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This is part 2 of a 3 part story series. You can read the first part here.
Chiyoko stood at the edge of a rocky cliff face. Pine trees swayed as the wind dug its icy claws into her cheek and neck. The canyon walls creaked and moaned. She pulled her furs higher and tried not to think what the cold meant about the time they had left.
Chiyoko bent down and broke off a shard of rock hanging over the long drop below. She twisted the rock from side to side, using her other hand to hold the hair out of her face. No matter how many times she braided it, the wind managed to snag a strand and tear it free.
The cliff face is too jagged. And the tree line comes right to the edge. This cliff hasn’t had any kind of wind or sun exposure.
Chiyoko tossed the rock into the canyon below and lifted her gaze to the opposite cliff face, 100 feet away. “He’s making canyons again.”
From behind, a silver wolf trotted soundlessly from the forest. Crouching by the edge of the cliff face, Chiyoko barely came to the wolf’s knee. The wolf shook it’s shoulders and the fur along it’s body rippled. Its front legs shortened as the hair along them receded, revealing human hands. Chiyoko blinked and the transformation was complete.
Crouching next to her was a tall, thickly muscled woman covered in a patchwork of animal furs. Even in human form, she looked like a bear.
Katsumi looked around the cliff face. Her nose twitched as she sniffed the air. She scraped a long, sharp fingernail along the exposed rock and grunted.
“What, you don’t trust my judgment?”
Katsumi rose to her full 6 and a half feet with feline grace. Chiyoko reached for her bow reflexively before relaxing her hand. Frost! Every time she moves I feel the urge to fight.
Katsumi cocked her head and smiled, showing too many teeth. “You grab your bow. Hideyo always takes a step backwards.” Katsumi turned and began walking back into the woods behind them. “I will bring the others.”
Katsumi took a long stride and spread her arms. As she did, the furs that dangled from her shoulders stretched and stiffened into feathers. Her arms beat down as her legs and torso shrank and lifted off the ground. Taking the form of a hawk, Katsumi flew through the forest with ease.
Two hours later, the group was climbing the opposite side of the cliff. Yoshinobu was already at the top. Katsumi had remained in hawk form and flown across. Mamoru was scaling the wall with Hideyo hanging from his back. Her dwarven form was short by most standards, but clinging to Mamoru’s huge frame, she looked like a child. Her blond hair tossed fitfully in the wind.
Chiyoko and Seiji were further down, working past a jagged bulwark of stone jutting from the wall. Seiji had just scrambled over the outcropping.
“Careful lass, the rock is slick and loose.” As if to emphasize his words, a smattering of loose stones came bouncing down from above. Chiyoko could no longer see the knight, perched as she was beneath the stone protrusion. She waited for the small rockslides to subside before she continued upwards.
Chiyoko reached up and back, searching for a solid handhold on the rock above her head. She found a narrow crack that ran in the direction she was aiming. Jamming the fingers of both hands into the crack, Chiyoko began to edge her way out. She used her legs to push against the stone and maintain tension in her arms. Chiyoko reached the end of the crack, near the edge of the overhang. She lifted one leg over the rock ledge, hooking her heel against the stone. She shifted her weight and began to pull herself upwards.
There was a sharp crack from the stone further up the wall. “Shit, look out lass!” Chiyoko could hear a large chunk of stone crashing down the cliff. She shifted her weight back to her hands and pulled her leg under the overhang just in time to miss a boulder the size of her torso as it careened over the edge.
As the boulder fell in front of her, Chiyoko heard a second snap and felt the stone beneath her fingers give way under her full weight. Chiyoko’s stomach somersaulted as she began to fall.
This wasn’t the first time Chiyoko had fallen off a cliff.
Her back was parallel to the ground as she fell through the air. Chiyoko reached for the bow at her waist and drew an arrow smoothly with the other hand. She notched and pulled the arrow back with her thumb, twisting to face the large rock falling alongside her. I really need to find a less painful way to do this.
Chiyoko fired towards the rock. As the arrow impacted, it ballooned into a sphere of powerful wind, shattering the boulder on impact. The wind threw Chiyoko back towards the cliff wall. Her shoulder jerked as she caught all her weight on a single arm. The handhold held.
“Yoshinobu quick! Chiyoko is falling! You have to catch–.”
“I’m fine!” Still dangling by one arm, Chiyoko stowed her bow and pulled herself back onto the wall. She winced at the pain in her side and shoulder.
As she searched for new handholds, Chiyoko noticed her breath fogging the air. All around her, the damp cliff face was now coated with a thin layer of frost. In some areas, there were fist-sized chunks of ice embedded in the stone. My wind shots have never done that before…
“Are you sure? I heard an explosion.”
“Yeah.” Chiyoko took one last look at the radius of ice surrounding her. It must be the altitude or something. “This time, why don’t you stay put until I’m out of the way?”
Chiyoko’s hunts had taken her this far from the village only a handful of times. The trees were becoming smaller and more gnarled. The familiar lichen coating everything was giving way to stunted shrubs and increasingly large snow drifts.
The group made camp in the shadow of a rocky overhang, fumbling with their gear in the darkness. The sun had set a few hours ago, but they had pushed on to make up for the time they spent traversing the canyon.
This is exactly what that stupid fox wants, stringing us along until he can spring on us when it suits him best.
Chiyoko wanted to move faster. She wanted to catch Tsukuyomi unaware rather than let him pick his battlefield. Hideyo and Yoshinobu both had abilities that could circumvent the obstacles the god was creating. But Yoshinobu was wary of using them. He didn’t want to catch up to Tsukuyomi without everyone at their maximum.
Tsukuyomi is a god. And the closer we get to his domain, the more powerful his control of the land becomes. We’re never going to have everything we want.
Chiyoko stuffed the leather wrapping for her tent back into her pack and double-checked her setup. Satisfied, she looked around at the others.
Chiyoko was the first one done with her tent, as usual. The only other person who seemed at home in the jungle was Katsumi, who simply shifted into a bear and slept curled somewhere out of the wind.
Mamoru was working to untangle his tent, chatting with Seiji as he puzzled over the mess. Even in the growing cold, Mamoru left his upper body exposed save for a thin vest hanging open at the front. His thickly muscled arms and back seemed to radiate heat at a rate faster than the wind could chill him.
The juxtaposition of Mamoru’s imposing frame struggling against the tangled fabric made Chiyoko smile. Her childhood friend could never be bothered to store his tent properly, yet he never seemed bothered by the extra time it took in the evenings.
Seiji finished his tent and joined Mamoru. The two wrestled with the cloth for a moment until it was flat on the ground. Seiji stood and clasped his hands behind him. Even out of his armor, the older warrior stood with shoulders wide and back perfectly straight.
“Lad, if you would just fold this properly in the mornings, you wouldn’t need my help in the evenings.”
Glancing at Seiji, Mamoru rolled his shoulders back and stood a bit straighter. He began to drive the tent stakes into the ground with his foot. As he worked, his shoulders slowly hunched forward again. “Chiyoko’s always scolding me. Says all the wrinkles are bad for the tent. But I’m usually the last one up. It’s easier to spend more time in the evening, when no one is waiting around for me.”
Seiji clasped Mamoru’s shoulder, pulling his posture back into alignment. The old knight was not a small man. Yet next to Mamoru he looked slender. “Discipline.” Seiji shook his head side to side slowly as he spoke. “A true knight must be master of his body, not the other way around. Tomorrow I will wake you at dawn to join me in my morning rituals.”
Mamoru’s face brightened. “Really? I thought they would be some sort of knightly secret or something.”
“Nonsense! Anyone who dedicates themselves to protecting the weak and bettering themselves can become a knight.”
“Well, if they’re not a secret, then I have a lot of questions. How do you make your sword glow like that? And when you sense for Tsukuyomi, are you seeing something? Or does it feel more like you’re being pulled? And how did you make the metal that you wear? It’s so thin, and it covers your body so perfectly.” Mamoru rubbed a massive hand across his bicep, heedless of Seiji as the knight raised a hand and tried to interject.
These people have been good for him. It was clear that Mamoru was growing close to the rebels. The newfound friendship was a welcome distraction from the loss of his mother just a few weeks ago. Chiyoko thought back to the moment she found Mamoru kneeling by his mother, how she had frozen. Would she have been able to pull Mamoru from his grief on her own?
“Lad! Please! I can’t answer so much at once. Give me a break.” The knight chuckled and shook his head. “I never thought I’d miss the days of Katsumi’s frosty silence.”
At the mention of Katsumi’s name, Mamoru blushed and looked around the campsite. “Not to worry lad, you’re safe for now. She’s off hunting for food with our great leader.”
Chiyoko had never been as good around people as Mamoru, but she had to admit that spending time with the rebels felt… different. Was it because they had abilities like Chiyoko and Mamoru? Maybe it was because Chiyoko didn’t owe these people the same debt she owed the villagers of Hokko. It felt nice.
Chiyoko turned her attention away from the pair of men. Hideyo was sitting on her pack with her tent still bundled next to her. The small dwarven woman was fidgeting with some small mechanism by the light of the fire. Chiyoko approached.
“Do you need any help with your tent?”
“Hmmm?” Hideyo pulled her gaze away from her hands like a woman woken in the middle of a dream. “I’m sorry, I wasn’t really… can I help you?”
“Oh, yeah. I was just– I was just asking if you needed help with your tent.”
“Oh! If you don’t mind.” Hideyo transferred herself to a stump and nudged the pack towards Chiyoko with her foot. She returned her focus to the interlocking bits of metal in her hands.
“You know, I meant more like I could—. Never mind.” Chiyoko bent forward and began unpacking Hideyo’s tent. There was a long silence as Chiyoko searched for a topic of discussion. She settled for the obvious. “What are you working on?”
“Oh really? Go on.” Hideyo nodded her head in agreement.
Chiyoko considered giving up and finishing the tent in silence. Mamoru was so much better at this. Thinking of Mamoru motivated her. We need these people to like us. He needs these people to like us. “Hideyo. Hideyo—.” Chiyoko snapped her fingers and waved a hand in front of the dwarf’s face. “I asked what you were working on.”
“Ah!” Hideyo held the device out in both hands, a big smile across her face. It was a sphere composed of several interlocking metal circles around a small diamond. The circles spun intermittently, causing the diamond to glow. “I’m trying to make something that can detect when Tsukuyomi moves the earth like he did earlier today. I figured that would let us change course and go around it faster than waiting for you and Katsumi to find it.”
“Have you made something like that before?”
“No, but in theory it should be pretty simple.” Hideyo knocked the sphere against her leg a couple times. There was a flutter of activity as the circles spun consistently for a moment. Hideyo’s face brightened, but the rings quickly returned to their intermittent motion. Hideyo sighed and began scraping one of the metal bands with a small chisel.
Chiyoko pressed on, hoping to keep Hideyo’s attention. “Earlier today, while I was out ahead with Katsumi, she said something interesting.”
“Yeah?” Hideyo didn’t look up from the detector.
Chiyoko felt a flash of frustration and embarrassment. Was this how people in Hokko felt trying to talk to her? I wish she’d at least look at me.
Hideyo stopped abruptly and looked at Chiyoko. Her eyes seemed distant for a moment, but she quickly shook her head. “Sorry, I get pretty absorbed in the things I make. Sometimes it’s hard for me to pull my attention away. You said Katsumi said something strange?” Hideyo returned to her work, but now she made an effort to look up every once in a while.
“Oh, yeah. We were standing next to each other and she moved suddenly. My body sort of panicked and I reached for my bow. Just a little. But she didn’t seem offended. She just smiled and said that you always take a step back.”
“That sounds like Katsumi. She’s always watching how others react to her. Like she’s deciding whether they’re predator or prey. Seems like you passed the test better than I did.”
“Does that ever stop?”
“Not really. It’s just sort of how she sees things.”
“That seems… stressful. I don’t mean to be rude or anything. I’ve only known you all for a couple weeks. But I guess I wonder why the group—. She seems different from everyone else is all I’m trying to say. I’m surprised she’s willing to travel with us.”
Hideyo finished trimming the metal ring in her hands and the detector began to spin consistently. She smiled and watched it for a second before muttering a word. The device came to a stop, all of the rings aligned in a flat circle. Hideyo wrapped a strip of twine around the outer ring and tied the device around her neck.
“You know, she’s actually been with Yoshinobu the longest.”
“Yeah. Apparently she tried to jump Yoshinobu in the woods one day. He fought her off and convinced her to join him.”
“How did he do that? Why would she join up with someone who just beat her in a fight?” Mamoru seemed to be fond of Katsumi. Chiyoko wanted to understand the shapeshifting woman better.
“Yosh told her that she’d see bigger fights if she tagged along. And that he was going to be fighting gods, so if she wanted a rematch, she’d better be training the same way.”
There was a lull in the conversation as Hideyo thought. “To be honest, I think Yosh trusts Katsumi the most out of all of us.”
“Oh really? I would have thought he trusted you the most. Given how you two… you know…” Chiyoko wasn’t sure if she was supposed to talk about Hideyo and Yoshinobu’s feelings for each other. She was surprised she even brought it up. Despite her initial discomfort, Chiyoko found herself relaxing as they talked. What was it about all of them?
Hideyo smiled. “It’s OK, no need to avoid the subject.” She patted Chiyoko’s hand reassuringly. “You’d think that would affect things, wouldn’t you? But for Yosh, those kinds of things have always been secondary. The war sits above everything else. What we have is nice, but he doesn’t let it hold any special sway over him.”
“That sounds like it would be kind of hard.”
“I think it was at first. But eventually I guess we both figured out a rhythm that worked. Part of what pulled me to him was that same drive.”
“Anyways, I think Yosh trusts Katsumi the most because her goals are so straightforward. Anyone who’s strong enough to help in his war is bound to have their own plans. Katsumi seems the most alien of all of us, but Yosh knows that as long as he points her at the biggest threat he can find, she won’t complain. Keeping the rest of us on board takes more work.”
“I guess that makes sense. To be honest I always assumed you were all just a bunch of zealots committed to the cause. Otherwise why take such a big risk going against the gods?”
“Don’t get me wrong, Seiji and I still care about the rebellion. It’s more like, we might set slightly different goals or choose different methods. But in the bigger picture, we want similar things. To be successful, we just have to compromise a bit.”
“What were you and Seiji doing before you joined Yoshinobu?”
Hideyo held up the device that now lay dormant around her neck. “I built things, mostly. My village was overrun by a group of demon cats when I was young. Most of the survivors decided to risk the trip to a nearby village. I gathered up some of the tools I could find in the wreckage and made my way higher into the mountains. I thought I could create my own mechanical fortress that would protect me from everything. I guess you could have called me a hermit.
“I actually ran into Seiji first. Back then he was just wondering from town to town, offering his sword however it could help. He stumbled into one of my traps as he was moving through the mountains. I felt guilty, so I offered to make him that suit of armor he wears now. While Seiji was waiting for me to finish it, Yosh showed up and recruited us both.”
Chiyoko thought back to the day when she and Mamoru had joined the group. Their village had been crippled in a battle between Yoshinobu’s rebellion and Tsukuyomi, one of the 5 gods. Chiyoko and Mamoru had agreed to help hunt down the fox god if the rebellion would help rebuild their village.
“Yoshinobu seems pretty good at pulling people into his war. Was it hard to give up on your dream of a big fortress?”
“Not really. When I started, I told myself that fighting the Gods would be a great source of inspiration for bigger, better machines. By the time I realized I wasn’t building anything on the road, I had already changed a lot. I get caught up in the day to day of things. These people are my friends now. I don’t know if I could go back to the mountaintops and be alone again.”
Chiyoko nodded and looked back to Mamoru and Seiji. Two weeks ago, her friend had been consumed with grief and rage at the loss of his mother. Yet now he was planning morning training routines and making jokes. Every day his grief became a bit more removed. Would he find the same comfort that Hideyo had?
Chiyoko hadn’t been able to save Mamoru’s mother. She was determined to help him find happiness again. How else could she repay him for that day so long ago, when he carried her out of the snow?
Chiyoko woke in the middle of the night with a start, reaching for the bow she left strung beside her. She pushed her awareness as far outside of her tent as she could, searching for whatever had woken her.
As they moved deeper into the snow-laden, primeval woods leading to the Shatterspine Mountains, animals had become scarce. But there was always something. Especially to Chiyoko’s sensitive ears. Now, she couldn’t hear a single sound.
Chiyoko crept from her tent and looked about the campsite. Everyone was asleep inside their tents. Hideyo had set a fire trap around the perimeter so they could sleep without a watch. It didn’t look like the trap had been tripped.
She checked the strand of silver running from the smoldering fire out into the woods. It was still taught. The fire trap hadn’t been disarmed either, then.
Come. The voice sounded in her mind. Low and gravelly. She had heard it before.
Chiyoko felt a familiar tug, as Tsukuyomi drew her towards him. It took all her effort to remain frozen. She scanned the tree line around her, slowly backing towards Mamoru’s tent.
The voice sounded again in her mind. You can continue hunting me in the morning, yes? I’d be gone before you woke even half of your group anyways. You are curious. I can feel it. I am curious too. Come. There was a twist of amusement.
Chiyoko hesitated. If Tsukuyomi planned to attack the group, he certainly wouldn’t have woken her ahead of time. And if he just wanted to kill her, she had been alone in the woods every day for the last two weeks as she scouted ahead.
Chiyoko realized she was already 10 feet outside their campsite, her body moving on its own. Shit. She forced herself to stop, crouching down with her back against a tree. Can I trust my reasoning now? Or are these thoughts part of his charm? How can I tell? Remembering the last time that she had resisted Tsukuyomi’s charm, Chiyoko reached back to her arrow quiver and gripped the head of an arrow hard enough to draw blood. The pain cleared her mind.
It was a risk. Tsukuyomi hadn’t attacked her until now, but he could have changed his mind. Maybe they were catching up faster than Chiyoko thought.
From past interactions it didn’t seem like the fox god was one to worry much no matter what the circumstance. Besides, if I can keep him talking long enough, maybe someone else will wake up and notice I’m gone. And the longer I keep him here, the less time he has to run ahead.
Chiyoko stood and took a deep breath before letting her body move in the direction of Tsukuyomi’s pull. She wove through the forest, staying low. The air grew colder as she darted from tree to tree. Rough bark dug into her shoulders as she pressed against the trunks, scanning for enemies before moving on.
Chiyoko shivered. She hadn’t had time to put on her full leathers before she left. Chiyoko paused. Numb fingers couldn’t draw a bow. She removed her stockings and wound them around her hands.
After 45 minutes, she was getting close. The strength of the spell that drew her was nearly unbearable. Whenever she lost focus she found herself sprinting forwards. A calm curiosity pressed itself against her mind, like a cold towel wrapped around the back of her neck. It wasn’t long before she saw a shock of white fur between the trees ahead of her.
Chiyoko emerged into the clearing slowly. Thin trunks reached for the sky haltingly, bending at sharp angles before continuing upwards. Tsukuyomi lay in the center of the clearing, his white fur shining in the moonlight. The kitsune’s front paws were crossed with his head resting on top of them. Nine tails billowed behind him like smoke curling from a candle.
Icy blue eyes tracked her as she stepped forward. Vertical pupils the size of her head narrowed as they focused. Even laying down, Tsukuyomi’s shoulder was above Chiyoko’s head by a few feet. A thin coat of frost covered the ground around him, expanding and contracting with his breath.
“No, please, take your time. Are you comfortable? Can I get you some tea? I’ve only been waiting the better part of an hour. It’s not like I’m in a hurry or anything”
“What, have you forgotten that you must approach prey carefully to avoid scaring it away?”
The feeling at the back of Chiyoko’s head blossomed into a warm chuckle. The warmth spread through her limbs, quieting some of her shivers. A deep rumble shook the clearing faintly as Tsukuyomi laughed. A light mist of snow fell from the nearest tree. “Prey? I have been called many things, but prey is a new one. I hope I’m proving to be an interesting hunt, at least?”
Chiyoko’s heart thundered in her ears, the muscles in her hand tense around her bow. “The canyons were a bit obvious, honestly.” Yet her thoughts were clear, almost playful. “Can you get out of my head? It’s hard to stay focused with you giggling in the back of my mind the whole time.”
“But you’re much more interesting with my sense of humor. Is that arrogant? I can’t help it if I make for great conversations, can I? Besides, it’s not exactly easy to shut off. Not unless one of us is willing to change who we are.”
“What are you talking about?” Chiyoko bit off a witty retort before it could escape her mouth.
“We’re in resonance, little hunter.” Tsukuyomi breathed a cloud of frost across Chiyoko. She realized she was now sitting cross-legged 5 feet from the beast’s mouth.
“Oh, great. Now I see it all so clearly. I’m glad I walked an hour into the woods and risked my life to talk with a giant fox god. It was all worth it for that wonderfully detailed response.” Chiyoko marveled at her own words. Was she enjoying this? Mamoru would be so proud. “Perhaps you could add a little more clarity?”
Tsukuyomi smiled. On a 20 foot tall fox, it was more teeth than reassurance. “It is difficult to tell where you end and my wit begins. This conversation is a strange one for me as well.” Tsukuyomi paused for a moment as a deer wandered near the clearing. His eyes tracked the creature as it realized its mistake and quickly fled. “You have power, yes? You can do things that others could not? You’ve had it for some time I imagine. Your big friend, the group you travel with now, they are powerful as well.”
“Since we were small children, yes. No one knew why at first, but when it became clear how useful our abilities were, people stopped caring about where they came from. But like you said, everyone hunting you is special. What does that have to do with why you called me here?”
“Resonance. That’s where your powers come from. Each of you draws your power from a source. A creature, a location, a natural element. It doesn’t really matter what. But you share something in common with that source. The more similar you and the source become, the more power you can draw from it.”
Chiyoko was leaning forward. It felt like something important was being said, but she couldn’t tell what. “This still doesn’t make any sense. Can’t you be a little less abstract?”
“Would you find an example helpful?”
“Well, that’s how people usually explain new concepts so… yeah. Wait.” Chiyoko’s mouth opened in a gasp. “Don’t tell me this is the first time you’ve ever had to… explain something to someone?”
Tsukuyomi snorted another cloud of ice towards Chiyoko. This time the wind was cold enough to leave webs of ice running through her hair and eyebrows. “Usually I am too busy eating them to discuss the finer intricacies involved with the flow of power in the universe.” Chiyoko clamped a hand over her mouth to stifle laughter. The entire situation was too surreal. “Anyways. Take the small woman who travels with you. The one who insists on throwing fire everywhere. I imagine that she grew up near a large source of heat. Judging by the size of the fire she flings at my head, I’d say a small volcano or something.
“Fire has many aspects. It consumes. It creates. People gather around it. It kills. Somewhere in her life that woman began to embody one of those aspects. As she did, she started to forge a connection with the volcano she grew up in the shadow of. She probably doesn’t realize it, but that’s where she draws her fire from. And the more that she uses that fire, the more its aspect manifests in her personality.
“That’s resonance. It’s a connection between a person and a source of power. That connection is built by some defining trait, some part of both entities that resonates. The little dwarf can draw heat and flame from her volcano and use it in the world around her. The more powerful the source, the bigger the effect. The more strongly she embodies fire’s aspect, the more control she has.
“Resonance is very rare. It places an enormous stress on your body and your mind. Enough to kill most people. But recently we’ve noticed that more and more of you are being born with the ability. And that ability is growing, letting you challenge us.
“At first, the plan was to kill the lot of you and try again. But then, you went ahead and started resonating with me. And now I have an interesting question to answer.”
Chiyoko blinked. Tsukuyomi’s voice was still calm, but she could feel a quick pulse of menace in the back of her head. Whatever question the god was referring to, Chiyoko could tell its answer determined whether she walked out of this clearing or not. “So you’re saying that a connection exists between you and me? But I’ve been able to do things for years. Well before I met you.”
“What you resonate with can change. Your personality might shift. Or you might find something that you resonate with more strongly. Whatever you used to resonate with - well - you’ve certainly upgraded.”
My whirlwind did produce all that ice… “How can that be? I didn’t do anything special when I saw you.”
“You don’t have to. Just a strong shift in priorities or values while a good resonant source is nearby. But the important question is not how it happened, but what we do next.
“I’ve enjoyed Yoshinobu’s little chase. He’s a powerful man. Driven. He never stood much of a chance of killing me. But he certainly could have. I liked giving him that chance. The 5 races are very interesting when they’re confronted with a challenge. Especially you humans.
“But things are different with you drawing power from a source as big as me. I still don’t like your odds of winning. But I like them a lot more. And what’s more, this link you’ve forged is two-way.”
Chiyoko wanted to make a retort, but she felt the conversation had taken a serious turn. At least for a moment. “What do you mean two-way?”
“Usually, whatever aspect is linked starts as an imperfect resonance. But over time the bond strengthens. Both anchor and source come into alignment. So the longer we stay in resonance, the more you’ll become like me. But it also means I’ll become more like you. Given the power differential between us, the change will be bigger in you.
“But, you know, I’m a god. I don’t know how I feel about any sort of change from a mortal like you. I called you out here to understand what aspect we have in resonance. And to decide if you’re worthy of that bond.”
Chiyoko could feel sweat forming along her lower back and on her palms. She was being tested. But she didn’t know how. Does he want me to join him? To run away? He seems like he takes some enjoyment from our chase. Does he want me to continue the hunt?
It seemed like Tsukuyomi was largely driven by curiosity. By a desire to be surprised. I need to say something that keeps him interested.
Chiyoko stood, brushing her hands across the front of her legs as casually as she could muster. She took a deep breath of the frigid air surrounding Tsukuyomi. Her lungs burned from the cold as her chest puffed out with the breath. She exhaled sharply, willing whatever these new powers were to grip the air in her lungs and change it. A fine spray of snow and ice came jetting out of Chiyoko’s mouth. Her teeth burned from the icy wind.
A large crust of frost formed along Tsukuyomi’s snout. He blinked and shook his head.
Chiyoko used the distraction to step closer. She grabbed the fur beneath one of his massive blue eyes. “You think the power differential between us is so large? Don’t forget, I had you in my sights just a couple weeks ago and I chose not to take the shot.”
The ground rumbled as Tsukuyomi’s baritone laugh sounded again. He laughed for several heartbeats. This close to his open mouth, it took everything inside of Chiyoko to keep her knees from quivering. She held his gaze as fiercely as she could.
“Very well little hunter, let us talk.”
Three days later, Chiyoko cornered her prey. She clutched the top of a rough-barked pine at the summit of a snow-covered mountaintop. She saw a small village nestled in the valley below, huddled near a crook in a river. Steeply angled thatch roofs were laden with snow.
Steam rose from the river. Must be a hot spring nearby.
The village had a single wall built from snow packed into ice. Tsukuyomi lay within the wall, sleeping at the town’s center. Laying down, his body nearly crested the rooftops around him. His tails were wrapping around the nearby buildings like seaweed in the ocean. His white fur nearly vanished in the snow.
Chiyoko picked her way down the tree, avoiding any branches that might dislodge snow that could be seen from the village. She dropped the last 5 feet, landing soundlessly and brushing sap from her leggings. She motioned for the rest of the group to approach.
Yoshinobu pushed forward. His green vest and conical straw hat stood out starkly against the surrounding white. “What do you see?” His shoulders were tight. They had made good time through the woods, but Tsukuyomi had always been one step ahead of them. This was their last chance to catch the kitsune before he made his way over the mountains and back to his own territory.
“Tsukuyomi is there. It looks like he’s resting within the village.”
Yoshinobu’s shoulders slouched and he sighed. Seiji clapped Mamoru on the shoulder. “We’ve caught him at last, lad!”
Her friend’s face was set in determination. His hands gripped against the shaft of his axe. Chiyoko looked away.
I like those who are ambitious. I don’t care what direction that ambition takes them. I just… admire… people who know their goals and pursue them by whatever means necessary. Tsukuyomi’s voice rang in Chiyoko’s head. When you thought it best to strike against the rebellion, you did. When the tide changed, you did not hesitate to change with it. She hadn’t told Mamoru about her conversation with the fox 3 nights ago. She didn’t know how he would react. She didn’t even understand how she was reacting.
Yoshinobu paced around the group. “Catching him was only part of the battle. The easiest part.” His short, burly form hunched forward as he thought. “If Tsukuyomi’s inside the walls, the villagers might be helping him. They’re at least scared enough to harbor him for a while. A whole village of watchers will make it hard to approach without alerting the fox. And we don’t know if they’ll turn on us during the fight. Hideyo.”
“What’s the absolute biggest you can go with a fireball? Can you bring something down on the whole town? I can time a gravity swell at the same time. In one go we might be able to eliminate Tsukuyomi’s allies and immobilize him long enough to get in range.”
“Uh— you want me to blast the whole town? It’s possible, I guess. I’d need to get a better look at the size of the town. But Yosh, shouldn’t we—.“
Chiyoko stepped in front of Hideyo, putting a hand up to silence the woman. “What the hell are you talking about, Yoshinobu? We have no idea whether those people are on Tsukuyomi’s side. For all we know he forced his way in. They might turn on him as soon as we make a move.”
“Last time we fought Tsukuyomi, we took a chance and ignored your village. No hard feelings, but you and Mamoru are the reason Tsukuyomi escaped. I don’t like it. Not at all. But we can’t take that risk again.”
Yoshinobu is intriguing. I’ve enjoyed watching him strive against me. But he’s all logic. He isolates his guilt, his friendships, his doubts. He does not use them. He denies himself what he wants in favor of what he thinks is right. There’s nothing less romantic than a man who pursues a greater good as an emotionless ideal.
Chiyoko’s hands were shaking, her cheeks flushed. “Who are you to decide what’s worth it? It’s not just a risk to be weighed. You’re talking about murdering all of those people.”
Seiji took a hesitant step towards Yoshinobu, his hand still absently resting on Mamoru’s shoulder. “Yoshinobu, I have followed you for many years. And I am loathe to question your judgment. But Chiyoko’s words ring true to me. Aren’t we pursuing Tsukuyomi and the rest of the gods to protect people like the villagers below?”
Yoshinobu stood between Seiji and Chiyoko. His expression looked pained, but his shoulders were squared, his voice did not waver. “If Tsukuyomi escapes here, he’ll be over the mountains. We’ll never get a chance like this again.
“We’re fighting for more than one village. We’re fighting to free the 5 races. To give them control of their own destiny. If we take unnecessary risks now to protect these villagers, we’re gambling with the future of everyone else in Yosai. All the lives that have been sacrificed until now will be for nothing.”
Chiyoko thrust a finger at Yoshinobu. “You leave a trail of crippled villages just like ours, tearing apart communities that were otherwise stable. Then you say we must carry on to honor their sacrifice. You manufacture your own justification. What future are we fighting for?” Chiyoko looked at Mamoru. “Will we even have a future if you decide that our sacrifice is necessary?”
A low growl came from Katsumi as she stepped in front of Chiyoko. The shapeshifter’s arms rippled with dark fur as her hands grew into claws. Her canines became fangs within her mouth. “Do not act so noble.” She thrust a sharp nail into Chiyoko’s chest, slicing through the leathers. Chiyoko managed not to wince. “We are here today because of you. You are so quick to blame Yoshinobu for the sacrifices he makes. But if it weren’t for you, we would have killed Tsukuyomi 3 weeks ago. Your village would have been less damaged and we would have been free to help you rebuild. This village is in danger because you chose to rescue that fox. Do not lay blame at the feet of others.”
Chiyoko could feel a thin bead of blood sliding down her chest. She returned Katsumi’s glare. “I know risks and sacrifices are necessary. But this group is smart enough and powerful enough to do more than smash a fist into the ground. If we can’t find a way to fight while protecting what we care about, what stops us from sacrificing half the world? Or each other? There has to be a line we won’t cross.” A moment passed with the two women’s faces a foot apart, their breath fogging around each other. The rest of the group stood motionless.
But you. You feel your goals. Your desire for them drives you forward. If the good of the world did not include that burly friend of yours, we know where you would fall.
Mamoru’s hands appeared between Chiyoko and Katsumi. His arms flexed, thick as tree trunks, and the two women were pushed bodily apart. Chiyoko staggered, barely keeping her feet. Katsumi snarled and lunged for Mamoru. He ducked under the shapeshifter’s claws, wrapping his arms about her waist and taking her to the ground.
Katsumi twisted violently beneath him, shifting from wolf to bear as she snarled and snapped. Mamoru held firm until Katsumi reverted to her human form. He held her hands to the ground, their faces close as their chests heaved from exertion.
Mamoru didn’t take his eyes from Katsumi’s. “This is exactly what Tsukuyomi wants. He probably stopped in that village because he knew it would divide us.”
Yoshinobu cleared his throat. “Mamoru is right. Chiyoko, your point is well taken. I should not decide alone the fate of the village below. We’ll take a vote. I know it’s still not ideal, but in this situation we don’t have time to find a better compromise.”
The only thing that holds you back is your reliance on others. No matter how much influence you acquire, while you follow, you are pursuing someone else’s goals. They will pull you away from yourself. Chiyoko heard Tsukuyomi’s words in her mind, mocking the current situation. “You all know where I stand.”
“And I believe I made myself clear as well.”
Hideyo stepped from behind Chiyoko, where she had been hiding. “I’m going to go abstain. There’s six of us, and the worst thing that could happen is a tie where we all keep fighting.”
Seiji stroked his mustache, looking between Yoshinobu and Chiyoko. “Yoshinobu. You have led us for many years. I see the wisdom in what you say. But Chiyoko is right. If we can’t win by holding to our principles, then we deserve to fail.” The older knight stepped towards Chiyoko, refusing to meet Yoshinobu’s eyes.
Katsumi still lay pinned beneath Mamoru. “For all we know, the people in that valley would gladly throw away their lives to free Yosai. Protecting them could be the opposite of what they want. In nature, the strong get what they want and the weak die. If we hold to any other principle, we’re forcing our morality on that village just like the gods do today. I vote with Yoshinobu.”
Everyone’s eyes turned to Mamoru.
“I do not want Tsukuyomi to escape. But if Chiyoko says that we can defeat the kitsune without destroying the town, I believe her. I have faith in my strength.” He looked down at Katsumi. “And that of my friends.” They stared at each other for a moment longer. Katsumi finally gave a nod and Mamoru released her.
As she stood, Katsumi’s eyes did not leave Mamoru. “That’s twice now.”
“Well, it looks like I’ve been outvoted.” Yoshinobu let out a long, pent up sigh. He pulled his straw hat from his head and sank to his haunches. “To be honest, I can’t say I’m upset.”
Yoshinobu stood abruptly and walked to Chiyoko. He threw his arms around her waist and hugged her tightly. “I felt I could not indulge my conscience. That I had to be as hard as those we fought. Thank you.” His body shook slightly.
Chiyoko hesitated, looking to the others around her. After a breath she wrapped her arms around Yoshinobu’s shoulders.
Maybe the fox was wrong.
Chiyoko, Katsumi, and Mamoru stood behind a building at the edge of the village. Chiyoko had pulled the shadows in around them to obscure their forms and dampen any sounds they made. As she pulled the shadows close, she noticed a thin cloud of snow swirled about them as well.
Peering around the edge of the building, Chiyoko had a clear line of sight to Tsukuyomi. The fox god’s white-furred form lay a few houses away, motionless save for the rhythmic rise and fall of his chest. Chiyoko felt no presence at the back of her mind. For now.
She pulled her head back around the corner and signaled to the other two. Mamoru looked to Katsumi and held out his hand. She returned the gaze as she gripped his forearm, her knuckles white. There was a new energy between them.
Hands locked, the two massive figures sprinted towards Tsukuyomi. They closed ground quickly, making it within 10 feet before the kitsune’s eyes snapped open, his pupils dilating rapidly as he took in the scene.
A massive pressure erupted at the back of Chiyoko’s head. Even directed at Mamoru and Katsumi a full 30 feet away, the weight of the god’s battle focus nearly dropped Chiyoko to her knees.
Two of Tsukuyomi’s tails whipped around, angling towards the pair sprinting towards him. Chiyoko began to stumble forward under the weight of Tsukuyomi’s presence in her mind, but she thrust her foot forward, slamming it down to catch herself. Ice erupted from the ground, encasing her leg and holding her steady.
She took aim and fired twice. The first fox tail flying towards Katsumi flinched away as an arrow passed inches in front of it. The other tail was blown back by a burst of icy wind as the second arrow impacted.
Tsukuyomi turned to the source of the arrows. Stubborn as usual.
As the giant fox glanced in Chiyoko’s direction, Mamoru took his chance. He burst forward in a surge of strength, landing beneath Tsukuyomi. Mamoru planted his feet, one arm overextended behind him, holding onto Katsumi’s forearm. Chiyoko’s friend roared, every muscle in his body standing out against his frame. A thick vein ran up the side of his neck. The stone beneath his feet shattered as he whipped Katsumi forward.
The shapeshifter’s shoulder was pulled from the socket by the force of Mamoru’s throw. Her nails drew blood from his forearm and a roar to match Mamoru’s own ripped from her mouth. Her whole body was lifted from the ground, swinging with increasing speed towards Tsukuyomi.
As she flew through the air, Katsumi’s skin turned grey. It hardened and cracked as she doubled, then tripled in size. Mamoru was now swinging a giant stone golem through the air towards Tsukuyomi. The Nine Tails could barely bring his leg in front of the blow before he was knocked 20 feet into the air by Katsumi’s new shape. Red blood sprayed.
Chiyoko notched an arrow and sighted. She drew her bow to it’s full length as she called lightning. Instead of the familiar spark at the tip of her arrow, the ice encasing her foot snaked up her leg. She gasped as a bitter cold ran through her body, up to the arrow in her hands. The air popped as frost crystals formed along the arrow. A whirl of steam surrounded the shaft where cold had been ripped from the air.
Tsukuyomi’s voice boomed as he flew through the air. “Trying to knock me out of the city? Bold, I’ll give you that.”
“No.” Chiyoko released the arrow. It screamed as the ice along the shaft caught the wind. The arrow impacted Tsukuyomi’s right shoulder, exploding into a whirlwind. Razor-sharp ice was thrown in all directions. The god was thrown another 20 feet into the air, half his body encased in ice. “Just knocking you above the roof line.”
Yoshinobu watched from the trees at the edge of the village as Tsukuyomi was knocked into the air. He waited until the fox god cleared the final rooftop, giving a clear shot. Yoshinobu brought both hands together in front and to the right. Straining against some invisible force, he smashed his fists to the left.
Above the town, a few drifting clouds sharply altered course. At the apex of his upward trajectory, Tsukuyomi began plummeting directly horizontal. Tsukuyomi continued through the air for a couple hundred feet until he reached the edge of the gravitational effect. A loud boom echoed throughout the valley when he eventually landed. The ice along his right side shattered on impact.
Without pausing to think, Chiyoko brought her bow down against the ice still encasing her foot, shattering it. She ran forward, aiming for the field where Tsukuyomi had landed. They had to engage quickly to keep the kitsune from reentering the village.
Chiyoko had always been able to push her awareness outwards to gain a rudimentary sense of her surroundings. But now her senses burned inside her. She could see every detail of the buildings in her peripheral vision. She saw the worried looks on villagers faces as they peered through wooden slats on the windows. She could smell their fear. She heard their hearts beating like small children running across her ear drums. Had she not been so focused on reaching Tsukuyomi, she would have been overwhelmed. Is this how he always sees the world?
Chiyoko and Mamoru arrived at the new battlefield before Katsumi, who’s massive stone footsteps were like thunder against Chiyoko’s ears. Seiji was already there.
As they approached, one of Tsukuyomi’s tails, glowing an ominous black, impacted with Seiji’s left side. The knight brought his sword up to block, leaning into the blow. He was knocked backwards into a tree trunk 30 feet ahead of Chiyoko, cracking it. The tree stood at an odd angle as the knight lifted himself from the ground. “Nice of you lot to join!” He hefted his sword and charged back into the fray.
Momentarily free, one of Tsukuyomi’s tails came down against his body. A soft blue light emanated from the tail as it traced along his wounds. The bloodied front paw, a long gash on the god’s right shoulder, plus scores of smaller cuts all closed. Tsukuyomi’s tails flared out and he threw his head back, his fur pristine again.
“You’ll have to try a bit harder if you want something to stick.” The foxes laughter rolled out of him like boulders crashing down a mountain.
Chiyoko’s heart sank. They had lost the element of surprise and expended some of their largest attacks. But at the slightest pause, Tsukuyomi had undone it all.
Yoshinobu was right.
“Stay focused! His recovery is slower than all his other abilities. He can’t use it as long as we don’t give him any room to breathe.” Yoshinobu emerged from the trees at a jog on the far side of Tsukuyomi. “We achieved our first goal. The real battle starts now.”
Yoshinobu squared his shoulders and brought his fists up in front of him. Hideyo emerged to his left, hands flaming. Seiji circled clockwise, splitting the distance between Yoshinobu and Chiyoko’s group.
“I’ll take this side. Lad, care to take the other?”
Mamoru drew his axe from his back. He and Katsumi slid to Chiyoko’s right. Mamoru’s movements were slow and controlled, but a low growl emanated from his throat. “You killed my mother, kitsune. I will return the favor today.”
Everything had led to this. Tsukuyomi was surrounded, outside the village. Chiyoko stood alone, directly in front of the god. His tails billowed about him.
The Nine Tails dug his claws into the ground and roared. “Come!”
Chiyoko could feel the god’s excitement overcoming her usually detached mindset. Chiyoko charged first. As she charged she fired 3 arrows in succession, aiming for the ground at Tsukuyomi’s feet. A tail swept forward, sending an arc of wind that scattered the projectiles harmlessly.
Grunting in surprise at Chiyoko’s lust for battle, Mamoru followed. Katsumi lumbered behind.
“It’s a shameful day when a knight is beaten to the charge by an archer!” Seiji burst forward, his sword low and back.
Roaring, Mamoru leapt into the air mid-stride, his axe held high overhead. But Tsukuyomi was ready. The god lashed out with a glowing black tail, aiming for Mamoru’s exposed midsection.
Chiyoko watched the tail’s arc, assessing it’s speed against Mamoru’s reaction. He won’t make it. Without slowing her run, Chiyoko notched an arrow and fired. As the arrow passed between Mamoru and the fox tail, it erupted into a sphere of icy wind. Not enough to knock aside Mamoru’s bulk, but enough to slow his descent. Enough to hold back Tsukuyomi’s assault by a fraction. That window was enough for Mamoru to pull his axe down, colliding with the oncoming tail. Ice wrapped Tsukuyomi’s tail at the point of collision, preventing Mamoru from cleaving through with his axe.
The two hung in midair for a moment, like a breath between lines in a song. Then Tsukuyomi shifted his weight, leaning into the contest with his full body. Mamoru was hurled backwards towards Katsumi. Unable to dodge in her slower form, Mamoru’s back crashed into Katsumi’s shoulder. The two went reeling.
Tsukuyomi followed through, turning his body to face Mamoru and Katsumi. As they flew through the air, the god’s mouth burst open, sending a crashing wave of ice towards them. Flying through the air, neither could dive out of the way. But at the last moment a fireball impacted the onrushing ice, obscuring the area behind a cloud of steam.
Seiji and Chiyoko closed at the same time.
One of the god’s tails lashed out at the older knight. Two angled towards Chiyoko.
Seiji took the blow on his shoulder, rolling around it and bringing his sword up in a slash along the underside of the tail. The air popped as ice was pulled from nothing to blunt Seiji’s strike.
Chiyoko dropped to her knees, leaning back as she slid under the first sweeping tail. Her abs tensed as she brought herself upright, diving into a forward roll over the second. As she flipped through the air she notched an arrow and fired towards the back of Tsukuyomi’s head. One of the fox’s tails interceded. Damnit, those things are everywhere!
His upward swing thwarted by Tsukuyomi’s ice armor, Seiji let his sword’s momentum carry him around. Almost too fast to see, Seiji stood with his back to the tail he had struck seconds before. He held his sword high, every part of his body extended upwards. In a single devastating arc he brought the blade down on another tail whipping past. The blade glowed silver. As before, ice materialized from the air. But this time, the ice shattered and Seiji’s blade continued downward. In a flash of purple light, Tsukuyomi’s tail was cut clean through at the midpoint.
Tsukuyomi roared in pain. He sent two tails hurling towards the knight, one crackling with yellow sparks and the other cloaked in the black light that had almost impacted Mamoru. Seiji raised his sword in time to catch the yellow tail against the side of his blade. The glowing black tail came in under the knight’s guard and caught him square across the hips.
The combined force of both impacts sent Seiji rocketing backwards. The armor where the glowing black tail had impacted was completely corroded and ripped away. Seiji’s lower stomach was bleeding badly. Chiyoko drew an arrow and sighted behind Seiji, hoping to soften his impact with a gust of air, but she was forced to pull up and duck under Tsukuyomi’s torso as the fox pivoted over her. Turning towards Seiji, Tsukuyomi sent another blast of ice.
A whoomph pressed against Chiyoko’s ears and chest as Hideyo pulled another fireball from the air and flung it at the stream of ice. Her face was covered in sweat from exertion.
One of Tsukuyomi’s tails glowed green before the fireball could intercept his blast. “That won’t work twice!” A wall of stone leapt from the earth in front of Hideyo’s fire, absorbing the blow.
Tsukuyomi’s ice continued to rip towards Seiji. The knight had collided with the ground, bouncing off the frost-hardened dirt and continuing through the air. His sword arm bent at a horrible angle.
The ground gave a low groan as it cracked. Dirt and stone flew into the sky. In the distance, Yoshinobu held a clenched fist thrust skyward, bending gravity to his will. Seiji’s flying body was pulled upward at the last instant, avoiding the bulk of Tsukuyomi’s ice blast. But the knight’s left leg was fully encased in ice.
Tsukuyomi snarled, a tail flashing green again. “He’s not getting away.” The ground ripped itself apart like fabric, revealing vicious rock spikes within. Vines erupted from the chasm, wrapping themselves around Seiji’s body. The vines tensed and began to pull Seiji towards the newly formed pit.
Shit! We need to get his attention off Seiji. Still under Tsukuyomi’s torso, Chiyoko grabbed a handful of fur and swung herself upwards. Her shoulder wrenched from the effort, but her muscles were charged with a primal strength drawn from the god himself. She landed on Tsukuyomi’s back. No time to draw. Chiyoko held her hand high and pulled a spear of ice from the air around her. In the same motion she thrust the spear down into Tsukuyomi’s shoulder.
The vines holding Seiji disappeared.
Yoshinobu released his hold on gravity, lowering the knight to the ground slowly. Seiji lay on the ground, unmoving.
Chiyoko released her spear of ice and reached for an arrow in her quiver. Before her hand could travel halfway, what felt like a tree trunk slammed into her back. Chiyoko felt the wind knocked out of her as a pulse of freezing energy washed through her body. She was thrown 20 feet from Tsukuyomi, unable to move her limbs. She landed hard, feeling a bone in her hand snap.
Dull pain radiated up Chiyoko’s arm as she lay stunned on the ground. From her vantage point, she saw Yoshinobu slam his foot down. The air around Tsukuyomi seemed to flicker for a moment, like the air had become thick. Then Tsukuyomi was crushed downwards, his legs splayed out. His tails writhed against the ground like angry snakes.
Yoshinobu slammed his fist down beside his foot. The ground beneath Tsukuyomi groaned as he was pushed deeper. “Now! Hit him with everything you’ve got!”
Hideyo held her hands above her head and a small sun whoomphed into life above her. It began to grow larger as Mamoru and Katsumi descended on the pinned god. Careful to keep their bodies out of the gravitational field, they used the downward pressure to strengthen their blows. Chiyoko could see bursts of fog as Tsukuyomi created frost shields to dampen the blows. Each strike left a visible mark along his hide.
One of Tsukuyomi’s tails dragged itself towards Mamoru’s foot. No one seemed to notice. Chiyoko tried to shout a warning, but no words would come from her paralyzed vocal chords. The tail reached Mamoru. It began to glow orange.
Grunting from the blows against him, Tsukuyomi snapped his tail around Mamoru’s ankle. “I do— so— hate— using this one.”
Tsukuyomi vanished, replaced by a blinding orange light that shot into Mamoru’s body. Chiyoko’s friend stumbled backwards. He dropped his axe and clutched his head, roaring in defiance. Mamoru stumbled to one knee, his head bowed.
When he looked up, Mamoru’s eyes were like glowing orange lanterns. He grabbed the axe that lay beside him and stood calmly. He looked down at his hand, then back at the rest of the group. “I suppose I’ve inhabited worse specimens in the past.”
Freedom, power, idealism. All of it is meaningless if you subvert yourself to others. Do not look to those above you for guidance on the things you hold most dear.
Mamoru’s legs. The earth around him exploded as he launched himself faster than Chiyoko’s eyes could follow. Yoshinobu cried out, jabbing upwards in Mamoru’s direction. It was too late. Mamoru seemed to vanish and reappear directly in front of Katsumi, his arm stretched back.
“This is for the rude awakening earlier.” Mamoru’s arm cracked forward in a jab. He did not lean into the punch. The rest of his body looked almost relaxed. But Chiyoko’s hair whipped in her face as the shockwave flew past, knocking dirt into the air.
When the dust cleared, Mamoru’s arm was outstretched, his fist emerging from the other side of Katsumi’s titanic stone form. The rock groaned and creaked as Katsumi shrank back to her normal body. Her head hung down, looking at Mamoru’s arm buried in her abdomen.
If you let them lead you, eventually they will pull you astray. They will try to help you, to use you, to talk sense into you. They will get their hands all over your vision.
Chiyoko tried to scream again, but her muscles were still sluggish and unresponsive. Her good hand and her bow were pinned beneath her body. Rolling over would be too slow. She slammed the broken hand into the frozen soil, forcing her body upwards. Pain seared through her arm.
“You’re still standing. Impressive. At least you’ll have that small victory before you die.” Mamoru moved to pull his bloody hand back, but Katsumi’s arms snapped out and grabbed his bicep. Mamoru pulled, but Katsumi’s arms flexed and she held him in place. Blood splattered from her mouth into his face.
“What are you waiting for?” Katsumi’s voice was weak.
A look of concern flashed across Mamoru’s face as he tried to pull free again. Katsumi’s fingers slid along his arm. Her nails dug red tracks into his skin, slowing him.
Mamoru finally managed to wrench free, but as he stepped backwards he was slammed to the ground by another one of Yoshinobu’s gravity strikes. Katsumi stumbled backwards a few steps and collapsed.
“Hideyo, do it now!”
The sun blazed above Hideyo’s outstretched hands, almost 5 feet in diameter. She brought her palms together and the sphere compressed reluctantly, reaching the size of her clasped hands. It’s color turned from a dull orange to a blue-white that was hard to look at. The sphere pulsed, growing in radius by an inch before collapsing back to it’s reduced size. Hideyo was struggling to hold it in place.
“Yosh, are you sure? Mamoru and Katsumi—.“
“We have no other choice! We’re four down. This is our last change to take Tsukuyomi out.”
Chiyoko staggered to her feet. The pain from her arm returning clarity to her mind and movements. “There has to be another way Yoshinobu! This isn’t worth it!”
Yoshinobu nodded to Hideyo. She hesitated for a heartbeat. Then her face hardened and she brought her clasped hands down. The sun shot towards Mamoru’s prone form as he struggled to rise.
Chiyoko’s mind raced. She couldn’t stop Hideyo’s attack. It was slow to create, but it made up for that with overwhelming power. She couldn’t get Katsumi and Mamoru out of range in time. She couldn’t even move Mamoru with Yoshinobu holding him in place.
By the time they’ve handed your vision back, it will be perverted, missing all the pieces that made it sing in your mind.
“No!” Chiyoko screamed so loud her throat cracked. She drew every ounce of power she could into her body, forcing her muscles to act at inhuman speeds. A wide circle of frost spread beneath her feet. She didn’t bother reaching for an arrow from her quiver. A long, wicked spear of ice formed as she drew her bowstring back. She took aim at the only variable she could control and fired.
The ice spear shot forward. Chiyoko detonated a whirlwind behind her, tossing her body forward. The ice spear picked up speed from the blast. It screamed for a moment, like the arrow Chiyoko shot before. But the speed of the shot quickly wore the ice down to a perfect needle. It flew through the air in silence.
The spear careened over Mamoru’s shoulder. It dropped 7 inches in the extreme gravity field. But Chiyoko had accounted for that. It passed a foot in front of Hideyo’s flying sun. But the ice was thick enough to weather the heat. It was a perfect shot.
Yoshinobu didn’t even see the spear as it pierced his heart.
The altered gravity winked out immediately. Mamoru acted without hesitation. Pushing with every limb of his body, he shot himself backwards and out of range.
Tumbling forward with the momentum of the whirlwind she had detonated, Chiyoko threw all her strength into her legs and sprinted towards Katsumi. The force of the exertion fractured one of her femurs. She hadn’t been able to save Mamoru’s mother, but she would save this woman he cared for.
Chiyoko reached Katsumi at the same moment Hideyo’s fireball slammed into the ground 10 feet away. The dwarven woman had cheated to the left, giving Katsumi the best chance she could. Chiyoko pulled ice into her lungs and breathed a torrent as the fireball detonated.
Chiyoko and Katsumi were knocked back by the collision, but the destructive heat was absorbed. Katsumi bounced limply behind Chiyoko.
Chiyoko rolled backwards into a crouch, her hands and feat scoring the ground as she halted her momentum. She burst forward. Need to finish this before these injuries drop me.
Mamoru was still picking himself up. He’d dodged the bulk of the blast, but it still knocked the wind out of him. Before he could regain his composure, Chiyoko was on him. She planted a foot on his chest and launched herself into a flip over his head.
Upside down, Chiyoko placed her hands on Mamoru’s temples. At the same time, she reached for her connection with Tsukuyomi and pulled. She continued over Mamoru, landing in a crouch. Her broken hand and leg screamed in pain. Between her hands, an angry orange energy vibrated, extending backwards into Mamoru. The energy between her hands twisted and bucked, but Chiyoko held firm.
Inch by inch, teeth gritted, Chiyoko pulled Tsukuyomi from her friend until the orange tether snapped. Mamoru staggered forward, gasping for breath. Chiyoko slammed Tsukuyomi’s ethereal form down in front of her. The mass of orange light began to reshape into the giant kitsune’s true form.
Chiyoko slashed her hand in an arc in front of her chest. A row of icicles formed in the air and launched towards the coalescing god. Eight spears pinned each of Tsukuyomi’s remaining tails as they solidified. The giant fox hissed at Chiyoko, lunging forward. Chiyoko brought her hands up and ice swirled out of the ground around Tsukuyomi, restraining his limbs.
Chiyoko stumbled forward, her vision flicking black. Her limbs felt sluggish. She barely managed a step forward, remaining standing. Not much time. She turned her back on Tsukuyomi’s struggling form.
Seiji was unconscious, laying by the pit of spikes Tsukuyomi had created. He was bleeding badly. Katsumi was down as well. With her heightened senses, Chiyoko could hear a heartbeat, but it was slowing rapidly. Mamoru shook his head, like he was waking from a dream.
Chiyoko turned towards Hideyo. The woman was crouched over Yoshinobu’s prone form. She didn’t need heightened senses to know there would only be one heartbeat. I did that.
“Hideyo! Enough. He’s dead. Seiji and Katsumi are still breathing. You can save them, but you don’t have much time. Hideyo!“ Chiyoko pulled the woman’s attention toward her. Hideyo looked up, broken from her reverie, tears staining her cheeks. Bitter pain filled the back of Chiyoko’s throat. No time for guilt now. “Hate me, mourn him, break down. Do whatever. But do it after you’ve saved them.”
Hideyo looked stunned for a moment. She looked to the god struggling behind Chiyoko. “Tsukuyomi— we can still—.“
“No. Yoshinobu’s rebellion is over. I’m done watching him burn a path through the people I love. I have my own ideas, and Tsukuyomi is going to help with them.”
Hideyo did not turn away immediately. Chiyoko was running on borrowed time. She could barely lift her arms, let alone hold off another blast of fire. “Do you honestly think that you and Mamoru stand a chance against me and Tsukuyomi combined? Please. I’m holding him down so you can flee. I don’t want anyone else to die today.”
Hideyo stared at Chiyoko for a long second. Her face and eyes hard, unforgiving. She turned towards Seiji.
Chiyoko’s relief was short lived as she turned and saw Mamoru standing in front of her. His axe dangled at his side. His other hand was covered to the elbow in Katsumi’s blood. “Chiyoko, what are you doing?” He looked confused.
“I’m sorry, Mamoru. I know I promised we would avenge your mom. But if we kill Tsukuyomi, it’s only going to bring more devastation.”
Mamoru took a step forward. “But we have him.” His hand tightened on his axe.
Chiyoko put an edge to her voice. “Mamoru. Think.“ She gestured around her. “Tsukuyomi did all of this. If I had let Yoshinobu live, you, Katsumi, and Seiji would all be dead now. All that to take out one god, acting alone. There are four others. We don’t have the strength to oppose them.”
“Let Yoshinobu—?” Mamoru turned towards Yoshinobu’s prone form. He dropped his axe, staring dumbly. “You killed—?” He has no idea what happened while he was possessed.
Chiyoko heard a loud snap from the ice behind her. Tsukuyomi was nearly free.
“Listen. I don’t have time to explain everything. Hideyo needs your help. You have to get Seiji and Katsumi out of here. I can’t hold Tsukuyomi down much longer.”
Mamoru turned his gaze back to Chiyoko, he looked so confused. He was struggling to find words. “You’re not coming, too?”
In that moment, Chiyoko almost broke. Almost. “No. I’m going to work with Tsukuyomi. Somehow I’m drawing strength from him. I’m going to use that. I’m done letting others set the rules.” Chiyoko’s voice softened. “I know this makes no sense. But please. For everything we’ve been through until now, just trust me and go with Hideyo. You never have to trust me again. Just run.” Stay alive.
Mamoru searched her eyes. Then he turned and ran, stopping to lift Katsumi gingerly. Chiyoko hoped no one ever told Mamoru who had nearly killed the shapeshifter.
Chiyoko watched as her friends fled into the woods. Hearing her words and seeing his prey flee, Tsukuyomi calmed. When she was sure they were gone, Chiyoko released the power within her. She blacked out.
Chiyoko woke slowly. She didn’t know how long she had been unconscious, but she seemed to be in the same location. She moved her body tentatively, steeling herself against the impending pain. It didn’t come.
She raised her hand in front of her face. No broken bone. No cuts. Not even old scars.
You’re welcome. Tsukuyomi’s baritone rang through her mind. Her connection with the god felt clearer now. More permanent.
Chiyoko sat up, her legs stretched out in front of her. “First ground rule. No spooky head talk. Use your words.”
“Will there be a ground rule against I told you so’s?” Amusement flooded her mind. Tsukuyomi lay behind her, his head resting on crossed front paws. His fur was white and pristine again. Nine tails billowed behind him.
Chiyoko sighed. She placed a hand on her knee and pushed herself upright. “I had to try. For him.”
Tsukuyomi looked across the frozen field to Yoshinobu’s body. “He and I had quite the dance.”
Chiyoko shook her head as she walked toward the rebellion’s former leader. “Not him. I did it for my friend. The one you possessed. I promised I would help him kill you.”
“Is that a promise you still plan to keep?” Curiosity.
“Some day.” A strangely comfortable silence filled the air after her words.
Chiyoko and Tsukuyomi looked down at Yoshinobu. How much would things have changed if she had let them follow Yoshinobu’s plan to attack the village?
Tsukuyomi flicked a tail towards the ground. A flash of green and a small grave opened next to the warrior. Chiyoko bent and carefully lifted Yoshinobu into the grave. Tsukuyomi’s tail glowed green again and the grave closed.
The fox god looked down at the earth for a moment. His large blue eyes unblinking. He breathed softly over the grave, covering it with a layer of perfectly blue ice.
“You seem awfully nostalgic.”
A sense of wistfulness washed over Chiyoko as Tsukuyomi considered her words. “We stand at the end of an era, I think.”
The two stood for a moment in silence. Eventually Chiyoko turned and walked away. “Three nights ago, you told me I rely on others too much. Following Yoshinobu almost got Mamoru killed. I’m done letting others decide what I do.
“I’m stronger now. I’m linked to a god. I have my own ideas about how this all shakes out.”
“Oh? What did you have in mind?”
Chiyoko told him. The fox threw his head back and laughed. “Fascinating! I knew you would be entertaining.”
Then the two set to work.
The End. Now that you're done reading...
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