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The red dusty land around you has been thoroughly baked by the unblinking noon sun. Innumerable green and gray brittle shrubs speckle the hills like a forest for inchlings. Against this backdrop you ride casually. Broomstick, your trusty horse, had been pushed quite hard the last few weeks, and not being pressed for time, you are happy to give him a break. Head and neck shielded by your signature navy blue broad-brim, you hum gently, savoring this peaceful moment as your destination crawls forward. The rhythmic thudding of hooves on dirt is the only other sound in the still desert air.

At the end of the dirt path is a ramshackle settlement reclining against a stony mound. Plenty of pebbles line the faded streets. Judging from the shoddy buildings and gaps in the rows of tents, there appears to be little silver. Silverpebble makes an appropriate name for the dying mining town. Your current map marks it as a full town, but you have the feeling by the time of the next survey, nothing but bleached wood and rusty tools will remain.

Hope does take a while to snuff out, though. Closer now, you can see a man smoking by the single remaining saloon. A couple of children gather water from a well. A woman hangs laundry over by the miners’ tents. They, and a few others, stare at you warily. Midday, no actual miners are seen, away and busy, you presume. You locate the stables and dismount. Unsurprisingly, a stablehand has already seen you, a freckled boy grinning at you as he approaches.

After arranging for a single night’s stay for Broomstick and handing over a couple coins, he attempts to unload your luggage while you are distracted putting away your money. The kid yelps, his skinny arms straining. Your swaying bags prove to be heavier than he expects. Metal and glass clink through thick cloth.

“Careful now! Hup!” You reach over and relieve him of your precious equipment, gently placing the bags on the ground.

“I’m really sorry, miss.” He quickly apologizes.

“Nah, I should’ve warned ya.” You reassure him. You need to double-check of course, the long journey being just as dangerous as a careless child.

“We don’t see many visitors these days. Hey! Can you shoot that?” His eyes lighten up when he notices your ever-reliable Orrey Starduster on your hip, smooth black barrel gleaming. The smile is back in force and he makes two finger guns. “CHU! CHUU… PEW! PEW! PEW!” A gang of phantom enemies lies dead.

“Ohhh, yes I can. But only for good reasons.” You reflect his grin. Now squatting, you unbuckle the riskiest bag for inspection.

“Woah… are you here to help out with the mine?” Looking over your shoulder, he is awed by the dazzling glassware. They are all fortunately intact. Now for the other bags. Books, check. Crystals, check. Portable alchemy station, check. Hakkero and its highly volatile fuel? Never enough juice for the thing but otherwise, check!

Another victory for your organization skills, as if they were ever in question. You just needed to confirm the win, that's all. Alice never gets it though, with her wild accusations of “messiness”, “sacks of refuse”, and “ticking alchemical timebomb”.

The kid’s eyes remain wide drinking in your top-tier equipment. Magicians, especially those of your caliber, aren’t that common in the Frontier. Most prefer to hole up in some stuffy but established research library in the crowded eastern cities.

“In a way.” Satisfied, you repack and then lift up, the bags’ straps now secure on your shoulder.

“Enjoy your stay, miss!” He remembers his job, bowing and then guiding Broomstick away. The smart animal follows obediently, ready for a rest in shade with fresh hay. You, however, have important work.

After adjusting the straps, you start by looking around. The attention from earlier has lessened, but not quite evaporated completely. As a veteran traveler and expert stranger, you are unbothered. Ignoring the people, you study the town more as you think of your evening plans.

A few weeks ago, a feral and apparently very hungry youkai began a series of nighttime attacks on the mining camps in this sector, raiding food stores and pantries. Feral youkai are not particularly uncommon in this vast and untamed land, but while some join roving outlaw gangs, few are brave -or stupid- enough to attack so openly and frequently. In one gruesome incident, headlined “Bloody Apparition in the Night”, multiple witnesses claimed the youkai had devoured to the bone an unlucky man who had tried to stop her. You read it in the Bunbunmaru, so the story pairs well with a healthy trainload of skepticism. Regardless, upsetting miners and worrying investors was a surefire way to get slapped with an extermination bounty.

You unfold a poster from your pocket. Short, blonde hair with a red bow, torn black jacket, a mean snarl, and a $500 reward, dead-or-sealed. You can’t do Reimu’s style of magic, so it’s the first option as usual. The bounty was issued by the Frontier Authority itself rather than a private request, the Rangers probably being kissy-kissy with the Frontier’s influential mining interests. While many mines were founded as spontaneous projects by gold-fevered prospectors, some big names held claims less than a day’s travel away.

Usually you wouldn’t go for such small fry, but it just so happened that if one drew a line connecting the affected camps and your path of travel, they crossed quite nicely, right here at Silverpebble. It didn’t help that your wallet and magic supplies were near empty thanks to an earlier quest, so a nice easy job would help you get back on track to financial health and, eventually, that magic shop you’ve always wanted to open.

Vivid images stream through your mind: “Kirisame Magic Shop” engraved in shining copper, rows upon rows of the strangest, most foul, most wonderful ingredients in jars no two alike, and perhaps even a bright-eyed apprentice of your own. Now, where is this little slice of paradise? Can you smell the sea breeze of Old Gold Mountain? Hear the golden bells on Suwa’s ancient streets? Will you retire back to your hometown, bustling and ever-restless Gensopolis, a rich woman, old sins forgiven? Or stay in the Frontier, too used to that mighty ol’ sun on your neck? The possibilities are endless and the future bright!

The sloshing of water breaks the daydream. The two kids with their filled buckets pass you on their way back to the tents, soon vanishing behind a pile of earth. Chiding yourself, you get back on task.

Evidence points to your target being a nocturnal youkai meaning she’ll take full advantage of both the dark as well as frighteningly boosted strength and speed. In a direct confrontation, you’ll need a little magic to even the odds. Ideally, it wouldn’t get to that point. While many youkai are superman quick, some impressively so, none are faster than a bullet and none are fast at all when said bullet is placed right.

If the pattern holds, your youkai will arrive at the town from the east. The slopes and dips of the wilderness here make a search impossible so you’ll just have to wait for her in town. However, you are confident your prey will go after food sources, cutting down the number of places to watch over.

Quite a few of the buildings are clearly abandoned, but you mark several locations of interest. On the western side of the street: a general store next to a storehouse, possibly containing food. On the east: that lucky sole-surviving saloon, hopefully containing food. Finally, directly north of you: the miner families’ tents, and judging from the tempting smell of cooking wafting over, definitely containing food.

Having been reminded of lunchtime, you decide to begin preparing for tonight's exercise after getting a good meal. You go for:

[ ] The saloon. Possibly a meal and some information and surely a refreshing drink.
[ ] The tents. Introduce yourself and try to bum some food off the miners.
[ ] Your last travel biscuit. Eat fast, prepare more.
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A western story featuring Marisa as the protagonist, count me interested!

[X] The tents. Introduce yourself and try to bum some food off the miners.

We are near empty on money so bumming some food off the locals seems like the way to go; moreover, they are bound to know the lay of the land. It never hurts to make friends; plus, if these people are worried about being attacked, they may provide us with a reward after the job's done if we establish that we are here to remove a possible danger to their families.
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[X] The saloon. Possibly a meal and some information and surely a refreshing drink.
Every Western has a saloon scene.
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[x] The saloon. Possibly a meal and some information and surely a refreshing drink.

A Western story, huh. Did we ever have one of those before in this site? Nevertheless, I'll be keeping an eye on this. Good luck!
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[X] The saloon. Possibly a meal and some information and surely a refreshing drink.


You head for the saloon. Yes, it would be good to get a drink, to freshen up and relax after days on the trails. You’ll have to limit it, despite how it pains your baser self. Unlike Reimu, you only get worse at shooting the more you drink.

The smoking man’s head pops up when you get closer. His face is sunburnt and despite looking kinda young, there’s unkempt beard growth.

“A new face, huh? I was just about to head in anyways.” The apparent saloonkeeper snuffs and pockets his cigarette while waving you in. “Eddie didn’t give you any trouble?”

“Nah, cheerful kid though.”

“That he is. If only we could all be of such good cheer these days.”

One window of the saloon had been boarded up. Following you inside, the saloonkeeper shuts the door, cloaking half the dusty furniture in blackness. You take a seat at the counter, sharing the table with your bags. While the shelves behind are empty, the saloonkeeper pulls out a half-filled bottle and two glasses from below.

“Business gets better in the afternoon when the miners get back. Hope you don’t mind the dark, trying to save on kerosene,” He explains. “Whiskey?”

“Just one glass. And a bite to eat, if you’ve got it.”

“That’ll be a nickel for the drink. As for food, you can share my lunch, there’s nothing else.”

It’s a better deal than expected; you accept the charity with a nod. You pass over the coin, leaving only a single penny in your pocket. He pours for you and then reaches under again to bring out a wrapped bundle. Revealed is hard bread and slices of dried meat, which he splits.

“You’re a ranger?” He asks hesitantly.

You swallow half the glass while slightly shaking your head. The strong liquor leaves a comforting blaze in your throat. You start to gnaw on your share of salty jerky.

“Bounty hunter then. Nothing for an outlaw here these days,” He leans over the counter, interested. “So, what poor fella are you chasing?”

“A youkai. Seems to like stealing food. I’ve reasoned she’ll show up here. Tonight.” You show him the bounty poster, sliding it across the smooth wood.

“Feral youkai? Here? Why?” He blanches, pushing the poster away. He continued to stare at it though, as if the picture would jump out and bite.

“The gods know. I only chase ‘em around.” You roll the paper back up. “You haven’t heard of her? She’s been haunting this region for at least a week.”

He merely gestures towards the intact window. Outside is a dilapidated cabin with a crooked sign: “Mail and News”. The clean cursive is faded by a layer of dirt.

“I hoped you were just passin’ by,” he muttered. “Feels like a kick while we’re all down.”

“You can help me help yourself then. Can you tell me about the general store? They carry foodstuff?” You probe.

“Hikaru runs the store, he’s a bit of a grouch though. He does have a decent stock. Dry stuff only, of course.”

“What about the miners? How much food is in the tents?”

“Believe it or not, I can actually answer that. Last week, we had a big meeting. Talked about plans to leave in a group, and they agreed to once their food runs out in a month. Again, last week though, so… three weeks worth.”

You nod and thank him. Too bad, the tents are a hard to protect target. Still, this has been a very helpful lunch. Yet you can’t help your curiosity.

“You don’t feel like a fresh outsider.”

“Nay, I’ve worked the bar in a few towns, even one of the neater places in Haku. I want to have my own place.”

“Why start it here then? Business doesn’t look too hot.”

“That sure is what it look like now, but a year ago we were the next Rockford or heck, Goldpocket. When they first started diggin’, it was like mining into a pile of silver bars.” The bartender sighs. “At least that’s what they boasted about, the first arrivals. And on top of that, we’re just two short days away from Mayohiga station.

We had near a thousand people at one point, living in a forest of tents. There was daily mail and shipments and new stores popping up, someone was starting a school, and… and, you know, signs of a town on the rise. That was when I thought it’d be wise to move in, working for the old owner. He left a week ago, just up and disappeared so I guess I did get my wish.“ The bartender pours and swallows a glass, the gulp audible. “It was when people started moving in their families that we finally discovered what we thought was the upper layer of ore was the only layer.

People were hopeful at first, started exploring around, digging in other places, digging deeper. But there was nothing but dirt and rock. People bled away just as fast as they came in after that.”

You sympathetically nodded along with the story. Busts were quite common in the Frontier, especially with mining, yet people only read news about the successes. It didn’t make comforting the victims any easier, however. You finish your meal and wash it down with the rest of your drink.

“So there, that’s why I can’t replace my window, why we’re drinking month old booze, why Miss Turin and her family left last week… I’m really sorry, I already know you got your own problems. I’ve been a bad host. Excuse me.” He rubs his eyes with a handkerchief before gazing again at the abandoned mail cabin.

You sit in silence for a bit, then sigh. “I can rid you folks of one nuisance… but I really wish I could do more.”

“Don’t worry about us. We’re the stubborn ones. It's rough, but it’s our choice. You’ve helped me enough just listening to me blabber. But back to that youkai, should we try to tell the town? I dunno what your plan is, so I’ll follow your judgment.” He takes.

“Just stay away from her, or from any large amounts of meat.” You answer. The man grimaces.

“Good luck to you then.”

You thank the saloonkeeper again for the meal and leave him a couple of your own cigarettes, which he graciously accepts. Grabbing your things, you exit. From the window, you can see him wiping the table in the darkened room, alone.

After a visit to the well, sending some water after the liquor and refilling your canteen, you start scouting out the town in detail, walking between buildings, occasionally poking into a few. You walk a lap around the tents, located in a slight basin. You visit the general store last, leaving when the owner yells at you to “Get the hell out if you’re not going to buy anything”. Not everyone can be expected to be polite.

One of the buildings you scouted was formerly a blacksmith’s workshop, with a nice open room, ventilation, and sturdy tables. It’s perfect for a little last minute magic. The sky is taking on an afternoon tinge, leaving only the time for a single magic project.

Apart from what you can prepare, you have your revolver with 12 cartridges total, a knife and spontaneous magic casting for emergencies, and your mini-Hakkero with enough juice for a quarter power blast for double emergencies.

Before you go in, you remember the saloonkeeper's concerns:

[ ] Warn the rest of the miners and townspeople to watch out.
[ ] Convince the miners to pool their supplies as bait (No time for magic prep)
[ ] Stay silent.

Your preparation:

[ ] Make a potion:
--[ ] Strengthening
--[ ] Toughening
--[ ] Night-vision
[ ] Set up some traps in:
--[ ] Main street
--[ ] Around the tents
--[ ] Around the buildings
[ ] Prepare a complex spell:
--[ ] Something to limit movement
--[ ] Something to fight directly
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[X] Make a potion:
--[X] Toughening
[X] Set up some traps in:
--[X] Around the buildings
[X] Prepare a complex spell:
--[X] Something to fight directly
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[X] Warn the rest of the miners and townspeople to watch out.

The locals deserve some warning about what is going to go down, though I am uncertain what they will do with such knowledge

[X] Make a potion:
--[X] Night-vision
[X] Set up some traps in:
--[X] Around the buildings
[X] Prepare a complex spell:
--[X] Something to limit movement

I think we set up somewhere high and try getting some shots off at the target, which the night vision should help. Limiting the movement sounds good so the target can't get to us fast as we're shooting, and the movement reduction should help any bystanders run if caught in the fight. I hope we're a good shot.
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>>68698
>>68699
Sorry, I should have specified in the voting text that only 1 preparation suboption can picked. Will make it clearer next time.
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[x] Warn the rest of the miners and townspeople to watch out.

The food they keep in that camp sounds like a juicy target for our target. Best not have any innocent bystander mess up our hunt.

[x] Set up some traps in:
--[x] Around the tents
For the reason above.
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[X] Warn the rest of the miners and townspeople to watch out.
[x] Set up some traps in:
--[x] Around the tents
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[X] Warn the rest of the miners and townspeople to watch out.
[X] Set up some traps in:
--[X] Around the tents

You are absolutely confident that you can take care of the youkai without troubling the miners. But the upcoming scuffle will unfold right outside their figurative doors, giving them the right to know too. The youkai is dangerous, but the situation isn’t an active emergency either. You sigh, making up your mind. By warning them, you rationalize, you can ensure no unwitting bystanders will stumble into your fight. After handing your bags off to a bench, you double-check the now empty street out of habit before heading off to deliver your bad news.

###

A quarter of an hour later, you are back in your temporary workshop. You were received by a delegation of wary women along with an injured man. Once the initial shock wore off, you were able to convince the families to hunker down tonight, stressing to run only if the youkai got too close and to watch the children closely. You weren’t sure if they fully bought either your reassurance that the youkai had only directly gone after food or that you could exterminate it without a problem, but you considered the warning successfully delivered.

The miners’ determination to hold out against the odds is admirable, but it unfortunately makes your job much harder. When you revealed yourself as a magician, they strongly requested you protect them, demanding some sort of ward or shield around the tents, or whatever else they heard magic can do. You certainly didn’t cave in, but you did see the wisdom of having a perimeter around the place, so you’ll set some sort of trap. Despite the exodus of most of its inhabitants, to fully protect the tents would be to protect an entire half of the town. You’ll need magic easy enough to be made within the time left, strong enough to actually bother a rampaging youkai, and reaching enough to cover a large area.

You continue to deliberate while unpacking your portable setup. As a habit, you light up a cigarette to help think before pouring out your magical supplies on the ground, the dirt floor cushioning the cascade. It’s a paltry amount of stuff compared to usual, but still workable, hopefully. You sit cross legged opposite the pile, staring at, occasionally sifting through it. Three small quartz crystals eventually poke out, which you take, brushing the pink surfaces clean. The spell manifesting in your mind, you start to pick out things faster and faster. There, finally some lotus flower dye. And you could’ve sworn you had used all the powdered yellow spotted lizard three months ago. You finish off by nabbing three metal rods from the husk of a cabinet, evidently abandoned by the smith.

One of the few things you miss about the homeland are its bountiful forests, with mushrooms of all colors, critters clinging under every other leaf, and gullible woodland fairies to “borrow” things from. You are proud to have made do with the opportunities of the desert, but sometimes it would be pleasant to find live glow-worm without traveling a few hundred miles. And that’s generous compared to the markup on imported ones.

With a few peeks in some handy books for reference, you bring your handicraft to life. It is a triplet of rods, linked by gossamer beams between the crystals. When crossed by a large enough magical being, the individually pitiful energy stored within each inscribed rod will be released at once, burning out the system, but striking the intruder with enough power to stun all while releasing a nice lightshow.

High concentrations of magical energy is inherently corrosive to normal matter so the energy will slowly seep back into the land, leaving only the ruined rods by daybreak, but that’s as long as you’ll need. With a rest as a reward, you finish off the travel biscuit and wash it down. It's a dry and flavorless dinner, but it’s better than going into battle with an empty belly. You grab the light blue poncho, your belt, and the rods, leaving the rest of the things in place. You’ll be back soon enough.

It’s a brisk jog between points and each rod takes great care to stick into the crumbling earth, but you manage to enclose all the tents within the protective triangle. One side is parallel to the row of buildings on the main street. Feeling proud of your efforts, you return to the center of town to wait. The street glows like a river of fire, while the buildings cast shadows on each other, the alleys blanketed in shade. You tuck the half-finished cigarette back into its box, content with the cooling afternoon air.

Leaning against a pole, your fingers reach into your left pouch to ritually trace the cool metal edges of your mini-Hakkero, the super-hardened corners poking into your flesh. You note, not for the first time, that these points always seem to feel smoother, rounder every year.

There’s always some apprehension before a fight, but the benefit of eight active years dulls any anxieties to a hum. Huh, what a thought. Has it really been eight years? The calendar’s solution is no lie, but seeing the same sunset over the same desert, feeling your wallet as empty as it was fresh off the train, leaves you mentally disoriented. It couldn’t be that long ago, a night of jellied legs and quick-firing heart as you cursed yourself for getting in over your head.

Your first successful bounty was just an accident, a by-product of avenging Kourin’s first store. You tracked the offender into some seedy saloon, long gone now, an elegant operation without a hitch. After that, there was only adrenaline, the blur of confrontation, drawing, shooting on instinct, ears ringing, the gunpowder mixing on cold sweaty palms, the smell of it permeating your nose. You had an elaborate plan, you remember, meticulous backups and backups of backups. None of it survived the chaos.

In the end, you actually captured the woman alive, a bloodspill lighter and a leaden bullet heavier. She and her jacket are still cooling off in jail to this day. It would be a much later night when that line had to be crossed. On the bright side, eight years doesn't make you the oldest bounty hunter on the Frontier, but you are definitely in contention as one of the most experienced players still in the business. These days, you graze bullets without flinching. You’ve even eaten them a couple of times too, flesh wounds, you were more afraid of the doctor’s bill than anything else.

The quiet afternoon melts as the mineworkers pool in from their own fight for fortune, the sounds of wood crackling, metalware scraping, human voices rising in strength. Some of those voices seem especially emotional, courtesy of you. The orange flicker of a dozen campfires eat away at the stretching shadows.

Movement draws your eyes to a side street. You relax, taking your right hand off your gun. It’s the sour-face from the general store, Hikaru. He’d age much slower if he’d lighten up a little. The thin storekeeper’s accompanied by a shorter but much stouter man, thin mustache under a sunburned nose, traces of rust-colored dust clinging to his work pants. The new person looks more concerned than angry.

“Hey, you, bounty hunter. Come with us,” Hikaru was indignant as usual.

You’ll entertain them in the interest of your informal alliance with the townspeople. Luckily, his friend is much more reasonable.

“We’ve heard about the youkai, and we think we know where it is,” The other man coughed, “Sorry, name’s Yasuyoshi. You’ve met Hikaru, miss…?”

“Kirisame”

“Miss Kirisame,” He shakes your hand. “It’s easy here to feel like the world’s forgotten you. He’s just having a rough time like all of us, but I want you to know, we’re really glad you’re here.”

“It’s both my pleasure and my business. What do you have for me?” Your interest is piqued.

“The yellow-haired creature is in my storeroom! I saw it with my own eyes, taking a nap right on the potatoes! I escaped but couldn’t even finish cleaning up for the night.” He shudders.

“You discovered this just now?” Your interest wanes a little.

“Yes! I only check the storeroom before closing, or if something runs out. It looks like some wild kid, but those claws… I ran out of there fast. Hells I’m supposed to do now?”

“Hikaru’s store has a connected storehouse and we were planning on checking it out together. But then we heard about your warning, so we thought it best to take it to you.” Yasuyoshi explained calmly.

“You better not make a mess. I still have a lot of merchandise in there.”

“Look, gentlemen, I haven’t even agreed that something’s there, much less to go in.”

“What?! Isn’t this your job? There’s a youkai infestation going on! I even locked the door behind me, so the beast is trapped in there. Just kill it or something!”

“Are you sure it’s not a colony of sand rats? You did admit to not finishing your cleaning after all. Sounds like some poor habits on your part.” You tease him, not telling them that no wooden door would contain a youkai.

Yasuyoshi intercepts to calm Hikaru down, but you’ve already tuned out of the conversation. You orbit the possibility carefully. Could it be possible that the youkai had already made it to Silverpebble? You mentally rework the estimated route, this time substituting some higher end numbers.

Well… damn. Your bounty sneaking in the previous night, right before daybreak and taking shelter in a comfortable place? It’s a very real possibility. If true, then there’s not enough time to replace the traps, or to prepare more magic. A small consolation is that the trap will still protect the rest of the miners, but it looks like you’ll be relying on gunplay for this one.

You’ll check Hikaru’s store out after all. Best case, you finish it cleanly indoors. The other best case, it actually is a bunch of sand rats and you’ll need to prepare another joke at the storekeeper’s expense.

“Okay, no harm in taking a peek,” you jump back in. “Give me the keys and I can check it out.”

“Certainly not!” Hikaru snaps, “I’m keeping my eye on you. If I see your bloody fingers on my things, I’ll… ”

You pull out your revolver and load the sixth cartridge into it. The brass circles flash as you replace the cylinder with a satisfying click.

“Then we go together. Shall we be off?”

“Yes, let’s go!” Yasuyoshi apologetically smiles.

It’s a short walk to the store, and your party of three are the only ones on the street. Yasuyoshi picks up a shovel on the way, which is far too unwieldy indoors, but you judge it unimportant, keeping quiet. There’s an appreciable level of activity inside the saloon, at least. Hikaru flips through with his necklace of keys like a monk before unlocking the front. The door glides open smoothly. You didn’t pay attention the first time, but you can respect that he keeps the hinges well oiled.

The insides are lit by one dim lamp, everything neatly stacked and ordered minus a few cleaning supplies on the counter. The handwriting on the signs is print-quality on unblemished paper, all made orange by the light. The men attempt tiptoeing in their heavier boots, tapping forward. Your boots slide silently, helped by the heavy wood floor and decades of practice.

Hikaru reaches the locked side door, and leaning on a wall to keep out of the way, he fills the interior with the beat of clinking metal. His extreme caution raises an eyebrow from you, but seems to unnerve Yasuyoshi. He turns the right key and the bolt releases with a final clunk. Hikaru grips the door handle and prepares to pull as Yasuyoshi raises his shovel. You stand perfectly still, opposite the door, pistol drawn, prepared to give a bullet greeting.

What you are not prepared for is the wall exploding outward, a dark maw appearing. The tongue flicks out, a black clothed arm emerging and clawed fingers wrap around the screaming Hikaru’s leg before pulling back. Yasuyoshi tumbles backward in shock, tripping and losing his grip on the shovel. Amazingly, Hikaru retains an iron grip on the door handle, so he is only yanked upwards such that his body is horizontal. His free leg kicks relentlessly at the hand until another claw grabs the flailing foot.

You appreciate the acrobatics, but it’s an even better opportunity for a shot. You let the chaos flow around you. Half a heartbeat to aim above Hikaru’s bleeding legs, you fire.

An unearthly screech informs you of a partial hit. Hikaru is dropped with a thud. You hear more wood breaking, and the twilight streams into the storeroom. The men are left behind, groaning, as you make chase.

A person-sized hole is punched into the plank wall, the alley on the other side. You pause before jumping through. A few tracks of dusty footprints outside are parallel to the wall, but you see none that could’ve been from your wall-hopper. Hmph, amateur.

Your eyes catch on a half-filled sack to your right and bottles of rye whiskey to your left. The precious liquor is secured to the inside of your coat, the lump disguised under the poncho’s folds. The weighted sack flies out the hole, fluttering through the air.

The youkai roars in triumph as the black and gold blur rushes in from the side to tackle the linen cloth. The distinct red ribbon is clearly visible, confirming your target’s identity. Her response to shredded fabric, broken glass, and pickled cabbage is confusion and then outrage. You sympathize, so you shoot, aiming for the heart. Unfortunately, the youkai, catching on fast, must’ve resorted to her power. A black… fog or something floods the alley before flowing outward towards the street. It was eerie and utterly silent, and you are unable to confirm your shot.

Hopping out of the hole with care, a bloody trail leads you out to the main street. The drops lead into another abandoned building. You pause in front of it. Night continues to approach, so you’ll need to finish this fast. The youkai apparently agrees, however, giving you no time to think before attacking.

Darkness, impenetrable pure blackness, pours out the broken windows. It completes a ring, surrounding you. The wall of darkness closest to the building grows, forming a larger blob. The darkness doesn’t affect your magical senses, so you try to do a quick scan, reasoning the youkai is actively casting. They are, you are sure, but the magical nature of the darkness is the same as the caster, so they remained obscured.

You probe a shot straight into the blob, but it keeps growing while the walls close in concerningly fast. While inexperienced and impatient, your youkai has revealed some impressive tricks. You consider answering with a trick of your own:

[ ] The darkness wall behind you looks thin, charge through and try to lure her to the prepared trap.
[ ] Mini-Hakkero, full power blast through the center of mass.
[ ] Mini-Hakkero, high focus beam to sweep the perimeter. This might damage your equipment.
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[X] Mini-Hakkero, full power blast through the center of mass.
Show the brat you're a real threat 😤
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[X] The darkness wall behind you looks thin, charge through and try to lure her to the prepared trap.
Preparations were made for a reason.
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[X] The darkness wall behind you looks thin, charge through and try to lure her to the prepared trap.
aimed shots don't work when you're slower than the thing you're shooting
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[X] lure her to the prepared trap.

We can't hit what we can't see.

I wonder if the night vision potion would have let us see through this darkness, though, considering that it is magical, it probably would not have worked.

>a bloody trail leads you out to the main street. The drops lead into another abandoned building.

Here's a thought, can a youkai be affected by blood loss? I know that they are tougher than humans, but losing some blood must do something to their ability to function.
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[x] The darkness wall behind you looks thin, charge through and try to lure her to the prepared trap.
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[X] The darkness wall behind you looks thin, charge through and try to lure her to the prepared trap.

This darkness ability must have some limit, otherwise the youkai would’ve simply cloaked the entire town when the fight started. While your scan isn’t able to locate the youkai herself, it lets you know the surrounding wall of darkness is significantly thinner than the growing blob.

Thinner or not, shooting into the darkness is a gamble and you doubt you’d get to play again if you lose. You’ll have to shelve the offensive options but, as the dome of dim sky above you keeps shrinking, that leaves you grasping for another way out.

Ah, that’s right. The trap you had set earlier is still sitting back at the tents. You know that your enemy isn’t the best at caution and combined with proper maneuvering, the trap might not be such a waste in the end. For now, a tactical retreat. Kicking up a couple pebbles, you launch into a full sprint. Retracing your steps, it only takes a few to reach and dive into the darkness, face-first.

For a couple of pulsing heartbeats, a clammy cold swallows you and you are blind to even your swinging hands. Your memory is good, however, and you pierce the black barrier to enter the alley without slowing. The hole flies past you, still leaking an orange glow. You cannot see the men, though, as you avoid a fallen plank.

More immediately concerning, you also cannot hear the youkai at all. Did she not follow you? You are tempted to slow, but the delayed response finally arrives. The rapid footsteps of your pursuer are audible over your own; the distance is closing fast. Suddenly, you can hear stumbling and wood being knocked around. You turn your head to see if you can take advantage of the narrow alley but you can only see a black wall, still flooding in like an inkspill. She can carry her darkness with her, but she can’t see through it. Perfect. Her hearing would still let her track you all night, but you’re counting on that anyways.

Exiting the alley, you’re surrounded by sandy slopes, the night turning the red purple. You just need to get up this hill, but softer terrain and traitorous gravity light your legs on fire. You can make it, you reassure yourself, but the youkai’s made up for lost time.

Your left arm dips into a jolting coldness. With the gun still in your right, you fire once, twice, in desperation, deafening your ear. There is a pained cry and what sounds like a tumble. The positioning is awkward, gun upside down over your shoulder, but the sacrifice in speed is worth the intact state of your backside.

The hill levels out and the tents are fully visible. You can see a few groups of men and women vigilantly waiting, mostly holding tools along with a small number of shotguns and pistols, blades and barrels shimmering in the weak campfire light. You can see one group notice you, staring at you, then behind you. Then every shadow is blown away, their faces washed in white, eyes gleaming before squeezing shut, as a brilliant silent flash erupts behind you. A glowing ember is visible in the dark, the smoldering remains of the rod opposite your side of the triangle. You turn around to investigate, jogging to recover your breath.

Dazed, the youkai can only lay face down, twitching slightly. Sand and blood dirties her black shirt. Ignoring the bullet holes–one on the stomach, the other on the neck–and the claws, she appears no different than a vulnerable and hurt child. Still, business is business and with the fearful and armed miners starting to approach, there is only one way this can end. You aim at the heart. She jerks and then stills, the report of your final shot ringing into the night. Thankfully, you didn’t have to see her face.

###

The rest of the night went by in a blur. A kind fellow arrived with a large sack and helped you secure the body. A few cheers were had and the night guard split, half joining their off-duty friends in the saloon, the other half catching up on sleep.

A few men were angry, as it did look like you were being chased into the tents by what they saw as a tiny youkai. Hikaru, who had been bandaged up and was acting less obnoxious for some reason, along with Yasuyoshi, embarrassed about his quick disablement, strongly backed you up. You happily avoided a second fight.

A few more were thankful and you had to painfully decline offers for drinks due to early morning travel plans. As a compromise, someone did manage to dig up a bottle of moonshine as a gift, which you did accept. In the non-alcoholic department, you were able to borrow a pair of blankets for the night and an especially generous mother provided you with enough food for the journey to Mayohiga, where you’ll be able to complete your bounty.

After retreating to your temporary workshop, you slept soundly.

###

With the help of a pocket sized alarm clock, you were up right before dawn. After sweeping up your belongings, having a brief breakfast, and filling up on water supplies, you head for the stables. Observing the reddened street makes you feel like yesterday’s afternoon never ended, except for the flipped shadows.

The stablehand is the same boy from yesterday.

“Howdy, miss!” Eddie seems excited to see you, “I heard you shooting last night! I wish I could’ve seen, but Ma made me go to bed early.”

“Nah, you didn’t miss much. It was too dark to see anything.” You chuckle.

“By the way, I asked my Pa this, but he got mad and said I should stick to proper work. But I don’t want to hit rocks all day. Um… how do you become a bounty hunter?” He asks, face sincere. How do you respond to this… damn do you hate starting mornings with hard questions.

“You’ll have to grow up before they let you be a bounty hunter. And it’s not that fun anyways. You ride a bunch of days to a town, no one’s there, so you go the next, and so on. Then you hear someone already got the guy already!” A lie and then a truth.

“Aw, that’s too bad…” He looks disappointed. He hands you the reins. “You got a good horse, Miss.”

“He can outrun a train on a good day!” You boast proudly. A tug gets Broomstick to trot towards your side and you rub his neck. You turn back to the kid, but he still looks unsatisfied. Time to get serious.

“Look, your Pa knows best, so you gotta listen to him. There are a lot of other jobs other than mining and shooting. Bounty hunting, it’s a last resort kinda deal.” You hope your hypocrisy isn’t leaking out.

“Okay…” He seems to accept it. You both stand there awkwardly.

“Do you have any other chores?”

“Oh right, I need to help Ma carry some stuff after this. Bye miss!” He scrambles off while looking back and waving goodbye. You return his waves until he’s gone.

There’s still one last critical task to proceed with. Mounting up, you ride, but not away from the town. You instead return to the youkai’s wrapped body, which the Frontier Authority will want as evidence. It’s still in the same place. The dried blood is a dark crimson, which you take care to step over. You get off and take out a length of rope to load the grisly package. Once it’s done, you’re about to remount, but an interruption stops you. This town is surprisingly active in the dawn hours.

“Wait, wait!”

Looks like Eddie isn’t the only one wanting to see you before you leave. A man runs towards you up the hill. His hair and beard are a caramel brown, and his clothes seem to be fraying at the edges.

“Can I help you?” You carefully ask. He stops before you, breathing hard.

“You’re about to head out now, right?”

You nod. The man produces an envelope from his worn vest along with a few coins.

“I have a sister in Hakugyokurou, her husband owns a bookstore there. Can you take this letter to her? I don’t know when another chance will come…”

You think about it. You’ll head to Mayohiga regardless to collect your reward, but helping the man means passing through Hakugyokurou in the near future.

[ ] “Sure thing.”
[ ] “Sorry, I don’t know if I’ll be passing by there anytime soon.”
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[X] “Sure thing.”

>His hair and beard are a caramel brown
>I have a sister in Hakugyokurou, her husband owns a bookstore there.

Kosuzu?
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[X]“Sure thing.”

Well, at least it isn't the Scarlet Devil Town.
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[X]“Sure thing.”
--[X] "But a girl's gotta eat, y'know?"

You're a bounty hunter, not a charity worker. 😤
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[X]“Sure thing.”
- [X] "But a girl's gotta eat, y'know?"
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[X]“Sure thing.”
- [X] "But a girl's gotta eat, y'know?"

“But this more than covers the train fare!” He shows you the coins.

“It’s not bad, but ya’ see, business is a lot slower in Hakugyokurou than Mayohiga. It’s an 8 hour train and if I have to take the same ride back…”

He sighs and gives in.

“I can’t give you any more money,” he says. “But I have this gem I found while digging.”

He brings out a rough gemstone, cradled perfectly within his palm. Its iridescent coloration is strikingly similar to bismuth’s liquid rainbow, but the crystals are rounded and lumpy, and it shines as if lit from within.

“I’ve never seen somethin’ like this before!” Your skepticism gives way to interest; there’s serious magical energy within that rock too!

“Me neither, but you’ll take it then?” He asks hopefully.

“Consider the letter delivered!” You can’t resist. He hands you the coins, the letter, and then the gem. It outweighs the coins by a good margin.

With everything secured and no other interruptions, you say a last goodbye at a stop by the saloon, then leave Silverpebble behind for good.

###

Unfortunately, while camping after the first day of riding, your investigations find the gemstone less useful than originally envisioned. The magic potential inside the crystal is potent, but drawing it out is like sucking water from an icicle, slow and unpleasant. You feel a little cheated, but it remains a curiosity so you set it aside. You’ll just need some time to set up a proper workstation and run a few experiments. You further reassure yourself by having Hikaru’s liquor to spice up a dehydrated dinner.

The next sunrise announces a full day of travel. Between singing poorly to yourself and sneaking dozes while riding, you also study the land.

Squat bulbous cacti and wax-leafed shrubs make up the vegetation here. You pay them no mind, since the most valuable plants are never in such easy reach. A lizard stares at you with black beady eyes, two reflected suns as pupils. It gobbles a wayward gnat before vanishing. A hawk stands out against the cloudless sky, escorting you from the air. It eventually loses interest and veers away. The insects are more plentiful and you are forced to sacrifice precious energy driving them off.

This patchwork of red and orange badland, all bumpy and wrinkly, is typical of the Red Desert, the western half of the Frontier. The eastern half is much smoother and is swept by yellow and white dunes, hence the name “White Desert”. Both deserts make one whole, the Great Makaian Desert, which dominates the heart of the Eastern Continent. The area is effectively a bowl, straddled in the north by endless glacier, bordered in the south by eternal jungle, and separated from the nourishing oceans by labyrinthine mountain ranges. This boxes in what is generally agreed to be “Frontier”.

Civilization in the Frontier, like anywhere else, clings to precious, vital, water. Rivers, springs, and wells, alongside the new continent spanning railways, are the anchors of life in the desert. Connecting these lonely pockets are a spiderweb of roads and trails, some little more than a split through the bushes. Having traveled the Frontier end to end more than once, you know the big towns and key routes by heart. You’ve also picked up a formidable catalog of secret backtrails and hidden watering holes by experience. But the vastness of the land will probably keep the map presses in business for a long while yet.

As expected, you arrive at a small watering hole slightly after noontime. The plants have gathered thickly over this oasis, and purple white wildflowers rebel against the orange gray earth, your eyes having a difficulty comprehending the bright petals. A solitary tree provides a little respite from the sun as you and Broomstick revive yourselves through a lunch break. Using the mini-Hakkero and some magic, you purify some of the water. The restored weight of the waterbags is more reassuring than a burden. It’s almost comfortable around this little brown pool, but you’re excited to move on.

It’s critical to stay at a good pace on known trails, taking rests when needed. There is a delicate balance in these journeys. Too slow and you run out of water and food. Too fast and your horse gets fatigued, then you run out of water and food. Take a turn too early and you get lost, then you become part of the desert. You’ve stared down barrels and scoffed, but you’ve never been able to shake the anxiety when traveling. Catching burning fever, Broomstick breaking something, a band of outlaws popping over the next hill, revolver capacity plus one in number… the only cure is to push through.

Catching the sunset with glass-like surfaces, the massive remains of what you’re sure to be an ancient temple passes you by on the right, perched on a steep mound. The thing, no different than the other ruins that litter the land, is entirely constructed from a pale-blue crystal, an exotic ice that is reflective but opaque. And just like those other ruins, it is a mess. Its base is submerged into the rock and sand. The pillars, each thicker than a man’s height, look like blue candles melted, blown on, and refrozen in a state of collapse, forever buckling under a drooping architrave. It’s impossible the damage could be from natural forces. Almost everyone in the Frontier knows to avoid getting too close for too long, and there’s always rumors circulating of those who don’t disappearing or falling ill, mentally or physically. You only note it for its value as a landmark, which it serves by confirming your heading. You are quite close to Mayohiga now. When you make camp many miles down the road, the fallen temple glows with the moonlight, a dim blue horizon hugging star.

The morning after the second night on the road, you conquer one last set of stony hills. Cresting the final ridge, dry flats spread out under you, the hills of the basin’s opposite edge far enough to bleed into the morning sky. Below, your destination is in sight and your tired body feels just a little lighter.

The most significant feature, the Vina River arcs through the parched land, a ribbon of dull blue frilled with green. Its lazy flow will bring it south and east to meet the ocean, splitting the desert in two on the way. It is on this boundary that Mayohiga sits. From here, you can make out familiar forms against the jumble of squares and wedges. The clay slab of the jailhouse stands exiled from the bulk of the town while the central square clears the way of lesser buildings for the courthouse. A tower marks the home of the Frontier Authority, and the colors of the commercial district stand out even at this range. Toy-like engines and cars stack the trainyard, and looking carefully, it’s possible to see three threads emerge outward from the station, a tilted fork that traces out the Frontier’s main arteries.

Mayohiga lives and thrives on this vital three-way junction. Due east, the rail passes through a few towns, with Hakugyokurou the most significant, and crosses the Youkai Mountains. Exiting the Frontier, it connects all the way to Gensopolis, deep within the heartland of the Gensokyan Republic (“The Republic” or “Gensokyo” in colloquial language). A country where humankind is dominant, your homeland is an agrarian land host to rapidly growing cities, where both idealism and corruption flourish.

Southeast, the rail roughly follows the Vina, passes through a major station at Little Genbu, and twists through the sky-piercing cliffs of the southern section of the Youkai Mountains to finally rest at Suwa, capital of the Quad. Formally called the Moriya Quadruple Alliance, it was formed in response to its rising northern neighbor. Composed of the nations of the Tengu, the Kappa, the Moriya, and Chirei, it’s where gods, youkai, and humans share the same streets, host to constant clashes between tradition and innovation, zeal and tolerance.

Straight west, the line goes through Meadowtown, before shooting through the Black Mountains to reach the coast. There, it splits to link with the two great city states of the west. Lost Angels in the south, founded by shipwrecked celestials who rather liked the fair weather, and Old Gold Mountain in the north, epicenter of the early western gold rushes, are the harbors where the bounty of the Eastern Continent are exchanged for the treasures of the world.

Branches emerge from these main tracks to connect other places of note, but in the end, east or west, almost everything passes through Mayohiga.

Building it was an ambitious undertaking, as you gathered from your rare appearances in history class and from first-hand tales by old-timers. While west-bound adventurers and pioneers had struggled their way through the desert, it was the railway that was first to truly tame the land. Oni and oomukade work-gangs literally punched tunnels and moved mountains to release the railways from the coasts to race for the middle. The tracks were laid from the east by tireless but chaotic fairy and goblin crews and from the west by laborers lured from faraway lands, many from Cathay. They paved the earliest trails, drilled the first wells, and, once the tracks were laid, opened the door for the rest. The desert, once an impenetrable barrier to civilization, had been transformed into a thoroughfare for commerce. Much later mineral discoveries would bring in actual settlers, who were followed by bandits, who in turn were followed by lawmen and, well, people in your business.

That account, though, was not entirely fair to the nomadic Makaian natives who had made a living here long before even the first explorers. Another part left out are the ancient ruins that scatter the desert. If the Makai folk knew anything, they kept it to themselves.

Dry patches of grass give way to cabins and sheds. Entering the town proper, the buildings are shoulder to shoulder, the street bending around the haphazard clusters. No central planning guided Mayohiga’s growth and it shows. Plenty of people are out and about at this time, forcing you to avoid haphazardly parked wagons and swerve around oblivious pedestrians. It’s a bit of a shock after two days of nothingness.

You and your cargo attract little attention on the way to Tohno Square. Opposite the courthouse-town hall complex is the main entrance of the Frontier Authority headquarters, a pair of polished doors with ornate glass windows. Against the white brick, the dark wood looks like it’s already open. As you dismount and lead Broomstick towards it, you take a look around at the bustling activity, of people moving through, waiting around, doing business, familiar and unfamiliar faces. One of them catches your eye…

[ ] Some sort of small shrine loaded on a cart, guarded by a lost looking green-haired girl.
[ ] The sun will do some good for that news crow, who seems to be coming this way.
[ ] Isn’t that Qilin nurse from the hospital? She looks mighty worried.
[ ] Oh would ya’ look at that, an adorable puppet show. Let’s drop in for a tiny bit.
[ ] Nevermind. Just head in.
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[x] Oh would ya’ look at that, an adorable puppet show. Let’s drop in for a tiny bit.
ALICE DETECTED
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[X] The sun will do some good for that news crow, who seems to be coming this way.

Current events are always a good thing to brush up on.

I'm enjoying the worldbuilding that's going on here, especially the descriptions of the environment.
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[X] The sun will do some good for that news crow, who seems to be coming this way.

👺⛵?
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[X] Isn’t that Qilin nurse from the hospital? She looks mighty worried.

Isn't it wonderful, Sacchin?
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[X] The sun will do some good for that news crow, who seems to be coming this way.

Gimme some news, weatherwoman
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[X] The sun will do some good for that news crow, who seems to be coming this way.

You start to regret getting off Broomstick. To compensate, you increase the pace towards the door, hoping to get in before you get plucked.

“Excuse me! Um, Miss Kirisame! Excu-… Hey! I know you saw me, and you’re not deaf either.”

A few heads turn as your escape is foiled. Oh well, you only made it halfway, anyways. You turn around to face the huffing tengu. Hatate’s a head taller than you, with most of the difference due to her geta, raised footwear that even she isn’t revolutionary enough to shed. She’s dressed in her standard light pink shirt and purple-black plaid skirt, with a tokin of the same purple.

You don’t dislike Hatate, she’s perfectly fine outside of work, if a bit indoorsy, but when she’s newshounding, she can be overbearing. She claims to be on a quest to get one over the Bunbunmaru, but you’re not sure if whoever runs it has even heard of her. The Bunbunmaru has circulation over the entire Frontier, after all, while Hatate’s Kakashi Spirit is one of several Mayohigan local papers. Maybe if she traveled around a little more…

“Oh, hey! Miss Himekaidou, I can’t believe I didn’t see you. My apologies.”

“Riiight… Uh…” She seems to have noticed the attention now on you two, but gathers her strength and renews the attack. ”Well, do you have anything to say for yourself?”

“Whaddya mean?”

“You can’t just carry around a corpse into town and not expect questions. Like public safety might be in danger.”

“I don’t see anyone else minding.” You look and indeed, people have already moved on. “Also, corpse? No way! It’s just… goods.”

“Goods.” She says flatly.

“Yup, you know, a bounty hunter’s goods.”

She pulls her pencil and booklet out and sighs. “Okay, let’s run with that, I guess. When and where did you acquire these uh, ‘goods’? Spare no detail please.”

“Woah, didn’t know you started working for customs. Look, I have to meet with the buyer right about now,” you point your thumb towards the doors. “But when I finish business, I promise to give you an interview later today.”

“You promise?” She looks at you like a kid eyeing the last slice of after-dinner pie.

“Do I ever lie? Your shop is still across the river that-a-ways, right?” You wave in the direction of the sun, still rising.

“Yes to both. And fine.” She puts away her tools. “Please don’t make me look for you. You know I know where your favorite place to stay is.”

It’s either a slow news week or the Bunbunmaru must’ve just released a big story, the usual triggers for Hatate’s manic scouring. You hope you aren’t setting her up for disappointment. Since you won’t be sharing how you almost died, there’s honestly nothing else particularly noteworthy about some minor youkai getting exterminated. Also, that last part was concerning.

Shrugging, you tie Broomstick to a pole. You don’t mind leaving your things with the horse; he has an excellent kick and knows how to use it. Taking off your hat, you pull open the doors.

The lobby is fancy, to say the least. The chandelier-styled lamps, rich wood paneling, and artistically carved tables reflect the high taste of Chief Yakumo, the big cheese of the Frontier Authority. The lounge half is only enhanced by its decoration of intricate sculptures and porcelain pots, bearing lavender blossoms. The plush chairs and sofas are fantastically comfortable. Shame they wouldn’t let you sleep on them.

You dust off your coat, restoring the dark blue, and knock your boots together before crossing the threshold, the lavender and gold carpet softening your steps. A handful of people are already inside. The thick walls keep the place cool despite the sun splashing through the windows.

“Welcome! Oh, Miss Kirisame, it’s you! It’s been a while… I think. Can I help you?” The ranger manning the front greets you. Her large wings are feathered the same pale yellow as her hair. The circular silver badge of the Frontier Rangers shines against both the enamel yin-yang embedded within and her white jacket.

“Mornin’ Kutaka. I’m here to cash in a bounty. And you can call me Marisa, by the way.” You pass her your wanted poster.

“Sorry! I’ll try to make sure next time, but please bear with me if I forget!” she apologizes. “As for the bounty, I’ll need to see the proof of course.” She grabs a writing board and some paper off one of the many stacks, and stands, straightening her plumage, to follow you outside. The back of Kutaka’s custom chair, you note, is a cushioned plank, standing vertical with a slight curve where it joins the seat. You’re suddenly glad that you own only ordinary human appendages. Her desk behind the counter is covered with multiple open notebooks scribbled with reminders. When she pulls out her red straw hat from beneath, a sleeping chick can be seen cradled on top, quite the deep sleeper.

She inspects the evidence efficiently and you and Kutaka are soon back to finish up the paperwork.

“This is for Marshal Yakumo, down the hall, second left. This is for the jail watch, take Rendaino Street south and you’ll see it.” Kutaka hands you the two papers. “The cemetery is by the jail.”

You thank her despite this not being your first, or even tenth time going through this. Still, thank goodness it’s Kutaka on the desk shift. She can be forgetful, but she works hard. The other one would have just woken up about now. Glancing at the bronze bell on the counter, you observe how dull the base is compared to the button on top, shining like a mint penny. Your finger twitches. Your record is currently 143 presses, before another ranger intervened. You proceed towards the Marshal’s office.

Marshal Yakumo is the leader of the Frontier Authority’s Mayohiga branch, which also hosts the headquarters. Each of the Frontier’s big towns and the well-placed small ones have a Frontier Authority marshal, who manages their district, using the rangers under them to keep the ever-present outlaws at bay. More relevantly for you, they also handle the bounties. The Frontier Authority works alongside local sheriffs where they exist, but the rangers, when not on missions or grunt work, pick up that slack to a degree for towns without. You don’t know what the chief position entails since the marshals run their divisions pretty autonomously and any coordinated work that requires headquarters gets handled by Ran anyways. Funds are derived from contracts with companies, investments, and a few other services they offer. You had once considered the ranger job for its regular income, but it’s hard to do magic work when you’re ordered to patrol some bank for a month.

Thinking about it, the Frontier Authority sits in a vague place, straddling the border between private security and a government. Rangers are doled out to companies and individuals all the time, but the marshals have been known to mediate between local communities and interact with governments on behalf of clients. It’s outside your understanding anyhow, this being Judge Shiki’s or even Miss Keine’s purview. It's the kind of weird organic development that just simply works well enough for those who live here.

You find and knock on Marshal Yakumo’s door. The relationship between Marshal and Chief is another timeless mystery. Even with research, no significant kitsune families by that name ever come up.

“Come in!”

The office is well lit by a desk light and frosted windows on the left, a realm of order. A large chalkboard hangs opposite the window, an open box of premium Hagoromo chalk half full. The papers and shelves and cabinets aligned against the walls create enough right angles to make a city planner weep. The only pure decorations are a picture on the desk of a cat eared girl holding a ranger badge and a dazzling fractal pattern etched into the window.

The Marshal is in her usual: a long white dress under an indigo vest. A gold version of the badge is on her white cap, which is shaped to enclose her ears.

“Ah, Miss Kirisame, good morning. I hope you’ve had pleasant travels.” She relieves you of one of the sheets.

“Good mornin’ to you too, Ran. You look well as always.”

“Thank you.” She reads the page in the time it takes for her to slot it into a paper holder on her desk. “Congratulations on the successful hunt. The miners in that region have enough woes already.”

She pulls open a drawer and efficiently assembles a ream of red, blue, and yellow colored bills. These are Gensokyan dollars, the “official” standard, though people will generally accept any money, or even metals and barter. The rapidly growing stack produces an animation of the printed illustrations, accompanied by the music of shuffling bills.

“Your reward, 500 dollars, in your preference of small denominations.” She hands you a neat block of bills.

“Thanks.” You take the stack, which immediately deforms in your hand. The money is tucked inside your coat without double checking the amount in the bundle. The sun would sooner drop like a rock out of the sky than Ran messing up her counting.

“You may be interested in today’s work board, a new set of postings arrived just last night. Take care and good hunting.”

“Will do, expect me back!”

She nods before returning to her paperwork. Marshal Yakumo really is the indefatigable engine of the machine. Now 500 dollars richer, you can start replenishing your equipment and supplies. The door shuts almost noiselessly as you leave.

At the very end of the hall is Chief Yakumo’s door. Rumors claim her to be the widow of some industrialist or a wayward princess with ties to high places, whether with noble families, city machines, or even foreign states. It changes every few months and you can’t really make anything of it. Granted, you’ve never seen her ever and her portrait is absent among the paintings of flowers and butterflies decorating headquarters, but you hold that she’s less some shadow mistress and more an appreciator of privacy. Breaking from the past is one of the biggest draws of the Frontier after all.

Back in the lobby, you go to check out the work board. There’s someone you don’t recognize already there, a bounty hunter you assume. Two black cat ears poke out from holes in a brimmed hat of the same color while bright red hair hangs downward in two ribboned braids. Her vest, extending down in flaps, is black as well, covering a dark green shirt and skirt. Two tails swish about lazily. She notices your approach.

“Sorry sis! You can look too.” The nekomata(?) steps gracefully to the side.

You study the board. Your plan to travel to Hakuyokurou tomorrow limits the options a little, but it's still good to have a job running in the background. A few tasks seem both interesting and convenient, though the money could be better:

[ ] Rampaging doll:

| WANTED:
| CURSED DOLL YOUKAI
| DEAD OR SEALED
| OFFICIAL FRONTIER AUTHORITY BOUNTY
| // The picture shows a child-sized doll with a terrifying grin, surrounded by lilies of the valley and ominous purple fog.
| LAST SEEN: Outskirts of Rikko, stationary, 2 days ago // 3 hour train from Hakugyokurou
| REASON: Menace to the town, Fourteen minor injuries, two severe.
| DESCRIPTION: Claims to be liberating dolls from human oppression. Uses poisonous fog. Reports of first sluggishness, then paralysis. Death likely without treatment. Resistant to pistol fire, rifle rounds unknown.
| REWARD: $400

[ ] Egoistic Flowers:

| WANTED:
| JO’ON YORIGAMI & SHION YORIGAMI
| ALIVE
| OFFICIAL FRONTIER AUTHORITY BOUNTY
| // The picture shows a pair of faces. One has heavy makeup, light hair, and gaudy dress while the other with dark hair looks a bit gaunt, wearing rags.
| LAST SEEN: Coldpan, reported moving north, 5 days ago // 1 day ride from Hakugyokurou
| REASON: Theft, Pickpocketing, Racketeering, Fraud
| DESCRIPTION: The textbook application of the saying: “If it sounds too good to be true, then it is”. Some sneak trick allowed them to escape capture and even rob the two of us rangers blind. Probably disguised and definitely running.
| REWARD: $150 each

[ ] Package Delivery:

| PRIVATE REQUEST: Emergency Request for an Armed Escort
| By: Wriggle Nightbug, Many Legs Delivery Service // A cute bug with a smile is drawn next to the company name
| I’m looking to hire an armed guard to protect a stagecoach for one four day trip.
| I’ll be waiting in Hakugyokurou at the First Victory Inn.
| The route is through Creeping Trail, with a detour at Rokford, ending at Little Genbu.
| $500 dollars in cash to be paid on completion.

[ ] Haunted House?:

| PRIVATE REQUEST: Exorcist Urgently Required! Devilish Haunting at the White Tower Hotel
| By: Joseph J. Lowell, Chief of Hotel Security
| The White Tower Hotel is the premier hotel establishment in Hakugyokurou and perhaps the entire Frontier, offering overnight hospitality unmatched…
|…plagued by a supernatural force which we believe with certainty is some childish ghost, whose puerile humor has dangerous consequences to the well-being…
|...when our most charitable owner valiantly attempted to open negotiations to cease this uncouth bullying, his eyeglasses were victim to daylight robbery, right from his face!
| They were found in the watercloset, that disgraceful…
|…ultimately confounded us for over a week, leaving no trace, with no honor…
| A generous $200 dollar reward for an expert to ensure the safety of our most valued guests…
| If interested, please send a telegram to this address…

===

While money can be useful, it’s going to be handled in a very “soft” way. There will be a slow trickle loss from living expenses and small things over time and, outside occasional updates, only important transactions will involve numbers. Just wanted to clarify my own thoughts, but while money isn't critically important like in a game, you guys can of course vote based on any reasons you like.
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[X] Rampaging doll

I don’t believe we got into this business looking for safe and easy jobs. Moreover, a doll with sentience and the ability to use poison sounds like something we would be interested in looking further into for magical research, and for Alice, if this job gets chosen, we should probably talk to her about it before heading out. It would also be suitable for reputation and goodwill building if we eliminate a town menace. We might be able to give Hatate a newsworthy story. I’m a bit worried about the whole resistance to pistol fire bit. Hopefully, the mini-Hakkero can take the doll out, or we need to look into getting some heavier weaponry. I wonder how dangerous these types of bounties can eventually get.

>surrounded by lilies of the valley and ominous purple fog

We could, on arrival, look into the local wildlife to see if any are resistant to the poisonous fog.

>Your record is currently 143 presses, before another ranger intervened.

We’re a menace to society!

>| The White Tower Hotel is the premier hotel establishment in Hakugyokurou and perhaps the entire Frontier, offering overnight hospitality unmatched…

I am curious about how we would handle high society, to be honest.

Out of curiosity, how much does opening the “Kirisame Magic Shop” cost?
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[X] Package Delivery

A delivery for the kappa, eh? That could be any kind of valuable and/or unique technology, so it would be interesting to both see what it is and who would be wanting to steal it. Plus, this is the only mission that involves protecting a youkai instead of plain old humans, which is also interesting. And, it's the most lucrative mission!
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[X] Rampaging doll

💊😭
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[X] Rampaging doll

Cursed doll, huh? The face, visibly artificial even through the lines of the printed illustration, doesn’t meet your gaze, eyes instead staring off past the frame. With a new goal in sight, you tuck away this fresh copy of the poster, which was courtesy of the front desk. The rest of the day remains for coming up with countermeasures and restocking supplies.

Through a long career, you’ve met a variety of colorful people, fought against plenty of unique abilities, and seen a few truly strange things, the category that a rebellious poison-spitting doll certainly belongs to. While some ideas, sketches of plans, already circulate in your mind, you don’t want to be surprised like what happened at Silverpebble. You need more information. Luckily, you do have a person with both the relevant expertise and who lives in this very town, a certain puppeteering friend of yours. And right now, you know exactly where she is.

Back outside, dry heat smothers you and you’re forced to squint, eyes tingling, as you untie Broomstick. When the world finally separates into recognizable colors, the puppet theater materializes, now devoid of patrons. Perfect, the show’s over. Only a solitary person stands near the stage, the master looking on as a swarm of tiny servants dart about the box, disassembling the cloth-wrapped boards.

“Howdy Alice!” You scoot in, breaching a ring of stubby stools. She pretends to not notice until you’re closer.

“And so goes my peace and quiet.” She’s in a joking mood, you think. “Hello, Marisa, it’s good to see you. I thought you finally met something you couldn’t shoot through.”

“No such thing. In fact, I’m now half a thousand richer.” You grin. “How did the show go?”

“Quite well. I went through a standard performance of The Stolen Spring. It’s a favorite, though always a bit tricky to pull off when the sun is this bright.” Her face is shaded by a creamy hat with a frilled red ribbon looping around the crown. Neat locks of spun gold shimmer outside the protection of the brim.

“Have any of the kids here even touched real snow before?” The Stolen Spring reads like your standard fairy tale. Three heroes embark on a snowbound journey, conquering challenges, to eventually trick a greedy tree into returning its ill-gained season of spring. You’re pretty sure the kids just care about watching Alice work her magic, which you admit is delightful on the senses. In addition to her expressive dolls, she can create flurries of flakes that really do sting with cold, and the ending peaks with a synchronized release of cherry petals into air, dissolving into pink motes in an illusionary spring breeze.

“Not all the children were born here, you know. And for those who were, isn't that what art and literature are all about? To expand the mind and enrich the soul? I suppose it’s understandable why you’re not familiar with those things.” Alice’s fingers dance in the air as the dolls gather in two rows, lifting the final panel onto her pushcart. Guided by a hundred tiny but precise fingers, it fits into place noiselessly.

Had you cast a magical scan, you would’ve seen ten threads, each linking a doll to a ring on every finger. It’s through these threads, able to extend the entire length of the square, that Alice’s will flows without compromise. Following her first outing as a bounty hunter, which she still claims as “simply a hobby”, one old news article heralded her as the “Puppeteering Posse”. Under Alice’s skillful manipulation, ten of her combat dolls make ten revolvers, generating the firepower of a one woman army. In practice, however, she restrains herself, usually preferring to keep one hand free and have one doll working as a reloader in the other hand.

“Hey, I do plenty of readin’, it’s just gotta be useful for work. Can’t enrich my soul if I’m dead.” You dodge out of the way of a flying seat, which you swear had just carefully avoided your horse. “But I’m glad, it looks like you really enjoy putting on these shows nowadays.”

“The money helps. And I found it surprisingly relaxing to spend time with people who can solve problems without shooting at it.” The stools fold quickly under the doll onslaught. Only grooves and footprints survive to mark the theater’s brief existence. “So, how has work been going? Surely such a long absence means you’ve nabbed a big bounty.”

“Yup… is what I’d like to say, but I, uh, kinda fell behind schedule again.”

“More charity work, then.” Alice sighs. She claps her hands twice and the dolls respond, falling into formation behind the cart. Soon, you are both walking south, following the rumbling cart.

“You’ve ever heard of Turnip? The town, of course.”

“A week north from here, if I’m not mistaken.”

“That’s right. Go out another two days and it’ll take you to a hobgoblin village. Really far out place, and it was pretty safe too.” You start to explain what you had been up to the past month.

“Until it wasn’t.”

“So then, some new gold pops up in the area, and now you got prospectors flippin’ every rock and pokin’ every bush. They want the land the hobs are sitting on, they think there’s gold there. They make some threats. The hobs don’t give in. Most of the miners back off, but a few of them form a group. They first attack a ranch away from the village and, well, massacre the whole family there. Killed like animals.” You start feeling yourself talk faster, and you try to slow down. “One poor fella was away at the time and, after burying the rest, he hikes all the way south to Mayohiga. He was starving and raving, wanderin’ the streets, these streets, tryin’ to get someone to do something.”

“I… I think I remember that.” Alice says softly.

“Way back when the tracks were done, a lot of these hobgoblins didn't have anywhere to go. So now they’re scattered, livin’ off the land in these unregistered settlements, too far and too poor for the Frontier Authority to care. With Beast Valley actin’ up again these days, the best they could do was a damned advisory.

So I had to do something. I grabbed all my money together, bought a bunch of supplies and went after the murderers. By the time I got up there, a bunch more hobs had died, and the rest were surrounded in their village. It was a messy fight,” you relive smoke and shouting, shooting and trying to not be shot. “There were a lot of bad guys. I also, um… set the village on fire by accident, though all the hobs inside made it out okay.”

“So then you gave them all your money. The money you had saved since the last time you lost it all,” Alice isn’t surprised.

“Well, I was feelin’ guilty. Sure I stopped the bad guys, but those homes got blown up… but yeah,” you concede. “But it wasn’t like I had that much money, and it wasn’t a waste either. Those greedy bastards are six foot under or wanderin’ the hills rethinking their lives, and even better, the hobs can protect themselves now.”

“I don’t disagree that you did a good deed, but these kinds of land conflicts are…unfortunately common in the fringes. And are you really sure no one else would’ve picked up the cause?”

“Sure enough that I had to go.”

“Marisa, have you thought of yourself first? You have no obligation to keep helping like this and now you’re back to where you started. Again. At this rate, you’ll be chasing bounties until your hair is white and your teeth are out.” Alice frowns.

“I used up basically everything,” you let out a groan. “And I lost the rest of my guns in the fight. Sometimes, it feels like the world is always squeezin’ me”

“How much are you saving up for again?”

“The shop will take at least $10,000. Maybe $15,000 if it’s in the bigger cities.”

Alice winces, then stares at her boots. A moment of silence passes. “Still an improvement over those two nights in that gambling den.”

The mention of that makes you shudder. These days, you don’t gamble anymore.

“A-anyways, enough about this. You said something about things that can’t be shot through? I just picked up a new bounty, and I think you’ll be interested. It’s a doll that’s apparently come to life.”

“Oh?” Alice does look interested. You unfold and hand her the bounty poster.

[ ] “We should check it out together.”
[ ] “What can you tell me about magic dolls?”

===

I’m aware my writing isn’t particularly compelling. I was originally hoping to get better as I kept going and for people to give their thoughts without prompting, but neither have really happened. So I’m directly requesting, and will be very thankful for, any thoughts and criticism on everything, from grammar to storytelling to plot.

I plan on continuing until the end or the last reader, and I think I’m not too sensitive so fire away.
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[X] "We should check it out together."

Though this may lead to the possibility of having to split the reward money, I cannot resist the temptation of interaction with Alice and possible character banter. So, perhaps, we can get to keep the lion's share of the reward if we promise to hand the doll's body to Alice.

Well, there is the reason why despite having done this profession for years, we're broke. Not that bad of an explanation of why a person is broke, and I wonder if that saving of hobgoblins thread will reappear later in the story. It would have been interesting if we were allowed to pick on why we were broke at the story's beginning, though, to be honest, I would have chosen the silliest option, consequences be damned.

>Alice winces, then stares at her boots. A moment of silence passes. “Still an improvement over those two nights in that gambling den.”
>The mention of that makes you shudder. These days, you don’t gamble anymore.

That's certainly ominous.




For the author's note, I will try to provide my thoughts. Though, I would recommend taking my comments with a grain of salt since I am not a writer but a reader.

>Grammar
I will fully admit to not having much of a head for grammar, but in reading your story, I have not noticed anything that greatly disrupts my ability to follow along with the story's flow.

>Setting
One of the main draws I found in your story so far is the environment, the adaptation of Touhou's setting with that of the American frontier. I hope that you will, throughout the story, continue to straddle the line between the two sets as you have been doing. Though, considering the AU nature of this story breaks from canon or the expectation of western tropes would not break my suspension of disbelief unless taken to an absolute extreme. Moreover, with the protagonist chosen, an old hand in the frontier, instead of a nameless individual new to this setting, this method for setting exploration feels more organic. However, I will note that in >>68718, it felt a bit like an exposition dump to me, though the explanations of how the fantastical creatures of Touhou were adapted to the frontier building were something I enjoyed. It is evident that you have put thought into how this setting would work. In fact, this setting set up reminds me of City of Harsh Fantasies, God, how I wish it would return one day, which I enjoyed immensely as well.

>Plot
One of the first things I look for in a story is a goal for the protagonist, some sort of mission that causes them to act and thus come into conflict with others. Without a task, stories seem to drag as there appears to be no overarching thing to become invested in. In the story, we have the express goal of obtaining funds for a magical shop which, in my opinion, is not much of a force that conflicts with others besides the method for which we get the funds. Yet, considering the setting you have set up, and the protagonist's backstory you have revealed shows how the tension that makes a conflict can occur. Moreover, with the backdrop of Makaian desert ruins, you have set up a mystery that allows for the possibility of further exploration and speculation. I believe that all good stories have some unknown that can be explored yet not fully explained; I think you have set up such a thing. I will say it seems too early in the story to judge whether or not there is some great antagonist force that we will eventually have to go against and that the central goal seems to be far on the horizon at the moment. However, I expect that with the conflicting forces of the frontier and the organization we are a part of, you will be able to draw the tension necessary for the story's plot. I trust that ya have plans for how this story can unfold!

>Style
I will once again reiterate my enjoyment of the descriptions of the setting. It feels descriptive enough to get a feel of what is going on, but thankfully not enough to reach purple prose and feel like you are trying to jam the scene down my gullet while spraying lavender perfume in my face. Instead, the story flows for me, and that's enough to make me happy as a reader.

>Characters
Stories live and die by their characters. A story can have a great setting and an exciting plot, but if the characters are flat, I find the entire mix bitter, as it leaves this idea that a story could have been great. Moreover, of the characters introduced so far, including the protagonist, it feels that they have different voices, that they are not just one person having a conversation with themselves. Though of the characters so far, I do not feel that any have really arrested my attention so far, it is clear that they have different personalities and voices, but it is just that none have caught me in a way that I can explain fully. Perhaps that will change as we learn more about the characters' thoughts, backgrounds, and motivations. One of the greatest things that draw me into a character is being able to understand them; it is not a necessity that I can relate to a character for me to like them, but that I can understand their thoughts and see how their actions reflect them. There is also the fact that there are canonical personalities for these characters that we, the readers, know of coming into this story that you may have to deal with. I do not fully know how far you want to divorce or align with how characters act in their original forms. That is something we will have to see. Yet, the characters do seem to have personalities that can stand up to scrutiny and change as the story progresses. Therefore, I feel I cannot thoroughly criticize the characters' depictions as we have not seen them in their entirety yet.

>Readers' Choices
May God save you from us. I am uncertain about how to advise/criticize such a front. It is evident in this update that you responded to our interest such as explaining the cost of opening a magic shop, but I am uncertain to what extent you will deal with us, for it is a possibility that in dangerous missions or character conversations, that we can make wrong assumptions and err leading to consequences. I do not know to what extent you will make us deal with the results of our actions. I do not know if you would write the protagonist dying if we screw up that badly. As for the initial incident, to what extent could we have screwed up if we chose actions that did not align with what we set up or headed straight to danger? If you punish us for making a mistake in a logical way that we could have seen coming, that is something I can understand, even appreciate; however, if it is something from left field that causes us to fail that we could not have extrapolated or predicted, I would be exceptionally disappointed. Once again, this is also one aspect that remains to be seen.

>Closing Thoughts
I trust ya, Writer! I hope you continue writing this story to its conclusion, no matter how far it seems at the moment. I hope my comments help you in some form for your writing. Feel free to ignore the comments if ya want; it is your story to dictate how ya please.
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[x] “We should check it out together.”

I don't have much to add to what the other poster said other than MARISA COWBOY YEE-HAW
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[X] “We should check it out together.”

Date with Alice, LET'S GOOO!!! 😭
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>>68729 speaking here with more thoughts,
Though this may be veering into personal bias about storytelling, I felt that this line could have been expanded upon:
>you relive smoke and shouting, shooting and trying to not be shot.
Instead of telling us what we relived, you could have employed a more show don't tell method by using our senses to remember the fight. Upon recalling the memory, did the phantom sensation of smoke stinging the eyes return, of air so thick it made breathing difficult? The oppressive heat of the flames covering us like a blanket? Did we remember the hissing of bullets passing us by mere inches, blood rushing in our ears, our heartbeat a constant drum reminding us that we were alive? The tang of gunpowder mixed with smoke in our mouth as we desperately fought? The feedback of gunfire in our hand as unclear shots were taken amongst the smoke, the shouting, and men dying? Did we say prayers when we could, hurl curses, or remain silent throughout the fight? What was the driving emotion that we throughout? A cold determination to see a task through or a righteous fury thrumming in our blood to see justice be done no matter the personal cost? Did we feel bloody exultation, desperation to see the next day, or both in the fight? Was this a strong enough memory to drag us back to the past and remember it in its entirety, or a haze of sensory information besides the beginning and end?

I point this out because saying that we 'relive' something implies that we have some reference point to a gunfight, and I got to be honest and state I have never been in a gunfight or one where the surrounding environment is burning all around. This recollection felt like something that could be used to further entrench the reader in our protagonist's experience, to mimic what the protagonist experienced even if the reader has never approached something close to what happened. I do not know if you when writing, considered expanding on the line I am talking about and decided to keep it brief so that the reader could fill in the experience themselves as I did above, but I hope the point I am trying to make comes across nonetheless.



>>68731
We deserve a reward for how romantic the outing we chose is, hunting a living doll able to control a poisonous fog.
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[X] “We should check it out together.”

“Asking for help? That’s a new one. Any reason for this sudden shift in strategy?” Alice questions dryly.

“Didn’t say I needed help, I just thought you’d want to see this creature for yourself before I start sweeping doll bits into a bin. I mean, isn’t that it, an independent doll, just sitting right there?” you gesture at the paper. ”Well, it would be easier for me to just give you whatever’s left anyhow...”

“I’ve tried looking into other people’s doll magic in the past, but it’s always a disappointment. Most are exaggerating showmen, there’s the occasional ghost possession, and I’ve even seen a couple of elaborate but ultimately mundane automatons.” Alice returns the poster. “But, yes, I suppose I’ll come with you. There’s no harm in making sure and I could use an opportunity to clear my head.”

“Havin’ trouble with your secret project?” You probe.

While Alice’s efforts toward an autonomous doll is pretty much public knowledge, over the year or so since you’ve met, the signs that she’s working on something else kept accumulating. Something more than just making a thinking doll. Her background didn’t add up: familiar-related magic just isn’t as taboo in the Republic as she’d like everyone else to think, unless you’ve been away for too long. Her dollcraft keeps improving, but never enough to account for all the time she spends indoors. And in the rare occasions when she’s gone, her house’s intruder detection is sharper in ways than the Gensokyan National Bank, knowledge of either security systems by conjecture, of course. Despite being friends, she’s denied everything. An external observer might point to Alice’s reserved nature to explain the admittedly flimsy evidence, but deep down, you’re sure they all tie together. You can only wait and hope that one day she’ll let down her guard.

“I have no idea what you’re talking about.” Alice says. “And stay on topic, please. We haven’t finished discussing how we split the bounty rewards.”

“Easy. Let’s do 50-50: 400 dollars for me, and you get the dollie itself!”

“I’m a magician, not a mist-drinking hermit. We’re doing a real 50-50, 200 dollars for each of us. With the way you fight, I can’t guarantee the doll survives, even assuming it’s the real thing.” Alice protests.

“Hey now, I’m the one inviting you. I saw the bounty first.”

“How considerate of you to tell me about it then. As a matter of fact, if you’re unwilling to share, I might plan a visit to Rikko myself.”

“A race huh… sure, that works! First hit on the doll gets the reward, how ‘bout that?” You propose.

“Just the first hit?”

“Makes it more of a hunt, we’ll work together to finish it if that’s not enough.”

Alice thinks about it. “Fair enough. I accept, then. Does this race start right now?”

You remember the envelope from Silverpebble, stuffed in one of the many pockets inside your coat, no doubt rounded at the edges by now. “I’ve got a little errand to run in Hakugyokurou, actually. I’d rather we both start at Rikko itself. If ‘outskirts’ is right, then there’s still plenty of room for a doll to hide in”

“Very well. I’ve heard there’s a new charms and crystals shop in Hakugyokurou. And that the gardens are nice this time of the year.”

Some idle chatter is exchanged before you and Alice part at an intersection, her route taking her home, yours taking you further down the street. Before the separation, Alice promised to buy some antidotes for poison and had arranged to meet you at 7 o'clock in the morning at the train station. The daily east-bound that'll take you two to Hakugyokurou is a long ride. If the gods feel merciful, you’ll have 8 hours of threadbare padding instead of flat wood to look forward to. If the gods are downright generous, there won’t be a single newborn sharing the car.

At the southern edge of Mayohiga, the street’s bends straighten out and the buildings drop away, leaving only the jailhouse, a pale gray fortress of hard edges and smooth faces. The windows, narrow black slots, are embedded high in the thick walls. It’s ugly from afar, just as ugly up close, and you’re sure the insides are just as awful. Not everyone behind bars is necessarily a bad person, but anyone sentenced by Judge Shiki for an extended stay in “The Block” is no mere town drunk.

A clearing wraps around the building, one chunk walled off as the jail’s outdoor space, and a larger field stretching away from the direction of town, reserved for use as a cemetery. The road forks, one lane to the jail, the other deeper into the desert.

You descend from Broomstick as you enter the shadow of the building. The ranger on shift, leaning against the jailhouse wall, bounces off, knee-length brown hair bobbing, excited to greet the only other movement in a still world.

“Hmm? A visitor at this time… Oho, it’s Marisa! Howdy! Pleasant weather, eh?” The top of her hat barely reaches your nose. It’s pierced left and right by her most distinguishing feature: two great horns, nearly as long as her span. While they seem like a flamboyant inconvenience, with the oni strength bundled into her small frame, it’s the door frames that are the ones who need to watch out. It’s a mystery how she puts on her hat; your current theory is it being two separable halves.

“Mornin’ Suika. I’m visiting, but not the jailhouse.”

“Oooh, business is good I see! I’ll be seeing yer papers, then.” As your hands search for where you put the paper, she gulps from her bottomless purple gourd. She responds to your gaze: “Hafta stay hydrated, even in the shade. Can’t have thirst distracting me, no way!”

You give her the sheet. “Tradin' one distraction for another?” You’ve sipped a taste of Suika’s sake in the past. It’s obscenely strong even for oni sake and tastes awful, that one sip almost knocking you out. She drinks it like water, due to either centuries of acquired taste or being more numb than a doorknob. Probably both.

“Not wrong,” Suika squints at Kutaka’s cursive. “Ahhh, who the hell counterfeits their way into a graveyard. Stay here, I fetch ya the shovel.”

Armed with her shovel, you enter the garden of tombstones. Owned by the Frontier Authority, this is not a place made for the comfort of loved ones or to celebrate glories. Those lucky enough to have their names recorded settle for paint on boulders or scratchings on wood boards. Many graves are anonymous, only posts or rocks marking their final rest. You find a clear spot and heave the corpse off of Broomstick’s back, setting it on the ground temporarily.

Digging while cooking under the sun isn’t fun, but you get it done at a good pace. You refresh yourself with some water refilled at the jail well, then gently extract the body from the bag and lay it to rest. The clay bed is hard, but cool. Youkai decay differently from humans such that even two days later she looks merely asleep. You place the sack on top of her body like a blanket, hiding her face and bloody clothes. Then you fill the grave, replace the layer of scorching sand, and after scrounging for several stones, leave a cairn to guard the spot. You’ve buried others, some in the same Mayohigan sand, but while you understand the necessity of the work, every cleanup makes you hope it’s in the latter half of your career. You wash your hands with the rest of the water.

At the threshold of the graveyard, the filled section looks awkwardly small, lonely even, not even using a tenth of the field’s capacity. The time you estimate it would take for the entire cemetery to be used surpasses your lifespan, serious overkill by the Frontier Authority, but desert land is cheap anyways.

You mount up. It’s becoming noon, and you know exactly where to go to get some lunch, and also wash the many days of travel off yourself. The uncertainty comes after that.

“Wait, Marisa!” Suika’s yell makes you pause and look back. “I forgot to remind you–great timing on being back in town by the way–it’s payday, today! Ya know what that means: Geidontei at seven!”

That’s right, the monthly party is happening tonight, kicking off right after the rangers receive their pay. It’s attended by Mayohiga’s rangers, plus their friends, plus anyone else who can stand drinking and stupid tricks and laughing until the stars are swirling.

Party:
[ ] Go.
[ ] Don’t go.

After getting lunch (order all three in priority, first visit at the top):
[ ] The Iron Umbrella, metal working & gunsmithing store.
[ ] Ellen’s Magic Shop, self explanatory.
[ ] Kakashi Spirit News and Printing, for the interview.

===

>68729
>68732
Thank you, this is much more than what I could've asked for. I should've said "anything" instead of "everything" in the original request. And yes, the loss of City of Harsh Fantasies was a big blow to Touhou literature.
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Party:
[X] Go.
[ ] Don’t go.
*You deserve some rest 💫

After getting lunch (order all three in priority, first visit at the top):

[1] Kakashi Spirit News and Printing, for the interview.
*You promised her

[2] The Iron Umbrella, metal working & gunsmithing store.
*😜☂️

[3] Ellen’s Magic Shop, self explanatory.
*Had to google this 2hu ngl.
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[X] Go.
We need a good drink after burying a little girl-shaped monster. Though I worry that the resulting hangover will make the ride to Hakugyokurou discomforting, to say the least. We might have to sleep it off on the train ride; if Alice is kind, we might be able to sleep on her lap shoulder, platonically, of course.

[1] Ellen’s Magic Shop, self explanatory.
We can see if she has any insight into the crystal we got from the first job or if it is worth selling.

[2] The Iron Umbrella, metal working & gunsmithing store.
If the competition between Alice and us is the one who gets the first hit getting the reward, we may need to look into something with a scope to get a shot before Alice. A long-range hopefully would allow us to keep away from the fog if necessary and pack more punch than our Orrey Starduster.

[3] Kakashi Spirit News and Printing, for the interview.
Promises got to be kept. I also wonder if Hatate can give us any interesting information even though she does not get out often.

Perhaps Alice’s Makaian background plays a role in her secret project? If we are taking the train, what happens to Broomstick? Does he also get on the train?
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I don’t think this story is busy enough to support tiebreaker votes, so I’ll break ties for mutually incompatible options by author’s choice, so apologies to >>68737. I’ll change the policy to something more concrete if there are objections.

===

[X] Go.

[1] Kakashi Spirit News and Printing
[2] The Iron Umbrella
[3] Ellen’s Magic Shop

“I’ll be there!” You promise. There’s nothing wrong with having some fun between long journeys, and usual side effects can be slept off on the train. It’ll be nice to catch up with Reimu and the other rangers and, as a swell bonus, when alcohol starts flowing, some juicy intelligence can flow with it.

You return to town, but turn on a side street to arrive at a squat two story building. Only by its sign and a small stable at its side does the Red Hills Inn stand out from its neighboring houses. A new coat of orange paint, the skilled handiwork of one of the owners, does a good job at preserving the weathered boards underneath. Tiny tinted leaves decorate the glass of the door. Hanging wooden blocks knock for you when you enter.

The air within is cool, bordering chilly. It’s just part of the preference of the two sisters who run the place. A fair number of other lunch goers already crowd the small dining room, the temperature being much better at drawing in overheated diners than overnight guests. It’s definitely not usual needing to heat a room mid-spring, but you’ve survived outdoors in the cold both during some surprisingly harsh desert winters and during a few bitter months back east, many hazy years ago. It also means there’s never a shortage of affordable vacancies at the Red Hills Inn.

“Marisa! Welcome!” One half of the sisters is tending the kitchen, mixing the aroma of hot cooking into the crisp air. “Heeey! Shizuha! We have a guest!”

“I’m coming!” Thumping descends the stairs as Shizuha, the other half of the sisters and the painter and caretaker of the inn arrives. Everything except her feet and arms are hidden under the stack of sheets she’s carrying.

Peeking her head around the side, she recognizes you. “Oh hello, Marisa. Just give me a moment.”

“Are you hungry? We have noodles right now, but I can make something, anything, real quick!”

“Don’t worry ‘bout me, Shizuha, take your time. And yes, Minoriko, some noodles sound great, thank you.” Finally, some food that isn’t drier than Ran’s sense of humor. “Busy day, you two?”

“Nah, this is about usual for me, and you’ve caught Shizuha on one of her cleaning days. What about you? It feels like you’ve been gone longer than normal.”

“Just some work all the way up north. Trouble should really be more considerate of its resolvers.”

With her sheets stowed for the moment, Shizuha huffs back to the main room. You keep the door open for her to exit, then follow, grabbing your things off the horse.

“Poor poor Broomstick, looks like Marisa’s been running you hard as usual.” Shizuha gently pets him on the side, the horse leaning into it, before taking the reins.

“That’s just part of the business. You know Broomstick’s tough enough to handle it.”

“Perhaps. But even the liveliest summer goes to rest eventually.” Shizuha says “Ah right, your favorite room is already sorted out. Please make yourself at home.”

“Thanks. I’ll be heading in then.” Shizuha nods before turning away for the stable, Broomstick obediently following. He’ll be in good hands.

The Red Hills Inn is your preferred choice of lodging when needing to stay in Mayohiga. Over the years, you’ve built a fair working relationship with the Akis, who seem happy to have a consistent patron. You pay for a single night’s stay for you and the horse, then go upstairs.

The interior walls are richly painted, with nostalgic forest scenes and landscapes you could leap out of the hallway into. The sisters really like their autumn, with reds and oranges and yellows dominating throughout. You know Shizuha sells some art on the side, but it's a slow business, her very specific tastes having saturated Mayohiga basically on arrival.

Inside your room, the colors are a little browner and colder, winter creeping in even as the sun gleams through the window shades. Outside, a commanding view of the street, while inside, the comforts of a one room home. You place your bags in the armoire. The bed is indeed freshly made, ringed by smaller furniture: a desk and chair between the two windows, a wide upholstered couch in one corner, a table with stools in another, and several other cabinets for convenience.

A curtain sections off the tub from the rest of the room. Two buckets of water are already prepared, one of them steaming. Hell yeah, it’s about time.

After a rejuvenating bath, tiredness washing away with the grime, you fix your braid, redress in some spares, grab your coat and belt, then head back down. Minoriko is ready for you with a delicious bowl of noodles and half a baked potato. During your meal, you decide that it’d be best to give Hatate a visit and fulfill your promise. She’ll be in her workshop for sure, making up for the exposure outside.

###

“Kakashi Spirit News and Printing” reads the sign, putting you in the right spot. It wasn’t too far a walk, crossing the South Bridge, to get here, now facing a solid faced door.

“Hatate! It’s me.” You knock.

A swoosh, and the door opens.
“Oh good, you actually showed up.”

“I told you I never lie.”

“Just come in.” Hatate pulls open the door wider. She does a little wave of her free hand. “Sorry about the mess, it’s always like this when I’m running a job. And uh, sorry about the rudeness, but I’m actually really thankful.”

Hatate navigates a floor covered with ink-stained canvases, bottles and buckets, wooden frames, and old papers, all while avoiding mismatched benches, themselves loaded with supplies. You follow her footsteps carefully, matching her single toothed geta and tengu dexterity with well practiced sneaking skills.

You’ve never actually been inside before. It isn’t as dark as you expected with a large sunroof assisting the small side windows. From the outside, a false front masks the original structure, but from within, it’s obvious an old barn had been refurbished into a blend of printing shop and office. You have a suspicion that the lofted room on the upper level is where Hatate lives. Does she climb the ladder with geta too? In the far back, the windows are blocked by a looming skyline of unused paper, reams upon reams. Taking center stage is a beat up press with a page half assembled in the printing frame, and little roads emerge from this center like spokes on a wheel, cutting through debris to connect every other station. You two pass through this junction on the way to the best lit corner, reserved for working desks with slightly neater tops.

Seeing only one half empty shelf with ink, compared to the mountains of paper, you can’t help but ask: “What’s with all the paper?”

“They told me buying in bulk was cheaper, and it kinda was in a way, but, yeah… It’s kinda a lot. I don’t buy things in bulk anymore, at least for right now.”

“'Least ya won’t runnin’ out anytime soon.”

“If the bank doesn’t seize it, sure.” Hatate mutters. So that’s how she could afford all the machinery. Independent news is a rough life too it seems.

You take a seat in the only chair while Hatate prepares to write. It goes pretty quickly and you retell everything, from the arrival at Silverpebble to concluding the fight to the miner’s reactions afterward. You do admit it was a little challenging dealing with the youkai’s power over darkness and since Hatate finds that the most interesting, you describe the darkness in deeper detail.

“Thank you,” Hatate finishes up her note taking with a swipe of her pencil, but doesn’t close her notebook. She sighs. “You’re right, maybe I got too excited, expecting some epic duel, but I think this is still usable. There’s going to be a couple of pictures with the article, do you think these are fine?”

She holds up a sheet with two printed images of her usual exceptional detail. You recognize the face on the right, the same portrait as on the bounty poster. But the left image is a bit unexpected: it shows you and Kutaka inspecting the bag with the body, the front face of headquarters in the background.

“How did you even get this one? Were you following us with one of those fancy cameras?”

“Oh please, I don’t need some fiddly device when I have this:” Hatate taps her head, looking smug. “It’s my power, my thoughtography. It lets me capture any image from the comfort of ho–, I mean the office.”

“But for the image to be on paper, then that means you’ve already made a plate for it. Why ask me after the fact?”

“Guess I’ll have to show off my secret technique. You did give me a nice story so I suppose you deserve it.” It sounds like a good show, so you go along with it.

She grabs a bottle of ink. “The other half of thoughtography is making the image real, otherwise, well, I’d just be some crazy crow seeing things. Now behold!”

She sets down the paper and delicately spills just a drop of ink on the empty space below. Then closing her eyes, Hatate blows lightly on the drop. The effect is disproportionate: the ink deforming, flattening, unnaturally spreading across the page, fleeing away from the white areas, gathering in mass for the black regions, droplets splitting and splitting until no individual specks are left, only perfect gray tones. It’s a splitting likeness of you sitting, surprised, holding the clone of this same sheet, before the third application of thoughtography of course. It’s a result that could match any photograph you’ve seen, being accurate without the need to prepare a bulky device.

“Neat, huh? I’ll assume you’re okay with that image then, so let’s make the plate. It’s a little different” Hatate turns towards a long shelf lined up with metal plates of various sizes, looking like cast books, picking out the desired dimensions. She also picks up a ceramic soup spoon and a brown bottle. A small illustration of a kappa doing a thumbs up is printed on it, along with an even smaller skull and a lot of tiny letters.

“I’ll try to keep the worst of the fumes away, but there still might be a funny smell.” Hatate warns, before pouring out a whiskey colored liquid into the spoon. You don’t smell anything until she hovers the spoon over the plate and starts using her power again, keeping her face further away than before.

This time you are ready with a magical scan. As the liquid, some acidic solution, climbs the spoon to begin eating away at the metal underneath, you can see countless tiny swirls of air pushing and tugging at the chemical, an infinitely dextrous sculptor spreading and prodding at their clay. With focus and drawing on the wind magic you know, you can start seeing a few patterns with how Hatate manipulates the air. There are thousands of tiny movements twisting and whirling, but each one is born and then dies with the same traceable signature, making the foaming reaction sparkle. A few broader puffs carry the foul smoke into the empty part of the room. You’ve never been able to see a tengu work up close before so you’re pleased to have gained insights on this simple interview visit. It’s not a lot, you’d never imitate Hatate’s finesse, assuredly helped by her ability, or the apparent power of other crow tengu, but you can already think of a few applications, like stirring potions, or knocking things over without hitting it with a laser.

Unlike with the ink, the acid seems to create an imperfect image, a formation of dots rising from the foaming reaction. As the process nears completion, you understand: the raised dots are larger and denser in the dark areas, and smaller and more sparse in the lighter zones. In the revered image, you can see the edges of the headquarters traced in bumpy lines, while raised clusters of little bumps form you and Kutaka. She waves at the air above the plate, but her control earlier was good, the remaining odor already swallowed by the scent of ink and paper.

“Let me catch my breath for a bit.” Hatate gasps, though she refuses the chair. “Doing two back to back is tough, especially after doing a bunch this morning.”

Exhaustion must be the limit then, a shame considering how fast and economical the process appeared. It does make sense, though. In the past, when drinking past even her capacity, Hatate revealed how normal crow tengu have a powerful affinity for controlling the winds, able to attack with mighty gusts, launch themselves in great leaps, or steal secrets from the air. As she complained at the time, it’s an affinity that she lacked, restricting her to only able to blow a feather out of a cup, which “a stupid sneeze could do twice as easily”.

“The metal version has to be usable for printing, so I came up with the dots to get as decent a picture as possible. It just took a bunch of experimentation, and materials, and a few… accidents.” Hatate, recovered, finishes her demonstration. You give a playful clap and she mock bows.

“I’m honestly impressed! That answers how your paper’s pictures are always so sharp. Are you the only one with this thoughtography?”

“Yep! It’s my secret weapon against the Bunbunmaru, giving me the best picture quality to pair with my writing. That Shameimaru can play around with cameras all she wants, but it won’t help her silly engravings look any better, ha!”

Unfortunately, seeing the nature of the majority of the unfinished work lying around, you surmise that Hatate’s printing abilities are requested much more over her newspaper.

“That’s like for the future though.” Hatate starts to clean up, carefully placing the finished plate away, before squinting at an open notepad and groaning. “I forgot to bring it up earlier and I know I’d had you for a while and that you’re busy, but would you mind answering just a few more questions for another project? Please?”

“Sure. If it really is only a ‘few questions’, heh.” You’ve got time, and her chair is pretty comfortable.

“There are just four, don’t worry,” Hatate reassures you. ”Okay, starting off: What do you think of the Frontier Authority’s competence at keeping outlaws locked up?”

“Uh… they do alright?” You say. It’s an unusual question, definitely building up to something. Hatate waits for more. “I’m not really sure, I don’t work in a jail. I just put people in ‘em and I guess they don’t come back out, so… again, they do alright.”

“Have you heard of the recent jailbreak? How do you feel about it?” She moves on.

“I was just at the jail, didn’t see anything wrong with it.” You raise an eyebrow.

“No, sorry, not the Mayohiga jail…” Hatate shudders at the thought as she shuffles through several papers on her desk. She pulls a newspaper out and hands it to you. “Here, it happened at the jail in Oda”

Underneath “Bunbunmaru Newspaper” in the header, a bold title crosses the wrinkled page:
Dreadful Embarrassment for the Frontier Authority? Old Killers on the Loose, After Nighttime Breakout at Oda’s Jailhouse!

You give it a quick skim. Happening barely two days ago, the news must’ve caught the train to Little Genbu, gotten printed the same day, and was rushed up to Mayohiga by rail again this morning, meaning this paper is fresh off from the station. And while Bunbunmaru’s speed is astounding as usual, the story itself is no less significant. Frontier Authority jails are pretty well protected, even the smaller ones outside the big towns. The article elaborates how the person on the outside even cut the telegram wire at multiple points, explaining the delay of an official Frontier Authority response.

At the bottom, the illustrations of the escapees are ordered in a grid. Some of these faces are familiar, mostly old bandits like John Shredder, Little Zheng, and ah, Marcus the Swift, famous train robber, caught four years back. You actually tried to go after him once, but titles aren’t given in vain in the Frontier. Maybe you’ll be returning some of these fellows later, after you and Alice–

Wait. This face.

Cold narrow eyes stare back at your wide ones. A slight smile. Long light hair, white band on black hat. That jacket, the exact same jacket, the ink poorly approximating the black of the real thing…

Blackjacket. This is a face that’s more than just familiar, belonging to the person who robbed and pillaged the entire breadth of the Frontier, leaving behind a trail of bodies just as long as their career. Who while on the run after a reversal of fortune, sealed her fate breaking into Kourin’s store, hurting him badly, and eventually lost her slippery reputation, becoming your very first claimed bounty. But wasn’t she locked up in Mayohiga itself, to rot in the dark until her skin shrivels up, bones creaking? Reimu and Suika better have some answers tonight, so you can hopefully understand how this happened.

“Uhhh, done reading?” Hatate looks at you, annoyance shifting to concern. “Are you okay, Marisa?”

“Yeah, I’m fine.” You lie. You take a deep breath, but not too deep, relaxing your fingers from their steel grip. “I just recognize some of these fellas. This is pretty bad… for the Frontier Authority, for sure.”

Scribbling. “Okay. Last question: Has how you looked at the Frontier Authority changed due to this news?”

“This jailbreak really is disappointin’, so yeah, I suppose it did for the worse. People like me are busy enough, and it’s dangerous for regular folks.” You force out a response, still distracted.

“Thanks, this was the first run of the questions. They’re supposed to be fast and simple, and I think they’ll work, I’ll just make sure to clarify the location of the jailbreak next time.” Hatate, speaking partially to herself, looks pretty cheerful, not noticing you wipe your forehead. “Since the Oda jailbreak is big news right now and Bunbunmaru has the event itself covered, I’m going to try to report on the aftermath, how people feel about it and about the Frontier Authority.”

“Can I keep this?” You hold up the folded up newspaper. The paper is severely crumpled where your hands had been.

“Eh, that rag? Yeah, why not, if you think it’s worth your time. Just make sure to pick up this week’s new edition of the Kakashi Spirit News. It’ll be out tomorrow!”

“I’m leavin’ early tomorrow, but if I see ‘em, sure, I’ll grab one.” You say your byes before departing. You’re going to need some firepower, for the doll, and beyond that.

###
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The clanging of metal and black furnace smoke advertised the Iron Umbrella before the blacksmithing shop was even in view. The main body of the building is a cylinder capped with a shallow cone of ribbed metal sheet. A few extensions jut out from it, including a tidy workshop, open air but covered by an awning. It’s also where the front door also happens to be.

CLANG CLANG CLANG

“Afternoon, Marisa! I will be right with you, as soon as I finish this.” Kogasa greets you in her chipper voice, all while hammering away at a glowing horseshoe. An entire tower of completed specimens is stacked by her. Her purple umbrella, standing on its little sandaled foot, watches with a painted eye from a distance by the door.

“Hey, Kogasa. Don’t mind me, I’ll be browsing for a bit.”

“If you say so, but just holler when you need me.” She reduces the noise of her banging, but speeds up the pace.

ClinkClinkClinkClinkClinkClinkClinkClinkClinkClink

Inside, neat is the only word that comes to mind, a dazzling array of metal work arranged around the circular showroom, on displays, tables, and the wall. Every tool, weapon, part, and artifact is well cared for and well organized. It’s well known that Kogasa uses her smithing talent to support what is more an adoption center for old tools than a proper store. She’ll buy pretty much any used stuff, refurbish it, then try to sell it. Unsurprisingly, her stock has only grown over the years, but occasionally there are some gems in the rough.

You stop at a display by the door. In between a rack of antique pikes and a mannequin wearing a chainmail suit is a very long musket, slightly taller than you without the hat. This is one of the oldest residents of her collection. Tengu craftsmanship is all over the gun, evident by the magnificent carvings in the lacquered wood, depicting a mountain and river scene. The individual leaves of trees can be made out and the waves of the river glisten as brightly as the metal above. You feel the cool smoothness of the hexagonal barrel, interrupted occasionally with the engraved characters of tengu script. While you can’t read the curvy symbols, it’s probably some profound poem. The fatal flaw of this artwork of a gun is not its quality, but that it's simply obsolete. You brush the matchlock igniter with a thumb. One could convert it to a modern mechanism, but then grandfather’s musket would work just as well for much cheaper.

A flamboyant looking piece draws you deeper into the weapons section. It’s a fat bronze tube, flaring out at the muzzle end, sharply narrowing to the handle on the other, the entire piece of metal polished enough that a distorted miniature of your face looks back. A thick lever serves as the trigger, an accompanying ramrod as the reloading mechanism. You’ve seen this type of weapon before: an oni fireclub. It’s basically a handheld cannon that can crush a man up close, or paste him from afar. Suika had shown off hers at one party, a cruder cast steel variant that even had gaudy spikes decorating the barrel. She had boasted how lightweight and flexible the weapon was, capable of firing incendiary, explosive shell, canister, and her favorite, three pounds of solid shot. Lightweight for her maybe: the barrel is thrice as thick as your arm, and at the base, the expected emblem: the sun over anvil of Sun Ironworks, an oni foundry based in Chirei.

One table looks like it hosts more reasonably sized firearms but, getting closer, you realize the gathering of mostly pistols isn’t exactly normal. It’s a circus show of contraptions. There are novel shapes and designs, barrels curving whichever way, strange materials and many colors, all sorts of unnecessary parts tacked on. These must be kappa-made weapons then, exceptionally engineered… if you were lucky with the inevitable gimmick. Some are harmless and interesting, like a rifle with a functional teapot attached to the back, or a revolver with a long stock on the grip. Some are impractical, like a pistol fed through a cloth belt, or a saber with an impaled revolver as the hilt. And a few are… well, more dangerous to yourself than the enemy. There’s a gun, normal in all other respects but entirely made of glass, and one of those sea creatures covered with spikes, except barrels instead of spikes. You pick up a curious looking revolver. The front looks innocent enough, but the cylinder is elongated and in back juts out what suspiciously looks like a second barrel opposite the main one.

“Oh, I see you’re interested in that fellow!”

Your head pivots towards the voice. Kogasa is standing behind with a turquoise apron over her work clothes, wiping off her hands with a towel. The umbrella was brought inside too. She must’ve finished with her work.

“Hehe, did I surprise you? But for the pistol: it’s a very amazing design. It fires two shots at the same time, one from the front, one from the back, canceling out the recoil!!”

”That’s how it works, huh?” You put the gun back down.

“Awww… Well, how about this one?” Kogasa holds up another revolver from the same table, the metal of the extra-long barrel curiously tinted. “Watch this!”

She bends the barrel like a noodle, tracing out the waviness of a sine function.

“Wait, does that really work? Does it shoot when bent?” It could be useful; you imagine shooting around corners, down windows, up at birds...

“Yes!” The tsukumogami studies the gun, thinking. ”But only for certain angles. I think there’s a way to tell if it’s safe… let me see.”

“Ah. It’s, uh, no big deal then.” With Kogasa here, you might as well start looking at things you can actually use. “Do you have any of the more… boring stock?”

Kogasa straightens out the barrel with a tug. “The relationship between tool and owner isn’t just for the owner’s benefit, you know! Just like between two people, trust needs to be built over time! But fine, here’s the rest of the guns.”

Now she’s talking. This slice of the room is much more comforting, stocking many Frontier household names. Rifles and repeaters from Mogami, Highmark and Mars, in addition to several others, line the wall. Among the guns spread over the table, an even greater number of makers are represented. There are a variety of pistols from Yamashiro, a practical minded collective of, surprisingly enough, kappa who apparently were frustrated with the questionable state of their firearms market and got together to do something about it. Two revolvers from Orrery are present as well, different models than yours.

Orrery is your preferred company for pistols due to their reliability and performance, more than worth the extra price. Of course, it’s not like price was truly an issue, your current weapon being your first one, “borrowed” from Kourin for that outing against Blackjacket eight years ago. The story of the company starts with the founder, a skilled clockmaker, becoming enraptured with science after a public lecture. After making friends with the speaker and learning of her and other academics’ struggles with expensive makeshift equipment, the clockmaker established a company out of his old store to both produce quality equipment for the dedicated scientist and promote science through educational trinkets for the anyman enthusiast. The young company’s goods boasted of consistency and longevity comparable to the movement of the planets, and thus the name stuck. Eventually the founder passed away and his son took over. The son decided government contracts were more interesting than bettering human knowledge, and redirected most of the company’s machining expertise towards the warmaking industries. In memory of his father and for a nicer public face, he kept a few of the original products, including the namesake planetary model and chemistry equipment, of which you own several pieces of as well.

Since you aren’t replacing your precious revolver anytime soon, you focus on the other types of guns. There are a few that particularly interest you.

There’s a Yamashiro derringer, three shot capacity in its triangular multi-barrel. It’s a bit bulky, a sacrifice to fire the same round as your revolver, but still easily concealable.

In one of the wall racks, a Mars Stone-Skipper repeater stands out. With a sixteen round capacity loaded by a lever action mechanism, the rifle can maintain a very quick rate of fire. This specific model has a good reputation, but the effectiveness at longer range becomes shakier.

For distance shooting, you’ll want something like this Miller rifle. It was an old favorite for sharpshooters in the Republic Army, and this specific example looks like it might’ve even served in a war or two. It shouldn’t be a problem though, these rifles are built to last. Only one shot can be fired at a time, but the breech loading design makes that one shot cycle at a respectable speed. Both the rifles will need their own heftier cartridges.

There’s shotguns too. Most here are better for hunting or self-defense, but there’s a double-barreled sawed off, a real pocket room clearer. No identification is on it, but it looks fine.

Oho, look at that. Tucked away in the corner is a rarity, an Orrery Meteor. It’s a long barreled revolving shotgun, holding seven shells. They only made a small number of them, since most people would rather stick with a sledgehammer for wall removal. There’s no better choice for unleashing a withering storm of fire and shrapnel, except for maybe your mini-Hakkero. The shotguns can also load solid slugs in addition to pellets.

Kogasa tells you the prices. You’ll have a little under $500 to spend. While a gun is a good long-term investment, assuming you take good care of them, your critical magic supplies aren’t cheap either. And it’s important to save, as one saying goes: “She who buys what she does not need, steals from herself.”

(Multiple choices allowed):
[ ] Derringer, $40
[ ] Repeater, $120
[ ] Sharpshooter, $135
[ ] Sawed-off, $25
[ ] Revolving Shotgun, $150
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So Dashing It Hurts
[X] Revolving Shotgun, $150
[X] Sharpshooter, $135

To shoot from far away and to make sure anything that gets past that gets blasted to kingdom come. Though this selection is taking over half the reward of the bounty we just completed, we have learned the Frontier has gotten a bit more perilous, and more firepower would not go unwarranted, especially if we hunt bigger and tougher bounties.

>Who while on the run after a reversal of fortune, sealed her fate breaking into Kourin’s store, hurting him badly, and eventually lost her slippery reputation, becoming your very first claimed bounty.

She sounds lovely. I am willing to bet that Blackjacket will eventually try to get even with us for putting her in jail. It might be a good thing we have Alice to accompany us on this bounty hunt. On another note, does anyone know which 2hu this character is or if it is a 2hu? At first, I thought of Renko because of the clothing, but the hair color does not match, and Renko is from the future.

>The article elaborates how the person on the outside even cut the telegram wire at multiple points, explaining the delay of an official Frontier Authority response.

I wonder if this is a one-off event or hints at a bigger conspiracy starting to take place. Of course, this recent news also explains why Wriggle requested an armed escort.

> “I told you I never lie.”
> “Yeah, I’m fine.” You lie.

Heh.

>In the past, when drinking past even her capacity

Huh!? Did Marisa outdrink a tengu, or did Hatate go on some extreme, probably Bunbunmaru inspired, bender? Thought tengu were supposed to have a drinking capacity similar to oni.

>Unfortunately, seeing the nature of the majority of the unfinished work lying around, you surmise that Hatate’s printing abilities are requested much more over her newspaper.

If we point out this fact, we might make Hatate cry. Also, explains why the tengu gun could be so detailed; minute control of wind sounds extremely useful for such craftmanship.

>Every tool, weapon, part, and artifact is well cared for and well organized. It’s well known that Kogasa uses her smithing talent to support what is more an adoption center for old tools than a proper store.

That is so sweet that it will make me develop a toothache.

>It fires two shots at the same time, one from the front, one from the back, canceling out the recoil!

Would that not hit the wielder when fired?

I wonder what our sobriquet is? We know that Alice’s is Puppeteering Posse. Are we the Black-White Bounty Hunter, the High-Firepower and Star-Loving Bounty Hunter, or the Ordinary Bounty Hunter? Additionally, who is the fastest gun in the Frontier? I am guessing that it is Youmu.
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[X] Revolving Shotgun, $150
[X] Sharpshooter, $135

As much as I like the idea of double-barreled sawed off akimbo, I have to go with the sensible options. 😓
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Would it be possible to request custom orders from the umbrella blacksmith? Because there is a handgun holster I learned about called The Bridgeport rig, which would allow for the revolver to be rotated up to shoot without having to draw the gun from the belt or allow a faster way to draw. Or would a device like that require going to a kappa?
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[X] Revolving Shotgun, $150
[X] Sharpshooter, $135

[X] Unusual Holster Order, $20

With Kogasa leaving to retrieve ammunition from the back, you wander to a stand with a variety of belts and pouches. Hanging along with the leather and cloth are a few holsters of various designs, which reminds you…

“Okay! Here’s your cartridges!” Kogasa returns and sets a tall stack of boxes down on the front counter. Combined, there’s eight dozen cartridges for the pistol, three dozen for the rifle, and three dozen again of shells for the shotgun. Only a fraction of it can come with you in a fight, of course, but it’s a good comfort to have a deep reserve for any more extended business.

Buying the two heaviest guns and all the ammo meant parting with 300 dollars, three fifths of the entire reward you were just boasting to Alice about earlier. It was painful, but hopefully you’ll get some good use of them and make back the loss with some bigger bounties.

“Kogasa, will you take a custom order for a little contraption, to be finished as soon as possible?” you inquire.

“Yes, depending on how ‘little’ of course. What do you want made?”

You describe a design for a holster you had seen a raider wear back near the hobgoblin village. It didn’t save the man, some novelty holster wouldn’t be sufficient to beat out your skill, but you thought it was curious enough to warrant a closer inspection. The two-part mechanism looked like a metal clip with a channel running through it, creating a pair of short strips. They would hold the flat-headed top of a knob that had been attached to his gun. Kogasa listens attentively and you sketch out what you remember on a spare sheet of Bunbunmaru.

“It doesn’t sound or look like any design of holster to me. But it seems like it’d do the job.” She nods. “I think I see why someone invented such a thing.”

With one hand holding the holster and the other, pretending to be a gun, sandwiching a screwdriver with the index and middle fingers, Kogasa explores the possible motions allowed, flexing and turning, ending by sliding the “gun” out of the “holster” fingers.

“I didn’t get to see it in action, but that’s what I was thinking! I’m not too sure about shootin’ the ‘Duster straight from the hip, but if I could speed up my draw by even a little…” You exclaim.

“I can finish the holster by tonight. The principle behind it is easy, I think, sort of like a tiny version of a roller in a sliding drawer. I already have some parts in mind too.” Kogasa takes your sketches.

“Oh, right. And the knob should be removable.” It would be awful if this experiment damaged your revolver.

“That’ll naturally be part of the design. Can I see your gun?” She asks, and you oblige.

Kogasa briefly studies your Starduster then hands it back to you, pointing with her free hand. “There’s a screw here that could house the knob, if that’s okay.”

“Yeah, that’ll work. I’ll be able to put it on and take it off on my own. So, what’s this going to cost me?”

“I’ll have to charge twenty dollars.”

“Woah! Can’t it be a little lower? I’ve already given you three hundred today and didn’t you say you already had the parts?”

“That’s all true, but I also have an order of ten door knobs with locks and thirty hinges I’ll have to put off until tomorrow, which also happens to be when I need to help Miss Rika at the train yard with one of the engines… there’s also a bed frame that…”

“Ah, I get it, I get it.” Negotiation defeated, you surrender the bills over. You’re pretty confident with your draw–a person in your business doesn’t last this long without a quick one–but $20 is worth an experiment to improve it. The old holster won’t be going away, there’s no need to have your revolver exposed to the elements while traveling or swinging around while sneaking, but with some practice, the sliding draw might shave off a precious half-second or so. Shooting directly from the hip will take significantly more practice, so you’ll save that as a last resort.

“Wait, you’ll be at the station tomorrow?” You ask. That’s convenient.

“Yup! Early too.”

“Can I pick the rig up, then and there? I have a train to catch, seven o’clock.” You secure your new purchases over a shoulder.

“I’ll still be there so, no problem! I’ll see you at the train station tomorrow then. And if you ever have any other funny designs, I’ll take them too!”

“See ya tomorrow then, Kogasa.”

###

The sign of your final shopping stop reads: “Fuwafuwa Ellen's Magic Shop”.

Only a block from Tohno Square, in the densest part of town, is where,as far as you know, the only dedicated magic shop in the entire Frontier lives. The store is wedged between a barber and a cobbler, the little slice of fantasy in process of being squeezed to nothingness by the mundane.

A ring of crystals suspended from strings sway back and forth when you open the door, playing a light and messy jingle.

“Welcome to the Fuwafuwa Magic Shop! We’ve got magic potions, magic tools, and magic services!” A girl’s voice chimes in. The storekeeper has her back turned, sorting vials in a box. She looks the same as always in a red and white dress with a large red bow on her hairband.

The room is long and narrow, and the line of shelves and barrels in the center of the room splits the floor into two tight channels. The walls themselves are entirely lined with shelving space, and it takes some focus to not get drawn into the fabulous goods within, carefully ignoring the pickled bandar-bush roots, pale gnarled ropes floating in blue serum, not admiring a phoenix feather, sparkling and fizzing in its crystal case, and what under heaven are these glowing beads on this rainbow necklace–wait, damnit!

It’s also not the first time you’ve wondered if Ellen would really notice if one glass bauble or salamander tail went missing, but the thought passes. It would be a truly heinous act; to make Ellen cry would damn one to the fiery afterlife on the spot. Also, her cat, a lazy beige bundle, never takes his half-lidded yellow eyes off you.

Though she acts as young as she looks, she has to be far older than she looks: she talks and works magic with a genuine confidence, occasionally dredging up jewels of knowledge from the murky past. And of course, she somehow set up and comfortably runs an entire magic store with only herself and that old cat. Her past is just one of the many that never followed their owners to this land, though she herself seems oblivious to it.

The back is where the more unique items are displayed. There’s a snowflake, suspended in a thick-walled jar, a rare species of nevermelting ice that Ellen claims would freeze any water into itself. A miniature covered wagon, nothing attached to it, spins endlessly in a steel dish, the toy’s wheels having made grooves in the metal below it. A strange mirror shard embedded in a granite chunk sits high up, yet no reflections of either you, Ellen, or the cat can be seen in the store within.

“Hey, Ellen, good afternoon! And good afternoon for you too, Sokrates.” You lean against the counter and nod towards the cat, whose eyelids only droop lower. He’s perched on a thick tome, apparently comfortable enough for him.

“Oh hi, Marisa!” Ellen turns around and smiles at you. “You usually don’t have trouble finding what you need, so what’s up?”

“I need to do some shoppin’ soon, but before that, I was wonderin’ if you knew anything about this pretty rock I have here.” You pull out the strange stone from Silverpebble and set it on the surface. The bumpy gem wobbles slightly before stilling. “A miner gave it to, sayin’ he found it while diggin’.”

“Oh, a raw gemstone? It’s very pretty!” She picks it up, looking closely.

“It’s not just some rock, there's power in it too.”

You can tell when Ellen starts a scan of her own when strands of her hair curl up. For some reason, when she uses magic, her hair becomes charged with static, and the stronger the spell, the stronger the effect. Sokrates stands up and moves to a folded sack, putting some distance and a chest between himself and Ellen.

“There is a magicky-ness inside of it! This reminds me…” Ellen scrunches her brows. “Hmmm… Ehhhh… Ah! I have seen gems of this kind before!”

“Really!? What is it?”

“I remember seeing others before, but I don’t remember anything about them!” Ellen cheerfully admits.

“Oh…” That’s disappointing, but Ellen can miss as much as she hits. Sokrates yawns.

“Really sorry I couldn’t be of much help!” She hands you the stone back, and you take it on instinct. With a snap, the pinch of electricity forces you to flinch. Ellen looks “Whoops, sorry again about the zap. Do you have any other questions?”

“Nah, that was it. The stone’s not too important anyways. I guess I’ll just have to use some ol’fashioned tinkering to get use out of it. I’ll be browsing now.”

With only about $180 left, you don’t have the money for anything fancy, so you’ll stick with the basics today. Scanning the shelves, instead of just looking at individual ingredients, you focus on combinations known for effective spellwork. You choose supplies for:

(Multiple choices allowed, each option is enough for 1 or 2 uses):
[ ] Self-Enhancing Potions, $60
[ ] Offensive Potions, $60
[ ] Trap Materials, $50
[ ] Direct Combat Magic, $75
[ ] Sneaking Magic, $35
[ ] General Utility Magic, $50
[ ] Mini-Hakkero Fuel, $95
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