Where Kitsune Wait [updated line 5658]

May 19th, 2018 (edited)
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  1. [[author's notes: after a lot of thought, I'm going to make an attempt to finish this this year, early next year. No promises, not with the state of my life.]]
  2. [Tags: 1st person, hmofa, fantasy, vaguely-historical, plot focused, scarred protagonist (physically and mentally), magic, kitsune, incomplete]
  4. [We come from the land of ice and snow...]
  6. Cold autumn wind cuts through my thin travel robe as I ascend the ten thousand steps of an ancient mountain path. I wish for the warmth of furs as bells and chimes sing me a somber song. The twisted branches sway above me and shed the last of their leaves. The shrines of stacked stones I pass on the path are well tended with bountiful offerings of food and charms laid before each, but why wouldn't that be? The master of this mountain seems well regarded, or so I've gathered from my limited dealings with the villagers in the valley below.
  8. A shame I might have to kill their benefactor. No one agreed on exactly what the lord of the mountain is, but rumors outside the village held the master of this place ate wayward travelers like myself. Through wit and steel, I hope to put an end to such things. Should the rumors be true, of course. I abhor the death of the innocent.
  10. Around the three thousandth stone step I quit counting my progress. The shrines on the side of the path grew fewer in number and start to have a look of abandonment. The farther I walk the worse it gets, until vines claim the stones and no offerings are laid out for the spirits of the mountain. Dust and leaves lay in piles on the steps, signs few come this far. One hand holding my robe tightly to my body I put the other on the pommel of my sword, a reminder of my homeland that comforts me as the hair on my neck stands up.
  12. Something is hunting me.
  14. I know it in my bones before I hear tree branches rustle to my left then my right, disturbed not by the wind but the movements of something alive. My pace stays the same as I walk up to the path, eyes snapping to woods on either side of me. The shrines are nothing but scattered rocks now, the trees bending angrily over the path like gnarled cripples. I know not to stray into the woods when whispers scatter at the edge of my hearing. To leave the path could mean to death or, if the hundreds of stories I've heard in my travels are anything to go by, a much worse fate.
  16. I can't escape the fact I'm surrounded and every instinct is telling me to turn back or draw steel and die like a fool. I clutch the pendant on my neck, finding a shred of strength in the symbol of my preferred god, and keep walking the dreadful path. Things flit in the corner of my vision, taunting me, begging me to give chase. I hum an old sailing song. Terror holds my heart but I won't make the mistake of straying from the path.
  18. "Come," something directly behind me with a honey sweet voice. "You look so weary, let me show you to my home."
  20. My heart misses a beat and my fist squeezes tightly on the pommel of my sword. Cold sweat breaks out on the back of my neck. I dare not turn my head, even when the thing laughs. A soft trill comes from wherever my eyes dare not look as I keep walking, teeth clenched against the terror telling to look behind me. I'm not dead or under a spell yet which means this thing has rules it must follow. Chances are good I can bore it or drive it away with my ragged excuse for singing; I've had the saltiest of sailors demand I quit singing. I let song burst out from the depth of my lungs, the words meaningless to any ears but my own in this far flung corner of the world.
  22. "Come," it whispers into my ear, the touch of its breath hot on my skin. "You look so far from your home, even a nobody like me can give you the rest you need."
  24. Man-eaters have a stench to their breath I will never miss, not after how many times I nearly ended up a meal for some crazed beast. A cloying sweetness tinged with rot, the memory of it enough to churn my stomach. Yet the thing behind me has no such stench on its breath. My hand loosens its grip on the simple pendant; the rune would not protect me from evil or trickery. But it reminds me of what I came to do on this mountain. If the thing behind me was no man-eater I had little interest in it right now.
  26. "Come," it beckons in one ear and then the other. "My home is not far, just through the trees." The thing brushes my shoulder, it's voice promising feminine pleasure.
  28. I hate the tricksters that play on mans most primal desires. The worst part is most of the time they are harmless forest spirits, so long as they are properly ignored. If it had the power to bring me off the path it would have done so already. People that stray from any path rarely return, but those forced off will fight to return. Focusing on my goal of investigating this lord of the mountain and singing a bawdy song make it easier to ignore the enticing laughter that echoes from the woods around me. But I'd be a liar if I denied the lilt of the voice didn't stir something in me as a man.
  30. How long has it been since I've known a woman? Since that time in the desert? Ah, that didn't end well for anyone.
  32. "Come," the sweet voice begs, tugging lightly on my clothes and snapping me out of memories. My skin should crawl at the unknown touch but all I feel is a wispy warmth. "I have been without company for so long."
  34. Talking to it would give it a measure of power over me. So I keep singing. The thing behind me begs and pleads but I pay it no heed. Soon only the sounds of gentle crying fill my ears, begging me one last time to turn around face what is behind me. At best it is a trickster wanting me to get lost in the woods. At worst it is a different kind of predator, one that may not eat men but would certainly lead to my doom all the same.
  36. My heart must be made of the darkest iron to feel nothing when the thing behind me begins to wail like a soul denied his rightful place in the gods' halls. There is no shape or reason to its cry, only pure the desperation of someone in the gravest of need. I put one foot in front of the other, undeterred.
  38. Eventually, the wails stop and only the cold autumn wind billows against my back. Alone now I shiver against the chilling bite and curse myself for not trading at the village for warmer clothes. But those people in the village had little enough for themselves. Especially with such a harsh winter on the horizon. My coin and comfort wasn't worth the potential cost of a life lost to the harsh cold because someone didn't have enough to bundle up in on a long winter night. I would survive this journey or I would finally fall in this distant land, slain by whatever rules this mountain. Looking on the bright side, once I'm dead I'll have no need for warm clothes.
  40. The sun stands high in the sky, the trees alive and welcoming. To my surprise, the shrines on either side of the path begin to show signs of care once more. At first, there are only fewer fallen stones. The farther up I go the more whole the shrines become, and with their completion come signs of care. Someone swept the shrines and path clear of leaves and dirt recently, a day at most is my best guess. No offerings are placed before the shrines, but I notice signs of candles and incense the farther up the path I walked. That concerns me a great deal. Hopefully, there isn't some kind of cult worshiping a man-eater. I've dealt with enough of that in deserts and jungles. I don't need to add forest on a mountain the list of places where I nearly died to men worshiping a monster.
  42. I spot wooden arches, or what people in this land called arches, on the path. Massive and proud they stand, barely visible from one to the next through the twists and turns of the mountain's path. I hold hope my destination is near, but after the eighth arch I wondered if I am caught in a glamour. Every arch I walk under is identical to the last, down to the flaking red paint. Were this faerie magic I might be able to use the steel of my sword to disrupt it. But I learned quickly, upon arriving in this land, the magic of faerie does not exist here. Who knows how many arches I truly pass on my way up the mountain.
  44. I see no more arches in the distance so I press onward, resolving to do something potentially dangerous after I'm through the ninth arch. Nine are the realms, nine arches; the symbolism felt potent enough I might be able to work some kind of meager magic. Or I will get myself killed. Sorcerer I am not, though I am growing desperate enough to try what little magic I can work with.
  46. Hand on my sword as I approach what I hope to be the end of my journey up this mountain. The steps cut into the bones of the mountain seemed to grow steeper but that might just be my tired legs. I haven't rested for even a moment and the last time I ate or drank was at the outset of my journey, sometime before dawn's first light. Wearily I keep walking until I spot a ninth arch past barren branches. Once I'm beneath the mighty arch I stop, elated to see I won't need to risk working magic. Ahead of me, a meager handful of steps up, is what I guess to be a home; the structure is large as a castle but lacking signs of stonework any respectable fortification should have, looking to made primarily of painted wood and those weird paper screens. The building is, however, surrounded by an impressive wall fit for any lord of this land – tall enough even I couldn't scramble over it. A massive pair of doors is set into the wall and standing open as if expecting a visitor.
  48. Me, I assume, stepping past the final arch.
  50. I know I've entered the domain of something powerful when I pass the boundary of the arch I'm under. I can feel it in the way the hair on my arms stands up, the pulse quickens in my veins, and my muscles prepare for a fight. Vital instincts burned into my body over years of wandering through strange lands.
  52. As soon both my feet are past the arch a dozen maidservants flood out of the gates. I expected armed soldiers or twisted beasts, not beautiful women in the strange and slender dresses of this land. I'm met halfway by the procession. All but one wear a simple white sash around the waist of their yellow dresses, no two pattern on their clothes the same. The odd one out has a blue sash, so she is the one I pay the most attention to. She's got the delicate beauty admired in this land, her skin fairer than my own to point it is almost porcelain white, hair long and dark. All of the women have that beautiful look, but the one with the blue sash tied around her waist strikes me as an important person.
  54. "A visitor, and a foreigner at that," blue sash says with an air of gentle authority. The way she looks at me actually sends a shiver down my spine, her brown eyes reminding me far too much of snake staring at a mouse. Whatever she is, there is potent magic about her. "One that carries a sword. What are your intentions on this mountain, foreigner?"
  56. "I seek audience with the lord of this place," I say, the words of this land easy on my tongue. A gift I've made good use of in my travels.
  58. Her eyes go from snake watching a mouse to a hawk staring at a snake. "Why would we allow a beast of a man like you, who has not left a single offering upon the shrines, see our master?"
  60. "I meant no offense, but as you say I am a foreigner." I move my hand off my sword, they haven't attacked yet and I get the impression they won't unless I do something stupid. Talking my way through situations is far more difficult than slashing mindlessly. Thankfully I had something that might count as a tribute, which I quickly dug out of my travel robe. "It is custom in my homeland for gifts to be given to the master of a house and not left for a servant or god to deliver."
  62. The pouch I held up actually drew the woman's gaze off of me for a moment. Then it returned with renewed viciousness, her brown eyes almost hateful. "I will take your gift to our master. That might earn you an audience. Or not."
  64. "No," I say, pulling the pouch back while the contents rattle. None of the maids move but I can feel the tension that spreads through them. Or maybe that was my own apprehension since this isn't what I expected to find so close to the peak of the mountain. I dig in my robe, take a different pouch off my belt, and hold that out instead of the first one I offered. "This is more fitting gift to be delivered."
  66. The beauty in the blue sash took the pouch daintily, her nails polished and sharp. The weight and clink must surprise her because she actually takes her eyes off me to open up the pouch and have look inside. Her immaculate face is unmoved by the treasure within. She ties the pouch back up and her cold eyes jump right back to me. The suspicion in blue sash's gaze tells me I made the right choice. "Wait here."
  68. I nod and expect to be left with a guard. Instead, the procession of maids follows their leader back through the gates that shut with a ponderous creak once the last one is through. If they slid a board into it I don't know or care, I'm not about to ruin my chances of getting in peacefully. Left alone I tie the first pouch I produced back to my belt, the carved bones within clattering comfortingly. I can only imagine the look I would have gotten for handing that pouch over instead of one with silver.
  70. Hopefully, my gift isn't too extravagant or taken the wrong way. I thought handing over a pouch of silver jewelry might have earned me an immediate audience, or at least questions. Ah well, it isn't like I have too much attachment to the baubles. A merchant I saved from some kind of turtle demon gave me a sack of silver as thanks a few months ago. In it were several pieces from my homeland, hacksilver jewelry and a few pendants. Seeing the silverwork was nostalgic for me, but I have no memories with any of the pieces. They're simply exotic trinkets in this far-flung land.
  72. Though I do regret giving that treasure away to what might be a man-eater. But if they were a man-eater and they did grant me audience perhaps I could retrieve the silver baubles. If I survived, if I didn't then the jewelry hardly matters now, does it?
  74. I look around, knowing that someone had to be watching me. I see nor sense nothing of course. But an observer was there. They had to be, you don't leave an armed stranger outside your home without posting some kind of guard. Even if your walls are rather tall and the gates look sturdy enough to take need a ram and six of me to even dent, I think it is a poor strategy to leave me unattended. So I must have a watcher somewhere. Vengefully I wish whoever it is to be bored as me since they cannot be bothered to extend the courtesy of letting me see them.
  76. I sit on the ground and stare up at the sky. The clouds are closer than I've grown accustomed to, making me wonder how high up I am. The mountain doesn't quite kiss the clouds but I could tell by the air it is an impressive height. At least the wind died down so I don't shiver as badly. I should have rested on my journey up the mountain, as I expect standing up with my nearly numb legs will be interesting at best.
  78. I'm left sitting there for a long time, the sun nearly dipping behind the mountain. Did they want me to give up and go back down the mountain? As I think that the doors of the gate creak open. I stand on cold, sore legs that move slower than I'd like. Out from the gate comes the same procession from before, a dozen maids led by the blue sash beauty as I think of her. Only something about them feels different. The maids all look at me with unreadable but pleasant expressions. And the insincere but perfectly polite smile the blue sash greets me with is off. Like she is displeased by something.
  80. "Our Master welcomes you to our home, foreigner," the blue sash beauty declares. "I will escort you to the baths, as your journey must have been long and wearisome." Her smile is sweet but her voice is colder than the wind biting through my clothes.
  82. Nice as being clean sounds, a bath is also the perfect excuse to part me of my belongings. But that is a risk that might be worth taking if it gets me near my the lord of this mountain. Who knows, maybe the villagers are right and the lord of the mountain isn't a man-eating monster? I trust simple folk like that more than rumors. Then again I've found monsters in stranger places than atop a mountain and in the home of so many women.
  84. "You and your master's hospitality is grand," I say, cautious of sounding apologetic. Habits born from a frightful time around faeries are hard to break when I know nothing about the obviously magical place I'm in.
  86. The blue sash beauty bows and leads me through the gates. Her pace is quick and I have to keep an eye on several more women, so all I notice about the path is how to get back to the gate in hurry; what little of the place I take in strikes me as richer than many a noble's manors I've seen. I'm lead to what must be some kind of enclosed bathing building with, thankfully, warm water waiting. When none of the maids leave I realize they expect me to strip. With some effort I bite back my complaints and relinquish my clothing and belongings, extracting a promise they would be returned before letting them go. If blue sash thinks anything about my scar-riddled body I can't tell because a swarm of maids that descend upon me the moment I sit down on the stool blue is points at.
  88. Complaining that a horde of the beautiful women are scrubbing me down feels ungrateful, but I suspect they aren't human so gratitude is the least of my concerns. And my suspicions are all but confirmed thanks to a few errant, and most certainly not accidental, touches. I trust my instincts on these matters: the nails that glide across skin are claws, not sharpened fingernails. None of the women draw blood but those errant touches happen more and more as I'm scrubbed down. It is like they are toying with me and enjoy it when I twitch and squirm. They take an interest in tracing the scars on my arms and back, lifelong reminders of some of the nastier things I've run into. But the mass of scars on my chest from that tiger-headed man-eater get the most attention, the maids scrubbing that didn't hide their grins as they traced the ragged lines.
  90. The touch of claws reminds me of nearly having my chest torn open and heart devoured, numbing me to any enjoyment the female attention might bring. I take pride in surviving but I hate being reminded of those moments, especially the tiger-headed man-eater. The only thing keeping me from a full-on panic is that none of their breaths smell of man-eaters. Whatever these women are I don't have to worry about ending up in their stomachs, I muse as a bucket of warm water is dumped over my head.
  92. At least I'm not cold anymore.
  94. I sit and endure the maids near abusive bathing until the blue sash beauty nods in satisfaction, the rest of the maids retreating. The ease that brings me is taken away as they descended upon me with fresh clothing. The maids twist and turn me about as they practically wrap me into clothes that are too warm and soft to be mine. I'm left feeling ridiculous in what my people would mock as a dress, but I'd worn it similar before so the embarrassment is tolerable. This one fits better than all the ones I'd been stuffed into before, almost like it is made just for me. Impressive and unnerving since I feel like a giant in this land, standing at least half a head taller and far broader in the chest than everyone I've met. After the clothes fit so nicely I'm not even surprised when the slippers the maids slid onto my feet fit perfectly.
  96. I ask for my belongings, expecting to be denied everything, but to my surprise the blue sash hands me my dagger and belt. All the pouches are still tied to the sturdy leather and, from the weight in my palm, I can tell nothing has been stolen. My pendant, simple silver worked with the rune of the god I respect the most, is returned a moment later. It rests on my neck where it belongs just as swiftly as it was handed over. Only my sword and clothes aren't returned.
  98. "Where have the rest of my belongings gone?" I ask, trying to sound polite and surely failing, following the blue sash beauty as she leads me along.
  100. "We will wash your clothes. That sword of yours will return once you leave our walls, you have no need of it here. But we were told to let you keep a knife if you had one. Be grateful for our master's kindness, foreigner," blue sash curtly explains while leading me down halls lined with those strange sliding doors that doubled as walls. She stops, opens one to her left, and ushers me in. The room has those woven mats, that I've grown strangely fond of, for floors and a lacquered table is set up in front of a masterfully painted silk screen. The scene on the screen is that of a mountain range done in a delicate, minimal style. I can make easy sense of the image with ease but barely understand how someone could paint like that. So much empty space and deceptively few brush strokes bring to life such a striking view of mountains.
  102. I sit where blue sash points, my legs contorting into the uncomfortable in the kneeling position you're expected to take in this land. It makes sense with how low to the ground the tables are here, but I despise sitting like this for long. Why can't they have chairs like a properly civilized people? I would even settle for a sitting position that doesn't torture a man's ankles.
  104. "My master will join you shortly," the blue sash beauty says before ducking out of the room.
  106. Alone for the time being, I unhook the pouch of runes from my belt, which I am rudely wearing over the clothes provided to me. Weighing the leather pouch in my hand I stare at the table. Do they plan to serve me a meal or have they guessed what I was going to do? Was it just there to catch me off guard? Does this room simply have a table in it? I don't understand this land well enough to guess.
  108. Behind the painted screen a door slides open, casting the shadow of what should be a person. Yet the silhouette makes no sense, my immediate thoughts ranging from 'animal' to 'elaborate clothes' until finally 'one of those things that tried to eat me in that land that worshiped cows'. I look down at the table instead of continuing to stare at the shadow I can't understand, but I keep it in my vision enough to know it sits down behind the screen. Breathing slowly to keep my heart under control, I let thought guide me instead of instinct. Whatever is behind that screen isn't a human, and it wants me to know that. Or maybe it wants me to think it isn't human? I've met plenty of rich but utterly mad men in my life, so perhaps that's what this is.
  110. "What brings you to my mountain, man so far from his home?" A husky female voice asks from behind the veil of the screen.
  112. I chew my tongue. I didn't expect the master of this mountain to be a woman, though it is not all that surprising. I come from a land of shield maidens where misjudging the wrong woman can get you gutted, as one of my more foolish cousins found out. Bah, no time to think of a life long gone when my own might be in danger.
  114. "You are the master of this place?" I inquire.
  116. "I am," the female shadow behind the screen proudly purrs the words. "Tell me something, foreigner. These intriguing gifts of you gave me, wherever did you come across such curious silverwork?"
  118. Why not tell her, maybe she will believe the truth? "A merchant gave me silver when I saved him from some sort of turtle monster," I admit. "Strangely a few pieces were from my homeland."
  120. "Interesting," she says, drawing out the word. "Forgive my bluntness, but why have you come to my mountain? I so rarely receive visitors, especially the sort carrying a sword. That is almost enough to make me worry about the safety of my sisters."
  122. Can't have her worrying about her safety just yet. I drop the bag of runes on the table before with a clatter. "I am here to read your fortune," I announce.
  124. A throaty and feminine laugh fills the air. It is so unlike the delicate tittering I've come to expect from the women of this land. I can fold my arms and wait until the laughter dies down. The shadow behind the screen asks, voice scarcely composed, "Do you jest foreigner?"
  126. Unfolding my arms I compose myself best I can before answering. "I would not dishonor the art of my father his father before him."
  128. "You walk ten thousand steps up my mountain to read my fortune?" She chuckles and the shadow behind the screen shifts. "I cannot tell if you are serious or if this is an awkward attempt to court me."
  130. Oh please be jesting, whatever you are back there. "Move that screen and you will know I am honest, master of this mountain." That seems like it will get me in trouble, so I add some truth, "I cannot cast the runes without seeing your face."
  132. "Oh my, perhaps you do aim to court me. But," I can practically hear the smile in her voice, "I do not dislike that foreigner."
  134. "Egil, not foreigner," I correct, hiding my fear about her talk of courting.
  136. "I shall call you what I wish in my home," she happily replies. This is going to be a tiresome conversation if it goes on for much longer.
  138. "But I will extend you every courtesy, Egil, including what you ask for," she says, confounding me.
  140. The soft chime of a bell comes from behind the screen. A wall – door? - slides open to my right and the blue sash shuffles into the room, kneeling next to the screen. "Yes, eldest sister?" There is respect and deference in the voice, all without a hint of fear. Then again the people of this land can hide their emotions expertly so what do I know of her true feelings?
  142. "Move this troublesome screen," the shadow orders in the happiest, politest manner I've ever heard.
  144. "But sister he will see-" the blue sash beauty clamps a hand over her mouth and she prostrates herself as if speaking to a lord. "My sincerest apologies eldest sister."
  146. "Do not apologize for worrying about me, little sister. Just move the screen so our guest might behold me," the shadow behind the screen says without a hint of reproach in her voice.
  148. The blue sash beauty rises and folds the screen, but positions herself to block my view of what was the shadow behind the screen for long as possible. Eventually, she has to reveal her 'eldest sister' and shuffles out of the way with the screen under her arm. I barely pay any attention to the blue sash. Her 'eldest sister', now fully visible, has every bit of my attention.
  150. A woman sits comfortably on a cushion. A woman with a head like a fox's, her bright blue eyes watching me while her ears swivel to face me. The grin on her face waits for me to react in an amusing manner. I sit and sort through my immediate impression of her. Tall as me, maybe taller. Figure obscured by the elegant, modestly cut blue silk dress the women of this land wear, the black sash tied around her waist looking loose. Hands a mix between fox and human, furred but with all the fingers I expect of a person, sit in her lap. Reddish orange fur covers what her clothes do not, except for the snow white fur around her lower jaw and down her neck. The glint of jewelry I gave her stands out against her fur, silver on her wrists and neck. Behind her is a fluffy looking tail-
  152. Tails. Multiple tails fan out and she watches me with a bemused grin. They stick up behind her, making me think of a folding fan, and sway gently while she watches me for any kind of reaction. Something about foxes with multiple tails runs through my head so I start counting hers. One, two, three... Something about the tails was important what was it, think Egil. Four, five, six... It comes to me and I start to panic a bit. The older a fox gets the more tails they grow, and they become more powerful. Seven, eight... Ancestors waiting in your glorious halls I want no part of, this fox woman has NINE tails.
  154. I choke back a moment of panic.
  156. "Oh my, the rapt attention of man is quite thrilling after so many years," the fox woman says, hiding her smile behind her sleeve. The coy gesture is quite insincere since I can still see her grinning muzzle and her predator's sharp teeth.
  158. I gather the runes from their pouch and speak in the language of my homeland."-Should I fear the fox before me-"
  160. I cast the carved bone runes onto the table and watch them bounce into place. The fox woman looks at me curiously while I sort through the reading. Her eyes flick to the runes whenever I look up at her, but the moment I turn back to the runes her blue orbs bore back into me. Reading the runes takes so long my father would have smacked me across the mouth for failing to grasp such a simple answer. But what is revealed baffles me to no end and the attention of the fox woman does not help.
  162. "What is this, Egil?" she asks quietly, as if afraid to break my concentration.
  164. "Fortune telling from my land," I reply, rereading the runes for the third time.
  166. "I can see that." Her tails sway as she leans closer to look at the layout on the table. "What have your bones told you?"
  168. "Runes," I correct. Biting my tongue I look over the spread again, determined to find something I must have missed. But there is nothing else it could say. "And they say I should help you."
  170. Her tails flick as she asks me something. I'm so absorbed in trying to find an alternative reading to the runes that I don't hear her until she claps. Her tone has a hint of mockery to it while her mouth is curled into a grin. "I have your attention now? Good. Do your bones tell you how you might help me, the lord of this mountain?"
  172. "No." Sweeping the bones up I contemplate casting them again, but stop that line of thinking. Never should I ask the runes the same question twice in a row or else they will abandon me.
  174. "This is why you should not trust a fortuneteller. They work their way into your home and speak nonsense," the fox says dismissively, looking at the blue sash beauty sitting in the corner. It shouldn't surprise me so much to see another fox woman is sitting there, or that there are eight tails fanned out behind her. Unlike her sister there is white around her eyes instead of just her mouth. At least I don't give the nine tailed the satisfaction of seeing me jump.
  176. Insults like that aren't worth acknowledging. I collect my runes and ask another question, wording it carefully.
  178. "-What will happen if I help this fox?-"
  180. The second casting draws me an unpleasant look from the nine tailed fox woman, but with a layout like this, I don't care about her frustration with fortune tellers. The runes haven't lied to me once about matters of spirits, tricksters, or faeries. But I wonder if I should doubt them telling me 'I shall find what I have always sought if I help this fox.' Wandering since the day I could set out on my own, I don't know what I seek anymore. I thought glory would settle the craving in my heart. But I found only trouble so I abandoned that for the more difficult road, the path of the one-handed god. A noble path, honorable beyond compare, and lonely as could be.
  182. What did I want that the fox could possibly give me? I can come up with nothing. But I trust the runes.
  184. "I tire of this," The nine tailed fox says once I've collected the runes for a third casting. "I welcome you to stay in my home for the night, for the jewelry you gave me is beautiful Egil. But I have no use for fortunes you will not tell me. So either ask a question of my choice, tell me what you have learned, or stop so we might have dinner and talk of more pleasant matters."
  186. I hold my hand over the table, the runes cupped in my hand. "What do you want me to ask the runes?"
  188. She clearly didn't expect that, judging how her tails swish about. The fox woman smiles and plays along, mirth returning to her voice. "What brings this foreigner Egil to my mountain?"
  190. With a stony face, I ask the runes what I'm doing on the fox's mountain, curious about what they will say. The carved whale bones bounce around the table as I cast, the runes swirling to a stop wherever they please. As with every cast on a mere man such as myself the meaning should be vague, unhelpful, and create more questions than it could ever answer. Except that isn't what I read in the runes. The spread is so clear I can't believe it is right. But the runes, I have to believe them.
  192. "What do they say?" The nine-tail fox stares at the runes, trying to decipher their meaning. I don't even know their true meaning. At best I glean a hint of their truth. Only the one-eyed god would know for certain, and he traded half the light of his world for such wisdom. Among other painful acts I don't want to try for myself.
  194. I sweep the runes back into their pouch. "The runes say I'm here to solve an old problem."
  196. "Little sister," the nine tailed fox woman sweetly says to blue sash fox hiding in the corner, "Go fetch some wine and food for my guest and I. He must be hungry after walking for so long. Once you've done that do your best to keep the rest of our sisters from eavesdropping, as they so love to do whenever we have a guest. I am certain Egil would like the privacy."
  198. Blue sash bows and retreats out of the room and leaves me alone with the lord of the mountain.
  200. "Fortuneteller, you may call me Rin." The devious grin that turn her lips up and reveals those teeth nearly makes me go for my dagger. This creature wore at my calm with only a smile, making me feel like better than glory starved youth with my readiness to go for a blade.
  202. "We will see come sunrise if your runes lie," she says happily.
  204. ---
  206. Around the lacquered table I have a polite dinner with Rin, the fox woman slyly amused the entire time by my difficulty using the two sticks you're supposed to hold in one hand to eat. Once blue sash swooped in and took the empty dishes away the wine starts flowing. I handle my drink with, but so does this fox sitting across from me. Between the two of us an entire ceramic jug is emptied and we quickly start in on a second, Rin asking me questions the entire time.
  208. They're all simple questions I've answered many times. My responses change only with the language of the land.
  210. Why do I carry a sword? For protection. Do I not get in trouble for openly carrying a weapon? I mostly keep away from cities, hide it, or make a point of sucking up to local lords when I have business in an area. How did I arrive in this land? On a merchant vessel sailing from a mainland city I hated. What do I think of this land? I think it is strange but hospitable. Do I travel alone? Normally, but I don't turn down company when it is offered.
  212. She seems satisfied with those answers. Which is nice, I've grown tired of having the same conversation so often.
  214. "What brought you so far from the cities and to my mountain?" Rin asks, pouring me another cupful of deliciously biting wine. She's so direct I wonder if the wine is getting to her.
  216. "I heard rumors of a man-eater on this mountain and wanted to see if it was true, but unless you're hiding one in the woods I think it's just talk," I reply, realizing far too late the wine has certainly gotten to me. Sneaky drink this is, but I toss back another cup anyway. My last cup, but not because I've offended my host judging from the smile she sports. It will be my last to keep what is left of my wits.
  218. Rin only chuckles. "I suspected such a reason," she says, pouring herself the last of the wine and setting the empty jug aside. "What would you have done were this a home of man-eaters?"
  220. "Kill one of you and run into the forest," I say, resting my hands on my knees. My ankles ache from this agonizingly polite position. "I've learned a few tricks that would have let me take a few of you down."
  222. "You would surely die," she says, setting down an empty cup and folding her arms. "We all know these woods and would hunt you to the ends of this land if you slew one of my sisters."
  224. "All men die one day. My people think it is better to die with a sword in hand than old and gray in bed. But you aren't man-eaters," I say, raising a hand, "Imagining what might be doesn't matter."
  226. Rin smiles. "I cannot help but wonder how a man such as yourself has survived so long."
  228. "One day I won't," I say with a shrug.
  230. "Perhaps we should take a walk, to move our minds from such grim thoughts," Rin suggests, rising to her feet gracefully. My ankles pop when I get up, reminding me of their displeasure. "My garden is not much more beautiful in the day, but the stars make up for it."
  232. On our feet, I meet Rin's stare. And I'm forced to look up at someone for the first time in many years. My eyes rest level with her mouth, giving the experience of feeling short for the first time. I don't despise it like I thought I would though I am on edge as she leads the way. Rin keeps her hands in her long sleeves, her bushel of tails swaying slightly with every step, throwing me small looks as she guides me through her home and to the garden. I've had enough wine I can't begin to guess what those glances mean.
  234. The wooden slat floors, polished to a shine, lead into the cool night air. Wood transitions to a stone walkway that winds through trees and shrubbery devoid of their leaves as the plants rested for winter. Large stones are placed pleasingly throughout, while small river stones blanketed the ground instead of grass, and benches are generously placed along the walkway. Torches and lanterns light the walkway now that the sun has vanished behind the mountain and the sky has become a clash of darkening blues and fading reds. The moon hangs as a glowing sliver in the dusk sky, dim compared to the many glowing eyes scattered about and watching me.
  236. At least a dozen pair of eyes wink in and out in the distance, all depending on where the gaze of the blue orbs of my guide goes. She shakes her head knowingly. "Forgive my sisters, we have not had a guest in a long time and. Certainly never one like yourself."
  238. "I'm used to being stared at." Usually with a mixture of fear and disgust, but I haven't sensed any of that from the fox women. They mostly seem curious. As long as they don't touch me again I can't say the curiosity bothers me.
  240. "You must have seen much in your travels to be so at ease while they stare."
  242. I can only shrug at that. "I've seen a thousand wonders, being invited into the home of fox women among them."
  244. The fox's grin sours, not vanishing but losing all hint of mirth. "How presumptuous," Rin coos, "Calling kitsune mere foxes."
  246. Rin's toothy grin suddenly eclipses the moon. No, the moon is but a fang in her mouth that overtakes the night sky. Her fur has become the stars, or did the stars become her fur? My mind reels at the absolute presence of a being that can become the night sky; even the old stories of the serpent that circles the world are nothing compared to what is looking down upon me. Everywhere I look in the sky she is there, her existence woven into every emerging star and the very dark of night itself. But I'm drawn back to the moon held in her tooth may and the blue orbs glowering above, each glowing more brilliantly than the sun without disturbing the black of her sky and star flecked fur.
  248. I reach for a sword I don't have while my other hand grasps at my pendant. Its touch does nothing to quell my fear, but it reminds me a man should not act on fear alone. The fox head that has become the night sky cannot be real, I tell myself. Trickery or magic must cloud my vision. Dragging my eyes to meet the blazing blue orbs in the sky I see-
  250. Only the moon and stars in the night sky. I have to look down to meet those glowing blue eyes. What smile she had is gone, replaced by a perfectly serene stare.
  252. "You are far more than a fortuneteller," she says, regarding me as if for the first time.
  254. Releasing my grip on my pendant the simple rune falls against my chest. The silver movement draws Rin's eyes. She leans a bit too close for my liking but I don't jerk back. Instead, I hold up the symbol for her to see.
  256. "That symbol was among your runes. What does it mean?" she asks, shifting her eyes toward me.
  258. Hands somehow steady, I hold the silver rune higher. "My belief in a god no longer favored among my people. A god that tries to bring balanced justice and judgment," I explain before deciding it is best to hide the pendant away.
  260. Unfortunately, Rin remains painfully close, staring me straight in the eye and doing nothing for the fear I've mostly passed. Blue orbs that nearly glow in the night, reminding me a little of the icy glaciers of my homeland. Only, looking into them, I do not feel any coldness.
  262. "I can almost feel that faith within you. I might have need of a warrior monk such as yourself." She speaks softly, so close to me I can almost taste the wine on her breath. "I cannot say why now, not with so many of my sister's eyes upon us. But tomorrow I will visit the village below. On the trip down we could speak alone. Would you accompany me that I might beg for your help?"
  264. Maybe the rumors are true after all, but it isn't the kitsune of this mountain that are man-eaters. Or it is something else entirely that Rin wants from me.
  266. "I will gladly listen to what you have to ask," I say, slipping into the cautious speech I use around faeries.
  268. Rin puts on a gentle, knowing smile. Twinkling pairs of eyes watch us from all around the garden. "You have my gratitude, Egil. Come, it grows late and you must be weary from your journey up my mountain. I will show you where you might rest for the night."
  270. Wondering what the fox woman plans I follow her, keenly aware of the sudden absence of glowing eyes in the garden. That worries me greatly as I follow the nine tailed kitsune back to her home. What did the other kitsune plot? Was I in danger? Or would I be bothered in a way I did not need right now?
  272. Inside the building and through a maze of turns, Rin stops at one of the paper screened walls. This one opens on its own or by some sort of magic, and the master of the mountain gives me mock of a bow. "I will see you in the morning Egil."
  274. Stealing a glance into the room and spot a single futon, what the people of this land call their bedding, and a folded set of clothes within. The bedding looks untouched and I see no glinting pairs of eyes in the shadows. Giving my best imitation of a bow to Rin, I step in. The door-wall slides back in place and, despite the light that filters through from the lamps in the hall, it takes my eyes a moment to adjust. I shuffle my way to the bedding and begin stripping out of the clothes they gave me – the set laid out next to my bed for the night looks more suited to sleep in. And less embarrassing.
  276. Once I'm stark naked something soft and furry lands against my exposed back. Furred hands, the pads nearly as soft as the fur, start tracing the scars on my shoulders and chest. Slowed by a full belly, busy mind, wine, and a long walk up a mountain I don't throw this invader off me right away. I hesitated when it landed on me, confused by the lack of teeth and claws tearing me apart to the point of indecision, but the sensual touches confuse my instincts even further. I'm left standing there stupid as the thing holding onto me practically drapes itself over me.
  278. "We haven't hosted a warrior before," an unfamiliar woman's voice purrs a whisper into my ear.
  280. Blood thundered in my head strong enough to wash away the effects of the wine. I inhale slowly to salvage my nerves and try to pick up on the scent of a man-eater from her breath. Nothing but wine clings to her breath, my shoulders relaxing now that I know throwing her off is unnecessary. She must sense the tension ease out of me and grinds her bare chest against my back, the pair of stiff nipples poking through her soft fur and running across my skin a sensation I would find pleasant under different circumstances. It's been so long since I've known the touch of a woman that I can almost ignore the fact the ample breasts pushed against my shoulder blades are covered in fur, or so it feels. The hands tracing the long scars on my chest, despite their soft and fluffy touch, aren't all that comforting.
  282. "I'm sure a strong man like you could use some company for the night," She says while her hands trace from my scar towards my stomach. Loneliness tempts me but I don't want the trouble this will bring. I catch her wrists when she begins to drag her hands across my stomach, stopping her before I'm tempted to take a stupid risk.
  284. I make sure to be gentle with my grip, no need to hurt or panic the magical fox woman. And certainly no need to be a bad guest to the nine tailed fox that rules this mountain. Laying with a drunk relative of the master of a home is always a line I refused to cross, no matter the land or customs. But I'm moving far slower than I should, some part of me wanting to cross this line. But if I do that I would be off the path I put myself on, with no one to blame but own weak heart.
  286. She giggles and drags her bountiful chest up my back, perky nipples betraying her excitement, and puts her mouth right next to my ear. "Goodness, whatever will I do now that a strong man has defenseless little me?"
  288. My answer is silent and efficient since I have to act before I give in to my temptation. I twist out of her grip and face her. The top of her dress shimmed down her shoulders to expose her large, white-furred bosom and pert nipples, with only the sash at her waist is holding her clothes on. The grin that watches is me is faintly illuminated by a pair of glowing yellow eyes, her expression a mixture of mischief and desire. All it would take is for me to tug on that sash and...
  290. I pull her towards me, earning a barely contained gasp of excitement. Her breathing is quick and excited as I lift her up over my shoulder, a pair of tails brushing against my face while she playfully wriggles in my grasp. Her dress comes off, in what I suspect is an act of magic, but I manage to catch it and keep her slung over my shoulder. The drunk fox woman too excited to notice I'm not heading toward the futon. Groin so close to my face, and my nose so sensitive, I can smell her earthy, faintly metallic need. Ignoring my racing heart and without a word about her weight, I do not seek out death thank you, I haul the giggling and certainly out of her mind kitsune toward one of the paper screened door-walls. When my hand touches the screen I notice it is ajar just a crack, enough for only the keenest eyes to peak within. Soft footfalls dart away on the other side when I slid the wall-door open enough to pass through with my drunken, giggling burden.
  292. I look outside into an empty hall, a drunk and needy kitsune missing her dress slung over my shoulder. Her giggling state and hands roaming over whatever part of me she can grab – thankfully only my back and not anything lower – making it clear to me she shouldn't touch wine. If she had kept enough of her wits she might have realized I wasn't planning to drop her on the futon and give her what she clearly wants. Thankfully, she is proving slow to pick up on what is happening.
  294. "I believe one of your sister's got lost," I shout to the empty hall. "She must have mistaken this room for her own."
  296. My words summon the blue sash beauty near instantly. She appears as a human, except when she sees me with her naked sister over my shoulder that guise slips enough to show eight fox tails swirling nervously. Eyes on my face and nowhere else she shuffles closer, and the kitsune I'm holding finally senses something is wrong.
  298. "Huh, this isn't- YIP!" Blue sash spanks the drunk kitsune's rump to silence her.
  300. I try to hand her over to the drunk sister but panic overtakes the two-tailed kitsune. She flails when her sister grabs hold of her legs, my unwelcome night time visitor's hands and tails flailing desperately to try and escape the wrath that awaits her. Thankfully when I'm struck across the face it is only with a tail; unfortunately, she also manages to get a strong grip on my arm at the same time. The simple hand off turns into a complicated dance, blue sash trying to pull the drunk kitsune off of me while I try not to fall over or get clawed. At some point, blue sash's human guise slips entirely and I drop the naked kitsune's dress, but I'm too concerned with prying clinging hands off my shoulders to care about either.
  302. "Let go of him Miki!" blue sash snarls with venom dripping from each word. "Eldest sister will be most unhappy to learn you've bothered our guest."
  304. "Saki, it's okay, this isn't what it looks li-" The twin tail Miki cries in surprise and pain when Saki swats her again, Miki's voice wavering badly enough I fear she might start crying. The swat gets Miki to loosen her grip on my arm enough I can finally pull away.
  306. "I said not another word," Saki angrily hisses between her teeth, Miki slung over a shoulder. The two-tail fox girl obeys her sister this time.
  308. I'd been so focused on getting the drunk kitsune away from I hadn't realized noticed my half stiffened manhood or lack of clothes. The pendant around my neck did nothing to cover me in front of the two fox woman, and possible other observers, or shield me from the cold night air.
  310. I grab Miki's dropped dress and Saki snatches it from me, doing her best to keep Miki as far from me as possible.
  312. "Drink does strange things to people," I say, backing toward the open door-wall in an effort to save my dignity along with Saki's. She just nods and turns her back on me, the drunk kitsune slung across her shoulders pathetically begging with her eyes for me to save her. I slide the door-wall shut and slap myself to make the trembling in my hands stop. I don't know why that works but it always does.
  314. I get dressed in the nightclothes without another interruption, even though I expected Rin or Saki to angrily enter at any moment. When nothing happens and my eyes grow heavy I lay down on the futon. Worry fills my mind but that can't stop sleep's jaws from silently closing around me.
  316. ---
  318. I dream vividly, but I know not what it was when I wake up. My eyes are closed, legs sore, and an unfamiliar warmth beside me. I roll to my side, eyes still closed, wondering what is beside me. It's warm, soft, and smells faintly of wine. It stirs in a rustle of blankets and untangling limbs. I didn't realize an arm had been holding me until it's weight and warmth vanished. Whoever is beside me yawns.
  320. My eyes open to a predator's sharp-toothed mouth scarcely a hand's breadth from my face.
  322. My muscles tense, throat clenching shut in time to keep me from screaming. The memory of rancid breath burns in my nose even though I can't breathe, sweat beading on my brow. Terror pounds in my veins and all I can do is sit there as the tongue in that mouth curls. A taste of blood floats in my mouth but I know it isn't real. I'm beneath that tiger man-eater again even though I know it's dead. I tore open its throat with my weak, human teeth while it tried to tear open my chest with its claws. Kicked it off of me and started to beat its skull with a rock until bone and blood and dirt were one and the same. I killed it and it will never return, that is what the priest that found me said. The blood in my mouth isn't real, my tongue is too dry to be swimming in blood. Sense starts to return, letting me see the teeth and tongue in front of me are wrong. All wrong, the fangs aren't trying to gouge my face off and the tongue is much to smooth. Nothing is filling my agonized lungs even though I have a desperate need to scream. The mouth closes to reveal blue eyes glowing happily in the early morning light. Words come from the thing laying with me but I can't hear it.
  324. The thing beside me gently places a hand against cheek, soft pads under it's softer fur. But there is a hint of claws there, hidden in the luxurious texture. Its glacier blue eyes gaze imploringly at me, not a hint of malice in those orbs. But I flinch away in fear from its unfamiliar touch, my mind churning in confusion from sensations real and remembered. I scrabble into a sitting position, fighting against blankets and several fluffy tails. Memories of yesterday begin cutting through my fear. My breath washes out of my mouth raggedly as I stare at my hands. I refusing to breathe through my nose as I try to calm down for the sake of my company.
  326. "I had not meant to frighten you Egil," The kitsune says, rising gracefully to her feet.
  328. I nervously shake my head. "You didn't."
  330. "I ask that you not lie to me in my home. If you do not wish to speak of what ails you then say so, I respect the secrets of my guests."
  332. I breathe through my nose. There is no scent of a man-killer lingering on my face. I know that. But sticks to my skin after it was burned into my memories by that tiger-headed monster. "It was a nightmare, nothing else."
  334. "Is that so? How odd, you slept most peacefully and no cruel spirits can haunt your dreams in my home." There is shuffling of cloth that draws my attention. To my relief Rin is in fact clothed and only gathering the garments I discarded last night. The fox woman looks down at me questioningly, waiting for me to explain my lie.
  336. "A waking nightmare." Before she can ask what I mean, I furrow my brow and give her a questioning look. My fear has settled enough that I can think straight again. "Why did I wake with you next to me?
  338. She waves as if it is perfectly reasonable for the master of the house to lay uninvited next to a guest. "My sisters got riled up after seeing you handle Miki like that."
  340. "On my honor-"
  342. Rin's throaty chuckle stops me. "My sisters are old enough to make their own decisions. But after Saki told me what I happened I guessed you didn't want to be bothered again. It may have been out of turn but it was all I could think of to keep them away from you. At least while also letting me rest for the day ahead." She picks up the more formal clothes I discarded last night and offers them to me. The moment I touch the offered clothes Rin vanishes, her laughter bouncing off the walls.
  344. Something about that laugh strikes me as familiar. I blame it on the wine and unwelcome excitement of last night and change clothes with a red face. I did not doubt curious eyes watched me from somewhere, so I rushed to redress. Except for my belt and all its pouches, I needed to be certain those sit properly. And that nothing had been pilfered while I slept.
  346. Dressed and decent I step out into the hall expecting to see a kitsune waiting. Emptiness greets me. Looking one way and then the other I wondered if anything of the past day actually happened. Or had I stumbled into some abandoned home and drunk myself stupid. Turning to open the door to the room I slept in, half convinced I'd imagined everything, I slide the door open. And come face to face a kitsune hiding her hands in her long sleeves.
  348. "Come." Rin hurries down the hall with short, quick steps that jostle her many tails. My long strides hindered by the clothes I'd been given, I struggle to adjust to her quick pace.
  350. Instead of the same private dining set up like last night, Rin leads me right to some sort of common room swarming with kitsune. Every last one looks up at the same to stare at me. There were, by my quick count, fifteen kitsune including Rin. Besides the master of the house, all of the fox women clustered around two in-ground hearths. They filled had been filling their bowls from several pots cooking their food when I entered. Until I walked in and became the sole object of their attention.
  352. Under the watchful gaze of so many fox women, I felt a twinge of fright. I scarcely knew what their magic could do or what they might do to me if I offended them. Magical beings tended toward creative vengeance when slighted. But I'd walked battlefields, halls of kings, and the forests of man-eaters. This fear I could handle. I was their guest and that meant we were all bound to respectful behavior.
  354. Rin leads me to one of the hearths, the kitsune there shifting to make room for both of us. Before I can count tails a bowl and a peculiar spoon are thrust into my hands. Grateful not to have those infernal eating sticks forced upon I look at the pots. And am swarmed by a flurry of five foxes alternating between trying to serve me, get a better look, and sneak in a touch. The only one I recognize, Miki, did all three at once until blue sash - Saki - forces her to sit away on the other side of the hearth.
  356. Leaving me to the mercy of only four kitsune with a disturbing amount of interest in me. I survive the attention and even keep my hand away from my knife.
  358. Then come the questions. Where am I from, how I got here, was I secretly a fox with blue eyes like that, could I really use that sword I carried, why didn't I seem afraid of a bunch of kitsune, what's in my pouches. On an on their questions assailed me. Right up to Rin coughing into the back of her hand. Every last kitsune gathered around me backs off, allowing me to eat what they put in my bowl. I've visited so many lands I barely notice what I eat any more. I only shovel the food into my mouth without a second thought.
  360. When I finish eating and set my bowl down I get surrounded once more. Questions rattle off around me and I have no help from Rin this time. She seems almost amused by my plight. I sit straight as I can and blow out a breath, trying to find a way to escape without causing offense.
  362. "I can answer three questions," I declare.
  364. "From each of us?" Asks a hopeful four tailed kitsune.
  366. "Your hospitality is grand. But I only have time for three questions this morning," I announce, slipping into the speech I use around faeries. Nothing that might be mistaken for an apology dares to slip past my tongue. Rude as that might seem it has kept me alive.
  368. Instead of arguing with me the kitsune huddle together and whisper among themselves. Even Rin and Saki join in the discussion. Had Rin not asked me to accompany her down the mountain I would gladly spend the morning answering questions. After laying down a few rules of course. But since I must be somewhere else soon, I stare at the coals in the hearth while they plan their assault. The glowing embers of a fire are the same no matter the land, as are many of the questions I get asked.
  370. The huddle of tails breaks and they all face me. Saki is the first to speak, a surprise since I was certain all she wanted was my inevitable departure. "From what land do you hail?"
  372. "A cold place you've never heard of."
  374. Rin haughtily glares at me. "Do you doubt a kitsune's knowledge, fortuneteller Egil?"
  376. I speak the name of my homeland, or what might have been the name of my homeland. Wars reshape and rename many things, and I left on the eve of terrible tensions. Chaotic whispers among the kitsune prove my guess correct. No one has heard of my people in this far-flung corner of the world. For their sake I list off the most recent lands I've passed through until they recognize none of the names. Their knowledge extends only to that miserable, bandit filled desert. I sometimes find it hard to not believe I've wandered into a different realm entirely.
  378. They cluster together again and mutter among themselves. The kitsune I saw far too much of last night, Miki, perks up. Her white tipped ears swivel toward me. Nothing good brews in those mischievous eyes.
  380. "How long are you going to stay?" Miki asks.
  382. One of her sisters bats the two-tail across the ears while I answer. "Do not worry. I never overstay my welcome."
  384. "Egil," Rin says, her voice alone stopping the kitsune from angrily piling onto Miki for wasting a question. They stare with dismay and hope at their eldest sister, wondering what she will ask me. "Would you accompany me to the village today?"
  386. "After the generosity of inviting me into your home, it would be rude for me to refuse," I say.
  388. More than a dozen kitsune recognize my intention to leave and start throwing questions at me. They become a mass of voices speaking over each other, their curious eyes and flicking tails filling my vision. Before they get any ideas about trapping me I stand up, my legs grateful to be out of that miserable kneeling position, and shake my head. Fox tails sway and stiffen and twitch, a mass of confusing movement. Their ears pivot to me and a few of the kitsune seem downcast.
  390. "I do not wish to disappoint your eldest sister," I offer as a thin apology. After my encountering faeries I'm reserved in my apologies. There are many fates worse than death. One of which I may have led myself right into. My attempt at an easy escape only inspires more questions from the dozen curious fox women. The tailed women try to talk over one another, with several kitsune standing up as if to follow or block me when I stand. Miki is among those that rise to their feet, why wouldn't she be after disregarding all decency last night, and watches me with hungry eyes. At least five more pairs stare at me the same way, from two to seven tails, all their words meaningless when so tightly jumbled. My spine stiffens while my shoulders fall into false relaxation; I don't have a sword but there is a heavy metal pot within arm's reach. I could wound a few before numbers felled me. Better to die swinging something, even if I want no seat at my ancestor's tables.
  392. Breathe. Weight on the balls of my feet. Wait for a moment to strike, hit the nearest and -
  394. Rin coughs into the back of her hand, silencing the room and snapping me out of a violent mindset. Did she use magic to calm everyone? I like that thought more than I do any others. "Leave him be sisters. Saki, see that his clothes are returned before showing him to the gate, where I shall join him shortly."
  396. The eight-tail rose delicately. She gave her sister a respectful bow. "Yes, sister," Saki says sweetly, before turning icy brown eyes on me. "Follow me, foreigner."
  398. I do as she asks, making a hasty retreat from a room of ears that swivel to track my passing.
  400. ---
  402. After I'm allowed to deal with certain morning necessitates, Saki brings me to an empty room. Since she has seen my scars twice now and is glaring at me frigid impatience, I strip out of the fine clothes loaned to me. The blue sash wearing kitsune watches my every movement, silently sizing me up and making no effort to hide it. Yet the dignified, aloof expression that she wears like a wooden mask obscures her thoughts. I do my best to keep her in the corner of my eye as I start putting on my familiar and worn travel robes. It's a shame I haven't been given my boots back, but I know the people of this land have strange opinions about covered feet in their homes.
  404. "Before you leave," Saki says, bowing from the waist once I'm clothed and in the middle of adjusting how my belt sits. "I must apologize for Miki's behavior and my own negligence last night. It has been many years since we've had a guest and sisters are excited because of it. I tried to keep them out of the wine but some of them must have slipped drink past me. I have no excuse and must beg your forgiveness."
  406. "You don't need to apologize to me," I say.
  408. "But I must," she says, bowing lower. "It is my duty to watch over my sisters and see that guests are treated hospitably. I failed to do either."
  410. "You've been a fine host," I tell her, "So don't apologize for foolish mistakes your kin make."
  412. "Would you accept my apology if I had Miki give hers?"
  414. "We both know that would be unwise, Saki," I say. "But I see this is important to your honor. If you will lift your head and look me in the eye I'll accept your apology, even if I think it's unneeded."
  416. The kitsune slowly straightens. Her dark gaze meets mine, forcing me to turn my eyes higher than I'm comfortable with. Why are all these foxes as tall or taller than me? No matter. Before she can get the apology out of her mouth I take a terrible risk.
  418. "Thank you, Saki, for helping me get away from Miki's drunken mistake last night. I am sorry if my visit has been a bother to you or your house, I say," biting my tongue and waiting to learn if this will be a mortal mistake.
  420. Her brown eyes regard me with a hint of curiosity. "Are you testing me, foreigner?"
  422. "Yes," I admit. "Although I am quite serious. I did not walk up this mountain to disrupt your home or impose myself as a guest."
  424. Her eyes narrow, the white accents of fur around each brown orb suddenly reminding me of warpaint. "Might I speak plainly, foreigner?"
  426. "I would be delighted if you did," I say, expecting nothing like a straightforward response from her.
  427. Her back straightens, adding to her imposing height, until her unmoved fox's visage ominously stares down at me. "I appreciate your apology. It is good to see you are a man with manners, of one sort or another."
  429. "Then let us be at peace with one another," I say, offering out my hand.
  431. "Please do not mistake my demeanor as hate for you, foreigner. I simply wish not to see a man with so many scars earn more." If that is a veiled threat it is one of the finest I've ever heard, and delivered without a hint of emotion or even errant twitch of her tails. That is until she takes my hand, the gentle touch of the pads on her palms and finger taken away by a near crushing grip. Her claws press against and she smiles at me, putting every sharp tooth in her mouth on display. My breathing quickens and I ever so slightly shift my weight. Readying myself to kick her legs out from under her and drive my fist into her throat if she lunges.
  432. Her smile does not falter as she says, "I will pray for your safety on road."
  434. "Thank you, Saki. But if you would, my name is Egil," I say, my grip firm but my strength restrained despite my readiness for violence. Having her bare her teeth at me isn't a good reason for me to be rude, even if I'm ready to defend my life.
  436. She releases my hand and the smile fades from her face, teeth hidden by her placid expression. Taking half a step back she tilts into a bow but doesn't go any farther than dipping her head. "My apologies, I try to use the title best suited to our guests, I did not mean to offend," Saki says.
  438. "You haven't." It is obvious she will not use my name. "But I worry if we take much longer we may offend your sister Rin," I say, eager to get on my way. Much of the readiness for action slips away from my limbs, but I'm far from relaxed.
  440. She nods in agreement. "We might indeed. Follow me, there is something else that must be done before you are ready to leave."
  442. Nodding and hoping that something else means getting my boots back I follow the kitsune out of the room. The corridors and halls we pass through matter little to me. I'm too focused on every slight move she makes to let unimportant details stay in my mind. Womanly as her shape is, or what I can see of it past her bushel of tails, the strength of her grip was no laughing matter. Add to that the efficient grace of her measured, soft footfalls and I can't help but suspect she is a trained fighter. Or I'm overthinking things because I'm still on edge from waking up to see Rin's teeth in front of my face. Without shame I touch my pendant and trace the simple rune with a thumb, the touch of silver calming my stride and easing the tension out of my back. No need to let the kitsune of this house know I've been a hair's breadth from violence all morning.
  444. We step outside into the brisk autumn air and on to a covered, and slightly raised, wooden walkway wrapping around the building we exit. I must admit the lacquered, square beams holding up the roof are tasteful in their simplicity. The more I look at around the more I appreciate the woodwork I see. Every beam and board is laid out precisely and looks lovingly cared for, but the odd little nick and scratch on the floor eases my mind. Signs of a lived in home are good. It means I haven't stepped into the land of faeries after all.
  446. "Wait here," Saki commands, keeping me from feeling anything resembling homesickness. Before I can express my agreement she vanishes back into the main building with a whip of her tails. One of those confounding door-walls slides shut with a clunk of its wooden frame.
  448. Left with my thoughts and no idea when she'll return, or even how many kitsune are watching must be watching me right now, I put my back to one of the building. Not the most defensible option but the wooden and oiled paper will slow down any attacks from behind. And I get a chance to see anything coming at me from the front this way. Though there is nothing more than the mountain rising in the distance, the sun's light bathing its lonely peak, and a sheer cliff face for me to see. And one of those strange arches so beloved in this land stands before the sheer wall of the cliff, leaving me wondering about the purpose. But my thoughts on the purpose of the arch aren't as vital as trying to figure out why Saki brought me here and not the gate.
  450. A few possibilities for this strange situation cross my mind as I keep my breathing quiet as possible, lest I miss the sound of soft footsteps. I'd consult the runes if I thought I had anything resembling privacy, but I'd be a fool to think there aren't at least three kitsune watching me even now. Last night convinced me that at least one fox will be watching me at all times, whether I can detect them or not. And unfortunately I hear a scratch on the tiled roof above me that is suspiciously like claws slipping. A click of clay slabs confirms I'm not alone.
  452. Fingers on my pendant I hum something inoffensive and wait, gaze lazily roaming from side to side. I think it's only fair I let them know I'm aware of their presence. Even though I can't shake the feeling that slip might have been intentional.
  454. Wood clacks, my hand falls away from the rune about my neck and toward my knife, and the door-wall opens up enough to allow Saki to step out. The humming dies in my throat and I give her the friendliest smile I can manage, which turns genuine considering what she carries in her arms. My boots and sword, the leather on both cleaned. While I'd like both back she only hands over my boots.
  456. "Thank you," I say, not pushing my luck by asking for my sword as well. She's bound to give it back before I leave. Right?
  458. "It is nothing," she says with a hint of a bow.
  460. Stepping off the raised, wooden walkway and onto the stone path beside it. I don't look up or behind myself, ignoring how the hair on my neck rises when I put my back to the kitsune, and slip on my boots. I'd rather not acknowledge whoever is up there. Or draw Saki's attention to them, that would be cruel to everyone present.
  462. The eight-tail kitsune steps beside me without nary a sound and waves for me to follow her. I get three steps before something scrabbles on the roof tiles above, clay clicking as it dashes away. One of Saki's furry ears twists toward the direction of the noise and two of her tails flick irritably.
  464. "Who taught you?" I ask, hoping to draw the blue sash wearing kitsune's attention by speaking the first question on my mind.
  466. Brown eyes lacking any warmth turn to me. "Excuse me?" she says, the politeness in her voice at odds with the cold look she's giving me.
  468. I should have picked a better question.
  470. "You move masterfully, and without so much as a sound. I couldn't help but wonder who taught you to fight, or dance." I hadn't thought of that last one until now, but that's a born and bred warrior for you.
  472. "Why do you wish to know?" she asks, looking ahead and away from me.
  474. "Curiosity, mostly," I reply.
  476. Saki says nothing, her silent footsteps and my plodding boots bringing us closer to the corner of the large building. We make the turn and I accept that I won't get an answer to my impulsive question. Only for Saki to prove me wrong once I get sight of the wall enclosing the kitsune's large home.
  478. "My father taught me all he knew," she says, wistfulness creeping into her perpetually polite tone. "He said I had talent, unlike my twin sister."
  480. I must have miscounted tails in the confusion and fright of this breakfast, I would have sworn Saki had the most tails aside from Rin. That or kitsune don't gain more tails as they age? But that was one of the keystones of the stories I heard. Except, what do I know? I'm just a man, I don't have ravens whispering the secrets of the world into my ears. Resigned once again to my fallible observations, I ask, "And do you have talent?"
  482. "Enough to keep my sisters safe."
  484. "Then you've got more talent than me," I say as we draw closer to the wall.
  486. If Saki has anything else to say she keeps it to herself as we pass several small outbuildings on our approach to the gate I entered from yesterday. The large doors hang open and the nine tailed Rin waiting in the opening. Her back is to us and, in truth, I recognize her only by the number of tails lazily swishing about. In place of fine silks the master of the mountain is wearing a wide straw hat with holes cut in it for her ears to poke through, a brown dress held up by a white sash, and woven sandals. If she weren't a fox woman and wearing silver bracelets and pendant, the very same jewelry I used as a bribe to gain entrance to her home, Rin might be mistaken for a well-off peasant's wife. Looking at flowing, delicate floral pattern on her dress I change my mind to wife of a merchant. I wonder if she would take offense to my observations?
  488. When I'm only a few paces away Rin turns her head, blue orbs filled with warm mirth landing on me. "Where did you get those clothes, Egil?"
  490. "They were a gift from the head priest of a temple to the south," I explain, wondering what is wrong with my clothes. They're getting worn, sure, and they're too thin for the coming winter. But when I hide my sword and belt on a bundle on my back and wear a hat like Rin's no one bothers me on the road. More than I can say when I tried wearing the clothes of a peasant or the fine clothes a lord gifted me.
  492. "A temple? Well, curious as that makes me, I think my sisters would be upset if they missed that story," Rin says, casting a knowing smile at Saki. The eight-tail kitsune has the same distant look as always, but she nods to her older sister in silent agreement. And though her cold brown eyes don't look at me, I can feel Saki watching me.
  494. "We will have to save that once we are back from the village," Rin says, showing me a smile without revealing any teeth. The consideration isn't lost on me and against the sting that gives my foolish pride, I feel gratitude for her gentleness.
  496. "I never said I would come back up the mountain with you," I say to the nine-tail, not daring to look in Saki's direction.
  498. "True," Rin merrily giggles into her sleeve. Swiftly recovering she shows me another smile and says, "But I have all day to convince you to be our guest again. Or you could ask those runes of yours now and see if I'll succeed, save us all the time."
  500. "How about we make out way down the mountains and leave it to fate instead?" I ask.
  502. "If that is what you prefer, Egil. Now, Saki," Rin says, looking at her sister, "Are you going to return his sword? We can't have him trekking all the way back up here for it if he decides not to indulge in our hospitality again."
  504. "Of course, eldest sister. I was merely waiting for your blessing," the eight-tail says, offering my sheathed sword up in the palms of her hands and bowing her head.
  506. There is a polite way to do everything in this land, but I don't the correct method to receive what is already mine. Grabbing the leather scabbard, which I can only hope offends less than putting my hand on the hilt, I take my sword back, wary of Saki's hands the entire time. While avoiding offense to anyone willing to have me as a guest in their home is core to my beliefs, I would also rather not find out which one of us is better in a fight started by my poor manners. I must do something right because neither kitsune chastise me. While I tie my sword to my belt where it belongs Saki straightens and says, "I will pray you two have an easy trip down the mountain."
  508. "And I will pray our sisters do not give you a hard time", Rin says, putting her back to me and embracing her sister. "So relax. I'll only be gone for three days, at the most."
  510. The younger kitsune takes a moment to return the gesture, looking at me icily and warmly saying, "I will. But do be careful, you're the only eldest sister I have."
  512. Breaking their hug Rin pats her sister, who no longer glares at me, on the shoulder. "Worry about yourself some more Saki. I'll be fine." Turning her blue gaze to me, the master of the mountain waves at the open gate. "Shall we be off Egil? Or do you wish to say goodbye to any of my sisters first?"
  514. "I think it would be best if we got on our way," I say, turning my back on the home of these kitsune.
  516. A fleeting thought about whether this has been real at all or if I fell into an illusion on my way up the mountain shatters from Rin's a hearty laugh. A stray tail brushing against my leg as the master of the mountain follows me through the gate. "Eager to be alone with me again, Egil?"
  518. "I thought it best if I don't overstay my welcome," I say, the gates creaking shut behind us and drawing my attention. I catch sight of far too many tails vanishing behind the top of the walls, and I realize that I am about to be truly alone with one of these kitsune soon. No hidden eyes, skulking listeners, or scrabbling stalkers. Only myself and Rin, lord of the mountain and magical creature that wants to ask for my help.
  520. "A silly thing to think when I've invited you to stay again. Should you wish of course," she says, walking in lockstep beside me.
  522. We head toward the first of the arches I passed under on my way up here. From this direction I see the red paint is in better condition, with fewer chips and flakes. I can also see far into the distance, catching a glimpse of valley below. The sun climbs above two forested peaks in the east, reaching for the hazy clouds hanging in the blue sky. Mountain air always has a clearheaded freshness to it, no matter the land, and it makes me hopeful for the day ahead. A cool wind rustles the trees and cuts through my robe, trying to spoil my mood. If I'm lucky the sun's warmth will keep the chill away on my trip down.
  524. Descending the steps in silence and rubbing my hands I almost regret not asking the kitsune if they could give me some warmer clothes. I expect the walk to drag on as I wait for Rin to ask me what she wants my help with. And I'll be stuck enduring a chilly autumn wind that won't let up. Not the worst way for today to go, I could be laying traps in the woods and evading a dozen kitsune trying to kill me. I suppose that means yesterday was a good day after all.
  526. After we pass under the second arch Rin speaks up, voice conspiratorially quiet. "Egil, do you mind answering a question?"
  528. If your sisters find out they might be jealous, I reply, looking up at the wispy clouds hanging in the sky.
  530. "That they might, but I believe their ire is focused on Miki for the moment," she says, shifting close enough to me that one of her tails brushes my arm. Leaning in until I can feel the warmth of her breath against my ear she asks, "At the risk of my many sisters' wrath, I'll ask you one anyway. Do you know how to use that sword of yours?"
  532. I glance at the kitsune and become painfully aware of her double meaning when I see the grin tugging at her mouth. The white fur on her muzzle makes her smile all the more prominent. Last night might not have been part of my good day.
  534. Looking away I say, "Yes."
  536. "Interesting. Would you permit me one more question?" she asks, tilting her head to regard me with curiosity, as if I ruined a game she had planned. I may have indeed, but I'm not sorry.
  538. "Speak freely with me Rin. It's a long way down your mountain." And talking is proving itself an excellent distraction from the relentless breeze trying to chill my bones.
  540. "Well then, I'll change the order of my questions," the kitsune beams. "How many of the torii did you pass through?"
  542. "The what?" I know I've heard that word somewhere before. But try as I might nothing comes to mind. Perhaps I'm remembering a word from some other language? I seem to have collected those like scars.
  544. "Torii," she says. My blank expression must prompt her to attempt an explanation. "We've walked under two so far."
  546. "Oh, the arches. So that's what they're called," I say.
  548. "They aren't arches, they're torii. They mark the entrance to a sacred place," she tells me.
  550. Which means these 'torii' are thresholds of a sort. Wonderful. I'm glad I chose not to strike them with my sword. Messing with a threshold is a good way to anger mighty and mystical forces. "Does it mean anything that I walked under nine of these torii?"
  552. "What do you think it means, cunning fortune teller Egil?" she asks, brushing one of her many tails against my leg. The contact raises the hair on my and brings forth a burning desire for, of all things, warm furs.
  554. I shrug, denying her the pleasure of an unnerved reaction from me. "That I'm a stubborn fool?"
  556. She chuckles. "You proved yourself stubborn, but you've too keen an eye to be a fool. Most don't know they've walked under nine torii. Knowing you saw them all eases the hurt on my pride after you cut through my illusion on our moonlit garden walk."
  558. "Do these torii do anything?" I ask, not wishing to remember last night.
  560. "Not to you." She waves a hand. "You can forget them, I merely wished to soothe my vanity."
  562. Of course she did. And her tail brushing my leg has been nothing but an accident. And Saki just happened to show me to the back of the house. I am often a fool, and occasionally stubborn, but I've lived this long and have working eyes. There is something going on with these fox women. As if Rin's plea the night before didn't tell me that already. I doubt I'll get off this mountain without becoming entangled in it but I can try.
  564. "We've got a long way to go," I say as the third torii comes into sight around a bend.
  566. "Indeed we do. Should I sing us a song to pass the time?" she asks, one of her tails drifting against my low back for a moment. She's going to keep that up until I say something, isn't she?
  568. "So long as you forgive me for not joining in. I'd rather not torment you or any wayward listeners with my voice," I say.
  570. Adjusting her hat so I can't see her mouth, the kitsune either hiding a smile or a grimace - I didn't get enough time to tell which - Rin starts softly singing. Only the clearest of chimes could match her voice. The words of her first song escape my notice, but from the way her tails sway with the cadence, I don't need to understand. It's something happy. That's enough for me to forgive her reticence to show her face. She switches to another song once the first ends and we pass more of those large, red torii. By the time the ninth is far behind us Rin holds the final note to a sad end, the last song the most somber.
  572. "You've a voice sweet as a summer maiden," I say. "Only you pass the time far better."
  574. "A strange compliment. One you shouldn't repeat to my sisters, they would see it as an invitation." The tip of a fluffy tail flicks against my arm and, when she tilts her head, I can see a small grin on her mouth. "I must thank you, Egil, and apologize. Your company has made this walk so enjoyable I forgot to ask you the most important question."
  576. "Which is?"
  578. Her grin fades to a neutral seriousness. "Did you notice an untended stretch of the path?"
  580. "Yes. I believe it's coming up, in fact," I say, looking to the side of the path. For a while now the stone shrines have been showing signs of neglect and the trees have become bleaker and more menacing. I said nothing about the worrying approach of that frightful section of the path because I didn't want to spoil my travel companion's song. She's shown me courtesy, for the most part, so I thought it only fair to return the same.
  582. "You've keen eyes or at least a clever wit," she says. "Did anything seem amiss?"
  584. I nod, paying no attention to the tail that strokes against my calf. "Aside from some trickster with a womanly voice attempting to lure me into the forest?"
  586. "Did it not seem wise to mention that to the master of this mountain?" Rin asks.
  588. "It didn't seem important. Besides you already know what my intentions were when I came to this mountain of yours," I point out.
  590. "I do. But I'm glad we drank in peace instead," she says, falling silent when I nod in agreement.
  592. Dead leaves crunching under our feet and neither of us has anything else to say. I came to her home ready to die to end a threat and was shown gracious hospitality instead. We are left with our private thoughts. Gone are the touches of her tails and gently sway of hip trying to brush mine. Worn as my heart is it still pains me to realize she's only been trying to get in my good graces. Not that I am any better for gifting her silver trinkets to gain access to her home. Deadly teeth and claws aside, the kitsune I've met are still women and it has been a long time since I've had any show interest in me. Even longer still since I felt temptation. I'd say something is wrong with me for thinking about bedding Miki last night, but compared to the tales I've heard in my travels of what men have done the temptations of a fox woman seem normal. I can't look for divine guidance either since the gods are far from the best guides when it comes to lusts. My duties as a respectful guest aside, I wonder what I would have done. Other than avoiding the sight of her teeth if I gave in to the desires of my loins.
  594. No. I wouldn't have done anything. I know myself well enough that I'd have found a dozen more reasons why bedding her was a bad idea. Even if some lonely part of me wants a woman. Which is why it hurts to know Rin was likely preying on that weakness of mine. Or she was genuine and is now lost in thought, I don't know. Nor do I dare to seek out her true motivations. My best, and safest, hope is that she wishes me no ill will.
  596. "Before we go further, I ask you stop and hear out my plea for your aid," Rin says, stepping in front of me and putting a stop to my wandering contemplations. The kitsune stands a step below me, no longer forcing me to look up to meet her shaded blue orbs. Gone is any hint of her merriment or amusement. Wearing worry plainly on her fox face and in the lively depth of her eyes, she waits for my acceptance or refusal.
  598. "I will listen, but I can promise no more," I tell her, feeling a chill enter my heart. If I act to help this kitsune it won't be for pity or the lust in my loins. I'll only aid her if it is the right thing to do then be on my way. Like I've always done, and I as I will continue to do until the day death is upon me.
  600. "For even that, you have my thanks," she says, taking a step back and bowing from the waist. There is enough depth to the gesture I am inclined to believe her gratitude is sincere.
  602. Rising from her bow she looks up at me, her hands hidden in her sleeves folded in front of her. "First, I ask you take my arm in yours and not let go. I swear upon all of my tails, my sisters, the sun, and the moon that doing so is for your safety and nothing else as we walk on the path. For what I want to ask of you is simple but dangerous: that if something speaks to you from behind, and you alone, you look at it. And once we are safely away, tell me exactly what you saw."
  604. Ice fills my stomach. I am no man going into the underworld to beg the return of his beloved from the ruler of the dead. But I know not to look behind myself in certain places. That trickster on the path might have been as dangerous, or more, than the fear in my gut said at the time.
  606. "Your eyes say you understand the danger," Rin says. "Then know I wouldn't ask if I could do this myself, or if I could ask my sisters. But if you refuse I will still escort you to the village below, and the gates of my home will forever stay open for you. That is the least I can do for a man willing to share an evening drinking with me."
  608. I don't answer right away. Instead, I touch a pouch on my waist and speak a few quiet words, loosening the drawstring and digging my fingers in. I put the thought of rune meaning aside and snatch the first piece to touch my skin. Drawing the chunk of whalebone out I see the symbol I expected, the same as what hangs around my neck. I drop the rune back into the pouch and tighten the string, while Rin watches with quiet respect. Or silent hope, either may sit behind her steeled gaze.
  610. Not that it matters. My answer rolls off my tongue, feeling like a hammer splintering brittle metal as I say, "I'll do as you ask."
  612. "You will? Truly?" she asks, and I nod. Hope blossoms on her face and in her smile, but she hides away her sleeve. Bowing, and recovering her composure swiftly, she rises and says, "Thank you, Egil."
  614. "If anything tries to eat me I will try to kill it," I declare.
  616. She nods. "I promise, should anything like that happen I will aid you."
  618. Then I'd better hope a kitsune's promise is binding.
  620. The nine tailed kitsune makes her way up the steps, taking my offered arm in with her own. I don't need thoughts about how warm she is, but the wind and my own foolish sense of righteousness and honor have chilled my bones. But she's warm, she's a woman, and I'm going to get myself killed. At least I can touch the pommel of my sword, though what I desire is more of her body heat to spread my way. I should feel shame as a man from my homeland, letting the cold bother this much. For my pride, and the sake of decency, I keep as much distance from Rin as our linked arms allow. If she minds my obvious mistrust then she doesn't show it.
  622. Our steps fall into a rhythm, our feet touching the next carved stone stair at the same time. I pay little attention to Rin beyond what is necessary to keep pace with her. We draw too close to the spot I had the unpleasant encounter, the gnarled trees mean and shrines no better than rubble. I keep my ears trained on the sound of swaying branches, watch the twirl of the leaves and dance of shadows with the edges of my vision, and measure my breathing so I might taste the air. And, appearances be damned, I touch the pendant about my neck to steady my nerves. Interestingly, I catch Rin doing the same to the silver world's tree hanging from her neck, as if it has any meaning to her beyond clever craftsmanship. She only touches the silver for a moment, her hand rising and head turning as she feigns a sneeze.
  624. Twigs snap underfoot to my left and a shade shifts in the trees to the right. The hair on the nape of my neck rises. I strain my ears but don't dare flick my eyes in either direction. Rin works closer to me with each step, and laughter chimes through the hatefully twisted branches around us. So faintly I can barely hear it, the kitsune beside me whispers, "Look behind yourself when I say 'night'. And whatever you do, don't speak to what you see."
  626. "The wise one, come down from her mountain. Wearing silver? Have you found yourself a man at last?" taunts a womanly voice I'd rather forget, words honey sweet but sharp as a knife.
  628. Beside me, Rin has gone stiff. She places a hand on my arm and pulls herself closer to me. At least four of her tails brushing against my legs and back. "He is no one's man," says the master of the mountain.
  630. "Truly?" the voice asks. "Then he should come with me to my home so that he might know real hospitality." The barbs in those words aren't directed at me, yet they graze me anyway.
  632. "Perhaps you should come to my home yourself," Rin replies. "To know our hospitality and compare it to your own."
  634. "O wise one, I want no quarrel with you. All I want," the voice breathes next to my left ear, "Is to know if this man thinks my home is better than the one up there. I think it is. But you'll have to follow me to find out." Fingers trace the sleeve of my clothes. "Won't you come with me and say?" the voice pleads.
  636. Ignoring the question and words dripping with honey I keep walking and watching ahead of me. Something tugs at the shoulder of my travel robe yet I refuse to falter or flinch. Rin makes a disapproving humph in her throat. Two of her tails brushing against my back and her hip bumping against me for a moment. Worryingly her warm tails stay pressed against my back. I hope Rin says the word night soon so that I might get this over with.
  638. "You should know when a man has no interest in your advances," the nine-tail admonishes. Either Rin enjoys this verbal game or is better at hiding her true feelings than I thought.
  640. "How can I know that when he won't look at me," the voice says, bouncing between my ears with each word.
  642. "I believe he prefers to look at night," Rin says, my head whipping around at the half-agreed upon signal.
  644. What I see burns itself into my mind. How could it not? I've seen this one, or its ilk, before in many lands. But my hand won't go for my sword, or my pendant, or even its throat. I see the madness in those hazel orbs set around white fur, the wicked and inviting grin of teeth meant to tear flesh, attentive ears and swaying streaks of orange behind it like an ominous sea sky, and the leaves stuck in its fur. My instincts roar that this thing is a hunter of man. Only the breath that leaves it toothy maw is clear of the rancid stench of a man-eater. A lingering scent of herb cooked fish and rice hangs on its breath, staying my hand on the hilt of my sword.
  646. "Don't you look so cold," it says, gelid air surrounding me. Consuming me as if I wore nothing and just rolled around in the snow. My limbs trembling from the unnatural chill, my teeth chatter, and my breath comes out as a frigid fog. Heat becomes a distant memory, a false hope, even when the wind dies down. As I shiver those hazel orbs draw closer. "Come with me, to my home," it offers. "Where the fire waits."
  648. My hand starts to rise, foolish words of acceptance trying to make it through my trembling teeth and the ice cracking on my lips, ready to accept any offer of warmth. This thing might be crazy but it is no man-eater. And it has a fire. That is worth the risk of trusting it if means I can warm myself. Fire would chase away the chill before it tricks my body into the numbness before death. Keep my spirit from descending to darker, harsher cold in the land of the dishonorable dead.
  650. Rin's soft tails curl against my legs and back, and with sublime strength, she tugs my arm and twirls me away from those hazel eyes. Warmth spreads into me wherever Rin touches, yet my knees buckle and nearly take us both down the carved steps of the mountain. But she reclaims her balance in time, and my shuddering fingers weakly grabbing her sleeves. Embracing me, sharing her warmth, she speaks softly to the thing I saw.
  652. "Egil is not yours," Rin declares with the absolute authority of one that has claimed a mountain.
  654. Angry words fly at Rin but I don't have the strength to hear them. I slide into darkness, held aloft by a soft warmth and steady strength.
  656. ---
  658. Dreams of wheat fields, fruitless fjord fishing, and the crackle of a winter's hearth bleed into my awakening. Stone supports my legs and cold air tingles my nose, but for somehow my head is resting in a warm bed. Furs lay across my shoulders and down my chest, drawn so high they tickle my jaw. To my dismay, my lower half is left in the shelter of whatever clothing I fell asleep in. Eyes shut I sift through memory and dream, uncertain of where the truth lies.
  660. I left wheat fields and the fjords behind long ago. I still fish, for necessity and enjoyment, and in all lands a winter's hearth crackles beautifully. Does that mean the kitsune and mountains were all dreams born of sleeping like a fool? I doubt that but dare not open my eyes to find the truth. I'd rather let it all be a fitful fantasy of sleep than the mess I walked myself into in this strange land. Where proper beds don't exist at all yet here my head is in one. And I'm not stupid enough to lay down with my sword still belted to me.
  662. Groaning, I open my eyes to face stark reality.
  664. Rin's blue orbs look down at me. Staring up at her, knowing my head is resting in her lap and her tails are covering me like a blanket, I summon the strength to sit up from somewhere. Probably my desire to avoid scandalous situations. Her tails lift off of me and she puts a hand on my shoulder to steady me when my palm slips on the stone beneath me. The sun moved a good bit across the sky, but dusk is still a ways off. That breeze, cursed or magical, died down while I was out of it. Getting my bearings, seeing that the trees still hold half of their fading leaves on branch still and that the shrines are not only tended but replete with offerings, I ask the most obvious question.
  666. "How did you get me down this far?" I croak through a scratchy throat.
  668. "Kitsune are very crafty," Rin says with a hint of seriousness.
  670. I look at her and nod. "Well, you have my thanks. I'd fallen entirely into that magical trick."
  672. "That wouldn't have happened if I'd been faster." She folds her hands on her knees and stares at her palms. "If you've words to admonish me with do so, I'm sure I've earned them."
  674. Laughing, then breaking into a short cough, I shake my head and clear my throat. Water or tea would do my throat some good. "I was prepared for something bad happening," I rasp. "You saved me. Leave it at that, I've already gotten enough apologies from your sister."
  676. "Then would you tell me what you saw? Or would you like to reach the village below first?" Rin asks, lifting her head and furrowing her brows. I notice her hat is gone, a detail that seems significant.
  678. I close my eyes and recall the face tied to the honeyed voice, and let a ripple of fear run its course. I don't want to speak with my throat and mouth feeling so abused, but I have to for the sake of my promise. "It was a kitsune," I say, keeping my eyes firmly shut to hold onto the memory.
  680. "And what did she look like?" Rin quietly asks.
  682. My throat dries up even more. She knows the answer already, I'm sure, but I'm bound by honor and my sense of what is fair to tell her. "Dirty. Covered in bits of dead leaves like she was rolling through the forest floor. White fur around her eyes, like Saki only not as graceful. Taller than me. A crazed look in her eyes. Smiling at me with all her teeth on display. But she eats well, and if her breath was anything to go by she is a good cook."
  684. Moments later, when Rin asks nothing else, I open my eyes and see Rin wiping at the corner of hers with a sleeve.
  686. "Do you have any family, Egil?" the nine-tail asks, trying to hide her tears by folding her hands in her lap. The slump in her posture is telling of her mood.
  688. "A few brothers, a couple of sisters, a lot of cousins. But I may as well be dead to them, thanks to distance and how I left," I say, wishing I hadn't. Not because I've fulfilled my promise but for how unpleasant talking is with my throat so irritated
  690. "I'm sorry to hear that," Rin says. She sounds so genuine I almost believe her. "Do you have no one else?"
  692. "My mother and father, a few uncles, and a mean grandfather were still alive when I left," I say. She didn't have to save me back there. I'm willing to talk through the discomfort for that.
  694. "Did you love your family?" she asks.
  696. That makes me think. I'd rather not, but I suppose the answer is simple enough. "I still do," I rasp, wondering what my history has to do with the mad kitsune. "Though I'm a coward that ran away from the stirrings of war."
  698. A tiny, sad smile alights on her mouth. Her shoulders loosen, but I can tell she still feels the weight of an invisible burden. "A coward would have walked into Meiko's arms," Rin says. "Not attempt to draw his sword."
  700. "I'm almost certain my hand wasn't going for my sword," I say. Then what Rin has tried to work her way into saying hits me. At least, I think it does. "Is that the mad kitsune's name, Meiko?"
  702. Rin's fox face doesn't stir nor does her voice waver. But a few of her tails won't settle down, growing more restless as she says, "Yes."
  704. "You knew about her?" I could be angry about the magic and deception but that would be unfair. I knew it was a bad idea to help Rin like this, that my life might be put in danger. So it's best if I don't make myself an enemy out of Rin and let go of any building frustration.
  706. Rin nods, a touch of regret in her eyes. "I know her very well. She is one of my sisters after all."
  708. "Meiko is Saki's twin," I say, making that guess on instinct and half-knowledge, "Isn't she?"
  710. "Your cleverness continues, as does Saki surprising me", Rin says, staring at her folded hands. "Most of us share blood only by our mother, but Saki and Meiko had the same father."
  712. "Then why does Meiko live in the forest instead of with the rest of you?" I ask, not eager to pry too deeply into the family history of the kitsune.
  714. "You've put my mind at ease, telling me she is okay. But everything else about her isn't something you should concern yourself," Rin says, waving dismissively and collecting herself. "So long as people continue to stay away from my mountain then Meiko is only my problem."
  716. "If rumors reached me it'll reach others, and then you'll have every hot-blooded fool looking to make a name by killing a man-eater show up," I point out.
  718. Her mouth closes, becoming a line of white concentration. "I see you are wise as you are clever," she says at last, once her tails are still.
  720. "I'll have to disagree with that," I say.
  722. "If you aren't wise that means I'm a fool for not seeing something so obvious sooner," she counters.
  724. "Wouldn't want that," I say, accepting my defeat. Some fights aren't worth winning, even if you can. At least my throat is starting to feel better. "So, what will you do with this wisdom?"
  726. "For now, I'll continue to the village," Rin declares. "I've little I can give you as thanks, but you will always be welcome in my home. And if you care to join me, the villagers are always grateful to see me, Rin, a humble servant of the lord of this mountain." Her grin is so convincing I almost think it's genuine.
  728. Almost.
  730. First chance alone I get I'm casting the runes for that mad, possibly murderous, kitsune that hit me with magic. Then again for secrets of the master of this mountain. I don't want to hurt Rin or family but leaving a danger like Meiko for everyone else to stumble into is against what I believe in. Surely there will be a way to solve their problem without someone dying. But I doubt this will be a simple as offering my hand to the jaws of a beast so it might be chained.
  732. Turning my thoughts away from morbid possibilities and toward what is to come I ask, "Do the villagers know you are kitsune?"
  734. "Of course not," Rin says rising to her feet. One moment I'm looking at a fox, the next a beautiful, and shorter, woman with stark blue eyes. But if I strain my eyes I can see hints of tails in her shadow, and the smile on her lips is exactly what I've come to expect from the master of this mountain.
  736. "Is this form more pleasing to your eyes?" she asks, trying to toy with me. Or distract me.
  738. It works, but not as she might want. "You're still you," I say, starting toward the village.
  740. Rin follows a few steps behind me and this time I don't look back. I wonder if the runes could tell me how honest those remarks of hers are. Not that I'd trust the reading.
  742. I wish I could leave these kitsune alone, to deal with their unwell sister, but rumors always have a source. If there is a possibility of a man-eater hidden somewhere in the forest on that mountain then I can't leave. Not if I want to live with myself or have any rest in the dead of the night. And the matter of Meiko unnerves me still.
  744. ---
  746. Stone steps behind us and passing under another torii, the woodwork and craft of this one so much lesser than ones I saw higher on the mountain that I doubt Rin considers it one of hers. The shape is different enough, this one little better than a wooden beam laid across two tall posts whereas the one on the mountain have a curved elegance to them. Thinking about it, I'm not sure if this thing is even a torii. Since she says nothing, and I'm not looking to start a conversation, I'm left wondering.
  748. I have no plans beyond divining the intentions of the mad kitsune Meiko, so I follow the master of the mountain toward the village. Of that she says nothing, but a smile plays across the lips of her human guise when I move to walk beside her.
  750. We walk for maybe a thousand paces through a quiet forest before reaching the square fields outside the village. The fields are bare, harvested and prepared for the oncoming winter, likely around the time I heard rumors of a man-eater in this part of the countryside. The scattered buildings of the village itself are a mere step up from huts, hardly close to something a farmer in my land would consider a home even if they had no good stone to work with. In the middle of the valley, the gently sloping valley runs a calm river. A sturdy wooden bridge cuts across the water, connecting one half of the village to the other. From this distance the wooden railing looks nice and sturdy, but having walked across the bridge once before I don't think someone of my size could trust the rails with their life.
  752. While the peasants might not be rich, that they aren't starving is notable. They also seem to know what they're doing with their fields since they have enough to feed themselves, grow rice for taxes, and apparently make generous offerings at the shrines on Rin's mountain. As far as the hard life of a peasant in this land goes, I think they have it rather nice here. And knowing how many offerings they make, I almost wish I had traded for warmer clothes.
  754. As we walk past the empty fields we're spotted approaching by someone on the bridge, the peasant waving at us before dashing off to a house on this side of the river. They shout something I cannot hear, and I realize far too late I'm carrying my sword openly. I haven't forgotten to hide it away in a village that doesn't know I'm an armed, dangerous man in a long time. Too late to correct that now. I can only hope my return from the mountain will afford me leniency.
  756. "I believe they know I'm here," Rin warns, slowing her pace so she can look me in the eye. Knowing she is a kitsune pretending at being human through magic sets me on edge, but her looking up to meet my gaze makes the tension worse. Is her guise illusions or true shapeshifting? I suspect the former since I can faintly make out fox ears in her shadow at times. Yet, I know I'm looking her in the eye right now. How frightful magic can be.
  758. "And who exactly are you to them?" I ask, quickly regretting my choice to speak. The ache in my throat hasn't eased after all.
  760. "Rin, helpful servant to the lord of the mountain." She shows me a thin grin. "I would be grateful if you kept it that way. I enjoy these visits."
  762. I carefully choose my words, not wanting to say too much and hurt my pained throat. "And the lord of the mountain?."
  764. "Hasn't shown her true face to the village since before the people can remember." She starts walking just a bit quicker, my longer legs allowing me to easily keep up. "The people here know little of kitsune besides murmurings and myths, so I ask you to keep that in mind."
  766. I nod and keep my silence, not for a lack questions but because there are villagers coming toward us. An old man, back bent from years in the fields, leans on a lanky boy on the cusp of manhood and hobbles toward us from across the bridge. Rin and I pick up the pace to meet them faster, her steps somehow keeping up with my long strides without seeming like she's hurrying. The village's elder grin shows his near lack of teeth. Along with his unbridled joy at seeing the kitsune disguised as a human.
  768. "Rin! You're as youthful and pretty as always," the old man says.
  770. "You flatter me elder Gorou, but it's only been three moons. I cannot have changed that much." She looks to the boy, who no longer supports the elder and stands awkwardly, in the way of a youth not yet used to his body. "And I see you are dutiful as always, Taro. Your grandfather must be proud to have a grandson like you."
  772. The boy Taro smiles bashfully at Rin, but that look of happiness fades when his eyes shift to me. I can't tell if it is fear or wonder in his eyes when his attention turns to the sword on my belt.
  774. "I am when he doesn't forget to greet someone so important," the elder chastises, his tense voice enough to get the boy to bow and mumble an apology for being rude. I'd have gotten the back of my head smacked when I was his age, but Gorou lets it slide and Rin smiles.
  776. "It is no worry," she says. "But you might wish to greet Egil as well, honored guest bearing the blessing of my master. Worry not of his sword, he has the restraint of a monk."
  778. It takes all my supposedly monk like restraint not to stare at the disguised kitsune. I'm not too fond of only now hearing that I have Rin's blessing. Is this an act of whim or a cunning plan? But the looks on the elder and youth's faces tell me she spoke with purpose. The suspicion and fear that lurked in their gazes are gone, astonishment taking its place.
  780. "So you're not just a foreign giant with a strong back, huh?" Gorou says, eyeing me in a new light. He's much better at hiding the look he gives my sword than his grandson.
  782. "So I'm told," I rasp.
  784. "Perhaps we should go inside so we can be warm, and I can make Egil something that might help with his voice," Rin suggests.
  786. Gorou looks at me, weighing up whether he should invite a foreigner inside his home. Then he nods his head and turns, young Taro moving close to his grandfather. "Your right, don't want the entire village standing around us. And my old bones could use a warm hearth."
  788. The elder guides us to his hut, the largest in the village, the trip up the sloping paths clearly difficult with his aged body. Gorou shakes off any attempt by his grandson to give him support up the hills, defiant of the pain he must feel. Seeing a man that must have been strong and healthy once reminds me of my own fleeting mortality. But such a feeling comes and passes quickly, as it always does. I'll either die weapon in hand and go to the halls of my ancestors, or perish as a shriveled old man forever in the hospitality of gloom. How I envy the people of the land I was nearly eaten by a tiger-headed man-eater, their spirits get reborn in new lives.
  790. My grim musings are cut short when Gorou's home looms, a circular wooden building with an angled thatch roof. Taro rushes ahead to slide open the door, the elder going in first followed by Rin. The youth looks at her almost longingly, but when I duck my way into the hut his eyes bore into me with distrust. I ignore him, take off my boots, and step across the threshold. Instead of following us in he stays outside and shuts the door. No doubt planning to keep villagers from disturbing Rin and his grandfather.
  792. The warmth inside delights me nearly as much as the smell of smoldering coals, the hearth in the center of the hut alive and welcoming. An old, shriveled woman by the hearth joyfully greets Rin and Gorou, sees me, and doesn't waste a moment in saying, "Don't just stand there, come sit by the fire you giant."
  794. Out of respect for the elderly, I do as I'm told, Rin telling the elders about me as I sit on my knees and stare at the hearth. The grass mat I sit on is at least warm, being so close to the hearth. The glow of the embers distracts me from anything said, a dangerous weariness coming over me. I keep it at bay and breathe as that monk taught me. Slow and calm, drawing in air from the deepest part of my lungs. I stare at glow of the smoldering fire, stories and fears alike fading from my thoughts.
  796. "Egil?"
  798. I blink, realizing the coals are brighter than before and a see pot of steaming water set on the hearth. Rin holds a steaming cup out to me, concern plain on her face.
  800. "Sorry," I say, throat hurting more than it should. "I might have fallen asleep with my eyes open."
  802. I take the cup of hot water carefully, still uncertain of why the peasants of this land sometimes serve water this way. I can't expect them to have any of that tea drink like their lords, but I still don't get why cold water can't be served. Once I sip it and feel the warmth ease my throat I can't say I have many grievances with their odd customs right now. Not when it eases my pain.
  804. "It is understandable. You didn't get much sleep last night, and what you did to help my master has obviously been hard on your body." Rin's concerned eyes dart away from me. "Gorou, is there somewhere he can rest peacefully?"
  806. "He can sleep in our home," the elderly woman says. Gorou looks at her, then nods in agreement.
  808. "I expect we will be getting visitors until nightfall. Somewhere quiet would be better for him, not that he doesn't appreciate your hospitality," Rin says for me.
  810. I think about arguing against her checking in on me but know better than to turn that offer down. Rin either knows why I drifted to sleep or has something she wishes to discuss in private. Best to let the magical being make her plans, for now.
  812. "I don't know where else we could put him, he's big enough for two people," Gorou points out.
  814. "Did Sumiko and her husband leave for his father's village yet?" Rin asks.
  816. "They left two days ago, but-"
  818. "But what?" the old woman retorts. "Let him rest there. If the lord of the mountain trusts him to be a good guest we should as well."
  820. I drink some more of the warm water, and say through my sore throat, "It's no trouble, elders, Rin. I can ask around if someone will let sleep in their shed again."
  822. A flash of blue fire glimmers in Rin's eyes, and shadows of tails swirl behind her. Then the hint of her true nature is gone as swiftly as it came about, and from the oblivious gazes of the two elders, I know that only I saw that.
  824. "My master won't abide by an honored guest to sleeping in a shed, Egil," she says in a measured tone. "Not after he put such a strain on his body helping my master."
  826. I drink more to give myself time to think of a way to argue that it's fine for me to sleep where I did last time I was in the village when the elderly woman speaks up. "Gorou, put the giant up in Sumiko's hut before you make things hard for poor Rin."
  828. The old man's wrinkled brow crinkles with a few more lines. "Naoko, I'm not making things hard for her."
  830. "Yes, you are. And you're bringing shame on our entire village while you're at it." Naoko starts to rise, Rin moving to assist the elderly woman in standing.
  832. "Where are you going woman?" Gorou demands.
  834. "If you won't put the giant up in Sumiko's place, I'll go ask if someone else will stay there so the giant can have a hut."
  836. "There's no need for that," I say. And at nearly the same moment Gorou says, "Okay, okay, just sit back down you stubborn woman."
  838. The elderly couple and Rin glare at me, though of the three Rin's look has the most danger. She must hate the idea of me sleeping in a shed but I don't see why. It's a roof over my head and it will keep out a surprising amount of the night's chill. Not that I'm going to ever say that to her with how sharply she's looking at me.
  840. "Are you wanting to make trouble for poor Rin, you giant?" Naoko asks, a frightening sweetness in her voice as the weathered old woman glares me.
  842. "I want to avoid causing anyone trouble," I reply.
  844. "Then unless there are any objections, I'll show Egil to Sumiko's hut and get him settled in," Rin says, the decision made for me.
  846. "Have Taro do it," Naoko suggests. "Otherwise the giant won't get to the hut before nightfall with all well wishers you're going to get, Rin."
  848. The kitsune's guise of a human face doesn't waver despite the glint of mystical blue in her eyes. She bows faintly and says, "That would be wise, yes. I'll check on you tonight Egil, to make sure your health holds."
  850. "You don't need to worry yourself Rin," I rasp, finishing the rest of the water and standing up.
  852. Rin helps Naoko sit back down and then hurries to get the door for me, as I'm moving sluggishly to avoid hitting my head. She slides it open and explains, without showing her face in the open portal, the situation to Taro, who stands outside like some sort of guard. Crouching to get out of the door I see why the youth is doing that, at least a dozen people have gathered outside and are staring intently my way. That explains why Rin kept her face hidden. Stepping out beside the youth I get my boots back on and straighten up, staring out over the crowd and ignoring the suspicious looks they're giving me.
  854. "Rin said to let the foreigner have some peace, and that she'll be out to see you when she's done talking with grandma and grandpa," Taro tells the crowd, strength in his voice and confidence in the set of his shoulders surprising me. I'm surprised to see he's not so meek after all. He looks me in the eye and tersely says, "Follow me."
  856. Poorly hiding my grin I follow the boy. The nerve it takes to look an armed man in the eye like that reminds me of my youth. I might end up liking this boy's nerve if nothing else. The crowd doesn't care about me and that's acceptable, the most they do is part so I can follow my guide. I recognize the family that let me sleep in their shed, the mother fussing with her young toddler, and give them a friendly nod. They either don't see me or ignore my greeting so I move on, the length of my stride allowing me to keep pace with Taro's hurried steps. I count my steps to focus my mind, as I worry that I may slip into a weary trance again if I don't.
  858. By the two hundredth step, I can tell where he's leading me, a small hut a couple hundred paces from the river. He takes me up to it and moves the door aside, going in before me.
  860. "You'd better be a good house guest," the youth says once I get my boots off and crouch through the doorway.
  862. I glance around the small building, glad to see the ground isn't plain dirt but wood that creaks comfortingly under my feet. Everything of value is probably stored underneath the hut or in the rafters, as aside from a cold hearth there's nothing of interest. "I'll be as harmless a breeze."
  864. "Better be. Sit down, I'll get you wood for a fire and something to sleep on," he mutters, going back outside.
  866. Doing as I'm told, on the suspicion that Rin gave him specific instructions and not wanting to cause the boy trouble, I take my sword off my belt, sheathe and all. Laying the weapon beside me, the blade freed a hair's breadth, I pull a few supplies from my belt and stare at the open doorway. With where I'm sitting no one walking in will see me right away, giving me time to draw steel. Not that I expect anything like armed villagers or the mad kitsune Meiko to appear, but caution keeps rootless men such as myself alive.
  868. I breathe deliberately, thumbing my firestarter to stay aware and not fall to the weariness starting to weigh down on me. It's a fight to keep from slipping into slumber or a mindless state, but now that I'm aware of the danger I can handle the exhaustion.
  870. I don't wait long, Taro returning with a few bundles of branches and tinder. When he leaves to get more I work on starting a fire in the in-ground hearth, steel sparking brightly against the stone. So much easier than rubbing sticks together or dulling the back of my dagger. The small flames are a comfort I don't take lightly, the faint warmth welcome in the chilly hut. Once Taro has brought me more wood he dashes off again, and by the time he returns with a huge bundle of cloth and fur on his back I have a nice bed of coals.
  872. "These are the extra blankets and furs I could get," he says, dropping them by me. "You had better thank Rin for asking people to let you borrow these."
  874. "I'd better thank you first," I rasp. "You've done an excellent job taking care of me, Taro. I won't abuse the hospitality everyone has shown me, or disappoint Rin and her master."
  876. "Better not, or the fox on the mountain will make you leave."
  878. I look at the boy, hiding my curiosity as a thousand questions swirl in my tired mind. "A fox? Why would I worry about a fox?"
  880. "They're no normal fox, they're a kitsune that serves the lord of the mountain. Akai Yari, the kitsune that..." The look on the youth's faces tells he just said something he wasn't supposed to. Ah, the mistakes of youth.
  882. "I would hate to upset the lord of the mountain after being a guest in their home. I will be on my best behavior." I stir the small fire I have going. "After all, the relationship between guest and host is sacred in my land. So what is said private should stay that way."
  884. My throat hates me for saying so much, but thankfully the boy seems to understand I'll keep what he said a secret. And cause no trouble. At least I think that's what his nod means as he shuffles toward the door. "Rin wanted me to be certain you had everything you needed."
  886. "I do. I'm just going to get some more coals in the hearth and then lay down, so unless you wish to talk more," I desperately hope he doesn't for my throat's sake, "I'd say you've done your duty."
  888. "If you need anything Rin said to go to my grandfather's hut, where she will be staying." He stresses that last part, to my amusement.
  890. I nod. "Thank you, Taro. Your parents must be proud to have a dutiful son like you."
  892. I see my mistake immediately, the youth's expression turning grim. "I'll be going now," he says, leaving without another word and shifting the door back in place.
  894. Sighing, and wondering if the boy is an orphan or has a rough relationship with his parents, I make myself a bed of blankets and furs. It's not my place to dig into his misery.
  896. There are just enough blanket and furs to give me protection from the floor and cover up with. Arranging things so I can draw my dagger or sword with ease while covered up, I take off my belt and pull off my bag of runes. The small bones are heavy in my hands as I take them out and consider what ask.
  898. "-What does the kitsune Meiko plot?-" I speak the question clearly and cast the runes. The bones clatter and bounce, stopping in a delicate pattern that makes me swear. I go over the pattern, again and again, etching it into my mind. Scooping up them up I throw them to a different question.
  900. "-Is the village in danger?-" The bones land in the same pattern, my throat tightening. This is a frightful omen, even if the answer makes no sense to me.
  902. I gather the runes for a third, and final, casting. Against my better judgment, I mutter a small prayer to the gods of my people before asking a dangerous question. "-What does the fox Rin hide?-"
  904. I throw the carved bones down, to scatter and bounce wildly off of the wooden floor. The pieces land where fate proclaims. And I cannot stop myself from swearing at the sight of the spread I already know so well. Three questions and the same answer to all three, even if the truth it speaks makes no sense. Not that I have the wisdom to understand the runes fully, but no man does. Only a single god has that knowledge and his sacrifice for such power was vast. While I'm only a man taught by his father in the ways of reading the ancient runes.
  906. But I have no idea what this difficult reading means or why I have gotten it three times.
  908. Gathering the scattered bones, finger touching the rune that represents the one-handed god, I contemplate my choices. I could put them away and rest or cast the runes once more, asking a question that swirls in my mind. A question I've put off since the runes gave me their wisdom in front of the kitsune. "-What help can I give the fox Rin?-"
  910. The runes are insultingly easy to read, giving me an answer I received last night. One that worries me greatly. 'I shall find what I have always sought if I help this fox.' No answer at all, but I expect no less when asking about myself.
  912. That is enough prying at fate and choices for me. My legs hurt, I'm tired, and if I ask anymore questions of the runes I fear what they might tell. I stuff the runes back in their pouch and check the rest of my supplies. Once I'm satisfied that I still have everything I place my belt an arm's length from my makeshift bed so that anyone walking in the hut will have to step over me to get at it, and lay down.
  914. Despite my heavy mind, fighting off a rush of weariness proves impossible. My eyes shut and I'm taken by sleep, two questions on my mind. What can I possibly gain by helping Rin? And should I even help this kitsune at all?
  916. ---
  918. A warm, silken hand brushes my face and someone familiar mutters my name. Hand on my sword's hilt, hidden underneath the furs with me, I open my eyes. Two blue orbs stare down at me, the soft smile on Rin's fox face giving me a moment's hesitation. That is enough time for my instincts to soften and keep my sword unmoved.
  920. "Aren't you worried someone will see you?" I mumble, throat aching.
  922. "Not this late at night," Rin says, sitting up straight and taking her hand off my forehead.
  924. Blinking sleep out of my eyes, I realize there is a pale blue glow lighting the hut. Looking at the kitsune sitting beside me I wonder how she got through the doorway with so many tails. Then I realize the source of the glow is at the tip of three of Rin's tails, wisps of mystical fire dancing in a swirl a finger's breadth from her fur.
  926. Pushing myself up to sit, and letting go of my sword hilt to be polite, I ask, "What were you doing?"
  928. "Removing the last lingering traces of Meiko's magic. I took care of what I could while we were on the mountain, but it seems fragments of her power were left upon you that I missed," she explains. "I suspect that is why you drifted to sleep while staring at the hearth earlier."
  930. I maneuver to sit on my knees, ignoring the crawling feeling on my skin. I should have cleansed myself instead of casting the runes again.
  932. "Worry not Egil," the kitsune says, somehow sensing my unease. "None of her power remains on you."
  934. I'll take the kitsune's word on that, for now. "What did she do to me?"
  936. "I do not know for certain, but her intent was obvious," Rin says, regarding me curiously instead of saying anything else. Blue eyes watch me intently, a few of her tails swaying lazily behind her, and I can find no hint of her thoughts in her still expression.
  938. "And what did Saki's sister want with me?" I ask, not expecting an honest answer.
  940. "Meiko is my sister as well," Rin corrects me. "Her intentions are known only to her, and with respect, are of no concern to you."
  942. And I expected deception, not her honest opinion. Unfortunately for both of us, I can't drop the issue. "The runes make me think otherwise."
  944. "Your runes?" she asks, folding her hands in her lap. Despite her reserved dignity, I suspect she's surprised. "What answers did your runes give you?"
  946. I might as well give her the truth. "No answers. Only the same mysterious reading on three different questions."
  948. "Oh?" One of her brows raises ever so slightly. "If it is so incomprehensible I wonder if your wisdom does not extend to your fortune telling."
  950. I can't tell if that was meant to be an insult or not. If it was, she failed. That I can glean anything from the runes surprises even me. A smile crossing my mouth I rasp, "I never said I couldn't interpret it."
  952. "Then is this revealed mystery one you will share?"
  954. Such a genuine question, with no hint of coercion, is frighteningly effective. I think on whether this is a word game or not, but decide she has had plenty of opportunities to trap me before. I nod and say, "If you don't mind me being honest, then yes."
  956. "Speak your mind Egil. You are far more interesting when you do," she says, the smile on her fox-like muzzle not as unsettling as much as it would be if she showed me her teeth.
  958. "Translating best I can, the runes read 'under the moon talk true of a stolen star,' or perhaps 'beneath moonlight talk is true of taken treasure' is more fitting."
  960. What might pass for surprise crosses the kitsune's face, and her ears twist toward me as the faint sway of her tails ceases. "I see. I apologize Egil, I should cease doubting your strange magic. But as I have said, there are matters that are of no concern to you."
  962. "I'm rather good at finding my way in matters that aren't my concern," I say, voice thorny in my throat.
  964. Rin stares at me, and I don't let my gaze falter from her blue eyes. Whether she is sizing me up to attack or trying to find a way to politely tell me to stay out of her interests, I don't care. Sword and dagger within easy reach, I meet her gaze and wait. Two of the blue flames on her tails go out, those tails drifting back and leaving the hut cast in more darkness than I'd like. At this distance, I'll do better to get my hands around her throat if she tries anything, but I'm too wary to make a move at all. I'd hate to attack her on nothing more than frightened suspicion.
  966. "You don't need to get involved," she speaks, so soft and sad my instincts for violence falter, "For your sake. A good man should care about himself enough to avoid offering help to anyone he meets."
  968. "I don't offer everyone, only those that I believe can be helped. And the runes make me think I can be of help to you, Rin." I wish I knew if I spoke selfishly. What is it that I seek?
  970. The kitsune doesn't seem swayed by my words at all. "You will always be an honored guest in my home, and I ask my guest for nothing but conversation and respect in turn. So spare yourself the strife of offering me help, please."
  972. I hesitate. Am I talking to a magical creature or a woman burdened with grand responsibilities? Beyond what the runes have told me, I have a personal and petty reason to get involved after being put under some sort of spell. And if I can stop Meiko or whatever mystery on this mountain birthed rumors of a man-eater, then some poor fool driven by glory or selflessness might not die in the future. That makes my decision easier, but no less frightening. "I would be a poor guest, and a worse man, if I didn't offer to help when I think I can. So if I can help you with Meiko, whatever caused the rumors of a man-eater on this mountain, or some mystery the runes won't tell me about then I will."
  974. She is quiet for a long time, staring pleadingly at me. Silently offering me a chance to retract my words or put conditions on my offer. I give her none, sticking by my foolish offer. Her eyes break from me, looking toward the roof of the hut. I watch her closely, wary of the immediate danger offering a magical being can bring.
  976. "I must refuse your offer," she finally says, looking at me with eyes hiding none of her sadness. Gone is her mask of carefully reserved authority, the sad, worn down woman underneath plain for me to see. "However, if you wish to know what your runes meant, sit outside your hut tomorrow through the passing of dusk. I'll come to talk with you then."
  978. I nod, too surprised by her regretful tone to say anything. This is going better, yet at the same time worse, than I expected.
  980. She bows her head to me before rising, her composure back. "I've disturbed your rest long enough. I will see you in the morning, and also advise you to decline my offer of knowledge."
  982. "I know there will be a price," I say. Nothing comes for free.
  984. "Wise as ever," she says, looking to the crude door. "I'll send Taro for you in the morning, Gorou and Naoko wish for you to join them for a meal."
  986. "Thank you for looking after me, Rin."
  988. Touching the door, the last blue flame goes out and wood creaks. A chill creeps in, and the dying embers in the hearth don't give me enough light to see her leave. Wood slides back into place, and the fact she gave no parting comment isn't lost on me. Even if the meaning of that is a mystery to me.
  990. Laying down, I wonder if I'm going to regret this. I'll learn soon enough, I think, closing my eyes. Sleep comes to me far slower than I'd like, my mind adrift in a sea of questions driven by rising doubts.
  992. ---
  994. Muddled dreams of basking in a spring meadow with someone I can't see, but I can feel only a hair's breadth from my skin, shatter at the sound of dry wood creaking. Before my eyes are open my hand rests on my dagger's hilt. Through the crack of my mostly closed eyes, I see a lanky shape step inside, early morning light casting their features in shadows. Heart steady I weigh my options, wondering if this person is a threat, thief, or peaceful visitor. Should I throw my dagger and follow up with my sword or try to tackle? If there are others outside the hut I'll want my sword in hand, but I don't know if the figure is friend or foe.
  996. "Foreigner, wake up! Grandmother's cooking and will be mad if you don't come eat with us." Taro has no idea how fortunate he is that I recognize his voice. Letting go of my dagger hidden under the blankets and furs I sit up, stretching my shoulders, and look at the youth in the doorway.
  998. "Now?" I ask, throat sore but not as scratchy as the day before.
  1000. "Soon as you can or grandmother will get mad at me too."
  1002. I nod. After gathering my belongings and being shown where I can relieve myself, I get my belt back on and the boy guides me to Gorou's hut. The cool air and early morning sun go together nicely, but my attention is taken by the mountain I was on yesterday. I think I spot where the kitsune's grand home would be, but I cannot be certain. Magic has a way of making exact locations meaningless.
  1004. My young guides ignores me the rest of the way to the hut, except when I stop at the door to take my boots off. Then I'm glared at.
  1006. Rin, Gorou, and Naoko sit around the hearth in the hut. With Taro and I joining them it becomes downright crowded. The old woman and Rin work in unison to serve everyone a bowl full of porridge. The conversation is minimal and requires nothing of me, as I let Rin lead the questions about the lord of the mountain. I sit there and eat my meal, careful not to finish before anyone else. The elderly Naoko ladles more into Taro's bowl and then mine, the look in her eyes and hunger in my stomach keeping me from arguing.
  1008. "There must be something I can do to repay the hospitality," I say once everyone has finished eating the simple meal.
  1010. "Your an honored guest of the lord of the mountain, we're pleased enough to have you," Gorou says, dipping his head toward me. And eyeing my sword. Hopefully being an honored guest of Rin means no one questions why I walk around armed.
  1012. "As a guest, I enjoy being of assistance where I can be." Somehow I keep myself from looking at Rin when I say that.
  1014. "If he wishes to help the village it will surely be worth letting him. I am certain my master would take no offense to an honored guest working if he so desires," Rin offers up.
  1016. "Well," Gorou says, looking thoughtful at the hearth, "If it won't cause offense and you want to help, we do need to stock more firewood. Better to have extra for winter and not need it."
  1018. "Do you want me collecting more fallen wood?" I rasp, wishing my throat would ease already. The warm meal seemed to have helped, but now it's back to it's sore and scratchy feeling.
  1020. "Yes, don't want to upset the spirits in the trees. If you want help, Taro's a clever and strong lad." I think the elder is only humoring my desire to help out, but I'll take it. Work of any sort is better than sitting around all day.
  1022. "He'll be of more help to Rin than me," I say, hoping I don't offend the boy too much. I might like the youth's nerve, but having him stay out of my way would be more helpful. That and I don't want him to resent me for taking away his time around Rin, who I'm fairly certain he has eyes for. The hopeless longings of youth are something he will only experience once, and if I disrupt them I suspect I'll only make myself an enemy.
  1024. Taro fights off a scowl as he stares at me. The look on his face isn't as angry as I expected, and I quickly lose his attention when Rin speaks. "Egil is right, having Taro as my runner today will be most useful."
  1026. The elderly Gorou looks to his wife, a silent agreement passing between them. His mouth drawn into a tight, wrinkled line he says, "If that's what you think is best, Rin. But at least get our giant of a guest a basket, Taro."
  1028. The youth nods and gets up, while the elders and Rin fall into a conversation about the village's well being. I rise and follow the boy. Stepping out into the autumn air, Taro all but runs away from once the door is shut and my boots are back on. Putting some effort into my steps I catch up with him as he leads me to a storage shed behind the hut. He gets the largest basket he can find, and says, "Bring the wood back here and stack it. You do know how to do that, right?"
  1030. I grin at the boy's nerve. "That I do."
  1032. "If you mess it up tell my grandfather," Taro says, frustration in the scowl on his face. When I nod in understanding he runs off, leaving me alone once more.
  1034. A thought about walking away from this village, the kitsune, and whatever is happening with Meiko crosses my mind. I give it serious consideration as I walk through the village, over the bridge that creaks under my steps, and into the woods away from Rin's mountain. I stick near the river so I can easily find my way back and start gathering what serviceable fallen wood I find. The work is simple and mindless, which is good because I still can't shake the urge to leave this place behind.
  1036. If I stay, then what? I will need to rely on the hospitality of villagers or kitsune for the oncoming winter, or risk a return to a city or town with meager supplies at best. If I ask Rin for food to keep me until I made it safely to the nearest city I'm all but certain she will provide. I gave her a gift of silver and told her about Meiko, which seemed to have great meaning to the kitsune master of that mountain. That is probably worth a bit of food and clothes. But I'd have to give up the reason I came to this mountain, and a possibly deadly amount of honor, to walk away after reading the runes for Rin.
  1038. I fill up the basket several times but don't immediately take my haul of branches and sticks back to the village. I leave it pilled up by gnarled old tree sitting by the river, telling myself I'll start taking it back once the sun is standing high. Thoughts about walking away from this village, ignoring what the runes told me and my offers to help Rin, return to my mind. But I can take the edge away with work.
  1040. I need to range far to find any good sticks or branches, but my height lets me grab several fallen limbs caught on branches out of a normal peasant's reach. Unfortunately, by the time I have a decent pile gathered by the old tree and the sun is high in the sky, I haven't resolved my doubts about whether I should stay or leave. I may have offered Rin aid but I owe her nothing, and she has made it clear as a summer's day that her family's affairs aren't mine. And the rumors I heard about a man-eater weren't particularly uncommon, I have heard several tales that made me think a man-eater might be behind disappearances. The rumor that lead me here was the most direct, nothing more. As for the runes, I've ignored a few vague readings before. If I don't know what I've always sought then is it truly a loss if I walk away from a chance to attain it?
  1042. I sigh and add more wood to my growing pile. Setting my basket down I draw my sword, the steel pristine and sharp. The silver inlay just above the guard is chipped and missing in several places, the scene of sailing ships my great-grandfather had put on our family sword almost unrecognizable. That's okay with me, I think while going through the slow and deliberate swings and steps. If I cared about my family's honor I wouldn't have run away from my homeland and traveled more of the world than I thought existed. Yet I, as a man, have a certain amount of honor I cannot betray. And leaving now might do just that.
  1044. Slicing, stabbing, blocking, feinting - I go through the motions smoothly and with an almost lazy slowness. A sparring partner would make training easier, but I haven't had a good one in a while. Still, I manage to get a small sheen of sweat on my forehead after I swap my sword to my left hand and continue. The real pain doesn't come from swinging my sword but the footwork and exercises involving my legs. I should go for a run when I'm done hauling wood, then wash myself and comb my hair. I always think better after I've bathed, so I can stay my decision until then.
  1046. The river bubbles and something dunks underwater noisily, leaving me keenly aware of my surroundings. The soft rustle of the branches, the gently flowing mountain fed river, a drop of sweat sliding down my brow, and the point of my sword sticking out straight. I breathe out and go do a slow check of the area to make sure I'm alone. Nothing but me, trees, a pile of dead branches, and a few distant birds chirping. I go to the river and see only the gentle current, and being upstream from the village I taste the water.
  1048. Nothing.
  1050. Standing up and shaking my hand, fingers brushing my pendant, I spot marks on the bank. Crouching to see the impressions better, I realize they might be tracks. But if they are then these aren't tracks from any animal I recognize. The marks are wide as my palm, with no obvious dips in the mud to suggest claws, and coming from the river itself. Probably some sort of river creature or spirit. Sliding my sword back into it's sheathe I decide that's enough practice. I don't want to risk irritating whatever is in the water so I'll skip washing the grime off of myself and combing my hair. Not what I would like. But water dwelling spirits and creatures are some of the most dangerous in my experience, so if it's been kind enough to leave me be I should do the same.
  1052. Wary of my surroundings, I gather up as a much of the stick pile as I can comfortably carry and start walking toward the village. Once I get back I see a lot of people gathered around Gorou's home. If I didn't know better I'd say there is a celebration. I wonder, would there be as many people here if they knew Rin was a magical fox instead of a simple woman? Perhaps there would more, but what Taro said about the master of the mountain having a kitsune come down and punish people makes me doubtful. I do wonder about the source of that rumor, and why Taro was so disturbed when he realized he said anything about it to me.
  1054. Lost in my thoughts and keeping my distance from people, I drop off my burden and set about gather rest. When I'm bringing back the third load I come to a simple conclusion to the question of why I don't leave the village. Because if I already set myself on the path to find out the truth of this mountain, and if I step off now I'll be the coward I fear to become. To say nothing of the runes suggesting I can still help Rin.
  1056. How I missed such simple answers I don't know. It bothers me even after I've gotten the woodshed filled. No one and nothing disturbs me, asides from my indecision and doubts that is. Once I'm done hauling all the wood back I realize I have an immediate problem. I've completely filled Gorou's woodshed and still have a large pile of branches and sticks leftover. Mulling over what do with it, I pick up the extra and go to the hut I'm being allowed to stay in. Might as well be a good guest and use this for myself for however long I stay in the borrowed hut. And foolish as I feel for only now finding a way to settle my doubts.
  1058. I'll stay long enough to see what comes of the thrice-told fortune of the runes. Even if it is of no concern to me, I came this far and have offered my word to help if I can. I can't walk away now. Even if it might be the wisest course I can take.
  1060. Leaning against the hut I stare at the sky, the sun on its slow decline to hide behind Rin's mountain. I'm sure the story of the sun in this land is far less sad than in mine. It surprised me to learn how many people worship the sun, whereas those of my homeland say it's a goddess being chased by the wolf of the final battle intent on devouring her. Perhaps the people of this land see the sun as having a happy story. I should ask someone that isn't a monk sometime.
  1062. I look away from the sky and watch the village move about its twilight routine. People coming and going from homes. I notice the crowd that formed around Gorou's home has dispersed, and I spot Taro and Rin emerge from the home. I watch them cross the village, seeing that there are what look to be a few fish in Taro's hands and Rin is carrying a small clay pot. I realize far too late that they are coming toward me and go to meet them. Rin smiles as I approach while Taro glares at me.
  1064. "Taro got lucky and caught quite a few fish today," she says. "We thought it would be nice to eat these with you, Egil."
  1066. The look on Taro's face tells me he's anything but happy about it, but there is no way I can turn Rin down on short notice. "I'd be glad to share a meal with the both of you," I smile.
  1068. I go and get the door for them, feeling a touch odd letting two people into a hut I have no claim over. That passes once we get a fire going and everything set up to cook. From under the floorboards Rin pulls out several pots and bowls, moving so quickly I'm certain she's been in this hut many times before. The fish are small enough we skewer them on sticks and cook them over the flames, but not before Rin starts a millet porridge in the pot she brought. She makes small talk with me, all of the attempt at conversation about what I think of the village, and I keep my answers as simple as possible with Taro nearby. It's been a thoughtful day and I'm hungry, trying to be clever with word games would only end in disaster right now.
  1070. Faced with my quiet mood, she smiles faintly and stops asking me questions. Even if she has the guise of a human right now, I can't help but imagine her bemused expression seems rather fox like. When everything is cooked she serves Taro and me, giving him the largest fish and me the middle one, before settling on the smallest portions for herself.
  1072. Taro gladly eats his after giving thanks for the meal, but I'm too busy watching them both tear into the food. She seems lost in thought while he's lost in a meal like only a growing boy can be, yet it doesn't escape my notice that she purposefully sits closer to me than the youth.
  1074. "Do you not enjoy fish?" she asks, noticing I've hardly touched my meal.
  1076. "I do. Sorry," I say, still worried about using that word even if it hasn't hurt me yet, "My mind is on memories." Looking at Taro, and wanting to avoid questions from Rin, I nod to the boy. "You did a good job catching these, I've had no luck with the rivers of this land."
  1078. "You have to trap them," he mumbles, not wanting to look at either of us and focusing on what remains of his porridge. I don't want to push him and nod at what he said.
  1080. "It was his idea to share a meal with you," Rin explains. "He said you filled up his grandparent's woodshed and wanted to thank you."
  1082. The poor youth's face turns red. I pretend I haven't noticed any dip my head. "Thank you for sharing part your catch with me, Taro."
  1084. "Yeah." He picks at his food, and Rin looks at me apologetically for his rudeness. I'm far from offended, though I wonder what the boy's story is.
  1086. The meal ends in a silence too awkward for my liking, yet there is nothing for me to say. I remember being a kid like him well enough to know he's still trying to figure out his life. Hopefully, he makes better choices than I did, though since war seems unlikely to touch this village I expect he will take a much simpler path than me.
  1088. Once we're done eating, with myself taking the longest to finish, I almost expect Rin to try and goad me into telling a story. But it's getting dark and she only cleans up before having Taro escort her out. But not before her eyes look at me, a mystical blue glow in them. As if she is promising to see me tonight to talk if I so desire. She looks away and I'm left alone without even a goodbye.
  1090. I could lay down and sleep, then leave the village tomorrow and wander my way back to civilization. If I do that I could go and try to find some mundane lord who would take me in as a mystic or curiosity to irritate his rivals. But I've already made my decision. I follow a path of sacrifice and commitment to my word, to do as the one-handed god might. Even if I'm a fool that forgets that from time to time, I must not falter. I feed more wood to the flames and wait with only my thoughts as company. When I think it is dark enough I put the fire out and go outside.
  1092. The chill of the night air makes me wonder if I shouldn't go back inside, but I endure the cold and sit in the doorway. The stars are bright, a vast swath of brilliant dots across the clear night sky. But I don't look for constellations or marvel at the beauty. I watch the darkness ahead of me, and in time I'm rewarded for my patience. A bobbing blue light appears in the direction of Gorou's home, the glow drifting toward me.
  1094. The light splits in two, bobbing and weaving as it draws closer to me. I keep my hand off of my sword and watch as the blue flames draw nearer until at last, I see what produces the blue glow.
  1096. "So you wish to talk after all," Rin says, more blue flames forming at the tips of her tails and illuminating her true appearance.
  1098. "I do."
  1100. "Then let us talk by the river," she says, offering me her furred and clawed hand. I don't take it right away, but decide I must if I want to get through the dark. At least she is warm, and the pads on her palms and fingers soft. The blue flames at the tips of her tails go out, casting us into darkness.
  1102. "Stay close to me," she says, forgoing holding my hand to hook my arm into hers. Two tails wrap around my back as we start off, and I'd complain if it weren't for how effective her fur is at keeping the cold air at bay.
  1104. She leads us to the river, that I can spot thanks to the moon reflecting off of its uneven surface, then she keeps going. We walk arm in arm through the quiet dark, her presence and closeness not frightening me in the least. That, however, does worry me. I should feel the edge of fear being this close to the kitsune, especially when she can see what lies ahead in our path while I am at the mercy of her guidance. That is until the wisps of blue flame reappear on the ends of three of her tails, casting the river bank around us in an eerie blue light. Her eyes glow, but not with the color of a predator's gaze, when she looks at me. She motions for us to sit, releasing my arm and sitting on her knees. I join her on the ground, crossing my legs instead of sitting on my knees. Once we are both seated on the cold ground I'm not surprised that she shifts scandalously close to me. But even if her tails would touch me with the barest of twitches she pulls back, keeping the fluffy warmth off of my back. Looking toward Rin, I see her lift up an earthenware jug. She breaks the waxed seal with her claws, letting the nose tickling scent of wine waft through the air. Wordlessly she offers it to me.
  1106. "No need for cups?" I ask, voice rasping through my throat as I take the wine jug from her. And skipping any questions about where she got it. I know better than to question certain things, like where a magical being got wine they plan to share with me.
  1108. "I can go get you one if you'd like," she chuckles.
  1110. "I'll manage without," I say, taking a drink. The burn in my throat is mild and to my surprise, soothes the raspy pain. The faintly bitter taste leaves a lot to be desired, but that's not why I hand it back to the kitsune.
  1112. "Tell me, would you rather this be a simple conversation between friends?" she asks, two of her tails brushing against my arm, "Or something else?"
  1114. Her voice drips with womanly invitation. I don't know if she enjoys this teasing or if she is desperate to avoid a serious talk. Unfortunately for her, I didn't stay in the village to be personable. "If you have insight into the rune reading I told you about, I'd like to hear."
  1116. Her tails move away from me, either disappointed or defeated. She takes a long drink from the jug before nodding, her voice clear and without emotion. "Tell me first why you want to involve yourself in my family's troubles."
  1118. "Meiko nearly had me under a compulsion spell. Is that not reason enough to help if I can?"
  1120. "That depends on whether or not revenge sits in your heart. She might be acting horribly, but she is still my dear little sister." The sternness in her eyes doesn't touch her voice as she passes me the jug.
  1122. "I wouldn't have followed you into the village if revenge burned in me," I say, before tasting more of the throat soothing wine. It's a false warmth to chase away the chill of the night air. "I couldn't smell the reek of a man-eater on her breath, but whatever fate she had in mind for me I'd like to make sure no one has to suffer that in the future. That a good enough reason to offer my help? Helping some poor fool avoid what almost happened to me?" I don't try to lie to myself - I know I'm deceiving the kitsune by not speaking the full truth. The reading that told me I will find what I seek by helping her weighs on my mind to heavily for me to extend this deception to myself.
  1124. "An admirable motivation," she says, taking the wine jug from me. She drinks deeply, eyes closing as she tips the jug back. Finished she wipes her mouth on the back of her sleeve and passes it back to me, the reduced weight making me wonder if her constitution will endure. "And reason enough for me to tell you the tragedy of Meiko and her husband. But I wonder if you really wish to do that out here, in the cold?"
  1126. Back is that tone of temptation that makes me question her motivations. That and her focused gaze makes me wonder if her teasing has been serious after all. I might be tempted to go back inside for the warmth of four walls and fire if not for the runes. They made it clear that being under the stars is important for this truth to be spoken.
  1128. "I come from land that's frozen for much of the year, this cool autumn air won't hurt me," I say, pulling my clothes a bit closer.
  1130. Blue eyes consider me placidly for a few moments, but instead of voice her disappointment or insist she only nods. I pass the jug back to her after taking my share, her furred hand brushing mine as she accepts the quickly emptying wine jug. We've drunk a considerable amount in a short time, but I don't feel it at all. And judging from her placid expression as she stares at the stars, neither does she.
  1132. "A sad story told in the cold of night, with no fire and only a single jug of sake. I will try to keep it a short tale," she says, an ear flicking in my direction as she stares up at the stars.
  1134. "Take as long as you need."
  1136. Her fingers tap on the jug, claws clicking quietly against the earthenware, and she looks down at the dark waters of the river before us.
  1138. "Many winters ago, when Meiko still lived with us," Rin begins, "There were monks that would visit my home. They came to discuss many things and would try to convert me or my sisters to their teachings. I thought their attempts to preach were amusing and they were interesting to talk to, so I allowed them to return as they desired. They had no luck in converting me or my sisters over the many seasons, but they were polite guests in my home. Even when one day Meiko caught the eye of a young monk named Kenta."
  1140. The kitsune downs more of the wine, setting the jug between us when she has had her fill. "Or perhaps it was Kenta who caught Meiko's eye. Either way, I had no objections to the pairing, so I let her freely steal into his room whenever he stayed with us. Whenever he left, I allowed Meiko to follow him under the lie of her going out to explore the countryside. This went on for two winters until the monks confronted me about the pair, accusing me of corrupting Kenta and tempting him from the ascetic's path. I kindly told them I had done nothing of the sort and that whatever Kenta wanted to do in his life was his choice, not mine or theirs."
  1142. Her claws click against the rim of jug. She takes hold of the jug and lifts it up, bringing it close to her lips but not yet tipping it up to get at the wine within.
  1144. "That was my first mistake," she says, drinking again. "Not long after the monks left, Kenta appeared at my home with two of his friends. We took him and his friends in as honored guests. I quickly learned he had come to seek Meiko as his bride and brought his friends as witnesses. My second mistake was giving my blessing to the union. For you see, Kenta and his friends had defected from the temple and taken with them sacred treasures, but that does not matter quite yet as I did not know. To Meiko and Kenta I gifted a modest home in the forest on my mountain, somewhere they could have privacy, and they were wed. That was my third, and worst, mistake."
  1146. Two of Rin's tails curl into her lap. "I do not know exactly what happened, but the monks came to us not long after and demanded the return of their sacred treasures. I was confused at first, but with Saki's help, I quickly learned the truth that Kenta's friends were in fact thieves. I took poorly to this knowledge and agreed with the monks that this was unacceptable. We caught one thief but the other took that chance to flee into the forest, to what I later learned was Kenta and Meiko's home."
  1148. Rin lifts the jug up and looks inquisitively at me, to which I nod. She drinks and passes it over, enough inside for a final mouthful. I refrain from downing it right away, interested in the rest of her story.
  1150. "The monks found the runaway thief first," she continues. "Which was their mistake. Only Kenta, Meiko, and the dead know exactly what happened, but when we got there the sun was setting and the monks were all dead. Kenta must have stolen part of Meiko's power, no doubt in a foolish attempt to protect his thieving friend, along with breaking countless taboos of his religion by desecrating the stolen relics. Because I found not Meiko and the silly young monk she fell in love with, but my sister deliriously obeying a monstrous beast. An oni, one of the most abhorrent creatures that walks on two legs. She was carrying the mangled bodies of the monks inside so the oni might feast on them later. Just as he was feasting on his dead, thieving friend. Before Saki and I could put an end to the oni, he and Meiko escaped us. I might be older but Meiko is better at magic than I am, so they managed to entirely escape Saki and myself. Ever since they have eluded all attempts to catch them, yet with my many sisters hear helping we have kept Meiko and the oni trapped, and the village safe."
  1152. I stare longingly at the jug of wine before picking it up and offering it to the kitsune. Uneasy as I am hearing that story, she needs the drink more than me. Gratefully taking it from my hands she downs the last of the wine before softly setting the empty jug down. "Now you know Egil, there is indeed a man-eater on my mountain. And what Meiko would have wanted you for."
  1154. I look up at the stars, cold from more than the autumn air. "That was quite the price for me to pay," I mutter, seeing Rin's ears flick in the corner of my sight. Let her hear, it won't change the truth.
  1156. That the rumors I heard have more than a grain of truth to them does not leave me glad. It casts aside any doubts I have about staying on this mountain and helping the kitsune. Maybe what I have always sought is to die with a sword in hand? I might have a few chances on this mountain then as I cannot see my desire to kill the oni Kenta as a choice all the kitsune will accept. If I find or face that man-eater I will try to kill it. Even if I make an enemy of one kitsune or all of them.
  1158. "Did you know before I told you?" she asks.
  1160. "No," I say. "But now that I know I'll do whatever I can to help you stop the man-eater and rescue Meiko."
  1162. Rin is quiet for a long time. When she finally speaks her voice is calm and distant. "I won't deny your aid. The village knows to stay away and we are so far out I thought no travelers would bother coming here, but you proved me wrong. While the rumors that brought you here, the soldiers and fame seekers that arrive could do as much harm to the village as the oni if he escapes."
  1164. Her ears twist toward me, and those glowing blue orbs regard me in a light. "Why? I have every reason in the world to protect this village, but what motivation do you have to track down a man-eater? Glory, fame, to test yourself in battle?"
  1166. "I know next to nothing about the villagers, but I can't leave them under that kind of threat. And," I say slowly, deciding not to tell Rin I intend to kill the oni, "I can't leave now that I know there is a man-eater. Even if I wanted to give in to my fear of them, I could never live with myself if I turned away."
  1168. "Then if you speak honestly I have no reason to turn your help away," she says. "So if you wish to aid me, once I've finished my trip to the village I ask you to return with me to my home. We can speak more of this horrible problem there with Saki."
  1170. Fingers playing with my pendant, feeling the simple shape of the rune and the heavy weight of what it truly means, I nod. "Then that is what I will do."
  1172. "This night and the next we will stay in the village, then we shall return to my home," she says. She leans toward me and I smell the scent of rice wine strong on her breath. "Do you have any questions, or would you like to to hold those for another time and warm up now?"
  1174. Those friendly words do nothing to hide the possible trap she is laying before me. Unfortunately for the drunken kitsune, I've enough wits to step around that. I refuse to be snared by the loneliness of a vagrant, or to play into her flirtatious games. "Unless you have more wine, being back inside sounds nice."
  1176. "More wine is something nice we can look forward to when we're back at my home," Rin promises, rising to her feet and softly dusting off her dress.
  1178. There is a bit of rush in my head when I stand, the wine more potent than I first thought. I adjust quickly and the kitsune takes my hand, the wisps of blue fire at the end her tails dimming. "I'll lead you back. Unless, of course, you can see in the dark."
  1180. "Why would I be able to see in the dark?"
  1182. "I've resolved to not underestimate you, Egil."
  1184. "All I am is a man," I tell the kitsune.
  1186. "I know," Rin says with a grin, taking my arm once more. We're cast in the dark of the night and she leads me along gently. "That is why you are so intriguing."
  1188. ---
  1190. I hear the door to the hut I'm staying in creak as it's moved aside, my mind wondering why I'm in bed. My hand is on my dagger beneath the furs and I'm peering through a narrow gap in my eyelids when I realize it's Taro who's come to wake me again. "Get up foreigner, grandmother wants you to eat with us again."
  1192. Sitting up with an exaggerated groan, that lets me hide my dagger, I nod slowly. The drink Rin and I shared must have been more potent than I thought, as the memories of stumbling into bed last night return to me bit by bit. There was a lot said between Rin and I on our way back here, but for the life of me, I cannot remember any of it. Only laying in bed and her looking back at me from the doorway, a mystifying look in her blue eyes.
  1194. That mystery won't be solved by me forcing my memory. I rub at my eyes and think myself as fortunate for not having a headache if I drank enough to forget details from last night. I've got more important problems right now.
  1196. "I don't want to keep them waiting," I say, and then rub at my throat in surprise. How smoothly the words came out astounds me. Did the rice wine fix my throat or did Rin do something to me?
  1198. "Then hurry up," Taro says, irritation bleeding into his voice, "Everyone is waiting for you."
  1200. The youth steps outside, leaving the door open and allowing the morning light to pour in with the chill of autumn. I put off thoughts about kitsune and magic to get myself prepared. Once I have my belt on and weapons properly stowed I step outside, and see the sun higher than when I woke up yesterday. Did the wine affect Rin like it did me and that is why I am only now being sent for? Or had something happened? I remember my own youth enough to know that Taro's mood won't give me any answers.
  1202. With no way to know the reason for waking me up this late, I follow Taro, who keeps his silence. The boy won't even look at me as we walk through the spread out village. My hopes that he has warmed up to me after sharing a meal last night are completely dashed when he opens the door to his grandparents home and goes in without waiting for me. Leaving my boots by the door I step in, the smell of the same meal I ate for breakfast reaching my nose. I let ungrateful thoughts leave my mind quickly as they enter, and looking around the room I see Taro already sitting by Rin, leaving me to sit by him and the elderly Naoko. If only the boy knew how little interest I have in that disguised kitsune as a woman, then I might be able to get along with him. If that's what his dislike of me is truly about. I'd love to know how he caught those fish yesterday, and if I could I'd teach him something useful in exchange. But sitting by him and his grandmother, I know that won't happen. The elder Gorou trusts me more, even though I can feel him watching me.
  1204. I'm not surprised by the wariness of the elders, I am a foreigner before I became an honored guest of the lord of the mountain. Even now I am only a guest of their master. I'd be concerned if they didn't treat me with a measure of suspicion. And although if I'm a mostly unwanted guest and welcome only because of Rin, the sense of home that permeates the warm hut fills me with unpleasant memories of my youth.
  1206. Lost in bitter thoughts of what I abandoned long ago, I'm grateful that no one tries to converse with me during the meal. My gaze moving between my bowl and the in-ground hearth, I watch everyone from the corners of my sight. Rin filling Taro's bowl with a second helping, looking motherly with her gentle smile and gentle manner; Gorou watching me while pretending he's only eating; Naoko leaning forward to give me a second helping of millet porridge with a look in her eyes just daring me to try and stop her; Taro stealing glances at Rin. A complicated scene of a family.
  1208. If I could retrace every step back to my homeland, I wonder if I would. My kin wouldn't be likely to welcome me back with open arms. No, they'd great me with spears if they're smart. Although I doubt they'd recognize me anymore after all I've done and seen. Those are all useless thoughts, I'd be an old man by the time I made it back to my homeland.
  1210. "Thank you," I say after Naoko has fills my bowl, the words smooth on my throat. Drinking with Rin was certainly wise, my head is clear and my voice no longer hurts to use.
  1212. "A giant like you must need to eat as much as a growing boy," she says. "I'm sorry that all we can feed you is millet, we're expecting a long winter with how much my bones ache."
  1214. "My master has said many times you don't need to leave so many offerings, especially if it might put the village at risk," Rin says, ending my need to speak.
  1216. Gorou tries to straighten his crooked back, and to my surprise mostly succeeds. "A few offerings at the shrines our ancestors built to honor your lord won't hurt. It never has."
  1218. "That isn't what I meant, Gorou. I've told you many times, you could reduce your offering of rice by half and my master would not be offended. It would even gladden their heart if you would let me return some to you before I head back up tomorrow."
  1220. "Nonsense. We're being careful with our food, not starving ourselves so we can give your master what they're due."
  1222. A flicker of a shadow behind Rin makes me think of her hidden tails. Glancing from face to face, I can tell no one else saw that. Are her illusions weak to my eyes? Or does knowing the truth of her shape mean I can see a blur of what she truly is?
  1224. "I saw how much you have readied," the kitsune disguised as a human says. "If you took back a third my master will feel more at ease."
  1226. "I told you a dozen times yesterday, we're fine Rin," Gorou assures, trying to soothe her by relaxing his posture. "We can spare the rice and offerings we make. But if it makes you feel better, if the winter is too harsh we'll pray for help from your master on the mountain."
  1228. If I needed any further proof the villagers don't go up the mountain, Gorou's choice of words is it. Pray for help, not ask. They know that the lord up there is no ordinary being. But how strange this conversation is when the lord is sitting right next to the old man and he doesn't know it.
  1230. Rin doesn't look happy but dips her head in acknowledgment. "I will tell my master that is what you've said. They care deeply for this village, so you understand I am simply doing my duty, elder."
  1232. "Your master couldn't ask for a more dutiful servant," Naoko adds, her husband nodding in agreement.
  1234. "I'm honored by such praise," says the lord of the mountain.
  1236. Try as I might, I can't help but catch Rin's eye. She's unreadable but I think she wanted me to hear that exchange. "If things are difficult this winter," she says, staring me in the eye, "My master may beg you for your help, Egul. A strong man like you must be able to carry a lot on his shoulders."
  1238. I meet her gaze without hesitation. "Your master won't need to beg me, only ask as honestly as you Rin."
  1240. She nods, a thin smile on her lips. I see more shadows of tails behind her, but they hardly move. Looking away from the disguised kitsune I notice Taro is no longer eating, his bowl far from empty. From the grim concern on Naoko's face, it seems she has noticed as well.
  1242. "My stomach hurts grandmother," he says, looking down and away from everyone. "Can I please go?"
  1244. "Go where?" the elderly woman asks.
  1246. "The river. I'll be back to help with chores soon as I feel better."
  1248. "If you don't feel better, be back before noon," Gorou says, his wife looking at him irritably. But she holds her tongue.
  1250. "Thank you," he says, dipping his head before getting up.
  1252. He leaves without another word, and once he's gone Rin picks up his bowl. I dislike the way she's looking at me, but Gorou holds his weathered hand out. "I'll finish his. If you want to keep an eye on him, we're not so old we can't clean up."
  1254. "Thank you, elders. Taro's been worrying me since I got here," Rin says, getting to her feet gracefully. She bows to them, then turns her attention to me. "Would you be so kind as to accompany me, Egil?"
  1256. When I glance to the elders and they both nod their approval of the idea, I set down my empty bowl. "Of course, Rin."
  1258. The elders talk in hushed tones as Rin and I leave their hut, the conversation none of my concern. Simple matters between husband and wife are not for me to hear. Once we're outside, and after I get my boots on, I look about the spread out village and fields. The young Taro is nowhere to be seen.
  1260. "He's a quick kid," I mutter, shielding my eyes from the sun. "That or he has a good hiding spot."
  1262. "I know where he's gone," Rin says, "But it will just put him in a worse mood if we follow him. Let us go to the river for now."
  1264. "Do you think he hates me?" I ask, keeping my voice low as we walk.
  1266. "That is possible, but I don't know why he might."
  1268. I glance at her suspiciously. She stares back, face held in perfect stillness. I realize that I prefer her fox face, even if it means I have to worry about teeth. I can more easily tell her mood by her tails and ears that way. "If you have wise insight into the mind of a young boy, Egil, I would be grateful to hear."
  1270. "He's not a young boy," I say, looking at an empty field as we walk to the river. I'm also keeping a lookout for any villagers that might see us. "Taro's a boy that's starting to turn into a man, with all that brings."
  1272. "Such as?"
  1274. I look ahead toward the river, unwilling to meet her eyes and deceitfully human face. "Interest in women."
  1276. Rin stays silent as we pass a pair of villagers, a mother, and her knee height child, but the moment we're out of earshot she speaks. "Taro is at that age, isn't he?" she sighs. "Seems like only last winter his father returned to the village with a babe in his arms."
  1278. "Where is his father now?"
  1280. "His father is long gone from this world," she says, leading me to the riverbank. She sits on her knees and I rudely sit so I can rise quickly, or sit for a long time and have my knees not ache. "His father drowned under questionable circumstances, ones that make me fear murder, but don't tell Taro that. Neither Saki or I could get straight answers out of the kappa to the north, so it's all suspicion."
  1282. Deciding I should ask what a kappa is another time, I ask, "What of his mother?"
  1284. "Taro's father never said a word about her. I had hoped the child might have thought me a mother figure, but I suppose now I know for certain he doesn't."
  1286. With nothing I can say to that, nothing polite at least, I look up at the sky.
  1288. "I am sorry if my ignorance has made you a young enemy, Egil," Rin says. "Last night I lied to you, I encouraged Taro to share his catch with you. He must have done it only to please me. I have allowed myself to stay blind to what was going on with him for far too long."
  1290. The thin swaths of white clouds drift across the sky. "If you must apologize Rin, apologize to the young boy. Or guide his childish infatuation for you away."
  1292. She chuckles, the sound far from happy. "If you think I am that skilled with men, you truly know nothing about me."
  1294. Those tails of hers constantly touching me when we're alone had me fooled. That's not something I'll dare tell her without wine and a table between us so that she might be more open to honest conversation. And so I can use the table as a shield if she isn't. "It's that or break his foolish heart quickly," I suggest. "Do it right and he'll be stronger for it."
  1296. "I suppose I can't wait until the spring," Rin sighs.
  1298. Listening to the sound of the river gently flow, I look around to make sure we aren't about to be interrupted by any villagers. The only ones about are the mother and her young child walking on the bridge. The child looks at me and I smile back, and luckily the little one doesn't cry and scream, only look away.
  1300. "Egil," Rin says, drawing my attention. She has her worlds tree amulet out, or has it always been around her neck and I never noticed it because of an illusion? I need to pay closer attention to her in the future. "Do you think I should go talk to Taro now? I fear his mind might be too heavy if he's gone to his father's grave."
  1302. Wondering why she is asking me for advice, I nonetheless do my best to give it serious consideration. "Do you plan to let him see that trinket?"
  1304. "Yes," she admits without a moment's hesitation.
  1306. "And make him think I'm courting you?"
  1308. "I'd never outright say that." She at least has the decency to look me in the eye while all but admitting she'll drag me into some sort of deception.
  1310. "Rin, that amulet is-" I don't get to finish telling her that it's nothing more than a bribe I had used to gain an audience. The hair on my neck raises as water splashes and a child screams, the wail of a bereft mother following a moment later.
  1312. My head snaps toward the sounds, as does Rin's, our conversation forgotten. The mother on the bridge is on her knees, reaching out hopelessly at her young child screaming in the river. Two ugly, squat beasts in the water laugh, tugging the child away from the mother. The creatures' wrinkled green skin, turtle shell on their back, mouths like a beak, and a bizarre depression in their head filled with water, bring back horrible memories of how I earned that amulet Rin wears.
  1314. I lurch to my feet in an instant, hand finding my sword's pommel and my feet pound against the ground while a flicker of movement dashes right beside. With a child's life is in danger I nearly miss the fierce glimmer in the mother's eye, but it's there. And speaks of the horrible decision the mother is considering. We make it to the bridge and only the disguised kitsune's hand slapping my chest keeps me from plunging in the water after the child. Sparing her a glance I hold my tongue, her stern gaze refusing to leave the turtle demons. I should jump in there and skewer them both but with the child in their grasp I that could only make things worse. Rin must have known that and stopped me. I hope she has a plan to solve this. Otherwise, I'm going to draw my sword and go in there anyway.
  1316. "Kappa, let the child go!" she commands, the edge in her voice sharp as the steel I'm heartbeat away from drawing.
  1318. "We're just playing with him!" laughs the smaller of the beasts, yanking the flailing child through the water like he's nothing more than a leaf. Those turtle beast are short, only coming up to my hip on dry land, but I know first hand how strong they are.
  1320. "Only playing," grins the larger, swimming so that he's between the smaller one and the bridge. "But if any of you want to come in and play with us we'll let him go."
  1322. The mother of the child rises, her hands falling on the railing. She looks at us, then her child. A wild decision overtakes her frantic eyes. She clambers onto the rickety rails of the bridge. Before Rin can grab her the mother leaps. I snatch the back of the peasant woman's dress, fist balling up in the cloth, and nearly go tumbling into the water with her in my grasp. Thankfully my hand on the flimsy rail and Rin's frighteningly powerful grip on my belt stops that from happening. The wobble and creak of the weathered wood my hand clenches tells me that the unyielding hold on my belt is the only thing keeping me out of the water.
  1324. Gritting my teeth I pull the woman back, only for her to fight against me. She braces her feet against the railing and tries to lurch out of my grip.
  1326. "Get your hands off of me you brute, I have to save him!" she shrieks.
  1328. Unfortunately for her desperation, I'm not letting her go. Her panic born strength means nothing against the rising fury in my gut. I haul her up with one arm, her desperate kicks finding my chest and face a few times to no effect, and set her on the bridge. Before she can jump again Rin wraps the mother in her arms.
  1330. "Hush dear, we will deal with this."
  1332. "Do they die to steel?" I ask, voice nothing more than a whisper.
  1334. Rin flicks her eyes toward me, nods faintly, then glares at the turtle demons.
  1336. "Let the child go, kappa, or else the lord upon the mountain will not suffer you to live," she commands, voice cold enough to make the hair on the back of my neck stand up.
  1338. "Then someone had better come get the boy," the bigger creature chuckles, folding his arms and reclining in the water, heedless of the crying child. "Like that big man up there. I think he can take this wonderfully cold water a lot better than a woman or child."
  1340. A faint scent tickles my nose, familiar but to thin for me to recall. That doesn't matter to me right now. The child splashes helplessly, wailing in the cold water as he's held still by the smaller creatures, while the villagers are starting to show up on the banks of the river. If I had an ax or a spear I could take out the creature tormenting the boy, but even if I could find one in this village it would be too late. My dagger won't do, I'm as likely to hit the kid at this distance as I am the beast. And even if I did strike them there is a good chance it wouldn't be with the point.
  1342. "Are you so sure this is what you want to do, kappa? You never know where my master watches from," Rin says, a frightened man running across the bridge to her. She passes off the frantic mother to the man and walks to the rail, her arms folded in front of her imperiously. "If you don't release the child now you will come to regret it."
  1344. The bigger ones laughs, kicking his webbed feet out of the water while the child cries, and my rage builds. "You're one of the servants? Hah, well if that big man comes to get the child there won't be a problem now, will there?"
  1346. That scent reaches my nose once more. Stronger this time, a twinge of rot making my stomach flip. I take a single step toward the rail, fingers touching the grip of my sword. The boy is starting to lose his frantic vigor, his cries dulling along with his splashing efforts against the turtle creature's hold.
  1348. "Don't do something you'll regret kappa. Let the boy go and my master is sure to forgive you," Rin says, playing the part of her disguise. But for how much longer? Will she give up the secret of her true form, in front of the entire village, to save one boy? It must be a valuable secret if she hasn't given it up yet.
  1350. "Your master would be angry for us playing with our neighbors? They must be as dull as the tanuki say," the bigger one says, splashing water at us. The small one is looking at Rin, it's beady eyes wide and what might be fear in those evil eyes.
  1352. "You aren't from this river if you don't fear my master, kappa. But you, one with the child, you know how dangerous the servants of my master can be. Let the child go and you will you spared the wrath that will fall if this goes on any longer."
  1354. "Maybe we should do what she says," the smaller creatures mutters, just barely loud enough for me to hear over the weakening cries of the child.
  1356. The big one splashes water at his companion, soaking the child further and making him cough and sputter his cries when water gets in his mouth. The creatures stare at each other, and any fear that the smaller one has for the idea of Rin is nothing compared to the immediate threat of the bigger turtle demon. At a glance, I can tell that is how the relationship between those two creatures works, I've seen it often enough on the road with bandits and robbers. One tough guy forcing a coward to do their bidding.
  1358. "You should do what I say," Rin says, and for a moment I see a flicker of furry tails. Fur instead of shadows, her anger written on her haughty face. "You will get to leave alive if you do."
  1360. I expect Rin to take her true shape soon, but with all the villagers gathering the banks I can see why she might hesitate. A few of the men that were there a moment ago are gone, but more people will be here soon. The mother of the child is on the bridge, sobbing in the arms of the man holding her. There are too many here to witness what Rin is for the decision to be easily made.
  1362. Nothing matters when the smell in the air finally reaches my nose in full. My eyes go wide and my fingers find purchase on my sword. Sick sweetness of burnt honey mixed with cloying rot, it dances through my memories and stilling the rage that had been building in me. I let go of my sword and do what my instinct demands.
  1364. "I will give you-" Rin falls silent when my hand grips her shoulder.
  1366. "I'm coming in the river," I announce, barely remember to speak in a language the kappa will understand. "So let the boy go when I get in there."
  1368. Rin finally looks at me, what lies behind her eyes faltering before the swell of hate grinding my teeth. She nods to me as if understanding what I am about to do. I stand behind her, mostly blocking the kappa's sight of myself with her. I yank my feet out of my boots, knowing I won't need them where I am going.
  1370. "He might want to hurry, the water is cold this time of year."
  1372. My sword silently slips out of its scabbard, and with only a few tugs my belt and clothes fall to the planks of the bridge. The cool wind stings my skin and the eyes of all the villagers must be on my scar riddled body. Down to only my bare skin, at the end of of autumn, they must think me a madman. They will learn soon enough how right they might be, if I survive. I grab my pendant, the rune's true meaning light as can be when I tug the leather cord above my head and hand it to Rin. There is no confusion in her eyes, her mouth moving with an unspoken word.
  1374. My feet touch the railing and push off, wood cracking under me but doing nothing to slow me. Clearing the railing, everyone watching my crazed leap, I fall feet first at the river. The bigger turtle demon looks at me as I might a hawk diving at a rabbit, confusion giving way to awe. A sudden clarity fills its eyes but it's too late, one of its small arms coming up as if to swat me away. As if it's meager fear can stop a born warrior from the cold fjords.
  1376. Steel and flesh meet.
  1378. The child screams along with both kappa, my sword twanging off of bone and the water sucking me down into the gentle depths to steal away all sound. Cold embraces me, drags me farther and farther down, but I feel none none of the chill. I twist under the water, my feet the slippery stones and muck of the riverbed. I push up and ascend through a spreading cloud of murky pink in the water. Face breaking the surface I gasp in air, nose and mouth filling with the stench of a man-eater, a rush of sound batters my ears. Before I can get my bearings an angry turtle demon screams in rage and bolts toward me. I try to raise my sword but I'm hit in the chest and dragged beneath the surface before I can get the blade out of the water. Bubbles push out of my lips when the turtle demon slaps me in the face then starts hitting my chest. Pain blossoms in my ribs, clouds of that pale pink drifting of the kappa as it darts through the water, away from my grasping hand and thrusting blade.
  1380. Left alone for the moment my feet touch the slick bottom once more, dark clouds of silt mixing with thinning clouds of pink in the water. I shove myself upward through the murk, and see a dark shape darting toward me. My sword won't rise fast enough so I lunge at it with my hand, the dark shape colliding with my arm. Underwater the sound of bone breaking echoes strangely, and I know from the limp feeling in my wrist that is my bone. The last few bubbles of precious air escape between my teeth, a fleeting wince of pain trying to get through as I'm driven back, but all isn't lost. That my shield arm. I move my sword close to my body, ready to thrust, ready to strike if the beast comes back.
  1382. If the turtle demon's fury is cunning and violent like mine it will keep its distance. Strike only to keep me from surfacing. Knowing I lunge off the bottom, sword held ready as I rise. A swishing bolt of green swipes at me from behind, claws lashing into my flesh, but my head breaks the surface and I get a precious air in my burning lungs. The turtle demon darts away from me as I lash behind myself, sword cleaving out of the water in arc.
  1384. Eyes stinging and my own blood starting to color the water, I hold my sword out of the river. Blood colors the water. I see the other beast holding the child, both of them still with fear. I can worry about them later. A ripple is moving toward me, a frighteningly fast shadow beneath the quivering surface. My body acts on its own, stabbing when it thinks the time is right. A heavy blow, hard as a horse's kick, lands on my chest and pulls me underwater once more. My sword wrenches from my grasp, the glint of it's battered silver inlay vanishing in pale pink clouds spreading beneath the water.
  1386. The beast that struck me floats up while I sink, my lungs burning and desperate to breathe. I touch the murky bottom of the river once more, pushing myself up toward the light. Toward air and the man-eater that I have to kill.
  1388. My face breacks the water, lungs sucking in air while I hold on tightly to my hateful fury. If I let go the fear and cold will take, and I can't let that happen until my prey is dead. Blurry sights, too many sounds, and a deep cold assail my senses. Before me, bobbing on it's back, is the creature with man-eater on it's breath. My sword driven into the soft flesh of it's shoulder, half the blade sheathed inside its chest. I swim to my weapon and impaled foe, who tracks me with eyes of a creature that knows it is dying. I grab my sword by the pommel as it weakly reaches toward me with it's one good arm, the other missing half it's hand. Bracing the elbow of my shield arm against the creature's shoulder, I yank my blade free with a cry of mindless rage.
  1390. Pale blood flows into the water and drips off the point of my family's sword. I raise my weapon for the killing blow, the beast trying to raise it's hand as if to beg for mercy. With a single stroke I lay open the turtle demon's neck down to the bone, mortal fear the last thing I see in it's fading eyes.
  1392. The gentle river current takes the doomed beast, and I turn to the one holding the child. The turtle demon open it's beak, it's words nothing but noise. I swim toward it, intent on laying this last beast's neck open and saving the child it holds hostage. My broken arm is numb, just like the rest of me, so I use it to cut through the water faster. The green skinned turtle demon lets go of the child, it's webbed hands rising out of the water as it frantically moves away from the screaming child.
  1394. The creature squeaks words, pointing an accusing finger at the bleeding, nearly headless turtle demon behind me. I shout in fury and hate, making it to the child right as they slip under the surface.
  1396. I wrap my good arm around the child, pulling his shivering body against me. He clings to my neck and sobs, but doesn't choke. Wary of the still breathing turtle demon and hurting the child with my sword, I start swimming toward the riverbank. With only my legs and a broken arm, it takes longer than it should, my fury threatening to slip and the pain takes hold of me. My feet touch the stone bottom and I haul myself out of the water, my own body trembling from the biting cold of the air and the pain at the edge of my mind. Someone is there, hands I see but don't watch taking the boy from me.
  1398. I turn toward the turtle demon, chilled to my bones now that I'm out of the water. With cold wind biting into my exposed skin I raise my sword, pointing it at the last thing I have to kill. A final salute to my enemy.
  1400. "Don't get near me," the demon turtle pleads, eyes darting away from me like a fool as it looks around. "I let the boy go, so let me go!"
  1402. My breath hisses between my teeth and I start wading back into the water, body ready to give out if I don't give back into rage and battle. I have enough in me to kill this beast before being dragged into a deeper cold or lifted into the hall of my ancestors. I get to my calves in the water before I'm stopped, a warm touch wrapping around my sword hand.
  1404. "Hold. Both of you," a familiar voice commands. I turn, looking for the kitsune Rin, and see a human woman that only comes up to my chest. Sluggishly my mind catches up, recognizing her deceptive human guise.
  1406. "I didn't want to do this, to anger your master," my prey snivels. "We were only supposed to drive off the foreigner, I didn't think we'd hurt anyone!"
  1408. "Quiet," Rin commands. I try to get my hand free but my strength fails me. That or hers is greater. "You knew your brother wanted to eat that child. Were you going to join him?"
  1410. "No! No, I didn't know he was going to do that at all."
  1412. "If you're lying then my master will learn, and be most upset. Perhaps upset enough that a certain kitsune will be sent to kill you in the night."
  1414. "I'll just kill it now, save everyone the trouble," I hiss, unable to open my jaw all the way lest my teeth chatter. The wind is picking up and only Rin's hand reminds warmth exists. Only the furious hate in my veins keeps the pain of my battered, chilled body at bay.
  1416. "Stop Egil," Rin says, pulling on my wrist to guide me back. "You've done your part."
  1418. "I should go," my prey says, trying to dip under the water.
  1420. "No," I snarl.
  1422. But my hateful growl is nothing compared to Rin's frigid voice. "Get on land you kappa and set this man's broken arm," she commands, "Or I'll make sure Akaiyari leaves you broken and dangling from the trees. Alive, so the crows can enjoy tearing apart fresh turtle meat."
  1424. The turtle demon stares at Rin, only it's beady eyes and ugly head sticking out of the water. "Promise me he won't kill me," it says, water bubbling around its beak of a mouth, a webbed hand poking out of the gentle waters to point at me.
  1426. "I'll-" I'm cut off by Rin pulling me back half a step.
  1428. "He won't harm you," she promises.
  1430. "Akaiyari won't come after me?"
  1432. "Not if you do as I tell you."
  1434. The creature begins drifting toward us, and the only thing stopping me from rushing it is a warm hand on my shoulder. "Come on Egil, we need to get you warm."
  1436. "I need the kappa alive, for now. But you have my word it won't cause trouble or I'll kill it myself," she whispers to me. Glaring at the kappa and wishing to wring it's neck myself, I relent and turn away.
  1438. I'll trust Rin. Not because I'm too weak to fight one of those beasts on land. No, because she is the lord of the mountain and this is her duty more than it is mine. With her guiding me we make it back to dry land, the world turning to a blur of cold and pain when dry earth is under my feet once more. My body trembles, the after battle jitters mixing with a dangerous chill.
  1440. Everything around me is confusion and chaos. I don't notice it happen but my sword is taken from me, and my swordhand has dry cloth in its grip now. I look down and realize someone threw my clothes over my shoulders, and I'm clinging to the edges desperately. My shaking legs keep moving and Rin's guiding hand never leaves my shoulder, and as I walk where she leads I see flashes of faces thanking me. Peasants with weathered faces drift by me, my teeth trembling and clicking together even as more cloth is thrown over me. I'm made to duck under a doorway and brought to a hearth with an old woman next to it. Things are said that I can't hear, my heart and mind realizing what I did. I fought a man-eater, and I killed it. I'd laugh if not for the shivering and the guiding hand of Rin disguised as a human. She makes me sit in front of the hearth. Wood is added and the flames crackle with heat that I can't feel.
  1442. A cup with something warm in it is lifted to my lips, and I spill drops down into my scruff of a beard when the drink is tipped into my mouth. Heat spreads out in my throat and the cup is left in my trembling hand. There's a conversation I hardly hear. My eyes shift from the figures coming and going in the hut until my gaze falls on the demon turtle standing in the doorway. Kappa, Rin called it. I have no weapons, only a warm cup, but I need to kill it before it gets anyone else in the hut.
  1444. Anger and terror fill my battered body. Pain fuels the desperate flame of survival and battle, guiding me toward the danger no one else can see.
  1446. "Egil, calm down," Rin says, putting her hands on my shoulders and trying to pull me back. "The kappa won't hurt you. It won't hurt anyone, and we need it to set your arm. So you can put it down."
  1448. I blink and realize my good hand squeezes creature's neck. I've got the kappa pinned against a sturdy part of the doorway and I'm putting so much pressure on its throat the thing's ugly eyes are bulging. When did I get up? And why isn't it fighting against me for its life, it's struggling limp and weak despite the terror in its eyes.
  1450. I breathe in through my nose, smelling on river water and the stench of a creature that lives in the murk. My mind catches up slowly. This kappa isn't a man-eater at all. I let go of its neck. The demon turtle slumps to the floor and coughs, droplets of water splash out of the bowl like depression in its head. Rin leads me back to the hearth, but I keep a watchful eye on the creature by the door.
  1452. "You said he wouldn't kill me," the kappa chokes.
  1454. "He didn't. Now set his broken arm," Rin commands.
  1456. "Fine, fine. Let me catch my breath first."
  1458. "Egil, can I put you to sleep?" Rin whispers in my ear. "This is going to hurt, and I need the kappa alive long enough to mend your bones and answer questions."
  1460. I take my eyes off of the kappa to look down at my left arm, wondering why I hadn't been using it to choke the life out of that turtle or gouge out its eyes. I see why. My skin is intact but the bones underneath are bent horribly. It looks as if I have another join midway down my forearm, between wrist and elbow. The pain catches up to me when I realize how badly I'm injured, body aching from cold and who knows how many bruises.
  1462. Trembling teeth grit I whisper, "Do it."
  1464. She nods, touching the back of my neck. Her eyes flash a fiery blue and blissful nothingness takes me.
  1466. ---
  1468. I wake up in warmth and stiff pain. Shifting my head I realize why, I'm bundled in furs. I move my hands for my dagger on instinct, but my fingers find nothing in the soft fur. Not even my sword. And for some reason trying to do anything with my left hand is met with pain and an unyielding tug of cloth. Trying to sit up brings more pain that shoots through my arm, chest, and back. I fight through the ache of bruises and burn of old cuts to sit up, a few blankets and furs to tumbling off of me. Breathing hard from the toll that took on my mind and body I look around the hut. Light filters through the musty cracks in the walls and door, telling me it's some time during the day. That knowledge fades when I realize that I'm not alone.
  1470. A kitsune sits in the corner, her clothes dark and softly hugging her body. Dressed for battle I realize, and the two nasty looking daggers in her lap confirm that. A second shorter blade sticks out where a guard might be, curving down to form a hook, and I see what looks like a thin rope tied to end of the weapon. More important than how dangerous this kitsune might be, I recognize the white around each of her eyes. But which of the two sisters is she?
  1472. "Lay back down foreigner," she says, icy brown eyes glaring at me. "No one will disturb your rest while I am here."
  1474. "Saki?" I ask, voice dry on my lips.
  1476. "To the villagers, I am Kitsune or Akaiyari." She stares at me for a few tense moments, as if looking for a reaction, before adding, "Yes, I am Saki. Now lay back down. You need to rest. Eldest sister's orders."
  1478. "Is that kid okay?" I ask, remembering why I feel like I lost a fight. I narrowly survived a life and death battle.
  1480. She blinks, surprise crossing her fox face. Then, with a breath out, she is placid again and says, "The medicine Rin had me bring kept the boy from falling ill. He's made a full recovery, but you need to rest and gather your strength. You may have avoided a chill but you took an impressive beating."
  1482. "And why are you here?"
  1484. "To keep you safe," she answers. "And help you up the mountain when you're strong enough to walk out of the village."
  1486. I shift furs and blankets aside with one hand, then get to my feet. My robes are open on my left shoulder, that arm bound to my chest in a sling. My left forearm can't move between the pain and something stiff tied to it. But I'm clothed. That's good, I really don't want to accidentally expose myself to Saki again. Especially when she has a pair of evil looking knives.
  1488. I take a few wobbling steps before saying, "I'm strong enough for that now."
  1490. "You'll fall over in a gentle breeze. Lay back down," she quietly commands. "Rin should be here with something to eat soon."
  1492. "How long have I been laying down?" I ask, shuffling away from the bed. And nearly pitching forward, but after years on my feet, I manage to catch myself.
  1494. "That was almost graceful," Saki observes. "You were down for two full days, I'm surprised you could stand without help. Now lay back down before Rin catches you out of bed."
  1496. "If you tell me where my belt, boots, sword, and dagger are then I'll lay down," I say, working my wobbling legs as I pace around the warm hearth.
  1498. "Your belongings are here," she says, a tail brushing a tightly wrapped bundle beside her. "I cleaned and oiled your weapons."
  1500. "Thank you," I reply, so surprised that she did that I don't ask for my things back. Wanting to keep my word, I hobble back to the bedding and ease myself down. As I do the door creaks open and in steps Rin, in her human guise and carrying two steaming bowls on a simple tray. Saki is on her feet, knives in hand, and I spot Gorou peering in from outside. The old man glances in the hut fearfully, catches sight of the armed kitsune glaring at him, and puts the door back in place. Wise man.
  1502. "I see you're awake, Egil," Rin says. Her gaze glides over the bedding. "Were you walking around?"
  1504. "My legs didn't get hit," I reply.
  1506. "No, but nearly everything above your navel did," Saki says. I look over at her, surprised to see her speak so openly. Since it's at my expense so perhaps I shouldn't be surprised.
  1508. I'm torn away from staring at the dangerous kitsune when Rin hands me a bowl of porridge with a crude spoon in it. She gives the other bowl to Saki, before coming back to sit next to me. Her human guise vanishes and the hut suddenly feels cramped. So many fluffy tails swaying in such a confined space has my already frayed nerves on edge.
  1510. The porridge smells good, but I have one working arm and no means to feed myself without looking like an animal in the company of magical beings I'd rather not offend. Rin solves that problem by taking hold of my bowl, her glacier blue eyes focusing on me
  1512. "Eat," Rin says. "Then we'll talk about what to do."
  1514. I look between the two kitsune and ask, "Not worried about eavesdroppers or sudden visitors?"
  1516. "The village is terrified of Saki," Rin explains, "And possibly of you. No one but an enemy will open that door."
  1518. I can guess why people would be afraid of me. I've been told I can be a more fearful sight than the various beasts and men I've battled, but I don't have much faith in the word of merchants and villagers who nothing of violence. Perhaps people here think I might be a monster worse than the kappa, but I can't know for sure. "There are enemies?"I ask.
  1520. "Eat and then we can talk," Rin replies, lifting the spoon and offering it to me. Her message is clear, I either feed myself or she will start feeding me.
  1522. I don't argue and do as I'm. Even if she has to hold the bowl for me, I'm glad not to be fed by her. Somehow, despite my fresh memories of fighting a man-eater, I feel almost no worry with Rin's claws so close to me. There is an edge, there is always a tiny bit of fear, but it is enough to ignore. Once I've eaten all of the bland millet porridge she sets the bowl aside. Saki comes over to sit near us, those frightening knives laid in her lap once she's settled.
  1524. "What was that all about?" I ask, not wanting to know why the villagers fear me now.
  1526. Rin folds her hands in her lap. "I do not know how much you remember. But the kappa did not come for a child, not originally, they were after you Egil. The elder brother of the kappa thought using the child as a hostage would keep you docile. A failure, seeing how he died and the other thinks you are some sort of yamabushi."
  1528. With no idea what a yamabushi is, I focus on what I do know. "Why would they be after me? Were the kappa relatives of the one I beat senseless this spring?"
  1530. Both kitsune stare at me, then each other. Saki's eyes turn to the hearth while Rin looks to me and says, "No, I don't think so. I'd like to hear about your earlier encounter with a kappa, but not now. It is more important that you know someone sent the kappa after you and we learned who."
  1532. "Who would send a man-eater after me?" Perhaps who could do that might have been the better question.
  1534. "Taro," Rin sighs, eyes downcast. "He said it was supposed to chase you off, but wouldn't even tell Saki why or how he got the kappa to work with him. I fear jealousy and resentment motivated him yet I cannot know for certain."
  1536. "Does the village know?"
  1538. "Sadly. I told everyone to keep an eye on the boy and do nothing to him. What they don't know is what the kappa told Saki and I, which is that Taro has been visiting their clan for many summers. They regard him as being part kappa, for some reason, and if that got out I do not know what the villagers would do to the boy."
  1540. "Is truly he part kappa?" I ask, trying to think of any signs. His catch this late into autumn was a touch strange but it's not impossible, or even that suspicious.
  1542. "I do not know," Rin says. "I would ask the kappa clan, but if I see any of them again I doubt it will be peaceful. They have not taken kindly to one of their own being killed. Even if he was a man-eater, as you've put it."
  1544. A thought crosses my mind, something I thought unimportant at the time. "Do you know when those kappa were asked to make me leave?"
  1546. "I never asked that." Rin's head tilts slightly. "Should I have?"
  1548. "Maybe. While out gathering wood I heard something go underwater. When I went to the riverbank I saw tracks I didn't recognize, made by something coming out of the river."
  1550. The nine-tail kitsune looks at her sister. "Would that explain the hostage?"
  1552. Brown eyes flick toward me. "If they decided he is too dangerous to face on land, yes."
  1554. "Do I need to worry about an attack?" I ask. "From the kappa, or the villagers deciding I'm the problem?"
  1556. "No, I think not," Rin says, tails resting on the floor. "Yet it would be wise to get you out of the village soon. Winter is around the corner and even I cannot tell whether Naoko and Gorou will blame you if something happens to their grandson."
  1558. It hurts what excuse for pride I have to say it, after so stubbornly walking around earlier, but I have to stay aware of my own weakness. "I won't have the strength to go up the entire mountain for at least three days."
  1560. "We only need to get you out of sight of the village, then Saki and I will carry you," Rin says, wounding my pride further.
  1562. Thankfully that was an unimportant part of my pride I can keep on living without.
  1564. "Let me rest and I can manage that today," I say, laying down and clenching my teeth from the pain that rises up.
  1566. My back stings and burns in lines, likely from the kappas stubby claws. My ribs don't seem to be broken but I can feel the throb of the bruises when I breathe. The way my nose and cheek sting I must have been hit harder in the face than I thought. Not that I was doing much thinking with a man-eater that needed to be killed. At least the kid survived and I'm not in a kappa's stomach.
  1568. Rin helps me get covered up, smiling softly at me. "We won't rush our return. However, if you aren't capable in two days Saki can carry you on her back."
  1570. I look at Saki, and while I can see no hint of distaste in her cold expression I'd rather not make her hate me.
  1572. "If that's what it takes, eldest sister," she says, dipping her head in respect.
  1574. "Only until we're out of sight of the village, little sister," Rin promises. "Now rest Egil, you've done more than enough."
  1576. I'm too weary to argue against that. Even if I have to drag myself up the mountain with one arm, I'm not going to allow Saki to carry me. And while I want to know what happened to the last kappa, I can save that for another time.
  1578. The kitsune speak in hushed tones while close my eyes, what they say too quiet for me to hear. The soft murmur of voices helps me focus on my breathing, the slow rise and fall of my chest settling me into a rhythm as I adjust to the pain. If I push out everything but the sounds reaching my ears I might pick up on the conversation, but I stop myself from going that far. I need to trust these two foxes. They've tended to me for these last two days and are offering me a place to heal for the winter. If there is danger in that much trust I will face it when I must, and if I survive chastise myself for my foolishness. Until then I will risk believing them.
  1580. Sleep eludes me, as it should when I know possible danger is nearby. I am not foolish enough to completely trust the kitsune. However, I am foolish enough to dive into a river during the chill of winter to fight a man-eater. Remembering parts of that battle disturbs my tightly controlled breathing. The smell, sickening sweetness burning and combined with pungent rot of death, comes back to me. A memory, I tell myself. But to no success. I hold my breath and open my eyes, a shiver coursing through me as blind panic ignites in my bones.
  1582. Why now? Why does this wound on my spirit have to have to bleed panic now?
  1584. Staring at the roof of the hut I tell myself over and over that I'm alive. That I killed the creature. Like I always kill them. It does little to ease the panic of my thundering heart, but the slow and methodical rhythm of my breathing keeps me from falling into a delirious fear. I refuse to be that weak.
  1586. Balancing on the edge of senseless terror and calm I try to focus on my breathing. I always survive my fights, and if one day I don't then I'll be free of this fear. No matter what afterlife I find myself in, I'll be free of my fear of teeth gnashing against my bones.
  1588. "Egil?"
  1590. I jerk underneath the furs and blankets, my eyes turning toward Rin. Her fox face stares at me. I dare not speak, my nerves alight and breathing barely controlled.
  1592. "Are you feeling unwell? You're starting to shiver again."
  1594. I nod.
  1596. "Are you certain? If the chill is back we need to do something about it," she says, reaching a hand toward me, my eyes narrowing in on the claws on each of her fingers.
  1598. Claws of a predator. Reaching out to rake my flesh, to grab and tear into me. My attempt at calm breathing breaks and the terror quivering in my bones demands I do something. The clawed hand is almost to my face when my fingers wrap around her wrist and pull the fox off balance. The kitsune falls on me, eyes wide with shock when my hand grips that muzzle shut. A kiss of steel touches my neck a heartbeat later, the shadow of Saki looming in the edge of my vision.
  1600. "Let go of her," the eight-tail whispers, voice cold as the blade against my throat.
  1602. Trembling, thoughts like wisps of smoke, I struggle to even breathe. The shock in those blue eyes of the predator I have a grasp on fades, something gentle and unknowable shining in those blue orbs. Tails sway and the fox I have a hold on moves her arms. My grip tightens reflexively, wishing I'd gone for the neck, and fox winces. But those claws hands don't gouge my eyes, rip my flesh, or choke my air. They pluck the knife off of my neck then gently push Saki back.
  1604. Sweat burns my eyes, but I dare not blink. The claws are getting closer and there is nothing I can do. If I reach for them her teeth are free, leaving me paralyzed as soft pads of her hand and fur touch my forehead. My entire body shakes, sweat stinging my eyes. The clawed hand moves away a moment later and pats my good arm, but makes no effort force me off. Soft fur strokes my arm, the blue orbs watching me tender as that touch on my quivering muscles.
  1606. Confusion blossoms within the fear shaking me. My grip eases, the sense of mortal danger easing and leaving my breath ragged. My hand releases her muzzle. I fall back, instinct curling my legs up and shoving me away until my back is against something solid. I watch both of the kitsune while gasping for breath, my mind slowly returning from desperate panic and need to survive.
  1608. The nine tailed kitsune looks at me calmly, but the harshness in Saki's glare is but a step away from murderous.
  1610. "Another waking nightmare?" Rin asks, her hands settling on her lap.
  1612. I nod, then close my eyes and try to catch my breath. If they try to kill me there is nothing I can do, eyes open or shut. "I'm sorry," I manage to say, forcing my eyes open as I breathe far too heavily. "That was... are you okay Rin?"
  1614. Saki, crouching low and staying defensively close to Rin, opens her mouth to speak. But stays her words when Rin brushes a tail against her sister's leg. "I am. And there is no need to apologize. You are a wounded warrior," the nine-tail says. "Your mind is fresh off a battle to the death. I should not have startled you, and I beg you forgive my negligence."
  1616. Rin bows, dropping her forehead to the floor. Her tails lay still against the floor and it dawns on me the significance of that pose. In this land, to my knowledge, this is a show of absolute submission and apology. The surprise I feel is mirrored in Saki's expression, her mask of cold indifference shattering upon seeing her eldest sister prostrate herself before me, a frightened man with his back to a wall. A man that had his hand around her muzzle. All because I didn't think about grabbing her neck until it was too late.
  1618. Swallowing what fear I can, I manage to speak without choking. "If I owe you no apology, then you don't owe me one."
  1620. "Then accept it on Saki's behalf," Rin says, not rising. "She was only trying to protect me."
  1622. My hand touches my neck, a worry filling my mind that I may have been cut. But my hand comes away clean, despite trembling faintly. I touch my throat again and realize I don't have my pendant on me. "I accept," I say, trying to let myself relax and reasoning that my pendant is with the rest of my belongings. A piece of silver hardly matters right now. "Even though, from one warrior to another, I have nothing but respect for how you acted Saki."
  1624. Rin rises her head off the floor, and I force myself to my feet. I can hardly stand, weariness sinking into my bones and breath heavy, but I've walked through worse. Before either kitsune can ask me more questions, I say, "I'm ready to go up the mountain now."
  1626. The kitsune sisters look between each other, apprehension obvious in Rin's eyes. But she doesn't mention how I'm scarcely standing straight. She nods and stands up. "I'll need to help you get dressed for the trip, Egil. If it would put you at ease I do not need to appear as I am."
  1628. "I'm not in a waking nightmare anymore," I say, wiping cold sweat off of my brow.
  1630. Rin turns to her sister, who makes her knives disappear and moves toward the bundle of my things. I try to put out of mind the nine tailed kitsune as she wraps my shoulders in more cloth, or how gentle but certain her touch is when she helps me into my boots. She must know I am standing because of stubbornness and not the strength of my legs.
  1632. Saki, carrying the bundle with my weapons and belt in one hand, moves the door aside. In the moment I'm distracted Rin takes the guise of a human again, giving me an apologetic bow when she looks at me. Then she leads the way, Saki walking close to my right. No doubt to catch me if I trip, but I refuse to show weakness and make her carry me. Not after my pathetic showing. It's bad enough that I'm still trembling, but for all they know that is the pain.
  1634. Outside the village goes about its midday needs, a cluster of people repairing the thatch of roof on a nearby hut. Once one of them spots us they all stop what they're doing to stare. When I stare back they don't shrink away.
  1636. We keep going, and far too late I notice we are not heading for the mountain path. Rin takes us down the dirt path toward Gorou's home, forcing my unsteady legs to keep pace with her quick strides. The elder sits in the entrance to his home, working on weaving something out of dried reeds and sticks. He looks up at us, fear alight in his eyes when he sees the kitsune walking with me. Few villages I've been to would stay this calm at the sight of a magical being walking openly in their midst, let alone one with such frighteningly cold eyes as Saki.
  1638. "Are you heading back so soon?" the elder asks, tearing his eyes away from the dangerous kitsune by my side. Only to look at me with his fear worn plainly on his face.
  1640. "I am afraid I am, elder," Rin says with an apologetic bow. "I fear I might not be back until the spring. In my stead my master might be sending this Kitsune to check on the village. As she will no doubt be coming down anyway to make sure the kappa clan keeps their distance."
  1642. "Tell your master we're grateful for all his aid," Gorou says, dipping his head. "We're blessed to have someone so benevolent watching out for us."
  1644. "I will tell them of your deep gratitude. I will also tell them how gracious your village has been in hosting us."
  1646. "It's nothing, Rin," Gorou says, poorly hiding how he keeps looking at Saki and me. I can understand the fear of the kitsune, but the way he looks at me it's clear he fears me more.
  1648. "If you will give everyone my goodbyes, I must see Egil gets back to my master so that he might be properly rewarded for his bravery."
  1650. My what? I nearly have my hand around her throat in a panic and now she talks about rewarding me?
  1652. "Fo- Egil," the elder catches himself quickly. "Thank you for rescuing Jirou." He tries to bow deeply despite the bend in his back. To hide the fear on his face, I suspect. "Chou, his mother, has said you're always welcome in her home."
  1654. "Tell her I'm glad her child is safe, and that I need nothing else," I say, trying to sound serious while scarcely keeping myself from wobbling in place.
  1656. "I will," the elder promises.
  1658. "I'm afraid we will need to take our leave soon, elder," Saki says, her calm voice making the bent old man tremble. Maybe he does fear the kitsune more than me. "Will you make sure no one tries to go up the mountain after us?"
  1660. "Of course, o great kitsune," he says, reverence and fear mixing in his words.
  1662. "If there is another threat to the village like the kappa or anyone tries to go up the mountain, burn this charm," she says, producing a small knot of red silk rope. She takes the old man's hand and places the charm in his palm, his eyes wide. "I will know and come."
  1664. "Y-yes, o great kitsune," he says, cradling the charm like it's a poisoned blade.
  1666. "Good. Now, let us be on our way Rin," Saki says.
  1668. The disguised master of the mountain bows, says her goodbyes to Gorou, and leads us onward. She guides us toward the forest that continues all the way up the mountain. As we make our way I spot several more villagers, but everyone keeps their distance. We make it to leafless trees and keep walking, my legs aching and breathing heavy. Saki puts a hand on my shoulder when I nearly lose my balance, only to retract her touch when I nod at her. If she noticed my shaking she keeps silent regardless.
  1670. We continue until we pass under the worn, sad excuse of a torii. If that is what it is, I'm too tired to ask right now. It takes everything I have to put one foot in front of the other. We start on the steps up the mountain, and by the hundredth I can't keep myself from panting. It isn't the exertion but the pain, coursing through my chest and arm with every breath, that steals my strength.
  1672. Rin lets her human guise slip when I'm not focusing on her. She stops and, with a hand on my shoulder, urges me to sit down. I'm too weak to put up any resistance, let alone speak.
  1674. "Shall I retrieve the litter?" Saki respectfully asks her sister.
  1676. "I think that would wise, little sister."
  1678. Saki bows then bounds up the steps. Her tails jostle behind her as she ascends several stone steps with every stride until she vanishes around a bend. Rin sits by me on the stone steps, seemingly lost in thought.
  1680. I'm trembling from the cold and pain by the time Saki returns with two long bamboo poles with silk tied between them tucked under her arms. On her waist, I notice a straight sword, the design from the land I visited before coming here. The mystery of why she has that instead of one of the curved swords the warriors in this land carry is one I want to solve. She sets the poles down and spreads them apart. Rin urges me to stand. I could argue that I'm fine and fall over after another hundred steps, forcing them to carry me, or give up now and lay down on that litter. I choose to be wise, but still wave off Rin's attempt to help ease me down.
  1682. "Shall I lead?" Saki asks once I'm settled.
  1684. "You're stronger than me, dear sister. Keep his head by you, and I'll lead with his feet by me," Rin says, walking around me.
  1686. I'm lifted up, heart thundering with worry, but the seemingly cobbled together litter holds me comfortably even when I'm lifted in the air. I close my eyes, expecting to be jostled as they start moving. I do bounce with their steps, but not terribly. I keep my eyes closed and hope for sleep to take me, but with the knowledge that a man-eater lurks somewhere in these woods I can't relax. Before I work myself into a panic I open my eyes, catching sight of the underside of Saki's chest and muzzle. Both of which are close, as she is holding her end of the litter up high to keep me more level with her sister several steps ahead.
  1688. I can tell, to my immediate shame, that she has bound her breasts from the way they don't sway. I look away, toward my feet, and catch sight of Rin's back and tails. And the soft way her hips move when she makes her way up each step. I look higher, at her furred fox ears, and ask, "Do we need to worry about Meiko?"
  1690. "No," Saki says, breathing measured. "She won't show herself with both of us here. Nor will the oni show himself while I have a weapon."
  1692. "So rest easy Egil. Neither of us will let you fall," Rin says over her shoulder, laying several of her tails against me. They reach up to my chest, my exposed skin covered by her silken fur. I'd politely complain about her doing that, except her fluffy tails chase away a chill that hasn't left me since sitting on the stone steps.
  1694. Unable to argue against the warmth of fox tails, and believing that Saki with a sword is a match for most man-eaters, I try to do as I'm told. With nowhere to look that won't worry me, I close my eyes. The swaying and jostle of being carried up the mountain like this reminds me of sleeping on a ship. Not close enough to let me fool myself, but it soothes me more than I thought it would. If I had the salty smell of the ocean and soft lap of the waves on a hull I could forget I ever came to this mountain.
  1696. ---
  1698. "I nearly envy you, watching him sleep."
  1700. "We can trade positions."
  1702. "Then you would have to cover him, dear sister. I think it is only fitting I am left with such a task."
  1704. "As you say."
  1706. "Do you wish you'd been able to see him fight?"
  1708. "If I had been there he needn't have fought."
  1710. "True."
  1712. "Do you think he is a yamabushi?"
  1714. "I do not know, sister. Perhaps you can ask him when he is awake?"
  1716. "I frighten him too much for that."
  1718. "As you say."
  1720. The dream of a distant, nonsensical conversation ends. My eyes flutter but don't open, the sharp awareness of waking up crashing over me. My left arm aches when I try to move my hand for a weapon, and my right hand is lost in a sea of the softest fur I've ever felt. My fingers find something solid, but that most certainly isn't the handle to a weapon. The hammock I'm laying in jerks when my fingers wrap around whatever it is I found, my eyes opening.
  1722. The sky above is nearing dusk, leafless trees surround me, and looking toward my feet I see the back of a kitsune. Her tails lay on me, and my memory catches up. I'm being carried up a mountain.
  1724. "He is awake now, eldest sister," Saki says.
  1726. "That he is," Rin says, the thing I'm holding wiggling playfully in my grasp.
  1728. Realization dawns on me, and I release the kitsune's tail as if it's a snake. Her ear flicks as I raise my hand to rub sleep out of my eyes. If she is offended by my grabbing hands she says nothing about it. Instead, she says, "We are nearly there, Egil. If you wish to avoid being swarmed by my sisters again, I suggest you feign sleep and let us bring you inside."
  1730. I doubt I can convincingly feign sleep and I might panic if I have to keep my eyes closed while a dozen clawed kitsune try to see me. "Is there any way for me to walk in on my own two feet and not be bothered?"
  1732. "If you wish," Rin says, glancing over her shoulder, "You could lean on Saki or I. Our sisters will respectfully keep their distance."
  1734. "As long as one of us glares at them they will do that, eldest sister."
  1736. Smiling, Rin turns her face forward and laughs. "True. But if they think Egil favors one of us they'll stay respectful."
  1738. I look up at the kitsune by my head, Saki's face expressing nothing as she stares ahead. Then I gaze down at Rin. "I can make it up the last two dozen steps," I say.
  1740. "If that is what you wish. We will set him down up there," Rin says, one of her tails rising to point ahead.
  1742. Staring at the twilight sky, the dimness because of the sun setting behind a mountain. I'm shaken as the kitsune begin to set the litter down. Tails lift off of me, drawing my attention toward my feet. Only for me to glance away quickly, Rin's lifted tails and bent position giving me too good a look at the shape of rump and hips. The pain of my battered body and broken arm must be horrible things to my mind, as I have to fight against an urge to look back at the comely rear of the kitsune.
  1744. Perhaps I am a fool looking for a swift death after all.
  1746. The cold, stone ground touches my back and I'm forced to close my eyes when Saki's chest dips close to me. I will not die that way. Once I'm certain the kitsune are gone I slowly swing my legs out and sit up, not daring to open my eyes until I have my feet pressing against the ground. Once I dare to look again I see the path down the mountain stretches on before me. The trees on either side of the steps are prepared for the inevitable winter, and the way down looks long and treacherous.
  1748. "Do you need a hand up?" Rin asks, but I don't look toward her.
  1750. I stand up on my own, slowly and painfully, my legs tired and chest aching. I don't fall forward, and thus down the mountain, which forces me to look at the kitsune once I'm standing straight. Saki collects the litter while Rin stares expectantly at me. I had almost forgotten how odd it was to look up to meet her blue gaze.
  1752. "If you do not wish to have the attention of all my sisters, you will want to lean on one of us," she says. "I do not mind, but I will not speak for my little sister Saki."
  1754. "I would be glad to lend you my aid in this," Saki says, leaning the litter against herself and staring at me with unnerving focus.
  1756. Neither option is good. One kitsune might hate me while the other has intentions I cannot be certain of. But of the two, I've shared a drink with Rin twice. I nod to the nine-tail, my decision made by foolish sentiment. "Would you help me up the last stretch, Rin?"
  1758. "I would be glad to help my honored guest," she says, moving to my good side.
  1760. She wraps an arm around my waist and I reluctantly hold onto her shoulder. We start walking up the last few steps, Saki going ahead of us with the litter under her arm. I grit my teeth against the pain and how this must look, telling myself that pride and appearances don't matter. Rin rules this mountain, the only one I have to worry about offending is her. And if my panic driven outburst did nothing of the sort then leaning on her like this won't.
  1762. We crest the last few steps, the walls of her home coming into view. We take three steps forward until the gate swings open. I think only Saki's presence keeps the kitsune waiting on the other side from rushing out. She hurries forward, giving several commands I can't hear. The clustered group of tails, swiveling ears, and furry faces mill about the dangerous kitsune for a few moments before hurrying away. I hobble along, relying on Rin's solid presence to keep walking more than I would care to admit.
  1764. We pass through the gates, only two kitsune aside from Saki still standing about. The two tailed Miki and a seven-tail with white fur dotted where her eyebrows would be and long locks of blonde hair cascading down her back. I hadn't thought the kitsune had hair, but when I was here last I did not give much of my attention to details. Unless this is some sort of magical illusion or shapeshifting. What do I truly know about kitsune aside from their ability to work magic?
  1766. Rin looks at her sisters and says, "Miki, would you go prepare something for Egil to eat? Shizuka, would you make sure a room is prepared?"
  1768. They say yes and give short bows, but before they're gone they both give me a sympathetic look. And then glances that makes my stomach twist in a knot, as I fear one or both may try to visit me the moment I am alone. Leaning on Rin was indeed the correct choice.
  1770. "Saki, would you make sure none of them can get into the wine? And bring me a jug if you can."
  1772. "Of course, eldest sister," the eight-tail says, bowing before she sets off.
  1774. "Come along Egil," Rin says, leading me to the largest building within the walls.
  1776. On the walkway outside the building, I'm helped out of my boots, and instead of any new clothes being brought she takes off the blanket wrapped over my shoulders. My bruised and battered left side is exposed to the stinging chill of the autumn air, but I endure that discomfort with ease. She lets the blanket drop to the wooden planks of the walkway, no doubt left to be picked up by one of the dozen or so kitsune sisters, before returning her arm to my waist. I want to get this over with so I return to holding onto her shoulder, only for several of her tails to lay against my back. I ignore it and follow her lead, moving inside with her when she opens one of strange the door-walls. The warmth of her home is deceptive and no doubt magical, the door-walls and actual walls looking too thin to keep out this kind of chill. But I don't care. It's pleasant inside. Though as I lean on the kitsune master of this place I wonder if I'm going to make it off this mountain ever again, or if I've let myself walk into an elaborate trap.
  1778. Rin helps me down the hallways and twisting, turning corridors until we are met by the seven tailed kitsune. Shizuka, I remember. Who happens to look upon me far too favorably for my liking.
  1780. "The room is ready," she says, smiling at me before bowing to Rin. "Will our guest be staying long, eldest sister?"
  1782. "At least until Egil is healed from his brave and foolish acts," Rin says.
  1784. "Then I hope we can make your recovery and stay pleasant," the seven-tail says, staring right at me with a sly grin on her lips.
  1786. "I'm sure we will, but for now I think he needs peace and rest, Shizuka. Now, will you make sure Miki behaves herself?"
  1788. "Of course, eldest sister. I prepared the innermost room for our honored guest," Shizuka says, bowing for a moment. She shuffles past, but not before deliberately brushing one of her tails across my ankle.
  1790. "In here, Egil," Rin says. She urges me forward a few steps, getting my mind off the worrying kitsune that is thankfully gone. With one hand Rin slides a screened door-walls open. Soft light of simple lanterns glow in corners of the room, a large futon spread out and waiting in the middle of the floor. A futon large enough for two of me. Or, if I listen to my worried suspicions, one of me and a nighttime visitor.
  1792. Ancestors in your halls, it might have been easier if I went to meet you when I dove into that river. Even if half of you would curse me as a coward. It certainly would have been simpler than being trapped in this home of kitsune for the winter.
  1794. Thinking myself something of a fool I shuffle in beside the kitsune, and while I'm wondering how I'll get peace in this home Rin speaks. "Would you like me to keep you company?"
  1796. I look at the kitsune, wincing from a jolt of pain in my broken and bound arm as she helps me get to the futon. "Will I be left alone if I say no?"
  1798. "I cannot promise that my sisters will allow you that, but I will try to keep them away from you if you truly desire to be alone," she answers, helping me sit. Her tails brush against my back as she stands up, a soft trail of furry warmth.
  1800. I have only one choice, don't I? If I say no then I'll have to deal with Miki and that other kitsune, Shizuka, by myself. Possibly more kitsune if I manage to get those two to leave me alone. That leads me to wonder if Rin planned to trap me into this choice from the beginning. But I can't go accusing the master of this mountain and my host of something like that. Instead, I say, "I won't turn down your company."
  1802. The kitsune smiles and sits close enough to the futon that if I lift my arm I'll end up brushing her.
  1804. "Then might I check your wounds?" she asks, hands in her lap. "You have several cuts on your back, I would like to be certain the trip up here did not cause them to take on a fever."
  1806. "Please do," I say, the faint weight of guilt settling on the back of my neck as I shuffle to put my back to the kitsune. Nervous as I am about putting my back to Rin if she meant me any harm I would not be alive. She has had ample opportunity to end my life or worse. She proved that when she tried to gently ease me out of my panic stricken state instead of having Saki restrain or kill me.
  1808. I struggle to get my good arm out of the sleeve, giving up quickly and bending it toward my broken arm to try and use what little strength I have in that hand to free my one mobile arm. Only for Rin's hands to grab the cloth and guide my arm free, the soft fur of her hands brushing against my skin as she helps me out of the top of my robes. One of her palms rests on my right shoulder, her touch warm and strangely steadying. She lightly presses two fingers against random parts of my back, and I only feel the pads on her fingertips. There is not a trace of her claws even coming close to my skin, the care with which she touches me only pressing that guilty weight down harder on me. The stings of pain when she touches a few spots keep my focused, however, letting me think about the wounds I earned instead of the mistakes made in a senseless terror.
  1810. "How bad is it?" I ask as she keeps prodding parts of my back.
  1812. "Good fortune must favor you, Egil. There is no fever to the cuts. They are healing quickly, and I doubt you will even collect another scar," she says, hand leaving my shoulder.
  1814. "I'll remember the fight well enough without another scar."
  1816. She helps me get my good arm back in its sleeve and moves around to be face to face with me before asking, "Is that what your waking nightmares are?"
  1818. I start to say that there are questions hosts should not ask of a guest, but stop myself before a single word leaves my lips. I'm going to be in her home and care until I can use my shield arm. I already lost myself in her presence once already. For her safety, Rin needs to know about scars no one can see. Yet I cannot bring myself to tell her, or even to deny what she must suspect. My eyes drift away from hers, toward the amulet around her neck, words failing me.
  1820. "Forgive me for intruding," she apologizes, her voice soft and tender. Her polite or commanding demeanor is nowhere to be found, but I don't look away for the amulet of the world tree hanging off her furred neck. "If you carry any scars that cannot be seen I would like to help you. But I would be a poor host to force you to talk of things you wish left in the past so I will not speak of it again."
  1822. "Thank you, Rin," I finally manage to say. All I am is weak this day. "I will think about your offer."
  1824. "Of course. If you wish to speak with a fellow warrior, Saki might be able to understand." She smiles sadly and dips her head in apology. "Forgive me, I will hold to my word now."
  1826. "You've done nothing that needs forgiveness," I tell her. And after a moment's thought, add, "I don't know how you apologize properly in this land, but what I did when you were trying to care for me was unacceptable. I'm sorry for that."
  1828. The smile she shows me carries a hint of gentle sorrow. "You are already forgiven, Egil."
  1830. "I swear I won't lose myself like that again."
  1832. "I will pray for your success at that." If she didn't look so serious I'd think she was mocking me, but nothing in her eyes or expression suggests that.
  1834. At a loss for words, my eyes drift from the kitsune to my broken arm.
  1836. Rin must think I am lost in though since she keeps silent, although she makes no attempt to hide how she watches me. How she stares at me is certainly different from when we met or even when we walked down her mountain together, her eyes and expression now nothing more than a mask of silent contemplation.
  1838. My thoughts drift. If I were in her position, what would I do with a man like me? A stranger, and a foreigner at that, who arrived at her home with a gift of silver trinkets asking for an audience. Who put on a strange show with carved bones and claimed to read fortunes from it, then said he could aid her. I must have seemed a madman, or at least touched in the head. Yet she took up my offer to help with Meiko and has cared for me after I nearly got myself killed. Am I such a strange, dangerous man that she wants to keep an eye on me? Or is it something else that makes he stare at me with such patience?
  1840. My reflections are cut short when the door-wall slides open, the two-tail Miki and seven-tail Shizuka walking in with lacquered trays. Rin does not look at her sisters. Instead, she watches me with mild curiosity. I try to calm myself by looking at the contents of the trays. On one are luxurious bowls the likes of which I'd expect from nobles, yet from the look of it food within is nothing more than rice and some kind of stew. Shizuka sets that one by me, giving me a faint smile that strikes me as too friendly. To my relief, Miki sets the other tray by Rin before the younger kitsune back up and bow. The two kitsune stand by each other, looking to Rin with respect and deference.
  1842. The master of the mountain and home finally looks at the younger kitsune, a gentle and aloof smile shaping her mouth. "Thank you, little sisters. Egil has asked for my company, so tell our siblings that I will be occupied for the evening."
  1844. "Of course, eldest sister," Shizuka says, bowing. "If our guest Egil needs anything, we will gladly provide."
  1846. "Anything he needs or desires," Miki adds, bowing as well.
  1848. "That will be all, little sisters. Thank you."
  1850. Rin looks at me, but I can't help myself. I watch the kitsune leave and catch both of them throw me telling looks. Miki's is the easiest to read, not a hint of regret in the way she smiles and winks at me. Blonde haired Shizuka's warm smile turns from simple to suggestive with how the tips of her tail bend to wave at me. The door-wall slides shut behind them, leaving me alone with Rin and worries about how long this winter might be.
  1852. Rin picks up the jug of rice wine and pours a cup. "If either of them has caught your eye, they would be glad to keep you company in my place. They are free to live their lives as they wish, as are you," she says, offering me the full cup with both hands.
  1854. "Wasn't Saki supposed to bring the wine?" I ask, not touching the cup.
  1856. "She might bring more," Rin chuckles. "But if you mistrust the wine Miki brought, I can taste it."
  1858. A frown creases my lips. I hadn't thought about the wine being poisoned. I doubt any of the kitsune in this home would do that to a guest, or that Rin would allow such a thing to go unpunished. No, I hesitate for fear of seeming to mislead Rin or falling prey to any of her plans. But my choices are few. Turning down drink is inexcusably rude.
  1860. "I'll trust you and your sisters. After all, I am in your care and have pledged my help once I'm healed," I say, taking the cup from her. My fingers brush against her soft fur, and the faint smile on her face widens.
  1862. "Do not worry about helping us, Egil. You have done more than enough for me, my family, and the village," she replies, pouring herself a cup.
  1864. "I will stand by my word," I say, emptying the cup. The rice wine is sweeter than I expected, but the burn in the back of my throat is strong as it is enticing.
  1866. The nine-tail's smile fades as she tips her cup back. "Then do not think of it until you are healed. Until then you are my guest and nothing more."
  1868. I nod in agreement and look to the food. Rin follows my gaze and makes a soft sound of realization. "Would you like my help?" she asks, raising a brow and looking at my arm hanging in a sling.
  1870. "Yes," I sigh, wondering how long it will take my bones to mend. As Rin picks up the bowl of soup to help me eat without spilling everything or looking like a fool, I wonder if I've made a mistake asking for her company instead of Saki's. At least the kitsune that might hate me wouldn't be looking at me so fondly while holding a bowl for me to eat from. I asked for Rin to keep my company, I'll have to live with whatever comes of being around her.
  1872. To my relief she lets me eat without trying to ask me anything. Once I'm done eating she takes the trays and bowls, sets them outside the room, and sits right back beside me. Her blue orbs regard me with interest as she lifts the wine jug and grins at me. "Would you care to drink with me?"
  1874. There are more questions I want to ask this kitsune than I can think of. All of them serious matters of mysteries I should try to solve. But my body aches, my spirit is weary, and I nearly died. I will regret it when I wake up, but I say it anyway. "I'd like that."
  1876. "Shall I fill your cup then?" she asks, not yet reaching for the delicate, bowl-like dish I set aside.
  1878. "We drank fine without cups last time." I might regret saying that in the morning.
  1880. "That we did," she chuckles, offering me the jug of sweet smelling rice wine. At least she is a good company to drink with.
  1882. ---
  1884. My eyes open to dim light and stabbing pain. Lingering wisps of a pleasant dream and the weary weight of my body clashing bitterly, yet not everything in existence causes me misery. Even if it's not bright summer day of my dreams I have the warmth of a clean blanket and furs. I'm safe from the autumn morning inside a familiar building, even if it's a magical home I do not understand. The pain of my battered body lets me know I still live, and gives me a new appreciation for the comforts of a healthy body.
  1886. Hand twitching for a spot near my leg, I stop as soon as I start, reminding myself to trust my hosts and not absent steel. My bruises groan, the cuts on my back sting, my bound arm itches, and to make it all worse my head aches. I moan, mouth feeling parched as my throat, and close my eyes to shut out the oppressive glow of soft light in the room.
  1888. My memory of the night before nothing but a haze after my third turn with the first jug, I realize the nine-tail master of the mountain and I must have shared a superb batch of wine. I recall Saki, still wearing her black clothes fit for fighting, at some point appearing with another jug of rice wine, but beyond that there is only the emptiness of sleep. Flashes of Rin laughing lingered in the hazy parts of my memory. I cling to the hope that I didn't make a fool of myself and offend her as I drank myself into a stupor.
  1890. Sitting up proves impossible, the furs and blankets completely pinning my good arm. I try lifting it up and fail, my feeble strength failing to do more than budge the weight. Before I roll over to extract myself, I remember my left arm isn't moving for a good reason. Thankful for not rolling onto a broken arm, I try to pull the covers off with my legs. I have little success, only hitting my knee into something solid as I flail listlessly.
  1892. Before I can figure out what is beside me, someone groans near my ear.
  1894. Going perfectly still, focusing on my hearing, I realize far too late that there were no furs in the room last night. No fur that wasn't attached to someone. Which means I have company, and from the light groans and shuffle of cloth they're stirring. My unwelcome companion rolls over, taking with them their warmth and soft tails I mistook for loose furs. My heart beating faster and good arm finally free, I grit my teeth against the pain clinging to my upper body and sit up quick as I can.
  1896. Before panic can grip me I have to see who is beside me.
  1898. If I make pitiful sounds getting upright it's lost in the miserable groans of the kitsune I struggle to see. My eyes don't focus until well after the magical fox is sitting as well, one hand on her head and the other keeping her upright. If she meant me harm I would have already been dead, but luck has it that she sounds as dulled as I feel.
  1900. "Egil?" a now familiar voice asks, her head turning so that blue eyes meet my mine. "Please tell me you remember what happened last night."
  1902. "I was hoping you knew," I say, slightly relieved to see that it's Rin. And that she is in her clothes. Not that I am calm about the situation, but I can keep my worry from affecting my judgment with only this much. "Last thing I can remember is Saki bringing more wine."
  1904. Rin stifles a groan, her hand covering her eyes. "It takes far more than two or three jugs to make my head hurt like this."
  1906. Seeing Rin affected as well, my overburdened mind can only go to one place. "I mean no offense, but could one of your sisters have done something to the wine?"
  1908. "Yes," Rin sighs, hand sliding from her eyes and brushing her muzzle before falling to stillness in her lap. "I don't want to believe any of them would be foolish enough to do anything an honored guest or me. However, the ache in my head speaks differently," she says, steely irritation lurking in her voice. "Please forgive the foolishness of my sisters, Egil. I will see to it they know their mistake."
  1910. "Did they intend harm?"
  1912. "I will stake my life on it that they didn't," she swears.
  1914. I nod my head, immediately regretting the motion as the room shifts like I'm on a ship in a storm. Staring at a beam on the ceiling keeps me from toppling over, even as I sway and my stomach churns. "It would be rude of me if I didn't trust the matters of your house and family to you," I say, amazed I can string words together in a half-polite manner, let alone speak.
  1916. "Thank you, Egil. You are surprising and wise as ever," she says, sounding more serious than mirthful.
  1918. I do not wish to argue how foolish I must truly be. I'd fall over if I tried. Thankfully she accepts my silence, returning it with quiet of her own.
  1920. After a while sitting in silence, I hear cloth shuffles as the kitsune stands up. I'm too focused on the marvelously straight wooden beam on the ceiling to see if Rin's grace is affected by the drink we shared. I think about joining her, yet as soon as I get my feet under me I realize my mistake. My vision swims and only by the speed of my good arm do I keep myself from falling over.
  1922. Gritting my teeth, I mutter a string curses in the language of my homeland. If only I wasn't maimed, my arm broken and bound.
  1924. "Do you need help?" Rin asks, stepping close enough I can see the threads in the embroidery on her dress.
  1926. If it weren't for the compassion in her voice my pride might be wounded. I haven't had time to ponder about it, or perhaps I haven't wanted to admit it, but my body is a paying a steep price for that fight. My broken arm makes itself known with another flash of pain, demanding I acknowledge the bleakness of it's future. Breaks that bad never heal right, and even if luck is on my side I'll never have the same strength or swiftness in my shield arm again. At worst I'll barely have use of my hand. A dark, bleak truth I've avoided facing.
  1928. "I do need help," I finally admit, resigning myself to my sad state.
  1930. She bends down, fox face still as a mask, and offers me her hand. Teeth clenched I put my palm to hers, the softness and strength of her touch nearly enough to distract me from how shaky my legs are. Even when she's gotten me onto my feet I can hardly stand up straight, so she gently wraps an arm around my lower back to keep me from swaying. A flutter of panic stirs in my mind at being so close to her, memories of teeth and claws flitting through my mind, but her tenderness and warmth let me regain control of myself. Only my body's pain remains to torment and shame me.
  1932. My poor physical state is not the sole fault of the wine or whatever concoction was slipped into it. This is the price I have to pay. My shield arm broken, if not crippled, in exchange for a man-eater's death and a boy's life. The dull ache in my legs doesn't feel like I suffered any true damage, lifting my spirits some. My lower limbs must be tired and weak from being bedridden the last few days.
  1934. "Let's get you taken care of," Rin softly speaks, helping me walk toward the door-wall.
  1936. I have to wrap my arm around her in kind to stay upright. I'm cautious of where I put my arm, not wishing to place it too low on her back. Without her there I doubt I could walk far on my own. So out of gratitude alone, I say nothing when several tails wrap against my back as we approach a corner. If there is indeed respect between us, she won't try anything more while I'm so wounded.
  1938. "How is the ache in your head?" I ask to distract myself from unnecessary thoughts..
  1940. "Speaking seems to have eased it," she says, looking over at me. "Are you in any pain?"
  1942. "No," I lie, back stinging and bruises miserable, to say nothing of my arm. I hope she'll forgive the small scrap of pride I want to keep alive. "While we're speaking," I say, lowering my voice and trying not to sound beaten down as I feel, "Are there any listening ears?"
  1944. "Only mine," she says confidently, slowing to a stop as we approach a corner in the hall. "Do you wish to ask me something?"
  1946. I appreciate the short rest more than she knows, but press on with my question. "Is it proper for a guest to be leaning on the master of the house like this?"
  1948. She raises a single brow and stares at me. When I say nothing else she chuckles dryly. "I must thank you for worrying about my dignity, but there is nothing wrong with me helping an honored guest in my home. And if there was, well it would only bring greater shame to me if I did not help a friend in need."
  1950. "When did we become friends?" I ask flatly, knowing that I'm being terribly rude.
  1952. "When we shared wine without cups? Or now if you prefer. Unless," she smiles at me mirthfully, her tails softly stroking my back, "You seek something more from me?"
  1954. Whether she speaks honestly or only seeks to play with me to try and lift my spirits, I don't want to know. I have no time for the games of a trickster, nor the will to think about what honesty would mean. "Friendship isn't why I came to this mountain, but I won't turn it down. Not from you."
  1956. She laughs and starts walking again, letting me set the pace while she controls where we go. It might have been a trick of my ears but her laugh seemed to have a sadness buried within. Faulting my dive into a cold river several days ago for that, we carry on out of the building, into a chilly day.
  1958. After we're both relieved from the wine we drank last night, she guides me toward a path I think I remember. Rin graciously listened to my stubbornness about being able to take care of myself, leaving me in a good mood about the idea of her as a friend.
  1960. As we cross one of the walkways toward a building, I think I know what will be waiting inside. A sea of fluffy tails and twitching ears to track my every miserable steps, dozens of eyes watching me with scarcely restrained curiosity. I grit my teeth against the inevitable as we near the sliding door.
  1962. Interestingly, Rin's tails slide off my back, one by one, until the five are gone and only her arm remains to hold me. I'm still trying to figure out if there is any meaning to her placing so many tails on me when she opens the room up, the smell of hot coals and warm food washing out to greet us.
  1964. Inside, around the two large hearths set in the ground, sit only a pair of kitsune, each watching a large pot hanging above each smoldering fire. I recognize both kitsune, stern faced Saki sitting the closest and golden haired Shizuka the farthest from the door. The eight and seven-tail wear identical yellow dresses, the only difference in their clothes being the sashes around their wastes. A blue sash for Saki and white for Shizuka. Both kitsune rise and bow, not to me but their eldest sister.
  1966. Who I regretfully still need to lean on.
  1968. If either younger kitsune are irritated by my necessary closeness with their eldest sister they don't show it.
  1970. Rin greets her siblings with a knowing smile. "Good morning to you both, sisters. Don't stop tending the pots because of me or our honored guest."
  1972. Saki sits back down on her knees, back straight and eyes on the pot, while Shizuka gives another small bow.
  1974. "I will get a cushion for our guest," the seven tailed kitsune says, leaving through another one of those confounding door-walls after Rin gives a nod of approval.
  1976. I don't know if I should be relieved or worried that the golden haired kitsune didn't cast any sort of inviting glance my way. I suspect she's waiting to do that once she's done a favor I haven't asked for. While I worry, Rin urges me toward the hearth Saki sits at. I'm still trying to find the politest way to say I can sit just fine on the ground without a cushion when Shizuka reappears as quickly as she left.
  1978. She clutches far too many flat cushions in her arms, but the burden does nothing to slow her graceful speed. No opportunity to argue or complain presents itself, the seven tailed kitsune placing down seats for everyone present. Conspicuously, with how three of the cushions are arranged, it seems Shizuka plans for me to sit close to at least one kitsune.
  1980. Rin has slightly different plans. She eases me into the middle cushion without a word. I don't try to sit on my knees how the people in this land do, crossing my sore legs as best as I can instead. What I would give for a comfortable chair to rest in, but I can't be ungrateful. The cushion is warmer than the floor and larger than I expected, not one part of me dangling off.
  1982. Before Rin can sit on the cushion to my right, Shizuka speaks up. "Forgive me, eldest sister, but why don't you let me sit there? I can hold his bowl while you eat."
  1984. "I do not wish to trouble you with that, Shizuka," Rin says, voice calm above me as I stare at one of the two bowls sitting near the hearth. They look like simple, but finely made, vessels, and just the right size for a man as big me. Or the kitsune speaking. "You know I won't deny my little sisters their morning meal, even by a moment, if I can help it."
  1986. Saki's ear flicks, drawing my attention. Her brown eyes refusing to leave the pot, she speaks up. "You needn't worry about our stomachs, eldest sister. You and our honored guest were sleeping heavily so Shizuka and I decided to to let everyone eat already."
  1988. I try not to frown. Saki knew Rin slept beside me, the both of us sprawled out like drunk or drugged idiots, and did nothing about it? Looking at the eight-tail kitsune, I can't see even a hint of emotion on her fox-like face. I'll have to watch myself around her, I suspect. More than I have been.
  1990. "Thank you, little sisters. Perhaps we should ask our honored guest what he wishes?" Rin says, drawing my attention up.
  1992. Staring at the two kitsune standing above and beside me I get an unfortunate reminder of their feminine shapes. Of all the details I could notice, that the swell of Shizuka's breasts seems larger than Rin's is the least useful to me. I quickly look back down before my mind wanders uselessly. "I don't wish to trouble anyone," I answer, resolving to eat from a bowl by myself despite having only one functioning hand.
  1994. "If that is what you desire," Rin says placidly, moving behind me and sitting to my left.
  1996. Shizuka sits to my right, a benevolent and warm look on her face, I realize my mistake too late when the golden haired kitsune hands Rin a bowl. As much as I want to argue I can feed myself, the lack of a proper table makes that nothing more than a dream. I bite back a scrap of pride and stare defeated at the coals while Saki fills the bowls. Once mine is full, Shizuka hands me a spoon and holds my dish up gingerly. I can't help but feel a mix of shame and disgrace at the situation, but when I notice she's holding it so I can't see her faint claws my sullen mood eases some. Intentional or not, her hiding her claws makes it easier to accept that I have to rely on my hosts for the time being.
  1998. "I'm grateful for the assistance, Shizuka," I say, hoping once more that kitsune are nothing like faeries when it comes to apologies and gratitude.
  2000. "It is nothing," she replies, pleased voice at odds with her dismissively polite response.
  2002. A thought that the meal might be poisoned rises in me, but fades away quickly. If the kitsune wanted to get rid of me they had more opportunities than I can count, and after last night I doubt whoever spiked the wine wanted a deadly outcome. Besides, looking in the pot I can tell that many bowls worth were served from it before Rin and I came in. Focusing on feeding myself, I try to ignore the softly smiling Shizuka beside me.
  2004. Rin clears her bowl before I do, but once I do finish the nine-tail reaches across and takes the empty vessel from Shizuka. "Would you care for more, Egil?" the master of the house asks.
  2006. "The cooking is good, but I'm too sore to eat anymore," I answer, preferring to give Shizuka a reason to pull away from me instead filling my stomach.
  2008. "As you like," Rin smiles, setting her bowl and mine aside, before handing me an earthenware cup. "But you should at least drink some."
  2010. It's more warm water, the custom strange to me. I drink it all the same, trusting Rin and her fair treatment enough to ignore fears of more poison. I nearly drink it all in one go, the water soothing to my throat, but temper myself. I can't breathe water after all. Once I do empty it I set the cup down, and give my thanks.
  2012. Only for my jaw to tighten when a tail settle against my right thigh. It's all I can do not to look at Shizuka, as I expect she my attention is exactly what she wants. To make matters worse Rin lays a tail of her own against my leg, and then another on my back. I can't help but wonder and worry about their intent. I don't get the chance to ask about it, bluntly or carefully, as Saki finally looks up from the cooking pot and speaks up not a moment after the three tails settle on me.
  2014. "Eldest sister, will you be tending the shrine today?"
  2016. "I will," Rin replies, looking at her dangerous sister and placing another tail against my back. "After we've seen to our guest."
  2018. The kitsune master of the mountain looks down at me, forcing me to turn my eyes from the coals. She allows no chance for me to voice my apprehension, or objection to the tail attention, before she continues to speak. "Egil, would you like to be somewhere more comfortable? We need to check your wounds."
  2020. For someone that woke up with her head aching, the mysterious gleam in her eyes show her to be in good health. Thinking back on it, she hardly seemed affected at all once she stood up. But my suspicions can wait, as all three kitsune are staring expectantly at me for an answer.
  2022. "All of you?" I ask.
  2024. "After your battle I understand that you may wish for seclusion, but the three of us are all skilled with medicine and might see things the other wouldn't." Rin's gaze softens. "That and I cannot be everywhere, even in my home. Shizuka and Saki will be watching over you when I am unable. Saki knows the extent of your wounds, but Shizuka has yet to see for herself."
  2026. "You can trust me, Egil," the golden haired kitsune to my right says, her tail not so subtly moving against my leg. "I've a gentle touch, and I know that it's more than your body that is wounded."
  2028. Prickling discomfort races down my back. It's rude, but my gaze shifts from the kitsune beside me to Saki, who sits like a wooden statue a few paces away. Her cold, brown eyes lift to meet mine, telling me she's been watching everything out of the corner of her eye.
  2030. "Only Shizuka knows about your lingering battle fear," she says, guessing my thoughts.
  2032. Battle fear? Is that what the kitsune thinks it is, and not a shameful terror? I don't know why I'd hoped my great shame would stay a secret. I despise my shameful wounds being spoken of behind my back.
  2034. If I told them of that tiger man-eater would they laugh, pity me, or would fear shine in their eyes? I don't want to know. What happened is between me, the dead, and the village that nursed me back to health. Perhaps the gods as well, but their judgment matters not while I still breathe.
  2036. "I presume," Rin says, commanding everyone's attention with a firm tone as she sits up perfectly straight and looks between her sisters, "You told Shizuka in confidence?"
  2038. "Of course, eldest sister," the two younger kitsune say as one, dipping their heads.
  2040. "I'm glad you treat our guest with such respect, and I trust you will continue to. Now, Egil," she says, voice softening as she stares back down at me, "I apologize for the suddenness of this all, but I would be a poor host and no friend at all I do not look after your wounds properly."
  2042. Shizuka's tail trembles against my leg, while Rin snakes one of hers away from my back. It's as if the kitsune are working together to confound me. To my displeasure, it works regardless of their intent.
  2044. "I understand. Thank you," I reply out of obligation, turning my gaze back to the coals. "Is there somewhere more secluded we can do this?"
  2046. "Of course. The room I've given you will serve our needs," Rin says, rising to her feet, the grace I've come to expect from her movements surprisingly absent as she rises slowly.
  2048. Perhaps her head is bothering her after all. Trying to trust the motivations of these kitsune, and doubtful that whoever tampered with the wine is Rin, I take her outstretched hand and haul myself upright. It hurts to move, but since it's pain I expected I can ignore it. She has to steady me with a hand on my good shoulder, and it isn't until I feel many of her tails wrap around my back that I realize she expects me to lean on her like before. Under the eyes of Saki and Shizuka, I put an arm around their eldest sister's waist and trust my unsteady legs to her gracious support.
  2050. "I will go prepare the room," Shizuka declares, starting for the door-wall.
  2052. Rin clears her throat, stopping the golden hair in her tracks. "Little sisters, it would be please me if both of you walked with me."
  2054. "Of course, eldest sister," the other two kitsune reply as one, Shizuka opening the door-wall for us.
  2056. I try to ignore the sisters, even the one I have to lean on, and focus on putting one foot in front of the other. Eating has cleared my head but my legs fare no better than when I hobbled into the room. Unfortunately, with seven swaying tails guiding me and the warmth of Rin pressed against my back and side, the struggle to maintain even my slow pace is grand. There's no dignity in how I shuffle along, doing all I can to keep a reasonable speed.
  2058. We pass not a single soul on our trip back to the guest room, nor do I feel any eyes watching us. Curious as that makes me, it takes all of my effort to walk and keep track of where I am in this walled off home. If I had to do it I think I could find my way back to the room with the two hearths, or at least the outside of the deceptively large building I've slept in. Which we enter after a short time, giving me another look at how I might navigate. Shizuka stops at one the screen like walls and slides it open, the ruffled futon within quite familiar. Perhaps I could even find this room if I put my mind to it.
  2060. Rin helps me inside with a faint smile on her mouth, while the golden haired Shizuka rushes ahead to smooth out the futon. The only hint of Saki's presence is the sound of wood gliding across wood as the door-wall shuts.
  2062. I'm eased onto the futon once it's straightened up, my legs aching worse once my weight is off of them. There's no possible way for me to sit comfortably, but crossing my legs at least gives me some stability. Looking at the three kitsune, sitting on their knees and unpleasantly close, makes me wince. How do the people in this land endure sitting like that? Even when I'm in shape, doing that hurts my knees if I have to maintain that pose for any length of time long.
  2064. "We need to bare your back and chest," Rin says, moving to my right side while the other kitsune remain in front of me.
  2066. I nod, knowing this examination needs to be done.
  2068. It takes her help to free my arm from it's sleeve, but from there I easily roll the cloth down to my navel. This is the first time I've given my ribs any consideration. An ugly, purple splotch blossoms near the center of my chest, and several smaller splotches scatter along my left side, giving me a fresh appreciation for my aches. The big spot, colored strangely by the scars that cross over it, is wider than I remember the kappas hand being. It must have struck me a few times there, or it's hands were larger than I remember. There is much I don't remember from that battle in the cold, my brightest memory the jolt in my arm when my sword finally caught the beast, so anything is possible.
  2070. "And none of his ribs are broken?" Shizuka asks, drawing Rin's, and my, attention.
  2072. "Saki and I don't think so," the nine-tail answers.
  2074. "Doesn't hurt like broken ribs," I add, prodding a bruise with my thumb, the pain letting me focus on things other than my memories.
  2076. Shizuka nods, and stares at my chest with the detached look I've come to expect from healers and mystics. Her eyes judge my ailments and the actions that could have lead to such injuries, wondering how to fix the problem before her. I'm not a person to her so much as riddle to solve. I much prefer this over the other looks the seven-tail kitsune has given me.
  2078. "The worst is his left arm and the scratches along his back, correct?" Shizuka asks, gaze fixed on my bruises.
  2080. "Yes," Rin says before looking me in the eye. "Egil, we need to be thorough in examining you. Would it calm you if we did not appear as we are?"
  2082. "No," I reply, dreading the idea of being surrounded by three human looking women that are not what they seem. "What you look like won't matter, just be careful with the claws."
  2084. Rin nods and looks to her siblings. "Please do as he requests, little sisters."
  2086. They both bow in acknowledgment, then rise to their feet just enough to come around behind me. I close my eyes and breathe slowly, wishing I had my pendant. Rubbing the symbol of the one-handed god would at least put my spirit at ease, even if my wounds don't compare to the sacrifice he made he is a symbol of victory. I earned something like a victory when I got these wounds, but at least I didn't lose a hand.
  2088. "The cuts are not as deep as I feared," Shizuka mumbles.
  2090. "They started bleeding badly when the kappa was setting his arm," Rin explains, as soft fingertips touch my back.
  2092. "Was he awake for that?"
  2094. "No, I put him to sleep for the bone setting."
  2096. So they're just going to talk like I'm not here? It seems healers, human or not, are the same no matter the land. Annoying as that might be, it's also familiar enough to somewhat ease the tightness in my jaw.
  2098. "I have read texts saying bleeding from shallow wounds can slow when a warrior is still readied for battle. But that does make me worry about the depth of these cuts," Shizuka mumbles as the fingers moving down my back, but at least she's keeping her claws off of me.
  2100. "Rin had to put me to sleep so I didn't kill the kappa," I explain, right hand reflexively reaching for my absent pendant when she prods a bruise.
  2102. "Saki had not told me that," Shizuka says, fingers slowing for a moment. "Even if the cuts had gone to the bone, putting you to sleep was the right choice."
  2104. Another set of fingers touch my back and I try to ignore it. "So they could find the rest of the kappa, right?" I ask, wondering if now I'm speaking out of turn by mentioning the kappa troubles.
  2106. The fingers pause on my back, and something is whispered behind me low enough that I can't make it out. It goes on for dozens of heartbeats, until Rin finally speaks up. "Egil, do you remember how badly your arm was broken?"
  2108. A flash of memory overtakes me, my arm dangling like a new joint had sprouted in my forearm. Why do I have to remember that so vividly?
  2110. "Yes," I say, putting away fears of how well the bones will heal for another time.
  2112. "I can't set bones with even half the skill of the lowest kappa, and I've cared for my many clumsy sisters," she explains, pausing long enough to make me wonder if she's giving either Saki or Shizuka a look. Not that I can imagine someone with as much poise as Saki ever falling out of a tree, except maybe to drive a knife through someone's neck. "Between trusting my skills and a kappa's," Rin continues, "There was no choice to make. Your bones should be fully mended by midwinter, and with diligence your strength back by spring."
  2114. Opening my eyes, I crane my neck until Rin is directly in my sight. Her blue orbs stare right back at me. "Truly? You don't... you're serious?"
  2116. Surprise spreads across her face, the normally polite or aloof expressions she wears nowhere to be found as her ears shift and twitch. A breath later understanding flashes across her eyes. She bows her head sharply, not from embarrassment but in apology.
  2118. "I am most sorry," Rin says, making me uneasy with how quick she is to apologize. "I had not thought you you might worry about the fate of your arm or I would have spoken sooner. Kappa are renowned for their knowledge of bone setting. It will still take time, but your arm will recover completely. The kappa even swore to me that the worst you will face is some pain in the winters, where the bones snapped."
  2120. Before she goes any farther in her apology, I shake my head. "You owe me no apology Rin. I should be thanking you, I'm in your debt for your wise decisions and care."
  2122. "You are not in my debt," she firmly declares, head rising and meeting my gaze. She must see the stubbornness within, as she adds, much more softly, "If you feel you are then we can discuss it some other time. For now we need to finish looking over your wounds."
  2124. "Thank you, Rin," I say, staring back down at my bound arm with some hope for it's future.
  2126. "It is nothing," she says, moving to my left side.
  2128. Her conspicuous closeness drags me away from any distracting thoughts. I'm surrounded by three kitsune, and somehow I let my guard down enough to forget it. The sudden rush from being aware of my surroundings sends a shock down spine. My steady breathing and the focusing on the patient blue orbs Rin stares at me with stays my panic, keeps me from falling into an inexcusable fit of fear.
  2130. "I need to keep your arm still while Shizuka tests your ribs for any breaks we've missed," Rin explains, while keeping her hands to herself.
  2132. I want to say no. I should say no, for their safety and my own. I might be in control of myself now but will I be once fingers, and hidden claws, start prodding my bruised ribs?
  2134. The unwavering calm in Rin's eyes tell me she means no harm. Dangerous as trust might be, Rin has done more than enough to earn a measure of it from me. No matter her reason for sitting in front of me, it's the most dangerous spot and she knows it.
  2136. Eventually I nod, silently entrusting myself to the kitsune. No, I tell myself, to Rin.
  2138. Her furred hands softly reach for the sling holding my arm against my chest, fingers deftly loosening the wrappings. Practiced hands make for swift work, and she's fast. I watch her closely to keep my mind steeled against what is to come, and when the bindings are loosened enough for me to lift it with my own strength a hiss of pain escapes my lips.
  2140. My jaw tightens, brilliant pain burning in my arm as Rin hurries to help me lift the limb, her palm cupping my elbow. The pain lessens once the movement stops, and I glance at my bound arm. Cloth wraps all around my forearm, and if I'm not mistaken there are wooden splints in the mess of cloth. The craftsmanship of the dressing might look crude, but now that my eyes are on it I can tell there is magic involved. My instincts practically scream there's some sort of charm at work. Knowing the magic likely comes from a kappa sets me on edge, but a glance at Rin's calm blue eyes keeps my fear in check.
  2142. I have to trust her. To hold my arm up now and for my recovery through this winter. All the way to dealing with that man-eater in the forest and her lost sister Meiko.
  2144. Rin's faint smile makes me wonder if she's guessing my thoughts and trying to reassure me. Or perhaps she simply wishes to offer me a piece of comfort? I understand the hearts of beasts and dangerous men, but she's neither of those, despite her fox head and furred body. She's something I don't yet understand.
  2146. "My touch is gentle, but even so there will be pain," Shizuka warns from behind, cutting through my distracted thoughts.
  2148. I breathe in, nod, and still flinch when fingers press against my bruises. My good hand grips my knee as I let the air out of my lungs slowly, as animal padded and furred fingers starting to trace my ribs. Three fingers slide from my back toward my chest, tickling my skin. Then chest to back, Shizuka's head moving near my ear, close enough I can feel the faintest touch of her fur. The scent of her breath, laced with hints the meal we ate as well as faint herbal tinge, reaches my nose even though she seems to be keeping her breath shallow. A tension I failed to notice until now eases in my shoulders, the undeniable proof that Shizuka can't be a man-eater a relief I desperately need in this situation.
  2150. My body and mind must be more worn down than I thought. There's no other explanation for why I didn't keep my senses open at our meal for the stench of a man-eater's breath. Rin and Saki I've been around enough to confirm their nature, and that two tailed Miki got close enough to me I know she posed no threat to my life, but knowing for certain with Shizuka makes staying calm much easier.
  2152. "It will be over soon," Rin soothes, silky hand patting my good arm.
  2154. I don't get why she's doing that until I notice there's pain in my knee. Keeping my breathing measured, I relax the grip on my leg, the pain vanishing only for the fingers testing my ribs start roughly poking my bruises. Rin's warm touch lingers on top of my good hand, and I don't pull away. I'm too focused on keeping my wits to worry about small things like propriety or a kitsune's intentions.
  2156. "There are no breaks, while the bruises are only of the flesh," Shizuka finally declares, fingers disappearing in a shuffle of cloth as her presence behind me lessens. "The cuts are shallow but long. Keeping an eye on them is of the utmost importance. However, with rest, warm meals, and patience there is nothing that won't heal."
  2158. Rin nods. "Thank you, Shizuka. It's good to have your confirmation."
  2160. That must be some kind of signal, as the two kitsune behind me move into my line of sight. Rin lets my arm back down gently, hands working to tighten the sling against my body. It hurts, far too much of me hurts actually, but if it's true that my wounds won't linger then I'll gladly accept the pain.
  2162. "Might I ask you both of you to aid in his recovery?" Rin asks, not even sparing her siblings a glance as she fusses over my sling.
  2164. My mouth opens, as I want to be stubborn, but a jolt of pain in my arm keeps me from speaking rudely. Rin seems to slow down, and I wonder if she noticed my hesitation or if I let any pain show on my face.
  2166. "We would be glad to help, eldest sister," the younger sisters say as one, both dipping into shallow, sitting bows.
  2168. Shizuka sounds happy, while Saki's voice is an icy mystery.
  2170. "I thank you both," Rin says, reaching over to help me with my clothes. "I hope that does not disturb you, Egil. I have duties I must attend to periodically, but between the three of us there will always be a helping hand nearby."
  2172. Musing it over, and wondering if Rin is looking out for me by limiting the kitsune who be nursing me, I stay my tongue a moment longer. Until I've got my arm back in a sleeve. Knowing that I have to accept the gracious help of the kitsune of this mountain to survive the winter, I nod to Rin, dipping my head a bit. "I'm grateful for the hospitality of you and your sisters. I'll strive to not be a burden on your home while I am in your care."
  2174. "There is no need to speak so formally to a friend," she chuckles, leaning back now that she's satisfied with the state of my clothes. "All you must do is rest while staying here Egil."
  2176. "Forgive my interruption," Shizuka speaks up, continuing only when her eldest sister gives a slight nod. "Egil, you need to rest sitting up as much as you can to let your cuts heal. However, when you sleep it should be on your back to protect your arm."
  2178. I nod at the sensible advice, which seems to be enough for Shizuka, an approving smile spreading on her fox mouth.
  2180. Rin looks favorably at her sisters. "You don't need my leave to say such in the future, dear little sisters. I asked for your help for a reason, my eyes do not catch all that happens."
  2182. "We understand," Shizuka says, bowing in acknowledgment along with the silent Saki.
  2184. The nine-tail master of the house turns a polite smile my way. "Shizuka has quite the skill with medicines and tasks of the home. And while dear Saki might seem intense she has a deep, contemplative spirit. I'm sure you'll feel at ease around them both before you know it."
  2186. To that I can only give a faint nod, trying not to cast suspicious glances at the two kitsune in question. Saki might very well hate me, no matter what she's said. Shizuka, well I worry what she will do if I'm left alone with her. But for now I'll let a sliver of my trust in Rin extend to her family.
  2188. Rin dips her head. "Do you wish to be left alone to rest, Egil? You look quite tired."
  2190. "The weariness from waking up doesn't seem to have left me," I admit, a glint flashing in Rin's eyes.
  2192. "It lingers with me as well," she says. My mind turns to the mystery of why we both woke up in such a wretched state, and the chance a kitsune in the home got poison past us both. But as I promised, that is a matter I'll leave up to Rin. "Even so," Rin continues, "There are always duties for me to attend as the master of the house. So if you have no objections, I'll leave Saki with you. I have need of Shizuka's skills this morning."
  2194. "That is fine with me," I reply, suspecting I'll be safer around the eight-tail than any other kitsune except Rin.
  2196. The twitch of Shizuka's tails is all that betrays what must be a measure of disappointment at my response, while Saki remains expressionless as a wooden carving.
  2198. "What can I help you with, eldest sister?" Shizuka asks.
  2200. "You will find out soon enough, little sister."
  2202. There's nothing cold in Rin's polite voice, but the way Shizuka's calm demeanor dulls tells me enough. The golden haired kitsune is probably suspected in having some role in why we remember little of last night. But as promised, Rin can deal with her family matters. I might be a fool putting so much trust in her, but the master of the hosue had no obligation to keep me alive or invite me into her home. Let alone forgive me after I shamefully lost control of my terror. The compassion Rin showed me, without a hint of fear in her eyes, is worthy of my respect and gratitude.
  2204. "Of course, eldest sister," Shizuka says, voice undisturbed.
  2206. "Before we go," Rin says, gazing upon me favorably with her blue eyes, "Is there anything we can do for you, Egil?"
  2208. "I'm in no shape to ask for my weapons back," I admit. "But I would like my belt and pendant back. And if it is not too much trouble, you wouldn't happen to have a stool or something I can sit on to rest?"
  2210. She stares at me for a moment, before dipping her head apologetically. "I am most sorry, we don't have any stool that can be put on the tatami," she says, my eyes looking down at the woven mats used for flooring. Is that the word for them, tatami? So much fancier than dirt or crude wood floors. "I will see that cushions are brought for you to lean on, however."
  2212. "I can see to that, eldest sister," Shizuka offers.
  2214. "Do not trouble yourself, little sister. We both need to be on our way, so we can see to it together," Rin smiles.
  2216. Shizuka doesn't so much as flinch. "As you say, eldest sister."
  2218. "If she can't, perhaps I can," Saki offers.
  2220. Rin shakes her head. "We all known several of our sisters are lurking just out of earshot, waiting to see if they might get a chance to see our guest. Shizuka and I will have one of our less troublesome sisters bring what Egil has asked for."
  2222. "That sounds most wise," Saki says. "Tell whoever you find that his belongings are with my weapons."
  2224. "Thank you, Saki. Now," Rin says, rising to her feet, "I truly must be off. I shall see you tonight Egil, as I fear my duties will keep me all day."
  2226. "You and all your sisters have my thanks, Rin," I say polite as I can, staying put even though I feel I should rise out of politeness.
  2228. "It is nothing Egil," she softly smiles. She turns her gaze to her golden haired sister, who quickly rises to her feet without any further prompting. "We have much to discuss, little sister."
  2230. Rin doesn't wait for Shizuka before opening the door-wall we came in by, and her seven tailed sister follows with fluid steps. Even though my body is battered and my mind weary, I can see there is a stiffness in her tails and a mysterious, almost apologetic, look in her eyes when she glances back at me. The door-wall shuts before I can understand Shizuka's look, but I have a few guesses. None of which are my problem right now, so I breathe in slight relief out now that I'm left alone with Saki.
  2232. Met with only silence from the eight-tail, I accept the quiet. Unnerving as Saki might be, especially after seeing her with weapons and having a knife pressed against my neck, I feel safer in her presence than I should. If she tried to kill me, I either wouldn't see it coming or would meet my end at the edge of the blade face to face, which I suspect would only happen at Rin's word. Most importantly Saki seems to want nothing to do with me, unlike so many of these other kitsune. To her I must be nothing more than an annoyance in my injured state, or perhaps she sees me as easier to put down should I lose control of myself.
  2234. I close my eyes to dispel those thoughts and try to get more comfortable while seated on the floor, tugging my clothes close as I can with one arm and wondering in what land I left my good sense. Is it the hospitality, Rin's sometimes shifty but pleasant personality, my wounds, or the care with which I've been watched over with that is starting to make me let my guard down? Perhaps even my age is starting to catch up to me. It was going to happen sooner or later, my body and mind starting to dull.
  2236. "Would you like help with a blanket?" Saki asks, startling me out of my reflective thoughts.
  2238. Choking back an insistence I can manage, the memory needing Rin's support to walk on my weak legs too fresh for stubbornness like that, I reluctantly nod. "If it isn't too troublesome."
  2240. "It is no trouble," she says without a hint of emotion, rising and moving closer to me.
  2242. She gathers the blanket from the futon and brings it around my back, the cloth gentle on my neck as she lays it across me. With great care she brings the blanket around my left side, her brown eyes watching me coldly. Reaching for the blanket with my good arm, I accidentally brush against her furred hand. Saki jerks upright, standing imposingly above me as her ears swivel.
  2244. My heart beats faster, my body tensing to the discomfort of my bruises, and try to think about only breathing so I stay calm. Saki stands still as an old oak, until suddenly her head snaps toward the screen door-wall.
  2246. "Saki?" an uncertain, womanly voice asks outside, causing me to jump in startle. "Are you in here?"
  2248. "Yes, Yuuko," the eight-tail responds, taking a step away from me.
  2250. "Could you get the door?" the voice outside asks. "My arms are full."
  2252. With her steps doing nothing to disrupt her poise, Saki reaches the door and opens it up, revealing a mound of cushions hiding all but the lower dress, and a few tails, of a kitsune. I breathe out nervously and look down at my wounded arm. I'm not in danger here, I'm only a wounded man trusting his hosts. I have to believe that or I'm no better than a mindless beast out of control.
  2254. The door-wall clatters shut, making me look up in anticipation of another kitsune coming in. Except there is only Saki and a pile of cushions beside her at the door. She picks up all but two cushions, each of them looking aged but comfortable, and returns to me.
  2256. "Forgive my poor manners," she says, bowing politely despite her burden.
  2258. "None of you need to apologize so much," I say, tongue heavy in my mouth even if it's easy to speak openly with Saki. "I'm in the care of you kitsune sisters, you don't need to be so formal."
  2260. She nods and comes to my good side, setting the cushions down. Saki drops to her knees and starts arranging the cushions by me, her brown eyes avoiding my gaze. Every move she makes is laced with disciplined haste, and before I know it she's got the cushions stacked up for me to lean my good side into. Is her hurry because of her general distaste for me, or something hidden behind her icy gaze?
  2262. No matter the reason, I know half-hearted words can do only harm. Holding my tongue, I try to get comfortable by easing my weight into the cushions while doing what I can to avoid straining any of my bruises. Moving my chest hurts and my broken arm twinges with a spike of agony if I'm not careful moving it, but pain and I are old traveling companions. The worst of it passes quickly and a shaky sigh tries to escape my lips, exhaustion weighing down on my limbs as I settle in. A mound of cushions might be better than a chair after all.
  2264. Saki sits nearly an arm's distance from me, her eyes watching me without actually focusing on me. A gentle sway in one of her tails is all the warning I get before she asks, "May I speak openly?"
  2266. "Please do," I reply, watching her eyes for any sign emotion.
  2268. Staring directly ahead and not at me, she curls her hands into fists in her lap before speaking. "Did something happen to you and Rin last night?"
  2270. Does she suspect we did more than talk? No, that can't be it, not if she knew we slept so long. Does she have suspicions about the possible poisoning? I glance toward the screen walls, doing nothing to hide my suspicion.
  2272. Saki's ears swivel, but her head doesn't move. "Only our ears listen."
  2274. That would mean something entirely different with the faeries, but with these kitsune I doubt there is any deeper meaning or crafty deception. Still, I can't risk offending the master of this house, or my absent friend, by speaking too freely. "We might have enjoyed the wine too much."
  2276. "Is that why you've both been moving so slowly?"
  2278. "You should ask Rin about that," I say. "I haven't noticed, and even if something happened I promised to stay out of it.."
  2280. "Did one of my sisters do something to the wine?" she asks, cold eyes finally looking at me. A shadow crosses her face and she drops into a regretful bow as soon as she realizes what she's asked. "Forgive me, even speaking openly I am out of line. You're injured and you made a promise to eldest sister, I should trust her judgment and let you rest."
  2282. "You haven't offended me, Saki, and you don't need to bow your head." She straightens, quite reluctantly, after I say that. I meet her cold gaze with a tired smile. "I promise you, Saki, whatever happened I will leave it to Rin. I'd be a poor friend to her if I didn't keep my word about that."
  2284. "Thank you. On behalf of my sisters, I am sorry for any trouble they have caused you," the kitsune says as she drops into a bow of total submission, her face hidden.
  2286. The apologies are wearing my patience thin.
  2288. "If you'll stop bowing like that I'll gladly accept the apology," I say, not comfortable seeing someone who once had a knife to my neck now like this.
  2290. She doesn't rise. "My sisters are restless from staying on the mountain so long. Even with Rin, Shizuka, and I endeavoring to keep our little sisters in line, I cannot assure there will be no further trouble from them. I must beg you to remain understanding, and seek out my help if they start to bother you. As Miki did, or anything else they might think clever."
  2292. "Of course," I say, realizing I'm nodding my head and she can't see it. "Your sense of duty towards guests and your sisters is admirable, and your help with Miki is still appreciated. So please, raise your head."
  2294. Several of her tails shift, the motions like waves on a sea of fur. "Thank you, Egil," she says before rising with all of the dangerous grace I've come to expect from her.
  2296. I nod. Her eyes still lack warmth as she stares at me even after saying my name, but I'll gladly take it as a sign she's taking me seriously.
  2298. "Is there anything I can do for you or do you simply wish to rest?" she asks.
  2300. Grateful we're past apologies, my eyes drift to the two cushions by the door-wall, and an exposed bit of leather that looks a lot like my belt. Glad as I am to see my belt, it's not what I want back right now. "Do you know what happened to my pendant?"
  2302. Her hands reach for the neck of her clothes, where her fur seems to somewhat fuller, and a worry about her intentions sparks in my gut. She does hate me, or at least dislike my presence around her family, right? My worries fade a moment later as her fingers emerge, lifting a silverwrought rune attached to a leather cord. Seeing her neck fur faintly ruffled I wonder if she's kept the fur down in her clothes before now or if the coming winter is affecting her fur, as it does some animals.
  2304. "Rin left it to me for safekeeping," she says, gaze shifting toward my one good arm instead of offering me my pendant.
  2306. Oh. Even saying nothing she has a good point, but would I rather look like a fool or ask for her help with something so simple?
  2308. I don't need my dignity, but my trust only goes so far. "Thank you for doing that," I say, holding my good hand out, "But why didn't you mention it when I asked earlier?"
  2310. "Rin would have offered to put it on you, and I did not want to slow her down," she explains, letting the pendant drop into my palm.
  2312. I'll just have to believe Saki's icy expression is truthful. I throw the cord over my head, no doubt looking like an idiot as it gets stuck on each of my ears. The feeling of simple accomplishment is worth it when the rune rests against my chest once more, my thumb tracing the symbol of the one-handed god.
  2314. Following his example has certainly lead me to interesting places, even if my wandering is more like that of the one-eyed god. Letting go of the warm and familiar silver, I nod to the kitsune. "Thank you. If it's okay with you, I'm going to try and get some rest."
  2316. Saki dips her head in acknowledgment. "I will wake you if anything happens. Do not hesitate to ask for anything."
  2318. Knowing she's not going to leave the room, I close my eyes and hope that sleep does come to me. If it doesn't I'm going to have to start reciting stories under my breath to pass the time. Which sounds a lot safer than trying to hold a conversation with Saki.
  2320. ---
  2322. Time quietly passes in the room they've settled me in. Sleep finds me now and again, but jolts of pain keep waking me whenever I try to move my broken arm in my asleep. After a while, and with great reluctance, I ask Saki to help me stand and guide me somewhere I can relieve myself. Without a word or hint of her thoughts she rises and comes over, offering me a hand up. Staring her in the eye to ignore her claws, I grasp her palm, the soft fur yielding to firm strength beneath. There's gentleness in how she hauls me up, and consideration in the way she sidesteps to let me lean against her.
  2324. Still silent, she crooks her elbow and looks at me. I understand and lock my good arm with hers, and we set off. She sets the pace but doesn't hurry me at all, instead matching my weary pace perfectly.
  2326. To distract myself from her cold eyes focused only on the path ahead I keep my eyes open and ears clear, listening for any hint of lurking kitsune. Yet only polished floors and clean walls pass us by, the sound of our breathing and my lumbering steps our only company. Either the many fox sisters know better than to risk being sensed by Saki or they have duties to attend, as I cannot feel the tingle of eyes upon me. Even once we make the return trip, I am truly alone with the ever silent Saki.
  2328. We step back into the room I've been put in, and as my feet touch the woven mats inside my legs give up supporting me. Dropping like a stone in water, I instinctively try to reach out with my left arm, my mouth opening in a silent grimace of pain as the bindings, bruises, and broken bones opens a dam of pain. Weakness I've kept back floods through my body, but that's not enough to stop my good hand from weakly grabbing at anything stable. Silk catches in my fingers, but it can't hold my weight, coming down with me as I continue toward the floor.
  2330. Before I hit the mats in a heap of weary pain, a flurry of cloth and fur whips through the air. A leg slides in between mine, Saki vanishing as I'm tugged into a half roll. Having only scattered glimpses of the world turning up, I land on something soft and supple, my gaze on the ceiling..
  2332. Holding my breath against a wave of pain, bruises and bones screaming their fury through my flesh, I breathe out once the worst passes. Checking my broken arm is still tucked in the sling, I let my head rest back against a cradling, inviting softness.
  2334. A softness that rises with the breath of a living being.
  2336. "Are you okay?" Saki asks, an edge of emotion in her voice, perhaps even something like concern making it's way out of from behind her cold nature.
  2338. Staring at the rafters of the ceiling I wiggle my toes, then shift my ankles. Nothing more than exhaustion and the dull burn of fatigue in my legs. "I'm fine," I eventually answer, feeling weak as newborn. "I only lost my footing."
  2340. "It's fortunate I caught you," she says, a hand cupping my right shoulder gently, I'd say almost reassuringly if it weren't Saki.
  2342. "How did you do that?" I ask, my heart pounding heavily and limbs still too weak to move.
  2344. "Do you mean how I caught you?"
  2346. "Yes."
  2348. "Years of practicing what my father taught me," she answers, my body grateful for the time this is giving me to recover. "The skills of warrior, you might call it."
  2350. Surprised to be holding something like a normal conversation with her, despite laying on her in some manner, feel my heart's beat start to ease. "You certainly move like a warrior."
  2352. "Thank you," she says quietly. "Even with your injuries, you have good instincts."
  2354. Unsure of how to answer that, I stare up at the ceiling and wait for my hear to calm. Losing my balance like that was downright shameful. I'm afraid to find out how bad things will be once I can sit or stand upright once more.
  2356. Several quiet, tense moments later she asks, "Has strength returned to your legs? Or do you need to rest more?"
  2358. Blinking, I belatedly realize what the softness my head rests on must be, an embarrassed warmth filling my cheeks. I start struggling to sit up, Saki's hand on my shoulder giving me a helpful push. Grinding my teeth against a new wave of pain, I scurry off the kitsune before the situation becomes unrecoverable. I turn around to face her right as she sits up, her hands adjusting her clothes. Her blue sash is loose and low, while her dress lies askew, pulled down past her shoulders, revealing her furred bosom. Tightly wrapped silk restrain her breasts, and my eyes darting away before I notice any more.
  2360. I caught her clothes in my panic, I realize while staring at the ceiling, and somehow landed with my head between her breasts. Even her chest is wrapped, that's not an indignity I wanted to inflict on her, fresh embarrassment stinging my face. Fear crosses my thoughts as well, of what offense I have caused the dangerous kitsune. Yet once her clothes are in order and her gaze falls upon, demanding I look at her, she seems utterly unmoved the event.
  2362. "You are certain you're unhurt?" she asks calmly, as if I hadn't nearly tugged her clothes off or laid on her for who knows how long.
  2364. But, if she won't mention any of what happened then I certainly won't either. "No more than when I came up this mountain last time."
  2366. "It is good you are unhurt. I will be more attentive of your steps next time," she says, dipping her head in silent apology, ears facing the floor.
  2368. "Thank you," I say, at odds with myself on what to say. "Sorry for losing my balance."
  2370. "There is no need to apologize. I should have paid more attention to what your injuries have done to you," she says, maintaining her apologetic pose. "I will do better."
  2372. "You caught me fast as the wind, I don't think I need to worry about landing on my broken arm around you."
  2374. Her head raises and she nods. "I won't let you fall again."
  2376. I nod, knowing better than to bind her to that sort of promise.
  2378. "Do you have the strength to move?" she asks, her cold gaze shifting inquisitively to the stack of cushions.
  2380. I reluctantly nod, and she helps me get back to the futon, guiding me to my knees with a single arm and leading my slow shuffling with the faintest of pressure on my arm. I settle back against the pile and then suffer through the awkwardness of being made comfortable by someone else arranging my blanket. She's thankfully quick about it.
  2382. Once I'm comfortable and offering no complaint, she nods. If she took offense to having to catch me in such an undignified manner or my accidental flailing, I cannot find it in her passive expression. Then again the eight-tail hides her emotions well.
  2384. "If you need anything please asks," she says, retreating to just outside my reach, sitting on her knees and facing a wall instead of me.
  2386. She does blatantly keep me in the edge of her vision, one of her furry ears turning toward me. Finding it difficult to watch the fox without my thoughts straying toward what happened a few moments ago, I close my eyes.
  2388. I must slip back to sleep at some point, as the next thing I know my eyes open to see a four tailed kitsune entering the room. She holds two trays, each with legs, of food stacked in one hand and a jug of water in her other hand. The light in the room glows differently, leaving me to think it's past noon, but that makes no difference in getting a good look at this new kitsune. She's taller than Saki, but thinner and without the same dangerous poise as the eight-tail. Like Shizuka, the four tailed kitsune has hair, only hers is lustrous black and held back by a jade hairpiece shaped like an unfamiliar flower.
  2390. She sets a tray down in front of me with a friendly smile, but her attention quickly turns to her sister who has a tray placed in front her.
  2392. "Thank you, Yuuko," Saki says, "The raised trays were an excellent idea. Please make certain they are brought for all of our guest's meals."
  2394. "Yes, Saki," the four-tail says with a bow, to her sister and then me, before leaving.
  2396. Looking at the food on the trays, I see cooked rice formed into little squares and stacked side by side. There's obviously something in the rice, but I can't tell what it is from the mild smell. Saki, having silently gotten closer to me, pours water into the cup on my tray, the curls of steam distracting me from the tension in my jaw and back. Even if I'm supposed to trust these kitsune, I don't like that I lost track of Saki's presence because food came before me.
  2398. "It's called tonjiki, shaped rice to be eaten with your hands," Saki says, perhaps thinking I'm wondering what the food is. "I believe a few have pickled plum in them as well."
  2400. Coincidence or the act of a thoughtful kitsune, I'm glad to have something that doesn't take much thought to eat. Saki seems content to go back to silence and I don't feel like conversation, so she moves away to eat from her tray. When I try the tonjiki, as she called it, there's a slightly sour, but not unpleasant, taste. Better than eating plain rice, which is itself a luxury in this land. I can't help but notice that when Saki puts one of the squares in her mouth, there's a rhythmic swishing to her tails that lines up with her chewing.
  2402. Knowing it's beyond rude to watch my host so intently or leave food behind, I focus on my own meal. Even so, I can't help but notice Saki seems pleased with the food even if it doesn't show on her lips.
  2404. With difficulty I finish, the sourness of the plums lingering on my tongue even after I drink a few cupfuls of water. To my relief starts to fade when Yuuko comes back in to collects the trays.
  2406. Watching her work with curiosity, and noticing she moves more like Saki than Rin, I find my eyes keep darting to her hair. But what has me most curious is her apparent indifference to me. She smiles and bows politely, but there is no secretive glance back at me or errant touch of a tail when she steps past. She and Saki exchange a few words, then Yuuko heads out with the trays held delicately in front of her. I can only hope her indifference and lack of secretive glances mean she's not interested in me, unlike the kitsune I've dealt with so far.
  2408. Saki, after the meal, appears content to sit kneeling on the floor in silence, her eyes closed but ears attentively twitching toward the smallest noise. Even though she looks so relaxed I can only imagine she's coiled like a snake, ready to strike or snap into startling action without a moment's hesitation. I decide to leave her alone, and not solely for fear any conversation will turn to the awkward situation earlier. I want to rest, not talk.
  2410. I leave her to her thoughts and start reciting silent tales, my lips at the edge of movement, tongue silent. Even unspoken, the words of my homeland comforting.
  2412. Half the tale of a particularly arrogant dragon slayer silently crosses my lips by the time the light leaking in from outside grows dim. Saki gets up and retrieves several lanterns hidden in the rafters, lighting them with an eerie blue flame that leaps from the tip of her tail and into her hand like a cricket. Once the lanterns are lit with orange light, the blue flame she summoned fizzles out. Her task complete she returns to sitting still as a statue, aside from the occasional flick of an ear, and I go back to reciting a saga I can't focus on anymore.
  2414. My eyes must drift shut, as they open suddenly and I see Saki rise to her feet. Ears turning toward the door, her eyes looking to me, she says, "Rin approaches with two others."
  2416. I sit up to the greeting of pain from my bruises, cuts, and broken bones. Itching, burning, and knife sharp agony clamor for my attention but don't get much of it. Saki slides open the door-wall, revealing the nine tailed Rin standing with a noble, intense look on her face. She lets her tails drift down, revealing the two downcast kitsune staring at their feet just behind her.
  2418. Stepping in first, Rin stands aside so Miki and Shizuka and can enter. "Saki," the master of the house says, blue eyes glowing from a source other than the lanterns, "Would you see to dinner?"
  2420. "Of course," the quiet eight-tail says with a bow. "For how many?"
  2422. "Three if you wish to join Egil and I. These two," Rin waves dismissively at the two sisters who have yet to raise their gazes, "Won't be here long."
  2424. Saki bows again and leaves without a second glance behind her, the screen clattering shut once her tails are clear. Rin folds her hands, hidden in her long sleeves, in front of her. Though they couldn't have possibly seen it, the other two kitsune sit down as if signaled. From there they put both hands on the floor and bend forward, their head touching the floor and tails laying flat in a pose of utter submission.
  2426. "We are so sorry for causing trouble," they say in near unison, Miki's voice notably distressed.
  2428. I look to Rin for an explanation. She lifts a hand, holding her fingers as if she had a cup, and brings it to her mouth. My eyes narrow, guessing that this must be about what happened last night. I look to the two apologizing kitsune and wonder what I'm supposed to do, and why Rin is doing this at all. I said I'd stay out of this and now the potential culprits have been brought to me.
  2430. Miki raises her head enough to look at me before dropping back to the prostration. "I never meant to trouble our honored guest and eldest sister," she blurts out.
  2432. My guess that this is about how Rin and I woke up. Poisoning? Rin said she would detect it, but a glance into her blue eyes leaves me thinking she's more upset than I could possibly be about this.
  2434. "I tampered with the wine to aid in your sleep," Shizuka says, head not lifting off the ground and hair messily splayed out in a golden half circle on the floor. "I only wished to let you and eldest sister sleep easier. I should not have done that and beg forgiveness. If not for me then for Miki, she had no idea what I did."
  2436. "I did not know what elder sister had done, but that does not forgive me," Miki exclaims. "Forgive Shizuka, not me. I have caused our honored guest trouble twice now, for the same reasons. I wanted you and eldest sister to sleep instead of spend time together so I spiked the wine as well, but I did not know Shizuka had put enough to make you sleep in there. With what I added it could have made you both sick."
  2438. Exhausted by all the apologies I've received today, I touch my pendant and look at Rin. She dips into a bow that strikes me as too deep.
  2440. "I am sorry to bother you with this Egil," she says, and I do my best not to groan at yet another apology. "But they both wished to apologize as soon as possible. And since they've affected us both, I think it is only fair that you suggest the severity punishment."
  2442. The weight of my pendant doesn't change, but it feels heavier nonetheless. Does Rin test me, or is this sincere? Not that it changes how I will handle such an offer. "Their punishment is entirely in your hands, Rin. I promised you I wouldn't get involved and I intend keep it that way."
  2444. The master of the house rises from her bow.
  2446. "Is it that you forgive my foolish little sisters?" she asks, placid eyes impenetrable.
  2448. No, there's an unimaginable weight deep in her gaze, even if it's nowhere in how she gracefully conducts herself. Only it's not directed at me. I want to turn my eyes away, but with my body battered I feel dangerously stubborn. If she wants to me look away I refuse, even if my words are anything but defiant. "I can forgive, conditionally," I reply.
  2450. Rin nods, encouraging me to continue.
  2452. "I ask Miki and Shizuka thrice swear to never again tamper with food or drink of guests, family, or good people ever again."
  2454. The two kitsune in question do just that once I stop speaking, talking over each other in their hurry. I can hardly hear them until they slow down and go one by one, spurred on by the faintest hint of false cough from Rin.
  2456. The oath is the same for both, Shizuka starting it. "I swear not to tamper with food or drink of guests, family, or good people," they swear three times.
  2458. They aren't faeries so I can't be certain they're bound to their thrice given word, but I'll believe their earnest hurry to apologize means they'll take it to heart.
  2460. "Be sure that you keep your thrice given word," I warn them, their ears twitching. "It's more valuable than gold or silver, and the price paid for breaking it is just as heavy."
  2462. "We will keep our word," Miki swears, peeking up before dropping her head back down.
  2464. "We will," Shizuka promises. "Do you wish us to swear that three times as well?"
  2466. "I will trust the word of my hosts," I say before turning my attention to Rin, who stands so serenely behind her sisters it's as if the nine-tail is from another world altogether. "What does the master of the house have planned for them?"
  2468. "Both will be missing dinner and cleaning throughout the night for giving me a headache," Rin declares. "And Miki, my dear littlest sister, she is forbidden from setting foot outside the walls until I say otherwise. Shizuka's punishment for doing something so rude to our guest, when she should know better than anyone else, is to ensure Miki obeys her punishment. If not she will share responsibility for whatever Miki does."
  2470. "Thank you for your leniency, eldest sister," both say, still prostrated on the floor in the awkward way of this land.
  2472. "I am sorry to trouble you with one final matter, Egil," Rin says, looking to me. "If this incident has you worried about Shizuka's dedication to helping you recover, I will see to it another of my sisters will take her place."
  2474. Rubbing my pendant, I shift my weary legs and sigh. The silence from Shizuka is most telling. Her ears laying flat, golden hair spread messily about on the woven mat - tatami - floor, she awaits my decision with utter deference. I have no doubt that Rin speaks truthfully, yet I suspect she had Shizuka see my injuries because of trust in the golden haired kitsune's knowledge. I'd have been a dead fool already if I turned away the assistance of a good healer. I don't want to start doing that now.
  2476. "I will trust she'll keep her promise," I say, concerned I've just condemned myself to trouble.
  2478. The trust I've extended makes my stomach sink lower than I thought it would. There's no reaction from the two prostrated kitsune. Their eldest sister, however, looks at me with a favorable light in her eyes.
  2480. "You are a man of great mercy," Rin says, bowing gently. "Take care little sisters, patient and forgiving as our guest is I will not be should you act so thoughtlessly again."
  2482. The two prostrated kitsune keep quiet, which seems to please their eldest sister. "Both of you may leave." Her eyes narrow and voice drops so slightly I hardly notice, "But only if our honored guest is satisfied."
  2484. "I'm content," I reply instantly, glad that this drawn out apology is at an end. "But I warn you both, Miki, Shizuka. Breaking a thrice sworn oath will bring only misery," I say, hoping that remains true in this land.
  2486. Both of Miki's tails twitch and Shizuka's ears flinch at my words. The sisters' movements don't escape Rin's attention, a thin smile crossing her face before she says, "Do keep your oaths little sisters. Now go, make yourselves useful and leave us be."
  2488. Silently the offending sisters rise. They bow to Rin, me, offer more remorseful apologies I don't want to hear but have to accept, then they leave the room. Neither kitsune looks back at me, their tails don't even flick suspiciously. The door-wall simply slides shut with a clack and I'm left alone with the master of the house.
  2490. Rin lifts a hand, sleeve sliding down her arm and black furred finger resting against the front of her mouth to ask for silence. I nod and she lets her hand drop before coming closer. An arms length from me she kneels down to sit, her blue eyes shifting from my bound arm to my face. She makes no attempt to hide the guilt that tugs at her mouth and eyes, saying more than she ever could with words.
  2492. Once she's settled she speaks, gentle calm returning to face. "We can talk during dinner. And after I will check your back for you."
  2494. Not a heartbeat after she speaks the door-wall slides open, Saki and Yuuko coming in with two food laden trays. The smell of warm rice, roasted fish, and some sort of vegetable soup have my near complete attention. Saki sets the raised tray down in front of me, her cold eyes watching me without actually falling on me as she steps back. Rin doesn't hide how she looks at me and the food placed before me, but Yuuko remains as mystery as she stands aside after placing Rin's tray.
  2496. It hasn't escaped my notice that the food is nothing like the easy to eat tonjiki from before. I desperately want to search Saki's expression and posture for a hint of some sort of plot, but I know I'll find nothing. Regardless, I doubt she'd make life for Rin more difficult by allowing for this kind of meal unless there was a greater reason. And only food for two has been brought, making it impossible for me to guess the eight-tail's thoughts.
  2498. Giving up on finding any plot or plan, I tell my watchers, "I can feed myself."
  2500. Rin nods, then glances at the other two kitsune. Both bow and leave as silently as they entered. After several heartbeats the nine-tail lets out a tired sigh, but soon as I look at her she's wearing a smile like a mask.
  2502. "Do not hold back for me," Rin says, picking up a pair of those infuriating eating sticks they use in this land. "We're friends, we should eat without reservation."
  2504. Looking down at my tray, I see a pair of eating sticks waiting. I should have asked for my knife back just so I can eat comfortably, except I can't be that rude. No matter what might say. Eating with my hand, while acceptable with the meal Saki and I had, could only be worse than asking for my knife back right now. Glancing at how Rin holds the eating sticks, I clumsily pick up the pair provided to me. They're the right size for my hand, not that it surprises me with how tall these kitsune are.
  2506. No matter how I try to hold the pair of sticks in my hand it feels wrong. I drop the top facing stick in my attempt to copy Rin, and I have to bite back a curse born of annoyance. The straight, lacquered stick clatters against the tray and bounces onto the roasted, half of a filleted fish.
  2508. Rin says nothing, nor does she look at me condescendingly. Instead she asks, quite seriously, "Are okay?"
  2510. With a heavy heart I say, "Perhaps I do need help."
  2512. "You show your wisdom, even now," Rin smiles, setting down her eating sticks.
  2514. Gracefully as she picks up her tray and comes to sit by my wounded side, I suspect she's practiced the motion a thousand times. She settles in, the space between us half the span of my hand, and picks up my dropped eating stick. "I can teach you how to properly use hashi, but tonight I think it wiser if I help you eat."
  2516. "I'd like to try eating for myself."
  2518. Rin points, with a finger instead of the sticks in her other hand, to the fish on my plate. "You will want help with the fish. There are many small bones to pick around in this kind, and I'd be quite upset if you started choking." She points to the rice. "That will be much easier for you to learn with."
  2520. "I don't want to interrupt the meal of my host, or friend," I say, stubbornly trying to counter.
  2522. "Do not worry Egil, I like waiting for my fish to cool. Now," she says, getting closer to me, "Hold out your hand and I'll show you how to hold hashi."
  2524. Defeated, I do as she says. She reaches over to properly put the sticks in my fingers. Fur and those soft pads on her fingers touch my skin, but there's no hint of claws. Nor do I think there will be, not with how gently she's treated me so far, yet there's still a tightness in my back at the mere thought of pointed nails against my skin.
  2526. To distract myself from that thought, and how close she is to my broken arm, I say, "So hashi are what these eating sticks are called in this land."
  2528. "Yes," she says, adjusting how my thumb sits on the top stick. "You sound like you've seen them before, from another land perhaps."
  2530. "I have, but I avoided using them. I avoided a lot in the place," I say, watching how Rin adjust my fingers to grip the sticks. "I didn't stay for long before securing passage to this land."
  2532. "I must say, I am quite interested in hearing about that land and your travels. Some other time, of course." She smiles, and takes her soft hands away from mine. "There, hold it like that. Not too tightly, or you won't be able to pinch correctly."
  2534. She clicks her sticks - the hashi, I silently correct myself - slowly to demonstrate. I try to copy her, and the tips go wildly past each other.
  2536. "Not so firmly," she says, "Do it delicately. Imagine you're picking up a fresh flower by the blossom."
  2538. I ease my grip and try again. The hashi don't fall out of my hand, but they don't click together. I try a few more times, ignoring how unsteady my hand is in this unfamiliar, claw like position. On the fifth try the tips of my hashi finally click together, albeit at an awkward angle. "It's easier being delicate with a knife," I say, missing simpler eating customs.
  2540. "You're learning," Rin says, trying to encourage me with a smile. "Try picking up the rice, like this."
  2542. She demonstrates with her rice, picking up a clump of rice she brings to her mouth. I make an attempt of my own, but fail to get more than a few grains stuck on the wooden tips of the hashi. Rin reaches over and adjusts my grip, and on the lesson goes. After several more failed attempts, and a lot of quiet encouragement from Rin, I somehow manage pick up enough grains of rice to be worth eating. Pleased to be able to feed myself, I focus on that while Rin switches between picking at her food and watching how I'm doing.
  2544. I barely make a dent in the rice before my fingers start aching in a strange way, the muscle and sinew within unused to such a contorted position. The discomfort makes me feel old, but I prefer that to being unable to feed myself.
  2546. As I keep eating the faint tremble in my hand gets worse. It doesn't go unnoticed either, the kitsune beside me setting her hashi down.
  2548. "We have all of winter to practice," Rin says, looking at me with an expression that politely begs for me to stop.
  2550. Stubbornness, much as I want to give into it, won't get me anywhere when I need to let myself recuperate. Making myself see the wisdom in that, and what Rin said, I set my pair of hashi down and reach for the spoon with the soup. "I'll wait for my fish to cool some more," I say, confident I can properly eat with a ceramic spoon.
  2552. Rin nods, then starts picking at her fish, peeling a strip of tender fish flesh away from the bone. Yet her blue eyes make no attempt to hide how she watches me.
  2554. Before I can see her mouth open and catch sight of her teeth, I bend forward and spoon up some of the soup. The mild flavors of vegetables fill my mouth, the stock salty but still pleasant to my tongue. Focusing on the taste of food is such a rare pleasantry I nearly miss the tail that lays itself beside my leg, filling the gap between myself and the kitsune. It takes a lot of mental restraint to ignore the two tails that then settle against my lower back, but the warmth that seeps through and Rin's hospitality let me overlook such a thing.
  2556. When I finish with the soup and set the spoon down, Rin speaks. "Does it truly not trouble you to have Shizuka help with your recuperation? I have other sisters who can take her place."
  2558. "Do you think she act out of any ill will?" I ask, looking her in the eyes, indifferent to the mystical glow at the edge of her pupils.
  2560. "Shizuka is not the sort that would want to hurt even a beetle, but she should have known better." Rin shakes her head, looking down at her food. "Miki didn't surprise me except for her skill and willingness to do something to me, but she's young. Shizuka I thought would know better after seeing the state you were in."
  2562. "I have no reason to mistrust either of them," I say, keeping my general concerns about her sisters to myself.
  2564. Rin's head tilts lightly, her tails moving at the edge of my vision. Mystical orbs of blue stare at me, regarding me with keen interest. "You must enjoy surprising me, Egil. Is it that you trust my word or the goodness within my sisters?"
  2566. "You saved my life twice and have treated me more than fairly," I say, meeting the gaze of the magical fox that rules this mountain as if she's an equal. "More than that, you still sit next to me after I lost myself in terror and had you by the throat. I'd be a fool not to trust you some."
  2568. One of her ear flicks, and she speaks slowly. "My mouth, actually. Yet even if you had your hand on my throat at the time, I'd not hold it against you Egil." The tails against me shift, slinking lower until they rest against the floor. "That however is neither here nor now." Staring deeply into my eyes, she asks, "Do you trust me, even after my word was false on the wine being tampered with?"
  2570. "I believe you would've said something if you knew," I say, wishing to look away in shame of what she's already forgiven, but refusing to shift my eyes away from hers. "Am I wrong?"
  2572. "No," she says, refusing to break her gaze away. Rin's polite mask of a neutral expression fades, regret turning down the corner of her mouth and eyes, making her look older. "I said I could find any poison or tampering, but I failed that. I failed you as a host and a friend."
  2574. "There's no offense," I assure her, instincts telling me this conversation is far more complicated for Rin than it is for me. Perhaps this is how she felt when I brought up my hand grabbing her in terror. "I believe you would have told me if you know. And even if I was offended, after the hospitality and forgiveness you've shown me I would only return the same."
  2576. The regret on her face doesn't disappear as her eyes drift to my broken and bound arm. "Egil," she says, regret and responsibility weighing heavily in voice, "My inaction gave you your wounds. As master of this mountain, it is my duty to make certain you recuperate. As someone who's drank with me and I call a friend, I should act with greater care than I have."
  2578. Her eyes turn toward the floor. "And I didn't. All in my desire to spend a relaxing evening with you," she says. "After what happened in the village I knew you needed even a moment of forgetfulness, yet I joined in with you. You know how that turned out."
  2580. With the eye contact seemingly broken for good, I look down at the tray of food. Our fish is probably cold now, but I lack any desire to eat. If Rin intends to manipulate me she's doing it wrong by not trying to appeal to my obvious disdain for man-eaters, which only leads me to believe her regretful demeanor is sincere.
  2582. Honest feelings such as these aren't the kind of battle I can navigate easily, but I have to spend the winter here or risk freezing to death on a mountain with a man-eater somewhere in the forest. I'll find a way to survive my weakness in the walls of this mountain home.
  2584. "Rin," I breathe out, laying my hand in my lap so it won't tremble from my fatigue or uneasiness, "You've treated me more than fairly as a host and now a friend. You don't blame me for losing myself in an old terror and grabbing at you like a beast, I don't blame you for missing what your sisters did or that I got myself wounded." I look to her, hoping she'll see my sincerity. "So let us put it all behind ourselves as friends and try to make this evening a relaxing one."
  2586. Slowly, blue eyes meet mine. The aloof and polite expressions she normally wears like a mask are gone. All that's left is a weary woman, albeit one that isn't human. "If you are so forgiving, I can only accept," she says, nodding sagely.
  2588. "It's nothing, Rin."
  2590. "You have my gratitude nonetheless," she says, bowing briefly. "And my compliments. You have shown yourself to be far more than a fortune teller or warrior, Egil." Her tired eyes meet mine again, a smile turning up the corners of her mouth. "I am glad to have met you, and hope we might get closer."
  2592. The look on her face, I can't read it beyond obvious relief. Her words could mean so many different things, from flirtatious like our first encounter to simple honesty. What I'll choose to believe is that we can be friends, as she's said. I haven't had one of those since coming to this land, so with the hope we don't end up trying to kill each other, I nod to her. "I'd like that."
  2594. "Then, if you've no objections, why don't you allow your friend to help you eat your fish?" she asks.
  2596. I hand my hashi to Rin.
  2598. "I will keep your dignity intact, I assure you," she says, taking the eating sticks and confidently holding them.
  2600. Watching as she jabs them into the flesh of the fish, peeling up tender meat and avoiding a thin bone, I abandon that very dignity she wants to protect and let her feed me. Between the good cooking and Rin's graceful way of offering me bites of fish to eat, my stubbornness doesn't feel too wounded.
  2602. Yet I know from the slight glimmer in her eye and my own instincts that this will be one of the longest winters of my life. I should try to enjoy what I can of it, because come spring and the mending of my body I will uphold my promise to help Rin with Meiko. I feel I'll know what the runes meant by finding what I seek after I've upheld that, but most of all I can't suffer a man-eater to live.
  2604. "Whatever is hardening your eyes, Egil," Rin says, reaching over to pluck up another bite of fish, "You can speak to me of it any time."
  2606. Accepting the morsel she offers, I nod and chew. I don't want to think about exactly what the runes could have meant right now, and let out a sigh. "Another time."
  2608. "I won't hold you to that," she smiles, one of her tails patting my lower back. "You only need to relax and recover while you are here, Egil."
  2610. Taking the offered bite of fish, I chew the morsel and swallow before daring to speak. Eating with the manners of a savage around someone like Rin, I would hate to disgrace her hospitality like that. "I'll try not to go mad from staying idle."
  2612. "That won't happen," she assures, patting my lower back with two tails. "In a home of fifteen kitsune, you will not lack company or conversation. I'll see to introducing you to my sisters and giving you a proper tour of my home once you're stable on your feet."
  2614. "I hope they let me sleep."
  2616. "They will know to be respectful," she says, another of her tails laying against my back. "I will make certain of that."
  2618. --
  2619. [... How soft your fields so green / Can whisper tales of gore...]
  2620. --
  2622. Many quiet days pass as I recuperate, winter's bite edging closer with every morning.
  2624. During the first few days, Saki, Shizuka, and Rin watch over and attend to me, as I'm still weak and my broken arm impedes or slows a frustrating amount in daily life. The golden haired Shizuka, and master of the house Rin, help me bathe, feed myself as I struggle to master the use of those infuriating hashi, and occasionally prod at my injuries for signs of festering. Shizuka looks fondly to suggestively at me now and again, but minds her manners, clearly intent on making up for her failings. Saki meanwhile seems to be at the edge of whatever room I'm in, only making herself known if asked to assist by one of her sisters.
  2626. On the third day since the incident with the wine, I'm confident on my feet again. Walking no longer requires me to lean on someone to keep stable. From then on I see less of Shizuka, and Saki makes her presence known, shadowing me wherever I go. The eight-tail's purpose is obviously to keep me from getting lost and to ensure her sisters mind themselves around me. The dangerous kitsune and I share few words despite being around one another so often, Saki seeming content with silence. Which I'm all to happy to keep after the awkward exchange where I laid on her.
  2628. There isn't quite Rin, who I talk with more and more. Eventually Rin always sharing an evening meal together in the room they've provided me. Either Shizuka or Saki serve us at night, but neither kitsune lingers despite invitations from Rin and my silent consent. That leaves only the master of the house and myself left to talk until fatigue overtakes me, when she always offers to keep a watch over me instead of having Saki do it. To which I always agree, reluctant to give Saki a reason to hate me and feeling Rin is worthy of trust.
  2630. Though to my relief, Rin has a futon brought for herself and always chooses to lay near the door instead of beside me. That seems to be signal enough to keep away her horde of younger sisters I've yet to be properly introduced to, and prevent any of them from trying to greet me as Miki first did.
  2632. By the fifth day, on Rin's suggestion, I'm spending most of the daylight time in some sort of common room. Various kitsune come to visit me, but all are polite as can be with Saki or Rin sitting near me. I share much about my travels with various kitsune. The stories I have collected number more than the scars doting my body, but I refrain from speaking about the more fantastical truths with anyone except Rin, and only then in private. It seems to suit us both, as she seems fascinated by anything to do with my experiences with magic.
  2634. I don't know if Rin believes my words, but I only tell her truth. The exaggerated tales I leave for the second hand stories, not what I've seen or done. She seems happy to listen anything, always smiling and attending to me with small matters. Those tails of hers lay against me so often I start to fear I'm getting used to it.
  2636. To my throat's relief, I do more than talk to pass the time. I listen to many stories from at least a dozen kitsune, and start to learn about the family. I hear about their lives growing up, but they're always hesitant to be specific about matters of time or age. A small matter I don't press, not when I can witness something so simple, and perhaps even enviable, about the family. The sisters all care for each other greatly, and while I do witness the glimpses of friction common between kin, there's an openness and understanding in their interactions, the bickering and name calling always in jest or followed with sincere apologies. The formality and politeness ingrained into the people of this land always slips during the kitsune's meals, especially breakfast. Whenever they sit to eat, chores are swapped and bartered between them, boasts are made with the obvious intention for me to overhear, while merry smiles and laughter flow freely.
  2638. As the honored guest in such a lively home, I feel warmed by the family's hospitality and liveliness. Though I know I'm entirely out of place among them, a vagrant visiting a world I have no right to live in. Once things are settled with the Meiko and Kenta situation in the forest, one way or another I'll be on my way. A somber thought, but one I've had to face before.
  2640. On the seventh day Rin has some matter of importance to attend at the shrine, which I've yet to see like much of the kitsune's home. The master of the house leaves me in the care of Saki and Shizuka, the golden haired kitsune always kept in sight by the dangerous eight-tail. The day passes like most others, though I notice they have Miki running errands this time, the two-tail always trying to smile innocently at me whenever she thinks her sisters aren't looking. I'm not fool enough to think those smiles are as pure as they seem, and do my best to ignore her.
  2642. Once night falls, Rin returns and we have our nightly meal together as if nothing happened. Days pass, my back scabs over and starts itching, and I start to relax. My instincts are still on edge, but I find it easier to sit in a room with all the kitsune after ten days. By the fourteenth day, when Rin once again disappears to the shrine, I decide keeping track of time in seven day weeks is wise.
  2644. The fifteenth day sees Shizuka pronounces my back healed, along with my face growing scratchy from the beginnings of a blonde beard. Since I'm not about to let anyone get a knife near my neck for a touch of comfort, and I doubt by ability to shave one handed, I let my beard start growing out. I suspect that since Rin still insists I have help bathing, one of the kitsune would try to help me shave if they knew how itchy and unpleasant I find growing out a beard.
  2646. Though as the air grows colder, the nip in the air sharper every morning, maybe having a beard for the w inter won't be so bad. I see all the kitsune are looking fluffier and fluffier as the weather threatens to turn nasty. The fur at their necks bushing up, their tails seeming to thicken, all of them appearing softer by the day.
  2648. On my thirtieth day with the kitsune, winter finally makes it's late arrival.
  2650. I awaken to a deep chill, the light of pre-dawn drifting into the room. The breath that leaves my lips turns to cold fog. My broken arm aches and itches I try to draw covers up my body more. Looking to my left I see Rin asleep on her futon by the door-wall, her tails sticking out from beneath the back of her blanket. Despite her being being a master of an entire mountain or how dignified she looks falling asleep it always ends the same, the fox on her side with her arms stretching out in front of her with a silly look on her relaxed face. Hardly a fitting look for a woman who can project so much dignity I feel plain and crude at times. The tip of her tongue sticking out of her mouth, which thankfully remains closed, helps remind me she's very much a person.
  2652. Though the air is too cold for me to be amused by such simple things this morning, even if Rin's expression happens to be even sillier than normal.
  2654. Gritting my teeth I surge up to the sting of my bound arm and old, sore scars. Feeling grateful that my bruises are gone and my strength is mostly back, I pull the blanket around me as best I can with one arm. The frosty air reminds me of the harshness of the world, a reminder that I suspect I need.
  2656. While I struggle to warm up, Rin makes a noise in her sleep before rolling onto her back with twitching ears, tip of her tongue slipping back into her mouth. I wonder yet again whether she feigns sleep or if her large ears are sensitive to any sounds I make, the kitsune sits up. Her hand and a tail move to obscure a yawn and the predator's teeth within her fox face. The small considerations she shows me even when I rudely awaken her won't go unappreciated, these weeks recovering leaving me more determined than before to aid her once I'm in health.
  2658. She lets her hand fall away and tail curl back, turning her blue orbs my way. "Good morning to you, Egil."
  2660. "Good morning," I say, trying to pull my blanket tighter and only making my back more exposed.
  2662. "Allow me," she says, casting off her blanket and coming toward me on her knees.
  2664. Her swiftness in that all white dress, that seems far too tight around the legs, amazes me. She's nearly as quick as I've seen Saki move. Rin reaches my left side, furred hands pulling my blanket up soon as she's there. She drapes the warm weight around my back and swaddles me in cloth, but not before slipping several of her tails against my back. If the fluffy appendages weren't so warm I'd complain about the impropriety. Or so I want tell myself. I have yet to tell her to stop once, the entire time I've been around her. Instead I tell myself it's harmless to indulge her, and dip my head appreciatively.
  2666. "Do you feel well?" she asks, face serious. "It's far colder than I expected."
  2668. "It's nothing," I say, breath a wispy haze. "I'm from a land with far harsher winters than this."
  2670. "Then you won't mind if I move you to another room today, deeper in the house where it's warmer at night." She smiles warmly at me. "If you're cold after that, I am certain any of my house would gladly keep you warm at night."
  2672. "It's too early in the morning for breakfast, isn't it?" I ask, trying to turn the conversation in another direction instead of acknowledging what she just suggested.
  2674. Her head turns toward the screened wall that separates inside from outside, the light still dull in the room. Then her blue orbs turn back to me and the kitsune's grin appears pleased. "Yes," she says, letting what she'd suggested drop. Even thought I have a strong gut feeling it's not the end of it. "Yuuko, Shizuka, and Miki should be tending freshly lit hearths. If you would like we can sit in with them."
  2676. Keeping a grimace to myself, the idea of Miki making eyes at me all morning an unnerving one, I shake my head. "I'd rather put my legs to use. I don't want to get weak from all of this sitting."
  2678. "Would you care to join me in a walk through the garden?" Rin asks, indulging me. "It may have snowed while we slept, and I've been told the garden is quite beautiful in winter."
  2680. "I'd like to see that. I've become quite fond of your garden," I nod to the master of the house.
  2682. After taking care of certain morning needs, Rin finds one of her sisters to whisper words to before sending the younger kitsune off. Rin then guides me back to my room where Saki stands outside the door with a change of clothes.
  2684. The dangerous eight-tail bows respectfully to her elder sister, who smiles to me. "I'm going to get in a more pleasant dress," Rin says to me. "Saki will help you get into something warmer."
  2686. I agree out of politeness and resigned pragmatism. With a bound and recovering arm I can't easily get in the clothes of this land, not with how they are practically wrapped around your body.
  2688. Glancing at Saki, the eight-tail simply turns around and opens the door for me. She urges me in silently, the door rumbling shut as she joins me. I've gone through the process of being undressed enough in this home to know that the less I do the better. But when she doesn't start instructing me I have to raise an inquisitive brow at the reserved kitsune.
  2690. "Egil," she says, surprising me by using my name for what feels like the second time since I've met her, "I wish to speak privately with you. After breakfast would you join me in my training hall?"
  2692. I throw an apprehensive glance to the door-wall behind her. Saki nods, silently telling me it's safe to speak.
  2694. "Might I know what this is about?" I ask, keeping my voice low as a precaution.
  2696. "Matters my eldest sister seems intent on ignoring," she replies, face and eyes an unreadable mask of indifference.
  2698. That could be anything from Kenta and Meiko, which I've been biding my time to speak to Rin about once my arm is healed, to what happened with the kappa in the village. Or perhaps it's something as simple as Saki wants me to promise I'll leave the mountain come spring? I'll know only one way. "If she gives me leave to, I will."
  2700. "If you ask, she'll grant it." Saki stepped closer, lifting my good arm up so she can get me out my clothes. "She's very fond of you Egil," the kitsune whispers.
  2702. "I am a bizarre oddity," I mutter back, staring at her ears so I don't flinch when furred fingers tickle my suddenly bare shoulder.
  2704. Saki gets behind me, the hair on my neck sticking up. And rightly so, the kitsune moves with deliberate slowness so she can whisper in my ear, "You are more than a foreigner with interesting tales and strange trinkets. You have become Rin's friend and have earned her favor."
  2706. "At her insistence," I say, wary of offending Saki.
  2708. "All the more reason we must speak," the kitsune states, taking her time with my clothes.
  2710. "We will," I promise, resigning myself to whatever happens.
  2712. "Thank you," she whispers, coming back around me swiftly, stripping me of my clothes and ending the conversation.
  2714. The air is bitter against my skin, but at least I'm not entirely naked. The loincloth they provided me, while uncomfortable at first, isn't so bad. Saki, thankfully, is quick to wrap me in thicker clothes. Two layers cover me, my mending arm kept sandwiched between layers, before I'm made to sit down. The cloth is nice and thick, the cut and fit so close to perfect I can't help but suspect magic.
  2716. While I'm inspecting the clothes furnished me, short leggings are forced upon my feet, two layers in total, pulled so snugly against my toes it's uncomfortable. No shoes, not that I am surprised. There will be sandals or some kind of slipper waiting for me when I leave the building.
  2718. Saki helps me back up, the kitsune's movements graceful as she takes more of my weight than is necessary. While I try to figure out if she did that to intimidate me, she turns and opens the door. Outside Rin approaches, taking the last three steps needed to reach the divide between the hall and this room.
  2720. The master of the house wears a different dress than the two I've become accustom to. Deep blue silk, adorned with patterns of white like flurrying snow or falling petals, hugs her form. A pure white sash holds the dress around her waist, and the fur of her bushy neck practically spills out over the hem. I spot a cord of dark leather in that mass of fur, but the smile she focuses at me stops my detail seeking eyes. "Will the clothes be warm enough, Egil?"
  2722. "Yes. Thank you, Rin, Saki," I add, giving the eight-tail a moment of consideration before turning my attention to the older kitsune. "I won't be cold with all of this on."
  2724. "That is pleasing to hear, since they are your clothes now. Egil," she continues, not giving me time to respond to the sudden gift, "Would you still care to walk with me in the garden?"
  2726. I must be swaddled in enough cloth to get two peasants of this land through the winter, or feed them for several weeks if they were to sell it all. I struggle to find the right way to respond to the gift, caught entirely on verbal the backfoot. "Thank you, Rin," I say, dipping into what I hope is a respectful bow.
  2728. "Seeing you kept warm is nothing between friends, or a host and her guest," she says, dismissing the topic with a slight wave. Her hands fold in front of her inside her sleeves. "Speaking of snow, it did indeed fall while we slept. I believe the garden should be quite pristine, so let us go see if I'm correct."
  2730. I nod, keeping my excess gratitude for the winter clothes quiet because of how intent she is about moving on. The nine-tail guides me to her side, making certain we walk side by side. I can sense Saki trailing behind us as we move through the twists and turns of the large building. Eventually we step out onto the walkway surrounding the house, letting me see the world turned white.
  2732. Snow covers the tiled roofs, grounds, and stone lantern decorated walking paths. Tiny icicles peak out from the eaves. The white dusting isn't deep, maybe two of my thumbs, but it's enough to give everything an evened out, puffy look. Several kitsune mill about, clearing snow from the stone paved walking paths, not one of them dressed in more than their usual silken dresses. That bushy fur must be good for keeping out the chill.
  2734. Saki darts ahead of us with strides that look far too short for her speed. I see the reason for her hurry once she steps off the raised walkway and places a pair of fur boots and a hat on the wood. Where she got them I don't even want to ask, I just sit on the edge of the when she throws me a sharp glance. Her hands are quick and certain, lacing the boots to my feet with a near brutal efficiency that I'll be feeling for a while. She stuffs the hat onto my head, and to my surprise I don't think about claws until her hands are a safe distance away.
  2736. With how relaxed I feel, I know I must be getting soft from luxury and being tended to so often. That or the magic of the first snow has gotten to me already, simple wonder and pleasure warm in my chest as I look at the icicles on the eaves. It's been so long since I was a child, I'm left pondering if this is the kind of wonder that leaves them so eager about the world.
  2738. "Thank you, little sister," Rin says to Saki, drawing me back to the present as well. "You can go back to what you were doing before I so rudely interrupted you."
  2740. "It is no trouble, eldest sister," the eight-tail bows, going back into the building once she's dismissed.
  2742. That leaves me with Rin. And I suppose all the sisters pretending to still be working instead of watching us, but I doubt not going to risk upset their eldest sister by doing anything beyond that.
  2744. "Come, Egil," the nine-tail grins, using one of her bushy tails to press on my back and urge me onward.
  2746. Once we're moving and Rin leads by a half step, she removes her tail from my back. I glance around the buildings, the short icicles hanging from eaves glistening like fine gems. Even in the harsh cold of winter, there's such wonderful beauty, reminding me of the nicer parts of homeland. Thoughts of warm hearths and families gathered is such a pleasant sensation it nearly brings a smile to my face as I walk with the master of the house and mountain toward her garden. We take in the fresh snow touched sights on the way instead of wasting time with words.
  2748. Until a wall, tall as I can reach, looms ahead. Out of place for this land, there is a circular entrance in the wall, elegantly banded in red painted wood. Something I've seen in a land I never wish to return to, but I've seen it enough not to have my mood dampened. Rin goes through the portal and I follow, stepping into the pristine garden beyond.
  2750. A powdery layer of snow blanketing the scene lacks any hint of disturbance. The venerable tree in the garden has bare branches dangling with thin layers of ice. The white capped, painted bridge over the pond stands out sharply in the white coated world, presiding imperiously over the frosty sheet of the water's surface. Rin walks forward onto the path, her footfalls silent on the snow, the pads of her feet seemingly immune to the thin layer of snow. I follow her, the crunch of compacting snow beneath my heavy feet shattering the peaceful quiet of the winter world.
  2752. The tails of the kitsune ahead of me rise and fall in wave at the sound, but otherwise she seems unbothered. Her feet find every hidden stone of the walkway, the soft impressions of her paws marking where it's safe for me to step in the crunching blanket.
  2754. She leads me to the bridge and I follow, marveling like a young fool at the what winter has done. Harsh and cruel as the season may be, the first snow might as well be magic. Once we're at the height of the arched bridge, she moves close to my side, one of her fingers idly reaching out to poke a hole into the snow capping the railing.
  2756. "Do you you like snow?" she asks, staring at the frozen pond and seeming to be lost in her own thoughts.
  2758. "I do," I answer, breath fogging as I draw my clothes tighter. "Winter is harsh, but I'd rather live in a land with snow than without."
  2760. "Oh?" She looks curiously at me. "What do you find so beautiful about the snow?"
  2762. I'm left at a loss for words over something so simple. "I don't know," I eventually admit. "It's..." I shake my head, giving up on thinking too deeply. "I'm not a philosopher or scholar. It's pleasant to look at, and I know it's dangers and uses. That's always been good enough for me."
  2764. "Not everything needs to be complicated," she chuckles, fingers teasing at the hint of leather cord in her neck fur. "I am not particular to snow, but I can appreciate it." She flicks some snow onto the ice below. "Polished silver, I can appreciate for it's on beauty."
  2766. The way she's lightly focused on me instead of relaxed or nobly aloof tells me she's got something on her mind. I decide to indulge and see where this goes, and to try to make up for my earlier slowness. "Is silver why I gained your audience so easily?"
  2768. "A good guess," the kitsune laughs bemusedly into the back of her sleeve. "Sadly, that was not why we met. Saki telling me an armed man had climbed the mountain to come see is what earned you my audience. No, the gifts you gave me began my appreciation for silver."
  2770. I don't hide my incredulity from the fluffy kitsune. "Is that so?"
  2772. "Do you doubt me, Egil?"
  2774. "Maybe," I admit. "I have a hard time believing my simple gifts made that much of an impression."
  2776. "They did. After all," she tilts her head slightly, showing a hint of a leather cord in her fur, "It's not every day I receive a gift wrought from silver in such an exotic manner from such an interesting man."
  2778. "You're wearing the amulet I gave you, aren't you?"
  2780. "I am," she smiles, fingers digging at the fluff of her neck pull up the leather cord, and reveal a hint of silver. "I have taken good care what your gifts, but I have a fondness for this amulet. So much so I forget to take it off some nights," she chuckles.
  2782. With her fur, I can understand why it's escaped my notice. "Then I'll have to share stories about the world tree with you. So you can better appreciate the silver."
  2784. Warmth starts seeping into my spine, a tail no doubt slyly placed on my back when I wasn't paying attention. Rin looks out at the large, barren tree the glistening icicles hanging in place of leaves, the smile on her face reserved as it is thoughtful. "I'd greatly enjoy that," she grins. "It's always a delight to speak with you in private and your interesting tales."
  2786. I give my words some thought, trying to sort out the kitsune's thoughts and motivations. Only to give up quickly, deciding it's easier to speak to her as something like a friend. "The evenings talking with you have been a pleasant reprieve. Thought I cannot promise the stories about the world tree will be anything more than retelling of myth."
  2788. "You will have my rapt attention no matter the story." Two more tails make themselves known against me, the warmth that seeps in through my clothes more than welcome. "It is interesting," she says, mood sobering and blue orbs looking away from me. "I have become quite fond of you, Egil."
  2790. So much for my sense of calm, the kitsune's words reminding me of the ways of the world. "I mean no offense, Rin. But that," I cautiously grasp each word, one after another, "Is something I usually hear before I'm asked for a favor."
  2792. "Rightfully wary, I see. There is no need for that, I have a request to ask, not a favor," she says, blue eyes turning back to me. The faint glow at the edges of those blue orbs don't let me forget she's a fox faced, magical creature instead of just a woman. Who can put on such a polite, aloof expression it's impossible for me to guess her thoughts. "Before that, I was wondering if you'd like to go under the elm together?"
  2794. "If you'd like to," I answer, nodding for her to lead.
  2796. Rin guides me, a faint pressure on my back and legs letting me know her tails still cling to me. Her smile deepens when we pass under the mighty, sprawling branches of the old tree. Short, delicate icicles glisten like jewels in the sunlight peaking over the mountains and walls enclosing the grounds of the home. False riches spread about the twigs and limbs, the patterns and glimmering pleasing to the eyes as we stop beneath the boughs.
  2798. "Egil," she says, tails leaving me as she steps to stare at me face to face. "I..." she stops, the hesitation unusual enough to draw my full attention. When she starts back up there is an odd tinge to her voice, as if she might waver in slight breeze. "Would you reconsider your insistence on helping me with Kenta and Meiko?"
  2800. The suddenness of the request catches me off guard, sending me back half a step, but the topic doesn't surprise. I've waited for weeks to have a conversation on this subject. "I said I would help with the situation, and I will keep my word. I've held my tongue about it but I haven't forgotten," I say, hoping she believes my silence meant I merely forgot.
  2802. "Then I will release you from your word," she says, an edge of pleading in her voice, as one of her hands reaches out to me. It stops, then adjust my outer layer of clothing before falling back. "Egil, I implore you, reconsider your oath. Consider it undone by the one you swore it to."
  2804. "Why, Rin?" I ask quietly, for fear of privacy. What would her sisters think if they misheard our words? "I'm not a complete fool. I could see that the situation with Meiko hurts you, your love for your sisters runs so deep even a fool like me can see. So why turn down the help of an outsider who would gladly face the man-eater in those woods as bait?"
  2806. "I do not wish for you to be hurt because of my responsibilities," the kitsune whispers, staring down at my chest. No, I realize, broken arm safe in it's layers of clothing. "I could have stopped that kappa by showing myself but I didn't, out of fear. If I can stop you from walking into a terrible battle now, then I will."
  2808. "I want to uphold my word to help you and your family."
  2810. "That is why I am releasing you from it," she quietly speaks, looking me in the eye with guarded seriousness, her polite mask gone.
  2812. "You care far more for a foreign vagrant than any lord or noble I've ever met," I breathe out. "Thank you, Rin. I am sorry, but if you won't accept my help I'll offer it to Saki, even if she may reject it."
  2814. The kitsune starts to bite her lip, but quickly lifts her sleeve to hide her mouth and teeth. She turns her gaze to stare the snow kissed ground, shifting from foot to foot and obviously upset. That she's unable to hide it behind her usual composure frightens me more than it should, a tightness gripping my stomach.
  2816. Even I know when I've messed up. "I'm sorry, Rin. I don't want to involve myself in your family's affairs. But I have a chance to stop a man-eater. If that keeps some other sorry fool like me from having to get involved in this mess with Kenta, I'll take the risks. So if I can't help your family I'll try to deal with Kenta on my own, but you have my word I won't bring any harm to Meiko. Even if it means my life."
  2818. "That's what I feared," Rin says, quiet voice and thick with anguish as she stares at the snow covered ground. "Egil, you're a good man. So I beg you, reconsider. If I must get down and press my forehead to the snow to show you my sincerity, or swear three times upon all that I am, I will if it means you don't walk to your death."
  2820. "Don't do that, Rin. You don't need to apologize for speaking to me like this or swear any oaths. I should be apologizing for putting my nose in your family's matters."
  2822. Her blue orbs move toward me, the kitsune facing me again. Even though I have to look up to meet her eyes she seems smaller than me right now.
  2824. "Egil," she says, staring at me strangely, "I don't want you to leave.."
  2826. That gives me pause. I stop thinking of the conversation in any simple terms, and try to take the words as I might with the faeries. There's something I haven't wanted to think about let alone entertain, but the thin frown on her muzzle and open look in her eye force me to speak. Does she care about me? Not just a host or a useful tool, but a person?
  2828. "Why," I begin softly, "Are you so concerned, Rin?"
  2830. She starts to speak, then stops. The composed, polite, and assured lord of this mountain is nowhere to be seen in Rin. She turns her back to me and folds her hands into her sleeves. "Talk to Saki, offer her your help," the nine-tail says, voice a fragile facade. "If she accepts, then I will tell you why I am willing to beg. For now put it out of your mind and let us go eat."
  2832. With our conversation taking such a sharp turn, I'm left wondering exactly what is going on. Is my hunch correct or am I wrong somehow?
  2834. She doesn't give me time to think about it. She walks just ahead of me, her tails deftly avoiding me when I move to keep up. I can tell I've hurt her feelings, but she doesn't let it show beyond the silence and refusal to touch me with her tails as she normally does. Keeping my confused thoughts to myself I follow her back inside, the lack of warmth on my back an odd sensation.
  2836. ---
  2838. Once I'm freed from those tight boots, I'm silently led to breakfast. As soon as Rin opens the door to communal kitchen allow me in, a sea of fluffy ears and curious fox eyes turn toward me. The master of the house motions for me to enter first. I do, and take note of Saki sitting off to the side, and see Miki and Shizuka open up spots for Rin and I to sit.
  2840. "Forgive me, little sisters," Rin says once I step, "I have matters to attend. I regret that I must skip eating with you this morning. Treat our honored guest well in my absence."
  2842. I turn to look questioningly at the nine-tail, but she's vanished from sight and the door-wall clunks shut. This could be bad, and not only because I've undoubtedly upset Rin.
  2844. Breathing in, I face the room. Shizuka and Miki smile at me, making just enough space between themselves to allow me to sit in their midst. I still haven't decided if I'm some kind of entertainment to those two or if their attention is born from more base desires. Keeping Saki in the edge of my vision, I go to the two kitsune offering me a cushion to sit on. At least I know they'll behave themselves, mostly.
  2846. The punishment handed down to Shizuka and Miki seems to have made the two closer, but with Saki in the room I don't worry about either of them going too far. Worst they'll do is fuss over me and insist on taking turns trying to feed me.
  2848. My suspicions are proven right once I sit down, a bowl being offered up by Shizuka and Miki holding a pair of hashi to try and feed me. The conversation of the room flows in one of my ears and out of the other, my refusals so quick I don't think about them. I make myself clear by taking the hashi of Miki's hand. The two tailed, young kitsune looking all too pleased by the forced contact that brings.
  2850. "A man who knows what he wants," she teases, speaking so quietly I must be the only one that can hear her.
  2852. I try to ignore the kitsune on either side of me, even as their tails laying against my legs, and focus instead on the simple task of feeding myself. Thanks to Rin continuing to teach me in the evenings I'm getting better at using the cursed eating sticks, the nine-tail only trying to feed me when it's obvious my hand has cramped.
  2854. As quickly as the thoughts and recent memories about Rin come to me, I push them from my mind with just as swiftly. Those are thoughts for after I've eaten and have something akin to privacy.
  2856. Surrounded by so many kitsune my recently recovered back itches lightly from the sensation of being watched, but the discomfort doesn't have me on the edge like it used to. The common cooking and eating room may be filled with the kitsune sisters and their fluffy tails, but exposure seems to have numbed my nerves over the last few weeks. There are plans in my mind on how to escape and defend myself, as always, but they don't burn bright enough for my muscles to ready themselves. This room has almost grown familiar, as have these morning meals.
  2858. I make certain to eat with my eyes fixed on my bowl to avoid seeing their mouths as fox women eat. Breathing in deeply offers more than the smell of warm food. The scent of well groomed fur and warm food fills the room, relaxing my nerves further. I went to great pains to make certain none of the kitsune in the home had the stench of man-eater on their breath, but reminding myself of it now helps to ease my mind.
  2860. After everyone finishes their morning meal and finish making deals about chores, the room full of kitsune turn their attention to me. No doubt hoping to get some stories out of me, or in the hopes of a few eager kitsune, find an excuse to get closer to me. Miki, firmly in the latter group, opens her mouth to say something, but the sharp sound of someone faking a cough stops the two-tail from speaking.
  2862. "Egil," Saki says, the room falling silent as she rises to her feet, going from kneeling to standing in one smooth glide. "Would you come with me?"
  2864. "To talk?" I ask, skin crawling as eyes and ears twist to me.
  2866. Saki, her cold eyes focused entirely on me, nods. I return the gesture, getting to my feet slowly, and without any of the grace she showed.
  2868. Miki, clearly disappointed that I'm she can't press her leg against me anymore, shrinks back and whispers something to Shizuka. I let them gossip and guess. I stride through the mass of kitsune toward Saki, and find myself unfortunate enough to catch a short, whispered conversation.
  2870. "What's she after?"
  2872. "Quiet, she'll hear you."
  2874. "Saki doesn't care what we say."
  2876. The whispering kitsune was right, the indifference on Saki's face hasn't changed. She waves for me to step out first, the eight-tail closing the door wall as she follows. Once the barrier separates us from her sister she looks at me, deliberately looking me over. If she wishes to unsettle me, then she's succeeded.
  2878. The eight-tail turns. "Follow me."
  2880. Walking behind a bundle of tails tightly pressed together, I find myself watching how she moves. Even when she turns there's no hint of tilt or sway to her balance, as if she's flowing along instead of moving her legs. There's no hint of bob or weave in her spine. Some might see that and think of her as having womanly poise, but I can only see finely honed control over her body. Even if she's beyond what I could ever hope to do, she's still in a realm I can understand. Unlike the faeries, Saki is only slightly beyond what a mortal like me could hope to do.
  2882. Outside and under covered walkways I'm led, to a part of the walled in grounds that I've only seen a handful of times. A lone rectangular building, tiled and built in sturdy and refined style like the rest, sits off to the side, near the cliff face leading higher up the mountain. We reach the wooden doors and Saki slides one aside, allowing me to peer inside.
  2884. It's open and spacious enough for several men of my size to comfortable move around and practice spears in, the outside of the building deceptively small compared to the spacious interior. The polished wood of the floor has with the telltale signs of deep gouges worn down by feet over a long time. Above, the rafters and beams are open, crisscrossing and positioned in a way that I doubt has anything to do with the structure's strength.
  2886. Weapons of all sorts line the back wall, spears and swords rest in racks, coils of rope or chain rest on pegs in the wall, and dozens of strangely shaped daggers are held on the wall. I even spot what look like three rectangular hand shields off in the corner. It doesn't escape my eyes that my dagger and sword are resting on a rack all of their own, set in such a way I'm clearly meant to see it. Whether that's a provocation or assurance, I choose to ignore my possessions.
  2888. As look around I can't tell if the space is magical or magical or not, and with Saki urging me in I'm left uncertain. I cross the threshold, the still air within no warmer than the winter air outside. The sliding door clacks shut as she steps in with me, beams of light filtering in through the squat, long oilpaper covered windows at the top of the walls.
  2890. "No one will hear or bother us," Saki says, walking past me into the center of the room.
  2892. As I try to guess her intentions, she suddenly jumps up and catches hold of one of the beams above. With not a wasted movement she flips up higher, disappearing for a moment. I catch sight of tails flicking farther down. My jaw tenses, instincts flaring up after such a calm few weeks and breakfast. I flinch when something drops from the rafters, feet spreading to make me more stable.
  2894. Two square cushions hit the floor. Behind them the eight-tail drops down, landing in a crouch. I breathe out, trying to relax frightened muscles and ease my instincts. Saki wastes no time and arranges the cushions, one across from the other, before inviting me over to sit. Heart still retreating from my throat, I sit down at the same time as her.
  2896. "If I might speak plainly?" she asks, to which I nod. "Has Rin told you about the mountain's secret?"
  2898. "Your sister Meiko and the oni Kenta?"
  2900. Tails lay against the floor and spread out. If I didn't know better, I'd say she looks almost pleased with my answer. "Do you know that Meiko is my twin sister?" she asks.
  2902. "I learned that after looking at her."
  2904. Saki's spine straightens and her tails fan out behind her, swishing over the wood. "You saw her?" she asks, cold shell breaking as raw emotion floods her voice.
  2906. Fear, concern, relief, hope - she doesn't hide any of it. It's as if I'm seeing the eight-tail for the first time, instead of what she wants me to see.
  2908. "Yes," I say, grasping for anything hopeful to say. I quickly decide to leave out how mad and disheveled she looked. "She seemed well fed, and I could tell she's not a man-eater."
  2910. Worried brown eyes close. Saki breathes in and out slowly, collecting herself. I give her the time, being unable to imagine what she must feel. If her shell cracked so easily in front of me, this must mean a great deal to the dangerous kitsune.
  2912. "Thank you, Egil," Saki eventually says, her usual cold stare returning as she opens her eyes. Though her voice hasn't entirely recovered, lacking in it's usual edge and distance. "Do you know that Meiko is being kept prisoner by the oni?"
  2914. "I remember something like that. Rin and I were drinking when she told me about in the village," I admit, memory of that night a touch hazy, and not from the alcohol. The fight the day after has my memories of the village more muddled than I like. "It seemed to me Kenta tried to protect Meiko from the monks, and made things worse."
  2916. "That thing," Saki said, all but spitting her words as her cold masks breaks under trembling anger, "Is no longer human, he's not even what my sister fell in love with. He chose to become a monster, a demon. He reveled in what he became."
  2918. The hate lacing Saki's words raises the hairs all over my body. Her fury doesn't show on her face, nor is it directed at me, but I can feel it all the same. I can't keep a scowl off of my face as I consider what I've heard.
  2920. "He chose to be a man-eater, didn't he?"
  2922. She nods. "Kenta chose to eat the holy relic he stole from the monks, the mummified finger of one of their enlightened." My stomach turns at the thought. "He broke another taboo," she continued, "And used the power Meiko trusted him with, all to become a demon spirit. When I found him, he was eating the guts of the monks that tried to stop him."
  2924. My heart sinks along with my stomach. If someone is unfortunate enough to be cursed into becoming a man-eater, even I can feel a twinge of pity. But to choose that path? Rin may hate me for it, but I do not think I can leave this alone. Not if I want to sleep at night or face whatever is in store for me in the afterlife.
  2926. "Rin feared you'd react like this," Saki begins, obviously reading the steeling of my face. "Your disdain for what you call man-eaters runs deep."
  2928. "It's why I came here," I answer, knowing she's trying to bait me into something. I don't care and walk right into it, determined to see what she wants. "I heard rumors of a man-eater and how it might be the lord of this mountain. As for my hate, it is why I dove into a cold river to kill that kappa and save the child."
  2930. Understanding crosses her fox face, and she nods at me. I don't think I'm just a foreigner or a guest to her anymore. "Have you heard that we can't contain Kenta on the mountain for much longer?"
  2932. The cold wisp of my breath is at odds with the rising worry in my gut, my face twisting as I think of what will happen. I know Saki is still goading me, trying to guide me to a decision, but I don't care right this moment. I need to know more so I can do something about the fear and hate festering in my gut.
  2934. "It's true," the eight-tail sighs when I say nothing. "Rin has Meiko and the oni bound to the mountain. The spell will break when my tail, and Meiko's, split next winter. We hope to catch Kenta then, as he either flees the mountain or makes an attempt on the village our mother set up."
  2936. Taking all this new knowledge in, I chew the inside of my lip. I knew Rin hadn't told me everything, and I doubt Saki has either. But this new knowledge sets my nerves on edge and rolls my guts. If my shield arm weren't still weak and mending I'd give into an urge to go out into the woods now to try and find this Kenta, after asking to borrow a few weapons off that back wall.
  2938. Cold brown eyes stare at me, the edge in her gaze like a chisel pounding at my strained composure. "You've fought with man-eaters. You have the spirit and body of a seasoned of warrior. I could greatly use your help, Egil."
  2940. Breathing out, and still in control of what I do and say, I wait. I'd love to run headfirst into the trap Saki prepared for me. But even if I want to, I survived faeries. I can't go and make decisions without learning more, no matter how badly I want to see that the man-eater in the forest is dealt with swiftly.
  2942. "Rin asked me to stay out of this matter," I say, letting my shoulders and jaw relax. "I'd be a poor friend to her, going behind her back."
  2944. Saki's expression doesn't waver, but she dips her head. "I ask your for the sake of my family. Eldest sister will understand."
  2946. "Rin was ready to beg me to stay out of this matter, even if she had to drop her forehead in the snow."
  2948. With no warning, the eight-tail kitsune prostrates herself on the ground, the pounding the wood with her fists and forehead. The sound hums in my chest as I stare at her resolution and submission. "I beseech you, Egil. Help me save my sister," the kitsune begs. "I will give you-"
  2950. "Halt," I demand, cutting the kitsune off before she can finish her offer. "I am not asking you to do what she didn't. Rin is afraid I'll get hurt or die. If I weren't being considerate to her as a friend and host, I would have asked you to accept my help already. So do not plead with me like that."
  2952. My anger, sharp and pointed, surprises me more than it seems to surprise the kitsune. Saki remains silent quiet for far too many heartbeats, her forehead flat with the floor. One her ears flicks three times before she says anything. "I cannot promise you will survive," she says. "Yet with you, I am certain we can find the oni and kill him before he can escape or worse, make it to the village below."
  2954. Rolling my tongue against the hard edge of my teeth, I resist an urge to do something stupid. Instead, I say, "I would be bait to lure Kenta into a trap."
  2956. The eight-tail is quiet for several long moments. "Yes," she finally says. "We don't think he's eaten anyone in many, many years. I believe he would risk attacking you if you went off the path, even if he thought it might be a trap."
  2958. "Hunger drives men and beasts to act rashly."
  2960. "All that eats make desperate decisions when hunger gnaws." Saki's tails lash excitedly. "Hibiki and I can kill Kenta," she says, tone even despite her clear hope. "But you slayed a kappa in the water. You would be more than bait."
  2962. I nod, seeing the value in me being bait. The thought of trusting my life to the blade of another, however, makes my chest tighten. And that's to say nothing of how wary I am of Saki's unspoken thoughts. "If what Rin said is true about my arm," I begin, having no remorse about setting a trap of my own, "I could get myself into fighting shape by midsummer. Autumn, if I have to take it slowly."
  2964. Saki's ears flick and her tail tips waver. While I'm trying to figure out if that's good or bad, she bangs her forehead into the floor. "I will pledge my life to you if you help me get Meiko back," Saki vows, lifting up before dropping back down. "I will pledge my life to you if you help me get Meiko back. I-"
  2966. "Hold your tongue!" I roar, words bouncing off the walls and stopping her from going any farther with the oath.
  2968. The kitsune is frozen mid bow, eyes wide in startle. I may not be capable of singing in polite company, but that failing of my voice has other uses.
  2970. "Thrice sworn is thrice bound, Saki," I darkly warn, "That's not the sort of oath to take lightly. And not an oath to give when I have yet to even give you my help."
  2972. "I do not swear it lightly," she says, meeting my hard gaze with a strange but honest defiance. "I am sorry, I am wrong to try and goad you into helping me. But I will do whatever I must to get Meiko back."
  2974. I frown, suspecting every kitsune knows about my belief toward thrice sworn oaths thanks to Miki. I somehow reign in my voice, so I don't give into needless anger. "Save any ideas of oaths or goading until after I've spoken with Rin again, please. I want to help with this situation, but I cannot go behind her back."
  2976. "Eldest sister will be angry when she finds out what I've asked you," Saki says, looking down at the floor. And seemingly missing the point of what I said. "Allow me to speak with her first so I might spare you her anger."
  2978. "Do as you want," I say, hardening my heart to the possibility I won't be welcome on this mountain before long. If I have to leave, I will. But not before exhausting all other possibilities, for the sake of repaying Rin and my strange friendship with her. "She's your sister. You know how to approach her better than I do."
  2980. "Thank you, Egil," Saki says, bowing fully once more. "I will seek you out no matter what happens, to plead for you help."
  2982. "If nothing else, you have my respect and gratitude for that honesty," I say, rising to my feet. "I hope I can convince Rin to accept, else I may not be an honored guest here for long."
  2984. The kitsune's ears twitch against the floor, oblivious to my thoughts. She rises, going from forehead against the floor to standing in one continuous motion. With how easy she makes that look, I wonder where she finds the time for the training needed to stay so limber.
  2986. "I will do what I can to have her agree," Saki says, walking past me. "If she does not, I will do whatever I must to get your help."
  2988. Well, at least Saki has enough honor to tell me. The eight-tail is undeniably desperate to save Meiko, but she's at least admitting she will seek my help no matter what. If I am truly fortunate, I won't make an enemy out of Rin.
  2990. ---
  2992. Sitting alone in a common room, with a bundle of blankets wrapped about me and a small fire going in a ground hearth, I chew over my situation.
  2994. In only a few more weeks my broken arm should be free from it's bindings. I will need to start slow in building my strength and coordination back. I know better than to force a healing body too hard, only I had to learn the hard way when younger. By spring I should ease myself into a routine to get my strength and vitality back after so much rest. I suspect Saki will be all too eager to help me train, if I don't anger Rin that is.
  2996. The door-wall slides open a hand span, breaking my thoughts. I spot Shizuka's face, framed by her golden locks, peeking in. The kitsune takes one look at me before bowing in apology and sliding the screen back.
  2998. Realizing I must have a nasty look on my face, I sigh and reach for my stick to stir the coals. I never thought all the kitsune would so readily leave me alone when Saki and Rin weren't around. I haven't had solitude like this in weeks.
  3000. Worryingly, I don't know if I'm relieved or disappointed.
  3002. The clack and sliding hiss of wood doesn't leave me wondering for much longer. I look up, expecting to see Shizuka again, or even Saki come to check on me. Instead it's Rin in her eye catching blue dress, standing with her hands held in her sleeves before her.
  3004. "Egil," Rin she says placidly, "Would you follow me to the new room we've prepared for you?"
  3006. "Of course," I say, moving to smother the small fire that's kept me warm.
  3008. "There's no need for that," Rin says. "One of your hidden watchers will tend to the flame."
  3010. My skin prickles, but I shrug out of blankets and stand in place of arguing. I'm letting my guard down too much if I failed to take note of any possible watchers, so as I go to follow Rin I focus on my senses. As I trail behind her bushel of tails, no sounds or whispers reach my ears. Nor do I have the feeling I'm being watched, the halls empty as we trudge along. Did Rin mean to put me on guard to avoid conversation, or have I truly dulled from all this resting?
  3012. Turns and twists lead us to new a section of the home. Rin opens the door-wall to show a similar but smaller room than I've been sleeping in, but with only cushions and no futon laid out. On the silent insistence of the kitsune I step in to the room, grateful to see two of the walls are solid instead of covered screens. The air on my face has a warmer feel than in the hall, but it's still cold enough I'm glad for my extra clothing.
  3014. "Forgive me for the size," Rin says, shutting the sliding screen of a door and stepping in. "This is the warmest room I can spare, aside from the kitchens, where I doubt you'd be happy to sleep."
  3016. "I doubt I could fall asleep in a common room," I reply, watching her more carefully than my tongue.
  3018. Arm folding in front of her, she strides into the center of the room. She stares at one of the solid walls instead of paying any heed to me. There, a wooden plank engraved with a character I can't read hangs as the only decoration. Loops, curves, and sharp lines intersect strangely, the symbol entirely foreign to me. She's either fascinated by the decoration or she's waiting for me to say something. If I thought it polite I'd suggest sitting down, but I doubt that's appropriate for a guest to say. Even if it isn't, I bide my time instead of taking risks, intent on waiting her out.
  3020. I lose count of my own heartbeats several times when Rin finally breaks the silence. "I understand Saki spoke with you," she utters, turning a single eye to me before looking back to the carved character.
  3022. "She asked me to help her with Kenta."
  3024. "I am pleased with your truthfulness," the kitsune says, her nine tails resting against the woven mat floor. "I was told you wouldn't let Saki swear an oath as she pleaded for your help saving Meiko. As the eldest of my kin and master of this mountain, I want to know why you turned her down when you also turned down my plea."
  3026. That's direct and reasonable enough. "She told me more about Kenta and Meiko, but it wasn't enough to make me forgo my gratitude and friendship with you, Rin. I wanted to talk to you and see if we can come to some kind of agreement."
  3028. "Saki told you what I did not say about the urgency of the matter, did she?"
  3030. That doesn't sound like a guess to me.
  3032. "And that Kenta chose to become man-eater." I shake my head, feeling at ease enough to be honest with her where I wouldn't with others. "I may have forgotten if you told me that, Rin. The day of and before my fight have my memory of the village hazy."
  3034. "I have not forgotten anything from our time in the village." She turns to me fully, blue orbs looking down at me ever so slightly. "I withheld what I did to keep you from acting rashly. But that was then, and now I plead with you to not trouble yourself those matters."
  3036. I nod, understanding all too well why she would think I'd act rashly. I walked up her mountain to find a man-eater, and made no attempt to hide my dedication to that foolish cause. "I don't hold any ill will when someone is trying to watch out for me."
  3038. "You can be reasoned with. I like that, Egil." The master of the house adjusts her hands, sleeves softly rustling. "I can put my own feelings aside if I must, but would you be upset if I still had secrets?"
  3040. It would surprise me if she didn't. I'm careful enough to check my tongue, and instead say, "No. I don't want matters of my honor brings us into conflict, or else I wouldn't be talking to you about any of this. I would have accepted Saki's plea for help."
  3042. Rin's ears flick. "You want me to bless your involvement in the shame of my family, even after I've asked you to stay out of it."
  3044. "I want to help you and your family, Rin."
  3046. "Kenta is a problem for my family to solve, Egil. I spoke far too rashly to you when we went to the village. This is a matter that..." her words trail off, her eyes going wide as she turns her head, composure slipping.
  3048. She lifts her sleeves, burying her face in the cloth and angling away from me. I'd swear my life on hearing her whisper, "What have I done?"
  3050. Is Rin trying to trick me, or is her unusual shock and sudden shift in demeanor genuine? Being uncertain, I bide my time, watching the kitsune intently as she starts to pace back and forth in the small room
  3052. The waiting goes on for far too long, my feet starting to ache from standing still. I don't allow the small pains to distract from the pacing kitsune. I cannot allow myself to be caught off-guard, not now.
  3054. "Egil," the kitsune says from within her sleeves, "Might I speak plainly?"
  3056. "Please do."
  3058. "What would you do if Saki offered to marry you?" she asks.
  3060. I swallow, my mouth feeling too dry all of a sudden. I think I need to be polite even if I don't know how in this thorny situation. "I can't see her doing that."
  3062. Rin pulls her face out of her sleeves, the fur of her muzzle and in place of her hair mussed. I've seen her rise from sleep looking less disheveled. If she's putting on an act, it's very convincing. "She would."
  3064. "I do not see why."
  3066. "I told you as I've told her," she explains, wearily dropping her arms, "Kenta is a problem for my family to solve." She starts to bite her lip, but looks away before I can see it. "I know I asked for your help, when desperation and hope held my heart. I was wrong. This is a matter for my family to solve, as I have reminded Saki."
  3068. The nine-tail's shoulders sag. "One of my gravest mistakes. If you took any of my sisters as your bride that would make you part of my family. I could not deny the union, and thus I would have no cause to turn aside your help."
  3070. "This is more honesty than I expected," I say, feeling as if I'm pushing through a brier patch instead of making my way around it. While also being given an oiled torch to burn the brier patch away, should I wish to damage to the forest. "I owe you the same, as a friend. I will try to stop the man-eater, no matter the price I must. If there is a way I can not ruin our friendship, or become enemies, I want to find it."
  3072. "Then take one of my sisters as your bride." Blue eyes look down to say, "I know Saki all too well, she will offer herself first."
  3074. "I mean no offense, but I find it hard to believe you would allow any of this, Rin. Or tell me, if you want me to stay out of this matter of Meiko and the man-eater."
  3076. "I am not perfect. I make mistakes, far too often," Rin says, blue eyes faintly glowing in the shade of the room as she looks to the carved character on the wall. She's given up trying to appear dignified, but there's a gentle poise in her even when she slouches. "Despite my failings, I will uphold an oath I made to my sisters long ago. I told them they are free to marry good men, and if I am your friend that must mean you are a good man. A man who deserves truths I do not wish to give."
  3078. I don't say anything. She breathes out, head dipping. "One of which you can surely see. I do not want you to marry any of my sisters."
  3080. "You want to prevent another another disaster like Kenta."
  3082. "A wise assumption," she nods feebly. "Yet you are wrong. I took you as my friend did I not? I do not believe you would make the same choices as Kenta. No, selfishness moves me."
  3084. When she doesn't offer up her reason, I have to ask. "Then, between friends, would you tell me why? So I have good cause to deny your sisters, should they make any offers of marriage."
  3086. "You are a confusing man," she softly says, weary eyes darting to me. She stares at me for several heartbeats before looking away. "I trust you will keep your word about denying my sisters should I tell you, Egil."
  3088. "You have my word, even if must thrice give it."
  3090. "Once is enough." Rin shifts so a forest of tails are between us. "Do not mistake me for trying to chase you out. I greatly enjoy your company. My home will always be open to you."
  3092. How many times has this happened before, people growing fond of me and wishing I'd stay? I don't remember, but it's a dangerous, horrible situation to be in. One I don't think I can escape the normal way, even if my injuries permitted running away. Straying off the path I've chosen is not how I want to live. " Rin, do you still wish to speak plainly?" I ask, wanting to take her seriously
  3094. "Yes," the kitsune admits, ears drooping. "Forgive me, I am being a poor friend and host, hiding myself behind my words. If you believe I am asking you to stay, you are correct."
  3096. I hate thinking about these sorts of matters, but I have to do something. "No good would come from me staying," I begin, intending to go on a speech I've had to give far too many times.
  3098. Rin turns around, her blue eyes locking with mine and stopping me from giving any such speech. "No good would come from you dying. Not when I've..." she trails off, choking up when she started so sharply.
  3100. I can't give her the chance to continue, cruel as that is. If I falter now, it will only make it harder later to tell her I cannot stay.
  3102. "I'm broken, Rin," I say, looking past her and at the etched plank on the wall. This isn't the usual speech I give. But she's more deserving of truth than some peasant begging me to join their family after I slew a man-eater. "You've seen when terror has a grip on me," I press on, the words hard on my heart, "When I'm fearing for my life with no good cause. I'm not better than wild animal in the shape of a man at times, as you know from when my hand was around your neck."
  3104. "I told you before," she softly speaks, "You grabbed my mouth, and you didn't hurt me."
  3106. "I'm terrified of teeth and claws," I continue, grimacing for having admitted something so obvious yet shameful considering my hosts. But it's the only way I know how to convince her that staying will bring nothing good. "That's why I look down into my bowl at meals. Why I go rigid when my bandages need to be changed. If I stayed in this home it would only bring misery for you and sisters, or worse I might lose control of myself and hurt someone."
  3108. Rin stays silent for a while. I'm content to let nothing be said, even if my feet are starting to ache from standing still for so long.
  3110. "Egil," she says, sounding my name out carefully. "You've laid bare dark fears from deep in your soul. Forgot that we are host and guest for now. As your friend, might I share your trust and lay bare my own fear?"
  3112. I start to say no, because she clearly doesn't understand what I intend. Instead, reminding myself how I owe her debt even if she will not let me repay it, I catch myself and nod.
  3114. Cloth slips and rustles as Rin takes her hands out of her sleeves. "I cannot imagine the pain you carry in your heart, but you are strong enough to speak of it," she says, drawing herself up. "I should extend the same trust before explaining myself. If you would please look at me, Egil."
  3116. I turn my gaze from indecipherable character carved into wood. I look at Rin as she asked, and see the nine tailed kitsune facing me, her arms held awkwardly before her. As if she doesn't know what to do with herself.
  3118. With unusual hesitation she reaches up with both hands to the top of her head, blue eyes closing in concentration. She lets out a slow breath, sweeping her hands back and flattening her ears. Locks of hair, white as a winter's day, messily flow between her fingers. I stare stunned as long locks of hair cascade down from Rin's head. It must reach just beyond her elbows, when her arms are at rest. Every strand is as pure white as snow, eye catching and full as a healthy maidens instead of wispy and thin like a hags. It's marvelous as it is confusing, the both in the meaning to her and how she hid it from my eyes.
  3120. Her hands come back down and I see her eyebrows are white as well. The locks of her hair are a mess as she pulls her hands away, forcing her to guide stray strands away from her eyes as she averts my gaze. The kitsune tries to put on a haughty, reserved expression that swiftly crumbles into awkward fear.
  3122. I stare at her, my gut and eyes knowing this to be a show of magic. Only that it's not that magic has been put up, but pulled down. As if a glamour has been banished. I realize that I'm seeing Rin as she truly is, for the first time since I've met her. To still deceive my eyes after I broke her other glamours speaks deeply and terribly of her power.
  3124. "I am most sorry for this deception," she says, dipping her head in a shallow bow. When she straightens up she has to sweep a few locks out of her eyes. "I do not suggest what I have hidden can compare to your pain, but this wish to meet your trust with my own. I despise my hair and how it has tormented me, forever making me look older. So great is my disgust and shame that I hide it even from myself."
  3126. What has this conversation turned to? I'm in it, so I may as well keep on. "I don't think your hair is anything to be ashamed of," I tell her.
  3128. Rin's expression, warring between politeness and confusion, settles on disbelief, as if the kitsune had prepared herself for any other response. But what else can I say? Her hair, to my eye, is nothing to be ashamed of.
  3130. "My hair makes me look an old crone," she says, mouth straining between a forced smile and grimace. "It has always been this, but it's closer to the truth now than any woman would want to admit."
  3132. It's true that she appears a few years older, but to my eyes all of these kitsune have had a sense of inscrutable age about them, even the young Miki. I struggle to make sense of her fear. Perhaps as a man, and long time wanderer, I am incapable of understanding the fear and disgust she so plainly feels toward her appearance. But I understand feeling great disgust, shame, and fear that you don't want to show. I laid bare my own only moments ago, but I meant to drive her away not gain more of her trust.
  3134. Yet here I am, feeling oddly close to this kitsune who doesn't want my help but wishes for me to stay.
  3136. "Rin," I say, giving up on making sense of the situation, "I swear as your friend, on my honor, and on my hate for man-eaters: your hair is beautiful. As are you."
  3138. I close my eyes and curse myself silently, wondering where that last part came from. I don't let myself ponder it, not while I'm still in the midst of those verbal briers, and let myself see the world's light instead of retreat into dark thought.
  3140. Blue orbs search me for any hint of a lie, but there's none to find.
  3142. "I am ashamed to admit I am left without words from your honesty," Rin says, staring down at my feet. "If you still want to know why I wish to keep you from being involved in the matter of Kenta and Meiko, I will stop avoiding it."
  3144. I've come this far and let slip too many things, I may as well see this out to the end. I'm not giving up half the light of the world for it, at least. "I want to know," I say, reaching to rub at my pendant, but stopping myself before I reach too high. "Even if it is an unfortunate truth."
  3146. Rin hides her hands her sleeves, the kitsune suddenly looking small for someone of her height. "I have feared speaking it, but I am in love with you Egil."
  3148. That hits me harder than the kappa did.
  3150. Gods and ancestors in their halls of honor, I am a fool. I rub my forehead, meandering to an actual wall so I can lean on it. I thought myself in a patch of briers, but now I'm in a pit of spears. No wonder nothing I've said has worked in my favor. My ancestors and the gods must be laughing at me for being so blindsided, as even now I can look back and see the signs. Worse, I can't summon a simple refusal. The words touch my tongue and I can taste the lie, too disgusted by the bitterness to speak. Why?
  3152. Why can't I deny her? Frightful heat burns my skin, radiating from within me. I'd rather be anywhere but this small room right now.
  3154. "Forgive me. I will see myself out," Rin quietly says, taking my silence the wrong way.
  3156. "You don't need to," I say, unable to look away from my palm.
  3158. "I beg your forgiveness, Egil. I have spoken too much."
  3160. "Rin," I begin, pulling my hands from eyes and seeing the kitsune's back, one furred hand still against the door-wall. "Would you tell me how long?"
  3162. I don't expect her to answer. Her hand moves the door-wall, the wood making a rolling hiss as it slides, only to stop short. Arm trembling, she shuts the half opened screen, making me watch her more carefully.
  3164. "I do not know when." The kitsune keeps her back to me, but she at least speaks. "I realized it when I soothed your terror. Ever since then my heart, which I long thought dead, yearns to be close to you. To soothe your pain and feel my own fears fade away."
  3166. "Rin, I would be nothing but pain for you," I start, what to say finally unfurling in my mind.
  3168. Her head whips around to look at me, my tongue stopping dead in my mouth. Tears run down her face, darkening her fur and glistening in her eyes. The heat on my skin itches as I push myself off the wall, trying to face her.
  3170. "You know nothing of what pains me," she whispers.
  3172. In a flurry of tails, she throws the screen open and dashes out. The door-wall clatters shut as she passes into the hall, my feet too slow. When I slide open the entrance and peer out she's gone.
  3174. I consider giving chase. But I don't know where she went. I have no idea what to say either. The truth of my own heart is a muddled haze, indecipherable as the flushed fear burning my skin. Looking from one end of the hall to the next, I let out a held breath. I go back and sit down with my back to a wall.
  3176. Silently I berating myself for failing to notice Rin's feelings sooner. If I saw it, I didn't want to accept what was there. I close my eyes and lean back. If only this were a battle that could be solved with strong limbs and steel.
  3178. If only I could say I felt nothing, seeing her tears and hearing her confession.
  3180. The only hope I have is my own judgment and experience. To think I came up this mountain prepared to die, and now I have to face something scaring me worse than death or a man-eater. The fear on my skin and hollowing my chest has a terrible bite from being so fresh, cleaving into old wounds with new fangs.
  3182. I reach for my pendant. Instead of rubbing the silver, I clumsily take the loop of leather over my head. The one-handed god can't help me right now. No god can, not when they are as fickle and unreliable with love as lesser beings like me. I bundle up my pendant and slip it into the cloth binding my mending arm. I need my judgment, not that of a god.
  3184. I'm alone with my thoughts for a long time, but the mists of confusion and fear don't clear. I've begun to see Rin as a true friend, treasure rarer than fleeting gold or gems. Now it's like a sharp sword hanging above my head by a single strand of hair, all at a time when I should be focused only on recovering my strength to fight. The want for battle, to kill the man-eater Kenta, burns deeply in my chest, beneath the fear. I yearn for unfeeling steel against a terrible beast, a simple, heartless task I can let my rage and hate serve me well. Instead of this impossible battle of facing a confession from my host and friend, and whether or not I hurt her.
  3186. The door-wall clatters open. Pulse quickening, I look up from my hand.
  3188. Saki walks in, carrying my folded futon and belt in her arms. Behind her is another kitsune, Yuuko if I remember correctly, carrying a raised tray with food. Blue fire dances at the tips of their tails, lighting the dark room eerily. How long have I been sitting here, lost in my own thoughts?
  3190. I don't find out. Either by order of Rin, or merciful understanding from looking at me, they say nothing as they silently set up the room. Two lanterns are lit and set near the tray of food, rice and some sort of stew. After their tasks are finished they bow to me, Saki far too deeply for my liking, and take their leave.
  3192. I go to the tray and sit haphazardly for my first evening meal alone since I came to this mountain. Exhaustion sags my shoulders and dulls my movements, the conversation with Rin repeating in my head as go through the motions of feeding myself. As always, using the hashi leaves my hands aching by the time I've finished using the cursed eating sticks. The taste of the food passes over my tongue without a thought, interested only in what the meal will do for my recovery. I get to the stew and have to bend and lean forward to bring spoonfuls up to my mouth. Through the efforts that leave my bound arm itching and aching, I find myself musing that this is when Rin would usually try to help me somehow. Holding the bowl, or watching mirthfully as I reluctantly relent to her offering me portions to eat.
  3194. Why did I ever allow Rin to get close enough to stick in my thoughts like a thorn?
  3196. I drop my spoon into an empty bowl, the food on my stomach exhausting me. I hardly remember putting out the lanterns before shuffling into the futon, merciful sleep taking me before confounding thoughts haunt me any longer.
  3198. ---
  3200. The morning begins with an unremembered nightmare waking me in the early darkness before dawn. Sweating, heart beating in my throat, I go and sit against the wall once I have control of myself.
  3202. An eternity caught in my bitter thoughts passes until the entrance to the room opens up. Saki and Shizuka step in, but my glare stops them from asking me any questions. They help me with my arm, clothes, and morning needs without a word. The first thing I notice either of them saying is Shizuka, standing respectfully by my side as we walk down a hall.
  3204. "Egil," the seven-tail asks, "Would you care to take your meal in private?"
  3206. I nod, not needing words now, or when I'm returned to the room and the two kitsune silently share a meal with me.
  3208. Even as the day goes by, I find no reason to speak. Not even when Shizuka appears to change the bandages on my arm. As she takes my sling down, the pendant I removed last night falls out of my clothes. One of the kitsune, I don't see which, tries to pick it up, but I'm faster. Silver snatched between my fingers, I feel the shape of the rune, it's rounded profile sharp as a knife in my thoughts.
  3210. "Are you felling well, Egil? You're being unusually quiet," Shizuka softly speaks, trying to touch my good shoulder.
  3212. I'm faster yet again, pulling away before she can do more than touch my clothes. "Many things are on my mind," I answer.
  3214. "Talking helps clear the mind and soul," she says, biding me to look at her and the small smile on her face.
  3216. I can see Saki turn her attention down, away from us, but not before I spot a glimmer of something like approval. If I'm mistaken about her thoughts, I'm certainly not mistaken about Shizuka's. The seven-tail's offer is sincere as it is warmly eager.
  3218. Looping my pendant around my wrist, vowing to put the unwelcome memento away in my belt later, I shake my head. "I've nothing to talk about."
  3220. "Are you certain?"
  3222. Sharply glancing up at Shizuka makes her dip her head in apology. How fearsome must my face look? "Forgive me, Egil. I forget my place as your host."
  3224. "There's nothing to forgive," I mutter.
  3226. "Little sister," Saki speaks up, earn Shizuka's full attention. "Perhaps we should give him the silence he so clearly desires."
  3228. "Yes, Saki."
  3230. I doubt it will last, or that Saki has pure intentions, but I'll take what I can get. There's much I need to think about, preferably alone.
  3232. ---
  3234. I hardly notice as days pass. All I know for certain is that many days do pass, as winter's claws try to sink deeper through my clothes and toward my bones whenever I go outside.
  3236. Nightmares leave me with little time for sleep so I start stretching and moving my body in the early morning, just as I learned from warriors far more disciplined than me. After breakfast alone in my room I start working on my legs, squatting up and down or walking in circles through unusually empty halls. Before the evening meal I step through silent fights with my shadow, favoring my sword arm since my shield arm is bound against my chest. If I'm a fool hurting my recovery then so be it, but I know if I sit in one place I'll go mad. Better to heal slowly than not at all.
  3238. Aside from meals and checking on me, I'm left alone, just as Saki suggested to Shizuka. They're not the only ones either. It's as if all the lurking kitsune sisters know I need the bitter company of only myself as I ponder over what do on this mountain. That or Rin, who I've yet to see again, instructed them to stay away from me.
  3240. I don't care about the cause of my solitude, only that I have time to reflect on my life.
  3242. What a life it has been. If I wrote a saga about myself the truth alone would make for a more outlandish story than even the most boastful embellishment could manage. Who would honestly believe I've killed men and man-eaters, dined with savages and kings, talked with faeries and walked free, or taken shelter in the home of magical fox women? It would be much easier to write that I'm a coward and a thief who stole the family sword and fled. That the outlandish things I've been through were accidents, not my stubbornness to face what others won't. That nothing I've done has been for glory or the adventure, as the story of my scars would certainly tell.
  3244. No matter how I could try to spin sage of my life, my younger, more foolish self would never believe the man I have become. I would certainly not believe that I'd be resting as an honored guest in a home so elaborate and well made that the buildings of my homeland are closer to rough sheds than proper dwellings. Or that the master of this home would say she loves me.
  3246. An entire lifetime of choices is too much to think about in one day, or even the seven in a week.
  3248. To keep myself from brooding in the mornings, I try the poses a priest taught me, back in that horrible land of jungles and tiger-headed monsters. I hiss through my teeth every time, trying to remember how to breathe properly as I endure a slow chain of unnatural positions. It focuses me, so I know that priest hadn't only been trying to get me to look like a sore fool.
  3250. A bard or poet might laugh at me or my situation, but I'm neither. All I can do is hone my body and instincts for what awaits. Whether I die sword in hand and have to explain myself to my ancestors or fall into the horrible cold of the dishonorable dead, it will be from the same cause. A foe I had a choice to walk away from.
  3252. Eventually, on a particularly cold midday, I admit to myself I'm avoiding Rin as much as she's avoiding me. I know I have to do something, say something, yet for all my scars and seasons there is nothing in my chest but tight confusion.
  3254. What does a man like me know about love? Nothing.
  3256. Chewing my words so I can choose whatever holds up, I wait for the door-wall to open and one of the two kitsune I've seen these past days to check on me. However long it takes, it's almost too much for me to bear. Until at last the familiar sound of wood on wood signals the arrival of one. I stand to greet whoever it is sliding open the entrance to my room. Wood clacks and I'm left staring up.
  3258. Blue orbs stare down at me. I scarcely notice the two kitsune standing behind Rin, her mask of a face capturing my near full attention.
  3260. That blue dress sits on her body nicely, grace and poise as familiar as breathing to her. But her eyes, her weary blue orbs, are all I focus on. Has she always looked so exhausted? Should I care, or say something?
  3262. "Greetings, honored guest," the master of the house says, dipping in such a slight bow I hardly notice it. "I will not disturb your solitude for long, as I am certain you've much to meditate upon."
  3264. "There's little else to do with my arm like this," I say, my voice a stranger to my ears.
  3266. "That misfortune is why I am here, along with," she waves behind her to Saki and Shizuka, "My beautiful little sisters. It is time to remove that splint from your arm, honored guest." Rin faces me, fox face emotionless. "I made a promise to see your wounds healed and I will see it through."
  3268. Every word out of Rin's mouth makes more of the hairs on the back of my neck and arms stand up. I can't shake the feeling she's either trying to goad or provoke me, but why? To test the promises I made to her? Perhaps she's mad because I've kept to myself since that exhausting night we shared our dark secrets? When I hardly know my own feelings and thoughts, what hope do I have of knowing hers?
  3270. But I must speak anyway. "Thank you, Rin. For your care and concern," I say, trying for peace if I can find it. "Having my arm back will be a relief."
  3272. "It is nothing," she dismisses, motioning for her sisters go into the room before her. "It is my duty to see you healed."
  3274. With the three kitsune and myself in the room, my eyes twitch to check all the good escape paths. I find myself pushing back against fear that's only been in my dreams lately, the oppressing sensation of being cornered. I don't let it have a hold on me, telling myself that I sit with my back to the solid wall for security, not necessity. In moments I'm surrounded by the trio. Rin sits back, the way the nine-tail holds herself saying she is too important to be involved. With muddled feelings, I allow Shizuka and Saki to do everything.
  3276. The coldness in the room goes beyond the winter chill as the master of the house and I quietly stare at one another.
  3278. What does Rin want? That I'll cast aside why I came to this mountain, and ignore what I might do to solve the situation with Kenta? That I'll make her duties easier by breaking a promise to her? For me to know how to accept what she said that frightfully honest night?
  3280. I hiss out a breath, jerking back when claws prod sensitive flesh. "I am most sorry," Shizuka says, scuttling back and dipping into an apology, the bandages from my arm in her hand.
  3282. Swallowing, her quick apology hurting when I shouldn't allow it to, I can only nod. My fists may be balled up, but my body is poised to run, not strike out. A glance at Saki and Rin show me neither is moved or worried. Eventually the golden haired kitsune returns, and I'm forced to look at my arm instead of sneakily watching the nine-tail.
  3284. Rin is here to watch and goad me towards a decision, nothing more. I want to bite my tongue for realizing I'd hoped Rin would be tending to me. For things to be more at ease between us again.
  3286. Shizuka works quickly, her hands deftly undoing the rest of my bandages. I'm strong enough to hold my once maimed arm up, no need for support. The kappa made splint, crude wood and bone from the look of it, is peeled away next, Saki taking the discarded pieces. My one armed life is at an end, and I feel nothing. Shizuka's furred hands try to manipulate my arm, only for me to move away from the hint of her furred touch, flesh sensitive.
  3288. "How does your arm feel?" the golden haired kitsune asks. "Is there any pain or weakness?"
  3290. Twisting my wrist and moving my elbow, I find it difficult to muster even half of my strength in the limb. Half is better than none, and even better when I feel only a dull tightness from moving my arm in every direction I can imagine. "No pain," I say. "And stronger than I thought it would be."
  3292. Shizuka looks at me worriedly, but doesn't reach out again. "If there is pain do let us know."
  3294. "I will. Thank you, both of you," I nod to Saki and Shizuka, "For your care and patience." Looking beyond them, catching Rin's eye, I dip my head to the nine-tail. "And thank you for the same, Rin, as well as your foresight and wisdom. I wouldn't have my arm back if it weren't for you."
  3296. "You are welcome." She folds her hands in her lap. "I did what I must, as I suspect you will."
  3298. I throw glances to the other two kitsune, then back to Rin. Does she really want to say things so pointedly with others around? She only stares at me, obviously intent on letting them stay.
  3300. "I've not made up my mind on what I'll do," I say, keeping from saying too much. "But I don't believe you did this only because you must."
  3302. "Do not presume to know my intentions," she calmly declares. "Now, unless you have need of my sisters or questions for me, then we shall leave you to your thoughts once more."
  3304. Dare I ask, in front of her sisters, about that night we last spoke? No, no I am not that inconsiderate. Instead I say, "Perhaps we should celebrate a healthy recovery?"
  3306. She laughs dryly, lifting one of her sleeves to cover her mouth. "The look in your eye says you are in no mood for celebration," she says. "And I think I would be ill company for you, honored guest. But if you wish to celebrate anyway, I am certain my sisters would take interest."
  3308. While I try to figure out why she's intent on remaining so distant, Rin rises with perfect grace. "I humbly ask your forgiveness, but I must be off. I am certain my little sisters can take better care of you than I can."
  3310. I don't get the chance to argue that last part before she turns to go. She's taken care of me better than I've cared for myself and-
  3312. Rin opens the door and I clench both my fists. "Why don't you two go with your eldest sister?" I more than suggest to Saki and Shizuka.
  3314. They offer no comment, rising to their feet and looking to the nine-tail opening the door-wall. She looks over her shoulder, from sister to sister. "It seems I was right. You are in no mood for a celebration."
  3316. She leaves without another word, tails bobbing along with her white hair. I blink, not having noticed her white hair until she's all but gone.
  3318. Saki and Shizuka each give me a cryptic look, with more warmth than is welcome, before following their eldest sister.
  3320. I'm whole again, but as I work my shield arm, I know it's in body only. Not that any other part of me than my body came to this mountain whole. Even so, I feel reduced.
  3322. ---
  3324. On the next day, after even less sleep than I've been getting, I ask Shizuka and Saki to take me to the group meal. They accept without complaint, and I realize darkly that if I asked either one to share a bed with me they would probably give me the same soft acceptance. A nod from Saki, and a smiling, "Of course," from Shizuka. Not that I could stand any such company, but the soreness of the thought feels right for my already unpleasant mood.
  3326. The new morning routine has me handling my own clothes, not that Saki and Shizuka don't try to help. A hard look from me keeps them away, my shield arm trying to tremble but my stubbornness making it work.
  3328. Once we're in the halls and walking to the communal room, I feel a tail against my back. A sharp look at the culprit, and the warmth leaves. Regret sets in when I see Shizuka fold her hands in front of her, her ears twisting forward solemnly.
  3330. Had I been another man, living a kinder life, perhaps. But the seven-tail's persistent care and warmth, I can't accept any of it. Even before I wronged Rin, but especially now that I go to confront the master of the house.
  3332. We reach the room, Saki opening the entrance for us. I step into a warm room smelling of gentle smoke and cooking food. As I enter I see the nearby hearth filled with kitsune occupied by their meals. Only for them suddenly to look up, along with the others at the second hearth, creating a roiling sea of curious tails shifting and fox ears twisting. Eyes of all colors look upon me with keen, overeager interest. I almost expect some of them to rise, but at the sound of a single false cough they all look away.
  3334. Rin, swathed in her blue dress, lowers her hand back into her lap. She sits before the second hearth, along with four of her sisters, among the two-tailed Miki who seems to smile at my presence. No, I realize all of the kitsune around the fire seem to smile keenly at me. Except Rin, her expression placid as she faces the burning embers. I blink, only now noticing her white, pulled back hair. She must still be hiding it, and now that I know of it I suspect she can't have her glamour perfectly hide her hair from my eyes.
  3336. "It is generous of you to join us," the nine-tail intones, not looking up from the smoldering fire. "Sisters, thank you for attending our guest. I would be most happy if the two of you were to join me before our guests sits."
  3338. Saki and Shizuka dip their heads and shuffle to their eldest sister, and on instinct alone I shift my feet to take a sturdier stance. The two kitsune that were with me go and sit beside the nine-tail, and I see the subtle shift of Rin's tails. As if reacting to that sign, the other kitsune around the hearth shift where they sit. With obvious planning, five space I might sit are opened up, ensuring I'll be impolitely close to at least once kitsune. Except for Rin, as Saki and Shizuka remain seated so closely to their elder sister I'd have to ask for space.
  3340. With Rin staying at the fire and the sisters so obviously playing along, I don't think I'm expected to ask for such a thing. Whether I'm being tested or toyed with, the strangeness of this has me fighting a frown.
  3342. "If you would please sit, dear guest," Rin says, tilting her head up slightly.
  3344. I'm not playing this game, walking into this trap, or hiding from what I must do anymore.
  3346. "I had not remembered how crowded the hearths could get," I say, dipping my head in a hint of a bow. "I see nowhere I can sit, so I perhaps it wise if I see myself out."
  3348. The master of the house draws her blue orbs away from the embers and flame, regarding me from her position as eldest and host. "Do not speak such nonsense. Sit by whoever you wish." She waves an empty hand around for effect, trying to draw my attention to the soft smiles and open expressions of her sisters. "Everyone here wishes to know you better and will have no complaint about having you close."
  3350. Not looking away from the nine-tail, knowing this to be no time for meekness and polite words, I draw back, the motion genuine as it is for effect. "But I would cause offense."
  3352. Rin looks around with deliberate slowness, but I only watch her even as she starts speaking. "Saki, Shizuka, and Miki you've met. These other three are Hifumi, Shiori, and Chika." Rin's blue orbs return to me, the light within dull despite the warm glow of a hearth. "They all wish to know you better. Not a one here would mind you getting close as you wish."
  3354. This game is helping no one, least of all Rin, yet she seems insistent on playing it. What she said about me knowing noting of her pain stirs in my ears as knife edged memory. Fingers curling up, threatening to ball into fists, I breathe out like I'm in the middle of a painful stretch. In, let the breath float in the heart, and then out. "Out of respect to a promise I made a friend, I will not," I say, resisting an urge to draw myself up like an arrogant fool.
  3356. At the edge of my overly focused vision, I notice several kitsune shift uncomfortably, tails and ears twisting or flicking. Yet in Rin's eyes there's no emotion or movement. Body still as carven stone, she faces me with the solemness of dutiful conviction. "You were released from the promises you persisted in," Rin says, polite tone as wooden as the look she wears. "Go on and enjoy yourself as guest in my home."
  3358. "Then might I sit by my friend?" I ask, trying for the thin thread of polite manners left for me.
  3360. Rin waves around, but once again I don't let my gaze falter. "They would all love to know you as more than a friend," she says, feigning mild surprise at my words. "Sit by one of them. Let one of them hold your bowl."
  3362. With my arm my own again? She speaks as if she hasn't gotten to know me, and I know it's intentional. "Is that what you desire as the master of the house?"
  3364. She sagely nods, her silence speaking deeply to me.
  3366. I try to be gentle with my words, for Rin's sake, as her sisters are all around us. "And what about as the friend I've shared stories and drinks with?"
  3368. A hint of something like emotion tug at the inner edge of eyes, her gaze narrowing. "You can forget the foolishness said between us. You are an honored guest and should be treated as such, nothing less."
  3370. My hands nearly tremble at the strength it's taking to keep them from balling into fists. She's carefully leaving things out to get her point across, but I don't understand it. "What foolishness do you speak of? I thought I was the only fool upon this mountain."
  3372. Her head tilts back, as if she might look down upon me despite sitting. "You know of what I speak," she says, tilting her head in an oddly mocking way. "Or do I need to speak plainly for a foreigner such as yourself to understand?"
  3374. The barb gets under my skin, irritating me nearly as much as my uselessness this winter has. The threads of politeness unraveling, I can't stop myself from speaking my mind, even if it gets me kicked off this mountain. Even if I know it's exactly what she wants. "I thought your words were serious that night, but if you're playing these kinds of games I see I was wrong."
  3376. Her gaze wavers for a moment, and I know I scored a deep blow. She sits back, wearing her haughty disappointment like an iron shell. "I would not play games with a man so severe and assured as you. Not after you told me why you were came to my mountain. So sit and enjoy the company of my sisters, honored guest."
  3378. The beat of my heart thrums in my head and I roll my jaw to keep from gnashing my teeth. This is so at odds with the vulnerable side she shared with me, with what she asked of me, that I almost wonder if it was all a mad dream. "What I said is true, Rin. There is no space for me here."
  3380. "Sit," she all but commands, waving to the spots between her sisters I refuse to look at. "Enjoy their company and get to know them. You've been here so long yet you've made a stranger of yourself to the kitsune who'd like to know you better."
  3382. "I've not made myself a stranger to you," I declare, knowing full well I'm crossing a line I cannot come back from.
  3384. "I said do not speak such foolishness," she snaps, calm composure fraying.
  3386. Even though I do as asked, my unwavering stare at her actually seems to unnerve the nine-tail, but her anger burns in her eyes. Getting a firm grasp on my useless anger, I say, "Speaking truth is not foolishness."
  3388. She nods, but not to me. Beyond me, toward the door-wall at my back. "If you will not sit and indulge in the hospitality offered by my sisters, then go. I will send someone to bring you a meal when we are finished."
  3390. So that's it? "If that is what you desire, Rin," I say, watching her intently.
  3392. She can't meet my gaze anymore, blue orbs darting away. "It is."
  3394. I know she's trying to deceive more than me, or perhaps I only want to believe that she's lying to herself as anger surges in my blood. Keeping myself from lashing out with words that won't help, I take half a step forward. Whether she hates me now or she's only acting on a sense of duty I can't understand, it's clear I've crossed lines I shouldn't have. Yet I've come this far, I can't stop speaking my mind yet.
  3396. Knowing how sharply love can turn to loathing, I resolve to accept whatever happens. "I do not mind if you try deceive me Rin, but do not deceive yourself. No duty is worth lying to yourself."
  3398. Fur bristles as Rin places her hands in her lap, my words shutting whatever doors she had left open. "Do not try to mock me in my home when you have done nothing but sulk alone," Rin icily speaks. "I suggest you take your leave so you might enjoy the only company you have shown a preference for."
  3400. Mouth opening to say something, I sharp snap my jaws closed to keep from falling into that trap. This isn't what I wanted, and I only realize that when it's too late. I wanted back the friend I'd somehow made. I should have talked to her sooner, or asked her to have a private word with me when my arm was taken from the splint.
  3402. Before anyone can say another word, I turn around. As I do, I catch sight of many a fox face glancing to each with shock and suspicion. With my back to them all a hint of my quiet terror breathing down my neck from putting so many possible threats behind me, but I keep myself from falling into the grasp of terror or anger. The soft rustle of my clothes and restrained breathing is the only sound in the room, and even that falls silent when I reach the door-wall. I don't waste a breathe taking hold of the wood frame, slowing only when when Rin's angry, commanding voice speaks up. "Sit down, all of you."
  3404. Presuming that's not meant for me, or even caring if it was, I slip out into an empty hall. Sliding the door-wall shut behind me carefully instead of slamming it for a sense of finality like I want, I walk alone through the home.
  3406. I don't know why I allowed myself to get so angry. It's as Rin said, I came to this mountain for one purpose. Yet here I am, spending the winter in the wealthy home of a kitsune who's laid claim to an entire mountain instead of killing the man-eater in the forest. I don't know what I should do or where my heart lays. The only certain path ahead of me is walking more to clear my mind.
  3408. Going to the room given to me, I collect my boots and belt. After a small struggle getting my belt on, my mended arm still sluggish, I go outside into the cold and sit down to get properly prepared. The boots I came her in aren't as warm as the pair loaned to me, but they're mine. Almost feeling whole, missing only my sword and knife, I pace the grounds mindlessly. Or try to, memories of how badly things keep going with Rin gnawing at the roots of my thoughts like a monstrous serpent.
  3410. I find no peace in walking. All I achieve is wasting my breath in the cold, until I've wandered to the front of the home. I stop by the closed gates and throw my head back.
  3412. The sky above has hardly a cloud in it, the few that drift as wispy as my breath. If I had my sword, I would go and try to put an end to the oni, Kenta. Solve this situation by doing what I came here for and nothing else. No help, no complicated family honor, no oaths to friends. Only my wit and skill against a monster I know next to nothing about. Steel stolen from my family against a man-eater I only know the name of.
  3414. Fingers curling into fists, knuckles popping and palms stinging from my nails, I'm in a foul enough mood to do something stupid. Glancing down at the gate, knowing I need to figure out how to get out of here, my instinct screams something is amiss.
  3416. The feeling is so strong I don't ignore or dismiss it. There's nothing odd about the wooden gate or the heavy bar latching it shut. So what is it? Looking around I notice no one approaching, nor do the hairs on my neck stand as if I'm being watched. Yet the feeling of wrongness, still sharp as when it first came, remains.
  3418. Looking back up, I finally notice what is wrong.
  3420. A thin, dark cloud hangs in the sky beyond the gate. Taking several steps back to see more, all of my anger fades as I see wisps of gray and red. Smoke, but unlike anything ever seen with how an eerie red is mixed within. I know it's from a very large fire if I'm seeing it from this far up on the mountain, and that it's in the same direction as the village below. With snow on the ground and ice on the eaves, it's all to likely a person set the blaze responsible. My priorities shift from finding a fight to the death to concern for people that had me as guest against their better judgment, but the problem I faced remains the same.
  3422. I don't have a weapon.
  3424. But looking to the back of the kitsune's home, toward the cliff wall at the back, I know how to solve that.
  3426. Briefly, I think about warning the kitsune. Not knowing where they are or would be, I instead set out to Saki's building. If I see anyone on the way I can warn them, or so I tell myself.
  3428. Not quite running or walking, I swiftly make it to the lonely building. I hop up onto the walkway, boots and all, and grab at the sliding door to the secluded building. If my poor manners get me in trouble so be, I'm hardly on anyone's good side here anyway. Several kitsune may want me, but only one knows me in any real way. And I've already offended her too much. Worst I do is offend Saki, who can still find use in me as bait or a weapon against Kenta so I needn't worry about her.
  3430. Dragging open the door, making more noise than I like, I gaze into the dim building. The back wall, which I remember covered in weapons, sits bare.
  3432. I look away, then back again, hoping it to be yet another glamour. Barren wood and empty pegs stare back at me. My fingers squeeze the edge of the door until I notice pain in my palms. Easing my grip, I impolitely go in to see for myself.
  3434. My boots plod across wood noisily, heavy thunks that make the hairs on my arm rise. Eyes on the beams above, searching for any moving shadows, I reach the back wall. Touching the pegs tell me what I feared, this isn't some glamour. The weapons are all gone, along with my knife and sword. The wintry wisps billowing from my mouth have me wondering if Saki stored them away because of the cold, or if she guessed I might steal a weapon and try to fight Kenta on my own.
  3436. I sneer at how right she would have been if I hadn't seen the rising smoke. I'd be hear for just that reason.
  3438. For far too long I search the wall, sliding my palms up and down every polished plank of wood and bumping every peg. Nothing. Tapping my knuckles suggest it's less solid than it looks, so I go from one side to the next, searching for hidden door or nook.
  3440. Wood clacks shut and the light grows dim.
  3442. I spin around and crouch low, my eyes searching for company before a thought even crosses my mind. Dull, dusty light filters in through the cracks of the shuttered windows set up high, casting glowing shafts of illumination in the dark building. When thought does return, I realize I left the door open and someone shut it. I see no one, but I know in my gut that I'm not alone. One of the kitsune is in here with me, but which one? Saki, Rin, that overly friendly Miki, someone else?
  3444. "You can relax your guard," a shadows says, melting from the edge of the door. Tails fan out, swishing and meandering so much I can't count them. A kitsune dressed in close fitting black, with a hint of some kind of mail beneath he upper garments, approaches. She's wearing a mask of some sort over the top part of her face, resting on her snout, the smooth shape painted with white and red and making her look all the more intimidating. "I will take no offense to your boots in here if you tell me what you are doing," she says, stopping right before a beam of light.
  3446. Wary of the kitsune, I shift closer to the weakest board in the wall I remember, intending to smash it and use a shard as a weapon if I have to. "I was looking for my sword and knife," I explain, not daring to lie.
  3448. "What do you need those for?" she asks, tilting her head and making the patterns on her mask seem to shift.
  3450. "I saw smoke, so I'm going to see that the village isn't in danger," I explain, wondering if she'll believe the truth. Then again, I said nothing about what I'd do after I was certain the village was okay.
  3452. "Do not worry about the village. I am going for that very reason," she says. "I suggest you stay here and continue to rest."
  3454. I dislike the sound of that enough to sharply ask, "Am I prisoner in this home?"
  3456. "You are an honored guest. The promises my family made to the village are not duties you must attend."
  3458. My anger gets the better of me. "I wouldn't have walked across more of the world than anyone has heard of if I cared about duty," I snap, body moving with my words as my voice grows with pent up anger. "There's a fire near the village and if I can be of any help to the people that gave me a place to sleep and their scarce food, I'm going. Even if I am no longer welcome in this home."
  3460. The kitsune's tails freeze, and I think I count more than six before they start swishing again. She's quiet for a moment, before reaching up and moving her mask away, taking enough of a step forward for her brown eyes to shine in a beam of light. That I didn't notice or suspect it was Saki speaks ill of my nerves.
  3462. "If you wish to accompany me," she says, "I will not stop you. But I cannot speak for eldest sister's reaction."
  3464. "I'll deal with any more offense I cause her later."
  3466. Saki nods, reaching up to slip her mask back down. "Wait there," she instructs, leaping up and swinging into the crisscrossing beams above.
  3468. There's no hint of a sound as she jumps from beam to beam, but I can at least track her shadow. There's a thud as something lands on the other side of the once weapon laden wall, and I cross my arms. I suspect she only made that much noise to try and put me at ease. Dozens of breaths I force to be patient later, and I hear a yipped sound of exertion. Looking up I see her shadow pass through above once more, my body twisting around to face her as she lands in the center of the room. She's laden with weapons. A spear with red tassels and long blade, a straight sword in a wooden scabbard, strangely curved knives connected by silken cord, and more importantly the items I came for.
  3470. She offers me my sword and knife back. I gratefully take them both, checking the blades before securing them on my belt. When I look at her, she's made the knives connected by silk vanish and is wearing the sword in a sash at her waist. The spear she holds oddly against her back, the point angled down. "We aren't leaving by the gate," she states, turning to leave.
  3472. I'm in no position to question it, and follow after her. I can't complain about the silence when I morosely sat alone in my room for who knows how long.
  3474. Outside, she leads me around the back of the building. She looks up at the wall surrounding the home, then to me. If she expects me to have an idea of how I'm supposed to scale that quickly or quietly then she won't get an answer. Fortunately, she makes the decision to leap up and scale the wall, claws on her feet scrabbling inelegantly for purchase. With one arm and respectable strength she makes it onto the tiled overhang on the wall, before crouching low and bracing herself. She flips her spear around, lowering the blunt, wooden end down for me to grab hold of. Grabbing it with my good arm, I have sudden gratitude for all the limbering and strengthening of my body as I scrabble up while she pulls. Between us, we get me onto the over hang, and I can look down on the snowy ground outside the walls. She drops, sticks her spear into the ground, and holds her hands out to help catch me.
  3476. With a look toward the buildings of the kitsune home, I feel a strange pang of longing. The gate, the large building in the center, even the lone torii nestled in front of the sheer cliff. It's all become strangely familiar, and some part of me knows I may not return. This place is no mere dwelling, it's a home, and I was invited in. Now, I'm leaving without saying anything to the one that invited me.
  3478. Not that I think she would even see me now, let alone listen to me after the offense I must have caused.
  3480. I scoot myself off the wall, doing all I can to support my weight on the edge, but Saki still has to grab the underside of my feet to help me down. That indignity over with, she wastes no words in heading off, expecting me to follow.
  3482. Without a word, I follow the dangerous kitsune.
  3484. ---
  3486. The rustle and whip of wind through trees keeps us company on our trip down the mountain. Saki sets a swift pace, her long legs unrestrained by her clothes, but she slows once we're near the area I guess to be Meiko and Kenta's grounds. The gnarled, twisted trees and their leafless branches all look the same in winter, but the lack of any pines in the distance stands out to me now. It's as if life has abandoned this stretch of the forested mountain. Saki walks purposefully, her tails bundled up together and bouncing with each step, but the false relaxation in her movements speak of her readiness for action. I have little doubt that she will leap at anything that rustles in the forest around us, my instincts bristling because of her predatory readiness.
  3488. Then again, with my hand so close to my sword and knife, perhaps she feels the same about me. Gone are the days of rest and weakness. I walk with as much purpose as her, my ears strained and eyes alert.
  3490. We make it through the dead area with no incident, and soon the shrines on the side of the path show no disarray. Saki's tails droop and she slows down once we're past the dead area. Meiko's fate must weigh on her, more than the existence of that man-eater in the woods weighs on me and makes the skin of my neck prickle.
  3492. In the sky ahead thin gray and eerie red smoke continues to ominously rise, staining the clear blue above, and surely visible from any of the nearby mountains. Who else might come to check? Gripping the pommel of my sword, I'm glad to have the weapon. I've had my hand on it the entire trip, to keep the hilt and broad pommel warm against my skin and safe inside my sleeve. Better to be prepared for a fight than draw freezing steel in the midst of winter, and I even notice Saki doing the same to her sword.
  3494. Weary of the silence, and knowing we still have a ways to go, I risk conversation. "You carry a lot of weapons. Do you expect trouble?"
  3496. "Do you?" Saki asks back, gaze ahead.
  3498. "Always."
  3500. "Then perhaps you are as wise as eldest sister said."
  3502. My lips sting, and it's not from the cold. It's all I can do to keep from scowling at the mention of the master of this mountain. Our last bitter exchange clings harshly to my every thought.
  3504. A few silent steps later, the eight-tail points to the rising smoke. "The red smoke is from Rin's talisman. Something else must burn along with it."
  3506. "Something big," I guess, not wanting to say what I truly think. There's enough smoke for a hut or two to be in flames. If fortune is on our side maybe only a woodshed burns from an accident, but I don't hold to that hope.
  3508. "We will see soon." She looks over at me, her angry half-mask hiding any hint of true emotion. "The villagers do not need to know my name. While we are there, I am either kitsune or Akaiyari."
  3510. I nod, hoping there won't be a need for either of us to intervene. "Egil or foreigner works for me," I dryly reply. When there's only silence from her, I dare to ask a question in hopes of distracting my thoughts. "What does Akaiyari mean?"
  3512. "It was a nickname the villagers' ancestors gave me," she says. "In their unrefined dialect it's red spear." She shrugs, showing what I think might be a twinge of embarrassment. "I thought it was better than blood spear."
  3514. "Blood spear sounds like the sort of name a warrior of my homeland would covet," I chuckle.
  3516. "Does Egil mean anything?" she asks, surprising me with the almost personable question. I guess she has thoughts she'd rather not dwell on as well.
  3518. "Yes," I answer. After a few moments of silence, I give in to the sidelong look she's giving me, somewhat. "It's to honor one of my ancestor's names."
  3520. "And you won't share that or the meaning, will you?"
  3522. There is no way I'm telling a magical creature my full name. Not after dealing with faeries. "After so long speaking other languages, I seem to have forgotten the full name given to me," I lie, not caring if she sees through my deception.
  3524. "I hope you remember," she says, with such seriousness I can't tell if she believes my lie or not. "I would be distraught if I forgot the name given to me."
  3526. Does she believe my lie? If she does, I might feel bad. Worse than I already do, not that I'm letting any of that show. "Well," I begin, "I hope we won't need the skill that gave you that nickname."
  3528. "And I will hope we don't need to see if you have the skills of a yamabushi or not," she says, quickening her pace to get ahead of me. "We are almost there. Walk behind me."
  3530. My hand shifting to hold my sword more lightly, I match her pace while thinking about the plan. Surprises in a fight are the best weapons, but with the weapons we each carry I have to disagree with the order. "Let me go first," I suggest.
  3532. The kitsune stops, half turning to look at me through her mask. "Why?" There's no hostility or arrogance. The question is as pure as it is simple.
  3534. If only Rin and I had managed such a simple dialogue. Biting the edge of my tongue, killing all those thoughts with the needle of pain, I face the fox, Saki. "If there are any men like me it will be better if I'm ahead of you."
  3536. She gets what I mean quickly. "Would men hunting rumors come during winter?"
  3538. "If I knew how light this winter would be," I say, brushing my short and ice free beard, "I would have."
  3540. The haft of her spears taps against the back of her shoulder. She looks to the smoke still rising, then back to me. "Then I'll be as your shadow. The villagers won't notice me, but anyone half as strange as you will."
  3542. With no interest in being offended by such a plainly spoken comment, I walk past the kitsune. I don't rush down the mountain. There's no point in wasting my strength in the cold. Yet I have the urge, especially when I can feel Saki looming behind me. The hairs on my neck stand up and my heart races with a need to look behind me. Fingering the pommel of my sword, I push into the wintry woods at the bottom of the mountain.
  3544. ---
  3546. Ice and snow crunch underneath my boots as I emerge from the woods. I catch my first glimpse of the village and its frozen fields. My gut tightens, the breath in my throat halting for a pained heartbeat.
  3548. Two huts are no more than burning ruins, and a third billows smoke from flames gnawing at the still standing roof. I don't remember which hut belongs to which family, but the only hint of flames I see are on this side of the river, none of homes across the river look to be in danger. The farthest smoldering building from me billows red and gray smoke, but I don't think it's the same one owned by the village elders. I hope it isn't. As I get closer, gaining speed with every step, I see not a single person trying to quench the fires, or huddling in safety on the other side of the iced over river. There's no one out at all. Eyes snapping around, I spot tracks in snow and ice, both new and old. While I can see many fresh paths weaving out toward the river, I spare them little attention and dash across the icy ground toward the fire. The treachery of the dirty, packed snow of the trail doesn't slow me at all, the footing more forgiving than on a ship in a storm.
  3550. A thundering crack rattles in my ears and chest, the burning building's roof collapsing inward a breath later. Embers and ash swirl upward, chased by raging flames that angrily belch black smoke. I slow to a walk, anything I could have done snatched away in an instant.
  3552. Anyone inside is dead or about to be. My fist tightens on the pommel of my sword. Burning to death is a bad way to die, one of the worst I have ever seen. If I hadn't slowed Saki down, could she have gotten here in time to stop this? If I had run as soon as I got to the woods, would we have made it in time?
  3554. I spit at those second guessing thoughts, disgusted at myself for feeling regret while a fire rages and the mystery of no one fighting the blaze still stands. Approaching the burning building, I keep my senses open. Saki keeps shadowing me, making the hairs all over my body bristle, but it's nothing compared to the fury in my chest. If I catch whoever did this they will beg for me to kill them.
  3556. I get as close to the burning building as I can, soot and ash starting to drift and stain the surrounding snow. The doorway is gone, replaced by leaping flames obscuring everything but the inferno within. A wall of heat stops me from walking closer, my feet planted firmly as I take in the situation.
  3558. "There was a fight," Saki declares, her shape melding into the edge of my vision.
  3560. Looking to where she stands, I see the marks on the ground, just ahead of her. The heat is melting the ice, thinning the marks, but farther down where the ice is firm, the strange trail doesn't lie. Someone or something got dragged, wiping away the details of footprints in the snow and ice.
  3562. "Look for survivors in the other buildings," Saki says, following the tracks with deft steps. "Take no chances. Don't come to me unless I call your name."
  3564. "Go," I nod. "I'm no stranger to carnage"
  3566. She dashes across the snow and ice, her tails whipping with her long steps. I did hold her back, I darkly muse. Drawing my sword to stop those thoughts, I set out, wary of stepping on any useful tracks or stumbling into a trap. I've lived through too many fights to not move carefully. Bandits could have struck. A fight in the village could have broken out, hidden grudges boiling over. I don't know what lies in wait or who might be around any corner or door.
  3568. I start on the side of the village closest to the path that leads up the mountain, circling the intact hut before I stop in front of the planks propped up as a door. "Anyone inside?" I call out as calmly as I can. "It's me, Egil, the giant of a foreigner. The kitsune and I are here, it's safe now."
  3570. Only the wind answers me.
  3572. "I'm coming in," I announce, keeping my voice friendly. I'm not as kind to the door, gripping the crude rope in the center and lifting harshly with my weak shield arm. Surging inside, lifting the door above me and keeping the sword point ready to thrust or slice, I cast my eyes about the one-room hut. No one stands to greet or attack me. Not even up in the beams of the ceiling, though someone small could hide behind the supplies up there.
  3574. Placing the door down, I step all the way in, wary of anything dropping on me. The rough hearth is cool, but the ashes I stir with my sword hint at a fire in the last day. Nothing has been tossed or turned, valuable metal tools still hang on the walls, and poking into baskets and pots I see their food stores are fine. But two things bother me. Thin, fresh scratches on the door frame and the messy, scattered sleeping piles. I doubt these people got up willingly.
  3576. With nothing else I can search, I pick up the door to put it back, only to notice the scratches on the side that had been facing inward. Too wide to be cuts from a weapon, too unevenly spaced and shallow to be a bear. Seeing the rope on that side makes my blood cold. The cord is weather beaten, rough, and fraying. Like it had been facing the wind and rain for many seasons and someone put it back up wrong.
  3578. I rush out, not bothering to put the door back up. The nearest hut I circle, announce myself, and barge in. The insides show me the same as the first, a single room with the only disturbance the sleeping piles tossed out. This time the door isn't scratched. I hurry to third, and find signs of a struggle within, a wooden rake broken into pieces and scraps of clothes left behind. No blood, even on the ripped clothes, which I feel some hope over. The missing people could be alive.
  3580. Walking out, my breath ragged and heart hammering from a roiling unease, I take a moment to rest and think. As I ponder what happened, I spot Saki at the river's edge. She's prodding the water with the butt of her spear, but if she's not calling out to me, I'm not going to question her ways. We each have our own methods, and we each are extending a lot of trust to one another. If she won't interfere in mine I have no cause to interfere in hers.
  3582. Once I've caught my breath and looked once more at the burning hut to make sure no stray embers have spread to other buildings, I get back to searching.
  3584. I search two more huts and find more obvious signs of struggles in both. Tipped over baskets, spilled food, tools knocked off the walls. These people tried to fight back but were overpowered. By what I don't know, so I go to the last intact on this side of the river, keeping my distance from the flames. My boots plod over ice and through snow of a field, cutting a new path to avoid the tracks I follow. More signs of something being dragged, and interestingly signs of fighting outside the door. Boots stomped and thrashed before someone fell onto the ground.
  3586. Why did the huts closer to the forest show no signs of struggle, but these ones do? Running my fingers over snow and ice, the give telling me they're fresh, I worry there might not be any living villagers. Even if there's no blood, this was planned. Whoever attacked knew what they were doing and probably had a lot of help, hitting the village all at once.
  3588. Wiping ice and ash from my sword with my sleeve, I stalk toward the bridge. Saki is on the other side already, pacing about on the riverbank. I cross the bridge, the wooden planks creaking under my boots, and she makes her way to me. At the end of the bridge we meet, the kitsune's gaze sweeping around. "What have you found?"
  3590. "The villagers were forced out. A few tried to fight back but were beaten down, then dragged to cover tracks. No blood, so I doubt this was bandits." My eyes drift toward the hut that still burns. "Or it was a lot of bandits and they hid the bodies."
  3592. "There's been no blood on in the snow," Saki says, following my gaze. Her grip tightens on her spear as the flames flare for a fleeting moment on the hut we saw collapse. "All the tracks end at the river," she says. "Even on this side."
  3594. "Did you check the huts?"
  3596. "Not yet," she says, turning her masked gaze to me. "I'll take that side," she points to the farthest reaches of the village, near the edge of the forest. "We'll meet in the middle."
  3598. I nod. "I'll shout if I find anyone."
  3600. "As will I."
  3602. She dashes off, so I don't waste a breath waiting around. The motions of entering a hut are the same as ever. Circle outside, check for tracks, then announce myself. With my heart pounding in my ears and body tense at the thought that there will be an attack this time, I enter my first hut. Broken pottery, shredded baskets, and the first hint of blood assail my senses. The smell is faint in the winter air, but unmistakable. The stains on the dirt floor and the wooden platform in the back smell of cold, coppery death. No one can lose that much blood and survive. Poking around the walls, I find a basket with the strongest stench. Lifting the woven lid makes me gag. Within are bones, too many bones, grisly red and chewed down to white in spots. The sight of a skull cracked opened and emptied like an egg lets loose the dam of terror in me.
  3604. I don't realize I've got my knife in my shield hand until my back hits a wall. I breathe out my mouth in hazy wisps, heart hammering and knifepoint quivering. It's hot. Horribly hot, as bad as the wretched jungles. My neck is wet with sweat and my eyes can hardly focus as I stumble outside, tormenting memories panting in my face and tearing at my chest.
  3606. I don't think as I toss my knife aside and pick up a fistful of snow. Cold stings my fingers and saps my breath when I slap the snow into my face. Next thing I know I'm leaning on a wall, fighting to keep my lungs from gasping. The heat boiling in me dulls as I force myself to breathe as I was taught. The mornings of recent practice guide me, my body falling back on routine as a tremble passes through me. I can smell the hot jungle, the stench of bloodied fur, and if I close my eyes I can see the teeth. But it's not here, it's not now. I killed that tiger headed beast. I ripped out it's throat and mashed it's brains and skull into the mud.
  3608. I tell myself, over and over, that it's dead. Until the worst of it passes. I can breathe again, mostly. The deliberate, calm lungfuls slow my shaking and sharpen my thoughts.
  3610. Man-eater. A man-eater hit this village. And I'm losing my nerve like a soft, merchant's whelp who just saw his first battle. I won't survive like this. I won't be able to kill the wretched beast if I lose myself to terror now.
  3612. Fear turns to anger the more I gasp in lungfuls of cold winter wind. The heat of terror melds into a sustaining fury. If there is a man-eater I will kill it. I have to kill it. Then I'll let myself shake and shatter, but not a moment sooner. First I find it, then I kill it. Then I collapse. I repeat it until the terror can't win against my rage.
  3614. Pushing myself off the wall, staggering like a man deep in his drink, I force myself to stay upright. Then plod to where I dropped my knife and scoop it up. Snow wipes away easily, even if the sight of gnawed bones and ragged flesh stays firmly in my mind, trying to blind me to the blade in my hand. Lingering memories that span far beyond the hot jungle fall upon me. Other villages, in flames or mourning, dead piled in pits and screams of pain, come and go. Until I'm back to myself, and can see the bright glint of steel in my hand.
  3616. Looking around, I see Saki stab her spear into the ground and enter another building. Remembering my task, it finally dawns on me. There will be no villagers to find. Not alive. Not if the man-eater had the time to put away the remains of a kill like that. This one, it's not a savage beast. It's cunning, smart, and I doubt it's alone.
  3618. Unfortunately for it I am savage, cunning, and not alone. I ignore the other huts and dash to the one Saki entered. Only when I'm close enough to see her moving within do I dare to speak. "Saki," I hiss, remembering too late to call her as she asked, but knowing it doesn't matter. "Come."
  3620. Her half-masked face pokes out into the light. There's no hesitation in her movements. She sees me, steps out, snatches her spear, and runs by my side as I take her to see the grisly sight I found. No questions or admonishments for ignoring her words, only action.
  3622. She enters the hut with the bones while I stay outside, my eyes sweeping back and forth for any hint of danger. Once she emerges, her ears pulled tight against her skull, I don't let her say a word. My mouth opens to a rambling explanation of what I know of man-eaters that could do something like this. I don't hear my own words, my memories and thoughts and voice too jumbled together. But the kitsune seems to understand. I tell her how the clever man-eaters are the most dangerous, that I've heard of some that can steal the skin of their victims to pretend to be them but have never seen one for myself. That there might have been a group of man-eaters striking the village all at once, or only a handful in a larger group that attacked so fast and silently the village didn't know what hit them. And finally, I tell her that from the scent of breath alone, I can tell whether anything has eaten the flesh of men.
  3624. As I speak, flashes of the past assail me. Villagers begging for my help. Children with parents stolen away. Fathers and mothers, grieving over small mounds of dirt and stone that entomb what little we could find of their child. Teeth, gnashing and snapping for my blood, claws in my skin and flesh.
  3626. I shut my mouth, swallowing back against a vicious churning in my empty stomach, the world spinning and shaking worse than any ship. If I'd eaten anything this morning it would be spewing onto the ice right now. I bend over, grab my knees, and try not to dry heave. I do all I can to scrape together my wits. To put myself back into the now, where there is a problem that can be fixed.
  3628. Saki leaves me to collect myself, only moving to block the wind. She's on my side, I tell myself. That thought helps rally me into a measure of self-control. Once I'm back up and don't sway, Saki speaks. "Rest a moment more, Egil. I will search the last huts."
  3630. She doesn't give me a chance to argue, planting her spear and rushing away. I glare at her, wondering if she's learned more about the village than me. It's only a feeling in my sick gut. These kitsune always have something to hide. Or maybe I’m needlessly suspicious of Saki.
  3632. In and out of buildings she darts, bouncing tails trailing behind her. There's no step or motion wasted. She kicks down a door, rushes in with the same step, and four breathes later she dashes back out. I watch and wonder if that's what we should have done upon finding the village in its current state, the second thoughts clawing me harshly. I breathe in the wind and watch, focus on my one ally check each hut.
  3634. Once Saki has checked every last peasant hut she dashes back to me, her wispy breath heavy. "No one," she says. "Only one home with signs of a fight but there was no blood."
  3636. "What else haven't you told me?" I demand, knowing I'm putting our trust in one another at risk.
  3638. Her angry mask glares down at me, the red markings twisted as if in fury. But her voice is quiet and reserved, at odds with her visage. "There were kappa tracks at the river."
  3640. Those wretched turtle beasts. My mouth twists in rage, at odds with my even voice. "I doubt a kappa beak ate that villager."
  3642. "That was no kappa," she agrees. "Nor oni. They enjoy bones."
  3644. Oni sound worse than I feared. But I have to focus on the village, not what is on the mountain path, even if I can hear my heart hammer in my jaw. "It had to have fangs to leave gouges like that," I say, the sight disgustingly fresh in my mind. "But weak jaws, barely stronger than a man. It's going to be smaller than me."
  3646. "If there is only one."
  3648. I nod, the kitsune surely thinking similar thoughts to me. The heat in my neck and chest is back, but the chilly wind helps keep me upright. "Man-eaters gorge when they eat, it couldn't be more than three in that hut."
  3650. "This will be too much for only two of us." Saki turns her back to me, her tails obscuring her as she faces the path to the woods we came from. "Can you make it back up the mountain on your own?"
  3652. Anger bubbles in my veins. "And leave you alone to fight whatever did this?"
  3654. "The man-eater, as you call it, will be hiding," she says, voice colder than the wind. "But the kappa will know. I told them to stay away and they didn't listen to me." Her spear snaps out of the earth, whistling and the tassels dancing as she brings it to rest against her shoulder. "I'll get answers from them. You go tell Rin I need Hibiki and Kumiko."
  3656. I plant my feet, refusing to move. "I won't leave you to hunt alone."
  3658. She looks over her shoulder. "This village is my duty," she says, eyes of her mask darkening into black pits. "To protect it or avenge it."
  3660. My fingers squeeze painfully on the cold hilt of my naked sword. I glare at the kitsune and she returns it. "You think the villagers were taken into the river, don't you?" I ask, forcefully.
  3662. She looks away. "Yes."
  3664. "The villagers wouldn't survive that cold river for long."
  3666. "No," she says, voice empty of emotions. Her tightening grip on the spear tells me much more.
  3668. "If you knew they wouldn’t survive getting dragged into the river why wouldn’t you call for me?"
  3670. "I had hoped not everyone had been taken!" she snaps, her resolve crumbling under anger. She breathes deeply, a sad calm settling over her a moment later. "I clung to the hope someone hid."
  3672. With my thoughts on the man-eater, I struggle to extend any compassion. I do stay my tongue from being too sharp, but little else. "You know where the kappa are," I press. "We go there and get answers. Kill them if they're man-eaters."
  3674. Saki pulls something out of a sleeve, holding it toward me as if expecting I'll take it. "Go up the mountain and show this to whoever you meet. Get my sisters Hibiki and Kumiko," she commands. "With them I can hunt every last part of this forest."
  3676. I take a look at her hands. A folded paper talisman, blue as the sky, is nestled between her furred fingers. I stare up at the side of her mask. "Leave me down here, I can find the man-eater," I demand, without a plan but burning with confidence. "You can climb that mountain faster than me if you need their help."
  3678. Fox tails sway with the wind. "I fear if I go up the mountain you will be dead when I return with my sisters." She turns to face me fully, pulling up her mask so she can face me with desperate brown eyes. "I do not doubt you could find the man-eater, even kill it, yet there may be a villager alive. Or held hostage by kappa. Taro, at the least, should survive the cold water."
  3680. The boy. He was part kappa, perhaps he might have survived winter waters with that ancestry. A darker thought about his heritage finds its way into my head. That the boy might have been involved with another man-eater. I won't speak it, not when I can't be certain. But it's a focus, another idea to keep myself from falling into scattered memories of terror and rambling. I wipe my sword before sheathing it, feigning to think about what to say.
  3682. Saki is going to be as stubborn as me, I can feel it. "Is there no other way to summon your sisters?" I ask, staring defiantly at the kitsune.
  3684. "There is." Her tails move with the wind, while she stays still as stone. Clearly testing me. When I don't snap or lash out with my tongue, she continues. "I won't do it. Whatever did this would know I am on the hunt if I burn my talisman."
  3686. I wave to the three smoldering buildings on the other side of the river. "They wanted you or your sisters here. Why else would they burn three huts?" Her feet shift, and I suspect she wanted to ignore that possibility. "Burning yours would give them exactly what they want. We can use that."
  3688. I risk a step toward the kitsune, making it clear I'm not going to be left behind on a hunt.
  3690. Saki tilts her head down, hiding her mouth from me so the black pits of her mask can try to intimidate me. "You're exhausted and not thinking clearly," she whispers.
  3692. She's right, I am exhausted. If I sit down I might collapse, but with what roils in my gut and chest I could keep going in fighting shape until the next dawn. I've been through enough danger to know the limits of my body, even when I am hardly in control of myself. But I am still in control of my will, even if she doesn't see it. Meeting the black gaze, I say, "Burn your trinket so you and I go after the kappa. Because if I go up that mountain," I pat my sword, "I can't promise I won't go after Kenta."
  3694. I can see it in her trembling ears, the war of duty waging inside of Saki. Right now I don't care what wins out. Either way I will have a chance to stop one of the man-eaters plaguing these lands, and my weak mind. With any luck, its death will ease my nightmares or send me on my way to see ancestors who will call me a stupid fool.
  3696. The kitsune gives in, her ears flattening dangerously. She pulls back her talisman. "Get a fire started in that hut," she says, pointing to a building. "There's wood inside. We'll leave after a proper rest."
  3698. "We should go now," I argue.
  3700. "If we're going to walk into a possible trap," she utters, standing tall, "we need to prepare as well."
  3702. Rolling my jaw, knowing I can't argue with her reasoning, I set off toward the hut without another word.
  3704. ---
  3706. I stare at the hearth, the act of lighting the flame and sitting down a haze. My heart thumping loudly in my ears and feeding the flames in the hearth is my entire world until Saki comes in, putting the door up behind her to keep the cold out. I neglected to do that, I realize, a tremble coursing through my weak arm. She carries two pots packed with snow in one hand, telling me we're going to be here longer than I want. She leans her spear by the door, takes off her sword, and comes over to hang the pots over the fire. Then she's off, lifting her half-mask and rummaging through the food stores of the hut.
  3708. I start to protest, but the weakness that's settled into my bones stops me. Even Saki moves sluggishly, to my surprise. If we're going to face kappa and man-eaters then it makes sense to regain some of our strength. But it doesn't sit well with me, waiting around while a man-eater is out there. The snow melts quickly thanks to the hearth’s flames and Saki using a blue flame at the tip of two of her tails, but the water doesn’t begin to boil for a long time. We both stare at it in silence, willing it to roil and bubble without speaking a word to one another. Our unyielding glares are rewarded with a slow simmer, the kitsune hastily adding grain in. Soon, Saki serves a half-cooked porridge, the meal edible but tough. She’s feeling the rush as much as I am. Every moment wasted could be another dead villager, but my suggestion that this could be a trap weighs on us both.
  3710. Halfway through my bowl I have to stop eating, thoughts of those bloody bones and cracked skull causing my throat to tighten. I set my bowl aside and cover my mouth, trying to block out any smell or memory. Saki picks up my bowl and finishes it for me, but doesn't question why I stopped.
  3712. She eats quickly and without any interest in enjoying food. A mirror of myself on the road, where the food is a means to an end and nothing else. "I have a request you will hate," she says, setting the empty bowl down.
  3714. "Speak your mind. I've been speaking mine," I point out.
  3716. She nods, brown eyes not so cold when they settle on me. It seems we're starting to understand each other. "I want you to run back to the village if there is a fight."
  3718. "You're right," I say, standing up on stiff legs. "I do hate that."
  3720. "Please consider it," she says, rising to a hunched stance, her ears touching the beams.
  3722. "You know I'm stubborn," I warn. "Especially with man-eaters."
  3724. "That is why I asked now, and not later," she says, our eyes level thanks to the both of us needing to hunch over. "But," she continues, "it is a request. What I must insist on is that I do the talking with the kappa."
  3726. I nod, not wanting to commit to anything. I should be able to leave the talking to her, assuming I can keep from killing the turtle beasts on sight. I'm furious, but with rest and food, I'm more in control of myself. And, I hate to admit it, I'm starting to think with a clearer head. The rest helped more than I thought it would, even if it might have cost some lives.
  3728. Sensing that she won't get a promise out of me, Saki goes to the door, opens it, but doesn't go outside. She brings the door in, flicks out one of her weird knives, and starts carving marks in the wood that normally faces outside. Letters of this land, I realize. Likely a message for her sisters when they get here, something short and rough. Once it's done, she replaces the door, vanishes the knife into her sleeve and faces toward me.
  3730. She pulls the brilliant blue talisman out of her other sleeve and flicks it into the fire. Right away, blue smoke billows out, wafting up and forcing me to cover my nose from the strange, flowery scent. She moves toward the door and I follow, glad that our short rest is over. She pulls her mask back down, returning her sword to her sash and opening the door before grabbing her spear. We duck out of the hut, both of us too tall for the door, and make our way through the village in the mid-afternoon light.
  3732. If I'm stubborn, she's decisive and cold. But that's what we need. A fool with a sword and a dangerous kitsune with a spear, hunting for whatever took or killed this village.
  3734. We leave once the blue smoke drifts high in the air, overtaking the thin remains of red smoke billowing from the smoldering hut. Saki chooses to move quickly, but not quite run. After our rest, she must not want to squander our new vigor.
  3736. Scatterings of pines with green nettles and twisting trees with barren branches flick past. The kitsune is always several steps ahead of me, and I try to keep her in my sight while also observing the ever changing surroundings and sounds. The river, the trees, the rattle of branches in the wind, any hints of tracks. There's no time to talk even if I wanted to. It takes all I have to keep up and search for danger. We travel for a long time, Saki only slowing when the trail is rough or when she thinks I need to catch my breath.
  3738. The path grows steeper and rockier. Saki slows, but the cold and often icy rocks are familiar ground for my feet, and she has to start moving faster to keep me from overtaking her. The food and rest brought strength back to my limbs, strength I hadn't noticed, or wanted to admit, was missing. We step and dash over rises and old roots tangled around stones, following the river as the sun dips halfway behind one of the mountains, darkening the sky and casting a long dusk. A small stream that feeds into it comes into sight, and Saki eases to a stop behind several boulders.
  3740. She points up the stream, away from the river. "There is a waterfall hiding a cave," she whispers. "The kappa nest there in the winter."
  3742. "How many kappa are there?"
  3744. "At least ten." Her fingers rub the haft of her spear. "If they work with their distant kin, twenty. Maybe thirty."
  3746. I copy her and start rubbing my sword's hilt, trying to coax the warmth back into it. Ten kappa apiece seems likely. "Do you think they have villagers?" I ask, keeping an eye on the river.
  3748. "One of them will know what happened."
  3750. "Do we ask nicely or scare them?"
  3752. "Nicely," she says. "Cruelly if they won't talk."
  3754. I can do cruelly. Those turtle beasts don't deserve any mercy. "And if I smell a man-eater among them?"
  3756. She considers that for a moment. "Warn me somehow."
  3758. "I can do that," I mutter, testing the draw on my sword. Good thing I did, as it doesn't come free as smoothly as I'd hoped. Damned ice must have gotten in the sheathe.
  3760. She stares harshly down at me. "Remember what I asked. Run to the village if they fight."
  3762. "I'll let you do the talking," I answer.
  3764. It doesn't please her, not one bit. The cold glare she gives me doesn't sway me, however. I stood in defiance of her eldest sister, and even if I regret how it went this morning I would do it again. What hope does Saki think she has of changing my mind?
  3766. She must realize that I won't relent. "Don't do anything unless they attack. If you can, spill the water in their skull bowl, it robs their strength," she instructs before setting off.
  3768. I knew about the water. It was a topic of conversation between Rin and I when I told her about my first encounter. The nine-tail told me they gain abnormal strength by carrying the water of their river in their misshapen skulls. Making them strong enough to lift and throw a man, or wrestle on even ground with someone of my size. And of course Rin laughed into her sleeve when I asked if steel worked on the turtle beasts, mirth in her eyes as she told me that I'd proven that to be the case.
  3770. My steps falter as I realize my thoughts strayed to the nine-tail, again. I suddenly wish I hadn't left my pendant in my belt. The rune of the one-handed god had no use with her, but when I'm walking into what is almost certain to be a fight, I wouldn't mind having it to run my thumb over. If nothing else, maybe I could focus on victory instead of the confounding kitsune.
  3772. ---
  3774. Two hundred paces later and with the sky a darkening orange, we make it to a waterfall with a large pool below. Water crashes down despite the cold, layers of ice coating the cliff that must be at least three times my height. I can see the cave Saki mentioned even from our vantage on boulders at the edge of the clearing. There's a rocky, mostly flat path that leads to it, but we'd have to one at a time and all but hug the cliff to get inside. Perfect for anything lurking in the icy waters to grab our ankles and drag us under.
  3776. "Wait three steps from the shore, well outside my spear range," Saki commands, hopping off the boulder and walking to the edge of the pool.
  3778. I'm slower, having to slide and scrabble down, but I make it to the ground without falling or tripping. Once I've taken a position near the mouth of the stream, the kitsune taps the butt of her spear against a rock.
  3780. "Wretched turtles!" she shouts. "Do not ignore me! I know you watch."
  3782. She hits the rock again. The sound rings through the area and in my ears. When it fades into silence and the soft rustling of wind, the eight-tail flips her spear around to hold it at the ready. A shadow lurks beneath the water, creeping toward the surface until a miserable green head pokes out. Far out of Saki's range. When the kappa's beak-like mouth pops above the water it shouts in a screechy voice. "Turtles! Insults hurt your master's honor, Akaiyari."
  3784. "My master," she snarls, making my blood thrum in my head, "bade me to kill you all if you touched the village."
  3786. "Don't threaten," the kappa scowls. "We left peasants to their dirt."
  3788. Saki tilts her head. "That's not what the tracks along the village's riverside told me."
  3790. "Lies!" shrieks the kappa, splashing angrily. "We leave village alone."
  3792. Flicking her wrist, Saki plants her spear in dirt. At the same time I see her drop one of her nasty, hooked knives into her palm. The kappa is completely oblivious to her change in weapons, and reach. "Then tell your leader to stop hiding in the water. I will not argue with an underling."
  3794. The beady eyes of the creature dart from Saki, to me, and then back to her. I don't think it's the one that set my arm, this one looks far uglier, greasy strands of black hair sticking to its misshapen skull.
  3796. "Do not test my patience," the kitsune menaces.
  3798. The kappa dives beneath the surface. I risk a questioning look toward Saki, wondering what her plan is. She only has eyes for the water. When I notice more dark shapes beneath the surface, my attention snaps to the rippling pool. Seven heads pop out, near the waterfall and far away from us, every last one misshapen and sickly looking because of the water filled depression at the top of their skull. The one in the middle is the biggest and ugliest, its face viciously feral and its eyes the orange of rust stains. I notice it has thick, overlapping scales instead of slimy skin.
  3800. "Akaiyari," it grumbles, "why are you here?"
  3802. "Show me respect and come on land, kappa," the kitsune demands.
  3804. Resting my hands on my belt, I ready myself for a fight as the kappa swim closer. They stay clear of Saki and emerge on the rocky ground near the cliff. The big one with orange eyes towers above its kin, standing as tall as an adult of this land, and a full head and half above the next tallest. Strange, claw-like protrusions jut out from its knees, making me think it's more than a kappa. The group waddles forward while keeping their heads still, giving their steps an unsettling rhythm. They stop at what they must believe is the edge of Saki's range, but I can tell that she could get any of them with that spear of hers should she lift it. And the knife in her hand, should she throw it.
  3806. "Here we are," the leader declares, waving its arms and sneering. "Are you here to threaten us again, Akaiyari? Or will you talk like a neighbor?"
  3808. Saki, keeping her wicked blade hidden, faces the unusual kappa. "Where are the other three?"
  3810. The big one shifts on its webbed feet, looking around. "They must be sleeping."
  3812. "Bring everyone you have here," Saki orders.
  3814. Stomping its foot, the scaled kappa opens it beak to complain, "What-"
  3816. Saki's hidden knife whistles past the kappa's face, gouging the soft spot on its cheek. When she snaps the weapon back by its silk cord, the hook jutting out from the blade slices strands of hair off another kappa.
  3818. Holding a hand to its injured face, the orange eyed kappa shuts its stunned beak of a mouth. Emotions contort its disgusting face, mostly rage, but instead of complaining it smacks one of its companions in the head. The smaller kappa reels, head flowing with the blow and not losing a drop of water from its misshapen skull. I know from my fight on land with one, long before I came to this mountain, that their balance is mighty as an oak, and their strength enough to threaten me. I learned that my height and strength can solve that by simply picking them up, but that’s in a one on one situation. A group will be trickier; I’ll have to avoid getting surrounded and hope I can scare them with brutality. My thoughts of how to fight the kappa don’t last as I hear their big leader grumble, "Get the others."
  3820. As the smaller kappa dives into the water, Saki coils the cord of her connected knives. I cannot believe that's her surprise weapon if she's showing it now. The kitsune strikes me as too seasoned for that. "He had better bring all of them," she warns.
  3822. "I'll gut him if he doesn't," promises the turtle monster, face no better than a sneer.
  3824. While kappa and kitsune glare at each other, I keep my attention on the water. Even several steps from the rocky bank we're at risk of being attacked from our flanks, so I turn and act like I'm staring at the waterfall to keep the entire pool in my vision. Even though the anger in my veins wants to rip the kappa limb from limb until they explain themselves, I do as Saki asked and leave the talking to her. My methods would get us answers faster, but would certainly start a fight.
  3826. As we wait, I notice faint shadows flit beneath the water, near the bank of the pool. It’s so faint I almost dismiss them as fish, but there wouldn’t be so many fish in winter. Then a shadow creeps too close to the surface, and I make out webbed legs before it vanishes deep below. I don't hesitate or think, I snatch up a rock and hurl it with all my might. It plonks into the water ahead of where one of those shadows should have been.
  3828. All attention shifts toward me, the kappa all straining their necks to look at me while Saki's ears twist back toward me. I glance back, but splashing breaks my focus. Kappa heads pop out of the water, then nearly twenty of the horrible things surge out onto land all at once. From where Saki stands to the mouth of the stream, a small horde of kappa charge ashore. Ten of them rush her, the ones already on land fan out to surround her, but that's all I see of her situation. I've got at least eight of them coming at me, their open palms held out in front of them as if to grab or slap me.
  3830. They may be the size of older children, but they're strong and have maddening balance; one well placed blow from those webbed hands will take my legs out from under me. I back up quickly, sword and knife quietly snapping out of their sheathes as I do all I can to avoid getting surrounded. Only two are toward the river mouth, making me dash that way, putting more distance between myself and Saki.
  3832. One of the kappa charging me freezes, the sight of my family's sword contorting its face in terror. We lock eyes and I know, in a moment that drags on for far too long, that it's the same one that set my arm. The one that saw me kill its man-eater friend. It turns tail, putting its shelled back to me, leaving only seven for me to worry about. That small victory is short lived as the nearest, and most bold, jumps at me with outstretched claws.
  3834. Only to get my knife in its chest. The shock staggers me, but I keep my footing and throw the thrashing turtle aside, knife slipping out of my grasp. A second rushes me, this one from the mouth of the river as well, but I have enough balance back to kick it in the face. The shrieking turtle goes quiet, stumbling over itself, the fury of its charge and strength of my leg rattling its skull.
  3836. I recover, putting more space between me and the encroaching kappa. Then the stench hits me. Sickly sweet rot, so cloying it makes my stomach froth even as battle beats in my veins. Man-eaters. They're man-eaters.
  3838. I roar a battle cry and rush at the creatures, shocking their charge with one of my own. I don't let them fan out and hit them where they are the fewest. Steel whistles and blood spills, my boot stomping bones against rocks. One kappa reels from the gash that took both its eyes, as the one whose foot I crushed bites and claws at my thick clothes in agony. I jab my fingers deep into its eyes, hate filling my weakened sinews with enough strength to lift the kicking and screaming beast by its gouged out eyes. It flails, hands and feet trying to find any purchase on me, but that stops when my blade bites through flesh and bone. The strain on my shield arm lessens as the body drops.
  3840. I hurl the severed kappa head at one that's now turning to run, hitting it in the back of the skull as it waddles away from me. That trips it up, and my eyes snap to the two rushing me on separate sides. My knife still in the chest of the first kappa to attack, I keep on guard, watching with the edges of my vision so neither can catch me from behind. Only for the two kappa to stop, snatch up stones, and start hurling them at me, clearly having learned from their headless companion’s tragedy.
  3842. With their strength, a stone might as well be hurled from a sling. One hit to the head and I'll be dazed long enough for them to knock me over. From there it will be claws and snapping beaks until I'm their feast.
  3844. Throwing my shield arm up to protect my head from the rain of rocks, I crouch to become a smaller target and look around in desperation for another improvised weapon. Nothing stands out, only more stones. With the kappa I kicked starting to recover, I grind my teeth and run forward, sword held close. The kappa won't let me get near, the pair scooping up an armful of stones each and lobbing them while backing up.
  3846. The one I kicked in the beak isn't back in the fight yet. Blood dripping from its beak of a mouth, it looks up at me as I charge. Rage twists its face. The beast lunges at me, moving faster than I anticipated, and strikes at my leg with a wide slap. Clothes rip and my leg gets knocked out from under me, but my sword strikes true and gores its throat. I land on a knee as rocks continue to pelt me, shielding myself as best I can. A small stone skips against my scalp, rattling my teeth but not hard enough to stun me. I switch hands for my sword and grab the gargling turtle beast in front of me by a leg. I lurch up with a roar, whipping up the turtle beast like it's a sack of grain.
  3848. The rocks stop for a moment, the absurdity of my rage catching the other kappa off guard. Muscles burning, I spin and hurl the dying thing, nearly falling on my face once it's out of my hand. It careens into one of the rock throwers, and they both go tumbling limb over limb, leaving a trail of blood over the rocks and ice.
  3850. I descend on the last one with a scream. Thinking quickly, it drops its rocks and crouches for a jump. I’m on it before it can leap, snatching its slick throat. It tries to shred my arm with its claws. Two layers of clothes save me from deep scratches, but I feel it scrape my flesh. Not for long. With the heavy iron pommel of my sword, I start bashing its face.
  3852. Over and over I pummel iron against flesh, blood flying and green skin tearing as we both scream and thrash. I pin it to the ground and keep beating on its head until something cracks. Its mouth flaps and snaps, the stench of man-eater spurring me to strike and smash with a furious roar. Sick crunches splatter red and pink over the rocks, and the claws trying to rip into my arm and chest spasm into stillness. I keep hitting. I have to kill it, make certain it's dead. End its miserable existence before the claws and teeth rip my flesh. Crunching and popping sounds squirm beneath my fingers as I squeeze its disgusting neck. I can't stop here. The still limbs and trickle of blood could be a trick. The sword in my shield-hand is slick with blood, but the brilliant design of the pommel and guard keep it firmly in my grasp for more and more blows.
  3854. Pain blooms in my side, knocking me over. I roll, shaking shield hand somehow keeping hold of my sword, and lurch to my knees. I blink at the dusk sky, confused as to why I'm not crushing the life out of the man-eater still, when a green blur slams into me.
  3856. I swing my sword, only for it to be knocked out of my weak arm and a shoulder slamming into my chest.
  3858. The scent of sickly sweet rot fills my nose and mouth.
  3860. Claws rake my clothes, the man-eater snapping at my throat. Terror floods my veins, my weak hand grabbing it by the wet head. My sword arm scrabbles for a weapon, fingers bumping and knocking freezing rocks. I snatch the first I can and start pounding.
  3862. It snarls and screams, webbed hands trying to get my throat.
  3864. I hit it with my rock, hook a thumb where I think there's an eye, and scream back. I use my weight, pressing against it, driving it down. I hit and hit and hit. Flesh tears, blood splattering everywhere, and it goes limp. I stop, grab its arms, and hoist it to strike anything else that will charge me.
  3866. I see only one more, screaming and thrashing around on its shell of a back as it clutches its bleeding face. I smash it with the man-eater in my grasp, putting my entire body into the strike. Once sends a crack through the air. Twice splashes blood. Thrice and I collapse, panting and shaking. I can't let myself stay still, shuffling and hurrying toward a glint of familiar steel.
  3868. The weapon is sticky and stained red with gore, but I gladly grab my sword and get my back to a boulder, putting the rock to my back for the safe feeling of something solid. Seven kappa lay dead, even the one with my knife in its chest.
  3870. I pant, searching for more attackers. Then I see it.
  3872. A whirl of tails and steel. A kitsune in black - Saki, I dimly remember - is whirling and slashing at kappa with her sword. Many lay dead, but five of them and the larger scaled one still stand, their scaly leader somehow wielding her spear. It uses the reach to keep her at bay while others pelt rocks. Her sword flicks and whirls, batting aside clumsy thrusts and jabs, while she bobs and weaves. A rock bounces off her half-mask while a few hit the fluff of her swirling tails, but some find her chest and shoulders. She throws something back, one of the kappa reeling back and clutching an iron spike sticking out of its eye. It drops to its knees with a whimper, but the rocks from the others don't stop.
  3874. I gasp for breath, hoping the kitsune can hold on for a few more moments while I try to get my lungs to stop burning. Wary of another attack and sensitive to the smallest movement, I think I see something slip out of the cave. I squint my eyes and realize I'm right, but the shape confuses me.
  3876. A young man, long and lanky of limb, with short, shaggy hair and a savage face, crawling on all fours. He sneaks around behind the fight, Saki too busy fending off a spear and rocks to see him. I swear, for a moment, that the man's face reminds me of Taro. But this one is older than the boy by at least four or five winters. Could this be one of the villagers escaping?
  3878. My heart beats harder when I notice odd, dark patches of skin on his bare arms and neck. And his feet, which I thought were in boots, are sickly colored and webbed, walking over frozen rocks like it's nothing. That thing isn't a man at all.
  3880. I push myself off the rock, enough strength back in my limbs to be of some use. The kappa haven't noticed me and I don't want to spoil that advantage yet. All I can do is run. At the same time I set off, so does the man-thing. He bares his yellow teeth and bounds forward on all fours. I'm closer to the fight, but with the long leaps it makes, he'll reach the fight before me. Breathing so deep it hurts, I proceed to roar at the top of my lungs a warrior's challenge in the harsh tongue of my homeland. Words this land has never heard roll out, deep and hateful, my intent to turn all eyes on me.
  3882. For only a moment, the fight stops. The smaller kappa pause rocks in hand and look toward me. Blood splattered, teeth bared, sword wielding me a dozen paces away, and not the lethal kitsune they were supposed to pin. Saki's bats aside a spear thrust and her empty hand snaps out, her knife sinking point first into the big kappa’s scaled neck. It ignores the wound and swipes the spear at her sword, knocking it out of her hand. The kitsune flows with the disarming strike, yanking her knife out of the kappa’s neck, and unwittingly putting her back to the oncoming man-thing.
  3884. The feral thing leaps on her back at the same time, his hands ripping at the fur of her thrashing tails. She pivots and lurches, trying to throw him off. Raging snarls surge from them both as she drops her cord-connected knives to try and grab the abomination clinging to her.
  3886. The uninjured kappa stare in shock as I approach, as if I’m the unbelievable monster instead of them. So be it. Two have their necks split to the bone in a single strike each, while the rest seem unsure of whether to attack me or Saki. The one with an iron dart in its eye I kick in the face, driving the spike deeper and watching as it collapses into spasms. That shocks the last three into acting. One recovers and tries to hurl stones at me while shuffling back at the same time, but it's close enough for me to lunge and chop its raised hand. A strip of skin and muscle is all that keeps the wrist attached, its beak opening to scream. My blade swipes back up, taking off its head. The other runs at me, while the big one drops its stolen spear and charges toward Saki.
  3888. I thrust, taking out one of the smaller kappa's eyes. Webbed hands snatch my sword, and it gets a long gash down its arm for the trouble. I drive my sword forward, throwing my body into an all or nothing thrust. Steel punches into its bony chest, webbed hands grasping my weapon in a death grip. It falls, clinging on and trying to drag me down.
  3890. Giving up on my weapon, for now, I turn to Saki.
  3892. Even fighting off the man-thing latched to her back and trying to rip out her tails, she's aware enough to back away from the scaled turtle. Whenever it gets close, she lashes out with a sharp kick, but the longer it goes on, the farther she moves away from me.
  3894. Fluff and fur float in the air, the man-thing making rattling sounds in his throat as he clings to her back with eerie deftness. One hand grips her clothes tightly between her shoulders, and it swings back and forth, snatching and ripping at any tails that it can kick toward itself. No matter how Saki thrashes or flails, it keeps a grip on her, shifting its weight against anything she tries, as if knowing exactly how to counter her. The big, scaled kappa is clearly driving her toward a rock wall, hoping to pin her.
  3896. They’re so focused on her twisting kicks and thrashing, I’m practically forgotten. I grab her fallen spear and run. She spots me despite her struggle with the man-thing and manages to kick the big kappa back just in time. It shuffles away, head resolute and not losing a drop of water, even when the long blade of the spear takes it in the back of the neck, punching out of its beaked mouth. I let the weapon drop with the kappa, intent on saving my only ally.
  3898. Somehow the man-thing doesn't notice my approach, its angry hands too busy ripping through her fur and keeping balance to see my fist. I smash it in the jaw hard enough to skin a knuckle. The man-thing reels, but doesn't let go. It has one of Saki's tails in its mouth, yellow teeth snapping at her fur and making her yelp.
  3900. She thrusts one of her legs out, and on only a hunch, I grab it and yank her off balance. The kitsune and man-thing crash to the rocks. She rolls forward and away, the man-thing having cushioned her fall while she drove it into the rocky ground. It's tough though, and already scrabbling on the stones when the kitsune flops forward. I put every scrap of strength I have into a kick, catching the man-thing in the gut. That sends it spinning and sputtering over the ground, end over end. Fur lingers in his mouth and hands, and he spits clumps out as it tries to right itself - a rushing kick only stunned it. I pull Saki up by her arm, and then we both descend on the man-thing.
  3902. ---
  3904. It's dark when Saki and I finally beat the fight out of the man-thing. By the light of the blue flames hovering at the tip of Saki's tails, we tie him up with the silk cord that had once connected her knives. She ties him up while I hold it down, repressing my rage enough to let her work on efficient and brutal knots. Not that I care if the man-thing is in pain from the bonds or my weight. The scent of man-eater is on its breath, and only Saki's assurance that I can kill the creature once she has answers stopped me from stomping on his neck. We hadn't found any kappa that would survive the night, so I had enough sense left to listen.
  3906. "If it tries to escape," I growl to the kitsune, "I'll start cutting limbs off."
  3908. "I'll help," she says, stern mouth strained. She must be sore from having her tails and back attacked.
  3910. With the man-eater tied up, I collect wood from the edges of the forest with Saki, both of us keeping an eye on the beast. With the flames at the end of her tails she somehow lights part of the damp wood and dries the rest, giving me a fire to sit at while I clean my collected weapons and watch over the man-thing. She leaves her spear with me, and I loan her my sword. I know, without her saying anything, that she's going into the cave. My blade will serve her better in the tight space than that long sword or short knives of hers.
  3912. While the kitsune heads off, I rest. By the light of the fire, with the man-thing snarling on its gag, I do my best to keep it together. I don't know if it's the cold or the battle, but all I want to do is drink wine until my throat is filled with fire and my thoughts are a haze. Or hack off the head of the man-eater to still the shaking in the core of my belly. The man-eater, bruised and tied down in a way that bends his joints the more he struggles, stares hatefully at me.
  3914. The moon is bright in the sky when the blue light of Saki's tails emerges from the cave. From her mask in her hands and my sword sheathed in her sash, I know there's no good news. The coldness that normally lurks in her eyes is gone, weariness in its place as she sits by me at the fire, looking exhausted.
  3916. The only signs of a fight on her are patches of fur missing from her tails and a few cuts on her head matting the fur to her skull. Meanwhile, I know I'm bruised in a dozen places. The scratches on my arm weren't as deep as I feared, shallow enough I can ignore them for now and tie up the rags of my clothes. But I must look beaten down and freezing, the kitsune laying several tails against my back to share warmth. It's different than when Rin or Shizuka did it, the eight-tail and I closer than we’ve ever been, but as warriors. Saki doesn't sit politely and leans her elbows on her knees, looking deceptively small in the position, so I decide to leave it be. The warmth is welcome, after all.
  3918. After a while, she whispers, "I found most of them."
  3920. I stare at the flickering flames. "That bad?"
  3922. "Worse," she breathes, putting her snout in her hands. "Don't go in there, Egil."
  3924. "I'm sorry, Saki." My fingers clench the haft of her spear. "I slowed you down."
  3926. "They were drowned," she says through her fingers. "When we saw smoke they were already dead."
  3928. "Are you certain?"
  3930. She tents her fingers over her eyes, letting me see her fight between rage and grief. "I am."
  3932. I don't push her. If I did slow her down, then she can hate me if she needs to. I add a few more sticks to the fire to give her a moment before I ask the most pressing question. "Where are the rest?"
  3934. "I'm hoping that thing," she snarls, raising her snout and baring teeth at the man-thing, "will tell us what happened."
  3936. I have to turn my gaze from her, my heart beating hard at the sight of her teeth. "I could ask my runes," I offer, not wishing to trust anything a man-eater might say.
  3938. She breathes slow and deep. "I trust Rin's belief in those runes of yours. Tell me what you need and I'll prepare it."
  3940. Rin. I can't think about the nine-tail right now. I reach for my belt and take off the pouch with the carved bones. "I need a flat space and light," I say.
  3942. Saki starts clearing a patch of ground, sliding and shifting her tails as she bends and twists. Both of us keep an eye on the man-eater, but it seems to be sleeping, completely unaffected by the cold. "Here," the kitsune utters, pulling my attention to the circle she cleared.
  3944. We change spots, her tails curling above her head to bring the blue light above me. I take the runes in cold hands, mulling over what I should ask. I hadn't dared cast them while injured, uncertain if they'd heed a one handed cast. The words come to me, and I speak them clearly. "-Are the missing villagers alive?-"
  3946. Carved bones bounce and spin, my eyes darting from rune to rune. My breath leaves my lungs, and doesn't come back for far too long. I collect everything and ask a different question. "-What will happen if we search tonight?-"
  3948. The reading clicks out. The same as before. I scoop the runes up as soon as I read the spread, swallowing back a lump of anger. I have to ask once more, but the words are jumbling together in my head. I know what will happen when I throw the runes. I'd rather storm out in the woods than face that knowledge, desperately search for tracks or any sign. I know Saki would follow me. She'd probably believe me if I lied about what the runes said.
  3950. But I can't lie about this. "-Can I find them?-" I throw the bones one last time. They jump and scatter, my fingers and eyes tracing over cold dirt as I read where they fall. "We won't find them," I declare, mouth chewing over the stiff words of this land.
  3952. "Are you certain?" she presses when I lean back.
  3954. "One reading thrice repeated," I say, waving at the runes. "To three different questions. 'Two foxes will find the slaughter,' every time."
  3956. "Can't you ask again?"
  3958. "I wouldn't dare," I mutter. "Not unless I want to anger powers I don't control."
  3960. The kitsune shifts, ears twisting and turning as she stares me. Brown eyes beg for a better answer, one I don't have. "I hate magic," she whispers, turning away.
  3962. "I'm sorry," I say, knowing it's not enough.
  3964. Drawing her legs underneath her, Saki surprises me by putting her tails against me as I gather up my runes. "You did more than you ever needed to," she says while I drop runes back in their pouch. "For that I have to thank you, Egil. If..." her arms cross, a strange shadow falling over her as she stares at me. Brown eyes, ringed with wild, white fur. "If you hadn't fought, I don't know what would have happened to me."
  3966. "You knew I wasn't going to run away," I reply, looking away from her. It almost looked like there was appreciation in her gaze.
  3968. "The attack on me was planned," she continues, turning to the fire. "If I'm right, you saved me from a trap. If I'm wrong, you got that thing off me." Her teeth flash at the man-thing.
  3970. "We fought well," I say, keeping my disappointment about how late we were to myself. "There's no need to thank or apologize now that we've shed blood together."
  3972. "You have my sincere gratitude," she eventually says. "And my respect, from one warrior to another."
  3974. "You already had my respect as a warrior," I answer. "I'll do what I can to help you avenge the village."
  3976. "I will repay this debt." Brown eyes sparkle in the light of the flames, clearing when she wipes them with the back of her hand. "You did not have to help. This village is our responsibility, the last one left to us by our mother."
  3978. That explains why the village meant so much to Rin, and it leaves me wondering why the nine-tail never told me in all of our friendly conversations. Caught between two different sources of regret, I feed the fire and try to forget what I can. "We can talk tomorrow," I mutter. "We have a long night ahead."
  3980. Her openness only makes me shut her out, and she must realize it. "You're right."
  3982. ---
  3984. Saki and I scarcely rest. I don't know her reason, but the few times I drift asleep I jerk awake in terror moments later. She's merciful enough to not ask why. Morning arrives after far too long, and when it does we get ourselves cleaned up and stretch our legs. The man-thing survived the cold night on the rocks, confirming that it is no longer a person, if it ever was.
  3986. Saki and I count the kappa corpses. Eighteen mostly clean kills where she fought, seven savaged corpses where I’d been. "One is missing," I say.
  3988. "Are you certain?"
  3990. "I've always been good at counting enemies," I explain. "It's saved me a lot of trouble."
  3992. She considers the knowledge of a missing kappa for a moment. "Nothing we can do but watch the waters," says, going to the man-thing.
  3994. She motions for me to help. After a brief discussion on the best way to carry it, we decide to hang it by its bound limbs from the spear. Saki cuts her sash lengthwise with my knife to add more restraints. I donate a scrap of my shredded clothes to wrap the blade of the spear. Then we hoist it up and set off, moving slowly back to the village. The trail stretches on for an eternity, but we endure it, together.
  3996. I spend more time watching the water than I do the path. Only our gradual, deliberate pace keeps me from tripping. I'm always expecting an attack from more kappa, but nothing happens. Doubting that I'll ever trust rivers again after this, I carry in silence. We break often, for my sake more than hers. When we finally get in sight of the village, the sun is high in the sky.
  3998. The burned down huts don't smoke anymore. Smoke rises from one of the intact huts, thin and gentle, surely from a hearth. We go there, our captive making more muffled snarls than he had on the trip back. If I weren't in the lead, I'd hit him. Then again, that's probably why Saki put me in the lead, to keep me from lashing out at it. She's lucky I respect her enough to trust my back to her and a man-eater at the same time.
  4000. As we amble to the hut, Saki calls out. "Hibiki, Kumiko!"
  4002. The door moves aside, a fox face poking out. It darts back in, then two kitsune emerge, a five-tail and a six-tail, both dressed in black like Saki, albeit without half-masks. And after them comes a woman in a white dress, with shadows of tails lurking behind her. I swallow reflexively, recognizing Rin despite the glamour hiding her true self. It's the same as when I came to the village with her before, black hair and deceptive features.
  4004. The man-eater thrashes even more, but it can't do anything against the bindings. And I'm not about to turn around and hit it when I've made it this far without giving into my hate. Even if it's very tempting with all of the grunting and snarls it makes.
  4006. "Eldest sister," Saki says, something like surprise in her voice. She realizes her mistake, head dipping. "I am sorry, my tongue got ahead of me. I did not think you would come."
  4008. "Seeing your talisman and elder Gorou’s burning caused me worry about the village," the disguised kitsune says, reminding me of the old man and his wife who hosted us in the autumn. "What has happened?"
  4010. I leave that question to Saki. The eight-tail's ears lower as she says, "More than I can quickly explain."
  4012. "Tell me as simply as you can," Rin instructs.
  4014. "The villagers were taken by kappa," Saki explains. "Egil and I dealt with their nest, but the villagers had died before we even got down the mountain."
  4016. Tails go listless and ears droop in the other two kitsune in black. Rin, be it her glamour or the front she must put up, doesn't react beyond a sad nod. "And this quarry you carry?"
  4018. "A man-eater," Saki explains. "Who I hope will answer our questions."
  4020. Rin acknowledges with a faint nod, then raises two fingers. The two kitsune in black, Hibiki and Kumiko I presume, come and take the burden from Saki and I. Only the man-thing goes wild, making it impossible to hand over safely. The wretch jerks and twists so violently it takes Saki and I gripping the spear with both hands to keep it from flying out of our grasps. Chewing at his gag and choking out snarls, the man-eater's eyes snap between Rin and myself. I think about kicking it, but before I can decide the five-tail lunges in and loops an arm around his neck. The six-tail grabs it by the chest to support more of its weight. Saki and I grab at the man-thing’s restrained limbs, three of us holding it up while the five-tail kitsune chokes it out. Patchy, slimy skin ripples with fading strength, the man-thing sputtering as its eyes roll back.
  4022. Once they're certain it's out, five- and six-tail take the ends of the spear, finally relieving Saki and I from the creature. The two kitsune take it several steps away, wary of getting too close to the beastly excuse for a man.
  4024. With the burden off her shoulder, Saki goes and bows to her older sister. When I look away from the man-thing, I see Rin not as a woman but as she is, a tall, fox headed kitsune. I strain to notice her white hair, but once I do, it's obvious. As if I had seen it all along, shocking and familiar at the same time. An unsettling sensation, made worse when she ignores me, her blue orbs drifting away from me to focus on her eight-tail sister.
  4026. "Eldest sister," Saki says from her bow, "there is much to tell you."
  4028. "Come inside and rest, little sister," Rin says, folding her hands in front of her. "We will learn the mystery of what happened in time."
  4030. While I wonder if Rin is still playing that biting word game with me, Saki speaks up. "Egil should join us," she says, surprising me and the nine-tail.
  4032. At least I think Rin is surprised, as her tails start to shift behind her. She doesn't look at me though, instead faintly bowing to release Saki from her polite position. "Then both of you come inside. There is food to be had and wounds to tend to before we can speak."
  4034. One of the kitsune, till holding the pole the limp man-thing hans from, speaks up. "What should we do with this?"
  4036. "Tie it up some more," I suggest, leaving out my other suggestion involving heavy rocks and its skull.
  4038. "I agree," Saki scowls, moving one of her tails into view. I can see the patches the man-eater took out of her fur, but at least she doesn't have any bald spots. "It had a goal we can't let it reach."
  4040. Rin shows the first hint of emotion I've seen, a twitch at her mouth that she suppresses. "One of you stand guard. Cut off its legs if it tries to escape," she orders.
  4042. I'm glad they're taking this seriously, at least. Even if there's something going on that I don't know anything about and they certainly do. More secrets, as I've come to expect from this mountain and the kitsune, but that's fine. As long as they understand the threat.
  4044. ---
  4046. A warm hearth and fire greet us. A simple stew cooking by the hearth spreads a mouth-watering scent and the furs lining the ground look comfortable enough to sit on, but it's not very welcoming. Not when I know the owners of this hut are dead, or worse.
  4048. Rin silently commands Saki and I both to sit by the hearth, then leaves without a word. I risk a questioning look at eight-tail, but she's too busy adjusting her clothes to notice or acknowledge it. When she takes her sash off, I swiftly turn around, only to realize she's doing it to check her wounds. We were both so wary of another attack after the kappa that we only gave ourselves a quick look over and simple cleaning with what water we could warm. Looking down at my hands, I see dried blood everywhere despite rubbing off what I could. How much of it is my own blood and how much is various kappa's, I can't know. I don't want to.
  4050. With my back to Saki, I pull down my own clothes, glad that I can move my arm after so long in a sling, even if it's still weak. After the strain I put on it in the fight, bending my elbow aches and I can't grip anything without my entire arm starting to shake. I barely noticed until now, but that's how it's always been for me. Wounds and exhaustion don't truly catch up to me until I stop and see them.
  4052. My bare chest and back exposed, I swallow at a lump in my throat. The shaking terror wants to start back up. I squeeze my fists until only my shield arm quivers, looking over myself for any wounds. Scratches run all along my sword arm, but they're shallow. Welts and bruises from rocks lump my shoulders and chest, especially on my shield arm, but since I don’t naturally favor it the pain is bearable. Some bruises on my chest and stomach, along with angry red lines and scabbed scratches. Rubbing my throat, I don't come away with any pain or flaked blood. I got off lucky. If it weren't for two full layers of thick clothes and how short kappa claws are, I'd have been badly bloodied. Rubbing a hand through my hair, I wince, coming away with some dark, dried flakes of blood. If I get into another fight, I need to have a helmet, or a hat at the least.
  4054. The door to the hut moves in, bringing a breeze of cold. From the corner of my eyes, I see Rin and one of the other kitsune haul in supplies. Pots, blankets, and who knows what else. I don't pay much attention, wiggling my toes in my boots and glad that I can still feel each of them as they warm by the fire.
  4056. "Stay by the fire," Rin commands, and I look over to see Saki easing back down, her expression thoroughly chastised. Only I have to quickly look away, Saki’s top pulled down to reveal the bindings on her chest. I think I saw flecks of blood in her fur. Those dark clothes did well to hide any wounds.
  4058. The five-tail, whose name I don’t know, sets pots of water by the fire, brings over a few clay jugs, then sits down to start tearing cloth into rags. The villagers won't be needing their supplies now, but it still leaves a bitter, sick taste in the back of my throat. I don't get to complain, as soon warm rags are handed over to Saki and myself, or I assume they're handed to her since I make a point not to look back at her. She's a dangerous warrior and magical fox, but she's still a woman that deserves some privacy as she washes.
  4060. When the worst of it is scrubbed away, instead of being allowed to put my clothes back on, Rin sneaks behind me and places a blanket on me. I only know it's her when I see her walking away. There are more important things than the complications between us, so I pull the blanket close and turn around. Saki is in much the same state as me, a blanket swathed around her shoulders and chest as she leans toward the fire.
  4062. Food is handed out by the five-tail. I eat what is handed to me, drink when water is passed to me. There's taste. I can smell it, the millet and meat in the stew, but my tongue only knows it's warm. Once I'm alone I'll let myself fall apart, and then I might remember the taste of what I ate, but for now I force myself to keep it together. To balance on a line between numbness, rage, and pathetic weakness.
  4064. "Tell me everything that happened," Rin says, settling down across the hearth from me. The question isn't directed at me so I ignore it, for now.
  4066. Saki, perking up, can't ignore it. "Yes, eldest sister."
  4068. The eight-tail recounts, at great length, the events from the time she and I started down the mountain, leaving out how she found me. Instead, she says that we were of similar minds to see what was going on and that I couldn't be turned away. Curious as it is she's keeping that secret, I find myself only half-listening as I gaze at the embers in the fire. When Saki gets to the part where we searched the village, I do notice she leaves out my near hysterics, and mentions that she saw kappa tracks. Lots of kappa tracks. The signs of an attack in the early morning or night, how some villagers struggled. And the bloody remains I found, the thought of those gnawed on bones stuffed away in a basket enough to make my stomach lurch.
  4070. "We saw that," Rin says, voice polite yet undeniably sad. "I performed what rites I could. I will see to a proper ceremony for all of the villagers, once we know it is safe."
  4072. I grip my knees, glad to know those people will be treated with dignity after such a terrible end. Even as I grind my fingers against my own bone and flesh in frustration at how I was too late.
  4074. "The families would be honored to know you would go to such lengths," Saki says.
  4076. "I will do more than see they're given proper burials," Rin swears. "What else happened, little sister?"
  4078. "We went to the kappa for answers and they attacked us," Saki explains, leaving out far more than I expected. "Egil noticed they were moving to surround us. We fought back. I killed many only to be pinned down by more throwing rocks, and their leader, a suiko, taking my spear." So that big kappa wasn't ordinary after all. "It is my belief," Saki continues, "This was planned. They wanted to attack me, far from help."
  4080. Rin tilts her head one way, then the other, her mouth still. "How do you know this? Because of the strange man-eater you captured?"
  4082. "Yes. It jumped on my back." Saki glances at me, then looks to Rin.
  4084. The nine-tail's blue orbs don't move from her sister, firmly ignoring me. "Speak freely of any secrets, Saki. I know you want his help with Meiko and will tell him eventually."
  4086. Saki's tails tremble, the dangerous kitsune actually shaken by her older sister's words. "The one we captured, he tore at my tails," she explains. "He was searching for my hoshinotama, if I had to guess."
  4088. That word, or phrase perhaps, doesn't make sense to me right away. I try to piece the words together, thoughts and memory sluggish. It will come to me eventually, or one of the kitsune will explain it, so I don't worry about it for now.
  4090. Rin and the five-tail, however, are deathly still. The five-tail's face is drawn tight, while Rin looks to be a poised, polite statue. Saki dips her head, as if in apology. I know better than to get caught staring so I keep my eyes on the embers, where the word that caused this reaction finally puts itself together in my mind. Star ball? Something about that seems familiar.
  4092. "You did good capturing it alive," Rin says. "This is far worse than we thought."
  4094. "Should we really speak of this?" asks the five-tail, casting a suspicious glance toward me.
  4096. Rin finally moves, her hands folding in her lap. "Egil would have learned from Saki, as she has plans to use his help to rescue Meiko."
  4098. My eye twitches, the tone of Rin's voice making it sound like Saki had everything to do with it. As if Rin hadn't gotten my promise first. I start to open my mouth, but stop myself. I'm aware enough to know I'm still in after battle shock. Anything I say now, I'll regret. Possibly worse than the last few times I've spoken to Rin. So I keep my mouth shut and head down.
  4100. "You are right, eldest sister. I do plan to use Egil's help." She bows, prostrating her head against the floor. "But I swore to myself I would leave our secrets to you and I have. I had planned to use him to kill Kenta without telling him about the star ball."
  4102. "Perhaps," Rin says, voice polite and pointed, "we should ask Egil his thoughts on this secret."
  4104. There's more going on than I can even hope to understand right now. Tired and at the edge of losing myself, I speak frankly. "I'm exhausted. I ache. I nearly had my throat ripped out by a kappa. But if I saved one of you and your family from something terrible, that's good enough for me." All eyes are on me, unsure of what to make of me. I shake my head, all the aches settling in. "If you want to tell me you'll tell, until then it doesn't matter."
  4106. The only sound for many heartbeats is the crackle of the fire. They can believe or doubt me, I don't care. This star ball, while obviously important, is their problem. I'm wise enough to stay away from some knowledge, sometimes. Not that I honestly believe I won't learn.
  4108. Saki, still prostrating herself to her elder sister, is the first to break the contemplative silence. "I believe we can trust Egil."
  4110. "It is possible," Rin begins, "that he does not want to know any more secrets."
  4112. I'm in no mood or condition to play this kind of word game with Rin. "If this star ball is a treasure, I have no interest. If it's a weakness in your tails, I respect all of you too much to use it against you. I'd rather die sword in hand, face to face, than betray or backstab. So I'd never do anything of that sort to any of you."
  4114. My piece said, I stand up, pulling the blanket tightly over my shoulders like it's a cloak, my armor against the cold and my own weakness. Eyes watch me as I go toward the door.
  4116. "Where are you going?" Rin asks, so politely it could strip bark off a tree.
  4118. "To lay down," I explain. "I won't be of any use until I get some sleep." Looking back, spurred on by a confused and pained knot of anger, I add, "You know what I'm like after battle. It's not safe around me."
  4120. I shove the door out of the way, yanking back with too much force. I definitely said the wrong things. As I stomp toward the bridge, planning to rest in one of the huts far away from the river, I grind my teeth in anger. Not at Rin, but myself. Helping that fox will give me what I've always sought? Perhaps I read the runes wrong, those many, many days ago. If I seek anything it has to be an end of some kind. Why else would I keep putting myself into battles that aren't my own?
  4122. Making it to an empty hut, my motions are a numb haze. Anger, fear, and regret double me over, into blankets and furs left behind by the dead. Everything afterward is dark, agonizing, and shameful.
  4124. ---
  4126. The next day in the village is one of work. I don't see Rin again, and I hardly see Saki. Kumiko, the five-tail, and Hibiki, the six-tail, go with their eight-tail sister in rotations to the kappa cave. They're retrieving the bodies of the villagers, four at a time and faster than I thought possible. One kitsune is left to guard the captured man-eater at all times, but with how the two kitsune play some sort of chance game with their hands, I get the feeling neither want to guard him.
  4128. More kitsune trickle down into the village throughout the day. Miki and Yuuko I recognize, but they keep their distance from me. Everyone does, as we all have our tasks.
  4130. The work that Saki gave me has all of my attention. Hauling wood and stacking pyres. Quiet work that needs to be done, and is all too easy when I can pull from stocked sheds and have an axe to shape the logs dragged in from the forest. Sometimes a kitsune will help me lay the larger logs or offer me food and warm water. I only offer my thanks, and my silent sympathy to the dead being brought back before I continue my grim work.
  4132. In the evening, my limbs heavy and slow, I look at the progress. Two large pyres have been built up, faster than I could manage on my own. I start toward the hut I've taken as my own, only to notice someone coming toward me. Miki dashes up and bows, presenting me with freshly sewn clothes in her outstretched hands. The two-tail's bow is so deep I wonder if she'll tip forward while offering the fresh clothes out. "These are for you," she says.
  4134. I'm too numb and tired to know how to feel or respond, so I take them from her furred hands. Then I stare down at what I wear. I had to tie strips of blankets over the worst holes, my chest no better than a bundle of rags. Blood still stains what I wear, the weather too cold for me to wash. "Thank you," I utter.
  4136. "If it's not thick enough," the two-tail says, retreating several steps and maintaining her bow, "Yuuko and I will sew you more. We're in that hut," she points, with one of her tails, to a building too close to the river for my liking.
  4138. I rub the new, makeshift clothes. They're thick enough for this cold. "You and your sisters have my thanks."
  4140. "If you need anything, please, ask any of us," she says, looking up with unfettered sympathy and care. She tries to give me a hopeful smile. There's not a hint of flirtation about her, or any of the kitsune I've dealt with since coming back from the cave, but I can only return a stiff nod. She leaves, ears and tails crestfallen.
  4142. I'm an outsider to the tragedy that befell this village, while the kitsune had ancestral ties if what Saki said is true. They had some kind of responsibility here. Whereas I'm merely a foreigner in this far off village, here to hunt a man-eater.
  4144. I go back to my hut, change into the new clothes, and lie to myself that it helps lessen my unease and weakness. It doesn't. But I want to act like it does.
  4146. I scarcely sleep that eve, waking from tormenting dreams or the slightest sound. I keep my sword near the furs I use as a bed and my knife on my belt, should the kappa that escaped us return. Or worse, the captive man-eater escapes. Eventually my torment ends when the cracks in the hut show hints of predawn light, allowing me to prepare for the day ahead.
  4148. More work finds me once I'm outside and prepared. I have to sharpen the borrowed axe often, the broad metal head holding a poor edge, yet it makes my task easier than using only a knife. There are notches to cut in the logs, so they stack properly. The kitsune aren't bad with crafting wood, but I spent the early part of my life woodworking during harsh winters. Any boy with the strength to lift an axe learned how to use it, and it's a skill that's served me well ever since. I can handle the work of two of the kitsune alone, freeing a few of them to the grim task of preparing the bodies.
  4150. Those I work with keep their distance, even during our meal breaks. By noon, Saki returns, the grim look on her half-masked face making sense when I see how small the wrapped bodies are. She doesn't go back out after taking those small ones behind a hut, instead coming toward me.
  4152. She, like myself, wears her sword. None of the kitsune are far from something that could be used a weapon, but the ones in black are the only ones who openly carry weapons aside from me. The way she walks, her steps slow and unwillingly, tell me this is a matter of danger. She lifts her half-mask, letting it rest on her forehead as she approaches. I put my axe down and move several steps away from the three-tail kitsune shaping the final batch of logs.
  4154. "Egil," Saki says, acknowledging me with a thin bow. "We must talk."
  4156. "About?"
  4158. "The kappa," she says, walking past me and motioning for me to follow. She doesn't say anything else until we're a good hundred paces from the nearest of her sisters and we're standing in the midst of a frozen field. She turns to me, crossing her hands in front of her and standing rigidly.
  4160. "It's not about the kappa," I guess, judging from our distance to the others and how she blocks my view of the village with her fanned out tails.
  4162. "It is," she says, reaching up to move her mask back so we can meet each other's eyes. I have to look up at her ever so faintly, something that is still unfamiliar to me after a lifetime of looking down to talk. "Yet there is more that needs to be said."
  4164. "Should I keep this talk a secret?" I ask, doing nothing to hide my suspicion.
  4166. "There is no reason to." She shifts on her feet, letting herself show some unease instead of glaring at me with cold, brown eyes. "We found more tracks, on the other side of the river. It looks as if some of the villagers were dragged into the forest, near the village. We lost the tracks after a few hundred steps, but we think those villagers are dead."
  4168. "Are you certain?"
  4170. "We found blood." She shifts again. "And bones picked at by a kappa's mouth."
  4172. The runes I cast after the battle spoke true. Two kitsune found a slaughter, and it was the missing villagers. "I should have gutted the one that recognized me before it ran," I spit. Anger burrows through the numbness that's surrounded me since I found work to do. "How recent are the tracks?"
  4174. "The tracks are from the same day we came down," she says. Then her eyes narrow. "Was this kappa that ran the same as the one that set your arm?"
  4176. "Yes."
  4178. Looking thoughtful, Saki glances toward the river for a moment. "Do you know if it was a man-eater?"
  4180. "The kappa that attacked me were. But does it matter? One of those things is a terror to simple folk."
  4182. "You can't stop every beast or enemy," she points out, eyes hardening. "Some get away, no matter how hard you fight. If we find it, good. If we don’t, we can’t torment ourselves."
  4184. It ran before I could even fight it, but I despise how wise she sounds. "I'll kill it if I see it," I scowl.
  4186. "Don't fight in the water again." My scowl deepens, and she changes the subject with a wave. "There is something else you should know. A problem with the man-eater we caught." She shifts her weight, as if uneasy, but doesn’t say more.
  4188. "And?" I ask.
  4190. "I can't let you kill it."
  4192. Her hand darts toward her sword, my stance lowering. Then I realize my hand is on my own weapon, and while she's got her hand on hers, I've got the blade halfway out. Breathing in deeply, the thunder in my veins spurred on by a maelstrom within me, I slide the steel back into its sheath. "Why," I demand.
  4194. "Its answers are horrible," she says. "More than that I cannot tell you. Rin forbade me."
  4196. My fingers curl in rage, but I keep them off of my weapons this time. "Can you promise it won't escape?"
  4198. "I cannot," she admits, holding up a hand to plead for more time before I storm off to find someone who can give me answers. "But I believe my sisters can keep it from escaping. This one is weaker than the oni we've trapped. Sealing away this new man-eater should be easier than Kenta, and there is even talk of purifying this one."
  4200. I want to storm the building it's trapped in and cleave open its neck. But beneath my rage, I still have tempered wit. I can still control myself, the work and exhaustion dulling my body enough to keep me from losing myself in a frenzy. "Will it threaten anyone again?"
  4202. "It won't." She taps her sword hilt. "That I can promise."
  4204. I try to stare past her, my teeth grinding at the thought of the man-eater staying alive. But I know Saki is being sincere. "I'll trust you, Saki. We shed blood together." I scowl, knowing it’s the right decision but hating it. "But I swear," I point in the direction of the village, "if I see it again, I will end it."
  4206. Saki nods, profound understanding in her firm stare. "If that should happen, you will have me on your side."
  4208. "If that's all you wanted to say, then can I return to work? I need to busy myself or else I might be dangerous."
  4210. She stares at me, sizing me up. It irritates me how long she stays silent. I keep a firm grip on my anger, and am rewarded with a nod from the kitsune. "Yes. We all have much to do." Her tails lower, and she reaches for her mask. Only to stop, and look down at me seriously. "If you need anything, come to me. I am second only to Rin in our family."
  4212. Her mask slips back down, her mouth hardening, but not before I catch something like embarrassment torturing the kitsune. That or my anger has me seeing things that aren't there. I don't know. I can't care either. Not when I have work to do, and an axe I can swing to burn away some of this rage tingling in my limbs.
  4214. ---
  4216. The pyres are finished in the evening. More kitsune descend the mountain, and Rin emerges from a hut in elaborate, priestly clothes of red and white. There is no way she got those on by herself, yet she moves with absolute poise and grace despite her restricted steps.
  4218. I stand far away as the ceremony begins, watching from the other side of the river. Rin conducts rituals and prayers before the three identical pyres. Her sisters, ten of them, join her in observance. Then Rin stands and, with the magic fire at the tips of her tails, lights the pyres when the stars twinkle in the night sky. Flames spread quickly, either by magic or clever stacking of wood I don't know. I only moved materials and cut what was needed. The fires rise as bright beacons, reminding me of more ceremonies for the dead than I care to remember.
  4220. I wasn't a part of this village. But to those who managed to fight back, if the gods of this land won't accept them, I offer a silent prayer that maybe those of my land would. How confusing that would be to a peasant of this land, to be welcomed with open arms into halls of eternal feasting and battle. Where sworn enemies sit side by side and sing of each other's glory at night, everyone waiting for the final battle.
  4222. Then again, I sometimes hope my people are wrong. That we don't go to the hall of gods who want to use us for the final battle, if we're lucky, or end up in the cold realm of the dead if we die dishonorably. I've been through so many lands, heard of so many gods, I often wonder what is true. Or, if in some way, all gods and myths are true. I've seen the magic of many people. And now, as I watch blue flames dance on dozens of tails, I see yet more. But not in a way I ever wanted to.
  4224. Death is the same, no matter the land. I take back my prayer, in the hope that the people of this village find peace instead. Sitting at the door to a hut, I doubt I'll find any of that for myself. But they did nothing to deserve what happened to them.
  4226. Tall, orange flames dance through the night as the kitsune hold their vigil. The blue flames at the ends of their tails swish and dance as they mourn the village their mother left to them. I don't know how much it means to them, or their family's story, but that kind of history isn't easy to forget. The reverence they show in this ceremony tells me it's important, as if Saki's show of emotion wasn't enough to convince me.
  4228. I tap my sword, and for the first time in far too long, wonder about my own blood kin. They must think I'm dead. But are they still alive? Should I care, or is it okay that I don't miss them?
  4230. Too many heavy questions for my heart to bear. But I make myself watch until the blue fires of kitsune wink out one by one. Only when the last whirling blue orb fades out do I go inside to sleep, if I can. Since coming to this village I've been laying in furs and blankets and waiting for scattered dreams of horror and death to jerk me awake, only to repeat that until the sun brings light back to the world. Even so, I could use even that much rest, as I know those fires will be burning for at least a full day.
  4232. ---
  4234. The next morning, I find myself right. The pyres still burn, kitsune adding wood and logs as needed. Bodies don't burn easily, after all. I avoid the sight as much as I can, keeping on the other side of the river and cooking my own meals. I don't feel right taking the food of dead villagers, but when I cast runes with a question if they would mind, the answer is clear.
  4236. They won't need it anymore.
  4238. Even so, I refuse to waste even a speck of grain. I know the people of this land believe in gratitude to your host and for your food. I treat the hut with all the respect I can, cleaning and tidying up after myself. I do the same for the two huts closest to the one I occupy. Not to honor them, but to give myself something to, I shamefully admit to myself. Yet I respect these homes as best I can. I patch a few holes and make sure wood is stocked inside. All to make the lonely day end faster, as I watch the pyres burn down and down. The smell is only of smoke now, but it doesn't help. That only reminds me of the three charred ruins that used to be homes.
  4240. Evening comes and I lay down, having spoken to or gotten near no one. Maybe my company would have been welcome. But I don't want to intrude on grief. I'm only a foreigner, after all.
  4242. ---
  4244. I jerk awake, not from the dream of clawed hands on my throat, but someone knocking on wood. I dismiss my first thoughts about an attacker and reason it's one of the kitsune. Rolling to my feet, heel of my hand on my knife, I go fumble in the dark toward the door. Faint embers in the hearth don't give me enough light to see by, the hut so dark I can only guess about my surroundings. "Who is it?" I call out.
  4246. "Egil?" a voice slurs. "Egil, can we talk?"
  4248. I blindly follow the wall to the door, find the rope, and pull it aside. Blue light spills in, the kitsune outside not crouched down so I can't see who it is. She's one of the foxes wearing a white dress, meaning it's not Saki, Hibiki, or Kumiko. That leaves at least seven others, assuming no more came down the mountain that I didn't see.
  4250. "Who is it?" I ask again.
  4252. She crouches down, blue orbs meeting my gaze. The lump in my throat keeps me from saying anything else. Rin angles her mouth down to speak, and even through the scent of smoke clinging to her I smell rice wine on her breath. "Can I come in?"
  4254. If there weren't fresh tears matting the fur around her eyes, I would say no. Instead I step back, going to the hearth to stoke the fire. I get the flames leaping to life by the time the wine addled kitsune has fumbled the door back into place. The blue light of her flames winks out, leaving only the fire I feed to light the one-room hut. Shadows dance as she sits down, setting a jug of wine beside me.
  4256. "Grief and drink don't mix," I say, having seen far too many lives ruined by that combination.
  4258. "It wasn't my idea," she softly says.
  4260. I don't prod her, only add more sticks to the fire. I leave the sealed jug of wine where it sits. Whether it's a peace offering between us or a custom, she'll say something eventually.
  4262. After a time she speaks again, breath thick with wine. "Coming here was my idea."
  4264. "To this hut?" I ask, trying to keep my voice and shaky mood even. The nightmares have weighed heavily on me, and having anyone near me right now has me wanting to put a hand on a weapon.
  4266. "To the mountain. I told my mother about this mountain." She sniffs, wiping her eyes with her sleeve. "But it was her idea to have farmers in the valley. I don' know how she knew them, but if I had to guess she slept with half the men." She wipes at her eyes again. "But tha' was a long time ago. An' I kept it in just as long."
  4268. I glance sidelong at her. "How many jugs of wine have you had?" I ask, suspecting she's deep enough not to be offended by the question.
  4270. "Four," she mutters, wobbling back and forth as she raises her fingers. "N-no." She adds another finger. "I forgot the fifth."
  4272. If she is this far gone, maybe she won't remember any of this in the morning. I settle myself in better, expecting this to be a long and terrible night of trying to avoid a fight with the drunk and grieving kitsune. If I am fortunate, one of her sisters will come looking for her, but most likely I will have to keep an eye on her to stop her from accidentally wandering into the river. Though even that is bound to be more peaceful than my attempts at rest.
  4274. "I don' know why I never told you," Rin mumbles, my question about her drinking no doubt forgotten. "That my mother founded this village."
  4276. "You're telling me now," I point out.
  4278. "I should have told you sooner. I wan'ed to tell you." Her clothes ruffle as she draws in on herself. If I see her shivering, I'll need to get a blanket, but for now it seems she's doing it for comfort. "But that's not why I'm here," she says. "I wan'ed to tell you somethin' else."
  4280. She sways, her ears twitching, and the frown on her mouth makes me mistrustful. When she notices me looking, Rin scoots away. "Tha' is why I'm here," she says, so suspiciously I don't know if she's trying to convince me or herself. "To tell you."
  4282. "You can tell me when you're ready," I say slowly. "The last few days have been hard for everyone. Things like this, they leave terrible wounds."
  4284. Her arms cross and she leans forward, bringing her eyes lower than mine for a change. The white haired kitsune grimaces at the fire. "This village, it was my mother's idea. A home far away from cities and soldiers and monks. Where we could live in harmony with peasants." The scowl returns to her lips. "An' for her, where she could play in her final years."
  4286. Rin grimaces, and I worry she's about to be sick. Then she shakes her head, slowly, and I see the grimace clear up. Memories then, bad memories. "Gorou," she mutters, "The old man we met in the village, he was a third generation. No more than a babe when my mother visited for the last time. Now he an' everybody down to the youngest babes are gone."
  4288. I'm at a loss for anything to say, caught between thinking through what she’s saying and how she’s opening up. I put aside thoughts of what she’s saying and the implications of age and loss. The last time Rin spoke so freely to me, things turned terrible between us. I can only wait for her to gather the strength and will to say more, and offer what little company I'm able. Sometimes, a tragedy needs a willing ear to listen.
  4290. "But tha's not what I wanted to say," she mumbles, shaking her head hard. She moves too quickly and nearly pitches over, narrowly catching herself. When she's upright and only swaying like a reed in gentle wind, she continues. "But I wan'ed to."
  4292. "Talk as freely as you want," I say, unsure if I actually want her to. But I think she needs to hear it.
  4294. Curling back up, holding her knees in a most undignified way, she looks as tired as I feel. "I'll say what I came to say." Blue orbs, fur stained and matted by tears, face me. "We... we got the man-eater to talk, to tell us everythin'. The suiko leadin' the kappa made a deal with Kenta." More tears roll down her snout, dripping off her chin. "An', an'..."
  4296. Rin closes her eyes to breathe, fighting tears. I don't know why I do it, maybe because she once calmed me at my worst or perhaps seeing her show this much pain robs me of good sense, but I reach out and touch her shoulder. She trembles beneath my touch, yet doesn't shy away. Her snout dips as she fights against a lurching sob, her vulnerability breaking something in me. I couldn't do what she needed last time she was so vulnerable, but with her memory sure to be addled absent until the morning, I risk more than a reassuring touch. Shuffling over, keeping my hand on her and moving the wine aside, I get close enough to rub her back. To let her lean into my bruised and sore body if she needs it.
  4298. My touch seems to help calm her, but her breathing still hitches in her throat as she fights a lonely battle. One I've faced on more nights than I want to admit. All I can do is offer my presence and light touch, let her know that she's not alone, since my tongue is dead as driftwood.
  4300. The fire is no more than a few dying flames when she finally speaks again. "The man-eater is some kind o' half-kappa," she slurs. "He said the suiko brought him to the edge of the barrier in the forest, an' Kenta made a deal." She wipes at her nose and eyes with her sleeves, and I keep rubbing her back. "For villagers, alive or dead, he..." the kitsune swallows, "he'd teach the half-kappa how to become an Oni. An'," her eyes scrunch, tears pouring out as her chest shakes.
  4302. "An' the stupid boy accepted," she blurts out. Rin buries her face in her sleeves, unable to keep the tears back anymore.
  4304. I'm tired, slow, and recuperating from two days of hard work after a mild beating, so I add sticks to the fire as I think through what she's said. The flames rise up, casting flickering shadows, and the obvious pieces fit together. I rub her back and put a hand on her arm, any anger I still felt toward Rin gone.
  4306. Taro. The boy who lost his parents, and conspired with two kappa to get rid of me for foolish, cruel reasons only the child knew. Taro, who had a kappa for a parent. That boy, he must be the man-thing. I don't know how or why he fell so far, but the knowledge he did hurts even my heart. The realization brings more thoughts together. That's why some of the villagers were taken into the woods, for payment to Kenta. And, I darkly realize, my toes curling as my hands shake with restraint, that is why there was a devoured corpse in the village. His ancestry must have let him change when he ate a person, making him larger, more twisted, and seemingly immune to cold. There would be far fewer man-eaters if there wasn't power taken from the act.
  4308. Rubbing the crying kitsune's back, I feel so stupid for ignoring my first impression at the kappa's cave. Rin liked the boy, even acted motherly toward him from what I saw. To find out he was responsible for the massacre, I can tell from her choking sobbing that it's crushing her. How did she hold herself together through the ceremony and funeral fire? Despite my warning about drink and grief, I don't think I could have held myself together that long. Battles are one thing, but the slow, agonizing wait of tending a pyre? And she made it through the entire funeral ceremony before drinking herself senseless, so senseless she'd come talk to me. I don't know what to make of this, or her.
  4310. I do the only thing that makes sense. Through touch, I let her know that she's not alone. If need be, I'll clean up after any sickness that might befall her from so much wine. And when morning comes, I'll face what I must.
  4312. She leans toward me, but doesn't put any weight against me. Her sobbing has lessened, though that doesn't mean she's okay. I can hear her whisper to herself, a one sided conversation punctured by heaving cries. "Why," I think I hear, "Why does everyone..." her words tail off into pained mumbles.
  4314. Swallowing at that lump in my throat, I do something stupid. I hug her, awkwardly, trying to offer what little strength I have to her. Forget all the bruises, welts, sore muscles, and stinging scratches I have. I forget the difference between guest and host, or how I couldn't answer or face her once I learned she felt love for me. I said I was her friend and I should uphold that.
  4316. The kitsune is slow to react. Her arms move with hesitation and a deliberate slowness, as if she's afraid I'll tell her to go away or stop. Or that her claws may frighten me away, I muse, as she slowly returns the embrace.
  4318. "Don't die," she whimpers, shocking me by shoving her head against my chest. "Don't die."
  4320. "Hush," I mumble, eyeing the fire and dismissing her mumbling as senseless grief. The flames are low enough I can safely leave it to burn to ashes on its own. I let Rin stay against my chest, comforting her as best I can.
  4322. Her sobbing dies down, but she still shakes. Five jugs of wine is a lot, but if she hasn't been sick all over me or the floor yet, I don't think she will be. So I gently urge her toward the pile of furs I was using as a bed, only to find the kitsune too weak to stand. She can barely shuffle with me, and I end up half-dragging her along. I'm nearly out of breath when I get her over there and whisper that she should lay down.
  4324. She does, but instead of letting go of me, she clings to my clothes. I'm about to tell her to stop, when I catch sight of her glowing, blue eyes. The desperate need to not be alone burns painfully within, her mouth twisted in fear. For a moment, it's as if the world stops.
  4326. Then she lets go, turning her eyes away with shame as she shakily lowers herself the rest of the way. "S-sorry," she slurs.
  4328. My heart beating once more, the exhaustion in my body catching up to me, I lay beside her. "It's okay," I mutter, more to myself than her.
  4330. She stirs beside me. "Egil," she says, voice weak and cracking. "Can..." her hands grab my arm. "Please, I'll..." her voice breaks with a pathetic, weak sound. "I'll never ask anything of you again. But please don't leave now."
  4332. With a numb tongue, I answer, "I'm not going to leave. So don't promise anything."
  4334. A grieving, crestfallen woman wraps herself against my side. Her fuzzy face plants against my shoulder as she tries not to start crying again. I stare up at the roof of the hut, watching the shadows flicker. Something possesses me, a dull feeling in the numbness of my shocked spirit, to reach over and start softly patting the furry hand holding my chest. There's no way she'll remember any of this in the morning. What's the harm?
  4336. Shadows dull, meld into the black, and my eyes grow heavy. Rin's breathing calms, her tails slump against me, nesting me in her warmth. The faint light fades along with my troubled thoughts.
  4338. ---
  4340. I know I'm dreaming. The wheat fields around me and summer fjords in the distance are too peaceful, too simple, and too warm to be real. I walk among the green stalks anyway, letting my hands brush along the fruitful grain. I don't linger among the young wheat for long. I go toward the hill in the distance, where a mighty, crooked oak offers its shade. There's someone there that I know. I can't see them, but I know they're on the other side of the tree.
  4342. Nothing hunts me as I walk. There's peace in the green fields, yet I still check over my shoulder every few steps. The warm sun and soft wind try to ease the fears carved into my flesh. If this is nothing but a pleasant escape before my nightly terrors, I'll take what solace is offered to me.
  4344. I climb the hill, one step at a time up half-buried stones, taking an eternity to reach the top. It's so high I can see the fields all around, stretching on to endless sea to the east and a pine forest to the west. Near the forest I see the steep roofs of the farm's buildings, nestled near softly flowing waters. The river, with its wonderful fishing, runs far past the houses, the water promising to be cool and refreshing. But I don't stare for long, as a pleasant humming pulls me toward the oak atop the hill. Whoever is on the other side changes their humming to a strange, wordless song.
  4346. I know them, and yet...
  4348. ---
  4350. I blink, confused at the sight before my eyes. The inside of a thatched roof, stained by the smoke of a normally lively hearth, and built too low for a man as tall as me. I'm on my back, in a cold and dingy hut in the dusty light before dawn, and not at that homely farm. Instead of exhaustion, I feel a tired longing to slip back into that pleasant dream. How many days, weeks even, has it been since I woke without a fearful start?
  4352. Laying there, warm from furs beneath and above me, I slowly come to the realization that I'm not alone. The soft, deep breaths of another rise and fall against my chest. Turning my head, I see Rin fast asleep, her fox face pressed against my shoulder, and one of my arms held firmly in her grasp. At the same time, she has one of her arms, and many of her fluffy tails, draped across me. All of her soft winter fur keeps the morning's chill far away.
  4354. Somehow there's no fear in my chest from her being this close. The haze of waking from a good dream, I muse.
  4356. Memories of the night before, and the days prior, leave me in deep conflict as I stare at the sleeping kitsune. I want to let her rest, but with how we last parted and how her memory will be a blur at best, I don't think it wise to let her wake while holding me. That could lead to a fight neither of us need. Taking great care, I try to ease myself away, out from her warmth and tender grasp.
  4358. She pulls my arm closer, sliding her other arm off my chest to squeeze my caught limb against herself. A sad, whimpering sound ekes out from her shut mouth. I freeze in place, not knowing what to do.
  4360. Swallowing, the sound deafeningly loud to my ears, I realize I don't want to leave her.
  4362. If I'd gone toward her when she confessed her love, tried to touch her instead of pulling in on myself, would things have been different? Could I have even done that at the time, when I still fear losing myself to rage and fear of the past? With another fight on the horizon, against the man-eater Kenta, isn't it more merciful to keep a certain distance from all these kitsune? I don't know what to do. If I had answers to any of the questions rattling around in my head, I could do something aside from grinding my teeth and staying still beside the sleeping kitsune.
  4364. If only I knew what her pleading for me to stay last night was truly about. Maybe then I'd know my own heart some, instead of finding myself left with questions and fear.
  4366. I settle back down, breathing out hard through my nose to loosen my jaw. I can't sleep anymore. But even if laying here with Rin leaves me tense, I can't deny that it's more comfortable than being alone.
  4368. I listen to her soft breathing and stare at the ceiling, letting her hold my arm tightly. If that brings her comfort while she dreams, then I can accept this inconvenience and whatever strife comes later. With my elbow pressed between her bosom, I'm certain there will be some strife.
  4370. Only a few moments pass, or maybe it's much longer. With only the sound of Rin sleeping and the flurry of my thoughts to occupy me, time has little hold on me.
  4372. Wood knocks on wood, my heart hammering into my throat. I look toward the door and see it move, an unwelcome voice stopping me from falling into too much fear. "Egil," Saki says, "I am sorry to intrude. Rin is missing and I've come to ask your help in finding..."
  4374. The eight-tail, hunching in the open doorway, stares down at me. Or perhaps at her eldest sister clinging to my side and covering me with her tails so that only my head is exposed. Rin is still fast asleep, but the dull shock in Saki's eyes has me worried.
  4376. "She was drunk. Wandered in here last night," I whisper as quietly as I can, desperately hoping Saki can read my lips. And will believe that I'm telling the truth.
  4378. The black clad kitsune tilts her head, then looks behind her, then back at me. Her mouth twists, trying to find the right words. "Is she okay?" she mutters.
  4380. I shrug. A horrible mistake, as it stirs Rin. The nine-tail mumbles, yawning into my shoulder, and if she didn't have a firm grasp on my arm I'd be on the other side of the hut before she finishes. Instead I'm stuck in place by wild fear until her teeth are gone, leaving my heart thumping frantically. Her worn down blue eyes join Saki's concerned brown in staring at me. I would rather be facing down a hundred kappa right now than be caught in this position, but my heart is calming quicker than expected. Yet still, why did I ever think it was a good idea to lay down by Rin?
  4382. "Eldest sister," Saki begins, drawing blue eyes off of me, "should I fetch you some water and food?"
  4384. "That would be wonderful," Rin mutters, voice dry and raspy.
  4386. "At once," Saki bows, putting the door back and abandoning me.
  4388. Well. At least I don't have to give an explanation to two kitsune. Rin looks around, her head moving slowly, before propping up on one elbow. She groans, closes her eyes and, unfortunately, squeezes my arm still in her grasp. "What happened?" she demands, a sliver of an eye dangerously opening to look down upon me.
  4390. There's no good answer to that. I'll give her the simple truth, leaving out the awkward details of what she said last night. "You wandered in here drunk and struck by grief. I got you to bed, you wouldn't let go of my clothes, and I didn't want to disturb you, so I laid down."
  4392. "Is that all?" she whispers, voice straining but her gaze filled with a sharp demand for more.
  4394. "You were crying," I explain. "I couldn't leave you like that."
  4396. "That didn't stop you before," she says, colder than the ice outside. She lurches upright, tossing my arm aside and whipping her tails away. Even though she wobbles and has to clutch a wooden beam holding up the hut's ceiling, she manages to stay standing.
  4398. I get to my feet and give her an arm's length of distance. I could give her more, even in this small hut, but I won't make that mistake again. She tells me to move and I will, otherwise I plan to stay still. Nor will I speak before her, keeping a retort about how she's the one who left last time to myself. Fighting won't help either of us, and it would disrespect the dead who once called this hut a home to trade barbs in their dwelling.
  4400. "Why?" she suddenly demands. "Why now?"
  4402. "I'll give you the answers I couldn't," I say, hoping I sound reasonable and not emotional. Anger or offense will only worsen things right now. "But I would rather do that outside of the village. Too much has happened."
  4404. Rin stares at the ground instead of me, her messy hair hiding her eyes. "Very well. I can respect your wisdom."
  4406. "I'll leave for now, if you want," I offer.
  4408. "What I want does not matter," she snaps, whipping her face toward me. The kitsune wobbles, her legs unsteady and eyes wincing from the sharp movement, but the anger doesn't fade when she recovers. Her misery, a spark of what I saw last night, is as plain to see as her frustration. "Go," she commands. "We'll talk tonight, back at my home. There is much we must discuss now that this man-eater problem has grown."
  4410. I look toward the door, then back to Rin. I nod, corners of my mouth heavy as I gather my meager possessions. While I tie my belt back on, I notice the untouched jug of wine by the cool hearth, right where Rin left it the night before. If she went through five of those last night it's incredible that she isn’t curled up in a corner groaning. Perhaps it's anger at me giving her strength, I muse as I get my sword settled back on my belt. Now that I'm ready to leave, I move to the jug instead of walking out, wondering if the kitsune will stop me from taking it. She says nothing as I lift it, the sloshing weight within oddly relieving.
  4412. "Take it," she says, gaze hardening. "I won't be needing it."
  4414. "Thank you. I'll find a way to pay you back," I say, bowing clumsily but sincerely.
  4416. "If that is what you want," she begins, tilting her mouth and looking severely at me, "tell me what, or who, you'll use it for. And I will consider it repaid."
  4418. Does she honestly think I'd offer any of her sisters wine? Staring into her blue gaze, I can't tell if that was a barb or simply a question. It doesn't matter, my answer is the same either way. "I want to use it for a tribute to the dead," I say. "Something I started doing, to remember those I couldn't save." I turn around and go to the door. Before either of us can start a fight.
  4420. She speaks up when I have my hand on the crude rope handle. "Egil."
  4422. I look back at the kitsune master of the mountain. For that's what I see staring at me, Rin holding herself with noble poise despite her hunched stance, her face polite and slightly stern. "The kappa and oni are at fault. Not you."
  4424. "That's kind of you. But I know what my presence has done," I say, before heading out into the cold. Once I'm out the door, I quietly curse myself for saying words that surely stung her, when it hadn't been my intention at all. I meant that if I hadn’t been here then the oni and kappa might never have worked together, but she could just as easily think it was a barb. A jab at her and the love for me she confessed to feeling.
  4426. I breathe deeply from the cold wind to push down my regret.
  4428. ---
  4430. After taking care of certain morning needs, I head toward the bridge connecting the two sides of the village. I spot Saki coming out of a hut, carrying a covered pot in one hand and a large jug in the other. Behind her is Miki, arms filled with clay cups and spoons, who moves morosely but dutifully. Until she spots me, her ears and two tails perking up. The eight-tail, to my surprise, turns her course deliberately, bringing the two of them to me. I meet the pair halfway, ice crunching under my boots.
  4432. "Do you wish to eat alone?" Saki asks.
  4434. "Would you be surprised to hear that I don't know what I want?" I look up at a cloud drifting in the sky. "This morning or any other."
  4436. The eight-tail turns to Miki, handing over her burden to the two-tail. I'm impressed by the younger kitsune's silent coordination, somehow taking the bowls and pot in arm while balancing what she already carried on top. "Go," Saki commands, "I will join you shortly."
  4438. The two-tail nods behind her load, smiles coyly at me, and heads off. She's got good balance, but I don't look for long as the kitsune in front of me demands my full attention. "What happened last night?" Saki whispers, voice mingling with her wispy breath.
  4440. "Rin came to me drunk," I answer, shifting uncomfortably as the wind picks up against my back. "I'm not sure if she wanted to see me or deliver the bad news about Taro."
  4442. Saki hisses out a breath. "She's too good of a sneak at the worst of times."
  4444. I'm so stunned to hear Saki say anything remotely chastising about her older sister that I can't respond.
  4446. "What will you do now that you know about Taro? About what he's done?" she asks, frosty brown eyes looking down at me.
  4448. "I'm going to waste wine for the dead," I answer, lifting the jug I took. "Then I'm going to find an empty hut and wait until Rin is ready to go back up the mountain."
  4450. Her gaze searches me for any deceit, but there's none to be found. I weather her stare without any fear. I don't plan to take any vengeance on the young man turned man-eater.
  4452. "And what if he escapes and comes after you?" she mutters.
  4454. "I can't promise I won't break a few bones," I say, leaving it vague as to whether I mean me or the man-eater, "But I'd restrain him. He wasn't as strong as me, only tougher."
  4456. "Why not kill him?" she asks, so coldly and quickly I know she's been expecting this conversation, and for me to argue.
  4458. I take my time to think, shifting my weight from foot to foot in the unpleasant, wintry wind. "Why are you asking me all of this?"
  4460. "It's my duty as second eldest to watch out for Rin," she states. "So tell me. Would you kill Taro?"
  4462. "Not if it would hurt her," I answer, the truth of that statement sending a chill down my spine. I care for the nine-tail, don't I? I’d never thought to stay my blade against something that haunts my dreams and burns my bones with hate. Yet I am, for Rin’s sake. If only I knew more about why I cared for her. Then maybe I could fix things between the two of us.
  4464. Those brown eyes search me for deceit again, but she must not find anything to condemn me for. Saki nods, her gaze softening as she speaks. "I will trust you, Egil. You have earned at least that." She turns and points to one of the huts on this side of the river. "Yuuko is cooking in there. She'll be more than happy to serve you a meal."
  4466. "Thank you, Saki. But my ceremony is more important to me than a meal." Hoping to get on my way, I nod toward the hut I had been occupying. "You might want to return to your eldest sister. Things have been contentious between her and I, and I don't want to drag you into it."
  4468. "I fear I've already done that myself, if not worse," she says, turning on one foot and leaving.
  4470. I watch her tails go, brow furrowing as I wonder about exactly what she means. I breathe out into the cold, putting my face to the wind. I'll know soon enough. Right now I have a jug of wine to empty, and silent apologies to make to simple villagers I couldn't save.
  4472. ---
  4474. My ceremony is simple and short. I go to one of the burned down huts, no better than a pile of char and ash now, and offer a quiet apology. I break the seal on the wine jug, take a short drink, and pour out the rest. "Your lives won't be forgotten," I mutter as the rice wine splatters against frozen mud. "I won't forget your hospitality, nor that of the kitsune you aided. So curse me if it helps, but go to your gods in peace."
  4476. The last few drops of wine trickle out. The guilt I've ignored is still there, buried deep in my chest where I know it will sit for the rest of my life. Just another stone sinking deeper into a well of doubts and regrets. That's what I tell myself as I wait for the agony to leave and my throat to loosen up. I don't know if I do this ceremony to relieve my guilt, to comfort the dead, or both. I do hope that the dead can find peace after such a terrible end. I wish I could tell the dead their killers were gone, but now I can't carry that revenge out.
  4478. One kappa got away, and Taro, while I still feel hate for him, isn't a threat I have any right to kill. Not unless a life is directly threatened will I put that man-eater to the sword. Not when it would hurt Rin. She’s already lost this village her mother left behind; I couldn’t live with myself if I cut away the final piece. And I don’t even know why she watched over them, or what it all meant to her. If the kitsune and I ever speak as friends again, then I can worry about learning why this village mattered so much to her.
  4480. I breathe out and pretend the cold wisps are some of the pain in my chest wafting out. The horrible guilt doesn't lessen, but my throat isn't as tight anymore. The heady scent of strong wine is thick in the air, reminding me of last night and fresh regrets. I set the empty jug mouth down on the ground and leave, the wind blowing away the scent.
  4482. I walk the frozen fields for a while, back and forth over my own footprints, trying not to think as I work my legs. Thoughts of that warm dream, the first true comfort I've had in weeks, and feeling the winter sun on my face help banish the worst of my guilt. I have to move forward, stay true to the path I've chosen. Even when it's hard or I want to undo poor choices. Always forward, sticking to the hard course ahead.
  4484. When I feel ready to face the world again, I stop pacing. I turn back and head toward the bridge, but as I do, I see several kitsune crossing the river. Saki, Rin, and Miki. Saki is carrying her spear on her shoulder and has that half-mask over her eyes again, while Rin leads with graceful indifference. The two-tail, who walks behind the others, seems to spot me, her tails going from limp to suddenly raised in excitement. I stop where I am, wondering where the group is heading and hoping they aren't coming toward me. My stomach sinks when the nine-tail folds her hands into her sleeves and walks purposefully my way.
  4486. "We are going up now," Rin announces once she's close enough, stopping half a dozen paces away and looking firmly at me.
  4488. I return the stare, notice her white hair is pulled back and not quite as messy, and nod. "Only the four of us?"
  4490. "For now," she answers, moving forward, angling to walk past me. "Come. I do not want to waste daylight when you, Saki, and I have much to discuss this evening."
  4492. I do not like the sound of that, but with what happened in the village I suppose it makes sense. Important events should come before Rin and I settle personal matters.
  4494. I fall in with their group. Rin walks in the lead, Miki behind her, and Saki and I heading up the rear. No one speaks as we walk across frozen fields and into the woods that hide the stone step trail up the mountain. Even when we start the winding and steady climb, nobody says anything.
  4496. The tension in the air thickens as we go, and it's almost unbearable when we step into the dead section of the forest. Meiko and Kenta's stretch of forest. The crazed kitsune, if she is even around, seems to have the sense to stay away. With Saki and I gripping our weapons tightly and even Miki's shoulders tense, we all appear ready to spring on anything that comes out. Anyone within a hundred paces must sense the danger we pose. I glance at Saki, wondering how she must feel with her twin sister somewhere out in those woods and nothing she can do about it, but her half-mask shows no emotion.
  4498. I look ahead, at Rin's lowered tails, and try to focus on walking instead of thinking. No sense in worrying during a march to a miserable series of conversations. Only Miki, her shoulders relaxing some, seems to be unaware or uncaring of the hardships ahead. The two-tail is lucky to not be involved.
  4500. We soon reach the torii that loom over the path, their home near. We pass them one by one, the crack of a branch in the forest making me lose count right when we're at the last two arches. Not that the count would mean much, since they're sure to be magical. Perhaps there is only one torii, perhaps there are hundreds hidden by illusions. The only way I'd know is to ask, and with Miki being the kitsune who might answer me right now, I keep quiet.
  4502. We crest the last step, the shut gate to the walled off home coming into sight. Rin's stride doesn't falter as she makes for the two heavy doors. Right as I think she'll walk face first into them, they fling inward, wood creaking and groaning. We follow, the eight- and two-tail hurrying past me to walk closer to their eldest sister. Wood loudly moans and the gates slam shut behind me, crashing shut with a sound that I feel in my jaw and lungs. Wind from the doors’ passage buffets my back and sends my heart beating faster. If I'd been any slower, I might have been hit. No longer feeling any of the winter chill, I look to the kitsune walking ahead and hurry to catch up.
  4504. Rin steps up onto the walkway before sharply turning around. "Both of you put your weapons away," she instructs, to Saki and me. "Then go get cleaned up. You," Rin says, turning to me, "may use the same room you have been. Since you did not formally leave these walls yet, it is still yours."
  4506. We're out of the village, so I shouldn't be surprised the barbs are back. It still stings, souring what hope I had.
  4508. "Eldest sister," Saki bows, "will we be meeting in the hosting room?"
  4510. "Yes," Rin curtly nods. "At nightfall." She turns her attention to Miki. "Come with me, little sister. I have need of your help."
  4512. Then she's off, her hands clasped ahead of her as she slips into the main building. Miki hurries after her older sister, not wanting to disobey.
  4514. Once they're gone, Saki waits a few breaths before speaking. "I will meet you at your room," she says, bowing to me deeper than I'm used to. "Once I have gathered everything for bathing."
  4516. "Thank you," I mutter, clumsily nodding. The eight-tail scurries off around the building. No doubt to put away her weapons now that we're in the walls of their home.
  4518. I heard nothing about leaving my weapons with her again, so I sit on the walkway and take off my boots. I hear a shuffle of feet on wood, look over to the source, and see tails vanishing up the edge of overhanging eaves. Concerned as I am confused, when I look down I see a pair of slippers sitting beside me. And my boots are missing. Whichever kitsune that was is not one I wish to cross.
  4520. Taking my boots is a convenient way to keep me in this house, I muse, putting on the slippers and going inside. The turns and twists down the hallways, with near identical screen walls on each side, are familiar enough that I don't get lost. Before long, I'm sliding one of the door-walls open and step into the familiar, small room. There aren't any clothes waiting for me, but the futon I used is neatly folded up and sitting in the center of the room.
  4522. I take off my belt, sword and dagger still hanging from it, and set it beside the futon. Knowing Saki will come get me sometime fairly soon, I go close the door-wall, hoping that will afford me some privacy. I start toward the wall I leaned on so often in the restless dark before morning, but hesitate.
  4524. I turn back, sift through the pouches on my belt, and pull out a piece of silver. The rune, its shape familiar to my fingers, is so cold it's almost painful. I rub the pendant, to comfort myself as much as warm it up, then loop its cord over my neck. I don't care that I'm going to wash myself. I want this back against my chest, reminding me to follow the path I set out on. Even if the gods aren't good examples to follow when it comes to love or women, the familiar weight of the leather cord and silver against my skin is a reminder I need.
  4526. ---
  4528. I spend far too long waiting against the wall, but eventually Saki arrives, still in her dark and dirty clothes, but with a fresh change for both of us in her arms. I'd wondered if she had forgotten, but if she's here now that's good enough.
  4530. I get up and follow her without a word, the eight-tail walking ahead of me half a step. She leads me to the stout, stone building set aside as their bathhouse. A place I became quite familiar with as my arm healed. She motions for me to go inside the two-room building, and I'm happy to do so, looking forward to being able to clean myself without help. The kitsune bathe more often than most kings I've met, but with thick walls of stone and wood keeping the charcoal fired warmth inside the building, I can't find fault in their ways. It's pleasantly steamy compared to the chill outside. Once Saki shuts the door behind us, I go through the curtained divider, to the half of the building with a large stone tub of hot water and buckets, eager to scald away my thoughts.
  4532. A furry arm moves past me, Saki stepping ahead of me to get two simple stools set against a wall. I measure my words carefully before asking, "What are you doing?"
  4534. Brown eyes twist toward me, the kitsune looking at me over her shoulder, her bushel of tails writhing uneasily. "You'll need help with your back."
  4536. "I won't," I assure her, flexing my good arm behind my back. My shield arm, the one that had been broken weeks before and weakened from all that time in a splint, is still stiff and bruised from our recent battle. But she doesn't need to know any of that.
  4538. Saki turns to face me, and though I'm awash with relief to see her clothes are still on, I raise a hand to stop what she is about to say. I ask, "Would you please let me do this for myself?"
  4540. "You are our guest," she stresses. "It would be unforgivably rude to not offer you such simple help." Something about the way she holds herself, shoulders squared and feet firmly rooted, tells me she's willing to argue this point until the water goes cold.
  4542. "I'm still on edge from the fight," I say, hoping she gets my meaning. I don't want to explain that I'll probably flinch or have a strong urge to run away if she touches me right now, because it's not entirely true. The worst of it ended days ago.
  4544. "Then I will be quick," she says, placing the stools down. I stare at her, hoping she'll back down, but the kitsune is already getting a bucket of water and cloth to scrub with.
  4546. I shrug my arms out of my clothes, giving up. I don't strip completely, staying in my loincloth as I put my back to the kitsune. A skittering tension races up my spine, the vulnerability causing my heartbeat to quicken. I pull off my pendant and start thumbing the rune, the familiar curves calming. The sooner I can get this over with the better, I tell myself, trying to brace for what is sure to come.
  4548. Hot water pours down my back, nearly sending me off the low seat from surprise alone. I breathe out and let Saki do as she feels is necessary, a rough cloth brushing against my shoulders before she starts scrubbing, starting at the top with the obvious intention to go down. Eventually I loosen my grip on the silver pendant, dents remaining in my fingertips even as I settle back to rubbing it. Saki must sense me relaxing and speaks up. "I haven't properly thanked you, Egil."
  4550. "If it's about the fight," I say, "you don't need to say anything. I wasn't going to leave and you knew it."
  4552. "You nonetheless have my sincere gratitude," she says from behind me, her voice matching her words. "I had worried you would need my help. Instead I needed yours." Saki starts on my mid-back, dousing me with more water before going gently over a sore spot that must be a bruise. Her careful and insistent touch eases more of the tight instincts out of my back. When I'm more relaxed, she starts speaking again. "If you hadn't gone with me-"
  4554. "We went together," I cut in. "What might have happened didn't. There's nothing else to worry about."
  4556. "I disagree," she says. "You saved me from a fate all kitsune fear."
  4558. I stay silent, not wanting to encourage this conversation at all. Saki quietly scrubs and washes my back, getting to such a low spot on my spine it's more awkward than uncomfortable. If she weren't so careful, and there wasn't a strange trust between us after surviving that fight together, I would be flying off the stool right now.
  4560. "Egil, I know you don't want me to offer you my life in exchange for rescuing Meiko," she quietly says, unnervingly close to my ear. "But you saved me from a fate nearly as terrible as hers. I have no way to repay that but one. I do not know what to do and that is unsettling."
  4562. "Does this have anything to do with the discussion Rin plans?" I ask, keeping my eyes firmly on the floor. Questions might distract her from trying to do more for me.
  4564. "Yes," Saki answers. "It's about-"
  4566. I interrupt by talking over her. "Why don't we save this for a more proper setting?" I suggest.
  4568. The cloth leaves my back. I hear Saki wring it out, then dip it into a bucket. "These are the thickest walls in the house," she says, just short of a whisper. "Perfect when Rin doesn't want any of our sisters to hear about this."
  4570. I roll my jaw, mulling that over. "This was her plan?"
  4572. "She agreed to it," Saki says, wringing the rag out again. "You need to know about the hoshinotama if you are to help me free Meiko and stop Kenta."
  4574. That word, hoshinotama, takes me a moment to recognize. Star balls, I realize as I thumb my pendant. A word Saki had been hesitant to even mention in front of me, some kind of weakness. And, if I remember right, I think the runes tried to tell me about something to do with a star and these kitsune. But it's been so long, and so much has happened, that I can't remember what the runes said.
  4576. Saki is quiet, but with how the hairs stand up my spine, I know she's staring intently at me. I relent and ask with a sigh, "What's so important about these things?"
  4578. "Lift your arm," she mutters.
  4580. I look back at her, and turn as regret and embarrassment swirling together. She's clothed, but barely. Chest bindings restrain her womanly, furred bosom, and if she's wearing anything below it I didn't see. Nor do I wish to check. I press my pendant between two fingers, firmly enough to border on pain in the hopes it will distract me, and raise my other arm. "What happened to washing only my back?" I ask.
  4582. "I have much to explain," she says, resting the back of her furry hand against my raised elbow. "And I don't think you would wash my back if I asked."
  4584. My embarrassment keeps me from arguing. I don't enjoy being bathed by another, but after so many weeks of Shizuka, Saki, and Rin doing just that I'm almost used to it. I'd rather sit and endure this than be asked to wash her back.
  4586. "A star ball," Saki begins, no doubt sensing I’m not going to argue about having this conversation anymore, "is the most precious object to a kitsune. It is a part of our essence, our magic, our very souls. It helps us focus power, but it can be a weakness. If someone were to take it from us and knew how to use magic, it would be no different than having a knife to our neck."
  4588. I shift uncomfortably, and it's not just because Saki is scrubbing the underside of my arm.
  4590. "The last person one of my sisters told about the magical nature of a star ball was Kenta." The pendant presses painfully into my palm, and I wish she'd stop speaking. But she doesn't. "To the best of our knowledge, Meiko trusted him with her star ball out of devotion and trust. Trust he repaid by using her power to become a monster, in the name of protecting her from the monks of his temple. Instead he damned himself and enslaved her by keeping hold of her star ball after gaining power."
  4592. Saki's voice is cold, even as her hands work slowly and gently, her touch careful against my skin. Wet fur and a cloth are all I feel, no claws or undue pressure. But there's a dreadful sharpness to her words that tries to cut me, and her ire isn't even directed at me. "The man-eater that attacked me," Saki whispers, "Taro. He didn't tell us he was after my star ball, but I know he was. There was no other reason to attack my tails the way he did." More water sluices off of my skin as she rinses me. "He had to have been told I hide my star ball there," she continues. "Only my sisters know I carry it in my tails when I go out to fight. Kenta must have made Meiko tell him about my weakness."
  4594. I relax my grip, staring down at my pendant as she releases my clean arm. I’d be torn up if I lost my trinket, and it’s only a reminder of what I believe in. Losing a star ball sounds so much worse, even more frightening than telling a faerie your true name. At least a thief can’t snatch your true name.
  4596. Saki continues, pouring more hot water over me. "But you," she says, "stopped that plan. And you saved me, fighting like no man I have ever seen. I think even a yamabushi would fear fighting you."
  4598. "Sometimes my stubbornness can be useful," I say, tongue heavy in my mouth. "But why tell me this? This star ball is your sisters’ weakness as much as it is your own."
  4600. "I've seen what you think is yours," she answers. "I want to extend my trust to you. As a..." she falters, clearly changing what she speaks, "as a warrior I wish to know better."
  4602. Whatever she was going to say can be her secret. "I won't betray you or your sisters," I vow aloud. Then again. And again, thrice binding myself to show her I'm serious.
  4604. "Egil," the eight-tail whispers. She's quiet for a few breaths, then says, "Thank you."
  4606. For many heartbeats, there's only the sound of my breath. Then a plunk of cloth into a water and the rattle of a stool. "Eldest sister will be furious if I don't let her speak to you before trying to swear any oaths to you," Saki mutters. "I will let you finish washing yourself in privacy."
  4608. She scoots a bucket of clean water close to me, a fresh rag soaking within, and walks past. I look up, wondering if I should say something, before snapping my eyes back to the floor as Saki goes through the curtain divider. She's wearing a loincloth much like mine, leaving nothing to the imagination about her strong legs, womanly hips, and the white fur inside her thighs. If I didn't know better I'd think her tails were deliberately held to give me a look, but I don't want to believe that about her. She's never shown any interest in me beyond what I can do as a warrior, or so I have told myself. What if I am lying to myself?
  4610. That fresh worry on my mind, I set about scrubbing myself and washing dried blood out of my hair instead of thinking, knowing I can't do anything about Saki's true thoughts right now.
  4612. ---
  4614. After a bath and awkward dressing, Saki thankfully hiding much of her body with her tails when we switch places between the curtain dividers, she and I are free of the last blood and grime from battle. I don't smell smoke on either of us or our fresh clothes; a welcome change.
  4616. The eight-tail, in her white dress and blue sash around her waist, leads me back into the main building. We go through twists and turns that I don't recognize until she opens a door-wall. Inside the room is a standing screen set to the side, a painted scene on its silk surface, and a low table sits in the center. I realize this room is the one I first met Rin in. The nine-tail herself, in a blue and wintry dress, sits on several cushions near the back of the room. I see her white hair is done up delicately in a way that compliments her fox ears. She looks every bit the ruler of this mountain, her presence noble and poise graceful, though her gaze is icy.
  4618. "Sit," she waves. "We have much to discuss after sharing a meal."
  4620. There are two smaller cushions set around the table, and Saki, after shutting the door-wall, moves to take the seat closest to Rin. I walk to the one directly across from the master of the house and assume the respectful sitting position that my knees hate.
  4622. Once I'm settled, Rin softly claps her hands once. Door-walls open and in come two more kitsune, the golden haired Shizuka and two-tailed Miki, each carrying two trays. Finely made dishes laden with food are set before us, along with cups and hashi, the eating sticks. Shizuka places my dishes, but I pay the golden haired seven-tail no attention. I watch Rin with calm focus instead, trying to gauge the nine-tail's thoughts from her placid face.
  4624. With the dishes laid out and their task complete, the two serving kitsune leave the way they came. A tail lightly brushes against my back as they go but I ignore it. I keep my eyes on Rin until she waves. "Eat," she says, picking up her pair of hashi. "Don't hold back."
  4626. Breaking my gaze away from Rin, I look at the food before me. Rice, a grain for the wealthy in this land, and some sort of filleted fish make up the bulk of the meal. Pickled vegetables sit to the side, arranged in shapes that remind me of flowers. I pick up one of my cups, smell rice wine, and set the drink back down. I work on the meal with my hashi, falling back on the lessons Rin gave me. If I'm making any mistakes she won't let me know. All of us are too focused on the meal in front of us. The taste of perfectly cooked fish and crunch of vegetables go well together, or perhaps that's only because this is the first meal I've had today. I pick the fishbones as clean as I can, wary of accidentally swallowing any, and work on the rice. My stomach no longer empty, that rice wine starts to tempt me, but memories of this morning stop me.
  4628. Finished with the meal, I sit back and see that Saki got done before me. There are only fish bones and skin before her, not even a grain of rice left on her dish. Rin eats slower, more deliberately, and I take great care not to watch her. To be polite, certainly, but mostly because I don't want my mind distracted by her teeth.
  4630. Eventually the nine-tail finishes. When she does, she claps her hands, summoning Shizuka and Miki back. They gather everything up and leave quietly. Once the two serving kitsune are gone, Rin looks to Saki and asks, "Has he learned our secret?"
  4632. "Yes, eldest sister," the eight-tail bows subserviently. "And he swore, three times, not to betray us."
  4634. I do so again, Rin's eyes snapping to me. I stare into her as I thrice speak the same vow I made to Saki. A dangerous, broad oath I will uphold. "I won't betray you or your sisters."
  4636. "I see," Rin says, tilting her head to regard me with something approaching curiosity. There's still a coldness in her gaze, but it's softer after my vow. "Your belief in that oath is strong. I will trust your word, Egil."
  4638. "I won't break it," I declare. If that pleases her, I can't tell. But it doesn't seem to offend her.
  4640. "You know of Taro and the kappa striking a deal with Kenta?" Rin asks, to which I nod. "Good. Then I henceforth forbid both of you from moving against Kenta without my permission."
  4642. My jaw tightens, and from the way Saki's tails stop moving I know it's a surprise to her as well. Instead of throwing myself and my words against Rin's will, I make myself breathe slowly and think. With how often my thoughts have turned to the nine-tail, I can't say she lacks power over me. I could leave and act on my own, but what would that accomplish? I nearly died to kappa mere days ago, foes I've fought three times now, and I know next to nothing about oni. Certain as I am that Kenta will be a much worse battle, I settle on trying to be sensible. I ask, "Will you explain why, Rin? Wouldn't it be wise for us to attack soon?"
  4644. Rin lifts a sleeve to her mouth, head tilting to the other side as she regards me. "Because of the kappa, Kenta will have eaten his favored meal recently," she says, the disdain for the man-eater torturing her voice and eyes. Her visceral hate for them might match my own now. "He will avoid you. But not for long. As much as it pains us all, we will wait before attempting anything."
  4646. I can tell she's smiling behind her sleeve, but there's no kindness in her eyes. It's the vicious, harsh snarl of a ruler acting brutal out of necessity. "If," Rin continues, "you start making regular trips to the village, we can trick Kenta. Ease him into believing you visit the village to help my sisters in watching over and maintaining the village through winter and early spring. He's cautious, but if we have it look like you are acting to help my family, his arrogance and greed will have him send Meiko to catch you."
  4648. "If he is cautious," I say, "wouldn't he see that I'm being used as bait?"
  4650. "He will be suspicious," she acknowledges. "But he must suspect you played a part in stopping his plan to gain power over Saki. Or he will start to think you are aiding us in preparing for the fateful day Meiko becomes strong enough to break them free. All it will take is for him to realize you aren't leaving this mountain and that you are helping us, then he will decide you must die or risk all of his carefully crafted plans."
  4652. "You want his caution and hunger to be his undoing," I guess, watching the nine-tail to see if my summary of her plan is correct. She nods ever so slightly, encouraging me to continue. "He won't know exactly what I can do, only that I've stopped several kappa and that I'm allowed into your home. That I can be a thorn in his foot if he doesn't do something about me."
  4654. "Yes," she hisses into her sleeve. "If the kappa told him tales of you, then he will want you gone before he tries to escape his prison."
  4656. I nod, liking this plan, unconcerned with how it puts me in danger. The hard part, whether Rin knows it or not, will be in dealing with Kenta once we find him. Nothing is more dangerous than a clever predator in its territory. And this is one that's eluded all of these kitsune for who knows how long. I suspect we'll get only one chance at this.
  4658. Saki's tails squirm. "And then we strike when Meiko approaches Egil?" she asks, only to cast her eyes down, as if believing she spoke out of place.
  4660. Rin waves the hand she's been keeping in front of her mouth and says, "You are an equal in this talk, little sister. Do not apologize for speaking. Speak freely and openly."
  4662. "Yes, eldest sister," Saki bows.
  4664. The nine-tail, her many fluffy tails swaying behind her, returns her sleeve to just in front of her mouth. "However, you are wrong, little sister. We will not strike right away." Rin looks to me. "I wonder if you understand what I plan by having us wait, Egil," she says, my name sharp on her tongue.
  4666. I breathe out instead of grinding my jaw. "You want to make Kenta and Meiko desperate. Foolish enough to take risks to get rid of me."
  4668. "A good guess," Rin nods, before shaking her head slowly. "You are wrong as well. I want to make them complacent, have Kenta certain that he can get rid of you, hurt my family, and feed his dark hunger. What happened to the village is a tragedy, but we can use that." Her voice softens, so slightly I hardly notice it. "If the villagers knew the truth, I believe they would encourage us to play this trickery."
  4670. There's a glisten in her eyes, a flash of pain she can't hide right away. I'm glad I've kept my anger down, or I would have missed that crack in the kitsune's polite mask. It keeps me from speaking too willfully. "This," I say, "is a plan I will agree with."
  4672. "As will I," Saki says.
  4674. "Good. I had worried I would need to convince both of you." Rin lowers her hand into her lap, turning her gaze to Saki. "Little sister, you have fought with Egil by your side. Will he be of use to you in a fight against Kenta?"
  4676. The eight-tail stares at the table, tips of her tails flicking about. "Yes."
  4678. "Are you certain? I do not want injuries," Rin says, a wave of realization crashing down on me from the top of my head to my tortured knees. She's still concerned about me.
  4680. Saki's mouth opens, silent for a few heartbeats before speaking. "I'm confident he can fight smaller foes and walk away safely. Against an oni, I do not know."
  4682. "What should I expect from Kenta?" I ask.
  4684. Saki looks to Rin, who nods at the younger kitsune. The eight-tail stands up and raises her hand high above her head, nearly touching the ceiling. "A tall beast with skin red as blood, and shaped like a man," she says. "Stronger than the two of us, but not as nimble. Magic, rituals that feed on suffering to corrupt and twist his domain to his liking, but nothing that will matter in a fight." The kitsune's hand lowers back to her side, and she returns to her seat, tails swirling in a strange way.
  4686. “Are you sure about that magic of his?” I ask, beginning to worry.
  4688. “Yes," she nods. "Unless he captures you, you won't have to worry about his magic. Meiko has the only magic that would be of use in a fight. Kenta can’t draw out the power of her star ball without a lot of preparation, but he can force her to aid him. My sisters will be distracting and confounding her, and we can prepare a few defenses for you.”
  4690. Meiko took me down once before and would have had me if it weren’t for Rin. I’ll have to trust that the magic of my allies will be enough, or else the entire plan will be in ruins. "Would we attack him from the start?" I ask, knowing this will be a battle against two opponents, one of which is practically a hostage. "Or try to lure him away, separate him and Meiko?"
  4692. Saki looks to Rin, but she only waves dismissively. The eight-tail leans her head back, lost deep in thought for many moments. Eventually, she tilts her snout down and says, "He will have Meiko's star ball on him. As a necklace or hidden in his clothes, if he wears any. We must get it away from him, before anything else."
  4694. "To free a hostage,” I guess, to which she nods. I mull it over for a moment, knowing that stealing an object in a fight won’t be easy at all. But if we know what to look for and have some luck, it won’t be impossible. I decide to make that a matter for another time, which lets me think through the rest of what her plan might be. “We do that and we have one less worry when fighting him. Maybe even free up whoever you have blocking Meiko, depending on how she responds to being freed."
  4696. "Yes," the serious faced eight-tail nods. "I plan to attack Kenta with at least three of us, but even with numbers and no Meiko to worry about, he is strong and tough. We will want to fight Kenta cautiously, wear him down instead of going for a quick kill."
  4698. I mull over everything she’s told me about the oni. "-Sounds like a giant,-" I mutter under my breath, in a tongue neither of them know. Before they take offense, I speak in a way they’ll understand. "An oni sounds like something I fought once. A giant of a man with red hair and a lumpy face, in a horrible land with more desert caves than people. Ten trained men with spears lost half their number fighting it. Even the meanest bear would have died five times over by the time we finally killed this giant."
  4700. Two kitsune stare at me, brown eyes keenly interested while blue eyes are wary.
  4702. "I believe an oni will be easier to fight," Saki says. "Hibiki, Kumiko, and I once fought an oni a head shorter than Kenta, so we know what to do. You have experience with a similar foe. I believe the four of us will fare better than soldiers trained to fight men."
  4704. I nod, appreciating this side of the eight-tail. "That's high praise coming from you, Saki."
  4706. "I am certain of your skills, but if we spar, I can be more certain of how we will fare against Kenta," Saki says, angling her face toward Rin, the eight-tail's gaze shifting between us.
  4708. The master of the house leans back, quietly considering her sister's words. Rin stares down at me, her face utterly placid. It feels as if I'm looking at a mask carved in her likeness and not the nine-tailed kitsune I know. Her head faintly cocks to one side and she says, "Then spar once you're both healed. I am certain you two will enjoy it." The sharp bitterness in her voice makes my eye twitch.
  4710. I don't give into my rising irritation. I tell myself the anger is nothing compared to my aches and bruises. Now that I've admitted to myself I care for Rin, in some manner, what will I accomplish by fighting? Nothing that will help. So I sit and chew my words, trying to find exactly what to say.
  4712. Saki, who's looking down at the table again, finds something to say before me. "Sister, if it is not about Kenta or Meiko, may I still speak freely?"
  4714. "Yes," Rin says, waving dismissively while glaring at me.
  4716. Saki bends into a sitting bow, eyes looking down as she says, "I cannot stand to see this rift grow any deeper between you two."
  4718. "There is no rift," Rin says, her polite tone menacing as her eyes snap away from me to start boring into her sister. In the light of the lanterns, it looks as if Rin's eyes are trying to glow with the same blue fire that I've seen on her tails.
  4720. "I am not wise to the matters of the heart, I never have been." She looks up, between us both. Saki considers my confused brow and Rin's frowning annoyance before continuing. "Yet even I know there is a rift between you two. And I fear I continue to make it worse."
  4722. That's nonsense. My silence and stubbornness has caused this more than anything else. "I don't think-" a sharp sound from the master of the house stops me from arguing.
  4724. "Quiet," Rin commands, eyes snapping toward me before slowly turning back to Saki. "Explain yourself, sister."
  4726. The eight-tail's ears flatten, her composure wilting under her eldest sister's stare. "I know you love Egil and desire him," she utters. A wave of discomfort courses through Rin's composure, starting at her flicking ear and going to her swaying tails, but Saki finds the will to continue after dropping her eyes to the floor and hunching her shoulders. "I also know that I am causing you pain, sister." The visibly upset eight-tail dips into a lower bow. "But I swear to you again, I did not know your heart when I offered him my life, just as he did not understand what I meant."
  4728. "He knew," Rin utters.
  4730. "Sister, are you certain of that? Egil is..." one of Saki's ears tilts toward me, then turns back down to the floor. "Despite all of his cunning, he is blind and stubborn about certain matters."
  4732. I squeeze my jaw shut. No one in this room can deny her judgment of me after all that has happened.
  4734. Yet Rin shakes her head anyway. "He understood you were offering yourself as his wife to earn his help rescuing Meiko. That is why he did not accept your-"
  4736. "What?" I half-shout, jaw loosening up only after the shocked word leaves my mouth. Saki jerks up from her bow and Rin's ears twist toward me. My heart beats loudly in my ears and my vision is trying to lose its color. Caught between shock and bitter acknowledgment of hints I should have put together sooner, I ultimately find the shift in conversation more upsetting to me than the revelation. We should be planning for what must be done, not doing this.
  4738. "Do you want to deny it?" the nine-tail coldly asks. "Saki told me of the offer she made before we talked."
  4740. I stand up, hoping that will make it easier to breathe. My heart's beating loudly, and against all politeness, I find myself pacing in the room. "How was I supposed to know that Saki offered herself that way?" I ask, far too loudly. "I've heard offers like hers in a dozen cultures, and it's always been meant as a servant or a life debt. Saki has been nothing but a dutiful, dedicated warrior and sister! Why would I ever think she'd offer something like that to a man such as me? She's been watching me carefully since I came here, yes, but as a protector of this family - she put a knife to my throat when I lost control of myself and grabbed you, Rin! We're closer now, but as warriors who survived and fought well together, nothing more."
  4742. I breathe in carefully, stopping myself from shouting more. I look between the two kitsune, and with the way Saki is hunching forward, her ears twisted and tails bunched up, I have a horrible thought. I've been lying to myself about her real intentions. She has been warming up to me, bit by bit, ever since I came back from the village with a broken arm. She's said nothing in incidents where she should have as the family protector, and has spoken more and more freely with me in seemingly every conversation. What have my frightened, shocked words done to her?
  4744. "Egil," Rin sharply says, and I notice her looking between me and the now prostrating eight-tail. "Do you honestly expect me to believe you speak truthfully?"
  4746. “I’m daring to hope you will. You haven’t asked me to leave, after all.”
  4748. “Whether I believe you remains to be seen,” she scowls. “I’ll listen, but no more.”
  4750. "Why would I lie?" I shake my head, the situation so surreal it feels like a fevered dream. How did a conversation about dealing with a man-eater and their family's tragedy turn into this?
  4752. "Saki's intentions slipped entirely past me," I continue, before either of them can speak. "As I said, I thought she was offering herself as some sort of servant, not as a wife. I know you hinted that she might do that, Rin, to secure my help. But I thought you meant she'd offer after we spoke. But Saki hasn't offered any other oaths, even though she's convinced I saved her and her star ball." I stop and pace back and forth a few times, trying to collect my thoughts. "Rin, I'd prepared myself to come talk to you if any of your sisters tried to make an offer like that. What sort of friend would I be if I didn't? If I'd known what Saki meant, I would have said something about it."
  4754. I rub my hands down my face, through my short beard, a cold realization chilling my bones when I see her strained face. "Ancestors in your halls. Rin, is this why you're angry? Have you thought I tried to deceive you about this, because I favored her over you or something?"
  4756. All hints of calm flake away from the nine-tail. Her mouth turns down and blue eyes ice over with disbelief. I hate to see that I’m only now discovering the truth, and not when it mattered more. "You would not tell me that she offered herself to you, even after I all but confronted you with it," Rin says, voice growing louder with each word. "Now you claim you don't know what her offer meant? That you haven't been getting closer to her while saying nothing about what I confessed to you? And you avoid me day after day, then when you get your arm back you run off to help her perform her duty!" she shouts wildly.
  4758. "Eldest sister, that isn't-"
  4760. "You stay quiet," the nine-tail snaps, causing Saki to hit her head against the floor in apology. Glacier blue eyes stare right through me as Rin breathes in deeply.
  4762. I match her glare with an apologetic look, all while refusing to bow my head. There's anger, wild and unfocused, in her eyes. But it's tempered by the calm understanding I've grown to like about her. Her shoulders sag and she breathes, her tails lashing as she tries to speak in a quieter voice. "Egil. Tell me. Explain how this was a misunderstanding before I ask you to leave my home and mountain."
  4764. "It is a misunderstanding," I insist. "I'll swear that as many times as you want, Rin. I wouldn't have said what I did on that night if I understood Saki's offer. Because even before I knew about this, I've regretted letting you run out. Regretted that I'm too weak to tell myself that I,” the words stumble off my tongue, before gushing out like from a fresh wound, “I care for you in some way! If I'd known I was hurting you, or what any of this meant, I would have treated the conversation entirely differently. I wouldn't have wallowed in my..." my throat clenches, choking off my voice as my tongue fails.
  4766. I've talked my way through the lands of faeries. I've walked more lands than I can remember on my long journey westward. Found myself in more battles than I want to remember and came out alive every time. But now, of all times, I choke up, unable to say anything more. I can only rub my brow, wiping away a cold sweat as I wonder why I'm so weak and foolish in matters like this. I could walk out the door, away from all of this, but then I'd abandon the friend I've grown closest to in this land and the warrior I've forged a connection with. I'd stray off the path I chose for myself.
  4768. Rin seems as troubled as I am, the nine-tailed kitsune looking down at the back of her hands, shoulders limp. Saki is no better, hunched forward in a painful and apologetic prostration, her forehead flat against the floor.
  4770. "I see," Rin mutters, voice polite and completely emotionless. I know her calm is forced, and that on the inside of her chest, there must be a violent storm. "Egil, you may leave for your room if you want. This evening has taken a turn I believe none of us expected. Speaking another time when our hearts and heads are clear may be wise."
  4772. It would be so easy to go to the door-wall and head back to the room I've been given. I think that as I shuffle my feet back to the cushion and bend down on knees that pop, as if protesting the position I'm about to sit in. Once I'm seated, I say, "I'm not running away. Not this time."
  4774. Saki's bushel of tails fidgets. "Should I leave?"
  4776. "That depends on whether Egil wishes to hear the rest of what you haven't said, dear sister," Rin replies.
  4778. I grip my knees so tightly that it hurts, my weak and bruised arm shaking some. "If it will settle this, she might as well speak," I sigh, wanting this all to end.
  4780. The eight-tail's ears flick, but she remains apologetic on the floor. "I-"
  4782. "Saki," Rin utters, her quiet voice silencing her sister. "Raise your head. Tell him what I made you tell me. About your reason for offering him such a thing."
  4784. Obeying her older sister, Saki sits back on her knees, her spine straight and eyes staring at the floor. "I would not have made that offer if I knew you desired Egil, eldest sister. I have been careful ever since, even as I grow to respect Egil and what he can do."
  4786. "Please speak, little sister," Rin asks, a hint of pleading creeping into her voice. "My anger is fleeting, so long as truth is spoken."
  4788. The eight-tail goes still. She doesn't even seem to breathe, and her eyes won't leave her lap. Like she's prey that knows there is no escape. Rin sighs heavily, causing Saki to flinch. Seeing a strong warrior reduced to nothing but a fearful woman hurts something deep inside me. Have I ever looked like that, or do I hide it better?
  4790. I feel blue eyes on me, urging me to say something. I meet Rin's demanding stare and am hopelessly lost, with no stars or sun to guide me to the correct path. Picking my words with great care I ask, "If we are to clear this confusion and trust one another, I want to hear from you, Saki. What did you mean that day when you tried to make an oath to me? What were your honest thoughts?"
  4792. Eight fox tails writhe on the floor before coiling up in a bunch. She picks her words with more caution than even I did. "I wanted to save Meiko," she says woodenly. "I wanted your help, by any means."
  4794. Rin noisily folds her hands into her sleeves. "That is not all you told me, little sister," she says, words pointed.
  4796. "My deepest apologies, I am not familiar with speaking like this," Saki bows, shoulders seeming to tremble as she straightens up. "I fear my words will not be easy to say or hear."
  4798. "I believe we want to hear you no matter what," Rin says, looking sharply at me.
  4800. "We do," I nod.
  4802. The eight-tail has none of the usual severity about her as she works her jaw for a moment. When she does manage to speak again, it's quiet and soft. "Egil," she whispers, "I have watched you with suspicion since you came here. You could have been a threat to my family, even worse than Kenta. I won't apologize for putting a knife to your neck or for my dutiful suspicion," she nods her head into a bow anyway, "but I now know I was wrong. About you. You are certainly dangerous, but you don't want power or favor. I thought it would be safe to offer myself to you, as I believed you would treat me fairly." She starts moving her hands to lay atop one another, but curls her fingers up when her arms shake. "Y-you," her voice wavers, "have never once looked upon me with disdain or disgust. Warily, yes, but always respectfully."
  4804. I'm not sure I trust her, or Rin's, judgment of me when they allowed Kenta to marry Meiko. But I accept the explanation with a nod, wondering if I should say anything. If I can even get my throat to open up and tongue to move.
  4806. "Unfortunately," Saki continues, even quieter than before, "I did not know Rin felt so deeply for you." She shakes her head slowly. "Yet now I know eldest sister desires you and you care for her, so I will never act so disrespectfully again. Speaking my heart now will only cause more pain."
  4808. I glance toward the nine-tail. Her fingers are clenching at the knees of her dress, and she's shaking her head ponderously. "Why can you not tell him exactly as you told me?" Rin sighs tiredly, shoulders slumping. It's as if anger has become too much for her, and all that is left is exhaustion. "Egil is wise, but as you suggested, he is foolish and dull when he wants to be. He asks us to speak plainly because he needs it."
  4810. "What your eldest sister says about me," I begin, looking to the younger kitsune, "has truth to it, Saki. It is better to tell me plainly than leave me guessing. So if there is more, speak freely. Let there be no secrets when we must fight together to save Meiko. When we must trust one another completely."
  4812. The dangerous kitsune, whom I've seen stand so firmly against danger, curls inward. Physically and emotionally. "I swore to protect and watch out for Rin," she utters. "To speak so freely will hurt her more than I already have."
  4814. "My dear little sister, you know I don't hold you to that oath," Rin sighs, leaving her cushions and scooting to Saki. The older kitsune lays her hands on the eight-tail's shoulders and uses several tails to try and comfort the emotional Saki. "Speak, please. Forget all duty, for me and yourself, if but for a moment."
  4816. Saki's mouth opens and closes in several false starts. Until, with a weak, pathetic mutter, she says, "He knows I desire him. So why make me say it and hurt you, Rin?"
  4818. I close my eyes and breathe in, as deep as I can. I let it out slowly, releasing my tense grip on my knees. Saki is right, I do know. Perhaps I should have realized much sooner, but all that has happened suggests I'm too dull or willfully ignorant to see what lies in a kitsune's heart. "Tonight has not been what I expected," I mumble under my breath. Loud enough to hear, I say, "I had guessed you’ve felt something for me, Saki. I didn’t want to acknowledge what I saw. I’m sorry, to both of you. This is something I let fester instead of facing properly."
  4820. "I am most sorry," Saki says, shrinking from her sister's touch and trying to shuffle away. The eight-tail's spine straightens, but she can't look me in the eye. She can only stare at the wall. "I think it would be best if I leave. So you two might talk without my interference."
  4822. "Egil and I can talk later. Right now we need you to speak, even if it is difficult, my dear little sister," Rin soothes, putting on a comforting smile. Even if the nine-tail is still upset, it doesn't seem to matter when faced with deep concern for her sister. "Please, Saki. Do not torment yourself by keeping this a secret only I know."
  4824. Sitting still as a stone, her face pointed at a wall, Saki's mouth slowly opens. "Of course I desire him and have grown to respect him. What I felt before feels childish after he and I went to the village," she says, voice hollow, as if she's speaking to herself in an empty hall. "He sees me as a woman and a warrior without contempt or disgust, as if he wants to see and accept what I truly am."
  4826. I breathe in painfully slowly. Rin wanted me to see her as she is, to see the hair she's hidden. Does Saki want to do the same? Is she, unlike Rin, someone who can't open up at all with words? Or had her timing been bad, her offer to be my wife coming before her feelings deepened to the point she'd be this morose?
  4828. "I'm sorry for bringing strife to your family," I exhale.
  4830. "You've done no such thing," Rin says. "I would say the three of us do nothing but bring misery to ourselves.”
  4832. A few quiet moments later, Saki stirs from her malaise. She struggles to open her mouth, her bundled up tails quivering. "May I go now?" she pleads.
  4834. Rin closes her eyes. She must sense that this has come to an end, even if there is no resolution. "Only if you promise to come to the morning meal. We still need your help to prepare Egil for facing Kenta."
  4836. The eight-tail nods, then rises to her feet. She stumbles, and I’m starting to rise to catch her before any thoughts cross my mind. But Saki steadies herself, and with a pained glance at me, hurries to a door-wall. Wood hisses and she vanishes outside without so much as another glimpse back. The screen clatters shut, and I sit back down. I feel just as terrible as I did on that night Rin ran out, but this time I know that following her would only make it worse. The agony I saw in those brown eyes remind me too much of myself when I need to be alone.
  4838. Trying to accept that there’s nothing I can do about the eight-tail right now, I contemplate what's happened. The last few days seem dreamlike, the kind of dreams where I wake shaking and clenching my teeth. I didn't think I'd miss the days when my arm was splinted and I had to rely on Rin or one of her sisters to do something as simple as hold a bowl and eat out of it.
  4840. "Egil," Rin says, reminding me that there is still a kitsune in the room with me. I meet her stare, and she continues, voice weary, "I am not going to ask you to make a decision between us. Saki will calm down on her own, and she'll do what she must to help us get your strength back."
  4842. I nod, then ask what's on my mind. "You're still upset, aren't you?"
  4844. The kitsune is slow to respond. "Yes," she admits. "But what good has anger done me?" She sighs. "What good has it done any of us?"
  4846. "I'm sorry," I say, ignoring the twinge of fear that comes with those words. "I could have avoided all of this if I'd spoken with you instead of pretending the world didn't exist."
  4848. She's caught off guard, the direction her tails sway suddenly switching and her head drawing back. "We both could have avoided all of this," she says, curling a few tails into her lap. "Perhaps we should talk tomorrow. Once we've all slept and have clearer heads."
  4850. "Before that," I slowly begin, waiting for her gradual nod before continuing, "I have a rude and ignorant question."
  4852. "We're both too worn down for politeness," she says into her hand. "Speak and we will deal with whatever happens."
  4854. "Are we still friends? Or has that changed?"
  4856. "If I were a cruel liar, I'd say we are not nor will we ever be again," she mutters. Her hand slides down her muzzle, and weary blue eyes look right at me. "But I've thought too much about what you said to me. That I should not lie to myself." She looks up, at the ceiling. "And I trapped myself by saying I'm too tired for duty."
  4858. "You don't have to give me an answer," I say, giving her a way out.
  4860. "I have much to think about," she says. "But I owe you an answer now."
  4862. Blue eyes meet mine at last, and I see the Rin that exists beyond all of her politeness and duty. A tired, lonely woman with too many burdens looks right at me, if not through every defense I have. What she sees in me I don’t know, but I wish I did. “Egil, I would like to go back if we can. To being friends, since I see no hope for anything more.”
  4864. The thump of my heart twists and turns. “I have a lot to think about, Rin. What I do know is that it would please me to say I’m your friend.”
  4866. “Then let us have at least that,” she says, trying to smile. It’s half-hearted, but I can’t hold it against her.
  4868. "Thank you,” I nod. “If there's nothing else for us to discuss, I should take my leave so you can rest."
  4870. "Go on," she weakly waves. "But please, come to the morning meal tomorrow. I won't be so vile to you this time."
  4872. "I’ll be there. We can start fresh tomorrow, I hope," I say, standing up and going to the door-wall.
  4874. "We will. But as for my sister," the nine-tail exhales, "I fear that damage may linger."
  4876. "Rin-"
  4878. "Ignore me," she says, waving for me to go. "We can talk tomorrow."
  4880. I want to say something, but I can't. I shamefully nod and step out into an empty hallway, gently shutting the door-wall behind me to not make much noise. Softly glowing lanterns light the way back to my room, and while I wonder who lit them, I don't much care. If my gut feeling is right, I have a long, miserable night ahead of me with little hope for sleep.
  4882. ---
  4884. I barely sleep, the night restless and a test of my will. I spend much of it with my back to that solid wall, thinking about what I've done. About what I've avoided. After the talk with the two kitsune, it's clear I have to be honest with myself and face what I haven't dared to.
  4886. I do care about Rin, I even admitted that to her, but how deep that care extends I don't know. I've been with women a few times, yet I never linger in one place for long. Staying too long can leave hurts on all sides, and the people who ask me to stay don't understand what that would do to them. A foreigner in a village? That's the kind of attention simple folk don't need. Men like me get blamed for tragedies, whether we're responsible or not. Even if I was welcomed, I fled my homeland to escape an impending war. Should I try to settle down, I cannot be certain I wouldn’t run away again. Either in a fit of cowardly weakness, or because I’m a broken man who’s lost what lets someone anchor themselves to a home.
  4888. Yet ever since the tiger-headed man-eater nearly killed me, I haven't been close with a woman, and not for a lack of bodily desire. The temptation of the flesh Miki offered, that I turned down pointedly, was as close as I've gotten, but that was in the private dark before I knew anything of this place. Or maybe waking up beside Rin, feeling content but knowing I should be uncomfortable, was when I’d gotten closest. A pleasure that soothes deeper than a nighttime tryst with an eager, uncommitted girl. But should I dwell on what happened between Rin and me? Does she still feel anything after that misunderstanding?
  4890. I don't know Rin's heart.
  4892. Fortunately, I do know that I got comfortable enough with her to admit that I'm a broken, battered excuse for a man. Rin has seen the fear that takes hold of my body, felt it around her mouth, yet even then she welcomed me back into her home and offered me compassion. She even admitted she'd grown to feel love for me. Is it any wonder that it hurt her so badly when she thought I tried to deceive her? To say nothing of the rejection she must have felt. Even now, I don't know where things truly stand between us, or if she is certain of it either.
  4894. Burying my face in my hands, I groan at myself. Sitting around and hiding did me no favors last time. I need to talk to Rin, to understand more about her and see if I can figure out her heart. I can't run away or ignore any of this anymore. Even if I survive the coming confrontation with the wicked man-eater Kenta, I won't be able to walk away from this mountain without a second thought. There have been moments of peace here, and it's affected me so deeply that my fingers don't twitch toward a weapon out of instinct very often.
  4896. I run my fingers through my short beard and shamefully admit to myself that Rin isn't the only kitsune my mind swirls with questions about. It would hurt her to know I can't get the thought of Saki's agonized eyes out of my mind, wouldn’t it? Seeing Saki like that made me think of my own quiet, hidden pains. Keeping them inside to protect myself and those around me. What have my ill-thought out words done to her; what did Rin's forcefulness do to Saki? I want the dutiful eight-tail to be okay. Not only because I must fight alongside her, but because some part of me understands the silent agonizing she hides. The notion that it might go beyond simple respect for a warrior makes my jaw clench and head shake.
  4898. Was what I said last night true, do I only view Saki as a warrior? I try not to chew my tongue as I think through all of my interactions with the eight tailed kitsune.
  4900. Saki saw my terror, but she never judged me for it, did she? She may have put a knife to my neck, but that was only once in defense of Rin. Never again did she directly threaten me. She helped care for me when my arm was in a sling, never once complaining. Even when I stole into her training building, searching for my weapons, she didn't take offense. She brought me along with her, gave me space in the village when I nearly lost it, and even relented to my stubbornness without any threats or belittlement of what help I might honestly offer her. It's like she was trying to look out for me, even when I didn't want or think I needed it. She's been there, right along with Rin, watching over me. Never playing any sort of tricks like Shizuka or Miki. Never pushing boundaries. Always waiting nearby, dutifully ready to help me when I was weak. At some point, Saki's motivation shifted from duty to something else, didn't it? But why?
  4902. So many questions and no answers. I hear myself laugh, darkly, and tap the back of my head into the wall to stop it. Of course I'm a fool. I'm sitting alone in the dark, thinking about the two pained kitsune who've admitted they feel something for me, and I'm too indecisive and frightfully cautious to do anything. The gods and my ancestors would mock me if they saw me right now. Agonizing over what to do instead of just making a choice and trying to bed one of the sisters, but I know better than to trust the wisdom of my ancestors and gods about these matters. I’ve heard enough of those stories.
  4904. A familiar, bitter thought crosses my mind, one I’ve had before about this mountain. I could leave this all. Refuse to get involved, but I dismiss that thought quickly. For better or worse, I am already a part of what is happening with the kitsune family, I feel it in my gut and chest. I have to talk to Rin and Saki, try to get closer to them both so I can make a decision I won’t regret, if they'll even let me get near them. All while hoping I don't make things worse. And perhaps, if fortune favors me, I'll start getting more sleep once I begin to understand those two kitsune.
  4906. Breathing out, knowing I have to do something to keep myself from sulking further, I start moving my body and stretching my limbs like I was taught. I'm careful not to strain my weak, bruised arm. The last thing I need is to injure it and be forced to wait around recovering once again.
  4908. Once light creeps into the room, I stop working my body, wiping some sweat from my brow. I leave the room to take care of what I need to, then make my way back to gather up the belt I left behind. I didn't bring it since I stopped by the bath to try and freshen up with some still warm water. The custom of keeping bathwater drawn and warmed is strange to me, but it works well for washing in the winter.
  4910. After I'm clean, I head back. As I turn a corner in the hallways of the main building, I spot a kitsune's back ahead of me, her seven tails and golden hair causing me to duck back the way I came. With last night fresh on my mind, I'd rather go to the communal kitchen right away instead of risk getting near Shizuka. I need to see where things are with Rin and Saki before daring to be near their sisters.
  4912. I make it to the kitchen door-wall without seeing anyone else. I slide open the entrance, the smell of millet porridge filling my nose. Only five kitsune sit within, and only three I immediately recognize. Miki tends a large pot by herself, while Saki and Rin, wearing simple white dresses, sit with two of their sisters at a second hearth. The two-tail smiles at me, and even if it's rude, I'd rather not acknowledge her when blue eyes drift up to look at me.
  4914. "Good morning. I hope I am not late," I say, offering as respectful a bow as I can manage.
  4916. "You're early," the nine-tail says, rising to greet me with a bow of her own. The calm, not overly polite expression she wears stirs some hope in my chest. Maybe things aren't ruined entirely between us. "Where is Shizuka?" she asks. "Did she not wake you?"
  4918. "I must have missed her in the halls," I say, not counting that as a lie. "I woke before first light and needed to stretch my legs."
  4920. Rin's eyes turn to a six tailed kitsune I've seen before, her limbs lithe and face delicately narrow, but her name escapes me. "Tsubame," Rin says, "would you go retrieve our dear sister from her task?"
  4922. "At once, eldest sister," the lithe kitsune says, whirling to her feet. Tsubame moves swiftly past me, and I notice she's one of the few who I don't actually have to slightly look up at. I might even be taller than her, but I don't turn to check. Even if I didn't know the eight- and nine-tail are watching me, I don't want any trouble from Tsubame.
  4924. Rin sits back down and motions to an empty cushion beside her. That would put me right between her and Saki, the eight-tail's attention entirely on the pot she's slowly stirring. Resigning myself to an awkward morning, I go over and put myself in between them. Once I do, the three-tail sitting across from Saki decides to silently go over and help, or possibly distract, Miki. The two-tail doesn't care to hide how she looks at me with open interest.
  4926. "How are your wounds?" Rin asks, making a point to look between both Saki and me.
  4928. Seeing that Saki is in no mood to speak, I start. "I've only got a few bruises and some scratches. The clothes you and your family gifted me saved me from the worst of it."
  4930. "My fur will grow back and my bruises will fade," Saki mutters at the pot.
  4932. "Well, I am glad you are both in one piece. Eat heartily and you'll recover more swiftly," Rin says, passing a bowl to Saki.
  4934. The eight-tail moves without passion or waste, scooping up porridge into the bowl and passing it back. That repeats two times, until the last bowl and a wooden spoon are shoved at me. Taking it and seeing both kitsune beside me already eating, I join in. Midway through the bland porridge, the door-wall opens up. Shizuka and Tsubame return and go to the hearth Miki tends. I glance toward Rin, not hiding any of my curiosity about why we're the only ones at this hearth.
  4936. She raises one of her brows at me. "Is there a problem with the current company?"
  4938. "None at all," I say, glancing at Saki. She's carefully avoiding my gaze, sitting rigidly and politely while trying to pretend she's not watching me back. There is no way she's here by her own will, but since she is, I might as well say something to her. "It's easy to be around you both. And now, it lets me apologize for last night."
  4940. "There's no need for apologies," Rin says. "It is a new day. We can move on."
  4942. "Rin is right. And as it is a new day, I will not interfere with you and Egil," Saki says, a pang of regret stabbing me in the gut. I definitely wounded her heart, in addition to whatever Rin's forcefulness has done.
  4944. "You caused no problems, Saki," I say. "I do that to myself and those around me, it seems."
  4946. I spot Rin shifting, an unusual motion for her. She nods ever so slightly and softly says, "There is nothing to fret over, Saki. Last night is behind us. Let us not think of it."
  4948. The chance for me to say something, to both of them, presents itself. Do I admit that I want to know them both better, because I still struggle with how I feel about them and my fears of abandoning what I get attached to, or would speaking about it make the situation worse? I work my tongue over the words, afraid of misspeaking. Only to falter when Saki's mouth opens to speak.
  4950. "Rin," she murmurs, "may I have a few days to myself? I need to reflect on events."
  4952. "If that is what you need," Rin replies with a reserved nod. "But please, do come join us at the meals and don't take more than a few weeks. We still need you to help train Egil. I will be of no use in helping him regain his strength, and Kumiko and Hibiki are needed at the village."
  4954. Feeling as if my chance to mend everything has slipped by, then knowing I'm a fool to think that it ever works like that, I stifle a sigh. I try to encourage Saki, since it seems she needs it, "I would be honored to train with you, Saki. You are a respectful woman and warrior."
  4956. Her eight tails curl and coil, until they're all bundled up behind her. My words may have done more harm than good just now. But I suspect they reached a deep part of her heart, one way or another. "I will only need a few days," she says, sounding far too distant. "Then I can start with his training."
  4958. Rin nods, and I hold back a frown at myself as Saki withdraws into herself. The rest of the morning is half-hearted conversation with Rin about the winter weather, both of us casting worried glances at the eight-tail. Eventually, Saki excuses herself, followed shortly by Rin, the nine-tail mentioning that she needs to see to a few duties for the day.
  4960. "We will see each other at this hearth for dinner, I hope?" Rin asks
  4962. I agree with a nod. I'm not surprised the days of us sharing a meal in private are at an end. "I wouldn't miss it."
  4964. Unfortunately, that leaves me alone in a room with several kitsune watching me with far too much interest. Shizuka, Miki, and Tsubame all have looks in their eyes I don't trust. Shizuka leans toward Miki to say something, but instead of restraining the two-tail, it lights a fire in her eyes. Before I find out what those two are planning, I excuse myself and return to my room. My time alone won't be wasted. There's much I can do on my own to regain strength and prepare myself for the battle ahead.
  4966. ---
  4968. Days pass slowly. I spend much of the time alone, the kitsune seeming to be busy with chores all day, so I occupy myself by walking the grounds or working on my knife carving skills with firewood. When I cut the wood too deeply it’s easy to toss the mistakes into the fire. Sleep continues to be a fitful struggle, but I find if I sit up against the wall I don't wake so frightfully, which leaves me feeling somewhat rested. My limbs are tired and sore, but my scratches and bruises are fading quickly. It seems my body has gotten used to healing within these walls, considering how much of my winter has been spent doing nothing but that.
  4970. I barely see Saki, as she is quick to eat her meals and then excuse herself. Rin I see more of, and we talk during the communal morning and evening meals, but she's busy with work the rest of the time. I learn from her that she's preparing charms and talismans for their sisters in the village. She won't tell me what they're for, but it's obvious they have something to do with the looming conflict with Kenta. I don't press her on it, knowing that sometimes secrets are valuable weapons. If we're going to war with the oni then it won't be to their benefit if I know everything. Not when I might be taken by Meiko and Kenta if things go wrong. After all, once the weather is warmer and my body in better shape, I’ll be going up and down the mountain as bait for the wretched man-eater.
  4972. "My work will take me at least three more weeks," Rin says on the fifth day since that disastrous talk, grimacing apologetically at me as we eat a morning meal. "Once I've finished, I'd be happy to try and host a quiet dinner with you, Egil. If you still wish to share such a thing."
  4974. Frightened and excited by the idea of spending evenings talking with her again, I don't immediately respond. I want to ask when we’ll start the plan against Kenta, but that can wait until she’s done with her work. Which leaves me to worry about Rin. I haven't known where things stand between us, but with the way she's testing the waters it's clear she doesn't know either. Yet here she is asking to be alone with me, while Saki sits off to my side, silently listening.
  4976. "If you would tell me when you're done, we can discuss doing that," I say, wary of how Saki might feel. My answer clearly doesn't please her, not with how her eight tails roil, but it's the best I can do in the situation. There's no good answer.
  4978. The grin on Rin’s face is soft and reserved, and perhaps I am only seeing things, but for a moment there seems to be a shadow of hope. Yet her voice is smooth and untouched by any of her true emotions. "We can do that."
  4980. Rin and I might be conversing once again, but it's different. I haven't felt a single one of her tails rest against my back in any of our short talks around the communal hearths. Then again, not one kitsune has tried since we returned from the devastated village. Aside from tails laid intentionally in my path when I come to the kitchen, even Miki has behaved. But now that Rin's shameless touches are gone, I find myself missing the warmth that would spread through my back. Watching myself nearly as intently as the kitsune now, judging my own reactions and words as I would a stranger's, has left me with knowledge I should have accepted sooner.
  4982. "I have rested long enough," Saki suddenly speaks up, earning my full attention and that of Rin. Is the eight-tail finally done sorting herself out, or was she doing that at all? Saki is something of a mystery, even as her head lowers, not quite a bow, as she looks right at Rin. "I will be ready to help Egil with his training today, if he is ready. Or tomorrow if he is not."
  4984. "I've got no hold over what Egil does or doesn't do. This is between you two," Rin says, reaching to the pot to get herself another serving. "I only ask you don't hurt each other."
  4986. "It will be light sparring, nothing more," Saki states.
  4988. I can't tell if Rin is okay with this or not, as her face and eyes are composed into a calm mask. But I need to start practicing with Saki, and maybe I can start smoothing things over with her if her older sister isn't around. There's something going on between them ever since that talk, and I doubt it's pleasant. Not with how Rin forced Saki to admit her feelings.
  4990. "I'm ready today," I nod to Saki, wary of what my words might do to either of them.
  4992. "Then I will meet you in my training hall at the sun's peak," she says, looking for approval from Rin.
  4994. "I won't interfere with you and Egil," is all the master of the house says.
  4996. A wince of regret crosses half of Saki's face, the half that Rin can't see. It's sharp and swift, gone as soon as it comes. Having been on the receiving end of Rin's barbs recently, I understand how much words from her can hurt, even if the nine-tail doesn't intend them as jabs. Those few words, however, I know Rin chose on purpose, throwing back Saki's own insistence she won't interfere in whatever happens between Rin and myself.
  4998. "Then if I may be excused?" Saki asks, rising when her older sister gives an approving nod.
  5000. I don't watch her leave. I finish my meal slowly, the bland porridge at least easy to eat. Once I'm done, I see Rin and Shizuka deep in a whispering conversation, so I excuse myself. The nine-tail gives me the barest of nods before quickly diving back into her discussion. It seems the two of them are working on talismans together now.
  5002. Careful of where I step, making sure to take a wide path around the tails of Miki and Tsubame laid out like traps, I leave the room. It's a quiet walk back to my room, where I sit on the floor and pull a pouch off my belt. The runes within feel heavy without a question I can ask. All the answers I want would involve questions about me, and the runes can't be trusted when I ask them about myself. And I know better than to ask them about matters of love or the heart. Jostling the pouch, feeling the click and clatter of bone within, a question I can ask dawns on me.
  5004. I snap the pouch open, only to force myself to stop hurrying and move slowly. The runes deserve respect, and I have plenty of time until the sun reaches its peak. I shake the carved bones out into my cupped hand, appreciating the sound and feel. Focusing on the tongue of my homeland, the reverence of my runes, I work over the words in my mind.
  5006. "-Does Kenta have the fox's star ball?-"
  5008. The shaped whalebone bounces and skitters energetically, moving with a fury I've never seen before. Pieces spin on their sides, or tumble and flick as if being swatted back and forth. Licking my dry lips, I can only watch as they start to settle, the magic I've touched upon far fiercer than I expected. The last rune settles into place, the spread so scattered I have to stand up to fully appreciate it. Was it naming the oni that caused such a vicious casting, or the question itself?
  5010. My eyes dance as I read the layout. I'm certain my father would have slapped me on the back of the head for taking this long, and I'm certain I'd deserve it. The layout is simple to read once I find the pattern. "Victory clings to the throat of the giant," I say under my breath.
  5012. I gather the runes up and ask a different question, but one that can get the same answer. "-Where does the fox Meiko's star ball lie?-"
  5014. The runes dance once again, but don't jump around nearly as much. They spin and careen, a few flipping themselves over until they finally start to settle. The runes slowly come to a halt, and I can read the layout much more quickly this time.
  5016. "Victory clings to the throat of the giant," I mutter, hope rising in my chest. Twice is no coincidence, but thrice and it must be true.
  5018. I agonize over what I can ask for a third question, not daring to repeat what I've already asked. I pace around the small room, holding my runes before me in both hands. I talk to myself, switching between a few different languages I picked up, and try to work through this game of words. Finding the right question to get an answer from the runes can be tricky. I start grinding my teeth in frustration, nothing I can come up with good enough to ask the runes or the meaning of words losing potency between translations. I haven't had this much trouble since I had to answer an annoying monk's riddles to get shelter from a storm.
  5020. "How am I supposed to get victory?" I complain under my breath.
  5022. Only to stop pacing a few moments later. I drop to my knees, shake the runes, and whisper the question I stumbled upon. "-How can Meiko be freed from Kenta?-"
  5024. Bits of whalebone go everywhere, moving with a mystical power that makes my skin crawl. But soon they settle down into a readable spread, and I get my answer. I stand up and check from every angle I can to be certain I'm reading it right, then sit back down. "Victory clings to the throat of the giant."
  5026. Gathering each rune one at time so I can check for any damage after their violent castings, I soon have a full pouch of intact runes. Tying that back onto my belt, I sit and contemplate my discovery. But not for long. Knowing that I need to keep an eye on the sun, I get up and go outside, the halls I pass through on the way empty. The touch of warm sun on my face and the bite of cold winter wind helps clear my head. With the sun still too low in the sky, I walk around the buildings, following a cleared trail of flat stones. Wisps of my breath trail behind me as I wander aimlessly. I don’t have enough time to go work on carvings I won’t keep. Instead I make ten laps around the home before the sun rests in the center of the cloudless sky, and I have to go to Saki's training hall.
  5028. ---
  5030. Standing outside the closed entryway, I decide against knocking and call out instead. "Saki?"
  5032. Silence stretches for several heartbeats. Then wood hisses and creaks, and I get a look at the eight tailed kitsune as she holds the door open. Saki's in black once more, the cut of the cloth indifferent to her womanly figure, the design purely functional for movement. The fierce white around her eyes nearly makes her gaze look like a glare, but the restraint and distance in her brown stare is anything but angry. She seems empty, and when she silently bids me to enter, I'm certain she feels as lifeless as she looks. It's in the smooth, purely instinctive way she moves, her body acting without a thought.
  5034. "Come in," she says, shutting the entrance and walking past me, toward the back wall lined with wooden poles of seemingly every length. "We will start simply."
  5036. "Simple is good," I nod. "That means I can tell you something important."
  5038. "Talking can be done at dinner. I am here to see what you can do, nothing else," she says, picking up a pair of poles. Each is the perfect length to be called a staff for someone as tall as us. She tosses one to me and leaning the other against her shoulder.
  5040. I catch the wooden staff, its heft lighter than I expected. A blow from this would hurt, but I doubt we'll be breaking any bones. I'm not eager to start the spar and let my training weapon tap against the floor, watching Saki for any sign that she'll leap into the mock fight right away. She stands still, so I dare to say, "My runes told me something about Meiko."
  5042. She swishes her tails, bringing them together tightly behind her so they can't betray her cold, restrained demeanor. The invisible mask of polite severity settles onto her expression. "We will talk later," she says, snapping her staff into an aggressive guard. "Attack me. Show me how you handle yourself."
  5044. Gritting my teeth, seeing she's not willing to open up, I hold up a hand to gain a moment. Her head cocks as I go to a corner, adjusting my clothes so I can take my belt off. The garments the kitsune gave me have clever ties; the only reason for me to wear my belt is so I can keep my pouches and the trinkets within close to me. No reason to let any of that get in my way during a spar. If Saki won't listen to words, then perhaps we can understand each other through controlled violence. I truly do respect her as a warrior, but after the last few days of thinking, I know it's not that simple. Since she won't hear it, so maybe I can show her. Prove to her wordlessly that I was wrong to speak that way.
  5046. I take position across from Saki, several steps back. Holding my light staff like I would a spear, my weak arm leading so my strong arm can put its might into the attacks, I rush at the kitsune without warning. She becomes a whirl of motion, blocking and deflecting thrusts while stepping back. The hall rings with the sound of wood clashing and clattering. Her every move is smooth as she avoids my attempts to drive her against a wall and even makes a few counters that have me swiping to block. I have no doubt she could kick me back, but since she hasn't tried anything like that yet, I keep my dirty tricks to myself. Instead, I use the reach of my spear grip to feel her out with each feint and blocked blow, searching her how she thinks and fights.
  5048. It goes on for a long time, too many thrusts and swipes to count. Those icy brown eyes, surrounded by stark white fur that's all too similar to warpaint, show me nothing. Not even during a nasty sweep she suddenly spins into, her staff going for my legs, only to ruffle the edge of my retreating clothes. She flows back, staring at me with her guard raised, while I breathe steadily against a heave in my lungs. It's a good feeling, my veins hammering lightly with battle.
  5050. "Your senses are good," she says, giving me time to catch my breath. "But you're easy to read."
  5052. "With a spear, certainly," I say, tapping my staff against the floor and wiping my brow. It's warmer in here than outside, but I still need to be careful about sweating in this wintry cold. "Then again, we're not taking this seriously. I'd be lying on the floor if you actually tried to knock me down."
  5054. "I need to see what you can do, not war with you," she says. After a moment of staring harshly at me, she lowers her guard and waves to the wall with all of its different poles lined up. "Pick what we'll use next."
  5056. I raise a brow at her, but don't hesitate in going over to the weapon wall. I set the staff I'd been using aside and search around until I find two poles, each about the length of my sword. They're more like shaped branches or thin clubs than poles, but I've seen the like being used for training before. I snatch the pair up and toss one to Saki, who snatches it out of the air and sends her staff back to me all in the same motion.
  5058. She deftly twirls the practice weapon, familiarizing herself with it, before taking a strange guard. Legs bent, one hand outstretched while her other holds the weapon close to her chest and pointing at me. While she holds her position, ready for me to make the first move, I take a few practice swings to get used to the training weapon's weight. Satisfied that I won't have the pole fly out of my hand if I swing it or block a blow, I keep my arm bent and mock sword pointed at her. Breathing in and out a few times to shrug off the weight on my shoulders, I advance slowly, one creeping step at a time.
  5060. Once I'm half a step out of range, Saki bursts forward. Her footwork is strange, weaving and bobbing her body and tails, while her outstretched hand tries to mask the approach of her weapon. She goes for my ribs, only to hit a snapping block from my weapon. There's no wasted motion, Saki sliding to my weaponless side. Only now she's in a range I'm used to fighting at, and I'm a lot faster than my size suggests. Worse for her, with only one weapon, I don't have to worry about my weak arm. She can't get a dead angle on me and has to fend off a tight, focused cut aimed at her weapon arm. I don't let her control my weak side.
  5062. The kitsune tries to back off with that strange and swift footwork, but I loom and stomp after her. Our quick jabs and cuts clatter wood against wood, until suddenly there's a hiss of pain. We both retreat several steps, respecting this as a light spar.
  5064. "That was clever," she says, rubbing her arm where I got her with a shallow counter. That would have barely left a gash with a real sword, but in a fight that means blood running down your weapon.
  5066. "Luck," I argue. "If you had a slightly longer weapon, you'd have gotten me three times."
  5068. She rolls up her sleeve, fingers sifting through her fur. I can't be certain, but I suspect she's going to have a bruise from that. I got her right in the muscles behind the elbow, a stab of guilt mixing in with pride. A few lumps and bruises are to be expected, yet it shocks me how uneasy I feel about doing that to her. I may not know her any better, but now I’m certain that I care about her. And that I won’t disrespect her by daring to hold back against her, as I believe that would hurt her far worse than a few bruises. What warrior wouldn’t be insulted from such a thing?
  5070. "I counted four times I'd have hit," Saki says, rolling her sleeve down as quickly as she got it up. "But we are not using longer weapons, and I was the one struck. It speaks of your familiarity with close fighting."
  5072. "It's rare for weapons to be even," I say, arguing just to keep her talking.
  5074. "True. But the difference in our experiences and training makes up for the similarity of our weapons." She twirls her pole. "The sword you use is shorter than the jian and chokuto I've trained with. It's heavier, but well suited for battle."
  5076. "Battle defined my people." I shake my head. "And the worst parts of my travels."
  5078. "Yet you were always the victor if you are still here," she says, eyes looking into the distance behind me as if she might see how far I've traveled.
  5080. I nod, happy to have my first insight into her thoughts. She's not someone stuck up about matters of honor or proper form, which tells me she's seen combat many times. "Thankfully this isn't a real fight," I say with a half-smile. "We'd both be in a lot of pain already."
  5082. She nods. Suddenly her brown eyes face me fiercely along with her sword length pole raising in a different, weapon forward guard. "Once more," she demands.
  5084. The sparring goes on and on. Our only breaks are when we move back, drink some water she had hidden by the wall, or change out our training weapons.
  5086. Saki is pushing me, searching not just for the weaknesses in my battered body but my mind. Going for my weak points, flashing her teeth, flexing her claws. Trying to distract me, see what I do when exposed to what I desperately fear and try to shy away from. But I hold on. This isn't a struggle for my life and, in a way, I trust her. Saki has skill and a finely honed body, while I've got vicious instincts sharpened by a hard life of survival. Those instincts tell me I'm not in danger, even if every hint of teeth makes my spine tingle. I keep from going too hard, restraining the strength of my blows and keeping myself from striking to kill. I don't want to hurt her. Even when I get clipped or tapped with her poles hard enough to leave a bruise, or she tries to shock me with a bestial look, I stay in control.
  5088. Saki's face is calm and composed, but her brown eyes burn with sharp focus. I watch her passionate eyes, use them as a means to ground myself. I focus on her, not the flashes of her teeth or twists of her weapons. I see her as she is, a warrior and woman, not what the terror surging just beneath my veins wants me to see.
  5090. She's fast, vicious, and efficient. But she holds back with her blows, just like me. She's trying to draw the depths of my reactions out, and I'm pushing to do the same. Every strike I land on her or clever blow I block makes her eyes shine brighter, but not with violence. She enjoys this test of skill. Of throwing our vastly different experiences against one another, with no need for talking. Saki comes to life by our fifth match, the listlessness that's clung to her entirely vanishing. A faint, thin smile stays on her mouth when we change weapons or catch our breath, which is enough to lighten my mood. We can get along after all, when words aren't an obstacle.
  5092. After the fifteenth match Saki and I are both panting. We each hold a pair of short poles, and have been for two matches. She got a few good blows in on me, especially on my shield side where my arm is weak, but she's earned a few bruises of her own. I'm used to fighting with a dagger and sword, after all, so even with a weak shield arm and a friendly spar, I'm dangerous. Our welts will go down and the bruises will fade. I have no doubt that if either of us had been serious, we'd have a few cracked bones, no matter how light these training weapons are.
  5094. "That will be enough," she nods, lowering her training weapons until they cross in front of her legs.
  5096. "That's good," I laugh breathlessly, dropping to one knee and sucking in lungfuls of cool air. I'm sore, and now that it's over, I feel like my head is floating. There will be an ache in my limbs come next morning, that's for sure. "I don't think I can do another match."
  5098. "You withstood the mountain air better than I expected. Many find it hard to breathe up here," she says. "I thought it would take me three days to learn what you can do, not half of one."
  5100. "It's easier to fight on a cold mountain than in a hot jungle," I say, shaking my head before wiping my brow. "And the cold is no trouble. I grew up in a much harsher land than this."
  5102. She sits down, resting on her knees. "Then your worldly experience serves you well. I have much to reflect on, but I am certain you will be useful in the battle against Kenta."
  5104. "I'm honored," I say, meaning it. My lightheaded, exhausted body is happy to hear she thinks I can be of use beyond being bait for Kenta. "So what will you have me do?"
  5106. "Strengthen your arm, and keep up the practice you know," she says, no doubt meaning my recently mended shield arm. "You're adequate with a spear, but it will be better to have you carrying weapons that won't worry our prey."
  5108. "Maybe have me carry an axe back and forth?" I suggest, earning a curious twist of her ears and nearly imperceptible tilt of her head. "It will give me something longer than a dagger, and I know how to fight with an axe about as well as I can hew wood with it."
  5110. Her fingers curl up as she lays them on her knees. "That might work. I will consider it." She nods. "For now go wash up and prepare yourself for dinner. I will meet you there once I've put everything away."
  5112. Rolling my jaw, some part of my mind wondering whether she means meeting me at dinner or the bath, I search her eyes for any hints about her thoughts. Her expression is freezing back over, but after spending so long trying to beat the sense out of each other, she can't mask all the warmth in her eyes. There's hope that I can break through her icy shell after all, a possibility that I can at least lessen the hurt I've surely done. "Saki," I say, still catching my breath, "don't you want to hear what my runes said about Meiko?"
  5114. "I will listen at dinner," she flatly says, eyes cooling.
  5116. Struggling not to tell her anyway, I nod. She didn't say no. I can't press her now, unlike in our spar. Perhaps she doesn’t want to make it seem like she’s intruding on Rin? Or perhaps Saki is uncomfortable talking with me more than she must after what happened between us. "I'll wait for you, then. And thank you for the matches. I'm honored to have your help."
  5118. Her ears flick and shoulders tighten. Saki withdraws farther into herself, but the hesitation in her mouth tells me I reached her on some level. "Thank you, Egil," she says, face stilling completely as she becomes unreadable. "For your help with my family's matters. I am sorry I cannot repay you."
  5120. What would she offer, if she weren't restrained? Would it be herself, again? It does not matter, my answer is the same. "I'm doing this to help. Not for any rewards."
  5122. She doesn't move for several heartbeats. I realize she's trying to measure me out, understand what I may or may not mean. Telling her, would it solve this? No. I realize it won't as her eyes sharpen and she nods. I'm shut out completely now, and know she's given up on words, out of fear or perhaps a sense of duty. She'll need more time so I rise, then give as respectful a bow as I can manage. To my surprise she rises and bows back, but stays silent. I leave, digging my fingers into my palm so I don't look back at her.
  5124. I feel I know her much better now, but I want to know more. Her stare makes the hair on the back of my neck rise, but I don't want to upset her by looking back. I can't mend the damage I did to her in a day, but I'm a stubborn wretch. I'll figure out something now that I'm not hiding in a dark room. If nothing else I get her and Rin their sister Meiko back, and put down that man-eater oni.
  5126. ---
  5128. I wash the sweat and some fatigue off at the baths, wary of anyone coming in. To my surprise and relief, it's only me, left to fumble by myself. Once I'm dry, I go to see what's for dinner.
  5130. Entering the communal room, I see both hearths glowing and Rin sitting alone at the farthest. Miki, Tsubame, Shizuka, and two others I don't know by name sit around the other hearth. The scent of richly spiced stew hangs in the air, but I don't have much time to think about it before Rin smiles at me. Wearing a simple white dress like the rest of her sisters, the nine-tail waves me over to sit beside her.
  5132. I go slowly, taking care not to get close to the tails once again laid out conspicuously by the likes of Miki and Shizuka. They can have their games, but it doesn't mean I have to play them. I circle around, near the wall, stretching my neck and working my shoulders. It's not for show, even if that’s certainly how it must seem. I don't want anything to stiffen up after Saki and I tried to beat each other senseless in more than a dozen friendly spars.
  5134. Once I sit beside Rin at the only cushion around her hearth, I blink. I notice that right next to me, farther from her, is a second cushion. I hadn't seen it when I came over. I mull that over, looking curiously at Rin as she tends the pot. Did she use magic to hide that from me until I sat down to make me sit just a little closer, or is she ensuring I'll be between her and Saki? If this was even her doing at all. There are other kitsune in here. I can't assume anything about the sisters after I've been so wrong when it comes to Saki and Rin.
  5136. So I sit and watch, Rin content with silently humming a wordless song to herself as she stirs the pot. The soft sound she makes is warm as summer, and reminds me of better times. Pleasant to listen to, especially after such an intense sparring session, and reminding me of the nights we spent conversing. It makes me want to accept her offer to share a private meal again, here and now, but I resist.
  5138. Eventually, Saki enters the room, dressed in blue unlike her sisters in white. Saki's dress is subdued and simple with its pattern, the lower half looking like dark, snow capped mountains near her legs, but that simplicity makes it all the more beautiful. It fits her, and her quiet strength. Rin smiles at the serious eight-tail, but Saki only bows and gives a formal greeting. "Good evening. I am most sorry for being late."
  5140. "It is nothing. Come, sit with us," Rin offers, waving toward the seat beside me.
  5142. Saki's eyes don't move, her face pointed straight ahead as she walks with the barest hint of motion. Having been on the receiving end of her martial abilities, I have a new appreciation for her poise and subtle movements. It's so different from Rin's noble, authoritative grace. There's an air of quiet danger to Saki, like that of a masterfully made and etched blade. Had I met either of the kitsune under different circumstances, what might I have done upon learning of their feelings for me? I stare down at the pot as Saki sits close to me, and do what I can to keep from sighing.
  5144. What might I have done if I met either kitsune in a different way, and I came to know one had feelings for me?
  5146. There's tense, awkward silence even when Rin serves us bowls of hot stew and bids us to eat. Not just between myself and the kitsune, but between the two sisters beside me. Eating barely lets us pretend nothing is wrong, but at least I can taste the meal this time. Smoked, probably dried, meat, as well as the faint bitterness of the vegetables mixed with strange spices. But the rich tastes start fading from my tongue as I keep my senses on the kitsune to either side of me. They both watch me, each subtle in their approach. Saki seeing me out of the edge of her eyes, ears tensing every time I shift, while Rin uses her role as server to watch over me and her sister. It takes far too long for our bowls to be empty and stay that way.
  5148. "I have something you'll want to hear," I say, folding my hands into my lap once all three of us have finished. "Something my runes told me."
  5150. Rin nods softly, her gaze turning to the kitsune at the hearth. "Sisters," she says calmly, "would you give us a moment? It won't be long."
  5152. There's no argument, not even from Miki. The other kitsune start to rise, along with Saki. A quick glance from me and shift of my weight, like I'm about to roll onto my feet, stops her. She stares at me, a question on her carefully held face. Is she allowed to be here? Not asking Rin, but me.
  5154. "You need to know the most," I quietly insist, wondering if something changed so that she doesn't care if she upsets Rin.
  5156. Saki settles back down once the words are off my lips.
  5158. "Trust Egil's judgment, little sister," Rin mutters as the rest of their sisters make it to the door-wall.
  5160. There's only coldness and distance in Saki's eyes as she nods dutifully. What has happened between the older sisters since that disastrous conversation the three of us had? Is that another secret I'll have to dig out of them, or worse, one of their sisters? I breathe out through my nose, knowing I can't do anything about their rift right now.
  5162. I wait until the door-wall clacks shut to speak. "I asked my runes three questions," I say, focusing on the knowledge I can share. "And I got one answer."
  5164. "What did your runes tell you?" Rin asks, her blue eyes no longer hiding how they watch me. She’s staring almost as intently as Saki with her cold, brown eyes.
  5166. "Victory clings to the throat of the giant," I declare, once in the tongue they understand and then again in the first I ever learned. "That was the answer I got when I asked about Meiko's star ball and how to free her."
  5168. Saki breathes in, ancient anger roiling in her eyes. "Then perhaps Kenta carries her star ball around his neck?" she says, a dangerous passion filling her expression.
  5170. "Can we trust your runes?" Rin asks.
  5172. I search for doubt in the blue eyes of the master of the house. She's hard to read, her face polite and serene as she holds herself like a ruler. Perhaps she must ask, even if she secretly wants to believe me and the fortunes I've read. "It was an answer thrice given. I have trusted my life to those," I say. "And I'm still here to tell you about it."
  5174. "His runes predicted we wouldn't find the rest of the villagers," Saki says.
  5176. I'm surprised to hear her defending me and my fortunes. But I'm offering a scrap of hope through them, a chance at freeing Meiko from the control of the oni. I shouldn't be so caught off guard.
  5178. "Say that Meiko's star ball is around Kenta's neck," Rin begins, hands in her lap. "What then? How does this help us?"
  5180. "I can prepare appropriate training for Egil and myself," Saki says, dipping her head toward me instead of her. There’s a tiny twitch from one of Rin's tails. I had thought it strange that Saki hasn't called Rin eldest sister since that night went so wrong, but now that the eight-tail is acknowledging me over Rin, it's undeniable that the two are still at odds.
  5182. "If his runes are correct," Rin stresses.
  5184. "Even if they’re not," I slowly say, understanding that Rin must have a good reason for casting doubt, "it is something to focus on. We can train in other ways. And if you would both tell me what a star ball looks like, I'll be able to look for it when I do finally face Kenta."
  5186. Saki's tails roil behind her as she stares fiercely at Rin. There's something deep and uncompromising in her brown eyes. What has been going on in private? "Do you trust him?" Saki asks, voice flat and disconnected from her sharp gaze.
  5188. Rin's shoulders shift. She wavers between the master of the mountain and the tired woman beneath the responsibility and duty. But only for a single heartbeat. She settles on the firm, graceful presence of a ruler, but I don't see it in her gaze when she flicks her attention toward me. I know I'm not imagining the pain within those tired, glacier blue fox eyes. Her mouth answers with a perfectly polite, "Yes."
  5190. "Then why don't we show him," Saki says, four of her tails coming around to rest in her lap. "Both of us."
  5192. Rin's mouth smiles with politeness that doesn't touch her eyes. There's significance in this exchange, but I don't know why. "If that is what you want," Rin answers.
  5194. Saki's fingers vanish into the winter fluffiness of the white tip of a tail, right as I see Rin reach for the neck of her dress. My first instinct is to close my eyes, but both of them are staring intently at me. Silently willing me to bear witness to something. My fingers dig into my palms as I resist the urge to give Rin a measure of privacy. She doesn't open her dress much, but it's enough for me to see the white, winter fur that's given an exotic look to her front. A flash of a silver disk beneath some of that fluff catches my eye, a knot trying to squeeze my heart as I recognize the world's tree pendant I gifted her. She's still wearing the trinket, little better than a gift to get into this house, even after all that happened and my fumbling words. Quick as I see it, the silver is hidden away, Rin's balled up fist pulling back as she adjusts her dress. If the nine-tail is bothered by my staring, her calm demeanor doesn't show it at all.
  5196. The two kitsune hold their clenched hands out, leaning forward so I can see. There's a reverence in their eyes, and perhaps a little fear in the way their ears twist. "This," Rin says, unfurling her fingers, "is what you will be looking for."
  5198. Balanced on each kitsune's padded palm sits what looks to be a large pearl with blue fire swirling inside. I've seen incredible treasures throughout my travels. Gold and silver worked into all shapes, statues carved with such detail they look like living people, gems that change colors with the sun's light, and they all pale compared to these jewels. The two white spheres are pure and lustrous while the blue flames within prickle and dance beneath the smooth surface, reminding me of moonlight clouds in a night sky.
  5200. "They're beautiful," I hear myself say, leaning back as I look down.
  5202. There's a change in the kitsune when I shift back. Hints of tension leave their eyes and the nervous tips of their ears. "A star ball contains a piece of a kitsune's very being," Rin says. "Our spirit, soul, and magic."
  5204. "Touch mine," Saki says, casting a strange look to Rin before focusing in on me. "You won't want to fear what happens."
  5206. "You may as well experience both," Rin adds. "I have heard the sensation can be different."
  5208. I realize this is no different than the two of them laying their necks beneath a sword in my hand. I'd feel more comfortable holding a blade in my hand than gently reaching out, but I do it anyway, putting my fingers on Saki's. The gem is cool to the touch despite the flames within and how it's been hidden in Saki's fur. There's a feeling, cross between the tingling of a limb got too cold pleasantly warming up and the soothing feeling of water sluicing over skin, that flows up my fingers and into my arm. Magic, and something far more potent, and old. I lift my fingers away, the sensation lingering in my hand until I touch Rin's. A warm summer wind seems to wrap around my fingers, gliding up and hugging each finger. Rin's star ball isn't as cold, but it's not warm despite the sensation moving up my arm.
  5210. I lift my fingers away and sit back, staring at my hand for a few heartbeats. Both kitsune pull back, but don't vanish away their star balls. The jewels are held reverently in their hands as both of them watch me intently.
  5212. "Why trust me?" I ask. "How did you know I wasn't going to try something?"
  5214. "It was a risk," Rin admits, shoulders slumping as she gives up on holding herself as the ruler of this house. "But you aren't a man who dreams of power."
  5216. "You wouldn't have done anything," Saki says, as if that settles it.
  5218. I continue to stare at my hand, knowing that the magical sensation might have distracted me when facing Kenta if I didn't know about it. This was necessary, yet the trust Saki and Rin have for me is humbling. Trying to put aside thoughts about love, I wonder if they felt anything when I touched those magic jewels. I wonder who could take something like that and wield it against one they care about. I still don't know my own heart as I should, but I suspect I wouldn't have made the same choices as Kenta.
  5220. "I won't be surprised by whatever feeling I get when I snatch Meiko's from Kenta," I say, speaking with confidence I don't entirely feel. I touched what amounts to a piece of these kitsune's souls, the notion they trust me enough to do that disquieting. "I promise, I'll give it to one of you quickly. I won't be comfortable holding your sister's fate in my hand like that."
  5222. They regard me strangely, as if something they expected but weren't sure of just happened. Am I really that strange of a man?
  5224. "I will hope we're fortunate enough for Kenta to be wearing it openly," Rin says, bringing her jewel to her fluffy neck and letting it roll into her fur.
  5226. "I believe in his runes," Saki says, vanishing her star ball back into a tail.
  5228. At least the sisters aren't glaring at each other when they stare at me like this. "Well," I begin, "let's hope that's where victory does lie. And prepare ourselves for other possibilities."
  5230. ---
  5232. My sleep continues to be poor and mostly spent leaning against a wall as I come in and out of horrible dreams I don't remember, but it's not enough to affect me during the day. Sometimes I sleep half-decently. Usually on the days when my body is worn down from training with Saki.
  5234. Her pace is relentless as she starts a system of training every other day. Some days she has me spend the entire time striking targets she hangs from the beams of her training hall. Other days it's only working my limbs, especially my weak arm, usually by swinging practice weapons or lifting heavy stones in strange ways. I don't argue and put all of my effort into whatever she has me do, the eight-tail watching over me silently even when she's in the midst of her own training. Occasionally she has me do nothing more than hold positions, which would be easier if she were open to talking. But the only time Saki seems willing to talk is at the meals or during our sparring. Even then, almost all of it is about tactics that might work against an oni, but I notice the subtle change in her eyes. She's warming up to me, day by day, her mouth working with words she doesn't yet have the will to say.
  5236. Soon, the eight-tail is going to say something that will let me pry a conversation out of her. I only have to bide my time and try to understand her.
  5238. As for Rin, I don't see her outside of meals. As the days go on, I begin to see flecks of black in the fur on her fingers, same with Shizuka. It takes a few days before I'm caught staring at a morning meal, where Rin smiles at me, eyes understanding my question before I even have to ask it.
  5240. "We've finally started working with ink," she says, lifting her fingers. "We have to stir it often, or else it might get too cold to write properly. Even though we're careful, it still has a way of getting everywhere."
  5242. "At least we're nearly done," Shizuka sighs.
  5244. She's sitting around the same hearth as Saki, Rin, and me, but noticeably on the other side of Rin, away from me. Saki and Rin are always sitting to either side of me during our meals. And ever since Saki showed up in her nice dress at dinner, Rin has started to wear her blue and snowy dress, as if unwilling to let Saki be the only one standing out during the evening meal. But this morning is the first I’ve seen them both wear their nicer dresses before the work of their day begins. They still haven’t reconciled, and I fear it’s getting worse.
  5246. Ears twist and heads turn at the other hearth. Miki, her energetic smile worrisome as she looks toward us, speaks up. "How long will you two be working?"
  5248. "Three more days left," Shizuka answers. "If we're fortunate, that is. Five if we aren't."
  5250. “Maybe we should celebrate when you're done?" Miki suggests.
  5252. "Perhaps," Rin says, looking at me and then Saki. The eight-tail impolitely ignores her older sister, and I can't speak since it's not my place to approve or disapprove of anything.
  5254. "I think a celebration would be wise," the golden haired Shizuka chuckles, her smile at Miki unsettling me. "I believe we could all use something to lift our spirits after what happened."
  5256. The village. They've all carefully danced around that subject in their conversations, but it's obviously been on their minds. And even Shizuka's hinting at it brings the mood in the room down. I realize I'm gripping my bowl too tightly and breathe out to relax my hand.
  5258. "Something to raise the spirits would be a good idea," Rin says, looking around the room with wise eyes. "Thank you, sisters. I'm certain we can do something uplifting."
  5260. The rest of the meal continues in silence dyed with quiet grief and regret. Even Miki calms down, her ears drooping and shoulders hunching as she focuses on her meal like the rest of us.
  5262. Rin finishes her bowl, the first at our hearth. She looks past me and at Saki. Her politeness is thin, letting a more genuine interest come through. "How is the training going, little sister?"
  5264. "Good," Saki answers flatly, refusing to look up.
  5266. Rin nods, mouth working for a moment. She abandons the attempt at conversation and folds her hands in her lap instead.
  5268. Whatever is going on between them they've managed to keep out of the open. Yet the curious and carefully hidden expression on Shizuka's face tells me I'm not the only one who has noticed.
  5270. I still haven't found the right way, or right time, to admit to Saki and Rin that I care about them equally. Perhaps it's cowardice, or perhaps it's seeing this rift between the two sisters and me that if I say anything I'll worsen it. I want to mend the damage done that shocking night a few weeks ago. For Rin and I to have comfortable evenings where I swap stories with her, and to have Saki's eyes keep their warmth and talk to me as we train instead of seeing her mood rise and fall. And, loathe as I am to admit it to myself, something in me wishes to feel their tails against my back when we sit together. What that desire says about me unsettles me, but I can't show it right now.
  5272. "What is our training for tomorrow?" I ask, needing to get out of my own thoughts now that my own bowl is empty.
  5274. "Sparring," Saki says, setting down her bowl. "If I might be excused, I have to prepare the floors."
  5276. "Of course," Rin nods.
  5278. The eight-tail rises and turns in a single motion, her measured steps making it look like she's gliding across the floor. The pattern of snowy mountains on her dress ripples, making it seem like the clouds move across the peaks. There's a subtle tilt of her hips with each step, no doubt caused by a blow she took to her upper thigh yesterday so she could sweep my legs out. A mix of shame, pride, and fascination fill my chest. She's tough, maybe even tougher than me, but unlike me there's beauty in the way she moves. In her finely honed body as well, and in the hidden depth of her eyes.
  5280. I clench my jaw to keep myself from swallowing, that thought stabbing right through me like an icy spear. Saki is far more than a well trained, respectable fighter to me. She's a woman that can draw my gaze without meaning to. Who I keep trying to get closer to. For what? So we can work together more easily? Or have I only been using that as an excuse while fearful of admitting she's a captivating woman and warrior?
  5282. Turning to look at Rin, her soft smile and blue eyes greeting me, I feel that spear drive deeper into me. Around her fluffy neck, I can just barely see the outline of the cord holding the pendant I gave to her. A strand of her snow white hair dangles out of place, making me fidget as I repress a desire to sweep it back. To touch her. To let her closer like she wanted.
  5284. I've known, haven't I? But I haven't wanted to fully face how frightening the idea of getting close to someone is, my fear of walking away because some part of my spirit is too broken. That they’re kitsune is certainly making it more difficult, their claws and teeth a lurking reminder of the terror that can overtake me. I don’t want to hurt them, even unintentionally, but I might now that I’ve admitted to myself I care for them and desire their closeness.
  5286. The icy clarity tries to tear into two directions. One is out the door-wall after Saki, and the other is right here beside Rin. A fool's choice either way. I know I feel something much deeper than simple concern for them, that I see them both as women, but what am I supposed to do now? Choose one over the other? Ignore my own heart and thoughts long enough for me to deal with Kenta and free their sister Meiko, then hope I know what to do afterward? Assuming I don't die to the man-eater, or even more of my spirit breaks and I become a danger to the two kitsune. Even if I survive, what then? Will I one day grow so afraid I leave?
  5288. "Are you okay, Egil?" Rin asks, tilting her ears toward me. "You are very pale suddenly."
  5290. "I'm fine," I say, mouth twisting into a smile I don't feel. I can tell she doesn't believe me, her eyes subtly narrowing. "I just remembered I never told you about the pendant I gave you," I half-lie, trying to change the subject, and knowing too late how dangerous my words are.
  5292. "I'd be happy to hear the story sometime," she says, smile touching her eyes. "Perhaps when I'm done with my tasks, we can share a meal and some conversation again?"
  5294. I can only nod at the kitsune, trying to make my face as unrevealing as possible of the foolish turmoil within me.
  5296. "Then I will look forward to it, Egil. Unfortunately, I must get back to those tasks I mentioned, or else Shizuka and I will never be done," Rin says, her tails twitching as she rises.
  5298. "I'm sure the both of you will finish faster than you think," I say, looking down at the fire.
  5300. Rin laughs, mirth in her voice as she covers her mouth. "Perhaps I should believe in that as a fortune from you," she says, walking past with a new energy in her steps.
  5302. I half-expect her to brush a tail against me as she goes, but Rin keeps to herself while Shizuka rises to follow her. The way Rin walks is different from Saki, the shift of the nine-tail's hips more subtle and her steps shorter. Rin and Shizuka stop at the door-wall, and Rin turns her head back. I do swallow this time, realizing I was staring at the shape of her hips, and look up to meet her eyes. But she's not watching me, she's staring at the sisters sitting at the other hearth.
  5304. "Tsubame, would you make sure to do what I asked?"
  5306. "Yes, eldest sister," the lithe kitsune bows. "I was planning to."
  5308. "Thank you, Tsubame. I'm certain Saki will appreciate knowing we still have plums," the nine-tail smiles, before vanishing out the door-wall Shizuka holds open.
  5310. I have an answer now, more knowledge of myself. But I feel even more lost than before. I like Rin and Saki, as women, but I don't want to hurt either of them. Yet it’s obvious to me I’ll have to choose and hurt one of them if I follow my desires, and even then there’s my fear. The terror that I might lose control of myself, or flee like a coward one day. Answers, but now I only have problems I’ve never faced before.
  5312. Rubbing my jaw, feeling the roughness of my beard, I feel Miki's eyes on me. Eyes closing, I breathe out and stretch my legs. Knees popping from the unpleasant and polite way of sitting, I leave for my own room. With Saki and Rin busy, I suppose now would be a good time to soak my sore body in the bath. I might even get my mind to settle some.
  5314. ---
  5316. A few handfuls of charcoal into the bath's stove get the water steaming. Drawing the curtains that separate the stone walled building in half, I hum an old sailing song under my breath and wash myself. The water in the large stone tub calls to me, promising relief from the bruises I earned yesterday, but I don't get in right away. The kitsune keep the bath water clean as they can by washing thoroughly before soaking, and I can't be a good guest without following their customs. Even if that means exposing myself entirely, my loincloth and clothes resting outside the curtained divide. It's a thin hope that any kitsune entering the building will see that and give me some privacy, but with so many of them busy with chores this time of day it's a risk worth taking.
  5318. Once I'm clean as I'll get, I ease into the hot water. Easing myself down, holding back a tired groan, my weary body settles into the bath. The tub is large enough I don't have to bend or twist to fit, the luxury disarming. I close my eyes and breathe, willing myself to forget about all these troubles and enjoy this comfort fit for a king. Bruises new and old relax as the heat works down into my bones. My skin is sure to be red and flush when I get out, but right now it doesn't matter. Sinking down until only my head is above the water, I close my eyes and feel at rest.
  5320. These few moments suspended, enveloped in hot water, won't last. But I want to bask in the peaceful feeling for as long as I can.
  5322. My quiet, half-muttered song and closed eyes let me escape to simpler times. If I lie to myself, I can imagine I'm on a ship gently rocking with the waves, my destination unknown but hopeful. Voice rising, the words of the sailor's song thick and rich on my tongue, I can feel the knots ease in my limbs and sinews. The coming weeks will earn me more, but for now it doesn't matter. Slowly, thoughts of Saki and Rin drift away. I try to hold onto the heat of steamy vapors that stick my hair to my head, letting the rumble of a song in my chest dispel worries.
  5324. Drifting in the soothing heat, bruises soothed, I let out a sigh.
  5326. How long I spend in the water, I don't know. When I open my eyes, it's cooler than I remember, but not by much. If I drifted off to sleep, it was peaceful for a change. My limbs move smoothly as I sit up, shoulders rising out of the water.
  5328. The door opens. Cold wind drifts in, my eyes snapping to the rippling curtains offering me privacy. A thump beats in my head, above my eyes, as I stare at the curtain. Relaxed muscles ready and my legs curl up. I don't hear anyone enter, not even the sound of breathing, but I don't relax. The doorway shuts, keeping the cold out, and leaving me to stare at the curtain divider.
  5330. Nothing happens, even after several dozen heavy hammers of my heart. Tongue battering behind my teeth, I crack my jaw open to speak.
  5332. A furred hand parts the curtain, my heart hammering and body shifting in the water so sharply it goes over the side of the tub. Water splashes on the stone floor as not one but TWO kitsune make their way through the divider. Anything I might say dries up on my tongue when I see their bared bodies, the gentle white and orange of their furs following womanly curves. In comes Miki, her feminine form as energetic as her grin and promising delights, and the calm, collected Shizuka with her shapely hips and breasts that no man could miss. Her golden hair lying over her chest, parting around her nipples and white furred breasts, the seven-tail smiles softly at me. Miki can hardly constrain her grin and walks with a deliberate roll of her hips.
  5334. Ashamed at myself for staring instead of immediately turning away, I put my back to them. "I am sorry," I rush to say, "I didn't think I'd have company."
  5336. How do I get out of here? I grind my teeth, waiting for the pair to say something, hopefully take offense or apologize.
  5338. "It is no worry," Shizuka soothes as I hear buckets and stools move across the floor. "We do not mind if you see us."
  5340. "Not at all," Miki adds, her voice lilting in a way that begs for her to be touched.
  5342. Ancestors in your halls, gods of my homeland and of every land I've traveled through, why must my body react this way? Even in the heat of the bath, I can feel my maleness stiffening. How long has it been since I've known a woman, or even relieved myself? Gulping, trying to push my body's unneeded desires away, I keep my back to the pair. "I should be seeing myself out. It won't do for me to hurt your modesty," I say, heart pounding in all the wrong places.
  5344. "You've done nothing of the sort," Shizuka assures, her voice dangerously close. I shirk away when I hear her dip a bucket into the tub, and turn my eyes to the wall.
  5346. "We don't mind," Miki repeats on my other side, the pair boxing me in so that I have to stare directly ahead. "You're a very, very," her voice drops lower, and I swear I can hear her tongue lovingly wrap around her words, "respectful man. You would never hurt our modesty."
  5348. "I can never see you trying to hurt us," Shizuka says, drawing back. I hear Miki do the same, but I know I'm still trapped. "And we would never dare to bother you," the golden haired seven-tail continues, "would we, Miki?"
  5350. "Of course not," the two-tail says, words smiling even though I can't see her.
  5352. Cloths dip into water as I hear them start to wash. There's a chance for me to run out, grab one of the clothes left out for drying off with, and dress. But if I did that now they'd surely see how excited my rigid maleness is from nothing but the sight of their bare bodies and seduction dripping in their voices. As I struggle against my fear of being impolite and desire to escape, an uncaring, bestial part of my mind wonders if that is the only part of them that is dripping with desire. They’ve wanted to do something like this for weeks, to do more than give me inviting looks and taunt with their tails laid in my path.
  5354. "Then again," Shizuka says, her slow and calming voice taking on a deeper, richer tone, "I would not mind sharing a bath with you, Egil."
  5356. "Or more," Miki adds, as I imagine her stretching, showing off her body and the white underneath.
  5358. Gritting my teeth doesn't help. Forcing my jaw to relax, I say, "What kind of guest would I be to share a bath with two women?"
  5360. "You can be more than a guest," Shizuka says. "A man such as yourself, carrying the weight of so many scars, he surely needs a woman."
  5362. My heart skips, eyes closing as Saki and Rin's faces flash through my thoughts like lightning. Why? Why do I have to think of them?
  5364. "Or perhaps two women," Miki says, her voice bright, vibrant, and a lot closer.
  5366. "Just imagine. A two tailed kitsune, brimming with energy," Shizuka whispers by my ear, one of her breasts leaning into my shoulder, "happy to let you explore her body and lie with her."
  5368. That two-tail sneaks up to my other ear, her smaller, perkier breasts sliding up my skin. I don't twitch or flinch away, which concerns me greatly. "And a seven tailed kitsune, rich with experiences of life, eager to show you what she can do and serve you as first wife," Miki says into the ear Shizuka doesn't breathe by. "Both of us, yours."
  5370. "You don't have to choose now," Shizuka coos. "We can," one of her hands softly rests on my upper arm, "let you see what you think."
  5372. "What about your thrice sworn oath?" I manage to croak.
  5374. "I don't think we're bothering you," Shizuka says, fingers splashing the water and drawing my attention down. The bath isn't nearly dark enough to hide how eager my body is for a womanly touch. "We only offer, Egil."
  5376. "Like I should have that night," Miki breathes, so close to my ear her tongue flicks past.
  5378. They're fox women, covered in fur and with faces befitting an animal. But my body doesn't care. It didn't care since I felt Miki grinding her bare chest on my back when I spent my first night in this house.
  5380. "We're being honest, Egil," Shizuka says, strong, mature voice promising a lifetime of indulgence and care.
  5382. "To you, and ourselves," Miki utters, moving herself excitedly against my shoulder. I can already feel one of her nipples and how firm it's gotten, despite the steamy heat of the bath.
  5384. My base, bestial needs crave what they offer so sharply I'm left speechless. The lack of fear in my chest leaves me confused. How many weeks ago was I flinching toward my sword or anything that could be used as a weapon when one of them got nearby? I've changed. I know if they were in front of me, or if I felt their claws on my skin, I'd be across the room. Yet with the two of them behind me and my loins flush with excitement, I waver between a need to get away and the most primal desire of a man.
  5386. "And before you dare ask, we're not acting out of place," Shizuka says, angling her breath into my ear and against my jaw, but ever so careful not to let it touch my neck.
  5388. Miki, her tongue darting oh so close to my ear while her perky chest molds to my shoulder, adds, "We're not breaking any rules or our oath."
  5390. I find enough of myself to ask, "How?"
  5392. "We have permission," Shizuka murmurs, speaking so only I can hear. "We all have permission, and happening upon you first, we thought to make our offer."
  5394. Cold trickles into my veins. Only a few drops of reality, but each one is a memory of Rin beside me. A lungful in brings the thoughts of Saki‘s strong presence. For only a moment, I forget it's not the both of them behind me, but Miki and Shizuka instead. My legs lurch, and the water splashes over the sides as I stand up.
  5396. I can feel eyes on me, and to my shame I have to pinch the bridge of my nose to distract myself from the urge in my loins. It doesn't care what is swirling in my head and heart, all that part of me wants is satisfaction.
  5398. "You're good women," I say, tilting my head back as I feel hesitant touches at my side. "You've kept your oath to me. To your eldest sister."
  5400. Miki breathes in, and I can sense her preparing to leap into the tub with me. "Do you-"
  5402. I cut her off by sharply dropping my arm. "But I cannot accept," I say, turning and pushing past them both, finally possessing enough strength to not care about my stiff maleness.
  5404. The nude kitsune stare at me with opposite reactions. Miki is in shock, her mouth hanging open and eyes burning with questions. Shizuka nods, sadness in her eyes along with understanding. The seven-tail manages to smile at me while the two-tail fights to restrain herself. "Do you need help dressing, Egil?" Shizuka asks, polite and calm as can be, as if she hadn't been offering everything about her to me moments ago.
  5406. Everyone handles pain differently, I suppose. "Thank you, but I need to see to it on my own."
  5408. "But!" Miki shouts, earning a sharp hush from Shizuka.
  5410. I look over my shoulder at the young, enticing kitsune and her endearing sister. The two-tail goes silent, freezing under the harshness of my stare. It's as if she's seeing me for the first time and doesn't know how to react. Fear. A tiny twinge of fright turns her eyes down and makes Shizuka shift ever so slightly.
  5412. "I'm sorry," I say, meaning it. They must have seen who I really am, even if it was for but a moment. "But I have to thank you both. I believe I know my own heart better now."
  5414. "Can we do anything to help you?" Shizuka asks, right as I move to open the curtain dividing the room.
  5416. "Who else is planning on approaching me?" I ask.
  5418. "Tsubame," Miki blurts out.
  5420. "She'll give up if we tell her to," Shizuka says, the edge in her voice demanding. "Mariko would accept a man like you, Egil, but she's too timid to task."
  5422. "Thank you," I say, moving through the curtains. I may as well have put a wooden fence when that curtain drops back, as I know neither kitsune will follow me out.
  5424. After drying off and dressing, mind swirling with too much to think about after today, I head out into the dark night. How long did I soak in the bath? Chewing at my tongue, knowing it's too late to get dinner with everyone, I go back to my room. A night without a meal won't hurt me. The hallways are empty and quiet, but the path back is lit by softly glowing lanterns. Each one winks out as I pass by, the ones ahead seeming to invite me ever onward. Magic, either part of this place or arranged by someone. I’d be more comfortable if it was simply the way of this home, but I can’t shake a feeling that the lights go because of a directed will.
  5426. I reach my room and open the door-wall, expecting to see a naked kitsune lying on my futon. Instead I'm greeted by one of those raised trays, laden with food, resting beside the futon I rarely sleep on now. Shaped bundles of rice, several pickled vegetable dishes, and some of the stew from this morning judging by the smell of what's in the bowl. The water waiting for me is cool, as is the stew. My brow bunches together as I wonder again how long I slept in the bath. That, and who brought this to me?
  5428. I shut the door-wall and sit down for my solitary meal. The shaped rice, tonjiki if I remember correctly, has a simple but pleasant taste. The sour intensity of pickled plums hidden within lingers in my mouth, as do thoughts about what was said in the bath. Shizuka said she and Miki had happened upon me first. Will there be more kitsune making blatant offers? Rin said, many weeks ago, that she had given her sisters permission to marry good men. Yet the nine-tail also asked me not to marry one of her sisters. Did she change her mind, or was I approached because Rin couldn’t deny her sisters?
  5430. The sour taste clings to my tongue as I go sit against the wall and lean my head back. I want to sleep, to escape my thoughts, but the rest won’t come.
  5432. Regret for making Shizuka and Miki fear me, even if for but a moment, squeezes my chest. Then the memory of understanding blue eyes and quiet brown eyes rush in. I have to pinch my nose and grind my teeth to keep quiet.
  5434. "Ancestors in your halls," I mutter to myself, in the tongue of my people just in case I have any listeners. "Rin had her sister tell Saki there were still plums." And waiting for me, when I got back to my room, was a tray with a food Saki and I once shared many weeks ago, shaped rice with pickled fruit or vegetables hidden within. Had that been said so Saki would make the tonjiki despite her insistence on not interfering, did Rin say it so I’d think that, was it another part of the trouble that’s going on between them, or am I looking too deep into all of this? "Or am I not searching deep enough," I groan aloud.
  5436. My thoughts drift back into a whirlpool I can’t escape. Rin told all her sisters they could go after me. She even told Saki she would not interfere in whatever happens between Saki and me. What is she thinking? Is she acting out of duty to her sisters, guilt over forcing Saki to confess, or does Rin think this is what I’d want? It hasn’t seemed like Rin’s given up on me, but I could be wrong. We’ve spoken many times in the last few weeks, but never in a situation she could face me as a friend. What does the nine tail plan, if she even has a plan? For all I know Rin and Saki are caught in a terrible misunderstanding, or are indeed competing over me.
  5438. "This has to end before I lose my edge," I say into my palms, trying to settle in for another rough night. I have to speak to Rin, and soon.
  5440. ---
  5442. My dreams take a wretched turn, filling with claws and snapping beaks that have me panting when I wake up.
  5444. I'm used to it. I ease the shaking animal fear out of me by working my body. It also helps keep away any thoughts or memories I don't need. Once I've gone through every stretching position and fought my shadow in the early dawn light, I head out. The halls are empty and the lanterns from last night are gone.
  5446. The new day has me entering the communal room for the morning meal, only to find it more empty than I'm used to. There's only me, Shizuka, the three-tail, and the six tailed Tsubame. The golden haired Shizuka looks up and smiles at me, her expression calm and welcoming as ever. If what happened yesterday bothers her at all, I don't see it in her expression whatsoever. Not outside of the new respect in her gaze. Whatever man she finds will have an incredibly strong woman by his side.
  5448. Looking around the room, I breathe out slowly and go sit at the one hearth. I make a point of sitting at least an arm's length from the kitsune gathered around, earning a small frown from Tsubame.
  5450. "Where is everyone else?" I ask.
  5452. Shizuka starts serving, so the three-tail speaks up. "Eldest sister and Saki asked not to be disturbed this morning," she says, head low as she speaks quietly. "Miki..."
  5454. "Got into the wine again," Shizuka finishes. "But with her youthful vigor, she'll bounce back swiftly."
  5456. If the soft smile on her lips is meant to reassure me that it's not my fault, it doesn't work. I do, however, believe Miki will get over her disappointment, so I nod. I don't care if the other sisters know what's being said, but at a glance, I suspect they do.
  5458. "Did Saki happen to say anything about our training today?" I ask, taking a bowl as it's passed to me.
  5460. "Yes," Shizuka nods. "To meet her at the usual time in her hall."
  5462. "Thank you," I mutter, before scooping porridge into my mouth so I don't have to talk.
  5464. The quiet doesn't last long. "Egil," Tsubame says, "we were wondering something."
  5466. I look up from my bowl, glad to see none of the kitsune have their mouths open. I may be more relaxed around teeth and claws, either because of Saki or the peace in this home, but after my violent dreams I don't need the reminders. What I see instead are three kitsune staring with the same curious intent.
  5468. "What?" I ask, wondering how quickly I can run out of the room, politeness be cursed.
  5470. "Have Rin or Saki..." Tsubame trails off and looks to Shizuka, as if asking permission.
  5472. "What Tsubame and Mariko wish to know is if our elder sisters Rin or Saki talked to you last night," Shizuka says. Far more politely and veiled than I think the other two kitsune would have spoken.
  5474. "No," I answer. "They've both been busy."
  5476. "I don't think that's it," Tsubame suggests, looking at me with softness in her narrow eyes.
  5478. "Tsubame," Mariko chastises, her three tails twitching at the tips. "Watch your tongue."
  5480. "Why should I? They've made a move on him," she says, mouth instantly snapping shut. Not by choice, but because Shizuka's fingers are holding it shut.
  5482. "Dearest little sister," the golden haired kitsune begins, voice so sweet it's frightening, "I thought we had an agreement. Do I really need to remind you that our guest does not wish to be bothered?"
  5484. The six-tail's dainty hand guides her sister's fingers down. "Shizuka. You and Miki did just that, didn't you?"
  5486. "I see Miki does have more tact than you," Shizuka replies.
  5488. Tsubame openly glares at her seven tailed sister, and I can feel the sibling quarrel only moments away from igniting. I sigh and set my bowl down. "Why would Saki and Rin have talked to me last night?" I ask.
  5490. For a few moments, Tsubame and Shizuka glare at each other, as if daring the other to speak. If I stood up and went to the door, I could probably get away before they noticed me, but curiosity is keeping me in place. Insight from the younger kitsune into their older sisters is too valuable to pass up. Even if I would much rather be elsewhere right now.
  5492. "Elder sisters Rin and Saki," Mariko says, breaking the stalemate between her sisters and earning their sharp looks. Yet the three-tail continues, speaking as formally as she can, "Our most esteemed sisters have been at odds. We do not know exactly why and were hoping you might have knowledge. The two of them seem to favor you greatly, after all."
  5494. "I have no wisdom," I say. "I imagine you three know better than I would why they'd fight."
  5496. Shizuka looks between the six- and three-tail, then says, "They wouldn't. I have only seen our elder sisters quarrel once, long ago. And never like this."
  5498. "Really?" I tilt my head.
  5500. She nods, her golden locks softly moving forward. "It is true. They have always kept distant from the rest of us, relying only on one another. I'm the closest to them both and..." Shizuka shakes her head sadly. "Even I can only guess at what has happened."
  5502. "And what would you guess?" I ask.
  5504. "I dare not repeat it," she says, moving two tails subtly so they motion toward her other sisters. Mariko and Tsubame can't see the motion, their eyes affixed on me, but the sign is obvious enough I get it.
  5506. She won't say in front of her siblings. If she’s given up on me, perhaps I can ask her about her two older sisters in private should I find the chance.
  5508. "Well," I shrug, standing up. "If I find out, and I do indeed have their favor, maybe I can get them to stop."
  5510. "Maybe they will listen to you," Shizuka says as I impolitely leave without excusing myself.
  5512. ---
  5514. Walking around outside, following a path cleared of snow and ice that runs near the walls, helps me clear out distracting thoughts. If my breath didn't fog with each breath, I'd run the paved pathway, but no sense in making myself ill. After five loops, I start toward Saki's training hall, fingers digging into my palms in an attempt to banish unhelpful thoughts about the sibling quarrel and how I am probably the cause. It doesn't work, and I end up standing an arm's length from the door. If I really cared, wouldn't I walk away from the home? Search the forest for Kenta by myself, use every last dirty trick I know and try to kill the oni?
  5516. My breath shudders out, memories of the pyre in the village coming to me. Of Rin's grief and Saki's quiet, restrained concern. If I do care, then I stay here. Do this their way and try not to break their hearts by dying to an oni. Everything else I'll have to shove my way through, and hope I don't tear apart in the briars.
  5518. "Saki?" I call out, the ritual of calling out starting to feel familiar.
  5520. Only a few heartbeats later, the entrance opens and cold, brown eyes look at me, looming ever so slightly above me. Saki's wearing black like always, the legs of her pants loose enough that she could kick up and touch a toe to one of her ears. I know because I saw her do just that a few days ago. She watches me with cold eyes, her tails in constant motion behind her.
  5522. "Come in," she says, turning her back on me and walking into the center of the hall. I watch the tips of her tails instead of her hips, doubting she’ll answer me if I ask who left the tonjiki for me last night.
  5524. There are no targets hanging from the beams above, rocks laying about, or practice poles against the back wall. The only difference is that woven mats, stacked two deep, lie in the center of the room. Aside from that, it's only the two of us. Without thinking, I shut the door, take my belt off, lay it by the entrance, and tighten the clever sashes holding my clothes together. The ritual of entering her space. I do more than leave my belt there. I cast off as many of my other thoughts and worries as I can. We're here to train, and I'm also trying to recklessly get to know more about her.
  5526. "What are we starting with?" I ask.
  5528. She stands with her back to me, arms folded together in front of her. "Is your arm strong enough for barehanded sparring?"
  5530. Putting pride aside, I flex and twist my once broken arm. It's still weaker than when I came to this mountain, but the nasty bruising from the kappa fight is mostly gone. "If it's light sparring, I can do it," I answer.
  5532. Her head bobs and she turns to face me, lifting an arm out while her feet plant themselves in a strong stance. "Place the back of your wrist against mine. Don't attack or move."
  5534. Well aware she's going to do something that will probably end with me flipped onto the floor, I walk up and lift my strong arm against hers. Her fur is soft against my skin, our sleeves sliding down enough to make the contact possible. I don't get time to think about it before she speaks. "Keep your arm against mine. Maintain your balance. Don't attack, focus only on keeping your arm on mine."
  5536. I get my feet settled in place, nod, and nearly have my arm driven down. I struggle against her, Saki's face blank as we silently war. It feels like I'm pressing against a whipping wind, the angle and force she applies constantly changing. One moment she's trying to sweep my arm up, which would open me up for a punch to the center of my body. The next moment she's trying to drag me down toward the ground, getting me in the perfect position for smashing my face with a knee. But it's only her arm that moves, letting me go back up just a bit.
  5538. "You're strong," I say, forcing her arm to a standstill between us as I straighten up.
  5540. "Countless seasons of practice," she answers, the response one of the few I get out of her during our training.
  5542. Saki relaxes, letting my arm swing in too much and giving her a chance to push me down. Our wrists are still locked, somehow, even as I grit my teeth and stop her. The position has me at a disadvantage, but through sheer tenacity I shove my shaking arm against hers until I'm standing straight and our arms quiver in front of us. The kitsune has taken half a step forward, her arm bending and the ice in her gaze starting to melt.
  5544. "Your arm is stronger than mine," she says. "Technique can make up for some of that difference."
  5546. "Whoever taught you was good," I say, unable to make her arm budge. And if I took half a step forward I'd be open for just long enough that she could upset my balance. "Very good."
  5548. "My father was a warrior. He taught me everything he knew, but Meiko never wanted to learn from him," she states.
  5550. That simple admission is surprising enough my arm gets moved away, bending and forcing me to move my feet to keep from getting bent to the ground. Saki allows me to reposition, but keeps her arm against mine. The war of angle and force is still going then, but she's intent on keeping it simple for now.
  5552. "I hope he was honored to have a daughter strong as you," I say, trying to press back against Saki. I don’t dare to mention Meiko now that Saki is finally willing to talk.
  5554. Our arms go back and forth, her eyes unbothered. "He was. But I learned later few men would accept a woman can be trained as a warrior. They always want one or the other."
  5556. "There were some women who took up weapons from where I'm from," I say, nearly going tumbling to my side and having to plant my foot in a new direction. "Anyone who thinks a woman trained or armed can't be a warrior is a fool."
  5558. Her ears flick. I can see a question wanting to come out of her mouth, her nose twitching ever so slightly. But she holds it back, stifles her own thoughts. Suddenly she throws my arm up high and pulling her wrist away. I stagger back as the kitsune shifts her position, bringing her other arm out, waiting for me to put my weak arm against her wrist. Watching her brown eyes the entire time, to show my respect and watch for what she plans, I place my wrist against hers. My other arm burns with exertion, making me wonder how long we were doing that.
  5560. She pushes hard, making me stagger to the side as I struggle to match her. Somehow she flows with me, keeping up with my weaker arm. She takes a step back, extending her arm more. Remembering what she did, I take a step toward her in response, bending my arm. That helps me keep up with her constant pushing and relaxing, but she still controls the contest.
  5562. "You adapt quickly," she says once I'm standing firm.
  5564. "It’s important to do on the road."
  5566. She nods. "So you learned from the world. As a yamabushi might."
  5568. "I learned from whoever would teach me," I grunt, trying to make her arm go high and getting pushed back for it. She's being more aggressive on my weak arm.
  5570. "Wise." Her feet slide closer, and it's all I can do not to lose control of my own arm. "Does that mean you're fine with learning from me? A woman who is a warrior."
  5572. "Why wouldn't I be?" I say from between grit teeth. "Why can't you be both?"
  5574. Her arm snaps away, Saki taking two steps back while I nearly fall flat on my face. I stomp hard and haul myself upright, glad for all of the leg strengthening I've been doing on my own.
  5576. "I am only a warrior to you," she says, walking past me and toward the entryway.
  5578. Stomach tightening and breathing harder than I should be, but not quite winded, I slowly trail after her. I made a grave mistake saying that, and know she's done for the day unless I say something. Tell her that she is also a woman to me, but what happened last night stops me. How I thought of not just Saki, but Rin as well. Until I know which one my heart leans more toward, I can't make a choice. My tongue is still digging at the words I might say when Saki opens the door and I see another kitsune outside. Tsubame, her hair pulled back, holds a tray of food with steaming cups of water resting atop. How did Saki know the shorter kitsune would be there? Did she even know that, or was she going to leave as I thought, only to be surprised by her sister’s appearance?
  5580. Tsubame dips her head respectfully. "Eldest sister sends her regards, Saki. She has been worried that you and our guest might not be eating enough during your training."
  5582. All of Saki's tails writhe together, bundling up and seeming to shrink until she looks to only have a single, large tail. That helps her hide all of her thoughts behind a cold expression. "Thank you, little sister," she says with reflexive politeness, but no bow. "Would you tell Rin that I'd wish to hear that from her next time?"
  5584. "Of course," Tsubame says, bow dipping lower.
  5586. Saki takes the tray and returns a bow. Watching them, I'm reminded of when I first came here. Saki is second only to Rin in this house, isn't she? The thin and delicate Tsubame backs up a few steps and shuts the door, Saki turning around to face me. There's a crack in her expression, a wavering of her mouth as she fights a frown. The displeased look is winning out as she stares down at the tray of shaped rice squares.
  5588. Staring at the food, I again wonder whether it was Rin or Saki that had the food brought to my room last night. I want to ask, but a quick glance at her shows me she's not going to answer any questions.
  5590. "We will train more," she says, gaze icing over.
  5592. To that I can only dip my head in agreement. Saki sets the tray down by the door and moves into the center of the room, standing firm with her hands by her side. I join her on the woven mats, wondering if I should apologize.
  5594. "Try to move me without striking," Saki says, and I see I'm wrong about needing to apologize.
  5596. Her eyes didn't ice over. Fury lurks behind a thin veil of cold, the kitsune clearly upset but not at me. Worried she may not be making good decisions, I risk asking, "Are you sure about that?"
  5598. The sharp stare and tilt of her head says yes.
  5600. I breathe out, trying to shake off all my thoughts. I doubt we're training now, instead I think she's trying to get a grip on what's seething behind her brown eyes. Somehow, I don't feel so bad knowing Rin can cut others deeply. At the same time, I wonder if that's the nine-tail's real intention. Could Saki be mistaking genuine gestures for insults? Shaking my head, gritting my teeth, I force those thoughts out. When I look up, I see Saki, standing as a warrior, and falter when that's not all. But I push it aside and move toward her.
  5602. The slow approach I take has her staring intently at me. She said I shouldn't strike, but she never said she wouldn't. Sparring or not, I get the sense she's going to be putting more into this than before.
  5604. Two steps from the kitsune, I lunge. If I'm stronger than her like she said, then I want to see what technique she'll use to get out of this. I grab her by the waist, pushing forward and heaving up as one of my feet stomps between hers. There's a surprised yip as I surge up, taking the kitsune off the ground and hauling her up.
  5606. I hold her aloft, on my shoulder, for less than a heartbeat before she's moving. Twisting, whirling, legs lashing out ruining my balance, the chaos controlled and purposefully. My feet stomp, I rock back and forth, and the storm passes.
  5608. I blink, looking to the floor and surprised to see my face isn't on the mat. The weight on my shoulder is coiled up, strong muscle and sinew ready to fight back, but it doesn't. Saki must be just as surprised as I am.
  5610. "You can put me down," Saki says.
  5612. Halfway done setting her feet back on the ground, I take half a step back. The fury in her eyes is gone, and she's not as confused as I thought she'd be. There's something else far more familiar in those deep, brown eyes. I've got her attention, as if I just did a trick she wasn't expecting. Glad as I am to see her like this, I also know that one or both of us are going to get a few new bruises very soon.
  5614. "Try that again."
  5616. "The same way?" I ask, wanting to see if she's asking me to help her understanding something or if this is about testing what I can do.
  5618. "As before," she nods, returning to her deceptively passive stance.
  5620. Approaching the kitsune, feeling her eyes on me, I let the lingering worries go as I lunge. I get my arms around Saki's waist, only for her to drop backward. The mats rush up, my body twisting as her legs bounce off my shoulder. Landing on my side and rolling, I catch sight of the kitsune springing back and flipping onto her feet. I'm much less graceful and lumber back up, smirking a laugh the entire time. "I thought this was light sparring?"
  5622. Two of her tails flick. "I didn't pin you to the ground."
  5624. "True." I pace a few steps, before stopping where I stand. "Try to take me down then, without punches or kicks."
  5626. Her only response is a gradual nod. I brace myself, and then she's coming right at me. At the last moment I drop into the shoulder she was going to drive into my stomach, my fingers snatching her shirt as I step back. She adjusts frighteningly quick, and the solid grip I have on her front isn't enough to stop her from moving. I miss exactly how she does it, but with her tails and a kick on the ground, she whirls and wraps both of her legs around my stomach. She hits hard but I don't go down, my iron grasp on her front sapping the power out of her strange move. But she ultimately succeeds, my hands snapping out as we both go tumbling forward. Her tails lash out, cushioning the fall, and my palms hit painfully hard on the mat.
  5628. Counting myself lucky if I don't lose some skin, chest laboring for breath, I look down. Saki's under me, staring right up at me with wide brown eyes. That unyielding grasp I had on her clothes opened them up and somehow loosened her chest bindings. Both her large breasts are about to spill out of the wrappings, trying to break free with each breath she takes. My dazed mind takes a moment to look back up at her eyes once I'm assured she's not hurt from my careless grasp.
  5630. My heart seems to stop. There's no fear in her brown eyes. The cold and determined distance is gone. She's staring at me. As Saki, the warrior who respects me and the woman who tried to hide her feelings for me. It's all there, her defenses down, and I fear it's from her hitting her head in the fall.
  5632. "Saki?" I mutter, searching her pupils for any signs of a bad hit.
  5634. Her hands grab my wrists, but not to push me away. It's almost like she wants me to stay here. "Egil," she says, breathless voice making my heart miss a beat or two.
  5636. Something inside me wants to lean down, to act a fool and see if she really likes this by pressing my nose against hers. I start to, but stop after only a twitch of movement. Making the brown eyes before me, tender and unafraid, happy would shatter the glacier blues of her sister. My chest wants to rip open, split me in two so I can escape my own foolishness and indecision.
  5638. As quick as it came, the moment passes. Saki's legs release my middle, and her palms pat the floor. I roll to the side, landing on my back and hauling myself into a sitting position while Saki stands up beside me. I haven't made a choice, but it feels like I did. The wrong one, and the right one. Brushing my hair back and letting out a quiet, heavy breath, I hope I'm wrong. I desperately want that moment to have been nothing but my imagination, for Saki to hate me. If the eight-tail and her older sister just hated me I could let what's in my heart wither.
  5640. "Are you okay, Egil?" Saki asks, crouching near me.
  5642. I'm afraid to look her in the eye. Yet the coward's path isn't one I can go down, forcing me to look up at her. She's got the front of her clothes pulled back shut, and beyond that I try not to look, or see the larger swell of her front. Cool, distant brown orbs stare at me, but there's still no fear. "I'm sorry. Accidents happen," she mutters, dipping her in apology.
  5644. "You didn't do anything wrong," I say. "Sorry about..."
  5646. "Clothes don't matter to a warrior," she says, heart closing off once more as she rises to her feet. She starts for door. "I am most sorry for my carelessness. We will continue our training another time."
  5648. "Saki," I say, voice hard as stone in my neck.
  5650. Her hand, stretching for the door, stops. "Egil," she says, voice calm even as her ears lower lifelessly, "we can speak another time. When eldest sister is around."
  5652. She's fast, but I'm not making the same mistake again. I'm on my feet, going for the door, but she slams it behind her. Four running strides nearly send me crashing through, but when I swing it open, she's gone. I could scream, curse in a dozen tongues, rip this flimsy door off and shatter it against the ground. There's that much fury in my chest, directed solely at myself.
  5654. Instead of throwing a fit and being a rude guest, I sigh into the cold. Then I go inside, pick up my belt, and stare at the tray of tonjiki. Did Rin mean the food as an insult, or was she trying to encourage Saki? I don’t despair. I know what to do for a change.
  5656. I need to speak with Rin, to see if I’m the cause of the sisters’ fighting. Yet something in my gut tells me I won't find out today. It's so overwhelming, I wonder if I should cast my runes. Fingers touching that pouch, I slowly pull my hand away, fearing what would happen if I tried to read this while searching for an answer to women. Some things are beyond the scant magic I know.
  5658. ---///
  5660. I tread across the stone pathways of the kitsune home, my breath curling away in wisps as I stare into the empty communal room. A pot hangs above an untended fire. I count only two cushions laid out, so I leave before whoever was cooking comes back. I'd rather not feel like I'm being set up for an ambush after Shizuka and Miki offered themselves to me in the baths.
  5662. Walking the grounds and following the paved paths, I look for any sign of someone at work. I keep my senses open, putting everything into listening and feeling the world around me, while I circle around the walls of the home. Yet with so many of the kitsune down at the village, I pass no one. Aside from soothingly placed stones and barren bushes set on the sides of the walking area, I'm alone. The cliff their mountain home is set against looms beside me, and soon I pass by the lone torii standing before the weathered, craggy wall of rock. Something seems off to my instincts, causing me to stop and look around.
  5664. Nothing jumps out at me, and I'm about to set off when I notice it. Ice and snow have gathered at the base of the cliff, except it's slightly thinner behind the torii. I stare at that spot, a tingle making the hairs on my neck rise. I've passed the torii many times on my walks, but I hardly gave it a second thought. Now, with my attention on my surroundings, I can tell there's something about it. Either an illusion or some sort of magic. I quickly peel my eyes away, allowing that to stay a mystery. The answers I need are elsewhere.
  5666. I hurry around the back of the large main building, my thoughts on Rin and Saki instead of magic. How the two sisters are clearly at odds. Once I'm on the walkways, I go toward the room I first met Rin in, where she, Saki, and I had that disastrous conversation. Standing outside what I think is the correct room, I speak up. "Pardon me. Is anyone in here?"
  5668. There's only the sound of my breathing in the hallway of wooden lattice and paper screens. After a count to twenty, I open the door-wall and look inside. The low standing table sits in the center of the room with only a few neatly stacked cushions for company. The lanterns in the corners of the room are dark, but with the sun's light still filtering in I'm not surprised by that. For a moment, I consider going through the room and opening the door-wall behind where Rin always sat, but instead I step back and slide the entrance shut.
  5670. Alone in the hall, I harden my resolve. I don't care if I make a fool of myself. Every three door-walls I stop and ask the same question. At each I get the same silence. Until my fifteenth, when it opens up from the inside.
  5672. Rin, in a simple brown dress stained with tiny drops of ink on the sleeves, stares slightly down at me, questions in her blue eyes. Relief courses through my veins, then my chest tightens up with worry. I'm no doubt acting impolitely and disrupting important work. Yet I can't give up now that I've found her.
  5674. "Egil? Is everything okay?" she asks, not bothering to hide a curious glance into the hallway.
  5676. "We need to talk," I say, focusing on her and not the piles of paper, wooden slats, and ink brushes in the room she's half-standing in.
  5678. Her hands fold in front of her, measured politeness settling onto her face. "Is it urgent? My work can wait, but I would rather not be delayed with Shizuka taking the day off."
  5680. I take half a step forward, Rin's polite mask slipping away as quickly as it appeared. She watches me with interest, but her eyes dull and mouth draws tight in something akin to defeat. Like she knows what I'm about to say. "It's about Saki, and you," I mutter.
  5682. Rin nods slowly, a smile forcing her mouth up without conviction. "What is this about, Egil?"
  5684. "Saki ended our spar early, and then vanished," I say, cutting right to the heart of the matter.
  5686. Gradually, Rin's fake grin fades. Her head shifts back as her expression turns to that of concern, eyes brightening with sisterly care. "Why did she leave?"
  5688. Memories of Saki's vulnerable yet completely open expression fill my mind. I have to swallow to mostly dispel the thoughts. "She's been upset for weeks, even I can see it. But she left after," I glance around, hoping Rin understands my concern for anyone listening in, "an accident in our spar."
  5690. Rin looks over her shoulder at the room she'd been working in, then to me. "My work can wait. Let us walk and talk in the garden," she says.
  5692. I answer by nodding and stepping out of her way.
  5694. The nine-tail slides the door-wall shut and leads the way. I keep near her shoulder, knowing the path thanks to the wandering I did while healing. It's not long before we're in the separate, walled off garden we walked in together, and where I saw through some of her illusions. The white hair she has tied back with a simple silk ribbon reminds me I didn't see through all of her glamours. She's got so much of my attention I barely see the thoughtfully placed boulders and swept stone walkways. The large tree with its leafless branches earns a second glance from me, but nothing more.
  5696. Rin leads me to the painted bridge over the small pond, stopping in the middle. Gracefully, she turns to face me, making me look up ever so slightly to match her gaze. "We can speak freely here," she says. "So please, tell me what happened."
  5698. I breathe out and look up at the sky. "Are you certain you want me to speak freely?"
  5700. "Not if this is what I fear it is," Rin admits, her soft truthfulness easing worry in my shoulders. "But I need to know what happened, as well as what is on your mind."
  5702. "There's a lot on my mind, Rin. We'd freeze to death out here before I finished."
  5704. "You sought me out to talk, so it must be important." Rin is quiet for several heartbeats before adding, "We do not have to talk much. But please, tell me what happened with Saki. Is she hurt?"
  5706. I look down at the nine-tail, expecting to see politeness. Instead, there's concern, worry, and fear openly worn in the tilt of her mouth and brow. "Not in body," I say. "Whatever is going on between you two, I think it's making sparring with me agonizing for Saki."
  5708. "So I've made a mess again," Rin sighs, sweeping snow off of a rail before leaning over it. Her blue gaze stares at the ice below, her shoulders slumping and tails drooping. Between the way she holds herself and the simpler clothes, she seems more like a tired laborer than the master of this mountain. "Egil," she mutters, "I promise you my questions will have a point. But do you know how long we've been keeping Kenta trapped? How old I am?"
  5710. Narrowing my brow, concerned she might be trying to redirect the conversation, I reluctantly say, "A long time. And I won’t guess at a woman’s age."
  5712. "This is the eighty-third winter we've had him trapped," she states. "Mother had passed on only fifteen winters before, but I'd already been acting as the real head of the family for the last four hundred. Around half my life."
  5714. I rest against the railing and stare at the ice below. I suspected the kitsune were old, but the way she casually speaks of such a large passing of time has me uneasy. Mighty trees, ancient stone forts, and even ancient monuments I've seen are probably younger than Rin. It unsettles me, but far less than it should. I've seen things and killed creatures that were probably older than her. The faeries, with all their laughter and stretched grins, had a timeless feel to them, from the way they ate to how their cloven feet would leave no footprints. But the kitsune, they've felt of this world despite the magic. I've seen their mistakes, been involved with the misunderstandings, and shared meals with them. They're closer to what I think of as people than truly magical beings, though that could be nothing more than my own ignorance, as I know they're something more than merely mortal. Yet the natural unease I feel at the revelation of such a long time is easy to accept, as she's still Rin. The same kitsune I've shared many evening meals with and who came to me in drunken despair.
  5716. "But," Rin continues, drawing me from my thoughts, "as much experience as I have, as much as my sisters have looked up to me, I am still nothing more than a woman who lost one of her sisters to an oni. A woman who makes many mistakes. Saki should blame me for what happened to Meiko. Instead, she tries to give up on what her heart wants. Even when I have told her, again and again, that I was wrong. That I was cruel to her, and to you."
  5718. "What?" I mutter, looking sharply at Rin for any hint of a lie or word game.
  5720. Glacier blue eyes, weary from too many burdens, meet my stare. "Saki and I are indeed fighting, Egil. But it's not as you might think. We're concerned for one another, as we always have been. I'm convinced she's making a mistake by ignoring her heart, and she..." Rin exhales painfully, her gaze falling back to the icy pond below us. "Saki thinks she has to protect me before herself."
  5722. "Rin, that doesn't explain what I've seen. You two are clearly at odds. Even Shizuka said she's never seen you two like this."
  5724. "Do you mean the dresses at dinner? My harsh words? Saki trying to hide her heart?" Rin asks, her tired gaze flicking to me for a moment. "Egil, we're not fighting for your attention, if you can believe me. She wore her dress to dinner to force me to do the same, not to slight me, because we disagree on who has the right to step away from our duties. I think it's her, and she thinks it’s me."
  5726. "You are speaking more freely than I expected," I say, watching her closely for deceit.
  5728. "I still have my secrets," she says, ear twitching as a smile drifts onto her mouth. "Perhaps I speak too freely, but you are easy to confide in." That smile fades into somberness. "It doesn't help that I swore to Saki I would speak honestly, should you approach me."
  5730. "Are you..." I hold my tongue for a moment, working over exactly what to ask. What Rin is implying doesn't make much sense. It sounds like she and Saki are arguing over which one of them should be allowed to get near me, but they're trying to push the other into it instead of acting on their own desires. "Rin," I say, starting over, focusing on a different, less confusing question. "Why did you give your sisters permission to try and court me? If you or Saki still feel for me, why?"
  5732. A sad smile twists her mouth, and she gives me a knowing, practically longing look. Only for her to hang her head a moment later, her tied back hair swinging down and hiding half of her face. She speaks quietly. "What was I supposed to do? It's cruel and harsh, but I saw no other way. I acted entirely out of turn, trying to keep you from them and even asking you not to marry any of my sisters. All because of my pathetic," her fingers curl tightly against the railing, "miserable jealousy. So I had to correct that, even if the outcome is cruel to everyone."
  5734. Some part of me is angry that she'd do this, but the rest of me understands she's being crushed by her responsibility. I keep that fleeting anger out of my voice. "You could have warned me."
  5736. "I should have. I'm sorry, Egil," she says, dipping her head and hunching over the rail. "If you haven't noticed, I've done nothing but make terrible decisions since coming back up the mountain. I like to think shutting myself away and making talismans will keep me from causing more problems, but that's all I do to you, isn't it?"
  5738. "That's not true, Rin." I have to squeeze the railing myself to keep from reaching out and patting her on the shoulder. That might be what she wants, what some part of me thinks she needs, but it's not what the situation needs. It would be making a decision that would hurt the other kitsune on my mind.
  5740. "It is true. I've wronged my sisters, Saki especially, and you," Rin says, voice tightening.
  5742. "Even if you have wronged me, I forgive you," I say, keeping my hands on the rail. "I'm sorry for our misunderstandings, and if I've hurt your heart. But I'm worried about you and Saki. You two have known each other far longer than me, so seeing you two like this over the last few weeks has been worrying."
  5744. "Sometimes I wish you would stop surprising me with your wisdom," she sighs. "But that would be asking you to act as you aren't. And," she smiles sadly, wide enough I can see it, "I quite like it when you speak your mind to me. I've missed it."
  5746. "I've missed talking with you," I admit. "I hate to ruin that, but I need to ask another question."
  5748. "Go ahead," Rin says. "I'll be certain to ask questions of my own this time."
  5750. She's still sore with herself about the misunderstanding. Anything I could do or say to soothe her would only make my own situation worse, so I work my tongue around the question. "Why did you send the tonjiki to Saki's training hall?"
  5752. "Saki adores tonjiki filled with pickled plums," Rin murmurs. "I would always send her some whenever she was feeling down. I hoped it would be seen as a peace offering."
  5754. "She didn't take it that way," I say, thinking back to the night before. The meal left for me, and how there might be a connection. The thoughts tickle in my head, but no insight or wisdom reveals itself. Only a gut feeling urging me on.
  5756. "I certainly did not ease her mind if she ran out," Rin says, tails slowing their subtle swaying. "I do not think I have the right to ask, but I think I must. What happened in the spar?"
  5758. My jaw rolls as I try to find the right words, this test of speaking nearly as difficult as being polite to faeries. I don't want to betray Saki's trust, whatever little I have, or make things worse between the sisters. "A test of strength didn't go how either of us expected, but we weren't hurt. Which is lucky since we fell rather hard."
  5760. "I see," the nine-tail says, eyes on the pond. "I doubt that is all, but I will not ask further. What happens between the two of you is not for me to interfere in, but I am glad no one was injured."
  5762. "Why won't you interfere?" I rudely ask.
  5764. "I definitely deserve that question," she sighs. "Whether it has magic or not, that custom you brought into my home seems to have stuck. I swore to Saki, three times, that I wouldn't interfere with you two. It was all I could give her after she did it to me first."
  5766. If she's being honest, then it looks like the master of house hasn't been acting as harshly as I feared. Perhaps that misery between Rin and I jumped to her and Saki? "Maybe," I begin, "Saki thought you were interfering. Or insulting her."
  5768. "What do you mean?" Rin asks, head twisting and snout slipping past her bundled up hair.
  5770. "It's nothing but a guess from my gut," I say, shaking my head and leaning on the rail, "but when I returned from my interrupted bath last night, there was tonjiki with plums waiting for me in my room. The same as what was sent to the hall. And you mentioned having Saki told about the plums. I have this feeling it's connected."
  5772. Her brows knit together, edge of her mouth tilting slightly. "I dislike the dread that stirs in me. I have been letting my tongue work too sharply this winter."
  5774. "Did you send that tray to me last night?" I ask, trying to make sense of my instincts.
  5776. "I was making talismans from dawn to the dark of night yesterday, I barely had the time to eat, let alone cook," she answers. "I left everything up to Saki and Shizuka. They'd know for certain who left the meal for you."
  5778. "Rin," I begin, seeing the nine-tail's ears twitch nervously, "is it possible that Saki made the food? That she then thought you were mocking her with the tonjiki you sent?"
  5780. Rin's blue eyes face me, a sharp breath widening her eyes. A moment later she speaks. "I will answer your question, but I must ask my own first. Who interrupted your bath?"
  5782. "Shizuka and Miki. They were very talkative until I turned them down," I answer, the cold and my short beard helping hide the embarrassingly flush feeling in my cheeks.
  5784. "I doubt they would have had the time to cook if they were watching you for a chance like that. Saki, Tsubame, and Mariko could have, but Tsubame hates cooking and Mariko is too timid. Which..." Rin lets out a ragged breath. "What have I done?" she mutters, pushing away from the railing. She holds the sides of her head and turns away from me.
  5786. I don't have an answer to her question. Like an annoying priest or monk, all I can do is ask a question she doesn't want to hear. Even if it's one she needs to hear. "What is it, Rin?"
  5788. "Something about a dear little sister of mine," she answers miserably. "Telling you, I fear, would be interfering. I am so sorry, Egil. To you and her. Even trying to avoid causing problems, I still create them."
  5790. I offer a silent apology to the kitsune's back before I speak, trying to ask a question she might be able to answer. "Do you think Saki knew that Shizuka and Miki would offer themselves to me?"
  5792. "Yes," Rin whispers. "She's been furious at me for giving our sisters permission. Saki argued against it, but I made my decision two days ago."
  5794. There's more Rin isn't saying, but I leave it alone. I've got more questions now that I know some of the timeline. "Did Saki guess that I'd turn them down, or get offended by their offer? Would she have left me a meal that night, something that had always cheered her up, in the hopes of silently supporting me?"
  5796. Tails swirl and circle slowly, tracing meaningless patterns as Rin rubs the sides of her head. "I can see her doing that, yes. She's watched those two sharply since they spiked our wine. Thought they were taking the punishments too easily."
  5798. Maybe Shizuka and Miki had been working together longer than last night, or perhaps Rin putting Shizuka in charge of the two-tail caused their cooperation. I don't say that though. There's already too much for Rin to consider and regret. And if I'm thinking it, I have no doubt the nine-tail is as well. She might make mistakes, but after the village was slaughtered, I can't imagine the pressure she must feel.
  5800. "Inari," Rin mumbles, adding something else I don't catch. A few nearly silent words later and she speaks back up. "If Saki did as you say, my gesture could be seen as an insult if she thought I'd been watching over you. That her gesture was over the line, if she thinks I would be keeping an eye on you or our other sisters and..."
  5802. I let her fade into silence, giving her a chance to think. As much as I want to ask how it's an insult to show you care for someone, I can't. She and Saki are siblings, their long history no doubt complicated. I've seen one wrong word or misinterpreted favor between siblings and cousins lead to lifelong hatred or vicious fights. I had my own share of scrapes with family long ago. One of my cousins wouldn't have lost his life to another if he'd only apologized, or took the woman seriously, but that's the wisdom of time.
  5804. With her back and tails to me, Rin doesn't say anything for a long time, and I continue to hold my tongue. A light dusting of snow starts to fall, the white flakes tumbling through the air softly. It sticks to my beard and hair, while none of it touches her fur. As if a gentle wind is guiding the snow away from her orange and white fluff. Eventually, she lowers her hands from her head and speaks with her back to me. "I am so sorry, Egil," she says quietly. "I have put you in a terrible situation. How can I call myself your friend when I would unleash my sisters on you without so much as a warning?"
  5806. "I'm not upset, Rin. I only have-"
  5808. "Egil," the nine-tail says, stopping me from explaining that my thoughts keep returning to her and Saki, and no one else. "I can't stop my sisters. Not without upsetting them greatly."
  5810. It's good she interrupted me. I have to tell the two of them at the same time, so there's no chance for misunderstandings. Even if it hurts me to keep what I know about myself now a secret, I'd be making a terrible mistake to not tell them at the same time. "Then I'll be turning a lot of them down," I answer softly. "I know you're trying to balance your duties, Rin. I won't be upset at you for that."