Thank you for reading! Me and my coauthor Darinost are gradually combining forces and blogs, so the joint comment section for our stories is currently located on discord! Come on in and let us know what you thought, we don’t bite.
Inside the dark nightmare of the cocoon, Akari’s body felt like it was burning up, and she had no idea whether the heat came from fever or flame or her clumsy repeated attempts to grab at the well of power inside of her.
It wasn’t difficult to touch. It was frighteningly easy, in fact, if you knew the way. The difficulty wasn’t in reaching that inner power, it was in controlling it. Trying to use your soul as a proxy for foxfire was very much like trying to light a fire with hands covered in pitch. The slightest mistake and you could find yourself burned away, reduced to ash in mere moments.
Yuki could have managed a feat like this easily. Akemi wouldn’t have needed to try in the first place. Akari knew that she was the weakest and least capable of the three sisters. But she was their equal in one respect: she could be just as damn stubborn when she wanted to be. So she threw herself into the task even as she felt her meager control slipping entirely.
The entire world was searing heat, blinding light, and sharp agony as fire blossomed beneath her skin. It felt nothing like the warm, gentle flame of foxfire; she was being burned alive, body and soul alike feeding the growing bonfire inside of her. She had failed, completely and irrevocably, her last ditch effort accomplishing nothing but her own violent death. And still she pushed, refusing to stop struggling and accept her fate.
Akari couldn’t pinpoint the moment she died. She only knew that at some point, she ceased to be the fox being consumed by flame, and became the flame consuming the fox. She existed without form or memory or thought, only pure purpose: to burn. Everything she had once been – physically, mentally, spiritually – was nothing but fuel to her now. And everything burned.
All too quickly it was gone. There was no fox at all anymore, only the flame, and it was a pitiful thing that flickered and wavered. It needed more. It didn’t know what it needed, or why, only that it did, and that what it had wasn’t enough. Oblivion surrounded it, soft and dark and quiet, as it shrank down to embers, on the verge of dissipating completely.
And then there was more fuel, accompanied by a flurry of sensations that were almost familiar. The scent of honeysuckle on a hot summer day, the sound of the wind through the trees as she gazed at the stars, the warmth of fox fur against her bare skin as she laid next to her husband in bed. The memories had never been Akari’s, and they were gone almost as soon as the fire experienced them, accompanied by a name that vanished just as quickly. Chie.
More followed. The taste of a crisp apple, the sweet juices flowing down his throat. The pleasant ache of calloused hands after a day’s work in the fields. The look in his wife’s eyes whenever the woman smiled at him. Takashi. A song whose name she’d never learned. The dusty smell of her favorite book. Yoko.
They were the foxes who had died in this long war. Some had perished years ago, terrified and hopeless in the clutches of the jorogumo. Others, so many others, had fallen only today, victims of the burning forest. There were hundreds, and one by one each spirit touched the fire and added something of themselves to it, stoking the flames stronger and hotter in the process.
As the procession continued, the flame became aware of their source: a pinpoint of light above that stood out against the darkness, a single star in an infinite black sky. It was impossibly small and faint, but it shined defiantly within the void as spirit after spirit journeyed forth to lend their aid.
The last spirit to appear before the fire wore a familiar visage. If the flame still had its voice, it would have called out to her. If it still had arms, it would have embraced her. If it still had eyes, it would have wept.
But the fire could do nothing but burn. And then Yui was gone, and what had once been her daughter was alone again in the darkness.
There was no more fuel, but it was… sated now. Its need to consume was gone and its flames burned warm and steady as, finally, the star itself approached, growing larger and brighter as it drew near. What had been a mere pinpoint of light was now a candle, and then a torch, and then a fierce bonfire, and then an inferno as vast as the one overtaking Shirakami-Sanchi, and then a blazing sun, and then…
Just like kitsune shaped foxfire, the star shaped itself, its formless nature becoming defined and solid. It was still flame, but it was also a woman. A fox woman in white with ten tails bobbing behind her.
“It is time to wake up, my child,” the woman said gently as the fire that had consumed Akari tried to mimic what it had seen. It was difficult, but it began to create muscle and bone, skin and fur. “Don’t try to force it. Your soul remembers who you are. You have only to let it flow freely, and everything will return.”
Her delicate hands began to work the flame, molding it like clay and showing it what to do. “The fire does not destroy. It only transforms. All that you are still sleeps inside the flame, waiting to be remembered.”
Little by little, the fire changed, taking on a silhouette it had thought long gone. “I will have much to demand of you,” the woman said, “and for that I am sorry. I thought I was strong enough… I truly believed that I could do what was necessary, no matter the sacrifices required.”
Her voice was soft and sad and more than a little angry. “But he was right. He made me choose between abandoning my children and betraying my obligations, knowing that in the end I couldn’t just stand by. Now we have lost.”
A body existed now, but it was still lifeless and empty. The work had only just begun. Under the fox’s guidance, the fire began to create heart and mind and soul. It began to remember what she had once been. Piece by piece, Akari restored herself. She had been the fox. She had been the flame. Now Akari was both as she was reborn, more solid and alive with every passing moment.
The woman’s hand stroked her cheek, the movement gentle and loving. “I am truly sorry for the burden I am placing on you, my child. Do not blame yourself for the price that was paid for this; that will be my sin to atone for.” Her voice turned hard. “But not mine alone.”
Akari’s mouth worked as she struggled to remember how to speak. “G-god… dess…” she managed.
“We will speak later,” Inari promised, her tone soft again. “And I will explain everything. But we have no time now. Our people need you. I need you. There is work to be done.”
Ichika crawled, grabbing at the webbing beneath her hands as she pulled her way along. Her whole body, every single inch of her, felt like she had been flayed and then set on fire, even though she didn’t have a single injury… her nerves were just so sensitive that even the brush of air against her skin hurt, much less the venomous silk or the roughness of dirt and bark and leaves. If she could just reach that sword, it would be worth it…
All of this was her fault. Lady Akari had been trying to reach her when she’d been ambushed. She had been trying to save her. She had only been captured because she was so damn weak in the first place, and now she was going to get her rescuer captured as well? It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t just. It wasn’t acceptable. She wouldn’t let it happen.
The sword had flung itself from the other woman’s limp fingers when Nyami had pounced on her, and it hung in the web now, ignored. She was still half encased in webbing itself, and everything hurt, but if she could reach it… she could cut herself free. Then…
Then what? Die fighting? She hadn’t been strong enough to fight the first time… it had almost been trivial how easily she had been taken. Her skin hung from the webbing overhead, taunting her with its closeness, yet it might as well have been in the care of Izanami for all the good it did her… she would never reach it. The sword would do her no good either. She was just as helpless with it as without.
Ichika softly snarled to herself, then she grabbed another strand of webbing and pulled, dragging herself another inch or two across the ground. The pain of sliding against the silk almost made her pass out, but she refused to give up. The sword was right there. It was right there. She just needed to-
One of Nyami’s armored legs came down on her hand.
Ichika screamed as the armored spike pierced its way through her palm, stabbing her through as the jorogumo skewered her hand to the webbing just inches from the sword. “You aren’t supposed to be moving, little pet,” Nyami purred as she stood over her, gazing down at the screaming fox. “None of you have any sense.” She shook her head. “Astounding. You might actually live, and you’re just dosing yourself with more poison, love… you’re going to get yourself killed, and then what kind of egg sac would you be? A very boring one, I think.”
“Can’t… let you… win…” Ichika said. Then she reached for the sword with her other hand.
Nyami laughed. “Darling, sweetie… whatever made you think there was ever another way this could go?” She skittered a step back as Ichika grasped the sword and took a wild, awkward swing at her, coming nowhere close to hitting her. “We aren’t some invaders you can chase away with your pitiful illusions,” Nyami said firmly, her voice still filled with mirth despite the seriousness of her words. “This new trick your sisters have managed… we’ll adapt. We always adapt.” She smiled sweetly. “We are your apocalypse, egg sac. The death of everything you hold dear… and now, or in a thousand years, or in ten thousand years, this world that was promised to us will be ours.”
A drop of rain struck the dirt next to Ichika’s bloody hand. It was quickly followed by a second, then a third, and then it was like the heavens had opened up as heavy torrents of rain began falling, soaking everything in sight.
“I… won’t let…” Ichika swung again, and Nyami kicked the sword out of her hand. A second later, another of her legs pinned the fox down.
“You won’t let us?” Nyami said with a laugh. “Whatever gave you the idea you were anything more than a glorified meat-market? Whatever gave you the idea your opinions mattered?” She shoved her down harder, and Ichika screamed again. “Did I melt what little was left of your brain? Don’t worry, little one. Soon, you’ll be lost in a mindless haze of pleasure until you die like that, and when you do you’ll thank me for the privilege of giving your meaningless life a pur-”
Nyami cut off suddenly.
The weight on Ichika didn’t let up in the slightest, but when Nyami spoke next, she sounded… perplexed. “Mmm. I’m distracted tonight. I must be losing my touch,” she mused, shaking her head. Ichika turned her head to look through the continuing downpour and see that the cocoon wrapping her rescuer was on fire… being burned away. “Normally, you silly fox bitches are more easily tamed than this,” she said smartly. “You lose your ability to use your pathetic magic the moment your little brains slip into delirium. I must be going too easy on you. Thank father that my sister didn’t see this, otherwise I…”
She cut off again, but this time, she froze.
Then she started quivering. “It’s not possible…” she whispered. Ichika turned her gaze back on the webbing and saw it rapidly burning away leaving…
Leaving white fur exposed.
When Nyami moved, it was in a rush. Just as one of Lady Akari’s hands suddenly burst through the burned webbing where enough of it had turned to ashes, Nyami attacked. Not the burning fox, however… she attacked Ichika, grabbing onto her hair and lifting her high into the air. She felt the kiss of the fangs like the caress of a lover as they sank into her neck, pumping her full of more venom than ever before… Ichika felt it flowing through her veins like she had been struck by lightning, like a snake was slithering right through her blood. Then the spider threw her at Akari, turned, and ran.
Her rescuer tore free of the cocoon in a flaming burst, just in time to catch Ichika… only it didn’t look like Akari anymore. She must be more drugged than she thought, because the woman hadn’t been that blonde she didn’t think… her hair and fur looked completely pale and colorless to the dying fox as Akari laid her on the ground. Ichika could see now that somehow, impossibly, the sky above was clear, the rain pouring down from a cloudless, starry expanse as Akari looked up at the fleeing jorogumo vanishing into the trees, then down at the poisoned kitsune. “Shit,” the white fox said.
Then she knelt over her and began to work.
Ichika closed her eyes, tears running from them before the rain wiped them away. Akari wasn’t going after the jorogumo because she was pausing to save her life… to heal the poison. Because she was so weak and useless, she was going to let that monster get away…
As awareness began to fade away, Ichika made herself a promise… that she would never be weak again.
Then Ichika let the poison claim her, and sank deep down into sleep as the rain fell.
The forests were ravaged with the destruction brought about by witchfire, the burning wasteland ranging out far out beyond the stretches of the kitsune territories – it reached deep into human farmland, consuming everything it touched. Multiple teams of kitsune warriors with witchfire enclosed the forest, turning into a slaughtering ground even as the fire burned beyond their control. While the inferno didn’t quite reach any of the nearby cities it still claimed multiple farmsteads and isolated homes, even well to the south of where the battle had begun. In that way, the sudden rain from a cloudless sky was a mercy. Once the rain started falling, the fire in the forest quickly stopped burning out of control… it retreated back into a much more temperate blaze. The kitsune warriors used the existing flames and fresh bursts of wildfire to drive the monsters back and corral them for the slaughter… the burning forest was the anvil to Yuki’s hammer, leaving the jorogumo with nowhere to run, no place to hide. Anywhere there was resistance, Syllana or the twins stepped in… flitting through the battle like shinigami and leaving no spider living in their wake. By the time the sun rose, the rain was still falling from blue skies, and the battle was over.
Kill them all.
Light shined brightly through the open forest as Yuki emerged from the treeline with all the wounded they had recovered. It hadn’t been as many as they had hoped, but it had been more than the jorogumo would have let live, that was for certain. Even a few of the captive humans had survived, though not many – they rarely survived a single brood, so only those taken most recently even had a prayer of being rescued. Yuki wished that didn’t feel so heavy on her heart as she carried a cocooned woman over each shoulder, gasping with the exertion of carrying so much for so long as she trudged through the cinders and ashes of what was once a vast and populated forest. They didn’t dare take any of the women out of their cocoons, lest the sudden lack of poison kill them, but every bounce, every movement was agony on their drugged, over-sensitive skin, and they continuously begged for release. Ignoring those cries were among the hardest things the veterans had ever had to do, but they knew the score – this was the only way to save their lives.
They’d rescued every living soul they’d found, and come across far too many corpses, but Mai had been nowhere to be found among the living or the dead. Yuki tried to tell herself that her lover wasn’t necessarily dead, that she may have managed to escape the flames on her own, but the words rang hollow even to her. She had seen too much death to have any hope left.
Few of the humans that had went in with them were coming back out, and those that were staggered, covered in makeshift bandages and bloody stains, but at least they weren’t the only ones who had paid for the evening. The jorogumo were, as far as Yuki could tell, gone… Slaughtered to a one. The kitsune had burned away the forest protecting them branch by branch, backing the horde against the cliffs and the rocky hills, and killed them by the hundreds, by the thousands. With every cut her sword made, Yuki kept expecting to feel… something. Some kind of closure, or catharsis, or satisfaction, or… something. It never came. Instead, by the time they finished, she felt only grimly sure that the monsters that had murdered her sister would never hurt anyone else.
It was hard for Yuki to tell if her tails and hair were more stained by ash, by dirt, or by blood… none of it seemed to want to wash out of her fur, even with the rain falling down around them. She had been all but bathing in the remnants of battle and fire all night, and it had left its mark on her… on all of them. Very few of the warriors said a word as they walked… they moved in exhausted, grim silence, more like living corpses than foxes. Seijun, she noticed, carried more cocoons than anyone… even though she was perhaps the most exhausted of anyone, injured and more than likely stuffed with eggs. Still, the other white fox staggered on, one foot in front of the other through the falling rain as Yuki surreptitiously helped her whenever she could.
Now that Yuki stepped out of the forest, however, she had to fight not to drop one of the cocoons and shield her eyes. It was so bright… impossibly so. She kept walking towards the rising sun, towards the hill at the edge of the ruined farmland that they had held with so much blood and toil, and when she was halfway there the first of the other kitsune came into sight, rushing down, taking the wounded and the cocooned in hands. The soldiers who had been too injured to step into the forest with them, and the newbies… and her sister’s medical team. Akari had come back. Yuki’s heart swelled for a moment as a giant, red-haired fox seemed to gently but firmly force Seijun to release her held captives, coiling them in his tails before he rushed back towards the ridge. Yuki gratefully shed her own burden, putting a burned fox that she was pretty sure was named Akiko into the waiting tails of another medic who turned and ran from her as quickly as she could, hurrying back to the other healers.
And it was only when her burden was relieved that Yuki realized the glare on the hill wasn’t coming from the rising sun at all.
Kneeling on the ground at the top of the hill, crouching over the fallen, poisoned bodies of cocooned victims, was another white furred fox. The from this distance the signs of recent battle showed clearly on her… the grime, the blood and dirt, the stains from where she had been cut and the wound healed beneath the scabbed blood. Yuki thought that she looked bad, but the other woman looked like she had been trapped against the wrong side of a water mill. Even still she worked to heal the downed kitsune, glowing brightly with foxfire as it swirled around her like a cloud. Yuki’s first thought was to wonder how Seijun could have made it up there so quickly, amazed at how she could still be standing much less healing… but it only took her an instant to realize that her mentor was still staggering along beside her… that the white fur on the top of the ridge wasn’t hers. It took her long moments of staring in denial and exhausted, dazed stupefaction to finally realize that she didn’t know that woman… or the white furred man kneeling over two more wounded foxes beside her, or the other woman behind him. None of them looked like they should be standing. All of them looked more dead than alive. They all stood anyway.
It was only after a half a minute for the exhausted Yuki to realize that that she hadn’t quite been right about them being strangers, not entirely… she did know one of them, even if it took her an astoundingly long time to recognize a woman she knew like the back of her own hand. Akari, her fur as white as Yuki’s ever had been, knelt over a pair of foxes, foxfire swirling around her with each breath as she healed a trio of broken, trembling fox bodies beneath her.
Akari had white fur… and that couldn’t even rate being a sidenote to Yuki right now, because her gaze continually tracked to the right… to the woman standing among the white foxes. Akari was glowing… the other fox was shining. Radiance poured off of her as comfortably and just as naturally as light from the sun. The most beautiful woman Yuki had ever seen, had ever imagined, gazed down the hill at the blasted, burned field. Ten tails – not nine, but ten – swirled behind her in a dizzying blur of white and red. “It can’t be…” Yuki whispered, her voice catching in her throat.
Seeing this woman should have inspired Yuki to paint, or to write poetry. It should have made her heart leap and soar, inspired her to new heights of greatness. It should have been the high point of her life. Instead, Yuki felt a heavy weight settle somewhere deep in her stomach. The goddess Inari stared down at them, tears glistening in her eyes as she looked over the burned and blasted wasteland that they had made of their home, and Yuki realized solemnly that as long and tiring at the night had been, it was about to get much longer.
“What,” Inari said, her voice cold and furious. “Have you done?”
None of the veterans met her eyes. Seijun in particular looked on in awe, starting to weep. “We were wrong!” she cried as she let herself slide free of Yuki’s support and fell to her knees before Inari. “I couldn’t have been so blind! I beg for your forgiveness!” Others looked like they wanted to do the same. No one met the goddess’s eyes…
No one but Yuki.
It wasn’t that Yuki was any braver than they were, really, or that she was any more special. She was just… too tired to care, anymore. Too empty inside. Too numb for the judgment and disapproval to mean anything. She stared back at her goddess, her mind still trying to process what was happening here. Inari’s gaze settled on her, and Yuki could feel the deity’s anger. “You,” she said, narrowing her eyes. “You did this.”
When Yuki spoke, her voice wasn’t shaken or afraid, but it wasn’t calm, either… she just was too tired to be concerned. “I did what?” she responded, her voice flat and dead.
It wasn’t a question… not really. Inari narrowed her eyes. “You did what?” Inari repeated, her voice mild. “Blood of my blood, soul of my soul, I gave you and your brothers and sisters, your family, one instruction. One law not to break! That you were here to protect life, to preserve it. You were supposed to protect the humans, to keep them safe… to be defenders. To protect this world.”
Inari took a deep breath before she continued. “Instead, you… did this. You took up with heretics, and broke the one instruction I had for you. You used my magic to kill people. Humans, kitsune, jorogumo… all of them.” If Yuki didn’t know better, she could have sworn that for a second the goddess’s eyes glistened with tears despite her growing rage, despite the glare in her eyes. “You used my foxfire – a piece of my own soul that I gave you – to murder people!” Her voice rose, growing in strength as she grew in obvious anger until her words echoed from the hills. “You’ve made me a murderer! Do you have any idea what you’ve DONE, Yuki!”
The mere hint of the goddess’s displeasure had bowed the heads of the kitsune warriors who had walked back with her. Her open, obvious wrath was worse. The glare around her brightened as foxfire flared to life from her tails, her eyes, her limbs. A halo of radiant power grew around her head, so bright that it was almost blinding. The force of her magic, of her rage, seemed to blow like a breeze… alongside her, the other foxes, the medics that stood on the hill and the wounded, even her zenko seemed to shy back, bending like trees in a storm. Seijun looked ready to burst into tears and collapse, begging for forgiveness, and many of the other veterans looked like they wouldn’t be far behind. Common sense dictated that Yuki probably should follow that same course.
Instead, to the alarm of a quiet, small place in the back of her mind, she was squaring her shoulders and meeting her goddess’s eye.
Akemi was dead. Mai was dead. What did it matter?
“You charged us to protect this world,” she said, her voice just as flat. “And we did. We fought for you. Bled for you. Died for you. And we did it.” Yuki looked at the press of worn, exhausted, bloodied warriors behind her. “We took an impossible war and we ended it. The jorogumo will never threaten anyone again. We have protected this world.”
“You didn’t defend when attacked. You lashed out and murdered those who retreated. It wasn’t protection… it was butchery! You destroyed your home, the forest, your people!” Inari growled.
“That wasn’t our fault,” Yuki countered. “If you hadn’t hid these techniques from us, we would have been able to control our fire better. If you had lent any help at all, we wouldn’t have needed witchfire in the first place. Every innocent death today can be laid at your feet, not mine.”
“It was forbidden for a reason! You took magic meant to create life and used it to slaughter! You killed hundreds of human and foxes with my magic!” Inari’s voice trembled with rage and… perhaps something more… as she looked down at Yuki. “As well as the thousands of jorogumo you burned alive!” she added. “Mingled souls, just like yours!”
“They were nothing like us,” Yuki said harshly.
“And what makes one soul worth more than another?” Inari bit back. “All souls are the same soul.”
Yuki heard Akume’s voice in her ear. Just like jorogumo would have… no better than us after all… For the first time since she had begun her walk back, she felt… something. Not repentance. Anger. “They were nothing like us,” she repeated, harder.
For a long moment, Inari was silent. “There was once a man who thought like that,” she said slowly. “His arrogance nearly shattered this world. It is still shattering this world.” She shook her head. “I cannot let you add to it.”
“Yuki!” Akari called out. “Just be q-”
“Our home isn’t a place… it’s us,” Yuki said firmly, interrupting her sister without looking at her. She addressed her veterans instead, many of whom looked uncertain, wavering between which side to take. “We saved our village. We saved Hanei. We saved Nagoro. We saved all the humans who will come in the future… a future that will exist because the monsters didn’t slaughter them after we were gone!” She closed her eyes. “I would do it again.”
This time, Inari was silent for a long minute. Yuki could imagine her glaring at her. Maybe she would kill her. Maybe she would do worse. She just… she just couldn’t care, right now. Akemi and Mai were dead. “Tell me,” spoke Inari at last. “Where is she?” The goddess’s voice trembled with anger. “What has become of the woman who taught you do this?”
“Taught them to do what you wouldn’t, coward?”
The light that Inari shed cast stark shadows behind the warriors she faced down, and out of one of those shadows – almost like it was a curtain – stepped Syllana. She seemed to boil with blue fire, and the smoke of it brought shade to the warriors… she stood between them and the goddess, like a shield. Syllana smirked and placed one hand on Yuki’s. “You did it,” she whispered, smiling… a triumphant look on her face. “You finally did what no one else could, Yuki. The jorogumo are wiped out. Look at what we were able to do… what this pitiful goddess could not.”
She looked up at Inari and sneered. “Because she’s too weak of will do what needs to be done.”
“Syllana,” Inari said, and the small part of Yuki that wasn’t completely overwhelmed noted that her voice sounded just as flat as Yuki’s had earlier. “You should not be here. You know you are no longer welcome in my presence, or among my family. All you revel in is deceit and destruction… look at what you have done!”
“What I have done? I treasure it!” Syllana sneered. “Isn’t it glorious, Inari?” She held her hands up, glowing with blue light, then spat on the ground in front of the goddess. “The world deserves gods that are willing to act to protect it. Ones that won’t cower in their paltry fortress while they wait for your mistakes to come for them. This is not my doing, Inari… it is yours. This destruction, this pain? It is the legacy of your cowardice.” Fearless, Syllana took several steps forward, and while it seemed like she needed to push against Inari’s light to do so, she stepped forward regardless. “You are no longer the protector of this world… I am. I have accomplished something so great, all of our kind will forever remember my name and what I have done. You, on the other hand, are destined to be remembered only for your failure.
“Pathetic,” Syllana laughed wickedly. “Weak and worthless Inari. I plucked one bird from your nest, took one capable apprentice under my wing, and together we were able to light the world on fire. What power do you have? You’re worthless now – A worthless goddess, on a worthless throne. Why don’t you do tell the others that y-”
“Enough!” Inari shouted as her tails fanned out and glowed a brilliant light. Syllana smirked, and as the light intensified she only conjured up a veil before them, casting Yuki and her followers in the shadows of that light. Yuki staggered back a single step to stand almost beside Seijun, who remained in her humbled position, curled up and nearly naked on the ground with her tails between her legs. Inari glared at Yuki. “This is what you want?” she spat. “To follow this murderer into exile? To be cast out from your kind?”
Some of those who stood by Yuki flinched back at the goddess’s words, but rage sharper than any she had ever known filled the white fox. She had sacrificed everything, had suffered and bled and lost her lover and her sister and it wasn’t good enough for her? “Perhaps we should live with those who appreciate what we’ve done!” Yuki snapped. “With the humans whom you would have had us turn our tails to.”
“Then so be it,” Inari whispered. Her eyes seemed to glow. “Your name will be blackened by the corruption you brought on yourself. What you have accomplished in the murder of thousands will stain you for all your days.” Her voice rose, words carrying on the whistling of the wind. “Those among you who want to protect life instead of sacrificing it and those who would repent, I take away. They have done all they can for this land and deserve a better life of peace. The rest of you…” She let out a breath. “I name you traitors to your kind. Traitors to your family. Traitors to life. I name you traitors to society and to peace. I name you Nogitsune. Never will you be welcome among my family again.”
And without another word, Inari turned and left.
Akari looked at Yuki, heartbroken as she struggled to fight back her tears. “Sister…” she whispered as Inari turned away with the rest of the kitsune. “Yuki…”
Yuki looked at her. “Akemi is at peace now,” she said. “Come with me, Akari.”
Akari tightened her lips in a line. “Akemi will never be at peace with what you did,” she said, her tone solid as a mountain. “Please, sister… do not do this…”
But Yuki didn’t move. And, eventually, it was Akari who looked away first as the newly made zenko turned to follow the rest of her kind and her goddess into the light. The medics and survivors rose to leave with the goddess, taking patients with them. Yuki noticed that not all the patients let them… more than one of them demanded to be put town, fought to get them to let go and leave them here. It was a tiny comfort, but it was a comfort. A mere pair of her veterans turned to leave. And Seijun…
Seijun didn’t look like she knew what to do.
Yuki watched the radiant light grew dimmer and dimmer as the kitsune vanished, fading before her eyes as they walked away and just… left them. Just left them. Only then did the rain stop falling from the clear sky, and Yuki realized that now all the wetness of her face was from the rain. Now, finally, it was washing the black ashes from her hair and tail as they laid out behind her, drooping pathetically as she stared. “They’re gone,” she muttered in disbelief. “They… left.” She swallowed, trying to hold back the feelings swelling inside, but they grew stronger with each heartbeat. “All we’ve done. All we have sacrificed… All we have worked for and THEY JUST PACK UP AND FUCKING LEAVE!?”
Screaming in fury, Yuki fell to her knees and slammed her fists against the ground, sending witchfire coursing down through it. Small cracks erupted for twenty feet in every direction as tiny rivers of molten stone sank down through the cracks, glowing with the mingled light of the destructive magic and its own heat for long seconds before at last vanishing. “They would just… leave…”
“I know… What a terrible disgrace for a goddess,” Syllana said from somewhere behind her. She came over and placed her hands on Yuki’s. “It will be alright, Yuki. We will make it alright. You’re not the only ones who have been betrayed by her belligerent idiocy.”
“You knew her…?” Yuki asked.
“All too well,” Syllana agreed. “She cast me out, same as you, for the same crime… that of offending her arrogance, by doing what was necessary to protect this world.”
Yuki felt numb. “I thought… I thought the goddess would understand,” she admitted. It wasn’t a lie, not exactly. She had thought that, more or less. She just hadn’t thought about it very hard, or cared very much. “I thought the goddess would understand.”
“I wouldn’t call her a goddess, dear apprentice. Just a false idol,” said Syllana with a chuckle. “And as disappointing as ever. Where will go you go now?”
Yuki swallowed, looked at the foxes around her as they pushed themselves to their feet. Some of the injured ones, those that had refused to leave with the goddess who had abandoned them to the webs and had instead remained with their saviors, struggled to do so, but others helped them to their feet. Yuki met Hinata’s eyes and held out a hand for her, helping her old friend to her feet and embracing the shivering girl. “To Nagoro,” she declared, and the crowd murmured in agreement. “We’ll stay among the humans.”
“An excellent idea,” Syllana agreed. “After all, you did just protect them, and everyone just saw it.”
“And you?” Yuki asked.
“I have so much more to teach you,” Syllana said calmly. “I’m eager to continue your lessons. You can come find me right back where you met me first, in Shiyomi.” With that, the two all-but-silent twins stepped out of the crowd of warriors, flanking her as she turned and strode back across the field towards the abandoned village on the other end of the forest. Yuki breathed out as she watched Syllana and the other strange dark foxes go, nodding to them in gratitude for their help before she turned back to the other exiles, all of them looking at… goddess, they were all looking at her as their leader.
Yuki swallowed, then nodded firmly. “Nogitsune, then,” she said, trying to put more confidence into the declaration that she felt. “Foxes without a home, are we? Maybe not her home.” Yuki concentrated for a second and transformed back into her fox form. “Anyone who doesn’t have the strength to transform, we’ll carry until you recover,” she declared, putting actions to words as she helped one of the injured onto her back, holding them with a tail and watching while the others followed her lead. Then she turned to Seijun… one of only two kitsune who had not transformed. The other, the large, redhaired giant whom she was fairly sure had been one of Akari’s healers, was tending to her, checking the white-haired woman for injuries or signs of dangerous poisoning as she had stayed on the ground. “Seijun… Yuki whispered.
Seijun looked up, her eyes soaked with tears. “It’s… It’s all gone, Yuki… we ruined it all.”
Yuki shook her head. “We ruined nothing, Lady Seijun. We did what needed to do.”
“But at what cost…” she whispered. Seijun blinked the tears away, shaking her head and trying to push the obtrusive healer away. “I’m fine!” she growled, forcing herself to her feet.
Yuki waited until she had managed to get back up before speaking again. “We’re going to Nagoro, sensei. Are you coming?”
Seijun tried to meet Yuki’s eyes, but quickly turned her gaze towards the ground, staring at it for long seconds before she answered. “I… I don’t know,” she admitted. “I just… I just need time to think.”
Yuki nodded at her mentor. “Then you will know where to find me then,” she said.
“You can go,” Seijun snapped at male kitsune who was still watching her. “I’m fine, I’m telling you!”
“I’m not going to leave until I’m sure you’re not going to go into shock, Lady Seijun,” he said firmly. His voice was clear and clear, and there was absolutely no debate in his tone. “I’m staying.”
Seijun signed in disgust and resolutely ignored him as she watched her former apprentice and those that followed her, the nogitsune, leave the burnt fields, marching towards the human town of Nagoro. She sighed in defeat as she wept, thinking again about the horrors of the demons who raped her and how wrong the fire had felt as she had tried to use it, fighting the instincts that had told her that she was doing the right thing with the creeping sense that she had been played for a fool. All she could do was shiver as her skin crawled in disgust at herself.
What had she done?
She stayed there in that spot for a long time, weeping quietly to herself.
Yuki drank, lit by the towering bonefire burning in the middle of Shiyomi, but it wasn’t ever enough… she burned through it all too quickly. That didn’t stop her from trying, though… she just had to be a very, very dedicated drinker.
That was okay. She was well motivated.
It had all gone so wrong. She had saved everyone. She had done what she needed to do. She had avenged her sister… and for that, she had been cast away. They should be celebrating her, not casting her out… damn that Inari, ungrateful bitch. That wasn’t the worst of it, though. It was bad enough that their goddess had cast them out… but disappointing as that was Yuki could accept it. What she hadn’t expected was for the humans they had been protecting to turn them away as well.
Those bastards. When they had arrived at Nagoro with the remaining human soldiers and those they had rescued, the rest of the human army they had left behind had beaten them there… with news of what had happened. The nogitsune had been met not with cheers or celebration, but with locked doors and shuttered windows. They had just watched an army of their protectors burn down an entire mountainside, and each and every one of them was perfectly helpless to stop the nogitsune from doing the same to their village if they wanted. They look at them with terror now… not awe, and the town lord had flatly refused to allow their group to make their home there.
Yuki tried not to blame them for that, but she found it hard not to be furious. Those were idiots. The nogitsune had done it to protect them! They should be grateful! Instead, rather than make a home with those they had sacrificed so much to save, the goddess-forsaken foxes were forced to shut themselves off from the world and move north, into the mountains and away from the human settlements. How could she not resent them for that?
Increasingly, Yuki found it easier to resent everyone and everything. What she did and what she was able to do with such little preparation should have made her a hero to her people and to the humans, yet now the nogitsune were fast becoming as feared as the jorogumo had ever been, if not more so… and they hadn’t hurt a fly. Not a single one of them had showed any aggression towards anyone they passed, but it didn’t matter – it didn’t matter what they did, only what they were capable of doing. Pathetic. That was what she had sacrificed so much to… to protect. To save.
Yuki’s new mentor didn’t seem surprised… Syllana would only act as if fear and hatred were the expected reaction from lesser creatures, and given what she saw every day it was hard to argue. Certainly it seemed to be how Inari had reacted to her. Part of Yuki wished that she would go talk to her more instead of drinking, but it didn’t matter… these last few days, Syllana seemed more interested in taking care of her own group of devoted followers than doting on a single apprentice. Syllana had taken to the role of a leader rather joyfully, the twins ever loyally at her side and in the shadow of her footsteps, and Yuki was only too glad to let leadership escape her after what she’d been forced to endure recently.
Earlier today they’d settled into the abandoned village that was to be their temporary home, the abandoned fortress town of Shiyomi. It was far enough removed from the rest of the countryside and the human lands, and closed enough to the burned forest, that they were avoided there. When night fell, the nogitsune had gathered together in its center to hear Syllana speak, and it was here that she had proclaimed herself the new leader of her people. The nogitsune were ready and willing to call her their new goddess… for it was she that had bestowed witchfire upon them, the basis of the strength of the nogitsune moving forward. Syllana, unlike Inari, was a much less restrictive goddess. She proclaimed her power was only that of status, as she was the first, and she only wished for the witchfire’s power to be spread and reckoned through the world as something more than that of a mystic fable or fairy tale. It all seemed simple enough to Yuki. She didn’t have any qualm with what Syllana wanted. She simply missed her lover and her family.
The surprise came, however, when Syllana called for a complete severing of their ties with the goddess, and three of the nogitsune stepped up at her command… Yuki, for her part, had noted that Ari was one of them. As the assembled nogitsune watched with wide eyes, the three of them had kindled the bonfire to life with witchfire. Then, with steady hands, they’d tossed their fox skins into the blaze. Syllana had waited for the chorus of gasps and cries to die down before she continued. This was how they would remove themselves from the kinship of the other kitsune. Evenly she had told them that they were under no obligation to do so… that the choice had to be theirs, but those that did not would need to leave. That this was to be a sanctuary for those who understood sacrifice… for those who were no longer interested in those who had abandoned them. Those who were willing to sever their ties to the old to build the new.
That night, many many more bonfires were kindled. So many did as she asked. That fateful night, Yuki had watched as every single one of the kitsune that she had shown to use witchfire burned their fox skins, and as they did their fur and hair turned the same perfect, coal black as Syllana and the twins. Those who had doubts could not long stand the judging, questioning stares of those who had fought besides them, who had sacrificed alongside them… most of them burned theirs before midnight, and Yuki doubted any would last until morning. Most, however, seemed happy to scorn the goddess who had abandoned them, her warriors pleased to accept Syllana as their goddess in this ritual, bringing themselves closer to the leader who’d brought the magic that destroyed the jorogumo.
And with their incinerated skins and blackened fur came power. Laughing foxes marveled at how easily the strength came to them now, at how much witchfire they could summon. Their own foxfire, not Inari’s… straight from their new goddess to them. They reveled in the power, lighting new fires, testing their skills in stunned amazement of the might they could wield. After watching that, the doubts of most of the few that were left unburned faded and vanished, and more skins joined those of the other nogitsune in the flames.
Shortly thereafter, Syllana revealed another surprise when she brought out her captives.
It turned out that while the two nearly silent nogitsune assassins she used as bodyguards had been slaughtering the jorogumo, they hadn’t killed all of them… they had captured dozens and dozens of the spiders, dragging them off through the shadows and locking their broken, half-dead bodies in chains. The nogitsune nearly rioted as the sight of still living monsters… until at Syllana’s whispered command Ari, Hinata, and Akiko stepped up to the struggling spiders. While Yuki and the others stared on with trauma-numbed eyes, the three nogitsune reached out for the jorogumo… and just pulled fire out of them, leaving it swirling around the foxes for a few moments before it seemed to dissolve into their skin and fur. This, Syllana explained, was how they were going to make their own witchfire to make up for what Inari would deny them… they would feast on the monsters of the world, consuming them and turning them into weapons to destroy the rest.
Maybe on another day, it wouldn’t have been such an easy sell… but today, in the wake of this war, with the murderous jorogumo as prisoners to drain dry, an easy sell was precisely what it was. One by one the nogitsune burned their furs and ripped the life and souls out of their captives, taking them in and restoring their magic.
Yuki, however, wasn’t among them.
She had meant to be. After hours of staring into the fire with the taste of sake dominating her tongue, she had tossed her fur into the fire. Just like the others were doing she had reached for her foxfire, feeling the lure of witchfire just below the surface… longing to come free. She had fed it into the fire, watching the first flames of the fire licked across her fur… and that was when she had panicked. Disregarding the heat she had shoved her hands into the fire and pulling her skin out. It felt disgraceful to stomp on it, stamping out the flames… which was silly, since she had just tried to burn the thing, but when she had seen it start to burn Yuki had felt one of the only flashes of emotions she had felt in days.
As the night continued, Yuki remained separated from everyone, deep in her drink as she just stared into the fire, holding her singed skin in her hands. Twice more she almost tossed it in… but she didn’t. She had a lot to think about and get through her mind before she wanted to go forward with this… even if she was the only one. It was stupid.
Yuki sighed. She figured the only thing that would help ease her mind to make a decision would be to finally speak to Syllana again, face to face and in privacy. She felt like she had to… so, tipsy from what her regeneration hadn’t managed to burn off yet, Yuki rose to her feet and walked off into the night.
She found her way to Syllana’s home at the head of the mountain village, by the burned out walls of the fortress. The door was locked but that didn’t stop Yuki as she turned into a fox and simply slid through one of the windows, cloaking herself in illusions just by force of habit as she stepped into the dark house… and heard the sounds within. Whispers and moaning. Yuki’s ears twitched curiously as she walked through the sprawling, empty house toward the bedroom. She gasped, covering the sound with illusion as she stared on what was in front of her.
There, in the bed with Syllana, was Mai.
She seemed perfectly content in her location as she embraced Syllana on the bed, wearing nothing but a little dress, something she only wore when she wanted to look more human to the populace.
And her hair and tails were black as night.
Syllana rubbed all over Mai’s slit as they writhed together before she slipped off the bed and removed her robe to show her slender black body. Mai smirked looking up at her. “You want to try something fresh tonight, my pet?” Syllana asked as she rubbed over her naked body and let her black tails fan out around her.
Mai nodded in compliance as Syllana watched her crawl up on the bed toward her. She could tell her lips were swollen and yearning to be touched as they made their presence known from under the short dress when she moved. Syllana smirked as she nestled her body upward on her hands and knees and splayed her tails slowly, removing her clothes with a simple thought of illusion magic. Mai looked into Syllana’s eyes as they kissed each other slowly and with hot and heavy intent. Yuki’s mouth dropped as she watched in the shadows, unable to move or say anything.
Syllana chuckled and rubbed over Mai’s lips as she arched her back and looked at her. “I have a surprise for you,” she muttered as she strapped a harness onto herself over her hips, where it practically brushed against her slit. Yuki could see that there was a thick cock hanging from it, and the thing was shining with magic… with witchfire.
“What is that?” Mai asked, awed.
“Something new I’ve been working on for my playthings,” Syllana said with a chuckle. “They’re linked to me… to my magic. To me… it will feel quite like a real one would.” Syllana stroked her hands up and down it, sighing in pleasure while Yuki’s mouth dropped open, feeling hurt and guilty all the same hiding in the shadowy corner of the room. Syllana rubbed her new cock and smirked at Mai as she petted her head. “How is this for something different and better?”
Mai opened her mouth to take it in and just moaned. “Oh I want it,” she cooed.
Syllana reached down and gently pinched her cheeks. “Oh, I bet you do. Come on now, sweet thing. You aren’t the twins,” she said to her. “You can’t just open your mouth and take it. I expect you to beg for it!”
“Oh goddess, yes please!” Mai begged and panted. “I want it!”
“And which goddess is that?” Syllana asked with a smirk.
“Youuu!” Mai moaned. “You!”
“That’s good to hear,” Syllana said as she rubbed her cock and grasped her fingers around Mai’s hair and pushed forward. “Now you take it.”
Syllana gripped the shaft and pushed her head into the back of Mai’s mouth, who moaned with delight as she started sucking on it graciously. Heart tearing, Yuki watched her treacherous lover perform well on a cock. If she didn’t know any better, she would think Mai even preferred such an exotic departure from the sexual escapades with pussy, seeing how ready and eager she was for Syllana’s surprise gift. Syllana bit her lip and chuckled fiendishly, pushing the cock further into Mai’s mouth just to see how much she could take. Much to Yuki’s surprise, Mai managed to take a lot at a vigorous pace without even gagging. Syllana smiled wickedly in excitement, proud to see her lover so naturally ready to be a whore. She started to thrust against her face harder, holding down her head and pushing her more onto it.
“Mm, mm,” Mai moaned as she pulled out and wrapped her hands around the base of the shaft. She jerked on the cock and gyrated her hips with such vigor as she licked the head and moaned with pleasure just from committing the act of touch and tasting a cock. Syllana breathed out heavily as pre-cum began to flow out from the constant stimulation. “Oh, mistress… I want it all!”
“Look at you,” Syllana laughed. She pulled once again on Mai’s hair and thrust the cock into her mouth, this time deep enough that the woman couldn’t avoid gagging. “Let’s see just how much of a dirty fucking slut you are, apprentice.” Syllana placed both hands on the back of Mai’s head as she proceeded to face fuck her, thrusting her thighs and popping her hips so that she could push the cock as deep into her mouth as she could. Mai continued to gag and gasp for air as she drooled saliva all over her lover’s special cock. They both breathed out in exhilaration as the heavy stimulation made Syllana shiver with a first miniature orgasm. Yuki was amazed she could still cum like a woman in that way as she bit her lip and wiped a tear from her eye. Finally, Syllana pulled herself away and let Mai breathe as she exploded, her cunt leaking juices all over the woman’s flushed features. Mai gasped with delight as she sat back and wiped away her excess spit. “I noticed you’re really enjoying this,” she said as she licked her lips, tasting the pussy juices squirted on her face.
Syllana’s eyes darkened. “I didn’t say you could stop, you fool,” she snapped. “Look at the mess you made, you brainless whore! I expect you to fix that.”
“I am so sorry to disappoint you,” Mai said sheepishly as she crawled forward, smacking her lips while she lapped up the juices covering the shaft.
“That you should be,” Syllana scolded her. “We’re going to have to do something about that.”
With that, Syllana pulled Mai off of the bed and roughly pushed the woman’s face down against the floor, hard enough that it had to have hurt. Mai gasped in surprise as Syllana flipped up the dress she wore to expose her open, fresh lips. The nogitsune chuckled with excitement as she grabbed Mai’s ass and squeezed, clearly relishing in the feeling of seeing the other fox’s throbbing hot pussy. She rubbed her wet cock up and down between the crack of her ass as their bodies caressed and Mai cooed for more and rubbed her cheeks up and down on the shaft.
“Aren’t you just the luckiest little bitch,” Syllana said to her. She slowly pushed her cock into her wet cunt as her whole lower body convulsed and clenched at the feeling. The cock, supposedly inanimate thing that it was, seemed to throb as Syllana gently pushed it in and pumped slowly.
Yuki wanted to look away, but she couldn’t tear her eyes from the sight of Mai’s pussy lips clinging to the other woman’s shaft, the fake cock gripped tight by her insides. Syllana gasped with excitement as she began to speed up. “It’s been a while since I had an apprentice worth a damn… and you have a wonderfully tight pussy. Did it never see appropriate use before now?”
“Yuki? She never had me in such a way like you, my love,” Mai responded simply while letting out a long, drawn-out and pleasing moaning. The kind that had once been music to Yuki’s ears. Syllana groaned with pleasure as she fucked the woman harder and faster, penetrating as deeply as she could without a care for if would cause Mai pain. She was letting the woman’s whimpers and moans dictate her movement, using them to find Mai’s weak points and go after them mercilessly.
Yuki’s vision was growing blurry, and she realized she was crying. The fox had to bite her lip to remain still and soundless, scrubbing away the tears with her hand before they could fall to the floor, unsure of what she would even do or say if she allowed herself to act. Instead, she watched through her tears as Syllana thrust her body against Mai vigorously, groaning with pleasure. She rubbed her hand over Mai’s delicate, soft ass cheeks, and she squeezed and pulled on her tails. Then she gave her a single slap on the left cheek that made the fox yelp with pleasure.
“Oh goddess yes,” Mai said, pushing her ass against Syllana’s palm. “Do it harder!”
Yuki narrowed her eyes at that. That… what? For as long as she had known Mai, even before they started seeing each other as a dedicated couple, she’d always had a very low tolerance for pain. She used to whine about the simplest of things, like getting pinched or having a nipple bitten just a little too hard. Their last few sexual encounters even had Mai getting upset at how Yuki treated her, but now she was asking for Syllana to hit her harder? It really was a complete turn-around transformation taking place in this bedroom. Why…
Syllana proceeded to slap Mai harder on the bare ass just as she’d requested. Clearly, she had no reservations against being brutal, even with such a delicate little flower like Mai. She reached over to the table and grabbed a riding crop and a rope, holding them up so that Mai could see them. Mai gasped, but only for a second before Syllana wrapped the rope around her neck and tugged it tight. Yuki wanted to scream, gritting her teeth and getting angrier by the moment at what she saw. Syllana purred with anticipation as she knotted the rope and pulled on it, creating a leash to hold Mai down with. She then proceeded to pull on the newly made leash while continuing to pound deep into Mai’s pussy, cracking the riding crop on the fox’s ass hard enough to leave red marks and make her whine and whimper with pleasure. Mai arched her back, following the pull of the rope as she continued to rhythmically bounce on the false cock just like it was a real one. Syllana struck her ass hard enough to draw blood from the nogitsune, and asked her “Do you feel like a sweet little piece of property yet?”
Mai babbled an affirmation, but it ended with a choked squeak as Syllana yanked the leash back hard enough to make the woman practically break herself in half bending backwards. It wasn’t enough; she still couldn’t breathe like that. Mai’s body quivered, trying and failing to squeeze the few more inches that she needed.
The newly minted goddess of the nogitsune looked like she didn’t even notice Mai’s plight, focused entirely on her need to fuck the other fox’s brains out. The rope was taut as she continued slowly choking the woman to death, not loosening her grip by an iota while her fake cock drilled her pussy.
Mai’s lips were moving silently as they became tinged with blue, trying to voice whatever safeword she and Syllana must have had, and Yuki nearly rushed forward then and there to save the woman she loved… until Mai finally managed to force the words out through her constricted throat. “…more, goddess… more… more… yes…”
Yuki scrubbed fresh hot tears off of her cheeks. She wanted to rise up, to yell, to put a stop what she was seeing… but there was nothing she could do. Syllana was… Yuki had seen the elder fox’s strength during the battle, and knew that there was a wide gulf between the two of them. If it came to blows – and Yuki knew that if she let herself take even a single step forward, that was exactly what would happen – she had no hope of winning. And even if she did fight Syllana and win, what then? Drag Mai away kicking and screaming? The woman had made her choice, and she hadn’t chosen Yuki.
The nogitsune knew that she was doing the right thing. That it was best not to interrupt them, not to say a thing… but in that moment, it was the hardest thing that Yuki had ever needed to do.
A single teardrop dripped from her chin to soundlessly splash against the floor, and Syllana’s head immediately snapped up.
She let go of the rope, letting Mai collapse into a gasping, coughing heap while she turned her head from side to side, scanning the room. Yuki’s heart raced as she wondered if the nogitsune would find her. Syllana was so powerful… could she pierce through Yuki’s illusion as easily as she did everything else?
Syllana’s eyes met Yuki’s in the darkness… and continued on without pausing. She shook her head and smirked before looking back down at Mai, who was still attempting to catch her breath. “I am about to fucking destroy you.”
“Oh, goddess, I love it when you talk to me like that,” Mai cooed, her expression filled with nothing but worship and adoration as she looked up at the woman who’d nearly killed her.
Yuki had seen more than enough. She turned and quietly left the building before she was discovered after all.
Mai had burned her skin. Mai had witchfire. Mai had been the one who had told Yuki about Syllana. Mai had been the one to push her to use Syllana’s magic, and to hell with what was forbidden.
And now here she was… with Syllana.
What a fool Yuki was.
The fox ran, and she didn’t look back.
Mai turned her head, barely holding in the smile as she turned to look. It was a tiny disturbance, barely noticeable. Mai wasn’t any more capable of seeing through Yuki’s illusions than anyone else was, but unlike Syllana, unlike the others, she knew Yuki would be here. Knew what she wanted. Knew what she thought.
It was why she was here, after all.
The ghost of a smile on her face fought not to become a sneer as Syllana moved her into position and began to fuck her again, and Mai moaned as she pushed back against her mistress. Syllana didn’t know what she had, not here, not with Mai. It had taken Mai time to realize it, but her apprenticeship with the sorceress had never been more than a sham to the other woman – it was always all about Yuki. Syllana had just been using Mai to get to the other woman, to get her close. To bring her here… and once she had Yuki, Syllana would dump her erstwhile apprentice into obscurity faster than she could blink.
It didn’t matter though… because Mai wasn’t an idiot. The same lever that had brought Yuki here could drive her away just as easily. All she had needed was the slightest, softest hint of a compulsion on her former mistress that the grieving, broken idiot would never notice, and then to keep Syllana occupied for a few hours with her perfect body and then…
And then there would be no more question of who Syllana’s apprentice was.
It was for the best, really. Yuki got to be a martyr, just like she had always seemed to want. Syllana got the smartest, best, most devious apprentice she could ever ask for, just like she wanted. And Mai got the next step in her elevation to the top, just as she had wanted. If Yuki had thought there was more to them than that, well, that was her problem. Mai chuckled. No one had forced her to be an idiot.
“What’s so funny?” Syllana said teasingly, wrapping one hand in Mai’s gorgeous new black hair and starting to pull.
“Nothing mistress,” Mai said, pushing back against her. “Nothing’s funny at all. Harder…”
Yuki ran. She ran until her legs ached, until her lungs burned, until it seemed like her heart was going to give out, and then she ran some more, until even her kitsune regeneration couldn’t keep up with her anymore. When she tripped over her own legs and sprawled, tumbling in a heap for twenty feet, she didn’t rise… the dirt stained her white fur and she couldn’t care less.
She was such an idiot.
How long had they been working together? It was so obvious in hindsight… She had only known about Syllana because of Mai. She had only sought her out because of Mai. She had been so worried about her being attacked she hadn’t even thought to question why Mai would want her to go see the other woman. Then Syllana had taught her witchfire, something she knew… she knew… that the goddess would be furious about. She had played Yuki for a fool… using her and her people as pawns to kill the jorogumo for her.
No, not just that.
Syllana was by all proclamations a goddess. A malevolent goddess who twisted her followers into believing her power was the one true power, not giving heed to the corruptive potential. She didn’t just want to win her war. She also wanted to recruit… to gain able students and worshipers, warriors and sorcerers, the finest that Hanei had to offer. And Yuki had delivered her people right into the manipulative bitch’s hands.
The very thought twisted at Yuki’s mind, wringing it like a wet rag. She wanted to scream in an outburst of hate and anger. She wanted to return to the house and kill Mai for using her like such a fool, kill Syllana for what she had done to her people. Their skins… they were entirely dependent on Syllana for their magic now, for all but their lives. Would they even believe Yuki if she told them now, after Yuki had fought so hard to get them to trust her, after she had fought besides them in the battle and stood up against the goddess for them? Would they believe an idiot who admitted she had been duped, the woman who had led them to ruin themselves?
Yuki rubbed her head and wept as she slowly pushed herself up and continued to walk, tracing along the edge of the burned forest. She had to find somewhere to go and think, somewhere to rest, and in the end she could only think of one place she could go.
It was nearly sunrise by the time she arrived back at the warcamp, to the tent she had spent so much of the last year and a half in. The camp was abandoned now, loose flaps blowing in the wind. Some of the nogitsune had gone back for belongings. Yuki hadn’t. Her sword, all she had left of her family now, was the only thing she wanted. She looked at her bed, a bed she had shared with Mai, and couldn’t bring herself to lie in it. Instead, she laid on the floor, and was quickly fast asleep.
A sound woke her before long… someone moving through the camp. Yuki rose slowly, but the scent of the intruder hit her then and she just sagged back down, allowing herself to transform back to her human form as she put her back to the bed just before Seijun came in. “Yuki… thank the goddess. I’ve been looking for you.”
Yuki didn’t take her eyes off the floor. “You have, have you?” she asked. Yuki didn’t like how her voice sounded. Too flat, too cold.
“I came to the village looking for you,” Seijun said. “The others… what’s happened to them? You weren’t there when I arrived, so I came looking for you… I couldn’t think of anywhere else you might go, so I came here.”
“The Nogitsune are no better than the kitsune,” said Yuki as she buried her head into her knees. “Inari… Syllana… same thing.” She sighed. “Mai betrayed us, sensei. She used me, got me to go to Syllana, let me think she was here for us. I realize now all she wanted was power and a title to rival her old enemy Inari.”
Seijun looked at Yuki and sighed. “That bitch.” She slumped down next to Yuki. “We all make mistakes, apprentice,” she said. “Those aren’t what make us, though. It’s what we do with the lessons we learned that truly define us.”
Yuki lifted one lip in a sneer. “There you go spouting some bullshit to me again,” the nogitsune growled. “I think I am well past listening to you talk to me like a child.”
“I’m not,” Seijun said softly. “I know you’re angry, Yuki, but you must know that there are other paths to seek. This is not the end for you, nor the kitsune. I know the kind of person you are, my apprentice.”
“No, you just think you did,” Yuki snapped, one of her tails thumping hard against the ground. “I came here to think and be alone, not to find you, and certainly not to talk,” said Yuki as she clenched her fist. “I deserve to be alone.”
“No one deserves to be alone,” said Seijun as she sighed and touched Yuki’s shoulder with the patience and love she always had for her young apprentice.
Yuki looked at her and slapped her hand away, forcing herself to stand up from sitting beside her former mentor. “Seijun,” she muttered. “You walked with me, right until you realized you were too weak to handle the witchfire. You begged for Inari’s forgiveness instead of standing by us and the decision we made… the right decision. It came to us in the wrong way, but the jorogumo are dead now.” She clenched her fists so hard that she felt blood on her palms. “They’re fucking dead, they won’t ever kill anyone every again, and it was because of me! And you just let her cast us out without a single word. Great white fox of Hanei? Don’t make me laugh, Seijun!”
She looked at her former mentor and shook her head. “I can’t trust you anymore than I can trust my own sister. I trusted Akari. I trusted Inari. I trusted Syllana. I trusted Mai! The only one I could trust is dead now, and I can’t trust you!” she screamed.
Seijun reeled back more as her ears laid back in hurt and worry for Yuki. “Yuki, I-”
“ENOUGH! JUST LEAVE ME ALONE! ENOUGH OF YOUR LECTURES!” screamed Yuki. “COWARD!”
With that, she turned and ran away, leaving Seijun stunned and weeping in the ruins of her tent. Her former mentor held her hand out in one last effort to speak to Yuki, only to sigh and pull away, knowing now was not the time… that Yuki wasn’t ready to listen. Yuki ran from the abandoned war camp, aimlessly into the burned forest with tears streaming down her face. She shook her head in utter heartbreak as she had nowhere to go and no one to turn to. She couldn’t trust anyone or anything except herself.
No. No, not even herself.
Back in the camp, Seijun didn’t move. “You’re wrong, Yuki,” she whispered as she looked down and continued to weep. “No one deserves to be alone…”