Chapter 62 – The Last Hurdle
As anyone could expect, nobody raised their hand even when the time ran out. Sakuya was already measuring up all the candidates with a knowing glance. All those who had blood type B were starting to sweat nervously as the maid hovered closer. This time, Kyouichi was cursing the fact that he was one of the tallest people of that group, which made him stand out a little.
"Hmmm…" Sakuya hummed as she circled around the group and considered the selection. "You... " she finally pointed a finger at someone. And who else would she point at than the unfortunate anthropology student, Ishimaru Kyouichi. The outsider even bent his knees a bit, so that he'd make himself look shorter. Apparently, it didn't help him anyway. And when other members stepped aside from him after Sakuya called him out, there was nowhere for him to hide.
"You were at our mansion once already, weren't you?" she asked a question she already knew the answer to.
Seeing that it had no sense standing in a half-crouching position anymore, Kyouichi straightened up. "I was, but I hoped it would be my last visit."
"Oh, really? Why? Didn't you like it in there?"
And as Kyouichi was about to give a reply, he felt someone's hand landing on his shoulder. It was Soudai, looking at him with sad eyes and nodding his head in acknowledgement. "We all appreciate what you've done for the club, prez. We'll make sure your sacrifice won't be forgotten."
Kyouichi couldn't discern whether his friend meant that seriously, or if it was just another one of his funny attempts at dramatizing the situation. In any case, he felt like Soudai was asking for a punch in the nose with that smug, mocking grin on his face. He gritted his teeth at him and turned away. For the sake of not hitting his friend in a sudden spike of anger, he decided not to pay him any attention and instead try to negotiate for a reasonable resolution of this situation with Sakuya.
"Izayoi-san, despite the fact that my blood type is B, I dare to doubt that I'm a suitable candidate for feeding your mistress."
"Oh? And why do you think so?" she rolled her disbelieving eyes as a cold smile settled on her lips. He could see that she's just prolonging the inevitable with idle conversation. Was she enjoying his fear?
"I haven't been living a very healthy lifestyle for the past several years. I didn't exercise, I ate a lot of unhealthy foods and have been fond of high-caloric sweetened beverages since early childhood. Although I may not look fat, my blood is most certainly high on cholesterol, caffeine and sugar."
As pathetic an attempt as it was, Kyouichi was grabbing every straw in order to steer away from having to revisit the mansion and die to feed a spoiled little vampire. Especially when he was so close to returning home.
"Ah, perfect. My lady does have a sweet tooth. I think I've chosen well…" she smiled and descended to the ground with a set of throwing knives still in her hands. "You're coming with me. The rest of you can go."
"But I don't wanna go~!" Kyouichi flailed his arms in protest. Sakuya was already grabbing his wrist and preparing to put him into stasis, when someone interrupted.
"I'll go!" a girl's voice repeated its brave declaration. Kyouichi could hardly believe his senses. It would seem that Sakuya was taken aback as well. The girl stepped forward, facing the maid with a serious, fearless and determined look.
"Midori-san?" Kyouichi shook his head. "What are you doing?"
Midori Iwakami knew very well what she was doing, and she wouldn't let herself be stopped by any of her clubmates. She locked her brown eyes with the maid and stretched out her hand.
"No, wait, Midori! Stop! Let her take me." Kyouichi suddenly had a 180-degree change of mind when he saw her brave, but foolish act.
"No, I won't stop." she shook her head, smiling. "You and Soudai have helped me during the harvest feast when I got into an argument with Reimu-san… I still haven't got the chance to apologize to her, so… This will hopefully make up for all your troubles I've caused."
"No! Sakuya-san, don't listen to her! Take me, take me!" Kyouichi insisted, but the silver-haired girl was paying him no mind.
"Midori, don't be a fool!" Even Soudai had to agree with Kyouichi and tried to talk her out of it. "You can still apologize to Reimu when we get to the shrine! Maybe there'll still be some time left for her to save Ishimaru if we hurry."
"Not if I can help it." Sakuya took her pocket watch by the chain and let is spin around as it dangled from her palm. "So…Midori Iwakami, was it?" she double-checked the girl's identity.
"Are you really willing to trade yourself for him?"
"I think I've made myself clear enough."
"Ah, what a brave young girl you are." Sakuya nodded admiringly. "I'd even spare you if I had any choice, but my mistress's well-being is my priority. And I will make no compromise in this matter." She then turned her face to the rest of the cowering outsiders and shouted loudly: "I hope you're all thankful for what Iwakami-san has done for you this day! Go! Run to the Hakurei Shrine if you want. Go ahead and tell the shrine maiden what happened. She won't be able to arrive sooner than my lady feeds upon this young girl's blood."
She then took Midori's hand.
"No! Wait! Sakuya!" Kyouichi shouted in protest.
A loud popping sound echoed throughout the forest and the maid was gone along with Midori, leaving the outsiders alone in a dangerous youkai-filled forest.
"Midori! No! Damn it!" Kyouichi fell down on his knees and bashed the ground in anger with his bare palm. "Shit! Why wouldn't she listen to me?"
"Dude, we have to hurry." Soudai tried to bring him back to normal.
"It should have been me… Why did Midori do such a thing?"
"Ishimaru? Ishimaru, we have to go. Now."
"This is just terrific, isn't it?!" Yuujin shouted his question loudly. "Our own escort was a traitor all along! What's next? The Hakurei shrine maiden is going to sacrifice us to her bloodthirsty shrine god?!"
"Even if, I'd still risk it." Soudai replied as he dragged his friend on towards the shrine. "We should hurry. I really don't like being in forest full of youkai. "We have to make it to the shrine. It's not a long way from here, come on, people, move it!"
And the whole group of remaining outsiders moved. It was the only way. Returning to the village was out of the question and they also doubted that Rinnosuke would be able to help them in this situation.
"What a silly girl… that Midori." Kyouichi still kept mumbling as he tried to keep up with the hastened pace of his peers.
"Yeah, that's hardly any news, is it now? Don't worry; we're not leaving this place without her." Soudai tried to feed him with some hope, even if it was false.
"Maybe not you, but I'm going home, even if you all stay behind!" Yuujin couldn't take it any longer. He felt like every second he wasted in Gensokyo could kill him. Not that he was too far from the truth.
"Ueda-san, would like to go solo on us?" Hikaru gave him a questioning glance. "Well then, feel free to."
"You think I'm screwing around?! I'm not going to wait for the miko to go on some rescue mission, which is likely to end up in failure anyway! I'm sorry for Iwakami, but I don't want her sacrifice to go to waste."
"I'd be sharing your sentiments if it was you who Sakuya took away." Soudai muttered under his breath.
And as the group was getting closer to the shrine, Sakuya was getting closer to her mistress's mansion with Midori. She no longer needed to halt the time. The girl who she more or less kidnapped with her consent was firmly in her grip as they flew over the Misty Lake's surface.
"Prepare for landing. We're almost there." Sakuya informed her hostage and began her descent.
Midori took her first flight experience pretty well. She was both scared and excited at the same time. But more than the landing, she was concerned about her future and whether she'd actually ever walk out of the Scarlet Devil Mansion and not just enter it for the first and the last time. But since she already offered herself so eagerly, it was probably too late for her to reconsider it. She probably wasn't as worried as her friends were, but she was still worried nonetheless.
"What is it?"
"How… How much does your lady usually drink when… you know… when she feeds on people?"
"Oh, she's just a light eater. You'll sate her hunger, I'm sure. Brace yourself, we're touching down."
"Can't you fly a bit slower? Yaaaaah~! Unf!"
A little rough, but the landing was safe and Midori didn't hurt herself. They both landed in the courtyard encircled by the black iron bar fence.
"No need to greet the gate guard, just keep walking." Sakuya instructed and led the way towards the mansion's door. Midori didn't have a choice. She kept walking towards the ominous wooden door. "S-so… you said I've got enough blood to satisfy your mistress…"
"I did." the maid nodded. "You're a 16-year old and your body proportions are adequate, so you should provide an ample portion of blood for my lady to get better."
Midori swallowed her saliva as she stopped before the large door. "But will there be any blood left in me?"
Sakuya didn't really feel obliged to answer that question. She just led her upstairs to Remilia's bedroom. After a quiet knock on the door, she announced her arrival. "My lady, I've brought what you requested."
"Come in." a barely-audible reply came from behind the closed door. Sakuya let herself in and dragged Midori along.
"This girl came willingly. Her blood type is B." the maid gave her mistress a short report of her task.
Midori saw the blue-haired girl slowly rising from her coffin, looking dizzily at her.
"Huh? Came… willingly?" she uttered weakly as she was crawling out. Midori even thought that in this state, she'd be able to even defend herself from her. However, there was still her maid and Midori knew she wouldn't stand much of a chance against her.
Remilia was already standing on the ground and shuffling her feet towards Midori. "So… You came willingly?" she asked her as if she didn't believe what Sakuya just told her.
"I… I did it… for… for my friends." Midori stuttered out as the fear of what was about to come was finally catching up with her.
Remilia was now standing right in front of her and looking into the girl's eyes with a piercing red gaze. "My… that's… mighty kind and brave of you." Remilia nodded admiringly.
"I saw you." Remilia recalled as she scanned her victim's face. "Yes… You were at the shrine festival."
"I was." Midori confirmed and swallowed her saliva. "J-just make it quick, please. I don't want to suffer for too long."
A very weak chuckle came from the vampire. "Forgive me, but… remind me what your name was."
"Iwakami Midori, if you must know."
Remilia slowly shaped her lips into a smile and revealed her fangs. "Midori…" she drew her shaky hand to the girl's face and stroked her cheek "It's not very often that I have such a cooperating victim… Sakuya, let's set up a dining table."
"Reimu~!" Kyouichi called for the shrine maiden when the group has reached the stone stairs leading to her shrine yard. "Reimu, Reimu! Are you there?!"
He ran up the stairs and almost tripped while doing so, but that didn't stop him from hurrying. The shrine yard was empty, so Kyouichi ran towards the main building and kept calling.
After a moment the shrine's sliding door opened and a girl's head with a red hair ribbon popped out to see who's making such a ruckus.
"Oh, you're here already? Good. We're almost prepared for the passage ritual."
"They're here?" Another black-haired head popped out from the doorway above Reimu's. "My camera is already loaded with film, we can start."
Kyouichi had no time to wonder what Aya was doing there. He kept calling the shrine maiden's name as he ran towards the door.
"My, someone can't wait to leave this place." the tengu grinned as she took the first few shots. Soon after, the rest of the outsiders showed up after climbing the stairs to the shrine yard.
"Reimu~! Something terrible happened!"
"Huh? What's wrong? And… where's Sakuya?"
"That's the problem! She took one of us away to the Scarlet Devil Mansion to feed her to Remilia!" the panicked outsider explained with wild gesticulation.
"Oh~! Even better!" Aya chimed as she took more pictures and took some notes into her notepad. "And I thought that just sending so many outsiders back to the outside world was going to make an interesting article already."
"Wait… are you saying that Sakuya took someone from your group to the mansion?" Reimu took her time to catch on.
"Exactly!" Soudai took the word out of Kyouichi's mouth. "You have to do something! There's nothing we could do. Sakuya just teleported away from us. If you hurry, you may still be able to save her life."
"And who's missing?"
"Iwakami-san. The maid was just about to take Ishimaru, but then Iwakami offered herself. She has the same blood type that the vampire prefers, so Sakuya took her instead."
"Oh, someone's life is in danger? You should do something about it, Reimu-san." a third voice and a third head popped up from the doorway, this time appearing under Reimu's head. It was Hieda no Akyuu, the savant compiling the chronicle of Gensokyo. Whatever reason brought her here on this day form the excavation site in Kazemura was a mystery.
"I disagree!" Ueda Yuujin immediately showed his disagreement. "She sacrificed herself willingly, because she wanted us to be able to safely make it to the outside world. I say we honor her memory and do that as quickly as possible. Hakurei-san, we're ready for the ritual. Take us to the outside world now!"
"I understand that you and your problems need to be addressed," Reimu rolled her eyes at him, "but I decide how I resolve incidents here. And I say that Iwakami's life may yet be saved."
"That maid can control time. I doubt she'd leave any of it for any rescue attempts. She even said it herself." Yuujin kept arguing. "Even if you go now, I doubt you'll make it."
"Nobody ever achieved anything without trying!" Reimu's last reply to him was followed by her immediate take-off and flight towards the Misty Lake. Needless to say that a certain number of outsiders wasn't very happy about her decision.
"Heeeey~! Come back! You hear me~!? Get back here! Take us to the outside world! Don't go!"
And not a second later another girl took flight to follow Reimu. Aya had no problem catching up with her and once she did, she gave the shrine maiden a suggestion. "That human wasn't kidding. It'd be almost impossible for you to catch Sakuya. I'm assuming she and her hostage is already in the mansion."
"And why are you telling me this? You don't want me to save that girl? I know I might be too late, but it'd be much worse if I didn't do anything at all."
"Ah, yes." Aya nodded after taking a deep breath. "You're right. You might not make it in time… on your own, that is…"
"Wait… where are you getting at?" Reimu turned her head briefly to see Aya's face. And she saw the tengu grinning suspiciously.
"Hold tightly~!" and before Reimu could even think of a reaction, Aya flew over her grabbed her by the waist and accelerated to a speed that changed a 15 – minute flight to a 5 – second one.
"Ayaaaaaa~~~!" Reimu could barely even hear her own voice through the wind howling in her ears and also due to the fact that the crow tengu was jetting through the sky several times faster than the speed of sound. "Stooooop~!" And by the time she said it, Aya indeed stopped.
"Close your eyes, Reimu!" Aya warned her as she was almost at her destination.
Reimu quickly realized why Aya asked her to do so. In her haste she forgot to calculate that she needed a couple of extra hundreds of meters to slow her flight down. Now, despite her breaking efforts, she was still darting towards the mansion by the force of her own momentum. At least she could still maneuver her heading to one of the mansion's many windows.
After a loud slam followed by the clinking and ringing of broken glass, Aya and Reimu made it… relatively safely inside the Scarlet Devil Mansion's dining hall. They were both quite stunned after the crash-landing, which wasn't really good, as every second wasted could mean the difference between their success and failure.
"Aya… you idiot…" Reimu grumbled as she came to her senses. Apart from the window, they also managed to damage a few pieces of furniture and break a few porcelain vases.
"Hey, at least I helped to cushion our fall…" the tengu muttered from beneath her. "Now if you'd be so kind as to get off me…"
"Well, well, well… For a second there I thought Kirisame-san has confused our library with the dining hall and entered through the wrong window." A young female's voice startled the two intruders. "But it's just you…"
"That's Remilia! Reimu, get up! Stop her before she hurts that human girl!" Aya was urging the shrine maiden to stand up.
"Well, I suppose I should have seen it coming eventually. Sakuya…"
In that very instant, Remilia's loyal servant appeared in the dining hall. "Yes?"
"Prepare the dishes for two more guests." Remilia issued an order that made Reimu question how hard she hit herself in the head during that rough landing. Even Aya wasn't sure if she heard her right.
Sakuya didn't seem to have any doubts about her lady's sanity. She disappeared and reappeared with a serving tray laden with dinner plates. Reimu finally managed to stand up and dust off her clothes. "Iwakami-san?"
There, sitting at the large table on a chair for honored guests she saw the girl from the outside world alive and well. She had a bandaged neck and was just enjoying dinner together with the mistress of the mansion. Until she got startled by the sudden intrusion, of course.
"Oh, Hakurei-san!" Midori put her spoon down, stood up and bowed to her. "I'm sorry… Last time… I've caused you some trouble. And I know that being drunk doesn't give me any excuse, but… I just wanted to do something good for a change, so… I offered myself to provide some blood for Scarlet-san."
"Are… are you alright?" Reimu approached the girl to get a better look. It didn't seem like she was under any mind-control spell.
"Oh, I'm fine. At first I was a little worried, but… it turned out that Remilia-sama is not that much of a big eater. I only feel a little dizzy."
"That's why you should eat it all up, so you'd have enough strength for the journey that awaits you." Remilia gestured at all the dishes that Sakuya prepared for her. "Come, Reimu… and you too, miss tengu…" she made an inviting gesture at the two vacant chairs. "You look a bit shook-up as well. You should eat something too. Chicken soup, beef steaks, salad… take your pick. Oh, and Sakuya, a bottle of our best wine for the guests. You can clean up the mess they made later."
An affirmative nod, and the maid was gone and back in a flash, pouring wine into four glasses.
Reimu still struggled to process what was happening, as she apparently had no reason to draw her amulets or Spell Cards.
"Well, Remilia-san…" Aya tentatively approached the table. "You certainly look a lot better than the last time."
"Yes, all thanks to this girl." she glanced over at Midori and smiled. "And to Sakuya, of course. "If you want to punish me, Reimu, feel free to, but I'll be offended if you refuse having dinner with me."
Reimu and Aya finally seated themselves at the table, alternating their looks between Midori and Remilia, occasionally trailing off to Sakuya. Remilia found their bewilderment quite amusing. "What's wrong? You think I poisoned your meals or something?"
"I… uh… I'm not even sure what to say."
"Thanks for the meal" would be a good start. Or perhaps we better have a toast first." Remilia was already raising her wine glass. "Cheers!"
"Uh, sure… cheers!" Aya finally shook her suspicion off and jingled her glass against Remilia's. "What's the occasion?"
"I don't need any special occasion to enjoy a quality meal and wine. But I think celebrating a recovery back to good health is as good reason to open a bottle as any."
"Indeed. As they say: "You don't know what you've got till it's gone." That includes one's health too." Aya nodded agreeingly.
"Reimu-san? What about all the people who went with me? Did they all make it to the shrine?" Midori inquired as she finished the soup and started attacking the beef steak.
"Twelve people arrived at the shrine." Aya was not only a faster flyer, but also beat Reimu to answering a question directed at her. "That makes thirteen with you, Iwakami-san. Is that everyone?"
Midori exhaled with relief. "Good… So they made it. But… who's watching over them now?"
"Uh… Hieda-san?" Aya smiled sheepishly as she never thought that the outsiders are all gathered in the shrine yard, vulnerable to a potential youkai attack.
"Ah… maybe I should have just gone to the mansion myself." Reimu bit her lower lip thoughtfully. "
"So what are you doing here?" Kyouichi put this question to the chronicler as he was taking some rest on the shrine's porch after the long walk. "I thought you were still in Kazemura."
"Nobody was yet brave enough to enter the temple itself with that magic disruption field in effect. Or perhaps there are more than a few brave enough to do it, but you wouldn't believe how much negotiation is going on in there to decide who has the right to enter as first - the Kazemurans, the tengu or the archeologists from Patchouli-san's team. So all that's been done in the past month was that the pit was deepened by several meters. And they still haven't reached the temple's entrance level. It's an impressively tall building for its age. Of course, Patchouli-san remained to study the newly unearthed symbols on the obelisks, but I haven't forgotten…"
"About this day, of course. Just like Shameimaru-san, I've come to record how a large… erm… well, relatively large group of outsiders gets taken back across the barrier. I'm sorry for what happened to Iwakami-san. I hope Reimu-san managed to save her."
"Oi! Reimu~! I hope you haven't started without me!" Marisa's unmistakable voice startled the outsiders when the witch suddenly descended from above. After touching the ground and flicking the hem of her pointy hat, she cast her glances all over the shrine yard in a futile search for her friend. "Uh… Reimu?"
"She's not here." Akyuu saved her the trouble of further looking for the shrine maiden.
"What? Don't tell me she's already taken the first batch of outsiders back to their world."
"Marisa!" Kyouichi jumped back on his feet and ran to her. "Marisa, you have to fly to the mansion! One of our friends got taken away by Sakuya. Reimu and Aya already went on ahead, but I'm still worried… What if they won't be able to save her? Please…"
Marisa's face looked both puzzled and amused as she was met with this unexpected news. "Heeeh? Wasn't she supposed to watch over you so you'd make it safely to the shrine?"
"You're asking almost the same thing as Reimu-san has." Soudai stepped closer. "It looked like that at first, but it was a cold calculation on her or her mistress's part. Long story short – she took Iwakami-san to the mansion for the vampire to feed upon."
To everyone's surprise, Marisa didn't look the least bit disturbed by this. "Well, what did you expect? Vampires need to feed too, you know…"
"But that wasn't supposed to happen!" Kyouichi was still blaming himself for Midori's fate. "Marisa, just… you have to bring her back, you hear?!"
The magician only waved her hand in a dismissive, phlegmatic motion. "Meh… If you say Reimu went in there with Aya, I'm sure they'll be back with your friend rescued in a mo…"
"…ment." Marisa finished her word as she lifted her gaze to see the source of the call that came out of nowhere.
"…eight, ten, twelve…" the dark-haired girl who just arrived at the shrine quickly counted the outsiders gathered in the shrine yard. "Good. Nobody was eaten while we were away… Oh, hello, Kirisame-san."
"Aya? Hey, where's Reimu and that girl that supposedly got taken away?"
"Oh, they're uh… they're still battling." Aya gave her a tongue-in-cheek reply. "But she was worried that while she was there, this bunch might be an easy target for stray hungry youkai, so I came here to check."
"Huh? Aren't you going to help her?" Kyouichi incredulously stared at the hovering tengu. "Midori's life is at stake!"
Aya did her best to suppress the giggle that was knocking on her lips from inside. "Yeah… at steak… I mean at stake, hehe." Her behavior was almost as suspiciously indifferent and calm as Marisa's. "Well, now that Marisa's here, I suppose I don't need to stay here and baby-sit. I'll go back to the mansion then, 'cause… you know… Reimu doesn't look like she can handle this one alone." And in the next instant she turned around and disappeared just as quickly as she arrived, leaving a small crowd of confused and worried outsiders in the shrine yard.
"Uhff… I can't handle this one alone~." Reimu exhaled heavily as she stared down at her plate where nearly a half of the massive beef steak still lay untouched due to insufficient room in the shrine maiden's stomach. Her hands have already surrendered their grip on the expensive silver cutlery that settled down on the porcelain surface with a noisy clink. "I'm stuffed…"
"What's the matter, Reimu? You're already full? You barely ate half of it." Remilia disappointedly shook her head. "It'll be such a waste to throw it out."
"Hey… do you want to finish it?" Reimu turned her head slowly to center her view to Midori.
"Sorry, I've also had more than enough."
"I'm baaaaaaack~!" the crow tengu's announcement of return came from the hole in the broken window. "Did you miss me?" Aya teasingly asked as she fluttered into the dining hall and landed precisely on her reserved chair.
"Ayaaaa~. I need you to help me with this…" the miko pushed her plate across the table towards the youkai journalist.
"The Hakurei shrine maiden's in a pinch, eh?"
"I suppose I can relate to her." said Remilia. "I too didn't have quite as big an appetite after not eating for so long. Reimu's stomach is not adjusted to eating such portions."
"Are you really, sure about that, Reimu?" Aya was toying around with the shrine-maiden's mind, "Because I'm really going to finish it in your stead without giving you the right of compensation."
"You could always ask Remilia-sama to pack it for you, so you could eat it later." Midori gave her a suggestion that honestly didn't occur to Gensokyo's keeper of order. "Every good restaurant should provide such a service."
And those were probably the crucial words that tugged the sensitive strings of Remilia's pride, because her reaction was almost immediate.
"Hm? You heard that, Sakuya? Why don't you pack Reimu-san's meal? Like hell I'm going to lose to some outside-world restaurant."
And the perfect and elegant maid obliged without a second thought. She disappeared and reappeared by Reimu's side with a paper bag in her hand, making an offering gesture.
"You know… reheated meal never tastes quite as good as freshly cooked, but it's certainly better than wasting food. Or feeding some greedy tengu…" Remilia noted as she was rising from her table with one energetic flap of her wings. It was apparent that she was in an excellent physical condition as well as mood. "I shall await you in Kazemura once you take care of your business with the humans from the outside world." She addressed the words to both Aya and Reimu.
With reluctance, the shrine maiden pushed herself away from the table and rose from her seat, having only now processed what Remilia told her.
"What? You're going there again? In spite of what happened to you there?"
"Of course! What did you think this was all about? I couldn't aid in the incident for over a month, because I was bedridden, and honoring an old contract, I do not prey on native humans from the village, so I was waiting for an opportunity to recover with the "help" of one of those outsiders. Now that I'm fine, I have to finish what I started. Don't forget to bring that trinket of yours."
"My lady, I have to object…" Sakuya also shared some of Reimu's sentiments about Remilia's stubborn will to return to the quarry village. "That place is not safe for anyone anymore; human, youkai or even god. That place is the reason you ended up bedridden."
"No, Sakuya. That was because of being exposed to running water. The place itself has nothing to do with that." her mistress corrected her instantly.
"But you've read Patchouli-sama's letters… And heard Reimu's and Aya's first-hand testimonies. Kazemura's temple is a divine and magic power sink."
"Ah, but normal humans are unaffected and youkai abilities equally so." the reporter threw in a quick reminder.
"See? As long as the weather remains clear and as long as no fairies will force me to save Patchouli's life, I don't see a problem."
"Yeah, but some problems are nasty and you rarely see them until you face them."
"I'm aware of unpredictable circumstances, Shameimaru. But I clearly know this – idleness breeds decay. We can't be inactive about this, you know it."
With a sigh Reimu nodded. "I know… But I'm not sure Aya told you about the situation in the village."
"Oh, you mean all the politics about who has the right to enter the temple? Well, that's Lord Tenma for you." Aya let out a weak chuckle. "Now that he provided the villagers with protection, he now believes that they owe him one and that the White Wolves have the deserved privilege to go inside and do whatever he ordered them to do. Not even Patchouli's word can change anything about it, so she was forced to negotiate, which hasn't been very successful so far."
"Then we'll fight for that privilege if need be!" Remilia rammed her right fist into her open left palm.
"I have to say that I don't really quite agree with Tenma's politics, but… going up against my own kind… I wouldn't dare to do that."
"We'll figure something out." Reimu added a grain of her optimism into the conversation. "Well then… Thanks for the meal. Midori, Aya, it's time to leave."
"Alright." Remilia too didn't feel like delaying her guests. "Sakuya, please escort the guests to the gate."
"Yes, my lady." Sakuya bowed and silently led the guests out of the dining room and all the way to the mansion's foyer and main entrance. "I don't suppose you're going to carry her back after kidnapping her." Reimu let out a semi-sarcastic remark directed at Sakuya.
"I only do what my mistress tells me and she sort of forgot to order me to actually bring the girl back."
"Hey, don't sweat it. I can carry her to the shrine in no time." Aya voluntarily picked Midori up, which startled the girl to say the least.
"Oh, no, not again!"
Reimu wasn't quite happy about Aya's action either, but what other means of transport could she think of? "Alright, but don't fly as fast as you got us here."
"Ehehe~. I'll try my best."
Reimu took flight and Aya ascended slowly with Midori in her arms. "If you start feeling sick, just tell me and I'll land. I wouldn't want to see your lunch on my blouse."
"I'll just second what Reimu-san said. Don't fly too fast."
And off they went, leaving the Scarlet Island behind and closing the distance to the Hakurei Shrine.
"Hey, what did I tell you about flying slower?" Reimu reprimanded Aya, like a policewoman would a speeding driver.
"Yeah, yeah… Slower, slower…" the tengu let out an exasperated sigh followed by a loud yawn. The speed she had to maintain was utterly sluggish for her tastes. "I think I'm going to fall asleep here…" and as she muttered that, she nearly let go of Midori in mid-flight.
"Yaaaah~! Are you trying to kill me?!"
"Oh, sorry, sorry!" Aya immediately grabbed her tighter and began ascending again after losing some altitude. "Blame the speed limit. It's too damn slow. Jeez… I've seen dead snails flying faster than this."
"Dead snails fly in Gensokyo?"
"Uh… yeah… when you throw them." replied the tengu jokingly.
"I just don't want you to ram into my shrine with her like you did with me, hence the speed limit." Reimu still felt the pain from the impact of Aya's crash landing.
"That's because I was in an extreme hurry. But now, we're having just a leisure flight."
"So fly at a leisure velocity then."
"You mean this? That's just a tad faster than standing still. I'll fly at MY leisure velocity."
And before Reimu or Midori could formulate an argument, Aya leaned slightly forward and accelerated to a speed that could rival that of Marisa's broom. "See? Much better. And we'll be at the shrine much sooner. Don't fall behind, Reimu~!"
"Aya~!" Reimu shouted after the crow tengu who was gradually leaving her further and further behind. Aya didn't appear to even notice the shrine maiden calling her name. She just wanted to be at her destination without having to delay herself.
"And down we go~." Aya mentally prepared Midori for the inevitable landing once the shrine yard was just a few hundreds of meters away.
"Oh, good, good, just gently set me down. I've had enough flying for today." exhaled the female outsider with a mix of relief and anxiety.
"That's Midori!" Soudai recognized the person Aya was carrying before she landed. All the outsiders centered their attention at the arriving girls.
"Midori!" Kyouichi called at her as he shielded his eyes from the sunlight to have a better view. "You saved her!"
"Ehehe, it was nothing, really." Aya released the girl after she made a smooth landing. A polar opposite of how she managed to "land" in the Scarlet Devil Mansion.
"Are you alright?" both of her closest friends ran to meet her. Noticing the bandage around her neck, they both believed Midori's condition was more serious than it actually was.
"It's not as bad as it looks, really. Think of it as if I went to donate blood to a hospital."
"Oh, god… we were so worried." a huge rock fell off Kyouichi's chest when he could see that Midori was alive and well. The whole group of outsiders created a small circle around her to welcome her back among them. It was not long after that when Kyouichi realized something.
"Hey, where's Reimu?"
Aya didn't need to answer that, as the answer to Kyouichi's question arrived just a few seconds afterwards. "Damn it, Aya. Why can't you listen to reason for once?"
"He-hey~, Reimu!" the tengu welcomed her with a gleeful smile while waving her hand. "What took you so long?" she added a teasing question as the miko was descending to the ground.
Reimu sighed, as if she just won a tough battle and had no willpower to think of any witty remarks. "Just… do your job and I'll do mine."
"That I will." Aya made a mock salute gesture as she produced a camera out of her blouse's pocket. "Okay, folks, this is a memorable moment, so I want to make a group photo of the whole bunch of you before you all leave Gensokyo~."
She immediately began giving the outsiders directions on how to arrange themselves, so that they'd all fit into the photo. "Alright, the tallest people in the back, the shorter ones, move to the front. That' it. Great, great. Now you there, move a bit more to the left. And you to the center…"
More than a handful of pictures of the outsiders were taken from various angles and in various poses. The emphasis was on Midori's happy reunion with her friends after she was, quote: "Rescued from the clutches of an evil bloodthirsty vampire by the valiant and selfless effort of the brave tengu reporter with a slight assistance from the Hakurei shrine maiden." Aya said that her readers love to see drama and happy endings, so she believed her next issue of Bunbunmaru was going to sell like hotcakes. Just bend the truth here and there and make some things up, and the perfect article was born. That has always been Aya's way of writing and publishing, and even though her articles often looked like farfetched sensations, there were still people willing to invest their money to read them… or use them as kindling.
And just as Aya was busy with taking shots, interviewing and taking notes, so was Akyuu devoting herself to her work of recording this event and likewise interviewing the outsiders about their experience during their whole stay in this isolated realm of magic, youkai and gods.
Meanwhile, Reimu disappeared inside her shrine to finalize the preparations for the ritual of passage.
"So, tell us, how do you feel about finally being able to leave Gensokyo?" Kyouichi received the question when it was his turn for Aya's and Akyuu's short interview.
Kyouichi closed his eyes as he inhaled the early autumn air. Recalling all the events that occurred to him since the 28th of May until today would take more than a few minutes. Only brief flashbacks from those events were now running through his head.
"It's an amazing mixture of feelings that I'm not sure I'll be able to describe well. It's been quite a roller-coaster… uh… sorry, you probably don't even know what that is."
"Do give it a try and describe them anyway." Aya encouraged him as she playfully flipped the pen between her fingers.
"It's the feeling that you get when you accomplish something great. Something that took a lot of time and effort. Something you've dreamed about for a long time, but didn't quite know how to achieve it. And then there's this feeling that's like making you all nervous and curious about what awaits you when you return home after such a long time. That tingling in your stomach… and it's making your heart race. That's the sort of feeling I have from this trip that's yet ahead of us."
"U-huh…" Aya scribbled something into her notepad, just as Akyuu wrote into her scroll. "And what about your stay in Gensokyo? Are you going to take home good or bad memories of this little world?"
"My fond memories of this place will surely last a lifetime. Something like that is just impossible to forget. I'm pretty sure all of my friends here will tell you the same. There've been times when I felt like my life had no meaning. That by ending up here, I was sentenced to a life-long imprisonment, never to see my family and home again. And there were moments that I wish I could forget, but I guess those bad moments will only serve to enhance my memories about Gensokyo."
"You've surely met a lot of people and youkai while you were here." Aya went on with the questions. "No doubt some of them ended up being your friends. How do you feel about parting your ways with them?"
"Of course, there's this… I don't even know if I should call it regret or sadness. I guess a little bit of both. Yesterday I said my farewell to the family that took me in. I didn't tell them about this planned trip until yesterday. It wasn't easy for me. And probably neither for them… They're not the only people I'm going to miss. Even now I'm saying my farewells to you and to Marisa… and Akyuu-chan… Part of me doesn't want to go, but… life is about decisions. You can't have it all. You just need to know what you really want. And sacrifices are sometimes necessary." As he spoke, he could feel his voice tremble slightly, because he knew he wasn't going to see those faces ever again. But he has already decided firmly. The situation very much reminded him a period of his life when his parents divorced and he had to move to Tokyo – away from his friends, into a new unknown city, into a new unknown school, having to cope with the fact that he was not going to see his childhood friends as often as he'd like. But such is life. And even though the choice wasn't really up to him, that experience taught him how to cope with the inevitable factor of life – change. But even that experience wasn't making his feelings about leaving Gensokyo and all the friends he made there any more relaxed.
"Life indeed is about priorities. And to give up on one thing to get another has been its natural attribute ever since it began. I can understand that leaving friends behind isn't easy, but every person here probably has the same priority as you do, Ishimaru-san. Which brings me to my next question: I heard that your group originally consisted of more members than it has now. Have you been able to learn the reasons why some of your fellow outsiders would decide to make this place their permanent home?"
The question proved to be a bit tough for Kyouichi. "Sorry. I only have vague information about that."
"Rumors have it that some didn't have very good lives in the outside world." Midori interjected. "Starting a new life here seemed like redemption to them. Others say that some of the outsiders have found the love of their life here, but that's all just unconfirmed hearsay."
"Maybe some of them were criminals hiding from the law." Soudai added extra speculation fuel into the interview. "You never know what kinds of people ride subway trains these days."
"Somehow, I doubt that's the case, but…" Midori remained silent, as she had to acknowledge that Soudai's statement was based on quite a bit of truth.
"I don't suppose you found the love of your life during your stay in Gensokyo, right?" the tengu mustered a brief grin.
"I was trying to consciously avoid that, so that I wouldn't end up like the minority that left our club. Though I have to admit, it wasn't easy."
"So there was someone who made your heart sway... at least for a moment?"
"More than one person, yes." the outsider nodded as he chuckled.
"Wow, more than one?" Aya widened her smirk at the reaction. "Heard that, Reimu? Maybe you still have a chance, hahaha… Just kidding. You're on your leave anyway. I only have one last question for you."
"If you had the choice to revisit Gensokyo at any time in the future, would you?"
"Ha. That of course depends on whether I'd still be able to return home after that visit."
"Let's say that yes."
"Hmm…" Kyouichi tilted his head slightly to the side and put on a semi-thoughtful, semi-comical grimace. "Sure. If that was possible, why not?"
"Heh, I guess we didn't leave such a bad impression then." Aya giggled and she closed her notepad. "And that concludes our little interview. Thank you for your time~."
"No problem." the outsider copied her smile. "But now I have one question for you, Aya."
"Oh? Ask away then… Unless it's related to my three sizes, that is…"
Kyouichi just leaned closer to her and asked: "Is that wine I smell from your breath?"
The tengu reporter's cheeks quickly gained a rich pinkish hue and she started giggling almost uncontrollably. "Ahahahaha~! Well, yes, it is. Sorry. It's not usually my habit to carry around a toothbrush in case I get a sudden unexpected invitation. But I'll make sure to properly brush my teeth as soon as I get home."
"Oh, I don't really mind. It just surprises me that you're still seriously doing interviews for your newspaper after drinking alcohol."
"Oh, please~." Aya waved her palm. "To us tengu, having a few glasses is like to you humans tasting a few drops. I assure you as I stand here that my senses aren't dulled by it the slightest."
"Hey, Aya, how many fingers am I showing you?" Marisa played along, and out of jest she showed Aya an indecent gesture.
In split-second her middle finger was caught by Aya's lightning-quick hand and she bent it into a quite uncomfortable position for the blonde witch.
"Yaaaaaaaaaah, let go, let go~!"
"Hm? You're not showing me any fingers… Oh, but you do have a lovely mezzo-soprano voice. You should join a choir, Kirisame-san. Or perhaps a band."
Aya finally released Marisa's finger from her grasp. It let out a silent crack as the witch shut her fist and returned it to its natural position.
"Well, then, outsiders… Are you ready to cross the border~?" Aya asked the whole group loud enough so that even Reimu inside her shrine would be able to hear it.
A unanimous "Yes!" echoed throughout the shrine yard.
"Then let's see if Reimu's done with all the necessary preparations." She approached the shrine's sliding door, but before she put her hand on its indentation, Reimu opened it from the inside. She stepped out onto the porch and gave a silent nod as a signal that everything was ready for the ritual.
The whole group of outsiders began to shift towards the shrine's entrance. That's when Reimu showed them her palm to halt them.
"Due to how large your group is, due to how much equipment you need to take with you, and due to the limited capacity of my living quarters, I'm going to have to send you across the border in two smaller groups, so… those of you who can't wait to get out of this place as soon as possible, follow me inside."
Several outsiders didn't hesitate to step forth to be a part of that first group. Kyouichi, Soudai, Midori and a handful of others weren't that much in a hurry.
"What's the point of rushing?" shrugged Soudai as he watched some of his clubmates enter the shrine in a hasty fashion. "They still need to wait for us anyway."
"Someone has to be in the first group too, you know." Midori made her point.
"True, but look at them – pouring in like people trying to squeeze into the morning bus. Guess they couldn't take living in the Ryuuken barracks anymore."
"That… admittedly is a good reason to skip the queue and hurry out of here." Midori who had an unpleasant experience in the barracks acknowledged with bitter contempt.
Once the first group was inside, Akyuu, Aya and Marisa wanted to enter as well, so that they could watch the whole thing, but Reimu's following words wiped their hopes away.
"Hey? What are you three coming in for? Do you also want to go to the outside world?"
"Heh, I wouldn't mind getting another look. Even though it looks kind of boring." replied Marisa.
"I for one don't feel the need to cross the border," said Aya, "I only want to capture and record your ritual of passage as you take those humans across."
"Yes, me too." Akyuu seconded Aya's intention.
"In that case, I have to disappoint you." Reimu frowned at them as she crossed her arms. "In order for the ritual to be successful, all the shrine's doors need to be closed and everyone inside the room is required to have their eyes closed during the whole ritual.
"Oh, but I can snap pictures even with my eyes closed." objected Aya. "Watch." She stretched out her arm backwards, closed her eyes and took a blind shot of the group of outsiders standing behind her. After a moment a fresh photograph came out of her camera slot, depicting the sky, some treetops and the upper right corner of the shrine's torii. In other words, she completely missed her mark.
"Eh… I may need to practice that skill a little more." she stuck her tongue out as she crumpled up the bad photo.
"That's a pity." sighed Akyuu, who looked much more disappointed than the crow tengu.
"Well, that's how the ritual works. Don't give me that look, I didn't make it up."
"Oh, well, might as well take this time to chat with the other folks a bit while you send the first batch to the outside world." shrugged Marisa and seated herself on the edge of Reimu's porch. "Uhhh… not as warm as in summer anymore…" she commented the surface's cool temperature.
"Even though I already interviewed them all… But I guess I still haven't said proper farewell to them." Aya mused aloud.
Meanwhile Reimu closed the door of her shrine so that she could begin with her ritual.
The remaining six outsiders gathered around Aya, Akyuu and Marisa. Some merely said their parting words formally with bowing or adding a handshake, others took more time to say goodbye to people whom they could consider friends.
"Once again, thanks for the interview and for your time. May you travel safely to Tokyo or wherever you all live. It's been nice meeting you." said Aya as she was saying goodbye to Kyouichi.
"Likewise. It's been a pleasure… and a bit of pain too, to meet and know you." chuckled the outsider as he recalled some of his most memorable mishaps. "May your newspaper career be full of success and prosperity."
"Ha! Thanks. I should give you some credit for putting up with my passion for journalism… even at your own expense."
"Don't worry. Enough time has passed already for me to consider the memory of that one incident as nothing but a laughing matter now."
"That's good to hear… Watch yourself out there." and with those words from Aya, Kyouichi proceeded to Marisa.
"So this is it, huh? You're really finally going to go… Man, it feels like yesterday when you walked up those stairs and stared silently at us for a moment until Reimu finally noticed you were there. And when we had that hanami. And when I first took you for a ride on my broom. And when I saw you lying in Eientei. And when there was that big tanabata festival… I'll try not to forget about you and your friends. You were quite the funny bunch sometimes. Now you're all so serious… Come on! Let me see you smile. That's more like it." the witch also flashed her teeth to them in return, although it might have been a little forced. "Good luck to ya all, ze~! Hey, maybe we can still meet one day in the afterlife or something."
"You're the coolest witch I've ever met, really."
"How many witches have you met already?" Soudai teasingly asked from behind.
"Yeah, I thought so."
"Still, I'll remember Marisa in this confident pose as she sits cross-legged on her broom, holding the smoking Mini-Hakkero with one hand and adjusting her hat with the other. Oh, and to mirror your earlier comment, you too were quite hilarious at times. May you accomplish your pursuits… whatever they are and may you finally be able to cook an edible tamagoyaki." after saying that semi-sarcastic comment, Kyouichi earned a gentle kick in his knee from the witch.
"Stop making fun of it already."
"Heh, sorry, sorry…" he bowed apologetically as he suppressed his chuckling.
And finally, Kyouichi stepped up to the chronicler Akyuu.
"Akyuu-chan…" he spoke her name and couldn't think of what to say in the following second.
"Kyouichi-san…" Akyuu in return spoke his name and paused herself to take a good look at his face.
They have already told their parting words to each other in Kazemura, as Kyouichi didn't expect her to be here at the shrine on this day, that's why he felt like saying anything would be just wasting words. But in the end he did say at least a few.
"I guess I don't need to worry about you forgetting about us. And with all the experiences that I've lived through here, I can safely declare that you won't need to worry about me forgetting about you. After all, it's partially thanks to your guidance and your books that we're all standing here, with our goal in our reach."
"It's moments like this that give meaning to my work of recording Gensokyo's history as well as present. And even though I'm not sure how my chronicle helped you exactly, I thank you for your kind words." she smiled as sweetly as ever. Kyouichi couldn't help himself but to give her one last parting hug. He could feel her small arms lightly coiling around him as Akyuu reciprocated the gesture.
"You've made it this far… now go and cross that last mile."
The outsider nodded and released the embrace. "We'll give it our best, right?" he looked at all the remaining outsiders who were there with him.
"Of course we will. If we survived half a year in Gensokyo, some mountain hike to the nearest town will be a piece of cake!" Soudai was brimming with confidence and optimism.
"I'll get home even if I'll have to crawl all the way!" Midori's minor blood loss wasn't making her any less fired-up for the trip.
"Then we must wait for a bit longer while Reimu takes the first group across the border and comes back for us." said Kyouichi and impatiently watched the sliding door, anticipating that it could open up any second.
But seconds turned into minutes and Kyouichi's impatience, which manifested itself in his urge to walk back and forth from one side of the shrine yard to the other seemed to have rubbed off onto his friends as well.
"Well, Reimu-san certainly is taking her time." even the ever-calm and carefree Sayuri was beginning to point out to the obvious fact.
"She sure is." Soudai nodded agreeingly, kicking a small rock that he found on the paved floor away out of boredom. "Shouldn't we take a peek inside?"
"Eh… I don't think that's a good idea." Marisa recommended against it. "Reimu said that the shrine's doors need to be shut. I'm not sure if it only applies to the shrine she's traveling from, but we better not risk it and end up "locking her out" in the outside world."
"It's already been at least fifteen minutes, though." Midori roughly estimated the time that elapsed since Reimu closed the shrine's door. "Was the ritual so lengthy when Reimu-san took you to the outside world the first time?" she asked Kyouichi.
"Well… we did stay in the outside world and chatted for a while before we decided to return back, but no. The ritual itself wasn't longer than five minutes."
"Hmph…" the young girl shrugged. "We'll give her a few more minutes then. But if the door still won't open, then we'll take a look. And if we won't see anyone inside, we'll just close it again."
"Alright then." Marisa could agree with the plan, as it would only present minimal potential interference with Reimu's ritual of passage. "I don't know what she's doing out there so long. Instructing everyone not to wander off or giving them a tour of her decrepit shrine?"
"Maybe she's negotiating for some extra donations for going through all the trouble." speculated Aya. Even she considered the while during which Reimu hasn't shown herself as unusually long for a simple there-and-back trip.
"It's true that we have raised some funds reserved to pay for Reimu's service, but… Such a simple one-way transaction shouldn't take longer than a few seconds and a few thankful words." Kyouichi explained, though the strangest part about it, that completely dismissed Aya's speculation had dawned on him just now. "Wait… Nagahashi-san was the one responsible for the club's finances. And it was he who should have ultimately paid Reimu once she takes us across. And he's here with us." he beckoned at the quiet, balding man standing just a few meters away.
"Hmmm… then what could be taking her so long?"
After several more minutes have passed with nothing noteworthy happening, the outsiders couldn't stand it anymore.
"Unless anybody has any serious objections, I'm going to open the door right now. This isn't normal…" Midori announced as she approached the door.
"Hold on…" Aya halted her in the last second. She herself was moving towards the shrine's entrance and it appeared as though she wanted to be the one to open the door, but she stopped just a few centimeters away.
"Hm? What's wrong?" Midori blinked puzzledly.
Aya silently brushed a strand of hair from the side of her head, revealing her pointy ear, which she drew closer to the closed door. "I swear I heard something."
"Heard what?" Marisa's curiosity was piqued immediately.
Instead of telling, Aya just made a "come closer" hand gesture. Everyone gathered around the door, trying to catch even the slightest hint of sound that Aya claimed to have heard from inside. And indeed, they could hear something…
"Voices." Midori was about to identify the sound, when the tengu beat her to it. "One male and the other sounds like Reimu…"
Although their words were impossible to discern, it really was as Aya said. Reimu's voice echoed from within the shrine's walls, being intermitted by a male voice. Judging by their tone, it seemed as though they were having some sort of dispute.
"She's already back, ze!" Marisa exclaimed.
"But why isn't she alone?" wondered Akyuu.
"I don't know. Let's bust in and scold her for taking so long!" said the witch.
And she did exactly as she intended. With one swift swipe of her hand, the door slid open, revealing a group of seven outsiders and Reimu standing in a circle made out of incense sticks on stands. Nobody inside even seemed to notice that the shrine door was open.
"I didn't say it was YOU specifically!" Reimu pointed her finger at one of the outsiders – Yuujin Ueda. "All that I'm asking is which one of you had their eyes open during the ritual!"
"Look, we didn't come here all the way to hear your stupid excuses!" the angry engine driver barked back at her. "You figure out a way to take us back home or you're not going to see a single yen from us!" All hints pointed towards the likelihood that Reimu and the outsiders never actually left the shrine at all.
"Hey, hey, hey! What's going on here?!" Marisa let her presence be known to the occupants of the shrine. "Why haven't you taken those people back to the outside world yet?"
"That is EXACTLY my question to miss shrine maiden here!" bellowed Ueda whilst pointing at Reimu's face. "We've been sitting here for nearly half an hour, doing exactly what she instructed us to, and she still fails to do that one thing that we asked of her!"
"What went wrong, Reimu?" Marisa shifted her gaze to the girl in red and white.
The brunette just shook her head while shrugging. "I think one of them had to have their eyes open… That's the only explanation that I can give."
"And we all told you a hundred times that none of us had our eyes open." Ueda opposed her, though he could only speak for himself at best. "Don't blame us for your incompetence."
"Maybe something else is wrong then." wondered Aya. "Like too many people, or there's an object in that circle that prevents you from crossing."
"I…" Reimu paused hesitatingly. "I can't really explain it, but… I could sense the barrier's rapid growth in strength in the past few days. Even though the barrier should normally grow in strength for at least another 25 years, as its new cycle began 5 years ago, the speed and amount at which the barrier's power was increasing is not natural."
"Are you kidding me?!" Yuujin's voice was now bordering loud speech and shouting. "Are you trying to tell us that now we have to wait for 25 years for the barrier to start weakening again?!"
"N-no! I didn't say that. I was just expla…"
"Then do something about it!" the frustrated outsider interrupted Reimu's sentence and marched out of the shrine. "Unbelievable…" Kyouichi could hear him grumbling as he walked past him.
Reimu too could hardly believe that she was unable to perform a ritual that she had done hundreds of times before with no great difficulty. At first it didn't occur to her that the rapid growth in barrier's power could be so severe as to possibly prevent her from using the gateway to the outside world, but now she suspected more than ever that was indeed the case.
Something had to be done. She wanted to help the outsiders, so she wanted to try out a few more things to figure the exact nature of the problem. The first thing that came to her mind was that this was the first time she was trying to transport so many people at once.
"Okay, everyone, out of the shrine. I have to try crossing the border by myself."
And although the first group of outsiders that were still standing in her circle didn't like to hear it, they had no choice but to oblige. One by one they left the shrine's living quarters.
"I-if it's of any help," Soudai tentatively raised his hand before Reimu closed the door after the last person, "We could see the dragon statue's eyes glowing red before we left the village. I don't think I saw them sporting that color yesterday."
Reimu's deadpan face stared at him without expression for well over 5 seconds. She too experienced several occasions when the gemstones were glowing in that ominous hue, and not a single time was that a good sign. Although by the time the dragon's eyes were red, the nature of an incident was already fully manifesting itself in a way which everyone in Gensokyo could notice. But this time, neither Reimu, nor anyone else was able to notice anything strange in the past few days besides the rapid, but gradual growth in the Great Hakurei Border's power.
"What could be causing this?" Marisa asked a question that was most likely also echoing in Reimu's head. "Is Yukari fooling around again?"
"I don't know. At this point I really don't know…" replied the shrine maiden. "I'll try to figure out if I can get across alone. Give me a couple of more minutes." and once again she shut the sliding door.
Just as the barrier's power, the tension among the outsiders was rising rapidly.
"Damn it! I knew Ishimaru's plan couldn't be trusted." Ueda was loudly expressing his dissatisfaction.
"The plan wasn't bad." Midori tried to defend her friend. "What happened couldn't be foreseen."
"But the miko just told us that she felt something odd for the past several days! Why didn't she tell us anything?"
"Calm down, Ueda-san." Kyouichi tried to defuse the situation before it escalated into a quarrel. "Reimu is doing her best to find a way to help us. At least wait those few minutes calmly until she comes out."
"Don't you tell me what to do! This is also YOUR fault! We already had all of the necessities for our trip ready at least a month in advance! But you insisted that we wait and leave this place on the first of Kannazuki! If we went as soon as we were ready, this wouldn't happen!"
Kyouichi's hope for success still didn't die out, but Yuujin certainly wasn't helping him keep it alive. If anything, he only managed to invoke a growing sense of guilt in him. He couldn't argue with him. He had a point and now Kyouichi began to question why he insisted on postponing the trip up to this day.
"Please, Reimu. Please… find out what's going on." he prayed in his mind for the shrine maiden's success. "Please do something to pass through the border…"
Once Yuujin felt like taking a break from blaming all those around him, Midori came to Kyouichi's side. He just sat there on the porch, staring into the ground, murmuring something to himself as if he was reciting a prayer.
"Kyouichi… Don't listen to him. There's no way on Earth you could have predicted this situation."
"But… he's right."
"Hey, don't give up so fast when there is still hope." she tried to cheer him up. "Reimu's going to fix the problem, you hear me?"
As if taking the cue, Reimu opened the shrine's door after spending something over ten minutes inside in solitude.
Every outsider was on their feet when she showed up. Kyouichi could feel his knees trembling with nervousness and anticipation.
"Well…?" Marisa couldn't take Reimu's silent blank stare any longer and prompted her to speak.
The shrine maiden took a deep breath and exhaled loudly. She didn't want to be the one to tell them the truth, but she had to. "I can't…"
"I can't get across. The barrier prevents me from passing to the outside world completely."
"This is bad…" Soudai stated the obvious through the mixture of hissing, murmur and whispers of his displeased clubmates.
"Damn it…" Kyouichi cursed as a feeling of hopelessness began to take over him. "What the hell are we going to do now?"
"Didn't I freakin' tell you so?!" Yuujin called out from the top of his lungs. "We're not going anywhere, people! We're stuck here! Stranded! We apologize for the inconvenience, but your flight home has just been delayed… PERMANENTLY!" he appeared as though as he was going mad. Some outsiders even wondered whether he wasn't even secretly hoping for this outcome, just to prove that he was right. Nobody really had the courage to tell him to shut up.
And while he lamented, others began to ask themselves what to do in this unpredicted situation. But nobody really knew the right answer.
"All that planning! All that work!" Yuujin's laments kept echoing in the shrine yard. "For nothing! I hate Gensokyo!"
And he likely wasn't the only one with these thoughts in mind.
"We have no, choice, it seems." Aya spoke to Reimu. "We have to find out what's making the barrier completely impassible and fix the problem."
"Unfortunately, I heard no reports about the impassibility of the barrier when it was at its peak of power during its 60 year cycle." Akyuu frowned as her knowledge of history couldn't help with the problem's resolution.
"I bet my Mini-Hakkero that this all ties to that weird temple in Kazemura somehow. We have to go there and find out." Marisa suggested as she picked up her broom, ready to take flight immediately.
"But… what about us?" Kyouichi demanded a reasonable answer, because right now, he was at a loss.
"I can't help but to agree with Aya and Marisa here." answered Reimu. "I'm really, really sorry… I assure you that I'll solve this incident and take you all to the outside world. But… it's not going to be today."
"Great. So we just take all our stuff and go back home?"
"For the time being… that's probably the only choice you have. Keep your equipment here. I'll let you all know when we'll have the problem resolved, so… please be a little more patient."
"I don't think you've noticed this, Hakurei-san, but our patience has just run out!" Yuujin exclaimed. "I can't wait another minute, let alone days or weeks or however long this incident is going to take you to resolve!"
"Like Reimu said:" sounded Aya, "At this point, the question whether or not you'll be able to leave Gensokyo is not a matter of your or our will. Now please wait for the nearest Ryuuken patrol from Misty Lake or Kazemura to pass around and let them escort you back to Human Village. That's the only advice we can offer at this moment."
"So… Shall we go then?" Marisa beckoned Akyuu to board her flying broom as a passenger, so that they could return to the quarry of Kazemura.
"The situation is pretty urgent." the chronicler noted as she sat astride on the broom. "We'll do our best to help, so please wish us good luck." she directed those words at the outsiders.
"I'm ready to go." Reimu closed and locked the shrine.
"Then let's not waste any more time." Aya kicked off the ground into a levitating position. "Remilia is probably already waiting for us."
Marisa and Reimu both took off at the same time and followed Aya's lead in a V-shaped formation.
The outsiders were on their own once again and their mood was just as one could expect from people put into a similar situation. Kyouichi took a particularly heavy burden of guilt upon himself. He was so desperate to get home that he was willing to accept any crazy idea that had a chance of getting him across the border greater than zero. And one such idea just crossed his mind.
"Say, Yamada-san…" he called at one of the club members. "Do you still have that shovel?"
As much as he hated to accept the fact, his long-planned exodus from Gensokyo has shipwrecked in its final stage. Even though he could already see himself home, he was ultimately stopped by the last hurdle.