A Different Demon-Sealing Record - Chapter 3: Trail Sign
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Flying at a brisk pace, it only took about ten more minutes before they passed over the crest of a hill and found themselves at their destination.
Wide green and golden farmlands stretched out in front of them, all surrounded by a four-meter white brick wall. There were roads and small houses scattered all over it, all in a late-nineteenth-century Japanese design. In the exact center of the region, more than a dozen kilometers away from the outer wall, there was a settlement large enough to qualify as a small town.
The Human Village. The one place in Gensokyo where humans were guaranteed to be safe from youkai.
Or rather, where they should have been safe. Reimu gripped her gohei more tightly. "Ugh ..."
"You okay?" asked Rika.
Reimu shook her head. "It's ... you should've been safe here!" she blurted out. "I just ... I wanna make someone pay! It's like, they broke some kind of rules or something!"
"Indeed," said Genjii gravely. "The destruction of the Shrine, much less a direct assault on a human this close to the Village wall, is certainly a crime worthy of extermination."
They made their way southward towards the Human Village's eastern gate, just under a kilometer away. Under most circumstances, it was considered rude to fly over the Human Village limits, even if it was quicker (and even if you were literally the Hakurei Shrine Maiden on official youkai-extermination business). The gate was wide enough for a whole crowd to walk through, and there were was a guard shack just inside.
"Well, here comes Meira," said Rika. A purple-haired young woman in a red and white kimono had risen off the ground by the gate.
"That's Miyamoto Meira?" said Genjii. "She was one of the other candidates for the Hakurei Shrine Maiden. She had just awakened the power to wield any close-quarters weapon as if she was an expert."
Reimu tried to figure out if there were any situations where a sword would be more useful than danmaku. "She still probably would've gotten a lot of mileage out of the Yin-Yang Orb," she said.
"Well, regardless, it's good to see that she is still putting her abilities to good use," Genjii said diplomatically.
"Yeahhhh," said Rika. "I am so not looking forward to this ..."
As Meira drew nearer, Reimu saw that she seemed to be a few years younger than Rika. She realized that Meira didn't exactly have a friendly expression, and she also had one hand on the handle of a sword at her hip, ready to draw.
"Hang on, where's her Defense Force armband?" said Rika.
"Uh ... Rika," said Reimu, "I ... don't think she's here to greet us ..."
"Wha— oh, crap," said Rika, tensing up. "Not her, too, of all people!"
Meira was only fifty or so meters away at that point. Reimu raised her gohei, and split the Yin-Yang Orb into four in a close orbit around her. It was more of a strain than just two, but Reimu had a feeling she was going to need it. In response, Meira drew her katana, held it out to the side, and charged forward at top speed, her blade leaving a glowing white trail of light.
Rika screamed and dodged wildly over the trail, while Reimu sent Genjii diving underneath it. Only a split second after she'd passed them, Meira sheathed her sword, and the trail promptly exploded into white orbs of danmaku.
Reimu carefully navigated through Meira's danmaku, moving in as close as she could. She noted that Rika was flying hurriedly over the wall towards the guard shack. Well, if this wasn't a good time to ignore propriety, Reimu didn't know what was. Reimu closed in to within a half-dozen or so meters, and threw a curse-removal ofuda straight at Meira's head. It sailed through the air like a danmaku bullet, propelled by a small charge of extra supernatural energy she'd put into it.
Meira's sword flashed through the air. Two scraps of paper fluttered uselessly out of the sky.
Reimu's heart sank as Meira turned to face her. Reimu got a good look at her face for the first time —
— and promptly fell in love.
Well ... she became infatuated. It's a rather common mistake, dear reader.
"I am Miyamoto Meira," said Meira. She held her sword at the ready in both hands. "I have come to take the Hakurei."
"Wha ... what?" said Reimu. The combat instincts from the Yin-Yang Orb, which had not become infatuated, were struggling to get her to stay out of range of the sword. "Is that a marriage prop—"
Meira dramatically pointed her sword straight at Reimu. "I shall ... wait, what did you say?"
Reimu's face was bright red. "Um. Marriage proposal ..."
Genjii let out an exasperated sigh. "Please pay attention, Miss Hakurei."
"Your power!" said Meira, blushing as well. She held her sword in a defensive position. "I was talking about the Hakurei power! The Yin-Yang Orb!"
"Setting aside the fact that 'the Hakurei' is not an appropriate name, Miss Miyamoto," said Genjii, "you cannot just take the Hakurei Yin-Yang Orb. It will only respond to the one who was chosen by the Village Elders and the Hakurei Shr—"
Meira pointed her sword at Reimu again. "That power should have been mine," she snarled. "It must be mine!"
"Uh ... look," said Reimu nervously. She'd never had a crush on someone before, and didn't know what to do with it. "I don't want to hurt you, but ..."
Genjii let out a strangled noise. "Miss Hakurei, the curse!"
Reimu blinked, and managed to tear her eyes away from Meira's face, in favor of focusing on her supernatural senses. She could feel the same kind of dark presence she'd sensed around Rika. "Oh! Right, Gramps, I see it!"
"What ...?" Meira suddenly looked exactly as confused as Rika had, too. It seemed that preventing the victim from noticing they were cursed was a standard part of it.
Reimu was furious. Even more than she'd been with the threat to the Human Village, in fact. "I don't know what that ghost-woman told you to get you to do this, Meira," she said, "but I do know one thing! I'm gonna free you from that curse, and then I'm going to destroy that ghost for harming such a pretty woman!" Genjii snorted.
Meira blinked a few more times. "Uh ... I ..." Her eyes became more and more unfocused.
A small voice inside Reimu thought, I can exploit that.
She had Genjii charge forward, holding out a curse-removal ofuda, while shouting, "You've been cursed and it's messing with your head and it —"
But it seemed that the curse-girl had thought of that, too. Meira dodged to the side, her face completely blank as she swung her sword. Reimu shrieked and made a sharp turn out of the way, and nearly fell off Genjii's back. Reimu found that the ofuda had been cut in half right above her fingers. "Oh jeez ..."
Meira opened and closed her mouth a few times. "Shut up!" she exclaimed finally. "The Yin-Yang Orb will be MIIIINE!!!"
"I wish Miss Hara was still here so that I could ask her if Miss Miyamoto is always this dramatic," muttered Genjii.
"I could hear the multiple exclamation marks," Reimu said weakly. "Though, wasn't Rika kinda like this?"
Meira growled, and held her katana horizontally. "Trail Sign!" she said. There was the hissing roar of an activated Spell Card, and a black and pinkish-purple aura surrounded her. She charged forward, her katana once again leaving a glowing white trail.
Reimu dodged back out of her way and sent a burst of ofuda-bullets after her, but Meira abruptly zipped away at a right angle from her original course, leaving a second trail. She sheathed her katana, and both trails exploded into orbs again.
Reimu did her best to dodge and weave through the thick pattern, getting a feel for it as the bullets flew around her. She noticed that they always moved in a simple path directly away from their source, though this didn't actually help much because there were so many of them. She made it through to the other side and paused to catch her breath, but Meira had already started another charge. Reimu fired a burst of ofuda danmaku ahead, anticipating Meira's change in direction, but this time Meira's new course was straight up. Reimu groaned, and pulled back slightly. "Gramps, can you take over dodging for a second?" she asked, as Meira sheathed her sword and the trails exploded again.
"I'm afraid not, Miss Hakurei," said Genjii. "Argh!" He stumbled in midair as a bullet grazed him.
"Ahh!" Reimu staggered, and quickly drew back. "Seriously, you can't!?"
"I have never developed the skill on my own," said Genjii, speaking as rapidly as possible. "I can only dodge when guided by the Shrine Maiden."
"Crap." Reimu pulled off to the side and downward as Meira began her third zigzag, but this wasn't as much of an improvement as it had been with Rika; the bullets were exploding in all directions, not just angled upward. "Ugh, fine, okay. I can ... probably do this without getting hit ... Fantasy Seal in stun-human mode ..."
She closed her eyes, trying to navigate through the danmaku her magical senses alone, but even with her supernatural senses, it still felt in her gut like she couldn't see what she was doing. She reopened her eyes just as Meira began another zigzag. This time, Meira made a second right-angle turn, leaving three trails in midair — with the third charge straight towards Reimu.
Reimu yelped and swerved to the side. Frankly, she felt much more distracted than she had been with the Flower Tank; the sky was much thicker with danmaku than Reimu had ever seen before, much less as a participant. She held up her gohei, concentrating as she tried to activate her Spell Card, as the trails exploded into bullets and began flying straight towards her ...
"Miss Hakurei!" exclaimed Genjii. But at that moment, there was the familiar hissing roar as Reimu's red and white aura appeared, and the Yin-Yang Orbs split into seven and began spinning around her in a wide rainbow-colored arc. They also became insubstantial, since Reimu didn't actually want to hurt Meira. She used them defensively at first, trying to catch any bullets from Meira that she could.
It wasn't enough, though, and she nearly got hit with a bullet that slipped through. Desperately, Reimu started firing ofuda-bullets from the Yin-Yang Orbs, trying to focus as much energy as she could, but she quickly realized she could only fire from one Yin-Yang Orb at a time.
Meira snorted. "Weak." She dodged through Reimu's relatively simple pattern, occasionally slashing bullets away with her sword, before she started another triple-slash, trying to encircle Reimu and Genjii. Reimu stayed where she was and sent the Yin-Yang orbs in a wider orbit, trying to catch Meira with them, but Meira jumped out of the way at the last moment, detonating the trails a split second early without sheathing her sword.
"Yikes!" Reimu sent Genjii careening straight forward out of the encirclement, faster than the bullets.
She flew right into one of Meira's bullets from behind.
It was like a punch to the gut from someone with a live electrical wire wrapped around their knuckles. There was a loud thunderclap as Fantasy Seal broke, and all but one of the Yin-Yang Orbs vanished. She heard a yelp from Genjii right in front of her as he collided with another bullet —
Right in front of her.
She wasn't standing on Genjii's back anymore.
Reimu was falling.
She was falling. She was about thirty meters above the ground, and while she was facing up, she was fully aware that the earth was accelerating towards her from behind like a freight train.
Fortunately, she hadn't lost the use of the Yin-Yang orbs, and there was only one possibility if you found yourself in freefall: flight under your own power. She drew as much spiritual energy into herself as she could, and pushed back against gravity.
Three quarters of the way to the ground, her speed began to slow dramatically, but she panicked when she realized that she hadn't stopped completely. She began to flail around with both her limbs and her powers, and she reached into herself and twisted.
The world suddenly seemed to have a white, pearlescent glow, and she slowed to a stop half a meter above the ground.
Then she lost her grip on whatever it was, and the glow faded. "Oh," she said.
A second later, she fell flat on her back. "Ack!"
Genjii, who had also fallen, was floating upside-down next to her. "Oh dear ... Miss Hakurei, what happened to your —"
But Reimu's attention was on the sky. "Uh-oh."
Meira flourished her sword and pointed it straight down at Reimu, still surrounded by the aura of her own Spell Card. Reimu tensed up to try to leap or roll out of the way, knowing full well that if Meira used danmaku, there wouldn't be any way for her to dodge.
There was the screech of danmaku from behind Meira, who whirled around and promptly found herself in the middle of a complex hexagonal pattern of lasers. The source was a woman with silver hair with blue streaks, wearing a multilayered cobalt-blue dress.
"Oh, good, Miss Kamishirasawa is here," said Genjii. He twisted around and landed on his feet.
"I didn't know Miss Keine could use danmaku," said Reimu, getting to her feet. Kamishirasawa Keine was a schoolteacher, historian, and youkai exterminator, and she was the one in charge of Reimu's education. She was ... well, Reimu knew she was half-youkai because it was her job as the Shrine Maiden to know that sort of thing, but she wasn't a threat, so it was impolite to talk about it.
Keine happened to glance down at Reimu at that moment, and she immediately redoubled her attacks, adding blue ofuda-bullets to the mix. There seemed to be ten times as many bullets as even Meira's Trail Sign.
Genjii peered at her. "Miss Hakurei, she's one of the heads of the Defense Force."
"I knew that," said Reimu. "It's just ... I've always just thought of her as being, y'know, a teacher."
Meira was clearly struggling to make her way through Keine's danmaku, and began a zigzag with only two trails.
Keine adjusted her pattern to try to hit Meira's new course. "I won't forgive you if the Hakurei Shrine Maiden is dead!" she shouted.
"What!?" exclaimed Meira. "But I ... she ..."
"Gramps," said Reimu, climbing onto Genjii's shell, "could you remind me about this the next time I feel like slacking off on my homework?" She pulled out another anti-curse ofuda.
"No, this is clearly a ruse," said Genjii, rising off the ground. "Ms. Kamishirasawa looked down at us just a moment ago, did she not?"
Meira glanced down towards Reimu and Genjii, and almost immediately collided with a laser, dropping her sword. There was a thunderclap, her aura and bullets faded, and she began to plummet. Keine promptly flew down after her at top speed, and caught her in a bear hug.
Reimu didn't waste any time. She flew Genjii up to meet them, and hurriedly slapped the ofuda onto the side of Meira's head. Meira twitched and went still.
"Careful!" said Keine. They descended back to the ground.
Meira pulled the spent ofuda off her head and stared at it for a moment. Then her eyes widened and she looked up at Reimu. "Oh, shit, are you okay!?"
"Language," murmured Keine automatically.
"I'm, uh, I'm fine, Meira," said Reimu. She ran a hand over her stomach where the bullet had hit her. It was still slightly tender, but there didn't seem to be any bleeding or any actual injury. "I don't even feel anything anymore where you hit me," she lied.
"But you ..." She looked from Reimu to Keine in confusion.
"I caught myself before I hit the ground," said Reimu, smiling reassuringly. "I can fly a little ..."
"Sorry," said Keine. "I needed to trick you into looking away for a second."
Rika flew over towards them from the direction of the gate. "Oh, good! Nobody's too hurt?" She was accompanied by three police officers, two men and an auburn-haired woman in matching uniforms with buttons, epaulets, and stern expressions.
"Nope, everyone seems fine!" said Reimu. Rika gave her a funny look.
"Yeah," muttered Meira, before Reimu could ask what that was about. "Just as well, too."
"What happened?" asked the policewoman. The two policemen hung back, near enough that they could see and hear what was going on without necessarily being within attack-range. "Miss Hara just rushed in and announced that Miss Miyamoto had been cursed and was fighting the Shrine Maiden. Then on the way here, Miss Kamishirasawa just bolted ahead of us."
"No word on who did it yet, Kotohime," said Keine. "Ms. Hakurei managed to get rid of the curse, although I had to rescue her from Meira's Trail Sign."
Oh, right, now Reimu recognized her: Kawaji Kotohime ran the Defense Force with Keine. "Aha, yeah," said Reimu. "So much for 'beginner's luck', huh?"
"Well, you're alive and unhurt," said Kotohime. "I'd say that still counts."
"Sorry," mumbled Meira. Reimu put a comforting hand on her shoulder.
"Did you happen to see the culprit, Miss Miyamoto?" asked Genjii.
"Y-yeah, it was this red-haired youkai named Noroiko, and a green-haired ghost named Mima," said Meira. "Jumped me while I was on patrol. Noroiko had the kanji for 'curse' as her danmaku, and it ... cursed me. I caught their names while they were giving me orders. Mima said not to tell me where I should take the Yin-Yang Orb, in case I got beaten."
"Never heard of 'em," said Reimu. "Wait, 'Noroiko'? Her name is literally just 'Curse Girl'?"
"Apparently," said Meira. Then she frowned, and looked up at Kotohime. "Also, they had a girl with them who I could swear was Kirisame Marisa dressed as a purple witch, except she had red hair."
"Who's that?" said Reimu. "Wait ... That runaway who went missing a month ago!?"
"Yeah," said Meira.
Kotohime looked grim. "Mr. Kirisame was just about done making preparations for the funeral," she said. "I mean, Marisa has been gone for a month, we feared the worst."
Reimu huffed. "Yeah, well, if she turned into a youkai, that'd be the worst!" she said.
"How did they hit you, Meira?" said Keine. "You're one of our best fighters."
Meira shook her head. "No idea," she said. "I dodged all of her bullets, and then ... one of them just suddenly hit me from behind." She shook her head again, looking up at Reimu. "I'm ... I'm sorry." There were tears in her eyes.
Reimu softened. She still wasn't sure what to do with this sudden case of infatuation, but it was obvious what she should do just then. "Don't worry about it," she said, giving Meira a hug. "It's like I told Rika, you weren't —"
"Did your hair change color?" Meira suddenly asked.
"What?" Reimu pulled a lock of hair into her field of vision.
It was a much darker shade of purple than before. "What!?"
"Oh, right," said Genjii. "Miss Hakurei, what did you do?"
"I ... I don't know!" said Reimu. "I just sort of ... twisted something with my power when I was falling ..."
"Was that 'something' by any chance a boundary?" Genjii said sternly.
"Maybe? I don't know!" said Reimu, who was slightly panicking now. "What does that have to do with my hair!?"
"Calm," said Genjii, backing off slightly.
"Ahhh ..." Reimu shook her head, and took a few deep breaths.
"For humans native to Japan, the natural hair colors are black and brown," said Genjii. "And shades of gray and white, once you grow older. Any other color is a signifier of some form of magic in your blood."
"You mean like Shrine Maiden potential?" said one of the policemen who was hanging back.
"No, I mean the powers of magicians, youkai, and fairies, in contrast to the sacred powers of the Shrine Maiden," said Genjii. "An affinity for witchcraft, a special ability such as Ms. Miyamoto's swordplay, or youkai blood, that sort of thing. The Shrine Maiden's boundary-powers appear to 'purify' this effect over time, as the boundary between 'sacred' and 'unholy' becomes reinforced."
"Oh." Reimu peered down at her hair in her hand. "It ... kinda seems like it's changing back to the shade it was before ..."
"I bet that explains Marisa's hair," said Rika. "I know her father wasn't letting her learn magic. If that 'Mima' was training her to be a witch ..." She shrugged.
"What did you mean by 'boundary powers'?" asked the other policeman.
"The the Shrine Maidens have an affinity for boundaries and barriers," said Meira. "It's sort of one of the sources of the powers. Stuff like, the boundary between night and day, which lets them be just as effective at night as in the day, even though nighttime is the domain of youkai. And, I mean, the Great Hakurei Barrier, obviously."
"What?" said Reimu, surprised that Meira knew all this.
Meira grinned weakly. "Hey, I was almost the Shrine Maiden," she said. "I did my homework."
"Hmm." Keine walked over to where Reimu had landed. "I can't sense anything out of the ordinary."
"Me neither," said Kotohime. "What about you, Ms. Hakurei?"
"Nope, seems good to me," said Reimu.
Kotohime nodded. "I suppose it must have just been a power-boost that helped you fly." She turned to look straight at Reimu. "So, what were saying you told Ms. Hara about the curse?"
"What?" Reimu looked at Rika, who was now looking slightly panicked. "Oh, right. Well, uh ... you see ..."
Mima grimaced at the crystal ball. "And so Miyamoto Meira was schooled by the were-beast, and now the policewoman's on the case," she said. "Y'know, I'm pretty sure we can just start counting down the number of insiders we have. Fifteen, fourteen, thirteen ..."
"Yeah, right," said Marisa distractedly.
Mima looked at her apprentice. "What's up?"
"Huh? Oh." Marisa shrugged, looking curious and slightly uncomfortable. "Um. Just thinkin' about the Shrine Maiden bein' all ... head over heels for Meira, 'n' all ..."
Mima smiled. "You didn't know that girls could fall in love with other girls?" she said. "Or at least become infatuated, which is a common mistake to make ..."
Marisa laughed. "I mean, well, yeah," she said. "I think it'd explain a lot about me, though, right?"
"It would?" Mima raised her eyebrows. "Well, you'd know about that better than I would, but congratulations on discovering a new facet about your own life."
"Haha, thanks, boss." Marisa shook her head, grinning. "Anyway, the other thing is ... when Noroiko gets back from orderin' the other cursed Defenders, I'm gonna have to ask her why the hell she was makin' Meira and Rika act so ... dramatic."
Mima placed a hand on Marisa's shoulder, and gravely said, "Marisa, as my apprentice, you must always ask questions if there's something you don't understand, and ..." She stopped. "You know what, I'll just skip to the punchline: that's the best godsdamn question you've ever asked."
Marisa giggled. "Yeah, I mean, I know she got Rika's JoJo pose from, uh, JoJo," she said, "but, I mean, why!?"
Mima glanced out the door. "Come to think of it, I'm pretty sure Trail Sign didn't originally involve sheathing her sword every time she detonated the —"
Noroiko frantically slammed the door open and rushed in. "Uh, guys!"
Mima turned. "What is it?" Then her eyes narrowed as she saw who was behind Noroiko. "Oh."
"Greetings, vengeful spirit," said the kitsune they'd seen at the Hakurei Shrine. She had an expression which could only be described as completely unamused. She turned to Marisa, and added, "We are Yakumo Ran, the shikigami and representative of our master, the youkai sage Yakumo Yukari, Youkai of Boundaries."
"Wait, you're a shikigami?" said Marisa. She stood up from the table. "This Yakumo Yukari's got a nine-tailed fox as a familiar!?"
Mima discreetly moved herself between Ran and Marisa. "To what do I owe the complete lack of anything resembling pleasure, honor, or occasion?" she asked.
Ran narrowed her eyes. "Our master is extremely displeased with your actions the past several days."
"My most sincerely sarcastic apologies," said Mima. "Maybe she'd be less displeased with things if she took up a seven hundred ninety-eighth hobby?"
Ran marched right up to Mima. "You know precisely why neither the Great Hakurei Barrier nor Gensokyo itself can afford to lose two Shrine Maidens in as many years," she said, looking Mima straight in the eye. "You also know precisely why the Human Village and its defenders are strictly off-limits. If a single Human Villager dies as a result of this crisis, or if the Fourteenth Hakurei Shrine Maiden becomes unable to function as such, or loses the use of the Hakurei Yin-Yang Orb, our master shall be your reaper." She held Mima's gaze for several seconds. "Have we made ourself clear?"
"Perfectly," said Mima.
"Me too," said Noroiko, in high-pitched voice.
"Um," said Marisa.
Ran glanced at Marisa, and her threatening posture faded. "The life of your apprentice shall be spared, being that she is a Human Villager," she said. "However, she is unlikely to retain the use of her magic. In any case, you must not take this as any sort of encouragement to continue this nonsense."
"Tell your master her concerns have been successfully raised," said Mima. "But give us time to think about whether I'll lower them back down again."
"Oh for ..." Noroiko shook her head and headed for the door. "You jokers can do whatever you want. I'm gonna go command all of the defenders to go to ground, and not use anything that even looks like lethal force."
Ran bowed to Noroiko and Mima in turn. "We believe our master will consider that to be acceptable," she said. "But obviously, not enough that you will no longer be watched. As you were then, Miss Mima, Miss Noroiko, Miss Marisa. Our next stop is to pay a visit to the Shrine Maiden."
"What, you're just letting her push you around?" said Marisa, as Ran apparently turned to follow Noroiko out the door.
Then a portal opened in front of Ran, and Marisa stumbled backwards and knocked over her chair when she saw what was on the other side. Ran slipped through without a word, and the portal closed.
"Okay, this just raises more questions," Mima murmured. "If the Shrine Maiden died, couldn't Yakumo just ...?"
"What?" said Marisa.
Mima turned. Now wasn't the time for Marisa to get that particular revelation. "Grandstanding notwithstanding, Marisa, could you do me a favor?" she said. "Never pick a fight with Yakumo Yukari unless you develop a taste for getting beaten." She shook her head. "If I was betting everything I could imagine on the outcome of a fight which consisted of Yakumo Yukari against just about anyone she sincerely wanted to defeat, well ... let's just say my money wouldn't be on her enemy."
Marisa stood back up, frowning. "Yikes, boss," she said, picking up the chair.
Mima smiled. "Don't worry, we can still salvage a victory out of all this," she said. "We're just going to have to lower our standards."
"Whatever you say," said Marisa.
Mima couldn't help but notice that she didn't sound remotely sincere or enthusiastic anymore.
Previous: A Different Demon-Sealing Record - Chapter 2: Of Gods and Fairies
Next: A Different Demon-Sealing Record - Chapter 4: Offense and Defense
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