She fell and landed belly-first on the grass. Though the fall was only a few feet, the impact was still enough to shock her. She was, after all, only six years old.
Tears dribbled down her face. She angrily wiped them away. She was frustrated with herself, frustrated with the fact that she had failed, failed in front of him.
A shadow fell upon her. "Well now, that was quite the fall," said a wry voice, laced with amusement. "Now, what did you learn?"
She turned away from the man. Facing him would be unbearable, especially since she had been so sure that she would succeed. He had found her childlike confidence to be funny. This had only driven her harder to prove herself.
The man knelt down next to her. "I asked you a question. What did you learn?"
She sniffled, but still didn't look at him. "That I can't fly."
He tsked. "That's not it. The skill of flight is a gift freely given to all, and would I allow my daughter to be exempt? No, I meant what did you learn about yourself?"
He placed a hand on her head. "You failed not because you lack the ability. You failed because you allowed yourself to become arrogant and attempt something you had no experience with. You were so determined to show that you can fly that you forgot that you had no idea how. Do you understand?"
"Uh…" She frowned. "What's 'arrogant' mean?"
Father laughed. He playfully tousled her nut-brown hair. "I guess I forgot who I'm talking too. There I go again, giving out lectures like they're candy. Well, come on." He took her by the hand and pulled her to her feet.
"There's a trick to it, you know," Father said. She stared up at him. In all the hours she had watched her older brothers Umakai and Maro swoop through the air, laughing and throwing taunts at one another, there didn't seem to be any trick beyond "Push up and stay there."
Father nodded gravely. "Of course. You see, flying is really not that different from falling. The only difference is that when you fall, you hit the ground. So to fly, the thing is to not hit the ground. Once you've got that down, going up instead of down becomes easy!"
"Miss the ground?" Merely conceiving how such a thing could possible nearly strained her young mind.
Father laughed. "I never thought of it that way! 'Miss the ground." Wonderful! Yes, you must miss the ground. Would you like to try again?"
She thought upon that with all the fierce intensity that only children seem to be capable of. Then she nodded.
"Okay then." He put his hand under her arms and lifted her up. "Now remember, stop thinking about trying to fly. The more you do, the harder it'll be. Instead, just think about how much you don't like the ground and want it to go away. Can you do that?"
She nodded once.
"Okay, here we go!"
Father pushed her up into the air and released her. Her arms spread to either side, she closed her eyes and…
The wind howled at her face as she tumbled down through the gray, lightning torn sky. The wind tore at her clothes, threatening to tear them right off. Two of the paper charms she had attached to her clothing had already been dislodged and were fluttering away. Not for the first time, she was grateful for the suspenders that held her pants in place, even if they did look a little fashionably awkward. Thick billowing clouds flew past, almost seeming to mock her descent. Well, let them mock. Her condition was temporary at best. All she had to do was slow her descent and swoop upward and her direction would be reversed. A simple trick, one that she had done literally thousands of times.
The only problem was that this time it didn't work. At all.
Now that was puzzling. She had been flying longer than she was able to remember. And while she certainly never bothered to enter any contests, she did consider herself reasonably skilled at the art. But even if she weren't, her power of flight had never failed her. And yet, now it was as if it were lost entirely. How odd.
Well, that problem would have to wait until she saw to the problem of her plummeting down through the sky. Fortunately, there was more than one way to roast a cat. She maneuvered her body so that it was upright, with her toes pointed downward and her head looking up. Reaching deep into herself, she summoned her mastery over flame, directing it to shoot out of the soles of her feet. The propulsion should be enough to arrest her fall and provide a temporary replacement for her failed ability to fly.
However, the results were much the same. She frowned and tried again, this time by shoving her hands downward and instructing the flame to burst out of her palms. Again, no response.
Well, okay. This was a problem, but there still were other options available to her. Flight and flame were out, but good old-fashioned danmaku should serve. After all, energy release was energy release, and if she fired enough all at once the recoil should slow her enough to avoid splattering her body parts all over the place once she hit ground.
It didn't work. This time around, she was hardly surprised.
She took a deep breath and stared at the vast expanse around her. Okay, it seemed that she would end up experiencing a rather unpleasant landing after all. But still, while not exactly fun, it wasn't the end of the world. The impact would kill her so quickly that she wouldn't feel any pain at all, and then all she had to do was wait for a small amount of time while her body put itself back together. She would be back on her feet in five minutes, tops.
It was then that an uncomfortable thought occurred to her. If her other abilities were no longer operational, than perhaps her regenerative immortality had ceased to function as well?
For the first time in what had to be centuries, she felt the slightest twinge of fear.
She looked down. It appeared that she was about to find out. The ground was just now coming into view, a vast expanse of brown, completely devoid of any plant life. Several stone cylinders jutted up from the ground in a grid-like pattern that had to be deliberate. She wasn't sure where this place was, but at the moment she really didn't care.
She was almost among the columns now. She had to admit, they were impressively large, with a circumference of nearly fifty meters apiece and a height of what had to be at least a kilometer. She wasn't sure who had created such monoliths, but they had to be someone of great power. Nice work on the whole. She just hoped she could live long enough to tell them so.
As she neared the top of the nearest column, she suddenly reached out to grab the edge. It really wasn't a good idea. At the speed she was going, her fingers would slip right off. And if by some completely improbably miracle she did manage to find a handhold, her arms would likely tear from her sockets.
So imagine her surprise when, after so many reliable choices had failed her, this one act of desperation succeeded. The next thing she knew, she had stopped falling and was clinging of the edge of the column's top by her fingers. Her tremendous momentum seemed to have completely disappeared. It flew in the face of all logic but hey, she would take it.
With a grunt she pressed her feet against the column's side and pushed up. Fortunately her fingers didn't give and she was able to pull herself up onto her elbows.
A sense of relief coursed through her, stronger than any she had felt for years. Nothing that was happening made any sense. But in the end, so long as she was alive, what difference did it make? She was too used to having her continued existence guaranteed to think well of the possibility of her demise.
Then she looked up and realized that she was not alone.
Another girl was already standing at the top of the column. Her hair fell down nearly to her ankles and was so dark that it practically reflected light in a glossy sheen. She wore an extravagant robe designed with a pattern of blue flowers and a plain t-shirt and a pair of shorts under that. Her skin was flawlessly white and without blemish. She was breathtakingly beautiful.
The girl struggling to pull herself up merely blinked. "Oh," she said. "It's you." After a pause she added, "Typical."
The other girl smiled sweetly. Then, without uttering a single word she hit the first girl with a vicious kick that snapped her head back and dislodged her fingers. Once again she was sent tumbling.
I guess I should've seen this coming, the falling girl thought. It's not like anything else was going right since I came to…
A moment of confusion washed over her and she frowned. Wait, how the hell did I get here again?
Unfortunately, she didn't have the chance to ponder the question any further, as at that moment Fujiwara no Mokou slammed into the hard, unforgiving earth.
Kaguya Houraisan, eternal rival of Fujiwara no Mokou and (sometimes) exiled Princess of the Lunarian people, peered over the side of the column. A satisfied smile crept its way across her face. From the look of things, Mokou had forgotten how to fly. It wasn't often her life gifted her with such favors. But then, considering how long her life was, it did mean that sooner or later she would have something special land in her lap.
Though as fun as it had been to kick Mokou and send her plunging to yet another death, it was a temporary solution at best. She would be up again in a few minutes. Which meant that Kaguya should probably think of an appropriate taunt for when she arrived.
Kaguya surveyed the surrounding area with the experienced eye of an expert. Large circular terrain, no cover except by jumping into the gaps between columns. Nothing really gained by hopping from column-top to column-top, but it did mean there were plenty of stone sides to swing the pyromaniac into.
As Kaguya crouched low and waited for Mokou's inevitable arrival, a troubling thought occurred to her. Wait, where am I?
She hadn't died.
Mokou frowned and pulled herself up into a sitting position. She checked her body over. No broken bones, no shattered vertebrae, no explosion of squishy internal organs and accompanying juices and no period of blacking out during which any of the above might have happened. Death happened to her with such regularity that its absence was noticed immediately.
She turned and examined the place where she had landed. She was sitting in the ground between the jutting cylinders, with each column forming a small slope at its base. Her landing had left a shallow but perfect imprint of her body, displaying where her torso, limbs, head and even hair of all things had fallen. Mokou found it to be rather silly.
Okay, so now I'm completely invulnerable, she thought. Don't understand a lick of what's going on, but hey, I'll take it.
Then she turned her attention upward, squinting so as to make out the column-tops. Kaguya was up there. It didn't matter if she had failed in her attempt to murder Mokou; the point was that she had tried. Which meant there was currently an imbalance of the scales.
Mokou's eyes narrowed even further. Now that the possibility of ripping the Moonbitch's skin off with her bare hands had presented itself, her previous failure to make any of her abilities work had been forgotten. Now the only thought to occupy her mind was how much she was going to make Kaguya hurt.
To that end, she began to run. She directed herself toward the sloping base of the column that was most likely to be the one she had been kicked off of and started running, the soles of her feet kicking up dust as they slammed into the earth. Even when she reached the column's foundation she didn't slow down, but instead continued to run straight up the column's side. Either the impact had suddenly returned her powers to her or gravity considered their business over and done with. Either way, Mokou didn't care.
Straight up she charged, hands clenched into fists and thrust behind her to either side. An eager grin slashed its way across her features as her fists burst into flame.
Kaguya jerked in surprise when Mokou suddenly came sailing over the platform's edge. While that certainly was to be expected, it was far too soon. After a fall like that, she shouldn't be up for another five minutes at the very least!
But there she was, as real as life (and Kaguya would be the one to know) and ready to kill. Mokou flew into the air, somersaulting as she went, turning her body to face Kaguya. Kaguya had just enough time to see Mokou's broad smile before she had to dodge the wave of intense heat that tore its way toward her.
Mokou didn't give her any time to recover. She was on Kaguya in moments, swinging her flaming hands in a series of blows designed to drive right through the princess's body. Fortunately, even when taken off-guard, Kaguya knew her opponent well enough to duck and dodge the first several thrusts, block or turn away the next few, and even create an opening in order to drive a hard kick to Mokou's midsection.
Mokou took the kick like the pro that she was, throwing her herself back to lessen some of the blow's impact and twisting her body so that she rolled over backward and landed in a crouch. Kaguya braced herself for her rival's leap, but Mokou apparently had other ideas. To be precise, ideas that centered around blasting Kaguya with a pencil-thin spear of flame at pointblank range.
Damn it, Kaguya thought in irritation as the spear hit her in the stomach. Now we're even again! She had been wanting to hold her lead and maybe even increase it. Just the knowledge that it would drive Mokou nuts alone made it worth it.
But to her surprise, Mokou's beam of intense heat didn't cut her in half. It certainly drove her back a few feet, but if her body was feeling any pain at all, then it was doing a good job of hiding it.
Apparently Kaguya's rival felt the same way, as the beam vanished a moment later. Mokou had a look of absolute befuddlement on her face. "How did you do that?" she asked. "How did you survive?"
"Um…" Kaguya inspected the area of the spear's impact. Not only was the flesh whole and unburned, but the shirt she was wearing remained undamaged. It was as if she hadn't been hit at all.
"That's strange," Kaguya remarked. Really, there was little else she could think of to say.
"Strange? Strange?" Mokou hissed. "I'll show you strange!"
Her toes left the ground as she lifted in the air. She closed her eyes and spread her limbs out in the crucifixion pose. Fire erupted all around her, twirling around her body and rustling her clothing. To either side, enormous wings of pure flame erupted, spreading themselves majestically. A massive birdlike tail formed beneath her.
Mokou opened her eyes. They blazed with pure unadultered fury.
Kaguya was unimpressed. "That's not strange," she said. "You do that all the time!"
With a screech of rage, Mokou hurled a pillar of fire at Kaguya. With a sigh of resignation, Kaguya sidestepped the attack. This was all becoming routine, really.
"Come on, did you really expect that to work?" she taunted. "You do that all the time too! Do you have any creativity in you at all, or did it all burn away…"
Then she noted the look of smugness on Mokou's face, visible even through the glare. Kaguya glanced down to the spot where the fire had hit. The flames not only remained, but they were starting to grow.
Kaguya threw herself out of the way as a holocaust engulfed the platform she was standing on. But it was too late. She had delayed a fraction of a second too long, she moved just a fraction of a second too slow, and the flames a fraction of a second too fast. Fire washed over her body and covered her completely.
Kaguya blinked. She looked around. The top of the column had been scorched black, but she remained whole and untouched. Judging by the look of frustrated confusion on Mokou's face, it was clear that she was supposed to be a charred corpse by now.
"Um…" Kaguya looked herself over. "Wow. You are really off your game."
"Shut up!" Mokou screamed. She hurled another ball of fire at Kaguya's head. The princess didn't even bother to dodge this time. As predicted, it hit her in the face and dispersed without causing harm.
Kaguya grinned. While she didn't understand it, she was not about to question her good fortune. "My turn," she purred.
She curled her fingers into claws and held her arms out, one over the other, like the gaping maw of a crocodile. Crackling lightning danced around her fingers and shot out to twist together into a brilliant ball of light between her hands.
"Kamehame…" she muttered.
Kaguya pressed her wrists together, palms out, and thrust her hands forward.
The sphere of energy shot out, becoming a beam of pure energy. With an annoyed glare, Mokou twisted out of the way. The beam harmlessly sped past.
Kaguya snapped her fingers.
The beam suddenly broke up into several smaller paths of light, which circled around and charged straight at Mokou, zeroing in on the center of her body.
Mokou's eyes bulged and she fled, zipping and turning between the columns. The destructive ribbons followed in hot pursuit. "No fair!" she cried, shooting fireballs behind her, trying to destroy the beams before they hit.
It didn't work. The beams caught up and exploded upon impact. Kaguya shielded her eyes as the surrounding area was awash in a blinding burst of light.
Then the glare faded. Mokou was not only still there, but she was just as unharmed as Kaguya had been.
Kaguya's shoulders slumped. "Oh," she said. "Well. This presents a problem." She glanced down toward the stone beneath her feet. "Okay then, let's improvise."
Pushing herself backward, Kaguya took to the air and floated over the edge of the column. She dug her fingers into the stone directly below the edges lip and pushed up. To her delight, it separated cleanly, leaving her with a stone disc about a fourth of a meter in thickness and twenty meters around.
She lifted up slowly, holding tightly to the disc. She approached Mokou, who was still looking confused. With a grin she began to rotate in midair, starting slow but gradually picking up speed.
"Hey Mokou!" she shouted.
Mokou looked up. Her eyes widened when she was what Kaguya was carrying.
"Catch!" Kaguya shouted. With a final rotation she hurled the disc straight at Mokou. It spun towards her with enough force to tear her in half.
It hit her in the midsection. Mokou was slammed backward straight into the side of one of the columns. The force was enough to drive both her and a part of the edge of the disc a good four meters straight into the stone wall. Kaguya hovered lower to get a good look.
Her shoulders slumped and she sighed. As was now becoming predictable, not only had Mokou not been bisected, she was already in the process of burning her way out.
With a roll of her eyes, Kaguya summoned another ball of pure energy and used it to blast the disc to rubble and dust. Mokou came out from the column, blinking dust from her eyes.
Then she saw Kaguya and her scowl returned. Fire ignited in both of her palms.
Kaguya held up both hands and signaled for a time-out.
"Huh?" Mokou cocked her head to one side. "What are you on about? There's no stopping until one of us stops breathing."
"Normally, yes. But I think there are some oddities that need to be addressed first. For example, we both seem to have become indestructible. Don't you find that a bit…unusual?"
Mokou frowned as she thought. She let her flames die and her hands fall to her side.
"A little, yeah," she said. "But hey, it just stopped that stupid spinning wheel trick of yours from emancipating my legs. So I'm not complaining."
"Yes, but aren't you curious as to why? Furthermore, there is the problem of our immediate location. Do you have any idea where we are and how we got here?"
Mokou looked around at the stone pillars surrounding them at all sides. Then she looked up. Overhead, dark storm clouds still rolled and collided with one another without actually bringing forth the promised storm.
"No idea," she said. "All I know is I was falling through the sky and was unable to fly." She looked down. "Though that's obviously changed."
"That's my point! I think we've got more important things to worry about than killing each other?"
"Good point," Mokou admitted. "What do you suggest?"
Kaguya scratched the bottom of her chin. "Well…Let's think back. What's the last thing you remember?"
"You. Trying to cut me in half."
"I mean before that," Kaguya said. She rolled her hand in an impatient gesture. "Before we started fighting."
"Falling through the sky and being unable to do anything about it, remember? You were there, you saw."
A small smile started to form on Kaguya's lips, but she forced it back down. "And before that?"
"Uh…" Mokou folded her arms. She looked down as she thought. "Well…I remember you killing me again." Her eyes narrowed. "Opening up my stomach and pulling out my guts. That's the sorta thing that stays with you."
Kaguya rolled her eyes. "That was yesterday!"
"And then you used my own intestines to hang me! I mean, come on Kaguya! That's low, even for you."
"Oh please, you roasted me alive only a few hours later, when I was tied up and helpless." Then she frowned. "Though come to think of it, I can't seem to remember why I was tied up in the first place. Huh."
"I did? Yeah, I can kinda remember something like that." Mokou scratched her head. "So…We've got large chunks of memory missing, we've ended up in some weird no-man's-land, and our powers are going all nutty." She shrugged. "Yeah, I got nothing."
"Me neither. Maybe if we-"
Kaguya never got the chance to finish her suggestion. For at that moment the clouds suddenly cleared and the sun came out. However, it was unlike the sun they were familiar with. For one thing, it was huge, easily taking up a full third of the sky. Actual sunspots and plasma flares were visible on its surface. And for another, instead of yellow it was pure white.
And yet, despite the fact that Kaguya and Mokou were looking straight at it, their eyes felt no strain and suffered no damage. And despite its immense size, its rays gave off no excess heat.
Kaguya gaped in shock. She stared at the bizarre sun for a full minute before looking over to Mokou. Judging from the look on her face, her rival was just as confused as she was.
"Kaguya," Mokou said in a soft voice. "Where are we?"
Well, it ain't Kansas, I'll tell you that much! Then again, was it ever?
Anyway, this is the first chapter of Imperfect Metamorphosis's first ever spinoff! *fireworks, applause, champagne, etc.* A bit shorter than my usual fare, but hey, with only two characters it simplifies things.
So...yeah. If you've read this without first going through IM, then I wouldn't say it's strictly necessary to read the main story. However, it will clear quite a few things up.
So anyway, for the regular readers, Imperfect Metamorphosis will still get top priority, so this story won't be updated quite as regularly. Anyways, here goes nothing and I hope you like it!
Until next time, everyone!