Author Topic: The Adventures of Master Kaku and Blessed Bell  (Read 1233 times)

The Adventures of Master Kaku and Blessed Bell
« on: September 09, 2015, 10:19:21 PM »

Chapter 1: The Mountain Sage

"The Way that can be spoken of is not the real Way." ? The Classic of the Way and Power, by the Old Master

***

As the morning sun baked the dirt of Youkai Mountain's crossroads into shingled clay, Meiling tugged at the neckline of her blouse and bade mercy goodbye. She committed the mortal sin of a sentry, leaving her post at the Scarlet Devil Mansion, to come to the crossroads. Not even black snake root and thirty pieces of silver had called up the devil's kith to haggle for the price of a boon.

Heaven and hell moved from their courses at a human's call. A youkai, however, was always on her own.

The guardswoman ripped open the top three laces of her green vest. As a slight breeze wicked the sweat from her skin, Meiling shuffled towards a solitary pine tree. Underneath its scant shade, she sat down and wound her scarlet tresses into a tight bun. She choked down a mouthful of warm water from a metal canteen. Meiling closed her eyes and basked in the relief.

"'The birds have vanished in the sky, and now the last cloud drains away. We sit together, the mountain and I, until only the mountain remains.'" Meiling Hong recited the words of the Immortal Poet, Li Po, and looked skyward to the volcano's summit. She shielded her eyes from the unrelenting glare.

The wind died away. With a sigh, Meiling stretched her legs and swayed to her feet. The youkai drifted across the arid crossroads to a post sprouting arrow signs like needles on a pine. Each sign pointed to a destination, straight as the tengu flew, from the Myouren Temple, to the Human Village, and the Moriya hamlet. A fairy had even pointed an arrow straight down to Hell. Hidden amid the signs, a thin red arrow pointed west-northwest to an unnamed mountain sage's home.

Singing to herself, Meiling followed the red sign down the road. When Meiling was still a child in the village of Chen, her mother had taught her to seek sages' wisdom whenever peasant cunning could not solve her problem. If anyone knew how to cure six lifeless fairy maids, the sage of Youkai Mountain would. Perhaps Remilia Scarlet would then forgive Meiling's absence.

The trail leveled off and branched at the foot of a granite boulder. One path led to the summit, and the second, to a forested valley. A sign on the face of the boulder pointed towards the sage's home; its arrow spun in circles like a weathervane in a windstorm.

Meiling closed her eyes and traced her fingers over the smooth sign. She suspected fairylight pranks, from the way looking at the sign made her eyes water. "I'm trying to help your sisters."

The arrow still spun.

She held her breath and waited. The wind bore no whispers or hushed giggles as it blew past, only the occasional chirp from nearby birds. She even circled the boulder twice, once from each direction, but saw no glimpse of shimmering fairy wings or rustling bushes. Either the fairies were uncharacteristically devious, or the spinning sign was some other mage's handiwork. But her absence from the Scarlet Devil Mansion must have been discovered by now, so she left the mystery to others.

Meiling brushed her hands through the road dust and clapped her hands. After testing her grip on the rock face, she hauled herself up the fissure. The guardswoman stood atop the boulder and shielded her eyes from the sun. Out in the valley, a shingled courtyard house poked out of its forest shroud. Even if the sage lived elsewhere, perhaps the occupants could point Meiling in the right direction. Up on the mountain, however, she saw only forest switchbacks and striated cliffs pockmarked by the wind.

Her course set, Meiling knelt by the fissure and lowered herself over the side. As her foot caught hold of a narrow outcrop, the guardswoman looked up at the mountain once more and gasped. One of the pockmarks was a perfect block arch planed into the cliff face, a sight she had last seen in her homeland of China. She climbed down the crack and set off toward the summit.

***

Calling a stone yaodong home a cave dwelling glossed over the difference between a cave and a proper home carved into the rock. Each blow that chiseled out a yaodong was chosen for harmony with the five elements, for consideration of the flows of qi, and for the comfort and protection of its family. In her travels through China's northern provinces, Meiling had seen entire hills terraced with the homes until the earthen rises resembled step pyramids. She longed to explore the hillside homes, but she had never stopped as her caravans rolled past. A guard never left her post.

Well, almost never.

Meiling pushed her way through the red doors of the stone arch. "May Heaven's blessing shower upon us all."

She entered the dim chamber illuminated only by two candles on either side of a lotus flower lamp. As her cheeks burned, Meiling backed out underneath the lintel and slid her feet out of her shoes. A cave house within Youkai Mountain made a powerful holy place to the Taoist god enshrined within. She could not afford to carelessly provoke divine displeasure.

"Compassion to all." Meiling clasped her hands together and bowed to the altar. She reentered the shrine room and sought the image of the god she needed to appease. No icon sat behind the sacred lotus lamp. The yaodong's altar venerated the Tao alone.

With a sigh of relief, Meiling propped the red doors open. Completing the altar on her left stood three cups and two sets of five dishes representing yin, yang, and the five elements. On her right, a single red shelf held three tarnished coins atop a dog-eared copy of the Classic of Change, a divination manual. The temptation to cast the coins welled within her. She had left her post, for which she would face consequences. Perhaps the coins might tell her what those might be. However, Meiling had never mastered divination. Perhaps she could impress upon the home owner for a reading.

She searched the walls for the displayed diploma that should be present in a Chinese sage's home. Surely a sage would have proof of his wisdom, displayed at a young age at the mandarin examinations for philosophy. But no gold or silver certificate graced the wall. At best, a lesser ascetic lived in the shrine.

The guardswoman drifted back to the altar. The fruit and rice offerings set before the lotus lamp were still fresh. The shrine's attendant had to be near, perhaps in another yaodong close by. With a final bow, Meiling left the shrine room. Sitting beneath the stone lintel, she fussed with the buckles of her shoes.

"'Heaven and earth are my roof and walls, and the rooms of my house are my clothes,'" a woman proclaimed.

Meiling pivoted around. In the center of the yaodong's chamber, a Chinese woman in a teal dress and a white vest glowered at her. Unlike the expected crone, the woman instead reminded Meiling of an indignant younger cousin.

"'Why are you in my pants?'" the slight woman demanded. She staggered backwards as Meiling threw her arms around her neck.

***

-My surname is Hong, and my personal name is Meiling, but everyone in my home village calls me Blessed Bell, or just Bell for short.- Meiling followed her hostess through a hole in the shrine room's granite wall into a sparse dining room. The Chinese youkai watched the hermit puzzle over her accent. With precise enunciation, Meiling repeated her introduction in Cantonese.

The sage ushered her guest towards the seat of honor at a red lacquered table. -My surname is Wu, my given name in Qing'e, and there is a slight flaw in my character.- She spoke in a clipped version of scholarly Middle Chinese that sounded odd yet regal to Meiling's ear. "Perhaps we should stick to Japanese."

Shrugging, Meiling accepted a cup of green tea. "I can prattle away in seven languages." She smiled as she took a sip. "Even in English," she said in that strange tongue.

"I figured as much." Master Wu laughed and sat at the head of the dining table. Nursing her own cup of tea, she smiled. "I am Seiga Kaku in this land. Do they call you Misuzu Kurenai?"

"I have never needed to translate my name into another language, no matter where I have traveled." Meiling beamed as she spoke. Remilia forbade it, as any trace of the exotic made it easier to draw in the vampiress's prey.

"Then you must let me call you Bell." Master Kaku set aside her cup and fiddled with a hairpin. "So, why did you seek me out?"

Meiling nodded, set her cup down, and drew in a deep breath. "The harmony of Nature is disrupted."

"That can't be the true reason. You didn't know that I was a Taoist until you found my altar." Master Kaku tapped the hairpin against her lips. "Why didn't you seek a shrinemaiden?"

Meiling hid her grimace behind a sip of tea. "They only care when humans are affected."

"So it's a youkai matter." Master Kaku fished out six coins from a belt purse. She cast the coins onto a platter, and, upon examination, pursed her lips. "No matter how you try to fix things yourself, the shrinemaidens will be involved in the end."

"Over six comatose fairies?" Meiling balled her fists and shook her head. "I'm trying to save them, not seal them away."

The mountain sage held up her hand and threw the coins again. Frowning, she stood and reached towards a nearby shelf for a volume of the Classic of Change. Her eyes flashed as she consulted the ancient wisdom. The two coin throws each made a trigram, and the two trigrams formed a hexagram corresponding to a specific fortune in the Classic of Change. Sighing, Master Kaku clapped the book shut and plucked the coins from the tabletop. "Please start from the beginning."

Meiling poured forth her worries, starting with the six stricken fairies resting in Remilia's sitting room. By the time she admitted to abandoning her duties, Master Kaku's eyes had glazed over. The guardswoman stammered and blushed as the Azurine Hermit fell from her chair. "Forgive me, but I rarely have the opportunity to speak freely."

"You're not the first to unburden her soul to me." Master Kaku rubbed her hip before she swayed to her feet. "As for the fairies, has anyone moved them a step further along in their cycle of rebirth?" She dragged a finger across her throat.

Meiling stared at her hostess, aghast. "Of course not. They're practically children."

"They are still youkai. Most doctors won't waste medicine on a sick fairy, not when rebirth erases so many hurts."

"I wish they would." Meiling slapped her hands against the table and jumped to her feet. "I'm a youkai; I don't want to feel the cold kiss of steel when I'm hurt. What if I don't come back? What if they don't come back?"

"A wise choice." Master Kaku bade Meiling to sit back down. "They might not have the strength to return."

Meiling sat down, a grimace marring her lips. Patchouli had made the same warning when Sakuya's knives first came out. "Will you help them?"

Master Kaku cast the coins one last time and watched them spin to a stop. Nodding, she scooped up the coins and stood. "My assistant will mind the altar in my absence."

Meiling bowed her head. "Thank you."

The Azurine Hermit drifted over to an end table. Trading the coins for a flask, she daubed the essential oil within on her arms. She returned to the table with an inkstone and paper in hand. "I must, however, leave detailed instructions before we leave."

***

As the noon sun passed behind a cloud, Meiling threw open the doors of the Scarlet Devil Mansion. She froze, a gasp escaping her lips. With every blink of her eyes, the hallways changed, dividing and combining in a dizzying show of magic. Meiling closed her eyes and steadied herself against the doorway.

Even during the best of times, navigating through the shifting halls of the Scarlet Devil Mansion proved to be a test. Corridors shrunk, lengthened, and even vanished as Sakuya Izayoi's attention to her abilities over time and space wavered. Yet with enough time, Meiling could usually manage to find her way through the mansion. Now, the guardswoman wondered if she needed a compass and a ball of thread.

"I am unsure if this is marvelous or diabolical." Master Kaku clung to Meiling's shoulders.

With her eyes still clenched shut, the guardswoman drew herself to her full height. "Sakuya!"

"Where were you?" a dulcet voice answered.

Meiling opened her eyes. A silver-haired maid in wilted lace stood in the center of the foyer. Around her, the hallways remained fixed, as did Sakuya's placid mask of elegance. Meiling waited for a message relayed from the maid's master. "I brought help."

Master Kaku stepped out of Meiling's shadow. "My surname is Kaku, my personal name is Seiga, and there is a slight flaw in my character." She slapped a hairpin as thick as a chisel against her palm like a closed fan.

Sakuya curtsied, greeting her guest with a strained smile. "Welcome to the Scarlet Devil Mansion. I hope your remedies are better than your sermons."

Master Kaku tapped the point of her hairpin to her lips. "I almost convinced you to follow the Way."

"Indeed." Behind Sakuya, the hallway creaked. "Again, may your cures prove to be more potent than your words. Oh, and Meiling, please let me know before you leave the mansion next time."

Meiling drew in a deep breath. "I did not quit my post." Her words rang hollow in her ears.

"I didn't say you did. But if you ended up like those poor fairies and we couldn't find you, the Mistress-" For once, Sakuya's perfect grace faltered. A new doorway appeared in the foyer and vanished a moment later. "Mistress Remilia will be pleased to see you. Or as pleased as anyone can be in these circumstances."

"What might those be?" Master Seiga asked.

Sakuya flashed Meiling a longsuffering glare. She beckoned for her guests to follow her into the corridor maze. "Didn't Meiling tell you?"

Meiling chased after Sakuya. "Did you want me to cloud Master Kaku's wisdom with my ignorance?"

"'The Way that can be spoken of is not the real Way.' So while I appreciate the gesture, let there be no more secrets between us." Master Kaku threw her arms around Sakuya's shoulders. "Bell is an open book, but you? Your secrets have secrets. I like you."

Sakuya shrugged out of Master Kaku's grasp and vanished, reappearing three meters in front of Meiling. "Be careful what you touch. Patchouli ordered for silver to be strung throughout the mansion."

"It's too early to be in mourning-" Master Kaku began.

The maid held up a hand adorned with gleaming rings and mirror-polished bracelets. "Silver also wards off evil."

"Does it work?" Meiling asked.

"Have you seen the Mistress around?" Sakuya coughed and assumed her placid elegance once more. She vanished again, this time appearing in front of a set of tall double doors.

The doors opened into a vast library, where towering bookshelves wound around a central reading enclave like the hedges of an ancient maze. Compared to the corridors outside, which had resumed their constant motion, the path to the center was straightforward, yet Sakuya still led them through the perfumed paths. A silk-winged fairy maid with ruby lips and her blond hair tied in a bun slipped out from the shelves, sweeping behind them.

"The fairies are resting in another room," Sakuya led them through a set of shelves devoted to love poetry from around the world. "But Patchouli is researching a cure in here."

Nine tables filled the enclave, arrayed in a square. A tangled hedge of glass alembics, rubber piping, and metal rods ringed the outer desks, filled with eye searing flame, hissing steam, and a pungent cloud of sulfur and perfume. Open books covered every square centimeter of the one table not given over to the alchemist's art. A young woman in a lavender sundress flittered between books like a frustrated bee, tugging at her hair in frustration. Meiling was surprised, Patchouli Knowledge rarely wore anything other than heavy cotton pajamas.

"?everything in its place and a place for everything." Patchouli spun in a circle before she flopped into a nearby chair. "Not only must I contend with a five hundred year old system of the world, I must find a place in the Great Chain of Being for creatures unknown to Aristotle using only earth, air, water, and fire." The librarian massaged her temples and stared up at the sunlight in the ceiling.

Meiling spun around, searching for Sakuya, but the head maid vanished as soon as Patchouli's rant turned towards philosophy. Unfortunately, she lacked the decency to take the guardswoman with her. As Patchouli caught her breath, Meiling ducked underneath the center table and shuddered in her sanctuary.

Master Kaku dragged a chair away from the alchemical maze, spilling thin tomes of manga in her wake. At the first thump against the floor, the fairy maid dropped her broom and scurried over. After brushing the seat, Master Kaku reclined in the chair. "Why have you departed from the established Way?"

After a coughing fit, Patchouli found her voice. "Because the wu xing chrysopoeia of five elements doesn't match what I am seeing."

Sliding out from under the table, Meiling reached for the nearest volume of manga on the floor. The blond fairy maid stooped for the book, but pulled away as her hand brushed against Meiling's. The guardswoman put a finger to her lips and waved the fairy away. With the manga volume in hand, Meiling crept back into her hiding place.

Master Kaku slid her chair next to Patchouli's but did not sit down. "How can anyone describe the world with just four elements?"

"To begin, earth, water, air, and fire still oppose and change into each other, just like in the classics of Taoist alchemy." Patchouli stabbed her finger against an open tome. "However, the Elizabethan alchemists half a world away added balance to our traditional framework.

"Every object and being in the universe has its own perfect ratio of the four elements. As long as the elements are balanced to match this ideal, there is longevity, health, and strength. To disrupt this balance is to cause disease, yet shifting the ratio also allows an alchemist to transmute the nature of a substance, such as lead into gold. Fortunately, an excess of any particular element can be diagnosed by a unique set of symptoms.

"Additionally, there is hierarchy. First earth, then water, air, and fire at the top. But at the perfect moment of balance, one might also find light, which is treated in the system as a divine fire. The Chain of Being echoes this relationship, with humans, youkai, devils, angels, and gods following the ranks of the elements. The world is ordered, with everything in its place, and a place for everything."

Meiling leafed through the manga and wished for earplugs. As a guardswoman, however, she still kept an ear on her surroundings. At least she could distract herself with the tawdry "secrets of the earth spider" tabloid tale, unlike the poor fairy stranded in the middle of the lecture, overloaded with books.

"That lacks the elegant paradoxes of the Way." Master Kaku said. "Why did you embrace this system of the world?"

"Unlike wu xing alchemy, it fits the events. I have six unconscious fairies, creatures of fire, in a state of torpor, which signifies a significant excess of water." Patchouli paced a circuit around the central table. "What I don't know is what caused that imbalance."

"Or a cure." Master Kaku drifted over to the far side of the library's glassware maze and stared into an unheated crucible filled with quicksilver liquid. "You should stay away from cinnabar experiments. Mercury never does anyone any good."

Patchouli spun around. "But alchemy-"

"-isn't why I've lived for 1500 years in the full bloom of beauty. And, from the pallor of your skin, you need to take a kernel of sulfur with a spoonful of honey every day. That is, if you don't want the mercury tremors." Master Kaku jerked like a puppet pulled into an awkward jig. She examined the librarian through slitted eyes. "However, it might be too late."

As the air chilled between the rival alchemists, Meiling closed her book and poked her head out from under the table.

"What did you say your discipline was?" Patchouli walked around the ring of alchemical distilleries and snuffed out the gas burners. Without waiting for a command, the blond fairy maid extinguished the burners within her reach.

"Taoist philosophy." Master Kaku ran her hand along a test tube rack filled with stoppered vials of a honey elixir.

Patchouli's lips twisted into a sneer. "We're shorthanded, so we cannot spare a servant with wine and a shovel to follow you around. You'll need to bury yourself if you die."

Meiling leapt to her feet, slamming into the table with a rattle of glass. Rubbing the knot on her head, she stepped out of her hiding place. "Patchouli-" she scolded.

Master Kaku held up a hand. "'Those who speak do not know.' Although I am pleased that your studies do not lack in the classics." She slipped her hand into a vest pocket. "The writings of the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove is an odd choice, unless you're one of those girls who would rather read about passion than experience it."

Patchouli glowed scarlet as she flung test tubes into a drying oven. "Didn't you flee from your marriage bed?" She slammed the metal door and whirled around, facing Master Kaku with a spellcard in her hand. "Yet you dare call me frigid."

The Azurine Hermit pulled her chisel-point hairpin free from her coiffure. "You should spend more of your time out of the library. A little experience will teach you not to trust everything you read."

The spellcard glowed in Patchouli's hand. "Oh, then your husband left you? Was it for another woman or to rid himself of a shrew?"

Surging forward Meiling grabbed hold of the librarian's wrist and jerked it overhead. The activated spellcard fell from Patchouli's hand, fizzling into a spray of golden dodecahedral crystals. "Master Kaku's our guest!"

"Your guest, not mine." Patchouli ripped her arm free from Meiling's grasp. Rubbing her wrist, she turned on the guardswoman. "I thought you of all people would have trusted me to find a cure."

"I do." Meiling remained between the alchemist and the sage.

"Yet you searched out another alchemist." Patchouli's voice dropped into a chill whisper as her eyes bored into Meiling's.

A veteran of countless staredowns around the world, Meiling held her ground. "The rules of hospitality forbid unprovoked spellcard attacks."

"She started it." Patchouli planted her hand on her hip and glared past Meiling at Master Kaku.

"That doesn't justify using your Philosopher's Stone on her."

A glimmer at the edge of Meiling's vision caught her attention. Looking over her shoulder, she saw Master Kaku hold a golden crystal up to the light. The sage turned the crystal in her hand and watched the light play upon the facets. Meiling shook her head; Patchouli's spent danmaku might shine like gold, but it was worth less than pyrite.

Master Kaku bowed. "My apologies, Master Alchemist. I misspoke earlier. Your devotion to your studies has not been misplaced." As she stood, her fingers brushed against her vest.

Patchouli preened at the praise. "It's a work in process. The purity still isn't where it should be."

"I wondered why you still sought a cure since you have the reagents for the Elixir of Life." Master Kaku watched as the fairy maid swept up the last of the Philosopher's Stone crystals. "Alas, your experiment isn't the only thing that lacks virtue here."

Patchouli glowed scarlet, but, after one glance at Meiling, she bit her tongue and counted until the color drained away. "Follow me. Let's see if you can do better."

***

For once, it was not Patchouli's grousing that set Meiling's teeth on edge as the librarian led her, Master Kaku, and the fairy with spider silk wings through the mansion's halls. Instead, an electric charge had settled on the guardswoman's skin like a constant itch, and the further she walked along the wainscoted corridor, the more pressing grew the need to scratch furrows into her arms.

The guardswoman methodically scanned the hallway, near to far and left to right. Unlike the rest of the mansion's walkways, the walls stood motionless, lined with silver rounds tacking Sakuya's shifting hold over time and space into place. Atop the molded paneling sat silver coins, spaced half a meter apart and paired between the two walls. Meiling recognized the silver as Spanish eight real coins ? the famous "pieces of eight" ? taken from the mansion's vaults. A glint above her caught her eye. Another set of coins was tacked to the ceiling, one near each corner, completing an arch of silver reales repeated throughout the hall.

For a moment, Meiling wondered if the electric ripple across her skin was due to the improvised ward against evil or the realization that keeping the unsecured riches safe was now her duty. She glanced over at Patchouli and Master Kaku, who both passed through the hall unaffected.

"Meiling!"

Gritting her teeth, the guardswoman froze. Searching out of the corner of her eye, she spotted a nook breaking the pattern of the coins. Inside, a cat-eyed doll in pink uncurled from a rocking chair and glided towards her.

"You know better than to leave without permission." Remilia's bat wings spread wide like a billowing black cloak. The child vampire perked up, flashing her fangs. "But you did bring me a snack. I've been a mite peckish since helping Sakuya, so let's not wait." She grabbed ahold of Master Kaku's hand, baring the woman's slender wrist.

The mountain hermit shuddered and turned her head away.

"Now, don't you worry. This won't hurt you a bit, and after a quick pint, Sakuya will have a cushion and a glass of orange juice waiting for you." Raising Master Kaku's wrist to her lips, Remilia opened her mouth wide. The tips of the vampiress's fangs pressed against the sage's skin. Hissing, Remilia recoiled away from the hermit and leapt into Meiling's arms. "Lemon and garlic. That's not fair," she wailed, huddling against her guard.

Laughing, Master Kaku doubled over and rubbed her wrist. "I've dealt with beings like you before."

Remilia rubbed her lips. "I'm a European vampire. Save for my sister, there are no other beings like me in Japan."

"How unfortunate for me, then. Most blood drinkers in Japan would consider a splash of lemon and garlic to be marinade, not repellent."

Remilia squirmed in Meiling's arms until she stared into the guardswoman's eyes. "I've decided that I'm still mad at you."

Meiling lowered her eyes. "I-" An actinic flash and a shrill shriek cut her off.

Wide-eyed and sucking on her finger, the blond fairy maid trembled in the middle of the hall. She pointed to a wisp of smoke rising from a piece of eight. Its glimmer dulled, leaving a vivid rainbow patina.

"Careful now. Look but don't touch," Remilia chided over her shoulder. Despite the vampiress's confident air, she still drew her wings closer to her body.

Meiling rushed over to the newly tarnished coin and spread her arms wide. "Enchanted silver?"

Patchouli tried to push her way past Meiling. "Now you know why Sakuya set these coins along the wall instead of Koakuma. Even dross holds power."

"So that is normal?" the maid asked from within Meiling's shadow.

"As much as anything is around here." Remilia slipped out of Meiling's arms and skipped ahead of the group. She beckoned for them to follow.

Meiling waited for the maid and Patchouli to leave the rainbow tarnished coin. "Master Kaku?"

The Azurine Hermit stood in front of a sparkling silver real and pressed her finger against the coin. The real still gleamed in the light. Master Kaku tapped her hairpin against her lips and stared at the maid. "But there is a slight flaw in my character."

"Master Kaku, please, you don't want to be left behind."

The Azurine Hermit pulled her gaze away from the blond fairy. "Forgive me my distraction." She lifted her finger from the polished real and set off with Meiling after the vampiress.

They caught up to Remilia and Patchouli just after Remilia's still rocking chair. Continuing down the hall, the five women passed under a silver wire dreamcatcher hung from the ceiling like a web. While the maid cooed at the handiwork overhead, they pushed their way into a standing wall of heat. Ignoring the rivulet of sweat in her eye, Meiling loosened the laces of her vest and rolled up her sleeves. Patchouli's sudden fondness for sundresses now made sense. Alas, a guard must always remain in uniform.

"So you're trying to sweat out the excess water. Why not use a diuretic instead?" Unlike Meiling, Master Kaku had not wilted in the oven. The Azurine Hermit waved a paper fan. Meiling eased closer, until the fan took the edge off the swelter.

"We've managed to get them to swallow a hibiscus tisane sweetened with honey." Patchouli slid the silver web away from the doorframe. "The dry heat is to restore their fire."

"Did you have to turn half the mansion into a furnace?" Remilia's wings wilted, but the vampiress marched on. "Flandre's complaining, although not so as much as when Meiling went missing."

"I'm sorry." Meiling bowed, swaying as she fought off a swoon. "I went for help."

Remilia walked on, unmindful of Meiling's words.

***

Like a picture-perfect copy of her silent sisters sleeping in the parlor room around her, the fairy maid rested atop a mountain of cushions, wrapped in her moonlight wings. For a moment, Meiling thought the sleeping girl was a lace-wrapped doll cast in porcelain, with her ruby lips, alabaster skin, and jet princess-cut hair, but the rise and fall of the fairy's chest belied the illusion.

Bowing her head, Master Kaku knelt next to the fairy. "A perfect little fairy from the Palace of the Moon."

"I think Diao Chan was older when she earned that praise." Meiling lifted a silk sheet from the foot of the cushions and tucked the fairy into her bed. The guardswoman flashed a reassuring smile at the worried maids crowded around the open parlor door.

"Who?"

"The songstress who set Lu Bu and Dong Zhou against each other. From The Romance of the Three Kingdoms? Our version of Kaguya?" Meiling's face fell as Master Kaku shook her head.

"Surely any true Chinese sage would recognize the name of one of the Four Beauties." Patchouli knelt behind a potbelly stove and, protected by thick canvas gloves, the librarian shoved firewood into the cast iron firepot. Her words dripped with cloying venom. "But I am not surprised you don't recognize her. They used to forbid the treacherous from reading The Romance of the Three Kingdoms lest the book give them ideas."

Master Kaku shrugged. "I'm still catching up on the teachings of the Celestial Masters that were published while I slept."

"So you're not a real sage?" Patchouli slammed the stove's feed door and wiped her brow. Bright yellow flame danced between the slats in the stove, and every crackle of burning wood drove the temperature higher.

Meiling closed her eyes and drew in a deep breath. But before she could speak, Sakuya appeared in the center of the room. "Take it outside, you two. Berry and her sisters need their rest," said the Head Maid of the Scarlet Devil Mansion.

"I just wanted to be sure of her credentials," Patchouli simpered. She gestured towards the sickbeds. "May I treat my patients now?"

Master Kaku closed her eyes and bowed her head. "Compassion to all." She held out her hand in invocation.

"Fine. Remember, their hospice is my charge." As Sakuya's mask of serenity faltered, her image flickered. Her perfect elegance remained unmarred as she reappeared, holding a tea tray in her hands. The air filled with the bouquet of floral potpourri. "So if you continue to fight like Kaguya and Mokou, I will cool your heads in the Misty Lake."

Patchouli rolled her eyes. She took her station by a nightstand covered in brown glass bottles. Consulting a notebook, she poured powders from three bottles into a pestle. Patchouli ground the powders together with a mortar, compounding the master alchemist's latest medicine.

Meiling propped pillows underneath Berry's head. "I apologize, Master Kaku, I don't know what's gotten into Patchouli."

"'The words of the wise are as goads, driven by one shepherd.''" Master Kaku pressed two fingers against her patient's neck and counted. She shook her head and whispered, "So weak."

"Which master said that?"

The Azurine Hermit held up her hand and completed her count. Sitting back on her heels, she turned toward Meiling. "I overheard a Nestorian say it before I was sealed inside the mountain."

With a growing murmur, the crowd of fairy maids at the door parted. Remilia bobbed her way into the parlor, carrying a swaying stack of linen in her arms.

"Young Mistress, you must allow me to do my job." Sakuya cast a moue as she dribbled a spoonful of tea into a fairy's mouth.

Unaffected by the swelter, Remilia shrugged and dropped the linen sheets on the floor. "I want to help."

While Sakuya scolded her mistress about the proper forms of polite society, Meiling made her rounds through the room, propping up the fairies in their beds. Master Kaku stayed by Berry's side and checked the fairy maid's vital signs. All the while, the low grinding from Patchouli's mortar and pestle continued.

"How long have they been like this?" the sage asked.

"I found them passed out on the floor early this morning." Sakuya patted a fallen fairy's face with a hand towel.

"Has anyone else fallen sick?" Master Kaku placed her wrist on Berry's forehead.

Sakuya cast a glance towards the door. A sunflower fairy in a ruffled apron shook her head.

"It's not a plague." Remilia tapped her nose before baring her fangs. "I'd smell it on their breath if it were."

The low grinding from Patchouli's mortar and pestle stopped. "Before you ask, it's not a curse either. No one can hide magic from me." With a smile, Master Kaku fiddled with her hairpin.

Meiling pursed her lips. "That means something in the room made them sick," she thought out loud.

"We searched the room while you were gone." Sakuya flickered once more, her tea cup now atop of the stove.

"Another set of eyes might help." Meiling flashed a wan smile. After a bow, the guardswoman circled the walls of the parlor. Her eyes spared neither nook nor cranny along her path, but she could not tell which of the collected curios might be the culprit.

Master Kaku stood, tapping her hairpin to her lips. The sage towered over Berry's bed, her eyes darting between the stricken fairy and the maids huddled in the hallway. She whirled about and strutted to the parlor door. The fairy maids parted from the hermit's path, but Master Kaku caught one by the wrist. The sage studied the doll of a fairy, with her daisy petal wings, pale face, and pink lips unstained by gloss. A flush of rose seeped into the girl's cheeks.

Try as Meiling might, she could not see the fairy as anyone other than another of the puckish girls dolled up in lace who had adopted her as their older sister. While she loved the ancient tales of Judge Di, her talents had not set her upon the path of the detective. On the other hand, the guardswoman would spot instantly if a fairy tried to secret away a dagger or, more likely for Gensokyo, a deck of spellcards.

Master Kaku held her hairpin against her lips. "Why aren't you wearing lipstick?" She released the maid. Backing away from the sage, the fairy pleaded with Sakuya.

"Summer is dressed in the proper uniform for a maid of the mansion, without makeup." Sakuya dismissed the fairy maid with a wave of her hand. Trailing a faint glimmer of fairylight, Summer fled to the safety of her sisters.

"Then why do some wear lipstick?"

Coughing, Sakuya covered her lips with her hand. "The head maid is given certain privileges to balance out her greater responsibilities-"

"Not you. Them." Master Kaku pointed at the six maids stretched out on the cushions. Each girl's lips bore an identical shade of ruby gloss.

"If a girl exhibits a demure touch with brush, blush, and gloss, I make Sakuya look the other way," Remilia said.

Sakuya shook her head. "Most of them use makeup the same way Flandre uses crayons."

Meiling bit back a snicker. The last time Sakuya tried to educate her staff on cosmetics, the class ended with a dozen fairies with faces painted like luchadora masks. Clinging to the last scarlet scraps of her elegance, Sakuya marched into the wine cellar and locked herself inside. After Meiling forced the door open, she carried the soused maid out from her fortress of empty bottles and tucked her into bed. Perhaps she should coax Sakuya into giving another class.

Master Kaku looked around the parlor, tapping her hairpin against her lips. "Bell." The sage beckoned to Meiling. "Please follow me."

"I thought you worked for me." With a pout, Remilia cast a glare at her guardswoman. Only Meiling's martial discipline kept her from withering under the vampiress's cat-eyed stare.

"If you could spare Bell for a moment, I need a second set of eyes and everyone else is busy." Master Kaku pointed to Berry's ruby lips. "Remember that shade and let me know if you see it again."

Remilia bristled as the sage walked out of the parlor. "You're not going without me." She darted through the doorway with Sakuya on her heels.

With a shrug, Meiling followed Remilia out into the hallway. The vampires spoke reassurances to the skittish platoon of fairy maids while Master Kaku and Sakuya searched each girl for a trace of red. Meiling trailed in their wake, keeping an eye for any flash of ruby amidst the sea of gloss, ribbons, and lace. But when the impromptu inspection ended back inside the parlor, Meiling had yet to see a bold red. Even Sakuya preferred a subtle pink. As the inspection party dispersed, the guardswoman caught the sage's eye and shook her head.

"Please take a sample of lipstick from each of the ill girls and find the applicator they used." Master Kaku washed her hands in a basin by the door. "Master Alchemist, I must request to use your workspace and your solvents."

***

Hidden within a small corner nook of the mansion's library, Patchouli, Remilia, and Master Kaku huddled over a workbench. Seven smears of lipstick, one from each stricken fairy and one from the applicator they had shared, each filled their own test tube in a metal stand. As Master Kaku heated the rack of glass, Meiling and Sakuya hugged the wall and watched while the wax dripped inside. The mountain sage added drop by drop a rainbow of solvents to the samples. Three of the vials fizzled and turned into clear fluid. A fourth turned into a blue-green tar that burped once and settled. But when Master Kaku applied heat from the gas burner in her hand, the test tube belched, painting the ceiling with a splatter of boiling blue sludge.

Remilia shrieked as the foulness plopped down on the floor. "What are you doing?"

"Hold this." Master Kaku shoved another test tube into Remilia's hand. The liquid inside sparked once, twice, and then in a constant storm until the bulb glowed like a second sun. The vampiress blanched as the glass charred in her hand.

Silver and blue blurred around Remilia, and the eye searing tube reappeared, smoldering away in the test rack. The vampiress leapt away, shaking her hand as though she had been scalded. Sakuya scooped the young girl in her arms, casting a venomous glare at Master Kaku.

"Please tell me that you are going to clean that up," Sakuya said.

Master Kaku held up her hand as Patchouli poured the last solvents into the final two tubes. Both filled with needle black crystals. The Azurine Hermit tapped each set on its own circle of white paper and poured a clear oil over each. One washed away into a puddle, but the last sample turned the crystals a noxious bile green.

"Ku poison." The Azurine Hermit soaked up the alchemical mess with paper. "Wash the fairies' lips and do not let a single drop into their mouths, or you will complete the assassin's work."

At the word "assassin", Meiling leapt in front of Remilia and Sakuya, shielding them from the worktable with her body. "Remilia, we must take you some place safe."

"Why would someone be so foolish?" The child vampire trembled in Sakuya's arms. She slipped away from her maid, and growled through bared fangs. "I'm a vampire, not mere meat. Poisons never work on me. Must I constantly remind everyone what garlic and stakes are for?" She clenched her fists, and Meiling shrank away from the growing tantrum.

"I'll ask the Moriya shrine to play Interview with a Vampire at their theater again," Sakuya said.

"Dye my dresses red, for I hunt tonight." Remilia licked her lips and laughed as she shook her fist at the sky.

"Very well, Young Mistress, I shall warn Reimu as well."

Remilia faltered. "This is well within the bounds set by our understanding-"

"She's in seclusion for ritual purification." Using a wooden dowel, Patchouli swept the solutions, glass and all, into a lead-lined waste bin. "Marisa's been complaining about it down in the village."

Remilia crushed Meiling in a hug and twirled out of the room, laughing.

Sakuya's shoulders slumped. "I should go with her, to keep her out of trouble. But first, what is ku poison?"

"The guards back home tell stories of it." Meiling clasped her arms behind her back. "It is said to have been used for two thousand years. The old guards back home tell stories of an old buddy of a friend of a pal who knew someone who died of the poison's wasting sleep. I always thought ku poison was just a fairy tale."

"Oh, it's real. I've actually used it once or twice," Master Kaku eyed the silver that flashed in Sakuya's hand. "I have no quarrel with your young mistress; some of my misguided attempts to make elixirs of life required ku poison as a solute. I assure you, I am a thousand years removed from my last aliquot."

A child's cackle pealed from the library. Sakuya inched towards the shelves. "That doesn't tell me what it is. Animal, vegetable, or mineral?"

"I never made it myself." The sage caught her breath as Sakuya vanished without warning. She turned to Meiling. "Bell, do you ever get used to that?"

A splintering crash cut her off. Wide eyed, Patchouli sprinted into the maze of bookshelves. Meiling took off after the librarian, weaving between bookracks until she rounded the corner to the Youkai Mountain tengu periodicals section. With a small hop, she stopped in front of the mountain of books, broadsheets, and broken shelves spilled out across the ground.

Patchouli stumbled to a stop and doubled over, wheezing as she clung to the nearest shelf. Tears welled in the librarian's eyes. "Koakuma!"

"It wasn't my fault," a clear soprano called out from above.

Meiling looked up and backed into a bookshelf. At the apex of the shelves, the blond silk-winged fairy dangled from a wooden rolling ladder by only one arm. Clutching a tome tight against her chest, the maid kicked out, knocking over a three-volume box set as her stocking feet tried to find purchase on the ladder.

As the books fell, Patchouli squealed and rushed underneath them. Catching the set, she tumbled into the shelf and slid to the floor. A coughing fit wracked her body.

"Don't forget to take a spoonful of sulfur and honey every day," Master Kaku said as she rounded the corner.

Meiling rushed forward and braced the ladder with her body. "Drop the book."

The fairy called out, "But Miss Patchouli-"

In the corner of Meiling's eye, the librarian waved her hand. The guardswoman said, "It's fine." She looked up, stepped away from the ladder, and caught the book in her arms. Planting her feet, Meiling braced herself against the ladder.

Master Kaku tapped her hairpin against her lips as the fairy reached out and pulled herself onto the ladder. "The poor dear forgot she could fly."

Patchouli swayed to her feet. "I'll take that." She held out her hand towards Meiling. The guardswoman looked down and handed over the collection of Golden Room legends. Patchouli dusted off the cover and shelved the tome. "Thank you."

A whiff of brimstone filled the air as a winged demoness in business attire appeared at Patchouli's side. She glanced at the mess on the floor and hissed. "What happened here?" She spotted the blond maid stepping off the ladder and made a moue of disgust. "I should have known. What did you do now, Silk?"

The maid wheeled around at her name and met Koakuma's eyes. "This wasn't my fault."

"Whatever. Just help me clean this up."

"Make sure you take inventory." Patchouli pointed at a torn page. "Give me a list of every book that needs a new cover or a new page."

Kneeling, Meiling shook free a plank from the pile of books, and set it aside

Patchouli grabbed the Chinese youkai's shoulder. "Leave that for Koakuma and Silk. There's better uses for our time."

With a curt nod, the guardswoman stood, squared her shoulders, and grabbed Patchouli's wrist. "Let's talk." Meiling dragged the librarian into an adjacent aisle.

Choking back a squeal, Patchouli rubbed her arm and cast a glance over her shoulder. Back by the mess, Koakuma and Silk toiled on. "What's on your mind?"

"Can you make us secure?"

Nodding, Patchouli knelt and, with a piece of chalk, drew a pentagon around Meiling. After circumscribing it, she tapped the circle with her chalk. The lines fluoresced and a susurrating breeze rippled through the library. Patchouli stood and clapped chalk dust from her hands. "We can speak freely; no one can eavesdrop now.

Meiling drove her fist into her open hand. "Whoever did this should be facing us with spellcard instead." She closed her eyes and counted to herself. "I will close the front gate. We need to check every delivery we've gotten today as well as any new ones that come in."

Patchouli shook her head. "The test for the poison is easy enough, but it takes time. I cannot work on the cure while checking every parcel. Or overseeing a team of fairies doing so, which is pretty much the same as doing it myself."

"Get Koa to do it. Preferably somewhere private without windows." Meiling pursed her lips. "I'll have to shutter those as well."

"This all would be easier if Sakuya were here."

"She's where she needs to be; keeping Remilia out of trouble." Meiling squeezed Patchouli's should. "We'll help each other out as best we can, so when Remilia returns from her hunt, she won't need to worry about little things."

Patchouli knelt and brushed her hand through the chalk. The glowing circle faded as the spell broke. "I'll hold you to that promise."

***

The night chill seeped into the fairies' parlor. Meiling wrapped a scarlet shawl around her shoulders and stifled a yawn. She placed a plum charm for healing on Berry's pillow. Eyeing the furnace, she brushed a strand of dark hair from the ashen fairy's brow.

The guardswoman had claimed the first fire watch of the night. Duty demanded it. Left alone, a stray ember fallen from the stove could turn the sick beds into funeral pyres, even after Patchouli abandoned her elemental fire therapy. Besides, Meiling could not bear the thought of the fairies left all alone, even overnight.

Like her mother had when Meiling was a child, the guardswoman sang the simple songs of hearth and home over the slumbering fairies. She made her rounds through the parlor, placing a plum charm on each girl's cushion. Perhaps a passing mercy goddess would be drawn by the amulets.

Meiling sat by the bed of a fairy she knew as Rose. The guardswoman rubbed her eyes. Rocking in her chair, she pinched the back of her hand. For a moment, her vision cleared. Shaking her head, she resumed her circuits through the parlor.

A bell jingled as the parlor door opened. Meiling sat up straight as Master Kaku and Patchouli entered. The librarian, now dressed in her preferred pajamas, carried a beaker. Six eyedroppers rattled around inside the glass, each filled with a golden liquid.

"Is that the antidote?" Meiling's hopes quickened.

"It is Elixir of Life made from the Philosopher's Stone." Master Kaku took two eyedroppers. "Your turn, Bell."

"Please don't spill." Patchouli pulled the beaker away from Meiling's reach. After a moment, she relented. "This isn't easy to make. Only one pipette per patient."

"Why can't you call them eyedroppers?" Meiling took two doses of the medicine. She held one up and watched the glow of the furnace play upon the golden quicksilver inside.

"A little showmanship heightens the mysteries of alchemy." Master Kaku knelt by the closest sextuplet, Daisy, tilted her head back, and administered the medicine.

"Don't dawdle. The elixir's potency diminishes with time." Patchouli treated another fairy, Clover, and dropped the empty pipette into the beaker.

Meiling in turn gave the golden medicine to Berry and Rose. Neither fairy so much as shivered after they swallowed the medicine. Fiddling with the fringe of her shawl, Meiling sat and watched Rose. "Now what?"

"We wait." Patchouli passed her beaker to Meiling. The guardswoman dropped her empty pipettes into the glass. Signing, the librarian sat beside Meiling and pulled out a pocket-sized book from her pajamas. While Patchouli flipped through its pages, Master Kaku paced circles around the room.

The pot-belly stove crackled until the fire within burned down to fading embers. Shivering, Meiling shuffled over to the furnace and stoked the flame with more firewood. She rubbed her hands together and basked in the warmth. The guardswoman chewed her lip and waited for Patchouli's patients to stir.

The librarian tucked a ribbon into her book. She reached out and pinched Rose's ear. The sleeping fairy did not flinch, even after Patchouli twisted the maid's earlobe. Slumping in her chair, the alchemist closed her eyes and bowed her head. "I told you that I have problems with the purity of the Philosopher's Stone. I am at the limit of my craft."

"We had to try." Meiling took her post by Rose's bed.

The dollish fairy still slept, but traces of color bloomed in her ashen cheeks.

Re: The Adventures of Master Kaku and Blessed Bell
« Reply #1 on: September 24, 2015, 03:50:47 AM »
Chapter 2: The Ginseng Girl

"Those who are filled with life need not fear tigers and rhinos in wild, nor wear armor and shields in battle." ? The Classic of the Way and Power, by the Old Master

***

Inside the Human Village's medical clinic, Meiling huddled underneath a poster proclaiming "No Doomkittens Allowed" and covered her ears. For the past hour, she had listened while Eirin Yagokoro and Master Kaku rattled off a rapid-fire exchange that tested each other's knowledge of alchemy, herbalism, and compounding as well as the limits of Meiling's longsuffering. Now the guardswoman understood why Remilia had smirked when Meiling had begged permission to accompany Master Kaku.

"White baneberry." Standing next to an examining table, Eirin took a sleeping rabbit girl's pulse. "You might know it as herb Christopher."

Master Kaku toweled off the white rabbit's forehead. "The white berries are highly poisonous. The root acts as a violent purgative when ingested. Ground up, it is a topical salve for snakebite. Compounded, it increases the potency of the other ingredients."

"It's also a sang-sign plant." Eirin shook her head and reached for a thermometer.

"You healers are obsessed with ginseng." Master Kaku tousled the shivering rabbit's hair. "What about ladyslipper?"

Eirin set the thermometer in her patient's mouth. "Don't you mean nervine-root?"

Meiling whimpered in her corner. Even at their pettiest, Remilia and Flandre managed their sisterly catfights with less shrillness. Her sole consolation was that the sages' endless testing had yet to move to philosophy.

"'Shall I teach you what knowledge is? When you know a thing, to hold that you know it; and when you do not know a thing, to allow that you do not know it.'" Eirin waited for the mercury to quit rising. She drew in a hissing breath as the thermometer continued to climb.

At the familiar words of Master Kong's philosophy, Meiling grabbed hold of her skirt and wrung the cloth in her hands. "Will you stop dancing around and ask her?" She clapped her hands over her mouth and turned scarlet.

Rolling her eyes, Master Kaku pulled a small spiral notebook from her vest. "I need six portions each of bloodroot, snake fern berries, and white baneberry root."

"That's a strange blood tonic. You'll need to add a liter of honey water to choke it down. No, the snake fern's for something else." Eirin tapped a finger against her lips. "What's the poison?"

Master Kaku winced. "Ku poison, applied to the skin."

The sage of Eternity Manor blanched at the revelation. "You'll need ginseng. Nothing else will do."

"I'll still want the white baneberry."

"No, what you'll want is a still. Purity is potency with ginseng, as is age. Did your patients swallow any of the ku poison?" Eirin waited until Master Kaku shook her head. "That's a blessing at least. You can use regular ginseng instead of a Great Root of Power."

"So, how much for the ginseng?" Meiling asked.

"I have some growing on my Youkai Mountain gardens, but it won't be ready to harvest for seven years." Eirin marked down notes in the rabbit's medical record. "You'll need to find a ginseng hunter. Mokou's the best you can find, if you can slip her from the care of my one-time assistant. So when you see Udonge, please tell her to come back. She's behind on her studies."

***

The flowers of kasane fashion walked among the single street of the Youkai Mountain of Moriya, named after the mountain shrine that established the sky train terminal at the settlement's heart. Young men and women loitered in small groups, each competing for attention by wearing layers of colored robes in combinations named for flowers. The young Celestial pressing her gossamer veil into the hands of any passing man wore willow, or a white robe over green. A dapper earth spider merchant paraded down the street in eye-searing grape, maroon over azure. And the sour-faced spinster sneering at Meiling's sumptuary plainness wore plum, or white over maroon.

Meiling ducked behind the general store and yanked the laces of her vest tight. Those spinsters and debutantes might sneer at her clothes, but few of them could compete with her figure. Her pride demanded satisfaction.

"Everything is vanity, a chasing after the wind.'" Master Kaku hovered by the corner of the general store and shook her head. Meiling ignored the extra sway in the pacing hermit's hips. Even the eremitic felt the tug of pride.

Meiling thrust out her chest and strutted along the thoroughfare, reveling in the wolf-whistles and catty glares. From the way the other women stepped in front their men as the guardswoman passed by, she would find no help in the hamlet. Not that she needed it to find the Wandering Eye saloon. Moriya still only had a single two-storey building. As Meiling approached, the eye on the saloon's sign, carved in the heart-shape of a satori's third eye, rolled skyward in a silent plea to the gods of the mountain.

"Bell, by showing beauty, you have revealed ugliness." Master Kaku muttered. A small bubble formed around the Chinese women, ringed by the venomous whispers of Japan's fairer flowers.

Laughing, Meiling posed in front of the saloon's swinging doors and preened.

The doors swung outward, knocking the guardswoman over. A willowy rabbit woman in a plum vested dress loomed over Meiling. "By the gods, woman, put something sensible on, like a burlap sack." Reisen Udongein Inaba's eyes flashed red as she hauled Meiling to her feet.

Master Kaku laughed while the moon rabbit manhandled the guardswoman away from the Wandering Eye. "I'm not sure that will help."

"Just take her away. I've finally convinced Jiro Shirayuki from the Human Village to settle down with my client. If he sees her through the window?"

"My eyes are quite stunning," Meiling simpered as she tried to wriggle out of the rabbit's hold.

"I don't think he'll even notice the color." Reisen spun Meiling around and flung her into the middle of the road. A silhouette passed across the saloon's front window. "Come back in a half hour." The matchmaker dashed back through the swinging doors.

Three spellcards appeared in Meiling's hand as the guardsman ran towards the Wandering Eye. A coppery satori in a pearl blouse, an ebony skirt, and a frilless apron blocked her path. Meiling sidestepped around the satori, flowing around her like water. The satori reached out, snagged the guardswoman by her ear, and twisted. As she was pulled down to the satori's eye level, Meiling hissed and dropped her spellcards. Never in a hundred battles had she thought to protect her ears.

"A word of warning, missy," the satori mindreader cooed. The wrenching of Meiling's earlobe ensured the guardswoman's rapt attention. "I don't expect everyone to like each other, but you will not drag your fights into my saloon."

Meiling eased herself within the satori's grasp until she faced Master Kaku, who bit back her laughter. "Help me," the guardswoman mouthed. She winced as she was spun around to face her assailant once again. "Do we have an understanding? Speak up; I wouldn't nod if I were you."

Meiling gasped as she fell to her knees. "Okay, I give up."

"Good. Now, missy, who are you?" The satori planted her hands on her hips, her third eye glowering at Meiling.

Drawing herself to her full height, Meiling rubbed her earlobe and backed away. A bloom in the guardswoman's cheeks betrayed her feigned indifference. "Meiling Hong. And this is-"

"-Seiga Kaku, n?e Wu Qing'e, and there is considerably more than a slight flaw in her character," the satori snapped. Her third eye fixed its unblinking gaze upon the Azurine Hermit.

Laughing, Master Kaku clapped her hands. "I like you. I should visit your saloon more often."

The satori's third eye flickered between the Chinese women. "I have enough impending disasters as regulars; one more won't make a difference. Try the beer; I make it myself." She beckoned with a finger and circled around the building. Meiling and Master Kaku fell in behind her. "I am Nanami Komeiji. Yes, the Royal Bookworm who reigns Down Below is my niece, and, yes, this is where Yori Houraisan stayed before he married Princess Kaguya."

"So the kappa romances are true?" Meiling asked. In the season since the wedding, whenever the tengu reporters were not sensationalizing the fairy tale princess's courtship and wedding, the kappa authors and artists patterned their penny dreadfuls after them.

"Sort of." Nanami shrugged and opened the back entrance. "At least he got his fairy tale ending, and Kaguya found her current happiness. For my part in the matter, I thought for sure that I would have to fire a musician for seducing a customer. But my business hasn't fallen off after the wedding, what with that rabbit matchmaker holding court, a kissing bandit pecking the cheeks of every man in Moriya, and Carnival of the Animals playing here twice a week."

"What about Tenshi?" A favorite of the kappa artists in their tales, the Celestial had been the original kissing bandit, planting her lips on Kaguya's then fianc? in front of everyone in Nanami's crowded saloon.

"Half of Moriya wants Tenshi to be the bandit. She hasn't been back, though, not since her last kiss with Yori. Come to think of it, neither has the bandit, not since he showed up last week." Nanami nodded out into the street.

The dapper earth spider walked down the dirt road, swinging a swagger stick. He doffed his cap towards the bartender and leered at Meiling. The guardswoman cracked her knuckles and bared her teeth. Nanami rolled her eyes and shoved Meiling inside the saloon.

Master Kaku squirmed past the bartender. "Where is Lady Mokou Fujiwara?"

Shaking her head, Nanami shut the door behind her. "She's paying penance for her part in the princess's wedding."

"The tengu broadsheets didn't say anything about her." Meiling took off her cap and scratched her head.

"Good." Nanami led them through her storeroom. Wooden crates lined one wall and a copper brewing kettle filled the other. She tarried by a thermometer dial on the kettle. "A young man searches for his true love's desire while fending off rivals and braving the elements? People want to believe those stories."

"But the truth-"

"-isn't mine to tell. Nor is it Mokou's." Nanami jotted a quick line on a checklist pinned to the kettle. Her eyes narrowed. "Master Thief Kaku, put that back or pay up. Five hundred yen."

Master Kaku sipped from a beer bottle and flipped a yellowing coin at the satori, who ran her thumb along the rim. Satisfied that the coin had not been clipped, Nanami added it to her purse.

"One more, please?" Meiling fished inside her coin purse.

"You can go ahead and grab what you want. We'll square up before you leave." Nanami peeked into the bar room through a slit in the storehouse door. "However, she pays first."

Master Kaku shrugged and slapped a bottle into Meiling's palm.

"Mokou's in the corner by the staircase. Stick to the shadows and Reisen won't know you're there." The satori barkeeper opened the door. "Try not to destroy my bar, please."

***

The immortal phoenix girl cowered at her table and wrapped herself within the shimmering fire mink's robe. Instead of her typical dress shirt and red suspenders, she wore a silk twelve-layered robe, with the famed treasure of Kaguya Houraisan as the outermost coat. A voluminous red and white bow, twin to the one in Mokou's floor-length hair, adorned her chest in a calculated effort to hide Nature's lack. From the way the tomboy shrank away from any man's passing stare, Meiling gathered that the formal court dress was not Mokou's choice.

The guardswoman slid into a chair and flashed a pleasant smile. "Hello, Mokou. I'm Meiling and this is Master Kaku-"

"Don't forget the slight flaw in my character."

Rolling her eyes, Meiling set her beer on the table. "So you're the ginseng girl?"

Mokou dove over the table and clamped a hand over Meiling's mouth. "Don't say that. I'm just a part-time ginseng hunter, nothing more."

"What's the difference?" Master Kaku slipped a hairpin free from her coiffure and, under the table, jabbed Mokou in her leg.

Mokou yelped and sat back down. Rubbing her leg, she shrank away from the hermit. She cast her eyes furtively around the room and leaned over the table. "There's a legend about ginseng. If a plant lives for three hundred years, it takes a human form. Like she did." She pointed to a table by the bar where Kogasa Tatara sat. The umbrella youkai swayed in her chair, growing tipsy from the endless surprises from Reisen's meet market unfolding around her.

"There's a ginseng youkai?" Meiling cast a moue as she thought. "Wait, shouldn't it only take a hundred years to make one?"

Mokou sat up straight and shrugged. "How should I know? I didn't make up the tale. It's moot, anyway. Ginseng is too valuable to leave alone for a hundred years, much less three hundred."

"If you all would use bloodroot, snake fern, and all the other sang-sign plants first, maybe we could find out." Master Kaku waved the point of her hairpin at Mokou.

"Talk to Eirin and her medicine peddling bunnies, not me." Mokou crossed her arms underneath the prominent bow on her blouse. "Besides, it's not like one would live long enough for us to meet her. A ginseng girl doesn't know selfishness, and would gladly sacrifice herself to heal the pure of heart. You don't even need the red ribbon that legend recommends to capture her. Or so it is said." The immortal hid her blush with a cough.

"How did you learn all this?" Meiling asked.

Mokou grew scarlet and stared down at her lap. "I've been caught in a red ribbon once or twice."

"Unselfish and self-sacrificing. I can see how most men might make the mistake," Master Kaku deadpanned.

"It's not like that!" Mokou protested. She froze as the entire bar room fell silent and stared at her. Squealing, the immortal ducked underneath the table.

"Ever consider that those men were looking for a bride instead?" Master Kaku purred.

The table jumped, knocking over Meiling's beer. The guardswoman leapt to her feet and grabbed a napkin. She sopped up the spreading puddle and sighed. "She's fourteen hundred going on thirteen years old."

"Be that as it may, we still need a ginseng hunter," Master Kaku said.

Mokou poked her head above the table like a scared child. "If I leave, Kaguya will set that mochi mallet bunny after me again." The phoenix girl cast her eyes around the room and ducked back underneath the table.

"Eirin Yagokoro gave us your name." Meiling wadded the soaked napkin into a ball and dropped into an empty glass.

Mokou laughed as she climbed back into her chair. Suddenly, she lurched over at Master Kaku and clung to the hermit's vest. "Please, take me with you."

Master Kaku glanced over her shoulder. Placing a finger against her lips, the sage pried Mokou's fingers from her vest. "Of course."

Mokou fell to her knees. Displaying the voluminous sleeves draped from her arms, she looked up at her rescuers. "Can you sneak me upstairs? I need to change first."

Meiling whimpered at the small mountain of silk strewn from the bedroom door to the paper shoji folding screen. If sold, each of Mokou's ten robes on the floor could buy a month's supplies for the Scarlet Devil Mansion.

Master Kaku held up the fire mink's robe and smoothed it out across the bed. "Perhaps we should have brought along your maid friend."

"Sakuya would faint as soon as she stepped through the door." Meiling knelt and draped a silk robe over her arm. The last of Mokou's twelve robes flew over the folding screen and covered the guardswoman's head. Without a word, Meiling untangled herself from the silk and added it to her pile.

"Is Reisen out there?" The shoji screen rocked while Mokou spoke.

Meiling stepped around the robes on the floor. Peering through the slats of the shutter, she watched the road below. Only the dapper earth spider ambled along Moriya's street. He tipped his bowler hat towards the window. "No."

"Keep looking. She's waiting for me. I know it."

Master Kaku piled robes atop the fire mink fur. "How certain are you?-" A knock on the door interrupted her.

"Mokou, there's a gentleman waiting for you downstairs." Reisen knocked again on the door.

Wearing only her dress shirt, Mokou darted out from behind the shoji screen and clawed at the doorknob. The deadbolt slide into the wall. She reached up and fastened the security chain.

The doorknob rattled. "Must we go through this every day?" asked Reisen.

Master Kaku shoved Mokou back behind the folding screen. "Get dressed."

Meiling spun the robes on her arm into a roll and tossed the bundle on the bed. She then threw open the window and the shutters.

A heavy blow shook the door. "Don't make this harder than it needs to be," Reisen said.

Master Kaku pushed against the door. A second blow sent the sage reeling. "Bell!"

Meiling threw her back against the door. She drew on the strength of her chi and braced herself. Master Kaku wedged herself next to the guardswoman. The next kick staggered them both.

"You're only making this harder on yourself. This will be over as soon as you marry," Reisen said.

The folding screen toppled onto the bed. While the Chinese women endured the buffet and shock from Reisen's metronomic kicking, Mokou hopped around the room, tugging a boot on her foot. Yanking the laces tight, the phoenix girl slipped her suspenders over her shoulders and rushed for the bed. She tore at the sheets, but the silks and the shoji screen held them in place.

"Don't bother with that," Master Kaku said. She lowered her voice and murmured into Meiling's ear. "Grab her and go."

Meiling charged forward, swept Mokou into her arms, and leapt through the open window. Using the virtue of her art, the Chinese martial artist floated to the street below. On the other side of the road, the earth spider leaned against his swagger stick and watched the spectacle. Mokou slipped out of the guardswoman's arms and ducked behind her.

Master Kaku landed behind Meiling with the scratch of rock against earth. The sage tossed a powder into the air. A dust devil swirled around the women, shrouding Moriya from view. "This way," she said, leading Mokou and Meiling out of the hamlet.

***

As the eighth briar in as many minutes scratched past Meiling's pants, she wondered why the walls of thorns snared only her. "Are you sure we'll find ginseng here?" She unhooked her vest from a centimeter long thorn.

The bushes ahead of her rustled. Mokou, now wearing her customary blouse and pants, charged through the brush like a breeze, all the faster now that she had woven her floor-length hair into a whiptail braid. "Nothing is ever certain out here." She grabbed ahold of Meiling's arm and pulled the guardswoman deeper into the dense bramble pincushion.

Holding her hat against her head, Meiling cast a pleading glare behind her. Wherever Master Kaku stood within the walls of greenery, the briars always managed to bend away from the mountain sage. "Certainly, there's an easier place to find it?"

"I've always wanted to come out here." Mokou reached out and plucked a blackberry from a nearby bramble. The immortal held it out towards Meiling, who waved the berry away. No one in her right mind grazed from the Forest of Magic. Marisa's occasional fits served as a one-woman warning against that. Mokou shrugged and popped the berry into her mouth. "Let Reisen try to find me now."

Meiling grumbled as a creeper vine snared her foot. Kneeling down, she tugged at the snarl looped around her leg. Out of the corner of her eye, she caught a flicker of a fleeing shade. She blinked her eyes, but only the hedge of thorns surrounded her.

Greenery swayed away from Master Kaku as she cut through the air in front of her with her hairpin. "You didn't need to go this far to hide. Rely on the Tao to guide you."

"My grandfather won't approve. Besides, I was a shrinemaiden when I was a child." Mokou filled her cupped hand with berries foraged from the brambles. "The old ways are the best."

"Master Lao's teachings are even older-" Master Kaku stopped as Meiling grabbed her, spun her, around and hosted her upon the guardswoman's back.

"It's still new to me. Besides, I'm certain that the Tao itself would wane before Reisen's determination to marry me off."

Master Kaku swayed as she sat upright on Meiling's shoulders. "Never mind the sermon. You and I need to share a bottle of wine." The hermit's presence warded away whipping branch and thorny vine until they passed through the bramble into a clearing.

Mokou ducked under a low branch and bounced out of the hedge of thorns into a game path lines with vine-covered walnut trees. She slid to a crouch in front of a line of shrubs. After filling a sack at her waist with berries, Mokou scrambled up a vine-covered tree after a bounty of red grapes.

"That's not wise." Despite the burden of Master Kaku's extra weight on Meiling's shoulders, the guardswoman followed her guide effortlessly. Meiling stepped around the gnarled roots beneath the tree.

"I've been climbing trees since before she was born." The phoenix girl waved towards Master Kaku and shimmied out on a sturdy branch.

The hermit dropped from Meiling's shoulders. "Aren't you worried about poisoned fruit?"

"What's the worst it could do, kill me?" Mokou wrapped her legs around the branch and filled her sack with grapes.

Meiling presumed that seedlings from a vineyard had escaped into the forest and flourished until the vines burdened the surrounding trees with fruit. "I'm more worried about you staying in your right mind."

Wisteria-dyed hair cascaded from the branches as Mokou hung upside down. "I'll be fine, although if I do start acting like Marisa, please kill me." She pointed to the mustard and clover covering the forest floor. "Look, there's not a single 'Marisa 'shroom' nearby. That's good for these grapes and even better for ginseng."

Meiling couldn't help but double over in laughter. Alice's catchall name for the dozens of species of small, magically-potent mushrooms that thrived in the Forest of Magic had spread through Gensokyo faster than the mushrooms grew. "True, but this wasn't supposed to be a trip to the village market."

"But it all tastes so good." The phoenix girl rocked back and forth before flipping out of the tree. She landed on her feet and bounced into a gymnast's salute. "I'll have to find this trail again."

"After you find ginseng."

***

"What does ginseng look like again?" The guardswoman sighed as she tried to brush mud from her shins. Sakuya would not be pleased upon Meiling's return to the mansion. As the phoenix girl stomped her way back and forth across the trickles of water welling up between the chestnut trees, she had somehow managed to avoid every splatter of mud. Meiling's white pants, however, bore the brunt of every puddle in her path.

Mokou held out a hand just below her knee. "A green plant about this tall, with three stems that end in thin leaflets. We might even be lucky enough to find the last crimson berry of the year."

"What about sang-sign plants?" Master Kaku floated over a puddle made wider by Meiling's boot. To the guardswoman's mounting annoyance, the sage remained as spotless as the phoenix girl guide.

"Let me worry about those." Mokou pointed to two near-identical sprigs of green. "Some sang-sign plants have poisonous copycats."

Meiling rolled her eyes and strode to a nearby chestnut tree. She leaned against the trunk and kicked mud from her boots. Ignoring the bickering between Master Kaku and Mokou, the guardswoman surveyed the forest around her. Vine-covered trees surrounded her, and beyond the forest's edge, peeking between the tree trunks and the bushes, lay the red spider lilies of Muenzuka.

An actinic flash, like a danmaku burst, shone out from a hedge of mulberry shrubs. Meiling looked over her shoulder. Her two companions were lost in discussion over a fern. Slipping away, the guardswoman padded towards the hedge.

A second silver flash raised goose bumps. Meiling crept through the building static and knelt by the line of bushes. Lowering herself to her hands and knees, she checked underneath the lowest branches. A flare of light crackled on the other side.

Meiling blinked away the purple spots blocking her vision. She could not find the feet of the magician throwing lightning. Battered by thunderclaps, the guardswoman crawled to the end of the hedge. Easing forward on her fingers and toes, she caught a quick glance of more lightning.

Behind her, Mokou and Master Kaku continued their discussion, unmindful of anything but the greenery around them.

Meiling bounced to her feet. Circling around the hedge, she flowed from one guard to the next, her hands always in motion. A chlorine-blond woman in a green dress floated by the hedgerow like a mermaid, her back turned to Meiling. Instead of fins, the woman's body tapered into a grey wisp. The guardswoman hoped the ghost was not of the vengeful kind. "Who are you?"

The spirit whirled around, trailing sparks. Static crawled up Meiling's legs as an aura glowed around the spirit.

"Bell, meet Lady Tojiko of the Soga clan, my assistant." Master Kaku stepped through the hedge as though it were mist.

The ghost's eyes flickered towards the hermit. She lowered her hand, and the corona around her faded. "Yes, mistress," she hissed.

"Bear with her. Humility is a struggle for Lady Tojiko. She was Prince Shotoku's concubine-"

"Wife."

"-and should be hiding before Lady Mokou Fujiwara, granddaughter of the rival Nakatomi clan, finds her."

"Is that like the Capulets and the Montagues? I can never keep the ruling clans outside of the Middle Kingdom's borders straight." Meiling relaxed as the electric field around her faded. "Shouldn't she be in your shrine room?"

"There is a legend that ginseng grows where lightning strikes a mountain spring." Lady Tojiko pointed to a trickle of water seeping through a clump of radish greens. The spirit traced the flow and, with a whip of her hand, threw lighting at its source. The rumble of the thunderclap died away, and the water dried up. "The mistress wanted me to speed up the process."

Meiling stared at the bare earth. "Perhaps it takes longer than a moment to grow."

Master Kaku shook her head. "It was worth a try. Even newly sprouted, ginseng has power."

Lady Tojiko pointed to a set of scorch marks among the radishes. "Perhaps there will be some in a day, a week, or a year. But I am not waiting until then for what you owe me."

"Why, Sister Tojiko, did you not swear unto me an oath of poverty?" Master Kaku hid her smile behind her hairpin.

"Do not confuse me for an oblate sister of the Myouren temple." Lighting arced between the spirit's hands.

Rolling her eyes, Meiling peered over the mulberry hedge. A flash of red and white danced between the peach trees and plums lining the edge of the grove. How had Mokou not heard the commotion? Behind her, a silver light flared, casting long shadows towards the distant immortal. But when Meiling turned around, Master Kaku was alone.

"I sent her back to the shrine room before she caused further trouble." The Azurine Hermit erased a ward scratched into the soil. She stopped, tapped the leaf of a mustard plant, and pursed her lips. "Let's get back to Mokou."

Meiling nodded and lifted herself on her toes until her head peeked above the mulberries. She called out the ginseng hunter's name three times.

The phoenix girl stepped out from behind a thicket and waved her hands over her head. "Over here!"

Meiling waved back and led Master Kaku around the hedge. Staying mindful of the mountain sage trailing further behind her, the guardswoman kept one eye on the scarlet and white ginseng hunter.

Master Kaku ran her fingers along the plants as she walked and muttered under her breath. She looked up at the leafy canopy. Her eyes widened she backed into Meiling. "Bell, freeze. Keep your voice low."

Meiling eased into a defensive crouch, her arms flowing into wards in from of her body. She breathed deeply and felt the familiar tingle in her hands as chi flowed through her body. "I see the forest and, just beyond, the lilies of Muenzuka."

"Look at the plants. See the trees, not the forest."

Meiling blinked as she stood. She had not kept up with her herblore since she first left her village in China, but time with Sakuya in the Scarlet Devil Mansion's garden had taught her to recognize the plants around her. Looking down at her feet, she saw onions and mustard. Kudzu and grape vines climbed the mighty chestnut trees that shaded plum and apricot. Beans, buckwheat, and currant bushes covered the ground between tree trunks. "Everything here is edible. This isn't a forest; it's a farm."

Master Kaku shook her head. "This close to Muenzuka, where outsiders still stumble through the Hakurei barrier? How many stop here to eat a peach?"

"Who can say? No one in the Village knows about this place."

"That's because no one who stopped here ever made it to the Village." Master Kaku held her hairpin out in front of her like a knife. "This is a hunting preserve for youkai.'

Drawing a quick breath, Meiling dipped back into her guard. Master Kaku's idea made horrible sense. Newcomers to Gensokyo were fair game for youkai until they reached the protection of the Human Village. The longer they tarried on the way to safety, the less likely they would live. "This reeks of kappa cunning."

Master Kaku gestured with her hairpin towards the thickets underneath the trees. "This took more teamwork and expertise with earth than you could expect from any quarrelsome kappa sept. Besides, there's not a cucumber vine in sight."

"Why didn't Lady Tojiko warn us?" Meiling padded through the leafy ground cover, flowing from guard to guard as though she were practicing her tai chi chuan forms.

"Lady Tojiko never noticed. She was a palace girl while she was alive. The concerns of food and forests were left to the peasants." Master Kaku followed, taking care to only step in Meiling's footsteps.

"Hey! I found some!" Mokou called out in high tones that pierced through the Forest of Magic. She held up three roots, each shaped like an elongated doll, and waved them over her head.

The brush behind Mokou exploded in a shower of leaves. A dapper earth spider, in kasane grape, tackled Mokou around the waist. The phoenix girl kicked and shrieked, dropping the ginseng roots as she tore at the spider's arms. A hand snaked under her shoulder and clamped tight against her mouth. Mokou's eyes went wide, and flames danced around her. The earth spider jerked Mokou's head straight up, baring her throat. Then, just like Meiling had seen Remilia do countless times to her prey, he sank his fangs deep into Mokou's neck. A crimson river coursed down her neck, staining her shirt. Mokou thrashed once and fell into a swoon. The flames died around her. Instead of draining the girl dry, the earth spider held a compress to Mokou's neck and wound her within a veil of white bridal silk.

Meiling launched herself at Mokou's captor. A blond earth spiderette, her hair in a crown of braids, charged out from behind a tree. Meiling tackled the beast youkai. Both women crumpled into a heap, but the guardswoman rolled to her feet.

The forest erupted in whirls of neon starbursts. Meiling spun her way through the danmaku web, but every step closer to the earth spider kidnapper was met by an unbroken wall of dense magical shot. Slowly, the magical storm pushed Meiling further from Mokou's silk cocoon. A cluster of danmaku shot slammed into Meiling's kidney. She dropped to the ground, soaking up more stinging danmaku as she rolled to find cover. The danmaku typhoon died away, taking the earth spiders and Mokou's cocoon with it.

Clinging to the trunk of a chestnut tree, Meiling pulled herself upright. Her skin stung as though she had been whipped with nettles, but with deep breaths and careful control of her chi, the stinging faded.

"Now we know who created this garden." Master Kaku appeared in the clearing and raked her hands through the underbrush. The Azurine Hermit help up a crushed ginseng root before wrapping it in discarded spider silk. With her hairpin, Master Kaku pointed in turn to a series of thickets ringing the clearing. "We're chasing trap door spiders. Find their burrow."

Shaking her head, Meiling pushed herself back on her feet and examined the ground by Master Kaku. Every broken branch, dusty imprint, and crushed leaf told its story. With enough time, she would be able to piece together where the spiders had dragged away the ginseng girl. Meiling circled the clearing, shaking every shrub as she searched for entrances to the underworld. She found the fallen trunk of a giant chestnut and waved Master Kuku over. "I'm beginning to see the charm of how Reimu tackles incidents."

"Keep shooting at people until you find the one person who knows what's going on, then beat her up until she tells you? It's a wonder she's not an outcast."

"There is a simplicity to the method." Meiling circled the tree, but could not find a trace of a tunnel.

"Simplicity isn't wisdom." Master Kaku ran her hands along the fallen trunk. Grabbing hold of a slender branch, the Azurine Hermit ripped away a silk screen, revealing a sinkhole within the fallen tree's shadow.

Meiling knelt by the burrow's lip and searched for the gossamer shimmer of spider webbing. "And wisdom isn't chasing a spider into his parlor full of traps. But we have no choice."

Master Kaku held up her chisel-pointed hairpin. She walked five paces away from the sinkhole. Kneeling, she scratched a wide circle in the ground with the heirloom. The circle glowed, then faded away, along with the earth inside. She pointed to the newly made tunnel. "We'll use our own path instead."

***

As Master Kaku's makeshift tunnel vanished, Meiling perched in the oculus of an underground dome. In the square chamber below, gas lamps illuminated a black widow mosaic floor. At each corner of the chamber, a fluted arch led deeper into uncharted catacombs. She glanced over at Master Kaku on the opposite side of the oculus. "Where's Mokou?"

The Azurine Hermit leaned over the edge and pointed. Atop a raised platform, webs lashed human-sized cocoons against a frescoed wall.

"And the guards?"

"Who would have thought that ambush spiders could hide?"

Meiling ran her fingers across the spiderweb mural etched into the polished oculus wall. "I'm surprised they built this."

"We are not barbarians." A shadow among the cocoons unfolded into a comely raven-haired spideress in black Chinese robes. As she glided onto the mosaic, her long flowing sleeves and waist length hair trailed behind her. "And our artisans are not diminished because they are outcasts."

Meiling whistled as she eased herself away the oculus's edge. "She's pretty good."

"Thank you." The spideress stepped on the red hourglass of the mosaic and looked up at the opening of the dome. "But you are not. Otherwise, you would not conceal yourselves in the one place that amplifies your voice for all to hear. Don't be coy. It is too late to hide."

Meiling cast a glance at Master Kaku. The Azurine Hermit nodded and pointed to the tiled floor. Flipping over the side, Meiling floated down to the floor. Five spiderettes in brown jumpers stormed through the arches and ringed the red hourglass design. Meiling touched down inside the circle, her eyes flickering between the six spiders surrounding her. Behind her, Master Kaku fell from the vault like lightning.

"Where's Mokou?" Meiling demanded.

The robed spideress returned the guardswoman's stare. "You have intruded upon my parlor. Therefore, you may join our feast or you will become it. For your sake, remember your politesse."

"May Heaven bless us all. My surname is Kaku, my personal name is Seiga, and there is a slight flaw in my character." The Azurine Hermit cupped her left hand over her right and bowed.

"I am Meiling Hong, sworn to the service of the Scarlet Devil." Meiling flashed a smile as she, too, cupped her hands in greeting. She wished Remilia was present to glory in the boast.

The spideress returned their greeting with a nod of her head. "I am Kuroko of the branch family of the Kurodani clan." Kuroko's ruby lips turned as Meiling covered her mouth and nose. "Pestilence is my cousin's power, not mine."

Meiling blushed and clasped her hands behind her back. "Sorry."

"And these are my ladies-in-waiting, my guests for tonight's feast." On Kuroko's right, the spiderette with a crown of braids leered and licked her lips.

"Now, where's Mokou?" Master Kaku asked.

"All in good time." Kuroko clapped her hands. "Let me first introduce my nephew, Hachitarou."

"You have eight nephews?"

"Eight is a sacred number for spiders."

The dapper earth spider from Moriya hamlet sauntered out of the catacombs, swinging his swagger stick. He vaulted onto the platform. Weaving his way through the webbing, Hachitarou stopped at a slender cocoon. He peeled away the white silk from the top as though he lifted away a veil, revealing Mokou's ashen face. The phoenix girl did not stir as Hachitarou cupped her cheek. "We might need to fatten her up a bit."

Meiling lunged for the stage. The hungry spiderette and her nearby sisters formed a wall and pushed her back into the center of the circle. The guardswoman cracked her knuckles. "Feed on her, and you'll call the shrinemaidens' wrath down on your people."

Kuroko laughed behind her flowing sleeve. "Feed on Lady Fujiwara? You are mistaken. She is his bride, not a fattened calf."

"The rabbit matchmaker never entertained my suit." Hachitarou gingerly spun the veil into a silk train. "'Humans only,' she said, even though my holdings far exceed that of all the striplings vying for her favor."

Meiling compared the spiderettes to Mokou bound in her silk. "I don't get it. There must be eligible brides among your people." The braided spiderette balled her fists and glared at the guardswoman.

Her lips a bloodless line, Master Kaku pulled out a hip flask and fiddled with the cap.

"You wouldn't understand. Your kind was not been driven underground for centuries," Kuroko said. "By uniting our house with hers, my kith and kin will no longer be earth spiders but members of the Fujiwara clan."

"Legally human." Hachitarou tugged on silk skeins, drawing the cocoon tighter against Mokou's body until the silk prison resembled a snug wedding dress. "Just like that rabbit matchmaker and her moon princess."

Meiling cast a questioning glance at Master Kaku. The Azurine Hermit shook the flask and held her thumb over its mouth. "The earth spiders would be able to walk in the sunlight once more. For that, you'd create a loveless marriage?"

"No sacrifice is too great to return the blessings of Grandmother Sky to my people." Hachitarou tied off the last thread. He stepped away from her and examined his handiwork. "In time, I might not view this marriage as such."

"Grandmother Sky allows concubines, so it won't be entirely loveless," Kuroko said, turning towards her nephew.

"For him," Master Kaku snapped.

"Should it be otherwise?"

Master Kaku lobbed the flask at Kuroko. At the height of its arc, the hipflask took flight and belched grey clouds of smoke as it spiraled through the chamber. "Bell, make a path for me."

Kuroko held her arms out wide. "The wedding feast has begun!"

The hungry spiderette and her nearby sisters charged forward. Meiling grinned as she shoved the braided spiderette across the chamber. A sweep of Meiling's hands brushed aside the second spiderette's kick. Her palm strike to the jaw rocked the third back on her heels.

Rings of danmaku sliced past Meiling. She whirled around. A Junoesque spiderette danced through a kata, hurling magical shot with each punch. Behind her, Master Kaku ran from the last spiderette.

As Meiling grazed her way past the neon clusters, the Junoesque girl held up a glowing spellcard as a shield. Meiling slapped it away and pummeled the spiderette across her shoulders and forehead. The stunned youkai collapsed on top of the spellcard as it flashed. The guardswoman threw her arm over her eyes as neon light engulfed the spiderette. The radiance faded, and the Junoesque spider lay still.

Arms like iron bars tackled Meiling around her waist, driving the air from her lungs. As she gasped, hot breath played across her neck. Meiling threw her head back, slamming her skull into the spiderette's. The grip around Meiling slackened, and she staggered free.

Master Kaku knelt by the edge of the tiled floor. Her pursuer lunged at her and dropped into a sudden hole. The Azurine Hermit lifted her hairpin heirloom from a black border tile. The mouth of the tunnel blinked shut.

Meiling spun around. The spiderette staggered, caught her balance, and threw a punch. Meiling caught the blow on the back of her wrist and chopped the youkai's ribs with her free hand. She swung her chopping hand into the spiderette's trapped arm, and, continuing the circle, drove her attacker to her knees. A rabbit punch to the back of her head sprawled the spiderette onto the tiles.

Shrieking, the braided spiderette charged Meiling. The guardswoman warded away a high kick and countered with a flurry of short punches. The blond youkai blocked what she could and slipped past the rest, staying within arm's reach.

Meiling chopped at her opponent's shoulder. The spiderette ducked underneath the blow, wrapped her arms around Meiling's waist, and spun behind the guardswoman. Meiling threw elbows behind her at the spiderette, but the blonde ducked her head between the guardswoman's shoulder blades and endured the glancing blows. The spiderette drove a foot into the back of Meiling's knee. The two youkai toppled to the ground.

Cursing all grapplers, Meiling landed on her stomach. She crawled forward, squirming out from under the spiderette. The braided blonde sat on Meiling's back and dug her heels into the Chinese youkai's sides. Meiling tried to buck the lighter youkai off, but the spiderette held on.

Leaning over Meiling's head, the blonde took the guardswoman's arm and wrapped it around the redhead's neck. Meiling wedged a hand into the hold to prevent a choke. Instead, the spiderette rocked the guardswoman onto her back. Immediately, Meiling threw her arms in front of her face. The blows rained down, quick and thunderous, pounding Meiling's forearms. The Chinese redhead grit her teeth and endured the barrage.

The spiderette's frenzy abated. She shimmied her way up Meiling's body until she sat on the guardswoman's stomach. Meiling grunted as the blonde bounced her weight into the Chinese youkai's guts.

Ripping away Meiling's guard, the braided youkai pinned the guardswoman's arms to the floor. She leaned towards Meiling's neck, baring her teeth. Venom beaded at the tip of the spiderette's needle sharp eyeteeth.

With a shout, Meiling drove her knee into the spiderette's butt. The blonde somersaulted over Meiling's head and across the tiles. The guardswoman flipped onto her belly.

A billowing tendril of smoke twisted down from the domed vault. It looped around Meiling's waist and yanked her into the air. She flew towards the platform, where Master Kaku slapped away Hachitarou's strikes. The sage palmed an incandescent spellcard and ducked behind Mokou's wedding cocoon.

Meiling crashed into Hachitarou, flattening him against the platform. She rolled away from the stunned spider, grimacing as a myriad of hurts screamed out at once. She laid on the floor and gulped down air.

The smoke reached down again and seized Meiling by her shoulders. This time, it dragged Meiling to her feet and shoved her towards Mokou's silk prison turned wedding dress at the center of the stage. She wobbled on her feet and clung to the cocoon. The envenomed phoenix girl slumbered within, unaware of the conflict around her.

"Keep it together for a little longer." Master Kaku threw a spent spellcard over her shoulder and pulled out the crushed ginseng root from her vest. She snapped a tendril off the root and placed it in her mouth. Choking, the sage spun Meiling across the stage.

The braided spiderette caught the guardswoman in a rear bear hug. Meiling grabbed the blonde's elbows and spun around, throwing the spiderette off the stage.

"Stay away from her!" Kuroko shrieked. At center stage, Master Kaku stretched up on her toes, pried open Mokou's mouth, and put her lips over the phoenix girl's. The dark-haired spideress threw her arms forward. Silk cords whipped out from her oversized sleeves and struck Master Kaku in the back. The sage staggered away from Mokou, spewing chewed root. The phoenix girl sputtered before slumping back inside her cocoon.

Polished steel gleamed in the gaslight. Hachitarou threw aside the swagger stick and brandished a thin ?p?e. With the point held out in front of him, the dapper earth spider exploded into a running lunge, flying across ten meters of the stage like lightning.

Meiling vaulted over Hachitarou, twisted away from Kuroko's black whips, and drove her foot into the braided spiderette's chest. She spun around in a straight-legged crouch and, with a hand to the flat of Hachitarou's sword, warded off his thrust. Standing, she caught his riposte and struck his sword arm.

Whirling about, she met the braided spiderette's arm grab with a flurry of punches. Meiling spun like a dervish, frustrating the spiders' attacks with her spiraling defense. Yet in middle of the fight, the guardswoman's eyes sought out the mountain sage.

Kuroko's silk cords chased Master Kaku across the platform, the tips cracking at the sage's feet. The Azurine Hermit wove through a trio of desiccated cocoons, tangling the whips around the silk pillars. Kuroko bellowed and drew back her hands. The silk cages exploded into a cloud of dust as the cords returned to the spideress's sleeves. Coughing, the Azurine Hermit pulled herself out of the new pit in the platform. The sage cast a glance over her shoulder.

Inside her silk cocoon dress, Mokou slumped forward. The phoenix girl squirmed in her bonds. Her eyes snapped open and Mokou saw her wedding dress prison. The phoenix girl roared. Her cocoon glowed an incandescent while, illuminating the chamber like an underground sun.

Meiling dove for the refuge of darkness, chased by Mokou's inferno.

***

Meiling gasped and sat upright, her heartbeat roaring in her ears. She shielded her eyes from the stinging sunlight glare piercing through the food forest's canopy. She planted her free hand into a bed of fallen leaves. Her eyes grew wide and she patted down her body.

"Good. You're awake," a woman growled.

Meiling spun around and scooted away. Atop the fallen chestnut tree, Mokou whittled away at a branch in her hand with a mirror polished penknife. Watching every bobble of the blade, Meiling massaged her throat. "Where's Master Kaku?" she croaked.

The knife dipped towards a crook in the tree trunk. The Azurine Hermit slept sere between the branches.

"And the spiders?" Meiling forced herself to swallow, despite her cottonmouth.

Without taking her eyes off her handiwork, Mokou flicked her knife at the sinkhole. Char and ash ringed the burrow for a meter in all directions. The phoenix girl examined the carving in her hand. Casting a moue of disgust, she tossed the branch over her shoulder, folded the knife against her leg, and lobbed a canteen at the guardswoman.

Meiling caught the canteen. Reveling in the chill of the evening breeze, she pulled a long drought straight from the canteen's mouth. She wiped her lips clean on her sleeve. "Thank you-"

Mokou held up her hand. She tapped her index finger to her lips. Meiling froze, closed her eyes, and capped a hand to her ear. As her heart settled, the guardswoman grew aware of a murmuring at the edge of her hearing, too soft and sneaky to be voices. She opened her eyes. The forest garden around her remained still.

The phoenix girl dropped from her perch. "We should have made it out of the forest before now."

"Couldn't you have carried us?" Eyeing the trees surrounding her, Meiling rolled to her feet and brushed leaves from her skirt.

Mokou shrugged. "You're heavy. You've got twice the muscle of a man your size." She walked over to a plum tree and circled the trunk. "Pick her up and follow me."

Her cheeks burning, Meiling knelt by the slumbering sage and lifted Master Kaku up. Holding the Azurine Hermit piggyback, the guardswoman chased after the phoenix girl.

"Slow down," Mokou called over her shoulder. She strode between the tress, one hand on the leather sheath on her hip.

"Fast is slow, slow is smooth, smooth is fast." Meiling repeated a motto already ancient before she became a guard. She caught up with her guide.

Mokou hushed the Chinese youkai. "The forest stirs." Her knuckles turned white on the handle of her belt knife.

Meiling nodded and fell in behind Mokou, settling into the strange pace the ginseng hunter kept. Five quick steps alternated with five slower ones. After a minute, the rhythm became routine for Meiling, and the two women ambled through the forest in a silence broken only by cicadas and crickets.

Chestnut and plum narrowed into dark beech and oak. The occasional blue break in the leaves overhead turned pink and the evening breeze found a bitter bite. Yet the two women wove their way through the trees, ever mindful of the creeping shadows.

Mokou called for a rest. Meiling leaned up against a tree. She shifted her shoulders to better bear Master Kaku upon them. Despite the distance and the broken ground, the slumbering hermit was not a burden. Back at the Scarlet Devil Mansion, Meiling often carried Flandre around for longer periods of time.

"Stay off the trees." With her belt knife, Mokou hacked two branches from a fallen oak. Then, palming a white flame, she kindled the end of each, and offered one to the guardswoman.

Meiling took the makeshift torch. Without cloth, pitch, or wax, the fire would burn up the wood in minutes, not hours. But as shadow darkened into night, any light was a blessing.

Mokou paled, and held up her hand. "Do you hear that?"

Meiling closed her eyes and strained to hear over the crackle of drying wood in flame. Soft paws padded against dried leaves. Sometimes she heard two, then four, then a pack circling. A chill ran down her back. She drew in a deep breath and glanced over at Mokou.

"Run!" the phoenix girl commanded. Mokou bounded through the trees, her whiptail braid flying behind her.

Meiling gave chase. Even with the flickering torchlight, trees leapt out at her from the dancing shadows, forcing the Chinese youkai to rely on reflexes hones by tai chi chuan. Behind her, the wind became a baying howl.

Drawing upon perfect form and her wellsprings of chi, Meiling surged forward, overtook Mokou, and picked up the phoenix girl in a bridal carry. The immortal threw an arm around Meiling's neck and grabbed hold of Master Kaku's hands.

Carrying bother her companions, Meiling flew through the forest in long leaps. Even though the torches had been tossed aside, she bounded through the darkness without colliding with trees.

From all directions, the keening chasing her grew into a chorus.

Meiling's leaps grew larger, from ten meters to thirty to a hundred in each stride. In her arms, Mokou pulled tight against the martial artist and babbled prayers and promises to gods long forgotten.

Finally, Meiling vaulted over one last low shadow. She landed in the starlit meadow cleared between forest and farm in Gensokyo. She whirled around. A wide shadow darker than a moonless night stirred in the tree line. Mokou slid out of Meiling's arms. A jet of fire from her hands lit up the meadow. The choir of keening howls stopped and the shadow vanished.

Slowly, as Meiling doubled over and panted, the night song of birds and insects resumed. "What was that?"

"I don't know." Meiling kept her eyes on the benighted forest line. "I've tried to find out before, only to resurrect without a memory of what killed me."

"Will it come out here?"

"No, its home is in the forest." Despite her air of certainty, Mokou cupped a blue gas flame in her hands and watched the tree line.

Meiling set Master Kaku down in the grass. She stood next to the phoenix girl and settled into a combat stance.

In the moonlight, shadows danced among the trees, buoyed by the wind. But the wall of darkness never returned.

Mokou closed her hand, snuffing out the flame. While Meiling relaxed, the phoenix girl fished a spider-silk bundle from her pocket. With a bow, she proffered the swaddling to Meiling. "Thank you."

Meiling received the swatch with both hands. Hefting the bundle, she felt the three tapering roots inside slip past each other. "I should thank you instead. This will help Berry and her sisters recover."

"I meant for your help with Reisen." Mokou deepened her bow and backed away. "And the spiders."

"We couldn't have left you with them." Meiling watched as Mokou stood and walked away, following the meadow. The youkai pointed towards the hearth fires burning at the nearby farms. "You should stay with us for the night. It's too late to walk to Moriya."

Mokou kept walking. "Youkai Mountain wants Lady Fujiwara, not Mokou, so Mokou must find her home elsewhere. Please, don't tell anyone where I'm going." Ahead of her, the distant silhouette of a torii shrine gate loomed in the moonlight.

Meiling watched Mokou disappear into the night, her eyes flickering between the phoenix girl and the sleeping hermit. Custom compelled her to see Mokou to her destination, but she could not leave her charge unguarded. She remembered the smooth silk in her hand, and the six fairies laying in a parlor, and returned to Master Kaku. The guardswoman's eyes narrowed. "How long were your awake?"

The Azurine Hermit lay still in the grass, a smile spreading on her lips. ""Since we left the food forest." She opened her eyes and sat up. Her hairpin flashed in the moonlight as the sage danced it across her knuckles. "You didn't fly through the forest unscathed without help."

Meiling frowned as she pulled Master Kaku to her feet. "Why did you pretend for so long?"

"Do you think I could have kept up with you? Even burdened with two people like you were?" Master Kaku brushed grass from her dress. "We only escaped because of your speed."

A bat-winged shadow passed in front of the moon.

"Let's hurry back to the mansion," Meiling said.

***

Inside the Scarlet Devil Mansion's kitchen, glass pipes and rubber tubing climbed the walls like unpruned trellises of kudzu. Meiling ducked underneath a water-fed condenser stretched across the doorway. The guardswoman sneezed at the cloying aroma of cooking rice. "What happened in here?"

Patchouli sat at the island counter, a dozen hardback books stacked in front of her. "Remi won't let me run water pipes to the library, so I moved my equipment."

"Does Sakuya know about this?"

"She's busy mothering the fairies." Patchouli threw a crumpled napkin into the pantry. "Koa, get up."

The red-haired devil girl toppled out of the pantry, clutching a wine bottle by the long-stemmed neck. The clear liquid sloshed around inside, before vanishing between Koakuma's lips. She gasped and melted against the tiled floor. "But the still's still going." The devil hiccupped and closed her eyes.

Patchouli pinched the bridge of her nose. "Which one, the glass one here or the two hidden inside my library?" Her voice dipped into a mutter. "Or the ones you squirreled away, even from me?"

Koakuma's eyes fluttered as she counted with her thumb against her knuckles. "All of them? You can't make sochu, whiskey, and schnapps in the same still."

Shaking her head, Meiling stepped out of the doorway. She would need to "confiscate" the schnapps as part of "her official duties" later. For the sake of the fairy maids' virtue, of course.

Master Kaku touched the condenser as she pushed past Meiling. "Glass? Why not copper?"

Koakuma rolled to her side and pointed at Patchouli with her bottle. "She's too cheap. Millions of yen for books, but not even a hay-penny for good drink."

"Paint thinner is not 'good drink.'" Patchouli snapped her fingers. "Get up."

"Don't want to."

The librarian picked up a thick book from the counter and scowled down at Koakuma. "Fine. But make yourself useful for once." Patchouli tossed the book at her devilish assistant, who flinched as the tome smacked against the floor. "Summarize all of Aya's articles on the Golden Room. Quickly, before the collection goes missing again."

Patchouli opened a second book and ran her finger down the page. "To answer your question, she likes to repurpose my alchemical equipment for her vices, and I use enough glassware in my studies that I don't always notice right away when a piece or five is missing. As soon as I mentioned that we might need spirits for an herbal extract, she started brewing up her rotgut."

"And you didn't stop her?" Master Kaku tapped her hairpin against her lips.

Meiling bit her lip, stifling her laughter. Spinning around the corner, Meiling clutched her sides as her back hit the wall. After gathering a shade of composure, the Chinese youkai peeked around the corner.

Patchouli help up an empty wine bottle. "Booze doesn't last long around here."

"One bottle for the fairies' medicine, and three bottles for me," Koakuma cooed. The temptress reached out and flipped open the book's cover. After squinting at the front page, she guzzled from her bottle.

"What type of spirits work best?" Master Kaku asked. Meiling peeked over at the Azurine Hermit and sighed. She recognized the particular lilt in the master's voice. Sometime soon, she would have work for Meiling.

"Oddly enough, Koakuma's rotgut sochu, once it's been distilled three times and filtered through charcoal. We can get started now, if I can have the herbs" Patchouli held out an open hand. Meiling rounded the corner and gave a silk bundle to the librarian, who hefted the package in her hand. Unraveling the spider silk, Patchouli revealed the three long tapering roots. "It will take up twelve hours for the distilled spirits to leach all the healing virtue from the gin