On the whole, youkai tended to be attractive. While they weren't all beautiful (though many of them were), the majority of them were at least pleasant to look at. However, to every rule there are exceptions. The Imp was one such exception.
While she still had humanoid form (head on top, torso in the middle, arms at sides, legs at the bottom), the Imp didn't so much resemble a Human as she did a toad's wart. Flabby, pimpled skin hung loosely from her arms and belly, her cheeks sagged from a lifetime of unhealthy meals, and rheumy yellow eyes glowered out from under her protruding eyelids. She wore a pair of greasy overalls and a wide-brimmed straw hat, decorated with a scrappy looking green feather. The bowl of a splintery pipe was clutched in one hamlike hand, from which she constantly puffed out sickly black smoke rings that smelled of tar.
Her name wasn't actually the Imp of course, but Mima always felt the title more fitting than the fat bitch's actual name. The name Roccio simply didn't do the foul creature justice. It was too pleasant.
On the whole, Mima didn't like associating herself with the Imp. Not because she was afraid of her damaging her reputation, as she had willingly fraternized with far more notorious people; and not because she had any moral objection to the things that the Imp had done, as Mima herself had done much worse. But that didn't change the fact that the Imp was such an unpleasant person that even unashamed monsters like Mima found her to be absolutely revolting.
Indeed, the first thing the Imp did as Mima entered her dismal hovel was to spread her fleshy lips in a smug smile, turn her head to spit a yellow gob onto the floor, and say through a throat full of phlegm, "Well, well, well, do these old eyes deceive me? The most magnificently marvelous Madam Mima, paying this poor, pathetic pauper a visit? But no, this surely cannot be. A magician so brilliant, so powerful, so feared as the illustrious Mima would never lower herself to such a level. This must be a trick, an imposter, one intended to soil the Evil Spirit of Makai's good name."
"Roccio," Mima said with a curt nod. "Still as articulate as ever. You're looking well, I see."
"Ha!" The Imp again spat on the floor, which was coated and stained by years of mucus, making Mima grateful for her lack of legs. "My joints ache, my back creaks, and my lungs burn with every breath; any fool can see that. Guess your, ah, reported skills at deceit are on the exaggerated side, yeah?"
"By your standards, that's practically radiant with health," Mima said graciously. "Though upon further inspection, I must concede the point. You have picked up a few more warts, it seems. My, my, Roccio. You really have let yourself go."
The Imp's glower deepened. "What the hell are you doing here, Mima? You had little enough time for me back in the Magician's War. Come to apologize for leaving me to rot in Sonozika's cell?"
"Why Roccio, you can hold a quite the grudge. And I thought you would have considered such a change in accommodations to be a step up." Mima glanced around the glorified outhouse that the Imp called home. "You know, considering what you're accustomed to."
The Imp snorted, causing a gob of snot to pop out of one nostril and drip down her face.
"But no," Mima said. "I'm not here to address old complaints. Rather, I'm here to purchase your services."
"My services, is it?" The Imp grinned, showing rotten and swollen gums split in places by jagged teeth that leaned like old gravestones. "Well now, you flatter me. I'll have to decline though. Sorry, I've got enough diseases in me as it is."
"I have need of the Receptacle," Mima said.
"Ooooh, do you?" The Imp glanced over her shoulder. There, nestled in a natural alcove formed by the tree's roots, was the only thing of worth to be found in the house: a low, rectangular altar a meter in height, half-a-meter in width, and three meters in length. It was made from red quartz and coated all along its sides and edges with frosted gold and black ebony, molded into grotesque depictions of various beings writhing in agony. The top, however, was completely bare, and a horn sat at each of its corners, all four of them curving inwards. And, like everything else in the room, it was coated in dust and other forms of filth.
As far as objects of dark magic went, the Receptacle ranked in the middle-weights. It had a specific job, and it did it well, but given how long it took to gather the necessary power it could only be used once every fifty years or so, and then only when its annoyingly exact conditions were met, those who had use of it often passed it over in favor of less powerful but more practical alternatives. But if someone were to provide the necessary payment when it was at full power, then it would provide the guaranteed destruction of a single inanimate object in turn. It didn't matter what it was, how well it was protected, or how durable it was, it would be destroyed. Furthermore, it also erased any magical link between itself and the targeted object in the same moment, making it untraceable. Useful if you absolutely needed something wrecked and couldn't do it yourself, were willing to meet the required price, weren't in any particular hurry, and were the only person to use it in the last half-century. As it so happened, Mima met all of the conditions.
To be truthful, Mima found the Receptacle to be representative of much of what was wrong with most objects of dark magic. Sure, it did its job well and cleaned up after itself, but its practicality was destroyed by the ridiculously over-specified requirements to make it work, not to mention the outrageous length of time it took to reach full power. Under normal circumstances, Mima would be content to ignore the altar's existence entirely and achieve her means though infinitely more practical means. Alas, these were not normal circumstances, and so here Mima was, in a stinking sewage-filled fleapit, bartering with a creature that was revolting in every sense of the word for use of a weapon that offended Mima's integrity as a dark magician with its very existence.
The Imp chuckled, a horrid sound that sounded like it was done through a can of putrid worm corpses. "So, this is what it's come to. Madam Mima, the Evil Spirit of Makai, Grand Sorceress of the Order of the Poison Sky, and High Warlord of the Serpentine Marauders, now comes crawling on her hands and knees, begging me for help."
"That's quite the exaggeration there, Imp," Mima said as she examined her poison-green fingernails. "Not to mention factually incorrect. For one, my posture is perfectly straight. For another, I do not even possess knees. And finally, I do not recall doing any 'begging.'"
"You might as well be," spat the Imp. "Just you even being here…Heh. Tell me something, Mima. After that whole 'unholier-than-thou' attitude you used to have, after all the power you used to wield, the fear people felt at the mere mention of your name, how does it feel to know that it's all gone?" An ugly smile twisted her ugly face. "Does it anger you? Fill you with shame, to know that centuries of plots have been laid to waste, that your forces and followers are all gone, that your power is broken, that your influence has been reduced to nothing more than a shadow and a whisper of a long-dead nightmare?" She took the pipe out of her mouth and jabbed its saliva-coated stem at Mima. "How does it feel, Mima, to know that you, who were once feared and respected by all, are now nothing more than a has-been?"
"Oh, it smarts, I will admit," Mima said. "I'll not deny that I've suffered setbacks and shortfalls. But fortunately, I still have one consolation to dull the pain."
"Yeah? And what's that?"
Mima's lips twisted into a cruel smile. "Better to be a has-been," she said, "than a never-was."
The Imp said nothing. Her glare was response enough.
"After all, as broken and reduced as I may be now, there is no denying that I was once great. I was feared, I was respected, and still am, in many places, something you never were and never will be. Crack open any history book and look up my name in the index, and the number of entries will fill at least half the page. You? You'll be lucky if you get an unnamed mention in the Receptacle's footnote entry in Obscure Magical Relics." Mima again glanced around the room, making a show of appraising its shoddy condition. "Furthermore, simply having fallen from grace does not preclude a comeback. After all, at least I know how to get there. Can you say the same?"
Now the Imp's eyes were downright hate-filled. She puffed angrily on her pipe for nearly a minute before again demanding, "What do you want, Mima?"
"World peace, under my rule. The enslaved minds of both the living and the dead. To crush my enemies, to see them driven before me, and to hear the lamentations of their loved ones before I crush them too. But for now, I'll settle for this."
Mima opened a hand and muttered a word. Above her palm, an illusionary image flared to life, showing a small Shinto shrine. While in considerably better shape than the Imp's home, it still had seen better days, with peeling paint, a patchy roof, and grass in need of trimming.
The Imp let out a bark of laughter, spraying the air with spittle. "The Hakurei Shrine? Are you fucking serious?"
"Is there any reason why I shouldn't be? It is, after all, the dwelling place of my most persistent enemies."
"Yeah, but everyone knows that blowing up the shrine won't do squat! It happens all the time! They always just put it back together in the end. Hell, you must've done it yourself at least a couple dozen times!"
"Twenty-four and counting, actually," Mima said, closing her hand and extinguishing the image. "Twenty-five, after this is over. And destroying the shrine is merely a means to an end."
"Yeah? And what end is that?"
Mima smiled again. "Not what, whose. You may not know this, but the current shrine maiden is getting along in years. Like myself, she is far from the warrior she used to be, and like yourself, she isn't exactly in the best of health right now. Plus, coupled with the state of her finances and the fact that she is currently looking after a little girl-"
"Wait, say what?" The Imp's eyebrows knitted together. "Miko Hakurei took in a kid?"
"No, had one, nine years ago."
There weren't many people alive who could perform a spittake without actually drinking anything, but the Imp had saliva to spare. "Wh-wh-what?" she sputtered. "She gave birth? Her?"
Mima, who had never been so glad to be incorporeal as she was at that moment, said, "Yes. Something of a twilight years miracle. Isn't life something?"
"But she has to be…" The Imp squinted and started counting on her sausage-like fingers. "Well way beyond child-bearing age, even for a Hakurei!"
"Is she? Oh my, somebody better run off and inform Biology. A serious mistake has been made."
"Well, huh." The Imp narrowed her beady eyes as she pondered this new bit of information. "How about that? So the line continues, huh? How'd that happen, anyway? I mean, I knew those fucking Hakureis get to live longer than most of the roaches, but come on, there's got to be a cutoff."
"I cannot fathom a guess," Mima said. "Such matters are beyond my jurisdiction. But I do have it on good authority that, around the same time the girl was conceived, Miko kicked Yukari Yakumo out of the shrine and told her never to come back."
"Did she? Well, that does explain a lot. The old girl does have a nasty habit of pissing of her shine maidens, don't she?"
"This would be the twelfth time a Hakurei has banished her, yes."
The Imp chuckled. "And of course, your first impulse is to blow up the home of this poor, elderly mother and consign her and her young daughter to the cold of one of the harshest winters we've seen in over seventy years?"
"Personally, I see it as a sign of affection. After all, if I don't try to kill each Hakurei shrine maiden at least once before they hit puberty, they'll start to think I don't care."
The Imp's smirk somehow became even nastier. "Or start wondering why everyone always made such a big deal over you, if you keep failing to kill a little girl, over and over again."
Now it was Mima's turn to glower.
Seeing that she had managed to score a hit, the Imp let out some more mocking laughter, which Mima tolerated. When she was done, the Imp said, "Of course, we still haven't addressed the most important question yet."
"And what might that be?"
"Why the hell," The Imp took the pipe out of her mouth and blew a smoke ring right at Mima, "should I help you?"
Mima dispersed the smoke before it reached her. Coming from most people, the question would sound like a spiteful reminder of past insults. But given the context, Mima understood the actual meaning.
"What do you want?" she asked.
"Two things," said the Imp, holding up two fingers. "First, you know what it'll take to make the Receptacle run. You want to use it, the sacrifice is on you."
Mima nodded. She had expected as much. "And the second?"
The Imp motioned to a pile of filthy and damp papers lying in a corner. "I don't suppose you keep up with the Bunbunmaru?"
"Just for the recipes."
"Then you know what's going on at the Kappa Academy of Arts in two weeks."
"I've heard something about that, yes. An exhibition, isn't it? Of numerous artifacts of power?"
"Exactly. One of them's caught my eye. A stick, A bit under two meters long, supposed to make things fly. You familiar with it?"
Mima was, actually, and the answer surprised her. "The Takenostsue Joukuu? Surely not."
Like the Receptacle, the Takenostsue Joukuu wasn't exactly the most sought-after magical item, though it was better known, if only for academic reasons. A plain, unadorned rod of hard wood, its purpose was simple enough: anyone that held it was given the power of flight. Naturally, as most of Gensokyo's inhabitants were already born with that particular ability, that made the staff something of a joke among those who did not know its history. "What's next, a staff of defecating?" was a common joke whenever the staff was brought up, along with numerous other variants. However, those more educated tended to treat the Takenostsue Joukuu with more respect. While it was certainly useless in the practical sense, the fact that its creation predated Gensokyo itself by a number of generations gave it immense historical value, especially since the prevailing theory was that the reason everyone was able to fly was due to reverse engineering of the staff's enchantments. That alone gave it considerable significance.
Currently, the staff was in the possession of the aforementioned Yukari Yakumo, an incredibly powerful youkai who was the closest thing Gensokyo had to an actual ruler. Or rather, she would be, if she ever cared enough to do any actual ruling. Most of the time she just lazed about and let everyone mind their own affairs. Given that Mima took a more proactive approach to her ambitions, she and Yukari had clashed a number of times in years past. Unfortunately, Yukari did outclass her in terms of sheer magical power, and had a fair measure of cunning and ruthlessness when roused, but Mima still boasted a few victories over her. That, coupled with the fact that she still existed, was an accomplishment in of itself.
Based upon what Mima had picked up, Yukari was lending the staff, along with a few other objects of value, to the Kappa for their exhibition. Which explained why someone was after it now. While it was locked up in wherever Yukari stored her treasures, it would be all but untouchable.
"Surely yes," the Imp said, nodding. "Let's just say I know of someone who'd pay through the nose to get their mitts on it."
"When did you start dealing high-profile blackmarket goods?"
"Since I found someone willing to pay through the nose for high-profile blackmarket goods," the Imp snapped. "Those're my terms. Take 'em or leave 'em."
Mima shrugged. It wasn't a tall order. "Done. I'll get you the stick and a kid. Just make sure you do your part, and I won't have to bake what's left of your brain inside your skull."
"Don't worry about me. And don't you forget the conditions. The kid's gotta be-"
"I've read the fine print," Mima said shortly. "Trust me, everything will be up to specifications. After all, betrayal is something of a specialty of mine."
The Imp nodded. "Yeah, you can say that again. When you wanna do the deed?"
"Does the twenty-fifth of next month work for you?"
The Imp blinked her warty eyelids. "Christmas? You're gonna betray and murder a kid and blow up the home of an old woman and her little brat on Christmas?"
"It does lend a bit of cruel irony to the whole thing, doesn't it?"
"No shit." A slow, ugly grin lifted the Imp's fat lips. "But damn, and here I thought you had lost your touch."
Mima returned the look. Her lips were far more attractive, but the smile was no less ugly. "Ho, ho, ho," she said, her voice a low monotone.
Some hours later, Mima floated her way through the Forest of Magic, lost in thought. The task before her wasn't a difficult one; indeed, she had expected the Imp's demands to be far greater, perhaps even humiliating. Even with Yukari possibly involved, stealing the Takenostsue Joukuu out from under the Kappa's noses was such a simple task that it bordered on routine. She just needed to figure out how.
More pressing to her mind was the other half of the required payment, the one demanded by the Receptacle itself. To make it work, it required the sacrifice of a living Human, specifically a child. While such things were common among objects of dark magic, the Receptacle's conditions were a bit more specific than most. You couldn't just snatch a kid off the road and throw him or her onto the altar. You had to first gain their trust, make them think that they've gotten to know you, perhaps even love you. And then, once they had come to think of you as a friend, a protector, a mentor, or whatever you chose, that was when you threw them on the altar and killed them. They had to die with the full horror of your betrayal fresh in their minds; it wouldn't work otherwise.
It was for that reason that Mima looked upon the Receptacle with contempt. It was pointlessly gauche, evil for evil's sake. Once such betrayals became a requirement rather than a perk, it turned the whole thing into work and took all the fun out of it. Besides, it just overcomplicated things and made the Receptacle more of a chore to activate than it was worth.
Still, despite her criticisms, Mima was willing with work with those conditions when the situation called for it.
Now, where to acquire said child? The Human Village was discarded almost immediately. Despite being the most obvious choice, it was too risky. Taking a child probably wouldn't be too difficult, but it would not go unnoticed. Besides, kids from there tended to be taught not to trust strangers, and Mima wasn't interested in wasting time deprogramming them.
Her best bet was one of the smaller settlements; perhaps one of the farmsteads. They usually had a couple of tykes running around. Perhaps she could arrange to have one of them overrun and "conveniently" rescue one of the children, who would end up being the only survivor. Yes, that could work. The destruction could always be pinned on wild youkai, after all. They always made excellent scapegoats.
It was then that Mima heard a noise. She stopped her destinationless wandering and looked up, listening. Someone was moving nearby, and very quickly at that. Furthermore, they weren't trying to disguise their passage through the forest at all. Their breath was coming out in loud pants, mixed with whimpers.
Hmmm, interesting. Someone was fleeing for their life. That wasn't really surprising, as the Forest of Magic was one of the darkest and most dangerous places to be found on Gensokyo's surface. While dangerous youkai could be found in most places, the cruelest and strongest often made their homes in the Forest of Magic's tangled and overgrown paths. Outsiders that wandered in rarely left again unscathed, if they managed to leave at all.
As entertaining as watching the poor fool let themselves become someone's dinner would be, Mima was tempted to just go about her business. She had things to do, after all. But the sound of the fleeing person's cries tugged at her attention, and after a moment she understood why.
Her lips lifted in a smile. Well now, wasn't that just convenient?
A few turns later, and Mima saw that she was right. A Human girl was running (well, limping very quickly, sometimes wading when the piles of dead leaves and broken branches grew too deep) through the forest. From the looks of things, she was having a bad day. The front of her conservative grey dress was covered with mud, as were her palms and most of her face. Twigs and pieces of bark had become tangled in her hair short red hair, and her skin was scratched and bruised. Her eyes were wet and blotchy from crying. She couldn't have been older than seven or eight.
A lost child. Mima shook her head and smiled at her good fortune. Well now, that simplified things greatly. She needn't bother with any of the Human settlements at all. Part of the required price had just fallen into her lap. Mima had no truck with gods, at least not on a devotional level, but she considered sending some of the darker ones a "Thank You" card.
But while the girl was obviously scared, it wasn't the creeping, nervous fear of the lost, but the desperate panic of the hunted. Mima glanced around and found the source. Another girl, this one long-limbed and skeleton-thin with blue hair twisted into dreadlocks and a fashion sense that tended toward lots of stripes and orange ribbons, was crawling her way through the entwining branches overhead. Unsurprisingly it was a youkai, specifically a Chochinobake, if the lantern with the eye-shaped flame she carried was any indication. She was keeping pace with the scared Human girl, and judging by the bloodthirsty smile on her face she wasn't planning on helping the little girl find her way out of the forest.
As Mima watched, the redheaded girl's foot got hooked by a tree root and she fell. Sensing the end of their game, the youkai dropped from the branches and slowly approached, sauntering forward on three limbs like some kind of freakish spider while holding her lantern aloft with the fourth. "Oopsy-poopsie," she sang. "Little girly fall down. What does it tastes like, we wonders?"
"Get away!" the girl screamed as she tried to crawl away as fast as her short limbs could take her. She turned around and pressed her back to a tree. "I'm warnin' ya!"
The youkai was obviously amused. "Or it does what, we wonders?"
"Or…or I blast ya!" The girl snatched up a stick and thrust it forward. "I'm a real powerful wizard, and this is my magic wand! So get lost before I blow you up, ze!" That last syllable was certainly unusual, a whistling noise that was somewhere between a sneeze and a wolf whistle.
This time the youkai did stop, though it was out of puzzlement. "Ze?" she said. "What means ze?"
"It's a spell!" the girl shouted, giving the stick an emphatic wiggle. "One that'll blow your ugly head right off, ze!"
"There is ze again," the youkai mused to itself. "How strange this is. Maybe when we eats it, we says ze too."
"No, yer not eating anyone!" the girl screamed in panic. "I told ya, I'm a real powerful wizard, so just beat it already!"
"Is it?" The youkai cackled. "Well, we doesn't believes it. Perhaps it shows us a magic trick?"
Well, that was as good as an opening as any. Mima took a brief moment to change her appearance (trading in her ghostly tail for actual legs, turning her hair a brilliant silver, turning her robe royal purple, and conjuring a thin silver rod topped with a red jewel) and stepped into view.
"I'm not sure you'd want her to do that," she called.
The youkai had obviously not sensed Mima's approach, as she leaped full into the air with a screech of surprise. Immediately upon landing, she scampered around so that she was facing Mima.
"What is this?" the youkai demanded. "Where did it come from?"
"Moi?" Mima said, placing one hand over her chest. She held up her staff, which began emitting a bright crimson light. "Who am I? My dear wretch, you gaze upon the great and terrible Morgan le Fae, dread enchantress of the Forest of Magic!" Then she pointed her staff at the girl, who was also staring slack-jawed with shock. "Furthermore, that is my apprentice you're harassing."
"I am?" the girl gulped. Then, demonstrating that she at least had more wits than most brats, she immediately backpedaled and said, "Uh, of course I am! See, I told you I was a wizard!"
Now looking considerably less sure of herself, the youkai slowly backed away, though her face was still dark with doubt. "Morgan le Fae," she whispered, again mostly to herself. "But we never hears of Morgan le Fae."
"Never heard of me?" Mima straightened in mock-offense. "Now I'm just insulted. First you assault my apprentice, and now you claim to have never heard of the most infamous magician of the modern age. No, that won't do at all." She turned to the girl. "My dear, it is time this wretch is taught a lesson. Show her the full power of the Ze spell!"
"The Ze spell?" the girl repeated, her face screwing up in confusion.
"Yes! You warned her not to taunt its power, and now it's time to show her why!"
Still frowning with uncertainty, the girl pointed her stick at the bewildered youkai and said, "Uh, ze?"
Then she screamed and covered herself as the top half of the youkai simply exploded with a puff of red smoke, leaving nothing but an orange skirt and two legs covered with black-and-white striped stockings. These stood still for a moment before toppling over to flop lifelessly. And then, like all dead youkai should, they dissolved into mist.
"Well, that takes care of that," Mima murmured. She turned her attention to the cowering girl and made a quick assessment. Deciding that the girl wasn't the type to be coddled and cooed over, Mima settled for kneeling next to her and saying, "Are you all right?"
Shivering, the girl peeked out from behind her hands. "Did…did I do that?"
"No, I did. But that youkai thought you did, which should discourage her from picking on you in the future."
Apparently the shock was still well-entrenched, as the girl just stared blankly and said, "Huh?"
"Never mind." Mima made a show of glancing around. "For now, we'd better get you out of here before anything else shows up." She offered her hand to the girl.
But instead of taking it, the girl just kept staring and said, "So…that wasn't me? I didn't blow her up?"
"No," Mima said. "Again, I tricked her into thinking-"
"So there is no 'ze' spell?"
"No, there is not," Mima said patiently. "That was a trick. And now really isn't the best time to-"
"So I can't do magic?"
Mima's mouth thinned out into a straight line, but she said, "Whether or not you have any magical talent is not for me to judge, and seeing how you are still in danger, I suggest we postpone this conversation until-"
The girl's stick bounced off her nose.
"You jerk!" the girl screamed. "What'choo do that for, ze? You made me think Papa was wrong!" She snatched up a handful of soggy leaves and threw them into Mima's face. "Big. Stupid. JERK!"
Bemused, Mima watched as the girl snatched her stick back up and started jabbing it at her, all the while yelling, "Ze! Ze! Come, ZE! Blow up already!"
Well, this was an interesting development. Apparently her unexpected boon was insane. That complicated things. "Stop that," Mima said firmly. She grabbed the end of the stick and held it in place. "You're behaving foolishly, and if you don't compose yourself-"
The girl punched her in the cheek.
Summoning up an incredible amount of willpower, Mima resisted the urge to hurl the girl into orbit and slowly backed off. "All right, fine," she said. "I was going to invite you back to my home for a hot bath and some supper, but if that's how you treat your rescuers, I suppose we have nothing further to discuss."
She turned and started walking away, all the while counting down in her head.
5, 4, 3, 2, 1…
"Wait! Hey, wait!"
A small smirk passed briefly over Mima's face, and she stopped and looked over her shoulder. "Yes?"
The girl was still sitting with her back against the tree. "Are…are you a wizard, ze?"
Mima arched an eyebrow. "In a matter of speaking, though 'sorceress' would be more accurate, as would 'enchantress.' Even 'witch' would do in a pinch, though it's best to just stick with 'magician' so as to avoid confusion."
"Only boys are wizards," Mima explained. She tried not to sound condescending, but it was just so hard. "Girl magicians are called other things, depending on their specialization."
The girl's nose wrinkled. "B-but you can do magic and stuff, right? That's how you blew up that creepy girl, right?"
Now Mima was starting to remember why she didn't much care for children. As idiotic as most Humans were, at least most of them would have realized that much by now. "Yes, little girl," she said, speaking slowly. "I am a magician. I can do magic. It's my job."
Then the girl's eyes lit up. "Really?" she said as scrambled to her feet. "Can you-"
Then her left foot slipped and she fell facefirst into a pile of leaves. "Oof!"
"Hmmm." Mima walked over to the struggling girl and gave her a brief examination. "It seems that your ankle is twisted."
"I tripped over a log," the girl muttered.
"And most everything since, by the look of things." Mima clicked her tongue and shook her head. "Well, it's easy enough to fix. I can patch you up and send you on your way, if you'd prefer."
The girl gave her an odd look. "You can do magic, right?"
"Yes." Mima held out her hand. Green light appeared in her palm, which twisted in on itself and took shape, becoming a white-petaled flower. "Lots and lots of magic."
The girl stared in wide-eyed wonder. Then she looked up at Mima and grinned. "So, uh, you said you lived around here, ze?"
Fortunately, Mima's hideaway in the Forest of Magic already resembled a proper magician's laboratory. It helped that it actually was a proper magician's laboratory. Only a few minor touch-ups were needed to create the illusion that Mima led a mortal life there: a cabinet of dishes, a larder with food, a bed, and so on. Upon their arrival, this was accomplished with a few minor magic tricks. And when the girl was happily soaking in Mima's cauldron making bubble monsters fight each other, Mima took the opportunity to teleport to nearby homesteads and procure the items she needed to reinforce the deception.
Mima loved being a spirit with magical powers and a dubious code of morality. Even when operating on a fraction of her power, it made things so much easier.
At any rate, as the girl was still enjoying her bath by the time she had returned, Mima decided to get started on that whole "dinner" thing. She could of course just use her powers to create something that looked and tasted like the real thing, but she needed to keep the girl healthy long enough to sacrifice her on an evil pagan altar, and ingesting too much magic was known to have negative side-effects. Besides, as handy as willing things into being could be, Mima preferred to do things for herself. It had been a long time since she had last cooked anything, at anything intended for safe consumption, and while she didn't need to eat, she found the art itself to be enjoyable. It was like mixing potions or assembling a ward, only with different ingredients and better smells.
After some consideration, she decided to go with something simple: noodles with beef, various vegetables, and a mild curry sauce. She considered baking some bread as well, but that would just take too long.
However, even when she had finished, the girl was still in the bath. Furthermore, she had stopped making noises.
Frowning, Mima went into the next room. She hoped that the girl hadn't somehow drowned herself, but accidents do happen. It would be horribly embarrassing if that proved to be the case. Accidentally killing your chosen sacrifice weeks before the sacrifice itself was supposed to take place was never good for business.
Fortunately, the girl was still alive. However, she was now floating upside-down at least two meters over the cauldron with a loony grin on her face. Bubbles from her bath were rising from the water to form clinging tendrils that twirled around her body. And, for some reason, both she and the bubbles had turned bright pink.
Mima blinked in surprise. Well now, that wasn't supposed to happen. She was certain that she had decontaminated the cauldron before filling it with water.
Then she spied the empty glass bottle lying on the floor and understood. The girl had mistaken one of her potions for more bubble-bath and had poured it in. Clearly, Mima was going to have to start taking better care to keep her stuff out of the kid's reach. Fortunately, while exposure to the potion was mildly intoxicating, it had no long-term negative effects, but it would still do to be careful. The next time, the girl could end up turning herself into a lizard or cause her head to swell up to four times its normal size.
Mima reached up and pulled the girl to the floor. A tap on the nose, and the girl's glazed eyes rolled back and she slumped to the floor, her skin already fading to its normal hue. Then Mima tapped the cauldron. The web of pink bubbles popped away, and the water was set boiling until nothing remained than a layer of pink liquid at the very bottom, which she then gathered back into the bottle. Waste not…
The girl's eyes fluttered. "Uh, I feel weird…" she mumbled as she sat up and rubbed her eye with her fist. "And kind of fizzy."
"Too much bubble bath," Mima said, putting the bottle on a high shelf. "You should know better than to play with strange potions that you find in a magician's home. But now that you're clean, supper is ready. Unless, of course, if you'd rather take a nap-"
"Supper?" The girl's head jerked up, all trace of sleepiness gone. "Food!"
With that, she was on her feet and bolting in the direction of the smell of food. Mima picked up the (now clean) grey dress from the chair it had been laid over and cleared her throat.
The girl stopped and turned to stare at her.
Mima held up the dress. "Forgetting something?"
Moments later, the girl was fully dressed and burying her face into her bowl. Mima sat across from her with a bowl of her own. Unneeded as it might be, she wasn't above indulging in some of the baser pleasures every now and then, and taste was one of the finest.
When the girl finally slowed enough to come up for air, Mima said, "Well, now that you've been restored to a suitable condition, perhaps it's time that you told me your name."
The girl scowled.
"What, don't you have one?"
Instead of answering, the girl morosely poked her remaining food around the bottom of the bowl.
Mima cocked her head to one side. "Is there a problem? Do you not remember it? Are you experiencing memory loss?"
"I know it," the girl muttered. "Just don't like it."
"Well, tell it to me anyway."
The girl's scowl darkened, but she mumbled, "Mary."
Hmmm, a very Western name, but those weren't unheard of. Come to think of it, the girl did seem like she had Western heritage. "What's wrong with Mary? It's a serviceable enough name."
"But it's boring," Mary complained. "Mair-ree. It's so stupid sounding and dumb."
Mima refrained from pointing out the redundancy of that last sentence. "Is that right? Well, did you know that according to most Western faiths, Mary was the name of the woman chosen to be the mother of God himself, reincarnated as Human? So to that way of thinking, you are named after the most important woman in history."
"Duh," Mary said scornfully. "Of course I know about the Virgin Mary! Papa has this big ol' picture of her and Jesus, and I think he prays to her more than God, ze!"
Well, that confirmed the girl's heritage at least. There were faiths, religions, and superstitions aplenty in Gensokyo, but Christianity and its offshoots were a bit on the rare side. There were a handful practitioners scattered among the hamlets and farms, at least one small commune out by the Autumnal Forest, a few more in Center Tree, and a small but close-knit group in the Human Village, but for the most part they formed a minority, one that was mostly restricted to Western Outsiders that had found their way into Gensokyo and had been unable to leave. According to Mima's sources, they did see a small but fervent revival a few decades back, one that had been suddenly cut short when its more zealous members ran afoul of a particularly nasty youkai. Seeing how a fair amount of the modern-day believers were descended from that ill-fated movement's survivors, this girl's father or grandfather had probably been involved. Or not; there had been other Christians that had stayed well away from them. They had been a rather dogmatic bunch, after all.
"Well then, there you go," Mima said with a shrug. "Your name has semi-divine heritage."
Mary scowled. "But I don't wanna be named after somebody's mom! Mary never did nuthin', she just rode around on a donkey and had a baby." She irritably worked to fish a rebellious lump of rice out of her bowl. "'Sides, I don't wanna be named for someone who's already dead. I wanna do big important stuff and be the one other stupid papas name their kids after, ze!"
Mima quirked an eyebrow. "Well, I can't say I don't like your attitude. And judging by your tone, I take it you and your father are at odds?"
Mary looked like she was a little confused by all the big words, but she seemed to catch the gist of what Mima was saying. "He's a big, fat jerk," she declared angrily. "He's always making me stay inside the Village and do stupid lessons. And every time I ask about magic, he gets made and yells at me for wanting to know about evil. Then he hits my ears."
Okay, that definitely sounded like something from the leftover remnants of that little revival. Most of the other Christians had more-or-less adapted to their life in Gensokyo and got along quite well with their magical brethren, even the local gods, even if they didn't worship them themselves. There were even a few magicians among their number. So this sort of closed-mindedness definitely stank of that now-extinguished sect, the fools.
"Well, that's a bit backward," Mima said mildly. "This is Gensokyo. There is magic everywhere. Most of the people here need it to live, while others use it as naturally as breathing."
"Z'actly!" Mary shouted, banging her tiny fist against the table. "But he don't wanna listen, ze!"
"He certainly sounds like an unpleasant person," Mima agreed. She stood up (and my, that felt strange. It had been a long time since she had worn legs) and started collecting the dishes. "What of your mother? Does she have an opinion on the subject?"
Mary shook her head. "Nah, she's dead."
And the plot thickened. Mima wouldn't be surprised if magic had been somehow involved. Losing one's spouse to an ill-timed spell would definitely leave poor impressions, even without adding religion to the mix. "Oh, I'm so sorry," she said, sounding fully sincere.
"Why?" Mary asked, her face scrunching up. "Did'ja kill her or somethin'?"
Oddly enough, the question didn't seem to be sarcastic. "No, of course not," Mima said. "I was simply offering sympathy."
"Eh, don't worry," Mary said with a shrug. "I was a baby, so it's not like I even remember her."
Nodding, Mima took the dishes over to her newly-acquired washbin. "Do you know how it happened?"
"She got sick," Mary said evasively. "Hey, can you teach me magic?"
Well, that was certainly an abrupt change of subject. Deciding to let the question of the girl's parentage drop for the time being, Mima turned her head to give the girl a skeptical look. "Pardon? Teach you magic?"
"Yes!" Mary said excitedly. "I wanna be a magician too, ze! Can you teach me?"
It was good that Mima had long perfected her poker face, because otherwise the grin she felt forming would be hard to fight. Oh, this was going to be fun. Placing the dishes in the large, wooden bucket, Mima straightened up and said in a dangerous tone, "How to become a-Child, do you have the slightest inkling as to the magnitude of what you're asking?"
"C'mon!" Mary begged. "Please!"
Her eyes dark with fury, Mima advanced on the tiny Human. "Your ignorance is astounding, and matched only by your arrogance. Becoming a magician is more than learning a few penny tricks." A nudge of her will, and the house changed: the shadows lengthened, the walls seemed to curve in around them, and the timbers started creaking. All subtle of course; just enough to add a measure of menace to the atmosphere.
It worked. The girl cowered back in her seat. Her mouth hung open and her eyes were staring unblinking at Mima as she advanced. "It is a calling, one that takes years of careful study, endless practice, and a highly disciplined mind." Another nudge, and she pushed things a bit beyond subtlety: lightning crackled in her eyes, red energy collected around her fingers, and shimmering green smoke gathered behind her head like a halo. When she spoke, her voice echoed resonantly. "What makes you think that you have the dedication, fortitude, and raw talent to learn under me?"
Mima hovered before the gaping child, glowering down at her. She held her intimidation factors for a few seconds further before finally letting them fade away, returning their surroundings to normal.
"Speak," she said to Mary.
Mary continued to gawk up at her. Then, to Mima's honest surprise, she grinned widely. "Oh my gosh, that was so cool!" she gibed. "Can I learn that first?"
Mima raised an eyebrow. Well, the girl had will and drive, both points in her favor. "So, you truly desire to learn under me?" she inquired, folding her arms over her chest.
"Yes!" Mary all but cheered. Then she quickly composed herself, or at least attempted to. The bouncy energy emitting from her was almost palpable. "I mean, please?"
"Even if doing so means being separated from your father? Perhaps indefinitely?"
Mary's grin grew all the wider. "You mean it? I don't have to go home? Yes! Yes, yes, yes, yes!"
Sighing, Mima dropped her arms and turned away. "Unfortunately Mary, I am not looking to take on a new apprentice right now…"
"Please!" Mary begged again, this time bouncing in her seat. "Please, please, please!"
"Hmmm." Keeping her back to the anxious girl, Mima rubbed her chin as she pretended to take the girl's request under consideration. Petty as it may be, the sorceress was enjoying Mary's distress. "Well, I don't know…"
Sighing, Mima turned to face her again. "All right. You may spend the night here, and tomorrow I'll test you to see if you have sufficient magical talent. If you possess the necessary potential, then yes, I will teach you. But-"
"THANK YOU!" Mary squealed. She leapt out of her chair and threw her arms around the sorceress's waist. "Thank you, thank you, thank you! I promise I'll be the best student ever, ze! I never be any trouble and do everything you say and-"
"Wonderful. You can start by getting off." Mima gingerly peeled the girl off of her. "And I haven't said yes yet. I still need to check your power, remember?"
Balling up her little fists in eagerness, Mary said, "Do it now! Uh, please?"
"Tomorrow," Mima said sternly.
"To. Mor. Row," Mima said in a clipped tone. "If you cannot wait that long, then you have no business trying to become a magician."
Mary stiffened. She swung her right arm up and smacked the side of her hand against her brow in a salute. "Aye, aye!"
"In the meantime, I have matters to occupy me tonight," Mima said. "You may use the bed, so long as you refrain from pestering me and-"
Before she had finished the sentence, Mary had bolted over to the bed Mima had procured from a nearby homestead with and leapt right in. "Oh my gosh, this is amazing!" she sung as she bounced up and down. "I don't know how I'm gonna sleep with-"
Mima pointed a finger at her and muttered a word. Sparks hit Mary in the face in mid-bounce and she belly-flopped onto the green-and-blue quilt and started snoring.
Amused, Mima shook her head and smiled. Well, fate had seen fit to smile upon her. She needed to win a child's trust for the sacrifice, and here one was. And not only that, one that was estranged from her family and obsessed with magic. Chuckling to herself, Mima turned and walked away. She couldn't have found a more suitable subject if she had one specially designed.
Mima spent the remainder of the night scouting out where the Takenostsue Joukuu was being kept and taking stock of the security measures that had been put in place. Her intention was to just zip in and take it before anyone knew that one of their treasures was in danger, but upon arrival she was forced to downscale to a simple reconnaissance mission. Apparently the event's organizers were not among those who considered the staff a joke. Mima had to compliment them for forward thinking, but it certainly complicated things.
The Kappa Academy of Arts was located in the Kappa Village, which in turn had been established beneath the waters of the great lake that sat at the foot of the Youkai Mountain. The village itself was more-or-less one large self-contained structure that sprawled over the lake's bottom. Instead of individual buildings, things like private homes, business, and public services were contained within suites of room, connected by a network of passageways. From above, it looked like several sand-colored domes and cone-shaped towers connected by a bunch of tubes at their base.
The Academy itself had its own sizeable dome. The exhibition was to take place in the palatial lobby within a few weeks' time. Until then, the items to be put on display were being stored safely away in a high-security storage room. And, as Mima immediately learned upon arrival, no chances were being taken that an item might be removed without consent. The Kappa were the most technologically advanced species within Gensokyo, and while they sometimes favored showmanship over practicality, she had to admit the myriad of defenses they had put in place was impressive. Alarms, cameras, invisible lasers, electrified surfaces, and hidden panels containing enough artillery to declare war on their avian neighbors were all present, and then some.
Of course, technology meant little to Mima. It was all just artificial manipulation of energy, after all. And there were few that could match her in that department. Unfortunately, it seemed that the Kappa had decided to hedge their bets by employing technology's cranky uncle: magic. Usually the two forces weren't used in cooperation, but today wards, charms, seals, and shields sat comfortably with the Kappa devices. Now that was progressive thinking, and it presented one hell of a problem.
Had Mima been complete, disabling all present defenses, regardless of their type, would be laughably easy. There was not a ward she couldn't crack and no circuit board she could not send into electrical seizures. Unfortunately, Mima was not complete. At the moment, she had a mere fraction of her normal power. More than enough for day-to-day stuff of course, and she still outclassed the majority of professional practitioners. But taking on something like this? Well, that was going to require some work.
After mapping out the exhibit's defenses the best she could without triggering any of them, Mima returned to her hideout. Mary was still lying facedown one the bed, snoring happily. Mima checked to ensure she wouldn't accidentally suffocate and considered the problem. This was a distressing turn of events. Why would a simple historical exhibit require so much security? Okay granted, the staff wasn't the only item being displayed; it wasn't even the centerpiece. And fine, maybe they were paranoid about misplacing one of Yukari's possessions. And the Kappa were known for going overboard whenever they did anything. But this was just ridiculous.
For a moment, Mima wondered if Roccio was responsible. Could this be some sort of clever trap? To name the staff as her payment and tip its owners off about the heist, thereby causing the rest of Mima to be trapped and sealed away as well? Mima wouldn't put it past her to…But no, that didn't track. Wards of that caliber required several days to prepare, and unless Roccio was somehow prescient, there was no way she could have known that Mima would ask for her services.
Troubled, Mima put her mind to work. The exhibition was in about three weeks' time, after which it would go right back into Yukari's vault, rendering it completely out of reach. Until then, it would remain under near-impenetrable security. Well, fine. Mima liked a challenge.
Soon she was surrounded by floating holographic projections, both flat and three-dimensional, of the Academy, with all the security measures she had managed to observe noted in glowing white. She studied them intently, taking note of patterns and layouts, searching for that small hinge pin that would bring everything down. Every elaborate system had one.
Then she heard a sleepy yawn. She turned and saw to her surprise that Mary was starting to stir. Already? But that spell should have kept her down for…
Mima quickly checked the time and found that it was well past dawn. Well, she really had lost track of time.
Quickly she banished the maps and reassumed the form of Morgan le Fae. Mary sleepily sat up and yawned again. Rubbing her eyes, she squinted at her surroundings.
Apparently she hadn't been expecting what she saw, as she blinked slowly at the cluttered magician's workshop, her brow furrowed in confusion. Then she caught sight of Mima and her face lit up.
"Oh yeah!" She scampered off the bed and ran to Mima. "Check me, check me!"
Mima quirked an eyebrow. "Already? It isn't even seven o' clock yet. Wouldn't you like to have breakfast first?"
"No!" Mary stamped her foot. "Check me! You promised!"
"Oh, very well." Mima reached out with one hand. "Hold still."
Mary made an effort, though her body still trembled with excitement. Mima touched her forehead and closed her eyes. As she reached in with her will, she found herself musing on just how ironic it would be if the girl turned out to be a sublime talent. It wouldn't change anything of course, but it would be amusing for a magical prodigy to have been born to a noted hater of the mystic.
Mima searched and found…
Wait, what? Frowning, Mima dug deeper, probing every centimeter of the girl's mind and soul. Surely there had to be something. This was Gensokyo, and even the lowliest of Human had at least a tiny measure of talent. It was how they were able to fly and shoot danmaku, after all.
But all rules had exceptions, and it seemed that Mima had stumbled across one in its purest form. This girl didn't have a smidgen of magical ability. No bullets, no flight, nothing. No wonder she hadn't tried to fly away from that youkai the night before. She just couldn't. Honestly, it was a miracle she had gotten as far into the forest as she had.
Mima was dumbfounded. Such pristinely ungifted individuals weren't unheard of, but they were extremely rare. Even immigrants from the Outside World always ended up acquiring the same basic abilities as the native-born. Those like Mary were horrifically unfortunate anomalies: deformed in a way, but of a spiritual variety rather than a physical one. Perhaps that was why wanted so desperately to become a magician. On some level, she sensed what she was missing, and desired to acquire it.
"Well?" Mary said impatiently. "Can you teach me, ze?"
Smiling warmly, Mima removed her hand and said, "Well, well, well. Now that is a lot of power."
Mary's eyes brightened. "Really?" she said, her voice rising to a high pitch.
Mima solemnly nodded. "Indeed. Now, if were are to do this, you must understand-"
"YES!" Mary screamed. She started running circles around Mima, pumping her tiny fists above her head screeching in celebration. "I'm going to be a magician, I'm going to be a magician, I'm going to be a magician!"
Mima allowed her to make four orbits before stopping her with a hand to her shoulder. "All right, stop that," she said sternly. "As I was about to say, if you want me to teach you, you have to be prepared to do exactly as I say. The road to becoming a magician is neither easy nor simple. You must be ready to push yourself harder and endure hardships beyond anything you imagined. It will not be pleasant, but if you manage to survive, you have a good chance of becoming truly great."
Mary nodded enthusiastically. "Yes, yes, yes! Anything you want! Bring it on, I'm ready!"
Oh, the poor little fool. Mima let her wander off to the bed, where she lay on her back, staring dreamily at the ceiling. "I'm going to be a magician," she whispered.
Though her smile never wavered, Mima sighed internally. She was not often moved to pity, but she came close then. All things considered, sacrificing this girl to the Receptacle could almost be a mercy. And while Mima despised altruism, she was willing to make an exception, because to allow Mary to live on in such a state was a fate too cruel even for her.
Yup, this is this year's Christmas special. Only this one is going to be done a little differently. See, a few days ago I realized that, since this is both a training montage and a heist story, publishing it as one big chunk would cause a number of pacing problems. So I'm releasing it in sections. Here's the first, the second will be up on Monday, and the final will be up the following Saturday. And don't worry: Resonance Days will be worked on as planned. Also note that this isn't going to be a regular thing. Next year's special will be back to being a one-shot.
But yeah, hope you guys like it. Merry Christmas, everyone!