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Hifuu Club Investigations No.1 - Chapter 4: Old Flame

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Chapter 4: Old Flame

A little ways off the path behind me, there was a small clearing, lit by the orange glow of a campfire. I turned, cautiously made my way forward —

A fallen stalk of bamboo snapped under my feet.

A second later, a girl with long, silvery-blue hair poked her head out of the clearing. She was wearing a red and white hair-ribbon, and a black long-sleeved dress that had probably seen better days — or decades. A fireball floated through the air in front of her, and she glared at me.

"Um, hello," I said. "Sorry, didn't mean to scare you."

"Uh-huh," she said. Her voice was low and gruff. "What the hell are you?"

I raised my hands. "I'm a human," I said. "I'm, I'm just astral-projecting."

"Oh! Got it," she said, relaxing. "Sorry about that. You're sure acting like a human who got lost in these woods." She smiled, and inclined her head into the clearing. "C'mon over, the youkai know not to go where there's fire."

"That's good to hear," I said. "I've been jumping out of my skin every time I heard a noise." I hesitated, wondering if she'd be able to pronounce "Maribel". "My name's Merry Hearn."

The "campfire" turned out to be a larger fireball hovering above the floor of the clearing. The girl sat down heavily next to it, wincing. "Fujiwara no Mokou," she said. "Nice to meet you, Miss Merry."

I sat down next to her. "That's family-name last, actually," I said.

"Oh, Miss Hearn, sorry," said Mokou.

I nodded. "No worries." Well, she pronounced that part right, at least — I paused. Now that I could see better, Mokou's dress was covered in rips that made it look like she'd been in a fight, and I saw a couple of darker stains that might have been blood.

Mokou noticed my gaze, and grinned. "You should see the one I was fightin'," she said.

I looked away. "I'd ... rather not."

"Oh ... sorry," she said. "Bad joke. But yeah, the ... youkai are pretty bad around here. In case you hadn't figured that out," she added with a wry grin. "I heal fast, but it still hurts. Even though I won."

"All right," I said.

(At this point, Renko was finding it harder and harder to ignore my sleep-mutterings. She set her phone to record and slid it over to where I was lying, wishing we'd thought of that sooner.)

We sat in silence for a few moments. Now that I was safer and the initial shock was wearing off, I was actually starting to feel excited. Not only had I found a world of magic, I'd now met someone from this world. There were so many things I wanted to ask Mokou, so many things she could tell me ...

... and I had no idea if it was safe to reveal that I was from a non-magical world. Visions of the neuralizer from Men In Black and the memory-charm from Harry Potter flashed through my mind.

"Um, Miss Fujiwara, if you don't mind me asking ..." I hesitated, and pointed questioningly at the fire.

"Fire's my special ability," said Mokou. "Or one of them, at least. I can just, y'know ... create fire."

"Sounds handy," I said. This seemed self-explanatory enough.

"You bet," she said. "I'm the reason youkai don't come near fire around here."

I raised my eyebrows. "Um, wow."

"Can't get burned, either," she said, and stuck her hand directly into the hovering fireball. The edge of her sleeve caught fire. "Oh, whoops!" She quickly pulled back and started patting down the flames with her other hand.

I giggled, and then quickly put a hand over my mouth.

Mokou caught my eye, and let out a chuckle of her own. "... but I can only control the flames I make myself."

"Sorry, sorry ..." I said.

She gave an easy smile. "Better laughing than shaking with terror, right?"

"Fair enough, I guess," I said. "Is your healing another ability?"

There was a pause. "Sort of," said Mokou, in a pointedly-changing-the-subject tone of voice. "How'd you end up astral-projecting into the Bamboo Forest of the Lost?"

Well, fine. "It's part of my special ability," I said. "I don't have any control over where I end up. This is the first time I've done it deliberately, actually, I've always done it by accident in my sleep."

"Huh." Mokou peered at me curiously. "Sounds kind of weird."

"You're telling me, Miss Fujiwara," I said.

There was a trilling youkai-cry. I looked nervously towards the source.

"Don't worry, they won't attack us here," said Mokou. "Like I said, I made sure they know not to go where there's fire."

"Right," I muttered, and turned back to the fire. "I sort of ... walked slowly away from the sounds when I heard them —"

"Smart choice," Mokou interrupted. "They'd've chased you if they heard you running."

"Oh," I said. "But anyway, then I escaped through those, uh ... the ..."

"The cracks?" said Mokou. "You can tell where they are?"

"I can see their boundaries," I said. "That's the main part of my ability."

Mokou nodded, looking impressed. "That sounds handy," she said. "I mean, I got 'em memorized, but wow."

I smiled faintly. "Um, any idea how they got there?"

"The cracks? Uh ... hmm." She looked at the fire thoughtfully. "I heard a legend once. This place used to be off in Inaba, but there was a big tsunami, and it ... somehow ended up in Gensokyo."

"In pieces," I said.

"Yeah, pretty much," she said. "Don't ask me how it actually works, magic is weird like that."

"No argument here." So ... magic wasn't actually "normal" to people, even in the magical worlds. Or at least in this one. For that matter, the name "Gensokyo" sounded strangely familiar. Oh, right, it was in ... the dream with Sumireko. I couldn't remember anything else, except that it was in the context of "Gensokyo's youkai" ...

Mokou looked over at me. "You gonna need help getting back to your body?" she asked. "I can take you out of the woods, at least."

"I've never needed it before," I said. "I always just sort of ... woke back up."

"All right," she said with a shrug. "I ask because even the Yama has trouble with this place."

"The judge of the dead?" I said, and just barely stopped myself from saying "mythological" or "in Hindu/Buddhism" ...

She nodded. "The one in Gensokyo at least," she said. "She comes around every couple decades, talking people's ears off because she doesn't like sending 'em to hell ..."

"That's better than the opposite," I murmured. "Um ... hm, now I'm actually not sure if I'll need help ..."

"Go with your gut," said Mokou. "That's how special abilities always seem to work. Your gut's always right, even if common sense says it's wrong." She hesitated, then added, "But if common sense says it's dangerous, just ... trust your judgment."

I thought about this. "My gut isn't saying anything one way or another," I said finally, "and my common sense is saying that if even the Yama has trouble with this place, I should probably get help."

Mokou grinned. "All righty then," she said. "Wanna head out now?"

"Sure," I said.

She nodded, and pushed herself gingerly to her feet. "You in the village?"

"No, I'm ... elsewhere," I said. If I'd been sent to the past ... did Kyoto actually exist yet? I got up and gave my dress a quick brush-off.

"All right," said Mokou. "... Did you just brush dirt off yourself? Even though you're astral-projecting?"

I stared down at myself, and laughed. "I really haven't figured this out yet." There it was again, that faint nagging feeling that there was somehow a connection with my waking-world!

"Jeez," said Mokou. "Well, let's go." She gestured, and the fireball shrank down to a smaller size and began floating over her shoulder. She rose several meters off the ground with no apparent means of support. "Can you fly?"

I managed not to react with astonishment. "No, sorry."

"Oh, whoops." She sank back to the ground. "No worries, most people can't."

"Why do people come here in the first place?" I said.

"It's got the best bamboo in Gensokyo, and it's close enough to the Human Village that you can walk here," said Mokou. "Trouble is, you'll run into a crack within a few jō on basically every path."

"Got it," I said.

I thought furiously as we walked. Setting aside geographic considerations (I knew "jō" was a unit of one of Japan's pre-metric system of measurement, and one jō was equal to 3.03 meters), I was trying to figure out the source of that nagging feeling that I could bring things out of the dream. Where was it coming from?

My instincts, obviously. Which is to say, my gut. And I'd been shutting it down because of my common sense. And according to Fujiwara no Mokou, this meant ...

Well, among other things, it meant that if a youkai attacked me, I probably wouldn't "just wake up," especially if this forest was interfering with my abilities. I moved in closer to Mokou.

She stopped as we reached the crest of a smaller hill. "Okay, there's a crack right in front of us."

Sure enough, there was a boundary running across the path. "Yeah, I can see it."

She started leading me down a side-path. "Most of them have ways around 'em," she said. "But I can get you right to the edge of the woods if we go through a couple."

"Sure, I don't object to just interacting them if they come in handy." I saw the edge of the crack through the bamboo. It was like a window in midair, or a badly-edited video. "Wow, that looks weird."

"You get used to it," said Mokou.

We continued in silence. Okay ... if I could transfer things in and out of the dream, how could I test that? Well, easily: all I needed to do was turn my phone's sound on, and I'd be able to catch Renko's attention. Maybe take a page out of my notebook, and put it so it was sticking out of my purse ... I imagined Renko responding with a selfie, frowning at the camera and pointing to the text "WTF!?" in big letters on her laptop's screen.

I decided to wait until I parted ways with Mokou; a USD$15 smartphone was both anachronistic and mundane, and I still wasn't sure how well she'd react to either. For now, I took out my notebook and started an entirely new page. "10:29 PM - The forest is named the Bamboo Forest of the Lost, in a region called Gensokyo. The boundaries of non-Euclidean geometry are called 'cracks', and according to local legend, they were caused by a tsunami that brought it to its present location from Inaba. This was explained to me by a guide named —" "How do you write your name?"

Mokou looked at me uneasily. "Hey, uh, can I ask you not to tell anyone about me?" she said. "I'm kind of ... I just help people out of the woods, I don't want to be, y'know, a public persona."

"Oh, that's fine," I said. "My friend Renko is guarding my body, and she'll probably have to hear about you, but I promise you it won't get anywhere else." She still looked hesitant, and I added, "This notebook's just going to be temporary, anyway."

"Well ... all right," she said. She pointed up into the air, and the kanji for Fujiwara no Mokou appeared above her head in flaming letters.

"Wow," I said as I jotted it down. "'Note: Do not mention her in any publicly-available texts,'" I said aloud as I wrote. I added a brief description of her fire-powers.

She grinned, and dismissed the text as she turned back to the path. "Okay, we're going to go through this next crack, and then immediately turn around," she said. "We're just about at the point where ..." She suddenly glanced up at the moon. "Uh-oh."

I followed her gaze, just in time to see a silvery point of light shoot down from the moon into the forest. There was a crashing, splintering sound off in the distance. A chorus of several different youkai-cries rose up in all directions.

"Crap," said Mokou. She seemed surprisingly tense.

"What was that?" I said.

"Emissaries from the Capital of the Moon," she said, shooting me a rueful grin. "They're the second-least dangerous and second-most annoying folks you'll meet in this forest."

"Who's in first place?" I said.

"You and other humans who get lost are the least-dangerous and least-annoying," she said. "Uh ... crap, hold on, I can handle this."

"What do we do?" I said.

Mokou gritted her teeth for a moment. "We just keep moving," she said finally. "They'll probably stumble into a few cracks and get lost. I know a few other ways to avoid them." Her fireball disappeared. "I'll, I'll bring back the fire if we run into any youkai."

"Okay," I said. "You doing all right?"

She laughed hollowly. "I should be asking you that."

"You just suddenly looked like you feel like crap," I said.

Mokou shook her head. "Let's just go, Miss Hearn," she muttered.

I followed her through the next crack, and we immediately turned around and started moving back down the new path. I decided it would be better not to talk, in case any youkai got the wrong idea from the lack of immediately-obvious fire.

"Next part's gonna be tricky," said Mokou irritably. "In about a dozen jō, there's another crack that'll take almost right to the edge of the woods. But there's at least three different other cracks that take you to the same spot. One of them comes out behind where we'll appear, and ... the source is kind of in the general vicinity of where that emissary landed."

"Is there a better way?" I said.

She shook her head. "Probably not, but they ... probably won't be dangerous. I think ... damn it ..."

"Miss Fujiwara, what's wrong?" I asked.

"Crap, I'm usually better at keeping it together when I'm helping somebody out of the woods," she muttered. "Damn it, damn it ... just gimme a sec, I'll just ... let's just head out." She started walking again.

I hesitated. I wasn't going to be a licensed therapist, but that didn't mean that my knowledge was useless. "Mokou ... are you all right?"

"Of course not!" she snapped. "I haven't been remotely 'all right' since Keiun 2!" Then she suddenly froze, and turned back to face me with a mixture of embarrassment and terror on her face.

I looked back at her blankly for a moment. Then it clicked. "Oh ... Keiun." That was an era of old Japan. And the second year of the Keiun era was ... I couldn't remember.

"Yeah," said Mokou softly. Her shoulders sagged. "I used ... the Hourai Elixir, it's called, it's the same one used by Princess Kaguya."

Princess Kaguya was the central character of an old folk tale, known to every child in Japan; I'd seen a few different versions, but they all had the princess returning to her home in the Capital of the Moon after using an elixir of immortality. The idea that it had actually happened was ... a slight surprise, but not at all shocking after everything else that had happened to me tonight. Anyway, none of that was actually relevant right now.

"I look eighteen," Mokou continued, "but I've been eighteen for over twelve and a half centuries. I can't die, and I'm basically the same as I was back then." She swallowed. "I-I'm still human, though!" she added defensively. "I'm definitely not a youkai!"

"It's all right, Mokou," I said. "It's obvious to me that you're human, and you've been nothing but helpful since we met." I put a comforting hand on her shoulder. "You can just help me out of the forest, and then —"

"Wait wait wait," she said, staring at my hand. "Are you ... touching me? While astral-projecting?"

I blinked, and poked at her shoulder. It felt perfectly solid to me. "Uh ... apparently."

Mokou laughed helplessly, and shook her head. "Oh gods ..."

"I mean, I did make a noise when I stepped on that stick before," I said. "And the ground's supporting me well enough."

"Yeah ..." She hesitated, then said, "You really don't have a problem with ... with me?"

"Of course not," I said reassuringly.

She smiled faintly. "Well ... thanks," she said.

As we resumed our trek through the woods, I wished I could have said more, but quite frankly, I felt like I was out of my league. Would any licensed therapist be up to the task of dealing with a 1250-year-old immortal with depression?

Well ... maybe, I decided. She still seemed psychologically human, to the extent that I wouldn't have actually realized that she was immortal if she hadn't said anything.

Unfortunately, though, whatever happened, it wouldn't be me.

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