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.
“Who were they fighting?” Shura asked.
The sudden question seemed to startle Merielle, who was walking alongside her. “Who?” she asked, tilting her head.
Shura blushed as she looked at the selkie… she had been doing that ever since Yuki had introduced the two of them intimately. Yuki thought it was cute, though that cuteness couldn’t cut through the funk the nogitsune’s own story had sunk her into. “Sorry,” Shura said, coughing for a second to clear her throat. “Inari, and the zenko. They were fighting before they came down, right?” She looked around at the others, and when no one spoke up she continued. “And they weren’t in the battle against the jorogumo, so… where were they? Who were they fighting against?”
“I think I know,” Hanabi said softly, sticking close to the disguised Yuki as their story group strode down the path back towards her family’s tent. Kamio had insisted that dinner be there again. Her overall demeanor felt… subdued. “I think they were in the nexus.”
That brought Yuki’s attention to her, looking at the white fox expectantly. Hanabi, however, didn’t seem to notice… she kept staring straight ahead. “Megumi says that the place we call Amala now was once home to the gods… but they’re all gone now. The only thing there when I arrived was a monster.” She shuddered in memory. “A monster that grew stronger the more beings, and more powerful beings, it faced. A weapon against the gods. It was terrifying, and strong…” She shuddered again. “And something made it.”
Shura was looking at her. “You think that must be when it happened?” the blue-furred fox asked. “When those ugly slime-sack things attacked the nexus?”
Hanabi shrugged again, but her nonchalance couldn’t hide the horror she felt thinking of it. “It was… it was a lot more than just slime. And it wasn’t really a lot of things… just one thing in pieces.” She swallowed. “It wrapped itself around my head and soul like it was nothing. Used my own magic against me. And… I didn’t get the impression that it had been alone in its siege. Or that it was the strongest or scariest creature on its side.” She looked down. “The attack on the nexus had to have happened sometime. I think… I think that time makes the most sense.”
“Or maybe we’re just making excuses for her,” Merielle said softly. Yuki wished she couldn’t feel the redhead’s eyes on the back of her skull, but she could.
They talked in silence for long moments before, with obvious effort, Hanabi forced herself to look up. “So, that’s the end then?” she asked, looking at ‘Yusika.’ “No more story? You went back to the village with the rest to rebuild?”
All around them, spring was growing. The trees were turning lusher by the day as the temperatures rose, the long winter dissolving away day by day. The village really was looking much better than it had even a month ago when Yuki had arrived, and while she didn’t credit herself with that it still felt good to have been a part of the process. Most of the structures that could be repaired had been so by now, and those that had been too badly damaged had been torn down, leaving empty space. In time, Yuki was sure, that space would be filled with something new. That did seem to be the way of the world… building the new over the ruins of the old.
“Not quite,” Yuki admitted, looking around quietly as they walked. “Yes and no. No more story, but… not everyone went back to Hanei.” She took a deep breath, trying to build up the courage to say something true and not finding it, settling for only half a lie instead. “Some people went with Syllana… but some who didn’t go with her also couldn’t bear to return to a home in ruins. Too many bad memories. Too many regrets.” Yuki shook her head. “I couldn’t… I couldn’t go home.”
“I think I understand that,” Hanabi said as she walked alongside Yuki’s brown-furred form. “There were those who didn’t want to come back after… after Paragon.”
Behind them, Yuki heard a bubble pop. “I was close to being one of them,” Shura admitted, refusing to look at any of the others.
“There’s no shame in that,” Hanabi insisted as she raised her gaze back up from the path. “Wanting to stay away from painful thoughts, painful memories… it’s normal, isn’t it?” The slim white fox kicked a stone in the path up onto her foot for a moment, balancing it before flinging it away. “But choosing to face those memories is important, right? Both times, we rebuilt. Hanei isn’t a place…”
“…It’s a people,” Yuki finished quietly. “And those people survive.” She was silent for long seconds as they walked. It… it did feel good to share. This story was one she had kept bottled up for far, far too long. Even telling this sanitized version of it, one where she was an outside observer rather than the one making the choices, helped… it felt like lifting weight on her chest that had been there for so long she had forgotten about it, just grown used to it. It seemed now like she had been suffocating for centuries and only now was becoming aware of the pillow pressed down on her face.
“Not everyone returned,” she said at last, voice quiet and thoughtful. “I have to say, though… I was hoping I might see a few people from the old days. More than are left.”
She felt it as Merielle’s hand grabbed onto hers and squeezed. “Lady Seijun?”
“Yeah…” Yuki said softly. “I never saw her again after that night. A part of me hoped that she would be here. No matter how awkward it would be…”
“As far as I know, she came back for only a few weeks before leaving,” the white-furred fox said. “She never came back.” She let her own voice trail off then, as if she was carrying her own weight. There was a hesitation to her, as though she was considering whether or not to say something.
Yuki stared at the sky, unsure of what else to say… it’s why she didn’t see it until it was too late.
Merielle’s gasp brought her attention back just in time to catch sight of a flash of fur and golden light, and then something crashed into her like a cannonball. Yuki flew backward but she didn’t tumble… the furry weight landed right on her, pinning her to the ground hard enough that her back and tails slid over the stone. Pain flashed through her as the impact pressed down on her bones and her tail but a second later she felt the foxfire hit as well, pressing against her own power. Yuki struggled back but the pain and shock shattered her concentration, brushing away the magic like cobwebs until, what felt like an eternity later, she slid to a stop on the stone path.
A red-furred kitsune in her natural form stood on top of her, paws pressing hard against Yuki’s shoulders as her strength pinned her squarely to the ground. She was overwhelmingly strong, holding her down with no real effort even as Yuki struggled… the weight and strength overwhelming technique completely. It took conscious effort for her to stop struggling… she wasn’t getting anywhere, and if the kitsune had intended to kill her she had to face facts – she would already be dead.
Reluctantly, Yuki lowered her arms and legs in surrender, peering up at the intense amber eyes of the fox… narrow where she glared at her. There was something odd about this one. Yuki didn’t recognize her, but that wasn’t surprising… what was surprising were the five white tails that the fox had mingling with her red ones, the entire coat of fur flickering with small licks of golden fire like static electricity.
And a red-haired woman was riding her, looking down at her with a face lit up in recognition.
“Hello, Snowflake,” the fox growled out.
Yuki’s eyes went wide before narrowing again. No… that was impossible. That was impossible. “Get off me,” she snarled as she started struggling again. She called up witchfire and the red-furred fox on top of her seemed to effortlessly smother it as though beneath a wet blanket. “Get off me!”
Footsteps crunched against the gravel. “Seo-yun, what the hell!” Hanabi shouted as she skidded to a stop. “What are y—” Her words cut off abruptly and even without being able to see her Yuki winced. Looking down, she confirmed for herself that her illusion had shattered completely, leaving her with nothing. Goddess damned freak. The nogitsune strained once again to kick her off, and might as well have tried to move a wall.
How was this possible? She’d been dying. Yuki had written her off as dead years ago… and now, somehow, she was not only alive… but in a fox form once again, and filled with foxfire? It shouldn’t be possible… it wasn’t possible… it went against everything she had ever learned, everything she understood about magic and what could be achieved with it… but when she reached for Seo-yun with her senses, the kitsune on top of her seemed to blaze like the sun in her mind, searing with the fire burning within her that her body couldn’t quite contain.
It wasn’t like Akari… to her, Akari felt like a lantern burning away, a neat, controlled, useful flame that produced only as much light as needed… but burned a wick sitting in an ocean of oil. Seo-yun felt more like a lake of fuel ablaze, an internal combustion engine of barely controlled explosions going off one after the other. She’d never seen anything like that before.
It wasn’t possible.
The American woman on top of the fox chuckled. “Well well well,” she said. “Not every day you run into someone who tried to kill you.”
Yuki glared back at her. “I don’t even know who you are, bitch.”
“That doesn’t exactly speak well for your track record, now does it?” she laughed, and something about her voice, that laugh…
The nogitsune cursed. Of fucking course the damned phoenix wouldn’t stay dead. She supposed the mystery of how the former champion of the Paradisium had still been around to be saved when the Paradisium had fallen was a small puzzle compared to the confounding sense of how Seo-yun was here at all, but it annoyed her not to know anyway. “Ember, I swear to the goddess if you two don’t get your paws off me I’ll…”
“Get off her!” Merielle said. It seemed to Yuki like the selkie was pushing at the giant fox… she might as well have tried to lift up the temple and move that, instead. “You’re hurting her!”
All around her, Yuki could hear the whispers. Could see kitsune with shocked expressions, see them taking steps backward. Seo-yun’s presence, the impossibility of her, was shocking… but none of them were looking at the fox, seeming to expect her. No, instead they were all looking at her. “Nogitsune…” the whispers said in shocked gasps. “Exile.” “Dangerous.”
“What are you doing here?” Seo-yun growled again, pressing her back down, only flicking her gaze over to the selkie for a moment. “And bringing slaves? Here? How dare you?”
The selkie flinched backward. “It’s not like—”
Merielle had barely begun speaking before Seo-yun cut her off. “I know what you are, Yuki.” From the corner of her eye, Yuki saw Hanabi flinch as though she’d been shot. “We all know the stories… why here? Why cause more trouble here?”
Yuki had had enough. “Because this is my home you jumped up freak!” she snarled. “Now get off me!”
“Mistress, do you require assistance?” A moment later, a black haired woman walked into view. Her hands were coated with frost, Yuki noticed. She had no idea who the creepy bitch was or what she was doing here with Seo-yun and Ember, but Yuki could definitely feel the weight on her growing as more and more people surrounded her.
“That’s not necessary, Celeste,” Seo-yun said without taking her eyes off of the nogitsune beneath her. “I have it under control.” Her face knelt down to brush against Yuki’s good ear. “This is how it felt…” she whispered. “To be helpless…” She backed up, speaking louder. “I saved your life,” Seo-yun said, voice firm. “That makes me responsible for what you’ve done with it. Everyone you’ve hurt since then… everyone you’ve injured… that’s all on me. I won’t let you hurt anyone else.”
“You’re one to talk!” Yuki shouted, looking around. “How much blood is on your soul, monster? Did you sacrifice yourself to save Hanei? She’s a gumiho… do you know that! Get her off of—” The nogitsune began.
“We know who she was,” Shura interjected quietly. “What she was.”
“I… I, uh… yeah, we knew…” Hanabi swallowed. Her voice seemed far away, distant, weak. “But… um… You two… you’ve… met?”
Yuki looked around. Hanabi was barely in view but the already pale woman looked almost as stark white as her fur. Shura looked horrified but unsure of herself, humiliated and taken by surprise, not sure what to do. Only Merielle seemed more angry than concerned. “She hasn’t done anything to you!” the selkie shouted. “Leave her alone!”
All around her, people were crowding in. Watching. No one speaking up. No one had anything to say. She had worked with most of these people… helped clear rubble with many of them. Planted with others. Cooked with still others. No one said anything. No one was going to help.
“Yes,” Seo-yun said softly, ignoring Merielle as she shoved her meaningless body weight against the huge kitsune. “We’ve met. And she did much to me in that time.” Her eyes flicked over to the shellshocked white fox. “Hanabi, has she hurt anybody? Anyone gotten injured, or turned up missing?”
“No!” Hanabi said, stunned. “I… no, nothing like that.”
Away. Away. Away. People were staring… at her. Hundreds of eyes on her.
“I’ll leave.” The voice speaking was relaxed. Cold. Not at all panicked.
It had been a selfish mistake to ever come here.
She had to get away.
“I asked you to get off me,” the calm voice said. It took a moment for Yuki to realize it was hers. “Now I’m warning you. Move, or I’ll move you.”
“You’re not going anywhere,” Seo-yun said. “Not until I’ve found out exactly what you’ve done whi—”
Yuki had spent her entire life used to working on a very small engine… needing to make the absolute most of it. Except for that one, horrible night, where she had somehow tapped directly into wherever witchfire came from, it had always been that way… even when she had filled up it had never been much. Merielle had asked her to describe it before… if the source felt infinite, if she could pull magic from her very soul, then how did she have so little? The description she had settled on was like dropping a cup in a river to fill it up. The power kept moving with the current, and you were only taking what could fit in your cup… and some people had a bucket.
Yuki had a sake glass.
Trying to hold onto more power than would fit into that glass was like cupping your hands around the borders. You could hold more than fit in your nice, safe cup. You could hold a lot more… but it leaked. Over time, you would lose everything you had taken… slipping away like trying to hold onto a fistful of fine sand and being left with only a few fine kernels. It wouldn’t happen all at once, and if you could take in more you could slow the leaking down, but eventually she would always be left with her small store of magic to work with. That was how it had always been, so she had needed to learn to be very efficient with what she had.
This did, however, come with a perk.
The amount of witchfire a nogitsune got when they fed seemed to be intended to fill up a normal fox’s cup… however Syllana was providing the power, it gave enough to completely fill one of her flock. For Yuki, it meant that preying on a single soul provided her enough to send her gripping around the edges to hold onto the excess witchfire she couldn’t hold anymore. It meant that she had lots of practice holding onto leaking witchfire… it let her hold on a little longer, a little better, than most.
Usually, it didn’t matter. Yuki rarely hunted… only when she was feeling dry, and she always tried to convince herself that even at her worst it was never indiscriminate… that everyone she’d killed deserved it. It meant she had basically never taken more than she needed.
But a months ago, Yuki had drained the whole camp of those militia assholes dry.
They wanted to see one of the scary monsters who had burned the forest down? Fine… she could show them a nogitsune.
Yuki’s eyes flashed with power, and then it erupted out of her like a column of blue flame. Air exploded outward as the witchfire superheated it… the force of it flattened nearby tents and sent even the thick old trees shaking. It certainly knocked everyone nearby off their feet, sending them sprawling, transforming, or collapsing them to their knees. It blasted Seo-yun off of her… she could feel the woman’s glowing sun of foxfire gathering up against the impact but it was nowhere near quick enough, nowhere near precise enough to shield against a hammer blow. She was slapped away like she was struck by the hand of Amaterasu herself, the column of flame blasting past her like she wasn’t even there as it stretched most of a mile up into the sky.
Yuki wasn’t sure how much she had left after that. Not much. She could feel burns on her hands and feet and arms and neck, smoke rising from the inside of her lungs and throat from where she had been scorched on the inside as well. She couldn’t throw another punch like that, even if she did have the witchfire to do it… so even though everything hurt, the black-furred fox, Hanei’s most infamous daughter, forced herself to her feet, picked a direction, and began to run.
No one stopped her. No one called out. Yuki wasn’t even sure if anyone saw her as she wrapped layer after layer after layer of illusions around her, hiding herself completely and just putting one foot in front of the other, again and again.
Yuki ran, and she didn’t stop.