time told me that it was still midday; we had spent only a scant two dozen minutes in coming all the way back here and we slowed to a stop in the middle of the ring as I tried to plot out a new course.

Another question struck me from behind. ‘Why are we stopping?’

I shielded my eyes from the dayglow and scanned the horizon, looking for something that would indicate where the path leading up to the other side of the mountain would lay. Nothing stood out. ‘Trying to find the way to Moriya Shrine.’

‘Oh.’ The reply came a bit slow, and I thought I detected a hint of sadness in her voice. Now what was that about?

Finally, I chose to just ride along the grasslands until I could see the major waterfalls that indicated the great lake on the mountain lay somewhere close-by and in extension, the path leading up to the shrine. Urging the horse onwards, we picked up speed once more and the scenery rushed-by, giving Short Stuff an opportunity to stare in open-mouthed wonder at the beauty of the mountains and grasslands surrounding it. She had been confined to the valley her entire life and this was probably her first time witnessing the sights of the Youkai Mountain.

I took care to give the numerous rivers a wide berth; that was where the kappa communities were located and avoiding them was the one thing both Ice Cubes and I had the common opinion in. Not because I had wronged the kappa in any way in the past, but I simply had no wish to run into more curious youkai. I had my hands full enough with Ice Cubes as it is.

We sped past numerous oddities and grand sights; a towering pillar of stone that looked like it had been formed naturally, dazzling chains of waterfalls shrouded in mist in the distant mountains, rolling grasslands that were dotted with multicolored flowers like some sort of rainbow that had crashed to the ground, and great creatures of a sort that lumbered in the distance that lazed in the grasslands. Short Stuff was captivated by the sights, constantly asking me questions about them which I didn’t bother to answer in the roaring winds, keeping my eyes focused on a particular waterfall that looked promising as we made our way in its general direction.

After what seemed like a few hours of riding, I finally found the path leading up to the shrine, except that it was no longer a path anyone would be able to recognize. Nature had long ago reclaimed it from whoever had made it ages ago but I knew well enough how to spot the differences in the ground to identify where the path had once laid and I spurred the horse towards it. The path was anything but a path now; overgrown with greenery and trees much like the Night Road, except in a far more advanced stage and I followed it nonetheless, slowing down to wind between obstacles the horse could not cross.

Eventually, it lead upwards into the mountains and telltale signs of the path showed up more starkly in the rocky ground compared to the grasslands below. I took my time navigating the path, wondering why Short Stuff had suddenly become so quiet and had relaxed her grip considerably. A quick glance behind told me she had fallen asleep during the slow progress through the overgrown path earlier. I let her sleep on, head buried in my back, grateful for the moment of silence I had unexpectedly won.

Another couple of hours passed by and False Dawn’s illumination started to change into the customary dim bluish glow in tandem with the arrival of the moon and soon enough, we were plunged into a relatively silent moonlit landscape as we continued to work our way up towards the shrine. Short Stuff stirred a few times but did not immediately awaken, choosing to sleep a little bit more instead.

I glanced upwards at the tengu stronghold barely visible as a small speck from this side. Did they survive the night? I had no way of telling from here. Not that it would matter much, I didn’t care if they lived or died either way. I had done my part and brought the source of the threat away from them. The rest was up to them.

As the twilight deepened, I was at long last at my destination. Clearing the lip of the last slope upwards, the grand sight of the sparkling lake lay before me, looking as if a million diamonds had been dropped into it from the way it shone like the starry night sky. And at the other side of the lake, the silhouette of the shrine stood in the solitary darkness.
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Short Stuff stirred into consciousness and stared in silence at the great lake, amazed by the sight of it as the placid, crystal-clear waters continued to sparkle and shine in the moonlight like a massive mirror. I looked around uneasily at the path leading up to the shrine in the distance, nothing that it was as abandoned as the one below the mountain. It was apparent that the place had been long deserted from the looks of things. In silence, we made our way towards the building that made up Moriya Shrine, accompanied only by the sound of hooves crunching in the earth.

We drew up just short of the shrine, a singular building much like the Hakurei shrine but with another smaller hut to the left side. The structures looked neglected and partially in ruins, covered by overgrowth and plants in the darkness of the night. Slipping off the horse, I did a few crouching exercises before I helped Short Stuff off of the horse as well, leading it to the partially-standing torii and tying the creature to it before I returned to inspecting the ruins.

All around me, a small splotch of fog condensed on the ground and grew more solid as the temperature dropped. I pulled Short Stuff back from the area in alarm and the last bits of the fog pulled upwards from the ground and solidified into my favorite fairy, the abominable snowgirl. Like everything that had astounded Short Stuff so far, she stared in open-mouthed wonder at the spectacle.

The icy cold grew uncomfortable and Ice Cubes descended from the air as she regarded the two of us with pleasure. ‘Good work, gooooood! You see, you can do it after all, froggy. Now we won’t have to get nasty with you.’ Walking up to Short Stuff, she gave her a sweet smile the same time Short Stuff retreated from her to hide behind me. Ice Cubes frowned with displeasure and the air grew colder. ‘Come here, little meat.’

Reaching down, I ripped the hunting knife out from where I had tied it to my leg in a quick motion, spinning it once and pointing at the advancing figure of Ice Cubes. ‘Not so fast. First, you tell me what you want with her.’

Ice Cubes regarded the puny knife with disdain. She had good reason not to be afraid of it because there was nothing I could truly do to harm her and she knew it, but she allowed me that small concession at least. ‘Well, keep her for a few more minutes then. It makes no difference to me as long as she’s here. Come on, someone wants to meet you both.’ Walking up to the ruined shrine she beckoned to the two of us to follow and stopped just short of the entrance. ‘Move it, my pretties, or would you prefer I go froggy on the two of you?’

I didn’t doubt for a second that she wouldn’t carry out her threats. She had demonstrated well enough during our first few encounters that she had a fickle personality and a tiny capacity for patience. She would get us into the shrine whether we wanted it or not.

I’ve made it this far, and it didn’t look like running was an option now. Taking Short Stuff’s hand, I pulled her along and she meekly followed. It almost looked like she would do anything I told her to do at this point, judging from how she pretty much complied with everything I did with her or decided for her. Ascending the steps up to the darkened building, Ice Cubes looked pacified and went into the darkness and we followed suit cautiously.

The moment we cleared the entryway, four braziers lying in each corner of the main room flared into life brightly and the occupants of the room turned their gazes to me and then to Short Stuff, their expressions breaking into what I could only guess at as delight or gladness when they caught sight of her. Ice Cubes walked off out of the room, obviously bothered by the heat of the braziers and left me alone with the other three residents.

They looked to be youkai, and I didn’t bother identifying the three of them. That would be a waste of time and I probably wouldn’t know what they were anyway. Two of them sat on an elevated platform of sorts and the third stood near one of the braziers, with a bizarre hairdo in striped yellowish-gold and black. He or she would have looked like some sort of twentieth century punk if it wasn’t wearing the dull cloak and robes it was clad in.

The other two on the platform looked a bit more intriguing, the one on the left had greenish hair with what looked like throbbing arteries extending out from behind her and joining together in the front to a small blob of desiccated meat. It looked disgusting and I wondered why she hadn’t cut the dead external organ away. The last one sitting next to her looked old, almost ancient in comparison to the youthful outlook of the other two, clad in the same dull robe as the Punk next to the brazier. His left hand and face were covered in wrinkles and his right was practically missing. The only sign that gave him away as youkai was the extra set of arms coming out of his shoulders, also as withered as the rest of him.

The girl with the dead lump of meat spoke at last in a melodious tone, almost like a sing-song, ‘Welcome, wanderer. I’m glad to see you have been able to bring the child to us.’ Three Arms continued for her, his voice very much like grating sand in comparison to Dead Meat’s musical voice, ‘Yes, and perhaps now, we can finally begin to set things right. We have waited long and hard for the Hakurei child.’ Punk made no attempt at a greeting and kept his or her silence.

Short Stuff remained behind me, uneasy in the presence of so many unknown youkai and I gave her hand a reassuring grip as I played about with the knife in my other hand. ‘Who are you people?’

Three Arms prompted a reply. ‘My name is unimportant, but you can call these two Koishi and Suou.’ Whatever, I’ll stick to Dead Meat and Punk. He frowned as I thought about that, ‘No, Koishi and Suou.’

What? Did he just read my mind? I tried something else and I thought to myself silently in concentration, “he’s a lolicon for having Dead Meat as a consort”. I earned nothing but a blank stare from him. Looks like doesn’t work that way. I sighed in relief. Offhandedly, I guessed Three Arms could only read idle or drifting thoughts and I froze as he looked hard at me. ‘No, that’s not my name but if you insist on calling me Three Arms, we’ll leave it at that.’ The other two gave me a brief look of displeasure at my disrespect. I would have to be careful with what crosses over in my mind in the presence of this withered creature.

‘What do you want with us?’ I spoke at last.

Dead Meat replied in her musical voice, ‘Only to put things right again. For too long has the natural cycle of things been knocked out of order and many have suffered for it over the countless years. Now, the last straw has been drawn and the Shades come to put an end to us, once and for all.’

Shades? I pondered to myself if she meant the Visitors instead. These people should really use a common term for those things.

‘Is that what Byakuren calls them? Let us call them the Visitors for the sake of your understanding then.’ Three Arms spoke as he read my unconscious thoughts.

Dead Meat interrupted him as she held out one arm gracefully with her palm open. Not only did she spoke in a musical sense, her every movement almost echoed some form of a dance as well. She fixed her gaze to Short Stuff behind me. ‘Now, come here child.’

Short Stuff began to move forward on her own volition but I held her back and she looked at me in confusion before returning behind me. Dead Meat frowned again in consternation but Three Arms held out one hand and she settled down. ‘It would appear you have no intentions of releasing the Hakurei child. The time for violence is long past. There have been enough deaths already and we will not take the child by force for now. If you seek understanding, then follow Suou to the hut and the two of you can decide what to do once I explain. For now, go with Suou.’ With his left shoulder-arm he made a gesture and Punk stepped forward towards us.

Punk finally spoke, ‘Come with me then.’ So Punk was a she. Short Stuff exchanged a look of curiosity with me and we both followed her out into the open. Ice Cubes remained seated on the top of the stairway and as we walked past her and I seized the opportunity to give her a strong kick that sent her tumbling down the stairs in a blur of blue. I just couldn’t resist getting back at her and seeing her vulnerability earlier, I decided that it was a now-or-never chance.

Recovering at the bottom, she got up furiously as she screamed at me, ‘I’M GOING TO KILL YOU NOW FROGGY!’

Punk gave her a look of pure annoyance mid-way down the stairs and Ice Cubes actually blanched and grumbled as she stalked off towards the lake in a huff. As temperamental as she was, she apparently had a great fear of the three youkai in the shrine. Punk continued to lead the way silently and brought us to the other hut I had spied earlier, in the same ruined condition as the exterior of the main building. Throwing the rotting door aside with one hand, she motioned for us to go in before following after our footsteps.

Twin torches set against opposing walls in sconces flared into life much like the braziers had earlier and the interior of the small windowless hut was illuminated with a friendly orange glow that cast the shadows away. The interior was in ruins just as much as the outside and a single occupant sat cross-legged at the far end of the hut, dressed in rags and wild-unkempt hair that looked like they hadn’t been combed in years. At the sound of our entry and the light from the torches, its head flew up and regarded us with untamed eyes that had no pupils.

‘No! NO! Stay away from me! I didn’t do it! I DIDN’T DO IT! STAY AWAY!’ Momentarily, she screamed long and high before settling down again, her head dropping down as she reassumed her earlier pose. Short Stuff drew back from the sight in fear, unwilling to watch the pathetic sight of the woman in rags screeching.

Nothing was making sense. What was I supposed to understand with this? ‘And who’s this?’

Punk glanced at me, long and hard. ‘Kanako Yasaka. Former patron of this shrine.’
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海貓氫彈庫 - アテネ陷落
‘What’s wrong with her?’ Short Stuff asked in a low whisper, as if afraid her voice might wake the screaming creature again.

‘Faith deprivation.’ I answered her shortly, crouched before the wild woman as I inspected her. Was this really a goddess? ‘She’s beyond any help now.’

‘What do you mean?’ she asked again.

I knew enough to recognize the signs of withdrawal from the time I had spent in the presence of gods in their avatar forms. Faith was a byproduct of belief that all gods subsisted on and a lack of it would usually not be detrimental to them for a while, but long term deprivation would eventually drive them beyond the point of recovery and they would gradually lose what mortals would identify as their sanity.

Eventually, they would appear more and more dried up and corpse-like in appearance until their inevitable ends and their avatar forms would die, their essence returning to rejoin the Maelstrom that spun the Great Wheel that would keep time flowing and all of existence intact while their souls transmigrated to Black Fimbulvetr, a throne of sorts that housed all past, present, and future deities.

‘She’s dying, Short Stuff. She has lost too much faith and has none left to sustain her.’ I prodded slightly at the goddess’ cheeks. Wow, still pretty juicy. She would have a lot of years ahead left as a raving lunatic at least.

Short Stuff moved to crouch next to me. ‘Can’t you help her?’

‘Nope. She’s too far gone. Even with a fresh infusion of faith her mind has long ago withered past the point of no recovery. She’s nothing more than a photo book that would spout her past lifetime as a god now.’ I tugged at a tuft of her unkempt hair to see if it would come off easily and she brought her head up to shriek again as I shrank backwards in surprise.

‘My fault. MY FAULT. I didn’t mean to. I DIDN’T MEAN TO!’ she raved on and on about it.

My curiosity was piqued now. She might no longer have a sane mind, but they can be coaxed into revealing their past with the appropriate sort of encouragement. I tried wheedling what I could out of her by twisting around with words. ‘Yes, it wasn’t your fault. You were merely trying to do a good thing, correct?’

She responded instantly. ‘Yes! YES! They wanted progress! They wanted industrialization! THEY WANTED CONVENIENCE! THAT’S WHY I MADE HER EAT THE CORPSE! I HAD TO! I HAD TO! I HAD TO MAKE THEM BELIEVE IN ME!’

Industrialization? Convenience? Corpse? What corpse? Short Stuff continued to stare in silence at me and the raving lunatic, unsure about what I was trying to do. I went on, ‘But you were right, divine one. We needed convenience, and we thank you for it. “She” was wise to have heeded your words.’

‘GREAT WOULD HAVE BEEN THE POWER! Yatagarasu was dead! There was no use for his corpse…’ she suddenly started sobbing and wailing, adding in a weeping voice, ‘… he would not have minded. He would not have cared. No. No he wouldn’t. But why? Why?’

I heard enough. Whatever she was raving, it didn’t sound like anything that would be useful at this time and I turned to leave. ‘Come on, kid. There’s nothing she can tell us. Lets head back to that three-armed freak.’

Short Stuff got up and was about to follow me out when the lunatic gasped between sobs, ‘And the sun died. And the sun died. I killed the sun. I killed our sun. I killed…’ she broke off into silence and returned to her cross-legged repose.

I turned back slowly to look at her. Killed our sun? Was she somehow responsible for Gensokyo’s missing sun? Taking Short Stuff’s hand, I led her out to where Punk was waiting in silence, probably having already heard the same ravings hundreds of times. Short Stuff gave the insane goddess one last look before the torches extinguished themselves and Punk pushed the door back into place as easily as she had removed them.

‘I’m sure you know the way back.’ She motioned towards the main building and added, ‘They’re waiting for you.’

Not bothering to reply, I started towards the stairs again but one hand accosted me and I stared at Punk in surprise. ‘What?’

‘Listen to them if you want, but do not decide on the fate of the Hakurei child so easily.’ She gave Short Stuff a brief unfathomable look, but I thought I detected a sense of sadness in her eyes as she let go of my arm.

We made our way back to the main room of the shrine as I wondered what Punk’s cryptic words meant. Short Stuff had missed the entire exchange, too preoccupied with the words of the lunatic. Back inside, Three Arms gestured at two cushions on the ground and motioned for us to sit with one waving arm as he added, ‘There won’t be a need for that,’ he gestured at the knife I held. ‘Be at ease, and sit. There is much to talk about.’

Looking down at the knife I supposed he was right. It would be useless against them anyway. Short Stuff went ahead of me this time and took her seat on one of the cushions while I took the other, jamming the knife into the wooden flooring.

‘You have seen the goddess then?’ Dead Meat gestured in the general direction of the hut and went on. ‘What did she tell you?’

‘Something about making someone eat a corpse and killing the sun.’ I replied carefully.

Her eyes glinted with renewed interest at my words. ‘Very impressive. Few mortals would have the know-how to wheedle out hard facts from her constant ravings. It appears you are not quite as uneducated about these things as you appear to be.’

I had the impression that Three Arms was scrutinizing me as well and I felt uncomfortable at the mind probing he was capable of. No, I would not think about that. It would just inadvertently tell him something I didn’t want to instead. I spoke to Dead Meat, ‘So what has that got to do with us?’

She continued in the same melodic tone, ‘There was an incident, a very long time ago, when the goddess Kanako tricked a good friend of mine into consuming the corpse of Yatagarasu, patron god of the Black Sun. Her actions had far-reaching repercussions on all of us, and in the space of a few centuries, the sun itself began to die out without Yatagarasu’s corpse to sustain it, for even in death, his powers were far reaching and his body was necessary to fuel the endless infernos of our sun.’

It made very little sense until Dead Meat put it that way. A god would normally be unable to persist in the world it was dead to unless they still retained an essential function necessary for the continued survival of the world. That would probably explain why this Yatagarasu never returned to Black Fimbulvetr and consequently, his corpse had been readily accessible to these youkai.

Three Arms picked up where she stopped. ‘As the sun began to grow dimmer, an elder youkai approached me asking for assistance, desperate for some way to re-ignite our lord in the sky. She had conceived of a ritual to use the hell-raven who had consumed Yatagarasu’s corpse in a sacrifice, hoping that by appropriately releasing Yatagarasu’s remains from the youkai who had ate him, we would be able to return life to the sun. But the ritual went horribly wrong, and even as Koishi’s friend died from the meaningless sacrifice, the sun disappeared into a long-lasting eclipse within a matter of days, instead of slowly perishing in the space of a few years.’

Turning to face me now, I could see Dead Meat’s features contort into anger and her voice grew harsh in response. ‘It was a mistake to trust Yukari with Utsuho. That worthless w-‘

She was interrupted by Three Arms once more, waving her aside and her anger subsided as she looked away. Three Arms carried on, ‘And the sun vanished from our skies as a result. The absence of the sun had a detrimental effect on all life in Gensokyo. It drove humans to the edge of reason, but for the younger youkai, it induced in them a form of feral regression of mind and they grew increasingly violent and mindless as the weeks in absolute twilight went on. Not only did they slaughter each other, the humans were also made part of their insanity. That had been the beginning of the rift which had formed between man and youkai which lasted for years, even into today.’

That part I knew. I had read much about it from Byakuren’s journal. Interrupting him impatiently, I voiced my thoughts ‘I know as much. But what does past history have to do with our problems now?’

Two arms rose up to stop me from speaking further and he went on. ‘Hear me out for the moment, girl. I saw the madness which had been afflicting everything and I knew I had to try something to save us all. Koishi and I finally conceived of another plan; we would create a second sun to replace the missing one in hopes we would be able to stop the outbreak of insanity. To simplify a long story, we used Utsuho’s body as a secondary sun. She was dead from the elder youkai’s failed ritual and we decided to simply grow Yatagarasu’s remains around her and force it to feed on Utsuho in reverse.’

Gesturing towards the skies in general, Three Arms made an emphasis about what he was talking about. ‘And thus, the eye was born. That is what you humans call False Dawn. A false morning which can never replace the true dawn of a new day, but it sufficed well enough to allow life in Gensokyo to carry on. Sunshine returned to the lands, albeit perhaps not in as grand a manner as the true sun once shone with, but it was enough to return sanity to everything.’

There was a moment of silence as he allowed me to absorb everything he had just told me. Much had been explained, but even more still remained a mystery.

Eventually, Dead Meat spoke up. ‘We had thought that would be enough to return balance to the cycle we had disrupted. But it wasn’t. Life had returned to normal in the space of a few years and both humans and youkai gradually adapted to the existence of Utsu…’ she broke off momentarily, and looked away for a while, but I saw that she had been surreptitiously wiping an eye before she looked back and went on, ‘.. of False Dawn. Everyone lived on, and a truce was eventually made between humans and youkai long after their protracted conflict. We went back to our individual lives and nothing much happened for many years more.’

Three Arms picked up after her. ‘But all was not well. Our actions were somehow insufficient or lacking. The Shades that you call the Visitors began to appear in Gensokyo for reasons we are unable to fathom after years and years of relative peace and quiet. We surmised at first that they were perhaps some sort of oddity that had come from the Outside and paid them no heed. They were mostly harmless then, keeping to themselves and never bothered with any of Gensokyo’s other elements. Whatever they are or wherever they came from, we couldn’t say for certain but we ignored them nonetheless, being content to just welcome them as another addition that had perhaps become extinct in the Outside.

As Three Arms took a short break, Dead Meat continued for him. ‘But the Visitors were anything but docile. They made no direct attempts at attacking neither youkai nor humans. However, they rapidly began to corrupt False Dawn before we realized what was happening or even how that was possible. There would be no communication with the Visitors. We had tried everything, but they ignored it all. The only thing they responded to was violence. Attacking them would only provoke them into lashing back with deadly efficiency and we gave them a wide berth after our first humiliating defeat. Attempting to tear down the Visitors that had integrated with False Dawn only brought forth massive retaliations from the Visitors. And so we were left with no choice other than to observe and watch as They continue to corrupt and grow on False Dawn.’

‘We were very much unsure about why they had acted in such a way and for many years more to come, Gensokyo housed these silent monstrosities while we watched helplessly as they continue to fester on False Dawn, growing ever larger with the passing years from the corruption.’ Three Arms shifted in his seat slightly and scratched his back with crisscrossed arms.

I looked over at Short Stuff. She was listening attentively to every single word in wonder, finally understanding much about the things that had been going on lately. I still had no idea what all of this had to do with us both and I allowed the mismatched couple on the platform to continue as I waited in silence.

Dead Meat finally went on. ‘A few years ago, a rather remarkable incident uncharacteristic of the Visitors took place. Youkai close to the Hakurei shrine had rapidly spread news about what they had saw at the shrine. The Visitors had descended to the shrine en-masse and proceeded to slaughter the priests there. This was an unparalleled development. The Visitors had never been directly aggressive before in the past, especially on humans, and we surmised that they had killed them to eliminate something important to them. In distaste, I visited the wh-… visited Yukari to see what she can tell me of this new development.’

‘Yukari concluded, and I agree with her hypothesis, that the Visitors had acted in advance to eliminate a possible threat to their existence once they became aware of it. The Hakurei line of priests and priestesses had always had the unique ability in the creation and manipulation of borders and perhaps this was what prompted them to assault the priests. Whatever the case, the entire Hakurei line was wiped out, or so we had thought.’ Three Arms finished and the two of them looked at Short Stuff in tandem.

There was a loophole in their theory then. ‘If they could really sense the presence of the Hakurei priesthood then why did they miss Sho-… I mean the… uh…‘ Crap. I actually forgot her name. I bent down close to Short Stuff to whisper, ‘Hey, what was your name again?’

She stared at me in disappointment. ‘Yuhiko.’

‘Yeah, why did they miss Yuhiko then?’ I finished and pointed one thumb at Short Stuff.

‘We cannot say for certain, only to assume that the abilities inherent to her lineage had not matured yet due to her young age and thus the Visitors were unable to “see” her presence at that moment.’ Dead Meat proposed in reply.

My mind worked quickly and the Visitors actions no longer seemed so mysterious or random. I could finally form a picture of their inner workings and I understood now why they never acted directly to attack something that would not constitute as a direct threat or annoyance to them. If the Visitors truly had a form of pseudo-synesthesia in place of normal senses that only responded to certain stimuli, then the entire world was essentially a blind place to them. Only certain people or actions would flare out like torchlight for them to lash out at. Actions such as attacking or defending oneself would generate emotions or an aura. The desire to kill or protect. The desperation associated with the will to survive and the hatred one would feel towards an aggressor. The Visitors could somehow see these and respond appropriately to them.

If so, then the Hakureis would be a unique case. For the Visitors to be able to “see” them and seek them out across long distances, something special within their bloodline must be calling out to the Visitors like a bonfire visible across great distances. They responded to threats and it was readily apparent that they saw a great threat in the Hakureis. Byakuren had excellent foresight to have fashioned Short Stuff’s charm before whatever ability in her bloodline had fully matured and I suddenly regretted her loss. She would have been able to help us in this time of need.

Uneasily, I had to wonder as well why the Visitors were also attracted to Rilofene. That was the one mystery that continued to puzzle me in light of the revelations thus far. I caught Three Arms staring at me attentively in silence the entire time. Shit. I forgot about his mind-reading trick.

And he actually grinned at me now. ‘That was a very interesting, informative, and enlightening observation, girl. My thanks for sharing it. You appear capable of divining much of the workings of the Visitors. Perhaps you will become a very useful tool after all.’ He leaned down with both his right arms braced against his leg and he asked in a subtly different tone now, almost menacing. ‘Who is this Rilofene?’

Dead Meat stared at Three Arms and then at me in confusion. ‘What?’

‘None of your business. Now what is it you want with the kid?’ I responded tersely.

Dead Meat sang her musical reply. ‘She will be used as a sacrifice to cleanse False Dawn. Her death will not be in vain. The sanctified Hakurei blood will purge False Dawn of the Visitors’ taint and whatever instability and corruption they had been inducing in Utsuho will be permanently removed and we would be free from these monstrosities forever; and I would have Utsuho back.’

What the hell, human sacrifice? I narrowed my eyes and carefully kept my thoughts compartmented, much like how I had tried it with Three Arms earlier, not wanting him to accidentally read what I was thinking again. She wasn’t as stable as she looked despite appearing calm and logical, and she had suddenly referred to False Dawn as Utsuho. It was apparent she still harbored a great attachment to her lost friend, whoever this Utsuho was. The idea of killing Short Stuff was no more disturbing compared to killing a chicken for its meat to her.

Three Arms appeared to be in complete agreement, to my shock. ‘It is the only logical course of action. One death would serve to save the many. A good trade considering what hangs in the balance. Humans and youkai would be spared the loss of our last hope from her sacrifice. Think about it. We have no choice in the matter. She is our salvation, the only weapon we have against the nigh-indestructible Visitors.’

I snorted in disgust. Their little plan was full of holes. ‘And is that the complete truth? That would only serve to remove the Visitors infesting False Dawn. What about all the others idling all over Gensokyo?’

Three Arms frowned at my tone. ‘The girl will not die alone. We will gather the youkai and assault False Dawn directly to provoke every one of the Visitors in Gensokyo to come to the defense of their brethren rooted in False Dawn. Once the entirety of the Visitors has massed at False Dawn, we will perform the ritual and obliterate them all in one fell stroke. Many of us will die as well as a result. Do not delude yourself into thinking the Hakurei child is the only one who will be sacrificed for the good of everyone else.’

‘You underestimate these things. I have seen much of them. They know much about the workings of the world, have a hive commonality, and above all, intelligence enough to plan, predict, and react. What makes you think you can even fool them into using the entirety of their ranks to defend False Dawn without simply leaving a few of their numbers behind to begin the infestation anew after years of inactivity?’ Three Arms wasn’t as wise as he looked after all. The only thing he had in mind was short-term solutions just like their ill-conceived plan at replacing the lost sun.

Nevertheless, he let my challenge pass without getting worked up. ‘For a human, you possess excellent observation and foresight. Very well, I concede that we might not be entirely sure that the Visitors can be completely eliminated, but there is no time left for planning or strategies. False Dawn is rapidly dying from the corruption of the Visitors and unless we use the Hakurei child soon, there would be no point in using her in the future once False Dawn dies. As “short-sighted” as you think our plan is, it is the only one that can save us for now. Unless you have a better idea, human.’

I had to admit I didn’t. But what assurance did I have that Short Stuff’s sacrifice would even do what they claimed it would? They didn’t exactly have a great track record after their first failed attempt with Deat Meat’s friend. Staring at Short Stuff, I wondered why I had become so concerned about her.

Ironically, she didn’t look so disturbed about the fact that they had openly admitted to the fact that they were going to kill her with some funky voodoo ritual that had no guarantee of working. She glanced up at me, looking unsure and confused in light of everything. Slowly, it dawned on me that she was looking to me for guidance. Would she really go and die if I told her to go through with their little ritual?

Punk’s words earlier came back in a small voice. ’Listen to them if you want, but do not decide on the fate of the Hakurei child so easily.’ Now why would Punk have a conflicting opinion of their actions if they were the same bunch?

‘This is all too sudden. We need a day or so to talk about it.’ I insisted.

Dead Meat glared at me in reply. ‘That is not up to you to decide, human. Now gi-‘

Three Arms interrupted her once more, gazing at her in consternation and shaking his head, forcing Dead Meat to settle down in a huff. ‘Take your time then, we can spare a few more days. There are rooms we previously used during our stay here. You can stay in them for now.’ He stood up and Dead Meat followed suit. ‘We must leave to attend to the gathering. When the time comes, Suou will take the Hakurei child away and if you choose to do so, you are free to follow her to us. We can use someone of your knowledge and foresight. Otherwise, you have your freedom for your services rendered.’

So saying, the two of them walked up to a wall and Three Arms briefly touched a square segment of the wooden wall and the surface rippled slightly like water. Giving me a final look, he gave me a creepy smile and walked right into the wall, the ripples expanding into waves and Dead Meat followed soon after without even a backward glance. As she disappeared into it, the ripples settled down and the wall started to look like a normal wall again.

I experienced the sinking feeling that my troubles have only just begun.
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Well, that explains a lot of thing, particularly why this is in /underground/.

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Good story.

> Now why would Punk have a conflicting opinion of their actions if they were the same bunch?

Shou/Suou was mentioned by name in Byakuren's journal, so... let's hope we can put two and two together here.
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I wonder when she'll tell them about the second sun outside, since I think that would be interesting to them.
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I was kinda expecting her to at least think it when they were explaining everything about False Dawn and whatnot.
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I suspect the second sun in the outside world is the key to the solution: In other words I think Yukari's ritual did indeed work, but not in the way anyone expected.

But how such a solution to be reached would be the tricky part.

It's obvious that "dead meat" has kinda selfish reasons for her goals and seems to neglect the fact that bad things happen when there's no more Hakureis.

Shou/Punk on the other hand, being among Byakuren's bunch is a bit more reasonable.

Can't tell who three arms is, or what he/she is thinking.

Nice story so far but some logical skips bug me, first is how she didn't mention the second sun at that meeting. And a lesser one is how she's so worried about hell yet doesn't do much to redeem herself.
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Holy fuck, this story is depressing. Well written, but so. fucking. depressing.
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We'll be coming to that in the next update.

When information is the only sort of coinage one has, it would be natural to hoard it rather than dole it out to strangers one has just met and know nothing about.

Also, redemption is subjective. Ergo, one cannot expect to balance out a lifetime of evils by doing a lifetime's worth of good.

But we'll get to those in time. Suffice to say for now that everything is as it is for a reason.

I wanted to try something different for a change.
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>Good and evil are merely definitions given by people who do not understand the true nature of things.
You're a great writer, but I really, really just want to punch people that say this. Tell me that's for the story only.

You need to seriously shut the hell up about redemption. Maybe it never occurred to you, but that hasn't really been on her mind or in her future. All she wants is NOT TO DIE.

>Can't tell who three arms is, or what he/she is thinking.
Gee, maybe a mutated Satori? Or a satori.

>"dead meat"
That's Koishi. Is this really so hard to puzzle out?
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Within the context of the story. Naturally, people can't really justify an act of deliberate murder as something good.
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Actually that's pretty much what good and evil are, tags for impose ones own morality on something. Ultimately you can't define a person, a real, live person, not a strawman, to be either, neither can you define an action to be one or the other completely unambigously.

As for redemption, we'll see, the main character has been changing for a while now, and with her death looming not-so-far on the horizon, she may perhaps get agitated enough about where she'll end up so she'll at least begin to balance out the things she's done. I stress the part "begin to", not every path traveled can always be finished, that does not mean taking the first steps was not meaningful.
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*invokes Godwin's Law*
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You're not used to listening to (or reading, in this case) things other people say for very long, are you?

It shows.
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Oh ho, going for personal attacks as your first resort, your youth shows, child.
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I don't even need to say anything at this point. You're doing it for me.

Now, how about we stop shitting in this nice thread already?
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Completely forgot to mention it before, but:
It's been roughly 460 years ("a few centuries" since Utsuho got nuclear being at minimum 2 centuries + 260 years since the eclipse [going by by Byakuren's diary]) and Aya is still just a TENGUW WHORE.

The glass ceiling's a real bitch, ain't it?
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Small update this time. Couldn't find much time to write this week.


Short Stuff and I exchanged glances, at loss for words and I broke the silence with a rather lame, ‘You hungry? Lets go raid the kitchen.’

We couldn’t risk running away now even if we had second thoughts. Punk and Ice Cubes were still out there and I believed that was the reason why Three Arms and his under-aged girlfriend had been so confident about leaving us alone to go off to their gathering or something. They had left guard dogs to prevent us from escaping. For the moment, I decided I might as well grab some food while I tried to sort things out.

Short Stuff had found the kitchen at the end of the corridor and we looked over some of the stuff the gang of three had used for food. Raw meat, strips of raw meat, finely sliced raw meat, meat cubes, and more raw meat soaking in the blood of whatever animal all the meat had came from. Short Stuff grimaced in disgust as I prodded the contents of the barrel of horrors with a moldy ladle and I shooed her away before I picked out the strips of meat. The last time I had complained about having all-vegetarian meals. Now my prayers were answered and the gods had bestowed me more meat than I could ever eat, however disgusting it was. But that was easily remedied.

Going back out into the main room I went over to one of the braziers and started to run the strips of meat through my hunting knife and jammed it on one carrying ear of the brazier, letting the meat slowly cook in the heat as I leaned down on the platform It wasn’t going to be appetizing once it’s done, but it was food nonetheless. Short Stuff rejoined me, having found some clean water and we both drank thirstily from the dirty wooden cups, staring at nothing in silence.

She finally broke the ominous stillness with a small voice. ‘Will I have to die to save False Dawn?’

‘I don’t know, kid,’ I admitted. ‘I don’t think I trust them much. One is too passionate while the dried-up freak is too anxious.’

Looking away from me, she asked in a shaking voice, ‘Do you want me to die for False Dawn?’

What sort of a question was that? And why ask me? That’s something you have to decide for yourself, Short Stuff. ‘Hey. Hey, look over here.’ She turned back to stare at me. ‘Now tell me honestly. Do you want to die?’ She shook her head hard. ‘There, you just answered your own question.’

‘But they said-‘ she began anew.

I cut her off. ‘I don’t give a damn what they say, and neither should you. The whole shebang is stupid. We’ll escape when we get the chance. Just let me work something out first.’

She broke into a small smile as she stared down. ‘You’re not as bad as the tengu say you are.’

I wasn’t? That’s new. Flipping over the cushion Dead Meat had used earlier, I rested my head on it, staring blankly at the ceiling. Despite my reassuring words, I hadn’t the faintest idea about how I was going to elude Punk and Ice Cubes. Maybe I would have to try turning them against each other somehow. The two didn’t look like they got along well judging from their exchange at the stairs earlier. Or was it something deeper than just incompatible personalities?

Short Stuff sniffed the air. ‘Something’s burning.’

‘Oh crap,’ I spun around to look at my makeshift barbeque, noticing the strips of meat had started to blacken from bottom down and I rushed over to pull the knife free from its mooring. The heat around the handle was uncomfortable, but not unbearable, and I brought it over back to our spot, constantly flipping the knife between hands until it was cool enough to hold onto. ‘Meat?’ I offered her a strip.

Accepting it, she proceeded to gobble the entire strip down, even the crusted part the heat from the brazier had burnt. ‘It’s good,’ she commented.

No kidding. I tried a strip myself and almost spat the abomination out, but I forced myself to chew it nonetheless. It was sustenance and there was no sense in letting it go to waste. Roasted rubber was the closest thing I could associate with it and I wondered how Short Stuff could possibly like it, even going as far as to ask for a second helping.

We ate the rest in relative silence and I returned to my prone position, using the knife to clean my teeth. Short Stuff stared at me in amazement, probably wondering how I could possibly avoid accidentally slicing my gums and mouth wide open. Noticing her stare, I asked her randomly, ‘Want to see a neat trick?’

She gave me an energetic nod, and I spun the skinning knife around my fingers in her view, twirling them at the same time before throwing it straight up into the air above me and gravity took over, pulling the instrument of doom back to the ground directly towards my head. She cringed and averted her gaze as she drew back, not wanting to see the bloody mess that my noggin was about to turn into.

‘Hellooooo. I’m still alive.’ I showed her the knife I had caught once she had turned back and couldn’t stop myself from breaking out into a fit of laughter. Her face had lost all its color and she proceeded to assault me in mock anger with her puny fists, incensed at my little joke. ‘Ow. Careful. My ribs haven’t fully mended yet.’

We went back to our routine silence and I let her cool down a bit as she showed me her back in a huff. There was no need to get so upset over the little joke. She wasn’t the one at risk anyway. Why was she all worked up?

Just as I was thinking about getting some sleep, she interrupted me, ‘You haven’t answered my question. Do you want me to die for False Dawn?’


Was it the speed or brevity of my reply that made her look happy? Turning my head to look at her, she wore a little smile that spoke volumes about her gladness. I just had to ask. ‘What?’

‘Nothing… I just thought you’d take your time trying to decide like you always do. I didn’t expect you to reply outright,’ she answered simply.

‘Ohh. Ok.’ I returned my stare to the ceiling and plunged the knife into the soft wooden floor next to me. ‘Better get some sleep for now. We have a few days to work something out at least.’ Gesturing over at the darkened corridor I added, ‘You can use one of the rooms there. I saw a cot in there earlier.’

Crouching down next to me, she gave me a disappointed frown. ‘Can’t I sleep here with you?’

I pointed at the main entrance missing its double doors. ‘You want to catch pneumonia? You aren’t exactly dressed for cold weathers and we’re in the mountains in case you forgot. Besides, it’s better for you to sleep inside. That way, if someone decides to come for you in the middle of the night they’ll trip over me first.’ Despite sounding like another crude joke, I had been half serious when I cracked that. Being out here would give me a better chance of catching someone trying to approach us unawares.

She didn’t look convinced but complied with my orders anyway. Reluctantly moving into the closest room, she looked a while for the cot in the darkness and finally settled down and I returned my gaze over to the ceiling. My mind went back to the crazed god back in the shack out there. I wondered if I could somehow make use of her instead, but I didn’t have high hopes about that. I might be able to incite her into a murderous rage against Punk and Ice Cubes but there was a chance she would also turn against me as a result and I resorted not to take the risk.

I closed my eyes. Tomorrow, as always. There had already been too much thinking done for a day.
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Someone poked at my ribs and I brushed the probing fingers away annoyingly. The fingers became more insistent and I opened my eyes in irritation, only to stare right into the face of Punk. In alarm, my eyes flew wide open and one hand flashed in a blur for the skinning knife, only to brush an empty floor as I looked to the side where I had left the hunting knife. Punk had removed my weapon.

‘Easy,’ she whispered and rolled her eyes over to the room Short Stuff was in and then back to me. ‘Easy. I just want to talk.’ Leaning backwards to let me get up into a sitting position, she produced the knife from behind her and held it towards me, hilt first. I looked at it suspiciously, but she stared at me without any malice. ‘A sign of our trust.’

I accepted the knife slowly, still wary about what she was trying to do. ‘What do you want?’

‘Only for you and the Hakurei child to escape. Don’t let her go to these people. They will kill her without a second thought,’ she whispered back.

‘Who are you, really?’ I stared hard at her, trying to work out her angle, whatever she was planning. Was this some sort of trick by Three Arms?

‘A friend.’ She tapped at my clothes a bit to emphasize her point. ‘Byakuren’s friend.’

‘I don’t have friends and neither did she,’ I said as a matter-of-fact, at least where I was concerned anyway.

‘But she did, once. Good ones who stood by her side through times both good and bad.’ She caressed the wooden flooring once and Byakuren’s crest, the white lotus I had seen a few times, briefly flared onto the moldy wood before vanishing. ‘I don’t expect you to believe me outright, but listen to what I have to tell you anyway before you decide.’

I had to scoff at her. ‘Is that so? And I’m supposed to believe this isn’t something that three-armed freak put you up to.’

She moved over to my side and sat down on the platform, careful not to make any sudden moves that could startle me. ‘Iyen-Shuren knows nothing of our meeting now and you can be at ease because he will not find out about it. I’ve learned plenty as his shikigami throughout the long years and hiding my thoughts from him is just one of them.’

I fell back into my prone position, but kept my hand on the knife just in case. ‘Who the hell is Iyen-Shuren?’

Indicating the other vacant cushion on the platform, she explained in a low voice, as if afraid of someone or something might accidentally overhear her. ‘The elder you just met earlier. Iyen-Shuren is one of the three triumvirs of elder youkai that directly govern the disparate factions amongst all youkai. He is old, ancient even by youkai standards and far more powerful than most of the lesser elders like Yukari. Some say he is the progenitor of the satori race and that he gave up his left arm to allow more of his kind to come into existence. That is why most youkai fear him so, and the reason Koishi follows him unquestioningly; his word is law and his will is absolute.’

Fingering the knife idly, I tried to contemplate the hierarchy of these youkai. I had always assumed that they had a loose system of sorts to manage the various groups of disjointed misfits and it would seem this was not too far from the truth. They had leaders after all, ones they feared greatly and obeyed unquestioningly.

The droning voice went on and I forced myself back to her words. ‘The triumvirate had mostly faded from common knowledge since the creation of the Great Hakurei Border but the crisis with the lost sun forced Iyen-Shuren to resurface and attempt to mitigate the situation. And he has been around ever since, re-establishing himself as a leader figure for some of the youkai. At one point in the past when I myself had also degenerated into another mindless insane monster caused by the twilight, he had found me and saw fit to force a shikigami pact onto me due to some of my… shall we say unique, abilities in order to “salvage” me and I had been cut off from Byakuren ever since. I had knack for attracting prosperity and he needed that to fuel his return to power.’

Cut off from her. I had read that somewhere before and it suddenly dawned on me as a brief excerpt from Byakuren’s now-destroyed journal flashed back into my mind. ‘You’re Shou.’

She made no attempt to neither confirm nor deny my statement. ‘As far as the world is concerned, the youkai people knew as Shou perished during the outbreak long ago. After sanity returned to the world, none of those left would remember me and I was granted a new name ever since, and slaved away as his shikigami throughout the years.’ Turning to look at me, I could see the pupils of her eyes flare with the same fire I was so familiar with. ‘But I never forgot Byakuren. She thought I had disappeared and I was content to let her think that way. She had suffered enough for us in the past. I did not want her to come into conflict with Iyen-Shuren over me. Powerful as she might be, Iyen-Shuren is even moreso and thus, for the years until her death, we remain separated.’

One hand gripped the edge of the platform in anger and her voice rose slightly. ‘But he let her die. Let her die to the Visitors knowing full well they were coming for her. It was already too late once I found out she had perished trying to defend the Hakurei child and I haven’t spent a guiltless night ever since.’

I rubbed my brows in confusion. ‘I don’t think I follow you. What do you mean he let her die?’

The little flames in her eyes flared brighter. ‘Word of a survivor of the Hakurei priesthood had rapidly reached his ears the moment Byakuren publicly sought for help from the tengu. He sent your nemesis, the ice fairy out there, to retrieve the child once the Visitors were done with Byakuren because he knew They were coming for the child judging from the contents of her message, but he did not foresee you in the equation and you escaped with the child before Cirno could act and the child was taken by the tengu all the same.’

Staring straight ahead, she tossed some of that gold-black hair from her eyes with a casual shake of her head. In the low light the braziers cast about the room, she had become a rather striking sight, losing a lot of that boyish look that made me confused about her gender. ‘Don’t you see? He didn’t want to deal with Byakuren knowing full well that she would never allow him to take the child and he let her die to the Visitors because it was convenient for him.’

I averted my gaze when she caught me staring. Hastily, I added, ‘If he was as powerful as you say he is why didn’t he just make the first move and take the child by force from Byakuren? Why the games in making me go all the way to the tengu stronghold just to steal her?’

Her short hair rippled as she shook her head. ‘He dared not confront Byakuren directly, for as much as he is seen as one of the leader figures for the youkai, Byakuren is also viewed as a messiah by all. As for the tengu, they will never admit to Iyen-Shuren’s authority because they are loyal to Vana, another facet of the triumvir who had always been at odds with Iyen-Shuren. He could not risk provoking a schism amongst the triumvirate and thus, he made use of the perfect tool to fetch the Hakurei child.’

Returning her gaze to me, she emphasized her point with a nod. ‘You. An outsider with no affiliations. A human no one would care about. Do you understand now? He lets the Visitors finish Byakuren off so he wouldn’t need to deal with that headache and he uses you to steal the Hakurei child from the tengu who rejects his will. Iyen-Shuren didn’t even need to get himself involved directly to procure the child for his use.’

So that bastard was the one responsible for Ice Cubes and in extension, much of my other torment. If I ever get a hold of him I’m making sure he loses the rest of his arms. ‘Fine. Lets say I take your words as the truth. How do you propose I escape from the abominable snowgirl out there?’ A broad grin broke out on my face as I contemplated the idea. ‘Unless you don’t mind putting a fist through her head for me.’

She shook her head once more. ‘I cannot, not while I am bound to Iyen-Shuren as his shikigami and his will. Besides, even if I wanted to, it would never permanently remove Cirno. She is a-‘

‘Yeah yeah I know. A reincarnating pain-in-the-behind,’ I cut her off. Just great, she’s a lover, not a fighter. So much for my brief surge of hope.

A brief smile touched her lips and her expression lightened up slightly at my humor. ‘I was going to say fairy, but it would appear you already know much about life in Gensokyo. Perhaps trusting you with the girl is the best option I have.’

Not that again. ‘You people seem to have a bad habit of easily trusting strangers. What makes you think you can trust me? First Byakuren, then the girl, and now you.’ Lifting the skinning knife into the air, I spun it vertically on my palm to illustrate my point to her, the rotations almost a blur to the naked eye. ‘See this knife? If you try to grab it during its roulette now you’ll never know if you might grab the hilt or the blade. I’m not who you think I am. I’m just another spinning knife.’

Reaching out, she swiped the spinning blade out of my hand in a single silky-smooth motion and showed it to me in return, having grabbed the hilt. Impressive. ‘Because somewhere inside of you, I see a desire to protect the child. I’ve been watching you tonight. You stopped Cirno from taking the child. You wouldn’t let the child go to Koishi. You stopped Yuhiko from making a detrimental decision by asking for time to talk things through with her. And most of all, when she asked you if you wanted her to die for the sake of False Dawn, you told her outright you didn’t.’

She handed the knife back to me, which I reclaimed and idly flipped over to one side. ‘That’s just common sense isn’t it? Their funky ritual doesn’t really shine with a “Tested-And-Guaranteed-To-Work” seal of approval and maybe I just have some personal uses for the girl to want to keep her around myself for a while more.’ That was true enough as far as it went, wasn’t it? I needed Short Stuff alive and around me as long as she could continue to hide me from the Visitors.

Her light smile broke out once more in light of my denials. ‘All right, I won’t argue with you for now. You keep building walls like that around yourself and you’ll never be able to make friends. Perhaps one day, you will accept the fact that for once, you’ve acted in a way to protect someone else rather than yourself.’ She rose and brushed her robes slightly, the boyish look and charms returning to her face. ‘I’ll see what I can manage to get Cirno out of the way but stay put for a few days at least.’

‘Hey.’ I stopped her before she walked away and her gaze came back onto me. ‘Did you really just grab the knife without caring if you got the blade or hilt?’

The smile returned, even more dazzling than before. Even though we spoke in metaphors, she understood completely what I had meant. ‘Yes.’

And she left us for the night.
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Punk continued to frown at me as I played around with the goddess she had called Kanako, obviously displeased at my disrespect towards the deity. Crazy Mouth would still occasionally ramble incoherently and scream shrilly for no particular reason when I was around but she was slowly getting used my presence. One particular time when I had been stretching her cheeks she had actually smiled at me and called me “Sanae”, whoever that is.

‘Why do you treat her so? She might be insane but she’s still a god.’ Punk moved into the shack and stood against one wall, shaking her head in disapproval at my constant prodding, shaking, and patting on Crazy Mouth.

The slow warming of a new day had brought me out of a refreshing sleep, despite having spent the night on a rotting wooden floor in a drafty room. A quick glance into Short Stuff’s room indicated that she was still fast asleep and I moved silently out of the shrine towards the shack at the side. Since Punk wouldn’t lift a finger against Ice Cubes, I decided to just see what I could possibly get the crazed deity to do against my nemesis. A gold-black haired head had poked in to see what I had been up to.

I shook one finger at her without looking back. ‘Ah, but she’s just not any god, my friend. She’s a crazy god who so happens to be conveniently passive and possibly, a neat tool for dealing with your good buddy out there. Where is the icy abomination anyway?’

Closing her eyes for a few moments, she replied, ‘At the other side of the lake. Looks like she’s… uh… freezing frogs there.’ How typical.

Pulling at Crazy Mouth’s cheeks once more, I gave her a broad grin and asked her once more, ‘Now whooooo’s your favorite person?’

Despite her outstretched lips, she managed a response. ‘Sha-naee-eey.’ Good. Now I would have to slowly get her to think I’m this “Sanae”. I would have a personal god of death who would be more than willing to waste Ice Cubes on my behalf if I could do so. Before that, I needed a little bit more information to work the idea into Crazy Mouth. Turning back to Punk, I asked her offhandedly, ‘So who was this Sanae?’

Punk shifted from the wall and sat on one of the rotting crates as she explained. ‘She was the miko who attended to this shrine back in the old days. We had a few… shall we say encounters in the past, and I got to know her well after that. She was the last in her line. The Kotiya lineage stopped existing with her death.

‘Mm hmm…’ I nodded absent-mindedly. I never knew much about the inhabitants of this shrine despite knowing where it was. ‘Is that why the youkai around here stopped worshipping her?’

She could only shrug. ‘Partly perhaps. Kanako also had a friend per se, another god they called Suwako who had disappeared after Sanae died childless. The youkai around the mountain would often sing of her legend; the frog goddess who had wept for days next to the lake outside after Sanae’s death, her tears forcing the lake to overflow and creating new waterfalls around the mountain in her sadness. She purportedly vanished into the lake after grieving for a week.’ Giving Crazy Mouth a sad gaze, she added, ‘Perhaps the real reason she secluded herself and abandoned her worshippers was because she had become lonely instead of agonizing over the guilt from triggering the incident with the sun. Ironic isn’t it? Even as gods, they seem so human at times.’

That made me think about Rilofene as well. Punk’s words held a grain of truth in them, for as divine as gods would seem, some of them were often driven by much of the same emotions any other being would experience. Rilofene feared death as much as I did. Kanako chose to let herself wither once those close to her had passed on, having lost the meaning of her existence. This Suwako of theirs was consumed by grief from the death of someone. All very human emotions and responses towards a loss. Truly, irony in its purest form.

I started to feel a bit guilty about trying to impersonate Sanae in order to use her. Without a doubt, Punk would not approve of such a plan but I really didn’t see much of a choice. Perhaps I would have to convince her that Crazy Mouth had died long ago in a lateral sense, and there would be nothing wrong in simply making use of the mindless husk sitting in front of us now.

I took a break from disturbing the lunatic and assumed a seat next to Punk, the old crate groaning under our combined weight. ‘You pity her a little too much for what she’s done. She could be responsible for more than the missing sun in Gensokyo. She might be indirectly responsible for the death of an entire world as well.’

Her brows knitted in confusion at my words. ‘What do you mean?’

I could almost feel the weariness of my own words as I spoke them. ‘The Outside. For some reason the Outside world had gained another sun and much like how your Gensokyo was plunged into eternal twilight, the world outside was scorched with permanent sunlight. That three-armed freak of yours had spoken much about the insanity that had afflicted the youkai of Gensokyo.’

Leaning back against the wall and stretching my legs, I went on. ‘I can tell you now of a very different sort of insanity that was probably responsible for killing off almost every human in the Outside when the people could no longer find respite from the twin suns. Civil unrests, riots, anarchy, survival of the fittest, a dying biosphere. People gave up on life. It’s far easier to lie down and die rather than struggle to live in a world you know is withering away.’

She listened to my words attentively, almost reverentially. ‘And you think Kanako had something do to with it?’

I could only shrug. ‘Who knows? Things cease to exist in the Outside and they pop up in here. Something disappears in here and the inverse might also be true. For all I know that second flaming ball out there could be Gensokyo’s vanished sun. And you know what? It didn’t look the least like it was dying at all.’

For a moment, she grew excited at the possibility. ‘What if we could-‘

I interrupted her before she could go on, knowing full well what she was going to say, ‘Send it here? What, you want to try killing both suns out there so they would pop up in here? If you gave me a galaxy-sized drill I might be able to do that, sure.’ I rolled my eyes in sarcasm. ‘While we’re at it, let’s kill Gensokyo too by flooding it with eternal sunlight. That’s a great idea.’

Her face fell from the sting of my sarcasm. ‘I was just wondering. We’ve been without hope for so long, it’s natural to want to cling to any you can find.’

Maybe I had been a little too harsh with my words. She didn’t deserve my derision, not with what she had been through and the risk she took in telling me about Three Arms. ‘Sorry. I have a bad habit of speaking without thinking. That was crude of me.’

She waved her hand dismissively. ‘No offense taken, don’t worry about it.’

The two of us fell into silence and even the cross-legged figure to my right had quieted down for a change, looking almost serene and peaceful as she lost herself in whatever memories of the past her fragmented mind still held. Punk stood and motioned for me to follow her as she stepped out of the shack, probably not wanting me to continue aggravating Crazy Mouth now that she had become docile. I fell into step next to her once the shack’s door had been put back in place and we slowly made our way towards the edge of the placid lake, glinting in the morning glow as the occasional ripple grazed the surface.

We stood together near the lake as we ceased our little walk and I started conversationally. ‘What do you know of the Visitors?’

Drawing her dull robes closer around her as the morning mountain air chilled her, she bent down to pick a few of the water-smoothed pebbles and proceeded to toss them idly into the lake. ‘As much as you do, perhaps even less. Iyen-Shuren had tasked me with observing them for many years and we still know next to nothing about them or their motives.’

Three Arms again. ‘Tell me something. Do you ever regret being bound to that three-armed freak?’

She could only shake her head, not as a sign of denial but as an indication that she did not know. ‘I cannot forgive how he allowed Byakuren to die and how he plans to use her daughter, but he is a good leader; he did what he did for the sake of his people. Iyen-Shuren is honest about saving False Dawn and to him, the loss of a few individual lives or making use of others as tools would mean nothing compared to the survival of an entire species. I don’t know whether to respect him or hate him for that.’

I would concede that much at least. ‘The world is always in a shade of gray, as much as people would like to see things in plain black or white. You might call Iyen-Shuren a “necessary evil” for lack of a better word.’ Looking at the other side of the lake, I could hardly make out the small figure in blue as she flitted about aimlessly, but I knew she was partially watching us. However fickle she might be, she knew her priorities well. Shaking the thought from my head, I concluded for Punk. ‘As immoral as his actions may seem to you, he is necessary for Gensokyo, so never again in your future will you need another Iyen-Shuren.’

Punk’s tone was almost reproaching as she spoke in return, face aghast. ‘You agree with his actions?! You forget how he used you and his blatant disregard for-‘

I waved her arguments off tiredly before she could go on. ‘Nothing like that. I’m incensed at him as much as you are but as self-serving as his actions would seem to you, he acted in the best interest of the youkai. It doesn’t take a genius to see that he’s desperate for some way to save everyone, even if it means killing the kid with his half-assed plan. Put Byakuren in his place. What do you think she would decide?’

She hung her head in despair at the moral dilemma, torn between hatred and resignation. ‘I don’t know. I don’t know anymore. But I don’t want the child to die. I’ve failed Byakuren twice already.’ Her expression grew into one of determination as she turned to grip my arm. ‘I will not fail her in this at least. Help me. Take the Hakurei child away to a safe place. I am incapable of defying Iyen-Shuren’s will but you can.’

Easy for you to say. I gestured at the little figure in blue happily hopping around on the lake; small ice floes had formed all around her in the water. ‘How about you help me with that first? And where do you suggest we run to? There ain’t no refuge for us anymore. Once we start running, that three-armed freak will do anything in his power to get the kid back, and I have no doubt that his powers would be pretty damned extensive. What would stop him from just walking out of a tree to reach us from anywhere? On the other hand, the Visitors constantly hound us and bringing her back to the human village will put them all in danger much like the tengu stronghold.’

She perked up at the mention of the tengu. ‘What about them? Surely they would be able to provide shelter for you both if you returned to them. They owe no allegiance to Iyen-Shuren. And you can be at ease regarding his wall-walking. His transversal ability doesn’t work that way. He can only move between two points predefined beforehand.’

‘Bad idea. The Visitors found us once there and They might be waiting for us to return, same for the human village.’ I didn’t mention the fact that the tengu would have a real hankering for my guts now after both my escapades there. It wasn’t something I was keen on becoming public knowledge. I sighed long and hard. Once more, I was trapped like a rat on a sinking ship with nowhere left to run to. ‘So you see, despite your fondest convictions, we’re back to square one.’

‘Damn it.’ Reaching down for another smoothed pebble, she tossed it with precision at the scampering figure of Ice Cubes on an ice floe, the impact nudging her off balance and in a blur of wildly waving arms and flashing blue, my nemesis tumbled into the crystal-clear waters of the lake.

‘Damn it all,’ I heard her mutter again, defeat creeping into her voice.

‘Yeah, damn it.’ I agreed, in more ways than one as I reached down for a pebble of my own and waited for a blue-haired noggin to resurface.
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I spent much of the remainder of the day thinking about my options, slowly realizing as I did that they were extremely limited or inapplicable. First of all, I had to deal with my nemesis, the abominable snowgirl and in extension, Punk herself as well. She had told me that she was incapable of directly defying Three Arms’ will and I knew she had been trying to convey a message, implying that she would have to be removed as well in order for escape to be possible.

Second, I needed a long-term solution for the Visitor’s thirst for both Rilofene and Short Stuff and to do that, I had no choice but to try and find out more about them; the reason for their attraction to the both of us and how we would be able to counteract it. As much as I hated to admit it, I was quickly becoming the leading scholar when it came to these creatures considering Three Arms’ response last night. The only source of additional knowledge would be from what I can learn from my future encounters with them.

Finally, our most immediate need; to find a place to hide from all the factors around us that seemed to want us for their own agenda. There would be no refuge in the village or the tengu stronghold. I owed them that much to keep them away from further harm, regardless of how they had treated me in the past. I suspected Short Stuff would rather die than bring about more deaths due to her presence anyway.

Despite all of that, I still had no idea what good running would do for the two of us. I had grown dead tired with that ever since I arrived in Gensokyo and the thought of running for the rest of my life in here rapidly drained my determination to further plan and think for the future. There would be no rest for me from now onwards; that was all but guaranteed. Deep down I wished I had Rilofene to consult with, for as much as she abhors me her wisdom and desperation to preserve her spark of life within me would come in extremely handy for me now.

I tossed the last of the pebbles I had collected into the lake, the ripples from the rapidly-sinking stone distorting the reflected image of both False Dawn and the new moon tonight. Once more, False Dawn’s eye was closed and only natural moonlight lit the lonely mountains and I took in the moment of peace wholeheartedly; I would have little chance for such luxuries when we start running.

Shifting my gaze over to the little shack behind me, I tried to listen to the voice of the lunatic within but only the still night punctuated by the sounds of nature greeted my ears. Soon, I would begin my little brainwashing on her, having decided to just go ahead with using her as a weapon against Ice Cubes; Punk’s conflicting opinions against my idea be damned as far as I cared. I knew I would also have to set her against Punk, but there was an unspoken agreement between the two of us that there would be no hard feelings. She would endure anything in order to see Short Stuff freed from the immediate threat of death.

Dropping down into a lazy crouch, I sifted the ground for more pebbles to play with. I felt stupid wasting my time like this, but all that hard thinking yielded nothing fruitful and I didn’t feel like I could possibly work something out tonight. Damn it all. Even in life I would be cursed with endless suffering before I had to endure another eternity of unceasing hell in death. Grabbing a handful of rocks, I tossed them horizontally against the surface of the lake in anger, some of the smaller ones skipping a few times on the water before disappearing into the depths like lost souls caught in the jaws of hungry demons.

The sound of crunching earth behind me indicated the approach of someone small. I didn’t bother to look back as I continued to flip little rocks aside in gloom. She stopped just a bit behind me, unsure if disturbing me would be a wise idea seeing the black mood I was in. ‘The tall lady brought me some fruit for dinner. I saved some for you.’ Procuring a yellowing pear from behind her, she dangled it next to me, far out of reach.

I waved a hand at her without looking back, wanting her to go away. ‘Don’t bother. Feel free to finish them. No appetite.’ The incident at the tengu settlement was still fresh in my mind and I didn’t want her to remember how I had struck her, for I felt like I was wearing the same expression as that night at the moment.

Despite how much I practically oozed hostility, she soldiered on and came to crouch down next to me, picking a few pebbles herself and clumsily tossing them into the lake. ‘Um… are you mad again?’

I felt my eyes roll upwards involuntarily. ‘Why, do I always look like I’m constantly angry?’ I gave up fiddling with the rocks and sat on the ground, reclining on my arms. I never stared into mirrors much. Was my face always framed in an angry frown?

She didn’t answer immediately, perhaps fearing I would lash out at her if she chose the wrong words. ‘N… no. Not all the time, but I almost never see you look happy. Except when you play pranks on me. And even that only last for a few seconds.’ Turning to face my side, she folded her legs underneath her and assumed a polite sitting position. Something Byakuren drilled into her? Maybe.

The temperature continued to drop but it hadn’t gotten to the point where it was uncomfortable. As it is now, I enjoyed the coolness of the mountain air as it drifted past us like misplaced trees. I forced an artificial grin that looked more like it came from a dead possum as I turned to look at Short Stuff. ‘There. Do I look happy now?’

The grin only served to bring a disapproving frown into her face. ‘What is it that made you into such a hard person? You seem almost like you’re angry at the world all the time, as if the only reason you find in living stems from dealing with what the world throws at you.’

I couldn’t find an immediate answer for her. As young as she looked she had a good eye for people, something I attributed to the maturity her former guardian had been indirectly molding in her when she had been living with Byakuren. ‘That’s not too far from the truth. I’ve been too busy trying to survive to have time enough for smelling the flowers on the roadside. What would you feel like if the main part of your every single day consists of planning how you wouldn’t die the next day?’

She fell silent from my rebuke, wise enough not to pursue the matter when she had realized that most of my problems so far indirectly originated from her. ‘I’m sorry,’ she muttered and started to get up to leave.

Catching hold of her retreating sleeve, I pulled her back to my side indolently. ‘Aww, not going to go and leave an old hag to enjoy the moonlight by herself now, are you?’ I held out a hand for the pear and she hesitantly dropped it onto my open palm, unsure if she should just leave or stay. ‘Stay awhile and keep me company at least.’

Short Stuff complied and took her place next to me, maintaining her silence, seemingly not wanting to aggravate me further with any words she thought would be inconsiderate. I chewed a piece out of the fruit, sour and with a tangy undertone of sweetness as I began anew. ‘You know what people say about karma? That things will always come back to haunt you no matter how long ago it happened in the past?’ I glanced over to her and she nodded slowly in response. ‘Well, I’m running from karma. Been running for years. Gonna run for many more years to come. I don’t find much joy in-between that.’ Ripping another piece from the pear, I mumbled between my munching, ‘Can’t expect me to have time to be happy now, can you?’

She drew her legs closer towards her, bothered by the slowly cooling night. ‘What is it you run from, exactly?’

I shrugged. From everything I guess? ‘Sins of the past. A dead world. Death. Judgment. The Visitors.’ I added as I gave her a knowing glance, ‘And pretty soon, from a bunch of extremely pissed-off youkai who will want a certain someone back once I kidnap her.’

It didn’t look like she knew what I had meant in general but the last part she understood well enough. ‘You don’t have to do it for me. The old man said you were free to go if you chose to do so.’

But would I do it? I looked up at the moon, full and beautiful in all its waxing glory. Was it just really a selfish reason for wanting to keep her alive? I had committed much great evil in the past, and never really bothered with doing good deeds all my life to make up for that black past. I never believed in balancing the scales like that. What was done was done; there would be no making up for that, no matter how much good I could try to do in the future. One does not simply hope to be able to justify killing innocents with feeding the poor and hungry during their time of need, or saving children from war. Life didn’t work in such simplistic ways.

Returning my gaze to Short Stuff, I wondered if this one time would be different. Saving her would do nothing for me, but perhaps the gods would be kind enough to tip the scales a little in my favor for my tiny act of humanity. I shook my head, amused at my own presumptions. Whatever. We had a shared destiny for the moment. We might as well just survive together as long as we can. The company would be good at any rate.

I flung the pitted core of the pear into the lake as I remarked dryly, ‘Nah. Think I’ll stick around a little bit more.’

Her little smile broke out once more, rare and beautiful. ‘I’m glad. If I am to die, I want to have you around to hold my hands as I pass at least.’

I gave her a smirk in return. ‘Thinking about dying again? Better get rid of that bad habit. There won’t be any deaths, at least for a little while more.’ My thought went back to the lunatic in the shack, my weapon. ‘We’ll make our move soon. We just need a place to hide out in once we deal with those two.’

She knew as well as I did that there was close to nowhere left for us to run to but she did offer another interesting possibility. ‘What about my family shrine?’

Her suggestion caught me by surprise, for I hadn’t thought about that in the least. The smell of death would permeate that place for ages and all youkai would have given it a wide berth. The Visitors who had massacred her family would be long gone after all these years. Three Arms might consider the place a viable hiding spot but I had to take the chance. We would be able to have some peace and quiet there for a week or so at least until he finally caught up with us. I would make sure we were long gone by then. ‘You know what kid? That’s pretty damned good actually.’ Leaning down, I whispered in a low voice to her, ‘Listen. I need you to attend to the horse tomorrow. Make sure it’s well-fed and watered. Ask for anything you might need from the gold-haired punk. She’ll help you.’

Short Stuff gave me her usual blank stare when she couldn’t understand what I was up to. ‘What will you be doing in the meantime?’

My gaze wandered to the ruined shack once more, now brimming with purpose. ‘Making a new friend.’
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Does 'three-arms' know of the whole general "Bad things happen when there's no more Hakureis"?

Since let's face it that's what their little plan requires, and cleaning up the false dawn wouldn't do much good if Gensokyo implodes.

What if Yukari and Suika could somehow move that second sun. (Suika's abilities work on the conceptual level like how she exploded the moon for a bit and Yukari is the only one who can move things between the two worlds)
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I'm more in favor of non-conventional solutions, hence the lack of relying too much on the other touhoes abilities so far.

But I do love input. It gives me ideas I can throw into the mix for fun.

In fact, I'm welcoming them at the moment. Working like a mindless drone through the week has left me little time to actually conceptualize the direction we will be taking.
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I'm curious as to how the shrine will look like now that it's been in disrepair for quite some time. Three-arms must know that killing the last Hakurei would be a ridicullously stupid thing to do being around for so long, so he must have a plan to prevent Gensokyo from ceasing to exist. This plan could range anywhere from not actually killing Yuhiko or maybe sacrificing a part of yuhiko without killing her(technically, she can still bear children as soulless husk). Also, Aya is massivee slut.
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"Small," says the writefag.

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>Some say he is the progenitor of the satori race
Well, at least my second guess was right.

I'm a little worried that Yukari is considered a lesser elder.

I'm going to have to cruise the Wikia and brush up on my touhoe skills list before I can suggest much more.
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Yeah considering how in canon, there's few beings that rival her in power. Perhaps she might have stepped down from things Youkai politics wise as to focus on other things perhaps.

But I still think she'll play a part in ultimately solving this issue.
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The birth of a new day came with very little fanfare; the usual cold mountain air of the morning caressed my cheeks and shook me into consciousness as I shivered slightly. I had gotten used to sleeping on the drafty wooden floor for the past two nights and actually enjoyed the cooling sensation behind me whenever I had to spend a night on the floor of the shrine. Water ran in tiny rivulets down the cold braziers from the condensed moisture on them, their fiery warmth long-extinguished and I stepped outside to stretch a bit, rubbing a finger feebly around my teeth in a crude effort at cleaning them. If there was ever a time to miss a good toothbrush, it would be right now.

Of my nemesis and her erstwhile partner there was no sign, and I noticed the horse had gone missing. A cursory examination of Short Stuff’s room also showed that she was gone and I surmised that she had acted on my orders and took the horse out to water and feed it. Ice Cubes had gone along to watch her closely, and the gold-black punk had probably accompanied her to watch Ice Cubes in return, fearful that she might inadvertently harm the kid. The temperamental fairy would not bother keeping an eye on me anymore; I had served my purpose to her and the only thing of importance to her now, namely Short Stuff, would be the only object my nemesis wanted to watch over.

All the better for me. I would have peace and time to work on the lunatic in the shack. Making my way towards the shack I strained my ears to check if she was awake; I could not even be sure if she slept at all in her mental condition. The stillness of the morning told me she was either docile or just plain sleeping at the moment and I placed one hand on the door as I stopped short of it. I gave a tug, but it only shifted a few inches. Punk had been able to remove the thing with one hand. It should be lighter than it looks.

Trying to move it once more only yielded me a few more inches and I gave up opening it carefully. Throwing my weight against the rotting door, it rocked a bit on my first try and crashed inwards to the ground as I bumped it once more and stuttered to a halt midway inside. The lunatic in rags stirred at the noise and looked up fearfully, but her expression relaxed slightly as a light of recognition flickered in her eyes at the sight of me. Well, maybe this was going to be easier than it would look. I managed to give her the fake grin I was so good at pulling out of my ass. ‘Good morning.’

She only grinned back in response and proceeded to sob uncontrollably in the next moment, burying her grimy hands in her face as she rocked back and forth. Crouching down in front of her, I waited for her to quiet down before peppering her with a few inane questions. How are you today? Shall I show you another dance? Would you like to see today’s offerings? And a few more a shrine maiden would normally start the day with. The lunatic gave no indication of either understanding me or acknowledging my presence but it was fine either way, I knew my presence had registered in her mind and I would take it slowly from here. There would be no mistakes.

The better part of the next two hours I had spent in vain doing things people would consider inane. Straightening out her hair and putting it back in a presentable manner, brushing her rags-for-clothes and clearing the dust and dirt which had settled on her during her solitary reign here. I had even performed a little dance for her, highly reminiscent of the shrine maidens of old and she had watched me with beady eyes for a change, mesmerized by resurfacing memories caused by my movements. The actions would seem trivial to an onlooker, but it served as a way of reminding her about her past lifetime and would associate me with her miko who had attended to her in such a manner before. I didn’t need to look like her miko; the echoes from my actions and movements would be enough for the mental association to establish itself in her maddened state.

Stopping to take a break, I tried to check on my progress. Facing her and assuming a formal seated position, I asked her directly. ‘Do you remember me?’

She looked up briefly before letting her head droop down again and swayed unsteadily, still in her cross-legged position. No words sprang forth from her mouth.

I frowned in concern and tried again. ‘I served you long with loyalty. Are you not happy with me?’

Crazy Mouth didn’t even stir in the slightest to indicate she had heard me. Was I already gone from her brief period of attentiveness?

I grew desperate and said something to her something I shouldn’t have. ‘My name is Sanae. Call me.’

Swaying momentarily in confusion, she pulled her head up and gazed at me momentarily, her eyes grew sharper in focus and she shocked me with her reply, filled with clarity and certainty. ‘No. You are not Sanae. She has been dead for many years.’ The look of clarity faded quickly and she proceeded to sway unsteadily again, mumbling incoherently.

Damn it. I had acted prematurely and inadvertently broke the link of mental associations I had been slowly building up. Certainly, I didn’t expect her to be able to experience a moment of sanity to ascertain the truth about my claim. I got up in silence and paced around nervously. I needed to use her against my captors and it looked like that had failed spectacularly, despite my fondest beliefs that it would work. Her dysfunctional mind would have unconsciously formed a block against my suggestions now; trying to impersonate Sanae would no longer work. I thought frantically about how I could influence her in some other way, but nothing came to mind.

I stopped in mid-pace, another idea quickly surfacing. I might not be able to use her indirectly, but I sure as hell can use her divine essence directly. It would be extremely risky, carrying the danger of burning my very soul out as I tried to consume her essence, not to mention the burden it would put on my body as I tried to channel the brief surge of power she would feed into me. It would only last for scant minutes; human bodies were never built to be able to withstand housing divine entities and nature itself would act quickly to either disperse the collective imbalance of energies or annihilate the anomaly altogether in order to prevent an unnatural phenomenon against the laws of existence from triggering.

Nevertheless, I was confident I would be able to withstand the internal tidal maelstrom from eating the goddess alive long enough to take out both Ice Cubes and Punk. Centuries of living with Rilofene inside of me had subtly altered and conditioned me well enough to be able to redirect the rapidly draining essence Crazy Mouth would give me into a useful outlet, such as momentarily gaining strength and speed charged well beyond human limits. I would use that power to rip Ice Cubes into pieces and I grinned at the thought of it despite the dangers it carried; it would seem like I would have my pay-back after all for the suffering she inflicted on me.

I set about preparing the Rites of Passing, an ageless method the gods of old had conceived in order to transfer their existence from one avatar to a new host body when they had sustained too much divine damage from battle with their brethrens to be able to continue functioning in their avatar bodies. I would purposefully distort the actual process, forcing Crazy Mouth’s essence to flow into me while damming the flow of her soul, preventing her from simply crushing my own and possessing my body whilst still allowing her essence to come into me. It would carry its own risk as well, but I judged myself well enough to be able to handle it. I hadn’t served a goddess of murder meaninglessly for years; I had also learnt much from her when it came to these things.

Flipping the skinning knife out, I decided I might as well get started with the preliminary conditioning. Pulling Crazy Mouth’s hand out from its folded position I forced it onto the ground above my own hand, palm open facing downwards. She didn’t even fight back as she let her hand rest listlessly above mine and I looked for something I could bite down on. The only thing that I found was a small wooden bucket and I had to make do with it, biting down on the handle as I returned my attention to our stacked hands. Gritting my teeth in anticipation, I plunged the knife unceremoniously through both our hands before I could stop to hesitate and had to resist the urge to scream out loud and drop the bucket as the sharp blade tore through the nerves in my hand.

I left the weapon in place, Crazy Mouth didn’t even flinch in the slightest when it had went through her hand into mine but I was sweating profusely from the pain and gasped continuously as I chewed hard on the bucket handle. The blood from her hand streamed down into my open wound through the knife and I could feel a slight tingling from it, but still she made no attempt at removing her hand as she proceeded to nod off and I had to wonder briefly if she could even feel pain at all.

The pain would bond the two of us together while the blood would serve to familiarize my body with her essence. There would be no need for fancy magical circles or elaborate ceremonies. In honesty, I had always thought those deliberate acts of ritualistic chanting, praying, and dancing were something people came up with to justify their elaborate charade at creating wonders or magicks. True reality-altering phenomena generated by inhuman beings always took place without any fancy fanfare; it just happens.

I stopped counting the minutes as the pain became unbearable and I bit down on the handle harder as I moved to withdraw the knife from our hands. One single pull and our hands were freed from their temporary matrimony and I continued to gasp as I let the knife clatter to the floor and stared at the bloody slit on my reddened palm. It was barely noticeable, but the wound had already begun to heal slightly. Inspecting Crazy Mouth’s hand, I noted the complete absence of a wound. It had covered up the moment the knife was freed from her hand. Good. We would be compatible after all.

Grabbing a rag lying next to her, I wrapped my hand in it, not giving much of a thought about hygiene. It would matter little. If we were truly compatible, the wound will completely heal in a scant few hours. After that, I would need Punk’s help to complete the process, but that I would leave for tonight. For now, I had other preparations to make.

Returning to the gloomy kitchen, I opened the wooden trays I had set out during the previous night in silence. The raw strips of meat looked well-preserved enough sitting in all the salt I had dumped them into and I began to extract them as I packed them into small packages. As revolting as the thought about eating them raw was, we would have little choice but to subsist on them for the first few nights after our impending escape. There would be no fires as we flee; I was determined to leave as little sign as possible to indicate where we were heading to for the pursuers Three Arms would undoubtedly set on us.

Two packets of rations; it should be enough to last for a few meals. Looping a small cord around the rations, I set the unappetizing treat next to Short Stuff’s cot as I made my way past her room. The only thing left right now would be to wait for the return of the two stooges and Short Stuff.

I had the presence of mind to return to the shack and set the door back in place clumsily, the senile figure paid me no heed as I finally moved the thing into the space it formerly occupied. Ice Cubes must suspect nothing out of place when she returns. I gave Crazy Mouth one final look, whispering silently to no one in particular. Sorry old hag, but your death will do us more good compared to just sitting there and wasting away throughout the years. For a few seconds, I wondered if she would be able to even return to the throne of gods; what I was about to commit would irreversibly damage her in a way that would make her transmigration almost impossible. Shutting the thought out of my mind, I left the shack and my guilt behind, trying to convince myself ineffectually that it would be for the best.

Of course, that’s what I always tell myself when I was about to pull crap over other people for my own benefit. Collapsing onto the staircase up to the shrine, I buried my face into my hands, forcefully shutting out the tiny voice of my conscience nagging away at me as I waited for Short Stuff’s return.
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‘You’re going to what?!’ she exclaimed before realizing she had spoken out-loud and stared fearfully around to check if her partner was in the area.

‘Kill your Kanako. Use her to temporarily boost me beyond what a human is capable of. It’ll only be for a few minutes at best, but it’ll be enough to mess up Ice Cubes beyond belief.’ I took her by her arm and dragged her over to the lunatic, pressing two fingers to my lips in a token of silence. ‘I need you to kill us both when I tell you to.’ Picking up the sharpened pole I had left next to the lunatic, I forced the splintered implement into Punk’s hands as she continued to stare at me in shocked disbelief. ‘Run us both through the heart with this.’

‘What?!’ she repeated. ‘I don’t know what sort of a crazy idea would make you actually think this will work but this is madness! You’re just a mere human, whoever told you this was a viable process or wherever you read it from, is sorely mistaken! I know much about gods and this is an act of meaningless idiocy.’

Actually, I know far more about them than you do. Nevertheless, I kept the unspoken words to myself as I repeated my orders. ‘Just trust me and do it. Remember that night you took the knife from me? You said you would trust me regardless of whom or what I would turn out to be. Now is the time to be making good on that promise.’

Her hands closed about the wooden instrument, doubt clouding her expression and concern visible in her eyes as she looked at me critically. ‘This is madness. You want me to trust your words when you won’t tell me the reason behind them? That I should also thrust Yuhiko into your crazy scheme?’ Hefting the makeshift weapon in her hand, she gave me a new look. ‘If I stick this thing through your heart you’re going to be nothing more than a dead flab of meat after I do!’

My temper grew with her reluctance and I grunted with impatience. ‘Look, just do it. If you don’t, Three Arms gets the kid. If you do, then there’s a small possibility he won’t. Hurry up and decide.’

Still, she looked indecisive and fearful, both for my life and for Short Stuff. I could see she wasn’t ready to just kill me without a good explanation; she would worry a lot less about Crazy Mouth. She knew as well as I did that the wound would merely be a superficial one for the insane goddess. The lunatic’s punctured heart would heal as quickly as her hand did. She couldn’t say the same for me. At long last, she gripped the pole in determination as she turned back to face me. ‘You swear to me right now that this will work. Swear that it will be enough to get the child away from this place safely. If this fails, I’m making sure I’ll never allow you to cross the Sanzu River.’

Bah. Sanzu River? I wished I had it that easy. I’m bound for someplace much worse, my friend. But if she wanted an honest answer, I can certainly give it to her. ‘I swear it on my grave and et cetera et cetera. Just trust me, will you?’

Another thought that had slipped my mind occurred to me and I turned back to whisper to her. ‘One more thing. I’m sure you realize that things will also get… unpleasant for you once I start. Gotta take you down too in case your master’s little shikigami conditioning tells you to stop our escape. It’ll be good either way; you’ll be cleared from immediate suspicion of assisting in our escape.’ I couldn’t look her in the eyes as I finished. ‘No hard feelings, ok?’

She knew well enough at this point and she gave me a knowing nod. ‘I understand. Do what you have to. No hard feelings.’ Walking up to the lunatic, she nodded once more and waited for me, unwilling to summon up the courage to stare me in the eye.

Moving behind Crazy Mouth, I took her by both her arms in a deadlock using my own and proceeded to drag her into a standing position. Gods, but she was heavy even if she looked wasted. Grunting in my effort, I pulled her with me as I moved to stand against the wall and rested against it, sandwiched between the wall and Crazy Mouth. Giving the punk one last look, I nodded to her in return. ‘Do it.’

She brought the pole up horizontally; positioning it in front of Crazy Mouth’s heart as she finally gathered enough courage to look at me directly. She shook her head once, shutting her eyes before she returned her gaze to us. ‘I’m sorry.’

Her knuckles turned white as she gripped the pole hard, tears had almost formed in her eyes as she continued to fight her hesitation. At long last, she gathered the strength to drive the pole straight through both our hearts as she forced out the last words I would hear from her.

‘I’m sorry!’

The sensation of stillness and missing heartbeats accompanied the darkness rapidly closing about me and I had a momentary panic attack as I briefly glimpsed the fields of judgment but even that faded into darkness as well, as my rapidly ebbing life was suffused by the warmth from the link I had established with Crazy Mouth. It was working. Not yet. I wouldn’t die from this.
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“Men say that all youkai are beasts, but they fail to realize they are also beasts themselves. Only a rational mind keeps the beast in check.”

Rinnosuke, interview for the 157th Bunbunmaru column.

Shou stared in horror as the arms of the girl went limp and dropped to her sides lifelessly, even Kanako had ceased moving as well, the two bodies suspended only by the pole she had ran through the both of them. She waited anxiously for any signs that would indicate whatever the girl had hoped to accomplish had worked but the corpses continued to dangle from the wall in mute silence.

Dropping her grip on the pole, she moved backwards in shock, sure now that the crude ritual had failed one way or another. She had killed the girl and with her, the last hope for taking Yuhiko away. In pained grief she dropped to the ground and repeatedly hammered the cold earth with one clenched fist angrily. She would continue to moan to herself why she had allowed herself to be convinced by the senseless plan.

The sound of grating wood interrupted her and Shou looked up quickly at the impaled bodies. One left hand gripped the pole tight and proceeded to pull the instrument of death out of her body, even as Kanako’s body rapidly disintegrated into a fine shower of dust as it seemingly dried up with the hand’s every movement. Shou stared at the unfolding spectacle with a new sort of unbelieving horror. This shouldn’t be possible. It wasn’t possible to kill a god like this.

With one sudden wrench she ripped the remainder of the pole out from her heart, blood flying randomly in a graceful arc as she flung the crude spear away, collapsing onto her knees to mirror Shou, head still bowed and face hidden under the voluminous locks of black that made up her lengthy hair, occasionally twitching but she remained rooted to the spot.

Hesitantly, Shou started to crawl towards the solitary figure, curiosity and wonder quickly replacing her horror. She wasn’t sure how the girl could have even accomplished it, but it would appear that she had. Perhaps her suspicion that she wasn’t just a mere human wasn’t so unfounded after all.

She stopped mid-crawl as the figure’s head shot upwards and opened her eyes. Shou involuntarily shrank backwards from the new sight that greeted her. The girl’s once-hazel pupils had turned into a lambent green and the whites of her eyes had been replaced with flowing bands of black in its entirety. Bulging veins crisscrossed her neck up to her cheeks and her brows arced upwards as she grinned in malice.

The voice she spoke in no longer held the life-weary tone of the wanderer Shou was accustomed to, but was instead, an echo of three person’s voice, almost in a malignant cacophony as it taunted. ‘Very nice of you to have helped us, pipsqueak. Now for your reward!’

Shou couldn’t even blink as the figure ran a hand right through her heart. She tried to grasp the hand in shock, only to grab empty air as she stared at the hand now occupying the space that was her entrails. Shou brought her other hand up to try and ward off another attack, but the girl effortlessly ripped her entrails out in a fountain of blood and guts, and she sank to the floor, feeling pain beyond anything she had ever felt in years. What had went wrong, she wondered feebly as she died slowly. The girl was almost like someone else entirely.

The monster in black flowing silk loomed over her, bringing up a foot to put through Shou’s head and she closed her eyes in resignation. She wasn’t sure if she would be able to regenerate a missing head. She had never tried and suspected the outcome wouldn’t be promising in the slightest. But she was content. As long as the girl made true on her promise to escape with Yuhiko, she would accept permanent death willingly.

Something stopped the black monster as her foot remained suspended in the air above Shou’s head and she could dimly hear the creature arguing with someone. Tense seconds passed and the figure grew silent, as if deliberating something before reluctantly shifting her foot away from Shou’s head.

The girl turned to leave, but spun back and grabbed Shou’s head by her hair before hissing. ‘Good thing for you. You get to keep your head for now. You should thank your little friend for this tiny mercy!’

The impact from being thrown head-first against the floor blacked her senses out and Shou could finally welcome the grateful darkness free from pain.
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“Death? Murder? You dare ask me why I commit atrocities. It is only a means to an end. I do not think. I merely act.”

Rilofene, exchange with the wanderer.

She could smell death in the air.

Cirno looked up uneasily from the blocks of ice she had been making, smelling something extremely wrong in the air. Her shared line of thought with Suou had suddenly been cut-off and she stood up in tense suspense. Something had taken Suou out and it was coming for her now.

She felt fear. Whatever it was that had been powerful enough to remove Suou would be more than enough to kill her as well. Though she knew she cannot die from a permanent death, the impending thought of it was good enough to drive her into a frenzied panic. She hadn’t died in long years and she didn’t want to change the status quo. The pain of reincarnation was unimaginable; she knew well enough from past experience.

Taking to the air quickly, Cirno hovered above the shrine uneasily. She wanted to flee, but the thought of Iyen-Shuren’s anger at abandoning the Hakurei meat prompted her to at least stay and see what was giving out the murderous aura.

Her answer came soon enough in the form of an exploding shack. Something tore itself out from the ruined hut and she had scant seconds to see the creature that could rip right through layers of wood in an inhuman jump that matched her altitude in the air. One sinewy hand blocked her view as the silhouette grabbed her face with a loud hiss and brought her down to the ground with it in a tremendous crash.

The impact knocked the wind out of Cirno but she wasn’t done so easily. Gasping in desperation, she flung one hand in the general vicinity of the figure and managed to stagger the silhouette backwards as spears of ice tore through it. Retreating backwards in a dazed dash, the moonlight finally revealed the features of the silhouette.

Cirno stared in disbelief at her froggy. Or was it? The girl had assumed an almost bestial pose as she gripped at the spears of ice Cirno had driven through her chest. Indolently ripping them free of her chest, the girl continued to giggle nonstop and finally spoke in an unearthly voice after pulling the last of the ice out from her. ‘You owe us something, little pipsqueak. You owe us a death for the suffering you have wrought unto us.’

Cirno didn’t want to listen to the inhuman voice anymore. Bringing her other hand upwards in an arc, additional shards of ice condensed from the cold air and she propelled them towards the human with a pointed finger. The icy shards tore through the figure once more but this time, she didn’t even flinch as she continued her advance towards Cirno, idly pulling the bloody icicles from where her heart was supposed to be, from where her guts were supposed to be, from where the bones that supported her gradually advancing legs were supposed to be.

Cirno’s eyes widened in horror once more as she realized the thing was immune to pain and shock. In stricken panic she took to the air again, hovering a good dozen meters away from the ground, away from the black monster that had stopped advancing to look up at her lazily with arms crossed. The lambent green from her eyes shone through the darkness and she was finally convinced that something had consumed her froggy to turn her into this monster.

The creature continued to taunt Cirno. ‘What’s the matter, little pipsqueak? Ran out of water already? You had a lot more when you froze us in that ball of ice!’ She no longer paid heed to its words. Bringing another arm crashing downwards, she summoned an entire hailstorm of spears that proceeded cover the air around her like a new layer of stars before raining them down on where the creature stood with a swift motion of her other hand. She would make sure it would have no place to escape to.

The ground the figure had been standing on only scant moments ago exploded in a shower of gravel and the monster disappeared amidst the rain of ice. She half expected a bloodied figure to stumble out of the area with spears of ice sticking out of it, but as the dust rising from the disturbed ground cleared, there was naught but countless icicles impaled into the ground like some mockery of a crystalline forest. Cirno spun quickly in the night air in several directions, trying to seek out the source of the murderous aura that was still beating strong like a malignant heartbeat. She screamed into the night, ‘Come out and face me creature!’

Her challenge was answered by a blur of black and white which proceeded to blot out the moonlight as it grasped Cirno’s neck in a speed she couldn’t even follow, bringing her back to the ground a second time in one fell leap and she could only see the rapidly diminishing sky as the force of the pull brought her down hard, the creature pinning her with one hand to the ground in a half standing, half bending pose.

Gasping for air, Cirno grabbed the figure’s hand on her neck and forced all the cold she could onto it but the vice-like grip continued to persist, slowly crushing her windpipe. She wasn’t just pain-immune, Cirno thought in blind panic. She was extremely cold-tolerant as well. In a brief moment of lucidity between all the pains, she tried to force herself to dissolve into mist but one foot crashed into her left leg, crushing meat, bone and tendons in one go and she screamed long and hard into the night air, her concentration rapidly diminishing as the rest of her returned to a solid state.

The girl grinned to her, eyes aglow. ‘Had fun throttling us when you found us dying and broken now, did you?’ Another stomp on her right leg crushed her remaining good leg and Cirno’s piercing scream of pain rang out loud and clear into the lonely mountains. ‘Want to know what it feels like being trapped in a body you don’t know will live or die for weeks on end?’

She had enough. Even the pain of death and reincarnation would be welcome from the suffering she was being inflicted with now. ‘P-please. Mercy! I’m sorry… FOR WHAT I DID!!’ The words were forced out with great difficulty and only served to make the creature’s grin larger.

That prompted the figure to laugh out long and hard. AAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!! Why is it that mortals are only sorry for their actions once they’re on the verge of death?! You creatures never cease to amuse me.’ Another black hand whipped out in a blur and fastened on Cirno’s left arm. With an effortless twist, she heard her arm pop once and a new wave of pain struck her forcefully as she involuntarily forced out additional screams.

Through her scrim of agony, she could hear the figure chanting in a singsong voice, the litany of overlapping voices almost reaching an unbearable crescendo. 'Rip-and-tear! Ain-soph-aur! Blessed be your pain. Bathe me in your terror. Let your death fuel the lust!' The sinewy hand with bulging veins constricted one final time and Cirno was sure she would finally be killed now as her windpipe collapsed within the next few seconds.

But death didn’t come. The figure’s stare of death blinked rapidly and the lambent green in her eyes started to diminish slightly before returning even stronger than before. ‘What is it now, child?! You wanted revenge this much as well, did you not?!’

Cirno couldn’t understand but it almost looked like the monster was arguing with someone. A quick look around her showed no one around them. Despite all the pain, she could only wonder briefly who the monster was talking to.

‘FEH! Spoilsport.’ Whatever argument she was having finally concluded and she returned her lambent gaze to Cirno. ‘No more time to waste on you, pipsqueak. Perhaps we shall play again some other day.’

The last thing Cirno saw was a foot crashing into her face. She couldn’t even feel anything as what remained of her head rapidly disintegrated from the earth-shattering stomp.
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“Peace is merely an illusion the complacent ones conjured up to hide the cancer of hate that infests this world.”

Ran, recorded excerpt from peace talks with Eita

Yuhiko could only stare in horror at the unfolding sight of the carnage. The sounds of battle had disturbed her light sleep and she had rushed out only to find a lone figure stomping down hard on the still figure of the fairy she had seen a few times. She had cringed as she half-expected a fountain of blood and organs to gush forth, but only clumps of ice burst out from the impact.

As if noticing her presence the figure suddenly looked up and spun back to face her. Yuhiko caught a momentary glimmer of green from underneath the figure’s tussled hair but it had quickly vanished as the girl clad in black ran a careless hand through her face to brush the hair away and gave Yuhiko a friendly smile. ‘We’re safe now. They’re dead.’

There was something wrong with her voice. She looked familiar enough, still the same girl she had spent so much time with, but she did not speak in that weary tone she was so used to. It was almost a conversational and friendly tone that seemed completely out of character with her and she advanced towards Yuhiko with one hand outstretched, the smile still on her face. ‘Now come over here, runt.’

A part of her wanted to comply, but another part of Yuhiko screamed out at her to step away from this… thing. She had trusted the young lady much but she felt different this time. ‘Something’s wrong with you,’ she voiced out in a small voice to the black-clad figure still slowly advancing towards her and she began her own retreat back to the shrine, edging backwards towards the stairs with small, hesitant steps.

The friendly smile vanished into a filthy grin, and her pupils flared into an unearthly glow of green. 'Very well. I tire of this game anyway. It’s time to rectify that child’s mistake, my little runt. Alas my little pretty, it’s time to die.' One sinewy hand brandished forth and Yuhiko could almost see the twisted visage of a claw on it.

Her gaze remained fixed on it even as it suddenly disappeared. She continued to stare at the empty space in confusion, unaware of the sharp sensation that had suddenly stung her right chest and she looked downwards to see what was causing it.

Three fingers of a trembling hand were jammed into her chest, bypassing clothing, flesh, and bones as she felt an involuntary cough that signaled a punctured lung. Another cough and a wheeze brought her to the ground as she grasped feebly at the hand in sadness. But why? Did the girl truly hate her that much to want to kill her? Yuhiko experienced brief bouts of flashbacks, images from the past few days appearing and vanishing like a kaleidoscopic slide show, of the world-weary wanderer’s efforts at bringing her all the way here.

She recalled the night at the temple, their desperate run for life. She remembered the house on fire, when someone had returned to extend a hand out to her. The words they exchanged in the tunnels underneath the mountains came back crystal-clear. And of the night they had spent beside the lake of the shrine, she would hold in her mind like a still picture framed in time as she died.

Yuhiko had so much she had wanted to say to her and suddenly realized how little time she would have now to actually convey them. She could only utter the two words she felt was the most appropriate as she looked up at the eyes that seemed to be rapidly losing the lambent green and flowing black bands.

‘I’m…. sorry.’
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Well that didn't go as planned what so ever.
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What the shit just happened?
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Suddenly I wonder if the author was also >>/gensokyo/2043
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Well, shit.

Suddenly I wonder if the author of this was also >>gensokyo/2049
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Goddamned password thing.
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Goddamned password thing.
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Nope, not the same.

Trying to format the next update, but looking at the Tower of Alphabetical Babel above, I'm not sure if this is starting to become tl;dr.
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nah it's not, chill
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Trust me walls text are good, especially well written walls of text.
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I swam in a drunken haze of power.

The world had taken on a multi-colored hue and everywhere I looked, objects and walls contorted and expanded in an endless rhythm, seemingly like jelly caught in the throngs of an earthquake. I found that I could hear distant crickets and even the sound of the thundering waterfalls as if they were just right next to me. The combined noise was almost deafening, a cacophony of the entirety of nature’s ruckus collected within a five-mile radius around me and streaming unfiltered with pure force into my two ears.

Trying to lift my hand to blot out the screeching dissonance, I found that I could not, but it moved on its own volition nonetheless as it ripped out the crude spear impaled through my heart. Of the raving lunatic there was no sign of her and a tiny fraction of my mind that still retained a semblance of lucidity recognized that I had successfully absorbed what was left of her.

Dropping to my knees once the alien hand had finished pulling the bloody shaft out from my chest, I realized I could not feel pain and even the impact from the ground didn’t register on my legs. Something had gone wrong during the Rites of Passing and I stared in wordless wonder as my own head lifted itself up to look at someone on her knees just in front of me. It took many long seconds to recognize her as the gold-black haired youkai amidst the swirling colors flowing through my vision.

Before I could register what had happened, I had one hand sticking through her chest and the sensation of crushing her heart assailed me from all directions, my very fingers constricting about the fleshy pouch of meat as it throbbed. An involuntary shout of dismay sprang forth from my throat, or at least I thought it had. My real mouth uttered not a single sound but I could hear the distant laughter of someone as it delighted in the pain it inflicted on the startled youkai.

Everything waved, faded, and went out of focus for a few moments as I tried to force some semblance of control on my own body and I slowly realized something else had assumed command of my motor functions. Someone… someone very close who had ready access to my body the moment I was temporarily separated from it during the scant few seconds my heart had stopped beating.

Someone who had been driven awake during my close brush with death.

‘RILOFENE!’ I shouted out into the white void of my mind.

’Shut up. I’m having fun here.’

My vision refocused and things returned into a sharper contrast just in time for me to see my own foot hanging over the crumpled figure of Punk. I tried desperately to pull my foot back, but the only sensation I could feel from it was the strength gathering in it as Rilofene prepared to turn Punk’s head into red putty. ‘Stop! She helped me! She helped us!’ I screamed out in my mind. If she loses her head, there’s no telling if she would be able to return from that. The loss of the head meant a permanent death for most lesser youkai.

’And that’s supposed to mean something to me? Be quiet and let me handle this before the fresh infusion of essence drains away entirely.’

She meant to kill the fallen youkai, I had no doubts about that. Throwing myself bodily against nothing in particular, I raged and screamed at my patron to halt her deathblow until she finally returned her full attention to me irritably.

‘Oh what now, child? This thing is a mere animal, unfit to even stand in my sight. Why do you care so much for it?’

I almost implored Rilofene in a beseeching voice, willing to try anything to stop her from ending Punk’s life. ‘She’s the only reason why we even have a chance at escaping! Please! Let her live at least, I owe her that much! We both do!’ I wasn’t sure she would even bother listening to me. As my patron, she cared little for my opinions or feelings, choosing instead to crash headlong into her own desires and spur-of-the-moment notions.

The silence stretched for what seemed like a long time before she finally answered me, greatly surprising me as she did. I had not expected her to acquiesce to my pleas.

‘… As you will. Let this be my only concession to you, child.’

The world rocked and spiraled again as Rilofene re-focused her rage on something else and I dimly became aware of what she was looking for; my nemesis, the ice fairy. Waves of hate and lust buffeted me as she took my body far beyond what a normal human would be capable of, the massively heightened metabolism was taking a heavy toll on my body and even my very bones had started to feel like they were slowly fracturing at every point. I prayed my body would hold out long enough until the overdose of divine essence finally burned out.

I watched in vivid horror everything she did to Ice Cubes and vice versa. I felt nary a sting as Ice Cubes impaled me with enough ice to kill a man twenty times over; the wounds had healed as soon as the intruding objects had been removed. Rilofene’s exhilaration and lust for death was almost overpowering and everything I looked at constantly lost its focus as she tore the fairy apart piece by piece. Deep down, I felt sickened by the torture she was inflicting on Ice Cubes. As much as I hated her, I realized she deserved better than all this suffering. Repeatedly throwing myself against Rilofene’s consciousness once more, I screamed for her to end the torment and give Ice Cubes a quick and painless death.

’You are so ANNOYING. You forget how she treated us when we were laying in the forest, broken and dying? Oho, no, my child. I haven’t even started with her yet. Now shut up and just watch.’

I shouted out my refusal angrily, reminding her that we were rapidly running out of time as well while she continued to play around like this. It took a monumental effort to get my thoughts across to her in the maelstrom of blood lust surrounding her now and she flung an irritated thought to me in acknowledgment.

’FEH! Spoilsport. Now go and lie in a corner while I tie up some loose ends.’

Something lashed out at me in full force and I spun out of control within the confines of my own body. The rapidly dissolving vision of my own sight grew muddy and incoherent as I felt my grip on reality starting to slip. I couldn’t hold on for much longer and I feared I would soon return into my own body as some sort of crazed lunatic who had lost her mind if this went on for too long, much like Crazy Mouth. I tried to calm myself and bring focus back to the raging mental waves, breathing in and out in a deliberate rhythm, hoping for the stillness of clarity to return to me.

A new voice sounded out from the chaos, barely audible and so completely different compared to Rilofene’s overbearing ennui whenever she chose to address lesser creatures. Soft, clear, but commanding, with a gentle strength about it that spoke volumes of a person accustomed to the values of love and respect.

’Stop her. She means to kill the last Hakurei whilst she can still retain control.’

I brought my head up and threw my gaze about the white void as I sat huddled in concentration, looking for the source of the voice. Things around here just keep getting weirder and weirder. ‘Who’s there?’ I shouted out to no one in particular, half expecting something to walk out of nothing to answer my challenge.

’We don’t have time for introductions. You need to wrest control of your body back from her now. I can see her intentions. She’s going to kill the Hakurei child.’

My thoughts froze in their tracks. That was what Rilofene had meant when she said she was going to tie up “loose ends”. We still needed the child alive and her logical reasoning had all but burned away in her blood lust. I needed to stop her. Attempting to refocus my internal vision on my outer sight, the mismatched muddle of colors and images rapidly washed away clean and things began to return to clarity. Stretching my consciousness outwards, I tried to force the remainder of Crazy Mouth’s swirling essence to gush out, concentrating on opening every single ley-path within myself in an attempt to purge my body of the overdose in one single push.

I beheld one outstretched hand, my own hand, almost claw-like as the skins on it stretched taut and the tendons underneath it visibly surfaced, ready to plunge into someone I realized with growing horror was Short Stuff. She stood looking at me in a strange mixture of terror and sadness and I tried to scream out to her, only to be met by silence as my unresponsive mouth drew back into an ugly rictus of a grin.

The world blurred once more and I knew what was coming next. The hand, my hand, would dig into Short Stuff’s chest to rip a lung out and I focused the entirety of my being into an attempt at pulling that blow back. I never felt as desperate as I was now, not in the millenniums of my lifetime, not even when I was escaping death’s clutches in the past.

Rilofene rapidly became aware of what I was trying to do and fought back in anger, trying to send me spinning away with another blow but I held on despite everything, enduring the lash.

’FOOL, I’m doing this for our own good! The child must die to ensure our safety! Let me kill her!

I shut her voice out as I closed my eyes to shut out the sight of Short Stuff’s rapidly-closing figure, praying I would be able to pull back in time. Rilofene continued to trash against my control in vain as the last of the supercharged adrenaline drained away and indescribable agony assaulted my body as it gradually returned to my control, along with Rilofene’s rapidly fading curses and outrage at me for having interrupted her.

Gasping in pain, I cracked my eyes open to see the last of the wildly dancing hue of colors drain away and I dropped to the ground involuntarily as my legs gave out, the adrenaline that had numbed the shock and pain stemming from a sustained high-speed metabolism beyond human reckoning disappearing amidst the roiling waves of agony and unimaginable fatigue pulled at my body from every conceivable angle. It didn’t feel like all the water in the world could slake my thirst now, no sustenance I could possibly eat can replace the energy I expended. At that very moment, I just wanted to lie down and drift into a deep sleep.

But I could not. The only thing I could do was look down in horror at Short Stuff’s crumpled figure, a few of my fingers growing warm with her blood from where I had punctured her lung. Precious lifeblood, flowing down my hand to drip onto the ground that greedily soaked it up.

No. This can’t be happening…

I started to pull my finger free of her chest; only to experience the sickening sensation of my appendages being sucked back in as Short Stuff drew a quivering, wheezing breath.

The slow realization crept in. I killed her. I killed her. No, I moaned to myself. No, no, no, no, NO!

Get a hold of yourself. She lives for the time being. Go and find help, now.

I no longer cared to wonder who the second voice was in my mindless panic. It was right; I needed to find help quickly. Ripping an entire sleeve off in a monumental effort considering my complete lack of energy, I proceeded to pull Short Stuff over and bound her chest around where I had punctured them, pulling the knot tight and causing her to cough and wheeze lightly several times as I did. My hands froze at the sound, unsure if I should proceed or leave it as it is for now. She grew still for several seconds and I threw all attempts at genteel out of the window.

Forcing myself onto my feet, I managed to stay standing for a few moments before unceremoniously flopping down back to the ground in a little crash. Several times more I got up just to drop back down as my limbs lost all semblance of strength in them. In unmitigated anger, I dug my hands into my legs, the nails cracking under the pressure and piercing the now-soft flesh of my lower limbs, using the pain as a focus while mouthing silent curses at myself. Several nails popped off from the weakened state the inhuman overload had caused on them but I ignored the sting of raw, exposed flesh to the elements.

Trying to stand for the last time, I weaved and bobbled a few times before digging my other hand into my thighs, consequently causing additional nails to crack and rip off. The agony of my broken body sustained me now, my determination fueled by the fury at my impotence. Bending down to heave Short Stuff’s body over one shoulder, I proceeded to take staggering steps towards the horse, grateful for the fact that I had the foresight to get Short Stuff to water and feed it earlier during the day.

Climbing up the horse with Short Stuff proved to be almost impossible. I was aware of the constantly-draining hourglass of life in Short Stuff; dealing with death for so many years had given me an innate ability at judging the mortality of humans and I knew Short Stuff’s time was quickly running short. In frustration, I grated my teeth together and forced a tooth or two to come loose, tasting the blood in my mouth as they did and using the pain to pull the both of us up on the horse. Somewhere within me, a bone popped loose from the punishment it had taken earlier, almost draining what strength I could summon and pulling us both back to the ground, but I pushed myself onwards nonetheless. There would be time enough to deal with the agonies later.

Finally able to sit upright on the horse, I checked on Short Stuff as I attempted to position her as best I could in front of me, making sure she wouldn’t fall off once we picked up speed. Her body was rapidly growing cold and I could not tell for certain if it was because of the mountain air or simply because she was dying. The breaths she drew had diminished into a light wheezing, the little puffs of frosted exhalation barely visible. With one hand, I drew her body into a semi-embrace as I spurred the pack beast towards the path leading down the mountain.

As we thundered down the path in unrelenting speed, I whispered a silent prayer to nothing in particular, knowing all the while that it would be futile. I knew not why I prayed for her; only that I wanted to. Please, by whatever gods who are up there now, please don’t let her die.

Compared to our trip up to the shrine, the return downhill went beyond anything considerable as a sane pace. The night scenery was close to a blur as everything rushed-by and several times I ran the risk of almost flying off the mountain path into the jagged rocks below it, but I had little care for caution now. All I wanted to do was get to help and nothing was going to stop that; not the winding mountain pathways, not the overgrown road between the shrine and the plains, and not a horse that was rapidly being driven to the point of collapse.

The high speed ride was taking a toll on all three of us. The horse began snorting in discomfort and I could feel my insides being slowly shaken loose from the pounding hooves beneath us. Short Stuff’s breathing became intermixed with painful grunts with every bump we took but I couldn’t stop to check on her condition. I had to try and make it back to the human settlement within the hour.

A small part of myself told me that wouldn’t be possible, that Short Stuff was doomed no matter where I could go to. The tengu stronghold was too far up the mountain to return to; Punk and Ice Cubes was out of commission to be able to request for help from Three Arms, no matter how much I would loathe handing her over to them. The human village was my only choice left and despite the nagging voice of my mind telling me that it would be impossible to get there in time, I carried on nonetheless. I no longer had a mind to rationalize; I could only try the impossible.

Eventually, as we made it to the plains, the dark skies broke out with flashes of lightning, briefly lighting up the plains as a small drizzle settled on us. The stinging sensation of water droplets piercing my exposed skin at high speed bothered with my vision. Even the horse’s breathing had started to sound like a painful snorting and the creature’s sides heaved with the merciless speed I was forcing it to keep up with. The thought about what would happen from driving the beast past the point of exhaustion had faded from my head a long time ago. The only thing screaming at me now was my desire to get Short Stuff to the village.

That would prove to be my undoing. As we neared the fringes of the Great Youkai Forest, the horse finally gave out, buckling beneath us and sending the two of us flying in the air for scant moments before impacting the ground and rolling to a stop a few feet away from the floored horse. I couldn’t even feel pain from the impact as my frantic mind began to take sense of what just happened.

Looking to my left, I could see the horse lying on the earth at its side. The beast no longer looked like it was even breathing and the thought instantly reminded me of Short Stuff. A quick glance to the right showed her on the ground near me and I tried to reach out towards her, falling short by a foot or two. My legs and body no longer responded to my commands, and I dragged myself over to her with both arms digging down hard into the cold earth, looking like a pathetic grounded fish flopping around ineffectually.

The light drizzle had turned into a torrential downpour by now. As Short Stuff finally came within my reach, I rolled her weakly to face me, trying to check on her pulse. Her skin felt so cold and her complexion had turned almost corpse-like, but she still showed signs of life, a weak pulse, but still persevering.

For now.

I gripped a handful of dirt in frustration and anger. It would be over soon. I had failed spectacularly. She would finally die, but not at the hands of the Visitors or Three Arms. No, she would die because I had killed her. Everything for naught. What had the past few weeks been for? What had I been suffering for? In the end, it was by my own hand that she would die.

The words she had said to me that night at the lake drifted back into my muddled thoughts. “If I am to die, I want to have you around to hold my hands as I pass at least.”

My fingers crawled around for her hand. I couldn’t even hold my head up any longer, letting my face rest on the wet earth as muddy rivulets from the rain streamed through it. I felt something still slightly warm and closed my fingers around it. Her hand was almost as cold as the earth now, unfeeling and still. I wondered dimly if she would at least be able to feel the warmth from my grasp during her death knell and I clasped harder, praying she would at least know I was still here.

I could feel the stirrings of emotions I had thought I abandoned long ago, of sorrow and sadness. Was I even capable of crying for someone anymore? I could only try, but I couldn’t find the tears to do so. There was nothing but a vast abyss where the pain of loss would have otherwise been. Overflowing grief that would spring forth from an agonized heart was nowhere to be found; in its place there was only an infinite void. I realized with profound weariness I wouldn’t even be able to let Short Stuff go peacefully with a modicum of mourning.

Useless. Worthless. Murderer.

Her fingers twitched slightly and tried to close about my grip, only to relax feebly as she gave up trying to reassure me that she was still there. Amidst the pounding rain, I came to the slow realization that she bore no grudge against me even after what I had did to her.

The tears finally sprung forth from an unknown source I had long forgotten, mixing with the streaming rain.

I knew now why I did everything for her. She was like me, a very long time ago. Stinking with the scent of death. Dead to the world. Alone with no one to call a family. Nothing but a mere tool for the convenience of a greater power. Growing up into a bitter shadow of her former-self. She was me all over again and I couldn’t bear to watch her walk down the same path I did.

Unconsciously, I had tried to change her fate.

I had lied to myself. Repeatedly told myself I was only using her for my own needs. But deep down the foul lake that was my soul, one fact always remained crystal clear and true.

I cared.

I spoke into the cold earth. The only witnesses were the thundering skies above me, the relentless torrent of water, and a dead horse. ‘Please. Don’t let her die.’
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A voice deigned to answer me, much to my shock and my eyeballs moved around under their lids, seeking out the source of the voice.

’There’s still a chance. We must call out for help. I can do that, but I need to use your friend’s essence to do that.'

Rilofene boomed out in surprise at the unfamiliar presence.

’What the… who in blazes are you?!'

The commanding voice ignored Rilofene as if she was nothing more than an insignificant buzzing fly, choosing instead to carry on with its instructions.

’Just allow me to do so. It’s your choice, not your friend’s. Simply let me use it and I will be able to.’

’SHUT YOUR MOUTH, INSECT! This life belongs to me, not the child and you’re NOT taking any of it!’

I thought about their words dimly, uncaring about the origin of the voice. If I let it take something out of Rilofene, I would lose even more years of my lifespan from what little I had left from it, not to mention hurting Rilofene grievously much like how I had hurt Crazy Mouth. What little warmth remaining in Short Stuff’s hand drained away slowly and I made up my mind without even thinking about the consequences.

‘Take it. As long as it will save her. Take it all if you have to,’ I whispered tiredly.


Rilofene’s scream of agony filled my head, drowning out even the blasting thunder and drumming rain for many long minutes. The echoes of her scream promised unrelenting punishment and revenge on me in the future for allowing the unknown presence to violate her and she continued to throw in curses and obscenities in her ancient tongue even as she continued to scream out endlessly. I would have hell to pay for once she regains enough of her presence to make herself known to me once more but for now, I could only shut her violation out from my inner senses.

The exchange was completed, but I had no idea how I knew, only that it had. The two internal voices had faded out and nature’s cacophony replaced the empty void they had left. Minutes passed and I could only wonder what sort of help the voice had tried to summon.

My answer came in the form of someone dragging me through the ground roughly and for a few seconds, I was momentarily lifted into the air as the hands pulled me free from the muddy ground, losing my grip on Short Stuff as it did. Weakly, I tried to run my gaze at what I could but only caught sight of a gaping hole in the middle of nowhere and what looked like a bunch of pelted fur behind the silhouette of the figure that had commenced to swing me headlong into the hole in thin air.

My face couldn’t even grimace in pain as I sailed through the inky blackness and impacted on the other side. What tasted like wood was underneath me as I landed face-down on the dry ground as a new pair of hands roughly manhandled me to spin me around and I faced a blinding light as I did. Spreading my arms out in a futile effort at pushing myself up into a sitting position, I managed to stare right into an unfamiliar face; male, bespectacled and looking rather infuriated by something.

He pulled me up slightly only to say something that made me grow cold all over. ‘Don’t take this personally, kiddo.’

One bunched fist rippling with muscles crashed into my face and as I slowly passed out from the blow, I could only complain to nothing in particular that the punch wasn’t necessary; I was about to pass out from sheer exhaustion anyway.
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The momentary sensation of being showered by something stung the cuts in my face and I drifted back to the dark comforts of my slumber, a part of me unwilling to wake up to face reality. Voices spoke in the background, one deep and the other high-pitched, but I pushed them into one forgotten corner of my mind, wanting nothing more than to just sleep my miserable life away.

‘Think she needs another bucket?’

‘You do it this time. I’m not going anywhere near her again.’

A disdained snort. ‘Ha. Big bad youkai like you, afraid of a mere human girl.’

‘Oh don’t give me that. You heard what they said? She took out Iyen-Shuren’s shikigami and that fairy with her bare hands. Ripped into and through them like wet paper. You tell me the last time a “mere human” had been able to do something like that.’

‘Did she now? Most interesting. Now learn something, boy. Check her out. She’s totally wasted, nails coming off, pallid complexion, still sweating, hyperventilating, and she vomited a few times when they were tying her down to the floor. Symptoms consistent with an abnormally accelerated metabolism. It’s a miracle her heart is still working. All that, and the fact that she’s been sleeping for almost four days.'

Four days? Four whole damned days? My eyes flew open and I tried to sit up, only to gasp in pain as something constricted my movements and I cast a wild glance about to see what was tying me down.

I was in some sort of room; not the ruined interior of Moriya Shrine, but still looked pretty aged and dusty rather than ruined. Two figures, one tall and the other short, stood a bit away from my prone body as they regarded me. I recognized one of them as the same guy who had given me the good news with his fist, but the other looked like some sort of kid barely out of his teens. The former looked at me with undisguised curiosity while the kid held a glint of fear in his eyes.

The boy took several steps backwards as I struggled with what looked like straps of leather binding my arms and legs to wooden stakes driven through the flooring. ‘Holy! She’s awake. Think we oughta kill her to be safe?’

The taller figure next to him gave another snort as he cuffed the boy’s head from behind. ‘Don’t be stupid. Now make yourself useful and go get me a cup of water.’ Moving over to stand next to me, he added, ‘Oh, clean water by the way, not that crap you always drink.’

He took off without another word, though the boy still managed to cast another glance at me before disappearing through the door. Straining my neck, I could see what looked like symmetrical bones sticking through his small legs out of his pants. Some sort of oni perhaps.

One rough hand closed over my jaws and forced my head to look at the bespectacled face. Before I could protest or ask questions, he proceeded to turn my head in a few directions, as if in some sort of inspection before the hands went on down my body, probing around and groping randomly through some places I wasn’t particularly fond of being touched in. In anger, I spat at his face as he started touching a bit too low and he swung his gaze back to me as the groping hands went back to his sides.

Half expecting to see Mr Good News Fist once more, I closed my eyes and turned my head aside to soften the incoming blow, but nothing came. Hesitantly, I turned back towards the man as I gradually reopened my eyes, only to find him grinning at me knowingly.

‘Hey sorry about that. I wasn’t taking advantage of you, see? Just checking your condition.’ Wiping my spittle off of one stubbled cheek, he went on conversationally. ‘I’ve been baby-sitting you for the past four days. If I wanted to try anything I’ve had plenty of time to do so.’

I could almost feel my face flare a bright red at the remark. A question about who he was hovered on my lips for a moment before I recalled something else in panic. Something very important that had just flashed into my mind. ‘The kid! Is… is she-‘

He nodded a few times as he cut me off with a gesture. ‘Safe for now. They got her to me in time. You can thank whatever powers that had been watching over her because her lung didn’t collapse. I stitched up the holes in her chest just fine.’ The eyes behind the glasses roamed down to my guilty hand for a few moments as he added, ‘Yeah, real neat holes… caused by delicate fingers. Just like yours. Heh, imagine that, what a coincidence.’

The sarcasm from his voice almost dripped onto me like dirty sap from a wounded tree. Did he know I was responsible for Short Stuff’s condition? I closed my eyes in guilt and laid back down on the hard wooden floor, occasionally tugging at one of my leathery bonds. If he was looking for an explanation, I had none to be honest. I could barely explain the whole thing to myself to begin with. I was just glad Short Stuff survived the ordeal.

His question struck me unprepared nonetheless. ‘Doesn’t make sense, girl. Why did you try to kill her then save her?’

I tugged at one of the bonds with a bound hand as I looked hard at him, meeting the cold steel of his question with my own regret. ‘You wouldn’t understand. Even if I could explain you still wouldn’t understand.’

The only reply I got from that was another grin. ‘Real convenient excuse, ain’t it? “You wouldn’t understand”. I use that plenty too; course it don’t usually come in handy when one of my patients die and I tell that to their loved ones.’ Seeing my flushed face he made another gesture to keep me from spewing obscenities at him. ‘Don’t take that personally now, missy. I’m just a crude person at heart. Always talking out of my ass, so to say.’

Huh. Now that’s a coincidence. I had finally met a kindred personality. ‘Just who are you?’

Adjusting his spectacles, he gave me a little salute. ‘Keizo, at your service, healer extraordinaire and professional beer guzzler. Some say one of the best, nay, THE best doctor you can find around these wretched parts. My favorite hobb-‘

I sighed out loud to interrupt him. ‘Ok, ok, I get it.’

‘Well you asked and I answered,’ he replied indignantly. ‘Eh well, so now it’s your turn, missy.’

‘I’ll pass for the moment.’ He frowned at my words.

Before he could launch into a new tirade, the reappearance of the oni boy interrupted him. Even with the knowledge that I was bound and helpless, he still refused to walk anywhere near me, moving around my spot with careful side-steps whilst keeping his eyes locked with mine, the cup of water sloshing about as he did. ‘I thought you were going to kill her, Keizo.’

He grunted his disapproval. ‘Don’t be daft, Reiji. Now give me my water and untie her.’

The boy held his ground. ‘Wha-aat? I thought the water was for her. And no way I’m gonna go near that monster!’

‘Oh just give me that,’ he exclaimed as he snatched the cup out of the oni’s careless grasp. Gesturing over at me, he repeated his instructions, ‘Whad’ya waiting for? Go and untie our patient!’

Despite looking like he feared what I finally realized was a human, the man he had called Keizo, it seemed like he feared me a great deal more as he approached me with exaggerated caution. Keizo watched us with no small amount of amusement as he sipped at his water and flashed me that irritating grin once more before returning his attention to the oni. A bone-shattering shout propelled the boy the rest of the way. ‘MOV’ IT BOY!’

He finally relented and ripped the wooden stakes out of the floor with what seemed like careless ease. At least he had the strength to compensate for his stature. As the last of the stakes came free he retreated back to Keizo’s side, still keeping his gaze on me in fear. ‘Geez, she stinks, Keizo. Vomit, perspiration, blood, and something else I couldn’t identify.’

‘I bet you just love that smell too. Now go get her the clothes our guests left for us and prepare some water for her to clean herself up with.’ He rolled his eyes as he added as an afterthought, ‘Clean water, boy, not the crap you drink.’ Seeing his hesitation, he gave the boy another cuff in the head. ‘Quit dallying! She ain’t gonna hurt you.’

I received a knowing glance from him as well as I finally managed to get into a sitting position to start untying the leather bonds. ‘Doesn’t look like she’s going to be able to harm anything else for a long while too.’

The little oni dashed out of the door, satisfied with Keizo’s explanation, and beckoned for me to follow. Throwing the last of the leather straps I recognized as some sort of makeshift tourniquet away, I thought about what I should do. These two were unfamiliar and I knew nothing about them or why we had been saved by the quack doctor, but he had assured me that Short Stuff was alive and that was the only important thing to me at the moment. I wanted to see her first before I decided on anything else.

Turning back to Keizo, I made my demand. ‘Not yet. I want to see the kid first.’

That earned me a sigh of his and he pondered my request briefly before he acquiesced. ‘Dunno if that’s going to be a good idea, but don’t try nothing funny. We’ll be watching you, and you better believe me when I tell you this boy here can rip your arms off with little effort.’ Letting his empty cup roll aside, he got up and led the way out, the oni following after his footsteps. The turned back briefly to shout at me, ‘MOV’ IT GIRL!’

Damned drill-instructor-for-a-quack. I shouldered my complaints silently as I went after the two disappearing figures.
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That voice must have been Kanako's that was trying to help. That or perhaps Yukari speaking, but most likely the former.
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You keep writing these walls and we'll keep reading them.

Also I meant >>/gensokyo/2049 .
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I recognized the place somewhat. Or at least I thought I did. The layout of the place sparked a sense of familiarity as Keizo led us down a darkened hallway that ended with a gaping hole leading to the outside. Perhaps it couldn’t be called familiarity per se; rather, it stemmed from the whirlpool of memories, of places I had been to before in my head. I had probably just drawn a parallel to whatever similar place I had previously visited in the past.

The exterior proved to be lacking in maintenance, much like the interior. If the hole we just walked through had anything to say about it, it would be that this place had been abandoned for years, but not long enough for it to decay into ruination. As we walked past what looked like some sort of wooden donation box sitting in solemn silence to one side of the walkway, I gradually realized why the place had seemed so familiar. It was a shrine. The only other shrine in Gensokyo.

Hakurei Shrine. Short Stuff’s ancestral home. Site of the Hakurei massacre. The point in place and time where first contact had occurred between the Visitors and humans. We had somehow ended up hundreds of miles away from the base of the mountains within the space of several seconds four nights ago. There was only one person who would be capable of such material plane-shifting I knew of who could move foreign organic matter intact through the slips and breaks of normal-space, a process her shikigami had called “gapping”. The golden wonder herself everyone seemed to talk about in hushed whispers, Miss Sunshines. Yukari Yakumo.

I kneaded my remaining sleeve uneasily. I had never personally met Sunshines, but I did get the opportunity to converse with Ran a few times when she had visited the village during my first stay in Gensokyo. It had been what I presumed to be a chance encounter the first time I had bumped into her, but after the next several times I knew Ran’s master had sent her on a fact-finding mission to investigate the human oddity that had suddenly popped out from nowhere. Outsiders were not uncommon back then, but she had probably noticed something out-of-place with me to warrant such special interest in me, going as far as using her own shikigami as a spy.

In the dim moonlight I lifted my fingers into the air as I inspected the damage I had inflicted on them; I was missing five nails and the remainder were cracked and fragmented. The blood on them had dried a long time ago and the raw flesh underneath still stung lightly, but had begun to gradually harden. Some sort of ointment covered them, probably something given to me by the quack healer. I wouldn’t trust him as an actual doctor until I had seen what sort of operation he had performed on Short Stuff to patch her up.

We rounded another corner of the walkway and light streamed out of another entryway, this one much more brightly illuminated compared to the one we had came out from. Someone stood guard in front of the doorway wearing a poofy hat, hands clasped within her voluminous sleeves, staring straight ahead like some sort of zombie. Why hello there, Ran. I could recognize her even after all this time. She remained virtually unchanged compared to the last time we had seen each other.

She turned at the sound of our approach. ‘Hold. What’s she doing here?’

Keizo gestured towards me with his head. ‘Finally got her to wake up. Wants to see the girl. I dunno. What do you think?’

Ran closed the distance between the three of us in a few strides. The oni boy ignored her and skipped through the doorway, she let him pass unchallenged, but blocked my way as she stood before me, watching me intently. ‘I think that’s a bad idea. No offense Master Keizo, but I doubt Yukari wants this… “creature” anywhere near the Hakurei child now.’

She was an imposing sight, standing almost a head taller than me, the bundle of fur sticking out of her back prompting me to recall the events several nights ago as someone with tails like that lifted me up to throw me through a hole. So it was Ran who came to retrieve us. It didn’t look like she remembered me; I doubted anyone would be able to recognize me in my wasted and disheveled condition at the moment. I looked more like a ragged hobo than the respectable human she saw a few times before during our meetings years ago.

‘I want to see the kid,’ I told her bluntly.

She gave me a humorless smile, almost patronizing as she considered my absurd request. ‘So you can finish the job? You’re not going anywhere near her, monster. You might’ve been able to somehow take down Iyen-Shuren’s escorts with whatever demonic powers you summoned but I assure you, I will take far more effort than you can muster in your current condition to kill.’

A protest or denial started to form on my lips, but Keizo had seen my expression growing grim and cut in with a word of his own before I could start speaking. ‘Aw give her a break, kiddo. The only thing she’ll be capable of killing right now is a roach, and even that might prove to be a little troublesome for her. I’ll keep her in line, relax.’

That caused her to frown in consideration and I glanced at Keizo out of the corners of my eyes. He was a true oddity of a human for even Ran to respect, going as far as addressing him with an honorific. Whoever he was, he was apparently much more than a simple healer with a foul mouth. Even with his rather simplistic outlook and personality, he exuded an aura of command and respect. Still, Ran took her time with us, remaining indecisive as she considered the conflicting orders.

Another voice from within broke the silent standoff. ‘Let her pass, Ran. We’re in no danger for now.’

I slid past the fox youkai carefully, taking care not to bump my shoulder against her unyielding figure but she reached out to intercept my arm anyway, sparking a brief bout of pain as she pulled hard at my weakened flesh, grunting to me in a low voice. ‘Watch yourself, monster. Harm one hair on the child or Yukari and I will personally ensure you won’t get a master healer to attend to your corpse this time.’

I resisted the urge to fling her grip away with a swing of my arm. Her anger against me was well-justified considering what I had tried to pull on Short Stuff. Instead of getting worked up, I could merely nod a few times in humility as a response to her threat and she released her grip with another grunt. Keizo remained oblivious to our hostile exchange but I thought I caught a snicker from him as we moved past the intimidating youkai. Not only was he rude, he derived an apparent enjoyment from people’s discomforts as well. It was, I realized, almost a splitting image of my personality. I didn’t know whether I would enjoy this one’s company or loathe it.

The illumination within the corridor did not come from torches as I had originally expected them to be, but instead, was from some sort of globule hanging in the air without any apparent support, giving out a soft glow as they did. A few of them lined the corridor up to a room situated a few feet down the walkway and as I passed one of the globules of light, I ran a hand through it. My fingers passed right through the globule; the stuff felt almost like warm jelly as bits and pieces of it came free with my hand for a moment or so before slipping away to return to their source.

In contrast, my snarky companion paid no attention to the wonderful light bulbs as he led the way to the open room to one side. Behind us, Ran reassumed her position next to the entryway, watching the night warily for something that seemed to worry her a great deal. I had apparently rapidly faded from her list of priorities.

As we cleared the doorway leading into the room, I finally caught sight of Short Stuff’s figure, lying prone on a comfortable-looking cot. Beside her, another figure sat in silence, one hand resting over Short Stuff’s scalpel as she occasionally caressed her pale face. The little oni lay huddled in one corner of the room, seemingly asleep, his breathing shallow and even in contrast to Short Stuff’s wheezes. She looked to be in a deep sleep and the figure looked up once we made our entry, two fingers rising up to press against her lips in a token of silence. She made a move to stand and bring us out, taking care not to disturb the slumbering girl as she did. Even Keizo seemed to hold his tongue in silent respect at the heavy atmosphere, opting to wait next to the door as our host made her way towards us.

I could see why she was popularly known as the golden-one. Waves of golden hair rolled down well past her waist and the pupils of her eyes were a perfect match for her hair, glinting in a similar yellow to the golden strands. Even when clad in a plain, unadorned yukata as she was now, she exuded an unearthly beauty mere humans couldn’t hope to match. Slender hands extended gracefully to fasten on my arm gently and I allowed her to pull myself out of the room with her silent padding, mesmerized by the sight of this youkai. Keizo remained inside the room settling down into a seated position, probably wanting to give the two of us some privacy, but the quack and Sunshines exchanged a respectful nod at each other as she made her way past him. Not as a gesture of courtesy, but a mark of admiration for one another, almost as if they were equals at some level. Obviously, Keizo was a lot more than some random human to warrant such respect even from Sunshines.

I was content to just follow her out for now. The sight of Short Stuff still alive and well, though greatly weakened, filled me with comfort and nothing else mattered much to me for the moment. I was finally at ease after many days of restless sleep and I felt true fatigue seeping into me now. Sleep would come easily tonight and I would be granted some real rest for a change.

Sunshines had released her grip on my arm as she took the lead, moving towards the exit where Ran still stood at ready. They made no attempt at acknowledging each other as I followed Sunshines back outside into the night, but the unfriendly fox youkai did glance at me sharply and drew one pointed thumb across her throat in a mock gesture of slicing my neck, a silent threat to keep me from trying anything in the presence of her master. I couldn’t help but gulp at the sight of that; despite what they believed about me, I would no longer be able to launch myself into a superhuman frenzy and go into a wanton killing spree even if I wanted to. Finding a conveniently-dying god to exploit wasn’t something one would consider a daily occurrence, not to mention the fact that the damage to my soul and psyche from the previous overdose would take years to recover from, assuming I even had a couple of years left to live after what I let the unidentified presence do to Rilofene that night.

We stopped short of the aging torii leading up to the shrine and Sunshines took a seat on one of the stony pedestals supporting the arch, hopping lightly onto it and beckoning me to come over to her side. I complied, but chose to lean against the arch instead, just a bit to her left. In the distance, I could feel Ran’s eyes on me as she kept her sharp gaze fixed on what she still believed to be some kind of monster, ready to dismember me at the first sign of trouble.

‘Nic e night, isn’t it?’ Sunshines started conversationally. ‘We used to get a lot of good moon-gazing before the time of False Dawn. Nowadays the moon is mostly blocked by False Dawn.’

I deigned not to answer her. I wouldn’t know anything much about moon-gazing. Looking downwards and all around me for threats was what I spent most of the time doing instead of admiring a shining rock in the sky. Instead, I said something that was totally uncharacteristic of me, bringing the words out with great difficulty. It wasn’t in my habit to be grateful. ‘Thank you for saving the kid. I know you were the one who responded to the summons, whoever did that.’

She glanced over with curiosity in her golden eyes. ‘You don’t know? It was Kanako who called out to me.’

What. The. Hell? Crazy Mouth? That was who the other voice was? My mind went back to the botched leeching process. I knew I would irreversibly damage her and possibly deny her the transmigration all gods underwent upon death, but not in this way. Failing to return to the throne of gods, her final spark instead went into me. By all that was bad in the world, I was now housing two dead goddesses inside of me. I sank to my knees in confusion as I shook my head. This was an outrage the world would not forgive or forget easily. I had the sudden impression that my final judgment will be all the worse with this new additional sin. I was now guilty of permanently killing a deity and denying her return to Black Fimbulvetr as per the natural cycle of the universe.

Instead of feeling even worse and miserable, I felt oddly uncaring instead. After everything thus far, I barely had the commitment to give a flying damn over such things anymore. If I had heard this a few days ago I might have ended up running around like a headless chicken in blind panic, but at this very moment, one additional crime to my long list of sins was simply another statistic I couldn’t bother myself with. ‘No, I didn’t know. I’m grateful, at any rate.’

Sunshines swung her legs about idly as she went on. ‘It was quite a feat for a mere human. Tell me, wanderer, how did you escape your guards?’

What could I tell her? I ate a god and another crazy one inside of me went on a murderous rampage? That would sound very stupid and unbelievable. I couldn’t tell her that Punk had a hand in my escape as well; I was determined not to expose her cooperation and subsequently, put her at risk considering how little I knew of these people. I told her the only thing that flashed across my mind at that moment.

‘I… uh… got angry?’

It was as awful as any excuse could get, but she accepted it with a small laugh nonetheless. ‘It’s fine. I have enough secrets to deal with already and trying to decipher yours is the last thing I need at the moment. The child is safe now and that is all that matters.’ She extended a hand to clasp my shoulder as I stood back up. ‘The more pressing question now would of course be why you went through the trouble of taking her guards out only to end up killing her as well, and then tried to save her after that. Rather counter-productive, wouldn’t you agree?’

I shied away from the inquisitive hand on my shoulder, feeling her penetrating gaze behind my head. There would be no point lying about anything now. ‘You’re right. I tried to kill the kid. As much as I didn’t want to, it happened. All I can say is that it was never my intention to harm her.’

She took her hand away, apparently satisfied with my answer. It didn’t make much of a sense; that was a crude explanation and only the most naïve would actually take my words at face value. Still, she had accepted it nonetheless and her tone took on a considerably lighter tinkle as she spoke again. ‘Well, like I said, the only thing that matters now is the child being safe. You took a lot out of yourself to get her to help; it doesn’t take much to see that. Whatever your intentions were, preserving the child’s life had obviously turned out to be the greater priority for you in the end.’ Sunshines bent down to look me in the eye from one side. ‘You have our thanks at the very least. She will be safe, for the moment, from Iyen-Shuren’s machinations.’

That prompted a question from me. ‘Funny. I thought you and Three Arms had quite a history together. You don’t sound like you agree much with his actions.’

She laughed out loud this time, amused by the nickname I had given the freak. ‘Well, it’s very brave of you to call him that openly. Most youkai would not even dare call him by name and here you are, a mere human, giving him a derogatory nickname.’ Regaining her composure, she explained as best she could. ‘We’ve had a lot of contact in the past but we are by no means what you could call “friends”. Partners in necessity is perhaps the closest term you can use for our relationship. I’m sure you’ve heard plenty about me from your meeting with him.’

I tried to recall the details Three Arms had given me during their long-winded exposition that night. ‘He said you were the one who conceived of some ritual or something and the sun died prematurely when it failed.’ Since she was here in the person, I might as well pelt her with some of the doubts I’ve had since hearing about it. ‘So you seriously thought that you could re-ignite your sun by committing a second sacrilege?’

She drew back slightly as she sighed and shook her head sadly, the golden locks arced about carelessly. ‘It was a mistake; my mistake. I had thought it would work, that it would appease Yatagarasu’s spirit if I could return his body to its rightful place. Apparently I just made things worse for everyone.’

Scratching my chin, I felt that she deserved an explanation at least for what she had thought was a way of remedying the situation. ‘Sorry to say, but gods do not have what you traditionally consider an afterlife once they die. Yatagarasu’s body remained in the world for the sole purpose of keeping the sun going. It’s nothing but an empty husk, a tool if you would. It really was all over once Kanako made that hell-raven defile the corpse.’ I gave her a shrug as she bent over to look at me in wonder. ‘You break the tool; that’s that. There’s no fixing it. Sacrificing the hell-raven wouldn’t do a damn thing. So you didn’t really fail per se, because there was actually nothing left to fail at.’

Sunshines continued to stare at me in silence and I suddenly realized I had spouted something humans normally wouldn’t have any knowledge of. Well, why bother lying to her about how I would know something like that at this point? ‘Don’t ask. Explaining would take forever. Let’s just say I’ve had plenty of dealings with higher beings to know this much.’

She accepted that at any rate. ‘Well if that’s supposed to make me feel better I’m not sure it’s working. But thank you for telling me anyway.’ Her smile split into a grin as she considered me in a new light. ‘You are a most unusual specimen for a human.’

I waved the remark aside as I reminded her. ‘I get that a lot. Now you were saying something about not getting along with Three Arms…?’

Suddenly remembering she had gotten sidetracked, she went on. ‘As I was saying, we needed each other for our own purposes, though we did share a common goal in wanting to prevent a cataclysm. Nothing we tried worked out in the end and I gave up seeking his help. It was only recently I found out about his plans for the last Hakurei, actually, I was much more surprised that there had been a survivor from the massacre. I never knew Byakuren had the child with her all along. She kept her secrets well.’

‘Yeah. Real well. Look where it got me today,’ I grunted in sarcasm. If I knew she was going to be this much trouble in the beginning, I would have avoided her like the plague.

She grinned knowingly at my words. ‘You can’t blame her for the events thus far. You were the closest one to her during her final hours. I doubt she had much of a choice in choosing you. At any rate, I could do nothing except verbally oppose Iyen-Shuren’s plans for the child. Despite what he believes, killing the child will only bring us further problems. I know as much.’

I turned to give her a querying look. ‘And why’s that?’

Gesturing wide to encompass the shrine, and then Gensokyo in general, she spoke in a hushed voice. ‘Because once the last Hakurei dies, the Great Barrier dies with her. Gensokyo will slip back into the real world and I’m not sure the inhabitants outside will be able to adjust to something of that magnitude or vice versa, or even if we would continue existing by then. The Triumvirate refuses to believe my words because they had been absent during the creation of the Great Hakurei Barrier. They are unwilling to accept that a mere human can hold so much power to be able to maintain the Great Barrier.’

I listened to her words intently, and proceeded to break out in a fit of uncontrollable laughter. The irony almost killed me and I doubled over as I continued laughing. Sunshines had hopped off the stone pedestal to stare at me in wary shock and even Ran in the distance had made a move towards us seeing my sudden change in behavior. ‘What’s so funny?’ she finally managed as I slowed down enough for her to get a word in-between.

‘Nothing, nothing.’ I managed to gasp before calming myself. Ran stood by her master’s side as the two of them regarded me strangely. ‘Sorry to break the bad news to you, but the world outside is already DEAD. If the Great Barrier goes, you’ll merely be moved from one dying world into an already dead one to die all over again by suffering a different cataclysm.’

Ran moved back slightly in wordless shock; her master was more composed but looked grim all the same. All Sunshines could do in light of the new revelation was ask a question, ‘You’re sure?’

I pointed at nothing in particular, waving two fingers about to indicate the Outside. ‘I would have to be. That’s where I came from, Sunshines.’

Ran spoke directly to her master this time. ‘We can use this to put Iyen-Shuren into a checkmate. Convene the council. Force the Triumvirate to see that we would be doomed even if they allowed Iyen-Shuren’s plans to come to fruition.’

Instead of seizing on the suggestion, Sunshines shook her head sadly. ‘Based on the testimony of one human? One who had directly acted to harm our own kind? No, they would never listen, not even Enka. If anything, it would only serve to make us look like rebels.’ She turned back to address me. ‘What of you, human? What do you believe in?’

What indeed. Myself? My fallen god? Byakuren? I didn’t have an easy answer to that. Why did she want to know anyway? At any rate, I had a good-enough answer for her to serve for the time being. ‘I don’t give a damn, but I’m not about to let the kid go that easily.’

She broke out in a grin and even Ran almost smiled at that, one corner of her mouth twitching in reply to my affirmation. ‘So we have a common ground after all. The child must not die, even more so now. We need a refuge to retreat to, for with our actions tonight, we alienate ourselves from the youkai commonality and the Triumvirate.’

I held up one hand to stop her from continuing. ‘Hold on. What do you mean “alienate ourselves”?’

Leaning back against the torii, she explained for my benefit. ‘My actions tonight will go contrary to the wishes of the individual Triumvirs, and you can take my word that they will know about it soon enough. Iyen-Shuren will want the child back, but I will not let him have her. Vana also has designs of his own for the last Hakurei, but I know not what, only that it cannot be good. Of Enka, she cares little for what goes on in the world. Her followers foolishly believe the Visitors are a new form of god in the flesh, even venturing as far as to suggest that the Visitors are the actual embodiment of the last dragon. They worship the Visitors as nothing less than divine beings and she does nothing to change their perception or to intercede on the Hakurei child’s behalf. Enka will not hesitate to assist the other two Triumvirs if they sought her help.’

That was quite a downer. ‘In other words, we become fugitives in flight when we steal the kid.’

Ran spoke up this time. ‘Fugitives, yes. But for a better cause than those ignorant elders who refuse to see the truth could ever come up with.’

Great. More running. I was already sick and tired with that and here we have these two suggesting we start the race anew, now with brand new “participants”. I wasn’t sure about them but I was heartily disgusted with running away from everything up to this point. I ran two hands through my hair in despair. ‘Oh. Nice. That’s exactly what I need, yeah. More running away. Nice! Very niceeeeee…’

The pair looked at me like I had lost my mind but I pointedly ignored them as I moved back towards the shrine, leaving the two of them to puzzle over my abrupt changes in behavior. I had heard enough for the night and I certainly didn’t want to jump right back into the habit of planning how to survive for the next day, and the day after, and on and on and on and on and on.

Sunshines and her shikigami let me go in silence, opting to instead discuss whatever it was they needed to while they still had time to do so. Welcome to the Amazing Race for Your Life, girls. Well, I had to concede that they would have a far better time at managing their survival compared to a puny human like me, being the fancy youkai who could command wonders, zip around like bees, and light up entire swaths of forests simply by thinking about it. Me? I would have to resort to throwing sticks and rocks at whatever monster-of-the-week who would decide to pick on me as I clod through the ground slowly.

I gave a small sigh. Who was I complaining to? It wasn’t as if someone would pop up to take all my troubles away. I batted one of the globules of light angrily as I walked past it towards Short Stuff’s room, the poor thing had actually squeaked out loud before retreating away in pain. Ouch, I didn’t realize these light bulbs were alive.

Keizo was no longer in the room, but the little oni remained slumbering in the corner. Short Stuff didn’t even look like she had moved at all, but she breathed lightly now, no longer wheezing like she did earlier. Collapsing into a sitting position, I leaned against one wall and let my weary eyes droop, giving fatigue a head start in claiming me for the night.
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The sensation of impacting the hard wooden floor woke me up and I groped about in a sleep-induced confusion. I realized had slipped from my sitting position to crash unceremoniously to the floor as I wiped the hardened drool from one corner of my mouth. The room was still in darkness, but light streamed in from a crack or two and a quick inspection revealed the room to be mostly empty; its only occupants now were Short Stuff and me.

I started to lean over to the doorway to stare outside and the sound of scraping paper interrupted me. Looking down, I could see a note on top of a pile of clothes with what looked like several people’s handwriting below the original message, seemingly added stealthily while I was fast asleep. Snatching the yellowing paper up I squinted at it, trying to catch what little light was available in the gloom.

Fresh clothes for you. Get cleaned up and changed.

PS. You still stink!

PPS. Don’t mind the daft boy. Gonna teach him a lesson about writing on other people’s notes.

PPPS. And so says Master Keizo after writing on this note himself. Yukari wishes to meet with you once you have attended to yourself. Come to the veranda.

PPPPS. But yer’ all writing on the note anyway! Anyhow, you still stink.

PPPPPS. Boy. I’m gonna have a field day with you if I catch you writing on this note again.

PPPPPPS. And I’m going to have a field day with both of you if I catch you two messing with this note again.

PPPPPPPS. Stop messing with my note! That goes for you too Ran.

I couldn’t help but grin wryly at their antics. Crumpling the note, I tossed it aside as I peered at where Short Stuff still slumbered. At least she looked like she had turned over a few times during the night. She slept on her sides now, her breathing even and sounding healthier than it ever did. It gladdened me to know she was well on the way to recovery.

Shaking the clothes out, I inspected Sunshine’s little gift. Almost an exact copy of Ran’s voluminous dress sans the funky apron, which I was glad it was missing. Putting one hand through the gigantic sleeves, I wondered why they had such curious tastes in fashion. Clothes were made to keep a body warm and this one looked like it did the complete opposite. It was still better than nothing; my own clothing had been reduced to rags with holes where Ice Cubes had impaled me and had a missing sleeve to boot.

The purported bathroom proved to be nothing more than an enclosed area behind the shrine, with two dingy walls to provide some privacy and a thicket of bamboo behind it serving as the final defense against peeping toms. A simple bamboo drip irrigation system provided the only source of water for the bath, fed by some far-off waterfall or a stream uphill. The water looked crystal clear and running one hand through the collected water in an artificial pond told me just how cold it was. Using one of the clean rags piled to one side of the pond, I started to run the cold water down my body as fast as I could after stripping down, wiping and delighting in the sensation of thorough cleansing despite the cold. It was not altogether unbearable, but the streaming cold bit into the various cuts and injuries that remained unhealed and I wanted it to be done as soon as possible.

Once finished, I flung the used rag away into one bucket, proceeding to squeeze water out of my hair when a sudden noise behind me made me turn back…

Just to find Keizo wearing nothing but a loincloth as we stared at each other’s naked bodies in stunned silence. He started to look down before catching himself and stared upwards instead, only to flare a crimson red as he hastily averted his gaze. ‘Holy! I’m sorry! Uh…’ He gave up with words and made a quick retreat to the other side of the barricade.

I grinned to myself. Apparently it doesn’t take much to get him flustered. ‘For a doctor, you sure can’t take seeing naked people well.’

He exclaimed indignantly from behind the barricade. ‘What?! Seeing a patient naked is different from catching someone in the middle of her bath! Besides, I mainly treat non-human patients. It’s different, even when the ladies are in human form.’

Non-human patients? I pulled myself through the fresh clothing and dangled my arms to one side as I puzzled over his words. Gods, the sleeves were bigger than they had looked. I tried flapping them about experimentally as I moved around. I could probably fan someone during a hot summer day in this.

Stepping behind Keizo, I gave his back a firm poke. ‘Nice muscles, peeping tom.’

‘Hey, I take offense at that! Being called a peeping tom I mean. But thanks.’ He turned back to pose in a mock display. ‘Want to touch my biceps? See how they ripple in the fake sunlight?!’ Shifting into another pose, his loincloth fell off.

I let my gaze stay in the forbidden zone for a few seconds before turning away and leaving him to his bath. ‘Yup, it’s rippling all right. In the fake sunlight and all.’

Rounding the corner of the shrine, his moans of dismay drifted back to me. ‘I’ve been violatedddddd…’

Keizo’s little friend was sitting at the side of the shrine in the cool shadows cast about by the extended roof, with several bamboo gourds lying at his side as he snored away on the walkway. As I made my way past him, I could smell the reeking alcohol wafting upwards and I snatched one of the gourds up in curiosity, sniffing the contents. I winced at the smell. This stuff was beyond strong and judging from the number of gourds the little oni had imbibed it had been enough to get an elephant dead drunk.

I opted to return to Short Stuff’s chambers instead of going over to the veranda, sampling the stuff in the gourd as I made my way through the corridor. It actually brought tears to my eyes and I tossed the gourd down the corridor in disgust before I went through the door. How the boy was able to stomach it was beyond my ken.

Short Stuff remained on her cot, hair tousled and looking like she was having a dream as she tossed about. I was suddenly glad they didn’t try to remove her ribbon; there was no telling what would happen if they did. Sitting down next to her, I tried to pull on the thing lightly, only to realize it wouldn’t come off in the slightest, confirming my suspicion that it had been charmed to be removable only if Short Stuff willed it so. I supposed that was why they couldn’t get the ribbon off in the first place.

She was sweating profusely, caught in the throes of some sort of fever. Pulling a bucket the quack had set next to the cot over to my side, I fished for the rag they had used to wipe her down every night, dabbing the sweat off idly as I watched her toss about in her restless sleep. As she turned over to face me, her eyes opened slightly at my touch.

I couldn’t meet her gaze. Instantly averting my eyes, I looked away at nothing in particular. Despite the fact she had survived my attempt at her life, it didn’t make me feel any less like a murderer. ‘Hi,’ she managed to croak hoarsely. Even then, I couldn’t turn to look at her.

Short Stuff started to tug on one of the voluminous sleeves instead, trying to get me to look at her and I forced my gaze over to her, hesitating all the while. As we finally met eye to eye, she smiled lightly. ‘Won’t die… easily,’ she murmured and added as an imitation of my usual crassness, ‘Hard-ass… like you.’

I tried to force a smile of my own at her attempted humor, brushing the matted hair away from her sweaty forehead. ‘I’m glad you’re still alive.’

Her eyes closed once more and I started to get up to leave, unwilling to taint her sight with my presence any longer. One hand came back to grip my sleeve hard, pulling me back down as she tried to speak anew. ‘Don’t blame y-yourse-ee... Know it wasn’t… you that… night.’

I felt humbled, feeling myself sink into a depth I would be hard-pressed to recover from. That she could actually forgive her would-be-murderer shook me to my very core. I thought about the many times I had betrayed her trust and yet, she had never stopped believing in me. Even if Rilofene guided my hand that night, it still didn’t exonerate me from the deed. I was also partially guilty for wanting her alive just to preserve the protection she could give us from the Visitors. Maybe I really did deserve what’s coming for me very soon.

I pulled her up with a sudden move and she gave a tiny yelp of surprise, but went totally slack as I drew her into an embrace. ‘I’m sorry,’ I whispered several times into her ears as I caressed the dirty hair, burying my face in it.

In response, she threw her arms around my waist, letting me rock her in silence as she found tears of her own to cry for a few minutes.

Eventually, she drifted back into her fever-induced fatigue and I laid her back on the cot gently, taking care not to bump her as I pulled the covers back onto her. The expression she wore now was one of peace as we had finally laid both our inner demons from that night to rest. She would sleep easier for a change now, as would I.

Someone stirred behind me and I found Ran standing in the doorway in silence. I wasn’t sure how long she had been there but she gave me a different sort of look. Gone was the implied hostility and anger, to be replaced by a rare smile I had never seen. Making several gestures with her hand, she indicated that I was supposed to have a meeting with her master and that I should follow her now. I complied in mute silence.

‘Well now. I suppose Yukari was right about you after all,’ she began conversationally once we were outside on the walkway. Falling into step I kept my silence, unsure of what she was implying. Noting my lack of response, she added as way of an explanation, ‘She had said you kept a lot to yourself regarding the child, that someone as hard as you would never openly show her feelings to someone unless you truly cared about the person.’ She gave me a little nod to my credit. ‘As much as I had doubted you, perhaps now would be the time I started to change my perception of you.’

‘You might want to hold off doing that,’ I remarked offhandedly. ‘You youkai seem to find trust easy to come-by. Humans are deceitful creatures; lies come easily to their lips, acts of charity or love are enacted without their hearts in it, and their motives are always clouded by selfish desires.’

Instead of letting the philosophical statement pass unchallenged, she ventured one of her own, ‘But unlike youkai, when a human shows true love and devotion, there is no space for neither lies nor doubts. It is easy for youkai to promise such things because they are long-lived and cannot easily die, but for a fragile being like a human, such a promise or oath comes with great conviction. You’ve seen it yourself firsthand in Byakuren. She gave her life for the child. That is the sort of purity all youkai lack and in retrospect, the source of humanity’s strength.’

I finally managed a grin in her presence. ‘You don’t strike me as the philosophical type. I thought most youkai find such debates frivolous.’

She found a small laugh of her own to match me. ‘You stereotype too much. I love a good debate as much as the next person. Perhaps one day, you will learn that youkai are as diverse as humans in their beliefs and preferences.’

That got me to ponder her words well. It wasn’t too far from the truth considering everything I’ve seen thus far. The community of youkai I had presumed to be a cohesive nation with a singular goal had rapidly degenerated into individual groups and factions who were diametrically opposed to one another, hiding agendas they do not want their enemies to see. They were, I realized, much like humans who had their own plans and designs whenever their desires carried them contrary to the general flow of society.

What of Sunshines and her lot then? They had clearly indicated that they do not want Short Stuff to die but I had to wonder if it was a purely altruistic motive. Completely trusting them after just a day of knowing them would be a naïve mistake and I was determined to keep my options open in case Sunshines priorities ever come into conflict with my own. But this time, I wouldn’t be fighting for my own survival if it came to that. I would bring Short Stuff into consideration as well.

The morning glow had been particularly strong today, bathing the entire place with enough heat to make it look like a day out of a good summer, but rapidly-browning leaves on the trees and the litter of dead compost on the forest ground indicated an incoming fall. I was pleasantly surprised at the fact that Gensokyo could still manage to maintain a regular seasonal cycle despite its troubles lately.

The veranda proved to be nothing more than a simple extension of the walkway, serving both as a distinguishing feature of the shrine to welcome visitors as well as an area for devotees to rest and relax in. Considering the general age of the shrine, the place still looked to be in a far better condition compared to the rest of the building. It was hard to imagine that a massacre had happened here just scant years ago; there was no signs left to indicate the death of Short Stuff’s family.

Ran moved off to assume her customary position behind her master and Sunshine glanced back at the sound of our approach. The usual smile was etched in her face, but I thought I could see the lines of fatigue lining her fine features and eyes that suddenly seemed to be less-than-lively came into view as we drew closer. Ran made no indication of noticing her master’s thinly-veiled worries and I was pretty sure she already knew what was bothering her, being a close confidante and shikigami to Sunshine. They were highly unlikely to keep secrets with one another.

‘You look a lot better and more human in those clothes,’ she commented as I picked a spot on the veranda to claim for my own.

‘I also look like a gigantic human fan,’ I remarked wryly as I flapped one of the sleeves at her, eliciting a laugh from her and even Ran cracked an involuntary smile at that.

‘Well, pleasantries aside, I’m afraid I have some bad news. I had thought that we would have more time to talk about a lot of things and get to know each other, but apparently not.’ Her expression had softened into a dull frown. ‘We’ve received word that Iyen-Shuren is mobilizing a posse to hunt down the human who had grievously injured his guards and ran off with his prize. News about you is rapidly spreading far and wide amongst the youkai and most are less than happy with your actions.’ She gave me a knowing glance as she went on, ‘It has been a long time since a human had directly attacked a youkai and Iyen-Shuren is capitalizing on that fact to turn the rest of the community against you. Do you understand what I’m getting at?’

I knew well enough what she had meant. ‘In other words, he’s painting me as the big evil bad guy who broke the treaty between humans and youkai.’

‘That’s one way of putting it, yes,’ she remarked stoically. ‘It’s ironic how he’s using the peace treaty Ran had painstakingly brokered for his own benefit, making it seem like the youkai had been slighted in light of your actions that night.’

Ran cut in from behind. ‘Me? You give me too much credit. I merely did what you asked me to.’

Sunshines turned back to smile at her shikigami. ‘Ah, but that was the only thing I did. I merely asked you to talk to the village head. The years of peace we’ve had after that were a result of your own negotiations. I wanted to watch how well you could handle interacting with humans; that was why I made no direct attempt at intervening that night. You did very well.’

Her words had put Ran off and she fell silent as she considered them. It was readily apparent that her master had made her the point of contact for the treaty as a test for Ran, perhaps in preparation for finally releasing all her responsibilities unto Ran somewhere in the near future. She took the compliment simply. ‘I see.’

Golden eyes fixed back onto me. ‘As for you, I’m afraid you will have to start fleeing ahead of us. Iyen-Shuren’s seekers will soon find us here; we will stay behind to delay them as much as we can while you try to put as much distance as possible between this place and your next stop.’

Oh boy. There goes the running part I loathed so much again. ‘Can’t you just… you know, dump us through a gap or something? That would be far more convenient that spending weeks running through a god-forsaken wilderness.’

She could only smile sadly at my presumptions. ‘I’m afraid not. Enka is well aware of me now and if I try to move you or the child through a border-gap again, she will know exactly where the two of you are. The Triumvirate is paying special attention to me after my failure to turn the Hakurei child in. As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve become as much of a fugitive as you have. It will be unwise to travel together, whether through conventional or non-conventional means. We cannot risk being caught together.’

I sighed in disappointment. I had been secretly hoping that I would get a personal transportation system with Sunshines around but fate just had to dash my hopes to pieces as usual. ‘Why would this Enka know so much about you and what you could do?’

Her smile was light but humorless as she explained. ‘That’s because she’s my mother.’

Now that was deep. ‘The heck? Thought you’d at least get a little more support from your own mother.’

Ran interceded for her master’s benefit. ‘Enka Yakumo’s progeny run into the thousands. Unlike the other Triumvirs, she believes in preserving her legacy and thus, throughout the years, she has birthed countless children in the hopes of maintaining her heritage, both pureblood and hybrids. She will care nothing for the life of one single offspring.’

Golden locks swung about as she affirmed her shikigami’s explanation. ‘As Ran says. Do not be fooled into thinking that I would garner special favor simply by being her daughter. I am merely a single one amongst her other thousands of daughters. As a result of our blood connection, she is well aware whenever I choose to invoke my abilities. She will not hesitate to divulge the location of the Hakurei child to Iyen-Shuren. Unlike Vana, the two do not harbor hidden animosities.’

I rested my head against open palms in silence. This time, I would get no help from Sunshines. From the way she puts things, it almost seemed like her hands were fully tied behind her back in a metaphoric sense. It was easy to tell someone to run, far harder to decide on a good place to run to, and almost impossible to say whether or not that path would lead to a quick end. ‘You keep telling us to run. Where exactly are we supposed to run to?’

‘I cannot say for certain at the time.’ At least she was honest about it. ‘But rest assured that there will be others who can help you along the way; the few who still remain loyal to me and old friends of the messiah as well. Ran, show her.’

In compliance, her shikigami crouched down next to me, using one clawed finger to scrape a crude map of Gensokyo on the wooden flooring. Pointing at the end of the diagram, she indicated our current position before drawing a perpendicular line north-westwards. ‘You have several choices. You can cut through the eastern forest and straight into the great fissure between the Path of Darkness and the mountain caves leading to the underground regions. Or you can skirt the great fissure and follow the path towards the Misty Lakes, although you will be far more exposed to the seekers if you go that way.’ Bringing her finger back to the shrine, she dragged it south-westwards this time. ‘Alternatively, go southwards through the harvesting fields, past the old Night Road, and into the Bamboo Forest. Master Keizo will be well-familiar with that area, so that’s an added advantage.’

She ended her breakdown by melting the crude map with a touch, the dry wood catching fire easily and quickly burning down into ashes right up to the edges of the sketching. ‘We would presume to choose for you, but in light of your efforts at staying alive thus far we believe it will be a far better option for you to pick your own path. As far as survival goes, you clearly have the upper hand in experience compared to us.’

Sunshines finished for her. ‘It doesn’t matter where you choose to go. There should be someone waiting for you once you get there if all goes well. The critical thing at the moment is just to get as far away from here as possible.’ She winked at Ran. ‘So. The choice is yours, as my shikigami would say.’

It wasn’t much of a choice to me. I hardly knew what most of the places her shikigami had babbled about was, let alone decide on the best course. If what Sunshines said was to be taken as truth, then it wouldn’t matter much where I went to. I supposed I could randomly pick a choice and just hope for the best if it came to that. ‘Southwards.’

‘Southwards it is then. I will send word ahead. Make haste and do not dally until you are well clear of the harvesting fields.’ Ran got up and returned her hands into the folds of her sleeves. ‘I will organize whatever supplies Master Keizo can manage. Meet me at the storage room in one hour.’

As she walked off, I gave Sunshines an inquisitive glance. ‘You can’t be serious. You’re letting the quack come with me?’

‘I’m afraid you have little choice in the matter. We need him to attend to the child until she fully recovers and you’re in no condition to be carrying her around during your escape.’ She waved off further protests with one hand, obviously considering the argument settled. ‘Do not underestimate Keizo. Unique may you be in your own way he is also a curious oddity amongst humans, a hardy survivor of the wildlands outside of the valley and a healer without peer. He has earned the respect of the youkai throughout the years by his willingness to risk travelling the wilds and offering his services freely to the youkai communities he comes across.’

So that was what the quack had meant when he mentioned treating non-human patients. Still, the notion of youkai needing healers was absurd. The long-lived, high-speed regenerating and limb-replacing creatures would have no need for healers. ‘What use would youkai have for healers? It’s not like they ever have injuries that last long enough to justify the need for one.’

Sunshines stared straight ahead at the woods beyond, a sad smile playing about her lips. ‘You are partially correct, but these are different times now. The old days are gone, where youkai ruled supreme as nearly-invulnerable beings. Youkai as a whole have greatly weakened since the crisis with the lost sun and from the presence of the Visitors. Our powers wane, wounds do not heal as quickly as they used to, we are susceptible to diseases, and even I can no longer penetrate the Great Barrier to see what’s beyond it like I used to do occasionally in the past.’

Her eyes dulled as if in recollection of olden days, seemingly misting slightly as she glanced about the dilapidated shrine. ‘The younger years of Gensokyo was an age of much joy. We’ve had our differences with humans but it never came to total racial violence. The child’s great ancestor, Reimu Hakurei, was a figure well-known amongst the youkai of old. We were many things, rivals, competitors, mutual lovers of a good fight, and in the end, good friends. We feared and respected her and from this dichotomy of feelings, she grew on some of us, and in return they chose to befriend the odd human miko.’

She fell silent after that, the only sounds around us were the rustling of gradually-falling leaves and the murmuring of the mid-day sirocco. I chose not to disturb her reverie; playing around idly with the hole Ran had left on the wooden flooring. I wasn’t exactly a big fan of reminiscing about the past, having spent most of my life looking forward in dreary terror rather than backwards recalling olden days, but I did remember Reimu Hakurei herself, though it was more of seeing her face in a crowd at the village harvest festival rather than a personal meeting, a curious choice of fate for the destiny of her great descendant to intertwine with mine.

I broke the silence at last. ‘Is that why you’re in open rebellion now? For the sake of Reimu?’

She shrugged simply. ‘Perhaps. For her, for Gensokyo, and for our future. The Triumvirate has never done much for Gensokyo in the past. They do not love this land as much as I do. Gensokyo is a part of me as much as we are a part of it and I have done a lot for it to keep it in a state of tranquility. I do not wish to change the status quo.’

Something about her sentiments caught at me. It was highly unusual for her to harbor such feelings of attachment considering everything I have had heard about her. Looking over at her now, I suddenly realized behind the façade of her serene expressions, her true face was one of infinite weariness. She had trod through her lifetime with a dreary pace knowing about an inevitable fate awaiting her and she had the pinch of anxiety of someone who knew her time was running short.

So much like myself.

‘You’re dying, aren’t you?’ I wasn’t a question. I already knew the answer to it but I wanted her to affirm it herself.

She glanced over in surprise, amusement mixed with a certain amount of admiration in her voice. ‘Now that is a most curious observation. Not even Ran knows about this. How can you tell?’

Because I was bound for the same fate. I kept my thoughts unvoiced as I answered her simply, ‘It’s nothing. You just have the look of someone I once knew. Someone who knew her days were limited.’

She lifted a hand to caress the intricately-carved pillar of wood next to her. ‘It’s not dying in the traditional human sense. Rather, you can think of it as sleeping. I find it harder and harder to awaken from sleeping these days. The Cerulean Dreams seem to last forever and I fear that one day, I will simply be unable to escape the dream anymore, and I would remain sleeping until I waste away.’ Giving a barely-audible sigh, she turned back towards me, leaning against the pillar as she stared at the tree-tops. ‘I’ve been living for a very long time. Nothing lasts forever. I can only hope that I have taught Ran enough to carry my burdens into the future once I go to sleep for the last time.’

‘Carry your burdens into the future? How can you be so sure we even have one left?’ I snorted.

Her gloom rapidly dispersed as she grinned at me, the weariness seemingly evaporating into thin air. ‘You are such a pessimist for a human. One must never lose hope. Walk one step at a time ever forward and just deal with the obstacles you come across for the time being. Do not focus on looking into what lies ahead in the distance. The future is never a set variable; it is by our own hands a future is carved out of.’ Lifting one finger into the air, she left traces of beautiful patterned plasma that quickly disappeared and she looked at me directly. ‘And I pray that it is yours which will hold the hand of the last Hakurei as you guide her into a better future than the one you have in your head now.’

I had to grin in reply to that. ‘Don’t think much of me, do you?’

‘On the contrary, you have proven to be extremely resourceful and by no means completely helpless, surmounting one obstacle after another a mere human would quail in the face of to get this far.’ She jabbed two fingers pressed together at me to emphasize her point. ‘Get rid of your perception of a stagnant and doomed future, and you will be surprised with what you can accomplish.’

This was one debate I couldn’t hope to win with this one and I chose to just end it quickly. ‘Yeah well, maybe. Easier said than done like most things but let’s just leave it at the putty-future part for now.’ Dusting myself slightly as I got up, I made my way past Sunshines, still seated on her spot. I might as well go check on whatever preparation the quack and Ran was onto instead of waiting around aimlessly.

Sunshines voice halted me before I could go too far, speaking without looking at me. ‘Wait. Don’t tell Ran about me. It’s the last thing she needs to know with our troubles at the moment.’

‘I don’t exactly have a habit of spewing people’s secrets like an open sewer,’ I remarked as I carried on walking.

As I rounded the corner she murmured softly, ‘Thank you.’
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We stood together at the torii as dusk fell, preparing to part ways before commencing our flight from danger. In the dim moonlight Sunshines and her erstwhile shikigami stood confronting Keizo, offering last minute instructions and secondary plans in case anything should go wrong and he took it all in with his usual flippant attitude. The little oni, Reiji, carried Short Stuff behind his back with our supplies dangling from leather pouches he bore in this front, seemingly unperturbed by all the burden and I slowly realized he probably wouldn’t even feel the weight considering the strength his kind was imbued with. In contrast, Short Stuff looked to be peacefully slumbering in an artificial sleep induced by the herbs Keizo had made her chew a few hours prior. They would, according to the quack, numb the pain and discomfort from travelling in her current condition.

Sunshines broke off from the meeting and came to stand before me, offering her hand in a traditional human gesture of farewell. ‘Good luck and may we meet again under better circumstances.’ She winked at me. ‘We still have much to talk about.’

Taking her hand in a firm shake, I struggled to find something to say. These goodbye-forever-maybe things were never my forte and she acknowledged my difficulty with a small smile nonetheless. ‘Take good care of the child. She views you as something more than a friend or a convenient guardian now. She needs someone close to her in light of the loss of her family and surrogate mother, Byakuren.’

That was something we both agreed on at any rate. ‘Let’s just hope for the best,’ I grunted in reply.

Having concluded their final meeting, Keizo moved on ahead by himself down the path that rapidly vanished into the thin woods beyond, stopping to wait for us at the edge. Sunshines moved back to stand by the torii as Ran came forth this time to say her farewells. ‘Travel swiftly. We will do what we can here, and trust in Master Keizo.’ Reiji snorted in amusement at her words and she gave the oni a little cuff behind his head as a reward for his disrespect. Ran held out her hand, imitating her master’s earlier gesture and I took hold of it, her grip turning painful as she shook it lightly. Noticing my wince, she let go hastily with an apologetic smile. ‘Now go.’

Reiji didn’t need additional prompting and he moved off to join Keizo. I followed the oni and took a moment to glance back as we reached the end of the path. Sunshines and Ran had already disappeared back into the shrine, no doubt to begin their own preparations against Three Arms posse. I suddenly regretted not thanking Sunshines for the ensuing carnage she was about to wreak on her own kind and could only briefly wonder what her future days would be like, a fugitive from the very people she had worked so hard to protect.

Keizo nudged me with an elbow, understanding what I was thinking about from the look in my eyes. ‘No worries, kiddo. Yukari does nothing without good reason. If she believes this is the best course of action for all of us then there ain’t no arguing with it. C’mon, we better start movin’. Night’s not getting any younger.’

We moved off into the woods in silence, Keizo leading the way with Reiji just behind him and I followed the two from behind, letting someone else take the lead for once. The lack of pressure from having to judge where to step for every footstep, checking directions every five minutes, and keeping a lookout for danger was gratifying and I soaked it in its entirety. I was content to let Keizo lead for the moment considering how highly Sunshines had spoken of him. Every moment of relaxation was worth its weight in gold to me.

The trek seemed to take a long time and I lost count of the minutes that had meandered by. We had been walking for over two hours at our current pace and Keizo remarked to us that we shouldn’t stop to rest until we were clear of the open fields beyond the woods. None of us objected to that and our rote footsteps went on with their course. Keizo and Reiji would occasionally talk about inane things, exchanging banter and laughing in hushed voices despite the gravity of our situation. I wasn’t so sure if these two actually realized just how much trouble we were in and I supposed they didn’t have reason to be too concerned. As far as what Three Arms wanted from me and Short Stuff, these two were nothing he was interested in.

‘What’s in the bag, Keizo?’ Reiji asked nonchalantly and I brought my attention to their conversation. The bulging pouch looked to be extremely heavy but he had little trouble carrying it.

‘This?’ he jiggled the pouch slung behind his back slightly as we kept walking. ‘Boy, this is my answer to violence. My great hammer of justice.’ Keizo patted at it triumphantly, looking very pleased with himself. ‘This… is my way of telling people to beat it or suffer hell-on-earth!’

‘And what exactly is your hell-on-earth thingy?’ I commented.

‘Why, my personal danmaku stick of course.’ He looked back at me to smile sheepishly. ‘To be honest I don’t really know how to use it. One of the kappa at the base of the Youkai Mountain gave it to me when I had stayed at their village previously. He just said it was a “weapon worthy of inflicting divine wrath” or something. Seemed like a waste to throw it away so I bring it with me wherever I go.’

Reiji piped up at that. ‘Ha. I thought you’re the smart one. Trusting a kappa tool is no different than believing in a swindler’s words.’

He lagged behind a bit to cuff Reiji in the head for that. ‘Just you watch. If I ever figure out how to work this thing I’m going to use it on a flock of pigeons. Think about how long we wouldn’t have to hunt for food after that!’

In curiosity I walked faster to stand slightly behind Keizo, reaching out an inquisitive hand to feel whatever his “danmaku stick” was through the pouch but he batted my hand away angrily once he noticed me. ‘Hey! Don’t be touching my precious now. You could set it off accidentally.’

I acquiesced to his demands in silence, deeming to just peek at the contents without him noticing once we made camp soon. Reiji looked up at me from the side, pouches bouncing and jiggling in front but he took elaborate care not to bump Short Stuff around too much. He gave me a toothy grin that reeked of alcohol and I smiled back slightly at him before asking him something I had been wondering since I had met them. ‘So how exactly are you related to Keizo?’

Keizo cut in before Reiji could start speaking. ‘He’s my apprentice. I teach him my trade and he helps me with stuff in return.’ Looking back with a smirk at the oni, he explained. ‘Stuff like being my mule. Ha!’

‘Ha.’ The boy echoed in mock amusement as he rolled his eyes.

We fell silent soon after, maintaining our present speed and the woods eventually thinned out within the next hour. Keizo motioned for us to stop as he glanced up at False Dawn and cast his gaze far into the endlessly stretching fields ahead of us. ‘Just past midnight,’ he mumbled before picking up his pace again and motioning for us to follow.

The rolling fields we moved through now were a familiar sight to me. I knew this was the harvest fields, acres of fertile land the humans had once tended to before they invariably abandoned it once they decided to confine themselves to their valley. Wheat would have grown with reckless abandon here many years ago but today, only the silently swaying flowers and roiling grass served as testament to the amount of time they had been abandoned. It was a breathtaking sight, amplified even more so by the dual light of the moon and False Dawn, wisps of luminous insects drifting about the distant flowers aimlessly and giving the whole place an ethereal feeling.

Keizo walked on ahead to break a path for Reiji, stomping angrily at the grass blocking our way as he forged on ahead, muttering the occasional curse whenever his foot caught on something and stopped to pull the offending object out. Leaving the amusing figure to his smashing of defenseless grass alone, I fell back into step behind the two, taking the time to enjoy the ephemeral atmosphere the harvest fields was giving out. That there would still be such beauty in Gensokyo in light of its crises lately was a surprising revelation. Perhaps, in a way, this was Gensokyo’s defiance of the odds brought up against its survival.

Progress remained constant even with the amount of exertion Keizo was putting out and I came to realize his muscles weren’t just for show. His bulk hadn’t been built-up through intensive training or the consumption of natural steroids; it came solely from having to travel and survive the wildlands outside of the valley. Over the years, as he grew in experience and hardiness, he had built up the layers of strength and determination required for living by himself out here. I had to admire him for that; he had the touching of a survivor as well.

The first light of dawn had started to break and Keizo estimated we would hit the Night Road within the next two hours at least and he signaled for a break, more for his little companion than himself as he noticed the signs of fatigue in the oni. ‘We’ll stop for five minutes.’

I scanned the horizons, looking for tell-tale signs of pursuers or something similar. Except for the dispersing darkness, there was no indication of danger and I felt myself loosen up. It was either Sunshines had been able to fend off the seekers or the encounter has not happened yet. At any rate, it just meant more time for us to increase the distance and force our trail to grow colder as time passed.

Something small within me suddenly pulled at me and I froze. A strange sensation of attraction and repulsion, surfacing like a tiny ripple before washing away into nothingness. I felt myself drawn towards the north by a feeling I could not describe, as if someone was calling out to me in an inaudible voice. Turning to look at Keizo and Reiji, I couldn’t see any indication that they had felt it. Having noticed my sudden change in demeanor, Keizo gave me a strange look, a question hovering over his lips.

Breaking out into an urgent stride, I began to move northward, breaking a fresh trail through the grass as Keizo shouted out to me in concern and even Reiji had stood back up to try and see what was happening through the tall grass blocking his view. Throwing his gear to the ground in disgust, he ran to catch up with me before pulling my arm urgently to grunt in anger. ‘Hey, what’s gotten into you, girl? We have to go down, not up!’

Turning to flash him a look of anger myself, I softened up seeing the concern outlined in his face. ‘Come with me,’ I whispered to him and he frowned in surprise at that. Seeing his hesitation and confusion, I added, ‘There’s something I have to see for myself. It won’t take more than twenty minutes.’

Reiji moved to join us, a querying look of his own hanging about his features. ‘What’s going on?’

Keizo stared me straight in the eye for long moments, his grip slowly relaxing as he did and I pulled away from him effortlessly, fixing my gaze to the source of the tiny, indescribable pulse I had felt earlier and resuming my long strides towards it. Behind me, he muttered in anger before telling Reiji to drop all the supplies and only carry Short Stuff with him as he started to chase after me, calling for the oni to hurry up.
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I knew not how I could have known what lay here; I had merely responded to a random feeling of something out of place. Breaking out into a clearing in the harvest fields after long minutes of trampling through the grass, I found the source of the disturbance I had felt earlier.

No growths of any sort touched the clearing I was in. Judging from how the grass had seemed to selectively grow around the clearing, I could only fathom a guess that even plant life did not want to go anywhere near this place. The earth was barren and graying and pushing one foot into it, I found the soil to be as dead as it could get; hard, unyielding, and non-porous.

Keizo followed up from behind shortly before Reiji did, looking around in wordless wonder at the sight. They could not explain the alien landscape in the clearing, gaping at everything in fish-mouthed shock as the three of us looked up at the primary attraction the clearing offered.

Three massive oblong shapes had been jammed into the ground like ancient trees growing out of it. An incandescent aurora hovered above the structures, punctuated by an occasional high-pitched sound seemingly emanating from thin air. Boulders, gravel, and rocks rotated in a sluggish orbit around the curiosity, defying all known laws of gravity as they rotated in silence around the towers. Even the birds did not come anywhere close to this place; the sounds of animals had died out long before I broke through into the clearing.

‘What the hell is this thing?’ Keizo murmured to me. ‘How did you even know this is here?’

I didn’t answer him, choosing instead to approach the structure and Keizo called out to me in dismay, shouting a warning to be cautious as he followed after me. Reiji followed in our steps, still jiggling Short Stuff behind his back lightly as he did, casting uncomfortable glances about the area.

I stopped short outside the ring of orbiting rocks, putting one hand on a passing boulder as I felt its rough surface and I pushed lightly. The boulder drifted backwards slightly, only to return to its rotation as it lifted up into the air for another revolution. Above us, the artificial aurora continued to play about and I could hear a haunting tone from it now, a solemn chiming of sorts that didn’t seem like it was audible to either Keizo or Reiji judging from their reactions.

Picking my way through the maze of moving rocks, I came to stand within the orbiting ring, staring upwards at the towering oblong shapes. In the growing light of dawn, I could make out what seemed like the glint of steel and I moved in for a closer inspection as the two hushed figures behind me followed up. Standing right before one of the towers, I ran a hand through its surface, shocked at how smooth it was underneath the layers of grime that came off from it. From the thickness of the grime, these things had been sitting here for at least a few centuries. It almost felt like some sort of metal and whatever metal it was that could withstand centuries of exposure to the elements, it couldn’t have been something from Gensokyo and I had never seen anything like it from my years in the Outside.

Craning my neck to stare upwards, I was shocked a second time by what I saw. Emblazoned on the sides of the steel oblongs were letterings. Ancient letterings predating the old world which had never been used since before the fall of the Uruk civilization, I realized with growing mystery. They were the cryptograms of the Soleg Irim, my birth language.

The two behind me tried to make out what I was staring at in silence, unable to comprehend the confusing glyphs. Cocking my head sideways, I tried to remember how to read the forgotten words with great difficulty, putting them into a comprehensible form inside my mind from what was still intact and visible beyond the grime.

⌈ P - - - E - - L E - - - - T - N ⌋
U - I - - A L - - - I -

I brushed my hand along the base of the oblong, dragging away more dirt and grime as I moved to look at the other tower, craning my neck once more to read the glyphs that were also emblazoned on it vertically. Behind me, Keizo spoke in a harsh whisper, ‘You can actually read this?’

I kept my silence as I tried to word the cryptograms once more, not bothering to explain for now since it would probably take forever even if I wanted to. He started to get angry at my continued ignorance of his presence and I hushed him with a sharp sound. ‘Shut up. I’ll explain later.’

Unlike the initial one, the top row of glyphs on this one had faded into obscurity, but the bottom row was still slightly visible.

U N - - E R - - - M

I couldn’t begin to imagine just what these things were, or why they were here, or even how anyone could still have knowledge of the language lost to time. Once more, I dragged my fingers around the tower to look at the last one, but this time, I ran across an obstruction, a small protrusion at the base of the oblong and I peered at it curiously as I brushed away the layer of grime to reveal a small plague engraved with the very same language. Picking away idly at the words with one fingernail while Keizo stood behind me impatiently, I tried to make out the words on it.

⌈ In you, our futures lie. Carry forth the last flame of humanity’s hope. ⌋

Walking back to the first tower, I ran both hands through the grime frantically, seeking out another plaque and I was rewarded by a sharp sting as I cut one finger against a corner of the protrusion. With one single wipe, the grime came free easily and the glyphs showed up starkly in the rapidly brightening day.

⌈ Godspeed. May you light our darkest hour. ⌋

The base of the last oblong would also hold a similar plaque and upon inspection, the last plaque surfaced from underneath the years of grime, this one coming loose off of the tower and I tapped lightly at the plaque several times, shaking it free from the dirt. Turning the silvery plaque around to catch some light, I ran a thumb through the inscriptions, reading the words in my mind.

⌈ Our last chance, Our final will, rides with you. ⌋

For long minutes I held onto the plaque, rubbing my fingers through it as I pondered the madness that was these things. Nothing made sense here and I couldn’t make heads or tails of it but to whoever or whatever the plaques had been addressed to, it was certain that it had something in relation to the death of the Outside, unless I had misinterpreted the meaning behind the words. There were more mysteries than I could solve at one go in the presence of these curiosities.

Keizo finally took me by the arm again, shaking me urgently in concern at the time we were losing. ‘Look this is interesting and all but we’re wasting precious time by standing around here. We need to get moving. Dayglow is breaking out and we better take good advantage of that while it lasts.’

He was right. We didn’t have the luxury of time to be playing archeology and every second more we wasted here meant an additional second of risk to us. Abruptly, I flung the plague aside and turned away to slip through the field of floating rocks silently, forcibly ignoring the siren call of the aurora above. Heaving a sigh of relief, Keizo followed after my retreating figure, calling out to Reiji to be careful as they navigated past the ring of boulders themselves.

We travelled back to our initial spot in relative silence, following the path I had broken through earlier. Keizo gave me several looks of consternation from behind his glasses all the time, confused and angry at me for not talking to him or offering an explanation. In light of our brewing animosity, Reiji kept his usual chatter down, opting to keep his mouth closed unless he had something important to say.

In time, we made it back to our little crossroad and Reiji collected the pouches he had discarded earlier himself, not wanting to bother any of the two of us for help seeing the storm brewing between us. Keizo reassumed his position as point man, foraging ahead with renewed fury at the grasses and I kept my silence at the sight of him. I fell into step next to the little oni, reaching out to brush away a lock of dirty hair on Short Stuff’s face as I checked on her. Still fast asleep, probably dreaming in a restless slumber once more.

Our journey continued slowly and it took several hours more to clear the harvest fields, the customary line of trees in the distance coming into view marked the presence of the Night Road somewhere close to them. Keizo sweated profusely in the heat of the day but didn’t see fit to utter even a tiny curse in response; he was probably already used to such trekking. Likewise, his little apprentice soldiered on with all his burdens, silent and composed as he marched after his master.

The familiar sight of the overgrown Night Road came into view through the trees and I felt a pang of nostalgia as I recalled my own passage here just more than a week ago. Nothing looked changed and I suddenly felt foolish at the thought. Of course it would stay unchanged; this place would probably decay just as it is right now as humans forgot all about it.

Keizo stopped a while and finally broke the silence as he let his apprentice grab a few minutes of rest. ‘We’re on the old Night Road now. From here, it’s a straight shot past the river and into the bamboo groves.’ Looking upwards, he checked for the time. ‘We made good progress. There’s at least two hours left before dusk. We’ll rest here for a while.’

I picked out a spot on a growing tree root to collapse on, fanning myself with the sleeves dangling from my arms. At least they were good for something. Crunching leaves and snapping branches indicated the approaching figure of Keizo from behind as he made his way towards me and I rolled my eyes at the hostile exchange that I guessed was about to commence. Bracing myself against a torrent of outbursts and lectures from the bespectacled figure, I waited for it to come.

Instead, he proffered a bamboo gourd as he took a seat on the gnarly root. ‘Water?’ I accepted the gourd in silence and proceeded to throw the contents down my throat, enjoying the revitalizing liquid even if it was a little too warm for my tastes. He began anew, ‘Now, care to tell me what that thing earlier was all about?’

‘Beats me,’ I answered truthfully. ‘This is Gensokyo. Shouldn’t you be accustomed to occasional oddities like that already?’

He wasn’t the least bit convinced as his voice grew deeper with anger. ‘Maybe. But you looked like you recognized those… things. You were reading from them, for gods’ sake.’

‘I only know the language, not their origins. What are you expecting from me? A detailed explanation?’ I hissed back at him.

‘No, I… forget it.’ He let the matter slide as he got up in resignation. ‘Just promise not to run off like that again. I’m not used to keeping an eye out for three people. Reiji’s trouble enough for me alone.’

I let him stalk off in silence, glancing over at the oni as he busied himself with Short Stuff, trying to drip water from another gourd down her lips as Keizo supervised him, letting my mind wander back to the oblong towers of otherworldly steel. Something about the haunting tunes the aurora had played seemed familiar but I could only attribute that to a coincidence. Two or more things was bound to sound almost the same once someone had heard them enough and I had heard enough tunes in my entire lifetime to drive musicians insane.

The words repeated themselves back in my mind. “In you, our futures lie. Carry forth the last flame of humanity’s hope.” Humankind’s final spark. Which humans and against what? And how could anyone use a language lost to the annals of time? I shook the questions out from my head as the master-apprentice pair started packing their belongings once more, ready to resume the march to the bamboo groves.

Picking myself off of the root, I followed after the solemn figures in their rote march.
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What the fuck? It sounds like some kind of colony ship sort of thing.
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I'm certain it'll play a role in resolving the incident. I'm trying to remember if the second sun bit was revealed or not to Yukari; though it's obvious at this state that she can't do much.

Also I find the fact there's a bunch of OC's running around in such powerful positions a bit absurd, but I'm willing to ignore that since everything else is nice if depressing.
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Still at the beggining of the encounter with Fumika, but...

This story is awesome. It has/had the potential to be one of the greates CYOA THP had ever seen. Instead, it's just one of the greatest stories ever. This is good
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There was only one choice, a damn obvious choice at that.

But it doesn't change the fact that this is quite a tale, and quite some walls this writer makes.
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They serve a manifold purpose; one of them is to keep the Touhoes abilities within a believable context. It would be too easy to just fate-hax, Za Warudo, and slipspace away all of Gensokyo's problems. The story would finish itself in 5 posts if we went with that.
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We made camp under a cloudy night, hidden underneath the ancient baobab trees that, according to my guide and current de facto leader, made up the outer fringes of the vast bamboo groves which lay just a few dozen kilometers within. Almost an entire day of non-stop marching had been required to circumvent the river serving as the natural border between the harvest fields and the region the locals called the Bamboo Forests and we were no longer trying to hide our fatigue by day’s end; even the self-proclaimed hardy traveler himself had dragged along in his march during the last hours before we finally decided to call it a day.

It had begun to rain again, but we were at the very least dry for the time, nested underneath the roots of the massive trees even as we shivered under the damp atmosphere. Reiji had taken the initiative to build a fire, only to have me stomp on his kindling as soon as he had lit the little bundle of branches and leaves. He looked up in surprise and I shook my head in reply. ‘No fires. We can’t afford to give our position away.’

Keizo grunted in disappointment at my decision, obviously upset that we would have to spend a cold and very wet night but he couldn’t argue with it; he knew as well as I did that it was a logical choice.
Too little time had passed since our flight from the shrine and we had to leave as little signs of our passing as we could. Moving away to tend to Short Stuff the little oni had gently settled into a dry corner of the cramped space underneath the tree, he began to inspect the stitched holes I had left in Short Stuff’s chest and I glanced away in guilt, still bothered by what I had done no matter what Short Stuff had told me.

Reiji sat next to them, munching on dried rations absent-mindedly as he watched me pace about in the dark with glimmering eyes. The downpour was rapidly increasing in intensity and little rivers had formed here and there under the roots of the baobab tree we took shelter in. To add to our misery, the sharply-dropping temperature only served to accentuate the cold brought about by the dampness and Keizo took a seat of his own next to his apprentice as they talked in hushed tones, occasionally throwing me glances as I continued my aimless meandering about the rivulets of water running freely underfoot.

I stared off into the darkness outside the curtain of old rooting and hanging undergrowths, descending back into my habitual clockwork-planning and deep-thinking. As much as I hated simply trusting Sunshines blindly, I was even less fond of the thought of blundering about without support of any kind. For now at least, we had a common goal, survival, and I would have to hope whatever she was planning was in our best interest and not hers. I would have very few means to oppose Sunshines should it ever come to that.

Tossing me a packet of rations as I walked past the shivering figures sitting together, Keizo went back to his muffled conversation, pointedly ignoring me. I couldn’t blame him much for his attitude towards me; I had given him very little reason to behave otherwise. Keeping secrets from him, treating him like an expendable asset, and refusing to confide in him regarding a lot of things. During our dreary march around the river, he had explained that his presence at the shrine was not voluntary; apparently Sunshines had simply popped out from nowhere and kidnapped him and his apprentice from the northern regions where they had been on another one of their wanderlust. Nevertheless, his oath as a healer meant he couldn’t refuse Sunshines’ request to treat Short Stuff, regardless of how he had been coerced into helping her.

Unwrapping the oiled package, I picked idly at the offerings within. Dried meat, dried vegetables, nuts, and some dried corn. Not exactly the Outside-equivalent of military-issue rations but still relatively nutritious. Picking out a dry spot next to where Short Stuff lay sprawled, I ate the goodies in silence, the two muttering pair next to her falling into a similar silence at my close proximity. Reaching out a hand to check Short Stuff’s temperature, I noted that her fever had receded slightly, though she still looked to be in discomfort as she occasionally tossed about. I wondered how much she had taken of that sedating herb Keizo had forced down into her; I genuinely hoped he knew what he was doing. Keeping her sedated this much could prove to be detrimental to her health in the long-run.

The downpour showed no signs of letting up, the thundering din of water droplets drowning out most of nature’s sounds as much as it drowned the ground underneath us. Reiji curled up on his spot, falling asleep almost instantly in his fatigue despite the abominable condition of our campsite; he had given Short Stuff the only semblance of a blanket we had brought along. Keizo glanced at his apprentice before looking back at me, seeing my thoughts reflected in my eyes.

‘Good kid. That was his blanket, one and only.’ His voice was low in the preternatural darkness surrounding us; illuminated occasionally by a flash of thunder in the far-off skies or moonlight streaming through breaks in the storm clouds.

‘Quite the gentleman then.’ I commented. ‘Doubt he’d need it being the monster he is.’

He flashed me a look of anger at that. ‘What’s your problem with youkai? Just because he’s not human doesn’t mean he don’t deserve being treated like one.’

His sudden outburst surprised me. Truth be told, I never had much of a good experience in my encounters with youkai, which was why I was biased towards the creatures, no matter how human they might look. The fresh incidents during my second entry and with Ice Cubes didn’t help to change that outlook. ‘Sorry,’ I said to him simply. I wasn’t sure if it was the dismal conditions we were in or simply because of my presence that cut short his patience but he wasn’t acting the least like the jovial goof he was back at the shrine. At any rate, an explanation would probably be the last thing he wanted to hear now. He would have to make do with a simple apology.

He grunted to himself, the only indication he had heard me. Pulling his legs closer about him, he huddled into a smaller pose to conserve body heat before he popped another question at me. ‘So maybe now you can tell me just who you are? Yukari doesn’t say a lot and I sure as hell don’t want to guide a murde-… sorry, I should say would-be-murderer around without knowing just that the hell is going on.’

‘Thought I said before I wasn’t interested in introductions, and I’m not a murderer.’ Well, that wasn’t entirely true but I had left all of that behind a long time ago. ‘What happened to the kid was something out of my control and I’m every bit as sorry for it as you people are incensed at it, but I suppose it wouldn’t do to tell you that now, would it?’ I looked over to meet his gaze. ‘That’s what you people do best; pass judgment without facts.’

The glint in his eyes said otherwise, just like his words. ‘I don’t believe you. A youkai elder is pissed off with you and I’m pretty damned sure this child here,’ he motioned towards Short Stuff, ‘is important not because she’s the last Hakurei, but because of something else isn’t it?’ He snorted in disgust. ‘And you’re all telling me you’re just a simple nobody who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time? I don’t buy it.’

‘In other words, you’re upset because you’re being kept in the dark.’ I finished for him before he could go into a new exposition.

‘Hell yes. Like a simple explanation would kill? I got dragged away for reasons I could only half-understand and suddenly I’m supposed to take you ladies for a long walk in the woods, running from something that has nothing to do with me.’ He kicked out one leg in frustration, the sound causing the two slumbering figures between him to stir slightly. Keizo waited for a minute or so for his young charges to settle back into a light sleep before going on, ‘I’ve got nothing against Yukari but I have to say this is stupid.’

I chose to give him a summarized version, deciding to just tell him something to shut him up for now instead of putting up with his veiled hostility for the rest of our journey. ‘I pounded the guards of that elder you mentioned into a fleshy pulp and he’s out for my skin now. As for the kid, he wants her to kill her. Go figure the rest yourself.’

It didn’t sound like he was willing to accept the absurd tale but he had seen my condition a few nights ago and had no way to argue against my ability to take on two inhuman creatures bare-handedly. ‘A youkai wanting to harm a human child for no apparent reason? That goes against everything the treaty stands for. Just why the hell would he want to do that?’

Hesitating to answer immediately, I pondered the wisdom of telling him everything. It could put him at risk as well if he knew the truth. The less people knew about us right now the better and I didn’t want another possible loss of life on my conscience due to dragging these two clowns into my problems. ‘Can’t say for now and I believe your Yukari would want it to stay that way.’ Seeing him about to protest anew, I cut him off. ‘Look, you’re a doctor or healer or whatever right? Indiscriminate preservation of life is your duty. The kid is in danger and what you’re doing right now is bringing her away from it. Just live with that for the time being. The less you know the better for you.’ I nodded at where his apprentice was curled up. ‘And your little friend.’

That part did it for him. He might not have much of a thought for himself but it was obvious he took a lot into consideration when it came to Reiji. ‘Fine. But it doesn’t mean I’ll be happy with this. Better think twice if you intend to get Reiji involved in your mess.’

‘Save me the sermon, I don’t plan to,’ came my weary retort. ‘Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like I don’t appreciate your willingness in taking us this far but you can rest be assured that we’ll be out of your hair soon enough.’

He frowned at that, seemingly disturbed by my aloof interpretation of his statement. ‘That’s not what I meant! I…’ He gave up struggling for words in moments. ‘You know what? Forget it. Let’s just-‘

Keizo never finished his sentence. A hand had darted up urgently to grip his arm and he fell silent immediately as he stared inquisitively back at Reiji. The boy got up slowly, staring off into the inky blackness outside of our shelter, taking care not to make too much noise despite having the thundering downpour drown out any sound we could make in here. ‘I can smell someone out there,’ he whispered cautiously to Keizo.

In response he reached behind his back, only to remember he didn’t know how to use his purported pigeon-slaying weapon and pushed himself back into the roots with a soft curse. ‘How many?’ he whispered back.

‘Eight. They don’t smell friendly,’ the boy replied uneasily, still keeping a low voice.

‘Eight,’ Keizo repeated with another soft curse. ‘Hunting party. Keep low and stay still.’

I had no reason to object to that, following suit as the other two tried to melt into the shadows of the tangle of roots behind us, pulling the blanket over Short Stuff’s head as they did to hide her figure. The intermittent flashes of lightning threatened to reveal us to sharp eyes on the lookout and I pressed myself into an oblique angle between two gnarled roots, staring in silence at the scenery unfolding outside our shelter.

For a half-dozen minutes or so, nothing much happened except for the lonely sight of a downpour beating down on the trees above and around us in a mesmerizing rhythm. I wasn’t ready to easily discard the little oni’s warning; their kind had far sharper senses in comparison to humans and I had no doubt he had detected the approach of whatever he said he smelt long before they were within close proximity to us.

A continuous stream of strobing light stemming from a chain of lightning playing about in the storm clouds finally brought into view our hunters and I caught brief glimpses of some sort of six-legged beast moving about slowly just twenty meters away from our shelter. Whenever the skies chose to light up momentarily, I could see even more of its kind joining the lead hunter, swinging their curious headless bodies about and latching onto tree trunks as they probed the place with whatever senses I could only guess at. Smooth-skinned in an obsidian color, they had human-looking arms and hands in place of legs, crawling about effortlessly on the ground or trees.

Guttural shrieks sounded out into the night and some of the other hunters echoed the sound, a speech or communication of some sort. Certainly nothing I had ever seen before. It had to be a new type of insular half-breed created during the period of my absence from Gensokyo. I guessed the current fashion trend for youkai was leaning back towards the hideous-horrifying-looking category instead of going for the human-loli look in vogue just a few centuries ago.

The sound of rattling branches and a small thud alerted us to the presence of a hunter which had descended from the tree-tops to the ground right outside our shelter, the beast landing skillfully without so much as a barely-audible thud on the wet ground. I could almost feel the quack and his apprentice hold their breaths in terror at the sight of the creature swinging about blindly on six arms as it proceeded to inspect the area just right outside our campsite.

Peering out from between the roots, I took the chance to get a closer look at these things. It was highly probable that they were the hunting posse Sunshines had talked about, seekers, she had called them. Corded muscles rippled from their sleek bodies and from my point of view I couldn’t make out sensory organs of any sort. How they could hunt in their blind state was almost a mystery.

A fresh bolt of lightning struck an unfortunate tree some distance away and the creature swung towards the burnt tree in a single rigid move, poised to spring towards the source of the disturbance as numerous eyes began to open all over its sleek body, independently moving about and peering at everything. So they had eyes after all; with so many occupying every available space on their bodies, I wouldn’t doubt that they had 360 degree vision. Agile, powerful, and inescapable. The perfect sort of hunter.

A few of the twitching eyeballs fastened on our campsite simultaneously and I drew back into cover immediately, holding my breath and trying to calm my raging heartbeat even as the hunter started digging through the roots to get to our shadowed hiding spot. Did it see something in here? I could only pray that it didn’t in-between the sound of cracking and snapping roots.

For a brief moment I started to brace myself to run away instinctually, only to remember that Short Stuff lay helpless in a drug-induced sleep just next to me. This time, the urge for self-survival no longer overpowered my rational mind. I would drag Short Stuff away with me if I had to. I had no qualms about abandoning the quivering pair hiding close-by; the hunters would leave Keizo and his young charge alone; they were nothing of interest to them.

Unexpectedly, another series of guttural shrieks sounded in the far off distance and the hunter burrowing into our shelter froze momentarily before sliding out and leaping easily onto the tree above us. The noise from its climb rattled down all the way to our little hiding spot until it disappeared in a final thump, indicating the hunter had launched itself away from the tree, bound for destinations unknown.

Nevertheless, we remained still for long minutes, unwilling to risk coming out until Keizo finally whispered to his apprentice. ‘Are they gone?’

A short silence. ‘Gone. Moving away westwards. I think we’re safe for now.’

I slid out from my hiding spot first, flipping the blanket off of Short Stuff before it suffocated her. The panicky pair finally found the courage to come out and collapsed wearily onto what little dry ground was left in wake of the hunter’s forced entry into our campsite. ‘That almost gave me a heart attack,’ Keizo muttered angrily.

In contrast, Reiji’s only response was to sigh in relief.

The rain had begun to let up and I debated the wisdom in staying here for the rest of the night. I couldn’t be sure if there was a pattern the hunters kept to in order to find their prey. Remaining here could risk a second encounter as they swept through this area again. Turning to address the tension-deflated oni, I tried to see what he could tell me about the hunters. ‘You said they were heading westwards. Where did you smell them coming from at first?’

He pondered the question for a while as Keizo looked at me inquisitively. ‘Slightly northeast.’

A straight line. I realized with smug delight that they had actually overshot us in their pursuit. Even so, I harbored some concern about how they knew where to look for their prey. Someone or something had tipped Three Arms off regarding where we were headed. At least victory was mine for the moment. His seekers won’t be coming back the way they came from anytime soon. ‘We’ll spend the night here,’ I declared as I settled down next to Short Stuff, drawing my clothes closer in preparation of weathering out the cold twilight.

Keizo gulped audibly. ‘Uh, that doesn’t sound like a smart decision. That thing almost found us and you’re suggesting we just lie down and sleep in the very same spot it was digging around in?’

I kept my unvoiced concerns to myself. ‘They were traveling in a straight path. It’s going to be a long time before they have to double back; you said yourself the bamboo groves go on for miles. We’ll be safe for the night.’ Motioning at the conditions outside our shelter, I added, ‘Besides, you want to travel in that?’

The two of them glanced outwards at the muddy grounds and pouring rain before looking back at me simultaneously.

‘Nope,’ they voiced their unanimous decision.
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In the dawn of a new day I had been the first to awaken, followed by Reiji and finally Keizo. They mumbled to themselves sleepily as they packed up what little belongings they had discarded on the ground the night before and ate a light breakfast consisting of the usual stale rations, staring at me in silence as I stood away from them looking into the brightening sky, working out the events of the previous night.

The hunters had known exactly where we were going and I could only count my lucky stars that they had somehow missed us in their search. It either meant Sunshines had failed in turning the seekers away or this was a second group of seekers dispatched after she had fled the scene of the battle. Was it mere coincidence that they knew where we were bound for? For the time being, I could only attribute it to luck being on their side; Sunshines had no compelling reason to betray us. She seemed to want the same thing I did.

So far.

Keizo came to stand next to me, shielding his eyes against the brightening day. ‘Getting ready to move out. Uh, guess you were right about those things not coming back. Couldn’t sleep a dang bit well though.’

I gave him a mockery of a sweet smile. ‘The great Keizo of the wilds, rattled by a chance encounter with some youkai? Your reputation is tarnished.’

‘Hey, I wasn’t afraid,’ he exclaimed a bit too quickly. ‘Uh maybe I was. I don’t get hostile youkai on my tail often, you know. As in, at all.’

Reiji interrupted us from where he sat. ‘Hey Stinky. Your friend’s awake.’

I left Keizo’s side, taking big strides as I moved towards Short Stuff. Keizo followed hurriedly from behind as I knelt down next to the pale figure of Short Stuff. Her eyes showed uncertainty and fear as her gaze roamed over the quack and his apprentice but softened up in relief at the sight of me. She spoke with difficulty using only a few words, unaccustomed to the act of forming entire sentences from the long period she was kept sedated and under-nourished. ‘Glad. Had nightmare. Saw you leaving. Glad you’re here.’

‘I won’t be going anywhere for a while, sleepyhead.’ I gave her a genuine smile that seemed to reassure her as I pinched her cheeks lightly. Turning towards Keizo to ask a question, I caught him staring at me intently instead. Even Reiji was looking at me with unblinking eyes. ‘What?’

He fumbled for words slightly as Reiji looked away with an innocent whistle. ‘Uh, nothing. Sorry.’

Gesturing over at Short Stuff, I tried to remember what I wanted to ask him. ‘Is she well enough to travel on her own? And no, no more of that sedating crap. What about her fever? Should we-‘

Holding one hand up to interrupt my barrage of questions, he cut in. ‘Hold your horses. Just give me a few minutes with the girl.’ We stared at each other for long moments before he barked out, ‘Well whad’ya waiting for? Go back to watching the sky or something for now and give us some privacy here.’

Acquiescing to his demands, I stepped away and moved to the hole the hunter had made during the previous night as I waited. Keizo busied himself with his inspection and shooed Reiji away as well when the little oni got a little too inquisitive with his questions. In a disgruntled huff, he stalked away to join me near the broken roots, taking the opportunity to fill a few of the bamboo gourds with fresh water dripping out from the damaged roots. I watched him, impressed. ‘You know a thing or two about baobab trees.’

He gave me the toothy grin he was used to sporting. ‘Course. I’ve been around a long time. This is trivial compared to what I know.’

I was slightly taken aback by that. I was so used to viewing him as a child and consequently, I had never stopped to consider the fact that like all youkai, he was a lot older than he looked. ‘Naturally. Oh, thanks for your blanket. Your slave-driver told me it was your favorite comforter.’

‘No problem,’ he replied conversationally. ‘Don’t really need it much anyway. I can’t catch a cold as easily as your friend back there.’ Capping the gourd he was holding with a wooden cork, he procured another one and held it out, waiting patiently for it to fill up. ‘Master Keizo keeps telling me you tried to kill her, but you sure didn’t look like no killer when you were fawning over her just now.’

‘Well…’ I scratched my head. Technically that was half-true, I muttered to myself. ‘I don’t know what he tried to tell you but I assure you I’m no danger to her.’

‘Oh I don’t doubt that, though Master Keizo might,’ he replied in a softer voice, not wanting the figure behind him to overhear his words. ‘I saw you just now. You had a smile when you talked to her, a real one. It was like a sun breaking out after a stormy week. You know, you’re always walking around with that awful frown and gloomy anger I don’t think I’ve ever seen you smile for real.’ He turned back to flash his toothy grin once more. ‘That was a first. It was pretty. I think that’s why the goofball was staring at you.’

Constantly angry face? I thought I had heard that from someone before. Crouching down to his level, I massaged my face somewhat in curiosity. ‘Don’t suppose I’m wearing that angry face now, am I?’

‘Nah. More like the “awful frowning” one. Try to smile more, like just now. You’ll have a better time making friends and spend a lot less time scaring kids away,’ he snorted in humor.

Keizo butted-in with a loud grunt, ordering Reiji to get Short Stuff some food and water and the little oni obliged, leaving his master alone to report to me. ‘Well fever’s down, the stitches in her chest have scabbed over just fine. No signs of infection. You can consider them mended for now, but we better have Reiji keep carrying her for now; she’s too weak to walk on her own. But I still think we need to give her the-‘

‘No,’ I interrupted him. ‘No more sedatives. Let her stay awake for a day at least. She was having bad dreams from them.’

He squinted at me through his glasses curiously. ‘Funny thing for such a hard-ass like you to say. Huh. I guess maybe they were right about you not wanting to kill the child.’

‘By all means, don’t change your perception of me now. You were convinced I was a bloody murderer, remember?’ I replied sarcastically before turning away and walking back to Short Stuff amidst his half-hearted protests.

Rejoining Short Stuff, I watched her consume the unpalatable rations in silence as I lounged around, taking bites out from another package Reiji had tossed me before he walked off towards his master who had taken up his job of filling the water gourds. She looked tense and uneasy in the presence of the two strangers who had attended to her for almost an entire week but she deflated visibly once I was around her. Ironic. The murderer who had tried to kill her had become the solitary object of familiarity to her.

It took her some time to properly phrase words once more, but she managed all the same. ‘Where are we? And where are we going?’

‘Just outside the bamboo groves. We were in your family shrine when you were recuperating, you know?’

Her eyes glazed over with remembrance. ‘I never realized I was home.’ She shook her head lightly at that. ‘It doesn’t matter. That place is just another bad memory to me.’

I dug at a piece of corn stuck between my molars, suddenly missing the skinning knife I used to carry around. ‘Friend of your great grandma’ picked us up and that quack spent four days patching you up.’ I motioned over at where Keizo crouched near the hole. ‘Good doctor, you can call him Keizo. For now, we run as far as we can from the three-armed freak. I have no idea where Keizo intends to lead us to but our next stop is somewhere within the Bamboo Forest.’

At the mention of Keizo, she bit her lips slightly as she remembered how she had gotten her life-threatening wounds. Instinctually, I felt like averting my gaze and running away from the incident again, but I knew it wouldn’t do to keep denying the whole thing like it had never happened. I could be honest with Short Stuff at least.

Taking one of her hands with both of my own, she looked up at me in curiosity as I began in a whisper, ‘Look. That night. I-‘

She broke me off with a slight shake of her head. ‘No. I know it wasn’t-‘

It was my turn to cut her off this time, placing one finger on her lips to silence her. ‘Hear me out for now. There’s something you have to know. There’s someone else inside of me. I’m not who you think I am. I’m not just a random human from the Outside. I’ve been around for a very very long time, since before the emergence of the Uruk. My youth is fueled by this presence within me, preventing me from aging. I once served this fell deity and it was her who took over me and tried to kill you that night. Do you understand what I’m saying so far?’

She stared in silence, unsure if she could swallow my words. But deep down she knew from the incident that night what I had said wasn’t altogether false, no matter how outlandish it might sound to her. It looked like she could accept that for the moment. ‘Who is that? Why does this thing inside of you want to kill me?’

‘Her name is Rilofene, a non-existence hovering between life and death. She wants you dead because you’re causing some sort of reaction with her, calling out to the Visitors in a way that would be impossible for you or her to accomplish individually. She’s convinced that with your death, we would no longer attract them like we had done so twice so far.’ I glanced away uneasily, unable to deal with the guilt that it was partially my fault Byakuren had been slain. ‘The first time, it called out to them when we were at the temple. Byakuren took your protection charm, that ribbon, away as an experiment and it triggered the first reaction. That… that was why she died.’

Her eyes glimmered with fresh tears at the reminder of the loss, but she understood nonetheless. It seemed almost as if she was quickly seeing the motives behind my unexplainable actions in her presence lately. ‘And the second time was when you asked for my ribbon at the tengu village,’ she stated in a neutral tone.

I kept my gaze averted. ‘Yes. I needed a distraction to escape.’

She had a look of anger as she continued in a hurt voice. ‘You used me. Used me to kill all those tengu at the fort that night. They were good people.’

A denial began to form on my lips but I dropped my defense at the betrayed look on her face. Wounding Short Stuff might not have been voluntary, but my act of setting the Visitors on the tengu was one of willful malice. I had secretly delighted in the thought of having something else do the dirty job of killing my captors for me and I had abused Short Stuff’s trust to do just that. ‘Yes,’ I sighed. ‘They were.’

‘The crow lady was right about you. You just wanted to use me for yourself!’ she managed to exclaim in anger before descending into a hacking cough, drawing the attention of Keizo and Reiji who had been surreptitiously looking back at our brewing altercation. In an ultimate act of rejection, she snatched her hand away from my grasp.

I scrabbled frantically for an excuse, an explanation, or a lame retort. Nothing came and a small part of me who still had the voice of conscience knew she had spoken an undeniable truth. What use would words do for her now? Her hatred was well justified. I had done the exact thing to her like I did to most everyone else whenever convenience dictated thus so.

I stood up in silence, letting all pretense of defending myself drop. I didn’t need to keep my gaze averted any longer; she did a far better job at that, unwilling to look at the unfeeling monster who had used her like a tool, not so different from what Three Arms had wanted to do with her.

I could accept the loathing. This was just another repeat of my life’s story.

Turning to face the two crouched at the far side of the camp I opened my mouth to bark something suitably crude to get them on the move before giving up. No point taking out my frustration on them, I thought to myself wearily. ‘Let’s just get moving.’

They leaped into action, glad to disperse the gloomy atmosphere hanging about heavily around the campsite. Collecting the various gourds they had filled, Keizo dumped the whole slew of them onto Reiji before pulling his apprentice over to Short Stuff, picking her up effortlessly by her armpits and depositing her on Reiji’s ready back. She didn’t even utter a single word during the whole transfer, keeping her eyes carefully averted from where I stood.

Keizo re-assumed his lead position for the march, and Short Stuff pointedly turned her head away from me as Reiji carried her past where I stood. The oni gave me a querying look for a moment before hastening away to keep up with his master, jiggling his precious passenger a bit to get her into a comfortable position as he did.

I waited a bit before following after them, deeming to just give as much space between myself and Short Stuff who was clinging onto Reiji’s back. At the very least, my close proximity wouldn’t trouble her in the short-term. We had a rather long walk still ahead of us.
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Trudging through the bamboo groves proved to be a monumental endeavor as I slowly found out during the first few days we had begun penetrating the thickets of wall-like plants. We were generally silent throughout the slow march, being far more preoccupied with keeping an eye out for the numerous paths only Keizo seemed to be able to tell apart from the rest of the natural overgrowth aside from keeping a wary lookout for any signs of the return of our hunters.

I didn’t find keeping up a constant guard to be a tiresome task; I had been doing it for most of my long life. In contrast, Keizo and Reiji seemed to look tired and extremely weary from the extended period of having to make sudden stops at the slightest sounds outside of the natural scope of the bamboo groves, pausing to sniff the air for the hunters, and repeatedly diving into the cover of thick spurts of bamboo whenever one of the out-of-place noises reared its head up close-by. By the fifth day, they were heartily tired with the cumbersome effort associated with caution and no longer cared much when a bush rattled unnaturally just right next to them.

The bamboo forest seemed to stretch on forever. Compared to the small amount of time we had spent on the harvest fields, it almost seemed like the forest was at least twenty times bigger in comparison. Still, we never hesitated when it came to a fork in the nearly-invisible path; Keizo seemed to know exactly where to head towards and how to navigate the complicated maze of thickets. During a rare period when he had felt conversational, he told us without looking back that he had spent a great deal of time within the twisting labyrinth of trees during his apprenticeship to a master he never talked much about.

Short Stuff made an obvious effort to avoid any and all contact with me the entire time. She turned away whenever I was anywhere within her line of sight, spoke not a single word to me since that day, took great care not to touch things I had previously touched, and tried to convince Reiji not to stray too close to me during our endless march or whenever we had to stop for a break. I took in her rejection with a blasé attitude. I was content to let her feed her hatred of me as long as I could still watch over her. Hate was one thing which couldn’t faze me in the slightest, having dealt with it all my life.

On the sixth day of our journey, Keizo started to look a little worried. Fresh water was becoming scarce within the bamboo forest and our supply of dried rations had dwindled down to a single oiled package. Reiji had suggested that we tried consuming the young bamboo shoots for sustenance but I shot the idea down, as did Keizo. The species of giant bamboo growing rampant throughout the forest contained trace amounts of cyanide in them; it wouldn’t do much to a youkai except maybe give it a small stomach discomfort but for humans like us, it would be lethal. We had to carry on with the march, having reached a unanimous decision that the remainder of our food and water go to Short Stuff.

As we returned to our dreary march, I took the opportunity to walk beside Keizo, wanting some questions answered. As usual, Short Stuff turned her head away as I moved past her. She had been capable of walking on her own since three days ago but Keizo had been adamant about letting Reiji carry her the rest of the way until we reached wherever it was he was taking us to. He didn’t want her to slow our pace down considering our dwindling supplies.

I gave him a hard poke in the ribs and he turned to give me an annoyed look. ‘What now?’

‘How much longer? We’ve been marching for close to a week now.’

He gave the question some thought. ‘At least a day more. We could have moved a lot faster if we didn’t need to constantly watch our backs.’ Recalling the hunters, he added glumly, ‘Or our front.’

Nodding curtly to him, I fell back to the rear of the line, pleased to know that we were nearing the end of our march. Briefly, I wondered what sort of arrangement Sunshines had made for us at this journey’s end. At this point, I cared little for such things. As long as there wasn’t someone breathing down on our necks there I would be content enough to just stop and put a temporary halt on all this madness. Would I be able to find peace enough to ride out the remainder of this storm I had thrown myself in? A small part of me hoped so, but I knew it was just more delusional thinking. I had made a very tangible enemy now, and the last thing he would do is sit on his laurels waiting for his fury to abate.

Throughout the journey I have had the opportunity to closely observe False Dawn, owing much to the fact that I really didn’t have anything else to do with Keizo in the lead. I had begun to notice a recurring pattern with the visible veins growing on it, what I assumed was the effect of the Visitors infesting it if what Three Arms and his ilk had told me was true. Whenever the infestation of veins flared like a lambent cancer in the night, the eye on False Dawn would be closed, but during the nights when the veins seemed barely visible, False Dawn would rain its unnatural moonlight down on the land of Gensokyo as usual. It was almost as if False Dawn was trying to fight off the disease the Visitors inflicted on it, but I found that to be an absurd notion. The thing up there was merely two corpses joined in an unholy union. There was no way it would have the sentience to build a defensive measure against the Visitors.

As twilight of our sixth day neared, we would find rest on the seventh day. The biblical comparison struck me with humor. Calling for a halt, Keizo peered uneasily down a natural winding path leading into the dark. Not even the dual moonlight could penetrate the thickness of the overgrowth above us.

Finally making up his mind, he motioned for us to stay put before making his way down the darkened pathway. Long minutes passed as we fidgeted about in our wait, with Reiji looking even more anxious than he usually did while Short Stuff stood a bit away from him staring forlornly at the moon behind False Dawn, drawn by its rapt beauty in its fullness.

After what seemed to be like another short eternity, Keizo re-emerged from the dark and gestured for us to follow him, face flushed and perspiring from what I assumed to be the exertion from running. We made our way past massive bamboo stalks framing the pathway, their aging wood a stark white in comparison to the darkness surrounding them. Short Stuff tried to stay as close as she could to Reiji, relying on his sharper senses to move about but a lot more from wanting to stay away from me, I guessed.

We broke through the dark and into the moonlight bathing a clearing of sorts, with a wooden Japanese-style house sitting in the middle and a pond to one side of it, the water looking brackish and still. Like most everything else outside the valley the humans of Gensokyo made their home in, this place had also fallen into much disrepair. The grand walls no longer looked sturdy in their gleaming, healthy glory. Mold and rot ate into every available crevice and break, complemented by the faded colors on everything which had once looked vibrant on the structure.

And sitting on the roof of the building, a very misshapen Frankenstein-of-a-youkai looked down on us, giving out a cavernous yawn as it twitched its triple snake tails and crossed two monkey-looking paws together idly, peering at us curiously with eyes shining in the dark, set in a head that had seemingly been ripped off of a salamander.

‘Make yourselves at home,’ it rasped in a grating voice.
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Reiji drew back in surprise, only to bump into Short Stuff behind him who was uncharacteristically mesmerized by the sight of Frankenstein. Keizo turned towards me, muttering in embarrassment, ‘Uh… scared the hell out of me when I first saw it. Before I could turn tail and run, it stopped me and asked for you.’ I supposed that was the reason why he had been running back to us; the thing had probably scared the purportedly fearless wanderer of the wilds witless.

Walking forward towards Frankenstein, I took the opportunity to check the thing out. Mismatched body parts but still functioning perfectly well, intelligent enough to speak, and demonstrating basic courtesy. It had to be either some sort of failed gryphon or a chimera. ‘Our contact, I presume?’

‘You presume correctly, human.’ The wandering eyes settled on me, but I had seen them dart briefly over to Short Stuff. ‘Odious days. Much had happened. You should be grateful. I lured the seekers away from you.’

The hunter from that night had broken off its search to answer a call from its brethren and I could only assume that if Frankenstein was telling the truth, then it had been the one who had agitated the hunting party to keep them from discovering us. Whatever. ‘Well we’re here. What now?’

‘Such impatience. As I’ve said. Make yourselves at home.’ It stood and hopped off of the roof lightly, barely making as much as a squeak in the cracked tiles. Hitting the ground in near-silence, it padded towards us and the night breeze carried its breath downwind, forcing the three behind me to almost gag before catching themselves in their impolite gesture. Short Stuff, Reiji, and Keizo took a simultaneous step backward at its approach.

Nevertheless, Frankenstein noticed their discomfort and fear. It rattled in a series of hisses and grunts before I realized it was actually laughing in its own perverted way. ‘Hilarious. I always have that effect on others.’ It turned its attention back to me. ‘To answer your question; we stay here for now. The seekers. They will turn back soon in their fruitless search. Report their failure to their master, they will. Before that, we allow them to return without running into us.’ Swinging its gaze around to indicate the clearing we were in, it added, ‘Good, hidden spot. We will have some peace here while we wait.’

It turned towards Keizo sharply before I could respond, gesturing towards the building with its head. ‘Get settled. Rested. Take the others. I will speak with the wanderer alone.’

Warily, the three made their way carefully around Frankenstein, keeping their eyes on it all the while. As Keizo moved past Frankenstein, it rattled off another one of its queer laugh. ‘Welcome home for you, I guess?’

I glanced at Keizo, who had frozen in his tracks at the remark. ‘Home?’

‘Former home. Eientei,’ he replied cautiously before leading the rest of his charges into the darkened welcoming hall just behind Frankenstein.

In silence, Frankenstein waited for the other three to disappear into the interior before turning back to address me. Behind it, Short Stuff threw me a brief concerned look before averting her gaze and hurrying after the retreating figures. ‘Nue. You may call me that. Much there is for us to talk about, human.’

I waved a hand about to disperse the foul odor it was breathing out with every word. ‘Seems like everyone wants to talk to me lately.’

It stretched its serpentine mouth in a mockery of a grin. ‘Many, yes? Not all trustworthy. Everyone has plans behind their backs. Some say to “save the world”. Some say they want to protect something. How much of them true, hmm?’

Frankenstein was talking a little too much for a mere contact. ‘What are you getting at?’

The beast began to circle me slowly as it spoke, moving soundlessly; the light footsteps it left in the earth seemingly belying its actual weight. ‘Trust. You trust a little too easily in Yukari. Manipulation. She’s good at that. Many long years of practice. You, them, and even me. But I know better.’ It gave me a playful nudge in the arm that almost flung me to the ground before I could catch myself. I glowered at it in anger and it responded with another set of hissing laughter. ‘Now. I ask of you, human. Trust in her words entirely? Or would you like to listen to what I have to say?’

It gave me a curious look from the side, as if it was sizing me up and evaluating something. Somehow, I knew whatever I chose to respond with would alter its perception of me, putting me firmly on the other side of the fence or on its side.

[ ] ‘Yukari shares the same goal with me for now. I don’t see any compelling reason not to trust her.’

[ ] ‘Yukari shares the same goal with me for now. I don’t see any compelling reason not to trust her.’ (Lie)

[ ] ‘I have my reservations about it. Say your piece then.’
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[x] ‘I have my reservations about it. Say your piece then.’
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[x] ‘I have my reservations about it. Say your piece then.’

I doubt Yukari has bad intentions in this case, but let's hear Nue out. New perspectives are never a bad thing, and we might find out more about this world.

But I wonder what happened to the original residents of Eientei.
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[ ] ‘Yukari shares the same goal with me for now. I don’t see any compelling reason not to trust her.’
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{X} ‘I have my reservations about it. Say your piece then.’
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[x] ‘Yukari shares the same goal with me for now. I don’t see any compelling reason not to trust her.’
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[x] ‘I have my reservations about it. Say your piece then.’
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I wouldn't choose any of these.

I'd go for something like "I don't trust her anymore than I trust you: Mostly, but not completely. I don't think I've heard the full truth from anyone, yet."

That, or the first option, emphasizing the "for now," and adding "yet" to the very end.

...But I'm guessing you don't allow write-ins.
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Author person:
If the intent behind this sounds pretty much like one of the votes, then I guess go ahead and count it for that.
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[X] ‘I have my reservations about it. Say your piece then.’

What is Yukari planning?

Dead, maybe. The two immortals are most likely somewhere else, being immortal and all. The Visitors are probably to blame, and with Eientei being so secluded and all, word never got out about the attack, not to mention the immortals really don't want to be found by them. This is probably because the Visitors can give a fate worse than death or something. We still don't know what happened to Byakuren's corpse.
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There might have been the whole Youkai going insane thing as well that might have affected the rabbits.


This is the perfect answer for the lead.
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[X]"She has given me no reason not to trust her, but what you have to say might change that. Assuming you're not lying of course."
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Like opinions, write-ins are always welcome. Lets see what we can work with between this and the winning vote.

Also, updates will be a little late this week. Flying to Italy for training and I might not get the time to indulge in another writan binge.
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I wonder if the moon is just as toast as the (outside) Earth.
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Dear sir or madam who writes this unbeliveably awesome story,

I was wondering, perchance, if I may borrow a line that you used which I found to be quite amazing.
>>“I had a whole kingdom, but I gave it all to my conqueror. What use would a kingdom have for a goddess who couldn’t even protect her children? ’
Suwako (Chronicles of a Fallen Deity)

I was wondering if I may use it in my story. I write an as-of-yet un-named story in /youkai/. Thank you.

That guy who writes the Sanae story in Youkai
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Go right ahead. Glad you liked it btw.
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Truth be told, it hadn’t offered me much of a choice despite making it sound like I had one. The individuals I had met up to this point merely offered convenient facts suited for furthering their own agenda, such as in the case of Three Arms. I wasn’t ready to easily believe in Sunshines for the same reason and neither was I going to start with Frankenstein here. Either way, it had been unusually direct in its intention of sowing the seeds of mistrust between Sunshines and me, if such was its goal.

At the very least, I could play along for now. ‘That’s a pretty strange question for someone who’s purportedly helping Yukari.’

It regarded me in silence as it resumed its circling, seemingly trying to decide on something. The beast was obviously debating with itself on what was safe to reveal and what wasn’t in light of my ambiguous answer. Glimmering eyes continued to bore right through me as it fixed its piercing stare on my trapped figure before it finally stopped behind me to grate out its words. ‘You hesitate to answer, human. That, more than anything else says a lot about your distrust mere words cannot hope to paint.’

I turned to match its gaze. ‘Maybe. But that doesn’t mean I trust you any more than I trust Yukari. You people seem to favor ambiguity. Two can play the same game. So why don’t you say your piece instead and let me decide for myself whose words hold more weight.’

‘You are cautious. I like that.’ The leathery lips stretched wide in a mark of pleasure. ‘Very well. We shall get nowhere if no one makes the first move. I might as well, seeing how little I have to lose at this point.’ It settled back into its cross-legged pose, bringing its head to the same level with mine before continuing. ‘For starters, Yukari has not been completely honest with you. You might have heard much from her about the third Triumvir, Enka, yes?’

‘Something like that,’ I answered obliquely.

‘Naturally. But did you know? Enka hasn’t been seen nor heard from since before the creation of the Great Boundary.’ Flashing me another grin, it went on, ‘Of course, she… “neglected”… to mention that fact, yes? Enka is long gone, human. I have roamed far and wide to find the truth throughout these many years. Ironically, the other two Triumvirs have been out of touch for far too long to realize that Enka has passed beyond. Yukari is merely using her name to keep up the illusion of a complete Triumvirate, and no one is the wiser.’

I remained skeptical at its words. ‘For what purpose? She was opposed to the Triumvirate to begin with. Why would she bother to keep the balance of power with a lie?’

‘But that is not her intention, human. The only reason why she’s keeping the charade up is because she’s actively trying to turn the remaining Triumvirs against each other, and she has succeeded to a degree thus far. Vana and Iyen-Shuren regard each other with barely-veiled distaste thanks to her manipulations. Given a few more years, it would have escalated into open conflict,’ it answered carefully. ‘See now? Why bother lying about not being able to directly assist you because of Enka when Enka is already dead? You have obviously earned the animosity of the other two Triumvirs so there is even less reason why she shouldn’t have been forthcoming with you.’

I thought about that one for some time. In all honesty I had never expected Sunshines to be completely truthful given what I already knew about her and this latest revelation hardly came as a surprise to me. I didn’t like being lied to, but I knew better than anyone else that a lie was sometimes a necessary component in bringing about a greater good. ‘What about you? Why do you allow yourself to be willingly involved with her if you mistrust her so much?’

The look on its face changed to a serene one, almost peaceful as it closed its eyes and rested its head on the ground. ‘Because, wanderer, I care for nothing else at this point. My only concern now is for the welfare of the child. Yukari is not unaware that I know the truth, yet she chooses not to act against me. That is acceptable to me. Now that the child is here, I do not care if I end up being Yukari’s puppet or not.’ It opened one eye to regard me, ‘The only reason why I’m telling you this is to warn you about her machinations. A fair enough repayment considering your services in keeping the child alive until now.’

‘And what is the kid to you being so important and all?’ I pressed the question at the beast.

It gave me a wink in reply. ‘Same reason why Shou allowed you to tear her apart. We are carrying forth Byakuren’s legacy in our own ways. Everyone is bent on “saving Gensokyo” and such nonsense. We just want to keep her child safe from them.’

As do I. But at what cost? What if Three Arms’ method was the only way to preserve the existence of this little illusion? I didn’t want to ponder too deeply on that question. The answer strayed too close to a hard choice I never want to make. What right did I have to play God with Short Stuff’s life? In response, I grumbled back softly, ‘At least that’s what we all want for now.’

Nodding its head absent-mindedly, the beast got back on its odd feet, speaking as it did. ‘Indeed. Make your own judgment then. In time, you will realize who your true allies are, but not for a while more. We have more pressing matters at hand, such as shaking off Iyen-Shuren’s ire. It will not stop with the seekers; he will use other means to get to the child and especially you.’

‘Wait,’ I stopped it before it could wander off to wherever it wanted to spend the night in. ‘Why do you confide in me so much? You know that I tried to kill the kid myself.’

It stopped walking midway into the bamboo thickets and spoke without turning to face me. ‘Because, human, I’m quickly running out of people to trust. The fact that you prevented her death as much as you tried to kill her persists. I’m more inclined to believe that you would prefer the child alive rather than murder her for no apparent reason. Let us keep it that way, shall we?’

The beast carried on towards the thickets, grating out its final words before it disappeared into the shadows. ‘Have a care, wanderer. I suspect Yukari knows more than she’s letting on regarding the Visitors. We shall speak again tomorrow.’

So she might be keeping more than just a few secrets from me, but I could not confirm the veracity of the beast’s claim at any rate. It was always one’s word against another and I was fairly sure that I could take both of theirs with a grain of salt given how much I believed in them for the moment. Nevertheless, there would be time enough to disseminate the truth in the near future.

Moving off in the other direction, I headed towards the light of a single candle beckoning from within the aged welcoming hall.
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I woke up feeling more rested than I had ever felt in a long time despite spending the night on the hard wooden floor. It was infinitely preferable to passing miserable nights on the cold ground of the bamboo groves and I lapped up the luxuriating sensation of the solid boards underneath where I slept, unwilling to get up to face the new day as of yet. A cursory examination of the inner hallway showed the open doors of the rooms all three of them had spent the night in, indicating that they had already awoken much earlier in the day and had gone off to places unknown. Pushing myself up with a lazy yawn, I did some stretching exercises as I stood and made my way out to greet the new afternoon.

Keizo sat to one side, leaning against the walls of the old mansion, gripping a wooden block which he methodically looked down at to carve out small chunks of wood with a simple knife. It didn’t look like he was trying to fashion something meaningful out of it; rather, it was more or less an act of wasting time idly as we waited for our departure. Catching sight of me, he turned briefly to glance at me before looking down at his handiwork once more. ‘You have an odd preference for sleeping spots, kiddo.’

Did he mean the floor? ‘Not really. I just crash on the first place I can find. Force of habit.’ I looked around seeking his young charges, but they were nowhere in sight. ‘So where are the kids?’

He threw me an uncomfortable look. ‘Reiji’s gone to do some rabbit hunting. Sacrilegious to say the least considering the former inhabitants of this place. They liked rabbits. Living ones I mean. The Hakurei kid’s with Nue, that beast from last night.’ Reaching up to scratch his head a bit, he amended his words hastily. ‘Uh, well maybe “beast” would be a wrong word for it now.’

I raised an eyebrow at that. ‘How do you mean?’

‘C’mon. Easier to see for yourself.’ Dusting wood chips off of his clothing as he got up, he jammed the knife into the stylized banister lining the walkway around the mansion and motioned for me to follow him. Rounding the corner of the walkway, he brought me to the side of the decrepit mansion where the pond lay, revealing the sight of Short Stuff riding on the shoulders of an unfamiliar figure sporting asymmetrical wings of some sort as it carried her around the pond in slow circuits.

It took a while for the realization to sink in. ‘That’s Nue?’ I exclaimed in disbelief.

He shrugged knowingly, sharing my disbelief. ‘Hard to believe huh? Dainty girl like that was actually the Big Ugly from last night. I know of a few shape shifters but this is something that goes beyond simple bodily alterations. I wouldn’t want to imagine what her true form looks like.’

The two took notice of us and Nue easily set Short Stuff on the ground with one hand gripped on her collar. The scene reminded me of someone dropping a puppy down by the scruff of its neck. Short Stuff hurried off after Nue whispered something to her discreetly, glancing up to look at me once before sending her away with a small push.

Nue made her approach in a curious gait which was reminiscent of her chimera form, swinging each foot in an irregular arc before planting it down to take another step. It looked like an incredibly awkward way to walk in but she closed the distance between us with amazing agility and grace despite her curious method of mobility. Clad in a sleeveless one-piece dress in a deep night-black, the intricate designs on it shifted about in the light, an effect I assumed to be an optical illusion until she drew closer. It wasn’t a mere trick of the playing lights; her clothes were as much a chimera as she was. It looked almost alive in some ways.

She flipped her short hair casually with an expert motion as she stopped before us and exchanged a peculiar look with Keizo, resulting in the latter shuffling his feet in discomfort as she did. Keizo was still unused to the fact that the Frankenstein from last night could turn out to be such a seemingly-innocent female looking to be at least two dozen years younger than he was.

Nue spoke curtly to him, dispelling any semblance of being a mere juvenile. ‘Leave us. Go entertain the child or something.’

Keizo made a hasty excuse and obliged, glad to be away from the overbearing presence she projected. He walked a little too fast as he retreated through the wooden walkway and stumbled embarrassingly on a crevice, catching himself just in time before he could crash head-first into the balustrade. Muttering a barely-audible curse, he disappeared around the corner, leaving the chimera alone with me.

‘Spent a good night, wanderer?’ she began conversationally, moving to lean down on the rich wooden banister once she had made her way up the walkway.

‘I’ve had better, but not bad.’ I replied simply, digging around my mouth idly with one finger to scrape off the built-up plaque in the absence of a toothbrush.

‘Wonderful, no? To have a place to sleep in. A place to call home. Sad thing it is when one is robbed of it.’ She wriggled her asymmetrical wings about as she spoke, probably out of habit. ‘Yuhiko has lost that twice now. Two times a little too much for someone of her age. A terrible tragedy, yes?’

Plopping down on the edge of the wooden walkway, I wondered what she was getting at being all sentimental. She could be annoyingly indirect when she chose to be, as opposed to her mentality during the previous night. ‘Yeah. Terrible,’ I agreed just for the sake of saying something.

‘We spent a lot of time talking this morning, the child and I. Found out much about you, wanderer. Yes.’ Turning to smile at me, she went on, ‘She has taken a liking to you, human. Most unusual considering the circumstances surrounding the two of you. But she has withdrawn from you. One must wonder why, hmm?’

That really doesn’t take a genius to work out. ‘Would you like someone who tried to kill you? I think not.’

‘And there’s our little conundrum, wanderer. She bears you no grudge in your attempted murder, but she has been wounded deep by something else. A betrayal.’ Nue kept her eyes on me, keenly observing my neutral expression as she went on. ‘I speak of trust, of course. Such a contradiction of the norm, no? Usually one would take far more offense at an attempted assassination rather than a simple breach of trust.’

I sighed out loud at her twisting words, too weary to play around with her. ‘If you want a confession then fine. I did use her for selfish reasons. Happy now?’

She waved a hand dismissively at my presumption. ‘Nothing like that. Though I’m surprised to hear you openly admit it all the same. All I’m trying to say is that the child obviously did not mind dying by your hands, and yet, she is shaken so much by the realization of your betrayal at Heaven Cradle. A kinship between the two of you run deep, deep enough to willingly accept death without remorse or grudges. Now that she has lost her faith in you, you will need to prove to her once more that you are there to stand by her side. Rekindle her passion for life, and mold her into the shrine maiden her great ancestor had once been. Perhaps then, we shall find a way to dispel this imperishable night and return to more peaceful days.’

‘Easy for you to say,’ I grumbled. ‘Go here, do this. Go there, do that. Run here, sit like a good dog. Go back, fetch that. I’m sick and tired with all of that. I want control of my life back in my own hands and I’m not about to let a bunch of strangers dictate how I should pass my everyday life or how I should go about fixing my own mess.’

Giving me a patronizing smile, she tried to smooth my ruffled feathers. ‘I understand your frustration, wanderer. But consider your situation now. You will need allies to survive. We can help you, and in return you can help us reach out to the child. The last Hakurei has walled herself off from the outside world since Byakuren’s death. You are the only other person she has opened up to and I highly doubt the rest of us youkai will be able to endear ourselves to her the way you have, being the… “monsters”… we are.’

I regarded her in silence for a full minute before turning away from her. Likewise, she made no further attempt at being conversational and went back to staring at the brightly-orange sky idly. I had to admit that she was partially right; I needed allies, as much as I hated the idea. Years and years of surviving alone had created a stubborn streak within me that easily turned away a helping hand and trust was equally hard to come-by. I would have to start changing that perception if I was to have a chance in Gensokyo now, regardless of how much I questioned the motives of these supposed “allies”.

We didn’t bother to exchange words throughout the long minutes. Nue looked to be reminiscing about something judging from the distant look in her eyes and I sat in gloom thinking about her sentimental exposition. I broke the silence with a question, ‘How long do we continue to wait and where are we headed to?’

‘The seekers have already travelled past us during their return this morning. We make our move once Keizo has finished preparing fresh supplies, bound for the village of Mabiri just beyond the western swamplands,’ she explained.

That wasn’t a name I had previously heard of before. ‘Mabiri? Sounds new.’

‘Correct. It’s a retreat for older youkai who no longer wish to meddle in the world’s affair, established one hundred and fifty years ago. There will be no trouble for you there; they keep themselves isolated from outside influence. We will meet with Yukari there to decide on the next course of action.’ She took note of the inquisitive look I wore on my face, understanding what I was about to ask. ‘I have no qualms about going along with her wishes for now. We know well enough that we are merely using each other for our own convenience. Do not debate so much over it; it’s a youkai’s way of life.’

‘That’s awfully considerate of you then,’ I murmured as I started to get up to leave, only to remember something she had said about Sunshines during the previous night. ‘You said something about Yukari and the Visitors yesterday. What did you mean?’

‘Just that. She knows something about the Visitors, something she isn’t telling everyone else. I know not what, only that she’s hiding it.’ Nue gave a small shrug to alleviate my worries. ‘She keeps a lot of secrets. It might not be something detrimental but it is in my nature to question and suspect nonetheless. I do not like harboring doubts. I only thought it fair to warn you seeing how much you have been in contact with the Visitors lately.’

I stood and stretched, suddenly curious about what Short Stuff and Keizo was up to. ‘Consider me warned then.’ Before turning to leave, I added as an afterthought, ‘By the way, this wouldn’t happen to be your real form now, would it?’

She giggled softly at that but refused to give a definite answer. ‘Who knows? I have no wish to frighten the child. That is why I assumed a shape more pleasing to the human eye.’

I had to wonder if that also implied she liked to spend far more time in her Frankenstein body. Inducing the terror of the unknown in humans was probably some sort of perverted hobby of hers but then again, wasn’t most youkai also like that? It was a surprise she would consider demeaning herself by reducing herself into a human form for the sake of Short Stuff. Such weakness would not be viewed well by the youkai in general.

Accompanied by my thoughts, I left the chimera to herself and she made no attempt to stop me from walking away. Whatever it was she wanted to dig out of me, she had seemed satisfied with it thus far. As for me, there would be plenty more time to find out all I wanted to know about her during the next leg of our journey. I was in no real hurry for that anyway.

Poking around in the empty mansion, I couldn’t find where Keizo and Short Stuff had vanished to but I did get the opportunity to inspect the various empty rooms, with nothing but layers and layers of dust coating the once-fine furniture within. One particularly curious corridor at the back of the mansion seemed to lead off into nowhere and walking right up to the end, I noticed that the corridor had caved-in; wood, rubble, and a collapsed ceiling was the only indication that the corridor stretched on for far longer than it could possibly seem to judging from the length of the mansion when viewed from the outside.

Voices drifted through an open doorway down a hall and I followed them to their source. Within a small garden-like enclosure opened to the sky above, Keizo sat on a small boulder, skinning numerous hares which lay dead on one side as Short Stuff looked on from behind, cringing at every spurt of blood and rip of the soft fur. I stood in the doorway, arms crossed as I observed the two silently.

‘I’ve never eaten rabbit meat before,’ she spoke to his back.

‘No? They’re good, I’ll have you know. Depending on how you cook ‘em they can be a real tease to your taste-buds.’ He held up one of the hares he had been dressing for her to see, ‘Course you gotta dress and truss them right first. Can’t just toss the whole thing in a pot and eat it.’

Short Stuff went down to her knees and prodded at the stiff carcasses. ‘Where did you learn to do things like this?’

Belching out a rude guffaw at her question, Keizo answered proudly. ‘Why, hunting and dressing game is all a part of outdoor survival. Food don’t come to you automatically. You gotta learn how to go look for them, kid. I did just that, learned everything from scratch.’

‘Oh,’ she replied simply, running a hand through the soft fur he had removed from a few of the carcasses. As if continuing a previous line of conversation, she asked something that perked my curiosity and I strained to listen. ‘Is that how you came to live here when the people here found you trapping their rabbits?’

He shook his head in response, more of a sign of regret rather than denial. ‘Well I said before kid, that’s a sore point. They caught me right outside the hidden pathway when I was camping and dragged me away. Took a lot of convincing and blustering to get them to drop the notion of skinning me and dropping my juicy bits into a cauldron for dinner to punish my transgression.’

Short Stuff grimaced at the thought. ‘Good thing they didn’t. I thought they weren’t youkai. Why would they want to eat you?’

Keizo continued to work on another hare as he spoke once more. ‘Naw, they’re not. They called themselves Lunarians. They have this weird fetish for rabbits. Apparently one of the rabbit youkai here had been a pet or friend or something to them and had been killed during the onset of the widespread insanity a long time ago. After that, they took a real serious offence at anyone who tries to hurt the bunny population around here.’

‘But how did you end up living here after that?’ she persisted, curiosity piqued by his tale.

‘Long story short, they let me live here for a few years because they were unwilling to let me run off and possibly disclose the location of this place. They valued their privacy greatly.’ Wiping his sweaty brows with the back of one hand, his voice grew softer with the recollection. ‘Ahh, can’t say they weren’t happy times. I learned plenty from one of the ladies, some sort of big-deal doctor or something, as I was made to help her with lots of inane tasks. I was an apprentice to her, if you will.’ He nudged at Short Stuff with an elbow, giving her a grin. ‘And the other was quite the winsome girl but I never got to see much of her. That doesn’t mean I can easily forget every moment I saw her though. She was something truly out of this world.’

Short Stuff glanced around the enclosed garden, voicing my unspoken question as well when she asked, ‘So why is this place abandoned then? Are they dead?’

He could only shrug at that. ‘I haven’t been here in twenty years. I left a long time ago when the urge to travel once more became too great. By that time, they trusted me enough to keep my mouth shut about Eientei. Maybe they went back to the Lunar capital. Maybe they retreated somewhere else with all the recent troubles brewing. Maybe they’re dead. I dunno. Whatever the case, I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t want me to know what happened to them, being the secretive lot and all.’

Looking up at Keizo, she spoke in a tone that carried the weight of weeks of weariness. ‘At least you still have a home to return to. I’ve got nothing left now. I’m just being carried around like a leaf floating at the whims of the river’s currents.’

He gave her another nudge from the side as he laughed a bit. ‘That so, kiddo? But you’re not alone now, are you? You have that weirdo of a friend to keep you company.’

Staring downwards, she replied glumly, ‘I don’t know what to make of her. She alternates between being mean and apathetic all the time and she lies a lot. I’m tired of trying to constantly guess if she’s being honest or not.’

Keizo flung the meat he had extracted into a small black pot, accepting a new carcass from Short Stuff as he started the skinning process anew. ‘Give her a little more credit, kiddo. She’s a stubborn hard-ass, I’ll give you that but she’s not without a softer side. She hides her real self well, but it shows, albeit rarely. It’s a shame she spends so much time behind that mask of indifference. Some people would give an arm and a leg to see the real person behind it.’

Having Keizo speak up in my defense was certainly unusual for him. I had assumed that he pretty much shared the general opinion everyone seemed to have of myself. Hearing otherwise turned out to be somewhat of a surprise and I drew back into the shadowed interior slightly as I continued to eavesdrop on their conversation.

Short Stuff remained unconvinced nonetheless. ‘I don’t know. I just…’ she trailed off.

The sound of approaching footsteps from the other end of the corridor brought me back to myself and I hurried off in the other direction silently, not wanting to be caught and seen like an even more unsavory character than I already was in their eyes. Reiji’s voice mixed with the other two as they spoke, proceeding to work on the new batch of hares Reiji had somehow caught. I left them to their industrious work, making my way back to the welcoming hall.

The deserted hall greeted me with a solemn whistling of the winds drifting into the mansion and I picked a new spot to collapse onto, stretching my arms out wide as I savored the cool wooden boards underneath. Nothing left to do now except to wait. I had half a mind to go back and assist with the skinning before realizing that Short Stuff would not take well to my presence there and I deemed to just let the three of them finish with the preparations without me. What’s left to do to pass some time?

Closing my eyes, I tried to reach within myself, seeking out the source of the new presence I had forced into myself at Moriya Shrine. I knew trying to call out to it would not produce tangible results. Communication was always one way and they could only speak to me if they wanted to. Still, I had to try.

Much to my surprise, something reached out to seize at my brushing awareness, but it was not who I had been looking for. The voice that spoke brimmed with fury beyond ken, hissing in its unbelievable anger and broiling with hate.

’I promised you retribution for this violation, bitch, and I shall bring it about one way or another. Eons of existence together and you willingly allowed a foreign worm to violate me. I swear to you, I will make you pay and suffer greatly before our time is up. My only pleasure now stems from the fact that with your latest transgression, our time dwindles even more. I will watch your eternal suffering with great delight, sooner than I thought would be possible.’

Another voice interceded on my behalf before I could send my thoughts to Rilofene, and I recognized it as the sane mind of Kanako.

‘Such vitriol for one you had the tenacity to call your own child. What she did, what I did, was necessary to save a life. We are beings long dead to the world, our time has passed and our purpose served. Why do you cling so dearly to an existence that has clearly become meaningless?’

’Silence, fool. You modern gods have grown soft, a pox of shame on the greatness of divine beings. What care do I have for the insignificant life of a single human? I am eternity, my power absolute, and the world once served ME. And yet the two of you would dare steal my precious life for a mere worm like that human girl.’

’You speak as if you are still alive. You exist due to the graces of this child here, as much as she does due to you. When she dies, so will your spark, as will I. We are nothing but echoes of what we once were. Threatening the child will bring about nothing fruitful. Yet, you persist with your promise of vengeance on the one who had once served you faithfully. Give her some peace of mind and shelve your hostility for now. You will have your misguided revenge in time.’

The two voices continued to sling insults and threats at one another and I had no way to shut them up now that they have chosen to make themselves known to me. I no longer cared for Rilofene’s threats and promise of vengeance. As far as I was concerned, they were merely hollow words; a dead god’s futile effort at retribution. Even if she could somehow bring them to fruition, I wouldn’t give a flying damn about it anymore. Curling up into a ball, I tried to shut the nattering voices out of my head in vain before exploding at the two of them. ‘Just shut the hell up. Both of you. Yada yada yada. Do what you want with me when the time comes, Feeny. I really don’t give a damn.’

I was met with absolute silence at my outburst and Rilofene was uncharacteristically at loss for words at my impartialness. A part of her probably couldn’t comprehend my sudden change in attitude, unable to understand how much I was willing to accept death unconditionally now. I felt her presence melt away into the multitude of past memories in confusion, stunned by my bold words. Kanako remained; impressed with how I had lashed back at what was arguably still a deity.

’Well that was rather unexpected. Now that I’m a part of you, I’m privy to what your past had been and I must say that was something completely unlike the normal you.’

I buried my head in my arms. ‘Yeah? Well people change all the time. Deal with it.’ I could almost feel her grin as she replied.

’A change of this magnitude is hardly what one would consider a simple shift in paradigm, but it is a good thing nevertheless. The Hakurei child is having a positive effect on you, it would seem.’

‘Maybe.’ I grumbled in return. ‘Still won’t change the fact that I’m long overdue for a fate worse than death.’

’Still thinking about that? There comes a time when we must all atone for our sins regardless of the hope of changing the future. I spent years bemoaning the tragedy I had brought about Gensokyo with my foolish action and it didn’t change a single thing. The only thing I regret now is the fact that I’ve wasted years doing nothing to help rectify it. Do not walk down the same path I did.’

‘Atonement.’ I snorted out the word. ‘And where do you propose I start, oh great one?’ She let my cynicism pass unchallenged.

’But you have already started on it, my friend. It begins with Yuhiko and I suspect it will also end with her, though in what manner and how, I cannot say for certain. You might not be able to change your fate, but you can change hers for certain. You willingly took a piece out of yourself to give her a chance at life that night, why not go the rest of the way? Stay by her side. Guide the last Hakurei through the trials and tribulations ahead. What else do you have to lose at this point?’

What indeed? The leftover of my pathetic life? I swore to myself softly. If I was going down, then I’m going down with a bang. A huge one that will forever ring in the annals of history. I would leave a mark all would remember when death would finally claim me and my name would inspire future bards and poets to sing and recount the tales about how I had wrestled with the Grim Reaper for centuries.

Well, perhaps nothing so grand. There was little doubt that no one will know of me when the time would come. The mere fading of a historic relic that was supposed to be dead a few millennia ago. But for now, I supposed I could go through with the entire fiasco until its conclusion, regardless of what the outcome at the end would be like.

I shrugged mentally. It wasn’t as if I had anything left to accomplish with what little time I had left.

My reply was crude, but I could feel Kanako’s grin broaden even more at it. ‘Oh hell. Why not? Got nothing better to do anyway.’

Turning over to get some sleep despite the nagging hunger in my guts, I felt Kanako’s presence starting to slip away as well, but I reached out with one final thought before she disappeared. ‘Hey. I don’t suppose you’re upset that I sucked you dry?’

’Like I mentioned, we served our purpose in this world a long time ago. If my last act in life was to die a permanent death in order to save the Hakurei child, then so be it. They are the children who will carve a new future out from this twilight. The world does not need a goddess who is already dead to it.’

I heaved a sigh of relief before I closed my eyes. At least one of the two didn’t have a vengeful grudge of death against me. I felt her chuckle at my thoughts before she disappeared, going back to reliving my past lifetimes as she enjoyed herself viewing them like a historic slide-show.
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Someone shook me violently and I had the impression of rocking on a boat in the ocean. The shaking stopped for a moment and resumed almost instantly, even more urgently this time. I mumbled sleepily to the persistent arms as I turned away from them, ‘Quit rocking my boat. Mmmmh…’

‘Wake up Stinky! We’ve got company!’ it hissed in return.

I forced my eyes open and saw nothing but darkness for a few seconds before they adjusted enough to the gloom. Making an abrupt turn, I stared into the face of Reiji, pinched in panic and fear. ‘Whazzat?’ I asked drowsily.

He continued to tug at me incessantly until I wobbled to my feet, wriggling one foot to get the circulation running in it again as Reiji went over to a window and peered outwards through an open crack. It was night once more, though just what time of the night I could not tell for the life of me. I joined him shortly, trying to peek at what he was so worried about and my heart missed a beat as I saw the scene outside.

It was Dead Meat; standing shoulder to shoulder with another person I couldn’t identify having some sort of face-off with Nue. The heated words they exchanged were clearly audible in the silent midnight and as the two intruders took a step in advance, Nue fell back in an opposed movement. In the dim moonlight, I could see the figure next to Dead Meat sporting the same external appendage as she did, only this one looked very much alive and pulsing instead of a dead chunk of meat. More of Three Arms’ flunkies, and the pair didn’t look like they had dropped-by for a social visit.

The chimera’s voice sounded confident but I could detect an undercurrent of tension and anxiety from it. ‘Well well, you honor me. I never thought I’d get to see the Komeiji sisters together in the flesh. Tell me, how did you find us?’ She shifted slightly into a guarded stance as she eyed her antagonists.

Dead Meat spoke a few words in her melodious voice before stopping abruptly. ‘You underestimate us.’

Her sister picked up after her in a deeper voice. ‘Thought you outsmarted the seekers, did you?’

They both finished together in unison, the melodious and the deep voices complementing each other almost like music. ‘They found you. Their original purpose was not to hunt, merely to seek out where you would choose to stop in time for us to reach you. Spreading the news of a hunting party was merely misinformation, and you people fell for it.’

Nue taunted them in return, edging backwards slightly as she did. ‘So we did. So you have. But don’t overestimate yourselves. I won’t go down so easily.’

The two sisters echoed their reply, confident in their own right and superiority in numbers. ‘We’re sure you won’t. Nevertheless, you will pay your due for betraying the youkai. You have sheltered a wanted human and our prize.’

‘No recompense,’ Dead Meat spoke herself.

‘No forgiveness,’ her sister continued.

‘No mercy. The Iron Death for you, traitor.’ They finished together.

In an explosion of trailing colors lasting for no more than a fraction of a second, Nue shifted into her chimera form to lunge directly at Dead Meat in one swift motion and her sister sidestepped aside idly as Nue crashed headfirst into Dead Meat, the force of the impact sending both of them tumbling into the thickets amidst the sounds of breaking bamboo, grunts, and curses. Ignoring the fracas, the solitary figure remaining outside began to move towards the mansion confidently, only to stop abruptly as something snaked out from the thickets to wrap around her.

‘What-‘ she began and ended, forcefully ripped off of the ground and whipped into the bamboo grove by Nue’s outstretched snake appendages. The chaos continued for a few seconds more before a blinding flash of light ended the struggle in the thickets and all three figures exploded through the overgrowth into the night air. Nue had reassumed her human form, clutching a bloodied arm as she faced the Komeiji sisters.

‘Two against one?’ She taunted them again, ignoring the first blood the sisters had drawn. ‘Whatever happened to The Way? Truly, we have descended far into barbarism under Iyen-Shuren’s rule.’

‘The Way does not apply to traitors. This will not be a duel. This is your execution,’ they replied together summarily before splitting up and taking up positions opposing Nue’s. She swung her gaze about the two warily, momentarily confused as she tried to adapt to their movements.

Shit, I cursed silently. There would be no traditional spell-card duel. They meant to slaughter her outright by unleashing the full extent of their abilities. I didn’t doubt for a second that the Komeiji sisters would go into artillery mode straight from the onset of the battle and I began to drag the transfixed Reiji away from the window forcefully. I hissed to him as we moved, ‘Haul ass! We’ve got to find cover! Where the hell is Keizo and the kid?’

He picked up the pace and made a hasty reply, ‘Still sleeping in their rooms. What do-‘

Reiji never had the opportunity to finish his words. The first salvo from the Komeiji sisters tore through everything in the vicinity and the old mansion rocked dangerously from the impact as Reiji fell to the ground unceremoniously. Age-old dust instantly stirred up and we were bathed in a fine haze of debris; moonlight now streamed through the various holes freshly-made in the walls and the ceiling. Sooner or later, the three outside would turn the mansion into Swiss cheese if they kept fighting this close to the building.

Dragging Reiji back to his feet by his arm, I instructed him hoarsely, ‘Go get them and-‘

A second salvo impacted the structure and the sounds of crashing timber and tumbling walls could be heard all around. I threw myself to the ground just in time to avoid a bright flash of light ripping through the space my head had formerly occupied. Spinning around to gape at the hole, I was amazed that I had narrowly avoided decapitation via danmaku. Picking myself up in a panic, I stared through the hole that went all the way outside, glimpsing Nue as she weaved and danced in the air between deadly streams of light and annihilation discs before sending out her reply in a beautiful pattern of death. She held her ground well for now as she tried to bring the battle away from the mansion but I was sure that she would rapidly tire soon enough. She needed help, but how?

Reiji regained his footing and ran for dear life into Keizo’s room and I made a similar dash to Short Stuff’s room, managing to clear the doorway before a tremendous explosion behind us threw me off my feet and I flew a few feet into the room, propelled by the ensuing shockwave. The walls between the two rooms fell apart and I could see Keizo already up through the huge gap, glancing about in bewilderment as Reiji dragged him towards us. Short Stuff sat up in a similar state, confused by the chaos and drugged by sleep as she stared about fish-eyed.

I went back on my feet and gestured for the other two to join us, kneeling down next to Short Stuff. She stared at me in terror, her animosity momentarily forgotten, asking me in a trembling voice, ‘It’s happening again isn’t it? They’re here again.’

I tried to calm her despite the sounds of the raging battle just a few dozen feet away outside. ‘No. Not the Visitors. But we’ve got bad company all the same.’

Keizo remained in a moving crouch and finally made his way to us, now fully aware of what was happening outside. I turned towards him and started to speak, only to have my voice drowned out by another explosion somewhere close-by. I shouted out to him this time, ‘Take shelter in the inner garden with the kid!’

He nodded and sprang into action instantly, taking Short Stuff and Reiji by the arm before I reached out to intercept Reiji with my hand. ‘No! I need-‘

A third explosion reduced Keizo’s former room into mere splinters and a rapidly-cooling crater after sending broken furniture, flying wood, and various items careening into the room we were in. Thankfully, everyone had the presence of mind to throw themselves to the ground and shield their heads as the room next door vaporized in the blinding flash.

Reiji was the first to come to his senses, followed by Keizo and the rest as we surveyed the damage. I wasted no time in gaping and returned my attention to Keizo. ‘Take the kid and go! Leave Reiji with me, we need to help Nue somehow. She won’t last for much longer against them.’

He gave me a look of shocked disbelief and shook me violently by my arms, ‘What the hell? You?! What can you do against youkai?! You take them to the garden and I’ll see what I can do instead!’

I had no time for his hesitations or his misguided attempts at being manly. ‘Listen to me. We don’t help her out, we die. Understand? Nue is our only line of defense and we need to tip the battle in her favor. You don’t know enough about youkai to decide. Now shut up and go!’

Keizo finally complied, not because he agreed but because he didn’t want to sit around arguing for much longer and risk being vaporized ourselves. With an obstinate curse, he lunged to his feet and dragged Short Stuff away despite her protests. I turned away from the retreating pair to look at Reiji staring at me with uncertainty before noticing something that looked completely out of place lying next to him.

The previous explosion had send most of Keizo’s belonging flying into this room and something black, metallic, and glimmering in the moonlight had slipped out of the bag he had used to stash his pigeon-slaying weapon. I recognized the modular curves, arming handle and front sights of the device from what was protruding out.

An old M72 LAW. His hammer of justice. Weapon worthy of the wrath of divinity and all.

I didn’t bother to question the godsend in our current situation. That a light anti-tank weapon had dropped out from nowhere to answer my prayers for help was absurd. The fact that Keizo had lugged the weapon around for months without accidentally setting it off was an even bigger miracle. Scrabbling over to Reiji’s side, I pulled the heavy metallic tube out for a quick inspection. Despite how long the weapon had been out of commission in the outside world, this one looked to be well-maintained and retained a shiny finish nonetheless. Probably somebody’s perverted idea for an antique weapon collection ending up with the kappa who had given Keizo the weapon.

Now we would have a fighting chance. Turning to address Reiji, I tried to shake some sense into him. ‘Listen. I need you to do something to me.’ I gestured outside at the bamboo thickets with my head. ‘Those bamboo, I want you to uproot them and toss them at the green-haired abomination with the funky hat when I give you the sign. Can you do that?’

He looked outwards uncertainly, doubt clouding his young face. ‘I don’t think I can.’

I gave him another firm shake. ‘You have to. Nue will die if we don’t act now. Don’t think. Just do it. Now, can you do it?’

Despite hesitating again, he gave a firm answer this time. ‘I’ll try.’

‘Good.’ I gave him a light pat in the head before propelling him towards the hole in the wall. ‘Now go! Start tossing them when I say so and don’t stay in the same place. Toss, displace, move, and toss again, got it?’

Moving off in opposing directions, I ran out of the room seeking a better vantage point as Reiji sped off into the thickets, narrowly missing a web of annihilating light which tore through the ground behind him before crashing into the thickets for cover. Giving a quick backwards glance, I waited for him to disappear into the darkness of the bamboo groves before taking a crouched dash out of the room.

I picked a relatively-hidden spot amongst the debris of the former welcoming hall, trying to spy on the battle through the haze of dust hanging heavily in the air. Nue was no longer capable of completely evading the crisscrossing projectiles the two sisters flung out in tandem and I saw several of the pinpoints of flying light rip through Nue bloodily as she staggered about in mid-air but she stubbornly persisted in the fight, unwilling to yield knowing that the three humans and a juvenile oni would be unable to oppose the Komeiji sisters. She was close to falling, and it was now or never. I had to try and get the two sisters closer together first before I fired off my one and only shot.

‘REIJI! NOW!’ I screamed into the night, instantly attracting the attention of Dead Meat’s sister and she turned to look at the source of my voice, one hand lifting to rain death on where I hid. Her partner returned her attention to Nue, trying to corral her into a tight space for a clean shot that would permanently take Nue down.

A screeching whistle was the only indication of the high-speed missile Reiji had proceeded to hurl at Dead Meat. The sisters turned sharply at the new sound and Dead Meat blurred in the air for a brief moment, shifting towards her sister slightly as she moved to avoid Reiji’s flying tree.

‘MORE! KEEP DOING IT!’ I screamed out to him once more, and this time, I was greeted by a rain of light tearing through my cover, attempting to flush me out for the kill. I counted as I waited, having found a rhythm in the salvoes I had heard earlier. One… two… three… she would stop after four. I braced myself for the dash to safety, waiting for the last salvo. The torrents of light continued to throw debris into the air and the entire place rocked with the repeated impact.

Four. I broke out in a staggered run, hoping the haze would momentarily cover my escape and I crashed into the other side of the welcoming hall before she could recommence the bombardment, lugging the heavy weapon as I panted towards my next vantage point; an opening out into the walkway ringing the mansion. Behind me, the corridor disintegrated amidst the blinding flashes of additional focused implosions.

Pressing myself against the wall just next to the hole, I peered out slightly to see the sisters randomly throwing their rain of death down into the thickets, attempting to rid themselves of the annoyance Reiji was posing to them. Nue had finally fallen to the ground in a bloody mess from the damage she had taken, unable to sustain her one-sided battle any longer. I prayed Reiji could run fast enough to escape the bombardment and not be flushed out into the open.

In a stroke of luck, Dead Meat edged towards her sister as they paused momentarily to assess the situation, floating almost back to back in the night sky and I let the weapon down, pulling the inner telescoping tube out and arming it with a flick of a finger. Flipping both the front and rear sights up, I steadied myself as I spun in a semi-circle through the hole in the wall to face the Komeiji sisters, weapon fully extended and pointed at them as I fingered the trigger.

‘Merry Christmas,’ I muttered as I depressed the trigger, aiming at Dead Meat, praying that the aged warhead would fly true and its yield would detonate from being inert for countless years.

The release of the rocket blew me off my feet before I could realize I had forgotten to get into a braced position, the ruckus instantly caught their attention and they spun to face me as one as I skittered to a stop on the walkway, wheezing loudly from the impact. In absolute slow-motion terror, I watched the sisters glance at the rocket in flight idly and despair struck me as I realized they would be able to easily avoid the slow-flying projectile.

In an amazing turn of events, Dead Meat’s sister actually reached out to catch the warhead mid-flight instead, unperturbed by the thrust of the rocket as she spun the object around to look at it before closing her other hand on the cone to begin crushing the rocket. ‘You presume to attack us with this paltry human toy? What madness-‘

The ensuing detonation of the warhead cut off the rest of her words as she triggered the impact sensor where she had crushed the rocket, the explosion engulfing the Komeiji sisters in a cloud of incendiary death. The shockwave had been powerful enough to drown out the sounds of their death and I collapsed back to the walkway in fatigue, wondering how things could have worked out so well. I pushed the spent weapon away from me as I closed my eyes briefly to rest. There would be plenty of time to gloat over my victory after tonight.

I would never get the chance to do so. Fingers wet with blood closed about my throat and my eyes flew open to regard the mutilated feature of Dead Meat missing a good portion of her face and an eye. One of her arms hung to her side, useless as it dangled about but her right arm still had strength enough to grapple me as she hissed into my face, her voice no longer retaining that inhuman melody, ‘I don’t know what you did, but that will be your last mistake, human.’

Drawing backwards, she flung me horizontally away from the walkway and I managed to sail through the air for a few seconds before I crashed into the ground, rolling painfully to break my fall as I did. Pushing myself up with one arm, I glanced fearfully at her as she made her way unsteadily towards me, dragging one foot behind with her every step. The explosion hadn’t been enough to take her down as well, but at the very least she was critically wounded now.

Crawling frantically towards a piece of timber which lay strewn all over the courtyard, I closed my fingers around it, making an instant roundabout turn as her shadow fell from behind and I plunged the makeshift stake right through her abdomen.

She staggered backwards from the blow and I reached down for another stake, spinning the other way to pick up speed in preparation of ramming it through her mangled head. Her other hand I had assumed to be dysfunctional came up in defense and stopped my assault, the wooden weapon piercing her palm as she whipped out her other hand to lift me up in another grapple.

The two of us wobbled around as she constantly lost her balance and I struggled for air, feeling the fingers gathering strength to crush my neck. She looked upwards briefly to taunt me, ‘You will pay dearly for my sister’s pain, human.’

I continued to hammer away ineffectually at her rapidly tightening hand, starting to black out from the lack of air. Behind her, Keizo had appeared, followed shortly by Short Stuff as they assumed the battle to be over. Catching sight of the two of us, he took hold of a crude cudgel and sped towards us with a howl of anger, brandishing his weapon in his charge.

Dead Meat didn’t even look behind, having sensed him long ago with whatever ability inherent in her kind and she stomped on the ground with her injured foot, sending an invisible shockwave fanning out backwards and tearing Keizo off of the ground as the compressed air ripped through him. He flew a good few feet backwards to crash through the mansion’s weakened wall. She refocused her attention back on me, having dealt with the annoying pest.

My gaze wandered back to Short Stuff, the only person left standing now. She remained transfixed by the sight, neither speaking nor moving. Why the hell wasn’t she running? I tried to bark something at her, but the vice-like grip had cut off even my voice. The only thing I could do was stare helplessly at Short Stuff, wishing she would sober up and make a break for it while she still could.

Time slowed to a stand-still as I watched her advance towards Dead Meat and my eyes grew wide at her stupidity. What did she hope to accomplish?

Noticing my stare, Dead Meat shifted her gaze to the side as well. ‘Stay back, child. We will deal with you much later. You still serve an important function for now.’ She returned her gaze to me before continuing, ‘Unlike this worthless meat here.’

‘Let her go,’ Short Stuff spoke in a small voice. The figure holding onto me made no indication whatsoever of having heard her.

‘Let her go,’ she repeated once more in a louder voice strained with anxiety.

In anger, Dead Meat whirled around to face her, shaking me in her grip as she did. ‘OR WHAT?! You’ll spit at me? Kick at me? Worry not, I shall let her go. Once I kill her, that is.’ An ugly grin flashed in my face as she focused her strength in a life-ending crush and I awaited my death with trepidation, wondering what it would be like to stare it in the face.

‘LET HER GO!’ Short Stuff screamed one final time before going down on her knees, luminescent circles spinning in an intricate design forming all around her, lighting up the dull night in a vibrant shade of red and white as she repeatedly hammered at the ground with clenched fists in fury.

Dead Meat stared at the circles with fear, the glint of recognition bouncing off of her remaining eye as she began to step backwards from Short Stuff. Somehow, she knew what Short Stuff was doing, or at least recognized what she was going to do. I experienced the same fear as well, recognizing parts of the various runes orbiting Short Stuff. It was the Hakurei proof of lineage; although still incomplete and not fully mature, the seals would be more than enough to kill us if she couldn’t control them.

The last Komeiji sister would never get the opportunity to flee. Short Stuff looked up in anger from where she had went down to the ground and the seals around her immediately responded to her hate, rapidly tearing off from the circle to enclose Dead Meat in a perfectly bounded border and she howled once in dismay before the ground lit up in a blinding flash. I muttered a quick prayer to nothing in particular, hoping my death would come to be quick and painless.

Despite my fears, nothing untoward happened. I felt myself fall free from the grip and I gasped for dear air, luxuriating in the feel of fresh oxygen streaming into my lungs. The light show played about for a while longer before dying away completely as I shielded my eyes from it. Silence returned to the night and I could finally breathe in relief as I closed my eyes, grateful to still be alive. I groaned out loud on the ground, hoping it would finally be over this time.

Short Stuff crawled over to where I lay sprawled, shaking me insistently until I opened my eyes tiredly to regard her. ‘Gimme a break, will you? I want to go back to sleep.’

She pointed at my neck. ‘You… you’ve got a hand attached to your neck.’

‘Uh,’ I fumbled about my neck, feeling something fleshy rapidly growing cold and pulled it free, looking at the dismembered hand in disgust before flinging it away. All around me lay the body parts of what was once Dead Meat. Whatever Short Stuff had done, she had displaced her antagonist piece-by-piece by actively rejecting the space she had enclosed with the border, instantly ripping Dead Meat apart. I could only marvel at whatever miracle it was that prevented me from being torn to pieces along with her. Maybe sleeping in this morgue wouldn’t be such a neat idea now.

She returned her anxious stare to me after glancing around in horror, ‘Did… did I kill her?’

She probably did, but I chose not to burden her with the guilt for now. I wasn’t really sure myself all the same. ‘Nah. Don’t worry about it. These youkai can come back from anything. Don’t want to be here when it happens though. We have to leave now.’ I gestured at the new hole Keizo had made in the mansion. ‘Go check on the big boy. Wake him up. Slap him if you have to. Get the supplies and meet back at the courtyard.’ She took off without another question asked.

Hobbling over to where Nue had crashed to the ground, I started to inspect the damage she had sustained. Numerous holes in her torso and a nearly-useless arm. Her left leg was pretty much a mangled mess of flesh and she bled profusely from an injury on her scalp. Most of her asymmetrical wings had been torn off as well. I poked at her briefly before I resorted to slapping at her. These were superficial wounds which would heal in a matter of days. She was in no danger. I couldn’t say the same for the Komeiji sisters though.

Her eyes flew open and she sat up abruptly, only to descend into a hacking cough as she spewed out mouthfuls of youkai blood. Edging backwards slightly, I gave her some time to come to her senses as I waited in silence. ‘What happened?’ she finally managed.

‘Rocket propelled grenade happened,’ I gestured at the body parts which lay strewn behind me. ‘Well, that, and whatever Short Stuff did. You should thank her. We would be in a far-worse place if it wasn’t for her. Looked like she managed to invoke her latent Hakurei quirkiness to save us.’

Nue hung her head tiredly, exhausted by the fight, not bothering to reply. Reiji finally made his way back to the mansion, breaking free of the thickets and staring about in wonder as he walked towards us, face flushed and drained of all color and hobbling on one foot. He took a moment to survey the mess before joining us.

Extending one hand to ruffle his hair as he came to stand next to us, I gave him a little nudge, ‘Not too shabby with the trees. Good to see you’re still alive.’ He looked up to give me his customary toothy-grin despite the gravity of the situation.

I glanced around the courtyard-turned-battlefield. The once-beautiful and secluded sanctuary had been irreversibly changed, holes and craters littered the clearing and the mansion had partially collapsed into itself, parts of it still smoldering from the immense heat of danmaku exchange. Keizo would not be happy with this, much less his mysterious hosts if they were still around somehow.

Taking a short break on the ground, I waited in silence for Keizo and his charge, massaging my bruised neck all the while. They appeared in short order, clutching various leather pouches where they had crammed the preserved rabbit meat into and Reiji helped to extract the numerous gourds of fresh water from Short Stuff before being weighted down by the pouches of ration Keizo dumped on him. Keizo didn’t look too bad considering the abuse he had taken. Except for a few bruises on his face, he seemed energetic enough.

I gestured at Nue as Keizo looked at me with hesitation. ‘What are you waiting for? Be a gentleman and pick the lady up.’

Nue spoke up before Keizo could reach for her. ‘I can move on my own.’ She tried to stand on her own, only to fall back to one knee as her other leg failed to respond in any way. I gestured one more time and Keizo ignored her protests this time, lifting her up and cradling her broken form in this arms. I thought I caught a blush on her face as he did, but between the twilight and the blood streaming down her face I couldn’t tell for certain. Likewise, Keizo stared down at her for a few seconds before looking up in embarrassment.

‘Which way?’ I asked her.

She pointed slightly north-westward with her good arm. ‘Go in this direction. Get clear of the Bamboo Forest first. Useless to give specific directions while we remain within the labyrinth.’

Keizo voluntarily took the lead. ‘I can take us outside for now. We might need to rethink our path after we break through the edge of the grove though. The western swamplands will greatly slow us down.’

We shuffled out of Eientei in a single file, taking our leave without so much as a glance backwards. As usual, Keizo was back in the lead and moving urgently, followed by his apprentice trailed by Short Stuff. I took one last look at Dead Meat’s remains, curious if this was enough to permanently end her. I had no doubt that Three Arms would be well beyond furious at this and if the Komeiji sisters could actually return from eating an anti-tank round and the subsequent dismemberment they would have a very serious hankering for a certain human who had inflicted so much pain on them.

Shuddering, I hurried after the other four.
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Your choice of pictures is excellent.
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This update was badass.

>Apparently one of the rabbit youkai here had been a pet or friend or something to them and had been killed during the onset of the widespread insanity a long time ago.
Reisen (and/or Tewi) ;_;

>She was something truly out of this world.’
Oh you.
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holy SHIT, that was AWESOME
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Interesting to see what's going on, and I can see why Yukari wouldn't really gap around... her game of trying to play the two sides against each other. I guess she must have considered the risks.

Still I think Yukari has the best interests at the moment even if they're not the absolute best.
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File 125708919090.jpg - (67.07KB, 600x450, 600px-MV-M72LAW-4.jpg)
Badass update was badass.

Unknown author, I really like the way that your characters react to the events of the story and their characterizations in general.

Plus while you do post walls I don't feel that you are wasting any words, the pacing is pretty good too.

Anyway keep up the good work!
Also have some, "Merry Christmas!"
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I've only just caught up with this story. Fuck yeah it's awesome.

Shine on, you crazy writefag.
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That battle was probably the tip of the iceberg.

I'm sure there is still quite a bit of story left.

Such as the big battle between the Visitors and Whatever else is on the other side of the battle.
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I'm a little worried about Koishi not having displayed any mind-screwing powers yet.

Maybe she couldn't, though...?
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Perhaps the eye motif of the False dawn is more then a coincidence...
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Evil Eye Omega?
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Already made that guess in >>2198 along with my other mostly incorrect crackpot theories.

As for that being Koishi's eye: lolno. That's even futher out there (but if it were true, then everybody's fucked.)
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Sigma really had nothing to do with my theory, its just similar to how I imagine false dawn looking.
And I didn't read the post that you mentioned. I was just too into the story so I just kept on scrolling...
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Much thanks for the kind support, good readers. It's always a pleasure to read your feedbacks, despite not being able to drop-by too often to check up on them due to work.

At any rate, pecked out an update during a meeting, of all places. Yessir, I looked mighty busy tapping on the laptop then.
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"We can no longer fight the inevitable. People we once called our own family commit cannibalism on their own brothers, sisters, and children daily. We can only hope the Lemegeton Protocol will succeed. It should; it must, or humanity’s death will be in vain."

- Masayoshi Han, excerpt from personal logs.

‘I called you my children, for we are all of the same flesh and blood. Distinct we may all be in our ways, we are still of the People, youkai, proud and firm!’

A rousing cheer from the masses of youkai greeted the aged figure’s opening speech, young and old, misshapen and human-like, hybrids and pure-bloods; their thousand-strong echoes resounded solidly in the light of the numerous torches rounding the arena. Situated on top of an earthen platform raised well above ground level, the aged creature stood and regarded the assembly below, face impassive as he greeted the sea of heads gazing up at him in admiration.

Shou watched Iyen-Shuren’s opening speech emotionlessly from one corner of her eyes, standing slightly behind the dominating figure as was proper for his shikigami. The freshly-healed wounds she had received more than a week ago still ached with a dull throb, but she gladly welcomed the pain. They were proof of her victory and she would not have it any other way. The child had successfully escaped and her master had suspected nothing untoward.

Her master’s voice rang clear into the night once more, silencing the massed creatures. ‘My children, we stand at the brink of destruction. The Visitors continue to eat away at False Dawn with every passing day and the key to our salvation was robbed from us when we had been so close to obtaining it.’ He paused momentarily for a dramatic effect before continuing emotionally, ‘By a HUMAN WRETCH!’

The assemblage roared their fury at his words, the cacophony drowning out everything else as they bathed in their roiling emotions. Shou shunned the ugly sight, unwilling to see her people act like nothing more than uneducated barbarians easily swayed by the words of a charismatic leader.

Iyen-Shuren turned slightly towards her as he caught a whiff of her thoughts before she could shield them. Their eyes met for a brief moment before he tore his gaze away to address the assembly once more. ‘Children of mine! Three of our very own sisters have betrayed us to assist this thief! Our very own! Such outrage!’

A horrendous roaring of voices ensued in reply.

His voice cut through the multitude of raging mouths. ‘Traitors! Our own kind! They must be brought to answer for their crimes!’

A unified shout in return.

‘Shelter them not!’ The crowd screamed at his words. ‘Show them no quarter!’ Additional screeches reaching volumes intolerable to a human ear. ‘Slaughter the human and reclaim our salvation!’ The crescendo of cheers reached a new high from his passionate conclusion and the assemblage of youkai went into a sustained ululation even as the aged figure took his leave, melting into the earthen wall behind the raised stage.

Shou followed suit, pushing herself into the malleable wall despite feeling the onset of the uncanny sensation that would follow the translocation. The pits of her newly-formed stomach twisted and stretched momentarily before she emerged on the other side, the familiar sight of her master’s sanctuary greeting her as she did. The simple wooden bower that served as her master’s throne in the glade lay empty and a solitary fire in a ring of stones burned bright, casting dancing shadows all about the glade. The fire had been burning for years, merely a piffling trick compared to what Iyen-Shuren was capable of.

Dessicated hands closed about her body and she flinched internally at the touch, smelling the sour breath of the creature she had come to detest so much as it had its way with her from behind. It spoke to her softly, whispering into her ears, ‘A most tiring night, my dear Suou. These gatherings and motivational speeches are beginning to bore me greatly.’

She struggled to maintain her composure, resisting the urge to reach backwards with two fingers and dig out an eyeball or two from the three-handed molestation. Not yet, she whispered to herself repeatedly, trying to calm herself. Not yet. Not until she has ensured that the despicable creature would no longer pose a threat to the Hakurei child. This was nothing she couldn’t endure for the sake of the others risking everything they had for the child.

The hands dropped away and her tension deflated instantly. At least he wasn’t interested in going much further tonight, she thought to herself as she recalled similar nights she had been made to suffer indignities at the hands of her master, her body compelled into a lust so unnatural she couldn’t disobey, the mental suggestions forcibly arousing her and blinding all logic and reason as Iyen-Shuren violated her. The aftermath always felt like something beyond rape and she had lost count of the number of times she had wanted to kill him for it.

He slipped past her and moved slowly towards the wooden bower, expecting his shikigami to assume her customary position next to him which she did, standing silently beside to the crude throne as Iyen-Shuren sat in his cross-legged pose once more. Looking sideways at her, he began, ‘Your report. Have they succeeded?’

She shook her head still wearing the same emotionless mask, trying to hide the glee deep down within her at the Komeiji sisters’ failure. ‘I can no longer touch their thoughts. They have somehow fallen despite the limited resistance the seekers claim they had found. I am unable to tell from this distance whether or not they still have a hope for recovery.’

Iyen-Shuren look unperturbed despite the damning report he had just heard. ‘Another setback? The sisters’ defeat comes as a complete surprise. So the human curiosity continues to defy all odds. Truly, she is a tenacious one. What demonic abilities did she summon this time?’

Shou knew not herself, but she was determined to lead her master to believe otherwise. The more doubts and lies she could fill Iyen-Shuren with, the better it would be for the human’s welfare in the near future. ‘I am uncertain. It could be the same berserker rage she had demonstrated at Moriya Shrine. Perhaps it would be wise not to risk future losses by sending anyone else after her and the Hakurei child.’

The decrepit elder leaned into the bower as he spoke. ‘Perhaps, my dear. But we need the child, and we need her soon. False Dawn has missed another day-cycle. We cannot chance wasting more time dallying about. Would the seekers be enough to capture her?’

‘Unwise. If the Komeiji sisters could be taken down together, the seekers would hardly be a threat now that the chimera travels with them.’ She would purposefully neglect to mention that her long-time friend had been heavily injured in the attempted capture.

‘Disturbing thoughts. What of the ice fairy?’

Suppressing a snicker, she answered her master truthfully for a change. ‘Gone. Cirno greatly fears the human now. She has retreated back to the lake, unwilling to answer my summons. It is probable that she does not desire another encounter with the human girl.’

Iyen-Shuren made a small snort at that. ‘I would expect nothing less from her kind. Unreliable and fickle as always. No matter. She has served her use for now. We will deal with her once our crisis is over. There will be others to take her place for the moment.’ His face scrunched into a frown as he considered the numerous pawns in the assembly minutes ago. ‘It’s a shame we cannot use the uneducated mass out there as decent hunters. They would cause more chaos simply trying to follow specific orders compared to capturing the child alive. If only I weren’t so old…’ Frowning, he turned to address her directly. ‘What of our other friend in the underground city?’

Shou shrugged at that. ‘Vana has been uncharacteristically idle despite the recent developments. It is a likely sign he is starting to act on his own designs to obtain the last Hakurei given our failures lately.’

‘Deluded fool. Why he insists on being on his own is beyond me. We cannot let the worthless ingrate procure the child. The stakes are too high for another one of his useless games.’ Running a hand over his face tiredly, he stared into the solitary fire with glassy eyes. ‘Constantly riling up the youkai and keeping them unified to face the Visitors already takes more effort than I care to spend. I do not want to have to deal with Vana as a side-dish. And to add insult to injury, the human curiosity continues to elude us with our prize in tow.’

‘What should we do?’ Shou asked, a dual purpose to her question. She would also find out what she could about her master’s next move and counteract it accordingly if it was possible.

He gave her a withered smile. ‘Nothing. Nothing for now. This time, we let Vana take the first step. The human and the traitors are well aware of us now. Perhaps it is time to, as humans would say, “lay low” for the time being. They would not expect Vana to act against them. Once he does, we shall see how we can take advantage of the situation.’ Reaching out one hand to grasp at her arm affectionately, he queried her, ‘Are you well enough to travel once more?’

‘Well enough,’ she replied simply without looking down at him, wishing for nothing but to tear her hand away from the disgusting creature.

‘Then there is something you can do for me. Shadow the human and the ilk accompanying her. Use stealth. Report the first sign of Vana’s intervention to me. We need to act before he has a chance to steal the Hakurei child away. When he has caught them by surprise, we will catch him by surprise in return.’ Waving with his other two hands at the earthen wall opposing his resting place, he motioned for Shou to go. ‘I will send you to the last location the seekers had time to move the marker to, somewhere within the vicinity of Hakurei Shrine. Make haste, there is much ground left for you to cover before you can catch up with the human.’

‘As you will…’ Bastard, she added the silent and shielded word in her mind. This was more than she had bargained for; Iyen-Shuren had more or less given her free reign to do as she pleased, at least for the time being. She would make full use of this unprecedented opportunity.

Moving up to the wall, she pressed through the rippling barrier once more, this time welcoming the uncomfortable sensation as it brought her away from the object of her singular hate. She would be free from him for a few days, and she would savor every second of it.

But there would be time enough to seek out the wanderer later. For now, she would visit an old friend.
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"I’ve lived, walked, and breathed my dreams. I know it’s real; I just know it. It exists, hovering just beyond the tips of my fingers akin to a teasing ghost of a loved one long gone.

Someday, we will walk hand-in-hand as we cross into the forbidden garden; the paradise land of Gensokyo."

- Maribel Han, memo to Renko

Her shikigami’s voice disrupted her chain of thoughts. ‘Against all odds, Nue has somehow managed to turn back the attack. She still lives, but I can sense she has been greatly weakened.’

‘Excellent. Lady Luck favors us this turn,’ she replied pleasantly even as the suppressed frustration threatened to break her composure. Her failure in divining Iyen-Shuren’s misdirection had nearly caused the loss of the Hakurei child. She swore silently to herself that there would be no second time; the bastard elder will get his due in the days to come.

Eyeing the imposing figure in silence, she saw tiny signs of anger breaking through the placid mask despite her master’s best effort at hiding it. Ran continued, trying to put Yukari at ease despite the complications, ‘They should break through the bamboo groves in a day or two, slightly behind schedule but I foresee no further problems. Iyen-Shuren will likely not attempt anything further until he has a solid means of abducting the child.’

Yukari turned to grip Ran’s shoulder reassuringly. ‘Do not underestimate him, Ran. He hasn’t lived this long simply because he got lucky. The elder is a creature of great cunning and guile with years of experience to back it up. We cannot afford another mistake like the one in Eientei.’ Returning to pace around the metallic tower rounded at its peak, she looked up at the obelisk-like object longingly, caressing its smooth surface and staring about the small circle it lay in.

Glancing at the object with great discomfort, Ran made a point not to look at it for too long in contrast to Yukari. No matter how many times they had visited the place, it always unsettled her to watch the unearthly structure defy the very laws of nature around it. The swampy waters were held back in a perfect circle around the object, seemingly blocked by an invisible wall ringing the slanted obelisk. Gnarled trees grew away from it, fearful of the foreign invader in their lands and streams of swamp water flowed constantly in tiny gravity-defying aerial rivers around the oddity. She wanted to be away from the obelisk for reasons she couldn’t comprehend. ‘Why are we here again? We can never seem to learn anything from studying these things, even after all these years.’

Yukari’s eyes shone in a different light as their gazes met. ‘No. Something’s different this time, Ran. The obelisks called out to the wanderer the day the auroras appeared. We may finally be on the verge of a great discovery; of these things, of the Visitors, of everything that has been going on during the past few hundred years.’ Looking up at the dancing aurora hanging in the air above, she spoke softly to her shikigami, ‘Yuhiko may be the solution to our crisis, but she is still a key nonetheless. I suspect the wanderer may be the one who will finally find a way to fit the key in the lock of our mind-boggling puzzle.’

Ran reached out to draw an idle finger over the surface of the unblemished steel, making a light tinkling sound as she did. ‘You think Maribel Han had a hand in the source of these…?’ She was at loss for words to describe the obelisk.

Her master shook her head, throwing her golden locks about gracefully. ‘Maribel Han had merely been the seed, not the tree. Her revelation of Gensokyo’s existence to the human world was an honest venture born from curiosity and her desire to explore. The time between her natural death and the arrival of these things in Gensokyo spans too many years for her to be held responsible.’ She paced over to the other side to glance up at the incomprehensible runes lining the obelisk. ‘Even if the humans after her harbored malicious intents in sending these supposed-weapons into Gensokyo, there was still no comprehensible connection between the appearance of the Visitors and these things, regardless of whether or not there was a link between the two. The humans Outside had no reason to attack us in any way.’

The contradictions had always given them much reason to ponder and little information to offer an explanation. ‘If not a weapon against us, perhaps they are a countermeasure against the Visitors then?’ Ran wondered aloud.

Yukari shrugged at that. ‘Unfortunately, the only people who can answer that question are long gone if what the wanderer told us is true. Their secrets died with the Outside world; we are left to puzzle on their legacy alone. Why have they sent these things into Gensokyo? What is their connection with the Visitors? Why are the Visitors so fixated on False Dawn? Moot question. We are left with the here and now; we have to make do with it.’

The thought gave Ran a small shudder. ‘I cannot even begin to fathom how the Outside humans could possibly penetrate the Great Boundary with these things to begin with. Their knowledge and understanding of Gensokyo must have grown immensely to be able to achieve something of this magnitude.’

‘You have a point there, Ran. Occasional slippage of people and random objects through tiny ripples in the Hakurei Barrier is not uncommon in our history, but deliberate penetration of the barrier is something only a select few have been able to achieve before in the past, such as Kotiya Sanae and her patrons and even that required divine intervention.’ She cocked her head slightly, motioning for them to move away from the unearthly monument. ‘For the humans to be able to pose such a threat, it is a small comfort knowing that they are gone. Perhaps someday our wanderer can tell us more of these things, but we have little time left for such exploratory luxuries now.’

Yukari drew a slit in the air with a single outstretched finger and the space parted for her. ‘I need you to go on ahead to Mabiri and wait for the rest. Tell them I will be delayed for a few days when they arrive. We can no longer indulge in subtleties. It’s time I upped the stakes of our little psychological game with Vana and Iyen-Shuren.’

Watching the gap elongate and close about the golden waves of hair, Ran left the monument without so much as a wasted second. With Yukari gone, she had even less inclination to sit around the taboo area, feeling the sensation of millions of eyes following her even as she fled quickly into the night.
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‘By the gods, you’re heavier than you look,’ I panted as I tried to drag the added weight of Nue through the mud and muck reaching well past my waist. The swamp seemed to suck and draw everything it caught under its depths and it took great effort just to keep pushing my feet every step forward.

‘Oh shut up. Went through hell and back for you four, I did. Show a little gratitude at least,’ she snarled mockingly into my ear as she clung to my back, forcing me to cringe from the sharp tone. ‘I wouldn’t need to suffer this indignity if I could move through this muck on my own.’

Keizo spoke up from the side, seemingly having a much better time wading through the infernal swamp, likewise carrying Short Stuff behind him. ‘Well yeah, but we wouldn’t be here chatting if she didn’t work her little exploding magic on the two that night. Give her a break; she agreed to carry you through the swamp, didn’t she?’

‘It’s not like you people gave me much of a choice,’ I muttered under my breath, trying to blow away an annoying mosquito hovering about my head constantly, waiting for a chance to draw some blood. Suddenly, I wished I could just take one hand away from underneath Nue to slay the little vampire.

Snickering at my words, Keizo voiced out my unspoken complaint. ‘If only a certain two someone wasn’t so short, eh? I swear I could drop the kid upright now and her head will disappear into the nice pool we’re wading through.’ Short Stuff whined in a small voice at that and shook her head hard, clinging tighter to Keizo as he guffawed out loud. I had half a mind to do the same to Nue just to see what her reaction would be like.

The mosquito came back in a nosedive, picking an exposed spot on my neck to gorge on. I cursed at the bloodsucking thief as I swung my head about. The youkai hanging onto me seemed greatly amused by my discomfort and I sighed out loud at her. ‘Can’t you at least danmaku this midget vampire for me?’

‘As you command, your grace.’ She waited until the mosquito settled on my right ear before pointing one finger at it. Noticing her outstretched finger from one corner of my eye, I averted my head in alarm just in time to evade the bolt of plasma she let loose, leaving singed hair and a half-cooked ear in its wake.

‘Damn you, Nue! You could have clipped my ear off!’ I sloshed about angrily in the murky waters, trying to regain my balance as she giggled non-stop. Even Keizo and Short Stuff could spare a few seconds to laugh at Nue’s antic, forgetting their troubles momentarily. At least someone was happy, I grumbled silently to myself as I adjusted the chimera into a more comfortable position behind. She made no complaints as I did, which was rather uncharacteristic of her given what I’ve seen of her during the past few days we had been travelling together.

The minutes slipped by rapidly and Keizo had descended into another one of his talkative moods, bantering with Short Stuff about little things of no importance and even making an effort to include Nue in their conversation. I tried to listen-in on their meandering chatting, but the constant humming ringing in my head did a good job at blotting out their voices. Spying on the faces of both Keizo and Short Stuff earlier told me that they couldn’t hear the incessant humming and I pondered briefly if this was some sort of side-effect from my shortened lifespan.

Swamp water and floating plants rode the waves I made outwards and I stared at the undulating spectacle in silence, listening to the annoying humming only I could seem to hear. It was coming from somewhere within the swamps but I couldn’t tell from where exactly. A soft calling, a pulling of the heartstrings, indescribable sensations and I tried to focus on the ringing dissonance with nothing else left to do for the moment. The mismatched hums began to settle into something more meaningful and a lonely tone suddenly rang out clear to disperse the dissonance.

I brought my head up sharply; wanting to listen to the enchanting tunes that I was somehow sure would follow the clarion call. And it did. A soft, melodious rain of tinkling tones marking the start of a strangely familiar sonata. I knew the song from somewhere, someone had once taught it to me before in times long forgotten. Abruptly, the melody stopped mid-way and everything fell into silence within my mind.

But I knew what would come after the point it stopped. Without knowing why, I began to hum the continuation of the melody, hesitantly at first as I tried to follow the invisible verses of the song but the memories came back stronger and I was able to hum the rest of it.

Something reacted in alarm at my response, and it reached out with the melody once more, stronger than before. The haunting tunes began to pick up in strength as I hummed the remainder of it.

We carried forth into the chorus in tandem; the melody within complementing what I suddenly realized was the sound of my own voice in a clear hymn as we brought the song into a crescendo and its subsequent coda and my voice died away the same time the melody vanished like morning dew.

I forced my eyes shut for a moment, unsure of what had just happened. The sudden, deep silence brought me back to reality and I cracked my eyes open to glance at Keizo and Short Stuff staring at me, spellbound. ‘What?’

‘That was beautiful. I’ve never heard anything like that before,’ Short Stuff whispered from behind Keizo as he shook his head in wonder and started wading once more. ‘Where did you learn that?’ he asked as he moved closer to me.

‘An old song. A very old song. I can’t remember who taught me that,’ I answered truthfully. All traces of the humming had disappeared but the solitary presence continued to wail its siren call from somewhere within the swamps, seemingly mourning now as I drew further and further away from it. I quickened my wading in discomfort, trying to ignore the insistent call.

Nue planted her head on my left shoulder to whisper something. ‘Most unusual, wanderer. I recognized small bits of your hymn. It is part of a near-forgotten folktale regarding the creation of the world very few youkai still know of, a myth they called the Rig Veda, the song of creation.’

I shrugged lightly, bouncing her head as I did. ‘Song of creation? It’s just a pretty melody. You’re looking a little too much into a simple bit of music.’

‘Hmm? One has to wonder nonetheless, but you may be right.’ She settled backwards and spoke in a normal voice. ‘We should be coming near dry grounds soon. One of your human hours, more or less. We-’

‘Hold!’ Keizo called out urgently, abruptly interrupting Nue and we all ground to a halt in alarm. With one outstretched hand, he pointed straight at False Dawn and everyone else stared upwards in tandem.

Framed by the inky twilight, swarms of the Visitors converged on the monolithic monument suspended in Gensokyo’s sky, rapidly tearing off from the land below to drift upward like an inverse rain of black and Short Stuff averted her gaze at the sight of them. For the first time, I could see just how dispersed they were throughout the land of Gensokyo and the innumerable streams of rising shadows told me that their numbers were far greater than what we had all suspected to be. Like ghosts joining their body, the pulsing river of black swam and weaved around False Dawn in a perfect torus, seemingly agitated by something even as countless more of their numbers continued to seep forth from their hidden places everywhere, dispersing even the clouds partially hiding False Dawn as they swam around it.

‘The hell are those things?’ Keizo breathed out his wonder. Short Stuff buried her head between his shoulder blades in reply and Nue issued a sharp order as she lost her childish playfulness and reassumed the authoritative presence, urging us onwards. ‘Save the talk for much later. Move. Keep moving. We may be in danger.’

I didn’t need additional prompting and I waded onwards with added vigor even as Keizo tried to keep up despite his confusion. I had no wish to come into contact with the Visitors once more, especially in such a vulnerable place and the anxiety fueled by desperation gave me all the strength I could ever ask for to overcome my fatigue now. Hammering the sludge underfoot with great vengeance, I strode through the swamp without even slowing down in the slightest and Keizo began to look tired in comparison as he struggled to match my inhuman pace. I had little time to wonder to myself what had gone wrong. Rilofene and Short Stuff should still be shielded from their sight. What had caused their sudden agitation?

In time, we made it to the dry hillocks that marked the end of the swamps we had been traversing for most of the entire day and we hurried towards where Nue directed us to go, a small canyon serving as a landmark where we were supposed to meet up with Reiji who had gone around the swamplands instead in the interest of preserving his precious cargo; our fresh food and water, from being fouled up by the infernal swamp.

Short Stuff was back on her own feet and Keizo had taken over the task of carrying Nue once more. I was more than glad to be finally freed from her weight and we made good time as the last of the swamplands gave way to sparse woods. Glancing up at False Dawn, I noticed that the skies were clear of the flowing streams of black. They had vanished as suddenly as they had appeared. I couldn’t tell for certain if this was a regular recurrence for the Visitors but something from Nue’s demeanor earlier told me it wasn’t. Even with their sudden disappearance, it couldn’t dispel the sense of unease that washed through me now.

Quickening our steps, we hastened down the canyon that eventually drew into sight, glad to be able to stop for the night soon. Keizo walked back to the lip of the canyon to await Reiji’s arrival once we had somewhat settled down and I took the opportunity to collapse into a nice alcove in the fissure’s walls. Nue sat alone some distance away, poking at rocks like a bored child but the look on her face told me she was thinking deep about something, probably the unusual spectacle the Visitors had demonstrated earlier. She gave me a reassuring nod when she noticed my stare, perhaps realizing what had crossed my mind at the moment.

Burying my face into my hands, I rubbed at it in a physical attempt to dispel the dark thoughts. Useless to worry about it now; it wasn’t as if I could do something about it. I shivered slightly as the cooled night air drifted down into the canyon; clothing dampened by the swampy crossing helped little with preserving body heat. The insistent hunger in my guts made me wish Reiji would hurry up with the rations in tow. I could use a good meal before I had to crash for the night.

Glancing idly at Nue once more, I saw her dart her eyes over to one side repeatedly and I followed her gaze curiously. A few feet away from the alcove sat the solitary figure of Short Stuff, looking forlorn as she glanced about aimlessly. Mouthing a silent “what” to Nue, I received a frown in return before she cocked her head in annoyance and I saw her roll her eyes as I continued to stare at her stupidly. She mouthed something to me once she was sure Short Stuff wasn’t accidentally looking her way, gesturing at her with open palms emphasizing every one of her unspoken words. “You. Are. So. Dense.”


I blew out a loud whistle to catch her attention and Short Stuff turned sharply at the sound. Motioning for her to come forward with one hand, I patted the ground next to me and it took her a while to understand what I was trying to indicate but she complied without questions nonetheless. Instead of sliding down into a casual position, she sat in her customary pose, legs folded and body upright in that rigid formality as she faced me.

Giving her a poke with one finger that instantly broke her seating pose, I spoke quickly to erase the pout forming on her young face. ‘Better start getting rid of that habit of being so formal or I’m going to have to start calling you Short Statue instead.’

She leaned on one side and braced herself with one arm in reply and I gave her a congratulatory ruffle in the hair. ‘See? Wasn’t so hard to sit all relaxed now, was it?’ I caught a small smile from her at that.

Leaning back, I closed my eyes to grab a few minutes of sleep, hoping that exchange was enough to satisfy Nue’s babysitting urges. Short Stuff broke my momentary retreat with a light remark, ‘Keizo was right. You really do sleep wherever and wherever you can.’

Did she just call me a lazy ass? ‘Hey, it’s called efficiency. Why bother wasting time looking for a bed when anything flat would serve just as well?’ I gave her a wink as I reopened my eyes. ‘Pretty chatty tonight. Thought you were pissed at me.’

She looked down quickly in shame as she mumbled, ‘I am… um, was… well… maybe?’

Planting two fingers under her chin, I lifted her head up. ‘At any rate, I suppose I owe you my overdue thanks for what you did for me at Eientei. It was a foolish thing to do. You should have run, but I’m glad you stayed. It all worked out in the end anyhow.’

Her eyes regained much of the liveliness I hadn’t seen since our earlier days in the temple. ‘I saw you fight that night, going at the youkai with bare sticks even when you could have ran and abandoned us to them. I realized then I had hated the wrong person; that you had changed somehow compared to the previous you. You fought not to preserve your own life then, but to protect something. Tell me I’m wrong.’

She was. Probably. But was I being honest with myself? My refusal to flee stemmed from the fact I needed Short Stuff close-by for the protection she could provide from the Visitors, but I had to admit when I resorted to using crude stakes to attack Deat Meat, that had been the last thing on my mind. In a surprising turn of events, it would seem that Kanako had been right. Perhaps the kid had changed me a fair bit more than I dared to admit. ‘You might be wrong,’ I replied simply.

Short Stuff shook her head strongly at that. ‘No. No more lies and ambiguity. I can’t keep living with the confusion. I want to hear it straight from you now. Look me in the eye and tell me the truth. What were you trying to protect? Us, or merely something you could make use of out of us?’

I glanced away for a few seconds to catch Nue staring intently at us. She was listening to our conversation with her sharp senses and something in her eyes told me I had better use the “proper” reply to answer Short Stuff’s peculiar question. I sighed inwardly at that. My image as a compulsive liar must be ingrained in them pretty hard to warrant such attention. It wasn’t as if I was an obsessed liar, not all the time at least.

Then again, the answer wasn’t too hard to utter as I returned to meet Short Stuff’s hungry eyes. ‘You, kid. Not them. You.’

My answer caught her by surprise. Certainly, not something she was expecting at all but it did move her beyond words as her eyes started to mist over. In the background, Nue flashed a rare, triumphant smile just before Short Stuff tackled me in a sudden embrace that knocked the wind out of my lungs, gripping my chest tight as she buried her head into it for long minutes. This time, we would be no secrets left to keep between us.

I looked back at Nue, pointing silently at Short Stuff as I mouthed my question. “Happy now?”

Her only reply was a sweet grin.
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Poor, poor Shou.
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Yeah, no doubt about it, perhaps she wouldn't have minded death. But I think she does plan on running interference for the time being.
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And you think that Three Arm is just REALLY going to let her do as she pleases? I think letting her go was a feint so that he could have her followed. Shou might try to contact, or leave a message for our heroine. I really don't think that Three Arm trusts Shou as much as he seems to.
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Well with Eientei deserted, that only leaves few major powers uncounted for, the Scarlet Devil Mansion, the Yama and her reaper, and the Gensokyo Dragon

Also this story is awesome.
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Gensokyo has a dragon?

Also, you forgot Makai and the Netherworld.
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Dragon Palace, Tenshi's dad, etc.
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Tenshi's dad =/= Dragon

You're confusing Lord Nai, celestial/God in charge of earthquakes and the prevention thereof, with the Dragon, the Creator.
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Something soft settled on my face and I reached out a hand to brush away the clump of fluffy cold, turning on the hard ground of the canyon as I did, too sleepy to bother waking up to inspect the annoyance. Someone moved behind me as I shifted in my sleep; a slight stirring of warmth. Short Stuff. Memories of her rapidly-cooling body as she edged close to death during our flight from Moriya Shrine came back and I reflexively reached behind to reaffirm her presence. Her warmth was there, small but strong now, so unlike the night I had almost killed her.

Pinpricks of icy cold settled on my exposed arm and I drew back in surprise, opening my eyes as I brought myself upright and I stared at the little spots of white which had settled on my arm in a daze. In wordless wonder, I beheld the spectacle unfolding all around me, taking long minutes to recognize the countless bits of cotton tossing about to be actual snow. The overcast skies were gray, False Dawn was practically invisible behind the heavy clouds, and numerous drops of drifting snow rained down softly on the canyon. Snatching one of the white wonders drifting down close to me, I rubbed my fingers over them curiously. Cold, wet, and very real. It wasn't an illusion; it really was snowing.

Throwing a quick glance about our camp, I noted the presence of both Keizo and Reiji as they lay huddled in their own spot, having curled up into a tight ball as they spent the cold night. At some point after I had gone to sleep, Short Stuff had likewise crawled over to me and passed the uncomfortable night trying to draw whatever heat she could from me. Her prone form shivered every now and then as she muttered inaudibly in her sleep now. Of Nue there was no sign of her, but her absence didn't worry me much; she would not stray away from Short Stuff for long and I was more surprised at the fact that she could now move about on her own. Her recovery had been faster than I had expected it to be.

I returned my attention to the rain of white, coming to a gentle stop on everything it settled on. Gensokyo had just entered fall less than two weeks ago and it was already snowing. Something didn't seem right here. My mind grinded away in suspicion as it tried to formulate some sort of explanation for this new phenomenon, but ultimately it was the voice within who took the liberty to explain the curiosity to me.

'Do not be alarmed, we are in no danger. Weather perturbations are not unusual in Gensokyo. They happen every now and then ever since the celestial had wreaked havoc on Gensokyo's weather system a long time ago with the Sword of Hisou.'

'What celestial?' I sent the voiceless thought to Kanako.

'Hinanai Chiko, more commonly known as Hinanai Tenshi to some of us. She has become as much of a nomad as you in the recent years, travelling aimlessly and occasionally bringing about the weather anomalies wherever the celestial chose to make a temporary stop. I would hazard a guess that she might be in the area now. It is highly likely the snowfall is a reaction to her presence.'

'Messed with nature again? You people never learn.' Bringing my head upwards, I let the soft snowflakes land on my exposed skin, greatly enjoying the feel of the cold rivulets as they melted from the heat and ran down my face. Winter had always been one of the small pleasures I still enjoyed in the world.

'A painful and sad fact, my friend. It will take scores more years for the weather system to return to normal, another fine example on why we should never disrupt the natural balance of things. I learned that lesson the hard way, as did Yukari.'

As long as she wasn't a threat to us, I was content to let this celestial rain snow or hail however her whims swung her. Turning to give Short Stuff a small shake only caused her to curl up into a smaller ball and I let her go back to sleep. Some exercise would probably be good for dealing with the numbing cold and dispersing the sleep-induced drowsiness. I made my way to the middle of the cold fire pit in short order, taking care not to make too much noise as I did in consideration of the camp's still-slumbering inhabitants. The fire had gone out hours ago, taking the warmth it had poured forth with its unnoticed leave. With an idle foot, I stirred the ashen remains as I inspected the ground where Nue had lain. Small footprints led away from it to be replaced by the familiar paw-marks indicative of her favorite form; the mismatched Frankenstein. She had probably taken the opportunity to scout on ahead as she waited for the rest of us to awaken.

A cursory inspection of the water gourds yielded icy-cold waters, almost like the child of a fresh stream down the peaks of the Youkai Mountain. I threw the contents of one down my throat, feeling my insides shrink from the cold as I did. By the gods, I had to admit that had felt so good. Reaching down for another gourd, I felt Kanako’s lingering presence draw a curious question.

’Don’t you want to ask where your patron is?’

‘No.’ I replied shortly without hesitation, snatching a second gourd from the ground and popping the wooden cork off. Empty.

’I’ve been wondering for a while now. What exactly happened between the two of you to sour things so? Your memories go back so far into the past even I cannot reach some of it. While I don’t expect all servants of divinity to retain a cordial relationship with their former patrons, yours is a case I would call exceptional.’

‘You are still young by my standards, Kanako. The gods of old are not in the least like the newer pantheons. Their servants are nothing more than mindless slaves to them.’ I breathed out into the cold air, my breath condensing with every exhalation as I rattled the rest of my thoughts to her. ‘I was one. I hated her. She took everything away from me and made me into a genocidal monster, an emotionless doll, a tool, an expendable asset.’ Giving Short Stuff a glance, I added, ‘Much like what the kid is becoming.’

’And yet… she saw fit to grant you the remainder of her existence.’

‘Merely a selfish action. She wanted to go on “living”, and she used me as her vessel,’ the explanation came easily.

’Perhaps you are right, but she might have another reason for that. “The irrationality of a thing is no argument against its existence, rather a condition of it.” Does that sound familiar?’

An involuntary smile formed on my lips at that. ‘Friedrich Nietzsche. Never thought even gods would be interested in the words of dead philosophers.’ Kanako’s reply came slowly, almost sadly.

’The book was a favorite of Sanae’s. We would spend many evenings simply reading his quotes and debating amongst ourselves on how wrong he was. Suwako would always side with her whenever we disagreed.’

I paced around the fire pit, rubbing my joints energetically to get the blood running and thinking about breakfast. Keizo’s delectable rabbit dish from last night had reminded my guts to growl in hunger. ‘Well good for her; she had good patrons. Miss her much?’

’Every second I lived. She was more our child than our priestess. We loved her greatly, and when she finally passed from this world, everything felt empty and meaningless. Suwako and I stopped talking and she eventually vanished as well. I was left all alone, and in return I shut myself away from everything. Do not be so quick to disregard Rilofene. You might be to her what Sanae was to me and Suwako.’

It took great effort to resist the urge to snort in disdain. ‘Not to disparage your sentimentalism, but you don’t know squat about Rilofene. You don’t really want to find out what her definition of “affection” is. She is a pestilence unmatched and the world is a far better place without a cancer like that lording over it.’

Kanako’s thoughts rang out loud, but I sensed that it was not directed at me. Rather, it was at someone who had been silently listening to our exchange and I brimmed with sudden fury at Kanako’s deliberate negligence in mentioning Rilofene’s presence.

’Do you see now, Rilofene? This is how your very own priestess views you. An amoral creature devoid of humanity, unworthy to serve. Remember now the ennui you showed her in the past few months.’

Absolute silence.

I pressed an irritated thought at them as I scattered the ashes in the fire pit in anger with a strong kick, sending rocks and pebbles skittering loudly with the drifting haze. ‘Get out of my head. Both of you. NOW.’

They acquiesced without as much as a peep. Reiji stirred awake at the noise and it took a moment for his eyes to widen in wonder at the sight of all the snow. He started to ask a question, caught my angry frown, and thought better of it as he quickly averted his gaze. Instead, he leaned over to shake Keizo awake and the huge figure unfurled from his huddled pose, shivering visibly as he did. ‘Hey Keizo, it’s snowing!’

The big man reached for his cracked glasses lying on the pouches of rations and hurriedly pushed them on, eyes widening to mirror Reiji’s earlier amazement as he glanced about. ‘Hell. It’s just one thing after another. First those black ghosts last night, now a damned snowfall. What’s wrong with Gensokyo?’ Like déjà vu, he turned towards me to ask about the phenomenon, saw the look on my face, and changed his mind instantly. ‘Where’s Nue?’ he addressed Reiji instead.

‘Gone for a little walk,’ I answered for him, letting the anger drift apart and forcing the stoic mask to fall back in. ‘Stack the firewood. I’ll get some kindling.’

The master-apprentice pair began to busy themselves about the camp as I wandered about the perimeter idly, picking up small branches and dry leaves which had managed to escape the melted snow for the time, fuming at Kanako all the while. What did she hope to accomplish, fix my estranged relationship? I began to miss her senility in light of her sentimentality. An endlessly raving lunatic in my head might not sound like the best of companions, but at least it would have the decency to mind its own business.

Reiji went off somewhere to refill the gourds, and Keizo started to run the hare meat through a sharpened stick once they had piled the firewood. Returning to the fire pit, I dumped the kindling onto it unceremoniously just as Short Stuff began to stir awake, triggering another déjà vu as she froze in shock at the rapidly piling snow all around.

She ran to us in excitement, exclaiming breathlessly as she ground to a halt. ‘It’s snowing! Two weeks into fall!’ Keizo waved her down tiredly with another wooden skewer he was carving out as she circled me with a little laugh, catching snowflakes with her open mouth all the while.

I plopped to the ground in front of the fire pit, trying to light the kindling with Keizo’s flint and a dull knife. The sparks bounced on them ineffectually and I cursed Nue’s absence. She would have been able to effortlessly light the firewood alone. Or perhaps blow away the fire pit completely if she was in her childish mood. I struck the flint with renewed fury at the thought of losing my morning warm-up.

Short Stuff chose to pepper me with her questions then. ‘What’s with the snow? Where’s Nue and Reiji?’

Keizo deemed to answer on my behalf seeing how I was fixatedly tormenting his poor flint. ‘No idea where the snow came from. As for the two of them, they’ll be back soon. Settle down, we’ll eat and move later. We’re almost there now.’

The embers finally flared to life amidst the growing cold and the fire came back, showering us with its comforting warmth at long last. The skewers went on top of the stack as I ran a tongue over my cracked and dry lips in relish. This will be another heartening meal, one of many I will soon miss once we get to the supposed village Nue was bringing us to.

Reiji returned just as Nue did, the two of them striding towards us from opposing directions. In glee, Reiji dropped his cargo on the ground carelessly as he bustled around the fire, soaking up the heat in delight. Nue was more reserved and looked to be unbothered by the cold in the least as she brought us all up to speed. She explained to the other three where the unexpected snowfall had come from, or rather, who. Indicating that the way ahead was free from danger, she mentioned that our goal lay only three hours away from our camp. Soon, we would be able to hide and rest in comfort, at least for a time. The isolated village would be able to offer shelter and peace until we could all work out our troubles.

The discussion was short and concise; everyone easily reached a unanimous agreement. Eat, drink, and bury everything left in our final campsite; leave no traces of us ever having passed this area. No more sleeping out in the wilds drenched by rain; no more feasting on stale hare meat, no need for the constant worry about running out of water, and best of all, the end of our harried flight lay in sight. I suppose Keizo and Reiji would be extremely pleased to know that they would be able to take their leave of us soon, having fulfilled Yukari’s request to the letter.

As for me, I would see what fate had in store for me there.
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We had sighted the small community on our descent down the natural canyon, far larger than the one we had previously camped in. Holes dotted the face of the canyon walls and various outcroppings fashioned from timber grew from it, the only sign that the canyon was settled when viewed from my vantage point. The village sat in a crossroad of sorts, right in the middle of the massive cross-shaped fissure that made up most of the canyon. As we made our way ever further downwards, I noted the distinct markings of a well-traversed road everywhere I looked. The path was wide, mostly even, and various signs indicated that it experienced frequent use. For a village that was supposedly isolated from the rest of Gensokyo, it looked like plenty had come and gone from it in recent times.

Nue had taken her leave once more, vanishing after a short word of instruction for us to continue onwards. She made no mention about what she was doing or where she was going but I knew she was scouting ahead again, obsessively cautious as per her nature especially after what had happened in Eientei. We would meet up again in the settlement and I wouldn’t miss her presence for now, even though the other three behind me seemed to be clearly unsettled by her sudden departure. Weeks spent in the wild had made them jittery and it didn’t look like they would be able to lose their wary edge anytime soon. Short Stuff tried to walk closer to me and I hurriedly stepped away in an evasive manner. Frowning, she picked up her pace and tried to follow my retreat constantly and we pranced about in an annoying waltz in front of Keizo and Reiji, stopping only when he threw me an irritated glare as a way of telling me to stop teasing her.

Dusk began to show its face by the time we neared the unconventional community set in the face of the canyon walls and still, there was no sign of Nue. Nevertheless, Reiji had reassured us that there would be no shortage of welcomes once we reached the village and no amount of badgering him about it could get him to reveal just what he had meant by that; the only thing he would say was that the community was what he called home. It was something I would just have to be patient and see for myself soon enough.

A sharp curve of the path led us through a little oasis of sorts in the middle of the pathway, with a single leafless tree growing out of a pond ringed by small clumps of grass rapidly drowned by the snowflakes that had continued to drift down from the gray skies since morning. Next to the pond, a striking figure sat on a boulder of sorts as she gave us no more than a passing glance before she took another bite out of the peach she was holding onto.

Striking waves of blue strands tumbled down her back, reminding me much of Ice Cubes, but instead of the aura of hostility the fairy had projected, this particular individual gave off a haughty air of superiority, though not consciously. Her hat looked like something we could have used during our long trek in the wilds, with peaches growing out of it and I wondered briefly if underneath the velvet folds, a mini peach tree grew. Our eyes met for a moment and I chose to ignore her as I broke our stand-off and returned my stare to the path ahead.

The other three behind deliberately detoured around where she sat in edgy silence, startled by the sight of another soul other than ourselves since we had departed from Hakurei Shrine so many days ago. As Short Stuff passed her, she spoke suddenly in a neutral voice, seemingly addressing Short Stuff even as she kept her gaze fixed on the empty space where we had just passed through moments ago.

‘ - What awaits beyond the boundless depths of memories?
- The womb that shelters its children,
- A golden path, the sacrificial vessel to a new future,
- The end to the twilight, beyond the furthest reaches of despair,
- What lies in the deepest recesses of blackened hearts?’

Short Stuff stopped dead in her tracks as she listened to the ponderous voice, moving only when Keizo backtracked to haul her off with one arm on her hand. Even then, she managed to throw a few glances at the figure as she was marched off. I turned back to look at the now-silent figure as well, waiting for the other three to catch up. The voluminous folds of her white-blue dress shifted noiselessly as she turned surreptitiously to look at Short Stuff, only to catch me staring at her and she threw her gaze back towards the rear of the path once more, hopping off of the boulder which the ground rapidly swallowed up as she stalked off into the deepening darkness of the young night.

Queer fellow.

Reiji beckoned at me as he waited at the beginning of another sharp turn in the path with the other two. Hurrying to join them, I took the opportunity to ask Reiji a question before we hit the outer perimeter of the community. ‘Resident of the village?’

He knew who I had meant. ‘No. Don’t you know? That’s the one responsible for this snowfall; the wandering celestial.’

‘Real friendly person, that one,’ I commented as I walked.

‘We don’t choose to question anyone who makes a stop in Mabiri. That had always been the founding concept of the village, and the reason why it has remained mostly separate from the rest of Gensokyo. There,’ he pointed downwards at the moonlit sight that greeted us. ‘We’re finally there.’

‘Retirement home for the elderly. Welcome to the middle of nowhere, kids,’ Keizo gave me a poke jokingly as he moved past to hurry after his apprentice who now took the lead down to the settlement.

We were less than a quarter of a mile away from where I assumed was the starting point of the community, marked by the occasional thatched awning which shaded a hole or two in the face of the canyon. The artificial outcroppings occurred more frequently into the far distance and were essentially a massive jumble of crisscrossing timbers connecting all four of the canyon walls at where the village square would theoretically be located, as if the builders had gotten lazy trying to figure out a way to create a meaningful shelter and had simply tossed the remainder of their raw material up to create a crude dome of sorts. That would be typical youkai behavior; they could never keep themselves organized enough for long-term endeavors.

‘What will happen now?’ Short Stuff asked from the side, choosing to stay with me instead of following the other two who were rapidly gaining distance from us.

‘Now? Real food, a nice bed, and a warm night will happen, that’s what.’ Or at least that was what I hoped we would get.

‘You know that wasn’t what I meant,’ she replied glumly.

I gave her a playful nudge. ‘Plenty of time for that later. Just sit tight and relax for now. We’ll see what comes out of this soon enough.’ She looked satisfied to hear that and we finally started after the retreating pair, heading towards the left side of the canyon.

Light poured forth from the numerous holes in the canyon walls and the general architecture of the place reminded me of the tengu’s homes; no meaningful windows or doors, simply holes of all sizes to serve as makeshift entryways and ventilation. The awnings impaled into the rocky face above them functioned equally well as shading and a small garden where various plants grew forth abundantly. Some of them had begun to creep into the rocky crevices, finding new rooting there. The broad streets looked to be empty except for the occasional sound or voice that drifted forth from some of the lit window holes; despite its inhabitants being exclusively youkai, they seemed to have an inverse biological cycle, staying inside instead of outside during the night.

We stood underneath one of the multipurpose constructions, seemingly awaiting someone Reiji had went inside to meet beforehand. Keizo had collapsed onto one of the numerous barrels lining the exterior of the dwelling, throwing his worn shoes off to massage at his tortured calluses and groaning out loud in pleasure as he did. Ever curious, Short Stuff had proceeded to poke around the contents of one of the wooden containers and I went over to a half-open one next to her, catching a whiff of something alcoholic as I did. Pushing the cover aside and peering over the edge, I saw my own reflection as it stared back at me. The smell was almost overwhelming now and dipping one finger into the still liquid to sample it told me what it was; sake or something similar.

Leaning down into the barrel, I took the opportunity to quickly guzzle some of the free liquor, sipping directly from the barrel. A stern voice sounded from the doorway where Reiji had vanished into, causing me to choke on the liquid as it did. ‘What do you think you’re doing?’

I tore myself away from the barrel guiltily, coughing uncontrollably as I turned to face the disapproving face of someone unfamiliar. I caught sight of the singular bone growing forth from her forehead; another oni. Someone related to Reiji perhaps. Sake streamed forth from where my numerous locks of hair had dipped into the barrel and the horned figure palmed her face at the sight of me. ‘Good job, human. You just contaminated one of my finer batches.’

‘Sorry,’ I managed to mutter before descending into another bout of coughing to dislodge the liquor in my nose, standing still in front of her like some student awaiting her punishment for being caught in an inebriated state. Staving off her growing frown, she turned towards Keizo and addressed him brusquely, ‘Come on then. No sense waiting outside in this unexpected snowfall.’ Keizo stood and went in without another word, looking like he was already relatively familiar with the place. The horned figure slid past me sharply to throw the cover of the barrel back on and I blushed in guilt once more, surreptitiously wiping the sake from my leaking mouth with one sleeve. She ignored me, crouching down to speak to Short Stuff instead, causing her to take a step back cautiously.

The gesture of fear did not miss her, and the oni made no further attempt to approach Short Stuff, choosing to instead speak from where she remained crouched. ‘So you’re the young lady everyone’s been talking about. We’ve got a nice, warm fire going on inside and some food. Hungry yet?’

She nodded once as a response and the oni abruptly stood up to march off into the interior, stopping at the crude doorway to wave a hand at us, an indication that we should follow her with undue haste. ‘Well? Move it. Or are you still thinking about stealing a drink or two from my stock?’

It probably wouldn’t be a wise move to upset our new host and I chose to hurry after her. Following her through the doorway, I was surprised by how organized the interior looked compared to the shabby exterior. Finely-chiseled walls supported by stylistic pillars stretched all around the roomy space, and numerous amphorae lined the otherwise-empty spaces. The smell of fermenting rice from the huge ceramic containers told me what this place was exactly; some sort of brewery. Next to me, Short Stuff bobbled unsteadily from the heady stench of alcohol and I gave her a sharp pinch to bring her out from her accidental intoxication, eliciting a sharp yelp and a pout from her.

Keizo and Reiji was nowhere in sight. At the far end of the brewery, our host stood and waited for us next to a spiraling staircase carved out from the rock itself, beckoning at us once more with a hint of irritation at our continued hesitation and urge to gape at everything. Catching her look of impatience, we proceeded over to the staircase just as Reiji came back down, speaking to our host as he did, ‘Keizo and I will use the storage room. Suika wasn’t in her room; think we could use hers for the Hakurei maiden instead?’

The larger oni pondered the question briefly before replying, ‘Go ahead. I doubt she’ll be back anytime soon. Probably drunk and sleeping away somewhere again. Take the girl upstairs then, and watch for the gourds.’

Short Stuff remained rooted to her spot despite Reiji’s obvious invitation and I gave her a small prod towards the stairs. ‘Let’s get going then.’ I rubbed my weary arms in relish, thinking about the real bed waiting upstairs as I began to follow after Short Stuff’s steps, only to be intercepted half-way by a strong hand holding me back. My host spoke quickly before I could protest, ‘Hold on a second now. There are only three rooms up there and I’m afraid you’re going to have to sleep in the brewery.’ I stared after the disappearing figure of Short Stuff and Reiji forlornly, giving my host an imploring look before giving up in disappointment. Why must I always be the one who draws the short stick?

With only the two of us remaining in the brewery, she led me to a small corner where numerous piles of moldy sacks sat empty, indicating that the spot was to be my bed. Not the best place I could ask for, but at least I was sheltered from the cold snow outside. I collapsed onto the rough canvas without complaints, leaning back to stare up at my host who remained where she stood, giving me a curious look of annoyance as she did. Now what did I do?

She spoke harshly before turning away, her steady voice breaking out into an angry treble, ‘I’ll have you know I’m not pleased with this. Be done with your business as soon as you can and get Ran out of my face when you do. Don’t drag Reiji any further into your mess.’

Well, that explains why she looked to be so annoyed with me; it wasn’t because I had taken some liberties with her fermented stock. It was because she had probably been arm-twisted into helping us one way or another and there was little doubt a certain someone and her foxy pet had been responsible for it.

She stalked off wordlessly once she realized I had nothing to say as a reply. I had no doubt that apologies or explanations was the last thing she wanted to hear now. The only thing she sincerely wanted was for me to get out of her hair and not to involve Reiji, prompting me to wonder just who Reiji was to her.

Disappearing up into the spiraling staircase, the sounds of her footsteps vanished as well and I turned over to try and sleep despite the stench of the moldy sacks. Poking a finger through one of the coarse canvas bags, I probed around in it, occasionally coming across grains of rice. Not too strange, considering the purpose of this place. The reminder of food triggered a pang of hunger in me and I realized they had forgotten me as they probably feasted away upstairs now, all warm and cozy.

Peeking out from the dark corner of the brewery, I spied a shelf set next to the storage compartment lined with numerous jars wrapped in starched paper. Waiting a while to make sure my host wasn’t about to come down anytime soon and accidentally catch me stealing her liquor, I reached over quickly for one of the jars and dragged it over to my sleeping spot, poking a neat hole through the starched preservation cover. The aroma of well-seasoned sake wafted forth and I threw some of the contents down my throat, delighting in the luxurious texture and aroma of the sake. Good stuff; no wonder Reiji loved his guilty pleasure. If I couldn’t have dinner, then I could at least pass the night sampling my host’s fine stock.

My mind reverted back into its habitual thinking as I took occasional drinks from the plundered jar. She had mentioned Ran, which either meant the fox youkai was already here with her master or she had passed-by some time before we made it to the village. It would seem like we all managed to get here in one piece and I had to wonder why Ran hadn’t come to us yet. I experienced a gradual feeling of discomfort as I realized I had been relying on Sunshines a little bit too much for my tastes. Clearly, she wasn’t as honest as I wanted her to be and I vowed to return the favor soon. I would hold my secrets closer to my heart around her this time. She had demonstrated all too well that she could get her way with most anything, evident from seeing Keizo and my new hostess. Perhaps even me to some extent, it would seem. Adopting a cautious and suspicious stance would do well for me when dealing with the golden wonder.

Taking another swig, I found that I had actually managed to drain the jar as I sat thinking. I felt all warm and good all over; not even the cold seeping forth from outside could dampen the fire burning inside me. I felt a grin form involuntarily and I crawled over for another jar, carelessly ripping a huge hole out of it and proceeding to drain the wonderful godsend once more. An uncharacteristic giggle escaped my lips before I realized I held another empty urn. When was the last time I had giggled? I paused to wonder briefly before returning to the shelf to extract two jars this time. Just two more, I promised to myself I would stop after that, trying hard to poke another hole in the rigid paper as they seemingly danced away from my fingers, eliciting a loud curse from me as I waited for the naughty jars to stop moving about on their own.

The last two drained away and I was halfway up to get my next helping before someone whipped the ground underneath me away, forcing me to fall flat on the cold, hard stone floor. I pounded it weakly with a bunched fist in revenge. ‘Stupid floor. Stay still.’

Giddy darkness closed about rapidly. This time, I wouldn’t even be sober enough to dream of the fields of judgment.
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”Project Lemegeton has been accelerated 220 months ahead of schedule as of this notification. Widespread civil revolt has completely thrown all of New Asia into disarray and we have no hope in bringing the other half of the world back into sanity; there is no doubt that the northern hemisphere’s power grid will fail in a matter of weeks as a result from the chaos.

We can only pray that The Sift will continue to function for now. Chayot Ha Kadesh will begin displacement tests at 1200 hours tomorrow. All third-order projections have thus far indicated that breaching the invisible barrier will be possible with the latest trials and I fear we will not have enough time left for further tests.

All auxiliary personnel are to vacate the facility before 1000 hours. Gentleman, may the promised land be proven real.”

- Unnamed director, repeating video log.

Keizo stretched again as he looked out into the fuzzy skies, taking note of the snow-blanketed road below and adjusting his cracked glasses as he shielded them from the morning glow. The new dawn had bathed the village in an unearthly radiance as the white carpet reflected all light back to its source. Truly a beautiful sight to say the least. Not even the winters in the human village could show off such pristine cleanliness and the gray skies had all the indications of blessing them with another day of snowfall.

His apprentice had disappeared down to the brewery minutes ago and he began to follow suit, stepping out of the warm storage room and into the tiny hallway making up a part of the second floor of the dwelling. Navigating the minefield of empty gourds, he flipped the shoddy curtain covering the smaller room's doorway and glanced briefly at the sleeping form of the Hakurei child. She was beginning to take-on more and more of the wanderer’s annoying habits these days, such as sleeping-in late and he had to wonder whether it was an unconscious or deliberate effort.

Descending the spiraling staircase, he noted Reiji had dropped into an intent crouch in one corner of the brewery where the inhabitants had used to stash the empty rice sacks. Keizo went over to him in curiosity, trying to see what had transfixed his apprentice so.

The wanderer’s wasted form drew into sight, ringed by several puddles of vomit. Bundles of tousled hair grew like root everywhere and the dirty clothing was askew and dangerously exposed. Where the usual frown would be, there was no sight of it. The only expression she wore now was one of visible glee as she responded to Reiji’s constant poking at her red face. Every prod mechanically elicited a tiny giggle and Reiji looked to be having immense fun at triggering the automated responses.

He reached down to slap his hand aside as Reiji reached out for another poke, ‘Don’t be daft, boy. Quit playing with her! We’re dead meat if Yuugi catches her digging into the private stock.’

The reminder threw the little oni into a small panic. ‘What do we do? Yuugi’s going to come down sooner or later.’

Keizo ran through what they could do. They would have to get rid of the evidence somehow and throw their inebriated companion into a well or something before their hostess wakes up.

I’ll let you have a little fun for now while I enjoy my Sunday.

[ ] Fill the empty jars with water; bury the drunk in the snow outside.

[ ] Replace the sake with some of the ones fermenting outside and throw the irresponsible drunk into the nearest source of water.

[ ] (Write-in.)
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[ ] Replace the sake with some of the ones fermenting outside and throw the irresponsible drunk into the nearest source of water.
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[x] Replace the sake with some of the ones fermenting outside and throw the irresponsible drunk into the nearest source of water.
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[x] Replace the sake with some of the ones fermenting outside and throw the irresponsible drunk into the nearest source of water.
[x]Clean up that damn vomit.
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[ ] Fill the empty jars with water; bury the drunk in the snow outside.
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[x] Replace the sake with some of the ones fermenting outside and throw the irresponsible drunk into the nearest source of water.
[x] Clean up that damn vomit.

It must be some kind of mental Tourette's, or something, but I can't picture Yuhiko as looking like anything other than Rin from Inu Yasha.

And believe me, I hate that show.

Yet, the mental image still persists.
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Because Rin is a shining gold nugget burried in a enormous pile of shit that is Inuyasha. She's one of the few characters that one can feel anything for because they don't get just about anything they want handed to them. And isn't a raging Tsundere bitch. Letcherous monk guy was fun for a while, then he got turned to shi...


Forget I said anything.
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How does it make you feel that you will never have your own loli that follows you around?
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I can't say the resemblance was intentional so I was rather surprised at the comparison. I guess there are many things we can draw a parallel to; this one just came about accidentally.

Anyway, unexpected update.
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“Initial analysis indicates that Sol-2 may be an optical illusion caused by gravity lensing. Even so, we are unable to conclude why the doppelganger sun could generate heat and light without any apparent debilitating gravitational effects on Earth or the other celestial bodies in the solar system if it has relativistic mass.

Professor Donovan has proposed a radical hypothesis; that Sol-2 might actually be in a partially-phased state, sharing the space it occupies with another region in space to explain the absence of Sol-2's gravity well. Insofar, this phenomenon violates all established findings in terms of the Standard Model of particle physics. (Full report on pg. 428)

At this point we can only suggest conjectures, but the fact that we have gained a new sun remains, and this cannot bode well for our future.”

- UEN emergency symposium, 8 days into Sol-2’s arrival

Keizo made a hasty move to collect the incriminating evidence of their drunken friend’s indulgence, ordering Reiji to wipe clean her disgorged contents as he did. They would take care of the drunk last; there would be plenty of time for her to sober up in a pond or spring well away from the sight of their hostess. The important thing now was to clean up the mess and return the missing liquor or risk being kicked out by their temperamental hostess. He wouldn't fancy having to spend a night in the cold outside.

Motioning for his apprentice to move faster, he hauled the empty jars to where the barrels of sake sat cooling in the partially snow-buried yard, muttering a brief apology to Yuugi as he refilled the containers and replaced the preservative covers before dragging them back to the storage shelf. He didn’t know enough about liquors to judge whether or not their escapade would be noticed should their hostess choose to sample the newly-replaced sake; he could only hope for the best.

Reiji had done a good job with the clean-up; the place looked even cleaner than it was supposed to be, which worried Keizo a bit. No time left to fix their new mistake. Bending down to sling the happy drunkard over one broad shoulder, he managed to trigger another fountain of vomit from her, causing Reiji to step back in disgust as the bile stained Keizo’s back and the clean floor anew.

‘Damnit!,’ he winced at the feel of the warm sludge running down his back. ‘Reiji, stay and clean the rest of the stuff up. Where was the spring that runs down into the central plaza again?’

‘Up the western path, where the old hatchery used to be.’

‘Good.’ Keizo started towards the exit, only to stop and give his apprentice another reminder as the little oni began to dutifully wipe the floor once more. ‘Tell Yuugi we went for a walk or something if she asks.’ He received a sharp nod in response.

Stepping out into the snow-blanketed path, Keizo took large strides towards the village square to break through the snowbound pathway, passing some curious onlookers who stared at his unusual cargo from their crude dwellings. They knew him well enough not to question the presence of a human in their village but his companion would draw unnecessary attention and he picked up his pace at the thought of that.

Passing under the crude rotunda that made up the roof of the square, he made a sharp detour westwards, climbing uphill and taking care not to bounce the drunkard too much in fear of getting a back full of vomit once more. She hummed a little song as she bounced along with his urgent strides, sounding almost like a lullaby to Keizo.

It didn’t last long. An explosion of foul breath and a new cascade of bile down his back told Keizo that she had unloaded the contents of her guts again. He cursed the drunk in silence. A simple change of clothing wouldn't suffice at this point; he would have to take a bath to get rid of the smell of alcohol.

The dwellings petered out as he neared the outskirts of the village and the spring that fed the wooden aqueduct supplying water to the central plaza’s well came into view. Nothing terribly fancy; merely a constant trickle of water which surged forth from the top of the cliff to descend into the body of water below forming a rough pond of sorts, but it had kept the village nourished for years despite its relative simplicity.

Dumping the drunk face-down at the edge of the pond, he left her to soak in the cold waters, waiting patiently for his inebriated companion to come about as she invariably breathed in the spring's contents. No such luck. The wasted figure merely turned to face the air in annoyance and went back to sleep instead. Her ability to sleep comfortably anywhere was turning out to be a true pain in the behind.

Regardless, Keizo would have to leave her there for a few minutes to sober up. Cleaning himself up takes priority now. He would be back for the kid once he was free from the overwhelming stench of bile and alcohol.
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'My my, not drunk are you?'

Trying to pull my glued eyelids open did little to help alleviate the immense throbbing in my temples. I wanted nothing more than to reach into my mouth and pull the non-existent wad of cotton out. Slapping feebly at the hand that continued to annoy me, I turned away from the source of the voice, feeling the caress of icy waters on one cheek as I did. The splendid hangover would be my reward for my over-indulgence during the previous night and I groaned inwardly at the thought of dealing with it for the rest of the morning.

Still, the voice persisted, filling my ears with an incessant ringing with every word she spoke. 'I can't say it's not a pleasure to see you again, but you could have worked on being a tad bit more presentable.'

Tearing the skin covering my eyeballs apart with a monumental effort only served to send piercing spears of light straight into my head. Grimacing in pain, I turned back to focus on the source of the voice, catching the familiar outlines of a poofy hat and the bundle of pelted fur behind the illustrious figure of Ran. Warm greetings would customarily be in order by now. I managed a husky one despite my throat feeling like it had turned to stone. 'Hi. Mind knocking me out until afternoon?'

Not that I seriously expected her to comply, but it did draw a light laugh from her. 'I'm afraid not. Good job in getting here, by the way. We feared the worst when the Satori sisters had suddenly appeared at Eientei. Yukari was halfway into gapping us there when Nue unexpectedly resolved the intrusion.'

'Oh yeah? Nice of you to think about helping us.' Sitting upright, I waited momentarily for the heady spinning to go away. My vision no longer spun around as much as it did a few seconds ago, but the fierce headache persisted. 'So where's our golden Sunshines?'

Ran drew back to give me some fresh air, but I suspected she did so more because I stank like an open sewer where drunkards had emptied their foul contents en-masse. 'Yukari has been held up due to unforeseen circumstances. Do not worry; she will manage the rendezvous in a few days. I was sent ahead to inform you of her delayed arrival.'

So Ran was already here well before we arrived. 'Could have come to us yesterday night instead of waiting until now.'

She shook her head sadly at that. 'Yuugi would not take well to my presence. The only reason she shelters you and the child now is because of Suika Ibuki's relationship with Yukari. Were it not for the concession she made for Suika, we would never have been able to get them to welcome you two.'

'Wait. Who's what?' I slapped my face in vain as I dragged myself away from the pond, pushing the snow aside with one foot to find a dry spot to collapse onto.

'Your kind hostess whom you took the liberty to swipe sake from,' she managed a wry smile as she explained. 'Hoshiguma Yuugi is not on speaking terms with us for reasons I cannot disclose. Suffice it to say we do not get along at all with her.'

I suppose that explained the oni's rather hostile exchange with me during the previous night. Whatever grudge my hostess harbored against Sunshines and Ran was, I would have to be careful not to accidentally involve myself with it from my indirect association with them. The last thing I wanted was to gain another antagonist aside from Three Arms. 'Don't make many friends, do you?'

'As a matter of fact, no. Even less now that we are considered rebels.' She got up, characteristically clasping her hands inside the folds of her sleeves once more. 'I must seek Nue out for now. Stay put for a few days and keep a low profile. The locals won't take much notice of your presence but still, don't make an effort to stand out. We have too much to discuss once Yukari returns.' Noticing the approaching figure of Keizo in the far distance, she made a hasty excuse and marched off quickly in the other direction, leaving me to the solitary company of the spring.

Grabbing handfuls of the fallen snow and slapping them onto my face, I tried to use the stimulating cold to drive away the last vestiges of my hangover. They could only provide momentary relief, as the headache merely came back stronger than before and I gave up with a disgruntled sigh. Keizo finally made his way to me, going down on one knee and flicking handfuls of snow into my face playfully. 'You made quite a mess back at Yuugi's brewery, not to mention my back. Had to take a quick rinse down at the village well to get rid of your smell.'

My apology was mostly sincere for a change. 'Sorry. Kind of over-did it with the sake. I swear the stuff's like addictive drug.'

He flung one last handful of snow at my face, grinning as he did. 'It wasn't fun cleaning up after you, but it was fun seeing you drunk. If we were in better times we wouldn't have dumped you into the spring so soon to sober up.' Growing more serious, he pulled me up unceremoniously, pushing a bundle of clothing to me as he did. 'Couldn't find anything your size in Suika's room but Reiji filched something for you. Better clean yourself up before you decide to go back. You stink worse than a waste pit.' Motioning towards the spring, he indicated a relatively sheltered spot I could use for a quick wiping. 'I saw Ran leaving just now. What was that all about?'

Accepting the fresh clothes, I gave him a shrug in reply. 'Nothing you should be concerned about.’ Seeing the protest forming on his lips, I cut him off before he could launch into it. ‘It's time we stopped involving you in our mess. You and Reiji. You've both done enough for us already.' I knew better than anyone else what it felt like to be dragged into someone else's problems. The two of them had handled it rather gamely, all things considered, even going as far as risking their lives for our sake. If I could return the favor, now would be the right time to do it. 'You both have your lives to go back to. Do so.'

A look of uncertainty crossed his face at my abrupt dismissal of his worries, as if he had forgotten that his term of service to Yukari had come to an end with our arrival here. Momentarily at loss for words, he glanced down at the village before speaking hesitantly. 'At first, I resented being dragged away against my will. Saving a life I didn't mind; being kept in the dark about a lot of things, now that I hated. But I came to enjoy the new company aside from Reiji. We've been going from place to place never stopping for long, I've forgotten what it was like to actually have people to relate with, to talk to, to count on during a moment of need.'

'Pretty sentimental of you, but enough is enough. You saw what happened at Eientei. That isn't something you'll want to go through again.' Recalling Yuugi's hostility the night before, I added for his benefit, 'Or Reiji for that matter.' As always, invoking Reiji's name seemed to settle whatever doubts he harbored. He gave me a short nod, a rare smile touching his lips as well.

'I guess so. Anyway, come back once you're done. You haven't exactly given Yuugi a good impression so try to keep away from the bottles from now on.' He turned to leave, giving me some privacy in the isolated spring as he called back to me. 'Don't take forever. Day's not getting any younger and someone might come around out of curiosity.'

The warning wasn't necessary. I had no plans to stand around and freeze naked in what amounted to be a winter morning. With the loss of the alcohol's burning heat the cold atmosphere would do quite a number on me given enough time.
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