We were obviously approaching the mansion from behind. There was no gate in the wall up ahead. The structures beyond seemed it to point away from us, as if the mansion didn’t want to present this side of itself to newcomers. The front gate must have faced the land bridge that connected the island to the mainland.
As we got closer, we saw small lights from some of the windows. I guessed youkai were squatting in the mansion. They naturally like to hide during the daytime. An abandoned place like this would be a haven for wayward fairies.
We made it to the brick wall. There was no way over or under or through it, so we started walking around. Marisa’s comment about people on the walls unnerved me, so I kept looking above to make sure we were clear. But no one was patrolling. The guard towers were all empty. Except for the fairy lights, the placed seemed abandoned as rumored. For some reason, that made me worry more.
The island wasn’t as big as it first looked, but we still had a long ways around to walk. The shoreline ran dangerously close to the wall at times. In some places, Marisa and I had to edge along with our backs pressed to the bricks, lest we fall down a muddy slope and splash into the lake below. Marisa always went first through the slippery spots. I don’t know if she had some tactical reason for that, or maybe she was being the hero like always. Putting herself in danger before me.
That really annoyed me.
Around the curve of the wall, we saw the land bridge that led off the island. We slowed down, knowing the front gate was close.
“Hold ups!” Marisa whisper-hissed back at me. “Someone’s up aheads.”
We stopped, poked our heads past the wall just far enough to see. Before the front gate was a tall woman, standing with her hands on her hips. She turned a little to the left, showing us her profile.
“My word,” I whispered. “She’s beautiful.”
“No kiddings,” Marisa whispered back. “Look at her boobs! She’s huges!”
I wanted to thump her on the head for pointing out the obvious, but only because of my own inadequacies. And in all fairness, the woman up ahead was stunning. Her dark green outfit looked like a cross between a gi and an evening dress. She wore a beret with a star-shaped emblem on the front, inscribed with a character of the old language. Her hair was red, but not the carrot orange that humans call red. It was brilliant red, the color of ruby. It flowed down her back and framed her face.
No human woman would have this unreal beauty. This was a youkai, and a powerful one by the look of her.
“Still goings with diplomacies?” said Marisa. “Wanna walks up and say hellos?”
I didn’t know. I was out of my league here. Thankfully, I didn’t have to make a decision. The youkai woman ahead took our attention back. She snapped into a martial arts stance, holding up both hands. She looked ready to kill someone. She swished one arm to the side, as if deflecting an incoming blow, and shot her other fist out in a nasty punch. She repeated the motion with the hands reversed. Each time she moved, she shouted “Hai!”
She punched the air. “Hai!” She kicked where a grown man’s groin might have been. “Hai!” She pulled her fist up beside her ear, perhaps smacking an imaginary attacker behind her. “Hai!”
Her practice moves might have gone on for hours, but she lost momentum after a few moves. Her shoulders slumped and her arms hung down. She let out a frustrated noise.
“Agh!” she said. “This is so boring! Why won’t the mistress let me go fight anyone?”
Marisa and I looked at each other.
“Looks like diplomacies is outs,” said Marisa. She pulled a spellcard from her apron, held it up between two fingers. “Plan bees.”
“No!” I hissed at her. “Don’t!”
She didn’t listen. I tried to grab her, but she slipped away. She stepped out from the wall, putting herself in plain sight of the youkai woman.
“Heys!” she called, holding up the spellcard.
The youkai turned to face her, again in fighting stance. “Who are you? Intruder!”
“Getting that ways pretty fasts,” said Marisa. “Love sign, Master Spark!”
Without taking the time to charge, the white laser shot out immediately. It was a smaller beam than the spell was capable of, but had enough power to kill anything it hit. The youkai was dead before she knew what hit her. Or would have been, but the spell never did hit her.
She dodged it.
It’s impossible to move faster than a laser spell. Nothing travels faster than light. But the youkai woman had inhuman reflexes, and moved before the spellcard launched. Marisa didn’t have the time to adjust her aim. The youkai ducked to the side, only leaving a few strands of hair to burn in the beam of energy going past her.
She ran to Marisa, moving faster than any living had a right to. Marisa realized her spell had failed, and was moving to hold up her broom in defense. The youkai closed the gap too quickly for Marisa to guard. She knocked her broom aside with one arm, then shot a punch into her belly. Marisa turned away and clamped an arm around her middle, suddenly gasping for air. Her face went bright red. The youkai sent a roundhouse kick into her back, knocking Marisa down to the ground.
Marisa was beat less than thirty seconds after making herself known.
“I should be careful what I wish for,” said the youkai, turning to face me. “And she brought a friend. Stay put, human. Make any moves and I’ll take you down too.”
Only then did I realize I was holding up my gohei in guard, as if it would do me any good. I didn’t move, but only because I was too scared.
“Who are you?” I said, just barely keeping the shivers out of my voice.
“How rude!” said the youkai. “You’re the trespasser. Tell me your name and purpose first.”
“I’m Reimu Hakurei, of the Hakurei shrine,” I said. “I’ve come seeking the origin of the mist in the sky.”
“Have you?” she said. “That’s noble, I guess. But I didn’t think shrine maidens did that kind of work. Shouldn’t you be home collecting donations?”
“My reasons for being here are my own,” I said. “I told you my name. Your turn.”
She gave me a stiff bow. “Hong Meiling, door guard of the Scarlet Mansion, servant of Lady Scarlet. You and your friend are now my prisoners. I will take you inside where the Mistress will decide what to do with you.”
“That won’t happen.”
“Oh? Why not?”
“Because you’re sitting on another—”
“Love sign!” Marisa yelled. “Master Spark!”
I couldn’t believe how stupid this youkai Meiling was. Fundamental to martial arts was situational awareness, and she had none of it. I kept her talking while Marisa pulled out another spell card, and the game was over.
Too bad it didn’t work. What Meiling lacked in prudence, she made up for in movement. Even as Marisa spoke the words to her spell, the youkai was twisting around to avoid it. Marisa moved the spell, trying to hit her target, but only seared off more of Meiling’s hair.
I saw my chance, and knew I wouldn’t get another one. While Meiling was moving to dodge, I yanked one of my three spellcards from my belt. I had no idea what it would do, but I was panicky enough not to care. I held the card out and shouted the spell.
“Spirit sign!” I yelled.
Unlike Marisa, I wasn’t used to casting spellcards. I yelled in surprise at the feel of it. Ambient power rushed into me, filled me and overflowed from me. The power coming out swirled into a cohesive shape. Seven spheres, one for each color of the rainbow, formed around my head and shoulders. They ran circles around me like satellites. Their centers churned with liquid light of their colors. The blue orb looked like water from the ocean depths, and the red orb like molten fire.
I stood, watching the spell around me with my mouth hung open like an idiot. Meiling wasn’t impressed. She was running at me, ready to put me down hard. I pointed to her, willing the spheres at her.
“Fantasy Orb!” I yelled, and not a moment too soon. Less than a second later, Meiling would have been on top of me. The spell activated, each colored orb ceasing its orbit around me and shooting towards her. Yellow was the closest, and she twisted aside to dodge it. The golden ball whizzed past her, skidded along the grass past Marisa, and eventually dropped off into the lake. This was a guided-shot spell, but not a perfect one. If the orbs missed at first, they wouldn’t redirect to try again.
Immediately after the yellow orb, the blue came at Meiling’s head. She ducked under it, and the orb dipped with her, but only enough to graze the top of her head. It knocked off her hat, the blue light turning her hair purple before passing by. The red and green orbs came right after, one from each side. She turned her profile to them and sidestepped between them. Her midriff was slim, letting the two orbs skim by her front and back. The red orb seared off part of her blouse, exposing her belly.
The remaining three orbs followed in a triangle pattern. She couldn’t dodge all three of them. She leapt to the side, trying to get herself out of the way. Two of the orbs flew by, but the third landed a direct hit on her leg. It exploded in a brilliant indigo flash, shredding Meiling’s clothes and flesh. The force of the spell sent her into a lopsided spin, threw her to the ground.
“Ha!” I shouted, beating the end of my gohei on the grass. “That’s what you get for messing with a miko!”
But even as I said that, Meiling was recovering. The dress had been torn from her left leg, showing a thigh covering with youkai blood. But even with one lame leg, she got back to her feet. She had to rest all her weight on her right foot, using her left only for balance.
“You… will… pay for that!” she yelled, limping towards me, breathing hard. “I can kill you even with one leg gone.”
I held up my gohei. My fear was gone. I was angry. Anger at hurting my friend. Anger at trying to hurt me. I wanted to give it all back with interest.
I closed in on Meiling, ready to give her a good smack. I swung my gohei at her head, but she blocked it with an upraised hand. She grabbed the stick and pulled hard, yanking it from my grasp. She was stronger than I’d expected, and I was suddenly weaponless. With a quick motion, she whipped the gohei around and jammed the butt of it into my solar plexus.
It hurt. The pain shot through to my spine and closed off my lungs. I fell to my knees, grasping at my chest and trying in vain to breathe. I felt the gohei gently tap against the side of my head. I looked up, saw Meiling sneering down at me.
“I’m going to kill you now,” she said. “No human angers Hong Meiling and lives to tell about it.”
She was angry? My teeth were clenched, and I would have screamed if I had the breath. I couldn’t bear the idea that she might win. She was faster and stronger than me. She would break the gohei over my head, and she would win. It made me want to destroy her a hundred times over.
Then I realized my chance. Meiling had been stupid again. She exposed her weak spot to me. Her wounded thigh was right on level with my face. As she pulled up the gohei, about to swing it down and break my skull, I pulled the assassin’s knife from my belt. I was nowhere near fast enough, but the mere sight of the knife stopped Meiling.
“That blade,” she said, her eyes opening wide. “Where did you—”
She shrieked in pain, a horrible, piercing noise. I had stuck the knife into her bleeding leg, pushing it in as far as I could. It went easily into the dense meat of her thigh, and stopped when the tip struck something solid. I had stabbed right to the bone.
Meiling dropped the gohei and doubled over, holding her leg and crying. She fell to her side, fresh youkai blood gushing from the new wound.
“No!” she yelled. “Mistress! Lady Scarlet! Please save me!”
I backed off and stood, still holding the pained spot on my chest.
“Nobody’s coming to save you,” I said. I pulled another spellcard and held it at her. “Spirit sign: Fantasy Orb!”
Again power flooded into me, and poured out in the shape of seven colored spheres. Except these weren’t as well made as the first batch. They were lop-sided, malformed. The yellow one was shaped like a bean. But I didn’t care. So long as they hurt the arrogant youkai in front of me.
I pointed at Meiling and willed the magic spheres at her. They flew, and they hit. The first hit her in the stomach, its explosion tearing away more of her clothes and skin. It knocked her back, sent her rolling on the grass. The second hit her, and the third, and each pushed and damaged her further. Her body bucked and seized under each hit. The last one pushed her over the edge of the island, dumping her into the lake below.
She was gone.
“Wowies,” said Marisa, appearing behind me. “Remind mees never to make you mads.”
I turned to her. She held her broom in one hand, the other hand on her belly.
“Where were you?” I said. “She about killed me!”
“Tried to gets good angles for Master Sparks,” she said. “Hard, thoughs. Didn’t wants to blow you away toos.”
“You can’t solve everything with spellcards!” I said.
“Maybe nots,” she said. “But spellcards and a knifes. That’ll do the tricks every times.”
I stood there, staring agape at her. She may as well have slapped me. You’re every bit as violent and single-minded as I am, she was saying. More so.
“Whatever,” I said. I picked up my gohei, brushed the grass off it. “Let’s go. I want to meet Lady Scarlet.”
“Waits.” Marisa tugged on my sleeve. “Scarlet’s first servant almosts sent us to heavens. Servants inside the mansions are probably strongers. Are we readies for thats?”
“I didn’t come all this way to turn back!” I yelled at her. “I’m going in! If you want to chicken out now, then go home by yourself.”
I pulled my sleeve from Marisa’s grip and stomped off towards the manor gates. She followed.
No wonder the Scarlet Mansion had a door guard. The front gate had no lock. An impressive stone arch, topped with a spire on either side, stood over a pair of large wooden doors with steel studs. But no chains. No keyhole. Nothing to keep a person from pushing the doors apart and walking in. Except the guard, who had probably long since dissolved like a dead youkai.
I pushed my weight against the doors, swinging them inwards. They opened on a large courtyard and gave us a proper view of the Scarlet Mansion. From behind, we’d seen towers and lofts that made the place look like a small town. Now we saw all those structures were parts of the same building. A huge, multi-winged residence spread out in a cobblestone court. In the center stood a stone well, a bucket hanging over it from a pulley. Beyond the well, on far side of the yard, was the mansion’s main wing.
We stepped into the court and walked towards the well, slowly and cautiously. We didn’t know if the cobblestones were booby trapped. Stepping on one might launch spears at us from the walls, or drop tear bombs from the terraces above.
Our caution was wasted, it seemed. We sprung no traps. The place was dead still. Even the fairy lights we saw in the windows were now gone. If I hadn’t just fought off a powerful guard, I would have guessed the place was empty.
“Spookies,” said Marisa, barely above a whisper. “Like someone’s gonna jump outs and yell BOOs!”
I said nothing, because I felt the same way. I saw something beside the well at the heart of the yard. A boxy wooden handcart lay there. It had two handle bars and enough cargo room to carry one person, like a poor man’s rickshaw.
“I wonder who left that there,” I said as I passed by it. I looked back at Marisa and saw her staring down at it, her face gone white.
“Oh noes,” she said. She looked up at me. “The assasins does live heres. Walking right into his houses!”
“What?” I said. “You can tell by a dinged-up old cart?”
“His carts!” she said. “Carries his dead bodies in its. Carries them heres. Does who knows whats with thems.”
“You never mentioned the assassin having a cart,” I said. “Just the knife—”
“And the knives!” Marisa stepped up to me. “That China-girls you beat ups. Recognized the knives before you stabbed hers! The assassin lives heres!”
“Isn’t that why you brought me here?” I said. She was being annoying again.
“Eh.” She shrugged. “Fun to tells scary stories. Not so funs to live thems.”
“Welcome to the real world, Marisa.” I turned my back to her, kept heading across the yard.
She moaned like a scared little girl, but she kept up with me. On the far side of the courtyard, facing across to the entrance gate, was the manor’s main entrance. I climbed three steps up to it, lifted a huge brass knocker and slammed it down.
“Hey!” I yelled at the door. “Lady Scarlet! Get your red butt out here!”
Nothing. My voice echoed through the yard and faded back to silence. The windows were empty, and the sky was rapidly darkening. I gripped the big doorknob with both hands and twisted as hard as my miko muscles would let me. The knob turned not at all. Locked tight.
I pulled in breath. “Lady Scarlet! Come out—”
“Reimu, stop the shoutings! Found somethings over heres.”
Beside the steps that led to the main doors, Marisa was kicking away some dirt on a spot of ground. Under it was a pair of gray cellar doors, painted to blend in with the cobblestones. Marisa knelt down, got her fingers between the wooden planks and pulled one of them up. They opened on stone steps that led down into darkness.
“Look at thats,” she said, straightening her hat. “Left the back doors opens.”
I hopped off the steps, landing beside her. “Left is the right word. They want us to go in this way. Go down those steps, you’ll be walking into a trap for sure.”
“Probablies. Don’t see whole lots of choices.”
“We could break in through a window.”
“None’s on ground floors.”
I looked back across the courtyard, and saw that she was right. The windows started no lower than the second floor, and the walls were smooth below them. No way to climb.
“Darn it.” I looked down at the open cellar doors. “All right. Not as if we’ve done enough stupid stuff on the way here. Can you light the way for us?”
Marisa smiled. She held up one hand, as if holding a bowl. Liquid energy swirled together an inch above her palm, gathering into a white sphere the size of a coin. She put her hand above her forehead, in front of the bow on her hat, and the ball of light stuck there. It was small, but bright. Milky light filled our corner of the courtyard.
“Good,” I said. “It’s narrow. We have to walk in file. You first.”
She nodded. One hand on her broom, the other on her hat, she stepped down through the cellar doors. I went in after her, leaving the doors open behind us. I feared nothing from outside. I only feared what might be ahead of us.
The booby trap mentality was worse down here. Descending a stone staircase in a claustrophobic tunnel, we’d surely step on a switch or trip a wire. Spikes would stab down from the ceiling, or the steps would slide apart and drop us into a bottomless pit.
But there were no traps. Just steps going down and down.
“This is too easy,” I said.
“Want it to be harders?” said Marisa, staying two steps ahead of me.
“Kind of. At least then I might not be so anxious.”
“Maybies not expecting us. Might walks right into Scarlet’s bedroom, ask her really nicelies to stop redding-up Gensokyos, and by the ways if any assassins live under your beds, ask him to stops killing peoples pretty pleases? She says sure, no problems, they lives happily ever afters.”
“You know that won’t happen,” I said. “Getting in so easily can only mean one thing. Scarlet wants to meet us. Deal with us in person.”
The further down we went, the further we left summer behind. The stone walls were cool to the touch. My flowing warm-weather clothes weren’t keeping my heat in. Gooseflesh prickled all over me.
“Look’s like we hit bottoms,” said Marisa.
The stairs ended in a flat stone floor. A short hall ended in a heavy wooden door. It had a lock, but the door was hanging an inch open.
Marisa put a hand near the door’s knob, but didn’t touch it. “You get your wishes. The door is warms.”
“So?” I said.
She looked back at me. “Think about its. What’s behind this doors?”
“I don’t know. A cellar, I’d guess. This far below ground, it’s cool all year. Good for storing food.”
“Exactlies. Supposed to be cold down heres, but the door is warms. You wanted a traps. Found its.”
“I’ll take your word for it,” I said. “Can we do something about it?”
“Think sos. This spells was done all sloppies. Who left it wasn’t goods or didn’t have much times. Trigger once, and we get throughs. Stand backs.”
I did as she said, moving back to the bottom of the staircase. Marisa held up her broom with one hand, and pulled the door open with the other. She stepped back in the same motion. The door opened on empty blackness. I assumed we were looking into a room, but Marisa’s hatlight didn’t pierce the darkness.
Other than that, nothing happened.
“So far so goods,” she said. She took her broom in both hands, as if to toss it. “So long old girls.”
She threw her broom through the door. I wanted to ask her why she had done that, but I got my answer right then. The broom burst into harsh red and white light. My eyes were just getting used to the dark, and this numbed them. I clamped my eyes shut tight, rubbing the feeling back into them. When I could see again, Marisa’s broom was on the stone floor past the door. What was left of it, some ashen bristles and a smoking pike of bamboo.
“Your broom!” I said. “I mean my broom.”
“Just saved our lives,” said Marisa. “Sprung the trap for us. Way’s clear nows. Head ins.”
Marisa went through the door, stepping over the broom’s remnants. I followed her, hoping my gohei wouldn’t meet a similar fate.
“So where is this?” I said.
We had stepped into what felt like a large chamber. I could only guess the place’s size from the difference in air pressure. The room was pitch dark. Marisa’s illuminating spell didn’t reach far enough to show anything but a few feet of stone floor.
“Dump some oil ons,” she said She held two fingers up to her hatlight. The little ball of energy doubled and tripled in size, spreading white luminance for yards in all directions. Rows of huge shelves emerged from the darkness, stacked packages and parcels and jars and bottles. The walls were lined with hundreds piled sacks, presumably full of grains.
“Goo-dees,” said Marisa in awe. “Just realized I’m hungries. Think we might finds any cakes in heres?”
“I wouldn’t eat anything if I were you,” I said. “We don’t know what kind of creatures live here. What they eat might not be good for humans.”
We walked down the center isle, past shelves and more shelves. Each was stuffed full with food. Rice and flower and bottled fruits and vegetables in syrup, among other edibles that can be forgotten for months at a time. Towards the end of the cellar, the shelves were different. These last were not blocky nail-together jobs like the shelves before them, but delicate works of wooden lattice and wicker. Marisa gasped.
“Wines!” she said. “A lot of wines!”
She ran halfway down the shelf and picked out a bottle. I followed her, but only because she had the light.
“So it is,” I said, glancing at the racks of bottles. “Marisa, this isn’t the time.”
“Oh, and lookies.” She got one expensive-looking bottle, held it up by the neck and read the label. “Bunyip berry wines. Bottled in the years—”
“No way,” I said, yanking the bottle from her. “That’s impossible. The bunyip bush has been extinct in Gensokyo for centuries.”
And yet, the label did say it was bunyip berry wine. I wouldn’t know if it were true, even if I drank the wine. I had no idea how the berries where supposed to taste.
Marisa tapped a fingernail on the bottle in my hands. “But if it is, makes this pretty valuables, rights?”
“That’s an understatement,” I said. “Money couldn’t buy wine like this.”
“Feeling thirsty, Reimus?”
“What? No!” I pushed the bottle back at her. “We’re on business here. Put it back and let’s move on.”
“Surlies.” Marisa took the bottle and made as if to slide it back in the lattice. Then she turned suddenly, and slammed the bottle against the shelf behind us. The neck broke off, spilling cold wine and shattered glass to the floor.
“Hey!” I yelled. I stepped back, hoping she hadn’t gotten any wine on my clothes. “What do you think….”
My voice left me. Marisa touched the broken bottle to her lips and leaned back, took a hearty swig. She squeezed her eyes shut, letting out an ecstatic little squeal. She wiped her mouth with the back of her hand and held the bottle out to me.
“So sweets!” she said. “Have somes!”
I took the bottle, but didn’t drink. The smell was enticing. Sweeter than any candy, but wholesome like fresh fruit. Standing in the enemy’s cellar. Drinking the enemy’s wine from a broken bottle neck. It was crazy. But the only other person here was insane herself, so no one would judge me.
“If I do,” I said, “can we move on?”
“All right,” I brought the bottle to my mouth, careful not to cut myself on the sharp edges. I tipped the wine to my lips, and drank.
I want to describe how good the wine was, but it defies words. Suffice it to say, I felt heartbreaking loss that bunyip berries had disappeared from Gensokyo long before I was born. If they were still around, I would be down in the valley at least once a week to pick several basketfuls.
Before lowering the bottle from my lips, I drank more than miko are technically supposed to.
“That’s the spirits!” said Marisa. “Wine’s for chuggings, not sippings.”
I let out a satisfied pah noise, wiping my mouth.
“Nice,” I said, holding the bottle out to her. “But we should really—”
Marisa pushed the wine back at me. “Have mores. Drink your fills!” She turned to the rack and pulled out another bottle. She broke the neck off, spilling some wine darker than the bunyip berry. She threw her head back and drank deeply, worked through four or five swallows.
“Stop it, Marisa!” I yelled. “This isn’t a good place to get sloshed!”
She came up for air, let out a smelly sigh.
“Let’s hopes the mages agrees with thats.” She tipped the bottle up and drank again.
“Mage?” I said. “What mage? You’re the only magician here.”
“Don’t think sos. Know my own kinds, yeah. Firelight traps, fine wines. Probably a libraries somewhere in heres. We magicians love all that stuffs.”
“Then how come I never see any wine at your place?”
Marisa leaned back against the shelf, a drunken blush under her eyes. Darn her. She was adorable even when getting hammered.
“Just ‘cause I’m a witches doesn’t mean I’m riches. Don’t work, don’t have monies. Good old Marisa’s pretty lazies. But mages rich and poors are all the sames. Bet the mage lives heres gots a special way to get straight from his bed to this cellars. Just in case he wants to enjoys some grape punches and read a books by the fireplaces.”
It dawned on me. Marisa was stupidly brilliant.
“So you’re hoping that breaking into this mage’s stash will make him come and try to stop us.”
“Yuppers.” Marisa raised her bottle to me, as if making a toast. “Keep going the obvious ways, keep running into more traps. But the mage angries, tip his hand firsts.”
“He won’t come unless he knows we’re drinking his wine,” I said. “You think he’s watching us somehow.”
Marisa came back from another bout with her bottle. “Course’ofs. On his turfs. Probably hears everything we’re sayings. Just make him madders. Bottoms ups.” She drank again.
“We could just break the bottles, rather than drinking them dry.”
“Surely we—hic! ‘Scuse mees. Surely we coulds. But when’ll gets the chances to have drinkies like—hic!” She giggled at herself. “But if ya doesn’t drinks those bunyips, I’ll hafta take ‘em from yas and—hic!”
“You’re actually easier to understand while drunk.” I looked down at my mostly full bottle. “Well. Drink, drink, drink some more, and be merry. For we die ten minutes from now.” I followed Marisa’s example, took a pull of smooth bunyip berry perfection.
Forward to Chapter Six
Back to Chapter Four
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