The night was deathly quiet.
I use that sentence with caution, for its ambiguous adverb. What level of ambient noise is implied by the phrase deathly quiet? Complete silence? Sounds present but below perceptible hearing? Is there a threshold defining the maximum volume of a state of quietness to permit the description of deathly?
Despite the lack of clarity, I know no better sentence to portray the sounds of this evening. I hope to imply perceived rather than actual silence. When one is accustomed to the noises of warmer months, including the chirping of birds, the creaking of crickets, the occasional rustle of an animal or fairy in the woods, the relatively soft sounds of a winter night are a sharp contrast. The only sounds were the gentle lapping of lake water against its banks, and the rare breeze disturbing the trees.
Koakuma and I kept to the path that circumnavigated the lake. No snow had fallen for weeks, so the path was clear and our going was easy. The sky above was black and featureless. A slate of clouds covered us, casting Gensokyo in near perfect dark. The only light came from the magical fire constructs that floated in place over our heads. We walked, but I gave no forethought to our destination or course. I did not realize until later that I led Koa away from the half of the valley that contained Forest of Magic and the Hakurei Shrine. I do not know if this was random chance or subconscious decision.
“Um, Lady?” said Koa behind me. “Can I ask, where are we going exactly?”
“You may ask, but I have no answer,” I said. “Walk beside me. I wish for a companion, not a servant who follows at my heels out of obligation.”
“Yes, Lady.” Koa had no difficulty gaining ground to walk at my side.
“I am curious,” I said. “After I had disabled China, you still moved around her with caution. You seemed ready to run away if she suddenly reanimated.”
Koa looked down as she walked. “I guess I was. You know what....” She swallowed. “You know what happened between her and me before.”
“I do,” I said. “Did it comfort you to see her subjugated to my power several minutes ago? Or to Flandre’s earlier this evening?”
“No!” She was emphatic. “Seeing her knocked around like that. It’s terrible.”
“But it proves that China poses no threat to you,” I said. “So long as in the presence of myself or any of the mansion’s senior staff, each superior to her in combat, you are in no danger.”
“I know. I shouldn’t let myself be scared. But what she did to me.” She closed her eyes. “It doesn’t go away overnight.”
“I understand,” I said. Once again, I thought back to that night last summer. Two strokes under a miko’s gohei.
If Koakuma’s experience was similar to my own, I could assume no retaliation against Reimu Hakurei would bring me any satisfaction. Indeed, had I not tried the very next day? A few choice words whispered into China’s ear, and I thought the situation resolved. Yet even before Reimu exploited an aspect of feudal youkai relationships, even before I had learned that China had been disallowed from exacting her revenge, a feeling of deep discontent ailed me. I felt as if I had committed some crime, broken some law, ignored some important rule. What was worse, that same voice of conscience told me that I had known better, and it harshened the responsibility of my wrongdoing.
This guilt encouraged me to follow my mistress down to Flandre’s vault, even beside the two humans who had violated our home. The same guilt led me to tend the humans after the little mistress nearly killed them both. I put intense effort into repairing their bodies. I was successful, but my emotional state was returned only to an uneasy norm. I had barely set the accounting sheet of my morality to a zero balance. It felt ready to plunge back into debt at any time, and by no means had I gained myself a credit.
These sentiments were ridiculous, of course. Negative action deserved retribution. The philosophy of turn the other cheek had no merit beside practical ideas like an eye for an eye. Was a delinquent child never to be punished for disrespecting his parents? Was an expansionist country to receive no counteractive military movement from the countries it invaded? Allowing an aggressor to harass, harm or destroy you is a mere variation on suicide.
“Lady?” said Koa beside me.
I blinked, shook my head. “I apologize. I was lost in thought.”
“It’s not that.” She shrunk to my other side, as if putting me between herself and some danger. “There’s something in the woods.”
We stopped. She pointed off into the trees, and I looked that way. I saw nothing of note. Only the two closest trees, their trunks illuminated by the flaming birds over our heads. Beyond was only a solid curtain of darkness through which I could not see.
“No creature would wander out on this cold of an evening,” I said.
Koa pointed again. “Can’t you see it? I can’t really tell what it is, but something’s there.”
I stepped to the edge of the path, pushing my circle of light past the two nearest trees. It revealed a patch of wild grass and a third tree, this one stunted to grow in the shape of a bush. I squinted into the dark, but saw no more. Koa kept close to my back.
“There!” she said, pointing over my shoulder. “It’s right there.”
“I see nothing,” I said. I looked back at her. “I should take you home, Koa. The dark of night is frightening you into hallucinations.”
Koa opened her mouth to protest, but a new noise silenced her. There came an odd sound. I whirled around, one hand in my spellcard folder. Koa’s hands clamped onto my shoulders as she hid behind me.
“Who goes there?” I called into the woods. “Stand forth and declare yourself.”
No answer came. Instead the sound continued. If I were to describe the noise with onomatopoeia, I would write it as ch-ch-ch-chit-ch-ch-chit. It reminded me of the chattering from an angry rodent, perhaps a squirrel whose food had been stolen. The bare branches of the tree bush rattled as a small creature stumbled past it.
“What is that?” I said.
“It looks kind of like a fairy,” said Koa.
I was beginning to believe her eyesight was finer than mine. Perhaps all my years of reading had caused nearsightedness. The creature slowly moved forward, coming into the circle of light. At first look, it did resemble a lesser fairy. It was the same size, had a humanoid form, and a pair of wings on its back. It moved closer, and it was like no youkai I had ever seen.
Koakuma gasped. “Look at that poor thing. What happened to it?”
The creature either was no fairy, or had suffered gross mutilation. Instead of the fair skin that mimicked the loveliest of human women, it was covered in a leathery hide like that of a burn victim. Its limbs hung off its body in strange angles. Its legs were bent so that it walked like a clumsy blind man. Its wings were not translucent or colorful as fairy wings normally are, but dark flaps of flesh that drooped off its back.
“Stars above,” I said.
Another chit-ch-ch-ch-chit noise came, and I looked up to see another ruined fairy pushing past the bush. This second one was differently mangled, but was in no better condition. Its left arm was mostly whole, but its right arm was missing completely. Only a melted fleshy bump hung off its shoulder where the arm had been. Both creature’s mouths were pulled back from their teeth, clattering together in sounds of ch-ch-chit-ch-ch-chit.
“Lady!” said Koa, shaking my shoulders under her grasp. “They’re coming this way.”
They were indeed advancing on us. More appeared from the darkness, coming out of the woods in a broad semicircle. Slowly they approached us.
“Step back, Koa.” I put an arm to her midriff and pushed her back. We receded across the path, putting to our backs a narrow strip of grass that lined the lake shore.
“Oh my gosh!” said Koa, still cowering behind me.
More of the ruined fairies filtered out of the woods. Many, many more, marching on the path like a poorly organized company of foot soldiers. Their voices layered one on another on another, creating an ear-piercing chorus of chit-ch-ch-chit-ch-ch-ch-chit-chit. They moved in a group so thick that they often knocked into one another, collapsing in a pile of broken limbs and hard tanned skin. Their companions gave no thought to the fallen, and simply climbed over them to continue towards Koa and me.
I looked the throng over, trying for a quick estimate of their number. I initially guessed at several dozen, until another wave of them came into the light. I revised my count to one hundred and fifty, and then another mass of them became visible.
Chit-ch-ch-chit-chit-ch-ch-chit, they chattered.
“There are at least three hundred,” I said. “Hold still, Koa. We should—”
My breath was taken from me. A light breeze blew into my face, carrying the horrid stench of these creatures. My body rebelled against the smell, and I nearly vomited my dinner into a pool at my feet. I covered my nose and mouth with my hand, swallowed hard to keep my bile down.
Koa turned her head away and retched, making an “Aack!” noise than originated from deep in her throat. I felt every bit of her disgust. This smell was far too familiar. The odor of charred hair and boiled blood. It recalled experiences I try very hard to forget. The smells and sounds that floated up through the mansion while Sakuya prepared Flandre’s meals, before our human visitors had arrived last summer.
“Hold still!” I said, as if it would reduce Koa’s nausea.
She took a deep breath and swallowed.
“Shouldn’t we, um, run?” she said.
“They are attracted to our light sources,” I said, pointing to the fire bird above my head. “I cannot deactivate the spell without subjecting us to the cold, but nor will I lead these creatures back to the mansion. I must destroy them.”
“Then please do, Lady!”
The front line of the hoard was closer, forming a loose curve within several feet of me. They did not move quickly. Even I, notoriously slow among my rank of youkai, could have easily outrun them. I had ample time to find a suitable spellcard from within my folder. Koa trembled behind me.
“Be at ease,” I told her. “I have the situation in hand. Now let me see. How to eliminate hideous creatures. Ah.”
I pulled a spellcard out from the folder’s pages. I held the slip of paper up in two fingers and spoke the incantation.
Humble serpent of flame,
Four foot and belly to the earth
I summon forth the same
Whole might from thine hearth
“Fire sign: Salamander Crawl!”
I waved my hand before me as if shooing something aside. Bright red magical energy, taking the form of liquid light, poured from my hand into a convex shape in front of my feet. One second after the whole spell was on the ground, the magic spread forward like an unrolling blanket. It covered the ground in a layer of fire. It fanned out over the ruined fairies. This was a fast-acting spell, meant to create very high temperatures locally, so as to kill quickly rather than leaving the victim to writhe as it burned.
Neither such thing happened. Woods nearby illuminated as if a band of irresponsible travelers had started too big a bonfire, but the fairies were unharmed. Fire licked at their bodies, but they did not catch alight. It passed over them as fire passes over stone. They continued their unsteady march towards us, all the time saying ch-ch-ch-chit-chit-ch-chit-chit.
“It’s not hurting them!” said Koa.
“It seems they are immune by fire,” I said. “Fall back, Koa.”
The fire spell faded, leaving a blackened patch of earth. Turning so that we could walk along the path rather than into the lake, we slowly stepped back from the hoard. They followed us, their full numbers turning onto the beaten dirt. We would eventually return to the Scarlet Mansion if we continued, but I had no intention to allow this pack of mutant fairies to escort us for the distance.
“Please stop them!” said Koa. “Don’t let them get us!”
“Calm yourself,” I said. “Panic is counterproductive. This is actually a fine opportunity. I have waited for the chance to test a new style of combat spell in the field. Continue to walk backwards slowly. Stay behind me, but face them at all times.”
I opened my spellcard folder and thumbed through the pages. I found the card I was looking for, pulled it loose.
A tribute of those
To whom magic is unknown
And long ago chose
Through mechanics, power shown.
“Metal sign: Assault Rifle!”
This spell has drastically different effects versus the varieties of magic I am known to cast. I ask for the reader’s patience for the following paragraphs, as I present several unfamiliar ideas.
As is appropriate for any intellectual, I have studied the world outside Gensokyo in reading the texts that originate from beyond the Boundary. How these books come into our country, no sound theory has yet been presented, let alone any empirical demonstration. So far as experimentation as shown, the Boundary is absolutely impenetrable to forces both physical and magical. Yet foreign objects do appear within Gensokyo. Most common are books, many of which I keep in the library below the Scarlet Mansion. Less frequent are items of other sorts, such as the magnetic disc China found and gave to Flandre as a birthday gift.
During my studies of the outside world, I have learned of organized combat and military action. While the grand, sweeping views of armies marching across continents has its intrigue, equally interesting is the preparation and armament of the individual soldier. Each infantryman is expected to carry what is referred to as small arms, weapons appropriate for engaging equal or lesser forces of infantry.
Most closely equivalent to this concept in Gensokyo is a warrior equipped with a sword and dagger, or a bow and arrows. In advanced cases, a warrior prepared with an arsenal of prerendered magical foci ready for use. The personal weapons of the outside world are more direct, and rely upon mechanical and chemical reactions.
An example of weaponry from the small arms category is the device known as assault rifle. This weapon is a machine small enough to carry, but is heavy and burdensome. It is long, and is held by specialized grips on the bottom so that the wielder’s arms support its weight from underneath. Pulling a small switch on the weapon’s underside, called the trigger, activates the weapon. A chain reaction of chemical energy driving mechanical parts causes a small metal projectile, called a bullet, to fire from the weapon at high speed. It flies faster than a bolt fired from the finest crossbow. It cannot be seen passing through the air. Except as long ranges, there is no perceptible time difference between pulling the trigger and the bullet hitting its target.
Though bereft of magic, the projectile weapons of the outside world are effective. The bullet of an assault rifle is small, often the size of a fingertip, but velocity is equally important to mass in creating an object’s inertia. Transposing the multiplier and the multiplicand of the equation will not change the resulting product. A small, fast-moving object can be every bit as damaging as a large, slower-moving object.
I apologize for the above explanation. Though not at all extensive in this subject, it is a significant distraction from the matter at hand. I cast a metal-elemental spell while Koakuma and I retreated from the slowly advancing hoard of mutated fairies. The spellcard disappeared in a flash, leaving a rapidly shifting magical construct in my hands. I held it from below, as I had seen soldiers do in the books from the outside world. The energy took the shape of my rough approximation of an assault rifle. It gained weight and became solid. It tugged down my arms.
“What in the world is that?” said Koa, looking at the construct.
I offered no answer. Instead, I stopped walking backwards, standing still. I held the assault rifle up to my eye, lining two fins on the weapon’s top with the target I intended to strike. I aimed for the foremost of the fairies, still several feet away. I gently curled my right forefinger around the trigger, and pulled.
The result caught me completely off guard. The processes that mimicked an assault rifle changed magical energy into kinetic energy, flinging bullet-sized constructs out my weapon. I had designed the spell to fire four hundred times before failing. I expended a tenth of those cycles with the first trigger pull. The weapon bucked against me, pounding into my shoulder and knocking me back into Koakuma. The recoil caused the weapon’s projecting end, called the muzzle, to climb at a sharp angle. The bullets missed the front fairy that I had aimed for, but tore a line through the ranks behind it. The youkai, already mutilated as they were, exploded into chunks. One’s head was removed from its torso. The assault rifle’s aim continued to climb. I had too little strength to hold it down. Some bullets hit the ground behind the group of fairies, and the rest shot off into the night sky.
My ears were numb for my weapon’s first discharge. The noise was painfully loud, like dozens century-old trees falling to the ground in rapid succession. I could hear only a high-pitched ring. Behind me, Koakuma clapped her hands over her ears and shrieked. Her voice sounded miles away. I took my finger from the trigger a bare second after I had pulled it, and brought the assault rifle back under control.
“Foolish!” I yelled. “Equal and opposite reaction! Why did I not take physics into account?”
I had no further time to chastise myself. The hoard advanced still. I took several steps back, pushing Koa behind me further. Then I stood still, took aim, and fired again.
I exercised more caution. I depressed the trigger for only a split second each time, sending a short burst of bullets into the fairy mob. This way I avoided the muzzle climbing out of control and kept better aim on my target. The fairies failed to the spell. Each one hit disintegrated, holes punched through them. Youkai blood spattered the hard dirt path. Dismembered fairy parts littered the ground.
Every bullet fired hurt me as well. The weapon’s recoil battered me, and I would suffer bruising on my chest and arms. I am slight of frame, and my body was too light to absorb the shock. My ears, too, hurt with every pull of the trigger. Each shot pounded a new level of ringing into my head. I was deaf while using this weapon. I could only hope my hearing was not permanently damaged.
Yet I continued firing. The assault rifle destroyed the fairies. I had more bullets to expend than targets to eliminate, but making every shot successful was impossible. Especially towards the end, when most of the fairies had been torn apart. I had to aim carefully at the remainders, whereas before, having a large group of the creatures ensured I would hit at least one.
The final fairy fell to the first bullet of a burst, and the assault rifle was empty. I pulled the trigger again, and its internal mechanics only clicked. The construct faded from my hands, its weight lifting from my arms, and the assault rifle was gone. My legs failed me. I realized that, until now, the muscles in my thighs and calves had been clenched to keep me upright. I fell to my knees. It took all my effort to remain even in that position. If my body had its way, I would have fallen on my side and not returned to the Scarlet Mansion unless someone carried me.
I heard a far away sound, a buzzing above my muffled sense of hearing. Koa stepped in front of me, still holding her hands over her ears.
“Lady Patchouli!” she yelled into my face. Her voice was the distant sound. She pulled her hands from the sides of her head to catch me from toppling over. I had not noticed I was leaning until her hands were on me.
“I am well.” I shook my head to clear the ring in my ears, but made no difference.
Koa helped me to my feet. “Did your experimental spell work out how you wanted?”
“No. It was both marginal success and monumental failure.” My legs threatened to cease functioning again. I nearly fell back to my knees. Koa caught me, hugging me tight to herself.
“Are you all right?” she said. “You don’t seem like you can walk.”
“I can.” I pushed her away, forcing myself to balance without help. “It seems I too closely emulated the workings of the weapons from beyond the Boundary.”
“Was it supposed to be that loud?” she said. “My ears hurt.”
“Mine as well,” I said. “I will refine the spell at a later time. For now, let us return. This walk is much more different from our ordinary experience than I had intended. Far too much.”
“And the smell too,” said Koa. She took my side, encouraging me to rest my weight against her as we walked. I would have submitted to that position, had I not noticed the fairy remains on the road. I do not mean to say that this was the first time I was aware of them. It was, however, the first time their continued presence had occurred to me.
The bloody, stinking spread of dismantled fairies still covered the dirt path.
“Wait,” I said, stopping Koa. “Look.”
She glanced back at the mess on the road. “Yuck. I don’t wanna look at that.”
“No,” I said. “Think for a moment. Youkai are beings composed of magical energy. Upon termination, that energy disperses.”
Koa realized. “Oh! You’re right. Fairies fade away when they die. Then why....?”
We stood for a moment, staring at the mess, as if expecting it to sparkle out of existence at any moment. But there stayed the remains of massacre.
“Maybe they’re not fairies?” said Koa.
I shook my head. “What other creature in Gensokyo appears as a small person with wings growing out of its back?”
“Then maybe....” Koa’s brow scrunched in thought. “Maybe they’re not really dead?”
“Impossible. No lesser youkai could sustain that much damage. There must be—”
My breath was taken from me again. The smell, ever present, returned with new vigor. Both Koa and I slapped hands over our mouths as we gagged from the stench.
“How foul!” I said.
Koa dared a look back at the carnage, and her hand fell from her face. She gaped, wide-eyed and open-mouthed.
“L-lady...,” was all she could say.
I looked, and saw what stunned her. I blinked several times to ensure that neither the dark nor my recent beating interfered with my sight. There was no mistaking this. Koa was right. The fairies were not dead.
Their body parts were moving.
“This is not happening,” I said. “I killed them. I annihilated them.”
Limbs and torsos moved of their own volition. Arms grabbed the dirt if their hand was till attached, and propelled themselves by bending and unbending at the elbow. Hands that had no arms walked along on all five fingers, like a spider missing one leg. Legs used the slight flexibility of their ankle joints to gain purchase with their foot, and repeatedly flexed muscles around the knee. Bodies simply rolled, or used any attached limbs to scrape along. Heads, too, came to life again, whether decapitated or still on their necks. Every fairy mouth worked in unison, teeth chattering.
“Koakuma,” I said.
“Y-yes, Lady Patchouli?” she said.
“I do not claim to know what we are witnessing, but I do assert that whatever is transpiring here, we will not find its result favorable. Do you agree?”
“I very much do.”
The body parts gathered together at the center of the patch of bloodied earth. The broken fairies and all their pieces piled together, crawling over each other like a hive of insects, making a mound of slick quivering flesh.
“Then I am in indecision,” I said. “Retreating to the mansion seems an immediately wise course of action. But if we leave this unattended, we do not know if it will pose a threat to anyone else. We may remain and observe, and attempt to neutralize that threat, but we could place ourselves in danger.”
“I’ll do what you think is best, Lady,” said Koa. “I trust you’ll protect us.”
“I have done a barely passable job of that thus far.” I put a hand over my chest. I was sore. I would feel tonight’s exploits for many days to come.
“I bet it’s just because you were experimenting,” she said. “If you got serious, nothing could stop you.”
Some deep part of me warmed, and it tugged a smile at my mouth.
“Your confidence in me is....” I searched for the word. “Flattering. Thank you.”
The pile of fairy parts increased in activity. The mound tightened, each part trying to climb higher on top of the others. Its shape resembled a man sitting with his knees pulled to his head. And then the head looked up.
Koa screeched and clung to me. I stared, dumbfounded.
“Impossible,” I said.
The man-shape stretched out two long arms. Its hands were tipped with dismantled fairy parts that happened to be proportionally sized as fingers. The shape leaned forward, getting its legs beneath itself and standing. It rose to at least six and a half feet. Its torso was heavily built, containing the majority of the fairy bits. Its head and limbs were too long and thin by comparison.
“Incredible!” I said. “This merits entirely new venues of study. How are the dismembered fairies adhering to one another? How do they move as a cohesive unit? And more importantly, what in Gensokyo could have caused this?”
As I spoke, the man-shape’s head rotated. If the head’s shape was any indication, it was turning to face us.
“Um,” said Koa. “It’s looking at us.”
“Perhaps we can communicate with it,” I said. I waved a hand at the man-shape, hoping to get its attention. “Hello! Are you cognizant? Are you able to understand speech? Can you state your intentions?”
It stomped one foot towards us, and the ground shook under its weight. Both Koa and I struggled to keep our balance.
“I think it’s intentions are pretty clear,” said Koa.
“But this is nonsense,” I said. “All those fairies do not have that much mass, even collectively.”
The man-shape put forth its other foot, sending another tremor through the earth. It held forth both arms, folding its grotesque hands into fists. Koa tugged at my dress, pulling me back.
“Oh,” I said. “I see. The fairies were not simply attracted to the light the warmth spell. They are outrightly hostile.”
The shape took another step forward. My knees nearly buckled under the miniature quake. One more step and I would be within its reach.
Koa pulled me more forcefully, and I stepped back with her.
“Then maybe we should go?” she said.
I flipped open my spellcard folder. “No, Koa. I must have something here. How to eliminate vile abominations of life. Let me see....”
I snapped the folder shut. “I am mistaken. I have no spellcard sufficient for this task.” I turned, pushing Koa. “Run!”
She was happy to comply. She took my hand and ran down the path as quickly as she could. That, unfortunately, was faster than I. I lagged behind her, fighting to keep up as my feet were forced to cover more ground than my stride spanned. Behind us, the man-shape gained speed. Its legs were longer than either Koa’s or mine. Its feet pounded the dirt path, shaking the trees as it went. I imagined it also sent ripples through the nearby lake, obscured in the dark.
“Faster, Lady!” Koa yelled. Her black and white dress whipped into my face as we ran.
“I am unfit for exuberant physical activity!” I yelled back. My justification did not help us. The man-shape gained on us. It would catch us well before we reached the mansion gate.
“Look!” Koa pointed ahead. “Something’s coming this way!”
I tried to see what she referred to, but the monster caught me just then. My long ponytails trailed behind me as I ran, and the man-shape grabbed them both in one of its huge hands. It yanked me back, and I screamed as if I had just been scalped. My hand tore free of Koakuma’s. I fell flat back onto the ground. Spikes of light exploded in my vision as my head hit the hard dirt. The air was knocked from my chest.
“Patchouli!” Koa screamed my name. She stopped and ran back towards me, though I had no idea what she hoped to accomplish. I wanted to yell at her to keep going, run fast and far. I had already fallen to the monster, and there was no sense compounding the problem by sacrificing herself. But I could draw no breath.
“Run!” My mouth formed the word, but I had no wind to voice it. The monster stepped over me, and I expected it to strike me. But it past me and charged into Koakuma. It battered her with a back-handed slap. The force of the blow knocked her to the ground. There she lay motionless.
I tried to sit up, but could only roll onto my stomach instead of my back. I searched for my spellcard folder, but I had lost it when I fell. Just ahead of me, the monster looked at Koa’s beaten form on the dirt. It put one foot under her midriff and kicked her to the grass beside the path. The momentum carried her down the slope to the lake shore and out of sight. But I heard the splash, and saw the puff of rising steam from the failed warming spell.
“Koa!” I tried to yell. My chest spasmed as it worked to inflate. Done with Koa, the monster stepped back to me. It regarded me for the same moment, then pulled back a fist. It would hammer its arm down on the ground, pulverizing my head between the two.
“Don’t touch her!” yelled a new voice. A thin red line of light passed through the monster’s arm, which then suddenly separated from the shoulder. The fist that was about to kill me lost its cohesion to the rest of the monster. The detached limb collapsed into hundreds of bloody fairy bits. I crawled away to avoid getting rained on, but I was still pelted with tiny body parts. One bald fairy head bounced off my scalp. I then noticed that my hat had gone missing.
I kept crawling. Since the monster seemed more interested in the newcomer who had cut its arm off, I took the opportunity to get out of immediate danger. Even crawling is difficult when unable to breathe. I only made it several feet before looking back at whoever had rescued me.
There stood my mistress, Remilia Scarlet, facing the monster. The scene might have been comical in other context, a short girl against a beast more than twice her height. Her eyes burned with angry red light, brighter than the warmth spell that still hovered over me. She held out one arm with an active combat spell. A great red spear, translucent and glowing as if made from luminescent ruby, twirled in air near her hand. The spear did not touch her, but followed her hand so that she could wield it without offsetting its weight. It ceaselessly spun, cutting deep whoop whoop whoop noises into the air.
“What circle of Hell did you spawn from?” said Remilia.
The monster swung its remaining hand at her. The blow might have crushed Remilia, but it was far too slow to catch her. The next second, she was behind it. With that movement, she had sliced the blade of her spear through the monster’s arm, freeing it from the shoulder. Another burst of fairy parts spattered to the ground.
“You’re a persistent monstrosity, aren’t you?” Remilia gave the monster no time to try kicking her. With two quick motions, she cut off both legs at the thigh. The monster’s now quadriplegic body fell onto the pile that used to be its legs.
Remilia looked back at me. “Patchouli! Can this thing regenerate?”
I nodded, and found I had breath to answer.
“Yes!” I said. “But magic seems not to permanently harm—”
“You haven’t tried my magic!” Remilia gripped her spear, stopping its rotation. She ran forward and leaped, jumping over the squirming pile of parts. She stabbed her spear into the ground let it go. Her momentum carried her over the mess, and she landed on the strip of grass near the lake shore.
The spear was now planted in the dirt among the monster’s reforming body. Remilia stood straight and held up a hand. An aura of red light grew around her. The same light emitted from the spear, and it vibrated gently in the ground as if reverberating to someone’s heartbeat.
“Hold it!” said Remilia. “Wait for it. Let it gather.”
The monster’s parts collected around the spear. It seemed the monster might attempt to absorb the weapon, take its power for itself. The monster’s head began to rise as its limbs regrew.
“Good enough!” said Remilia. She held her hand to the sky. “Spear the Gungnir!”
The light from the spear doubled and tripled. It became too bright to look at, but I could look at nothing else. The spear’s vibrations ceased suddenly, and all its pent-up energy seemed ready to explode. But it did the opposite. Instead of blowing outwards, it sucked inwards. All the fairy body parts were pulled towards the spear, and it burned them in a worse way than fire. Each part was incinerated, vaporized from physical existence. At first a spherical cloud of the fairy bits surrounded the spear, but that cloud shrunk until the spear had absorbed the last of it.
Off to the side, Remilia had both hands up as if grappling with a tough opponent. Managing this spell took all her concentration. Once the monster was gone and only the spear remained, Remilia pointed a finger to the sky. The spear followed, pulling free of the dirt and shooting up to the clouds. It flew higher and higher, a trail of sparkling ruby light behind it. When it had gone so high that I could no longer see it, then it exploded.
A scarlet burst webbed across the sky above us. It reminded me of an outside-world cultural phenomenon. Using chemical technology, the people beyond the Boundary created recreational spectacles they called fireworks. The name is fitting. Remilia’s spell might have been seen anywhere in Gensokyo for a moment, and was indeed an impressive working of fire.
Remilia stood still, as if letting a moment of pain pass. She lowered her hands to her sides. The red light around her faded, and she was breathing heavily. She looked to me.
“Now I know why you stay in the library all the time,” she said.
I was already struggling to my feet, pushing myself across the dirt path and to the lake shore.
“The monster knocked Koakuma into the lake!” I said.
Remilia gave no reaction of surprise. She spoke no doubt or question. She immediately turned and jumped down to the lake shore. I meant to follow her, but the slope was steep, even for the short distance down to the water. The light of my warmth spell barely carried down that far. I could see Remilia’s silhouette kneeling at the lake’s edge. I crouched to lower myself down, but she called up to me.
“Stay up there!” she said. “I found her. Let me bring her up.”
I stood straight, and no later Remilia stepped up onto the grass beside me. The front of her dress was wet, but unconscious Koakuma in her arms had been completely immersed. Water dripped off her in a small shower, dotting the ground with dark spots. Her wings and red hair hung lank off her head. Her clothing clung to her, revealing her thin figure. I stepped forward and put a hand to Koa’s cheek. She was cold to the touch. But that alarmed me less than another metabolic abnormality.
“She is not breathing!” I said. “Lay her down, please.”
Remilia did so. She set Koakuma on the ground, ensuring to keep her neck and back as straight as possible. I knelt down beside her. I put both hands on Koa’s head. With one, I held down her jaw. With the other, I pinched her noise shut. I looked inside her mouth, making sure there were no obvious obstructions. I took a deep breath and held it, then lowered my face to Koa’s. I pressed my open mouth to hers, and pushed air into her.
High-level youkai share many physical peculiarities with humans. One of these is that certain exposed areas of the body are more sensitive to physical sensation than others. The lips are extremely sensitive, for the sake of having a detailed sensation of what we put into our mouths before totally inserted. Humans, I have read, abuse this trait for physiological stimulation between romantic partners. I felt no such pleasure when I had my lips to Koa’s this night. She felt cold and empty beneath me. If I may be so grotesque as to make the comparison, it felt like kissing a corpse.
I am grateful that analogy was not literal truth. I lifted my head and placed my hands over Koa’s chest, ready to compress her ribs in mimicry of normal respiration. She needed no further stimulation. Her chest heaved on its own, and her eyes fluttered open and closed. She choked, struggling for breath. I rolled her onto her side. She coughed and sputtered, expelling the water she had inhaled. I patted her on the back, more to offer comfort than to help her breathing. Her body convulsed each time she coughed, forcing the water out of her.
Remilia stood by and watched. She looked as a parent might, seeing her child suffer beyond her aid. Worried and helpless.
“Will she be okay?” she said.
“She is breathing again,” I said. “But the lake water is below freezing, and she may suffer hypothermia.”
“I’ll get her back to the mansion.” Remilia put both arms under Koa and lifted her again. “I move the fastest.”
“Please wait,” I said, standing with her. “You are indeed quick, but that may thwart us. The wind chill could harm her.”
“You can’t carry her back,” she said.
“No, but I can enable you to do so.” I looked around, saw my my spellcard folder on the ground nearby. I picked it up and thumbed through the pages. I did not immediately find for what I searched.
Remilia tapped her foot on the ground. She could carry a person heavier than she, while cold and wet, and still have the capacity for gestures of impatience. A strong person is my mistress.
“You’d better have a good reason for making me stand here,” she said.
I found the spellcard. I slipped it from the folder’s pages and held it to Koa’s chest. I closed my eyes and concentrated. It took one second to focus the necessary power to activate the card.
“Wind sign,” I said, “Anemoi Anchor!”
This spell had no vivid display of light as most my spells do. The magic had no visual aspect at all. The air around Koa’s body changed, becoming like a liquid that thickens into a solid. It created a layer of stationary air that conformed to her. Air not affected by the spell would not pass through the makeshift magical blanket. This would serve to keep her body heat. I passed a hand over her nose and mouth, deactivating that part of the spell. Keeping her warm would serve no purpose if she suffocated.
“Impressive.” Remilia nodded to me. She is also a mage, and recognized the purpose of the spell. “Meet you back at the mansion.”
She turned and dashed off into the night. I heard the whoosh of her passing, had a glimpse of her wings flapping as she ran, and she was gone. I stood on the strip of grass, between the beaten path and the lake shore, and I was alone.
I did not immediately return to the mansion. The flaming bird still flapped above my head, keeping me warm and lighting an orange circle around me, so I could stay outdoors if I chose. I lingered for a time.
First, most importantly, I found my hat at the edge of the woods. No woman of status in Gensokyo is seen outdoors without her hat. It was scuffed with dirt, but my crescent moon brooch was still pinned to it. I fit the cap upon my head, ignoring the dirtiness of it. Both my hair and hat could be washed. Indecency is a much more serious matter.
I walked over to the scorched patch of earth, left by the first attack spell I used against the mutated fairies. I looked at the blackened dirt, ground a bit of it under my toe.
Fire had not harmed the fairies. And, in retrospect, I understood. They had already been burned, and by a flame worse than anything I could conjure. A flame that should have killed them, but instead left them suffering. I have no special sympathy for other youkai simply because I am youkai myself, but nor do I love cruelty. I hoped whatever had mutated the fairies to be a fluke of nature. The idea of a deliberate mind doing so troubled me.
I walked away from the burnt ground, to the spot where the fairies had advanced as I eliminated them with the assault rifle spell. I could only tell the place by the bullet holes in the dirt. The bullets themselves had disappeared with the spell, and the fairy blood was gone. I took that as a sign that they, and the monster they formed, were now truly dead.
And what of that monster? Surely, it was worst of all aspects of the fairy mutation. youkai are independent beings, no matter their level, and belong to no communal consciousness. They are as separate as one human is from another, as I am from Flandre Scarlet, and as one fox in the woods is separate from any other. That they could join together and act as one being suggested they had been altered more deeply than their appearance. Had they been joined in that deeper way? Or had the individuality of life been taken from them, so that nothing remained to keep them from conglomerating?
These thoughts pushed me down the path, and I began the walk back to the mansion. I did not hurry. I knew what awaited me there, and I dreaded it.
Yet dread of the inevitable only shortens the perceived duration preceding the inevitable’s arrival. I approached the mansion gate. Hong Meiling stood before the doors. She was whole and healthy. She called a challenge to me.
“Halt!” She held up a hand. “Declare your identity and invasive recollection of dynamics!”
I stood still. I was weary. My chest and arms ached with each beat of my heart, marking my bruises. My hat and dress were dirty. Add these reasons to China’s belligerence, and I had ample excuse to cast her aside. But I had seen enough pain tonight. I had no desire for any more, be it deserving or not.
“China,” I said. “Several minutes ago, the mistress must have—”
“The mistress?” said China. “The mistress! Why didn’t you say so? That’s a foreign exchange of a whole different opacity. Come on in!”
She walked backwards into one of the gate doors, pushing it open with her shoulders. I walked past her, but watched her as I went, my spellcard folder ready. She only grinned at me. Whether amused at some joke of which only she knew the punchline, or satisfied with a job well done, I do not know. She let me pass. I cross the courtyard as the gate closed behind me.
I approached the mansion’s main doors. I saw Lady Scarlet standing on the porch, waiting for me. She had changed dresses since I saw her last.
“Patchouli,” she said. “Took your time getting back.”
I walked up the steps to the porch. “I apologize for my delay. I am injured. An experimental spell backfired. May I ask after Koakuma’s wellbeing?”
“She’s still passed out, but okay otherwise.” Remilia opened the doors and we both went in from the cold. “You’re hurt? How badly?”
“Not as severely of as she,” I said. “Mine are the hard knocks of learning. I am in pain, but I will recover.”
The door shut behind us. I pointed a finger to my warmth spell, pushed an effort of will into it. The spell deactivated. The flaming bird above me dispersed into a shower of red sparks, falling around me and disappearing. Its warmth faded, and I was once again subject to ambient temperature. Remilia and I crossed the foyer and ascended the stairs to the mansion proper.
“We got Koa into some dry clothes and a warm bed,” said Remilia. “Sakuya’s looking after her now. Let’s go up and see her.”
“I shall,” I said. “Though my attire is not presentable. May I acquire new clothing first?”
Remilia sighed. “For things I’d never have you do, you act on your own volition. For things that are implicitly allowed, you ask permission. Yes, you can go change first. Then you and I need to have a talk.”
A visit to the bedside of the ill is ever uneventful. One dare not speak to loudly, for fear of waking the sleeping patient. No conversation can be held. If one alone is to watch over the sick, then at least the watcher can bring a book to read. My only meaningful action in this case was to examine Koa. She lay in bed, covered to the neck in quilts. Her face had regained its usual fretting blush. A yellow and purple bruise formed near her left eye. Similar marks were on her left shoulder and arm, showing where the monster had struck her, as she held up an arm in reflexive defense.
Sakuya had placed three fire-warmed stones in the covers, to ensure there was some heat other that Koa’s in the blankets. Remilia had frequently checked Koa’s temperature by touch. Now they both stayed aside as I stood over the bed. I looked down at my sleeping assistant, and I hurt. Her wounds caused pain in me that I could not identify. I did not show it. Instead, I placed a hand over Koa’s forehead. I closed my eyes and extended my magical senses to her body.
I am an elementalist, but I am no more restricted to that class of magic than an evocater is limited to making explosions, or a summoner is limited to creating short-lived youkai automata. Elementalism is a high study, but my interests have deviated into other branches. One passing interest, as shown by prior events, is the structure and health of humanoid bodies. I have found use for this research more often than I care to consider.
My scan showed no damage but that what was obvious. Cold, contusions and nervous shock.
Sakuya stood not far behind me, both hands bunched up near her chin. One of the rare events which worry her is harm done to the mansion’s other senior staff.
“Is she all right?” she said.
I lowered my hand from Koa’s head, opened my eyes.
“Yes,” I said. “She will recover with rest.”
Sakuya eased, sighed in relief. I did not allow it to be seen, but I shared her feeling.
Remilia came to my side. She took hold of my sleeve and tugged.
“We should let Koa rest,” she said. “Sakuya will look after her.”
“Yes, Mistress,” I said.
Remilia turned to leave the room. I gave Sakuya a nod, which she returned, and then I followed my mistress. I closed the bedroom door behind us as we went out into the hall.
“You desired to speak with me?” I said.
“Yes,” said Remilia. “But someplace comfortable. Let’s go to the observatory.”
“As you wish.”
We were already on the top floor. The observatory was on the other side of the mansion, but the walk there was far too brief by my desires. Only one with no understanding of my relationship to Remilia would expect me to fear rebuke or scolding from her. Even if she intended such, I had no feelings of guilt or indignation. I was not always immediately pleased with her wishes, but she was my mistress by youkai law, as we had both agreed long ago, and she had lived much longer than I. If my behavior dissatisfied her, I had hitherto accepted her will as superior to my own, and I would adjust my behavior accordingly. She is the only being who deserves my obedience.
This evening’s discussion, however, would contain no rebuke or scold. It was something much worse.
We came to the observatory. This room becomes quite cold in the wintertime. The massive glass dome ceiling provides an excellent open view of the sky, especially when spells are used that allow the ceiling to act as a magnifier. But glass is a poor insulator of warmth. The observatory also becomes uncomfortably hot during summer days, due to energy that enters as solar rays but cannot escape as heat. The outside world calls this a greenhouse effect, for reasons my research has yet to determine. The mistress has before consulted with me about adding additional enchantments to the room, allowing it to retain heat in the winter and release it in the summer. Such workings are technically possible, but due to the room’s size and glass’s physical nature, any thermal management spells of that scale would necessarily be complicated. So complicated, in fact, that they would to interfere with the magic already in place. My mistress finds this an unacceptable side effect, so we endure the seasonal temperature extremes. Our solution in the summer months is to abandon the observatory during the day. Our solution in the winter months is to keep the observatory’s furniture well stocked with comforters.
Is it not obvious how desperately I wished to avoid this conversation with Remilia? Even in retrospect, I find myself weaving frivolous tangents of blankets and thermal retention. I will deviate no further.
My mistress entered the room before me. I closed the door behind us, and followed her to the room’s center. Armchairs, couches and love seats were positioned around a study table. Sparklamps around the room kept it lit. Remilia went to each of them, briefly putting a hand on the glass orbs. Their light died at her touch. The room gradually fell into darkness.
“We won’t need these,” she said. “They’re just making the room colder, anyway.”
Once the last lamp had lost its light, Remilia went to the center of the room. She climbed onto the right cushion of a love seat, digging into the comforters that covered it. Once she had buried half of herself under fabric, she patted the seat beside her.
“Come sit,” she said.
With the room darkened, I could see my mistress’s position only by the twin scarlet points of her eyes. I stepped towards her, but hesitated at her recommended choice of seating. Sitting side by side is an intimate position for a conversation. To sit facing one another, in separate armchairs, is more detached and professional. Yet my mistress knows me well, and she reacted to this doubt as if I had spoken it aloud.
“Sit next to me, Patchouli,” she said. “Don’t make me wrestle you down and tie you to the couch.”
Remilia never makes idle threats. I did as she asked. I sat beside her, layering the comforters over myself as she had. I wedged my hind into the corner of the cushions, keeping all possible distance between Remilia and myself. She did not close that gap, staying on her side of the love seat. I was relieved that she respected my personal space.
The observatory was dark. Silent, but for our breathing.
“So,” said Remilia. “Want to tell me what happened?”
I took a moment to gather my thoughts. What was there to tell? There was only the truth, which deserved no shame or hurt. I could find no way to justify this emotional pain. But it was there, and it persisted. I wished I could ignore it, leave it untouched, like a child who fights against having a wound disinfected. A cut cleaned is agonizing. But leaving it to fester is worse.
“I decided to go for a walk,” I said. “I took Koakuma with me.”
“A walk?” said Remilia. “You? The only walking you ever do is between bookshelves.”
“Your surprise is understandable. I experienced it myself. After I had given Flandre her birthday gift, I did mean to return to the library. But I found the prospect unappealing.”
“Why do you think that is?”
I shook my head. “I am unsure. The library is my haven. My work and livelihood take place there. It is where I provide my services to this household. And yet, after Flandre’s birthday party and all that led to it, I had a brief, very strong, very different perception of the library. Perhaps it is not a goal unto itself, but a mean to certain ends. Additionally, excessive amounts of time spent in the library seemed to have weakened parts of me that it was never meant to strengthen.”
“Which parts?” said Remilia.
I closed my eyes. I could have discussed this with none other than my mistress.
“How I treat you,” I said. “And I use the second-person pronoun in its plural, referring to all the mansion’s senior staff, which is not indicated by the phonetics of the current language’s—”
Remilia laughed. “You don’t have to add grammatical annotations. I know what you meant. Keep going.”
“First, most obviously, between us two, my rude assumption earlier this evening.”
“Rude assumption? When was that?”
“I claimed the library’s fairies as my own. You corrected me of that misconception.”
“Oh,” said Remilia. “Well, to be fair, they are yours in a sense. I couldn’t manage them as well as you do. But go on.”
“Second, I confronted Sakuya as she prepared dinner, and I was none too gentle. Ignoring her preoccupation, when she reacted to my challenge, I did not peacefully withdraw as I could have. I effectively threatened her with violence if she did not withdraw first.”
“She complained to me about that afterward,” said Remilia.
“Third, how I reacted to China when she presented her gift to Flandre. I questioned China on the magnetic disc’s origin, but she had no useful answer. I allowed myself to become angry with her indiscriminate stupidity. Granted, her intelligence quotient competes only with some pathogens, but intelligence is not her contribution to House Scarlet. I should no sooner be angry with myself for being unable to run one hundred yards in under a minute.”
“But still blast China whenever she gets cocky,” said Remilia. “I guess we all do.”
“Her attitude, combined with her physical speed and strength, make disciplinary action necessary. Her rapid recovery minimizes consequence.”
“True,” said Remilia. “I think I understand why you didn’t want to return to the library.”
“Please enlighten me.”
“Because, for the first time in a long while, you stopped reversing the subject and object. The library may be your favorite place in all of Gensokyo. You may spend most of your life down there. There’s nothing wrong with that, just so long as you keep a vital fact in mind. Just like a youkai serves its master, that library serves you, not vice versa. For too long, you’ve lived as if you existed for the library’s sake. That’s wrong. It exists for yours.”
My mistress’s words sunk into me and became meaning, but I rebelled. I was too old to allow myself into such a childish mentality. I would not identify myself so heavily with my work that it became more important than me, or those close to me.
But did my own misgivings not prove that Remilia spoke true? I had too readily left the library with the slightest infringement on my arbitrarily defined domain. I could not return to that domain even when I thought I wanted to.
“Perhaps.” My voice was a whisper.
“Definitely,” said Remilia. “The library isn’t a leg iron. If you want to go for a walk, then you should go for a walk. Speaking of which, you listed off all but one of us. You left out Koa.”
Indeed I had. It was of her that I least wished to speak. I sat, staring into the dark observatory.
“Patchouli,” said Remilia. “Tell me about Koa.”
“I,” was the only word I could speak before my voice broke. Heat climbed up my neck, stuffing my nose and watering my eyes. I cringed at the pain of it. I put a hand over my face.
“I treat her poorly,” I said. My voice was thick and wet. “She has done nothing but serve me humbly and I am short and brusque with her. I should treat her more like a subordinate and less like a slave.”
The blankets rumbled around me. Remilia got onto her hands and knees and crawled over to me. She did not touch me, but her bright red eyes were close.
“That’s twice now,” she said. “You’ve used the word should as if appealing to a moral standard.”
My nose ran, and I sniffed.
“What moral standard?” I said. “This is completely arbitrary. There is no reason—”
“You’ve already heard my arguments on that topic.”
I sniffed again, ran a palm over my cheeks to dry them. “Your assertion of the existence of a monotheistic God, though well precedented, is hardly substantiated.”
I must admit, my words sounded fairly ridiculous when voiced while weeping.
“I’m not talking about God,” she said. “Whether He exists or not doesn’t have to be the main point here. What matters is what’s going on inside you. You feel guilty for something. Something’s eating you inside. Tell me what it is.”
“I already said. My treatment of Koa—”
“No!” Remilia put a hand on my cheek, lifting my face and looking into my eyes. “There’s more. Say it.”
It built inside me, rising from the depths. It rose, the pressure building, until I could not hold it in. It sputtered out like a sloppy, emotional volcano.
“Why did I take her with me?” I said. The tears ran free. “I put her in needless danger. And even when I saw that danger, I was too busy playing with magical toys to protect her. She deserves better than that. She suffered too much at our family’s hands already. She—I....”
And I could speak no more. My words degraded into incoherent blubbering, and Remilia hugged me. She wrapped her arms around my head and shoulders, pressing my face to her chest. I cried, and I was ashamed.
She held me for a time, bearing my self-loathing grief. My tears calmed, and I was humbled enough to enjoy the warmth of another’s touch. I hugged Remilia back.
“For what it’s worth,” she said, “you’re being too hard on yourself. Going for a walk at night is a little strange, I’ll admit, but it shouldn’t be a problem for someone like you. You had no way to know that thing, whatever it was, would show up and attack you two. And even when you realized the threat, you weren’t equipped to fight it. If it killed both you and Koa, it wouldn’t have been your fault.”
“I care nothing for fault,” I said, muffled into her dress. “I care about results. If Koa had been hurt worse than she was—”
“Then the world would end and everyone would die in flaming agony. People would start traveling faster than light and dividing by zero. And guess what? There’s not a thing you could do about it.”
I had no response.
“But it’s useless to fear would have’s and could have’s,” she said. “My centuries of experience have led me to believe that there only ever is one time line possibility. People make their free choices in any given situation because, by their personalities, they could have made no other choice. Other factors that appear random, like weather or economy or wildlife, aren’t truly random. Like throwing a pair of dice, it’s strictly possible to predict which sides will land face up, but the factors are so numerous that they’re impractical to calculate.”
I pulled my face from her dress, just far enough so that I could speak.
“Your argument is a variation on predestination,” I said. “The idea negates free will.”
“Don’t go reversing the cause and effect again. Predestination says that the universe is already created for you. My idea is that you create the universe as you go. You can choose to make it however you want, but realize that your life could be no other way, because you chose to make it so. Not because life chose for you.”
Again, I was silent.
“And another thing,” she said. “I’m not saying that we should never consider hypotheticals, simply because we use words like would have and could have when discussing them. Hypothetical thinking is okay, but fearing what might be, or might have been, is not okay. Beating yourself up over the fact that Koa might have been more seriously injured is like to stabbing yourself with an imaginary knife. Luckily for all parties involved, I showed up and killed the monster. That’s what happened. Worrying other possibilities is just foolish.”
The moment had passed, and Remilia and I released each other. She sat back onto the love seat, though closer than she had been before. I sniffed and wiped my face dry. I was embarrassed. I hoped this evening would never be known to any but my mistress and myself. Even this exposure was mortifying.
“What made you come?” I said. “How did you know Koa and I were in danger?”
“I didn’t,” she said, settling back into the covers. “After dinner, I was in my study to read for a bit before bedtime. I heard the strangest thing, a far off noise like rat-tat-tat, rat-tat-tat. I’ve never heard anything like it. I assume that was you.”
“It was. An experimental spell. It is much nosier than I intended. I might have awaken half of Gensokyo.”
“But a good thing, in this case,” said Remilia. “A thing unusual can be either dangerous or an opportunity, so I went to investigate. For the danger possibility, I grabbed a spellcard on my way out. I heard Koa’s screaming while I was en route, and that convinced me to pick up the pace. If I had gone at a flat sprint the whole way, I could have stopped that thing from hurting Koa.” She took a deep breath, let it out. “I’m sorry that I didn’t, but so it was. I did what I could.”
“Which seems markedly superior to what I could,” I said. “Can you explain the nature of the spell you used?”
She nodded. “I made my Divine Spear spell to allow real-time alteration, even after conjuration. The instruction set is huge and complicated, but I’ve had a lot of time to work on that kind of thing. I knew we were dealing with something serious when that monster had gotten the best of you, of all people. An elementalist’s powers copy the power of nature. That power couldn’t kill the monster only if it was something wholly unnatural.”
“That is an interesting thought.”
Remilia held up both hands, her fingertips together as if she held up an invisible globe between her palms.
“You recall the fundamentals of the microscopic structure of matter, right?” she said. “Your books call them molecules and atoms, if I remember. My spell worked by breaking the bonds between the smallest bits of that monster’s body. The process wasn’t at all efficient or complete. It requires massive degrees of power. It’s hard doing it even once. But I managed to separate the monster into parts that were too small to contain any appreciable amount of magical energy. Then they couldn’t self-motivate, so they couldn’t reform. And just in case that wasn’t enough, I shot them into the sky and scattered them all over Gensokyo.”
“Very clever,” I said. “Laws of conservation prevent the outright destruction of matter, so you exploited the material capacity principle. May we perform further research on this?”
“Of course. If one of those things showed up, there might be more. But there’s something more important at the moment.” Remilia unburied herself from the covers and hopped off the love seat. “I’m ready for bed, and you need to go sit with Koa.”
I did as she, climbing out of the cushions, but the dread returned with a flourish. My wound was freshly cleaned, and I least wished to begin prodding it.
“Koa?” I said.
Remilia took my hand in her own. She began walking to the observatory exit, pulling me along.
“Sakuya’s exhausted,” she said. “She’s going to nod off if I make her stay with Koa any longer. You should be there instead.”
“I am in a worse condition than Sakuya,” I said.
“That’s beside the point. You’re the one who needs to be there.”
“May I ask why?”
She stopped, looked back at me.
“Isn’t it obvious? Hasn’t your heartbreak taught you anything?”
I only looked at her, confused.
Remilia sighed, as one who patiently and repeatedly tells a truth to another who is barely able to comprehend.
“You feel guilt,” she said. “You feel like you’ve done something terrible and wrong and despicable. But ironically, that feeling shows great virtue. Simply put, it shows that you love Koa.”
Once more, she struck home. The wound peeled open and seared in the air. I put both hands over my face, and I cried. My mistress was there for me.
I walked into the bedroom where Koakuma lay recovering. I held a heavy book under one arm. Sakuya indeed slept on the job. She sat in the armchair beside the bed, her head on her shoulder, her breast regularly rising and falling with each breath. I went across the room, took her by the arm and shook her awake.
Sakuya’s eyes pulled open and her head righted itself. She looked at me as if she had never seen me before.
“Huh?” she said.
“I am your relief,” I said, keeping my voice soft. “Go to bed. I will watch after Koa.”
“Oh,” said Sakuya. “All right.”
She stood, managing her wobbly legs beneath her, and made for the door. She rubbed her eyes as she went. Though now taller than me, she never ceased to be that little human girl from so few years ago. The girl who cried for Remilia’s attention and giggled with delight when I read to her.
Sakuya closed the door behind her, leaving me alone with Koa. I sat in the armchair and wiggled myself into the cushions. The night before me was long.
Perhaps at the noise of my arrival, Koa stirred in bed. She inhaled deeply. Her eyes opened. She looked around the room, saw me sitting beside her.
“Lady?” she said. “What?”
As she spoke, she brought a hand to her face, but immediately regretted it. She touched her bruises. She clenched her teeth, hissing in pain.
“Stay still,” I said. “You are hurt.”
“What happened?” she said. “Did the monster—”
“Gone,” I said. “Completely obliterated. You are safe. Rest now, and speak no more.”
She turned her head to face me, and gave a weary smile.
“Thank you, Lady,” she said. “Thank you for protecting me.”
My throat closed. I swallowed, and the first moisture of tears underlined my eyes.
“Do not thank me,” I said. “Rest.”
Koa’s head rolled back, and her eyes closed. After several minutes, her breathing had again regulated to that of sleep. I opened my book at the first page and began reading. But even as I read, as I recognized the pattern of writing as letters, the pattern of letters as words, of words as sentences, sentences as ideas, and ideas as meaning, a deeper truth warmed me. I was happy, I found. Happy to do the work, to peruse subjects that interested me. Happy to write the spells and organize the books and spend long, comfortable evenings gradually absorbing their knowledge.
All that, I realize, is meaningless in absence of foundational happiness. All my efforts and duties are worth while only for those who are close to me. I am grateful for my mistress, for Flandre, Sakuya, Koa, and even China. They make possible my joys, and for that, they ever have my love.
Return to Part TwoReturn to Chapter Index