Rekindle and Release
Even after a week, the taste of victory was sweet in my mouth. And, hey, by now, Kaguya might be healed. The thought lent a slight spring to my step, and I whistled a triumphant tune as I trod down the dead leaves of the forest.
Perhaps Eientei would be rebuilt by now. Just as Kaguya would be getting her hopes up, I could swoop in and blast them to beautiful fragments. I ground a stray leaf into the mud beneath my foot. Once upon a time, I had been the one with a mansion, a family, and a happy future. Well, maybe not the last one. And nothing could replace that life I might have led.
But to take Kaguya's happiness, destroy her dreams for the rest of eternity… it was like a second elixir to me. For the past week, I had been alive.
I let my feet carry me where they willed, content with wandering purposelessly now that I had a purpose to return to. The Forest of the Lost was truly enormous – even counting the paths I had painstakingly memorized to Eientei, I still didn't know where most of the trails led. This particular one was a bit of an odd one – here and there, flat stones seemed to mark a human-made path, but I had been following it back home from a day's walk away from the human village.
Wrapped up in blissful contemplation of Kaguya's demise, I didn't notice the cat until I had stepped on its tail. Correction, tails.
It hissed and spat at me, then took a swipe at my ankles. Since today was a good day, I picked it up and stared into its angry brown eyes.
"You're a long ways away from your owner, kitty." I laughed as it managed to claw at my fingers, for the tiny marks healed almost instantly. "Are you looking for a guide?"
The cat gave a small mrrow of assent, and I patted its velvety head. "Sorry. I'm not going to be escort service after last time. Go find someone else to take you home. If you have one, that its." I passed a careful eye over the creature's scruffy fur, ignoring a sudden pang of jealousy. At the village, this misfit might be more welcome than I was. If she ever made it back, that is.
"Could you, mrrr, put me down, maybe? It's kinda awkward just hangin' here."
I swore violently and threw the bundle of fur away from me. When was last time I had encountered two-tailed cat, again? No, a nekomata. They didn't usually come this far into the wild, but then, they weren't liked by humans either. I snapped a quick flame into my hand. "Get lost!"
The cat just huddled further into the shadow of the bamboo, its black fur almost camouflaging into the earthy shade. "I – I'm sorry, mrow! Did I do something bad?" She hung her head in disappointment. "And I gotta be on best behavior."
I raised an eyebrow inquisitively, but said nothing. She wasn't really threatening enough to warrant an attack at the moment. Indeed, despite her rough exterior, her behavior seemed almost … tame.
"Ya see, it was my big mission! I have to prove myself worthy by getting a special thing from the human village." She seemed to be talking to herself more than to me, her tails twitching in agitation. "And then I got myself lost!"
I left her there, muttering to herself about tasty rabbits and distracting butterflies. I still had another hour or so before I got back to my little bamboo shelter, not that there was anything particularly important that I had to do.
Maybe I could make some more spellcards. Yeah. Something that would be effective against youkai would be pretty nice to have, actually. Or anything to get past Kaguya's spellcards and straight to her. I could start with something simple, and from there –
"Mmph!" I stumbled in surprise, knocked down by a grab from behind. Two scrawny arms circled my waist, and I looked back over my shoulder.
"Miss Human-But-Smells-Like-Magic, can you please show me the way to the human village?" Big brown eyes begged me from beneath a pair of fuzzy black ears. "Pwwease?"
I grabbed the nekomata's wrists and twisted to slam her into a sturdy stalk of bamboo. She let out a shrill screech of pain, then backed off to hiss at me from out of my arm's reach.
"Bad magic human! Be nice!" The cat girl unsheathed a nasty-looking set of claws, glaring at me with sudden malice. "You think you're strong, mrrow?" Her laugh had a distinct, purring quality to it. "Only stupid humans underestimate shikigami!"
Ah, that wasn't good news. Lone nekomata were definitely not a bother to me any more, but with a shikigami I might have to face her master as well. I weighed the chances, then bent down to snatch a handful of dirt. As the cat advanced with a slow, stalking pace, I hurled the debris into her eyes and whipped a tongue of flame over the path. The fire blossomed into a smoky blaze, and I kicked off the ground and sped into the burning bamboo as the nekomata pounced. Behind me, I heard the cat's shrieks of animal rage and pain, but I paid them no mind. She would get over it.
Indeed, she had been very lucky to escape with only a few minor burns.
I rocketed around an oddly bent clump of bamboo, already back on a familiar path again. Here, the chances of encountering anything besides the stray fairy were extremely slim. I checked back once more, just in case. No, the nekomata hadn't caught up, so I could return once more to my plans for Kaguya's misery.
On that thought, had her servant survived? Possibly, for I had left before making absolutely sure. Now that I thought about it, perhaps I could have waited those extra few minutes to burn away her life. Ah, even if I hadn't, though, I had undoubtedly made Kaguya shiver in her stuck-up slippers. Next time, maybe she'd understand that this wasn't just a game.
Her skull was pretty thick, but I would get the message through eventually. Or into her servant's head. Whichever came first. Personally, I hoped that her minions had a better sense of self-preservation than she did. If they got involved, well, it wasn't my fault that they weren't immortal.
I hesitated, another rustle in the underbrush alerting me that the nekomata must have found me again. Grabbing onto a shoot of bamboo, I swiftly turned to match the persistent pest. Why didn't youkai ever learn to leave me alone?
I narrowed my eyes and scanned the shadows, then blinked to find a knife whizzing through my throat. A gurgling scream escaped my lips, and I plunged down into the bamboo.
Did I die before I hit the ground? I couldn't say, but I was certainly on the ground now, draped awkwardly over a crushed stalk. I shook myself up, replaying the last few seconds of my death.
Knives? But wild youkai didn't use kni-
Another glint of silver zipped through the leaves through my left, and I dove to the side and turned to face the source with a flickering fireball at the ready.
I blinked once more and froze, a knife held inches away from my throat by a pale, dainty hand. Rage built within me, and I pushed backward, elbowing my opponent in the stomach. She let out a slight grunt of surprise, never letting go. I thrashed and twisted, heedless of the knife, but her grip was like steel.
"Kaguya, you little - " I yelped in pain, interrupted by the prick of another knife slicing across my arm. "Go and die!" I spat sparks onto my sleeve, calling the fabric into flame. The knife at my throat abruptly disappeared, but before I had time to smile, another blade was sprouting from my chest.
I toppled to the ground, feeling the slice and sting of several other blades as the leaves were stained with warm red.
This time I got to my feet slowly, unsure which direction would bring the next attack. Which was rather strange, because Kaguya seemed to like gloating over my deaths, prioritizing satisfaction over simplicity. Why wasn't she laughing at me now?
I suddenly dodged to the side, correctly predicting a flash of silver from the shadows to my right. Like before, I then felt a cold pressure at my throat, and found the expected knife and hand facing me. Curious about this new plan of attack, I didn't bother to resist her hold.
"To scared to face me, are you?" I taunted, but she didn't answer. The silence grew strained, and I shifted uncomfortably against my awkward position.
Just as I was beginning to think she was going to kill me with boredom, she spoke. "You are Fujiwara no Mokou, correct?"
"Yes," I said, not willing to nod with a knife that close to my neck. Playing her voice back through my head, an unpleasant realization hit me. "And… you're not Kaguya."
"My employer did not wish to disclose her name," the woman continued, no trace of emotion in her icy voice. "She said you would know who you had wronged."
Me, wronging her? I rolled my eyes in disbelief. "Yeah, yeah. What other nice things did she say?"
The knife pressed harder, drawing a thin ribbon of blood. "She told me to kill you. Repeatedly, if I have to." She sounded as detached as if we were discussing the price of a bolt of cloth. "When you beg for mercy, I am to take you to the arranged meeting place, where you will deliver a complete surrender and apology to my employer."
"Never!" I snarled, stomping her foot with as much strength as I could muster. The woman let out a slight gasp, and I used the opportunity to backfist her with a handful of flames. I twisted to catch a glance of a silver hair and cold blue eyes.
"Your choice," she said, and then there was a knife buried up to its hilt in my back.
"That wasn't even fair!"
The cat continued muttering to herself, unaware that she was being watched.
"… she said, if I see a person, be polite. Don't go picking fights. Don't go chasing birds. Or butterflies. Or rabbits." Here she paused, staring dreamily at the foliage. "Tasty rabbits…"
"Get outta here, pussy."
The nekomata hissed in surprise, but when the owner of the voice hopped out of the bushes, the cat sheathed her claws. "Oh, you." She tilted her head to the side in curiosity. "Do I know you? You smell kinda familiar, mrrow."
"That's it!" The two-tailed cat purred as realization finally dawned on her. "You're that white bunny I was chasin'! You got me lost! That's mean!"
"Not my fault you wandered in here. 'S called the Bamboo Forest of the Lost for a reason, ya know."
"Yeah, well I'm a shikigami now! I'm more powerful than your stupid forest!" She waved her two tails proudly, basking in the idea of her recent windfall. "And anyways, Master Ran sent me to get something super important from the human village! It's top secret and everything!"
"Heh, that old fox's still around? And you're doing her errands? Figures."
The nekomata looked up sharply. "You know Master?"
"The rumors, yeah. Not personally."
"Great! So you know how important this is!" She pawed the ground in small, nervous circles. "Look, mrrow. I'm sorry about chasing you, okay? No hard feelings? 'Cuz I need to get to the human village and I got all turned around."
The rabbit-eared girl seemed to consider this, then shook her head. "Not good enough. If I hadn'ta been careful, you coulda clawed my tail off."
"Pwweease?" The black cat closed her eyes as if to recite a vow. "I promise I'll never eat bunnies again. Ever!"
"Really." The other youkai wasn't impressed. "I think you're lyin'."
"N-no! Master said not to lie!"
"Sayin' things like that makes me think ya aren't even a real shikigami." The rabbit smirked at the nekomata's disappointment. "I'm not believin' ya 'less I see this 'Master' of yours."
The cat's expression turned dark for a second, then switched from unhappiness to glowing pride. "Okay! You get me to the village, mrow, and I'll take you to Master Ran!"
"Suuure, you will," the rabbit drawled, trying to mask the intrigued prick of her ears. "And you'll have rabbit for dinner, huh?"
"Nuh-uh! We're having yucky tofu that I'm supposed to get from the-" Her eyes suddenly widened in alarm. "If Master asks, you didn't hear that!"
"Hear what? I didn't hear nothin'." The other youkai finally took pity on the cat. "Seems that Ran's goin' soft if she's takin' on kittens like you."
"But if she's really the kitsune I think she is… well. I s'ppose it couldn't hurt to do her shikigami a little favor."
"Um, okay?" The nekomata seemed puzzled by this last comment, but she shrugged it off and padded off through the bamboo with a pleased smile. "This way to the village, mrrow?"
"Nah, that goes-" The rabbit youkai bounded after her with an amused huff. "Look, just follow me."
"She never surrendered?" I raised an eyebrow incredulously, though of course the woman couldn't see it from beneath the shadow of my hooded cloak. "How many times did you kill her?"
Despite the protection of loose robes Eirin and I wore to conceal our identities, the woman seemed to stare straight into my eyes. I felt a little queasy at the high number she mentioned, but I was certain she spoke the truth. Besides, that brute deserved it after what she nearly did to my friend.
I jumped slightly as Eirin put her hand on my shoulder. "Satisfied, Princess?"
I hesitated, wishing I could have slain Mokou myself, but this would have to do. For the moment. "Yes, Eirin. You may dismiss her."
I stepped back on the rough sand, watching Eirin and the strange, silver-haired assassin out of the corner of my eye. My mentor withdrew an ornate pocket watch from her cloak, offering it to woman, who held it aloft in the shimmering moonlight.
"Is it fixed?" she asked, carefully running her fingers over the elaborate carvings of the watch's case.
"See for yourself." Eirin took back the trinket, opening it of reveal a deceptively ordinary clock face. Yet from where I stood, I could feel the warping, twisting sensation of an incredible spell. Whatever she had done to it, the thing now radiated immense power. Almost like my treasures, actually…
The stranger seemed to sense it too, for she quickly twitched the artifact out of my friend's hands. "Perfect." She nodded once to me, then to Eirin, who smiled faintly.
"You may go," I said imperiously, hoping to get away from here as quickly as was politely possible. I wasn't even sure where we were, exactly, but it was… unsettling. The deathly silent lake and the abundance of moonlight weren't helping my nerves.
The assassin stared through me once more with those piercing blue eyes, and I squirmed under her gaze. It was disturbingly similar to Eirin's icy glares, and I didn't like it one bit.
Finally, she spoke once more. "It has been a pleasure doing business with you." She turned around, putting on a dark cloak of her own, then taking one last look at Eirin. "And… thank you." With those words, I sensed a shudder in time's flow, and she vanished in an instant. A trail of faint footsteps appeared briefly on the sand, only to be washed away by a lapping wave.
"Well," I said softly after a minute's peace, "that went better than I expected."
"Did you really expect her to fail?" Eirin took my hand in hers, and we walked carefully along the lifeless shore.
"I'm not sure," I replied, trying to sort out the conflicting impressions. "It's just… she's our problem, isn't she? We can't rely on assassins all the time. She'll catch us one day."
My friend sighed. "I know. I would have done this by myself, rather than bringing you out here, but…"
"I'm not letting you out of my sight until you've fully healed." I smiled in the depths of my cloak. Eirin's power was far greater than my own, but I liked being the one to play nursemaid for once. When else would I ever have this opportunity?
"I'm fine, Princess," she insisted, despite the fact that I could see her wince slightly as she walked. For the past few days, she'd been taking some kind of medicine to speed her recovery and keep awake to work on the watch. Had she spent less time rushing around to satisfy my demand for revenge, perhaps she would have healed completely by now…
I thought back on the surreal circumstances that had led to this frenzy of work.
For the first few nights, Eirin had muddled about in her lab while I busied myself with fixing the mansion and reinforcing the windows with charms against entry. When Mokou failed to attack again, I fell back into an uneasy semblance of my usual routine. Last week's horrors became a recurring nightmare, one that kept me awake to scan the windows and wander into Eirin's rooms at every possible opportunity. Eventually, she threw me out, and I followed the inaba around instead.
Rabbits are so sweet when they behave.
Why couldn't they be like that when I need them most?
I think Eirin must have instructed Tewi to distract me, because the next time I slid back the door to my friend's lab, she had disappeared. I sent the inaba to scour the mansion, then grabbed their leader and told her to search the forest too. I spent the rest of the night pacing up and down Eientei's endless corridors, regretting my imagination and Eirin's instructions to stay inside.
What if Mokou had broken in while I had been playing? What if she had taken Eirin by surprise? What if my friend had been taken hostage?
Should I surrender? No, never! But where would I find my enemy? If I did, then…
I almost did it, almost rushed off into the forest with the picture of a daring rescue spurring my steps. But what if I was too late? What if Mokou never intended to keep Eirin as a hostage?
What if she was already…
As it turned out, Eirin reappeared the next morning, baffled at my enthusiastic welcome. I bombarded her with questions, which she brushed off with practiced ease.
"Just do as I say, and everything will be all right."
I nodded, taking her cloak and bow as she stretched gingerly and reapplied the dressings on her half-healed wounds. Eirin could take care of herself. I knew that. I knew that I was really only getting in her way by staying. But I stayed anyway, and she finally showed me what was in the package she had brought back from her mysterious excursion. Inside was the silver pocket watch, though its surface then was dented and tarnished. I had picked it up and shaken it lightly, sensing the tattered remains of an ancient spell.
"What is it?"
Eirin narrowed her eyes, unwilling to reveal her plans. I countered with a pleading stare of my own.
"Is it something to do with distracting Mokou?" I asked, suddenly recalling her words to me after the attack on Eientei.
"Yes," My mentor carefully moved aside the shimmering beakers on her desk and put the watch in their place. "It's payment."
An uncharacteristically playful smile had passed over her face. "The assassin we're hiring."
I nearly tripped over a rock half-covered by the sand, then looked back to where Eirin had sat down to rest in the shadow of the overhanging trees. We hadn't really been walking for very long, and I was disturbed by how quickly she seemed to tire. I crossed back to her side and sat down in a ripple of silky folds.
"You don't look 'fine' to me, Eirin," I said, and she avoided my eyes.
"I'm the doctor here, Princess. Are you questioning my judgment?"
I laughed and wrapped her in a loose hug, careful not to touch her shoulder. "Of course not. I'm just impatient to get back to my futon."
"My apologies, Prin-"
"Stop it." I leaned against her good arm, watching the lazy distortions of the moon's reflection in the lake. "You're already doing everything for me. I don't need you to do more."
She cautiously removed her hood, allowing me to see the wry quirk at the corner of her mouth. "But you're still not satisfied."
"You know me too well."
I turned away from the lake to meet her knowing grey gaze. "I'm afraid. Mokou will be back. And I don't know what I'll do if you aren't as lucky next time."
She blinked, and I thought I saw a trace of anger before her expression returned to contemplative calm.
"No, it's not a matter of power. You could probably toss both of us aside like we were mere fairies.
"But this isn't about that. We might be fighting each other for years. Decades. Centuries. You heard what that woman said – she never surrendered. And if she doesn't, then it's only a matter of time. All she has to do is get in one attack, and it's all over."
I took a deep breath, wishing Tewi had lent me her luck tonight. "That's why I want to make another dose of the elixir. And I want you to drink it."
A/N: Brilliant idea, sending assassins after someone who's not super stable in the first place. But hey, that means I get to write Sakuya, though that's probably not her name yet. (Remi gave her that one.) And the cat is Chen, of course. You know what I said about using characters that are probably not alive yet? Yeah… that's definitely going to be a thing with this fic.
(Although, it's not like we actually have definite answers as to how old Chen and Sakuya are, just probable guesses.)
Oh, and if you're wondering how Mokou totally failed to register that two tails = youkai, remember that Chen's other ability (besides being a shikigami) is the power to surprise. Same as Kogasa, actually. Hm.
Also, what do you guys think of the third-person intermission? Is the vagueness okay, or is it just annoying to read? Should I have put that part in italics, because it's supposed to be separate from the usual Mokou-Kaguya narrations? I'm going to be using these interludes quite a bit for the rest of the fic, so comments would be appreciated~
Oh, wait, wait! One more thing! Next weekend, I'm finally going to put up those revised chapters! Yay?