The universe is a place of forces.

There are the fundamental forces, studied and theorized endlessly by those strange creatures called scientists. Strong and weak nuclear, electromagnetism, and gravity. Boring, but the glue that holds the universe together.

There are the magical forces, powered by faith and mystery; once shapers of kingdoms, their wielders enshrined in legend, they have been driven back into a few tiny corners of the world by the new belief in rationality (meaning that if something is too difficult to explain, it can't really exist, can it?)

And there are the forces inside people.

In some ways, these are the most powerful of them all. Consider the loquacious force. Have you ever put yourself in a situation so hilariously stupid, so farcical, that you would laugh uproariously if it were not your own misfortune? Rest assured, you were guided there. And something is laughing at you. For you, too.

However, the loquacious force is unusual among these, because it can act outside people as well. It is a force of attraction.

It can take drastic measures to ensure its entertainment. It just has, in fact. But those are over with. So on to the little things, such as making that newspaper falling at high velocity suddenly feel very attracted to Reimu Hakurei's head.

"Ow!" Reimu frowned at the shards of her cup, scattered upon a small puddle of tea on the tiles before the shrine veranda. Far in the distance, something beyond her comprehension let loose a malicious chuckle.

"What are the odds of that?" the witch sitting beside her remarked. "I mean, you're under the eaves, and she's a hundred feet up. She had to toss it at the perfect angle to conk you like that. That's some good aim." Marisa grinned, looking up at the retreating silhouette of the tengu in the sky above.

"Unlike some I know," Reimu replied, rubbing her head. "You're the only person who can fire a twenty-foot swath of destruction at somebody and miss."

"Hey, I aimed perfectly! It wasn't my fault she moved after I started charging! Besides, who are you to talk? I've never seen so many homing amulets in my life."

"Oh, I don't know. Someone capable of recognizing their weaknesses?"

"Shut up, ze!" In a hurry to change the subject, Marisa grabbed the newspaper and unrolled it. A loose slip of paper fell out; Reimu caught it. As Marisa searched through the newspaper for an article worthy of conversation- an unprecedented event in the Bunbunmaru News, in Reimu's judgement- the shrine maiden read the contents of the slip, and blinked a few times.

"Oi, Marisa, do you know anything about this?"

Marisa blinked as well. She folded the newspaper aside and took hold of the slip. "Gensokyo Championship," she read out loud. "Defeat all challengers to win a prize of your choice. Beginning ASAP in clearing south of Takemura, near the House of Eternity. Organizers: Aya Shameimaru and Yukari Yakumo." She frowned. "Yukari, eh? When she says 'a prize of your choice', I suppose she really means it."

"You going?" Reimu had somehow acquired another steaming cup of green tea, even though she hadn't left the porch. She took a sip, eyes closed, and sighed in a manner that would make one think drinking tea on a shrine doorstep was the heaviest burden in the world.

"Of course, ze. I'm bound to win, so I'll have Yukari fetch me some nice artifacts." Marisa narrowed her eyes. "You won't be getting in my way, will you, Reimu?"

"Maybe, maybe not." Reimu set her tea aside and stood up. "A notice like that is bound to attract a crowd. And wherever there's a crowd, there's trouble. I've got to go and keep an eye on things, if nothing else."

"Making excuses as always," Marisa said. "You just want another maid robot. I'll clean the shrine if you let me win, okay? Same result; you'll use her once, put her away and forget you ever had her."

"Maybe so, but I've seen your house, Marisa. I don't want to know what your idea of cleaning is." With that, Reimu launched herself into the air and began flying west, towards the main part of Gensokyo and the bamboo forest in the distance. Marisa ran after her, trying to get her broom underneath her and take off without losing velocity or falling to the ground.

"Wait up, ze!"

Round 1, Match 1: Alice vs. Reimu

"Ah, someone's here," Aya said.

Marisa looked around at the clearing; it was deserted except for her, Reimu, and the two organizers. "Well, I guess we didn't need to hurry."

Yukari opened her eyes; she'd been napping lightly, as usual. "No problem," she said. "Three is enough to get started. There should be more people arriving soon; I just had my shikigami go and hand out some flyers." She gave the two girls each a slip of paper. "Write your names here."

"Wait, three?" Marisa said. She scribbled her name in hiragana, then glanced up as Alice suddenly stepped out from behind a bamboo thicket. "I'm here," the youkai said, regarding the pair with an unreadable expression.

"So, is this a danmaku battle or what?" Reimu asked as she returned her paper.

Yukari deposited it in a ballot box, held in her lap as she reclined comfortably atop her border. "Danmaku? That's dangerous," she replied with a frown. "We wouldn't dream of risking our lovely contestants' health like that."

"If not danmaku, then what are we competing on?"

"You decide," Yukari said. "We'll draw two names, and the name that comes first in the alphabet chooses the activity. Anything goes, as long as it doesn't end up a brawl."

"Hey, that name thing puts me at a disadvantage," Reimu complained.

"It will be reversed next round, so you'll get to choose first then. If your name comes after that of your opponent, that is." Yukari covered her mouth with a gloved hand as she yawned inelegantly. "Anyway, let's begin. Marisa?"

"Oh, right," Marisa said. She handed Yukari her paper; it went into the ballot box. Yukari shook it vigorously- or rather, had a pair of hands reach out of her border and do so. "Not much point in that with only three papers inside, is there?" Alice remarked from the distance.

"We wouldn't dream of not following proper procedure," Yukari said. Aya stopped writing in her notebook and walked over, pulling two of the slips from the ballot box. "Alice versus Reimu," she read. "Alice chooses the game." The slips were put aside, and the youkai approached as her name was called.

"Cursing," she said.

"I'm good at that, ze. Wanna hear?"

"I mean the supernatural sort," Alice clarified. "Not foul language."

Reimu looked at her oddly. "You're challenging a shrine maiden at her specialty?" she asked. "Not something like puppeteering or technicolor magic?"

Alice's face reddened slightly. "Well, I thought it would be only fair to give you a chance," she said. "Besides, I'm sure I'll win anyway."

Aya scratched her head. "I'm not sure if we'll be able to judge that," she said. "But give it a try."

In the designated area, the two faced off.

Alice pulled out a straw doll, a marker, a mallet and a long spike; apparently she carried curse equipment as part of her daily routine. She wrote Reimu's name on the doll, then pounded the spike through its center into the ground.

"Am I supposed to feel anything?" Reimu asked.

"Not yet."

With a snap of her fingers, Reimu conjured an amulet. She drew upon it a long, elaborate, flowing design- she could have easily conjured that part too, but the proper theatrics are critical to a good curse. She walked forward and slapped the back of the amulet against Alice's forehead.

"Can I take this off?" Alice asked.

"Not yet."

They waited in silence for a couple of minutes. "That was pretty lame, ze," Marisa said. Other people were beginning to arrive; a sudden chill went through the air as an irate, childish voice shouted at Yukari behind her, and a faint purple mist floated across the battlefield.

"I suppose nothing is going to happen right away," Aya said. "So let's postpone the judgement of this match until something conclusive occurs."

The two contestants walked away. Suddenly, Alice tripped over a rock and fell flat on her face. "Can't see with this thing over my eyes," her muffled voice complained.

"Do I win?" Reimu asked.

"Not yet."

Round 1, Match 2: Cirno vs. Suika

A group of about six others had gathered at the sidelines. "All the ne'er-do-wells," Reimu muttered. "As if you're any better-usa," Tewi replied with a snicker; from then, the exchange devolved into something about rabbit stew and ten-thousand-yen bills. Marisa's attention went back to the organizers, who were choosing the next match.

"Suika versus... X," Aya informed the assembly.

"That's me," Cirno declared.

"Oh. Cirno versus Suika. Cirno chooses the game."


Silence. Even from Mystia, who had been singing noisily to herself as usual.

"Cirno-chan, are you sure that's a good idea?" Rumia said eventually.

"Of course! I won't lose!"

Someone sighed.

Each contestant was given a large bottle of sake. "Drink at whatever pace you like, as long as it can be measured later," Aya said. "The first one unable to drink more, or who collapses, is the loser."

Suika had already poured herself a cup, and took a sip from it with an exaggerated sigh of pleasure; one had the impression she didn't care that she was competing. Meanwhile, Cirno had her bottle in both hands, and seemed to be concentrating very hard on something.

"What's she doing, ze?" Marisa muttered.

Suddenly, Cirno's bottle shattered. In its place, she was left with a piece of cloudy ice that looked very much like the bottle had, except a bit smaller. Mist rose from it, like one's breath on a chilly morning.

Marisa blinked. "Wait a minute, how'd she do that? You can't freeze alcohol."

"You can if it's cold enough," Reimu said.

Cirno tried to bite the neck off her bottle-shaped block of frozen sake. Apparently it was too solid for that; she whacked it until a piece broke off, then swallowed the piece, coughing. Suika paused in the middle of her third cup to regard the ice fairy curiously. "Thas' not drinking, that's eating," she observed with a frown.

"Same idea," Aya informed her. "Consumption of alcohol was the figurative meaning. Otherwise she'd be drinking water." The oni made a face at the thought, then went back to enjoying her sake; she seemed to be an easygoing sort.

"I get it, ze," Marisa said. "Power to generate cold, right? She's going to try to keep the sake frozen in her stomach, and win that way. I wonder how someone like [i]her[/i] thought of something that clever, though..." she mused.

"Beats me. Why don't you ask her?" Reimu sipped her tea with eyes closed, having regained control over her cliche-conjuration powers.

"Well, she might be unconscious by the time I'm able." Marisa crossed her arms with a grin. "Fun to watch, whether she wins or loses..."

In the end, they consumed two bottles of sake each before Suika collapsed. "And the winner is Cirno," Aya announced, her and Yukari seeming pleased by the unexpected outcome. A crowd gathered around the ice fairy, who wasn't even slightly tipsy, but looked a little the worse for wear.

"Gimme some space to breathe," she snapped. "Don't feel so good. Throat hurts."

"Cirno-chan, how did you come up with a strategy like that?" Marisa asked. "That's g-genius." She had to cough to get the word out, and a few people turned to give her strange looks.

"Huh?" Cirno replied. "I always drink that way, otherwise the stuff burns when I swallow it. Letty suggested it, I think." She frowned. "Was pretty hard on my throat like this, too, though. Usually I crush it up, but for that ya need a bowl or something."

"Oh. I see." Marisa retreated, her face red, and returned to sit next to Reimu. "Keep an eye on her," the shrine maiden commented. "In a little while, all the booze in her stomach will melt at once, and she'll collapse just like Suika did."

"No doubt." The witch gazed over at Aya and Yukari, chatting to themselves in the distance. "Seems like this competition thing might actually be fun."

Reimu sipped her tea.

Round 1, Match 3: Reisen vs. Yuka

Most of Gensokyo's notables were present by now, or at least their representatives. Apparently participating in a common game was below such folk as Kaguya Houraisan or Remilia Scarlet, but they were perfectly happy to have their servants come and win the prize for them. As for the ghost princess... "She's busy reading," Youmu explained to Reimu.


"Yes. So you see why I didn't want to interrupt her."

It was time for the next match to be called. "Reisen versus Yuka," Aya announced. "Reisen chooses the game."

The moon rabbit stepped forward from the crowd. "Staring," she declared.

"Ah, a nice uneven choice for once," Marisa commented.

"I don't know about that," Reimu said. She sipped her tea and sighed. Yuka smiled.

The two faced off. Aya took up a position behind Reisen, and Yukari behind Yuka. "Don't move from your spots," the border youkai said. "First one to do that or to avert her eyes is the loser." Both contestants were smiling confidently as they locked gazes.

"Do they know each other?" Marisa asked Reimu.

"Probably not."

"So she doesn't know Reisen's power, huh. Well, she'll get an unpleasant surprise."

Reimu suddenly stood up. "This could take a while. I'm going to get some snacks." Yukari's shikigami, having finished handing out leaflets all over Gensokyo, was now operating a refreshments table on the other side of the clearing.

Marisa blinked. "A while? The rabbit will use her lunatic eyes, and then-" But the shrine maiden was already out of range. "Huh," Marisa said, looking nonplussed.

In fact, Reisen had been trying to use her lunatic eyes from the start. But nothing was happening. Any normal being should have been very uncomfortable by now, at the least; but the woman opposite her- Yuka- just kept on grinning. If she was concealing it, she could have beaten Tewi at poker with that face.

Or... were her eyes not working? Reisen's power had never failed her before.

Reisen considered her opponent. She was a youkai, that much she could tell, but that shouldn't have mattered. The main difference was that youkai lived longer. It means they have more fears and doubts for her to bring to the surface and cloud their senses with... well, at least that's how Reisen liked to think her eyes worked. She didn't really know anything about them, except that mirrors gave her the creeps.

By all rights, Yuka should have cracked by now. Yet she just kept on smiling. And Reisen was beginning to get a little unsettled herself.

It took twenty minutes. Reisen's eyes wavered, then she abruptly turned and cast her eyes to the ground. "Yuka is the winner," Yukari declared.

"How?" Reisen asked her opponent incredulously.

Even after her victory, Yuka's expression didn't change. She raised her hand and snapped her fingers; a pink flower sprouted from the top of Reisen's head, squarely between her ears. She then walked off without a word.

Tewi passed her as she approached Reisen. "Consider this-usa," she told the other rabbit. "What kind of person can't be driven mad-usa?"

"Umm... a dead one?" Reisen started to scratch her head. She plucked the flower, and stared at it.

Tewi regarded her. "You're not very smart, are you-usa?"

Round 1, Match 4: Marisa vs. Mokou

Just as the match was about to start, someone in the crowd keeled over, causing a commotion. From where Marisa and Reimu were sitting, the voices mixed confusingly. "Cirno-chan, are you okou? Marisa chooses the game."

"About time, ze," Marisa said. She stood up and marched over to the playing field. "Destruction," she announced without looking at her opponent.

"You're on," Mokou replied.

Yukari smiled.

"I'm gonna spark something," Marisa said. "Any suggestions, ze?"

"How about that hillock to the south?" Aya replied. "There's nothing in that direction, so it shouldn't cause a nuisance... well, no more of one then our presence already is, anyway."

"Alright." Marisa positioned herself before the hillock. The crowd gathered nervously some distance behind her; most of them had witnessed Master Spark up close previously, and had no desire to do so again.

The witch drew a small, innocuous-seeming wooden octagon from her clothing. With a flourish, she thrust it out before her. "The Father Buddha said: 'With our thoughts, we make the world'," she incanted as the front of the octagon began to glow white. "Love Sign." The smell of ozone filled the air. "Master Spark."


Clods of earth rained down from the sky. The younger spectators cheered. The older ones glared at Marisa and attempted to wipe the dirt off their clothes.

"How wide would you say that blast was, Yukari?" Aya asked, writing in her notebook.

"Twenty feet exactly. About three feet off-center, though. Was that intentional, Marisa?" Yukari inquired with a grin. "You won't be judged for accuracy. I'm just curious."

"Of course it was, ze," Marisa snapped, somewhat unconvincingly. "Well, I'm done. What's the immortal up to?" She looked around for her opponent. "Huh, did she run away?"

Aya pointed to the edge of the bamboo forest. Mokou was over there, kicking at the ground.

Marisa walked over to her. "Hey, you aren't getting depressed, are you?" she asked the immortal girl. "I know there's nothing that can equal my Master Spark, but don't give up on me. That's just boring."

Mokou turned her eyes briefly to Marisa, but didn't respond. She raised her hand, and summoned a tiny flame upon the tip of her index finger; no more then a candle.

"What's that supposed to be?" Marisa asked.

Mokou leaned down and set alight the tinder she'd shoved around the edge of the stalk, using her foot. It burned easily. She'd kicked a hole near the bottom of the stalk, allowing access to the dry inside bark; by the time the tinder was exhausted, the base of the stalk was aflame.

Marisa put her hands on her hips. "So you set one bamboo stalk on fire," she said. "What's the point of that?"

"The breeze is blowing into the forest," Mokou said.

"So what, ze?"

"It will carry the sparks and debris to the other stalks. With luck, those will be set alight too, and the fire will become self-sustaining. This part of the forest hasn't had a fire in years, so-"

"Hold on," interrupted Aya. "It hasn't?"

Mokou glared at her. "That was the other half of the forest, crispy wings," she pointed out. "As I was saying, it will surely rage out of control and spread to the entire area, frightening- or perhaps killing- all the youkai and animals who call it home. The ashen wasteland will leave a scar upon Gensokyo for years to come. Oh, and the House of Eternity will be obliterated as well, but that's just a bonus."

"Um, Yukari... you aren't going to really let that happen, are you?" Reisen said nervously.

Yukari yawned. "Not if you say please," she informed Reisen.


The youkai opened a border above the flaming stalk of bamboo, and a gush of water poured out, extinguishing it with a cloud of steam. "You've made your point," she told Mokou. "You'll be judged as if half the forest really had burned down."

"Wait a minute, ze," Marisa said, stomping in front of Yukari. "I could have done that too! I could have blown up the entire forest and caused even more destruction!"

"But you didn't," Mokou observed from behind her.

"This is your fault, crow girl! You told me to aim at that measly little hillock!"

Aya rolled her eyes. "Well, excuse me for being a responsible citizen of Gensokyo," she muttered.


Aya and Yukari failed to come to a decision. They attempted to hold a vote among the spectators, but everyone chose to abstain rather then be visited by an angry demon in the night. There was no choice but to declare the match a draw. "Both contestants will advance to the next round," Aya decided.

"Well, that was pretty lame," Marisa said as she returned to her seat beside Reimu. "But at least I didn't lose."

"Everyone thinks you lost," Reimu informed her. She sipped her tea. "They just don't want to get blasted."

"But I didn't lose, right?"

Round 1, Match ?: Rumia vs. Sakuya

The last two contestants didn't need to be drawn for. "Rumia versus Sakuya," Aya announced. "Rumia chooses the game."

Sakuya stood up from her spot, removed from the crowd and on the opposite side of Marisa and Reimu, and made her way over to the playing grounds. The other contestant failed to appear. "Rumia?" Aya repeated, putting her hands on her hips.

After some shuffling, the little youkai was forcibly pushed out of the gathering. A sphere of darkness appeared around her a moment later. "Too bright," she complained. "What's this about?"

"Rumia-chan, it's your turn to compete," Yukari explained. "Please come here, so your darkness doesn't disturb the spectators. And what do you want to play? It can be anything you want."

The sphere slid in the direction of the organizers. "Anything?" the voice inside it repeated.

"Anything that you like to do, even if it's not usually thought of as a game," Yukari said. Sakuya crossed her arms, looking as if she dearly wished to be somewhere else.

The darkness paused as it considered. "The foxy lady at the food table won't let me come near anymore," it said. "She thinks I'm stealing from her under my darkness. I want to eat another pie."

"Pie eating, then?" Aya said, frowning.

"It's traditional in some circles," Yukari said. "Why not? I'll provide the materials."

The match was rather dull for the spectators, as it took place inside Rumia's darkness, to put both contestants on an equal footing. Occasionally an empty pie tin was tossed out of the inky black on Rumia's side, and loud complaining about the temperature of the freshly-baked pies was heard from Sakuya. A few seconds before the contest was set to end, thirty pie tins suddenly appeared on Sakuya's side as well.

"Time," Aya announced, and counted the tins. "Sakuya is the winner." The victor emerged from the darkness; the darkness didn't budge. Another pie tin flew out. "Um, Rumia-chan, the match is over," Yukari said.

Reimu stood up and yawned, rubbing her eyes. As she went to fetch some more snacks, she tripped on a rock and fell on her face. Later, in the forest nearby, a minor water fairy became distressed as she found a small mountain of uneaten pastry dumped into one of her streams.

"Well, that's the end of round one," Aya said. "Those who won their matches, please return at noon tomorrow. Spectators are welcome."

"Hey, what about us?" Reimu reminded her loudly. She looked around for her desultory opponent. As the crowd of spectators broke up and began to depart, Alice appeared nearby, as if by magic (though it probably wasn't.)

"That's right, you two haven't had your match decided. I apologize." Aya crossed her arms. "Well, have you been cursed?"

"She tripped and fell," Reimu said.

"So did she," Alice pointed out.

Aya frowned. "I was hoping for something more conclusive," she said. "How long does it take for these curses to take full effect?"

"A few days," the two contestants replied in unison.

"That won't do. Will you settle for a draw?"

Alice looked at Reimu, then back at Aya. "Fine, but does it mean I have to remove the curse?" she asked.

"Only if you mind walking around with that talisman on your forehead for the rest of eternity," Reimu said.

"Do as you like. However," Aya stated, "since we have two matches which ended in a draw, let's hold a special round to eliminate two of you and proceed as normal." She raised her voice. "Mokou, are you here?" There was no need to ask for Marisa; she was still lounging around near where she and Reimu had sat, eavesdropping on the conversation

The tomboyish girl stepped out into the clearing. "I'm always here," she said. She pointed to the forest she'd emerged from. "This is my home."

"Very good. You'll match up against Alice, and Reimu against Marisa," Aya decided. "Shall we get it over with tonight, or wait until early tomorrow?"

"Tonight is fine," Reimu said. Alice nodded.

Marisa stood up. "Let's do it, ze," she said.

Special Round: Alice vs. Mokou

"Oh, up against another witch?" Mokou said. She regarded Alice, crossing her arms. "I hope you're capable of a bit more subtlety then she is."

"Don't lump me in with her," Alice growled. "We're nothing alike."

"That's why you follow her everywhere she goes, is it?" Mokou replied, grinning.

Alice raised her arm and pointed at Mokou in a very judisprudent manner. "I challenge you," she said.

"At what?" Mokou said. "I think it's your choice." She glanced at Aya, who nodded.

"Storytelling," Alice declared.


"Red-white over there said you told her quite a story on the night she fought you," Alice said. "I thought it would be only fair to give you a chance."

Mokou scratched her head. "I didn't really think of that as a story, but I suppose..." She frowned. "You don't have to be so evenhanded, you know. If you want to choose something stacked in your favor, like puppeteering, it's your privilege. Don't pamper me."

"I'm not pampering you," Alice replied. "I enjoy a challenge."

"So be it," Mokou said. "However, I would rather not be judged by this bunch. How about people from the village just north of here?"

"Do they know you?" Alice asked. "I seem to remember your friend lives there, so..."

"No," Aya interrupted before Mokou could reply. "I interviewed some of the villagers after the last fire. They had no idea that any humans were living in the bamboo forest."

"It's a match, then," Alice said. Aya tapped Yukari on the shoulder, who awoke with a start. "Great," she said. "Let's head to the village. It's getting late, so perhaps we can break for a meal afterwards."

Yukari yawned, then looked at Marisa and Reimu. "You two coming?" she asked.

"I want to hear Alice's story," Marisa said.

Reimu sighed. "Well, I suppose I'd better tag along too."

The group of six made their way to the village. As it came into sight, a shaft of bluish light slammed into the ground about two inches away from Yukari. To her credit, she didn't so much as blink.

"...Oh, it's you," Keine observed. She jumped off the tree branch where she stood and floated down before the group, glaring at the organizers. "I thought you promised me that your little competition wouldn't involve the village," she said.

"Did I?" Yukari wondered aloud.

Mokou stepped out in front. "It's okay, Keine," she said. "We're not here to cause trouble. I'll vouch for them."

"Mokou? Well, if you say so... but you really shouldn't be involved in something like this either."

"I can take care of myself, Keine. Not all humans are weak. You should have learnt that by now."

Escorted by Keine, who was still a little suspicious, they proceeded the rest of the way to the village. In the meantime, Mokou explained to her what they planned to do. Keine didn't look happy, but could find no reason to refuse a request from her friend; she agreed to gather an audience.

"Children?" Mokou said, frowning.

"Most of the adults are busy," Keine informed her. "And even if they weren't, I doubt they're interested in hearing stories."

The half-beast had gathered a group of about twenty children from around the village. Yukari floated over and took charge, dividing them into two groups. "You'll be listening to Alice, and you'll be listening to Mokou," she told them respectively. "Let's split up."

She, Marisa, and Alice accompanied one of the groups of children a short distance away. Reimu sipped her tea, staying where she was. "Not going with them?" Aya asked her.

"Inertia," Reimu said.

"Well, I'm glad someone stayed with me, even if it's merely because of their laziness," Mokou said. She scratched her head. "This isn't good... I don't know any stories for children, and I don't know if my life story is suitable..."

"They're more intelligent then you think," Keine told Mokou, smiling. "Don't be nervous."

"Okay, then." Mokou cleared her throat, then managed to get the children's attention by conjuring a flame in her hand. She began her story. "Once upon a time, in Japan of old, there lived the young and beautiful daughter of a nobleman..."

"What's a nobleman?" a boy interrupted.

"Um, you don't have them here, perhaps..." Mokou scratched her head again and frowned. "It's a person whose status is above that of others."


"Divine right, I guess?"

The children didn't look satisfied with that answer. "More intelligent then she thinks indeed," Reimu said under her breath. Aya shushed her, and the shrine maiden's attention returned to the other storyteller, who was proving more interesting. Alice's loud, steady, deadpan voice was easily audible from where she sat.

"...and then her dying mother gave Vassilisa a little doll, and my worthless mother never gave me anything like that, she never even paid attention to me, she just told me to guard her cesspit of a world as if anyone would want to invade it, and when they finally did and thrashed both of us, she tried to punish *me* over it, but I turned the tables on her, oh yes I did, that so-called goddess was half dead when I made my exit from that stinking plane forever, um, that's another story. Anyway, Vassilisa's mother made her promise to always..."

Alice might not have been the most focused storyteller, but her audience was riveted, and one of the girls over there was beginning to tremble. Meanwhile, Mokou finally recovered from her flustered state and attempted to continue. "Um... the name of the nobleman's lovely daughter was Mokou, Fujiwara no Mokou. However, all was not well. There was another girl named Kaguya, daughter of mere peasants who lived in the forest..."

"Hey, is there something wrong with living in the forest?" the same boy interrupted.

"Um, no," Mokou said, conscious of her own situation and the forest surrounding the village. "But a proper young lady who wants to marry should live in a mansion..."

A girl with bows in her hair gasped. "Does that mean I'll never be able to marry?" she said in a high-pitched voice. She looked on the verge of tears.

"No, that's not what I meant-"

"Mansions, pshaw," another boy commented. "My pop says it's not honest living if you didn't build your house with your own two hands. Only mansion around here belongs to that creepy vampire."

Someone yawned loudly.

Reimu sipped her tea.

"So, how shall we judge this?" Yukari asked. Storytelling was over, the children had departed one way or another, and the group had gathered at the local restaurant- with the exception of Keine, who was off trying to control the fallout.

"Well, Mokou got about two paragraphs into her story, I'd estimate," Aya observed. "Alice completed hers, yes?"

"Not quite, but she certainly got further then that," Yukari said. She slurped her soup. It looked rather strange to Reimu to see the youkai eating ramen.

"She drove off her audience," Mokou pointed out.

"The purpose of storytelling is to invoke emotion, isn't it? I'd say Alice succeeded admirably," Yukari replied.

"I heard a lot of wailing," Aya said.

"Is cynicism an emotion?" Mokou asked. "Or disrespect?"

"No, not really. Else we'd all be master storytellers."

"Very well," Mokou said with a sigh. She tried to meet Alice's eyes, who sat on the other end of the counter. "I suppose you won. Well fought."

Alice didn't look particularly happy about her victory. "I thought it was a nice story," she complained. "Why did everyone run away? Even Marisa..."

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