The sun was rising by the time they made it back. Alice rode along with Marisa again, after extracting a solemn vow not to make a repeat performance of the trip out. The vow was observed after just two or three barrel rolls, which was better than expected.
Alice wasn't sure why she put her arms around Marisa again; it wasn't so much a desire to be physically close as it was enjoying the fact that she could. The very same body that had seemed so solid before now felt like cotton, a soft human form in a world of monsters and gods. She made extra certain to avoid her friend's bruises and keep her weight off, but Marisa still winced now and again.
"I think we got a good start, huh?" Marisa said as they coasted to a stop in Alice's lawn. "When I get Patchy her books back, we can hole up in there and really hit this thing hard! Anyway, I'd better head home."
"Would you like to come in and rest for a moment before you go?"
Marisa wavered visibly, then shrugged. "Sure, okay. You got a water closet? After all that tea, I gotta pee like a racehorse."
"Down the stairs," Alice said, standing well out of her way. As her guest rushed down, she paused by the kitchen table and picked up two of Green's pieces, turning them over in her fingers. "I'm sorry," she said softly, feeling a little silly about it. "I won't use you so thoughtlessly next time."
Outside, the army dolls were retreating to their standby positions, giving Alice a faint feeling like she was sitting for the first time in hours. Will they become a part of my being the same way Patchouli's books have joined with hers? she wondered. Is that something I want to happen?
Light boots tromped back up the steps. "Ahhhh!" Marisa said, wiping her hands on her skirt. "You have some amazing hand-soap. You should hook me up with your supplier."
"Sure," Alice said distractedly, setting the pieces down.
"Feel like I just lost about four p…"
"I don't especially want to hear about that."
"Ha! Okay." Marisa flopped onto the loveseat and let her head loll back with a soft groan. "Oh, and… I'm not sure, but I think I owe you my life. You know, dependin' on how that thing with Koa woulda gone. I think she was really gonna mess me up."
"Think nothing of it," Alice said quickly. Holding debts over people made her skin crawl.
"Is my life worth so little?" Marisa asked blandly.
Alice couldn't think of a single thing to say to that.
"Heh. Well, we'll work it out. Also, sorry for draggin' you into my drama with Patchy, there."
After an uncertain moment, Alice crossed to the loveseat and sat next to her friend, shifting awkwardly until she found a comfortable distance. This gave her enough time to compose a reply. "I'm glad I was there to help you," she said slowly. "And I'm glad you came to see me. You've done nothing that requires an apology."
"Not yet, maybe, but I will." Marisa smiled faintly. "Just wait."
"Perhaps. That's what always happens between friends, isn't it?"
"Perhaps," Marisa agreed, echoing her tone. "This is kinda funny. You're being so… careful."
"Well, I don't know how to do this." How it stung to admit that.
The witch's smile became a smirk. "And what is it you think you're doin'?"
After two or three false starts, Alice gave up trying to answer.
"Just flailin' away, huh?" Marisa asked sympathetically. She was about to say more, but interrupted herself with a huge yawn.
"I suppose I am."
"It's okay, it's okay. I think I can see where this is goin', anyway. We're gonna do great things, you and me," Marisa said drowsily. "Wonderful things. Terrifyin' things. You'll look back and wonder how we got there, an' there'll be no answer."
"What are you talking about?"
"No idea. I get like this sometimes." Marisa yawned again. "Hey, listen, before I forget. The thing Patchy was gonna say to you was…" And then, without warning or apology, she slumped sideways and fell asleep on Alice's shoulder.
"Er, Marisa?" Alice shook her shoulder gently, but her guest didn't stir. Here was a situation she never expected. She drew up mental plans to stand aside, lower her guest gently to the seat and get to work on rebuilding Shanghai Green, but instead found herself lowering her head to rest on Marisa's and hardly knowing why. It was a strange experience to have someone so close by and vulnerable, but… kind of nice.
What a bizarre day. Alice drew her knees up and turned so that she wouldn't be pressing Marisa's neck into an awkward position. The heaps of dolls seemed to shift and settle as her mind relaxed, though it was probably just her sleepy imagination. The only subconscious doll movement she really noticed was Shanghai Orange clambering up and squirming under Marisa's arm. "Brought you around, huh?"
Well, no, this wasn't the time for externalizing. She was the one who'd been brought around. Or that part of her, anyway. For a moment, Alice got that awful dizzy, out-of-control sensation. Damn you, miko! I had a good thing going! But, no, it's okay, isn't it? This might be even better. But it was exhausting! How often will I have to…?
"Just sleep on it!" Orange snapped.
"Good idea," Alice agreed, and conked out.
Another peaceful morning in Gensokyo.
Reimu made a painful break with tradition and rose with the sun that day. A Matsuri was coming in just a couple weeks, and the shrine grounds would need to be especially clean for anyone who bothered to swing by and get purified. Muttering blackly, she padded out into the blinding sun and stretched out for the day, taking a moment to let the view calm her. The rumpled hills and soaring forests of eastern Gensokyo stretched out below her ridge, far too pretty to stay mad at.
"Well," she decided out loud, "Nothing to do but get started."
As she turned back towards the day's work, though, something awful flickered in the corner of her eye. For just a split second, she thought she saw an immense, cadaverous shadow bending over the donation box. She froze, afraid to complete the turn and confirm, but the sharp clink of an offering dropping snapped her out of it.
Reimu rushed back to the box and thrust a hand through the slots, coming up with… a perfectly ordinary copper coin. "What the…? Suika, is that you?" Her only answer was thunderous snore from the guest room. She turned the coin over, trying to figure out why an unfathomable hellbeast (or whatever it was) would visit to drop such a mundane gift off.
"I thought you would be happy," a sweet voice said. Long, slender hands fell on her shoulders, fingers coming down one by one and gently trapping her. "Isn't it nice to see a little piety now and then, shrine maiden?"
"Y-Yukari?" Reimu gasped. "What the hell was…? Never do that again!"
"As you wish," the Youkai of Gaps and Overlord of Gensokyo conceded, amused. "I will never donate to your shrine again."
Reimu growled and whipped around, lightly pushing Yukari back. The youkai towered over her, magnified further by an extravagant dress of white ruffles and purple satin. Her features were sharp and aristocratic, beautiful like an unforgiving mountain range even when she smiled. Reimu always found her visits uncomfortable, and not just for the obvious reasons.
"To what do I owe the pleasure, then?" Reimu asked, her tone making it clear this wasn't anything of the sort.
"I just heard about your little scheme with the dollmaker and thought I'd check up on it." Yukari explained. "I was perfectly discrete, of course. I must say, you have an interesting way with people, shrine maiden. Very wily."
"I thought it was simple enough," Reimu admitted. "You're acting like I've hatched some kind of master plan, here."
Yukari walked past her to look over Gensokyo, spreading a parasol against the cheery sun. Reimu came forward to take advantage of the shade and they watched the migrating birds for a minute or two. She was glad for the time to collect her thoughts; talking with Yukari always made her feel like they were sparring, but she never knew the rules or objective.
"Well, they appear to have hit it off," Yukari said finally.
"Just as planned," Reimu said, satisfied.
"Also, they're preparing to do some dangerous magical research together."
"Research that involves manipulating the Master Spark."
Reimu twitched. "All—all according to plan."
Yukari chuckled. Something writhed in the corner of Reimu's vision, but she kept her eyes locked straight ahead. She didn't want to see what was standing next to her. "Well, now. You're playing a dangerous game, shrine maiden. What plans could you have made that require your little pet berserker to gain greater control over the Master Spark?"
"She's not anything of the sort," Reimu said firmly, turning a defiant look up to Yukari. There was a weird, nauseous moment where the folds of her dress looked like an alien landscape, but then she met the youkai's violet eyes and everything settled into three dimensions again. "And my plans are my own business."
"Oho, what a tone!" Yukari covered her smile with a fan. "One could almost begin to imagine that you've been wrong-footed by this development."
"Imagine it if you like," Reimu said airily. "I'm just pleased that we got Alice out of her house of dolls for a bit. It makes me sad when youkai retreat into their own little world where nothing can challenge them and stagnate. I've seen it happen."
Yukari patted the miko's head. "Well, my dolls are much nicer, so I'm content."
Reimu grumbled. She should have thought her analogy through more carefully.
"At any rate, it's a relief to know you have everything under control." Yukari took a single measured step and was suddenly in the shrine's arch, twenty meters away. "I suppose I'll have to wait and see what you're planning like everyone else. I do hope it's entertaining."
"Oh, it will be," Reimu found herself saying. She had no idea what she was supposed to be planning, but it wouldn't do to show uncertainty in front of this youkai. "It will blow your mind."
Yukari laughed in a voice clear as a bell and full of warmth. The lovely sound almost distracted Reimu from her shadow, which was doing some pretty unnerving things. "I hope so, shrine maiden, I hope so. But don't strain yourself, now. I'm rather fond of you, and I'd hate to see you hurt just trying to give us all a good show."
"What can I say?" Reimu spread her hands, half-smiling. An easygoing mask slipped over her features without effort. "If the zookeeper doesn't keep you lot occupied, who will?"
"True enough!" Yukari turned and, over the course of about half a second, her form stretched taller and taller, thinner and thinner until she slipped into a gap between the fibers of space itself and vanished. The motion briefly pushed the gap wide enough for Reimu to see all the horrible things beyond it, however that worked. A friendly hand brushed across her shoulders and the youkai's voice left her with, "I can't wait to see."
Reimu immediately sat down and started gasping for breath. Spending too long with Yukari gave her the feeling that her organs were all in the wrong places, the laws of physics were an absurd joke and she'd been thoroughly outwitted, even when were just discussing the weather. And now she had to figure out some kind of amazing scheme involving the Master Spark so she wouldn't end up looking like an idiot in front of all of Gensokyo. A sterling reputation is vital for incident solvers, after all.
She was intentionally playing up the dimensional fuckery, you know, a soft, sardonic voice said in her ear. She knew you'd be smart enough to admit you hadn't planned everything if you weren't scared shitless.
"Not now, Mima," Reimu said to the air, rising.
Just sayin', this is how she gets her entertainment. She played you like Suika's Game Boy.
The miko crossed her arms and sighed. "Just as planned, huh?"
But look at the bright side, the Shrine's resident evil spirit continued, if anyone can help you hatch a diabolical scheme involving the Master Spark…
Marisa was dead on her feet when she finally touched down on the doorstep of a cute little cottage just off the Magic Forest's main footpath. From the outside it looked perfectly homey and neat, more like an idyllic painting than an actual home anyone would live in. Shifting Shanghai Orange to one shoulder and handing it an ill-gotten book, Marisa eased the door gingerly open and slipped inside.
The interior was a nightmarish maze of random junk, though she fortunately didn't keep anything that would rot or smell. With the ease of long practice, Marisa threaded her way through, brushing past priceless relics and worthless scrap with equal disinterest. The main floor was one gigantic hard, sharp and pointy deathtrap, liberally sprinkled with objects that would blow up or shoot back if you attacked them. Some of the items she'd collected because she thought they looked cool, others so that they would add to her defense and still others because… well… hm.
And Reimu wondered why she was always hanging out at the shrine.
In a room that should have been a kitchen, Marisa knelt at a hidden trap door with an enchanted combination lock, careful not to bang her head on a sword rack awkwardly wedged between a broken refrigerator and a bookcase full of demonic forbidden tomes. The lock's spirit was quite touchy; it looked for any excuse to shock the hand that gripped it, even just for having the wrong attitude in dialing. Fortunately, it seemed to sense that Marisa wasn't in the mood to take any of its crap today.
Down the slide she went, grunting in frustration as her waist-cape caught in the closing door, and dropped into a different world. The Mari-Cave's entryway was a broad, shallow slope painted by thin blades of sunlight through the cracked ceiling and matted over with thick, sweet-smelling moss. Mushrooms of every description dotted its expanse, collected from all over Gensokyo. This was nothing like the hodgepodge above, though; every patch was placed with a clear eye and cared for with a mycologist's touch. You never know when you'll need a good mushroom, after all.
Marisa knelt at a patch of cadmium red toadstools and picked out a big, juicy one, then moved over to a stand of thin pink mushrooms and took a few seconds carefully fingering through the ones that would make her puke up her skull and die before coming up with the specimen she needed. Absently chewing on its stalk, she started homeward. The doll had fallen from her shoulder with all the shifting around, and toddled along in her wake with the book, slipping and stumbling on the uneven moss.
The slope narrowed into a thin path overlooking the Mari-Cave proper, a mighty, jagged expanse dimly lit by great fields of blue and gold phosphorescent fungi. She'd spent years training in this shadowy domain, whipping between stalactites and stalagmites on her broom and gouging out whole new atria with her magic. Long ago, in another life, she'd lived in this cave, subsisting on salamanders and moss while she trained for months on end to fight the Red-and-White, but it had all been for naught.
Further along the path stood a rude building slapped together from thick, sturdy beams and planks, heavily inscribed with overlapping magic circles. Marisa pressed a hand into the center of the door and waited for it to recognize her. After a frustratingly long pause that gave Shanghai Orange time to catch up, it finally gave a happy ping and opened on a sumptuous living room full of overstuffed furniture, beautiful paintings and a magical fireplace that leapt to life as soon as she entered.
"Pretty nice, right?" she said to the doll, but it just looked at her blankly. "Never mind. Wipe your feet before you go in." It did.
Before letting herself sit, Marisa snatched a small bowl-and-pestle from a sidetable and set to work on the red mushroom, smashing it to a thin paste in a few furious seconds. The pink mushroom, a powerful painkiller, was already going to work. The witch cast her blouse aside and sat heavily, groaning as she surveyed the damage.
The bruises from Wriggle's shots and Koakuma's fist hadn't started to fade yet; the space between her solar plexus and left thigh was swallowed in a smeary thundercloud, cut through with vivid red lightning. Her joints throbbed softly from the abuse of wringing a broomstick through dogfight maneuvers and her head was starting to hurt from dehydration. (She should have taken it easy on the tea.) Now that she had time to stop and think about it all, a million aches and pains rushed in around her and sucked her strength away.
What a day.
"Hey, Orangey. Wanna make yourself useful?" Marisa asked, holding the bowl out. "Put this on me, okay?"
The doll, which had been standing mindlessly in the center of the room, carelessly dropped the book and trundled over to struggle its way up onto the chair and accept the bowl. Once Marisa handed it a soft brush, it quickly got to work giving her wounds with a light coating.
Marisa tried to figure out her next move. Working out? Haha, no. Studying? Hurt too much to focus. Gathering Patchy's books? Maybe when she could move. With a defeated sigh, she tossed a bullet up into the ceiling, hitting the magic circle to activate a phonograph in the next room. Soft jazz drifted and bounced through the room's dancing shadows.
When Shanghai Orange ran out of paste, Marisa put its tools aside and sat the doll in her lap. Could she make it up to bed, at least? Probably not until the painkillers settled in. She picked up a picture on the sidetable and gazed at it, half wistful, half irritated. A younger Marisa and purple-haired Reimu stood just outside the human village with huge grins, linked arms and towering sundaes.
"The things I do for you," Marisa sighed. She knew most of the day's injuries were her own fault, but she couldn't help herself. "God damn."
Alice realized that she was dreaming almost instantly. The blue-green-purple light filtering in through the windows and the arctic wind howling through her living room were pretty good indicators.
She realized that this was a nightmare when she found herself leading Marisa down the stairs to her secret workshop, which was inexplicably full of meathooks and dismembered corpses instead of dollmaking tools. Calm and purposeful, her dream-self stretched dream-Marisa out on the work table, undressed her and started flaying her limbs to anchor marionette strings in her bones. Since Alice didn't know how you were supposed to remove eyes, her subconscious supplied a tangerine spoon and some big cheery marbles to replace them with. Really, as her dream-self went about the gruesome work of rendering dream-Marisa into a living doll, she found the whole situation too utterly absurd to be that horrifying.
Okay, seriously, that's enough. What are you playing at, me?
Obligingly, her dream shifted and she was back upstairs, standing in front of the loveseat as though she'd just risen. She wasn't fooled, though; her house had become an endless tesseract of identical living rooms full of low, cloying black mist and infinite heaps of dolls. A few were dangling from nooses from the ceiling, which took some effort for her to ignore. However, none of these details bothered her as much as the lack of an exit.
"She's better than you," Shanghai Red said. The little doll stood on the nearest iteration of a kitchen table, smiling horribly. "She's stronger and smarter and braver than you'll ever be."
"That's why a part of you wants to destroy her," Shanghai Indigo added from the top of the couch behind her. "She's upset your little world and you can't stand the fact that you can't control her."
"Who said I wanted to do that?" Alice asked. The act of speaking seemed to anchor her in the dream, to the point that she forgot that she was even dreaming. "That's ridiculous. And I'm perfectly fine with the fact I can't control her. In fact, it's refreshing."
"Is it?" Red asked.
"Yes." Alice looked back and forth between them. "Are you me? Who am I talking to?"
"This is just a friendly warning," Indigo said, ignoring her. "You have the will and skill to do terrible things. You knew this, of course, but when you go out into the broader world, you may find the motivation."
"You hid from the world. You built your perfect fairytale queendom." Shanghai Red gestured to the mountains of dolls all around. "You surrounded yourself with yourself in a hundred little bodies, folded away, safe and snug with your toys and research. But now that will change… and if you keep challenging yourself, if you keep growing, why… your own mind might not be the safest place for you anymore."
Alice realized that the dark spaces around the room were filling with glimmering eyes. The army of dolls was watching her, waiting to see what she would do.
"So what'll it be?" Indigo asked. "How will you relate to the world that's opening before you?"
"You'll fail," Red said, smile growing wider. "You'll retreat and curl up in your cottage."
"Or you'll lash out." Indigo offered. "You'll try to make Gensokyo into your cottage, and its people your dolls. You are a monster now, you know. It's only expected."
Well, if they were allowed to ignore what she said… "Since when did you grow a spine, Red?" Alice asked. "I wouldn't have thought you capable of mouthing off like this."
"It's easy to deal with weaklings," Red replied dismissively. "And from where I stand, you're—we're the weakest of them all."
"This is stup…" Alice started, but was interrupted by the familiar sound of light boots tromping up the steps behind her. The Marisa doll.
"Sneer all you want," Indigo said. "But there's a part of you that wants something very much like this. To crush and dominate everything that doesn't move to your will, no matter howmuch you love it. No… because you love it."
"So turn and face it!" Red cried. "Face that side of yourself! Face what you want to make of your new friend… or stand there like a stunned cow and prove what we all know about you."
Alice stared. She could feel the cold floorboards beneath her feet and hear the Marisa-doll breathing wetly behind her. Her mind had gripped its (her?) strings, and everything in the tesseract was a part of that grim tangle. Alice set a foot to the side, not sure if it was in preparation to turn or flee. The gleaming eyes shifted as a thousand dolls leaned closer.
"On top of everything else, are you even scared of yourself?" Red asked. "Is it true that you can't even stand the wilds of your own mind? It is! You are a coward on every front, in every dimension! You are a weakling and a fool!"
It was true, she couldn't. This was really too much. The only way out was—
Alice suddenly burst out laughing. "That's it!" she cried. "A good old-fashioned anxiety dream! Oh, well played, me!"
Red stumbled on whatever it was about to say. "You—what?"
"Of course I'm scared; this 'friends' thing is new to me. Of course I have unsavory desires; everyone does! This is all just the stress from yesterday. It's so ridiculous! Was all this drama necessary? Did it have to be such a production?"
"Yeah, sorry," Blue said, coming out of the shadows. "It kinda did."
"Ah, my diligence, of course. I have to do everything perfectly, even when it's tormenting myself." Alice turned and saw dream-Marisa standing there whole and healthy. "Sorry. As you can see, my heart's a bit of a mess, but we'll find room for you."
"Man, of course you will! There's always room for Marisa!"
"I don't think Marisa would really say it that way."
"Ha! Well, that's your fault." Dream-Marisa tweaked her nose. "Stop having a stupid mental image of me, then!"
"I'll do my best…" Alice murmured into the couch, then sat up, shrugging aside a blanket someone had spread over her. Her house was once again a friendly plush wonderland, and the midday sun streamed invitingly through the windows. She looked around in confusion, first trying to figure out why she was alone, then trying to figure out why that was a surprise.
"Oh, right," she said as the day rushed back to her. She brushed her hand over her sleeve, which was still damp with witch-drool. "How, er, how novel."
Alice stood and stretched, relishing the fiery, stiff feeling in her limbs. It had been too long since her last danmaku match, but there was only one cure for that, and it made her smile to think about. A draft made her realize that she'd been walking around all day with a big gash down the back of her dress from Mystia's shot, which, for some reason, was funny instead of infuriating.
When she went up to return the blanket, she noticed that one of her books was missing, but didn't think anything of it. She'd probably misplaced it when she was waiting for Marisa to arrive. So, what to do with today? There was a lot of work ahead of her, but now that she had a study partner to consider…
After changing into one of her around-the-house dresses, Alice came back down to find a few of her dolls standing in a circle. They'd responded to her mind wandering, apparently, gathering around a curiosity on the kitchen table: a note rendered in Marisa's wild, almost illegible cursive, careening all over the page.
So one of your dolls adopted me. Little orange bugger won't stop following me around. Can you control them in your sleep? I wasn't sure if you were messing with me, but I'm taking her home, anyway. Ask if you want her back, but hurry, 'cause she's so damn cute I might just wanna keep her anyway.
I had a great time. Reimu put me up to this, too, but I'm glad she did. I'll bug you later this week to have a shootout or do some reading at Patchy's, OK? Hey, do you drink? There's still so much I don't know about you!
Patchy was going to ask for your help with a spell on Sakuya. I don't know what's going on there, but it's always exciting when she gets off her ass for some serious magic, so I think you should help her out.
Also, sorry, I copped one of your books.
"What!" Alice yelped. "You can't be serious! Didn't you learn your les… wait."
There'd been something hidden beneath the note. A wooden disk throbbing with horrible eldritch powers, and probably what had attracted the dolls in the first place. How had she managed to overlook the Mini-Hakkero Regulator? Beneath it was shorter note.
Wanna take a look? I figure you're good folk, just keep it safe. And don't tell Reimu I lent it to you or she'll reach down my throat and rip my ovaries out.
This signature included a little heart, which seemed like an odd touch for someone like her, but Alice supposed she still had a lot to learn about the witch. And why would such a wary person trust a new acquaintance with her only means of defense? Was it her only means of defense? Anyway, she wouldn't keep it from Marisa for long.
But first, Alice needed to clear her head and get some air. Maybe she'd head down to the human village and see what was happening? It had been quite a while.
"Okay, children," she said, clapping her hands. "Now you're not just guarding my home, you're guarding something precious to me. Also, uh, it could obliterate all life in Gensokyo if it fell into the wrong hands, so take this seriously."
The dolls listened patiently. They knew everything she was telling them, of course, because they were her. Once she was certain she'd thought of everything, Alice locked the Mini-Hakkero in her workshop, deployed the defense dolls and stepped out into the sun. "Oh, yes," she said, beckoning. A Shanghai doll in blue and red flew out and alit on her shoulder. "Let's go, me."
"Let's!" the Shanghai said. Alice wasn't sure if she was surprised or not.
Where was she going? Did it matter? Gensokyo was a panoply of wonders, mysteries and horrors before her, and any path she could take would lead somewhere interesting. With a determined smile and a spring in her step, Alice left her cottage behind.
And that's the end. As before, we have a tasty illustration from Fawriel: fawriel . /#/ d39oplq
Thanks go to Faw and 8 for their support, and to you for reading!