Chapter 2 - In Search of a Curse Goddess
Aya made it all the way down to the foot of the Youkai Mountain. From almost every side, the mountain was surrounded by dense forest, so even her sharp eyesight would be tested if she wanted to spot anything resembling a shrine in that area. She therefore decided to fly just a few meters above ground, slaloming past the trees, so that no detail would escape her. This, of course, slowed her down greatly, but it was only morning, and she believed that it wouldn't take her more than an hour to make a full lap around the whole mountain.
Half an hour has passed, and she had no luck so far. Slightly frustrated, she let out a sigh.
"Why do these shrines have to be built on either hard-to-reach or hard-to-find places?"
She wasn't ready to give up her search and continued scanning the forests. Besides the fairies and the local wildlife, she hasn't encountered anyone. That remained the case until she was certain that she already made a circle around the mountain.
"There has to be a better way…" she thought aloud.
The dried leaves rustled somewhere not too far away from her. She looked in that direction, but couldn't see anyone.
"Probably just some animal." she shrugged and resumed her flight. She decided to make another lap around the mountain, this time slightly further away. And as she moved deeper into the forest, her ears picked up someone's voice.
"Ah, someone's here. I wonder who…"
As she quietly approached the source of the voice, she quickly realized that it was actually two voices, albeit quite similar in sound. Both were female and young-sounding, but Aya could still not make out the words they were saying.
Finally, after a minute, she noticed two figures standing among the trees. Aya instantly recognized them by the color of their hair and clothes.
"Ah, good morning to you, Shizuha-san, Minoriko-san." she greeted them individually.
The two blonde girls looked startled at first, but quickly relaxed, when they realized who snuck up on them.
"Aya-san? Hello." the girl in a brightly colored dress that matched the colors of the autumn leaves returned the greeting.
The other girl, clad in a dark dress, a light-yellow blouse, a pinkish apron and a red hat decorated by a grape cluster followed suit. "Good morning, Aya-san. Are we going to be featured in the newspaper?
"Not unless you're up to anything interesting." the crow tengu replied flatly.
Being neither humans, nor youkai, these two blonde girls represented the deities of autumn. Minoriko and Shizuha Aki were siblings. The former being a harvest goddess and the latter governing the turning of leaves.
"We're doing our work as the goddesses of autumn. It is our season after all." Minoriko would think that someone like Aya wouldn't need an explanation of what autumn goddesses might be up to in this time of year, but it would seem the journalist was expecting something else.
"Going on about your yearly duties isn't exactly a scoop material."
"Duties?" the older sister tilted her head. "It's not like we're bound to bring autumn to Gensokyo, you know…"
"But if you decided not to, you could no longer call yourselves autumn goddesses, could you?"
"Well… that's true, but…" the goddess of turning leaves admitted with a lowered head. That's when her younger sister interjected.
"If you're not here to take pictures or do an interview, then why did you even bother talking to us in the first place?"
"I'm gathering information, you see…"
"We don't deal with information. Unless it has something to do with autumn, I doubt we can tell you anything gossip-worthy."
"I hope you're wrong about that." Aya said. "I wouldn't be asking you, if I was convinced that you couldn't tell me what I'd like to know. I mean, as goddesses, you surely know where I can find the recently-built Kagiyama Shrine."
Both deities of fall exchanged their quizzical gazes, before the older of the two sisters spoke: "Hina-san has a shrine?"
"Just because we're goddesses," Minoriko began explaining, "doesn't mean we know everything about every other god in Gensokyo."
"I haven't seen her in a while…" Shizuha muttered with a finger on her chin.
"Neither have I." her younger sister likewise denied having been in contact with the misfortune goddess. "As far as I know, she tends to wander all over Gensokyo. If she really has a shrine, it could be anywhere."
"My source claims it to be located somewhere at the foot of this very mountain." the journalist elaborated. Judging by the Akis' faces, however, she could already guess that they were just as clueless about the shrine's whereabouts as she was.
"Are you sure your source wasn't pulling a prank on you?" Although she wasn't aware of it, Shizuha's question was more valid than she would think.
Aya shrugged. "I wonder about that myself. That's what I'm trying to find out. It would be better to ask the curse goddess directly, but I already scouted the area around the mountain. No sign of Kagiyama-san or her shrine, though."
"I'm afraid we can't help you with that." the harvest goddess shook her head before averting her gaze from Aya. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I have work to do."
"So do I." the tengu hastily scribbled down a few notes and bowed lightly to the Aki sisters. "Thank you for your time."
While back in flight, she plotted a course that led her further away from her home mountain.
By the river flowing from the mountain, there was a place called Genbu Ravine. A unique natural landmark that formed during one of the mountain's eruptions. Its 6-sided cliffs along with its hex-grid patterned rocky bottom looked almost artificial in comparison with the rest of the surrounding wilderness. Home to a community of aquatic youka known as the kappa, which were besides the tengu the only youkai species living in communities, Aya figured this would be a promising place for gathering information. A slew of straw and bamboo huts dotted the ravine and a complex system of pipes built into the hexagonal cliffs was making the place look even more unnatural.
A busy-looking bazaar stood at the edge of this small settlement, echoing with the chatter of dozens of kappa. A few tengu could be seen among the crowds of customers, easily recognized by their distinctive tokins. Aya wasn't about to interview just some random youkai in the crowd. She had one specific person in mind. She was looking for one specific kappa due to her being acquainted with the goddess Hina Kagiyama. This quirky, young female engineer had her own stand in the bazaar, where she offered her various gadgets for sale. At least those that weren't larger than the stand itself. The very same kappa who made Aya's camera, Nitori Kawashiro stood timidly at her stand, not luring customers by any means. Many still flocked to her regardless. Aya cut her way through the crowd until she stood face to face with Nitori.
"Excuse me, madam," one angry customer said to the crow tengu. "but the line ends over there." she pointed backwards with her thumb.
"Ah, but I'm not here to buy anything." Aya tried to clear up the misunderstanding. "Just dropped by to ask an old friend a question or two, and I'll be on my way."
The kappa's expression was almost blank, being partially apathetic, partially displeased by Aya's impertinence.
"Cutting in line is still rude, regardless of your intention to buy something or not. Not only to the customers, but to me as well."
"Hey, you're not the only one who's busy today."
"Then please make it quick. Every second I waste idly chatting with you, I could spend by making money instead."
Hearing her response, Aya covered her grin by her leaf fan. "My, your capitalistic spirit could even put Hakurei Reimu to shame…"
Nitori's reserved tone now gave way to an apparently annoyed one. "Get to the point already!"
"Right. So… Have you heard anything about Kaigyama Shrine?"
"No." Nitori responded instantaneously. Aya even had a feeling that she had that answer at the ready no matter what question would be given to her.
"There's an article about it in the Kakashi Spirit News. " the tengu elaborated.
The blue-haired kappa girl just muttered "I don't really read Kakashi…"
"Wise choice…" Aya let out a weak chuckle.
"Was there anything else?" Nitori asked her cross-armed, while impatiently tapping her foot against the ground.
"Yes… Um… If I wanted to see Hina-san, were would be the best place to look?"
Nitori fixed her aquamarine eyes with Aya's in a puzzled gaze mixed with suspicion.
"What's all this about Hina-san? Down on your luck?" She didn't wait for Aya to reply. "I don't know why you assume I know where to look for her… I'm not her shrine maiden."
"Maybe because I've often seen you with her?" the pointy-eared reporter tried to refresh her memory, with a teasing tone.
"We don't see each other that often, but… when we do, I usually meet her close by the river. I mean, that's where she collects all the nagashi-bina dolls to sell them again."
"Yes… Except that it's half a year too early for Hinamatsuri."
"Then your guess is as good as mine." the short kappa shrugged her shoulders. Maybe now that she has her own shrine, she's there."
"Gee… thanks. That helped a lot." Aya's eyes trailed off to scan the distant horizon as she uttered her sarcastic remark. "This whole thing about her shrine makes less sense the more I think about it."
"They why do you pursue that nonsense?"
"Because that's exactly what I think it is."
Nitori didn't quite comprehend her answer, but she didn't even care much in the first place. "Well, whatever. I told you what I could. You'll just have to keep looking."
Disappointed that even her old friend failed to provide her with the necessary information, Aya kicked off the ground to continue in her quest for the truth.
She continued her journey along the river, until she eventually ended up at the Misty Lake, with the silhouette of the Scarlet Devil Mansion ominously looming over the surface, on the island shrouded in a veil of dense fog. Needless to say, her search turned out fruitless.
"I doubt they will be any wiser…" Aya mumbled to herself in the same second, as the silly thought to interview the mansion's inhabitants crossed her mind. She kicked a small rock lying at the shore of the lake and watched it disappear in a small splash. "I can't be the only one around here who doesn't buy that article, can I?"
As she thought who else might have read the latest issue of Hatate's newspaper, a certain shrine maiden came to mind. Although she might not know anything about Hina's favorite hangout spots, her little shrine used to see a lot of visitors, albeit unwanted.
"Perhaps she could have heard a rumor or two…" the tengu journalist hummed, setting her sights over the cloud of mist at the tall hills in the east. "It never hurts to ask."
After a short, speedy flight, the stilts of Aya's geta sandals met the stone surface of the Hakurei Shrine's courtyard, making two quiet knocks. Since she didn't see the miko anywhere, she assumed she'd have more luck finding her inside the shrine. It was still rather early, so perhaps she was still sleeping. That didn't stop the investigative journalist from attempting to wake her up and doing an interview anyway. That was until she made her way to the shrine's entrance, where a piece of paper had been stuck on the sliding door.
The message in a hasted, sloppy handwriting, typical of the shrine's resident read: "Resolving an incident. Will return upon its resolution. Donations are still welcome." Signed: Hakurei Reimu.
Aya let out a frustrated sigh after reading the brief notice. "Haa… What a timing. Perhaps I should go and write an article about this incident… whatever that might be."
She brainstormed for ideas where to search and who to interview next, but without any solid leads, she felt like going on a wild goose chase. Though in her case, catching that wild goose would have been much easier a task than finding any clues confirming or denying the existence of Kagiyama Shrine.
"This is going to be a long day…"
And a long day it was. The stubborn crow tengu thoroughly searched the entirety of the forests surrounding the Youkai Mountain. Or at least that was her plan, but that thoroughness came at the cost of time. Even her incredible speed proved to be useless here. She barely covered one third of the vast woodlands by the time sun began to set.
"Oh, Gensokyo… You're so small, and yet so big. Why is it that sometimes I run into the same person every time I leave home, and other times, I can't find that person, no matter how hard I look?"
Aya gave her homeland a rhetorical question, as the shortness of the day made her reluctantly give up on her search and return to her village. Tired both physically and mentally, she began her return trip along the very same river that she already scoured today, hoping that perhaps now, she'd have better luck finding the curse goddess. But as it turned out, luck seemed to have all but abandoned the dark-haired tengu girl.
"It can't be helped. I've done what I could… But I ultimately lost my own bet." she was already mentally preparing to eat her own words and admit her rival's triumph.
She ascended the mountain along the cascading waterfalls eventually passing a guard post, where her acquaintance Momiji would sometimes be stationed when on duty.
Sure enough, the white wolf tengu girl was seated in her chair, holding a watchful vigil over this side of the mountain. She must have seen Aya coming long before she reached the guard post, as she showed next to no surprise when their eyes met.
The two of them never really got along too well, but at least they were willing to exchange a friendly, mutually-insulting banter every now and then. Aya had no grudges against Momiji. It was the white wolf who got easily annoyed by Aya's presence… and her personality, and her actions. Come to think of it, Aya's relationship with Momiji was quite similar to the one she had with Hatate, minus the rivalry.
"Keeping the intruders away again?" Aya nonchalantly uttered as she flew by.
Instead of giving her a witty reply, Momiji tossed back a witty question. "Back from nosing around already?"
Aya chuckled it off and was about to continue her ascent, when her curiosity took the reins and made her stop. "Say…" she suddenly turned around, "you've been here since morning, haven't you?"
"Hmph… I thought that after you made a habit of annoying me with your questions and random photo shoots, you'd figure out when a guard's shift begins and ends."
To Aya, that reply was merely Momiji's way of saying "yes". With the knowledge that Momiji, like all of her kind, had amazing eyesight, Aya figured that if she was on duty today, it was more than likely that she saw pretty much everything that transpired in Gensokyo, south of the mountain. Now the question was, whether she paid any attention to the details Aya was most curious about…
"Ah, good. Then you've seen where the Hakurei shrine maiden went, right?"
Momiji tilted her head at the question. She looked a bit puzzled, but also a bit… amused. "Oh? So the red-white was the one you were looking for? Is that why you were running around like a headless chicken before you got to her shrine at some point?"
"Uhhh…" Aya failed to hide her flustered expression from the eyes of the white wolf. "Well… not originally. She just came to mind as one of the persons to interview."
"You were all over Gensokyo today. You must have been investigating something big… or being desperate to find something interesting to write about."
"Heh…" the crow tengu barely knew that this young guard paid so much attention to her, even noticing such details. "Were you spying on me the whole day?"
"Guard duty can be awfully dull, you know." Momiji lazily muttered, adding a yawn for emphasis. "Watching your erratic journey proved to be somewhat amusing. And so much time spent in our closest forest. One can only wonder…"
Aya's cheeks were starting to redden like the leaves of some trees used to in this season.
"Hey, such is the work of a journalist. Not that I'd expect you to understand. I just want to know if you've seen where the shrine maiden went."
"Who knows?" the white wolf tengu shrugged, covering another yawn with her palm. "I wasn't really paying attention. She just flew from point A to point B. You, on the other hand, were much more intriguing to watch." she widened her already wry smirk. She had already made a point of having watched Aya's "amusing" journey for the better part of the day, but it was almost as if she was mocking her. Was that her way of paying Aya back for being a nuisance to her? Whatever the case was, Aya was more than certain that she had nothing helpful to tell her.
In retort, she just shook her head and said: "I'm so glad our sacred mountain is under the protection of such vigilant guards, who pay so much attention to irrelevant details, that they don't notice an incident taking place under their noses…"
"Spare me your sarcasm. The only incident that occurred today was that a certain crow tengu pestered half of Gensokyo, and it looks like I'm the next victim."
"As a matter of fact, there was a notice on the Hakurei Shrine's door, saying that Reimu-san had gone to resolve an incident."
"Is that right…?" Momiji asked in a tone that made it clear that she didn't care the slightest.
"See? Even the all-seeing stalker Inubashiri doesn't know what's going on."
"Gathering information is a crow tengu's job, as far as I know. Besides… if the incident in question was that serious or obvious, I'm sure I would have seen our local shrine maiden flying to the scene herself."
"Our local…" Aya's eyes widened as she left her sentence unfinished. She just got an idea, and even if it was getting a bit late, the urge to follow through with that idea was almost irresistible. "I'll chat with you later, Momiji. I still have one more interview to do today."
With renewed enthusiasm, she hopped off the cliff and soared up the mountain at a dizzying speed. On her way up, she began to wonder why she chose to beat around the bush and not ask Momiji about Hina and her alleged shrine instead. Still, she had a gut feeling that all her questions would be answered soon.
Momiji just smiled as she watched Aya disappear over the cliffs. "Looks like she picked up on that subtle hint. And so the cogs keep turning… So far… just as you wanted… Hatate."
With evening falling on Gensokyo, Aya kept ascending higher and higher, not stopping at the premises of her home village. Her goal stood even higher, where the coniferous trees reigned supreme with their ever green colors. Up there, on that mystical plateau, with a lake surrounded by tall onbashira pillars, stood the impressive structure of the Moriya Shrine. And even from afar, Aya could see its residents enjoying a peaceful evening on the porch.
"So close to home, yet the last place I thought I'd ask…" Aya quietly said to herself as she landed. She waved her hand at the three figures at the shrine, even if she was sure they saw her sooner.
"Aya-san? Good evening, or afternoon, hehe." the cheerful green-haired girl in a blue-white shrine-maiden outfit giggled as she greeted her. "It gets dark rather early in fall, so it gets confusing."
Her name was Sanae Kochiya. Gensokyo's second shrine maiden, who shared her living space with not just one, but two deities. Or, more precisely, they shared their living space with her. Both of them were relaxing on their porch, eating a treat typical of the season – baked sweet potatoes. It was almost hard to imagine these two goddesses were once bitter enemies. While they both acknowledged Aya's presence by light nodding, they chose to let Sanae do the talking, while they enjoyed their snacks. It's impolite to talk with one's mouth full, after all…
"Yes, good afternoon… I promise I won't bother you for too long." Aya reassured the shrine's residents. "I'm just here to ask a few questions, if I may."
"If you think I'm the one who can answer them, then by all means, go ahead." Sanae's bright smile encouraged her.
"I've been investigating one minor rumor, you see…"
"U-huh…" the miko listened attentively.
"Well, along the course of my interviews it occurred to me that the Hakurei shrine maiden might have some insight about the matter…"
"But as I arrived at her shrine today, there was a notice on her door about her being away, resolving an incident."
"An incident?" Sanae blinked in surprise after repeating the last bit of Aya's sentence.
"Yeah, that's what the notice said. But I've travelled almost everywhere around Gensokyo today, and I didn't notice anything out of the ordinary. And by your reaction, I'm assuming you didn't notice anything strange either…"
"I didn't… Which is strange, because I've been told that in Gensokyo, the term "incident" was used solely for describing an event, caused by youkai, which has a negative effect on all of Gensokyo. You know… when something is obviously wrong…"
The rapid scribbling of Aya's pen on the paper inadvertently interrupted Sanae's train of thought.
"Well, Sanae-san, before you and your… ahem… company moved to Gensokyo, we had a couple of incidents that weren't so obvious. Some literally happened without me knowing about them, and I make a living of writing articles about such events. But then again, I'm not a shrine maiden, so I was wondering, if you, as a miko, have some sort of incident-warning system."
"Hehe… It's funny that you're asking that." Sanae giggled as she threw a tentative glace back over her shoulder.
"Funny? How so?"
"Well… my incident warning system is sitting right there." she inconspicuously tried to point her thumb at the pair of goddesses behind her.
"Oh?" Aya looked genuinely intrigued. "Which one of them?"
"Both, actually. Suwako-sama can sense the slightest irregularities in the earth, and Kanako-sama can tell whenever there's something foul in the air."
"Like that onion you burned to crisp yesterday…" Kanako, in spite of siting several meters away from the conversation, suddenly joined in to point out Sanae's recent cooking blunder.
"That certainly didn't take any divine powers to notice." the younger in appearance, but older in age Suwako remarked before taking another bite of her sweet potato. Needless to say, Sanae was all red with embarrassment. But it wasn't Sanae's failure that caught Aya's attention the most.
"That sounds like a pretty reliable system… If it won't bother you much to answer, Moriya-san, Yasaka-san… Do you feel anything out of place right now?"
Before either of the two goddesses could chew and swallow their food, Sanae replied in their stead: "If they did, I wouldn't be here sitting idly, while Reimu and her eccentric witch friend have all the fun, would I? I'd be exterminating youkai left and right~." She demonstratively swung her gohei in both directions and then jokingly tapped Aya's head with its end.
"I guess you do have a point." Aya still stood there in full-serious mode, scribbling notes. "So what do you think about Hakurei-san's message on the door?"
"Hmmm… Maybe she just went to resolve something small-time. Or something personal. I don't know. Maybe someone else stuck the note on her door as a prank while she wasn't looking."
"While it seems unlikely, it certainly isn't completely impossible. Well, thank you, Sanae-san. At least I can sleep peacefully tonight, knowing that I won't wake up shrouded in red mist, or in an unnatural winter… although, now would be about time for winter to start…"
"You're welcome~." Sanae bowed. "Was there anything else you wished to ask?"
"Actually, yes. Have you ever heard about Kagiyama-shrine?"
"Not until today, I haven't. I only read about it in the newspaper this morning."
"So you read the latest Kakashi Spirit News?"
Sanae paused to think before giving a neutral shrug. "It's possible. It was just a short article on the front page."
"There's no mistake then." Aya seriously doubted that any other newspaper in Gensokyo wrote an article about it. "We're talking about the very same shady article in the very same shady newspaper."
"You think it's a hoax?"
"Can you blame me? I mean, don't you find it strange? That a shrine nobody heard about suddenly appears out of the blue?"
"Well… considering how Kanako-sama had a hand in rebuilding the Palanquin Ship into what is now the Myouren Temple, basically overnight, back in 124, I wouldn't call it strange."
"I swear I had no hand in this one, though." Kanako informed the reporter.
Aya realized that Sanae had a point. In fact, she was aware of it all along. That awareness was the very reason she spent the whole day searching for the fabled shrine and the goddess it was attributed to, instead of simply closing herself in her study and writing up an article with a sweet-sounding headline that would call Hatate and her newspaper a liar. She simply lacked the proof.
"It would really help me if I found Hina-san herself and ask her what drove her to suddenly build herself a shrine."
"Now hold on there a second, Aya-san." the tall goddess suddenly interrupted her. "I see you're a bit misinformed on this matter, so allow me to clear one thing up."
For a moment, the black-haired tengu just stood there dumbfounded. "Yes?" she shyly let out of her lips?
"A god does not simply build a shrine for oneself."
"Well, it's not they physically couldn't; it's simply against their nature."
"O-kay, I admit. I had no idea about that."
"The place of worship has to be built by the humans, who revere the god and believe in them enough that they build a monumental temple… Well, sometimes just a small, modest shrine, but that's not the point. The thing is, if a god built himself a shrine, that shrine would hold no spiritual meaning to the god whatsoever. In fact, it'd be quite arrogant and pitiful at the same time."
"Yes," the earth goddess Suwako finished her potato to put her 2 yen into the discussion, while wearing a forced pout, "totally not as pathetic, arrogant, lowly and despicable as taking over another god's shrine by force." She then walked back into the shrine, sliding the door behind her.
"Ehehe…" Kanako's calm and composed demeanor quickly shattered under the sting of that remark. She let out a sheepish giggle. "She's still sensitive about that… But, yes. As an example to demonstrate on, I wouldn't be going to all the trouble of seizing the Moriya Shrine by not the friendliest means, if I could simply snap my fingers and build my own… and live with myself afterwards…"
"I think I get the picture." Aya copied Kanako's earlier sheepish expression, not sure how to feel about the whole situation. "Can your divine powers grant you the knowledge about the presence of other gods and goddesses?"
"Hmm…" a snakelike smile appeared on Kanako's lips as soon as the crow tengu made her humble request. "You know, Aya-san, it's not that I couldn't tell you where exactly to find the curse goddess, but… what would I get in return?"
"I… uh… could include you in the next issue of Bunbunmaru?"
Aya's rather predictable offer only elicited a chuckle out of the goddess of sky and rain. "I had something a little different in mind~. How about we made a deal?"
The goddess's gaze and tone made Aya slightly uncomfortable, to say the least. "Before you ask me to sign any contracts, I absolutely refuse…"
"No, silly young crow, all I want in return for telling you Kagiyama-san's whereabouts is a little bit of your faith."
"Yes, the proper way it should be offered to a god. I want you to pray at the shrine… You used to do that more often in the past."
"That's all? A simple prayer?"
"That's right." Kanako nodded. "A simple prayer."
Somewhat relieved, Aya giggled at her own embarrassment. "It's the least I can do. Let's do it."
"Go ahead and just step up to the shrine's offering box."
It felt a little awkward to be given praying instructions by the shrine's very goddess, but Aya really tried to put her heart into it.
"Yes, that's it." Kanako kept guiding Aya like a 3-year old girl who visited a shrine for the first time. And Aya could tell the goddess was enjoying every second of it. "Pull on that big rope a few times to ring that bell… you know the drill."
The crow tengu was trying her best not to offend her, so she grabbed the rope hanging over the donation box and gave it a few good pulls, rattling the bell above.
As she was about to proceed with the prayer itself, the shrine's entrance slid open, and out poked the blonde-haired head of Suwako.
"Yeeeees~! You rang?"
She beamed at Aya with a sweet childlike smile, while the tengu only stared at her in emotionless confusion. Kanako also smiled as sweetly as she could back at the other goddess.
"Not funny, Suwako…"
And so, when Suwako pulled her head back in, Kanako resumed guiding her current shrine visitor to carry out a proper prayer. "Now where were we? Oh yes… Now clap your hands twice."
"Um… Yasaka-sama, with all due respect, I know how to pray at the shrines!" she finally snapped, obviously entertaining the goddess even more. "You said it yourself. I know the drill. Now how about you showed a little faith in me as well and let me concentrate?"
"Ufufufu… Sorry. I was just joking."
"…Not funny." Aya muttered Kanako's own quote from a moment ago, and proceeded to clap her hands twice.
"Uh-uh-uuh~." Kanako again wagged her index finger in an annoying way.
"What is it now?!"
"You forgot to present an offering." she pointed her finger at the box in front of Aya.
The youkai journalist let out almost a desperate laugh as she planted her palm against her forehead. "Ahaha… silly me. How could I forget?"
"I guess you do need my guidance after all."
Aya scraped a few coins out of her wallet and tossed them onto the barred lid of the donation box, watching them disappear as they made the typical rattling noise. She then repeated the clapping and made her silent prayer. Only Kanako felt like she hadn't teased her enough…
"You have to say it out loud."
The tengu opened her mouth in disbelief. "W-what? Now you're just making fun of me, aren't you? I've been to your shrine on a busier day before and I've never seen the visitors saying their prayers out loud."
"Indeed. And so many of them wonder why they got their prayers unanswered…"
"You're a goddess, for crying out loud! You can hear people's prayers even without them saying them out loud, so stop playing me for a fool!" Judging by her raised voice, Kanako deduced that Aya had just about enough of her nonsense.
"Alright…" the goddess shrugged and turned on her heel. "I guess you don't want to know where Hina is. Or if she really has a shrine…"
Somehow, Aya even suspected that Kanako knew the answer to both of these questions, she was just being a jerk.
"Alright!" Aya yelled out and breathed a heavy sigh. "I'll say it out loud."
Kanako's smile returned to her face. She turned back towards Aya and waited her to keep her word.
"I wish to know where to find the curse goddess, Kagiyama Hina, and find out the truth behind the front page article of Kakashi Sprit News." she recited her prayer in an almost theatrical way. "There... I said it. Satisfied?" she flung her anticipating gaze back at Kanako.
"Is that your wish?"
"Then by my divine power and knowledge," Kakako raised her opened right hand and extended it towards Aya, "I grant you the information on the current location of the curse goddess…"
She then paused for a moment, with her eyes closed, as if she was trying to attune her 6th sense to pinpoint the other divine being. "Yes, she's in Gensokyo." she blurted out jestingly after opening her eyes.
With a deadpan face, Aya stared back for a few seconds. "…I want my money back."
"Juuuust kidding~. She's in a cave behind the waterfall. But who knows for how long? If you hurry, you may still find her there."
"Ugh… what is she doing in such a place?" Aya rolled her eyes at the notion of having to get soaked in order to reach the aforementioned cave.
"Why don't you ask her yourself?"
"You're right. But this better not be just another joke of yours."
"Only one way to find out~."
"…Thank you… I think… I should go now. My work for today is far from done."
"Good for you, Aya-san." said Sanae after being quiet for a while.
"Please come visit the shrine again sometime." Kanako bid her farewell with a clichéd shopkeeper line.
With the same speed as she jetted up to the mountain plateau, Aya now flew in the opposite direction. Following the waterfall was easy, and even though she wasn't looking forward to crossing that wall of falling water at some point, at least she didn't have to travel too far. She zipped past Momiji so fast, that to the white-wolf girl she looked like an unidentified, blurred mass that appeared in her field of vision for a split second.
It took no more than a few seconds to reach the foot of the mountain, where the massive waterfall roared like a continuous thunder.
Aya stared at the mighty waterfall with respect and a bit of dread reflected in her red eyes.
"Hina-san~!" she yelled from the top of her lungs, but the waterfall's noise was so loud, that she barely heard her own voice. "Are you there~?"
As expected, no response. There was no other way to find out if anyone was on the other side of the waterfall than to cross it. But the water's coldness and getting all her clothes wet was the least of Aya's worries. The sheer amount of water, rushing from such height was hitting the rocks with such a force, that it would flush the poor youkai journalist and drag her under the surface. If Hina was truly on the other side, then it was a mystery as to how she even got there. That's when Aya got an idea. She reached for her inseparable tool and fashion accessory – the hauchiwa fan, and stared at it for a few seconds, as if considering if her idea would even work. After a shrug, she figured that she should at least give it a try.
"It's the force of one element against another…" she gave the fan a good hard swing, whipping up an impressive whirlwind. It sprayed water all over the place, but it also managed to slightly change the angle of the waterfall, which enabled Aya to dart through to the dark crevice, which was otherwise completely obscured by the rushing water.
"Hahaha! I made it! What won't I do just to get my hands on a scoop…?"
As she took a better look of her surroundings, faintly lit by the fading daylight seeping through the waterfall, she saw that the cave led deeper into the mountain. While she had known about the cave's existence, she never really explored it before, so she had no idea how large it was. There was no sign of Hina where she was standing, so logic dictated Aya to follow the tunnel. The only problem was, that Aya had no portable light source.
"Helooooo~!" she tried calling out into the tunnel to get a response, but all she got was her own reverberating voice calling back from the depths of the darkness.
"It wouldn't surprise me if this cave led all the way to the Palace of the Earth Spirits… I am NOT going down there… Unless…"
The tengu reached for her camera and flipped its flash on. As she took a shot, she could see the whole cave perfectly illuminated, though just for a fleeting moment. She noticed something on the ground that the lack of natural light didn't allow her to see otherwise. One more flash, and she could identify a pile of small objects.
"What was that…?"
The light of the camera flash lasted frustratingly short, but this time Aya recognized the objects bearing humanoid shapes.
"Are these what I think they are?"
As it turned out, the objects weren't just lying there in a disorganized pile, but in neat rows. They were dolls and effigies of various shapes, sizes and materials. There must have been hundreds of them.
"The fabled Nagahsi-bina army!" Aya excitedly snapped another shot. "Is this where the curse goddess lives?"
She knew that the answer to that question likely wouldn't come after her anytime soon, and like the proud investigative reporter that she was, she decided to venture further into the cave, one camera flash at a time.