[x] Save What's-her-face!
There wasn't any time to act before the monstrosity of a rice cooker smashed right into the green-haired lady. She wheeled back, slamming into the side of a half-destroyed booth. She struggled to find her footing again, but the monster's claws closed in on her and hoisted her into the air. By the time I heard her panicked cry, it was too late.
"Shit!" I yelled. Pretty rough words for me, but no time to lose.
I sprang off the wall. Splish-splash! My big legs ripped through the water as I charged for the rice cooker. It felt cold hitting my face. Not like the hot sweat that beaded on my brow.
There was a rumble and a creak of metal on metal. The machine whipped around. An open red eye stared right at me. Its free claw rose up. Another cry from above.
My heart skipped a beat.
Water slapped my face as I threw myself down flat. The claw whooshed overhead, only missing me by a fraction.
As soon as it swung past, there was a bang. The rice cooker had swung too hard, leaving it stumbling and starting to tip. I pushed myself up on my big legs and darted forward.
I could see the woman again. Her hands were glowing green, what looked like smoke rising from them. She raised them, but the arm holding her swung left, then right. The rice cooker jerked her around in the air. She flailed against the claw, trying to claw her way to freedom, but it held her too tightly.
I jumped and took to the air. Floating out of its reach, I dived for the swinging arm.
Just in time for it to reverse direction. My big legs stretched out to grab it. I gritted my teeth. One false move and I wouldn't be using those legs for a while.
The bristles found metal. I braced myself and curled my big legs around the arm. It stopped mid-swing right as I got ahold of it.
There was a quick jolt of pain as I smacked against it. My grip loosened for an instant. Feeling myself about to fall, I held onto the arm with my other legs. Bending them hurt like hell, but I could bear it long enough to hoist myself towards the claw.
The lady's eyes went wide as soon as she saw me peeking over the side of the claw. I held my arm out.
"Grab on!" I shouted.
"But it's going to--"
I waved my arm insistently. "It doesn't matter! Just grab on!"
"INTERFERENCE WITH OPERATIONS DETECTED. NITORI INDUSTRIES WILL NOT BE HELD RESPONSIBLE FOR ANY INJURIES THAT OCCUR."
Red light beamed right in my face. I held my arm up to shield my eyes. There was another creaking noise and the arm started moving again, this time swinging up towards the ceiling. The woman braced herself against the claw.
Still seeing red, I shuffled up to the claw and jammed my big legs down between the pincers. I tried to pry them apart, but they were holding tight. It was going to take all of the strength I had. My legs shuddered as I wrenched even harder. The claw budged ever so slightly.
I looked up. The ceiling still raced towards us.
"Urgh!" I growled. A little more power. My joints burned. "Come... on!"
With one last push, the hinge gave all once, gears grinding and screeching, screws clanging against the side as they ripped loose. The lady fell from the rice cooker's grip with a yelp of surprise. I looked back up. Only a split second away from being crushed against the ceiling. Not death, but pain that'd make me wish for it.
I took a deep breath.
Solid ground called for me. My open eyes knew that it wasn't that far off, but my gut disagreed. I tried floating again. No good -- I kept falling instead.
My arms flailed. The pounding of my heart in my ears grew louder, almost deafening. I could feel the ground closing in. Coming closer. This was it. Splat.
Except there was no splat.
A single thread held me in the air. The floor was only a short drop away, not close but not as dangerously far. I heaved a sigh, thankful for having the strength left to produce any web, and gripped my lifeline tighter. It was hardly the first time shooting web out in a panic had saved me.
"Thank goodness!" called a voice from overhead. The green woman was looking down at me with a relieved smile as she slowly drifted lower. "I was worried for a moment."
Before I could say anything back, something -- a piece of the ceiling, maybe? -- came careening down, spraying water everywhere when it hit the floor. A rain of metal pieces followed it. I let go of the web and let myself drop. I managed to roll the instant I hit the ground, just in time for a whole section of ceiling to explode against the ground, a cloud of dust making it impossible to see.
I coughed and rubbed my stinging eyes. First steam, now dirt. If I could go ten minutes without getting something in my eyes...
The floor suddenly rumbled underneath me, followed by that ominous scraping sound. It was quickly joined by a new noise: an electrical crackling. Up from a newly-made hole rose the rice cooker's damaged claw, pincers dangling like broken fingers, the joint spasming and shooting sparks everywhere, one of the only sources of light left in the restaurant now.
Its red light shined through the clearing dust, quickly spotting me. "RIGHT MANIPULATOR DAMAGED. PLEASE CONTACT YOUR LOCAL APPROVED REPAIR PERSONNEL."
"You have got to be..."
The rice cooker's eye glared at me, and its other arm pulled back. I put my big legs down. They wobbled, no power left in them to run. All I had left to carry me were my aching small legs. If there was ever a time to curse my luck, it was now.
I pulled in my big legs and took off running. Pain shot through my legs. I was going way too slow. The red beam was following me, practically burning a hole in my back. Every part of me was ready to give out. I couldn't stop.
A clump of green and red hovered off a ways. Instinctively, I sprinted for it. By the time we could see each other, the rice cooker was on the move again. I looked over my shoulder. It was charging, gaining on me fast. The remaining claw was still poised to smash me into the floor as soon as it got close enough.
"Keep going!" shouted the lady. I wanted to tell her to do the same, but I was too busy panting and grunting. My legs had long gone numb. Which is why they suddenly gave out on me and sent me tumbling back down to the ground.
I rolled over, a wave of dread hitting me as I saw the rice cooker still running at me, and now at the woman as well. She was floating right in its path. The arm swung down. I tried to yell for her to watch out, but all that came out was a hoarse scream. Then, there was another bright flash of green. I threw up my arms to shield myself.
Heat blasted my skin. Smoke and the smell of burning metal filled the interior of the restaurant. When I looked up the beast had fire shooting from every opening. It could only thrash in pain as its insides melted away. There was a loud pop, some sparks, and a burst of shrill noise, like the last desperate cry of a dying animal. It crumpled over in a burning heap. Then, with a slow, pained beep, the red eye dimmed until it went completely black.
Other than the sound of the rice cooker smouldering away, the place was finally quiet. Aside from the buzzing of what sounded like a crowd outside. I was still too beat-up to mind. At least it wasn't all the clanking and scraping.
Pulling myself up on the nearest solid object took a bit of grunting, swearing, and coughing, but I managed to crawl over and lean against it. The lady touched down next to me with a splash. Her face was gloomy for someone who'd just burned a rampaging monster from the inside-out. She sat for a while, biting her lip as she stared down at the water covering the floor.
"I'm truly sorry," she said finally. That made two apologies from her today.
"For what?" I asked, trying to sound cheerful, though the hurting in my ribs made it more trying than doing.
Hesitantly, she glanced over at me, wincing as her green eyes looked me over. "You're... well, look at all those bruises."
She was right. My arms and legs had splotches of purple and black in places. There were cuts on my knees, and my left shin had a big scrape, probably from taking that fall. Judging from how badly my midsection hurt, I could only guess how bad I looked there. Still, I looked back up at the woman with as wide a smile I could manage with an aching face.
I shrugged. Oof, neck. "Hey, it could be worse. I probably would've been squished into the floor if you hadn't been here."
"But you were in danger because of me," she said.
"Shouldn't you worry about yourself a little?" I pointed to a long rip in her skirt.
What little of her legs I could see through the tear almost blended into the reddish fabric, and the colour of her cheeks wasn't too far off when she noticed. She tucked her skirt around defensively. I burst out laughing at her reaction, clutching my ribs. She wouldn't look at me for a long time. Eventually, even she cracked a smile, having a quiet giggle at herself.
It felt weird to be sharing a laugh after all that. Then again, this woman was a strange sight herself: a maroon-and-green tangle of ribbons and hair. I'd never seen anybody wearing that many ribbons. Or with their hair tied like a scarf around front -- if I wasn't looking close enough, I'd swear it was almost a beard. She was certainly not from around here, whoever she was.
Our little moment quickly ended, and she turned to what was left of the rice cooker, laying her hands on the blackened metal surface. She closed her eyes, focusing on something. Her hands began glowing green again, the shimmering spreading to the metal under her fingertips and radiating out. The rice cooker's corpse shuddered, pieces of its shell falling off in places.
For a brief instant, the glow got intense enough that I had to look away. And then it flickered out without so much as a 'zap' or a 'poof'. The woman gave a sigh.
"Not much left," she murmured.
I shook my head -- agh, neck again -- and rubbed my eyes. Definitely a bit strange. "Didn't catch your name, by the way," I called over.
She threw a look over her shoulder, her brow crinkled in confusion like I'd asked an oni what alcohol was. However, she shook her head, muttering something to herself before turning back to me.
"Erm, my name is..."
There was a boom and the front door flew off its hinges. I sprang up, a surprised yelp coming from the woman as I bowled her over. Splish. Face-first into dirty dishwater.
Loud bursts of crackling noises, muffled yells, footsteps, splashing water -- a storm of activity kicked up all around us, trailed by the sound of the rabble outside. I jerked my head up. As soon as my eyes focused again, I could see them: twenty-odd kappa(?) dressed head-to-toe in black, each of them wearing some kind of mask, waving around what looked like guns, except boxier and with more tubes. They immediately spread out and covered the interior of the restaurant, looking every which way almost in unison.
Something squirmed underneath me. The lady was tapping on my side, telling me I was crushing her. I scooted off to give her some breathing room. As soon as I moved, there was more crackling and several pairs of eyes focused right on me.
One of the mystery kappa marched forward, talking noises leaking through his mask, punctuated with another burst of crackling. I stared up at him. "Wha?"
Pointing at me, he crackled and mumbled to the others. A pair of hands grabbed me by the arm, followed by another, tugging me up by my armpits.
"Hey!" I shouted and jerked my arms back. "Don't touch me, you weirdos!"
My big legs whipped out, flailing and sending the kappa reeling, dropping their guns in the process. The others jumped to take aim at me. I had my arms and big legs at the ready, all the kappa in reach. My everything might have been hurting, and I might have been outnumbered, but I would damn well bust as many heads as I could. I scowled. I was tired of this two robots ago.
The woman got to her feet, wringing the water out of her ponytail-beard and straightening her damp skirt before looking at the first kappa. All of the others froze, their weapons falling from their shoulders. Some of them edged backwards. A few just stood there, either awed by or afraid of the lady standing in front of them -- towering over them, even. None of them seemed to even breathe in that tense moment.
Cautiously, I edged up alongside the green-haired woman. "What the heck's going on here?"
"They aren't going to hurt us," she said.
"You know these... people?"
"Not exactly." She glanced around at all of them. "But I've dealt with them before."
The first of the kappa, one of the several that hadn't cowered away, stepped forward and pulled his mask up, a very young and distinctly not-manly face looking out from underneath a black hood. Okay, so it was a woman. Hardly the first time I'd made that mistake.
The kappa pulled her hood back, shaking her short, blue-green hair free. "Ms Kagiyama," she said to the woman, "I was briefed about you but never expected we'd meet so soon. I'm Takaiwa, captain with the Ikuradou Self-Defence Force."
Ms Kagiyama responded with a curt bow. "I assure you, captain, it wasn't my intention to be here. Things got..." She looked over at the giant hole in the wall where the dishwasher had come crashing through. "...out of hand."
Takaiwa surveyed the damage, looking up at the corpse of the rice cooker. Compared to the woman, she looked like a bug standing next to it.
"All this from one damn machine, huh?" the captain marvelled, nudging the burnt-out lump of metal with her boot. She suddenly turned to me, and her green eyes narrowed. "And this earth spider had nothing to do with it?"
"Excuse me? What I did was keep anybody else from getting hurt!" I harrumphed and crossed my arms and big legs. Not being liked by the kappa was one thing; being accused because they didn't like me was another.
"So you decided to be part of the problem by not getting out as fast as possible."
Okay, nerve touched. "What the hell is your problem, lady?"
"While I can appreciate the captain's viewpoint," the lady said over me, "I do believe she deserves some credit. In the end, I'm the one to blame, since she had to rescue me from danger."
Takaiwa's eyes flitted between me and Ms Kagiyama, her lips making a tight line, the sting of being challenged showing in her every twitch of her eyelids. It was obvious she wanted to pin the blame on the easy target and call it a day. She tsked, shaking her head and folding her arms like a child who'd just been scolded. The workday ticked on. "At least she isn't out spreading more disease," she grumbled.
I balled my fist, wanting nothing more than to clock the mouthy kappa square in the jaw. The lady quickly caught me by the shoulder and shook her head.
"Calm down, please," she muttered in my ear. She took my hand, patting it gently.
Deep breaths. "Fine," I growled. The others were all still looking this way. Even if smacking their captain made me feel better, I'd just have to deal with them too. Busting heads indeed. Just thinking about it made me realise how floppy my limbs felt.
"Alright, then, disregarding whose fault it is, what exactly happened?" Takaiwa asked.
The woman fiddled with her ribbons, winding and unwinding the ones on her wrist as she spoke. "Nito-- erm, Miss Kawashiro was running another, ahem, product demo."
"Of course," Takaiwa grumbled, sighing through her nose. "Should have guessed." Her men exchanged knowing looks. Even the crowd outside sounded like they were muttering amongst themselves for a moment. I was beginning to feel like more of a stranger than usual.
"So, what caused a..." Takaiwa stared at the charred rice cooker again.
"It was a rice cooker," I butted in. "And there was a dishwasher too. They both went crazy and tore up the place."
Takaiwa shot me a 'nobody asked you' glare, a look which I answered with my own. Ms Kagiyama cleared her throat.
"She is right about that. And it's my fault that it happened." She ran her fingers through her ponytails, eyes fixed on the wreckage. Her thin lips curled into a frown. "Some of my lingering misfortune got away from me."
At the word 'misfortune', Takaiwa's expression hardened. "You mean to tell me we're sitting in the middle of a contaminated area?"
"It's possible," the woman said with a slow nod. "Even for someone like me, containing misfortune is a nigh-impossible task."
There was another long, heavy silence. I scratched my head. What did bad luck have to do with anything?
Suddenly, there was a burst of feedback from outside. "Ladies and gentlemen, we realise you're upset by what's happened, but this area is strictly off-limits to the public until further notice! Please do not approach at any distance!"
Takaiwa gestured over to two of the kappa in black, and they quickly propped the front doors back up. "Listen up!" she barked. "All of you, form a perimeter. Nobody's coming in or going out. We are officially in a containment zone, got that? Take any and all precautions against further contamination." From the way she was talking, you'd think a plague had broken out.
Orders received, the men all saluted and grunted and crackled in unison before scattering. The two by the doors ran outside, joined by a few others, shouting and crackling at the crowd all the way. The rest got to work sealing the doorway and taping off whole parts of the restaurant.
The captain turned back to us. "Due to the public risk, neither of you are to leave until we can secure an exit route." She glared at me. "Especially you. Don't even think about trying to crawl out of here."
I scowled at her. She scowled back.
"We understand," said the lady, fingers clamped onto my shoulders like I might snap at any second. Takaiwa nodded and walked off, probably to bark more orders or do whatever it is captains do.
If I wasn't already a leper before, I was officially one now. All that was left was to wait around for them to offload me onto somebody else to be their problem. At least I had a leper buddy with me.
I shuffled past a few of the kappa troops, who just gave me a cautious glance before getting back to work, finding my way over to one of the booths. Thankfully, there were a couple not reduced to splinters. Folding in my aching big legs, I crawled in on my hands and knees, barely turning over as I slumped into the seat with a long sigh. My wounds were already starting to heal up on their own, and breathing was a lot easier now -- the little perks of being a youkai, even a hated one.
Out of the corner of my eye, a single piece of olive, burnt almost beyond recognition, stared up at me from the table. My hand clenched on reflex remembering the fat, leering kappa I'd come to talk to. Memories of earlier came creeping back in to mock me.
That whole conversation was supposed to be the start of everything. I was going to finally get my chance to show them I was more than a spider who crawled out of a hole in the ground. Even the ones who were scared of me, the ones who hated me for what I was, would look up at me and go, 'Wow, who is that girl? She's amazing!' But none of it meant a thing to Jirou. All his sweet-talking and promises amounted to absolutely nothing.
Nothing. Nowhere. If there were any words better than those to describe my career, I didn't know them. After coming all this way, two robots and a lecher later, there were no more chances. The only breaks being made were in this restaurant. Crawling back down the hole and going home was so tempting. No use in even trying anymore. I leaned on the table, feeling a lump forming in my throat. My eyes stung.
I whipped around to see the green-haired woman's sad smile, sniffling and wiping my eyes quickly. "Noth..." The words caught in my throat. "Nough... arrrrgh!" I growled.
My fist flopped down on the tabletop, making only a dull, weak thud, too quiet to make an echo. The lady flinched. More tears welled up in my eyes. As hard as I wiped my eyes and sniffled, there was no fighting them back.
"I'm sorry. I'm so sorry," she said, offering a handkerchief. "If I'd known that this would happen, I'd never have..." Her voice trailed off into a whimper, and she turned, grimacing like she was waiting for a slap across the face.
I took the handkerchief and blew my nose. Of course she wouldn't have. Nobody who put that much blame on themselves could do much with ill intentions. She didn't even have nearly the emotional strength -- the way she barely looked at me said that much.
Putting my hand on her shoulder, I showed the lady the best smile I could force my face into. With my eyes all red, snot dripping from my nose, and all that other lovely stuff, it must have looked pretty goofy, but it was enough to get a tiny smile back.
I sat up in the seat, reclining with my arm across the back. Noticing the burnt olive again, I popped it in my mouth.
The woman gave a quiet giggle. "You never finished telling me who you are, by the way," I said, still chewing. Not too bad despite the char.
"Oh!" She perked up immediately, even her ribbons seeming to stand on end.
Slipping out of the booth, she brushed her dress off and folded her arms in front of her, ready to make a full show of it. "Ahem! To start, my name is Kagiyama Hina. Many would call me a curse god... though it's really hard to call me a 'god' of any sort when I don't have any worshippers as such. At any rate, to put it as simply as I can, my job is collect misfortune and--"
"Hold on," I said, holding my hand out, "you mentioned 'misfortune' earlier. I saw how it got the captain lady in an uproar, but I still don't understand. What's bad luck got to do with anything?"
"Ah, well, misfortune itself isn't quite bad luck per se. It's sort of like..." She fiddled with the hem of her dress, eyes half-closed in thought. A few moments later, they snapped open wide. "That's it! A germ!"
She nodded, her head bobbing up and down, almost too enthusiastic considering what she was talking about. "Yes, a really bad one. One that lots of people really don't want to catch."
"So it's like a disease?" I asked, scratching my head again.
"Sort of, except, well..." She traced a long finger around her chin. "Come to think of it, showing you would probably be quicker and easier, wouldn't it?"
Peeking over the booth, she grabbed me by the hand, leading me out of my seat before I could even ask what she wanted to show me. We ducked past the lines of tape and strolled over to our old friend, the washing machine. Dead as ever. I stared at it, wondering what Hina was getting at. It wasn't until she laid her hands on it that I realised.
Just like before, the green light spread from her hands to the dead machine, slowly lighting up the darkness around us. I looked around to make sure nobody was going to come charging our way. Nobody was coming yet. Hina closed her eyes, the glow getting even brighter this time. All of a sudden little green strands spiralled out from inside the washing machine. She held out her hand, the strings all weaving together, every individual stream of green winding around to form a lopsided ball in her palm.
I stared wide-eyed at the thing that'd sprung to life in her hand. It danced around like a flame on a lit match, but it was wispier, more smoke than fire. The way it swirled around her hand made it look alive.
Without even thinking, I reached out to touch it, drawn in by its cloudy, green glow.
"Don't," she said.
I drew my hand back. "What is it?"
"Misfortune in its purest form." Her eyes opened, glowing with the same light, but much colder. "It looks harmless, but even now it wants to latch onto you and begin wearing you down. More and more harmful things come into your life. Soon enough, you lose all hope, and then..."
A sickening feeling hit my stomach, and my pulse raced in my ears. I stared deep into the ball of misfortune, nearly screaming when I saw Jirou's smug grin staring back at me from inside. My body wouldn't work when I tried to turn away. His lips moved and no words came out that I could hear, but I knew what he was saying: go home.
Just as quickly as it appeared, the vision dissolved into mist, the rushing in my ears and the twisting in my guts along with it. I felt hands gripping onto my shoulders, the only things holding me up. Slowly, Hina's face faded back into view, her eyes back to normal, looking at me like I might fall over dead. She was shaking me.
"...me? Hey! Can you hear me?"
"Yeah," I murmured.
She let out a long sigh of relief. "Thank goodness."
Feeling heavier than before, I fell to my knees with Hina still holding onto me. She crouched down next to me and slowly let go of my shoulders. I took deep breaths, trying to calm myself down. My legs eventually started falling asleep, so I sat back and stretched them.
Seeing that I was alright, Hina spoke up in a hushed voice. "You understand now, right? This is why everyone's afraid of misfortune, and..."
Her face fell.
"I know what you mean," I said, pulling myself up beside her with a small splash.
Neither of us said anything else for a long time. The kappa troops continued splashing around off in the distance, paying no attention to us as they rushed back-and-forth past the tape lines. What they were doing, I couldn't even begin to guess. The rabble outside still sounded lively, too. I smiled, chuckling quietly to myself. They might be loud, but they couldn't touch the home crowds.
I sat up, stretching my arms and cracking my knuckles. "Guess I ought to introduce myself as well." Hina looked up with an expression that was hard to read, but she nodded.
"I'm Yamame. You could probably guess I'm an earth spider, what with the legs." I made one of those gestures I'd seen people make when talking about spiders. It doesn't look anything like how I'd walk on my big legs, but that's no big surprise.
"Anyway, I'm kind of a singer down below," I continued, pointing down. Hina gave another slow nod. "But I don't wanna just do shows at home. That's why I've been hanging around here. Today should have been my big break, but then all this..." I stopped myself short. She was still giving me the same pitiful look.
"Not that I'm blaming you, I mean!" I added quickly.
Hina shook her head before carefully getting back up to give me a polite bow. "It's nice to finally meet you, Miss Kurodani."
No sooner did I realise what she'd just said, I got another very weird feeling in my gut. A sinking feeling, like something much worse than tentacled robots was coming my way. I stood up, keeping my eyes on Hina as I found my footing, never breaking eye contact with her once. She tilted her head in confusion.
"How..." I took a step back. "How do you know my family name?"
She gave me another confused look. "Did you never read your article?"
Seeing my own confusion at her question, Hina looked away nervously, biting her lip. I was definitely missing something here.
There was no way I could be that famous yet. I'd only been hanging around Ikuradou for the past couple of weeks. And even then I could count on one hand the number of people I'd actually talked to. News tended to travel fast on the wind, but even this place was pretty removed from the surface.
I stared at Hina, a question forming in my mind: Was this weird lady who called herself a curse god...
[ ] ...a fan?
[ ] ...a stalker?
[ ] ...a writer?