Eiki really loves chocolate pudding. Trying to bribe her with it is useless, though.
A chill breeze swept Reimu's hair as she strode up the familiar winding path, her beloved yin-yang orbs trailing lazily behind her. Her three other charges were sullen, their eyes downcast as they clambered up weathered stone stairs and stepped longingly over delicious patches of andesite. And fell flat on their faces.
"Can't you untie just one of us? I mean, this is madness!" protested Kuichiko, while Hakiba whimpered and tried to wipe her bloodied nose on her shoulder. "You're making this much harder than it needs to be. I mean, you're going to seal us anyway-"
"Shut up. We need to keep moving," said Reimu, without so much as a glance backwards.
"We cannot climb a bloody mountain with out hands tied up!" insisted Kuichiko.
"Then fly," said Reimu wearily.
Hakiba groaned. "Ohhh, why did't I thig ob dat?!"
She and her sisters took to the air. Realising what a good idea she'd struck upon, Reimu did likewise.
A few minutes' flight brought them to what remained of the Hakurei Shrine. Reimu alighted in the shallow square hole that was all that remained of the courtyard and tried to pretend she hadn't almost tripped over half a flagstone.
"Okay. Right. Hakiba, if you would care to take a seat on, um..." Reimu contemplated the ruin of her shrine. "...On the donation box. It should take your weight."
Hakiba seated herself, glaring at Reimu all the while. Reimu stepped solemnly in front of her, her gohei at the ready. She took a deep breath.
"Well, get on with it. There's no way you can do a better seal than that straw hat lady did last time," Hakiba prompted.
"I wouldn't be so sure. This is one of the most powerful seals in existence, if not THE most," said Reimu darkly. She thrust her gohei into the air, letting golden rays of sunlight set the tassels aglow. Reimu's hands trembled as the energy flowed into her. She thrust the gohei into Hakiba's heart.
Hakiba let out a strangled gasp. Her hands flew to her chest. Her mouth opened and shut as she tried to scream, but no sound would come. Slowly, she toppled backwards and fell to the ground, draped like a doily over the wooden box.
Kuichiko screamed with rage. Naruwaru just generally screamed. As one, they lunged towards Reimu and crashed face-first into a Duplex Barrier.
"What the Hell are you playing at?! That was no seal! You killed her!" roared Kuichiko. Lightning flowed from her skin to tear at the barrier while Naruwaru stabbed it repeatedly with her tusk, neither of which had any effect.
"If I'd told you I was going to exterminate you, you'd have escaped," said Reimu matter-of-factly. "Marisa, Keine and Alice are watching the mountain, so don't try anything."
"Don't try anything?! You expect us to just die?! That's never going to happen! I'd rather-" Naruwaru caught herself before she said 'die' out of habit. "I'd rather, um, eat my own spleen!"
"Well, you don't have that option. If you don't let me kill you, my friends and I will do it the messy, complicated way," Reimu reasoned. "Still, it's up to you."
The lighning and the barrier winked out. Kuichiko and Naruwaru shared a long look.
"Oh, please, please don't kill me! Please!" Naruwaru fell sobbing to the ground in front of Reimu. "I'm to young to die! I never lived! You can't do this to me, Reimu! I don't want to die! I don't want to! Please!"
Kuichiko groaned. "Must you always show me up?"
"I DON'T WANNA DIE!" sobbed Naruwaru.
"...Fine. Look, Reimu, what right have you to decide our fate? Are we mere animals to be slaughtered at your lightest whim, for nothing more than seeking our favourite food as everybody does?" said Kuichiko, readying herself for an epic rant. "Our lives are not your playthings-"
Reimu held up a hand. "Let me just stop you there. When you invaded Kappa Valley and the Human Village, did you ever think about whether the people there wanted to die?"
"I'll take that as a no." Without so much as a twich to betray her intentions, Reimu drove her gohei through Kuichiko's heart.
Kuichiko let out a pained grunt and lurched forwards, screaming without noise, her teeth bared as if to bite Reimu's nose off. Trembling, she turned to look at Naruwaru one last time. A tear rolled down her cheek. "N-Naru, I... love..." Her eyes rolled back in her skull. She fell, almost pulling Reimu's gohei out of her hand in the process.
Naruwaru screamed again, her face distorted with fear and grief. She fell to the ground, tears streaming down her cheeks to pool around the small, deep hole she'd made with her tusk. "Kuichiko, Hakiba... I love you both so, so much." Her whole body was trembling, her face a waterfall of tears. "I swear, on my honour as a daughter of the Agohaka dynasty, I will avenge you. I'll tear Gensokyo apart with my bare hands, then I'll come and break you out of Heaven."
"Um, there's very little chance-" began Reimu, but she was cut off by a sudden sharp tremor. The ground beneath her feet was shaking hard. Balefire flowed over Naruwaru's limbs, singeing the spell-tags that bound her. Reimu's eyes widened. She leapt forwards, bringing her gohei down on Naruwaru with all her strength.
It never connected. A blast of cyan-hot balefire sent Reimu sprawling on the former flagstones, flailing wildly to put herself out. Naruwaru rose to her feet in a shower of burning golden paper, wisps of divine power fluttering away in the breeze. Reimu sighed. Maybe she should've just given them a jolly good telling-off over a nice, hot bowl of tea.
"I'll get you, Reimu. Someday, I will murder you and all your friends and feast on your hearts!" roared Naruwaru. Streams of fire swirled around her as she rose into the air. "You may have won this day, but-"
"Magicannon: FINAL MASTER SPARK!"
By the time the laser had finished, there was nothing left of Naruwaru but a huge charred crater and a slender, twisted tusk.
"She may have won this day, but magicannon: Final Master Spark. Great timing, me!" grinned Marisa. Her cheeks reddened. "Aww, shucks, Marisa... I mean, I have been practising my comic timing these past few days..."
All was calm in Kappa Valley.
"Don't you dare lie to me, you traitor! I know those solar panels are your doing!"
"Well, so what if they are?! Unlike you, I happen to know about a thing called 'projected growth', and your geothermal generator is never going to cut it!"
"What, we're only allowed one geothermal generator?! As soon as we start running out of electricity, I'll build ten more! Before breakfast!"
Several kappas looked up from their work as Shigeru Kawashiro came storming along the mostly-paved riverbank, his sister in hot pursuit. It was just under a month since Kappa Valley had heard the news, and already their two finest engineers were at each other's throats. That had to be a record; normally they'd be trying to kill each other in less than a week.
"Nitori, your brain must be made of Swiss cheese if you think geothermal power is the way forwards. There's a massive fusion reactor right up there in the sky! All we need to do is make a whole bunch of photovoltaic cells, and the energy is ours for the taking!" ranted Shigeru, almost tripping over a cucumber-monitor robot. His leg had mostly grown back, but the clunky aluminium foot still made it hard to navigate.
"For the last time, we cannot afford solar panels! You might not have noticed, lazing around in your swanky new mecha-pilot's penthouse, but our mineral reserves are gone. No osmium, no orichalcum, no niobium, no beryllium, no titanium, no mithril, no cobalt, no palladium, no tungsten, no demonite, and it'll be months before the hihi'irokane blooms again. We're down to our last bucket of copper, and I'm not gonna let you waste our supplies!" bellowed Nitori.
Shigeru dove into the river, ignoring her completely. Nitori dove after him with a scream of rage, grabbed his intact foot and yanked on it with all her might.
"Aaaargh! You stupid, self-righteous-! I'll show you!" Shigeru lashed out with his artificial foot. A twelve-kilogramme lump of metal smashed into Nitori's face. Clouds of pink blood bloomed from her nose, polluting the river a mere three days after it had been declared fit to drink from.
"Never knew I had such a strong blood-flow to the nose," muttered Nitori. "Look, Shigeru, there's only one way to settle this."
"Agreed. Five cards each, first to go 'pichuuu~n' three times loses."
"You got it!"
Marisa was surrounded by tents as she followed Keine's winding steps through the small, gravelly field. In the weeks since the village had been destroyed, the field, so long considered unfit for planting, had found a new lease of life as a refugee camp. Most of the now-homeless villagers were silent as they passed, apart from one small child who eagerly tried to show Mr Kirisame her seashell collection.
"Not bad," he commented. "Reimu, you like seashells, don't you?"
"Yeah, when there are fresh oysters in them."
The Incident-Resolvers and shopkeeper filed past the small stretch of newly-built palisade at the border of the village, then over the rickety plank bridge that stood in for North Chicken Tempura Street. A few houses were being raised from the rubble-strewn crater on stilts; even as they walked past, a man was roping his shack to the bridge to keep it from sinking as the rain gathered down below.
"It is starting to feel villagey, isn't it?" Keine commented. "I mean, people are letting their children play outside in the camp, having their lunch in the square, even getting drunk and sleeping in the rubble like they did before... The youkaiophobes are up in arms over pretty much everything... Ruined or not, this is still our home." Keine slipped in the mud and almost went flying head-first into pile of logs. "Th-then again, there's still quite a way to go..."
"Yeah. Quite a way," said Reimu quietly.
Marisa frowned. Reimu had been worrying her lately. It was nothing new for her to turn all dreamy between Incidents, spending all day napping in the sun and watching the clouds drift by, but Reimu hadn't so much as glanced at a cloud since that day.
Marisa nudged Reimu in the ribs. "Hey, Reimu, are you still upset about the Agohakas? Like, is your innocence gone and stuff? Do you wish you could just pretend all youkai were nice, pretend you could always solve problems by talking them out over tea, but you know those days are gone for good?"
"Shut up, Marisa," said Keine dangerously.
"I'm just trying to help her..." muttered Marisa. Noticing the tears welling up in Reimu's eyes, she added, "Oh, no, Reimu, it's not that bad! I mean, most youkai are still nice, deep down inside! This was just an anomaly, y'know?"
"I... I just wish I hadn't had to kill them..." sniffed Reimu. "I thought all the killing was behind us. I invented the spellcard rules so no-one would have to die, and those sisters killed hundreds of people. So I killed them." Reimu sighed. "I'm sorry, I... I never wanted-"
The pounding of feet set the bridge trembling. The Incident-Resolvers and shopkeeper turned as one to see a young man sprinting towards them. His hair was bright yellow and a long naginata was strapped across his back.
"Why, it's Hayato! What's wrong, another spider in the guardhouse?" asked Keine.
"No, it's Taro, his twin brother," the man said patiently. "You're not doing anything important, are you? Only there appears to be an Incident in the town square."
Keine and Mr Kirisame shared a worried look. "Not the Taoists and Buddhists at it again?!" (Ichirin and Futo had come to blows several times over who was the best counsellor.)
"We're going to lunch, then Reimu was going back to her shrine, and then... Rebuilding and stuff, I guess," said Marisa. "What's the Incident, though?"
"Shikigami! Hundreds of servants of evil!" said Taro. "Yoshirou, you'd better hide."
"Hide? Me? The hero of the Swamp of Despair?!" Mr Kirisame drew himself up to his full height.
"Define 'hero'," said Marisa, giving her father a generous helping of side-eye.
"If I hadn't got that splinter out of Sakuya's finger, we'd all be dead now," Mr Kirisame sniffed.
"Shut up! If we don't do something, they'll burn the whole village down! Come quick!" Taro turned on his heel and sprinted off down the bridge.
Reimu watched him disappear round the corner. She turned slowly and carefully back to Keine. "It's probably nothing, right?"
"It's Taro, so, yes. Absolutely nothing. On the offchance that it actually is something, though..."
"You're right," sighed Reimu, unlimbering her gohei.
"Buck up, Reimu, will you? If it's local shikigami we're dealing with, they're bound to know the spellcard rules," said Mr Kirisame encouragingly. "If they're not, we'll shoot them before they can blink, of course."
At the north side of the town square, a handful of villagers were busy cementing the first few cobbles into the soft loam. It had been forced out of Kuichiko the day before the execution; it still smelled a little, but they were used to it by now.
"Doesn't look like there's a vicious gang of vengeful demons tearing the place apart," observed Marisa.
"I don't see why there would be. Most of the youkai work at night, right?" said one of the builders, a portly woman in her thirties. "Honestly, I didn't believe it until I saw it. Youkai must be pretty nice after all."
"Sure we are," said Keine meaningfully. "Don't worry about any vengeful spirits, now. Just Taro overreacting again, you know?"
"Oh, of course." The woman retrieved another stone from the pile beside her and laid it carefully in the ground.
Keine and Mr Kirisame lead the way into the town square, treading carefully around the freshly-laid cobblestones. Marisa stepped on one and fell flat on her face. The usual lunchtime crowds were waiting for their rations outside the large marquee that served as the town hall. All the families with their own groundsheet were spread out through the square while a few brave souls dined in the first few burgeoning houses. A gaggle of laughing children were playing at being shrine maidens. There was no sign of Taro.
"There's probably nothing wrong whatsoever," Keine repeated.
"You know how Taro gets, though..." sighed Mr Kirisame. "If we make a few discreet enquiries-"
"Hey, anyone seen any shikigami?!" called Marisa.
"It might just be Taro overreacting as per usual!" added Reimu, who was a fast learner.
"Give me strength," said Mr Kirisame.
At that moment, Taro came barrelling through the crowd, knocking a couple of people aside with the butt of his spear. "They're holding up the town hall! For Raijin's sake, what took you so long?! Hurry!"
The Incident-Resolvers and the Hero of the Swamp of Despair took off after him, sharing looks of alarm as he kicked a woman out of the way and barged in front of the lunch queue. A pair of colourful women with tails were talking to the elderly man at the window (a hole in the canvas reinforced with sticks), who was handing out the rice and fried pork.
"Chen! And Ran!" cried Marisa.
"Wha-? Marisa?! Reimu?! Other assorted people?!" cried Chen.
"You won't get away with this, you thieves. Taking food from a village on the edge of destruction..." Wisps of energy danced on the blade of Taro's naginata. The ration-doler-outer looked up in alarm. "Unforgiveable! On my honour as a guardian of the Human Village, I will punish you!"
"Whoa, hold on! We're not trying to steal anything!" protested Chen, raising her hands.
"Yes, we thought the free food was for everyone! It was an honest mistake!" said Ran urgently.
"Not only thieves, but liars too. Prepare to meet your graves! Attack Sign: Spear the Heart of the Night!"
"Shut up," said Keine, clonking Taro on the head with a history book. (She never left home without one.) "Vicious, Taro? Practically hundreds? Loitering with intent?! You're a nutjob."
Taro cringed, gingerly feeling his bruised noggin. "I-I was just... I thought they were stealing! It was an honest mistake, all right?"
"Well, certainly. No harm done, right?" said Ran.
"None whatsoever," smiled Chen. "I'm confused, though. Why would you need food rationing? I mean, it's not like there's been any major disasters lately..."
Taro's eyes narrowed. "Are you being insensitive to the plight of my fair village?"
Chen shot her master a nervous look. "Am I?"
"Unforgiveable!" Taro continued. "If you have but an ounce of honour in your shrivelled youkai heart, you will be ready to put some strength behind your words. Meet me outside the gate. We duel for the honour of the village!"
With that, he stormed off in the general direction of the gate. Everyone breathed a heavy sigh of relief, except Chen, who was by now convinced she'd done something wrong.
Noticing Chen's rising discomfort, Marisa stepped in. "You don't need to worry about him, you two. He was right, though; the village was destroyed by Terrafirmavores just a few weeks ago. The food rationing is for anyone left without an income-"
"What?!" gasped Chen. "W-we didn't know! Miss Ran, we've gotta do something! Like, a charity concert or something!"
"Um," said Ran.
"Lady Yukari would never forgive us for not helping! I'll go get Raiko, Benben and Not-Benben. You get Lady Yukari's snack and tell everyone about the concert, okay?" Chen went on.
"Um," repeated Ran, but it was too late. Chen was off like a shot. Ran breathed a deep, heartfelt sigh and launched herself after her.
"Something to look forward to, I suppose," muttered Mr Kirisame.
"Yeah, assuming they actually do it, which is basically never gonna happen. Nothing like a concert, right, Reimu?" smiled Marisa. Reimu said nothing. Marisa sighed.
Keine turned her attention to the doler-outer. "While we're here-"
"Back of the line," he said firmly.
"Great pork," said Marisa approvingly, plonking herself down on the loam while somehow not dropping a single grain of rice.
"It's a masterpiece!" agreed Mr Kirisame, seating himself beside her.
"Couldn't the two of you wait until we found somewhere to sit? Or at least keep your mouths closed while there's food in them?" said Keine archly.
"Shut up," the House of Kirisame said as one.
Reimu took a bite of her unsampled rice. "Not bad, I suppose."
"Not bad? Jeez, Reimu, no need to go overboard with the praise..." said Marisa, a faint look of concern on her face.
Rolling her eyes, Keine set about her own frugal-yet-tasty meal. She was halfway through it when a child's makeshift yin-yang orb ended up in her lap. Keine calmly finished her rice, staring deep into the child's eyes all the while. He ran away in tears.
"My, my, Keine...! Clearly, you have quite the reputation!"
The four, as well as everyone else sitting near them, jumped at the familiar voice of Gensokyo's most famous mob cap wearer.
Keine was the first to get over the shock. She leapt to her feet. "I've got a multitude of bones to pick with you, Yukari. What were you playing at, dumping us in the Swamp of Despair?! You-"
"Saved you from certain death at the hands of the Devourers? You're quite welcome," smiled Yukari. "Really, it's no trouble at all. Where would the Human Village be without you?"
"I... Well, um... That's not the issue at all! You were meant to gap me and Flandre after Reimu!" snapped Keine.
"Reimu handled herself pretty well, I thought." Yukari's shimmering purple gaze alighted on Reimu. "You didn't need any help at all, did you? It was all completely under contr-"
A barrage of spell-tags struck Yukari's chest. She gasped in pain and stumbled backwards.
"I'm not going to play games with you, Yukari. This whole Incident was nothing more than you messing around, wasn't it?" Reimu's glare was strong enough to floor a lesser youkai. "I want the truth. Why did you let the Agohakas free? Why did you gap Keine and Flandre into the Swamp of Despair?"
"I..." For a moment, Yukari seemed almost flustered. "My dear Reimu, I'm almost offended. If I had not gapped my hitbox out of the way, that might have been mildly painful. As it stands, I did not let the Terrafirmavores loose. I had nothing to do with it, and in case the memory escapes you, Reimu, I helped you. I told you they were loose, I told you you needed stop bathing, I even gapped you right to them. I knew precisely what I was doing," she said firmly, raising a hand to ward off the cries of protest which were surely coming. "In fact, I cautioned them against devouring Gensokyo. It is their own fault that they, like so many others, failed to heed my advice. My poor, dear little friends... Anyway, would a spot of gratitude be too much to ask for? Do you honestly believe you had a chance of prevailing without my aid?"
"Yep," said Reimu.
"Well, yeah, I guess..." said Marisa, staring at Reimu in amazement.
Yukari sighed patiently. "Then I should like to know how you planned to discover the identity of the true culprit, Yuuka Kazami."
Nitori took a miserable sip of her soya milk. "I guess it's a draw."
"S'pose so," grunted Shigeru. "Oi, bartender, more sushi over here!"
"Y-yes, Captain!" the bartender squeaked, sprinting back into the kitchen.
Nitori stared at her, then stared rather more fiercely at her own darling brother. "Captain?!"
"Of the Mecha Regiment!" said Shigeru proudly. "Twenty titanium warriors, each one taller than a smallish mountain! Nothing will dare to threaten my limbs- I mean, threaten the valley now."
"Twenty?!" yelped Nitori. "But...! But how?! Our resources-"
"If you must know, Kuichiko unearthed a massive seam of titanium, but she was too full to eat it," said Shigeru. "It's kind of hard to get at, so only Mecha Corps engineers know where it is."
Nitori's eyes narrowed. "Really? On who's authority?"
"Ummmm..." Shigeru cleared his throat. "It depends on how you define 'authority'."
"Oh. That kind," sighed Nitori. "Shigeru, you should really-"
She was interrupted by the bartender arriving with a plate of sushi and a small dish of soy sauce. "Here you are, Captain."
Shigeru's eyes narrowed. "Is that salmon?"
"What do you think I am, a Norwegian?! Take that away!" roared Shigeru, leaping to his feet and upending the tray into the bartender's face. "You stupid, useless piece of working-class offal! Don't you know how to treat your superiors?!"
The bartender ran away in tears.
Shigeru winked. "You've got to know how to deal with-"
A wooden mop-handle struck Shigeru's head with a sharp crack. His eyes rolled back in their sockets as he collapsed slowly into his bowl of lemon tea.
"That takes care of him," said Kyouko, with a satisfied nod.
"I daresay it does," said Nitori shakily. "What are you doing here, though?"
"I'm a captain in the Floor-Mopping Corps!" said Kyouko proudly, pointing to the badge on her collar.
"Floor-Mopping Corps?" said Nitori faintly.
"I started it as an offshoot of the Mecha Regiment! I'm the first and only member!" said Kyouko, glowing with pride. "It was Tsukiko's idea, though. Did you know she's a captain?"
"Of the Mecha Regiment."
"Wait, there's two captains?!"
"No, there are twenty," said Kyouko. "The rule is, if you pick a sunflower from the new titanium mine high on the clifftop, you can be a captain."
"...Oh. Who's in charge, then?"
"I have no idea!" smiled Kyouko.
Nitori put her head in her hands. "Of course you don't." She sighed deeply, and was about to drag Shigeru out of the restaurant and stuff him into a washing machine when something made her pause. "Kyouko... Did you say 'sunflowers'?"
"Um, yes. There's a whole bunch of them growing all around the mine," explained Kyouko. "Apparently, Kuichiko burped while she was facing that particular bit of cliff, and one of the chemicals that was inside her is making lots of sunflowers grow."
"Chemicals?" said Nitori faintly. "These Terrafirmavores really take the biscuit..." With a sigh, she rose to her feet. "Kyouko, can you show me this mine?"
"So you can make sure everyone benefits from it, not just a rich elite?!" cred Kyouko, her eyes shining at the thought of an honourable kappa stateswoman.
"No, I want to pick some sunflowers," admitted Nitori.
"I don't know, Reimu... Yuuka never likes it when we barge in and start asking questions," said Marisa, edging her broomstick closer to the grim-faced shrine maiden. "Fair enough, I do it all the time, but this isn't like you at all!"
"We need to confront Yuuka. Until we've dealt with her, this Incident won't be resolved in the slightest," said Reimu firmly.
"Guess so. I wish Meiling was here, though. Yuuka's always understood her." For the seventeenth time that afternoon, Marisa checked her hakkero; it was, of course, still full. "What's she been doing, anyway?"
A half-hour's flight saw Reimu and Marisa soaring over the rather stumpy ridge of hills that stretched east and west (but mostly east) from Youkai Mountain. As the ground rose beneath them, the forests gave way to grass, then to a vast bowl-shaped valley of radiant yellow.
The two friends glided down into the Garden of the Sun, watched by flocks of curious faries and a couple of sunbathing youkai. A small clearing among the ranks of sunflowers would do for their landing site.
"We don't often visit the northern half of Gensokyo, do we?" Marisa commented, touching down with a rustle of disturbed grass.
"Yes, I hear it's quite boring," said Reimu. "That, or they've got their own Incident-Resolvers who keep everything quiet. Or we're just not meant to see much of it until the next few games." She shrugged. "Anyway, we need to find Yuuka..."
"YO, YUUKA! WE'VE COME TO PLAY!" screamed Marisa.
"I-I brought tea and cake!" Reimu added quickly. "Marisa, for pity's sake, that's the second time you've-"
"What kind of cake?"
The gentle, friendly voice of the Flower Master of the Four Seasons made Reimu jump. Marisa grabbed her hand and squeezed it tightly.
"Orange and almond," said Marisa firmly. "It's orange and almond, right, Reimu?"
"Um, yes." Reimu cleared her throat. "Orange and almond. The tea is my own special blend, though, so I can't guarantee the alcohol content."
Yuuka raised an eyebrow. Reimu and Marisa both flinched. "Alcohol content? But Reimu, it's tea. How can there be alcohol in tea?"
"Um-" began Reimu.
"What worries me more is the plant-based nature of the drink. You did use free-range leaves, right?" said Yuuka sweetly.
Reimu blinked. "Well... They're plants, aren't they? How do you farm free-range tea bushes?"
"By letting them run wild and free in the sunshine." A hard edge crept into Yuuka's voice. "Do you think plants live just so they can be mercilessly slaughtered and devoured by people such as you?"
"Um-" repeated Reimu.
"Then I must punish you." Yuuka's eyes flashed red. The air around her grew warm as she filled with energy. "We will duel. Seven spellcards each, no bombs or defensive magic. We fight to incapacitation. If I win..." Yuuka smiled. "You must allow me to tickle you for up to one hour with thirteen different feathers of my choosing."
Marisa's eyes widened. "But that's a fate worse than death! Reimu, you can't accept it!"
"I accept. If I win, you must explain everything, and no quibbling over what 'explain everything' actually means. Do you accept?" said Reimu solemnly.
"Of course," replied Yuuka.
"Then let's begin." Reimu rose into the air, the yin-yang orbs circling her waist.
"Let's." Yuuka had no way of hiding the sparkle in her eye as she unsheathed her parasol. "Petal Sign: Flower Shooting!"
Fifteen minutes later:
"Aaaghhhh... Everything hurts..." groaned Yuuka. Her clothes were torn and her skin was dotted with spell-tags. "Marisa, I believe there was tea?"
"Here you go." Marisa handed Yuuka a bowl of tea, which she downed in a single gulp.
Yuuka smiled faintly. "Thanks, Marisa. Now, about the cake..."
"Sure." Marisa stuffed a slice of cake into Yuuka's mouth.
"It's pretty good, isn't it?" said Reimu, who was halfway through her own slice.
"Mmflmffmf." Yuuka swallowed noisily. "Yes, it's brilliant. Did you make it?"
"Alice made it," said Reimu. "Anyway, time for your forefeit. Did you free the Agohaka sisters?"
"Yep," said Yuuka matter-of-factly.
Reimu stiffened. "You... You did? And you admit it?"
"HOW COULD YOU?!" roared Marisa, barging past Reimu to grab Yuuka by the scruff of the neck and scream right in her face. "How could ever do such a thing?! DO YOU REALISE WHAT YOU'VE DONE?! They killed hundreds of people! You turned half of Gensokyo into Hell, and for what?! Why?!"
"That sounds like five questions. I shall answer them consecutively," said Yuuka levelly. "With a spade, with a spade, yes I do, for the sunflowers, because I needed some decent compost."
"...Um." Marisa's eyes glazed over as she went back over her rant and cross-referenced it with Yuuka's response. "Compost? You mean like...?!"
"That," confirmed Yuuka. "I will admit that I made a small error in judgement-"
"Small error?! They could've eaten the Garden of the Sun!" snapped Marisa.
A flicker of fear crossed Yuuka's face, but was swiftly quashed by her usual placid terrifyingness. "They'd never do that."
"They won't now. I killed them," Reimu reassured her. "It took about ten of us to defeat them the first time, though. How would you have kept them from eating your sunflowers?"
"None of your business," sniffed Yuuka. "Now, if you don't mind, I'm long overdue for my nap. Good day!" She leapt to her feet and stormed off in the direction of her favourite napping-site.
Reimu and Marisa breathed a deep, heartfelt sigh in perfect harmony.
"Do you see what I have to deal with?" said Reimu heavily. "And you wonder why I'm not cartwheeling around the place, patting fairies on the head and sniffing flowers and stuff." She sighed. "I doubt I'll ever cartwheel again."
Marisa blinked. "Not even at Flandre's birthday party next week?"
Reimu stopped in mid-angst, her eyes widening at the thought of all that delicious ice-cream and chocolate cake. "W-well, um..."
"I get it, you just need some space. Gods know, you deserve it, saving Gensokyo and all that. You can't be miserable forever, though, can you?" Marisa smiled. "Come on, let's go back to the shri-" She winced at the memory of the ruined shrine. "...Uh, back to my place. Or Alice's."
"No, I should go to my shrine. I've been away too long," said Reimu quietly. "Maybe Genjii'll be there..."
"I'm sure he's fine, Reimu," Marisa reassured her, biting down a remark about Genjii lounging on the beach in Acapulco with a dozen or so turtles in bikinis. "I've got a sleeping-bag you can borrow until you get a new shrine. I'll drop it over tonight, okay?"
Reimu took her time as she clambered up the winding path to her shrine, stepping carefully past the familiar slippery rock that had given Tenshi a broken ankle some two years past. (She hadn't really minded; apparently it was a treat to get your first broken limb.) The rice and pork still filled her stomach with warm comfort. There were sure to be more Incidents, but right now, all she wanted to do was curl up in bed, put everything behind her and dream about flower-viewing.
She could learn, though. If anyone else tried to eat Gensokyo, they'd have her to answer to. And Aya. Making sure Aya was on the right side would be essential.
Reimu picked up her feet and strode up the last shallow slope before the torii. She smiled. "Don't worry, Gensokyo, no-one's eating you on my watch."
Reimu yelped, then clamped her hands over her mouth and tried to pretend nothing had happened. After a few seconds, she carefully removed them. "Wh-who's there?!"
"Well, me, of course!" said Cirno, stepping out from behind a large bush. "You really are jumpy, aren't you?"
"Well, I've just got back from the Garden of the Sun... What're you doing here, though?" asked Reimu, endeavouring to look in-control.
"Rebuilding your shrine!" grinned Cirno.
"Oh, right," said Reimu, relieved. "Wait... What?! I- I mean- WHAT?!" She pushed past the chilly fairy, ran through the torii, screeched to a halt, walked sheepishly back to the gate, bowed deeply, resumed running and then screeched to a second halt. Her jaw fell almost as far as her voicebox. "Cirno... What've you done?!"
"What've we done, I think you mean," said Rumia petulantly, stepping out from the silvery-blue sliding door at the front of the all-new Hakurei Shrine. The walls, the roof, the floor, even the flagstones beneath her feet were pure ice.
"Rumia?! W-what is this?! My... My shrine...! You- you- you- you-! It- it's made of ice!" Reimu stepped slowly forwards as if in a dream. Hardly daring to believe her eyes, she reached out and touched the door. It was as cool and smooth as, well, ice, yet neither damp nor slippery. "Rumia, Cirno, how did you ever do it?!"
Cirno took a deep breath. "The journey I undertook to unlock my true powers was both perilous and-"
Ignoring her, Reimu eased herself into the shrine, still half-afraid it would melt as soon as it felt her touch. An icy tatami mat crunched beneath her feet. She stared in amazement at the carved ice altar at the back of the room, the ice kotatsu sitting pretty in front of her, the ice shelves, the ice chandelier hung with glowing icicles...
"Cirno... Rumia..." breathed Reimu. "Um, thank you?"
"Oh, it was nothing! I mean, I am the Strongest," said Cirno, trying and failing to look humble.
"It wasn't just us, though. The whole gang was-"
The clumping of heavy boots followed by the thump of forehead upon low-hanging doorframe heralded a half-dragon in a dark green dress. "Aargh, stupid, bloody doorframe- Oh, Reimu! I-I had no idea you were coming!"
Reimu gasped. "Meiling?! All this time, you've been building me a new shrine?!"
"Uh, yeah. We all did," said Meiling, gently rubbing her bruised forehead. "Well, it wasn't the only thing we did. There was a Devourer loose in the mansion. It wasn't pretty," explained Meiling. "Anyway, do you want some tea? Flandre's brewing some in the parlour-"
"Yeah. In your new house," said Meiling blithely. "You had quite a lot of outbuildings before they got eaten, so Remilia thought we should sort of combine them all, make them into one big house."
"Yeah! The Red-and-White Angel Mansion!" said Flandre, bursting in through the side door. "Well, not really a mansion, more like a... Um..."
"Boysion?" offered Rumia.
"Womansion?" offered Meiling.
"No, no..." Flandre frowned. "That's a good point, actually. We're animistic, right? So if everything has a spirit, do all the spirits have genders and stuff?"
Meiling blinked. "I have no idea. Anyway, the tea should be-"
"Oh, my days, I forgot!" yelped Flandre, zipping out of the shrine. Anticipating an influx of hot steam, Cirno planted herself firmly under the freezing-cold kotatsu. She shut her eyes and breathed a sigh of ecstasy.
"Eheh..." Meiling smiled nervously. "So, want to see your new house before it gets blown up?"
Reimu's eyes were as wide as they could ever hope to go. Her mouth opened and shut without sound.
Meiling frowned. "Reimu? You okay?"
"I...! I LOVE YOU! I want to marry you and have your babies!" gushed Reimu, throwing herself into Meiling's arms. "Oh, thank you, thank you! My own town-house! And all I had to do was save Gensokyo from the forces of evil several times! This is the happiest day of my life! Thank you so, so much!"
"Um," said Meiling.
"You can't possibly know how much this means to me, Meiling. I didn't think any of you cared," sniffled Reimu. "Now I know you care. I feel so... So loved!"
"Oh, Reimu, of course we love you!" said Rumia, hugging her warmly from behind.
Meiling's eyebrows rose. "Since when did you-"
The words were knocked clean out of her mouth by a deafening explosion that shook the entire mountain. Remilia's voice came echoing in, "Flandre, you idiot! How could you think of microwaving tea?!"
Reimu sighed and set about untangling herself from her friends. In the distance, over the sounds of Flandre sobbing and Remilia panicking, she could just about hear Sakuya cleaning up and Patchouli telling everyone to keep quiet. Cirno was industriously stripping off her clothes and pressing herself to the coldest patch of floor, a delirious smile plastered over her face. No doubt she'd be having ice-cream for dinner. By now, Marisa would be raising brick walls by magic or arguing with her father over which way up doors were meant to go. Aya would probably be writing tomorrow's Bunbunmaru, Nitori and her brother would be laying down a huge strip of bird-lime for her, and if she knew Genjii, he'd either be having an epic duel with Konngara or lounging around with a dozen lady turtles in thigh-boots. A fond smile tugged on the corners of her mouth. "Well, who wants some tea made the proper way?"
The earthquake was growing stronger by the second. It reverberated through Reimu's body like the rumbling snores of some ancient beast that was about to wake up and most likely start eating people. All around her, her friends were casting nervous looks at the ground, checking their spellcards and just generally having no idea what to do.
"So, giant worms..." said Reimu, rising unsteadily to her feet. "Worms. Giant. We know they're likely to come from the ground, and presumably eat solid rock..."
"We can fly, though, can't we? We could bombard them from the air without risking a pitched battle," offered Patchouli.
"Or freeze time and kill them at our leisure," suggested Sakuya.
"Good thinking. Sakuya, you freeze time as soon as-"
A violent tremor sent Reimu sprawling on top of Sakuya.
"The Shrine Maiden of Paradise, ladies and gentlemen," giggled Marisa. "Is this a good time to mention I brought potions?"
"Proper ones?" said Reimu dubiously.
"I made them myself!" said Marisa proudly.
"That's a no, then."
Marisa pouted. "You really need to have some faith in me, Reimu." She reached into her pocket and retrieved a small glass bottle half-filled with thick, bright-red liquid, which she drank in one gulp. Strength flowed back into her limbs as the static charge left her. "Ahhh, that hit the spot. I've got invisibility potions, too! Want one?"
Marisa lobbed another healing potion and a small vial of greyish-purple liquid into Reimu's hands. "It might not be shock-proof, so be careful." She turned to Meiling. "Can you stand up?"
Meiling rose laboriously to her feet and accepted her vials. "Yeah, just about."
"Awesome. Keine, think fast!"
A bottle of healing potion bonked the unconscious Keine on the forehead.
"Maybe I should do it," offered Flandre, retrieving the bottle of potion. Scowling with concentration, she lowered it to Keine's lips and poured it down her gullet.
Keine's eyelids fluttered gently apart. "Whuh-? F-Flandre Scarlet?! Where am I?! What happened?!"
"I don't know. Reimu, what happened?" asked Flandre.
"Terrafirmavores," replied Reimu, forcing down a fearsome belch as the potion met her digestive system.
"Oh." A few memories resurfaced. Keine's eyes widened with horror. "The village! What happened?! Did anyone get hurt?!"
"Everyone got out safely," Reimu reassured her. "The Agohakas escaped, though, and-"
Reimu, Keine and several other people turned to see a dozen or so humans loitering sheepishly beside the bakery, brandishing makeshift staves, crossbows and the occasional firearm.
"Is it safe yet? I mean, we saw you drive the toothy youkai away," said a young woman with a pitchfork and a dangerous-looking scarf. "We'd've loved to have helped out, but, um, Hayato was worried we might get in the way..."
Reimu gave her a withering look. "If you call yourself an Incident-Resolver, you have to-"
"The thing is, there are giant worms coming," Keine interrupted. "Sure, I could've used some help, but that's in the past. If you want to live-"
"Grow a backbone and help us fight them!" snapped Reimu. "Those who can fly, take to the air! Sakuya, get ready to-"
The earth in front of her tore open with an almighty roar. A set of circular jaws as wide as a horse burst out of the ground, arcing over Reimu's head. A moist, wrinkly, grey-brown body rumbled past her, showering her with mud and assaulting her nostrils with a soggy, earthy smell. Reimu fell back, dimly aware of the worm's jaws smashing through the ground behind her as she landed heavily on her bottom. Screams rang in her ears. The courthouse turned to splinters as another Devourer poured out of the ground and aimed its ludicrous jaws straight at her. Two beady little eyes sat at what might as well have been the top of its mouth.
Reimu raised her gohei. "Divine Arts: Omnidirectional Dragon-Slaying Circle!"
A cloud of spell-tags battered the Devourer, making it screech with pain. It lunged towards Reimu.
Marisa and Meiling cast a barrage of stars and petals. The Devourer writhed and screeched, shielding its eyes with its tail as the bullets peppered its skin, only to rush forwards with double the fury.
Reimu flashed into the sky, letting the Devourer's jaws close around empty air just in time for it to crash nose-first into the ground. It reeled back in agony, leaving a deep crater full of cracked cobbles and broken teeth.
"All right! Finish him, Reimu!" suggested Marisa, punching the air.
Reimu's power poured into the yin-yang orbs, flowing easily now that she (and the orbs) had got a good warm-up. "Spirit Sign: Fantasy Seal!"
The worm took an orb to the neck with little trouble, but the subsequent three orbs in the ribcage (if a worm could really be said to have such a thing) were enough to send it sprawling between the half-eaten houses.
"Marisa, how did you know the worm was a 'him'?" asked Reimu.
"Um," said Marisa.
The Devourer let out a roar. A mighty twitch of its bruised torso turned one house into rubble. Two more Devourers rose from the ground either side of it with cracking, tearing rumbles that shook the town square.
Reimu's eyes narrowed. "Flandre, Marisa, take to the air. Keine, I want you-"
"Sure, I'll fight alongside you," said Keine firmly. "Sakuya, if you wouldn't mind-"
"I'll look after anyone who can't fly. Patchouli, might I suggest-"
"That Flandre stay on the ground with you and obliterate any worm which looks close to eating somebody?"
"Sure thing," said Flandre brightly. "Meiling, could you maybe-"
"SHUT UP!" bellowed Reimu. All around them, more and more Devourers were bursting out of the ground. The villagers clung onto one-another in terror, apart from one middle-aged man with a blunderbuss, who was clinging onto the blunderbuss. "Less talking, more worm extermination, all right?"
As one, the Devourers pounced, and Reimu was suddenly alone in a maelstrom of noise and dust and huge, writhing sausages of pure muscle. The Devourers surged through the air like avalanches, barely flinching as Reimu bombarded them with spell-tags. A piercing scream and a faint "Sakuya! Sakuya, speak to me!" caught her attention.
"Don't worry, Reimu, I got her! Just shoot the worms!" Marisa plucked the last healing potion from her pocket, flashed a two-fingered salute and and flung herself at the maid.
Two Devourers were circling Reimu like vipers poised to strike, wheeling their heavy bodies through the air with impossible grace. "Um, Keine, do something?"
"Okay. Spiritual Birth: First Pyramid!"
A spread of small blue bullets got the second Devourer's attention. Three colossal balls of energy sent it sprawling along the high street.
"Spirit Sign: Fantasy Seal: Spread!"
The yin-yang orbs tore through the other worm's midsection. The Devourer howled in pain as its tail fell to the ground in a shower of blood and badly-digested danmaku. Its front end dove into one of the gaping holes that pockmarked the town square, watched by another, rather worried worm.
Reimu breathed a sigh of relief. If a Devourer was vulnerable to being cut in half, this wasn't going to be half as bad as she'd thought. She glanced down at the village: Devourers were weaving in and out of their tunnels, ploughing through buildings, stuffing themselves with everything that couldn't get away. A cacophony of screams, battle-cries, spellcard names and explosions rose into the air. The battle seemed pretty even so far. Time to tip the balance.
Reimu plucked a spellcard from her pocket and took aim at a random Devourer. "Divine Spirit: Fantasy Seal: Blink!"
Reimu launched herself at the Devourer. At that moment, Keine's back garden split open as another worm poured out into the sky. Bones trailed from its midsection. Before Reimu's eyes, a new tail was knitting itself onto the bisected Devourer even as the worm launched itself towards her. Reimu grit her teeth. It was going to be half as bad as she'd thought.
"M-my leg..." Sakuya's eyes were glazing over, her face lined with pain.
"It'll be fine, I promise! It's barely even a scratch!" said Meiling desperately, not once looking up from the strips of green tank top that kept Sakuya's life from pouring out onto the ground. "Marisa, don't touch her-"
Marisa poured the healing potion down Sakuya's gullet. Sakuya coughed and spluttered as the deep gash running from her thigh to her knee started to close.
Patchouli glanced over from the two Devourers she was peppering with fireballs. A terrified village guard clung desperately to the larger one's lips as its tongue tried to shove her down its throat. "Is it going well, you two?"
"I... I don't know!" Meiling took Marisa's arm in a worryingly firm grip. "Is it, Marisa? Is it going well?!"
"If you wanna keep that hand, you'd better take it off me," Marisa reassured her.
Meiling's grip tightened. "If anything happens to Sakuya-"
"Marisa, that potion was amazing! Thank you!" gushed Sakuya. "I feel on top of the world! Just show me a Devourer..."
Several Devourers burst out of the ground and came charging towards the terrified villagers.
"All right, feud over..." sighed Meiling. "Colourful Sign: Chaotic Light Dance!"
The whole group unleashed their strongest spellcards. A few Devourers dove underground with their tails between their... tails, while the rest ploughed through the hail of bullets.
"Th-they're unstoppable..." a young woman whimpered.
"I don't know the meaning of that word," scoffed Mariss. "Anyone who's not an Incident-Resolver, get down! Magicannon: FINAL MASTER SPARK!"
"Dream Sign: Bullet Between the Eyes!"
An almighty ray of light blazed through two Devourers. A third fell with a scream of agony as its eyes exploded into goo.
"Gods, what kind of spell was that?!" gasped Marisa.
"My own invention," the blond-haired man said modestly. "A shopkeeper can't be without protection, can he?"
"Guess not." For the first time since the battle had begun, Marisa took a moment to look at the shortish man fighting beside her. There was something vaguely familiar about him. Very familiar. "Wait... Dad?!"
"Marisa?! What are you doing here?!"
"Well, uh, defending the Human Village..."
Mr Kirisame snorted. "How typical of you. You're only doing this because you value every human life and you want to keep us safe from evil, even if it means your death. Oh, yes, I can see right through bratty witches like you!"
"Well, don't expect me to risk my neck dragging you out of some giant worm's stomach!"
The ground beneath Mr Kirisame's feet crumbled like chalk. He fell with a strangled yelp into the emerging mouth.
Marisa sighed. "Well, you know me and my promises. Oi, ugly, come and get me! I'm delicious!"
Meiling's eyes widened. "Marisa, what are you doing?!"
"I value every life! He said it, not me!" shouted Marisa, diving headlong into the Devourer.
"She's lost it," sighed Meiling.
"Dream Land: Super Duplex Barrier!"
The Devourer's mouth splayed open as it crashed against a shimmering wall of blue light. Waves of spell-tags tore into the worm.
"Lævateinn, I summon thee!" declared Flandre. A flaming red sword materialised in her hand. The young vampire flashed towards the Devourer, thrust her sword into its tail and unseamed it from the nave to the chops until she hit the barrier.
"Oww..." whimpered Flandre, rubbing her flattened nose.
The two halves of the Devourer fell limply to the ground, giving Reimu a far better view of its innards than she had ever wanted, and Flandre just as good a view as she'd always dreamed of. It seemed to be nothing but a stomach wrapped in muscle, with plenty of teeth at the business end.
"Well, at least now we know we can kill them," said Reimu.
The two halves began to tremble. Fresh muscle and stomach lining began to grow, followed by a coating of wrinkly grey-brown skin. Two brand-new Devourers glared up at them.
"You're kidding me!" wailed Reimu.
"Just leave it to me," said Flandre confidently. She reached out to one of the new Devourers until she found the core of its being and drew it into her hand. Gritting her teeth with effort, Flandre clenched her fist. The Devourer was promptly consumed by vivid red fire.
The other Devourer stared in horror as its twin went 'kyuu'. It leapt into the air with a scream of rage, its eyes fixed on Flandre. Or rather, its eye.
"Hey, it's only got one eye! What happened?!" gasped Flandre.
Reimu's brow furrowed. "When you cut the original Devourer in half, did you damage its eyes?"
"Ummm... No. I think I cut between them."
"You did, did you? Hmmm..." Reimu took a moment to aim and threw a single spell-tag. It hit the Devourer's eye with a terrible splat, sending a shower of ocular goo through the sky. At once the Devourer was stricken, its body writhing in agony as its mouth opened and closed without sound. Slowly but surely it fell.
Reimu stared for a moment, then whooped with joy. "That's it! Flandre, you're a genius! Hey, Keine, you've got to aim for the eyes!"
A gigantic tooth slashed Meiling's arm as another Devourer surfaced beside her, sending her flying sideways. Biting down a scream of pain, she rolled onto her feet (which isn't too hard when you can fly) and raised a spellcard. "Illusion Sign: Imaginary Flower Dream Vine!"
Waves of blue bullets battered the Devourer, pushing it slowly towards Sakuya. Sakuya responded with a handful of knives, real knives this time, which embedded themselves in the worm's torso. Screeching with pain, it dove into the nearest hole.
There was no respite, though, as yet another bloody Devourer was ploughing towards them. Meiling groaned. "Can any of you humans handle this one?"
"Well, um..." said Hayato, toying nervously with his naginata.
"HURRY, MEILING, PROP IT OPEN! I'M EITHER GONNA SUFFOCATE OR MY ARMS ARE GONNA DROP OFF!"
"Who?! What?!" There was no mistaking that voice, nor, now that Meiling thought of it, the Devourer it was echoing out of. Meiling ran to the Devourer's head, grabbed a tooth in each hand and wrenched its mouth open. Marisa burst out, covered in soil and and saliva and gasping for air, a slightly acid-burned Mr Kirisame in tow. The Devourer gave a mighty heave and coughed with all its might, sending the three sprawling on the ground.
"I... I'm alive?" said Mr Kirisame blearily. "I'm alive! YES! Gensokyo's second-hand shop industry is safe!"
"I'm glad," sighed Marisa, her face warming as tears of relief began to flow. "I couldn't let you die. I... I'm mildly fond of you, Daddy."
Mr Kirisame's eyes bulged. "You...! What, REALLY?! M-mildly fond?!"
"Of course," sobbed Marisa. "I used to think I hated you, but... I-I saw what happened to Kappa Valley, all those poor kappas horribly murdered, and, and... I realised how much you meant to me. If-if you were to die, I'd be slightly disappointed."
Mr Kirisame's face fell. "Only slightly?"
Meiling cleared her throat. "Um, hello? Giant worms attacking?"
True to her words, four Devourers were charging across the ravaged town square towards them.
"The eyes, people, aim for the eyes! That's their weak spot!" Reimu's voice cut through the terrible cacophony around them.
"What, really?!" cried Marisa.
"Makes sense to me," muttered Mr Kirisame.
Well, it couldn't hurt to try. Marisa took aim and fired a shot into each of the biggest Devourer's eyes. They exploded in the usual disgusting fashion.
"It may never wash out," sighed Sakuya, shifting slightly as the Devourer fell to the ground beside her. She casually flicked a knife into another worm's eyes, killing it instantly and messily.
"It's a fairly pathetic weak spot, isn't it? The eyes aren't difficult to hit," said Patchouli, killing a third Devourer with ease. "Still, we can't exactly complain..."
"Nope," agreed Meiling, killing the fourth Devourer. "If anything, this is too easy!"
A dozen Devourers burst out of the ground, a handful arcing up over Reimu, Flandre and Keine while the rest ploughed in through the square.
"You just had to say it, didn't you?" sighed Marisa.
Flandre screamed as a Devourer chomped down on her legs. Two more ploughed past Meiling and Patchouli to share a terrified villager, his spear jabbing uselessly against their wrinkled skin as they split him into two fair portions. Another worm came down on Marisa from the sky, biting her broomstick in half before she could blink. All around her, the Human Village was collapsing in on itself. An unending rumble rose into the air as the once-solid ground upon which the village had been built turned inexorably to crumbling earth.
"Aaargh!" wailed Mr Kirisame, as the ground gave way beneath his feet. Again.
"No..." breathed Marisa. "No! Not now! Not after all we've been through!"
"We've rebuilt it before! Don't give up!" roared Keine, dodging past one Devourer to shoot another in the eyes. A third Devourer snapped at her dress, only to take a Fantasy Seal to the face.
"If you ever need a plumber or a water-purifier, I'm here for you," said Marisa fiercely. She grasped her father's flailing arm and forced herself up into the air, her weak flight-muscles straining to hold them both afloat. "Dad, watch our back, okay?"
"Okay," said Mr Kirisame numbly. "But, um, when you say 'back'-"
A Devourer wheeled past them, aiming for Patchouli.
"Watch anything!" snapped Marisa. "And shoot it in the eyes!"
"Well, that's what I was going to do!" snapped Mr Kirisame. "Do you think I don't know how to kill giant worms?!"
"Of course you don't! None of us do! We're just making it up as we-"
A thick, muscular tail slammed into her stomach, knocking the wind clean out of her. Marisa plunged towards the shredded mass of cobblestones that was once the town square, screaming without sound. Where was Dad? Where was Reimu? Where was-
"No! NO! Marisa, don't you dare fall to your death!" screamed Reimu. "Flandre, for pity's sake, you have the power to destroy anything! Use it! Keine, stop messing about and-"
"Don't worry. They're quite safe."
The Incident-Resolvers turned at once to see a familiar face, framed by silky blonde hair and a pale pink mob cap.
"Yukari! You've got some nerve, showing yourself now of all times!" snapped Reimu. "I hope you're here to do something productive, because otherwise-"
"Oh, Reimu, always so eager for a fight...!" giggled Yukari, fluttering her ornate paper fan. A Devourer gave her a suspicious look, receiving a blast of primordial energy to the face for its troubles. "As we speak, I'm gapping the villagers and all your little friends to the marshes. Marisa and her darling father will live to fight another day, assuming they don't drown. The Devourers will struggle to tunnel through marshland, what with the taste. Speaking of which, Reimu, my nose tells me you've taken my advice..."
"Advice?" said Reimu weakly. All she remembered was being told to stop bathing. "Wait, you're right! Hakiba couldn't eat me because I tasted so bad!"
"Splendid! Now, would you like me to conveniently solve this whole Incident for you?"
"Well, um... Only if it's not too much of a bother," Reimu hedged.
"Nonsense! Nothing's too much of a bother for my dear little shrine maiden!" A gap opened up in front of Reimu. "Don't dawdle, now, Reimu. You can't keep your reporter waiting."
Reimu blinked. "You mean Aya?"
"I wouldn't trust her, Reimu," said Keine warningly. "Remember the Cherry Blossom Incident? The Silent Sinner Incident? Or that one time she wanted a snack in the middle of the night? Besides, you told me she started this whole thing."
"Oh, Kamishirasawhatsit, you wound me!" cried Yukari, feigning severe hurt feelings. "All I did was give Reimu fair warning of the horror that was about to be unleashed, a few short hours after I met my former schoolmates and caught up with them over tea and crumpets. Lots of crumpets."
"I knew it," groaned Reimu. "Yukari, I hope you recognise-"
"Oh, do get moving!"
Before Reimu could blink, Yukari had grabbed her by the collar and was hurling her bodily through the gap. Reimu reached for her gohei, only to find a quartet of yin-yang orbs being hurled into her face as the fabric of reality closed around her.
A small smile of satisfaction crossed Yukari's face as her gap closed. "There we go! Problem solved!"
"And what about us, Yukari?" said Keine dangerously.
"Oh, have some patience, Thingyshirasawhadjamacallit, do!" Yukari chided her. She reached through the fabric of reality and pulled open a wide gap. "There you go, one fine, upstanding gap for you to traverse at your leisure!"
Keine's eyebrows rose. "And what if we don't?"
"Reimu will most likely have to face all three of the Sisters Agohaka alone," replied Yukari. "There will be little you can do to help her, save to hurry over and hope for the best. Do you not think the best thing you can do is to take my gap?"
"Well..." Yukari had her over a barrel, she knew, but Keine would never have made it as a teacher if she didn't know how to deal with people like her. "Yukari, can you tell me something? If you knew this was going to happen, why would you release the Agohakas in the first place?"
"Why, Kariumpunkala, when did I ever say that I released them?" queried Yukari.
"Um... You implied it," said Keine lamely. "Well, Reimu told me you implied it."
"Don't believe everything your hear," said Yukari warningly. "Now, come on, I haven't got all day! Your friends need you!"
Keine looked to Flandre for some support. None came.
"I suppose we don't have a choice," sighed Keine, hitching up her dress and stepping into the gap.
"Yay! I've always wanted to be gapped!" squealed Flandre, leaping headlong into the gap.
"Bon voyage!" Yukari called after them. The gap slowly shut behind them. "Yes indeedy, a breath-taking final battle! I do hope Reimu doesn't get too lonely without all her comrades..."
"What the-?! Where are we?!"
"I'm alive! I'm alive! Oh, Kanako be praised!"
"The worms! They're gone!"
"I'm bleeding to death! I'm bleeding to death! Please, Kanako, I promise I won't ever say your big circle of rope looks stupid again!"
By and large, the villagers established that the worms were gone, the village was gone, and they seemed to be in some sort of marshland. Most of them had landed feet-first, allowing the bog to get a firm grip before they knew what was happening.
"Why?" Mr Kirisame demanded of the universe at large. "Why? Why me? Why this particular bog? Why now? And more to the point, why?!"
"Speak for yourself, Dad. I almost drowned here a couple of days ago," said Marisa archly. She was perched precariously in a small pine tree, her dress impaled on at least twenty separate branches. "You've got a good point, though. Why?"
"Because Yukari," said Sakuya, who was standing primly on top of the peat. "Meiling, can you-"
"Change my name to Morecambe Bay Coastguard? Fair enough," sighed Meiling, clambering out of the sucking mire with remarkably little effort. "Anyone drowning?"
Something stirred beneath Sakuya's foot, pushing upwards with sudden force. A head was emerging from the bog, its skin smeared with greyish-brownish-greenish-brown mud, its long hair matted and filthy beyond belief. Sakuya gasped."By all the gods, a mud youkai, and for real this time! Hold on, Meiling, I'll protect you!"
"Hey, don't you think she looks a bit like Mokou?" muttered Marisa. "Same sort of hair-ribbons, same bored look on her face... Same voice saying 'I'm Mokou, you idiot!'... Hey, wait a minute, it's Mokou! Sakuya, hold it!"
"Yes, hold it!" spluttered Mokou, spitting out a few more globules of mud. "For Amaterasu's sake, we've been here for days! Are you lot getting us out or what?!"
Sakuya let out a whimper. "M-Mokou? Not a mud youkai? I feel like such an imbecile..."
"Wait, did you say 'we'? Is someone else in there too?!" cried Mr Kirisame.
"Yeah. Her Royal Loonyness, Princess 'I-Can-Take-Any-Terrafirmavore-Blindfolded' Kaguya Houraisan the Stupid!" declared Mokou. Her eyes grew moist with tears. "Please get her out. I-I couldn't bear the thought of her being-"
"Aiyeeee!" wailed Keine, falling head-first in the bog.
"Yippee! Oh, boy, what a ride!" squealed Flandre, landing on top of Marisa. "Yukari, Yukari, please can we do it again? Pretty please with sugar on?"
Mokou's ears pricked up at the unmistakable voice of her dearest friend. "Hey, is that Keine?!"
"Pain..." groaned Marisa. "Flandre, what in the world?!"
"Yukari gapped us!" explained Flandre.
"Of course," sighed Meling.
Keine's head emerged from the mire with a satisfying pop. She floated unsteadily to dry land. "Any ideas where we are?"
"Keine, I've missed you so much!" cried Mokou, moving to glomp Keine with all her might. The bog intervened, sending her sprawling.
Keine looked about herself in amazement. "Mokou?! Wait, Patchouli?! Meiling?! Sakuya?! But-but where's Reimu and the Terrafirmavores and Remilia and Aya and everyone?! What's Yukari done to us?!"
"It was horrible, Keine. So many days alone with Kaguya... We told each other stories, played I-Spy, sang songs, did each other's hair, had quicksand agaric for dinner every night- I tried to cook them once, but I burned my hands to a crisp- oh, it was too awful for words! There's so much I don't want to tell you!" squealed Mokou.
"Yes, fine, later. Listen, Yukari's betrayed us! Reimu's probably going to die! We need to do something, and fast. Meiling, stop lazing around and dig everyone out of the mud!" ordered Keine.
Although the rain had stopped a while ago, the air felt cold and clammy as Reimu floated out of the gap. She was above a soggy brown field littered with pieces of splintered wood. The Agohakas' back garden.
"Flandre? Keine? Are you coming?"
There was no reply. Reimu's brow furrowed. She glanced over her shoulder just in time to see the rend in the fabric of reality shut with a satisfying "vwoooorp".
"Ohhhh, gods... Yukari, you're a stupid, selfish pranny," sighed Reimu. "But that's a matter for another day, I suppose. I can wait until they-"
A blinding light erupted from the Agohakas' distant mansion, gleaming against the clouds and casting shadows throughout the forest. Reimu's eyes widened. Only Aya's camera could do that. And what about Remilia?! In the chaos of the worm attack, she'd forgotten her completely. One vampire (and maybe a stupid tengu) against three Agohakas. That could never be a good thing.
Reimu suddenly felt drawn to her pocket. She reached inside, her fingers closing around a cool, smooth surface. Marisa, I could kiss you! I won't, though, because I don't want to send you any mixed messages. Reimu downed the potion in a single gulp, retched a couple of times, and launched herself towards the mansion.
"Ayayayayaya!" Aya could feel her feathers standing on end. Lightning tore through the air around her, crackling ever closer as Kuichiko pressed her attack. A hailstorm of teeth shredded her clothes and battered her skin. No matter how many shots she fired, Kuihciko didn't even flinch. "Help! Help! Do something, Remilia!"
An elephant tusk nicked Remilia's ear as it whooshed past her face. She lashed out with a wave of gigantic scarlet comets that trailed glowing red bullets. One comet impaled itself on Naruwaru's tusk. She grunted, took the comet with both hands and hurled it at her enemy. Remilia's eyes widened. Not even Tenshi had tried that before.
Remilia swooped down as the comet roared overhead. Snarling vampirically, she raised Gungnir and aimed it at the Terrafirmavore's face. Naruwaru's muscles tensed. Remilia spun on her heel (even though it wasn't technically touching anything) and catapulted her spear into Kuichiko's heart.
Kuichiko screamed with pain. Naruwaru gasped and screamed with horror. Aya sagged with relief. Remilia stuck her tongue out at Naruwaru, who lunged forwards to rip it out of her mouth. Remilia quickly retracted her tongue, readying a spread of shimmering crimson daggers.
"Good team effort, Remilia, old mate! Now let's wrap this up!" shouted Aya, plucking a leaf-shaped fan from her pocket. "Wind God Sign: Thousand-Yard Nose!"
"Bugger that," said Kuichiko, sending several thousand volts coursing through Aya's body. Aya plummeted with a wail and a terrible crash, taking much of the mansion's roof with her.
Remilia's eyes widened. "But-but I just killed you!"
A bolt of lightning tore through Remilia. Her voice turned instantly to a scream of pain as every fibre of her being received an overdose of electrons. She staggered and fell to her knees, which wasn't at all easy in midair, and would have made Kuichiko laugh her head off in any other situation.
The lightning winked out as suddenly as it had begun. Remilia let out a magnificent groan. Although every part of her body was begging for mercy, she had to fight on. For Flandre. For Sakuya, Meiling, Patchouli and all the good people of Gensokyo. And for their delicious blood. With a ferocious snarl, Remilia forced herself up onto her feet, bracing the spear she was no longer holding against the nonexistent ground.
"You're... You're not surrendering? You're not writhing around in agony?!" cried Kuichiko, unable to believe what she was seeing.
"It'll take more than one bolt of lightning to vanquish the Scarlet Devil," said Remilia haughtily. "And I fully intend to get out of the way of the next-"
Naruwaru beaned her upside the head with a whale's jawbone.
Remilia's eyes glazed over. She fell to her knees, then to her face, and drifted slowly downwards like a leaf on the wind.
"Great bonk!" said Kuichiko approvingly. She tossed Gungnir casually into the ground on the other side of the vast crater, where it stuck. "Did you see anyone else coming after us?"
"No-one. We're home free!" rejioiced Naruwaru. "What's our next move, then?"
"First, eat these two idiots. Second, wake Hakiba up and give her the offal."
"You snooze, you lose!" chuckled Naruwaru.
Kuichiko nodded. "Third, we gather up the Devourers, kill anyone who got away, and scour what's left of the village for more supplies. Fourth, we head home, have a rest, eat Rumia and set about planting the fields. Sound good?"
A yin-yang orb smashed into the side of Naruwaru's head, sending her flying across the hillside. Kuichiko's eyes widened. She swung around to face the incoming shrine maiden, only to find herself being battered by glowing spell tags.
Screaming with rage, Kuichiko unleashed a storm of writhing lightning bolts which burned through the spell tags in seconds. Two yin-yang orbs were still coming for her. Kuichiko soared up into the air, lashing out with her foot. An almighty crack sent pain stabbing up through her leg as the yin-yang orb tumbled to earth in a shower of broken flip-flop. As the other orb swerved to intercept her, Kuichiko loosed a volley of football-sized shark teeth, forcing it back.
Kuichiko glanced over at Naruwaru. She was weaving desperately through volleys of persuasion needles, hardly able to fire off a single tooth. The needles were coming from everywhere, with no shrine maiden in sight.
Kuichiko's eyes narrowed. They could handle a stealthy shrine maiden. "Reimu, where the Hell are you?!"
"Right here!" A gohei flashed towards Kuichiko, its tassels glowing like the Sun. Kuichiko yelped and raised a pair of elephant tusks to block.
The gohei sparked as its unseen wielder pushed against the teeth. Kuichiko barely felt it. With a savage, barking laugh, she reached for Reimu's neck, but her fingers closed around thin air. "What-?!"
"Divine Arts: Omnidirectional Dragon-slaying Circle!"
The cry came from behind her. Before she could blink, Kuichiko was sent flying by a wall of pain. "Naruwaru, do someth-"
All four yin-yang orbs slammed into Naruwaru. She fell screaming to the ground.
"Belay that," sighed Kuichiko. "All right, Reimu, you've made your point. Now, for Amaterasu's sake, show yourself! Fight me like a woman!"
"Nope. Dream Sign: Evil-Sealing Circle!"
Kuichiko was ready this time. She fired a barrage of teeth into the oncoming wall of spell-tags, setting the sky ablaze with red and white sparks. "Too bad you just gave away your position. Taste my lightning!"
"Not a chance!" giggled Reimu.
Kuichiko loosed a mighty thunderbolt straight over her shoulder. Reimu screamed in a combination of shock and agony, but mostly agony, as she sparked and flickered back into view.
"Ha! It's true what they say, you know? Lightning solves everything!" Kuichiko laughed triumphantly.
"You're wrong, Kuichiko. I'm still going to defeat you and your idiot sisters if it's the last thing I do," growled Reimu. "You can't hit what you can't see, and you can't see what you can't... see."
"Reimu, we can see you," said Naruwaru patiently.
"What?" Reimu glanced down at her now fully-visible feet. All the blood seemed to drain from her face. "...Oh. Not shock-proof. Right." She laughed nervously. "I don't suppose you'd be willing to have a tea break?"
Kuichiko's only reply was a blast of stegosaurus molars that sent Reimu tumbling head-over-heels into Naruwaru. Muscular arms closed around her legs. A cold, smooth tusk pressed against her calf. Her face was flattened against a weathered kneecap.
"Whatever you do, don't let go of her," ordered Kuichiko. Reimu winced as Naruwaru's grip on her tightened, threatening to flatten her pelvis against her spine. Her situation had gone south faster than she'd ever thought possible. She couldn't see, her gohei was gone, and she was most probably going to be eaten within seconds.
"Should we eat her now?" said Naruwaru predictably.
"No, it pays to be careful. Hold on a minute." There was a crackling roar, a flash of vivid blue and a yelp of pain. "Ah, Hakiba, you're awake! I trust we didn't disturb your sleep by fighting Reimu without you?"
"N-no. Not at all." Hakiba's voice was groggy. "Wait, Reimu?! You- you got her! Wicked!"
"I beg to differ," said Reimu sourly.
"Shut up," suggested Kuichiko. "I don't trust you to let yourself be digested quietly, Reimu. Naruwaru, throw her into the hole."
Reimu gasped. "No, not the hole! Assuming the fall doesn't shatter me to pieces, the Devourers'll eat me for certain!"
"Aww, poor little Reimu..." said Naruwaru mockingly, raising the limp shrine maiden over her shoulder in one hand. Her muscles tensed for a mighty throw.
"Freeze Sign: Perfect Freeze!"
Reimu suddenly felt smooth, frigid ice pressing into her stomach and chest. Naruwaru was encased in a block of ice, frozen as if to shot-put for eternity. Reimu could do nothing but stare, dumbstruck, as she and the ice began to fall.
Kuichiko was equal parts scared and livid. "Reimu, what did you do?!"
"You just leave her to me, big sis. I ate the forge, remember?" said Hakiba confidently, descending towards Reimu. "Don't try anything, now, unless you want molten metal vomited all over y-"
"Freeze Sign: Perfect Freeze!"
Another block of ice thudded against the ground. A fairy with a blue dress and a red ascot emerged from the other sunflower patch, her eyes sparkling.
Reimu breathed a sigh of relief. "Good work, Cirno. You really saved my bacon, even though I could've arrested my fall long before-" Reimu's brain finally caught up with the situation at hand. She almost jumped out of her skin. "Wait, CIRNO?!"
"You... you saved me!"
"YOU?! Saved ME?! But- but- but HOW?! It's not possible!"
"Of course it's not! Doing the impossible is my job!" roared Cirno. "I am no mere icy thing, Reimu. I am the strongest of all fairies! Always fighting, always moving forwards, I am SHINGEKI NO YOUSEI!"
"That means 'the Advancing Fairy'!" Cirno added proudly.
Kuichiko, bit Cirno's head off. "Aargh, cold, cold! Good grief, that's cold!"
"Cirno..." Reimu's heart suddenly felt heavy with grief. After all that build-up, the poor thing hadn't even got to use her second form. "Your brave sacrifice will not be forgotten." Reimu clenched her fists. The yin-yang orbs launched themselves from their hiding-places and flew to her sides. "Kuichiko, this ends now! Migrating Spirit: Marred Fantasy Seal!"
With all her might, she hurled out a ring of shining white bullets as big as buffaloes. Kuichiko kicked one out of the way and summoned a cloud of incisors, which she hurled in all directions. Reimu launched herself through the teeth, twisting her body to let them all pass harmlessly by. Trailing behind her, the yin-yang orbs began to glow.
Kuichiko loosed a hasty blast of lightning. Reimu dove, her hair and enormous bow standing on end as the electricity crackled above her. With a cry of fury, she launched another spread of white bullets, this time catching Kuichiko off-guard and sending her flying. Swarms of purple, white and red spell-tags came flying out from the yin-yang orbs to batter her senseless.
Kuichiko loosed a bolt of lightning from each hand, turning most of the spell-tags to ash. Both crackling rivers of pain were immediately set upon Reimu. Gritting her teeth, she arced over the nearest bolt and shot to one side. Sweat beaded on Kuichiko's face as she struggled to reorientate both thunderbolts at once. Reimu seized her chance. "Spirit Sign: Fantasy Seal!"
The yin-yang orbs blazed out towards Kuichiko. Her eyes widened. Desperately, she broke off her lightning and raised a barrage of molars. She launched them at Reimu just as the first orb crashed into her stomach.
Reimu wheeled away from the teeth. One tore through her vest. Another ripped a gash in her thigh, making her yelp with pain. A smouldering yin-yang orb crossed her field of vision for a second before another tooth forced her to dive. A crackling roar sounded in her ears, just enough warning for her to launch herself up again, the lightning toasting her feet and, judging by the smell, melting the soles of her shoes as it passed.
Kuichiko swore loudly and creatively. "Can't you keep still?!"
"Never!" With a wave of her hand, Reimu lifted the yin-yang orbs off the ground and sent them ahead once more. "Can you shoot lightning from your feet, Kuichiko? I think not. Pragmatic Spirit: Fantasy Flank!"
In a second, the orbs had surrounded Kuichiko. Three orbited her feet while one sat pretty above her head. The Terrafirmavore growled nervously. "I don't know what you're planning, but-"
Reimu waved her hand. The orbs charged inwards. Kuichiko yelped and unleashed all the lightning she could muster, two blindingly bright forked beams that could just about hit all four orbs at once. She pushed out with all her might, screaming with effort. Reimu pushed back, not quite screaming but still making a lot of noise.
The two warriors slowly drifted towards each other, their bodies trembling, their faces slick with sweat. Reimu reached out across the sky, touching the white-hot power of the orbs, the abyss of hunger deep within her foe, the ancient energy that thrummed deep beneath the ground. The orbs blazed in all the colours of the rainbow as they drew upon her strength, as she drew upon the strength of Gensokyo itself. Slowly but surely, the orbs began to close in.
Rage rose in Kuichiko's heart like red-hot lava. The energy blazing through her body redoubled in strength. With one final roar of defiance, Kuichiko hurled all her fury at the heart of the shrine maiden.
Reimu felt the bolt coming before she saw it. With calm, practiced ease, she stepped out of the way, looking on in satisfaction as the yin-yang orbs battered the now-defenceless Terrafirmavore and threw her to the ground like a sack of mouldy potatoes.
"Aaghhh... I- I don't suppose I could... interest you... in a sensual massage?" groaned Kuichiko.
"Dream Sign: Evil-Sealing Circle!" replied Reimu. Reams of spell-tags battered Kuichiko all over, flashing with golden light as the power of the gods flowed into her. A glowing rope of identical spell-tags wrapped around her in seconds, slapping a particularly big charm over her mouth. Kuichiko tried to scream, but all that came out was a muffled, well, scream.
"There. I'd say you've murdered your last person." As Kuichiko thrashed helplessly about, Reimu finally felt as if she could relax. Breathing such a deep sigh of relief as would floor a lesser woman, she drifted down to a small bush. Her gohei was sticking out at an unusual angle. Slowly, she grasped the handle and teased it free, glad of the familiar weight in her hand. She glanced up at the two blocks of ice; both fine, although it looked like they were starting to melt.
Suddenly it hit her. She'd done it. They'd done it. Marisa, Meiling, Aya, Remilia, Cirno, everyone; they'd fought with all their strength, given everything they had for their beloved Eastern Wonderland, and now they had finally won. Reimu whooped with joy and flopped down on the grass, ignoring the lingering moisture soaking into her dress. Between a week's worth of earth, mud, sweat, blood, saliva, stomach acid, more sweat and even more earth, what could a little water do to her?
"Mmflmflgmllflmffl..." said Kuichiko sourly.
Although it may seem like it, this is not the final chapter. Make sure you have your cucumber sandwiches ready for Chapter Nine, coming soon to a web browser near you.
I adore plenty of things, from overly ambitious evolution simulators to cutesy Japanese shooting games, from democratic socialism to feminism, from Attack on Titan to Fawlty Towers.
I love writing, and hope to be the best comic fantasy and/or science fiction and/or Tintin-esque adventure and/or political satire writer I can be. I also plan on giving Walfas comics a go.