Early morning rays accompanied cheerful birdsong gliding over grass covered hills and embracing soft meadowlands. In the East, the sun sluggishly began its long trek towards its apex, the plants of the meadows basked contentedly in its bright golden hue. Distantly, cattle could be spotted grazing absentmindedly in their pastures, from elsewhere a cicada was heard testing its voice. The fields and hills of Gensokyo were entranced in a harmonious serenity.
“This would make for a very good painting,” Keiko remarked to himself, though the name of the land was unknown to him.
What must’ve been a few minutes ago, on his early morning travels, he had noticed a worn dirt path out of the corner of his eye. The path branched off from the one he normally traversed, concealed snugly among the surrounding forest. He hadn’t recalled seeing the path during his previous trips, and feeling uncharacteristically adventurous, he had decided to see where this new path would take him.
He hadn’t travelled for long before all around the crowded woodland unveiled into the sprawling fields that now lay before him. It was strange, he pondered, for an entire countryside to be tucked away here without him ever noticing, after having lived near the woods for most of his adult life. Though whatever questions he had on mind were quickly dismissed, deciding that none of them were all that important.
Keiko let the strap of his duffel fall to the ground as he seated himself on the top of a particularly high hill. From here he held a lookout over a large part of the grasslands. The sight was so picturesque to him, that he half-heartedly wondered if he had stumbled into someone’s painting. He could almost see it: his back to the viewer, bag by his side, perched upon a pastel hill, the land stretching down and out into a landscape made of oil, in the distance a mountain almost like a sleeping colossus, something like that could probably sell decently with the right audience.
Stretching languidly, Keiko lay sprawled across the top of the hill, in him welled both a feeling of comfort and excitement. The morning had turned out much better than he anticipated, for now he had an entire countryside in front of him to explore.
 - After a quick nap, he would see how far he could make it to the distant mountain.
 - After a quick nap, he would see what lie beyond the nearby hills.
So hey, this is the second story I've started here on this site, and the first one with a human protagonist, so thank you to those who decided to check this out and, let's see where this story goes.
The scene stretched out all around him was so pleasant, that Keiko’s mind began to drift. He hadn’t realized that he had fallen asleep until he awoke to a heavy weight upon his chest. As his eyes opened blearily, he noticed that a strange brown mass had appeared on top of him, starting from his chest and reaching towards his ankles. As the soft, midmorning breeze caressed its fuzzy exterior, he realized that it was some form of wild animal.
Keiko was born and reared in rural Japan, he was used to seeing creatures from the nearby wilderness, but no animal had ever come as close to him as this one. From his supine position, he couldn’t make out much of the animal’s features, but it was distinctively furry, and much larger than any animal he had ever seen before.
He shifted to get more comfortable, and the creature on top of him stirred. Not wanting to startle it, he slowly, carefully moved his arm through the still Springtime air until his right hand hovered, trembling above what he supposed was the animal’s back. With an abruptness born from a nervous fear of being too forceful, Keiko’s hand was blanketed in fuzzy brown fur. A soft feeling welled up inside of him, he started to move his hand in small strokes across the animal’s back and across what felt like the top of its slumbering head.
Its head rose in a start after his fingers had found one of its ears. Two great, beady eyes blinked golden as they met with his pair of hazels. From the coloring on its face, Keiko recognized that the animal was a badger, in a size he didn’t know badgers could grow to. Then again, he wasn’t an expert on Japanese wildlife, so what did he know?
As the badger fully wakened, two of its black, stringy legs emerged from beneath its brown frame and stretched off either side of Keiko’s stomach. Its foremost paws stretched to either side of his head as its muzzle moved closer to his face, curiously taking in his scent. It appeared that the badger, at its full size, was large enough to almost cover Keiko’s entire body.
The badger didn’t resist at all when Keiko stood up and stretched his arm with a deep yawn. His gaze wandered the bountiful countryside once again before settling on the giant badger, and stayed there in sudden wonder as the creature now stood bipedal on its hind legs, coming to about half his height; a wide and fan-like tail reached from around its back to shade the top of its head like a hood.
Blinking once, then twice, then gazing up at the sky, then finally looking back at the odd sight, Keiko attempted to make either heads or tails of just what, exactly, he was seeing. The creature that stood before him was unlike anything he had ever known, it sure looked like a badger, and up until now it had definitely behaved like a badger would, he supposed; but that was where the similarities finished undebated. The badger-like creature watched him curiously, and excitement rushed into him as some ludicrous part of himself theorized that he might’ve accidentally discovered a new species.
The badger began to shuffle in place as it idly observed its surroundings, Keiko thought it looked like it was waiting for something. Curious, he stepped a few paces back away from the badger, it noticed this and briskly closed the gap between itself and him.
“…It’s following me?”, Keiko thought to himself; the badger kept its eyes on him this time, its nose twitched as it sniffed the air.
Keiko thought then that he could see a form of intelligence shining in the badger’s golden eyes. The notion made him feel uneasy, he was already struggling to grasp the concept of a badger that bore such a strange appearance. He stepped two more paces back, the badger followed. A badger that walks on two legs, that bears a tail so big it can wear it like a hat, a badger that now followed him, perhaps in hope that he would pet it again.
It was then that a word tumbled into the forefront of his mind, a word he had read what must’ve been years ago, accompanied by the image of a badger standing on its hind legs, in some forgotten storybook that now only existed in his brain’s furthest recesses. Faded, black characters written underneath the inkblot picture.
“Mujina”, the word left his tongue and remained in the air. The youkai’s face split into an impressive grin.
Keiko couldn’t hold in his laugh; What started as a sudden chuckle quickly rose into a loud cackle as he crumpled inward and fell onto his knees, clutching his sides fervently. In the not-too-distant past, all he was concerned about was navigating the woods before nightfall and now he was in the presence of a genuine fairytale. “Alice in Wonderland!” He gasped breathlessly, “Alice in Wonderland!” What other response could there be but laughter? In his mirth, he rolled over on the grass, unable to stop himself as he practically started to howl. In front of him, the mujina looked on in baffled amusement.
Keiko and his youkai companion strolled carelessly through the meadow. He repositioned the duffel and looked at the badger walking next to him. The mujina looked back and sniffed lackadaisically. Keiko smiled and shifted his focus to the hills just ahead. In truth, he didn’t remember anything that he had read about the mujina, all he recalled was that they were intelligent things that generally enjoyed making fools of people. The entire notion that he was now travelling with a youkai, or that youkai even existed at all, opposed every logical bit of common sense in his body. However, over the course of their walk, he came to realize that likening it to Alice and Wonderland (he choked down another fit of giggles at the thought) made digesting everything easier, considering how vast these fields seemed to be, he humored that he had stumbled into his own version of “Wonderland”.
Keiko wondered how long this new defense would remain intact.
Switching tracks, he turned to his companion again and considered if it was an exaggeration to call the youkai his friend. Sure, it acted friendly enough, it hadn’t tried to reave him of his possessions as far as he could tell, it was comfortable with him enough to use him like a bed, and he did enjoy its company as a novelty if nothing else. Still, he had only encountered the thing a few minutes ago, and youkai were known to mostly cause harm for humans, since ancient days. It felt strange to regard information about mythological beasts as true, but Keiko reckoned (correctly, as he would soon find out) that he would be better off taking every new bit of information about this place in stride.
Keiko’s musings were interrupted as they neared the top of one considerably large hill. The sound of music cleaved the silence that had settled over him and his companion during their brief walk, Keiko looked to the mujina and saw that its face mirrored his curiosity. As they breached the top, they found that the hills sloped down onto a path which passed through a long series of market stalls set up on either of its sides.
A crowd of people were scattered all about the road, some of them loitered near stalls, others sat and leisurely ate at tables set up near the path. All around was a general air of festivity, stall-runners hawked their wares in an attempt to goad money from passerby, others hosted games with the promise of baubles and trinkets as reward, cheap novelties. Music, from some unseen source, enwrapped the entire gathering, livening up the gaiety proceedings. The path, straight as an arrow, reached beyond towards an unknown destination.
The most striking aspect of this sudden and lively scene was half of the people reveling with the rest of the crowd. A great number of them were phantoms, or what Keiko figured phantoms would look like. They were mingled among regular humans, similar to them in most fields, with the exception of clear, softly colored twin wisps flowing in idle rings around their heads.
Keiko gazed on, dumbfounded. Though, a part of him expected something like this, if youkai like his mujina companion existed, then discovering other facets of the supernatural was inevitable.
Brain overheating, trying his best to digest and accept what he saw before him, Keiko turned to his equally perplexing and newfound partner. The mujina turned also to him, nose twitching and taking in the air with mild intrigue.
 - "Shall we go, then?"  - "Did you know this was here?"  - "Do you want to go down there?"
Sorry that this is a day late. However, I am glad for the extra time I got to write this better, I hope you find it at least somewhat entertaining. If there are any questions, feel free to ask and I will do my best to answer them.
On the road, two truths were revealed to Keiko. First, the food looked very good, there was a lot of cooked food among the stalls, cooked food of any kind was something he had always been partial to. Secondly, all of the stalls were run by ghosts. Granted, they didn’t appear the same as the ghosts who bought from them, but Keiko was confident that they were all an undead of some manner.
The evidence lied in open, and sometimes even weapon-filled, wounds that blemished the skin of every stall-runner he could see. An older man running his yakitori stand had an arrow protruding from the side of his head. A woman advertising some kind of ring-toss game was covered head-to-toe in deep, thin gashes that looked almost pristine.
Funnily, the many phantoms’ grisly injuries didn’t disturb Keiko quite as deeply as he thought they should. It was definitely unnerving, but he found that he could ignore them with relative ease. Keiko began to wonder if, through some strangeness of mind, he was beginning to acclimate, and almost expect the unnatural nature of everything he had encountered thus far. He decided to think of something else, as his current train of thought began to bother him.
As Fortune would have it, distractions were plentiful among the throngs and stalls of the “Merchant’s Road,” as Keiko had decided to name it. There were the ghosts, as previously mentioned, but there also existed other creatures picking around the crowds of the deceased, along with fellow men and women like Keiko. He was surprised to see other humans in this new and strange land, but the surprise was muted in comparison to its earlier incarnations. It seemed even this place, for all its whimsy, was not free of the humanity’s touch. Keiko mentally took note of their mannerisms, how they barely reacted to the ghosts or the other youkai, and merely browsed the stalls like any other patron. He decided that mimicking this behavior shouldn’t be too difficult, he did enjoy travelling after all, so he was familiar with being in a foreign location, regardless that this location was much more fantastical in nature than anywhere he had ever been to.
Beside him, the mujina observed the stalls in passing. It seemed more interested in whatever Keiko was up to, and smiled again at him when he turned his head to it. Keiko questioned the youkai’s attachment to him. It probably considered him entertainment. Casting his gaze back to the market all around him, Keiko searched for something he could purchase with the coin he had on hand, or in his pocket as it were. Or, that was his goal originally, before he became sidetracked by the sight of some of the more eye-catching creatures poking around the stalls, the kind that were not as plentiful as the ghosts or even the few other humans.
Shifting his coat around his shoulders, he spotted a giant, one-eyed creature wearing an over-sized kimono; a horse-headed man trying to haggle with one of the ghosts, a…pig-man? Pig-like man sitting over a cup of tea by himself, and a small girl with what might’ve been cat ears eating in attendance with a taller woman, who had many golden tails fanned out behind her, almost reminiscent of a peacock. These things were interesting to observe from a distance, and Keiko found it all to be very captivating, like looking at a living illustration. Definitely adjacent to a certain story he would rather not think of at the present moment.
As distractions went, however, none were more distracting than the elation Keiko felt expand inside himself when he saw something he knew he could not ignore.
Red bean buns!
He didn’t even remember when he ran over to the display, the only thing he cared about was that they were shaped like little kittens!
There were around ten or twelve, Keiko didn’t really count, lined up on a tray in two rows and all fashioned to look like little cats: their tiny, mewling faces were made of black paste. As far away as his memory could take him, Keiko had always loved red bean buns. Even looking at the doughy felines lined in front of him now, he could almost taste their sweet flavor.
A voice both stern and gruff stole him away from his creamy, doughy fantasies.
“Oi, I don’t service window shoppers. If you want one, then you’ll have to pay.” The ghost standing behind the stall, Keiko observed, was tall and had significantly burly arms, which crossed left over right above a stout gut. He didn’t appear to harbor any injuries; if not for his deathly pale skin, one might have assumed that there was nothing strange about the man.
“Oh,” Keiko started, realizing that he had been staring, “Forgive me.” Remembering his manners, he straightened his back, ignored the knot that suddenly formed somewhere within his stomach, and made his request clear and concise: “I’ll take one bun, please,” then he remembered his companion, “Make that two.”
The ghost, presumably the cook, inclined his head slightly and using a napkin he picked out two buns, a blue with a green partner, before depositing them both in Keiko’s eager hands. The man behind the stall presented his right hand, palm up, “It’s three yen each”. Keiko, balancing both bean buns on one hand, reached into his coat in search of his wallet, and was surprised when he only felt a few yen coins.
An uneasiness crept into him, he was wearing his traveling clothes, he wasn’t planning on going anywhere he would have to shop, he had forgone keeping his wallet on-person. Keiko’s realization must’ve shown on his face, because in the next minute a chill filled the air as the cook scowled.
“What are you wasting my time for? If you can’t pay for it then you can’t have it, this isn’t a charity.”
The cook’s words came out in something like a growl, Keiko’s face was nearly as pale as the ghost. He wasn’t normally scared in heated encounters like this, but that was all when he wasn’t forced to believe in the supernatural, even now and despite the evidence he wasn’t sure that he fully believed in it. The sudden freeze stabbed Keiko’s through Keiko’s nerves in the same manner he feared the cook might stab through him. His throat felt like a clamp upon the explanation that he desperately wanted to give.
“I’m just,“ he managed to force out before the cook interrupted.
“What do you think this is, anyway?!”, he roared, “Do you think you can up an’ take whatever the hell you want?!” The cook’s features seemed to become near animalistic as his teeth gnashed into each other in an impressive display of anger, “I’m try and I try, and I try my damnedest to run my own business, but it never pays off because of thieves like you!”
A part of Keiko’s mind thought it strange that such passionate anger was making the air around the stall colder, a larger part of his mind demanded to know why the other part was choosing to focus on something so meaningless in the face of what was surely a life or death situation. Keiko shivered and stammered as he wracked his brain for a response that he hoped wouldn’t anger the cook further, he might’ve thought up something if blind fury had any history of making its hosts considerably more patient. The cook grabbed his arm roughly, the one that still held the buns, and he went completely rigid at the sensation of the ghost’s ironclad grasp. Once again, like an idiot, he thought of something meaningless as his gaze fixed on the ghost’s pale hand. He thought about how the ghost’s hand felt eerily lifeless.
“This should be enough to cover one of them, right?”
Both Keiko and the cook had their attention abruptly switched towards the badger. Its right paw outstretched, it held three one-yen coins up to the cook. All at once, his face returned to resembling a normal person’s and he accepted the coins from the mujina without a word. To Keiko’s great relief, the temperature rose back to its previous normalcy. The cook plucked the napkin, buns included, from Keiko’s hand and gave up the green one to the youkai. The mujina took a bite out of the dough-kitten’s innocent face, “Thanks” it mumbled.
Absentmindedly, he felt his left arm, the arm that the ghost had grabbed in his mounting anger. His eyes met the twin gold of his strange animal-like companion. The bean bun was gone, its remains sprinkled around the badger’s jaws. A part of him was angry at it for taking the bun for itself, another part reminded its other that the fuzzy little creature saved Keiko’s damn life, and that was more than worth a single cat-themed confectionary. The mujina smiled at him, and the sight of it swiftly woke Keiko from his musings and reminded him of the fact that the badger had spoken to the cook earlier. The badger had never spoken before. Hailed above all else, Keiko spent another moment calming his shaken composure before he properly addressed the youkai.
“So…you never cease to surprise me, do you?” He remembered that he hadn’t spoken to his companion except for one other time, it felt strange to talk to an animal, no matter how far apart from an animal it was.
Said animal seemed to consider his question, a paw met the bottom of its snout in contemplation.
“…You didn’t think I could talk, did you?” it asked too, after some time.
“Forgive my saying so, but I never considered that an animal could talk before right now.”
The paw never left the snout, and now it scratched as the mujina responded, “Yes, I suppose that’s understandable. Though I don’t consider myself an animal, others might, but not me. Err...” It trailed off, but it recovered with another question, “Are you wondering why I didn’t speak to you before? When we met on that hill, I mean.”
Keiko hummed, rolled his tongue around his mouth, thought about how nice a red bean bun would be at that moment, “Yeah, maybe a little. It would’ve been good to know that you could talk right from the start, easier to digest that way. I figured you just couldn’t speak at all.”
“Well, you know now. Sorry for not filling you in sooner.” Said the badger.
The mujina’s voice was low and raspy, like it grew rusty from neglect. Keiko’s felt more like an uncle telling stories around a campfire. Neither of them used their voices for a while; a silence briefly rested over the two, separate from the din of the crowd and people around them. The humor in having a friendly conversation with a mythological monster was glaringly apparent to Keiko, but in the midst of the silence a thought occurred to him, it made him smile a little.
“I guess neither of us are really good at holding a conversation.”
The mujina smiled a little, too.
“I suppose not,” then, “Oh, before I forget.”
Reaching over the table, the mujina let something fall out from its paw, it was concealed with a white napkin.
“That’s for you.”
Curious, Keiko delicately picked up the bundle and held it in his hand. Parting it revealed yet another red bean bun fashioned in the shape of a cat, except this one was black, and white paste was used to make up its features. Keiko was expressionless for a moment, then his face split as he grinned in cheer.
“Oh! Thank you,” and again, “Thank you! I thought for sure you’d just get one for yourself.”
The mujina propped its head with its paw and considered Keiko, it watched him dig into the bun with fervor. After a minute or so it suddenly remarked, “I wouldn’t do that to you. I’m your follower now.”
The odd statement stole Keiko’s attention from his new confectionary. The badger smiled again, this time at the confusion on his face.
“When I saw you sleeping on that hill, my first instinct was to take your stuff.”
The badger motioned towards Keiko’s travelling bag with its other paw.
It spoke in a tone approaching apologetic, “You know what I am, it’s in my nature. I’d like to say I can’t help it,” the last bit was mumbled, “But that might not be entirely true.”
“Anyway, I start to go through your bag, (Don’t give me that look, I put everything back.) I start to go through your bag, when I come across a sheet of paper, a story, actually.”
Pardoning the thought of the badger digging through his belongings, a recognition began to shine over Keiko. The mujina’s smile returned, in an incarnation that implied fond remembrance.
“A story about the creation of Japan.”
At this point in the explanation, the bean bun was forgotten entirely, though Keiko still held it delicately in his hand. The badger’s words had startled him.
“Don’t get me wrong, I was only curious at first. But, before I could stop myself, I began to really enjoy your story. The way you framed the two gods as loving parents crafting a realm for their children, it-“, there was a pause, “It comforted me, I guess.”
The mujina shifted in its seat, presumably out of unease, before continuing in somewhat of a murmur, “I guess I just thought along the lines of, ‘this story is cool, so whoever wrote it must be really cool, too’ or something. I hadn’t even met you for real, and I was already starting to sort of admire you. It was a weird feeling, and it still is, but I think I really do enjoy it. Er…I normally don’t talk this much. Ah…in summary,”
The mujina met Keiko’s gaze, a sincerity made its golden eyes turn brilliant, “Your story was really good.”
Keiko very well knew the exact story that the youkai was speaking of. It wasn’t the first work he had ever written, and just like the others before it, Keiko had written the retelling of Japan’s creation as a simple hobby. He had finished it the other day and hadn’t been proud of the way it turned out. He was meaning to give it a revise after he had taken his usual trek through the mountainside woods, but he had never intended to really sell it as a creative medium. Really, he didn’t expect that anything he devised, wrote, and edited would ever amount to any significance, let alone mean enough to actually impress anyone who happened to read it. The fact that someone, a youkai no less, had read his work and found such comfort in it came as an immense surprise. It appeared that, without knowing, the mujina had broached upon a sensitive area.
It moved him, truthfully, and it was strange to feel moved by a fictitious creature. Aoki Keiko didn’t know what to say.
His companion, thankfully, didn’t seem to pick up on his reaction.
“Er, so yeah,” the mujina said, a paw scratching behind one ear, “That’s, uh, that’s why I’ve decided to follow you. Your story made me feel good, and I suppose I’d just like to hear more.”
“Uh-huh,” Keiko nodded dumbly as he thought of a way to change the subject, “Um, my name is Aoki Keiko.”
The topic change noticeably relaxed the mujina, whether it realized or not Keiko couldn’t figure. Its tongue licked the front of its nose before it responded, “Pleasure’s all mine, Keiko. You can call me Kaitou.”
Keiko chuckled, “Alright, Mr. thief.” He remembered his snack and took a bite out of the bean bun. It seemed like he really could consider the badger his friend, after all. Being friends with a youkai gave birth to a number of thoughts Keiko wasn’t ready to consider at the moment, so he instead focused on trying to make more small talk with Kaitou. A lot of bizarre things had occurred that day, and if the day was going to continue following a trend, then Keiko figured he hadn’t yet had his fair share of strange excitements.
Eventually they would both become bored, then their combined curiosity would be swayed elsewhere.
 - All roads led to somewhere. They would try and see where this, "Merchant's Road" ended.
 - Kaitou had talked at length about different pranks he used to pull off, leading the two of them to try one together.
That's finally complete, sorry this took so long. Let me know if this new development is alright, and if there's any issues you have with the story so far. As always, thank you for reading.
After some amount of time had passed, Keiko and Kaitou both wordlessly decided to vacate their table and find out how far back the road stretched. The congregation might have contained the lively atmosphere of some holiday festival, but passing through the stalls, Keiko was sharply reminded of the ghost’s icicle touch.
They set off across the road in a bit of a rush, superstitions of ghosts could be thanked for Keiko’s need to distance himself from the market area, Kaitou merely followed after his friend dutifully, he pilfered an entire pork cutlet bowl before the stalls finally dispersed and teetered off behind them.
A mist had settled in. It obscured the landscape completely, save for the road they were walking on and a pair of tablelands which had suddenly appeared in tandem with the mist, they loomed half-shrouded a fair distance away on either side of the road.
Keiko grew wary, the sight of the road stretching through the mist and between the tablelands did not mix well with his nerves. He glanced over to his companion, Kaitou was busy enjoying his stolen katsudon, his tail fanned out impressively behind him, fragments of egg and droplets of soy sauce were smeared over his badger-like visage. If he were at all concerned about their surroundings, he was too invested in his meal to display it.
“You sure do eat messy.” Keiko commented with a smirk.
Kaitou licked his chops for stray pork bits before replying, “Yah, I suppose so. Never had to bother with manners.”
Keiko was glad the mujina was here with him, he couldn’t place it but the mist seemed to carry an unnerving familiarity within it. Like the foggy details of a dream in the morning. His partner’s simple nature proved to be a source of comfort for him, it was a welcome contrast to the eerie scenery. He decided to keep his mind off the mist with idle conversation.
“What was that thing you said,” Keiko recalled, “About living on a mountain?” The badger had indeed mentioned, in passing, that he lived on some ancient mountain, and that he could tell it was ancient because everyone there said it was. “Those birds act like they own the mountain,” he’d grumbled darkly, “You’d think they made it with their own hands.” Keiko found the thought of birds with hands quite funny.
Placing the empty cutlet bowl near the side of the road, Kaitou felt his tongue between his teeth before replying, “Yeah, Youkai Mountain.” As he turned towards Keiko, he gestured all around himself, “It’s the largest mountain in Gensokyo, I think. Though I don’t know many others beside the one.”
Keiko mulled over the badger’s words, “Gen-so-kyo?” He rolled it over in his head, “That’s where we are right now? Land of Illusions?” He snickered, “That’s no Wonderland but it’s still whimsical. I wonder if we’ll meet any white rabbits?”
The joke was lost on Kaitou; his tail furled as he kept in pace with Keiko, “I haven’t seen any white ones, but there are a few rabbits here and there. I’ve only ever managed to catch one, but its taste made the effort worthwhile,” his muzzle split into a grin at the memory.
Keiko hummed, they were near the tablelands now, the mist seemed to be filled with faint whispers, or the impressions of them. Keiko shivered involuntarily and felt his wrist, but he played it off like nothing had bothered him.
“I’ve tasted rabbit before,” he commented on the mujina’s musings, “Didn’t really like it, frankly I thought it a little too hare-y.” The snicker returned with greater strength; Keiko’s laughter cut through the ominousness of the mist. Kaitou only grunted.
“Was the pun really necessary?”
Keiko’s face wore the remnants of a smirk, “Whassa’ matter? Don’t tell me you’re not a fan of puns.”
Kaitou furrowed his fuzzy brows and frowned, “Could do without em’,” he admitted, “Mainly, I think they’re a very poor form of comedy. Pranks are much better.”
Keiko nodded, “I guess it would make sense for a youkai to think that way.”
Eventually they reached the tablelands, stone forms reached like great bulwarks over either side of them. The mist was still with them, though it seemed less dense between the tablelands than out on the open path. There were voices in it now, faint murmurs droning in its bleak opaqueness, seemingly too far away to hear clearly. Keiko suspected their origins, after all he had told his own fair share of ghost stories, and they usually started with strange, hushed noises late at night.
Kaitou could hear the voices too, he began to fidget nervously with his tail as they passed through the formations. A shared apprehensiveness stalled further conversation. The mist was over everything like a pall, distant voices filled it so completely it was as if it were a living thing, mumbling, incanting, choking the atmosphere with its senseless nothings, muttering to the two companions as they pushed through doggedly.
The only thing that kept them moving forward, it seemed, was the joined belief that the mist, voices and all, was there only to ward them off, keep them from travelling somewhere they weren’t wanted. This theory piqued their curiosity towards what lied beyond, at the end of the road. Despite no small amount of trepidation, they were both determined to see this trek through to its end.
Then, suddenly, just as they passed through the tablelands, the mist withdrew just as unceremoniously as it appeared. The badger sneezed. Without the mist to obscure it, they could see where the road and the neatly-packed grass broke into stretches of pale sand which rolled off onto a murky shoreline.
Past the shoreline, still and vast depths of water reached towards the horizon and likely beyond, phantom lights swayed and bobbed over it, reflecting glimpses of dark shapes moving beneath its surface. Milling on the surface in droves were more ghosts, though they were different to the ones that ran the stalls earlier. They didn’t appear to have any noticeable injuries, though when a few of them turned towards the two intruders, their pale eyes displayed no life. Kaitou sneezed again.
“Well, this is something,” Now that the mist had abandoned them, Keiko cut through their mutual agreement of silence. “I’m quite surprised the road led us here, though I’m not sure what I was expecting.”
There was a clear unease in his voice, he observed the shore, the congregation, and the surrounding lake with a visage of faint concern.
“I never knew a place like this was here,” his companion remarked with an air of reverence, “This must be the shore of Shigan.”
“Shigan?” Keiko asked.
The badger’s eyes were fixed on the water, “Shigan. If this is Shigan, then that river must be the Sanzu.”
In response, Keiko-
 - suddenly felt very uncomfortable being there.  - against the unignorable fear, realized that this would make for an exciting story
Image drawn by the talented Koto Inari, you can check out his artwork if you're into a creepy, Grimm-esque spin on Touhou Project.
“The Sanzu River?” Keiko asked, “Like, with the ferryman and the ghosts, and all that?”
“Unless you know of any other rivers that dead people are ferried across, this has to be the Sanzu, and we’re standing on Shigan right now,” Kaitou grimaced.
Keiko took a moment to consider everything around them, the quiet shore stretched outwards forever, rock formations rose above the river’s water, a sunset gazed over the horizon and washed, what Keiko supposed really was the Sanzu River, in its orange hue. The ghosts that gathered near the water’s edge appeared to change shape as they mingled with one another, Keiko found it hard to see any definite features on them.Even the afterlife exists here, he thought, awestruck by the surrealism of that.
“Keiko,” the badger’s voice brought him back to the present moment, his companion looked up at him worriedly, “This place isn’t meant for the living, Keiko. We shouldn’t be here, it isn’t right.”
Keiko was surprised at how frightened the badger sounded, and he began to feel pretty uneasy himself. If the fairytale monster was worried, then odds were, he had a damn good reason to be.
The badger flinched, “It’s not that I’m scared, it’s just that we could get into serious trouble for loitering around here.” This was punctuated with another sneeze. “Not to mention this place makes me feel sick, I don’t know if it’s the cold or if my body is telling me I don’t belong here.”
Keiko grinned, “So you’re, what is it, psychic now?”
“That’s besides the point. Look, Keiko, there’s a really important person who operates on the other side of this river,” He pointed to someplace beyond the horizon, “She’s the yama. Do you know what a yama is Keiko?”
“That’s the one what judges people’s souls?”
“Yes, the judge, the one who decides where you and I will end up soul-wise when we inevitably kick the bucket,” Kaitou ran a paw under his nose, “But the thing about this yama, is that when she’s not sending people to heaven or hell, she’s sending em’ to her own private pugatory instead."
“She talks, Keiko. For hours on end, about every sin you’ve ever committed in your lifetime. There’s no wrongdoing she doesn’t know about, you can’t hide anything from her.”
Keiko cupped his chin with his hand and reflected on something for a brief moment. Then, he nodded and said, “Sounds scary.”
Kaitou had adopted a very severe expression as he continued, “It is scary! And if two living souls get caught trespassing in the land of the dead, then she might take time out of her busy schedule to lecture the two of us personally! Remaining here just isn’t a good idea, Keiko.”
Keiko considered his companion’s council. Truthfully, he felt uneasy being at the Sanzu, there was a strong fear within him that insisted being there was wrong. But even still…
“I, for one, think we should get a good look of the place before we go,” Kaitou’s face shifted into surprised horror, “Or at the very least!” Keiko added with a placating gesture, “Maybe we could ask for a tour ride from the ferryman. I’m sure if we present ourselves as nothing more than well-meaning tourists, there won’t be a need to take any, ah, ‘Administrative action’.”
The badger’s face showed a transparent image of the cogs in his head grinding against each other.
Keiko smiled and said, “Yeah, you know, tourists. We’ll simply walk up to the ferryman and ask him, ‘Excuse me, kind sir. We’re from the land of the living, we’ve heard stories of the Sanzu River, and were wondering if you would be so kind as to give us a brief tour, if you’re not too busy of course’.”
“…and for what reason are you proposing this?”
Keiko’s smile grew wider as he bent onto his knee and motioned for the badger to come closer. He leaned into his ear, and in his voice Kaitou heard an unnatural, manic glee,
He leaned away from Kaitou and looked at him with a grin and glow in his eyes as if to imply that his intentions had been made perfectly crystalline.
Kaitou merely stared back, expressionless. He considered the word, “adventure”. Carefully observed it from all sides. Studied its length, its width, and for good measure, its breadth too. He contemplated the hidden meaning behind it. However, contemplation had never been his strong suit. He decided to ask instead.
“Is this one of those, ‘breakdown’ things?”
Keiko let out a tiny giggle, “Maybe.”
Kaitou peered at him, “Maybe…?”
Keiko nodded, “Maybe.”
A heavy exasperation weighed over Kaitou. His companion had acted like this earlier, around when they first met on that hill, and he had fallen into a sudden fit of laughter. The badger hoped this behavior would not become a trend. The youkai did not understand the best way to deal with a problem like this, the human mind tended to be mostly alien to a mujina. However, he understood that the yama of Gensokyo was a titan of a threat, and his mischievous heart feared attracting her ire.
Thankfully, he also understood how to make people come around to his way of thinking. If there was one thing Kaitou knew about humans, it was that their fear was very easy to appeal to. If a lecture from the yama didn’t dissuade him, then the badger figured a threat to his life would.
“Keiko.” Yes, that was good, just the right amount of urgency, “I like your enthusiasm, and normally I’d be okay with a little rule-breaking, but by staying here we run the risk of encountering another problem here on this shore.”
Kaitou paused and made to look like he was glancing nervously over the riverside before continuing, “There are Oni that are assigned to the river.”
Keiko burst into unrestrained laughter, “Oni?! Really?” Kaitou stared disbelievingly at him as he fell on his back and grasped at his sides, “Ha – Oni?! Oni?!” Keiko squeezed himself tighter, his legs kicked into the air as he continued to laugh.
Kaitou sighed as Keiko had his fit. It would pass, just like it did before, and he would try to talk some sense back into him once he got over it. He made himself as comfortable as he could on the rocky ground and languidly gazed at the sky. Really, he thought with some amusement, what a strange human.
Alice in Wonderland, that was the anchor Keiko used to gather his thoughts and compose them. He was in Gensokyo, Land of Illusions, Wonderland; as far as he was concerned, he stopped being on earth the moment he chose to walk upon that hidden path.
Running his hands across his face, Keiko brought his knees to his chest and steadily rose off the ground. He felt pretty tired after that short episode, he also felt a terrible ache in his back, rocks definitely weren’t the kind of thing one should be rolling around on.
He noticed Kaitou sitting a short distance in front of him, his tail wrapped around him like a blanket. Bright yellow eyes watched him carefully, “Are you alright now?”
Keiko smiled in a way that he hoped was reassuring and brought his hand up in an, “okay” gesture. “Rest assured, I think I got all of it out of my system.” He looked down at his feet as he added, “Sorry you had to deal with that.”
Kaitou only replied with a small smile as he stood up and stretched his tail back outwards, “Not all that much of an inconvenience, really.” He walked over to Keiko and motioned towards the cliffs they entered from, “Though you can make it up to me by agreeing to get out of this place.”
Keiko looked down at the badger and said, “Look, I got pretty hectic for a minute back there, the thing is that it’s pretty hard for me to believe that all of this is actually happening, I think.” He looked down at Kaitou and, slowly, gently, began to rub the top of the badger’s head. Kaitou sighed and leaned into Keiko’s hand. “You see,” he continued, “My whole life, I’ve never seen anything like you, or that merchant’s road, or this river. Truthfully, I don’t understand any of it, but what I am sure of is that this is an opportunity I can’t pass up.”
Amidst the head pats, Kaitou looked up at him with creased brows. “What I mean by that is, I have an opportunity to do something that no one I know of has done before, I will be able to experience something completely otherworldly, I will be able to write a story that will truly be worth telling,” He wrapped his arms around the mujina and excitedly lifted him off the ground, their noses touched as both man and badger smiled at one another, “To put it a certain way, I’ve had a sip of the fantastic, and the aftertaste is very alluring.”
Ethereal wisps the size of a koi meandered near their conversation, apparently curious about the spectacle.
“Ha, ha…” Kaitou effortlessly wriggled from Keiko’s grasp and landed onto the stone-covered ground, his tail reclaimed its position above his head.
“I think you’re still riding on some kind of high, but…” He put a paw to his chest and nodded once, “I’ve made up my mind to follow you wherever you go, being around you is pretty entertaining, and I guess someone’s gotta make sure you don’t kill yourself.”
If it was for this crazy, contradictory human who might’ve worn his heart on his sleeve if he could, then perhaps this mujina could set aside his own desires just this once.
Keiko made a show of looking hurt, “Now that’s just harsh. No matter how weird things get, I doubt I’d ever reach that point.” He shook his head as he turned his attention back to the Sanzu River. From behind him, he heard Kaitou sneeze.
Just think of it like Alice in Wonderland. As senseless as it all was, this place could turn out to be pretty fun. Or life threatening. Maybe even both.
It was at that moment he noticed...
 - A rowboat upturned not too far from the water's edge.
 - A conspicuous-looking pile of stones.
Not as long as I wanted, but that doesn't matter. I'm just glad to get this story a' trucking forwards.