~Chapter Seven: If you Want Something Done Properly...~
It was a cold, grey morning, but a few faint rays of sunlight were glittering on shards of alarm clock. Probably time to get up.
"Hey, Marisa, wake up!" shouted Reimu.
Marisa yawned, stretched herself out, rolled over, flumped down onto the plush carpet, rubbed her eyes, yawned again and leapt to her feet. "Morning, Reimu!" she chirped.
Reimu blinked. "You're certainly on form this morning."
"Sakuya stopped time for me so I could go and get more mushroom powder. And a few little extra bits and pieces." Marisa smiled mysteriously. "We both got a few extra hours' sleep, too, and she said she's making fried noodles for breakfast!"
Reimu's eyes widened. "Noodles? Fried?! Quick, where are my arm-warmers?!"
Marisa passed Reimu her arm-warmers and set about digging for her shirt. They were dressed in a matter of seconds. In two matters of seconds, Reimu was dragging Marisa down miles of shadowy red hallway to the dining room.
Reimu burst through the tall double doors, screeching to a halt beside the table. No-one was there. The table was bare of plates or cutlery, but the air carried the reassuring smell of frying food.
Marisa stepped sheepishly into the dining-room. "Sorry about Reimu, you guys, it's a completely normal shrine maiden thing... Um, where is everyone?"
"I have no idea," replied Reimu.
"Oh." Marisa glanced down at the table. A small scrap of paper was tucked under a vase of begonias. Curious, Marisa retrieved the paper. "Hey, Sakuya's left us a note! 'Dearest friends, my mistress has insisted on taking myself, herself, young Flandre and Ms Knowledge out for exercise and combat training. We will return by four PM. Since Meiling is already at the peak of physical perfection, she has been excused. Please wake her up at least an hour before her afternoon nap. Also, if you happen to run into Aya, please express to her her my sincerest apologies for the attack last night.' Jeez, that's a lot of note for such a small piece of paper..."
"She wrote me one too. Still wish I'd been able to kiss her goodbye, though..." The familiar voice of Gensokyo's greatest martial artist came echoing out of the kitchen.
"Golly, Meiling, you're up!" Marisa glanced at the kitchen clock. "And it's just a little more than an hour 'till your afternoon nap!"
"Shut up," said Meiling. "As sort of promised, I'm doing fried noodles. Proper fried noodles, just like my mum used to make before she learned how to boil them. I don't suppose one of you feels like brewing some tea?"
"With pleasure!" said Reimu, retrieving the ornate ceramic tea caddy from inside her sock. Marisa's eyebrows rose in unison. "This is my own special blend, by the way, so I can't quite guarantee the saturated fat content..."
A light rain was still falling as the Incident-Resolvers stepped out onto the garden path, full of tea and noodles.
"I'm sure Remilia will understand us going now. Incidents tend not to wait around," said Reimu reassuringly. "You wrote her that note, didn't you?"
"I guess..." said Meiling unsurely.
"Here you go, China! Sorry it's late!"
A rolled-up Bunbunmaru smacked soggily into Meiling's forehead.
"Thanks for taking me to Kappa Valley last night, by the way. They showed me everything. Oh, it was such an amazing tragedy! I'm gonna do an extra edition!" grinned Aya.
"Well, great," said Marisa. "Listen, Sakuya says she's-"
"Can't stop! I've got to go and write it!" Aya's voice was already dwindling as she soared away to the south.
Meiling sighed. "Nice of her to drop in, I suppose, but I wish she'd had time to stay."
Meiling soared through the wind and rain, clutching the newspaper (which she'd read) against her not-very-waterproof chest. Although they too were airborne, Marisa and Reimu managed to effect a slow, miserable trudge, huddling up in their flimsy dresses as they drifted through the drizzle. A few fairies were playing in the rain while some hardy youkai took pot-shots at them, filling the skies with laughter and the occasional pichuuu~n.
Flying over Misty Lake in the rain was no-one's idea of a good time, so they spent a few extra minutes circling around it. Cirno waved as they flew overhead, leaving Wriggle to dangle helplessly down Hakiba's escape tunnel, having forgotten she could fly. Ahead stretched a vast absence of forest. A half-mile-wide strip of soggy brown loam faded into the misty drizzle, dappled with grey-blue puddles and the occasional splintered tree.
"Guys, you... You don't think they've eaten the forest?" breathed Marisa.
Reimu and Meiling nodded firmly.
"Of course they have," sighed Marisa. "At least trees can grow back, assuming the rain doesn't wash all the soil out to sea and turn the place into a desert..."
"It'll wash into Misty Lake, most likely. This won't be a good year for the fairies and mermaids," said Meiling grimly.
"So that's their game. If it wasn't bad enough destroying Kappa Valley and my poor little shrine, they want to choke our favourite lake with a mudslide from Hell." Reimu's fist smacked against her palm. "To fail now is unthinkable! We have to stop them!"
"And feed them their spleens with mint sauce!" roared Marisa.
"I, um, don't think they're actually planning to fill in the lake," said Meiling dubiously. "It could well be a side effect, I know, but it's been around for millennia and everyone loves it- waaaugh!"
Reimu and Marisa grabbed a pigtail each and surged forwards. As they soared over the ocean of mud, the half-dragon gardener flailing and protesting in their wake, Reimu noticed a little patch of black and white. A young woman was perching on half a splintered log.
"Is that Rumia?" Reimu let go of Meiling's pigtail and swooped down to the log. The woman stood (well, sat) five feet tall, her blonde hair shaven close to her scalp, and leathery membranes were crumpled beneath her arms.
"You!" Rumia of the Night leapt to her feet and flailed wildly to keep her balance. "You thought one enchanted hair-ribbon would be enough to defeat me?! Well, too bad! I, Rumia of the Night, have shaved my head!"
"How clever of you," said Reimu wearily. "Listen, we can do this the easy way or the fun-warm-up way. Where's your beloved Senpai?"
Rumia's face fell. "Kuichiko? No, she's not my senpai no more. She tried to eat me," she said dolefully. Meiling, Reimu and Marisa looked on with a pinch of salt as she began her tale. "I told her all about you and Cirno beating me up and leaving me for dead, but she wouldn't believe me. She said I was a useless wretch, good for nothing but protein, fat and some important minerals. I begged for mercy and promised I'd work hard all day, so she put me on ploughing duty." Rumia sighed. "I've got four hours to plough a million square miles of wet, horrible, sticky mud and bits of wood, or else I get eaten alive."
"Gee, that's harsh..." said Marisa anxiously.
"It'll teach you not to eat people willy-nilly, though, won't it?" observed Meiling.
Rumia blinked. "I don't follow."
"I mean, well, you understand how scary it is when someone wants to eat you, right?"
"Um..." said Rumia, scratching her head.
"Shut up, Meiling. Listen, Rumia, it's in your best interest to help us now. Kuichiko and her sisters won't be in a position to eat you if we defeat them. Does that make sense?" said Reimu.
"Um, yeah, sort of..."
"Great! Where do they live, then?"
"A couple of miles yonder. Keep going over the mud until you come to a hole in the ground as big as Misty Lake, then fly over the hole until you reach a big, fancy house. The door's missing, so you won't be able to knock on it. Just shout, someone'll come along sooner or later," said Rumia matter-of-factly.
"O...kay." Reimu reached for Meiling's pigtail, but thought better of it when a seven-coloured fist entered her field of view. "Thank you for the advice, Rumia. Now let's go!"
Rumia looked on in satisfaction as the Incident-Resolvers soared out over the work-in-progress field. Was it just her or was the rain easing off? Probably just as well; she needed to be halfway to Australia before the Agohakas got back from their day out.
"Oh, crud! I forgot!" wailed Rumia, smacking her forehead with enough force to pitch herself off the log and into the mud. "Wait! They're not at home! You'll have to let yourselves in! LOOK FOR THE SPARE KEY IN THE SUNFLOWER PATCH!"
Words struggled to do justice to the Agohakas' garden. The ground fell away in front of the weathered garden path, opening out into a vast stone bowl that looked as if it had been carved out by an ice cream scoop as big as Youkai Mountain. The soil gave way to hardened loam, shiny grey stone and dozens more strata, circling down to a mighty pillar of rock crowned by bright green grass. The walls of the crater were peppered with dark, round holes. Squirming grey-brown cylinders snaked in and out of the holes, occasionally showing a gigantic mouth ringed by teeth. Far above the worms, a few sunflowers surrounded a bijou mansion, slightly weather-beaten and missing most of its original paper walls.
"MASTER SPAAAaaaa- Oh, the door's out already. Saves me a bit of work." Satisfied, Marisa touched down in front of the mauled doorframe. "After you, Reimu."
"After you, Meiling," offered Reimu.
Meiling shoved Marisa bodily through the hole. Faded reddish-brown planks clattered and creaked beneath her feet as she stumbled into the latticework wall ahead.
"This must be one of those fancy outer corridors they had in medieval mansions. They were all the rage back in, um, several thousand years ago," observed Reimu. "If I know my architecture, the inner sanctum thingy should be-"
Marisa kicked through the lattice, stepping out onto a small inner courtyard. The wet gravel glinted in the sun, crunching soggily as Marisa made for another ruined doorframe, which led to a messy, sparsely-furnished living room.
"No straw mats, no heated table... Not much of a home," muttered Marisa. The cold-as-ice table held just one vase of long-dead flowers. Marisa tipped the soil out over the floor and stuffed the vase into her pocket.
"Where are they, anyway?" said Reimu rhetorically, her gaze alighting on a battered wooden door leaning against the wall. Probably the safest place for it. "Let's search the house."
Reimu scoured the kitchen. Marisa made for the coal cellar. Meiling soon came to the bedroom, a slightly warmer room with cloths stuffed through the holes in its flimsy, battered walls. A single queen-sized mattress dominated the chamber, draped over with a warm pink duvet. It looked quite out of place in the austere, grey-brown mansion, so Meiling whipped it off and gave the mattress a quick once-over. Nothing too out of place, apart from a few holes near the top. Meiling's right foot ached at the memory of Naruwaru's terrible tusk.
Meiling dumped the quilt and set about the chest of drawers. Plenty of socks, several pairs of bloomers she had no desire to see up close, a handful of blue marbles; oh, what was this? Meiling lifted an ornate gold picture frame from under a baggy bloomer-leg. The picture inside was barely distinguishable from the yellowing paper it was printed on, but she could just make out the figures of three young youkai girls. A shortish girl with walrus tusks and a tall girl with a narwhal's tusk were snuggling up to their sister, whose big, cheesy grin took up half her face. Their small eyes and curly, gurning mouths suggested the print was at least a thousand years old.
"Unbelievable..." breathed Meiling, slipping the picture under her hat. "How did it survive this long?! I suppose there's magic that could do it, but-"
"Meiling, Marisa, come quick!"
Reimu's voice was urgent. Holding the picture carefully in place, Meiling ran out into the hallway and almost crashed into Marisa.
"Oh, hi, Meiling! I grabbed all the glowing red metal out of the basement-"
With great satisfaction, Meiling grabbed a lock of Marisa's hair and dragged her towards Reimu's voice. They burst into the kitchen and promptly tripped over the knee-high clay stove.
Ignoring her friends' plight, Reimu tore a piece of paper from the wall and thrust it under Marisa's nose. "Look at this."
"Uh, okay. 'To-do: Wake up bright and early. Have breakfast. Clear forest (Hakiba). Fertilise empty forest (Naruwaru).' Yuck. 'Annihilate Human Village, purloin rice and vegetable seeds for field-' Wait, what? ANNIHILATE HUMAN VILLAGE?! We-we-we've gotta stop them! Quick! Move!"
Reams of bullets flashed through the air under banks of grey clouds. Although she was bruised and bleeding in a hundred places, Keine fought tirelessly, hurling red fireballs and nets of blue plasma through clouds of teeth. Pillars of smoke rose from the Human Village as the villagers fled across the fields in a ragged column, watched over by a ruggedly handsome pink cloud, a woman in a blue hood, and a few terrified local warriors who were desperately hoping not to have to get involved.
"Oh, my gods, no...!" breathed Marisa, screeching to a halt beside the column. "Ichirin, Unzan, what's happening?!"
"Exactly what it looks like. We're evacuating people to Myouren Temple," said Ichirin.
"Keine won't last much longer. You've got to hurry before Miko and her Taoist cult steal your thunder," said Unzan urgently.
Marisa gave him a look. "Is that really our priority here?"
"Of course it is! We don't want the Human Village embracing Taoism, do we?" said Unzan bullishly.
"Oh, shut up!" snapped Marisa, raising her hakkero. "LONG-RANGE MASTER SPARK!"
The few villagers still within earshot erupted in cheers. Keine sagged with relief. Hakiba and Naruwaru turned in amazement as the Master Spark blazed towards them. They wheeled desperately out of the way, the spell singeing their feet and bottoms.
Marisa gasped. "I don't believe it! They got out of the way!"
"Marisa, everyone in Gensokyo can 'get out of the way'," said Reimu heavily.
"With some trial and error, at any rate," smirked Naruwaru, giving Hakiba a nudge in the ribs.
"Do you have to tease me in front of our enemies? Really?" Hakiba cleared her throat. "So, Shrine Maiden of Paradise, we meet again, and too late by half. Your people have fallen. Your city is lost. Soon, nobody will stand in the way of our feast!"
"You haven't defeated us yet, demon, and you will not so much as nibble a human while I stand. I swore to protect the balance of Gensokyo from all who would sway it, and you have tipped it far enough to forfeit your life." Reimu unlimbered her gohei and aimed it squarely at Hakiba's heart.
Hakiba's eyes narrowed. "Just wait there, Naru. This won't take a minute." She turned to the nearest building, opened her mouth as wide as it would go and pounced. Like a frenzying shark Hakiba tore through the house, the building almost flowing into her mouth as she shredded wood and paper alike.
"You take your greedy paws off, you hear me?!" roared Marisa, casting a barrage of stars. Naruwaru grabbed Keine and tossed her in front of the barrage, her battered body catching every bullet.
Marisa winced. "Sorry, Keine."
"N-not your fault," whimpered Keine, slowly passing out.
Hakiba spat out the building.
An avalanche of slightly soggy splintered wood came crashing down upon them. Reimu yelped and threw up a hasty Duplex Barrier. Marisa dove behind Cirno's long-abandoned popcorn stand. Meiling stood firm, holding the tattered newspaper over her eyes as sharp, hefty chunks of building tumbled past.
The cascade of chewed house ground to a halt. Dust drifted on the air as the last few pieces of wood clattered to the ground. Reimu lowered her barrier. "Interesting spell, but it's a bit unhygienic, isn't it? You should aim for a sleek, beautiful spell that shows the strength of your conviction, the effort you're willing to give so your opponent can enjoy the duel."
Naruwaru snorted. "Can you believe her?"
"I don't know. I think it's kind of cute, her being so stupid," said Hakiba brightly, drifting towards Reimu. "It's true what they say, naive women are definitely the cutest. Couldn't you just EAT HER UP?!"
A vast, soggy-looking cavern opened up before Reimu, lined with pearly-white stalactites as big as her legs. A tongue twice the size of a wheelbarrow lay patiently in a lake of slimy, shiny saliva. Reimu looked down with rising horror to see a vast cliff of Hakiba stretching out beneath her. Had she shrunk? Had Hakiba got bigger? Who cared?!
"Dream Sign: Fantasy-"
Hakiba ate Reimu.
Meiling's eyes went as wide as saucers. "Oh, my gods! Marisa, did-did you see that?! She just...! Disappeared!"
"NO! Oh, Reimu, why?!" wailed Marisa. "I love you, Reimu! I LOVE YOU! I know you don't wanna go out with me and Alice at the same time, but I love you all the same! Oh, please don't get digested!"
Naruwaru laughed a cruel, barking laugh, more like that of a hyena than a marine mammal. "Some chance, black-and-white. My sister's stomach acid has the power of tenfold oceans of lava! Your precious shrine maiden is as good as dead!"
"Eeeeurgh! Oh, my gods, that's disgusting!" wailed Hakiba. She spat with all her might. A soggy, dishevelled Reimu came tumbling out onto the cobblestones. "Don't you ever take baths, woman?! You taste like a compost heap!"
"Wh... what happened?" whimpered Reimu. "Did I shrink or did she get bigger or what?"
"You shrunk. She did shrink, right, Marisa?" said Meiling.
Marisa's face had turned an alarming shade of crimson. "You..." she growled, her hakkero exploding with golden light. "You greedy, selfish, heartless, disgusting, selfish, miserable, cannibalistic old-school youkai scum! Magic Sign: Stardust Reverie!"
"Good on you, Marisa. There's no need to beat around the bush. Divine Arts: Omnidirectional Dragon-Slaying Circle!" agreed Reimu.
Meiling hit the deck as soon as she heard "dragon-slaying". Reimu swung her gohei through the air, raising a tide of spell-tags and glowing red bullets to surge ahead. Marisa conjured up a whirlpool of stars, only a few of which hit Reimu's bullets.
Hakiba planted her feet, pearly-white energy crackling between her fingers. A hail of teeth met the Incident-Resolvers' tide, sparking and flashing as the bullets smashed together.
Snarling, Naruwaru called up a pair of elephant tusks as big as her arms and catapulted them at Reimu.
Meiling fired a single petal, blowing a tusk (and several bullets and part of a clothes shop) out of the sky. Without pause, she grabbed the other tusk, her whole body shaking as she absorbed its momentum. "Oi, cheap knock-off made in a country inferior to mine, catch!"
Naruwaru's eyes grew wide as the tusk zoomed towards her. "Hakiba, do something!"
Hakiba's face was slick with sweat. "I'll... try..." she growled. With what little strength she could spare, she summoned a disc of fused fangs and launched it at the missile. The disc shredded through the tusk, raining sparks and shards of enamel before abruptly exploding. Smoke and fire washed over the sisters.
Marisa whooped and punched the air. "Oh, yeah! You two are eating flame-grilled spleen tonight!"
Sagging with relief, Reimu let her gohei fall to her side. The remaining bullets winked out of existence. "Good throw, Meiling. Now, as soon as those two stop coughing up smoke, we need to separate them."
Meiling blinked. "Why?"
"Weren't you paying attention? Hakiba blocked everything we could throw at her while Naruwaru attacked us. They're stronger as a pair," explained Reimu.
"I get it. Why don't we just attack Hakiba from all sides, though?" asked Meiling.
"Because that'd be cheating."
"Oh. Of course," said Meiling glumly.
"Then we're gonna cheat," decided Marisa, grabbing her hakkero. "You can send me to bed without any supper when we're done with these two. Well, three, if the legendary Kuichiko ever shows herself. And, fair warning, I'm going to have supper anyway. Meiling, can you-"
"Why not just fire a Master Spark between them? That'd force them apart," offered Reimu.
"...Um." Marisa's face froze. "Right. Maybe. Yeah. That does make sense, actually. MASTER SPARK!"
The familiar ray of white-hot love (and plasma, electromagnetic radiation and whatnot) blazed over the village. Hakiba dove out of the way. Naruwaru, who had dust in her eyes, wheeled left just a moment too late, the Master Spark char-grilling her wing.
"Aaaaaugh!" screamed Naruwaru, spiralling down to the cobblestones below.
"Naru! NO!" cried Hakiba. "You'll pay for that, witch!"
Whatever Hakiba was planning had to wait, though, as a barrage of lightning-fast persuasion needles flashed towards her. She called up a hasty shield of teeth which sparked as the needles battered its surface.
"I'm fine," groaned Naruwaru, rising shakily to her feet. "I forgot we don't strictly need wings to fly. Still hurts like-"
"Rainbow Sign: Imperial Punch!"
Meiling socked her halfway to the town square.
"Hurts like Rainbow Sign: Imperial Punch. I like that," smiled Meiling.
Marisa laughed out loud. "Good one, Meiling. Mind if I borrow it? No, don't answer that, I'm gonna borrow it anyway."
Naruwaru lunged at Meiling with a mighty roar, her tusk thrusting straight ahead. Meiling swung to the left, the tusk slashing her shirt as it passed. Naruwaru was now stooped over beside her. With a triumphant cry, Meiling kicked the Terrafirmavore in the back of the knee, sending her sprawling on the ground.
Naruwaru rolled over and sprang to her feet in time to block a wave of glowing petals. She let out a characteristic roar and raised her arms.
Meiling's eyebrow rose. "What are you-?"
Two molars as big as wine barrels formed either side of her. Meiling had just a split second to register the fact that she was about to be chomped. "Marisa, do someth-"
The teeth closed in. Meiling pressed a palm against each tooth and pushed out with all her might.
"Do... something. Right." Marisa raised her hakkero. "Magic Space: Asteroid Belt!" An ocean of red and blue stars whirled outwards, packed so close together that even Shinmyoumaru would have to graze a few.
Naruwaru punched the first few stars into sparkling mist, getting a second's respite and some scalded knuckles for her troubles. Growling ferociously, she called up a pair of tusks and launched them at Marisa, who ducked elegantly. The tusks sailed into Hitomi's House of Sashimi and exploded.
"Can't you just bloody stand still?!" bellowed Naruwaru, weaving hypocritically between the stars. "A bone dragon should fix you, or maybe an o-dokuro."
"I don't know what an o-dokuro is, but this is definitely gonna break your concentration sooner or later," retorted Marisa.
Naruwaru blinked. "My concen-?! Oh, bugger!"
The barrel-sized molars winked out in a shower of sparkling dust. Meiling sagged with relief, her arms falling limply to her sides.
"All right, belay that 'bugger'." Naruwaru lowered her head, roared yet again and charged.
Meiling grabbed the incoming tusk a split second before it touched her tank top. Naruwaru gave a yelp, which turned into a scream as Meiling swung her overhead and smashed her into the ground.
"Owww..." whimpered Naruwaru.
Meiling rolled the Terrafirmavore onto her back and stomped on her foot as hard as she could.
With Naruwaru's screams ringing in her ears, Marisa allowed herself to relax. She and Meiling made quite a team. Her dilemma over who needed her help the most was as good as solved!
But what about Reimu?
"Spirit Sign: Fantasy Seal!"
The yin-yang orbs blazed with heavenly fire as they surged towards Hakiba.
"We both know that's not going to work," said Hakiba smugly. She summoned a mighty wall of interlaced mammoth tusks clad in rhinoceros molars, planted it firmly in the ground and curled up behind it.
"Spread!" ordered Reimu. Her orbs fanned out, encircled Hakiba and surged towards her.
Hakiba yelped and soared upwards, desperately beating her wings even though they weren't strictly necessary. One orb embedded itself in the wall while the other three smashed into her feet. She howled in agony. Her ascent turned into an arc, then into a helpless plummet that flattened Cirno's stall.
Reimu drifted down to the fallen Terrafirmavore, kicking a weather-beaten popcorn box aside as she landed. "Are you awake?"
"S-sort of," groaned Hakiba. "I think I'm about ready to give you that massage now. If you'll just come a little closer-"
"Flower Sign: Gorgeous Sweet Flower!" declared Meiling. Glowing petals rained from on high. Within seconds, Hakiba was out cold.
"I... I wasn't going to fall for it," muttered Reimu.
"Sure you weren't," said Meiling. "We've just got Kuichiko to deal with now, right?"
"Yes. I can't say I'm looking forward to it, but we do have her outnumbered," said Reimu matter-of-factly. "Although I'm sure they did their best, the defenders of Kappa Valley aren't especially well organised, whereas we..." Reimu's brow furrowed as she considered Marisa and Meiling. "Now isn't the time to worry about 'organisation' and 'planning'. Now is the time to let our spirits shine bright against the shadow of evil."
"We always do that," Marisa reminded her.
"True, but we'll be doing it on purpose this time," said Reimu.
"Oh." Marisa's face brightened. "Oh! By golly, you're right! We'll show that grinning idiot a thing or two. For justice, for honour, for all the people of Gensokyo, let's give it everything we've got!"
At that moment, the village shook to a deafening explosion that turned buildings to jelly and stone walls to landslides. Tens of thousands of teeth the size of meat-hooks erupted from the ground, filling the air with dust and removing Marisa's hat from her head. What she said in response was lost as the explosion rumbled to a halt, and what she said as she grabbed her hat was lost in the ensuing roll of thunder. Bolts of lightning lashed the town square as Kuichiko burst out of the ground like a red-hot iron ball from the mouth of a cannon, the cobbles cracking beneath her flip-flops as she hit the ground.
"Do you think this counts as a 'sticky situation'?" asked Mokou.
"Mmh," replied Kaguya.
"You what?" said Mokou.
"Mmmff!" snapped Kaguya.
"I'm sorry, I don't speak Hum," smirked Mokou.
With a monumental effort, Kaguya forced herself a few centimetres further out of the mire. "It is difficult to speak," she said heavily, "when your mouth is full of peat bog."
"Oh," said Mokou.
Kaguya sighed. Seeing the wisdom in her actions, Mokou sighed as well.
Drenched in cold saliva, her heart beating like a mountain-sized drum, Reimu looked into the eyes of the one who had sworn to devour Gensokyo. What stared out at her was something ancient and inhuman, far more inhuman than your average youkai, full of hatred and burning desire.
"A thousand years," snarled Kuichiko. "A thousand years of starvation, and you wonder why my sisters and I are upset? A thousand years of imprisonment, and you wonder why we make use of our freedom? You are a fool, shrine maiden. A selfish, heartless fool. You know what it is to be hungry, do you not? Aya told me of how you live in poverty, munching on grass and bark unfit for your human stomach. Do you truly believe we deserve the same fate?!"
Reimu's face coloured. As impossible as she would have thought it mere moments ago, Kuichiko had a point.
"Have you not killed so that you might feed? Have you not prematurely ended the lives of countless harmless creatures such that your own life might go on? Have you not eaten the flesh of other living things every day of your life?" Kuichiko went on. She stepped slowly towards Hakiba, holding Reimu's gaze all the while.
"Kuichiko, I've never eaten a person in my life, and the decision to eat animals was one of the hardest I ever had to make-"
"What animals? Are we talking fish, pigs, cattle, the occasional goat?"
"I-! Well, all of them! I mean, there's plenty of meat available, I can easily go fishing or snare a few rabbits-"
"Rabbits! Of course! Cute, innocent creatures which can ascend to youkaihood after decades of life, and which you have the right to slaughter indiscriminately!" laughed Kuichiko. Without waiting for Reimu's response, she grabbed Hakiba by the shoulders and stood her up. "Rise and shine, little sis."
"You're kidding me! It can't be morning already!" groaned Hakiba.
Kuichiko blinked. "It... it isn't. You passed out."
"Oh. Well, thanks for passing me in again," smiled Hakiba.
"Any time. Go and see if Naruwaru's all right, would you?" Kuichiko turned her attention back to Reimu. "What difference is there, truly, between you and I? We both must eat to survive, and our food is rarely eager to be consumed. How many civilisations have you destroyed in your quest for a good meal, Reimu? How many would you destroy? How many innocent lives would you bring to an end just so you could eat well?!"
"I-! None! I'd never eat anyone!" protested Reimu.
"Oh, sure, because you're a human, and humans don't eat people. Youkai do. It's in our nature, isn't that right, Chinawoman?!" demanded Kuichiko.
"I'll break your neck if you ever say 'Chinawoman' again," replied Meiling.
"...Fine." Kuichiko's face darkened. "Look, Reimu, if you were a youkai, you'd eat people by the gallon! Don't you dare deny it!"
Reimu screwed her eyes shut, breathing heavily.
"Come, on, Reimu, deny it already!" said Marisa urgently. "She's talking nonsense! I know you wouldn't so much as nibble anyone with a soul, and as for-"
"What about you, Marisa?" Kuichiko's burning eyes were suddenly upon her. "What if you learned it was cruel to eat rice? Would you stop?"
Marisa blinked. "Well, uh-"
"OF COURSE YOU WOULDN'T! You need rice to live, and no-one has the right to take it away from you!" roared Kuichiko. "My sisters and I need the soil of Gensokyo and the flesh of its people. Do you have the right to deny us that?!"
"Well, I, um-"
Reimu laid a hand on Marisa's shoulder. "Of course we do."
Marisa turned in amazement to see a serene shrine maiden, her eyes empty of fear or doubt. "Did-did you seriously just meditate for five seconds and calm down completely?!"
"Yes," said Reimu innocently.
"Jeez Louise..." muttered Marisa.
"Anyway, Kuichiko, we do have the right to deny you this meal. We're not your prey. Does a cat have the right to eat a mouse? It can try, but the mouse is a living thing too, and it has the right to fight back," said Reimu severely.
"You...! That proves nothing! If the mouse was in the cat's position-"
"Tell me, Kuichiko, how many innocent people from Kappa Valley will never eat again? And how much hihi'irokane would've given you all the energy you needed without anybody having to die? Also, what exactly is hihi'irokane? I know it's some sort of magic metal, but-"
"Yeah, enough hihi'irokane. That's what she asked you," giggled Marisa.
"AAAARGH!" screamed Kuichiko. A legion of teeth rose up around her, dancing in interlocking circles that blurred together and flowed like whirlpools as they poured forwards.
Reimu's muscles tensed. Her fingers tightened around her gohei. Just as the first bullets reached her, she leapt into the air, plucking a handful of spell-tags from her pocket as she soared over the teeth towards Kuichiko.
Kuichiko raised a hand aflame with silvery-white light. A barrage of long, sharp teeth flashed towards Reimu. Reimu swung left. The stream of bullets swung left. Reimu dove under the stream and sprinted right, her flight muscles straining as the air rushed past her. All she needed was a second to attack.
A small spread of stars whooshed past Reimu's ear. Kuichiko somersaulted out of the way, leaving the stars to pulverise someone's house. Reimu glanced over her shoulder. Marisa gave her a thumbs-up as she ducked under Kuichiko's bullets.
Meiling was still on the ground, weaving effortlessly through the slow-moving teeth and taking the occasional pot-shot. No problems there.
The stream of teeth swung abruptly downwards. Reimu lunged to the side, twisting her whole body past the stream, and soared up. Not waiting a moment, she loosed her spell-tags.
Kuichiko's eyes widened as the spell-tags streaked towards her. She raised her wing over her head just in time to catch the attack. Pain shot through her. "Right. You asked for it."
The thousands of slow, weaving teeth froze in midair. As one, they shot up towards Reimu.
Reimu did not hesitate. "Spirit Sign: Fantasy Seal!"
Four blazing yin-yang orbs met the teeth, smashing them to pieces.
Kuichiko raised her hand above her head and roared. A bolt of lightning arced up from her fingers, burning like the sun as it collided with the lead orb and forced it back.
Marisa gasped. "Oh, my gods! That's epic! I was getting kinda fed up with teeth, but you've knocked it right outta the park!"
Sweat beaded on Reimu's brow as she pushed against the lightning, her orbs screaming as they fought for purchase. Slowly but surely, Kuichiko's lightning was overpowering her. "Marisa, for pity's sake, DO SOMETHING!"
"Right." Marisa adjusted her aim to avoid Reimu. "Black Magic: Event Horizon!"
A galaxy of multicoloured stars whirled out from Marisa's hakkero, exploding into harmless embers whenever the lightning caught one. It caught hundreds. The rest exploded harmlessly on Kuichiko's wing.
As Meiling calmly observed this spectacle, she saw her chance draw near. The teeth were thinning; now was the time to go for it.
"LOOK OUT, BIG SIS! THE GINGER'S SNEAKING UP ON YOU!" shouted Naruwaru.
"Of course she is," sighed Kuichiko. She raised her other hand.
Meiling had just a split second to register what was happening before a faceful of lightning sent her sprawling on the ground in agony. The pain was incredible, a vast ocean of searing heat that left her floundering, barely able to draw enough breath to scream.
"Meiling! No!" gasped Marisa. "Just how much lightning have you got?!"
"More than you'd know." Kuichiko somehow managed to smirk in spite of her exhaustion. "Lightning, at its core, is the purest form of hunger. The clouds yearn for electrons, which the earth is loath to give, until at last the hunger of the storm overpowers the earth and draws up an almighty bolt of energy."
Marisa blinked. "The clouds hunger for electrons?"
"Yes. Lightning flows from the ground to the sky."
"More to the point, how do you even know what an electron is?! You've been sealed away for thousands of years!"
"Shut up," explained Kuichiko. "By burning hihi'irokane, I am able to generate an almost infinite supply of electricity. More almost infinite, I suspect, than the endurance of your beloved shrine maiden."
As if on cue, Reimu's arms fell limply to her sides. The yin-yang orbs turned still and lifeless, dropping like stones to the ground below and almost breaking Meiling's skull.
Marisa drew her lips back in a snarl. "Even where shrine maidens cannot, love will endure. Magicannon: FINAL MASTER SPARK!"
Kuichiko's eyes widened as the colossal ray of light blazed towards her. Bracing her wings against the air, she unleashed the largest bolt of lightning ever seen over the Human Village, billions of volts of pure energy that vied against the Final Spark. A cloud of light and energy exploded outwards as the attacks met.
Marisa's face was slick with sweat. Her hakkero was hot enough to sear her hands, but, incredibly, Kuichiko was gaining ground. Tendrils of lightning crawled over the surface of the Final Spark, probing for bits of Marisa they could shock. The fire in Marisa's heart dimmed. Her arms trembled.
The thunderbolt tore through the Final Spark. Marisa had just a moment to react before the bolt was upon her, searing every fibre of her being. She could do nothing but scream as she fell helplessly from the sky.
"Hold on, Marisa! I'll catch y-"
As soon as Reimu touched Marisa, the lightning was upon her too. They collapsed in a heap on top of Meiling, who was promptly lightninged to within an inch of her life as well.
"Too easy," chuckled Kuichiko. "Anyway, you two, I've got all the hihi'irokane out of the mines. Did you get any seeds?"
"...Whuh? Seeds? Oh, yeah, right." Hakiba fished around in her pocket. Her face brightened. "They're all right! Rice, horseradish, poppies and wheat, all ready for planting."
"Great! I got some cucumber seeds and a sprouting potato," smiled Naruwaru.
"In that case, our work here is done," said Kuichiko, satisfied. "Who do you fancy eating?"
"The ginger!" said Naruwaru instantly, licking her lips.
"Are you sure? We could use some slaves with her experience."
"She looks so tasty, though! We can use the sunflower lady for farming."
"Fair enough. Hakiba, what about you?"
"I'll have the shrine maiden, once I've washed her and put her in a sandwich," said Hakiba eagerly.
"Leaving me with the witch. We'll turn Keine into jerky or something," decided Kuichiko, heading over to Marisa.
Marisa let out a whimper as the Terrafirmavore's hands closed around her shoulders and raised her to her feet. How did Kuichiko plan on eating her? Was she going shrink her, or was it some kind of localised dimensional effect? She suspected it was the latter, but this was a pretty desperate way to find out.
"Please..." Marisa groaned. "Don't eat Alice. Sh-she's a great cook; you won't regret keeping her around. And, um, Rinnosuke makes the best fruit smoothies-"
"Forbidden Barrage: Counter-Clock!"
"Illusion Ghost: Jack the Ludo Bile!"
"Metal and Water Sign: Mercury Poison!"
Kuichiko's eyes went as wide as saucers. "What the-?!"
A hurricane of bullets bowled her off her feet and into Naruwaru's arms. Naruwaru was bowled off her feet shortly thereafter, coming to an eventual stop in a pile of rubble. Hakiba landed on top of them.
Marisa's eyes lit up with joy. "Sakuya! Patchouli! Remilia! Flandre! You came for us!"
"We came for tea and cake," admitted Remilia, drifting down to the relieved witch. "Then we saw what was going on, and we had to intervene."
"I believe it's safe to say our training is on hold for the moment. Do any of you wish to surrender?" asked Sakuya.
Hakiba, Naruwaru and Kuichiko all shook their heads.
"This is nothing but a minor setback, you bloodsucking brats. Naruwaru, summon the Devourers," growled Kuichiko.
"Sure. How many?"
"All of them."
Naruwaru's eyes widened. "All of them?! But that could kill me!"
"...Oh. Well, uh, could you manage twenty?"
"I'll try." Naruwaru screwed shut her eyes. Balefire flared around her hands as, naturally, she let out a deafening roar of effort. Sweat ran in rivulets down her face.
"Quick! Stop her!" shouted Reimu, leaping to her feet. Her legs, however, had other ideas, dropping her face-first on the cobblestones. "Owww... Sakuya, you have to-"
"YAAAAAARGHHHHH!" finished Naruwaru. The bluish-purple fire rolled down her arms and flowed into the ground, leaving her to collapse exhausted into Kuichiko's arms. "That's twenty. Time to go, right?"
"Right. There are still plenty of soft, juicy, defenceless humans without any vampires looking after them," said Kuichiko, licking her lips. "Come on, Hakiba, let's get a move on."
Hakiba and Kuichiko ascended with a few beats of their mighty wings, Naruwaru slumped in the arms of the latter.
"No! You can't get away!" With what little remained of her strength, Marisa raised her hakkero. "MASTER SPARK!"
The Spark clipped Hakiba's wing, to little effect.
Marisa swore creatively. "Will someone please do something?!"
"We intend to, believe me. What we need is a plan-"
"No-one tries to eat the Scarlet Devil and gets away with it. I am the fastest, most powerful being in Gensokyo! Prepare to die!" roared Remilia, zooming off after the sisters.
"Yay! Let's go!" squealed Flandre. She ran after Remilia, only to find Reimu's hand tugging on the hem of her dress.
"No, you mustn't! We have to protect the village!" screamed Reimu. "I don't know what a Devourer is, but I have a pretty bad feeling-"
A deep, echoing rumble sounded in Reimu's ears. The ground beneath her knees began to shake.
"It's the worms, isn't it?" said Meiling resignedly.