It is unconventional for the first-person of a narrative to spontaneously portray events from another’s perspective. Yet as this circumstance is unconventional to narrate, to enact and to experience, I must temporarily change through whose eyes the reader sees. If I were to continue documenting solely my own point of view, I would render my gift to Flandre abstract and devoid of meaning. The gift was intended for her, and to her only does the gift show its worth.
Understand, then, Flandre’s reaction at the dining room suddenly disappearing, leaving her in blackness. She still felt the chair beneath her, and could see herself only by the light of her wings. Nothing else was to be seen, but for a featureless void around her.
She looked around, her heart beating hard in surprise.
“What the!” she said. “What happened?”
No answer came. Her voice seemed to end at her own head, as if limitless space stretched away in all directions.
“Remi?” She reached out to where her sister had been sitting beside her. Her hand touched nothing. She felt forward for the table, but it was nowhere to be found.
“Patchey?” she said. “Sakuya? China? Koa? Hello! Where’d everyone go?”
She stayed on her chair, clamped her hands down on the seat in case it too would vanish, leaving her to fall into the void.
“Hello!” she yelled. “Where is everyone?” Worry crept into her, the fear of a child separated from her parents and left alone.
Then, either the light of her wings grew or the void around her receded. The dining room gradually reappeared from a dark haze, reminding Flandre how her sight returned after she pressed her palms into her eyes. But the room was not as it had been a moment ago. No sparklamps lit the place. No mass of fairies lined the tables, eating and celebrating her birthday. Her own family, her sister and her senior servants, were all gone. The table she had been sitting at was now several feet away, and bare of decoration. The whole room looked as it did during the late hours of the night, or early hours of the morning. Empty and silent, since everyone was supposed to be asleep.
Awareness of these surroundings was an afterthought to Flandre. She first noticed the dead body draped face-down over the table.
Flandre slid off the chair and stepped up to the body. Her eyes were wide, her cheeks bright red. Never in her memory had she seen a corpse, but the sight of one did not frighten her as she thought it should. She was surprised, and that only for whose the dead body used to be.
She put both hands on the head, gently rotating it to take its face off the tabletop. Flandre gasped at the dead eyes looking back at her. Eyes that, once vibrant and bright purple, were now rheumy and gray. The face, once discerning and intelligent, now slack and pale and drained.
“Patchey!” she said. She shook the head, as if to bring life back to it. “Patchey! Wake up!”
The corpse did not wake. Its flesh was cool under her hands. She might have kept rattling it, trying to reanimate her librarian and tutor. But something caught her notice, convincing her that Patchouli Knowledge was dead.
Looking up, she saw the murder weapon. The staff Lavatein stood out of the corpse’s back like a crooked flagpole. youkai blood stained the nightgown around the wound, and welled up into a stream that leaked down the corpse’s side and pooled on the table.
“My staff!” said Flandre. She set the corpse’s head down on the tabletop. She bent her knees and sprung up onto the table. The move would have been impossible for a human girl of her height, but was no great display of athletics for a vampire. She stood by the corpse, nudged it with her foot. She was careful to keep from stepping in the blood.
“I’m sorry Patchey,” she said. “But I need my staff.”
Flandre wrapped one hand around Lavatein. She wiggled it back and forth, feeling how deeply its end was buried. She winced.
“Better make it quick,” she said. She took the staff in both hands and pulled upwards. The corpse’s dense bones and tissue were no match for her, but she needed much of strength to yank the staff free. Its spade-shaped tip tore out of the corpse’s back, taking flesh and bone and blood with it. Flandre yelped at the mess she made, looking away to keep from getting any on her face.
“I’m sorry, Patchey!” Her voice bounced around the empty dining room. She looked back down to the corpse. She held her Lavatein in both hands, as if to make an oath.
“I’ll find who killed you,” she said. “I’ll revenge you.”
With that, she closed her eyes and lowered her head to the body. She paid a moment of silent respect. Then she turned and hopped off the table, sounding a soft thump sound as her feet hit the floor. She left the dining room and headed into the dark hallways of the mansion.
“Gonna find a killer,” she said.
Leaving the dining room, Flandre encountered her first obstacle in solving the mystery of Patchouli's murder. She did not know how to track a killer. Like any child who needs help solving a difficult problem, she went looking for help. She sought her sister.
Remilia had disappeared in the dining room along with everyone else, so Flandre had no sure idea of where to find her. She first thought to check the places where Remilia spent most of her time. The observatory. The music room. Her study up on the top floor. But there was no time. The killer was still on the loose, and likely still on the manor grounds.
Flandre stopped in the hallway. She leaned Lavatein against her shoulder and cupped both hands around her mouth. She pulled in a deep breath and shouted.
“Hey!” Her voice raked up and down the halls. “Remi! Remilia Big Sister Scarlet!”
No answer. She took in another breath.
“Someone killed Patchey!” she yelled. “She’s, like, all dead on the table and she’s getting blood everywhere and it’s really gross!”
Still nothing. Her voice echoed away to silence. Flandre planted her fists on her hips, a gesture she had learned from her sister.
“Hmph!” she said. “Never any help when you need it.”
A distant noise startled her, the sound of metal clashing against something. She jumped, turned towards the sound with Lavatein in both hands.
“What was that?” she said.
All was silent again. She strained her ears, listening for anything against the soundless backdrop. Nothing.
“Sounded like it came from the kitchen,” she said, and she began walking that way. It was largely a return trip, back past the hallway she had just been through. Rather than taking the shortcut through the dining room, and seeing dead Patchouli again, she took the long way around to the kitchen’s main entrance. Another girl in her place might have been too frightened to wander around the mansion, alone and in the dark. But Flandre carried her own source of light, and she would be far more dangerous than anything she met.
She heard the sound again, this time louder and closer. She startled again, the noise cutting into her ears versus the silence. It definitely was from the kitchen, the sound of a iron pan falling on stone floor.
“Someone’s there!” she said, and she sprinted the rest of the way. She was at the kitchen door in little time. She batted the door open with Lavatein and rushed inside. Her wings cast colored light all around the kitchen, throwing strange shadows over the room’s dark corners.
Flandre gasped. She slapped both hands over her mouth, dropping Lavatein to the floor with another metallic clang.
“Sakuya!” she said.
In the middle of the room was the head maid. She lay face down in a growing puddle of red human blood, her arms spread out as if embracing the floor. The blood soaked into her clothes and into her silver hair, turning it pink. Empty pans and bowls littered the floor around her. The smell was overpowering, sick and sweet and rotten. Flandre’s dinner roiled in her stomach.
“Not you too.” Flandre stepped up to the body, again careful not to step in blood. A ragged hole had been torn out of Sakuya’s back. Exactly like the wound that had killed Patchouli.
“Who did this?” said Flandre. Then something caught her eye. Beside the body, red smears across the floor formed rough letters. They were surrounded with red speckles and splotches. Sakuya had used her own blood to scratch out a final message.
There were only four letters. W, H, Y, and F. More blood was smeared after that, but it was too messy to read.
“Whyf?” said Flandre. She shook her head. “Dumb Sakuya. I knew you were bad at spelling, but even I know that’s not how you spell wife. There’s no H.”
She carefully stepped back across the kitchen, picked up Lavatein.
“You wanted to get married some day, huh?” she said. “Didn’t think you’d ever want to, but I guess you’re still a human girl.”
She looked back at the body, and her face grew sad.
“Or, you were,” she said. “I’m sorry, Sakuya. Just like Patchey, I’ll find who killed you.”
She left the kitchen, wondering what to do. The killer must have been nearby, she knew. Sakuya had been attacked only a short while ago. The noises must have been her knocking over dishes in an effort to pull herself up, struggling against a mortal wound. That was just like her. Fighting to the last breath.
“I’ve gotta find who did this,” said Flandre, walking down the hallway. She did not know where next to go, but even wandering around aimlessly was better than standing still. Thinking was most important. She had to figure out where the killer had gone, and where he might next strike.
As it happened, Flandre’s thoughts were not necessary or consequential. As she marched down the hallway, the light of her wings revealed a bloody streak on one wall, as if someone had dipped his hand in paint and stamped his palm on the plaster.
“More blood!” she said. She stepped up close to the wall. The mark had neither the distinctive color nor foul smell of human blood. But saying this had been left by an injured youkai hardly narrowed the possible list of victims, when within the Scarlet Mansion. The blood was fresh. The print had just been left.
“Hey!” Flandre shouted. “Is anyone here?”
No reply came, but she heard a soft moaning down the hallway. Flandre’s breath quickened. She dashed towards the sound.
“Don’t move!” she said. “If you’re hurt by the killer, I’ll help you! If you’re killing my helpers, I’ll hurt you!”
She almost ran past what she had been running towards. She stopped and hopped back, struggling to keep her balance. She stabbed Lavatein into the carpet to stay upright.
“China!” she said.
There sat Hong Meiling, back up against the wall. A hole was punctured in her chest, the same kind of wound found in Patchouli and Sakuya. One arm was wrapped around her gut, the other propped against the floor so she sat upright. Blood had gushed out the wound and pooled in the dress on her lap. It darkened the carpet around her, and it covered the wall behind her.
Seeing Meiling like this, Flandre pictured how she had come here. Meiling had been attacked further down the hall, but walked as far as she could. She had steadied herself against the wall at least once, leaving a bloody hand print. Here her strength left her, and she leaned against the wall, and slid down to where she now sat.
More amazing, she was still breathing.
“China!” Flandre said again. She knelt down beside Meiling, put a hand to her face. “China! Come on. This isn’t enough to kill you. I’ve hurt you worse than this before.”
Meiling’s eyes, normally bright and blue, were now dull and out of focus. She seemed not to see Flandre before her.
“Mistress...,” she said, her voice barely more than a breath. “Run... get out, the mansion....”
“I’m not Remi,” said Flandre. “But did you see my sister? Where is she?”
Meiling tried to inhale, but choked on herself. Her eyes met Flandre’s. She tried to back away, but had nowhere to go.
“It’s me!” said Flandre. “Don’t be scared. I’m trying to find who killed everyone. Where’d my sister go?”
“The main... doors,” said Meiling. “Just don’t... hurt....”
She looked like she meant to say more, but could not. Her head lolled onto her shoulder. Her chest released a final breath. The light in her eyes went out, and she died.
“China!” Flandre yelled into her face. She grabbed Meiling’s body by the shoulders and shook her. “Wake up, China girl!”
She did not wake, and Flandre may as well have been beating life into a mannequin. She let go of the body, slowly stood. Her face felt tight, and her eyes burned. This was too much. Everyone was dying. Each time she came closer, but always too late. Maybe she would be in time for the next one, if she hurried.
Her head snapped up, and she looked down the hall.
“Remi!” she said. Taking Lavatein in hand, she sped off down the hallway.
Flandre understood Meiling’s final words to mean Remilia was trying to escape the mansion. The nearest exit was the main doors that lead out to the courtyard. There Flandre now ran, as fast as her legs would take her. She whipped down the through the hallways. Had anyone been around to notice her passing, it would have been as only a gust of wind following a rainbow-colored shooting star.
“Remi!” she called down the halls. “Wait for me! We can fight the bad guy together!”
That was her last hope. If a killer could defeat Patchouli, Sakuya and Meiling all within a few minutes, then Flandre knew she could only stand against him if by her sister’s side. Together, surely, the two of them could face any threat. Even the threat that had destroyed the rest of the mansion’s staff.
Omitting the obvious, that Flandre wanted to see her sister alive. To see that anyone had survived the slaughter.
She came to the front foyer, a wide and tall room just before the mansion’s main doors. A flight of stairs led down to the tiled reception floor. Flandre did nothing so childish as climbing onto a banister and sliding down it. Instead she leaped off the higher level and glided down. The stairs blurred by, three feet below her. She landed on the hard, cold floor with her knees bent, the jewels of her wings clattering together like misshapen wind chimes.
“Remi!” she yelled. The room was empty and dark, but for the small circle of light her wings cast around her.
“Flandre,” came the reply, and it was her sister’s voice.
Flandre’s heart jumped in her chest. She looked around the room, unsure from where the answer had come.
“You’re here!” she said. “I can’t see in anything. Where are you? Are you okay?”
“I’m right in front of you,” said Remilia.
Flandre squinted into the darkness. When she looked hard enough, she saw two dull points of red light some distance before her. Her sister’s eyes. She stood perhaps five yards away, more than half the distance to the doors. Flandre began closing that space, meaning to batter her sister with a relieved hug. A shout held her.
“Stay back!” Remilia yelled. “Not one step closer!”
Flandre’s feet pattered to a halt. “Why? What’s wrong?”
Closer now, she saw better the light of her sister’s eyes. They weren’t bright and bloody scarlet, as they normally would be in this darkness. Her eyes were dim, fading in and out like cooling embers.
“What’s wrong?” said Remilia. “Flandre, I need to explain something to you, and I need you to listen. Try your hardest to understand what I’m about to say, all right?”
Her voice was not well. She spoke with labored breath, as if some weight kept her from taking in a full chest of air.
“Okay, Remi,” said Flandre. “Go ahead. I’ll listen.”
“Good,” said Remilia. She took as deep a breath as she could. “A night like tonight, in a house like this mansion, full of people as it was, is known in a certain considerations as a closed instance. This means everyone here is accounted for, and there is nobody who leaves or arrives. It means when the night ends, there must be the same number of people here as when the night began, with one exception. And that exception is murder.”
“I know!” said Flandre. She pointed back into the mansion. “Patchey and Sakuya and China! They’re all—”
“Listen!” said Remilia. “The most important part of the closed instance is that of liability. If the mansion’s occupants each turn up dead, one after the other, then one of the survivors must be the murderer. And as the cast of characters steadily shrinks, the likelihood of each survivor’s guilt increases, until that likelihood becomes certainty. That point, of course, comes when only one survives. The last man standing is the same who eliminated all others.”
“What’re you talking about, Remi?” said Flandre. “You don’t sound like you. You’re talking like Patchey. Are you saying you know who killed everyone?”
“I do indeed,” said Remilia. “She has been standing in this very room for the last minute.”
Flandre gasped. “No! You couldn’t have—”
“Not I.” She stepped forward, her fading eyes bobbing up and down in the dark. “As always, the culprit’s true identity will surprise you.”
Remilia walked into the circle of light, and Flandre saw how difficult that had been for her sister. She, too, had a hideous bloody hole in her chest, the same wound everyone that had killed everyone else. They had all been murdered from the same weapon.
“Only one left,” said Remilia, one hand clutched over the wound. She pointed at Flandre with her free hand, trembling all over. “The killer is always the last you expect.”
With that, Remilia’s strength ended. She fell to her knees, then her face, and there she died.
Flandre stared down, her mouth hanging open.
“Me?” she said. “I killed everyone?”
The foyer’s sparklamps blazed to life. The room was fully lit. Flandre threw her hands over her eyes, shocked at the sudden brightness.
“You solved the mystery,” I said. “Too late, sadly, but such is often the case in a tale of ‘who done it.’”
Flandre looked up, saw me standing where her sister had died on the floor. I held my spellcard folder to my chest, and it was significantly lighter than it had been an hour ago. Many slips of paper had been recently removed from it.
“Patchey!” said Flandre. She jumped forward and grasped her arms around me. “You’re alive!”
“Of course I am, Little Mistress,” I said, patting her on the back. “You must have realized the whole experience was fiction. If a youkai like myself or China died, there would be no corpse left behind. And if Sakuya were challenged, it suffices to say her opponent’s blood would pool on the floor in at least equal measure to her own.”
Flandre pulled back. “Yeah! Are the others all okay too?”
“They are,” I said. “Cleaning up after dinner, I believe. Your sister took the liberty of placing your gifts in your bedroom, except for that I gave. She gave me permission to lead you through the mansion in the process of discovering your present.”
“Some present!” said Flandre. “I was scared half to death!”
I smiled. “So you were, and I take that as the highest praise. Only the best tales will evoke emotional response in us.”
“So that’s what you meant when you said you were giving me mystery?” she said. “But I never found out who the killer was.”
“You did. Remilia revealed it at the end of the story.”
“I didn’t kill anyone!” Flandre stomped one foot on the tile floor.
“How are you sure? It was unrevealed what actions the main character took before the story’s beginning. The tale started with Flandre Scarlet sitting at a table, upon which reseted the remains of a recently committed murder. There, and throughout the story’s length, were several apparent clues indicating the murderer’s identity. No mystery is complete without clues.”
“What clues?” said Flandre.
I nodded towards the stairs. “Let us rejoin the others, and I will explain.”
Flandre had no objections. I guessed she would be happy to see everyone whole and well, but she did not rush ahead. She kept pace with me. We reached the stairs and climbed them.
“First, and most obvious, was the murder weapon,” I said. “You saw right away that I had been killed with Lavatein, just before you promised to revenge me.” I had to pause a moment to keep from laughing. “And the fatal wound in each other victim matched. The same murder weapon has been used each time. This is part of the concept known as modus operandi, the similarities in the method of serial killings, as the concept is used in this case. Second, Sakuya died while writing out a message.”
“You mean whyf?” said Flandre. “She just doesn’t know how to spell is all.”
“That may be, but murder mysteries will hide clues in plain sight. The bloody smears after the letter F meant that Sakuya had more to say, but she became incoherent due to blood loss. She died with her message incomplete. The letters W H Y F were not the whole message, but only the first part.”
“Then what was the rest of it?”
“I believe you can guess,” I said.
We had entered the mansion’s hallways. They were lit at regular intervals with sparklamps, and fairies occasionally passed us on their duties. Flandre had a hand on her chin, thinking over the riddle. I could not help smiling, watching her apply reason.
“Well,” she said, “She knew she was dying, so she’d try to keep it short.”
“She would,” I said.
“And since it was one of us who killed her, she’d want to know why. Ah!” Flandre tried to snap her fingers, but made no sound. “She was asking, Why, Flandre? Why did you kill me so much?”
“Or indeed, at all?” I said. “The third clue was less obvious. China recoiled when you tried to help her.”
“Oh. I thought that was just because I beat her up all the time.”
“Art imitates life, so they say.”
We approached the dining room, where the fairies were cleaning up after the party. The mistress and her senior staff were working elsewhere, I assumed, except for Koakuma. My assistant helped the fairies take down the decorations, removing ribbons and such from the tables.
“But wait.” Flandre grabbed my sleeve, pulling me to a stop before we entered the dining room. “So that was my whole present? Seeing everyone die and getting the panties scared off me?”
“Not at all,” I said. “That experience was a preview, something to excite the appetite. The true gift is here.”
From a hidden pocket in my dress, I produced a small book. Its papers were aged and the spine bent, but it had many reads left in it. The cover showed the name of the story’s author imposed over a silhouette of a lone man standing on a cliff. He looked over a distance of water to a far island, where the outline of a mansion could be seen. The story’s title was printed below the cover art.
“I knew it!” Flandre took the book, looking it over. “I knew you were gonna give me a book.”
“I hope the gift is more than a bound stack of paper,” I said. “As I said, I offer you the gift of mystery. Please give it a chance, Little Mistress. I will even read it to you, if you do not wish to read it yourself.”
She looked up at me. “Is it good?”
I nodded. “One of my favorites. Think of it as what you experienced tonight, except with characters you do not know quite as intimately.”
“Ooh!” she said. “Other people dying. I like that! When will you read it to me?”
“As often as you wish,” I said.
It so happened that Flandre’s wish was not at the moment. She took the book, and with as much apparent happiness as she had received her other gifts, but then she left me. She headed upstairs to find her sister and her other gifts. I let her go. The night was young, and my main business for the evening was accomplished.
I stepped into the dining room, passing working fairies. Koakuma noticed me as I approached.
“Welcome back, Lady Patchouli,” she said, pulling a cloth off a table and folding it around her arms. “Did your present go all right?”
“Adequate,” I said. “It was incomplete, but Flandre seemed not to notice, so the work can be considered a success. Let us return to the library.”
“Um, okay,” she said. “But Lady Scarlet told me to stay and help the fairies—”
“I am relieving you of that duty,” I said. I turned and headed out of the dining room. “Come.”
Koa hesitated. She looked back and forth, as if to make sure no one would see her become derelict. The fairies in the room ignored her. Koa put down the folded table cloth and hurried after me. Her slippers made a hectic brushing noise on the floor.
Together, we went to the main stairwell. Koa was two steps behind me, as usual.
“Can I ask something, Lady Patchouli?” she said as we walked down the hall.
“Questions are always welcome unless specifically forbidden,” I said.
“Then, well. How did Flandre react when she saw me die?”
“She had no reaction, I am sorry to say. The mistress kept me from the library for the final hour before the birthday dinner began, and took from me the necessary time to complete the illusion. I was not able to present your fictional murder.”
“Aw,” said Koakuma. “And she didn’t even notice I wasn’t in it?”
“No, but do not take it personally. Flandre has known the mistress, China, Sakuya and myself far longer than she has known you, and she is absent of mind in the extreme. She will come to value your friendship equally, if not more, in the coming years, do I not doubt.”
Koa smiled at that. “Years? Really? You mean I can stay that long?”
I glanced back at her. “Must every detail be expressly stated? Yes. Your residence here is permanent, so long as you perform your duties.”
“Oh, thank you, Lady Patchouli!” she said. Her voice increased in pitch by one octave. The giddiness of it grated on my ears.
“No thanks are necessary.”
We had come to the stairwell. I stopped at the threshold to this floor’s landing, the toes of my slippers over the edge. Koa was about to walk past me and begin descending. I grabbed her by the wrist and held her in place.
“Wait a moment,” I said.
Koa looked back at me, confused. “Lady?”
I have difficulty describing the thoughts and feelings that occurred in me at this moment. Not only by their intensity, and the sudden aversion I felt at returning to the library, but also by their contrast to my ordinary state of being. The library was my refuge, my place of learning, research and the work I loved. It was the place I sought at any time I was away from it.
The stairwell shaft stretched deep below me. Sparklamps lined the walls down, and the stairs spiraled into the basement level.
The library, I thought. The library.
The idea caused claustrophobia in me, or the fear of it. I inhaled sharply, suddenly afraid I would be unable to breathe.
“Lady Patchouli?” said Koa. “Are you okay?”
Her words reached me only from a distance. Perhaps two hours ago, I had stormed out of the library as if I wished to leave it and never return. Granted, I had gone with the motive of making my displeasure known to Sakuya, but had ever an annoyance so easily pried me out of the library? Especially considering my work at that moment required no fairies at all? Koakuma could bring me wine. I could work on spellcards with no fairy help. Such a minor indignation should not have taken precedence.
Also, my interpersonal reactions were atrophied from disuse. I had complained to the mistress before considering that my reason for complaint was the mistress’s own doing. How could I not make that tiny leap of logic, and prevent embarrassing myself before my superior? Doubtless, too, questioning Remilia’s authority, even inadvertently, encouraged her to refresh the perception of that authority upon me. In short, if I had not shown myself in the dining room, I would have had enough time to complete my gift to Flandre.
My gift to Flandre. The most important contributor. Composing the complicated spells. Executing them. Leading Flandre around the mansion, as if I were telling a mystery story of my own.
I dare to say, it had been fun.
“Koakuma,” I said.
“We are not returning to the library now,” I said. I turned my back on the stairwell, began walking down the hall.
“But?” she said. “I have to find the rest of Proust—”
I stopped, looked back at her. “Your duties are to me, Koa, not to a dusty bunch of books. You work in that library only as my aid. Now come!”
“Y-yes, Lady!” She hurried after me.
We went down the hall together. I had no clear idea of our destination, but we headed in the direction of the mansion’s main entrance.
“It is fitting you should mention that piece, however,” I said. “We shall do as its title suggests.”
“I don’t understand,” said Koa.
I glanced at her. “We are going for a walk.”
We passed the dining room again, and I retraced my steps to the front foyer, this time with Koakuma accompanying me. The mansion calmed for the evening. The fairies had mostly finished cleaning, and the senior residents had all gone either to sleep or to individual nighttime work. The halls were empty and quiet. Sparklamps still illuminated the corridors, only because they cost nothing but ambient heat to keep lit.
Koa and I arrived at the front corridor. I stepped down the stairs, but Koa hesitated on the landing.
“Lady?” she said. “When you said go for a walk, you didn’t mean outside, did you?”
I stopped, looked back up at her. “Of course I did. What virtue is there in wandering the halls of this place? The novelty of the activity is lost if performed in our ordinary environment.”
“But it’s cold outside,” said Koa. “And it’s dark out there. They’re fairies—”
“Fairies, Koa?” I turned to face her full on. “If you believe wild youkai, let alone seasonal conditions, pose any inconvenience to an elementalist, then you are blatantly mistaken.” I continued down the steps. “Now come along, and with no further coaxing.”
She descended the stairs behind me. She stumbled at one point, and I feared a tumble of Koa and monochromic dress to go crashing to the tile floor below. She caught herself on a banister, narrowly avoiding disaster.
We crossed the foyer to the main doors. I worked the heavy lock and pushed one door open. The knocker mounted to the door’s exterior rattled as Koa and I moved out into the winter night. The difference in atmosphere was immediate. The outdoors this evening felt akin to food storage. Very cold and dry. My breath appeared before my face in frothy white puffs. My skin tightened in response to the drop in temperature.
Koa already had her arms around herself, and we had not even stepped off the front porch.
“We didn’t stop for cloaks or scarves,” she said.
“We do not need them.” I still held my spellcard folder in one arm. I flipped it open, thumbing through the pages. “How to keep warm on a winter walk. This will do.”
I took two slips of paper out from a page in folder. They were inscribed with the same spell. I closed the folder again and held it between my elbow and ribs. With one hand, I held a spellcard before my face. With the other card and hand, I reached out and touched Koakuma’s forehead. She winced at my touch, but did not pull away.
I took in a breath of cold night air, spoke the spellcard’s incantation.
In manner of deity of old,
Held equally common and sire,
Who guarded faithful from cold,
Lend forth that healing fire!
“Fire sign: Belinos Consort!”
Koakuma squealed as the spellcards flashed, lighting the courtyard for an instant. The pieces of paper vaporized, but shapeless masses of orange and red energy remained in their places. The energy shifted and melded into a magical construct, formed in the likeness of a robin. These flaming birds both rose to hover just above our heads. Their wings flapped gently to keep them in place, with less effort than a real bird would require to stay aloft. As these constructs worked their wings, they scattered small sparks, like those thrown up from a wood fire. The sparks fell down around is in a rough cylindrical pattern, and disappeared when they touched our clothes or the ground.
Koa looked up at the fire bird above her head. “Wow! Is this a phoenix?” She reached up to poke the bird with her index finger.
I reached out and grabbed her wrist. “Do not touch. It is hot enough to burn you. And no, this is nothing so grand as the legendary god of flame and rebirth. But this spell is sufficient to keep us warm for an evening stroll.”
Koa lowered her hand. She did not wrap her arms around herself, or begin shivering. She seemed comfortable, as if we were still indoors.
“I don’t feel cold anymore,” she said.
“Indeed. This spell also acts as a light source. Come now.”
I turned and walked down the short flight of steps from the doorstep to the cobblestone courtyard. My bird-shaped fire construct followed me, keeping its exact relative position over my head. It even bobbed up and down in time with my footsteps.
Koa and I crossed the courtyard. An orange pool of light surrounded us both, causing rotations of shadows as we went. We passed the well in the yard’s center for the main gate on the far side. Before we reached it, the dual doors of the gate swung inwards.
“Halt!” called Hong Meiling’s voice. “State your business and most preferable circumstances!”
She walked just within the gate’s threshold, and beyond the reach of light coming from Koa and me. China wore no especially warm clothing. Temperature differences seemed not to bother her. She stood posed with both hands raised and one foot before the other. A readied stance of some martial discipline, the name of which I cared not to remember at the moment.
“I have no patience for your idiocy, China,” I said. “You are meant to challenge unknown parties from without who attempt to gain admittance, not known parties from within who attempt to exit the premises. You are mistaking the duties of a prison warden for those of a door guard. Stand aside.”
China loosened from her stance, standing up straight. But she did not move from where she stood.
“Don’t think you’re so smart just because you talk big,” she said. “Though underappreciated, I shall execute indentured tasks to the utmost of fulfillmence and completionism, as adequateness and superflicity have no placement within the scope, sphere, realm, landscape, understanding or consideration of the commissions of the responsibilities of the assignments of the high-esteemed office of the much-envied position of the door guard of the Scarlet Mansion of the common place called Gensokyo.”
Amazingly, she said that in one breath.
“I assure you, China,” I said, “I have never considered one intelligent only for the use of large words.”
“Then provide a response to my challenge, Miss Patchouli Knowledgeable, that I may verify your identity in order to allow passage.”
“I do have a response. It is quite brief compared to the challenge. Only four words.”
I dropped the spellcard folder into my hand. Its pages fell open. I pulled a card from it.
“Lightning sign: Erasmus Spire!”
While I specialize in the elements that Eastern canon recognizes, I also wield those of Western thought when appropriate. This was such a time. From the spellcard in my hand, an electrical arc shot across the courtyard. The spell did not generate an actual lightning strike, but magical energy rendered in that shape. The bolt forked out, zigging in a wild path on its way to China.
She moves faster than I, and she was already attempting a dodge when the spellcard fired. She might have evaded it, but that I created the spell specifically to track moving targets. It struck her just below the waist. The force threw her up into the air, higher than the mansion’s exterior walls. Her arms and legs flailed as she flew, her long hair trailing behind her. She reached an apex of some three dozen feet before falling back to the earth. She hit ground with her legs only partially below her, and her weight too heavy on her left side. She crumpled onto the cobblestones with sickening popping noises. There she lay folded over herself. She twitched all over, the residual muscle spasms of electrocution.
“Broke several bones,” I said. I looked back at Koakuma. Both hands were over her mouth, and under the orange light of the warmth spell, her complexion seemed especially pale.
“Did you...?” she said, though incapable of further enunciation. I assumed the end of her question.
“Kill her?” I said. “No. China would require a great deal more abuse to suffer fatality. Using an analogy, this treatment is proportionate to slapping a disobedient dog upon the head. Similar to a slapped dog, China will soon recover and resume her belligerent behavior. Further discipline will be required, but that is not our business tonight. Let us move on.”
We left the courtyard, leaving our ruined door guard within its threshold. Koakuma gave China a wide berth, and would not look directly at her. I pulled the doors closed behind us. We then set foot upon the path that led from the mansion’s gate, across the short land bridge, and to to Gensokyo’s mainland.
Forward to Part Three
Return to Part OneReturn to Chapter Index