- (1.34MB, 850x1200, sample_420f9cdac4c900005630d9aef8a46311116fdfad.png)
You’ve endured enough of Remilia’s abuses for one lifetime. You have no guarantee she won’t try to pull anything and, hell, you owe her zilch. You get unsteadily to your feet -- Suika cranes her neck to look at you, suspense written all over her face. You lay a hand on her shoulder. “I know where the fight is. I’ll come with you -- but there are a couple things I need to do first.”
“Right. Suika will wait for Demon-slayer here -- but he should not tarry long, since Lady Yukari grow impatient.”
“Doesn’t it bother you at all that she and I won’t live through this?”
“Yes,” she admits, eyes downcast. “But Suika have plan.”
“Yes. Suika make everyone safe -- because Suika believe in you, and believes in the you that believes in you!”
“I, uh, don’t think that came out right.”
Suika looks huffy. “Demon-slayer get point. If Demon-slayer never die, then Demon-slayer not dead!”
“I really don’t follow you.”
“OUT!” Suika shoves you out of the hollow, clearly annoyed. You stumble out, smiling to yourself. Simple minds, eh? It’s a short walk into camp -- whatever Remilia’s doing, you won’t find out. For all you know she has another ambush in mind…
Fah. That woman.
You walk through the tents of the camp -- after destroying Flandre’s army, they commenced rocking out; you know the thrill of winning a battle against a hated adversary. There’s drinking, there’s singing, there’s food. All the stuff you know about Gensokyo-ites right here in one place. As you push past them, you find Meiling, ducking outside her tent, crouched in front of cooking fire, her back turned to you.
“Gah!” She spins around, hiding the ladle behind her back. “Oh! Guts, hi!” She blushes slightly, embarrassed.
“Is, uh, something wrong?”
“No! Nothing at all is wrong!” She laughs. “I, um, wasn’t working on something secret. Or anything.”
“You’re the worst liar in the world.”
She sighs, deflating. “I know. Well, um, you see, I was reading some manga. And I saw that, err…” she trails off. You look over her work -- smells delicious, something any cook would be envious of. Fried rice, vegetables, egg mixed in. Good stuff. But there’s also a conspicuous box, small and pink, sitting on a stump beside the fire.
“I wanted to make you bento,” she admits, softly. Her eyes seem to water a bit.
She shakes her head, but you can sense something’s off. You pull her into an embrace -- goddammit. You left her once and broke her heart, now you’re about to do it again. Why the hell does this crap always fall to you, huh? She returns the hug tightly -- nearly cracking your ribs -- before she blurts it out. “I can feel it. You’re about to go again, aren’t you?”
“I have to.”
“I know. I know what war’s all about. I know I’m not very important, but…”
“It hurts,” you finish. You hug her back -- gods above.
“Can you stay a little while?”
“Yeah.” Suika might be miffed, but she can survive that. Meiling deserves this after all you’ve done to jerk her around. She finishes cooking, and you share a meal, laughing and chatting and trying not to think about what is going to happen. After a long while, she leans over and kisses you on the cheek, her enormous strength pushing you on your back. Her face seems horribly torn -- that sad, confused look that rips your heart in half.
“You have going-away eyes,” she says, finally. “My brother had those.”
“What happened to him?”
“The Long March.”
You hold her tight as she bursts into tears, sobbing that you’re really going to die this time. After a while, she calms herself, her sobs shuttering to stop -- then she leads you inside. You make love to her gently, properly this time, even as she fights to suppress the fear and worry inside her. She keens into your shoulder as she comes. In the end you’re both an exhausted heap on the bedroll in her tent. She’s asleep, and you can see the sky getting bright in east. Time to go. You kiss her farewell, caressing her cheek as she sleeps.
Ah, time to leave. Not the first time you’ve had to lead her, but this maybe the end of you. Yukari said that she would die or at least be maimed, and your future is grim indeed.
Maybe you should have ignored Meiling. Maybe her heart wouldn’t be broken that way.
Angst aside, as you walk back to the hollow you feel a weird twinge of danger in your chest -- independent of your aching back. As you head back the hollow, you realize no one else is about. Not a single person outside their tent, none of the goofballs and buffoons you remember from walking here. As you turn, you see Patchouli Knowledge standing behind you, book in hand.
“Planning to leave, Demon-slayer?” Her gaze is cold -- your eyes narrow in return.
“Something like that.”
“I believe you agreed to stay. Going back on your word? Very ungentlemanly.” She opens up her book, leafing through the pages.
“Yeah, well, some things need doing.”
She stops on a page in the middle, reading down the lines quickly. You follow the movements of her eyes as she reads.
“I have need of you.”
“To save Gensokyo, of course.”
Marisa’s warning flashes through your mind. “How?”
“Oh, I’m sure you know. A ritual, that calls upon the true potential of a Synchronizer? Marisa Kirisame discussed with you thoroughly.”
“Stop that. And she wanted you to betray me, is that correct?”
“Guts, I do not care to be trifled with. Now, I will humbly request you come with me to accomplish this ritual. All is prepared, all is ready. We need only carry out this exercise and divinity will be within our grasp. And with this power I will cleanse the demonic menace and seal the rift.”
“Huh. I reckon that’s why Yuuka is after me.”
“And Remilia too, until your rejection, Flandre’s deteriorating condition and Quake’s corrupt words drove her to despair -- she no longer cares, frankly, as she just finished carving the stake destined for her sister’s heart. But enough about her -- will you or will you not come with me, Demon-slayer.”
“Sorry, but I chose my side. Yukari’s coming.”
“Ah, yes, her particular scheme approaches its completion. How do you suppose Yukari came to her current power?”
“Fuck if I know, but she’s been straight with me. Trust her more than any of you lot.”
“Would you believe me if I told you that Yukari came to her current strength by performing this very ritual?”
You scowl. “What does it matter?”
“And what do you suppose if you performed the ritual again, with a second synchronizer?”
Hmph, you didn’t think of that. “I dunno. Is it like a doubledown burger?”
“Do not be absurd -- no one knows, for it has never been attempted by mortal or immortal. But Yukari may just be out for that very purpose. Did you consider that?”
“Maybe she is. I’d trust her with that power a good deal more than any of you lot.”
“Then you will not choose me. You are set on Yukari.”
Patches utters a string of arcane gibberish. There’s a sudden glow on the skin of your arms -- magic markings running up and down your skin. You register to this seconds before you’re thrown to the ground, gripped by invisible hands. You snarl up at her, twisting your head to get a look.
“Fortunately, I made allowances for this. You are a stubborn and unruly sort, Guts, but I suppose that is what makes you effective.”
“H-how?” you choke out.
“Oh? While I was training you I placed this curse of compulsion on you. After a few applications you -- a non-mage with few powers to speak of -- were thoroughly infiltrated.”
“I’m nothing of the sort. I do this for the good of Gensokyo, myself, and you. I do not mean to treat you badly, Demon-Slayer, I merely mean for you to become a part of a god. I mean to elevate you. I mean to make it so you can return to Meiling and lead a happy life with her. What have I done to earn such invective?”
Well, erm, shit, but… that can’t be right. Just because she won the argument doesn’t mean she’s right!
“So, may I release these bonds, Guts? Will you join willingly?
[ ]… join Teddy--
“HOLD IT RIGHT THERE!” screams a familiar voice. Marisa smashes through the roof of the sky -- shit, you’ve been trapped in Patches’ illusion from the moment you left Meiling’s tent! She drops down between you and Patchouli. You can see her long blonde curls, her black coat, not much else.
“Kirisame, it is very bad form to interrupt a choice while it is being written out.”
“Stuff it. You’re trying to kidnap Guts, ain’t ya?” Her voice is as defiant as ever. You can just picture the look on her face.
“Leave it to you to misinterpret and overstate.”
“Well, you were going to capture him and experiment on him against his will, eh? Weren’t you? I’d call that kidnapping, Patches.”
Teddy’s eyes go dark, dropping into a cold frown. “Will you move or not, witch?”
“Nope. I challenge you to a duel!”
There’s a long silence.
“I could accept, Marisa, but that would be a waste of time. Instead, I merely intend to retrieve the Demon-slayer to safety while leaving you to futilely search for us.”
“Wait -- crap --!”
You feel like you’re being pulled in an imaginary direction. As you’re ripped from your place in spacetime to another, all around you seems to twist and distort. But in the seconds before you vanish from Patches’ bubble of reality, Marisa tosses something to you -- you grab it in your hand before the world goes dark.
“Why so evil, Patches?” you ask, pinned to the wall by the curse as Patchouli and some assistants prepare the ritual -- drawing some kind of arcane circle on the ground, lighting candles, the works. She reads out of a book, stopping occasionally to give instructions in the arcane language. “All you need is a hairless cat and a scar. And no hair.”
“Flippant as ever, I see.”
“Gotta face the end with a smile, Teddy.”
She gives you a dark look. “First, it is not the end for anyone present. Second, stop with that deplorable nickname.”
“But you were so cute and adorable when I cuddled with you.”
She gives you a dark look. “You snored.”
“The truth can be ungentlemanly, Guts.”
You watch as she returns to her mystical work, gripping Marisa’s charm in your hand. What is it? You have no pretentions of knowing, but hey, Marisa must have given it to you for a reason. You try to feel its shape -- seems flat, sharp-edged, boxy. There’s a bit of rope you grip in your hand. Ah, you hope she gave you this for a reason…
After a tedious hour or so, the preparations are complete -- with a word, Patches takes control of your muscles and forces you towards the center of the alchemic circle. It’s beautiful, intricate -- interlaced so many times you can’t follow one line without get caughting up in a dozen others. As you’re forced into the center, Patchouli takes a stand in another circle, across from you.
“Guts, there are two ways in which this can go. You accept me, and my way, and we join amicably. Or you resist -- the result will be the same, but the process may well take hours or days that you will spend in excruciating pain as you try to fight off the inevitable.”
“I gotta ask.” You glare at her. “Why? Why all this backstabbing?”
“I haven’t stabbed any backs, Guts, except perhaps Remilia’s.”
“And that doesn’t bug you?”
“If you’re asking if you feel guilt, I do. I know that I never would have considered such duplicity before the invasion. But that changed the entire calculus: I had to consider both my own fate and that of Gensokyo over that of one vampire.”
“Calculus, huh? How about this for calculus: Yukari’s got more know-how, more firepower, and more troops than you do -- why not leave it in her hands? She’s more likely to carry off a win.”
She laughs. “Not as foolish as you seem, Demon-slayer. Truth be told, you make a point; after all, I am primarily carrying out the sacred directive of all magi: to attain new and greater magic.”
“You exist to find better magic, which you then use to get even better magic?”
“Circular, I know, but it is my purpose. I have labored tirelessly in the Voila library to attain this goal, enduring sickness and the grinding futility of it for centuries. And now, before me, stands one of the Synchronizers, as rare and precious as water in the desert. I cannot ignore my directive, handed down by Queen and Empire so long ago. Guts, I ask you to consent to the ritual so I do not need to achieve my ends through brute force -- I do not wish to see you suffer. I do this to save Gensokyo and the earth from greater suffering.”
“We retrieve this power and ram it down hell’s throat.”
A plan you can appreciate, but you’re still doubtful of this whole diabolical plan.
There’s a vile ringing in your ears for a few seconds as your vision curves at the edges.
There’s a familiar voice. “Hehe. That Patches ain’t half as smart as she thinks she is.”
“Yeah, I’m chatting through that charm I gave ya. Pretty cute, right? Anyway, I need you to let go of it. When it hits the ground it will break, and that will let me know where you are.” You tighten your grip, instinctively. “Just drop it, right? Nothing more to it. And hurry, cuz Patches is listening to this.”
The connection dies, but just before you see it go you see a snatch of a scene -- a woman, beautiful, passing through a field of sunflowers. She turns and you at smiles as the scene clears; again, you’re in the underground lair.
But the atmosphere is all different.
Patchouli is watching you, somewhat paler than usual. “Guts,” she begins, voice shaking, “Do not drop that charm. The message was not sent by Kirisame.”
“Yeah, says you.” You begin fighting with her curse, directing all of your will to your hand. Sure enough, with enough willpower you can pry your fingers free, one at a time, the charm getting closer to falling with every minute.
A servant rushes forward. “Lady Knowledge, I’ll get it for you!”
“No!” snaps the mage. “You cannot breach the circle now! Listen to me, Guts, Kirisame gave you that charm -- but it has been hijacked by Yuuka Kazami. She sent that transmission, and if you drop it she will come here.”
“Why should I believe you?”
“That scene at the end! Yuuka did well to create that illusion, but a bit of her mental background noise infiltrated her transmission -- that was Yuuka’s servant, Elly!”
[ ]…drop it with a smile. “Even if you aren’t lying -- anywhere is better than here, Teddy.”
[ ]…tighten your grip. “Let’s say I believe you. In return for me not calling down an angry plant youkai on your head, lift the curse.”