(Are the subject/title input boxes broken? I can't change the chapter numbers. Ah well I'll do it later.)Chapter 12
Reimu sank to the ground. The wound was just below her wrist, and her bare skin glistened with blood and drool. A thin red line ran down her forearm, and dripped onto the ground.
The werewolf was borderline hysterical. “Oh my god, I’ve bitten the Hakurei shrine maiden! I’ve bitten the Hakurei shrine maiden! I’m sorry. I’m so, so sorry!”
“Stay calm.” Sakuya reached into her pocket. “Don’t panic.”
Reimu blinked, and found herself indoors. The three of them were now in a familiar room, with chairs lined up against the wall, and posters on keeping healthy hanging from the ceiling. The werewolf shrieked with surprise, and someone cried out from the corridor.
“Don’t scare me like that!” Reisen Udongein Inaba walked over, a hand on her chest. “What are you doing in here? How did you get in?”
They were in Eientei. Sakuya had paused time and transported them. This was the surgery waiting room, thankfully empty. Reimu looked up at the clock on the wall, and saw the hands point to quarter-past-midnight.
Reimu wasn’t scared. She felt detached from her surroundings, as though she was watching herself act out a peculiar dream. Her mouth was dry. A sharp, steady pain ached in time with her heartbeat.
“I bit the Hakurei shrine maiden!” The werewolf sobbed. “She’s going to turn into a werewolf!”
“Reimu’s been bitten. We need immediate medical assistance.” Sakuya took control. “Find that doctor right now.”
“What’s all that noise, Udonge?” Eirin Yagokoro entered the room, frowning. “Is it an emergency?”
Sakuya placed a hand on Reimu’s shoulder. It felt cold against her bare skin, and Reimu twitched, confused, hoping to shake it off. But everything around her was moving so much faster all of a sudden. The other people in the room sped around it like spooked insects, and spoke in a high-pitched whine. Eientei itself was spinning, its contents a blur of colour. Reimu closed her eyes, and fought the urge to be sick. Her heartbeat thudded in her ears. Pain oozed up her arm, driving away her lethargy. She’d been bitten by a werewolf. Bitten on a full moon night. Reimu wasn’t going to get away with just a scar.
She was going to turn into a werewolf too. She was going to lose her humanity.
The terror washed over her, like ice cold water on a winter night. It snatched her breath away. Reimu began to panic. She tried to grope for her purification rod, only to realise it was still in her left hand. Both of her arms were going numb.
She was going to lose her humanity.
Reimu sought comfort. She stared at her purification rod, and tried to reach out to it emotionally. And to her surprise, it responded. A soft, friendly warmth seeped into her. Everything will be all right. There’s nothing to be afraid of. It’ll work out, just like always. I know, because I’ve been there. I’ve been by your side all this time, so you have nothing to fear.
Sakuya’s hand left her shoulder, and everything ground to a halt. Eirin was holding a small bottle of cloudy liquid in front of her face. “Reimu, can you hear me? I’m going to make you drink this, okay? Stay still.”
Reimu felt Sakuya grip her head with both hands, to hold it in place, and Eirin gently pushed the bottle against her lips. “You need to drink it all, or the antidote won’t work. Ready? One, two, three.”
She tipped the bottle back, and the liquid entered Reimu’s mouth. It was thick, and tasted vile. Reimu’s first reaction was to retch. “Stay calm, you can keep it down. Keep swallowing.” Eirin finally pulled the bottle away, only to cover Reimu’s mouth with a lukewarm hand. “A bit more. A bit more.”
Tears ran down Reimu’s cheeks. She tried to squeeze her purification rod as tight as she could. Everything will be okay. Everything will be okay. And the rod responded. It will be okay. It will be okay.
Then finally, the last of the liquid passed down her throat, and Eirin stepped away. Reimu gasped, and tried to squirm free of Sakuya’s grip. “Let me go! Urgh…!” Nausea overwhelmed her.
“Udonge, water. Now.” Eirin gripped Reimu’s shoulders. “You need to keep it down, Reimu.”
“Here.” And Reisen had a cup. “Drink this.”
Reimu tried to take it from her. But her right hand had gone completely numb, and she knocked the cup out of Reisen’s hands. It fell to the floor, and cracked, spilling water everywhere. Reimu tried to apologise, but nothing resembling words came out of her mouth. She thought she could see black fur on her right arm. The antidote or whatever they’d given her hadn’t worked. Any minute the transformation would reach her heart, and become irreversible. Then what? She couldn’t be the Hakurei shrine maiden anymore. Would they get rid of her? Cut her down? Or maybe she’d live in the village and be feared by all, like the rokurokubi. She’d have to watch her human friends age, and die long before her. Generation, after generation, after generation.
Where was Marisa? Reimu became convinced she was in the room somewhere. Of course Marisa was there. Marisa was never far behind her in an incident. She probably saw the whole thing, and chased after them to Eientei. She tried to say her name. Marisa! Marisa!
But only a long moan escaped her mouth.
Marisa would die before her. Reimu would have to watch her hair turn grey, and the wrinkles spread across her face. She could see it right now. Marisa was in the room with her, already aging. She was staring at Reimu through half-blind eyes, her thin lips shut, her trembling hands trying to open and reach out to her. If Reimu reached out, she was convinced she’d be able to touch Marisa, and feel her delicate, sagging skin under her fingertips.
She’d failed Marisa. She got caught up chasing the rebels and keeping an eye on Sakuya. What an idiot she was! Every second she wasted took Marisa further away from her. Reimu threw herself forwards. She had to grab Marisa now, before it was too late. Before Reimu was forced to live the rest of her life without her.
And then, everything went dark. Reimu felt herself fall. Her consciousness clouded over, and she sank deeper, and deeper.
Only the purification’s rod warmth remained, reassuring her. It will be okay. It will be okay. It will be okay.
They carried the tranquilised Reimu into the sick room, and tucked her into the futon closest to the door. The werewolf was still sobbing, and the lunarians’ faces were solemn as they lay Reimu on her side, in case she threw up as she slept. The scene felt more like a funeral than a celebration of Reimu’s safety.
“Will she be all right?” asked Sakuya. She felt foolish for not slowing down Reimu’s time earlier, and was concerned she’d missed precious seconds. It had taken about half an hour for Eirin to create an antidote, and Sakuya had seen Reimu’s complexion change in slow motion.
“She should be.” But Eirin was solemn. “We need to keep an eye on her over the next twenty-four hours. I’ll take a blood sample later to make sure the medicine’s taking effect. Reisen, I need you to stay with her and monitor her condition.”
“Now then.” Eirin turned to the werewolf, and placed a hand on her shoulder. “Why don’t you tell me what happened?”
“It was an accident…” The werewolf wiped her eyes. She’d calmed down. “I’m sorry…”
“What’s your name?”
“Kagerou Imaizumi. Is she going to be okay?”
“I made an antidote.” Eirin smiled slightly. “Werewolf transformations can be reversed if caught early enough, as you’re probably aware. We’ll see how she is once she wakes up.”
“I’m not normally so violent, I swear. I don’t know what came over me.” Kagerou moaned, and covered her face with both hands. “I woke up this morning feeling really bitter and resentful, so I left the village to visit the bamboo forest, to get some fresh air, even though I look all hairy and horrible, and then-”
“Tell the truth,” grumbled Sakuya. She reached into her garter belt, meaning to pull out a silver knife. But instead, her hand touched her favourite, and the urge to slice everything returned. No, not now. Not just yet. “We can tell you’re lying.”
“I’m not- oh fine! Yes I am lying. It was that mallet!” Kagerou blurted it out. “I’ve been feeling weird ever since it hit me! That’s why I went mad tonight!”
“A mallet?” Eirin frowned. “What do you mean?”
“The Miracle Mallet. I don’t go out on full moon nights, but my whole body felt itchy. I needed to move. I needed to make something happen! I was fed up with normality and needed change!”
“That again.” Reimu had told Sakuya about the rokurokubi and her motives on the way to the bamboo forest. “I need to find whoever’s using that mallet and get rid of them.” She pulled the knife out and held it out in front of her. It felt good to hold it again. She couldn’t hang around for too long. Milady was probably starting to miss her, and now was the perfect opportunity to shake off Reimu. “I have little time to waste. Unless there’s anything else that needs my assistance, I’ll take my leave. Thank you for your work, doctor.”
Kagerou grabbed Sakuya’s arm. “No, don’t leave me with them, please! I don’t want to be exterminated!”
“It’s your fault for biting her in the first place.” Sakuya felt no sympathy. She resisted the urge to swipe at her with the knife. “Let me go.”
“Are you sure you don’t want to stay?” Eirin asked. “Reimu should wake up in a few hours.”
Good, that gave Sakuya several hours to get away from her. “I need to find the source of these riots. You wouldn’t happen to know anything, would you?” She felt her knife tremble. How nice it would be to stick her knife into Dr Yagokoro... But no, that would cause trouble.
“Unfortunately I don’t, no.” Eirin sighed. Maybe she could tell things weren’t quite right with Sakuya, because she didn’t push the subject. “Do you need to be escorted, or can you make your way out of the bamboo forest alone?”
“I can do fine by myself.” Sakuya prised her arm away from Kagerou, and walked out of the room. “Goodbye. Thank you for treating Reimu.”
“I’m not going to exterminate you, don’t worry,” whispered Eirin, once Sakuya was gone. Kagerou’s tail was still drooped between her legs, and she was trembling. “We’re going to go into my office, drink some tea and have a chat. I want to hear all about this strange mallet.”
“I’ve never lost control like that before, honestly,” said Kagerou. “Ask any of my friends and they’ll tell you I always stay calm, even on full moon nights. I don’t even-”
“I can tell you’re shaken. Come on.” Eirin lead her into the corridor. “Our rabbits make some delicious mochi. You have to try it.”
Reisen untied Reimu’s sleeve, and wiped the blood from her wound.
Sakuya floated through the night air, the knife still clutched in her hand as Eientei faded away behind her. She couldn’t stop smiling. Finally, finally
, she’d shaken off Reimu! She could get back to business, solve the incident, and return to the mansion before the sun rose. What a relief.
There was a clearing directly below her. A few seconds ago it’d been a thick bamboo grove, but now the plants had been sliced into thick, two-centimetre strips, and piled up around the edge. Sakuya wiped the flat of her knife with a handkerchief. She’d become so caught up in the riots and duals and urges to cut that she’d forgotten about her time-stopping abilities. Her, forgetting her own ability! What an embarrassment. She glanced down at the grove. From now on, she’d indulge the knife during paused time. No more wastage.
She could see tiny flashes of light up ahead, barely visible behind the mountain range. It hadn’t rained in several days, so Sakuya assumed it was a thunderstorm, caused by the humidity. She kept an eye on it. The castle was probably somewhere nearby, she just had to find it.
Once she solved the incident, she could return home and begin preparing a celebratory meal. What would Milady be in the mood for? Maybe something themed after the night’s events? Sakuya imagined the knife sinking through a large, fat steak. Yes, something thick and meaty. The knife excelled at cutting flesh. She thought of the blood oozing out of the steak, and running along the edge of the knife. Delicious. Absolutely delicious.
She wanted to cut something again. Her thoughts agitated her knife, and it was keen to slice. Sakuya considered going back into the forest, but instinct told her there were better things to cut up ahead. Something more succulent than bamboo.
She heard a deep rumble. The first thing she thought of was a drum at a Shinto festival. The drum skin would be thin and tight, and perfect for piercing with the tip of her knife. But then the sound came again, and Sakuya realised it was thunder. The flashes were lightning after all, but there was no rain. The cloud was tinged orange and purple, and a sharp, burning smell floated around it. Sakuya felt relieved. It was a magic storm. If she got struck by lightning, it would feel no different to being hit by a danmaku bullet. She had nothing to fear. Sakuya pressed on, feeling her hair stand on end as she approached the storm clouds.
Colourful vapour twisted around her, and blocked her vision. Sakuya couldn’t see further than a metre ahead, but that didn’t bother her. Nothing truly scared Sakuya. If things ever got frightening, she could stop time, and walk away, as simple as that.
An old phrase drifted into her mind. Something Remilia said back when they caused their own incident. “I want the mist so thick it blocks out the sun! Thick enough you could cut out a chunk of it, Sakuya, and serve it up like a giant block of tofu!” How long ago was that? It was hard to remember. Sakuya lifted her knife, and swished it through the cloud. The blade passed through it harmlessly.
“Hey, watch what you’re doing with that thing!” yelled a voice up ahead. There was a flash of light, and Sakuya glimpsed a figure. Another flash revealed several wide magical circles below them, spinning on top of each other like plates in a magic act.
“You might cut someone if you’re not careful!” It was a young woman, with dark hair and a purple hair band, wearing a strange blue and white outfit. A rifle was slung over her back, and a small brown bag attached to the strap. Long, gleaming red strings floated above her thighs, and her hands rested over them, as though awaiting instructions to start playing. A golden, diamond-shaped badge flickered in her lap.
“The cloud was quite thick, so I wanted to see if I could cut through it.” Sakuya glanced at the knife’s edge, and smiled. “This knife never dulls.”
“Oh, are you one of us?” The woman looked delighted. She flew closer. “Have you come to join our new paradise?”
Sakuya’s smile widened. “New paradise?”
“Yes, a paradise for tsukumogami! It’s all change in Gensokyo right now. Did you just come to life? A lot of new tsukumogami are born around here, so it’s my job to greet them.”
She’d walked straight into the lion’s den. Sakuya resisted the urge to clap her hands with delight. “You’re a tsukumogami, are you?”
“Of course! Aren’t you?”
“Oh.” The woman looked disappointed. “That’s odd, I mean… I get the tsukumogami aura from you, if you know what I mean. You feel like one. Are you a tsukumogami user instead? You seem pretty close to that knife.”
“A tsukumogami user? Hmm…” Sakuya peered at the blade again. Her knife did have a will of its own, there was no denying that. “I suppose this knife does act like a tsukumogami.”
“You’ve gotta join us! We’re gonna make a paradise where tools can rule the world. Oh right, my name’s Yatsuhashi Tsukumo, pleased to meet you!” She bowed quickly, then held out a hand. “I’m a commander in the Shining Needle Tsukumogami Brigade. We’re still recruiting new members, so if you want a slice of the pie, you’d better come with me! We’ll fit you out with a uniform just like mine.”
Sakuya grabbed Yatsuhashi’s wrist, and yanked her closer. “A tsukumogami brigade? Why would you need something like that?”
“We serve the princess of the Shining Needle Castle. We’re her personal army.” Yatsuhashi’s smile twitched. “Um, can you let go? It hurts.”
Sakuya tightened her grip. “I’m sorry, but I’m in a bit of a hurry.” She lifted the knife. “Perhaps you can tell me all about it right now?”
The colour disappeared from Yatsuhashi’s face. “Um, yes, sure. I guess. My sister’s got all the recruitment documents on her though, so you’ll need to talk to her.” She glanced around, and tried to pull her arm free. “Um, she should be around here somewhere. I can go find her if you let me go!”
Sakuya placed the cold, flat edge of the knife against Yatsuhashi’s cheek. Yatsuhashi squeaked, and fell still. “There we go.” Sakuya resisted the urge to laugh. “This knife is very, very sharp, you know. I’d quite like to try it out on a tsukumogami. Cut a few strings. Slice through the wooden body. Or are you made of flesh?”
Yatsuhashi groped for her rifle with her free hand. But the sling was designed to be removed from her back before the rifle could be pulled out, so all she could do was pull on the cloth. “D-Don’t…”
Sakuya really wanted to cut her now. She could feel the drool welling up in her mouth, as though someone had placed an aromatic dish in front of her. It was hard to hold back. Maybe just slicing Yatsuhashi’s uniform a bit would be enough? Yes, that would satisfy her knife. Sakuya moved the knife to Yatsuhashi’s front, and pressed the tip against the cloth.
“Help me, help me!” Yatsuhashi struggled. “Nee-san, help me!”
There was a gunshot, and Sakuya felt something hot skim past her cheek. Someone was shooting at her. Sakuya turned. There was a blue blur, and the sound of something hard and heavy swinging through the air. Pain crashed through Sakuya’s head. She let go of Yatsuhashi, and lost her balance. Her hand clung to her knife, afraid she might drop it and lose it forever. That would be the worst thing. Far worse than death.
“Yatsuhashi, are you okay!?”
She had to stop time. But Sakuya lost consciousness before she remembered how to do it. And when she next opened her eyes, she was lying on her back somewhere dark. A sharp headache pounded through her head, and for a moment Sakuya thought her skull had split open. But the feeling passed, and she groaned, and rolled over.
“She’s a human. You could’ve killed her, Nee-san! They’ve got rules against that here!”
“It was in self-defence. She was going to hurt you, Yatsuhashi, and I wasn’t going to just stand there and let her.”
There was something heavy covering Sakuya’s body. A blanket, most likely. The smell of mould was overwhelming, and she noticed shadows flickering over the dark, uneven ceiling. She closed her eyes again, and when Sakuya woke up a second time, the dull pain in her head had mostly faded. She turned, and realised for the first time she was in a cave. There was light pouring in from an entrance to her left, and she could hear laughter and chatter, as though they were hosting a party in another room.
“Oh, you’re awake!”
Sakuya recognised the voice, but couldn’t see who it belonged to. She heard the clack of wooden clogs, and saw a silhouette approach the light. “Guys, guys she’s awake!” Murmurs, noise, and then the sound of footsteps as people began pouring into the room. Sakuya noticed something in her right hand, and was relieved to find the knife still there. She wasn’t sure if she had the stamina to stop time right now, so a weapon made her feel safer.
Someone brought a lamp into the room, and the cave filled with light. Sakuya saw that she was lying in a futon. Around forty tsukumogami surrounded her, all wearing the same uniform as Yatsuhashi, and all staring at her.
“Is that really her?”
“Isn’t she the maid at that big red mansion?”
“She’s one of us, isn’t she?”
A woman with long, flowing hair stepped forward, with Yatsuhashi following behind her. Part of what looked like a biwa was chained to the woman’s wrist, floating close to her ankles. There was a rifle in her hands, and Sakuya noticed a small blood stain on the gun’s hilt. The source of her headache, perhaps.
“I’m sorry I had to hit you,” said the woman. She wasn’t pointing the rifle at Sakuya, just holding it against her chest. The message was clear: I’m not threatening you, but I’m ready if you try anything.
“My name is Benben Tsukumo. I’m Yatsuhashi’s older sister. How are you feeling?”
Sakuya took great pride in her appearance, and it bothered her that so many people were staring at her when she looked unladylike. She sat up with great effort, and reached up to check her hair. She found a bandage wrapped around her head. “I’m surprised, to say the least,” she said. “How long was I asleep?”
“Um.” Benben looked at Yatsuhashi, and started counting on her fingers. The crowd muttered, and someone shouted: “Four hours!”
Sakuya winced. Four hours wasn’t terrible, but if things had gone to plan she would’ve solved the incident and flown home by now. Sharp pain shot through her head, and she pressed her fingertips against her forehead.
“Are you hungry?” Benben nodded to the crowd, and someone walked over with a bowl of rice. “You’re still human, aren’t you? So you probably need some food. Here. A peace offering.”
The bowl was placed in Sakuya’s lap, and she stared at it. It was hard to imagine how they would benefit from poisoning her food straight after nursing her back to health. “I’ll eat it later,” she said, moving the bowl to one side. She still felt terrible, and doubted putting food in her stomach would end well. “But thank you anyway.”
“We should press on, now that you’re awake.” Benben looked at Yatsuhashi again. She nodded, and Benben continued. “You’re the maid at the Scarlet Devil Mansion, aren’t you?”
Sakuya nodded. “That’s correct.”
“I thought so!” A voice spoke up from the back of the crowd. It was the familiar voice from earlier, and the sound of clogs slapping against the cave floor as she pushed her way forward confirmed it. Sakuya saw a purple umbrella emerge through the crowd, and came face-to-face with Kogasa Tatara. She was dressed in the same uniform as everyone else, and grinning from ear-to-ear. “Remember me?” she asked.
“Vaguely.” Sakuya recalled her from Reimu’s parties, and the Myouren Temple graveyard. “What are you doing here?”
“Joining the cause!” Kogasa giggled, and twirled her umbrella around. The other tsukumogami moved back, to avoid the big floppy tongue. “Were you surprised? I bet you were!”
“Kogasa filled us in,” explained Benben. “Most of us were only born a few weeks ago, so there’s still a lot we don’t know about Gensokyo. She’s an irreplaceable member of the team.”
Kogasa tried to look modest. “I’m not that great. This is just basic stuff.”
The knife warmed up in the palm of her hand. The sensation felt comforting, and made Sakuya want to smile too. How odd. She’d felt nothing but bloodlust from the knife up until now. Maybe it was happy.
“Why did you attack Yatsuhashi?” asked Benben suddenly.
“Nee-san, don’t. You might provoke her.”
“I need to know.”
Sakuya lifted the knife out of the futon. Yes, it was radiating heat. The blade had an orange tint. She saw Yatsuhashi flinch at the sight of it. “I had the urge,” Sakuya explained. “This knife enjoys cutting, and I wanted to indulge it. Rest assured I had no intention of actually hurting your sister. I was planning to run the blade over her uniform.”
The crowd whispered nervously.
“But that’s something we can all relate to here,” said Benben, unfazed. “There is nothing a tsukumogami enjoys more than fulfilling its purpose. A few of us were originally knives as well. You are among friends.”
“Friends?” Sakuya wasn’t sure about that. She gazed down at the blanket. It had a faded criss-cross pattern, and a few rips and tears. It was already spoilt. Sakuya wondered if there’d be any harm in tracing the pattern with her knife.
“Benben, don’t!” Yatsuhashi yanked her sister’s sleeve. “I don’t think we should recruit her after all. She’s dangerous!”
“We’ve had this discussion already,” said Benben firmly. “And we all agreed we would accept her if she wanted to join.”
“She didn’t want to slice my clothes; she was going to slice me
up! She was going to kill me!”
Sakuya ignored them, and began sliding the knife over the blanket. She could feel the material give way beneath the blade, like she was slowly unzipping a dress. It felt calming. It gave her complete piece of mind, faster than meditation. Sakuya hadn’t felt so relaxed since she’d started working for Remilia. How long ago was that? She couldn’t remember the exact number of years.
“That was an accident. We sometimes play our instruments without realising, don’t we? It’s similar to that. Look.” Benben pointed at her. “She just wants to cut some cloth.”
“Maybe we should ask Her Royal Highness,” suggested Kogasa. “I mean, if we can’t decide ourselves.”
The crowd liked that. They began to murmur again.
“Yes, Her Royal Highness would know what to do.”
“She’d know best!”
Benben grimaced. “We shouldn’t trouble Her Royal Highness too much. She’s very busy right now.”
“I think we should ask her,” said Yatsuhashi, relieved. “It’d only take a moment, and we’ll be seeing her tomorrow anyway, for the lesson.”
“We shouldn’t do anything without Her Royal Highness’ word anyway.” Yatsuhashi crossed her arms, and nodded. “We need the blessing of the Miracle Mallet.”
The crowd yelled in agreement. Sakuya was sure there were words she was meant to be paying attention to in the conversation, but her focus was on the blanket. Her knife made beautiful patterns in the fabric, slicing it into identical strips. It was going to look splendid once she was done, like a large, elegant tassel.
“I suppose you’re right.” Benben sighed. “Her Royal Highness won’t object if there’s nothing wrong with her joining, so there’s no harm in asking.”
Yatsuhashi turned to the crowd. “Right, you all heard that. We’re going to-”“Stop!”
Benben froze. Yatsuhashi spun around. Sakuya frowned, and looked up. A tall woman in an off-white suit pushed her way into view. She was visibly limping, and her suit was specked with dirt and mud. Her clothes hadn’t been washed in a long time. “Stop, everyone stay where you are!” She looked frantic. “No one move.”
“Raiko…” Benben looked at her, amazed.
“About time you showed up!” Yatsuhashi glared at her. “Where’ve you been!?”
The woman named Raiko jabbed a finger at the cave entrance. “Get everyone in here. Even the soldiers on duty. I’ve got something really important to tell you.”
“I thought you’d gone for good!” Benben reached out, and grabbed her arm. “Why didn’t you send me a message? I was so worried!”
“I’m sorry, Benben, but this is urgent. I’ll explain where I’ve been afterwards. It’s about the Miracle Mallet.”
A ripple of terror ran through the crowd. The Miracle Mallet! The tsukumogami looked at each other. Kogasa bit her lip, and held her umbrella close.
“We can’t round up the soldiers on duty!” cried Yatsuhashi. “They’re guarding the castle! What if an intruder gets in?”
“Be quiet, everyone!” Benben took command. “It won’t hurt if they’re away from their posts for a few minutes. We’ve yet to be attacked anyway. Yatsuhashi, go round them up. Kogasa, get Raiko a chair. Everyone else, stay put and await further instructions.”
Within a few minutes, the room was packed full of tsukumogami. A few of the new faces looked tired, and Yatsuhashi paced around the outskirts of the crowd, impatient. Benben had put her rifle back in its sling, and was fussing over Raiko, giving her a cup of water to drink, and trying to brush the dirt off her suit.
Raiko stood up as soon as the last group of tsukumogami arrived. “I won’t waste your time mincing words,” she announced. “The Miracle Mallet’s power is finite!” She looked around the crowd, and tried to make eye contact with every member of the brigade in turn. “It’s only a matter of time before it runs out, and we return to how we were before.”
The crowd reacted with shocked silence.
“That’s… a really big thing to say,” said Benben cautiously. “What do you mean, it’ll run out?”
“I knew there was something not right about that mallet! Nothing comes for free in this world, especially not miracles!” Raiko looked back at Benben, and held her gaze. “I knew you guys turning into an army was a bad idea. Listen to me, I’ve been travelling. I looked for information about the Miracle Mallet, and how we all came into being, and here’s what I found out: the mallet’s power is too good to be true! So I searched for an alternative, and I found one. If you all follow my instructions now, it won’t be too late. We can stay as we are without the mallet’s power, and live life without following anyone’s orders!”
“…And what happens if we don’t follow your instructions?” asked Yatsuhashi.
“We’ll return to mere objects.” Raiko was solemn. “You’ll go back to being a koto instrument, Yatsuhashi, with little will of your own.”
“How do you know the mallet’s power is finite?” yelled someone from the crowd. “How can you find something like that out when the mallet’s right here in the castle?”
Raiko paused. The crowd murmured amongst itself. They were sceptical.
“Saying the mallet’s finite. I don’t believe it.”
“It goes against the words of Her Royal Highness.”
“Isn’t this blasphemy?”
“Blasphemy? What are you talking about?” Raiko looked alarmed.
“The mallet gave us life,” explained Yatsuhashi. “We wouldn’t be here without it. You know that! What you’re saying is really serious, Raiko. It’s hard to believe.”
“Are you worshipping that mallet?” Raiko turned to Benben. “What’s happened while I’ve been gone? First you all start wearing the same clothes, now you’re all idolising a mallet! What’s wrong with you all?”
“I’m proud to wear this uniform!” yelled another tsukumogami. There was a roar of agreement, and the crowd started closing in on Raiko.
“Everyone, calm down! Stay put!” Benben held her arms out, and the crowd moved back. “Raiko, you too. Tell us where you heard this information. Give us more detail.”
“I went to the World of Oni during my travels.” But Raiko had lost her confidence. Her voice sounded weaker. “I met an inchling there who’d met the princess and Seija Kijin. He told me all kinds of things, and-”
“You’re a traitor!” The crowd wasn’t listening anymore. “Her Royal Highness told us the mallet can grant any wish we want, for as long as we want!”
“Her Royal Highness would never lie to us!”
“Why should we believe you? You don’t believe in us! You don’t believe in what we’re trying to achieve!”
“She’s not one of us anymore!”
“Woah, woah, wait a minute.” Raiko was shouting. “Slow down a bit! Let me finish what I have to say!”
“Nee-san, I’m concerned about leaving the castle unguarded,” whispered Yatsuhashi. “I think we should send the soldiers back before continuing with this.”
“No, you can’t! Everyone needs to hear this! Don’t you all want to stay the way you are? You have to do as I say before it’s too late!”
“Raiko…” Benben looked at the floor. “I know you’re desperate to explain everything, but I can’t deny that what you’re saying sounds really strange. You disappeared all of a sudden, without saying a word to anyone, and now you’ve come back, claiming all this stuff you’ve learnt from somewhere… it’s worrying.”
“Benben, no! You need to believe me, above everyone else.” It was dawning on Raiko that she was fighting a losing battle. She reached out. “Please, believe me! You have to!”
The crowd was losing interest. A few tsukumogami were wandering out of the room. “No, no, stop!” Raiko tried to run over, but Benben grasped her hand.
“Raiko,” she snapped. “Calm down. Please. We should discuss this later, when you’ve got a cool head.”
“No, we need to talk about this now! The mallet could run out of power any minute! Please!”
“I said calm down.” Benben glared at her. “You’re making this hard for everyone.”
“No, I won’t calm down. You’ve all decided to ignore me without hearing the full story. Listen to me!”
Sakuya continued cutting, unconcerned.