The Hakurei Shrine has always been an uninviting, run-down building. Even after being destroyed and rebuilt several times, it quickly returned to its usual crumbling look and demeanor, white cracks crawling over the walls like jagged vines. Yet another mystery of Gensokyo that would never be solved.
Well, if one would want a logical explanation then Reimu Hakurei, the one and only priestess of Gensokyo, would provide an ample one by being extremely lazy when it came to just about everything.
At the moment, she was lying on her back in the shrine courtyard, moving her arms and legs to create an angel imprint with dirt and dried leaves instead of snow. Ten or so similar imprints around indicated she was doing this for quite some time already.
This happy shout came from the bamboo forest around the shrine and a broom-mounted girl in black and white outfit flew over the courtyard and landed, skidding, next to the donation box, dropping a coin into it at the end of her movement. She then turned to Reimu and grinned.
"Hey, Marisa," Reimu said, not turning her head and sounding sleepy.
"Oh, come on, don't be such a dead fish, ze~. It's a beautiful morning, let's go somewhere, stir some trouble!"
Reimu groaned and Marisa pouted, made her way to the prone miko and leaned over her, blocking the rays of the cracked sun.
"I'd understand if you were sick, but I know you are just being lazy as usual," Marisa said. "And as of late, your usual attitude is starting to make me sick, it's like you've become a satori-type emotion feeder."
Marisa tugged Reimu by the sleeve. "Come on, Reims, it will be fun, I promise. The coal deposits Yukari pulled out have some cool caverns underneath, we might find a diamond a size of a puppy!"
"There are no diamonds in coal," Reimu said wearily. "We'll just get dirty."
Marisa raised an eyebrow at the state Reimu's clothes were already in. She released the sleeve and stepped back. "How about going with me for old times' sake, then?"
"Old times? I don't remember doing anything meaningful with you. We hang out, we drink tea, but when something serious happens, accident serious, it's always a spell card fight, you against me. Against, not together."
Marisa struck a pose. "Really? Then how about starting it today? I need someone to watch my back, these caverns may be dangerous. I might fall, scrape a knee or worse, sprain or break something."
"I don't care," Reimu said plainly. Marisa paused.
"Well yes, I don't care. I worried about you when we were twelve, but you always bring your injuries on yourself, and I can't worry all the time. It's not healthy."
Reimu said this with the same bored expression and Marisa frowned. "Some great friend you turned out to be," she said and turned away.
Reimu lifted her head slightly. "Don't be so overdramatic. You'll be fine, we both know it. Yes, sometimes Yukari brings in dangerous things, but even if something happens Eirin will patch you right up, she always does despite her sour attitude. Now leave me alone, I'm busy."
"Busy doing nothing?"
"I am creating art," Reimu said and spread her legs, slightly accentuating the lower part of the dust angel. "You can't imagine how draining this is for me."
Marisa's face contorted in anger, she wanted to shout, to curse, to wish Reimu some ill fate. She didn't, taking off in the air silently instead, mounting her broom on the go. She blasted off, on purpose creating a gust of wind that destroyed the dust imprints.
Reimu didn't bother getting up. Marisa would get over it, and besides, there were more complicated problems to ponder at the moment.
Like, for example, why the greater fairies, Sunny Milk and Daiyousei in particular, were so deathly afraid of everything that had to do with the term "Hakurei" as of late.
Marisa went for an obvious choice and flew towards Nitori's house. After all, it was on the way and it always took Alice ages to prepare all her dolls and spells. And even then, she was still a source of never ending complaints.
Marisa landed on the porch of the house and noticed the front door to be slightly open. Strange scraping and screeching noises were coming from the inside, and it meant that Nitori was probably working on something at the moment. Marisa put on her best smile and knocked at the door, throwing it open immediately after that.
"Hello, ze~! It's a beautiful morning outside..."
Marisa realized in what state the interior of the house was and stopped.
The house was a mess. No, not like her own, when things just pile up upon themselves, not the mess experiments and works in progress produce. It was a chaos of destruction, the result of pointless rage, everything scattered, shattered, broken, overturned tables, oil on floor and windows, gears and sharp blades stuck in walls and ceiling.
And in the middle of it all Nitori was sitting on the floor, sawing with a circular saw a knocked-over grandfather clock.
Nitori turned, her gaze unfocused, and looked at something behind Marisa. She smiled, her smile strange, like she was not fully in control of her face.
"You are almost whole," she said slowly. "I am so happy."
"Uh... yeah, me too," Marisa said carefully and stepped forward. "Nitori, you... really should pay attention when you use power tools."
Nitori didn't turn back to the saw. "Do you like the sound? The screech that destroys time itself. Tick-tock-screech. The sound of the cycle break."
The saw went all the way through the mechanism and stuck into the ground, stalling. It shut down, and Nitori turned to it, a curious look on her face. Marisa made her careful approach and up close she saw that Nitori's arms were full of splinters and bleeding, red blood instead of water coming out of the cuts.
Marisa cleared her throat. The whole situation was bizarre, bordering on horrifying, and she didn't know of how to proceed or what to say. In the following pause, Nitori pulled up the saw and pushed the button on the side of the device, starting it again.
"I don't blame you for anything," she said. "Pazuzu controlled you like he controlled me. Time can not be changed, and it can never be taken back once it is gone..."
She trailed off and started to saw the clock again.
"Nitori, no offense, but you talk crazy and you are obviously not okay. Do you have a fever? We should get you to the hospital. Here, let me take this from you."
Marisa carefully leaned in and pushed the button on the saw. Nitori didn't resist, and Marisa took the saw away. She then put her palm on Nitori's forehead. The kappa indeed had a fever, high fever at that.
"Guess what," Nitori said with a strange chuckle. "I no longer care if a human touches me. Maybe it was my true desire after all, to overcome my shyness. Totally worth it. All of it totally worth it."
"Sure," Marisa agreed, but then again, she would agree to anything at that point, just to get Nitori to stop talking. She tried to pull Nitori up and the kappa complied, swaying unsteadily, so Marisa supported her weight.
"Let's get you to Eientei. Eirin will fix you right up," Marisa said, mostly to reassure herself.
"Of course she will, she'll fix me good. Like she wanted to fix Wriggle, she'll jam a nail into my brain and I will feel all better. I will be calm, and happy, and will not bother anyone anymore."
Marisa clenched her teeth, trying to ignore the comment. Nitori had a fever, that's all. People talk like this all the time when they are feverish.
They left the house and Nitori stopped, panting. She coughed, a weak, shallow cough. "Won't be long now, probably a week at most," she said.
"Oh, come on, it's just a flu," Marisa said with a false smile. "Nobody dies in Gensokyo from the stupid flu."
"I will not die," Nitori said and looked to the sky. "He does not control me anymore, but he will not allow me to die. The symbols in my head no longer guide me, they just swarm, stinging and poisoning me, bringing me closer to insanity with every bite. Only one instruction remains intact, an instruction to live. I think he is laughing right now."
"Sure, sure, he is laughing, whatever you say. Let's fly, Nitori, Eirin will fix you up."
They took off with difficulty, and Nitori looked back at her house.
"Good luck to me," she whispered. "Good luck with my experiments."
"Round and round it goes, where it goes, nobody knows," Tewi said with her usual lisp.
"Aw, come on! What time is this already?" Hatate shouted. She was sitting in front of Tewi for a good part of an hour now, and no matter how thick and comfortable the carpet in the lobby of Eientei was, the novelty has worn off long ago.
"One hundred and fifth. Four more losses and you die," Tewi answered seriously.
"Yeah, right," Hatate said with sarcasm. "What, the rabbits are going to, like, devour me? Stop being so creepy and let me in. Left."
"Nope," Tewi said, flipping the cup. She then showed that the ball was under the central one. "Three more losses and you die."
Hatate resisted an urge to pull at her hair. This was just torture, she tried guessing in a row, she tried the same cup over twenty times, but Tewi won every single time. She started another round.
"Why do I even have to go through all this? I'd bet you let Aya in without any of this nonsense."
"Aya gave up and then got to Eirin through the window," Tewi responded, moving the cups with untraceable speed. "But this is not how you win. Hitting me in the face is not how you win. Praising me won't help. Shouting won't help. You just have to watch where the ball goes. Round and round it goes…"
"Look, Tewi, I need to take this interview, I really need to. It's not everyday something like this happens, please."
"Begging won't help," Tewi said and stopped the cups. "Guess."
"Wrong," Tewi said with an evil smile and turned the cup, revealing nothing. "Two more losses and you die."
"Tewi, Tewi, Tewi," the rabbit mocked her. "You are slow, Hatate, and you can't win. And even if you win your column will be the same as Aya's, because Eirin will tell you exactly the same medical babble she told her."
She started moving the cups. Hatate bit her lip, nearly to blood. There had to be some way…
"And do you know what happened to Nitori? Can you give me an interview?"
"Only if you win. And if you don't, you will die," Tewi said and stopped shuffling.
"Nope. One last round and if you lose, well, you know."
She revealed the ball under the left cup and started again. Hatate helplessly looked around.
The lobby was spacious, and they were not alone. Around, rabbits were sitting, most of them white, on the floor, chairs and low tables. They all stared, their strange rabbit eyes looking almost alien, their ears moving alertly and their noses twitching. A dreadful thought occured to Hatate, a thought that the rabbits would indeed devour her.
The cups stopped. "Choose," Tewi said.
"But… I was not looking…"
"You don't have to see to know. Where is the ball?"
Hatate shut her eyes tightly. She knew the answer, she already won before, even though she never played with Tewi. It felt like it happened in a different life, they played and she won, her prize an interview with Eirin and a small box of knockout powder she promised to use for a harmless prank.
Hatate opened her eyes and reached forward. Her pointing finger traced all of the cups. The ball, it was… it was...
"Left," Hatate said and with a strong, confident motion knocked the right and center cups down.
Silence took hold of the room. The cups were empty, and they silently rolled on the carpet. Tewi remained sitting, rigidly upright, not blinking. Smile slowly crept on Hatate's face.
"The ball is in your hand all the time, Tewi," Hatate said, keeping the triumphant smile. "After I choose, you put it under another cup. Rabbit powers, sleight of hand, I don't know how, but you do that. And now you have no choice but to put it under the left one. The cheater fails, and the winner takes it all. Show me the ball."
Tewi didn't respond right away, and there was a long moment during which Hatate clearly and vividly imagined a swarm of rabbits closing in on her like a tide of white maggots.
"Yaay!" Tewi shouted, bursting into applause, and all the rabbits did the same. "You guessed! Just remember, don't reveal it to anyone, it's a huge trade secret. Swear your life on it."
"Yeah, I like, swear," Hatate said in relief, and Tewi indeed lifted the cup, presenting a ball to her.
Tewi put the cups away, and some of the rabbits went away on their business. Hatate pulled out a notepad.
"You promised an interview. I won, so cough up the saucy stuff," she said with a grin. Tewi's face darkened a bit.
"Well yes, I did, but… oh fine, I'll tell you, it won't be a secret for long anyway. Marisa brought in Nitori yesterday, claiming she "acted odd". And let me tell you, our favorite kappa is beyond odd, she is a true basket case."
Hatate scratched behind the ear with a pen. "Really? I talked to her a few weeks ago, she looked normal enough."
"Oh trust me, she's anything but normal," Tewi assured. "First, we put her into a normal ward. She broke the window and started arranging the shards into a circle. Then she took one and started cutting the bed, cut herself too. When we tried to put her to sleep it didn't work, all Eirin's meds didn't work, it's like injecting her with water."
Hatate stopped writing and looked up. Tewi didn't look like she was joking, not one bit.
"And then, when we did a thorough medical exam, that's where it got really bad. Her right lung is rapidly degrading and her whole body is inscribed from inside, Eirin never saw anything like it. We are expecting Alice to visit today, maybe she will make some sense out of it."
Hatate's hand slightly trembled, but she controlled herself. Nitori was just her neighbor, nothing more.
"And the cause?" she asked, trying to sound professional. Tewi snorted in disdain.
"Well, the cause is that she "experimented" with some drugs and mushrooms awhile ago. She fried her brain, she damaged her lungs, and now she spews nonsense about worlds within worlds and gods beyond gods. Well, that's a part of it, where she found an ancient curse is a whole another matter."
Hatate fell silent. Tewi waited a bit, then changed her pose and started to pick her toes.
"I am not printing it," Hatate said after a long pause. "Nitori may not be my close friend, but a headline "Stupid kappa fries her brain" is going to offend a lot of people. And kappas."
Tewi looked up and smirked. "Then how about, "A genius stumbles, all of Gensokyo rushes in to support"? We are not giving up on her. Reimu will try some rituals, Marisa - spells, Eirin will try some new stuff… we'll bring her back somehow."
"Well, that's a bit reassuring," Hatate said and stood up. "I'll still talk to Eirin though, I need some medical babble for my column."
"Sure," Tewi said and pointed at one of the rabbits. "She will lead you to her."
They went to the corridor entrance, and Tewi turned. Something kept nagging at her, something at the edge of perception, a forgotten memory, a forgotten detail. Something about Hatate, something she should have had, a quality, an important part of her, a part that was missing.
"Hey, Hatate, didn't you..." she called out, unsure of how to word it. "Didn't you have that... thing, yellow rectangular thing, cell... phone? You used it to take pictures..."
Hatate stopped, tense, and looked at her right wrist, a strap around it, a strap ending in nothing. She blinked and shook her head.
"No," she said. "Aya has the only camera in Gensokyo, it always has been like that. That's why I'll never be a better reporter than her. But hey, at least I won against you, this has to count for something, right?"
Her voice turned bitter at the end. The minor rabbit called for her and she continued forward, disappearing in the depths of the mansion, crossing a white jagged crack on her way.
Tewi sighed and gathered the cups. She held the tiny reflective ball to her eye, examining the distorted reflection of herself and the surrounding room. For a fraction of second the image flicked, showing the burning and melting walls, writhing and silently screaming rabbits.
"And even if you win," Tewi said into space. "The cheater still gets to keep the ball. To play again, with another victim."
Yuuka Kazami was in a foul mood, and had plenty of reasons for it.
The flower festival she hated so much took place earlier that day. She petitioned to Reimu again, she visited the village the day before the event and scared some of the people off, but it was really the most she could do. The village belonged to humans, and Yuuka could not just start killing people left and right, just as she could not kill the village guardian. It would lead to Reimu burning her garden.
The Garden of the Sun was not in good shape either. Here, there was particular abundance of cracks, spreading radially from the single point close to the center of the whole site. The sunflowers were beset by a streak of various diseases for the whole summer, and Yuuka ran off her legs to keep it all together and not allow the whole ecosystem to collapse.
An annoying and persistent intruder appeared in the garden as of late, some minor youkai barely above a fairy in power. She appeared to be searching for Yuuka and called her name often when she visited. Yuuka ignored it at first, but the youkai kept returning, again and again, and by the time of the festival Yuuka has had it just about enough.
And on top of it all heavy rain started close to evening, and it was an unnaturally cold one for the season. The ground was soaked, and rain drops rang hollowly when they hit the surface of the umbrella. Not that it helped much, Yuuka felt damp and unpleasant regardless.
Yuuka sensed the intruder long before she heard her call out. This minor youkai definitely had to be insane to consciously search for her, and the fact she did so in such weather was a final excuse Yuuka needed. If that pest had a death wish, she was all too glad to fulfill it.
Yuuka floated in the direction of the calls. For some reason, the small youkai was not flying, trudging through the sunflowers with difficulty instead, and Yuuka decided to wait for her on the next small clearing. She straightened up and gave herself a menacing look.
The intruder stumbled into view. She looked miserable, cold and dirty, her soaked cloak trailing in the mud, her antennas limp. She noticed Yuuka and stopped, her expression a mix of disbelief, shock and hope.
"Yu... Yuuka?" she said, her voice trembling.
"For someone of your station, it is Kazami-san."
The light of hope in the eyes of the minor youkai died. She hung her head. "You don't remember me," she said glumly.
"Why, I do, I know you. Wiggle Nightbug, a bug youkai from the Forest of Magic. A pariah and disgrace of our kind because of her weakness."
"It's Wriggle," Wriggle said, and this time she sounded hurt. Yuuka rolled her eyes.
"Well excuse me for my mistake. Gensokyo is big, and I think I am allowed to not learn the names of every scum and bottom feeder out there. Now, you were searching for me, you probably think you have something important to say. Say it."
Wriggle didn't raise her head, the rain drops disturbing her antennas. "Is that how you see me now? A scum and a bottom feeder?"
"Yes, because you are. Stop wasting my time and tell me what you came here for."
Wriggle turned away. "It's nothing. If you don't remember, you won't understand, and I won't push it. Maybe it was not meant to be from the start. I will leave, and I won't bother you again. Goodbye, Yuuka."
She took a step. There was a flash, a blur of red, and Yuuka appeared in front of Wriggle, grabbing the antennas with untraceable movement. Her lips cracked into a cruel smile.
"No, no, don't leave just yet, stay. Let's talk, have a friendly chat. How was your day? Mine was awful, I feel so down. Entertain me a bit, make me feel better."
Yuuka twisted her wrist and Wriggle screamed, grabbing the hand, trying to pull it away from the sensitive antennas. Yuuka regarded the vain efforts with the same smile.
"You think it's just a game, don't you. You trespass, you bother me, you show no respect. In times of old, it was punishable by death."
Yuuka released her hand and drove her knee into Wriggle's stomach. The scream was cut off, Wriggle fell, gurgled and vomited. Yuuka sidestepped, her smile unchanged.
"In my domain I enforce my own rules," Yuuka declared and gestured around. "And I am a very old-fashioned youkai. Painfully so."
"You are not... Yuuka..." Wriggle managed to say. "The Yuuka I knew would never-"
"Oh really, do tell. Tell me about this "Yuuka" of your delusions, the perfect image of me in your head, that one Yuuka that would never hurt you. Tell me all about your obsession."
Wriggle wiped her mouth and looked up. "Not delusions, memories, memories I've kept through shattering of the world. Not obsession, love, love I kept through-"
Yuuka stepped on Wriggle's leg. It broke with a sound of a rotten tree branch.
Wriggle screamed, a howling scream of pain, the scream that never escaped the clearing, the sound muted and dispersed by the rain. Yuuka kept her smile, pinning the writhing youkai to the ground. When the screams subsided a little, she spoke.
"Wriggle, you are insane. I heard rumors about the kappa that went insane, but she at least kept it all to herself and didn't bother anyone. You, on the other hand, are an annoying pest, a weed to be removed, and, excuse the quality of the pun, an insect to be crushed."
Wriggle gave her a look full of pain and tears. "A villain that gloats... over the helpless is nothing but a weak... insecure bully..."
Yuuka's smile grew wider. She theatrically flipped her hair back.
"Goodness gracious!" she exclaimed, her voice so full of sarcasm it could warp wood. "You got me! Using power of psychology, you bared my soul to the world! I am just an abused child grown up! Oh, I am so vulnerable and alone, shunned and despised for what I am. I am just like you, we are the same! I love you! Let us kiss!"
Yuuka leaned in and, still smiling, bit into Wriggle's face. She thrashed her head and tore into the flesh, destroying almost the whole cheek.
Then she stood up and gulped down. Luminescent yellow blood was all over her face but she didn't care, her smile just as it was, an upward generic arc of teeth. Despite the pain, Wriggle tried to say something, but the blood collected in her throat and she gurgled and coughed instead.
Yuuka closed her umbrella and lowered her arm, pointing at Wriggle.
"You will die," she said, and at the tip of the umbrella a tiny point of strobe light appeared. "And you will stay dead, because this particular type of beam distorts and scrambles the souls of those it hits. Only the finality of death gives life value and meaning, and nothing else."
Wriggle coughed out the blood. She propped herself up on an elbow and leaned towards the origin point of the beam.
"Then kill me," she spoke with feverish clarity and drive. "Kill me and prove that you are wrong. Prove that you are weak, a coward way too afraid to let anyone close to her heart. Prove your shallowness, your inability to listen. Prove that you are not Yuuka, but Pazuzu wearing her skin and voice."
Rain fell, cold and heavy rain, way too cold for the season. Water slid down Yuuka's face, her smile frozen and unnatural, the viscous yellow blood being washed away. Below her, Wriggle was holding to the broken leg, spitting blood from the hole in her cheek, staring at the flickering point of light with pain and defiance.
"I am a predator," Yuuka said, her voice cruel just as her smile. "Predators kill to feed, and I kill to feed my psyche, to reaffirm my identity. Without that I would wither and fade away like so many youkai I knew. Without that I would stop being Yuuka Kazami. Pazuzu, whatever it is, has nothing to do with what is going to happen next. Die."
The point of light burst, bringing into existence a brilliant white beam. There was a short scream, and nothing remained of Wriggle but a misshapen ash imprint on the ground.
Yuuka opened her umbrella again and snapped her fingers. Thin, weak grass pushed through the ash, and the clearing became just as it was before.
And Yuuka's smile likewise remained unchanged, as if nothing happened at all.
Just as if nothing happened at all.
An idol floats through the void, slowly rotating in silence. It is damaged, intricate carvings on wings gone, the face is an unrecognizable lump of molten bronze.
It moves, untouched by the chaos around, through the fires and sinister geometries, through the liquid spinning wheels. It moves, on and on, silently moves, wings spread, right arm up as if in greeting. It has no direction, no purpose, it just moves, because life is in movement. Life is in change, in flaws, in impurities.
A clawed black hand reaches out and catches it.
The idol shifts, straightening up and gleaming. The carvings are restored, and stylized muscles appear again. The face returns, a beaked, crooked face with sunken eyes.
The clawed hand traces its talon along the base of the figurine, and wedged inscriptions are forged anew, blazing for a second before turning dull again.
The idol is not important, it never was. It is just a shape, a weight, an object of worship. And in truth only words are important, words of the ancient alphabet, words of ancient power.
He is Pazuzu, the God among gods. Born on the true world, banished into the void, he still lives, through scribbles of madmen, through cults, through ancient texts and ancient idols, through memories of his perfection. He still lives, and he is still building the tower of Babel. And it will never be finished, because it is a monument to futility, the ultimate symbol of pointless effort.
He is Pazuzu, the shaper of worlds. Infinite worlds are before him and he corrupts, to forge new useless bricks. And sometimes he amuses himself with little shows, pulling the strings made of words and quiet suggestions, enjoying the little tragedies and dying screams. And if the strings break, if all sources of corruption are found and destroyed, then the world is flooded with plague and made perfect regardless.
Speak his name thrice and he will grant your desire, first taking everything you hold dear away. If your desire is foolish he will mock you. If your desire is pure he will twist it. If your desire is born of evil he will give you a chance to shine, to be his puppet. And he will always grant it, even if you will be long dead to appreciate it.
Nothing at all in exchange he requires. Every wish, every recital of his name brings more darkness into the world. But darkness is just an absence of light, and his true color is yellow, the color of sucking quicksand, the color of pus and bile, the color of hate. And once he starts he never stops until the world is perfect. And another brick takes its place.
The idol is set to the ground. Around it a new ziggurat is slowly erected, raw chaos shaped into sandstone, into traps, inscriptions, winding labyrinths to bait the unaware, to pique the interest of explorers. A special lure set into the worlds where a show is about to start. A piece of cheese in the mousetrap.
The temple will be ready and the idol will shine, good as new, ready to be taken away. The inscriptions will be deciphered, and someone will say "Pazuzu" thrice. And Pazuzu will hear, taking interest, beckoning for the world to float closer with his right arm held up as if in greeting.
Another hero falls. Another cycle breaks. Another world reshaped. Another brick to the tower.