Shizuka sighed deeply “Chitose this is not what I need right now. Can you please please go back to where ever it is you came from?” The vulpine woman rubbed her face with another weary sigh. She could feel anger building through her tails, their natural affinity collecting her emotional energy and making her feel like someone had lit her fur on fire. She was angry at Chitose for her constant pestering, and angry with herself for letting the other woman under her skin.
“Oh come on Shizuka I thought we were getting along famously! You don’t want to chase poor little old me out right now, do you? I’m the only one here besides you. After all, wouldn’t you hate being alone? You’re from a big family; there’s no one here. I’d have a hard time coping if I was you. Really I’m just doing my duty to the spirits by ensuring you’re not all alone out here, heavens only knows what could happen to you in that case.”
“That’s no thanks to you that I’m alone out here!” Shizuka snapped at the mischievous tanuki interloper. “The entire time I’ve been here you’ve been promising to high heaven to help me. I graciously accepted your aid in making contact with the people of this region and getting supplies to the shrine. I have seen no one but you and the only supplies you’ve brought were clearly scavenged in the woods. Perhaps I was wrong to trust you, perhaps the ryuus should take back their gold from you. I know you think of me as some easy mark but either make yourself useful or you shall see exactly what a kitsune can do. Before the celestial dragons deal with what’s left of you anyway.”
That got the troublemaker’s attention. No one wanted to mess with a dragon backed organisation, even a two bit con woman like this very frustrating tanuki. Shizuka didn’t know why she’d taken it upon herself to invade her new home, but even Chitose had better sense than that. As evidenced by her switch from cocky pain in the tails to nearly groveling at Shizuka’s feet trying to weasel her way out of trouble.
“Whoa now, Shizuka-sama, there is no need to be so hasty, do we really need to get dragons involved in a little business between us girls? I swear, the supplies you asked for and the representatives from the local town are coming, but as a show of good faith let me do you a personal favour. This one is completely on the house, I’m just going to help you out because no matter what, in this shambles of a Shrine, you are missing a head priest. Which is to say you are missing a husband.”
Shizuka blushed red hot. Technically the tanuki wasn’t wrong, she was a bit young to consider taking a husband immediately but she was technically too young to be the kami in residence of a local shrine all her own too. Normally a kitsune or other spirit would have been long wed before taking such a position. Dating and marriage wasn’t a formal part of the apprenticeship process, but it certainly worked out that way for most young spirits training to be kami in residence. She hadn’t gotten that opportunity, all because of her talents.
Shizuka was considered a prodigy. One of the youngest six tailed vixens known. Not just modernly speaking, she was one of the youngest six tailed vixens in recorded history. “Fine, do whatever you want, just be gone and let me work.” Chitose sketched some sort of approximation of a bow before vanishing without a further word, leaving Shizuka in peaceful silence. Well. The glade she was in that still smelled of stale ash was at peace, while Shizuka herself was anything but. For her first assignment she’d been given a challenge proportionate to her skills. A regional shrine had been defiled, not by man, but by monster kind. Her task was to purify and restore this place to its former glory.
“What in the name of the gods did I ever do to deserve this?”
She’d been here for a few weeks now, and besides Chitose she’d seen precious few examples of human and monster occupation alike. All she really had to show for her time was a restored Tori gate that she’d finally finished blessing and sanctifying the other day, and a small shack. The former had mostly been intact, requiring paint more than anything and the latter was… rough if she was honest. She’d never been much of a carpenter. Such things had been her father’s hobbies and interests, and he had long since passed, leaving her mother Kaori and her sisters to… well. Fend for themselves is the wrong term. Each daughter was a magical power house in her own right, and at nearly two and a half centuries old Shizuka, the youngest daughter, had matured fully into her strength.
Her mother, an eight tail fox when her first husband had died, was orders of magnitude still more powerful than her children. No if anything they’d taken care of her father, but he’d still been laid low in the flash of an eye. Something that was all the more shocking for long lived creatures such as most of the various types of fox spirit in the world. Even the detestable Gumiho, especially those that still kept to their ancient murderous ways of seducing human men and feasting on their livers. Even those uncivilized beasts, had lives that were long extended by the standards of most creatures magical and mundane, and cherished those extended lives with their chosen mates when they finally found a partner they didn’t immediately kill.
Some people would then suggest that repairing such a place should be easy with that much magic at her disposal, but it was never that easy. Destroying with magic was simple enough, but creating with magic required an entirely different skill set. Mages who focused on say carpentry certainly existed, but such men and women were usually rated as masters in their trade when doing all of their work by hand, with their magical talents only increasing their already extant abilities. Visualizing was an important part of creating with magic, and while Shizuka could create a stunning glass rose with a wave of her hand, a trick she’d developed as a young girl of forty, she could not visualize the care, detail and dimensions required to truly build a shrine. She had managed with her little cottage, it was warm, and kept the weather out, it was even tastefully decorated to one extent or another. Unfortunately making a shack was another style of construction all together from the graceful lines and exquisite details of a true shrine.
Shizuka had been teleported to the site directly with magic and had immediately started working out her own temporary lodging before she set to work clearing some debris and purifying the sacred tree at the center of the shrine’s grounds.The mighty tree was ancient even by Fox standards and had come through it’s ordeal in fairly good condition despite a little charring here and there on its rough bark. It stood proudly on the edge of the lake that made up one of the shrine’s borders, freshly made shimenawa ropes resting around its trunk.
By the end of the third day, Chitose had made her first appearance, while it was quite clear that she was a tanuki that lived down to her kind’s reputation as tricksters she didn’t seem hostile so Shizuka had welcomed the company. As they talked, Shizuka sensed Chitose was more playful than malevolent and had decided to rely on her to contact the nearby settlements the shrine had originally served. Shizuka now regretted that decision, it was almost certain that Chitose hadn’t bothered contacting them at all. Still it was clear that she was going to need further help. Magic isn’t everything as her mother had instructed Shizuka and her sisters while they learned to sew, or cook, or some other mundane task that can be made so much more efficient with a little touch of magic. The vision of a smiling Kaori warmed Shizuka’s heart for a moment, her mother had had precious few smiles for the first century or so after her father’s untimely demise, but her eldest sister Yuuka now said that the older vixen had even remarried!
Shizuka wanted quite dearly to meet this person who had returned her mother’s smile to her. She wanted to visit at once, it was an important family matter after all! It’s not every century your own mother is married to someone. Really though, if she was honest with herself, it was an excuse to run away from her responsibilities for a little bit. Her sisters were making arrangements to go and meet their new step father, and a formal ceremony would be held in a year’s time. It was all very normal, it was expected even! Still Shizuka knew deep down that her strong desire to go home and visit with her mother was an expression desire to escape from the burned desecrated shrine that was supposed to be her home. Her mother certainly didn’t deserve to be used like that, nor did her mother’s new husband. Besides… could she honestly face her mother, or stand proudly in front of her new step father when she was fleeing her own failures? Hiding behind the folds of her mother’s kimono like she was a little girl dodging a spot of discord with one of her sisters or some other such mischief?
“No this simply won’t do. I must be able to hold my head high, and that means doing everything I possibly can. I still might fail, but at the very least I will have no regrets… but where to start with all of this?”
With the Tori gate restored, and the sacred tree sanctified it was hard to decide where exactly to begin in this place. Debris of the former structures were everywhere, and almost none of it was salvageable or restorable even with magic. Most of these things would need to be rebuilt from scratch. So in a perfect world, before she could create, she must destroy. All of the debris would need to be removed, and the burned material cast away, or reserved for making charcoal perhaps. Once the shrine grounds were looking more like a canvas ready for paint, and less like a burnt, mouldering dump, then she could head into the local towns herself. Going by magic could give the proper impact, while walking into the towns on foot might project a positive image of humility and solidarity with the locals.
“Yes, I’ll get the grounds ready, bring the plants back to good health, clear the waters of the small lake, maybe even teleport some koi in to restock it. Perhaps I could do a little gardening to bring back some of the flower beds that used to be here. I could even arrange it so the cherry trees are in full blossom! This place was beautiful once, it must be again. If it is beautiful when the locals, human and monster alike return, it will inflame the passion in their hearts to see this place restored to its former glory.”
Shizuka could almost hear one of her mentor’s lectures echoing through the grounds as she slipped the straps into place that held her sleeves clear of her hands when she was working. “Remember, the most important thing to keep in mind as a local Kami is that the shrine is nothing. It is simply a reflection of the hearts of the people who visit it and look to it for spiritual comfort and guidance, your duty then is to not look after buildings, but look after the people. That said keeping the shrine grounds beautiful is as much part of that care as providing blessings and guidance. You must take care of both as if they were your own child.”
At last Shizuka had a plan. The scale of the task was still monumental, and she had struggled with it all on her own, but if she led the way others could more readily follow. She would guide the local community, and together this place would be a place of comfort and rest once again.
Chitose had been having the most wonderful fun these last few weeks. Ever since the fox had shown up on the old shrine grounds the tanuki had just known that she’d have all manner of chance to amuse herself with the fox woman. Now to be clear, she was absolutely going to do what she’d promised to do and acquire supplies and contact the local villages for Shizuka… eventually. For now though she was just having too much fun to want to share her new plaything with the local peasants.
Chitose whistled to herself happily as she slipped into a hidden space in a rock crevice with a few small transformations to let herself fit into the tight entrance. Her work awaited. Foxes weren’t the only ones who could do magic after all! Chitose wasn’t some nerd about it, but a few magical rituals were normal for everyone to know right? Especially ever so useful rituals like this one. Chitose checked her work with a practiced eye. It looked like Shizuka had indeed tried to send a few more messages, only for those messages to be redirected by the network Chitose had created just outside the shrine’s protective charms.
It was a brilliant little set of spells. First she’d fogged up the area a bit magically speaking. Divination was hard to start with and Shizuka didn’t know the region. She’d have to rely on divination to find the right mind to send her message to, which is imprecise at best, and down right unreliable at worst. Any time Shizuka sent a message, Chitose’s second spell would encourage the message down a path of magical least resistance. Made far easier by the imprecise and general direction Shizuka’s message spell would be cast. Following the path Chitose laid out, all that energy would be captured and concentrated into crystals designed to store energy. Message destroyed, and energy stolen, all in a few simple steps. Even better, those crystals, brimming with magic once Chitose was done, would easily be worth a small fortune in their own right. All Shizuka had to do was keep casting, and keep working, and Chitose would bleed off all the spare mana she could steal from her.
Chitose couldn’t overpower Shizuka’s magic, and if the fox decided to send a long range message, something with a lot of juice behind it, the trap wouldn’t work. That could lead to issues if Shizuka decided to call for help from outside the valley but she had just so much pride. She wouldn’t want to look weak, to fail her teachers and superiors. Maybe even fail some weird concept of family honor.
“These shrine kami types are all the same, as sharp as a child’s ball and just so innocent. All safe and snug behind their walls and their societal protections. Ooh I love it! I love messing with them so much! And this fox is just as much fun!”
Even Shizuka’s threats of dragon intervention played into her plans. It let the mark feel like she had regained some sort of control to start. Then it had set her up to disarm the fox’s anger with an offer to play matchmaker on her behalf, an improvised opportunity that Chitose just had to take. Not that Shizuka would likely enjoy the results. That’s the risk of a free service after all, you get what you pay for. This “freebie” for Shizuka would be Chitose’s greatest prank to date! All she had to do was find the kind of guy she figured Shizuka would go for… and steal his identity. The man would go on his way none the wiser, with a tracking spell on him. Then Chitose, disguised as his doppleganger would return and seduce the shrine fox. Not sleep with her of course, that would be a little cruel even by Chitose’s standards, and would probably prompt fury from the fox that she’d be very unlikely to survive. Even a one tail fox was quite dangerous when angered. Considering this fox had six tails, Chitose was very aware of the potential threat to her continued good health. Mitigating that risk however, was just part of playing your mark.
No; she’d just flirt with her and get her all blushy and maiden-like for a day or two before transforming back. Shizuka would be furious of course, but if she was so angry that it was dangerous, then Chitose would use her tracking spell to find the actual man she had impersonated, then bring him back to the shrine with tales of a pretty and lonely fox spirit. Males of all species always responded to a damsel in distress. Human men perhaps more than any other example of the opposite sex. Hopefully he and Shizuka would hit it off, and all would be forgiven… at least until her next opportunity to tease the fox came up.
Chitose puffed up her chest, incredibly pleased with her brilliant plan as she moved out of the crevice and started back on the road towards town. She took extra care to wipe out her footprints behind her. Never knew when Shizuka might get a wild hair and try to walk into town. Why make finding what passed for civilization around here easy on her?
“I am a genius after all! This prank might get me some recognition at the clan hall during new year’s I think. Oh. I think I hear footsteps, a guest so soon? And I haven’t even had time to change! Well then, time to get into makeup!”
Her sensitive ears had picked up the sound of feet walking on the nearby road. A single person alone. A man? Possibly, she could find out with a little bit of magic of course, but why ruin the surprise? No, better to transform and hope for a good candidate for her next prank on Shizuka or some other bit of mischief. Now… what to transform into? Chitose tapped a finger against her chin as she considered her wide variety of options. She could transform into anything after all, and at least look like whatever she’d turned into. It wouldn’t let her rend steel like a Hellhound if she turned into one but she could certainly look like she could.
“Hmmm… I think I should just go with a classic for today, never know with these travelers, and adults so readily talk to children.”
With a quiet puff of smoke the tanuki vanished, and reappeared as a young girl, in normal clothing for the region, a leaf accessory the defining trait in her neatly kept black hair. Chitose examined herself quickly. “Another perfect transformation, I really am the greatest! Now…”. With another wave of her hand a bright red ball appeared in her palm. “The perfect disguise… and I’m not too far from the villages to appear to be strange. I’ll just make sure whoever it is doesn’t get near the shrine. I can’t have anyone spoiling my fun with that fox just yet. At least, not till I’ve harvested a couple tons of gold worth of mana from her.”
Already as the traveler turned the corner, Chitose’s hopes rose and immediately fell again. ‘A man! Excellent, this might be fuel for my plan!’ Her thoughts went, ‘But he’s so plain! I can’t do anything with that! Not a bad body… looks like he’s accustomed to long hikes and hard work, but if he was wearing local clothes my eyes would slide right over him! Ah well, a handsome guy I could copy to mess with Shizuka turning up immediately would be a little too easy wouldn’t it? Still, that unruly beard, long hair… he looks more like a bear than man. Just how long has he been walking?’
To his credit and Chitose’s annoyance, he does seem suspicious of her at first. He must have been a seasoned traveler and heard about children being used as lures for traps by bandits. Low level fair by Chitose’s standards, it was much more fun to mess with them than simply beat them up. His sharp blue eyes scanned the woods cautiously as he continued to approach. Since the man seemed intent to waste Chitose’s time, she had a second to look him over in detail. She quickly figured why he looked so plain to her eye, he looked just like the average human around here! The blue eyes were new that was true enough. That made him a bit more intriguing than the average peasant around here. The dusty traveling cloak over odd looking clothes managed to make him a hair more interesting than the eyes alone. In Chitose’s final assessment however there were lots of travelers and adventurers out on the road these days, and even for them, this guy just seemed so painfully average.
Chitose used just enough of a modulation spell to translate her voice seamlessly into whatever language this guy natively spoke. ‘That’s it come into my trap. Just a cute little girl playing in the woods, nothing to see here, nothing suspicious.’ Chitose fought to keep a wicked grin off her face. She loved it when a plan came together, and simpletons like this were always easy… too easy. He was lucky he was getting tricked by her really! She was so kind and generous she’d actually send him off towards one of the villages instead of sending him back up into the mountains.
“Hiya mister! Whatcha doin?”
“Me? I’m traveling, without much mind to my destination. What are you doing out here young lady? Isn’t this a bit far from a village? You could run into a bear or something out here you know.” His voice was interesting too, soothing in an odd way, it was almost distracting? Chitose mentally shook the cobwebs off.
“Oh nothing, mister. I’m just playing in the woods. If you’re traveling you probably want the next town right? If you follow that road it’ll take you to the two towns around here, both of them have an inn and a place where you can rest and eat.”
“Oh really? Well thank you… what about the road behind you though? Where does that go?”
Shit, he just had to ask that instead of going off to find some sake and grilled fish or whatever people like that ate. Dumb ass. She should find him later and curse him or transform him into something for the day. Far from fuming, Chitose’s disguise just smiled cheerily. “Oh there’s nothing up that way mister, just a burned down shrine and some dumb fox… uhm, I mean a burned down shrine the elders say that no one should go near. Apparently it attracted the wrath of a dragon during the war, Momma even says it’s cursed!”
The man thought it over for a minute and shrugged, stretching a moment before patting her head “Well, thanks for the warning then. I guess I’ll head towards town. Be safe out here, it’d be a shame if a cute little girl like you got eaten by wolves or something.” With that he turned, and headed off down the road towards the towns.
Chitose waited till he was finally out of sight before letting her shoulders droop. “Bastard even had the goddamn nerve to pat my head!? I’m definitely cursing him or playing a prank on him later! I simply can’t let that stand. At least he let the path up to the shrine go without too much work… now I’ll just take my leaf and… and… where the hell is my leaf!?” Chitose started to search frantically for her leaf charm, checking her head, the ground, everywhere. “I can’t transform without it! Where in all the realms did it go!? Did that guy take it? No way! I’ll just chase… he’s not on the road?” Chitose had raced round the bend after the man who’d just patted her head, but he was nowhere to be found.
In the brush sneaking away, William Hayashi was moving with all the skill he could muster right at the moment. He’d even removed the simple sandals he’d taken to wearing since coming to this land. He wasn’t sure what the trickster had wanted, but he’d recognized the signs of a tanuki right off the bat. She hadn’t even tried to hide the leaf charm they use as part of their transformation magic. Plus… why in all hell would someone local to this area be speaking English? Sloppy of her, very sloppy. He was lucky his father had taught him as much Japanese lore and mythology as he could cram into his son’s head.
A novelist by trade, Takeshi Hayashi loved the fables of their homeland and took inspiration from them, and the folk lore of their adopted nation as he wrote. It had proven an invaluable resource, when the monsters had come, and now the the elder Hayashi was a university professor of cryptozoology instead of a simple author. It was because of his father that Will had come to the UMT. He had suggested that traveling extensively in lands of myth might heal him somewhat after his wartime experiences. Stories had always been his father’s answer for everything and Will was ready to try just about anything.
Something snapped in the back of his mind as he tried to focus on folklore and the warm guidance of his parents. Will shook his head as terror gripped his heart. An unseen voice whispered “Matchlock” in his ear, leaving him spinning and confused for a moment as adrenaline shot through his veins. His heart raced as one of his hands clawed at his chest through his clothes. Who? Who was the voice calling for? Him. He was Matchlock. The squadron. Where are they? His eyes managed to refocus for a minute, darting from feature to feature in the verdant terrain around him, the world rapidly shifting like he was caught in a spin in a fighter again. They… his friends, his comrades, were gone. Some were dead, most had returned to their civilian lives in a world reshaped by war and the merging of two realities once held separate.
He had been given his callsign for the family heirloom he’d moved around with him from base to base during his service, a tanegashima, a matchlock musket of Japan that had belonged to an ancient ancestor. His father said it would bring him luck. Will hadn’t believed him at the time, but he’d taken the weapon with him to give his father some form of comfort that the family’s martial spirit would watch over him. He’d come home after decorated service flying for the US Navy, when others hadn’t. So perhaps it had brought him luck after all.
Not enough luck to escape unscathed though, whole in body at least but that was more than many could say. A hard crash that had tried to look like an emergency landing after being knocked out of the sky by a collision with a dying wyvern had given him all manner of panic attacks. Helping out on the ground after hostilities had ended had given him a host of other nightmares to deal with. He could still see the eyes of the kids in particular… some of them not looking any more, the light in them gone, but still staring as responding corpsmen closed them as gently as they could before getting a body bag out.
Will snapped back to reality with a desperate gasp for air which he immediately stifled by shoving his fist in his mouth. If the tanuki found him now it’d probably cause him more than a little bit of trouble, which is why he’d tossed her charm the opposite way he’d intended to go. When she finally realized she could look for the leaf with magic, it would be well away from the direction he wanted to go. The one firm thought he could cling to while his panic attack passed was to head towards the place the tanuki had been trying to scare him off from. Honestly it made him wonder what people were like around here, because that had been the saddest package of lies and misdirection he’d ever heard. However, she’d let a detail slip, she’d mentioned a fox spirit. What would a fox messenger be doing at a destroyed shrine? That had to be worth investigating.
Maybe, just maybe, if he could help a divine messenger, the fox would help him in turn. Gods or no gods, the various species of fox spirits were all known for their incredible magic power. If he made it… he could feel the panic attack lurking in the background of his mind. He wasn’t out of the woods yet, literally or figuratively. Not by a long shot. He had to make it to the shrine. Find the road. Follow the road. Find the shrine. Try to be quiet. Simple tasks. Simple, immediate goals.
He just had to make his way to the shrine.
Chitose hadn’t come back. Shizuka wasn’t sure if that was positive or not. She was leaning towards the former, but honestly any company that was sapient and capable of speech in a language she understood would be welcome company at the moment. As Chitose had said earlier, Shizuka came from a big family. Her apprenticeship had been in a bustling city on the grounds of a grand shrine, the dozens of other novices keeping her busy even without her sisters around. It had been a very, very long time since Shizuka had been alone. Now she was alone all the time, and if she was sure of one thing, it was that she hated being alone.
She didn’t need the bustle of a big city, or even the chaos of her childhood home with all her sisters going every which way. She just needed some sort of company! Not even a friend. It’d be better if it could be a friend of course. Her classes had been pretty clear about that sort of thing. Even “loners” generally have friends, and benefit greatly from them. Even shrine spirits needed people they could be close to and confide with. Shizuka was far from a loner and she was suffering without someone to at least talk to. She’d caught herself talking to a sparrow earlier. Perhaps that had been Chitose in disguise, perhaps this whole thing was the tanuki messing with her. Perhaps…
Shizuka just about jumped out of her skin; every hair on her head and every silky strand of fur on her plush tails was standing on end. She looked like she’d been shocked with a decent strength lightning spell. Shizuka regained her control and whirled around to the sound. She’d been surprised by the sudden snap of a large branch, but what could possibly harm her out here? Instead of the expected animal though, a man had just staggered through the Tori gate with a wild look on his face.
He’d somehow managed to sketch a bow at the entrance to the shrine grounds on pure muscle memory. Past that Shizuka could see that he clearly wasn’t healthy. Something was very wrong with him, and Shizuka rushed to his side, shushing him with gentle words of comfort as she reached for him.
“Shush. Nothing will harm you here. Rest. Let everything go. I’ll watch over you, son of man.”
Magic danced on her finger tips, soothing energy chasing whatever had gripped the man’s body away from him. He dropped, like a marionette with its strings cut. He wasn’t dead. Rather, he was asleep. A peaceful look adorned his face as he slumped against the bewildered fox woman. She had reacted on instinct, even reached for magic on instinct, but she hadn’t tried to put him to sleep!
“He must have been exhausted if having him relax caused that. I can feel the tension bleeding out of him. Well, I’m not alone any more, but what in the world can I do for this man?”
The question more or less answered itself for her. She had to make him comfortable, keep him warm and apply more healing magic. With hope and time, he might come around. If he was still like this after a day or two, she’d contact the grand shrine for support. She wasn’t much of a healer, but she had the sense that this was less of a wound of the body and more of a wound of the spirit. That was an injury she might just be able to help with.
“Rest indeed my guest. In this peaceful place, I shall keep you safe, even from yourself.”
Will snapped back to consciousness with a shout. His dreams had been surprisingly untroubled for once but in the act of waking he realized he’d passed out during a panic attack in the wilderness. Where was he? The soft crackle of the fire and a sharp feminine gasp broke his thoughts, drawing his eyes to the other occupant of the small room he’d found himself in. She was holding out a blanket in front of her like it was a shield. She… she was fox! Her six plush tails stood on end as she flinched in front of him, clearly resisting calling magic to her hands to defend herself.
“I… I’m sorry, you were shivering so I thought you might be cold. Please, no one’s going to hurt you here.”
Will managed to resist reaching out to touch one of the black tips of her pointed, fluffy ears. A childlike wonder rushed into his veins. He knew monsters and spirits existed. Hell, he’d fought Orcs in close quarters combat when a group of sappers had invaded the air base his squadron had been flying out of for awhile. He was more times an ace pilot than he wanted to count without a single air to air kill… on aircraft. All his kills were dragons and other flying monsters. He knew monsters were real, but then, foxes weren’t really monsters were they? Not like an Ork or a pissed off Drider with a giant crossbow mounted on its back. They could be tricksters certainly, but outside of the Korean sub-species in the myths they weren’t necessarily evil.
Not that he thought the woman across from him could mean him harm. She wore her heart on her sleeve and her concern was touching, really. She didn’t even know his name but she looked like she was caring for a sick friend or family member, the firelight reflecting merrily on her reddish orange hair and the plush fur of her ears and tails. Will blinked again, digging himself out of the memory hole he’d nearly fallen back down, realizing he still hadn’t responded to her.
“I… no, it’s okay. Thank you for looking after me. I’m William, please call me Will. I’m sorry I startled you. Where am I? Given you’re the fox I heard about, I’ll assume I’m on the grounds of the cursed shrine or nearby?”
Shizuka cocked her head for a moment. “I’m Shizuka, the resident kami of this shrine… though I can’t say I’ve heard of it being cursed. So you heard about me from someone? Did they tell you about this curse?”
“They did. It was a little girl playing with a red ball where the path forks to come to this shrine or head towards the nearest villages. She warned me not to come up this way. I’m pretty sure she was a tanuki though, so I palmed her leaf charm to distract her then disappeared into the brush to come up this way.”
“I KNEW IT!” Shizuka covered her mouth, a blush spreading across her face as she sto compose herself. “Excuse my outburst. That little girl was almost certainly Chitose, a local tanuki who’s been causing me all manner of trouble. I was sent to restore this shrine and resume outreach and spiritual care for the locals, but I think she’s been blocking my messages to the humans and monsters around here. Both requests for the aid of craftsmen and for supplies don’t seem to have gone through. I can get by on food I can create with magic, but I’m not much of a cook and my magic can only do so much. I’m getting a bit tired of simple foods and simple meals with next to know spices. It’s silly, I can conjure quite a variety of components, I just can’t do much with them.”
Will nodded. A lack of good food was something any soldier, sailor or Marine could sympathize with. Military rations were lacking in just about everything. In the naval services, sailors and Marines alike tended to carry their own supplies of hot sauce to give their food some sort of flavor while they were in the field or underway. “Well if you can make components I can cook pretty well, so at the very least I can help you vary your diet a bit for a day or two, maybe teach you to make some simple things. It strikes me though that most of the problems you’re having are caused by this ‘Chitose,’ right?”
Shizuka nodded vigorously. “Very much so. She’s quite the nuisance, but I don’t want to call back to the grand shrine for help, or use magic to punish her, much less hurt her simply because she’s a pain in my tails.”
“Proportionate response, very kind of you Ms. Goddess.”
“Don’t start with that, I’m not sure what you’ve heard on your side of the mists but a goddess I am not. My mother perhaps, is an eight tailed fox, and she’s quite close to what might be considered in the weight class of divinity.”
“You have six tails though, surely that means you’ve got quite a bit of power at your disposal.”
“I do, actually. It’s not that simple though, having the raw capacity, having the affinity, means nothing without experience. My father loved what the Western Kingdoms call fairy tales, and he read them to my sisters and I when we were small. I always loved the story of King Arthur and his knights of Avalon, questing to retake the mystical Camelot. The wizard Merlin, he had great power, but much of his power came from experience and preparation, knowing when and how to apply his power for the greatest effect. All magic of all types is much like that, even for the most natural of magic users, like foxes. We all gain in power from experience, and I am very young for a fox, even younger still for having six tails. My eldest sister is nearly two centuries my senior, and she has only just gained her sixth tail, and she is considered quite gifted in her own right.”
Will nodded along as Shizuka talked about her family. “I think our fathers would get along. My dad’s always loved stories like that too, though he specializes in stories from the islands of Japan… stories like you as a matter of fact.” A sudden thought stops Will in his mental tracks for a minute. “So wait…” Will runs a couple numbers in his head. “You’re young for a six tail, and your sister is two hundred years older than you are… so how old are you? Forty? Fifty?”
“I just turned two hundred and forty recently.” Shizuka states matter of factly, clearly not seeing her age as anything of import or interest.
Will coughs, hard. “Hah… you ah. You don’t look a day over two hundred Shizuka. Gotta say this is my first direct contact with, well, the age gap monsters can have with humans.”
“I think you’ll find it will become more normal to you after you’ve spent more time traveling our lands. Age and time are somewhat relative here. My father passed away when I was young, some two centuries ago, and now my mother has remarried to a human man in his mid twenties. It’s a bit odd now but assuming nothing untoward happens to him, a few centuries from now, no one will blink an eye at their age gap.”
“I can’t even imagine. Your mother’s got to be close to what, a thousand years old? And she’s marrying a guy who’s younger than I am by at least six years.”
“As I just said Will, time is relative. The heart and compatibility of the spirit are heedless of age, whether that gap spans centuries or seconds. It doesn’t hurt that our long lives leave us remarkably well preserved in body. Physical attraction, too, is part of compatibility after all. What kind of man would you be I wonder, a century from now?”
“Maybe that would give me enough time to finally work my head out.”
Shizuka nods. “The war. I know you were in it. Please, say nothing for now. I must apologize. When I found you I touched your mind so I could see if you were delirious with fever or something. I saw what I would assume is your nightmare. The place you are dragged by your damaged psyche most nights and some days even. What is… all of that? There was much I did not understand, but I could feel the spinning, the fear. I apologize for violating you like that, it wasn’t intentional, but now… I might not be able to help this region yet, but I can perhaps help you some.”
Will sat for a moment. She was offering him exactly what he’d wanted, exactly what he’d hoped for, but what could she really do? What could he offer in return? He racked his brain for a bit, letting silence settle in the room before finding a couple threads of a plan.
“How about we strike a bargain, Shizuka?”
“I offer my help and magic to you freely, but if it makes it easier upon you to take help by barter… name your terms, son of man.”
“I’ll stay here, as long as you need me. I’ll cook. Help with the restoration. I can do some basic carpentry and the like. I even have an idea for dealing with your little tanuki issue. In return, whatever help you can give me. I’d… appreciate it.”
“Hmph, you offer me much, and ask so very little. I would be a fool to not accept your offer.”
“Don’t say how little it is till you’ve sized the situation up fully.”
Shizuka leans in over the fire, the highlights of the flame on her skin giving her an otherworldly appearance.” Then let us not waste a moment my guest. It will be a long night yet, and we cannot work till morning on mundane things. I doubt I can heal you in a night, but perhaps you might yet gain some relief.”
Shizuka gathered her robes and shifted around the small fire pit to sit next to Will. She then arranged herself in a posture that suggested meditation.
“So, what should I do?”
“Place yourself in a position that allows you to rest. Then calm yourself, and open your mind to me. We shall see what burden you carry, Will. Once we know, then we shall do our best to relieve you of it.”
The transition into Will’s mind was easy, almost too easy, like they’d known each other for years. Shizuka had barely begun to guide Will through the deeper stages of the meditation ritual required to for this magic to work when she found herself drawn into his nightmare. She found herself perched next to him in the chaotic place she had seen once before when she’d first touched his mind.
“Raider 5 is hit! That Wyvern plowed right into him! Matchlock are you okay?”
A voice filled with odd distortion echoed. Not from anywhere in the cockpit, but within the strange helm her guest was now wearing.
“Raider 5, declaring an emergency, I lost at least half of my starboard wing… I might be able to recover and get back to the carrier…”
“Negative, Raider 5, punch out. That’s an order. We can get another jet, I’m not losing another pilot today. Eject, right now. Sky King this is Raider 1, I have a pilot punching out over water, I need an Osprey to lift from the nearest unit or ship that can provide Combat Search And Rescue.”
“Raider 1, this is Sky King, the 22nd MEU is nearby and can provide CSAR services. The jarheads won’t shy away from a few dragons. Give me a GPS beacon when the pilot is safely in the water.”
A new voice cut in. “Shit! Reinforcements. Six bandits! They managed to spoof the radar again! Matchlock break! They’re coming right for you!”
Will’s pained voice echoed over the transmission and in a muffled state from under his helmet. “No can do. Plane’s barely holding together as it is. I’m going to have to eject and trust you guys to get me on the ground in one piece. Raider 5, ejecting…”
Will grabbed for a pair of black and yellow wrapped handles and yanked down hard, his body flinching, but whatever he was waiting for never came. Another red light lit up on the panel in front of them.
“Raider 5, what happened? Eject!”
“Ejection system’s non functional, I’m going to have to try and ditch the plane into the water.”
“Can your plane even take that kind of impact?”
“No, but I’m out of options skipper. I… oh hell. The bandits are right on top of me.”
“Fireball incoming, evade!”
“Trying to, I…”
The shockwave of the explosion as the fireball slammed it’s furious energy into Will’s plane rattled Shizuka’s bones.
“Shit, he’s spinning! Matchlock! Recover! Raiders, cover Matchlock! Drive these bastards off so he has a chance to at least try and put the jet down.”
“I think it’s time I intervened.”
Will’s helmeted head jerked at the sudden sound of her voice as Shizuka snapped her fingers. The sound echoed throughout the cockpit and the entire dream world they now shared. With another snap of her fingers they were standing in mid air by the plane, Will now clad in a strange green one piece garment with golden wings riding on his left breast. The original Will was still in the plane, in the midst of fighting to regain control over the dying vehicle.
“This is the day we lost Trace, right before the war ended. I remember thinking in my bed at Naval Hospital Balboa that that made it worse. That all of this…” he gestured around him. “Could have been avoided, but who could have known that that vampire chick and her jarhead boyfriend, Walker or whatever was going to sneak into that undead bastard’s castle and put his head on a pike? But even when they were losing on two fronts, once the monster rebels took up arms, they just kept coming, like they wanted to take as many of us with them as possible.”
Will shrugs, his whole body slumping in some form of defeat. “Good you stopped it now though. This is about where the memory ends. I blacked out right after this. I don’t know what happened. I know what I was told happened… that I recovered the plane and managed to safely ditch into the water. But I know the truth. I blacked out from the gs, the gravity, I was taking in the spin. I think I knocked my head on the canopy too. They saw me going down, but had to focus on fighting. They only knew I was alive because the Marines my CO had called for picked me up. Shooting Nixe, a foul tempered kind of mermaid, off me and my plane the whole time. All I know is that I should have died and I didn’t. I shouldn’t be alive and I don’t know why.”
“I can help with that, if you want to know what happened. Perhaps it will give you some form of closure.”
Will’s down cast gaze snapped up to meet her eyes, his stare wide open with a mix of awe and fear. “You… can do that? How?”
Shizuka waggled her fingers in what seemed to be a universal hand signal for the arcane. “Magic of course. Your mind might not know what happened but your spirit remembers. So, let’s see what happened, shall we? This will take some effort. You need to open everything to me. We will have no secrets from each other.”
“Seeing your childhood memories might be a cure for all manner of mental trauma all on their own. I bet you were a super cute kit.”
“If you can still make witticisms even now, in your darkest moment, Will, I do believe you will be okay. Now, let us see the whole story of this terrible day. I might not understand these machines, or this part of the war, but I know people, I know the pain and strain in your voice, and the voice of your friends. Let us see.”
Shizuka began to pour on the magical energy. It was lucky she was who she was. Even a five tailed fox might not have had the sheer mana capacity required for a working of this magnitude. That she could attempt it at all was a testament to her raw strength. Slowly, as if she was pushing it herself the plane began to move again, and they kept pace with it, following it as it arced out of the sky only for it to stop again.
Will looked over to her, confused. “Is this the limit of how far you can recreate?”
Shizuka shook her head, feeling just as confused as Will looked “This is no working of mine, this is exactly as things went. There’s something. Something’s here.”
With a flash of light and the flare of a mighty wingspan, a Valkyrie in all her radiant glory stepped out of nothingness. “My lady has commanded that today not be your day, worthy warrior. Other gods, too, have found you of interest. I am not sure if that makes you a lucky mortal or an unlucky one. You cannot hear me, but that is for the best. I shall guide your stricken machine to the embrace of Ran, and you shall be returned to your comrades.” Her eyes snapped up, looking straight at the spectral forms of Shizuka and Will. “Into your hands I commend the soul of this warrior, fox woman. You are not with him this moment, but you will be. You will show him his darkness, but this message is for you as well as he. Defeat the demon of his past, live well. The rewards for slaying monsters of the spirit are many indeed.” With a whisper of a language that Shizuka didn’t understand, they found themselves thrown out of the dream, and back into the hut.
“Well. I must say I certainly didn’t expect that.”
Will rubbed his face, eyes still wide open. “I have absolutely no idea how to process that, at all. A goddamn Valkyrie!? Valkyries are real!? Holy shit Mom’s gonna be so damn excited when she finds out! There’ve been rumors, but… what was that last bit about defeating the demon of my past?”
Shizuka caught her breath, trying not to show her fatigue. The working had taken more out of her than she’d expected. Being thrown out of the dream so forcefully like that wasn’t normal either, and had left both of them sprawled out on the floor with splitting headaches. It was with a far shakier voice than she ever wanted to show anyone in public that Shizuka finally broke the silence that weighed on the room. “Defeat the demon of his past, live well. Perhaps that is her message. When the past is a nightmare of death and pain, the cure is to live. Simple.”
Will rubbed his temples as he winced against the suddenly harsh light of the fire. It took him a couple minutes to collect himself before he had collected himself enough to respond. “And easier said than done, but not much different than what my shrink back in the US told me, honestly. She said that the hardest part is making the choice to live. The conscious decision to let the guilt, the pain, go and live again. It’s just hard.”
“You can stay here as long as you like, Will. I will help you in any way that I can.”
“Considering how much you’ve already done for me, I think I’ll take you up on that, Shizuka. At the very least I have to repay my debt to you, and this seems like a pretty decent place to come back from the dead.”
“Where better than a shrine for healing the mind, body and spirit?”
“Can we start with healing these headaches?”
“Consider it done… let me just rest for a minute, then I’ll make us some tea.”
The days turned into weeks with surprising swiftness. Will and Shizuka worked well as a team, and they accomplished Shizuka’s short term goals of clearing the shrine grounds and restoring the plants with minimal interruptions. There were a few awkward moments of course. A man and woman in such spartan conditions were bound to have them. For example Will came back from foraging right as Shizuka happened to be bathing. Which lead to Shizuka sinking down into the water at about eye level, and Will edging away from the water shielding his eyes with a small basket of vegetables.
Then there were the consequences of the deep opening they’d made to each other. They could tell each other stories and the other could finish those like they’d been there themselves. Even memories of events that had taken place long before their ever meeting, and in Shizuka’s case long before Will had been born. Shizuka was even able to tell him word for word, his parent’s explanation of why he was named William. It was the name of a Dutch trader who had made his life in Japan and become one of the first and only Western Samurai. The son of a Scandinavian woman by way of the United States and a Japanese man, heir to two long warrior traditions, his parents had thought the historical connotation was perfect for their eldest son.
It was a very odd level of intimacy for two people who’d just met but it also made them more comfortable with each other than they’d believed they could be with anyone. It gave Shizuka the context she needed to help comfort him without magic when an anxiety or panic attack gripped him, or his recurring night terror reached out for him in a flash of dragon claws, not that that happened much anymore. Perhaps it was the place. Perhaps it was a change in Will, perhaps it was Shizuka and her influence on him, but the dragons in his nightmares now only returned infrequently instead of being his constant companions.
The first phase in their new plan to give Chitose a taste of her own medicine involved a significant amount of very subtle investigation. Too much magic being thrown around in weird ways would tip their hand. They needed Chitose to stay complacent and confident in the status quo while they worked. First they used the message spell for a magical form of triangulation. Will walked around the shrine, and Shizuka sent him messages of various strengths. They had to lean on the assumption that Chitose hadn’t sent up complicated levels of surveillance in whatever magic was interfering with Shizuka’s communications. They figured that the tanuki couldn’t determine what was in a message and who it was being sent to. Thankfully, relying on Chitose’s laziness and self assumed brilliance seemed to be a fairly sure bet. Before long they’d located the ritual spot Chitose had set up, and the stash of crystals filled with Shizuka’s drawn off mana that waited to be collected.
Now that they knew the method of interference the tanuki had chosen, they could begin stage two. Chitose turned up a few times just like they wanted her to, and thanks to Will’s planning and Shizuka’s spells they always knew well in advance so Will could hide in a place they’d prepared for him. Shizuka wasn’t the best actress in the world, but she was doing a very passable job of appearing more and more frantic with every passing day. Her desperation was clearly growing in leaps and bounds as she started to send more and more messages towards where her divination told her the local villages were. She’d even let Chitose “catch” her talking to some of the flowers she’d planted. A surprise visit when they’d been cooking dinner even let Shizuka perform a fairly solid crying fit about not wanting to fail and all manner of incoherent ranting. Music to Chitose’s ears of course, her little string of pranks were being executed perfectly after all, her own self confidence blinding her to any duplicity on anyone else’s part. Shizuka’s acting was good enough, or at least distracting enough that Chitose didn’t notice that significantly more work was getting done around the shrine. Before long Shizuka and Will were ready for stage three.
“Are you really sure you want to go through with this Will?” Shizuka was pleased with how much he trusted her magic but transforming another being was a bit odd, magically speaking, and it could have strange consequences at the worst of times.
“Yep. It’s perfect, trust me. Now help me finish painting out this magic circle.”
A mix of Western and Eastern occultism, the magic circle looked very impressive, and meant absolutely nothing. As did the rather impressive scroll they’d prepared and scattered at the center of the circle with some half burned candles they’d relight when it was show time. The whole trick relied on Chitose not being educated in the use of magic. Many tanuki preferred to focus on far more mundane fields of study. They felt their natural magic and spells, mostly related to transformation and simple tricks like invisibility, was more than sufficient for their needs. The scroll told a story of something far more grand, a special working that would entirely restore a holy place like a shrine, but at a price if the caster lacked the strength to cast it fully. It would reduce the caster into their most base form. It was vaguely worded, but it wasn’t much of a leap to determine that form would, in Shizuka’s case, be a “normal” fox.
Will had just finished prepping the last of their things for their expedition into the local towns. They’d make the trip while they had Chitose chasing her own tail around in the woods, once the sentry spell triggered. He dashed back to the shrine with a grin on his face. Shizuka had already transformed herself into her finest shrine robes, she had to look every part the regal kami after all. So as she walked around to light the candles for their “ritual” gone awry, the centerpiece of their plan for a little payback against the devious tanuki, she was a tad over dressed for the occasion. Not that her companion complained, in fact she’d noticed his eyes wandered up and down her more often than normal since she had put on the many layers of silk.
“You look more like a princess in that kimono than a messenger of the gods.”
“Hmph, just wait till I put your outfit on you, I’ll have you looking like a prince yourself. Right down to the sword.”
Will gave her a roguish look “Well if you put it that way I suppose I can’t resist, but for now, Princess, if you would?”
Another wave of the hand and the roguish smile vanished to be replaced by a rather cheeky looking muzzle. The Red Fox was a resplendent example of his kind. Perfect in form and body. If anything he was too perfect, looking like he was fresh out of a groomer instead of a wild animal, but that was a good detail to add even if she hadn’t thought of it specifically. After all this fox wasn’t a wild animal. It was supposed to be Shizuka. The transformed Will wrapped his way around her ankles like an affectionate and extremely large house cat before making his way to the center of the circle and telling Shizuka to be on her way with a jerk of his head.
“You really do make a rather noble fox, you know.”
Another odd grin from a vulpine muzzle and Shizuka turned and fled, relying on the spell charms she’d hidden to allow her to listen to the events on the grounds of the shrine as the transformed Will began to make the noises of a fox in rather considerable distress.
If anything, it went a little too well. Chitose had been ambling her way up the path towards the shrine like she normally did and had immediately broken into a run when she heard the noises of a distressed animal coming from the shrine grounds. Will did his best to look pitiful, becoming a clearly miserable and upset creature as Chitose approached in a hurry.
“Hey there little guy it’s okay… huh, where’s Shizuka? I figure she’d be all about helping one of her cousins with a quickness. Or any animal, she seems the type to be able to get the animals to help her clean like in those human princess movies from the Maginet. But what the hell is all of this crap? Ink… it’s been here a while. Sure looks like spellcraft but…” Chitose’s eyes fell on the scroll and Will had to bite his lower lip to prevent himself from laughing. The tanuki was buying it hook, line and sinker.
“Let’s see… grand spell… shrine restoration. Why does this have to be in court Japanese? Goddamnit, they could at least speak a modern language in this stuff. No wonder no one bothers to learn magic any more. Be warned… if the caster lacks the full strength to complete the ritual they shall lose their magic and be reverted into the base state of their kind. So that would mean…” Chitose’s eyes fall at the pitiful bundle of fox fur at her feet. “Shizuka!? Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit! I am in so much trouble! I get that I took my game a little too far but this was way too drastic! Come on! Shit… uh. Crap. How can I help? It doesn’t say anything in this damn scroll!”
Chitose’s eyes scanned the area wildly, looking for some sort of answer to the puzzle that presented itself to her. “Crap. Didn’t she say she’s from a big family? And her mother’s an eight tail? They can probably help her… but I’ll be lucky if they don’t turn me into a field mouse for a decade or something. Crap. The nearest Tanuki guild? Maybe. The shrine association. Either of them would do… and will probably result in me not being killed. Yeah. That works. I just have to take you to the shrine association, say I found you like this, and fuck off with a quickness. They might even give me a reward for rescuing you. There, calm down, Chitose, it’s not so bad.”
Will and Shizuka both rolled their eyes at the ever self involved tanuki’s rambling. Even with a powerful fox possibly put in a dangerous situation because of her meddling and games, Chitose’s thoughts were only on evading punishment for her mischief. Though on some level, Will found the prospect of pissing off Shizuka’s family pretty damn terrifying himself. He liked to treat all women with some degree of the genteel manner both his parents had raised him with. Admiral Sigrid Hayashi, his mother, would have had his hide nailed to her quarterdeck as a warning to others if he’d been out of line, and his father probably would have had a blistering lecture about dishonoring their samurai ancestors prepared if Will survived his mother.
Still he did his best to treat Shizuka like she was, well, normal, because she seemed pleased when he did, and he certainly liked seeing the fox woman… damn, he was off track! For some reason his mind drifted a bit in this form. Shizuka had warned him about how when a non shapeshifter was transformed, they didn’t quite have the grounding that a natural shapeshifter like a fox or tanuki had.
Luckily Chitose was still ranting about keeping herself out of trouble, having apparently put herself around the bend a bit. Will moved forward to the next stage of the plan. He legged it off of shrine grounds at high speed, as fast as his fox legs could carry him.
“Shit! Shizuka, come back so I can help you dammit! Ooh if I lose you I’m in even more damn trouble than before!” Chitose was in hot pursuit, just as was intended. Will lead her on a merry chase through the woods near the shrine, ducking this way and that until he finally made it to the tree that was host to an old fox den. The den was now occupied with pair of lesser Kitsune-bi, literal fire foxes that could shape shift to a limited degree.
They loved playing tricks on mortals and immortals alike, perhaps even more so than tanukis did, so they had readily acquiesced to assist Shizuka in their wordless way when she’d first contacted them. Perhaps one day these would become greater Kitsune-bi, and able to take the form of a fox woman or man with tails made of flames, but for now they were exceptionally clever and intelligent foxes with access to a variety of limited powers. Such powers were perfect for messing with individuals both mundane and magical.
After a little squirming through fox sized tunnels that were a bit disturbing to the human mind, but perfectly natural to the fox body he presently inhabited, he hit the main room of the den. The kitsune-bi were waiting for him, greeting the familiar human wearing a fox’s shape with smiles and a nuzzle. They would wait until Will had left through one of the escape tunnels, then take off in another direction. The pair would switch in and out, all for the sake of leading Chitose on a merry chase towards the far side of the shrine and the wild lands beyond while he and Shizuka left on their trip to town to bring word of her arrival to the locals.
When night fell the fun would really begin, with the two kitsune-bi under instructions to keep Chitose busy for as long as possible and to use every trick at their disposal to confuse and entrap her in a magic maze within the woods. They couldn’t hurt her, and they couldn’t entrap her for more than a week assuming Chitose stayed frazzled and confused that long before remembering that she, too, had magic, and that she was very clearly being messed with by more than one spirit instead of chasing after a fleeing Shizuka.
With a happy swish of his tail, Will popped out of the escape tunnel and raced off to his meeting place with Shizuka. True to her word, the fox woman was sitting serenely with their things, eyes lighting up when he stepped into the little glade.
“Welcome back. And now… there. As I said, you make a noble fox but I much prefer you in this form I think.”
Will patted himself all over for a moment before looking Shizuka in the eye. “I kinda liked the tail, honestly. I see why you’re so proud of your own tails now. That said, I really missed having thumbs. Crazy how useful they are. On the other hand… what’s with the get up?” Shizuka had transformed him into a kimono of appropriate quality compared to hers, with colors far more appropriate to a man, of course.
“Is something the matter? I thought the dark blue looked best on you.”
“No, and I remember you saying you wanted me to dress up a bit, but this seems like a bit much.”
Shizuka gave him a wicked, foxy grin. “Well I did say I was going to dress you like a prince, didn’t I? It even finally gave me a chance to cut your hair and trim your beard. You look much more handsome with a goatee. That reminds me, how should we introduce you to the locals?”
Will took a moment to feel his face and hair before accepting Shizuka’s style choices with a shrug. It wasn’t like he could stop her at this point, and he had been looking a little bit ragged the last few months. “Huh? Why introduce me at all? I’m just carrying your baggage after all.”
“About that, I was thinking. You might be feeling better, but you’re not cured. You just had a night terror last night for example. You might not ever be truly cured in some respects but we know I can help you, to that end. Would you perhaps be interested in staying on around the shrine for a while? You did say you’d stay as long as I’d like you to, and I’d figure since I can provide ongoing support that you might be willing to stick around for the long haul. Even with the locals hopefully pitching in, I could really use your help, and I can’t think of anyone better for the position I have in mind.”
Will blinked for a moment. Shizuka hadn’t said anything like this before. But then, Will knew full well that she liked to play her cards close to her generous chest. “Uh… well sure, but what position would that be?”
“Well I’m not entirely sure at the moment, but I was thinking I still need a head priest, and if we show up as the kami and head priest, I’m sure the villagers will be pleased as can be. They rather like their traditions out in places like this after all. Don’t worry about your duties, I can teach you everything you need to know.”
Will’s brain ticked over a few times like a jet engine fighting to start up in the cold. “Wait, isn’t… wouldn’t that mean marrying you?”
“That is not the proper way to respond to a woman proposing to you, you know. Your mother would ‘have your guts for garters’ if she found out I think. That’s… what it feels like she’d say anyway. Memory bleed over. That said, I look forward to meeting her. Her command of the English language is… unique.”
“Pfft… unique is the right term. She swears creatively even by sailor standards, and is probably the most foul-mouthed admiral in the fleet! But that’s not what we’re talking about. Plenty of time to talk about Mom later.” Will rubbed the side of his head sheepishly. “I feel silly; you know me so well already. We practically finish each other’s sentences. I’m not sure I understand that, but I do understand how I’ve started feeling about you. So… yes. Though I have to say I wish you’d waited to ask for a bit longer. I was going to try and work a ring out with a jewelcrafter in one of the villages while we were there. I even got your ring finger measurement while you were sleeping the other night. So you beat me to proposing.”
“Great minds think alike, darling.. Now, let’s go meet the people we’ll be taking care of. We have a shrine to rebuild, a wedding to plan… it’s going to be a very busy year.”
Will stepped up next to Shizuka, and firmly took her hand, interlacing their fingers. “I wouldn’t ask it to be any other way. Busy just means we’re living well, and I’d hate to disappoint that valkyrie.” Will looked around for a moment, feeling something like a naughty school boy once again as he leaned in and cupped Shizuka’s chin with his free hand before kissing her slowly, deeply, for the first time. An act so insignificant to so many, but he memorized the feel of her lips in that moment, her warmth, her breath. “There… now it’s official. Can’t marry a woman I’ve never even kissed can I?”
“Worry not my dear fiance, we shall make up for this significant lack of kissing in our relationship until now, even if I have to stop time so we can make up for the lost time.”
“Can you actually do that?”
Any response Shizuka might have made is cut off by a loud echoing cry of mixed frustration and rage. A wordless cry that echoed off the hills near the shrine ever so slightly, that sounded a bit like Shizuka’s own name. Shizuka looked to Will with a slightly guilty frown.
“Should we go get her, maybe? She’s taking this a bit harder than I expected.”
“She’s taking it about how I expected it honestly. A strong fear response from opening yourself to the wrath of a powerful family on one side and a powerful organization on the other with precious little cover for one’s self will make people do all sorts of crazy things. Besides, you know you want to see if she actually manages to catch one of the Kitsune-bi. She won’t be hurt or anything, and she’ll be mostly protected by the shrine’s charms while she’s isolated. She’ll just be a bit dirty, tired, and stressed… and if we’re lucky she’ll make a complete fool out of herself when we come back with some craftsmen from the villages.”
Shizuka gives him a narrow eyed glare, biting down hard on her lower lip as she tried and subsequently failed to keep herself composed. “Oooh, you’re an evil man, William Hayashi.”
“Reconsidering that marriage proposal?”
“Not for a second. I happen to like your brand of evil. Now, shall we?”
“Let’s. We have a bunch of people who are going to be very excited to meet you, I think.”
“Us my dear. They will be excited to meet us.”
“Us it is.”
Laughing, hand in hand, the young couple began to walk towards the villages, leaving the screams of a half crazed tanuki chasing after fox spirits echoing behind them as they talked.
Photo Credit: Myself, Fushimi Inari Taisha, April 2013. Special thanks to the divine messenger for agreeing to pose for the photo! She was worried she looked a bit old but I’m sure we can all agree she doesn’t look a day over 250!