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Everything hurt… and she really meant everything. The last time Yuki could remember being in so much physical pain was… well, it was when hundreds of disgusting freaky baby spiders were busy eating her from the inside out. Likewise, today had inflicted more emotional agony than she could remember facing since… well, if she was being honest, she’d probably never faced more. The day had started out exhausting and gotten worse and worse and worse since then.
And yet, Yuki felt light.
Being alive was such a fucking pain in the ass these days. Anyone smarter or less stubborn than her would’ve done the sensible thing and bailed out by now. Everything had been so much easier back in the old days, when she’d been young and free. But maybe she’d just forgotten what those times had really been like… or maybe even back then, she’d already been great at lying to herself. Living was hard. Figuring out a way to make amends to Merielle was hard. Trusting people was hard. But this… this was the sort of thing she’d been born for.
Fighting was easy.
Yuki looked up and met Mai’s eyes. Her skin trickled with sweat and was coated with dried blood. Literally everything hurt. The sun was long since down, making the ambiance around her more eerie. The abandoned factory was pitch black save for the lights that Mai and her goons had had with them, casting the entire world in bright light and greys and inky black shadows… the domain of the nogitsune. This wreck of an old place had been abandoned for years, brown walls rusted and windows broken. Mai stood, legs bent and ears wary with tension from less than thirty feet away, her eyes focused on Yuki as if waiting for her to make the first move. Yuki just kept slowly pulling needles from her skin, wincing as she did.
Taking in a slow breath, Mai straightened her posture, as if all the years they’d known each other as friends and lovers had never meant anything to her. “Cute trick,” she said, her voice an emotionless deadpan. “I guess we’ll have to do this the hard way then. You should have run while you had the chance.”
Yuki nodded. “Yep.” There was truth to that. Fighting was probably stupid. She had survived by running… she had survived for centuries by running. Running from her fights. Running from her problems. Running from anyone who might dare to suggest that there was anything else she could try. The problem with running, however, was eventually you ran out of room. Some fights couldn’t… shouldn’t… be run from. Sometimes, you had to fight. “Though if you thought you could just take me, you wouldn’t have bothered with the deception.”
“Games are fun, babe,” Mai said, her mouth twisting in a smile. “You used to know that. Alright. Let’s end this, and you can finally rest. Then I’ll hunt down your precious little redheaded cunt and flay her alive if I need to to get that skin.” She slowly reached over her back and drew out a shining length of steel, the crescent blade of a katana gleaming in the dim light.
Yuki had never longed for her mother’s sword more. Instead, she lifted the bar of rusted iron that she had used to break apart Merielle’s chair. Still, though, she didn’t attack… the moment she moved forward, the talking about be over. “What’s so special about her skin?”
Mai laughed. “You really don’t know?” she asked. “You don’t know why Mordred will chase her to the edges of the Earth, why he kept her so close? Then you’re a bigger fool than I ever imagined.” A smirk crossed her face, and she raised the sword, settling her weight on her rear foot. “Die confused.”
“Why, Mai? I loved you.” Yuki swallowed, trying to keep the emotion out of her voice. Now wasn’t the time for that. “I could have… I could have helped you.”
“You only ever loved yourself,” Mai spat. And you can help me plenty… as soon as I have that skin, I’ll have everything I need… I’ll be exactly where I am meant to be,” Mai said, extending her arms out as if welcoming all the dark power she now possessed.
Yuki took a step back, knowing that Mai could attack at any moment and her eyes focused in the middle distance, loose, seeing everything but looking at nothing. The look in Mai’s eyes… Yuki knew there was no point in arguing. No point in trying to reach some part of her that she once knew. Mai was who she was. She tightened her grip on the rod, settled her weight… and flickers of blue foxfire flared to life throughout her tail as she called up power.
For all that she knew about foxfire and magic, Yuki didn’t understand witchfire as well as she should… she knew what it was, what it did, what it could do for her, but not where it came from and why it so lusted to destroy. What she did understand, though, was that it was fundamentally foxfire… that it matched the magic in her own soul. Drawing on it, really drawing on it with the intent to use it and drink deep, made her heart thrum with excitement through the fear and anticipation, and brought a sudden, bone-deep sense of exhilaration like she would feel watching the full moon rise on a summer night, or bathing in one of the hot springs of home. It almost drowned her in a sudden flood of unreasoning joy… but that wasn’t all it did. The magic also felt slimy, and wrong, and sticky like stepping on a piece of chewing gum and being unable to get it off the bottom of her shoes. The first moment she touched it, she had known it was wrong. Filled with hatred and the need for revenge, she simply hadn’t cared… and she’d paid the price for her arrogance.
But now she had it… and for all the darkness in it, it was strong. It filled her with the bellowing might of an army charging into battle, the lust for sex and blood, the rage at Mai’s betrayal and the terror of what she was going to do to Merielle… and to her… if Yuki couldn’t stop her. She drew it all in, good and evil, until the power rattled her bones in her flesh and quivered the air in her lungs. Irregular clouds of sharp blue sparks floated around her in a rotating pattern with Yuki at the center, the angry blue lights trailing bits of heatless fire down to the factory floor.
Mai smiled grimly. “Finally, you understand!” And the hairs on the back of Yuki’s neck stood up as she felt Mai summon up her own power, even before she saw the flames flicker to life. A lot of power… a lot more than Yuki had. A lot more.
Real war wasn’t like the movies. Combat was long minutes of terrified anticipation and dread, and then just seconds of horrible violence that felt like it lasted for years. The first instant of the duel nearly killed them both. Mai’s eyes blazed with psychotic glee as she snapped one hand up and summoned fire, the deadly gout of flame spraying forth before she had even gotten it pointed at Yuki, slashing the expanding wave of fire across the world like a sword. The attack was rapid, wide, and powerful, all but impossible to dodge, coming out too fast, covering too wide of an area.
Which is why Yuki wasn’t there anymore. Mai wore a smile as she watched her opponent raise her hands and cross them in a defensive arc as her own magic gathered around her, not nearly enough to stop the incoming blade of flame. When the blast connected, however, the conflicting energy dissolved the illusion in an instant, the image of Yuki vanishing before the fire exploded against the back walls of the factory. “More of your damn tricks!” Mai hissed, her smile disappearing.
Yuki had started moving at the same time she’d drawn up her power. Illusion was about more than mere power… it was about skill. It was about understanding the art of it… it was about misdirection and anticipation. Mai had more power than Yuki did… but Yuki had always been better. Coming from the back end of the abandoned factory, Yuki sprinted forward, directly toward Mai… barely feeling the agonizing pinch of the remaining needles in her skin as she masked their pain with the steel of raw determination. A few feet from her side, Mai began turning, her sword swinging… anticipating the direction of Yuki’s counter. The wounded fox slid, pressing the side of her body into the rough catwalk just as she turned to bring the katana around.
Extending her foot out to stop her motion, Yuki kicked off one of the railings, popping up in the wake of the attack, her veil falling as it conflicted with more of Mai’s power. She didn’t have a sword, but she lifted the heavy rod and slashed it across her, going for the woman’s face. It wasn’t sharp, but it was heavy… being clubbed across the face with it would probably be severe enough of an injury to take her out of the fight. Mai, however, hadn’t wasted the last five hundred years that Yuki had spent as a slave… two of her tails lashed out, grabbing onto Yuki’s leg and tugging her off balance long enough to slow the swing and give her a chance to take a single step back. It was enough to raise the sword and catch the rod on the back blade, ugly sparks flying as the blunt steel slid down to the crossguard.
Mai lashed out viciously with a kick, striking Yuki in the stomach and staggering her back, buying some room and disengaging them. “Die!” the nogitsune hissed, slashing for Yuki’s belly. With a quick spin, Yuki moved away from the attack and struck back. The two traded a series of lightning fast parries and counters but they were far from evenly matched… Yuki’s came slower, her weapon both heavier and less lethal, and in the deadly dance of steel she quickly fell behind.
Yuki took advantage of the opening in the wake of one sloppy parry by Mai to vault the railing, vanishing behind a veil as she did and sending an illusion of her going the other way. This time, Mai didn’t bother aiming for the illusion… she summoned up a firestorm, and a raging inferno of blue flame cascaded down around Yuki. Luck more than anything else kept her alive… none of the meteors of power landed solidly on her, and she could summon a flickering ward of her own power to deflect the weaker waves of flame even as the heat burned at the tips of her hairs and the trailing edges of her hair burned.
In a very real sense, it was significantly easier to actually create a blast of fire than it was to create the illusion of one. Fire, once summoned, would just behave like fire. An illusion, once summoned, wouldn’t behave like anything… it require focus, intent, and specific thought to allow it to continue acting the way it was expected to look. Foxfire wanted to be turned into illusion, and it took to the form easily and without spending much energy, but what it didn’t cost in power it made up for in focus.
That should have been offset by how much power it took to conjure up blasts of destruction like that, efficiency winning the day… but Mai had so much power. The pounding thrum of energy from the witchfire churning inside of her was growing no weaker… it seemed to Yuki like her opponent could throw blasts like this all day. Yuki, by contrast, figured she could maybe summon two, at most… and Mai might be able to block them. She would need to make any shot count.
Yuki leaped up onto an old, rusted piece of machinery that used to run the conveyors just as Mai sent off another blast of fire in the spot she originally stood… her illusion must have been burned away by the conflicting energies of the witchfire. Not wasting any time, Yuki grabbed onto the conveyor and flexed every muscle in her agile body. Every bit of her screamed in torment, dozens of needles she hadn’t had time to remove flaring into agony as she forced her abused body to work, but she sent herself sailing up and into the darkness, away from the firelight… and as she did an illusion took her place, vaulting back up onto the catwalk.
In a frantic set of actions Yuki sent her illusion to appear as if she was running toward Mai, when in fact she landed as softly on the other side of the factory as she could, with as much cover between the two of them as possible… pressing her back into the metal frame of the inner building walls as she took in a slow breath. She heard a blast of fire, and then Mai let out a cry of joy that turned into a hiss of displeasure, probably blasting her illusion after thinking it was really her. Mai had lost sight of her, but her haunting laugh followed the fox as she vanished.
“I’m growing tired of your trickery, Yuki!” Mai mocked, her voice seeming to come from everywhere at once as it echoed through the factory, disguised by her magic.
Okay. So she wasn’t as strong as Mai when it came to her magic. That was nothing new. She’d been weaker almost her entire life. Weaker than Akari and Akemi. Weaker than her mothers. Weaker than Seijun and Syllana and the twins. So instead, she’d had to be better.
Looked at that way, being weaker than Mai wasn’t all that bad. It was just familiar ground.
There was a long stretch of silence, and Yuki knew that she couldn’t stay here for long… Mai was searching for her. Still, she needed to take advantage of the short break to pull the needles out of her skin, one at a time. Without warning a blast of fire forced its way through to the left side of her, melting away the metal of the walled frame of the factory building as Mai blasted a hole big enough to fit through.
Yuki’s eyes widened. She had to be trying to aim at the sense of her fire in the room, which meant… She leaped and rolled just as a second blast came right behind it through the opening, colliding with the old machinery in front of her in a fireball that spat out thousands of molten metal shards like a rain of knives ready to pierce through her flesh. She grimaced in pain as one slashed through her thigh, opening a new agonizing burn across the naked nogitsune’s skin.
Mai hopped through the first hole she made with her katana in hand, just as Yuki rolled to her feet… but the bright flash of light had clearly blinded Mai as she was shielding her eyes. Yuki didn’t bother to check over her wound, too focused on facing Mai and ending this. She came up, drawing back her makeshift weapon as she lunged towards Mai. Nothing gave the illusion away… it was perfect, every scent and sound and look flawless, but Yuki looked at it and just knew it was wrong. Eyes wide, she threw herself to the side, having seen through the illusion in the second before a third blast of witchfire cut right through the false Mai and came within an inch of hitting her. Then the real Mai followed in its wake, her sword flashing as it struck for Yuki’s head.
“Die!” Mai hissed as Yuki frantically parried, over and over again. With each exchange, however, she pushed the larger, stronger kitsune back… not with strength, but with the greater threat presented by her sharpened steel to Yuki’s dull length, and Yuki spent more and more time on the heels of her of her feet than on the balls of them. With a victorious cry, Mai slashed her sword down against a sloppy parry, the edge of the blade cutting a deep furrow through Yuki’s arm. Blood seeped, dripping down her arm and into the fist holding the weapon, making the dark haired nogitsune wince as her grip was threatened. Mai smiled.
Using all her strength, she aimed a deadly slash across Yuki’s neck. Yuki ducked low and spun, extending her leg out to kick at Mai only for the other fox to jump it, tails flicking through the air after her effortlessly as she landed on the other side of Yuki. She lifted all of her weight onto her left hand, extending her arm and leg out as she kicked her left foot and connected it to Yuki’s jaw.
Yuki stumbled back, shaking away the blow as Mai leaped onto her feet, katana still grasped tightly.
“I’m glad it ends like this,” Mai said as she stepped forward, raising the sword. “I don’t know what waits on the other side for you, Yuki, but don’t wait for me… I won’t be coming.” She sneered and looked Yuki in the eyes, making sure Yuki could see the passion in her statement. “Your life ends today!” With a rage that seemed too big for her body, Mai lunged at Yuki with her katana, ready to destroy every part of her existence, and fire came with her.
Yuki slid to the side and then bent her body backward to dodge another cross body slash. She moved up forward, doing a quick front spin kick that nearly connected to Mai’s head. Then a second kick to the back of her leg.
Mai dropped to one knee from the blow just as Yuki tried to connect her own knee against Mai’s head. Swiftly, Mai blocked the attack and shoved Yuki back, giving herself enough time to stand. They traded blows between their swords, Yuki just barely managing to keep ahead of flickering darts of fire, too busy to lash out with magic of her own, to make a new illusion, to do anything but give ground one step at a time until another weakness came in. When Mai’s knee slammed against Yuki’s stomach, air left Yuki’s lungs as she wheezed out in pain, and she dropped to her knees briefly. She wasn’t fast enough as Mai’s foot collided with her face. Yuki fell backward and scrambled to a sitting position as she glanced around for a sense of direction.
“Just die already!”
Yuki summoned all the magic she could muster, creating the biggest fireball she should, and hurling it at Mai. Her body trembled with how much magic she was channeled, how unfamiliar it was to her to use so much destructive force. And Mai just sneered, brushing it aside with a blast of her own with contemptuous ease. “This is it,” Mai said aloud, blood splattered across the floor from where Yuki crawled across it as she backed away. There was no love in Mai’s eyes as she called up more fire while Yuki panted with her back against one of the gantries, one hand on the ground holding herself up as blood seeped from her dozens of needles and the healing cut on her arm. Mai took a few steps back and aimed her palm toward Yuki. “Goodbye, mistress.”
And she unleashed it.
Illusions were an art. It wasn’t about technique, though that helped. It wasn’t about power, though that helped. It was about creativity. It was about empathy. It was about understanding what they wanted to see. Show someone an illusion of what they expected, and they wouldn’t question it.
That wasn’t Yuki she was fighting… it hadn’t been Yuki since the fire ripped through the wall. That wasn’t a gantry the illusion was leaning against, but one of the factory’s generators. And that wasn’t blood on the ground.
It was gasoline.
The waft of fumes igniting was too much for even Yuki’s illusion to cover as the generator exploded, sending thousands of daggers of ruinous steel shooting in every direction in a far fiercer explosion than Mai could have ever prepared for. She cried out, sprawling backward as half a hundred patches of crimson opened up on the front of her body, tiny needles of shrapnel piercing her. Yuki, the real Yuki, emerged from behind the old office wall she had been hidden behind as Mai flew a dozen feet backward and off the catwalk.
Fire brewed everywhere as the metal of the building’s structure began to melt away… and Yuki jumped over the edge after her, calling up witchfire. Mai, eyes glowing with furious rage, was calling up her own, healing herself, burning away the injuries… too late.
Yuki threw fire down at her in a torrent.
Even as a little child kitsune, Yuki was always fascinated by the grace and hardened steel of the blade. To wield one was like performing an intricate dance, flowing from one place to another like water. Even at her young age, dancing was something she had already shown skill at… but nothing compared to her mother Yui. Yui moved like liquid shadow, her grey fur billowing around her like smoke as she seamlessly danced in and out of one of the dozen complex patterns she called a ‘kata.’ Her tails completed the illusion of moving fog, concealing the key points of movement where she would strike with a blade or the shift in a stance, hiding a change in the balance of her body or her foot, revealing only an illusion of innocent beauty. Her feet moved on the wind as she swung the sword, moving everything in her path out of the way… the tails parting just in time to allow the sword to pass through. The wind picked up in the darkening sky above as Yuki was hypnotized by watching… but not hypnotized that she missed the smells of Sarada’s cooking as it poured out of the household, inviting the young kitsune closer.
“Tell us a story, Sarada!” Akari cried excitedly as she rocked back and forth on the floor, her golden tails swinging energetically across the ground behind her as she all but bounced where she sat. “Story! Story! Story!”
Sarada laughed as she stewed the pot over the open fireplace. The food broth she brewed always seemed to burst with flavor. She was a much better cook than her wife Yui… and when she grew up, Yuki hoped that she would be able to cook as well as momma Sarada. “So you want to hear a story, Akari?” she asked with a curious chuckle. Yuki listened from just beyond the window as she continued to wield her blade with more finesse than would be expected of any child her age, reluctantly turning her attention away from Yui’s dance. “I suppose I could entertain you, children.”
“Oh grow up,” scoffed Akemi as she stood over her younger sister. She looked at her little sister with a big smile on her face. She wasn’t too much older than Akari, though she was nearly a foot taller and with tails twice as long. Thirty summers the red-haired kitsune had now lived, and was still only a child in the eyes of her people. She’d be most of a century old before anyone would call her an adult. “You don’t need a story. You need to start acting like a grown-up. Like me!”
Yuki sheathed her blade over her back in a traditional kitsune iaido carry over her back just like her mother had showed her and walked inside. She removed the carry, nestling it in a safe corner against the door as she started pulling on her tails, petting and nibbling one of them in her mouth by habit. “You’re not that much older than me, Akemi!” Akari protested. “It’s not like I’m still chewing my tails!”
Yuki’s ears twitched as she listened. She self-consciously pulled the tail tip out of her mouth before anyone saw… she hoped. The white fur was dark with her spit and she hoped neither of her sisters would notice. Akari was only a year older than her and these days she seemed to live to show the kind of difference that year made by acting as if she was the next authority under their parents. For only the millionth time, Yuki wished that she had learned to use kitsunebi, the mystic art of foxfire, already. Maybe then she could feel less embarrassed about herself around her siblings.
“Girls, girls, girls, please,” Sarada sighed, her tone placating and long-suffering, but her smile never wavered. She paused to take a sip of the soup, wincing before she reached over to add more spices into it. “So, a story. We can do a story. What should I tell you about? Do you want to hear about Aku, the fox who found himself trapped in the moon? You always liked that story. Or maybe Reshi, who sang a thousand songs until all the Oni forgot their names?”
“Those are all kid stories,” Akari pouted. “I’m almost ten, you know!”
“Which means you are still just a kid,” teased Akemi with a grin.
“Tell us a scary story!” the golden-furred kitsune protested. “I want to hear something big and adult! Something creepy crawly or like, uhm…” She paused and thought only to gesture like a ghost. “Spooky!”
Sarada chuckled as Yuki came over and sat down next to her sisters as they all waited for the food to be served. “Spooky, huh… Well,” the mother started. “I could tell you the story about your great grandmother.”
“No,” came Yui’s voice, still from outside. Even from outdoors, even focused on her kata, their other mother had heard that. Looking out the window at where she practiced, she hadn’t stopped… but one of her tails did twitch asynchronously to the side, disrupting the otherwise perfect pattern in her annoyance. “We will not be telling anyone about my grandmother tonight.”
There was a momentary silence as Akemi’s ear twitched at Yuki before looking at their mother. “She wants to be scared, tell her about the Wanderer then!” she said, a small, wicked smile on her face.
“Oh, I am not sure any of you are old enough to hear that story,” said Sarada. “Even you, Akemi.”
“Akemi’s heard it so I’m definitely old enough!” Akari insisted as she got up and came around to Yuki. “Look, I can put my hands over Yuki’s ears so it will be alright!”
“You will not!” Yuki hissed as she swiped her hands at her sister. “I want to hear!”
Yuki did not want to hear the story… not even a little bit. Hearing a scary story didn’t sound like fun to her, and one about something as foreboding-sounding as the Wanderer made her pale ears, as unblemished as her namesake, twitch nervously. The only thing more horrifying to her than that, however, was the thought of her sisters knowing she was too scared to sit in and listen like the rest of them.
“I don’t know,” said Sarada as she slowly trailed off on her words.
“They’re old enough,” Yui said softly as she stepped back into the house, her sword already sheathed. She was breathing just a little bit hard, and her body was shining with a thin layer of sweat that glistened the colors of the fire. Sarada smiled as her mate approached her and gently wrapped her arms around her lover. Yui brushed back her brown hair as she caressed her lips along the lining of Sarada’s neck. Sarada shivered as Yui pulled on her ear and softly whispered into her ear. Yuki watched with a keen eye, and her sharp ears heard her other mother’s lips as she spoke. “… needs to know…”
It was all Yuki could make out.
Sarada didn’t look convinced, but she turned away from the pot to look at her children. Before she began telling her story, however, Yuki noted that she preemptively scolded her wife. “Don’t you dare touch that,” she warned, stabbing a finger at the pot and getting a devious smirk from her wife in reply. Then she sighed and looked at her daughters. Yuki caught the seriousness in Sarada’s blue eyes, the same blue eyes that she and all her sisters shared with their mother. Sarada’s gaze seemed to linger on Yuki specifically for several seconds. “Listen now,” she started, kneeling down to sit in seiza position and curling her tails reverently around her legs. “I will tell you a story about hubris. About one man who was supposed to be the savior of us all, and led us to destruction instead. A story of a man loved by Inari like a son. The one who was the greatest among this world and was supposed to bring salvation… and instead brought only death. It is a cautionary tale, a story of why it is important to use your power responsibly…” She looked directly at Yuki as she continued. “And why you should never forget that the guardians of mankind exist to protect them, and not to rule them.”
“Ohh this is going to be good,” whispered Akari as she curled up to listen with great excitement.
Sarada took a deep breath. The other girls were all sitting in anticipation, Yuki most of all as her mother’s gaze made her heart pound heavily against her chest. She began to tell the tale. “Long ago, so long ago that not even the mountains had a name yet, there lived a man who would be king. Once a wandering monk and scholar, one who sought salvation in the greater arts of magic, he grew wise beyond his years… and using that power, he united his land beneath his throne. Then, other nearby lands. Then all lands, one by one, until every one of them was his.”
“He ruled Japan?” Akari asked.
“Japan didn’t exist yet,” Sarada said with a soft smile. “But he ruled the kingdoms that would one day become Japan, after the Sunrise Land separated from the continent. He ruled wisely and well, and all his people loved him. Humans, foxes, and a thousand other races lived together in harmony.
“But in time, he began to see himself as deserving to be more than just a mortal king. He wished to be not only ruler of the world, but of all that laid beyond it, to place himself above even Inari and the other gods and goddesses. And when they refused to submit to him willingly as all the people of the world already had… he sought to conquer them by force.
“The king defied the natural balance and forsook his duties to the deities and his own people both… He wielded spells that could level cities and end the lives of armies in an instant.” She snapped her fingers as she looked at Yuki still. “He thought himself untouchable…”
“What happened to him?” asked Akari as she stared at Sarada with wide, intrigued eyes.
Akemi looked at Yuki then back at her mothers. Yui was dipping one finger in the cooling pot to taste the food as she listened, her eyes silently entreating her daughters not to give her away. Sarada smiled softly. “He was, of course, defeated… By Inari herself, so the stories say. The goddess swept down from the heavens and smote him for his evil, washing his sin away upon a burning blade of light and cursing him. The dark forces he commanded that survived their master’s fall were scattered into the blackest regions of the land, never to be seen by humans or kitsune again. They are known as the Binding Brides… the Jorogumo. The king himself, however… it is said that Inari could not bring herself to kill the other she had once loved. He was cursed to wander the Earth forever instead, forever to see what he could have had, had he obeyed the natural order, but never to rejoin it.” Sarada settled, then breathed out as she finished her story. “Girls, I tell you this story for two reasons. Do you know what they are?”
“To never think yourself more worthy than a god,” said Akemi with a nod.
“And stay away from the Jorogumo!” said Akari.
“That no one is untouchable,” said Yuki as she looked down, wondering why she seemed to be targeted by her mother’s gaze throughout the story. She petted her white tails for a moment before standing and returning to get her sword, no longer feeling hungry for anything else. She wanted to think. “I don’t think I’m untouchable,” she muttered to herself.
She listened to her family as they gathered back together to eat and change the subject to other things. Yuki, however, wanted to focus more on her skills as she took up her blade once more and headed back outside into the dimly lit night. She unsheathed her blade and proceeded to whip it back and forth in the air aggressively, wanting nothing more than to forget the harrowing cautionary tale. She wasn’t untouchable… but someday she would be.
That was the real moral of the story. That there was no such thing as good enough, no such thing as strong enough. There was always stronger.
Slowly, Mai crawled for the factory opening. She had parts of her skin burnt from her own fiery blast, and more from Yuki’s… only partially deflected. She crawled away as quickly as she could, agonized, weak… and Yuki walked after her. She held Mai’s sword in her hand, following after the crawling nogitsune as her tails dragged on the ground and she fled as quickly as she could, desperate, terrified. She wasn’t faking it… Yuki had fought a thousand battles and more in her life. Mai was too weak to continue fighting. If Yuki wanted her dead, she was helpless to stop it. Still, she tried to escape.
Behind her, the factory burned. “Please…” Mai said softly. Her voice was gentle now, weak. Pleading. “Please mistress, please…”
Yuki leaned down and grabbed onto her hair, yanking her head up and exposing her neck. “Please mistress!” Mai screeched. “I love you! I love you! I-”
Yuki punched her once, then dragged her away from the burning factory. About thirty seconds later, the other generators finally went up, triggering secondary explosions as the building began to collapse. After all the years they’d shared together as lovers and friends, it was… perhaps surprisingly hard to let Mai die now. She was one of the few remaining links back to her past, to better times… to family. Yuki looked towards the factory as it burned and collapsed, shaking her head in disgust. Behind them, witchfire blazed.
“Look at all the destruction you can cause. For what?” Yuki looked down at Mai in anguish. “Power. The same power that has nearly killed you.” She hunched over Mai, whose eyes widened in fear.
“Please mistress forgive me… I was blind! I love you, I swear I do!” She waited for Yuki to strike one last deadly blow, but instead Yuki leaned over her and pressed a soft kiss to her forehead.
“No…” Yuki said softly. “You don’t. You never did.” She stood up, tapping the sword on the asphalt once as she stood over the injured nogitsune. “Thank you, Mai… for reminding me of something I’d forgotten.” Her voice was distant as she spoke. “That I’m not like you at all.”
Then she rested the katana against Mai’s throat. “You have five minutes to convince me to let you live, Mai. Now, you are going to tell me… quickly… everything you know about Merielle and her skin, everything connecting her to the vampire… all of it.”
Mai swallowed in terror… but Yuki could see the calculating look in her eyes. Nothing like the terror on her face was in them as she tried to decide how much to say, what to say. Gods, how hadn’t she seen it before? “All of it!” Yuki snapped, pressing the sword harder against her until a thin line of blood trickled down the edge.
“Mordred offered Syllana a deal to help her recover the selkie,” Mai said quietly. “He didn’t say why, but… I was able to put a few things together. She’s not really a selkie.”
Yuki rested a foot on Mai’s back and shoved her injured body down into the gravel until she let out a breathless cry. “Yes, she is. Try again!”
“She wasn’t always!” Mai choked out. “Mordred… he’s sure she’s the girl that got him cursed. The first victim of his bloodlust. He killed her and her sister thousands of years ago!”
“That’s not possible,” Yuki said, considering. “A human soul couldn’t take something like that. The amount of energy it would take to do that would be…” Her voice drifted off as she considered.
“Good thing he’s been killing and collecting energy for centuries… and he’s been left with just the scraps of it, Yuki! Most of it has gone into that skin! It would be inefficient… we could only maybe use a tenth of it and the rest would be wasted, but with that kind of excess energy we could remake our skins, be free of Syllana once and for all!” Mai’s face took on an earnest, friendly, excited look. “Look, there’s enough for both of us probably. I’ll even let you go first just to be sur- Gurk!”
Yuki removed the blade from her neck for a bare instant before stepping on her throat and driving her weight in, grinding her foot into it and silencing Mai. “If you step within a hundred miles of Merielle ever again,” Yuki said, leaning down to stare into Mai’s eyes, “I will end you.” She continued her glare. “There is no we, Mai. The only reason I don’t kill you where you stand is that I loved you once… and even if that meant nothing to you, it meant something to me… but you have already pushed well past my indulgence in you. If I ever see you again, I will show your insides to the sky and let the kami judge.” Mai’s face was turning blue by the time Yuki stood slowly, finally removing her foot from the other woman’s neck as she put her katana away. She sucked in a long breath, reminding herself that she was stronger than her anger.
More than a little bit of her wondered if it was wise to let Mai continue to live… if it might not be smarter to end this right now, but… Yuki doubted she would ever forgive herself. She had enough regrets about her past, but there was no way to avoid them… she could only make the decisions she would regret the least. Despite the darkness within Mai, Yuki still cared about the woman she had once loved… even if she had never been loved in return. It didn’t matter who Mai was. It only mattered who she was… and it was high time Yuki remembered that.
Everything hurt… but it was done. With nothing left to say, Yuki turned her back on Mai, leaving her there as she walked away to begin her new journey. One that had no room for Mai in it.