It was winter, but there was no snow.
Bare brown trees rattled in the breeze beneath the hard gray sky.
Legs tucked under the kotatsu, Reimu Hakurei sat inside her shrine, sipping steaming hot tea.
The changing seasons changed the shrine as well. Cold crept in through cracks in the walls. The roof leaked—if snow showed up, there would be trouble. Every time the floorboards creaked, something skittered underneath. Whether mice or rats or giant radioactive cockroaches, the pests had to go. And the carpet of leaves outside choked the space where her garden would grow in the spring. And...
No. Enough grouching. Sit back and relax.
Reimu tried. She sat back, even worked to relax a bit. Little came of it. She tasted her tea—still too hot. She waited for it to cool. And waited. Nothing happened while she waited.
Her mind wandered. Whenever it did that, she worried it might not come back.
Soon the New Year would arrive. Again, she'd receive a flood of visitors for the hatsumode. With the sudden seasonal resurgence of popular piety, donations flowed in like...like something that flowed in really fast. But Reimu's highest hopes would end like New Year's resolutions: unrealistic expectations would collide with harsh realities, and Reimu's wishes for more wishers would float off to join the cloud of other shattered dreams.
She jolted back into her body. No. None of that. Focus. Think of tea.
Slurping another mouthful, Reimu burnt her tongue. That feeling fit with everything else—her chattering teeth, her arms prickling with gooseflesh, her feat sweaty and stinky under the table.
Not that she meant to gripe, but she had a lot to gripe about.
Reimu snuffled up the wet dregs of a Christmas cold, then guzzled scathing hot tea to wash the taste of phlegm from her mouth. It didn't work.
She heaved a heavy sigh. She tried to relax—she really did. But doing nothing failed to relax her. It made her lazy. And agitated. And being agitated but doing nothing about it put Reimu in the worst of moods.
Things fall apart—houses, bodies, expectations. Now Reimu sensed her sanity eroding more each passing day.
She glared at her half-empty teacup, still too hot to drink, as if willing the world to bend to her demands. The cup stayed the same. Plain stained porcelain, chipped around the rim.
It had been a bad morning too. She'd caught three fairy brats chucking snowballs at the trees in her yard. Where they got the snow, only the ice fairy would know. Reimu chased the brats away, throwing her gohai and a few choice obscenities after the scampering scamps. Then she swept away the snow with a scrawny broom and plenty of grumbling. When she had been their size, Reimu ran the Hakurei Shrine. At six years old, she was already the owner of a Shinto shrine, heir to the Hakurei Yin-Yang Orbs...and keeper of the worst job ever: keeping Gensokyo from destroying itself every other minute.
Reimu tried not to take her job too seriously. Tried. Hence the copious tea breaks.
Something hit the door with a thunk.
Reimu set down her cup, lips stretched into a tight smile.
Thunk. Thunk-thunk. Thunkthunkthunk—
She flew to the door and threw it open. A glistening wad of airborne slush smacked into her face. She stood there, seething, snowmelt dribbling down her chin, dripping on the tatami.
Cirno the ice fairy had cocked another shot, but even she froze when saw Reimu. Her two companions slunk behind her.
"It's the shrine maiden!"
"Run away! Run away!"
Together they dashed into the naked forest.
Furious, Reimu spewed curses and a flood of crimson bullets from her hands. The balls of qi struck her trees with a sizzle, cooking the old wood and doing far more damage than a simple snowball. By the time Reimu realized this, the fairies had disappeared.
It had not occurred to Reimu that the fairies must be off from school on winter break, and thus extremely bored. The unfortunately tame weather deprived them of snow angels, snowmen, snow forts, snowball wars, and sledding. Small wonder they had to make their own fun. But none of this did occurred to Reimu.
"Damn kids," she muttered. For her, "fun" was something that happened to other people.
Dark was falling. Shivering, she settled back inside, chilly and damp, longing for a quick drink and a long nap. Aware of her limitations, she dumped sake into her tea. She sampled her concoction.
Something hit the door with a thunk.
Reimu slammed down her teacup. "I have had it with those fairies!"
She stomped toward the door, rolling up her sleeves to dish out the pain. Being the shrine maiden wasn't easy, but the line of work allowed for some righteous indignation.
She flung open the paper sliding door. "Now listen here, you—"
The blade of a sword flashed silver.
Reimu ducked and rolled. The sword sliced through the air with an audible whap.
A samurai woman, clad in a resplendent red-and-white kimono, strode into the shrine. She flourished her katana. "Reimu Hakurei!" she cried. "Your life belongs to me!"
"Who the hell are you and why are you in my house?" was what Reimu almost said, except she preferred to dodge, a course of action that prevented her head from detaching. Reimu retreated from the reception area into the tea room, her feet taking leave of the floor. She flitted around the ceiling, syaing, "Easy, I don't want to—"
Actually, she rather did want to hurt this rude guest, especially since the samurai had sliced the sliding door in two, then needlessly slashed the incense at the shrine to Reimu's ancestors.
Reimu slunk behind the heavy tea table and, when the samurai pursued, turned the tables on her opponent, kotatsu and all.
Her teacup smashed.
The table split in a shower of splinters.
Reimu tripped and fell backward. The outstretched blade stabbed toward her—
A flying orb deflected the samurai's sword. The weapon flew out of her hand, clattered to the floor.
Reimu rose triumphant. The Hakurei Yin-Yang Orbs whirled around her, black-and-white crystals the size of a paper lantern, or planets orbiting a very angry sun.
"You tried to kill me," Reimu said to the samurai. "Boy, that was dumb."
The samurai spat and snatched up the sword, swift as a snake. She lunged, plunged the sword into Reimu's heart...but Reimu wasn't there anymore. In a flash, the shrine maiden flitted to the other side of the room. From her hands she sprayed a storm of crimson.
Bright red bullets rained on the samurai, but she swung her sword to block them all. Not one shot hit her body. Steel glowing hot, the samurai sprang and stabbed.
The sword stopped a hand-span from Reimu's forehead, its blade clapped between the Yin-Yang Orbs. While the samurai struggled to wrench her weapon from the floating orbs, Reimu drifted closer. "Now, talk," said the shrine maiden with alarming tranquility. "You seem annoyingly familiar. Have I beaten you up before?"
"Have you forgotten?" the samurai hissed. "Outside Makai, many years ago!"
"Makai?" Reimu scratched her chin, probing her memory. "Nope, nothing. You got a name?"
"One of our kind does not reveal one's name to quarry!"
"Ah. A career assassin. Well, Miss Assassin, consider your situation for a second, and kindly tell me again." She waited one second. "Now, who the hell are you?"
The samurai jutted out her jaw. "Meira. Of the clan whose land you stole!"
"Who, me?" Reimu was surprised.
"Indeed, shrine maiden! Whose ancestors do you believe lie buried beneath this building?"
"Exactly! No, no, before that! Whose land do you think your predecessors stole to build a shrine? What disgraced clan lived over one hundred years resenting the house of Hakurei, and the atrocities they wrought? Who sought revenge yet suffered in poverty? Who is the sole heiress of that proud and noble house, sworn to the path of the sword, who even now seeks justice for the shame of her ancestors?!"
"These are rhetorical questions, right?"
Meira gritted her teeth, her face beet-red with rage.
Reimu allowed herself a half-smile. "Look, it's great to have this reunion, and I'm sorry for all this horrible stuff that's happened to you, but you can't hold me responsible for things that happened to your family fifty, a hundred years ago. I wasn't really around then. You'll have to take it up with the dead when you meet them. If you want, I can even introduce you." She hazarded a chuckle. "Hey, I understand. I lost my family too."
"I did. If only I could remember where I put those goddamn urns."
Meira gaped and gawked. "You call yourself a shrine maiden? You...your...you're a disgrace to the faith!"
"Am I? Hadn't noticed. Usually I don't mess around with faith. Lemme tell you, a little bit goes a long way."
"Impossible." Meira released her sword and sank to her knees. "I wait all these years to fight the heiress of Hakurei, yet I find her a her...her...here—"
"Go on. Say it. I won't get mad."
Reimu laughed. "Don't flatter me, kid. I wouldn't bother believing in the gods if I didn't have to deal with them on a daily basis."
Again, Meira struggled to extract her sword from the clutches of the Yin-Yang Orbs, while Reimu merely picked up the tea pot. "Cold. Dammit." So she went for the sake instead. "Oh well, tea's for old maids anyway. Want a drink?" She took a swig and nearly retched. "That's the stuff!" A thought struck her. "Oh yeah! I remember you now! The weird samurai who asked me to marry him! Or her. Whichever it was. How could I ever forget that—"
A ghostly pallor fell over Meira, shrouding her in darkness. Eyes glazed, she jerked her sword from the Yin-Yang Orbs.
Reimu dropped the sake.
In an instant, Meira leaped across the room and held her sword to Reimu's throat. The Yin-Yang Orbs pinned the blade, but could not resist the samurai's sudden surge of strength.
A wave of pain washed over the samurai. She collapsed to a kneel, gasping, heaving. Reimu didn't move, the sword still at her neck.
A dark aura seeped from Meira's skin, surrounding her with a black cloud. Reimu saw the cloud take shape and grow a face. Green eyes, green hair. Grinning. Gloating.
"Hello, Shrine Maiden."
Those dulcet tones, high and cold, whispers from beyond the grave. Reimu shuddered. She'd know that voice anywhere.
The sorceress formed, smoky, pale. Tall hat, long cape. Despite her spirit form, her gaze was no less bright or sharp or cruel.
Mima examined her hands, merely puffs of smoke imbued with living shadow. Beneath the apparition, Meira's body twitched, staring straight ahead like a lifeless doll. "This host will not last long," said Mima. Her specter paced the room, glad of its newfound freedom. "She was so strong, and alone, and full of hate. So much negative emotion. All I had to do was feed it, and feed on it."
"No," said Reimu, staring in utter disbelief. She backed away. "You can't be here. You're dead."
"You were sealed! Exiled! Banished from the lands of the living and the dead!"
"Oh yes, that. Troublesome trifles. There was this matter of a supposedly impenetrable barrier between me and the physical universe, but I found it didn't live up to expectations. Too bad. A few more millennia, and I might have started to enjoy the quiet of the abyssal planes."
"How did you get out?" Reimu breathed. Her eyes darted toward the door. Keep her talking, she told herself. Keep talking, appeal to her vanity, you know she likes that...then make a break for it!
The paper door slid shut of its own accord.
Mima smiled a ghost of a smile.
"Impenetrable barriers aren't what they used to be," she continued. "I got out...because of you, actually. You, and your incessant meddling, have shifted the worlds more times than I can care to count. Haven't you sensed it? Walls, everywhere, everything breaking down. Outsiders in Gensokyo. Time repeating. Then one last lurch back to normalcy—that shift broke my cage, and I was free. So here I am, fresh out of hell, ready to raise hell here." She inhaled deeply, though her smoky body had no lungs. "Gensoyko. The shrine, my old haunt. I almost missed it."
Reimu edged away, conscious of Meira's dull glazed eyes following her. "What do you want?" she said loudly, to distract herself from her own mind-numbing terror.
Black tendrils snaked around Reimu's neck. From smoke, Mima formed beside the shrine maiden. Caressing her cheek, tracing her lips...throttling her throat.
"I want it all," Mima crooned in her ear, as Reimu choked. "I want revenge against the whole damned human race. I want everything you have, everything you ever took from me. I'm here to take it all back."
The Yin-Yang Orbs swung in from opposite directions—one clocked Meira in the head, while the other passed straight through Mima.
When the sword blade dropped, Reimu fired a red bolt—it rebounded off the samurai's blade, which swung at inhuman speed to guard Meira's face. Unable to touch Reimu herself, Mima moved her meat puppet with relentless vigor. Meira hacked and slashed, driving Reimu into a corner. Though the shrine maiden tried to fly, a sword through her thigh hindered her. Reimu collapsed, clutching the spurting hole in her leg.
The sword slide sideways under her chin, blade toward her throat. Reimu swallowed.
"Don't do this," Reimu said, like it would help. "Don't you realize what will happen when I'm gone?"
"Yes." Mima smiled. "The end of the world. Farewell to order, farewell to the border. Farewell to everything you know and cherish." The specter phased through Reimu—an eerie feeling, like icy water trickling down her back—and formed in front of her. So close Reimu could smell her fetid breath. "I've come to take over your dream. I am your worst nightmare."
"You don't scare me," Reimu spat. "Why, you don't even—"
She didn't finish.
Not before the sword finished slicing off her head.
Then the darkness took her.