In the Forest of Magic, Alice was enjoying the serenity of her daily life. She’d spent the morning doing housework in her cottage: sweeping the floors, dusting, folding laundry. Her dolls were busy at work mending garments and helping tidy up. She was taking a break, now – though to be honest, after lunch, she would probably just leave the housework where it was. The heat of the afternoon would only become more sweltering, and there was no one to nag or berate her for not keeping an impeccable home. She was alone here, excepting of course her dolls, and that was just the way she liked it.
Since she had become a yokai, her nutritional needs were of far less priority, though she did tend to get a bit peckish if she went for several days without a meal. She prepared a sandwich and tea for herself, and gave little bites of the food to curious dolls even though they didn’t truly need any kind of nourishment. Since she’d already decided she wasn’t going to do any more work today, she simply left the plate and cup on the table when she finished. It made her feel a sense of defiant, prideful spite towards some imagined accuser, who she thought might tell her, “You can’t just leave your used dishes right on the table!”
Well, you’re wrong. I can, and I damn well will.
She decided it would be pleasant to go pick flowers in the meadow, so she donned her travelling clothes and headed out. Shanghai and Hourai accompanied her, helping her carry her flowers or excitedly pointing out exceptionally beautiful ones. When she picked daisies, she sat on her skirt and daisy-chained them together. First, she made a small bracelet for Shanghai, then, a small halo for Hourai. Once she had fitted her dolls with their newly-made accessories, she stood back up and brushed off her skirt, eager to find more things to do.
As she frolicked about, fairies would appear, mounting attacks against her which she easily and gracefully dodged, at the same time volleying back bullets of her own to take down the annoyances. Eventually, she grew bored of this, and she decided to head back home before the sun set entirely. She took roughly the same route home that she had taken to the open field, though she had familiarized herself enough with the vicinity that she didn’t need to follow the trodden path exactly. She meandered through the thicket of trees when she reached the Forest, and kept an eye out for edible mushrooms or pungent medicinal herbs that she could take with her back home.
Finally, she reached her cottage again. She stored the items she had gathered into the appropriate jars, then she changed back again into her comfortable house clothes.
Lying out and lounging on the couch, she reached for a novel and idly played with its pages, thumbing the edge which fanned out at the touch. She picked it up and balanced it on its corner, then she held it aloft and curved its pages. But ultimately, she decided that she wasn’t in the mood for fiction, and instead retired to her study.
A crowded room off to the side of her bedroom, the studio had a workshop’s worth of tools and baubles, both for magic research and for dollmaking. She rummaged into her desk drawer and pulled out a brass skeleton key, functionally built and weighty in her hand, then she sat down and laid her grimoire before her. The key’s notches corresponded to those of its lock, and when it was inserted it could rotate freely. She turned the key a full 360 degrees, and the red ribbons which usually sealed her book were released.
She turned past her notes on magic circles and sigils, and navigated to the section where she kept data on various bullet configurations. Here, she had charts and tables documenting the results of changing and permuting variables to determine what kinds of bullet sizes, and speeds, and spreads were most effective and efficient.
She roughly sketched out the perimeter of the grassy plain she had spent the better part of the day in, jotting down noteworthy phenomena she had observed, when her bullets had grazed an enemy they should have struck, or hit with more power than she had anticipated. Though she usually made those kinds of notes in words, it felt more intuitive to her tonight to use drawings.
Having completed her notetaking, she turned back, intent on studying the components and incantations for a few high-level spells she had been researching. But when she tried to review the knowledge, nothing seemed to be sinking in. She couldn’t even comprehend the words. She chalked it up to fatigue, and she figured she would just try again tomorrow. She closed and sealed her book once again, then she released the enchantment that animated her dolls after they had taken their places on her shelves and seats. Finally, she settled into bed, arranged her pillows and blankets in the way she liked, and slept.
When she woke up, she went about her usual morning routine. She took care of her skin and hair then arranged her hair into her headband, then she fastened her dress and capelet and ribbons around her bust and neck and hips.
Before animating a good number of her lesser dolls, which she intended to use today for running experiments, she packed them with gunpowder. It was dangerous to do danmaku research inside – that didn’t stop Marisa, but Alice very much preferred to live in a lovely, pleasant home, thank you very much – so she went out the door in the back.
While she was playing with her dolls and danmaku, she saw Marisa and Patchouli coming toward her through the forest. Marisa had a stack of books piled high in her arms – pilfered from Patchi’s library, Alice would suppose; it was unlike her to keep those kinds of dense reference materials close at hand. Patchouli, beside her, just stared dead ahead with her own grimoire in one hand, offering no assistance to the other magician. Alice issued a succession of fast, small bullets – ping ping ping ping ping ping ping – and straw dolls exploded without any further flashy bursts of colorful firework.
“Yoo-hoo! Alice!” Marisa called out as the girls approached, the sound of her voice a little muffled by the books in front of her face. She dropped them on Alice’s wooden picnic table and leaned on top of them.
“Alice. Good morning,” Patchouli greeted in her usual deadpan.
Alice approached her friends, eyeing the stack of books. It was quite an eclectic mix of histories, bestiaries, spellbooks, and so on, but Alice couldn’t puzzle out how they all might relate to each other, or where her expertise could come in to offer forth any insights.
“This one was running amok in my study again,” Patchouli explained to her, “but I caught her red-handed. These are the books she was trying to steal. Please take a look inside one.”
Alice pulled from the top of the stack a book bound in black leather with an intricate magic circle inlaid on its cover. She opened it at random, the pages falling to her right hand thicker than those to her left.
It wasn’t as though it was a blank page of paper; print was clearly scrawled on the page. Well, maybe this had been a mage with particularly messy note-taking habits… but any magical runes should still be legible. She flip-flip-flipped through the thicker half of the pages on the lookout for intelligible markings – the inevitable pattern recognition that ought to have been kicking in, you have to recognize writing; it’s impossible to see a word and not read it!
…Was this… some trick? “I don’t understand it.”
“Please pick up another one.”
Alice frowned, but did as she was asked. She set the black book beside the pile, and next picked up a comic book.
“Patchi, you read this kind of thing?”
“Of course. Or rather, I did, before this black one came along,” Again she stared daggers at Marisa, who held up her hands in a gesture of surrender.
Alice started from the beginning of the book, following the panels as they were laid out. She guessed at the relationship between the two characters as they adventured, and followed the action, but the narrative was hard to understand. Oh, as she concentrated harder, she could see clearly demarcated sections of the panels, in which something might be written to give context to a scene, or to indicate dialogue between the protagonists, but… she couldn’t understand a word of it.
“She’s a nuisance to society; books are useless if they can’t be read. I think we should punish her,” Patchi had the slightest hint of a smirk as she gave the judgment.
“Whoa!” Marisa cried out, agog. “Who said this was my doin’s? I think the same way you do; books mean nothing to me if they ain’t got anything in ‘em!”
“Now hold on just a moment…” Alice had gotten to thinking while the two of them were in their argument, and now she interrupted them. “Please, come inside. I’ll help you carry these.”
Alice kept the comic in her hands and grabbed the spellbook as well, and directed her dolls to carry the rest. Inside, she and her dolls laid out the books on her sitting room table, and the dolls scampered off to prepare tea while the girls chatted.
“Shanghai, please go fetch my grimoire and key from upstairs. Patchouli, were these the only books in your library that were affected? The ones Marisa stole?”
Patchouli took a sip of her tea, trying to hide her blushing face. “Well, I hadn’t… actually checked…”
The dolls which had prepared their dishes and served them now lay idle, impoverished of any further instruction. Shanghai flew down the stairs and offered Alice her book and key, then stayed floating beside her maker. Alice unlocked and opened her book once again, and once again even her own writing and notes meant nothing to her. She turned her book around in her hands, and showed the open pages to Marisa and Patchouli. In another context, it could have been threatening – Alice was so frazzled and psyched out from thinking about the mystery that she had put a great deal of force into thrusting it forward, and there were indeed some truly dangerous, lethal magics in the grimoire. But her face was neutral enough, and her friends knew her well enough, that the gesture was understood. The other two leaned forward with serious looks on their faces. They studied the text, taking it from Alice’s hands and flipping through its pages together.
After a few moments of two girls glancing up at each other quizzically, running their fingers along and across the pages of her grimoire, they looked back up to Alice. Patchouli closed the book and offered it across the table, shaking her head while she did so.
“I thought as much. Well, it seems we have an incident on our hands, and I for one cannot abide any enemy of knowledge and its preservation. So let’s make our preparations and get to solving this one!”
“Damn, Alice! You’re eager this time around!”
“I agree with her,” Patchouli spoke up.
“Well, I’ll leave you two bookworms to it, then! It doesn’t matter to me, I reckon; I can keep having fun and develop my magic even without all your studious notetaking and research.”
She grabbed a few buttons and trinkets, and pocketed them as she headed out the door.
“Marisa! I am not running a haberdashery here!”
But she was already gone.
Patchouli cleared her throat. “As I already said, I concur that this is a grim incident indeed. Come to my library to prepare. We can study together.”
“What are we… supposed to study… if we can’t read?” It was a serious question, asked with a serious tone.
“Hmm… good point. Well, come to my place after you’ve finished making your dolls, then. I suppose you won’t be needing that,” Patchouli glared at Alice’s grimoire, but it only made Alice clutch it tighter to her chest.
After Patchouli left, leaving her books strewn on the table – “It would be too much trouble to carry them back. Just pack them and bring them with you when you come.” – Alice glumly carded through the pages and pages of her meticulous notetaking. But, she soon grew bored of moping and became unable to keep it going, especially with Shanghai and Hourai working hard to cheer her up.
Right, then! The only thing to do was to get busy building dolls, so she did her best now and prepared.
Once she got everything packed, key in her pocket and grimoire in her hand, she flew out of the cottage and Forest, over the Misty Lake, and landed before the iron gate of the Scarlet Devil Mansion.
She had a short exchange of greetings with the gatekeeper Meiling, who let her through, then Sakuya escorted her inside, taking her luggage and showing her to her rooms.
Alice had never been able to become truly comfortable in the Mansion, to make herself properly at home. The airs of aristocracy were fatiguing for her to keep up with, and the spotless halls gave the manor an uncomfortable, un-lived-in atmosphere. But she was almost always able to put herself at ease in Patchouli’s library – at least when its books didn’t misidentify her as a threat and themselves cast the magic circles and spells contained between their covers – and this was where she headed now.
She had become quite at ease browsing its shelves and shelves, learning Patchouli’s categorization system and plucking out books that caught her eye. Sitting at a desk and conscientiously copying preserved knowledge into her own notes, or lounging in a comfortable seat and enjoying compendiums of fairytales and fables. Alice and Patchouli had become at ease with each other there, too. They’d developed a camaraderie of scholarship, then a true female friendship. They liked each other. They confided secrets with each other, braided one another’s hair while they chatted. In Alice’s case, pulling the ribbons out of Patchouli’s pigtails and arranging her purple tresses into one large plait at the back; in Patchouli’s case, sectioning off a smaller handful of hair, parting it into three locks, and weaving them together. Not so much unlike how Marisa wore her hair, come to think of it. They’d explored each other’s bodies, too, there in the stacks, playing and experimenting with all the vivacious, precocious curiosity of adolescent girls.
The guest rooms were near the entrance of the Mansion, close by to the library, so Alice thusly arrived.
“Good evening, Patchouli. Has anything turned up?”
“Not a thing. No one else in the Mansion could read or write, but all other faculties seem unaffected. I can still cast spells that I’ve memorized, but it’s only a matter of time before we forget long or seldom-used incantations.” Patchouli had her head in her hands, shaking it with distress, not even looking up at Alice.
“You’ve checked against multiple languages? How about things like punctuation or numbers, can we still understand those symbols?”
“Of course I haven’t checked every single possible hypothesis yet, Alice!” It was rare to see Patchi so plainly emotional; usually her face was unreadable as a doll’s.
“Ok, ok, let’s just approach this… systematically. Have you got a pen and ink? My thoughts are running everywhere; I need to organize them.”
Patchouli handed her the instrument, along with a piece of parchment. “You can try.”
Alright. My name is Alice. That was a well-formed, grammatical, meaningful sentence, in a language she understood, so she should be able to just put the pen to paper and get the knowledge out of her head and onto the page.
Alice! It’s so simple! It’s your own name, it’s one of the first things you learn to write! A – L – I – C – E! I can spell it but I can’t write it!?
The pen dripped ink onto the page.
After a full day of hard work, Alice retired to her guest room. The little suite had a parlor, bedroom, and private bathroom. The furniture was of fine craftmanship and richly upholstered. Wine and spirits were arranged at a bar, and Alice helped herself to a glass. She walked over to the sofa, swept her free hand under her skirt, and sat down at the seat’s edge. Holding her glass by the stem, she took small, delicate drinks. By the time she’d finished the glass, she had become relaxed enough to scoot herself backwards, and lean her back against the damask.
Sakuya came calling for her then, announcing that dinner was to be served. But, rather than joining the aristocrats in the dining room, Alice instead followed Sakuya to the kitchen to eat with the servants. After Sakuya brought dinner to Remilia and Flandre and Patchouli, she returned and plated the meals for Alice, Meiling, Koakuma, and herself.
Alice was grateful for the food, and told Sakuya as much – she didn’t particularly like to cook at her own house, although it was fun to cook with a friend. “May I help tomorrow?”
Sakuya seemed surprised at the offer, but demurred with all the elegance and grace befitting a Scarlet servant, “Unfortunately, with this incident… of course, the recipe cards are all useless, and I certainly wouldn’t want to trouble you with the menial prep work.”
“Sakuya wouldn’t let you help even if you could read,” Koakuma snickered. “And besides, I don’t think you’d want to know what’s in this recipe.”
Alice uneasily scooted her food around with her fork, but finally took another bite.
Meiling, who sat beside Alice, complained to her, “These incidents are always so bothersome, when I’m just trying to live my life normally. Can’t you just resolve this with library magic?”
“An astute question! We have tried, but spells in the domain of library magic mainly serve the purposes of search-and-retrieval, cataloging, and the like. It’s been useful for finding the kinds of books that might help us, mostly grammars and dictionaries, but even with careful study we haven’t been able to interpret the text.
“There are a variety of mechanisms of information transfer, though, so we’ve been experimenting in that direction. Oral tradition has preserved myth and even epics, and Marisa’s told me that humans beyond the border store information in the form of 1s and 0s.”
Through such chit-chat, Alice was able play with, turn over, and develop her ideas. She left dinner with new insights she’d be sure to let Patchouli know about when they next rendezvoused.
She returned to her guest room, thinking to unpack, but it seemed that Sakuya had already done most of the work. Her first suitcase was gone entirely, her changes of clothes arranged in the closet and the dresser drawers, her hair styling brushes and accessories placed on the top of the vanity.
Her second suitcase still stood where Sakuya had left it, near the door to the bedroom. With a wiggle of her fingers she released its magic lock. This was her arsenal: dolls packed in tight, spell components, herbs and tinctures, mortars and pestles and retorts and calcinators and alembics. She arranged her supplies among the rooms’ shelves, and animated Shanghai and Hourai. (Really, she could summon her dolls from anywhere with her spell cards, even if she had kept them locked inside, but how would you like to be all crammed in like that?)
She poked around a bit and found makeup powder, brushes and pencils in the vanity’s drawers, fragrant soaps and bath salts in the bathroom cabinets, and a sewing kit and various other paraphernalia in the front room’s desk, all of them fine material possessions. In another of the desk’s compartments she found parchment, ink, pens and wax seals.
Sakuya returned once more, just around bedtime. “Shall I draw a bath for you, Miss Margatroid?”
“Oh! Yes, please. And Alice is fine,” she answered.
“As you wish, Alice.”
Sakuya stepped into the bathroom, then in no time at all, she stepped back out. “Anything else?”
“No, thank you, Sakuya.”
Sakuya bowed to her then left, grabbing Alice’s empty suitcase and her wine glass from before on her way out. Alice entered the guest bathroom again, disrobed, and relaxed into the steamy water. Hourai helped her wash up while Shanghai took away her clothes and brought in her pajamas. After her bath, they wrapped big, fluffy towels around her body and her hair, then Alice stood before the mirror to wash her face.
She changed into her long cotton nightgown, arranged Shanghai and Hourai on the shelves among their companions, and released their animation. Then she settled into her large bed, perfectly made with extravagant bedsheets and covers and half a dozen pillows. After some tossing and turning, she got back up and grabbed Hourai, and with her doll in her arms she was able to fall asleep.
She awoke in the morning but noticed the room was still quite dark. She thought to draw the curtains, but then she realized – there weren’t any windows! Still, she was able to see well enough to get dressed without the need to light a candle or use magical illumination.
Today Alice wore a dark green dress with a Peter Pan collar, long-sleeved and velvet to defend against the manor’s eerie chill. She slipped her magical rings onto her fingers, and pushed back her hair with a plain black headband. To start her day, she thought to head out for a walk through the garden, so she turned the ornate rosette doorknobs of the guest bedroom and parlor and exited to the hall then out the back.
“Ho ho, wrong move, kiddo,” she heard Remilia taunt. She sat at a chessboard, across from Meiling. Sakuya stood by her side, holding out a parasol to protect Remilia from the sun. Alice didn’t interrupt the game of mistress and servant, just continued along the garden path. Fairies flitted about out here, but they weren’t the manor’s defenses, and they didn’t cause her any trouble. She walked through the garden’s arrangements of belladonna, oleander and hemlock, all partitioned off by laurel hedges, and finally reached the edge of the ridge overlooking the Misty Lake.
Watching fairies play over the water as the sunrise made its surface glow, it was the kind of view that would inspire a poet – assuming said poet were actually able to write. While she was mulling this over, she felt a tug at her long skirt, then she turned to face the little vampire Flandre. “Alice, come play with me!”
Alice agreed to entertain Flandre, and she was led back into the Mansion, its back facade betraying the size of its interior. She did her best to appreciate the little bit of sunlight that came through the windows into the halls before she descended into the basement with her playmate. Down here were racks of weapons ancient and artifact, as well as Flandre’s toys and games.
They held hands and danced together, chanting sing-song nursery rhymes and acting them out. Then they played games of pretend with Flandre’s dollhouses and her stuffed animals. But after some time, Flandre started to get antsy, raring for rough and tumble play. “Let’s play with your dolls, Alice!”
Even before she had a chance to properly respond, she yelped “Ope!” when a bullet grazed her by. Fine, then, she decided, and she shot out bullets of her own, her bullets of seven colors.
Windmilling lasers, dolls of foggy London, a sword unwieldy in the hands of a child, Shanghai dolls with their strange luminous glow. Shit! She’d thought she’d have to go easy on her, but this kid was really dominating Alice! They kept playing danmaku games together until they both were totally worn out.
In that way, in a matter of days, Alice adjusted to life in the Mansion. The most striking thing about this incident, to her, was that it didn’t seem to affect their daily lives to any great extent. For the most part, everyone still seemed able to work and play like normal. But she steadfastly reminded herself: Patchi and I, we’re doing this for noble reasons.
Her friend’s aloof nature rivalled even Alice’s own, but because of this incident, Patchouli was actually spending more of her time outside her study than in it. It was for a different reason, though, that Alice was unsurprised to find her here in one of the manor’s sitting rooms, lounging on a couch and idly toying with elemental crystals. They floated above Patchouli’s upturned palm, spinning and jumping as she quirked up her fingers, then disappeared when Patchouli turned her attention to Alice and addressed her in her deadpan.
“You’re wearing red.”
“Oh! Think it suits me?” She was wearing a long-sleeved black blouse with lace at the collar and cuffs, beneath a jumperskirt whose shape was filled out by a petticoat. The rectangle headdress she’d worn to match was adorned with crisscrossing ribbons, and lace all around. Her black socks hit above her knees, and she was wearing rocking horse shoes. The effect was an overall gothic lolita aesthetic.
“It’s not bad.”
Next to enter the sitting room was Sakuya, pushing in a cart with teas and finger foods. She asked after Alice’s preference, then poured tea for Alice and Patchouli, the amber liquid curving in an elegant arc. Then she stood prim by the cart, at the ready to serve any other of the girls’ needs.
Remilia and Flandre came in together: Remilia took a seat on the divan opposite the magicians, and Flandre sat on the carpet. The mistress Scarlet wrapped her wings around her body to allow room for Meiling and Koakuma, and with everyone here, Alice could begin her salon.
She addressed the room from her seat beside her partner. “The theme of our discussion, I’m sure you’ll agree, is the problem of this incident of illiteracy. We can’t read, but we must be able to read to get on with our lives properly. We can’t efficiently transmit knowledge and ideas across time and space, and it would be impractical to regress back to preliteracy. We also need to find a pragmatic solution, and I see two options: determine the exact constraints limiting our literacy and develop a means of communication that’s as effective as what we’ve lost, or find the girl who did this and beat her up.”
“Regarding the first option,” Patchouli continued, “Alice and I have been able to develop a rudimentary kind of vocabulary and grammar. See?”
Patchouli had a notebook and marker, and she laid out the stationery so all the girls could see her draw. She started at the edge of the page, and her three drawings were large enough that they reached the other side. The first was a rectangle, with two parallel lines running through its center horizontally and vertically, a crude representation of Alice’s ribbon-bound grimoire. The second was three lines fanning down with a couple circles drawn between them. The third, a circumscribed 6-pointed star.
“Alice shoots bullets,” Patchouli “read.” She drew a × through the last drawing, the abstract magic circle which represented “shoot.” “Alice shot bullets,” Patchouli read now.
She turned that page over, and started on a new one. She drew the same symbols again, but this time, there were many other drawings between “Alice” and “bullets.”
“Alice shoots red, orange, yellow, green, blue, violet and white bullets.”
The room was silent while the girls processed the contrived information system. Admittedly, even with Koakuma helping the two of them in any way she’d been asked, it really hadn’t amounted to much. “You can’t have a dictionary of symbols,” Meiling said, after a time.
Patchi nodded. “That’s right; this is too low-resolution to be practical in the same way as alphabets or other orthographies. We haven’t found a way to represent sounds, syllables, or even digits or punctuation.”
“Although,” Alice observed, “we can make tally marks and count them, and we can count on our fingers, too. Oh! How about using our hands for signed language?”
She tried out a few hand configurations with Patchouli. After a little methodological experimenting, they and the rest of the girls found that they could map whole words and phrases onto the signs, but representation of sounds was still constrained.
Sakuya freshened Meiling’s Chinese tea, and Koakuma took a cucumber sandwich.
“We’re wasting time with this,” Sakuya said after finishing her duties. “The books in this mansion alone are a veritable library, but even if someone were to take the time to study these difficult intellectual puzzles you’ve cleverly devised, she still couldn’t use it for any translation. All the books we have are no better than picture books in foreign languages.”
Koakuma concurred. "I’m with Sakuya. We need to discover who’s behind this. Now, who would benefit from everyone being unable to read or write? What’s the motive?”
Alice racked her brain to come up with a possible benefit of illiteracy, but drew a blank. Remilia was the first to speak up, this time.
“If a lady wanted to claim noble heritage, she’d have no genealogical records. Anyone could run around saying she’s a descendant of Tepes without evidence – claim herself a fellow queen of the damned!”
“I’m just happy I don’t have to practice penmanship anymore. Copying poems, spelling lessons, compositions, drills… it’s all totally boring!”
Though that did seem like a nice benefit for a rambunctious little girl, Alice sincerely doubted that Flandre was the one behind the incident. Well, anything can happen…
“Oh? Would the young mistress prefer lessons of a different sort to occupy her time? Etiquette, music, history? Even without the books, I’m sure Keine would be able to lecture for hours, and we’d pay her handsomely for her tutoring.”
“I’ll have Meiling give me danmaku lessons!”
“Your wish is my command, young mistress.” Meiling adjusted her posture proper for a fight, with a devious glint in her eye. Alice took it upon herself to get the conversation back on track.
“So it’s settled then? Violence is the answer?”
“As always,” Patchouli smirked. “Now, who’s our target?”
Sakuya answered, “Our soiree for the young mistress’s centennial is soon, and since the invitations can’t be made out, I’ll have to deliver them personally. I’ll start my questioning there.” In a flash, the dishes were vanished and the cart stored away. In another, she pulled out several hidden knives. “Milady, I’ll commission an artist to preserve the portraits in the genealogical archives. With your leave, then?”
After Sakuya, the rest of the girls all filed out of the parlor, until Alice and Patchouli were alone again. She was still already in her pajamas, so…
“Come sleep with me tonight.”
“Well, ok,” Patchouli acquiesced.