Koishi Komeiji, younger sister to the Palace of the Earth Spirits mistress Satori Komeiji, had a gut feeling that tonight was going to be absolutely enchanting and timeless, and was she ever right! Of course, every day for the past few weeks had been especially filled with wonder and joy for the little girl after she had embarked on a daring, precarious journey up the mysterious, perilous Youkai Mountain. She had wanted to go to the Moriya Shrine at top in hopes of acquiring the same powers her sister's pet raven was given, but she had gotten something far more incredible from her experience than the goddess Kanako could ever dream of bestowing: friends! Instead of the usual setup of being a human child's "imaginary" friend until he or she grew up and left memories of her to drift on the wind, Koishi had legitimately found two kindred spirits who noticed and appreciated her.

Admittedly, it was a bit hard for Koishi to believe that she had actually done this after being isolated for so long. Her big sister Satori at first tried to explain to her that her experience was likely nothing but a dream, but after a little while of thought, she knew that was nothing but utter nonsense! Determined to find and befriend the two girls, Koishi decided to embark on a quest for knowledge. Being able to slip completely out of anyone's mind and therefore turn invisible had its perks, and she could therefore cheerfully saunter into the huge red mansion, check out its library, read up on the two she had met, and match them to the pictures of two girls she had sketched in her mind with brightly-colored crayons (every shade available in the giant box Satori had given her for her birthday except for burnt sienna, of course). If it can be done and Onee-chan doesn't mind, Koishi always said to herself, it will be done! Her saying was based on something a busily working ant had once told her about how "everything not forbidden is compulsory", and as far as she knew, no ant had ever lied to her in the past.

So, while the grumpy, purple librarian and company were making a ruckus earlier that evening, the young satori with very light-green hair, a yellow long-sleeve shirt, a forest-green skirt, a beloved black sunhat, and a navy-blue third eye whose cord wrapped all around her body had taken a seat in one of the comfy chairs of the library with Hieda no Akyuu's book of Gensokyo people in hand. As the night progressed, it had been fun watching them squabble and panic while performing little comedy routines like stabbing the vampire in her foot, making the older youkai lady sleepy from offering her pastries, and shattering the large window into billions of pieces. Koishi had made sure to applaud earnestly after every act and remove her hat like any polite audience member should, but she still stayed invisible just in case there was somebody who didn't want her reading there. In between watching the library inhabitants goofily mess around, she had carefully studied the two pages about the girls she had come to learn were named Reimu Hakurei and Marisa Kirisame. It turned out that both were in the business of youkai extermination, but Koishi was sure that she would still become good friends with the two regardless of their occupation just after getting to know each other. After all, they had seemed quite friendly meeting her at the snowy shrine even when she had shown some of her favorite danmaku techniques, so it was quite clear that they would also enjoy having the young satori as a close companion.

Sadly, Koishi had seen the red-white shrine maiden and the black-white magician busily running about with the other bunch of buffoons, working with them on their silly misadventures. The satori was young, but she had already become enough of a grown-up to realize that these escapades may be amusing to watch, but they are pretty immature to actually play in. Though she wanted to tell Reimu and Marisa to stop playing such childish games as they were, she knew her big sister Satori often told her to respect the feelings of others, and she didn't want to be mean to her new friends and force them to stop doing what they like. So, Koishi thought and thought some more about what to do.

She decided to take a stroll down one of the hallways of the big house; endlessly walking back and forth through a narrow corridor could always amuse her for at least ten minutes. The redhead Chinese youkai she had seen while entering the mansion was also meandering in the hallways, humming a cheery song to herself as she passed by the invisible satori. Koishi was relieved to find that there was at least one member of the house as blithe as herself, and she decided to play with her. She made a strange laughing sound that somewhat resembled a wolf's howl and altered the youkai's subconscious mind, making her think both the satori's sound and footsteps were coming from within the walls. Koishi had heard of many comedians known as ventriloquists who would throw their voices toward different places and get a lot of laughs in return, and so she thought she could do the same to amuse the happy girl. Unfortunately, instead of laughing good-naturedly at the amusing trick like Koishi had hoped, the youkai became quite frightened and nervous.

Koishi was sad and disappointed, but what was there for her to do? She couldn't force the redhead youkai to like her fun games… or could she? That was when she realized there was nothing stopping her from simply altering the inner subconscious minds of her two new friends to cause them to start enjoying the things that she enjoyed. With a cheerful twirl and giggle, she wasted no time even leaving the hallway she was in and mentally located both brains of her companions. Delightedly, she took a look at the long list of priorities in life the two had. As "solving incidents", "exterminating youkai", "getting shrine donations", and "robbing the mansion" were the top collective items on their lists, she threw them deep into their cerebral cellars and added "going to the Palace of the Earth Spirits to play with Koishi" as the new leader. Having devised and set into motion a brilliant, cunning plan that would make the two of them best friends with her on their own will, she was absolutely thrilled. Koishi couldn't wait for Reimu and Marisa to come home with her; she was sure that Satori would be tremendously pleased with her for having made new friends, and making her big sister happy was one of the highest items on her own list of life priorities.

Thus, at that moment, Koishi had finally finished strolling from the mansion back to the cave entrance to Former Hell that existed on Youkai Mountain. Waiting with bated breath and a smile from ear to ear for Reimu and Marisa to come join her, she sat on the rocky ground and relaxed under the sort of awning that was formed by the top of the cave. As it turned out, this was the location of the exact threshold between the outside and underground worlds: a fitting location at which to meet up with her new friends. Excitement and anticipation was all but bubbling out of her bloodstream as her youthful eyes continuously scanned the dark night that lay before her for her desired targets.

Although her wound had dripped enough blood to form a filthy, sanguine pool around her feet, Reisen felt as though the severe pain had ebbed away into a dull, numbing sensation over the past two hours. She had been initially reluctant to give into Nue's every wish and make use of the black handkerchief she had been given, but wrapping it tightly around her leg managed to stop the gusher of blood from spilling any more of its precious red gold. Even after she had dodged the threat of death by blood loss, however, Reisen still felt adrenaline pumping all throughout her body in response to the danger she was in by being incapacitated on Youkai Mountain. If fate decided to play another cruel trick on its unfortunate moon rabbit, she realized, it would be off to the Sanzu River with her.

As any nature show would verify, wounded rabbits in the middle of a territory teeming with predators are easy pickings, and Reisen knew that she, despite being a bunny girl, would be no exception in the jaws of a hungry youkai. Since her pain had finally diminished to a tolerable ache, she slowly emerged from the thick, green underbrush lining the bottom half of Youkai Mountain as she attempted to find any way to escape the wilderness. Feeling a wet, slippery sensation on her knees as she crawled toward any sort of clearing she could find, she glanced downward to find that she had spread her pool of blood into a thin trail that followed behind her.

"Perfect," she groaned exasperatedly, roughly rubbing her hands on her knees, caked with dirt and blood, in an attempt to get them clean. Failing that, she grumbled to herself and pressed onward.

A typical nocturne of hooting and laughing youkai sounded in the distance. The half-full moon in the otherwise pitch-black sky cast a gentle glow onto the mountain, but it was hardly enough light to help Reisen avoid senselessly wandering about on the forest floor. Seeing and getting nicked by branches and brambles for what felt like an eternity, she wondered if she had actually been crawling in circles the entire time. She observed the multiple cuts she had incurred but felt little pain toward on her arms and chest and smirked dryly. "Well, guess I don't even have my sex appeal anymore." It didn't make her feel any less lonely out in the middle of the mountain or give her the strength to get to her feet, but she did feel a twinge of happiness from making the quip.

Reisen couldn't have been sure when she had actually first begun to hear rushing water; her ability to manipulate waves (in this case, sound waves) meant that she would frequently limit or increase her hearing without even realizing it. At any rate, she now realized that the noise of the hungry youkai in the distance was completely replaced by a gentle, steady gurgling sound of water. Unlike with the roaring waterfalls Flandre Scarlet had taken notice of, the water Reisen now heard was quite relaxed and in no hurry to flow toward its ultimate destination. If thoughts about the inevitable perils she would face today were not circling her mind as they were now, the soothing tones she heard now would have calmed her restless mind completely. As it was, however, she ignored the tempting prospect of allowing the sound to soothe her and instead fought through the last few thorny bushes in search of the tranquil tone's source.

At last, Reisen shoved a bundle of barbed branches to the side and was met by an expansive opening beyond, the melodious sound of water now flowing quite freely into her rabbit ears. This, she realized with a start, was the pure, utterly natural Untrodden Valley she had heard much about but had never before experienced firsthand. She gazed with admiration and wonder from her crawling position on the very edge of the area, beholding a gorgeous expanse of land only three humans had ever walked upon before. The grassy bank she lay on gently sloped downward and produced longer and longer green blades until the point at which it kissed the crystal clear, softly rippling water.

As it turned out, this was a river preserved by nature from pollution, one that was allowed to gurgle as freely as it wished without any fear of being corrupted and killed. Both directions that spanned the rabbit's vision, one sloping up to point toward the mountain summit and another meandering down to return to sea level, completely contained the pure ribbon snaking toward its horizons. Although it only spanned about fifteen meters in width, the river was home to an abundance of cattails its waters gently pushed back and forth on their way down the mountain. It seemed as if the brown tips of the plants were constantly bobbing towards what existed on the far side of the river: the sturdy face of a tall, rocky cliff rising up over the valley like a protective guardian. The moonlight reflected off the bottom of the cliff where some of the river water had splashed up, illuminating the area with a soft sheen.

"If I didn't have any lifelong commitments to Eientei," Reisen said out loud to herself in admiration, "this is where I'd spend the rest of my life living, no contest." Every fiber of her being wanted to run straight into the river and let its cool, clean waters wash away her persistent troubles, but she held herself back to make sure the great wound on her leg would not be exposed to bacteria and get infected. Instead, she leaned over the side of the riverbank, scooped some water into her cupped hands, and splashed the refreshing liquid onto her weary face.

After the water brought her into a more alert state of mind, Reisen realized with dismay that she had not slept in almost forty-eight hours. Preparing for the day of revolution in Gensokyo, even though she had wanted nothing to do with it, had run her ragged, and she wasn't quite sure how much longer she could last before she would inevitably collapse in exhaustion. The peaceful riverbank devoid of hostile creatures began to call out to her as a very alluring spot to take a nap, and the more she weighed her options about what to do next, the less she was able to resist it.

Whatever, she at last decided in her thoughts. If they wanna force me into going along with their terrible plans, they'd better come over here and drag my sleeping body out themselves. Having victoriously triumphed over her scheming superiors in her mind, Reisen picked a flat, dry section of the bank on which to begin her much-needed siesta. She smoothed her suit and skirt out with her hands as she lay on the ground, slowly shut her eyes, and gently let the thoughts circulating through her mind at high speed become sedentary. At last, she could relax and be lulled off to sleep by the sweet sound of the river beside her.

Reisen's mind was just about to completely lose consciousness when the sound of the soothing river was replaced by a loud, high-pitched, feminine shriek in her ear. It carried her away from the depths of sleep, but she refused to open her eyes and instead groaned in annoyance. Whoever you are who made that sound, kindly shut up and go away, please.

"Gah, a rabbit?! How could you have gotten here?"

"I walked in," Reisen replied matter-of-factly without even opening her eyes to see whose company she was in. "Well, more like crawled in. Not that it really makes a whole lot of difference now that I'm here, anyway."

"It makes a huge difference!" the rabbit's friendly new companion shouted incredulously.

"You don't say," Reisen replied dryly, smiling amusedly to herself.

"I do say!" The new girl seemed to be getting childishly worked up about Reisen's calm, dismissive attitude, and this only served to entertain the rabbit further. "Momiji ordered the tengu guards to patrol both exits of this valley. The whole mountain is under lockdown protocol after she spotted Hina and this unidentified other girl making trouble! We kappa originally picked the Untrodden Valley as a place to make our home just because it can't get infiltrated and invaded easily, especially when we've got sentries posted all over. You… you've gotta be lying!"

"Or, maybe I just crawled through the prickly bushes growing on the side of the valley? That could possibly explain why my clothes are covered in scratches and burrs." Reisen's closed-eye grin spread further. Egging on a childish spirit as she was doing now wasn't typical of the rabbit's normally polite behavior, but built-up experience being on the receiving end of Tewi's pranks combined with her tiredness made her disregard her diplomacy and instead happily tease the kappa. If the day's plot meant that this would be the last time she could ever have fun, she wanted to make the absolute most of it. "Then again, perhaps it's just that these so-called 'guards' of yours can't do jack."

That set the kappa over the edge into a tantrum. Reisen continued to nonchalantly keep her eyes closed as she laughed and listened to a series of frustrated cries. "You take that back! The tengu sentinel force of Youkai Mountain is the best of the best! They'd stand up to and take on a DRAGON if one came and attacked us! They're much better than your awful group of... of... erm..." Her tirade quickly slowed down to a halt as she struggled to finish her sentence.

"My group of...?"

"...Of dumb bunnies living in the bamboo forest!" With a triumphant smirk and laugh at having made the perfect comeback, the kappa began to make a loud, repeated crunching sound. Reisen wasn't sure since she still refused to open her eyes, but she guessed that it was the noise of biting into a crisp, fresh valley cucumber. "I've heard a lot about your Inabas who just go around and play pranks all day like lazy slackers. If the oni ever decide to come out of the underground again and conquer your forest... Well, that brainiac physician and her princess mistress might put up a nice fight, but Eientei would still be sunk!

"Anyway, call 'em bad if you'd like," the kappa continued in a calmer tone, "but I could just scream and get the tengu guards to come right here. Throw an intruder like you twice the distance to the moon, they would!" She attempted to sound threatening as she continued to rebuke Reisen, but her high-pitched voice that cracked over saying "moon" was, in the rabbit's opinion, far too cute and childish to be intimidating. "Still, I won't. Even though you're being really mean to me, Nitori Kawashiro is a friend to all creatures of every species, even rabbits! I can help you get back to the base of the mountain without you getting bothered by anyone wearing a tokin hat, no problem!"

Reisen smiled in continued mischief, but her mouth also reflected a twinge of melancholy as she remembered why she was on Youkai Mountain in the first place. "Thanks for the offer, but I've got to stay here for now. Anyway, I don't mean to be rude, but it's been an excruciatingly long day and I'm very tired, so if you'd just let me—"

"No way! You don't see me curling up under of your bamboo stalks and saying 'Okay, it's time to hit the sack!' Besides, this is the testing site for lots of our kappa inventions, and you don't wanna stick around to see those in action unless you're interested in being grilled to a crisp!"

Damn you, fate, I just wanted to take a nap. What did I ever do to you? The moon rabbit slowly turned onto her back and opened her eyes. Not two feet away from her face and standing right over her was a young girl with a youthfully upset pout upon her mouth. Reisen, noticing a jacket, knee-length skirt with many pockets on it, rubber boots, and short hair pulled into pigtails of all the same color on the girl, guessed that her favorite color was light blue. Besides the majority of blue parts to her outfit, she also wore an oversized, green backpack and a green cap featuring a spirit-like image on its front that had been pushed off-center. In one hand she held a fresh, green, partially bitten cucumber; in the other, a newly picked cattail from the river. "Look, Kappa—"

"Nitori!" she corrected Reisen in a shrill, childish tone of indignity. She, of course, had every right to take umbrage, for one of the most serious ways to offend a youthful spirit such as herself would be to get her name wrong.

"…Nitori. Even though this looks like a really nice spot to live in, I'd be happy to get out of your hair and get back to the main part of Gensokyo. Only problem, this hostile girl I met earlier tonight gave me a massive gash on my leg. It's not like I can just walk down the mountain now, and I'm not to be expected at home for several more hours, anyway."

Nitori diverted her gaze toward the black handkerchief-wrapped leg with curiosity, instinctively bringing a hand toward the cloth. "Mind if I take a look?" she asked hopefully. Since Reisen shrugged indifferently in response, Nitori grinned cheerfully and gently worked her fingers into the tight knot binding fabric to flesh. Although it seemed strange for her to so quickly gain enthusiastic interest about Reisen's injury especially after the two had butted heads, she was still a kappa engineer; her job was to solve practical problems, and a stabbing of the leg definitely fell within that category. Proudly flexing her engineering muscle in everyday situations was also one of Nitori's favorite activities, and it instantly made her forget about being angry.

As she undid the knot and exposed what lay below the black fabric, her enthusiastic smile contorted into a combination of horror, disgust, and pity at the revelation that met her. Even amid those, however, her eyes continued to sparkle with slightly twisted fascination as her mouth gaped open. "My god..." she murmured under her breath in awe. The wound on Reisen's thigh, or rather the line of three equally horrifying ones caused by each prong of the offending trident, was unrivaled by anything Nitori had ever seen before in depth and wideness. Spanning the entire length of the thigh, each unnatural entrance to the body's interior was about a centimeter wide. If her leg was the surface of the Earth, she thought to herself, we've definitely found the Grand Canyon. The blood seemed to have realized its own scarcity and clotted, but it still remained along the sides of the gash and gave the area a sharp, cruel tinge of red. Although nothing had popped up yet, Nitori was sure that soon enough the area would add a sickly yellow shade to the mix in the form of an infection.

After breaking her gaze from the impressive wound, Nitori glowered at Reisen straight in the eye, either unaware or unbothered by the possible dangers of doing this to the rabbit of madness. "What the hell is wrong with you?!" she spat, clenching two shaking fists.

"With me?" Reisen glanced downward at her wound irritably. "My sincerest apologies for crossing the path of a youkai bent on sadistically skewering me for the fun of it."

"That's not what I mean, you foolish rabbit!" Nitori, despite having acted childishly before, now assumed the role of a concerned parent as she folded her arms and stared down disapprovingly at Reisen. "Why on Earth would you not tell me that you've gotten such a devastating blow?! I might barely know you, but still, it's my duty as a kappa to help any injured people I come across."

"Kappa, lambda, xi, omicron, whatever," Reisen replied coldly. "I don't care that my leg has a huge slash in it. If anything, it's a blessing that would rescue me from following through with today's events."

Nitori shook her head with condescending pity, cradling it in her hands. "I can't tell if you're reckless, suicidal, masochistic, or just an idiot."

"Maybe all of the above?"

After taking a quick nibble on the cucumber in her hand and scooping up a palmful of river water that she happily splashed onto her face, Nitori smiled diplomatically at the rabbit below her. "Well, I guess I can blame your cold greeting and irresponsibility of handling your wound on a state of delirium from losing all that blood, all right?" She offered a hand to Reisen, who stared intently at it as it came into her field of vision. "C'mon; let's get you back to Eientei and have Eirin fix up your wound before it gets any worse!"

At the mention of going back to her home and seeing her mistress, Reisen's crimson eyes widened in terror toward the edges of their sockets. "N-no! Chase me off the mountain, throw me to the wolf tengu, or even drown me in the river like a traditional kappa would if you'd like! Whatever you do, don't make me see Eirin again!" Even under Nitori's puzzled glance, she attempted in vain to frantically scurry backward and escape up the riverbank despite clearly still having a terribly wounded leg.

"Wait up!" Nitori shouted, kicking up small splashes of water from her boots as she walked at a not-so-quick pace upstream to stay by Reisen's side. "What's so bad about getting healed by Eirin? I hear she can get a little cold and unfriendly sometimes, but I can't think of a better doctor in Gensokyo!"

"Doesn't matter," Reisen muttered, half to herself and half to Nitori. "If Eirin gets me, this whole incident is going to go to hell." She continued to crawl on her hands and knees through the grassy riverbank, slowly decelerating as the pain began to once again shoot through her body and bring her movements to a standstill.

Nitori stopped as she strode toward the vainly escaping rabbit, and she firmly placed a hand on the girl's shoulder. "Look," she said slowly and deliberately, forming steady eye contact as Reisen craned her head sideways to stare with frightened eyes, "you're in no condition to be running away from help. Whatever problem you have with Eirin, you'd better just set it aside while you focus on taking care of your physical body."

"I'd say it's pretty damn obvious what her problem is," a rough, wild, carefree voice shouted in a loud echo that brazenly ricocheted off the valley walls. "She's afraid of getting punished for starting the big, bad incident that's rockin' Gensokyo tonight!"

Both Reisen and Nitori quickly turned their heads toward the downstream direction of the river, and it only took a few seconds before they recognized the familiar shape of a young witch zipping through the air toward them about ten feet above the water on a broomstick, her silhouette dappled with silver moonlight. At that moment as the blonde witch closed in on the two, both of their pairs of pupils dilated: Nitori's in delight and pleasant surprise, and Reisen's in morbid fear and dread.

"Marisa!" Nitori called in a greeting, grinning shyly. "Fancy seeing you here at three in the morning!"

Marisa, hovering over the grassy riverbank, slowly descended vertically from her position until her feet touched the ground again. Touching back on the earth, she hopped off her broomstick and snatched it in her grasp as a once-again ordinary cleaning tool. "Well," she said, "a little fairy—or, should I say, two little fairies—told me that Reisen was somewhere on the Youkai Mountain tonight, and it looks like she wasn't lying at all!" She turned to the rabbit whose shoulder was still in Nitori's grasp and smiled mildly in triumph. "Sorry, but it looks like this whole incident of yours is gonna crumble faster than a nice, flaky bakery muffin!"

Nitori carefully straightened her cap and peered up at Marisa curiously with her wide, childlike eyes. "What's been happening tonight, Marisa? You and Reisen both mentioned something about an incident taking place."

"You haven't heard already? I'da thought you'd be one of the first to find out after your tengu neighbor printed it up in the papers!"

Nitori shrugged, smiling with both innocence and pride. "I was just pulling an all-nighter in the kappa testing facility in the river to put the finishing touches on the latest line of products: missile launchers, flamethrowers, lasers, death rays, toasters; the usual stuff. Then, lo and behold, when I came back up to the surface to take a quick break, I found this Eientei rabbit sleeping on the riverbank!"

Marisa laughed good-naturedly as she glanced back at the shivering Reisen, but her golden eyes appeared dull and grim instead of amused. "Well, lemme tell ya, it's a funny story! See, Reisen here sent the Scarlet Devil a letter talking about how the weaker youkai in the land were gonna plot a 'revolution' of some sort and start taking control of Gensokyo, and that their first act would be murdering Remi tonight. Needless to say, the apparent timespan it was gonna happen in came and went, and the vampire's still alive... or undead, I guess you'd call her. However... well..." She paused, and her grin began to wistfully match her eyes. "Yukari's shikigami got manipulated into being forced to try to kill her. She didn't go through with it, though, and sacrificed herself right in front of her little kitty familiar instead. So, anyway," she said, her eyes transforming into glaring daggers as she turned to the rabbit, "from what I hear, everybody is pre~tty pissed about you've done tonight, you filthy moon-crawler!"

Reisen lowered her head with shame and dropped her vision to the ground, remorse for the biting words eclipsing her fear and panic of being taken back to Eirin. Even as Nitori turned around to face her with disbelief in her eyes, the rabbit didn't dare to lift her gaze. "This little one caused the death of the border youkai's kitsune?! That can't be right!"

Reisen flailed about in the kappa's grasp for a few moments in another attempt to escape before laying limp, her strength of resistance dropping rapidly. "No... it's true. I forced Yukari to give a mandatory order to Ran about killing Remilia tonight." After a moment's pause, a very small, almost unnoticeable look of inspiration flashed over Reisen's eyes. Quickly, a sly smile crossed her lips and dashed her sincere look of shame. "Not only that," she added, "but I also made Hina go insane and attempt to kill Cirno and Daiyousei. When daybreak comes and this revolution kicks into motion, I'll be the one sitting in the director's chair." Sensing a rising hostility radiating from Marisa out of the corner of her, Reisen continued on with a renewed sense of determination in her voice. "By the end of today, you're going to drop from being one of the best incident solvers around, Marisa. If we don't decide to off you, you'll be little more than a servant waiting hand and foot on those small youkai you always push around and bully!"

Nitori, rather intimidated by this claim, let go of her shoulder and began to slowly back away from the rabbit toward the riverbank. Marisa, however, started grinning confidently as she pulled out her mini-Hakkero from an apron pocket and brandished it in Reisen's direction. "Sorry, but Alice already booked me for that role an hour ago, ze!"

"If that's how it must be, then so be it." Reisen whipped her right arm out with blinding speed toward the retreating kappa, smacking the left side of her head with brute force. Nitori cried out in sudden shock, and her body came crashing down toward the ground. A look of horror crossed her face as the green cap she was wearing fluttered to the ground several feet away and a small, shallow, glass dish of water that had been hidden underneath it dripped its contents to the earth. As soon as the water dish fell empty, her entire body became limp on the ground, her eyes glancing around wildly in a look of helplessness and frustration.

Marisa growled as her grip on the weapon tightened, its wooden body beginning to glow with increasing luminosity. "Exploiting a kappa's natural weakness, Reisen? I thought you had more class than that."

Reisen, in turn, stared intently at Marisa with eyes of shimmering, glowing red, trapping the witch in locked eye contact. Within moments, in the witch's vision, the hard, defined lines of the landscape around her began to grow fuzzy and blurry. The top of the surrounding cliff of the valley took the appearance of a sine wave bouncing nauseatingly up and down, the natural colors of the grassy riverbank and river became bizarre shades of red and violet, and unearthly shadows of all shapes and sizes appeared to dance among the thick underbrush. The calming, steady sound of the water in the river transitioned into an erratic, high-pitched buzzing sound akin to a nest of angry hornets.

"Wh-what's going on?!" Marisa blinked a few times in surprise and took a few steps back, but the moonlight, now harsh and intense instead of gentle, still illuminated her as she became trapped within the illusion. She attempted to aim the mini-Hakkero toward Reisen, but she found with alarm that the rabbit's body had begun to completely fade away into black with the exception of her piercing red eyes.

Marisa blinked, and dozens of Reisens popped up all over her vision. Each of the rabbit images stood facing a different directions but still managed to train her pair of scarlet orbs in Marisa's direction; even the one standing upstream with her back to the witch seemed to have her head on backwards in order to stare behind her. As Marisa frantically scanned the entire landscape around her in an attempt to look away, more and more Reisens began to appear before her eyes: in the river, on top of the cliff, in the bushes, even in the distance near the summit of the mountain. None wore an expression of either a smile or frown, but the eyes that resembled sniper laser sight dots were certainly off-putting enough.

"Stop this, Reisen! Stop it!" Marisa jammed her eyelids shut, but that did little to relieve her of the maddening images dancing about before her eyes. Even in the darkness that her closed eyes granted her, the sight of dozens of lustrous, crimson eyes stalked and invaded her vision. It didn't matter where she pointed her eyes or how she attempted to conceal them; trying to escape Reisen's glare was utterly futile, and she began to believe that she would never stop seeing red spheres as long as she lived. "P-please... stop it..." She opened her eyes wide in an attempt to search for and attack the rabbit behind the illusion, but as she did, the countless copies of Reisen began to morph into all different denizens of Gensokyo. Reimu, Alice, Patchouli, Flandre, Sakuya, Yuuka, Youmu, Yukari... It seemed as if everyone Marisa had ever met excluding Nitori and Reisen herself was standing in the Untrodden Valley, and all were still focusing red eyes directly at her.

"Well?" Alice, standing on top of the cliff, called down to her in Reisen's voice. "Does your mind still have a shred of sanity left, or has it been completely blown to smithereens?"

"You seem to be handling it better than most so far," Patchouli remarked from her position upstream. "Most either have a breakdown or attempt to claw out their eyes when this happens to them. But then again, it's probably only a matter of time before you start doing that too!"

"Not that it'll do you any good," Cirno added as she stood next to the librarian. "Even if you go blind by ripping out your eyeballs, the lovely, shining, red eyes all around you will be burned into your occipital lobe. They'll be there until you die!"

Marisa cradled her head in her arms and groaned helplessly, but her hands soon began to shift into rabbit ears that flopped about from her wrists. "I... don't feel so good."

Flandre jumped up and down excitedly from her spot right next to Marisa, and the rainbow crystals hanging from her wings morphed into even more red eyes as she did so. "You're close to breaking! You're close to breaking! C'mon, Mari, get rid of that dumb, lousy sanity and embrace your inner lunatic!" The blonde vampire threw her mob cap high into the scarlet night sky with the shrieking laugh of a madwoman. As she did so, her body quickly melted into a great pool of crimson blood before reforming in the shape of her older sister. She caught the hat on her head and smirked deviously, her glowing eyes never leaving their target. "Won't be long now."

The incessant buzzing of the river, the strange dimensions and colors of the valley, and the cursed red eyes from which she could not escape were beginning to truly drag Marisa toward the edge of insanity, and she fought as hard as she could to avoid letting out a tremendous cry building up inside of her. She had the feeling that if she began screaming at that moment, she would continue doing it nonstop for the rest of her life, right into joining Flandre in the locked basement. Instead, she curled herself up into a fetal position, ignored the Sakuya to her left who was throwing sharp daggers and sharper words nonstop at her, and attempted to will away the terrible illusions as best she could. The fact that the illusions caused no physical harm with their attacks was more horrible for the hapless girl than if they had actually given her pain; an injury would have at least distracted her mind from the inescapable, horrific images her mind was pressed with. As much as she usually hated to admit it, tears began to well up in her eyes at the miserable prospect of having to experience this for the rest of her life if she did indeed go insane, and she struggle greatly to remain calm when that thought occurred to her.

All the while Marisa had been subjected to the merciless waves of lunacy coming from Reisen's eyes, Nitori had been slowly inching toward Marisa and the riverbank, hoping to refill her water dish and regain her strength while rescuing her friend out of whatever nightmare she had been placed in. She couldn't be sure what exactly Marisa was being subjected to, but by the panicked gasps and looks of absolute terror in the witch's constantly shifting eyes, it was nothing a human being ought to experience without going insane. The kappa wished desperately that she could attack Reisen and get her to stop what she was doing, but she couldn't summon the strength in her numb body to stand in the face of the lunacy waves herself in order to do so. Instead, as she finally reached Marisa, she raised herself off the ground with as much strength as she could muster and placed a hand on the witch's shoulder. Feeling her friends warm, human skin under her fingers, Nitori patted her comfortingly and whispered calming, reassuring words in her ear.

However, Marisa's mind, while feeling what she perceived as razor-sharp claws painlessly digging into the flesh on her shoulder, gradually started sensing a second, very different sensation. As she was mercilessly mocked by a red-eyed Tewi for letting herself get so caught in the madness trap, she became aware of a soft, cold, wispy sensation touching and caressing her left shoulder. She couldn't avert her gaze from the countless red-eyed glares in every direction, but from the touch alone, she suddenly felt a sense of warm, familiar, nostalgic comfort radiating over her entire body. Her mind lightly drifted backward in time to a period of her life not too chronologically different from the present, but existing in a radically different Gensokyo from the one of today.

"There, there, Marisa. There's no need for you to cry."

That couldn't be right. The age when Marisa had bright red hair and wore a purple outfit was long gone, so there was no way her beloved mentor of magic had returned. No matter how greatly she desired at the moment to feel tightly embraced by the loving arms of the evil spirit, to bury her face in her master's blue dress and therefore escape the frightening illusions forever, or to happily frolic around her ghostly tail, she knew she could never indulge in her childhood fun again. Lady Mima was long gone by now, and Marisa had come to accept that she would not see her mistress again. And yet...

"Did you think I would just abandon the apprentice I hold so close to my heart? I've always been utterly proud of you since the day you spectacularly fought against the shrine maiden to defend me, Marisa."

Marisa broke the spellbinding grasp the eyes in front had on her, and she whipped her head backward to see who had said that in such a rich, yet wispy tone of voice. As she identified the woman with a shock, it was as if the buzzing sound faded into muted background noise and the countless bright, red eyes surrounding her became dull and unobtrusive. There, floating about four feet off the ground and wrapping a ghostly tail lovingly around Marisa's shoulder, was a very tall woman with long, straight, flowing, jade hair and sharp, clever eyes of the same color. A long, blue dress with a yellow bow-tie covered her middle and separated her human-like skin on top from her pale tail below, and a conical, blue wizard hat with a yellow sun design adorned the crown of her head. Unlike the hostile, red-eyed apparitions surrounding the area, she smiled warmly and genuinely, opening her arms welcomingly to the witch.

"It's been a while, hasn't it? You've certainly blossomed into a lovely young lady."

At that moment Marisa felt as if she still would cry; not from going insane, but from the joy of being reunited with her beloved mistress for the first time in about a decade. "L-lady Mima?! How can this be?" From her fetal position on the ground, she rolled over onto her back, ignoring the cold dirt that was sprinkling onto her dress and instead focusing on feeling the ghostly tail caught between her hands. Indeed, it felt identical to how the young girl had perceived it whenever she had playfully tackled her mentor in a hug: soft and cool, yet quite existent and pleasant to the touch.

"Well, that's a rather strange way of greeting your old mentor after so many years without contact," Mima said with an amused chuckle. She playfully flicked her tail back and forth between Marisa's fingers, causing the girl to yelp softly in surprise and delight as memories of similar events in the past ran through her mind. "Some things never change, huh?"

AsMarisa began to regain her rational thought processing again, however, she dropped her hands from the tail and shook her head to relieve herself of the dizziness brought on by the red eyes of madness. Mima seemed genuinely surprised as Marisa coldly folded her arms and stared up at her. "Look, this is impossible, ze! You can't just pop up out of nowhere at three in the morning after having been gone for so long!" She frowned with increasing skepticism at the evil spirit. "You've gotta be another illusion from Reisen's lunacy wave: one based off my nostalgia without those awful red eyes to try to lure me into completely dropping my guard, right? Well, it's not going to happen!"

"Look who's a smarty-pants now!" an illusionary Aya exclaimed with a sharp, sarcastic laugh. "Too bad you're not gonna get a chance to put those brains cells to use when you'll spend the rest of your life watching terrifying illusions!" She waved her orange maple leaf fan in the witch's direction and generated a gale-force gust of wind that, while nonexistent in reality and therefore unable to cause physical harm, was accompanied by a horrifically loud sound resembling nails scratching on a chalkboard.

Acting quickly, Mima draped her arms around Marisa's body and enveloped her in a tight, loving embrace, gently shielding the girl's vulnerable ears with her torso. The wind gust came and went, but Marisa was hardly bothered by it after being completely shielded by the evil spirit's protective hold. After she was sure that there were no more immediate hazards toward the witch's mental health, she slowly placed her back on the ground and watched curiously from above to see how she would react. "There, does that convince you that I'm not in cahoots with these horrid illusions?"

Marisa looked to the side to avoid glancing at Mima, but as she was met with multiple sets of red eyes when she did so, her vision reluctantly returned to focusing on the evil spirit. "Not really, but I'm grateful for that nonetheless. Still, how could you have seen that illusionary attack only existing in my mind if you're not an illusion yourself, and why would you choose to reveal yourself right now when all this is happening?"

"Ooh, she's got you now!" A new voice louder and more daunting than any of those of the other illusions began to rise up, and both Marisa and Mima turned around to see Reimu with a cruel smirk singing mockingly from her position a few feet away. "Better leave now so that the rest of us can finish the job of putting her in a mental institution, Mima! After all, nobody else seems to want to help her, so why should you?"

Mima glared with a dark scowl at the smirking shrine maiden before turning back to Marisa with a patient smile. "It's good to know that you're as inquisitive as usual and haven't become gullible, but I assure you that I'm not an illusion. I suppose you could call me something similar to an apparition, though; when I said about eight years ago that I would be leaving Gensokyo for good, I began to realize that I couldn't bear to abandon the young, ambitious magician I had taken under my wing. So I chose not to."

"You hear that?" Reimu sneered nastily, stepping toward the reunited master and apprentice. "Everybody looooves Marisa, even her mentor! But wait; who's going to love you when your brain becomes mush? I'm pretty sure Alice won't keep obsessing over you as soon as she realizes all you can do anymore is sit in a straitjacket 24 hours a day, crying and screaming like a tiny infant. And you think Patchouli's gonna grudgingly admire you when you won't be able to steal candy from a baby, much less books from her? As if!"

Marisa, eyes still shimmering upon the cusp of tears, tried to forcefully shove away the shrine maiden, but her hands went right through the smirking girl's body without moving her an inch. Seeing the futility of this, she sniffled lightly and turned her back on Reimu. "What are you saying, Mima?"

"I wanted to be close to you at all times in case you ever needed help or support from your old mistress, so—and I sincerely hope you won't get angry at me for this—I decided to enter hibernation within the deepest, innermost reaches of your subconscious mind. When you fought the younger Komeiji sister a few weeks ago, her abilities roused me from my sleep and allowed me to watch over you alertly." She bowed her head slightly in minor humility. "I'm sorry I didn't ask your permission to do it, but I thought it would be nice to surprise you in your time of need by revealing that I've never actually left your side."

Marisa put a hand to her mouth, and her ribcage could barely contain its racing heart as the idea that Mima had never truly left Gensokyo began to sink into her mind. It was hardly an easy task to disregard the scar of a heartbreak after being told she would never again see the one closest to her, but her overwhelmed mind felt close to shutting down as it faced such a whiplash after merciless mental torture. "M-my subconscious mind?! I... I don't what to think of that."

"Think about how much of a lie it is," Reimu helpfully suggested, dancing and circling all around the black and white witch. "That's just an illusion; the real Mima is long gone, almost certainly dead! My counterpart of reality probably did the permanent exorcism herself just to spite you. Yup, I can just imagine her body being desecrated into hundreds of tiny, pathetic pieces under the Ying-Yang orb. She'd wail pathetically and pitiably just for the agony of the process demolishing her mind to cease, but Reimu would take that as a cue to increase the pain and torture. It'd be a day when the shrine maiden would actually eat well; she'd have a nice, hardy serving of spirit soup resting in her belly." She giggled wickedly, wrapping her arms around Marisa's chest from the back and drawing up the girl in a tight embrace that mocked such a usually loving gesture. "Poor, poor Marisa. Not even your old, beloved mistress could stand you enough to stick around! And now, when you need help the most to keep from going cuckoo, your little turtle friend is just sprawled out behind your back instead of trying to stop me! Truly, there's no hope for you anymore, is there?"

Mima, who had up to this point been ignoring the illusion to the best of her ability, flashed brilliant, emerald eyes that put the countless sets of scarlet ones to shame toward Reimu; it seemed a wonder that she did not spontaneously combust while being the target of such a glare. "I'm not entirely sure what you are," she began slowly while menacingly advancing toward her, "but you're sure as hell not the little shrine maiden I used to love to tease and torment. I guess this is what they mean when they mention disgusting, depraved, sociopathic, incorrigible monsters. If you make another syllable about anything regarding Marisa, I promise it'll be the last one that'll ever come out of your mouth."

"Monster?" Reimu laughed darkly. "Why would you call me that? I'm just the product of Marisa's raw thoughts manifesting themselves. Everything I've said is just something she's thought of at some point. Really, you should be thanking me and calling me a true friend; I'll stick with her through thick and through thin and always make sure she's being true to her actual thoughts. Don't blame me if they're completely pathetic and pitiable!"

Mima, however, was not listening to the words of the brazen illusion at all after she heard it disregard her own omen, and she brandished her familiar silver staff adorned by a crescent moon shape at the spiteful shrine maiden. "And the Gensokyo 2009 Darwin Award goes to…" Small sparks began to build up on the now-faintly glowing moon atop the staff, and it grew brighter and brighter by the second.

"Besides, I'm obviously not 'the little shrine maiden you used to tease and torment'," Reimu continued with a smug smile while completely ignoring the evil spirit's actions. "I just look like her because Marisa's using familiar symbols in her mind for depicting her inadequacies." Marisa, noticing the emerald fire in Mima's eyes and the continuously glowing staff that was aimed the shrine maiden, pushed herself out of the embrace she was in, briefly wiped her eyes to cleanse them of tears, and staggered toward her mistress's side. Reimu, however, had no intention of stopping the tirade she was so joyfully reciting. "That said, of course, I don't have any doubt that the real Reimu and her buddies think the same way as I do about this pathetic magician; maybe not at the moment, but at some point in their lives. All she ever does is fly around and meaninglessly flirt with girls while stealing their stuff; why would anyone like a worthless brat like that? You know, Marisa going batty and being confined away from everyone else might be the best thing that'll happen to Gensokyo in a long time!"

The beam fired from Mima's staff that followed tore an enormous hole in the fuzzy, confusing existence of the illusion that had engulfed Marisa. Radiant as the sun though tinted slightly green and as wide as a Roman column, its sharp, defined lines branched out from the crescent moon and charged directly at Reimu. As the great laser made contact with and subsequently skewered the simpering girl, Marisa felt a sudden sense of relief on her mind. The laser, though extremely bright, was a familiar image not unlike her own Master Spark, and it eased the sense of unfamiliarity among her. All around her in the valley, the maddening glares of the red-eyed illusions began to fade from view. The water returned to a pleasant, clean, natural color and regained its calming sound, the dimensions of the surrounding cliff straightened themselves out again, and even the harsh, penetrating moonlight was once again reduced to an unobtrusive glow.

Reisen lay on the ground at the exact position that the illusionary Reimu had occupied moments before, and she appeared to be drifting on the border of unconsciousness. The rabbit's clothes were even more tattered than they had been before, and an enormous, singed hole existed in the center of the fabric over her stomach. Though her expression was bitter and disappointed, her eyes had lost all traces of the insane glow that had previously existed within them. Remembering the threatening rabbit once again, Nitori gave a quick cry, dunked her head into the river to fill the water dish on top, and pounced on her with newfound strength and vitality.

"That's it for you now," the kappa said firmly. "I guess you're not just a meanie; you're also an evil little rabbit!" She slung her defeated enemy over her shoulder with surprising strength and held her in place with one arm. "We're going to see what Eirin thinks of all this chaos you've been cooking up!"

"N-no..." Reisen could not break free from the grip she had been placed in, but she whimpered in sadness and dread as her conscious mind began to fluctuate. "Why… why wouldn't you kill me?" she wondered aloud. "I started my lunacy waves extremely intense, and I thought you'd strike me dead to free Marisa from them. I... I did all this so you would kill me right now."

"If you've really done all of this, death would be an unjust method of cowardly eluding your rightful punishment," another rich voice boomed from what seemed to be the entire valley. Nitori glanced all around her in curiosity about the voice, but except for Marisa, now lying unconscious on the ground a few feet away from her, she appeared to be completely alone in the valley. As she gently added the sleeping magician's body to her carrying load, the wide-eyed kappa could only blink slowly in wonder about what exactly had happened to her witch friend during her period of lunacy. Marisa's resting expression appeared to be both distressed and relieved at the same time; although her lips were dry and tightly pursed, her eyes were gently, peacefully closed.

"Oh, no need to worry about who I am right now, kappa," the voice continued in a slightly amused tone. "Just go ahead and get both of them to safety. When Marisa awakens from her sleep, please be a dear and tell her that she won't need to worry about being forever separated from her mentor again; she just needs to keep me in mind."

Nitori turned her head around wildly. "Wait! Who are you?" she asked with inquisitive eyes, just like a young child witnessing a wondrous show-and-tell moment. "Where did you come from? How'd you defeat Reisen just like that? What happened to Marisa? How'd you know her? Why—"

Another knowing chuckle erupted around the valley. "Doesn't matter, her mind, magic, hallucinated, old friend. Anyway, just be a nice messenger for me, won't you? La~ter!"

Beyond the addition of an unconscious magician and rabbit, the Untrodden Valley returned to its natural, calm state with what seemed to be nothing out of place at all. Nitori, though still perplexed about what she had just experienced, smiled as the soothing sound of the river filled her ears once again.

"I'm on the dirt road heading to Kourindou, about… 45 minutes out, I'd say," Patchouli reported through the communicating medical book that glowed a weak shade of lavender on Eirin's coffee table. "Lots of trees, grass, boulders, flowers, and, umm… dirt, but no sign of anything that could take down Youmu or Yuyuko here."

"I guess that's to be expected," Eirin remarked in a slightly dry, disappointed murmur. "Didn't suppose the villains here would just jump out of the bushes and say 'Hi, Patchouli! We kidnapped the two ghost girls, so come and get us!'" She cleared her throat. "So, has there been nothing at all of interest?"

"Hmm… Well, I'm not sure if it means anything," Patchouli began uncertainly. "I suppose that darkness youkai could be wandering around trying to stir up trouble tonight, or maybe Suika or Tenshi is playing with her powers, but…"

"Yes?" Eirin inquired earnestly.

"A billowing patch of dark, ominous clouds formed seemingly out of nowhere overhead a few minutes ago," the librarian replied with a slightly sinister undertone, just as if she were telling a ghost story around a campfire. "It wasn't like anything I've ever seen before, and it certainly didn't look natural from the way it just quivered across the sky at high speed. I'm not entirely sure, but I think I may have also heard this unsettling sound coming from it like a baby crying, or laughing, or squawking like a bird, or roaring like a lion, or something to that extent."

Eirin was dumbfounded by what she had heard, and she folded her arms with a raised eyebrow. "Are you pulling my leg here, Patchouli?"

"Honestly, that's what I saw and heard," she answered. "Maybe the world has changed so much since the last time I went outside that it's the kind of thing you'd expect to encounter, but otherwise, it definitely seems like an unearthly creature is active tonight. What its intentions are, I have no idea, but it did send a bit of a shiver down my spine just hearing that phantom cry." She went silent for a moment or two. Eirin waited feverishly for the librarian to continue speaking again, which she did with a calmer, more rational tone of voice. "Still, I doubt that apparition, or whatever it was, had anything to do with the disappearance of the Hakugyokurou girls. From what I could tell, it originated from the direction of Youkai Mountain and seemed to move directly toward the Scarlet Devil Mansion. If anything, I'd say you would be the one who would encounter it instead of me if it decides to act belligerently toward us."

The pharmacist shuffled her feet uneasily, looking toward the window at the pitch-black outside world beyond the mansion. "I-I'll keep that in the back of my mind, but it's hardly something we need to be concerned about right now if it doesn't relate to this situation. Let's just cross the bridge when we come to it."

"Of course." Patchouli's voice carried a hint of suspicion as if she was curious as to why Eirin refused to comment further on the strange phenomenon she was describing, but she didn't press the topic further.

Eirin cleared her throat again, shaking any sound of doubt from her voice. "Anyway, back to the subject on hand: Kourindou, and what's going on there. I tried to contact Mr. Rinnosuke just a few minutes ago, but there was no response; either he's been sleeping through everything that's been going on in his store, or, the far likelier option, something has happened to him as well."

"Well, that shouldn't be much of a problem for me," Patchouli replied with dry pride. "I came well prepared with seven of my best elemental spells, including the Philosopher's Stone. If any adversary tries to take me down, they'll have to first make it through their choice of fire, water, wood, earth, metal, sun, or moon."

Eirin smiled, imagining in her mind the short, cute, non-imposing librarian walking down the road with a proud smirk as she believed that she was invincible with her spells. "That's good to hear. Just… be careful, all right? Seems like we've already lost three people to whatever happened in there, and it'll be terrible if we lose you, too. Contact me the moment you sense anything's amiss."

"You got it," Patchouli replied. "I'll be damned if anything will keep me from fulfilling my promise of getting to the bottom of this incident." Her voice drifted into nothing for few moments, almost as if she were finished speaking, before resuming with what seemed to Eirin as a dark chuckle. "You be careful, too, okay? Though she's probably calmed down by now, Miss Remilia has experienced just the slightest bit of insanity tonight and acted in such a way that the little sister will certainly not approve of when she finds out about it."

Eirin paused for a moment, bringing a hand to her mouth. Although she appeared bewildered, a very subtle gleam sparkled within each iris as well. "What... what sort of insanity do you mean? If it's something like schizophrenia or psychosis, I could probably heal her with one of my mental illness drugs, you know."

Patchouli laughed softly at that, prompting her to suffer a sudden coughing fit before responding. "Nope, this is definitely not the sort of thing you could just cure with a shot of whatever. There's no need to worry about it though; Miss Remilia should definitely be coming back to her right mind by now. The only thing you should be concerned about is if a civil war breaks out in the house, and that's definitely a possibility for those two sisters tonight."

Eirin waited in silent anticipation for Patchouli to elaborate with an explanation, biting her lip in minor frustration when none came. "Is that right? Well, I have enough on my plate already tonight, working on this incident with you and taking care of these patients. If those filthy devils want to turn this house into a battlefield, they'd better keep the chaos out in the hallways and not bother me with it."

"Great," Patchouli answered dully. "Let's just hope they share that idea. Anyway, I'll contact you again when I reach the store or if anything abnormal show up." With the hasty farewell spoken, the tome through which her voice had been echoing lost its lavender glow and returned to a dark shade of navy.

Silence filled the room again, and Eirin yawned softly to herself as she contemplated everything Patchouli had said to her. It wasn't until she heard her yawn echoed a few moments later that she remembered her rabbit acquaintance Tewi Inaba was still in the room. While she had fiercely interrogated the rabbit over what had happened to Yuyuko about an hour ago, Eirin had nearly forgotten about her afterward. It seemed almost a miracle that the mischievous Tewi hadn't scampered off while Eirin's attention was focused elsewhere, but she was too exhausted by that hour of the night to be focused on pulling pranks. Instead, she seemed far more interested in relaxing and doing nothing.

Glancing around the makeshift infirmary and spotting the unmoving Yakumo household lined up on the floor, Eirin quickly resumed what she had been doing prior to contacting Patchouli: treating Chen and Yukari. After several minutes of running various tests on the unconscious bodies with a variety of equipment, she turned back to the other conscious person in the room with a face of stoic duty. "Tewi, could you draw a blood sample from Yukari for me, please?"

Eirin's request was quite a simple one, but it fell on deaf rabbit ears. As she turned away from writing on various sheets of paper about her patients, she saw the small rabbit nonchalantly sitting on top of the central coffee table, her legs dangling off the edge. Tewi glanced back at her and wriggled her nose with a smile, but she did nothing else before turning back to stare at the bodies lying on the floor.

"Tewi," Eirin repeated with slight agitation in her voice, "I said, could you—"

"Yeah, yeah, yeah, get some blood from the gap hag," Tewi replied dismissively, not even bothering to look at the older woman this time. "Heard ya the first time, but I'm not too keen on doing it anyhow. Handling blood without getting all squeamish really isn't my forte in life."

Eirin folded her arms and squinted at the rabbit with disapproval. "Frankly, I could not care less about whether or not you want to do it. Right now, you're acting as my assistant here, and we need to analyze Miss Yakumo's blood to ensure it'll be safe for her to wake up in an hour."

Tewi shrugged without care and stretched her arms toward the ceiling, yawning loudly. "I don't get why I got saddled with being a 'medical assistant' or whatever in the first place. Not like I know squat about any of this stuff!"

Eirin dropped the pen with which she was using to write and looked Tewi in the eye. "If Reisen has gone completely rogue as it seems, I'm going to need to acquire a new assistant for all of the work I perform. Naturally, I can't impose on the princess to do that, which means the only decently intelligent candidate left from Eientei would be you, Tewi. I believe it's perfectly reasonable to ask you to perform a small amount of work instead of endlessly freeloading and playing tricks on others all day."

"That's all well and good," Tewi said with an easygoing smile, "and I might be willing to help you out, but for tonight, it's three AM right now and I am exhausted beyond belief! This little rabbit needs her beauty sleep, you know; how else would you expect I'd be able to live to be a million years old and look not a day older than Cirno does?" She patted Eirin on the back with a playful giggle. "All those late nights at the lab must be the reason why you look your age!"

Eirin let the jab pass with an unamused look on her face, but her expression became serious again shortly after. "Besides that, you're not exactly off the hook yet, Tewi. True, it looks highly likely that Reisen wrote the death threat letter and framed you for it, but we can't be completely sure of that until all the pieces of evidence have come together. It's obvious that the good-for-nothing shrine maiden can't be counted on to watch over you tonight after the fine job she's done so far, so I suppose I'll have to do it myself."

Tewi leaned over the side of the table in an attempt to touch the toes of her bare feet, and she managed to stretch enough to do so with quite a bit of success. "So, do ya expect me to work until I faint on the floor from sleepiness, then? I really don't think that's too hot of an idea." She picked up the blood syringe from the table and began to casually toss it up and down with one hand. "What happens if I get too tired and accidentally plunge this baby into someone's brain or something?"

Before Eirin could sharply rebuke her rabbit assistant, the sound of quiet, steady footsteps approaching from the hallway caught her attention. Looking toward the door of the infirmary, she saw Alice emerging from the outside darkness, her mouth drawn into a tight and emotionless line. Her striking, sharp blue eyes stared directly at Eirin's own grey ones with the same gravity that combatants of the Civil War in similar colors may have felt, and her seriousness was quite well-matched by the two girls in her arms who appeared to have more charcoal than fairy flesh on their bones. Even Tewi seemed to feel the serious atmosphere as her grin began to wane slightly.

"Ah, Alice," Eirin greeted diplomatically with a flat smile. "It's great to see that you're still around tonight. I had begun to think that Patchouli and I were the only ones left trying to get to the bottom of this incident."

Alice raised an eyebrow. "Is that right? I didn't think Reimu would be one to so easily give up on doing her job in a situation like this."

Slightly biting her lip, Eirin glanced worriedly beyond the doll maker into the dark hallway outside the room. "That might be the main problem here, actually. Seems like the shrine maiden has just dismissed this as another everyday incident that she can solve by lazily going about her regular routine; neither her shrine nor her lifestyle seems to have been placed in jeopardy by the events. But when has an incident in Gensokyo ever involved directly trying to murder, drug, or kidnap people?"

"Gotta be the first one," Tewi answered quickly, adding herself to the conversation. "I've lived here longer than any of you guys, and the worst I've ever seen has been when someone stole someone else's pudding." She smirked nostalgically and licked her lips. "And the poor bastard never even found out whose stomach that delicious stuff went into!"

"Nevertheless, I think it's safe to say I'm a bit concerned at this point," Eirin continued. "Unlike most of these fanciful incidents that end with a tea party with the instigators, this one simply feels... dangerous. Yukari and her clan have all been swept away, Yuyuko and her servant have gone missing, my own rabbit assistant has apparently become one of the leaders of a rebellion, and it's anyone's guess as to what exactly happened to the members of the this house. I don't know what it means to see the vampire chasing her gatekeeper down the hallway with a crazed look in her eyes, but it can't be anything good." Her voice settled into a graver tone. "My main duty is to protect Princess Kaguya in any way possible, and even though she currently sleeps in an impenetrable bedroom, I'm afraid that the mastermind of this incident may strike at Eientei with the same deadly force like they used with Mayohiga."

Alice, in contrast to the surly mood she had placed herself in after arguing with Marisa, blinked with genuine surprise; she had never before seen the usually calm, condescending, curt doctor display uncertainty. "Well, the sooner we find the mastermind of this plot, the sooner everything can get back to normal."

"I suppose that's true," was the quiet, devoid-of-confidence reply.

"Anyway," Alice continued, "I'll get down to business about why I'm here. While Marisa and I were taking a stroll around Youkai Mountain, we encountered these two fairies, burned and battered as you see them now. They said that while they were seeking Reisen, they were assaulted by an apparently murderous Hina... or something like that. Dunno how much of it is accurate, but they said that Reisen did indeed come and save them from certain death by attacking Hina, at which point they fled. So, now that Marisa is bringing Reisen in, I brought these two to you so that you can help them." With a couple twirls and flicks of the thin wires attached to her fingers, the two dolls currently hovering over Alice's shoulders got to work. Shanghai gingerly picked up Cirno around the waist and, careful to avoid doing anything to make her moan in agonizing pain, slowly set her down on the floor to the left of Yukari's unconscious body. Hourai quickly followed suit with Daiyousei, whose injuries were not too severe to keep her from saying a quick "thank you" immediately afterward. Once the two dolls had completed their objective, their master turned back to Eirin. "Nurse them back to full health, please," Alice commanded simply. She turned around to exit the room, but was stopped in place by a particularly cold sound of a throat clearing.

"Pardon me, Alice," Eirin said in a polite yet uneasy tone with a strained smile as she glanced back and forth between the fairies and doll maker, "but... this isn't exactly a simple matter of healing."

Alice glanced backward behind her shoulder, and both of her dolls that were still tending to Cirno and Daiyousei mirrored the motion to focus on the pharmacist. "Is there a problem, Eirin?"

Eirin motioned toward the two fairies lying on the floor, pointing particularly on the blackened sections of Cirno's face. "The green-haired one looks reasonably treatable, but as for Cirno... You told me the fairies were injured, not barbecued!"

"Now that you mention it," Tewi piped up from the other side of the room, "I was gonna ask what smelled so good around here!" She wriggled her nose in the air with a curious smile. "Wonder if this mansion's storing any bottles of steak sauce."

Alice's expression turned down toward a look of disgust and disappointment. "If you think this is a joke, I guess I'll go out and find a real doctor who isn't a useless quack!"

"That's not what I meant," Eirin replied, still possessing a tense smile. "Still... Cirno has third degree burns here; it looks like the affected parts of her skin have become burned to the core. It's a wonder she's still alive after wandering around for so long."


"And..." Eirin glanced solemnly at the charred streaks along the ice fairy's cheeks, "under normal circumstances, the proper treatment for such an injury can take weeks, maybe months, of treatment. It's not just a matter of injecting them with some magical serum that can instantly heal them, if that's what you were thinking."

Alice's glare continued to blaze brightly, just as if it itself had been the cause of the burns. "It's pretty hard to believe that someone who has engineered dreams, genetically altered fish, knows every drug in existence, and mixed an elixir of goddamn immortality can't give quick medical treatment for a burn."

Eirin shook her head patiently yet condescendingly at the bitter youkai. She picked up a smooth, shiny scalpel from the pile of medical equipment on the table and held it tightly in one hand as she continued to glance at the fairies. "Frankly, I know it sounds pretty cruel, but if you want them to be healthy again, the best and quickest way I know would be, well..."

"What?!" Alice demanded, raising her voice.

Eirin glanced down at her feet before speaking bluntly. "Killing them and letting them come back to life again as fairies do."

After it seemed as though the aloof and bitter girl had reached her peak in anger, Alice became completely silent after this moment. She simply kept her eyes trained on Eirin, still as a statue. The stare no longer seemed directly malicious, being a flat gaze, but this didn't make it any easier for Eirin to witness.

"That's not to say I recommend doing that, of course," Eirin added quickly. "My Hippocratic oath specifically forbids me from doing that sort of thing, although I'm not exactly sure how valid it pertains to immortal patients like these ones. Still, it's just something you should be aware of."

Tewi burst out laughing. "Really? You really think that was the best thing to say to this loose cannon? You're just asking for one of her dolls to skewer you with a lance!"

Eirin's face flushed beet-red, and she cursed under her breath before attempting to smile diplomatically at Alice. "I-I mean, I'm sure they've died plenty of times already and have resurrected enough to be used to the process, so you shouldn't be too concerned about them feeling pain and agony from death." She glanced hopefully at both Tewi, but the rabbit's amused look told her that the revised statement was even worse than the original. Her mouth opened again as if to try a third time, but she decided against it after a moment's thought and simply knitted her brow crossly. "There's a reason I went into pharmacology instead of becoming a doctor of medicine, Tewi," Eirin hissed. "I'm terrible at the whole 'good bedside manner' routine. People always think I'm either a self-righteous Lunarian asshole or a creepy mad scientist, you know?"

She inhaled deeply, and finally let her breath out after a few minutes, smiling softly at Alice. "Look, there's only one of me, all right? If it were any other day, I'd be more than happy to do all I can for these two, but right now I have to deal with an unknown threat Patchouli's going to confront, a traitorous Udonge, and whatever the hell is going on in the Scarlet Devil Mansion. I'm sorry, but I simply can't spare the time to perform a skin graft surgery tonight."

The doll maker dropped her piercing stare and glanced pensively around the room. Looking at the line of bodies that now totaled five, she turned back to the pharmacist with a small, determined smile. "I hope you haven't forgotten that I'm around and quite able to help, Eirin. I'll keep tabs on Patchouli from here and watch over the Yakumos. Marisa should be coming back here with Reisen in tow very soon, and she should be able to handle interrogating her just fine. That should leave you and your new, erm, 'assistant' plenty of time to treat Cirno and Daiyousei, no?"

"Well... I suppose that would help matters," Eirin admitted, "but performing an operation is no simple task! My equipment here isn't even close to what's adequate for a skin graft. And besides that, I think it would be best if I question Reisen myself. I'm sure Marisa would put in a fine effort, but I've known that rabbit for a long time. I could dig deeply into her personal weaknesses far more efficiently than that witch could."

"Then get Tewi to fetch your tools from Eientei," Alice countered coolly. "I'm sure Marisa would be happy to keep Reisen locked down until you finish and can interrogate her." She placed her hands on her hips and smirked slyly. "Really, for a genius of medicine of your caliber, this should be a simple task." She motioned with her head toward the two fairies. As if on cue, they both raised their heads slightly with wide, innocent eyes. "Or, of course, you could let these cute kids suffer excruciating pain after helping us find that rabbit. It's your choice, really."

In that moment, it seemed as though Eirin had completely run out of energy to protest against Alice's idea. A sense of exhaustion gripped her body, and she slumped to the ground, defeated. "All right, you win," she grumbled. "As long as you make sure you stay on top of everything here, I suppose there's no real harm in you taking over while I do the surgery."

"Wonderful!" Alice said, a smile of triumph spreading across her face. After a few seconds without any response from the doctor, she folded her arms impatiently. "Well? You said time was of the essence tonight, right? Get to it already!"

"Heh, when Reisen's no longer under your complete control, you're quite the submissive underling, aren't you?" Tewi noted, focusing an observing glance on Eirin. No verbal response met the rabbit, but she did see an ashamed blush form on the cheeks of her master.

Though it was quite strange for the Lunarian pharmacist to be ordered around as if she were one of Alice's dolls, she shrugged off the possible humiliation of doing so and began to rapidly scribble out a list on a sheet of paper. As soon as she was finished, she thrust the note into Tewi's hands. "A list of everything I'll need from Eientei," she explained simply. "They're all labeled clearly and organized in my office, so you should have no trouble finding them." She smiled with an expression that seemed to be made from equal parts authority and mischief. "Think of this as a test to see whether or not I can trust you as a reliable assistant."

Tewi quickly scanned the "medical shopping list" and then looked up at Eirin with earnest eyes. "If I do this for you, can I head off to bed afterward? Please?"

"Of course!" Eirin's brief expression of warm praise quickly transformed into pensive thought again. "Before you go, though... I can't exactly let you leave alone. It's not that I don't exactly trust you, per say, but we can't afford to take any risks. If you actually are helping Reisen or whoever else is behind this incident, letting you loose like this would be a disaster." She shook her head. "But I don't want to leave this house in case something happens to these patients, and Alice can't exactly go either. So who—"

"Shanghai." Alice only uttered one quick word, as if she were answering a trivia question with the name of a Chinese city, before she began to carefully direct the doll strings attached to her fingers. In just a moment, the doll tending to Cirno floated into the air and settled on a surprised Tewi's shoulder, looking up to the rabbit with determined eyes. "I can monitor events through her eyes just as I did with Marisa when she explored the underground a few weeks ago. Should Tewi try any funny business along the way, she'll have to get through either Shanghai's lance, or, if all else fails, an explosion of gunpowder."

"We're going to have the world's trickiest rabbit be monitored by a doll?" Eirin questioned, glancing sideways in doubt.

"I would trust Shanghai with my life," Alice answered confidently. "I believe she's only one step away from gaining full sentience. Whatever Tewi might throw at her, she should be able to handle with ease."

Eirin shook her head slowly. As before, her grey eyes seemed to accurately reflect the Lunarian's ancient age with their tiredness, and all the fight was taken out of her. "Fine. If you think your doll can keep an eye on Tewi on her trip to Eientei, so be it."

Tewi snorted, rolling her eyes and crossing her arms. "Give me some credit," she said in mild indignation. "I don't wanna see these fairies suffer any more than you do. I'm not just gonna whip out the tricks in your time of need here."

With that, after a few more quick preparations, Tewi leapt out of the infirmary with an enthusiastic spring in her step. Shanghai rested comfortably on the rabbit's shoulder, somewhat resembling a pirate's parrot by doing so. As Eirin began to silently examine her two newest patients, Alice took a seat on the coffee table in the center of the room. The medical tome used to communicate with Patchouli lay on her left, and the Hourai doll through which she could keep watch on Tewi and Shanghai settled in on her right. She peered into the darkness of the hallway that lay beyond the doorway, the same one that had held bloodthirsty vampires and psychotic youkai alike a short while ago, and smiled. "All right, incident," she said out loud, "do your worst. I'm ready."

"I'm going to murder Lily White," Mystia said. "I'm going to obliterate Lily White. I'm going to massacre Lily White. I'm going to brutally slice open and dismember Lily White." Though she knew that she would not actually advance her announced goal just by saying it over and over again, it brought comfort to the night sparrow's heart to just say the words out loud. The Forest of Magic was a vast, hopping place crawling with all sorts of life, and so she figured it would be fine to spread the word about her plans in such an active location so that everyone would know. During her cheerful trek all around the dark, cold, noisy forest that night in search of a certain hiding fairy, she had passed by a multitude of various minor fairy and youkai. To each passing denizen of the forest, she had been more than happy to share her plans whether the recipient gave an ounce of caring or even had the brain capacity to understand or not. It was all the same: just another possible audience member to applaud and cheer at the fairy's funeral tomorrow.

As Mystia began to think about all the minor creatures and imps she had encountered in the past hour, her childish and constantly shifting mind briefly touched upon a quartet of young Gensokyo residents she had not seen: Cirno, Daiyousei, Rumia, and Wriggle. She wondered in honest curiosity for a few minutes about where her four friends could be at the moment before recalling what she had done earlier that night.

"Heh, what a change this is gonna be," she thought to herself with a gentle blush of enthusiasm. "It's usually Cirno or Dai-chan who's the smart thinker in the crowd. Everyone's gonna be so surprised when they see it was little ol' Mystia, mild-mannered night sparrow and lamprey vendor, who had the right idea all along!"

Even while her mind flashed back to the ever-present idea of killing Lily White, Mystia reviewed with almost nostalgic wistfulness the story of her close companions in her head. She felt a twinge of remorse (though she referred to it in her mind as "past-tense badness") as she remembered how callous and spiteful she had treated the rest of her team that night in order to accomplish her efforts. True, Yuuka had instructed her to ensure that Rumia and Wriggle would join her at Kourindou "by any means possible," but it was mostly from her own opinions alone that she had decided to act with such meanness and force toward the others. It had come to a complete surprise to her that Cirno and Daiyousei in particular had absolutely no desire to play a role in the revolution that would bring them into power; Mystia had imagined that the rest of her friends would be just as excited about the situation as she herself had been when Yuuka had approached her in the beginning.

"Well, nobody thought that Beethoven guy would be popular when he started with his whole 'deaf to all but the song' routine, so I guess these things just take a little time," she assured herself out loud, not bothering to keep her thoughts within her head. "I just hope Wriggle-chan and Rumia will forgive me for handing them over like that. But they shouldn't be mad at me, anyway. I like them. I love them, and they love me too. It's Lily White whom I'm going to massacre."

Mystia was still in a blithe mood after stepping onto cloud nine by defeating Yuyuko, and so the moment of regret for acting so callously toward her friends was quickly replaced again by the endless fountain of joy she felt. After all, this would be a momentous day in the young sparrow's life, perhaps the single turning point of transformation from a punching-bag and nuisance into a serious, respected, first-class citizen of Gensokyo who could now live out all her dreams without fear. It would be mad of her not to feel extremely excited, she reasoned.

All the while she had been deep in thought about the night of the night sparrow, Mystia had still been continuously flying through the Forest of Magic. The pitch-black groves and minimal light from the moon were not at all disconcerting to her, and yet they also meant that she would be blindly wandering through the thick reaches of the forest. While singing, cooking lampreys, and causing night blindness were talents of Mystia, multitasking and focusing on multiple situations at the same time were not. By the time the night sparrow had escaped from her reverie and finally made a decision to navigate her way back from the depths of the rather unfamiliar Forest of Magic, it was a bit too late.

Mystia was startled to find that she was no longer surrounded by such an extremely thick expanse of trees; indeed, the only trees she could now see in the area were those that neatly lined both sides of a wide, expansive dirt road. The excessive noise and chattering of the multitude of youkai from the forest had all but died away, leaving the moonlit road eerily silent. The night sparrow spun in a single circle to take in her surroundings, still not quite sure how she had so suddenly left the Forest of Magic. All that appeared still alive in this area was a gently swaying field of weeds and long grass growing between the lines of trees and the road borders, and even this seemed somewhat incomplete and half-dead to Mystia. If she were crafting a classic horror novel or ghost story, the sparrow decided, this would be the setting for where the young, tender couple would attempt to express their affection, only meet their bloody end at the hands of a deranged murderer.

Although the stench and feeling of death in the atmosphere was disconcerting, to say the least, Mystia strangely felt herself invigorated with replenished enthusiasm instead of dull apathy. With such a second wind flowing beneath her wings, her desires toward participating in the revolution and gaining retribution again the fairy of springtime seemed to multiply tenfold within her mind.

"That's right," she said to herself, scowling with absolute hostility as a particular thought ran through her mind. "We'll go through with this, and Lily White will pay for the unforgivable deed she's committed." Mystia carefully held out a hand and examined the long, green fingernails that extended from each appendage, making sure that none of them were too sharp or protruding. After the once-over with her nails passed her test, she took a deep breath and slowly but surely brought her hands up to her feathered hat.

Once her fingers reached the soft fabric of the brown hat, they carefully gripped the edge on both sides before lifting directly vertically. As soon as her hat had reached about a foot above her head and had exposed her short, magenta hair completely, she released her fingers' grasp and let the hat lightly and carelessly flutter onto the ground. From that point, she tried to look upwards to observe what had been covered beneath the fabric all this time, but then realized the impossibility of trying to stare at an object on one's head. With a slight sigh, she reached upward toward her head again and slowly, nimbly grasped the precious item that lay uncovered there. Once her fingers had a very gentle but solid grasp of the object that lay balanced on her crown, she took another deep breath before slowly lowering them toward eye level. There, she could once again see it in all its glory.

Even though Mystia's mind was intimately devoted to and familiar toward what now lay in her hands, she still felt a wave of horror, nausea, and depression run through her body upon gazing at it once again. There, lying still in one quivering hand, was the lifeless, mutilated body of a baby sparrow. The tiny creature, still in what would be its embryonic state, had little more than a raw, pink body and a miniature beak to call its own, and yet it was clear that the bird would never have a chance to fly, walk, breath, or love in its life. The head and skull, which should have been sharply defined and rigid, lay lopsided and grotesquely contorted into almost a new shape entirely against the side of the sparrow's body. The shape of the appendages that would have soon grown wings lay bent and useless at horrifying angles, more resembling the structures of pterodactyl wings than those of sparrows. Though the body was dry, the multitude of scratches mapped across its entirety like branches or cobwebs still bore a scarlet tint to their surfaces. However, it would not remain dry for long, as a few droplets of tears quickly began to fall upon the corpse, gently dousing it in a sorrowful rain.

"L-Lily," she moaned quietly to herself, "why? Why?! How could you...?" Her free hand, previously attempting to cover her eyes instinctively, began to curl into a shaking, quivering fist that roughly wiped the tears away from her eyes. "I'll... I'll kill you."

"Oh my... Is this what you were talking about when you mentioned that Lily White had wronged you?"

Mystia's head immediately whipped around to spot who had spoken. She instinctively brandished her nails threateningly with a glare in case it was an enemy. When she saw who had spoken to her in such a soothing and motherly tone, however, she let her cover crumble. Not even bothering to hide her object of heartbreak behind her back, she slowly staggered toward the new person a few meters away along the road. She didn't wonder how another living being could have snuck up on her in such a unique location; she only wished to somehow escape from the rush of sadness and despair that had instantly consumed her. "M-Miss Yuuka…"

"Yes, it's me," the flower youkai replied, giving a strained smile as a greeting. "I decided on a whim to walk down the Road of Reconsideration on my journey back to the Forest of Magic. I hadn't expected to meet anyone on my way, however."

Mystia choked back a sigh of hopelessness as she looked back and forth between Yuuka and the deceased sparrow. "And now you know about it…"

"I… I'm not quite sure what to say," Yuuka admitted, glancing aside with a solemn, gloomy look as she stopped the twirling of her umbrella completely, "other than how utterly sorry I am." She turned her head completely away to avoid looking at the night sparrow even out of the corner of her eye. "Besides that, this was clearly something you wanted to keep to yourself about. I shouldn't have intruded on it without your permission, and so I'm quite sorry for that as well."

"No," Mystia mumbled almost inaudibly. As she gently and caringly placed the lifeless sparrow upon her head again and covered it with her hat, she smiled faintly. "C-Cirno and Dai-chan and the rest are really nice, but they wouldn't get it. I know if I told them about it, they'd just try to cheer me up or tell me there are plenty of birds in the air or something like that instead of helping me try to get back at Lily." The night sparrow quickly leapt forward almost in a single moment, and she did not stop sprinting until she reached Yuuka's back and could wrap her petite arms around the youkai's warm, soft torso. "But you're different, Miss Yuuka. I shouldn't have ever kept it a secret from you in the first place. I j-just thought you might laugh at me like anyone else would for crying over a sparrow."

Yuuka also smiled gently as she felt the sparrow's embrace around her middle. "You said she had done something so horrible to you to make you seek revenge against her, and from what I see, that's not an exaggeration at all. I can't say I know how you're exactly feeling over this. Still, I think I might possibly feel the same way if an arsonist callously set fire to all of my sunflower fields at once." She paused for a moment, listening to the sparrow's soft, burbling breathing against her back. "I realize it might be rather intrusive of me, and you can certainly say no, but would it possibly help to have a sympathetic soul hear the whole story as we walk back toward Kourindou? My ears are open, should you wish to tell."

"I can try, I guess." Mystia fell into a deep world of thought at that moment. As she began to conjure up various memories from the depths of her mind, the look of destructive insanity slowly began to force out the previous sorrow from her eyes and take its place. Yuuka turned around fully to face the direction of the road leading back into the Forest of Magic, and as she did, Mystia's petite hand quickly and almost forcibly thrust itself into her own. "Funny story, really. Lily must've thought it was a hoot!"

Yuuka turned inquisitively toward Mystia with a softly questioning smile, though her glance grew worried upon seeing the sparrow's eyes. "Pardon?"

"Well you see, about two weeks ago I came across this nest full of these adorable, tiny sparrow eggs," Mystia explained. Her vocal speed was only one step away from speaking in panicking rush, although her actual tone sounded unnaturally nonchalant. "Up high, high in the treetops, on a top branch of the tallest tree in the Bamboo Forest, it was. Of course, I'm not technically a sparrow any more, but I still wanted to make sure those soon-to-be sparrow babies would be safe and sheltered from all the crazy dangers in Gensokyo."

"Of course," Yuuka agreed sympathetically. "I can't remember how many times I've passed by a lone sunflower in one field or another and yearned to shield the dear child from any sort of peril it might encounter. I can see why you would be similarly maternal toward sparrows."

"That's not all, though," Mystia said, her eyes gaining a reprieve from their madness at the moment. "I waited a little while with the eggs to see if their mommy would come back, since they were all alone. I knew if she came back, she wouldn't be happy with me for sitting there with her babies, looking like I was gonna cook an omelet or something. But still, I didn't wanna let them out of my sight and come back to some horrible demon chowing down on his breakfast, so I sat there and waited." She smiled, somewhat embarrassed. "And waited and waited and waited. By the time about twelve hours had passed, I guessed that the mommy bird wasn't going to come back. So, I decided that it was now my job to be the mommy and take care of the young, since nobody else was gonna.

"That started a really wonderful week," Mystia continued. The insanity of her eyes had nearly completed faded into wistful nostalgia, and she gently squeezed Yuuka's hand for comfort. "I know the sparrows weren't exactly born yet, but still, I think all those people who complain about how annoying childcare is are a bunch of liars! Instead of just wandering around like a brainless fairy, I had a mission to do, and I loved it! Every time any random youkai or rabbit or human or whatever came even close to the tree, I sent 'em soaring away with a bewitching song. During that really cold night in the middle of the week, I made sure the eggs were nice and warm by carefully clutching them to my chest underneath my dress. I followed the advice Cirno once gave about letting babies listen to music by singing my best melodies to them, I built the nicest and most insulated nest I could make for them, I stopped hanging out with the gang the entire time, I even asked that human librarian girl for a book on raising children when she passed by... I was the mommy, and all of it made me feel just so happy!" Her face broke out into a full beam of utmost joy, the type that seemed reserved for only beings who have just found their reason for living.

Yuuka felt a certain sense of warmth and fulfillment spreading from her solar plexus, and she couldn't help but grin in an almost goofy fashion as she listened to and watched Mystia. "Taking care of the young ones is really unlike anything else in the world, isn't it?"

"You said it!" Mystia agreed with an enthusiastic chirp.

Yuuka continued to smile in a more distant way, almost like a cat looking and listening intently to something undetectable to humans. "Yes, living in a land of young, green youkai whom I could warmly watch over as they slowly grow up and experience the wonders and joys of life peacefully, no bullying humans or powerful monsters in sight. Wouldn't that be a life worth living..."

"Eh? Anyway, continuing on with my story..." Mystia's expression lost its gleaming joy in favor of a downcast gloom almost immediately, and she struggled not to choke over her subsequent words. "Last Friday, the vernal equinox, was when it all went... horribly wrong. It was early in the evening when I woke up with the eggs to hear the sound that happens every year on that day: the spring fairy Lily White zipping around Gensokyo and shouting 'It's spring!' at the top of her lungs over and over again. Like every year, I groaned and tried to get back to sleep, 'cause she'd eventually fade out of earshot or wear herself out doing that. Only this time, the shouts of spring never got any quieter. After a while it reached the point where the announcement sounded like it was coming from right underneath me. I open my eyes and, lo and behold, the slimy, despicable fairy from Hell was standing right there at the base of the tree, waving her arms and grinning like an idiot!

"'Could you please get out of the tree?' she called up to me. Said it was part of her yearly routine in the spring to climb the tallest tree in the forest and shout her message from there, she did. Of course, my newly adopted sparrow eggs were gathered in the nest up there, so like hell I was gonna move for her! I told her to get lost. After that point, though, Lily… well, she…" Mystia's voice faded into silence, and when she tried to continue her sentence, she could only manage a weak, wheezing sound instead.

Yuuka looked toward the young sparrow with comforting sympathy, squeezing her slender hand in return. "It's okay, Mystia. You don't need to continue if you don't want to; I can assume how the story ends. I'm… I'm so sorry for your loss."

Mystia, however, neither became soothed by Yuuka's consolation nor seemed content to finish talking at that moment. She took a deep, stressed breath, wiped away the wetness from her wide eyes, and opened her mouth again. "That's not quite the end, though. Even though I told Lily over and over again that I was living there now and couldn't leave, it was like talking to a brick wall. She started shaking the tree trunk really violently, and even from doing it down there, I felt the limb the nest and I were on bouncing up and down sickeningly. It wasn't so bad for myself, but I could see the nest of helpless eggs swaying back and forth, with each motion getting closer and closer to tipping over. Even when I shouted so desperately at her to stop, offering to get out and move to another tree with the nest, she just laughed innocently and continued getting into the act. I couldn't pick up the nest myself since I was afraid I would fall over and drop them myself to a wretched end on the hard ground, and I knew if they just stayed there, they'd fall by themselves. I could see my eggs tipping right on the verge of death, and I was completely helpless to stop them… It was a thousand times more terrifying than being devoured by that Yuyuko ghost."

Yuuka winced painfully, imagining herself tied down to the earth in the middle of her sunflower field while the plants began to incinerate. She expected that Mystia would also cringe in terror after relating such a story, but the sparrow was oddly, eerily calm and composed in the moment.

"Finally, just when I thought the nest would horrifyingly crash onto the ground, she stopped. I fell over backwards onto the limb, but by some miracle, the eggs stayed completely safe and sound." She giggled slightly, her wide pupils bouncing around in every direction. "Lily flew up to stand next to me with her sugary-sweet grin, and before I could get back on my feet to slap her smug face into thin air, she snatched up the nest in her arms.

"'So~wwy,' she laughed, ruffling my hair like I was some stupid little kid. 'Just gotta take these. The spring festival today has balut eggs on the menu, and I couldn't find the main ingredients anywhere else. I know it's pretty inconvenient, and I'm sorry about that, but I just need to make sure everything runs like clockwork on the most important day of the year!'" Mystia chuckled almost merrily, looking up at a horrified Yuuka with her mouth open as if waiting for the punchline of a joke. "That's right; she thought she'd use my beloved baby sparrows which I had been raising with the upmost care as hors d'oeuvres for her feast! Hilarious, ain't it?"

Yuuka's once cherry and optimistic mood about the day had completely plummeted into a mixture of despair, horror, and sympathy. As she looked through the tearstained lenses of her eyes at the grinning night sparrow, her happiness only sunk further, and she couldn't even manage a comforting reply in the moment.

"'Course, it's not like I just laid down and let her get away. I tried my best to get back up and smack her down. But I was still a little disoriented, and before I could raise my arm to get her, she gave me a sharp kick in the gut. Then, she followed that up with a big burst of danmaku to the face!" With eyes nearly as wide as their surrounding sockets, she looked downward to her stomach and patted it with a good-natured laugh. "It definitely smarted, especially after she gave me another fierce stomp to the belly to put me down for the count. After that, Lily held the nest in one hand, cradling it carefully like she was mommy to the sparrows or something." Mystia stopped laughing and smiling in the moment to scowl fiercely at her last statement, nearly spitting on the side of the path. "Yup, it was like that little wench thought she could take everything about the sparrows away from me, even my status as mommy! If for nothing else, she needs to bleed to death for that."

Yuuka gently released her grasp of Mystia's hand in favor of wrapping her arm around the sparrow's back instead, pulling her in closer into a protective hold. As if acting as a "mommy" herself, she soothingly stroked her companion's arm and softly whispered reassuring, if somewhat meaningless, words into her ear in a comforting tone. While Mystia quickly returned to laughing and grinning somewhat madly without even seeming to acknowledge Yuuka anymore, her state of delirium seemed slightly pacified and less intense than before. The flower youkai smiled softly, trying to not let the flood of sadness from the story keep her from spreading a bit of hopeful optimism.

Mystia cocked her head slightly in deep thought before continuing on, staring forward instead of keeping eye contact with Yuuka like she had completely forgotten about her companion. "Now, here comes the real kicker. Killy Fright here started counting the eggs in the nest like she was a kid ending an Easter egg hunt, what with saying out loud so annoying slow, 'One eggy, two eggies, three eggies,' and so on. But she got to the end and saw that there were seven eggs in total. Apparently that was a big problem, since her recipe only called for six lovely, dear, little unborn sparrows ready to spread their wings into the world but instead would end up boiled alive. She laughed a whole lot about how much of a mistake that was for a few moments before turning back to me and saying she only needed six. So, to fix the problem, she fished a random one out of the nest and casually tossed it over to me, ignoring the nice little fact that we were both on nearly the top limb of a freaking tree and I was KEELED OVER IN ACHING PAIN!" By this time Mystia was shuddering and twitching all over in rigid, irregular motions and had eyes nearly as large as dinner plates. Yuuka was afraid the sparrow would explode in the moment, and her fears were hardly quelled when Mystia became completely still and smiled casually and innocently at her. "Well, needless to say, I couldn't catch the egg. It fell off to the side of the tree, giving me the lovely memento of this experience you just saw. Before I could get on my feet and stop her, Lily said her goodbyes and flew off into the sky with the sev—six eggs in tow, and the rest is history."

As Mystia's final word was released into the empty, quiet path, both of the youkai remained silent on their walk. Mystia began to skip and prance along merrily, although she eventually paused and turned back questioningly at Yuuka, who had hardly made any progress walking since the end of the story.


Yuuka's lips parted into a strained smile. "Yes, my dear?"

Mystia shrugged indifferently. "I dunno, just thought you'd have a bit more of a reaction to my story than just looking like this." She scrunched up her face into one of exaggerated straightness and blankness in an attempt to match Yuuka's, wrinkles forming on her forehead as a result.

The older youkai waited hesitantly for a second, pursing her lips, before looking earnestly at the sparrow. "To be honest, besides the abundance of sadness, anger, horror, disgust, and sympathy that tale created deep inside of me, it also gave me a great deal of worry. I've known Lily White for as many ages as she's come around with the purpose of spreading cheer for spring, and though she admittedly can be rather, well... irritating and obnoxious at times, I've never seen her as anything but kind, cheerful, and harmless. It's hard to believe she could have made such a radical change nearly overnight."

Mystia stopped in her tracks, and she placed her hands on her hips indignantly. Her eyes, now constricted from their wide circles, were tired, bloodshot slits that nearly froze Yuuka in her tracks. "What, you think I made that story up?! Kinda tough to fake a lifeless sparrow, I think."

"No, of course not," Yuuka said, looking with honest, increasingly anxious eyes at Mystia. "There's no way a story like that could be faked. I just have to wonder if someone is manipulating Lily behind the scenes, tricking her into doing something as horrible as that to you." She sighed somewhat tiredly. "Who it could possibly be and for what reason, I couldn't tell you, but it definitely worries me. I can't help but imagine whoever's doing this is trying to undermine our project. Someone wants to keep Gensokyo as a troubled land where the stronger denizens beat up and bully the weaker ones, and they're willing to commit such atrocities as that to get their way."

"Oh really?" Mystia grinned, exposing a mouth full of sharp, glimmering teeth even Remilia likely would be impressed by. "Well then, let's go find 'em and slice 'em into ribbons!"

Upon hearing that, Yuuka let a smile spread across her face. Instead of it being a malicious, destructive one as Mystia's appeared, however, the smile resembled true, genuine gratitude, and it was accompanied by the formation of softly rosy dimples in the corners of her cheeks. "It's excellent to hear you're so enthusiastic about our project, Mystia, but let's not get ahead of ourselves. I promise you'll get to reap the fruits of your labor in just a couple of hours, and nobody will get in our way for that!"

The night sparrow's wings perked up in perfect synchronization with her ears, and she beamed in utter delight. "You mean Team ⑨ and I are finally gonna get the recognition we've been looking for all this time, and I can get my revenge on Lily?"

"You bet!" Yuuka matched the sunny grin present on Mystia's face entirely, feeling a certain warmth spread through her body as she looked at the child's face of genuine happiness.

"Awesome!" After sighing in contentment for a moment, Mystia shrugged somewhat sheepishly, kicking a clod of dirt loose from the road with a feathered shoe. "I mean, I know it's gonna hurt the big humans and youkai in charge right now. I don't mean to be a, um... What was the word you called yourself a little while ago? Like, 'saddest' or something like that?"

"'Sadist,'" Yuuka corrected, her face reddening into a slight blush as she briefly turned away.

"Yeah, sadist! I don't mean to be a sadist; I just think it's finally our time to shine! And Lily really shoulda reconsidered screwing with me like that if she didn't want it to bite her in the butt."

"Perfectly understandable. You don't have to worry about that, Mystia; you're following your heart on this matter, as am I." She paused, turning her cheek away from the bird as she brought a hand to its rosy surface. "Just... I'd appreciate it if you don't call me that word, all right?"

"Eh?" Mystia cocked her head in simple confusion and misunderstanding. "You mean sadist? Isn't that what you said you were yourself? What's so bad about that? Is it like a mean nickname or something, like Cirno and the whole 'baka' thing?"

The bird's inquiry was met by a sustained silence from the older lady, who continued to redden under such a stare. "...Never mind. I suppose I did call myself that, and there's not much sense in taking off that label now."

Mystia shrugged, rather oblivious to the growing shame spreading through Yuuka's heart in the moment. "All right, whatever. So what happens now?"

Yuuka instantly stopped blushing and instead displayed a serious, pensive, small smile. "Well, all the preparatory pieces of the project have nearly come together for us to launch. A few minutes before I met up with you, my informant at the Scarlet Devil Mansion contacted me to say that Reisen had successfully completed her objectives: she has lured the kappa Nitori out of her home and hiding place in the Untrodden Valley. Nitori's dwelling on Youkai Mountain is extremely secure and well-guarded, so getting her out into a less protected place is our best option for capturing her. She is currently heading toward the mansion which, from the swiping of the deed and the subsequent secrets unraveled between the Scarlet sisters, should be entirely unguarded by its residents. This means we can cause a diversion of sorts to flush the kappa out of such a vulnerable location and capture her for ourselves, thereby providing us with an engineer to build the necessary, well, 'revolution weapon', I suppose you could call it. With it, we will seek out and eradicate any strong humans or youkai who refuse to conform with our ideals."

"Is that it?" Mystia inquired, seemingly somewhat underwhelmed by the plan Yuuka had seemed so dedicated toward.

"Not quite. That's the side of the plan for our direct advancement toward revolution; the 'offensive', if you will. The 'defensive' is happening at the same time, just to ensure no resistance can overthrow our project. With that, we're planning on emotionally crippling the greatest threat to ensure she won't rise up against us: Miss Yukari Yakumo. I imagine that killing her would be virtually impossible, and so destroying her last hope in life is the best substitute available. It's already happened that, through Reisen's efforts, Yukari's shikigami Ran was condemned to death, and I figure if the rest of her closest friends are taken away from her as well, she will be too overcome by grief to fight back. That's why we captured Youmu and Yuyuko at Kourindou; as soon as Flandre Scarlet inevitably kills or critically wounds her sister Remilia, we will transport the two ghost girls over to the mansion and its magically sealed basement. When we close the door behind them, they will be sealed by an impenetrable magic only a vampire who will no longer be with us can open. In essence, they'll be 'dead', unable to leave their cell for an eternity. After that the young nekomata Chen, while she mercifully sleeps the night away, will also be taken care of, and Yukari will be subsequently alone and friendless in the world. She will become filled with despair and desire to finally end her misery by herself, and so she will most likely not even attempt to stop our efforts." She rested for a moment, staring grimly at her feet. "Quite brutal and cruel, yes, and I would never condone this plan for lesser motives or ideals, but I believe it's a necessary evil to ensure absolute success and bring Gensokyo back into a haven for the exiled youkai."

"Gotta break a few eggs to make an omelet," Mystia spoke ruthlessly and nonchalantly, nodding confidently until she realized her metaphor was reminding her of the tragedy she had just spoken of. "You're the first big youkai I've met who really gets it, Miss Yuuka!"

Yuuka smiled warmly, though her sharp eyes were still focused entirely on fulfilling the project she had just outlined. "Thank you, Mystia! Anyway, as soon as we return to Kourindou, we shall begin our siege upon the Scarlet Devil Mansion. Koakuma will transport the two Hakugyokurou maidens into the basement, I will proceed to our next destination and meeting point, and you..." She reached into the folds of her red-plaid dress to reveal a box of matches and a clear, glass bottle of a liquid she glanced at with some disdain and queasiness. "As much as I naturally despise fire, it's our best option. You'll take these to the Voile Library in the mansion and use them to start a great inferno there, giving you and Koakuma a golden opportunity to find and capture the helpless, vulnerable Nitori in the panic."

Mystia nodded firmly, grabbing the objects out of Yuuka's hands and holding them snugly to her chest. "Got it. I'll get Nitori out in the open and snatch her away. Then it'll be no problem taking her to you at, umm..." She faltered in her words and looked up with a certain blankness at Yuuka. "Where are we gonna meet you, anyway?"

Yuuka was somewhat hesitant in replying, though after a few moments of exchanging glances with the eager night sparrow, she smiled agreeably. "I gave Koakuma all of my instructions to ensure she would oversee the process, but I suppose you can know just in case some misfortune befalls her." She pointed the end tip of her massive umbrella directly downward at the ground, tapping her heel twice into the soil. "Our meeting place is Chireiden, Palace of the Earth Spirits. There, specifically from one of the mistress's pet ravens, is where we shall find some of the technology needed to construct our weapon. The way there has been cleared this evening after one of my friends snuck fried beans into all of the onis' sake, so we should have no trouble reaching the palace in the underground city and acquiring the nuclear fusion technology found there."

"Great!" Mystia exclaimed, beaming with confidence. She turned to face the end of the road again, looking behind her shoulder at the older youkai lady briefly. "I guess I'll catch up with you later then?"

Yuuka nodded with a quiet smile, somewhat floating within a reverie. "Best of luck to you, Mystia. Feel free to contact me at any point if you run into trouble. And remember, you are doing this not only for your sake and my sake, but for the sake of all Gensokyo as well."

Mystia grinned while giving Yuuka a thumbs-up sign. She then turned back toward the road and let her wings flap freely, prepared to launch herself into the sky. "Don't worry; I've got no intention of failing or screwing this up. You can count on me!" Questions such as how she would find Nitori, how to subdue her, where to go to reach the Palace of the Earth Spirits, and how to avoid possible extermination by a youkai hunter had no place in the young sparrow's mind at that moment, and she quickly flushed them away as they turned up. She was far too preoccupied with the utopia that would await her in a few hours if all went according to plan, and she quickly assured herself that she could figure her way through those issues if and when they would turn up. The more important subject in her mind was staying loyal to Yuuka and doing her absolute best to carry out her part of the project, and this would remain in her active thoughts for nearly her entire flight toward the Scarlet Devil Mansion.

Yuuka was left to walk the Road of Reconsideration alone in the night, although her sunny smile erased any sense of loneliness that might have been expected from such a scene. Suicide was the farthest thought from her mind in that moment, and she continued daydreaming about an optimistic, bright future that would come the next day.

Without even realizing it, the image of Mystia as a "mommy" taking care of the sparrow eggs as she had mentioned visualized again within the elderly youkai's mind, and she twirled her umbrella merrily with every step while thinking about it. Halfway through the journey down the road into the Forest of Magic, Yuuka realized that she had subconsciously added herself into the mental image in place of Mystia, and she blushed with slight silliness over the revelation. Still, she made no attempt to correct the picture, and instead was quite content to let the visual of "Mommy Yuuka" stay central in her mind for the rest of the walk.

Youmu was hardly out of her element being surrounded by flora as she was, but her mind had nonetheless been racing at lightning speed for the last hour or so. Being captured by a dangerous flower youkai and a carefree and treacherous demon girl wasn't the scariest thing she had ever encountered in her half-life (that honor went to the trial of guts with Yuyuko through the ghostly bamboo forest), but it certainly ranked up there. She sighed with a small sense of contentment as she gazed downward at her ghost mistress sitting in her lap. Yuyuko had been resting quietly for the past hour and a half, and this meant she wasn't currently teasing her servant to no end about anything currently on her mind. Youmu groaned as she imagined the endless quips and jokes her now one-armed mistress would make at this time were she conscious; most likely some horrendous pun about "giving her a hand" with the restricting vines would be repeated ad nauseam.

She turned her attention toward the only other resident of the building whom she could see. Similarly to Yuyuko, Koakuma was calmly and quietly curled up in a chair, though she was reading from a book with a bright red cover instead of sleeping. Every five minutes or so she would glance toward the bound ghost girls in order to make sure that they were still in the same place and not trying to struggle toward escaping. When she turned her glance toward Youmu this time, she smiled in a friendly manner as she noticed the gardener looking back at her. "Yes? Is there anything I can do for you at the moment, Youmu? Are you hungry or thirsty or anything?"

Yuyuko groaned in her sleep at the word "hungry", but Youmu shook her head flatly. "Nothing at all," she declined. "Do you know when we'll to be set free, or when Yuuka will return, or when, well, anything involving us will next happen?"

Koakuma shrugged casually, not too interested in the question. "Sorry, kid, but your guess is as good as mine. I just know the procedure that Yuuka-sama asked me to follow, and none of it involves you much further beyond watching over you guys until she returns." Her face brightened with a cheerful expression. "Oh, but that shouldn't be much longer! She should be coming back here very soon!"

Youmu raised her eyebrow. "Really? What is she going to do then?"

"I have no idea. However, you should know..." The little devil's smile widened into a smirk. "When outlining our activities, Yuuka didn't mention your names in any sort of activities after five o'clock this morning. So, I'm guessing that either she's going to set you free at that point, or..." She chuckled softly with a slightly menacing voice, glancing at both Youmu and Yuyuko with glittering red eyes. "She did say that her aim in this revolution is to topple all the powerful youkai from controlling Gensokyo and end their reign forever, and I think you two definitely qualify as powerful youkai!" Koakuma laughed to herself merrily as she picked up her book and set it on the store counter next to the potted sunflower with bittersweet vines. From that view, using the flickering lantern that also remained on the counter as a weak source of light, Youmu could see a white circumscribed hexagram, a shape that resembled a sinister eye glaring back at her, on the crimson cover, and she shivered slightly at the sight of it. "Being a weak little library assistant whom nobody knows well instead of someone like you certainly has its benefits!"

Youmu's heart leapt as she heard the devil voice her predictions, yet she also felt a small sense of relief as her captor had finally begun to talk seriously about her fate. Listening to everyone involved, especially her Lady Yuyuko, chat casually and joke around during such a dangerous situation was quite disconcerting to the serious young girl, and she had felt far too flustered to concentrate on finding a way out of the situation. Now, however, Yuyuko was sleeping peacefully in her servant's arms, her chest rising and falling in a gentle rhythm. After a few moments of careful thought about her predicament and another glance around the room, Youmu's face lit up with inspiration. It was time for the mistress of swords to make her move.

"Um, pardon me, Miss Koakuma," she began in what she hoped was an innocent and polite tone of voice, "but actually, I am feeling kind of thirsty. Would there happen to be any more of that tea Miss Yuuka prepared for us earlier this evening? My throat's just a bit dry, and I'm guessing that Lady Yuyuko will be feeling the same way when she awakens."

Koakuma closed her book, keeping it laying flat on the counter, and smiled amiably. "Oh, sure! I know Yuuka left the teapot in the kitchen, and I'll bet there's a little bit left I can reheat for you right now!" She hopped out of her chair again and began to saunter toward one of the doors in the back of the room. Brazenly pushing past a sign on the door labeled "Employee Only", she began to enter a dark room Youmu could only assume was Rinnosuke's kitchen. Before she could disappear into the other room, however, she smirked confidently at the entangled half-ghost. "I'm sure a samurai of your caliber in terms of honor and valor would never even dare to attempt it, but still, please don't get any silly ideas about breaking loose while I'm gone." She winked cutely, pointing toward the cheerful sunflower. "The hills, no, flowers have eyes, you know!" With a quick swish of her black skirt and a final giggle, she left the dimly-lit main room and left Youmu alone in what seemed to be a room devoid of other conscious beings.

But Youmu knew better than that. Looks could be deceiving, and she had a gut feeling that she wasn't alone at that moment, aside from being in the company of her napping mistress. She waited silently as Koakuma disappeared from view and shut the door behind her, and after a few moments had passed beyond that, she opened her mouth and whispered loudly to address the entire room. "All right, Mr. Rinnosuke. I've sent her off, so the coast is clear. You can come out into the open now."

Youmu's proposition was first met with complete silence aside from a gentle, satisfied hum from the sleeping Yuyuko. After several tense moments of nothing, however, she heard a very soft rustling sound emanating from behind the sales counter. Accompanied by a low groan, a semi-masculine voice spoke up from the same location. "I was beginning to think you'd never say that, Miss Youmu."

The half-ghost's eyes lit up with slight surprise, but she smiled to herself with the proud feeling of having proven her assumption correct. "So you've been there this entire time, ever since I left the shop this evening?"

Rinnosuke's reply was both uneasy and filled with hesitation. "Well, you could say that... but it's actually been a bit longer than that. Miss Yuuka came in to hold me hostage and take over Kourindou early yesterday morning, but she ordered me to continue working as if nothing was wrong throughout the day. That was also when she bought some of Yuyuko's stationery—she insisted on paying like an upstanding citizen instead of simply taking it—so that she and her group could write the death threat note, by the way. Of course, Yuuka assured me that I had to act like nothing was out of the ordinary and act as though I suspected Yuyuko, or else she threatened to strangle me to the point of death, and—"

"Look, I'd be interested to hear the full story in a bit," Youmu said hurriedly, "but Koakuma is definitely not going to stay in the kitchen forever. Can you come over here and give me a hand with these bittersweet vines?"

The shopkeeper laughed dryly, still out of sight behind the counter. "Believe me, I'd love to do that. There's just a small problem; I happen to be rooted to the spot with the same vines! How else would you expect she'd keep me where she wants me without staying here the whole time?"

Youmu sighed with frustration, sinking back into her chair in defeat. As she listened in the brief silence to Yuyuko, the beloved mistress she had always served with all her ability until that day, making a blissful, bubbly sound in the middle of her dream, her face contorted into an expression of great concentration. "C'mon, Youmu,"she very quietly yelled to herself, "there has to be a way to get out of this! Lady Yuyuko is relying on me to find a way out of the dilemma, and I can't let her down!" As the half-ghost body of her began bobbing up and down in a frantic pace above her to match her emotion, she carefully scanned the entire room and its myriad of contents in hopes of finding something of use. Just like with the object itself, her eyes became illuminated in hope as they fell upon the weak, sputtering lantern barely producing more light than a failed campfire, placed next to the sunflower. "Maybe… Do you think we could somehow tip over the lantern and burn the bittersweet vines? I'd bet they'd relent if we did that."

Rinnosuke shrugged apologetically, shaking his head. "Don't count on that working. If that's my personal lantern Yuuka has set up, and I'm pretty sure it is, it's made of thick, strong plastic that won't shatter and let the flames free even if it falls over."

Youmu groaned, and her eyes continued to dart around the dark room in hopes of finding another hope of escape in the vast room. "Mr. Rinnosuke, isn't there anything you use here for security or defense? There's got to be at least one useful item in these piles of junk!"

"Wares," Rinnosuke corrected. "But yes, I imagine you could use many of my items as weapons of some sort. I'm not sure how you'd be able to even access them when you're tied to a chair, though."

Youmu smiled knowingly, eyeing a rather sharp-looking steak knife on one of the back shelves in the room. "Let's just see about that. I'm not about to let Lady Yuyuko and myself be deterred by something as insignificant as a rocking chair!" With a strained groan, she leaned forward as far as she could against the unyielding bittersweet that was lashed around her middle, pushing the chair forward on its pivoting rockers in the process. She continued pushing forward with all of her strength and energy, but neither the vines nor the entire chair compromised, staying sturdy as could be. Even with her feet planted firmly on the floor, Youmu couldn't stand up with the weight of the chair and her mistress combined, and every one of her multiple attempts to rise from a sitting position proved fruitless. At last, she sat back in the chair again, breathing heavily with a look of despair upon her face. "Forget it. This is hopeless."

Rinnosuke sighed for a moment, presumably pondering the quagmire behind the counter himself. "Well then, guess we'll have to try Plan B," he said encouragingly. "I mean, I'd be very surprised if someone as strong and capable as you couldn't find a solution to a problem like this one. I presume Miss Yuyuko is expecting that you'll be able to escape the situation by yourself since she went to sleep; either that, or she's as narcoleptic as Miss Yukari."

The spirit half of Youmu bobbed enthusiastically and instinctively at the compliment, although Youmu herself seemed discouraged. As she heard a particularly loud snore resound from Yuyuko like the lead French horn of a symphony orchestra, she shuddered and groaned. "Easy for you to say," she replied bitterly. "You don't have a supreme mistress who holds such extremely high expectations in you and whom you devote your life to pleasing, even though all she likes to do is tease you endlessly." Her voice trailed off, her cheeks growing a deep blush of shame as she glanced downward at the sleeping ghost in her arms. "I... I mean..."

"You...mu," a quiet voice whose owner was talking in her sleep murmured. "Youmuuuu, where are you?"

From Youmu's current perspective, there was no childish, silly, gluttonous, obnoxious ghost in sight; only an earnest, cheerful, curious girl with rosy hair and heart. Her mistress was someone who placed her complete trust and faith in her, and it was as if Youmu had used the day's incident of seeing the note as an excuse to shatter the bond of trust. "My god." As she mulled over the events, she realized with despondency that she had lost faith in her mistress far too quickly and easily than what would be reasonable, and it had been her insubordination that had led Yuyuko to seek her out in the first place and end up captured. It was her life's mission to protect Lady Yuyuko under all circumstances, especially when a dangerous threat was lurking in Gensokyo, and she had utterly failed this in her actions.

Rinnosuke grimaced nervously, adjusting his glasses with one motion. He turned his line of vision downward to the unyielding bittersweet wrapped tightly around his waist and legs, and then turned back toward the kitchen door he had opened tens of thousands of times in the past for almost every meal of his life. Never before had the ordinary, wooden panel seemed so imposing as in that moment; he had a gut sense that if it opened to let Koakuma back in before he or Youmu could struggle free from their binds, they would never be released again from Yuuka's grasp. "Um, Miss Youmu? Sorry, but... do you think you can focus on freeing us and think about that stuff later?"

No reply came from the half-phantom other than an exasperated sigh.

However, it was the full ghost who took the opportunity to speak at that moment, albeit still within her state of sleep. "Youmu!" Her voice, while still monotone and steady, reflected a certain genuine enthusiasm that brought a gentle grin to her lips. "Youmu, fly!"

"Eh?" Instinctively, Youmu's head shot up in inquiry as she heard her name being called.

"Youmu, fly! The sky awaits!"

Yuyuko's ghost gardener smiled nostalgically as she saw her mistress's expression of pure cheer and enthusiasm. "Fly, huh, Lady Yuyuko? I'd love to, if only I could."

"You can do it! We've just got to soar over the blaze!"

Youmu sighed in general contemplation as she heard Yuyuko continue to ramble about flying into the sky. It's things like that which make Lady Yuyuko such a cute and lovable girl, she thought to herself. Even though she can be irritating with her whole love for food and carefree teasing, she's still a kind mistress. I... I should have never lost faith in her. "I hope you can forgive me at some point for making such a horrible mistake tonight, Lady Yuyuko."

"Youmu, aren't you going to ignite the inferno and fly into the sky?" Yuyuko's question was clear and direct, almost as if she were asking her servant from her sleep in hopes of getting a response. In fact, her "proposition" seemed so purposeful to Youmu that the gardener found herself instinctively taking a look around the room for anything that could possibly resemble a fire. The lantern, of course, was one of the few immediately obvious objects of this sort, but Youmu quickly dismissed it from her mind as she remembered what Rinnosuke had said a few minutes ago regarding it.

"Lady Yuyuko, I'm sorry, but I can't exactly light a fire when I'm tied up liked this. Is there some way I could do it in this state?" She stopped, a dry grin spreading across her mouth as she laughed somewhat ironically. "Although, I guess it might be better to ask myself just why in the Former Hell am I listening to you sleep-talk?"

Yuyuko's unconscious voice quickly died down after that point, almost as if she could perceive the shame from Youmu's rebuke. Her body instinctively slumped downward back into Youmu's arms, and within moments it had returned to breathing softly and lightly.

Finally, as Youmu began to stare at the weak, helpless, innocent ghost girl in her arms, her face brightened. The innate sense of protectiveness she usually felt regarding her mistress, which had been lost in the betrayal of the night, had finally returned with almost an electric surge through her body. She nearly cried out in surprise as her fists instinctively curled and her blood grew hot; the sudden change in her body and emotions had commenced almost as suddenly as a Hawaiian rainstorm. Now that it was finally back and raging in full force, however, Youmu took no time to wipe the smile off her face and replace it with a rock-solid, neutral expression that seemed to dare Koakuma to mess with her or Yuyuko and see the unpleasant consequences that would result. She was no longer the bitter, straight-laced, annoyed servant of a gluttonous, childish ghost; instead, she was Youmu Konpaku, the half-phantom mistress of swords and guardian of Yuyuko Saigyouji, the beautiful, elegant, spectral princess of Hakugyokurou.

"Rinnosuke," she spoke calmly yet purposely, "I am going to free Lady Yuyuko, you, and myself from this grip now. And I shall punish our young devil captor for her deed."

"Really? Th-that's wonderful!" The white haired shopkeeper smiled hopefully from his place behind the counter, yet he also bore a look of slight nervousness over the new underlying tone of purpose and power in Youmu's voice. "But how are you going to do that?"

Youmu chuckled softly, carrying a debonair and all-knowing sense about her that was usually reserved for one such as her mistress's companion Yukari. "You're going to help me."

"Me? S-sorry, Miss Youmu, but as I said, I'm tied up at the moment, and-"

"Slam your body against the counter you're leaning against." Youmu had the proud smile of a person about to explain her ingenious method of solving a perplexing problem. She pointed to the mysterious scarlet book that Koakuma had left sitting about on the shop counter. "Lady Yuyuko's comments about starting a fire, while seemingly irrelevant, gave me a burst of inspiration. I just realized why Miss Koakuma's book was so intriguing to me while she was reading it; I've seen it before! Miss Patchouli Knowledge used a spell book just like it, with the same image on the cover, as an elemental magic source and weapon in her battles. Makes sense that her familiar would bring in what I assume is a fire-type grimoire, since Miss Patchouli is always concerned with finding what she believes is her opponent's weakness. She said before that we spirits are weak to flames and fire, so Miss Koakuma must think she can guard against us with a fiery grimoire.

"So, then, we shall use that logic, too!" She wriggled against the great constricting vines with a triumphant grin. "According to her Chinese elements, fire burns wood. I've seen in my past battles that these grimoires can automatically activate if they're agitated or encounter significant force, so to get rid of these bittersweet plants..."

"Are you insane?!" Rinnosuke pinched the ridge of his nose in frustration. "Besides the fact that I don't want my shop burning down, this is Yuuka freaking Kazami's plant you're talking about igniting! If she catches us, which I can definitely see happening after Koakuma said she'd be back soon... I don't think I need to fill in the blank on what would happen!"

"All the more reason to do it right now," Youmu answered curtly. "If we don't escape, we may be at her mercy for the rest of our lives, and, from what I've heard, that could be only a few hours or even minutes. Better to have a fighting chance of getting out of here alive than to just lay down and die without cause, I'd say." She grinned humorlessly at Rinnosuke, even though he was still behind the counter and couldn't see her at all. "Unless you want to let Yuuka do as she pleases and send us all to our last reward, and I'll let her beat me up into a bloody mess of flesh and spirit before she can come close to doing that to Lady Yuyuko. Now, if you don't want me to do that to you as soon as I get out of here, kindly slam your body against the counter."

A nervous chuckle erupted from the shopkeeper, who was intently trying to determine whether the flower youkai or half-phantom samurai was the more intimidating girl of the evening. "Heh, n-n-no need to kill me here. If you're sure about this..."

"Believe me, I am. We're only likely to get one chance at this anyway, since the loud noise will definitely alert Koakuma to what we're doing. Make it good, Kourin."

"Well then... Dragon help me." Taking a deep breath of air, he leaned his upper body backward in a pivot from the rooted position. After a transitional moment that seemed as though it would mark a passing from life to assured death, or perhaps vice versa, he crashed the side of his shoulder into the wooden counter as fast and as forcefully as he could.

Like a kitten's tongue into an endless bowl of cream, the tiny towers of flame that erupted from the grimoire when it fell onto the floor and opened began to hungrily lap up all the wood they encountered. Thick, black curls of smoke began to erupt from the bright, hot blaze, and Rinnosuke began to cough as soon as he recovered from the mighty slam. Youmu, however, was hardly interested in the fire she had indirectly caused, and she kept her vision trained on the countertop and its remaining contents instead. Rinnosuke's hard shove had also managed to push the more heavily-weighted pot of vines and sunflower off balance, where it proceeded to slowly teeter back and forth on the very edge of the counter. She watched intently with silent anticipation as the planter seemingly sat on the border of smashing and staying steady, or perhaps the border between Youmu's free and forever captured destinies.

Only a few seconds had passed after the loud thump that had resounded in Kourindou from Rinnosuke's efforts when the door to the kitchen slammed open again, revealing a wide-eyed Koakuma holding a teapot in her right hand. "What the hell are you doing?!" Her question required no answer, however, as she saw the scene of a magical fire starting on the shop floor and the flowerpot filled with precious vines tipping precariously above it. "No... you're not gonna make me fail my duties to Yuuka-sama... No way..." As soon as her reflexes returned and freed her from her immobility over witnessing the scene, she broke out into a full, breakneck sprint toward the flowerpot in hopes of steadying it before it was too late.

However, this outcome would be destiny's decision alone, for Koakuma could not possibly reach the plant before it would stop tipping. Even though it only took a few seconds at most for the physics of the pot to decide whether it would tip over or remain standing, it was as if time had slowed down to a fraction of its usual rate. Youmu and Koakuma both stared, enraptured, at the simple piece of clay pottery whose fate literally hung in the balance, and every oscillation brought either a sense of hope or horror to each girl depending on its direction. While Rinnosuke couldn't watch the pot from his position and therefore wasn't spellbound by its gentle swaying, he felt his hair stand on end as the atmosphere seemingly dropped in temperature into a chillingly frigid climate.

At last, after several moments of tension had passed, it was as if the Yama had finally made her definitive judgment on the pot. The verdict was black.

Koakuma, who had finally lost her immobility upon seeing the teetering pot fall to the ground, rushed at rapid speed to the side of the spreading fire. The pot, shattering with an almost melodic smash into an assortment of hundreds of clay shards, was beyond saving by that moment. Before she could reach the soil-covered roots of the bittersweet vines, the ends began to hold flames on themselves like a biological menorah. Without thinking further, she doused the contents of the teapot in her hand onto the fiery, searing blaze. Unfortunately for her, however, the steaming, herbal tea that splashed onto the vines did little to stop the rapid spread of flames. Even when she let the teapot tumble on the ground as she got onto her hands and knees, frantically trying to smother the flames on the vines, she found all her efforts futile.

"I... I failed..." Seeing the vines flopping downward uselessly, she felt a lump in her throat grow and a hot, shameful blush spread across her cheeks, nearly extending to the bat wings growing from the sides of her head. Her hands begin to gently shake and quiver, and she fought fiercely to suppress a rush of warm, saline tears from flowing out of her eyes and rubbing salt in her emotional wound.

Youmu, on the other hand, felt the rush of adrenaline within her blood rise to almost newfound levels. At the moment when the roots caught a shower of sparks, she wasted no time in pushing against the constricting vines binding herself and Yuyuko to the chair. The bittersweet, which naturally would hold tight to whatever it wrapped around, now held a lifeless, strengthless grip on her that was easily tossed aside. Rising out of the rocking chair and gently placing the still-sleeping Yuyuko on the seat, Youmu picked up the vines that now lay disconnected from their roots and forcefully ripped them into floral shreds.

"No!" Koakuma bellowed, slowly and unsteadily rising onto her shaking knees. Her eyes were still red from her efforts to avoid showing tears, but they also began to reflect a deep, suppressed rage that was quickly beginning to surface in her emotions. As she balled her hands into fists so tight that her nails almost punctured her own skin, she bore a glare that would likely render a crying baby mute for the rest of his or her life. "Yuuka-sama told me to guard you two and keep you down until she returns, and I'm not going to let her down. You'd better back down right now, or I'm going to make you bleed!"

"Just try." Youmu steeled herself and assumed a fighting stance. She felt a slight sense of vulnerability and weakness as she remembered she had no swords on hand, but she bravely stood in the face of the livid devil with unflinching composure. "I failed to protect my mistress once, and I won't let her down. Even without any swords, I'll cut you open if you try to stop me."

Koakuma smirked in derision, sneering as she advanced toward Youmu threateningly. "You think I'm afraid of you? The girl who only spouts about how 'the things that can't be cut by her oh-so-almighty sword are next to none' all day? You don't have your swords now, and even if you did, 'scared' is the last thing I'd feel in front of such a pipsqueak as you!"

"Taunt me if you must. You're still going to bow down in the name of Hakugyokurou in just a few minutes."

The devil scoffed, brandishing her razor-sharp nails mere inches from the samurai's face. "Gotta stay absolutely loyal to the one you betrayed tonight, huh? You're pathetic, Youmu. You screwed up keeping your loyalty to your mistress once. In this field, you don't get second chances. You're a traitor now, regardless of how much Yuyuko may have egged you on, and all you ought to do now is go the way traitors go."

Youmu remained quiet, composed, and steady. "You mean seppuku? Yes, I've considered that. If it is Lady Yuyuko's will, I shall comply. But I will not allow you to bring any harm to her as long as I still stand! You shall pay the price of your own treason."

Koakuma smiled widely and coldly, seemingly sharing a secret with herself. "Sorry, you're mistaken; I've never committed any betrayal toward my mistress, especially not tonight. You don't have a companion in treachery here with you; you are all alone. Now, allow me to show you how true loyalty to one's master looks like in action!" She leapt forward with blinding speed, her nails stretched out and ready to bury themselves into what she believed was traitorous flesh.

"Home sweet home, huh?" Suika murmured. She folded her arms behind her head and glanced upward to get the full extent of the gigantic Scarlet Devil Mansion. Even from outside the tall brick wall that surrounded it, the short oni had no problem viewing the imposing edifice. The clock tower that rose above all other parts of the building glowed with a seemingly unnatural light from the moon, and its illuminated face told all of Gensokyo that it was ten minutes to four in the morning. Peering more intently at the face of the clock tower, Suika's eyes widened as she saw what appeared to her as a shadowy silhouette of a humanoid figure. The figure seemed to be calmly standing in front of the glowing clock face, although it was impossible to be sure of who it was or why she was there. When Suika rubbed her eyes and looked again at the clock face, however, it was as if the figure had vanished completely out of sight, leaving the oni to ponder whether she had actually even seen anything to begin with. Curious about if her friend had seen the figure as well, she glanced to her side toward the mansion's young mistress, who seemed to be just as fixated on the building as she herself had been. Unfortunately for Suika, however, she was far more enraptured in her own wonders than interested in the mystery above.

"Home," Flandre repeated to herself absentmindedly. She deliberated the word carefully, almost as if she was a juryman in a case that would decide her own fate. "Is this red brick prison really my home?"

Suika shook her head impatiently. "Didn't mean that philosophically, Flan. I was just saying—"

"No," Flandre interrupted, although her interjection seemed more directed toward her own line of thought rather than Suika's. "You're right. It is home. I have a deed with my name on it to prove it."

Suika sighed, folding her arms. At this rate, asking the vampire about the mysterious figure in front of the clock face would be rather pointless, she decided. "…Yeah. So are you ready to go bust the place up and find your sister?"

The vampire glanced directly at the oni for once with apprehension, having escaped from her reverie. "Are you sure now's the best time to be doing this? I mean, I know that Remi's going to start up a manhunt for me in the morning if we don't do anything now, but still... I'd be a liar if I told you I'm excited about this."

The oni replied with a rather dark, cynical laugh. "Hope ya don't mind me saying it, but you're a strange one, Flan. I'da thought you'd be jumping up and down now that you're finally gonna be free from the basement for good!"

Flandre glanced sideways to avoid meeting the oni's direct stare. "Well, I'm kind of excited, I guess. I mean, I feel like I'll die if I have to go back into that locked room for all eternity, and Gensokyo seems like an amazing place to live in from what I've seen so far. It's just..."

"Now that you're right here, you're having second thoughts about puttin' your big sis in her place, right?" Suika suggested, leaning against the brick gate with a wink and easygoing smile.

Flandre's eyes widened and her head quickly nodded, greatly startled to hear her own thoughts coming out of the oni's sake-scented mouth. "I guess that's it. Remi's always told me about how I'm such a good little sister, the best one she could ever wish for, for being so understanding and coping with my situation as I do. I know that I should be enraged for being unrightfully locked away by her, and I do want to escape from the basement, but..." She hesitated in her sentence, eyes drifting toward the tower of the mansion holding the mistress's bedroom. "There's just some part of me that wants to stay a good little sister and hear her words of praise some more."

Suika nodded understandingly, being as naturally experienced as a bartender with both alcohol and helping personal problems. "I can see where you're comin' from; always feels nice when Reimu praises me for battling awesomely or gettin' her some donations or not puking on the floor when I get home at night. And besides, you take out all the order and law of society that comes from respecting your place in the world, and what do you got? An assorted bunch of disgruntled youkai running wild, that's what. Kinda like Gensokyo, actually!" She grinned casually, but then let her mouth bear a more serious expression. "But still, you oughta consider the other side of this. You said your pal Meiling is still in there attacking that Scarlet Succubus of a sister as a diversion, right? You sure she'll be okay in there by herself?"

It was as if a lead weight dropped into Flandre's stomach the moment she heard the gatekeeper's name spoken and was reminded of what Meiling was currently doing. Visions of the unspeakably terrible acts a vengeful Remilia could be subjecting her to danced into the vampire's conscious mind, and she shuddered as if inside a deep freeze. As she turned to glance at the Scarlet Devil Mansion again, she thought she heard the Chinese girl's distinctive scream emanating from the hallways even while there was nothing but silence.

"How could I have done this?" Flandre spoke aloud, staring at Suika with a look of supreme guilt and shame. "Why would I ever agree to leave Meiling to be tortured by Remilia just so I could escape myself? What kind of twisted, selfish monster would do something like that?!" Her expression suddenly morphed into one of grim conclusiveness, and she sat down and folded her crystal wings downward. "Ah. The same kind that ought to be locked up in the basement for 500 years. I get it now." No tears began to stain her cheeks after her realization, but her crestfallen look as she hugged her knees to her chest served the same purpose of displaying her mood. "Leaving your best friend for torture and maybe death is far worse than tricking your little sister into staying out of the way in the basement."

Suika laughed heartily, placing a strong hand on Flandre's shoulder. "Now, now, there's no sense beating yourself up over it; besides, if someone like you did that literally, I can guess the end result would be pretty butt-ugly!" She continued laughing as she reached toward her belt to grab her sake gourd out of habit, groaning when her hand connected with air instead of alcohol. "Anyway, think of it this way: if China made this plan and agreed to do it with you, sounds like she loves and cares about you a lot, am I right?"

"Yeah, you're right," Flandre mumbled, keeping her eyes trained on her shoes.

"Well, instead of feeling all glum for following the plan, why don't you show China your own love toward her by making a plan of your own?"

Flandre tilted her head upward in intrigue. "My own plan?"

"Yeah!" Suika grinned, pointing toward the mansion. "What do you say we go in and confront your sister to save Meiling? That way you'll feel less guilty about attacking her to get your freedom here."

Flandre stood up again, brushing the dust off the front of her skirt. It only took her a moment to deliberate over Suika's proposition before she pulled out the mythical Laevatein weapon from behind her back, nodding vigorously and determinedly. "As long as I have a friend to watch my back so I won't fail, I'll do that."

"That's the spirit!" Suika exclaimed, excitedly slapping Flandre on the back (but not with the same strength that would move a mountain). "And don't you worry about needing support or anything like that. I said I'd stick with you for this when you helped me out of that hangover, and by God, that's just what I'm gonna do. No crazy evil vampire ladies gonna scare me outta fulfilling a promise like that to a friend!"

Flandre grinned gratefully, her wings perking up in happiness again. She opened her mouth as if to say a word of thanks, but then decided against it and simply hurled herself at the oni's waist. Suika let out a small gasp of surprise as she saw Flandre's arms wrapping around her body in a tight embrace. After a moment, however, she smiled compassionately and pulled the vampire close to her chest to reciprocate the hug.

Even though the night of her 500th birthday had so far been a terrible, trying ordeal for Flandre with the obliteration of the sisterly relationship between her and Remilia, she couldn't help but feel her face flush with joy at that moment. It had been an eternity since the last time another living, breathing being had given her a hug as a friend; Meiling was the only one she could recall ever doing this sincerely in the past. Although Flandre had given dozens of hugs to the plush teddy bears that lined her basement room, the feeling of being embraced in return was an entirely new sensation for the vampire. For the second time that night she felt a surge of warmth and comfort in her heart, and she sighed in contentment.

After a few moments that seemed to stretch toward infinity, Flandre released her grasp on the oni and blushed sheepishly, embarrassed about hugging another girl so suddenly and without warning. "Heh, s-sorry about that," she said, her grin of delight contracting into a smaller, cuter smile.

"Eh, no worries," Suika said casually. "Nice to hug someone every once in a while, you know? Reimu's always scared I'm gonna be too drunk to control myself if I try to hug her; she thinks I'm either gonna accidentally break her back in two or start makin' out with her or something. What a loon!" She giggled nostalgically, amusement crossing her eyes as she visualized the shrine maiden saying just that in the past. After a moment of exchanging a laugh with Flandre, however, she turned toward the gate in the wall with a serious and determined look. "Well, anyway, now that we've gotten all of that out of our systems, how 'bout we go and crash this vampire party?"

With Flandre's earnest nodding approval, Suika picked up the leaden yellow sphere dangling from her left wrist on a chain and stood directly in front of the Scarlet Devil Mansion's gate. Tossing the weight up and down in one hand a few times for good measure, she then swung her left arm toward the gate with incredible force and speed. The lead sphere acted as an absurdly powerful wrecking ball toward the metal bars on the gate, striking with an explosion of sparks and a deafening clang that resounded for miles around. The bars that played victim to this attack had less than a snowball's chance in the atomic Former Hell; the side ones distorted greatly to form a gaping hole, and some of the middle ones even flew clear off their bases and clattered against the wall of the mansion itself.

"There we go!" Suika said happily, letting the lead weight hang loosely around her wrist again. "Let's go, Flan!"

Flandre briefly stared at the splintered and shattered gate with a blank expression before turning toward the oni passing through it. "Umm, Suika? I... I don't think that gate was locked."

"Heh, really?" Suika laughed sheepishly as she glanced back at the mangled pile of metal bars that lay on the ground next to the brick wall. In all of the mess that resembled a demolished jungle gym, there was nothing that resembled a lock of any sort. "Guess not. Well, gotta say 'hi' somehow, right? I'm sure that ol' vampire won't mind me paying her back in sake."

Flandre opened her mouth to respond, but before she could do so, a giggle interrupted her and cast her into complete silence. The rich, dulcet, yet high-pitched and somewhat childish tone of laughter was quite soft, but it ominously echoed all throughout the otherwise silent courtyard. Both the oni and young vampire looked at each other inquisitively and then took a glance all around each other in hopes of finding the sound's source. Although they both failed to locate anything in this manner, the mysterious laughter would not remain a mystery for long.

First Flandre with a start and then Suika with a gasp caught sight of the silhouette of an enormous bat flapping its wings against the glowing face of the clock tower. The resounding giggling began to get louder and more gleeful as the bat appeared to descend downward, and it reached its apex in delight and volume upon reaching the ground in the gap of the gate wall. At that point, it turned with glittering crimson eyes, a gaping maw of luminous fangs, and widespread, leathery wings toward Flandre, continuing to chuckle with a charming, feminine voice. Although the young vampire could have easily deduced the identity of this bat from all of these distinguishing physical features, it was the animal's laughter that most cemented who she was. The haunting, familiar laugh struck dread and panic within Flandre's heart, and she turned away to avoid glancing at the humanoid form the bat would inevitably transform into.

Indeed, after a quick flash of utterly radiant light that made Suika glance away as well, the creature that remained carried all of the distinguishing traits of the bat: its eyes, fangs, and wings. These, however, were all appropriately placed on the Scarlet Devil's body, certifying her as the one and only mistress of the crimson mansion.

"Welcome to the Scarlet Devil Mansion," Remilia greeted, her rich and melodious voice resounding with utterly false friendliness. "It's a great pleasure for us to host guests, even when the night is so late. May I interest you two ladies in a cup of tea, perhaps?"

"Remi..." Flandre murmured to herself, her voice barely louder than a whisper. Even as she felt the girl's cold smirk and piercing stare freeze her blood, she couldn't help but feel a small feeling of warmth from being next to her big sister again.

Remilia quickly glanced at the area around the two girls with curious eyes, nodding to herself as her gaze returned to Flandre. "Say, Sakuya didn't escort you here, did she? Did either of you happen to encounter her as you entered the premise? It would be simply grand if she were here, for she could provide us with some delicious cake to supplement the tea!"

"Nope! And you can cut the bullshit already," Suika snapped with a glare. "Flan here told me all about how she found out a little fact tonight. Apparently you've been keeping her locked in that basement while you've been sippin' brandy or whatever in luxury all these years, huh?" She grabbed the folded paper that had practically become infamous over the course of the night from her belt and brandished it in Remilia's direction. "And now she's got proof that you've been doin' it against the terms of your house deed!"

"Ah well, that's a shame." Remilia casually swatted her hand as if to dismiss the paper, and instead focused her attention on the two "guests" who stood before her. "My, has Flandre actually made a friend tonight, though? Wow! Isn't that a lovely surprise!"

Flandre's cheeks blushed, although the tint against her otherwise pale skin was barely rosy. She turned her head down in shame, feeling the stinging truth of Remilia's words about how making a friend was a very rare occasion for her.

Suika, however, spread a smirk across her lips to counter Remilia's. "Yeah, I bet you'd think that's a surprise!"

"Really? And why is that?" Remilia inquired.

"'Cause," Suika explained with a triumphant grin, "making friends is something you've got almost no experience in, am I right? I mean, I know I'm not number one in popularity around here, but even so, I'm not a heartless bitch who only cares about 'charisma' and doesn't give a crap about raising her little sister right. Somehow I don't reckon that kind of attitude's gonna net you many friends."

Remilia pursed her lips and narrowed her eyes. Even though anger was naturally building up inside of her from the oni's insult, she took a quick deep breath and remained calm in composure. "Oh? And you, a random drunken demon who has only known my sister for likely a couple of hours at most, feel you know better about the right way to control a happy, energetic, innocent, weapon of mass destruction?" She laughed humorlessly. "Well, Dr. Spock, by all means, educate me about the correct method of child raising!"

Suika put a confident hand on Flandre's shoulder, causing the younger vampire to look up with a weak smile. "The way I see it, you've got a real cutie for a younger sister. Sure, she's been saddled with a horrifyingly destructive power, but she's still a nice, sensitive kid. Now, maybe I don't know the full story about you two, but if you're supposed to be taking care of her in place of your father, shouldn't you be, I dunno... caring for her? Helping her to learn how to use the power and not go cuckoo with it, praising her when she does stuff well, comforting her when she's sad or angry, playing fun games with her, tucking her in at night, and all that jazz." Her brow furrowed into an angry glare aimed directly at Remilia, her fists clenched at her sides. "Yet instead, you just squirrel her away underground like a problem you sweep under the table. 'She's got so much power and can't handle it, so let's just throw her in the basement and act like she doesn't exist,' right? What the hell kind of big sister are you, anyway?!"

Remilia's cheeks turned pallid as she shrank under the oni's glare. Her mind quickly and frantically searched for any sort of charismatic, clever response with which to calmly counter Suika, but it was as if her mind had completely shut down. The only thing she could tangibly feel in her mind was a dark. gnawing sense of guilt that the claims against her were true and valid. As she diverted her vision from Suika to briefly glance at her younger sister's tearstained cheeks and despondent expression, her heart felt a sickening twinge of perhaps having made a horrible, shameful mistake years ago. Remilia instantly turned away from Flandre, unable to bear looking at her sister for more than a few seconds.

"Y-you have some nerve coming here at almost four in the morning, breaking down the gate, and trying to lecture me about how you think I should treat my sister," Remilia spat, shaking a quivering fist in Suika's face and doing her best to maintain her composure. "Why, for this insolence, I ought to whisk you away and drain your vessels completely dry of blood as well!"

Suika smirked in bitter satisfaction, watching the vampire's calm attitude melt away. "Can't handle owning up to everything you've done, huh? Well if you're all ashamed and everything about it right now, maybe you shoulda reconsidered doing it in the first—"

"'As well?'" The interruption to Suika's loud, rough castigation was quite soft and nearly inaudible, yet both Suika and Remilia instantly turned toward Flandre as they heard the words escape her mouth. The young vampire still was staring downward at her feet, but her expression had transformed into one that was completely, eerily flat and neutral. Any remnants of tears on her cheeks had evaporated away, and her wings that had been drooping downward became ramrod straight.

"P-pardon me, Flan?" Whatever blood that remained in Remilia's face drained away at that moment. It didn't take an oarfish to sense that the atmosphere in the courtyard had suddenly become utterly chilling in that moment, and Remilia couldn't help but feel a strange sense of familiar nostalgia as this feeling of terror washed over her. It was from such moments and emotions as this, she reminded herself, that she had decided to send her sister into the basement in the first place.

"What did you mean when you said you would drain Suika's blood as well, Remi?"

"Heh, Flan, it was probably just a slip of the tongue or whatever, you know," Suika answered nervously with a gulp. The Bunbunmaru articles in the past about the Scarlet Devil Mansion's Dirty Little Secret committing horrible acts of violence with insane glee quickly ran through her mind at that moment. It had seemed impossible that Aya's stories would truly be about the cute little girl at the time that she rescued Suika from the hangover. Now, however, the Flandre that stood before her, the girl who menacingly brandished her Laevatein weapon, seemed to plausibly fit the tengu's terrifying descriptions.

"No." Flandre walked slowly, carefully placing the heel of each step directly against the toe of the previous one, until she stood mere centimeters away from her nervous, shaking sister. "Come to think of it, where did Meiling go, anyway? Last time I saw her, she was kicking you down to keep you from chasing after me. Do you know what happened to her, Remi?" Her words tightened around Remilia's throat like a noose, sealing her immobile in her guilt over what she had done in the past hour.

"Flan... I'm sorry. Really, I am. I just—"

"Save it. If you've done what I think you've done, no words will help you." Flandre turned her gaze upward into her sister's eyes, and though her own eyes were colored scarlet just as Remilia's, hers seemed as cold and frosty as shards of glacial ice. "Well? Did you do it?"

"C'mon, Flan," Suika protested frantically. "Even if she did, beating her up over it's not gonna—"

"Did you," Flandre repeated icily, "suck Meiling's blood dry like a filthy little leech tonight?"

Remilia stood for a few more moments as she continued to meet Flandre's piercing gaze, shaking and quivering in fright all the while, before at last crumpling to the ground. Flandre smiled coldly as she watched her sister, a usually charismatic and composed mistress, try to hide her pitiful weeping behind one sleeve of her dress.

"Flan, what are you trying to do?" Suika inquired, looking back and forth between the frigid young vampire and her whimpering sister. "This isn't gonna help you stay out of the basement at all!"

Flandre snorted disdainfully. "Like I care. Frankly, I don't give a damn about living alongside this little brat anymore now that she's attacked Meiling like so. In fact..." She whipped her body around to face Suika and snatched the deed, which she was still carrying, out of the oni's fingers. Holding the precious document in her hands, Flandre crumpled it into a tiny ball of paper and casually threw it behind her shoulder, letting it disappear into the thick hedges along the tall gate wall. "If she wants to lock me in the basement, go ahead and let her try. It's going to be a bit difficult for a dead girl to do that, though."

Suika frowned, grabbing Flandre's arm in a firm grasp. "Look, Flan, knock it off," she said in an almost uncharacteristically stern tone of voice. "I said I'd help you get justice over being unrightfully locked away, not assist you in murdering your sister. I'm not gonna let a friend of mine do some crap she'll regret."

"Oh yeah?" Flandre asked, ripping her arm away from Suika's strong hold with surprising strength. "What are you going to do? You're gonna lock me away, too? I told you: I don't care. We can deal with all that after we find Meiling and get her to safety, but before that happens, I'll do whatever it takes to make sure she's okay and has received proper justice." She marched past the oni and vampire without so much as glancing at her weeping sister before reaching the front door of the Scarlet Devil Mansion. Using only one hand to ensure that the other kept a firm grip on Laevatein, she swung the mighty door open and took a glance inside. "Meiling! Are you in here? Are you okay?"

Fortunately for her, her cries did not echo on empty space within the foyer of the mansion. After only a few moments she heard the sound of plodding, unsteady footsteps from inside the mansion walking in her direction. As she peered more intently into the darkness within the entrance to the mansion, she squealed in a combination of relief and joy. There, half-walking and half-stumbling across the checkered floor of the main hall toward the door, was a bright red-haired, pale youkai in a green Chinese dress. Even from the several meters that separated her from Flandre, there was also a clearly visible wound along the base of the youkai's neck that resembled the aftermath of a sharp bite.

"Meiling!" Flandre exclaimed, her face beaming with delight. She ran as fast as she could to close the gap between her and her companion with arms spread wide, and Meiling attempted to do the same by slightly hastening her faltering pace. Unfortunately, this led to the pallid-faced youkai tripping and falling onto the floor halfway there, and she seemed to lack the strength to overcome the struggle of pulling her body upward again.

"...Meiling?" Flandre quickly reached the fallen gatekeeper's side and gazed at her with worry. "Are you all right? Did you get hurt? Did... did Remilia brutally punish you?"

"Flan..." Meiling murmured, glancing with a warm, weak smile at her vampire friend. She did not have a mirror handy, but from the vampire's increasingly concerned expression upon staring more intently, she guessed that her face was as white as a sheet after having lost much blood. "It's wonderful to see you again."

Flandre looked as though she was about to burst into tears from relief, but she took a deep breath to calm herself and carefully scanned over Meiling. As her eyes caught sight of the fang marks on her friend's shoulder, she sighed with disappointment. "I was hoping it wasn't true, but I guess Remilia really did bite one of her longest-working and best employees around. Disgusting!"

"N-no," Meiling murmured, quickly trying to formulate a lie in her mind just to appease her companion. "I was, um, uh... filing papers for Remi as punishment! And I... fell neck-first onto the stapler I was using and got this scar that way? Yeah, that's what happened!"

"It's okay," Flandre replied, shaking her head. "You don't need to defend her here. She's made her bed, and now she'll have to lie in it." She continued staring at Meiling intently, but her serious, grave look began to falter as a small grin started to spread across her lips. Noticing that such a smile was forming, she quickly began to focus on shutting it down, but this only made the grin grow wider. "As for you, however..."

Flandre grabbed Meiling by the collar, pulling her to a sitting-up position. Before the gatekeeper could respond with any sort of words at all about the current situation, she felt Flandre's face burrowing deep into her chest, her arms wrapped as tightly around her middle. "Don't scare me ever again like that, China!" Flandre scolded, her voice muffled and somewhat quivering from within Meiling's chest. "I never should have agreed to let you be the diversion!"

Meiling laughed quietly, calmly enjoying the sensation of hearing Flandre's voice and feeling her tight, loving embrace. I guess playing and surviving that game of hide-and-seek from hell with Remilia earlier tonight was worth it in the end, she thought to herself. "I'm sorry my plan made you worry, Flan. But still… it helped you to escape, so I don't regret doing it."

Flandre's face beamed, and she continued to hug Meiling for a few moments, completely ignoring the sound of approaching footsteps as both Suika and Remilia entered the mansion. At last, when she had become certain that her pale, weak gatekeeper friend before her would not fade away with a wisp of smoke, she released her embrace around the girl's torso. Slipping her petite hand into Meiling's larger one and gripping it strongly, she pointed toward the gaping front door with a venturesome grin. "Well anyway, now that I've found you, can we get going? There's only a couple hours left till the sun rises, so there's not a lot of time for us to mess around here. Since you're still alive from the punishment, which I can't be thankful enough for, I figure we should first stop at Eientei and get you checked out there, but then we can go wherever you like!"

Meiling stared up into Flandre's face, her forehead wrinkled in confusion. "Get going?" she inquired. "I'm sorry, Flan, but what are you talking about? I thought we were planning to sleep here today after spreading word of the deed."

Flandre turned back to Meiling and gently patted her head, smiling sympathetically. "Yeah, that was the original plan. But my new oni companion Suika started talking to me about how I should be doing this whole thing for you, since you've been such a wonderful and selfless friend for me tonight. So, I made up my mind a little bit after she said that: I wanna go with you and leave the Scarlet Devil Mansion for good!"

Meiling was silent for a little while, and her mind couldn't decide whether to be overjoyed that Flandre wanted to accompany her on a permanent escape from the mansion or to be confused about why the vampire would so quickly change her mind for this matter. "But… why, Flan? Didn't you say that you wanted to get out of the basement and live alongside your sister as you're entitled to?"

Flandre shook her head, and her usually cheery (sometimes in an off-putting manner) face became surprisingly grave and serious. "That wish is dead. Yes, I did want to live with Remi and be close to her as a loving sibling…" Her expression faltered for a moment as her words came out, but she quickly shook off her hesitation and continued on with confidence. "But that's not going to happen anymore. Remilia thought that drinking your blood would be a suitable punishment for disobeying her, and that's just something I will never forgive her for. I would sooner expire in the basement than live alongside a girl who would nearly transform others into the undead just for going against her wishes, even if she is my sister, and so the deed means absolutely nothing to me anymore. I figured that since you said you wanted to retire from your job here, we could go and live somewhere else in Gensokyo together!"

"Are you certain? I mean, I don't think you can find the wealth and opulence from being mistress of the Scarlet Devil Mansion anywhere else in the world, and I admittedly have no idea where we'd stay in Gensokyo if we left here."

"My mind is set," Flandre replied with complete finality. "All that money is tainted with spilled blood, including yours. It'd be disgusting to bask in it. And besides, I highly doubt we'd have a significant problem finding a roof under our heads in a place like Gensokyo; from what I've heard, there's the Human Village, the shrine on Youkai Mountain, the doll master's house in the forest, the rabbit home in the bamboo woods, and even the underground! The more I think about it, the more I'm certain that this is what I want to do."

"Well, if you're sure about it…" Meiling's face broke out into a wide, almost goofy smile, and her skin nearly returned to its natural color. "Thank you, Flandre. Thank you so much!"

The two close companions were only moments away from walking out of the cursed mansion for what would likely be the last time in their lives when the moonlit outside became blocked by the shadow of the young, bat-winged girl. "Pardon me, Flandre," she said slowly and deliberately, "but I couldn't help but overhear you just now. Are you positive that this is what you want to do?"

Flandre stood a few moments with utterly frosty silence, staring at her sister without an iota of hesitation or uncertainty. She raised the highly destructive metal rod of a weapon in her hand and pointed it toward the elder vampire. "Yes, Remilia, I am. Now, kindly move away from the door, or I'll blow you away into a fine scarlet mist."

Remilia stood her ground, mere inches away from her enraged sister. This was the moment, she determined, that Flandre would release 500 years of bottled anger and frustration in violence and assuredly bring about her sister's demise should nothing stop her. Oddly enough, contrary to her state of panic when Flandre first began to grow hostile, she felt a complete sense of Zen-like calm in the moment. It was as if time had slowed down to an eternity at that point within her mind, allowing her to thoroughly contemplate all sides of the situation.

Well, Flandre is certainly overcome by rage toward me, that much is clear. It's understandable, of course; I did perform my vampire punishment upon her gatekeeper friend only an hour ago, although I made sure to limit myself so that she would not die nor become a vampire herself. Still, it's not as if Flandre knows that, and I doubt she'd listen if I told her so. All she'll be thinking about now is punishing me in retribution.

Yet… she doesn't truly hate me. It's just Flandre being Flandre. She wants to be a kind girl and a good sister, but things like this that incite her instability just happen. It's not as if it's not entirely my fault, either; I should have resisted my bloodlust and created a less brutal punishment for Meiling. But I didn't, and now I shall reap what I sow, apparently.

Perhaps Suika was right, and I have been mistaken all this time by locking her away instead of helping her through her troubles like a responsible big sister. There's no way to reverse the previous five hundred years of action, however, and so it's something I must live with for the rest of my life. Still, that doesn't mean I can't perhaps make amends at this point.

Oh, Flandre… You're the best sort of sister a girl could ever hope to have.

After a few moments of more straight-up, analytical thinking, especially regarding her previous encounters that night with her sister, she smiled. An alternative plan to keeping her sister in by force had come into conception. I guess it's finally time to let the cat out of the bag as Patchouli said, she thought to herself. Never thought this moment would really come, and especially not at a time like this, but I suppose it can't be helped now. Life goes on.

The flow of time seemingly started up again, and Remilia took a deep breath before starting her next action. Her crimson eyes now shone with neither malice nor confident charisma, but rather simple pensiveness. "I see… Well, I'm sorry to hear you say that. You see, I'm actually not allowed to let you go out and leave the mansion. If I did that, it would violate the contract I signed when I moved our house from the real world into Gensokyo."

"Eh? A contract?" Suika piped up with curiosity, still standing in the other side of the foyer. "Is that what you were talking about when you told Flan there was a good reason you couldn't let her out of the basement?"

Remilia heaved a long, world-weary sigh from her lungs and smiled grimly, glancing at all three of the other beings within the room. Although her sister hadn't moved an inch nor lost the hostile gleam in her eyes, she had dropped Laevatein to her side at that moment. God help me for this. She took a few moments to carefully choose her words before finally beginning to speak again, focusing her eyes on Flandre. "Yes, that is precisely correct. Gensokyo was the only source of refuge that I could possibly have found in a wicked, hateful world. When I at last came upon it, I was so desperate to find a place of peace, comfort, and acceptance that I instantly agreed to all the stipulations involved with moving here. One of those conditions I signed my agreement toward was to not introduce further conflict and chaos into Gensokyo, and the only acceptable method with which to fulfill that was to prevent my innocent, yet unstable and violent sister from ever leaving the mansion. One thing led to another, and I suppose the matters of this house eventually evolved into what we have now."

Flandre, while retaining hatred toward Remilia in her heart, waited quietly and carefully listened to every word that exited her sister's mouth. She still held a strong grip on her Laevatein weapon, and twirled it gently at her side. As her sister completed the story that she was telling, it struck her as odd that Remilia's words sounded entirely strange and unfamiliar. After all, Flandre thought to herself, if we did come from the outside world, I must have been there to witness it all myself. How could I have forgotten being forced to initially enter the basement upon arriving in a strange new land? "Would you like to explain why I don't have any memory whatsoever of that even, Remi?"

Remilia smirked subtly as she continued to look at her sister with patience. "Perhaps it would be easier if you explained it. What do you remember about your life prior to entering the basement?"

Flandre opened her mouth as if to reply quickly, but she felt herself tense up as her mind became utterly blank. "I… well, that is… um… there was…"

"Nothing, perhaps?" Remilia suggested gently. "Don't worry; that's what I expected. See, the one who gave me the contract to sign upon entering Gensokyo was none other than the historian, teacher, and Human Village guardian Keine Kamishirasawa. She was, of course, primarily interested in the safety of her humans as she heard my request to settle in this land, and that's certainly understandable; humans are naturally frightened when the prospect of vampires who delight in drinking mortal blood comes up. As I agreed to all the conditions and began to settle into the land, however, I had a request of my own for her: to remove all the history of our life and existence prior to entering Gensokyo. I wanted our introduction to the land to be a fresh start for all of us, and Keine was quite happy to comply. That's why you don't have any memories of what you've done prior to entering the basement; that history has all been erased."

"But why would you want to do that?" Flandre inquired. "What could have possibly happened that you'd want to kill the history of it?"

Remilia laughed humorlessly, glancing at both Meiling and Suika with a wry smirk. "Well, that's quite a dangerous question for you to ask, Flan. You go into quite some perilous territory on that subject. How would you like it if I said that the events I let Keine cover up were ones that had thrown you into a horribly deep depression? How about if they had made you want to end what you deemed 'a meaningless life' by killing yourself?"

"Nonsense!" Meiling exclaimed scornfully from her position on the floor. "I've known Flandre as long as I've been the gatekeeper here, and never once has she acted suicidal! I couldn't even imagine such a cute, cheerful girl being that way."

"Well then," Remilia replied coolly, "just imagine what sort of course of events would cause her to act that way. Are you sure you want to go down that path and destroy your blissful ignorance?"

"Oh, come on," Suika interrupted impatiently. "You really think we're just gonna say 'No, let's just keep our ears stuffed with cotton and go on our merry way' when you build it up like that? We don't have all day, so why don't you just spill it already!"

"I was asking Flandre," Remilia hissed coldly, causing the oni to grumble to herself. She turned back to her sister with a diplomatic nod. "Patchouli said earlier tonight that the truth would come out whether I like it or not, and I suppose there's nothing I can really do to prevent that. Flan, I guess what I'm saying is that I will tell you what happened if you want me to. I'd just strongly urge you to reconsider, or else brace yourself for a tale that will not be a pleasant bedtime story."

Flandre gulped at the menacing sound of her sister's words, and she carefully laid out the options in her mind to deliberate between them. Although her sister seemed earnest in advising against telling it, a nagging sense of overwhelming curiosity dominated her heart. If she never learned what was so terrible as to make her wish for death, Flandre thought, she would likely go crazy in speculation. Glancing quickly at Meiling, who nodded with an encouraging smile, Flandre turned back to Remilia and folded her arms with unshakeable determination. "Tell me. That's one of the reasons why Suika and I wanted to come here in the first place, anyway. Besides, I think I can handle whatever you're going to tell me. I'm 500 years old as of today, after all!"

Remilia inhaled and released another mighty sigh, shrugging in tired resignation. "I assumed you would say that. And who knows, maybe you're right about that. I suppose we'll have to wait and see." She dropped onto the checked floor of the mansion lobby, crossing her legs against each other. Suika and Flandre wordlessly followed suit and gathered more closely around the elder vampire, while Meiling simply remained as she was on the floor. "Well then, I shall tell you a tale of sixteenth century Rouen, France. It was there and then that a particular nobleman named Antoine Scarlet lived with his two young daughters, Remilia and Flandre."

[A/N]: …Yeah, no comment about how long this took to create. I've pretty much resigned myself to the fate of being a horrible person for procrastination and taking a long time to produce work, but even so, this gap was quite ridiculous. I just hope you all enjoy the content as it exists finally, and maybe that could possibly atone for my lateness (not really, but still). However, I don't expect the next update will take anywhere as long as this one did to come into existence, for the sole reason that it is not going to cover an hour.

Indeed, the next chapter will cover the first of what will likely be several "Interludes", just to give a flashback and tell a story outside of the time constraints within the plot. As Remilia suggested in the last paragraph, it shall be about the history of the Scarlet sisters, starting straight from their childhood into the entrance to Gensokyo. With that, their story arc shall come to a close, and in its place we shall take a closer look at the other plots proceeding into daybreak.

Just curious, but what is your favorite character or character arc in the story? Although I have a specific timeline to write based on the plot, I would definitely add or put in a special bit of extra effort toward the scenes involving any fan favorites. Since there's so many characters taking active roles in the plot (and a couple more still will join later), it's easy for some to get forgotten, so I'd definitely like to know if any characters you enjoyed seeing have fallen a bit off the radar. This chapter was essentially aimed at focusing on every currently active story arc, and so it's not a big surprise it has become so humongous, and so I'd love to cut down on that later on for your reading sake and my writing sake. Feel free to say anything about who you do or don't care to see in a PM or review message!

There's a definite difference in quality between some of these paragraphs, but that's likely because of the long time periods (and changes in writing style) between them in writing. I'm curious as to which paragraphs seemed most well written; the Koishi introduction only took about three days to write, and yet the scene between Eirin and Alice was stalled for about four months! I'd be greatly interested in hearing what you guys think, just so I know in the future whether writing rapidly or choosing every word meticulously creates a better work in the end.

Anyway, Remilia has a story to tell, but the clock is still ticking even as she does so. How will Marisa respond to her sudden meeting with what appears to be her forgotten mistress Mima, and what will happen when Reisen is finally brought to Eirin? Why is Koakuma so intently devoted to serving Yuuka, and will the plan between them and Mystia be carried out successfully as morning quickly approaches? How will the meeting between Koishi and her two new "friends" transpire? The light of dawn will soon cast its glow upon Gensokyo, but it's anyone's guess as to what will happen to the land as it remains thickly submerged in a revolutionary plot. See you all at the next chapter!