, follow me please.png
Sorry for the wait, but here's an extra-long update to make up for it. I really need to work on pacing.
[x] You have no idea. Ask Mori and the person you'll recruit for ideas.
[x] You know Hina often walks through the forest to the mountain, and she also wanders around the city trying to give away her creepy dolls. She knows the slums and the forest the best.
Before you even finish knocking on the door to Hina's apartment, the slot slides open to reveal her verdant eyes staring at you, followed by a gentle greeting. “Good afternoon, PI.”
Somehow, she's always right at the door whenever you knock. She must hear when you come up the steps to the second level. “Hello, Miss Hina. I have a request for you.”
Normally you wouldn't be so direct in asking something of her, but daylight's running out and you really need to get moving to find Shizuha. Thankfully, Hina doesn't seem to mind. “Very well. Please, come in.”
The slot closes, then the door opens, revealing a Hina that hasn't changed one bit since last night — same red dress and everything. In fact, she's probably worn it every time you've seen her, yet it never looks worse for wear. She must wash it frequently, or maybe she just bathes in it. That would be weird, but it's something she would do.
Small hands push you into the doorway from behind. “C'mon, move it,” Mori grumbles at you. “We're in a big hurry, aren't we?”
She's not wrong. You enter Hina's apartment, and it's just as barren as the last time you were in it. Perfectly in the middle of the empty living space is that small, round table and three matching chairs — with two of them on one side. Did she expect you to come here with Mori? You'll chalk it up to her being preemptively considerate and leave it at that.
Hina walks to the solitary chair and motions to the other two. “Have a seat.”
You gladly grab the chair closest to you, pull it out, and then sit down. Except, your bottom falls through air and you end up right on the floor with a blunt pain shooting up your backside. “What the—“
Mori peeks around you. “That looked like it hurt. You alright?”
“Yeah, thanks.” You stand up and brush yourself off, dissipating some of the pain. But, chairs don't just move out of the way like that on their own, causing you to harbor more than a little suspicion towards your apprentice. “Did you just pull my chair out from under me?”
She sighs. “I'm a little above that kind of humor, thank you very much. Haven't you caught on to her gimmick yet?”
“Gimmick?” you repeat back at her. “What are you talking about?”
“Please don't worry about it,” Hina cuts in, taking her own seat. “PI, are you not carrying your gift with you?”
A small lump forms in your throat. She did tell you to carry it around with you, but it's a little awkward for a grown man — or any man, really — to be carrying around a little doll fashioned after himself. “I left it downstairs,” you admit.
Hina doesn't seem too upset by it. “Please carry it around with you more often, and you should be fine,” she gently reminds you.
As much as you would love to dig into why that creepy doll is so special, you didn't exactly come here to make a case out of falling on your ass. “Okay then,” you reply, before clearing your throat in an attempt to salvage what professionalism you can. “Moving on, I'll cut straight to the point, Miss Hina: I need your help. I'm trying to find a missing woman and I'm running out of time.”
Hina gasps and raises a hand to her mouth, but her eyes don't really change. Then again, it's hard to expect any brow movement from a woman who doesn't even seem to blink. “Oh my,” she remarks. “Of course, I would be happy to offer what assistance I can.”
Mori, on the other hand, rolls her eyes. “Don't think it's entirely noble. PI's just worried he's going to have to bite the bullet on an IOU,” she clarifies swiftly.
You feel your stomach turn. “That was awful,” you reprimand her. “If you're going to mock my imminent death, at least use something more tasteful than a pun.”
Hina tilts her head and smiles at both of you. “That's all the more reason for me to help, PI. I'm more interested in helping you personally, rather than engaging in some general notion of altruism.”
It's good to hear it so bluntly, but what Hina told you last night is still fresh in your mind. You can't help but wonder about her motives. “Would this interest have anything to do with Hatate?”
Hina's smile remains strong. “Yes, it is in line with my duties,” she admits, “but I would also repay your kindness yesterday. You invited me into your home as a neighbor, and I shall return the favor — as a neighbor is wont to do.”
It wasn't a night worth returning, really. The highlights were Mori becoming a drunken mess and Hina nonchalantly revealing that your employer still suspects you of being a serial murderer, to the point of her keeping a watch on you all these years. Neither of these were very enjoyable. Though, reflecting back on it, it wasn't bad spending some leisure time with Hina before all the stupid stuff happened.
You bow your head, knowing there's no room for apprehension at this point. “Then I humbly accept your offer. Thank you, Miss Hina.”
She shakes her head. “That isn't necessary. And please, just Hina is fine.”
“Then thank you, Hina.”
Mori claps her hands together to move things forward. “Great, so she's on board. What now?”
Your apprentice is more driven than usual, which is refreshing to see. It makes sense, because this is at least partly personal for her — you took away from previous conversations that Mori got along with Shizuha more than anyone else at the Akis' soup kitchen. Hopefully you can get her to channel that drive positively, instead of making a mess out of things.
“Alright,” you begin, leaning forward. “Hina, we're looking for a woman by the name of Shizuha Aki, at the request of her younger sister, Minoriko Aki. According to Minoriko, she wanders off quite often, but this time she hasn't returned. After checking the forest and the slums, we've found nothing.”
Hina looks at Mori, shares something that might be concern, and then turns back to you. “Shizuha Aki, is it? I'm well-acquainted with her, as a matter of fact.”
You can't tell what kind of acquaintance she is to Hina, because her poker face is as strong as always. But, it's a relief nonetheless. “Then I can skip a lot of the explanation. If you know her, would you have any idea where she might be?”
“Shizuha hates the city,” Mori jumps in, “so I'm certain she's somewhere in the forest.”
Hina nods. “That is true. If you have been searching for her in the forest, and still cannot find her, then that is an ill omen. But I do know of one place, deep in the forest, where she might desperately seek shelter from the overbearing presence of her sister — and the world itself. It is not a place to tread lightly, however. I fear that the worst may have already come to pass.”
Cryptic as always, but you'll take whatever she has to offer. “I see. But can we get there before dark? I'm sure you know that it's dangerous to be out at night, especially in the forest.”
“The youkai won't bother you, so long as you and the little one stay close to me.”
First the Aki sisters, and now Hina — another woman with some sort of immunity from youkai. “That's pretty convenient,” you remark warily.
“Is it so hard to believe?” Mori asks you. “The forest is basically your backyard, and how many problems have you had?”
That's true. This building is on the edge of the slums, set apart from the others. Yet, for all the cases you've dealt with concerning youkai, you've had no trouble with them yourself — directly, at least. “I'm not doubting her,” you defend yourself, “I just don't think it's merely a coincidence that the Akis and Hina possess the same ability to ward themselves against youkai.”
Hina slowly nods. “I understand. I cannot speak for the Akis, but misfortune swirls around me like a storm. Those with the barest amount of sense are averse to my very presence. Repelled, even.”
She's a little creepy, sure, but to be outright repelled by her? You've never felt anything like that. “Guess I don't have any sense,” you respond, before shifting your gaze to Mori. “But, even Hina seems to know what's going on here. Am I the only one being left out of the loop?”
Mori thinks for a moment, but Hina has no such hesitation. “Yes,” she answers you. “That seems to be the case. My apologies, PI. I'm certain things will be made clear to you in due time.”
You sigh. This isn't exactly a new sensation, so you might as well get this over with and worry about it after your debts are paid. “I sure hope so. Then I'll be placing my trust in you as well, Hina.”
“I'm honored.” She bows to you, and then stands. “However, we should prepare. It will be a long hike, and we may even have to stay overnight. Will that be a problem?”
Hina sounds serious about this, not that you ever expected otherwise. That's good. You're starting to feel a little more confident having a fortuneteller on your side. “Of course,” you assert, rising out of your chair. “I'll just need to pack some food and drinks for myself and Mori.”
Mori hops out of her seat. “I've never said no to an opportunity to camp. I'm getting a little excited, here.”
Of course, you're going to have to rain on whatever parade she's concocting in her head. “We're working, you know. My life's at stake.” Mori gives you a dry stare, so you correct yourself. “I mean, lives are at stake.”
“Yeah, yeah,” the kid brushes you off. “I wonder if we can at least stop and buy some stuff for s'mores along the way...”
Best to let her dream, then. You turn back to the patient Hina. “Will you need anything? You're acting as our guide, so I'd be more than happy to pack extra for you.”
She shakes her head. “No, not at all. Though, I do have one request.”
Hopefully Hina doesn't want a cut of whatever Minoriko gives you, because you aren't even sure how much you're getting from all of this. But, you aren't really in a position to refuse at this point. “Sure, go ahead.”
Her green eyes seem to brighten and her lips perk up. “Bring the doll, and hold it close. That will be enough for me.”
It's felt like hours since the three of you set out into the Great Youkai Forest. Hina keeps a steady pace as she weaves through trees to find paths you had never even noticed before. Now, you're marching uphill — not on the mountain proper, but closer to it than you've ever been. The forest floor is heavily shaded beneath the thick canopy of leaves, but strands of light leak through to illuminate the dirt path.
It's risky bringing Mori out this far, since a tengu could spot her and snatch her before you know it. You'll just have to trust Hina, since that's worked so far. Every now and then you'll hear a distant rustle like something's taking a look at you, but you haven't seen a soul since you entered the forest — not even a bird or a squirrel. Hina wasn't lying about being aversive, though you still aren't sure what she meant by claiming to be surrounded by some kind of misfortune storm.
Mori stays right behind Hina, but you find yourself lagging behind. “H—hold on a second,” you call out ahead, between gasps for air.
The two ladies turn around, and the shorter one responds, “Something wrong?”
Yeah, something's wrong. This isn't really a peaceful stroll through the woods. When Hina said it would be a hike, she meant it. You thought you were used to walking from one end of the slums to the other, but this steep incline is on a whole other level. “I just need a second to catch my breath,” you tell them.
Mori sighs, glaring down at you from above. “Is it really that bad?”
You grab a nearby tree for support. “It is. You don't get to talk like that when I'm the one carrying the backpack.”
“It's only a little further,” Hina assures you. “You will have much more trouble getting there at night, so please don't take too long.”
That doesn't sound good. You take a final, deep breath to settle your heart and numb some of the pain in your legs. “Alright, let's keep going.”
You catch up to Hina and Mori, then continue following them. It doesn't take long for the three of you to leave the trees, revealing the steep, rocky cliffs of the mountainside. Water cascades down from several places, conjoining into a river and wrapping around the foot of the mountain before flowing away.
“Woah,” Mori exclaims, her eyes practically sparkling. “Amazing.”
“I agree,” is all you can say.
“We have made our way to the far side of the mountain,” Hina explains. Then, she points ahead to a large, wooden building across the river. Surrounding it are trees with falling leaves, their hues of orange and yellow magnified by the light of the setting sun. “That is our destination.”
Your sense of wonder dissipates at the thought of moving through that river. “You never mentioned anything about swimming, Hina.”
Mori grins. “Sounds great to me!”
Hina shakes her head. “Don't worry. There should be a bridge nearby, downstream. Follow me.”
Sure enough, Hina takes you to a simple bridge that extends over the flowing river. Up close, the water is far more rapid than you thought, and the sagging rope bridge does little to comfort you.
Mori slaps you on the back, and thankfully her little hand isn't enough to knock you off-balance. “You scared of falling?” she mocks playfully.
“I can deal with the fall,” you answer. “Drowning in the rapids, though...”
She steps up beside you and looks down at the water from the edge. When she catches a good glimpse of the white foam rushing down, she whistles in awe. “Yeah, I guess that would do the trick. This water isn't for humans.”
“The river slows down when it branches,” Hina explains. “One part goes to Misty Lake, and the other towards the vil— the city.”
You look down the river, trying to see where it splits, but you can't. So, this is one of the rivers that goes to the city. What interests you more, though, is Misty Lake. Hatate once told you about a giant mansion that appeared there several years ago. The inhabitants were “troublemakers”, but the tengu came up with something to satisfy them. Especially with Mori right here beside you, it begs the question: did that mansion come from the Outside World? It could even be related to Mori.
“Well, you can't stare at it all day,” the brat in question walks ahead of you, toward Hina. “Lead the way, guide lady.”
Without hesitation, Hina steps onto the bridge, paying no heed to the way it sways with her weight. “Then let us continue.”
Mori follows her onto the bridge with the same regard for her safety. “Seems fine to me,” she reports. “Hurry up.”
Warily, you step onto the first plank. Instantly you feel your body move with the bridge, and know that this might very well be the last mistake you'll ever make. “Just keep moving,” you tell the women.
Halfway across, you need something to take your mind off the situation. “So, how long has it been since anyone's been around these parts?” You put your left hand on the rope to maintain your balance, and hear an unsettling creak. “Or maybe, this bridge in particular?”
Hina continues to walk the boards as if she were on solid land. “It's difficult to say. Decades, likely.”
“Oh, well that's lovel—“
A harsh gasp escapes your throat as your foot breaks through the plank you were stepping to, sending the lower half of your body crashing through the old wood you were on. Your backpack gets stuck and buys you enough time to frantically grasp at the boards in front of you, preventing you from falling into the river.
It's Mori who turns around first, quickly grabbing for one of your hands with both of hers. With great strain she grunts and exerts a surprising amount of strength, liable to tear your shoulder right out of its socket. But, despite the effort, you don't budge.
“I'm stuck!” you conclude. The way the bridge shakes with all the activity does little to calm you down.
Mori turns back to your guide, who is watching passively. “Dammit, Hina! Get back here and help us!”
“Of course,” you hear her answer, as if she had just been asked to hang up the laundry. Then, something grabs your other arm and heaves you back onto the bridge. You look up, only to see Hina looking down at you with her usual smile. “There we go. Are you okay?”
Exhausted once again by the scare, you can only reply, “Not until we get off of this damn bridge.”
The three of you make it back to solid land without any more difficulties. While you're taking some deep breaths, Hina appears in front of you. “I'm a bit concerned,” she tells you. “May I see the doll?”
Shit, the doll. It probably fell out during all the commotion. But, when you pat your hoodie pocket, you feel that it's still there. You hand it to Hina.
Hina examines the doll front and back, and then holds it tightly to her chest. You see a deep smile on her face, and it reminds you of how she embraces you occasionally. You thought it was just a strange greeting, but seeing it here makes you think it's something more. “Is everything alright, Hina?”
She doesn't answer for a few moments, but eventually she releases the doll and hands it back to you. “Yes, everything should be fine now. I am surprised that it reached capacity so quickly. You are extraordinary in your own way, PI.”
“Thanks, I guess.” You don't know how else to respond to that.
Mori grins. “He sure is.”
Hearing Mori agree makes you think it isn't a compliment, so you'll ignore it. “We just have to head back upstream on this side, right? Let's move.”
It doesn't take long to return to the wooden building Hina pointed out. Now that you can get a good look at it, you notice it's bigger than you thought, but also so dilapidated and reclaimed by nature that you can't quite tell what it was supposed to be.
“A shrine,” Mori is quick to deduce.
“Not quite,” Hina replies. “There was never any goddess enshrined here. It's more like... a ceremony ground. Or perhaps, a monastery of sorts.”
Mori nods. “I see.”
“Well, I don't,” you speak up. “Looks like an old wooden hut, to me.”
“It would,” the two ladies respond in unison.
It's almost painful to hold in the questions you have, but the important thing is that Shizuha might be around. “You still think she's here?” you ask Hina.
“Absolutely,” she answers. “Can you not see her handiwork?”
You look around, but besides the building itself all you see are the mountain, the river, and the trees dropping their payload of changed leaves. “Not really.”
“Don't worry about it,” Mori assures you. “Let's just get up there.”
A short path of cracked, stone steps leads the three of you up to the entrance — two large doors that hang open. Inside, you notice cobwebs and not much else.
Mori prods your side. “After you.”
You look to Hina, but are met with only a smile. You groan. “What, so now you want me to lead? Fine. Is there a bottom level I need to worry about? I'm not falling through any more rotting wood today.”
Hina shakes her head. “Not at all. I was just hoping you would clear out some of the webs.”
At least she's honest. You pick a decent-looking stick off the ground and enter, waving it in front of you to knock away the dense, white cobwebs hanging down from the ceiling. “Nothing like the smell of old tatami,” you mutter.
You can see what Mori meant by calling this place a shrine. It certainly looks like it should be a shrine, but there's none of the ornaments that would designate this place as a temple. Instead, it's just a lot of empty space — which reminds you an awful lot of a certain red-tressed fortuneteller's apartment.
Mori pulls on your sleeve. “The sun's almost gone. We'll need some light.”
Oh, right. Hopefully nothing was damaged in all that nonsense earlier. You slip off your backpack and hand it to Mori. “Get the lantern and the flashlights out,” you tell her,” and I'll go around knocking all the webs down.”
It doesn't take long for everything to be in order. You've scouted around the premises and found nothing but a few unruly spiders that you shooed away. The real problem would be if this place was haunted, but there's no sign of that yet. The ladies seem comfortable, at least. Hina and Mori quickly get the lantern going, giving the room a semblance of warmth. If you decide to make a fire, it will have to be outside — far away from this hazard of a building.
You sit down next to the lantern with the girls and try to relax on the cold ground. “I'm glad we're finally settled,” you remark.
Hina giggles. “I must apologize. I'm not used to walking here, so I forgot it would be such a journey.”
How else would she get here besides walking? Actually, no, you're not going to think about it. Things were so much easier when you didn't try to pick apart every cryptic musing. “That's alright. Now that we're here, I'm fine.”
She smiles. “I'm glad. It's been a long time since a human has made this journey. It makes me feel nostalgic.”
Come to think of it, she never did explain what this place was. “What was this place for, anyway?”
Hina responds with another question. “Have you ever heard of nagashi-bina?”
“Can't say I have.”
Mori gapes at you. “Seriously? I guess I shouldn't be surprised because of how everything else is, but to have never even heard of it...”
“It's alright,” Hina assures either you or Mori. “It was an old tradition where humans would place their misfortune into dolls and send them downstream. In Gensokyo, they would hold the festival here. Everyone would come here, since they believed the dolls should be kept away from the village.”
You can see how that would interest Hina, since she has so much to do with misfortune. “That sounds right up your alley. Did you participate in those festivals a lot?”
For the first time, you see Hina become a bit flustered. “I— well, not quite. I helped, but— but I never...”
“You don't have to explain if you don't want to,” you tell her. “We can leave it at that.”
She looks back at you, and then smiles again. “Very well. How do you suggest we begin our search?”
That's a good question. At first you wanted to keep patrolling the forests, but there might be other options. “The doors were open when we got here. Hina, you said that Shizuha would be using this place as a shelter, didn't you? Maybe we could wait here and surprise her if she comes back.”
Mori grins. “So a stakeout, then? As expected of a detective.”
“Besides that,” you continue, “I'm also interested in that river. It would be easy to move alongside, and if she really was living out here, I don't think she would ever move too far away from it — speaking from a survival perspective.”
Mori shrugs. “All of that sounds good to me. You're the master here, so I'll follow along with whatever you decide.”
Hina nods, expressing the same sentiment.
Then, it's up to you — but no matter what you do, you should be very careful. Who knows what you might stumble upon this far away from the city?
 Search the depths of the forest like you planned on doing.
 Stake out the building. If Shizuha is staying here, she might return.
 It will be easier to search along the river, as long as we can find a safe way down.