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File 167782914513.jpg - (96.60KB, 640x512, the_wild_east.jpg)
the_wild_east
The sun gives a blinding welcome as you emerge from the train car, landing onto beaten boards of the platform with a thump. A good stretch and a few paces shakes off most of the stiffness from hours of uncomfortable sitting.

Framed by reddish foothills, the town sprawls out before you. It has the chaotic arrangement typical of a gold-seeking surge and the usual decay after the rocks had been picked clean. Painted, worn facades define the uneven contours of the main street. Overlooking this central axis is a prominent peak-roofed building that you’d guess would be the town hall, but even this monument reveals fading colors and lost shingles. Further away from the center, the structures dwindle, houses giving way to shacks, giving way to boulders and sand. A narrow stream glimmers its way between the mountains, through the town, vanishing under a bridge supporting the tracks. Spindly trees and mats of grasses huddle by the precious water and you can imagine the find it was for the first arrivals in the area. Hanging off the station is the name of your destination: Sage Springs.

All in all, you must admit the view was nicer through dust-coated windows.

A wagon-scarred road parallel to the raised railway separates you and the station from the main body of town. It joins the main street almost perpendicularly, forming a bent “T” shape. The handful of passengers who had also gotten off are already dispersing across it, leaving you alone on the platform.

The train’s bells and impatient whistling slice through the air and you give the machine more space. Turning your head to follow the departure, a few bored faces can be spied through open windows and underneath, cast iron wheels turn as mechanical might heaves against its own weight. The gust from the rolling mass ruffles your clothes and forces you to intercept your hat before it can take flight, but it also feels pleasant against the late morning heat.

The train slides away to continue its eastward journey, leaving behind a backdrop of pasty dryland and scraggly bushes. The flatter land allows the valley’s mountains to circuit the horizon unimpeded. The train leaving also means you’re now officially stuck here, no choice but to continue with your job as a(n)…

[ ] Red-White Ranger
[ ] Ordinary Bounty Hunter
[ ] Half-Phantom Ranger
[ ] Medicine Seller
[ ] Wind Priestess
[ ] Ice Fairy
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[X] Ice Fairy

The strongest around!
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[X] Ordinary Bounty Hunter

Can't get enough of Marisa, I want Marisa, give me more Marisa please. That said, I will also gladly vote for

[X] Half-Phantom Ranger

if OP would prefer a change of pace from their previous story.

Very glad to see you back in the saddle. Warmly waiting for more updates.
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[X] Ice Fairy

She seems like a good protagonist for a not-too-convoluted plotline.
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[⑨] Ice Fairy
I'm legally obligated to pick the ice fairy. If common consensus is a slightly more serious character though that's fine.
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Welcome back, cunnyform.

[x] Medicine Seller
THE ETERNAL BUNNY GUNNER
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[X] Ice Fairy

You slap your cheeks to fully wake up. That's right, you’re on a grand quest so there’s no time to be stalling! First, get away from this awful sun!

You burst into the station building. A very empty but well kept waiting room greets you. The rows of benches are spotless and brightly lit by the weird lamps with the flames that look frozen, but still burn on touch. The artificial glow mixes with sunlight from the windows on the sky-blue floor tiles. One of the windows is blocked by a small peach tree living in a square vase. It’s still a little warm, but most of the heat doesn’t seem to penetrate the sturdy brick walls.

“Oh, what an energetic one. Can I help you?” Maybe not so empty then.

The serene voice directs your attention right and up where an indigo haired woman draped with red-frilled silks mans a counter in the corner. A round black hat hangs on the wall next to a few informational panels and there’s one of those beeping machines behind her. How the heck she doesn’t melt under all those layers you can’t understand, but there’s been a lot of baffling things you’ve encountered this far away from home. Heck, home itself was pretty baffling too, these days.

“Lady, you can help me fix this weather! The sun out here’s broken or something, it shouldn’t be this hot!”

“Indeed, even in spring, the temperatures here can get ferocious,” the woman chuckles. She studies you, briefly glancing downward at the condensation that’s already dripped off your wings. “No wonder you’re bothered, it’s rare to see a fairy far from their element.”

“That’s because I’m on a really important mission right now. I just thought things would be getting cooler eventually, but the further I go, it only gets worse!”

“Hmm… if you’re lost then maybe I can help you. Is there somewhere in particular that you are trying to reach?”

You hesitate. You’ve been careful up to now to not let anyone else know your true destination, only asking about intermediate locations, but that’s going to be tricky being this close to the finish line. The woman must be the stationmaster, so she definitely knows her geography, and she seems friendly enough.

“I’m not lost, but okay. Just… please keep this a secret?”

“Of course,” she smiles before giving you an elegant bow. “Keeping information safe is a key part of my duties.”

You’ll trust her, after getting so far, it would be silly to lose your way now. You nod as you search through the pockets on your blue dress. A candy stick snatched at another town. A small bomb that Dai had learned to make from the nice “Red-o-Lute-Shun-Airy” girl with two little horns. Some pieces of string and cloth scraps, a spare button… There, you hand her a crumpled little pamphlet. You are taking no chances of being overhead.

You watch impatiently as the stationmaster reads it. Your feet itch and you’d rather be wading in cool lake water than in poorly fitted beat-up boots. But you’ve made it this far and the reward at the end would make the troublesome journey worth it. If only it weren’t necessary in the first place.

See, as far as you could remember, you, Dai, and a whole forest of fairies lived around the great blue Misty Lake, playing games with each other and pranking the occasional passerby. Life was good.

But then some bat youkai moved in, building an enormous and ugly red mansion. She couldn’t be pranked thanks to her guards, the red-green goon and the blue-white terror, both of whom were so unbelievably strong, even you couldn’t beat them! They were troublesome, but the lake was big and things settled down.

Then a bunch of humans appeared, digging the marshes and chopping the trees. A quarter, then half, then the entire shore was soon dominated by their rigid blocky houses. It became hard to sleep when the nights blazed like day, the soft swish of leaves replaced with gruff voices and clopping horses. The streets were so straight and so empty, it was impossible to sneak up on anyone without getting chased by the mean men with the batons, or crushed by a wagon. Even later, the tireless goblins arrived, who built absolutely huge houses with towering chimneys which, like the biggest cigarettes you’ve ever seen, belched foul scarlet smoke into the sky. The pretty morning mists on the lake became tinged bloody crimson, and not a frog could be found among the discarded tins and bottles littering the muddy banks.

Most of your friends had submitted to the invader and had claimed it wasn’t so bad, that they could run around the endless halls, dress up in the comfiest clothes, and eat baked sweets. But you, Dai, and a few others held out, unswayed by the devil’s temptations. Still though, things were becoming unbearable.

One winter day, while sweeping the snow clean of the dangerous salt the humans kept carelessly spilling, you found a curious pamphlet. You would’ve ignored it since reading is boring anyways, but a picture on the open page caught your attention: a lake like your own, but next to a mountain so grand, its white summit pierces above the clouds!

You took the soggy paper back with you and, overcoming the best efforts of humans and youkai to make up long words just to confuse things, you managed to decode what would become the hope for you and your friends. Apparently, some people liked to walk so much that they would end up in places no one had seen before, discovering places like that of the picture, the newly christened Whiterock Mountain! Untouched woodland, resplendent valleys, pristine lakes, and lovely, brilliant, year-round snowcaps! And most importantly, anyone willing to stay and live on the land gets to keep it!

This was it: if deprived of your old home, get a new one! The others thought it was a good idea too, but everyone was scared of going out so far, of being eaten by the fire and metal contraptions. So it was up to you, the strongest and bravest fairy of the Misty Lake, to venture out, to seize the future for your beleaguered people!

The plan was for everyone to scrap together enough money to send you first. Once you had successfully navigated the “civilized” world and staked the claim, you would then pick up some of this silver everyone seemed to be so excited about to buy passage for the rest of the group. Silver was claimed to be plentiful near the mountain. Finally, you and your friends would be free of the scarlet menace. The thought makes you sway a little in excitement.

The stationmaster is taking a while to finish with your pamphlet, but that was because she had pulled out a map, criss-crossed with more styles of lines than you thought possible. You stand on your tiptoes to see over the table, but she holds the map up instead.

“I’m deeply sorry, but your destination would be better reached on a different line. We are here at Sage Springs,” she points at a small black dot with a finger. It is indeed labeled Sage Springs. “Which is on the Union Celestial Railroad Southern Line. Instead, the Northeastern Line will take you to the trails that lead to your goal.” She traces the movement across the line with many bars crossed through. That northern route ends at a blank part of the map while the southern is surrounded by drawn desert. “You likely got on the wrong train at Gensokyo City, our regional hub.” It’s a large square near the middle.

“But I got directions to travel this way from there!” You complain.

She sighs. ”Unfortunately, there are some people who like pulling terrible jokes on the unsuspecting. People who should know better, I mean.”

That purple lady at the Gensokyo City station must’ve lied to you! You thought she had saved you from going the wrong way, but instead she… argh!

She continues, while giving you back the pamphlet and putting away her map. “Don’t you worry. The northbound train will show up tonight, at 10:00.”

“I-I don’t have money for another ticket…,” you admit.

A second sigh. “I suspected as much. Very well, I shall pay your fare for you.”

“Really?!” your face lights up. “You would do that? Thank you! Thank you! See, I need to get out there fast to claim the land, but once I’m ready, I’ll make sure to send you enough loot to fill this whole room. Twice, no, three times over!”

Strangely, the stationmaster’s smile stiffens, then she decides to let out an open wince.

“Oh dear, if that’s why you traveled so far… it might be better for you to read it yourself. Can you read?” she awkwardly asks.

“Yep!” You answer proudly. While the others had gathered dropped coins or sold mushrooms, you worked hard practicing your letters, picking newspapers from the trash, stealing kids’ homework, surviving teacher’s headbutts, listening to teacher’s lectures, acquiring as much knowledge of the world as possible.

She rolls out a newspaper printed on a silk scroll and hands it to you. The fabric is really soft and quite nice to touch.

The Heavenly Times

Remilia Scarlet, Vampire Noble, Banking Tycoon, and Industrialist, purchases Whiterock Mountain and surrounding territories for $6.5 million dollars, largest individual land purchase in history by area and value.


The youaki’s familiar face stares outward, a sly grin on her face, inked narrowed eyes boring into your wide ones. The date shows this had happened only yesterday, while you were still on the train. In horror, you can’t help but to keep reading. One passage sticks out.

“-they say that a record silver deposit sits under that mountain. So I thought to myself, why shouldn’t I simply pay for that silver to not be mined?’
When asked if she had sent anyone to physically stake her claim in the area as following the original policy, Lady Scarlet responded:
‘I’ve already arranged it with the government, and I will ensure the homesteads already there will be fairly compensated. I also want to add one thing: that I have heard the grumbles, those questioning why a lone lady should have the right to deny so many others opportunity? I think in our much vaunted age of republicanism and with the frontier so open to all, many believe just by being quick, by working hard alone, anyone might make something of themselves. This is a fatal misunderstanding of the nature of the modern world. Today, the real power is in wealth. Only money can change fate.
Now of course, money doesn’t enforce itself, but I was thinking that my dear little sister needed some practice running a little estate of her own. She’s a bit of a homebody, but we’ll drag her out within a few months or so-‘”

“N-No!”

You can’t keep going, not just because of the tears blurring your sight, but also because your heart is shattering like an icicle falling on a stone below.

You ignore the stationmaster’s voice and dash out of the building. Curling up against the unyielding wall, cold tears cover your face, soaking your arms and dress. Was this devil impossible to escape?

You had once seen the vampire visit a clearing by the lake for a picnic with her lilac friend. Her guardians were there too, on shift with one serving and the other sleeping. The lilac girl seemed to be engrossed with a book thicker than her torso, but the short vampire constantly badgered her, having a good time, laughter on her pale face.

You imagine yourself coming home to tell Dai you failed. That all your friends would have to give up their freedom, their dignity to the scarlet conqueror, all because Cirno the dumb weak ice fairy’s dumb plans always fail. Because she couldn’t save either their old home or their new one.

The vampire’s face laughing, laughing at you.

Dai and the rest of them, comforting you, but disappointment obvious in their eyes.

“Only money can change fate.”

Only money can change fate, huh? It’d be great if you had any money, but you couldn’t even afford a way out of here. It really is hopeless. You sobbing slows, then stops as a haze wraps you. Sitting in the yellow dirt, there’s nothing else but to stare into space.

A lone tumbleweed skips across the street.

A group of tan-cloaked youkai carry boxes into an alley, one of them dropping something and getting shouted at.

A pair of figures wearing poorly drawn red wolf masks sauntering into a saloon.

Something close enters your vision:

[ ] The stationmaster’s black dress
[ ] Green hair and gray horn
[ ] A giant butterfly
[ ] Calico patched trousers
[ ] A stringed instrument
[ ] Green swirl on red
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[X] Calico patched trousers

Our poor fey needs some luck.
We gotta dry those tears. There's gotta be a way through.

>sweeping the snow clean of the dangerous salt the humans kept carelessly spilling
Beautiful

>That purple lady at the Gensokyo City station must’ve lied to you!
Time to develop an irrational hatred of purple. She's going on the grudge list, though our fey might forget the list even exists.

So our hero's goal is to find a new untouched place for her and her friends to live. But Remilia bought Whiterock Mountain. Freaking rich people.
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I really like this! This set-up definitely feels like something that could be found in a Western setting. Let's analyse the different options here:

> The stationmaster’s black dress
Iku. She already offered to help Cirno pay her fare, so she seems friendly and could help her more going forward. She might have useful connections with the Union Celestial Railroad, but I also feel like those corporate folks may be more likely to side with Remilia.

> Green hair and gray horn
Aunn. She's the kind of individual to be friendly to everyone around her, so she'd probably be willing to help Cirno. The particular usefulness of talking to her would be to have Cirno's case catch the attention of the Red-White Ranger.

> A giant butterfly
Eternity. She's a fellow fairy and, in canon, an acquaintance of Cirno, so she would likely support the other fairies' cause. She might have a lot of hidden power, if she is indeed Tokoyo no Kami. She is also a character that, to the best of my knowledge, has not yet been featured significantly yet in any fics on this site, despite debuting over five years ago, so that also makes her an interesting choice.

> Calico patched trousers
Mike. She's a newhu, so that could make it interesting to feature her. As a saleswoman, she could help Cirno get useful items, and her luck could help Cirno gain money.

> A stringed instrument
(One of) the Tsukumo sisters. They have this "rebel against the powerful youkai" vibe about them, so they would likely be sympathetic to Cirno's cause, and may be involved in some kind of revolution of their own, given that Seija's also around and apparently grooming fairies for some kind of violence. They're also not featured very often in fanworks.

> Green swirl on red
Hina. She could help Cirno by "taking away her misfortune", though I'm not sure what she could do for her in a more direct way.

It's a tough choice for me between Eternity and the Tsukumos. For now I will go with the following, but I'm open to changing my mind if others have suggestions.

[X] A giant butterfly
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>>68840
Thanks for the analysis of the choices. Your examination has convinced me to change >>68838, [X] Calico patched trousers to [X] A giant butterfly.

One fairy, two fairies, maybe we can get a third fairy, and then a fourth, assembling a force of nature to rail against the upper class. Cirno already has a bomb in her pocket. Maybe a torch can be found to set this cause ablaze.

Perhaps Eternity can be the deuteragonist to Cirno in this story? Or maybe that is already taken by Dai, but she's so far away currently.

>you worked hard practicing your letters, picking newspapers from the trash, stealing kids’ homework, surviving teacher’s headbutts, listening to teacher’s lectures, acquiring as much knowledge of the world as possible.

Cirno's got an authentic pull yourself up by the bootstraps backstory, which I find fitting with this story's genre. And we also got a western hero's goal: a better life and a new land.

Don't suppose we could ply Cirno's ice ability for some money. It is a hot, dry desert, so cool ice could attract suffering residents.

Does make me curious about what the other heroes we could have chosen goals would have been, but perhaps that will crop up if we meet them.

On a side note, though, I've noticed from cuneiform's previous story that they tend to have this list of choices of what 2hus to meet with. Which I find interesting but makes me fear ending up with a four-way tie like the last one, that darn train choice, because all the options are compelling.
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[X] A giant butterfly
Long live the fairy Red-o-Lute-Shun!
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[X] A giant butterfly

Fairies unite!
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I've realized this is a fairy tale.
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[X] A giant butterfly

A pair of sandals tied from wild grass step into the shade with you. Then as the being kneels down, a patterned lime dress, the distinct yellow spotted wings of a butterfly, before finally, a concerned face comes into view. A yellow antenna-thing and a ring of leaves decorate her turquoise hair. She sets down a straw basket tall enough that you can’t see within.

“Um, hello! Are you okay?”

She’s odd looking with a surprisingly rich voice, but certainly a fairy. You simply aren’t in the mood for playing right now, however.

“Are you hurt? Or hungry?”

“Leave me alone.” You grumble. Even your plan to indulge in self-pity gets disrupted.

“Hey. I’ve never seen you before, but you’re a fairy too, aren’t you? Shouldn’t we be friends?”

You pretend she doesn’t exist. After a minute, she sighs. She hops back up and, observing from the corner of your eye, she reaches into the basket and pulls out a round red object which she places next to the wall. Then after picking up the basket, the fairy is gone.

You mentally count up the seconds in a minute and then, satisfied at reaching ten, allow your hand to bring the mystery object closer. It feels solid and slightly smooth and bringing close for inspection, you discover that it is a small and tough-looking apple

It’s also crunchy and quite tasty. The tart sweetness returns a degree of clarity to the world and it also doesn’t hurt having some real food in your belly. It’s almost as good as the ones back home and you wonder how the fruit can be so fresh considering the desert landscape. You carefully balance the remaining core on the ground.

Pitter patter, rapid and growing, from the left. It’s that fairy again, who closes the distance before your head can fully turn.

“HA! I caught a thief!!” Suddenly, she yanks you upward and you before you can react, feel yourself grabbed around the arms and torso.

“H-Hey! What are you doing?!” Struggling, unable to break free, you are surprised to find that this weird fairy is somehow more than a match for you.

“Ouch! You’re freezing cold!”

“Then get off!” you shout, wiggling as you sense her grip weaken.

“Not until you apologize for stealing my apple!” Her resolve stiffens and your progress is undone. The struggle takes you outside, but you can only focus on wrestling a way out.

“You clearly left that there for me!”

“How greedy! It was mine all along,“ she says before she giggles. “I… I was going to use it as a snack later.”

“There’s no way that can be true!”

“Maybe this misunderstanding could’ve been prevented if a certain stranger properly introduced herself and learned a little about the locals.”

“Why didn’t you just keep it in the basket?” You keep straining and try to get a better footing, but she squeezes harder.

“Because what’s in the basket is for someone else. You’ll see.”

You can’t keep your balance after a poorly aimed kick. You attempt to fall over backwards to maybe squish your assailant, but she pushes forward first. Dry and chalky dust sneaks into your mouth and now you’re completely pinned.

“Fine! I’m sorry for your stupid apple! Now let go!” You stop squirming.

She does get off and you are able to roll over, panting. At least the other fairy is shivering a little. The only reason she was able to handle you like that was her sneak attack on top of your weakened state. You’ve never lost to another fairy in a fair fight before.

“Whew….“ She recovers before making her demand: “Now that I’ve won, you have to help me with my delivery!”

“What! Why?”

“To pay for that apple, of course. Also I’m tired now since I usually don’t play around like that in the town.” She crosses her arms.

“I already said I’m… fine.” Maybe going along with her would let you get back to being sad and alone sooner. You slowly get up and dust yourself off. She beams at you.

“Okay, let's start over. My name is Eternity Larva, but the others just call me Larva.”

“I’m Cirno.”

“Okay, Cirno, the cargo is over there. You’ll help by carrying it.” She points to the side of the station where the basket from before is leaned next to a pile of wood. You can see now that it is full of fruits and vegetables.

“Aww, really? What’ll you do then?”

“I know where to go. Don't worry, I’ll hold the basket after we're done!” she replies.

The produce in the loaded basket makes it quite heavy, forcing you to shuffle grips until the container is stable to move with, but you make no complaint. You hope Larva understands that you’re normally very strong, it’s just today wasn’t the day. Larva leads the way forward while chatting.

“Why do you feel so cold? You’ve got weird wings too.” She pokes one of the crystals, her finger slipping on the wet ice.

“I’m an ice fairy, duh. And who are you to talk about weird wings?” you rebut.

“Rude! There’s nothing wrong with my wings!”

“Nothing wrong with mine either!”

“If you’re an ice fairy, are you really okay here?” Larva asks.

“Nah, this weather is nothing to me! I’ve survived hotter!” You leave out that the worst summer days at the Misty Lake were ideally spent under your lakeside igloo, shaded by a dense canopy of foliage. The way too hot weather around here is another reason you were weakened. In the future, it might be better to fight in the buildings, or wait if the wispy clouds in the sky here ever do their job right.

You’re starting to feel a burn in your arms, but thankfully Larva stops in front of a building and announces, “We’re here!”

Seeing over the basket is hard and you can only make out a pair of swinging doors, but looking up, you can read the sign of the façade:

[ ] The Blinding Ballad
[ ] The Sand Whale
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Nice update! Let's look at the choices again.

> The Sand Whale
A whale-themed established seems like a reference to Miyoi and the Geidontei bar (and in fact, the pre-edited version of the update said as much), who also appeared in Starry Desert Sky.

> The Blinding Ballad
This is most likely a reference to Mystia's power to cause night-blindness with her songs, and her food cart.

In terms of how useful they would be as an ally, both are mildly but not overly powerful, so I don't think there is much of a difference there. However, given that this is a Carno-focused story, there is definitely one of these characters that I think fits the best, so my choice is pretty clear this time.

[X] The Blinding Ballad
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[X] The Blinding Ballad

That certainly rolls off the tongue easily enough.

A fellow winged compatriot and a working-class member! After losing to another fairy, Cirno must regain her ego by proving her superior literacy skills.

>satisfied at reaching ten
I can't say I'm entirely surprised at this development, but I am surprised it wasn't nine.

>In the future, it might be better to fight in the buildings, or wait if the wispy clouds in the sky here ever do their job right.
That's a hint if I've ever seen one. And proof we've chosen dummy strongest mode. Need a cowboy hat for this baleful sun.

>you before you
huh.
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>>68848
>Carno-focused story
Meat?
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>>68850
Damn it, autocorrect…
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[X] The Blinding Ballad

>Cirno
>satisfied at reaching ten
My disappointment is immeasurable, and my day is ruined.
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[X] The Blinding Ballad

We've committed crime, now we should invest in trying to create frozen chicken.
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[X] The Blinding Ballad
I really like this setup, feels a lot more inspired and heartfelt than the bounty hunter stuff we saw earlier.
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[x] The Sand Whale
Whales; oceans; tides; piss... something like that, anyhow.
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[X] The Blinding Ballad

Drinking raw water will make your stomach hurt~♪

Slow, alluring, singing could be heard even before Larva lets you both into the building. Inside, the song so dominates the cramped interior that neither of you can say anything, bound by a voice that, pitched high but not shrill with a haunting edge, can only be concluded as utterly beautiful. It surpasses any of the musically-inclined fairies back home or even the few human performers you’ve spied on. The singer’s lyrics, despite being as uncomplicated as the average fairy ditty, are altered by her enchanting voice, the meaning slipping from the words as you hear them and leaving only melody. A pair of exotic, twangy-sounding instruments accompany the song. Swaying a little in resonance with the music, your annoyance from getting out-wrestled by Larva melts away and even the deeper unhappiness below that seems to weaken, just a bit.

Drink lake water and it's off to Sanzu no Kawa~♪

Like the inside of a boxcar, the room is narrow with its walls, floor, and low ceiling all built from wooden boards, split down the middle lengthwise by a long counter. On the right is the stage of the singer, a winged youkai in a brown apron, and behind her is a wall-length shelf of colorful bottles fastened above a jumble of basins, stoves, and kitchen utensils. The rest of the room has the same general pattern, crammed with as many tables and stools as possible. Past the end of the counter, in the orange space of a drooping lantern, a pair of girls passionately pluck away at their instruments. The distance and tightness of the room cannot diminish their masterful playing.

“That’s Mystia, she runs this saloon,” Larva whispers about the singer. “What’s in the basket is for her.”

The sparse audience doesn’t just include you two. A girl in a dirty tan cloak sits in a stool close to the door while another customer, dressed in an aqua shirt and skirt covered with pockets, occupies a chair further back, a huge backpack on the ground by her.

“Ah, Larva! Please come in!” The singer cuts the performance when she notices the pair of you, waving you closer. The room stirs as the music ends and you follow Larva towards the kitchen side of the counter.

“Bravo! Bravo!” Cheeks flushed, the cloaked girl gives a wholehearted applause. “Well, I’ll leave the lyrics for others to comment on, but really that voice of yours… another grand performance by our very own Miss Lorelei! To show my appreciation, I’ll have another ladle!”

Up close, you realize that her cloak isn’t dirty; its odd appearance is due to irregular splotches of sandy yellows and pale browns intentionally woven in. A wide brim hat of the same style as the cloak lays carelessly on the table, allowing the girl’s moss green hair to stand out against the drab fabric.

“Thank you, Takane, but um, this will be your fifth–no, sixth?” Mystia asks with concern.

“Well, what’s the issue?” Takane crosses her arms.

“Aren’t you on a lunch break?”

“Health comes before work, don’t you know? And just because I left the Great Genbu a century ago doesn’t mean I can slack on hydration, especially not in this blasted heat!” Takane makes a show of twirling her bamboo mug on a finger, almost failing to catch it when the lacquered cup wobbles out of control.

Mystia sighs. “If you say so.”

“Haha! All right!” Takane celebrates with a pair of loud excited claps as her cup is refilled from a stout earthen pot. Even if her face didn’t show it, it’s obvious the liquid from the pot is delicious sake! Finally grasping what “saloon” means and what all those bottles at the top are for, you are proud to be the first fairy from home to get into a tavern from the front!

You carefully squeeze past Mystia as you navigate the close quarters. Despite your best efforts, the basket and your limbs still end up taking a few bumps from various protrusions.

Hidden from the front by the kitchen furniture is a sizable niche in the wall where sacks upon sacks of flour and rice loom over you and pyramids of tinned goods and oils tempt collapse by a careless nudge. Apart from a few crates with bottles of sauces and alcohol, one mysterious corner is dominated by a tower of racks, each tier containing a tray loaded with individually separated bamboo segments sealed with wooden caps. The racks give off a strong nutty aroma that tickles your nose.

“You can put the basket here.” Larva points out a clear space by an empty shelf by the strange setup. After freeing yourself from the burden, you have to give your arms a good shaking. Doing hard labor on a day like this just isn’t right!

“Wonderful! So many yummy vegetables for the customers… and a large snack for me!” Mystia, appearing from behind, suddenly grabs Larva.

“Eeep!” The fairy yelps. You watch the reversal with satisfaction as the saloonkeeper playfully hugs Larva, lifting her above the ground, legs dangling. It only lasts a moment before Mystia lets her captive go.

“It’s always scary when you do that!” Larva complains.

“Sorry, I just get so peckish after practice, I can’t help it, hehe~.” Mystia adjusts her cap and slaps her apron clean of stray scales before studying you. “Wait, a new face? Who’s your helper?”

“I’m Cirno of Misty Lake!” You introduce yourself, straightening out your dress and standing up straighter. “Larva only got me to help because she tricked me!”

“Still, it’s kind of you to help Larva with her delivery. Not one of us can survive on canned stuff alone, much less cook with it,” Mystia replies.

“Cirno, you’re not done yet. The fruits have to go on the top while the vegetables go below,” Larva chips in with her instruction, before remembering something. “Oh yeah, Mystia, I’ve got the extra cucumbers you said you wanted.”

“Yes! I did request those, didn’t I? I’d better go get your payment.” Mystia goes back to the front as Larva helps you restock the shelf.

“So the fairies are your source of produce! That’s one mystery solved.” The girl with the pockets stands at the counter, wearing a dark green cap and now hefting that bulky backpack. It’s the absolute largest backpack you’ve ever seen, completely disproportionate compared to its bearer, and rivals her skirt for pocket count. What could require that much capacity?

“So, extra cucumbers, huh?” She continues.

“That’s right, Nitori. You were talking about cucumber recipes yesterday and I wanted to try a few of them out,“ Mystia explains.

“If that’s the case, I’ll have to bring the whole crew over for dinner then!” Nitori eagerly responds.

“You won’t be disappointed. Urumi also brought in a fresh catch this morning so tonight’s menu is bound to be great!”

“That sounds fantastic!” Nitori leans forward. “By the way, Mystia, have you considered my proposition?”

“P-proposition!?” Mystia blushes. “Did you ask me about something like that?”

“No, no!” Nitori defensively waves both her palms. “About me recording your singing, remember? We talked about it last night!”

Mystia takes a moment to think about it. “I only remember the cucumbers…oooh, right. I think I remember now. You said you had one of those mechanical Kyoukos!”

“Well, what do you think?”

“It does seem interesting, but I’ve heard that artificial echoes sound nothing like a real voice.”

“I admit, what you’ve said is perfectly true… of traditional phonographs,” Nitori responds, raising a finger. “But never underestimate the forward march of progress! My new soon-to-be-patent Kawashirophone offers unprecedented audio fidelity, mechanical reliability, and will be affordable to the common man, youkai, or even fairy!”

Takane interrupts with a loud groan. “It’s always some gadget or contraption with you. Just give it a break,” She says, annoyed. “I mean, what the hell is this ‘progress’ nonsense? People just want to enjoy some plain ol’ music, not a terrible sales pitch.”

No one else seems to be disturbed by the brewing argument, but you listen with interest. You’ve never been so close to so many loud and interesting youkai before.

“This has nothing to do with you,” Nitori replies.

“Maybe, but I can’t help but feel bad watching you trying to rope someone into another of your half-baked schemes.”

“I’m sorry you tree-dwellers can’t seem to understand, but today we live in the age of the technologists.” Nitori proudly proclaims. “Things are changing faster than a blink, I hope for your own good that you can keep up. My friends and I certainly will.”

“Some things will change but I can always bet on you amphibians coming up with the lousiest ideas,” Takane shoots back.

“Have you ever made anything?”

“Money.”

“I-,” Nitori sputters. “I’ll have that and more!”

“Maybe when something of yours blows up in the right way. But until then, you’ll take jobs from the damn tengu.” Takane drains the rest of her sake. “Which you’re slacking on.”

“That was literally only once! And the problem was a bolt on the boiler’s… whatever. The reason I’m up here is to check out some new equipment that arrived on today’s train,” Nitori replies, starting exasperated before becoming cool. ”Sure, working like this, not my preference, but the boss is hands-off and the job itself is pretty nice. Safe too, but you won’t know much about any of that.”

“...” Takane tenses and shrinks into her cloak. When she speaks, her voice is like cold iron. “Aw, just shut up.”

“Hmph. Someone clearly had a little too much to drink.” Nitori takes a breath to recover and picks up where she left off. “Mystia, sorry about that distraction. Look, you lose nothing by trying, right? Heck, you can treat the recording like your usual practice session and leave the rest to me!”

“I suppose it wouldn’t hurt. Sure, I’ll try it.” Mystia agrees.

“Great! I’ll bring the device by sometime later. We don’t have to set up anything, it's so easy to use!” Nitori regains her energy. “Another thing, do you know how to read sheet music?”

“Read? I’m not the best at it…”

“That’s not a problem, I’ll figure something out... oh, hello.” Nitori notices the two musicians approaching and turns to face them, “Um… we’ve never met, but you’re the Tsukumo sisters, right? How can I help...”

Having found what she was looking for, Mystia returns to you two. Your work is already finished and Larva hangs on to the empty basket.

“Larva, here you go.” Mystia places a small cloth bag in the basket. Her eyes perk up at the fully stocked pantry. “Oh, nice! Since you’ve brought a few lemons, let me make you an extra treat. Don’t worry, I’ll be quick!”

“Really!?” Larva turns to you. “Cirno, we can’t leave yet!”

You suppose you shall wait, given her infectious enthusiasm and your own growing curiosity at this promised treat. Mystia is already at work, putting out a few bowls and a juicer and is cutting the lemons. Larva goes to chat with her.

At the same time, you can’t help but notice that while Nitori stands talking excitedly with the two string players, her backpack is left open to attack.

Takane, still in the same spot, has set aside her emptied cup and with both wrists propping up her head, looks to be intense in thought. Her cloak had shifted during the spat, revealing what you vaguely recognize as a holster holding a gun!

[ ] Stay with Mystia and Larva
[ ] Check out Nitori’s backpack
[ ] Talk to Takane
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The ghost hungers for the bird, which desires the larva. So it goes.

On the one hand, the loot goblin inside me is screaming to ransack the Kappa's bag, but there is a shiny gun, though I would bet my left hand that our rowdy fairy doesn't know how to operate it properly.

[X] Talk to Takane

Give me yer thoughts, mountain desert person!
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> Stay with Mystia and Larva
This will allow us to learn more about these two characters and vice versa, which seems useful if we're looking for allies to eventually help us take down Remilia, at the cost of not widening our network as much.

> Check out Nitori’s backpack
This could net us some useful items, but it also seems like it risks starting a fight so soon after the one Cirno just lost, and it could jeopardise our relationships with the others as well. I kind of want to find out what Nitori and the Tsukumos are talking about, but that's not one of the options.

> Talk to Takane
Something's definitely bothering her, giving how she's sitting here being grumpy and drunk. I'm not sure what to expect, but it seems like an opportunity to learn information.

The first and third choices both seem tempting to me. For now I will go with:
[X] Stay with Mystia and Larva
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Hey everyone, there's a tie here that needs breaking! ;)
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[X] Stay with Mystia and Larva

Two is better than one!
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You observe Takane for a little bit, but there’s no chance for you to talk. She suddenly pushes off the counter, stool grinding against the floor, and stands up. She briefly glances at you while picking up a brown hat from the table, looking away to dust off its broad brim.

“Well, better get back to work before any more ‘irregularities’ happen.” Takane sighs. “And I’ll be out of your feathers.”

“Take care, Takane!” Mystia calls back.

Takane nods. Then she puts on her hat, sets a few coins down, and walks off with a slight totter, leaving the doors swinging as the glare swallows her.

The saloonkeeper reaches over and deftly grabs the money. You walk closer to where Mystia and Larva are, by the kitchen’s workbench.

When waiting at previous stations and in the train, you’d overheard plenty of worried snatches about “beastly outlaws” and disparaging comments on “useless rangers” and “greedy bounty hunters.” Not only is there seemingly way more action than back at the lake, the way they’re purported to fight seems to be different, shooting enhancing or even entirely favored over hands, fangs, and magic. Before Takane, you had only ever seen guns up close in pictures or distantly in the hands of hunters, but despite current problems and Dai’s warnings to be careful, a swirl of dramatic duels and flashy brawls seizes your imagination.

“Is Takane an outlaw?” You ask hushed, just to be safe. “She had a gun!”

“Huh? No, she’s just a trader. Being armed, that’s just how a lot of people are in these parts.” Mystia answers.

“Then do you have a gun too?”

“You don’t look like a troublemaker, but these are some odd questions.” She looks puzzled and even a little suspicious. With a loud thunk, Mystia chops through the final lemon.

“Woah, I didn’t mean anything!” You shrug. “Everything’s just… so different from home.”

“Cirno is very new around here.” Larva backs you up. “I actually found her outside the station before we came in!”

Mystia accepts the answer and relaxes. “Ah, I do get your feelings; I was surprised by the rowdiness at first too.” She lazily tosses a hand up. ” Well, everyone out here with more than a penny in their pocket has to protect themselves in some way. I’m no different, and I’ve got some tricks of my own.”

“And you’ve got Kyouko to back you up,” Larva looks around. “Though, I haven’t seen her recently.”

“Actually, she’s not here. She went to go find religion. For real!” Mystia giggles. “Apparently there’s this new temple that arrived up north that Kyouko got interested in, so she went to check it out.”

“But will you be fine handling the saloon by yourself?”

“Don’t worry about me, I still have what it takes to run a one-woman shop!” Mystia’s voice is cheery, but there’s a halfhearted tinge. “It’s only temporary. When business picks up again, she’ll return.”

With a firm grip and her strength, Mystia swiftly squeezes out the lemon halves with the juicer. The juice goes into a glass pitcher, where it is mixed with water and clear syrup from a couple of larger jugs.

“All done! Told you it would be quick.” She pours into two of the bamboo cups and hands them to you and Larva.

“Oh, wow! This is good!” You take a big gulp. It’s just lemonade in the end, but it’s well balanced between sour and sweet, with just enough pulp to carry the fresh citrus taste. It’s just missing something, however. “Too bad it’s not cold!”

“I have an icebox, but it’s a little expensive to keep filled. Guess it makes sense, you’d lose at least half of whatever ice shipped, if not more.” Mystia says.

“Well, that’s not a problem for me!” You dramatically raise your hand and point a finger downward at the cup. “Ha!”

At the push of your will, the drink’s temperature instantly drops and you can feel the coolness through the cup soon after. You also slightly overdid it, and the top layer actually freezes over in a thin crust of ice, but it also makes the effect more noticeable. It was more difficult than expected thanks to how warm and dry it is and you use the raised hand to discreetly wipe away a drop of sweat off your forehead while lowering it.

“Isn’t that convenient!” Mystia exclaims.

“Oooh! Can I have some too?” Larva eagerly begs.

“But of course!” You graciously chill her drink too, then continue slurping down your own.

Mystia looks into the pitcher, still over half-full. “There’s a lot left. You might as well take the rest of this back for the rest of your friends.”

“Really? I’ll make sure to bring the pitcher back next time.” Larva promises. “I’ve never had such a cold drink on a day this hot before! It’s the best!” She’s enjoying her drink at a measured pace. You raise the cup to your lips and keep tipping it up, but there’s nothing. It felt like just a couple of sips!

As Mystia accepts the empty cup, the other conversation in the place goes quiet: Nitori and the musicians must’ve finished their discussion.

“Whew, all this talk’s given me some great ideas and the day’s wasting away! Cya Mystia, don’t forget about that recording!” Skipping quite fast for having such a huge weight on her back, Nitori’s goodbye and the doors trail behind her.

You can’t figure out any resemblance, but the supposed sisters lag behind on the way out, holding their instrument cases and still chatting. The taller, lavender haired one speaks to the other. “To think that the beauty of traditional instruments like us might be able live on and be heard in every home… in a disc no larger than my forearm! Technology truly is wonderful.”

“But Benben, I’m still not sure about this stuff. There’s so many things that haven’t been thought over! Are we still the instruments in a recording or is it the device? Who owns the playing and gets the money?” The shorter brown haired one gestures wildly. “Are all inventors so damn shady?”

“Oh, Yatsuhashi, you always have good concerns, but you can’t take everything so seriously. We’re just exploring some possibilities. It was just exciting to hear Nitori talk.”

“The excitement of greed…” The other mutters.

“You two must be heading out as well.” Mystia calls out. “Thanks for helping with today’s practice!”

“Thanks for lunch!” Yatsuhashi responds.

“This practice is good for us as well.” Benben stops at the threshold. “Say, Mystia, have you spoken to any other musicians recently?”

“Can’t say I have.”

“Hmm, so they haven’t been expanding…” Benben goes on to explain. “A new group of players showed up at the Whale for the first time last night and they are unearthly good. We won’t be able to match their volume, but music is more than just loudness. There must be artistry above all else.”

“That’s right! We can’t lose to them!” Yatsuhashi smacks her fist in her palm. “They can bang bang and doot doot their way to hell!”

“That would explain what happened across the street last night. I’m pretty sure the building was shaking from the cacophony.” Mystia says, “but, that also might’ve been drunk kappa dancing into the walls here.”

“Still, it’s weird that such a strong bunch would come here.” Benben wonders aloud.

“It pisses me off. If they’re so good, why don’t they find a bigger town to play in and stop stealing from the little guys?”

“Hey now, you two play perfectly fine!” Mystia tries to calm down Yatsuhashi. “You guys will always be my first pick, at least. I’m pretty sure if they played in here, the roof would fall in. ”

“Thank you, Mystia. That means a lot to us.” Benben pushes open the door. “See you later.”

“Bye, Misty, fairies.”

Before you can shout that you have a name too, the sisters are already gone, leaving only you three in the room.

“The Tsukumos are the town’s usual musicians. I invite them as evening entertainment or to help me practice my singing.” Mystia explains as she pulls out a bucket and a rag. “But this many new faces in such a short while… I hope you can understand why I was worried about you earlier, Cirno. We’ve had a pretty bad turn of luck these past couple years. I’m sure some of the other townsfolk are on edge too.”

“What happened?” You have to ask. Mystia gathers the cups off the counter and places them in the basin. Then, after plopping down the soaked rag on the counter and sweeping, she answers.

“Well, it's kind of a string of unfortunate events, one leading to the other. We used to have some of the biggest gold mines in the country here, but those dried up. A lot of people left of course, and a few outlaws moved in. It was hard, but manageable.” She sighs. “Then the Beast Gangs showed up.”

“Beast Gangs?”

Mystia pauses her work and raises an eyebrow. “Really? You don’t know about the Beast Gangs?”

“They’re a bunch of wild animals?”

She lets out a brief laugh. “Pretty much, considering those masks they all wear. They’re the three oldest and biggest gangs of outlaws in the east. There’s Keiga, who’ll rob people of everything, clothes and even fillings, and strand them in the middle of the desert. Gouyoku, who they say owns most of the smuggling routes in this half of the continent.” She shudders. “And Kiketsu, who’ll ask businesses to pay protection fees, and if they refuse, their shop ‘mysteriously’ burns down.”

“These guys sound like bad news!”

“Yep. You asked about Takane earlier, but the Beast Gangs are the real deal. And now they’re using the hills around the town for their hideouts.” She continues cleaning. “The rangers have never been able to keep up and our own sheriff ran off. We still have a mayor. She’s usually useless, but this time she met with the gang heads and brokered a deal: no major violence or killing in the town limits, and they’re allowed to visit the town in peace. They surprisingly agreed so outside of the usual drunken brawls it’s been peaceful, but it’s more like the peace of being in a noose.”

“Dang...” You dwell on Mystia’s words. All the exciting action seems a lot less so from her telling.

“The Gangs scared off all the other bandits at first, but presently, it feels like there’s a whole new wave of rough folk coming in. It’s not fun, but hopefully they move on soon, like they always have” Mystia looks up at you to ask her own question. “So, now that you know more about our beautiful Sage Springs, what brings a fairy like you here anyways?”

“Yeah! I’d like to know too!” Larva chimes in.

And so it all comes back to the root of the issue. Being in this town specifically was the outcome of a simple slip up, but thinking about it, the entire journey was probably one big mistake.

“Well… I’m just…” You attempt to start, but nothing is able to follow. There’s no real point in being secretive anymore, but everything that’s happened: the planning and preparations, the dual wonder and befuddlement of the journey, the wrong turn, and then just this morning, that vampire, your total failure leaving you stranded hundreds of miles from home, it all seems so pointless, so wasteful. How do you explain any of that?

You decide to not. “I’m just passing through.”

Mystia nods with understanding, but Larva keeps pressing you. “That’s it? Where’re you headed then?”

“Private business.” You cross your arms.

“Come on, you can trust us.”

“Sorry, can’t tell you.” Because you don’t know.

“Why?” Larva approaches a little closer. “If you’re in trouble, maybe we could help you out!”

“You wouldn’t say that if you actually knew my problems! I can’t even help myself!” You shout. It’s not as if a certain fluttery distraction was one of the reasons why you still have no clue what to do next. You have to manually unclench your fists.

Larva opens her mouth to keep going, but Mystia cuts in.

“Larva, I know you’re trying to help, but I think it’s better to respect that Cirno isn't comfortable sharing right now.”

“Okay,” Larva backs off, and you feel a little guilty that she looks genuinely concerned rather than just nosey.

Mystia says nothing else as she finishes cleaning the counter. After the final corner is swept, she throws the rag into the bucket and wipes her forehead on her sleeve.

“I’ve had a lot of people come through the Ballad, less nowadays, but seeing everyone, listening to them, it gives a picture of a world that can be pretty rough.” Mystia looks down in the bucket as she swirls it around, then focuses back on you. “I don’t know your troubles and I won’t pry, but if it’s about something important, and I’m sure it is, remind yourself of that, that you can’t afford to give up.” She puts the bucket down. “And if there’s a setback, we just have to try again, even if we need a break.”

You take in Mystia’s words. That vampire has never seemed more invincible, and you’re just not sure what you could possibly try, but she’s right that Dai and the others are still counting on you. “Thanks, Mystia. That does help. Sorry for snapping at you, Larva.” If only you had an idea for a plan, a next step to take.

Mystia coughs before clapping twice. “Also, if you’re going to be out here, you’ll need to dress to fit in.” She bends over and, from under a cubby the counter, slides out an open topped wooden box, Lost and Found messily scribbled on the side. You peek over, seeing mostly old clothes and small bits of junk, but also weirder things, like a lonely single-tooth sandal, two halves of a formerly cute otter mask, a decorated cavalry saber, and a gold ring with a large diamond on it.

“People have got to seriously stop forgetting their stuff, but I guess I’m the worst one to be saying anything on that.” She shuffles through the jumble and tugs out a straw hat. She brushes it off before handing it to you. “Sorry about the style, but it’s the smallest I have. I hope it’s small enough. ”

It looks like a pretty ordinary straw hat and you’ve seen quite a few like it, but the weave is fine and the crown is ringed by an exquisite blue ribbon.

You try it on. After retying the ribbon, it fits comfortably.

Mystia places a small mirror on the counter. Peering into it, past the slightly scratched surface, your face beams back out, shaded by the orange brim. You are reminded of a recent station stop where you saw a group of similar hats through the window, big tough guys with the shovels and hammers who were smashing down a wall. You like it!

“Woah! It fits!” You try out a few poses. A couple of straight on hard stares. A quarter turn and upwards tilt, very contemplative! Some dignified profile views, eyes straining at the corner to keep sight of the mirror.

“It looks good!” Larva gives a thumbs up.

“Yeah, it does!”

“Perfect, then it’s yours!” Mystia says. “Okay, cleaning is done… oh right, got to check up on my sake!”

“We’ll be going then.” Larva puts the pitcher with the lemonade, now safely capped, into the basket alongside the little bag. She picks the whole thing up. You’re excited to leave too, not just to test out your new equipment, but also to find a place to sit and think about the future with a cooler mind.

“Um… that’s not right?!”

You are close to the door, Larva behind you, but you both turn around at the disturbance.

“What’s wrong Mystia?” Larva asks.

“Ah… I probably jinxed myself.” Mystia slides out nearly every shelf under the counter in rapid succession. She groans, then smacks the top of her head a few times. “I’ve misplaced my notebook! It has all my recipes in it!”

She then starts going through the kitchen cabinets.

“Where could it be… I remember leaving it in the usual place, but clearly I didn’t!”

“Want some help?” You ask.

“Nah, it’s on me. It’ll be somewhere silly, I know it. You two go on.” She shakes her head and shoos you both out.

###

Outside, you both lean against the wall of the place next door. The sun is even more intense, but the combined shade of your new hat and the building’s awning works to keep the light off. The store’s sign is blank, however, and its windows are blocked out by boards.

“Mystia’s memory can be pretty bad, but she uses a notebook to keep track of everything. I don’t think she’s ever forgotten the notebook before, since she’s usually so careful about it.” Larva ponders. “I guess there’s a first time for everything.” She turns to you. “Hey, do you want to come with me to our base?”

Even if you end up deciding to go home right away, and even if the station lady’s offer still stands, the train wouldn’t be ready until nightfall. You have some time to burn. “Okay! But can we explore the town first?” It’s best to make the most of your visit here, no matter how brief, and maybe learn something new.

“It’ll keep getting hotter and hotter until the sun sets, so we’ll want to be back before afternoon, but I think we can visit one area. Where do you want to go?”

[ ] Let’s check out the other stores!
[ ] What are those giant chimneys over there for?
[ ] The town hall!
[ ] Are those holes up there the gold mines?
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>a gold ring with a large diamond on it
I'll bet you someone is mad about that going missing.

>The Gangs scared off all the other bandits at first, but presently, it feels like there’s a whole new wave of rough folk coming in. It’s not fun, but hopefully they move on soon, like they always have
I will venture a guess and say that is probably what the Red-White Ranger, Ordinary Bounty Hunter, and the Half-Phantom Ranger would've been here for.

>I don’t think she’s ever forgotten the notebook before, since she’s usually so careful about it.
Hm.

[X] The town hall!

I am very curious about who this useless mayor will be. Also, it is an opportunity to see the face of the system. However, I do wonder if it will spark any memories of Seija. Wait, Cirno would be walking into a town hall with a bomb in her pocket.
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All of these options have potential, but I agree with the poster above that it will be interesting to know who the mayor is, there is not really a close analogue to that in canon. The town being named "Sage Springs" suggests it could be one of the sages, but I think Yukari might have been featured elsewhere ("purple lady" who gave Cirno incorrect directions at an earlier station) and Kasen and Okina both seem too reclusive in their own ways to be mayors. Maybe it's Miko, given how she wanted to become a leader of the Human Village in canon?

[X] The town hall!

Also, unrelated to the choice, I have some ideas about who the original owners of the lost items could have been.
> a lonely single-tooth sandal
One of the crow tengu.
> two halves of a formerly cute otter mask
Someone from the Kiketsu gang, who possibly met a bad end.
> a decorated cavalry saber
Momiji or Youmu.
> a gold ring with a large diamond on it
I think Jo'on is the only 2hu shown wearing rings?
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Also:
> I don’t think she’s ever forgotten the notebook before, since she’s usually so careful about it.

This definitely hints that it has been stolen, but it is not obvious to me who would have done so – none of Nitori, Takane or the Tsukumos seem to me the type to steal something like this.
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>>68876
Yeah, those in the bar don't seem like the type. However, if we keep assuming that the character who stole the notebook is named, what are the chances it would be a fairy causing mischief or, say, a trio?
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[X] The town hall!

“Let's go see the town hall!”

“Eh?” Larva is taken aback. “Why there?”

“It’s the biggest, fanciest place in town!” You answer incredulously, waving towards the sharp rooftop in question. “It’s gotta be a place of importance!”

“Yes, but while it might be one of the bigger buildings, it’s actually super boring.” At your continued confusion, Larva explains: “The place is practically falling apart and there's nothing else to do nearby. There isn’t even a good view from the hill. Instead, if you want to see something really exciting, why not the new mill? There’s always loud noises and black smoke coming from there.”

“Even if anything in this town can compare with stuff back home, It’s not like I’m here on an architecture tour! Look, what I meant was, mayors live in town halls right? And mayors are bigshots right? I could use the help of a mayor!” Perhaps talking to some authority could help sort out your business with Whiterock Mountain.

Larva shakes her head. “Mystia wasn’t lying about the mayor being useless. She doesn’t come out at all, basically.”

“We’ll try dragging her out. C’mon, to the mayor!” Your destination is visible on that hill just down the street, so you push off the wall and trot forward.

“But… awwww, fine.” Larva gives in and after grabbing her stuff, scampers to catch up to you.

It’s too bad the hat can’t do much about the inherent temperature of the air, but at least it’s dry unlike muggy midsummer weather back home. The straw brim does make it much easier to see though, letting you better appreciate how abandoned the town is away from the tracks. It’s as if all the people had simply evaporated, leaving behind tables still bearing dusty tea sets, buckets and brooms balanced on railings, and faded advertisements flapping on darkened storefronts. Even without glare dazzling your eyes though, the windows of the empty shells remain inscrutable voids exposed through broken glass. You wish the rest of your friends could be here, this street would be stupendous for hide and seek with plenty of interesting chases through narrow alleys and over connected rooftops.

At the very end of the street, you arrive at gradual steps of white stone embedded into the dirt. They head straight and slightly upwards to the dark mass of the town hall, the overall form reminiscent of a giant shrine. From the base of the hill, your first impression of the building is one of awe: the sun peeking over the roof, its light dripping down through the shingles and cloaking the front in shadow. One step forward, though, and the illusion is killed instantly. Within the building’s shadow, all the details of neglect stand out, from unwashed windows and missing shutters to peeling paint and cracked plaster. There's a hint that the entire structure is drooping inward, as if deflating.

“Let’s climb!” You motivate yourself forward, giving the first step a good stomp.

“Yup. Right behind you.” Larva huffs from behind her basket.

At the top, the hill flattens out and before the actual hall, there’s something of a square. Clusters of succulents and cacti inhabit stone-lined plots at the edges, but even these hardy desert plants look like they could use some love on top of a generous serving of water.

You stop at the front door. It is one ornate double set of wood, carved with curvy symbols that you don’t recognize along with a variety of icons and imagery. Standing out in the busy scene are lots of stars and lots of flames, and even several dancing figures. There’s no knob or handle on the outside, which is odd.

“Here we go!” You deliver a strong triplet of knocks on the old door. You swear each impact frees a puff of sand.

As you wait in silence, you give the building another look over. While shoddy, it all together retains a simplistic dignity, much unlike the flamboyant and grotesque decoration of a certain scarlet mansion. You take a glance back to notice Larva hanging back quite a bit. Does she know something you don’t?

“What’s wrong?” you ask as you pull your arm back for another try.

The fluttering winged fairy opens her mouth, but it’s not her voice you hear next.

“Coming! I’m coming!" says a muffled boyish voice. A series of growing stomps can be heard from behind the door before one half of it jerks inward.

“Wel…come?” A girl emerges from the split, dressed in a green skirt and apron with a black cap. She looks around head level before blinking twice and then finally looking down in surprise, between you and Larva.

“Are you the mayor?”

“Nah, I just work for her.” The girl widens the door and stands straight at attention. “Fairies, huh? Well, if y’all have what it takes I guess… If so, come right in!” Her right arm signals entry. A relaxing breeze of unnaturally cool air is released as well, which you relish.

You feel like you’re missing some critical context, but if your greeter is so excited to open the door you might as well enter. However, Larva must’ve gotten closer since her grip on your shoulder prevents you from moving further. You spin around to protest, but she’s focused on the stranger.

“Hold on, we have ‘what it takes’ for what exactly?” Larva asks.

“The sheriff opening of course!” She claps her hands.

A second voice rings out, “Mai, who's out there?”

“Job applicants!” Mai shouts back.

“Really? I’m coming over!”

You shake off Larva’s hand, but only take the opportunity to peek within. The inside of the place seems just as disused as the outside. There’s nothing but an unlit lounge filled with dusty furniture and a central staircase heading up. A splash of vibrant magenta lights up the gray room as the second stranger makes her appearance from the top of the stairs.

“Oh, Mai. It’s just a fairy.” She says, walking up to her apparent partner. Her outfit is the same as Mai’s, just with a magenta dress instead of green.

“Yeah, but Satono, Master didn’t specify any restrictions for the job.”

“Sure, but you still–ah.” The one called Satono stands before you, her gaze lingering on Larva before continuing to you. “You still have to make sure the job is what our visitors are even here for in the first place.” She bows forward lightly. “So, Miss fairy, what brings you to the offices of our town’s beloved Mayor this afternoon?”

You take the chance to make your case. “I don’t know about any job, but I’d like to see the mayor since I have this emergen-”

Satono cuts you off with her cloyingly polite voice. “Sure! I think I understand, but unfortunately due to urgent matters our mayor is not taking any regular visitors right now. No appointments either. Again, our sincere apologies for any inconvenience and please have a wonderful rest of your day!”

Mai steps inside and, with an apologetic smile, waves to you as Satono shuts the door. It is locked with a subdued click, once again leaving the two of you staring up at the door in silence. You remember to close your mouth and drop your unfinished gestures.

“Wow, what the heck was that?” you manage to sputter.

“See! I told you there’s nothing fun here,” Larva says, but she looks more relieved than indignant. “Goodness, isn’t it depressingly hot right now. Let's get out of here.”

You give the door a couple of kicks, but there’s no response. Damn, guess this quarter isn’t going to be much help at all. The rejection as a whole was so sudden that you simply go along with Larva, even holding onto the jug of lemonade when prompted.

“We have a secret base, but it’s not in the town. Just follow me!” she says.

Circling around the building gives a view of the other half of the town. There is no more big street, just a loose grid of smaller houses and fenced yards all the way until the rougher mountain slopes. Larva’s route zigzags through the scattered neighborhood, heading towards the town’s stream.

This section looks abandoned as well, nothing moving between uninhabited shacks and piles of crates. You note with curiosity the partially finished fields and occasional stacks of clay pipes. Some real dummies thought they could farm anything out here in the desert. You kick through a bunch of leafy weeds in your way.

After reaching the stream and splashing around in refreshingly clear water. Larva fills you in about the other areas of town and its surroundings. She talks about how the trail you’re currently following branches out to the various mines that dot the surrounding hills, about the section of town facing the tracks that remains lively at night, and the fancy new buildings that have been raised recently. She doesn’t share very much about herself, however.

Chat with Eternity about:

[ ] “Why are you here?”
[ ] “Why do you give stuff to Mystia?”
[ ] “Let’s compare our powers!”
[ ] Nothing specific
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[X] “Why are you here?”
What makes a Larva go east? Fame and fortune? Saving fellow fairies? Revolution?

So Okina is mayor. Wonder what makes her mayorship so reticent. The job offer for being sheriff seems sketchy if even fairies would be considered. If I had to guess, it probably would have to do with the gangs.

I didn’t expect to see this story update, but I'm pleasantly surprised.
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[X] “Let’s compare our powers!”

Only the strongest of segues into the strongest of topics.
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[X] “Why are you here?”
([X] “Let’s compare our powers!”)

“Hm?” Larva had just finished talking about abandoned ruins that could be found around these mountains. Having continued following her onward, you find yourself also marching upwards and downwards as the trail snakes between brown hillsides, rising mountaintops peeking over. While many routes seem to branch off, Larva ignores them and you two continue along the stream. A lush belt of green foliage and the occasional thin gray trunk crowd the precious water, a liquid staircase gurgling over rounded boulders.

It’s all very impressive and quite new, and it might even be enjoyable had the weather been cooler and if the gravel underfoot were as forgiving as soil or pavers. However, seeing how cheerful and unbothered Larva is, you march on, trying to ignore your chafing shoes or the stiffness in your arms, still wrapped around the sloshing jug.

“Why I'm here? That's a good question, but it would be my private business, wouldn’t it?” She responds with a cheeky smile.

“Oh c’mon, that’s not fair!”

“Well, if you really want to know, then how about we make a deal? A secret for a secret. Your reason for coming here in exchange for mine.”

“Lemme think about it first.”

Further from town, curious cairns had started to mark the edge of the trail, each regularly spaced such that at least one is visible anywhere from the path. impressively stable for their height. You kick over one of the stacks, scattering rocks through the grass. There’s no security reason in keeping anything about the ruined plan secret anymore, but you’d hate to openly admit that the vampire’s gotten the better of you once again.

“I just don’t really understand your objections. As fellow fairies, shouldn’t we trust each other more?” She pouts.

You must admit she has a point. That station lady pretty much knows already and if you had gotten access to the mayor, you would’ve had to explain yourself there too. And if she mocks you, well, there’s a hefty pitcher in your hands already. And just maybe she really could help, or know someone else who can.

“Fine then! But you gotta go first.” You bet your backstory is more dramatic.

“You’re the one asking so I think you should share first.”

This goes on for some time.

While thinking of a rebuttal, an idea strikes you. You stop and place down the jug while Eternity walks further ahead. She finally notices and turns around, leaving a healthy distance between you two, puzzled as you shake out your arms.

Pointing at her, you make your announcement. “Then let’s decide this way! I challenge you to a duel! Surrender and you quack first!”

“Oh?” Larva sets down her basket. “So that’s how we’re going to settle this?”

“That’s right! I’ve got to get you back for earlier too!” You take a wide stance. Humidity: low, but workable. Temperature: way too high, but it won’t be a problem if you end this quick enough.

“No apologies when you lose!” Larva positions herself as well.

You stand staring at each other. Simultaneously you both yell out “Start!”.

Putting your hands together, palms out, you immediately launch your first strike, a single pale blue snowball. Spinning in the air, it takes on a flattened shape. Yet Larva effectively mirrors, somehow projecting a ruddy flickering ball of energy right at you.

You flinch back as the projectiles collide and explode, throwing water droplets into the air. That was unexpected; fairies usually can’t use magic consciously like magicians, and yet that looked disturbingly like the bolts that the vampire’s book friend could cast, albeit much weaker.

“Is this it?” Larva taunts. That gets you back in it.

Magic or not, if she wants to play with you at range, then you can answer. Drawing water from the already parched air is sluggish, but with force, an array of icicles crystallizes out of the frosty mist in front of you, four dozen in all. You grin seeing your opponent’s expression.

“This is it!” With a snap of the fingers, they flick outward in a burst

“Yeep! Ow, ow!” Larva actually manages to dance out of most of it, landing on her belly, but a few hit directly and she is forced to deflect one icicle with her hand, which she presses against the ground. Hah, she must not be used to true cold. She shivers while you both recover.

Your next volleys of ice are much smaller, but it’s still enough to overwhelm her slow pace of return fire. But when you get distracted by a stray bullet, she sprints forward and, with help from her giant wings, pushes off the ground to tackle you. Evidently, she must've had enough of getting pelted.

[ ] Last time was a fluke! Meet her with pure strength!
[ ] Welcome her with some frost armor!
[ ] Just back up and keep shooting.
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[X] Welcome her with some frost armor!
Cannonball Cirno. Make Larva slam into some ice!
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[X] Welcome her with some frost armor!
Yeah, it seems like a good idea to make use of Cirno's unique abilities.
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[X] Welcome her with some frost armor!

She’s coming at you fast, but you’re going to stand your ground. Again you chill the air, but rather than focusing it into a dense projectile, you instead wrap it around yourself. A layer of frost forms on your clothes and limbs, which you then build up, letting the crystals grow and attach in cross-linked patterns.

Then Larva slams into you. Your unfinished chest piece is too thin and gives way with a snap, but it’s enough to halt the attack.

Larva yelps in shock. “What the heck? T-this is way too cold!”
“Should’ve kept your distance, then!” She tries to push off of you, and as your armor reinforces, the temperature around you drops further. Ice gathers on your opponent’s clothes. She’s gotta give up soon!

Eternity’s struggles seem to intensify, and you prepare yourself for whatever last ditch move she can make. But you don’t expect her wings to glow before she rockets herself forward, knocking you over. Refusing to let her escape, you grab on, only to be dragged over the ground, crash through plants, and have water sprayed over your face. You finally feel her slip away before you splash into the stream, your armored back crunching on the stones beneath the water.

Dazed, you rest there for a moment. The coldness of the water around you feels nice, but you still need to finish this scrap!

“Neat trick! But don’t expect it to work–huh?” You try to get up, but can’t move at all! Your former protection has done its job too well, turning into an icy tomb rapidly claiming the surrounding water. You cut the cold, but it’s already too late; everything except your head and extremities are pinned down and frozen to the bottom of the stream.

Panting, Eternity appears above you, brushing off dust and snow from her dress. You wiggle your hands uselessly when she crouches down. “Well, well, look who's stuck now.”

“Damn-ack!” You cough out water that splashes in your mouth. “Did you plan this?”

“I just needed to get away. It’s your fault you didn’t let go.” She points a finger down at you, a spark of light at the tip. “So, surrender?”

“Alright, fine. I yield,” you growl. “Now help me out of here.”

Between the hot sun and Larva smashing away with a rock, you are eventually freed. Left behind are the remains of the tiny iceberg and a fairy-shaped indent, slowly melting into the sparkling stream. After getting your things, you two are again on the move.

“Sooo~, I won!” Eternity says after a little bit. She starts poking you on the shoulder. “C’mon, let’s hear it.”

You sigh. “Alright, fine.”

Talking while walking, the trail forks, one branch swerving away from the brook, leading to where Larva says is the town’s remaining active mine. She instead follows the route that continues along the water, a spindly path almost entirely consumed by nature. But even when your ankles are tickled by overgrown grasses, those cairns remain, nestled in little clearings.

You start with your friends and your home, the Misty Lake, and its transformation from paradise to choking factory town. You share with her the architect of your woes, an invincible vampire and your failed attempts to drive her off. How left with no choice but exodus, you set off to stake your claim at Whiterock Mountain. And how just today, coincided with your blunder, you had been slapped with the worst news about its conquest by that same vampire.

“And that’s when you showed up,” you conclude.

“Wow…” Larva lowers her head. “When I first saw you then, I’ve never seen another fairy look so serious before. You have a good reason to be upset.”

“I’m not upset! I just can’t stand thinking about that vampire’s smug face!” You take a deep breath at Larva’s worried expression. “Okay, I might be a little upset, but it’s not fair how she can do whatever she wants and get away with it!”

“Powerful people are so scary.” She said, “But! I’m sure if we work together, we can figure something out.”

“Really? How?”

“First off, you’re trying to escape to a new place right? But does it have to be Whiterock Mountain?”

“Not really…”

“There has to be other land that’s available, then.”

“I guess, but Whiterock Mountain was special since they said it was supposed to be free if you worked on it.” You unfold and show Larva the illustrated pamphlet.

“Oh, I see… wait, land normally costs money?”

“Apparently!” It had been a surprise to you as well. Give it to the humans to complicate something as simple as finding a place to live.

“Hmm… that’s tricky. So the vampire just bought it all, anyways. How much is a million anyways?”

“One million has six zeros after the 1.”

“What does that mean?” She looks confused.

“Uh, well… it’s like a thousand, but twice? No, wait, it’s a thousand thousands… yeah!” At Larva’s continued incomprehension, you try a visual approach. “You know a thousand at least, right? Think of a thousand apples, all piled up.” You stretch your arms out wide. “Then think of a thousand of such piles.”

“And if it’s dollar coins instead of apples…” Eternity’s eyes widen as she understands. “That’s a lot of money…”

“Yeah, too bad I have none! So even if I wanted to buy land somewhere else, it wouldn’t work.”

“But Cirno, then we just need to get some money!”

“Fairy jobs don’t pay in money though, just food, wine, and uniforms. ‘Course, that’s just what the maids have told me.”

“I’m pretty sure the jobs here pay in money…” She thinks for a while. “Why don’t you stay and find a job in the town? You could earn enough to buy some different land, and since we’re immortal, if you just keep working, you can get any number of millions eventually!”

“That’s right…” It’s not a bad idea, really.

Trudging alongside the main creek, you’ve already encountered several feeder streams pouring out from ravines and crossing the trail, but at one marked by a black boulder with faint chromatic steaks, Larva makes a turn. The stony slopes seem to constrict around the trickle of water, which you have to follow closely given the lack of any formal pathway.

“Anyways!” you change the subject. You can’t forget that Larva owes you some of her history. “You’re a decently strong fairy too, so tell me, what are you doing out here?”

“Ah…” Larva looks away and drums her fingers on the basket. “It’s kind of complicated. How do I explain this?”

“Hey, better not be wiggling out of this.”

“Don’t you worry,” she says. “Did you know I actually was a serious troublemaker back then?”

“What? No way!” You would’ve even called Larva way too friendly with non-fairies, feeding people instead of messing with them.

“Oh yes!” Her voice gains strength as she describes to you how she had joined up with a gang of bandit magicians. Throughout their misadventures, they would use magic to both steal from various places without alerting the authorities. She would learn some magic trickery, the source of her weird powers, though she was brief about any cool loot or the identity of her compatriots.

“We got caught in the end, but I’m a fairy so I guess I got off easy. I had enough action so I settled here since the people are super nice and there are even a few fairies already living here. In fact, you’ll meet some of them soon!”

###

The path terminates at a steep face of striped stone. It covers you with shadow and pouring down the middle from its great height is a thin waterfall that splashes into the stream.

“Our base is just over that cliff,” Eternity says. With only a few spiny plants gripping the rock and ledges too far apart, the wall would be nearly impossible to scale… unless you were a fairy. By channeling some power through your wings you could either “lighten” yourself to float and glide, or boost yourself to reach a rooftop in a single bound, or like Larva did to rush forward earlier. Only an envied few had true flight though.

Larva pins the basket under one arm, freeing the other. Taking off at a run, she leaps up and, defying gravity, manages to land on her two feet onto a lower outcrop of the cliffside. Turning around, she calls down to you, “I kinda wanted to race you, but we have all this stuff to carry. Here, I’ll help.”

“No need!” You jump and propel yourself up to the same ledge, landing smoothly. You’ve got plenty of practice scaling up trees and buildings. Still, there’s quite some more cliff to climb and your head is pounding a little from the exertion by the time you crest the top, back into the light.

You are rewarded, though, with the sight of real forest-worthy trees: tough, gnarled oaks forming a proper grove. The source of the waterfall must be hidden behind the woods for its upstream flow emerges from between the trunks, stepping over worn rocks before reaching the descent. The entire oasis with its dense green canopy contrasts against the banded rock faces that cradle it. Larva waves you under the leaves, bringing you to a shady clearing beneath the trees.

“Welcome to our meeting area!” She drops her basket by the broad, flat sandstone boulder in the center. “You can leave the jug on the table.”

“Finally!” You leave it next to a cluster of mismatched cups. ”So, this is the base?”

“Technically the whole plateau is ours. The others are off on their own business, but they’ll usually come back closer to dinner time. Feel free to check out whatever until then.”

A ton of old stuff is scattered at the edge of the clearing, barrels and crates, a wardrobe on its side, a wagon, with even smaller items stacked up on top. You notice in particular a collection of farming tools set aside from the rest. Shovels, spades, and plows, either old beaten iron, or shifty constructions of sticks and stones, all lean on a crude rack.

“Whew!” Larva splashes water on her face from a bucket balanced on an upraised root. “Hot days should be invigorating, but too much can tire even me out. I guess you don’t have to worry about that.”

“It’s worse for me! It’s due to some difference in temperature or something.” You gesture at the tools. “So, what’s up with these?”

Larva looks around. “We should have some time, so why don’t I show you what they’re for?”

She navigates deeper in where you pass by the heart of the oasis, a spring of clean fresh water. This natural well is partially sunk in the mountainside from where water, bubbling up from below, ripples up and out through the stream. Closer, the pool’s crystal surface exposes its true depth, a blue tunnel descending into inscrutable darkness.

Around the pool and past a few more trees, you enter another clearing, large enough such that the ground is open to the sky. Within, jumbled sprouts and young vegetables fill a lush garden, all growing under the flowering branches of fruit trees.

“Here we are!” Larva says, stretching her arms out. “This is the little farm where all our crops come from.”

The garden is a rich green sight, but there are some odd things that stick out. On one tomato plant, fruit from each stem are at different stages of readiness, and close by, lettuce sprouts grow side by side with fully mature heads. Above, bees forage from blossoms on branches shared by plump apples. Every crop you can see has some imbalanced development.

“What’s with all the weird growth?” you ask.

“That’s just the power of us fairies at work!” she answers. “We need to speed up growth since it’s the only way we can harvest anything outside the normal seasons. It’s not good for the plants and takes a lot of energy, so we limit it to just certain parts of each plant and rotate over time.”

“But why give the food to the people in town?”

“By trading, we can get nice things like candy, cool items, and liquor.”

“Ohhh! I get it!” It’s the first time you’ve heard of any other organized efforts by fairies that aren’t prank related, and so far outside the Misty Lake to boot. It makes you wonder how many other interesting things are happening in the world.

Larva continues to show you around. The deepening afternoon gives the garden a hint of gold, but under the protection of the shade, the air is calm while the light rustle of the leaves is almost enough to fall asleep to. Yet you continue to talk and listen about her great project, her enthusiasm and leadership evident throughout. She shares the normal farming skills they still learned, pranks pulled by mischievous desert fairies, and while showing off the recently established patch of cucumbers, even surveys you about what future crop to try planting. You thoroughly recommend watermelons, a tasty feast whenever one could be stolen from the market back home.

###

Done with the tour and back at the meeting area, you find the table much more crowded. Old wood, smaller stones, and the dirt itself serve as chairs for a whole bunch of strange fairies sitting around the stone table. The table looks like it had a salad dumped on it, mixing items from the garden, completely unfamiliar spiky fruits, and various wild plants.

“There you are! We’ve been waiting for you to start dinner!” A fairy with pink hair speaks up. She’s wearing a maroon dress and has curvy wings trimmed with gold, strikingly similar to Dai’s wings. She notices you when you step up next to Larva. “Wait, who are you?”

“Sorry, Aka. I’ve been showing Cirno around. She’s a newcomer!”

“Hello everyone! I’m Cirno, the strongest fairy of Misty Lake!” You introduce yourself.

And with that, dinner starts as you both answer and send out eager questions. Larva opens up the bag from Mystia to reveal lumps of raw sugar, received with as much acclaim as the chilled
lemonade you again demonstrate.

Of the new faces, there are:

Aka, excitable and active, who spoke first.

Ao, her milder friend, with blue hair and dress, again with similar wings to Dai. They must be greater fairies too then, physically taller and stronger than usual.

Helia, fiery haired, holds a double headed sunflower as tall as herself. From it she can shoot pale yellow magical bolts strong enough to send an empty tin can spinning off a box.

Puff, blending into the desert with her ghostly grays and brown, is an avid bowler. She follows up on Helia’s show by targeting an empty bottle that had been sitting next to the can. Puff rolls a tumbleweed that bounces off the ground to cleanly take out the bottle before its skillful trajectory returns it to her hand.

Saguara, green haired, has a thorny club topped with a round white flower. She shows you how to open up the strange fruit gathered from the cacti that live in the valley basin, getting at the brilliant and sweet crimson flesh within.

Lily, apparently a traveler as well, tells you of her quest to experience and study spring in all the different parts of the world. She’ll be staying until winter, when she’ll move on again.

“To celebrate this occasion, I’ve come up with a new poem!” She announces to a couple of groans, putting on her cap back on.

“Ants bring crumbs below
Friends gather joy above
Spring is here!”

There is scattered clapping, which you join in. Aka boos before receiving an apple core to the head.

While the dinner turned party continues, Larva takes you aside. “It’s impossible to get everyone gathered, but this is still a pretty decent turn out! What do you think?”

“This is great! You guys really know how to make someone feel welcomed,” you say before hesitating. “But, um, about earlier… I’m sorry for being such a downer.”

“No, no!” She chuckles. “You’ve heard our Miss Lily: we’re officially friends now, so forget the past! There’s a whole future to worry about, right?”

“Thanks, you’re right,” you say with gratitude. After such a bizarre time in the world of humans and youkai, there’s nothing more reassuring than the company of fellow fairies.

But while you’re having a good time, your friends back home remain in trouble. It’s time to get back to business.

“Hey, going back to that job idea, what kind of work can a fairy do?” you ask Larva.

“Is there anything you particularly want to do?” she answers.

The vampire comes to mind again. She has everything: cash, power, and powerful friends. But out here, free from her direct interference, this job thing would be a good opportunity to train, to meet and exceed her at least one of those traits.

[ ] The strongest job!
[ ] The richest job!
[ ] The charismatic-est job!
[ ] Nah, anything!
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[X] The charismatic-est job!

Money and Charm allow for the outsourcing of strength, so the first option's a no go. While getting paid the really big bucks is good, trained charisma is a very useful tool in just about any scenario. There's all the time in the world to become rich.
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[X] The charismatic-est job!
I agree with the anon above me, charisma is a better investment in the long term, rather than immediate money.

Really fun story so far! Neat cameo from Dai's pink and blue friends from VFiS in this chapter.
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[X] The charismatic-est job!

“I want a job that will make me charismatic!“ you decide. It’s the best way forward since having more friends will help you with everything else! And it would be fantastic to see Scarlet cower on the day you return with an army of superior allies.

“Is that really something you can do in a job?” Larva thinks on it. “I guess it would have something to do with working well with lots of people. If so, I’d say see if one of the saloons could use some help!”

“Hmmm. Do you know about anything else?” It’s interesting for sure, but is it enough?

“Honestly, I thought of that first since they’re the ones I interact with the most in town. But the others might have more ideas.”

And so you return to the table to pose the question to the group. By now, dinner is winding down and you are able to capture everyone’s attention.

“Charisma? What is that?” someone asks.

“Ah, charisma! A gift to capture the hearts of others, to tie their fate to yours! A wonderful, yet ambiguous goal.” Lily states. “One person that comes to my mind is the new boss of the mining company, a tengu lady. She’s very well liked by the miners, an unusual state of affairs from what I’ve seen elsewhere.”

“I’ve seen her before!” Aka jumps in. “Ao and I were searching for pretty rocks by the mines and she was talking with a crowd. She’s really tall and super noble. But I don’t know about working for her.”

“She sounds important as heck,” you say. “It’d be hard to get close, I think.”

“If you want some smaller jobs, you could try that blue haired kappa who lives under the water tower by the tracks. She’s really smart! I could listen to her talk about gadgets all day!”

“If the kappa has blue-hair, it must be Nitori,” says Larva, “but is she really charismatic?”

“Have you heard her pitches? If I could afford it, I’d have instantly bought that steam-powered rocketpack we were testing! A personal transportation revolution is coming, I tell you.”

“Please don’t remind me of that thing.” Ao shudders. “Just a warning, Cirno, Nitori’s jobs… aren’t the safest.”

“Wait, what? Of course experimental technology comes with risks!”

“Did our parachutes have to be experimental as well?”

“That was fun!”

The two continued to bicker as Saguara leans forward.

“Umm! I think of someone,” she says. “I sometimes bring the town doctor ingredients for medicine and he’s so kind and gentle. About a month ago, I found a little bird with a broken wing. I was afraid it would die without help, yet the town doctor took her in. Just last week, we let the bird go, and she could fly as good as before! I know his patients really like him too.”

“Indeed, true kindness is respectable and admired anywhere,” Lily says.

You thank everyone for their ideas. Slowly people drip away, off to rest or to some late-day mischief.

You’ve gotten a lot of possible answers, but you also recall those weirdos from town hall. They had mentioned an opening for sheriff. While you aren’t fully clear on the details, you know both that the sheriff is some sort of police entity and how humans back home always listened to the police. Perhaps that could be a lead worth pursuing?

Your decision:

[ ] To the saloons
[ ] The tengu mining lady
[ ] Nitori
[ ] The doctor
[ ] Back to the mayor’s
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[X] Back to the mayor’s
The fairy comes again knocking at the door
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While I think applying for the sheriff position might be a smart idea in terms of the skills that could be learned, I feel like it is more in-character for Cirno to go for the most spectacular option, heedless of the danger, so I'm going with:
[X] Nitori
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[ X ] The doctor

I can see it now: Arrange a setup to break the vampire's wing, arrive and use the doctor's wing-mending technique to mend it, and then charge a medical bill so high she'll be forced to trade ownership of the mountain to pay it off.

Plus, who needs med school when you can just prescribe everything a cold pack?
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[X] Back to the mayor’s

It's everything we want, just think about it.

A sheriff has to be strong to keep the peace. > Strongest UP!

You're important so people listen to you. > Charisma UP!

You're a hero so you get paid lots! ...right? > Riches UP!
(Government jobs usually pay like shit so that's likely a no, but Cirno wouldn't know that.)

And if this job falls through the kappa is the backup plan.

As an aside, Miner Cirno could be scarily effective?
Something like using the force of freezing water expanding to crack rock?
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[X] Back to the Mayor's
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[X] Back to the mayor’s

There were some attractive options, but one seems better the more you think about it.

“I’ve made up my mind,” you exclaim to the line of awaiting faces. “I’m going to become the sheriff!”

Only confused expressions greet your announcement, and you have to explain to everyone your earlier encounter with the mayor’s helpers.

“Why’d you have to ask us, if you had something like that all along?” Aka complains. “Were our ideas not good enough?”

“I just didn’t remember until now,” you respond defensively. “Honest!”

“One cannot conclude one flower as the prettiest without fairly judging the others first.” Lily says sagely. “Such is the same with the important decisions of life.”

“Y-yeah, that’s exactly it. You guys still helped me out!”

“I don’t know about this, Cirno,” Larva protests. “It’s a lot of responsibility and very dangerous working for that shady mayor. It’s bad enough that the last sheriff even ran away!”

“Oh yeah, Mystia mentioned something about that. But why?” you ask.

“I don’t know the details, but I remember he was a pretty regular human and was serious about keeping things neat even when everything was just tents. Everyone respected him.” she ponders. “It was around when the Beast Gangs first showed up and the mayor stopped seeing people that he took his family and left town one night without a word.”

“I didn’t know that… Alright! If some human can do it, I definitely can too!”

“That’s not–”

But by now, you aren’t listening. “C’mon! What if someone gets there before me!” you yell back, making for the cliff.

“Okay, okay, I’m going!” Larva gives up and chases after you.

###

Instead of continuing to nag you as expected, Eternity simply guides you back to town through the twisty canyon. As you follow behind her for the second time today, while you now are confident you can mostly navigate between town and the hideout by yourself, it would be helpful to eventually get Larva to teach you the area, especially if you’ll be staying for the time being.

Coming down from the hills, the tall roof of your destination stands out above the rest of the town. Under the dimming sun, the buildings around you glow with an orange cast, blending into the shimmering earth. You hope this doesn’t take too long, you’d hate to bumble about in the dark.

“So, what’s up with you and the mayor?” you have to ask. “Sounds like you really don’t like her.”

“I have had some bad experiences, that’s all,” Larva says, not meeting your eyes. “You’ll find it’s a shared feeling these days.”

“What, is she some sort of evil demon or something?”

“I can’t say she’s evil, but she can be either grouchy or annoying, especially if you deal with her often. Buuuut since she’s still mayor I guess she’s doing something right.” she replies. “Welp, looks like we’re here. They’ll probably question you a bunch, so to be out of your way, I’ll be waiting for you in the Ballad. I’ve got to talk to Mystia anyhow. Good luck!”

She skips off before you can respond, so you end up standing alone before the imposing doors of the mayor’s place. When you knock, this time it’s the magenta one, Satono, who promptly answers. Holding the door at a mere crack, she peers down on you with a single purple eye.

“Oh? You’re the fairy from before. May I help you?”

“Call me Cirno! I’m here because the green lady said there’s an opening for a sheriff. Well, I’ve given it a thought and I want the job!”

“Miss Cirno, is it? And you wish to become sheriff?” Satono looks you up and down and, apparently satisfied, nods and waves you in, pushing the door wide open. “Welcome in then! Before we can actually give you anything, we must interview you, take down some information, and there’ll be a few other steps later, but your enthusiasm is a wonderful start!”

Satono clears open the way and beckons you within. When you march inside, it’s noticeably cooler. It'd be even nicer if the air didn’t also taste faintly stale.

It’s the same shadowy lounge as before, stairs leading to a balconied second floor. Anything past the railing edge is beyond the sight of your still-adjusting eyes, however. Curtains drape thickly where the ground level windows would be, explaining the darkness, a little overkill considering how they had been shuttered on the outside. You aren’t ready when Satono shuts the door with a muted thump, almost tripping over on an unexpected carpet. “Why the heck is it so dark?”

“Ha ha, I suppose it is a little dim isn’t it? My apologies.” Satono flips the switch on a brass lamp by the door, letting there be light. The lobby immediately looks a little more welcoming when colored in. Some couches and a couple desks staged on a great oval rug of gold and green are in the middle. A few decorative artworks and displays line the mahogany paneled walls, but most noticeable are the oddly plentiful number of unlabeled doors ringing both tiers of the room. Each one is closed, several located even where you’d swear they’d open straight outside.

“Please sit.” Satono gestures towards one of the chairs by a desk. The embroidered cushion is soft and rather bouncy. Planting both arms on the rests, you sit straight at the ready, and also to give your fidgeting wings space from the backrest. You also remember to take off your hat, fiddling with it in your lap.

She takes her own seat across from you, and draws from under the desk paper and a pen. The faded paper releases a puff of dust as it’s placed down.

“Satono! How the heck did it get so bright in here?” Satono is interrupted by a voice from above as she fiddles around with the fountain pen’s ink. You twist your head upward to see the green dress girl, Mai, leaning dangerously far over the railing to look straight down at you. “Wait, you’re the fairy we shooed away yesterday! How’d you get inside?”

“Ah, Mai, finally up I see. First, the day has not changed since your break. Second, Miss Cirno here was allowed in by none other than myself. I was just about to start interviewing her as the prospective new sheriff.”

“Oh boy!” Mai says. “So you’re our very first candidate, congratulations! And a tough-looking one too!”

“Really?” you reply with glee.

“Well, for a fairy, of course!” Mai laughs under your icy glare.

“Instead of bothering the candidate, you could get down here to help me take some notes.”

Mai ignores her. “Anyways, Satono, what would Master say about your sense of hospitality? Hey, Cirno, right? Want some tea?”

“Uh, okay.”

“Alright! One pippin’ hot tea coming right down!” She spins away in a flash of green.

“Mai, Mai. Always shirking the actual work.” Satono sighs. “Regardless, she might be right about being too hasty. You should know a little bit about what you’ll actually be doing.

To begin, Sage Springs, our beautiful town, requires a sheriff to enforce laws, keep the peace, and run the jail, just like any other town. We’re unique in that the sheriff is personally vetted and selected by the mayor, not elected separately. But while you’ll need to report and meet with the mayor, you’ll have your own office with plenty of freedom.

Our residents are mostly miners and travelers, but there are friendly faces all around, as I’m sure you’ve personally seen. We of the mayor’s office will support you, of course. It should be easy for anyone to fit in and do well.”

“Uh-huh,” you nod along with Satono’s exposition.

“Do you have any questions?” she finally asks.

“Um…” you think for a bit. “Who’s this ‘Master’ that Mai was talking about?”

“That’s just her habit. We work for the mayor, but unlike the sheriff, we’re closer to her personal servants or assistants than public workers. We’ve been with her for a long time, so I can assure you she’s a great leader who treats her subordinates like family.”

“I see… um, so why’d the guy I’m gonna replace leave?”

“Hm? You must mean the previous sheriff.” Satono idly taps her pen against the desk. “Unfortunately, his vision for the town’s future disagreed with our mayor’s, so he retired under good terms and left the town. He was a very good sheriff, though, so I’m sure he’s doing fine elsewhere. Alright, if there’s nothing pressing, I’ll start asking you some questions now. This is the actual interview, so respond the best you can, understood?”

“Yup!”

“First, your full name is ‘Cirno’? Spelled ‘C-h-i-r-n-o’?”

“‘C-i-r-n-o’!”

“Okay,” she jots down your name. “No last name?”

“Nope.”

“Species is fairy, and I suppose ‘not applicable’ for both date and place of birth,” she mutters to herself. “Moving on, how long have you been living in Sage Springs?”

The questions seem pretty basic and you’re getting bored at rapid pace.

“Heads up!” You obey just in time to catch Mai, one hand balancing a silver tray bearing three cups and a copper pot, the other launching herself entirely off the railing. She twirls around in the air before landing gracefully. Only a rattle disturbs her delicate cargo. “Ta da! Refreshments as requested!”

“Mai, work on those landings. Still heavy on the right foot.” Satono says, unperturbed. “But now you’re back, we may as well enjoy a brief break.”

Mai quickly pours for everyone. A line of steam swirls upward from the orange liquid in the cup she hands to you. The bitterness makes you cringe and you can feel a burning sensation in your hands and your body as it struggles to neutralize the hot drink. You bear with it and swallow another gulp. Tea is what all mature humans and youkai have to drink after all.

“Say, Satono…” Mai nudges Satono’s shoulder, half whispering, “Why’re you suddenly okay with a fairy sheriff now?”

“Well, I’ve thought about it and I think your initial judgment was more sound than I thought…” Satono glances at you before grabbing Mai closer to speak into her ear. A rapid fire whisper discussion commences.

“I see, I see!” Mai bobs her head rapidly. She pulls away and starts to clean up the tea set.

“What were you guys talking about?”

“Just some other business, municipal bureaucracy and all that. Don’t worry, you only have a few questions left, you’re almost done!” Satono says, “So, in your own words, why do you think you are a good fit…”

Satono’s questions got longer and more challenging. The biggest thing you struggled with was whether to answer straight or based on what they’d want to hear, but since you just don’t know much about the mayor and her servants, you settled to be as honest as possible, while maybe having stretched the truth about your abilities and battle history a teensy bit. Mai’s encouragement helped too.

After the previous question, Satono finishes jotting down her notes. You strain to see, but can only make out dense squiggles on the page. “That’s all our questions for today. Congratulations, you seem to be exactly who we need.”

“Aw, finally! When can I start telling people what to do?”

Mai laughs. “Hold your horses, gal! There’s one final step.”

“Correct. We've gotten some insight into your person so far, but we will need to examine your physical and mental limits. This should be a pretty simple test tomorrow morning, at six, and the mayor herself will be there to supervise,” Satono continues. “After that, if all goes well, we’ll officially appoint you as town sheriff and help you set up. Just remember, early tomorrow morning, at six o’clock sharp, right here.”

“Tomorrow, six, here! Gotcha!”

There’s nothing else to do but depart and you find yourself outside again. The sun is long gone and stars flood the heavens while refreshingly chill nighttime air blows through the crooked streets. Most of the buildings are completely dark, only visible from their silhouettes against the spangled sky. But, closer to the railway, there is warm light and faint music from the saloons and shops there, which also helps you locate the Ballad’s general direction. It’s been a long day, how should you wrap it up?

[ ] Find Larva at the Ballad.
[ ] Poke around and see what fun can be had by yourself!
[ ] Get back home by yourself, you wanna sleep.
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[X] Poke around and see what fun can be had by yourself!
Might as well get familiar with the town. Especially if Cirno is to be The Sheriff.
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[X] Find Larva at the Ballad.

Sure, we didn't actually respond to Larva's... statement that she'd be waiting at the Ballad, but to just leave her hanging after she basically spent her whole day helping us would be really mean.
We can explore tomorrow.

Anyway, clearly these two understand just how strong we really are!
Finally. The respect we deserve!
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[X] Find Larva at the Ballad.

Sheriffing is going to be a piece of cake. Nobody ever realizes you can get 50% more ammo from a six-shooter by holding it upside down.
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[X] Find Larva at the Ballad.

It would be best to meet up with Larva, you decide. You head down the street towards the center of activity, passing gloomy structures along the way. Entire patches of darkness swallow you whole where the streetlamps are unlit or entirely missing.

A little further, however, you start encountering actual people. Quite a few, in fact. You return a few stares, but most are grouped up, engrossed in their own world. The vast majority must be the miners, dressed in dull fabrics strained with dried mud and hefting sacks or tools, but yet they laugh and chat as they walk past you. Humans and the different species of youkai keep to each other as individuals, but their little groups mingle freely, paying no mind to each other. It’s an observation of the unusual relationship between species that you’ve seen in earlier stops in this frontier land, now seen up close. Many smell of alcohol and some smoke, puffing out faint plumes like bobbing candles in the dark, their acrid scents mixing with the odors of cheap cooking wafting over the street.

All the activity is exciting, almost like a festival, and you fight the impulse to hop right into random places to see all that can be seen, staying on course.

That doesn’t mean you can’t admire things from a distance as you walk. One place catches your eye first. While the town hall is the largest building in the town, you step towards what must be the most spectacular: a gilded facade glittering orange under the light of red lamps. You read “Komakusa Hall of Fortune” written in grand calligraphy on a sign mounted above the door. What wonders await behind its elaborate doors, guarded by a carving of a dragon coiling through clouds?

You’re about to take a peek through some shuttered windows when smashing glass turns your head around. It must’ve come from the saloon that’s marked with a blue whale sign. Music a level louder than anywhere else booms from within, a violent cacophony joined by the sounds of real violence, crashes and another broken glass followed by hooting and indecipherable yells. The volume of chaos rises in its intensity, reaching a crescendo in a flurry of drums you can feel in your heart and the ground even across the street. A collective roar concludes the drama as a man is ejected from the building flying, breezing out the curtain door. He lands in a heap on the ground and starts to crawl away towards an alley, moaning.

Disruption over, you turn back to meet two narrow eyes staring down at you. They belong to a large solemn face, itself belonging to a lean muscled body leaning out the window with one arm, framed by long silver hair. You’re about to sheepishly say hello when you notice the damn huge cleaver the lady grasps in her massive hand. It calls for a decisive act of rapid goodbye.

You recover your wits as you almost bump into a throng of people. It’s a circle of onlookers that surround a woman standing on a pile of crates, talking. Out of the corner of your eye, you see the familiar front of the Ballad, but watching what’s going on here would allow you to catch your breath, so you stay.

The speaker is holding a shiny object in her hand. Up closer, it’s a red bottle housing some mysterious dark liquid. One of the crates by her feet is open, revealing rows of similar bottles. The speaker is clad in a gaudy velvet gown and exorbitant amount of jewelry, sparkling like a firework as she gestures wildly.

“That’s right folks, just one sip and you’ll be hopping like a fairy and keener than a hakutaku! For my human friends and day-loving youkai, reclaim those hours stolen by the tyranny of sleep! For any night-crawlers in the crowd, never fear the sun again! As a plus, it’s healthy! Squeezed in each and every bottle is a whole basket of herbs, chief of all, the extraordinarily rare Udumbara flower! It’ll help you focus, it’s good for your heart, for your mind…” she crows on and on, but the sharp and quick cadence of her voice keeps you utterly hooked. “But as I said earlier, don’t just take it from me. You are all going to get a chance to see my Miracle Tonic in action for yourselves. And one lucky fellow will get to actually try it for free! Now, do I have a brave soul willing to volunteer?”

A handful of hands go up, yours waving among them, but most people stay back, a few murmurs rippling through the crowd. A few people at the edges shake their heads and leave the circle. Yet the speaker seems unbothered, casually looking around before selecting one hand in the middle of the crowd.

“Yes you!”

A tall but thin and sickly girl steps forward, hunched over and dressed in rags. It’s difficult to tell at night, but her hair is dark blue hair, streaming down in long oily locks.

“Say, miss, you look like you could use a shot of health and love!”

“I sure can,” she weakly says. “I haven’t even eaten anything at all today.”

“No problem, try this.” The speaker kneels down to give the bottle in her hand to the girl, who greedily pops off the cork and chugs down the entire thing.

“Puhaaaa!” The volunteer finishes her drink and stands still. Several silent seconds later, she feels her stomach. “Wow! I can feel the buzzing of power inside of me. It’s like I just finished a full course dinner without the weight!” More than just standing straighter, she seemingly glows and while she remains in rags, was her skin, eyes, and hair really that healthy before?

“That’s right! Drink it on an empty stomach or with a meal, and you’re set. Just one sip can keep a grown man swinging a pickaxe for a whole day!”

There’s a few snickers, but this time the bulk of the people seem to be in awe, muttering rapidly to each other.

“Just 20 cents a bottle.” She says crisply. “One dollar nets you six, though. I don't know folks, the math does itself. So come up and get your tonic before it’s gone!”

People begin to line up and you see wallets and coins being pulled out. In your own pockets, you can feel the absence of money. Perhaps after you get paid then. Or, you think, judging the distance to the opened box and the saleswoman’s distracted state, maybe your hands will need to get a little sticky…

A peculiar smell wafts by and you identify it as fish cooking. Fish in the desert? It brings you back to your priorities. You allow it to guide you away from the crowd, right to the entrance of the Blinding Ballad.

Simply getting in is its own challenge, and you narrowly dodge when the door unexpectedly swings towards your face. A couple of swaying youkai dressed in white uniforms exits as he waves his cap at you, slurring an apology before laughing at what you think is his friend’s joke. Despite their inebriation, they somehow trot comfortably on those wacky raised sandals.

You finally enter and start squeezing past people’s backs. No different from the other saloons, its narrow confines are packed, far busier than when you first saw it. Tables have been pushed aside in the back to form an open section where red-faced dancers sway with a folksy jig performed by the two music sisters. In the center of it all is Mystia in a blur, pouring drinks, handing out skewers, sliding precariously full and steaming plates across the counter to awaiting mouths.

But no matter how crowded it is, Larva’s distinct wings stick out between a cluster of giggling kappa and a wall of an oni working at a massive bowl of noodles. You squeeze in, ignoring an annoyed look from the kappa whose backpack you nudge aside. You poke the butterfly fairy on the back of the neck while she’s unaware.

“Ack! What the heck, Cirno!” Larva swats your hand away before turning around. “Well?”

“It’s good! I mean, yes, the interview went well!”

“That’s great! But I’m guessing that's not all.”

“Nope, I’ve got this test tomorrow morning.”

“Miss Cirno!” Mystia dumps a stack of used dishes in the basin before joining you both, “I heard from Larva. She said you’re trying to take over as sheriff? Is this true?”

“Yup! Sure is!”

“Really now! You’ve been here less than a full day!” Mystia looks baffled. She looks at you with fresh eyes that you cannot describe as necessarily generous.

Your attempt to explain yourself is interrupted when the door swings open to allow in a pair of men, dressed in long maroon overcoats, polished black boots clopping on the floorboards. They seem tough, alert, and their faces are hidden by the crimson wolf-shaped masks they wear beneath their hats.

No one else gives their entrance more than a glance, and yet a hint of strain enters the strings of the music, and the conversations around you seem to become a little too enthusiastic. The patrons by the front shuffle to clear a path as the masked men approach the counter.

“Howdy, barkeep, you know what we’re here for.”

“O-of course.” Mystia replies. She immediately wrangles with something from under the counter, bringing out a seemingly ordinary medium-sized barrel.

“Very good, very good! Boss will be real happy tonight!” The man in front sighs as he receives it. He gives the barrel a cursory inspection and shakes it. Satisfied, he passes the barrel to his buddy, who grunts as he lifts the weight on his shoulder. “With how much Miss Saki seems to love this stuff, we’ll probably be grabbing two barrels next time! Ha!”

“Yeah? That’s absolutely great to hear.” Mystia laughs nervously. “I’m glad she’s enjoying the sake. If there’s anything else you gentlemen need…?”

“Ah, no no. We’ve gotta hurry actually. Some more fun later.”

“Oh yeah, real fun.” The man carrying the barrel mutters as he shifts it about, trying to find a comfortable spot while keeping it steady. “Didn’t we just have a feast yesterday?”

“You know that new mercenary kid?”

“Crazy torch bitch?”

“No, no, the rich brat. You know.”

“Uhhh, um, I think I know.”

“She came back from her initiation. Single handedly raided a bank car when the train was stopped at Appleton, and came back with a whole wagon of gold, if you can believe it. So we’re celebrating.” He coughs, “Ah, we really gotta be going. Well, see ya later barkeep!”

“Have a nice night.” Mystia cleans her hands with a cloth before she starts to work on the piled dishes. The pair leave, and life returns to fullness inside the room.

“Curse my karma!” Sweeping the leftovers off a plate into a bin, Mystia then uses the rag to wipe her forehead. “I’m going to need to figure something out and soon…”

“Those were Keiga weren’t they?” Larva asks.

“No, just some friends enjoying their evening at the masquerade ball.” Mystia groans. “No, you’re right, yes.”

“Why're you doing business with them if they're so scary?” You ask.

“Sometime’s people have to do things they don’t want to.” Mystia rapidly chews through the plates, arms in tension and metalware clanking.

Shortly after the doors stop swinging, by chance you notice a figure in a black coat and black hat with broad drooping brim toss a couple of coins on the counter before standing up and sliding quietly towards the entrance. A single braid of golden hair flashes as she passes the light above the door and exits in the same direction as the grunts.

“Strange. I’ve seen her at the Whale a few times before,” Larva observes, following your gaze. “I thought she was a regular there, but I guess not.”

“More weirdos, just what this town needs,” Mystia says, shaking her head as she leans over to recover the empty glass and money. You have a feeling it’s not just the mysterious lady in black she’s talking about.

“It’s probably time for us to go too,” Larva informs Mystia. “When’s your test Cirno?”

“Tomorrow at six, at the Mayor’s place,” you recite.

“Gee, that’s early! Yup, we should start getting back.”

“Good luck, for the test and everything that comes after,” Mystia tells you, looking up from her work.

You both start climbing the hills on the way out, leaving the firefly-like lights of the town behind you. Through the dark, the distant and distinct blare of train whistles reaches you. Craning your neck, you cannot see the train itself, but you recall that it would be about this time that one would show, heading north, on the way back home. You turn away, yawning. Where would you even sleep tonight?

###

“Get up! Sleepyhead!” Someone shakes you away from hazy dreams. Opening your eyes, the first thing you see is another head, giant from its closeness. You swear there’s a cleaver on a downward swing, ready to make you into two.

“Gah!” You sit up, slamming into Larva’s upside down face. Losing all sense of balance, you slip and fall off your branch. For a split second, you are floating, then your rear lands painfully on the hard earth. Here this sun-cursed land, if it isn’t sand, it’s rock.

“Ouch! That hurts!” Larva clutches her nose, glaring down at you. She must’ve been crouching over you when trying to wake you up, now rubbing at her face. By her, nestled where branch meets trunk, the makeshift ice berth where you spent the night is already starting to melt, icicles glistening in the early morning light. Taking a fresh look at your surroundings, you realize the “cleaver” was actually a trick of the light on the mountaintops.

“You suck at waking people up!” you call back up.

“I had no choice. I hollered but it was like you died in your sleep!”

“You didn’t have to surprise me like that.”

“So you would’ve preferred the rocks, then?” Aka says from behind you. She juggles a blue veined pebble in one hand.

“Oh, hello.”

“We’re going to the mines to find more fun rocks so we’re just making lunch right now,” Ao says “I wanted to invite you two to come with us.”

“Sorry, Cirno’s going to be taking a test to become the sheriff today!”

“Oh, I see! Best of luck with that!”

You stand up and walk under the branch to allow the drops of cold water to splash on your face. Now that you're on the ground, you may as well start dressing, reaching for the boots and hat you left at the base of the tree last night. You shake some droplets of water before putting them on.

Pink dawn sky shines through the gaps in the leaves. The sun has barely begun her reclamation of the sky. Breakfast is a couple of clementines courtesy of the two greater fairies, who shortly leave with the rest of their haul.

“Ugh- How early is it anyways?” you ask Larva, licking your sticky fingers.

“Late for what we’re going to be doing. Remember, it’s going to take an hour or so to even get to town.”

“In that case let’s go!”

“But I actually woke you up extra early to prepare. If you’re going through with this sheriff's business, you need to study for this test!”

Test prep options:

[ ] “You have to tell me more about the mayor!”
[ ] “You have some idea about this test?”
[ ] “I’m going to need a snack in case the test takes too long.”
[ ] “I’m going to take a nap.”
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Must. Resist. Nap.
It'd be the Cirno thing to do, really.

We're gonna pass the test anyway; we're the strongest, after all.
Still, Larva sounds like she has something to say, might as well indulge her.

Knowing about the mayor might help us ingratiate ourselves; but really, why would we need to?
Our actions will speak for themselves.

Not gonna lie, having a snack is always important, so we should get one if we can.
But if there's no time I guess we'll just suck on an icecube.

[X] “You have some idea about this test?”
If there is time:
-[X] “I’m going to need a snack in case the test takes too long.”
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>really that healthy before?
I do enjoy reading how cuneiform introduces characters, fitting them into the setting of frontier. The sisters being snake oil cons fits perfectly.
>A single braid of golden hair flashes
So Marisa is in town, interesting. Perhaps the other characters that could’ve been selected will be here as well.
>Crazy torch bitch
Fits right in the Wild East. Look at Cirno now, carrying bombs for the revolution but joining the establishment.

[X] “You have some idea about this test?”
If there is time:
-[X] “I’m going to need a snack in case the test takes too long.”

Ice cube with honey if Cirno is lucky
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>the extraordinarily rare Udumbara flower!
Neat little detail that people might miss: "Udumbara" is actually a name for a fig as a symbol in Buddhist mythology.

>“Crazy torch bitch?”
Clownpiece is here? Nice, I'm looking forward to Cirno meeting her at some point. (And fighting her, in all likelihood.)

I wonder who the "mercenary kid"/"rich brat" is, though. Occam's razor (or maybe Chekhov's razor, I suppose) looking at other characters referenced suggests maybe it is another mention of Marisa? But I don't know, does she really fit the "rich brat" descriptor?

>>69284
>We're gonna pass the test anyway; we're the strongest, after all.
I think so too, if not for the same reason. They'll probably accept anyone just for being willing to take on the role in the middle of the mess made by the beast clans. Or it's a front for one of Okina's power-grabbing schemes. Or both.

>>69285
>I do enjoy reading how cuneiform introduces characters, fitting them into the setting of frontier. The sisters being snake oil cons fits perfectly.
I definitely agree, the setting is very well done. I think the perspective of Cirno as the inexperienced "new kid in town" helps as well, as she gets to know the setting at the same time we do.
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Oh, and for the actual vote, I agree with >>69284's idea:

[X] “You have some idea about this test?”
If there is time:
-[X] “I’m going to need a snack in case the test takes too long.”
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Hard agree with the other two anons' take on cuneiform's characterisation.
It's just pleasant to see people get incorporated into a setting like this so smoothly.

>>69286
>I think so too, if not for the same reason.

Yeah, anon me knows there's a catch here; but Cirno just believes she's the strongest, therefore she, in her head, would just pass any test.

I don't think the merc they were talking about is Marisa.
The way the two mooks were talking made it sound like they were talking about somebody who was absent.
It'd be kinda weird, considering Marisa was just standing right there.

>A single braid of golden hair flashes as she passes the light above the door and exits in the same direction as the grunts.

This sounds more like a certain somebody is about to either scout out or bag a lot of bounties.

Always love me some Clownpiece, though, so I'll be looking forward to that.

As for the other merc:
Honestly, when he said rich kid the first thing that came to mind was Remilia.
Obviously that doesn't make sense, but she's where all the money is.
Instead, could it maybe be Flandre?
She would ostensibly be rich and have the power to single-handedly pull off a robbing a train carrying the bank's gold, which would likely have very high security.
She would also fit the characterisation of looking like a kid, but that's a bit weaker reasoning as it could've just been a turn of phrase.
Maybe it's a way for her to lash out at her sister? Remilia is a banking tycoon, after all.
Anyway, no other immediate candidates spring to mind, but I'm sure there's others if I think it over some more.
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>>69288
>Flandre
The wealth and the power do line up, though she was mentioned in a different situation earlier in the story:

>>68837, in Remilia's news article about the purchase of Whiterock Mountain:
>Now of course, money doesn’t enforce itself, but I was thinking that my dear little sister needed some practice running a little estate of her own. She’s a bit of a homebody, but we’ll drag her out within a few months or so-
Based on this description, it would seem odd for Flandre to be working as a mercenary in a location pretty far away from the mountain.
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>>69289
Ah, yeah, I'd forgotten about that.
Thanks for pointing it out, it makes that far less likely; but it doesn't outright confirm that that's where she is, either.
That newspaper is, what, 2 days old by now?
Hm, who else could it be...
Tenshi?
The eldest daughter of an important celestial with a delinquent streak in original canon. Sort of ticks being a rich kid, I guess.
Obviously we don't have any indication of her financial status in this setting; but running with a gang simply because it sounds fun sounds like something she'd do.
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