Fires of the Sun: Epilogue

"And that, as they say, is that."

The picture fades, faces and colors melting away into grey mist. The mist itself recedes, revealing the small, elegant room filled with plants and instruments. The fire is still crackling in the hearth, the piano's soft melody is still playing in the back, and, of course, the woman is still seated comfortably in her chair, smirking in her self-assuredness.

"Quite the scene, wasn't it?" she says as the mist shrinks into a floating orb, connect to her silver pipe by a thin thread of smoke to float over her head like a murky grey balloon. "Now that's what I call a climatic ending."

Ignoring the bubble of smoke currently attached to her pipe, she inhales deeply from the stem and holds it in for a full second before breathing the smoke out through her nostrils. It floats up to curl around the cloud like a halo. "Of course, that wasn't end of the story; it never really is. But it was a terribly significant moment in their history. A great many things ended that day, while other events were sent into motion, the consequences of which are coming to light still to this day."

The woman gives her pipe a little waggle, tugging on the smoke string that connects it to the misty bubble. The bubble trembles, and then again pictures of the past form within, not enough to fill the entire scene as before, but just large enough to illustrate her words, first becoming two women standing next to an empty swimming pool.

"And what is most interesting is just how differently that one day meant to those involved. For some, it was a day of bittersweet victory…"

"Say it."

Byakuren looked at Yukari in a dubious manner. "I…honestly don't see how that would be productive."

"I don't care," Yukari said wearily. "You've been warning me about her for years. I ignored you, and now you've been proven right. So say it. I need to hear it."

The two of them were standing outside of Mugenkan's remains, next to the cracked and empty swimming pool, looking out over the recovery efforts. Humans, youkai, fairies, and demons all bustled about, working together to try to bring things under control. It wasn't going as well as Yukari would have liked. They only just managed to get a fairly accurate count on the dead and barely made much headway in treating the wounded. Added to the fact that the surviving Underworlders, injured or not, were being all sorts of unruly and as like to attack the relief workers as they were to cooperate with them meant that casualties were probably going to increase before they started to taper off only made things even worse.

"Yukari, what exactly will that accomplish when-"

Yukari gritted her teeth. "Say. It."

"Fine," Byakuren said with a defeated sigh. "I told you so."

Yukari didn't immediately respond. She watched as a team of GPF relief workers tried to help a badly burned fungus youkai onto a stretcher. Unfortunately, despite her horrific wounds, the youkai kept fighting back, and was still strong enough to make a showing of it. It wasn't until one of Shinki's demons came by to hold her down long enough for her to be sedated that they were successful. "Yes you did," Yukari said at last. "And I should have listened."

Byakuren pursed her lips but said nothing.

"You've been telling me for years that we couldn't trust her, ever since you got out of Makai," Yukari continued, not taking her eyes from the scene. "And why wouldn't you? She was the one who got you sealed up in the first place. Centuries of your life gone, and when you finally break out, you find the person responsible free and forgiven, prancing about with what should have been her hated enemies. And in a position of authority no less, given control over the godsdamned Hakurei Shrine. You tried to warn everyone that they were making a mistake by trusting her, tried to warn me over and over again, and we just shut you out. And now…" The elder youaki's shoulders slumped. "Well. The results are plain to see."

"Yukari," Byakuren said as gently as she could. "We don't know for certain that Mima was responsible…"

Yukari let out a bark of laughter. "Oh, now you want to protect my feelings! Of course she's responsible. Someone wearing my face creeping around, ensuring that the loved ones of those she bears grudges against are conveniently caught in the crossfire of my incredibly violent campaign. Who else could it be?"

"Remilia and Satori's associates, certainly, but the Underworlders-"

"No, the timing's too coincidental," Yukari growled. "It's her. This one was for me. This was her receipt for the Blasted Lands." Her hands squeezed into fists at her side. "What a fool I was. To think that Marisa's friendship with Reimu would control her. The girl was as reckless as they came. She was a ticking time bomb, just waiting to expire and send Mima off on another rampage." She shot a glance over to Byakuren. "And before you say it, yes, the foolishness of deliberately putting Marisa in danger has already been pointed out to me, no need to repeat it."

"I wasn't going to say that," Byakuren said.

"Yes you were." Closing her eyes, Yukari inhaled deeply through her nose, taking in the scent of ash, smoke, with just a tinge of rot. "I'm going to find her, Byakuren."

"I know."

"I'm going to find her, and I'm going to make her pay for every drop of blood shed here today. I'm going to rip her lying soul to shreds. I'm going to stuff them in a crystal of her own. Then I'm going to put it in a gift-wrapped box, tie it with a pretty bow, and leave it on Shinki's bedside for her to find when she wakes up." She smiled humorlessly. "Do you think then we'll start getting along?"

Byakuren ignored the sardonic question. "Well, on the bright side, you did manage to finish off Yuuka Kazami," she pointed out. "And Satori Komeji was rescued as well."

"There is that, yes," Yukari agreed. "This day wasn't a complete waste. Unfortunately, my victory here is just a little too much on the pyrrhic side to fully appreciate." She shook her head. "Though speaking of which, I need to start making arrangements for the next step. So if you'll excuse me…"

Yukari started to move away from the ageless monk, but then a thought struck her, and she paused. "Byakuren?"

"Yes?"

Turning to her friend, Yukari took a deep breath and said, "I know I don't say this nearly as often as I should, but you are by far one of the most reliable and worthy beings I've had the pleasure of knowing. Gensokyo owes you a greater debt of thanks than can ever possibly be expressed. Thank you."

Byakuren regarded her solemnly. "Yukari, I appreciate your words, but history has taught me to find your uncharacteristic displays of humility to be worrying. Please don't do anything that you'll regret."

Yukari had to laugh at that. "A little too late for that, I'm afraid. But I'll try not to add to the list. Thank you."

Sitting far enough from the cleanup efforts to avoid drawing attention but close enough to have an eye kept on them were the two surviving members of Remilia Scarlet's household. Hong Meiling sat on a wooden bench, her back straight, her legs pressed close together, her hands on her knees, and her eyes staring far off into the horizon without focusing on anything. Sakuya sat next to her, still clad in her pinstripe monster hunter outfit, which was now torn and smudged. The Lunarian, however, wasn't upright like her coworker. In fact, she was leaning against her, her head resting on the taller woman's shoulder, eyes shut with exhaustion. But even when asleep her face refused to relax, as dark dreams clenched her jaw and tensed her neck.

Yukari could tell that she was genuinely asleep even from a distance. Regardless, as soon as the elder youkai got within a few meters, Sakuya's eyes snapped open and she became fully alert. And by the time Yukari reached the pair, she was sitting as straight as Meiling, silvery-blue eyes tracking Yukari warily.

"Hello," Yukari said as she approached. "Apologies for the intrusion, but there are a few more matters I need to speak with you about."

"Did you find Flandre?" Meiling said hopefully.

Yukari shook her head. "No, unfortunately. Miss Satsuki's disappearing trick remains as thorough as ever, and with her all of her little friends. Which includes young Miss Flandre, it seems. We will of course keep looking."

"Of course you will," Sakuya said hoarsely. "Of course you will."

Yukari smiled a thin-lipped smile. "Regardless, you two do understand what has happened here today, correct? Concerning the 'Yukari' that has been in contact with you as of late?"

"Yes," Meiling said in a somber tone. "It was Madam Mima, right? That creepy ghost?"

"In all likelihood. It is my belief that she brought you all here in hopes of catching you in the crossfire so as to pay Remilia back for some petty debts."

Meiling swallowed. "Like…Like Patchouli." She sniffed, and wiped her nose with the back of her hand.

"Exactly."

"Is…" Sakuya frowned. It seemed to be taking an unusual amount of concentration to form her thoughts into coherent sentences. "Is Remilia still in danger?"

"More than likely. One of the many unfortunate things about Mima is her unpredictability. She might write today's work as being good enough and leave your master be, or continue to hound her to all of your graves, depending on her mood. We will of course continue to keep searching for her as well, as well as keep an eye on Remilia. But that's not what I need to talk to you about." Yukari's eyes narrowed ever so slightly. "Specifically, we need to discuss Rin Satsuki."

There was a lengthy pause, and then Sakuya said, "Ah."

"Now, I understand that you may be feeling a little out of sorts about her, given that she stole your missing vampire away and threw you through a window."

The knuckles popped on Sakuya's tightly balled fists, and a strange smile was starting to creep across her face. "That is," she said, her voice as calm and proper as ever, "an incredibly understated way of putting it."

"She's not going to hurt Flandre, is she?" Meiling said, turning her attention to the maid. "I mean, she said they were friends, but-"

"I don't claim to know anything about what goes through that…thing's head," Sakuya said. "Save that I'd prefer it to be my knife."

"Of that I have no doubt," Yukari said. "But setting your personal feelings aside, I would very much like to find her in very short order. So in the meantime, I need to know as much about her as possible, and you've had more recent contact with her than any of us. So first and most important, seeing how the fact that she showed concern for Yuuka's harem of unfortunates and did not rip the lot of you to shriveled shreds, I'm going to assume that she has managed to keep the Shadow Youkai under control. However, I still need to know to what extent it is influencing her actions."

Sakuya looked at her with a very odd look in her eye, her crooked smile unwavering. "The Shadow Youkai, is it? The fragment of Azrael?"

"Yes," Yukari said curtly. "That. Which is, I must remind you, still the greatest threat currently facing us all."

Sakuya went through a very long moment without speaking. Then she said, "In my professional opinion, it is days away from taking control of her mind completely, if that. She has become dangerously violent, and I would not be surprised if she ended up slaughtering those unfortunates she took with her before the week is out."

Yukari quirked an eyebrow. Then she glanced over to Meiling, who seemed bewildered by Sakuya's answer.

"Wait a minute," Meiling said, her face scrunching up with confusion. "I thought she said that all that Shadow Youkai whatsit was gone or something."

Sakuya sighed.

"Did she now?" Yukari said. She kept her tone level, though her heart was starting to beat faster. This little tidbit of information could change the game in so many ways. "How so?"

"Um…" Frowning, Meiling scratched her head as she thought. "I…didn't get most of it, she wasn't really talking to me. But she did say that she got rid of the Shadow Youkai and wasn't being influenced by it anymore."

"Yes, but did she say how?" Yukari pressed.

"Er, no, not really. She actually laughed at us when we asked."

Rubbing her chin, Yukari bowed her head as she considered this. Meiling's story was actually very likely. She had no doubt that Yuuka would recognize the fragment of Azrael for what it was, and it made sense that she would try to eliminate it out of self-preservation. And Yukari also had no doubt that Yuuka would be capable of doing just that. The thing with the sword was merely the safest and most surefire way to recall a Fallen Angel's fragment from an Avatar. There had to be half-a-dozen other methods available, and Yuuka probably had known every single one.

The problem there was that any other method than recalling the fragment back into the sword was extremely dangerous. They didn't destroy the fragment, per se, they just moved it somewhere else. Which meant that either Rin Satsuki had been telling the truth and that Azrael's essence had indeed been removed from her soul and was now in some unknown location, free to take some new host and rebuild, or it was still worming away at the mind of one of the most dangerous individuals alive. Neither possibility was acceptable.

"Did she say anything that might hint as to how it might have happened?" Yukari said. "Anything at all?"

"I'm afraid not," Sakuya said. "Between her scorn, mockery, threats, and frequent promises to steal Flandre away and leave us to die, there was little room for useful exposition."

Well, that was just plain unhelpful, though to be fair they weren't exactly the most ideal sources. Meiling was well-meaning and honest, but far from the sharpest knife in the drawer, whereas Sakuya was as smart as they came, but her clear grudge against Rin Satsuki colored any information she could give.

Which meant that Yukari just might have to resort to more direct means to get what she needed. Mind reading was an option, though not one she enjoyed employing, as it was usually messy when she did it. She supposed she could always conscript one of the Satoris, though given how well that usually turned out it wasn't something she was overly eager to try.

Unfortunately, she might have to. According to the scouts she had sent out, Rin Satsuki had already abandoned the subterranean tunnel she had used to escape Sariel, and her current whereabouts were still unknown. That girl's disappearing act was continuing to both annoy and impress. "I see," Yukari said. "Well, that's unfortunate."

"What's going to happen to us?" Meiling asked.

"Nothing for now," Yukari told her. "Of course, there will be no repercussions for your trespass here, since by all accounts it wasn't your fault."

"You're too kind," Sakuya said without a hint of actual thankfulness.

"You will of course be returned to the mansion," Yukari said, ignoring her. "But given that both Rin Satsuki and Mima remain at large, we will have to make arrangements for the continued safety of you and your household."

"And Remilia?" Sakuya said pointedly.

Yukari folded her arms. "All things considered, I am willing to end her sentence. Right now I have bigger things to worry about, and I'd say she's been punished enough. However, as we are still uncertain if it's safe for her to return to the Scarlet Devil Mansion, she'll be remaining at Hakurei Shrine until I have time to deal with her specific case."

"I would like to see her," Sakuya said. "As soon as possible."

"Oh?" Yukari raised an eyebrow. "Are you sure about that? Because I can't imagine that she'd be in a welcoming mood."

Sakuya's jaw tightened, but her gaze remained steady. "No. But someone needs to tell her about her sister. Someone needs to tell her about her best friend. And that someone needs to be me."

"Tch," Yukari muttered. Then she shrugged. Well, the maid's observance of duty was admirable. Too bad it seemed to be such a rare quality those days. "Very well. I was going to send Ran over there soon anyway to bring them up to speed. You can accompany her to break the news in person."

"Thank you," Sakuya said, this time sounding like she meant it.

Yukari nodded. She was about to turn to go see to the many, many other matters that demanded her attention, but then Meiling cleared her throat and hesitantly said, "Um, M-Ms. Yakumo?"

"Yes?"

The Chinese gate guard took off her hat and nervously ran her hand through her disheveled copper hair. "I'm sorry, but can we have Koakuma back?"

"Koakuma?" Yukari's brow furrowed. "The succubus, correct? Patchouli Knowledge's former familiar?"

"Yeah. Um, Sakuya said she sort of disappeared when Patchy-" Meiling's voice cracked a bit. She paused, swallowed hard, and started again. "When Patchy died. Like, went back to Makai or something. Anyway, she was my friend, and we've lost both Flandre and Patchouli already, so can we at least have her back." When Yukari didn't immediately answer, Meiling followed it up with an almost desperate, "Please?"

"I…" Yukari sighed and closed her eyes. Oh, what was the harm? "Very well. Understand, because of arrangements between us and Makai, she will need to be bound to someone in order to stay."

"That is fine," Sakuya said. "I, too, would appreciate if she were returned."

Yukari shrugged. "Very well." She was about to point to Sakuya, but then the maid abruptly shook her head.

"No," Sakuya said. "Bind her to Meiling."

"Me?" Meiling said in confusion. "I mean, I don't mind, but why me?"

"Because in a few minutes I am going to have to tell Remilia that Flandre chose Rin Satsuki over her and Patchouli is dead," Sakuya said, her voice eerily calm. "All things considered, it would be annoying if Koakuma were brought back only to be sent back to Makai again the same day."

"Huh? Wait, you don't think the mistress is going to-"

"No, I do not. But one must prepare for any eventuality. At the very least, she may banish me in a fit of anger. But I feel your position within the mansion is safe at least. So let's not play the odds."

"Fair enough," Yukari said. She lifted a hand and pointed at Meiling's chest.

"Oh," Meiling said, her eyes crossing to focus on the elder youkai's fingertip. "Er, do I have to do something or…"

"Absolutely nothing," Yukari said. "Just relax. It'll tickle a little, but that's it. And afterward, should you need find yourself dying, try to ensure that it's of the non-permanent variety, else we'd have to do this all over again. Other than that, no changes to your lifestyle will be necessary."

"Okay, but what if-"

Then Yukari's fingertip started to glow, and an orb of golden light suddenly shone out of Meiling's heart. She inhaled sharply and stiffened in her seat, eyes now focused on her luminescent bosom.

Yukari then pointed her other index finger toward the ground. A flaming encircled six-sided star burst into existence. Glowing red dots swarmed up from the hexagon in the middle. They spun around as if caught in a vortex, and then collected together, forming the shape of a kneeling person, made of light.

Yukari snapped her fingers, and a gout of flame shot up out of the circle. When it cleared, the circle and the star were gone, and in its place was Koakuma. The young demon was kneeling in the center of the scorch mark, stark naked. Her wings were all spread wide in startlement, her eyes were threatening to pop out of their sockets, her lower jaw was trying to disconnect from the rest of her skull, and she had the look of someone whose train of thought had been fully derailed from its tracks, sent careening down a deep ravine, only to be brought to a sudden halt before hitting the ground and causing her to forget all motor and cerebral functions.

"Ah," she squeaked without moving her mouth. Her head turned jerkily from one side to the next, trying to take in the scene, before settling upon her coworkers. "Ah. Ahhhhhhhhhhhhh…"

Then her eyes rolled back and she fainted dead away.

"Well, it looks like you'll have your hands full," Yukari said as Meiling rushed to her unconscious friend and brand-new familiar's side. "Sakuya, I'll be along shortly to send you on your way."

Sakuya nodded once.

That done, Yukari marched from the unfortunate trio, mind already racing. As it stood, she had three clear targets: Mima, Rin Satsuki, and the Shadow Youkai. Mima needed to be found and shut down as swiftly as possible. She might not be the most powerful name on the list, but the fact that she was already actively malicious put her at the top. Rin was a tricky manner, being that she was the most unpredictable. She might disappear for the rest of the year and never bother anyone, or she might launch an all-out assault on the Human Village or something. At the very least, Flandre was likely to remain with her, so Yukari wasn't going to have to search for them separately. With any luck (Ha!), that could be done before the casualties started racking up again.

But the greatest unknown was the Shadow Youkai. So long as it remained loose, it remained a clear and present danger. If it had been sucked out of Rin, then that would at least weaken it, forcing it to recover its new strength in its new host, whoever that may be. Perhaps it had been transferred into an inanimate receptacle, which would further slow its metamorphosis, if not making more difficult to find. Unfortunately, Yukari still didn't have a clue of where to start looking, and she wasn't about to rest until the problem had been permanently dealt with. As bad as Mima, Rin, and Flandre might be, a fully mature Avatar solidly trumped them all.

As much as Yukari disliked the idea, she might end up needing to "ask" Yuuka directly. Her consciousness could be temporarily released in a controlled environment, allowing Yukari to interrogate her. But doing so was incredibly dangerous, and she didn't want to risk any chance of allowing that slimeball to escape when-

"HEY! YAKUMO!"

-and there was this now.

Yukari turned to see that she was walking past where the GPF had set up their tent. Kotohime and a couple of her medics were bent over one of the fold-out tables and had apparently been in the middle of a conversation before the unexpected outburst had caused them to freeze with surprise and horror. The source of the outburst turned out to be Mayor Sunshu. The bearded oni woman was sitting on a bench next to Rin Kaenbyou, the two of them firmly shackled together to await their incarceration. Apparently Sunshu had been Yukari walking by and decided that an exchange of words was necessary, because of course she did.

Yukari considered ignoring her, but then again she had a pretty good idea of what Sunshu wanted, and it was something she was going to have to address sooner or later, so she might as well get it out of the way. That decided, she went over to talk to the irate oni.

Instantly.

"Yes?" Yukari said as she appeared out of the quick-gap that had taken her from where she had been standing to directly in front of where Sunshu and Rin Kaenbyou were chained up. They reflexively jerked back in surprise at her sudden appearance, but to their credit they both recovered quickly.

"Satori," Sunshu growled, her big, meaty fingers curling into fists. "You got her, yeah?"

"I got her, yeah," Yukari nodded. "Utsuho Reijui managed to find and recover her from where Yuuka Kazami had her stashed. As I told you earlier. However, I still need to make sure-"

Rin's fangs bared in a hiss. "Give her back."

Yukari pursed her lips. "I still don't know what or even if Yuuka did anything to her, and don't want to risk-"

"Give. Her. Back," Sunshu echoed. "She's ours. Not yours."

"Yes, but-" Then, with a groan, Yukari cut herself off. Oh, hell with it. It would probably make things easier in the long run anyway. "You know what? Fine. Fine. We'll do it your way, instead of the safe way. Because that's how it always goes, isn't it?" Then she frowned. "Though come to think of it, there are others that deserve this more than either of you, so-"

She motioned with one hand, and tore through time and space.

Jun Matasha lifted both arms over his head, thick biceps bulging, hands squeezed into fists (and fuck, it felt great to think of his hands in the plural again!), and brought them down against the small room's single wooden door with all of his considerable strength.

Moments later, as he sucked on his aching fingers, he decided to not do that again. He had just gotten his hand back and didn't want to risk losing it again.

The door, it should be noted, was still there, and obstinately so. His lip curled, and he muttered every foul word he knew.

"Do you want me to try?"

Jun stopped cursing. Composing himself, he turned around toward where Utsuho was sitting on the floor, knees drawn up and big, maroon eyes peeking out from behind them.

"No," he said as gently as he could. "Damned door didn't so much as budge. It's probably enchanted or something. You'll probably just cook us both."

"Oh. Sorry."

An instinctive urge to snap at her for being so meek and apologetic rose up within Jun. He swallowed it down. "Don't be," he grunted instead as he looked around.

The room Yukari Yakumo had transported them to was small, vaguely pyramid shaped with triangular walls that sloped inward to a in the center, and made from some kind of hard, black stone. Some kind of glowy white ball hung from the center of the room like a lazily designed chandelier. For a prison, this was both weird and frustrating.

"So," he said. "Any ideas?"

That got a look of genuine from the Hell-Raven. "You're asking me?"

"You see anyone else here?"

"But…But you never ask me what to do! You never ask me anything! Except, you know, things like, 'Who said you could come out of your hole?' and 'Hey, what's that on your face?' and 'How fast can you run?'."

Which was true enough, but to be fair, all those had been before Utsuho had been transformed into a walking, talking atomic holocaust and had only come up to about Jun's chest instead of towering half a head over him. And she had only been a bloody hero for a couple of hours or so. "Well, I'm asking you now."

Utsuho's forehead wrinkled. "Uh, wait for someone to come get us?"

Jun sighed. Maybe he had set his expectations a little high. "That ain't happening. Overworlder sticks you in a small room, they intend to keep you there. 'Specially ones like that slimy, lying piece of-Uh, Utsuho?"

Utsuho was gone. Where she had been sitting was one of those weird purple tears with the ribbons tying off both ends.

A second later something seized him by the back of his neck and pulled him into a freaky world of purple clouds and staring eyes.

"There we are," Yukari said. "Welcome back."

Utsuho inhaled sharply, and Jun's canine ears stuck straight up, his hair bristling with alarm. They stared for a moment at Yukari, and then over to the restrained Rin Kaenbyou. For her part, the redheaded Kasha just breathed out with relief at seeing them. "Oh, thank the gods," She muttered.

"Orin?" Utsuho said. "What…How…"

Jun's lips curled away from his teeth. "What the hell is this?"

"A tremendous favor, Mr. Matasha. We can address your Alpha's incarceration later. But for now…" Yukari thought for a moment. "Hmmm, who else was shanghaied into this nonsense again? Ah yes."

She snapped her fingers three times, and three more gaps opened, dumping Brutus the billy-goat, Nico the fish, and Rin's fellow Kasha Clover. The less important members of their party had been mingling with the other angry and bewildered Underworlders and no doubt were already in foul temper. Suddenly being yanked over to the tent and seeing their Alpha all chained up apparently wasn't improving their moods, because as soon as the shock wore off sufficiently, they turned to Yukari and started yelling.

Yukari held up one hand, thumb and index finger pressed together as if she were holding the slider of a zipper. She swiped it abruptly to the right. Everyone who had been wasting time trying to screech over one another suddenly found themselves without the use of their voice.

"That's enough," Yukari said. Then she swiped her hand in the opposite direction, restoring their speech.

Naturally, nobody had taken the hint, and Yukari once again found herself bombarded with the same questions, accusations, and some admittedly creative slurs.

"Someone wasn't listening," she observed. "Okay, maybe you'll understand this."

Then she pulled out the spherical lavender crystal. As predicted, everyone shut up instantly.

"My congratulations to the denizens of the Palace of Earth Spirits," she said to the gaping animal youkai. "Because despite being suckered by the most conniving snake-oil saleswoman this country has ever seen, you're the only party here today that's getting exactly what they want."

She closed her fingers around the crystal and squeezed, feeling the warmth radiating from the hard facets. Then she tossed it to the ground.

The facets were already separating as it left her fingers. When it hit the dirt, it fell into a pile of tiny, sparkling polygons, each one as clear as glass. As for the lavender color, that rose up from the tiny pieces in a slow, shimmering cloud.

Everyone save for Yukari held their breath as the cloud contracted into itself, forming a familiar shape. As for the youkai of borders, she merely patiently waited as the fine details emerged, noting with pleasure that Satori appeared to be fully clothed, wearing the outfit she had donned for that disastrous day at the Blasted Lands. Good, that meant her soul hadn't been tampered with.

The light faded, and then Satori was standing there before them, her normally stoic face registering an unusual amount of shock. Then she inhaled sharply as her hands went to her face. Yukari couldn't blame her, as the last thing she probably remembered was Yuuka's heel coming down onto her nose.

"Welcome back, Satori," Yukari said. "Apologies for the delay and the bewildering sudden change in scenery."

"Yukari?" Satori said, looking to her. "What-"

Then she was tackled by an overly enthusiastic blue-furred Doberman.

Followed by a large black bird, madly flapping its wings.

And then a golden-furred cat.

And then she was nearly trampled by a goat.

Nico, it should be noted, wisely refrained from assuming her fish aspect, and instead opted to merely dive into the ever-increasing pile of joy, love, and complete and utter confusion.

Yukari glanced up at Rin Kaenbyou, who was gnashing her teeth and pulling at her restraints in her desperation to join them. Rolling her eyes, she thought, Oh, what the hell, and snapped her fingers. Rin's restraints unbuckled. Less than a second later, a black-furred cat was scrambling over the goat's head in her haste to join the fray of affection.

Then Yukari glanced over to Sunshu, who was looking up at her with big, expectant eyes. "No," Yukari said coldly. Sunshu's face fell.

For her part, Satori was well-used to being the target of coordinated animal affection and wasn't alarmed by the large variety of squirming bodies pressing up against her. However, her face was a perfect picture of complete and utter bewilderment, which, to be honest, Yukari found herself enjoying despite herself. Yes, she considered Satori to be a valuable member of Gensokyian society, PR problems aside, and yes, she had been incredibly worried about her peer's wellbeing and was nothing but relieved that one of the prodigal Ringleaders had been returned safely. But good goods, Satori was always just so smugly unflappable all the time that seeing her completely without a clue of what was going on was oh so satisfying.

She sat still, absently and almost unconsciously stroking her pets while her face went to war with itself as her mind picked up dozens of different thoughts from those around her and tried to piece together a coherent picture. "Yukari?" she said. "Exactly what is-"

Then she paused. "Oh. Oh. And how long-"

Another pause. "Oh. I see. And what of-Oh. Oh my. I missed a few key events, haven't I?"

"You could say that," Yukari said. "Being dead and stuck in a rock does cause time to pass you by."

"Indeed it does," Satori said in a somewhat absent tone. She was clearly still trying to sort out the barrage of information she was receiving and sort them in order of importance.

Then all three of her eyes went wide with horror. "Yuuka!" she gasped, standing up so abruptly that it caused her pets to fall off of her. "She is-" Then she stopped. "Oh. Wait. You know."

"Know what?"

"About Yuuka's actual identity."

"I've been made aware," Yukari said mildly. It was something of a surprise that Satori did as well, but then, this was Yuuka they were talking about. No doubt the sadistic slimeball had given her a thorough education right before crushing her head. Yukari made a mental note to do something about that. Such knowledge tended to have a negative effect on mortals if left untreated.

"And you killed her."

"Yes. Took some doing, but yes."

"And…" Satori's face scrunched up for a moment, but then everything went wide. "Marisa Kirisame?"

"Dead, unfortunately. And the Hakureis and I are once again estranged. Shocking, I know."

"That is tragic. And…Oh dear. Rin Satsuki is…Oh dear. The Shadow Youkai-Oh." Satori's face fell. "Shit."

Though Yukari would have gladly done without the endless train of disaster and tragedy that had led them all to this point, there was still a very small and very petty part of her that, at least in part, considered it all to have been worth it just to hear Satori curse.

"That is very immature of you, Yukari," Satori said curtly. "And I-"

"HEY, EVERYONE! SATORI'S BACK! SHE'S OKAY!"

Then a ragged, pained, but enthused cheer rose up from those being administered to, shocking the relief workers almost half to death. A moment later those still in the tunnels were somehow informed and the very ground rumbled with their cries of celebration.

Though her restraints had prevented Sunshu from joining Satori's pets in their overjoyed pouncing (which was for the best. Oni hugs were known to crack vertebrae and pulverize internal organs), she had decided that the next best thing was to fulfill her duties as mayor and bellow the good news to her people.

Perhaps it was for the best. Underworlders were nothing but emotional, and one real nugget of good news could calm a lot of tempers, even with everything had happened. However, poor Satori was all but bowled over by the horde of positive thoughts suddenly being sent her way. Yukari could only imagine what that was like. The small woman had isolated herself from the people she had been chosen to govern to escape the constant barrage of contempt. She was no doubt wholly unprepared for an overpowering wave of the opposite.

"We missed you," Sunshu gibbered at her as great big fat tears poured down her face. She was leaning over, manacled hands clasped in joy.

Satori blinked at her. Then she turned to Yukari, her eyebrow askew.

"Oh yeah, your approval ratings have soared in your absence," Yukari told her. "Ghastly, I know, but there it is."

"So I see," Satori said gravely. Then her eyes widened. "Koishi?"

"Back at your castle," Yukari told her. "She's back to a subconscious blank, I'm afraid."

Satori pursed her lips. One of the many annoying things about dealing with her was that while she always knew what was on your mind, it was nearly impossible to tell what she might be thinking. "Is she all…Ah. No. I see." Then she glanced back out toward the relief efforts, where her people were being seen to. "My people have been hurt," she said flatly.

"Yes," Yukari said.

"By you."

"On a technicality, and certainly not by design. But yes."

Satori's brow furrowed as she read the situation. Then she jerked back once, and then shot a concerned look to the elder youkai. Yukari didn't have to ask what was wrong. She had just come to the part about Mima.

Yukari nodded once.

"Oh," Satori said. "I…see."

"Yes, I'm afraid my to-do list has…proliferated," Yukari said. "Still, crossing both you and Yuuka off is a step in the right direction. For now, we'd better get you and your menagerie back to your home. I still need to give you a thorough examination, and from there we can discuss-"

"Thank you, Yukari, but that will have to wait," Satori said. Then, without waiting for a reaction, she turned her attention to the gaggle of avian, mammalian, and humanoid bodies that had spent the whole conversation pressing against her.

"Thank you, one and all, for coming for me," she said as she rubbed heads, scratched necks, and kissed foreheads. Even Yukari wasn't exactly sure how she did it, but somehow Satori's hands knew exactly where they were needed and in what capacity. "I am sorry for being away for so long, but things will be better now."

"Don't you go away again," Nico said, hugging her tightly from behind. "Jun's even more of an asshole when you're gone."

The big Doberman whined.

"I won't," Satori promised her as she gave Jun's ears a scratch. Then she turned her attention to the large bird perched on her shoulder. "You especially," she said, scratching the raven lightly around the neck feathers. "You found me and saved me when it should have been impossible. Thank you."

Utsuho let out a happy cackle.

Then Satori stood up, slowly and carefully so as not to upset the animals still clinging to her. She turned to where mayor Sunshu was still sitting chained up.

"Mayor Sunshu," she said with a respectful bow. "Despite past disagreements, your show of support in this dark time is noted and appreciated. Rest assured, I will do everything in my power to have you released and reinstated before the day is out, and see to it that the wrongs our people have suffered are addressed."

"Bless you," Sunshu sobbed. She grasped Satori's slender wrist with both hands and shook it lovingly. "Bless you."

Satori winced as she withdrew her almost certainly broken wrist. Then, cradling it to her chest, she walked out from under the pavilion in sight of the medical tents.

Another cheer went up. She waved with her good hand.

"Never took you for the PR sort," Yukari remarked as Satori returned. She nudged things around in the smaller woman's arm, knitting the bone back together.

"I'm not. But given the circumstances…"

"Indeed." Yukari looked over the tragic scene once more and sighed. "Well, we both seem to have full schedules. Would you like me to take you back home or leave you here for the time being?"

"I think I ought to remain here for now," Satori said.

"Fair enough. Regardless I still need to check you for any tampering Yuuka might have done."

"Of course. But before that…" Satori took a deep breath. "I fear there has been some tampering done, though not by Yuuka. Mima, I feel, is the most likely culprit, though I am not certain how or when. Regardless, I would greatly appreciate it if you undid…whatever it is."

"Really now?" Yukari said, her forehead creasing in concern. "And what exactly did she do?"

"Well, during my time in that crystal, I unfortunately was not as dead to the world as I would have liked. There was a little…something that kept playing over and over again in the back of my subconscious, keeping me on the verge of oblivion."

"And what was that?"

Satori looked at her with three grave eyes. Then she started slowly reciting, "Soulja Boy right off this hoe, why me crank that why me roll…"

"And for others, it was a day of appalling, humiliating, and yet somehow liberating defeat."

She shouldn't be able to see, but she did. Her eyes were gone, one of them gouged out by a shard of stone weeks prior, the other burned away by the searing breath of the Demon. Nothing but empty caverns in her cracked and warped skull remained. And yet, she could see. Her vision was all in rippling reds, yellows, oranges, and whites, as if the world around her was made from fire. Horrific, burning apparitions with glowing eyes passed in front of her vision, leering down at her with jack-o'-lantern grins.

She shouldn't be able to smell, but she did. Her nose had been melted like wax, leaving a useless hole behind. But she was overwhelmed with the stench of smoke and sulfur: thick, cloying, nauseating, and suffocating, the stink of the Abyss itself.

She shouldn't be able to taste, but she did. The Demon had vomited its fire right down her gullet, crisping her tongue away in moments. And yet, her mouth was filled with the taste of ash and dust. Dry and choking, every futile breath she tried to take through her mangled throat was thick with it, the flavor of death, the taste of long-withered corpses.

She shouldn't be able to feel, but she did. Her entire nervous system was gone, destroyed when her skin had baked from the outside-in. And while that meant that despite her horrific state she felt no pain, she would have preferred it to the heat of the Hellfire that burned away at her core, deep inside of what was left of her soul. Agony would be a welcome relief to the deathly cold that froze her from the outside, the sort of cold that hardens skin like marble and turns blood into ice.

And she shouldn't be able to hear, but she did. Her ears were gone, leaving empty holes like her eyes and nose had. That ought to have been a relief. Blessed silence would have been gladly welcomed. But rather than mute the jeering laughter that had been haunting her dreams and plaguing her every waking moment, it was amplified, the voices of her unseen hecklers now a deafening crescendo. They filled her head with their mockery, celebrating her defeat.

But even then, through the din she caught snippets of other voices, speaking to each other rather than to her. One of the voices sounded vaguely familiar, but she still couldn't make out enough to figure out what was going on.

"…just lay her there. She'll be fine, I…"

"…please let me stay with her, you can't…"

"…nay, her wounds are too grievous. Come…"

"…leave her alone, I promise she'll be…"

And then it was over. The voices were gone, as were the burning figures. She was alone in a strange room, alone with the cold and the flame, alone with her madness.

Alone with the laughter.

She tried to move but found that she couldn't. She couldn't even feel her limbs. She tried to talk, to cry out for help, but all she could manage was a weak, rattling groan. She tried to remember own name, but even the simplest of memories were beyond her grasp. Every time she tried to reach for them, to bring the scattered fragments together and form a single picture, they would fall to pieces and go fluttering away like ash in the breeze.

She was no one.

She was nothing.

Just trash.

Just filth.

Just a burnt and broken corpse of person that no one was going to remember.

It was sort of funny if you thought about it.

Then, as she lay there, quietly smoldering away, a rich, royal voice spoke. "Well now. Isn't this delicious?"

The laughter stopped immediately, as if out of respect for the speaker. Or maybe it was fear. Either way, they hushed at once, surrendering the stage.

"You can hear me, can't you? Of course you can. I wouldn't let something so inconvenient as a lack of ears keep us from having this conversation. So please. Pay attention."

Then the eyes opened. Two of them, floating in the air above her head, with no visibly attached body, glowing with white flame. She stared up at them and made a strangled clicking sound.

A death rattle. That's what the sound was, a death rattle.

"Just look at you," the voice purred. "Just look at you. This is a greater payoff for today's festivities than I could have hoped for. The last remaining shred of Yuuka Kazami, helpless before me. A mere sixteenth of what you were." Then a horizontal gash tore through the air below the eyes, forming a grinning mouth. "Oh, how the mighty have fallen."

Then the eyes and the mouth drifted off together, moving over her head and out of sight. She tried to track them, but was still unable to move. That didn't stop the voice from speaking though.

"You brought this on yourself, you know. Had you just left well enough alone, none of this would have happened. But you had to do it. You had to kill her. And now we all have things we must adjust to. I have to get used to a world without Marisa. And you…"

She still didn't feel anything other than the fire and the cold. She couldn't feel anything. And yet, she suddenly became aware of a pair of graceful hands, gently touching her shoulders.

The voice then spoke in a conspiratorial whisper, right next to where her ears had been. "You're just going to have to get used to being my bitch."

The laughter returned then, louder than ever. And for the first time, she joined them.

"To some, it was a day of overwhelming tragedy."

It had been one of the longest days of Reimu's life, and for once it had nothing to do with her.

The whole shrine was restless. Genji was swimming around and around in his lake in long, slow circles, his way of pacing. Reisen had thrown herself into a cleaning fit, albeit a very scattered manner. Reimu watched her sweep the same half of the porch three times before wandering back into the shrine to scrub the same tub she had already cleaned thoroughly that morning without bothering to dispose of any of the piles of debris she had gathered up. And Remilia was pacing around and around in Reimu's small living quarters, wringing her hands together as she mumbled to herself a kilometer a minute. A couple of times Reimu had tried to convince her to try to get some sleep, that staying awake worrying wouldn't help anyone. Remilia had agreed and retired to her coffin to close her eyes for a bit. But less than an hour later she was up and wandering again.

As for Reimu, she had taken to walking an aimless path all around the shrine grounds. The fact that all of Hakurei Shrine's beautiful foliage and her cherry grove were all gone made it a dreary affair. It was hard to take her mind off of the violence and devastation that were going on at that very moment when you were surrounded by nothing but bare dirt.

Finally, sometime around the early evening, her growling stomach's complaints grew loud enough to make her head back to the shrine to try to fix something to eat. Hopefully this time she could keep it down. Breakfast had been a disappointing failure for everyone.

As she passed by Genji's lake, she saw his head break the surface of the water. Their eyes met, and she raised an eyebrow in askance. He shook his head, and she sighed. No news had reached them all day long. Genji had promised to tell them the second he learned anything, but even he was growing visibly frustrated with the lack of communication.

If this is Yukari being snide for me throwing her out, I am going to tear her world freaking asunder, Reimu thought darkly as she rounded the shrine building. Inside, she could still hear Remilia's constant footsteps and nonstop muttering. It would be just like her to keep us in the dark out of spite.

Then, as Reimu started to ascend the porch steps, Reisen came running up to her. "Reimu!" she cried in agitation. "Something just got dropped off outside the barrier!"

Reimu froze. "What? How?"

"I don't know! I was wandering over by the donation box when some blew right by and left a bunch of papers there! I didn't get a chance to see their face, they were too fast, but-"

Reimu whirled around toward the lake. "GENJI!" she bellowed.

"I heard, I heard," he said as he floated up over the shrine building. "I'm comin', keep yer shirt on!"

The two girls waited anxiously as Genji headed over to where the barrier's border stopped in front of the donation box. Just outside was a stack of papers about half again as tall as the box, which Genji had to bring through a little at a time using his mouth. Thanks to Yukari's barrier now being impenetrable from both ends, they had to rely on Genji to bring anything in through, which was just plain aggravating. There were three perfectly able-bodied women staying at the shrine, and only the turtle could carrying things in!

Reimu didn't bother waiting for him to bring the entire stack in before grabbing one of the papers and reading it. "It's a Tengu newspaper," she announced.

"You have a subscription?" Reisen said in surprise.

Reimu shook her head. "No. They give out free editions whenever something really big goes down in hope of someone getting interested and subscribing. Plus, it lets them justify charging sponsors extra for the ad-space."

"Oh, right. They stopped doing that at Eientei after Tewi tripped over the stack this one morning and chased them down with her hammer." Reisen peered over Reimu's shoulder. "So, what's it say?"

Their hearts falling, the two of them read the headline together.

SHOCK! HORROR! HUNDREDS DEAD IN FLAGRANTLY RECKLESS ACT OF WAR!

"Oh no," Reisen whispered. Reimu silently agreed. Tengu headlines were nothing but exploitative, but they always had a kernel of truth.

They read the next one:

YUUKA KAZAMI DEAD, BUT AT WHAT COST? UNTOLD NUMBER OF CIVILIANS MURDERED BY YUKARI YAKUMO'S BLOODTHIRSTY WARMONGERING.

Beneath it was an illustration of Yukari done up like a barbarian warlord, ordering monstrous-looking Dragons to spew fire on hapless innocents.

"Yuuka's dead?" Reisen said. "They got her?"

"Looks like," Reimu responded. Despite her strong desire to see Yuuka pay in blood for what she had done to Marisa, it was difficult to find much solace in the news. Everyone had known that Yuuka wasn't going to survive the day no matter what happened. It was only a question of how much damage would be done in the meantime. And from the look of things, it had turned out to be a lot.

The next one was worse. Most of the front page was taken up by a nightmarish picture of a blood-splattered Flandre Scarlet, what appeared to be a loose interpretation of what the original Shadow Youkai had looked like, and something that could, with some imagination, be said to resemble the patchwork body Rin Satsuki wore naturally. All three had their features exaggerated as horrifically as possible, and seemed to be streaking toward the viewer, claws and teeth bared as they prepared to wreak havoc upon all in their path.

The headline read:

THE TERRIBLE TRIO ON THE LOOSE! MURDEROUS VAMPIRE FLANDRE SCARLET JOINS NOTORIOUS MADWOMEN RIN SATSUKI AND GENOCIDAL YOUKAI OF SHADOWS RUMIA!

No, Reimu thought numbly. No, no, no, no. Behind her, she heard Reisen gasp in horror. This wasn't what they had wanted. This was the opposite of what they had wanted. If Rin had truly succumbed and joined forces with Flandre Scarlet, then there was little-

But wait. Rumia had been absorbed by Rin, right? So if the Shadow Youkai had finally emerged, she would have taken over Rin's body. So why then was the paper treating them like separate people?

The next paper didn't provide much in the way of answers, but it did give her pause.

THIRTEEN PEOPLE YOU WON'T BELIEVE GOT BURNED ALIVE BY DRAGONFIRE (NUMBER 7 IS SHOCKING!)

This one she opened and scanned for details to see if anyone she knew was on the list. Unfortunately, the paper format was unhelpful in the extreme, with each name only getting a few lines of description that somehow needed to be cut up and stretched over three pages each, with the bulk of the space being filled with endless and repetitive advertisements. Getting through the list was a chore, and to her guilty relief she didn't actually recognize any of the names, with number seven turning out to be some Underworld celebrity winner of a boulder-biting contest.

But then she got to number thirteen, and her heart stopped.

PATCHOULI KNOWLEDGE!

Yes, you read it right. Patchouli Knowledge, the infamous sorceress in the employ of notorious Vampire Lord Remilia Scarlet, was among those confirmed to have been killed during Yukari Yakumo's all-out assault on the Garden of the Sun. Given the very recent murder of Marisa Kirisame, it looks to still be open season on magicians. Still no word on what she was doing there in the first place. Maybe Yuuka had a book overdue!

We're cheating a little on this one. Apparently, Miss Knowledge was already dead before the Dragons cut loose with the fire and brimstone, which just goes to show how perilous collecting fines are for librarians. So the next time you get an overdue notice from the library, just be a sport and pay the fine. Librarians have enough to deal with without you monsters taking their heads off!

Before her death, Patchouli Knowledge was known for her part in perpetrating the Scarlet Mist Incident of Season 118 and the inhumane experiment responsible for the creation of rampaging cannibal Rin Satsuki, the details of which are only now coming to light thanks to a cover-up conspiracy executed between the Scarlet Devil Mansion and the Lunarian immigrants of the Bamboo Forest and their rabbit tribe allies.

Reimu honestly didn't know what to say. Was this some sort of morbid joke? She was tempted to dismiss the source outright due to it be one of the Tengu's obnoxious excuses for journalism, but despite how godsawful those carrion feeders were at reporting the news, they were unnervingly good at digging up facts before bloating them beyond recognition. So if the paper was saying that Patchouli Knowledge had died, there was a very good chance that she was dead.

But how? Why had she been there in the first place? Yukari of course hadn't disclosed her plan of attack to her, given that they weren't exactly speaking, but enough had been filtered through Genji for Reimu to know that at the very least the ancient hag was taking steps this time to prevent mortal casualties. So why in the flipping hell had Patchouli Knowledge been at the Garden of the Sun? What was up with this "hundreds dead" crap? Why had there been a hundred people around to die? What the hell had happened?

Then she heard Reisen gasp as she finished reading the poor excuse for an article. "P-Patchouli Knowledge?" she sputtered. "Is this being serious? Patchouli Knowledge is dead?"

Before Reimu could come up with an answer, she heard a strangled cry of anguish followed by a thump. The two girls whirled around to see that the shrine door was open. And in the protection of the shade inside, Remilia was sprawled out on the floor, her shoulders and head raised to stare right at Reimu, her mouth hanging open in shock.

Reimu froze in horror. Oh gods. Remilia was a vampire. Her ears were as sharp as, well, a bat's. Even from all the way across the lawn, she had heard.

Then a sad, tired voice said, "I'm afraid it's true, Reimu. I had hoped that we would have gotten here before the Tengu, but time and experience has proven over and over again what a fool's hope that is."

Breathing out, Reimu turned again. Sure enough, Ran Yakumo was there, looking as regal and proper as she always did in her elegant white robes. Her hands were clasped beneath her heavy sleeves, her tails were spread out behind her like a halo, and her eyes were closed as if in meditation. Behind her, one of Yukari's gaps was closing, indicating at the very least Reimu's terms were being upheld.

Curiously, standing next to her was an even more tired looking Sakuya Izayoi. The Lunarian maid looked like she had been through a warzone, which, if recent reports were any indication, was probably the case. She was wearing that demon hunter's uniform that Reimu had only seen her don on a handful of occasions, and was covered from head to toe with the smoke and soot of a firefight. She was standing stiffly at attention with her hands clasped behind her back and her silver-blue eyes staring off into the distance.

"What?" Reimu said, jerking. "Huh? Ran? Sakuya? What's going on?" She held her handful of newspapers out. "What the hell happened? There weren't supposed to be casualties! Why was Patchouli even…Why was anyone else even there? How in the world did you guys screw up this badly?"

At her feet, Genji spat out the last of the newspapers and turned his head sideways to glare up at the tall kitsune. "Gonna haf'ta agree with the kid here. Dammit fox, what the fuck?"

Before Ran could respond, Sakuya took a deep breath and said, "If you'll excuse me, I need to speak with my mistress in private."

"Go," Ran said to her. "And…good luck."

Sakuya's head moved in an almost imperceptible nod. Then without so much as looking at Reimu or Reisen, she turned sharply and made her way toward the shrine, where Remilia was still staring out at her. There was a sort of solemn finality to the woman's walk, like that of a condemned criminal making her way toward the gallows.

Reimu watched her until she reached the shrine's steps. Then, remembering that privacy meant privacy, tore her eyes away to face Ran again. "Ran. Something happened. Talk."

Ran's lips thinned out. She opened her eyes. "Well, like the paper's said, the primary objective was at least accomplished. Yuuka Kazami is for all intents and purposes dead and gone. What was more, Satori Komejii was recovered alive and well and is currently being reunited with her people and loved ones. So…there's that."

Reimu stared at her, waiting for her to drop the other shoe. When Ran didn't immediately give her the bad news, she rolled her eyes and rolled her wrist impatiently. "Well?" she demanded. "So what went wrong?"

Right about then a wail of grief rose up, louder than the one before. Wincing, Reimu glanced to the side to see Remilia kneeling before Sakuya, her face buried in the maid's knees, fists raised and angrily pounding against Sakuya's thighs. Despite this, Sakuya remained in place, stoically accepting the abuse.

Ran shot the scene as sidelong glance. Turning back, her face hardened. Then she said two words that hit Reimu like a hammer to the chest. She didn't want to believe what Ran was telling, almost couldn't believe her given everything that had happened, but she knew in her heart of hearts that it was true, that it always had been true, that she should have known that this was going to happen. Everything was different now, and for the worst.

"Mima lied."

"And for others, a day of rejoicing and celebration."

The cave was dark, dry, and devoid of life, and had been so for a long time. Despite its size, it had been years since it had been disturbed. It was too well hidden and too well protected, even after so much time.

All of that changed with an explosion of dirt, dust, and stone. There was no one to witness it, and even if there were there was light to see by the creature responsible was invisible anyway. However, it was massive, a vaguely alligator-shaped beast over ten meters long from snout to tail. Its many limbs were short, thick, blunt, and very powerful, suited for the task of digging. Its shoulders were massive, all the better to support the long, smooth hump on its back, from which a several distressed voices could be heard. It shoved it snout and front shoulders into the cave, stubby claws gripping the rock to pull it forward. It looked around a bit, its enhanced eyes peering through the darkness. When nothing jumped out at it, the beast slumped with relief. "Okay, I think I found a safe hiding place. Cave of some sort."

From within the hump on her back, Rin heard Rumia's tired, frustrated voice said, "Any acid slugs?"

"No."

"And freaked out mice youkai?"

"Nope. No youkai at all, 'cept for us."

"Any giant sea monsters?"

"It's a dry cave, Rumia!" Rin snapped. "Of course not! 'Sides, I can grow big enough to eat any monsters we run into."

"Right. Because that's worked out so well in the past."

"I just killed Yuuka Kazami, Rumia! And I got us all away clean! Can I get just a little respect? Please?"

Rumia let out weak-sounding laugh. "Okay, okay, fine."

"Are we done flying all over the place now?" said one of the other girls. Whoever it was, she sounded downright nauseated. "I think my stomach's been shoved into my lungs."

"Yeah, we're done," Rin said. She dropped the Nue's cloak and let the hump open up, freeing her dazed passengers. "Okay, guys. Everyone out."

It took some time, but eventually everyone she had brought with her from Mugenkan was sprawled all over the cave. The luggage she place in a corner to deal with later. Then, with a relieved sigh, she shrank back down to her normal self. Shivering, she scratched at her back and did her best not to think of how much vomit and other icky fluids she had been absorbing during the trip.

"Uh, Rin?" said the demon with the pinkish-red hair. "N-Not to sound ungrateful or anything, but what was up with all those ups and downs oh good gods, my head's still spinning."

"Yeah, sorry about that," Rin said as she threw up some glowing yellow orbs to light the place up. "I was trying to mask our trail. Otherwise, all they'd have to do was follow the melted dirt to find us. Everyone okay?"

"Nope," said the blonde fairy as she slumped against the wall, her hands holding her stomach. "But, uh, considering how our day started? This is one hell of an improvement. Thanks."

A murmur of agreements and appreciations rose up from all around.

"What, am I the only one that thought that was awesome?" Cirno demanded. "Come on, that was the best ride I've ever been on!"

A round of disagreements and groans rose up from all around. Rin didn't mind. Uncomfortable escape aside, she was still riding the high of their success and probably wasn't going to be coming down anytime soon.

"Rin? Are we done now?" Flandre said. The little vampire was standing under her power, which was more than most of the others could claim, but was swaying a little from fatigue.

"Yeah, we're done, we're good," Rin said. Then she frowned. "Er, are you going to be okay? You look a little…" She wracked her brain for a word that wasn't synonymous with "dizzy," as there was too much of that going around to make Flandre's case special. Unfortunately, she ended up drawing a blank.

Flandre stared at her. Her eyes were the bright red of the Child persona, which was a good sign, but there was a troubling emptiness to them, almost as if she couldn't even see what was right in front of her. "I don't know," she said flatly. "Most of my old friends are dead. I'm going to sleep now."

And with that, she laid down on the floor, curled up in a ball, and went right to sleep.

All eyes went to the sleeping girl. "Is…Is that really Flandre Scarlet?" said the other vampire, the one with long, red hair.

"Yup," Rin said, albeit a bit crabbily. One would think that that whole business with Sakuya Izayoi holding a knife to Rumia's throat in front of everyone would have settled that question.

"Wings," said the blue-haired girl with the umbrella, her voice still low and hoarse from disuse. "She…has wings, right? Crystal wings? Where are they?"

"I dunno," Rin said with a shrug. "She lost 'em somewhere. But believe me. That's her."

This proclamation was met with uneasy silence. Then someone else said, "Okay, but isn't she kind of…dangerous?"

"Hey, you rode with her this whole way," Cirno snapped. "Did she kill you? No! Did she help save you? Yes! Stop picking on her!"

Sighing, Rin clapped her times three times in quick succession. All the murmuring stopped as everyone turned their attention to her.

"Okay guys, here's the situation," Rin said. "Yes, this is really Flandre Scarlet. And yes, she is very dangerous. But she's not evil, you know? Yuuka was evil, but Flandre isn't. I've been her friend for a little while now, and she's no monster. She's just…messed up in the head, can't really control herself sometimes, you know? And when you're as strong as she is, you can see why so many people are scared of her. But she really doesn't want to hurt people, and I've been doing what I can to help her out, so there's that.

"But yeah, I'm not gonna lie to you, she's still dangerous to be around. And I…" Rin grimaced and shrugged awkwardly. "Well, I kinda am too. Not because I flip out or anything, but because I'm really, really wanted. There was a big 'ol bounty on me not too long ago…" Here she shot a quick glare at Cirno, who grinned sheepishly and quickly looked away. "…and I wouldn't be surprised if another one gets posted soon. Lots of people are after us, and they are all very scary, you know?

"So, here's what's going to happen. My friends and I are gonna be sticking together. As for the rest of you, I just wanted to get you out safely, and I did. From here, you can do whatever you want, so long as you don't turn us in. If you wanna stay, that's great. I promise I'll do everything in my power to protect you. If you wanna leave and go back to your old life, go right ahead. It's probably safer if you do. But either way, it's up to you. Okay?"

She waited a fair bit for a response, and then said, "And in hindsight, I probably should've waited until you were all awake before making that speech."

Most of the others had already dropped off asleep from exhaustion, including members of her own group. Daiyousei and Mystia were slumped together against the wall, their heads leaning into one another as they slept. The others she had rescued were mostly huddled together for comfort, with one or two curled up by herself. In fact, the only ones still awake were Cirno, Rumia, Wriggle, the redheaded vampire, the umbrella girl, and the dark-haired youkai with the cow-like tail.

"Well, I thought it was a pretty good speech," said the latter girl. She seemed entirely too chipper considering the ordeal she had just escaped from. "But if it's all the same to you, I think I'm going to stick around."

"No problem," Rin told her. "But, uh, why exactly do you look so happy?"

The youkai grinned. "Are you kidding me? This gang always has the best nightmares. Even when we were all trapped together, the nights almost made up for how bad the days were." Her smile wavered just a bit as she shivered. "Er, well, yeah. Almost."

"Nightmares?" Rumia said, her tired face screwing up in confusion.

"Yeah, I eat nightmares. I'm a Baku, it's our thing."

"You…eat nightmares?" Rin said with a frown. "But does that-"

"Nah, don't worry," the youkai said with a dismissive wave of her hand. "It doesn't hurt anyone, I promise. Heck, it probably helps them, lets them sleep better."

"Oh. Well, okay then." Come to think it, having someone like that around would be really useful. "Go at it then."

Rumia then looked up in interest. "Wait, you can help people sleep?"

"Well, yeah," said the youkai with a shrug. "It's always easier if you don't wait up screaming-"

"Can you help someone who can't sleep at all?" Rumia demanded. "Like, not someone who's getting woken up nightmares, but someone who can't get to sleep in the first place? Because if you can, I swear I'll be your best friend forever."

Rin shot her a hurt look.

The Baku let out a small, tired laugh. "Okay, come here," she said, patting her leg. "It's not normally our thing, but usually when someone has that kind of problem it's somewhere we can reach."

Wearily getting up, Rumia toddled over and all but collapsed, having just the wherewithal to flop onto her back and lay her head against the Baku's leg. Laying her hand on Rumia's forehead, the Baku closed her eyes and starting humming, her tail twitching in time to the pitch. A few moments later, Rumia's eyes fluttered. Closing them with a relieved sigh, she finally relaxed into the embrace of sleep.

Rin's face twitched, and she had to quickly look away. She knew it was dumb of her to be jealous. Rumia just wanted to be able to sleep again, and that girl was helping, that was all. And it was Rin's fault that Rumia was messed up to begin with, so she had no right to say anything. So she needed to just stop being an idiot and not read into things.

Sighing, she slumped down and reclined against a rock. She wasn't really tired, per se, but she was definitely weary. It had been a long, long day, full soaring highs and cavernous lows. She still hadn't even begun to really process everything that had happened. Just as well. Trying to sort through everything at once would probably make her nuttier than Flandre.

Well, on the upside, as sucky as many parts had been, at least they were all, by and large, considerably better than how things had been at the day's start-

Rin felt her thoughts skip a few beats and she wrenched them away from that path. No, she wasn't going to think about her time burning in Yuuka's crystal. She wasn't going to think of what Yuuka had done to Flandre inside that coffin. She wasn't going to think about her friends being shoved into those suffocating prisons. Not now. She had to keep thinking about the path ahead of them, not what lay behind. Nothing was going to be accomplished by fixating on-

Rin's eyes involuntarily over to where Rumia was sleeping peacefully against the Baku's leg, a small, rare smile on her face. As for the Baku, she wasn't asleep herself, but her eyes were still closed and she was slowly and deeply breathing in and out, a look of bliss on her face. The fingers resting on Rumia's forehead were gently stroking her bangs.

-and it wasn't like it really meant anything! The Baku said she ate nightmares, and she was getting a full-course meal, that was all! Besides, she and Rumia had just met! They didn't even know each other's names, for goodness's sake! If anything, Rin should be thankful that someone was around to help instead getting all resentful like a big, stupid-

"So! What's your names?"

Rin jerked out of her swirling thoughts and refocused. Cirno was sitting up, as bright-eyed and alert as ever (seriously, how did she do it?), and addressing their new friends, at least the ones still awake.

The Baku didn't move, but the vampire and the umbrella girl both looked surprised at being addressed. "You mean…" The umbrella girl's voice rasped harshly. She coughed a bit and spat out a nasty looking wad and tried again, clearer this time. "Sorry. You mean us?"

"Yup!" Cirno pressed a thumb against her own chest. "I'm Cirno, the boss of our gang." She nodded over to where Rin was lying. "You already know Rin, our resident ass-kicker. She's pretty scary when you first meet her, yeah, but she's cool." Then she pointed to where Wriggle was restlessly pacing back and forth. "The angry bug walking around is Wriggle. She's cranky sometimes, but pretty smart." Then she indicated where Mystia and Daiyousei were sleeping side by side, their heads inclining toward one another, Daiyousei's lap taken up by her enormous snowglobe. "And those two are Mystia and Dayiousei! Mystia's an awesome cook and surprisingly rich. And Daiyousei's my best friend! I got her that snowglobe for Christmas, and there's a really funny story to go along with it if you ever wanna hear it. So! What do they call you?"

Rin didn't bother fighting the smile she felt forming. Cirno might be as dumb as a sack of rocks, but there was no denying her charm.

And it was working. The umbrella girl looked amused by Cirno's complete disregard for the Hell they had just escaped, while the vampire had at least stopped shaking and was looking at the little fairy with interest. Even the Baku had emerged from her happy place to crack one eye open toward Cirno and smirk.

"Oh," the umbrella girl said. "Uh, I'm…I'm Kogasa. Kogasa Tatara." She nodded toward the vampire. "And that's-"

"Little Leech," the vampire whispered.

This made the Baku open both eyes. She frowned with disapproval. "Kurumi, you don't have to call yourself that anymore. Yuuka's dead. She can't hurt you."

The vampire now identified as Kurumi fiercely shook her head. "Little Leech," she insisted. "My name is Little Leech. My name is Little Leech. She said-"

"Yuuka is dead," the Baku repeated. "Kurumi. Kurumi, look at me."

Kurumi shook her head again. She had drawn her knees up and was hugging them tightly as she stared at the ground.

Sighing, the Baku carefully moved Rumia's head off her leg and walked over to sit next to the terrified vampire. "Kurumi, listen," she said. "That's not your name. That's what Yuuka called you, but that's not your name. Your real name is Kurumi, remember? Do you remember when you told me?"

Kurumi had started shaking again, but she managed to raise her head just enough to look at the Baku out of the corner of her eye. She nodded.

"Right. Can you say it?" The Baku slowly reached over to lightly place her arms over Kurumi's shoulders and knees in a loose embrace. "Can you say your real name?"

There was a long moment of hesitation, but then the vampire stammered out, "Ku-Kurumi. My name's Kurumi." She let out a slightly manic sounding giggle and leaned into the Baku's shoulder. "Kurumi. That's my name."

"Good girl," said the Baku as she tousled Kurumi's hair. Looking up to her staring audience, she said, "Sorry about that. She's been here longer than the rest of us, and Yuuka was always harder on her. Anyway, my name's Doremy Sweet, nice to meet you, and thank you for saving us." She then started pointing out her sleeping companions one by one. "The one with the horns and the attitude is Seija. She's a jerk, always has been. Sort of glad she's still out."

"She started to wake up when I was flying," Rin said. "I knocked her out again. Didn't want to put up with more of her crap."

"Smart move. Okay, see those five over there? There'll all demons. Don't worry, they're the nice sort. Yuuka brought them back as a group. I think they were running away from something when she caught them. The one with the pink-red hair's named Sara, she used to be some kind of guard or something until she got in trouble for…actually, she never said. The blonde's Luize, she's kinda slow but really nice. The one with the bat-wings is Elis, and she's not a vampire, she's a demon, it was sort of confusing to sort that out at first. The one with the white wings is Yuki, and she's not an Angel, she's a demon, and I still don't get it. She doesn't talk much either way. The other blonde is Mai, and I think she and Yuki are sisters, not really sure. Either that or they're lovers. You can ask them when they wake up. And the fairy over there is Rengeteki. She's moody, but pretty talkative when you get her going. The one with the roly-poly head is Sekibanki. She's new, but she's had it rough. Yuuka had a lot of fun when she found out that her head comes off and that her neck stretches. So, uh, word of advice. Just leave that whole upper area alone. And the skinny girl over there with the short black hair is Nien. She's a Kappa, real shy, doesn't talk much. She hasn't woken up yet so you can't really tell, but she's real nearsighted and squints a lot, so we'll eventually need to get her some new glasses if she stays. She had a pair when Yuuka brought her home, but Yuuka threw them into the grass and told her she had one minute to find them, and when she didn't Yuuka broke them, so now she can't see real well. Hi, nice to meet you all!"

Okay, maybe Rin didn't have anything to worry about. From the look of things, Doremy just liked looking after people. "Hi," Rin said, lifting her hand to weakly wave.

There were muttered hellos from all around. Doremy glanced about and sighed. "Okay, like you said, in hindsight this would've gone better if everyone was awake, so we're probably going to have to do this all again later. Several times. Speaking of which, everything's just caught up with me, so I'll talk to you guys later."

And with that, she slumped forward toward her own lap, causing Kurumi to squeak with surprise. A moment later she was snoring.

Cirno snickered. "I like her,"

"Yeah, she was always the nicest one," Kogasa said. She seemed to be having an easier time speaking. At least her voice didn't sound quite as painful as before. "We didn't always get to see each other, but we could talk at least. Well, they could."

"Though hey, speaking of later, after everyone's all awake and not all groggy anymore," Cirno continued. "We should make for our cave under the Youkai Mountain. It's even bigger than this one, and we can hide pretty well-"

"Yeah, no," Wriggle said flatly.

"What?" Cirno said with a hurt look on her face. "Why not? It's our home, and I wanna go home! It's not like anyone can find us there."

"Except for Chen," Wriggle told her. "Who lives with Yukari Yakumo."

Cirno's face fell. "Oh. Uh, okay. Yeah, that…that probably wouldn't be a good idea then."

"Chen?" Rin said, screwing her face up in confusion. "What's a Chen?"

"Friend of ours, comes by sometimes whenever she feels like running away, which is often," Wriggle told her. "And she's also the…uh, the pet of Yukari's pet."

"What," said Kurumi.

"What," rasped Kogasa.

"What," Rin added, rounding things out. People keeping animal youkai as pets wasn't anything new to her. Reisen had often been referred to as being Princess Kaguya's pet. But this was the first she had heard of a youkai pet having another youkai as a pet. She found herself wondering what would happen if this Chen were to adopt an even weaker youkai as a pet of her own, and then that youkai would get a pet, and then…Wow, what a headache inducer.

Wriggle and Cirno both shrugged at the same time. "Hey, we don't get it either," Cirno said. "But she lives with Yukari and knows where our hideout is."

"Yeah, I don't know she'd squeal on purpose," Wriggle added. "But when she starts talking she kinda doesn't stop so, you know, better safe than sorry." Sighing, she turned and headed toward a nearby tunnel. "Anyway, I'm gonna go see if I can find some sort of exit to the outside. Don't want anyone accidentally wandering in on us."

Kogasa perked up. "Can…Can I come with you?"

Wriggle shot her an odd look, but then she shrugged. "Sure, I guess. Just be careful with your umbrella half. Some of these tunnels can get pretty tight."

"'Kay, be careful," Rin said. "Here." She tossed up another glowing orb. It darted over to hover over and right behind Wriggle's shoulder. "Holler if you find anything."

Wriggle nodded her thanks and moved into the tunnel, her makeshift lamp moving with her. Sighing, Rin leaned back again and stared up at the ceiling. Although her case wasn't nearly bad as Rumia's, she still wished that she could sleep. Succumbing to oblivion for a few hours sounded like a fantastic way to eat up the next few hours.

Well, maybe she could zone out like she used to. It was the next best thing, after all. The problem was that it had been so long since she had really needed to that it that the technique wasn't coming as naturally to her as it once had. Oh well. Concentrating on reviving rusty skills would keep her mind from unpleasant memories. That decided, Rin settled down and tried to focus. She slowly breathed in and out, clearing her mind, letting all distracting thoughts drift away toward-

Then Rin heard a cry of surprise. "Rin, there's dead people in here!" Wriggle yelled.

-and there went that. Rin opened her eyes to see Wriggle and Kogasa scampering back into the room.

"Sorry," said the Kurumi.

"Not you! I mean dead, dead people!"

Rin stiffened. "Wait, you mean like ghosts?"

"No! Dead people! Like bodies!"

Well, that was a little disturbing, but not really all that surprising. They were in the Wilds after all. "Let me see," Rin said as she stood up. Cirno was quick to follow. After a moment of hesitation, Kurumi did as well.

Wriggle led them to the next room over. It was a little smaller, but still of a decent sized. And unlike the cavern they had just left, it looked like it had been lived in at one point, albeit briefly. There were a few old and rotten reed bags, filled with what looked like moldy clothes. In one corner was what looked like the long-dead remains of a fire pit, collapsed into which was a rusted spit and an iron pot. Nearby was a pair of cracked plates, a couple of aluminum camping cups, and rust-covered utensils.

And then there were the skeletons.

There were two of them, lying together over a few rotten shreds of cloth that might once have been a blanket. Little remained of their clothing, though a few bits of tarnished jewelry remain. One of them had three thick copper rings around its neck, extending its length. They were curled toward one another, their arms resting on each other in an intimate manner, their fleshless face almost touching. From the look of things, they had been dead for several years.

"Woooooo," Cirno whistled. "Just when you thought this day couldn't get weirder."

"No kidding," Wriggle said as she stared down at the pair. "What'cha think happened to them? Youkai?"

Kurumi frowned. Despite easily being the most fearful of those Rin had brought with her from Mugenkan, the dead didn't seem to bother her one bit. Which sort of figured. "No, I don't think so," she said, reaching out with one curious hand to touch a bony shoulder. "Any sort of predator wouldn't have left the bones intact like this, and these clothes rotted away instead of being torn. If you ask me they died in their sleep."

"That sucks," Cirno remarked. "What, they get sick or something?"

"No way to tell," Wriggle said. "Hell, maybe they were just old. It happens with Humans."

"I don't think so," Kogasa said, drawing in closer though conspicuously remaining behind Wriggle. "I used to spend a lot of time in graveyards, and those don't look like old people."

"Yeah, and you know what?" Kurumi said as she poked at the tarnished copper neck rings. "I don't think these were Human."

"What?" Cirno said, her brow furrowing. "Of course they were Human. We don't leave skeletons. We just disappear and come back later."

"No need to brag about it," Kurumi muttered. "But yeah, I know Human bones when I see them. These are close, but I'm pretty sure they weren't Human."

Through all this, Rin didn't say anything at all. She just stood and stared at long-dead couple, transfixed by the sight. There was something about it that was deeply troubling to her, something that had nothing to do with the inherent creepiness of being around corpses. Something deep inside her subconscious was firing off, a reflexive tug at long-buried memories that she couldn't readily identify. She didn't know how, she didn't know where, but she felt that she still knew this people, a long time ago.

Then, almost without her thinking about it, her gaze moved from the skeletons over to one of the bags. Like the others, it was made from rotten reeds and had fallen to pieces. However, its original shape was still visible. Its contents weren't clothing, tools, or canned food like the others. Instead, it looked like grey pillows and sheets that had once been white, folded into the shape of a tiny bed, one that was the perfect size for a baby.

The weirdest feeling of déjà vu swept through Rin, causing her to sway slightly on her feet. Her brow furrowed. Something was trying to surface in her mind, something old and forgotten. She had been here before, she was sure of it. But the only way that was possible was if-

"Rin?"

Rin snapped out of her reverie. "Huh?" she said, looking to the others. They were all frowning at her in concern.

"You okay?" Wriggle said. "You look like you've…" Then she shot a glance over to the skeletons. "Well, I was gonna say 'ghost,' but…"

"Yeah, I'm fine," Rin said hastily. "Just trying to figure something out." Then she took a deep breath. "Look, these guys obviously aren't a danger. And I think they deserve better than this. So I'm gonna give them a proper burial. Then we can see to fixing this cave up."

The others nodded. "Want some help?" Cirno said.

"Thanks, but I got it. You guys get some sleep. I need some time alone to think about whatever's next anyway."

"Sounds good to me," Wriggle said wearily. "Call us if you need anything."

The four joined the others already sleeping in the other room, leaving Rin alone with the dead. She looked down at their postmortem embrace, wondering what sort of people they had been and what had brought them there to die. They had probably been running from something; it didn't look like they had been in the cave long before passing away, and had brought nothing with them but the essentials. What had caught them though? Had their pursuers found a way to end their lives and just left them there to wither away and become forgotten, or had they ran into one of the many dangers of the Wilds of Gensokyo?

Biting her lower lip, Rin glanced up. There, at the other end of the cave, she could see what looked like a small tunnel, bending to somewhere out of sight. She could walk through it without difficulty, but those two had probably needed to bend over to get through. She walked over to it, following it until she found that it ended in a thick tangle of roots and vines, through which she could feel the faint, cold touch of the outside air.

So, this was the entrance to the cave. It probably hadn't been grown over when those two had originally taken shelter, but that obviously had been long ago. Well, it served as a good was to hide them for the time being. They were going to have to clear it away eventually, or make some other kind of exit.

Sighing, Rin returned to the cavern, her mind moving over a hundred different subjects, regarding her past, present, and future. She had gone through Hell to reach that point, in every sense of the word. Like those two unfortunates, her life and freedom had been stolen away and she had been left to rot, except she had eventually broken free. She had been tortured to death, had her mind and soul ripped apart and burned, only to rise again. She had faced literal Demons of Hell and monsters from beyond the imagination, and emerged victorious. She had been hated, she had been pursued, she had been condemned, and yet was still free.

What was more, she was now a hero of a sort. Now that was a weird thought, but it was sort of true. She had faced down an ultimate evil and killed it, ridding the world of its malice (or as far as she knew. But either way, even if Yuuka had survived, there was no way she was going to withstand whatever Yukari Yakumo had in store for her, so there was that). She had broken into the prison and released the prisoners, bringing them away safely. She had saved her friends and made new ones. She really was a hero.

But she had also harmed others. She had hurt the innocent, destroyed lives, wrecked homes, and upset fragile bonds. She had stolen away the freedom of others, some of which had never meant her any harm. Rumia was likely to never be the same after what Rin had done to her. Cirno, Wriggle, Daiyousei, and Mystia were probably never going to roam free again. And she was still holding four people inside her mind against their will, long beyond what could be justified. And she had killed, she was sure of it.

Her past was a weird and murky thing, one that couldn't be properly defined. Her present was better than could be expected, but they were far from out of the woods. And her future, their future, was one of uncertainty. Because she was still going to be hunted. She was still going to be hated. There were probably more battles to be fought. And she was a danger to everyone around her. That was something she was going to have to deal with one day.

But it wasn't today. Today, she had won the fight. And now all there was left to do was give a pair of long-forgotten victims some measure of decency. There was a rightness in that, something Rin couldn't really explain. Somehow it felt like everything was coming full circle.

That decided, Rin knelt down and slid her arms under the bones, flattening them and stretching them out to get all of them, and picked them up as gently and as carefully as a mother cradling her newborn children.

The scene dissolves for good, and the misty bubble dissipates to float up and disappear. The woman leans back and crosses her legs.

"Everyone ended that day on a different note, everyone had a different viewpoint of the events that transpired. For some, it was a net gain. To others, a loss. A few would go on to have their fortunes reversed by those same events, bitter defeat turning around into an unexpected bounty, smug celebration turning to ash in the victors' mouths. But if there is one thing that unites them all of those little players, one thing that Yukari, Yuuka, Mima, Reimu, Rin, Sakuya, Flandre, Remilia, and the rest all have in common, it's that their fates were irrevocably altered by what happened during the destruction of the Garden of the Sun, their lives changed forever.

"Because if there is one thing that rings true for everyone, it's that no one can see the end of the road. No one can predict where it will branch off or turn into-"

Suddenly there is a sharp knock at the door, and high, elderly woman's voice calls from the other side, "Lady Meika? The limousine is here!"

"Thank you, I'll be out shortly!" Lady Meika calls back. Then her gaze returns to the audience, and her smile sharpens.

"Alas, time draws short," she says as she stands. Pacing the pipe on a tiny ivory stand, she crossed the room and removes a sleek waist-length leather jacket from a coat stand and puts it on. "As it so happens, one of those consequences I was speaking about earlier only recently became realized. I am to attend a funeral today. It promises to be quite the busy event. You see, the Prime Minister passed away recently, the poor man. A freak accident involving conflicting crossing signals, and his venerated term in office was brought to a sudden and surprising end. Japan's people were devastated by the news. He really was well loved, with many wishing he would remain in office forever and saw him as more of an Emperor than the actual Emperor. A few felt that they would get their wish; he certainly never showed any signs of ever dying. Up until, you know, he did, but that's the way of things. One cannot escape the Reaper's blade forever. Sooner or later, Death comes to us all."

With that, she shoots her audience a cheery wink and opens the door. "But while the story goes on, for now it needs an intermission, a break in the action to allow the players time to rest. Don't fret though: in time the curtain will rise again and the story shall resume." She plucks a black umbrella from a nearby brass umbrella stand. "I'm afraid I cannot promise that this break shall be a speedy one, but time is, as I said, relative.

"Well, I do believe that is everything." Shouldering her umbrella, Meika strolls from the room. "Until next time, everyone."

And she is gone, leaving the door shut tightly behind her.

Holy shit.

Hole. Lee. Sheeeet. Guys. We're here. We're finally here. Like, okay, this is obviously far from the end of the story, but it is the last Imperfect Metamorphosis chapter to go up in a very long time. Granted, it took waaaaaaaaay longer to get here than I thought. Originally I thought I would have things wrapped up in April. A fool I was! A fool, I say!

Good God, but I am bad at predicting how long things are going to take.

But anyway, thank you so much to everyone who's stuck through with me to this point. And hey, a big thank you to those who dropped off at one point or another but still hung in for a time. I admit, IM had its rough patches and went on for a very long time, and I don't blame anyone who might have eventually been turned off (ugh, damn that godawful riots arc, I hated every minute of it. And I'm still sore about how the robot thing ended up). But even then, I appreciate anyone that gave this story a chance, and hope I did some things right.

But to those who did push through the whole thing, who continued reading through the ups and downs, a very special thank you to you guys. Especially those who were with the story from the beginning (sup, Azure?). Seriously, your kind words and encouragement kept me going even when I was slogging through the slow bits and working my way through yet another bout of writer's block. And I can only hope there'll still be a few of you around when this story comes back.

As for when that'll be…I have no idea. Like I said, I am terrible at predicting how long my projects will take. I figure a couple years at the very least, but who really knows?

Still, I am very excited to finally get the chance to dive right into this project. I've tried tackling at least three other times before Imperfect Metamorphosis was even a thing, first time being when I was fourteen, and they were all terrible. But the whole time I was writing IM and RD, I had this particular idea stewing in the back of my mind: working out the kinks, fixing up the weaknesses, and fitting the whole narrative together. And now, after six plus years of seriously plotting this thing out while working on my writing skills through my fanfics, I feel that it is finally ready to go. I mean, it better be, as I had it in my mind in one form or another since I was like six or so. No, I am not joking.

Anyway, the title of the work is, "Subconscious." As for what it's about, well, you know all those weird and wild dreams we have when we're asleep? The nightmares that terrify us, the dreams of desire that entice us, the mundane "life" dreams that bore us, and the wacky silliness that makes no sense at all? All those strange people we meet, all those odd places we visit, and their utter randomness that still somehow manages to make perfect sense when we're still in them?

Well, you ever wonder where all those dreams go once you've woken up? And if they're still there, mingling with the dreams everyone else has ever had? How would they live their lives once they've left our heads, how would they manage their own society, how would they deal with the monsters our subconscious minds have created, and, most importantly, how they feel about us?

Because you're about to find out.

In fact, if that sounds like something you might be interested, head over to my tumblr, as I've just posted something of a preview, and will post a few more over the next few weeks. These aren't trailers, per se, as these scenes won't be in the actual books, but will instead serve to help introduce the plot, setting, and a few key characters to anyone who might be interested in giving the series a shot. Hope you guys like it, and let me know what you think!

Though having said that, there is something else I should probably address. Assuming that the stars align and I can get this thing off the ground (fingers crossed) and people who have read IM and RD give it a shot as well, you're probably going to notice that I've…well, I don't want to say self-plagiarized, per se, as many of those familiar concepts that showed up in Imperfect Metamorphosis and Resonance Days were actually thought up and intended for Subconscious first, and I decided to use the fanfics to test drive those ideas and work out the kinks. In fact, that's a big part of why I got into fanfiction was to prepare for Subconscious. I mean, the main reason was that I had stories I wanted to tell and still intend to tell, but also I wanted to work out all my amateurish writing habits, try out some concepts, and hopefully even incubate some new ideas that could be cannibalized later. So yes, there will be reused concepts, some plotlines that reach familiar conclusions, maybe even a familiar face or two. For example: one group of characters exhibit abilities very similar, but not identical, to Rin Satsuki's. But it's not going to be a big post-modern multiverse crossover like I've indulged in a time or two in the past. Unless, you know, I change my mind on that, as I am wont to do.

Anyhoo, I'm also going to be making use of this time to tackle some other story ideas I've had bouncing around in my head but never had the time to get around two. This includes another novel, one that I decided to do only a couple months ago, which will be an erotic adventure story about lesbian vampire pirates that will also involve blatantly inaccurate dinosaurs.

Yes, you read that right. I am not joking. I am really going to do this. Why? Because I feel like it, that's why. Obviously this one won't be taking itself seriously at all and is probably just going to be self-published as an e-book to earn a few extra bucks while I shop around for an agent. Yes, it's going to be silly (think Touhous in SPACE!, but with sex). Yes, it's going to be dumb. And yes, I am very much looking forward to it. Y'know, it's kind of liberating when you realize that you can write whatever the hell you want.

Anyways, I'm also going to knock out a few other fanfics in the meantime, which will include a Bastion one-shot, a chaptered Kingdom Hearts fic, and another Imperfect Metamorphosis spin-off, all of which will be uploaded back-to-back in another Month of Taker when I do come back.

Okay, I think that's everything. Damn, it feels weird to have finally reached this point. I mean, I still have the Christmas special to put up and the remaining Resonance Days chapters, but for now, this is it for Imperfect Metamorphosis!

It's been a wild ride, guys. Thank you all so much, and until next time every-

-every

-every-

-every-

uuuuuuuunnnnnnttttiiiiilllllllll

nnnnnnnneeeeeeeeexxxxxxxxttttttttt

tttttttttttiiiiiiiimmmmmmmmeeeeeee

eeeeeeeeeevvvvvvvveeeeeeeerrrrrrryyyyyyy…

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(please stand by)

The black mists plunged into Hina's mouth, nostrils, ears, and eyes, and she gasped as they sank into her flesh. It was like gulping down freezing liquor filled with tiny, sharp chips of ice. It froze her blood, stung and tore at her throat, and clouded her mind. The warmth fled from her body and she swayed on her feet as the dark whispers began, beckoning for her to surrender her body and let herself drift away into the cold but comforting embrace of Death…

But then, just as it always did, her soul pushed back. She was a curse goddess, and this was just another uppity curse to overcome and devour. The cold released its fangs from her flesh, the poison leeched away from her veins as she took in a deep, shuddering breath. The whispers abruptly retreated as the warmth of Life reignited in Hina's body. Her face contorted with effort as she beat the darkness down, brought it to heel, and broke it apart.

Then, once she knew she was victorious, she began to feed.

Finally she was done, and yet another fragment of the Fallen Angel had been successfully subdued. She let out the breath she had been holding with a long sigh, her bunched-up muscles relaxing.

Then her stomach rolled, and she immediately went for the vomit bucket.

It was sort of funny, as she reflected as she heaved the contents of her insides into the wooden receptacle. Due to how nauseous the whole process left her, she had been taking care not to eat anything before absorbing another piece of the Fallen Angel. And yet, despite not even allowing water for herself, she always found something to throw up, something sour tasting that left a vile film on her tongue for the rest of the morning.

Finishing up, Hina sat back on her haunches and breathed out. She looked over to the rows of dolls at the other end of the room. Most had crumbled away into dust, the tiny dark fragment inside of them successfully devoured. Only about a fourth of them remained, staring out at her with empty, black eyes and cracked smiles. Hina managed a shaky smile of her own in return. Almost there. At this rate she was going to be done by early summer.

Then a sharp knock at the door demanded her attention. "Hina?" Minoriko said from the other side. "Are you all right in there?"

"All done!" Hina called back. "You can come in now!"

The door opened, and Minoriko entered. As always, concern was written all over the face of the young harvest goddess. "Hina?" she said.

"I'm fine," Hina quickly assured her, just as she always did. "They go down easier each time."

Minoriko cast an uncertain look at the room and all the entrapment runes drawn into the walls and floor. "Hina, I really wish you'd reconsider. I don't like this at all."

Hina sighed. She appreciated her roommate's concern, but after a while it got a little wearisome. "Riko, we've been over this a hundred times. Seriously, I'm fine. These aren't much bigger than the curses I used to devour every day. They just got a little more of a bite to them. Besides, it's almost done. Too late to turn back now."

Shaking her head, Minoriko put one of Hina's arms over her own shoulder and gently guided her from the room. "I don't know," she said. "We shouldn't have agreed to this. It's just bad all around."

"Now you're hurting my feelings," Hina complained. "Seriously, I'm handling this just fine! And it's all going to be over soon anyway."

Yes.

Soon.

Hina blinked. "Sorry, did you say something?"

"Huh?"

"I thought I heard…" Hina shook her head. "Never mind. Guess I'm still a little loopy."

Minoriko shot her a dubious look. She didn't say anything, but she did move them along a little faster.

Shivering a bit, Hina cast a look over her shoulder back at the room before the door swung closed. The remaining dolls continued to smile at her, though it didn't seem as comradely as it had a moment ago. There was something…smug in their painted and cracked faces, something unpleasant and self-assured. It reminded her uncomfortably of carrion birds watching a wounded rabbit, waiting for poor thing to finally succumb so they could rip its flesh open and pick at the bones.

Hina quickly turned away. It was just her imagination. Things always got a little wonky right after absorbing another piece of that monster's dark soul. But soon it would be digested in turn, and not long after that all the others would be gone as well. Then they could get rid of the ruined dolls, clean up her room, and everything would go back to normal. Life would go on, and there would be one less monster in Gensokyo.

She let Minoriko lead her from the defiled room and shut the door tightly behind her, leaving the cracked and eyeless dolls to smile alone in the dark.

Very soon.

-one!