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Chiyoko brought her face close to the ground. A long, black braid hung over her shoulder as she examined the roots of a beech tree, her fingers tracing along the silver bark. She lingered on a deep gouge at the far side of the root. Sap still dripped from the wound.
“What are we looking at?”
She tensed as a face appeared next to hers. The face was handsome with a strong, clean-shaven jawline. Chiyoko was forced to stumble sideways as the rest of Mamoru’s muscular frame shuffled closer.
Chiyoko sighed, shaking her head. She pressed a hand against Mamoru’s face and shoved him away, smearing sap across his cheek. “How many times have I told you not to interrupt me when I’m focused?”
“Today? Three times. But I was bored! You’ve been staring at that root for five minutes.” He rubbed at the sap on his cheek, leaving a smear of dirt from his hands. “If you want me to leave you alone you could at least think out loud or something.”
“What, you can’t just sit still for longer than 3 heart beats?”
Mamoru pressed his hands against his knees and stood to his full 6 and a half feet. He rolled his shoulders, breath fogging in the frigid, perpetual gloom of the forest. Grey trees stretched out around them, rough barked pines and beech trees with yellow leaves. The forest floor was a web of lichen, roots, and occasional banks of snow. “You know, if you’d just teach me some tracking skills I wouldn’t have to bug you so much.”
“Last time I tried teaching you how to follow a trail you stuck your hand in a viper pit and then went screaming through the woods when it bit you.”
Mamoru rubbed two small, round scars on the back of his left hand, his cheeks blushing. “You know what they say. Experience is the best teacher. Or the only teacher in this case…”
Chiyoko remained kneeling, staring up at Mamoru. She didn’t understand why he wanted to learn something he was so bad at. They each had their role in the hunt. Shouldn’t they just focus on improving that? Maybe this was some attempt at further bonding between them. Or maybe Mamoru secretly wanted to learn her skills so he could go without her. Chiyoko blinked.
Mamoru poked Chiyoko’s forehead. “You always blink like that when you’re overthinking. What’s up?”
“Oh yeah, we all spend 30 seconds staring into space in the middle of a conversation so we can think about nothing.” Mamoru reached a hand out to Chiyoko, one eyebrow raised and a slight smile on his face. “Anyways, wanna tell me what we’re looking at, oh great hunter?”
Chiyoko grabbed Mamoru’s hand and he lifted her easily to her feet. Chiyoko was taller than most, but next to Mamoru her slender frame looked small. She pointed at the root she had been examining. “It came through here recently. There’s a gouge on the root that’s wet with sap but not actively dripping. I’d say less than a day old.”
“We’re close!” Mamoru clapped his hands together in excitement. The sound was muffled by the shadows Chiyoko had woven around them, but she still flinched as the noise bounced off the nearby trees. Chiyoko glared at Mamoru for a second. “Oops… sorry.”
“Yes, we’re close. Given the way this fox has been moving, we should catch up to it soon. But I think it’s bigger than we originally thought.”
“How can you tell?”
“The root is smooth and compressed where it root took the creature’s weight. We were thinking this one was 12, maybe 15 feet. But the compression is too much for that size. And the imprint is over a foot wide. This one has to be 20 feet at least.”
Mamoru’s eyes widened. “That’ll be the biggest we’ve killed yet. Do you think it’s a seven-tails?”
“It might be eight.”
Mamoru whistled. “Eight! It’s a good thing we caught this one’s trail before it made it’s way to the walls, then. Everyone in the village is gonna flip when they hear.”
Chiyoko didn’t share Mamoru’s excitement. Each new tail a kitsune gained granted it a new ability, making it harder to hunt and kill. After just the third tail, a fox could reshape its surroundings on a whim. And more tails meant a bigger, smarter beast. The largest kitsune that Chiyoko and Mamoru had killed was a six-tails. A seven- or eight-tails presented a lot of unknowns.
Worse, the hunt had already been three days longer than expected. The kitsune was using it’s third tail to meticulously wipe clean it’s trail. Chiyoko had to track using markings left on living objects that the fox couldn’t control. Does it know we’re following? Is it preparing a trap?
Mamoru waved a hand in front of Chiyoko’s face, breaking her from her worries. “Hey! Hello. Mamoru here. You know, the other human being you’re traveling with. Mind telling me what’s on your mind rather than blanking out again?” Mamoru shook his head. “Frosted dawn Chiyoko, you’re out of it this morning.”
“It just feels like we’re not in control. We’ve been out longer than expected. And the fox’s trail is doubling back towards Hokko. It’s not exactly ideal circumstances to fight our biggest—.“
Chiyoko froze as she heard a branch snap in the woods behind Mamoru. It was faint, but Chiyoko had made a habit of throwing her senses as wide as she could over the last few days. Mamoru opened his mouth to speak but Chiyoko held up a hand, her eyes scanning the woods over his shoulder. Mamoru slowly turned in the direction Chiyoko was searching and dropped into a crouch, his hand reaching for the axe at his back.
Nothing moved. The muscles around Chiyoko’s eyes tensed as she pushed her vision deeper into the woods. No sounds. Maybe it was just a weasel. Or some—. She caught a dull glimmer emerging from the trees. Some kind of dark, reflective surface moving alongside a pair of torches. Human shapes coalesced from shadows.
Chiyoko grabbed Mamoru’s wrist and pulled him towards the edge of the clearing they were standing in. Other than Chiyoko and Mamoru, no one ventured this far outside the walls. The nearest village was 3 weeks trekking through woods that were dangerous even for the two hunters. Encounters in the woods were never happy coincidences.
Chiyoko found a large boulder with two tree trunks growing around it and they pressed themselves low. She pulled the shadow of the boulder in tight, obscuring them further.
The figures approached carefully, moving between trees and keeping their torches low. If it weren’t for Chiyoko’s heightened senses, she would have thought the faint torchlight was nothing more than a pair of aimless kitsunebi - half sentient will-o-wisps left in the wake of the kitsune they hunted.
Three figures stepped into the clearing. At the front was a man covered in dark onyx metal. The metal was smooth, yet somehow shaped to fit the man’s form and allow him to move around like a giant beetle. He stood straight, his shoulders back. A long, two handed blade at his side.
A short dwarven woman with broad features followed close behind the beetle man. Her shoulders were hunched. A long, blond ponytail whipped about her head as her gaze darted back and forth. In her bare hands were two softly pulsing balls of fire.
The third figure was a short, stocky man wearing loose-fitting green pants and a brown leather jacket. Over the jacket was a dark green vest. The man’s face was obscured by a conical straw hat. As he entered the clearing, the other two looked to him deferentially. He turned to the beetle man. “You said you heard something from this direction, Seiji?”
Seiji stroked a greying mustache as he peered into the woods, his eyes squinting to penetrate the gloom. “I would stake my honor on it. Hideyo, don’t be shy now lass, could you hold those flames a bit higher so we can see further?”
Chiyoko tensed, preparing to run. But the man in the straw hat placed a hand on Hideyo’s shoulder. “Hold on a second, I’d prefer to avoid announcing our location too prominently if we can. We left the rest of our force behind so we could catch up faster, not so we could be jumped by every beast in the forest. Seiji, can you sense the fox’s presence nearby?”
Seiji’s closed his eyes for a moment. When he opened them they shone with a silver light. His head turned in the direction of the tree root Chiyoko had been studying earlier. “He’s been through here, certainly. His presence is within my range, but still a couple hours out, I think. His aura is faint. There’s some kind of interference. Perhaps he’s in a ravine of some sort - a large body of stone will interfere with my sense.”
So they’re hunting the fox as well. Maybe we should show ourselves and work together? Chiyoko glanced at Mamoru. His face was obscured by the shadows that clung to their bodies, but he made a hand sign to Chiyoko asking the same question she was pondering. Chiyoko shook her head, giving the sign to hold a bit longer. He said they have a larger force behind them. This deep in the woods, they’re probably part of some wandering tribe. If they see us, they’ll want to know where we come from. Chiyoko thought of their village. Seiji’s description of the fox’s location sounded like Fangdrop, a fissure less than an hour from Hokko.
Hideyo continued looking into the woods. “Could it have been one of Tsukuyomi’s allies? We’re so far north. If he’s found help we won’t stand much of a chance alone. Maybe we should wait a couple days for everyone to catch up.”
Seiji turned towards Hideyo, a disapproving look on his face. “Hideyo! Have a bit more pride!” He gestured towards the man in the hat. “You were hand picked by Yoshinobu. One of his chosen guard. To speak such fearful words is unbecoming of the rebellion.”
Chiyoko gripped Mamoru’s forearm with shaking hands. Did he say Tsukuyomi? Yoshinobu? Frosted dawn, what have we gotten ourselves into?
They had been hunting Tsukuyomi. The Nine Tails. Leader of the kitsune and one of the five gods of Yosai. And apparently they had been doing it just a couple days ahead of Yoshinobu’s rebellion.
Chiyoko had only heard rumor’s of the man who had declared war on the gods. Hokko only got news of the south from the rare trapper or trading party willing to brave the northern woods. But what she heard was never good. Entire villages caught in the crossfire and wiped off the map.
Yoshinobu laughed and gave Hideyo a comforting squeeze with the hand that still rested on her shoulder. “Seiji, I appreciate the faith you place in me. But please. I’m still just a carpenter. No more talk of a chosen guard.” Yoshinobu held up his free hand to forestall Seiji’s rebuttal. His fingers were covered in long-healed scars. “If we kill this god, I’ll consider letting you pick some fancy titles for us all. But we’ve got a long way to go before we’ve earn any self importance.”
Yoshinobu turned the dwarven woman towards him, placing his other hand on her shoulder. Despite her short stature, Yoshinobu didn’t have to bend to look into her eyes. “I know we’re taking a risk by striking out ahead of everyone like this. But we’ve gone through so much to get to this point. Tsukuyomi is alone. He’s been away from his realm long enough that his powers are diminished. We’ll never have a better chance to strike. If we let him escape over the Shatterspine, we’ll have to face him at full strength, surrounded by allies. Lots more people will die.”
Yoshinobu’s face brightened as he continued. “Besides, Katsumi has been ranging ahead. Nothing gets past her. If Tsukuyomi had allies in the woods, we would have heard about it.”
Seiji snorted. “More likely we would have heard the poor thing’s screams before Katsumi ripped it apart.”
Yoshinobu ignored him and continued focusing on Hideyo. She extinguished one of her flames and brought the hand to rest on Yoshinobu’s. She nodded.
Yoshinobu smiled and let out a sigh. “Alright, let’s keep moving. Whatever it was you heard Seiji, it’s not our target.” The rebels continued in the direction of Tsukuyomi’s trail.
When Chiyoko was sure they were out of sight and earshot, she and Mamoru stepped from behind the boulder.
Mamoru spoke first. “We need to get back and warn my mom. She’ll know what to do. Tsukuyomi might not even find Hokko if we can get everyone hidden.”
“It’s too big a risk. If Tsukuyomi and the rebels end up fighting near Hokko, it’s all over. We can’t leave that up to chance. Our best bet is to try and beat Yoshinobu to Fangdrop. If Tsukuyomi’s still there, we can hold him in place until the rebels arrive and then try to keep the fight from leaving the fissure.”
“And what if Tsukuyomi is already gone?”
“Then we pin down Yoshinobu and his people as long as we can, hoping Tsukuyomi has moved past Hokko by then.”
The two hesitated for a moment, unsure which path to take. Eventually Chiyoko relented. She knew the woods and she was confident she could get to Fangdrop in time. But Mamoru was right. They needed to ask the town’s elder what to do. It wasn’t Chiyoko’s place to decide on behalf of the entire village.
Chiyoko and Mamoru sprinted through the woods, crashing through the underbrush at reckless speeds. Years of instincts chided Chiyoko for every sound she made along the way. But there was no other choice.
After nearly two hours of running full tilt, the pair came charging down the mountainside into the valley that held the village. Hokko lay at the bottom, with terraced rice paddies and other cropland spreading in every direction. The village sat within two concentric walls: a lower wall surrounded the farmland to keep predators out and the livestock in. A taller inner wall surrounded Hokko itself.
30 minutes later, Chiyoko crouched along Hokko’s inner wall, facing the direction of Fangdrop. Mamoru was at her side, every muscle tensed. Both of them were covered in sweat. Their chests heaved as they struggled to regain their breath after a tearing through the woods and mobilizing the villagers.
Two dozen able-bodied men and women dotted the rest of the wall. They wore makeshift leather armor and aged weapons handed down through their families. It had been some time since there was any threat that Chiyoko and Mamoru couldn’t handle on their own.
Mamoru’s mother, Ayeka, stood on his other side. Her wiry grey hair was pulled back into a severe bun. She had one long, well-built arm braced against the wall. Well-worn worry lines crinkled around her eyes as she whispered orders to the villagers on the wall.
The 200 remaining residents of Hokko took shelter further inside the wall.
Ayeka’s plan, assuming Tsukuyomi and the rebellion reached Hokko, was to cede the outer wall immediately. She hoped it would provide enough space for whatever battle ensued. They would hold the inner wall as strongly as possible, minimizing collateral damage to the village and their stores of food.
They had just made it into position. There hadn’t been much time to share every detail, so many villagers held their weapons and watched the woods with a mixture of trepidation and uncertainty. Chiyoko held an arrow notched and ready to draw.
Ten minutes passed. Twenty. Some of the villagers began to fidget with their armor and weapons. Maybe Tsukuyomi moved on before they reached Fangdrop…
There was a gasp to Chiyoko’s left. “There!” The woman’s arm was outstretched, trembling as it pointed into the woods. “I saw something move in the tree line!” As she spoke, birds leapt into the air as three sharp cracks rang out like snapping twigs. Trees toppled.
A roar filled the air, louder than anything Chiyoko had ever heard. The toppled trees were well over 500 feet away, yet Chiyoko could feel Hokko’s wall shaking. Leaves fell from the trees along the edge of the outer wall. Several villagers covered their ears, wincing. Pained cries sounded from the woods.
There was a hiss like sharply inhaled breath as a rush of wind was drawn into the forest, bending the limbs of trees inwards. There was a dull whoomph and a flash of yellow-orange light as a horizontal column of fire 10 feet wide erupted from the trees. Careening through the air at the head of the column was the largest kitsune Chiyoko had ever seen.
Tsukuyomi was at least 30 feet long. Nine snow-white tails wrapped protectively around the giant fox as he blasted through the outer wall of Hokko. The god righted himself as he slid through the rice paddies, his claws digging wide furrows through the ground.
As he came to a halt, Tsukuyomi’s tails snapped outwards. A sphere of cold wind whipped from the fox, freezing the rice paddies around him and leaving his white fur clean and unmarred.
Tsukuyomi laughed. “Yes! Excellent. Come.”
As he spoke, one of the god’s tails flared with purple light. All of the blood drained from Chiyoko’s limbs as she felt a crushing presence against her mind. The presence dulled her reflexes, drawing her towards Tsukuyomi. Without thinking, Chiyoko took a step towards the edge of the wall. Shit. Shit!
With all her willpower, Chiyoko grabbed the head of the arrow in her hand and squeezed. Hard. Blood poured out of her palm, breaking the trance. She saw Mamoru stagger to her right before smacking himself swiftly across the face.
Chiyoko watched as villagers began to lift themselves mindlessly onto the wall. They leapt forward, heedless of the 20 foot drop below.
“Mamoru! Your mom. Quick!” Chiyoko darted to the left, catching a woman by the collar just as she stepped off the wall. Chiyoko threw herself backwards, countering the woman’s momentum. The woman fell in a heap on top of Chiyoko, eyes blinking in confusion.
Chiyoko rolled the woman off of her and sprang to her feet. She saw Mamoru pulling his mother back from the wall. The rest of the village guards lay moaning in pain below. Several clutched badly broken legs. One who had landed awkwardly lay face down, unmoving.
Chiyoko looked on in shock. The battle hasn’t even started yet.
Yoshinobu, Seiji, and Hideyo came striding out of the forest. Hideyo began drawing her arms about her, gathering flames from the underbrush into a sphere above her head. Seiji tensed his grip along the hilt of his sword. The onyx blade began to emit a shining silver light.
The man in the straw hat gestured towards Tsukuyomi. “No more running, Tsukuyomi. Yosai will suffer one less god walking its lands today.”
“Yes, yes. Here I stand, no? Who’s running? Honestly Yoshinobu, your one liners really suck the fun out of this for me. I’m supposed to be the dramatic one. Try to lighten up. It’s your last day alive, after all.”
As he spoke, Tsukuyomi tensed his front legs, his shoulders and head dipping forward. His jaw began to tense, as though chewing something dense. Tsukuyomi snapped his head towards Yoshinobu and opened his mouth. Jagged ice crystals the size of a man leapt from the god’s mouth, traveling along the ground like a wave. As it rushed forward, the ice grew in speed and size.
Hideyo smashed her hands down, launching the ball of gathering flame towards the wave. It collided with a popping hiss, shattering the ice. Steam obscured the area.
Yoshinobu stepped forward and planted his feet wide. “Hideyo, get another ready. Seiji, get in his face. Now please.” The man in the black armor nodded and began to charge forward, his blade angled low behind him. The dwarven woman brought her hands together, pushing against some invisible resistance. Between her palms a small sun ignited. “Any time, Katsumi!”
A loud roar sounded to the right as a woman came charging from the woods. Covered in animal furs, black hair wild and tangled, the woman leapt towards Tsukuyomi unarmed with her lips pulled back in a growl.
As she flew through the air, the woman’s form rippled and blurred. Her mouth elongated, her shoulders hunched and rolled forward. Grey fur erupted along her body as the woman shifted mid-leap into the form of a giant wolf the size of two wagons.
The wolf’s full weight collided with Tsukuyomi’s right side, but the god hardly moved as he absorbed the blow. The wolf’s jaws clamped around the Tsukuyomi’s shoulder spraying blood. Tsukuyomi laughed again.
“Admirable! You draw the blood of a god. Be sure to tell your elders of the accomplishment when you meet them in the afterlife.” One of Tsukuyomi’s nine billowing tails snapped forward. It collided with the giant wolf in a sickening crunch, sending it flying through the air. Tsukuyomi launched himself after the wolf, one of his tails glowing an ominous black.
From a wide stance, Yoshinobu made a quick uppercut. As he did so, a wave of force leapt from his hand and ripped through the water of the rice paddies. The blast caught Tsukuyomi mid leap, throwing him 50 feet into the air. The wave continued onward, impacting a section of Hokko’s inner wall to Chiyoko’s left. Chiyoko heard screams from the villagers lying at the base of the wall. Then silence as the rock buckled and launched into the sky, several bodies caught within the rubble.
As Tsukuyomi was pulled upwards, Hideyo hurled the flaming sphere between her hands towards the fox, her brown robes flapping wildly behind her from the temperature gradient. But Tsukuyomi’s tails flared out, restoring his balance and allowing him to knock the ball of fire to the side. The sphere crashed into a building at the edge of Hokko and detonated, blowing rubble in all directions.
Chiyoko looked in horror at the devastation. This needs to end. Fast. She turned back to the battle, drawing an arrow and scanning the field. Which side has the upper hand? The woman who had shifted into a giant wolf was struggling to pull herself from the rubble of the wall Tsukuyomi had knocked her through. But Tsukuyomi was now trapped in the sky, his tails whipping about him as he tried to break free.
Chiyoko drew her bow and sighted the back of Tsukuyomi’s head, waiting for his tails to leave an opening. Just give me one shot.
But before Chiyoko could fire, she felt a firm grip on her shoulder. “No! You’ll draw the god’s anger against us as well.” Chiyoko turned to see Ayeka close behind her.
“But the rebels have the upper hand. Tsukuyomi is an easy target right now and we have him surrounded! It’s the fastest way to end this.”
“He’s a god Chiyoko. He will not fall so easily. And if he did, do you think the other 4 would not come calling soon after?”
“What would you have us do, then? Just two attacks have already crippled our wall.” Chiyoko tried to shrug free and redraw her bow, but Ayeka held firm.
“Help Tsukuyomi. With you and Mamoru at his back, the playing field will level.”
Chiyoko’s face twisted. “Help the kitsune?. His spawn torments our village on a whim!” There was a large crash as Tsukuyomi loosed another blast of ice from above. Caught off guard, Hideyo’s flames barely intercepted the ice in time. The explosion of steam knocked the her off her feet.
The figure in black armor had reached the area below Tsukuyomi and launched himself into whatever field held the god aloft. Seiji rose quickly, aiming his sword for Tsukuyomi’s stomach.
“If we help Tsukuyomi, we can ask him to keep the other kitsune away from Hokko. Trust me, Chiyoko.” Chiyoko looked into Ayeka’s face. The village elder’s expression was stern and calculating. Chiyoko prepared to argue further but caught herself. It was Ayeka’s call.
Chiyoko turned her attention back to the battle field. Yoshinobu was absorbed with maintaining whatever field held Tsukuyomi in place. In the air, Seiji had reached Tsukuyomi. A long gash showed on the god’s belly, but now the fox held Seiji’s blade within his jaws. Hideyo had regained her feet and she was hurling waves of flame in Tsukuyomi’s direction. His tails were bowed forward, creating a shield, but each impact seemed to cause the kitsune more trouble.
“Mamoru, take care of things when they hit the ground.” Without waiting to see if he heard her, Chiyoko took off along the wall at a run. She reached the section where Yoshinobu’s punch had impacted and leapt. Her stomach somersaulted as she flipped her feet towards the sky and compensated for the sudden shift in gravity. She landed heavily along the bottom side of the airborne wall fragment.
Chiyoko rolled with the landing. Don’t look up. Down. Whatever. She took off at a sprint, leaping between rubble like stones in a river. When she reached the last rock, she brought her legs close in to her chest and launched towards Tsukuyomi’s back.
As she connected, Tsukuyomi lashed out reflexively with two tails, attempting to strike Chiyoko from both sides. But Chiyoko bent her legs to absorb the landing and pushed off in the same movement, catapulting over Tsukuyomi’s shoulder and out of reach of the two tails.
“I’m trying to help you!” Chiyoko’s body twisted in the air as she continued past Tsukuyomi. As Seiji came into view, Chiyoko loosed an arrow towards his hand. He cursed and dropped his blade.
Chiyoko continued to twist in the air, her head angled towards the ground. The momentum from her leap carried her further past Seiji and Tsukuyomi as they continued to wrestle. Chiyoko drew another arrow and drew her bow again. She forced her breathing to calm. After what felt like an eternity, Chiyoko saw the form of Yoshinobu.
Chiyoko mouthed a word and her arrow erupted with electricity. She released and a bolt of lightning arced from her bow. A thunderclap filled the valley as Chiyoko’s arrow slammed into Yoshinobu’s chest.
In the last instant, Chiyoko saw Yoshinobu twist his body left, managing to spare his heart. Then he disappeared in a blinding flash as secondary bolts jumped in every direction from the impact. One split a tree over Yoshinobu’s shoulder. Another smashed into the side of Hideyo, who only barely managed to brace against it. Yoshinobu was thrown backwards through another tree, unconscious immediately.
Chiyoko only had a moment to appreciate her shot before her stomach somersaulted. She looked back towards the ground as she slowly began to fall.
As she fell, Chiyoko came face to face with one of Tsukuyomi’s large, feline eyes. “I’ve never been used as a stepping stone before. What would the others think?” He chuckled. “It was a nice shot, by the way.”
The ground began rising to meet them rapidly. Chiyoko reached for the fur on the side of Tsukuyomi’s face. “You’d better frosting catch me, you stupid fox!”
He did not.
Chiyoko sat up with a gasp, reaching for her bow reflexively. Her hand found the arm of a woman kneeling over her. The woman startled and toppled backwards, hands held out before her. “Whoa! Whoa! It’s OK, the battle is over!”
It was the guard who Chiyoko had saved from jumping off the wall. Blood dripped from a makeshift bandage on the woman’s shoulder, tracing red rivers down her arm. Chiyoko struggled for a moment before remembering her name. Teruko.
The two women were sitting in the shadow of Hokko’s inner wall, their backs to the stone and wood fortification. It had begun to snow.
To her immediate right was the gap left by Yoshinobu’s gravity altering strike. To her left was a curtain of ice 30 feet high. It cut through the wall and continued deep into the village. Every building in the path of the ice was completely blown apart.
Chiyoko’s head pounded. She reached for her temple and winced. All over her body she was covered with deep scratches and bruises. Along the right side of her head, the hair was matted in blood and the skin protruded in a massive goose egg.
Eying Chiyoko warily, Teruko pushed off her butt and balanced on the balls of her feet, hands pressed against her thighs.
“After you shot that arrow, things got pretty messy. Apparently the rebels were relying on the straw hat guy to keep Tsukuyomi in place long enough for them to do their thing. Whatever it was they thought they could do to a god.” Teruko shook her head.
“Anyways, straw hat went down and the three of you up in the air immediately started falling. The dwarf woman throwing fire all over the place did something to stop the man covered in metal from slamming into the ground. Looked like you caught the edge of that, which is why I figure you only look like a dead person instead of being one.”
“Once Tsukuyomi got to the ground, it was clear where the fight was going. But as you can see, he wasn’t exactly discriminating with his attacks.” Chiyoko could feel the cold from the curtain of ice even this far away. “The rebels held for a bit, but eventually they got the idea and fled. Tsukuyomi had taken some hits so he took off in the other direction.”
Chiyoko looked at the wall of ice cutting deep into the village. That single attack had destroyed almost a third of the buildings in Hokko. Helping the fox was a mistake. Chiyoko placed one grimy hand on her knee and stood up shakily. The act left her head spinning. She wanted to puke.
“Where’s Mamoru?” Chiyoko held her breath.
“Last I saw him he was running into town, seeing where he could help.” Chiyoko allowed herself a visceral sight of relief. “I didn’t see much else since I was trying to drag you back behind the wall.”
“Right. Thanks for that.” Chiyoko reached a hand behind her head, winced as she brushed against the sore spot along her temple. “You didn’t have to risk yourself like that. I know I’m not really…” Chiyoko felt her throat tighten, unable to finish the sentence. She took a shaky breath. “I’m sorry I wasn’t able to do more to stop this.” She gestured at the devastation around them.
Teruko’s face softened. “It doesn’t matter how much you did Chiyoko. We all look out for each other. Whether you were born here or not.” She reached a hand out towards Chiyoko’s shoulder, but Chiyoko flinched away. Teruko’s hand hung awkwardly in the air for a moment before she let it drop. She smiled sadly. “Go find Mamoru, let him talk some sense into you.”
“Right.” Chiyoko turned stiffly, heading into Hokko.
As Chiyoko walked, she could see several ruined buildings scattered around the inner wall of Hokko. Fires still burned amidst them. There were a few more blasts of ice. One building had been cut in half along a perfect diagonal line.
The walls are ruined. How much food did we lose? How many people died? The more she walked, the worse she felt.
After everything they’ve done for me. Chiyoko remembered a day 12 years ago. When she had come stumbling from the woods, covered in blood and shaking in the snow. She remembered Mamoru, big even at that age, as he carried her into the village. She remembered Ayeka caring for her wounds. They were counting on me.
She stopped and forced a few deep breaths. Chiyoko chided herself Maybe Ayeka was right. It could have been worse than this. She set off again.
Chiyoko followed the wreckage inward, but after 20 minutes without luck, she doubled back towards the wall. She had to pause frequently, hands on her knees, to clear her head.
When she found Mamoru, he knelt by the wall of ice, his head held in his hands and his shoulders heaving in exhaustion. With great effort, Chiyoko straightened and tried to lighten her step.
“What, tired already? At least you didn’t break a 50 foot fall with your head.”
Mamoru didn’t look up. The wall in front of him had a section two feet wide and half a foot deep that was chipped away. He was surrounded by chunks of ice, his 2 handed great-ax laying discarded beside him. The knuckles on his hands were torn and bloody. As Chiyoko drew near, she realized that the repeated rise and fall of Mamoru’s shoulders wasn’t from exhaustion. He was sobbing.
Encased within the wall of ice was Ayeka, one arm thrown in front of her face. Her expression frozen in a determined grimace as she turned to run.
Chiyoko stood, stunned. Her hand paused halfway towards Mamoru’s shoulder.
Mamoru finally took notice of Chiyoko’s pressence and threw himself at her desperately. His massive form enveloped her in a hug and he bent nearly double to rest his head on her shoulder as he cried. Chiyoko hugged him back with as much strength as she could muster, still staring over his shoulder.
They were counting on me.
Finding the rebellion’s trail wasn’t hard. In their rush to flee the battlefield, they left a wide trail of broken branches, muddy footprints, and splatters of blood. Deep furrows marked the trail initially. Dragging Yoshinobu probably.
Eventually the furrows disappeared and signs of the rebels passage became more rare. Must have caught their breath. Somebody had enough sense to move with caution.
Mamoru walked behind Chiyoko, doing his best to stay out of the way. His eyes were bloodshot, his shoulders hunched forward. He no longer peppered Chiyoko with questions about what she was doing. Instead he stared out into the woods, following Chiyoko’s orders wordlessly. Chiyoko was surprised how much she missed the distractions.
The only thing that seemed to keep Mamoru moving forward was the village. Both walls had been destroyed. A third of their crops and food stores had been destroyed. If they didn’t do something, Hokko would die. Mamoru refused to let that be his mother’s legacy.
But Yoshinobu mentioned a larger force. The rebel army. And armies meant protection from the wilderness. Food rations. Men and women who could help rebuild their walls. They had to convince the rebellion to help.
Good thing I nearly shot their leader in the heart.
At one point footprints reappeared alongside two lines in the mud. Did they get tired? Did they think no one could track them this far? Chiyoko followed the trail as it angled to the right. She carried on for a few minutes before something started to feel off.
“These prints are deeper than they should be. I think they doubled back.” Chiyoko crouched low to inspect the prints more closely. As she did, she noticed a faint glimmer across the path 10 feet ahead. She approached it carefully, keeping her body close to the ground.
The glimmer came from a length of silver wire stretched between two trees. One end was attached to a length of twine that continued into the underbrush. Chiyoko pointed out the wire to Mamoru. “They must have hoped to catch anyone following them with this trap.”
Mamoru crouched down beside Chiyoko, being careful to avoid the tripwire as he took a closer look. “This silver. It’s as thin as a thread. Have you ever seen anything like it?”
Chiyoko shook her head. “That man, Seiji, also wore metal that was worked in ways I cannot comprehend.”
“I wonder how they do it?” Mamoru stood and began walking back the way they had come.
Chiyoko’s mouth twisted into a faint smile. Some part of her friend’s curiosity was still alive. She pulled a knife from her belt and deftly disarmed the tripwire, cutting away the longest length of silver that she could. Perhaps Mamoru could look at it later.
The pair retraced their steps until Chiyoko found the trail again. They continued in silence for over an hour.
The trees of the northern forest were stunted from the perpetual cold. Their twisted trunks were also older and more spread out, leaving room for a hearty undergrowth. The forest floor was choked with fallen trees, pine shrubs, and struggling patches of bamboo, all of which blocked sight beyond a few dozen feet. Chiyoko still drew the shadows off of the trees and surrounding rocks to cover their travel.
Eventually, Chiyoko held up a hand. “Shh, I think we’re close.” She signaled where the furrows had reappeared in the ground. She made sure to check their depth this time. “They were getting tired here. Hard for them to stay cautious.”
She dropped to all fours, moving left and right rather than forward. “If we’re close to their camp, I’m guessing they’ll have set up another - hah!” Her eyes caught a faint metallic gleam, cutting low along the forrest floor between the trees, directly across their path. She showed Mamoru the silver thread.
Mamoru stepped over the trap. But as his foot crossed the plane of the thread, the shadows Chiyoko had pulled around his body begin to unravel. The wire shone a dull orange, growing in intensity.
“Shit! Mamoru this trap is different-“ Her friend had already noticed the effect and thrown himself forward. The shadows bound to him dispersed like ink across the surface of water as he drove over the thread. His quick reflexes saved him a leg.
The wire erupted into a concentrated wall of flame. The effect lasted a matter of seconds, but Chiyoko could feel all of the hair along her arms seared away by the pulse of heat. On the other side of the wall Mamoru regained his footing quickly, holding up his right foot. His boot and pants had been burned away, the skin beneath red and blistered.
Chiyoko pulled an arrow from her quiver and drew. The muscles around her eyes burned as she forced her senses further into the woods. Her heart thundered in her ears. One beat. Two.
A small, grey-furred monkey came bounding from deeper in the woods ahead of them. Leaping from tree to tree, it’s fangs bared in a snarl. The monkey pushed off a trunk, caught a branch, then flung itself into the air towards Mamoru. In midair the monkey’s form blurred. It’s legs thickened and it’s midriff billowed like a sail as it grew rapidly. The creature took the form of a large black bear, hurtling through the air with claws and teeth bared.
Mamoru slammed his seared foot into the forest underbrush, taking a wide stance and roaring at the bear. He threw his arms wide, ignoring the axe at his back.
Chiyoko sighted and prepared to loose her arrow, but her enhanced senses caught motion to her right. Shifting weight to her back foot, she swung her right foot in an arc along the ground, bringing her aim towards the motion without releasing her draw.
There was a dull sheen of darkened metal 10 feet away. How did he get so close so fast? The armored man rushed towards Chiyoko. His chest was low to the ground. His sword angled back, preparing to swing.
Chiyoko’s shoulders continued to swing in line with her foot, keeping the bow taut and ready to fire. Her head turned faster, eyes scanning the joints of the metal plates, looking for a target.
8 feet away, his blade began to swing forward. Chiyoko eyed the length of his arms, down the blade. Can’t get a full shot in time. She twisted at the waist sacrificing a solid stance for speed. Almost in unison the man pushed off his right foot, staying out of Chiyoko’s aim as he continued his swing.
She formed a pattern with the bottom three fingers of her hand holding the arrow. Her thumb still held the string taught.
5 feet, the knight’s blade was at half swing. The arrow shimmered.
Chiyoko fired the arrow wild, still too far up and left of the Knight’s shoulder. 4 feet away.
This is going to hurt.
Halfway between the two fighters, the arrow exploded in a sphere of violent wind. It knocked both of them away like rag dolls. Chiyoko’s back slammed into a tree, her vision blurring as the pain in her head flared.
Seiji’s forward momentum kept him from being thrown as far. He dug his blade into the earth and pulled himself heavily onto his feet.
To her left, Chiyoko could hear snarls and thrashing as Mamoru and the bear wrestled.
“Wait!” Chiyoko brought her hands up, briefly seeing double as Seiji pulled his sword from the ground and began to approach. “We didn’t come to fight.”
Seiji glanced over as Mamoru lifted the bear over his head and threw it through a pair of trees, snapping both trunks. Her friend’s shoulder bled from a wound, but he didn’t seem to notice. Mamoru’s eyes were blank and his face was contorted in a grimace of rage as he charged through the wreckage after the bear.
“The strangest pacifists I’ve ever encountered. Do you think I would fall for such a simple ruse? You insult my honor. Where is Tsukuyomi? Does your master follow close behind?” Seiji glanced back into the woods.
Somehow Chiyoko had kept a grip on her bow amidst the blast. She made a show of throwing it to the side and holding her hands up. “We do not serve Tsukuyomi! I… I know this looks bad. But you two caught us off guard. The trap got our defenses up and my friend… his mother was killed in your battle with Tsukuyomi the other day. He’s working through some things.
“Please! We surrender. We’ll lay down our weapons. Whatever you want. We’re just here to talk.”
Seiji paused, glaring at Chiyoko. The heavy sword did not waver as he held it aloft. Chiyoko stared back, trying to show the truth of her words. As she watched Seiji’s face, Chiyoko saw several of the small cuts along his jaw close with a faint silver glow.
Seiji closed his eyes and took a deep breath. When he opened them, they were completely filled with silver light.
“I do not sense the presence of Tsukuyomi nearby. Perhaps you speak truthfully. Perhaps not. Why would you come to talk when just yesterday you aimed to strike our leader straight through the heart?”
“Our village elder feared that helping you would draw the anger of the gods. She worried what would happen to our town if you lost. Or if you won and the other gods came following. She ordered me to support Tsukuyomi. But I am no friend of the kitsune.”
Chiyoko pulled the leather jerkin away from her neck, revealing her shoulder and collarbone. Across her right side, continuing further down her chest, was the deep blue image of a fox standing out against the pale brown of her skin. The mark had 6 tails. Her biggest kill.
When he saw it, Seiji’s eyes widened briefly. He stood from his crouch and lowered his sword. “Very well. I will take that mark and your surrender as sufficient good will to earn a peaceful audience. But tread carefully, lass. I am honorable, not foolish. Call off your friend and you have my word that I will take you to Yoshinobu.”
Chiyoko turned to Mamoru. Her friend had thrown himself on top of the bear and was trying to wrestle it into submission. For the moment, neither side seemed able to gain the upper hand. “Mamoru, please. We didn’t come here to fight. You have to contain your anger.”
Mamoru’s arms tightened around the bear’s neck, his fury deafening him to Chiyoko’s pleas.
“Mamoru, think of your mother! Her legacy falls to you to uphold. We need these people’s help.”
Mamoru’s eyes slowly came to clarity once again. His grip loosened.
But as he relaxed, the bear surged forward, using the opportunity to throw Mamoru onto his back. The beast lashed out towards Mamoru’s neck. He caught the creature’s paw in his hands, but without Mamoru’s fury, the claws inched inexorably towards his throat.
“Katsumi, enough! They have surrendered. I gave them my word they would be safe.” Seiji took a step towards the bear.
The bear’s fur rippled and receded. Limbs lengthened as it shifted back into the woman who Chiyoko had seen the day before. She looked no older than Chiyoko or Mamoru.
Katsumi’s left hand retained it’s clawed form, continuing to bear down on Mamoru.
“That’s your code, not mine, old man.” Katsumi’s voice was deep and raspy. She seemed calm despite the tension in her arm. Her whole body exuded a primal, predatory hunger. Mamoru’s arm’s shook as he tried to hold the claw back. Even in human form the woman had the strength of a beast. Her body was as muscled as Mamoru’s.
“I have given my word to these individuals, would you have me break it?”
“You should not have given your word when it was not yours alone to keep.”
Seiji stepped towards Katsumi, lifting his blade. “I do not wish to strike you Katsumi.”
Katsumi laughed, her canines long and sharp. “No, you do not. This one is strong, but he lost his focus. Carelessness is the same as weakness. Both make you prey.”
Chiyoko began to reach for her bow, but Seiji held out a hand to stop her. “Release the boy or I will stand with them against you. Does stupidity not also make you prey?”
Seiji and Katsumi locked eyes. A moment passed. Then Mamoru roared and thrust his knee into Katsumi’s stomach, pulling her clawed hand to his right as he rolled on top of her. Katsumi gasped in surprise.
Chiyoko feared that Mamoru’s rage had overtaken him again, but she saw that his eyes were still clear as he knelt over Katsumi. Both of their chests now heaving from their struggle. “You lost focus.”
Mamoru pushed off of Katsumi, coming to his feet and backing away warily. She rose slowly. Her eyes lingered on Mamoru before turning to Seiji.
“You brandish your nobility like shackles. I do not appreciate my decisions being made by your morals.” She stalked into the woods.
Seiji let out a long sigh. “Well, I suppose that’s settled for now.” He gathered Chiyoko’s bow and took Mamoru’s axe. “Please follow me.”
As they walked, Chiyoko fell in step beside Mamoru, who was once again favoring his burned leg. “Are you OK? That woman is insane. Did you see the way she looked at you at the end? I couldn’t tell if that was respect, lust, or fury.”
“Fighting her was an experience I won’t soon forget.”
The camp wasn’t much further beyond the trap that nearly incinerated Mamoru. They found the remaining two members of the rebellion within the bulbous, exposed roots of a moss-laden tree.
The woman, Hideyo, was tending to a well-banked fire that gave off little light or smoke. Across from her, his back propped against the roots and his chest thickly bandaged, was Yoshinobu. He looked alert.
He’s up already? This guy should have been out for a week. If he woke up at all.
“Well, this is not the group I was expecting to come back. Katsumi? Seiji? Care to explain?” Yoshinobu’s eyebrow was cocked, but he gave no signs of concern.
“It is not the group I would have returned with.” Katsumi stamped over to a bedroll and sat cross-legged.
“These two seemed to be stalking us through the woods. We engaged, but they threw down their weapons and said they wished to talk. The girl bears a slayer’s mark. 6 tails. I thought it worth investigating.”
Yoshinobu pushed himself straighter. Chiyoko was happy to see that at least he winced. “Please explain. We don’t have much time and, for reasons that hopefully don’t need much elaboration, I don’t have much patience for you.”
“We don’t care for Tsukuyomi or his spawn. My friend and I hunt kitsune in these woods, trying to keep them from reaching our village’s walls. Hokko, that’s the name of the town you all helped destroy yesterday, gets by minding its own business. Protecting itself, sure, but nothing more.
“We didn’t want to get involved in this fight you’ve picked. So when you all showed up, our leader was understandably concerned about throwing in against the gods. She hoped Tsukuyomi would leave us alone if we helped him out.”
Chiyoko knew that she should be more diplomatic. Hokko needed the aid of these rebels if it wanted to survive. But this man demanding that she explain herself when his actions and his war had destroyed her whole world left her feeling bitter.
She looked at Mamoru, hoping he would jump in like he usually did when Chiyoko was struggling. His eyes were downcast. Whatever passion had been invoked by the previous battle was gone, leaving him hollow once again.
“What you say is reasonable. I understand why you did the things you did the other day. I’m guessing that you came here to ask for more than forgiveness for shooting me in the chest, though.”
Chiyoko opened her mouth to make a retort. Yoshinobu was making light of Hokko’s destruction. He couldn’t see the pain of the small towns that were detroyed by his ambition. He didn’t understand the value of the people in those communities. How they cared for one another. How they could take in someone who was lost and alone.
Chiyoko stopped herself. Yoshinobu might not care for the small world within Hokko’s walls, but she did. She remembered the faces of the villagers after the battle. Scared and uncertain. Smeared with tears and blood. Just like she had been all those years ago. With Ayeka dead and Mamoru lost in grief, they had turned to Chiyoko.
Chiyoko dropped to her knees and bowed low before Yoshinobu. “We need your help. Our town’s walls were badly damaged by the fight. Most of our crops and food stores were destroyed. Our defence of Tsukuyomi was born from fear, not loyalty. If you can offer our town safety we can offer shelter and a place to recuperate.”
There was a pause as Yoshinobu considered Chiyoko’s words. “The greater bulk of my forces are a few days behind us. I hoped we could kill Tsukuyomi or slow him enough for our army to catch up. But after yesterday, that hope is gone. Hideyo can heal our wounds faster than normal, but it still takes days to recover. We’ll never catch Tsukuyomi before he returns to his realm.”
Yoshinobu ran a calloused thumb across the bandages around his chest. He looked off into the forest for a moment before looking back to Mamoru and Chiyoko.
“We don’t take the damage dealt by this war lightly. Whatever you may think of us, I don’t like the predicament your town is in. I really am sorry.
“A respite in your town would be a great benefit to our morale and health. But every moment we waste is another moment for Tsukuyomi to fortify his walls and call his servants home. Every delay increases the chances of our failure. And if we fail, all of the pain we’ve caused will be for nothing.”
Chiyoko raised her head, locking eyes with Yoshinobu. “What if there was still a way to catch Tsukuyomi before he made it over the mountains?”
“What do you mean?”
“The Shatterspine is usually a month’s journey north of here. But I know these woods better than anyone. You need a few days to heal, right? You could make that time up easily if I was guiding you.”
Despite his injuries, Yoshinobu leaned forward. “I thought you wanted nothing to do with our fight?”
Mamoru stepped forward from behind Chiyoko. His fists were clenched, his knuckles white. “My mother was killed by Tsukuyomi. She sent him aid and he repaid that with death. If our town is protected, I have no issue hunting that beast.”
The corner of Chiyoko’s mouth twisted down. She could bow, but she couldn’t fully keep the anger from her voive. “Yes, we wanted nothing to do with your fight. But yesterday you took the luxury of that position away from us. I won’t pretend I’m signing up full of fanatic zeal. But if it saves our town, I’ll do what I have to.” She stood and put a hand on Mamoru’s shoulder. The two locked eyes for a moment. “And we do have a debt to pay.”
Yoshinobu turned to Seiji and Katsumi. “A 6-tailed slayer’s mark, you said?” Seiji nodded. “And what of the boy?”
Katsumi had begun carving shapes in the roots around her with a finger that was the claw of a large cat. She answered without looking. “He can fight.”
“I’m inclined to believe it, given how quickly the two of you turned the battle against us yesterday. And you tracked us here easily enough.
“It’s not how I usually forge alliances, but considering the state of things I’d say you make a compelling offer. With the two of you joining us, our strength is greatly increased. If we can catch Tsukuyomi before he crosses the mountains, I like our odds.” Yoshinobu began to speak more quickly, gazing past Chiyoko and Mamoru. “And if the army spends the better part of two months resting and recuperating at your town, we’d be well positioned to strike again quickly after killing Tsukuyomi.
“OK, I’m convinced.” Yoshinobu extended his hand, his pensive expression melting rapidly into a big and toothy grin beneath his coarse black beard.
Mamoru’s shoulders dropped in relief. But Chiyoko felt her body tense as Yoshinobu smiled. Her hand darted out and grabbed Yoshinobu’s, pulling him forward in a firm handshake. She was pleased to see his smile turn to a wince.
Chiyoko stared at Yoshinobu, unwavering. “I will guide you through the woods. We will fight for you, just as you want.
“But do not smile at us like everything worked out oh so nicely. Our town is wrecked. Our loyalty was bought with the blood of Mamoru’s mother. Hokko is not just a useful resource in your rebellion. This is an alliance, and you will treat rebuilding our city as a priority.”
Yoshinobu held Chiyoko’s grip, but she could see sweat forming on his brow from the pain in his wound. He nodded. “You have my word.”
“Do you ever stop to think that others might not want your war? That your righteous cause isn’t so righteous when it’s forcing itself down everyone else’s throats?” Chiyoko released Yoshinobu’s hand and he slumped back against the roots gratefully.
Yoshinobu rubbed the sweat from his brow, a wry smile on his face. “I’m glad you speak your mind. Honestly it makes me worry less about treachery. I don’t have a good answer for you. I could say something like ‘if it’s just my war, why did so many people join it?’. But you’re right. This is my cause and I’m forcing it on those who don’t want it. Sure, I’ve found people with similar goals and ideals. But no one went to war until I raised the flag.
“All I can say is that I saw something wrong with the world and I resolved to change it. If I think too long about it, I see everything you just said. But I can’t imagine a person that I’d want to be who sees problems and doesn’t try to solve them.”
Chiyoko crossed her legs and sat by the fire. “How do you weigh the problems you see against the pain you cause?” Chiyoko raised a hand before Yoshinobu could respond. “No, I don’t need to hear the justifications you tell yourself. I don’t need to agree with your war. As long as we’re agreed that Hokko’s no longer just collateral damage, Mamoru and I will fight with you.
“Let’s get hunting.”
This is part 1 of a 3 part story series. You can read the next part here.
The End. Now that you're done reading...
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