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Of any time for Gensokyo to come under a supernatural weather attack, this was the best season. It was warm out, but the red mist kept the day from getting too hot. Marisa and I had little gear to carry. No heavy clothes, coats or cloaks. Two light blankets for each of us. A few days worth of food and water, which we could easily replenish on the road.
I got dressed in my best traveling clothes. I wore a red dress and a white blouse. These were open and flowing, designed to keep me cool on the road. But a miko always dresses with modesty in mind. I wore a sturdy pair of bloomers, and a cloth wrap called a sarashi under my shirt. I was feeling presentable, so I tied a simple red sash around my collar and a red bow atop my head.
I carried no real weapons. My only armament was my gohei, a miko’s traditional wooden staff with paper streamers trailing from one end. I had the S I knife tucked into a leather fold on my waistband, but I had no intention of using it in combat. I was bringing it only because I didn’t feel right leaving it in my home.
Once I was dressed and ready, I met Marisa in the courtyard. She had shouldered a pack as large as mine, full of supplies taken from my house. In her right hand, she held something else of mine.
“What are you doing with my broom?” I said, stepping up to her.
“Figureds I’d hang onto this,” she said. “Can’t be a witch withouts a broom, rights? Saw yours and realized I didn’t have ones. Imagine my horrors! My reputations is tainteds.”
“You don’t have a broom of your own? How do you sweep your house?”
That stopped her for a second.
“Sweeps?” she said.
“Never mind,” I said, walking past her. “You can keep it. It won’t require a large amount time or effort to make a new one. I’m a miko, after all. I just pull bamboo brooms out of my butt.”
She caught up and fell into step with me. We walked to the entrance gate of my shrine. Marisa kept going, but I stopped and looked back at the place.
“Reimus? Come ons. Daylight fritters.”
I gave my shrine one last look, then turned and walked after Marisa. We reached the bottom of the stone steps, then started down the bendy mountain path that led to the valley floor.
“I’ll miss my home,” I said.
“We’re gone only four days,” said Marisa. “Two day trip theres, two days backs.”
I said nothing.
“Ah!” Marisa reached into her apron. “Almost forgots. Hard times sleeping last nights, so made these for yas.”
“Please don’t tell me it’s…. Oh no.”
She held out three scraps of paper, each covered in the old language’s complex writing.
“I appreciate the gesture, Marisa. But keep the spellcards. They’re more your style than mine.”
“Made these just for yous!” She pushed the cards at me. “No where nears neat like Master Sparks, but you’ll like thems. It’s a guided shot-style projectile spells. Simple and effectives. Just cast, focus on the targets. Spell does the rests. Take ‘ems!”
I took the cards, but only to shut her up. I took a quick look at the spell’s name. Spirit sign: Fantasy Orb. I didn’t care to read the incantation below it, so I jammed the cards into my belt and kept walking.
“You wrote these last night?” I said. “Where did you get the ink and paper?”
“Lifted thems when your back was turned, making dinners last nights,” she said.
“Any chance I’ll get them back?”
“Maybes. Let you knows after I get a chances to use my new brooms.”
I couldn’t help laughing. It was a good laugh, better than any since the mist covered the sky.
“Fine,” I said, catching my breath. “Thanks anyway. Though hope I never need to use these cards.”
“Youkai are more dangerous since mist cames,” she said. “Might have to use thems sooner than you thinks.”
I haven’t properly described just how beautiful Gensokyo is. But that’s just as well. The loveliness of this country goes beyond any words I can put together. As Marisa and I went down the mountain path together, I spent a long time looking over the valley. The landscape looked duller than usual, with the sun blocked out. It was heartbreaking to see my homeland like this.
I patted the leather pouch that held the killer’s knife to my waist. I wanted to give it back to its owner.
Then I shook my head, dropped my hand to my side. Such angry thoughts weren’t becoming of a miko.
Marisa and I walked past a bank of evergreens, briefly blocking our view of the valley except for slivered glimpses between bark and pine needle.
“Should we stop by your place on the way?” I asked her. “Any gear you need to pick up?”
Marisa shook her head. “Too much of a detours. Not a very long trips, anyways. Gots my spellcards. That’s all I needs.”
We walked on for a minute.
“Okay,” I said. “What I really meant is if you wanted a change of clothes. You’ve been wearing that outfit since yesterday morning at least. I don’t want a stinky traveling companion.”
“Both us be pretty stinkies after a couple days. But fines. Can pick ups some more spellcards while we’re theres.”
She looked at me and grinned. “Can’t haves it both ways, miko girls.”
We hit the valley floor a few hours before noon. If we had kept following the main path, we would have gone straight through the village where I had shopped yesterday. Instead we took a branch path left, towards the Forest of Magic.
I’m not sure why those woods have such a dramatic name. It’s true that a lot of youkai live there, but the same can be said for the rest of Gensokyo. Maybe it’s because the Forest is known has a dwelling place for hermit magicians. The only one I knew was Marisa, but there were probably others.
Even considering the reason for our trip, it felt good to be out walking. Or perhaps because of the reason for our trip. We met a few people on the way, traveling townsfolk and merchants. We exchanged pleasantries with them, but got on our way as quickly as politeness would allow. We never said where we were going or why, but we told everyone to stay indoors after dark. Nobody questioned us on that bit of wisdom.
We reached the forest that afternoon. The day was dying much sooner than it should have for this time of year. The sky was already dim, and would be dark in another two or three hours. I hoped to be under Marisa’s roof before the moon came out. Maybe even spend the night there.
We kept along the path, and were soon under the forest canopy. It was dark under here, just like going from afternoon to dusk in one step. Nighttime would come even faster in the woods. Sleeping over at Marisa’s place would be a very good idea. I decided to ask her.
“Hey Marisa,” I said. “Do you think we….”
My voice trailed off. I stopped walking.
“Do you hear that?” I said.
Marisa didn’t answer. I strained my ears, held my breath, trying to focus on the strange noise that had brushed by my ears a second ago.
Then I heard it again. A soft whimpering sound, like a puppy moaning. Small and far away. Yet I could tell it came from the woods beside the path.
“Hold on Marisa,” I said, stepping into the woods. “I’m going to see what that sound is.”
Still no answer from her, but it didn’t matter. Neither did my senses shutting down, closing off the world around me. I couldn’t hear the birds in the trees or the wind sighing through the leaves. I could only see ten feet in front of myself, as if the night had snuck up on me.
The whimpering sound. It became louder and clearer as I went deeper into the trees. It sounded like a little girl crying. And after going another few yards, I stepped into the clearing where she sat sobbing on the forest floor.
“Hey there!” I said, running across the clearing to her. “No need to cry, sweetie. Are you lost?”
The child looked up at me, her face wet and her eyes red. Even like that, I was stunned at how pretty she was. She wore a pristine schoolgirl’s outfit, a black vest with a red necktie over a white long-sleeved blouse and a long black dress. She had short blonde hair, tied on one side with a small red bow.
I knelt down beside her, put a hand on her arm to comfort her. I pride myself on being able to calm children away from tears. A miko has to deal with kids when their parents come to the shrine. Not to mention how some little brats get upset when they loose festival games.
The girl sniffed, looking at me with wide and innocent eyes. She was relieved to see me. I was another human being. An older one, and therefore her savior.
“Um.” The girl sniffed again, wiped her face dry. “Yeah. I guess.”
“Don’t worry,” I said. “We’re close to the forest’s edge. I’ll lead you out of here and take you back wherever you live. Can you tell me your name?”
“I’m Rumia,” she said, looking down as if ashamed.
“That’s a pretty name.” I took her hand in mine. “Come on, Rumia. Let’s get you home.”
She stood up with me, but wouldn’t move when I tried to pull her along.
“Wait,” she said. “I want to ask a favor before we go.”
I looked back at her. “Sure. What is it?”
She pointed to the ribbon on her head. “This thing. It’s tied on too tight and it’s hurting my hair. I can’t untie it.”
“Uh oh. Let me have a shot at it. Hold still.”
I laid my gohei down, bent over and tried to undo the bow. A miko has dexterous fingers for many reasons. Sewing, cooking, cleaning, home repairs. A ribbon in a girl’s hair should have been no challenge, but this one defied me. The knot was done solid, as if the cloth had been melted together. It couldn’t be untied.
“Careful,” Rumia moaned as I tugged on her hair. “It hurts.”
“Sorry,” I said. “I can’t undo it. I’ll have to cut it out of your hair. Is that okay?”
She said nothing. I took that as a yes. I pulled the throwing knife off my belt and carefully brought it to her head. I held up the lock of hair and pulled the blade through it. Strands of hair parted at the blade’s edge with no force at all. I’d do best not to forget how sharp this thing was. Though it was sweetly poetic to use a killer’s weapon to relieve a little girl’s pain. A thing of evil used for good.
In a second, the bow was out of the girl’s hair.
“There you go,” I said. “Sorry for the haircut, but at least I got this thing off your head.”
I held up the girl’s hand and dropped the bow into her palm. She screamed in pain and dropped the bow to the ground, shaking out her hand. She stepped back from me, an angry sneer on her face.
“You idiot!” she screamed. “I wanted you to get it off me, not give it to me like a piece of candy!”
I stood there, shocked. Rumia yelling surprised me, but less than her sudden change in appearance. Her hair turned brighter, going from ordinary blonde to white golden. Her eyes were brilliant red. I don’t mean the puffiness under the eyes a girl gets from crying. The irises in her eyes were like crimson lightning.
“Well duh,” said Rumia, kicking dirt over the bow on the ground. “What gave it away? The clothes that don’t match any school-going child in the whole valley? The way my dress isn’t dirty even though I was sitting on the ground ten seconds ago? Or maybe it was the whole world going dark around you, even though sunset is at least three hours off. I’ve seen some gullible humans in my time, but you made it easy.”
I looked around, and for the first time I noticed. It was dark, like there was nothing but infinite space outside the clearing.
“I don’t….” I said, trying to understand. “I didn’t….”
“Oh, shut up.” Rumia folded her hands behind her back and stepped towards me. “I know the drill. You’re intentions were all good and noble, so that means you can’t be subject to horrible misfortune. It wouldn’t be fair, right? Sorry to say that ain’t the case, but it’s time someone welcomes you to the real world.”
Reimus! Can ya hears mees? Snap out of its! She’s got ya under a glamours! Reimus!
I shook my head. I was hearing voices.
“The real world,” Rumia went on. “The world where a well-meaning woman tries to save a little girl, but ends up being that little girl’s dinner instead.”
I fell to my knees, my shoulders hanging. She was right. This was the real world. A horrible, cruel place. A place where no good deed when unpunished. A world where people’s homes were covered with evil red mist.
Stands up, Reimus! Don’t listens to hers! Can blasts her into next centuries, but not while she’s got ya tranced. It’ll break your minds. Reimu! For heaven’s sake, WAKE UP!
“There’s nothing to wake up to,” said Rumia, now standing over me. “But you did take that stupid sealing amulet off me, so I’ll do a favor for you. I’ll take you out of this terrible world. I’ll take you away from all your hurts and fears. You’d like that, right?”
“Yes,” I said, holding my hands to my head. “I’m so sick of being afraid. I don’t want to be scared anymore.”
“Then don’t worry.” Rumia lowered her face to mine, as if to kiss me. “It’s almost over. Just relax.”
Yes, I wanted to say. Make me not afraid anymore. Thank you so much.
Rumia’s lips almost touched mine. I could feel the warm moisture of her breath. I welcomed it. Needed it. And I almost had it, until Rumia got hit in the head with a broom.
A thunderclap of pain split through my brain. White pools of light exploded in my eyes, a screaming ring in my ears. It was the same blow that knocked Rumia off me, sent her sprawling into the dirt.
Someone grabbed me by the shoulders, shaking me hard and yelling into my face. I could almost see her, a transparent silhouette on the black background of the real world. It was girl about my age, but no where near as pretty as Rumia. Her clothes were dirty and her face was lined with worry.
REIMU! she screamed into my eyes. Come back to mees!
Rumia was recovering from her broom-beating. She made it back to her feet, unsteady.
“How dare you,” she said. “Don’t you know it’s rude to interrupt someone when she’s eating?”
Who was she talking to? The imaginary girl in front of me? Strangely enough, she seemed to notice Rumia too. She turned to face the smaller girl.
“Then again,” said Rumia. “It’s been a long time since I had human. A double course would hit the spot just fine.”
The imaginary girl got her broom off the ground, held it up like a weapon.
Come and gets it, devil girls! she said. Beat you bloodies until Reimu gets enough headcrackers to wake ups.
Rumia bore her teeth like an angry animal. She ran at the imaginary girl, holding back a fist as if to punch her in the groin. But she never made it. The broom swung down and clipped Rumia upside the head again. Except it felt like my head the broom was hitting. Another skullquake ripped through me, turning my brains into excruciating slush. My eyes wanted to pop out of their sockets and run for freedom. I screamed.
The pain had one good side effect. It brought some clarity back to my senses. The forest didn’t seem so dark as before. I could hear birds singing and the wind blowing. And best of all, I saw Marisa pounding the snot out of the youkai girl who had nearly killed me.
Marisa looked at me. “Back in the lands of the livings?”
I wanted to respond, but my head was pounding too hard. I felt like throwing up.
Rumia was on the ground again. She crawled away from Marisa to the nearest tree, using its trunk to stand.
“It won’t happen like this!” she yelled. “Not right after I’ve been set free!”
Darkness was gathering around her, collecting to her like water at the deepest part of a basin. She was casting.
“I will eat you both!” she said, her voice deeper than before. “Your last living sight will be me feasting on your hearts!” The darkness was deepening, thrumming with power. Marisa dropped her broom and pulled a spellcard from her apron. She held it out before her palm, ready to fire. Then she paused, looked back at me.
“Sorry, Reimus.” She looked back at Rumia. “Love sign!”
The spell didn’t activate instantly. White energy gathered at her hand, opposite the dark power forming around Rumia.
“Your human magic is nothing!” the youkai yelled. “I’ll show you the power of youkai!”
Rumia’s spell activated. Dark tendrils snaked towards Marisa, as if to bind her and squeeze the life out of her. But Marisa didn’t flinch. She stood still, gathering power to her spellcard. Rumia’s black tentacles closed in around her.
Rumia laughed. “It’s over! You’re too late!”
“Nopes. Never too lates to beat darks. ‘Cause all the dark gots is nothings.”
Marisa’s confidence made Rumia look uneasy. Her spell slowed.
“Is that so?”
“Yeps.” Marisa smiled. “Master Spark!”
The white gathered at her hand suddenly expanded, as if it had been compressed until now. A blinding spire of power stabbed out from Marisa’s spellcard, piercing through Rumia’s spell and slamming into the youkai herself. The force knocked her back like a siege battering ram. She flew back into the woods, her limbs spread like a rag doll. Her head hit tree, sending her into a lopsided spin. Even at this distance, I heard the unhealthy crick of her neck breaking.
Rumia’s body finally skid to a stop on the forest floor, some dozens yards away. Even before she lost her momentum, she was dissolving into multicolored sparkles that would soon evaporate. Marisa had killed her.
I sat in Marisa’s home in the Forest of Magic. The lady of the house was in the kitchen brewing tea. The kitchen, half of which doubled as the front room, which doubled as a dining room. Some doorway off to my right led to her bedroom, but the way was blocked with books. Hundreds more books were piled on the floor, pushed up against the walls to allow a small walkway. On the walls, shelves stacked upon shelves bowed under the weight of more books, paper leaflets, bottles, jars and trinkets.
With so much junk, I was surprised Marisa kept even this much order in her home. I was scared to speak loudly for fear of bringing the place down on my head.
I sat on Marisa’s couch, which was really a huge pile of books covered in a blanket. I was staring down at her table, where a small spot had been cleared for two objects. The S I knife, and the red bow I’d cut from Rumia’s hair. The swatch of hair that came with the ribbon had long since dissolved.
Marisa came out of the kitchen, her hat in one hand and a tea tray on the other. Two teacups, a steaming teapot and a plate of crackers. This was supposed to be our dinner tonight, but I didn’t care. I couldn’t have been less hungry.
“Don’t look so down, Reimus.” Marisa used her foot to knock some books off the table, then set the tray down. She tossed her hat onto a pile of books, then sat and poured tea for both of us.
“I’m not down,” I said. “I’m not in imminent danger of death. That’s better than an hour ago.”
Marisa said nothing. She handed me my tea, then sat sipping hers. She looked down at the red ribbon on the table. Her eyebrow rose.
“It came off that youkai girl,” I said.
Marisa picked the bow up and twirled it between her fingers. Little sparks of energy spat off the ribbon, settling on the tabletop and fading away.
“Thought sos,” she said, putting the ribbon down and nudging it towards me. “A sealing amulets. Keeps down a youkai’s powers. Probably the locals put it on hers, keep her from eating peoples. Can’t blame them, eithers. Don’t want your kiddies playing with greater youkai of darknesses. Why did you takes it off hers?”
“She asked me to.”
“No she didn’ts.”
I looked up. “How do you know?”
“Part of the spells,” she said. “Can’t ask for the amulet be removeds. Not directlies.”
“But she did,” I said. “She said it was hurting her hair, so she asked me—”
“You sures? What exactly did she says?”
That stopped me. I tried to remember my conversation with Rumia. Did she actually ask me to take the ribbon off? Or did I fill in the blanks myself?
I put my face in my hands. “I can’t believe this. I shouldn’t have been so stupid.”
“Don’t be hards on yourselves. She got you off guards. Same could’ve happened to mees. Probably went for you, thoughs, ‘cause you got less lecher-looks than I doos. People see mees coming and they thinks, hey better run and hides. Marisa’s comings and she’s gonna steal our precious things. But with you they thinks, hey it’s Reimus. Let’s go tells her our problems and she’ll make us feel warm and fuzzies like a fresh diapers.”
“Is that it?” I said. “I’m a kind fool people can take advantage of?”
Marisa smiled. “Heads is tails if you flip the coin overs. Too bads ya can’t have one without the others.”
I shook my head, but said nothing. I sipped the tea. It was good, some herb I couldn’t remember the name of. Marisa waited for me. She popped in a cracker and crunched it down.
“Can we spend the night here?” I said, putting my teacup down. “Things like they are, I don’t want to be traveling after dark.”
“Surelies,” said Marisa. “But you made me sleeps in the fortune booths, so your bed’s under the drippy water pumps.”
“I would’ve let you sleep inside if you asked me!”
She laughed, putting a hand over her mouth to keep from spraying crumbs everywhere.
“Just messin’ with yas. Get some blankets and sleeps anywhere there’s free spaces. But sure wouldn’t do to walk arounds in the darks. Not with all that scary stuffs up in the skies.”
My heart picked up. I pulled my fingers into fists, trying to keep my hands from shaking. Last night was a night I wanted to forget forever. And I had begun to leave it behind, until Rumia dredged up that same horror. The youkai girl knew nothing of my past or memories, but she could sense my emotions.
“Rumia attacked me,” I said. “Not because I look gullible. Not only because of that. She could taste my…. What’s the word? Aura? Countenance?”
“I know what you means. You gots fears. Lots of thems. Dark youkais are attracted to scary feelings.”
“Then why aren’t you afraid too?” I said. “You saw that stuff in the sky. We don’t know what we’re up against. Doesn’t that terrify you?”
Marisa shrugged. “Draw the lines between fears and worries. You can bees scared without frettings.”
“I wish I could draw that line. They seem like the same thing to me.”
“It’s easies. Be scared and know something’s wrongs, which isn’t a bad by itselfs. But worry shuts you down, keeps you from livings. Can only think of the worsts. Then you start thinkings, what is the worsts? And the answers is, you dies. The worst case scenarios is always you dies a horrible, painful, hideous deaths.”
“You’re not making me feel any better.”
“Not finished yets. Once you get to know deaths, life’s a lot less scaries. Die and you might hurt for a whiles, but much less bad than pains you’ve had in your whole lives. And then the hurts go away, and it’s all overs. You go to heavens and live happily ever afters. The ends.”
“Miko don’t believe in heaven.”
“Then life is overs, and no more hurtings. Still a step ups.”
“What if there’s a hell?”
Marisa sighed. “No what ifs theres. Most definitelies hell exists. Just saw it in the eyes of a youkai girls. Saw your reflections.”
I started crying. Not because Marisa was being mean, but because she spoke the truth. The hard, painful truth. Rumia took control of me so easily because I was laden with fear and doubt. One or two well-timed lies, a couple of misleading truths, and I was caught. Caught by the weakness of my own heart.
I would sooner die than let it happen again.
Forward to Chapter Four
Back to Chapter Two
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