You know, I've always been confused by those who say the gods don't exist solely on the basis that their prayers never seem to get answered. After all, the gods have no power without faith, and if we only pray to them when we need them to have power, they won't have enough to do anything but watch sadly. It's why I visit that old shrine every year… even if one person comes but once a year to give that god, whoever they are, their faith, then maybe after long enough, they can pull off a real miracle…

First Day ~ A Heartfelt Prayer

As I drove along the barely-visible path, I thought once again about those words. One of my friends had caught me as I was about to leave, and asked me why I always come up here each year. And, well, that really is the reason why. It's just to pray… and to give the god of the shrine just a tiny bit of faith to survive on. The average Westerner would scoff at the idea of me somehow giving a god power, but they only have one god to give faith to. Of course he would have incredible power. But for us, there's a reason we talk about the eight million kami.

As I stepped out of my car, I checked my hair in the mirror, and smiled a bit at the face reflected back at me. I had, as always, cut my deep brown hair short in preparation for the day's work, curling just above my chin and tucked behind my ears. Somewhere in my ancestry, a foreigner or two had been twined into my family tree, but my slim, tapered eyes were the only sign of this, a clear light blue shining back at me in the mirror. With a smile, I tied a kerchief over my head and set to work.

I sighed a bit as I started up the grassy, overgrown path to the old shrine. From drawings I'd managed to dig up, the building must have looked wonderful back in the old days. But, sometime near the end of the 1800's, it had been abandoned, and now it was barely holding itself together. When I first had found it, there were weeds freely growing in the interior, and the path was more like a thicket of plants. It had taken me a long while to clear out the weeds, but I never seemed to get tired… at times, I liked to think the god of the shrine was loaning me just a little power in thanks for my faith and care. Nowadays, thanks to my annual visits the shrine was looking far better than it had. Today I'd brought a load of boards to try and replace some of the rotted and broken ones in the shrine's floor. First, though, as always I moved towards the altar in the very back of the shrine to pray.

As I moved up the path, bearing the first load of boards, I felt something strike against my foot. Sifting through the grass, I eventually came up with a small coin, its face totally obscured by moss and a speckling of tiny mushrooms. Cupping it lightly in my hand, I moved to the shrine and set down the boards… pausing at the door and glancing back. Warped and worm-eaten as it had become, there was a donation box in the front of the shrine. Finding the idea actually a little quaint, I gently wormed the old coin through the slot and listened to it settle into the bottom with an audible clunk.

I took a moment as I stood there to look out at the land around the shrine, and I sighed. The flowers and trees around the old shrine looked sick, withered and drooping lightly. I still had no idea what was wrong with them; my only friend with any interest in botany had looked at them and concluded merely that they were blighted somehow. Another student suggested that it might have something to do with the reason the shrine was abandoned, but neither of them had been able to give a conclusive answer as to just what was wrong with the land, or what I could do to help reverse it. It almost looked at times as if the energy of the land was somehow being drained away.

To be honest, those trees were part of the reason that I came and prayed every year on the first day of spring. Faith is faith, and I believed that if I spent enough time and care, the shrine's god could perhaps gain enough strength to reverse whatever had withered its home. I wanted to restore the shrine and to help its god to regain power and to be worshipped again, by more than just a single high-school student, but I also longed each year to drive up to see the cherry blossoms in full bloom.

After making my usual devotions, I returned to the car and carefully lugged the wood up to the shrine, piece by piece. The morning wore on, but by the time I broke for lunch, the worst parts of the shrine's floor had been restored, leaving only the firmer parts to be replaced. I sat outside in the sun to eat my meal, bowing lightly towards the shrine's interior and murmuring, "Ittadakimasu," as I did. The god hadn't provided it for me, but I was still eating lunch in what was effectively its home… my friends thought me silly for it, but I always regarded it as important to show respect for it. The grass, at least, was soft and rich, and I laid in it to relax in the sun when I had finished, closing my eyes and letting myself commune with the shrine and land around me.

As I laid there, I smiled, my thoughts turning to the god and letting my faith flow to it once more. Maybe, after a few more years of this, the Hakurei Shrine can really be restored, I thought.

A few minutes later, as I lay there still, a burst of color seemed to explode from nowhere behind my closed eyelids, and I suddenly had the sensation of a brief gust of wind rushing over me. When the color and wind stopped, I had the odd sensation that something was different about my surroundings now… the scent, perhaps. As I opened my eyes, the image of cherry blossoms falling through the air jolted me. I quickly sat up, looking around at the suddenly blooming trees all around me… had the shrine's god finally answered my prayer? But something seemed wrong, and as my eyes fell on the path I realized what it was. The weedy, almost invisible path I had come up by was now well-kept, and the stairs beneath it were actually intact, a beautifully-carved Shinto gate standing proudly above the peak. I sat there pondering. Had the god actually pulled off a bigger miracle than I had expected? Or, perhaps, was this a vision it was granting me of the shrine's past… or of its restored future form?

Of course, the truth was to prove far stranger than a simple divine action. As I sat there trying to make sense out of everything, a girl appeared at the top of the steps, carrying a pair of bottles in a sling over one shoulder, a small gourd clutched in her free hand almost possessively. She cocked her head as she saw me, and came closer. She glanced towards the shrine as she reached me and called, "Oi! Reimu! Another visitor… oh, and I'm back with the sake…"

I couldn't help but stare, really. As she came closer, what I had thought to be an extremely outlandish hair style proved in fact to be a pair of steer-like horns emerging from her long red hair. A broken chain dangled from one wrist, and as she watched me, she lifted the gourd to her lips and took such a long sip from it that it seemed impossible that the small gourd had held that much even when full. She grinned at me as she finished, a light blush curving under her eyes. "What? Ain'tcha ever seen an oni before?" she asked.

The question left me stumbling. "W-well, no," I managed to stammer out. "I didn't… think they existed…"
The girl shrugged. "Eh, commonplace enough answer… most of 'em live underground with Yuugi, so it's not like there are tons running about up here." She tilted her head. "Hang on a sec… you said 'existed', not 'any left'…" she murmured. "Where do you come from, anyway? Human village?"

I blinked, slowly standing. As I did, I took a better look at the girl. Those mischievous eyes sparkled at me, a warm brown, and she was dressed in rather odd attire… a buttoned top with no sleeves, though the tatters around the shoulder area suggested that they had been torn off rather than the garment being made that way. She also wore a long purple skirt with white patterns around the hem, and was very clearly barefoot. "Well…" I finally answered. "I'm from Osaka…"

The girl grinned, holding out a hand. "Knew it! You're from Outside, aren't ya?"

I blinked, taking the hand carefully. "Outside…? Outside of what?" I paused. "Not… that I really know where I am at the moment…" I confessed.

The girl nodded, shaking my hand eagerly. "Common enough reaction… well, outside of Gensokyo, I mean. People stumble through the barrier sometimes…" she said, as if that was enough explanation… to her, it probably was, but I was still left confused. "Anyway, the name's Suika. Suika Ibuki."

I blinked, shaking her hand cautiously. "Chitose Izumo… so… um, I still don't get where I am…"

Suika shrugged. "The Hakurei Shrine, of course," she said, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world… again, maybe it was to her. She turned and frowned at the shrine. "Where's that lazy… OI, REIMU!" she shouted again. "C'mere!"

"Yeah, yeah, I'm coming, knock it off, flat-chest," came a groan from inside. "I do enough work preparing for this thing every year, would it kill ya to let me snag a nap while you're out shopping?"

Suika pouted, one arm covering her noticeably small chest. "Just get out here, Reimu…" She shook her head.

I frowned, scratching my head. "… I just came from the Hakurei Shrine… I was restoring it, then I laid down, and suddenly I was here…"

Another long sigh came from inside. "Oh, great…" A black-haired girl, hair bound up in a red bow, poked her head out of the door. "Suik, she's from Outside?"

Suika nodded. "Yeah, near as I can figure," she said back, looking at me. "She said she's from Osaka, and that's definitely a city, right?"

The girl, Reimu, I assumed, sighed, emerging from the shrine now and leaning on the door. Her outfit marked her as clearly being the shrine maiden, although it was very obviously altered from the normal miko uniform, replacing the white-and-red kimono and hakama with a long red dress with a yellow neckerchief. The sleeves were long, pure white with red ribbon, and to my surprise I saw they were detached, held on to her arms in such a way that her shoulders were left totally bare.

"Great," the miko muttered, raising her finger in the air. "All together now… damnit, Yukari!"

Her last words were joined in by two other voices… one, energetic and on the verge of giggles, coming from Suika, and the other belonging to a blonde-haired girl who was now poking her head up over the edge of the shrine's roof and giving Reimu a manic grin.

Reimu blinked. "Marisa, what're you doing up there… and how long have you been up there?" she called up, tilting her head.

Marisa grinned, adjusting her black witch's hat. "Takin' a catnap, and waiting for you to wake up, ze," she said in a singsong voice. Her speech took me aback somewhat, using both "ze" and "ore", parts of speech usually reserved solely for males. She blinked as something small and winged flitted up in front of her face. "Eh…?" She took something from the small thing's hands, giggling lightly as it settled almost affectionately onto her shoulder. As she read the note, she frowned softly. "Reimu, gotta go… Alice wants me for something. Guess I'll come help set up later, ze…" She smiled, and then stood, straddling a broomstick as she suddenly flew off in a blur of black and white.

Reimu rolled her eyes. "Great…" She shook her head. "Look, I'm not dealing with whatever that gap-brain's latest shenanigans are, I've got too much on my plate already…" She ducked back inside the shrine. "Sheesh…"

I couldn't help but stare after the black-white girl's path. "She… flies?"

Suika giggled. "Well, duh," she said, walking past me. "Pretty much everyone can here…" She walked up and into the shrine as well. "I'd better start helping out before Reimu starts pitchin' a fit though…"

"Helping out?" a voice called from behind us. "What, did Reimu threaten not to let you come if you didn't help prepare?" The voice paused as I turned. "Oh, who's this…? I don't recall seeing you around the village before…"

The man standing before me was a fairly normal sight after the sudden craziness of the three girls, only his golden eyes belying anything even remotely odd about him. His short hair was a soft silver that caught the light nicely, and he wore an odd kimono in black and blue along with a fairly large belt-pouch in the front. He didn't extend his hand, as both were occupied in lifting a fairly large box. "Afternoon…" he said quietly.

Suika giggled and waved. "Heya, Kourin~" she called in a singsong voice before running up to take the box from him, then zipping back inside. "Kourin" sighed with relief and sat in the grass when the box had been removed. "Well… that was rather heavy…" he murmured.

I sat near him. Extending my hand, I quickly introduced myself, "I'm Chitose Izumo. And Suika said your name was… Kourin?"

The man shook his head. "Rinnosuke Morichika," he said. "Kourin is just a nickname Marisa gave me, since I'm Kourindou's proprietor." He smiled at my confused look. "You're not from around here then… Kourindou is a shop specializing in curiosities, many of them from Outside. It's on the outskirts of the Forest of Magic."

I shook my head. "That's the third time someone's mentioned 'outside' like that… but outside of what? Just where am I? I was lying down at the old Hakurei Shrine, and then suddenly…"

Rinnosuke sat up a bit. "You're from Outside, then…?" he asked.

I shrugged. "I guess…" I murmured. "Whatever that means."

Rinnosuke smiled lightly. "Nobody from Gensokyo would talk about the 'old' Hakurei Shrine," he said. "Let me guess, it's deserted where you came from?" He returned my nod and immediately continued. "This place - Gensokyo - is sequestered from the rest of the world by a powerful barrier. Anything outside of this 'Hakurei Border' is traditionally referred to us as 'Outside'."

I blinked. "Hakurei Border…?"

Rinnosuke nodded again, seeming to get into full swing. "If you want more information, it'd be better to ask either Akyu or Keine, but in essence, that's the purpose of the Hakurei Shrine, to maintain and empower the Border that keeps us all safe."

He paused, seeing my eyes practically whirling as I tried to keep up. "Ah… well… Think of Gensokyo as a separate world. And the Hakurei Border is what separates Gensokyo from Outside."

I shook my head. "But that doesn't make sense… If I'm from Outside, as you call it, then what am I suddenly doing on the Gensokyo side of this Border? Especially if it's so strong…"

Rinnosuke chuckled. "There are weak points in the barrier. Sometimes the right event, at the right time, will cause something or someone to slip through by accident. A lot of things in my store were gotten that way." He shook his head. "And since you were at the Hakurei Shrine of Outside, it wasn't so difficult for you to come through. So… since I imagine Reimu was a little too frazzled to say it herself, welcome to Gensokyo, Chitose."

I took his hand as he extended it again and shook it. "Er, thanks… I guess… but, then… how can I get back?"

Rinnosuke stood slowly, shaking his head. "For that, you'd have to talk with Akyu or Keine," he explained. "They're the most knowledgeable about history here, so they'd be the most likely to know about previous visitors from Outside that were able to return." He paused. "I need to head back to bring another load of goods anyway, so shall I guide you to the village? You'd probably be able to find both of them there, and the forest is a bit tricky for a newcomer to navigate, especially if the fairies are about."

I frowned softly, rising to my feet. "That sounds like a good idea, really… I should find somewhere to sleep tonight," I pointed out. "Is there somewhere I can lodge there as well?"

Rinnosuke nodded. "Oh, sure, there's plenty of room." He paused, and then added, "Besides, you don't really want to be sleeping out around here at night. Not all the youkai around here are as friendly as, say, Aya."

I blanched. "There are more youkai around here besides Suika, then?" I asked.

Rinnosuke blinked, and chuckled a little. "Oh, lots," he said. "It's just most of them don't seriously seek to harm humans, especially these days. Heck, I'm half-youkai myself. But seriously, the old human-youkai battles have turned into something a lot more like a game these days, especially now that Reimu came up with that Spell Card system of hers…"

As I went to question further, he held up a hand. "We should get going," he said. "I honestly don't have the time to stand here and explain every nuance of Gensokyo to you, especially today with all the preparations that still need to be made."

I nodded, following him as he headed down the shrine stairs and into the bright forest surrounding it. "Preparations for what?" I asked.

Rinnosuke chuckled, maneuvering carefully around the trees. "The Hakurei Shrine is holding one of its annual festivals tomorrow," he explained. "Considering Reimu actually does have a lot to do, especially in recent days, I decided to help her get ready, along with a few others." He glanced back. "You don't have to worry though, we have more than enough helpers at this point, and we've been working on it for a while. Just relax and concentrate on getting your bearings… trust me, I know pretty well how tough it is for newcomers."

The trip through the forest was uneventful, despite Rinnosuke's talk of fairies, or yousei, as he called them. Soon enough, we emerged at the old curio shop he had mentioned. Peeking inside, I saw items from various time periods arranged on the dusty shelves, even a computer in one corner and a handheld console or two up near the front. Rinnosuke nodded, smiling a bit. "As I said, things slip through from time to time. It's just a shame I don't get many customers." He shook his head, slipping inside. "If you head down into the village, you'll find what you need. Keine's almost always at the school, and nearly everyone knows Akyu, so just ask around and you'll find her. I've got to get back up to the shrine; hopefully I'll see you around!"

That was the last I saw of him, as he vanished into the stockroom and I headed down the hill towards the village. The first order of business was pretty obviously getting a change of clothes for the next day, ones a bit more suited than my usual rumpled blue dress to attending a shrine festival in. Time had worn on by that point, and the sun was already lighting the sky a blazing red behind the forest. Moving through the village in search of someone who knew where this "Akyu" was right now, instead of simply where she lived, I soon found myself before a low-built schoolhouse. As I approached, a young girl exited the doorway, her purple hair the only really odd thing about her. "I'm afraid lessons are over for the day," she said quietly. "Keine-sensei has already left…"

I frowned softly, giving her a quick look-over. She wore fairly traditional clothing, a yellow kimono with flowers decorating the sleeves and a short skirt over it. She did sound fairly close to the description… "Are you Akyu?" I asked.

Akyu chuckled softly, pocketing the key. "Yes, I am," she said quietly. "Now let me see… I definitely don't recall your face, but you don't seem to be a youkai… could you be a newcomer?" I nodded quickly, and she smiled. "I imagine Rinnosuke recommended you to me," she said. "Well, come with me then. I'd be happy to help you learn whatever it is your burning questions are…"

She led me to a fairly well-built manor, opening the doors and slipping inside. A few people greeted her politely as she passed, and she returned the greeting with a fond familiarity. Soon enough, we had entered a fairly large study, and she settled herself at a desk with a massive volume settled on it. "First, I have two questions for you," she began without preface. "I'm curious as to whether you know why Rinnosuke suggested you speak to me… and what it is exactly that you want to speak about."

I fidgeted lightly; this girl seemed a lot more intelligent than any girl of ten should be. "Rinnosuke just said that you and Keine would be best to ask if I wanted to know more about the history of Gensokyo… and newcomers from Outside," I explained. "I was wondering if there was a way back… I have a lot that I wanted to do, and to be honest I'm still not sure how or why I passed through the Border."

Akyu nodded quietly, smiling a bit. "Yes, Keine-sensei would be ideal to approach on questions of history," she said softly. "Unfortunately, tonight would be an awful time to do so." She pointed up to where the full moon could be seen rising above a thick, widespread stand of bamboo that I had noticed earlier, but said nothing more, as if that explained everything. "In any case, I know why Rinnosuke sent you to me. To put it simply, I have an eidetic memory… as did my previous eight incarnations."

The implications of this kept me silent as she continued. "The Hieda clan, as Are once did on the Outside, has kept Gensokyo's history for over a thousand years. Thus, I do indeed know a great deal about this land… and I've met an outsider or two myself. In this reincarnation, I mean…"

I nodded quietly. "So then… I guess this is the right place to come." I sighed. "Well… how can I get back, then? I can't just up and vanish on the others…"

Akyu frowned. "Well… therein lies the rub, as they said of old," she murmured. "The Hakurei Border was erected because of the powerful youkai in this region… effectively, it was created to end the constant warring between human exterminators and unruly youkai. In other words, it was designed specifically to be strong enough to repel even the most powerful of youkai from crossing." She rolled her eyes lightly. "Other than the youkai that helped the Hakurei clan to create it, but she's… fairly harmless."
I lowered my eyes. "There's no way back, then?"

Akyu frowned. "Not as a general rule. I suppose if you could convince Reimu to part the barrier long enough for you to get back, but it may be difficult for you to do so… historically, the clan hasn't been very lenient about things like that." She sighed. "Generally, the ones who don't stray and meet with an unfortunate fate simply settle here in the village. Some even develop powers they did not possess in the outside world… I would imagine it's the concentration of magic in the air here. But no, without the help of Reimu or that youkai, you won't be able to easily return."

I nodded, rising slowly. "Thank you… at least I know what I have to do if I'm to leave this place," I said softly. "By the way… would Keine know more?"

Akyu blinked. "Keine-sensei certainly would, but as I said, it's unwise to bother her tonight." She paused, and then chuckled. "Ah, of course, you wouldn't know… Keine-sensei is a half-beast, a therianthrope." At my confused look, she paused, drawing down a thin tome from the shelf behind her. "Perhaps the term lycanthrope, or werewolf, is more familiar to you?" she asked. "Like the traditional werewolf, half-beasts are basically human at most times, perhaps with a few supernatural powers. Under certain circumstances, however, such as the sight of the full moon or (more humorously) being doused with water, they transform into various types of beast youkai. Keine-sensei's case is rather simple; at each full moon, she becomes a hakutaku."

She smiled as she saw the recognition dawning on my face. "She is the teacher here for good reason," she said quietly. "Because there are certain tasks she can only perform while a hakutaku, on the night of the full moon she is always extremely busy, and quite harried. It's best not to bother her for a lesson tonight, particularly since being headbutted hurts when the attacker has horns…"

I nodded. "So, wait until tomorrow… or, no, I suppose the day after… there's the festival tomorrow…"

Akyu nodded quietly. "The festival normally begins around noon, so you probably could meet with her in the morning if you wished. Just be mindful of the long night of work she will have had."

I nodded again, bowing deeply. "Thank you for your assistance, Akyu," I said softly. "Now… I don't want to trouble you at night, and Rinnosuke mentioned there were lodgings here…"

Akyu laughed. "Yes, the Outsider's Inn. Daisuke's place. It's just down the street from here; you'll find it easily enough as long as you go left when you exit the manor." She paused. "Before you leave, though, might I ask your name? You never did give it…"

I gasped and bowed quickly. "Oh… i-it's Chitose Izumo…"

Akyu nodded, smiling softly. "Chitose Izumo. I look forward to seeing your history unfold…" she said gently.

I paused at the exit to her study. "Akyu, can I ask one last thing?" I asked quietly, turning.

Akyu giggled softly. "Besides asking to ask me one last thing? Yes, you may…"

I nodded, rolling my eyes lightly at the old joke… though perhaps to someone from Gensokyo it wasn't so old. "Being the resident historian, you must know a lot about the more powerful figures around here… There was a girl at the shrine when I arrived, dressed in black with a pointed hat. She had a broomstick, and her hair was blonde and braided on one side…"

Akyu paused. "And you wanted to know who she is?" She paused again, and then burst into a fit of laughter that toppled her backwards out of her chair. "That would be Marisa… Marisa Kirisame, one of the few humans strong enough to go toe-to-toe with a youkai and win." She smiled, sitting up. "Come to the festival tomorrow, and I can almost guarantee that you'll learn more about her than you ever wanted to…" She waved lightly to me from the floor, and I turned and headed out into the night.

I quickened my pace as I caught sight of the full moon… hearing about Keine's race had gotten me wondering if more conventional "monsters", like her lycanthrope cousins, might exist in this new realm too…

Further down the street, a pair of antique lanterns framed an old hanging signboard, bearing the legend "Outsiders' Inn". I stepped up to the heavy oak door and rapped firmly.

The door opened fairly quickly for me, and a tall, muscular bear of a man stood behind it, looking down at me searchingly. After a moment, he nodded. "Haven't seen you around the village before… you're from Outside?" he asked, making it more like a statement than a question. When I nodded, he sighed a bit. "Figured as much… well, c'mon in. You can spend the night here, try and get Reimu to send ya back tomorrow…"

I nodded, slipping inside. "Thank you," I said, bowing lightly. "About her… is she usually unwilling to send people back? Akyu mentioned her clan isn't always so helpful…"

The man shrugged. "Depends on the generation, really. I hear her grandmother was a real hard-ass, but Reimu's a good kid. She's got her faults, sure, but I don't think she'd trap you here for no reason."

I paused. "Well… I actually arrived at the Shrine when I first entered Gensokyo, and Reimu said something along the lines of, 'I'm not dealing with this, go bug someone else."

He nodded. "Yeah… well, she's been under a ton of stress lately. You gotta understand, the Hakurei clan are the guardians of the Border. Been that way ever since the beginning. So if there's a problem, some uppity youkai causing trouble…" He punctuated his remark with a snort. "Well, it's up to Reimu to take care of it. And there've been a lot of uppity youkai causing trouble lately." He sighed and extended a hand. "Anyway… welcome to the inn. I'm Daisuke Kirisame, proprietor."

I blinked at the name, shaking his hand lightly. "Chitose Izumo…"

Daisuke caught my look and shook his head. "Met her already, have you?" he muttered.

I paused. "Briefly… she took off looking for someone named Alice before we had a chance to talk," I explained. "So she's your daughter, then?"

Daisuke put a hand to his forehead. "Was," he muttered. "She hasn't really been part of this family since she was, oh, about nine." He paused. "I'll be straight-out about it, I hate magic. She was born with the talent for it, all right, lots of talent. I told her not to mess around with it, just settle in the village like the rest of the family has for generations. Instead, she left and took up with that damn ghost Mima and ended up becoming one of the strongest youkai-hunters in the whole realm."

I blinked, shuffling my feet a little. "… Sounds like something to be proud of, really…"
Daisuke groaned. "Proud?" he roared. "What's there to be proud about of a daughter who flies around dressed like a witch, worships some damn evil spirit like a mother figure, and alternates between blasting the hell out of and having picnics with pretty much every youkai on the planet?"

I tilted my head. "You said she was a youkai-hunter…?"

Daisuke paused, and shrugged. "Eh…" he said, his voice lowering. "Most of 'em say they've turned over a new leaf after Reimu and Marisa get through with 'em. Not that I believe 'em of course," he added with another snort. "I don't really expect a vampire that blanketed the sky with red mist or a crazy ghost with the power to kill people just by thinking about it to just up and stop their evil ways…"

I nodded. "Not fond of youkai, are you…?"

Daisuke slapped his forehead. "Course not!" he roared again. "Now, there's a couple that're decent, of course… Rinnosuke's a good man, used to work here actually, and Alice, well, she may keep to herself, but she's one of the best damn craftsmen I've ever seen. But the sheer number of youkai that roam around wantonly attacking or just messing around with everyone around them… ugh. And to think she's in tight with half of 'em." He shook his head, turning to the board behind him where the keys were hanging. "Youkai aren't for befriending, they're for keeping at about three arms' length and watching like a hawk," he said, pulling down a key and holding it out to me. "If we didn't have Keine around to protect us, I shudder to think what this village would look like now…"

I took the key lightly, deciding that ten years later was a bit late to be intruding on a family quarrel. "Keine protects the village, then? Along with Reimu?"

Daisuke nodded quietly. "Yeah… heh, if ever there was a youkai that broke the mold, it'd be Keine. She's smart, actually cares about humans, and when the other two usually just rush off and beat the crud out of whoever's causing the latest incident, Keine's moving about within the village and keeping everything calm. When she's human, she can even hide the village with her powers, and if she's in her beastly form, well…" He chuckled. "A pissed-off hakutaku is not someone you want to tangle with, believe me. It takes someone on Reimu's level to fight her when she's like that."

I nodded, smiling. "I'd certainly like to meet her… it's a shame I arrived on a full moon night…" I paused, something Daisuke had said striking me. "You said she can… 'hide' the village?"

Daisuke grinned. "S' one of the few times I've ever seen youkai powers at work and been glad about it," he said. "It was back during that weird incident where the night literally wouldn't end… even the moon stopped in the sky except for when it'd jump forward an hour or so every now and then. I'd gone out to Kourindou to talk with Rinnosuke, figured he might know what the heck was going on. When I got back, Keine was standing on that hill that overlooks the village, and the whole place was disappearing. Just… fading, piece by piece, until there was just a flat plain." He grinned. "Well, I was scared as heck, but Keine saw me and was really reassuring… she explained what she was doing, and that there was an incident that might threaten the village, so she was just taking precautions. It was around that point that I started fading out too, so I don't remember further than that."

I shook my head. "I don't understand though, what did she do?"

Daisuke grinned. "As a were-hakutaku, Keine's primary ability is to 'consume' the history of something. So that's what she was doing to the village… consuming its history so that it, temporarily, 'never existed'. And you can't hurt something that never existed…" He smiled a bit. "Teacher and protector… almost makes you forget about how evil some of those bastards are…"

I blinked. "To be fair, I haven't met many yet, but Rinnosuke and Suika didn't seem so awful…"

Daisuke shook his head, groaning yet again. "Oh, don't get me started on that damn oni. Suffice to say she causes more trouble than most of the youkai around… barring that damn kyoukai…" He muttered those last words, glancing around a bit.

The word was unfamiliar to me. "Kyoukai…?"

Daisuke nodded. "Yeah… the characters taken together mean 'boundary'. That's what we all call her… the youkai with power over the boundaries of this world… in fact, I'd lay even odds that she's the reason you wound up here. She was involved in making the damn barrier, I doubt moving back and forth over it is a problem for her…"

I blinked. "Akyu mentioned a youkai who helped to form the barrier, yes…"

Daisuke nodded again. "If Keine's the best example of a good youkai we've got, the kyoukai's probably the best example of a classical youkai," he said, frowning. "She spends most of her time sleeping, or so Akyu says, and wakes up pretty much solely to play pranks on people. I suppose I should be grateful that someone with the ability to fundamentally warp reality is so childish, but couldn't she use it for something a little more worthwhile than swiping food from Reimu and playing her youkai games with whoever strikes her fancy at the time?" He groaned. "Most people who get 'spirited away' are thanks to her… so if Reimu won't do it, your best bet to getting home would be to get on your knees and beg the damn kyoukai to send you back…"

He yawned. "Anyway… I've kept us both up far too late with all this talking… your room's up in the back, on the second floor. I'm heading to bed myself… take care, Chitose. Be polite to Reimu tomorrow…" He rubbed his eyes and slipped into the back, while I headed upstairs.

The room was nice enough, a bit small but with a wide window and a quite comfortable bed. Standing at the open window, I looked out at the sky, marveling at just how many stars I could see. "So… tomorrow is a festival…" I murmured.

A voice spoke behind me. "And yesterday was not…" As I turned, it chuckled. "Sorry… private joke. You wouldn't know why that's funny."

The voice, calm, lilting, and playful, was coming from a young woman in a deep purple dress, currently smiling widely at me. Red ribbons adorned her clothing, and she wore a light pink cap over her long, blonde hair. Behind her, for a moment, I caught what almost looked like a slit in the air, a wound that parted to reveal eyes peering out among a purple background that matched her dress exactly; however, as I tried to look closer, it closed up like a blinking eye and vanished.

"Who are you…?" I asked, taking a hesitant step back.

The girl extended one of her white-gloved hands, smiling. The other held an open parasol against her shoulder. "I've been watching you for a while," she said softly, "But this is our first time meeting in person. I'm delighted… My name is Yukari Yakumo, although I'm sure you've already heard my less-than-flattering nickname from the owner downstairs…"

I blinked, taking another step back and ending up forced to lean on the sill for support. "You're that… boundary youkai that Daisuke mentioned…?"

Yukari smiled, bowing lightly. "Indeed," she said with a soft chuckle. "And as you've probably surmised, I am indeed the one responsible for your own little 'spiriting away'."

I frowned at her. "Why…?"

Yukari laughed softly behind her hand, and then extended it again. "Now, I'm sure you don't expect to be able to demand answers from someone you won't even share the proper pleasantries of introduction with, hm?"
Irritating as she was about it, she had a point, and I gently shook her hand. "I am Chitose Izumo… though I have to admit I find it strange that you don't know my name, since you claim to have been watching me…"

Yukari smiled. "Who said I didn't know it? But whether or not your name is known, it is proper to give it when asked," she said, twirling her parasol lightly. "Now, then… how are you enjoying Gensokyo?"

I blinked. "Not… enough that I don't want to return…" I replied cautiously.

Yukari giggled lightly. "Well, give our realm a try, anyway… You need not fear, no matter what the youkai-hater downstairs may think. I'm not about to let you simply end up attacked and eaten on your first day in this realm…"

I paused, considering my options. "But… I have a lot of things to take care of Outside," I protested. "I have my home, family, friends… and there's still the other Hakurei Shrine to take care of…"

Yukari smiled. "Ah, yes, that project of yours that caused me to take notice of you in the first place… Chitose, your devotion to the old shrine is admirable, but your attempts are sadly doomed on a fundamental level."

Her words stung, and I glared at her. "And why would that be? The shrine's looking better already… I've even started replacing the old caved-in flooring…"

Yukari smiled, and I found myself trailing off. "I know, Chitose," she said quietly. "You've been doing a marvelous job, but you've misunderstood something about the nature of the Great Border." She paused. "Let me say it this way… the shrine you have been repairing so diligently is more a reflection of the shrine in Gensokyo than any real building. Perhaps you've noticed…?"

I paused, and then frowned. Now that she mentioned it…

Yukari's grin grew even more maddening. "Projects that seemed to undo themselves by the time you returned, weeds that regrew just a bit too fast… The shrine Outside is a shadow, Chitose. Your ministrations have been drained away across the barrier… in other words, the faith and repairs you have done weren't wasted, but they were transferred to the shrine in Gensokyo." She laughed behind one gloved hand. "And don't think it doesn't need it… well, the faith not so much, but the repairs have been a great help, I can assure you of that."

I frowned. "So then… the cherry blossoms?"

Yukari shook her head. "Being that close to the Great Border drains the land," she said. "They can't bloom. Showing you how beautifully they bloom in Gensokyo, thanks in part to your care, was the closest I could do to granting that wish." She smiled lightly. "Worth the trip, don't you agree?"

I sighed. "Even so, I want to return… This isn't my world. I don't belong in it."

Yukari laughed lightly again, stepping lightly towards me and standing by the window. "Are you so sure of that? You wouldn't be the first newcomer to settle here, not in the slightest. And you haven't seen even a thimble's worth of our world…" She gave another infuriating grin, ticking off on her fingers. "You've run into Suika, met our resident incident-solvers briefly, had a nice chat with Rinnosuke and Akyu, and finally you met Daisuke, and of course myself. Our realm is far more than that, Chitose… far more."

I looked out the window, knowing what she was getting at. The stars did seem even more beautiful than usual… "You're not going to return me until you're satisfied, are you?" I asked softly.

Yukari giggled, and leapt lightly out the window, hanging there in the air as she twirled her parasol. "No, I'm not," she cooed in a singsong voice. "And besides, I want to see how your 'potential' develops…" She giggled, and that strange wound appeared again. I had enough time to notice that the ends were tied with ribbon this time before she dove into it and vanished completely, leaving nothing but the night village behind her.

I shook my head, laying down and tugging the blankets over my head. At least now I knew what that chorus at the shrine had meant, as I muttered the words myself just before I fell into a doze. "Damnit, Yukari…"

(The first of several steps. I've actually finished this story, but I'll be posting the chapters one by one over the next several days, to give myself time for final revisions and writing author notes. And just so I can create a little bit of suspense in the readers who've been kind enough to watch me~)

(And yes, after a far-too-long hiatus I'm back. .hack/Guardian is still on hiatus until I can beat Volume 3 and properly write the last segment, unfortunately, but I have this and maybe another project or two in the works.)

(Author notes... first off, yes, as most hardcore Miyazaki fans will recognize, the title is an homage to "Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi", known in the States simply as "Spirited Away". Considering that Yukari literally has a spellcard called "Yukari Yakumo's Spiriting Away", I found the parallel too fun to leave alone. In addition, I feel it necessary to concede a few influences from Kimiko Muffin's fancomic Touhou Nekokayou (.com). The "damnit, Yukari!" in particular is a bit of a "loan", as is the name of Marisa's father. Fans will recognize a few more nods and bits of continuity inspired by Muffin in chapters to come.)

(As far as the spiritual stuff goes, I concede that I know very little about Shinto in general. Most of the concepts (like "giving faith") are taken as they work in the game, not necessarily as Shinto dictates. As a side note, the "eight million" gods that Chitose refers to at the beginning is actually a Japanese idiom meaning something closer to "numberless".)

(Lastly, those of you who don't know the Touhou universe very well and are still reading, I implore you to read on! I've attempted in writing this piece to create a story that's at the very least almost as accessible to those outside the fandom, and I would very much love to hear whether people think I've succeeded in this respect or not. Just keep in mind that Chitose and Sakan (who you'll meet later on) are my own creation, not ZUN's, so that those wanting to know Gensokyo better won't learn much from them directly. I'm also very much hoping to hear feedback on Chitose herself... introducing new characters into a long-established canon makes me antsy, particularly over whether or not the character in question has ended up a Mary Sue... so please, feel free to speak your mind fully if you've got something to say.)