Forged in Fire - Part 1

 

Winter in the mountains usually came quickly and once it coated the hills and valleys and glens in frozen whites and greys, it clung with tiny icicle claws and sticky frozen fluff. The valleys and flat areas showed the vague ridges and spindles of the covered farmlands, while higher up the hills, careful tending began to give way to forest. Only high up the hill did civilization truly give way, under the twisted branches of northern trees reaching up to cup the cold offerings of the air.

These farmlands lay far from cities, and the few roads between villages were rarely travelled as people preferred to stay at home and weave or work in their huts. The peasants who lived here were a quiet sort, living under the Lords of Grace and Prosperity, the Crane. They tended their fields and saw to their duties, paying fealty to the Emperor and their Lords. Like the quiet people they were, they stayed in their homes and in their fields and did not wander far from their civilized, if poor, plains and homes.

The woods, those high mountain ranges, even in the best of weather held mysterious opposition for these humans. They knew spirits resided there, spirits who held no fealty for the Emperor or his laws and no respect for the human’s duty to their Emperor. These spirits jealously guarded their trees and forests and wild places with an ardor that was as fierce as any devoted yojimbo. Some of the spirits were simple ghosts, but elders spoke words of caution to the children about kitsune and other beings who ran under the forest limbs.

Kitsune, fox spirits, were many things. Sometimes they were playful, and merely tricked the poor villagers. Sometimes they were kind and would give lost children sweets and food. But sometimes they were vicious, and it was better to never see proof of their temper. Unfortunately, the local kitsune had grown less and less tolerant of humans as the ages passed. The villagers had long since learned it was best to not tempt the tempers of the foxes, and to not stray too far in the mountains lest they risk the wrath of those spirits.


One such spirit, cursing the ill luck that had given her scout duty on such a bitterly cold day, paused for a moment in her tour to look down the mountainside. The day was heavy, and the little spirits of the trees and elements were restless. There was Taint somewhere nearby, but where ever it was, it was not yet close enough for her to pinpoint it. The last time the elements had been burdened with such an oppression had been when goblins and oni had overrun the human capital. While the spirits in general had not been concerned with the fight, it had not then been nor was it now a welcome feeling.

Something, some scent or some unrest in the kamigami elementals made her pause, and she perched in the embrace of some of the lower limbs of a mountaintop forest giant. From this vantage point, the human settlements were not really visible; they were around a bend of the mountain on the other side of a small ridge. As she rested and watched, though, sharp eyes picked out a plume of smoke against the grey sky, a rise of darker ashen grey larger and heavier than the little village normally boasted.

After a moment, she saw what had caught her attention. Whether the kamigami had whispered it to her or she’d managed to hear it, she was unsurprised when a lone figure came around the edge of the mountain ridge. The figure was healthy. Not that the kitsune could see the person that well, but the human plowed through inches deep unbroken snow with a steady pace. The spirit continued to watch the human, uninterested until she realized that the human was running towards the woods.

The spirit frowned. It had not been that long ago that the kitsune had simply killed anyone who came too far up the mountain, then rolled the bodies down the hill for the others to see. That a human would run willingly towards the mountain spoke of something odd. As the spirit was a kitsune, who were never known for their disinterest in the odd and curious, she tarried a moment longer to see what oddity this human would present.


As the human came closer, the spirit could see that the figure – a woman – carried a bundle. Then, eventually, that the bundle was a weakly wailing baby whose cries the woman was muffling against her shoulder. The spirit gingerly freed herself from the tree and dropped silently down to the ground. The human was now nearly at the line of trees whose larger size marked the edge of the real wood. The human was not stopping, though she had slowed.

The spirit approached the human, absently pushing back the hood of her protective scout gear. The spirit’s hair was red with spun gold highlights, the fur of her tail and ears mirroring the same coloring – an aura of gold over red. Between the color of her hair and the large fox’s ears and tail, she was unmistakably kitsune and even in her scout’s gear, easily seen now that she wasn’t hiding.

The woman staggered forward a few more steps under the line of the trees, movements perversely losing their fluidity as she broke into the more shallow snow in the forest shade. She stared vaguely in front of her, eyes unable to focus on anything around her. This close, the spirit could see a deep gash along the woman’s scalp, though the blood from it no longer flowed. The human’s dark hair was matted with it, and the spirit could see that the blood had begun to freeze, explaining why she hadn’t smelled it earlier.

The human could not have been a moon past twenty.

“Miss, you should turn back now.”

The woman collapsed to her knees. She smiled, a trembling weak thing, and held out the babe she carried. The babe was cold enough and weak enough that its cries had turned to mere whimpers. The mother herself wavered and began to fall.

The spirit bit back a curse and jumped forward to catch woman and child. She caught the child, but the woman fell over, revealing a long, deep gash running the length of her back. The spirit looked up and eyed the trail the woman had left. Despite the severity of the wound, there was no blood in the snow, at least not close enough for the spirit to see. The woman was quite dead.

The babe’s whimpering grew in volume a little as it objected to the cold, and the unfamiliar presence of the spirit. It was wrapped in a plainly well-used and recently used kitchen towel, and underneath the child was dressed in nondescript, rough clothing that was obviously of peasant make. A peasant child, whose mother or sister had died to bring to the dubious safety of the forest spirits.

There were kitsune who would not care, who would have left the baby in the arms of the now-dead mother. There were even kitsune who would kill the child right there, to give it a quick death rather than a lingering one of frozen starvation.

Ginyue, however, had never been one for senseless violence, even in her grumpiest most solitary hermit moods. She sighed a little, mentally railing a little at the fates who had brought this to her path. After a moment, she loosened the outer, warmer layer of her gear and tucked the baby underneath. It would keep there for a little while anyway. Almost immediately, the baby calmed and curled closer to her.

Ginyue, a bachelorette who regarded children with the singular horror of those who were not and probably never would be interested in having children of their own, shuddered a little and hoped the babe didn’t make a mess in her jerkin. She eyed the woods around them, debating. Finally, she sighed. If she was going to take the child back to hand over to the Denmother to be raised as an orphan, she couldn’t just leave the woman’s body to feed the wolves and boars.

She knelt and dug clawed fingers through the snow into the wet, frozen earth below. Earth kamigami didn’t like doing much in this weather, but they liked her more than most, so they roused themselves at her call. The snow bubbled up as the earth beneath began to roil. The nearby trees reached up and took careful hold of the body, then drug it down beneath the still moving earth. Once she judged the body far enough down, she let the earth kami rest again, and they pulled the packed earth back to the way it was before they had moved.

Ginyue stood up and shook the excess dirt from her fingers. She’d have to cut her route short today, but she suspected that the scout leader would want to know what had happened. She hoped someone else had gotten a good look at the human village to see what had hurt and spooked the woman so badly. After all, that the village had been safe for so long was a sign of how safe it was for the kitsune. When the humans started warring, it was a daunting thing.

 

The next day.

 

Kawamori had seen many horrendous things in his career, and equally horrendous people - a father who sold his daughter into servitude to maintain face, a mother who had killed sons to ensure first born rights to a particular favorite. They burdened him every day, the ghosts of the betrayed and the cries of the wronged. They were there in every dream, crying to him for help, and every night he dealt with the fact that he could do nothing for them.

After leaving the village Kawamori felt he wouldn't sleep for a month. Maybe longer. He had followed the tracks, and they had told him a sickening story of an under staffed village. The village was rural enough and secluded enough that it had not seen the horrors of war in generations. The people had been slaughtered, and the few samurai stationed here had failed them. It left a bad taste in his mouth, as did most of the short-comings of his class.

The devastation was complete. Buildings had been leveled, bodies left strewn in a mess of grotesque, frozen puzzle pieces. He could see no survivors in the village. The only chance he had of finding out exactly what had happened lay in a lone trail of running steps memorialized in frozen ice and snow. It was the only hope of a survivor that he might save from his troubled dreams.

He followed the trail out of the village and around the lee of the mountain that obscured his view, a critical bend in the mountain that may have saved the person from the attacker’s rage. He studied the tracks as he followed them. A woman, he decided, from the footprint size, from the depth of the imprint in the snow compared to his own – not quite as deep as his with a slightly shorter stride that indicated a lighter, shorter body. There were no signs of anyone having ever traveled this path, but the woman’s path had taken her straight and unerringly into the wood.

She must have been young, her stride didn’t lessen, nor did she stumble. She had only looked ahead, no turning steps to show she looked back. Too afraid to look back, he guessed. As he climbed the hill, chasing the phantom of her memory, he saw signs of blood in the shadows of her steps. She’d been injured, and quite seriously, judging by the amount of blood that had made it to the ground.  Soon enough he was left with only her foot prints as the iron solidness of her blood trickled away into virtually nothing. She’d bled more than enough to kill herself, but she had kept running.

He paused next to a young tree, resting one hand slightly on the smooth bark of a peeling birch tree as he considered the path going further up the mountain and into the shadows marking the true wooded areas. He tilted his head for a moment, considering the distance she’d run from the village and the blood he’d seen. She couldn’t have gone much farther. He’d either find a body, traces of a body, or someone had saved her.  He nodded and proceeded carefully into the wood.

Under the skeleton canopy of the trees, the snow on the ground diminished by a good measure. The foot prints faded away into nothing, leaving only a faded whisper hinting at the direction the woman had taken before even the footprints disappeared into an unbroken field of white amongst the trees.

~


Ginyue was less than amused. The excitement of the day before – other scouts had had a clearer view of what had happened and had brought back reports of the decimation of the village – had translated itself into increased security around the den. That meant that even the blacksmith, who privately felt her talents could be better used making a few extra arrowheads to stock up the scouts, was turned out to do extra patrols. She hated the military, sometimes. She was allowed to tinker with and create all sorts of sharp metal things, but it had distinct downsides... like having to trudge about in sub-freezing temperatures on patrol.

She sighed to herself and gave a mental shrug as she absently patted a small bundle she had carefully tucked away in her robes. She’d managed to coax the earth kami to help her grow a spattering of flowers, despite the snow. She intended to lay them out as an offering for the poor woman, rather hoping to not be haunted by a worried ghost. There were several kitsune in the Chigonoha den who specialized in calming ghosts and sending them on their way, but it was not at all one of her affinities.

Suddenly, the air kami – all of them – seemed to shift around her. Their attention focused into a palatable energy just before they dove towards a point just on the other side of her ability to follow them. She froze as only a spirit of the wood could, then hastily reached up and adjusted her cap to make sure the tale-tail red and gold of her hair and fur were covered by the loose weave grey and brown cloth meant to help them hide their colors in the winter. She edged her way into brush and made herself hidden and still, waiting for whatever had so completely pulled the air kamigami’s attention. Whatever it was, the other kamigami weren’t reacting. A sleepy earth kami roused enough to greet her, reaching over to curl against her hand. She ignored it for the moment, it wouldn’t be offended, and focused her attention on the direction the air kami had flown.

Her patience was rewarded a moment later when she caught sight of a figure making its way deliberately through the snow. The figure, not overly tall but strong enough in frame to be a man, made his way along the path the woman had taken the day before. She and other kitsune had taken time to erase the woman’s trail once it crossed the borders of the young woods, but the man seemed to have no trouble following the trail further into the wood. Of course, the woman had run fairly straight and guessing her direction wouldn’t be difficult until he got further into the wood. Ginyue was far enough away from the man that she couldn’t pick out much about him, but by the sheer number of air kami flitting around him in playful patterns, he had to be a Shugenja of some sort.

Ginyue bit down hard on a few of her choice curse phrases. This, apparently, was destined to just *not* be her week. She ducked beneath a low lying tree branch and crept closer to the stranger, pausing in relative safety behind a tree where she could watch him. The little earth kami followed her, and it roused a few more earth kami as they passed. When she settled again, she had earth kamigami snuggled up against her legs and tail like kittens looking for attention.

As he came closer, she could see that he wore Crane colors, all pale blue and white. Oddly enough, though, his hair was black rather than the affected white that was popular even today among the human clan, and his skin was as tanned as a peasant’s in a very uncommon display of un-courtly appearance. Her adopted father told her once that she ought to be able to smell the average Crane a near furlong away, because they were overly effusive in their use of perfume. Usually, anyway. If the air kami hadn’t moved, she probably would have walked right up on this man without smelling him. She scowled and watched the oddity of a man tramp all over her previously relatively calm afternoon.

He came to a stop just next to where she had interred the woman’s body, though she knew, *knew* there was no sign there of what had happened. There wasn’t even a ghost, yet. The man looked short to her, though she wasn’t particularly aware of the average human height among Cranes. He didn’t look at all like the too-pretty fops that her adopted father had described to her when he told her of the average Crane, though the man was attractive enough in a cute, tired sort of way. He wore a katana, but he didn’t have even a hint of the air of a warrior around him. Nor, she realized suddenly, did he seem like a strong shugenja. For all the kamigami that were zooming about him, none of them paid attention to him in the way that a kami normally responded to a shugenja that controlled the kami. They weren’t even focusing on him like they might for a spirit, but more flicking around in the random patterns she usually saw kamigami affect around children with some affinity for the kamigami.

It was too many contradictions bundled into one person, and she couldn’t control the flit of her ears that pressed them back, then forward under her cap. She was so fascinated by it all that she didn’t see the air kami flying at her until it nearly buzzed her. Ginyue barely avoided squeaking out a sound as the kami circled her once, tugged at her hood and ears, and then flitted back to the man. The human’s head tilted, but he didn’t look at her nor move in her direction. Instead, he squatted down and placed his hand over the swept snow covering the hidden grave where the woman had fallen.

Kawamori hung his head and reached forward to rest his hands over the earth where he somehow knew the trail ended. She had died. He was not even allowed the whisper of hope that he had felt when he saw the foot prints. The shade he had followed here was just that – an impression of a person, and a weak one that would disappear as soon as the weather turned. There was no sign of a body, nor of why the tracks disappeared, but he knew as he always knew such things that she had died on this spot.

The sadness, the naked lack of hope on his face made Ginyue pause. Perhaps she had been wrong yesterday. She had assumed the child was a peasant child, but what if the rough clothing had simply been a disguise to get the child free? What if this man were the father? He made no sound as he sat there, his only motion his breathing and his hands gently running across the snow.

The same air kami buzzed Ginyue again and she silently glared up at it. Air was her deficient element, and while she could see the little energetic snots, she never could get them to do more than blow raspberries at her. She’d never had one harass her like this and it was an annoying novelty. The kami plainly wanted her to step out, but Ginyue was in no way inclined to step out and introduce herself to a man who had that many kamigami clinging to his robe-sleeves. Even if he wasn’t consciously controlling the air kamigami, they were plainly responding to him, and she wasn’t interested in fielding the inquisitive nature of air kami who weren’t being controlled. He was shugenja or at least of shugenja birth, and clanned. The clans knew well enough that there were kitsune in this wood, he could just go back to his city and make inquiries to find out what the kitsune knew about the incident through official channels.

Privately, she conceded that those channels would be convoluted – he’d have to gain an audience to the Lion dispatch, then speak with Norituri the Lion messenger who was married to the Denmother of Chigonoha. Noritori had recently managed to have his dispatch moved to the nearby Crane city and had become the unofficial official link to the Chigonoha Den. Norituri would speak with Grey, and Grey would then decide if she felt like agreeing to whatever the human needed or not.
The man looked up from the spot he’d been gazing blankly at and regarded the trees around him with a thoughtful, weary look. There was no sign of what had happened, only the trail leading to this spot before it disappeared. The man sighed heavily, then spoke in a thick, roughly unused voice, “Someone found you.”

The voice had borne much of a similarity with the voice of a man who was speaking for the first time after waking up from a long sleep. Ginyue’s fur stood on end for the heartbeat it took her to realize he was speaking to the dead woman, rather than speaking to her.

The man smiled then, a grim, unhappy twist of lips. He was not happy to find himself in this dead end with no answers. He lacked a body, but he knew she was dead. It bothered him, not to know what had happened to the woman.

The man twisted suddenly, turning away from the hidden grave, his intent change of focus nearly hidden in a swarm of air kami as they surge around him in upset patterns. He doesn’t seem aware of their movements, not even apparently able to see them, but their upset nonetheless transferred to the man and he was somehow aware that they were upset.

Ginyue had been staring in almost trance-like fascination at the way the kami surrounded the man, but his sudden movement broke her out of the moment. When the air kami all fled, and flee they did in screaming, angry, upset gusts, she realized she’d not been paying attention to something far more important. With a lap full of earth kami, she’d not noticed it, but she could smell it now – the pungent, unhealthy rotting smell of taint rushing into the area, chasing after the disappearing tails of the fleeing air kami.

Ginyue breathed a curse as she scrambled from her hiding place in the brush. Her earth kami were more upset at the tainted presence than her abrupt departure, and they followed her heels closely as she ran towards the man. “Not my day, not my day! Why is it always in my sector…?”

Her unexpected movement and the breathless, mostly resolved voice brought the human about with his hand on the hilt of his katana. He gave her a sweeping glance, noting she was slightly taller than he and slender, but solid-looking under grey and brown close-cut winter wear with no obvious weapon at hand. He relaxed fractionally, forgetting his previous moment of wariness as he regarded the strange apparition in front of him. His focus was intense, so much so that he was too busy to notice the tree uprooted behind him and lobbed in their direction.

Ginyue yelped a sound of surprise and grabbed for him, pushing him sideways and out of the way of the thrown tree. There was taint here. Taint in her woods. Taint that had just damaged one of her forest’s trees. It made her furious and tightened her voice with gruff fury.

“Watch your surroundings!” When he continued to stare, she cursed again and pulled him from his stillness to push him away, “Run, man!”

He had an impression of pale green eyes the yellow-green of a newly budded leaf and a tousle of red and gold hair before the second tree landed. He stared at it briefly, then turned to see the oni. The demon was a purple paunch humanoid thing about 15 feet tall with small horns dotting his face. The oni sized up his prey, razor claws idly cut across the bark of a nearby tree as a long, gray tongue lolled out between jaggef teeth. To the kitsune, it smelled of taint, which was grotesque enough, but the oni itself was rank with old blood, sweat, and other things she didn't care to think on too closely. Kawamori shook himself free of the kitsune’s hand and drew his sword.

Ginyue – at first inclined to be annoyed at the human audacious enough to think he could face down an oni of that size – flinched and drew in a sharp breath as the blade was bared. At a glance, it looked like a normal enough blade, but despite the metal shell, the blade itself was completely made of air kami. Militaristic air kami who were focused on one task – fighting.

Before she could quite grasp the significance of the blade, he spoke, “He can catch us. He caught all of the others who ran. You run. I’ll hold him off.” He leveled the blade at the oni.

Ginyue spared a glancing glare towards the man normally reserved for particularly dense suitors intent on talking to her, “Don’t tempt me. I hate fighting. This is my sector and I don’t get to run, human.”

He eyes her, surprised at the snippety tone and her demeanor. They break off just in time to dodge out of the way of another tree. He gazes at the oni intently, but he spoke towards the kitsune, “Do what you must, and so will I.”

The man shifts his weight, adjusting his footing in the snow. To Ginyue, a kitsune neither trained in nor inclined to be curious about swords, his stance seemed reasonably good enough. His stance goaded the Oni into action and it began its loping gait towards them.

Ginyue rolled behind a tree and shoved her hands down into the ground. The earth kami had scattered a little when she’d gotten up a moment ago, but unlike the air kami, they had stayed. So when she called them together, they rushed to her and then off to the trees to help them do what she wanted. The trees knew what was happening, as did the spirits, and neither wanted the creature of Taint to stick around, so despite the sluggishness of the season, the earth came alive.

Roots boil up out of the ground to entangle the Oni’s feet and grab at him. Fortunately enough for them, the Oni didn’t seem to be very smart. It was confused when it hit the ground. More roots whip out to pull the oni further down and to try and tie him.

For his part, the human didn’t hesitate. He’d run forward almost as soon as he had his stance. When Ginyue looked up and measured the distance of it, she had a moment of self-disgust. The man obviously had training and a sword like that ought to cut through near about any—

The man’s follow through is probably decent enough normally, but it’s just enough off that even Ginyue knows it wouldn’t work. Had the man had any idea how to use his little military air kami, it wouldn’t have mattered, but he apparently didn’t. The blade glances harmlessly off of the behemoth’s skin and slides away. The kamigami in the sword are furious, but like a well trained regimen of soldiers, do not strike out at the target in front of them without the order to do so.

The Oni was smart enough to know it was annoyed, and smart enough to know the sword could hurt if the man got around to using it right. With a snarling growl, the demon frees a hand and backhands at the human. Kawamori ducks just in time and rolls forward to slice his blade through the more delicate skin of the Oni’s hamstring.

Its roar filled the woods and shook the trees with its anger. The Oni’s tail swung hard as it flailed and swatted Kawamori by pure chance. He went into a nearby tree. The Oni began savagely ripping through the roots holding it, tail flashing heavily from side to side and ramming hard against the nearby trees as the oni tries to gain its footing again. In pain now, and in fury, it doesn’t take long for the Oni to free itself of the trees despite Ginyue’s efforts. It yanks a limb from one of the nearer trees and lobs it at Ginyue.

One of the trees reaches down and takes the impact of the limb, but Ginyue had already moved. She scrambled after the man, grabbing him as she passed. Already disoriented, he only had a moment to register that the woman was handily pulling him along with one hand before the Oni made a leap at them.

Ginyue squeaked and backpedaled. She had never personally fought an Oni before and was therefore totally unprepared for the devastating speed and range of the being. The man seemed more experienced in that manner as he instinctively twisted and avoided a slapping hit the Oni had aimed at him. The man went for the same duck and slash attack as before, only to discover that the Oni wasn’t quite that dumb.

Gin caught the brunt of the slap and was propelled into one of the nearby trees. She became uncomfortably acquainted with its bark as the tree’s body gave way in a splintering crack of sound. Kawamori dodged the slap well enough, but his duck motion brought him up at the precise point where the Oni’s tail flicked out. He made similar acquaintance with a tree.



When the entirely human scream filled the forest, Ginyue jerked awake. She couldn’t see what exactly the Oni was doing, but then she didn’t need the details at the moment, nothing past smelling the entirely human blood and distinct odor of a stomach wound. Kawamori’s attention was on his pain, as was the cackling Oni’s. She saw the Oni toss the human a little, still giggling and cackling to itself over the fun of it. There was no one else around.

So there was certainly no one who heard the snicking snarl pass her lips, or the soft sound of metal clearing leather. She didn’t like to fight. If anyone from the den saw her with a bared blade in hand for fighting, they might die of pure shock.

Her blade, though, slid home in the Oni’s back in a smooth motion that neatly sliced through liver and up through lung and rib. She was gone before the Oni’s roar and instinctive flinch brought its heavy tail and claws down where she’d been. She moved under the tail and slid forward to jab the blade through the Oni’s knee. The blade was good; she’d made it herself. The aim was good, though she wished for a good spear haft to turn and slice with easier. The strike went through the weak bend of the joint, cut cleanly through gristle and cartilage, and jerked through the other side of the leg.

Howling, the Oni collapsed in a flailing mass of writhing purple. It tried to strike at her, but pain blinded its thoughts and she managed to dodge. Her slice at its neck was not as successful; she’d gotten too close and the thing hit her out of pure instinct. Her claws dug deeply into the side of a tree already dying from its injuries as she pulled herself to her feet, snarling. She’d still managed the cut, and though not as deep as she would have liked, it was still a vital hit. The oni writhed on the ground, lashing out wildly in instinct and panic as the cut began to bleed out. She snarled again and called the earth kamigami forth again.

The earth stopped holding the oni’s weight, separating under its feet to suck the demon down knee deep in the soil. It hit roots, then, of the dying trees who had no energy to move their limbs. The oni’s screeched furiously and Gin flattened her ears as the piercing sound of it sent invisible hot iron pokers into her sensitive ears. It tried to crawl out of the earthen trap, only to discover that the earth had once again become unyielding.

It screamed furiously and began digging with the one arm that was fully free of the earth.

And then the backup was there.

Kitsune do not do well when confronted with Taint. It makes them ill. But when a dozen kitsune lay into killing something with all their focus, it doesn’t usually take very long.

At first, the wave of brown and grey clad fighters didn’t register, but one separated off from the group. Koten, the eldest son of the Denlord, spread his hands and stopped some several feet away from the furious Ginyue. He’d never seen her in a battle rage, and all that gold-lined red made an impressive display when it rose in angry defense, especially when sunlight finally broke through the clouds to bounce through the leaves. He stayed well back, acting as innocent and calm as he could.

Ginyue flexed her fingers against the tree again. She stared down at her fingers stupidly for a moment, the sounds of the fight dimming from her ears as she realized how badly injured she was. She carefully removed her fingers from the side of the tree and patted it carefully in apology. It was dying already, but that was no reason to not be considerate.

Koten topped her by a good two inches and was a fox of a more orange furred color than red. He looked almost exactly like his father, save that he wasn’t quite as broad in the chest as the massive Denlord. His tone was cautious when he spoke, “Hello, little Apricot. Having a bad day?”

“Those are the senior scouts, I hope.”

Koten had the grace not to look offended, “I wouldn’t bring short ears to fight an oni. Kishi’s group found tracks around the way and we’ve been following it. A few minutes ago, a horde of air kami descended on us and pulled us over here.”

“Oh. They seem to worry about him.” Ginyue sat down heavily on the ground, a mostly controlled slide to her rear. She couldn’t quite seem to see straight, “One of my blades is around here somewhere, and a human.” She thought for a moment, “He might be dead.”

“If he isn’t yet, should he be?”

She squinted up at him, “You are the official greeter for Chigonoha, go look at him yourself.”

Koten looked over his shoulder, at about the same time the oni gave its dying wheeze of anger. “I rather doubt he’s conscious, or he’d be leaving. It’s up to you.”

“Hell.” Ginyue ran her claws back through her hair, ignoring for the moment the dirt and blood on them. She’d bathe later, anyway. “I don’t know who he is. He’s got a pack of air kami that follow him, but he doesn’t seem to be able to control them and he’s piss poor with his sword.”

Koten grinned wryly. Ginyue was fond of being scathing, he didn’t think she had any other mode, but she didn’t usually sound quite so disgusted. “So not much of a threat?”

“I don’t think so. He seemed to be investigating the woman. I’d say, if nothing else, there’s no point in not tending to him if he’ll live, and helping him could be politically good for relations with the humans.” Stubbornly, she refused to say the actual traditional phrase that would invite the human in and make her responsible for him.

Koten nodded slowly, then offered her a hand up. Tired to the bone, and already feeling the soreness from slamming into and sliding off of no fewer than half a dozen trees, she took the hand up. Koten yanked her harder then, and with a neat little twist, pulled her into a piggyback. Ginyue was too tired to object too much. She’d bite him later.

The human it turned out was alive, just barely.

Koten spoke in a conversational tone as they watched one of the scouts set water kami to stabilizing the human, “You know, you didn’t say it, but you are still responsible for him.”

She did bite him then. Koten just laughed.

 

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Language note -

The Japanese phrase "Kamigami" is literally used to refer to "all those little gods." In real life, this might include a guardian spirit of a field or a family as well as any of the thousands (dare I say millions?) of spirits that the ancient Japanese believed resided around them. In the L5R verse, I've adopted the phrase to be used for the elemental spirits. So, when a kitsune uses the word "kamigami," I mean that they are thinking about all of the elemental kami that are in the world around them.

See Here for a discussion on DenMothers and their duties

See Here for a character page for Ginyue

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