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Rays of white light nearly blinded me. I put my hands over my stinging eyes, giving myself a few seconds to adjust. Even then, I still had to squint to make anything out.

There was nothing from back home that I could compare this place to. Sure, there were the big oni festivals with all the lanterns hung out everywhere, but those gave off a much warmer glow than these big tube lights the kappa were using. More than that, we just didn't have anything quite like the restaurant I was staring at. If I wasn't seeing spots, I'd have been more impressed by all the fancy technological decorations.

My hands shook as I rubbed my eyes. Even my legs felt unsteady. Good thing I wasn't walking on my big legs -- I'd probably have fallen over and ruined my brand-new black dress. I glanced over my shoulder at all the kappa around me. None of them were looking right at me, but I could feel the stares as they passed by, giving me a wide berth. Obviously they were just jealous that this little earth spider was about to be a star.

I looked back at the front door. What was I getting so nervous for anyway? It was all there on the big, glitzy sign, in the restaurant's foreign-styled name: "The Famous". My big break was waiting for me inside. All I had to do was take the first step and everything would fall into place.

With a deep breath, my heart still fluttering, I slowly walked through the front door. The place was impressive on the inside too: a big, buzzing storm of lights and waiters rushing from one end to the other, and tables filled with people who were dressed to be seen. Nice soft music played in the background. A little tune by the Prismrivers, of course. My mouth felt dry as I walked up to the reception, a desk manned by a sour-faced kappa with slicked-back hair. Like every other kappa, I had to look down to see him, even on his raised chair.

"Hel--" My voice cracked. Spending all morning practising probably wasn't the best idea. "Ahem, hello."

The receptionist didn't even look up. "Do you have a reservation?"


"Well," he began, licking his finger and flipping to a page in his black book, "it's been a slow week, so I suppose we might have--" He looked up for a split second only for his eyes to dart back to the page. "I mean, there's nothing available! Everything's booked from here to next month. Terribly sorry."

"Hold on a minute!"

He finally looked up, sweat beginning to run down from his forehead. "Y-Yes?"

"I'm meeting up with Jirou. You people know him, right?"

The second I mentioned that name, the panic on the receptionist's face vanished and his scowl turned into a smirk. I could swear it looked like he was holding back a snicker. He slammed the black book closed. "Oh, so you're here to see Jirou. Just one moment," he said.

A waiter came running over at the receptionist's signal, nearly bursting into cackling hearing Jirou's name mentioned, and dashed off to the booths in the back. Soon enough, all the other staff were glancing my way as they passed, occasionally exchanging laughs and whispers. Suddenly, I felt like I had become part of some shared joke between everybody here.

The sound of huffing and heavy footsteps got my attention moments later. Just looking at he partially open shirt he was wearing, I could tell that the rotund kappa waddling over was Jirou, the manager of a big concert venue in Ikuradou -- my ticket to stardom. I'd hassled him for a week or better about getting on the billing, but he'd barely talk to me before turning me away. Then he finally turned around and said to meet him here to discuss my future. He might have looked more like a frog than anything else, but if he could get me onstage, he was my knight in shining armour. Even if the shining was mostly the glimmer off of his balding head.

"Yamame, baby, you showed up!" he croaked. His face was lit up, like he was genuinely surprised to see me here.

"You kept me waiting for this long," I teased.

He pulled out a handkerchief to dab the sweat pooled on his brow. "You know how it is, sugarcakes. All this business to be done, people to talk to, and..." He waved a fat hand. "Well. Anyway, let's talk in the booth, huh?"

He raised his arm like he was going to put it around my shoulder, but since I was a head taller than him, he put his arm around my waist instead. Having lived with the oni for so long, I was used to people being hands-on. Judging from the snickers, it must have looked ridiculous, though.

Ignoring all that, we elbowed past the tables and waiters and found our way to the back, where it was much quieter and dimly lit. I'd barely had a minute to peek at the exotic menu before I felt a nervous stare on my neck, coming from a waiter.

"Hey, she's a customer too. Leave her be," Jirou said, waving an arm at him. He gulped down the wine that he'd left behind. "Bring some more of this while you're at it. Some for the lady too. And we'll split an antipasto plate."

With a long-suffering nod, the waiter rushed away, leaving us alone finally.

"Um, thanks," I said sheepishly.

Jirou laughed and broke a small loaf of bread in half, laying one piece on my plate. "It's nothing, sweetheart. I'm on your side here."

"Thanks," I said again, nearly giggling. He may have looked like a slimeball, but I felt a little connection -- neither of us got much respect around here.

He reached for my hand on the table and held it. "Now, how's about we talk about your future?"

I would've preferred that he didn't use the hand he just used to mop up sweat, but I was too excited to do anything about it. "Yeah?" I said.

Before anything could be said, a different waiter rematerialised at the boothside, a bottle of wine and another glass in hand.

"Ah, here we go," Jirou said. He took the bottle and waved the waiter off. With a little pressure from his meaty thumb, the cork popped right off, and he poured some out, pushing the glass over to me. "Have a sip of this first."

I pushed the glass back. "I want to talk now."

"Alright, alright, I know," he said with a frown. "You've been waiting for this. And I won't leave you hanging. Believe me, darling."

He poured himself some wine, almost gulping down the whole glass before setting it back down. "So, let me start by saying that you've got definitely got talent."

"Uh-huh?" I said. I leaned in closer, though I couldn't remember if he'd ever even heard me sing.

"You got the right looks, so I know you could definitely burn up a crowd. Hell, you could even be a real superstar in your own right."

I was getting butterflies in my stomach. "So you're putting me on the lineup, right?"

Jirou smiled. Instead of answering right away, he took another drawn-out sip from his glass, so agonisingly long even though it was only seconds, but I couldn't wait any longer. I could see my name on the marquee already. When he finally set his glass down, I was already planning my victory dance.

"Ahhhh, good stuff," he said, wiping his mouth. "But, to answer your question, uh... well, look, sweetie, you've got a lot going for you. Believe me, nobody wants to see you up on stage more than me. But I just can't put you on the Prismrivers' bill. It's too big of a business risk."


I sunk back in my seat, any and all of that previous energy fizzled right out.

"Now, now, don't get your pretty little self heartbroken. I can still get you a gig. You do good enough, you'll be right up there opening for the Prismrivers next season, I promise."

"Really? I can still sing?" I perked back up.

"Sure, sure." He licked his lips. "Course, we gotta get you into a different outfit. You're gonna be showing a lot more skin for this gig, if you know what I mean, baby."


"I mean, I've got this friend, right? Owns a little club not too far from here. Deals with a lotta pretty young things like yourself..."

"What does that have to do with anything?" I asked, still ready to jump, but now for a very different reason.

Jirou leaned over and put a sweaty hand on my shoulder. "Don't worry about it, pumpkin. We're just trying to get you established is all." His hand shifted down to my leg, sliding uncomfortably high. My stomach did a somersault. "And I can take you real far if you let me."

He leaned up as far as his fat body would allow, pressing it all on me. "What do you say, babe? Stick with me and I'll take good care of you," he hissed in my ear. I tried to lean away, but his arm held me tight against his lukewarm flab.

My heart was pounding in my ears. The smell of sweat and wine only made my guts twist on themselves. I was shaking again. The more I looked at him, the more disgusted I felt. It wasn't the face of fame I was staring at anymore.

I wanted to go home.

The waiter interrupted Jirou's moment by wandering in with a plate of olives and thin-sliced meat. "Um. Your antipasto, sir and ma'am."

"Thanks." I snatched the plate from him and pushed it right into Jirou's face.

The plate fell back on the table with a loud clang, loud enough to make the rest of the restaurant go silent. Jirou's face was as red as the slices of salami stuck to his forehead.

"What the hell was that for?"

"For being a stupid, smelly, greasy, ugly, creepy pig!" I screamed.

There was silence for a few seconds. Jirou's face got so red I expected it to start whistling like a teapot. Then, a loud "woo!" came from a nearby table.

"Tell him, girl!" shouted a clapping kappa.

The waiter made himself scarce.

"You, you...!" Jirou growled. He shook in his seat.

I slid out of the booth. Jirou made a grab for my wrist, but I batted his hand away and grabbed him by the collar. "Call me whatever you want. I'm through letting you put your sweaty mitts all over me."

There was another shout, but this time it wasn't a happy one. The sound of falling pots and pans came from the kitchen, then a loud whirr. Cooks ran over each other as they fled from the kitchen door.

Only seconds later, there was a giant crash. The booths closest to the kitchen went flying as something came ripping through the wall, followed by screams, people running, and another crash.

When the dust cleared, there was a giant metal box lying on top of a bunch of broken tables. It had tiny wheels for legs and long tubes and claws for arms -- definitely not anything I'd call 'alive' no matter how fast it moved. There was a loud whirring noise as it pulled itself up.


The black part on the front slid open. Inside was what looked like a big, red eye. A bright red light shined from it, making a voom-voom sound as it looked over everything in the room. It turned and looked directly over at me and Jirou.


Even though I was terrified, I let out a snicker. It's detected some dirt alright. I let go of Jirou's collar, letting him flop to the floor. The machine kept its eyes on me and rumbled closer.

"Hey, whoa, you got it all mixed up! I'm not dirt!" I held my hands up to protect myself, but it was no use. The boxy thing was really quick despite how heavy it looked, and it crashed into me in a split-second.

I leapt backwards. My big legs ripped out of my dress and latched onto the wall. I was about to kick off and jump on the metal cyclops, but it didn't follow me. Instead, it stood over Jirou, who was still struggling to roll onto his feet. He sat looking up at the towering hulk of metal, babbling like a scared kid.



Jirou didn't even get a chance to be surprised before the thing grabbed him in its claws. The thing shook and buzzed as it hoisted the kappa up, its arms looking like they were going to buckle, Jirou squealing pitifully and kicking his pudgy legs.

He looked up at me, pleading. "Yamame, baby, help me! Get this thing off me!"

Suddenly, the metal giant swung open like an enormous mouth. Inside was a moving, swirling, noisy mass of what looked like brushes. They spun so fast that they looked like they were better for taking off skin than dirt. Clouds of steam rose up from its mouth. Seeing the inside of the gaping maw, Jirou's eyes went wide, and he started flailing even harder in the thing's grip.

Unmoved by his struggling, the hungry machine inched Jirou towards its open mouth. He let out a scream, but it became a gurgle as it was drowned out in a steaming jet of water.

"Hey, hey, hey! Don't kill him before I'm done with him!" I yelled.

With a push, I leapt off the wall, leg outstretched. My foot collided with the side of the cannibal machine. It was a pretty weak tap, but it was just enough to put the thing off-balance. Its claws swung wildly as it tipped over. Then it hit the floor, and a jet of water splashed everywhere. The capsized box shook for a second before falling completely still.

I quickly grabbed Jirou's leg and pulled. Grunting and digging my heels in the floor, I managed to yank him free. He slid out, completely soaked and wide-eyed. I dragged him out of the way and propped him up against the wall. He was shaking, clothes ripped all to shreds, but he'd probably live -- long enough for me to kill him, anyway.

As soon as I steadied him, the machine started rumbling and whirring again. Click-click-click-clack. Its claw suddenly shot up, latching onto the wall.

I turned back to Jirou, giving his pudgy cheek a gentle smack. "Hang in there."

Back to its feet, the big box opened its red eye again, this time pointing it at me. I shielded my eyes from the light.


I cracked my knuckles. "I don't know what you just said, but bring it on, you tin can!"

I ran toward it, kicking my legs up and scuttling on my big legs. My feet just about touched it when the claws shot out. I tried to jump backwards, but I was too slow. Its claws squeezed tight around my ankles. I had underestimated its speed one time too many.

The mid-section slowly swung open again. The brushes and steam seemed even faster and hotter this time.


"Try me!" I shouted. My big legs latched onto anything nearby that looked sturdy. I tugged hard, putting all the power I could into my joints.

Still holding onto my legs, the machine tumbled to the floor hard. There was a loud crack, and part of what served as its face caved in slightly. Sparks crackled out of the half-smashed eye. It let go of my legs, trying to scramble to its feet again.

Before it could get back up, I jumped on it, holding the claws down with my big legs. My fist came down on the front of it, followed by my knee. The thing was built solidly, but I could hear jostling inside it, and it shook violently as I pummelled it. I raised my fist to lay into it again, but its claws got a grip on my bony legs. It was a test of strength now as the claws tugged on my limbs, and I was losing. The machine shook harder and harder as its grip tightened, letting out squirts of water like a geyser. Still on its back, the water splashed over its face, making loud electrical buzzes.

"C-C-CONTAM-I-N-NANT DIS-POSKHHHHHHH--" The voice was really muffled now. Its grip tightened around my legs.

The jets of water got faster and higher, almost hitting me. What a debut for the kappa: hit on by a creeper and then scalded to death.

Then, there was a blinding flash of green light. Little bits of metal and plastic popped out of the monster's face. The spinning brushes creaked and snapped, then fell off their handles, crashing around inside its belly like an awful case of indigestion.


The beast finally let go of me. Its claws went limp and its lights flickered off. I crawled off of it, finally able to have a breath of air that wasn't full of steam.

I strained to lift my aching neck. Through the clearing dust, I spotted something else green: long hair done up in ribbons. And a big swirl on a red dress. Standing with her arms out and breathing hard was some lady I'd never seen before. She certainly didn't match the profile of any kappa. Way too tall for that.

Noticing me, she gave what looked like a sigh of relief and rushed over. "Thank goodness. Can you stand?" she asked, offering a hand.

I blinked. I looked over my shoulder and realised that I must have retracted my big legs on reflex at some point. Well, at least I still had feeling in my other legs. Mostly pain.

"I... think so," I finally replied. I took her hand and stumbled to my feet. "Augh." Definitely pain.

The green-haired lady hovered in close. "Are you alright?"

"Could be worse," I grunted and waved her off. "Anyway, that thing's finally dead, and that's the most import--"

Another monster flew out of the kitchen. If there was any wall left, it would've crashed through it.


"Oh, come on!" I shouted.

The new machine ran towards the stunned lady and--

Who in their right mind would put claws on a rice cooker?!

I need to decide what to do, and quick.

[ ] Kill the beast!
[ ] Save What's-her-face!
[ ] Throw Jirou at it!


Hello. Most of you probably don't know me at all. I've been around a while, but this is the first time I've posted my writing for everybody to see. The concept for this story came together from the ashes of a different project, and it took me a while to figure out how to best start things off. But here it is: the start of an underdog story driven by misfortune and setbacks. Not that it's supposed to be super-serious, of course.

Please enjoy.
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[x] Save What's-her-face!

Jirou justice is tempting, but maybe Yamame can score a friend this way. Also, welcome to THP, new guy!
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[x] Save What's-her-face!
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[ ] Save What's-her-face!
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[ ] Save What's-her-face!


He isn't new. AnalX has been lurking here since the dawn on THP, silently waiting and watching for any weaknesses in /youkai/ so that he might strike and claim victory for himself.
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I was just having a bit of fun with the tripcode, but dammit if I didn't have a right chortle. Good show, sir. I shall consider myself as good as christened.
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I find the idea of fighting against mechs appealing somehow. I blame Peace Walker.

[x] save whats-her-face

Laaa la la, lalala la la. Laa la la, la la.
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[x] Save What's-her-face!
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[ ] Save What's-her-face!
And the Jets. Looks promising, but I'll reserve full judgment until a few posts in.
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File 140402790047.jpg - (73.45KB, 640x439, Peace Walker.jpg)
Peace Walker
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[x] Save What's-her-face!

Somebody needs to explain to Nitori that rice cookers don't need death lasers.
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[x] Save What's-her-face!

Heh, "big legs."
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[x] Save What's-her-face!

Oh yes.
Yes, I like this.
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Alright, that's it for the votes. The winner by overwhelming consensus is...

[x] Save What's-her-face!

Thank you very much for reading and voting. I sincerely hope you enjoyed it.
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I don't really like how it changed tone completely halfway through the first post.
Both halves on their own are great, but I was really getting into REAL IDOL SUFFERING and then SUDDENLY, ROBOTS.
It just kinda clashes, y'know?
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Clashes? I don't think so. Those two terms pretty much sum up the japanese entertainment industry. Pretty par for the course In my opinion.
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It's Gensokyo, it's a pretty normal thing ot have happen.
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[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!"


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.

And rolled.

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.

"Please, wait!"

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.

"But she...!"

"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.

"What's wrong?"

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!"

"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."

"Same he--"

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?"

"My what?"

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?
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Hello, everyone. I'd like to apologise for how long it's taken to get this update out.

To be frank, I haven't been in a real good state to write for the past couple of months, mostly owing to the fact that I'm unemployed and recently started having some computer issues. That said, I'm in an okay position now, and things are overall looking up. I'm going to be working to keep a fairly consistent schedule from here on out -- if only because I'll hopefully have a job soon. I can't say yet what that would entail since I'm still finding my rhythm, but I assure you that it will not be two months per update.

Anyway, that's enough of my rambling. Continue reading, voting, and enjoying!
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[x] ...a fan?

I suddenly, desperately want to imagine Hina following Yamame on Twitter.
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[x] ...a writer?

Every writer on THP is cursed so it's a natural conclusion.
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[x] ...a fan?
Spin to win
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[X] ...a stalker?
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[x] ...a writer?

I couldn't bear Yamame's disappointment at learning she isn't a fan.
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[x] ...a writer?
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[X] ...a stalker?
Because the thought of a Tharja-esque Hina tickles me just right.
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[x] ...a writer?

Going with this.
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I'll be closing the vote in six hours. Just thought you should know.
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Alright, that's a wrap for votes, then. The winner is...

[x] ...a writer?

Thank you very much for reading and voting!
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starring miss not appearing in this update
Just a heads-up to everybody reading:

My hard drive had been dying for a while, but it recently took a crap on me for realsies, so I spent some time without a decent computer. Thankfully, I have a brand-spankin'-new hard drive, and I'm more-or-less back to square one now.

That said, lost time is lost time. Expect at least some minor delays on the update.

And now, back to writing.
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Why don't people backup their stuff? I don't get it.
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The issue was more waiting to actually get the new hard drive and having to reinstall the OS, drivers, etc. Besides, I have all my writing stuff on a Dropbox, so nothing's in much danger of being lost barring an infrastructural failure.

I'm bad with computer sometimes, but at least I'm not a support desk nightmare.
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I know this is a dick move in light of my being really fucking late, but I figured it's best to let you know instead of wondering.

Part of what's held me up so long is my struggles of finding a job. I got really depressed there after a bad stretch, and I didn't work on the update at all for a time. That said, I started over and got back up, slowly but surely working on getting a complete rough draft.

Then job opportunities seemed to come calling again. None of them panned out, of course, and it demotivated me severely. This time, though, I kept plodding along, albeit slowly. To this day, I'm a lot closer than I was even two months ago.

That said, something completely unexpected happened to me a few hours ago: An out-of-town interview that I went off to a couple of days ago actually materialised into a job with Apple. Needless to say, I'm floored. This is literally my first job. For once, it seems like things might be looking up.

Now, I hate to do this to you guys, but I'm going to have to ask you to hang in just a little bit longer. I'm going try to make sure it's not on the scale of months longer, but making promises is a bad idea for me at this point. I need to get relocated in a very short period of time, and then I need to settle into living on my own and working my very first job ever. Don't take that as me using my job as an excuse to not write, because it's not -- I will be working to complete the update as soon as I can. All I ask is that those of you left amongst the audience wait a little bit longer. I don't want it to be like this, but I'd rather you know than not know. Besides that, with things looking up for me, I'll probably end up having more motivation to write and that can't hurt, right?

I still plan on running this story because I want to tell it, and I hope you'll continue reading when I get going again. Until then, have patience with me.

Sage for courtesy.
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>working for Apple
You didn't need that soul anyway.
But anyway, congrats. I too know the pain of 'why won't anyone employ me, this is bullshit'-related depression.

Never work a volunteer position for a local public agency on the promise of paid employment 'soon'. Just don't.
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It's cool, real life always comes first. Good luck with your new job!
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I'm looking forward to more when you have the time.
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Even in the smaller halls, my steps seemed to echo off the strange, possibly stained glass floors for a ways, making the place feel emptier than it really was. I mean, I'd left an entire crew of oni setting up a couple of wings back. Probably not a good idea since this place already looked big enough from the outside. With as sprawling as it looked to be inside, I could've spent the whole time in here without noticing at all.

Still, chances to sneak around inside the big dirt bubble were few and far between. I'd stared at it from far away before and wondered what lay underneath its dome. Imagine my shock when Sis told me that my first big show was going to be there. I had sprinted over on the morning of, almost forgetting to change clothes. Performance or no performance, my curiosity wouldn't let me leave this place unchecked.

And yet, now that I was -- maybe -- in the middle of it, a touch of disappointment crept in to spoil the fun. Every hall thus far looked about the same. Long, dark, and empty. I thought there might be something interesting lurking behind one of the plain wood-carved doors, but all I'd seen was room after room with nothing in it. I went down the first hallway just throwing doors open in hopes that maybe one of them might be different.

More than that, after peeking in empty rooms lost its charm, I started feeling lost. Corners rounded to corners that led to more hallways that looked so uncannily similar, I wasn't sure if I'd walked in a circle or not. That was, until I spotted something out of the corner of my eye.

I doubled back and peeked down one of the many halls that branched off of the one I was walking through. Right in the middle stood something new: A broom propped up against the wall. Normally, I wouldn't have even noticed something so boring, but this was hardly a normal place. The thought creeped up in the back of my mind that maybe I was finally getting somewhere.

Sprinting down that hall, I combed the next set and quickly spotted another with a broom. That one led to yet another. Somewhere, my aimless wandering had turned to hunting for brooms. Someone was leading me somewhere. It had to be somewhere good. I just knew it.

The next hallway veered off to the left. As soon as I rounded the corner, I skidded to a halt, inches from hitting yet another door.

Instead of a lone broom propped up against the wall, there were two of them sitting with the handles crossed in front of it. I peeked back over my shoulder. Yes, I was definitely at the end of the maze, or at least somewhere at its center. Though, judging by the size of the door, I couldn't help thinking it was probably some kind of closet.

So much for somewhere good.

I sighed through my nose and pulled the brooms out, setting them aside. No harm in having a little peek while I was already here, especially considering how much time I'd spent chasing brooms. After all, if somebody went and marked this door, maybe there was something stuffed behind it. With the faintest hopes of something exciting waiting on the other side, I turned the door handle.

As soon as the door was open, the combined smell of leather, old paper, and some kind of booze drifted out of pitch blackness. My nose wrinkled, but I walked in anyway. Darkness didn't mean much when I lived in it most of the time. One step in, I felt something fall over, and there was a thud. Smooth move, spiderbutt.

I scrambled around trying to figure out what I'd just knocked over. Something dangling mid-air hit my forehead. I grabbed it. With a low buzz, a light flicked on overhead.

The first thing I noticed was a recently knocked over stack of papers about a jillion-thick fanned out on the carpet. In every inch of available floor space stood a stack just like it, although more intact. It was a mini-Capital crammed into an oversized closet -- complete with the boozy smell hanging over everything.

"Dangit, Yamame," I said to myself, bending down to pick up some of the scattered papers. Lucky for me, they all seemed to be clipped together.

A thinner example of the bound reams stuck out amongst the pile, and I plucked it up. The only writing on the top page was several handwritten lines that had been scratched out, maybe attempts at a title considering the only line left untouched: Underneath Gensokyo. And then the next page was the total opposite of the one before, a solid mass of blank ink, very little white showing anywhere. I hadn't seen many books before, but this didn't look normal. The only person who'd even bother reading that many words was probably the one who wrote them in the first place.

I squinted and tried to focus on any line I could. "--and as such, one might say this shows a lack of consideration for the personhood of individuals within the society such as it is. However, I posit that, in fact--"

Nope. That stack hit the floor with a thud while I reached for another one.

Thankfully, the next one was thinner, and the words weren't nearly as small. I skimmed over a few lines here and there. Most of it seemed to be about 'oni drinking rituals'. I smiled. You'd have to be a little dumb to not know how much oni like to drink and get rowdy. Back on the floor that one went.

Just as I bent over to look at another, the sound of a door creaking made me freeze. No other sound. I exhaled quietly. It probably came from--

"What other room would that be?" asked a voice from much closer than I was expecting.

Still mid-reach for another set of papers, I nearly hit the floor. My eyes darted back-and-forth, matching my heart, which picked up the pace. The first noticeable thing was something pink. Hair, like somebody just rolling out of bed. And then eyes. Ones that were fixed on me.

I nearly gasped but held it in. It wasn't the first time I'd seen glassy-looking eyes before like those, fatigue lines making them stand out that much more. If anything, they reminded me of a dead fish except with the faintest glimmer of life.

"Hardly the worst thing to be compared to," their owner said.

Looking at the woman with the bed-head and dead-fish eyes standing in the doorway, cords like veins running up and down her arms and legs, attached to a 'heart' with an eye that never blinked, very few things came to mind that she could be compared to. She stood out so much to me that I instantly recognised her.

During one of the very first parties I sang at, I went looking for Sis only to find her standing in the back of the bar, someone I'd never seen before standing next to her. It wasn't until I noticed the eye that I realised Sis has mentioned somebody like that before. Then, through the crowd, she looked straight at me. Our eyes only met for a second, but it felt like a second too long. I remembered feeling like someone had dropped an ice cube down the back of my dress.

"Ah, yes, one of her friends," she said, making me shake my head and come back into the present. The beady points of her eyes were looking down at the papers scattered on the ground.

"It was dark," I said dumbly.

The corners of her mouth turned up into the faintest trace of a smile. She stepped through the door, setting down a still-steaming mug of tea on the nearby desk, some of the only uncluttered space in the room. As she stood closer, I couldn't help noticing that I towered over her. And I'm just a speck next to an oni.

She swivelled the well-worn leather chair around and took a seat, crossing her legs. "I get that a lot. Yamame, was it?" Her 'heart' looked up at me. I swallowed hard. "I take it my papers weren't that captivating."

I threw a look over my shoulder at the pile. "Look, I'm sor--"

The mind-reader chuckled, a weirdly dry sound like dirt scraped against rock. "It's fine. Others' hearts may be clear to me, but that's rather one-sided."

I squinted, cocking my head to one side.

"For better or worse, my thoughts are only heard there," she explained with a wave to the piles.


She took a sip from her tea before opening one of the top drawers on the desk. "Komeiji Satori, by the way. Just Satori is fine."

"Pleased to meet you." I scratched my head. Not really words you'd use when wanting to run away as fast as possible, but there we were.

Satori pulled out a silvery pair of reading glasses, complete with a chain, and slipped them on, pulling her fringe back to see better. Without her mop protecting it, I couldn't help noticing how round and prominent her forehead was now. If she wasn't out of arm's reach, I might have reached out for a quick 'boop'.

She brushed her hair self-consciously. I had already forgotten she could read my mind.

"Do me a favour, would you? Fetch me that first paper you saw," she said, giving me an easy way out of the awkward situation.

"Oh, sure." I looked around for the page with the handwritten title. Sure enough, it was still by my feet. Satori took it from me with only a nod and promptly flipped the cover page over.

If I didn't know she was the one who wrote all of it, I'd have said reading a whole page that fast was impossible. The big, messy blobs of ink would have taken me hours to get through, but here she was eating it all up like it was nothing. My eyes tried to follow hers and were quickly left a page behind by the time I got half-way through a line. Part-way through the next page, she stopped to scribble a note in the margins.

I looked up at the clock hanging above her desk. That made forty-five minutes spent on a wild broom chase, give or take.

"So you noticed them. The brooms," Satori said without looking up.

I hesitated to answer for a second, figuring she knew what I was going to come out of my mouth anyway. "Yeah?"

"You'd be the first. My own pets have never figured it out." I opened my mouth to say something, but she talked over me. "They keep to the center of the palace. Though I am a bit surprised that you didn't see... Well, that doesn't really matter. Orin does her job well enough."

Leaving it at that, she went on flipping through the paper, her pen scratching away. My feet felt restless as I stood there watching her. Another peek up at the clock. I held back a sigh, scratching my neck, looking around for somewhere to lean on. I suddenly remembered when Sis mentioned that Satori was 'hard to talk to'.

I glanced at the door. The squeal of Satori's chair turning around caught me mid-step. "The centerpiece of the party, I see."

I shifted on my feet. "Something like that," I muttered. Even if she could read my mind, I wasn't going to stay quiet. "It's my first real concert."

Satori set the paper aside and took another sip of tea, staring off and tapping the side of her mug. Her 'heart' blinked. The lids of her eyes drooped. "This is the first time I've opened up my home. Can't say I'll be joining in the festivities myself, though."

"Because of... everyone else?" Last time I saw her, she looked like she'd rather be dead than in a room full of oni.

"It's not my primary concern, but I won't deny that." Her eyes closed all the way, and she waved at the papers now sitting on her desk. "My work. Someone wants my take on things down here. An audience of one."

"O... kay?"

"Much smaller than yours," she said. Her lips drew into the faintest trace of a smile.

I stared at Satori with the vague feeling that she was messing with me. Her eyes snapped open, making me jump back an inch or two. She looked up to the ceiling. "Someone on the surface is interested in hated creatures like us. Isn't that funny?"

The surface. Too bright, too cold, and that's not even getting into the people who live up there. It wasn't the place for me. My fists clenched thinking about it.

"A problem we all share, I suspect," Satori said, looking at me with a gleam in her eye. "So, singing. An odd choice, if I may be blunt."

I scratched my head and shifted on my feet, feeling like I ought to have a reason ready for her. I pinched the fabric of my skirt between my fingers, rolling it around idly. "I sing because... Because I wanna speak to people. Even if they don't really wanna listen, I'll make them hear me."

I caught my breath, stunned by the sudden burst of words that came out. Satori, on the other hand, was smiling again, a full-on smile.

"Want to know a secret? It's the same for me." She caressed the pile of papers on the desk. "It's all I know how to do. That's why I'll just keep on writing for an audience of one."

I said nothing, shifting on my feet again. My eyes wandered to the door. There was a creak as Satori turned around in her chair again, setting her mug down and getting up. "I don't blame you."

"Sorry about the mess," I said as she got the door.

"No worries. It's no worse off than before. Nor am I."

Slowly, I edged past the still-upright piles and made my way over to the door. Satori looked up at me, back to that thin smile. "Enka's an interesting choice of genre. I'm sure you do it justice."

"I guess."

Something warm touched my hand. It was Satori's own tiny hand clutching mine.

"It was a short conversation, and perhaps a bit one-sided," she said with a short chuckle at herself. "Thank you for visiting all the same."

"Even though I invited myself in." I shook my head. Not everyday someone welcomes a spider in. Especially one that carries as many bugs as I do.

Satori let go of my hand. "Maybe so, but I really do appreciate it."

Nothing left to say, I nodded to her, turned around, and started to head off. There was probably still enough time to sneak in before anyone noticed I was gone.

"Oh, and Yamame?"

I looked back over my shoulder.

"If you ever come back, I'd love to hear you sing. Maybe after talking a bit more." There was a note of hope mingled in with her dry monotone.

"We'll see," I called back. Looking satisfied with that, Satori sent me off with a little wave. I waved back and kept shuffling down the hall.

The door softly clicked shut behind me, and I picked up the pace, still not sure what to think of the whole conversation. Of course, by the time I hit the main hallway, it quickly fell from my mind as I dashed off for the atrium. It would probably be a while before I figured it out, anyway.

There was still time to practise.


[x] ...a writer?

Long after the concert was over, that conversation still hadn't left me. Tension tended to dig it back up out of the back of my memory, like a dream that I had over and over. I guess Satori was an anchor for weird things in my head.

I grimaced, jerked back to reality by a dull aching all over. Getting beat on by kitchen appliances counted as weird too. My eyes refocused on the woman in front of me, a tower of red cloth and ribbons. Her mouth hung open, words stopped mid-air by the look in my eyes.

And the so-called 'curse god' herself was a whole other story. Not that I didn't appreciate someone helping me out in a pinch. Still, that someone knowing my name when I'd never so much as heard of her before put me on edge. Then there was that 'article' about me. Even assuming it was real, where would anyone read that? Who would write it, for that matter?

Back on writers again. Funny how that worked -- in a way that didn't let me laugh.

"Hina," I said, my eyes narrowed on her.

She flinched and stood up straighter, gaining another inch or two on me, her ribbons bouncing. Her eyes were set on the ankle-deep water. "Y-Yes?" she whimpered.

"You're the one that wrote it, aren't you? That article."

Hina finally looked up at me, her face somewhere between shocked and completely lost now. "Wha-- No, I coul-- I've never even..."

"You were a stranger a couple of minutes ago. You couldn't know my name." Water splashed underfoot as I took a step toward her. I shook my head. "You shouldn't know!"

"I'm sorry," she muttered. Her lips squeezed into a thin, brittle smile.

"So you admit it!"

I took another step and she shrunk back, almost bumping into the washing machine corpse. Her face fell. "Just forget I mentioned it."

"No," I growled.

As soon as I got a step or two away, Hina tried to slip around me. One of my big legs jerked out, punching into the dead lump of metal. Another leg pinned her in before she could reverse course.

I leaned up, now right against her, though she wouldn't look at me. "Nobody else could have done it. I wanna know why."

She said nothing. Except for the slightest shift on her feet, she wouldn't even blink with me right up in her face. Her fingers fiddled with the ribbons around her arm. Playing tough, then. Like that old oni saying goes: 'If you can't get a yes, punch 'em once and ask again.'

"I swear to the devas, you will tell me."

Her hand touched my chest. "Let me just ask you one thing, Yamame," she said, quiet now but her voice still even.

"What makes you--"

"Would it really be worth even more misfortune for me to tell you? As it stands..." Her eyes peeked up at me for an instant before snapping shut. The corners of her mouth fell, her brow furrowed in a grimace.

I looked down at myself. Brand new dress, ripped beyond salvation. Body, still bruised. Big legs, intact but hurting. In short, I was a mess of a spider at the moment.

Unfortunately, being a mess didn't make me any less confused and nervous. I snapped back up to Hina. "Ask me if I care about your 'misfortune' or whatever. Tell me."

"This is no way for you to go," Hina said, eyes still closed.

I raised my fist. A sudden jolt of panic mid-swing made me open my hand, holding back enough that my palm only made a thud against the hunk of metal. That kappa and her merry band of butt-faces would have heard and rushed over if I'd really punched it. Even Hina realised, flinching slightly as my hand bounced harmlessly off next to her.

"Tell. Me."

No answer but a timid shake of her head.

"Hina!" My voice came out in a desperate hiss.

For a moment, the wall of silence she'd put up held steady. Then I noticed the slightest tremble in her lips. She was shaking all over now. Her half-open eyes were dewy. Suddenly, I had the worst feeling in the pit of my gut.

My big legs pulled away and I stepped back. Hina's hands jerked up to cover her face as she slumped down onto the ground. The tiniest sob I'd ever heard leaked through, muffled by her hands, followed by a few sniffles between ragged breaths. Tears streaked between her fingers and dropped to leave stains on her ribbons.

"Um..." I tried to say something, but I couldn't force any words out. My head felt like it was filled with air. I stood there watching her sob for a minute, then walked away slowly, so slowly that my feet barely splashed. I leaned against the wall a few feet away, glancing back and forth between her and my own feet.

More minutes passed. Hina's sniffling eventually slowed down before she went quiet altogether, still covering her face. I just about stood up to walk back over but stopped myself before I'd taken a step. There was no way she'd want to face me now. I wouldn't want to face me.

I started walking off but stopped again to look over my shoulder. "Hey, Hina," I said, my mouth feeling full of ash.

She looked up, her hands sliding down ever so slightly. Streaks of red surrounding green peeked out through her hair. I winced. She sniffled and wiped her eye with the back of her hand

I looked down at my feet. "I'm sorry, alright?"

Without even waiting for an answer, I kept on walking, crossing back over the tape, back to the half-singed booths. The cushions swallowed me up as I threw myself down on them, hugging them like I was greeting an old friend. If only they could have really eaten me up and made me disappear until this whole mess was done. That wasn't happening, though. They were just big, comfortable cushions for me to hide my face in. That was all I could do now: hide and wait for this nightmare to pass.

The world disappeared for a while. Inside the booth, or what was left of it, all I could hear was the occasional echo of splashing and crackling from miles off. I could probably hear that captain of theirs if she was talking. Thank the devas I didn't. I already had enough weighing on my mind.

I rolled over on my side, eyelids half-open. Most of my sight was covered in green cloth. I sighed and tried closing my eyes all the way. No good. I flipped over to my other side.

Why the hell was this getting to me so bad? It was Hina's fault. She should have given a yes or a no or anything instead of looking so suspicious and dodging the question. Even just having a spine would have been better. What kinda goddess breaks down after so little?

A goddess I'd just bullied, for starters. The overground really was different. I flailed my legs against the booth, banging my already sore shins against the edge of the seat. I came here to become an idol and I'd yet to meet someone I hadn't totally pissed off.

Misfortune. Jirou's ghosty frog face snarled at me in my memory. Maybe I should just go back, I thought to myself, cut my losses while I can. I pressed my face harder against the cushion like I was trying to dive through it. I should've known it was ridiculous. I should've seen it was a silly dream. I should've not pushed so hard against the booth seat. The damp wood creaked and than snapped, collapsing in the middle. I sank into it, practically folding in half. I flailed, kicking out chunks of foam padding, and fought my way out of the V shape by falling halfway off the chair.

I sighed long and loud, the kind of sigh that was like opening the lid on a tightly sealed jar of feelings. Here I'd even ruined my perfectly good moping spot. I leaned my head back and saw dust falling from the ceiling. A few seconds later, a small chunk of ceiling fell down, breaking into pieces right on top of my face. Coughing and choking, I brushed it out of my face, ready to lay into whoever done it.

Light bright enough to make me squint streamed in from the ceiling. Through the watering in my eyes and the dust, I could make out the shape of a face way up there. A woman with a very conspicuous pair of pointy ears was peeking down through the hole. Looking closer, a pair of black wings fluttered behind her.

"Hey, you up there!" I yelled. "You... bird-face!"

The bird woman took a step back from the hole before poking her head in even further. "Excuse me?"

"Yeah, excuse you! You kind of dropped ceiling on my face! What the hell are you even doing, poking holes up there like that?"

"None of your business," she called back. "Also, word of advice: Don't stand under a falling ceiling."

My fists clenched. If this girl was right next to me... "I was trying to take a nap, for your information!"

"What kind of idiot takes a nap in the middle of a disaster area?"

"None of your business," I shot back. If she was going to be a turd, then I could be too.

Her eyes narrowed. "Sounds mighty suspicious."

I threw up my fists. "Hey, I didn't make those friggin' machines go haywire! I dunno why everybody's convinced I'm the bad guy here!"

"You're jumping to conclusions," she said. "Which sounds doubly suspicious." She sneered at me.

I tried to think of a comeback, but my brain felt like it was full of flies. "Stop saying that!"

My big legs flicked back out through the holes in my dress. I curled them into fighting position, waving them to let her know just how ready I was to bop her one. As soon as she saw them, her jaw dropped.

"A-An earth spider?"

"Yeah, I'm a spider! Wanna make something of it?"

She went quiet for a second. Then, she flashed a crooked smile. "So that's why they've got this place locked-down. They're afraid of your nasty germs! You're a health risk! A creepy-crawly health risk!"

The tengu burst out laughing, clutching her sides. First she was rude, and now she was laughing at me. I ground my teeth together. Screw her, I decided.

I picked up the biggest hunk of ceiling that I saw and hurled it at her. Her head popped up through the hole like an upside-down mole as the chunk bashed into the ceiling.

She peeked down again. "Hah! You dumb bug, nobody can throw fast enough to hit a teng--"

Before she could finish bragging, the ceiling buckled. Her head popped back up, then her everything came down, along with a whole lot of ceiling. There was a tremendous splash as debris hit the water and went flying everywhere. Something small and plastic flew through the air and bounced off of my forehead, landing on the table.

"Ow! What the hell..." I reached for the thing, which I saw was a small black and yellow box. I couldn't care less about what happened to the laughing bird. She was busy groaning and trying to get her senses back.

I had almost reached it when she flew over in a flash. "Don't touch it! Don't touch it don't touch it don'ttouchit!" she screeched.

She reached for it, but something made her pause. Probably scared of my oh-so-nasty spider germs. Well, that would be her loss, then. If she didn't want to give me any respect, why should I return the favor?

I grabbed the phone, rubbing my fingers all over the smooth surface.

"That's it!" The next thing I saw was a flash of purple and black.

We tumbled to the floor with a splash. She was on me so quick, grabbing handfuls of my hair, I barely had time to shout in pain. Her other hand clawed at my dress. Rip. Nails dug into my skin. Any more of that and I'd have no dress left by tomorrow.

Regaining some of my senses, I curled my big legs around to latch onto whatever I could grab. The tengu gave a loud squawk of pain. Thank the devas the first thing I found was her wings.

"Let... go!" I grunted.

Instead of listening, she pulled harder on my hair, jerking my head forward. I tried to grab for her arms, but I felt the floor collide with the back of my head. Everything went white for a second. My ears rang. By the time I could snap my eyes back open, she was ready to do it again.

Weakly, I reached for one of the long ponytails touching my face and pulled. She leaned down a bit, growling and half-closing one eye. Bad move.

The momentary distraction was enough to give me feeling back in my big legs. Letting go of her wings, I wrapped them around her. The second I got her in the hold, her eyes went wide, realising just what was happening. Only a few seconds too late.

I poured all the strength I could into my big legs to squeeze the tengu. Try as she might to flail her way out, I had her locked down. I clamped down again, forcing the wind out of her. She tried to scream, but it came out as a choked growl. Her legs kicked frantically, splashes of water hitting everything around. One lucky hit scraped me across the calf.

Two of my big legs caught her legs before she could score anymore hits. I loosened my spider-hug a bit. "Say you're sorry!" I growled.

"I'll k-kil--" Her answer was drowned out in coughing and choking. Somewhere in our little struggle, she'd managed to snort up some water. Still half-way to coughing up a lung, she balled her fists and tried to lay one across my nose, but she was far from the mark. I didn't even have to catch her mid-punch. She was barely looking at me.

"Say you're sorry," I said, quieter than before.

Heaving and panting, the tengu stopped swinging and put her dukes down. In the light, I could see her face in full. Dark circles hung around her eyes like they were painted on. Her eyes looked like they'd been scratched over and over, the kind of thing that made my own eyes hurt just seeing it. She looked tired.

I loosened my big legs and looked around next to me. Her precious box had been sitting under me this whole time. Without jostling the tengu still sitting on me, I rolled over to where I could pull it out by the strap.

"Say it and you can have this back." I held up the box in the palm of my hand.
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Her eyes snapped to me. For a moment, she just sat there, looking at the box. Then, her head twitched, like someone had thrown a switch, and her eyes went wide, her face snapping back into the fiercest snarl I think I'd ever seen anyone make. Death flashed in her eyes.

With an awful, guttural scream, she slammed her fist across my face before I had time to react, blurring my vision. I felt my jaw crack as much as I heard it. I tried to roll and knock her off, but she grabbed me by the hair again, laying another punch into my jaw with an incoherent cry. The taste of blood seeped into my mouth. My big legs swung every which way, none of them hitting anything but air. Her fist cocked back for another punch. I braced for more pain.


The sound of something exploding echoed through the restaurant. A fist didn't hit my face again. It was hung in the air, and the tengu it was attached to was looking the other way. She was also covered in something blue and sticky looking.

A few more explosions rang out, and she fell off of me, completely splattered by the blue slime. I sat up, scooting back. A pair of legs stopped me. It was one of those masked kappa. He crackled and held out a hand, which I grabbed and hauled myself up with, both sets of legs wobbly. I spat out a wad of blood and some pieces of teeth.

They must have heard the racket since a whole flock of them were gathered around, most of them with their big box-guns aimed at the tengu flopping around on the wet floor. Moments later, Takaiwa, mask down, came pushing through the thick of them. She scowled up at the giant gouge in the ceiling and down at the tengu.

She turned to her men, lifting up her mask and pinching the bridge of her nose. "Someone mind telling me how in the hell this happened?"

The kappa who helped me up crackled a greeting to Takaiwa, clamping a hand on my shoulder and pointing to me. I wrinkled my brow at him as best I could through my face hurting. Takaiwa's face similarly soured seeing me again.

"If it isn't the spider making trouble for everybody. I take my eyes off of you for two seconds..." Her eyes scanned my face, sucking her teeth seeing the damage up-close. "I'd say you brought it on yourself, but that's just brutal."

"You're so kind," I mumbled as best I could through my broken jaw.

Takaiwa's attention snapped back to the tengu, who was still squirming but had lost a lot of her energy from before, and walked over, planting a booted foot on her. Her hand dangled close to a pocket on her leg. "Start talking. Gimme your name."

"Himekaidou. Himekaidou Hatate," she muttered.

"Okay, Miss Himekaidou, mind explaining why you busted into a contamination zone?"

Hatate stopped squirming, looking over at me and back up at Takaiwa. "I didn't even-- The ceiling-- I dropped--" Her face suddenly went pale. "My phone... my phone... I dropped it. Where is it? Where'd it go?"

"One thing at a time."

"No," Hatate squeaked, "you don't understand! I need it! I want it back!" She started panting and kicking her legs weakly. Tears rolled down her cheeks. "Give it back!"

I felt a stab in my gut. She might have cracked me in the jaw, but I'd just finished making someone else cry.

"Listen, Hatate, we're gonna get your phone back. Just calm down and answer my question." Takaiwa was biting back a groan or a sigh. Seeing that words weren't going to stop Hatate's sobbing, she gave up and turned to me. "I know you know something about this."

I looked over at Hatate and then down at the floor. My jaw was already starting to heal up, so it at least wasn't complete agony to open my mouth. Hooray, youkai healing. "She started it."

"And you finished it, just like with that." She waved her arm off in the vague direction of the junked kitchen appliances. It looked like they were just getting around to trying to haul the rice cooker off. One group of the kappa was dragging the one intact arm off while another cut pieces off of the charred body.

"That was Hina," I said. "I saved her, she saved me."

Takaiwa looked around. "That so?"

"It's not my fault. The ceiling wasn't either." I glanced at Hatate again. One part of me wanted to just tell the captain about what happened. The other part of me knew that she was already sobbing her eyes out and didn't need any more pushing. I didn't need to feel like an even bigger jerk today. Takaiwa noticed where I was looking and seemed to get it.

She folded her arms. "Alright, we'll go with that for now. That doesn't mean HQ's not gonna ask again."

"What's an 'HQ'?"

"Nevermind. Just--" Something inside her mask started beeping loudly. The groan she was holding back finally slipped. "Speak of the goddamned devil. Don't go anywhere while I take this, okay?" she warned. She pulled her mask back down, pressing on the side.

I could faintly hear Takaiwa talking loudly through the mask, but I couldn't understand any of it. She mostly sounded shocked and then angry. There was another voice coming from inside, loud enough to make Takaiwa flinch. In the middle of all this talking, she started waving at the troops standing around with her free arm, apparently giving them orders without saying anything. A group saluted and got to work carrying off a still-bawling Hatate. Another couple of kappa scrambled off towards the back of the restaurant.

I was left standing there, the one kappa still holding onto me. In the wake of all of that, it was a good thing. I needed something to prop me up. Maybe it was just the dankness of the flooded restaurant, but I felt like a wet sheet of paper. The kappa looked down at me, head tilted slightly, maybe concerned. Although, I could have just been imagining.

I shrugged at him, smiling through the ache in my face. "One of those days, huh?"

He looked over at the wildly-gesturing Takaiwa and shrugged himself. Guess I should have expected these armed types wouldn't be too talkative.

A much shorter and scrawnier kappa came scooting along, giving a salute to his comrade, who let me go. The shorty looked me over, my face being the main attraction. He pulled a first aid box out of his pocket and went to work dabbing some kind of medicine on my cheek. I winced. The sting was more than I was expecting. It must have been worse than I'd thought. Just a minute later, I had a bandage slapped over the side of my cheek.

About that time, I heard splashing footsteps coming from nearby. The pair that'd gone off were back, Hina walking a few steps behind them with her head down. I froze in place. Her eyes flicked up to me for a brief second before staring back down at the floor.

"Hi--" I half-way choked out. The words tried to slip out but I caught myself. Talking didn't do me much good last go-around, so why take a chance here? I looked the other way, unable to turn away completely thanks to the hand on my shoulder.

And there we all sat, not a word between us while Takaiwa chattered away to somebody we couldn't see. After a point, the conversation seemed to reach a peak, and she went quiet herself. Her mask flipped back up, and she turned on her heel to face us. Just a glance at me and Hina was all it took for her to piece things together. A smile crept up on her face, though minus the smug. Her forehead was shimmering with a layer of sweat.

"Miss Kagiyama. You missed a hell of a thing." She nodded to me. Hina cut her eyes over towards me again. Apparently seeing the damage to my face now, she gave a quiet gasp. My hand jerked up to cover my wounds. A brand new wave of stinging shot through the side of my face, making me grimace.

Hina frowned. "I'm... sorry I couldn't have helped."

"No offense, but both of you have helped enough," Takaiwa said, returning to her regular hard-ass face. "We wanted to keep a lid on all this, but it looks like it's getting out no matter what we do. Which is why command's all up on my ass."

The other kappa exchanged nervous looks. I already wasn't liking the sound of this.

Takaiwa turned to me. "Miss..."


"Miss Yamame," she said stiffly, "you were the one here when those machines first engaged, correct?"

"I was right next to the wall when the first one came ripping through, if that's what you mean."

The captain nodded to her man keeping hold of me. He promptly grabbed me by the wrists, holding my arms behind my back, and put his arm around my neck before I had the chance to protest. I wiggled my shoulders, but my arms still felt as flimsy as ever. "And just what the hell are you doing?" I spat.

"What I have to," she replied. "If you made first contact, you're the instigator."


"Captain!" Hina shouted, making everybody flinch a little. She strode towards Takaiwa. The pair that led her over almost stepped in front but decided better of it when she looked at them, eyes shimmering a deep green. "With all due respect, Yamame was never at fault for anything. I'm the one who let the misfortune escape. If you need someone to blame--"

Takaiwa stared back at Hina coldly, almost face-to-chest. "I understand that, Miss Kagiyama, but you're missing one important fact: We can't make you just go away as easily."

For the first time since I'd met her, the faintest shadow of anger flickered across Hina's face. I felt myself gasp seeing it. "Make her go away," she repeated back. "That's how you deal with this? I could have sworn your job was to protect, not to frame."

"You don't understand the situation. I am protecting something. If I don't do this, everybody out there will be in danger, and the entire Self-Defence Force's reputation is done," Takaiwa said, sounding like an annoyed parent trying not to snap at a misbehaving child. She pulled her mask off and clutched her head, sighing. "Besides, it's better than the alternative."

"Which is...?"

Takaiwa swallowed. "Calling in the miko to clean up."

Hina's eyes snapped open. "They can't do that!"

"Can and are prepared to." She tapped her helmet. Both of them looked over at me for a moment. "Besides, we're not talking extermination," Takaiwa continued. "We'll just put her back in the underground, seal the entrance, and say it was her fault."

"What! You-- oof!" A jerk of the bigger kappa's arm cut off my yelling. I flailed and kicked, but he seemed to be pretty well-armoured. Even my big legs didn't phase him.

"You don't have a choice. None of us do."

Takaiwa waved and the other troops came circling in, weapons raised and pointed right in my face. Their captain stepped forward, reaching into her legs pocket and pulling out a black box. There was a click, and a spark of blue lit up the end of it.

"But you do get a different choice." She held up a finger. "One, you come with us quietly and this whole thing blows over." She raised the crackling spark-box, casting a blue shadow on her face. "Or, two, you don't come quietly and I have to use this."

I stopped struggling and glared at Takaiwa. Whatever she was holding in her hand, it couldn't be good. More than that, I was tired -- tired of pain, tired of flailing around, tired of things just happening for no reason. I hated the thought of getting thrown back down the hole, but I wondered if staying up here wouldn't be as bad. I let my arms go slack.

Takaiwa clicked off the box with a smile, as much relieved as triumphant. "Then, if we're through here..."

The sound of something falling over interrupted her. It sounded like it came from the back of the restaurant. A couple of the kappa looked at each other uneasily. Hatate had just been carried off that way. The captain snapped back to her business face.

"Unit three? Report," she said, pressing the side of her helmet.

A faint and very scared voice squeaked something back at her.

"Slow down. I can't underst--"

The kitchen door that hadn't been destroyed came swinging open, a kappa troop stumbling out, tripping over his own boots in a hurry to get out. There were sounds of muffled yelling and crackling, followed by a piercing wail that got louder and louder. Something was coming this way and fast.

Seconds later, a smear of purple came streaking through the doors, sending them flying off their hinges. The place shook as it rammed straight into the wall. It was Hatate, now free of that goo, some of it still clinging to her clothes. Her wings were flapping so hard that they looked like they were vibrating. After barely a second's pause, she reangled, shooting for the hole in the ceiling. She clipped the edge on her way, showering the restaurant in more chunks of ceiling. Barely seeming to notice Hatate's escape, Takaiwa stood gaping for a second before shaking her head and whipping around to face her men.

"All units. Rooftop. Now." Her words came out in a monotone, a cold, withering rage beneath them. She was about to snap, and her men all knew it from the way they immediately scrambled. I flopped face-first onto the floor, thrown down as soon as everybody started running.

Groaning and spitting out water, I slowly picked myself up. A hand jerked down in front of me. I almost batted it away, but it wasn't gloved. I looked up and saw Hina, all traces of sadness from before gone, replaced by sternness. She quickly threw a look over her shoulder. Takaiwa was slowly moving away.

"Come on," Hina said in a sharp whisper.

I blinked at her. "What?"

"Come on!" She yanked me up by the hand, surprisingly strong despite that delicate-looking build. I stumbled but caught myself with my big legs. "The roof's the quickest way out, but you need to hurry!" Hina hissed, jabbing a finger up at the big hole. I wasn't sure what to say, but she was right. There wasn't any reason for either of us to be sticking around here. And I sure as hell wasn't going back underground.

I tried to float and was quickly reminded by the lack of going up that I couldn't. "Uh, problem."

Hina tugged on my arm even harder. "If you don't get out of here, problems will find no end of you."

"Hina, I can't fly!" I shouted.

She stopped in her tracks, a look of panic spreading over her face. Flying out must have been her first and only plan. "Damn. Alright, we can..." she muttered. Her eyes flitted around. The splashing of all the kappa troops hightailing it outside still hadn't died down.

Before she could finish that thought, Hina yelped, a sharp popping sound the last thing I heard before she crumpled onto the floor. She stared up, eyes wide as she twitched around on her back.

"Good to know it works on curse gods too," came Takaiwa's voice behind where Hina stood.

If there was any doubt that Takaiwa was done with everything, the bitter scowl on her face erased it. She had tolerated Hina up to now, and all of that had flown right out the window the moment she tried to help me get out.

"I d-don't... believe you... captain," Hina managed to wheeze.

Takaiwa stepped over Hina, eyes fixed square on me. Her fingers squeezed the spark-box harder. The spark leapt back to life, even brighter now. Her lips peeled back into the stiffest imitation of a smile. The dead, hollow look in her eyes made it anything but cheerful or well-intentioned. I backed off a step and almost tripped over my own feet. For the second time in this whole ordeal, I was legitimately terrified.

If she got ahold of me, that was it. I'd be dragged back to the underground, pitched down the hole, and locked out for good. And this woman -- this very mad and spider-hating kappa -- would do that to me gleefully. I could practically see her licking her lips. She was coiled tight and ready to pounce.

A fuzzy feeling hung over my head as my eyes cut around the room, careful not to lose sight of Takaiwa for too long. The ceiling was my best chance for getting out, but I couldn't fly out. The best I might manage in my current state would be a really high jump. Knowing my luck, though, the ceiling would probably give even if I managed to latch on. No, I had to find some other way.

Think, Yamame, think!

All of a sudden, something clicked together in my mind. The fear jogged my memory of that second hulking monster of a machine. My stomach tightened. My legs were killing me, but I needed all the power I could manage. I held my breath.

My legs stinging, I zipped off to the side, aiming around Takaiwa. She was ready for me. I heard sizzling as that box passed close enough to make the hair on my big legs stand up. I ducked low and kept sprinting, knocking her arm aside with the big leg she almost hit. Before the captain could spin around for another strike, I'd already skidded to a stop next to Hina.

"I figured it out, Hina! We're gonna be okay!" I shouted and grabbed her arm. She wasn't the lightest, but I was running on that fuzzy feeling now, so I got her on my shoulder with no trouble.

"Yuh... Yamame, no. Run," Hina groaned.

I dragged her behind me, pulling her along just in time for Takaiwa to start closing in again. "Just leave it to me."

With a weight on my shoulder and my body beat to hell, the wade over to the widest part of the hole in the ceiling felt like more than a few seconds. Every splash of Takaiwa's boots behind was like a taunt. I swore under my breath. Just a little further. No letting them win, Yamame. Not these assholes.

I'd like to take a second here and clear up something that people get wrong all the time. I will not, cannot, and do not shoot web out of my butt and never have. My web factory, as I like to call it, is somewhere between my gut and chest, though I don't know exactly where. Whenever I need web, I put a little squeeze into my stomach and it starts cranking away. Easy and convenient web whenever I want it. It's sticky and damn useful for a lot of things, from repairing clothes to shutting up mouthy kappa. Of course, normally, it'd have nowhere to go, considering my web factory doesn't seem to be connected to anything. That's where we add a key ingredient for web-slinging: Magic.

Now, at that very second, I was more than a little run down. There was little more than a faint tingle of magic left in my fingertips. If I tried to shoot a bullet, about the best I'd have done was form a bubble that might have popped right in Takaiwa's face and tickled her. Thankfully, this little spider was clever enough to use it for something different.

I stood underneath the shaft of light beaming into the restaurant, half-blinding me, eyeing Takaiwa as she closed in. The fuzziness faded into a queasy feeling in my stomach. I leaned over a little, feeling Hina's weight on me again. She groaned and coughed.

I wheeled around, trying to resit Hina on my shoulder. Something hit my foot that felt like a rock. Sitting half-floating in the water was the yellow box that tengu broke my face over -- and subsequently burst into tears over. Maybe Takaiwa had dropped it right when she came after us.

Now, I might not have been too keen on someone wailing on me like she did, but thinking back to her sobbing her eyes out hit me even worse. If she'd left something that important behind, she could be broken to pieces now.

I bent down for the box -- her 'phone' -- and pocketed it. "What're... doing?" Hina grunted.

I snapped back to the present. The splashing that'd been trailing me was getting even louder. Turning around, I saw Takaiwa closing in. She could have charged straight in and got me, but she was slowly moving closer, eerily calm. This was her kill, and she was going to savour it.

No more time to dawdle, I raised my hand up high. Where I was aiming was anyone's guess. Another deep breath. Squeeze it tight and let it go.

One one-thousand, two one-thousand.

The spark-box was lighting up again. There was a smell. Not quite burning, but close to it.

Three one-thousand, four one-thousand.

The flash of teeth. A look of bloodlust.

Blue streaks. The splash of water. Crackle fizz pop. Eyes shut.

A roaring cry coming from in front of me.

And then underneath me.

I looked down and saw Takaiwa fall into the water, making a roll and uprighting herself in one move. She stared up at us with her mouth hanging open. We were moving up, zipping towards the ceiling, carried by a sliver of web. Thank the Devas, it caught on something.

Somewhere part-way up, I heard a shout from Takaiwa, who had finally snapped out of her daze. A few of the remaining kappa came circling around to fire their goo guns in a panic. It was too late, though. Their shots sailed right under and away from me as we rocketed higher. The lip of the hole was getting closer. I reached out and grabbed onto it, smacking into the side. Ignoring the hurt in my gut, I scrambled up just in time for a wad of blue goo to come flying right past. There were some shouted curses that I could barely hear from this far away, and the shooting stopped.

Hina fell off my shoulder onto the roof, barely managing to prop herself up on shaky arms. I quickly helped her to her feet. She was a little woozy but otherwise able to stay upright. As soon as she was standing, she gently pushed my arm away.

"What... What were you thinking, Yamame? You could have just..."

"Oh, no. No, no, no! I was not gonna leave you back there!" I snapped.

She clutched her head. "I would be just fine. You, on the other hand, should be the one getting out of here."

More shouting came from somewhere around us. I looked over at the next building. Some of those kappa troops were already hustling their way up. "Little late for that! Now, c'mon!" I said and yanked Hina's hand.

"Wait, Yamam--"

Before she could finish, I started running, building up as much speed as I could on the partly-smashed roof. Hina stumbled but caught herself without much trouble, unable to let go of my hand.


I whipped my big legs out. Pieces of the roof gave way under me as I slapped them down as hard as I could, vaulting off the roof completely without any regard to Hina at the moment. For just a split second, I could see the crowds of people still gathered down on the street. Somebody was pointing up. Another flare of noise from the rabble went up, now without the walls of the restaurant to drown it out.

A few moments of weightlessness later, I touched down onto the roof of another building nearby. Hina's landing came a second after in the form of a thud and a roll. She shot me a peeved look as soon as she was stable. "Are you done yet?"

"Hey, we're both in trouble here," I shot back.

Hina frowned, pausing. "I... guess you're right there." She shook her head and stood up. "But, still! They're going to keep coming. And they'll probably call reinforcements soon."

A loud screech of feedback came from below. We peeked over the side, only able to see part of the crowd now.


The crowd shifted wildly, apparently jostling whoever was holding the megaphone. From the sound of it, everybody on the ground had had enough of being told what to do. A few dark shapes moved towards the edges of the crowd only to be pushed right back away. I laughed seeing those goons getting shoved over. I could only imagine all the finely-dressed kappa from before hollering and screaming as they manhandled them. Served them right.

I turned to Hina, who wasn't sharing any of my laughter. Her serious face had a way of ruining a perfectly good laugh. "What do you want me to do, then?" I asked.

She stood up, dusting off her torn skirt. Looking at her in proper light for the first time, I had to say she looked almost like a queen when she stood up all straight like that. I got up too, noticing the rips in my dress were worse than I'd thought -- my shorts were showing through a big split down the side. It was obvious we were worse for wear. If we went on like this, it wouldn't end well at all. I looked back up at Hina. She nodded.

"Let me handle it. It's the least I owe you, considering this is all my fault."

"You still owe me an explanation, you know," I said quietly.

Hina smiled sadly. "Still?"

"You're not getting off that easily."

Her face went serious again. She put a hand on my shoulder, turning me towards a light off in the distance. Sunlight shining through a cave opening.

"Get out that way. It'll take you into the foothills. A friend of mine lives there. Just look for a book-loving bird. She can explain everything," Hina said. I opened my mouth to say something, but she interrupted. "You'll know her when you see her."

I looked back at Hina, wanting to say something, anything that would get her to come with me. Nothing came to mind. I bit my lip in frustration. The pain in my still-broken teeth reminded me why that wasn't a good idea.

"Come find me," I finally said.

Hina's face clouded over as I said that. It looked like the sort of face somebody makes when they've been caught in a lie and they're getting yelled at over it. Her lip twitched, her eyes looking down. She was on the verge of saying something when she suddenly decided to just nod. She turned away, looking down at the pandaemonium in the streets. Whatever it was she was going to do, she was dead-set on doing it alone.

About that time, I remembered the 'phone' that I'd picked up down there. I pulled it out and looked at it. There was a trinket hanging off of it, a little pouch with the word 'protection' on it. Sis had told me one time about little pieces of paper that some people on the surface used to keep away bad things. If this was like that, something told me it could help with that 'misfortune'. After all, everything started because of it.

Maybe Hina could use a little luck.

[ ] Protection for the curse goddess.
[ ] Keep it safe for now. Its owner is luckless.
[ ] Finders keepers. I need that luck.
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[x] Finders keepers. I need that luck.

We started with a creepy guy, then a rice cooker mech, and now an evil kappa cop. If Yamame's luck doesn't turn around soon then update five will be the heat death of the universe.
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Right, I guess I should have said this before: Votes are going to be open until Saturday. It's been too long since the last update, so I figure it's worth allowing some extra time.

P.S. It's my birthday. The best birthday present is votes.
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[x] Keep it safe for now. Its owner is luckless.
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[X] Protection for the curse goddess.
The world might refuse to change, but I'm keeping Hina safe.
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[X] Protection for the curse goddess.
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[X] Protection for the curse goddess.
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[x] Protection for the curse goddess.

I'm worried about what Hina's plan means for her.
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Alright, calling it here for...

[X] Protection for the curse goddess.

Don't worry, Hina's in good hands. Or legs. Appendages. Yeah, we'll go with that.
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Hi, when countine the story?
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Hopefully the author responds and gives us a more concrete idea of when we can expect another update. In the meantime though, try not to put a name unless you are the author. Also, the email field is usually used for sage and not inputting an actual email. Please refer to >>/gensokyo/6052 for what not to do. Bumping older stories is one of them.
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I had no idea anybody cared that much.

Unfortunately, I can't offer much in the way of a straight answer on that; I've made promises once only to break them to the tune of a year. Things have changed at work recently, so I've been left a bit of a tired mess more often than not. That said, the update is under way, not a finished draft by any means, but getting closer every time I sit down and work on it. So, while it's not going to be much of a satisfactory answer: I'm working to get it at least close to done before the middle of November. This will be the last time I say much on this topic, since I'd rather keep this thread from being mostly me whinging about life.
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If it's worth anything, here's one reader that's eager for the next update!
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[x] Protection for the curse goddess.

Hina leaned over the edge of the building, looking down at the scene she was about to leap into. I clutched the yellow box. That weird tightness and tingling had grabbed the pit of my stomach again because I knew bad things were going to happen. Everything I'd seen in the past few hours told me that curse gods and bad things went together like sake and dried fish. Once she jumped, there was no going back.

"Hina, wait!" I rasped out. My parched throat stung, beat up from that morning's voice practise and all the yelling after.

She stood up, her face still as grave as ever as she turned around. I pressed the 'phone' into her hand. "Take it," I said.

There was some hesitation before she took the box from me. The paper charm rustled as she turned it over in her fingers, running her thumb up and down it, her eyes faintly glowing as she recognised what it was. A quiet sigh slipped through her nose, and her lips turned up into the trace of a smile. She gently pushed the box back into my palm.

"I appreciate the concern, but--"

"Take it," I repeated. "You need more luck than me."

Hina shook her head slowly, but she did put the 'phone' in her pocket. With a glance back at me, she turned back to the edge. "It's more than just luck. That girl is suffering without this."

"How did you..." I narrowed my eyes at her. "You know what, nevermind. You can tell me later."

"I will," she said, her smile faltering.

I jabbed my hand toward her with my pinky out. "You promise?"

Saying nothing, her eyes ran between me and my outstretched finger before she sighed again and clasped my hand to her chest. The steady pulse of her heart rippled through my hand, making me aware of how quickly mine was beating.

"We will meet again, Yamame," Hina murmured, gripping my hand tighter, "and we will talk more. Until then, go on knowing you're not alone."

I looked Hina in the eyes, peering into them in hopes of some sign that her words meant something. Her face showed the same composure even as I stared at her. She nodded and let go of my hand. My footsteps barely had any weight to them as I made my way to the opposite edge of the roof.

"I'm holding you to..."

Hina was already gone. As much as I wanted to stamp my feet about it, she'd taken the leap, ready to do whatever it was she was about to do.

What I had to do came back to me from one sound: those kappa crackling to each other, on their way up the outside of the neighbouring buildings. In a minute or two, they'd be circled in and ready to snatch me up. They hadn't spotted me yet, but I could see lights sweeping around the rooftops. Definitely no better time to get moving.

I looked down the side of the building. The wide street below had turned into a frantic mass of kappa running from a cloud that rolled out from the middle, those masked goons striking out at anybody in sight and doing their best to push the rabble off. There were whooshing noises followed by a rain of blue that splattered onto fleeing kappa, leaving them squirming on the ground. I swallowed a lump in my throat. It was just the sort of havoc that I didn't want to fall right into the middle of. This was going to be an all-or-nothing escape.

Taking a deep breath, I marked my target: the building straight across. The muscles in my limbs twitched as I pulled back all the way. Then, my gut tightening, I sprinted to the edge. My big legs unfolded behind me.

Breathe in.

One, two, three... THWACK!

My big legs came down on the rooftop. The street below moved under me in a blur. It wasn't until the edge of the building was right in front of my eyes that I noticed how close I was to falling. My hands jerked out to grab the edge, and I swung myself up in one smooth motion, landing face-down on the roof with a thud.

All of the loudest sounds were behind me now. I breathed a quick sigh and then stood up.

I stumbled my way to the far end of the rooftop. Luckily, these roofs were all joined, so I could keep running along for a while without having to jump again. The Famous shrunk further and further back as I went. Leaving that nightmare behind would lighten the load on my shoulders for sure.

And yet, that didn't hold down the weird feeling in the pit of my gut. I wasn't just leaving trouble behind: I was leaving somebody who'd helped me out of it twice. Even when I'd repaid her help with suspicion the first time, Hina didn't hesitate in pulling me out of my hole. She had every reason not to, but she did anyway.

Seeing the plumes of smoke rising, I couldn't help remembering the words of the people of the capital. 'Don't just show gratitude: live it.' 'Anyone who helps is a friend, and friend's help friends.' These were the lessons they'd taught me. Oni values, sure, but they applied just as well to me. By not living up to them, I'd be betraying everybody back home, including Sis.

I abandoned my dash to safety and veered to the left, leaping the narrow gap across to another set of roofs, hurling quiet curses at myself for being so indecisive. 'When trouble rears its head, grab it by the neck and choke the bastard.' The best time to act was minutes ago, before Hina plunged herself into danger for me. All I could do now was double back and hope I made it in time.

The thicker and blacker the smoke looked, the closer I was to the scene. I bit the inside of my cheek, pushing myself as fast as I could go through the pain in my big legs. The wide street looming into view again made my muscles tense, ready to make the leap, seconds away from the edge of the roof. Then I sprang into the air. That was when I noticed the whooshing sound.

Things slowed down around me. Something blue was racing toward me. My mind raced alongside it. I knew what that moving glob was, but I couldn't name it. What was it? Instinct screamed, 'Dodge, fool!' None of my muscles moved.

A tell-tale crackling hit my ears. I zeroed in on its source, down on the street level. Yes, right below. One of those masked kappa was pointing right at me. The noise had burst from his mask in a frantic hiss. Another one next to him was on one knee, gun at his shoulder, leaning back from the force of the shot. No sign of Takaiwa, just a couple of goons on the street. Yet another was mid-leap from the rooftops nearby to join them with his gun at the ready.

Goo guns. The blue goo ran up the tubes and came out as a ball. That ball would explode into a sticky coating, leaving its target struggling to move. But I had to move.

My big legs pulled in, and I snapped around in the air. The ball of death closed within inches of my leg. There was a rush of air as it sailed past. The ground below became splattered in goo. Then the wall collided with me.

I gave a shout of pain in the seconds before the ground joined in the spider-whalloping. The surge of hurt and panic made me roll as soon as I touched down, landing me on my knees, wheezing and breathless. My head snapped up, my eyes watering. Those three kappa were standing in place. A couple more that I hadn't noticed crawled out from their hiding places, but didn't make any sudden moves. It was like they were too afraid to come any closer -- probably afraid of spider germs. I kept my eyes on them as I caught my breath. Then a crackle drifted in from close by.

There they were, closing in at last. A pure feeling of burning shot through my wrist as soon as I tried hoisting myself up. My hand wasn't supposed to bend that way. I inhaled sharply and let out a roaring cry, wheeling upright on the part that wasn't broken. The sound clawed at their ears, locking them in place for an instant.

The first to move was the one coming from my left. He dove for me, trying to wrestle me back down to the ground. My big legs unsheathed to spike the incoming kappa out of the air, his gun clattering at my feet. The kappa that fired the first shot fell back a few paces while his other friend pulled out one of those spark-boxes. That burning smell stung my nose, and I fanned out my free big legs, ready for the next charge, poking and jabbing the air in front of me.

"Come on!" I shouted, my voice cracking with the strain I'd put on it. Guess I wouldn't be carrying a tune anytime soon.

Unmoved by my screeching, the center kappa reseated his gun while the right one shuffled sideways, shifting closer, though still at a careful distance. Several more crackle-shouts came from around me. Their soot-covered backup had arrived, just as ready to box me in. One after the other, they came crawling out of the nearby alleyways. At least eight of them had poked their heads out, and I could bet there were even more standing by. More than enough to take me down if I fought them head-on.

The smoke was getting thicker, and I could see fire eating away at what was left of The Famous. If Hina really was still around, she was running out of time. And these kappa assholes weren't going to let me get any closer either. "Hina! I'm sorry!" I hollered. "I can't make it, so... so save yourself if you're still there, okay?"

They took my shout as a signal to close in on me. Jerk number one with the stun-box broke into a sprint. I brought my big legs down, punching holes in the street, but he juked to the side too fast for me to change directions. No time to swipe at him again, I gave up on holding his number two at bay. My big legs slapped the pavement frantically to get me airborne. I lifted up high enough to avoid the two charging kappa, though still far short of the rooftops.

I hit the street again only seconds later with a crash that rippled through my big legs. The kappa disappeared for a moment, swallowed by a cloud of dust. Shadows lumbered forward inside the cloud. Backing away, I bumped into a wall. All I could see through the dust was more walls. I'd never make it up any of them before they caught me. Cold sweat beaded on my brow.

A way up out of the question, I had to find a way out. The answer came as soon as the dust started to settle. One of the walls I saw wasn't a wall but an alleyway. From the faint light on the other end, I could tell it went through, if not to safety then at least to another possible way out. The only problem was that it led away from the smoke. But it looked like these kappa weren't going to let me over that way anyway.

With one last apology in what might have been Hina's direction, I beat feet for the only way through. Gloved hands lunged from out of nothingness as I zipped by. Angry crackles rang out, and I heard scrambling footsteps behind me. Too bad I was already halfway through the trash-strewn passage.

Helped along by the bags of garbage cushioning my steps, I scuttled along the alley. Up ahead, a crowd lingered around in the street. I launched out the end of the alley with my big legs tucked in, shouldering my way past a pair of kappa stopped on the sidewalk. Maybe they said something. I couldn't be sure when I was too busy running. My next destination was the alley straight ahead.

Looking back again, at least one goon was managing to stay on me. He shoved his way past the poor kappa I'd just startled and into a few more standing in his path. His hand clawed at the bottom of his mask, pulling it up just enough for a mouth to peek out from under it.

"Everybody out of the way! The defence force is in pursuit of a dangerous individual!" came a surprisingly throaty growl for a woman from under the mask. She was no Takaiwa, but she had a set of lungs on her.

Immediately, the crowd broke from its trance and cleared out from around the alleyways. A whole mass of goons came piling out of the passageways opposite, even more than the ones that almost cornered me. No room for my big legs in the cramped alley, I poured as much strength as I could into my small legs. This gave a few more swift-footed kappa the chance to get within a few paces of me. I stopped for a brief second, just long enough to jab at them with my elbows before taking off again.

Part-way down the alley, from out of an opening I didn't see until it was far too late, another couple of them came rushing out. Though I was able to breeze past them in time, that just meant there were more chasing me now. It seemed like every time I got to another side path, more of the masked jerks would pop up to join the mob following. My legs had gone from feeling like they were on fire to just about going numb.

The sound of crackling from up above caught me by surprise. Following along up top was yet another fresh addition to the chase team, and this one was carrying a gun. It was up on his shoulder already, and he was trying his best to aim, keeping a bead on me even mid-sprint. I could tell he was waiting.

Suddenly, it all clicked into place. That was how they were going to play this: Keep me running until I wore myself out and then swoop in for the kill. I needed to change course and do my best to shake these ankle-biters ASAP.

The next street approached fast. I leaned hard to the left, preparing to corner. My body twisted sharply. I took in as deep a breath as my hurting chest allowed.

Jerking my right foot out, the ground just about slipped out from under me, my hand saving me from falling mid-slide. That moment of hesitation was enough time for a shot to ring out above me. The sound of a wet splatter came before the impact, a solid thud, like a rock thrown at my shoulderblade. I wobbled but managed to push myself back up and onwards, hurling off like a bottle in an Underground barfight. The whole upper part of my arm was covered in blue now, and moving it felt sluggish.

The street I'd hurtled out into had fewer people standing around than the last, many of them already ducked into buildings and peeking out. With the way clear, I was able to sprint at full speed, kicking up more dust, on the lookout for the next alley. The reduced visibility didn't seem to keep the goons on me from firing off a few probing shots a few seconds behind me. The blobs of immobilising goo were easy enough to dodge when they weren't aimed, but they did leave dangerous puddles on the ground. At least I'd managed to get rid of the sniper.

Sniper or no, that hit had left me less steady on my already wobbly feet. There was no way another wouldn't stop me for good. Even worse was not knowing what direction I was running anymore. That light that Hina had pointed to had long since disppeared behind the buildings, leaving me without any sense of how far I was from a way out. I'd sprung out without a plan like an idiot. Kicking myself would be the least I could do for not following Hina's directions, but I'd have to settle for this sack of crap for now.

I made another sharp turn into an open alleyway, skidding to a stop when I saw a dead end looming close. Their footsteps lagged only a short way behind me -- turning back would put me right on them. No obvious footholds to scramble up anywhere. Not that it'd help me when I was one arm down and one hand backwards. The stacks of trash lining the alley wouldn't even help me hide. Rotten trash for rotten luck.

I was stumbling around in a panic, feeling ready to hurl my guts all over the ground. That's when something got caught under my feet. I yelped as I lost my balance. My big legs jerked out in a panic, but I couldn't catch onto anything. I hit the ground back-first and thrashed around trying to get back up. A long, pained grunt from under me made me stop.

Standing rubbing its head was a miniature... thing. I had no idea how to describe it. Whatever it was, it was barely waist-high to me and had skin that reminded me of a pickled plum left sitting out for years. It scowled down at me, two fangs poking out from its top lip. "I know I'm short, but that doesn't mean you can't at least--"

The wrinkly guy-thing's -- the voice was guy-ish enough -- beady black eyes locked right onto my goo-covered arm. Without any warning, he grabbed me by the shoulders and started dragging me through an open door. I was about to raise a protest when I heard footsteps tramping down the alley.

"Quick, tuck these in," the guy-thing rasped, nudging my big legs. I folded them up, letting him use his surprising strength to get me in the rest of the way. Warm air was hitting me from all sides, and whatever space he was stuffing me in was pitch black except for the light from the doorway. I could hear voices, somebody yelling, several somebodies yelling back, and a number of others talking away, through a wall.

"Don't make a sound."

Everything went completely dark, save a sliver of light under the door. Not a few seconds after the door shut, those footsteps finally reached this end of the alley. I seized up in my hiding space hearing them stop not too far away. Only two or three sets of voices crackled through the door. They seemed to be talking to the guy-thing already.

"What's that? Can't understand a word you're saying, sir. Or ma'am," he said. The thick false cheeriness in his voice made his contempt for them obvious.

Another set of footsteps came rushing through. The other voices sounded off before there was the sound of somebody clearing their throat. "My colleagues are chasing an earth spider. She was headed this way by last report. You had to have seen her," came that same gruff woman's voice from earlier.

"Just popped out to take my break, ma'am. I didn't see anything, much less whatever you're after."

"What's with all this overturned trash, then?" She was already sounding irritated.

"Ours isn't," guy-thing fired back. There was the rustling of bags. "See? All sorted proper. Those stores next to us are filthy anyway. You ought to be inspecting th--"

More rustling and things falling over. "Don't play stupid with me, hobgoblin! You had to have seen something coming." One of the others crackled. "And what's a labourer doing taking a break this early, anyway? Let me see your documents."

"They're safe at home. And I doubt you guys have the time to walk me back and check." There was a pause long enough that I could imagine them staring each other down. "Considering that whatever you're chasing."

The kappa goon growled. There were more crackles from her teammates. "Be thankful we're busy."

"Good luck with your search, officers."

With that, the kappa stomped off the other way, leaving the guy-thing-maybe-hobgoblin to pick up. Several minutes passed with the sounds of him cursing under his breath and whatever was going on through the other wall as the only sounds I heard. Then, the door opened back up. He jabbed his thumb behind him. "Alright, they're gone. Let's scram."

"Let's?" I asked, crawling out from what I could now see was a cabinet of some sort.

"Can't help noticing you're not a kappa. Trust me, this is no place to not be one," he said with a dark chuckle and shrugged. "And I can only guess you've got as many legal docs as I do now."

I narrowed my eyes at whatever he was, still too jumbled for any of those words to make sense. He rolled his eyes and his pointed ears lowered. "Yeah, I know I'm not pretty. You can put up with me til we hit the exit." He tugged on my sleeve. The settling haze of confusion only let me follow him down the alley, my head too full of questions to think otherwise.

"What--" His head snapped up to look back at me, making me jump. He was in the middle of peeking out the end of the alley. "What are you?" I managed to ask.

He snorted. "Some manners you've got, girl. But I guess you must've crawled out of a hole yesterday, so I'll let it slide. Name's Reginald. Never Reggie. I'm a hobgoblin, in case you didn't know." He poked his head back around and gave another quick look before turning back. "All clear. Let's go."

We stepped out of the alley, walking along a completely cleared street. All of those onlookers from before must have got bored and went back inside. I looked around for any sign of the smoke from before but found nothing. Wherever Hina was, I hoped she was safe.

"Didn't catch your name, by the by. Unless you just go by spider-girl," Reginald said.

"I'm Yamame, and you saw the legs." I looked over my shoulder for anybody looking before continuing on behind the hobgoblin.

Reginald looked back at me with a sour face. "Well, keep the legs hidden for now. I dunno what you did, but any news about a spider's gonna travel around here. And I wouldn't count on getting away twice."

"But I did get away twice."

"Lucky you. Three times, then," he grumbled.

We stopped at a narrow street cutting behind a clump of buildings. He stared up at the rock ceiling above us, muttering something to himself and tracing lines in the air. I'd never noticed before, but the entire cavern top looked sort of like a starry sky. The last time I'd even seen the sky was... I shook my head. Better off not going there, Yamame.

A hard yank on my sleeve. Reginald looked worried about something. "Gonna need your attention from here on out. I don't know the exact way, so you're playing navigator since you're the tall one here." He pointed way off in the distance. "See that red dot out there? That's what you follow."

Close to one of the far walls of the cavern, a glint of red winked in and out of existence. I rubbed my eyes, trying to tune in on it through all the other lights. It was barely a dot in the corner of my sight. One shift left or right and it would disappear just as easy.

"I can try, but... what are we looking for?" I asked.

"A way out that doesn't involve getting pitched in the river. Now, watch that dot and leave the directioning to me. C'mon." He yanked on my sleeve again. I was honestly getting a little tired of it, but getting out took priority over getting annoyed.

One side street led to an alley that led to another alley -- our path zig-zagged but otherwise followed a clear path out. Every couple of blocks, wherever we found an open space, Reginald would make me look up to let him know where the red dot was. A few times, I thought I'd lost sight of it through the buildings and panicked. Somehow, I would find it again, winking at me over the same pair of towers that seemed to follow us, like the thoughts of Hina that still jabbed at me every pause. Those pauses didn't last long, of course, interrupted by Reginald tugging me along. If there was anything keeping me going at this point, it was me being dragged around.

For all my 'help' navigating, I couldn't make much sense of which streets we took. The alleyways met up a different points, any number of branching paths taking off from another, and yet Reginald chose the one we took specifically.

My first time in the captial felt similar. Dark streets lit with a lantern or two only seemed to twist in on themselves, dumping me out at other dark streets. Though I was scared at the time, I came to appreciate those alleys later as the veins of the capital's heart. They were haphazardly built and that was their charm. They had character. At least, that's what Sis told me while she led me by the hand through them.

Speaking of Sis, the last time I'd seen her was months ago. Word around the capital was that she was up on the surface, but it was more of an idle guess. Nobody could ever say for sure where Sis would be when she drifted in and out like she did. The only thing that came to mind for me was that old friend of hers. If Sis was stomping around up top, there wouldn't be much reason but to see her.

The sound of Reginald snapping his fingers knocked me out of my head. He pointed to a rocky path leading up. "Look sharp. It's out in the open from here."

Wherever it was that we were sitting, it was right across from a set of rock ledges that zig-zagged up the side of the wall. If I tilted my head just right, I could make out light peeking through at the top. Somewhere up there was our exit.

Between us and the path up was a river, and not just a piddling trickle of water either. A flying jump assisted by my big legs wouldn't clear it. The waters were going fast enough to slam anybody unlucky enough straight down to wherever it ended up, which was off in the dark somewhere. Fences stood all up and down it for a ways, in front of buildings with what looked like boats held outside. Boxes were stacked up everywhere, forming imposing towers that could probably crush any of the buildings underneath them if they fell. There was a groaning sound of something metal opening on the side near us.

"Shit, get down!" Reginald hissed. I felt his hands grip my shoulders and pull me all the way to the ground. I squirmed in his grip, but he just held me down with hobgoblin strength.

The flow of the river sped up from its already racing speed, pouring out from seemingly nowhere. Then, the groaning got even louder, making my teeth clench. There was an enormous splash that flew far enough to hit us, and a boat emerged from the foam. Water rolled off of its back to uncover more of those boxes stacked on the banks. Fully surfaced, the boat skimmed past with another splash, disappearing into the tangle of boats and boxes further down.

I wrung out my dress as soon as Reginald let go of me. Getting waterlogged constantly was just behind 'crazy machines' and 'asshole kappa' as negatives of this place.

"Sorry about that," Reginald spoke up, spitting out water he'd nearly swallowed. "The defence force is always around the docks, so..."

"I'm more worried about getting across," I said with a shrug and pointed to the rushing waters. "How are we going to swim that? It looks pretty fast." What had been roaring pain that settled into a dull ache reminded me of its presence. I grimaced, massaging my half-healed wrist. "And I'm in no shape for it," I added, flopping my wrist for emphasis.

"Oh, no. Way too fast for either of us. I might be muscled-y, but even I'd never make it out of that drink. We gotta leap it."

I stared at him in disbelief. My mouth fell open, but he raised his hand before I could speak. "Yeah, I know it's far. I'm not talking flinging ourselves out there in hopes that we hit something."

"I can't fly," I sputtered.

He snorted and smirked. "If you ever meet a hobgoblin with wings, let me know. I think we'd all like a lesson or two." He peeled off his vest and pants, much to my dismay, leaving him down to a loincloth. The rest of him had the same moldy pickled plum look as his face. I tried not to catch a glimpse of anything as he started bending over to touch his toes, doing some kind of warmup stretches.

"Until then, our main talent is jumping like grasshoppers," he grunted. "And that's what you and I are gonna do. Off the back of a boat."

I looked across the rushing water again, out where the last boat had churned up the waters and leaped back up before speeding off. Barely a few seconds had to have passed before it was gone. Even assuming we could catch one of the things at the right time, who was to say we'd jump off at the right spot? The fences stretched on for what might as well have been forever, too. Hitting one would be the end of our escape, sending us plummeting into the waters to be carried off. My stomach sunk just imagining it.

"You've got to be kidding," I mumbled.

Finished with his stretching, Reginald looked up at me. "It's not that scary. Besides that--" he bounced up on his feet, coming up to my face and even higher, "--you see this?"

"Maybe that helps you--"

"Look, we hobgoblins go out this way all the time. I can tell you that the only thing that'd screw us up is pure bad luck."

"What if I told you I have the worst luck?" Not that I really knew that for sure. Still, I couldn't help thinking about misfortune in times like this. The skin on my back crawled and I shivered.

"I was joking." He sighed and shook his head but still broke into a fanged grin, his hands on his hips. "Besides that, I'll just drag you along like I've been doing already."

Somewhere deep down, a little voice said that wishful lies wouldn't help a hopeless situation. This doubt had been my travel buddy from the capitol to here, but now it was at its loudest, undampened by the rush of the water or the banging and crashing of boxes being moved around, shrieking and groaning of metal sharp enough to claw at my nerves. Even the edges of Reginald's smile were tinted in its shade.
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And yet, hadn't that very wishful lie been what carried me all this way? How many times did that voice nip and gnaw at me as the weight of The Famous' ceiling loomed over me? Misfortune or no, there was some cord tied to me that pulled tight in hopes of pulling me back. Whoever held that cord, Captain Takaiwa, the entire guard force, or even Ikuradou itself, I pulled back just as hard because I needed out. Maybe believing a lie wouldn't help. Even so, struggling was the key to coming this far. Hopeless as it looked, I was still going to yank at my cord for all I was worth. The whole cavern could come falling down on me for all I cared.

I hastily rubbed my stinging eyes and reached out my hand. "Then, I'll be counting on you, Reginald."

He raised an eyebrow, not taking my hand. I looked down and realised it was my broken hand. We shared a laugh. "Oops, forgot all about that," I said, laughing and switching hands.

There wasn't any time for a handshake before the creaking metal sound rung out again. Reginald and I looked at each other and nodded, steeling ourselves for what was ahead. He waved me down to a piece of the bank closer to the water and took his place at a high perch. Just the opening of the gate -- or whatever you'd call it -- sent waves slapping against my shins. With a silent goodbye, I wiggled out of my new shoes to leave them stuck in the dirt. What was left of my dress past the knee soon joined them.

The noise let up. The electric tingling of anticipation licked at my skin. Water bubbled at the edges of the opening, ready to burst loose at any moment. Reginald squatted down on his mark. The cord was drawn tight, and my breath was trapped in my chest. I licked my lips.

All at once, the stream of water came flooding out like a heavy sigh, the current picking up hard enough to unsteady me. Reginald's clawed grip caught my shoulder. "Hold fast," he barked, "and get ready to go for it."

Grey metal leered from the opening. Inch by inch, the incoming boat slid out, skidding to a brief stop at the edge where it teetered on its midsection over the water, hanging there for what felt like minutes. Then, the water rose up in a series of waves. They hit me head-on, water running up my nose and into my mouth. Reginald's hand on me kept the force of the waves from knocking me over.

The waves subsided and I was left coughing and spluttering. Reginald shook me hard, still holding on as I resteadied myself. As soon as I wasn't disoriented, the boat was already floating on the water again. The current would carry it away in just seconds.

"On three we jump!" Reginald shouted.

I took another deep breath. My big legs flicked out, half-asleep from being folded up so long, the water cold on them.

"One! Two!"

He let go of me.


I sprang out as soon as he counted three. A splash big enough to hit the side of the boat erupted from where I was. The boat was soon below and just a bit forward. The mid-air queasiness was setting in. I looked around. Reginald was higher than me.

We fell forward, the deck of the boat coming into sight. Several kappa were hunkered down around the metal boxes. A couple pointed up at us. There was a cry drowned out by the sound of the river and boat's own machinery. My feet touched the top of a box first, followed by the slap of my big legs. The box caved slightly under my landing.

Reginald landed a second later. With a deafening roar, he wound up again and launched further up than I could see. My foothold shifted under me. Realising I had to get moving too, I punched my big legs into the box, feeling them just about puncture it. The deck disappeared behind me, though I hadn't got as much height as last time. The other bank was in sight.

Unfortunately, I started falling faster than I expected, angling right for the water. There was only enough time for me to kick my legs in the air uselessly before it swallowed me face-first. I went in turned upside-down.

The current stirred up by the boat whipped me around like dust in a whirlwind. All my strength was spent just on that jump. Even righting myself wasn't happening.

Things were going dark.

My lungs desperately wanted air, but all they got was more water. I kicked and kicked, only going further down.



My eyes jerked open. Something had caught me by the ankle. I felt myself being hauled backward.

Air touched my feet first, then my legs. Finally, there was a sharp jerk, and I was pulled completely out of the water, flopped onto my side in the mud. A gush of water came up from the back of my throat as soon as I could prop myself up on my hands and knees. A hand slapped me hard on the back, and I coughed up even more water -- nearly giving up everything else along with it.

"You done it! Welcome to freedom, Yamame!" Reginald shouted in my ear.

He was covered in mud from top to bottom and sopping wet but grinning wide nonetheless. I probably looked about as bad, considering how much mud I could feel caked on me. If I needed a shower before, that need had just tripled. I brushed off as much of the muck as I could before I stood up, looking out on the water. The boat was well on its way down to its home. Best of all, there weren't any kappa swimming out our way.

The relief was enough to make me consider falling back down, but I was getting tired of being in the water, feeling a lot like a noodle left in soup too long. I waded onto a drier part of the bank with Reginald following. The hobgoblin slung off clumps of mud and nudged me. "How's it feel to almost be home free?"

I looked up behind us. The rays of light from outside were more distinct from here, the opening leading out only a short climb away. A wisp of cool air blew down. I may have been chilled to the core, but it still felt like a caress on my skin. I heaved a great sigh. Unlike before, there was no doubting how spent I was, the only thing keeping me upright being the thought of escape.

Something hit me all of a sudden: Was this the way out that Hina had pointed to? Standing there on that rooftop, the surface light was bright enough that I could see it from a distance. This exit, on the other hand, was barely visible until we were right on top of it. Not to mention I'd changed directions more than once in my scramble to turn back and then turn back again. A quick check of the cavern walls from here showed no sign of an exit like the on Hina had shown me.

"Hey," I said, turning to Reginald, "there's another exit right?"

"Well, I'd say there's at least one other, but..." He scratched his ear, picking some dirt out of his claw. His mouth quirked sideways in a questioning sort of look. "Any way you draw it, this one's the only one that doesn't take you right back into kappa territory. Plus, they don't have the sense to watch this one. Too much, anyway. All sorts of hired hands make their way out of here."

So that cinched it -- I was going out the wrong way. I held onto the rock wall to keep myself from wobbling. "Then, I have no idea where I'm going."

"You're headed for civilisation, aren't you?" He jerked his thumb upwards.

I shook my head. "Looking for somebody."

"Maybe they're in one of the settlements around. They're not a kappa, are they? I know a bunch of us hobgoblins set up a camp not too far. Can't imagine any others might not have done the same."

I held my head in my hands, sighing again. If only you'd thought this through a little better, Yamame. "All I know is I'm looking for a book-loving bird."

Reginald went silent, his wrinkled face wilting. He rubbed his long fangs and scratched at his ears once more. His black eyes peered around, narrowed like he was straining to think of something. Finally, he raised his hands in defeat. "I'll be real with you: I'm not too up on anything going on out there, so your bird doesn't ring a bell with me. That said--" he raised a clawed finger, "--I do know that tengu territory isn't too far from here. It sounds like your friend could be a tengu to me."

Great, more tengu. I brushed my dirt-caked hair back, surprised that my ribbon had made it all this way. My last encounter hadn't ended well. Thank the devas my teeth weren't broken anymore, though there was still soreness in my mouth. I peeled the dirtied bandages off of my face.

"Sorry I can't help you more," Reginald muttered. He looked up to give me a pitying smile. "But at least you're up-top now, right? C'mon, let's go check outside first."

The climb to the opening was mercifully short, especially considering all that'd led up to it. All the varying pains in my body had quieted down enough that I could focus on pulling myself up the rock ledges while Reginald simply bounced his way up. If I wasn't so worried about getting out, I might have tried to race him; being in top shape might have even let me win. As things were, it was all I could do to brace myself on the wall with my big legs. The hairs didn't catch well on the surface for whatever reason, so I had to rely more on my hands.

Coming to solid ground, I saw Reginald's hand looming above me and grabbed for it. Another gentle breeze stroked my face when I got level. I had to raise a hand up to block the light shining in. For the first time in a while, I was getting real surface light right in the face, and its warmth made the cold, damp feeling fade.

"Gods, I missed the sunrise," Reginald said. "Oh, uh, don't guess you've ever seen one, have you?"

I peeked through my hand at the scenery outside. A sea of indistinct green spilled over rock shelves, with a sky like a mess of pink and orange hanging off over it in the distance. The breeze was nearly visible in the sunlight. Leaves played in the air, carried off to rest somewhere below. I could see Sis having a drink here, maybe fussing about leaves in her sake. This was something I'd forgotten.

"A long time ago," I replied after a while, "but I guess it's nice seeing it again."

Neither of us said anything else for a while, simply standing at the mouth of the hole and looking out at horizon. The sun slowly walked its way up until the sky lost its pink colour and turned blue. The sunrise passed, I took the first step out into the grass. The warm ground felt nice under my bare feet.

"Beautiful out, isn't it? Who knows how long it'll stay that way, though." Reginald strolled out, his crooked nose raised in the air to take a deep sniff. One ear stood up higher than the other. "Yep, thought so. Weather's gonna change at some point. Ought to get a move on before we get any wetter," he concluded with a chuckle.

"If you say so. Though I'm still not sure where I'm going."

He waved off in the direction of some more distant trees. The land off behind looked to climb up and up and keep on going. "Tengu territory's off that way. Even if your bird friend isn't there, their guards are supposed to be helpful even if they act scary."

"Supposed to be."

"Never met any myself, so it's just hearsay to me." He perched his hands on top of his head, wiggling them. "But just look for white hair and ears like these. Chances are, they'll find you before you find them," he said, wiggling his hands again for emphasis.

Oh, right, there were two kinds. A lot of the stories I heard gave me the idea that they were mostly birds, but some of them were wolves. I'd asked Sis if they had wings too, and she just laughed. Wolves and wings sounded like a dangerous combination.

"And if they can't help me?" I asked.

Reginald shrugged. "Dunno, then. Half their job's taking people back down, so they'll probably do that."

"Oh." I traced a circle in the grass with my toe. The breeze swooped in again to hit me full-on, making me shiver. If nothing else, I hoped any helpful tengu guard might help me find a bath and a change of clothes.

"No worries. I'm sure you'll find your friend," Reginald said, reaching up to pat me on the shoulder. He nodded to a sharp dropoff. "Anyway, this one's me, so you're on your own from here. Best of luck with... Come to think of it, I never did catch what you do."

"I'm a singer. Or, well, I want to be. I sing enka a lot underground."

He looked dumbfounded for a second but then broke into laughter. I glared at him. What was so funny about enka? He wound down after a few second, wiping a tear out of his eye. "Sorry, it's just..." He broke into another fit of giggles. "Enka? With that pretty young face? Hard to imagine for me."

"Well, I do." I folded my arms.

He patted me on the shoulder again, smiling sheepishly. "Alright, alright, I believe you."

"What about you? I never heard what you do either," I countered.

He shrugged. "Not like it much matters at this point, does it? I'm a hobgoblin. All I'm good for is being a helping hand. Assuming I'm treated right." He scoffed and shook his head. That must have been hard to come by. "Anyway, it's not like I've got some talent like you. I've gotten by on odd jobs, and I'll continue to get by in any case."

"Well, best of luck to you." I wasn't sure I really understood, but I could at least offer a kind word.

"Luck!" he said with a snort. His arm curled up, showing off a wrinkly bicep. "No need for it. I got these two arms of mine to get me through."

He flashed a toothy grin. "But I appreciate the thought all the same. And good luck to you too, Yamame."

His piece spoken, Reginald waddled over to the dropoff, turned back to wave, and tipped over the side. I looked over the edge to see where he was going. He was already traipsing down a path that cut down into some thick clumps of trees. Spotting me from down there, he waved again. "If nobody else appreciates you, come find the hobgoblin camp! At least we can enjoy good music!" he called.

I had no response to that but to laugh and wave back. Within seconds, the helpful hobgoblin blended into the surrounding green and disappeared from my sight. Alone again, I thought, and shuffled my way toward the path that Reginald had pointed out, taking a moment to shake off my big legs before tucking them in.

It didn't take long for the bumpy path to start climbing through green territory. Despite not being that close together, the trees were tall enough to block out a lot of sunlight, which was a lot more comfortable than walking around with light in my face. Whichever way I looked, the forest went on for a while. The path, lined with stones, some of them bigger than I could probably lift, was about the only sign that anyone had ever been through here. After the non-stop noise and ugly grey buildings of Ikuradou, coming through somewhere like this was a small relief.

I stopped for a minute at a point in the path where it widened out into a circle. The opening in the top of the trees was just wide enough that the sun could peek through to brighten things up. Those stones along the sides were particularly big around here, easily big enough to be seats. Thinking about it, this clearing would have made a great stage for an intimate little concert, everybody sitting in a ring while I did a few slow numbers. My fingers felt lonely without my guitar.

Remembering what Reginald said about the weather changing, I decided it was best to not linger too long and kept going. Not too far from that clearing, the surroundings opened back up. Stuck in the ground ahead was some kind of wooden post with ropes tied around the top marking a crossroad. In front of that, someone had stuck a signboard with bold, handwritten letters on it:

This onbashira marks the outer bound of the land under the divine rule of Lord Tenma, parent of all tengu and master of the mountain domain. Without our Lord's permission, you have no place here and would be advised to turn back now. Those who flaunt this rule do so at their own peril. Consider this your warning.

The Association of Guardians of the Great Youkai Mountain by Right of Tenma

"Very helpful," I remarked to myself.

Something rustling in the trees behind me made me whip around. The treetops seemed clear as far as I could tell. Those tengu were supposed to be fast, so they could have been watching me. Not that it'd stop me from going on. They could come down and talk if they had a problem with it.

Keeping an eye out behind me, I continued past the 'onbashira' back into the woods. Things got darker a lot quicker. Trees were grown on top of each other, huddling in clumps hanging right in the way. Bushes stood right under foot. Low-hanging branches seemed poised in places where I wouldn't see. I spat out a mouthful of leaves and shoved my way through after one smacked me in the face. That was about the time I thought I heard laughing.

My back was clear and so was up above. All the leaves and branches were so thick I could barely see anything for one trunk. I backed up only to lose my footing on something. My butt smacked the ground and I rolled backwards. Rubbing my smarting backside, I sat up to get a look at what had tripped me.

A tree root jutted out from under a cluster of trees, running straight across the path with a bend right in the middle. The sound of somebody laughing came out of nowhere again. This time, it was much closer. Right on top of me, in fact.

And it was falling.

Seconds too late to do anything about it, there was a loud thwack as a pair of feet stomped right on my back. I fell flat on the ground with a cry of agony. Arms looped around my neck before I could react, pulling my head up.

"Thought you could just waltz through without paying the toll, did you?" came a high-pitched voice trying its best to sound threatening.

I stood up, grabbing at the arms around my neck, but something smacked at my knee hard. The tree root that had tripped me was moving now, waving in the air like a whip. Right in front of me was a pipsqueak in some kind of makeshift cloak, standing with her hands on her hips. Glittering bug wings buzzed behind her. Faeries. I'd almost forgotten they existed.

"I wouldn't be so quick to get up if I were you. These trees can put the hurt on," the faerie gloated.

Whoever was latched to my back pulled harder. I clawed at their arms, managing to keep from strangling. "The hell do you want?" I spat.

"Everything you've got on you. Cash, jewels, candy, whatever." The faerie brushed her dark purple-red hair out of her other eye to get a better look at me. "Just empty your pockets quietly, and I might consider letting you run along."

"You could have done without the candy part," droned the probable faerie on my back, going by the size of the arms. Despite being deader than an oni deprived of a drink, her voice sounded a good ten years older than her friend's.

The redhead glared behind me. "Nobody asked you, Mari. Just hold her still and shut up."

"I'm trying."

I wrenched at the faerie named Mari's arms again. "I hate to interrupt, but--"

There was a crack and a weak rush of air next to me. The moving tree root was stretched out all the way, stopping just short of whapping me in the face.

"I don't recall saying you could talk," the other faerie said. She held out her hand, waving it in my face. "Everything in your pockets. Now."

"Jun, she barely has pockets," monotoned Mari.

"Are you really gonna do this now? I don't see you taking charge here. You barely even help watch out for suckers. When's the last time you got anything off anybody? Never, that's when!"

Mari's grip on my neck loosened to where I could just about pry her off. "It's not like you've managed to grab anything recently either."

"W-Well, that's because, uh..." Jun's face instantly turned red enough to match her hair. She fumbled for a comeback, the tree root waving in the air next to her. "There hasn't been anybody weak-looking enough coming through, okay? I mean, look at her! She looks super whimpy compared to one of those tengu!"

I felt a jolt of irritation at that. 'One of those tengu' may have broke my (now healed) jaw and otherwise menaced me badly, but that was only because she sucker punched me. And I was worn down from fighting with two hunks of kappa junk to start with. I could hold my own in a fair fight, no problem. Besides that, the last thing I wanted to hear that from was a faerie.

While the pair were engaged in their squabbling, I grabbed onto Mari's arm and pulled even harder than before. She lost her footing on my back, letting go of me with a yell. With her off my back, I unfurled my big legs. Jun's eyes went wide, her lips trembling with the realisation of how big a mistake she'd made.

The wannabe-highwayfaerie turned tail to make a dash for it, but my big legs were already primed to strike. One leg stuck out in a flash to snag onto the back of her ratty cloak. Her heels dug into the ground, and she twisted her body in an attempt at shaking me, but I'd slowed her enough that two more legs swooped in to hug her around the middle. The vaguely threatening tree root shrunk back into the dirt like a whimpering animal as soon as I lifted Jun up.

"Oh gods, don't eat me!" shrieked Jun, kicking her stubby legs like she was trying to swim away.

Despite being held up by her arm like a rag doll, Mari showed less of a reaction. Her orange eyes fixed on me, her bored face not showing any of the type of fear that Jun was, almost as if she'd expected it.

I shook the blubbering Jun, quieting her down for a moment. "I don't know and don't care what your problem is," I said, pulling them both up to look me in the face, "but you have no idea the kind of day I've had."

"I tried to tell her," Mari gumbled.

Jun recovered from her teary-eyed sputtering. "Like hell you did!" she shouted. "All you ever do is sit back and--"

I shook them both, clearing my throat. They shut up and looked straight at me. I stared them down, ideas running through my head about how to handle them. From what I could catch through the trees, it looked like clouds were slowly drifting in. I needed to do more moving and less hanging around to deal with unruly twerps.

"Right, so, here's what we're gonna do..."

[ ] I'm in a hurry and have no idea where I'm going. Maybe these two are scared enough to cooperate. One of those wolf tengu might straighten them out, anyway.
[ ] They need a taste of their own medicine. Work up some web, string them up, and see how they like having their pockets emptied.
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[X] They need a taste of their own medicine. Work up some web, string them up, and see how they like having their pockets emptied.

As anti-productive as this might be. I think it might be good for Yamame to relieve some stress.

Also, I'm glad your back to writing this. It's been a while, crazy how time flies.
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[x] They need a taste of their own medicine. Work up some web, string them up, and see how they like having their pockets emptied.

I barely even remember what's going on in either of these stories. Time for some re-reading.
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[x] Taste of their own medicine

Dude. Everyone is an assailed here
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[ ] I'm in a hurry and have no idea where I'm going. Maybe these two are scared enough to cooperate. One of those wolf tengu might straighten them out, anyway.

Yamame is a friendly neighborhood spider and does not bully.
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Lies. Yamame is the very definition of bully.

[X] They need a taste of their own medicine. Work up some web, string them up, and see how they like having their pockets emptied.
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Alright, calling it here. The winner is...

[x] They need a taste of their own medicine. Work up some web, string them up, and see how they like having their pockets emptied.

As always, thank you for reading and voting!
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You've probably noticed how, well, months and months and months have passed again. This isn't the part where I apologise for that; I've done enough apologising. Rather, I'm going to do you all a courtesy and be straight with you. This story's current incarnation is dead.

The reasons are largely personal, but they also have a lot to do with me wanting the story to be told in a better way. My start was sudden and without a lot of thought given to the plot. I barely started planning until around the third update, when things came together in a haphazard fashion. Of course, that's where the update speed ground to an absolute halt. I'll be honest and say that updating became a grind. I didn't like where the setup had taken me, and I felt stuck. Instead of doing the smart thing, I kept digging myself in further in hopes I could just push myself far enough to make it work. Pretty soon, I found myself here, trying to explain why I didn't just end it sooner. That was my greatest disservice to those of you who cared enough to read.

Now, notice I haven't said it's over for good. I can't answer any questions as to how long it'll take me, but I'm currently back at the drawing board. There's an underpinning to Fame and Misfortune that held up the mess of a plot. I'm going to take that and build a whole new story with it: the story I really want to tell. No, it's not going to be Fame and Misfortune 2.0. Whenever it's ready to go, it's going to have a whole new title. Please wait warmly until that time comes.

As always, thank you for reading, voting, and enjoying. Until next time.

P.S. Don't Call Me a Glutton is still alive. The next update will be coming along soon enough, though it's slow going thanks to recent personal things.
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I'd love to see more of this, but not if it's at the expense of you, the author. Just do yourself a favor and cancel it for good if it's causing you this much trouble.
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It's more about bad planning than personal strain. Besides that, there is a story I want to tell. I just need to sort it out before I try again.

Thank you for your concern, however.
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Thanks for letting us know. Uncertainty, as weak as it was, is always worse.

Now, keep writing, motherfucker! There are many stories to tell!
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I'm glad you gave us an update on the situation. I quite like your stories, so I'll look forward to the story you plan to write.
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