Seo-yun smelled humans.
The sharp scent brought her out of her slumber, and the red furred creature stretched languidly as she breathed it in slowly. At least three, maybe more, all men. Her lips curled into a bright smile, and her tails twitched eagerly. They would make for an excellent breakfast.
She bounded off the tree branch she’d been laying on, landing lightly on another. Like the branch she’d chosen for her morning nap, it was a thin, spindly thing, barely able to support the weight of its own leaves. But it was as firm and steady to her as solid ground, and the branch barely quivered as she sprang to the next one, and the next. High above the forest floor, the gumiho danced gracefully across her territory, heading towards the source of that nostalgic scent.
Seo-yun had called this forest home for three centuries. There had been humans here too, once. Woodcutters, hunters, even a small village near the river a long time ago. They had all been delicious. She knew it was her own fault that they were all gone, but she’d never been one for moderation. Sometimes she considered moving on to more populated hunting grounds, but she knew she could never really leave this place. These days the humans all seemed to live in barren places of stone and metal. She much preferred her lush, verdant forest, even if most of her meals here consisted of deer and the occasional squirrel. It was her first and truest home: ripe in spring, gorgeous in summer, vibrant in fall. It was only during winter, that cold and dead period she hated, that she ever felt any regret about her choice to stay, but it quickly passed when the seasons changed once more. On the increasingly rare occasions that she ventured outside of her forest, she always found herself soon returning, even in dreaded winter.
That humans that had lived here had spoken her name in reverence, and offered her gifts each year. She’d enjoyed being worshipped, and even played along for a few brief decades, but no amount of adoration could be worth giving up their sweet, soft taste forever. They’d tried to kill her in the end, armed with pitchforks and torches and a couple old swords. She’d nearly died laughing, the tears still wet on her muzzle when she began to eat them. Their crude weapons couldn’t so much as penetrate her flesh, and the fire had been nothing but a pleasant warmth to her.
It took only a couple minutes to reach her destination, where her golden eyes confirmed what her nose had told her: three men, all with dark metal sticks in their hands. Seo-yun had never seen guns before, but she’d heard stories of them. So these were hunters then; good. She would happily devour humans of any nature, but it was always a special delight when the hunter become the hunted, and realized their true place in the food chain. She was amused at the sight of their clothes, all dark greens and browns, meant to blend in with the foliage around them. Did they really think such pitiful camouflage would be of any help, when their scent was so plainly visible to her and every other forest creature within a mile?
She didn’t pounce on them immediately. Instead, she trailed above them, moving silently from tree to tree as she watched her future meals. If any of the fools had so much as glanced up, they would have seen her: a red fox longer than any of them were tall, with nine tails flowing behind her. Those tails were her pride and joy; their rich fur kept her warm when it was cold, provided soft bedding when she was tired, and more. When her eagerness nearly gave her away, a too joyful leap dislodging a single acorn from the branch she landed on, she whipped one of her tails towards it, manipulating it as easy as any other limb to catch the acorn as it fell.
It had been more than twenty years since the last time she’d eaten anything on two legs, and the memory was enough to make her mouth water. She’d come across a small child alone in the forest, crying, and had appeared to him as a human. For the most part.. She looked like a normal red haired woman when transformed, but one with fox ears and all of her tails still bobbing behind her. The little boy hadn’t seemed to mind her unusual appearance though. He’d told her that he’d been doing something called “camping” with his family, and had gotten lost. She’d graciously helped him find his parents, her sense of smell as sharp as ever even in human form. She still vividly remembered the looks of joy and gratitude on their faces when she’d returned the boy to them. She remembered even more vividly their screams when they’d seen what she was.
Seo-yun had intended to follow the hunters longer, see if they might lead her back to even more of their kind, but the smell of them was intoxicating, and before long her appetite overwhelmed her patience. She dropped down to the forest floor, landing on all fours without a sound. They still had no idea she was there as she stalked behind them, less than twenty feet away, her gait gradually lengthening as she sped up to reach them. She’d tear through the hamstrings of the first one, she decided. A single snap of her jaws was all it would take. His scream would alert the others, but it would already be too late for them to run. With the lovely taste of hot blood already on her tongue, she’d do the same to the second man, and then the third… him she would pounce on. She’d pin him to the ground as easily as a leaf and then take her time with him, discovering all the chewy, tasty morsels hidden beneath his skin. His two crippled companions would lay where they’d fallen, listening to his screams, their terror making their meat even sweeter when their turns came.
The red fox sprang forward, eager to begin the feast.
And then recoiled just as quickly, whining, as she felt a sensation she hadn’t known for centuries: pain. A sudden burning agony that made her legs shake and her tails thrash about every which way. It was so intense that she couldn’t even tell what it was coming from, the agony overwhelming all other sensation. She fell on her side, and whined again as the pain hit her a second time, every bit as awful as the first. It wasn’t until the third time that she regained enough sense to identify its source: a human, poking her with one of the metal sticks she’d thought was a gun. Bright lights sparkled at its end, and when it made contact with her flesh it sent liquid fire running through her veins.
He wore a strange black mask that covered his eyes. None of the three men she’d been following had worn anything like that. And he had no smell. She could see and hear him, but her nose insisted that there was nothing there but the forest. He’d been there the whole time, she belatedly realized, the three men acting as a decoy. And he hadn’t been alone. Four more masked men were there, eight humans in total, and all of them were jabbing her with those metal sticks. Seo-yun cried out and rolled around on the ground, seeking an avenue of escape, but she was surrounded. Furious at their trickery, she growled at them, and one of them responded by poking her right in the throat, making her double over.
They tortured her for a long time, hours of sharp agony from eight different sources. Seo-yun’s strength abandoned her long before they were done, and she laid limply on the ground, twitching softly with each new burst of pain. The inside of her head was a very different matter, though. There was a roaring fire in there, a fury that had been rarely matched in her three centuries of life. They would regret every last second of this insult, she swore. She wouldn’t eat them, no. She would have no trouble ignoring her hunger for the sake of revenge. Humans were pathetically short lived creatures, but they could manage a few more decades, she knew, and she didn’t intend to steal a moment of that away from them. They’d live long, long lives, and they’d spend every day of it begging uselessly for death. Those whose tongues she didn’t chew off, anyway.
Finally, the torment ceased. The men still surrounded her, sticks at the ready, and one of them barked at her. “Transform, bitch. We’re here for a woman, not a fucking dog.”
Despite all of her exhaustion and pain, Seo-yun couldn’t help letting a small, tired laugh escape. Did they think she was stupid? They might have worn her down for now, but she was still stronger and faster than any of them, and their flesh would part to her fangs and claws as easily as a spider’s web. If she could simply find an opportunity to strike, she could bring all eight of them down between one breath and the next. But if she did as they wanted and became human, she would lose almost all her advantages, becoming as weak and slow as any of them.
Her laughter must have annoyed the man because he jabbed her with his stick again. “I said transform, bitch!” Unlike the quick pokes from before, he didn’t let up this time, pressing the torture device against her, the pain only increasing with every passing moment. The others did the same, all eight sticks digging into her flesh. Seo-yun writhed in place, howling helplessly as the smell of her own burning flesh and fur filled her nostrils. It became clear after the first minute that they weren’t going to let up until she did what they wanted, but still she resisted. She was a gumiho, a being of power and spirit far above these foolish little mortals. Humans were her prey, and she would never bow down to them.
Their resolve broke first, as she’d known it would. “I, I don’t think it’s working sir,” said one of the men nervously. He pulled away from her, and the others followed suit, until the pain was blessedly gone. All of them were looking at her uneasily, except for the first one, who she was now certain was their leader.
That first man sighed. “Stubborn fucking bitch,” he growled. “Fine, we’ll do this the hard way.” He pointed at two of his men. “Hold her jaws open.” They obeyed, though it ended up taking four of them to overpower her, even as exhausted as she was. The leader hefted his stick and pointed it at her. “I’m going to enjoy this,” he said, and then shoved it into her open mouth.
The sticks had hurt terribly before, but her fur was strong enough to blunt steel and had absorbed most of what was happening. The inside of Seo-yun’s mouth and throat was not nearly so tough. Her entire body bucked as pure, unfettered agony filled her from the inside out, a million times worse than anything the sticks had done before. She convulsed so hard that the four men holding her couldn’t stop her jaws from clamping shut, biting clean through the stick. The reprieve this brought only lasted a few seconds, though. One of the men handed their leader a fresh one, and this time all seven subordinates held her mouth open as he stuck it back in.
After an eternity, he finally stepped back. Seo-yun’s throat was so swollen that she could barely breathe through it, and so sore that each breath hurt almost as much as the stick had. “That was one minute,” the leader said. “You have ten seconds to transform, bitch, or I shove the prod in for five next. Then we’ll try twenty, and then we’ll try an hour, and then we’ll try three, and then we’ll try ten. I booked all weekend for hunting down your furry ass, and it’s barely Saturday afternoon. I’ll make you spend all goddamn night sucking on this cattle prod if I have to.”
He wasn’t lying. Seo-yun somehow managed to make it through five minutes of searing pain. She even withstood the long and torturous twenty minutes that felt more like twenty hours. But when he approached her again, ready to make good on his promise of a full hour, her instinct for self-preservation overrode all conscious thought. Her form melted and shifted, and within moments the giant fox was gone, replaced by a young woman with fox ears and tails whose throat was still red and burnt. What had once been her fur was now a soft red robe covered with intricate lines and whorls. She laid there, barely able to keep from passing out now that she was in a body that lacked her earlier pain resistance. She could feel every single spot the prods had touched her, each and every one its own aching burn on her skin.
The leader grabbed her, pushing her over, and it took her a second to realize that he was trying to pull her robe off of her. She lifted her hands weakly, trying to fend him off, but he slapped them away effortlessly, all of her strength gone. He ripped the robe away from her and held it bunched up in his hands, leaving her completely naked.
One of the other men whistled. “Damn, Levinson, you didn’t tell us she was going to be so fucking hot! I thought the buyers were crazy to offer that much money for a single fox chick, but fuck me, she’s gonna be worth every cent!”
“Shut up,” said their leader bluntly. “Now let’s get her back to camp. We still have a lot of work to do before she’s ready to be sold.”
Another man snickered and gave her a strange look. She didn’t understand what it meant, but there was a hunger to it that chilled her. “Yeah,” he agreed, “ a lot of work.”
“Please,” Seo-yun begged, her throat making the words come out raspy. “Please, I need that!” She burned with humiliation to be begging anyone for anything, let alone a filthy disrespectful human, but she had no choice. Without her fur, she wouldn’t be able to transform back. She’d be trapped in this pathetic form forever. No indignity was greater than such a horror. “I’ll do anything!” she told Levinson. “Anything you want, I swear! Just please give that back!”
Levinson sneered at her. “Fuck you, bitch. Should’ve thought of that before you wasted my whole fucking morning.” He balled up her robe and tossed it to one of the others. “Go burn that piece of trash, then meet us back at camp.”
“Noooo!” Seo-yun screamed as the man nodded and began walking away. “Noooo! Please! Pleaaase!”
Levinson grimaced. “I’m not putting up with this shit all the way back,” he said, and then jabbed his cattle prod into her stomach. Stars burst behind Seo-yun’s eyes, and everything went black.