The scent of cooked meat filled the air.
It was a sickly sweet smell, and horrifyingly pleasant. After being starved for so long, the smell was almost overwhelming to Seo-yun, even knowing it was her own flesh. Sometimes, in her more lucid moments, she was grateful for the bonds that kept her in place. She wasn’t sure what she would do to herself without them.
She didn’t know how much, if any, of what she floated in was still water. It had all been at first, but the men kept replenishing it with piss. There was no humor to them anymore, no mocking smiles or vicious comments. There was only hot rage when they looked at her. She had killed one of their pack, and they all wanted to punish her for it. They couldn’t rape her like this, or beat her. They couldn’t even verbally abuse her because she was usually too out of it to understand their words. But there was still this one way to demonstrate their hatred for her. They could still piss on her.
The metal tub had been completely dry when Levinson had placed her in it. He’d run long chains through her clitoris and nipple rings, wrapping them around the sides of the tub to trap her inside. She hadn’t realized his intentions when he first started filling the tub with buckets of water. She’d thought it was just going to be yet another torture that involved suffocating her, this time with drowning. It wasn’t until he directed some of his men to carry the tub to the roaring campfire being stoked that she’d understood what he had planned for her.
They’d carefully placed the tub within the large fire. She’d tried to rock it, get it away from the flames that licked at it from all sides, but even if she’d hadn’t been exhausted, it was far too heavy. All she could do was wait while the water grew steadily warmer. The tub was large enough that more than an hour passed before its temperature became uncomfortable. Another two before the water began to boil.
Seo-yun spent the first day begging. She promised to perform every filthy act they’d ever desired, and to do them all with a smile. She promised that she would never try to escape again, that her only goal in life now was to be the best fucktoy she could. She couldn’t even tell if she was lying or not.
The begging ended by nightfall. Not because the pain grew any easier to bear. No, with her body repairing itself as quickly as it could manage, there was always more raw flesh to cook. It was a constant searing, hungry agony that never diminished, and threatened to overwhelm her capacity for regeneration at any moment, transforming her into nothing but so much meat. What ended her hoarse, mumbled pleas was the delirium brought about by the heat. She dimly remembered having occasional fevers when she was young that had brought confusion, but they had been mere sparks compared to the wildfire inside her head now.
Reality became hazy. Sometimes she knew where she was, but the rest of the time her mind drifted from place to place. She was running frantically through the forest, pursued by dark beasts with hot breath and hotter fangs that would always overtake and devour her. She was caught in a rainstorm where every drop was liquid fire and no trees would provide shelter. She was tumbling into a sinkhole full of hot coals and broken bodies. A thousand different nightmares, all of them full of terror and pain and heat.
And then there were the truly terrible moments, which came more and more often as her mind weakened. Those were the ones that made her cry out so loud that the men would curse at her. Sometimes they would even put on gloves or grab shovels so they could push her head under the water, looking to find a few minutes of silence by drowning her. She felt nothing but gratitude towards them. Anything to gain a moment of respite from that particular torture.
Anything to stop her from remembering.
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. Her lips curled into a bright smile, and her tails twitched eagerly. Perhaps they had brought new stories to share.
The young kitsune bounded off the branch she’d been napping on, and her small paws crunched against white snow. She sniffed the air again, confirming the direction, and then began racing towards it, leaving a trail of paw prints in her wake. Her favorite season had arrived a few weeks ago, and already the the forest was cloaked in snow, transforming it into a world of soft, simple beauty. Icy winds blew through her fur as she sprinted, and she reveled in the way it energized her.
She found the pilgrim with Father, just as her nose had told her. Seo-yun forced herself to keep back and watch silently, knowing she wasn’t to interrupt. The pilgrim was a small man with a red nose and solemn face who was wearing several layers to guard against the chill. He’d brought with him a deer carcass, already skinned, that he laid reverently at Father’s feet. “Oh noble spirit of the forest,” he intoned. “My family beseeches you for your protection again this year. We hope you find our offering favorable.” He bowed his head low in the familiar position of supplication and waited.
Even on all fours, Seo-yun’s father came up past the man’s shoulders. Had he wanted, he could have swallowed the deer in just a few bites. The man too, for that matter. But instead he nodded, and used his teeth to pick up the carcass and set it aside, his delicate movements at odds with his size. “Your offering is worthy and accepted,” he told the man, his voice deep and gentle. “I pledge to do whatever I can to protect your people from dangers near and far.” Then he sniffed. “Is that saffron?” he asked, his tone much more informal.
The human’s face broke out in a grin. “Aye, we had a trader come through last summer, and Na-ri nearly sold our entire harvest off for the jar she got! Worth every thread though, I have to admit. We’ve just a bit left, and we figured this would be a better use for it than anything else.”
Father put his snout closer to the deer and took another, longer sniff. “I can’ t possibly accept this, Tae-ho! This much spice is worth more than any twenty deer. Take this back and enjoy it with your wife, find something far more reasonable for tribute. Why not a little of Na-ri’s grilled pork belly next time she cooks some? I’ve never tasted finer.”
Tae-ho’s grin faded a bit, and he fidgeted with his hands. “Well, there’s a bit more to it than that,” he said apologetically. “We were actually hoping to persuade you to grant our home a visit today. It’s Chan-ri, you see. The poor girl’s been in bed for a week now, and it only seems to be getting worse.”
Father sighed, but it was good natured. “You know displays like this are unnecessary. Of course I will do all I can for your daughter.”
Seo-yun’s patience gave out. She’d waited quietly for two whole minutes already. Father was still talking with the man, but the ceremony seemed to be over, so… “Tae-ho, Tae-ho!” she said excitedly, bounding towards him. “Do you have any new stories?!”
She leapt up into his arms, and he caught her easily. “Ah, what fearsome monster is this, who knows my name?” he asked, the grin back on his face.
The fox girl giggled. “It’s Seo-yun, silly!”
Tae-ho shook his head. “No, Seo-yun is a tiny little thing, not such a great beast!”
Seo-yun nipped at the man playfully, careful not to hurt him. “I am Seo-yun! I just got bigger! I’m ten years old now!”
“Ahhh, well that explains it then,” he said. “Ten is a very impressive age to reach.”
“Do you have any new stories?” Seo-yun repeated.
“Oh, certainly,” he said slyly. “I have lots of new stories! Stories about the harvest, stories about deer, stories about Na-ri’s sister, stories about last night’s dinner…”
“No no no!” Seo-yun said, nipping him again. “Real stories!”
“Oh, real stories. You should have said so. Yes, I have a few of those too.” His voice turned theatrical as he leaned in closer. “I have one about a princess who was banished and forced to live with the poorest beggar in the land, and another about an ancient king who challenged the gods themselves and was struck down for his arrogance…”
“And gumiho?” she asked eagerly. “Do you have new stories about gumiho?!”
“Gumiho!” Tae-ho said, startled. “What does a young lass like you know about such monsters?”
“Lots and lots!” Gumiho had become her favorite subject since the very first story she’d heard about them, the creatures both fascinating and terrifying. Kitsune just like her, living within these very lands, who neither helped nor hid from humans, but fed on them as prey. Some stories said that they fed only on human livers or hearts, some said they ate their meals whole, but all agreed that every human life they devoured fed their yeowu guseul, the evil marbles that made them faster and stronger than any living thing had a right to be. They were cunning, evil and powerful monsters. And hungry. Always, always hungry. Stories told of gumiho who’d devoured entire villages in an attempt to appease their unending appetite for human flesh, only to find themselves stronger and hungrier than ever.
“I suppose I do know a few stories about gumiho,” said Tae-ho slowly. “But they might be a bit too scary for a young girl, even a brave and mighty one of ten years. Are you sure you’re ready to hear them?”
“I am!” she insisted quickly. “I am!” She tried not to look at Father as she said it. He knew that she had nightmares about the creatures sometimes, and her parents had come very close to forbidding her from hearing any more stories about them.
Father cleared his throat. “Perhaps the stories can wait for another time,” he said. “I don’t want to keep Chan-ri waiting. Tae-ho, would you mind bringing the deer back to the den while we visit her? My wife will know what to do with it.” The man nodded, looking grateful.
Seo-yun felt disappointed that she was going to miss an opportunity for new stories, but that vanished when she realized what Father had just said. “I get to go too?! To the village?!” Too excited to stay still, she squirmed out of Tae-ho’s arms and ran in circles around the large fox. A trip to the village was always thrilling, but this wouldn’t be just any trip. Mother and Father had watched over the people of the nearby villages for centuries, curing illnesses and injuries, ending droughts, and ensuring bountiful harvests for those under their protection, but Seo-yun had always had to stay behind when they went out. This would be the very first time she’d be allowed go with one of them.
Father nodded. “You’re getting older, and it will be good for you to see what we do. Now let us hurry, little one. It will be best if we can get there and back before nightfall.”
All nine of Seo-yun’s tails wagged happily as she shifted into her human form. Kitsune aged more slowly than humans and took longer to mature, so though she was ten years old, she resembled a child of about six while she climbed up onto her father’s back and gripped his fur with both hands. It was the same color as hers, a brilliant red like the setting sun. Her own fur was now a robe wrapped around her. She hadn’t inherited any of Mother’s white fur, but the color still showed up in her robe as intricate lines and swirls. Once Father felt her take hold, he began to run, the snowy forest soon blurring around them as he picked up speed. The bitter winds became even crueler, but when she buried her face in her father’s fur, she felt as warm as on a summer’s day.
“Father?” she asked as he carried her towards the village. “Why do we make people pay tribute before we help them?”
Her father chuckled. “Do you remember the first time you caught a rabbit?”
“Yeah!” she said, grinning at the memory. She’d been chasing rabbits and squirrels since she was barely bigger than either, but they’d always managed to outrun or evade her. It was only two years ago, after an eager chase that lasted hours and left her prey too tired to move, that she’d finally managed to corner one.
“And it tasted better than any that we’d ever brought to you, yes?”
“That is why. It is for the humans’ own sakes. When your mother and I first came to these lands, we offered our help freely, but we found it caused problems. Many people were suspicious of our motives, wondering what we were getting out of it. And some would feel guilty and undeserving, while others would grow arrogant and think it was only right that others did their bidding. But when they have paid us tribute, our help has been earned, not given. I would be happy to heal Chan-ri even if no payment was given, but now Tae-ho gets to feel proud. Her recovery will not be due to the whim of fate, it will be something that he obtained through his own efforts.”
“Then why were you unhappy about the saffron?” Seo-yun asked. “If it’s worth so much doesn’t that mean he really really earned your help?”
“Because the tribute is meant to be more symbolic than anything else. We never ask for more than someone can easily afford to give. That much saffron…” The fox snorted. “I think Tae-ho dumped the entire jar on that poor deer. What’s worse, no one is ever in need of saffron, so I don’t know what we’ll even do with it all.”
“Ohhhhh,” Seo-yun said, suddenly understanding something that had always been a mystery to the girl. “The tributes are the same stuff you and Mother go around giving people!”
“Just so,” agreed Father, pleased with her deduction. “We have no need for money, and while fresh meat is always appreciated, the forest already provides us with more than enough. So the coins find their way to the poor, and the food to the hungry. Mother keeps track of what we get from where, so that people don’t realize it’s their own offerings coming back to them. You’ll keep that our little secret, yes?”
“Yeah!” said Seo-yun happily, proud that Father was trusting her.
Father slowed his pace once they’d reached the village. This wasn’t the only town under their protection, but it was the closest, within the same forest that they lived in. The giant fox’s presence here was familiar enough that while he drew attention as he carried his daughter through the streets, no one seemed surprised or alarmed to see him. A few people bowed, but for the most part the kitsune were simply a fact of life around here.
Tae-ho’s home was just past the village square. It was a larger home than many, but not nearly large enough for Father to enter comfortably, so he transformed before he went in. As a human, he was a broad chested man of nearly seven feet with shaggy red hair and a short beard. He cut nearly as imposing a sight as when he was a fox, but his dark eyes were warm and his expression kind. Like his daughter, he wore a robe, though his was of pure red. With concentration, older kitsune could shape their skins when they transformed, changing it into any style they liked, but Father always preferred simplicity.
Chan-ri was in bed when they found her. A girl slightly younger than Seo-yun, both her body and her bedding were soaked with sweat, and her expression was creased with pain. Her mother Na-ri was kneeling beside her, tending to her with a wet washcloth, but she rose quickly and bowed at the appearance of the kitsune. “Oh, thank the heavens you came,” she said eagerly. She looked nearly as exhausted as her daughter, with dark circles under her eyes. “It, it just seemed like a simple cold at first, but then the fever came on, and she kept getting worse and worse…”
Father put a hand on her shoulder. “Be at peace,” he told her. “I will do everything in my power to help her.” He approached Chan-ri’s bed and examined the girl. “Yes, she is not too far gone. An infection, I would wager, and one easily extinguished.” He spread his hands, and they began to glow with a warm red light. Seo-yun stared at it in wonder, and with a slight tinge of jealousy. Though she tried every day, she still couldn’t call upon her own foxfire.
Chan-ri’s body began to glow with the same light, and her expression eased, becoming more relaxed. “That’s it, child,” Father said softly. “No more pain. You are safe now.” After a few minutes, the light faded from them both. Though Seo-yun’s father had not moved, his brow was beaded with sweat, and his breathing had become heavy. “It is done,” he announced. “I have removed every trace I could find.”
The girl stirred at his voice, and her eyes slowly opened, then focused him. “Y-You’re…” she said, mouth open in awe.
“Hello Chan-ri,” Father said gently, a smile on his face. “Are you feeling better now?”
“I…” She sat up, her eyes wide. “I feel good! I feel wonderful!” She started, and quickly began bowing her head. “Thank you, great spirit! Thank you!”
“There is no thanks necessary, child,” he told her. “You and your family are under my protection. It was my duty, and my honor, to help you this day, and I will do the same whenever you need me.” His voice turned slightly wry. “Your parents have given me more than enough tribute this year to guarantee that.” Na-ri blushed slightly.
Despite his words, there were many more heartfelt utterance of gratitude from both mother and daughter before Seo-yun’s father managed to disengage himself. “We must return home,” he said as he left their house, his apologetic tone not completely hiding his relief. “It is nearly dinner time, and my wife will be expecting us. To me, little one.” He shifted back into his natural form, and Seo-yun quickly climbed up onto his back.
“Why can’t I use foxfire yet?” she asked him as they began making their way back to their den.
“Patience, little one,” Father told her. “It will come to you in time. Even now it is slumbering inside you, growing stronger every day. In another year, maybe two, it will be strong enough to awaken. There is no hurry.”
“But I wanna help people!” she insisted. “Like you and Mother!”
“You will,” he promised her. “Did you watch what happened when I used it?”
“Uh huh!” Seo-yun said. “You made Chan-ri all better!”
“Yes, and what else?”
Seo-yun considered the question. “You looked tired.”
“Just so. I wanted you to see that today. The kitsune-bi is a powerful and versatile blessing from Inari, but it is not infinite, neither in power nor scope. Its natural strengths lie in illusions and deception, and to turn it to another task, as your Mother and I do, can be very draining.”
“That’s what the other foxes do, right?” she asked. “The ones you left behind?”
“Yes. Where we came from, the kitsune used their powers only to hide from the humans or trick them, not to help them.”
The fox girl frowned. “Are we the only good kitsune then?”
“Only good… no little one, not at all! Our clan is filled with wonderful people, and your Mother and I pray that they are all doing well.”
“But, then why aren’t they doing stuff like you and Mother do?”
It took the large red fox a minute to compose his answer. Seo-yun didn’t mind the wait. The winter woods were more beautiful than ever while painted by the setting sun, and there was no better viewing perch than her father’s broad, warm back. “People, be they human or kitsune, do things for all sorts of reasons,” he told her. “Love, hate, greed, hope… often they might not even know what it is that drives them. A long time ago, some bad things happened, and after that the clan began to act out of fear.”
“Fear of what?” Seo-yun asked, thinking of the eternally hungry gumiho that could be lurking around anywhere.
“Not of any one specific thing. Fear is a weed, little one. It has its uses, but if you let it take root in your mind, it will eventually choke out everything else. It is something to be listened to, not served. Our people have let their fears control them, and it has driven them to hide from the rest of the world, to squander their gifts and turn a blind eye on those who need help.”
“Well, then why don’t we just go and help them?” the redheaded child suggested. “We can help them not be afraid, and then they can help everybody else, and then everybody will be happy!” It was so simple that she was surprised he hadn’t already realized it.
“Ahh, what a clever child you are,” Father remarked. “You must have excellent parents.” Seo-yun giggled at the familiar joke. “In a sense, that’s exactly what we’re doing here. It isn’t only about helping the humans, or teaching them not to fear kitsune. Trust runs both ways, and there are many among our people who see humans as only a threat.. If we can show them that cooperation is possible, perhaps they will learn to overcome their fear. It will take a long time, but that is the world we’re going to create: one where man and fox can put aside our differences and live together in harmony.”
Seo-yun smiled. She liked that idea. “And I get to help too, right?”
“You already do, little one,” Father said.
The fox girl sat straight up at that. “I do? How?!”
Father ignored the question, slowing down and sniffing the air. “There are some humans around,” he said, coming to a complete stop. “Ones we haven’t met before. Perhaps a new village is trying to contact us. Go on home, little one, while I speak to them.”
“But I want to see them too!” she insisted.
“Not yet,” he said. “There are still humans who wish us harm. Until I’ve confirmed their intentions, it is not safe.”
Seo-yun pouted, but she obediently slipped off of him and transformed back. “Father?” she asked.
The large fox turned to her, and his mouth parted in a grin. “Worry not, little one,” he told her. “I shall ask what stories they have to share.” Seo-yun beamed as her father bounded away.
Their den was close by, and even on her far shorter legs, it didn’t take the young kitsune long to reach it. Once it might have been a simple hole in the ground, but time and care had transformed it into much more. Furs and other soft materials lined the floor and walls, helping to keep the burrow warm even in the coldest months. There were no sources of natural light, but drops of foxfire hung from the roof in glass containers, shedding warm light that shifted and sparkled as the lanterns moved. There was wooden furniture in every room, all carved by Father. Mother liked to tease him sometimes about how crude his first attempts had been, but these had all been made with expert skill. Seo-yun hadn’t seen very many human houses, and even fewer from the inside, but the ones she had been in, Tae-ho’s included, were nowhere near as large, cozy, and comfortable as their den.
Mother was in the kitchen, preparing a rich stew that smelled heavenly. She was in her human form, as both of Seo-yun’s parents usually were when at home. Her hair was a vibrant white that cascaded down her shoulders and nearly to her knees, swaying softly as she worked. She had on one of the hanbok skirts she’d sewn last winter, and wore her skin over it in the form of a white apron. “Did you have a good time with Father?” she asked without turning around.
“I did, I did!” Seo-yun said, excited to talk about it. “I got to go the village, and his hands went all whoosh, and then Chan-ri was all better!”
Mother turned to look at her. Like all kitsune, she’d become untouched by age at a certain point, her appearance perpetually that of a young woman, but her golden eyes held the experience of centuries as she smiled at her daughter. “Yes, he does whoosh very well,” she agreed, grinning.
“And he said! He said! I’m already helping! But he didn’t say how!”
“He didn’t, hmm?” she asked in a more serious tone, turning back to the stew. “Maybe it’s meant to be a secret then.”
Seo-yun’s ears flattened in frustration, and she started racing around the room in a circle. “It is not! It is not!”
Her mother laughed, the sound warm and familiar. “I’m only teasing, little one. Here, give me one more minute.” She made a few more adjustments to the stew, tasted it, and nodded. “Perfect.” She sat down at the kitchen table and beckoned Seo-yun to join her, the girl slipping into her human form as she did. “I take it Father told you what we’re trying to do then?”
“Yeah! We’re gonna make it so everybody gets to be happy together!”
“That’s exactly right,” she said. “We want everyone to be happy together.”
“And that’s why we do our duty, right?” Seo-yun asked.
“One trip to the village with that man and already you’re talking about duty,” Mother said with a smile. “Your father likes to talk about duty and honor and helping the humans grow, but it’s much simpler than that. The truth, little one, is that we love them! We’ve been here for several centuries now, and watched them live their lives generation after generation. Everyone here is almost as much our children as you are. How could we not care about them?” She shook her head. “So many of them still think that we’re above them somehow, that they need to bow and scrape and thank us, but our relationship is much more equal than they realize. We love them all, and the joy we feel at getting to help them thrive is just as valuable to us as our assistance is to them. You can’t even imagine how lonely it was to live apart from them as we once did.”
“But how am I helping?” the girl pressed.
“By being you!” her mother said. “A kitsune, perhaps the first kitsune, to grow up loving and loved by humans. You’re a symbol of the world we’re trying to create, little one, and proof that it’s possible.” She suddenly tickled Seo-yun, making the young girl squeal with laughter. “And it helps that you’re so cute,” she added. “Your father and I do our best, but we’re a little scary looking when we’re ourselves.” She paused. “What’s wrong?”
“It’s…” Seo-yun swallowed, her mother’s words reminding her of a fear that had sat in the back of her mind for a long time, and now seemed more important than ever. “What if the gumiho try and stop us? They hate humans, right, so… so they must hate us too, right?”
“Those wicked foxes you always want to hear more about?” Mother’s tone was still light, but her eyes were more serious. “No one has seen any for years and years, and they have little interest in kitsune. I worry more about those trees you like to nap so high up in than any storybook monster.”
The red haired girl shook her head, trying to find the right words to explain her fear. When she had nightmares about gumiho, they weren’t violent dreams. They never tried to chase or eat her. In her nightmares, the gumiho appeared as her parents. They had her father’s eyes as they stared at her coldly. They used their mother’s voice to scream at her. Her parents were brave and strong and wise and there were foxes out there just like them who were against everything that they stood for. Who would want to tear down everything that they’d worked so hard to achieve. Who would despise a small, weak girl like herself. The more she knew about how amazing her mother and father were, the more terrifying it was to imagine someone like them that hated her.
She was still trying to figure out how to say all that when Mother sighed. “Oh, my child,” she said, and swept the girl up into a hug. “Listen to me, Seo-yun. You have nothing to fear from creatures like those, I promise.”
“But, but all the stories say…”
“The stories don’t tell the whole truth. Yes, sometimes kitsune do awful things, and just like everyone else, they become monsters because of it. Your mother has witnessed it with her own eyes. A long time ago, back in our old village, there were three sisters who…” She hesitated. “No, I think you’re still a bit too young for that particular story. The point is, monsters deserve our pity, not our fear. Do you know why?” Seo-yun shook her head. “Because being a monster means letting their hearts fill up with so much darkness and hatred and fear that there’s no room for light, or love, or courage. Nothing they do to anyone else will ever be as terrible as what they’re doing to themselves. Do you understand?”
“I, I guess…” Seo-yun said uncertainly.
Mother smiled at her, her golden eyes twinkling. “You’ll understand it better when you’re older.” She sniffed. “Your father is still with those men. If I know him, he’s probably talking their ears off, and won’t back before dinner is ice cold unless I drag him back by his tails.” Despite her words, her smile only grew deeper as she talked about her husband. “I’d better get on that then. Will you be alright by yourself for a little while?” When Seo-yun nodded, her mother kissed her forehead and rose from the table.
The stew still smelled wonderful, and Seo-yun’s stomach growled while she waited, but she resisted. She wanted to eat with her family. So she sat at the table patiently, even as the stew began to grow cold.
The foxfire lights went out.
The girl let out a small startled yelp. Without the lights, the den was pitch black, and despite her mother’s words, her imagination was rife with ideas about the fearsome things that could be hiding in the darkness. She couldn’t stay here, she decided. Trembling, she slowly made her way outside, almost knocking over the cold stew in the process.
The sun had already gone down, but there was plenty of starlight to see by, and she had no trouble smelling her parents. They were both together with the men now, not far away. Once more a fox, she took off running in their direction. The forest was silent as she made her way through, and the winds no longer made her feel energized, just cold. Her pace quickened as she grew closer, eager to be reunited with them. Just a little bit closer. She could almost-
Red. A sea of red staining the white snow.
There were five men, and a wooden cart already piled high . None of them were looking in her direction. They all had knives and were covered in varying degrees of red. Two of them were limping, and one had a crude bandage wrapped around his arm, the cloth already soaked. And they… they were…
“Look what this filthy mongrel did to me,” complained the man with the bandage, and he kicked Mother’s corpse. The white fox was lying on her side, blood on her claws and her belly open to the air. “You said they were tame!”
“I said they would be easy prey, not tame,” said another. “And they were. Eighteen kitsune tails, and not a single man lost. We’ll all be rich!” He was kneeling by Father’s already skinned corpse, knife in his hand. Seo-yun watched numbly as he finished severing the last tail and added it to the cart.
“You promised twenty seven tails,” grumbled the first. “I thought the bitch was supposed to have a runt.”
“I’m sure she’s somewhere around here,” said a third. “Shouldn’t be too hard to find and put down.”
Two of the men began efficiently skinning Mother, peeling her bloody white fur off her flesh. “Think we’ll get a decent price for this too?” one of them mused. The gruesome sight broke Seo-yun out of her terror induced paralysis. She had to flee. She stepped backwards slowly, not wanting to draw their attention.
“Sure, the fur has to be worth something, right?” another said, and then laughed. “If no one’s willing to buy it, I could do with a nice winter coat myself.”
Seo-yun’s paws crunched snow, and all five men turned to look at her.
“There’s those tails,” snarled the man with the bloody arm. “Leave it to me.” He gave her mother another contemptuous kick that sent more blood to spray the snow, then produced a bow. “Need to make her pay for what the bitch did to my arm.”
Seo-yun dashed in the opposite direction, but she’d already run the whole way here, and her legs were still tired. An arrow thudded into the ground next to her, and then another, and then pain blossomed in her left hind leg and she tumbled onto her side. She snapped at the arrow, trying to pull it out with her teeth so the wound could heal. The bandaged man had already closed more than half the distance between them, his knife ready to turn her into a bloody lump of flesh just like her parents.
Drawing the arrow out hurt even more than getting shot, and tears of pain and terror were running down her muzzle as she tossed the thing away. The man was almost on top of her and she growled at him, knowing she had no chance of outrunning him like this. It sounded weak and pathetic even to her ears, and he sneered at her as he pounced, seizing her by the scruff of her neck and hauling her up into the air.. “Just hold still, runt,” he told her. “If you don’t give me any trouble, I’ll be nice and kill you before I skin you.”
Seo-yun whimpered. If she had her foxfire already, it might have helped her, but she didn’t. Besides, Mother and Father had been masters with it, and it hadn’t saved either of them. They’d been older and stronger and wiser and they’d still died. At least she would see them again soon. If she just closed her eyes and waited, it would be over in moments.
But part of her couldn’t accept that. Couldn’t just stay passive and let these awful men who’d done all that to her parents claim her life too. So instead of closing her eyes, she twisted and clamped her jaw down on her captor’s bandage. He screamed and flung her away, cursing.
Her hind leg still ached, but it had healed enough to support her weight, and as soon as she hit the ground she sprang at him, teeth bared. Her jaws found his stomach and she tore into him, his hot blood gushing into her mouth. Seo-yun had experienced many more fresh kills since that first rabbit, but no blood had ever tasted half as good as the human hunter’s. It was sweet and pure, and it spurred her on. She ripped open his belly and feasted eagerly on his insides, every morsel more delicious than the last. As she fed, more arrows pierced her body. Three, five, ten. A dim part of her knew that she was going to die here, but that didn’t matter. At least she had brought one of them down. When she saw Mother and Father again, she could tell them how she died proudly.
She felt the hunter shudder as his last breath left him, and at the same time, something stirred deep inside her. At first she thought it was her foxfire awakening, but her parents had always described it as a calm energy that spread through them like warm rainwater. The thing inside her felt nothing at all like that. It was a flame, hot and hungry, demanding to be fed.
The next arrow to strike her burst into splinters when it made contact.
The arrows still inside her no longer hurt nearly as much as before. Seo-yun felt good, felt better than she ever had, like she could bound from one end of the forest to another in a single leap, or bring down ancient trees with a howl. She put that energy to a better use instead. The hunters cried out as she raced towards them, saliva dripping from her bloody jaws. The second man tasted even better than the first, and the third better still. Every kill made her feel faster and stronger and hungrier. The fourth tried to run, but he might as well have been a falling leaf trying to avoid the ground. She caught up to him eagerly, and began feeding on him. This one was so delicious that for a time she lost track of everything else, unable to think about anything but happily filling her belly, even though every bite only made her appetite increase.
It wasn’t until she’d picked him clean that she noticed the last one had fled, and taken the cart with him. Alone with her parents’ mutilated corpses, Seo-yun finally realized exactly what she had done. What she had become. She stared down at herself in horror, feeling the yeowu guseul burning bright inside her chest. “No,” the young fox whispered. “No, no, no…” Her claws scrabbled at her own stomach, ripping bloody furrows in her flesh as she tried to rip the thing out of her. “I’m not a gumiho…” Mother and Father would want nothing to do with her now. The humans would want nothing to do with her now. “No…no…” she whispered. “No… I’m not a monster… please…”
“This is going to kill her!” Morris protested. “What use is she if she’s dead?!”
“Ask Garret how much use she’s been!” Levinson snapped. “The bitch killed one of my men!”
“Then execute her cleanly,” Morris urged. “Or if you really want her to suffer, the life of slavery waiting for her will be crueler than anything even you can come up with. But don’t just leave her like…” He made a frustrated gesture at the fire. “Like that!”
It had been two days since the fox woman’s torture had begun, and Morris was increasingly stunned that she was still alive. He’d only been able to watch what was happening to her for a few seconds before he’d had to leave to go be violently ill. The woman didn’t even seem to be conscious anymore, even as her body continued to thrash. Her cries and moans sounded more like an animal than anything else.
“She’ll heal,” Levinson said dismissively. “And if she doesn’t, we just go get another one. The buyer won’t die if they have to wait an extra month for a fox.”
“Healing the physical damage doesn’t make what happened go away! If her mind is completely destroyed, she won’t even make a good pet!”
“Then we just go get another one,” Levinson repeated coldly. “Hell, who cares if she comes out of this brain dead? Worst comes to worst, we sell her to the Paradisium as meat. Or we just keep her around as a fleshlight for the men. None of them will complain about that.”
He was right about that much. Morris had seen the anger in everyone else over the past two days. It wasn’t simply the death of Garret; no one here had all that much love for anyone else, and the frequently drunk idiot had been almost as disliked as Morris. No, their anger was something much more base and selfish: while she was like this, they couldn’t rape her. For most of them, the promise of getting to brutalize their prisoners was far more important a reward than their pay. And now they were going to be denied an entire week with what had been one of everyone’s favorite captives.
Morris cursed the bad luck that had found him out in the woods when the fox woman had tried to escape. He’d gone out there to clear his head… and to piss. He had no desire to use her that way, and he knew the others would’ve grown suspicious if they’d seen him using one of the latrines, so he’d wandered far from camp to take care of things discreetly. And then fate had sent her straight towards him, and he’d had to make a decision. She was still a monster, but she didn’t deserve the treatment she’d received from them. No one did. He already knew that he couldn’t bring himself to join in, and he’d found that he couldn’t be the one to bring her back to that torture either. So he’d stepped aside.
And it had accomplished nothing. He knew her escape would have failed even without him. The same night vision goggles that had tracked her in the first place would’ve been just as effective in recapturing her. She’d never had a chance. But still, the role he’d played in foiling her attempt made him feel ashamed. She hadn’t been an evil monster in that moment. She’d been a terrified woman trying to escape cruel abuse, and he’d helped bring her back to it. In the end, what really made her all that different from Samantha? What made him any better than the efreet?
“What about the marble?” he tried. “I thought you wanted your trophy.”
“And if this doesn’t get her to give it up,” Levinson replied, “then maybe spending a few years as the mens’ cum dump will change her mind. Either way, I’ll get it eventually.”
“Not if she dies!”
Levinson narrowed his eyes. “And why are you so concerned about whether I get my keepsake or not…” He glanced at the fox woman and back, and his expression grew knowing. “That’s right, you always have been extra eager with the redheads, haven’t you?” He clapped a hand on Morris’s shoulder. “I’ll make sure she spends plenty of time with you after, alright? Hell, you could do with a bonus after all these years: screw the buyer, why don’t I make her your fleshlight? As long as you’re willing to share her with the others during the day, she can spend every night warming your bed. And the men will be only too happy to find a fresh bitch to break. That make you feel better?”
“Yes sir,” Morris said, and found that it wasn’t a lie. The idea of having the red haired fox woman as his own personal plaything was certainly an appealing one. And if he was her owner, he could make sure the others didn’t treat her too roughly. He couldn’t pretend it was a life she would enjoy very much, but… she was a monster. He couldn’t in good conscience just let her go free. With him, her suffering would be to punish her sins, not just to satisfy his own pleasure, and never more than she deserved.
Not just to satisfy his own pleasure…
“Oh great and wise spirit,” Chan-ri said, bowing low in supplication. “Please, we beg you to accept this humble offering, and continue to bestow upon us your divine protection.”
Seo-yun nodded, gently taking the carcass with her teeth. “Your offering is worthy and accepted,” she declared, her tone formal. “I pledge to do whatever I can to protect your people from dangers near and far.” She tried to keep the pain of those words from showing on her face.
Even after five decades, they still made her heart twist up inside of her. She wasn’t lying to these poor people. Each time she pledged to help them, she meant it with every fiber of her being. But truth or lie, her pronouncement was utterly useless. She couldn’t protect any of them.
For the first couple decades, she had tried to live up to her parents. Had she the power to heal others or guide nature as they did, she would have gladly used them to help the humans. They were, after all, her Mother’s “children”. But she could do none of that. Her foxfire, if it even existed anymore, was as silent as ever, ignoring all of her calls to awaken. The only thing she could feel inside her was her yeowu guseul, and it was far from silent. Even now it throbbed inside her, telling her how wonderful the old woman’s bones would feel crunching in her jaws. Her age would make her meat tough, but it would still be warm and delicious.
The young fox shook away the thought. It had been difficult to resist the marble’s siren song at first, but after fifty years, it had become simple habit. She’d never fed on humans since that day, not even once, and never would. She would not be a gumiho. She would not. She was a kitsune, and her role in life was to aid and protect humans, not eat them.
Not that her aid and protection meant much. Almost all of the villages her parents had once watched over had broken off contact with her decades ago. Only the closest one, the village within her forest, still entreated with her. She’d hunted food for them, and driven wild predators away from their fields a handful of times, but that was the limit of her helpfulness without the power of foxfire.
The old woman made no move to leave when the pledge was over. Instead, she prostrated herself further. “Oh great and wise spirit,” she said, “my grandson has fallen ill. Will you please help him?”
“Chan-ri…” Seo-yun said slowly. “You know I can’t.” She’d never hid her lack of powers from them. They didn’t know about the yeowu guseul, but she’d never pretended that she could replace her parents. She wouldn’t have even accepted the tributes anymore, but people insisted. At least she wouldn’t have to endure them much longer. The only people that came to see her anymore were the elderly, those who remembered her mother and father. In another decade or two they would all be gone.
Occasionally she thought about leaving once that happened, but that would mean abandoning them. She understood now what her mother had meant when she’d called them her children. Seo-yun loved the villagers too. To be allowed to remain with them even when she was… what she was, was an honor, and she prayed that one day she’d be able to repay it. Even after the tributes stopped the fox would continue to do everything she could for her people, just not as something to be worshipped.
“Please, oh great and wise spirit,” the old woman begged. “I have faith that your holy presence will help drive away his sickness.” Many of the people who came to see her, Chan-ri included, refused to believe that she was truly powerless. They praised her name whenever good fortune struck, as though she was personally responsible for it, and it made her feel guiltier every time.
Seo-yun was reluctant, but Chan-ri was stubborn, and eventually the fox girl gave in. “Mother kept some medicines at the den,” she told her. “Mostly old tributes, others for ailments that couldn’t be cured by foxfire alone. Perhaps one of them will help.” The woman bowed and began thanking her profusely.
“Do I look okay?” the fox girl asked nervously a few minutes later, examining herself. She rarely went on two legs anymore, but she wouldn’t be able to carry the medicines as a fox, and turning human was a necessary precaution before visiting the village anyway. While she hadn’t reached full maturity yet, she was still far larger than a normal fox in her true form, and her appearance spooked many of the villagers who had never seen Mother or Father. Her fox ears and tails would garner stares, but the looks she received would be filled with curiosity instead of fear. Curiosity, and something more. Some of the villagers, almost always young men, seemed to be fascinated with her form, which resembled a human roughly sixteen or seventeen years of age. She’d asked them about it a few times, but they’d always plead ignorance.
It had been Ki-won, a farmer’s wife, who’d finally explained after some giggling that the men were interested in her as a mate, making Seo-yun’s face turn nearly as red as her fur. It wasn’t that the idea was unwelcome; when she’d thought about it, several of the men who usually stared at her were rather nice to look at themselves. But she wasn’t one of them. She was a kitsune, and they would die of old age before she could even consider herself a proper adult. And besides, she was a girl who’d spent most of her life on all fours chasing prey through the woods. Even if they did find her attractive, and she still wasn’t certain Ki-won was right about that, she had no useful skills to offer them as a mate. She’d tried politely explaining that to the men the next time some of them were looking at her, but discussing the matter had seemed to make them uncomfortable.
“You look as radiant as always,” Chan-ri assured her, though that meant little coming from her. The old woman was always painfully obsequious. She was one of the very few left who not only remembered Mother and Father, but had been helped by them personally. That was no doubt why she stubbornly believed that Seo-yun could do the same for her grandchild. The knowledge that she was almost certainly about to let the woman down laid heavy in her heart. “Please,” she said. “Please, we must hurry. He is very sick.”
Her parents’ den smelled of rot and mold. Years of erosion had turned the once gently sloping entrance into something more dangerous, and Seo-yun made Chan-ri promise not to follow her before entering carefully, minding her own step as well. She hadn’t been back there in at least a decade. Without the foxfire lights, it was a dark and gloomy place that felt more like a coffin than a home. Seo-yun had tried to keep living there after her parents were gone, but it had become unbearable almost immediately. Ever since she’d lived out in the forest, sleeping under the stars instead.
Even in total darkness, being back there conjured up memories. Every moment here had been a happy one, but they all hurt to remember now. The den had once been her parents’ pride and joy, and now it was ruined and useless. Just like their daughter. Seo-yun felt her way to their room, and found Mother’s medicine cabinet. There had been a time when the place still carried their scents, but now even their bedding held no trace of them anymore.
She shook away the dark thoughts with effort. Even if she couldn’t be like Mother or Father, she had to do what she could. Despite everything, she was still living proof that their dream of humans and kitsune living together could work. She would make it work. Unable to read any of the medicine labels in the darkness, she settled for taking it all with her. She could leave whatever she didn’t use today with the village, where they might do some good.
It took them a couple hours of walking to reach the village. Despite all of Seo-yun’s protests, Chan-ri had insisted on carrying all of the medicine bottles herself, and they clinked with every step. There were more people around than the fox girl was used to seeing. None of them were strangers, but usually the farmers would be tending their fields, the women would be at home with their young, and the hunters would be out looking for game. Today it seemed that everyone was here, men, women, and children, and Seo-yun had to press through the crowd on her way to Chan-ri’s house.
Along the way, they passed by a decoration in the village square that she’d never seen before, a large wooden pole. “Chan-ri, what is that for?” she asked, but the woman didn’t seem to hear her, focused on getting through the crowd herself without dropping the medicines. Given how many people were around, Seo-yun guessed it had to do with some sort of festival, though no one looked particularly happy. Most wore looks of anxiety or outright fear. Was the sickness worse than Chan-ri had told her? Perhaps it was a full plague that had beset them. She silently prayed to her parents that that wasn’t the case.
She’d been wrong; there was a stranger among them, a Buddhist priest in yellow-orange robes who wore a stern, determined look. Some had visited the village before, and Seo-yun had always found them friendly and helpful. His presence gave her hope; perhaps he would have medical knowledge that could help. She approached him to ask if he would come with her, but when he saw her his eyes narrowed. “It is as I feared,” he announced in a loud voice. “Take her.”
At once several people seized her arms and legs. “What is going on?” asked Seo-yun, more confused than anything else. She didn’t want to hurt any of them, so she made no attempt to struggle as they dragged her towards the wooden thing in the square. “Chan-ri?”
She flinched as the old woman spat in her face, an expression of rage that she’d never seen before on her face. “How did you kill them, monster?” she hissed.
“I, I don’t understand…”
“Are you even Seo-yun?” Chan-ri asked. “Or did you murder that poor child too when you killed her parents?”
Terror and panic started to fill the fox girl’s heart as she saw similar expressions on the others, on every single person in the village. Some were more angry, others were more scared, but not a soul had anything approaching compassion in their eyes while she was bound to the wooden pole, her arms and legs lashed to it with rope. “Please Chan-ri,” Seo-yun begged. “I don’t understand.” She addressed the others. “Hyun-tae? Joon-o?” She knew every person in this dense crowd, even if she’d never seen them like this.
“Quiet, gumiho,” the priest said, and the pit of Seo-yun’s stomach dropped. He nodded at her reaction. “Yes, your deception is over. When these people told me stories of their so-called protector, a kitsune who possessed no foxfire, my spirits sank. The kitsune-bi is a sacred gift, denied to those who give into corruption. I was hoping I was wrong, but sadly my suspicions were correct. Your lies may have worked on these trusting villagers, gumiho, but I can feel the yeowu guseul festering in your heart.”
“I’m not!” Seo-yun screamed. “I’m not! I’m a kitsune, I swe-aaagh!” A scream of pain cut her words cut off as the priest chanted something. It was as though he’d reached into her and begun crushing the yeowu guseul with his hands. Only the rope holding her to the wooden pole stopped her from collapsing at the pain of it.
“The truth is now laid bare for all to see,” the priest said, and there was a literal meaning to his words. For the first time in her life, Seo-yun saw her yeowu guseul with her eyes, a sphere of blue and white flame that hovered in front of her. It swirled in place, churning as though as beset by stormwinds. “Good, it is smaller than I expected. She has not fed often. She must have been waiting for the right time, or simply feared discovery. Either way, she would have given in to the hunger eventually.”
“No, never!” Seo-yun insisted. “Please, I would never harm any of you!” She looked at the villagers, hoping to find someone, anyone, that believed her. But there was only anger, hatred, and fear looking back at her. The priest made a motion, and pain exploded in her chest again as the yeowu guseul pulsed, its motions becoming even more violent.
“Gumiho are stronger and faster than any human could hope to best,” he said. “I have no doubt that you could kill all of us here as easily as breathing. But your endless hunger is your undoing. It drives you, owns you…” He made another motion and the pain seemed to increase tenfold, the yeowu guseul losing its shape and becoming a writhing, twisting thing. “And I can turn it against you.”
Seo-yun could feel what he meant. The ever increasing pain was her hunger, just far, far stronger than usual. It was as though he was stoking the flames of it inside her. She tried to shift into her fox form, but the pain was too great to focus. She screamed in wordless agony while the villagers she’d watched over for decades began to pile kindling around her. They were going to burn her. The ones she loved were going to burn her.
“They are tough, but not immortal,” the priest was saying. “Put them in the cleansing fire for long enough, and they will die.”
Two villagers approached with torches. She’d known them both since they were children. When Mi-jin had given birth to her fourth child three years ago, Seo-yun had brought her family fresh meat for months to ensure that they would not go hungry. Jong-in had once visited her with some of his daughter’s old clothing as a present; he’d told the fox girl that she reminded him of her. Both of them touched their torches to the firewood, and it quickly began to burn.
It was almost impossible to think with the hunger raging within her head, a fire no less hot than the one about to kill her. Again and again she tried to transform, and again and again it stopped her. The flames were licking at her red robe. Soon they would consume her fur, and then her with it.
Seo-yun pushed against the hunger. She’d never let it control her before. For five long decades she’d resisted it. She could do so again, just for a little while. And if she showed them that she could resist her hunger, maybe they would be convinced not to do this. Mother and Father’s dream didn’t have to end today. She shook with the effort as her robe began to blacken. Before her, the yeowu guseul was slowly coalescing back into a sphere, as though she were forcing it into place. Just for a few seconds. She just had to control herself again for a few more seconds…
The ropes holding her burst as her body shifted and grew into a large red fox. The villagers screamed, and even the priest looked terrified as he beheld her. Seo-yun wanted to comfort them and tell them that they would never have anything to fear from her. Tell them that all she wanted, all she had ever wanted, was to help.
But she couldn’t. She was too hungry.
What happened next came to her only in bits and pieces. Sometimes she found herself laughing, sometimes crying, as she fed on the people she had sworn to protect. Many times she heard someone screaming that they needed to kill her before it was too late, and it took her a long time to recognize it as her own voice. Some of the people she loved ran, and she killed them. Some of the people she loved fought, and she killed them. Some of the people she loved begged, and she killed them. Chan-ri kept praying for Father to save her right up until the moment Seo-yun ripped the woman’s throat out. She killed and she ate, and she had never known such joy in all her life.
What the priest had done to her eventually subsided, and though her hunger would always be far greater than it once was, it diminished enough for her to regain her sanity. The village was gone. The buildings all remained, but the people who’d liven in them were just half eaten corpses strewn around. She was the only one left.
“I’m sorry, Mother,” the gumiho begged, once again alone and surrounded by blood and gore. “I didn’t mean to, please… I’m sorry… I’m so, so sorry…”
The fox had stopped most of her struggles a while ago. Beneath the surface, the boiling liquid was still destroying her body almost as quickly as it healed. The tub was so cloudy with her blood that little could be seen anymore, but it was still difficult for Morris to watch. The only thing that had kept him there by her side all day and night was the knowledge that if her regeneration ran out and he wasn’t there to notice, she would certainly die. He had a feeling she wouldn’t be grateful for his concern, but she was his now, or would be once Levinson allowed this horrific torture to stop.
Though she barely moved, there was no question that she was still in great pain. Her red face was twisted up in agony, and she made small, whimpering sounds. Occasionally her lips moved as though she was speaking, but he was never close enough to make out any words. Sometimes tears leaked from her shut eyes.
Morris couldn’t remember when he’d started stroking her hair. It had just felt like a natural thing to do. He’d heard various crude comments about it from people passing by, usually mocking warnings about how he’d boil his cock off if he tried to facefuck her, but by now almost everyone else was asleep, and he’d been left alone with her. He wasn’t sure if she’d even noticed what he was doing, but it had seemed to calm her down slightly. Her forehead was almost painfully hot to the touch, and it wasn’t from the water. Not directly. If he’d seen anyone else with a fever this bad, he would’ve taken them to the hospital immediately, even if he had to pick them up and carry them the whole way there. But here she was, suffering, and he was just standing by and watching. No, he couldn’t even label his role in this as passive; for the last day he’d been the one to stoke the flames and refill the water that was slowly killing her. He had a direct hand in her pain.
He knew all the reasons why this was best for everyone. He’d run them through his head a thousand times while he’d stood watch. He’d already tried and failed to convince Levinson, and in his experience, continuing to press the issue was more likely to convince the man to extend her suffering out of pure spite than any other outcome. She would be happier once she’d broken. Her treatment would be far kinder afterward, especially with him at the reins. And she was a monster. This was only retribution for all the evil she’d caused.
Morris knew all the reasons, but every time he repeated them, they felt more and more like excuses. Someone was in pain, and he was helping cause it. Did it really matter what kind of person she was? And for all his rationalizations about how much better her life would be once he owned her, he knew deep down that it was lust guiding his hand, not compassion. He looked down on the others for their sadism, but how could he consider himself any better? When push came to shove, he was clearly thinking with his cock too.
He bent down to study her face, his mind working absently. There was no one in sight right now. The changing light level from dousing the fire would probably attract attention, but removing the tub from the flames would be far less conspicuous. There were a couple jeeps parked nearby, for use in a medical emergency that required returning to civilization. He knew where the keys were stored. Morris ran a hand down her cheek, marveling at how smooth and soft her skin still felt after everything she’d been through. There would be no turning back if he did this. Levinson would hunt them both down to the ends of the earth. The man’s pride would allow nothing else.
“What should I do?” he whispered, close enough to the woman’s face that he was practically kissing her. The steam from the tub was unpleasant, but it seemed hardly worth notice compared to what she was going through. Was he really seriously considering this? Throwing his entire life away for a woman, a creature, that he’d met last week? It was utterly insane, but so was continuing to just stand here and do nothing.
The fox woman’s lips moved. He knew she wasn’t responding to his question; it was the same lip movements he’d seen her make a dozen times now. The only difference was that this time he was close enough to pick up the words. “I’m… sorry,” she whispered. “…Please… I don’t want to be a monster anymore… please help me…”
Morris made his decision.
The tub was too large to grasp by the sides, so he reached into the seething waters instead to grab her chains. The metal seared his hands as he gripped it, but he ignored the pain. It was what he deserved right now. He hauled the tub backwards, muscles straining as he slowly inched it away from the flames. The hardest part was setting it down gently enough to make no noise. His palms were red and blistered by the time he was finished moving the tub, and he’d probably done them permanent damage. Good.
He began to undo her chains.
Seo-yun watched the boy from above. He’d been sitting on the log for twenty or thirty minutes, softly crying. Occasionally he’d shout names that would echo through the forest, but there was no answer, nor would there be. By her nose, the two humans who’d come here with him were a good five miles away, near where her parents’ den had once been before erosion had collapsed it completely. One of them occasionally drifted away, probably searching for him, but they never came within more than two miles. His cries wouldn’t reach them.
She was trying to convince herself to eat the child.
It wasn’t that she needed much convincing. Her yeowu guseul was already telling her how delicious his tender meat would be. She had only to stop holding herself back, and the boy’s life would be over in moments. She could make it quick for him. Humans were most delicious when they were still alive, but even her yeowu guseul couldn’t convince her to go that far with him. He’d be dead before he knew what was happening.
But still she lingered on the tree branch, unable to pounce. It was more than just his age stopping her; she’d fed on old and young alike over the centuries. She’d never again had a feast like the village, but for a long time after people had still come to her forest. Some had come to try and hunt her, some were simple travelers. More than once people had shown up looking to find something worth stealing from the abandoned village. She’d eaten nearly all of them.
Her life had been much easier as a monster. Far easier than being a woman abandoned and alone, or a murderer of the same innocents she’d once sworn her life to. She’d embraced the role fate had given her, and for a long time, she’d practically enjoyed herself, especially once she’d started lying. Lies were wonderful things. If you repeated them often enough, you could even convince yourself. Most days Seo-yun had genuinely forgotten that she had once been a kitsune, or that her massacre of the village had been unwanted. She lived a carefree existence, her conscience shut up too tightly to hear its screams.
Winters were harder. They always brought back memories of red on the snow, and from there all of her carefully crafted lies would threaten to crumble. A few times it had pained her enough that she’d even tried to leave the forest and find a new home. She’d discovered early on that the yeowu guseul’s call was greatly diminished while she walked on two legs, and imagined that perhaps she’d be able to start a new life and ignore it completely. But every attempt ended in failure. Even when she traveled far enough to find human lands where her ears and tail weren’t met with immediate violence, they never passed without notice. At best, people regarded her as some kind of freak of nature.
And the yeowu guseul was quiet, but not silent. For a time she’d be able to ignore it. She’d even manage to tell herself more lies about how she no longer craved human flesh. But she’d lie awake every night, hungry enough that every nearby heartbeat was a pounding drum. The knowledge that feeding on them would only make her hunger worse meant little. All that mattered were those moments of ecstasy when her teeth sank into them. Sometimes she held out for years, sometimes she gave in after days, but eventually her resolve would break and her only options would be to kill everyone around her or return home. When she’d found herself almost willing to take the first option, she knew that she could never allow herself to leave the forest again.
The forest life was easier because the temptations simply weren’t there. No matter how much the hunger boiled up inside her, without humans around it couldn’t make her do anything. Not unless people showed up, and then she didn’t even try to stop herself. She just made the most of the opportunity. Except for this time.
Part of her knew perfectly well why she was hesitating. Why a child crying for its lost parents in the forest was a strong enough image to break through her hunger. But acknowledging that would mean acknowledging the past. So instead she just watched and tried to tell herself how delicious he would be.
Frustrated at her own reluctance, she decided to force the issue. She jumped from her tree branch to land right in front of the boy, towering over him. He was going to run, like they always did, and either her instincts would take over and she would feed, or she would remain frozen and the source of her temptation would escape. Either option was better than this.
But to her shock, the boy didn’t flee at her sudden appearance. His eyes widened and his mouth gaped, but it was wonder in his expression, not fear. He reached his hand out towards her and she instinctively shrank back, unsure of what to do. “It’s okay,” he said, his voice a little shaky from the crying. “I’m not gonna hurt you.”
The thought of this human child, who possessed neither fangs nor claws and was a mere fraction of her size and weight, thinking that she was afraid of him was ridiculous enough that she forced herself to keep still as he reached out to her again. His hand touched her head, and he softly stroked her fur. Despite herself, Seo-yun shivered at the unfamiliar contact. No one had touched her like that since… she shut away the thought.
“Did you come here to help me?” the boy asked, still petting her.
Prey that thought she was there to help him. What an absurd, laughable, and painful idea. She needed to eat him, and quickly. But she didn’t. “Yes,” she said instead, centuries of disuse making her voice even shakier than his. “I am… here to help.”
Seo-yun expected surprise at a talking animal, but he smiled at her like it was a perfectly natural sight. “I knew it,” he told her cheerfully. “My name is Han-jae. What’s yours?”
This close to him, her yeowu guseul was screaming at her, demanding she devour him. Instead, she shifted into her human form, something she hadn’t done for centuries, to quiet it. “S… Seo-yun.”
Han-jae’s eyes sparkled at her transformation. “Can you help me find my Mom and Dad, Seo-yun?” he asked eagerly.
Seo-yun stared at him. “…Why?”
“Because I don’t know where they are.”
Seo-yun shook her head. “No, why are you not afraid of me?”
Han-jae tilted his head. “Am I supposed to be?”
“Yes. I… I am a monster.”
The boy shrugged. “You don’t look like a monster to me.” He took her hand in his, and it felt good. “So where are they?” She wordlessly pointed in the direction of his parents and he immediately set off in that direction, the gumiho trailing behind him.
Seo-yun said little as they walked, but she didn’t need to. Han-jae had more than enough to talk about, though most of his topics were meaningless to her. She had no idea what things like “baseball” or “television” were, but he seemed very interested in both. Apparently he had seen creatures like her in something he called “movies”, some kind of storybooks that made less sense the more he tried to explain them. But she didn’t mind. It had been so, so long since anyone had just talked to her.
It was growing dark by the time they neared what Han-jae had named the campsite. When they were only a few hundred yards away, the fox woman stopped, and Han-jae looked back at her, puzzled. “I should not go any further,” she told him, her heart thumping in her chest. This had been a mistake. What was she doing?
“Why not?” he asked innocently.
She couldn’t bring herself to tell him that she didn’t know if she would be able to stop herself from eating, once there was more than one human around to tempt her. “I… I am afraid,” she said truthfully.
“It’s okay, Mom and Dad are really nice, I promise,” he said, and tugged on her hand. “And we’re gonna have lots of good food! Mom is making some beef seaweed soup, and Dad says he knows how to cook rice over a fire but Mom doesn’t believe him so she brought some instant rice too, and they let me bring some hot dogs, and…” As he continued talking, Seo-yun allowed herself to be pulled along against her better judgment. She knew she was making the wrong decision, and that she was going to regret it. But she couldn’t help herself. She wanted to delay being alone again for just a little longer.
The campsite contained several tents, all centered around a small fire. A dark haired woman stood watching the flames, occasionally poking them with a stick, wearing an expression of hopelessness. As they got closer, she looked up, startled. “Han-jae!” she called out. “Han-jae! Where have you been?!” Though her words and tone were harsh, her face now beamed with happiness and relief. “We’ve been worried sick! Your father has-” She cut off as she finally noticed Seo-yun. “Who… who are you?” she asked. There was no suspicion in her tone, only puzzlement. Seo-yun expected her to react to her ears and tail, but she seemed as unfazed by them as her son had been.
“I…” the fox woman started, but Han-jae interrupted her.
“Her name is Seo-yun and she’s also a big great fox and she came to save me!” he blurted out, excited.
An older man, no doubt the boy’s father, emerged from one of his tents. He looked weary, and Seo-yun expected he was the one who’d been out searching all day. Like his wife, he lit up at the sight of his son. “Oh thank goodness you’re safe!” he said, and ran forward to kneel and embrace the boy. “Thank you,” the man said, looking up at Seo-yun with tears in his eyes. “Thank you so much. I, I don’t know what we would have done if you hadn’t brought him here.” He too made no comment about her unusual appearance.
“It… it is nothing,” Seo-yun said stiffly. “I just… he asked for my help.”
“Are you camping here as well?” Han-jae’s mother asked. “I thought we were the only ones around.”
“I live here,” she said.
“All the way out here? Really?” asked the father. “Well, we’re certainly grateful for it. Please, come share our fire. The least we can do is give you a meal in thanks.”
Seo-yun knew she shouldn’t. She knew that she should run away as fast as her legs could take her. But she had helped the child, and they were offering her food in return. They weren’t even afraid of her. It was… it was almost like… She nodded her head. “Your offering is worthy and accepted,” she whispered, quietly enough that none of them would hear her.
“See?” Han-jae said, smiling at her. “I told you, right? They’re really nice and we have tons of yummy food! Come on!” He tugged her onward toward the campfire and she followed in a daze, feeling like she was in a dream. Warmth and family and acceptance. She would’ve given anything to remain like this.
It was the sound of Han-jae’s parents screams that burned away the pleasant fog in her mind.
Seo-yun realized her error far too late to correct it. After so many centuries where her only interactions with humans was to eat them, she had forgotten how poor their senses were. It wasn’t that they were unafraid of her obviously inhuman appearance. They just hadn’t noticed in the dim light. Not until she’d gotten close enough to the fire. Not until she’d given into her weakness and let herself forget what she was.
“Han-jae, get away from her!” his father shouted, and tried to grab the boy’s arms to haul him away, but Han-jae resisted.
“Why?” he asked, confused and scared by his parents’ sudden change in behavior. “What’s going on?”
Seo-yun held up her hands and backed away from all three of the humans. She silently cursed herself. She shouldn’t have given in to her selfish desires. She should have known that she wouldn’t be allowed happiness. A creature like her didn’t deserve it anyway. “I, I just wanted to help,” she told them. “I’ll go now. You won’t see me again.”
Han-jae twisted free of his father and ran towards her. “No!” he protested, hugging her. He weighed almost nothing, but his body was warm as he pressed against her. How long had it been since someone had touched her like this? Had it been the villagers? Or was it even farther back, with a red and white fox whose faces she could barely recall anymore? Seo-yun felt paralyzed by the contact. “You shouldn’t have to leave! You didn’t do anything wrong!”
“Han-jae, no!” his mother said. “She’s a… a…” She swallowed hard, unable to find a word to describe what she was seeing.
The fox woman nodded her head in agreement. “I am a monster.”
“No you’re not!” Han-jae said, still embracing her. “You’re a nice lady who helped me!”
“If you don’t let him go right now..” his father swore. Seo-yun could smell the terror coming off of both adults in waves, but they were also parents and their pup was in danger. Any moment now one of them would do something foolish, and it would all end in bloodshed.
They weren’t thinking clearly and the boy was just a child. It was up to her to find a way out, even if she couldn’t be honest with herself about why she cared so much about three humans after killing so many for centuries. So before things could go any further, she put her hands on Han-jae’s shoulders and shoved him away, breaking the contact between them. She was careful not to be too rough, but she still sent the boy stumbling backwards. “No,” she told him, as fiercely as she could manage. “I am not your friend. I am a gumiho, and you are just a stupid little boy.”
Han-jae was crying as he picked himself up, one of his elbows scraped and bleeding. His parents called out to him again, urging him to come closer, but he ignored them. He gave Seo-yun a hurt look and then took off, running away from both parties as the sound of his sobs filled the night. As his parents chased after him, Seo-yun turned to leave. That look had made her heart ache, but she’d avoided the worst of it. Shifting back into her natural form, she began loping in the opposite direction as quickly as she could. She would run and run, and not stop until she couldn’t smell any of them anymore and was too tired to change her mind.
Then she realized what they had been running towards.
She immediately skidded to a halt and reversed direction, sprinting back towards the departing humans. “Stop!” she shouted, her voice booming through the forest. “Stop!” None of them listened to her. She overtook the adults, dashing right between the both of them without missing a step. She could see Han-jae right in front of her, still running. “Stop please!” she shouted again as she drew closer. Another few seconds and she would reach him. Just another second and… the boy vanished.
Seo-yun’s paws found empty air where ground should have been, and she tumbled down. Down, down, down into the sinkhole that was all that remained of her parents’ den. Even her nigh invincible body was jarred and shaken by the impact, and it took her a moment to recover herself.
She spun around, looking for Han-jae. It didn’t take long to find him, laying quiet and still at the bottom of the pit. “Han-jae?” she asked him. She ignored that his body was twisted in unnatural ways. “Han-jae, are you okay?” She ignored the puddle of blood seeping out from underneath him. “Please, you have to be okay.” She nudged him with her snout, his body limp and lifeless. “I’m sorry, Han-jae.” She had done this. She had done this. She had done this. “Please don’t leave me alone. Please, I don’t want to be a monster anymore…” Tears soaked the boy’s corpse as she wept for him, and for herself. Her fault. This was all her fault. “Please help me…”
Han-jae’s eyes opened.
The boy let out a long slow rattling breath. His face was ashen, and he looked somehow so much smaller than he had before. His mouth moved, trying to speak, but no sound came out, only slow, labored breaths. His body twitched slightly, and she saw the pain in his eyes. The terror. The plea of every dying animal. And she understood at once that there was only one kindness she could do for him now. The one she should have offered from the beginning.
Seo-yun made it quick.
The gumiho was still crying when Han-jae’s parents reached the sinkhole. Though they couldn’t see it any better than he had, the noise gave them warning and they stopped at the lip. “Han-jae?” his mother called out. “Han-jae, where are you?!”
Seo-yun leapt from the pit, landing between the two humans. They shrieked and shrank back from her, then began wailing as they saw the mangled, broken thing she let drop from her jaws. “Do you know why this happened?” she asked them softly, swinging her head to look at both of them in turn. Neither answered. “Do you know why?!” Her shout only made them shrink back further, torn between their desire to run from the monstrous thing in front of them, and their grief for their child.
“Because I am too stupid to learn any other way,” she spat. “Because a childish part of me keeps wanting to believe that I could be a kitsune. That I could be a protector. But I’m not. I am a gumiho and a killer and my parent’s legacy: living proof that man and fox were never meant to live together. And this is what happens when I give in to foolish delusions that I could be anything more.. It would have been kinder for all of us if I’d just ripped your son’s throat out the moment I found him.” Seo-yun bent down and gently kissed the boy’s forehead. “I’m sorry, Han-jae,” she told him. “I’m sorry that you had to suffer for my idiocy. I swear I won’t make this mistake again.”
She began to feed.
The sight of it broke his parents’ paralysis, and both of them ran. Neither of them got far.
At first, Seo-yun thought the lack of heat was just another dream, one of the exceedingly rare ones where she couldn’t feel the constant pain. It wasn’t until she felt her nipple rings being tugged that she realized she was awake. She blinked, trying to focus on her surroundings.
“Shhhh,” Morris urged quietly. “I’m trying to do this as gently as I can, but we have to be quick.” The tub was next to the fire now, and the man was undoing the chains around it, his movements jostling her rings painfully.
Oh. Levinson had decided on a new torture for her, one that would undoubtedly be even worse than this one. She went limp, offering no struggle as his man released her from the tub and helped her stand. He led her to some sort of strange metal contraption with wheels and seats and put her inside. Her suspicions seemed to be confirmed when he strapped her into the machine. “Just sit there for now,” he told her. “I’ll be back soon.” Then he disappeared from sight.
For a few minutes, Seo-yun just laid back, catching her breath. Her body still ached from the tub, but she felt more comfortable than she had all week. She eyed the belt holding her in place. Usually they had her under strict bondage at all times, but this… she touched a button next to it and the belt retracted. She was, for the time being, free.
She forced herself to slide out of the contraption, so exhausted that it felt like a physical pain. The forest beckoned to her, but she hesitated. If they noticed she was gone, she couldn’t outrun the slowest of them like this. And maybe… maybe it was a test. To see if they’d broken her yet. That would explain why they’d left her seemingly unguarded and in bondage that was so easily removed. They were waiting for her to try and run, and then they would put her back into the tub. She didn’t want to stay in the camp for another second, but the thought of going back to that hell made her tremble.
“What are you doing?” Morris hissed softly, and she jumped. The man was right next to her, climbing into the contraption himself. “Come on, get back in,” he said. “I got the key, but I had to punch out Jacobs and Riley to get to it, and there’s no way people didn’t hear us. They’ll be here any second.” She focused, and realized that she did hear movement and commotion around the camp. More than a few people, and all of them coming closer.
“Just get in!” he told her again. “I already slashed the tires on the other one. They won’t be able to follow us.”
Seo-yun didn’t understand his words, but she grasped the meaning behind them. He was talking about escape. About somehow using that machine to do it.
Her memories were still an open wound in her mind. He couldn’t really be talking about helping her. Nobody ever helped her, because she didn’t deserve help. That decided it. She’d been right to hesitate; this was a trap. “No,” she told him. “I… I’m going to be a good fucktoy.” She would do what she was supposed to, and not give them any reason to hurt her. And if they did it anyway, well, she couldn’t blame them. She deserved whatever she got.
Morris had a strange, sorrowful look on his face. “No, that’s not… you don’t have to be that anymore, I swear.” He grabbed at her arm but she pulled away from him. “Please, we can talk about this, just get in the car, please.”
The sincerity in his voice was the worst part. She could almost let herself believe that his offer was genuine. But she knew better. No human would ever help a gumiho like her. “No,” she insisted. “I’m not going to escape. I’m an obedient fucktoy now.”
“Please…” Someone pulled Morris away from her, out of the machine, and a moment later she was dragged out as well. She offered no resistance as they pinned her to the ground and began tying her down with her tails. This was all just as she’d expected, a test.
“I’m an obedient fucktoy,” she whispered, anxious to show how well she’d learned her lesson and would never run again. “I’m an obedient fucktoy, I’m an obedient fucktoy, I’m an obedient fucktoy…”
The sound of a man’s scream grabbed her attention.
She looked up to see four of the men bleeding on the ground. Only Morris and two others were still standing, and even as she watched, he drove his foot into one of their kneecaps, making the man cry out and crumple to the ground. Morris followed it up with a knee to the face that left his opponent as senseless as the others, and then smoothly pivoted away from the last man’s fist. He turned the pivot into an armlock, and bone crunched as he brought his elbow down on the captured arm.
Seo-yun was confused by the violence, which seemed remarkably genuine. Why were they going so far with this ruse? She had already demonstrated her obedience. She could almost believe that- no. No. It had to be fake. They would all get up in a minute and laugh at her. Were they expecting something more? Maybe if she sucked on them, they’d believe that she’d stopped trying to be anything but a good toy.
The last man collapsed, and Morris turned to her, barely breathing hard. “Please listen to me. I know you’re scared, but we-” His voice was silenced by a loud and unfamiliar noise, and Morris fell to one knee, a red stain spreading from his leg.
“You traitorous piece of shit,” Levinson snarled, walking towards them with a gun in his hand. Seo-yun pressed her forehead to the ground, desperate to show that she’d passed the test now that their skit was over. But he ignored her completely, his attention focused on Morris. To her utter shock, he punched the man in the face, blood fountaining from the hit. “What was the plan, huh? Thought you could sell her somewhere yourself, get all the money? Or could you just not stand the thought of having to share your fleshlight?” He kicked Morris in the stomach, hard enough to make him almost double over.
Seo-yun watched in silent horror as he continued to punch and kick the man, others joining in, and she could no longer hide from the truth. It… It hadn’t been a trap. A human had genuinely tried to help her, and she’d killed him too. Mother and Father had to be laughing at her from wherever they were. She started laughing herself, a hollow and hopeless sound, as her would be savior was beaten right next to her. She’d been right. She did deserve everything she got.