It was early Christmas morning. Mima sat in her chair with the Takenostsue Joukuu laid across her legs, her gaze balefully fixated on Mary's Christmas tree.
It was a pretty tree, adorned with golden bulbs, silver stars, and flickering candles, the only light in the otherwise shadowed room. Mima had helped Mary decorate, though upon reflection, she wasn't really sure why. Decorating Christmas trees wasn't something she was accustomed to doing. But it had made the girl happy, and thus strengthened her trust in Mima, so she might as well chalk that one up to maintaining her façade. Though the fact that Mima had also enjoyed herself couldn't be explained so easily.
Then she glanced to Mary, who was sprawled awkwardly over the bed with her limbs spread in all directions and head nowhere near the pillow. Mima could probably count on one hand the number of times she had seen the girl actually used the blanket in the way it had been intended. Most of the time, Mary would be so exhausted from her lessons that Mima wouldn't even need to use any sort of sleeping spell. The girl would just collapse onto the bed and start snoring. Despite this, Mary's snores were punctuated with giggles, and there was a happy smile on her face. No doubt her dreams were centered around Mary the Magnificent, Master Magician.
Mima's scowl deepened. She thought back to one of her previous projects, which had involved posing as a runaway slave so as to seduce the high priest of a certain religious order with very dim views on Human ownership. That tryst had lasted for months, during which the poor fool had fallen head-over-heels in love with her. She had been his closest confidante, there had been talk of children, la de dah. And when she had finally pried the location of their holy symbol from his lips and delivered both it and the heads of everyone in the temple to the roaming raiders that had employed her, the look on the priest's face had been so delicious that she still treasured the image to the present day. And that whole relationship had been three times as long as her time with Mary, and had been a great deal more intimate. So why was she having second thoughts about this one when that one had not given her pause? It didn't make any sense.
Mima looked down at the staff lying on her knees. She picked it up and rolled it back and forth over her palm. The hell it didn't make any sense. She was incomplete; that's all there was to it. The loss of power was affecting her judging and compromising her emotional control. It had happened before and she had pulled through. She just needed to see this to the end, and everything would be all right again.
Mary stirred with a snort. She mumbled something incomprehensible, rolled over onto her side, and slowly sat up. Yawning widely, she rubbed the grit from her eyes and blinked sleepily at her surroundings. Then her eyes fell upon the tree and all traces of sleep vanished.
"Oh yeah!" she cried as she leapt from the bed. "Merry Christmas, Morgan!"
"And to you too, child," Mima said, smiling. She stood up and waved her hand, causing all the lights in the house to flare to life. "Would you like breakfast first or-Oof!" The rest of that thought was cut off when Mary suddenly lunged forward and wrapped her arms around Mima's waist.
"This is," Mary said, her cheek pressed to Mima's lap, "gonna be the first Christmas I've had that doesn't suck, ze!"
Despite the morbid irony of that statement, Mima didn't feel like smirking. And that bothered her. "That's some faint praise," she said, giving Mary's mussed hair an affectionate tussle. "But I'll take it. Now, about that-"
"Wait, wait, wait!" Releasing her hold on her mentor, Mary scampered back to the bed. Getting down on her belly, she crawled beneath the bedframe, so that only her calves were sticking out.
Bemused, Mima watched as Mary scrounged around for something. "You know," she said. "That's not exactly wise. There are many nasty creatures that like to lurk in the shadows of a magician's house. Beneath the bed is especially popular."
"Eh, you wouldn't let 'em if they tried," Mary responded, her voice muffled. "And even if you did, I'd just sock 'em in the nose." She skittered backward back into the light, bringing a package messily wrapped with brown paper with her. Grinning, she ran over and thrust it into Mima's hands.
Mima's brow rose. "Oh my, is this for me?"
"Yup! Open it!"
"Well, that was kind of you." Mima carefully undid the wrappings, expecting to see a bouquet of wildflowers, probably crawling with earwigs. "I wasn't expecting to-Oh."
Inside was a hat, tall and pointed without a brim, the sort often favored by master magicians. It was made from wool felt dyed a rich purple, the same color as Mima's robe in her role as Morgan le Fae. A white lace bow flared around the edge like a pair of wings, and a golden sun was stitched to the body.
"Did you make this?" she asked.
"Yup! Try it on!"
Not sure what to expect, Mima gingerly placed it on her head. Then she walked over to a full-length mirror and looked at herself.
Her brows went up. Well, it actually didn't look bad. In fact, it rather suited her. Despite her tender years, the girl was as clever a seamstress as she was a student of magical theory, no doubt helped by her talent for picking out delicate patterns and her precise hand when it came to rune inscription.
"Well?" Mary demanded, impatiently hopping from one foot to the next.
Mima took a deep breath. "I…like it," she said honestly. She took off the hat and examined it. "You did good work. Thank you."
Mary beamed. Then she looked over to the tree and her face fell, no doubt noticing the lack of presents underneath.
That was as good a lead-in as any. "Get dressed," Mima told her. "We're going out."
"Going out?" Looking confused, Mary did as she was instructed. "Okay, but where?"
Mima picked up the Takenostsue Joukuu. "Where do you think? To get your present."
"My present? You mean-" Mary looked at the staff and her eyes widened. "Oh wow, you mean that magic thingy you're gonna trade that for is…"
Mima opened the door and smiled. "Ready to go?"
"Yes!" Grinning widely, Mary followed Mima out into the snow, completely ignorant to the fact that she was walking to her death.
Roccio's fat lips spread wide as Mima entered her hut, Mary trailing close behind. "Well, well, well," she croaked. "Lookie who we have here. Merry Christmas, bitches."
The Imp had dressed for the holidays. Which was to say she now wore a natty and stained robe that might once have been scarlet. On her head was the withered carcass of a Santa Claus cap, its ball of puff barely hanging on by a few scant threads. Mima, who had met the saintly elf on two different occasions and did not like him at all, couldn't decide if the Imp's appearance was an improvement over the genuine article or a declination of Roccio's usual outfit.
"Merry Christmas, Roccio," Mima said with a cordial nod of her head. "I see you have appropriately garbed yourself."
"Yeah, figured I might as well get into the spirit of things." The Imp threw her head back and cackled, sending saliva spraying everywhere. "Get it? Spirit of things?"
"Yes, very droll."
"And speaking of which, did you do something with your hair?" Roccio's eyes dipped down. "And look at that, Santa brought you a pair of legs for Christmas! You musta been a good little ghost."
Behind her, Mary stared at her dismal surroundings with a look of bewildered revulsion. Whatever she had been expecting, this was most certainly not it. "Morgan, this place is nasty," she whispered, tugging at Mima's sleeve. "Why are we here?"
"And who is this juicy little morsel?" Roccio leaned to the side to peer at the shrinking girl.
"This is Mary Kirisame," Mima told her. "She's the girl we discussed earlier."
"Yeah, I figured that part out." Roccio beckoned to Mary with one warty finger. "Come on, kiddo. Don't be shy. Say hello to Auntie Roccio."
Mary made a face. She might have made a disparaging comment, but Mima nudged her forward. "Go on," she said. "Don't be rude."
Looking at Mima in confusion, Mary nervously stepped forward. "Uh, hi?" she said to the Imp. "Who are you, ze?"
"Who are youzey?" The Imp snickered, making a snot bubble fill her left nostril before popping. "Can't say I've heard of 'em."
Mary looked up to Mima, silently begging her to explain why they were in such a disgusting place.
"This anthropomorphic pimple is called Roccio," Mima told her. "As her outfit implies, she'll be the one giving you your Christmas present. And me, mine."
"Ho, ho, ho," Roccio rumbled.
"What," Mary deadpanned, staring.
"Indeed," Mima said. "And speaking of which…"
She tossed the Takenostsue Joukuu over to Roccio, who caught it in one hand.
"There," Mima said. "The Takenostsue Joukuu. As we agreed."
"Heh." Roccio ran her hand over the staff's length, leaving a trail of sweat and grime. Mima internally winced at the befoulment of such a priceless artifact, but now was not the time to split hairs. "Haf'ta say, didn't really expect you to pull it off."
"Well, I did," Mima said, her lip lifting in a snarl. "Now it's time for your part."
Chuckling, Roccio slid off her stool and waddled over to where the Receptacle was housed. She bit into her thumb, drawing a muddy red drop of blood. Mary started gagging.
Roccio pressed her thumb to the top of the altar, leaving a bloody smear. Immediately the red quartz of the Receptacle's body flared bright scarlet, filling the filthy hovel with ominous light, cast into perverse shapes by the black ebony covering the altar.
Mary shrank back. She was seeing dark magic for the first time, and it was clear that she didn't much care for it. "Morgan? What's going on?" she whimpered. "This is scary. I don't like it."
Mima remained silent, but Roccio had heard her. "Morgan, eh?" she said, turning to leer at the scared girl. "Is that what she said her name was?" She laughing, a horrid, croaking sound. "Girlie, are you in for a surprise!"
"Morgan?" Mary said pleadingly, tugging again on Mima's sleeve.
Mima looked at her then, her eyes hard and cold. Shocked, Mary took a step back.
"No," she said, finally realizing the predicament she was in. "You can't…Morgan, you're not really going to…"
Mima looked away.
"Morgan? It's not true, is it? Morgan?"
Ignoring her, Mima said to the Imp, "Take her. She's yours."
Here she would normally include an additional remark to the victim: a taunt, a sneer, a mocking laugh. But as bizarre at it sounded, her heart just wasn't in it. Try as she might, she could find no joy in this betrayal, only regret at the waste.
Steady, she told herself. That's just your loss of emotional control talking. You'll feel better once you've been restored.
The Imp, however, was enjoying herself very much. "C'mon, girlie," she sneered as she lurched over to Mary, sausage-like fingers grasping.
Mary let a terrified squeak and, finally realizing that Mima would provide no protection, turned and ran for the door. She got within less than a meter of it before it slammed shut in her face.
"Nice try!" Roccio crowed. "You ain't getting away that easily, kiddo!"
But Mary wasn't done. As Roccio continued to wobble her way towards her, Mary reached into her pocket and pulled out a small piece of chalk. Finding the flattest piece of ground that she could, she hurriedly crouched down and stabbed at floor with a few short, precise slashes, inscribing a quick rune around herself.
Right before Roccio reached her, the rune flared up and fire shot up around Mary, not harming her but scorching everything else. Roccio squealed like a stuck pig and fell back, her fingers blackened and smoking.
"You little bitch!" Roccio howled. "I'll pull your guts out for-" Then her eyes widened when she saw that Mary's circle of fire had reached the top of her hovel. Hungry tongues of flame spread over the ceiling as smoke filled the air.
Left to her own devices, Mary might have won. The shack would have burned down, taking Roccio with it, allowing her to escape once the coast was clear. But she did not stand against Roccio alone. Mima held out her hand and clenched it into a fist. She spoke a word of command, loud and clear even over the roar of the fire.
White steam shot up around Mary's rune, swallowing up the fire and snuffing it out. The rune itself cracked and blew away. The smoke cleared, revealing Mary still crouched with her knees up to her face and hands covering her head. She looked with wet eyes first to her broken rune, and then to the person who had destroyed it, the person she had come to love, respect, and trust over the last few weeks.
That, more than anything else, was what broke her. She slumped down, all the fight leaving her body. She didn't even have the strength to cry.
Mima stared at the defeated child and found the spectacle disturbing. When they had infiltrated the Kappa Village together, Mary had been absolutely fearless. She had scrambled into a tight, dimly lit shaft filled with dangerous traps without hesitation and emerged with a smile on her face. She had watched the encounter between Miko Hakurei and the Eientei rabbits from less than three meters away and kept her nerve. And when everything had gone to hell and they had been seconds away from getting caught, she had concocted a masterful ruse on the spot and leapt fully into her role, getting caught redhanded and still managing to fool the Kappa. And even beyond that, she had spent the last few weeks living with a powerful; witch in a dark cabin in a notoriously dangerous forest working (or so she thought) with deadly magics and loved every minute of it. As such, seeing her spirit broken like this turned Mima's stomach, no mean feat for a being of pure spirit.
Hissing, Roccio lurched up. "You're gonna pay for that, you little whore," she snarled. She seized Mary by the hair and hoisted her up, making the girl cry out in pain. "Oh yeah, I'm gonna make you hurt-"
"No," Mima snapped.
"What?" Roccio's froglike eyes goggled at Mima, unable to comprehend why Madam Mima would stand in the way of rage-fueled sadism.
"You have the girl," Mima said. "She's beaten. It's done. No playing around. Just do it and get it over with."
Roccio hissed and spat. "Fuck you, you stupid ghost. If you think you can tell me what do in my house, you got-"
Mima took a step forward, her shadow growing behind her and her face framed by the crimson light emitting from the Receptacle. "I'll say this once," she said down to the fat youkai. "Do your job now, or I shall become angry."
Roccio glowered back up at her, trying to make a show of defiance, but her nerve broke. "Fine," she said, her voice satisfyingly shaky. "Have it your way." With that, she hoisted Mary over her shoulder and stomped over to the Receptacle. Mary never so much as struggled. She just hung as limp as the carcass she was about to become.
As Roccio approached the hungry altar, Mima found herself unwilling to watch. And why should she? The shrine was about to be destroyed anyway. She might as well leave now.
So as Roccio started chanting in a low tone, the girl still slung over her shoulder, Mima turned and walked away, the door opening for her.
Once outside, Mima looked up at the grey sky overhead. She breathed in deep, the cold air filling her artificially created lungs. Mortals often found the winter air to be refreshing and used it as a way to clear their thoughts. Unfortunately, Mima experienced no such moment of clarity.
Behind her, Roccio was finishing the ritual. When her chanting came to an end, the top of the Receptacle would open up, and the sacrifice would be thrown in. Everything would then be consumed: first the body, and then the soul. The whole process took about a minute, though to the unlikely child it would feel much, much longer. Being torn apart by demonic forces on both a physical and spiritual level was nothing short of agonizing. But either way, so long as its cruel requirements were met, it would feed the Receptacle the energy it needed to do its dark work. The Hakurei Shrine would be destroyed within the hour. Merry Christmas, Miko Hakurei. Merry Christmas, Reimu Hakurei. Merry Christmas, Mary Kirisame. Ho, ho, ho.
Bear it out, Mima told herself. This is your moment of triumph. Your power will be restored in full, and Miko will be left vulnerable. You will be able to exact vengeance so horrifying that the storybooks won't even need to embellish. Madam Mima is about to return, greater and more terrible than ever.
Then Mima looked down at her hands, pale white in the morning light. And she will do so alone. She frowned. So? I've always been alone. Even the Serpentine Marauders were simply a means to an end. There's never been anyone worth my time that hasn't been an enemy.
Mima took off the hat Mary had made for her and turned it over in her hands. Even in the dim light, the golden sun still sparkled. How Mary had known of Mima's preference for astronomical symbols, Mima couldn't guess. She had hidden all trace of her true identity. Maybe it was Mary's intuitive nature when it came to magical matters at play, allowing her to unconsciously divine such things.
Such a talent. Such a sublime talent, coupled with an ingenious mind. With only a little training, she had been able to surprise Mima herself. What could she have become, if trained fully? Perhaps she would be able to surpass Mima herself one day, something that should be definite grounds for her destruction before she became actual competition. And yet…
Mima sighed. She put the hat back on and allowed herself a rueful smile and a bitter chuckle. Oh, what the hell. There was more than one way to destroy a shrine.
The ritual was nearly complete. The Receptacle lay open, its open maw spewing forth burning light like a gateway to Hell. And, in a sense, that's what it was: a tiny, portable Hell.
"Dig trup, ha frum," Roccio gurgled, speaking words from a tongue long forgotten. She held the limp child high over her head. "Rifa votar ob Hakurei!"
With that, she threw the little brat into the Receptacle's yawning mouth.
The kid's body stopped right over the Receptacle's body and hovered in place.
Roccio blinked. Wait, this had never happened before. Had something gone wrong? Was the betrayal not enough, and now the Receptacle was rejecting the sacrifice. No, it didn't work that way.
And then, though she was still lying as limp as before, the girl floated up and away, sailing over Roccio's head and moving toward the door.
"Huh?" Roccio gurgled as she watched, dumbstruck. "What?"
"Hey," said a voice. "Imp. Merry Christmas, you filthy animal."
Roccio had just enough time to recognize the voice's owner before a green lightning bolt hit her in the chest. Pain filled her world as her muscles seized up and started convulsing. Her mouth was flung open, but no scream came out.
But as bad as that was, it was nothing compared to the realization that the impact had knocked her over the Receptacle's side, and she was now pitching into the fiery chasm intended for Mary Kirisame. She tried to stop herself, but her body was no longer hers to command.
As she helplessly tumbled into the storm of voracious energies, she had just enough time to her Mima scornfully add, "And happy New Year."
Mima watched dispassionately as the Imp's body was swallowed up by the Receptacle. How all of that blubber managed to fit inside, she wasn't even going to try to guess. However, even though she had just sabotaged her own carefully laid-out plan and prevented herself from regaining her lost power, there was no denying the cold satisfaction that came from the sounds of wet tissue being torn asunder and echoing howls that were now coming from the Receptacle. It couldn't have happened to a more loathsome creature.
At her side, Mary lay in a lifeless heap, too overwhelmed to notice that she had been rescued. It would probably be a while before her senses returned. Mima could of course have sped up the process, but in this she was content to wait, as the following conversation was something she needed time to prepare for.
Finally the sounds of torment died away, and the angry glow cooled. The top of the altar closed, this time for good. Without Roccio to make it work, the Receptacle was now useless, and would never be used again. Perhaps it was for the best. Such impractical designs ought to be discouraged.
Mima wondered if she had just made a colossal mistake. After all, even though Mary had been saved, how could ever trust Mima again? Well, maybe Mima could modify her memories, change a little here, muddle a little there, and make it so that, as far as Mary was concerned, this whole unfortunate incident had never happened. Yes, that could work…
Musing on that, Mima knelt down and picked Mary up. As she turned to leave, a low, rumbling voice emitted from the Receptacle.
"THIS SACRIFICE," it said, "IS INSUFFICIENT." A pause. "AND DISGUSTING."
"On that we agree," Mima snapped. She was again about to leave, but then paused.
"Oh, why not?" she groused. Moving the girl into the crux of one arm, she held out her hand. The Takenostsue Joukuu shot across the room and smacked into her palm. Then, after a moment of hesitation, she beckoned to the Receptacle. It lifted off the ground and dutifully followed her out of the hovel and into the open air.
In time, Mary began to stir. Her dazed eyes slowly came into focus, and, with a small moan, she sat up.
Mima sat nearby, watching her. She had brought her back to her cottage and laid her on the bed. The Takenostsue Joukuu lay against the wall, while the Receptacle was now stashed in one of her many hidden vaults. While she still found the dark altar to be professionally offensive, and while without Roccio it was now nothing more than an inert piece of rock, there still might be something she could learn from it. But that was a project for another day. For now, Mima's main concern was with the girl.
"So, you're awake," Mima said. "How do you feel?"
Mary blinked at her. She squinted, no doubt piecing together hazy memories.
Then her eyes shot wide open and she scooted back with a gasp. She pressed her back to the wall with her hands splayed to either side, all the while panting, "You…you…"
Again acting against her better judgment, Mima had left Mary's mind unaltered. If she was going to save someone so as to allow them to fulfill their potential, then she wasn't about to risk spoiling it by forcing their minds into unnatural shapes, especially so early. "Yes," Mima said. "You remember correctly."
Mary swallowed. "You tried to kill me," she whispered, her voice a dry croak.
"Indeed I did," Mima said, inclining her head. "But I changed my mind."
Mary stared. "Why?"
"Why what?" Mima asked. "Why did I try to kill you, or why did I save you?"
The girl's tiny pink tongue flicked out to lick her lips. "Both."
"Ah. Well, that takes a bit of explaining." Mima leaned back, crossing her legs. "But first, would you like some water? You sound parched."
A few seconds ticked by, and then Mary slowed nodded. Mima stood up and walked over to the table, Mary's eyes tracking her every move. Filling a cup from a pitcher, Mima went over to the bed and handed it to the girl.
"Drink," she said. "Don't worry, it's clean. If I wanted to pour something strange down your throat, I would hardly need your cooperation."
Even so, Mary stared hard at the cup in her hands for a long moment, as if expecting something to rise out the water and attack. But finally her thirst ran out and she slowly drank, though she never took her eyes off of Mima.
Nodding, Mima returned to her chair. "Well, you wanted an explanation, and I intend to give you one." She sighed. "Unfortunately, it's hard to choose where to begin. However, I believe that it goes without saying that I have not been fully honest with you for much of your stay here. In fact, a great deal of what I have told you was a lie."
Mary swallowed and put the cup down.
"I never intended to teach you magic, at least not at first. That was just to make you trust me. The Receptacle requires a betrayal to work, you see. And unless you had felt deeply betrayed by someone you trusted, it wouldn't have worked."
Mima nodded. "Yes. That glowing altar you were almost thrown into. It's an item of dark magic, one that requires the life of a Human child to work."
Mary's face, already pale as it was, now turned wax-white. "You were gonna sacrifice me?" she whispered.
"Because I had great need," Mima answered. She sat back down. "Tell me: are you familiar with the Hakurei Shrine?"
Mary frowned. "No."
That was no surprise. The Hakureis always had an uneasy relationship with the Human Village. "The Hakrurei Shrine sits on the very edge of Gensokyo," Mima explained. She held up a hand, calling forth a miniature image of the shrine. "It acts as the gateway between our country and the Outside World. You know of the separation at least, yes?"
Mary nodded. "Yeah…"
A tiny figure in red and white appeared next to the shrine. "The Hakurei Shrine is guarded by the Hakurei shrine maiden. One of her jobs is to protect people." Mima nodded meaningfully to Mary. "Especially Humans."
"Protect people?" Mary asked. She frowned. "You mean, like from…youkai and stuff?"
"Yes. From youkai, and anyone else that would want to cause trouble. And she is very good at her job." Mima lowered her hand, banishing the image. "Do you remember that woman we saw, back at the Kappa Village? The one that knocked that rabbit out?"
Mary frowned for a bit, and then nodded. "Uh, yeah. The cast iron…" Her face turned red. "Er…"
Mima smiled then. Told to assist in a high-profile theft of a priceless artifact, and the girl enthusiastically joined in. But when it came to saying a bad word she suddenly felt squeamish. "Yes. Well, that was her."
"But she looked so…old."
"Do not underestimate her," Mima said sharply. "She has power you could only dream of. That's why the Kappa hired her. If she had seen us, it is highly unlikely either of us would have been able to escape."
"At any rate, the Hakurei family and I have been enemies for a long, long time," Mima continued. "Sometimes I've won, and sometimes they've won. About twelve years ago, I fought Miko Hakurei. And lost." She scowled. "Hard."
Mary stared at her in disbelief. "But…but you're so strong."
"Indeed I am," Mima said, nodding. "But so is she, that's my point. And in winning, she was able to take a large part of my essence and seal it away at her shrine."
Mary gaped. "Wait, she stole your magic?"
"Among other things, yes."
"Wow." Mary stared at her for a moment longer before asking, "How powerful are…er, were you?"
"More," Mima said simply.
A long silence followed, during which Mima allowed for that bit of information to sink in. Mary privately mused to herself, trying to wrap her head around the idea of an ever more powerful Morgan le Fae. No doubt she was picturing her mentor as some sort of deific being.
But in time, Mary's mind wandered back to the primary subject at hand. She blinked, frowned, and looked back to Mima. "So, wait. Why'd you wanna kill me again?"
"Because in doing so, my power would have been restored," Mima told her. She gave her a quick summary on what the Receptacle did, how it worked, and Mima's plan to use it to destroy Hakurei Shrine. "That, I'm afraid, is why I rescued you from that youkai. I needed a child, and there you were."
Mary's face had gone blank. "I was about to be sacrificed," she said for the second time. Perhaps it was only now sinking in.
Mima nodded. "Another half-second, and you would have died in agony."
"But…" Mary shook her head in bewilderment. "But you saved me, ze."
Mima sighed. "To explain that, I must confess to another lie. You recall when I tested you for magical potential?"
"Yeah," Mary nodded. "You said I had a lot of-"
She stopped talking. The girl really was sharp. Even as overwhelmed as she must be feeling, she had still made an intuitive leap to Mima's implied meaning, as much as she must hate it. She stared at Mima, mutely pleading with her to deny what she feared.
She was to be disappointed. "Yes, I'm afraid so," Mima said.
Mary had started to shake a little. She looked down to her hands, and the quartz bracelet around her wrist. "So I don't…"
"None whatsoever." Mima waved a hand, and Mary's bracelet fell apart in two pieces. Blinking, she slowly extended a hand and pointed it at the water pitcher. Nothing happened, so she tried again. And again.
Finally, Mary lowered her hand. "None?" she whispered, her voice choking up.
"None," Mima confirmed. "Even less than a normal person. Most at least can fly."
The tremble was becoming more visible. "But…but I did magic! When you were training me, and…" Realization flashed in her eyes. No doubt she was remembering the trick Mima had played on the Chochinobake, allowing her to put together the pieces. "Oh."
Mary swallowed. "So…I'm never going to be a magician."
This seemed to hurt her more than Mima's betrayal and her near brush with death. She doubled over, one hand held to her mouth while clutched tightly to her stomach. Her body convulsed, almost as if she were vomiting, though nothing came out but pitiful, ragged sobs.
Mima allowed this to continue for a time until Mary had gotten enough of it out of her system. "I never said that," she said.
Mary's head snapped up, her eyes lighting up with desperate hope.
"It's true, at first it was all a sham," Mima said. "I was simply leading you on for the sake of the sacrifice. But then you surprised me."
Mary lowered her hand. "How?" she said, her voice a hoarse whisper.
In answer, Mima summoned up a floating representation of Mary's rune, the one she had invented to create water bubbles. "With this. You should not have been able to make it."
"Huh?" Mary blinked in confusion. "Why not?"
"Because rune-work is too complicated, especially for a child. Even if you memorized all the elements, which by the way normally takes several days instead of the few hours you managed it in, putting them together just right is incredibly difficult for the untrained."
Mary still looked lost. "But it isn't. You just gotta choose the right ones and-"
"It is, or at least it should be." She closed her hand, banishing the rune. "That's my point. Even if you figured out which elements you needed, there are still things like size, placement, angles, orientation, and number to think of. Usually it takes days to get a new rune to work correctly, in which there is a great deal of trial and error involved. You just looked at the list, figured out which elements you needed at a glance, and got everything right on your first try." Mima shook her head. "Mary, I have told you before that I do not hand out compliments lightly, so when I tell you that such a thing is nothing short of amazing, I hope you'll grasp my full meaning."
It was time to get to the point. "Mary, you are a magical genius." As Mary's eyes widened, Mima pressed on. "Untrained, unlearned, and mostly untested, but a genius nevertheless. Perhaps you cannot use magic, but your instinctive understanding of it is astonishing. You are able to grasp things at a glance that even fully trained magicians struggle with. And with proper schooling, you have it within you to be-"
"Er, really good?" Mary guessed.
"A legend. "
Mary gaped at her, her mouth silently opening and closing in froglike manner. Then her wits returned, along with her disappointment. "So, I can't use magic, but I can…study it? That…kinda sucks."
"It's more than that," Mima said, her voice a bit harsher than she had intended. "Control comes from understanding." Mary's face lit up, and Mima nodded. "Yes, it is my belief that you can one day learn to use magic for real. It will take a lot of work, more than most will have to put in, but you can become a full magician. And more."
Mary continued to stare. There was something not unlike an astonished smile starting to form on her lips.
"That's why I saved you. I couldn't let talent like yours go to waste." Mima leaned forward. I want to teach you, Mary. This time for real."
"Yes. There are many who have asked for me to be their teacher. Every student I have taken under my wings had to first prove their worth and pay a heavy price, one that almost ruined them. Most failed, many died in the process, but the ones that endured…became legends. You've read about several."
"Oh," was all Mary could say.
"But they all came to me, asking for my help. I didn't seek out students, I didn't want students. You are…the first person I have ever wanted to train. Because I want to see what you will become."
"Yes," Mima said gravely. "Probably more."
Then Mary frowned. She hesitated, and then ventured, "…who are you?"
Mima smiled. "Smart girl. I suppose it goes without saying that the name Morgan le Fae is as much as lie as anything else I told you that first day. But are you certain you wish to know my true name? Because though you will recognize it, I cannot guarantee you will like it."
Mary's frown deepened, almost becoming an angry scowl. "Tell me. You owe me that much."
"I owe you nothing beyond what I choose to give," Mima calmly replied. "But if honesty is what you desire…"
With deliberate slowness, she rose from her chair. And then, spreading her hands to either side, she changed. Her legs became transparent and melted together. Her hair shortened a bit, grew thicker, and darkened from silver to green. The angles on her face sharpened, and her eyes flashed sapphire. And finally, her royal purple robe changed color, turning to the same brilliant blue of her eyes. This extended even up to the hat Mary had given her. It was part of her wardrobe now, so it might as well match.
As Mima made her change, Mary watched in fascination. But this soon turned to horror. "You…you're…" she whispered, her face pale."
"You know my name," Mima told her. "Say it."
Mary swallowed. "You're Madam Mima."
"The one and the same," Mima bowed at the waist.
Mary whimpered. "I thought…"
"I thought you were dead."
Mima had to laugh at that. "According to numerous definitions, I am. But it is true, even without that embarrassing encounter with Miko Hakurei, I have not been active for some time. It happens."
There was a short pause, and then Mary blurted out, "You're evil!"
Mima didn't so much as flinch. "Why, yes I am."
"Like, big time evil!" Mary's voice was steadily growing higher and higher, and her words were coming out in fast little squeaks. "You're like, the biggest evil witch of all time, ze!"
"Not untrue, though I personally prefer 'sorceress.' It has a greater air of prestige."
Mary started to shake again. She slumped back against the wall. "I've been living with Madam Mima this whole time?"
"Indeed," Mima said with a nod. "And here's something to consider. You've impressed Madam Mima."
Mary had nothing to say to that, though Mima doubted that she would have been capable of vocalizing it even if she had.
Mima chuckled. "Mary, if you are afraid that simply by spending time with me you have become irreversibly tainted, then you fail to understand exactly what evil is. 'Evil' is not some kind of contagious disease that is spread by mere contact. It is not a noun, not some kind of tangible force. It is an adjective, one that is gained through a variety of different methods, many of them constantly contested, depending on one's viewpoint. 'Cruelty' at least is a quality that most people would agree is evil, but 'Ruthlessness,' which is seeing that bright, clear line that lies between one's self and goal and being willing and able to do anything and everything to cross it often gets thrown in there as well."
Mary swallowed. "Like…sacrificing me to get your powers back."
"Precisely." Mima shrugged. "Evil is not something I am infected with and spread around, evil is something I'm called because when I set my mind to something, I let nothing stand in the way of achieving it. And being a magician means setting your mind to a great many things."
Again, there was no response, so Mima pressed on.
"How do you think I got so powerful?" she demanded. "Because I saw the power I wanted, figured out how to obtain it, and did it, no matter what it was. Over and over again. That's why everyone was so afraid me, because there wasn't anything I wouldn't do to achieve my goals. And so, I am evil. I am fine with that. It suits me."
Mary hesitated, and then asked, "So…if you were to teach me…"
"Then you would learn magic, more than you ever dreamed of," Mima whispered. She held out her hands. Around her, the room darkened, and the air filled with swirling stars, glowing runes, and glowing rainbows. Despite her fear, Mary was transfixed. "You have read my books, you have heard the stories, so you know my works. That knowledge will be at your disposal." Mima suddenly lowered her arms, instantly returning things to normal. Taken by surprise, Mary jumped a bit. She looked around, as if expecting more shooting stars to come at her from the corners. When none presented themselves, she turned her attention back to Mima. "
But I won't make you go against your conscience," Mima said softly. "I could, if I wanted to. If I were so inclined, I could seize control of your mind and rewrite your every motivation. But I won't. Oh, certainly, I'll suggest certain paths that you might find questionable, ones will great rewards and terrible prices, but it will be up to you to take them. So, just throwing that out there."
Mary set her mouth in a straight line. "You want do that. For me."
"No, not just for you," Mima said, shaking her head. "For me as well. Understand that, for all those stories you might have heard, I am as much in love with magic as you are. More so, in my own way. And I really want to see what a mind like yours can come up with. Forcing it into a certain shape would act contrary to that. I'd rather see what would happen if you were to choose your own path. With my knowledge and guidance at your disposal, of course."
Mima shrugged. "There's more than one way to get it back; I just saw the Receptacle as the most practical method within my means at the time. Ironic, given that in most circumstances 'practical' is not a word anyone with an ounce of sense would use to describe that atrocity."
"Are you…going to try again?" Mary asked her question slowly, as if she were afraid of the answer.
"What, sacrifice some other kid to that thing?"
Mima shook her head. "No. Even if I wanted to, I couldn't. The Receptacle was bound to Roccio, and with her gone, it just doesn't plain work anymore." She shrugged. "Impulsive of me, I know, but my current condition has made me a bit more…reckless than I normally would be."
Another silence passed between them. Mima hovered in place, allowing the girl to digest all she had been told. It wasn't a decision to be made lightly, after all. Despite her having rebelled against her parents and cheerfully participated in the theft of the Takenostsue Joukuu, she was still a good kid at heart, and the thought of becoming the apprentice of someone like Mima had to be terrifying.
But she was also obsessed. She wanted to use magic more than anything else in the world. It was her dream, and those few weeks of studying, as much of a farce as they may have been, had only whetted her appetite. Mima was offering to feed it. Mary was no doubt being torn in two different directions.
Finally Mima broke the silence. "So, now you know the truth, and you have heard my offer. Before you stands…well, floats the most notorious villain Gensokyo has ever known. A bad guy, as you say, through and through. And I lied to you and tried to kill you not too long ago. I am also a magical genius without peer, and I guarantee you will not find a teacher that even begins to compare. What say you, Mary?" She extended her hand to the girl. "Do you want to become one of the greatest magicians the world has ever known? Or do you want to hide your light under a bushel and let it wither away?
Mary stared at the offered hand for a good long while. Nervously biting her lower lip, she scooted away from the wall and slipped off the bed. Then, after some more hesitation, she slowly extended her own hand.
Then something in her broke and she bolted for the door. Mima watched as the girl fled outside and ran for all she was worth.
Once she was out of sight, Mima sighed and shrugged. "Eh. She'll be back," she muttered, and then closed the door.
One week later…
There came a sharp rap at the door. Without bothering to look up from what she was doing, Mima said, "It's open."
The door creaked on its hinges, and Mary tentatively entered. The last few days had not been kind to her. Her dress was ripped, her arms bruised, heavy bags nestled under her eyes, she was covered with dirt, and there was a kind of gaunt, hungry look about her. She couldn't seem to be able to stop shivering.
Mima finished stirring the bubbling pot, tapped the ladle against the side to dislodge a few stray pieces of vegetable, and set it on a hand towel. "You're not looking too good, Mary. You really need to learn to take better care of yourself."
Lifting a trembling fingers and pointing vaguely northward, Mary licked her cracked lips and croaked, "I-I've been staying-"
"In a small cave nestled under a hill, approximately a kilometer-and-a-half from the forest."
Mary gave a start. "You've been spying on me?"
Sighing, Mima turned to face her. "Child, in saving you, I sabotaged a carefully laid out plan that would have returned me to my full majesty mere milliseconds before it came to fruition. I am hardly going to let that all go to waste by having you be eaten by a hungry youkai or die of exposure. Honestly, Gensokyian winters are vicious enough as it is, and this one has been especially cruel. What were you thinking?"
"Uh," Mary blinked. "I, uh, set up a bunch of runes though. For like protection and fire and to help me find food…"
"Yes, and they were very clever. But that doesn't change the fact that you were a little girl hiding out in a cave in the Wilds in the middle of winter. Without my invisible protection, you would be dead right now." Folding her arms over her breast, Mima looked the bedraggled girl over. "Well, I assume that since you're here, you have come to a decision?"
Mary nodded. "Yeah, but uh…" She looked longingly toward the pot Mima had been stirring. Inside was a beef stew with vegetables.
"Of course," Mima said. "I made it for you, after all."
After Mary had eaten (though "inhaled" would possibly be more accurate), she still wasn't ready to talk, at least not before she had taken a long, hot bath, during which Mima restored her clothes to presentable condition. Finally, having filled her empty belly and washed the dirt and cold away, Mary had recovered from her harsh excursion enough to give Mima her answer.
"Well, see, I've been doing a lot of thinking, ze," Mary said. She sat in a chair with her face downcast and her legs rubbing anxiously against each other.
"Of course," Mima said. "You had little else to do when you weren't trying to survive."
"Yeah. And…" Mary took a deep breath. "Look. I can't go home. Not to Papa, not to the village. Not after everything that's happened. And…" She nervously scratched behind her ear. "I really, really want to learn magic. For real this time. After everything you've shown me, I can't do anything else."
"I understand," Mima said nodding. "So, is that your answer then?"
Mary bit her lower lip. "But see, you tried to kill me. You lied to me and tried to kill me."
Mima said nothing.
"I can't…I can't just pretend that that didn't happen. And I can't forget who you are."
"I see," Mima said gravely.
"But I also don't know any other magicians to teach me, and they'll probably just laugh at me and turn me into a bug, ze. So…"
Mima raised an eyebrow. "If you have a definitive solution, I'd love to hear it."
"Okay," Mary said. She took another deep breath. "Well, it's like this, ze. There's this story Papa told me a couple times. Where there's this rich guy that goes on vacation or something, and he leaves a bunch of money with his three servants. And when he gets back-"
"He finds that the first two servants had used and invested his money wisely, thereby increasing his profits by a significant figure," Mima finished for her. "They were then suitably rewarded. The third servant, however, feared his master, and did not want to risk losing the money. So he hid it and gave it back once his master had returned. But rather than being grateful for its return, the master was furious that the servant had done nothing, and cast him out."
Mary started. "You know that story?"
"Of course. And despite what you might be thinking, I fully agree with it. To whom much is given, much is required. Those who are born with the potential to be great ought to do everything in their power to become great, even if they owe it only to themselves."
"Yeah, okay," Mary said, nodding. "And it's kinda like that, ze. If I really am as smart as you say, if I can do that much for magic, I wanna do it. And I might need your help. But I don't know if I can trust you."
"A wise deduction. What do you propose."
"I want…I want you to swear that you won't lie to me like that again, that you won't try to kill me or hurt me again. And when you teach me, you won't make me do anything really bad." She looked Mima in the eye. "Swear it by your power and by your name."
Mima stared at her, her face grave. "Child, do you have any idea the sort of thing you are asking me to do, what it means to a magician to swear by their name and power?"
"Yeah," Mary nodded. "I know. Those're my terms. Take 'em or leave 'em, ze."
The girl was smart. Swearing by one's power bound a magic-user to their oath. Breaking such a promise twisted their magic into knots, and they did it too man times, they risked crippling themselves. And swearing by one's name put their very identity at stake. What was more, Mima was a being of pure spirit. In a sense, she was made out of magic. Such a promise would bind her more closely than it would a mortal.
"No," Mima said. "I will not do that."
Mary jerked back as if she had been struck. "Huh?"
"Who do you think you're talking to?" Mima demanded. "I want to teach you, yes. But I am so desperate that I will risk further hard to myself to do so. For all of my strengths, I do not possess vision of the future, and would like to keep my options open. Anything can happen, after all. Furthermore, becoming a magician is all about taking risks. Magic is dangerous, and you will rarely, if ever, have guarantee of safety. It is true, accepting my offer will be incredibly dangerous. I might be lying to you right now. I may kill decide to kill you tomorrow, and there will be nothing you can do about it."
Mary cowered back, her eyes wide with fear.
"But if I don't," Mima continued, "if I am true to my word, and if you survive my teaching, because I promise you it will be full of danger, then you will become great. You will be a magician unlike any other, mighty in power and clothed in majesty. They will write entire books trying to decipher the wonders you will create, and your name with be spoken with fear and reverence. And should anyone try to stop you before you are ready, they will have me to contend with. And should someone bring you to harm, I will wreak such vengeance upon them that their name will become a curse and their memory a nightmare. And that I do swear, by my name and power."
Mary was still shaking, but a hunger had awoken in her eyes. Mima knew it well. She had lived with that hunger her whole existence. It defined her, and it defined Mary as well. She could see that much.
"Okay," Mary said at last. She let out a nervous laugh. "It ain't like I got anything to lose. But there's something I want to do first."
"I want a new name," Mary said firmly. "If you're not gonna be Morgan anymore, then I don't wanna be Mary. If people are gonna remember me, then I don't wanna be Mary the Magician. I want a name I chose, ze."
Mima smiled. "Fair enough. You wouldn't be the first magician to discard their old identity. Did you have something in mind?"
"Er, not really," Mary admitted. "I thought up a whole bunch, but nothing really seems to fit, ze."
"I see." Mima shrugged. "Well, let's start with the name you have now, and work our way from that." She thought for a moment. "Hmmm, Martha?"
Mary made a face.
"No? Well, how about Madeline?"
This too was rejected.
Mary thought for a moment, and then shook her head.
"Maribel, perhaps?" Mima suggested. "MacKenzie? Mabel? Mami? Madira? Marisa? Maven? Ma-"
"Wait, wait, wait," said the child formerly known as Mary. "Marisa?"
"Yes. A fine name, and as far as I know, unclaimed by any magician of note. Would you like to call yourself that?"
"Huh. Mah-riss-ah." The child mused over the name, testing out each syllable in turn. She grinned. "I like it, ze!"
"Excellent," Mima said with a smile. "All hail the rise of Marisa the Magnificent, Master Magician!" Then she floated over to where the Christmas tree still stood. "And while we're on the subject, I have something for you."
"Huh?" Marisa hopped off of her chair and followed. "What d'ya mean?"
"I haven't given you a Christmas present yet, have I? Well, it just so happens I have something lying around that, thanks to certain impulsive actions on my part, I no longer have any use for." Mima retrieved something from under the tree and held it out to her.
It was a wooden stick, two meters in length, adorned by decoration but smooth and polished.
Marisa stared at what was being offered, disbelief written all over her face. "For me?" she stuttered.
"Yes," Mima said. "Surely you have often wondered what it was like to fly?"
Moving with hesitation, Marisa reached out and took the Takenostsue Joukuu. It was quite a bit taller than she was, but she would grow into it.
"Merry Christmas, Marisa," Mima said. She nodded toward the door. "Would you like to try it out?"
"Yes," Marisa said dreamily. Then she blinked. "Oh, wait. I got an idea. Do you have any straw?"
Mima tilted her head in bewilderment, but when Marisa explained, she couldn't help but laugh.
Soon a collection of dried straw was tied to one end of the staff, turning it into a broom. "This is incredibly silly," Mima said as the two of them went outside. "And yet, I cannot fault you."
Marisa grinned. "Hey, if I'm gonna be a witch, I might as well go all the way, right?"
"Exactly so," Mima nodded. "Ready?"
Marisa nodded. Nervously, and yet with great eagerness, she held the broom out and mounted it like a horse. Then, with a deep breath, she pushed off from the ground.
Sorry about being a day late. My laptop's power socket broke, and I had to send it in to get fixed on Tuesday. I've been borrowing computers to get work done ever since, and while it serves, it's just not the same.
Also, sorry to everyone who expected me to pull a fast one like having Mima go through with the sacrifice and then reveal that Marisa was a completely different person from Mary. But come on. It's a Christmas special! I'm not going to kill an innocent kid on Christmas just for the sake of a plot twist! That's the sort of thing Imperfect Metamorphosis is for!
Anyway, this concludes the most ambitious Christmas special I've done to date. Not to mention the most ambiguous. Because while Mary (er, Marisa. Whatever) was saved at the end and got her heart's desire, that doesn't change the fact that Mima is, by her own admission, a monster, one that came very close to killing her. And by agreeing to be her student even after all that, Marisa pretty much made a Faustian bargain. Of course, we all know that later on she acquires a bunch of positive role models to offset Mima's bad influence and, despite her temper, brashness, and shaky grasp of ethics, she still remains a decent person at heart. So there's that. But without that knowledge, whether this counts as a happy realization of a dream or a disturbing case of Stockholm Syndrome depends on your point of view. And I'm not going to say anything more either way.
But whatever you decide, I hope you enjoyed this short little descent into madness (for me, at least. For reference, it's currently 5:24 AM). And as much as I like this story, I'm glad that I'm going back to one-shots after this. I haven't had a decent night's sleep in days.
So yeah. Once again, Merry Christmas, everyone! And happy New Year!