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Morning arrived. It was, at best, gloomy for Anne as she was standing outside Letty’s shack, her battle armour fully covering her petite figure, the 88mm fully slung across her shoulders. She realized she would betray Letty’s trust by abandoning her post, but she couldn’t help it. For a week, Letty had practically avoided all questions about her relationship with Yuuka and the sunflower lady mentioning how Anne’s presence had caught Gensokyo’s attention, focusing instead on helping the Tiger Tank girl with advanced danmaku and spellcard techniques.
Today, she hoped, she would find an answer to put all the questions to rest.
Standing firmly in the snow, she gave the shack a quick salute. “Please forgive me, Letty, but I must seek the truth.” She paused. “Even if it’d evade me forever.” With that done she turned around and headed to a direction, to where she trusted her feet to lead.
Or not, as she found herself confronting Cirno near the river. Trying her best to be as friendly as she could, Anne smiled. “Good morning, Cirno.”
“Where are you going to, tank girl?” the ice fairy asked. “Didn’t Letty ask you not to leave without her… what was that word again? Permission?” Furiously she shoved her fingers through her hair. “Argh! I must remember!”
Anne frowned. Cirno had a point there, but does that mean she wanted to be kept in the dark? “I will be alright,” she spoke. “Please tell Letty that I’ll be home before dinner.” Just when she was about to leave Cirno called her again. “Yes?”
“Can I come with you?” Cirno asked.
“Thanks, but I can look after myself,” she assured. “I’d rather… keep you out of trouble.”
Cirno folded her arms across her chest. “Hmph. Whatever you say, tank girl.” She later smiled. “And trust me on telling Letty about it. She’ll understand.”
Anne sported a salute. “Thank you very much, Cirno.”
She was stumped. Where in the name of the Fatherland was she?
This was certainly a strange place. To begin with, she was standing at the foot of a mountain, and the forest looked as if they had been ripped off their leaves. She shook her head in disbelief; of course they were, for this was winter, the coldest of the four seasons.
That wasn’t the point!
The real issue, she insisted, was how she was supposed to walk when she had no one to ask the direction. She sighed in regret; if only Cirno was here to accompany her. Maybe she could just wander around aimlessly, hoping to have her path crossed with someone else’s. Or maybe she could just walk around and wholeheartedly enjoy the scenery.
“Hello.” She turned around and was greeted with an image unlike anything else: a woman in deliberate swirl-decorated red dress and bows (one of the bows was tying her aquamarine hair under her chin). There was something about the woman that the Tiger Tank girl could not tell, especially the ribbon that was wrapping her left wrist. “You seem to be new around here.”
“Uhh… yeah, I kind of got lost,” sheepishly Anne admitted. “Actually, I just came here from over there,” and she pointed to the direction of the Misty Lake. “I thought I could take a walk around… what is this place, anyway?”
“You’re at the Youkai Mountain, and this area is the Great Youkai Forest,” the woman answered. “You said you came from the Misty Lake, yes? Do you happen to know Letty?”
“Yes, I do. In fact, I’m staying with her, why?”
The woman giggled. “An acquaintance of the avatar of winter, I see. I bet the sisters of autumn won’t be happy if she shows up here.” She approached Anne and extended her hand towards her, but the girl winced. “Oh, my. Am I scaring you? Don’t be afraid; my intention is only to help you.”
“I-it’s not! I just have this funny feeling…” Anne murmured.
The woman smiled. “It’s alright. As the goddess of curses, my presence always brings fear and uncertainty to the ordinary people.”
Anne blinked. “A what?”
“My name is Hina Kagiyama, pleased to meet you.” She made a light bow. “And you are?”
“Anne-Marie Braun, 2nd SS Panzer Division Das Reich, Waffen-SS, the best of Fatherland’s most elite. It’s a pleasure to meet you, Miss-” The goddess named Hina started spinning on her feet just ever slightly, yet even this was enough to mesmerize Anne. It was as if she was dancing on the snow, and she could not think of why a goddess of curses would be spinning…
Well, why not trying it out?
Rising into the air (it was fortunate for her to master the skill from Letty) Anne watched as the goddess hopped and spun from tree to tree. Following her suit, she started rotating, the cumbersome weight of the 88mm barrel preventing her from keeping herself balanced. The scenery in front of her warped to a blur as she allowed herself to pick up speed and spin, using the 88mm barrel to gain momentum. This wasn’t bad at all! Breaking into a grin, she spun faster and faster. Spin spin spin spin spin spin spin spin-
Her back slammed into the trunk of a tree. The impact wasn’t hard, but she was too disoriented to focus on keeping herself airborne. Just as she was about to crash, feeling nauseated enough to vomit, a pair of arms held her up by her arms. She looked upward and saw the goddess smiling at her.
“Be careful. You’ll get dizzy and sick of you spin like that too much,” Hina said as they made a slow descent into the ground, although Anne could not help noticing a hint of mischief emancipating from her. “Oh, sorry about earlier. I tend to spin even when I don’t need to.”
“…it’s more of a dance to me,” Anne shrugged. “…thanks, though.”
Hina giggled. “You are such a sweet girl. But I must wonder; judging from the name, you must be an outsider, and humans are supposed to avoid me because of my role.” She paused, only to let Anne off her arms. “And yet you don’t.”
“I don’t know…” Anne frowned. “How am I supposed to fear a goddess of curses when… you don’t look like one? I mean, you spin and don’t get dizzy from it, and you wear ribbons. That’s… cute, I think.”
Hina laughed. “How flattered I am~ you really are something.” She smiled again. “Yes, I am indeed a goddess of curses, but my duty is to carry away illness and misfortune. In other words, I help people by carrying curses away from them.”
“That’s nice, I think,” Anne murmured.
“Hmm? What’s the matter, Anne? You don’t seem to enjoy my presence,” Hina inquired.
“Please don’t get me wrong!” Anne protested. “It was just that… Letty refused to tell me what’s going on between her and the sunflower lady.” The Tiger Tank girl took a deep breath. “…I met Miss Yuka last week, and she said that my presence has stirred everyone’s attention. She even told me to be careful of the border granny.”
“That’s interesting,” Hina said. “May I know why?”
“I don’t know, and it’s been bothering me ever since.” Anne bit her lower lip. “How should I say this? I woke up in the middle of winter, me and my body-”
“AAAAAAA!!” Anne and Hina turned around, and in an instant a girl came out of nowhere and pounced at the Tiger Tank girl. “You! Why do you smell of Letty?!” the blonde shouted as she pinned Anne into the snow. “You don’t belong here, so get lost!!”
“Let me go!” Anne whined.
“Never!!” The girl withdrew a burdock root and lifted it high over head. “I’m so angry right now, and I need to vent that off onto someone!”
“Here Eye Come To Save The Day!!!” The ice fairy kicked the blonde girl off Anne and cast Icicle Fall onto the offender before giving her a chase across the forest. “Let her go, you stupid goddess of autumn!”
“Anything but the icicle!!” the girl whined and crouched to protect her head from the ice barrage. “Ah!! Minoriko, help me!” In no time the owner of the name showed up and dragged the unlucky girl out of the Icicle Fall although she, too, fell victim to the spellcard. “Not you, too, Minoriko?”
“I am the strongest fairy in Gensokyo!” Cirno’s voice echoed through the snowy land as she cast more Icicle Falls onto the sisters. “Come and weep at my power!!”
“I don’t even need your help,” Anne retorted.
“Hah! Don’t be so cocky just because I saved your ass once,” Cirno exclaimed smugly after she took care of the Aki Sisters. “Besides, you should thank Letty for sending me to find you.”
“Of course!” Cirno bolstered. “And you owe me for that, too.”
The sisters of autumn groaned in defeat. “It’s hopeless… Letty’s gotten herself a youkai as an ally…” the maple-leaf-motif girl whined. “We can never overpower winter, Minoriko! We are doomed!”
“Keep yourself together, Shizuha!” the other girl begged. “We still have autumn with us! Get over it!”
“Youkai?” Hina turned towards Anne. She reached for the girl and put her hand upon her scalp, patting her for a few times. Then she pulled away. “I see. No wonder you don’t exhibit fear towards me. I should’ve known earlier from the moment we met.”
“Wait, wait! What’s going on here?” Anne asked. “I’m a youkai? What’s that supposed to mean?”
“I’m sorry, but I cannot answer that question,” Hina apologized. “If you want to learn more, may I recommend Keine Kamishirasawa?”
“Who is that?” Anne asked.
“She teaches history at the human village’s school,” Hina answered. “Your ice fairy friend should know her well.”
“Just leave that to me!” Cirno said. “Icky-Keine and I are close friends!”
“Thank you very much,” Anne said and saluted the goddess before she took off with Cirno. She later turned around and faced the goddess. “Can we meet again, Miss Kagiyama? I really enjoy your company. Plus, I want to know how you don’t get dizzy from that spinning.”
“Why, you are more than welcomed, Anne,” Hina said with a smile. “Oh, about that spinning?” She placed a finger in front of her lips, almost invitingly. “That would be… a goddess’ secret,” she said with a wink.
“Okay, Anne, listen closely because I’m going to say this only once,” Cirno said as they made a soft touchdown on the snow. “We are going to visit the human settlement, so… Uhh, can you do something about that?” Confused, Anne asked if Cirno was referring to the 88mm barrel. “Of course I did! Can you shrink it? Or hide it? Or whatever to make people suspect us less?”
“I… I’ll try.” Closing her eyes Anne concentrated her efforts on the barrel, and sure enough it underwent a transformation that took both girls by surprise. Under their observation, the barrel (along with the armoured plates that had kept Anne off the elements) disassembled, dissolved into the air and materialized to form a briefcase.
“How did you do that?” Cirno cooed.
Anne was uncertain about it, either, but decided not to worry about it. “At least I did hide it from plain view, didn’t I?” she asked the ice fairy as she fetched the briefcase.
Their trip was as lively as the ice fairy, and Anne could not help becoming amused by Cirno’s antics. In spite of the preliminary grudges she had against Cirno she was feeling comfortable with her company, and she also found herself spending the time chatting with the girl. Not that she wanted to complain, since she had never felt this lively before in her life.
“This trip is getting boring…” Cirno mumbled. “Why can’t we do anything fun?!”
“You tell me,” Anne said. “You’re the one who suggested that we walk.”
“What? You want me to- Ah! I know!” Cirno started running down the alley, so fast that Anne had very little time to pursue the ice fairy. “Loser has to buy me ice-cream!” Cirno shouted. “Bet you can’t outrun this fairy, can you?”
“Cirno, wait up!” The ice fairy was running too fast for Anne to catch up, and she was left alone in the field. Looking around she noticed she was in another location, and it was nowhere near the Great Youkai Forest or the Misty Lake. Maybe this was an unexplored area, she thought, and she could find Cirno later. Settling down, she walked down the lone path, wondering of what she should do to kill the flowing time.
She halted. Her eyes spotted something, almost indistinguishable from a distance, and yet she recognized it as the silhouette of a human. She approached the shadow, struggling to wade through the knee-deep snow, and as she managed to come close an acrid stench invaded her nose.
She followed the foul smell and came across the human she had seen earlier. She was aghast; hanging from the branches of a tree nearby was the body of a man, his head jerked back and his lifeless eyes staring down at her. The corpse looked like it had been completely ravaged and torn apart, with one leg clearly broken in half, the fractured end of a white bone jutting out of the thigh.
The most shocking of all was that uniform.
It belonged to the 2nd SS Panzer Division, so that meant this man…
She shook her head. No. He wasn’t one of her crews, and yet to see one of the people that had been taking care of her in Gensokyo, what would this encounter mean?
“Oh? A free meal?”
Anne turned towards the voice, just in time to see a shabby man wearing a dirty kimono leap down to the ground, presumably from a tree.
“That guy tasted so bad I had to let it rot a few days first,” he said with a sneer. “Also, his words confused me a little. Third Reich? Panzer Division? What the hell are those?” He narrowed his gaze to Anne. “You look somewhat softer. Maybe a bit cold, but your flesh will be more delicate to feast on.” He licked his lips as he finished saying this.
“Uhh… who are you?” Anne asked, not knowing what he was talking about.
“Damn, you’ve never heard of a feral youkai, haven’t you?” he spit out in a disgusted, if not amused voice. “Whatever. I’m in a good mood today, so why don’t you nicely give yourself in and let me finish you off?”
“Nein!” Anne clutched the grip of the briefcase. “A stranger is scary enough, but a stranger that eats people? You’re horrible!!”
“Then it can’t be helped.”
He growled, hunching over like a wild beast. His skin grew darker and darker, and began to sink, his body growing slimmer and slimmer, as though all the fat and muscles were being absorbed into the bones what now stood before the Tiger Tank girl could only be vaguely called a human, with pitch-black skin, glowing red eyes, two prominent, pointed fangs and a disproportionate, skeletal body.
“I guess I’ll have to take you down by force, instead!!” he cried out in a distorted, echoing voice.
Author’s note: well, I’m not going to drag this story to the point it’s becoming a nuisance to read, so I’ll have this little adventure wrapped up in two or three chapters. Besides, with Yukari eager to tell Yuri the fate of our Tiger Tank girl…