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178208 No. 178208
[BGM: "Wilderness" from Diablo 2: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Uxg5W5wKvLE]

There is always a sense of quietude here in the woods. Here, enshrouded in the primordial, there is a tranquility not found in the bustle of the Human Village or the settlements of nomadic youkai. Birdsong, insect buzz, mammalian brays and shouts, all of it faded into the great ambience of this isolated, quiet life. She was at home here, the lone civilized woman at the very fringes of civilization. Gensokyo in the raw, just as she preferred.

Still, a part of her was still tied to her old home. She could live off the meat of her hunt and the endless supply of flora, but sustenance alone didn't keep one alive. Not when you had lived among civilized man and the less predatory of youkai. The desire for the warmth of familiar bodies and swelling crowds nicked about in the back of her head, but so had a hunger more ravenous, fed by a childhood curiosity that grew all-consuming at adulthood.

Knowledge had its price. She'd sacrificed humanity bit by bit with every passing year. Family grew distant and soon her homeland had as well. Beyond the island nation she disappeared, to find the hidden words and silent mysteries that kept seer and shaman awake in twilight hours.

She'd answered enough of her own questions and now she was back in Gensokyo. Aimless wandering and meditation were a hundred years behind her since she'd passed the boundary. Home, even if it wasn't quite. Siblings became seniors, old tombstones replaced old friends, and childhood acquaintances had now looked back at her with hardened eyes. She, the walking spectre of distant memory, Natsuko Tsuruko was it? Yes, we weren't around to see her since she took off with but a backpack and that quiet burning intellect, but the youkai were. They knew, perhaps they were familiar themselves with those deserters and restless souls. That's how it had started for a few of them, hadn't it?.

It had been quiet this week. The usual quarry was beginning to return as the crispness of spring transitioned into summer's heat. She wasn't concerned about noise here, even with the corpse of one of the detritus hounds dragging over the leaves. It'd been a good kill - the creatures, more rat-like than canine, grew big as the hunting hounds and were twice as vicious (and filthy on top of that). They were arrogant little bastards, pesky ones too; sometimes they were simply called ankle-slicers, given how they took down larger prey. Sometimes, there weren't even ankles left.

Like all crowds, they scattered when the right bullet found the main mark. In this case, the big one. Easily seven and a half feet long, this wasn't just any mangy runt. It'd been a patriarch, rank with the scent of procreation, now mixing with putrid decay. They rotted fast and that wasn't good, not for a human anyways. The youkai of the village however, saw it as fermenting and it was a delicacy at this time of the year. Partially rotted but specifically seasoned, lightly broiled ankleslicer meat was pretty good. Even the kids liked it.

Grasping around the shaft of her arrow, her muscles flex, straining to tear out the steel-tipped head. Worming it left and right, more of its brown-reddish blood dripped onto the trail before it came out smoothly. It had been a good shot; with his bobbing head motions, throwing its shaggy dark mane as it did its business, it had been difficult to get a good shot. Flesh as thick as her balled fist did little to stop a well-aimed bolt. It had been an instant death; first came its windpipe, then came its neckbone, broken and pierced by the force of the shot.

Dark grasping branches and crunching leaves gave way to a clearing. In it sat her cabin; mossy green and darkened by moisture, but warded against decay and collapse. It was a fine old structure, stall, stout, and tough as a boulder. A hearty green when it first was constructed, it had since darkened in its colour as weather and rampant vegetation claimed it as its own. For Natsuko, it was a parting gift from the village. The schoolteacher-slash-protector had suggested it; it beat sleeping on ant-ridden leaf beds, never truly asleep. Replacing sleep with tranquil meditation was never a real substitute.

The stinking remains were pulled up onto a sloping rack, smoking lightly from the small fire pit beneath. Leaning down, she checked the stones, swiping a finger across their water-smoothed surface. Like fading paint, glistening exteriors gave way to the runes; engram-based drawings, etched unto any surface like rosy-red veins. They weren't for her to read. No, someone... something else read them and granted their cryptic requests. The subtle asymmetries and diamond shapes were pre-civilization at best, but there was something entrancing about them - they almost begged for attention, tapping at that fermenting id.

Oh it was too early for that now. As long as the little barrier held, the flies and the foxes could sit and drool. In an hour's time, she'd have four choice cuts and a killing to make at the village. Brand loyalty existed even out here.

*Blip blip blip!*

Now that was a sound one wasn't expecting here; flat, synthetic, chirping. Another idea from the schoolteacher; those... something... fones... fonz... yes, kappa-phones. NIT-Model 089's, pricey little things. Tapping the four corresponding points on the door, the distorted kanji-parodies that were the runes glowed and a wooden crick-crack was heard. Passing through the portal, she stuck her hand deep under the pile of reptile skins, fumbling around for that damn phone. The vibration and buzz were growing softer, something she thought was a glitch, but soon her hands felt that familiar cold.

Flipping over the screen, she brought up a small square tab, jittering excitedly with the number six. She prodded the little icon and scooted through the messages; the usual from her vendor friends. Discount this, price raise that, tea and tale-telling at ten, Town Hall, don't come in smelling like the southern marshes. Really, I will kick you in the shins with the new boots if you do., she thought him saying in that trussed up voice of his. He was just like the phone - too fancy and colourful, all trinkets and flash, not fit for the rough frontier life she'd chosen.

That's why she liked him and the rest of those merchants. They were all the village equivalent of noblemen, men and women who waited for the catch of the day rather than actually taking it themselves... but not everyone had that spry instinct or toned body and mind. They understood the symbiotic aspect every bit as much as she. And they were good humoured about it too. Playing up the pompous blue-blood and fat bureaucrat with their lengthy facial hair and puffy clothes, ah, they weren't like the ones on the outside. Self awareness did the soul good.

The day wasn't quite young. Approaching middle aged was where she'd put it. The sun was still shining bright but in another few hours it would begin to set. The clearing was as lovingly motley as ever and the meat would cook fine. Perhaps she should have removed the patriarch's head - it was probably guilty of a few cattle disappearances and a degree of crop destruction. She was sure the farmers memorized their faces and had their little vendettas.

With more spare time than she would like to admit, Natsuko figured she should:

[x] Check up on and maintain her gear. The bow banged up against a few rocks earlier when she was following an ankleslicer scout through the river. Thankfully, arrows travelled faster than skitterish vermin. Her other gears and weapons hadn't seen much action but that wasn't any reason to ignore them.

[x] Engram-runes. They had... asked for her correct? It would be rude to refuse them. They were the method through which she worshipped and found that fulfilment mere scripture or doctrine could not. All it would take would be a calmed head and a mind opened far and wide.

[x] Kappa-phone. She had scoffed at the idea of Kappanet when it was first announced, but now everyone and their goddess was on it. Of course, she certainly wasn't going to get a kappabook account but it was useful for checking market prices, meeting vendors, and even finding potential gigs.

[x] Head off to the village in roughly an hour. Steel-toed boots applied to the shins didn't faze her... well, not too much anyways. Might as well rake in the cash early, make some pleasant conversation and such.

[x] Write it in fellas.

-

Welcome one, welcome all, to the beginning of the Touhou stealth-action CYOA "Infiltrator". Okay, so we haven't seen very much infiltrating but I'm hoping you stick around for that. I'm a first time author here, going in this with little prior experience, and hoping you all enjoy it. Ask questions if you wish; I won't spill it all off the bat of course, but anything you're unclear of along with constructive criticism would be nice. Feel free to suggest BGM's as well; anything you think would fit a descent into the most godforsaken and overgrown areas of Gensokyo, where shrouded figures conspire in ancient ruins and strange beasts stalk over gnarled roots.

No. 178209
[x] Check up on and maintain her gear. The bow banged up against a few rocks earlier when she was following an ankleslicer scout through the river. Thankfully, arrows travelled faster than skitterish vermin. Her other gears and weapons hadn't seen much action but that wasn't any reason to ignore them.

I liked what I read. Will keep an eye on it.

So yeah what to say. Keep your weapons ready and deadly because they will be needed.
No. 178210
[x] Check up on and maintain her gear. The bow banged up against a few rocks earlier when she was following an ankleslicer scout through the river. Thankfully, arrows travelled faster than skitterish vermin. Her other gears and weapons hadn't seen much action but that wasn't any reason to ignore them.

Natsuko mentions she was gone for 100 years before coming back to Gensokyo. Wouldn't she be more familiar with Outside world tech that stuff like the kappa-phone is emulating? Or even the Kappanet (Internet)?
No. 178211
>>178210

Not quite. She was aware of how much mankind had advanced but she herself stayed quite reclusive. She's not really one for city living personally.
No. 178212
>>178210
It's possible she's really old, and has been back in Gensokyo for a while.
No. 178213
>>178211
>>178212 here. That wasn't there while I was typing. Whoops.
No. 178214
[x] Kappa-phone. She had scoffed at the idea of Kappanet when it was first announced, but now everyone and their goddess was on it. Of course, she certainly wasn't going to get a kappabook account but it was useful for checking market prices, meeting vendors, and even finding potential gigs.

It's like Touhou Mother but possibly without the jabs against all forms of modern civilization or tech
No. 178215
>>178211
What did she learn in the Outside World? Nothing spoilerific, if you're worried about that.
No. 178216
>>178215

Hidden knowledge. Something beyond conventional faith. The engrams hint at this.
No. 178218
>>178216
Engram as in this: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Engram_%28neuropsychology%29
No. 178220
>>178218

Yep, that's part of the engram runes. They're "read" but in a way that directly correlates to known language. They're also not being read *just* by her. Think of the initiated mind as a kind of cipher in this case.
No. 178221
>>178220


My bad

*that DOESN'T correlate, I mean.
No. 178222
[x] Check up on and maintain her gear. The bow banged up against a few rocks earlier when she was following an ankleslicer scout through the river. Thankfully, arrows travelled faster than skitterish vermin. Her other gears and weapons hadn't seen much action but that wasn't any reason to ignore them.

I'll give this a shot.
No. 178239
So weapon and gear inspection it is[s], /k/ommandos[s]!

A little something for you fellas: while this won't really be an RPG, you will have a fairly varied choice of weaponry, equipment, and magical options later on. You won't have a magical bag though - pick your choices carefully!
No. 178249
[x] Check up on and maintain her gear. The bow banged up against a few rocks earlier when she was following an ankleslicer scout through the river. Thankfully, arrows travelled faster than skitterish vermin. Her other gear and weaponry hadn't seen much action but that wasn't any reason to ignore them.

-

She had time to kill and just like in her hunts, she preferred to do so quietly.

Natsuko's weapon of choice remained a simple hunting bow. A weapon that had served humans and youkai for over 10,000 years, it had changed little since then. That was, save for a variety of enhancements less natural in nature.

She set the weapon down onto one of the workbenches, its surface scarred and darkened like a veteran of countless wars. The bow had taken only a few bumps against the stones but there was a crackling sound that wood on stone shouldn't have made.

It had been against the lower wing of the bow. She'd ducked down as she was stalking the creature but some of the stones bumped against while it was in her hands. Running fingers across the bottom, she pressed and tapped here and there, arms stiff as statues and fingers feeling for the slightest new nooks and cracks.

With her eyes closed and breath slowed, the huntress focused not on what eyes could see, but rather, the touch of skin. It was a bit dangerous, especially if someone surprised her, but she had used this particular technique for years. It helped that the bow's enhancements and charms in a way, gave it a second skin or skeleton of its own.

As she thumbed and fingered here and there, small signals from the integrated magical sub-structure, a network of transfused energy and metaphysics-defying mana-algorithims, sent small signifying sparks into her own body. It looked as if she was quietly feeling all the little grooves and marks, but these tiny impulses were not visible in the physical vision-spectrum.

It felt like cheating but it was an efficient way to inspect her weapon. It wasn't sentient but it had its way of speaking. A frenetic series of buzz-pulses sounded from its lower body and she absorbed them into her thought-stream. At the intersection of magic, mind, and spirit, the pulses translated into something more comprehensible. Not words, but structured information derived from the raw essence of data.

The internal integrity had taken a minor hit - the forces that held it together as an object had been jarred. In turn, this had unsettled the physical anchors for the applied mana-information that were the enchantments. Thankfully, this could be dealt with quite easily.

Her eyes narrowed for a few split seconds and the mind behind them chilled. The cold travelled on ethereal currents, not alerting nerves or hairs, congealing over the lower half of the bow. With a subtle command, it bled through the thin boundary between the present world and what lay beyond. It was a thicker mist, almost like floating mushy water, luminescent blue and arranging itself into the same jagged geometric shapes - lines and circles, crossing into and jutting out of one another, always with a space in the centre, like the socket of an eye.

The engrams were marked and they were read. Not by her, of course. The shrouded knowledge was revealed in the shimmering of their shapes, their commands enacted as they sunk into the bow. Damaged wood and splintered bonds slowly cracked into life, fusing and mending at a scale so tiny she would need one of those kappa computer-scopes to see. It wasn't instantaneous; roughly two or three minutes and it would be done. While it repaired, she gathered the rest of her core weapons and equipment.

She removed the compact sleeveless vest she wore, made of a mixture of arachnid silk and beast hides. It'd been tanned, dyed, and then dyed again by all the grime, grit, and bodily fluids that had been splattered over it by the years. This had caused it to look the same motley colour as the decaying undergrowth she often hid in.

Her hunting knife was next. A thick leather handle, wrapped with cloth, and with a blade nearly the length of her forearm it was larger than those used by human hunters. After she went to work on it, it was more than capable of stabbing through the scales of the six foot long buru lizards that shrugged off arrows and most danmaku. Its silvery steel blade had surprisingly few scars or scratch marks in spite of the abuse she had put it through. The serrated teeth were located roughly halfway down its blade and had blunted a little. She'd have to sharpen that, perhaps go through a few combat drills again. It wasn't too often she engaged in direct combat but she kept prepared, just in case. There had been a few times when arrows were insufficient and she needed a more direct way to deal with a large predator.

The least used weapon was perhaps the most powerful. It did not seem like much, essentially being a leathery band with metallic components, arranged as if to form a protective formation as if to deflect knife blows or such. Hidden on its underside were the same jagged, whispering inscriptions she had spent so much time learning. This one though was more symmetrical than the others. A collection of overlapping circles and diamonds, their sides punctured by jabbing, thorny lines, tearing into the circle that stood at the centre. In response, the circle seemed to unleash raw rays of power outwards - essentially very thin, elongated triangles.

She simply called it the bolt-caster. The bolts themselves did not seem to be anything special. Comprised of a composite alloy and with a smooth pointed head, they looked raw and unfinished and in a way they were. After all, it was when they were actually fired that they gain their power. She wasn't too picky with the metal as long as it could conduct the ether-wash because once it was infused into a bolt and launched by magically accelerated means, it was devastating. A standard accelerated bolt could literally turn the shell of an adult dragon turtle into a smoking crater of medium-rare gore.

Then again, she generally preferred to have something she could bring back to sell. Latching on a few bolts to the charmed steel, she readjusted the straps to fit her arms, a bit tighter given her respectable musculature but comfortable. It always stayed rather cool even in the sweltering heat. The weapon was fine but now it was time to look at some more miscellaneous items of note.

An assorted range of bombs were rolled out and clustered together.. Most of these were small capsules or jars she'd took off of merchants who had little need. Now, they were repurposed to increase her options when approaching quarry or defending herself against deadlier forces when danmaku displays wouldn't cut it. The most common were the "bedlam bombs", using a magi-chemical combo to explode into both bright flashing lights and foul scent she'd derived from assorted stinkbug species. They were anything but subtle but were perfect for flushing out predators and prey.

She had also brought so called "grenades" from the kappa, supposedly good for fishing in bulk. She'd tested one out on some of the suncap mushrooms that grew twenty feet wide in the forest of magic. Marisa was shocked by the racket but they'd made up for it by sharing some very fine soup together... after they'd gotten rid of all the metal fragments of course.

There were scent-canisters too. They didn't explode as much as they simply popped open, filling an area with assorted organic scents. Usually, they attracted particular fauna or caused strange reactions in flora not limited to rampant mutations, grasping roots and branches, and even mass pollination. Handy for dealing with whole packs or the more dangerous of predatory vegetation.

A few octagonal pads the size of small plates lay neatly stacked. Each tip had an arm that travelled back to the centre of the pad where an eye-like design motif lay. Home-made magical amplification devices, highly versatile in how they could be configured. With a quick ritual they could go from setting up force fields and detecting large fauna passing by to launching ensnaring ether nets or even weakening gravity in a targeted area.

Suffice to say, Natsuko had a very wide assortment of gear on hand. That wasn't counting miscellanea like binoculars, camping supplies, spades, reinforced ropes, mana-converter/generator devices, medicine capsules and many others.

-

By the time she was done ensuring all her equipment was well tended to, afternoon had just started to transition towards evening. The smell of raw meat and rotting matter had turned into something akin to braised beef with too much oil, taunting the hissing, buzzing creatures at the edges of the clearing. The vest had been given a good washing down (even if those stains were there to stay) and her favourite weapon slung over the shoulder along with a bag containing the catch.

Like most youkai, she was capable of flight even if she spent far, far more time on terra firma. The vendors would be at their busiest right now but her consistency over the years had its perks. While it was fairly heavy, Natsuko had been doing this for a few lifetimes at the least, kicking off the front of the clearing. She wasn't a speed demon when it came to flight but she praised herself on her skill at tight turns and swoops, handy to have when some of her prey wouldn't always stick to the undergrowth.

The village glowed like a giant pass of firefly moss, very orderly firefly moss covered with a hundred little sloping roofs. Slowly birdsong and fly-buzz transitioned into the ambiguous flood of voices she associated with civilization. In just a few minutes she would be touching down, descending onto the hunter's market. Accelerating to a bullet-fast speed, she was already thinking of the money to make and stories to exchange before she tensed instinctively.

She had just turned her gaze downwards when something crashed into her stomach, knocking her off-course before falling towards the woods. Natsuko grunted but was fine otherwise; she'd taken harder knocks. However, her back and the floor didn't have a scheduled meeting anytime soon. The thrashing black mass was still grabbing into her chest and it certainly wasn't going to let go if it was what she thought it was.

React!

[ ] Attempt to stay airborne, wrest control from the creature. She might not be in the same league as Reimu, Marisa, or the tengu, but she had enough trust in her skills to stay on course.

[ ] Dive down and take it to terra firma. Wouldn't want to go into the village with this critter clamping onto you like a carnivorous living clamp. With feet on the ground, she'd be more easily able to dislodge the overgrown pest.

[ ] Fly right on ahead into the village. Not gonna let this ruin your day right? It's more fun to deal with misbehaving wild life when you've got friends.

[ ] You got a better idea? Spill it.
No. 178251
[X] Dive down and take it to terra firma. Wouldn't want to go into the village with this critter clamping onto you like a carnivorous living clamp. With feet on the ground, she'd be more easily able to dislodge the overgrown pest.
No. 178253
Just realized I used clamp twice in the same sentence. Let me durr to myself for a few minutes.
No. 178254
[X] Dive down and take it to terra firma. Wouldn't want to go into the village with this critter clamping onto you like a carnivorous living clamp. With feet on the ground, she'd be more easily able to dislodge the overgrown pest.

Well, she indicated that she was better on the ground.

Also, I'm getting a real Monster Hunter vibe from Natsuko. All those gadgets and whatnot.
No. 178255
[x] Fly right on ahead into the village. Not gonna let this ruin your day right? It's more fun to deal with misbehaving wild life when you've got friends.

Make a scene for maximum fun! Aim a fruit stand or stack of cardboard boxes in the most crowded spot possible.
No. 178260
>>178249
[Z] Spin! Shake it off!

usually when an option says something like "Attempt" it means it will fail, otherwise it would just say "stay airborne"
No. 178269
[x] Dive down and take it to terra firma. Wouldn't want to go into the village with this critter clamping onto you like a carnivorous living clamp. With feet on the ground, she'd be more easily able to dislodge the overgrown pest.


Allright.
No. 178280
[X] Dive down and take it to terra firma. Wouldn't want to go into the village with this critter clamping onto you like a carnivorous living clamp. With feet on the ground, she'd be more easily able to dislodge the overgrown pest.


>>178260
I think the "attempt" part refers more to wresting control, than staying airborne even if the wording suggests otherwise.
No. 178327
Vote is called for taking it to the dirt! Update to come later tonight or earlier tomorrow!
No. 178361
[X] Dive down and take it to terra firma. Wouldn't want to go into the village with this critter clamping onto you like a carnivorous living clamp. With feet on the ground, she'd be more easily able to dislodge the overgrown pest.

-

The creature's body, at least eight and a half feet in length, was packed with raw power. Its limbs grasped at her torso and shoulders, somehow bypassing or ignoring her own arms. Every inch of its oil black form jerked and swayed, shaking her with its immense strength. Trying to maintain flight would be pointless like this. Decreasing down the speed of her flight, Natsuko began to descend, keeping both hands around the smooth, cold skull of the creature as a sea of leafy branches approached.

The huntress pitched to the side, dodging a particularly thick arm and crashing through the bushy leafed ends. The creature in response arched its torso to the left, throwing her right into a network of criss-crossing wood, crashing her through twenty or so of the smaller limbs. Her back stung in protest but it was minor. The motley brown of the forest grew wider and more imminent and she forcefully cast herself at a curved descent, loose foliage and detritus kicking up in her wake.

The creature remained attached to her torso, silent and single-minded.

Her feet touched the ground first, digging up small trenches of dirt. The descent slowed and she'd need to make use of the momentum before it was fully spent. Putting one hand on its underside and another near its shoulder, she spun around and tore herself from the creature's grasp. It was as heavy as a fully grown man, wriggled and struggled twice as much as an unruly child, and was infinitely uglier than the village drunks.

This creature, gazing at her with its pupil-less filter pattern eyes and its cold shelled face, was some of her only consistent company out in the woods. Its flattened body and strong legs were perfectly adapted to travelling quietly and quickly through the forest undergrowth. Its shell was made of numerous interconnected segments, tough but allowing for a great degree of flexibility. Two short antennae wiggled from its flattened head and a pair of scything mandibles with inwards-curving teeth completed the fearsome image of Shizugaku.

Slapping at her arms with clenched tarsi, the creature had taken surprising care not to hurt her. With its six limbs, it could have easily dug through fabric and into flesh and she knew its great mandibles could disembowel more than merely the large snails and hill-bugs that were its usual prey. Devil beetles were quiet killers, potentially dangerous to an unaware human or youkai, but thankfully its diet was primarily composed of invertebrates. Terrifying as they could be, especially if one was lost in the woods, they were technically beneficial to most farmers, feeding on a wide variety of pests. Shizugaku was one of the few who would come this close to the settlement, however. Most devil beetles were found further into the woods, preferring the cover of obscurity and high moisture. They were reclusive and solitary by nature.

Tsuroko opened her hands and the creature fell to her feet. Its light yellow quarter-circle wings flapped and kicked up more debris. Her big mandibles clicked and clacked, throat rasping like grinding sheet metal, but it wasn't unhappy. It might not have had pupils but she knew it had smelled the meat and wasn't above the occasional petty theft. It was a bit desperate too, given by how it pressed its tail end against the ground, lowering its antennae and head.

"I'm not falling for that. You should know better." She replied gruffly. The creature shifted in place, expectantly raising its head with its jaws making little mulching motions. Smirking, her foot raised and pressed against the side of its head, turning the adult female's face away. "Stop embarrassing yourself like this."

The bug pushed back, causing her to hop back on a foot. For all its skeeviness, she had to admit, the beetle was determined.

"Perhaps if you greet me in a more civil manner..." Shizugaku's head cocked left and then right. The huntress imagined it thought it understood... unfortunately, it probably took that as meaning she'd get it the next time she air-tackled Tsuroko. "You lazy bum. I know you know there's more than enough prey for you here."

She wouldn't call her a pet. The beetle had gone hunting with her before and sometimes even followed her into her home... but it always left of its own whims, disappearing into the woods, far, far away. She knew they were burrowing creatures and fairly intelligent, but she never knew where in particular her friend lived.

It was taking to slapping its front legs on the ground like an upset infant or a territorial mammal, but Tsuruko's face had the same ironclad look of denial. The bug seemed to understand, its last few whackings growing slower and weaker. She couldn't fault the creature for trying.

"If you're around later, try your luck again." she replied, striding off to the village. The bug's antennae wiggled enthusiastically, watching her leave. It skittered away soon, disappearing back into the woods.

-

The Human Village was large, in spite of its name. Before her departure, it was a big clump of humble wooden and stone houses, occasionally reinforced with magic. Most of it was primitive, "medieval" as the outsiders would have called it, and the living conditions were varying degrees of barely acceptable to semi decent.

How things had changed since then! It might as well be a small city now, or at least a town.

When she walked through the main gate, past the blade-toting guards, people started making way. It was the smell that hit them first and the fact it was a youkai second. She looked human alright - a bit olive skinned, subtly muscled, and a stern, prying gaze, but they all knew. Some called it force of presence and she'd heard a youkai, one of those celestial messengers, once call it "atmosphere".

She didn't have horns, a tail, particularly outlandish clothes, but some would say that some of her bones looked a bit more... pronounced, sharp even, especially around her arms, collar, and part of her face. Not quite emaciated and it wasn't much overall as far as physical differentiation went, but it got noticeable the closer one looked. Her hair was always braided against her head, quite long sometimes but kept strict and close. The dark brown pants she wore also added to that kind of darkly handsome look, or at least that's what Keine had told her. Too rough around the edges for her, Tsuruko had fathomed.

Sliding between the packed crowds, the stench of oily meat soon mixed in with the overpowering scents of the marketplace. Here, she was the smaller of the businessmen - she wasn't one for standing behind a stall, preferring to keep her transitions concise. She headed over to the meat section where fresh red carcasses hung and carnivorous connoisseurs, human and youkai, stood appraising bloodied remains. It was artistic almost, the way they too dissected every cut with their incisive gazes, asking pointed questions to the stony faced butchers.

Flipping open her kappaphone, she thumbed about for a few names here and there, checking the prices and the auction times. Normally she would be selling to some of the restaurants and butchers specializing in more exotic meat. Ten fully grown rat-hounds sold quite well in some circles, with a few restaurants billing them as a refined, exotic dish that was also beneficial to the well being of the agriculture. These creatures were pests after all.

There were other hunters here, some who stayed inside the village, others from the outside. The former was a mixed group, some working in teams, while the latter was mostly youkai. They had crowded around a few emptier spaces, old stands and desks or tables, others simply holding up their catch on big foldable racks. She sometimes sold through consignment or with a few others, but today she didn't feel too much like sharing. Grabbing a marker and a small piece of cardboard, she pinned up the prices and quantity on the head of one of the beasts.

The gazes came in quick and fleeting. Restaurant owners, parents, other hunters, and the ever watching butchers were calculating price, demand, and their own culinary talent. She was selling a niche product, but that niche had grown notably in recent years. A few passed by to ask on specifics of quality, how long it had been cooked, and even the particular gender or subspecies and her reciting grew repetitive with time.

The rhythm of peering, asking, and moving on dragged, feeling turgid in spite of the constant rush of bodies. One man came up to her, a bit over the waistline to be a hunter and a bit too finely dressed. She couldn't quite make out his features in the shady lighting. He smiled at her, hand over his beard, and Tsuruko nearly smacked herself on the head.

"I'm still not sure how you always forget who I am when all that's added is just a little bit of hair on the chin." he chuckled, pulling out a small bag. Metallic contents clinked inside and she raised an eyebrow.

"I'm getting old Hachiro, forgot to bring the glasses." She mumbled, putting on her best withered accent. "Your wife's gonna throw a fit when she smells this. You trying to start something?" He huffed disbelievingly in return at her dryness. A few of the usual market-goers looked at the councillor oddly

"She's improving. We had limpet, big limpet, plate sized, last week. A little queasy she was... but all first timers are like that. She ordered a second and something real strong. Tipped more than a little extra too.." The Mochizukis paid a little extra often. She'd thought it was them attempting to play up the good Samaritan image at first but it was just a habit they'd passed down across generations. Being wealthy nobles didn't mean they couldn't be friendly. "You gonna take it? Hefty sum of golden happiness sounds the same coming out of anyone's pocket."

"Sure, sure, you're going to need some help though. Wouldn't want that natural, raw, meaty power to crush your stubby little legs." She snarked, drawing a huff of her own.

"Hey, if it was 20 years ago, I would've hauled it around from here to my place, two minutes at the most. Sitting behind a desk just doesn't give me that opportunity." He countered, putting on a pair of gloves to handle the products.

"Oh please, I know you've got more free time than me by years." Ouch, looks like the charade was up. Hachiro raised his hands up defensively.

"I'm using that to survey some possible rice fields, c'mon, you know that."

"Yeah, two years ago. That's a lot of time for a survey, isn't it?"

"Natsuko, Natsuko, the creation of a rice field is a complicated process. You see-"

-

In the end, the huntress ended up stuffing it back into the bag and following along. The rice fields argument grew excessive and overblown the further it went on; she couldn't believe that installing a giant water slide, having kappa robots hover about spraying the field with chemicals, and building an experimental "flying dirtbed" and other bizarrities had been proposed with utterly solemn faced seriousness.

"We've been considering hollowing out the very base of the valley and having a mushroom farm down there as well. Profitable business, the mushrooms have many medicinal purposes and I know for a fact that Eientei would-"

"No just... stop, I need to just punch myself a few times. Just to... knock out the stupid you put into my head." She flexed her arm and made a deep grunt as she mock-socked herself. Another fist came and slid over her face, causing her to stagger in faux-seriousness.

"I'll call the doctor, we've got a code red over here, deranged youkai lady losing terribly in boxing match against herself, send help soon!"

"Beep-beep, portly councillor severely wounded, multiple concussions to the head, attempted to talk crazy face-punching youkai out of punching herself!"

She felt a few hundred years younger at least. She was sure for certain both of them were reaching the single digits in terms of mental maturity now. She had close her eyes and just to breathe normally now. She managed to avoid laughing, but only just: if one paid close attention, they'd see a shadow of a smile at the corner of her mouth, hear a slightly more laboured breathing. She didn't want to give him the satisfaction.

She really had given up a lot when she walked past the Village gates, so many years ago. And she just had to bring up the old stains on the record by playing along. Aching, that's how it felt, even with all the smiles, the laughing, the drinking. All she had to show for it were those small, humble smiles of honest men and women putting in the bare minimum of emotional acknowledgement. Never did the smiles grow much wider or heart any warmer; she'd made her choice long ago and it was too late to go back, physically and emotionally.

Hachiro coughed a bit, his own spit sliding down his trachea. Natsuko sighed, forcing out the last of the laughing motions, and patted him on the back forcefully. His house wasn't too far away; they could see its pale white top sticking over a few of its neighbours. He smiled at her, eyes quickly taking in how far they'd come before reaching for the bag.

"I'll haul it the rest of the way. I could use a bit of exercise. You should get going, won't want to be around when my wife catches the smell." His sheepish expression smiled a little nervously, moving off towards the sloped path to his home.

"Don't break your back. Take it slow Hatchy. I'll be at the Town Hall if you're up for drinks and tall tales."

"Not likely. Gonna be a small battle when I come through that door. Better wish me luck. See you around huntress." The stocky man hefted the bag over his shoulder, knees buckling but he held. Turning to wave, he took off up the cobblestone paths, audibly huffing as he went.

It was getting late now. The orange glare of the sun washed over the village, casting great shadows that seemed to slough away into nothingness. Yet the city did not sleep - youkai were more active at this time of day. In turn, the veteran town police brought out many it own youkai troopers. A few passed her by, nodding and slightly twitching their noses. That scent stick like glue, even through a thick bag.

The night patrols had increased in size now that she thought about it. They weren't carrying just cudgels now - she spotted short swords and even a few repeating-model crossbows. A few of them, seers or shamans, carried amulets and beads, artifacts that improved one's magical capacities and in turn, their danmaku. She imagined it was likely just a precaution or testing new equipment but she couldn't be sure.

The youkai hunters, village defence corps, and the red-white miko often ensued that attacking the Village was utter suicide. Would be murderers and hidden terrors didn't stay at large for long. And when they were found, they were lucky if the police found them first. Here, safety in numbers meant brutality in quantity... and it wasn't just the humans who would do the lynching.

As she walked down the rocky path, passing the old orchids and night-blooming flowers, her pacing began to slow. Her steps made no sound against the stony path and her breaths became silent. As her respiration slowed, her hearing sharpened, becoming a second sight. Between the rustles of dry leaves and the crawling wind, there was something else. A crusted, dry sound, punctuated by the tiniest of rising and falling crackles, like someone dispersing their weight on an old floor. She turned around to sweep the area, a hand slowly approaching her knife.

"If you're wondering about Hachiro, no, he doesn't really like ankleslicer that much." came a husky and calm voice. "He'll probably donate it to the neighbours."

Natsuko's hand tightened but she did not grip the blade. She turned her gaze towards the orchids, waiting for the face to reveal itself.

"I should have messaged you earlier but there had been some complications." said the unknown watcher. "We'll need to talk. Elsewhere. I trust you will be discrete?"

Tsuroko hesitated for a moment before responding.

[ ] "Why not at Hachiro's, another noble's, even the mayoral mansion?"
[ ] "You could have chosen a better spot to hide. I need to take you hunting more."
[ ] "Start shocking me. This ship's staying on course otherwise."
[ ] "Then let's get moving. I trust you have a cover for me at the Town Hall."
[ ] "Is there a reason you're coming to me and not someone more capable?"
[ ] -Something presumably very snappy and wisecracking noir protagonist esque the anons thought of- [write it in]

-

Spotting (un)intentional musical references may possibly result in future rewards.
No. 178364
[x] "Start shocking me. This ship's staying on course otherwise."

This way to the PLOT
No. 178365
[Z]"You could have chosen a better spot to hide. I need to take you hunting more."

This way to snarky dialog.

I love how this story remembers that Youkai are actually monsters and not all of them are pretty girls.
No. 178366
>>178365

To be honest, when I was thinking of Natsuko's appearance, I was envisioning her as looking a bit like a somewhat younger Japanese version of Rhona Mitra (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rhona_Mitra) who was clearly spending more hours at the gym. More muscled but in a compact, streamlined way and still predatory in how lithe she is.
No. 178367
[x] "Then let's get moving. I trust you have a cover for me at the Town Hall."

So who is this, then?
No. 178368
[x] "Why not at Hachiro's, another noble's, even the mayoral mansion?"

Hmmmmmmmm
No. 178370
Gonna need a tiebraker people!
No. 178371
[x] "Why not at Hachiro's, another noble's, even the mayoral mansion?"
No. 178374
[X] "You could have chosen a better spot to hide. I need to take you hunting more."

hey guys lets have another tie
No. 178379
*authoreyebrowtwitchingintensifies*
No. 178382
[X] "You could have chosen a better spot to hide. I need to take you hunting more."
No. 178409
[x] "Why not at Hachiro's, another noble's, even the mayoral mansion?"
No. 178410
Alright, alright, seems we'll have a mix of the first two choices. Vote's over fellas. Brace for impact in a few hours.
No. 178432
Update to come tomorrow.
No. 178467
[x] "Why not at Hachiro's, another noble's, even the mayoral mansion?"
[x] "You could have chosen a better spot to hide. I need to take you hunting more."

-

"A dead end with meagre vegetation isn't the best of hiding spots. Consider going on my hunting trips." Natsuko's voice was purposefully chastising but she knew the guardian could take it. They'd gotten used to it when she helped train them in survival tactics.

"A better spot would have been the crowds or the warehouses," stated her unseen watcher and Natsuko looked away, eyes scanning the roof, windows, and alleyways. "Be a little grateful I chose something familiar."

"Someone of your standing shouldn't need to hide...," the huntress trailed off, already aware of the implication. Walking forward a few steps, she stopped to lean against the side of the wall. Her phone had buzzed and she opened it up. There was a text message from an anonymous user.

User: Through the fence, two alleys down. Not a word.

N. Tsu: Why not Hatchy's, a trusted councillor's, or the mayoral residence?

User: Am I not taking enough of a risk? There were guards, and you remember what happened last week.

N. Tsu: Will you at least whisper?

User: Get going. Delete messages.

She folded up the phone and started walking, soon hurrying. No footsteps sounded behind her and neither did the unseen speaker's silhouette appear. She kept one hand in a pocket, the handle of the knife just a flicker away. One alley... not a single person in sight. Another one, just as empty. Quickly, she deleted the conversation and quickly moved through the narrow space. A voice at the back of her head screamed of ambushes and traps but she knew none were coming.

Further up ahead was a great green slope, leading up a hillside. Here were the more upscale houses of the Village. The fences were hard to see, partially swallowed by the rampant sea of soft greens but it would give her the cover she needed. The setting sun cast stretching shadows and combined with the foliage, she would be practically invisible to anyone behind her or watching from above.

She floated over the fence, using the power to soften her landing. Covered by the shrubbery, she immediately stopped to notice the footprints before her. They were recent and coincided with a recent familiar scent. It was pleasant but also earthy, smelling of a dry spring forest.

Hopefully, a potential stalker wouldn't be as skilled a tracker as either of them.

Moving up under the cover of thick leaves and the approaching night, she followed the trail to the edge of a house with an almost comically large roof, reminiscent of an oversized hat. She was at its once white walls, now dark with dirt and brown vines. The trail of prints started to fade out here but she had a good enough guess why.

Her hands slid across the damp earth and her breaths slowed, waiting, expecting, but seeing.

Should she use it? No, invoking that power for such a simple task was sloth, something that did not coincide well with her lifestyle. Her fingers rubbed lightly on the dirt, trailing here and there, before a very slight bump broke the consistency of touch. A light, soft bump, but not the irregularity of stone or a the light grooves snail's shell. Her fingers dug a little bit deeper into the dirt.

Gradually, a handle's features molded to her fingers and old metal greeted her.

"Slowly now," came the voice. The trap-door opened just enough for her to slide herself in, feet first, and a pair of hands helped catch her feet, lowering her in.

There was no light in the room, but for one with youkai blood, that wasn't a problem. She would know, that woman in blue with the soft red eyes. She had been one, partially so she would specify, for far longer than Natsuko.

"It is not often you show me this subtle side," Natsuko replied, wiping off the dirt on her fingers. A few bags of wheat, some old carriage wheels, and old cobwebs completed their dingy surroundings. "You dragged me away from what would have been a good night spent at the hall."

"I may be a beast inside, but I need not roar to acquire your attention. Follow." She walked off further to a door, Natsuko in tow. A small room with a few desks, some covered in old scrolls and banners, greeted them. There were a few small lamps hanging above. Moths flitted about and she saw white powder accumulated on the furniture beneath them.

"I'll explain to some of the other councillors tomorrow, but first... it wasn't just last week," she continued, kneeling down to open a few drawers. Natsuko pulled over a chair, wiping some of the moth-dust onto her fingers. Buttery, but nice.

"Is this about the darkened beast? The one that they hunted down without my aid?" Natsuko was curious now. That had been the only major incident of the prior month and she had heard little over it. Much pomp and circumstance was given to the brave hunters and Village guards who volunteered but she had heard little of the aftermath.

"And of whom only half returned." she added, coming up with a small folder. Her eyes looked into Natsuko's in quiet, unspoken tragedy.

They were beautiful eyes, she had to say, like fading fires on some distant hillside. They seemed almost ill-suited for her stately beauty and notable height, but contrasted her traditional blue single dress well. She wasn't a noblewoman, no, they didn't have that understated power, hinted at with the slightest of bodily tension. Her light blue hair extended to her waist, kept plain and straight. Natsuko had seen it first hand; this woman had slain youkai in single combat twice her height and not just during transformations.

"Where were you?" she asked, her voice sharpening.

"Trying to stem the spread of rancid, living decay it invoked." She sighed, holding her head. She'd need a minute, but it had been a black entry she'd opened up in the mental diary. "20 minutes, that was it. 10 for it to have halved us, 10 for our revenge."

"Keine, gods, I'd... was this the force behind some old scourge? The crop devastations, disappearances in the fields, murdered merchants found in old burrows?" She would have suggested a drink, but alcohol couldn't soften this. No, she needed to be awake, to be pained, shocked into steely-eyed focus. She was waiting for the words to come, the chilling guesses of her imagination already rampant.

"It had certainly contributed. But that's not the main catch. The beast was possessed," she stated calmly, opening the folder and drawing out the papers inside. "Not by a woodland spirit or some mad ghost. Disease, bodily disease, necrotic and hungry, possession doesn't grant one that power or that immense force of presence."

"It could have been an older spirit, the shamanistic ones. Filthiness and decomposition are common ambient elements that deep into the wild," she explained, hoping it was one of those rare cases that only proved the rule. Keine passed her a few of the photos and she simply stared. Not shirking or queasy, but morbidly entranced at the char-coloured, distended masses, familiar ones - she recognized a family heirloom blade here, a piece of armour there, familiar markings upon them all that made the remains recognizable.

"So, what about it? And what does it have to do with last week's murdering?" she asked, her voice calmed. She didn't react to such morbid sights with fear or hardening. Even her normally rugged voice petered out, something quiet and questioning in its place.

Keine passed her another paper, sliding it over the desk.

"We didn't bring it home, no trophies or keepsakes, but we kept the body secure. I sent out a message to Eientei and to Voile," she said quietly. She was breathing long and slow, eyes elsewhere.

The creature was on its side. It was ugly, that was for sure. Its flesh, whatever that was still intact, clung to a streamlined frame, bony yet muscular at once. Strong digitigrade legs and a long tail marked it out as a predator, a fearsome one at around nine and a half feet in height and a bit less than twice that in its length. Its raised upper body would have looked the part of some wild parody of a proud nobleman with its distinct shoulders and thick neck. Below, jutting ribs extended down to its belly, made of smoothed, compacted flesh that once was packed with explosive power.

Its head, sitting upon a muscled neck, was nearly severed and a frothing blackness, like a dying, desperate growth of short-lived moss, had spread over its gored belly. The viscera wasn't fresh, but in its half mulched state, she knew it hadn't been trauma or destructive magic. Advanced decay, uncontrolled purulence, with only faint specks of red amidst the almost peat-coloured mass - this creature should have been very, very dead far earlier.

Yet it was a second picture given to her that made her freeze.

Here, most of the creature's flesh was gone and a strange fog with yellow glowing spots hung above. The malevolent cloud was condensing and flexing, its gaseousness body contorting like sentient water. A silhouette of something could be seen behind this sulphurous veil but no camera could capture its true shape, not behind this cloud of necrotic power. There were two others there - one she recognized as the Voile librarian, encased in an ovular field of blue light. The other, a taller person, had a full body white suit made of some heavy fabric. Both were channelling raw blue-white power into a sorcerer's circle, banishing the ethereal mass to wherever it had come from.

And on those drying bones below it, clear in the glare of the day, was a symbol.

It was spread out from its chest down to its underside. Natsuko she turned the picture sideways. A collection of rough hewn lines, like long trenches across its bones, all dug in along the centre of its sternum, bending in "L"-shapes that crossed over the sides of its cracking rib cage. They trailed down to its belly and across its exposed side, and she wished it was standing. It couldn't have just been that; there had to be more over its remains.

Turning her gaze back to its upper body, her eyes narrowed. The trench-lines framed another part of the symbol, etched into the interior of its corpse. In the back of its rib cage glowed a bright and fiery light, shining through strips of spoiled meat. It silhouetted a collection of long, curved lines, all emerging from a central swirl configuration, the length of them whirling back like scything arms or threads blown back by the wind.

Grainy as the image quality was under the mana-charged air, it wasn't just a strange symbol somehow present on a long-dead body.

It stared at her, past her eyes and past her thoughts, travelled along the vague currents of a distant, floating mind, up and over, beyond and within, to some distant place in forgotten dreams. Lost kingdom, oh lost kingdom of the wilfully blind, lost kingdom that was once mine, we gave up ou-

Natsuko seethed and her left hand jerked, tightening on the white edges of the photo. Keine's glance rose to meet her seething glare. She didn't flinch, inquisitive about the sudden change. Natsuko had met her look out of instinct rather than irritation and it showed. Her black-eyed gaze was elsewhere, anywhere else.

"I considered asking you. It wasn't a quiet hunt. We didn't come to stalk our prey - we knew its whereabouts. The youkai of the woods, even some of the ferals, they were afraid as well," she stated. The shwip-shwip of her going through the pictures stopped and suddenly the room felt louder to Natsuko, the merest fluttering of the now tired moths pounding and pounding, even if she knew it was her mind's frenetic tension.

"Last week. The hunt. Connect the two," she bluntly demanded.

"Criminal. Murderer. Four counts, all of last week's deaths. Found. Dealt with," she stated simply, putting away a few of the pictures. One remained in her hand.

"I know, but there was no major commotion. Where was the mob? They should have been all over it." She was feeling impatient but reining it in. Something dreadful was just waiting for her eyes and she knew it. Every little demand and question one step closer to that yawning edge she had just walked away from.

"A small one. The inn in central square. Youkai sniffed him out - we'd nearly caught him once but he was gone before we saw his face. He wasn't as lucky this time." Keine's fingers closed around the pictures. She looked over it but didn't hand it to him yet. "The owners had gotten to him first but they've refused to talk about it."

Natsuko's neck hairs stood on end as she took the bundle.

A youkai stared back at her. A bestial youkai, with clawed hands and a savage face, yet sitting reserved and moderate. His eyes caught her first, a little window into a world of hidden crimes and unassuming looks. They were brave eyes, the humble kind of brave, still drawn at their edges. Something had stressed him, just enough to break the facade he had put up of silent defiance, mouth open and perhaps mumbling some last spiting words.

Natsuko's sight plunged into them, knowing that the tips of those charred, black lines were there at the edge of her sight, that they had spread just like when she'd caught the first glance, and that she would have a full view of that same glaring mark. She could hear that humming voice, not the presence of those outside, no, her own voice, desiring to sing the damn song and whatever yama-damned kingdom it was referring to and that cursed blindness. She had to look, she had to satisfy that stupid curiosity, to shut it up.

Her eyes lowered and sound ceased to be.

The murderer was on his back, his bare chest exposing something worse beneath. It was all she had expected and dreaded, the full image in all its macabre revulsion. The lines dug through tattered flesh, hanging loose and ruined, charred black as if by a great internal heat. A great framework criss-crossed over the centre of the sternum, randomly intersecting at first glance, but guided by some strangely particular geometric logic.

There stood the swirl of scything arms, nestled against the back of the cage of bone, the rear ribs splintered and bent, held together by some fatty white gunk... and over another symbol. An old, forgotten one in the outside yet curiously here. It was made of two central ribs, pulled back, their tips sharpened out. Bisecting it was a glowing white line that took up a large portion of his exposed spine. A familiar light shone from within, the lower portion greater in its length, the shorter topmost one petering out near his throat.

And the scything hands sat comfortably at its intersection, whispering in unspoken, quiet taunts. It knew and it remembered, the first time she had gazed just mere minutes ago. She wanted to see the rest of what it could reveal, to be taken away past this transitional space, to seek and venerate the sac-

Natsuko spasmed and coughed, rising off her chair, the furniture crashing behind her. She hissed and choked out a grunt, grabbing onto a table, slipping, and pulling over a poster. She slumped down, clenched fist punching into the hardwood floor.

Keine cursed and vaulted over the desk, grabbing her by the shoulders. She felt her muscles flex and her arm grip around her. She was at sea without a buoy, drifting and grabbing onto drifting, sinking jetsam. Keine could sense it in those wild and jerking eyes. Every corner of the room had the potential to have that oh so friendly terror and the ugly black stain, just waiting for her to give in to that curiosity that would kindly ask again, and again, and again, its voice so soothing and kind, offering her something she could never name, not unless she wanted to plunge past that scything mark.

"Natsuko!" she called, her voice thundering loud yet an echo in her shuddering head. "Natsuko, oh godammit, Natsuko, up, up, back on your feet!"

She'd never seen Natsuko like this. Even after the crushing blows of wild hunts or the bounties she had tracked down, she hadn't collapsed so utterly shaken and defeated. The arm around her shoulder was still haplessly gripping about for anything to secure herself, spasming as if it would shoot off its joint any moment. Keine's fingers drew before her eyes and snapped a few times, jolting her awake before she started shuddering again.

She couldn't seem to concentrate on anything, not even the dull floor or walls, she just needed to close her eyes and shut out all stimuli. Her twitching eyelids fell and all she had was the staggering form of Keine to hold her afloat.

-

Natsuko opened her eyes slowly. She did not feel fatigued or tired as she saw the scenery around her. She was sitting on a sofa, her limbs reluctant to move but not stiff, simply still. Her eyes did not feel bleary or grimy with debris as they often were after a long sleep.

"Ten minutes," her friend's welcoming voice made her squint, her sight refocusing on the blue haired teacher. She was afraid she might have been out for a whole day. "I was worried when you simply locked up. We will continue tomorrow if that's alright with you."

"I'm not going to be sleeping." she replied in her quiet, unflinching tone. Natsuko broke the unseen mold that felt clamped around her, warmth and feeling returning to her nerves. She stood and looked around the living room, greeted by the sound of little flapping wings returning. There were no windows down here on this second floor basement and she looked to the stars leading down.

Keine sighed and produced the same folder, motioning for her to sit back down. There were a few glasses on the short tea table, two of which were filled with a pleasant-smelling red liquid. A tall green bottle stood there, its contents having dropped to the bottom of its neck. Alcohol was something she did not often indulge in but she could use an exception today. She took a glass and drank it slowly, not quite savouring the bittersweet taste. Her mind felt awakened by its sudden, unfamiliar taste. It helped her focus, suppressing those rampant frayed ends. The teacher caught her steadying gaze and smiled lightly. She returned the expression.

"The second one did not put up much resistance but I suppose he had something else in his sights. He was already leaving so to say, bodily, spiritually." The memory was one of unease and unanswered questions rather than regret and anger. "He was panting like a dog, dripping skin and dropping hair. And that same stench was there, more faint but strengthening with each minute. He was brandishing a short sword but there wasn't wrathfulness or mad-eyed desperation in this final stand. I remember a chill in the room, emanating from him, and the silhouette of the cross-shape."

"I doubt it was an actual chill," interjected Natsuko. Keine took her glass down in a single go. She furrowed her brows at the huntress' words. She didn't know how long she had been interested in those strange carved symbols of hers. She had only learned about it a few months after Natsuko's first year here, but were the ones on the beast and the murderer of the same esoteric tradition?

Keine's fingers clasped to her chin, attempting to remember the sensory influx of the moment. She had shivered lightly, clenching her teeth, and remembered the crish-crush of breaking, flaking skin speeding and intensifying. Cold wasn't supposed to accelerate decomposition.

She remembered one of the officers with her, holding her elbow after she'd plunged her own blade through his neck. His hand were warm and comforting on her skin, returning its warmth in kind, but she felt his fingers shake with hers, even as the wraith-chill was leaving.

"... You're correct," she concluded, going through a few more pictures. These ones had been from further back, roughly around a year and a half. "It is still disagreed upon by the councillors and guard officers I've entrusted with these files but I believe these two incidents are linked to more than a few strange happenings in the woods."

Natsuko wasn't going to ask for more pictures. She knew that each year many villager souls were simply swallowed up by the dangers of the woods but this was a rare case of a conscious, deliberate mind behind them. Someone or something had deliberately marked two of its own, perhaps more, for some malicious purpose. However, these actions were isolated and were not part of some known large scale rend. Reimu and the others had yet to really respond to any Village related incidents as of late.

The woman thumbed through another dossier, also containing images, but these ones were higher quality. Some were copies of others, but with markings traced upon them. More than a few were aerial and some were taken in the thick of the wilderness. A notable number of the pictures she recognized as being from the youkai mountain given by the raven-winged and wolf-eared figures. A few of them had come with newspaper articles.

"How did you get these?" asked Natsuko, scanning the pictures to and fro. These were youkai alright, feral ones given by their ragged and dishevelled appearance, but they weren't slouching or slavering like barely sentient apes. They were armed with bows, swords, and a distinctly aware intelligence and purpose. "Your culprits?"

"Tengu reporters. Lens for hire, but a few of them had already been investigating in spite of some red tape set by Tenma's council. Look at..." Keine leaned over to pull out one of the pictures, slotting it over the rest. "This. Was all the buzz in the mountain capital. The clamped down on the outrage fast though."

It was a trio of wolf tengu. Two males, one female, all looking roughly in their mid hundreds. Middle aged by their standards and looking the part of it. The paper sheet Natsuko had been shown had three different pictures, each one focusing on a different angle. The criminals, all handcuffed and escorted by grey-armoured guards, had been in a fight of some sort. All of them appeared to be in military uniform. The female had a nasty gash across her stomach, carrying on through sheer grit and determination. The older of the two males had his vest partially torn, scowling at the camera. It was the other male however, with the great gash across his back, clothing torn, that caught her attention. The tattoo beneath glanced at her as he passed by, clinging desperately to his skin.

Natsuko inhaled and exhaled slowly, realizing that the web was only widening.

"So..." The questions bubbled and boiled in her head, all churning and jostling for position. Keine looked at her and waited for them to flow.

Choose Three.

[ ] "Have the Tengu or anyone else conducted any investigations?"
[ ] "How aware are the Scarlet Devil Mansion and Eientei? Are they willing to help?"
[ ] "What of the other murders, possessions, and confrontations? What else can be linked to them?"
[ ] "Has any action been taken against them? On that note, just who and where are they?"
[ ] "What plans do we have for security? I've seen the armed guards but surely it's more than that."
[ ] "What do you need me to do?"
[ ] "What else do we know about them?"
[ ] "Have any humans been affected?"
[ ] Write it in.
No. 178468
I was going to put some music for this post but I forgot. If anyone here has some creepy atmospheric music, please show me it off in the #eientei or #thp channel, it'd be appreciated.
No. 178469
Choose four, actually. My bad.
No. 178480
[X] "How aware are the Scarlet Devil Mansion and Eientei? Are they willing to help?"
[X] "What of the other murders, possessions, and confrontations? What else can be linked to them?"
[X] "Has any action been taken against them? On that note, just who and where are they?"
[X] "What do you need me to do?"

Well, the obvious question is "What do I need to do about it?"
Other than that, I think the most important ones are:
"Actions taken, and by whom?"
Because this can also let us know whether other factions know about it. If they have taken action against it, they know.
"Other things linked to them?"
If there are any links to potential leads, we want to explore them.
And as for the fourth question, I had a hard time deciding but I think "Potential allies?" is the best thing to ask about.
No. 178489
[x] "How aware are the Scarlet Devil Mansion and Eientei? Are they willing to help?"
[x] "What of the other murders, possessions, and confrontations? What else can be linked to them?"
[x] "Has any action been taken against them? On that note, just who and where are they?"
[x] "What plans do we have for security? I've seen the armed guards but surely it's more than that."
No. 178503
[X] "Have the Tengu or anyone else conducted any investigations?"
[X] "What of the other murders, possessions, and confrontations? What else can be linked to them?"
[X] "Has any action been taken against them? On that note, just who and where are they?"
[X] "What else do we know about them?"

This is getting really good.
No. 178523
[x] "Has any action been taken against them? On that note, just who and where are they?"
[x] "Have any humans been affected?"
[x] "What else do we know about them?"
[x] "What do you need me to do?"

Gensokyo Special Forces activate.
No. 178533
I'm a bit busy again so I shall call the vote in perhaps a few hours, just to give everyone a bit more time.
No. 178578
I'll begin writing the update later today.
No. 178682
Some bullshit came up, hence the slow update. Rest assured it will be coming.