Let me introduce Marisa Kirisame. Here we have a girl who’s almost my age, but both looks and acts six years younger. To look at her is to think, Why isn’t this girl in school?
This is unacceptable, because she’s a lot prettier than me. She has messy blonde hair gathered in a thick braid, tied with a bow and hanging over her chest. Her eyes are a shade of brown so light that they’re golden. She wears clothes that would only make sense on a woman twice her age. A black dress covered in a white apron. A white blouse done up with a black button-up vest. And to top it off, a ridiculously huge, wide-brimmed black hat with white under-lining and a huge white bow on the front.
All together, she looks like a girl dressing up as a witch for a costume party. The difficulty is that Marisa actually is a witch. A female magician, and a strong one.
And that’s not all. I’m not sure if it’s a speech impediment or an accent, but she talks as if she has no concept of plurals. I never hear from her, Hello Reimu. How are you doing today? Instead I get, Hiya, Reimus! How’s ya hangins and bangins? Gots any more of that mint teas? Good stuffs!
The closest I can get to her speech is putting an s at the end of her words. But that’s not quite how she sounds. It’s more like she says zeh as a whispered syllable after everything. I came-zeh over so you could have the benefits-zeh of my company-zeh! Least you can do-zeh, make some cakes and treat-zeh me like a good hostess-zehs!
See how annoying that is? And you only have to read it. You can’t imagine how it grates my ears to hear the girl talk for longer than three zeh’s at a time. I’ll try to spare you the horror. Most of it.
We salvaged the remainder of my groceries and went indoors. I checked around the house, making sure all windows and doors were shut tight. It had been getting dark earlier than usual since the mist’s coming, and I didn’t want any youkai fairies wandering in. I’d had more than enough of them for one afternoon.
When I came back to the front room, Marisa was already sitting at the table. She had hung her hat at the door, making her canary-colored hair the brightest thing in the room. I shook my head at her. Did she expect dinner to be ready? I had just gotten home myself.
“Youkai getting nastier these days,” she said. “Never seen you beats them off with a brooms before, not in broad daylights. Or maybe Reimus made mistakes and fed thems. Never, ever feed a fairies, I says. Always comes back for mores.”
“I never feed them on purpose,” I said, sitting down across from her. “They’re like rats with opposable thumbs. Pests of the worst kind. By the way, what was that spell you nearly murdered me with?”
Marisa grinned. She loved to talk about her magic. Like a farmer teaching you how to properly raise livestock. Like an ironsmith who will lecture you on how to pound out nails. Magic was Marisa’s trade.
“That’s what I came to show yous,” she said, pulling a rectangular leather pouch from her apron. She undid the flap and shook the contents onto my table, seven paper cards. She spread them out face up. Each card was covered on one side with the intricate characters of the old language, black ink drawn in careful calligraphic strokes.
“Spellcards?” I said. “Is that all?”
“Not just any spellcards,” she said. “New spellcards. Read thems.”
Looking at the cards closely, I noticed they were all inscribed with the same spell. It wasn’t obvious at first. Marisa’s handwriting isn’t perfect. Especially when writing out the old language, full of loops, lines, dashes and crossbars all used with little rhyme or reason. Most modern people couldn’t read the archaic characters. I could only because my miko upbringing involved a strict education.
“Love sign,” I read from the card. “Master Spark. Concentrate. Accept the powers of Heaven. Look for an enemy and…” I trailed off. “And I don’t get the last part. Lovely destruction?”
“Master Spark,” she said. “Focus your minds / Using the powers above / If bad guys you finds / Unleash your annihilation of love!”
I laughed. It was the stupidest incantation I’d ever heard. Marisa didn’t share my humor. The smile left her, replaced with a girlish scowl.
“Scoff if you wants,” she said. “But Master Sparks just saved your lives. Used one of my prototypes to save your butts from a weakling fairies. Maybes I should makes you some spellcards—”
“No need!” I said, cutting her off before we could get any closer to loss of limb and collateral damage. “Instead, why don’t we have some dinner? May as well eat it up before the fairies get mean enough to break in.”
“Good ideas,” said Marisa. “What’s for eats?”
“Pork and rice, probably.”
“When is it readies?”
“As soon as you’re done cooking it.”
The look on Marisa’s face right then was classic. She was crestfallen. Her mouth hung open and her eyebrows drooped, as if to say What’s this? Come all the ways to your house for a free meals and you make ME do the works! Reimu’s a ripoffs!
I laughed again.
“Come on,” I said. I stood up and headed into the kitchen. I grabbed her by the collar and dragged her with me. “I’ll help. Just get your yellow head in here and put some water on to boil.”
Marisa moaned, but she followed.
By the time we sat down to eat, it was dark outside. Looking out the window, we saw the gentle strobes of random fairies wandering around the shrine courtyard. They were attracted by the smell of cooked meat wafting out of my house, but weren’t smart enough to find something they couldn’t see. So they simply floated around, casting multicolored spreads of light on the cobblestones. It was pretty to look at, until you remembered these youkai would eat your flesh if given a chance.
That thought made it hard to focus on dinner. So instead, I took a closer look at Marisa’s spellcards as I ate.
The technical term for a spellcard is prerendered evocation foci. But what does that mean? What does it do? Why do magicians use it?
In Gensokyo, using magic is easy. We’re flooded with the stuff. The wind swirls with it. The ground thrums with it. The mountain streams sparkle with it. The trees grow and sway with magic in their bark and leaves. When these wild energies weave into beings that have their own life, we call them youkai. But for a human, using magic is simply one’s will to control natural power. The more control a human has, the stronger a magician he is.
Here’s a problem. When I said wild energy, I meant it. As in the opposite of tame. A human can bend raw power to his will, but not for long. The energy too easily goes haywire, possibly hurting the spell caster. This isn’t a worry for minor magic tricks, because the magician is using only a small dose of power. But for bigger spells, it becomes a worry very quickly.
The word evocation is used to describe kaboom-style spells. Lots of energy, lots of throughput, but not much preparation or control. It’s the kind of magic used in combat. But without foci to channel the spell into something containable, you’ll do as much damage to yourself as your enemy.
Let’s take the most recent invention of our favorite mad magician, Marisa Kirisame. She’s always liked using lasers, and I suppose a bigger laser is a better one. But that much power would just as easily go in all directions, searing her pretty little eyebrows off.
Here the spellcard comes in. Marisa designed the card Master Spark ahead of time. She carefully crafted the cards, slowly and meticulously writing the incantation onto each one. She probably had several failures sitting as crumpled up wads of paper on the floor of her atelier, one for each time she lost concentration or let her hand slip while writing.
Of course, the writing itself has nothing to do with magical power. Magic can’t read. It doesn’t follow directions because of some arbitrary ink patterns on a scrap of paper. Writing is a process that helps the magician infuse the card with the spell. Not the power itself, but the set of instructions that guides and channels magical energy in the desired way. Once rendered, the spellcard will keep its spell forever.
Until destroyed, that is. Spellcards are used only once, because the energy of the spell vaporizes the card. Pumping that much power through paper is no better than tossing it into a bonfire. This raises the question, why not make foci out of some more durable material? Couldn’t spells also be written onto wood tablets? Stone slabs? Iron sheets?
The answer is simple. Yes, but paper is cheap and light. And besides, the word spellcard sounds better than spellslab.
“You’re right to admire thems,” said Marisa, going through the last of her rice. “Master Sparks is my greatest creations.”
I looked up from the cards. “I’ll admit, the spell was impressive. The casting magician could use some refinement, but—”
“And you didn’t evens see the real things!” she said, getting excited. She gathered the cards back into her leather pouch, stowed them in her apron. “With more times to prepare, could have blown away half your shrines! But Reimu gets in troubles a lots, so what could I doos? Had to worry about speeds before finesses.”
“Finesse isn’t usually associated with destroying someone’s home.” I considered taking another bite of rice, then decided I was full. I put my chopsticks down. “Why don’t you tell me why you’re really here?”
Marisa’s shoulders dropped, her excitement leaving her. “Already dids. My spell—”
“You come up with new magic tricks all the time, but you don’t pay me a visit for any of them. And when you do visit, you’ve never felt the need to give me a reason. You just come over because you want to. Showing up with an alibi makes me think you’ve got something to hide. So spill it.”
She looked down, then nodded.
“All righties,” she said. “Let me shows you somethings.”
She pulled another leather bundle from her apron. She unrolled it, dumping a small, silvery knife onto the table.
“What’s this?” I said, picking up the blade. I was careful to hold it by the flat. The edges looked sharp enough to cut clean through my fingers. There was no handle or hilt, but the blade’s base was rounded and heavy. Etched into the metal were decorative letters, S and I.
“A throwing knife,” I said. “An assassin’s weapon. Custom made, by the look of it. Where did you get this?”
“Let me tell you a stories,” said Marisa. “Know the island in the middles of the lake, rights?”
I nodded. “And the old abandoned building there.”
“The locals don’t think it’s abandoned anymores,” she said. “For about the last years, heard rumors about an assassins that stalks lone travelers at nights. Some peoples just walking their way home from works, the assassin jumps out of the woods and bambs!” She clapped her hands. “Deads before you know its, and you’re never seen agains.”
“Um,” I said. “We don’t need a serial killer to explain late night disappearances. The youkai already do that for us. Anyone stupid enough to be alone out in the dark….”
Marisa shook her head, spilling her braid off her shoulder. “Noes, it’s not youkai. A few peoples have seen the assassins. Say he’s tall and skinnies, got white hair like an old mans. But he moves lighting fasts, can throws a knives into your eyes from thirty paces.” She nodded to the blade in my hands. “That one came from the chests of a dead mans.”
“Ew!” I said, dropping the knife on the table. “Then how did you get it?”
“Assassin boy bit off mores than he could chew one nights,” she said. “He attacked a whole family instead of a loners. Threw one knifes and got one kills, but the others chased him offs. Heard about its the last time I was in towns. Gave me that knives. Said they didn’t want to be reminded of their friend’s deaths.” She shrugged. “Thought about selling its, but wanted to show you firsts.”
“Why?” I said. “So some people mistake an exceptionally large youkai for a killer. They get scared and start spreading rumors. Halfway across the valley, no less. What’s that got to do with me?”
“Because!” Marisa slapped her hands on the table. “You and mees are going to stop whoever’s making that mist outsides!”
Silence. I stared at Marisa, trying to understand what she had just said. This girl was master of talking much while saying little.
“Hold on,” I said. “Not only does that not make any sense, but it has nothing to do with what we were just—”
“Just about to make the connections!” said Marisa. “Listens close. When I saids locals, I meant locals to the lake, not heres. Peoples near that old mansions. Assassin boy hasn’t shown up anywheres else in Gensokyos.”
“Okay,” I said. “So you think the killer is hiding out in the building on the lake. But what does that have to do with—”
Marisa stood and headed for the door, grabbing my arm on the way.
“Come ons!” she said. “Something you gotta sees.”
I let her pull me to my feet, but not to the door.
“What are you doing?” I said. “I’m not going outside. The youkai are out in force this time of night.”
“No worries,” she said, yanking my arm hard. “Mommy Marisa will protect yas. Comes!”
So out we went. Marisa grabbed her hat, and I closed the door behind us. The few fairies wandering the courtyard were of the small and naked variety, not like the prettily dressed one I fought earlier. They looked at us as we stepped outside, but weren’t interested. Deciding we were neither a threat nor a convenient source of food, they resumed their random floating around my shrine.
“Can’t believe you haven’t seen this yets,” said Marisa, dragging me across the courtyard. “Guess it’s one of those things you don’t sees until someones points it out to yas. Then you can’t miss its.”
“What are you talking about, Marisa?” I said. “And would you please let go of my arm? You’re cutting off my circulation.”
“Just wait. This will stop circulations dead colds.”
We reached the far end of the courtyard and stopped under the entrance gate. Right here was another reason I liked living at my shrine. The view from my gate was the second best view in Gensokyo, right after staring at the Boundary during a full moon.
I couldn’t see the moon tonight, but some of its light made it through the dirty gunk hanging in the sky. The path from my shrine wound down the foothills and into the valley below. I could see the village where I had gone shopping earlier. From there paths snaked out across the valley floor, going to other villages and farms. One path led off to the Forest of Magic, where Marisa lived. Another led off to the lake near the valley’s heart, circled all the way around it. There was a long land bridge that led out to the island on the lake, which technically made it a peninsula. And beyond the lake, more trees, more towns, more paths.
“I don’t see anything unusual,” I said. “Gensokyo at night always looks like this.”
“Because you’re looking downs,” said Marisa. “Look ups for a changes!”
She grabbed my hair and yanked down hard, craning my neck back and turning my face to the sky.
“Ouch!” I yelped. “Let go of my hair! What are you do….”
I saw what Marisa wanted me to see, and my voice left me.
I hadn’t noticed it during the day. Sunlight was strong enough to make the sun itself seem like the center of the mist. But moonlight was a different story. I saw shapes in the mist, like the ugliest clouds in your nightmares. Clawed hands grasping. Elongated faces screaming in anger and agony. Other things I don’t even want to describe. And it was fluid, changing, going from one horrible image to the next. Worst was the long, ropy cords that reached across the sky, starting at the horizons and shooting to the sky’s center. An unfinished spider’s web of black cloud.
I looked down and saw what it all meant. The center of the web was directly above the island on the lake.
The mist was coming from the abandoned mansion.
Marisa nodded, looking sad. “At last, she sees.”
I turned on her.
“And you want to go there?” I said, sticking a finger at her chest. “Just how insanely stupid are you?”
“Insane maybes,” she said, meeting my eyes. “But not stupids. Want to just sit heres and wait for things to get betters, then you’re the stupid ones.”
“I’m not suicidal, unlike you. Think about it, Marisa. A mage who could darken the sky would have to be powerful. Strong enough to blow us both away without even breathing hard.”
She gave me her best I’m better than you grin. “Nonesenses. Blast him with Master Sparks. Solved problems.”
“You’re crazy,” I turned and headed back to the main building. “If you want to get yourself killed, be my guest. But as for me, I’m going to bed.”
“Fine thens!” Marisa yelled after me. “Go to beds in your comfortable little shrines! Then wake up tomorrows and organize a great we’re all gonna dies festival!” She cleared her throat. “Oh waits. Did I say festivals? I meant fundraisers!”
That hit me where I lived. I was almost to my front door, but I stopped. I turned to face her.
“How dare you!” I yelled at her across the courtyard. “There’s nothing wrong with selling fortunes or asking for donations. A miko has to eat!”
“Yeah sures!” Marisa yelled back. “Just admits you want monies like every other humans. Take mees for instances. Greediest person you’ll ever meets. Don’t care if everyone in Gensokyo dies tomorrow. Just want to find the magicians making this mist so I can steal some treasures. A mage that strong gots to have some good stuffs. Scrolls and books and artifacts. Least I can be honest abouts my motives! Why can’t yous?”
“I’m not interested in treasure,” I said, turning back to my front door.
“That’s not whats I meant, Reimus!”
“Go home, Marisa. Good night.”
I went inside and closed the door behind me. I felt bad leaving Marisa out in the dark, but I knew she would be fine. She still had seven spellcards left. She could Master Spark her way home. Trying my hardest not to think about her, I cleaned up after dinner. I gathered the dishes, washed them and set them up to dry. I didn’t know what do to with the killer’s knife, so I left it on the table. Some things could wait until tomorrow.
After doing the dishes, I undressed, took a bath and got ready for bed. The night was still young. I could stay up longer, maybe read for a while. But no, not tonight. I was tired from the long walk to and from town. A full night’s sleep would do me good. And sleeping in tomorrow morning, too. A miko can’t work if she doesn’t rest.
So I climbed into bed, pulled the covers up to my nose. The pillow was fluffy. My head sank into it. My mattress is full of the softest down a miko’s meager earnings can buy. It cushioned my body perfectly. My blankets and sheets are thick enough to keep me warm even on hard winter nights. I like my bed.
It’s a shame I couldn’t sleep.
I kept looking out the window, up to the hideous black mist in the sky. The longer I stared at it, the more detailed the swirling shapes became. It started with screaming faces and clawed hands, but soon became full scenes. I saw a young girl suffocating in a locked room. She beat her little fists on the door. Cried and screamed for someone to free her, even as her lungs stopped drawing air. I saw one man kill another in bitter revenge. Rip his enemy’s heart from his chest, bring it to his mouth and tear off a sinewy strip of muscle with his front teeth.
The scenes came with words, huge letters made from different thicknesses in the mist. HELP ME HATE YOU KILL YOU COME HERE KILL YOU PLEASE.
I couldn’t watch anymore. I sat up and yanked the blinds closed, then pulled the blankets over me like a child scared of the youkai in her closet. That was better, but not much. Even closing my eyes tight, I kept seeing the terrible shapes in the dark. I was so scared.
I cried myself to sleep.
We all know the old cliché that equates the sun rising to a likely event. Picture two weather-beaten old farmers shooting the breeze by a picket fence. One is telling the other about his marital problems. But I don’t worry about ‘er, he says. I know ‘er, and she’ll come ‘round sure as the sun’ll rise tomorrow.
You idiots who ever said such a thing, I hope you felt stupid on the one morning the sun didn’t rise. There was no gradual brightening of the eastern horizon. No sudden burst of light as the sun peaked the mountains. No long shadows slowly shortening as the day aged.
This day, the sun didn’t rise at all. The sky brightened from nightmare black. The horrible depictions in the mist faded and disappeared. But in a way, it was worse last night. And much worse from the day before.
The sky mist had turned bright red. Like blood sprayed from a freshly cut wound. So I saw it, looking up to the sky while standing in courtyard of my shrine.
“It’s not getting better,” I said, feeling horrible and weak and ashamed. “It’ll just keep getting worse and worse….”
“Until we all dies,” said Marisa, stepping into the courtyard to my right. “Now you get its.”
I turned to her, seeing her clothes rumpled and her hat sitting crooked on her head. She had dark circles under her eyes, like she had just woke up.
“How did you get here so early?” I said.
“Never left,” she said, taking off her hat and rubbing her eyes. “Slept in the fortune booths.”
“You what? Why?”
She shrugged, put her hat back on. “Seemed like too much work going homes. Don’t worry about mees. Wasn’t cold last nights.” She nodded towards my hand. “Why’re you carrying that arounds?”
I looked down and saw the killer’s knife in my right hand. I had the rounded base gently pinched between my thumb, index and middle fingers. As if I were ready to throw it at someone. I didn’t remember grabbing it. I held the blade up, looked over the stylized letters. S I.
What was S I? Someone’s name? The blade’s maker? Artists loved to add signatures to their works. Though thinking of this death tool as art sickened me.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I think I want to return this to its owner.”
“Oh reallies?” Marisa stepped up to me, wearing her trademark grin. “You means return in the way I think you doos?”
I shook my head. “I’m scared, Marisa. Nothing like this has ever happened to Gensokyo before. That it could happen terrifies me. That it did happen makes it worse. The things I saw last night were icing on the cake.”
“I knows,” she said, her voice calm. Sympathetic. It’s rare to hear her like that.
“So what do we do?” I looked back up to the sky. “Go find the person causing this and probably get killed? Or wait here and—”
“And definitely get killeds,” she said. “A longer, slower deaths. Much worse knowings you could haves done something about its.”
“That’s a no brainier, huh?”
“Kind of, yeahs.”
Marisa took my hand in hers. The warmth of her palm felt good on mine.
“Listens,” she said. “Told you to be honests last nights. You don’t care about moneys. You care about Gensokyos. You love the places and the peoples who live heres. So if you’re honest, you gotta admits that you want to helps. But fear stops you from tryings.”
That was too much. I let the knife go. It rang on the cobblestones a high pitched twingwang sound, as if indignant at being dropped. I clapped my hands over my eyes, hiding a flood of tears.
Marisa hugged me. Once I was done with my self-centered sobbing, I hugged her back.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“Nahs,” she said. “Don’t apologize for being scareds. Let’s just… ums. What’s that old words? Ganbarimasu?”
I laughed. “Yeah. We’ll do our best.”
Forward to Chapter Three
Back to Chapter One
Return to Chapter Index