In deference to Seiji's obvious reluctance to venture into the forest in the dark hours of night, Minerva reinstalled herself within the alchemy shed behind the Hieda mansion. Given the circumstances, none of the few servants still in the house was of a mind to raise any objections.
The first thing Minerva did was to send Alice off to bed. The little girl made some obligatory grumbles of protest, but obediently followed a servant to a spare bedroom in the mansion; their old room, in fact.
The second thing Minerva did was to return to the shed, and address an unremarkable patch of shade, wavering in the light of hastily-erected torches. "Have you brought it?"
"Since you failed to specify the exact nature of 'it', I have picked out the most likely candidates for your perusal," the shadow replied, coalescing into the form of the Imp. Behind Minerva, Seiji made a strangled sound.
"Oh, my apologies," Minerva said. "I meant the... ah, here it is." She took a tiny leather pouch from the Imp.
Seiji stared back and forth between the two women. "Did you know about this, Margatroid-san?" he demanded, pointing at the empty skies.
"I suspected an event would occur soon, and prepared eventualities," Minerva admitted. "I did not, however, think it would happen tonight. Or that it would take the form it has."
"Do you feel any different from before, Seiji-san?" Minerva asked, in the spirit of intellectual curiosity. "More energetic, more excitable?"
"I should think so, since the stars have gone out!"
"The stars are still in their usual place," the Imp corrected. "However, quite a significant area, including the village, has been sectioned off. Isolated, in a way; I haven't tried to travel physically past the borders, but the Shadowed Paths are well and truly blocked. Gensokyo is now covered by... something. I'm not entirely sure what, myself."
"Hence obscuring the stars beyond," Minerva said. "But what of the moon?"
"I have no idea," the Imp said. "Does Gensokyo have its own personal lunar body, perhaps?"
A mystery to set aside for another time. "Seiji-san, why don't you go home and have a rest? Whatever the situation at present, it is hardly likely to resolve itself by morning. I doubt I can do anything about it myself without first, er, exploring the possibilities."
Seiji took this dismissal with more grace than Minerva deserved. "I'll go check in on Maria on the way home," he said. "Maybe all the commotion woke her up. I'll tell her there's nothing to worry about, yes?"
Not yet, anyhow. "Everything will be all right," Minerva assured him. "Please, get some sleep. I shall see you again tomorrow."
And Seiji would tell anyone he came across that the foreign English witch had the situation under control. No doubt Hakurei was doing much the same, up at her shrine. Little by little, calm, or a semblance thereof, would be restored to the village.
Which accounted for the humans; the youkai of Gensokyo would have to seek their own counsel.
Minerva set down the box she received from Hakurei onto a table. "Imp? Come and have a look at this."
Removing the lid revealed a polished orb inside, nestled in faded cushions. Minerva held it up in the lamplight; it was smooth and slick to the touch, and weighty enough to cause noticeable damage to anything or anyone it might be hurled at. It was vaguely bisected into two colours by a curved line through its hemisphere, in addition to dots marked at certain points.
Minerva shifted the orb in her hands, and was unsurprised to recognize the symbol of yin and yang.
"There was power here once," she mused, replacing the orb in its box. "The influence, but not the source. Imp?"
"Very useful," the Imp said, carefully keeping her distance from the orb. "For modifications, or amplification. Particularly since I believe it is hollow, which may serve your purposes admirably. Where did you get it?"
"Hakurei gifted it to me. Or rented, possibly; the payment may be due quite soon. Imp, is there anything you'd like to tell me?"
"Only that I've never seen its like before, and I recommend caution when investigating it." The Imp shrugged. "For all I know, whatever once powered it is now spent, and it is no more than a bauble to look pretty on the mantelpiece."
Minerva opened the leather pouch, letting the lump of crimson metal fall into her palm. "Is it compatible, do you think?"
"I don't see why not," the Imp said. "I must say, your accumulation of mysterious artefacts is beginning to worry me."
"I am in a strange, faraway land," Minerva said, "toiling to perform a task I do not understand, requested by an authority I do not recognize, arranged for a purpose I cannot comprehend. I welcome all the advantages I can accrue."
"A commendably busy schedule."
"Particularly in view of the quickening pace of recent events, whether spontaneous or orchestrated by mischief, I do not know. Hell is empty, and all the devils are here."
"Yes, well," the Imp said.
By the time Minerva emerged once more from her work, the sun had risen, to her secret and profound relief.
The dramatics of the previous night had evolved into a persistent tension in the air, as the dawn revealed a sky overcast with ominous clouds. The disappearance of the stars had yet to be resolved, and there was little else to do for the majority of the villagers but to wait for a soothing explanation from someone sufficiently credible. As the days would go by, the threshold of trustworthiness would likely be loosened considerably.
Minerva glanced up towards the heavens, and scowled. Then she returned to the alchemy shed to pack a few more tools, shuttled in the previous night by the Imp using methods unsuitable for lesser beings, or so the Imp had assured her. The explanation had involved a great deal of jargon, but Minerva had gotten the impression that it required a certain frame of mind.
"So how long do would it take to learn?" Minerva had inquired.
The Imp had given her a look that was equal parts pity and exasperation. "That, I'm afraid, is precisely the problem."
Fastening the pouch to her belt, Minerva set out purposefully into the quiet streets.
Her progress through the village was marked by the steady stares of bystanders. A most unusual incident had occurred, and it was only natural to seek out the most unusual member of their little community.
Minerva slowed her pace when she reached the town square. Kamishirasawa had detached himself from a knot of grave-looking gentlemen, and was descending upon her with an equally grave-looking expression.
"Kamishirasawa-san," Minerva greeted him. She tried to ignore the disconcertingly coordinated manner in which the other men dispersed.
"Margatroid-san. Where is Alice, might I ask?"
"Sleeping in this morning," Minerva said. "At our old room in the Hieda mansion. I left her a note telling her to stay there; I don't imagine I'll be long."
Kamishirasawa responded to this with a level gaze. When no further elaboration seemed forthcoming, Minerva continued on to her destination, and Kamishirasawa fell into step beside her.
"You're up early today," Minerva said, attempting to make conversation.
"As are you. From what I may observe, however, unlike you, I did manage to get a few hours in."
Minerva touched her face, and decided that she would do best to avoid any mirrors for the rest of the day. "Do I look so haggard?"
Kamishirasawa ignored this. "Kino-san's daughter failed to return home last night," he said instead.
Minerva settled for an expression of polite sympathy. "I'm sorry to hear that," she hazarded.
"It is less serious than you may be thinking. We eventually learned that she was at the Hakurei Shrine; she suddenly fell ill during the ceremony, and it seemed wisest not to move her all the way back here. Her father left for the shrine at dawn."
"I see." Minerva suppressed the immediate surge of queries, not least of which was who Kino-san was in the first place. "How is she? Kino-san's daughter, I mean."
"It seems to be simple fatigue. Dizziness, headaches, a fainting spell. And yet for her to succumb to something like this, and so quickly at that..." Kamishirasawa shook his head. "Questions upon questions. Add the events of last night, and you may understand why the village is rather quiet, this new year."
"Did Hakurei-san say anything?"
"She did." Kamishirasawa frowned. "And she did not."
Meaning Hakurei was her usual cryptic self. Minerva tried to think of a diplomatic way to voice her suspicions on Hakurei having planned this entire thing, or at least having prior knowledge.
"What about yourself, Margatroid-san? Have you uncovered anything with your efforts?"
"I am not entirely certain," Minerva confessed.
"I am sorry, Margatroid-san, but that simply will not do."
Minerva stopped in sheer surprise. Kamishirasawa had not said the words with any heat, but she sensed that it would be unwise to protest.
"Gensokyo is used to youkai," Kamishirasawa continued calmly. "We have lived in this valley for hundreds of years. We have learned and adapted, and we live each day trusting that the next one will not be so very different. We are also used to youkai hunters; strangely, even their presence is seldom a disruption to our way of life. And yet during the autumn festival, a youkai entered the village and kidnapped a child. Last night, the stars vanished from the skies."
It was politic of Kamishirasawa, Minerva felt, to omit the fate of the Child of Miare.
"The times are changing, Margatroid-san," Kamishirasawa said. "And oddly enough, these changes are coincident with your presence in this village. I do not think you are directly responsible for these incidents, of course; there have been several minor cases before your arrival, connected only in hindsight. Yet here you are, with secret knowledge and enigmatic utterances, claiming to have solved the problem of the youkai."
"I have never-"
"Peace, Margatroid-san. Whatever your intentions, that is what your actions have spoken on your behalf. There comes a time when slyly professing ignorance, even if borne from a rightful caution against guesswork, only serves to fan speculation among the rest of us. It breeds uncertainty. And with that..." Kamishirasawa pointed a finger to the clouded skies. "We need certainty, Margatroid-san."
"I do not have certainty, Kamishirasawa-san. I cannot speak without knowing that what I say is true. As a magician, I must warn you that words have power."
"As a teacher, I already know," Kamishirasawa said. "I cannot order you to act; I do not have the right, nor does anyone else in this village. However, I would... recommend... acting sooner rather than later. This is not a threat, Margatroid-san, nor a dire warning of future consequences. Whatever happens, will happen. It is more a reminder, of who you are, and what you represent to the people of Gensokyo."
Minerva was silent for a moment, before a statement rose unbidden from her consciousness, bypassing her common sense entirely: "I'm afraid I don't think I know Kino-san."
"You should," Kamishirasawa said, already turning to leave. "You drink his tea every other day."
Minerva looked back towards the village square, where the teahouse could just barely be seen, shuttered and dark. She had noted its status when she passed by, and categorized it as a trivial piece of incidental information, hardly worthy of more than a passing thought. The tea shop was closed, and so she would have no tea there today.
In all her time in Gensokyo, Minerva had never learned the name of the proprietor.
Who are you saving from monsters, Minerva Margatroid?
It was only a short walk towards the Kirisame shop, where Seiji was just departing. His face visibly brightened when he saw her, despite showing clear evidence of an equal lack of sleep.
"Un sot trouve toujours un plus sot qui l'admire," Minerva muttered darkly.
"What was that, Margatroid-san?" Seiji said.
"It was nothing, Seiji-san. How is Maria-san?"
Seiji shrugged. "I still think she looks a little pale, but, well, she insisted."
Maria was indeed sitting behind the counter of the shop, wrapped up warmly in coats and blankets. She gave Minerva a wan smile.
"I heard about what happened last night," Maria said. "Of all the hatsumoude to miss, it had to be the most exciting one yet."
"The excitement is not over yet, Maria-san," Minerva said. "Unfortunately. Are you feeling all right? I can come back tomorrow if necessary."
"I'm fine," Maria said. "Just a little... well, I'm not sure what it is. The doctor gave me some medicine and prescribed bed rest, though."
"Seiji-san told me you had a headache last night. Was that when it began?"
"I think so."
"Dizziness? Feeling unaccountably flushed? Having difficulty balancing and focusing? Mildly increased heart rate? A slightly coppery tang to almost everything you taste, apart from sweets and sugars?"
Maria blinked. "I hadn't noticed anything different about my food, but now that you've mentioned it, yes. How did you know?"
Minerva hesitated. "I've come across such symptoms before. They're not too serious, and should pass within a few days. Bed rest is, indeed, a significant help for recovery, which means you should not be serving customers today."
Maria raised her hands in surrender. "All right, I'll close the shop. A few days, you say?"
"Most of the time, yes." Because the human body was a surprisingly resilient thing, and even the effects of improperly-channeled magic would naturally fix itself over time. Minerva had recognized Maria's potential for the arcane arts a long time ago, but Maria's weak talents had never been used, and would serve no purpose in her life, making offers of training moot.
Today, however, with the sudden increase in the rain of magical power around Gensokyo since the stars disappeared, Maria's magical instincts were stirring. She might never be able to cast a spell, and the only likely difference would be a heightened susceptibility for static electricity, but Minerva's memory helpfully recalled passages from tomes about the hereditary nature of magical ability.
"Was there anything in particular you were looking for?" Maria was saying.
Minerva brought herself back to the present. "I seem to remember a collection of semi-rare stones on display, when I last visited."
"Oh, that? I put it over there." Maria gestured towards the store front. "A traveller pawned it to me quite some time ago. I've never been able to sell it; most people here aren't too interested in rocks. It's quite pretty, though."
"Thank you." The stones were each roughly the size of a thumbnail, fixed onto a backboard with pins and twine. "I shall have payment ready by the end of the day."
"Don't worry about it." Maria peered curiously at the stones. "Are these stones magical?"
"In a manner of speaking."
Minerva's next destination was Seiji's workshop, where Seiji was carefully chipping away at a block of wood. He glanced up at Minerva's entrance. "Margatroid-san?"
"I need to borrow some of your tools, Seiji-san," Minerva said. "It will just take a moment."
Seiji tilted his head at the empty workshop. "Feel free. My assistants are off today. One's nursing a hangover, and the lad, well... I wouldn't blame his parents for wanting to keep him home safe, what with last night."
"My thanks." Minerva cleared a space on a workbench, and began laying out her tools. "What's that you're making?"
"This?" Seiji held up the piece of wood. "Just a bit of carving. It's nothing special, really; I was thinking of making another doll. To replace the one Alice lost. It gives me something to do while I, er, think of what to do next."
Minerva extracted the sole piece of ore she required from the collection. Quartz was not especially difficult to obtain in normal circumstances, but in a small Japanese village beset by dangers both supernatural and mundane, it was far more convenient to purchase whatever was available, rather than mining it herself.
"Why do you feel you have to do anything, Seiji-san?" she said, her attention still mostly focused on her work. Clips and clamps and twists, and slivers of metal affixed onto a tiny, growing apparatus.
"I don't really know," Seiji admitted. "It's just that with everything that has happened, I don't want to feel like I'm of no use, right? Just a passive observer, wringing my hands about how terrible everything is, without bothering to change the situation himself. I feel as though I should do something about all this." He paused. "Like what you've been doing all this time."
"Have I, now?" A pair of lenses, cannibalized from an ancient telescope, and carried in a velvet cloth. Scratched and dirty, but viable for her needs.
"Haven't you? All the talk about youkai-hunting and making Gensokyo safe. I've seen you hurry about, always busy with something or other. Whatever you're planning must be big."
"I suppose that depends on your point of view."
An interruption in the conversation, as Minerva held up a hand for silence. In her other hand, a tuning fork, which she tapped gently upon the edge of the workbench. Minute adjustments in the developing contraption were made.
"What I plan is relatively simple," Minerva finally said. "Which is not the same thing as easy. The ritual does require me to be in as high a location as I can; hence all the preparations to breach Youkai Mountain's rather impressive defenses. Even with that accomplished, there is also the question of power. To that end, I've been researching a variety of sources."
"How much power do you need, anyway?"
"It is not a question of quantity, as such, but... a fair amount. I intend to cover all of Gensokyo in the spell, which is a substantial geographical area. I must add that I may have an unexpected advantage in this: concurrent with the disappearance of the stars last night, the ambient amount of magic in Gensokyo appears to have risen." Drastically, in fact; Maria's condition, as well as that of Kino's daughter in all probability, were signs enough.
"Do you think they're connected?" Seiji said.
"While it is tempting to say so, I have no data to confirm it. Either way, it alleviates some of the issues, but by no means solve them entirely."
"So what now? Do you have an idea about where you're going to get all this, uh, magical energy?"
Minerva sighted through the lenses, now festooned with a device of unsettling angles. "Not until this morning. Have you looked up at the sky recently, Seiji-san?"
"It's all cloudy," Seiji said suspiciously. "Why?"
"Come outside and see."
Seiji's workshop was surrounded by taller buildings, but Minerva managed to get a good angle of view on Youkai Mountain. "Hold these lenses like this, in front of your eye," she instructed. "You should be looking at the skies around Youkai Mountain, not at the mountain itself. I'm afraid the view may be rather fuzzy; focusing properly will not be possible, until I construct a proper telescope to hold the lenses. But with a bit of luck, you might be able to-"
Seiji staggered back, shouting something unfamiliar that Minerva assumed to be suitably vociferous oaths. She quickly plucked the lenses out of Seiji's hands, lest he drop them in his shock.
"Based on the records of Oriental myths I have perused, as well as the example paraded so excellently during the autumn festival, I am assuming the vast creature circling Youkai Mountain to be the local version of a dragon," Minerva said. "Am I correct in this?"
"Er, yes," Seiji said. "But it's a dragon! Right here!"
"Only visible to a certain special sight, or thaumaturgical assistance. I suspect the dragon is playing some role in the surge of magic in Gensokyo, although, once again, I have no proof."
"Margatroid-san, is that what you're going to draw your magic from?"
"If it matters theologically, I highly doubt this is your particular dragon god. Too ostentatious for any deity, in these prosaic times." And if it was a god, then maybe Hakurei might put in a good word for Minerva.
Seiji shook his head in disbelief. "There are stories, but... Margatroid-san, are you sure about this? In all those stories, dragons are much too powerful for any human to cross."
"We have stories about mighty dragons too," Minerva said, folding the lenses into the velvet cloth and tucking them into her pouch. "Back in England. Especially one about a certain fellow, a Saint at that. We call him George."