Kosuzu poured another cup of iced tea. “Here.”
Akyuu smiled, and accepted the cup with both hands. It was another peaceful afternoon in Suzunaan, and the shop was belting hot.
“Phew, I can’t wait for it to get cooler.” Kosuzu wiped the sweat off her forehead. “I’m starting to worry about the books.”
“Like this one?” Akyuu pointed at the scroll sitting on the table. “Not another youma book, I hope.”
“Well, I suppose it might be.” Kosuzu picked it up, and gently unravelled it. She’d brought it out to show Akyuu. “It was written by an inchling several centuries ago, about their history.”
“Inchlings?” Akyuu raised her eyebrows. “They exist in Gensokyo?”
“I think so.” Kosuzu glanced over the text. Nearly a year had passed since someone came into Suzunaan asking for a translation. A strange woman with a big straw hat. Kosuzu had almost forgotten about the scroll until a week ago, when another woman with red hair came rushing into the shop, asking for something about inchlings. Kosuzu had shown her the scroll, expecting her to borrow it, or ask for a translation. But the woman just held it in her hands, and had a one-way conversation with it. She talked to the scroll! Kosuzu had never seen anything like it.
“Hm, I need to know about it, if they exist in Gensokyo.” Akyuu sipped her drink. “There’s nothing about inchlings in the chronicle.”
“Look. The text is so tiny I had to use a magnifying glass to decipher it.” Kosuzu pointed at a line. “See, those look like a string of ten kanji characters, don’t they? But actually those are kanji radicals. The whole sentence is a word.”
The bell rang, and Kosuzu leapt to her feet. They had a customer. “Hello, welcome to- oh!” A familiar face. “Reimu-san. Is everything all right?”
Reimu had skidded into Suzunaan, and grabbed one of the bookshelves to keep herself upright. Her body lurched with each breath. She looked terrible. One of her sleeves were missing; revealing two dirty bandages and long lines of dried blood running down her arm. Her face was bone white, and covered in sweat. There were big bags under her eyes. “Kosuzu-chan...” Speaking took visible effort. “Have you seen Marisa anywhere? Has she been in here?”
“Marisa?” Kosuzu looked at Akyuu, nervous. “Um, no I haven’t. Is everything okay? You look exhausted.”
“If you see her, grab her and don’t let her get away!” And Reimu was gone again. She’d sprinted out of the door, and back into the street.
“What’s going on?” asked Akyuu, equally horrified. “Is it an incident?”
“Maybe.” Kosuzu thought about that youkai riot in the village the other day. Suzunaan was unharmed, but she knew a lot of shops that weren’t so lucky. “She looked awful.”
“Well, she’s the Hakurei shrine maiden. I’m sure she’ll be fine.” Akyuu tried to smile. “Now tell me more about this scroll. That’s why I’m here, after all.”
It was approaching early evening by the time Shinmyoumaru decided to head home. She retraced her steps back to the village, followed the dirt path through the forest, and switched to flying. Seija was going to be furious with her, but Shinmyoumaru could handle that. She’d spent an hour or two by herself after speaking to Wakasagihime, thinking through all the new information she’d learnt, and merging it with everything she already knew.
Or at least, thought she already knew.
It felt like forever ago since she ventured out of her aunt’s home, and met Seija. So much had happened, and she’d learnt so many new things: how to fly, how to make and use spell cards, how to mould snow, and how to create miracles. Things her aunt could never have known, let alone teach her. Shinmyoumaru wished she was still alive. She wished she could go back down to the World of Oni for a brief visit, and show her.
But her aunt was dead, and their servants gone, and Shinmyoumaru had fled the mansion. Her old life no longer existed.
Shinmyoumaru touched the mallet hanging from her obi. She wanted to create a better world for the inchling race. She wanted them to grow their own food and keep their own livestock, and live a life without constant fear. Since when did her mission include vengeance against Gensokyo’s youkai, and liberation for the weak youkai of Gensokyo? Because of the story Seija told her, that might not even be true? No, it wasn’t just that. It was because of the injuries Seija came home with. It was because of the tsukumogami, and people like Wakasagihime and the old lady in the village, who reminded her of the inchlings in Mamesuke Square. So many people suffered in Gensokyo, similar to how the inchlings suffered in the World of Oni. And Shinmyoumaru could make a difference. She held the power of miracles! She was in charge of a revolution, with its own castle and army, and both human and youkai allies. She’d be mad not to take advantage of that.
Shinmyoumaru decided. Once she got back to the castle, she’d go up to the dungeon and talk to the Hakurei shrine maiden. She wasn’t sure what they’d talk about yet, but Shinmyoumaru hoped it’d give her clarity on how things were in Gensokyo. The shrine maiden was all chained up, and wouldn’t pose a threat. Shinmyoumaru had nothing to fear. And after that, she’d take a more active role, and lead their revolution to victory.
A bright orange light hovered near the horizon. Shinmyoumaru wondered if she’d left it too late, and the sun was starting to set. But it was probably just her castle catching the sunlight. It was lit up like a beacon, calling her home.
Except, the light seemed to be growing brighter. The sky behind it was dark, and made her think of thunderclouds. Shinmyoumaru sped up, curious what was going on. Was the weather turning bad? Was Marisa trying out a new spell? Seija had talked about camouflage and self-defence mechanisms before, so it wasn’t impossible. But then she smelt it. The overpowering stench of burning wood.
Her castle was on fire.
It didn’t register in her head. She hovered in mid-air, and stared at the ball of orange flame until her eyes hurt. She didn’t panic. She didn’t even feel afraid. It didn’t feel real.
“Over here! Your Royal Highness, over here!”
Someone was calling out to her. Shinmyoumaru glanced to the right, and saw three figures approach her in tandem. One of them was waving. She recognised Yatsuhashi Tsukumo, and the umbrella tsukumogami Kogasa Tatara. Marisa Kirisame was in the middle, missing her broom and hat, and staring at the ground below.
And like that, reality set in. Fear hit her. Shinmyoumaru covered her mouth. She nearly lost her balance, and fell out of her sky. “What happened to the castle!?” She yelled. “Where’s Seija? Is Seija all right?”
“I’m glad we found you, Your Royal Highness.” Yatsuhashi looked deeply relieved. “We’ve been looking everywhere.”
“The castle’s on fire!” Kogasa answered her question. “We need to head to the brigade base and rendezvous there. I haven’t seen Kijin-sama anywhere.”
“Is she still in the castle?” Seija could be trapped in there. Shinmyoumaru thought she would suffocate with terror. “I’ll get her!”
“Wait, please!” Yatsuhashi let go of Marisa, and grabbed Shinmyoumaru’s arm with both hands. Kogasa was left to support Marisa by herself. “Calm down. She’s probably waiting for us as the base. We need to hurry over there.”
“That’s my castle! My castle’s on fire!” Shinmyoumaru struggled. Maybe if she got close enough, she could use the mallet to put the fire out. “Let me go, I order you!”
Marisa snorted. Kogasa tightened her grip, afraid she might try something. But all Marisa did was laugh. She laughed and laughed, until she was shaking.
Shinmyoumaru was shocked. “It isn’t funny, Marisa! Stop laughing!”
“I set it on fire!” Marisa declared. She looked up, and Shinmyoumaru knew immediately that there was something wrong with her. Her eyes were empty. Her smile was bright and innocent. “I did it. I’m burning it down, and you can’t do anything about it.” She lifted her free hand. The mini-Hakkero’s flame flickered. “I’m going to burn you next. I’m going to burn everything!”
“Get out of the way!” Yatsuhashi threw herself in front of Shinmyoumaru. Kogasa grappled with Marisa, trying to snatch the furnace away from her. Marisa kept laughing, undaunted.
“You can’t stop me!” she yelled. “I’m going to burn all of Gensokyo, starting with you!”
“Commander, help me!” shouted Kogasa.
“Declare a spell card if you want to fight me!” Shinmyoumaru yanked the mallet off her obi. This wasn’t a danmaku fight. If the mini-Hakkero’s flame hit her, Shinmyoumaru would be seriously injured, possibly knocked out of the sky. “Come on, Marisa! You know better than this!”
Marisa finally shoved Kogasa aside, and grasped the mini-Hakkero with both hands. Fire jetted out of the furnace. Shinmyoumaru shrieked, and rushed upwards. The flames licked the soles of her feet. She heard Yatsuhashi shout after her. Marisa was out of control. Shinmyoumaru didn’t know what’d happened to her, but she didn’t have time to deal with it. Marisa couldn’t move quickly when the mini-Hakkero was vomiting fire. Shinmyoumaru flew down at an angle, aiming for Marisa’s right shoulder.
“Ah.” Marisa spotted the mallet. “I’m not supposed to burn that, am I?”
“You’re not supposed to burn anything!” Shinmyoumaru raised it. “Mallet, put Marisa Kirisame to sleep!”
“Wait, I’m meant to-” But Marisa couldn’t finish her sentence. Shinmyoumaru tapped the mallet against her shoulder, and watched as Marisa went limp. The furnace slipped from her hands, and she tipped sideways. Kogasa caught her, and Yatsuhashi grabbed Marisa’s legs.
Shinmyoumaru caught the mini-Hakkero, and almost dropped it. It was red hot, and painful to hold. It wanted to be returned to Marisa.
“Okay, okay.” Shinmyoumaru flew back up, and quickly tucked the furnace into Marisa’s pocket. And then the dizziness hit her. The air stank of smoke. Her eyes felt itchy. There was an odd, hollow ache in her stomach, similar to hunger pangs. Shinmyoumaru coughed, and covered her mouth with her sleeve. “Where’s the base?” she asked. She needed to get out of the air, before she fainted.
“We’ll lead the way!” Yatsuhashi tugged Marisa’s legs, and Kogasa moved with her. “It’s not far away, Your Royal Highness, rest assured.”
“What happened to Marisa?”
“I don’t know.” They moved as fast as they could. “There was an intruder in the castle, and none of us could find you. So Commander Benben went to take them on, while I went to find Kijin-sama and… um…”
“And what?” Shinmyoumaru couldn’t believe what she was hearing. All this, while she was out of the castle? What an idiot she’d been. Shinmyoumaru wanted to cry. She’d failed everyone again. “What happened after you went to find Seija?”
“Uh…” Yatsuhashi looked away, suddenly embarrassed. “Kirisame-sama was talking to Kijin-sama about something… so, I think Kijin-sama will know what happened to Kirisame-sama.”
“And where’s Seija now?”
“At the evacuation point, along with everyone else.” Kogasa tried to cheer her up. “Please don’t worry. Everything’s going to be all right.”
Shinmyoumaru had never been to the base before, so it surprised her how close it was to the castle. It was a cave in the side of a mountain, hidden behind several large trees. “There’s a small corridor, then it leads to two big caverns, one behind the other,” explained Kogasa. Shinmyoumaru stepped inside first, and immediately noticed the stench of blood.
The cavern was filled with corpses.
“It’s okay, it’s okay!” Yatsuhashi yelled behind her. “They’re not dead! They’ve just been knocked out.”
Shinmyoumaru sank to her knees.
“Please don’t worry about it, Your Royal Highness.”
“It’s my fault.” Tears fell down her cheeks. “It’s because I’ve been so useless.”
Yatsuhashi nodded at Kogasa, and they slowly placed Marisa down on the floor. “That’s not true!” said Kogasa. “You’ve been great.”
Shinmyoumaru didn’t believe them. She looked at the carpet of bloodstained tsukumogami before her. She could still picture them all a few days ago, smiling and waving their rifles around in mock sword fights. She’d let them all down. She should’ve explored Gensokyo earlier. She should’ve led everyone from the very beginning, instead of sitting in her room sewing and watching the weather change. How could she put herself forward as Gensokyo’s liberator when she couldn’t protect her own soldiers?
She gripped the Miracle Mallet. Enough of that. Enough sitting around letting everyone else do the hard work. Shinmyoumaru slowly got to her feet, and wiped her face with her sleeve. She was going to be a proper leader. She was going to be the leader the inchling people needed to live in Gensokyo. “Listen,” she said. “I’m going to wake everyone up. Seija isn’t here, so I need one of you to go outside and wait for her.” Was the Hakurei shrine maiden still in the castle? Had she escaped? Shinmyoumaru glanced at Marisa. If the shrine maiden escaped, she’d almost certainly come back for revenge, possibly with backup. Shinmyoumaru needed to keep everyone safe. “Kogasa, can you do that?”
“Of course.” Kogasa saluted.
“Yatsuhashi, help me heal everyone.” She needed her army back in action. “Hopefully Seija will be here once we’re done. Then we can find out what happened to Marisa, and discuss what to do next.”
Shinmyoumaru turned to the first body. A knife tsukumogami, with a gruesome cut wound across her chest. “Mallet, please heal her.” And she struck her.
The dizziness again. The strange hunger pangs. But Shinmyoumaru ignored it. She gritted her teeth, and moved through the tsukumogami.
She could endure anything if it was for other people.
Marisa wasn’t in the village. Marisa wasn’t in the bamboo forest. Marisa wasn’t in her house, or anywhere near Kourindou. By the time Reimu arrived at the Misty Lake, she was approaching her limit. She hadn’t checked her shrine yet, so she hadn’t restocked or washed, and was still out of weaponry. Going up Youkai Mountain was out of the question. She would collapse from exhaustion. The clock was ticking. Reimu had no time to waste.
She swooped to land on the lake shore, but missed, and rolled face first into sand. Reimu groaned, and tried to push herself upright. Her arms trembled, too weak to carry her weight. She flopped back down, tasting sand on her lips.
But she couldn’t afford to lie down and rest! Reimu had to get up and find Marisa. With a loud grunt, Reimu pushed herself up, and managed to get into a sitting position. She turned, and saw a pair of eyes watching her near the lake’s edge.
“Oh, very funny I bet!” she snapped at the figure. “Laugh all you want!” She tried to wipe the sand off her face. It scratched her skin, and made her feel sick and dizzy. Her head hurt. Her injuries hurt. Everything hurt.
“I don’t want to laugh!” The figure’s voice sounded vaguely familiar. “Are you all right? You look terrible.”
“I’m fine.” Reimu slowly got to her feet. She saw the figure clearly, and realised it was the mermaid she’d exterminated earlier. “Oh, you. Are you behaving now?”
“Yes! Yes, I am.” The mermaid looked alarmed. “Um, are you here to exterminate me again?”
“No, I’m...” Reimu covered her mouth, and waited for the wave of pain and nausea to pass. “I’m looking for Marisa Kirisame. Have you seen her anywhere?”
“I’ve seen her,” said a voice behind Reimu.
She turned, and saw Cirno the ice fairy standing on the shore, holding hands with a timid Daiyousei. “It was pretty far from here. We were following that short girl with the bowl on her head to see who she was, weren’t we, Dai?”
“Yeah, she said something about giving weak youkai power, and she had a mallet that could do it, or something,” said Daiyousei.
“And as Gensokyo’s strongest, that’s pretty bad for us! So we followed her!”
Reimu didn’t have time for chit-chat. “Tell me where Marisa is!”
“It was in the middle of a forest, near some big upside down castle,” continued Cirno. “It was on fire, and that short girl and Marisa were with an umbrella tsukumogami and someone I didn’t recognise… It was pretty weird!”
Near the castle! Reimu wanted to stamp her foot and scream. She’d been sent on a wild goose chase. “Did anything happen? Did you see the short girl strike Marisa with her mallet or anything?”
“They were having some kind of fight, so it was hard to tell,” said Daiyousei. “But afterwards Marisa fainted, and they all carried her away.”
Reimu froze up. “She fainted?”
“Yeah, I couldn’t make much out either,” said Cirno. “Then the wind direction changed and all this smoke blew in our faces, so we decided to turn back and, hey wait! Where are you going?”
Reimu was already in the air. She tried not to cry. She tried as hard as she could, but tears still flooded her cheeks. Marisa had met up with the princess, and something had happened to make her faint. It didn’t take a genius to work out what. Reimu had to prepare herself for the worst. She had to steady herself, and get ready to face Marisa as something other than human.
But all she really wanted to do was let herself fall out of the sky. Down and down, until she smacked headfirst into the ground and couldn’t feel pain anymore. Her left hand felt empty without her rod, and her right arm cold without its sleeve. She couldn’t afford to change direction and restock at the shrine. It was madness, but she’d have to face Marisa with just her spell cards and basic danmaku. Her balance was wobbly, and she knew she’d collapse if she let herself rest again. Her head hurt. Her eyes hurt. Her chest hurt.
But Reimu kept going. She was going to find Marisa, just like she set out to do in the first place, and deal with her no matter what state she was in. She saw the castle up ahead, ablaze like a hilltop beacon. She saw the black smoke tumbling into the upper atmosphere. She could almost taste the ash on her tongue. Had Sakuya escaped from the castle in time? Or did Seija overpower her in the end?
She didn’t have time to check. Reimu glimpsed a flash of purple to the distant left, and recognised it as Kogasa’s umbrella. She was floating, rifle in both hands and umbrella tucked under her arm, looking all around her. When she saw Reimu, she waved the rifle, and flew over to her. “Reimu-san, Reimu-san!”
Reimu was cautious of the rifle, but was confident she could dodge its bullets in such a wide open space. “Kogasa! Where’s Marisa? Where’ve you taken her?”
“She’s in the brigade base with Her Royal Highness.” Kogasa gripped the rifle. “And Her Royal Highness wants to see you. Can you follow me?”
She wants to see her? Well, good. Reimu wanted to see her too. “You’ll take me to the base?”
“Of course.” Kogasa turned. “This way!”
Kogasa lead her to the right. They swooped into the forest, then floated up the side of a mountain. Near the base of a large cliff was a hole big enough for several people to fit through. Reimu felt uneasy about going inside. It would make it easier for Kogasa to shoot her, and she had no idea what to expect from this ‘Royal Highness’ person. But most of all, she felt afraid of what lay ahead. She was afraid of facing Marisa.
Kogasa hovered near the entrance, just as uncertain as she was. “I’m sorry, Reimu-san,” she said. “I didn’t think we’d be doing things like this. I wouldn’t have joined if I’d known.”
They stepped inside. Reimu reached into her remaining sleeve, and touched the splinters of her rod. But it was nothing but cold wood now, and she gained no comfort from it. All it did was send another stab of grief through her.
The cave tunnel was bigger than Reimu expected, and stank of blood. The daylight faded, and soon they were walking through darkness. It was a good thing Kogasa was in front of her. Reimu began to fear she was being led into a trap. She had to be strong. No matter how scary it got, and how much pain she was in, Reimu would keep moving ahead, towards Marisa, and the revolution’s ringleader.
Soon the cave lit up again. The scent of blood grew stronger, and Reimu resisted the urge to retch. They entered a large cavern, with a high ceiling and a smooth floor. Splintered furniture was pushed against the walls, and about forty people were crowded inside, waiting. A few of them held torches. Kogasa raised her voice as they entered. “She’s here.”
The crowd turned to look at them, and Reimu jumped back. They all wore the same uniform as Kogasa, and were all armed. Only the tsukumogami holding torches weren’t holding their guns. Their uniforms, arms, legs, faces and hair were smeared with blood. Upon seeing Reimu, they all lifted their rifles, and aimed straight at her.
It was something straight out of a nightmare. Reimu had no ofuda, no needles, no purification rod to defend herself with. She stumbled back, and got ready to run.
“They won’t fire.” But Kogasa was blocking her path, aiming her own rifle at Reimu’s chest. “Calm down. We’re acting under orders.” There were tears in her eyes. “Reimu-san, move into the centre of the room. Please.”
It was a trap after all. Reimu turned, and saw the crowd part. She glimpsed a short woman sitting in the centre of the room. Marisa was lying before her, her head resting in the woman’s lap. She seemed to be asleep. The woman held a mallet in her right hand, and her left hand was placed on Marisa’s head. She was staring straight at Reimu, imposing, angry, the only hint of fear coming from the way her shoulders twitched.
So this was the inchling princess. This was the woman in charge of the revolution. Reimu had expected someone with presence. She couldn’t imagine an amanojaku listening to a girl barely out of her teens.
But Marisa was right there, almost in reaching distance. All the weaponry in the room was trained on Reimu. If she made one step in the wrong direction, she would be shot. The barrels glinted in the dark.
The princess looked up at her. “My name is Shinmyoumaru Sukuna,” she said. Her voice was level, “and I am a member of the inchling royal family.” She gestured in front of her. “Sit down. Please.”
Reimu glanced around her, then slowly stepped forward, and knelt. She had to stay calm. She had to stay in control. “What have you done to Marisa?” she asked.
“She’s just sleeping, don’t worry.”
“So you haven’t turned her into a youkai?”
“It’s true that she’ll stop being human if I grant her power with my mallet.” Shinmyoumaru’s voice trembled, and she had to stop for a moment. Then she took a deep breath, and continued. “I want you to listen to what I have to say, as a representative of the inching race, and of all weak youkai in Gensokyo. Otherwise…” She gripped Marisa’s hair with a quivering hand. “I’ll give her that power.”
“So you’re threatening me.” Reimu glanced up at the tsukumogami, at the rifles aimed at her. “What if I don’t like what you have to say?”
“Listen to it first, and then make up your mind.” Shinmyoumaru wasn’t going to take no for an answer. “I know I look big for an inchling, but you mustn’t underestimate me. Just because we can stand in the palm of your hand doesn’t give you the right to ignore us.” She swallowed hard. “I know you’re human too, so you probably don’t think this applies to you. But you’re strong. You help rule over Gensokyo. So I want you to listen to me.”
“All right.” Reimu recalled Raiko’s story. Their trump card. If they tell the princess that the amanojaku’s using her, they can get her on their side. But she had to choose her timing carefully. No one would betray their partner that easily. “I’ll listen to you, but in return, I want you to listen to everything I have to say afterwards, with no interruptions. Understand?”
“Okay.”Shinmyoumaru took another long, shuddering breath. “Listen carefully.” And she began to tell her story.
A messenger had stumbled into the cave earlier. It was a tsukumogami who’d been guarding the castle, and she explained the situation the best she could. The castle was on fire, and couldn’t be saved. The tsukumogami still standing were getting their fallen comrades out of the building before it burned down. The Hakurei shrine maiden had escaped from the dungeon, and would probably return with back up. Seija was dealing with the intruder.
Shinmyoumaru took charge. Kogasa was brought back in, and the tsukumogami moved the broken furniture against the cave wall, out of the way. Everyone shared whatever information they knew about the Hakurei shrine maiden, with Kogasa being the most helpful.
“She’s got amazing intuition,” Kogasa explained. “She knows exactly where to go to find the culprit, and what cards to use against them. When I fought her it was like, she knew where my bullets were going to go in advance, even though I was sure she’d never seen them before.”
Shinmyoumaru had two options: hide, hope Seija found them before Reimu did, and run away as a group. Or face Reimu Hakurei head on, and fight her. The second option made her sick with fear, but she couldn’t pick the first one. She was done hiding. She wasn’t going to let other people fight her battles anymore.
It was time to play dirty.
Kogasa was sent out to wait for Reimu. Yatsuhashi found the spare ammo hidden at the back of the cave, and everyone loaded their rifles. Then Shinmyoumaru sat down in the centre, and moved Marisa closer. In the end, she placed Marisa’s head on her knee. Marisa was sound asleep, and Shinmyoumaru could feel her breath when she placed a hand near her mouth.
“I’m sorry, Marisa,” she whispered. “Forgive me.”
The tsukumogami surrounded her. And they waited for Reimu. When she came, Shinmyoumaru couldn’t believe it. The shrine maiden she’d expected to see had been scary, powerful, merciless, and surrounded by allies. The one standing before her was battered, bloodied, barely able to stand upright, and missing a sleeve. Her trademark purification rod and yin-yang orbs were nowhere in sight. And when she saw the rifles, and Marisa lying so close to the Miracle Mallet, the fear was obvious on her face.
Shinmyoumaru felt sorry for her. She’d intended to dive straight into strict negotiations, but her heart wasn’t hard enough. Maybe, just maybe, she could talk Reimu into seeing things her way. Into understanding why they’d locked her up in the dungeon, and fought so hard to make their revolution happen. It was a shot in the dark, but Seija had always told her to try recruiting powerful enemies before fighting them. And it seemed Reimu had something to tell her too, so she was in the mood to sit down and listen.
So Shinmyoumaru told her about the World of Oni, and the inchling race. About her aunt being crushed to death, and the scavengers risking their lives for food. She explained that the youkai of Gensokyo drove them there, and that the inchling people wanted nothing more than to live outside again, in Gensokyo.
“But, that’s not possible, is it?” Shinmyoumaru was aware of the silence in the cave. Everyone was hanging on her every word. “I went down into Gensokyo this morning, and talked to a few of the youkai who lived there. What I heard was horrific. Strong youkai eating weak youkai. Doing whatever they wanted without care for others. How can my people live in a place like that? They’d just be driven underground again.” She felt her resolve strengthen with each word. “And it’s not just unfair on us inchlings, it’s unfair on all the weak youkai of Gensokyo. On the youkai that don’t even have voices.”
A few of the tsukumogami murmured with agreement.
“But, we have the power of miracles on our side.” Shinmyoumaru smiled. “I can do anything with my mallet. Absolutely anything! I can make any dream come true. Even the dream of living in Gensokyo, happy and safe. So won’t you join us? Won’t you help us create a better Gensokyo for everyone? Even humans will benefit. That’s why your friend Marisa joined.”
Reimu looked heartbroken. Shinmyoumaru wondered if her words were getting through to her.
“I’m sorry about locking you up in our dungeon, and I’m sorry I have to threaten you like this, but I don’t want us to be enemies. I’m sure with someone as amazing as you on our side, we can change Gensokyo peacefully. No one would have to get hurt. It’ll be-”
Reimu held her hand up. “I’ve heard enough.” Her voice cracked. She closed her eyes for a moment to steady herself. “…I get it.”
Shinmyoumaru fell silent. All eyes were back on Reimu.
“Let me talk now,” said Reimu. “No interruptions. Understand?”
“I understand,” said Shinmyoumaru.
“Okay… Three things. Firstly, if you think I’d join you after your subordinate shackled me to a pillar, denied me basic human rights, and had her
subordinate hurt me with a knife, then you are stupid.”
Reimu’s sadness gave way to anger. “I’ve never heard anything so stupid in all my life! You’ve got rifles trained on me and you expect me to sympathise with you? You’re planning to change Gensokyo for your own benefit, and rule over it, and on top of all that…!” She pointed at Marisa. “You’re holding a human hostage and threatening to turn them into a youkai right before my eyes. You’re threatening to break one of Gensokyo’s fundamental rules.”
Shinmyoumaru said nothing. She was lost for words.
“Gensokyo isn’t perfect. I know that. We all know that! That doesn’t mean you can waltz in and change it however you like. Now secondly, enough with the guns. They’re loaded with real bullets, aren’t they? We use danmaku here, so load them with danmaku. Hand Marisa over to me now, and fight me using spell card rules. That’s how we resolve problems here in Gensokyo! We throw things at each other and no one gets killed!”
Shinmyoumaru didn’t move.
“And thirdly.” For the first time since she started talking, Reimu hesitated. She looked afraid. Maybe she knew she wasn’t getting through to Shinmyoumaru. “Thirdly… listen, you aren’t going to like this, but you need to hear it. You’re being used.”
Shinmyoumaru frowned. “Excuse me?”
“You are…” Reimu’s voice lost strength. She swallowed. “You’re… you’re being used. By that amanojaku.”
Shinmyoumaru nearly laughed. “Are you trying to lie to me?”
“I’m telling the truth. You need to listen.”
“All right, I’ll listen. I promised I’d listen, after all.”
“That amanojaku’s been lying to you from the very beginning. Most of what you just told me - about inchlings being driven out of Gensokyo by youkai - is something she made up to get you on her side. She’s using you for the mallet. She doesn’t care about you, she just wants you to cause havoc in Gensokyo. And you’ve fallen for it! She picked you because of your genetics. You’re an illegitimate princess, so no one would go looking for you, and-”
“I’m an illegitimate princess?” Finally, something she knew wasn’t true. Shinmyoumaru scoffed. “That’s ridiculous.”
“You are. You said in your story that you got sent out of the palace to stay with your aunt, and never saw your parents again.”
“I did say that, but that doesn’t make me illegitimate.” Shinmyoumaru felt angry. What a horrible thing to say. “Who told you all this?”
“Actually, um...” Yatsuhashi spoke up. “What she’s saying matches something a tsukumogami told us recently. We arrested them and put them in the dungeon, so she might have heard it from them.”
“Her again!” shouted a voice from the crowd.
“Don’t listen to her, Your Royal Highness, she was full of lies,” said one of the torch-bearing tsukumogami. “She said the mallet was going to run out of power, and kill us all.”
The mallet was going to run out of power?This is the tale of how the descendants of Issun Boushi used his Miracle Mallet to satisfy their own greed, and how it plunged our entire race into the World of Oni, and took us away from the sun’s warmth forever.
She hadn’t expected any of this. Shinmyoumaru wished Seija was here. She wished she didn’t have to deal with this by herself. “And where did she learn that?”
Silence. The tsukumogami looked at each other.
“She heard it in the World of Oni, where you used to live,” said Reimu. “She got the information from talking to various people.”
The World of Oni? One of her tsukumogami had been down there? This was getting more and more preposterous. Shinmyoumaru had to do something to regain control of the conversation, but what? Seija would know what to do, of course, but Seija wasn’t here.
“So hand Marisa to me, and let’s go outside,” Reimu continued. “You can talk to the tsukumogami who told me all this later, and your amanojaku friend too. Just give me Marisa.”
Shinmyoumaru gripped Marisa’s hair. Reimu wanted Marisa. That was all. She’d spew any old lies to make it happen. Shinmyoumaru had to resist them. “Seija isn’t a bad person,” she said.
“She is!” Reimu looked offended. “She’s an amanojaku, of course she’s a bad person! She’s tricking you.”
“She isn’t a bad person.” Shinmyoumaru raised her voice. “She’s forced to do bad things because of what she is. She’s never done anything to hurt me.”
“She’s definitely a bad person!”
“No she’s not, really!” Hearing someone badmouth Seija upset her. “I’m sorry if she hurt you in the dungeon, but she gets carried away sometimes. She’s really sensitive to emotions, and-”
“And as soon as I beat you she’s going to run off with your mallet and leave you to suffer the consequences. That’s what amanojaku do! They set people up and ruin lives, and feed off it.”
“Seija would never set me up for anything!” Shinmyoumaru couldn’t understand why Reimu had to be like this. Marisa was a nice person. Marisa wouldn’t lie to her. “We’re a team! She needs me and I need her. We’re in love.” It slipped out unexpectedly. But there, it was out in the open now. “We’re in love with each other. We kiss and sleep together and everything. She wouldn’t do anything to hurt me, not willingly.”
Reimu groaned. “You can’t be serious.”
“I’m completely serious! I love her! And she loves me!”
“I can’t believe I’m going to have to say this… look, you’re definitely being taken for a ride. Listen.” Reimu pointed at Marisa. “She had sex with Marisa this morning. I heard her say it right in front of me. She told me all the explicit acts they did, and how it turned her into a walking vessel for her mini-Hakkero. She’s a pyromaniac now. That’s probably what happened to your castle.”
Horror sank through her. No, it couldn’t be true! More lies, surely. Seija had promised she’d never lay a finger on Marisa. And Shinmyoumaru believed her. Seija had her faults, but she’d never betray her. Anger surged through her. How dare Reimu Hakurei tell her all these lies, all to rile her up. It was disgusting, despicable. Shinmyoumaru wouldn’t stand for it. Reimu had crossed a line.
“…I’m sorry, Your Royal Highness.” And suddenly, Yatsuhashi was crying. “I walked in on Kijin-sama and Kirisame-sama earlier. The shrine maiden’s telling the truth. Forgive me for not telling you earlier.”
It was a slap in the face.
“What?” Shinmyoumaru looked around the room, hoping someone would claim it wasn’t true. But no one spoke up. “No… no there’s been some mistake.” And it was all coming back now. All the things Seija said to her. Seija kissing Marisa when she thought Shinmyoumaru wasn’t around. Seija licking the mallet. Seija wincing as they made love. And not just that. She was remembering things from a long, long time ago, that she thought she’d forgotten. Her siblings used to tease her for looking a bit different. Her face was rounder than her other brothers’ and sisters’, and she was shorter and stockier. And she could remember now too, the urgency in the older guard’s voice back in Mamesuke Square. Don’t tell anyone you’re Shinmyoumaru Sukuna.
And if she was illegitimate, it would explain why her aunt kept her hidden from the public, and why no one came to visit her, and…
The ground was crumbling beneath her. Had Aunt Kikyou really been her aunt, or a complete stranger? Had her mother hated her? Had her father hated her? Who were her real parents? What else wasn’t true? What else was fake about her life? She turned to Reimu. “What are you suggesting I do, then? If everything you’re saying is true, what do you want me to do?”
Reimu looked relieved. “Hand Marisa to me, and surrender. If you don’t want to surrender, we can handle things the usual way, with spell cards. If I win, you will shut down your revolution and behave. If you win, I will retreat.”
The tsukumogami looked at Shinmyoumaru, waiting for instructions. Marisa’s head felt heavy on her knee. She glanced at the mallet, unsure what to do. The strange, empty ache in her stomach was still there.
The ache wasn’t because of the mallet, was it?
Was the mallet running out of power?
“What are you doing!?”
“Seija!” Shinmyoumaru nearly stood up. Seija’s voice. Seija was here! “Seija, I’m here!”
The crowd parted, and Seija stumbled into the circle. Her clothes were blackened with soot, and there was a huge bloodstain around her stomach. Her gloves were gone, and she was clutching her abdomen with a blood-streaked hand. She smiled with relief when she saw Shinmyoumaru. “Good. I’ve been looking for you.”
“What happened to you?” Shinmyoumaru wanted to hug her. Everything would be all right, now that Seija was here. She didn’t have to fight Reimu alone anymore. “Is your stomach okay?”
“I’ll explain later. Right now you all need to get out of the cave.” She pointed behind her, at the entrance. “The castle’s collapsing, and the forest below is on fire. It’s only a matter of time before the fire gets here, along with Gensokyo’s youkai.” She turned to Shinmyoumaru. “Have you hit Marisa with the mallet yet?”
“Huh, no?” Shinmyoumaru looked confused. How did Seija know about her threat? “Am I meant to?”
Seija groaned. “I can’t believe this… Marisa was meant to ask you for a power up. She promised me she’d get one.” She glared down at Marisa. “Well, just hit her now anyway, and let’s get going. We can take the shrine maiden with us. Well done for catching her again, by the way.”
Shinmyoumaru’s expression stiffened. Reimu glared at Seija’s back. No one moved in the room.
“Don’t just sit there!” yelled Seija, frustrated. “Get going!”
“Stay put, everyone.” Shinmyoumaru needed to ask her, before she lost the courage. “Seija, I’ve been talking to the Hakurei shrine maiden, and she said you slept with Marisa.”
Seija didn’t even blink. “Did she now? That’s creative.”
“She said you stood in front of her and listed all the things you did to her.”
“Obviously she’d say that. She knows it’d upset you.”
“She said I’m an illegitimate princess.” Shinmyoumaru wanted to cry. “She said you’ve been using me for the Miracle Mallet!”
Seija laughed. “Come on, that’s ridiculous. I don’t have the patience to keep up a charade like that. She wants to tear us apart, so we can’t do our revolution anymore. Don’t believe her.”
“Stop lying and tell her the truth,” snapped Reimu.
“I am telling the truth.” Seija sneered. “You just want to save your beloved Marisa and get revenge. Well sorry, but Marisa said she wanted the mallet’s power with her own mouth. Trying to turn my princess against me won’t stop us granting her wish.”
“You’re using that inchling for your own means!” Reimu stood up, and pointed a finger at Seija. “You’re a textbook amanojaku!”
“Yatsuhashi said she saw you sleep with Marisa too.” Shinmyoumaru needed to hear Seija’s answer. She needed a reason to assume they were lies.
“Yatsuhashi did?” Seija turned, and glared at her. “That’s a shame. I expected a commander to be less susceptible to corruption and bribery.”
“I wasn’t bribed!” But Yatsuhashi didn’t seem eager to defend herself. She looked confused. All the tsukumogami looked confused.
“Hurry up and hit Marisa with the mallet, Princess,” said Seija, ignoring her. “We need to get moving.”
Shinmyoumaru didn’t move.
Reimu saw the danger. “Don’t you dare! Don’t do anything to Marisa! I’ll exterminate you!”
A sob escaped Shinmyoumaru’s lips. She wanted to get up, fling her mallet away and run. Seija, have sex with Marisa? And brag about it afterwards? It was horrible. The worst lie of all. And yet it didn’t feel like a lie. She could still see Seija’s arms around Marisa, close enough to kiss her, their backs to Shinmyoumaru…
Because even if Seija was lying to her about the inchling’s history, even if Seija was using her for the mallet, Shinmyoumaru wanted to believe that the love between them was real. That the big, bright smile she loved wasn’t fake. That Seija wanted her by her side, and saw her as a partner. That together they were unstoppable, and could make even the smallest wishes come true.
“Is something the matter?” Seija cocked her head, and at first Shinmyoumaru thought she was talking to her. But Seija was looking at Reimu again. “We can wake Marisa up and ask her, if that makes you feel better.”
“Don’t do it! I’m serious, don’t do it!” Reimu marched forward, and was intervened by two tsukumogami. “Let go of me! Marisa, wake up!”
“See, she’s desperate.” Seija turned to Shinmyoumaru, and smiled mischievously. “Are you really gonna believe her over me? She’s friends with Gensokyo’s youkai, remember? You saw them drinking together in all those newspaper articles. She’s just trying to trick you.”
“Seija…” Shinmyoumaru wanted to believe her. But her resolve was falling away. “Seija…” Her aunt was gone. Her home in the World of Oni was gone. And now her castle was gone too. At the very least, she wanted to keep her first love. The woman who’d shown her the sun. “What should I do? I don’t know what to do. I’m scared…”
Seija crouched down. “Hit Marisa with the mallet, then come with me.” She touched Shinmyoumaru’s shoulders. “It’s been me and you together all this time, hasn’t it? Us versus them, so why should that change now? Hit Marisa, and we’ll find somewhere else to live. Somewhere no one will find us.”
“I’m not trying to trick you!” Reimu struggled. “You have to listen to me, please!”
“I love you, Shinmyoumaru.” Seija smiled. A pure, genuine smile. “I’d never lie to you, come on. You know me.”
“She would! She’s lying right now!” Reimu was hysterical. More tsukumogami flocked around her, to keep her still. “Let me go!”
Shinmyoumaru wanted to cover her ears. The mallet felt heavy in her right hand.
Seija reached out, and caressed Shinmyoumaru’s cheek. Her bare hand was cold, and flaked with dry blood. “Do it, for me?”
Reimu struggled as hard as she could. “No! No, don’t! Please! Please!”
Shinmyoumaru sobbed. Marisa slept peacefully in her lap, oblivious to the danger.
Listen to Reimu and turn against Seija, or listen to Seija and continue with how things were? There’d be no turning back once she made this choice. The weight of it threatened to crush her. Shinmyoumaru took a deep breath, and let another round of tears run down her cheeks. She cleared her mind.
She had to make a decision. She had to act not as Shinmyoumaru Sukuna, but as a representative of the inchling race, a mentor to the tsukumogami, and the future leader of Gensokyo. She had to pick what was best for the world, not for her.
She knew what to do.
“Mallet,” she said. “Please grant Marisa Kirisame the power she desires.”
Reimu screamed. Seija yelped with delight. And with regret, Shinmyoumaru swung the mallet, and struck Marisa.