A girl sat with a woman.
They were alone in a humble room. The woman was in the process of recovering from a grave injury, and the girl wanted to know what had happened to her.
The woman sighed. "Well, that's kind of a long story. You sure you wanna hear it all?"
The girl hesitated, and then nodded again.
"Well, all right then. Here goes."
And so she told her. It had all started nearly two weeks prior, when a certain someone had decided to throw a party…
There are numerous problems inherent with being exiled. The feeling of rejection that comes with being forcibly evicted from the society that you had once called family. Being forced to adapt to and survive in a strange new environment. The feeling of shame over whatever horrible sin had gotten you exiled in the first place (if you agree that you deserved it), or the burning resentment over the injustices suffered (if you don't). Plus, there is the constant paranoia that comes with the knowledge that somewhere out there, there is someone who hates you and may one day decide that mere banishment was not enough and seek to act upon that hatred.
But there was another drawback, one that didn't get as much discussion as the others, but that Kaguya Houraisan was finding to be far more pressing. And it was this: being an exile was unbelievably boring.
Of course, part of that was due to where she had ended up. The Bamboo Forest of the Lost wasn't exactly known as an exciting place. And while the mansion of Eientei was large and well-furnished, even the most opulent of palaces lost their appeal after a while. And Kaguya had been stuck there for well over a thousand years.
She knew the necessity of keeping a low profile, and she understood that the Bamboo Forest of the Lost was an excellent place to keep off of the Lunarians' radar. But that didn't mean that she wasn't driving herself crazy with boredom. There was so little to actually do in the mansion. She had already read what few books Eirin had managed to secure for her to the point of memorization; learned and practiced just about every skill, both practical and recreational, she could acquire to near perfection; and had taken up countless hobbies only to discard each one in turn after they had lost their appeal. Even her weekly deathmatches with a certain vengeful pyromaniac had become dull routine.
As such, on the few occasions that Kaguya stumbled across something that might alleviate the weary monotony her life had become, even if for only a short time, she was not one to let it slip by.
And so it happened that, one early winter afternoon, Kaguya was reading a new book Eirin had acquired for her when she had happened upon a word that she did not recognize. Upon further investigation, she found that the word in question referred to a concept that that she was not familiar with. However, from the look of things, it was a concept that she had no problem getting behind. Holiday celebrations were always fun, and she hadn't taken part in one since she had stopped marking her birthday over six hundred years ago on account of redundancy.
"And apparently they go and cut down a large tree and put it in their house," Kaguya said as she paced back and forth through the infirmary, the book in question held open before her.
Eirin Yagokoro barely glanced at her. "Really? Just cut down a tree and stick it in their house. For what point and purpose, if I may ask? And how? Do they stand it up in the center of the foyer? Suspend it from the ceiling? Go to bed with it?" She finished wrapping a bandage around the arm of a young rabbit and pulled it tight. The silly child had hurt it while showing off danmaku trick shots to his friends. Unfortunately, he was not very good at it, as small rain of bamboo stalk pieces that had fallen upon him demonstrated.
"All right, off you go," she said, giving him a small nudge. "And next time, please remember to take in personal skill levels the next time you decide to show off."
The boy nodded and fled the room. Kaguya waited for him to leave before continuing. "No, they stand it upright where everyone can see and decorate it!"
Eirin, who was in the middle of putting the bandage roll away, raised an eyebrow. "Decorate it?"
"Yes! They cover it with all sorts of lights and sparkly ornaments and tiny gold stars and…other things that I honestly can't say I've ever seen before."
"Hmmm," Eirin said. "Sounds like the exterior of a tree-dwelling fairy brothel."
Kaguya glared at her. "Oh, knock it off! I'm trying to be serious here! And…Wait, do they actually have those?"
"Why?" Eirin finished cleaning up and turned toward Kaguya with a wry smile on her face. "Interested?"
"Eirin…" Kaguya said, a hint of warning in her voice.
"I am only saying, the size difference would make any activity difficult. Unless of course you were to hire out in bulk. But then you have to take fairies' naturally short attention spans into account. You wouldn't want them losing interest and wandering off right in the middle of-"
"Eirin!" Kaguya's cheeks turned bright red. "Knock it off already!"
With a small flourish, Eirin gave an extravagant bow. "Your wish is my command, your Immortalness."
Kaguya glowered. "You know, I am about five seconds away from banishing you."
"Go right ahead. You wouldn't last a day without me."
"Hey, I can take care of myself!"
"I never insinuated that you couldn't," Eirin said calmly. "I merely wish to point out that if I were to leave, I would no longer be able to counterattack the immortality-deteriorating poisons I've been slipping into your breakfast by adding the antidote to your suppers."
Kaguya blinked. Then she scowled. "You're not as funny as you think you are."
"Oh, I am," Eirin said with a small laugh. "I'm just underappreciated."
"All right, all right," Eirin laughed as she raised her palms in defeat. "So, you discovered a new holiday. I take it that we will soon be adding it to our calendar?"
It was strange, that she could get away with teasing Kaguya so. Back when Eirin had been the head of the Senate and the Lunarian Academy of Science, she would have never dared to say anything potentially offensive toward a member of the Royal Family, even one so far down the ladder of influence as Kaguya. The Lunarian society was heavily hierarchy based, with an established caste system. Eirin's family, the Yagokoros, was near the top of that mountain, surpassed only by the Royal Family itself. As such Eirin, the (now former) head of the Yagokoro family and one of the single most powerful persons in the whole of the Lunarian society still had to bow knee to Kaguya, who had been the least of the Houraisans.
Now, things were different. Having both of their titles stripped away and spending over a thousand years in each other's company had done much to demolish such barriers. But even so, old habits died hard. There was no question whom of the two was in charge. Eirin was far more powerful than Kaguya could be. She was stronger, smarter, and, while Kaguya had learned much during her exile, far more skilled. All Kaguya really had going for her was her persistent immortality, and that was only by Eirin's grace. And yet, Eirin still called Kaguya master and bowed to her wishes. That was just how the way things were.
But that didn't mean she couldn't give the princess a good-natured ribbing every now and then. After all, Kaguya's royalty was now just a formality.
At Eirin's question, the eager grin returned to Kaguya's face. "Absolutely! Not only that, we're going to have a Christmas party!"
"Am I to presume that this soiree of yours would be exceptionally large?"
Eirin rubbed her chin. "Are you sure that's such a good idea? After all, part of the reason we're here is to avoid attracting attention."
Kaguya gave her a look. "Eirin, be serious. Putting up a few lights and singing a few songs isn't going to bring the Lunarian army down on us."
"Somehow Kaguya, I truly doubt that what you have in mind consists of just a 'few lights and songs.'" Eirin sighed and pinched her nose. "However, I suppose that debating this matter is pointless. You're bound and determined for this to happen, aren't you?"
Kaguya nodded. "Oh yes. We're doing this."
"I am not surprised." Eirin sighed again. "All right, let me know what you want. I'll start making arrangements."
"I knew you would." Kaguya grinned and hugged her mentor tight.
Eirin allowed herself a half-smile. "Just one condition though," she said as she ran her fingers through Kaguya's hair.
"I'm not singing any songs."
"That's what you think," Kaguya smirked. "By the end of the night I'm going to have you in a red suit with a white beard with all the little rabbit children waiting to sit on your lap."
Eirin's hand froze. "Ah. I assume this is another one of your new holiday's traditions?"
"I…see. Sounds horrific."
About four miles to the northeast of Eientei a woman stood in the snow. Or to be more accurate, a woman stood surrounded by snow. The patch of ground beneath her was bare.
She was tall, about two inches over six feet. Her features were sharp and thin, though just enough to give her an aristocratic air. She had ash-white skin and flowing pale-lavender hair so long that it nearly brushed her ankles. And despite the low temperature, she wore only a sleeveless green shirt, leather work boots and a knee-length brown skirt, split at the sides. Paper charms were sewn into the skirt's waist and tied into her hair. In most places, she would stand out. Partially because of the odd placement of her charms and partially because of her striking attractiveness. But it would not be wise to annoy her, as Fujiwara no Mokou was one of the deadliest Human beings alive, and had been so for a long, long time.
At the moment, the Mokou was leaning against a bamboo stalk with her hands folded under her breast and attention focused upward, at the sky. She wasn't looking at anything in particular, she just didn't have anything pressing to do at the moment. Her breath steamed as it slowly flowed out from between her teeth, forming a cloud thicker than should be possible. However, she wasn't cold. She was never cold. If she were to be hurled into the black of space, she might die of asphyxiation, but not from the cold. A field of warmth surrounded her, melting the nearby snow and heating the air to the temperature of a pleasant summer's day.
Then a noise drew her attention. Someone was coming her way. Normally this would be a cause for concern, but seeing how they weren't making a secret of it, it was quite possible that the other person didn't even know she was there. Mokou listened to them huff and puff their way through the snow and waited for them to arrive.
It was a male rabbit, one of the locals. Unlike her, he was overdressed for the weather, with a heavy coat over several sweaters, an equally heavy pair of pants, a black fur cap (Mokou couldn't help but wonder where he had gotten the fur) with two holes to accommodate his ears and blue scarf wrapped around his nose and mouth, so that all could be seen of his face were his eyes. A large sack was thrown over his shoulder and he was staring at a piece of paper in his gloved hands.
Mokou waited until he had nearly stumbled right past her before saying, "Good day."
The rabbit let out a squeak of surprise and nearly tripped over his own boots. He straightened himself and turned to face her, his eyes wide with fear.
Mokou smirked. "Whoa, easy there," she said. "Kind of jumpy, aren't you?"
As Mokou didn't seem to be offering him violence, the rabbit relaxed some. He said something muffled and incomprehensible through his scarf.
"What?" Mokou said, cocking her head.
The rabbit pulled the scarf down. "Sorry," he panted. "You just gave me a fright. Wasn't expecting a Human down this way."
So he didn't recognize her. Interesting. "There's a few of us that don't care for village life," she told him. "Besides, the weather's nicer down here." She looked him up and down. "Though to see you, one would think that we were in the middle of a blizzard."
The rabbit flushed. "Er, yeah. Never liked the cold." He shrugged. "Wouldn't even be out here if I didn't have a job to do." Then his face brightened. "Oh, hey! You wouldn't happen to know where I can find a pine tree, would you?"
Mokou blinked. "Pine. Tree?"
"Uh, guess you've never heard of them. It's a tree that has a lot of needles and-"
"I know what a pine tree is. I just can't fathom why someone would go looking for one."
"Oh! Sorry," the rabbit said in embarrassment. "Well, it's just there's this big party planned for this new holiday, and apparently cutting down a pine tree and decorating it is going to be part of it." He shrugged. "I don't really get it, but hey, the Princess has always kind of weird."
The rabbit now had Mokou's full attention. "Princess?" she asked as she stood up straight. "You mean Kaguya?"
"Oops!" The rabbit's eyes went wide and he clapped a hand over his mouth. "I…probably wasn't supposed to…oh crap."
Mokou laughed. "Why, because you weren't supposed to talk about her since she's an exile and all that? Worried I might be a Lunarian spy?"
The rabbit gaped at her. "You…you know about all that?"
"Of course! Just like I also know that she lives in a large mansion called Eientei about five kilometers to the southeast, has another Lunarian named Eirin Yagokoro working for her as a doctor and personal assistant, and was exiled from the Moon for drinking the elixir of immortality!" Mokou flashed him a playful grin, though her mouth was unused to it and it came out looking more like a grimace. "Did I forget anything?"
"I..." The rabbit's brain seemed to have frozen up. "…uh…"
Mokou laughed again. She patted him on the back so hard that he almost lost his balance again. "Oh, calm down. Of course I know everything about Kaguya! We're old friends!"
"Of course! We've known each other for years! Heck, we see each other practically every week."
The rabbit blinked owlishly at her. "Um, I'm sorry, but I've never heard of anyone like you."
"No?" Mokou shrugged. "I'm not surprised. She probably keeps our relationship on the down low. She's never been one to kiss and tell, if you catch my drift." She winked at him.
Kaguya's romantic preferences were well-known among the rabbit tribes, which was the principle reason she was not bothered by suitors from the male rabbits. Though different species or not, she certainly had her fair share of admirers among the locals. Mokou had even heard rumors that Kaguya had short-lived trysts with some of the females, though given Eirin's watchful eye these were probably just that: rumors. Still, while Mokou didn't share Kaguya's orientation, it did provide an excellent cover story.
And it was working. The rabbit's face turned an even deeper shade of scarlet. Even the tips of his ears were turning pink. His mouth kept opening and closing, though his mind probably was unable to decide on an adequate response.
"Though this is the first I've heard of any such party." Mokou tapped a forefinger against her chin as she pretended to be deep in thought. She shook her head. "Oh, dear. You know what? I'll bet you anything that she was intending to surprise me."
"Oh!" the rabbit gasped. "I'm so sorry, I didn't meant to-"
Mokou smiled and ruffled his hat. "Don't worry! There was no way you could have known. Tell you what: I won't tell anyone if you won't. And when the time comes, I'll still act surprised. Deal?"
The rabbit swallowed and nodded.
"All right then." Mokou turned and pointed. "Now, there's a grove of pine trees about three kilometers outside of the Bamboo Forest in that direction. You'll probably find a suitable tree there. Though if you ask me, you should probably quit stumbling around like that and start flying. Otherwise, it'll take forever."
"I know. I was planning on that. But, uh…" The rabbit looked down at his outfit and shrugged.
"Just a little bit," he admitted.
Mokou rolled her eyes. "Well, if you must go around wearing the entire contents of your closet, you'd better get a move on then!" Then, as an afterthought, she said, "Oh, by the by. Out of curiosity, exactly when is this party going to be?"
The overdressed rabbit shrugged. "I don't think they've got a date set, but it's sometime in the next couple of weeks."
"Gotcha. All right then." Mokou smiled. "Off you go."
"Right! Uh, thank you, Miss…"
Mokou thought quickly and grinned as she settled on a name. "Yorihime," she said. "Watatsuki no Yorihime."
The rabbit's head bobbed up and down. "Right! Thank you, Miss Watatsuki!" On that note, he half-ran, half-jogged his way in the direction she had indicated.
Hands on her hips, Mokou watched him go. She chuckled. It wasn't often that good fortune stumbled its way into her path, but in this case that was literally what had happened. Five minutes ago she had just been loitering around without anything to do. Now she had information. And from that information, a possibility. Which would soon give way to an agenda, which would crystallize into a plan, which would then turn into a night of pain and humiliation for a certain Kaguya Houraisan.
So, the Moonbitch was having a party, was she? And not only that, a holiday celebration, the first of its kind. Of course, Kaguya wasn't exactly the brightest match in the drawer, so Mokou couldn't count on her to remember her invitation. So she would just have to save her the trouble and show up anyway. Mokou had no idea what sort of holiday would require dead pine tree, but she wasn't complaining. It just meant she would have more fuel when the fireworks began. She was looking forward to setting them off. She was looking forward to setting them off very much. After all, what was a celebration without fireworks?
First things were first though. She needed to do a little reconnaissance. Get a firsthand look at the preparations for this party. Learn what she could about this holiday and decide how to best ruin it. She needed to deliver Kaguya's weekly demise anyway. So why not barbeque two birds with one raging inferno?
Whistling to herself, Mokou started walking towards Eientei, her footsteps leaving a sequence of steaming puddles behind.
Hands clasped behind her back, Eirin slowly circled the large pine. The tree was the largest to be found in the small grove that her scout Grevil had discovered. She had received word from him about an hour and a half ago. Upon receiving the message that he had found a pine grove, she had been inclined to disbelieve him, as he had been gone for only a couple hours. Besides, he had never even seen a pine tree before. Eirin had sent him out mainly as a way to keep Kaguya from nagging her until she had figured out exactly how she was going to put this party together. She hadn't expected him to actually find one.
But now she was standing in the middle of said pine grove, watching as the woodcutters surrounded the tree from all around and bound it with ropes. Throughout the copse, smaller trees were being selected for the mansion's interior.
"Not bad," she said to Grevil. "Not bad at all." The overdressed little scout was fidgeting nearby, doubtless fearing her disapproval.
At her praise, his ears perked up. "Oh, really?" he said. "You mean it's okay?"
Eirin nodded. "Yes, this will do nicely. Good work."
"Oh! Well, thank you."
The Lunarian doctor tugged off a handful of needles and rubbed them between her fingers. The bruised needles released a pleasant minty scent. "Indeed. The Princess is definitely going to like this."
"Oh. Well, good! I'm just glad this place actually exists." He stuck his hands into the pockets of his oversized coat and grinned. "When that Yorihime told me about it, I wasn't sure if she was telling the truth, but it looks like I should have-"
Eirin whirled around. "Wait!" she shouted. "Who?"
Grevil froze. "Oh!" he squeaked as he threw his hand over his mouth. "Oh no. I've done it again."
Eirin's heart started beating in her ears. He couldn't mean who she thought he meant. "Done what? Grevil, what are you talking about?"
"I…I…" The little scout's eyes darted back and forth as he back up. He seemed ready to give into his species' instincts and flee.
Eirin was not about to give him the chance. "Oh, no you don't," she growled. She snatched him by the lapels and lifted him off the ground. "Now, who exactly are you talking about?"
His head sank into the collar of his coat. "I…I promised not to tell!" he wailed.
"Grevil. This is important. Are you talking about Watatsuki no Yorihime?"
He swallowed but didn't say anything. That in itself was answer enough.
"Lunarian looking girl?" Eirin growled. "About five-foot-eight, light blue hair, purple color scheme and a large sword at her side? That Yorihime?"
"Huh?" Grevil blinked. "Sword?"
"Yes!" Eirin hissed. "Yorihime always wears a large sword on a golden belt! It's a status symbol!"
"I didn't see any sword, I swear!" Grevil babbled. "And she wasn't wearing any purple! Mostly just green and brown!"
"Green and brown?" Eirin repeated. She cocked her head in confusion. "Why…"
Then the realization set in, and Eirin's fear melted away to annoyance. "Oh," she sighed. Her hands opened, allowing Grevil to fall into the snow. "Let me guess. Green shirt, brown skirt, really long hair, and lots of charms?"
Grevil nodded enthusiastically. "Yes, yes that's her!"
"Wonderful," Eirin muttered. She put her hands on her hips and sighed. Well, it seemed that Mokou had done her homework. She wasn't sure where that lunatic had heard the name "Watatsuki no Yorihime," but she had apparently learned enough to know what it meant something to Kaguya and her. Watatsuki no Yorihime had been Kaguya's chief rival back in the Lunarian court, and had been the loudest voice at the princess' trial. The fact that she had also been a personal student of Eirin's only made that unfortunate relationship all the more complicated. To have Yorihime here in the forest would be considered a worst case scenario, as it would mean that not only had the Lunarians found them, but they were being led by the person who probably hated Kaguya the most, expecting Mokou herself.
Eirin had no way of knowing how much of this Mokou knew. But the fact that Mokou knew the name at all was upsetting. And it was also an indication that she was adding psychological warfare to her bag of tricks.
But all of that would have to wait. Odds were, Mokou was at Eientei already. While Kaguya was certainly capable of handling herself, Eirin now had reason to object to Mokou's presence. Mokou had played her for the fool. Eirin did not take kindly to such actions.
Eirin glanced over her shoulder. All of the woodcutters had stopped their work to stare at the confrontation between her and Grevil. Eirin raised an eyebrow and rolled her wrist in a "Move it along" gesture. They got the hint and hastily returned to their work.
That done, Eirin returned her attention to the cowering Grevil. "All right, you stay here and don't move. I'll deal with you later. And you!" she shouted at the foreman. "I've got a bit of a mess to clean up. But nothing's changed. I want these trees back at Eientei on schedule!"
The foreman nodded her understanding.
"Good." With that, Eirin leapt into the hair and headed back to Eientei at all haste. She grimaced at as the cold air stung her face, but endured it. While she had always maintained a detached distance from her princess' feud with Mokou, she was starting to appreciate why Kaguya detested her so much. Mokou was a truly irritating individual.
Mokou hovered in the cover of the upper branches of the bamboo trees to the east of Eientei and peered down at the courtyard. Thus far, what she saw disappointed her. Apparently the preparations for this party were in their infancy. Sure, she saw the mansion staff milling about as usual, but nothing out the ordinary.
Mokou moved in closer and squinted. There were some rabbits clearing away the center of the courtyard, but that didn't necessarily mean it was for a party. She grimaced. If that little weasel had set her up…
She needed a closer look. As silent as a shadow, Mokou dropped to the ground and crept into the courtyard. The few rabbits out and about didn't glance at her as she slipped from shadow to shadow until she reached the porch.
Mokou slipped behind a column and surveyed the grounds. No one looked like they wanted to come inside. Good. Now all she had to do was sneak inside, find out everything she could about Kaguya's little celebration, and maybe pull out the Moonbitch's ribs one by one and shove them through that miserable excuse for a princess' eyes. Just so long as she was here.
Grinning, Mokou turned toward the mansion.
Then she froze.
One of the rabbit maids was standing right there, staring at her with terrified eyes. Judging by the basket of linen she was carrying under one arm, apparently she had just been going along her daily chores when she ran into Mokou. Or perhaps she had been there the whole time, and Mokou hadn't even noticed her. Which didn't speak well of Mokou's perceptive skills. She was getting sloppy.
The two of them stared at each other, neither daring to move. Mokou swallowed. Then she twisted her face into what she hoped was a disarming smile.
"Hey there," she said in a voice that was barely more than a whisper. "Would you mind just forgetting that you saw me here and go about your day? Because that would be great."
Kaguya stumbled out of her room and stared through bleary eyes at the hallway. It was twenty past eleven in the morning, well before her usual waking time. But today she needed to be up to finalize the plans for the party. Normally she would trust Eirin to handle all the details, but she got the feeling that her strong right hand wasn't as enthused about this project as she.
Yawning, Kaguya made her way toward the infirmary. She hoped that Eirin had at least sent out the scouts by now. The party would not be complete without a tree. And she wanted several.
But as she passed by the front of the house, something gave her pause. There was a shrill sound coming through the thin paper walls. It sounded like screaming.
Arms crossed in front of her and back slouched forward, Mokou sulkily stomped through the courtyard toward the forest. All around, Kaguya's rabbit servants were standing as far away from her as possible as they stared after her. The rabbit maid who had blown her cover was clutching at one of the guards and screaming her silly head off. Mokou made it a personal point not to hurt the twits that Kaguya surrounded herself with, but she was now reconsidering her policy.
Whatever. The mission had failed. Now the only thing to do was make a tactical retreat and come back later. Fortunately, Kaguya liked to sleep in late, so at least she wasn't going to have to deal with-
Something fast and hard rammed into her back. Taken by surprise, Mokou was hurled forward to hit the cobblestones face-first. A hand grabbed her by the hair and pulled her head back to slam her down three more times before she was picked up and thrown. Mokou recovered quickly and twisted around to see a pajama-clad Kaguya crouching about seven feet away, teeth bared and muscles tensing for another lunge.
Mokou sniffed and touched her nose. Yep, broken. "Well, look who's-"
Then her face twisted in distaste. She gagged, hocked and spat out a wad of blood, mucus, and at least one tooth. Then she continued.
"Look who's up early. Morning Princess. I didn't wake you, did I?"
"Get out," Kaguya hissed.
Mokou laughed. "I was doing just that, before you broke my face. But now I think I'll stick around for a little longer."
"No," Kaguya shook her head. "You can't be here. Get out."
"Can't?" Mokou repeated in amusement. "You seem awfully eager to get rid of me. What's wrong, Moonbitch? Afraid I'll ruin your party?"
Kaguya's body went stiff.
"Yeah, that's right," Mokou taunted. "I know all about your new holiday thing. And about the shindig you're planning to throw. Sounds like fun, actually. I was planning on coming."
"No." Kaguya's already pale
"Oh, come on! You gotta have somebody show up! Do you really think anyone would want to go to a party hosted by you?"
Kaguya screamed and leapt at Mokou. Mokou simply bent her body backward and grabbed Kaguya by the wrists as she sailed past. Mokou let herself fall to her back as her feet came up to slam into Kaguya's stomach.
"Hey, do you need anyone to man the fireworks?" Mokou called as Kaguya tumbled away. "I'm real good with fireworks!"
Eirin tore over the top of the forest at breakneck speed. Below her, the snow covering the tops of the bamboo trees melted and the leaves beneath them browned and curled, burned by the energy of her passing. She kept her fists clenched at her side and her squinting eyes focused directly forward as she sped back to Eientei.
Her relationship with Fujiwara no Mokou was a complicated one. After all, Eirin was, for all intents and purposes, her creator. She may have not intended to turn her into a Hourai immortal, but it was through her work that it had come to be. As such, she did feel some responsibility for Mokou, if not for her actions than for her continued existence. But unlike Kaguya, her relationship with Mokou was not mutually violent. It wasn't even mutually antagonistic. Granted, once Mokou had first begun attacking Kaguya, Eirin had been ready to revoke the firestarter's immortality and eliminate her status as a Problem right then and there, but Kaguya had refused her. Eirin had no idea why, and Kaguya didn't seem to be completely sure herself. Of course, in the many years since, Eirin had developed a few theories as to why, but in the end, it was not her place to question the Princess' decisions.
These days, Eirin gave Mokou little thought. Granted, she popped by Eientei to try to kill Kaguya at least once a week (except when Kaguya saved her the trouble by going after her), but Mokou always kept her homicidal attacks directed toward Kaguya and Kaguya alone. She even made an effort to avoid causing property damage. As such, Eirin just thought of her as a source of catharsis for Kaguya, a way of combating boredom. And so she was content to observe Mokou out of the corner of her eye and leave her bloodsport alone.
But this was different. Her knowledge of Yorihime no Watatsuki came with any number of disturbing implications. And given Eirin's unresolved feelings toward that name, she had a premonition that she was going to start taking Mokou's actions a little personally. Besides, Mokou now knew about Kaguya's party. Even though Eirin didn't much care about this Christmas thing, it wouldn't do to have Mokou wrecking the whole thing. Kaguya would never let her hear the end of it.
Eirin reached the path that lead back to Eientei. She twisted her body around and swooped down to a height of about eight feet above the path and continued forward. Ahead, she could hear the familiar sound of Kaguya and Mokou fighting to the death. So it had started already. She sighed and pressed forward.
Then the sound of battle abruptly cut off. Was it over already? Eirin's lips pressed into a thin line.
Suddenly something small sailed toward her. Eirin's eyes widened and spun to the side, very nearly slamming right into the bamboo trees in the process. She stopped and stared at the object.
It was Kaguya's head.
Cackling with exhilaration, Mokou used her remaining arm to reduce Mokou's body to ash and scorched meat. Then she turned her attention in the direction her rival's head had gone after she had punted it.
Grinning, Mokou started to run after it but ended up falling when her left leg collapsed out from under her. She growled and gave it an experimental prod. Her knee had been shattered and she hadn't even noticed. Fantastic. That wasn't going to help her flying abilities either.
Well, it was a temporary inconvenience anyway. In the meantime, she settles for a limping charge on three limbs like a wounded wolf. Upon being decapitated, it was usually the body that regrew the head, and with Kaguya's body in the state that it was in, it would be a while before that happened. More than enough time to grab the head and disappear. Mokou could think of any number of possibilities that having a decapitated Kaguya head on hand would provide, especially when it came to crashing a party. It would make a lovely centerpiece for the feast, or perhaps she should stick it on the top of one of those decorated trees.
Unfortunately for her, her morbid intentions were curbed when a strong hand seized her by the back of her collar and forcibly yanked her off the ground. Mokou's mind, still submerged in the haze of bloodlust, forgot that there was no way that Kaguya could have resurrected so quickly and believed that the fight was once again underway. She swung her legs around, intending to sweep Kaguya off her feet.
It worked, and her assailant fell back. Mokou squirmed free and scrambled around, ready to pounce.
Then a hard fist slammed into her face, breaking her nose anew and sending her tumbling head over heels.
The next thing she knew, Mokou was sprawled face-up in the snow, staring up at the bamboo trees all around her. What in the hell? Kaguya was tough and fast, but she had never possessed strength of that kind.
Grunting, she sat up and squinted. There was a blue-and-red blur walking toward her. It wasn't Kaguya, she could tell that much. Mokou blinked away stars and shook her dazed head. Then she looked again.
Kaguya's serving girl, Eirin Yagokoro, stood there. Kaguya's head was tucked under one arm, while the other had its fist clutched so tight that Mokou could swear that she heard the knuckles popping.
Eirin usually kept out Mokou's way, and Mokou was content to return the favor. Her grudge was with the arrogant little bitch that had caused her to lose her family, not the doctor that had made the elixir in the first place. Mokou had never seen any reason to hold Eirin accountable for the tragedies that had resulted from the Hourai elixir's creation. Doctors and scientists were notoriously short-sighted. All they cared about were their little experiments, discoveries and inventions. They never thought about the long-term ramifications of their meddling. There was no point in hating them for something they couldn't help. As such, Mokou stayed out of her way and expected Eirin to let her rivalry be.
But apparently the Lunarian doctor had changed her mind. Cold fury emitted from Eirin like the chill wind of winter. Her face might have been carved from marble, but the way she advanced toward Mokou made no secret of her displeasure. Her normally disinterested eyes smoldered with quiet malice.
Mokou quickly assessed the situation and decided that fighting back was not wise. She didn't know Eirin's full capabilities, and from the look of things the doctor wasn't in the mood for a danmaku duel. She quickly checked her knee, found it to be in satisfactory condition, and rolled around onto her hands and knees.
Crackling white-blue energy shot from Eirin's hand in the form of a thick beam, but Mokou was already moving. Before the blast evaporated snow and tore up the earth where she had been, she was already in the air and shooting through the forest.
Eirin whirled around and fired more beams at her. Mokou had to give her credit, she was an excellent shot. Many of them came uncomfortably close to blowing off parts of her body. But Mokou had honed her reflexes over the better part of a millennium. She managed to twist and turn her into the open air and launch herself out of range.
Once she was home free, Mokou glanced over her shoulder at the rapidly retreating forest and grinned. Well now, that had been exhilarating. Granted, she had failed in her mission to find out more about the party, but she had at least confirmed that Kaguya was definitely throwing one, and judging by her reaction to Mokou's presence, she was taking it seriously. Plus, she had scored a clean victory over the Moonbitch, complete with a decapitation. Usually it was her that lost a head. All in all, a good day.
It was then that Mokou noticed that she was wobbling a bit. She glanced at her legs and saw, to her surprise, that her right foot had been cooked down to the bone. So, Eirin had managed to tag her after all. Not bad at all for a medic. Mokou had no problem giving credit where it was due, and elevated her opinion of Eirin's fighting prowess by a few notches. There were not many who could hit Mokou when she didn't feel like getting hit.
Whistling to herself, Mokou redirected her path towards home. The coming week promised to be a busy one, and she had a lot of planning to do.
One hour later…
Kaguya sat on her bed, wrapped in blankets with a hot cup of tea clutched in her hands. She looked absolutely miserable. Her eyes were blotchy and red from crying and her normally perfect hair hung in unkempt threads around her face.
Eirin stood nearby, inspecting Kaguya's pajamas, or what was left of them. Like the rest of Kaguya's clothing, they were of youkai make, and were enchanted to regenerate along with their resurrected owner. At least, that was how they were advertised.
"I don't know if these can be saved," Eirin announced at last. "Looks like her fire disrupted the enchantments' anchors. I don't know if that speaks well of the quality of her flames or poorly of our tailor's skills." She sighed and tossed the once expensive clothes into the trash. "Probably the former. I really need to get a sample of that phoenix fire she uses. Maybe then I can figure out a way to duplicate those charms she wears."
"She's going to ruin my party," Kaguya said flatly.
Eirin glanced at her. "Well, yes, such is to be expected. It is her eternal life's mission to make you miserable."
Kaguya glared at her. "You think I don't know that?" she hissed. "But why can't she just stick to killing me and leave my party alone?"
Eirin declined to answer.
Kaguya took a deep breath. "She needs to be stopped," she announced. "This is the first real party I've had since…since…Eirin, when was the last one?"
"Sixteen thirty-seven," Eirin told her. "When we volunteered to host the forest's New Year's celebration."
"Oh yeah." Kaguya's scowled darkened. "And what a disaster that was. Almost burned down the damned forest, and Mokou wasn't even there." She took in a shaky breath and pronounced. "I'm not going to let this one turn into a disaster. She needs to be stopped."
"Mmmm-hmmm." Eirin folded her arms. "Are you reconsidering my offer then?"
"The one I made soon after she stole the Hourai elixir and became immortal," Eirin reminded her. "To…negate what I had inadvertently given her and remove her as a threat."
"Well?" Eirin pressed. "Shall I?"
"Yes," Kaguya said. Then she flinched and shook her head. "No. Wait. Don't."
Eirin quirked an eyebrow. She let her hands fall to her sides. "Oh? May I ask why not?"
"Because…Uh…" Kaguya pressed a hand against her forehead and groaned. "I don't know. I want to stop her, not kill her. Not for good."
"Again, why not?"
"Because I don't want to, that's why!" Kaguya snapped. "Besides, she's my freaking rival, I'm the one who hates her psychotic guts, and godsdamn it, it's my freaking party! So I'm going to stop her!"
Eirin decided not to mention that Kaguya had already assigned her with the majority of the party planning. "Highness, I feel compelled to remind you that despite all her failings, Mokou is exceptionally gifted at breaking things. And you will have to succeed in thwarting each and every one of her attempts. She needs to succeed only once."
"I know that already," Kaguya growled.
"Furthermore, the immunities her immortality gives her makes her next to impossible to render unconscious for any decent period of time, and her mastery over phoenix fire makes keeping her restrained a lesson in futility. And pain. Let's not forget the pain."
"I know that!"
"And that is not all," Eirin said. She walked over to the bed and sat down opposite of Kaguya. "From what I've been able to gather, Mokou found out about the party from one of my scouts, the ones I sent out to find your pine trees."
Kaguya's nose wrinkled. "What, did she torture them or something? I thought she didn't do that stuff."
"No, apparently he did not recognize her on sight. He mistook her for a traveler and told her everything."
"Okay, that's it," Kaguya growled. "We are rewriting the employee handbook. Complete with color illustrations and captions that say, 'DO NOT TALK TO THIS LUNATIC!'"
"A wise precaution," Eirin agreed. "But that's not the problem."
"Yes. Apparently, during their conversation, Mokou claimed to be a friend of yours-"
Kaguya let out a contemptuous snort.
"-and introduced herself as Yorihime." Eirin paused, and then said, "Watatsuki no Yorihime, to be specific."
Kaguya nearly spilled her tea. "What? Yorihime? Huh?"
"Indeed." Eirin inclined her head. "She has not only learned Yorihime's name, but has deduced that it is significant to you, in a negative way. Which means she could have learned any number of other things about our lives on the Moon and the subsequent trial and exile. And if today's foray is any indication, she intends to use this knowledge to hurt you."
Kaguya gulped. "How in the hell did she find out about all that anyway?"
"I do not know," Eirin admitted. She folded her hands in her lap. "But even so, now that we know that Mokou's been doing her homework, are you absolutely sure you do not want me to handle this?"
Kaguya bit her lower lip. She stared down at her tea and slowly breathed through her nose.
Finally Kaguya said, "No. Mokou's my problem. I've stopped her before, I'll do it again, however many times it takes."
Eirin nodded her understanding. "Then what is it that you intend to do?"
Kaguya shrugged. "I'll think of something." She brought the steaming cup to her lips and took a sip. "As tough as she is, Mokou doesn't have a strategy that I haven't seen already. Surely I can come up with something. After all, who knows her better than me?"
"A valid point," Eirin said. She stood up. "Well, I'd better get back to the preparations. And please, promise me that if there's any way I can help, that you won't hesitate to ask."
Eirin hesitated, and then said, "Oh, and there's one other thing." She walked to the other end of the room. There, sitting on Kaguya's dresser, was lumpy package wrapped in brown paper. Eirin unwrapped the top, revealing Kaguya's severed head.
"Is there anything…ah…specific you'd like done with this?" Eirin said.
Kaguya stared at herself, two pairs of matching eyes, one alive and disgusted and the other dead and furious, gazing at one another. She shuddered. "Eirin, I'm going to be honest with you. There are some questions that nobody should ever have to answer."
"So what happened then?" the girl wanted to know.
The woman sighed and sat back. "Then? Well, let's just say we decided to have a little contest."
The First Attempt
A full day had passed since Mokou had been driven from Eientei. Now she was back and slinking around the now-memorized perimeter of the mansion. She doubted that there was anyone who knew this part of the forest better than she, and she was including the Eientei Guard in that assessment.
Speaking of which, it seemed that her little visit had given Kaguya a scare. The security had been beefed up, with more than twice the usual number of guards patrolling the grounds. And there were no new recruits to be seen. Mokou recognized several of the older veterans from past encounters.
Not that it made any difference. These rabbits could only be considered competent when compared to the rest of their silly race. Mokou was a class act all to her own. She had slipped past two patrols on her way here, trailed a third from a distance of only a few feet and now practically on Kaguya's doorstep. After her embarrassing slip from the day before she wasn't about to let herself make the same mistake again.
Mokou crouched in the shadows, her eyes tracking the path of the guards patrolling the courtyard. There was about nine of them on the ground with another four on the roof. She glanced up. Another four hovered in the sky above, with twelve hidden in the trees. Or at least, they were trying to hide in the trees. She was tempted to identify them as snipers, but she didn't see a piece of them. Danmaku shooters, perhaps? Spellcard casters? Magicians? There was no way to tell without actually engaging them, which she had no intention of doing.
Mokou allowed herself a sly smile. Well, this should be fun.
She kept her eyes on the guard's routes, tracing them and judging the best way and time to slip past them. One of them was just out of sight. Mokou stepped to the left, careful to stay out of sight while running the calculations in her head.
Then she heard something snap. Mokou looked down and groaned. "Oh, son of bi-"
A heartbeat later she was hoisted by the ankle fifteen feet into the air. A moment after that she was dead from being pierced by multiple arrows.
"Gotcha!" cheered Tewi Inaba, leader of the rabbits living in the Bamboo Forest of the Lost and prankster extraordinaire.
As she danced in triumph, Eirin and Kaguya stood on the porch and watched. Eirin glanced over to Kaguya, who was smirking her satisfaction.
"So," Eirin said. "This is your way of 'handling things yourself', is it?"
Kaguya shrugged. "Eh, using Tewi doesn't count, not the way you do."
"I'm not entirely sure how to take that." Eirin nodded toward where Mokou's suspended corpse was swaying back and forth. "And what of her?"
"Oh, I'm going to lock her in a metal coffin and throw her in the lake," Kaguya said cheerfully. "Let's see her burn her way out of-"
There was a loud roar, and they both flinched as the sky exploded with blinding light. A wave of hot air washed over them, and when their vision cleared Mokou was gone. The treetops had been blasted away around the area where she had hung, leaving scorched stalks in her wake.
Tewi had stopped jumping up and down. She stared at the blast area, looked over her shoulder at Eirin and Kaguya and shrugged.
Eirin sighed. "Well, that was predictable."
"Crap," Kaguya muttered. "Should have used poisoned arrows." She let out a sigh of her own. "Well, we'll be seeing her again soon enough."
"Are you sure you don't want my-"
The Second Attempt
Mokou hovered seventy feet in the air, well above the cloudline if there had been any clouds. As it was, the sky was completely clear, giving her a perfect view of the full Moon and sparkling stars above.
Or at least it would have, had Mokou been paying the sky any amount of attention. Her eyes were focused downward. Eientei was directly below her feet. For a couple of fugitives, Kaguya was terrible at hiding. All the lights the mansion put on at night turned it into one big target.
And Mokou was well-versed at turning herself into a deadly projectile.
She started to rise higher, starting off slow but gradually picking up speed. Once she was about a hundred feet up she looped around and shot straight down. She pressed her arms against her sides and stuck her legs straight out, reducing at much air resistance as possible. As the wind rushed against her face and Eientei rushed up to meet her, Mokou's mouth twisted into a grin of anticipation.
Then, when she was about ten feet about the forest, a small storm of flechettes struck her from all sides and cut her to pieces.
"How did you know she was going to divebomb?" Eirin asked.
Kaguya hugged her large coat tighter against herself and watched as the maids cleaned Mokou bits off the roof. "Because she always divebombs us when she can't come in through the forest," she answered, her breath misting in the night air. "And I'm sick of having the roof fixed."
"I don't get it," the girl said. "So you can both come back from the dead? As many times as you want?"
"Over and over," the woman confirmed.
"But that's impossible!"
"Is it? Youkai and fairies do it all the time. Who's to say that there isn't a way for Humans to do it too?"
The girl's face paled. "Wait. So, when I found you, you really were…dead?"
"As a doornail," the woman confirmed. "Nothing new for me, but that one still wasn't fun." She paused, and then said, "And I'm afraid the rest of the story doesn't get any better. Are you sure you still want to hear the rest?"
After a brief moment of hesitation the girl nodded.
The woman shook her head. Kids and their curiosity. "All right," she said. "You asked for it."
The Fifth Attempt
Mokou crawled on her hands and knees through the dirt tunnel. A small ball of flame floated next to her head, lighting the way. A few years ago, she had dug the tunnel out to give herself a stealthy way to enter Eientei. The tunnel stretched from about half-a-mile from the mansion grounds to one of the storerooms. From there, she simply needed to remove a few loose bricks and she was in the mansion. She used the tunnel roughly every other month or so, and Kaguya still hadn't caught onto its existence.
She grinned as she neared her destination. She was bringing along a few of her makeshift spellcards. Plant a few in strategic locations, get away, and wait until the opportune moment to activate them from afar. Of course, given how spellcard rules worked, no one nearby would be seriously hurt, but there would be a fair amount of damage. Nothing broke up a party faster than exploding decorations.
Then she saw something new, something that had not been there the last time she had crawled through this way. It was a dirty envelope, attached to a piece of rope that stretched right across her path. On the envelope's front was written "For Mokou."
Mokou's eyes narrowed. She plucked the envelope off its support and opened it. Inside was a note. It read:
Hey there. Found your tunnel. I was wondering how you kept getting in. Anyway, nice try.
p.s. I rigged this envelope with a ward. Open it, and you've got maybe ten seconds before your tunnel collapses. And given that this is right under a rock quarry, I don't think you're going to be digging yourself out anytime soon. Have fun!
Mokou snarled, "Oh, son of a bi-"
That was as far as she got before the ward activated, bringing down a crushing amount of dirt and stone right on her.
The Eight Attempt
Grunting, Mokou squirmed her way out of the pipe and dropped into the large oven employed by Eientei's kitchen. It was off, but it wouldn't have made a difference even if she were surrounded by flames. Burning to death was one of the few demises that Mokou had never experienced firsthand, and thanks to her natural immunity to heat and flames, she never will.
Slipping in by this way was a tight fit, but it was the end result that counted. Now that she was once again in the mansion, there was little anyone could do to-
The oven door opened, and Mokou found herself trading stares with Kaguya. Surprising no one, the Lunarian princess did not look happy to see her. In fact, judging by the persistent twitch her left eye had developed, it looked like she was starting to grow tired of their game.
However, she did not look at all surprised. Mokou sighed and said, "So, I guess my entrance wasn't so unnoticed after all, huh?"
In response, Kaguya slammed the door. There was a clunking noise as a lever was pulled and gears turned.
Mokou rolled her eyes. "Oh, come on!" she shouted. "Are you seriously going to try to cook me? Do you honestly think that will-"
And then a trapdoor opened from beneath her.
"Oh, son of a bi-"
Then the surprised Mokou was dropped into the spike-filled room that had been installed under the oven earlier that year as a precaution.
The Twelfth Attempt
"Get out!" Kaguya screamed as she threw Mokou out the back door. Or rather, what was left of her. One of Mokou's arms was gone, and she was missing the better part of her digestive system. For her part, Mokou wasn't even slowed by her horrific injuries, and instead retreated into the forest, shouting taunts and insults over her shoulder. A wrapped package was shoved under her remaining arm.
Kaguya growled. Mokou had been caught slinking around the mansion some minutes prior. Kaguya had no idea how she had gotten in. She had thought that they had closed off all of the pyromaniac's secret passageways, but there she had been, creeping along the ceiling. What was worse is that she also had no idea how long Mokou had been there. Why, the whole mansion could be booby-trapped by now. That package Mokou had taken with her was probably some sort of horrible surprise intended to blow Kaguya's face off. With any luck, they had chased her off before she could set it up.
Eirin appeared at Kaguya's side. "Did you catch her?" the doctor demanded.
"Almost," Kaguya muttered. "Took out a huge chunk out of her torso, but she got away."
Eirin hissed a Lunarian curse under her breath. "What about that thing she carried. Were you able to keep her from taking that at least?"
Kaguya shook her head. "No. Which means I get to look forward to her trying to set it up again. Whatever the hell it is."
There was a noticeable pause, and then Eirin said, "Ah, Princess? That…wasn't one of her traps, nor did she bring it with her."
"That was your head," Eirin said. "You know, the one she had knocked off the other day?"
"My what?" Kaguya said flatly.
"I was keeping it in preservatives in the infirmary," Eirin explained. "I going to see if it might be converted into a backup regeneration point, should she ever decide to disintegrate you again. But from the look of things, Mokou must have found out."
Kaguya said nothing. She merely stared.
"I'm sorry," Eirin said at last.
Kaguya spun on her heel and marched back inside.
The Fifteenth Attempt
"Oh, come on!" Mokou shouted as she swung back and forth. "I wasn't going for you this time! I wasn't even anywhere near Eientei! I was just going for a walk!"
"I don't care," Kaguya said. Mokou was currently hanging upside-down, her arms and legs wrapped tight with steel cord. "There's no rule that says I always have to be on the defensive."
Mokou rolled her eyes. "For all the good it will do you. Give me a second, and these cords won't even be fit for shoelaces."
"That's all I need," Kaguya said. She held up a wickedly serrated knife. "What did you do with my he-"
There was a flash of light and heat, and the next thing Kaguya knew she was being carried by two members of the Eientei Guard back to the mansion, with her partially melted face putting the finishing touches on its reconstruction.
Kaguya sighed and stared at the sky. Bitch hadn't even let her finish her question. Fine. The next time Kaguya was going to stuff Mokou somewhere she couldn't burn out of.
The Seventeenth Attempt
Kaguya marched through the snow, growling under her breath every step of the way. Three days had passed since Mokou had made it clear that she intended to ruin Kaguya's party plans, and Kaguya was now considering cancelling the whole thing.
Mokou just wouldn't stop coming. No matter how many times they killed her, no matter how perilous of a situation her body was left in, she just kept coming back, over and over. And catching her was proving to be something of a problem too. It had taken two sabotage attempts before they could keep her down long enough for Kaguya to successfully contain all of Mokou's body.
Speaking of which…
Four of the Eientei Guard followed close behind. They carried a steel coffin between them. It was bound by heavy chains and every anti-flame charm Kaguya could get her hands on.
They stopped walking when they reached the edge of a frozen lake. Kaguya snapped her fingers, and a circular hole exploded in the ice.
"All right, dump her," she said.
At her command, her guards slid the coffin into the lake. Kaguya pulled out a charm, muttered a word, and released it. It dissolved into blue sparks, and the lake froze over anew.
"That should hold her," Kaguya growled. "Let's see her burn her way out of that."
The Eighteenth Attempt
"HOW?" Kaguya howled as she squeezed her fingers around Mokou's neck. "How did you burn your way out of that?"
Despite the decrease of oxygen reaching her brain, Mokou managed a mocking smile. "With…the greatest…of ease," she rasped. "By the way…you now need…a new lake."
Kaguya growled and gave Mokou's neck a swift twist.
"She won't stop!" Kaguya cried as she paced back and forth through Eirin's infirmary. "It doesn't matter how many times we kill her, how small we make the pieces, she just keeps coming and coming and coming!"
Eirin, who had no patients at the moment, was busying herself by taking inventory. She glanced up from her counting. "Did you expect anything less? She does hate you, found a way to upset you and honestly has nothing better to do with her time."
Kaguya whirled to face her. "But why can't she just take a break? I mean, I've probably killed her more times this past week than I've done all year!"
"Why should she? She's probably having the time of her life right now. Certainly, she's dying horribly several times a day, but every attempt serves to anger you further. She probably considers her pain nothing more than fair payment."
"Thank you, Eirin. I would not have figured that out otherwise," Kaguya hissed.
Eirin sighed and turned to face her princess. "Kaguya, by now it's evident that you're not going to win this one. Like I said when this began, you need to successfully drive her off each and every time. She needs only to succeed but once. And I don't think you will want to remain on guard throughout your whole party. Paranoia is known to have a negative effect on the festive spirit."
"You're making fun of me," Kaguya growled.
"Maybe a little," Eirin admitted with a shrug. "But that doesn't mean it's any less true. So, once again, I must ask: are you sure you don't want me to take care of her?"
Kaguya grimaced and looked away. Eirin understood. Kaguya relied upon Eirin for just about everything, from running Eientei to making sure that she had clean laundry each day. The Mokou situation was the only problem that Kaguya handled for herself. If she let Eirin take care of Mokou for her, it would be the same as admitting that she couldn't do anything for herself. As for herself, Eirin would be content if Kaguya let her get rid of Mokou permanently and start taking an active role in running things around the mansion, but she would never voice such thoughts out loud.
"No," Kaguya muttered at last. "I can handle this. I just need to think of a way to keep her out of the way on Christmas. The party's only going to be…"
"All evening," Eirin reminded her. "Per your instructions."
Kaguya threw up her hands in exasperation. "Fine! I'll get rid of her for all day! I'll hire outside mercenaries to keep her busy if I have to! I'll freeze her in a block of ice, lock her in a safe and seal her a hundred feet underground! I'll launch her into deep space and make her the Moon's problem if I have to!"
"No, you won't," Eirin said coldly. "You do no such thing. Throwing a party is one thing. Deliberately drawing the Lunarians' attention toward us is something completely different."
"It was a figure of speech," Kaguya growled. "What I mean is that she's not going to ruin my party, because I'm going to find a way to take her out before then. Count on it."
The Twenty-Second Attempt
Mokou stood on empty air less than a foot above the treeline, about a mile from Eientei. She held up an old but working brass telescope and used it to observe the comings and goings taking place at her rival's home.
Despite her frequent sabotage attempts, the preparations had continued at a steady rate. From what Mokou had been able to gather in between gruesome deaths, Eirin had been put in charge of actually getting this party off the ground, which certainly explained why the whole thing hadn't been driven into the ground yet. Quite the contrary, it was nearly finished. Eientei was now covered with lanterns, holly branches and silly looking fluffy…golden…rope…things. A large pine had been erected in the middle of the courtyard and was decked out with even more ridiculous trappings than the house was. And it was in the middle of the day. Mokou had no doubt that the whole mess would light up and night and take on a whole new level of ostentatious.
At that moment, the courtyard was relatively bare of Kaguya's staff. Granted, the guards were still in position, but the workers assigned to putting Kaguya's childish display together were taking a break. It wouldn't last long, but until then there was a minimum of bodies getting in the way.
Which was exactly how Mokou wanted it.
Even when she had been mortal, Mokou had still been able to summon and control flames. When this had been found out, she had been ecstatic. There were few abilities cooler than that, and it had made her feel invincible.
In the years since, she had come to understand just how insignificant her ability had been. It wasn't enough to simply be able to create and manipulate fire. There were so many ways of countering it that in a battle with any mage worth their salt she might as well have been throwing clods of dirt.
Of course, that had been a long time ago. Over the years, Mokou had learned more. Had found ways of increasing what she already had. She had gone to some dark places and consulted with dark powers. The cost had been great, and if it weren't for her Hourai immortality, she would have been reduced to dust and memories a thousand times over.
But when everything was all said and done, she had more than just normal, everyday fire to work with. She now commanded the flames of the Phoenix, a creature that awed even the gods. And with this fire, she could do whatever she wanted.
Despite all their similarities (which Mokou hated thinking about but had to acknowledge), this was one of the principle differences between her and Kaguya. Kaguya's power over eternity could preserve an object in a single moment of time for as long as she wished. Mokou controlled the power of destruction. There was very little she could not annihilate if she so chose. In fact, if she were to ever lose all of her humanity and regard for life, the cycle of mutual murder she maintained with Kaguya would end, replaced with Kaguya screaming in agony in a sea of hellfire for as long as Mokou wished. Mokou did not stoop to such levels because she wasn't that much of a monster.
And even if she was, where would be the fun in that?
But even so, if she ever felt the need, she could do some very interesting things with fire.
Mokou lowered the telescope and stuck it into her skirt. Then she stuck one hand into the air at a fifty degree angle, with her index finger pointed straight out. She closed one eye and stuck out her tongue as she adjusted the angle of her arm until she felt that she got it right.
And then she turned on the heat.
"You think I can't do this, don't you?" Kaguya said accusingly. "You don't think I can do anything without your help."
"I said no such thing," Eirin retorted. "I am merely pointing out that-"
Their argument was interrupted by a scream of terror, coming from somewhere outside. This was followed by several frenzied voices shouting at each other. And over that, there was a repeated whooshing sound of something flying very quickly through the air.
Kaguya and Eirin exchanged a look. They both knew that noise.
A moment later they were racing through the mansion to charge out the front door. What they saw made them stop and stare.
The large decorated pine tree that had been commissioned as the courtyard's centerpiece had been set ablaze. Fires had sprung up from the top, the middle and near the base, and the space in between was quickly being consumed. Branch, needle and decoration were all being devoured as the flames spread.
All around, the rabbits had already sprung into motion. The guards had sectioned off the area and were quickly removing everything flammable. Meanwhile, those on the janitorial staff were busy trying to douse the flames with water, snow and whatever else was handy.
Eirin whirled to grab a guard as she ran past. "What's going on?" she demanded. "What happened here?"
The guard shook her head in bewilderment. "I'm not sure! One moment everything was quiet, and then this ball of…I don't know how to describe it. It was like liquid fire! It just flew out of the sky and hit the top of the tree!"
"Liquid fire?" Eirin repeated.
"Yes!" the guard said with a nod. "Then two others followed, and then…" She gestured toward the inferno.
"I thought we had secured that thing with fireproofing charms," Eirin hissed.
"Then how…" Eirin shook her head. It was a pointless question. The answer was obvious. She released the guard. "Never mind. Go back to what you were doing."
The guard saluted and ran off.
There seemed little more for Eirin to do. Despite the surprise it had given the staff, they were already bringing the blaze under control. Eirin could already tell that it wasn't in danger of spreading. All in all, it wasn't a great loss. The tree was done for, but it could be replaced in time for the party.
But then, that hadn't been the point. Mokou probably knew that her bombardment wouldn't bring the preparations to a stop. She had done it to send a message. She wanted Kaguya to know that she didn't have to be physically present to make good on her promise to ruin Kaguya's plans. She could touch Kaguya anytime, anywhere.
Eirin could practically hear Mokou's mocking words. See this? she was saying. See what I just did? You know all those other times? I was playing with you. So just try to stop me from wrecking your little party. Just try.
Eirin glanced over at Kaguya. The aghast Princess looked like she was having the same thoughts. She was staring at the burning tree with unblinking eyes, a look of complete disbelief on her face.
"Kaguya, I…" Eirin hesitated. What exactly could one say?
"Eirin?" Kaguya said, her eyes still on the tree.
"Please make Mokou go away."
Eirin quirked an eyebrow. "Really?"
"Yes. I don't care how. I'm sick of dealing with her."
Eirin nodded. Then, slowly and carefully, she asked, "Permanently?"
"That's horrible!" the girl cried.
The woman shrugged. "Hey, you wanted to know. I never promised that it was a nice story. Besides, Gensokyo's a tough neighborhood. Those sorts of things happen all the time. Now, are you sure-"
"Yes. I want to know."
The Twenty-Third Attempt
When Mokou decided to stop by and survey the damage control early that evening, her jaw dropped wide open.
Not only had Eientei managed to replace the tree she had destroyed, but the party itself was already underway. The place was glittering with lights and sparkling decorations. Rabbits were milling all over the mansion grounds, talking and laughing. Several small booths had been set up along the courtyard walls, distributing hot drinks and sweets. In one corner, a string quartet was playing songs that Mokou had heard being rehearsed during her previous sabotage attempts, and several couples were dancing.
Eientei itself was alive with activity. All of the inner lights were one, and she could see numerous shapes moving around inside. Smoke curled up holes in the roof, bringing with them all sorts of strange and delicious smells.
Mokou shook her head in disbelief. When she had checked in that morning, preparations had been nearly done, certainly, but she had no idea that they had progressed this far. And the destruction of the courtyard tree should have set them back even further. Either they had a replacement tree on standby for just an emergency (which would have made sense, now that she thought about it) or they had worked double-time to recover from the attack, just to spite her.
Furthermore, Mokou was reasonably certain that the party wasn't due to start until later that week. At least, she had learned that they were still a few days from Kaguya's foreign holiday. Perhaps they had decided to have it early on the off-chance that Mokou might not be by that evening? Or maybe it was one of those week-long celebrations. Either way, it was a bold move.
Not only that, it was a message. A response to the challenge Mokou had laid down by torching the tree from afar. Big deal, she could practically hear Kaguya's sneering voice say. So what if you can hit me from anytime, anywhere? I can take whatever you've got and keep right on going. See this? It's like you never even hit us at all.
Mokou put her hands on her hips and sighed. "Well, well, well," she said with a small laugh. "She is tenacious. I'll give her that."
Of course, Kaguya couldn't be given the full credit. More likely than not Eirin was to be thanked for how the preparation's resilience. Even so, this was impressive, even for her. Mokou was tempted to admit defeat and go home, if for no other reason than to acknowledge their accomplishment.
But to do so, she would have to allow Kaguya to win. And a lot of real hot place were going to freeze over before that would happen.
So if it was too late to prevent the party from starting, she was just going to have to spoil it for Kaguya while it was already underway. But unfortunately, she was faced with the problem of how. She couldn't just waltz in and start setting fire to things. There were too many people around, adults and children alike. To go on one of her usual rampages carried too high a risk of collateral damage. And if she started duking it out with Kaguya, people were probably going to get hurt. In fact, it was almost guaranteed.
Besides, as Mokou noted with a twinge of resignation, they did look like they were having fun. As fun as it would be to ruin Kaguya's evening, she didn't bear the rabbits any ill will. Dismembering the Moonbitch and forcing her to eat her own digits was one thing. Ruining the night of some random family was something completely different.
Not for the first time, Mokou noted that she might have issues.
Still, for all the obstacles the rabbits' presence brought to the floor, Mokou was not daunted. If she was prevented from relying on overt displays of violence, then she would just have to do something a little sneakier. It was a challenge. She liked challenges.
And, as she watched the crowd celebrate their first Christmas, a solution started to take form in her mind. It began with a seed of an idea, a possibility that she rather liked. From there, it grew and took shape. After about a minute, she had a plan. And soon after that, a mission.
Mokou grinned. Her skills were far from versatile, but when it came to making Kaguya's life miserable, she was a creative genius.
First step was to return home. Mokou lived on the edge of the Bamboo Forest of the Lost, not a long trip if she flew at full speed. Her house, if it could be called that, was a far cry from her family's old manor. In fact, it was barely more than a hovel. But she didn't care. Creature comforts were of no concern to her. And it was where she was keeping a very special item.
While her recent sabotage attempts had been numerous, none of them had lasted all that long. Still, Mokou had still picked up bits and pieces of information about this Christmas thing and its traditions. She knew the general decorating scheme. She had learned fragments of about three different carols. And most importantly, she had learned that gift-giving was one of the most important parts.
That's what she now planned. She was going to give Kaguya a very special present. It didn't take long to get the item ready for delivery, and Mokou was back on the outskirts of Eientei in under an hour.
Her eyes quickly scanned the area, searching for a way in. Not surprising, the place was heavily patrolled by the Eientei Guard. Not to the degree that it had been this past week, but there still were a fair amount of rabbits bearing the uniform of the Guard milling about. Again, mostly they kept to the perimeter and the treetops, out of the sight of the partygoers but close enough to leap into action at a moment's notice.
As Mokou studied the path of the guards and the partygoers, a sudden wave of dizziness rose up within her, followed soon by a sharp pain lancing through her forehead, strong enough to crack through her incredible tolerance for agony. She growled and clutched at her face.
The pain passed, and Mokou shook her head. She had no idea where that had come from, but as she was still alive and unharmed, so it couldn't have been one of Tewi's traps.
Whatever. She could deal with that later. Mokou returned her attention to the mansion and surrounding festival. Predictable, the bulk of the population, guest and guard alike, was concentrated in and around the courtyard. The back area of the mansion was nearly empty, save for a couple of guards marching back and forth on parallel paths.
Mokou crept toward the rear of Eientei and crouched in the shadows, waiting. The guards were marching toward one another. She waited until they met and passed each other before darting forward. She scrambled up the wall, seared away the frame of one of the windows, and removed it. Less than a second later she was standing inside the mansion and melting the window frame back into place.
She grinned. Infiltration complete, and to nobody's surprise it had been ridiculously easy. The next step was to find Kaguya.
Or rather, she had to go to where Kaguya was located. Given the hour, the feast had to be already underway. Kaguya would be at the head of the table, playing host and soaking in everybody's adoration. The perfect setup for Mokou to drop off her gift.
Then Mokou's eyes snapped to the end of the hallway. She heard voices coming her way, just around the corner. Wasting no time, she leapt into the air and clung spiderlike to the ceiling, with her front half facing downward so as to prevent her hair from spilling down and giving her away.
Two maids walked past, talking as they went. One of them was pushing a cart of dirty dishes. Mokou waited as passed by directly under her, unaware of the intruder hiding right above their heads.
Once they were out of sight, Mokou let out the breath she had been holding. Then, using one arm to support her package, she used the other to wrap her body-length hair around her waist and tied it as securely as she could.
That taken care of, Mokou started to move her way down the hallway, half-floating, half-crawling along the ceiling toward the dining hall. As she progressed, the sound of merriment and singing grew louder. Mokou's smile perked up when she heard Kaguya's drunken voice rising above the others, belting off an off-key verse of some sort of holiday song or another, something about jingling bells and riding through the snow.
The door to the dining hall was wide open, allowing Mokou to slip inside and hover in the far corner of the ceiling. Below, Eientei's long dining table had been set with a white tablecloth adorned with holly leaves and loaded with all kinds of roasted meats, vegetable dishes, steaming breads and frosted pastries. In two rows on either side the rabbit tribal leaders were waving their mugs in the air and having a merry old time as they assaulted Mokou's ears with a truly horrendous sing-a-long.
Pain once again jabbed its way through Mokou's skull, nearly causing her to drop her package. Son of a bitch…
When it passed, Mokou's attention focused on the head of the table. Kaguya sat there, decked out in her finest robes. A wreath of holly sat upon her head, which made Mokou question the holiday's apparent obsession with the plant. Like everyone else, she was singing and smiling and drinking herself into a stupor. And given the incredible tolerance for alcohol that her Hourai immortality gave her, that was saying something.
Mokou smirked. Then she quickly scanned the gathering one more time. Oddly enough, though Tewi Inaba sat at Kaguya's left, Eirin Yagokoro was nowhere to be seen. One would think that she would be at her lady's side during the celebration, acting as both a companion and a bodyguard. Perhaps she was overseeing the festivities outside, or had been called away to take care of one mess or another. Or perhaps she had just stepped out to use the restroom. Either way, Mokou didn't see her anywhere in the room.
Just as well. Mokou didn't care to have the Lunarian doctor nearby. Out of all the people she had encountered in her long, long existence, Eirin was the only person that stood a chance of stopping her at this point. Even with her goal so close to her grasp, she would not put it past the doctor's abilities to find a way to thwart her, even now.
But Eirin was not there. Mokou's grin returned in force. She slinked across the ceiling until she was directly over Kaguya. As she did so, the song reached its climax.
"…what fun it is to ride in a one-horse open…"
"Slay," Mokou giggled. Then she held out the gift directly over Kaguya's plate and let it drop.
Inside was Kaguya's severed head, the one she had removed from the Moonbitch's neck when this contest had first begun. Upon recovering it the other day, she had kept it secreted away, under the belief that it could come in handy. And so it had. Before leaving her house, Mokou had written a holiday greeting for her rival all over the face. It was perfect. Shocked at the package's sudden arrival, Kaguya would open it to see her own rotten face staring back at her. She would then read the message. And then, with realization dawning upon her, she would slowly look up.
And then Mokou would hit her with a lance of flame so thin and so hot that she would be incinerated in seconds, but leaving the rest of the table unharmed.
This was going to be great. Mokou watched the package fall, her limbs quivering in anticipation. It seemed almost as if it were tumbling in slow motion, heightening the suspense as it closed in on its destination.
The package hit Kaguya's plate, smashing her dinner. It gave a small bounce and…
Something utterly unexpected happened.
It is impossible to describe what occurred then in only a few words. Picture an open well set into the ground, a well without a wall keeping the unwary from misstepping and falling in. Spread a sheet over the well and weigh it down at all corners. Then, carefully, place a picnic lunch on top of the sheet. If you properly stretch the blanket out to its fullest length and distribute the weight correctly, you will create the illusion that there is no well at all, that your nice picnic is sitting on solid ground.
Now, drop a large stone onto the sheet from twenty meters up. Watch as it yanks the sheet free from its supports and sends it into the depths of the well, taking the picnic with it.
That was the phenomenon that Mokou saw. The gift-wrapped head literally plunged right through the plate into the gods alone knew where. And it took the party with it.
Almost everything slid into the hole. The food, the tablecloth, the decorations, the lights, even the host and the guests. Kaguya and the rabbits were pulled along with everything else into an all-consuming pit that by all rights should not have existed. In their wake, they left a dark empty room, with a bare table and vacant chairs.
Mokou gaped as the last of the party disappeared. Where the hole had been, there was only the wood of the table. But all around, everything was gone. She couldn't even hear the celebrations from outside anymore. All the lights in the mansion were now out. She might have snuck into Eientei in the middle of the night on a normal during a normal week.
Then someone stated a slow clap, a mocking round of applause. Mokou looked up to see Eirin sitting in the shadows of the other end of the table. Though she could not see the doctor's face, the tilt of her head suggested that she was wearing a smirk of satisfaction.
"You made it," Eirin said. "Congratulations."
Mokou didn't respond. She just stared.
"By the by, you're rather early," Eirin continued. "The real party isn't for another four days."
Mokou's eyes narrowed. She had a policy about not turning her fits of violence toward anyone but Kaguya, but she felt like it was time to make an exception.
She twisted her body around and dropped feet-first onto the table. From there, she planned on charging the condescending bitch and beating an explanation out of her.
That was the plan, at least. But once again, the laws of reality decided to step outside just in time to thwart her intentions. The surface of the table opened up and swallowed Mokou whole. Mokou let out a yelp of surprise and tried to arrest her fall, but gravity was having none of that. She fell down, into an inky black void. Her ears filled with a sound like the rushing of wind, and all sensation left her.
"What?" the girl said in confusion. "I don't understand. What happened? Is that even possible?"
"Hey, have a little patience," the woman said. "I'm getting there."
When Mokou finally returned to consciousness, she was no longer falling into the black. Nor was she anywhere near Eientei, for that matter. Rather, she was back at her little house. Through the window, she could see that it was still in the dead of the night, with the full moon illuminating the freshly fallen snow that lay between the bamboo trees.
Mokou grunted and tried to move. This failed, and it didn't take long to figure out why. She was lying on some sort of strange table that sat at a diagonal angle. It was as long as she was tall, and was cut into a cross shape, with her arms outstretched to their fullest length at either side. Metal restraints held her in place, bolted around her arms, legs, around her waist and neck.
Mokou scowled. She reached into herself and prepared to heat up the air surrounding her so high that the restraints and table would just melt away.
"I wouldn't, if I were you," said the calm voice of Eirin Yagokoro. "You will not like what follows."
Mokou stiffened. She watched with wary eyes as Eirin walked into view. The Lunarian doctor was in the process of preparing a syringe filled with some sort of sickly green fluid. She gave the injector a light press, tapping out the bubbles. Then she nodded her satisfaction and turned to Mokou.
"Glad to have you back with us," she said. "We have a lot to talk about."
Mokou snarled. "Give me one good reason why I shouldn't melt your face off."
"Because you can't," Eirin said primly. She gestured toward the restraints. "Try to summon your power, and those will send a shock through your body so intense that-"
Mokou summoned her power.
The next thing she knew, she was again waking up. All of her muscles twitched with miniature seizures, and it was almost impossible to draw a full breath. Her vision swam worryingly and refused to focus, but she could still see Eirin's blurry figure shake her head.
"And that would be Exhibit A," Eirin said, her voice sounding distorted and far away. "I am well aware of your ridiculously high resistance to physical pain, that you can fight through agonies that would cripple even the most hardened warrior. But everyone has their breaking point. And I've had several lifetimes to learn yours." She cocked her head to one side. "Oh, by the way, I took the liberty of removing your charms and had them sent them back to Eientei. I know that the flames will not hurt your body, but I don't believe that you would enjoy needing to acquire a new wardrobe every time you light up."
Mokou scowled. Her mouth was dry and her tongue felt swollen, but she could still speak. "I suppose I also have you to thank for that bullshit display back at Eientei?"
"Yeah. That freaky sinkhole in the middle of the table. Now I have to admit, that was an impressive set-up. But I still really have to ask: how in the hell did you pull something like that off?"
"I didn't," Eirin said. She placed the syringe on the Mokou's rough table and clasped her hands in front of her waist. "Not really, not in the way you're thinking. In fact, you were never at Eientei to begin with."
Mokou blinked. "Huh?"
"Think hard, Fujiwara. Before setting out on your latest attempt to ruin Kaguya's Christmas, what is the last thing you remember?"
Mokou frowned. "Uh…I don't know. I was here, I guess. At home."
"Mmmm-hmmm. You were here. And examining Kaguya's head, to be precise."
Eirin reached down and picked up another object. It was Kaguya's severed head, once again sitting in a jar full of some kind of preservative. She set in on the table next to the syringe.
Mokou stared at her. Then she sighed and slumped in her restraints. "You were there, weren't you? Watching me."
"Brilliant deduction," Eirin said dryly. "I don't suppose you remember feeling a bit of a pinprick afterward, do you? Right before you got it into your head to return to Eientei?"
Mokou thought. She shook her head.
"No? I'm not surprised. I supposed that having an extraordinarily high tolerance for pain comes with certain drawbacks."
From her skirt she pulled out an arrow. The tip glistened with some sort of substance.
Mokou gaped. "Wait, you shot me with that?"
Eirin nodded. "I've always enjoyed archery, even if it is considered obsolete even by Gensokyian standards." She laid the arrow on the table, next to the other two items.
Mokou's mind started racing. The pieces came together, and she was not liking the picture they were forming. "Wait, are you saying that I hallucinated all that? The whole thing was a trick?"
"Something to that effect, yes." The side of Eirin's lip quirked up. It was not a nice smile. "Following your attack on the Christmas tree in the courtyard, Kaguya decided that she was sick and tired of having to deal with your juvenile attempts to ruin her party and asked me to deal with you. This afternoon, I contacted a full of the magicians from the local rabbit tribes, specifically the ones gifted in the field of illusions. From there, we worked together to create a hallucinogen with a specially created sequence for you to experience. Then I went to your place, found you in deep congress with my lady's head, and, well, I suppose you can guess the rest."
"I suppose I can," Mokou said. "And my full congratulations for sneaking up on me. It couldn't have been easy."
Eirin smiled but said nothing.
Mokou ignored the implied insult. "But here's what don't get. I figure you must've had some sort of tranquilizer to go along with your dreamtime formula, to keep me under while you strapped me to this…" Mokou turned her head and glowered at the table she was fastened to out of the corner of her eye. "…this thing."
"This is true."
"But tranquilizers don't work on me," Mokou told her. "They never have. Come on, you know this. The worst I get is a few seconds of dizziness before the same immune system that keeps me free of disease attacks and destroys it."
"Oh my, I do believe you're right." Eirin held her hands to her cheeks in mock surprise. "Yes, that would be a problem. If only there were someone who knew exactly how your immortality worked, who knew the human body down to the atomic level, and knew more about medicine than anyone alive. Why, such a person might also know how to whip up a knockout drug specifically designed to flood your system and bring you under without ever tipping your immune system off as to its presence."
Mokou's skin broke out into a clammy sweat. She felt a rush of something unfamiliar. It was a tightening of her insides, a heightening of the senses, a quickening of her heartbeats. What was this feeling? She was certain that she had felt it before, but it had been so long, that it was hard to remember…
Oh. Wait. That's right. It was fear.
Mokou fought to keep the fear from her face as Eirin kept talking. "If it's any consolation, you are technically the victor in this recent contest with my lady," she while examining her sharp nails. "She came to the conclusion that she would be unable to halt all your attacks, and gave up. It was a hard thing for her, truth be told. I think she wanted to prove to herself that she could handle you without my help. But she literally has eternity to work on her self-esteem issues. And her party will continue on as planned."
"But…but why go through all this?" Mokou asked. "Why even give me that hallucination…dream…whatever the hell it was to begin with? Why not just put me down and call it day?"
"Oh, that's easy enough to answer." Though her tone did not change, Eirin's steel grey eyes flashed in anger. "To teach you a lesson."
"A what now?"
"You needed to learn that all actions have consequences. Your brutal murdering of Kaguya gets you tortured and killed in return. But when you try to move your tactics to the psychological level, you will have to expect to have a few mind games directed toward you in return."
Mokou blinked. "What in the hell are you talking about?"
Eirin sighed. "Earlier this week, you ran into one of my scouts, who foolishly decided to tell you everything he knew about the party. During which, you introduced yourself as Watatsuki no Yorihime."
Mokou frowned. Oh right, she had done that.
"It's of interest to me why you would do such a thing. And how you came across that name to begin with."
Mokou was tempted to sneer at Eirin and throw a taunting remark her way, but common sense took over. "Kaguya let it drop while ranting at me a few…I don't know, maybe it was months, maybe years. I can't even tell anymore. But she said that I was worse than Watatsuki no Yorihime had ever been." She shrugged. "She wouldn't tell me much else beyond that, but I figure that it was someone that she hated back before even coming to Earth. I thought that if she thought that this Yorihime person were to show up, it might drive her nuts."
Eirin stared at her. "That's it? It was an idle slip of the tongue? That's all?"
"Yeah." Mokou's eyes narrowed. This was getting interesting. "Why?"
Eirin shook her head. She didn't appear to have heard Mokou. "All that worry for nothing," she muttered. She took a deep breath. "Well, I suppose that it is somewhat of a relief that the situation is no more severe than that. Better an anti-climax than a catastrophe." She glanced at Mokou. "Well, I suppose the only thing left to do is deal with you."
Mokou blinked. She spoke slowly and carefully. "So…this is it, then? You're just going to end me once and for all? Burn away the everlasting life I stole from you, all so the Moonbi…so that your Princess can have her party?"
"Oh, I wanted to," Eirin said. "But despite her anger, Kaguya refused to let me kick you from this mortal coil."
"What?" Mokou said in amazement. "Really?"
Eirin shrugged. "She is an odd one, in her own way. Despite the hatred she harbors toward you, I think it is difficult for her to imagine a world without you in it. Strange, I know, but her wishes are still to be obeyed. Rest assured, little vermin, you will live to kill her again, and vice-versa. You just won't be around to bother us for a few days."
With that, she picked up the syringe once again. She held it to the moonlight streaming through the window, letting it shine through the translucent green fluid. "This is a little formula I've been saving for such an occasion. It operates in a manner similar to a virus. First, it will attack and infect all red blood cells that it comes in contact with. Then these cells will actively seek out others of their kind and infect them in turn. All the while they will burn away all the oxygen in your blood, rendering it unusable. Your organs will fail, and your brain will suffocate." She shrugged. "Of course, you have suffered much worse in your time, and it would do little more than inconvenience you."
Mokou felt her insides grow cold.
"Fortunately, the formula does more than simply kill you," Eirin continued. Her voice was low and professional. She might have been lecturing a class for all the emotion she betrayed. "It will also infect the anchor that binds your body and soul together, lulling your soul to sleep and preventing it from reviving your physical body. Your regenerative abilities, usually so quick to repair damage, won't even kick in for a few days at least. Until then, you will be nothing more than a lifeless corpse, and effectively out of the way until my lady's celebration is complete. Feel free to voice your complaints to her then, but I fear by that time she will not care."
Mokou's fingers clenched. She longed to unleash a torrent of flame that would reduced Eirin to a freestanding column of hardened ash, consequences be damned. "And what makes you so sure that I won't be coming to complain to you, once this is over? Sure, you've got me at a disadvantage now, but it doesn't sound like you plan on keeping me locked up. And you may be some super medical genius, but I know more about death and violence than anyone alive. What good will all your pills and needles do when I come looking for you?"
"Oh, more than you might expect," Eirin said amiably. "But I'm not worried. You wouldn't dare do a thing to hurt me."
Mokou laughed. "Oh, so sure, are you? And it's true, I make it a point to hurt Kaguya and Kaguya only. But you know what? In this case, I think I'll be making an exception."
"No, you won't?"
"Oh? And why's that?"
Eirin chuckled. It was a disconcerting sound, coming from her. She walked over to the restrained Mokou and leaned in close. "Because of this reason, Fujiwara no Mokou, daughter of Fujiwara no Fuhito. Should you ever tire of this endless cycle of hatred, death, and rebirth, should you ever wish to move on, to take ship across the Sanzu river and meet your fate in Higan, only I can send you there. Only I can give you that final release. Only I can send you to sleep in Death's arms."
For once in her long, long life, Fujiwara no Mokou could think of nothing to say.
Eirin nodded in approval. "Right then. I suppose I've delayed enough. So let's just get this out of the way. You do not seek to interfere with me and my work. You do not seek revenge against any of the rabbit tribes or Eientei's staff. You do not direct your attacks toward Eientei itself. And never again will you attempt to use Kaguya's unfortunate history against her. You are not to seek out any more information on Watatsuki no Yorihime or anything connected to her. Continue your killing contest if you must, but do not progress beyond what has already been established as routine. Break any of these conditions, and you are in for a very unpleasant week. Do I make myself clear?"
Mokou swallowed. She nodded.
"Excellent. Well, let's continue then. See you in a week or so. Oh, and happy holidays."
With that, Eirin plunged the syringe into Mokou's neck and pressed down on the injector.
Despite the lateness of the hour, Kaguya had been pacing back and forth in the courtyard ever since Eirin had left. Her feet, clad only in thin slippers, were already soaked through as they crunched their way through well-trodden snow. And her heavy coat was losing its battle against the cold.
She didn't even notice. She couldn't be bothered to notice. Her mind was fixated upon Eirin and Mokou, and how their confrontation might play out.
Would Eirin be successful? There was little reason to believe otherwise. The Lunarian doctor was the most capable person Kaguya had ever known. If anyone could make good on a promise to render the immortal Fujiwara no Mokou a non-threat, it was her.
But Mokou was a wily one. She knew how to take care of herself. If she managed to overcome Eirin and end her life, Kaguya would never be able to forgive herself.
And then there was the matter of Mokou herself. Eirin had been quite adamant about the idea that she should be permitted to eliminate her permanently. Kaguya had refused, saying that she only wanted Mokou out of the way for a while.
But what if Eirin disobeyed her? Kaguya had never known her companion to go against a direct order, but Eirin had a temper. And she had been all kinds of angry at Mokou when she had set out. If she let that temper get the best of her and decide to remove Mokou from the world.
The thought honestly confused Kaguya. While she much preferred to have Mokou out of her life than lose Eirin, the thought of a life without her rival scared her for some reason. She hated Mokou. She wanted to destroy her, and did so at each and every opportunity. But to have her gone for good. That seemed…wrong.
Kaguya looked up from her stressed pacing to glance about the courtyard. The guard's night shift was making their rounds and doing their best not to look at her. Still, she was obviously making them uncomfortable. No doubt they were wishing that she would go inside and let them patrol in peace. But she couldn't, not now. Not until she knew.
With a moan, she resumed her path. Maybe she should have gone with Eirin. To keep an eye on things. Was it too late to head out? It was probably already finished by now. If only she had thought to go an hour ago, when she might have made a difference-
Kaguya's head whipped up to see one of the aerial guards waving at her. "Look!" the guard shouted as she pointed toward the forest path.
Kaguya looked, and her heart rose. Eirin was walking toward her, perfectly fine. Two members of the Eientei Guard were following close behind. They were carrying Eirin's restraining table between them.
"There you are!" Kaguya said in relief. She ran over to meet the doctor. "What took you so long? Is everyone all right?"
Eirin smiled at her. "Don't worry, everything went perfectly."
"What about Mokou?" Kaguya demanded. "What happened with her?"
"We had a chat. I made a few things clear to her, got some grey areas clarified, and then I removed her as a threat. Temporarily, per your wishes."
Kaguya felt a rush of relief sing through her. "Really? So everything's fine?"
Eirin nodded. "We left her body some miles beyond the forest's border. She should be up and active in a few days' time, but until then she won't be by."
Kaguya sighed. She could feel the tension seeping out of her stiff shoulders. "I…thank you. Thank you so much."
"You're welcome," Eirin said. She affectionately ruffled Kaguya's hair. "Now, let's get you to bed. We've still a great deal of preparing to do. And with Mokou no longer taking up your attention, can I count on your participation? After all, it is your party."
Kaguya grinned. "Oh, why not?" she said as she and Eirin walked toward the mansion. "I've always wanted to see if I could…"
Her voice trailed off. She looked over her shoulder, at the two guards and the table they carried. Or rather, at the object sitting in the center of the table.
"Uh, Eirin?" she said.
"That's not my head in a pickle jar, is it?"
"It is. Mokou still had it."
Kaguya stared. Then she growled and stormed inside. Maybe she should have had Eirin eliminate Mokou after all. At least she won't have to worry about that pyromaniac dropping in for the rest of the week.
"A dream?" the girl said incredulously. "It was all a dream?"
"Just that last part," the woman said. "I figure Eirin wanted me to feel the rush of triumph right before sweeping the rug out from under my feet. Seems like a bit of an overreaction, if you ask me. I mean, that big elaborate setup just because I used a name? Good grief, talk about paranoid." She shrugged. "But hey, that's how I ended up dead. And where you came in, actually. So why don't you tell me the next part?"
Laughing, the little Human girl half-ran, half-crawled her way up the snow covered hill. "Come on!" she called to her friends. "You guys are slow!"
Her friends, a girl and a boy, were more than halfway down the hill's slope. "It's not our fault that you're stupidly fast," the girl shouted back. She was bringing up the rear and breathing heavily, her cheeks red with exertion.
Grinning, the first girl good-naturedly stuck her tongue at them. At nine years of age, she had silvery hair that brushed her shoulders and clear blue eyes, a rarity among Humans but not unheard of. She wore a heavy jacket over a grey uniform.
Below, her two friends were struggling to keep up. The girl had messy hair the color of wheat and muddy brown eyes. The boy's dark hair stuck up in natural spikes and his eyes were so narrow that he always looked like he was squinting. They were all about the same age and wore the same grey uniform of their home.
The boy turned to grin at the girl. "She's not stupidly fast, you're just slow."
The girl glowered. "No, I'm not! I'm just tired."
"Is that so, Mr. Toughypants? All right, let's see how fast you are when I do this!"
The girl lunged and seized the boy by the collar. He tried to pull away but his foot slipped. The two of them tumbled to the ground, laughing and wrestling as they tried to bury each other's face in the snow.
"Give it up, Yagami! You know you can't win!"
"Watch me! I'm gonna kick your butt so hard that you…Hey, that's cold!"
The girl at the top of the hill rolled her eyes. There was always something with those two. Well, they would declare a winner and catch up soon enough. In the meantime, she saw no reason to wait for them.
The opposite slope was slick with fine powder. The girl grinned and let herself fall forward. She rolled all the way to the bottom and came to a giggling stop at the bottom. Then she stood up, brushed herself off and got ready to climb to the top again.
Then she noticed the hand sticking out of the snow.
The girl's breath caught in her throat. She hadn't even noticed that there was someone there.
"Um," she said as she cautiously nudged the hand with her foot. "Hello?"
The girl swallowed. She slowly knelt down and started brushing away the snow. The hand was attached to an arm, which in turn was attached to an entire body.
The sound of her friends' laughter grew as they finally reached the top of the hill. "Hey!" the boy shouted down at her. "What'cha got there?"
The girl cleared the snow away from the body's face and found herself staring right into a pair of dead-looking eyes.
The woman coughed. "Er, sorry about that scare. Though in my defense, I didn't pick the place."
"It's...okay," the girl muttered. "It wasn't you fault."
Well, it kind of was, but the woman wasn't going to press that point. "Anyway, we're almost done, so let's just finish this story up."
For once in her life, Kaguya was willingly awake and lively before noon. She toured the mansion with an eager grin on her face. As was to be expected from anything Eirin did, the decorations were perfect. The refreshments were perfect. There was a decked out Christmas tree in every room large enough to justify its presence, sometimes more than one. Lights, holly, gold and glitter lined the walls. Plates with candies were already being set out, with the hot cookies, cakes and other pastries soon to join them near the party's start.
The kitchen was alive with activity. The cooks rushed about, getting everything ready for both the main feast to be enjoyed by the host and the V.I.P.'s and treats that were to be enjoyed by everyone. Half-a-dozen hams were slow-broiling in Eientei's oven while half again that number of plucked chickens were waiting to be roasted over an open fire. In the center of the kitchen, a small team of professional bakers were busy assembling a gingerbread representation of Eientei itself.
And then there was the courtyard. Despite the pounding it had taken earlier that week, the damage had been completely cleared away. A new tree stood in place of the destroyed one. In the corner, the band was squeezing in a few more rehearsals. A small portion of the forest had been cleared away to accommodate a pond-sized pit that had been dug, out, filled with water and frozen solid, forming a makeshift ice-skating rink. And, to Kaguya's surprise and utter delight, a brightly painted miniature train, just large enough for children to ride, now sat waiting on its newly installed track along one end of the courtyard wall, ready to receive passengers. Kaguya hadn't even requested such a thing. In fact, she reasonably sure that Gensokyo didn't even have trains. Eirin had taken upon herself to have it procured.
And best of all, though the festivities weren't set to begin until late afternoon, rabbits were already wandering in from the local tribes to wander about and gawk at the display. When the time came, the place was going to be packed!
Kaguya let out a girlish giggle and ran toward the infirmary. Eirin was a genius. She was an absolute genius. Of course Kaguya had already known this, but in a matter of days she had gone from knowing absolutely nothing about this holiday to organizing the perfect Christmas party. And with nothing more than the book Kaguya had given her and her own independent research to go upon. Eientei's first Christmas was set to be its best.
That is, of course, if they didn't manage to top it next year. But that could wait until then. For now, Kaguya had a doctor to thank.
Per usual, Eirin was in her infirmary. Not surprisingly, she had refused to let the holiday spill into her private domain. The place was undecorated and looking as sterile and coldly efficient as ever. The only hint of holiday cheer was the rabbit male wearing a red fatsuit sitting on the patient table and doing his best to learn his lines. Eirin was coaching him along.
"No," she said. "It's supposed to be a deep belly laugh. Of the jolly variety. Think one of those doting grandfathers who find everything the kids that the kids do to be absolutely wonderful."
The rabbit shot her a pained look. "But I don't have any grandkids! I don't even have kids! I'm not even married!"
"You don't have to be, it's just a visual frame of reference. Now, try it again. Ho, ho, ho…Ah, Princess!" Eirin greeted Kaguya as she entered the room. "Merry Christmas. I trust that you approve of-"
The rest of her question was cut off when Kaguya leapt at her and wrapped her arms around her neck in fierce hug.
"I'll take that as a 'yes,' then," Eirin said, completely unruffled.
"That's a big yes! You are so awesome!"
Eirin rolled her eyes. "Of course. I create the fabled elixir of immortality and make it look easy, and she's disappointed that it's not flashier. I organize a party, and she's falling over herself to pay me compliments."
"Oh, stop it." Kaguya dropped to the ground. "Seriously though, you did great. And…" She peered past the doctor at the miserable looking rabbit. "Wait, I thought you were supposed to play Santa."
"Ah, yes," Eirin said. "About that. It occurred to me that I had yet to discipline Grevil here for his loose tongue-"
"I said I was sorry!" Grevil wailed.
"-and according to my research, the jolly saint is traditionally portrayed as a male anyway. As such, I decided to kill two fairies with one spellcard."
Kaguya looked dubious. "But are you sure he'll play the part? I mean, Santa Claus is supposed to be happy, not all mopey!"
"Oh, he'll play the part." Eirin looked over her shoulder to favor Grevil with a malicious smile. "If he doesn't want to come down with a crippling case of the gout, he'll play the part, and he'll play it well."
Grevil shrank into his oversized suit. He swallowed noisily.
"Well, okay. So long as he does his job, I don't mind," Kaguya said with a shrug. She smiled. "And hey, with Mokou out of the way, there's no problem that we can't fix. By the by, when was she supposed to wake up anyway?"
"Ah, her." Eirin looked up at the ceiling and tapped her chin as she thought. "Well, by my count, she should be returning to life…yesterday, actually."
Kaguya almost lost her balance. "What?" she choked as she grabbed a nearby counter to steady herself. "You mean she's coming back already? But that'll ruin everything! Eirin, what were you thinking?"
Eirin smiled. "Kaguya, calm down."
"Calm down? I have to worry about a vengeful Mokou coming back slinging fireballs and you want me to calm down?"
"Yes. I said that she woke up. I did not say that she would be going anywhere."
Waking up was painful.
That was nothing new. Given that sort of state Mokou was usually in whenever she returned to life, waking up often meant rising from the deep slumber of death to pain-filled haze that would wear off as her body quickly put itself back together.
This was different though. Mokou was crawling back to consciousness, but her body did not feel like it wanted to get with the program. She felt sick, weak. Her bones ached. Her skin burned with fever. Her stomach squirmed as if it were worm-infested, and every breath felt like she was exhaling smoke. And as someone who regularly exhaled smoke with no ill effects, the fact that it was bothering her now worried her.
She tried to move but regretted it when her entire body rebelled. She groaned and remained still.
As her senses slowly returned to her, Mokou tried to get a measure of her surroundings. The best she could tell, she was lying in a bed that was not hers. Her clothes were gone, replaced by a clean linen shift. A comfortable quilt was pulled up to her chin. Her face was warm and moist, as if someone had recently washed it off with warm water.
It was miles better than where she usually woke up, but her body's refusal to recover at its usual rate pissed her off. Mokou felt helpless. She hated feeling helpless. Her fingers curled in frustration under the covers, but even that was exhausting.
A small sob escaped, further adding to her chagrin. Mokou had lost battles to Kaguya in the past, but none had ever been this humiliating.
Then she heard the voices of children. They were nearby, and they were whispering to each other.
"…I think she's waking up."
"Good, I was getting worried."
"What do you happened to her anyway?"
"How should I know? Do I look like I know, Kohta?"
"Hey, I was just thinking out loud. I mean, I was sure she was dead!"
Mokou's head turned in the voices' direction. She gathered all available willpower and forced her eyes to open. It was an uphill battle, but in the end she managed to crack them open enough to see.
Predictably enough, her vision was blurry, but she could still see enough to tell that she was in a simple wooden room. What looked like three Human children wearing grey uniforms were huddled by the doorway. They stared at her with curiosity all over their faces.
"She's looking at us," the spiky-haired boy said in a loud whisper.
"Is that so," said the girl with the yellow ponytail. "Thanks, I hadn't noticed."
"Hey, I'm just saying. No need to be rude."
The third, a girl with short silver hair, didn't join in the bickering. She just stared at Mokou with wide eyes. Mokou stared right back. There was something about the girl that drew her attention, something that set her apart from the others. But in her muddled state, it was hard to think clearly enough to figure it out.
"All right, all right, that's enough of that," said a new voice. A haggard looking woman with her brown hair tied up in a bun walked into view to shoo the children off. "You've had your look. But let's not disturb our guest. She needs her rest."
"Yes, Miss Yume," the children muttered automatically. They quickly abandoned the doorway to scamper off. Or at least two of them did. The silver-haired girl, the one that had attracted Mokou's attention, lingered on for a second longer.
"Come on, sweetie," the woman said. She gave the girl a gentle push. "Run along now."
The girl nodded and, after another moment of hesitation, ran after her friends.
The woman closed the door. Mokou watched as she walked out of sight. There was the sound of something being poured, and the woman returned with a cup.
"Here," she said as she held it to Mokou's lips. "You're still weak though, so go slowly."
Mokou sipped at the liquid and found it to be warm tea. It felt good against her ravaged throat, though her stomach lurched in response. She forced the nausea down and managed to finish about half the cup before indicating that she was done.
The woman removed the cup. She walked away and quickly returned with a bowl of warm water and a washcloth. She sat down in a nearby chair and soaked the washcloth in the bowl. She squeezed it out and dabbed it against Mokou's face.
"I can't tell you how relieved I am that you're all right," the woman said. "When the children found you buried in the snow, you were practically dead. In fact, we were about to declare you gone and bury you. Then you started coughing. Gave us quite the shock."
Mokou didn't respond.
"Now, you probably have a lot of questions. We do too, actually. But for now it's probably best to wait until you've-"
Mokou's lips moved. "Now's…good," she said in a hoarse whisper. "Where…"
The woman paused in her washing. She put the cloth in the bowl and set both aside. "You're in the Aoki Yume Children's Home. I'm Satoko Yume, the headmistress."
Mokou frowned. "School?"
"No. Orphanage." Satoko clasped her hands over her knee and crossed her legs. "For Human children who've lost their families to youkai attacks. You've not heard of us?"
Mokou managed a weak shake of her head.
"Oh." The woman hesitated, and then said, "You're not from the Village, are you?"
"I see." Satoko sighed. "Well, that would explain a lot. The Wilds are full of dangers."
Mokou tried to laugh, but it came out as more of a cough. So that's what she was thinking. "No. Not…youkai who…did this."
"No?" Satoko sounded surprised. "Then what happened to you? I mean, if you don't mind me asking."
Mokou managed a small shrug. "Got into…fight. Lost."
"Oh." Now she sounded worried. "I see. Now, I…I don't want to cause you…I mean, in your condition…" She ran her fingers through her hair as she tried to find the right words. "Oh bother, how do I say this? Um, please understand. I'm in charge of these children's safety. So if the person or persons who did this to you are still out there…"
Ah, that was what she was upset about. It made sense. "No," Mokou rasped. "Over. And done."
"Are you sure?" Satoko pressed.
"Yes." Mokou forced a smile. "Wanted me…out of…out of the way. Got it. They don't care…anymore."
Satoko held her gaze for a long moment. Mokou had a feeling that her trustworthiness was being gauged. Maybe that was this woman's natural ability. To discern truth from lies through a person's eyes. Handy skill for a headmistress to have, if that was the case.
Apparently Mokou passed the test, as the woman then nodded and leaned back. "All right," she said softly. "I believe you. I'm sorry, it's just the kids here have been through enough already."
Satoko cocked her head. "Um, I don't suppose you have a name?"
"Right." The headmistress hesitated, and then nodded. "Well Mokou, you've still got a lot of recovering to do. And if you've made it this far, you'll probably make it the rest of the way. You're welcome to stay here in the meantime. Should you need anything, just ask me or one of the other caretakers. I'll be here as long as I can, and there will be someone nearby when I'm not around. But for now, just rest. We'll talk some more when you're stronger."
Mokou stared at her. Without knowing anything about her, this woman was willing to help a complete stranger. Such a thing was alien to her. People just didn't do such things, least of all for Mokou herself.
Either way, Mokou now felt confused as well as sick. She was going to have to think about this new change of events. But not now. She was too weak and too tired. Later, when she feeling better.
Satoko walked away to extinguish the light, and Mokou drifted away into uneasy dreams. She would not realize until later that through the whole conversation, she had not given a single thought as to how she was going to pay Kaguya back.
Kaguya stood at the front of the mansion and looked around. She sighed deeply in satisfaction.
The party had been going for two hours, and it showed no sign of slowing. The overwhelming majority of the rabbit tribe population now filled the mansion, the courtyard and the surrounding forest. The band was in fine form as they intermixed Christmas carols with traditional Gensokyian folk music, and the dancing couples were very appreciative. Over at the ice rink, a small gang of ice fairies had showed up and challenged a group of teenaged rabbits to a skate-off, and now both teams were busy impressing the enthusiastic crowd with their midair spins and twirls, with one cocky little blue-haired fairy swiftly becoming the fan-favorite to win. At the other end of the courtyard, the line of children waiting to ride the train now stretched all the way around the outer wall. And to her surprise, the party had started to spill into the surrounding forest, with one group of young adults participating in what looked like a danmaku tournament and another organizing a Test of Courage. Several quick-thinking entrepreneurs had set up their little tents and booths just outside of the courtyard walls to sell hot drinks and glittering baubles to the crowd. Kaguya should have been annoyed by this, but she wasn't. It just meant that the party taken on a life of its own. She had no problem with that.
Still, as happy as she was about her party's success, there was still something bugging her. She couldn't put her finger on it, but it felt like there was something important missing. Something that she had forgotten.
Maybe it was that whole Mokou thing. Yes, that had to be it. She had been so sure that she could hold that lunatic off without Eirin's help, and ended up failing miserably. Whereas Eirin had taken Mokou out of the picture in a matter of hours. That had been a blow to her pride. Not that she blamed Eirin in the slightest, but she would have liked to have beaten Mokou herself.
Kaguya sighed. That just figured. Mokou wasn't even here and she was still ruining things for Kaguya, if not the party herself then it was her good mood instead.
Well, whatever. She could pound Mokou's face until it was unrecognizable later. For now, she had a party to host. The feast with the tribal leaders was set to start in another half-hour, and until then Kaguya was free to enjoy herself.
She left the porch and entered the crowd. Despite the press of bodies, she had no trouble navigating her way toward the huge tree in the center, even if people did keep coming up to her to offer their greeting, compliments, and congratulations. She didn't mind though. This was the sort of attention she enjoyed.
It wasn't hard to find Eirin. For one, she stood at least a head taller than everyone else. For another, her red-and-blue hat stood out in contrast to the many long-eared heads all around her. The Lunarian doctor was standing next to the tree with her arms folded as she kept a careful eye on the crowd.
Of course. Even here she was forever the chaperone. Kaguya rolled her eyes and quickly made her way to Eirin's side.
"Hi!" Kaguya said as she reached Eirin.
"Ah, there you are," Eirin said as she looked down at the shorter woman. "Nice party, by the way. My compliments to your organizer."
Kaguya rolled her eyes. "Funny. And speaking of which, would it kill you to loosen up a bit? You look like you're expecting assassins to jump out of every wrapped present."
"Can't be too careful. Besides, someone has to be out here to keep an eye on Tewi." Eirin nodded toward the skating contest. True to form, Tewi had set up a betting booth and was giving odds on the various participants. More than likely she was making them up on the fly.
Kaguya raised an eyebrow. "That doesn't look so dangerous. Compared to what she's capable of, taking bets is pretty harmless."
"Which is why I'm merely keeping an eye on her instead of hauling her off by the ears," Eirin answered. "Besides, I also have to make sure Grevil does his job." As she spoke, Eirin inclined her head meaningfully to the front of the tree. There, Grevil sat in full Santa Claus apparel as he took Christmas requests from one confused looking child after another, none of which probably had even heard of Santa Claus until today. Kaguya had to admit, he did look the part, even with the ears poking out of his bob-cap. He also looked completely terrified, and judging by the sidelong looks he was sending Eirin's way it had nothing to do with stage fright.
"Uh, looks like he's about to run off screaming if you give him half a chance," Kaguya noted.
"I know. Which is why I'm keeping an eye on him."
Kaguya snorted. "Sure you are. I think you just like terrorizing him."
Eirin smirked. "The two aren't mutually exclusive."
Kaguya rolled her eyes. She grabbed Eirin by the hand and pulled her away from the tree. "All right, no more sadist doctor for you. Come on before you start scaring the kids too."
"And where are we going, if I may be so bold as to ask?" Eirin said as she followed.
"You're going to dance with me."
Eirin stopped dead in her tracks. "Ah. No I'm not."
"Oh, yes you are," Kaguya shot back. She gave Eirin's hand a hard tug. "Come on, this is a party."
"I do not dance."
"Sure you do," Kaguya said. "I've seen you."
"Yes," Eirin said flatly. "Over a thousand years ago. Back at your father's palace. While involuntarily participating in his social functions."
Kaguya smirked. "Well, now you're going to involuntarily participate in mine, because I said so and you have to do as I say." When Eirin didn't immediately obey, Kaguya gave her hand another tug. "Come on. It'll be fun. Promise."
Eirin sighed, but allowed herself to be led to the dance circle. The crowd started cheering as she and Kaguya entered the throng of dancers, with the loudest applause coming from the young men. Kaguya grinned and waved, whereas Eirin maintained a tight-lipped smile of forced tolerance.
Noticing their presence, the band started up slow-dance version of Let it Snow, one of Kaguya's personal favorites. She and Eirin faced each other, clasped hands and started to move in time to the music.
"You know I'm going to make you regret this," Eirin whispered through her strained smile.
Kaguya rolled her eyes. "Yeah, I doubt that. Come on. When the last time you had any fun?"
"You and I have very different ideas of 'fun,' my lady."
"Oh, don't give that. Loosen up, and try to enjoy yourself." Kaguya tilted her head to one side and stuck her lips out in a pout. "Please?"
Eirin sighed. "Now that's just cheating." But she let her smile relax into something more natural.
Kaguya returned the expression. "No such thing."
The song ended, and everyone started clapping. Kaguya joined in, but as her gaze flitted over the crowd she saw something that froze her in place.
Long violet hair, so pale that it was almost white. Red-and-white charms tied to its tresses. Kaguya couldn't believe it. Despite everything, despite all of Eirin's assurances, Mokou was standing right there, with her back to Kaguya. But how was that even possible? More to the point, what in the hell was she going to do?
"Kaguya?" Eirin said. "The next song's started. Are you okay?"
Kaguya lifted one trembling finger. "She…she…"
Mokou must have sensed the eyes on her back, because she turned to Kaguya then. Kaguya blinked in confusion. Now that she could see her face, it was obvious that it wasn't Mokou. It was just a rabbit girl with a similar hairstyle tied with bows that superficially resembled Mokou's charms.
The girl saw Kaguya staring at her and smiled. Kaguya managed to shake off the spell quickly enough to smile in return. She quickly turned away.
"Kaguya?" Eirin said in concern. "Is everything okay?"
"Me?" Kaguya said quickly. "Oh sure, I'm fine. Hey, we'd better get back inside. The feast is starting soon, and I don't want to be late."
"Ah," Eirin said. "Of course."
Kaguya could tell that she wasn't fooled by the quick change in conversation, but fortunately she didn't press the matter. The two of them reentered the crowd and made their way to the mansion. As they did so, Kaguya thought about the scare she had just had and her reaction upon discovering that it was unfounded. To her horror, she found that the principle emotion involved wasn't relief that it wasn't Mokou. Rather, it was disappointment.
Kaguya let out a small moan. Oh boy, did she have issues.
"And now we come to where you came in," the woman said. "Full circle."
Night had fallen, and Mokou lay alone in the darkened room, staring at the ceiling. Satoko was gone, though not before leaving Mokou a fresh change of clothes. It wasn't much, just some undergarments, a white button-down shirt and, strangest of all, a pair of baggy red pants, complete with suspenders. She had apologized, saying that the man's outfit was all they had to spare. Mokou had told her not to worry about it. Still, the outfit remained where it had been left. Mokou would dress herself when she was good and ready.
She was feeling much better now. Her recuperative abilities had finally decided to kick in, and though they were working more sluggishly than usual the worst of the pain was gone. However, she had not told her caretakers this. If they knew that she was so close to recovery they might make her leave. And she didn't want to go. Not yet.
She just felt so confused. Why were they helping her? Okay, granted. Not everyone in the world was as cold-hearted as Kaguya and Eirin, but to take in a complete stranger and nurse her back from death without asking for anything in return? Especially since doing so carried with it inherent dangers. They hadn't known the details of Mokou's defeat and demise. For all they knew there could still be dangerous people looking for her.
Maybe they were waiting for her to get better before giving her the bill. That would make sense. Wait until it was too late not to be in their debt. She had no problem paying whatever they demanded, but she hoped that it wasn't going to involve money. She didn't exactly have a lot of that. Maybe they were going to make her work off her debt. That wouldn't be so bad. A vacation would be nice.
There was a window over the bed. The headmistress had drawn the curtains when she had left, but Mokou had opened them again. Outside, the moon shone down on the snow-covered hills, plains and forests of Gensokyo. Somewhere out there, Kaguya was having her stupid party. Mokou actually hoped that the Moonbitch was enjoying it. It would suck beyond all reason if, after everything Mokou had done, something else came along and ruined it in her stead. Unless it was something that happened unintentionally thanks to her actions, like all the guests being too scared to show up. That would be funny.
Mokou sighed and sank back into the pillow. Now that she thought of it, maybe it was time to take a break from her war with Kaguya. It was fun, but this time the consequences had been fairly severe. And to tell the truth, she wasn't overly eager to go near Eirin for a while. Mokou did not fear people for whatever reason, but she now feared Eirin. That was going to take some getting used to.
She yawned and closed her eyes. Well, she could worry about that later. For now, she was going to follow the doctor's orders and get some rest.
Then someone turned the door handle and the door creaked open.
Mokou stiffened. She sat up and stared, half expecting to see Kaguya or Eirin standing there. But the person peeking at her was far too short to be either.
"Who's there?" Mokou asked.
She heard a small gasp, and then a child's voice said. "I-I'm sorry! I thought you were asleep! I didn't mean to bother you."
Mokou sighed and let herself relax. It was that little girl with the silver hair, the one that had attracted her attention earlier. "No, not yet. There something you want?"
"N-no," the girl said. "I just…wanted to see if you were all right. Sorry."
The girl started to close the door, but then Mokou said, "Hold on a second."
The door paused mid-swing.
Mokou beckoned with one hand. "Come here."
"Don't worry, I don't bite," Mokou smirked. "I just want to talk to you."
There was a moment of hesitation, and then the girl slowly entered the room. Mokou cocked her head to one side. She was a little shrimp of a thing, wearing pajamas that were way too big for her. They probably had been donated by someone much larger.
The two of them stared at each other. Then Mokou cleared her throat and said, "So, your headmistress tells me that you were the one who found me."
The girl nodded.
"Where was I, anyway? I'm a little fuzzy on that part."
"In the snow. Over in the hills."
"Figures," Mokou muttered. They could have at least left her in her home. She sighed and said, "Well, I guess I owe you one. Thanks."
The girl blinked. "Oh! Uh, you're welcome. I'm just, you know, glad you're okay."
"Really?" Mokou raised her eyebrows. "Why?"
"Huh? Because I thought you were…" The girl blushed and looked at her feet. "Well. You looked kinda…"
"Dead?" Mokou suggested.
A more-or-less accurate assessment of Mokou's state at the time. Mokou quickly changed the subject. Maybe she could find out if there was anything her savior needed help with. True, she had not actually saved Mokou from actual death, but it was the thought that counted. And she had ensured that Mokou had woken up in a nice warm bed instead of cold snow. Given the state she had been in upon returning to life, Mokou was truly in this girl's debt.
"So, this is kind of a nice place you've got here," she said. "What's life here like?"
The girl looked confused, but said, "Oh, it's…pretty good. They're nice to us here and…Yeah, it's nice."
"No." The girl shook her head. "I mean, the grownups complain about there not being enough money a lot. But that's all I can think of."
"Still, it must be tough for you," Mokou observed. "Dealing with the other kids, I mean."
Now the girl looked even more confused. "Er, not really. Why?"
Mokou shrugged. "Well, I just figured that they might be giving you a hard time. Seeing how you all lost your families to youkai attacks, and you're a half-youkai yourself."
The blood left the girl's face. She started trembling. "H-how?" she gasped. "How did you…"
Mokou suddenly realized her mistake, and felt like an utter fool for making it in the first place. "Ah, damn it all," she grumbled. She ran her fingers through her hair. "They don't know, do they?"
Shaking, the girl shook her head. "N-no. I mean, my friends do. The ones that were with me earlier. But they've been keeping it a secret for me and…Oh gosh, did they tell you?"
Mokou flinched. Now she was driving a wedge between her savior and her friends. Yeah, she was off to a great start. "No, no, no one told me anything. I've just learned to pick up on those sorts of things. I assumed everyone already knew. Sorry."
The girl didn't answer. She just stared with fearful eyes.
Mokou sighed. "All right, sit down," she said. She motioned toward the chair. "You're making me nervous, standing there like that."
The girl hesitated, and then sat down. She didn't stop staring though.
Mokou took a deep breath and said in a low voice, "Look, I promise I'm not gonna blow your secret. I couldn't care less who, or what, your mommy and daddy were, and no one else should either. Okay?"
The girl looked away. She nodded, and then said, "Everyone else cares. You're the only one who doesn't. But everyone hates youkai around here."
"Not surprising. I imagine most of the kids here have some sort of grudge against them."
"Yeah. A lot of them had their parents get eaten."
"But not yours, I take it?"
The girl shook her head. "My momma was Human. My dad…wasn't. I don't even know what happened to him, but he left before she had me."
Mokou winced. More than likely it had been a case of rape. Not unheard of, though it was rare that children were fathered as a result.
"Anyway, she died after I was born," the girl continued. "Everyone thought my dad got killed by a youkai, so I got sent here."
"And no one but your friends know?"
The girl nodded She sniffed and wiped her eyes. Now she was on the verge of crying. Great.
"All right," Mokou said. "I understand. Sorry."
An uncomfortable moment passed, and then Mokou said, "Well, I guess so long as I owe you my life, learning each other's names would be a good start. I'm Fujiwara no Mokou. What about you?"
"Me?" the girl said. "Oh, I'm Keine. Keine Kamishirasawa."
Now that was a mouthful. "Okay. Keine," Mokou said with a nod. "Well. Nice to meet you."
Keine managed a small smile. "Thanks. Say, uh…"
Mokou waited while the girl struggled to get her question out. Finally she just ended up blurting it out.
"What happened to you anyways?"
"Me? You mean, how did I end up de…almost dead in the snow?"
Mokou sighed. "Well, that's kind of a long story. You sure you wanna hear it all?"
Keine hesitated, and then nodded again.
"Well, all right then. Here goes."
And so she told her.
And after that, Keine probably made Mokou tell her how she had become immortal, and why she hated Kaguya in the first place. And then she was so horrified from the things she heard that she insisted that Mokou stay and help out at the orphanage as a way of working up some good karma. Mokou didn't mind. She needed a change of pace anyway, and ended up staying for two years, to Kaguya's utter confusion.
Or so I assume. I mean, it's not like I was there or anything.
Anyway, when I first put up A Very Nineball Christmas last year, it was with the understanding that there would be a new Christmas special every year. But with that came a problem: how in the heck was I going to top AVNC, something that I've always considered to be among my best work? I mean, it wasn't perfect, it had its fair share of pacing problems and it got a little overly sappy at times, but it just worked, both as a Christmas special and a standalone story in its own right. So how was I going to duplicate that success?
The answer: don't even try. And as a result, we now have a story that's perhaps the polar opposite of AVNC. While last year's story concerned a single sympathetic protagonist working like mad to do something nice for someone she loved, this one is about two rather twisted individuals doing their best to make each other's lives miserable. AVNC had people cheering little Daiyousei along. Whereas I don't think there was much cheering going on during OaOF's much more violent encounters (or so I hope. You sickos :P). AVNC was driven by heart, this one by hate and shallow desires.
But in the end, while I do admit to preferring AVNC, this one still offered an interesting (for me at least) look into the mindset of two of Touhou's most interesting relationships. I've always been fascinated by the twisted love/hate dynamic of Kaguya and Mokou. They can't stand each other, but I believe that they've gotten to the point where they hate the thought of losing the other. And despite all their cruelty, I do believe that they need each other. Let's hope they realize this one day.
Also, it gave me the chance to show a little of Kaguya and Eirin's relationship, something I haven't really had the chance to do until now.
Anyway, insofar as Imperfect Metamorphosis canon is concerned, Over an Open Fire takes place roughly about sixty-two years before the main stories events. As such, neither Reisen nor Rin Satsuki are around, as they simply haven't arrived yet. But some other people are. Little Keine aside, I hope my more sharp-eyed readers were paying attention to some of the names dropped near the end.
Okay, now I'm losing all subtlety. Anyway, just on a side-note, the story that Mokou told Keine was actually rather different from what appears here. Seeing how she wasn't there for the scenes that she didn't appear in, there was no way she could have known how they happened. But fortunately, I do, so I was able to help her along in that regard. ;)
Okay, that's enough meta weirdness. It's now early Christmas morning, and I have to get up soon. Hope you all enjoyed the story, and have a great holiday, wherever you are.
Merry Christmas everyone!