Renko's worries had returned by the time breakfast was served. It didn't help that the only person there was Juri, who was rather quiet. She just brought in the food, stood aside while two dolls dressed as fairy maids served it, then bowed and returned to the corner. Mary had attempted some small talk, but the meal was still mostly silent.
After they finished Juri bowed again. "Now that your finished I'll send for Huian. The lady of the house wishes regrets she can't see you out herself, but she tends to sleep with the dawn. Is there anything you need to retrieve, or anything you wish to do here?"
Renko and Mary shook their heads. "No I think we're ready."
Juri paused for a moment then asked, "I don't suppose you've reconsidered my Lady's offer? I believe you two would make a fine addition to the household."
"Er, I think I want to see if I can get a job closer to my degree before I give up and become a maid," Renko replied.
Mary smiled. "And I want to see the village in person."
Juri sighed. "Very well. If you two do change your minds please speak with me or Huian when we're at market."
"Sure." Renko had no idea what could make her change her mind, but the offer was nice.
The door opened and the silver haired woman who had first greeted them entered. "Ah, hello again." She bowed. "I'll be escorting you to the village, so you don't need to worry about an incidents on the trip."
"Thank you," said Mary.
The two girls followed the gate guard to the front of the mansion.
As Renko walked out into the bright Gensoukyo day her worries began to fade to the back of her mind. Now that she was thinking a little more clearly she could see the beautiful garden, composed entirely of natural plants. And beyond that a real forest. The air was heavy with bird song, none of which the two girls had heard before.
Renko looked up at the sky. "Is that a crested Ibis?"
Huian nodded. "Yes. They taste pretty good with red miso."
"You eat them?" Mary asked in shock. "But there aren't any in the outside world..."
Huian shrugged. "They're very common here." The gatekeeper then turned and began walking down a very faint trail. Renko and Maribel shrugged then moved on.
As they progressed through the woods they started trying to guess what the natural plants were. Sometimes Huian would casually toss out an answer, but most of the plants were very similar to their genetically engineered counterparts in the outside world. Eventually though they passed a patch of plants with spiky fruits that had them stumped.
"I think it's a western plant," Renko finally said.
Maribel frowned. "Maybe. But I have a feeling we should know it anyway."
"It's wild cucumber silly," said a light voice from just behind Renko.
The two girls turned to see a short girl with green hair and two gossamer wings flying in the air. The fairy smiled at the two, then blew past them in the blink of an eye. Renko gasped and tried to catch her dress as the blowback lifted her skirt. Maribel was in a similar predicament.
Huian of course, who was wearing pants, simply watched the fairy leave with a slight smile. "How did you like your first true fairy meeting?"
Renko laughed. "She was interesting."
Huian shrugged. "Yes. That girl is fairly harmless. Don't think all fairies are though. And definitely remember that could have been a youkai. It's good you're having fun, but don't get overconfident. I'd hate to hear you got eaten."
That brought the girls back down off their high. They continued down the trail in silence.
After a few moments Huian looked back again. "Sorry for killing the mood there. I just thought it was a good idea for you to know the ropes. Today I'm here, so for now take it easy and enjoy the trip. You won't get to enjoy wandering the woods like this anytime soon again." Huian pointed at a vine. "Oh right, that there is kudzu. You misidentified it last time."
"I thought Gensoukyo had mostly rare and extinct plants," Renko said.
"Well they have to have some of the common plants, otherwise there would be nothing to eat," said Mary.
Huian nodded. "Yep. You'll see some more familiar types when we reach the farm lands. Which should be pretty soon..."
Sure enough after one or two more bends in the path the woods cleared up a lot and the three girls looked down upon the human village. It looked mostly like an archaic village, but there were a few buildings that looked like they'd escaped from France or Holland. The grounds around the village were mostly farms, many flooded for rice cultivation. After a few more moments the two outsiders realized the village was much bigger then they'd first thought. It contained several large houses, and it looked like there was at least two markets.
"Hm... How do they feed all the people? It doesn't look like there's enough farms here for this big a village," Renko asked. "Maybe if this were a modern farm, but with normal tools..."
"Well some of the houses are empty, but we mostly make do with magic to boost harvest yields," said a laconic voice. Renko looked over to see a woman in a workers shirt with long white hair stand from behind a rock.
Renko was about to greet the newcomer when Maribel suddenly jumped backward in fright. "You!"
The next second was a garbled mess. Renko was turning to her friend, when suddenly their guide appeared next to the woman and ran her through with a sword she produced from nowhere. Instead of screaming or anything however the woman merely looked bored. Then Renko was holding Mary's shoulder and they were both staring at the blood.
And then their guide and the woman started talking casually, as if nothing had happened.
"And now the kids are scared. I told you this would happen. Why do you have to stab me every time we meet out here?"
"It's the only way I can be sure it's actually you Mokou. I'm not handing over my charges just to anyone who can throw up an illusion of you. It would anger my mistress and shame me as a guard."
"Fine fine, but could you at least stab me in the head? That way there's less blood on my shirt."
Renko decided she and Mary needed to sit. Mary didn't resist.
"Oh right. Sorry. I'll send money for a new one..."
"Nah, it's cool. I'll just use this one for my next princess meeting."
The white haired girl looked them over again and shook her head. "Anyway, don't worry about me. The name's Fujiwara no Mokou. I'm sorta one of the village guards."
"You got stabbed," Renko pointed out mildly.
"Yeah, I can't die. It comes in handy sometimes." Mokou frowned and looked closer at Mary who was still trembling. "Wait, have I seen you before?"
Renko looked at her friend. "Are you okay Mary?"
Mary took a few deep breaths. "The bamboo forest..."
Huian flicked the blood off her sword. "Oh yes. That young lady apparently was here in dreams before."
"Aha!" Mokou looked pleased. "So that was you all those years ago. I was a little worried you'd gotten eaten. I'm glad you made it out."
Mary took a few more deep breaths to calm herself while staring at the ground. "Um... I'm sorry for treating you like a monster. It's just you were terribly frightening at the time."
"And your reaction here is kinda scary too," Renko muttered, looking at the blood.
Mokou shrugged. "Sorry. I was never really good with people." She made an attempt at cleaning off some of the blood but only managed to smear it around some more. "Er... Anyway I can take you the rest of the way down to the village. Keine's still in class, but recess should be soon. I'll take you there."
"You aren't really going to walk in on a classroom full of children in that shirt, are you?" Renko asked in disbelief.
Mokou considered it for a moment before sighing. "Eh, true. I guess I'll stick to guarding then." She waved before heading back to her sitting place. "If you could, tell Keine I'll be back for supper. I imagine I'll see you then."
Renko stood and dusted herself off before giving her escort a sheepish grin. "Um sorry about that."
Huian shook her head. "It's alright. Mokou can be disturbing at times, and my trick to figure out if she was in fact Mokou would be shocking to most people. I'm more surprised at your friend's reaction."
Renko frowned and looked over at Mary who still looked a little shaken. Feeling the gaze of both people on her she blinked, then stood up. "I'm sorry. It's my eyes. I... can tell her life is limitless. Without boundaries. It's... frightening."
"Hm..." Huian considered the matter. "While I hate to be so callous, I suggest you get used to it. There are many things in Gensoukyo that defy limitations and boundaries. Mokou is one of the safer ones, for humans anyway."
Huian started along the path again. "Anyways, we should get to the village. Recess can't last forever. No matter how much the kids may want it to."
The trip through the village was fairly uneventful. Mary took the time to recover from her encounter with the immortal.
She was now certain her eyes had gotten stronger. Before, when she looked at Mokou, she'd seen something wrong with the girl. But now her eyes had seen the vastness of the border between life and death. It was... harrowing.
She'd have to learn how to turn her vision off.
"You feeling any better Mary?" Renko asked, from her side.
Mary manged to put on a smile for her friend. "Yeah. Sorry, I'm a little better."
"Good, because we're here." Huian said.
The school building seemed small for a village this size, but it was still fairly respectable. In the yard around the school there were several children playing, most between the ages of 8 and 12 Maribel guessed. The last of her discomfort vanished as she watched the children laughing at play. This was one of the reasons she'd tried to get to Gensoukyo.
Huian bowed to the two outsiders. "I'm afraid this is where our paths split. It would be impolite for me as a youkai to wander onto school grounds these days. But Keine should be able to help you as much or better then I could.
Maribel and Renko returned the bow. "Thank you for guiding us," Mary said. "Will we see you again?"
Huian smiled. "Likely. Juri and I are the ones who do the mansion's shopping. Which is what I should attend to now. Good day Maribel, Renko, and may fortune favor you."
With that the youkai gate guard turned around and wandered off down the streets. Renko adjusted her hat then looked back towards the school building. "Well, shall we enter?"
Mary nodded then walked straight up to the school doors. The kids all looked at them strangely, but none of them broke away from their games to question the two girls. Mary was about to knock on the doors when a voice inside called out, "Come in." With a shrug Renko opened the door.
Inside the schoolroom was a set of desks, pillows and a chalkboard. Each desk had a couple of books and a small calligraphy set. At the back of the school stood a door, indicating there was probably more to the building. And of course at the front desk, sat the teacher herself, an elegant lady probably in her thirties wearing a dress and a very, very elaborate hat. Maribel wasn't sure whether she should be impressed or laugh.
The woman stood and motioned that they should come up and take a seat. "Greetings. My name is Keine Kamishirasawa, and I offer you the hospitality of Gensoukyo village." She smiled. "Please feel free to sit down, and tell me your story."
As Mary approached her vision seemed to waver again. The woman before her seemed to be on the border of something. It wasn't scary like that Mokou girl had been, because Keine was still on one side of the boundary, but it was still disconcerting.
The teacher caught her gaze. "Interesting. I see Alice's note was accurate. In case you were wondering, your eyes are seeing my dual nature as a Were Hakutaku."
"Were Hakutaku?" Renko asked incredulously.
"I'll be certain to explain in more detail later." Keine replied. "First, your story please. The note I got from the Scarlet Devil Mansion was short on details."
So once again Maribel and Renko told their story. This time both of them were well enough to fill in the details the other missed. Keine was a quiet listener as well, only asking occasional questions. After they finished she nodded her head.
"I'm afraid that the magicians of the mansion were correct. There's no way I know of to exit Gensoukyo currently. However all humans are welcome in this village. Please, feel free to stay with me for the next month. I'm sorry there's not normal guest housing, but with the border locking up there's not really been a need for it." Keine shrugged. "Hopefully by then you'll both have found some place to work."
Maribel frowned. "Is there really a place for people like us? I don't know if this village really needs a expert on ghost legends."
"Or a theoretical physicist," Renko added dryly.
Keine smiled. "You might be surprised. Still, I imagine you'll both be called on more for your abilities. Boundary manipulation is a field that commands a great deal of respect Maribel. And astronomy is always in favor in the village Renko. I doubt you'll need to resort to farm work. Unless you enjoy it of course."
"Hm... An astronomer..." Renko thought about the matter. "I did take courses. And it would allow me to put my math skills to work..."
"I think it's something to look into Renko," Maribel stated. She then frowned. "I'm not sure about this boundary manipulation thing though. Everyone keeps talking about it being an incredible power, but I can't control it at all. The only thing that seems to have happened is my eyes have gotten better at seeing borders, which is apparently dangerous. Will I really be able to learn how to control borders in a months time?"
Keine shrugged. "I can't say. I do know that many of the seals and charms the Hakurei clan provides manage to grant similar powers to the uninitiated, so you should be able to use them better then most. And the creation of wards and seals is something that's required these days."
The teacher stood. "I'd love to speak on the matter more, but recess really should be over. I have to cover a lot more today before I can send the children home. Feel free to sit in on the class, or read through the history scrolls I have in the back rooms. After class is done I'll show you around the village." She smiled. "Form what you said about your knowledge of math though, I'd suggest the history scrolls. I very much doubt watching me teach the kids their times tables will be interesting."
Renko stood then helped Maribel to her feet. "Thanks for taking us in. For all the grim talk everyone in Gensoukyo's been really nice to us."
"I hope that continues to be the case," Keine said.
As Keine went to the front doors to call in her students Maribel followed Renko to the back door. The room hidden there looked like a small library. Scrolls packed the place from top to bottom.
"Well at least we won't get bored," Renko commented, fishing around for a scroll. "And Keine seemed like pleasant company. Way better then anyone at the dorms at college."
Maribel reached for another scroll. "My dorm was perfectly fine. I'm afraid you just got unlucky Renko."
"It's not my fault the university sorted people by musical taste instead of reasonable factors," Renko muttered.
Maribel laughed. It was nice to hear such familiar complaining.
A few scrolls later the frowns had returned however. "I hope Keine doesn't teach class like she writes," Renko said, "because this is terribly dry."
Maribel nodded. "I think these summaries over here are better, but it's still dull unless you know what you're looking for. This one here is on the Suwa war, so it's sort of interesting to look at the actual history."
"Hm... Maybe I'll browse that shelf then," Renko mused.
A few minutes later Maribel had finished the history she cared about and started browsing for another one.
"Hey Mary, look at this!" Renko said behind her.
Maribel moved over and read the line she was pointing to. "'Yukari Yakumo passes away. My powers are unable to read how she died, though officially it was due to age. Her Shikigami, Ran Yakumo takes over the line.'" She reached for the scroll. "May I?"
Renko handed it over to her friend then looked over her shoulder as the history continued.
VI: It has become apparent that the border has solidified. Youkai hunting parties have been unable to exit Gensoukyo, and there have been no reports of newcomers for a month. In addition ghost sightings are down.
VII: Hong Meiling passed away, also due to age. Thus passes the last of the original students of the Dim Mak school of martial arts. Her daughter Huian has taken her place as gatekeeper of the Scarlet Devil Mansion and is the last living master of the style.
VIII: Several youkai have attempted to find Mayohiga to get an explanation from Ran Yakumo. However the village that houses the Yakumo family remains lost. Supplies of human are running low apparently.
Maribel shuddered at the thought of warehouses full of corpses. "I hope they just stole dead bodies before..."
Renko nodded in agreement.
IX: Ran Yakumo appeared to state that she cannot keep the Hakurei border fluctuating. It has to be on or off. There will be no gathering from outside the border. We must do with what we have. I foresee much conflict in the future over this. Even friendly races such as the kappa enjoy human flesh too much to react well to the news.
X: Some of the more violent youkai attacked the Hakurei shrine today in an attempt to break the barrier. Most were killed by the Hakurei maiden or Ran Yakumo, who appeared to assist. However some fled, and the youkai in the area did nothing to stop them. With this the era of spellcards has ended. It seems lethal dueling will once again be the primary means of solving disputes.
XI: It seems Sakuya believed it was unseemly for a human to outlive a youkai, and thus she challenged one of the few warriors capable of matching her in battle. With her successor chosen, Youmu agreed to the match. Both perished in the duel. At that time the Netherworld's border sealed. Their history is no longer available to me.
"I guess that's what happened to the maid you met before," Renko stated solemnly.
With the death of two of her servants, Remilia Scarlet entered vampiric hibernation, or topor. With her gone the fairy maids have mostly scattered and returned to natural living. Most youkai believe that is the end of the Scarlet Devil Mansion as a power in Gensoukyo, though with the number of witches in the building that seems foolhardy at best.
XII: There was an assault on the human village. I tried to stop it, but several of the outlying farms were taken. The only thing preventing worse disaster was the arrival of the shrine maidens, and a detachment from the temple. With their aid the youkai were scattered with heavy losses.
Sadly, Byakuren, head nun of the temple, took the loss of life on both sides poorly, possibly because she was forced to seal another youkai. She's taken up reciting the sutras full time. In her absence Toramaru Shou has pledged to guard the village in Bishamonten's name so long as we permit innocent youkai to still enter freely. It's too good an offer to pass on. There was a lot of grumbling, but in the end the village agreed.
Fujiwara no Mokou has also moved into the village for its defense. She has decided to stay with me for the time.
XIII: The great houses have finally all closed their doors. The tengu and kappa, always territorial, have sealed the mountain off, despite the protests from the mountain gods. Eientei has also disappeared into the bamboo forest, with only the occasional medicine seller appearing. Heaven has taken to patrolling, so no mortal can find safe haven there. The only place still open is the underground, where few youkai wish to live, and few humans can survive long.
Some however had no choice. After the attack on the village, the lesser youkai have turned upon each other. Some knew eradicating the humans could't be allowed. Others are settling old grudges. In either case several youkai species have been driven back below the earth.
Some species however were not so lucky. Vampires, forced by nature to feed on humans, can not flee to the far reaches of the land. For the first time I pity those creatures. Groups of youkai have been scouring the lands to exterminate the entire vampire race.
XIV: The vampire genocide has ended, with a high cost of life on both sides. The roving mobs of youkai succeeded in hunting down almost all the vampires, though I know at least one ("Kurumi") fled to the realm of dreams. In addition, vampires are not easy to kill, and several bands were exterminated as well.
Finally someone remembered that the Scarlet Devil Mansion had been home to not one, but two vampires. An massive expedition was gathered and carried out.
The groups met no resistance in at the gate, or even inside the mansion. It was when they broke into the basement that the witches acted, casting a spell of confusion over the entire house. The basement turned into a maze, where you could lose sight of your friends forever just by turning a corner.
For the rest of the month the mansion echoed with screams.
Maribel thought back to the crimson halls and shuddered. She moved to close the scroll but Renko stopped her.
"You're going to have to finish it," Renko said.
Maribel frowned at her friend. "No I don't. Especially not right now when I'm already primed for nightmares. I can read it all later."
Renko just gave her a look, "If you don't read it now you'll be staying up late wondering what happens."
"Traitor. Using logic against me."
Maribel sighed and continued reading.
Three weeks later the remaining youkai were impaled in front of the building as a message. Those that survived the process and freed themselves delivered it well. Flandre Scarlet was the head of the Mansion, and the magician Juri was it's new head maid. Those who challenged her rule would be either made into examples or used as research by the magicians.
XV: Once again Gensoukyo is balanced, though it is a harsher balance then before. The friendly connections between the great houses have been cut by fear and suspicion. Each has the power to destroy the land, but none can stand against any two of the others. The village is safe, but it is the safety of a wildlife reserve. And with there being no real room for incidents, I fear the power of youkai will begin to fade.
I fear, if nothing changes, Gensoukyo will slowly die.
Authors notes: And here we have the big exposition. Keine, you make my life so much easier. I did a few edits for brevity here and there, but nothing really changed.
Now we've moved past the setting and into the body. Mary and Renko are going to start getting a little more active now that they've got a place to stay and work out of.
Thanks again to all my reviewers (Especially since I'm posting twice a week. Much faster then I normally do.) and don't worry about making speculation. I get good ideas off of that, and it always helps tell me where I need a little more detail (or at least a note).