As Maribel entered the area she briefly wondered if Ran had made a mistake and brought them back to the village. However the lack of people quickly convinced her this was a different place altogether.
"Welcome to Mayohiga, please refrain from stealing our dinnerware," Ran said as she stepped down the street. She looked around a bit before calling out "CHEN!"
"Ah, yes Miss Ran!" Maribel blinked as a girl who appeared to be in her late teens dashed around a corner. The girl ran over and hugged the kitsune tightly, then just as quickly let go and turned her full attention on Maribel.
Now that 'Chen' had stopped moving Maribel could clearly see the two cat ears and tails that marked her as a Nekomata. The way she rapidly switched focus between Renko and Maribel just cemented her cat like nature.
After a quick inspection Chen nodded. "So this is the girl and her friend? Well I suppose she has the same hat."
Maribel frowned. "Hey! It's a good hat!"
Renko coughed beside her.
Ran sighed and smiled. "So how'd it go?"
Chen whirled around. "Just like you thought it would. Wriggle's not that interested but Rumia's all for it. Wriggle did tell me that Yamame might be interested though. And she can tell which humans are diseased and which are safe to eat."
Maribel suddenly realized what they were talking about. "Wait, are you kidnapping humans outside the border for food?"
The two animal youkai looked at her with surprise, then Chen laughed. "Don't you need to be alive to be kidnapped?"
"Indeed," said Ran. "Why would we hunt humans when we can just grab the bodies? Corpses are plentiful and they don't fight back. Those pistol bullets tend to sting, and police inquiries can cause all sorts of annoyances."
Maribel exchanged a look with Renko. "Well I suppose that's better then the alternatives..." Renko said.
Ran shrugged. "Anyways, that's tangential to our business."
"Right. Then I guess the first question is, what exactly do you want?" Maribel asked.
"I want to train you in your powers," Ran said simply. "No offense, but right now you can't actually offer me anything."
Renko spoke up. "But what are you going to ask for later?"
"Nothing. There's very little she can offer me that she isn't already offering me," Ran looked at both of the girls. "I mainly wish to grant her the abilities to survive in Gensoukyo."
Maribel shook her head. "You need me alive so I keep destabilizing the barrier. A figurehead for your youkai social project, with me becoming a youkai as well, right?"
Ran was a silent a moment before nodding. "There are other ways of giving you a lifespan actually worth talking about, but yes. I mostly just want to keep you alive."
Chen's tails lashed around as she looked between her master and the two girls. "That's not a bad thing though right? Being alive is good."
"In addition there are other benefits to your powers," Ran said calmly. "While I won't claim it will give you everything you want, you'll definitely have no financial worries, and you'll be free to travel about Gensoukyo."
Maribel stared Ran straight in the eyes. "What if I said that I wanted to learn how to go outside the barrier?"
"I'd tell you that's impossible except for a youkai. A human can't make the trip out," Ran replied with a straight face.
However Chen's ears twitched.
"You're lying," Maribel said in a cold rage.
Ran shrugged and smirked infuriatingly. "Perhaps, but that's the only answer you'll get from me either way."
Maribel trembled. She'd had it. She was tired of mystical excuses, dead ends and insinuations that she was supposed to play along with someone else's game. Especially since that someone else was supposed to be dead! She wasn't going to take this shit anymore.
"Mary!" Renko yelled behind her.
Renko's voice snapped her out of her mindless rage, halfway through her swing at Ran.
However, her human speed wasn't enough. The kitsune effortlessly blocked her slap. "What have we learned?" the fox woman asked in a bored voice.
Once again Maribel's vision blurred red. She wanted to slap that bored expression so badly! She swung again, this time demanding that her blow reach it's target.
Ran shifted her arm to block again.
And the boundary between the two twisted.
Maribel's arm phased right through Ran's, and she felt a surge of power. The open hand slap whipped Ran's head to the side with a loud crack. The kitsune took a step back, stunned, as Maribel's anger subsided.
"Mary!" Renko yelled again behind her.
"Miss Ran!" cried Chen, as she ran between the two women. The nekomata gave Maribel a angry glare. "How could you! Miss Ran was offering you everything she could!"
"Like hell!" Maribel yelled back. "She's been evasive and manipulative every second she's been around me!" Maribel was about to keep yelling when Renko gripped her shoulder, so instead she took a few deep breaths.
Chen stood her ground. "She's just doing what she has to do to save Gensoukyo. Even though everyone blames her because she has to follow all their rules. Even though we can't manipulate the border like Yukari can..."
"If it's so damn important, then maybe she could show a little more humility instead of just ordering me about," Maribel snapped.
Ran slowly pulled herself fully upright rubbing the slap mark Maribel had left. She glared at Maribel for a long moment. "I... I don't need... to..." She swallowed and her ears flipped back.
Then the kitsune's eyes turned down, and her tails drooped behind her. Before everyone's shocked gaze, she slowly fell to her knees and prostrated herself on the ground. "I... I beg of you."
Chen stepped backwards in shock. "Miss Ran..."
"Even with the barrier we can't exist without the outside world. Without a connection the outside world will start to forget us." Ran pushed herself up a little, but the fox woman couldn't seem to lift her eyes off the ground. "We can live on disbelief, but if we are completely forgotten this world won't just vanish. It will never have existed."
"I~" Ran's voice broke, and she took an audible breath, "I can't let this happen to my family... to Chen. So I beg you. I'll do anything. Riches... power... anything. If you demand it, I'll become your personal servant. But please, help me save this world." Ran's face was still to the ground, but her body shivered with shame and grief, while Chen was obviously fighting back tears.
Maribel felt ill.
She looked back at Renko to see if her friend had any idea what to do, but Renko seemed just as helpless.
Finally she kneeled down to bring herself closer to the fallen woman. "I don't want a servant. I just want some straight answers. If you can give me that I swear I'll do my best to help you."
Ran took a few deep breaths before pulling herself to her knees. She still couldn't seem to raise her eyes or ears, but she'd stopped shaking. "Very well."
"Is it possible for me to leave Gensoukyo, just for a little while? I know you two can pop in and out of the border now."
Ran closed her eyes and said simply, "I don't know. I know you can leave, but I think that being outside would both weaken your powers and strengthen the barrier. I don't believe you'd be able to return. But I can't be sure anymore."
Maribel didn't like the ambiguity there, but Ran sounded sincerely uncertain. "Anymore? What changed your mind?"
Ran managed to look up at her face. "That slap. When you altered the boundaries between us. Yukari would never have even considered that. It was impossible to our minds." The kitsune seemed almost awed. "You have the power of a youkai, but the mind of a human. I can't say what you are capable of."
"So you're saying I might be able to find a way for me to move back and forth on my own?" Maribel asked.
"It's possible. You'd need training of course." Ran managed a very weak smile. "That trick you used there was very dangerous. The reason you managed to hurt me at all was because blending us together allowed you to take some of my power."
"Uh..." Renko moved opposite Chen to look at the two kneeling women. "Forgive me if I'm wrong, but you're saying that Mary can't come back because the border would become too strong again right?"
Renko looked embarrassed. "So wouldn't it still be possible to go somewhere that doesn't have as strong a barrier, then teleport or whatever to Gensoukyo? Like how we came here via the moon?"
Maribel considered that. Then she felt incredibly stupid. "Why didn't I think of that?"
Ran's ears drooped again. "Why didn't I think of that?"
Chen on the other hand just laughed. "You're pretty smart Miss Renko! You'd be an awesome Shikigami!"
"Er, thanks," Renko replied.
Maribel's spirits rose. "So it'll work!"
"Yes." Ran replied. "The moon is definitely off limits, but realms like Makai are relatively safe to pass through, and fairly easy to access."
'We can go home again!' The thought burned its way across Maribels mind. She laughed happily and hugged Renko closely. This was how she wanted to live in Gensoukyo. Idyllic lifestyle, but with some batteries for her music player and a way to call her parents. It may be selfish, but it was what she'd dreamed of.
Sadly the current reality crashed down on her again. She turned back to where Ran was still kneeling. "So I guess our other problem is, do you still demand that I become a youkai?"
Ran took in a deep breath and let it out in a massive sigh. "I... don't know that either. It's possible as a human you'll be able to think of something Yukari couldn't and make it so the barrier is always properly weakened. Or maybe your human mind won't be able to comprehend the barrier at all. I know most humans have a problem doing things like calculating the width of the Sanzu River, or performing 5 variable calculus in their heads."
Ran slowly rocked herself back to her feet. "It's not like you can just become a youkai in two days anyway. It would take at least ten years to master the concepts required." Ran looked downcast again. "And to tell the truth, I'm not sure it would even work if you didn't want it to."
Maribel looked at the women. "You really had no other options did you?"
Ran shook her head. "None I wanted to use." She looked down again. "And I'm tired, very tired, of forcing people to do what's best for Gensoukyo. That vampire may enjoy being the villain, but I don't."
The kitsune dusted off her clothes then gestured to one of the nearby houses. "I know you'll want to return to the village for dinner soon, but perhaps you would like to stay for tea, and discuss this further?"
"Sure thing," Renko said.
The house Ran led them into seemed to be a comfy well furnished place. Ran gestured to the table then moved towards the kitchen. After a second Chen spoke up, "Um, Miss Ran. I'm the shikigami. Shouldn't you let me handle it?"
Ran paused, her mouth opening in an "o" of surprise. Then she smiled. "That's okay Chen. I'll get the tea this time." With that she disappeared into the kitchen.
Chen started chewing her lip. "Nyah. Not again."
Maribel was slightly confused, but Renko seemed to catch on. "She does this when she's stressed?"
"Yeah." Chen sighed. "She totally forgets she's not serving Miss Yukari and tries to do all the housework by herself." Chen's tails swished violently as she glared lightly at Maribel.
"Don't worry, I'm not looking to make anyone my servant," Maribel said as she waved Chen off. The nekomata seemed mollified by the comment. "But I do want to know something." Chen's ears perked up, and Maribel found herself searching for a polite way to ask about the matter, but she couldn't find one. "Um... why was she being such a bitch? If she doesn't want to be seen as the villain why was she trying to annoy everyone?"
Chen's ears folded back and she looked sad. "You met Hitomi right?"
The two girls nodded. "Yeah."
"Ran was the one that trained her," Chen said. "You see, Hitomi's aunt, the previous Hakurei maiden, quit. She decided she didn't want to be the sole priestess of a small shrine."
"The gods on the mountain tried to take the shrine over again," Chen said, "And this time they might have done it too, since their shrine maiden has the Hakurei bloodline as well. But we couldn't let those gods take the shrine's faith. It would put the border in danger."
"So Ran found a distant relative who was fairly strong and made her the new maiden. That was Hitomi. Ran trained her personally. She was really nice about it, the same way she was when she trained me.."
Chen sighed. "Gensoukyo needs a Hakurei maiden. But the Hakurei shrine isn't really self sufficient. The only faith they get is from the youkai exterminations they do." Chen shook her head. "So when the shrine was running low on faith, Ran had to send Hitomi on a mission."
"Except we made a mistake. Hitomi was too young and not prepared to have to fight for her life. She just barely survived that. She's done better since, but she never really adjusted to having to fight youkai to the death to earn a living."
Chen looked up and sighed again. "So she's hated Ran ever since. And Ran blames herself for not giving Hitomi more strict training."
Suddenly Chen's eyes got wide and her tails bristled. "Uh, don't tell Ran I told you that! She hates giving excuses."
"Sure thing," Renko said.
Maribel just looked out into the courtyard outside the house. She understood why Ran had been such a bitch before now, though she didn't think that excused her actions. She wondered if these complications were from the recent troubles, or if she had been unreasonable in thinking Gensoukyo had been more of a utopia in the past.
Soon Ran walked back into the room with the tea. She seemed to have recovered a lot from her breakdown in the streets, though Maribel noticed her tails were still a little limp, but her smile, while weak, didn't seem forced at all. She set the teapot down, and allowed Chen to pour.
"So do you two have jobs yet?" Ran asked. "Or were you still looking around?"
"Still looking," Renko replied. "I guess our days are kind of free."
Ran nodded. "I see. While that will be good to start, I'd suggest you get a side job as well. While I don't have a problem giving you two a stipend, even when human-youkai relations were at their best people who learned magic exclusively were considered somewhat dangerous."
"Do you have any suggestions?" Maribel couldn't help but ask.
Ran simply shrugged. "Not really. It's not like Mayohiga lacks funds so you don't need to worry about being poor. Do what you want."
"I assume since you're including both of us that you'll be teaching me magic as well," Renko asked.
"Yes," Ran sat up a little straighter. "While you might want another tutor later, Chen and I are masters of Black Magic. We both are using magic to emulate Yukari's abilities after all. Since we don't have innate power of boundaries. And it's best if you have a similar level of power with your friends. Otherwise more unscrupulous people might try using you against them."
Maribel rocked back. As she stared at Ran the kitsune turned her full attention to her, "Yes Maribel, there are some things I won't stoop to."
Renko's eyes opened wide as she realized what Ran was insinuating, then she frowned. "Yeah. I want in on those lessons. I'm not going to be the damsel in distress here."
Ran breathed in the steam from her tea, then took a sip. "So would tomorrow afternoon be a good time for you two? I know you're probably still getting your legs, but there are certain skills I think you should learn quickly."
Maribel looked at Renko who shrugged in return. Well it wasn't like they were doing anything anyway. "I suppose that's fine. Do you intend to pick us up?"
Ran nodded. "Yes. It's a little difficult to get to Mayohiga. I expect you can learn it in a day, but there's something more important for you to learn first."
"What would that be?" Renko asked.
Ran smiled. "Tomorrow I'm going to teach you two how to fly. So you can view all of Gensoukyo as it's meant to be seen."
The rest of the day seemed like a blur, but it was still somehow calm. They returned to Keine's house, ate dinner with her and Mokou (without the blinding headache part) then took a bath and started getting ready for bed.
The reason for that came to her when she was lying in bed, staring out the small window at the stars. "I think this is the first time since we came here that I finally feel in control of things."
Renko turned to her. "Hm... Yeah, I guess so." Renko turned back to the window. "I guess I still feel a little redundant. Maybe that'll go away if I find a job."
Mary considered the matter. "Maybe. Are you planning on going into astronomy, like Keine suggested?"
Renko shrugged. "Don't know. Maybe I'll try my hand at teaching actually. There's no way that Keine can teach all the higher education students and still have time for the kids. And I know more about math and physics then the tutor currently working does, so I'd have a niche in the market."
Maribel just nodded. That was something that Renko would figure out, she was sure.
"You know though, we haven't solved the biggest problem yet," Renko said.
"What's that?" Maribel asked.
"We'll have to find an explanation for where we disappeared to that our parents will accept," Renko said with a smile.
Maribel laughed and rolled her eyes. "I was just going to tell the truth. It's not like they could deny the evidence, and they aren't foolish enough to tell anyone else."
Renko smirked. "That's easy for you to pull off. You'll have the magic powers." Renko gave an exaggerated sigh. "I'll probably just have to say we eloped. My parents will believe it. They've been wondering for some time about that 'Mary girl.'"
Maribel felt warmth run through her cheeks. Married? To Renko? Her brain wasn't up for finding a proper response to that.
So she settled for throwing her pillow at her friend. "If you're going to claim we're married at least learn how to say my name right, Renko!"
The two girls laughed and talked well into the night.
Authors Notes: And that's the end of the first section. And on a Thanksgiving no less. I assure you all I didn't plan that, but it turned out nicely. I hope you enjoyed it, and I'm hammering my way through the second part right now, to get it to you all. However, I'm once again planning on finishing (and editing) that in advance before I start posting so it may be a little longer.
There'll be a time skip between this section and the next. And I figured I'd also add the answers to some of the questions I was asked about the groups that didn't make as big an appearance.
How is Chireiden doing? Don't they still have the link with the Moriya Shrine they had in Hisoutensoku, or did that cease with the rest of Gensokyo's degraded alliances?
Chireiden in a general sense is actually doing perfectly well. This comes after Cats and Crows so Utsuho is a full goddess in her own right, and is powering the underground. With that, and the fact that Chireiden is slightly out of synch with Gensoukyo as the former hell, Chireiden pretty much has just been getting better and better.
However. since most of the underground youkai are despised by the above ground youkai for their powers most of the citizens of the Underground just don't leave. There are a few exceptions of course, but most stay at home and the majority of Gensoukyo (not the houses, but unaligned youkai) would pester them if they didn't.
Meanwhile the Tengu started locking down the mountain, the Kappa didn't resist, and the Moriya shrine became fairly isolated. While the goddesses aren't on bad terms with anyone, they can't really act within Gensoukyo without causing a war with the Tengu and losing their biggest source of faith. Utsuho and Orin still pop up and chat, and Kanako and Suwako occasionally drop in, but do to each parties isolation they can't do much other then sit about and drink tea.
And what is the connection between the Kotiya and Hakurei lines, exactly?
The two lines generally intermarried, given their constant contact and the fact that male Hakurei priests couldn't inherit. Hitomi and Kanon are decendants of Suwako, and the current Moriya shrine maiden has enough of the Hakurei line to maintain the border and use the yin yang orbs.
However the families are at odds again. Early on after the troubles started about half the Hakurei family switched to serving Kanako and Suwako as their primary deities. Worried that the boundary would be in danger if their faith switched, the Hakurei maiden at the time disowned them and destroyed the Moriya branch shrine. Further escalation was stopped by the relative weakness of the two powers, and the fact that the Tengu held the space between the two shrines. The enmity has died down, but the families are no longer close.
Anyway thanks again for reading, and I hope to have the second 'book' ready soon.