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The simple straw doll stared eyelessly at me from where it had been tied to a tree with a length of coarse linen. Quickly but meticulously made, a certain sign I was still walking in the right direction. A black substance emerged slowly, delicately from between the straws, clinging to the wood and flowing gently upwards. Like incense smoke in still air, but of solid black, as if someone had plucked up a line of ink by one end and lifted it clear from the paper. It reacted as I approached, turning towards me as I gingerly placed my hand upon its host. It continued to move with the same ethereal smoothness as before, but now with the purpose I’d given it. With the push of a thought, it coiled around my fingers, spinning, up my wrist and arm, over my long sleeves, to finally slip into my chest like a dagger to the heart. I had gotten used to it, but seeing it move across my skin without even the scantest whisper of sound or feeling was still novel every time.
It all took less than a half-minute. I’d performed the entire ritual dozens of times this week alone. The doll was drained then, and all that was left to do was methodically cut the ties, take it down and scatter the now mundane straws in the wind. This latter part wasn’t strictly necessary, but there was no sense in leaving the doll here to spook random people.
Even being as slim as a silk string, to me the smoke-like substance coming from the next marker was clearly visible from just over the horizon, probably a good couple of hard hours away. I suppressed a sigh, folded my skirt beneath me and sat against the tree. Only a very short break, that’s all.
The sun was nearly fully down, although I could feasibly have travelled at night with the bright moon for a companion. I’d long abandoned what road there was – an overgrown dirt path that looked as though it had seen no men for months. I hadn’t seen another person at all for a full three days and change. This far from the rule of law, a path like that was as likely to lead into trouble as not. And anyway – I thought, fiddling with the string I’d just recovered – I had my own guide.

I leaned my head back against the trunk, thinking. Where were we going? I had been left behind before, of course, and sometimes with little warning – after all, I echoed in my head, learning independence was crucial. We had also deviated from the rough route we followed before, it wasn’t as though we were patrolling soldiers. But never both at the same time, and never for quite this long. We’d been getting farther and farther from civilization for days and days, and though I wouldn’t say I was lost, I wouldn’t be able to place myself on the map. Unless I’d sleepwalked through a boat ride, we were still in Honshu, but that was as much as I could say.
Thinking about it, it was remarkable just how few people I had seen since I set off. I didn’t think Japan was a large enough country that I could go days of travel without meeting anyone. Apparently, I was wrong.
It all amounted to idle pondering, of course. There was no choice to be made here. I would follow as I always did, and I had no doubt in my mind it’d be explained to me in time. I checked my pack, boots, knife, food with the efficiency borne of more years of practice than my age would suggest. I decided to walk until I found a decent place to sleep, or, more ideally, a stream. Being on the road had left me unable to wash properly for a few days now, and it was starting to get to the point where it bothered me.

I offered a short prayer of thanks when I heard the soft murmur of water up ahead. A bath would do me good on multiple levels. I blew a whistle to call my companion back: it’d been a while since I’d last seen him. By the time he padded into view, I had undressed, cleansed myself, changed into the one spare set of clothes I carried, washed the previous set, eaten and and set about putting up my makeshift clothesline.
He laid nearby and yawned, waiting patiently. My trusted companion: a large dog of true Japanese breeding, with a pure white coat, the characteristic small eyes, attentive ears, and stocky build. He waited patiently, panting, and when I was done, accepted the scratch behind his ears with the same sharp-eyed indifference he accepted everything else. I’d neglected to name him, and referred to him simply as my friend. I sniffed at the smell of fresh blood in his breath: by the look of it, he’d caught something to eat without my help.
I considered lighting a fire, but discarded the idea; I had no idea when I’d get another matchbox, and I hated using flint. It was a royal pain getting a fire going with it, and anyway it wasn’t that cold this time of year.
I arranged my bedding, which was no more than a cloak I used to keep the rain off me, and had no notion to do anything other than flop down. After the hours upon hours of walking, all I could spare was another glance at my canine friend before I sunk into the sleep of the dead.
It was noon of the next day before the trees finally broke, and I admit I was never so glad to see a dingy farmhouse. It was small: tiny fields fenced off, a few heads of sheep, surrounded by more wild grass. There were two farms in the distance, indicating that there was some sort of settlement ahead. I exhaled in relief.
I was exhausted.
I was used to the road, yes, but this was the first time I’d gone so, so long without a proper bed to sleep in. Even in the worst cases, I’d had a nice warm barn.
More pressingly, I had never gone so long without seeing mom.
I missed her.

[ ] Request shelter at the first farm.
[ ] Soldier on and find an inn. It’s still daytime, and it can’t be far.


hi again
[x] Request shelter

[X] Request shelter at the first farm.

I'm glad to see you writing again.
[X] Soldier on and find an inn. It’s still daytime, and it can’t be far.

Keep it together dude. You can't be bitching about travellin if you're a dang traveler.
[ ] Soldier on and find an inn. It’s still daytime, and it can’t be far.
[x] Soldier on and find an inn. It’s still daytime, and it can’t be far.

Another story by Isolex? And it's about Hina? All of my yes.
[x] Soldier on and find an inn. It’s still daytime, and it can’t be far.
[ze] Soldier on and find an inn. It’s still daytime, and it can’t be far.

Welcome back, dude.
Towns always have their own aura. It comes from the way the people dress, talk, look, sound, and look at you; from the noise of children, from the smell of a fish market, from the state of their homes. Port towns that trade with the foreigners have their own kind of exuberance and loud prosperity; isolated farming villages, insular and poor, but vibrant once they recognize you as one of their own; crossroad towns, sprouting around the major roads and buzzing with travellers the year round.
But this was not exactly like any of those.

For one thing, it was much, much larger than I’d expect from a place this far out of the way. From the first couple of farms I saw, I thought it would be the usual fare: A scattering of shanty buildings and a population of a thousand at most. Instead, as I walked further in, the few farms transformed into back-to-back, healthy farms, each plot nicely partitioned by fences to keep out the livestock, and those, in turn, gave way to a mighty succession of solid-looking homes. No beggars, no drunks, no evidence of poverty and no excess wealth on display, either. It all gave off a utilitarian air, like a military camp or a city grown around a single mine.
Curiously, the town didn’t condense into cluttered buildings as I approached the centre: nearly every home had a decent stretch of land around it (for a town.) Space for vegetable gardens, a few animals, even fruit trees. All prim and neat and prosperous.

The people were clean, healthy, and hard-faced; they followed me with their eyes as I walked into their village, but I was used to being in the receiving end of a townful of stares. Young shrine maidens wandering unattended were hardly a common sight, and so I was no stranger to curious onlookers. That is, until they spotted the sign on my skirt.
厄 – sewn by hand.
Those who recognized it would suddenly remember urgent errands elsewhere, or else turn to whisper urgently at their neighbours. Then they would part before my path like a bunch of scared mice. Ungrateful cowards.
Even knowing it was coming, it still got me. I felt dull anger well up in the pit of my stomach. Dull, because it had been reheated, recooled, worked over, past and through so many times over the years that anger might not even be the word to fit the feeling anymore. Ground down over the years, it was more like a deep resentment.
The old litany came to mind effortlessly. It’s not their fault. They don’t know any better. You can’t even say they’re totally wrong to avoid you.
The justifications never did anything to improve my soured mood.

The stares of the ones that didn’t balk or recognize me, however, felt somehow more searching than the usual reception. I felt like I was being sized up by every man and woman as I passed, rather than stared at with curiosity as was more often the case.

It was only a silly fancy of mine, I was sure.

Nobody waved, nobody smiled. Children didn’t come up to ask to pet my friend, who followed obediently at my feet. If they weren’t making a quick escape or furiously whispering, they were just looking, like I was a questionable piece of merchandise on display. I might have blushed if I hadn’t gotten over that a long time ago.

All that said, it was nothing that much out of the ordinary, and aside from my disruption of their quotidian, everyone was mostly getting on with their lives, if more quietly and more seriously than I’d expect. I saw laundresses, buildings getting repaired, women gossiping at doors, children playing, men and women going about their crafts. All that keeps a town like this running.
There were few stores of any kind, and no inn or tavern that I could easily find. I should have expected it, with how out of the way the place is. After just a moment of wide-eyed surprise, a surly-looking kid pointed me to a family that would rent out a room for a few nights.
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The matronly lady receiving me at the door of the traditional Japanese-style home seemed satisfied when I bowed to her, and then moreso when I paid her up front before being asked. No trouble other than more eye contact than strictly necessary. I sighed inwards, but I couldn’t truly blame anyone for it.
I felt a little bad leaving my friend leashed outside, but I couldn’t very well leave him to roam the village.

Just the pleasure of dropping my heavy backpack after such a long trip nearly ripped a moan of pure ecstasy from my throat. The only thing that stopped me from immediately flopping down onto the futon was the strange sight of a tiny person climbing through my window.
I looked again. No, not a person, of course. It was a tiny, familiar paper doll. An animated white nagashi-bina doll, not painted or anything – just plain paper. I watched as it clambered over the windowsill, its little paper limbs straining with the effort of raising the nearly weightless body, and fluttered down inside the room. It then gathered itself up, marched up to me, and promptly “died”, the borrowed life going out of it in a small, small rush of black.

I spotted mother’s careful script on the back of the hastily-cut doll. A short message. I had seen the trick before, but not put to this kind of use.

Dearest daughter, it read,

You should have had no trouble following me. I’ve been told of a situation in this village, and that’s why I had to leave you so suddenly – if all goes well you won’t need to get involved, but if I fail every person in here will suffer. I raised my eyebrows at that last sentence. This was unusual.
The message continued.
I’d rather not discuss specifics through the doll. I don’t know where I’ll be by the time you get this, but the people of the village will point you on the right direction. If what I dread happens – and it’ll be obvious if it does – come and find me right away. Otherwise, fulfill your regular duties beforehand.

- Hina Kagiyama

To the point, dry. Very much like her. I looked out the window, where the sun was winding down to the west.
I watched as two boys chased a cat around, serious looks on their faces. A perfectly peaceful scene.
It didn’t much look like people were suffering. She must have succeeded. Of course she succeeded. She was my mother. A literal goddess.
I allowed myself a small smile before I went to sleep.

[ ] A memory from years ago.
[ ] A memory from months ago.


do you love flashbacks?

neither do i
[x] Months ago

We need context. We are Hina's son and this village is/was in danger of something. Of what? What consequences will it have once we find out that mother failed?
[X] A memory from years ago.

Time for some backstory.
[x] A memory from years ago.

[ ] A memory from years ago.

Given how the narrator mentions that shrine maidens are an uncommon sight except for the symbol hand sewn to their clothing, I think it's more likely we are her daughter.

[X] A memory from years ago.
Okay I lost first what's going on here so this will be good.

[ ] A memory from years ago.
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>the narrator mentions that shrine maidens are an uncommon sight except for the symbol hand sewn to their clothing
I'm sorry, it looks like I made a mistake in phrasing and made it really confusing by accident.

The meaning would actually be:
>They followed me with their eyes as I walked into their village. That is, until they spotted the sign on my skirt.
And the line about not being a common sight is unrelated.

I fucked it up because of piecemeal rewriting making the sentences convoluted coupled with insufficient proofreading. Usually I wouldn't bother correcting things like this but it's an important difference in meaning in this case.
I'll try to proofread a little more closely in the future. Thanks for pointing it out.
where is the father? or what happaned with him?
Wait, are we a boy, girl, or trap.
Wait, are we a boy, girl, or trap.
[x] A memory from years ago.

Y'all can't read:

> Dearest daughter
[X] A memory from months ago.
[x] A memory from years ago
Isolex, when will be the next part?
[ze] A memory from years ago.

Let's dig those memories out.
I have a question about the main character. How she looks? I mean her apparance
“…And the bark is ground to powder and mixed in last,” I recited from memory. “The salve is then applied to the wound, and bandaged over. It should be reapplied daily for the best results.”

“Correct. That’s the last question.” Mother put down the book and looked at me – almost expressionless, but not quite. I thought I could spot pride there, but it was hard to tell for sure with her.

Mother was almost rail-thin and pale, and the thin maroon dress she always wore gave her a ghostly air, making her look as she could easily vanish if a strong enough wind blew. The dress was intricate and frilled, as was the sacred ribbon streaming down from where it adorned her hair, flowing behind her in glorious free curls down to her waist.
Her eyes had permanent dark circles, giving her the grave and tired air that I knew so well. It was a deceiving look, of course, because I knew mother was strong and loving. She just wasn’t too keen on showing it, most of the time.
She paused for a moment and then finally said it, in her customary almost-whisper. “Well done.”

I exhaled sharply in triumph. I even felt an urge to jump up and hug her, but that wasn’t our way. Instead I stretched out and tried to relax some. I’d spent the last few weeks studying feverishly for this, under mother’s guidance, and it was finally time for a well-deserved break. Mostly herbs and medicines and such – not going in-depth, mind you, just learning the basics and most useful recipes, the latest of a series of basic skills I’d been taught. Mother didn’t teach me all of these herself, sometimes shipping me out to stay for a few weeks with someone or other who would have me in a mini-apprenticeship of sorts.
I had stayed at a temple, with a travelling road show, with a learned man at a university, even with someone high up in the government once, in Tokyo. Sometimes I wasn’t sure exactly what I was supposed to be learning, but I did my best.

Mother stood over me, drumming her fingers on my desk thoughtfully.
“Don’t think that you’re done learning and that’s it. You’ll need to keep refreshing, and you'll want to learn more whenever you have a chance. I only taught you the basics.”

I nodded seriously. She had impressed on me that basic medicine was one of the most important skills I’d learn, and I had some experience in how true that was. It seemed like effective doctors were in short supply in japan, and we went where they didn’t.
She stood for another moment, still tapping.

I perked up. “Yes?”

“You’re almost a woman now.”

I hadn’t thought about it too much, but I suppose I was. I’d grown quickly those past few months, as people did at that age. If I were a common girl, right about now is when I’d be worrying about marriage or graduating school, or even taking up some sort of trade. Even such things were becoming common for girls these days.
All out of the question for me, of course. I hoped she wouldn’t try to hint that I should find a... lover. She could be strangely earnest about the most random things, sometimes. Obviously, my duty to her was my number one priority, but even putting that aside, there was the matter of appearance.

I was short, with long black hair, like any other girl off the street. Rapidly gaining fat in some annoying places these days, and I wished it’d stop. All in all, I looked blessedly average, except for the one deviation.
I was born blind, with nothing but great disgusting voids where my eyes were supposed to go, along with a few other issues. There were some complicated circumstances, but to put it briefly, mother made me a new pair of eyes when I was a small child, and fixed me up. It seems goddesses can just do that.
They weren’t perfect. I could see wee – even more than well. I could see the essence of misfortune, which made my job much easier. The only issue, and it wasn’t even that great an issue, is that they had the same disturbing look to them as a blind man’s eyes: cloudy, unfocused, with barely any distinction between the white, iris and pupil. Looking into my eyes is like looking at a plume of ink in murky water, and very disconcerting. That’s what I’d been told.
It could be useful in some scenarios, but not when you’re trying to get people to treat you naturally. I suspect they’d be a serious impediment if I were trying to find a husband.

Thankfully, such a thing would never happen. I served the goddess Kagiyama in all things, and nothing more.
I felt a warmth and a thrill in my chest at that thought.

Oh. I got lost in thought.
“I am.”

“You’re almost an adult now,” she repeated, “I think you’re ready for some independence. To act alone.”
I sat bolt upright.
It wasn’t the independence, I’d practically already had that part for over a year, with no more than sort-of caretakers that didn’t always care that much looking occasionally over my shoulder
It was about the trust. Trust placed in me. I'd represent her now, for real. All of a sudden, I was nearly vibrating with a mix of excitement and nervousness that made my stomach do somersaults and my toes curl under the desk. I Had to fight down an absurd passing impulse to salute her.

Somehow, I restrained my voice.
“If…” I swallowed nervously. “If you think I’m ready.”

“I do. There’s only one problem.” she took another long pause. Those were frequent that day. “Tell me again. Why do you do this? Why do you go into villages, listen to people, help them, and gather their misfortune?”

“To help the people and lessen their burdens,” I repeated the practiced lie. Truthfully it was for her and her alone. I knew she felt similarly, deep down, but she wouldn’t admit it.

She frowned. “We’ll have to work on that. Again. Rest for three days, then you're off. Unsupervised.”

I nodded vigorously, but she was already turning away to walk out of the room. I acted before I had any time to think and stop myself.
“Ah, wait!”

She did, and I stuttered foolishly under her gaze.
“M-may I, um.” Stupid, stupid. Bothering mom with this stupid spur-of-the-moment stuff. This was what I got for acting impulsively while I was excited like this, rare as it was. So embarrassing. She waited, staring at me.
Ah, hell.

“May I hug you?”
Her expression didn’t change. “Go ahead.”
I bounced out of my chair with an undignified squeal and wrapped my arms around her waist. When I let go moments later, I had composed myself and had a warm happy feeling inside that would last me the week.

And soon, work. Real work.
I couldn’t disappoint her.
How can be born without eyes?
Where is the father?
Why is Hina so cold and emotionless? She is the most kindness and caring woman plus she is smiling.
So why?
This story looks good, you got yourself another voter.

how is babby formed
how girl get pragnent

English isn't her first language, and they're perfectly legitimate questions.

Here, this should answer your first question:

Well I have to say that the eyes thing surprised me. In a good way, mind you.
Plus I like this Hina, her lack of emotions - at least in the surface - goes well with the image I have of her. Nice.
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I woke up feeling great. That was a good dream.
I hummed silently to myself as I went through my morning. Got up, stretched, dressed myself, and thankfully got offered some bread and milk by the lady of the house. I decided to sit by the stoop with my friend while I ate. He greeted me as stoically as ever, sitting on his haunches.
I fed him some bread and petted him as I watched village life unfold. I thought I was up early, but the place was in full swing already.

And so it happened that I was sitting and nibbling on a piece of bread when the world ended

The flash was first, bathing everything in a bright red light – but not blinding, so it looked like the light from the sun had simply been run through stained glass. Red, red, red, as far as the eye could see, dying even the sky completely in the angry colour.
Dogs everywhere began a cacophony of mad barking, my friend included.
A few seconds later came the sound, silencing everything else. A sound like a cannon blast from afar, the kind that shakes your teeth and resounds in your chest, only magnified a hundred, a thousandfold. I held my friend close, and so loud was the sound, I could barely hear him barking directly into my ears.

I prayed.

But it wasn’t really the end of the world yet.
I opened my eyes a few minutes later. The ungodly noise was gone. There were no corpses, no fire or destruction, and the town seemed fine aside from the panicking people and animals making a racket. The red was still there, like a film over my vision.
I recalled mother’s letter. “If what I dread happens – and it’ll be obvious if it does –

Well then.

People were streaming nervously towards the centre of the town in groups, some more well-composed than others. Women carried their children and nearly all men carried weapons. There were old rifles, farm implements, some antique-looking swords and felling axes. A few people glanced my way, but nobody was in a place to pay much attention to an out-of-place shrine maiden.

From somewhere nearby, the piercing scream of a woman rang out, tinged with terror. A few heads turned nervously, as well as mine.

[ ] Investigate.
[ ] Follow the people to the centre of town.

[X] Follow the people to the centre of town.
When already deep in shit, do not actively dive.
[ ] Investigate.
[x] Investigate.

Hina said to find her and she's bound to be in the deepest shit, so down we go.
Good point, but I still don't like the sound of this.
[X] Investigate.
[ ] Follow the people to the centre of town.
[x] Investigate.
[ze] Investigate.

Must do it.
[] Investigate
[ ] Follow the people to the centre of town.
I had had a foolish notion that I’d be the only one gallivanting off towards danger, perhaps to be the hero of the day for once.
Propensity for the dramatic was one of my failings. Like a drunkard lacks strength of will or a hypocrite lacks a moral basis. I kept it closely guarded, but it still led me into little traps like these sometimes.
I chided myself as I followed the half-dozen well-armed men marching along towards where the scream had rung out from, feeling rather meek and silly. That wouldn’t be the case, obviously. This was a small town, there’s no way they would just ignore such a thing, even in the face of… whatever catastrophe this was.
But I mostly allowed myself that mistake, given that the sky had suddenly changed color to a bright, eye-stinging crimson not ten minutes earlier. That kind of thing throws you off balance.
The men glanced occasionally at me, but I kept my composure and none thought to directly question why I was following them. Here the eyes and the shrine maiden outfit, coupled with an outward show of confidence, lent me the appearance of someone who knew what they were doing. A very useful ruse in many occasions, especially for a little slip of a young woman like me.

I tried to figure them out as well. This town clearly wasn’t normal, but as far as I could tell, these men were. Men, the sort you see in any town, any city, any village, the commonest creature there is. These as well ranged from young to old and fat to thin, all of the working sort. Bearded and built from physical labour.
They seemed skittish, but that was only natural under the circumstances. In fact, I was surprised that the whole town seemed so orderly – everyone knew what to do, it seemed. There was no running around, no confusion, no shouting, no fights, nothing I knew to expect in unexpected events and calamities. Just a slow march of people headed for the center.
For my part, I felt curiously detached and cool because of mother’s letter. I knew it was all part of something bigger, so I only had to fulfill my duty as required. My role was set, and I’d accomplish it.

Another scream broke my thoughts, coming from a home just up ahead of us. Same place as before. A nice, spacious half-farm-house kind of place, as were other homes around. The men ahead of me broke into a jog, forcing me to keep up.
Worryingly, it wasn’t the only call. There had been yells and screams before, when the great boom sounded, but those had seemed borne of surprise and shock. These, later, were more desperate. Life or death screams. They broke here and there in the distance, punctuating the worried murmur of the village.

I ran a little harder.

The one at the vanguard, lugging a huge old bayonetted gun, turned and hastily whispered a few words to the others while I caught up to them at the entrance, then promptly slammed the sliding door open, rattling wood.
It was quiet in the wide main hall, and clean. Nothing seemed out of place, until I felt the smell.
You don’t forget the iron scent of blood.

An indistinct sound of… something wet moving sounded from beyond the first partition.

Youkai. I felt it before I saw it.

The partition wall was slid open and revealed a squat creature looking up from above a woman’s corpse. It was clear she had fallen trying to reach the door.
It was feeding.

Where the dwarfish thing’s face wasn’t coated with blood, I could see it was wrinkled and twisted, like a giant’s hand had gripped and smushed it down like wet clay. It had thick legs shorter than its torso, but its spindly clawed arms looked as if they would easily be half again the length of its body at full extension.
It took a moment to hiss and spit at us, before the spiky end of a bayonette found its torso and it fell backwards.
None of the men seemed bothered that they were facing a real demon as they stepped forward and crowded the entrance to the next room. The first one raised his gun for a final thrust at the prone body.
But then it flipped itself upright, and it was a fight.

No, not a fight.
A massacre.

It used its arms rather than legs to push itself up, and in a single movement tossed itself through the air at the man who’d stabbed it. He was quick enough to raise the gun like a staff to defend himself, but it wasn’t enough. The thing went over his head, extending a clawed arm at neck height as it went.
Blood visibly squirted, a long pulse of it before the man put his hand over the wound. He grunted once, as if surprised, then went down.

Before the body hit the ground, the youkai was pounding the short distance to the second villager on its arms. This one had a real spear and managed to point it at the monster’s direction, but he was too slow. It clambered past the point and up the spear shaft in a mess of limbs, like the world’s most disgusting monkey. With a clean swipe of its arms it took half of his neck, sending the flesh it dug off with brute force to the side in an arc of red. His head dangled as he dropped to the floor limply.

Two men were dead in the space of two seconds. All that I watched from behind, unable to do anything with people crowding the doorway to the room where the killing was happening. The other four had the good sense to run almost immediately, rushing past me as I stood before the doorway. The last one wasn’t fast enough and caught a claw through the back as he went through the door towards me. I saw it come out of his chest, blood blossoming on his shirt, then he fell with a thump. The youkai rode his back down as he fell.

Then it looked at me at nearly an arm's length.
There was no question on what to do.

[ ] Exterminate it vengefully
[ ] Exterminate it efficiently


this story will have action and fight sequences, and graphic violence is depicted
i should've opened with one actually, it's way more exciting

ps character-informing choice here
[X] Exterminate it efficiently

Be polite, be efficient...
[ ] Exterminate it efficiently
[ ] Exterminate it efficiently
[x] Exterminate it vengefully

We shall smite all who awaken Hina's wrath!
[X] Exterminate it vengefully

[x] Exterminate it efficiently

...have a plan to kill everyone you meet.
4 for efficiency, 2 to put some feeling into it, i'll give it a few hours then write

and don't sage your votes for crying out loud, /th/ is burying stories at record pace these days
[Ze] Exterminate it vengefully
[X] Exterminate it efficiently

Sorry, force of habit.

Why did you pick /th/ anyway? That mention of Tokyo seems to imply either Outside or pre-Gensoukyou, which would better fit /others/.
When will be the next part?
[x] Exterminate it efficiently.
Let's say by tuesday at the latest.
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I’m glad to say that I was never such a hand at fighting.
Oh, certainly, I learned some token amount of self-defense, but fighting was a skill that took a huge amount of effort and time to practice and wasn’t even likely to be very effective, on average, for a small woman like me. Other, more important abilities took priority. Besides which, my life was much too precious to mother to risk in fights. Her philosophy was that if I had no illusions about my abilities, I wouldn’t put myself in risk; instead, I relied on avoiding fights altogether, or failing that (in the unavoidable but infrequent case of youkai), surprise, careful preparation, and anything else that made sure it was never a fair fight.

Point being, I had quite a few surprises up my sleeves. Literally.
But all of those still involved the basic movement of reaching into a pocket somewhere and that took time, a luxury I didn’t have as the writhing ball of claws and bony arm and flesh took another impossible leap directly at me. It was all I could do to dive to a random direction and face down directly into one of the rapidly spreading pools of blood in the room. Better than a wound, I thought as I felt the slick, still warm liquid stain my forearms.
It landed two paces from me and made an angry but ineffective swipe at the air, giving me time to scramble backwards and away from it.

This wasn’t looking great.
I could clearly see the angry stab wound on its naked torso through the blood pouring from it. The thing was wild-eyed, breathing as hard as I, and it had a horrible manic energy to its movements, its spindly arms slicing through the air with the same swish sound a thin twig makes through the air when you swing it hard. I couldn’t read its twisted, inhuman expression, but I thought it looked... excited.
It opened its mouth to hiss at me and I got an unwanted glance at its stumpy, blackened teeth. Ugh.

It darted after me again, this time not leaping but using that same disturbing arm-run as before.
But it was as a mindless beast, and it couldn’t swipe at me while it ran, so I shifted forward with a heave and planted my foot on its face – more of a strong shove than a kick, but the surprised youkai couldn’t retaliate or shift course in time and tumbled backwards long enough to give me a few breaths of space.

Having a bare second to think, I finally managed to stumble upon the best strategy in this situation.
I screamed.

The youkai’s eyes widened slightly and before a second had passed, my vicious white-furred friend cannonballed through one of the paper walls into the room, lunging into the recovering youkai with a ferocious snarl. Even youkai aren’t omniscient and the horrible thing hadn’t seen him coming, focused as it was on me.
I fancied I heard the sound of fangs sinking in, absurd as that was. Although the dwarf was strong, it was also light, and a good powerful shake of my friend’s neck nearly sent it flying across the room to land on its feet. My friend had to drop it halfway through the bone-snapping, flesh-rending motion, however, because those claws didn’t stay still for long. I thanked the heavens above for his fast reflexes. He bounded just outside of claw reach and snarled and barked loudly, showing his fangs.
There’s a sort of primal, curdling fear that comes from looking directly into a beast’s toothy maw, and although I hadn’t faced any bears, I imagine it only intensified when said beast was bigger than you. I’d managed to get to my feet at that point, and the rabid barking and baring of fangs made the youkai pause, still, for just a moment.

A moment of stillness was what I needed.
In a single fluid, practiced motion, I reached into a pocket, drew, pointed, gripped with two hands and shot twice. Both shots squarely found its chest.
The whole movement took a single heartbeat to complete, and my heart was beating very fast.

Yes, an honest-to-goodness gun. A state-of-the-art piece of gleaming steel built to kill, shipped halfway across the world at no small cost. A wondrous machine of death that I fervently wished I didn’t have to use.
But damn, did it feel good in my hands.

I waited a moment, and although it wavered in place, it didn’t fall. My eyes widened in surprise.
Youkai were tough, but this wasn’t supposed to happen. This small disgusting creature got stabbed, bitten and shot twice, and it was standing without much trouble. That should at least have put it down. Why was it still standing? Just the force imparted by the bullets should have been enough to send it sprawling.
I didn’t spend much time thinking about it, because I had four more good answers for that question in my hands. It still had the stamina to try a lame dash towards me past my friend, making me miss the second to last shot, but the final one, at alarmingly shrinking range, hit the top of its misshapen forehead dead-center and it went down like it had just run into a low clothesline. When it went down I had the silly mental image of a bureaucrat stamping a paper without even looking: fast, efficient, with a satisfying thump sound.
I was satisfied with that last shot.

But it was still somehow moving around on the ground, trying to hit something with its claws. I was certain there was no real force behind its strikes, but just to be sure, I picked up the fallen villager’s spear and looked down at the disgusting soon-to-be-corpse. My friend kept his distance, still barking. Good boy.
The three good men dead around me were my responsibility. Nobody should be killed by a youkai this near to a shrine maiden. Because of this small, stunted, twisted, emaciated-looking little beast, I had three new failures on my shoulders. The thought sent a sting of annoyance through me.
I had been around death an unusual amount in my short life, but not usually so violent and gory as this, and the diffuse red sunlight bathing everything in its sickly shade didn’t help the look of the place, although it had the advantage of hiding some of the blood on my clothes and on the floor, dark-red-on-red as it was now. I tried hard to avoid looking at the one guy who had his head mostly taken off.

A body riddled with holes and tears isn’t fun to contemplate, even if it’s a youkai. I raised the weapon to end it – I’d stab until it stopped moving entirely and finish it off, as quickly as I could.

It sputtered something, spitting blood.
I furrowed my eyebrows. Was it trying to speak?

[ ] Just kill it post-haste and get out of here.
[ ] Listen to it. Can’t hurt, at this point.


There was no good picture of Hina with a gun, so please enjoy this unrelated Alice instead.
I mean, yuumu. Whatever
[ ] Just kill it post-haste and get out of here.
[X] Just kill it post-haste and get out of here.

Let's not waste time.
[X] Just kill it post-haste and get out of here.

Put it out of its misery.
[x] Just kill it post-haste and get out of here.
[ ] Listen to it. Can’t hurt, at this point.
[ze] Listen to it. Can’t hurt, at this point.

I'm kinda curious of what it has to say.
[x] Just kill it post-haste and get out of here.
[x] Just kill it post-haste and get out of here.
Sorry folks, bit busy these days. I'll try to get an update out before the weekend.
Youkai are supposed to be one of the foremost responsibilities of a shrine maiden, and I considered it a grave failing that I completely misjudged this tiny, horrible creature.
I remembered my lessons.
Youkai were diverse – extremely diverse. Even more so than humans. They varied an enormous amount across and within their ‘types’: in appearance, strength, wit, temperament and any other characteristic you’d care to name. There were general trends, but with enough exceptions that, to be totally sure of the capabilities of a youkai, nothing beat the experience of having seen and dealt with a similar one before. Even then, you had to be on your toes for new tricks and individual oddities.

This one had had the look and feel of a weak youkai, but that had been a mistake. My mistake. I lifted the spear with both hands and thrust. The weapon was unfamiliar in my hand and handled awkwardly, but nevertheless it jabbed so hard into the thing that I heard and felt the bamboo mat splintering underneath it. Its gurgles died in its throat. Then I did it again, but still it persisted in squirming about, horrifically maimed as it was. It made me sick to look at it, red-on-red in the sunlight, without an inch of skin uncovered by dark wounds or blood at this point. My adrenaline rush was winding down by then and I suddenly had trouble keeping my hands from shaking long enough to finish it. I had to forcefully banish the thought of simply turning around and going back to sleep in the comfy hotel bed, hoping everything would be normal when I woke up. The grisly work had to be done. I stabbed, and stabbed, until it stopped moving completely.

I slumped down onto my knees afterwards, breathing hard, and tried to avoid looking at the slaughterhouse around me. There was enough trouble without me being sick here. Gods above, Mother didn’t tell me about this part of being a shrine maiden. A shiver ran through me from all the tension suddenly leaving me in a rush, but I tried to ignore it; There was still had work to do. I took some heart from my friend’s reassuring presence – he was sniffing at the youkai disinterestedly now that it was a corpse.
Just physically killing it wasn’t enough, naturally. Any joe with a caveman’s club could put a youkai down momentarily; the exorcist’s job came after that. If left alone, youkai healed in a twentieth, a hundredth the time it took a human. Before today I would’ve felt safe that such healing would take at least days, perhaps weeks, but under the circumstances, that couldn’t be counted upon.
I reached inside a pocket for one of my carefully made amulets. Nothing more than simple folded ofuda at first glance, my own passable calligraphy on each, but they contained real power, the kind many people in Japan no longer believed in. Power that had to be studiously infused over weeks of serious concentration. In principle, they could be used as effective weapons in a fight against youkai, but each one took too much time and effort to create. Any miss would have been more than I could afford.

Carefully, I pressed the ofuda to what used to be the hairless head of the youkai. The entire surface had to be in contact, and its scalp was thankfully woundless. With a single thought, I released the bound energy from the ofuda. White smoke immediately started sputtering energetically from the edges of the paper and there was a brief flash of light. If it were still conscious, this would have felt like replacing that rectangular stretch of its skin with burning pitch. That’s how it was described to me, anyhow.

I breathed deep, finally done here. I had no time to help care for the corpses.
Here being the key word. There were other screams when I walked in here, weren’t there? Elsewhere in town. If all of those were also sudden youkai attacks…

I froze. There was something else. The letter from Mother.
I took it out and re-read it.
If what I dread happens – and it’ll be obvious if it does – come and find me right away, it said.

Hm. Troublesome. I pocketed the letter again and prepared to leave. I had my orders.

I turned, and the front door to the house thundered open, washing the room in bright crimson light. A crowd of a dozen nervous-looking fellows with weapons greeted me. A dangerous combination.

I blinked, and imagined what they were seeing. A small figure in shrine maiden clothing, covered head to toe in blood, holding a spear, with four corpses and a small pond’s worth of blood scattered around her, and a large hound with blood around its maw standing attention. Her eyes clearly weren’t those of a normal human. Add to that the fact the sky had just turned bright red in an apparently apocalyptic event.
I saw fear blossom in the eyes of the men, and a few of them took steps back from the door.

I felt a pang of fear too. This could go south really easily. I considered also that as my first real official contact with the villagers, this would set the tone of how they’d see and treat me for the near future.

[ ] Leverage their fear into initiative and clarify the situation before anyone can do anything stupid.
[ ] Throw down your weapon and show you aren’t a threat.

[ ] Do something else?


Relatively short update, but I judged that the choice was important enough to warrant it.
Also, there's no need to vote-in "show them the corpse of the real youkai", that's assumed.
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[X] Leverage their fear into initiative and clarify the situation before anyone can do anything stupid.
[X] Leverage their fear into initiative and clarify the situation before anyone can do anything stupid.
Also I might do a fast update this time around, so don't wait to vote later if you can help it.
[X] Leverage their fear into initiative and clarify the situation before anyone can do anything stupid.
[ ] Leverage their fear into initiative and clarify the situation before anyone can do anything stupid.
[ ] Leverage their fear into initiative and clarify the situation before anyone can do anything stupid.
[x] Leverage their fear into initiative and clarify the situation before anyone can do anything stupid.
Acting was one of my most prized skills, and for sure the one I enjoyed practicing the most. I was supposed to genuinely be the authority figure, to know what to do, but it was a long road there, and I was taught the best way to go about it was to “fake it until you make it,” in short. As good advice as any.
Especially now, shaken as I was by my gory encounter with the youkai. I wouldn't trust myself even to walk on my own without stumbling for a minute or two. This type of acting was my forte however, and the familiar role of a severe, commanding priestess came to me instantly. It might even have been wrong to call it a role, given that it was supposed to be reality. It just wasn’t me, ordering people around and being an authority – but it was my duty, and the pretending was quite enjoyable. The role settled over me like an old comfortable blanket, the more-or-less manufactured personality helping to calm my nerves. I straightened my back and raised my head to stare them down while they hesitated. Unsurprisingly, not one met my eyes for long. I seized the opportunity.

“Finally.” My voice sounded out clear, loud and authoritative. Good, that much I still had in me. The men crowding the door traded looks, confused. I shifted my weight and hoped my shakiness was close to imperceptible. “Four dead, plus this one,” I said, prodding what remained of the small youkai forward using the spear, with a look of undisguised (and unfaked) disgust. “It must be burned.”
After exterminating it the proper way, it wouldn’t be strictly necessary, but what I needed that moment was to be ordering people twice my size around with no hesitation and be seen doing it. The implication that I killed the youkai didn’t hurt. A few eyes froze to the shrunken corpse, the bright white, almost luminescent ofuda clearly visible, but unexpectedly, there were no stares of shock or surprise. Usually youkai were rare sights to the average person these days and many closer to the urban centers were starting to disbelieve them. Except in this town, it seemed.

With that, I let the weapon clatter down to the ground, which brought their attention back to me. They were still wearing confused and fearful looks, but nobody seemed keen on turning their weapons on me. I had to step around the body of the guy who got clawed through the back as I went. They parted unsteadily for me as I marched through. As they did, one person who stood at the back of the group was revealed, and she walked forward rather than moving from my path.
No, not quite. She was shouldering past me.

I was expecting and fearing a few things, but to be ignored wasn’t one of them.
Past me, she knelt by the fallen man by the door, showing no concern for the blood that seeped into her clothes as she did. She wore a simple buttoned woolen dress to below the knees, dressed for all the world like a simple housewife, yet the confidence with which she moved and the way the others looked at her made it beyond obvious that she was in charge here.
Her expression was twisted into a grim one, and I thought she might personally know one of the dead men at first. A few of the men glanced my way, but ultimately focused on her, each trying not to linger on the gruesome scene just feet away from them.

There was nothing to be done for him now, but she touched the dead man’s back as gently as if he were resting and she didn’t want to wake him up. She looked in turn at each of the other bodies, lingering on the youkai, then sighed and got up. She threw me a quick questioning glance, but I didn’t know what to make of it. She looked away, frowning.

“Get them decent, at least. We can’t afford to carry them back now.”

Her troop, because that’s what they acted like, obeyed wordlessly, respectfully righting the bodies and closing eyes while someone went further in to find covers for them. That’s right, I should’ve done something about the bodies. I’ve rarely handled that kind of thing, so it completely slipped my mind.
She turned to me, her eyes alighting on mine so suddenly and firmly that I nearly jumped. It was a little surprising how beautiful she was, with hair all the way to her hips. Normal small town women didn’t look like this. “You killed the youkai that murdered them.”
It wasn’t a question, but I nodded.

She put her hands together and bowed deeply, almost formally. “I thank you for preventing further deaths, but we still need help. Our own priestess has vanished.” I arched my eyebrows. It just kept getting better and better. “Please. We can’t afford to lose more good men like this.”

My priority was finding mother, but I ranked my odds of finding her without help from the villagers at not that great. I didn’t have many choices.
I was curt. I’d rather not risk getting killed again today, but if it was what I needed to do, there was no sense in wasting time.
“Lead the way.”

Fuck. I had something written for days but kept redoing it.
Writing sucks you guys.
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Seven lurking youkai.
I stared forlornly at my surviving ofuda. One by one I had to use nearly all my jealously guarded treasures, each representing near to a dozen hours of work.
Painful. Just the thought of the days I'd have to spend making more nearly gave me a headache.

At least I didn’t have to fight. It turned out the other humans were more capable than my initial experience would have indicated, or perhaps I got unlucky with the youkai I faced. Either way, the next two hours of my life consisted of following the small group and applying pieces of paper to mangled youkai corpses rather than risking my life. Cuts, stabs, bullet wounds; the villagers showed no mercy, riddling each youkai with enough holes to put them out of commission for weeks even if I hadn’t been around.
They were all small, crawling things hiding in forgotten closets and under the roof. They seemed to me like they would’ve been weak, but then again so did the first one. Eight lives all together were taken in fights, plus a number of unlucky people who got caught by surprise. They all attacked almost simultaneously when the sky went red, going for the nearest target they could. It didn’t seem planned.

I followed the woman about as she did the rounds around the town. When she addressed anyone, she did it by name, and when she arrived people sighed like it was salvation arriving in a white horse. She dealt with widows, she sent people off with messages, she kept in control. In short, she did the business of a leader, and she did it well. The only reason she wasn’t the first one barging into the scenes of carnage every time was the men, who insisted fervently on her not putting herself in danger until they were sure the youkai were completely down. She seemed annoyed about that and was always right behind them, but reluctantly acquiesced anyhow.
It also surprised me how smoothly the village moved in the face of such a crisis – the stoicism and calm I witnessed during the evacuation to the center was pervasive. People took in news of death with a stony-faced acceptance that I hadn’t seen before in any corner of Japan. As I thought, something was strange about this place.
I decided to keep quiet, do my job and not make a fuss for the time being: mother would survive a few extra hours without me. It was always a learning opportunity, being able to watch capable people in action. I walked a good distance behind, walked in once it was completely certain there were no threats and did the exterminating. I got a few curious and cautious stares, but people had more to worry about today and even our escort didn’t say anything to me but the necessary minimum.

We finally got a break around midday. I was already getting strangely used to the new color of everything. Nobody had come running to tell Keine – that was the woman’s name, I gathered – of another youkai attack in at least an hour, and the last one to go, a stubby, yellow snake-thing with disturbingly human eyes, was burning nicely. Or rather, both of its halves were. I noted with pride that my attached ofuda remained unscathed for a long time, sign of good make.
I approached from behind as she watched the fire, mind clearly elsewhere. Must be turning out to be an exhausting day, and I had no doubt she’d snap out of it and be running off somewhere in minutes if I didn’t intercept her.

“Keine,” I tried. The name tasted strange.

“Oh! Hello.” She turned to me and gave a smile so strained it wasn’t even worth the attempt. “I’m sorry. We haven’t even been able to have a proper introduction, have we?”

I stared, then glanced meaningfully at the bright red landscape around us. “We’ll skip pleasantries today.”

“Of… of course. Forgive me.” She hesitated, sighing. “It’s just… So many good people died today. Friends of mine.”

I blinked, having no good response to that.

Composing herself, right away she rescued me from having to come up with an answer. “In any case, thank you for your help. I know those beasts would eventually have come back again if it weren’t for you. I’ll make an appropriate contribution as thanks, naturally.”

I stared into her eyes, thinking.
“You’re worried about paying me? Not this?” I glanced meaningfully at the bright red landscape around us.

She kept quiet for a moment, then sighed, apparently making a decision. “Obviously I’m worried. But what am I supposed to do? Ask door-to-door for who could have turned the sky red and set the youkai crazy?” She spoke quickly and ran a hand through her long hair, sighing once again. I see, that made sense. With no other villagers around, she seemed less guarded. Surprising, considering I was a total stranger. “I haven’t even been able to discuss it with anyone yet, but it can only be the work of youkai.”
I nodded. That much was clear.

“I don’t need payment. I’m just looking for my mother, she passed through the town a few days earlier.”

“Your mother?” she asked, her eyes going to the mark on my skirt and widening. “You’re daughter to a goddess?”

“I am.” A happy feeling welled up in me. It felt good when she was recognized.
It wouldn’t last.

“I see. Yes, she has been here.” She stared pointedly at the fire. “Unfortunately.”

If I weren’t playing my role, I’d have smiled grimly at that. It stung, but I couldn’t tell her she was wrong, under the circumstances. “I take your point.”

She noticed my expression and quickly apologized. “I’m sorry, I know it’s not your fault or your mother’s. I’m just…”

I waved her off. From the few people that recognized the significance of Hina’s sign in my travels, this was a common reaction. It was painful every time, but I’d gotten more used to it. “I understand completely. Just tell me where she’s gone and I won’t stay any longer than I have to.”

She shook her head quickly. “No, that’s not it. I need your help a bit longer. I still need to go back and report, and they’ll want to speak with you. I can tell you then.”

Oh. She wanted more? And ‘They’? This smelled like village politics. How annoying. I’d wasted enough time here without embroiling myself in this nonsense. Talking to the villagers would probably still be the most efficient way to go, but it wasn’t as if I had no way to locate Mother on my own.
I could just walk away, investigate through another avenue and save myself a headache.

[ ] Thanks but no thanks.
[ ] Fine. What do I have to do, exactly?
[X] Thanks but no thanks.

Let's not.
[x] Thanks but no thanks
-[x] Let me tell you how it goes, because I've seen a million times before: they see me, they see my holy symbol, they blame my mother and/or me for everything and then they kick me out. Let's just skip right to the last step.

I wanted to add some flavor, but it should be discarded if it is off-character for the author... It's just that we haven't seen enough character out of her yet.
[ ] Thanks but no thanks.
[X] Fine. What do I have to do, exactly?

Humor her, for now.
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>It's just that we haven't seen enough character out of her yet.
[x] Thanks but no thanks.

I want to vote to help Keine, but not at the price of being jerked around and used as a scapegoat.
[X] Thanks but no thanks.
[x] Let's just skip right to the last step.

“…Excuse me?”

She nearly goggled at me. She was expecting me to go along with whatever she came up with, I’m sure. I might have been young, but I had enough experience to know better than that. Interacting was never pleasant and I couldn’t imagine a disaster and a town’s worth of confused, scared people would improve the experience any. The thought swiftly revived some memories I’d rather have kept down.
I knew, but it helped to repeat to myself in my head: I wasn’t welcome in places like this. Mother especially wasn’t welcome, no matter how much she sacrificed herself, how hard she worked to help these people, wasn’t welcome here.
I felt the black oil of contempt well up inside me again, the feeling that squeezed my heart with cold, stale anger every time someone gave me a look that was a little too anxious, every time someone refused to talk to me and look me in the eye. It was as much my companion as the good friend that guarded me as I slept, although it had become so entrenched that it hardly ever registered consciously – as it shouldn’t, lest it interfere with work.

Mom told me so whenever she was in one of her moods. Humans are all ungrateful and cowardly, Yoshiko. They hate my guts and I hate theirs right back. You’re one of only a handful of good ones, Yoshiko. Always know this. Help them, but expect no gratitude. Don’t hesitate to defend yourself against them if you have to, and fiercely.
And so on. I took it to heart.

“I’ll pass,” I repeated calmly, hiding the spike of bitterness. Mostly. “Thank you for the offer.”
I whistled for my friend and prepared to leave.

“Ah, wait! I just assumed you’d…” She paused, noting my expression, and gathered herself. “I’m sorry, I wasn’t thinking. And after you’ve been such a big help, too.” She said, having the decency to look embarrassed. “You don’t have to do anything, I’ll tell you. It’s only right.”

I looked levelly at her and said nothing. At least this one doesn’t seem too bad. She even talked to me normally.

“We’re aware of the goddess Kagiyama. Some families even pay their respects in the traditional way, through the river.” I nodded. Very few still did that. “But she didn’t seem keen on being seen by any villagers.”
That sounded right. She hadn’t gone before a crowd willingly for as long as I could remember.

“So, it was a few days ago,” she continued, thinking back, “she came directly to us. More precisely, she showed up at my house. Alone. In the middle of the night.” She scrunched her eyebrows. “Does she do that a lot?”

“The ways of gods are not for us to fathom,” I recited in monotone, to which Keine gave a thin smile like she’d heard it before. Actually, it wouldn’t have been without precedent. Mother could be unpredictable. “Didn’t she speak to anybody else?”

“I don’t know. Possibly. I’m not even sure why she came to me, I’m just a teacher. Not that important,” Keine said, shrugging. That was clearly not true, but I chalked it up to humility. “She told me to keep it a secret from the villagers, and we didn’t discuss anything too critical, so I didn’t see a need to go against her. She asked after the village, whether we’d seen any unusual youkai activity, and so on. Nothing out of the ordinary.”

Youkai, is it? Yes, all of that followed. But there was something that had been bothering me. I had to ask. “You don’t seem cowed by all this talk of goddesses and youkai.”

“Yes?” She blinked, looking at me as if I’d just told her the sun rises in the east. “We do have to deal with them ourselves occasionally, when our priestess isn’t available. Anyhow,” she continued, “she was very interested to know about any place youkai might gather, so I pointed her to our own Youkai Mountain.” She turned, then, and gestured to the one massive mountain range in the distance, rising above the rugged horizon. I hadn’t paid close attention since mountains weren’t exactly a rare sight, but it was much farther away than I’d thought. It’d dominate the view, up close.
She turned back to me and sighed. “Then she gave me some useless vague warnings, left, and that was all. Didn’t even say goodbye.” She muttered to herself. “Gods and goddesses are all the same, I swear.”

The dormant acid feeling pulsed and spread throughout me then, as I momentarily contemplated punching this woman right in the nose. How dare she speak ill my mother.
But it passed. I couldn’t do such a thing, not while it could compromise my goal. Maybe later.

“So, if you’re looking for her, that’s where I’d look. But be prepared. It’s teeming with youkai, including oni and worse.” Keine sighed again. “I’ll only ask one more thing of you. Please, keep an eye out for our shrine maiden. I’m worried for that girl.”

I nodded, eager to get out of here now that I had what I needed. “I will.”

[ ] Time’s wasting, the sun is up, and the less time spent in this village the better. Get going now.
[ ] The world doesn’t seem to be ending, for the time being. Spend the night and prepare carefully.

[X] Time’s wasting, the sun is up, and the less time spent in this village the better. Get going now.

Get going while the sun's still up.
At least she realized she was being rude. Our MC is mostly right, but does to put Hina in a pedestal a tiny bit too much.

[x] The world doesn’t seem to be ending, for the time being. Spend the night and prepare carefully.

Betting there will be some time between now and our next, relatively, safe position.
[X] Time’s wasting, the sun is up, and the less time spent in this village the better. Get going now.
[X] Time’s wasting, the sun is up, and the less time spent in this village the better. Get going now.

Wow, Keine wasn't a pushy cunt about it. Nice.
[x] The world doesn’t seem to be ending, for the time being. Spend the night and prepare carefully.
She has already said that preparation is everything
[ ] Time’s wasting, the sun is up, and the less time spent in this village the better. Get going now.
Say, would you guys like the story to go a little slower? I feel like I've been throwing too much plot at you too fast. Some extra fluff might do it good.
I'm liking the story a lot so far, and the pace is justified by the whole 'some ragnarok-esque event just occurred'. But if you think you can squeeze in more downtime/characterization, go ahead.
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It had taken longer than expected to prepare. I had to find the home I’d stayed overnight in, change into something not blood-soaked, pack up, eat something, even saying my goodbyes to the group took longer than expected: they were formal about it, even respectful, and insisted on making some offerings. It was a surprise to me, since they’d stepped so lightly around me before. Money wasn’t something I was ever too desperate for, but I accepted gratefully; it was the least they could do after I spent so many of my own resources with them.

I walked towards the great mountain range in the distance. It wasn’t clear how far it was, but perhaps I could get there by twilight if no more time was wasted.
My friend followed close this time, apparently no longer that concerned by the red sky. Even I was starting to get used to it. People can grow accustomed to anything.
I walked briskly from the deserted town, and before long the farms started to peter out. The piece of flatter arable land the village was situated in rapidly devolved into stony hills, the same jagged, tough-to-hike-in terrain that comprised most of the country. The path I took to get to the village had been mostly flat, but even a trodden way was a faraway dream here. We were closing in on real wilderness.

It took no time for the entire landscape to become heavily forested, which wasn’t unusual, but after all that talk of youkai, being hemmed in and blinded by the trees and plants like this made me uneasy. Not that being in an open field would have been any better: at least this way I had a hope of staying unseen. My friend stayed within eyeshot and frequently froze in place to listen for something, ears twitching which was as much of a show of being worried as he would ever make.

The forest wasn’t a kind one and it tossed loose stones and shallow roots my way at every opportunity, made even worse the visibility problems caused by the dimmer red sunlight. Light barely filtered through the leaves in the dense canopy, making everything hazy, indistinct in the crimson gloom. I can only imagine it was by blind luck or my friend’s intervention that nothing immediately attacked me, but the going was slow and exhausting. I had to carefully, carefully pick my way through it. The mountain remained defiantly in the far distance in the glimpses I caught of it between the leaves, and it became clear that getting anywhere before nighttime had been nothing but wishful thinking. Even forest noises, which I usually found relaxing, didn’t help.

I thought about my previous encounter and prayed that it was a freak accident, an unusually strong youkai that I stumbled upon by chance. If another of that kind of strength showed up by surprise, I’m not certain I’d be able to get away unscathed. I ran my hand over my gun, my knife, the pocket with my remaining three ofuda. They seemed scant protection, now, in the middle of this dark place.
Of course, I did have one more weapon up my sleeve, but… No, I banished the thought. No, I didn’t. Mother forbade it and that was the end of that.

I derailed that train of thought by force.
Oni, Keine had said. I thought about it as I walked. It didn’t seem credible. Those hadn’t been seen in decades – Even I knew little about them other than the stories and what I had been taught. In my lessons, mother told me that if I ever came across a youkai that looked human or mostly human, I should first hope to avoid notice. If that failed, talk to them and pray. As with everything that concerns them, it wasn’t an ironclad rule, but youkai who had amassed tremendous power tended to take more human-like forms – thankfully, they were also less beastly, and had motivations and temperaments as varied as those of people.
Oni were born nearly human in form already. It said something about them.
I shook my head. The situation was unpredictable, I couldn’t discount anything. How did people in the stories avoid being killed oni again? Drank with them? I didn’t have any beans on me, so that’d have to do.

The world’s shade of red continued to darken as the sun went down, becoming the color of wine by the time I decided it was time to stop and rest. I’d tripped over enough rocks for one day.
No convenient clearing or flat space presented itself, so I had to lie nestled between the huge exposed roots of a massive tree. It was uncomfortable, damp, not a little cold, and bugs crawling over me were a given in this spot – but staying hidden was my first concern, and these roots would hide me from both sides. After a few moments, my friend came up to me and snuggled up near my lap, uncharacteristically chummy. He was skittish as a cat most times, to the point I’d given up on trying to pet him.

That day I was thankful for him.
It had been a rough one. The sight of gore and the revolting feeling of piercing a piece of meat with a spear suddenly came back to me in a flash and I unconsciously squeezed at his white fur, pulling. He whined and nipped my arm, making me feel strangely reassured.

I felt like I deserved some rest.

[ ] A lucky charm.
[ ] A black feather.


Big choice. You should be able to solve this.
[x] A black feather.

This option is obvious, but what's the first? I must be real dense or something, because I got nothing.
[x] A lucky charm

Crow vs shrine maiden? Who knows
[X] A black feather.

>Big choice. You should be able to solve this.
Don't you dare overestimate me!

Not sure if this is an abstract dream sequence vote or related to specific characters. Crows (and their feathers) are a sign of ill omen/bad luck so I'll go with that?
[x] A lucky charm
[X] A black feather.

Black feathers are unlucky, and our protagonist serves the goddess of misfortune.
Sorry folks, lots of school stuff this past week, and more to come still. I'll try to hammer something out by thursday at the latest.
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I was a light sleeper by necessity, and the circumstances made me even jumpier than usual. As such, it was without surprise that I woke up before the sun had come up. I wasn’t completely sure what had woken me, but I looked blearily at my friend, who was still curled up against me but had his head up, white ears twitching and perked up at attention.
That’s how I knew it wasn’t just me randomly waking up because of a breeze. I knew I could rely on my friend’s senses. As for me, his reassuring white-reddish form was all I could see with how dark it was, what with the strange sky colour still in effect. He was deathly still and I followed suit, hoping whatever woke us up might simply pass us over, hidden as we were between the tree roots. I tried to stay calm – it could have been nothing more than some wild animal sniffing around.
It wouldn’t be that, of course. I wasn’t nearly so lucky.

A hard-to-describe noise sounded once, twice. Something like… a boulder dropping into a calm lake, but muffled. Or the biggest taiko drum I’d ever heard, heard through a thick wall. The rest of the forest’s noises seemed to dim in response, leaving the note to hang in the air. The vibrations resounded in my ribcage. My friend stayed quiet and attentive, perhaps following my lead. Clever boy.
Then, nothing. An emphatic nothing, the kind that made you freeze and wait for the hammer to drop, rather than sigh in relief.
My nerves were sharpened by the rush of excitement and fear. Even having just woken up I keenly felt the cold damp of the dead leaves, the soil on the forest floor, the warmth of my friend by my side, the cold night breeze, the rainy scent of the woods. My breathing was deep and slow as I tried to minimize noise and felt the heavy beating of my heart in my ears.
A tense, unmoving minute passed before there was another noise. It was the deliberate crunching of leaves, in the rhythm of an unhurried walk, not at all far from where I laid. My hand slowly went to my weapon, though I fervently wished I wouldn’t have to use it. Ammo wasn’t cheap or easy to come by, and more importantly, I’d very much enjoy not risking death a second time today.

It wasn’t looking like I’d have a choice. The steps sounded closer and closer, until it felt like someone was right outside my line of sight, just waiting for me to make a move. Then they stopped.

“Why, why, I wonder if some silly human around here mightn’t be trying to hide from me.”

The girl’s voice was soft and smooth as snakeskin, playful, smug and inviting. A dangerous voice, anybody would be able to tell.
If it weren’t clear enough the gig was up, my friend started a dangerous low growl. I quickly determined a fight wasn’t in my best interests here. It was odd finally finding the rare thinking, reasoning youkai out of nowhere like this, but the signs up until now seemed like solid enough indication. I tried to soothe my friend, placing a firm hand on his neck.

The Tengu took that moment to do a short hop over the tall root I was hiding before, landing square in front of me where I could see her.

Even in near total darkness, the pure-black, lustrous wings were striking, catching and reflecting what little light there was. Each one would be longer than she was tall if stretched out, and they rested at a relaxed angle, the very tips rustling dead leaves off the forest floor. The strange noises before were probably these beastly things beating, I realized.
The one they attached to was more striking still: tall, graceful, slim and clad in a flowing, elegant-looking traditional outfit I wasn’t familiar with. She looked young, with the short, free haircut of any common young girl without much to weigh her down, and the mischievous eyes to match it. She balanced effortlessly on a pair of tall one-toothed geta, nearly hidden by the long kimono. I didn’t even know people really wore those!
I wasn’t sure why I thought she was a tengu – even with the wings, it might have been any kind of bird youkai. Still, somehow, even though I’d never seen one in the flesh and even though I couldn’t see her that well in the dark, it felt like it. Something about the posture, the half-smile on her face, the confident movement in those impossible shoes told me so.

By then my friend seemed to have decided that she was no threat, and simply sniffed indifferently at her, the same way he’d sniff at any random person who came close enough.

“And here she is!” Something like excitement glinting clear in her eye as she looked down at me, the girl clapped twice, as if she were announcing an event. “I’ve been itching to get a good close look at you. You’re a courageous one, aren’t you?”

Mysteriously, even with her standing above me, I didn’t feel that scared. I knew that this girl could tear me in two as quick as she could wink, and the fear was in there, thrumming quietly deep inside my chest as it would be in any healthy human being. I also knew she was talking to me and I wasn’t already dead. I could reason and she could listen, and her words didn’t seem immediately threatening. Then again, I couldn’t know for sure. Who knew how a youkai mind worked?

“Don’t be shy, I probably won’t hurt you. Here.”
She extended a slim hand, smiling suspiciously. Her massive wings shifted smoothly behind her and closed up.

[ ] Stay as guarded as possible. A youkai is not your friend, no matter what.
[ ] She seems friendly enough, doesn’t she? No harm in hearing her out.


over a week to write an update that consists of 'and then aya showed up'
pretty pathetic
[X] She seems friendly enough, doesn’t she? No harm in hearing her out.

What could possibly go wrong?
[x] She seems friendly enough, doesn’t she? No harm in hearing her out.

> pretty pathetic

Pathetic is hiatus or cancelled. As long as you're still writing you're doing better than 90% of THP's authors myself included.
[x] Stay as guarded as possible. A youkai is not your friend, no matter what.

[X] Stay as guarded as possible. A youkai is not your friend, no matter what.

Earn your story, Aya.
[X] Stay as guarded as possible. A youkai is not your friend, no matter what.
[x] Stay as guarded as possible. A youkai is not your friend, no matter what.
Calling in a couple hours cuz I want to try a quick update yet again. Make it up for previous slowness, if I can.
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I felt rather than saw her appraising me, looking me over, a faintly amused smirk on her smug face. The wave of fear that had tried to bloom in me receded as I quickly thought over my options. Not that I was particularly brave, but I wasn’t positive how to interact with one of these. In the absence of preparation and knowledge my practice-honed instincts took over. I felt the confident, worldly persona well up inside me and the assurance that came with it bubble up in my head.
The thoughts came naturally to me then, as if they were being transmitted from someone else. I wouldn’t bend or quake before this girl just because it was a youkai. I’d dealt with her like (so said the character in my head) and I knew the score. There was no question of trusting her, of course. I didn’t hate or even dislike youkai like some of the old-fashioned humans did, but she was what she was and could no more help it than a pig could help rooting through mud.

It was a good thing, too, because if I had shown any fear she might have eaten me alive. I’d never studied up on tengu that much, but I had a vague notion that they were supposed to be competitive and cutthroat: opportunistic rogues and brutes that homed in on weakness like… well, carrion crows to a corpse.

“‘Probably won’t hurt me?’” I repeated, brushing off her hand, and raised myself in the most dignified way I could. I dusted myself off, then offered my own appraising gaze in return. The fact that I had trouble even making her out in the darkness may or may not have diminished the effect. My voice was firm – I was as ready for this as I was going to get. “Is that how all tengu greet someone for the first time, or are you just one of the rude ones?”

To my genuine surprise, she giggled, not offended at all. “I like you already, human, and I promise I’m a good judge of character.”
I didn’t know whether being liked by a tengu was a good sign.

“One thing, though, you mustn’t be so touchy! A teensy threat like that is waving hello around here. But you're right, it's only polite to give you my name.” She took a measured step back, inclined her head and theatrically opened her wings anew, nearly knocking me back to the ground with the abrupt gust of air it generated. The ground cover was blown clean, scattering leaves every which way.
If the goal was to impress and intimidate, it worked.
“I’m the pure and honest Aya Shameimaru, and my job is to know things.” she said happily, straightening herself. “And you’re Yoshiko, priestess to Kagiyama. You’ll excuse my giddiness, it’s just that you’ve caught me at the most wonderful time.” She doesn’t even attempt to hold back the grin stuck to her face, looking at me like an excited schoolgirl talking to a classmate. “Isn’t it all wonderful? Oh, but I must calm down,” she said, and I saw the massive dark shapes that had spread around her coalesce back onto her shoulders. “It’s not the time for that. First you’ll want to know what business I have with you,” she affirmed.

“Yes, I will,” I said flatly.

“Good! Then I already have something you want. You also happen to be holding something I want. Do you see? Right here between us we have the foundations of civilized society.” She smiles.

Something she wanted...? I frowned. So that was it. She wouldn’t kill me, but I’d have to give something up to pass unharmed. A classic set-up from the tales. I tensed in place and immediately so did my friend, still by my side. I knew how these things went – if it were an impossible request my only choice would be a fight. “I see. Name your price, monster.”

She scrunched her eyebrows. “No, no, you ‘ve got it all wrong. I honestly just want to chat! All friendly-like! See?” She spread her arms, showing nothing but her plain, bare hands. She let out a sigh. “Sheesh. How is it that every miko, everywhere, learns the exact same stupid habits and ideas?” She shook her head. “Nevermind. I can see you’re a careful girl, so I’ll give you two pieces of advice as signs of friendship. Are you ready? Good.” She blathered on without waiting for any kind of response. I just continued looking levelly at her.
“Number one. It’s fine to have some pep, but don’t insult any tengu to their face like you just did to me, unless you’re interested in…” she paused, searching for a word. “Trouble. Bad trouble. Do you follow?”

Neither her eyes, voice or posture gave any hint that this was more than a simple conversational point, the same way she’d tell someone to be quiet at a library. But there was something there, beyond the edge of conscious notice, that my body noticed and responded to without my leave. For the space of one heartbeat it felt as if my blood had been replaced by ice water. For that instant, all the nervousness and fear threatened urgently to come out.

I took the advice to heart. No insulting tengu, unless I want a fight.

“Number two, and this is the interesting one." She licked her lips. "You were followed by a mysterious secret admirer all the way from the village. He’s trying his level hardest to listen in on us right this moment.”

She smiled, impossibly smug, and whipped her head to what seemed to be a random direction.
Right when she did, however, I did hear something from there. An indistinct rustling noise, as you might expect from someone skulking around, and a very definite gasp.
My eyes widened. That was impossible. My friend would have noticed, wouldn’t he? Was this a trick?

[ ] Let them go. You’ve done nothing worth spying on or hiding.
[ ] Catch them. Some questioning is in order.
[ ] Catch them. A regular lone human will surely die in this forest, you can’t allow that.
[ ] It’s risky for you. Have Aya catch them.
[ ] Do something else?


yey i did it
[X] Catch them. A regular lone human will surely die in this forest, you can’t allow that.

This is her job, creepy stalker or no. Though if they take measures to avoid detection from animals, it's not likely they're your ordinary farmer.
[X] Catch them. A regular lone human will surely die in this forest, you can’t allow that.

Must be a special human to evade notice.
[X] Catch them. A regular lone human will surely die in this forest, you can’t allow that.
[ ] Catch them. A regular lone human will surely die in this forest, you can’t allow that.
Let's try to go for a hat trick, shall we?
[x] Catch them. Some questioning is in order.

Not sure if I missed the vote or not, but voting anyway to show my support.
[x] Catch them. Some questioning is in order.

Pissing against the tide because approaching under the assumption that it's a human seems foolish given Yoshiko's luck.
My stomach lurched as an image flashed through my mind, of wet red and pink, scattered across the floor. An image I’d seen many times not a full day before, and one I’d rather not remember if I could help it.
...Fine. I didn’t want to be responsible for any more deaths. I’d have to answer for them later, and I wasn’t looking to increase my debt.

So I started running, at a not-too-hurried pace. I wasn’t that fast or athletic, but I had stamina if nothing else, and I thought I wouldn’t be doing much chasing personally; my friend took my movement as a sign and took off, going hard. He was never trained much, in hunting or otherwise, but seemed to always know what to do in times like these. Hopefully he wouldn’t hurt our eavesdropper too bad – assuming it really was someone from the village as Aya said, and not a trick or some sort of youkai.

To my chagrin, Aya jogged alongside me, keeping up with no effort on those impossible geta. Even more unpleasantly, she continued blabbering away.

“Ooh, it could be a young lovestruck man, afflicted with love at first sight! Such a mysterious, striking and beautiful shrine maiden passing through his boring village, it was too much for his young heart to take. The exotic beauty was too alluring compared to the country bumpkins he had to choose from before.”
What was she even going on about? She seemed to be getting strangely into it. “He followed her all the way into a dark, dangerous forest, like a puppy after its master, ready to declare his undying love.” Aya tittered. “Something like that actually happened once, you know? With one of us. A human managed to track one single tengu girl down, without anyone getting to him beforehand. It’s a famous story around here.”

I frowned, concentrating on running and trying to listen for my friend’s barks from up ahead. This youkai was too chatty for my tastes.

“So he found her, set up an ambush and took her for himself – took on a crow, the strongest, cleverest and most majestic of all youkai, all by himself, with his own wit and grit! He mastered and married her, and they were together for as long as he lived.” She mockingly affected a stereotypical maiden’s sigh, and I heard those huge wings flap once. “They don’t make humans like that anymore, I tell you.”

I said nothing. Was that an insult? Was she mocking me, or just going on mindlessly? I tried to ignore her.

My friend’s bark sounded from some distance away, mercifully cutting off any more meaningless chatter – but sooner and closer than I expected. Despite being the one to tell me about the intruder, even Aya looked curious, and we soon reached my friend, hunched over and growling low, holding someone by the scruff of the neck. Someone small, prone and motionless. Not dead, I hoped.
As we got closer noticed with a start that she was no more than a child. A young girl, no older than 14, with pretty, straight hair down to just above her shoulders. What was this idiot doing way out here?

As soon as she could hear me approach over the growling in her ears, she spoke up, and made it clear she was really a he.

“Get this brute off me immediately!”
It rang out clear and imperious despite the breathlessness, as well as distinctively boyish. Not particularly deep or manly – youthful and soft, sure, but still nothing you’d ever mistake for a girl’s voice. Aya made an indecipherable little hum beside me. My friend let go of the boy without any prompting from me, and the figure got up unsteadily, dusting himself off.

...And immediately stumbled, leaning on a tree and breathing hard. I sighed internally: yet more trouble and unknown factors. This excursion was turning out to be a lot of work.

My eyes were accustomed to the reddish dark at that point, and I took the time to have a good look at him.
He was ragged. His clothes were dirty and ripped around the legs, a long, patterned kimono. I thought it wouldn’t have looked out of place in the imperial court, at least before it went through a painful journey through the outdoors. But other than the state of his clothes, he looked… soft. Pale, with a small, thin nose and delicate features framed by his hair, as well as being shorter and slighter than me; Looking at him up close like this, hunched over and catching his breath, I couldn’t blame myself for confusing him for a girl.
It was clear the chase had cost him more than it did any of us, including my friend. Aya was the one to break the silence, pivoting towards me on one stilt-like geta.

“Do you know this kid?” She tilted her head.

A twinge of annoyance ran through me. Why was this youkai speaking to me like we were friends? I frowned, ignored her and was about to start asking this interloper some questions when he forestalled me, taking a final deep breath and finally composing himself. He spoke again, in the same unfittingly haughty tone.


This time it was my turn to tilt my head in confusion. He met my stare straight on, seeming far less afraid than I’d expect a child in his situation to be, especially with a smiling youkai right next to us.

“Aren’t you going to apologize? Your mutt nearly killed me! And why are you out here c… consorting with youkai?”

The tengu broke out in unabashed giggles. “A second gutsy one! This is too good.”

The kid had the attitude, but his appearance undercut the image he was trying for. Assuming he really followed me here from the village, he had been woefully unprepared even for a mild half-day hike, and it showed. He didn’t even have proper boots on, and his flimsy soft leather shoes were already fraying. He pushed his hair away from his eyes in what I thought was a strangely dainty gesture, and tried to stare me down. He continued.

“I’m here investigating in an official capacity,” he lied. Not a good lier. “I’m Aya of the Hieda, the eight Son of Miare!” He said proudly, drawing himself up to his full unimpressive height, as if that were supposed to mean something to me.

“Your name is Aya?”

He coloured slightly, but spoke forcefully. “Yes, is that a problem?”

I decided against pointing out that it was a girl’s name, glancing instead at the other Aya. She didn’t have much of a reaction, just smiling back at me. A coincidence, maybe?

“Anyway, tell me,” he ‘ordered’ blithely. “Who are you? What are you doing here? I want some answers.”

[ ] Poor child, he's obviously confused. Be as kind as you can, and make it clear he's safe now.
[ ] This kid has just given you more work in these already tense circumstances. Be harsh and give him a good scolding
Also check out CAW by our dear hard-working long-time administrator. It's all about the tengu, and YOU can help me gun for the Hatate route in it. There's surely no better writer from the site when it comes to pure interactivity and your choices actually mattering. A+ would read and get butt-frustrated over other people making bad choices again.
It's over at >>189261

And don't forget to donate if you can.
[x] Poor child, he's obviously confused. Be as kind as you can, and make it clear he's safe now.
-[x] However, make it clear that your workload has just increased and you're not entirely pleased about it.

No need to antagonize the local rich brat, especially when he can make it through youkai county with nary a scratch, but he's still inadvertently complicating life for us.
[ ] Poor child, he's obviously confused. Be as kind as you can, and make it clear he's safe now.

Akyuu? Is that you?
[X] Poor child, he's obviously confused. Be as kind as you can, and make it clear he's safe now.

No need to make an enemy out of him.
[x] This kid has just given you more work in these already tense circumstances. Be harsh and give him a good scolding.

Meh, yet another bratty Akyuu.
[X] Poor child, he's obviously confused. Be as kind as you can, and make it clear he's safe now.

Voting this mostly because we've been a hardass so far, may as well have a soft spot for SOMETHING
[x] This kid has just given you more work in these already tense circumstances. Be harsh and give him a good scolding.

Rubbed me the wrong way.
[X] Poor child, he's obviously confused. Be as kind as you can, and make it clear he's safe now.

Just to annoy her
[ ] This kid has just given you more work in these already tense circumstances. Be harsh and give him a good scolding

Akyuu's dad needs to learn some manners.
[x] This kid has just given you more work in these already tense circumstances. Be harsh and give him a good scolding.

How is he going to get back home? Kid wasn't even prepared to go this far.
Whoa, look at those votes! And each one with a comment.

That's good. I want to give you guys a reward, but I can't think of anything fitting other than faster updates, and if I could do that on command then I would already be doing it

Anyway, it's a narrow win for being kind. Update before the end of the week.
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I looked the boy up and down.
He was visibly exhausted and sweaty from that short run, dirty, in ragged clothes, looking small despite the brave front, looking up at me with wide eyes. He reminded me strongly of something. It was juuust on the tip of my tongue. What was it?

In an unthinking impulse I glanced at my friend, who had lost interest in either tengu or boy, and was sitting sedately by my feet, still panting. I recalled him when he was small enough to hold over my head, and I was smaller also.

The boy was just like a puppy.
A little puppy, fierce and cute in a hopeless kind of way. He even followed me.
I had to protect him.

I felt it like an almost audible punch – I had no idea something so intangible as an emotion could hit you so suddenly, almost physically. It crept up on me and came all at once, so abruptly that I nearly gasped. I… didn’t know how to properly word it, or even process it. In a moment, I was placed firmly out of my element.


That’s not to say it anything earth-shattering or life-changing, or nearly so dramatic. Just caught me off-guard, was all. Just a fleeting feeling. I forcibly steered myself back into a proper mindset; there were still urgent measures to be taken. I had to protect this kid and see him safely back to the village.
I knew what to do. No practical experience doing it, but in theory I should be able to deal with this situation. Shifting myself so I was between the boy and the tengu, I walked up to him as non-threateningly as I could. He still trembled slightly as I approached – he hid it well with a huff, affecting impatience, but spotting these types of unsaid signs was something I’d been trained in.
He wasn’t shorter than me by that much, so I bent over him rather than go down on one knee as people did when talking to children. Taking care not to look him directly in the eyes, I spoke softly – or tried my best to.
“Are you alright? Were you hurt?” I reached down to check around his neck for wounds, where my friend had been holding him, but couldn’t get very far. He nervously slapped my hand away before I even touched him.

“Oooh. Sassy,” the tengu peanut gallery helpfully offered.

“What are you doing? You can’t touch me,” he said firmly, standing his ground. “I’m well. Nothing happened.”

I may have wanted to go for a softer approach, but such a thing simply wasn’t in my repertoire. I didn’t know what I could do to calm him. So I just went for my standard.
“Be still.” My tone allowed no negotiation and he thankfully didn’t bat at me again when I leaned over him again, despite still looking up defiantly. With no light and a youkai hovering over our shoulders, it had to be a cursory examination at best. I palmed his thin neck and shoulders over the robe, looking for blood or a wince of pain, any sign my friend had done any damage to him. Anything more would have to wait.
Although he fidgeted under my touch, he really did seem unhurt, and there was no need to think for long beforing arriving at the obvious next step here.

Keeping the boy alive was a priority. “It’s too dangerous. We need to get you back to the village.”

NO!” he shouted, surprising me. I didn’t know he had that much energy left. “Come ON! I finally got rid of them! I’ve barely been out for half a day and I’ve already seen more–” he trailed off, then crossed his arms. “I’m not going back.”

I exhaled heavily. We were both tired, vulnerable. This was the worst possible time and worst possible place to argue with a stubborn child. “Yes, you are.”

“No! I...” he trailed off, looking at me. I was very ready to forcibly haul him over my shoulder all the way back to Keine. I think he saw it on my expression, too, because he changed his tune to something more pleading. “I… I’ll be fine! I followed you here by myself, and you didn’t even notice me. I’d be fine by myself. I have, um... here, I'll show you.” he searched the inside of his robe, finally pulling out a small pouch. “Here it is.”

He reached in and pulled out a simple charm, like the ones I use myself. Only, not at all. As soon as it was out of the pouch, it burned and shone with such intensity that I was forced to cringe back from it. It warmed my skin and charged my insides with something like… pressure, just by looking at it. This thing was to my own ofuda what the sun is to a candle. There was several times more power in that single piece of paper than in most shrine grounds.

I blinked. So that’s how he was safe in the forest. It didn’t explain why my friend didn’t warn me, but no youkai would dare to come near that thing.

Aya harrumphed behind me. “Put that away, will you? It’s unpleasant.” Ah. Some youkai would, apparently. I put the thought of what that charm even was or how he got it a hold of it out of my mind for the moment – it wasn’t important right then.

Still, he did as the tengu said, warily putting the pouch back into an unseen pocket. “See?”

I could see going against him right now would accomplish nothing. “What were you even doing while I slept?”

“Waiting. Yes, I missed my chance to come down and speak to you,” he said. “But I was just about to do it when that tengu came down!” His eyes shifted quickly, looking behind me.

“I’m feeling ignored here.” Aya strode to us with alarming speed, and would’ve stopped only when within spittle range if we hadn’t both stepped backwards. Again I shifted so I was in between the two Ayas. “Aren’t you curious about me, little lady? About how I knew your name, or why I’m even bothering to hang around?” she asked, leaning towards me. With those geta on, she loomed above me the same way I’d just loomed over the boy, and the shape of the folded wings behind her made her look more massive than she really was. My friend sniffed, but didn’t make a move. “I might tell if you ask nicely.”

She didn’t look angry, at least. In fact, she was remarkably chipper, given what she was saying. I had no idea what to do about this one.
I massaged my forehead. I wish I could just go to sleep and deal with it in the morning.

Oh mother, give me some guidance.

[ ] Deal with the tengu first.
[ ] Deal with the boy first.


I should note that Hina's Misfortune™ and your average shrine maiden's divine shenanigans are separate and distinct powers. I wanted to elegantly put that information somewhere in the update itself, but failed to. Oh well.
[x] Tengu first
-[x] Kid stays and is under my protection for now. Talk with him later.

Tengu are prideful creatures, but so are humans. Better deal with both in the measure that we can, even if we have to yield to one party.
[x] Deal with the tengu first.

Beta-Akyuu is going to tag along regardless of what we do, in all likelihood, so we might as well hear what the little birdy has to say.
[X] Deal with the boy first.

She can wait.
[x] Tengu first
-[x] Kid stays and is under my protection for now. Talk with him later

Sounds good.
[ ] Deal with the tengu first.
[X] Deal with the boy first.
More interested to see how Aya would react than anything.
[x] Tengu first
-[x] Kid stays and is under my protection for now. Talk with him later.

No point in snubbing her. What a brat of a kid though.
[x] Deal with the tengu first.

Crows before bros.
[x] Tengu first
-[x] Kid stays and is under my protection for now. Talk with him later

I'm kinda reminded of that one doujin featuring Aya x Ashichi (male version of Anana(7th)).
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I leveled a stare at the tengu, who had her arms on her hips like an indignant wife and a pout severely unfitting for a centuries-old monster. To act like this, she must have thought I had no possibility of representing any sort of threat to her. She was probably right, but that didn’t stop me from watching her closely, looking for openings, any possibility to go for my gun or an ofuda. I wouldn’t act on it, but paying attention couldn’t hurt.

“Are you honestly considering attacking me? I can’t believe you humans of today. No sense of etiquette towards your betters at all. Not only are you not scared, you actually think you’d have a chance,” she said, and I couldn’t tell whether she was joking.

This one seemed like she might be even more irritating than the kid. At least there I could order him to be quiet, and he was mercifully doing so right now, perhaps finally cowed by the tengu girl. I kept my cool best I could, standing tall. “Do you have something you want to say?”

“Don’t you? Even if you don’t give me the minimum due respect, I’m still brimming with important information that could be helpful. I might even know a thing or two about what’s going on,” she continued, jerking a thumb towards the sky. “Or maybe you’re more academically-minded than that and would like to know more about our noble kind. All I require is a fair trade.”

I kept silent.

She tsked. “I’m being reasonable and asking for nothing but a conversation. Will I have to say pretty please? I’m not even threatening or insulting either of you, and I’ll have you know that’s a high honour and extremely atypical.” When I still said nothing, she shifted her eyes towards Aya, and I saw a dangerous glimmer in there. “Although, if you want to go the other way...” She grinned, “ he’s too old and abducting human children is more of a traditional, symbolic ritual we rarely do... but I could be persuaded.”

I felt a small pair of hands squeeze the back of my hakama and my hand twitched towards where my gun rested. Aya’s smile widened a fraction. "No, I thought not."

A flash of insight went off inside my head. Unless my read was utterly wrong, I had a decent guess at what to do here. Taking one of the boy’s hands, I squeezed reassuringly – then walked past Aya towards my makeshift camp, ignoring her completely. The surprised boy tottered after me, and looking back.

She gasped exaggeratedly and promptly kept pace with us, huffing her displeasure. The smile on her voice was still just barely audible. “Really now! Did that unsociable goddess of yours teach you no manners at all? You’re as difficult as she is.”

I froze on the spot, and the very next second realized that had been a mistake. “A-ha,” she said smugly. “Surely you expected that. If I know your name, it’s no great leap that I should know the name of your goddess. Hmm...”

She circled around to face us squarely again. “Don’t tell me, I fancy myself a bit of an investigator and a good mystery is the best practice. ” She put one finger to her chin, thinking. “She’s… gone, and you’re trying to find her. Oh, already a bullseye?”

Damn. I thought I had a pretty good poker face. It wasn’t even entirely accurate: Hina isn’t “gone”. She’s just temporarily away, that’s all. I dearly wished to be away from this girl, but I couldn’t see a safe way to remove myself. She was persistent.

“It’s interesting how people’s tells and reactions mostly remain consistent whether they’re youkai, god or human, isn’t it? I wonder how that comes about.” She didn’t stay still, walking leisurely around me, rustling dead leaves and making me follow her with my eyes.

“You last saw her a very long time ago, and are now searching for your lost goddess...” she trailed off, looking at me, then shook her head.. “No? Interesting. I just assumed so. You know how she is, that Hina.”

“What do you mean by that?” As soon as I opened my mouth, I cursed myself. The bait was obvious and I still fell for it that easily – mother was my weak spot.

Aya’s smile brightened, her wings fluttering. “I’m so glad you’re finally interested in having a dialogue! Don’t be too flattered by this, but I’m very curious about you, you know? Even interested, you might say.”

“...Is that so.” I wasn’t sure how to react to this line of conversation, but I had already spoken to her anyhow, no harm in that much. And anyway, she seemed able to get information out of me without my cooperation, so it was fairly pointless to try to shut her out completely.

“Yes! And I’m not just saying that, I promise you. Scout’s honor.” She sighed when I yet again failed to respond. “Fine, fine. I get that you’re trying to shut me out. I understand. I can admit my kind aren’t trustworthy at the best of times.” She paced, thinking. “How about this: since you told me something about yourself, even if you didn’t intend to, I’ll tell you a little something too. Yet another gift for you, absolutely free.” She smiled a salesman’s smile. “Very recently, your dear goddess contacted me, to do a small job for her. I… owed her a favour, you could say. How’s that?”

The silence stretched for a few seconds. I raised my eyebrows. “That’s all you’re telling me?”

“Well, excuse me! You’re the sullen one who’s refusing to talk. Don’t try to turn it around on me, girl. I’m trying real hard to make nice, don’t you see?” She harrumphed. “So demanding, you humans. And I already gave you two pieces of good advice earlier.”

I said nothing. Again. This was all youkai trickery, no doubt.

“Fine. Clam up. But I’m not done with you.” She slowly spread her wings as she spoke, and somehow the span of them was no less surprising the second time around. She smiled at my reaction. “Next time, I’ll expect some give-and-take. A noble tengu can hardly be seen handing out this much kindness for free, especially to humans! You’ll ruin my reputation, girl.” She was getting ready to take off.

“Goodbye,” I said, victim of some impulse I didn’t quite understand. It seemed impolite not to give her at least that much, even if she was youkai.

She inclined her head at me. “See? That didn’t hurt. We can be civil.”

She shot off like a cannon firing. How she managed such a sharp, loud sound just jumping and flying off I had no idea, but it was like the crack of a bullet ten times amplified. The boy fell to the ground covering his ears as dead leaves blew about furiously over us. I was forced to hold down my whipping skirt. The canopy sported a brand new hole and ripped branches fell around us.

There was no need to show off that hard.

Aya stood unsteadily, leaning on my leg slightly. I felt that same pang of… something. Pity? Compassion? Hard to name. “Are you alright?”

He swallowed loudly. “Y—yes. I’m fine,” he said, shaking like a young little blade of grass. He didn't look up at me this time, keeping his eyes on his feet. I clenched my teeth. The feeling was back in force. I wanted to pet his head, just like I pet my friend way back when he was could only barely reach my knees while standing. I wanted to reassure him, somehow.

I was also certain that was a terrible, terrible idea for multiple reasons. He had been fairly courageous before, I knew he'd be back up and fine without my help if I just gave him a couple of moments

[ ] Attempt to soothe him.
[ ] Do not. Your subconscious screams this can only end in disaster.


Another bit of a significant confirmation vote, boys. No, not for a 'route lock', so don't worry about that. I'm not even sure this story will have any sort of romance, actually. Isn't shaping up much like it, is it?
[X] Do not. Your subconscious screams this can only end in disaster.

It's not nice to treat people like they can't do anything by themselves. Soothing might come off the wrong way to someone like that.
[x] Attempt to soothe him.

Her subconscious was formed by a life full of bitterness towards humans and a flabbergasting lack of social interaction.

She didn't understand why her God told her to love humans? Well, now it is time to learn. And Aya is lesson number one.

Aya is prideful and may reject her. That's fine. But the writefag just said this vote is about more than the here and now.
[X] Attempt to soothe him.
Might as well start following her mom's advice
[X] Attempt to soothe him.

I still don't like him.
[X] Attempt to soothe him.

This guy has good reasoning:

And if she's not going to be buddies with youkai (a terrible idea), may as well try to get along with people.
[X] Attempt to soothe him.
>>196867 Here

I've been convinced that [X] Attempt to soothe him. is a better option so I'm changing my vote.
[x] Do not. Your subconscious screams this can only end in disaster.

It is my duty to piss against all tides.
[X] Attempt to soothe him.
Let's befriend Aya instead of befriending Aya.
[x] Do not. Your subconscious screams this can only end in disaster.

I'm going with 'Trust the Shrine Maiden's intuition'
[x] Do not. Your subconscious screams this can only end in disaster.

Getting some human lordling attached to us is the opposite of our goal right now.
[x] Do not. Your subconscious screams this can only end in disaster.

Forget the rich brat, we've got work to do.
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It’s not like there was anything wrong with helping the boy, anyhow. If anything, it fit just right in with my duties – this poor child was confused, vulnerable and away from his family. Being panicked and scared would not only be undesirable for the obvious reasons, but it would also make it harder to escort him back to safety. That’s what I fervently told myself as I lead the dazed boy back to my makeshift safe spot – and it was even mostly true. It didn’t make the creeping feeling that what I was doing would come back to bite me any less intense. Despite assuring me he was ‘fine’ he held on to my arm the whole way without complaint.

I cleared out my heavy backpack to make space for us to sit, which we did in the only comfortable way available to us, shoulder-to-shoulder. The small groove between roots I’d made my temporary shelter wasn’t wide enough for us to sit facing each other, but what it lacked in comfort and space it made up with the feeling of safety that being hidden brought. The closeness involved might have made it feel like an intimate spot in another time, with less impending catastrophe involved. For now, it was nice and safe, and that was enough for me.

Now, actually being here, I came head-to-head with a problem. Namely, I had no idea what to do. I might have been a woman of many skills after an entire childhood’s worth of preparation and learning for my role, and some of them even had to do with dealing with people – but consoling a teenaged boy in a state like this was decidedly not among them. I didn’t even know exactly what was the problem; he was dazed, shaky and not talkative, sure, but I didn’t even know why. He didn’t seem that shocked from seeing a youkai, so it couldn’t be that. He seemed fine before.

I was annoyed at myself for acting on impulse, but simultaneously, the strange protective instinct that pushed me there hand't ceased in the least. Not knowing what to do, I felt the pull of habit trying to drag me, default me into the same old persona I used so often, as it happened whenever I felt too far out of my element. It was a poor fit here, so I did my best to shake it off.

But without that, what did I have?

This was awful.

His hair, long for a boy’s, partially covered his face as he stared vacantly at his feet, breathing slowly. I wasn’t sure whether I should touch him, so I didn’t. “Um,” I stuttered. I felt unbelievably awkward. “Are you well?”

He started, as if just then realizing I was there, and looked directly at me. I saw immediately that I’d made a miscalculation.

He nodded slowly. “I’m fine. I’m fine.”

It was barely a whisper. Aya wasn’t just exhausted and dirty; he was way, way past his limit. I’d seen the exact same trembling, wide-eyed unfocused look on people who had been buried under rubble for hours and hours after an earthquake. It was astounding that he’d managed to look steady enough to fool me, even healthy and decisive under these conditions.

I took a more careful look at him now that there was no threat close by. The clothes he was wearing were thin, expensive ware built for style and conspicuous consumption, completely unlike my own sturdy boots and heavy hakama, modified especially for this type of use. His robe was nothing but thin strips and dragging cloth all the way from the knees down. The ground vegetation that no longer even registered to me had raked his legs with a hundred shallow cuts, each drawing a costly drop of blood. He stayed mercifully still as I checked his legs and feet, which sported fresh new blisters which I knew would be filled with water or blood soon, and amazingly painful for someone unused to them.

Gods. He must’ve been in his last legs during that confrontation, fueled by nothing but a final rush of adrenaline and fear. I hadn’t stopped to consider that what rated as a decent hike for me would have been almost life-threatening for someone soft and totally unused to it. Coupled, possibly, with the stress of walking into an unknown forest unprepared and of facing down a youkai, it was no surprise he went into a sort of catatonia once it was over.

I acknowledged it. He may have been the dumbest kid on this green earth, but I knew now he at least had spirit.

“I’m fine,” he kept repeating while I checked him over, quieter and quieter, until they ceased to be words and became wispy breaths.

Even though the situation was severe, I felt myself relaxing. I knew how to deal with this – I knew first aid, I knew how to care for someone infirm. Not to mention, doing this assuaged my own feelings. Putting off any thoughts of how I’d deal with him when he came to, I focused instead on the work at hand.

It wasn’t glorious or skilled work, but as always, there was a warm satisfaction in doing what I’d been taught directly by mother. Lying him down on a spare cloak I had, wiping him as clean as was reasonable, cleaning and tending to the cuts and blisters, giving him water directly – he wouldn’t even drink without help. He tried to resist at first with his chant of "I'm fine," but I simply ignored his protests and kept a firm hand, and he relented easily. Not that he would've had the energy to really go against me, even if he wanted to.

By the time I deemed my job to be as done as it was going to get, he was snoring away peacefully, which I was thankful for. After something like this, I wouldn’t have been surprised if he was unable to sleep, which would have compounded the problems even further.

I stretched, satisfied with my work. Looking at the boy and what he’d gone through, I realized it had been stupid of me having ever thought I was unlucky just because a little bit of real work had finally landed on my lap. I was truly blessed by mother with everything. My life, my tools, my skills. Disparaging my own work – her work – just because of such a little thing was rude and plain wrong.

I said a quick, sincere prayer, asking for forgiveness for my mistake.

Then, I nodded to my friend and slept.

[ ] Bird's eye view.
[ ] Dog pound runaway.

This is a choice for a 1-update (maybe 2-update) perspective shift. For funsies and variety.

Some really cool guy drew pixel artwork of my protagonist. Don't take it as canon if you don't want to, that's why we have text. I do really like the color scheme, though.
[x] Dog pound runaway.


Also, nice pixel art. I didn't have a clear image of Yoshiko in my head. Now I do. So that's neat.
[x] Dog pound runaway.

Woof woof.
[X] Bird's eye view.

Caw caw, the sound of a disgruntled journalist.
Damn, he was on his last legs. Let's find how and why he got here

[X] Dog
[X] Bird's eye view.
[x] Dog pound runaway.
[X] Bird's eye view.

More Aya is not bad.
[X] Bird's eye view.
[X] Bird's eye view.

Want to see more tengu Aya.
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Aya Shameimaru was bored.

This was not a rare occurrence.

She poorly hid a yawn, watching the preening crows all around her and being duly watched in return. Boring people at a boring event, all extremely preoccupied with being as boring as they could, by her reckoning. Strutting about in a massive tangled web of elaborate social fencing as complex as it was pointless, all for what amounted to a glorified meeting of the same old boys club as always.

All the cadres, factions and castes, even the three or four white wolves that had been allowed to attend, all going through the same motions. Stuck in place. Aya sighed for the twelfth time that night, glancing back towards the deep end of the hall, where the biggest sycophants clustered tightly around the present Oni in a mess of black feathers, being (mostly) thoroughly ignored. That corner housed the only notable part of today’s party, one of the Devas, here visiting friends in the traditional Oni way. Aya could gauge exactly how long had elapsed since they’d started drinking from the volume and intensity of drunken laughing and yelling coming from that side of the room, and the low-ish murmur told her it was still early in the night. It felt like it’d been much longer.

She pondered going over, but even considering that chatting with the Deva was undoubtedly the most interesting prospect in this dump, she didn’t need entertainment badly enough to challenge wading through the hordes of obnoxious toadies; the Great Oni, as the guest of honor, would have every other crow trying to accost her as often as she allowed them to. She dropped the idea, resigning herself to the hours of boredom. She was almost used to it, anyway.

Ducking out early was always an option, too. Aya, not being interested in court posturing in the least, had no need to go through the whole painstaking effort of formal socialization – read: adulation. She liked to attract as little attention as she could at these sorts of events, doing no more than the bare minimum not to become an outcast – that is, unless there was something, anything, that piqued her interest. In either case, at least showing up and being seen was an occasional necessity, so she relaxed, sat at one of the low tables, grabbed herself a sake dish, and let her mind wander.

The hall was one of those that had been carved straight into the heart of the mountain by gods know what, before Aya was alive. Whatever it had been, the Tengu had fully made it their own sometime in the last thousand years; although she’d never [i]seen[/] any manual work take place and it wasn’t easy to remember centuries back, she was certain it used to be rougher, more cave-like. Somehow, with time, it had transformed as if by osmosis into something in the image and liking of her people.

Ascetically ostentatious, or luxuriously spartan; either description would work. The martial nature of these youkai came across clearly: in the stark, unpainted stone walls, in the unadorned wood fixtures and supports, in the lack of tapestries, in the plain cushions. And yet, everything was as spick-and-span as was possible to achieve. On fabrics, sharp and clean patterns without excess – of red, white and black only, of course – meticulously crafted to flawlessness with straight lines and aerodynamic curves. The walls and floors, be they stone or wood, polished into ruler-straight, elegantly-designed perfection. With no paint, the carved walls showed the natural streaks of different layers of rock, seeming to wave hypnotically in the swaying light of the lanterns. It would’ve been awe-inspiring to anyone who hadn’t seen it regularly for close to a millennium.

Aya chatted amiably with whoever sat nearby, ate, drank, did her social duties. Even a substantial tengu settlement like this one couldn’t compare, in population, to a small human city, so most of the people she saw in this setting, she was acquainted with – and the ones she didn’t know already weren’t likely to be worth meeting. She traded jokes with an old, irrelevant and content bureaucrat; skilfully fended off a stern-faced soldier who was far too keen on a drinking match; most amusingly, had more fun than she expected to by flirting a high-ranking fledgling who didn’t know of her and just thought she’d be a good mark to practice his courting skills on.

She got up and stretched her arms, momentarily annoyed at being unable to do the same with her wings indoors. It’d been long enough. She felt like now would be a good time to go home, or…

The noise from the Oni corner had comfortably reached obnoxious levels now, meaning the night was just getting started for them. The cloud of obsequious tengu had thinned, and she’d be able to have a word with the Deva if she took this chance – the price would be having to deal with a pack of loud drunkards, and probably get dragged into more drinking than she was comfortable doing.

She thought about it.

[ ] Aya felt like being alone for a bit, and left for a more solitary pursuit in the night - and an unexpected encounter.
[ ] Aya decided interesting developments could come from talking with the most powerful person in the mountain.


Note that this probably isn't a choice with lasting consequences, since it's a flashback and all. Just about what you wanna see.
Took painfully long to write for such a short update.
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Additional good image for funsies
[x] Aya decided interesting developments could come from talking with the most powerful person in the mountain.

Yuugi time? Yuugi time.
[X] Aya felt like being alone for a bit, and left for a more solitary pursuit in the night - and an unexpected encounter.

This box, it's full of mystery!
[x] Oni option.

Suika? Yuugi? Kasen? Maybe even Konngara? I have to know!
[X] Aya felt like being alone for a bit, and left for a more solitary pursuit in the night - and an unexpected encounter.
[X] Aya felt like being alone for a bit, and left for a more solitary pursuit in the night - and an unexpected encounter.

I wonder if this is going to be a curveball.
[X] Aya felt like being alone for a bit, and left for a more solitary pursuit in the night - and an unexpected encounter.
[X] Aya decided interesting developments could come from talking with the most powerful person in the mountain.

Should be interesting regardless which one it is.
[X] Aya decided interesting developments could come from talking with the most powerful person in the mountain.

Want to explore this scene a bit more.
[ ] Aya felt like being alone for a bit, and left for a more solitary pursuit in the night - and an unexpected encounter.

Umm..I'm don't know what's going on
What is unclear to you, friend?

Well, if Yoshiko is the main character, why Aya is now?
It's a short flashback/shift of perspective. After next update we'll be back to our regular protagonist.

I see.
I thought the flashbacks would be focus Yoshiko's past with her mother.
Aya prepared to leave the gathering behind, giving thanks that she was finally done. Not only was the entire atmosphere of having to deal with other stuffy tengu, but even the hall, tall, wide and awe-inspiring as it was, still felt small and constraining to her. She could never understand why her kinsmen so often chose to live in claustrophobic caves and tunnels; you couldn’t even stretch your wings in this place!

She inwardly thanked the oni. There was a time, before they were in charge, where life had been even more suffocating. Even a simple meet-and-greet like this would’ve been carefully regimented and scheduled, and she wouldn’t even be able to leave freely before being told it was allowed. As much as being under another kind stung her and every other tengu on a basic level, at least there was that.

She walked through the carefully-sculpted square tunnels and out onto the cool night, inhaling the fresh air gratefully after being in the underground miasma of smoke and incense. The mountain range beyond was dotted with life, represented by pinpricks of firelight emanating from all over the mountain – each a lantern, candle, or light from inside a window. Rather than a big river or cluster of people, as it would’ve been with humans, they were scattered haphazardly, lighting up the mountain like a swarm of fireflies – after all, crows have no need of roads, and they’re less gregarious than humans, if only by a little. Although many inhabited the pre-existing tunnels and underground halls, they had been around long enough that all sorts of buildings had popped up, perched all over the mountain, half-camouflaged amongst the vegetation. Residences, public avenues, even some businesses, each very characteristically straight-edged and tengu, but adopting characteristics of the time in which they were built. It made for an unexpectedly varied, busy landscape. It could have been called a city of sorts, but nobody did so. It was only the Mountain, nothing more.

Aya sighed again. It’s not that going through that kind of obligation was a complete waste of time and a chore, but if she wasn’t getting any entertainment or anything else out of it, it could be a serious serious drain on her. Still, she was free now, and keen to go home and rest. With a push of the legs and a lazy wing-beat, she was off.

But first, a leisurely flight around the mountain. She’d made it a habit simply because she loved the feeling of freedom, occasionally the incredible rush of speed that none could match, and it turned out to be an unusually lucrative and fun past time besides. Aya had unusually sharp eyes, even for a tengu, and a surprising amount happened outside under the light of the sun and moon. Unshackled in her element, Aya had the run of the Mountain, and just by finding the right people to chat with, eavesdrop and take notes on or buy dinner and drinks for – even, sometimes, total strangers – she effortlessly, even unconsciously flitted between the complicated webs of politics so many tengu spent their life climbing the hard way and getting tangled on. The price was not being able to claim the title, the prestige, the material benefits, even the recognition; that was just fine with her. She only did it because she enjoyed the thrill ride, the mechanics of it all and the dirty work itself. Even then, she couldn’t avoid all of the monotonous stuff, as today’s gathering showed.

Unusual in some ways was Aya Shameimaru.

That day wasn’t a hunting day, however, and she wasn’t in the right mindset for it. It was the equivalent of a stroll, keeping her bare minimum watch for anything intriguing. The combination of fatigue and after-effects of alcohol were making her strangely contemplative that night, and she found herself taking special notice of the Mountain she’d lived in for as long as she could remember.

It was quite big, for starters. She’d once timed it, but even at her absolute top speed, it took her a few minutes to cross it lengthwise. Rather than a single mountain as the name suggested, it was instead a chain of five peaks arranged in something like a shallow U shape. Whoever had owned it before the tengu had made an effort to have nice stone pathways alongside the extensive tunnel system, but the former had long been reclaimed by nature, with none of the crows having any incentive to maintain or use them. Now their ruins barely served as decoration.

Crows were neither fully nocturnal nor fully diurnal, which made it so no matter the time of day there was activity to go about. Even in the middle of the night, here and there Aya could make out tengu carrying out their daily routines training, patrolling, speeding about, and generally going about their business. It was a surprisingly idyllic day-to-day given the martial nature of her kind, and she knew who to ‘thank’ for that.

She looked further up, at each of the greater mountain peaks. Around each of them, clambered like gargoyles waiting to pounce, were great castle-like pagodas – and only one of them was owned by her blood-kin, the Tenma. The rest were the domain of the Devas.

She knew it offended others more than it did her that they were nominally ruled by oni. Time healed a lot of wounds, and it had been… Decades? No, centuries? Since they’d moved in by force with a gaggle of other horned, brash oni. They might’ve been less numerous than even the sparse tengu, but each easily held their own against a full 20-strong patrol of fully armed and armoured tengu, not to mention the ludicrous power of the devas themselves.

It wasn’t that bad of a subjugation, in truth and in Aya’s personal opinion. There were perks, and their ‘rule’ was one more of image than of fact. The tengu had continued to do what little governing there was to do inside the strictures of their exaggerated bureaucracy, and as long as they didn’t personally cross or go against an oni that could bash their head in (which did happen occasionally), they had as much of a run of the place as they always had. It was a stable, if unilateral and chafing, truce. One thing they did do was enforce a kind of forceful peace under the kanabo.

Aya banked towards her place, riding a pleasant air current and intending to finish up her night. It was one of the homes built on the surface, a humble, ordinary wooden one half-hidden under a massive tree, low to the base of Tenma’s mountain.

Her feet had barely even touched the ground when the muffled sound of another landing followed. Although there was little danger in the middle of their own territory in time of peace as it was, Aya’s fight reflexes kicked in, her fan drawn and ready in a hundredth of a heart beat.

“Long time no see,” a cheerful voice piped up from behind her, threatening a giggle at her jumpiness.

Aya breathed in sharply, but hid away her weapon before turning around to face the newcomer – and bowing.

“Hello, boss.”


It strikes me just now that my ratio of ORIGINAL THE CHARACTERS to real touhous might be slightly out of wack. I'm afraid there's not much I can do about it.
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“Boss?” the woman mimicked, sniffling. “We used to be better friends than this, didn’t we? You wound me, Aya.”

The girl rose from her deep bow, as prim and proper as she could make herself, but she refused – wisely – to look the Tenma in the eyes. This task was made harder by the fact that despite being the Lord of the Tengu, she was shorter than Aya, even with her customary geta on.

“Lady Tenma,” Aya said, her voice stiff.

“That’s my title, yes,” she interrupted, blowing a stray strand of hair from her eyes. Nothing indicated her words were part of anything but carefree banter – and perhaps they weren’t. The secret was in that amused tone of voice, that sideways-and-up look that made them think that there just might be a meaning hidden behind it.

Tengu tended towards mild paranoia. For them, it ended up being healthy more often than not.

Her silver hair went all the way to her ankles, permanently untamed and reflecting moon- and starlight more brightly than unkempt hair, by rights, ever should. Aya wondered if she’d ever brushed it at all. She was informal that night: Trousers, simple geta, a loose-fitting white nightshirt that displayed the slight, slim figure usually hidden under voluminous ceremonial robes. No wings, for she wasn’t a crow or wolf at all, but completely humanoid, as Greater Youkai tended to be.

Aya thought she always seemed woefully out of place in command. Whenever she was in the midst of her gaggle of great crow warriors in their scowling long-nosed war masks, she resembled a child playing pretend. She was too small, not forceful enough, too soft – and yet, somehow, she usually got her way. Her face didn’t help matters: wide eyes, a chubby, cute nose, an expression that seemed stuck on curious wonder if she didn’t consciously force it into something else. Her image was completely wrong for leader of the severe tengu.

Yet she played the role. She put on her severe expression, she gave speeches, she maneuvered through the politics. Aya didn’t care to know the specifics, all she knew is that this was an annoying woman to deal with. She stayed on top, and not for lack of pretenders. Even then, Aya had never in her lifetime even seen her personally raise a hand in anger or unsheathe her ever-present sword. She wasn’t sure if that was a point for or against her, and no tengu was keen to find out for sure.

Aya hated her. The kind of inner, primal dislike that can’t be easily explained or traced back to anything concrete – if she could even be said to be consciously aware of the feeling. What did come through clearly into her head was this: this high-handed… woman… wouldn’t get anything out of her so easily. She kept her mouth shut and waited.

“No change, then? Oh well.” The Tenma pouted, crossing her arms. “I feel like I say this every time we meet, but I still don’t know what your problem with me is.”

“I have no problems with you, my Lady. I serve you to the best of my ability, and have for years.”

She tsked. “Sure. You wouldn’t disobey without a good excuse, would you?” It was the truth. Aya may have been exceptionally independent for a tengu, but she still didn’t dare openly go against the Tenma without good reason.

Aya almost bristled but managed to keep it hidden. That word by itself was enough to ignite the fire of anger in her belly. ‘Disobey’. “I’d never willingly disobey you, my lady. I am loyal,” she lied, keeping her eyes low.

The Tenma wasn’t amused. “Hmph. That’s good, because I have a task for you.”

“Of course, my Lady.” It wasn’t the first time the Tenma had come personally with a request to her. She supposed she should be honored, but she felt nothing but acrid bitterness.

“It’s such an easy request that it pains me to have to squander your time with it, honestly,” the Tenma said, sounding genuine. “But it’s also crucial. So important that I’m here to personally entreat you. Doesn’t that mean anything to you?”

“Very much so. I’m awed,” Aya said flatly, bowing again to suppress the urge to say something cutting.

The Tenma sighed, deflating. It was a similar pattern every time the two of them met. “As long as it gets done. It won’t take long to explain. Shall we go in for some tea?”

“No.” The tone remained respectful, but the word came out before she could stop it in its tracks. She wanted to smack herself: this was exactly what the snake wanted.

She proved Aya’s point by lchuckling, delighted. “That’s the spirit. It’s a lovely night outside, I do agree.” She paced, making a show of looking up at the cloudless sky. Aya wanted to make the wind blow her stupid hair into her eyes. She could do it, and the Tenma would probably take it as a joke. She’d have done it if it didn’t make her feel like a child.

She went on. “It has to do with the oni, and that’s why it must be you. You know how they are. Too stubborn for the rest of us.” It couldn’t be said that the oni trusted Aya, but almost every tengu other than her would be completely stonewalled and treated with extreme suspicion. She’d even acted as a mediator before. “It’s dead simple. All you have to do is convince them to have a party.”

Aya’s eyebrows shot up. “Really now?”

Again she spoke before thinking. Far, far too honest for one of her kind was Aya Shameimaru, or so she thought. She figuratively threw her hands up; in for a penny, after all. “You want me to get oni to party? Should I try coercing some dogs into barking too?”

She knew from the radiant grin on the Tenma’s face that she’d played into her hand. “I’m so glad you’re up for it! But it’s not about the act, it’s about the date. I want them to have a huge, massive party, with tons and tons of high quality sake, enough to knock even those brutes into unconsciousness – all on a very specific day.”

‘Ah,’ Aya thought.

“Yes, it’s very obvious when put that way – which is why it’s essential that they think it’s all their own idea. Some subtlety is key here.”

The crow tengu had recovered her wits some, so she simply bowed again. Unfortunately, all her resistance was no more than a show for her own benefit – she’d have to do what was asked regardless, and it gnawed at her. “Will… Would you tell me some details? What are you doing?”

“Hm.” She tapped her foot, ostensibly thinking. “I’d love to tell you, Aya, I really would. You’re one of my favourites, but I just get the feeling it isn’t mutual.” She sighed. “I can hardly tell you sensitive information when you could very well turn around and ruin me out of spite, right? Don’t you worry, it’s for all for the sake of us and ours. You’ll benefit just as much as I do.”

The Lord Tenma didn’t stay after that, having gotten what she came for. Whimsy or not, she was a busy woman.

Aya stood in place, mulling it over, getting madder as she did. Bloody tenma. The oni were ten times better as far as she was concerned. They might ‘rule’, but they just did their thing off to the side, rather than this crap she had to deal with. Being moved around like a shogi piece.

She was still standing there, steaming in her own anger, when she was surprised for the second time that night.
The goddess emerged from behind a tree, smooth and silent as fog. Just as eerie as last time they’d met. Aya froze in place for a split second, rooted there by pure instinct, her eyes widening. She controlled herself before it was noticed, she hoped.

“Crow,” said Hina, almost conversationally. “Good evening. I overheard.”

Aya was lost for words for a moment. She hadn’t seen this… this woman in gods know how long, and here she was, just popping by like she was an old friend.

“Hina.” The name came to her at once. Then she paused. “Were you hiding behind a tree this whole time?”

“Yes. There was nowhere else to eavesdrop from,” she said, her face set in complete seriousness. Aya started to remember their previous encounter, and also remembered why she’d hoped it had been the last. The woman’s eyes, glassy and empty, glided over to Aya, staring where her eyes were, but very clearly not looking at them. Lines dark enough to make you think they were make-up circled around the almost skeletal eye sockets, giving her a spectral stare. Added to the fluttering dark dress in the clear night, and she’d make a fine ghost to tell stories about. She recalled a single word that had stuck out in her mind from last time they’d met.

Unhinged. The goddess was not all there.

Youkai were not quite so easy to frighten, however and Aya was back to her snappy self before the goddess realized she was off-balance. The sudden appearance was startling, that was all. Her frustration from before crawled back in quick as a viper, and it showed on the surface right away. “Good, I needed an audience to see me get humiliated. Go on, mock me.”

“Mock you?” Hina tilted her head in confusion, that vacant expression still on her. “I won’t mock you. Your type have hierarchies. It’s natural, is it not?”

Aya badly wanted to say something that’d make her seem childish, but restrained herself with only a click of the tongue, for once. “What do you want?”

The doll-like goddess blinked slowly, as if processing this response, then spoke. “You owe me a favour,” she said, her voice thin but not meek. “I’ve come to collect.”

Aya laughed, incredulous. “You helped me what, decades ago? Do you expect me to help you for nothing, just like that?”

Hina blinked twice, slowly. “You have a debt.”

“I’ve had enough of being told what to do for one day, thank you,” she said, smiling. “You ought to know how this works by now, little fake goddess. You can only get what you c--”

Her tirade was interrupted when her leg simply folded with a sudden numbness. Aya didn’t scream, but simply fell with a soft thud, her hands going to her leg and finding a dull pain. The shin bones had a horrifying line of rot going straight through, a black bubbly substance that made her flesh sponge-like where it struck invisibly. The shock and disgust of the crow were far more significant than the physical damage; she’d never seen a wound like this.

Hina didn’t step closer, staying perfectly still and comfortable where she’d stepped from the shadow of the trees, only a stone’s throw away. Aya curled up and prodded the soft, newly purple-greenish flesh of her leg, marveling at how it seemed to give like soft butter. Her eyes were wide.

“I’d forgotten the way you youkai make and keep deals.”

Her quiet voice carried through, but then she paused for long thoughtful moment. Only Aya’s breathing could be heard. She listened, her mind speeding through her options. She could take off, but she’d probably take one more hit before she did.

“Crow. You could kill me even now. I’m weaker than you.” There was a shuffling of feet – the goddess was walking closer. “That’d benefit neither of us. Do you know what a “death curse” is?”


“Look,” A new note entered Hina’s voice now, something unfamiliar to Aya. “I’m...” she clearly struggled with the words, speaking haltingly. “I apologize for just now. You wouldn’t have listened to me any other way.”

“Couldn’t you have tried?,“ she snapped. “Look at my leg!” A diagonal line of mushy, corrupted flesh ran through her right shin. It looked bendy, like it’d come off with a hard pull.

Her voice returned to the quiet monotone of before. “It looks worse than it is. You’ll be fine with my help.” The tengu, sitting half cross-legged, touched the rotted wound again, as fascinated as a kid with a new cut. It wasn’t often you saw a completely new kind of injury after a thousand years of life as a warrior. “I’m only collecting on a valid debt. With this you won’t have to do what your Tenma told you, yes?”

To Aya’s surprise, the goddess hauled her up by the shoulders, heedless of the leg, herbony fingers digging into her. It really did look worse than it was; she could limp on it, barely, leaning on Hina. She could have easily attacked, but she wasn’t keen on finding out whether the death curse talk had been a bluff. Aya was one of the tengu, yes, and she hated being at someone’s mercy like this, but unlike some of them, she valued her life over pride.

They spoke little after that. Hina treated the tengu’s wound and laid out her task. Aya, seeing no choice, listened and only made occasional snips..

By dawn, Hina was gone and Aya had a new mission for the near future.

Something to do with a certain shrine maiden.

= = = =

[ ] Clingy sleeper
[ ] Returning customer
[ ] Doggy treats
[ ] Peaceful awakening

It’s a morning event choice.

I wanted to write a neutral morning bit before another choice, but have mercy on me. This little aside went on longer than expected, was a huge pain to write, and I’m distraught with how it came out. I would've scrapped and started over if it hadn't taken so long already.

Oh well.
[x] Peaceful awakening

> I would've scrapped and started over if it hadn't taken so long already.

It looks fine to me.
[X] Doggy treats

Hoping this will give more insight into the tengu from a different perspective.
[X] Doggy treats
[x] Clingy sleeper

I liked it. I prefer our protagonist, mind you, but I was a good insight in how Youkai of this era are.
[X] Peaceful awakening

I thought that was a nice aside.
[x] Clingy sleeper
Interesting take on Tenma, to say nothing of the other dimension of Aya explored. I wouldn't mind seeing more.
[X] Peaceful awakening

No need for fuss, the day will do that for us.
Morning was remarkably routine, for a while. I wasn’t in the habit of sleeping for long on the road, and this was no exception. Despite the sky and the boy sleeping nearby, curled up with my friend – which in itself was odd – I had no trouble going through my morning stretches, eating my salted meat and hard bread, generally doing everything I was used to, all in that morning half-daze that prevents you from thinking too hard about any one subject too hard.

I stared at the two of them as I munched on some bread. The boy’s head rested on my friend’s side, his mess of black hair standing out against the white fur, moving up and down with their breathing. He must have crawled in there some time during the night. It was odd; y friend was hardly ever so welcoming, even with me. In any case, it was a blessing Aya hadn’t woken up from the pain so far – It wouldn’t last, and he needed all the rest he could get.

Stupid boy. What was he thinking? He was flimsy, with thin calves and wrists, there was no way this would’ve ended well even if he had had a proper kit. He shouldn’t even have gotten this far. I’d have to grill him on it, ask him if there was anything to worry about on our tail, figure out how to move him somewhere safe… so much extra to worry about.

No use moaning about it now. What was done was done.

I finished up my meal with a word of thanks and started on cleaning up. I’d slept in my traveling clothes after a not-uneventful day, so I needed it. No water source, I’d have to make do with a splash from my cantine and a wipedown. A deep sigh left my lips as I shed the heavy clothes; They’re handy and I’d trade them for nothing, but damn if they didn’t get heavy and confining sometimes. The morning breeze on my clammy skin was a lovely reprieve.

Oof. Sleeping with a sarashi on is always a mistake. Off it went along with the upper part of the hakama, folded neatly on top of my pack. A wet rag may be limited when it comes to cleaning, but right then the coolness of it was exactly what I needed and I scrubbed, getting the bulk of road-dirt out. Worming out of the rest of the bulky dress, I let it drop to the ground and got started on my legs.

He chose that auspicious moment to wake up.

I whirled around when heard his gasp from behind me, what I was doing entirely forgotten. Still holding on to my friend, he stared at me with those wide-open eyes, like I was an apparition. I walked resolutely towards him, intent on checking up on his condition now that he was awake. He startled and recoiled like a small scared animal, still holding onto my friend as if he were a big living cushion.

“Stay still,” I ordered, kneeling to check over his wounds. He tried to kick as I touched his leg, and immediately regretted it, yelping from the pain.

It wasn’t as bad as it might have been. At the very least, his life wouldn’t be in danger unless the flesh spoiled, and under my care that would not happen. Long thin scratches running up his shin, standing out on his fair skin, and big ugly boils from the distance he’d walked. The worst of it was an inch or two long, fingernail-deep gash on one sole from stepping on an unlucky pebble. He gasped as I prodded here and there, testing for tenderness.

There was just one issue. I knew these kinds of hurts would be awful for a few days, especially for someone unused to the myriad pains and aches of the road. Not excruciating in the way a single, large wound would be, but a grating, stinging pain that lasts, annoys you, doesn’t let you sleep or relax. It drains you, especially if you have to walk on it. He sported none of the calluses that would have made him resistant. It was visible even while he was simply sitting, as he cringed and moaned just from the light contact.

“Do you feel a fever?” I asked, checking for signs of infection. No pus, no stench, not much redness… Everything looked as good as it could have. I finally rose to look at him properly, and as soon as I saw his face up-close, the concept of modesty promptly cannonballed itself back into my memory. Oh yeah, I was mostly naked, wasn’t I?

He was frowning, teary-eyed, flushed and silent as I loomed above him, unable to choose between looking up at me, keeping his eyes to the floor and clutching his legs – either way, he was distraught, backed up against the wall of fluffy white fur as far as he could go. I felt a pinprick in my chest. My friend exhaled accusingly at me, raising his head.

It had completely slipped my mind. I was so accustomed to being alone or with mother, out in the road…

I can’t lie, I felt a slight tingle touch my cheeks as well. Slight. Not even visible, probably. I was hardly used to this kind of situation. I turned around, trying not to seem too quick about it. “Excuse me.”

Winding the binding around my chest seemed to take thrice as long as usual, but at least I had time to compose myself. The same went for him – once I turned back, he was wearing an expression more like the rich kid’s I’d come to expect. Still sat leaning against my friend, though.

He looked so small, huddled up like that. Really, just a little boy. “How badly does it hurt?”

“This is nothing. I’m fine,” he sniffed. Unconvincing.

I lightly prodded his shin with my bare foot. It was enough to make him nearly double over, wincing. “If you’re fine, get up and walk. I have to take you back to the village.”

“No.” His response was instant and , although his voice shook, it was surprisingly clear of pain. “You can’t take me back.”

He was still planning on keeping up this nonsense? Would I have to force him out of it? It was bad enough that he was keeping me from mother by forcing me to postpone my search for her for however long it’d take to haul him back. It was almost enough to make me wish he’d just lost track of me and stayed in the woods.

No. I couldn’t.

No. No, no, no, no, definitely not. It’d go against everything mother taught me. Losing people under a youkai attack one thing, but deliberately… No. Just no. She’d be furious if she knew – worse than furious, disappointed in me, if she found out.

If she found out.


I thought about it, I truly did. The sooner I found mother, the sooner this would all be resolved; she’d explain and fix everything. And this kid was in the way. Mother cared too much about these people, these humans.

I’d been looking down at him as I thought, and he held my eyes the whole time. I’m not proud of it, but I would’ve gone through with it if the kid had been less stubborn, less stupid, less inappropriately courageous. Less cute, embarrassingly; I’m only human. But he’d left an impression on me, even though that impression included a total lack of self-preservation. I could’ve easily packed up and left him there, but I didn’t.

However, I wasn’t about to go back and waste more potentially precious days either.

So it was that I gained a burden.


Sorry guys, I need a week or two (MAX two) long break where I don't even think about this story. Recharge my creative batteries, let's say. Been a bit of a struggle.
Take it easy mate.
Don't worry man, it happens. We'll be waiting for you.
Happy holidays then I suppose.
Everyone needs breaks now and then.
Aighte boys, I've got it back. 2 or 3 days and I update.
Welcome back!
As soon as I mentally relegated him to the status of a common burden, like a sack of potatoes I’d have to carry around, it was as if the task suddenly lightened. I’d still do my best to protect him, of course… within reason. But if he kept attempting suicide in that same way, that’d be that. I couldn’t be expected to keep a moth from flying into a bonfire.

I pushed the thought of what mother would say to that line of thinking out of my mind. It wouldn’t come to that.

I turned away from him, getting dressed and already planning out the day. We’d have to camp for at least… two full days, in the best case. I’d have to see about food, and a water source while keeping him safe and–


Oh. He was here, still, and speaking to me. I’d forgotten he wasn’t actually a sack of potatoes.


“You’re not lying, are you? If you try to take me back, I… I’ll scream."

I processed that. He didn’t seem like he truly meant it, but either way it was a statement so stupid in so many complex and intertwining levels that it would’ve been pointless to try to explain it to him. I opted for the simple answer, speaking with my back still turned to him.

“No. It wouldn't be worth the trouble.”

“Good,” he said, clearly not having heard anything past the first word. “Then when can we leave? My feet don’t hurt that much.”

I felt a headache coming on. “If you walk on those, they’ll get much worse.”

He didn’t even stop to think for a single second. “Carry me, then. Or… I could lean on the dog. I’m very light.”

“We’re camping, ” I said with finality, and if pouts made a sound I was sure I’d have heard one.

I had a few seconds of blessed quiet as I checked over everything in my backpack — a good habit for any traveler. It seemed like the birds had gotten used to the red sky, at least. They were just as lively as always.

“So,” he started anew, unfortunately intent on having a conversation. I stopped my hands. “You seemed comfortable for someone talking to a tengu.”

He wasn’t going to leave me alone easily, was he? I put the pack down and gave him the benefit of my full attention, standing before him. And stared. “I’m a shrine maiden,” I said, and that should’ve been explanation enough.

He tilted his head. “You didn’t exterminate it, though.”

I said nothing, and a thought bloomed in my head that shell-shocked, catatonic Aya might have been more enjoyable to be around than this one. How was I supposed to handle kids like this? I struggled to remember how mother dealt with me when I was being difficult, but it had been so long...

He didn’t pursue the topic, switching gears rapidly. “I heard her say you were chasing your goddess. Was it true?” He pointed to the swirl on my skirt. “The thin, pale one. Hina.”

“...Yes,” I said, bristling at the casual way he spoke of her, but glad to at least be on a topic I could speak comfortably about.. “I serve the goddess Kagiyama.”

The words were barely out of my mouth before he was saying something else.“What’s wrong with your eyes?”

That one was startling. Nobody had asked me that in… ever, perhaps? He simply seemed genuinely curious. I was aware that any semblance of control I may have had over this conversation — if it could be called that — was quickly slipping away from me. But I wanted to brag, anyway. “Nothing’s wrong with them. They were a wonderful gift.”

“Gift?” He made a funny face, but shrugged after a second. Not as impactful as I might have expected. I was this close to falling into the trap: if I got started speaking about her, that’d be that. I wouldn’t get anything else done for the next hour or two. “From Hina? Strange.”


“Huh?” he looked up at me, confused.

“Be respectful. You may call her Kagiyama.” People showed mother no respect. It was part of my duty to correct such behaviour wherever I could find it. And what was strange about that, anyway? Mother was kind and charitable.

“Oh. Okay.” That was his full response, and he paused for a full two seconds before flitting to another subject. “Are you really sure we can’t move on now? I don’t feel that bad. I think I could walk,” he said, again flitting to another subject without even acknowledging me.

I sighed inwardly. This was more irritating than I’d foreseen.

[ ] Fine, if that’s what you want to do.
[ ] No.

[X] No.

She must be unwavering, with a will of iron. Do not give in.
[X] No.

[X] No.

This kid is such a little shit. If only we were a less responsible type.
[X] No.

I don't like him
[x] Nah

I like him. The last vote results are bad and you should feel bad.
[x] Fine, if that’s what you want to do.

Tide, I piss against thee!

P.S. Welcome back, bro. I enjoy it every time I refresh the front page and see that this updated.
I raised my voice. Maybe it’d help.

“No. Don’t ask again.”

It didn’t work. He smiled at me, for some ungodly reason. “Are you sure? We might have good reason to hurry along. Have you looked at the sky today?”

The sky?

I looked up, in what space the canopy allowed the sky light to shine through.

It was…

...Still the wrong color, for one. But something was clearly off.

The sky was shattered.

No, that wasn’t right, it was far too regular for that. It was segmented, run through with thin but definite, clear white lines, cutting the formerly flat red expanse into hundreds of perfect hexagons. I walked about our makeshift campsite, trying to get a decent look at the whole picture. It seemed like it wasn’t covering the whole sky: instead, each lump of lines extended from its own spot, like puddles under a leaky roof.

I focused hard on one specific line at an edge, feeling an unpleasant, cool feeling settle in my stomach – and my intuition was confirmed. They were moving. Slower than high clouds on a day with no wind, but moving nevertheless. Growing. A geometric red-and-white cancer covering a hundred miles around.

Whatever was happening wasn’t done happening yet.

I turned to the boy, who was beaming as if he’d just gotten a new toy.

“...You know what’s happening,” I accused.

“Not at all! I haven’t the first idea,” he said, carefree. “Isn’t it exciting?”

No, it wasn’t exciting. I filed the image of the fractured sky away, not sure what to make of it. I’d never seen or heard of anything even similar to this. So, in lieu of dealing with the situation, I did the next best thing: attempted to completely ignore it. But he had no such intention, tittering away excitedly.

“What do you suppose it means? Clearly there’s a time limit… on something. Hey, what do you think is going to happen when it closes up?”

“It’s the work of youkai. Nothing good can happen.” I paused, giving it a moment’s thought. Only one possibility really came to mind. “It will kill everyone inside.”

Aya made a face. “Don’t be silly. What would anyone gain from that?”

“Gain? They are youkai. There’s no logic.”

He frowned. “Are you sure you’re a shrine maiden? Because that’s wrong.”


I took a slow breath. Getting into an argument with a child wasn’t a good look, so I didn’t respond to the taunt. “Whatever it may be, what I say goes, and that’s the end of it. I don’t need to give you reasons. And don’t ask again.”

He pouted again, this time in full view, looking very much like a child being refused a toy. Which was exactly what he was, come to think of it. “You too, then. How come nobody wants to let me go anywhere? You know, I’m supposed to be a historian, but all they have me do is copy books.”

“Is that so?” I said flatly.

He continued unprompted. “How am I supposed to write about events I’ve never witnessed? It makes no sense.”

“It’s only a short break. If we keep going now, you’ll lose your feet,” I explained, not entirely certain why I was bothering to. He kept his pout up, but at least there was no more complaining.

“Fine, I get it already. When I’m alright to walk, we can go, right?”

I nodded.

“Still, there’s never been anything like this, for the last...” he trailed off, looking up at the stretch of lined sky that shone through and thinking. “Thousand, three hundred and seventy-six years, if my math isn’t wrong.”

I said nothing.

“There’ve been a few concerted youkai attacks, sure… but this doesn’t feel like that to me.”

I thought back to the village. “Twelve people died yesterday.”

“Yeah, there was an attack. But it wasn’t planned out.”

The sky turns red, a half-dozen youkai attack at once, and it’s not planned? I made an indistinct noise, but refused to argue.

“What about that tengu? She seemed awfully pleased.”

“She did,” I said, quickly losing interest in talking to him. I had a lot of work to do if we were going to camp here for the day. Finding a source of water, firewood, even getting a better temporary shelter than tree roots. The state of the sky was as relevant to our immediate situation as it was yesterday, which is to say, not at all. I interrupted the one-sided conversation. “I have work to do. Don’t try to stand or walk around while I’m away.”

“Ah, wait!”


“I– Er, can you… call your dog?”

He craned his neck around, looking for him.

“You have a charm for protection, don’t you?”

“Yes. But, just to be safe. You know.”

Oh. He was just scared.

[ ] Stick around for a bit, until my friend shows up.
[ ] He ran around in the forest alone for a full day. He’ll cope.

[X] Stick around for a bit, until my friend shows up.
[X] He ran around in the forest alone for a full day. He’ll cope.

Fuck him.
[ ] Stick around for a bit, until my friend shows up.
[X] Stick around for a bit, until my friend shows up.

I dunno, I kind of like him.
[x] Stick around for a bit, until my friend shows up.

So he's a wimp after all. Be sure to rub it in.
[x] Stick

She hasn't been rudr without a reason so far. Let's not start.
[X] He ran around in the forest alone for a full day. He’ll cope.

We need to get a move on.
[x] Stick around for a bit, until my friend shows up.

Never not dog vote.
“A dog wouldn’t be protection against youkai.”

He knitted his brows. “Even if that were true, that’s not the point and you know it.”

“What is the point, then?”

He huffed, annoyed, and crossed his little arms. “The point is that I’d rather not be alone and crippled in the middle of dangerous wilderness while you wander off. That I’m sensibly scared, and your dog makes me feel safer. Is that what you wanted to hear?”

It partially was, but the way he delivered it drained all the fun out from it. Still, I pushed once more. “Now you’re scared?”

“Will it satisfy you if I tell you every time I’ve been scared in the past week? Don’t be so petty.” He shifted around from his seat against the tree, moodily cradling his injured feet. “Okay, never mind. I’ll be fine. Go do whatever it is that’s more important than my life is.”

Damn kid. Doubly annoying because I knew he was at least partially right. I sighed and made up my mind, walking towards him. He gave me a wide-eyed look for a split second, and then I was sitting beside him.

We were close enough that our shoulders were touching, but I sat there and said nothing. I felt him fidget about, uncomfortable with the proximity. Unexpected, for a rich kid. A couple of minutes passed peacefully.

“So... Aren’t you going to call him?”

“No need.” It might take an hour, but he’d show up. It was slightly annoying knowing that time was wasting, but when the boy was being honest like so, I felt somehow more inclined to go along with him.

“You’re right, though,” he said. “A dog wouldn’t be much help at this point, if even tengu are randomly appearing.” He hesitated. “I don’t know what they want with you, but I was lucky you were around. I’m sure I’d be dead otherwise”

I mused on those words. It’s almost as if they were a clumsy attempt at gratitude. It felt like the kind of behaviour I should reward and encourage, but I had no idea how to. So I didn’t. “It’s not luck if you were following me.”

“That’s not true. If it were oni, for example, there’s no telling what they’d have done,” he said absently, as if commenting on the weather. “Way more unpredictable. Unless you also happen to have clout with them?”

“I don’t have ‘clout’ with any youkai,” I said firmly. “Unless it’s as an exterminator,” I lied. I’d taken on few youkai before this little incident — and now during it, too, come to think of it. You can’t call being one-sidedly cawed at by an uppity crow ‘taking on’ even in the most charitable interpretation of events possible, much less exterminating. I saw Aya give me a look out of the corner of my eye, as if he thought the same thing.

Before too long my friend trotted in from somewhere among the trees looking as if he were completing a lap in the dog show. He marched over directly to Aya and sat in front of him, as if he knew what was happening. I never understood this dog. He even wagged his tail and moved into petting range, which he only ever did for me way back when he was a pup.

“Are you satisfied now?”

He hummed in agreement distractedly, scratching my friend between the ears. “I think he likes me.”

Suddenly, there was a loud crack from somewhere not too far away, off in the forest. He jumped up in surprise and pressed closer against my side, for the second or two before he calmed down and sheepishly peeled away. My friend remained as impassive as ever.

It was an odd feeling and not something I was in the habit of doing, but he'd annoyed me so much in the scant day he’d been around that I felt an impulse to make fun of him. It was only fair. “It’s alright. I’m here to protect you from any scary youkai. Even oni.”

He said nothing, but I think he had an annoyed expression when I looked his way.

I may or may not have smiled then.
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Surprisingly, we weren’t attacked or even seriously bothered at any point during the night, although I was woken up several times by my friend’s distant baying and undecipherable loud noises from the direction of the looming mountains.

The morning of the next day, Aya was, shockingly, almost fully healed already, and experimentally limped around the makeshift camp we set up with no more than an insignificant wince with each step to show for it. Not that he was especially grievously wounded, but he gave no indication of being surprised by the speed of his recovery.

I didn’t give it that much thought, either. So many strange things were happening at once that it’d have been silly to worry too hard about any one specific such detail.

More importantly, once the white lines appeared in the sky, whatever it was that was happening seemed to continue and perhaps even accelerate with no regard for us. Daybreak was a noticeably brighter shade of red than the last one and three quarters of the sky were covered in those geometric lines. It wouldn’t take long to blanket it completely at this rate.

We found a river going the right direction and trailed it for most of the day, although it wasn’t the fastest traveling I’d ever done: the boy was unused to the road (to say nothing of a lack of road), and when he lagged I had to wait, or go back and forcefully have him lean on me – he wasn’t keen to, for some reason. Rather, it was more like I was carrying most of his weight. Still, the mountain range wasn’t that far, so it wasn’t yet night by the time we reached the foot of the mountain. It had been dumb luck and my friend’s persevering interference that had kept us free of unwanted encounters for so long in enemy territory.

About then, that luck must have started to run out.

[ ] kappa
[ ] wolf
[ ] crow again
[ ] goddesses


too lazy to make up stupid little aliases for each choice
just pick
[x] Dial G for goddesses.
Potato? Potato.
[x] Dial G for goddesses.
[X] kappa
[X] goddesses

Godly intervention.
[x] Aki option.
[x] G-(wo)Man
[x] goddesses

Aki sisters! Aki sisters!
You know, I wasn't thinking too hard about it when I wrote down the choices, but that's actually a really good one to pick.

I said ‘foot’ of the mountain, but in reality the range was large enough that there was no such sharp distinction – as we followed the river upstream, the relatively flat forest around us got hillier, steeper, stonier, and then there it was, clearing the trees and rising out of the ground at nearly 45 degrees. Even alone it’d have been a daunting climb, and I’d have a soft noble boy to lug around on top of that.

I announced the end of the walk for the day some time before sunset and Aya immediately dropped to the floor against a fallen, breathing hard. Even so, he spoke up between breaths.

“I – I can still go on,” he said between heaving breaths. “It’s easy to find alcoves and caves on mountains, right? It’s still day.”

“It’s not a suggestion,” I replied, sitting for a short rest too. “As I’ve said.”

He had no further objections. To his credit, he hadn’t complained once, except when I had to drag him when the path got a little rough and rocky. He did lag behind, and I had to stop and wait a number of times, but I got the feeling he’d sooner have dropped and stayed there than ask for a break. Which was, of course, stupid rather than admirable.

“It’s strange,” he said once he’d caught his breath.

Half a minute passed while I said nothing.

He shot me a pouty look. “You’re supposed to prompt me there. Don’t you know common courtesy? Anyway,” he huffed, “what’s strange is that we haven’t encountered anyone or anything else. Even with the charm, there’s no way any human would’ve been allowed this close to the mountain. That’s how it was before, at least. It must have to do with what’s going on.” He glanced up at the sky. Well, that’d be the natural conclusion.

I hummed absently in agreement, looking up at what I could see of the mountain from this angle. The river we’d been following couldn’t be seen – in fact, nothing much could be seen. Dense trees continued to cover it nearly all the way up, although it was a jagged, inconsistent business where there would no doubt be tons of little spots where, say, a youkai could mount an ambush.

“What do you think?”

Huh? I looked at him, tilting my head. “Me?”

“Yes, you. You’re a shrine maiden, right? Shouldn’t this be your field?”

“World-ending magical apocalyptic events? Not especially.”

He smiled at me. “So you can make jokes too.”

I resolved at that moment to be more humorless.

“Ah! It’s the Hieda girl!”

The lively voice burst out of the trees, followed immediately by its owner. A short, plump little peasant’s daughter – is what I would’ve thought if we weren’t a three day walk away from civilization. Me and Aya were apart and she failed to notice me at first, beelining towards the boy. She actually skipped to him, friendly grin on her face, scattering dead leaves as she went.

If the fact that she was this far out here wasn’t enough proof that she wasn’t a normal human, on a second look, there were also her looks to consider. Well-fed and pretty, she looked like a girl straight out of an idyllic european painting, where she’d be lazily sewing or picking flowers, bright blush on her cheeks. Very un-japanese – Even through the red filter over the world, I could see the bright golden shine to her hair and the extravagantly vivid dyeing on her heavy dress.

She dropped to a crouch before him – the kind of crouch people use to talk to children – and started energetically mussing up his hair, which he tolerated with a grimace, surprisingly. “What are you doing way out here? Especially in this weather!” She laughed. Weather? Was that supposed to be a joke? She suddenly stopped and squinted at him, point-blank as she was, tilting her head. “Wait. You’re not a girl?”

“No. Do you have to do that every time?” He asked, pushing her hands off him. He was surprisingly meek about it, not even looking her directly in the eye. “The last one was a girl, not me.”

“That’s right, that’s right. I forget. But you’re turning into a very handsome young man,” she said, grinning, then firmly grabbed his head and kissed him, right in the forehead, with the loud smack of an aunt’s kiss.

How about that?

Again, he accepted it passively, blushing; for someone that complained about me simply talking to a Tengu, he sure was being friendly with this mysterious clearly inhuman... being? Person?

The two of them had some relationship between them I wasn’t privy to. I was planning to sit still and watch since I hadn’t been noticed, but that hope got dashed quick. Aya shot me a clear ‘help-me’ stare, and that gave me away. She whirled around on the spot, her dress flaring out.

“Oh? Who’s this?”

She addressed me cheerfully, getting up from her crouch in a leap. “I thought you guys only kept one shrine maiden at a time!”

“She’s… attending to me. She’s not from the village.”

“I see, I see. In that case, I’ll have to introduce myself!”

She curtsied sloppily, still grinning. “I’m Minoriko, a goddess! Amazing, right?”

It was a lie.

I knew exactly what a divine being felt like – more specifically, I knew the feeling that Mother, a true goddess, gave off, and this one was a far cry from her. There was some sort of an aura about this tiny girl, true enough; she radiated a strange warmth I couldn’t put a name to and, strangely, smelled strongly like baked goods. But she was no goddess.

[ ] Play along.
[ ] Act as usual.
[X] Play along.

No harm in it.
[x] Play along.

Appease potato.
[X] Act as usual.

>playing pretend with false idols
[X] Play along.

Perhaps we can ask Hina about her later.
[X] Act as usual.

I really dislike the constant push to make the character always super nice.
[x] Act as usual.

No fucks given.
[X] Act as usual.
Fite me.

[X] Play along

Things may be revealed in time.
[X] Play along
[X] Play along
I wasn’t feeling up to it after the long trip and all the babysitting, but I mustered all the acting ability I had left. I got up hurriedly into a servant’s posture, making myself seem small, and bowed low. Aya briefly went wide-eyed, looking at me like I’d suddenly grown a dozen extra limbs – that’s right, he hadn’t seen me play a role before.

The “goddess”, in turn, plastered a smug smirk on her face, looking inordinately proud. Which seemed strange to me.

Was the recognition of a single person really that big of a deal? Odd. I thought back to only a few weeks ago, before my nice routine was shattered. I would accompany Mother, sometimes following her trail from a distance, sometimes directly alongside her when I was lucky – with few exceptions, she didn’t come into towns with me, didn’t interact with the people, never told me to say her name. I did attempt some evangelizing, but that had always been my own initiative. Being recognized wasn’t even a consideration for her. I was even the one who had the idea to sew her sign onto my dress to make it look more like hers, and she never even commented on it.

My only goal was to gather misfortune for her. Nothing more and nothing else, as far as she was concerned. Just another example of how kind and selfless mom was. By contrast, this girl was just an attention-hungry phony. Disgusting.

She also completely failed to notice the big spiral sign on my dress, but that I was thankful for. There was no telling what kind of reaction she’d have to that if she knew about Mother – and I had a feeling she would.

“There’s no need for that,” she said, promptly turning her attention back to Aya and forgetting all about me. She was under the impression he was in charge of our little expedition, no doubt. It rankled a little, but it was convenient for the time being.

She stood, glad to look down at him. “It’s good to see you, but why is a Hieda the one out here? I’d been expecting the Hakurei.”

Aya shot a furtive glance my way, which I studiously ignored. After that, though, he seemed perfectly comfortable talking to the self-proclaimed goddess, all business-like. “I don’t know either. She’s been gone since a while before the sky went red. I’m investigating in her stead.”

“Gone! Really?” She theatrically put her hand to her mouth. “Well, she hasn’t been around the mountain.” She trailed off, studying him. “Are you sure you’re supposed to be here? Your clothes are all tattered. Did something happen?”

It was true, he didn’t look quite like the rich boy he was. I’d done what I could for his shoes and clothes but there were limits to my ability, especially way out in the middle of a forest. He looked like a newly minted street urchin.

“There was an attack. There were…” he took a poignant pause. “There were more of us, before.”

Minoriko gasped, this time raising both hands to her face. “No! Are you hurt? Are you okay? I’m so sorry, I didn’t realize… Was it youkai?”

He nodded seriously. “And before that, the village as well.”

The girl looked mortified, buying the half-lie wholesale. “I’m sorry, it’s just that nearly nothing happened here, so I just figured it wasn’t that big of a deal. I didn’t think something that big had– ”

“It’s alright. There was no way for you to know. But what do you mean, nearly nothing happened?”

She fidgeted. “Aside from the sky, I mean. Um, there’s something going on with the Tengu, but I thought that was just more of the usual. There were no attacks or anything. I… Are you sure you’re okay? I could take you two back home.”

“No. We still have a task to do,” he said seriously. Good at lying, this kid. “Can you tell me more about the Tengu? What’s happening?”

“I’m really not sure. I’m sorry. Sister was… Ah!” She brightened up suddenly, jumping upright. “I’ll fetch Shizuha, she knows stuff. She’ll know what to do. Stay put, okay? Promise me.”

Aya blinked. “Promise? Wh–”

“Okay, you promised. You definitely won’t leave and I’ll be back in three seconds with help, right? Right!” She seemed set on it, eyes shining. The fake goddess cycled through emotions with impressive speed. After hesitating for a moment, she crouched back down and grabbed his hands earnestly, taking a moment to stare him in the eyes. “I’m trusting you!”

He looked away after a second, embarrassed.

Then that was over and she set those eyes on me, for no more than a moment. “And you! Take care of him while I’m out.”

She disappeared into the trees just as quickly and suddenly as she first appeared, leaving the two of us alone once again. I looked curiously at Aya.

Answering my unspoken question, he shrugged, seemingly unconcerned with this whole situation. “That was lucky. Out of the two of them, Minoriko isn’t the clever one.”

I tilted my head sideways.

“Local goddess of harvest. Her older sister is a goddess of autumn. If we’re lucky they’ll lend us some shelter and food.”

“There’s no need for that.”

He ignored that. “I should warn you. Your goddess has some history in this land. Those two in particular won’t be pleased when they find out who you worship.”

Their being pleased or not couldn’t be less of a concern, but the part about mother’s past intrigued me. She’d always been tight-lipped on anything along those lines; even searching by myself had never wielded much information either, with people either unwilling or unable to tell me anything useful. It was always either common knowledge or outrageous lies about calamities befalling anyone who dared even talk to her. That said, it’s not like I searched incredibly hard. I was content serving mother even not knowing that much about her.

He smirked, reading something in my expression.“I see I have your interest.”

“I didn’t say anything.”

His laughter rang out clearly through the quiet forest. “You’re a lot more normal than you try to look, aren’t you?”

“I don’t know what you mean,” I said, regretting the words as soon as they left my mouth. It felt like I was playing into his hand. Why was I letting myself be given the run-around by a teenager? I should just refuse to go along with his lie. Tell them he’s tagging along on his own, putting himself in danger for no reason. They’d lug him back to the village and free me, hopefully.

“If you keep playing along I’ll tell you what I know. Which is quite a lot, actually.” He stretched and lied his head back against the tree trunk, a small self-satisfied smile on his lips.

I cut my losses there and stopped talking to him for a while. I’d just keep digging my own grave if I didn’t. We waited in what could possibly, maybe, in some universe be called a companionable silence, although I might have been glowering at him. Lightly. Light glowering.

Yoshiko is too teaseable. I love it.
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It was night and I’d decided to damn the risk and light a fire by the time Minoriko marched back out from between the trees with her sister in tow. Despite being shorter, the smaller girl’s near leaping strides forced the other girl to take hurried steps just to keep up.

Shizuha, the ‘autumn goddess,’ was a fitting contrast to her sister: tall and slightly more slender than most girls of age would like to be. Her dress was patterned with maple leaves (Autumn colours, naturally), fading attractively from their characteristic red to the natural straw colour of dry leaves, down above her knees – scandalously short, although I doubt supernatural beings are concerned with such things. She went barefoot, like her sister, and her hair was the same bright, foreign shade of field-gold.

Other than the nice colors and foreign feel to her, there wasn’t much remarkable about her; a moderately pretty girl dressed strangely, no more than that. I wasn’t impressed – she didn’t have a quarter of the presence Mother did. Goddess? Not likely.

Minoriko skidded to a stop near the fire, her smiling face coming into the firelight clearly, looking proud of herself. The older sister composed herself, crossing her arms and studying us. Me and Aya were both a ways from the fire, so as long as I stayed put, there was a good chance neither would spot the sign on my dress.

Screw that, I thought.

I slowly got up, then moved closer to the fire. Just to make sure they didn’t miss it, I mimicked Minoriko’s earlier curtsy. The unfamiliar, foreign gesture felt awkward on me, but it did its job, deliberately and unmissably drawing attention to the swirl pattern on my clothes as I fanned out the wide shrine maiden dress and bowed shallowly. I heard Aya heave a tired sigh off to the side. I would play along, sure, but that didn’t mean I’d hide what I was. That was a little too much like being ashamed of mother for me to go along with.

Minoriko gave a small gasp while her sister furrowed her brows, glancing between her and me. I didn’t allow them the initiative.

“My name is Kagiyama Yoshiko,” I said, stressing the surname. I circled the small fire and stalked over to the boy, moving smoothly. I didn’t know what issue these two had with mother, but they’d be in the wrong, so it’d be okay to antagonize them a little. Enough to make me smile, but not to jeopardize the current situation. “I’m currently responsible for this… young man.”

That was the moment to play it up. I possessively laid a hand on his head, glaring as if I dared them to say something. I didn’t smirk, didn’t yell it out, didn’t do anything overt – but I put every ounce of intensity I dared into that stare. Looking down to see his reaction would break character, but I counted it as a win that he didn’t push my hand away.

After the initial surprise, Shizuha seemed unimpressed, glancing over to her sister. Minoriko looked nervously between Aya and I, but followed her sister’s example and said nothing.

The staredown, such as it was, ended quickly. Shizuha let out a breath I hadn’t noticed she was holding, seeming somewhat disappointed, and we all followed suit, after a fashion. The tension noticeably lowered. That was preferable; it’s not like I wanted to get belligerent. I just wasn’t going to stand here and let Mother’s reputation get tread on in return for nothing. The taller girl looked me up and down, clearly noting my outfit, then turned her attention to Aya, her voice a touch cold. “Would you explain, Hieda?”

“I didn’t lie to your sister,” he lied, nodding – respectfully? – towards her. “The village was attacked, then, on the way here, we were. We’ve come to investigate, since the mountain is clearly the epicenter. And this… er, she is…” he hesitated. I still hadn’t let go of him, virtually laying claim to the boy. “She’s been helping since the first attack. It was happenstance.”

My frown deepened. I didn’t need excuses made for me, and why were they talking like I wasn’t even here? I stood up straighter. “Is there a problem?”

Shizuha raised one thin eyebrow and gave me another quick look over. “You’re supposed to be a shrine maiden,” she stated, her tone making it a question.

“I’m a shrine maiden. There’s no ‘supposed’ about it.”

The two girls shared a very obvious look between them – pity from Minoriko’s side, disbelief from Shizuha. I felt keenly out of the loop for that moment. What was it? Did I not look enough like a shrine maiden? I could make trouble out of this, but I wasn’t keen on it, at least not as long as they were only talking about me.

Speaking hurriedly, Aya intervened, wilfully derailing the conversation with all the subtlety of a runaway locomotive. “Minoriko told us there’s some disturbance with the tengu. Can you tell us what’s happening?”

Shizuha lingered on me, her eyes suspicious, but she shifted her focus to the boy and answered. “We’re not certain. They keep to themselves.”

Aya clicked his tongue, for a flash seeming much older than he was.. “I’m aware. What do you know?”

“Well.” Shizuha paused, gathering her thoughts and finally seeming to forget about me. Minoriko wordlessly hovered closer and closer to her sister as she spoke. “Everything was as usual until it happened,” she said, looking upwards. Someone would have to name this event at some point. “I don’t know how much you know about our politics...” she trailed off, looking at the boy. Why would a rich human boy from a village days away know about that? When he gave no response, she continued. “The tengu and the oni keep a tight hold over the mountain and the surrounding forest, and us more civilized folk have settled around it.”

There was no question of the kind of ‘folk’ she was talking about. “The wolves are the ones that do the manual patrol work and the ones that interact with us the most, although usually not more than necessary. They’re still tengu, after all.”

Aya nodded, silently urging her along. She continued. “When it happened, the wild youkai made a big fuss. Even though the wolves keep our piece of the forest clear, the ones nearer the border made an awful racket for nearly a full day.” I nodded despite myself, recalling the sudden attack back in the village. Even the dogs went crazy; not that I could blame them. “They piped down eventually, but after dealing with the initial ‘wave’, the tengu disappeared.”

Aya didn’t need to ask for clarification. The autumn ‘goddess’ considered, and I noticed idly she was holding hands with her sister. “Not disappeared, actually. They’re obviously still in the mountain. You can see some lights at night.”

Lights? What for? I tried to imagine a black-winged tengu, dread youkai of spear and claw, reading by lamplight and failed utterly. Then again, the one I’d met earlier didn’t match the old descriptions, either.

She continued. “But I’ve seen at most three white wolves since it happened. They’re all holing up and nobody seems to know why. At least nobody I’ve spoken to.”

Aya and I sat quietly, digesting the information. It wasn’t much to go on, but it explained why we weren’t stopped by any tengu.

“And, maybe more importantly, there’s some unrest

“Unrest,” the boy repeated, prodding for more.

Shizuha nodded. “This close to the mountain, you can hear and feel every fight an oni participates in. They’re not subtle, and they’ve happened often in the past few days.

“Plus, there’s the fires. They get put out quickly, but I’ve seen black smoke rising from their tunnels more than once. There’s definitely some infighting going on in there.” Minoriko nodded behind her sister, absently looking up at the mountain. “I suppose it’s no great wonder.”

Aya spoke for me. “It isn’t?”

“They’re at each other’s throats even when everything is as usual. A power spike like this was bound to upset the little system they have going. They’ll get a handle on it, eventually.”

That... made no sense. I’d been trying to stay quiet, but my patience had already been ground short by that point, and I blurted it out before Aya had the time to. “What do you mean, power spike? It’s just the color of the sky.”

Shizuha stopped dead, looking at me with undisguised surprise, then at Aya, who looked questioningly back at her as well. It seemed I wasn’t the only one missing something.

“Ah, Shizuha!” Minoriko popped up earnestly from behind her sister. “They’re both human! Maybe it doesn’t affect them?”

“Oh. Oh, of course,” she said, still surprised. “That changes things. Well. I should explain, in that case.” She cleared her throat. “It wasn’t just the color of the sky. When it happened, it was immediately obvious to everyone around here, so I assumed you two knew as well, but at exactly the same time as the sky changed colors, the two of us and every other youkai, spirit, or whatever else in this mountain got a boost.”

“A boost?” Aya asked.

Shizuha coloured lightly. “There’s nothing else you can call it! All of us suddenly gained in power.”

“Sister! We could show it to them! It’s the same as the festival trick, you know?” Minoriko grinned, pulling on her sister’s hand, then jumped excitedly, throwing both hands in the air. “Like, zoom!”

With those two words, she released something, a pressure in the air, a sudden but subtle flow of power all around – and a pair of seconds later, it would’ve become obvious even if I hadn’t noticed it. Around her feet, a ring of tiny saplings and sprouts emerged from the fertile forest ground, gently pushing the cover of dead leaves out of the way. It expanded, first quickly, stopping once we were all ankle-deep in delicate newborn plants and trees.

Aside from mother, it was the most impressive display of power I’d ever witnessed. Not that I was about to let them know about that.

Shizuha suffered silently through her sister’s giggling hug. MInoriko turned to us, sporting an infectious smile. “Cool, right? Usually It’d be a huge effort to do even a tiny square of them! But now it’s this easy.”

Shizuha gave her sister a brief annoyed look, but said nothing. “Yes, that’s the gist of it. This means hanging around here is even more dangerous than usual. The offer to escort you back to the village–”

“No,” Aya said, cutting her off. “But thank you.”

‘Power spike’. Youkai getting stronger. Thinking back, a few pieces shifted into place. This must be why that tengu was so cheerful, why the youkai back in the village seemed so much stronger than what I’d have expected, and it was more proof of who was behind it.

I doubted I could cleanly defeat even a single tengu, much less a whole mountain full of powered youkai. At least, not without going against mother’s orders in the process. It pained me, but I couldn’t fulfill my duty of exterminating them, at least not yet. For now, I’d have to be content going after my main goal, finding mother in this mountain. She would know what to do after that.

The boy was still considering those words, thinking as he plucked saplings from the newly-grown brush. The sisters, in turn, were whispering back and forth in soft tones. I figured I had one good chance to say something before they remembered whatever issue they were supposed to have against me.

[ ] Ask what relationship they have with mother.
[ ] Ask what’s so strange about being a shrine maiden.
[ ] Ask for advice on what to do next.
[ ] Ask more about the mountain.
[ ] Taunt them. They’re not real goddesses, anyway.
One choice, write-in allowed, etc etc

how are you guys doing this fine fridey the 13th?
[x] Ask for advice on what to do next.
Some truths are better left unknown, Yoshiko.

It's not #fridey here yet, but I'm doing well! Certainly much better now that an update has happened.

Also, potato is love, potato is life.
[x] Ask for advice on what to do next.
Important duties first.
I want to ask after Hina, but I don't know how to word it. Guess I'll just go with

[x] Ask what relationship they have with mother.
[X] Ask more about the mountain.

It's important to know your surroundings.
[X] Ask what’s so strange about being a shrine maiden.

Well, if no one else wants to take the bait...
[X] Ask what’s so strange about being a shrine maiden.
[x] Ask what relationship they have with mother.

File 150804173298.jpg - (147.65KB, 591x860, Crappily Drawn Maiden of Misfortune.jpg) [iqdb]
Tried drawing our MC, but it kinda came out Sanae-ish.
>>198079 COOL

[x] Ask for advice on what to do next.

fucking write you homosexual
>>198075 Here

Changing vote to:

[x] Ask what relationship they have with mother.
So the MC is Sanae, Akyuu is Aya and Aya is a nameless Crow Tengu?

I think I need to sit down.
If I recall correctly one pronunciation of 8 is ya. Akyuu is the 9th generation, so Aya is the child of Miare before her. In case you're curious here's a link with the rest of them.

File 150976827787.jpg - (124.04KB, 850x976, sample_67a4bf1a2f8c7a8905c3b67338db9d1f.jpg) [iqdb]
The chance to find out more about Mother was a rare one to come by, and it pained me it had to come from these two. I didn’t like them. Especially the fat one. Despite her apparent cheerfulness, her smile wavered in fear every time her eyes passed over me, like I was a wild animal about to spring and attack her, though I’d been nothing but cordial.

It’d be difficult to get anything interesting out of them, but neither of them seemed like the kind to make me regret taunting them, either. For how impressive that show of real power I witnessed just a moment ago was, they gave off a weak impression. No weight, no respect, no nothing. Mummers playing at something they didn’t fully understand, by my reckoning.

I nodded inwardly, cementing the assessment within myself. Regardless of what they really were, they hinted they knew something I didn’t about mom, and I resolved to find out as much as I was able to. The option of simply waiting and asking Aya (or the other Aya, for that matter,) I discarded right away. They were both too clever – Either would hide information from me for sure, if for no other reason than spite. These two, however, seemed… guileless, contradictory as that might seem. Shizuha might get angry and storm off, but she wouldn’t intentionally mislead. So said my instincts, and those hadn’t often steered me wrong.

I stepped forward and their whispered conversation trailed off. Aya sighed, giving me a look, and I felt a stab of irritation. He was being too familiar again. I pointedly looked away from him, towards my quarry, and he thankfully had no protests to make.

Now, how to go about this? I had already had a stand-off of sorts with them, so I couldn’t pretend to be all subservient to get information at this point – even if I could, it would’ve felt wrong. Unfaithful. Shizuha faced me directly, still unnecessarily shielding her sister behind herself. She saved me some trouble by speaking first.

“Kagiyama, you said.” She raised an eyebrow, studying me. “You took the name yourself, didn’t you?”

I set my teeth. So much for initiative. “What of it?”

She shared another look with the sister, her expression softening somewhat. The same pity from before. It annoyed me more than any outright attack or hostility could. She continued. “Have you even met her?”

It clicked in my head. Ah. They thought I was mad or delusional. A madwoman, self-professing as a real shrine maiden. That made more sense. It was much less offensive than the thought they were disparaging Mother, and I suppose it was the natural reaction to someone naming themselves after divinity. Not having much time to think, I made a snap decision to play into it. “What of it,” I repeated more brusquely, settling into the new role. “Nevermind. That doesn’t matter. I’m searching for her, yes, and I have reason to believe she’s in the mountain.”

Shizuha was shaking her head before I finished my sentence. “We haven’t seen her around here in years. Maybe over a decade. Right?” She looked towards her sister.

Minoriko nodded, finally getting enough nerve to take a step out from behind her. Then another. Then one last step, bringing her way, way too close to me. She looked at me with those wide eyes, the compassion clear in them. “Your… goddess. She does great work.” She clearly struggled to find the words. Shizuha shot her a significant look, but did not interrupt. “Drawing out people’s misfortune is very kind. Taking on such a burden for others,” she nodded to herself, putting one hand over her chest. This one had a flair for drama too. “She’s very noble. But we’re not sure she takes followers. She never has for as long as we’ve known her.” Minoriko looked almost distraught telling me this.

“And that’s probably over a century. Over one human lifetime, for sure.” Shizuha added. Minoriko nodded.

Minoriko reached over and lightly touched my arm. I nearly lashed out on reaction, but forced myself not to. It didn’t seem like she even realized she was doing it. “I’m sorry,” she said, looking like she truly meant it. “And besides, um, for a human, playing around with misfortune might… Er.” She struggled to find the words and not seem too negative.

“It’s a bad idea. A terrible idea, in fact,” Shizuha said, cutting in. “’misfortune is a grave euphemism for what Hina deals with. It’s dark, horrible, and can and will kill normal humans. You must’ve felt it already; just from looking for her, you reek of it already – of her.” She let out a breath. “I’m surprised you’re able to walk about without repercussions, honestly. You ought to be dead or too sick to move.”

“Shizuha!” Minoriko turned and batted at her. “You can’t say these things!”

“I can and I have, because they’re the truth,” she said, crossing her arms.

Was this a lie? I searched their faces, and discarded the idea right away. No, they truly believed it, but I’d never had any such awful experiences. I felt for the stored up misfortune within me, searching, and right away there it was, like a weight that you sometimes forget you’re carrying. True enough, it was oily, and filthy, and burning cold with sourceless malice. I saw it in my mind, pure inky black and swirling as it snaked smoothly into my body through the skin. I wasn’t completely sure what it was truly, but mother had once described me as the thing that leaks out from certain people who spend time mired in hate and envy.

Perhaps I was just accustomed to it, somehow.

In any case, they didn’t give me any more reason to dislike them, but neither did I get any information. I stared back at Shizuha, unimpressed, and mirrored her posture, crossing my arms as well. “Thank you. I’ll take your advice under consideration,” I said flatly.

Shizuha shrugged, seeming done with the conversation. “Suit yourself.”

I glanced at Aya, who was watching the conversation carefully. Minoriko chewed on her lip nervously, looking at me.

“She’s crazy,” she blurted out. All three of us looked at her, and she pulled at her dress, suddenly the center of attention. “Hina is. Really, um,” she struggled, looking down. “I’m sorry, I don’t mean to speak behind her back. But it’s not a good idea to try and find her.”

I narrowed my eyes. “Crazy? How so?”

“Well. Well, the usual way!” She burst out, flustered. “She was moody and lashed out randomly. She kept trying to get humans to talk to her, although it never once worked. She talked to herself out loud. She attacked us for no reason at all, once! Please give up on this, for your sake. It’s not safe.”

I held a stare at the now teary-eyed Minoriko for a few seconds, until she looked away. Shizuha continued. “And besides, she doesn’t need a priestess.”

My eyelid twitched. “Why do you say that?”

“Well, she’s never had one in a century. Meanwhile, we’re here struggling to get any faith and both of us combined weren’t half as strong as she is alone,” she said, bitterness shining through, “In fact, she had no worshipers, no followers, no prayers, nothing at all but indirect tribute done once a year, over the river. It’s not natural. I’ll say it again. Give up on Hina.”

“I see. Thank you for the warnings.” I bowed shallowly. “I don’t have much, but there’s at least something I could do for you in return, as a priestess.”

Minoriko frowned lightly as I stepped forward, closing what little space was still between us, and my senses got assaulted with warmth and the smell of yams, for some reason. She didn’t resist or recoil as I gingerly held one of her wrists, although I saw her sister tense out of the corner of my eye. “There’s not much. Maybe it’s because you’re a goddess..” I let a cold smile slip the mask and she froze in place, but, of course, no harm was meant. I concentrated, and with nothing but a thought drew a string of the very same inky black stuff from her chest. It wound around my hand slowly and she shivered. It kept flowing and flowing out of her, until it was no longer a string but something resembling a small stretch of cord, shifting over itself in my hand. Through the whole process, Minoriko watched with wide eyes.

With only a slight nauseous, slimy feeling, it vanished into my skin, joining the rest of the hoard within me. I bowed again and the girl regained her wits, retracting her arm in a hurry and nearly tripping as she scrambled backwards from me.

I kept the smile on.

“It might be too late for me to follow your advice.”
The sister goddesses abruptly remembered they had urgent business to attend to elsewhere after that. Minoriko seemed embarrassed and a little afraid, and Shizuha seemed on the verge of calling me names. Aya said his goodbyes as if the situation was normal even as they near enough fled, and didn’t try to stop them.

As I was laying out what passed for a bedroll for myself, I caught him looking curiously at me, still sitting up against a tree. I stared back, tilting my head.

Normally I would’ve said nothing, but I was feeling antsy after the confrontation. “What is it?”

“Did you have to drive them away so soon? I was looking forward to some of Minoriko’s baked potatoes. They’re famous, you know?”

I sniffed. “It’s out of season, anyway.”

“They could’ve had some shelter for us.”

“No need.”

He looked about to say something unkind, but stopped himself short. That’s right, days in and he still hadn’t complained about any of our traveling conditions. I appreciated the gesture, for what it was worth. He idly traced lines in the dirt, then sighed.

“...I have to admit, until now I wasn’t fully convinced you were a real priestess of Hina either. Shizuha wasn’t lying, she’s never taken any as far back as the record goes. Gods don’t usually just change tracks on matters like that.”

I pursed my lips. “Well, I am. As you’ve seen.”

He paused for a long moment as I fished out some dried food from my pack, but before he said anything else, he shivered subtly, drawing his knees up. Oh. Right, he was still wearing nothing but light, airy, and now frayed nobleman clothes. It wasn’t the first night out, and I hadn’t thought of that at all. I was properly attired, not to mention inured to weather this mild, so it didn’t cross my mind.

“You’re shivering.”

“I’m not shivering. I shivered, once.” He shrugged. “It’s not that bad.”

He didn’t know how bad it might become, of course. He was out of the most dangerous spot, but with all the compounding factors, even a common cold might still spell death here, and even if it didn’t, it’d be an unwelcome delay nevertheless. The only thing resembling a decent blanket was my cloak – I’d been sleeping on the ground and letting him use it to sleep, too, so at least he’d had that much to wrap around himself before. I took the cloak off from where it was, folded and pinned to my pack, and tossed it at his feet.

He picked it up without complaint and obligingly threw it over himself and scooted closer to the fire. I fed it kindling, bringing it a step above smoldering. That was enough, for the time.

“Thank you, for all this.”

“It’s just a cloak.”

“I don’t mean this.” He fiddled with the ends of the cloak for a second, but looked back up into my eyes before speaking. “I know you didn’t have to take me. You could’ve just turned around and dumped me back in the village, but you didn’t. So. Thank you for that.”

I said nothing, nodding curtly by way of a response. Sincere gratitude wasn’t something I was used to encountering. It was a funny feeling, and awkward. I tried to change subjects. “You haven’t told me why you ran away”

“Oh, it wasn’t anything big. No dramatic story, really – I’m afraid you didn’t accidentally rescue me from an abusive family, or anything interesting like that.” He smiled. “But I’m supposed to be a historian, yet all they have me do is copy from one book to another, or other menial nonsense. It was fine when there was nothing happening, but if there’s history going on right outside the window, I can’t stay put!” He punctuated by slapping the ground forcefully, He was adamant on this. “Yes, it was a whim, and not planned, but you looked exactly like someone who was about to be in the middle of big things. I followed my nose.”

“You seemed desperate about not going back.”

He seemed embarrassed. “I… wasn’t in my right mind when you found me. It was the first time I’ve been through something like that!” He said it like it was a big deal, even though he couldn’t be older than 17. “And after that, I may have played it up, just a little bit.”

I wasn’t surprised.

I let him chatter on for a few more minutes before trying to sleep, but it didn’t come easily to me that night. Aya didn’t have any problems, cocooning himself in my cloak and snoozing away as soon as he had two quiet minutes. I slept minutes at a time, at best, and kept getting woken up by nothing.


[ ] Get up and do something productive instead.
[ ] Get up and go for a quick night stroll instead.
[ ] Sleep, damn it.
[X] Get up and go for a quick night stroll instead.

Surely nothing bad will happen to Aya while we're on our little stroll.
[x] Get up and do something productive instead.

If you cant's sleep, you can't sleep... but leaving Aya by himself is bound to end in more headaches.
[X] Get up and do something productive instead.
[X] Get up and do something productive instead.
[x] Sleep, damn it.
Cuddle the dork-child.
Nearly a year later, threadu two:
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