A Different Story of an Eastern Wonderland: Prologue
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The Hakurei shrine was an ancient Shinto shrine in the mountains. It rarely had any visitors; this was understandable, because it had been abandoned over a hundred years ago.
Two young women appraised this as they walked up the path leading from where they'd left the rental car one late afternoon in mid-spring. Each of them wore fair-sized backpacks, looking as if they expected to be gone overnight.
"That really doesn't look like it's been abandoned for a hundred years," said Maribel Hearn. She was an exchange student from overseas, with medium-length wavy blond hair, currently wearing a slightly old-fashioned purple button-down dress, and she had the faint accent of someone who was used to pronouncing their L's and R's differently. "It looks like it can't have been more than ten or fifteen years."
"In that case, we can confirm that there's some kind of magical effect here," said her companion, Renko Usami, who had short brown hair and wore a white suit-shirt and tie, a brown skirt, and a wide-brimmed black hat. She adjusted her hat, hefted the satchel slung over her shoulder, and strode through the vermilion torii arch in front of the shrine.
They were students, currently attending university in Kyoto. Renko was a logical-minded physics major; Maribel was a major in relative psychology who occasionally had rather flighty tendencies. Together, they formed the Sealing Club, dedicated to uncovering the secrets of magic and discovering the boundaries between this world and, chiefly, the next.
What with one thing and another, such as the world's complete lack of suitability for anything magical, they had their work cut out for them.
Fortunately, they had reason to believe they were on the right track. Several reasons, in fact.
Apart from its state of disrepair, the Hakurei shrine looked rather ordinary, maybe a local shrine for a small village without any particular socio-political connections.1 There was a pair of stone komainu dogs near the entrance, standing spiritual guard (one of them missing its head); a donation box sat some feet away (looking broken and ransacked); there was a single building, presumably because it held both the main hall and the worshiping hall, with a sliding shoji door (with most of the paper panels torn) in front ...
"Mari-chan,2 can you see the thinnest part of the boundary?" asked Renko, looking around.
Maribel stood at the path leading to the shrine entrance, and turned around. "There," she said, pointing back through the torii arch. "That's the weakest point."
Renko looked back, and shrugged. "Figures it'd end up being behind us," she said whimsically. She looked up at the sky and closed her eyes, then muttered a series of numbers — GPS coordinates. Renko was able to tell her position in the world and the time of day just by looking at the sky, and Maribel could see the boundaries of the world. This was the unintended result of one of their experiments with magic.
"You ready to perform the ritual?" said Maribel.
Renko nodded. "Yep!"
From their current position, the path curved out of sight down the mountain. Renko reached into her satchel and took out eight smooth white stones, arranging them in a circle in front of the arch, then drew lines in the dirt connecting each stone from the one opposite. Maribel began drawing the eight trigrams of the bagua (King Wen "Later Heaven" order)3 in the spaces between the lines, with the trigram for Fire closest to the archway — they were close enough that it was almost, but not quite, underneath the arch.
They stood on opposite sides of the magic circle, parallel to the arch, careful not to scuff any of the lines. They spoke at the same time, beginning the incantation: "We open the boundary between this world and the other. Let the border part; let the path become clear."
And that was evidently enough, because with a low hum, the space beneath the arch began to distort.
The two girls were startled, but they didn't stop the incantation, out of a very real concern about breaking the spell. "Let the gateway between Earth and the Land of Illusions be open," they both said in unison.
The space beneath the arch looked like it was getting sucked down a sideways whirlpool of light. Einstein had talked about gravity causing space to bend; this hadn't been what he was talking about, but it gave you a great idea of what it might look like. The distortion began to expand from the center, then opened and vanished, revealing ...
... exactly the same view as before.
They slumped slightly. When it came to attempting magic, neither of them were strangers to disappointment. This wasn't the most impressive effect which had failed spectacularly to amount to anything.
"Well, so much for that," said Maribel uncertainly.
"Yeah," said Renko, starting to wander down the path.
Maribel glanced around the ruined shrine. "Mmm ... Renko, should I pick up the stones? They were a bit expensive, getting them all at once ... we should at least —"
"Mari-chan," said Renko softly, "come here a minute." She'd passed under the arch, and was staring past it at the shrine ... but not through the arch.
Maribel blinked, then walked over and looked at the shrine from where Renko was standing.
Looking through the arch, the Hakurei Shrine looked old, abandoned, and decrepit. Looking past the arch, it merely looked as if its current occupant was bit lazy, although the donation box still had an abandoned look.
"We made it," said Renko softly, grinning widely.
"We're in Gensokyo!" said Maribel. She felt giddy, as if she'd eaten six cubes of raw sugar, except without the potential for a stomach ache.
"Hot damn," said Renko. "I can't believe it actually worked."
She looked at the sky, then closed her eyes and concentrated. "The time is 17:14, just like it is on Earth, but I ... can't get a good fix on where we are," she said softly. "I mean, I'm getting numbers ... sort of ... but they're not corresponding to our location. I think." She frowned. "I've never been sure how my numbers are calculated, but it's almost as if ..." She opened her eyes and looked at Maribel. "... as if it's ... trying to multiply them by the square root of negative one."
Even Maribel knew what that meant. "You mean, our GPS coordinates are imaginary numbers?"
Renko broke into a grin. "Yeah," she said, and looked at the path. "So ... shall we go?"
"Oh, first ..." Maribel took out a digital camera, and snapped a photo of the view through the archway, careful to catch both the decrepit appearance and the merely disregarded one in the same shot. "We'll need to keep a record of the expedition."
"Of course!" said Renko, smacking her forehead, and got out her own camera.
They turned and went down the path.
Shortly thereafter, the shrine maiden flew down from the sky from a different direction. "Huh? Is someone there?" she said, looking around as she landed in front of the shrine. She thought she'd seen movement here ...
The sun happened to pass behind a cloud for a moment, casting a shadow over the area, except what could be seen through the arch.
"Oh, I see," said Reimu Hakurei, advancing towards the arch.
Elsewhere in Gensokyo, nothing seemed to be going on much.
In a traditional Japanese-style house with tatami flooring, there lay what looked like a golden-haired woman in her late twenties or early thirties, asleep on a typical futon mattress, the sheets going up to her nose. At the moment the gateway between Gensokyo and the outside world opened, her violet eyes abruptly snapped open, and then narrowed as she sat up.
She's arrived, she thought, slowly getting to her feet.
A younger woman poked her head into the room. She was dressed in pinkish-white robes with blue trim, and had short golden hair, a pair of golden-furred fox-ears sticking out of her head, and nine large golden fox-tails. "Miss Yukari? Is everything all right?"
Yukari Yakumo ... smiled, but it was a disconcerting smile. "Ran," she said, "There's an outsider in Gensokyo."
Ran frowned. "An outsider?" she said. "Er ..."
Yukari chuckled. "I know, I'm usually not awake often enough for this to be significant," she said cheerfully. "But ..." She grinned. "We're about to have a very special visitor soon."
Ran nodded. She'd been Yukari's shikigami4 for centuries, and while Yukari slept most of the time, she was used to her being cryptic for the hell of it. "Should we ... prepare somehow?"
Yukari considered this. "Hmm. I don't think you'll need to do much of anything," she said. "In fact, why don't you take the day off, go play with Chen or something."
Ran blinked, actually startled. "Miss ... Yukari?" she said, a worried note to her voice.
Yukari laughed. "Oh, don't worry about me," she said. Her grin shifted slightly. It wasn't a pleasant grin. It was a grin that didn't quite reach her eyes. It was a grin you associated with a helicopter headset and a silent reaction of triumph. Ran felt her fur standing on end. "Things are about to get very interesting."
This happened almost three thousand years previously ...
"Her last danmaku pattern was, of course, the worst," she said. "It was like ... a hurricane of blue and purple arrowheads. I couldn't attack her, and could only dodge until she was spent."
The men listening nodded uneasily. Most of them had only heard of danmaku, and some of the rest hadn't. It was a relatively strange new phenomenon among youkai.
They were all members of a clan who had met in a small grove in the woods outside their village, when suddenly they had been joined by an unearthly-looking woman. They knew she couldn't have been a human, since her features seemed too ... smooth, and flawless, and almost featureless, so they didn't try anything funny. Now they were something of a captive audience as she regaled them with a tale of a battle with another youkai which had apparently taken place a hundred years ago.
And now she was pretty much the only one speaking.
"They looked ... like this," said the woman. She held out her hands; two glowing arrowheads of light appeared, one sky-blue and the other a harsh magenta. "Now imagine a storm of a thousand of them, swirling around each other chaotically, but in the center, there's a space of calm."
"Like the eye of a hurricane?" said one of the more knowledgeable men.
"Not entirely unlike a hurricane, yes," said the youkai-woman, grinning at him. Something about her grin was unnerving, and it wasn't just that it was a grin belonging to a youkai. It would have unnerved them even if it had belonged to one of the girls from the village.5 "Then some of them wove themselves into an enclosed sphere, surrounding both of us. It was quite dense, so that it should be impossible to slip through it — and if you did, you'd find yourself caught up in the storm outside."
She leaned back, her grin never wavering as she regarded them. This did not ease their discomfort; they felt like a bunch of kids listening to an old woman tell scary stories. Admittedly, they had plenty to be afraid of, given how the rest of the fight had gone, and she'd implied that she was much more powerful now. They also weren't sure how to react to a youkai who'd suddenly shown up, apparently for the sole purpose of telling them a story.
"Then the sphere began to contract," she said, leaning forward slightly. "It was clear that the aim was to crush me. There wasn't even the slightest gap through which I could possibly escape." She paused. "So I made my own, and she was the one her danmaku crushed."
She let out a soft sigh, straightening up. "Ah well," she said, "I suppose you ought to get back to what you were doing. Sayonara!"
The spell broke. The men began to stand up, one by one.
One of them spoke up. "Why did ... you come here just to tell us that story?"
The woman paused. "I don't know," she said. "I was just bursting to tell it to someone, and you were the first humans I chanced upon." She gave him that unnerving grin again.
The one who'd asked about hurricanes said, "What happened to the youkai you fought?"
Yukari paused as she opened up a gap. "She died, of course," she said cheerfully, then slipped through and disappeared.
2The Japanese language doesn't natively support the letter L, and Maribel wasn't natively Japanese. In any event, Renko couldn't pronounce "Maribel."
4Sort of like a witch's familiar, except Japanese.
5Especially their wives.
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