This is a fanfiction by Kogata. I’m not going to bother to list the main characters because there are too damn many.

Alliances have been formed on both sides, and now it is time to begin the battle against Hinikuna and whatever forces he may have gathered by now. Now there is one thing left before going to war: to find out where he is, and to do something about the terrible weather conditions.

“Ready?” Laurel asked.

“Yep!” Yorokobi answered, hopping backwards into a fighting stance. “Let’s get started!”

“This is gonna be good,” Kurai chuckled, sitting down next to Disco.

Yoro leapt forward and aimed a punch into Laurel’s face, but she quickly snapped her head to one side to avoid it and retaliated with a spinning kick, knocking the younger goddess to the ground. “Do you give up?” she asked, a smile on her face.

“No,” Yoro replied shortly, sweeping Laurel’s feet from underneath her with one foot and jumping back to her feet at the same time. She spun around and was about to launch a finishing blow when Laurel rolled out of the way, flipped into a standing position and rammed Yoro with her shoulder, throwing her off balance and giving Laurel the opportunity to  get in a few other punches.

“Okay. Stop. Stop,” Yoro squeaked, shielding her face. “I give up. Don’t hit me.”

“Who’s next?” Laurel asked, turning to the line of seats.

“That’d be me,” Kurai answered, rising from her chair. “Don’t go easy on me just because I don’t have my scythe.”

“I wasn’t going to go easy on you, scythe or no scythe,” Laurel grinned, kicking Kurai’s legs from underneath her. “Because you can’t fight either way.”

“Hippie girl,” Kurai grunted, grabbing the arm that Laurel was using to pin her down, pulling it downwards and kicking Laurel in the stomach with both her feet, before doing a very neat backward roll and launching the goddess across the room where she fell flat on her back, winded. “Got any tricks that can retaliate that?”

Suddenly Laurel leapt forward and jabbed two rigid fingers into the necromancer’s solar plexus, and now it was Kurai’s turn to fall to the ground, only this time she was paralysed, although only temporarily. “That was a pretty good kick,” Laurel admitted. “You almost got me. But you’re too arrogant. You assumed that a kick was all it would take to take me out and let your guard down. And just because I’m the Goddess of Flowers, that does not in any way make me hippie. NEXT!”

Kurai coughed, unable to speak, but made a motion with her hands that seemed to say ‘we’re not done yet’. She staggered to her feet and aimed a weak punch and Laurel, but she easily sidestepped and twisted Kurai’s arm behind her back. “I am now in a position to break your arm,” she warned. “Are you absolutely sure you want to resume?”

Kurai spat defiantly, but Laurel just rolled her eyes and released her. “Disco?”

“Can you go ahead of me?” Disco asked Kogata, who was sitting on his other side. “I just opened a can of soda and it’s hard to fight while holding a soft drink.”

“Sure.” Kogata brushed herself off and faced Laurel, putting on a poker face while in reality she was very nervous. It looked like Laurel was a very experienced martial artist and a tough opponent, whereas Kogata had never fought in close combat before. That was, of course, if she didn’t count that one time with Rui, but she didn’t really think that counted because she had been in her angry form then. I guess that’s the point, she thought. Laurel’s supposed to be training us to fight in case there’s a situation when we have no weapons.

“Are you still there?” Laurel asked impatiently, and with a start Kogata realised that she should have started by now. “There’s a lot of people to get through, you know.”

“Yeah, hurry up!” Nejireta called from the sidelines. “I’m getting bored of sitting around and doing nothing. When can I kill something?”

“Maybe later,” Rui told her quietly.

“KILLING!” Nej yelled excitedly, and Kogata winced and turned back to Laurel.

Without giving her time to think up some sort of retaliation, Kogata ducked down low and dashed towards her as fast as she could go, but somehow Laurel managed to jump just in time to avoid her. However, the tips of her toes collided with Kogata’s back and she was pitched forwards.

Already down? She thought curiously. Maybe she’s already got something planned.

Instead of rushing forward to finish the job, she took a step back to see what Laurel would do next. There was a pause, and with a jolt she noticed that Laurel was actually perched on the tips of her fingers. Had she come any closer, no doubt she would be on the ground instead of Laurel. “Very good,” she muttered, hopping to her feet. “You saw through that. But next time—” Laurel shot forward and rammed her fist into Kogata’s stomach. “—You should finish the job while being on the lookout for any trickery at the same time.”

With one last effort, she kneed Laurel with all her strength and jumped back, clutching her stomach.

“Still some strength left?” Laurel asked, raising her fists. “Well in that case—”

“No, that’s enough,” Kogata gasped, edging back to her chair. “I think my lungs are bleeding.”


Disco glanced up. “Oh, is it—”

“MY TURN!” Nej squealed, barging in front of Disco. “Time to kill the flower girl! Can I kill her slowly? Can I tear off her fingernails? Can I slit her mouth? Can I stitch her fingers together? Can I—?”

“No,” Rui said quietly. She pressed a button on Nej’s retractable leash and the small girl came flying back to her chair. She smiled politely at Disco. “Go ahead. I think Ne-chan needs some time to cool off,” she added, her voice suddenly changing to an ominous tone as she dragged her counterpart by her hair into the next room.

“Riiiiight,” Disco said, looking more than a little unnerved. “I guess I’ll just go, then.” A spark of electricity shot off the tip of his finger and flew at Laurel’s face, and she dodged to the left just as it fizzled away into nothingness.

“What the…?” she muttered just as Disco appeared next to her and kicked her hard in the ribs. She staggered backwards, gasping for air, and he winced.

“Oh man, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to kick so hard,” he said apologetically.

“That didn’t hurt AT ALL!” Laurel shouted, lunging forward and delivering a painful uppercut to his chin, and in the same movement, she flipped over his head and high-kicked him in the back of the head. “But that probably did.”

“No, no, I’m alright,” Disco grinned, catching himself before he fell. “What else can you do? Something that might inflict damage, I mean.”

“Trying to make me angry, so my attacks will be reckless?” Laurel asked, although she did look pretty enraged. “Crude, but effective. Only on narrow-minded opponents, however.” She bent back  suddenly, and her leg shot upwards in a very difficult-looking high kick, and Disco just managed to save his skull from being cracked as it was brought down again. “And I assure you, I am not narrow-minded.”

“We’ll see,” Disco responded, and the next few minutes were filled with a blur of kicks, punches, insane dodging and a lot of painful blocks using their forearms. It was almost like they’d forgotten that they weren’t real opponents; they were just sparring. A few times, Laurel used some techniques that definitely didn’t belong on a practise-mat (choke-holds, throat punches, what looked like an attempted eye-gouge), and Disco was acting similarly, although not on the same scale.

“This is amazing,” Yorokobi whispered to Kogata. “Do we have any popcorn?”

“In the kitchen somewhere,” she responded, not taking her eyes off the fight. “You’ll have to run if you don’t want to miss anything.”

“Right,” she said, vanishing behind the door.

Both Disco and Laurel were looking very beaten up. Laurel had a deep cut on her lower lip, and Disco’s eye looked like it was starting to go black. “I didn’t know Gods could get black eyes,” Kogata muttered to Kurai.

“I don’t care,” she snapped. Apparently she was still annoyed at having been beaten by Laurel.

“Popcorn!” Yoro announced, making an explosive entrance. “Oh, wow! Look at that move!” she added, pointing at Laurel, who had used a genius conversion of a cartwheel as an intensely painful attack. “That looks very difficult—And there’s the counter-move!”

“Give me that popcorn,” Kogata muttered, beckoning to her twin urgently.

Disco rolled forward, pitching the cartwheel sideways and landed with both his feet on Laurel’s stomach. “I really don’t feel comfortable with this,” he muttered, punching her twice in the face.

“Fighting isn’t a luxury!” she snarled, snapping an open palm into his throat and pushing him sideways. “It’s an art! If it’s not to your liking—”

Disco was too busy choking to make a response, unless a disabling kick to the stomach counted. Laurel and Disco both collapsed at the exact same time, Disco gasping for breath and Laurel coughing up blood. “I’m gonna feel that one tomorrow,” he croaked between painful coughs.

“Yoro, go fix them up,” Kogata muttered.

“Sure,” she said, reluctantly putting down the bowl of popcorn. “Where’s my staff?”

“Here you go,” Rui said, offering her the crescent-shaped staff. She was looking even more innocent and harmless than usual, which was very suspicious.

“Where’s Nejireta?” Kogata asked her, more than a little concerned for her safety. They all knew now that Rui was more dangerous than Nejireta (after witnessing a little outburst from her a while back), so they had to keep a very close eye on her at all times. “I’m sure she was here a second ago.”

“Oh yes, she’s fine,” she said earnestly. “She’s just having a little nap.”

Kogata winced, wondering if that was an intended double-meaning or not. “Did you want to have a go at sparring, Rui? You’re one of us now; you should participate, too.”

“I don’t need training,” she said simply. “I am undefeatable. Nejireta made sure of that. Oh, is that popcorn?” she asked, pointing at the bowl on Kogata’s lap. “Mind if I try some?”

“Undefeatable?” Kurai scoffed. “But we beat you easily a while back! When we first met, remember?”

Rui smiled endearingly up at the necromancer. “Yes, but back then I was following Ne-chan’s stupid plan. When I do what I want, I’m immortal.”

“But you’re only a half-Goddess,” Kurai pointed out. “So you’re not really immortal. You can be killed, just like normal humans.”

Rui frowned. “I live forever until someone kills me. But I won’t be killed. So I’m immortal, like every other Goddess here. The only mortal here is you,” she finished, jabbing a finger at Kurai. Rui nodded and smiled. “This popcorn is really good.”

Kurai looked like she was about to respond, but Kogata elbowed her and shook her head slightly. It wouldn’t be a good idea to upset a powerful Goddess like Rui, especially at a time when they were all worn out from sparring.

Did she plan this? Kogata wondered. Or am I just being overcautious? It’s probably just my imagination, but… This girl is scarier than even someone like Hinikuna…

“You’re all pretty good,” Laurel said eventually as they sat down at the table. “I’ve seen most of you fighting before, but I have to say, that was pretty impressive for your first go in empty-handed combat. Clearly Disco is not counted, because this is obviously not his first time fighting without a weapon.” She shot a glare that said ‘we’ll finish this later’. “Of course, it still needs a bit of work. Yorokobi, you are very fast and strong for your age, but you have an extremely low pain tolerance and can’t see through simple tricks. We’ll have to work on that later. Kurai—”

Don’t you dare lecture me,” Kurai interrupted. “It’s too humiliating.”

“—I was going to say you are too childish.”

I’m the childish one?” she spluttered.

“Yes,” Laurel said simply. “You are. I will continue now, if I may. You assume you’ve won too early on, and can’t accept defeat when you have clearly lost. Not much I can do about you being stupid, that’s something you’ll have to work on in your own time. Kogata, you got off to a very shaky start and only landed a few minor blows. The main problem was that you were a little nervous.” She laughed. “Well, I guess I can be intimidating. I would say that there was no hope for you, but you did see through my trap, so you do have some potential at least.”

Disco let out a low whistle. “That’s kind of harsh.”

“What’s the point in lying?” she snapped. “Tough world out there. It’s better to be prepared for the worst than to remain in ignorance. Nejireta didn’t fight, but I sincerely doubt that she’d ever be in a situation without a weapon.”

Nej nodded. “Yup. I can use anything as a weapon. I once beat a man to death with a photograph of a duck and a bunch of posies.”

Rui shuddered. “True story. That was the weirdest thing you ever tried, Ne-chan.”

“She said I couldn’t do it,” Nejireta grinned. “She still owes me fifty dollars.”

Laurel coughed. “Anyway, ludicrous flashbacks aside, you all did very well and I’m proud of you.”

Yorokobi smiled. “That means a lot to me, you know. I never really thought of myself as a fighter.” She blinked. “Oh, you did really well, too, Kogata!”

She didn’t feel like she had done very well, but the compliment made her feel better even if it wasn’t accurate. “Thanks, Yoro.” A door opened behind her, and she turned to see Rina walking in with Shiro at her side.

“Well, I guess you’re all done with that sparring nonsense,” Shiro remarked, padding soundlessly into the room. “We could hear you from upstairs, you know. It sounded pretty violent, too. Is anyone injured? If they were, that’d be a bad omen,” he added under his breath. “And after all the trouble I went to give this house good luck.”

Laurel visibly flinched at the word ‘luck’, but said nothing. Kogata flicked her a glance, then decided that now was not the time for questioning. Maybe she’d interrogate her later.

“No one’s hurt,” Yorokobi assured Shiro. “We’re just a bit tired, that’s all.”

His tail lifted somewhat. “Ah. That’s good to hear.”

“So how did you all go?” Rina asked, sitting down next to Disco. She smirked slightly. “Did any of you manage to beat Laurel?”

“No,” Laurel said quickly, before Disco could open his mouth.

“Sounds about right,” Rina laughed. “Anyway, how long before we go to battle? I’m sick of waiting.”

“I believe I can answer that one,” Shiro said, stepping forward. He frowned, then tapped the ground with his paw. “Can someone bring me a box or chair? I don’t feel comfortable sitting beneath this table like a common dog.” A few minutes later, he was sitting eye-level with them all, a hard edge to his gaze. “We can’t launch an attack without assembling an army, or finding out Hinikuna’s location. At the moment, we can’t be sure if he’ll attack first or not, but judging by the amount of time he’s given us (must be six or seven months by now), he’s waiting for us to make the first move. That means our priority is assembling our army, in case he grows tired of waiting and attacks first. Then after that, we can start to figure out where he is.”

“I thought we already had an army,” Rui said hesitantly. “Wasn’t that what we were gathering allies for?”

“Having a few Gods on our side isn’t the same as having an army,” Disco explained. “We have enough Gods, to be sure, but that’s not enough to fill the gaps made by Hinikuna’s youkai army. Of course, most of our allies have small armies of their own. It shouldn’t take too long to assemble them.”

Nejireta coughed. “Rui and I might have an army.”

Kurai raised one eyebrow. “Might?”

The Goddess shuffled her feet awkwardly. “Yeah. Possibly. Onsei gave it to us, so I’m not entirely sure if we still have command over it.”

“Can you summon them?” Disco asked.

“Hmm. I think so. Rui, do you have your horn?”

She nodded and unhooked a battle horn from her belt. “Yes. By the way, do we have the right ones? I always get them mixed up, so…”

“Of course we have the right ones,” Nejireta snapped. She had a similar-looking horn in her hand. “Mine is an oni horn, and yours is made from a kirin’s! See, mine even has burns on it… I don’t see why it matters, anyway. Let’s go outside, I think if we use them in here, we’ll loosen the foundations of the house and knock it over."

(no music)

“Did we really have to come all the way out here?” Yorokobi asked. “Why couldn’t we just summon the army outside?”

Because we obviously can’t just have an army of youkai appearing in the middle of a human village,”  Kurai snapped impatiently. “Get on with it, you two. It’s freezing out here, and it looks like there’s a snowstorm on the way, too.”

“The weather has been a little strange lately, now that you mention it,” Rina said, frowning. “Not that I don’t like it, but the snow-season has been and gone. It shouldn’t still be this cold.”

“Why don’t we talk about it when we get back?” Disco suggested. “I think we should check out this army first.”

“Like I said before, it might not come,” Nejireta said awkwardly. “Onsei may have revoked our right to own an army.”

“Let’s just try it,” Rui said earnestly. “We’ll never know otherwise. Ready? In 3, 2, 1…”

Nejireta put the battle horn to her lips and blew. The sound was terrifyingly loud, and Yorokobi’s instinct was to run and hide, but she was rooted to the spot. It was a truly horrible sound, and inside the deep throbbing of the horn, she swore that she could hear a tortured scream; perhaps one of Nej’s past victims? She was about to abandon reason and run, when she heard Rui’s horn.

Rui’s battle horn was very unlike Nejireta’s. It sounded deep, but pure, with layers and layers of complexity. Strangely, the sound had a somewhat melancholy quality about it, as though the horn itself was crying. The two vastly different sounds blended together in an eerie, yet beautiful melody, and for a moment she just stood there, listening. Then it was cut short, and the two Half-Goddesses lowered their horns, gasping for breath.

“That… should… have… worked,” Nejireta panted. She took a couple of deep breaths and continued. “A full seven seconds is normally all it takes.”

“I guess we don’t really have an army anymore.” Rui shrugged. “Shame. They were pretty strong.”

Yorokobi sighed. Now they’d have to go around to all the other gods and their armies and make a contract with the general so they could be led into battle without having them turn on their leaders. It would have been so much faster if Rui and Nejireta’s army was still in action, but—

A sudden roar from the trees just ahead of her startled her into taking a step back. Birds let out surprised shrieks and lifted from the trees, and with a start, Yoro realized that the ground was shaking.

“Ah,” said Rui. “I guess we do still have our army after all.”

“You think?” Kurai shouted, raising her scythe uneasily.

Yorokobi gasped. An army felt like too small a word for something so huge. The clearing was at least large enough to fit a decent-sized house, but not big enough to fit the entire army, so there was no telling how many youkai there really were. Monsters of all shapes and forms were gathered around them, each in full armour and carrying wickedly sharp swords in their hands and crossbows on their backs. The one closest to her growled and raised its weapon threateningly, then glanced at Nejireta and Rui, as if asking permission.

Yoro’s gripped the staff so tightly that her knuckles turned white. It would be so easy for them to imprison us all, she realized. There are too many youkai for even us gods to kill. All she has to do is say the word and we could all be dead. Is this a trap?

Rui’s blue eyes suddenly went cold, like two chips of ice, and she stalked over to the youkai that was threatening Yorokobi. This particular demon had the head of a wolf and wings of a bat. “You want to kill them, correct?” she asked, smiling and patting its head. The demon looked like it wanted to snap at her hand, but it didn’t do anything of the sort (presumably because their contract forbade the demon to turn on the one it was bound to). It nodded. Yorokobi tensed.

Then, quick as lightning, Rui drew a knife from her belt and slashed the demon’s face. The demon howled and reared back as blood dripped from its damaged eye. “Well, you can’t!” Rui snarled, her face contorted with sudden rage. She was almost unrecognisable as the innocent child from before. “Yorokobi is my friend. If you lay one finger on her, I’ll slaughter you all. GOT THAT?” she screamed, bringing the blade down into the demon’s eye again. It let out a tortured screech and leapt back. Rui gave the knife a flick, spraying the grass with black blood. Rui sighed and turned back to Yorokobi. “Sorry about him. Are you hurt at all?”

Yorokobi gulped and shook her head.

Rui smiled. “I’m glad to hear that, my friend.”

“Can someone remind me why we’re here?” Nejireta grumbled, her hands shoved into her pockets. “I didn’t want to come outside today.”

Laurel glanced over her shoulder. “We’re meeting up with someone very special. My sister, to be exact.”

“You have a sister?” Yorokobi asked, sounding genuinely surprised. She clapped her hands excitedly. “I never knew that! What’s she like?”

“She’s like… Well, you’ll see soon enough,” she finished vaguely. “How are you faring, Kogata? Is the cold bothering you?”

White-Hair Red-Eyes shook her head, which irritated Nej somewhat. “Cold doesn’t bother me too much.”

“It’s freezing!” Nejireta snarled. She was trembling violently, even though she was wearing several fur jackets. “Aren’t you feeling it, Rui?”

To her dismay, Rui shook her head. “No, it’s really not that cold.” Then her eyes brightened. “Ah, Ne-chan! It must be because you’ve lived most of your life in Hell!” She giggled. “I guess you’re not used to snow.”

“Hell gets snow days too, you know!” she snapped. This was a complete lie, but hopefully Rui wouldn’t know that. “Besides, you’re always pestering me when I’m busy, so you must spend a lot of time in Hell, too.”

“Not really.” She folded her arms, an emotion that Nejireta couldn’t put a name to on her face. “I actually spend a lot of time in flower fields.”

Was she pouting? Pouting, from her perfectly obedient other half? I thought she only knew how to feel fear, sadness and anxiety, she thought. Who’s been teaching her all this?

Yorokobi gasped and grabbed Rui’s shoulder. “Flower fields? That’s so cute, just like you! Maybe we can go there together sometime! We could make daisy chains together and wear them like crowns, and then we could be like princesses that rule the flower kingdom or something! What do you say to that, Rui? Can we do that sometime?”

She nodded slowly, looking a little embarrassed. Another emotion that Nejireta didn’t know she could pull off. “Someday, when this war is over.”

“It’s a promise!” Yorokobi agreed. “Okay?”

“Okay,” Rui said, her mouth twitching into something that may have been the ghost of a smile.

I see, Nejireta thought. So it’s Grey Hair that’s been teaching her emotions. Well, she’s emotional enough for both of them. In any case, she’s becoming a problem. Perhaps I’ll have to do something about that later.

“I think that’s her there,” Laurel said, jerking Nejireta out of her daydream. She stopped walking and waved at a green-haired girl looking into the window of a nearby shop. “QINGLING!  OVER HERE!”

The girl looked away from the window, saw Laurel, and immediately ran towards them. “Laurel! I didn’t expect to see you here so early!” she exclaimed, hugging her tightly.

“Change of plans,” Laurel said, pulling away from her. “And it’s pretty serious. Are you available to talk at the moment?”

She nodded. “Of course. I need to go and pay for these first, though.” She held up a bouquet of lotus flowers which Nejireta didn’t see before. “They’re really cheap, too. Only a few hundred yen.” She took a few coins from her pocket, counted them out, muttered something under her breath and tossed it over her shoulder in the general direction of the shop.

That’s not paying, Nejireta thought in disgust. She’s stealing those flowers! I should grab my whip and—

But then she noticed that the coins did not just fall into the floor. Two of the coins bounced off the ground and spun with just the right timing to slip into the space between the door and the stone tiles, and they then continued to bounce until they were lying at the feet of the surprised shopkeeper. The other coins landed in a similar fashion in impossible places, such as on the cash register and in the hands of one of the other customers.

Laurel pointed at one of the customers who had caught one of Qingling’s coins. “But that one didn’t get to the shopkeeper.”

Qingling shook her head. “That’s an honest person who the coin landed with. They’ll return it.”

She raised an eyebrow, but nodded. “No reason to distrust your judgement, I suppose. How about we discuss this over a bowl of ramen?”

“Sure, if you’re willing to pay.” She gave a half-smile. “I have no change on me at the moment. I guess today is just not my lucky day.” Turning to them, she asked. “Are who are these tiny people?” She crouched down in front of Nejireta and smiled. “Are you perhaps one of the children from the village? Nice to meet you. My name is Qingling.”

Nejireta decided to play along, for now. “I’m Nejireta. And this is Rui, my… my, eh, sister.” She hoped fervently that she hadn’t detected the obvious lie. After all, Rui and Nejireta didn’t look like sisters; although they had similar faces, they looked more like cousins, at the very most. But thankfully, she didn’t seem to notice it.

“You two are so cute,” she said, looking as though she was barely resisting the urge to cuddle both of them (which Nejireta was certain that neither she nor Rui would appreciate). “Want to see some magic?”

Please don't respond, she prayed, hoping Rui would get the message.

“Magic?” Rui asked curiously, and in that moment, Nejireta would have cheerfully throttled her. “What kind of magic?”

“Watch carefully.” Qingling touched her hand to the stone pavement on the ground, and for a second, Nejireta saw a golden glow coming from beneath the earth. Then, as she raised her hand from the ground and small green shoot pushed itself up from the stone, resiliently pushing aside solid rock to reach the surface. As they watched, the shoot grew and grew until a small lotus flower was blooming in the middle of the pavement. She gently picked it from the pavement and tucked it carefully into Rui’s hair. “That lotus is very special. I can promise that as long as you wear it, you and the ones that you care about will be under my protection from bad luck.”

“It’s so pretty,” Rui breathed. “Thank you, Qingling!”

Nejireta stared at the lotus in wonder. She was fairly certain that lotuses didn’t normally give off an aura of any kind, but even though she could not read auras as expertly as Kurai, she could definitely sense something. She wasn’t threatened by it, though; it was definitely a benevolent aura. And why should I care anyway? She asked herself. She felt her face growing hot. It’s just Rui. She’s a weakling, right? I don’t need her. Why should I care if it’s a cursed lotus or not?

Because we are the same, Rui’s voice said in her mind. If I die, you can never become immortal. Your power will always remain half of what it originally was.

Spare me the lecture, she thought back as snappily as she could. Get out of my head already.

“Let’s go inside,” Laurel suggested. “It’s too cold to hang around here for too long.” She cast an amused glance at Nejireta, whose teeth were chattering so violently that it was remarkable that her canines hadn’t been filed down to stubs.

“I gather that you called me here because you need my help, right?” Qingling asked, picking up a piece of tofu with her chopsticks and neatly popping it into her mouth. “We haven’t seen each other for a long time, so it’s probably something important. Am I getting warm?”

“Stifling,” Laurel responded dryly. “It’s about Yurei and Hinikuna, as you may have already guessed.”

She nodded. “I did hear something about that. People are getting restless, you know. It’s one thing to declare war, but it’s another thing to wait for months and months before starting. It’s not really like you, you know. Usually you jump right into things.”

Dismissively, she flicked her hand. “That was decades ago. Anyway, I called you here because we need your help. It’s very likely that whoever you’re backing will win, so I came here to make sure you’ll help us win.”

“‘Us’?” Qingling glanced over her shoulder at Kogata, Yorokobi, Rui and Nejireta, who were outside making snowmen. Laurel noticed that Kogata’s was shooting a bow and had a quiver full of sticks on its back, Yoro’s looked so realistic that she could swear it was breathing, Nejireta’s had horns and an evil-looking face, and Rui’s was tiny and was holding a bunch of wildflowers that she had dug out from underneath the thick carpet of snow. “Don’t tell me they’re fighting, too. If you’re sending mere children into battle, then I can’t—”

“They’ve already proven that they’re strong enough to fight!” Laurel snapped, although she had her doubts. “Besides, I’m thinking of leaving them to handle the youkai, while the older gods like me take on Hinikuna and whatever powerful allies he may have gained. You don’t need to worry about them. The point is that you could turn the tables and maybe help us seal away Hinikuna and Yurei for good.”

Qingling shook her head and sat forward. “Listen to me. How long do you think that I, the goddess of Luck, have been fighting Yurei for? How many times do you think I’ve tried to seal him away? How many times do you think I’ve failed?” She rubbed her temple, obviously worked up. “Luck and Misfortune have been locked in an endless battle since the world began, Laurel. For several years now, we’ve been holding a kind of truce. Nothing hugely terrible has happened for a long time, and I have promised not to create impossible miracles unless absolutely necessary. The time I’ve spent not fighting him has been like a dream to me. How can you just expect me to break the truce and bring back the nightmare of an eternal fight to the death?”

Laurel frowned. She had worried that something like this would happen. “But Qingling,” she began, “don’t you see that this war is going to tip the balance, whether you are involved or not? If he’s sided with Hinikuna, then he’s good as broken the truce with you. You know fully well that when there’s a war, even people who are not involved get hurt. Wars between gods are much more terrible than mortal skirmishes; you can’t expect us to go into battle without you, especially since Yurei is with them. You want to abandon us? Fine! But the blood will be on your hands!”

Qingling sighed. “When you put it like that…”

“Come on, you know it’s the right thing to do,” she muttered. “Besides, if you help us, then you won’t be fighting Yurei alone. You’ll definitely have our help, so I’m certain that this time you’ll finally beat him.”

She nodded. “Okay. I’ll help. But only if you do me a favour.”

Several minutes later, Yorokobi looked up from her snowman to see Laurel and Qingling walking out of a manga shop, Laurel looking a little grumpier than usual, and Qingling gleefully clutching several volumes of ‘LuckyStar’ and several bags full of manga. “Tsukasa’s always been my favourite,” she was saying cheerfully. “and thank you for paying for all these! I’ve always wanted to stock up on manga in case for whatever reason I’m locked up in my house for a couple of days.”

“Whatever,” Laurel muttered. To Yorokobi, Kogata, Rui and Nejireta, she said, “Let’s head home. There’s not much else to do here, anyway.”

Nejireta’s foot froze halfway through the air towards Rui’s snowman. She quickly stepped to one side as though she hadn’t been trying to kick it down. “Already?”

“There aren’t many flowers around here anymore,” Rui was saying to herself. “They’re all being buried underneath the snow. Winter is a sad time of year.”

“But spring comes right afterward,” Kogata reminded her. “Besides, winter can be fun, too. Plenty of great pranks to pull during winter. But we should be getting home, like Laurel said. Come on, Rui, or you’ll get left behind.”

“Flowers are pretty,” she said hazily, following after the others.

“Oh, you’re back already?” Rina stood up from her chair in surprise. “I didn’t expect you to return for at least another few hours.”

“It seems my sister has become less stubborn over the years.” Laurel glanced at the people seated around the table. “Ah, it looks like you’ve been busy.”

“I don’t know if you’ve met before. Laurel, this is Emiko.” She pointed at a young girl with white blond hair. “And this is the Life Lord, Yume, Calan, Yachi, and Inazuma.” Rina indicated a serious-faced man with green hair, a blue-haired girl wearing a kimono, a black-haired man carrying what appeared to be a grimoire, a white-haired girl who was conversing in what sounded like rapid Greek with a cat, and another girl with white hair who had a large bow and quiver propped up against her chair. “Emiko is an ice mage. The Life Lord is the God of the mind. Yume is a servant Goddess. Calan is a sorcerer God. Yachi is the Goddess of poetry and archery. Inazuma is the Goddess of weather (mostly lightning) and archery). Emiko speaks mostly in Japanese, and Yachi prefers to speak in Greek, but they both know English as well. You may not have met them before, but a while back they agreed to form an alliance with us against Hinikuna.”

“I’m Laurel, the Goddess of Flowers,” she said. She pointed at Kogata, Yorokobi, Rui and Nej as they entered behind her. “These people are Kogata and Yorokobi, twin goddesses, and Rui and Nejireta, who are mirror images of each other. Nejireta is the only classified goddess among them, the Goddess of Torture. The others have not yet decided.”

“You’ll want to make a decision quickly,” Yume advised. “Once you choose a title, it can’t be changed, but you’ll get more specialized powers, aside from immortality, strength and pain tolerance.”

“Goddess of Torture, you say?” Emiko asked curiously. “Oh, I remember you now. Weren’t you hiding in a bush? Kind of pansy-ish for the Goddess of Torture, I’d say.”

Kogata coughed. “That’s Rui you’re thinking of.” She pointed at the small girl in the corner who was trying to hide behind a pot plant. She froze when she heard her name and peeped out. When she saw that Emiko was staring at her, she uttered a small shriek and ducked back behind the plant.

“Ah.” She sucked her lip. “Now that you mention it. They really do look alike, don’t they?”

“We were discussing our next move,” Disco put in, taking a sip from his seemingly bottomless can of soda. “We’ve got basically everything down. The only problem is we don’t know his location. If he  was going to attack us first, then I doubt he’d have waited for us to gather allies; he probably would have hit us while we were divided and unable to fight back. So it looks like we’re going to have to make the first move.”

At that moment, Kurai entered the room. “I got some spirits to scout around, see if they can find anything,” she reported. “They’re a lot more active in winter, so they should be back with more information soon.”

The Life Lord nodded in acknowledgement. “So you’re trying to track him down with these scouts of yours?”

“Basically.” She tapped her curved wooden staff against the floor. “The first report is due in a couple of minutes.”

“Once you find him, then what?” Emiko asked. She spoke with a very slight accent.

“You’ll attack him, right?” Inazuma suggested.

“Once we make a plan, yes,” Shiro said. “It’s very important to plan ahead when making the first move in a war. I think we should gather everyone here, and—”

Suddenly he stiffened. “Something’s coming.”

Kurai gasped and collapsed, clutching her chest. “Ah,” she panted. “One of my scouts was just destroyed before I could dissolve the link.”

“Are you in a lot of pain?” Shiro asked worriedly.

“You have no idea,” she grunted. “It feels like a knife was stuck into me and twisted around...” She broke off with another yelp and grabbed the leg of the table, which as by her head. Her fingernails clawed into the wood as she fought off spasms of pain.

There was a loud explosion outside, and Laurel heard screams. “What’s going on out there?” she yelled, throwing the door open and running out into the snow. She vaguely heard the others following her.

Moments before, the village had been like it as on any other day. But in the space of a few minutes, it had been turned into a warzone. Fireballs were falling from the sky, churning the snow into steam and setting numerous houses alight as they hit the ground. As the roof caved in, Laurel heard screams from inside. Some of the voices sounded like children.

“Get the villagers to safety!” she ordered, calling up vines to lift the wreckage off some civilians. They quickly crisped and turned into ash in the presence of the fire, but Disco stepped in at the last second and blasted the toppling wall into oblivion with a strike of lightning before it could crush them. “Thanks!” she panted, rushing off to the next house. A whole row of them was on fire, but she quickly managed to douse the worst of the flames with a martial arts technique she had learnt a while back, which threw the melted snow straight into the fire. Her second kick took the wall apart, making herself a quick entrance. “GET OUT OF THERE!” she screamed at the people inside. They hastened to obey, not wanting to argue with the girl who had just collapsed half of their house in one blow.

Around her, she saw the other Gods working together to save the villagers. Emiko and Rina were intensifying the snowstorm so the snow would smother the flames, and Disco was working next to her, blowing apart walls to make a path through the wreckage for the villagers. Kogata, Inazuma and Yachi were using their bows to stop the fireballs before they reached the ground. Yorokobi used magical barriers to shield them from falling debris. Shiro grabbed people and dragged them from piles of stone and wood while Kurai staggered behind him, commanding her summoned spirits to assist him. Calan was chanting numerous spells in an ancient language, and everywhere fireballs turned to steam and ash as they fell. The Life Lord stood next to him, using what looked like a similar ability to telekinesis to lift collapsed roofs from houses and put them to one side where they weren’t crushing anyone. Yume ran through the crowds, slashing walls to pieces with her katana and helping Disco to clear a safe path.

“In here!” Laurel bellowed, carving a tunnel into the ground with some roots. As the villagers piled into the tunnel, she stared at the wreckage around her. Houses everywhere were smashed to pieces, and the ones that were still upright were ablaze. The snow was all melted, and underneath, the grass was singed and brown. Trees had fallen onto paths, and underneath the post of a power line, she saw a hand sticking out, covered in blood. Undoubtedly, there would be many deaths from this. But who caused this attack?

Then she heard a voice she didn’t think she’d be hearing again so soon.

“Raining stars,” Hinikuna tutted. “I warned her it was too crude. But did she listen?”

“Hinikuna,” she growled, turning to face him. He stood atop the ashen remains of a convenience store. “What do you gain by doing this? Why attack the villagers? They never had any part in this!”

He frowned at her. “Accusing me for your own mistakes? My, that’s a bit low, even for one like yourself. If you didn’t want them harmed, you should not have sheltered here. At least put your plan into action after declaring war.” He shrugged. “Yes, I got bored after waiting a few months. But you know what? I think I’ve got your attention now.”

“You despicable…!” she snarled, throwing a tree at him. He disappeared and reappeared further away.

“I will expect your response in three days’ time, or I will march my army through this village and personally crush every man, woman and child that still remains.” And on that note, he vanished, leaving nothing behind but a smoking pile of ash.