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“So he finally claws his way out of the pit and makes it back to camp, right?” Hanabi was telling Tomo. The two of them were seated at the kitchen table in her house, drinking tea and sharing the confectionery Tomo had bought on the way over. The white haired kitsune’s fingers were sticky with red bean paste, and she was casually licking it off as she continued her story. “Can barely walk, face swollen up with bites, and he won’t even tell the others what happened. Just stumbles into the barracks and collapses onto his bed. Passes out before he hits the sheets. And theeeeen…” She grinned and sipped more of her tea.
Her friend gasped slightly. Tomo was a brown haired, bespectacled girl the same age as Hanabi, though she was more than a full head taller. If she ever stood up straight she’d be one of the tallest foxes in the village, but she had a mousy nature that belied her height, and tended to shrink no matter the occasion. “No, you didn’t!”
Hanabi’s grin widened. “Even more centipedes!” She collapsed into a fit of giggles, her white tails bobbing happily, and Tomo joined her. “The guy screamed so loud when he woke up that I thought he was gonna burst something!”
It was late afternoon in the village, and the setting sun shone in brightly through the windows, illuminating the dust motes in the air as the two girls laughed themselves silly. The scent of summer had already been replaced by autumn, but the kitchen was as warm and cozy as ever. When Hanabi had been born, a little more than one hundred and twenty years ago, the house had been heated with a bulky coal furnace that complained loudly every night, but the villagers did their best to keep up with the technology of the times, and the electric furnace keeping the young fox warm now was much smaller and quieter. Everything else was similarly modernized, and a visitor would have seen nothing to distinguish the interior from any other house in Japan.
Except for the fox ears and tails of its inhabitants, of course. Hiding them with foxfire was one of the first tricks every kitsune learned growing up, but Hanabi could count the number of times she’d had to do that on the fingers of one hand. The village of Hanei was so secluded that they might as well have been living on the moon, and there was no need to hide their forms here. Poor Gen, who supervised bringing items in and out of the village, was the only one who walked around concealed, and that was only because the absentminded man worried that he’d forget to do so in the outside world if he didn’t make a regular habit of it.
“Goddess, Hanabi, I don’t know how you can even do all that stuff!” Tomo said when the laughter had subsided a few minutes later. “Aren’t you scared of them catching you?” She blushed slightly, the tips of her furry ears twitching. “I’ve heard… stories… about what humans do to foxes they catch.”
Hanabi snorted. “What, those guys? Please! They’re all slow, stupid, can’t see, can’t smell… I’m in more danger of slipping in the shower and cracking my head open than getting caught by dummies like them.”
There wasn’t actually any need to go venturing out to ward off the hunters that came looking for them, even military outfits like the one she’d been playing with for the last week. The village was concealed within a massive and intricate set of illusions that would throw off any intruders trying to find it, messing with their sense of direction and sending them down false avenues. In her century and more of life, no one had ever managed to get closer than two miles from the village outskirts.
But that was so boring. The white fox’s tails twitched eagerly. “I should take you out with me next time! You’ll see what I mean. There’s nothing scary about it at all, I promise!”
She resisted adding that if Tomo was worried about unwanted male attention, just staying in the village wouldn’t be enough. Her friend was gorgeous, with long silky brown hair and a soft, shy face. And even if she shaved herself bald and put on a kabuki mask, her height wasn’t the only place where Tomo had developed far above average. Her brother Tobi was probably the only man in the village who didn’t drool at the sight of her curves, and it wasn’t just men interested in them.
Hanabi, on the other hand, well, she wouldn’t call herself ugly, but she was shorter than average and less… developed than average. She loved Tomo, but it was hard to avoid comparing herself to her sometimes. And of course, even if she was the bustiest girl in the entire village, it wouldn’t do much for her romantic prospects. Not with this white fur of hers.
From Tomo’s expression, she’d just invited the girl to walk into a grain thresher. “Go outside Hanei?” Her friend shuddered. “But I’ve never… everyone says it’s not safe out there. That’s why we have to hide ourselves.”
Hanabi sighed. “Tomo, what did you do yesterday?”
“Restitched some clothing,” the brown fox said promptly. They imported most of their clothes, but humans rarely made outfits that could accommodate tails, so they had to be modified after they were brought in. Tomo wasn’t the only tailor, but with over five hundred kitsune to clothe, there was always more work to do.
“And what did you do last week?”
“Restitched some more clothes.”
“And all of last year?”
Tomo hesitated. “The same thing…”
“The last ten years?”
“It’s important work!” her friend said defensively. “And they’re always getting torn up, and humans keep changing their styles, and everyone wants the newest ones…”
“I know, I know,” Hanabi said, holding up her hands. “That’s not what I mean. We’ve lived nearly two entire human lifetimes by now, and we’ve spent all of it here, in the same place, with the same people, doing the same things over and over and over.” She groaned and squirmed restlessly in her seat. “Just saying it out loud makes me want to scream! Don’t you ever want to try something different and exciting? Something far, far away from here?”
“I like our village, ” Tomo said earnestly. “I like the people in it, and I like getting to help them. I don’t mind if what I do isn’t exciting. It’s a good life.”
“I like everyone too,” Hanabi said, not mentioning that most of them didn’t like her. “But I don’t want to keep being stuck here in a loop for decade after decade. I wanna see stuff, and do stuff, and meet new people. Have some excitement in my life! I want to live, Tomo, not just be alive.”
“You’ll be neither if you keep wandering blindly into danger like a newborn kit,” said a wry voice behind them. Tomo flinched at the unexpected sound, and her cup of tea rattled against the table.
“Hi Dad,” Hanabi said brightly, twisting around to turn and look at her father. “You’re home early.”
Nobu was a short, dark haired man with gray fur and a thick mustache, and the scowl on his face didn’t lessen at the sight of her smile, but there was a twinkle in his eyes as he looked back at his daughter. “Your father and I have a lunch date today,” he said. “You’d know all about it if you’d been home with us last night instead of out daring the universe to teach you a lesson in humility.”
Hanabi stuck her tongue out at him. “Wrong way around, Dad. I’m the one doing the teaching. There’s a whole bunch of guys out there who now know why sane folk don’t try to bother foxes.”
“I’d hardly call you an expert in sane folk right now,” Nobu told her. “It’s one thing to go play tricks on a stray hunter or two, give them a little scare and a story to tell. But those weren’t hunters out there, Hanabi, they were troops. You make one mistake, just one, and you’ll be lucky if all they do is slit your throat and kill you.” Tomo shivered, her eyes wide.
A pair of thin arms wrapped around Nobu’s torso from behind. “I appreciate what you’re trying to do, dear,” Kamio said softly, “and I agree with you, really, but maybe let’s not talk about our daughter getting her throat slit?” The blond man kissed the side of his husband’s neck. “Hmm?”
Nobu’s face went slightly red and he coughed. “Sorry, I just…”
“Oh, I know, ” Kamio told him dryly, eyeing Hanabi. He was slender, with a boyish face that belied the fact that he was nearly twice his husband’s age. “Believe me, I know.”
“I’m being safe,” Hanabi insisted, trying not to wilt under her father’s gaze. Kamio was always very soft spoken, never displaying anger or raising his voice. He didn’t have to. “I stay cloaked all the time, and I use proxies for everything, just like you taught me.” With an effort of will, she hid herself. Becoming completely invisible was impossible, but by masking sight, sound, and smell, she became little more than a ripple in the air. Somebody who knew she was there and had sharp senses would be able to spot her, but to everyone else, she was a ghost. At the same time, she created a convincing replica of herself a few feet away. “See?” the proxy said, twirling in place. Hanabi quickly shifted its appearance to Nobu, Bertran, Tomo, and then back to herself. “Untouchable and untraceable. Perfectly safe.”
“Mmm hmm,” Kamio said, not sounding at all convinced. “So you’ve learned how to hide your heat, then?”
“My heat?” Hanabi asked incredulously,as she released the cloak and let her proxy fade away. She’d never heard of anyone doing something like that before. “It’s not like I’m getting up close to them. They’re not going to notice a little body heat.”
“Oh really? And if they have infrared goggles?”
“If they did, they already would have used them,” the girl protested. “I haven’t seen anything like that in their camp.”
“I didn’t ask you if they’d used goggles,” Kamio told her. “I asked what you would do about them. And while you’re at it, when was the last time you tried cloaking yourself in a snowstorm without the falling snow giving away your position? What’s your plan if you unexpectedly run out of foxfire? And if you did get captured, what are the four tenets every prisoner should adhere to? When was the last time you practiced slipping free from knots? Have you ever practiced slipping free from knots?”
“I, um…” Hanabi said weakly. “I… I’d figure something out.”
“Oh, then I guess we don’t have to worry about her after all,” Kamio told Nobu. “Our daughter will ‘figure something out’. Say, do you recall the last time she tried to do that with the stove? When she decided to ‘figure out’ flambé cooking?” Hanabi studiously avoided glancing up at the soot mark on the ceiling.
“I do,” Nobu said slowly. “I also remember the night after that, when she tried again and the three of us had a wonderful dinner.” Hanabi nodded proudly.
“You’re not seriously taking her side now, are you?” Kamio asked.
His husband sighed. “No, just the side of realism. When was the last time we told Hanabi not to do something and she actually listened?”
“Hey, I listen!” the white haired girl protested. “I just don’t blindly do what I’m told. Because I’m not a child anymore, no matter how much you keep wanting to treat me as one.” She was young, but even by kitsune standards, she’d been an adult for decades already. If she was human, she’d be in her early twenties right now, and looking ahead to a bright future, instead of staring down the barrel of centuries of monotony.
Both of her parents ignored her. “You have a point,” mused Kamio. “So what are you suggesting?”
“That we can either sit around waiting for inevitable disaster…’ said Nobu. “Or… we can try to teach her better.” He coughed. “You can try to teach her better. We both know I couldn’t foxfire my way out of a paper bag.”
Hanabi’s ears perked up and her tails swished against the floor. Teach her? “Yes!” she agreed eagerly. “That one. Let’s do that one!” Her father Kamio had fought in the War seven hundred years ago, and she knew he’d picked up skills back then that went far beyond the standard foxfire techniques she’d been taught, but he never liked to talk about any of it. She’d been wanting to learn them from him all her life.
“Oh, no you don’t,” Kamio told Nobu. “If we’re really going to encourage her like this – and I haven’t agreed to that yet – we do it together.”
“But I can’t-“
Kamio put a finger on his lips to quiet him. “I teach her how to stay out of trouble, you teach her what to do when trouble finds her anyway.”
A small smile appeared on Nobu’s face. “I thought you didn’t want me doing that sort of thing anymore. I seem to remember the words ‘reckless’ and ‘endangerment’ being tossed around.”
“And if our daughter decides it’s too much for her and would rather swear to never leave the village and pull foolish stunts again, then our problem will have solved itself.” He finally looked back at Hanabi. “That’s the only way I’ll agree to this. You learn from both of us or neither, and if you give up halfway through, no more outside trips. Not without my sister’s express permission, anyway.”
Hanabi tried not to flinch at the mention of her aunt. Captain Ichika was in charge of village security, coordinating the shifts that maintained the foxfire illusions and leading the scouts that dealt with would-be intruders directly. The two of them had been clashing for decades; Ichika hated the idea of someone not under her command going out and doing what should be a scout’s job, and Hanabi hated all the rules and regulations that the woman insisted on for her people. Whenever she ventured out, she was far more worried about being noticed by her aunt and given a long lecture than she was about anything the humans might try.
“Are you still certain you want lessons?” Kamio asked, his quirked lips telling her that he’d noticed her reaction.
“Of course!” Hanabi said. She wasn’t sure how much if anything Nobu could teach her, but it would be a small price to pay for Kamio’s training.
Kamio patted his husband on the back and separated from him. “Alright then, she’s all yours for now.” He took the seat next to Tomo, who was still silently watching the proceedings. “They’re going to be a bit, dear, but you’re welcome to wait here as long as you like. How are your parents doing these days? Tsukasa still working on that mural of hers?” He poured her a fresh cup of tea.
The scent of the tea reminded Hanabi of her own still half full cup resting on the table, and she reached for it, only to yelp as one of Nobu’s tails slapped her hand away. “That hurt!” she accused, rubbing her stinging fingers. “I just wanted to finish mine before we got started.”
“We’ve already started,” her father said. “But go ahead and have your tea.” He beckoned her to take it.
Hanabi reached for the cup, and wasn’t surprised when his tail blocked her again. This time she avoided another painful slap, but came away empty handed. “This is the lesson?” she asked skeptically. Nobu said nothing, but he wore a small smile now.
The white fox sighed. “Dad, this is silly. I’m not going to-” She lunged for the cup with both hands this time, but Nobu was ready for her, and pulled it away with another tail. He let it hang in the air between them, the tip of his tail curled lightly around it.
Hanabi grinned as she crouched and sprang for it. Nobu’s tail whipped back and forth, nimbly avoiding her grasping hands without the man himself taking a single step. She circled around him, chasing the bobbing teacup as his tail went this way and that. It always remained mere inches from her grasp, so frustratingly close that she knew it was a deliberate act on his part.
Her own tails swished happily as she played her father’s game. Hanabi had always known he was better at using his tails than most kitsune, but she hadn’t realized until now how much better. “Our tails are not decorations,” Nobu told his daughter calmly as he continued easily evading her. “They aren’t pillows or blankets or bedding. They are soft, warm, and fuzzy, yes. But they are also useful.”
Taking a page from his book, Hanabi snapped her own tails forward. She had nowhere near enough manual dexterity to hold the cup with one as he was doing, but if she could just knock it out of his hands, that might be enough. Nobu nodded in approval and tossed the cup to the side to evade her, just as quickly catching it with a second tail. He began passing it from tail to tail, avoiding all her attempts to reach it.
Minutes passed as she doggedly kept at it, though it was clear she was outmatched. Kamio and Tomo both watched nearby as father and daughter enjoyed themselves, until Hanabi began to slow down, red faced and puffing for breath. “As limbs,” Nobu said, “they’re more dexterous than arms, longer, able to bend at multiple spots. Hands are still better for fine motor control, but a kitsune who doesn’t make full use of their tails is voluntarily crippling themselves.” His tail whipped around a final time and left the cup spinning slightly in place on the table. Hanabi glanced inside and saw he hadn’t even spilled any of the tea.
Nobu gestured for her to take it, and didn’t stop her this time. It had cooled some, but still possessed a satisfying warmth as she downed it. “That was… fun…” she said, still panting lightly from the effort. “You can teach me to do that?”
Her father nodded. “Any kitsune can learn, as long as they put in the time and effort. They need to be trained and exercised like any other limb.”
They certainly felt exercised. Hanabi couldn’t remember the last time she’d moved them around as much, and they drooped tiredly now, tingling with a pleasant soreness. The game had been fun, but she was in no hurry to use them again any time soon. Her kitsune regeneration couldn’t do much when it came to sore muscles. They’d recover faster than a human’s, but the body still had to do much of the repair work naturally in order for the muscles to strengthen.
Despite her exhaustion and aching tails, Hanabi was practically bouncing in place as she turned to Kamio. “And now it’s your turn to teach me, right?”
“Oh honey,” Kamio said sympathetically, though the corners of his mouth twitched up. “You really have no idea what you agreed to, do you?”
“That wasn’t the lesson,” Nobu told her. “That was just the demonstration. Now we start the lesson proper…”
“You can’t be serious, right?” Hanabi asked weakly a few minutes later.
“You know, that’s exactly what I said when your father tried to teach me,” Kamio told her, no longer able to hide his smile. Even Tomo was fighting not to giggle. “Our first and last lesson.”
“Don’t listen to him,” said Nobu. “He just cared too much about his appearance to commit to it. Not like you, Flower.”
“And I… don’t care about appearance?” Hanabi asked. She hadn’t looked at herself in the mirror yet, but she was in no hurry to. When her father had told her to put her arms behind her back and clasp her hands together, she hadn’t thought about it too hard. She’d just thought it was going to be an exercise in balance or something, maybe practice picking things up with her tails. She definitely hadn’t anticipated him producing a roll of duct tape from beneath the sink and using it to bind her arms in place. He’d made sure it was comfortable, but still… she felt ridiculous. “Wait, wait, wait. Are you expecting me to leave the house like this? Dad, I promise to never ask why you’re so good at duct tape bondage if you don’t make me do this.”
“Nobody is making you do anything, Flower,” Kamio reminded her. “You can stop aaaaanytime you want. No more lessons, no more dangerous outings. What do you say?”
Hanabi gritted her teeth. “You’re not getting out of this that easily, Dad.” There was no way she was going to let this deter her from getting a lesson with him. “And can’t I just promise not to use my hands instead of doing this?”
“It’s only for the first few months,” Nobu told her. “Until your body gets used to it. You’re going to break some plates and glasses while you adjust, but we can always get more, and you’ll adjust faster than you think. When your body can’t rely on arms and legs anymore, it quickly learns to make do with tails.”
“And legs?” Hanabi asked. “You’re not… seriously…” She quieted down while Kamio nearly died laughing.
“That’s after the first two weeks,” Nobu told her, ignoring his husband. “And I promise, a few laps around the village and you’ll have no trouble walking on your tails. But for now…” he clapped his hands. “Why don’t you help me make dinner? And be sure to fetch a mop and broom first.”
“No more running away, Dad,” Hanabi said. “I’ve jumped through every last hoop; are you going to teach me or not?”
The mop and broom had certainly been necessary, but dinner had eventually been prepared and eaten. Very slowly eaten. Nobu didn’t tell her whose idea it had been to have soup for dinner, but Kamio’s smile had been answer enough. Tomo had actually had a harder time of it than Hanabi. The poor girl had tried very hard not to laugh at the white fox’s attempts to eat, until Hanabi had given up and finally started laughing at herself. That had opened the floodgates, and soon both girls were practically rolling on the floor, giggling.
By the time the meal was over, the sun had long since set, and it was time for Tomo to head home before her family started to worry. “You’re already improving,” she had told Hanabi before departing. “Really! You were much better at eating by the end. You’ll be an expert soon, I’m sure of it.”
“You bet I will,” Hanabi had agreed cheerfully. She wasn’t quite as certain as she sounded, but she appreciated her friend’s attempt to encourage her. “I’m gonna master this in no time!” Tomo had hugged her, a gesture which Hanabi had awkwardly returned with her tails, and then the girl had left, leaving just Hanabi and her parents now. One of whom had a promise to keep.
Kamio was sitting in a recliner in the living room, his feet propped up as he read a thick tome. He looked up at her. “Are you sure you don’t have to, I don’t know, balance a treat on your nose first? I wouldn’t want to interfere with your regimen.”
“She did do everything,” Nobu pointed out from the kitchen. Thankfully he’d volunteered to clean up dinner himself, though Hanabi suspected it might have been less an act of charity and more an attempt to preserve the few remaining glasses. “Even with someone trying to make her feel foolish for doing so.”
Kamio sighed. “You’re right, you’re right,” he said, putting the book down and raising his hands in defeat. “Let’s go for a walk.”
“Outside?” Hanabi asked doubtfully, eying the door. She knew she was going to have to let the other villagers see her like this eventually, but she was in no hurry.
“I’ll give you a coat,” Kamio said. “Just don’t jostle it too much and no one will notice that your hands aren’t where they should be. Come on.”
There was a definite chill to the air when they stepped outside, and Hanabi was grateful for the coat. “Where are we going?” she asked her father.
Kamio nodded towards the hill at the center of the village. It wasn’t nearly as tall as many of the trees in the forest, but it towered over the buildings. A gently sloping path made a lazy spiral up to the summit. “The temple.” He said nothing further as they walked, and Hanabi didn’t try to pry. She’d endured a lot getting him to this point, and she wasn’t going to screw it up now.
The interiors of the village buildings kept up with modern times, but their exteriors had retained a more traditional Japanese design that was very nearly unchanged from when Hanabi had been born a century ago. The rest of the village followed a similarly old fashioned aesthetic. There were no paved roads to be found, only paths of dirt and stone that were lined with trees, their branches already beginning to grow bare in preparation for winter. A slow moving stream cut straight through the village, curving around the temple hill. It was a peaceful, quiet, and supremely boring place.
The village of Hanei had existed for more than a millennia as the largest known community of kitsune in the world. It was hidden not only by foxfire, but by the thick forest of Shirakami Sanchi, five hundred square miles of protected wilderness in northern Japan. Most of its families had been here for generations, but the occasional newcomer showed up, driven here by fear of the Paradisium or other threats. Only a fellow fox could have any hope of even noticing the protective wards, but none who found the place were ever turned away.
Lanterns hung from the trees, providing pools of lights as the two of them walked. Kitsune had inherited some nocturnal tendencies from their animal brethren, so though it was getting late, they passed more than a few neighbors on the journey. Their greetings were amiable, but the girl sensed the reservation in them when they saw the color of her fur and realized who she was. It wasn’t that the other kitsune were ever mean to her because of her fur. They were polite, even friendly, but there was always a distance between her and them. A barrier that stopped her from ever truly belonging. White furred foxes only appeared once every few centuries, and the last one had made quite an impression.
Nobody wanted to share the full details with Hanabi, but she’d picked up bit and pieces. She knew that the woman had been seen as a troublemaker in her youth. She knew that she’d fought hard in the War and been respected for her accomplishments there, loved even. But then she’d turned against Inari Herself, corrupting her own foxfire and somehow twisting it into a weapon of destruction. She hadn’t been alone either, inspiring an entire band of followers into joining her rebellion. In the end, all of them had been cursed and cast out for their crimes, becoming the fearsome demons known as nogitsune.
That was the legacy of her white fur, and she was conscious of it every time she interacted with the others, especially since she’d spent her childhood acting out and generally being a menace before she’d learned about her heritage. How many people had thought about that cursed white fox every time Hanabi had caused trouble? How many people had ever wondered if she might grow up to be another Yuki? She didn’t know, and she didn’t want to know. What she did know was that when they were nice to her, it was the same sort of way you’d act nice to someone pointing a gun at you. It wasn’t genuine affection behind their actions, it was fear of her. Well placed fear, maybe.
Just one more reason to enjoy going out alone into the woods.
It wasn’t a long trip, but it seemed to take forever for Hanabi, whose anticipation grew with every step. For decades she’d been trying to convince her father to teach her, and now it was finally happening. She’d happily let Nobu truss her up like a turkey and hang her outside the house every day if it meant learning all of Kamio’s secrets.
The temple was a large stone building that looked like it had sat there since the dawn of time. As far as Hanabi knew, it had. She’d heard it had already been ancient when the village was founded many centuries ago. Its great doors stood open, welcoming anyone who wished to visit. The foyer beyond was mostly bare, save for the large brazier at its center. It was shaped like a large metal bowl nearly ten feet across, and its sides were adorned with countless glyphs and runes celebrating kitsune history. Hanabi didn’t consider herself a particularly religious person, but the sight of its flame tamped down her giddiness, and she entered the temple with something approaching solemnity. Their feet padded silently across the stone floor as Kamio led her right up to the brazier, close enough to feel its heat on her face.
Kamio laid a hand on the underside of the brazier, soaking in its warmth. Save for Megumi, the priestess who lived here and maintained the grounds, Hanabi had never seen anyone touch it before, and there was an intimacy to the gesture that even the priestess never displayed. “Do you know what foxfire is, Hanabi?” he asked. Even though she’d expected him to talk, and his tone was quiet, the sudden break in the silence still made the white haired girl jump.
“I-it’s magic that lets you create illusions,” Hanabi said, trying to shake off her timidity.
Her father didn’t look at her as he shook his head, his hand absently stroking the metal. “No, it’s not magic, and it doesn’t create illusions. It creates.”
“I don’t understand,” she said truthfully.
“Kitsune aren’t mortal like the humans are,” he said slowly, as though still working out the words. “But we’re not divine beings like Inari either. We’re something in between, straddling both worlds: mortal frames with a spark of Her divinity inside. Foxfire is more than just some magic power for performing tricks, Flower. It’s a part of our soul. And when our mortal frames die…”
Hanabi couldn’t help looking at the fire dancing inside the brazier. Inari’s Flame. It had been burning for as long as kitsune had lived here, fed regularly by Megumi and whatever priests and priestesses had come before her. It was said to have originated from a piece of Inari’s own foxfire, but that wasn’t what made Hanabi feel a sense of reverence when she saw it. Kitsune didn’t die often in the village, but when they did, this was their final resting place. “We become foxfire,” she said softly.
Kamio nodded. “We become foxfire, and return to Her side in the lands beyond. That’s why we put our empty shells in here, so that they can mix with Inari’s Flame and become foxfire themselves. A small piece of every past kitsune lives on within Her fire.” He touched the brazier again, and this time Hanabi understood the gesture, and why there were tears in his eyes as he did it: he was greeting old friends.
“So… when I use foxfire, I’m using my soul?” Hanabi asked.
“Part of your soul,” he corrected. “Think of it like…” He thought for a few moments before going on. “Imagine your soul was the river outside, and you wanted to use some of its water for…” He waved his free hand idly. “Something, somewhere. You can’t pick up the river itself and take it with you, but you can take a cup and fill it in the stream. Its size is nothing compared to the source, but now you have a piece of the river that you can bring anywhere and use for anything. And when the cup runs dry, you can always return to the river and fill it again.” He frowned. “It’s not a perfect analogy – using foxfire doesn’t deplete your soul anymore than going for a run depletes your muscles – but I’m not the wordsmith of the family. I’m sure Nobu could come up with a much fancier explanation.”
“No, I think I get it,” Hanabi said. “It’s like if you had a computer where 99% of the hard drive is unusable because it’s full of system files you can’t do anything with, but you’ve still got that 1% of free space you can mess around with and reuse over and over.”
“I have no idea what any of that means, but sure,” Kamio said. “Whatever works for you.”
The white fox rolled her eyes. “Both of us were alive before computers even existed, Dad. You don’t have an excuse to be tech illiterate if I’m not.”
“There’s a difference between being a mere century old,” Kamio said dryly, “and already being ancient when electric lights were a newfangled invention. The best part of living to be my age is getting to be set in my ways and never having to learn anything new. But if you really want, I’ll do my best to forget all of this crusty old knowledge of mine and replace it with facts about modems and computer monitors and… and mice. Who needs to know anything about foxfire when they can learn so many important facts about mice instead?”
“Fine, be that way,” Hanabi told him. “Just hurry up and pass all that ancient wisdom on before your brain goes stale from old age. Like what you meant when you said that foxfire creates.” She waggled her fingers as she said the words.
“I’m getting to it. Our foxfire, our souls, are divine in nature. They come from the same power the gods used to create all life as we know it.”
“Wait, so we can create living things?” Hanabi asked eagerly.
“No,” her father said, cutting short her excitement. “The gods could, but we don’t have the skill or the power to make anything with life or permanence. The things we create are frail and lifeless, all shape and no substance.”
Hanabi nodded her head, finally understanding what he was getting at it. “Illusions.”
“That’s what we call them, yes. But it’s misleading to think of them that way.” He raised his hand, and a miniature recreation of Inari’s Flame appeared in his palm. “Foxfire lends itself to deception and trickery, but that’s not the root of its power. It’s a tool of creation, and it can be used for so much more.” He offered the flame to her, gesturing her to take it.
She reached for it hesitantly with one of her tails. It was only an illusion, but she could feel heat emanating from it, just like the real one. Kamio gestured again for to take it, so she wrapped her tail around the tiny flame… and then yelped in pain and drew it back. “That hurt!” she said, looking at the scorch mark on her fur. “It actually burned me!”
“Yes,” Kamio said flatly. “Because that’s what happens when you play with fire. Our foxfire isn’t a toy, Hanabi. It’s a tool, and it’s a weapon, and it’s dangerous. Making empty shadows is usually harmless enough, but if you try to use it for more, it’s easy to get hurt, or to hurt the ones around you. That’s why we don’t make a habit of teaching it.” He nodded at the burn. It was already fading, but it still stung, and would for a while. “Call that an object lesson, and be grateful that the knowledge came so cheaply. During the War, many good people paid far heavier prices to learn it.”
If he’d pulled that trick anywhere else, Hanabi would’ve thought he was just trying to scare her and get out of doing any more lessons. But she saw the way his eyes drifted to the brazier as he spoke, and heard the grief hidden behind his calm voice. This was dredging up old painful memories that had nothing to do with her. She sighed. “Dad, you… you don’t have to teach me, okay?” All the secrets in the world weren’t worth the pain this was causing him. “I can just keep using foxfire the way I’ve been doing it, and I… I won’t go out in the forest anymore.”
“No,” said Kamio, shaking his head, “Nobu was right. Like usual. You won’t be able to spend your whole life in comfort and safety, no matter how hard your father and I wish otherwise. Whether you go looking for trouble or not, it will find you someday, and I won’t have you getting hurt because I didn’t teach you how to protect yourself. Now come with me. I brought you here to show you something.”
He led her deeper into the temple, careful not to disturb Megumi in her sleeping quarters. “Do you know why our ancestors built the village around this place?” he asked her as they walked.
“To be close to Inari’s Flame, right?” Hanabi said.
Her father shook his head. “No, this was not where the Flame originally resided. Our people brought it here with them when they came.” He stopped in the middle of one of the hallways, next to a completely unremarkable stretch of the wall. “The village exists because of what’s behind these doors.” He looked at her critically. “We are here to protect what’s behind these doors. That has been our clan’s purpose since we first stepped foot here.”
Hanabi didn’t know what could possibly need that kind of protection, and she wasn’t certain that she wanted to. But her curiosity won over her caution, as it always did. “May I see it?” she asked.
“If you can open the doors,” the blond man said cryptically, and stepped aside to let her try. Hanabi looked at the blank wall suspiciously. She was pretty good at reading foxfire, but she couldn’t sense any of it there. She could almost think that her father had made a mistake and brought her to the wrong place. Hanabi tried prodding and pushing the wall with her tails for any clues, even just the thin cracks that would indicate where the door would open once unlocked, but wasn’t surprised when she had no luck. Undeterred, she expanded her search to look for any kind of secret mechanism nearby, a hidden switch or wall panel, but turned up nothing.
“You need to use foxfire to open the way,” she said eventually. “The real kind of foxfire, not just illusions. Don’t you?”
“That’s right,” her father said, sounding pleased with her. “Unless you do it right, it would be easier to pick this entire temple up with one hand that it would be to open these doors. Megumi binds them with fresh wards every day, and those of us who can wield true foxfire come by every so often to re-apply more of our own.” He placed his hands on the wall, and his palms began to glow with a warm red light that traveled up his fingers and then spread out into the stone.
For just a few moments, Hanabi glimpsed the wards he was talking about. They were made of the same red light and went up and down the entire length of the hallway, even extending to the floor and ceiling. She couldn’t see where they ended, and she had a sneaking suspicion that they filled the temple’s entire interior from front to back. They covered the seemingly bare surfaces like a thick cocoon, layered on top of each other a hundred times over. Kamio’s foxfire sank into them, and there was an almost imperceptible increase to their glow. And then they all vanished.
Hanabi stretched a tail out where some of them had been, but she still felt nothing. “Why can’t I sense them?” she asked.
Kamio smiled. “We are kitsune, Flower. Just because we can use foxfire for more than deception doesn’t mean we have to go about leaving things in plain sight. No need to make it easy.”
“So what is in there?”
Her father hesitated. “We’ll save that for another day. For tonight, I just wanted you to know that this place exists. Once you’ve learned enough, you’ll share the responsibility for protecting it.”
Hanabi and responsibility didn’t get along very well, and the idea of spending the rest of her life trapped here guarding some mystery box was hardly an appealing one, but she kept her doubts to herself for now. She trailed after her father as he began heading home, thinking about everything he’d told her. As she did, a terrible thought struck her. “Dad?” she asked. She thought she already knew the answer, but she hoped she was wrong. “All this stuff… was this something that the nogitsune used back then? Something that Yuki used?”
Kamio didn’t turn to look back at her when he answered, his voice soft and heavy. “Like I said before, Flower. Many good people paid dearly learning the dangers of wielding foxfire unwisely. But I promise I won’t let you end up like they did. She wasn’t you, and you aren’t her.”
Hanabi wished she could believe him.