Adventures of the Twin Tails
The Airship Lost Campaign, A Divine Blood Story by Branwen Gillen
Chapter One – Amaya’s Birth
No, no, no, no, no…
It’s ok, I’m here.
Something’s wrong. I’m not supposed to be like this.
I know. It’ll be ok, I know what we can do…
“I hate you, Yukimura!” Setsuko screeched at the top of her lungs, flinging two kunai at her de facto husband’s head.
Yukimura Hayato squeaked, ducking behind the doorframe moments before the throwing knives whizzed through the air where his head had been before embedding themselves in the hallway wall opposite. “Why do you hate ME?”
“This is all your fault!” she shouted back, whipping her tails at him as she wheezed through another contraction.
“Oh, no, don’t peg this one on me,” he replied, gingerly peeking around the corner, “you got yourself into this all by yourself!”
“You said you’d take responsibility!”
“For the child, yes!”
“Setsuko!” Dr. Minoru snapped. “It’s a bit early to be making foreplay! Concentrate and breathe, please!”
“Don’t think this is over! I’ll remember this, Hayato!” Setsuko snarled one final time before getting to the business at hand.
“Don’t I know it,” he sighed, wiping his brow. Walking over to the kunai, he had to grip them with two hands to pull them out of the wall. “Where the hell does she hide these things, anyway?”
Looking over at the two old men smiling beatifically at him from the bench next to the main entrance of the Yukimura family home, their bushy orange tails waggling excitedly, he shook his head. Walking over to hang the kunai on his coat rack, he tried to ignore Setsuko’s screaming and cursing. Not much I can do in there but get in the way or get stabbed, he thought to himself, bewildered and overcome.
Setsuko, the three-tailed kunoichi, his wife. A retired warrior, too stubborn for her own good. He asked himself again what a woman like that saw in the single-tailed accountant son of a rice farmer. She didn’t need him to provide for her child… their child, he corrected himself. Again, he resigned himself to never knowing.
The sound of a baby crying snapped him out of it but it was the short, sharp, cry of Dr. Minoru and set him running. Bursting through the doorway, he found the doctor standing a few feet away from the bed, staring at the baby. Hayato also stared at the tiny little girl, lying on her back with her arms and legs curled, little hands balled into fists. “Doctor?”
“Is something wrong?” Setsuko asked.
Dr. Minoru shook herself out of it, stepping forward to grab the swaddling clothes but remaining strangely quiet. “Doctor!” Hayato snapped, kneeling next to the baby to look at her.
“Nothing’s wrong,” Dr. Minoru finally said. “Hayato, you can help me.”
Hayato gasped, seeing what was wrong the moment the doctor picked the little girl up. At the base of her spine, she had two tiny, cute, wiggling, stubs. Once she was swaddled, he cradled her in his arms and sat gently down on the edge of the bed next to his wife. Setsuko was still white and sweating, but she managed a smile, reaching up to tickle the girl’s cheek with her pinky. “Hey, little one, what’d you do to get the doctor and my silly husband upset?”
Hayato glanced at Dr. Minoru. “Uh, it’s not important…” He stopped the moment his wife frowned. Whipping her hand out, she grabbed his ear and twisted. “OW! OW! OW! Honey, you’re hurting me!”
“What are you not saying, Hayato?” she asked sweetly.
“She’s got two tails!” he finally said, giving in. “She’s already got two tails!”
Her fingers went limp as her eyes widened.
“I’ll… go…” Dr. Minoru murmured. “The elders will want to know her name.”
“Amaya,” Setsuko told her, “Yukimura Amaya.”
“A two-tailed baby!” Nakamura Kuro, town elder, exclaimed, pacing the council chambers. His four tails swished around him in agitation.
Kato Shinobu tutted over her knitting. “You’ll wear a hole in the carpet, Kuro,” she admonished, “calm down.”
Feeling childish, he finally stopped. “This is beyond anything in my experience! How does such a thing happen?”
Dr. Minoru shrugged. “I don’t know, I’ve never heard of anything like it. I’ve left a message with my old teacher, confidentially of course.”
“I’ll say what nobody else here wants to,” Yoshida Riku interrupted. “What if the child is already Kumiho?”
Shinobu sighed and threw her knitting down into her lap. “Think before you say things, Riku! How would that even work?”
“I’m old enough to know better than to trust every outsider that comes into our village!” he snapped back. “What do we know about Setsuko? She turned up in our village, claiming to be a retired Psyche agent, shacked up with my great-grandson in our ancestral home no less and decided to have a child of her own flesh and blood rather than his! Humph! In better times, she’d already be out on her ear.”
“Your own gripe with Setsuko aside,” Kuro growled, “she had the proper papers from Psyche. And, this has nothing to do with baby Amaya. I’ll need some proof before we start throwing the word ‘Kumiho’ around so casually.”
“I’m saying she could have fed her child a soul or two,” Riku said. “Or maybe the child is some wretched abomination trying to trick us. We can’t ignore the prophesy of the Ten-Tails…”
Shinobu snorted. “Really? We’re going to bring up ancient legends too, now? Shall we prepare bomb shelters just in case the hundred-and-one calamities strikes this year? It hasn’t for the last ten millennia, maybe it’s due any day now.”
Riku scowled at her, folding his arms across his chest. “I’m warning everyone, woman,” he said, pointing one of his five tails at her accusingly. “I won’t let this village be destroyed over one little wailing brat!”
“Has the baby done anything to merit such a reaction?” Shinobu asked Minoru calmly. Minoru shook her head. “See, Riku dear? Why don’t you calm down until this becomes an actual emergency?”
“I agree with Shinobu,” Kuro said, “let’s calm down and wait. We need more information and, if the child is somehow malevolent, it shall become apparent in due time.”
“Don’t say I didn’t warn the two of you,” Riku grumbled.
Hayato dashed from door to door, window to window, checking locks. He cursed the thin rice paper doors of his ancestral family home. Why couldn’t he have bought a nice, modern, home with a nice, modern security system. Maybe gun turrets and electric fences too.
Setsuko hummed to herself happily as she played with little Amaya, deftly arranging her new diaper while holding safety pins in her teeth. “Husband, why don’t you settle yourself and have some tea?”
Pausing mid-dash down the hallway, he glared at her, aghast. “Need I remind you that there’s an unruly mob of townsfolk led by ‘bring back the noose’ Riku carrying torches coming up the road?”
“I know, seriously, who uses torches in the current age?” Setsuko scoffed. “They’re really going to have problems setting this old place ablaze unless they have some kind of accelerant.”
“Did you hear me? They could be coming to kill us! And Amaya!”
Finishing the diaper, Setsuko made sure little Amaya was gurgling happily to herself before turning to her husband. Reaching up, she cradled his cheeks in her hands and kissed him on the nose. “Honey, if they want to try to do that, there’s not much we can do about it now. If you really want to help, remain calm, greet them when they arrive and remind them that I’ll kill anyone who steps across your threshold tonight.”
Her smile was the scariest thing Hayato had ever seen.
Nakamura Kuro was puffing when he threw open the front door and let out a surprised chirp when a kunai embedded itself into the doorframe next to his head, ducking for cover. “Setsuko! It’s me, Kuro! I came running as soon as I could!”
Hayato ran over to help the old Kitsune up to his feet. “I’m sorry, elder, my wife is a little on edge.”
“Pardon me, elder,” Setsuko said, giving him a curt bow before returning to care for Amaya.
“Riku’s riled up most of the village,” Kuro informed Hayato as the younger man helped him to the bench. “Nobody knows how or why Amaya was born with two tails and they’re assuming the worst, as always. You should take your wife and child and run, at least until this blows over.”
“Have you met my wife?” Hayato chuckled, trying to put a brave face on for the elder. “If you want to try to convince her to run with Amaya, be my guest.”
Kuro looked to the doorway from which Setsuko’s merry humming could be heard. “Is she all right?”
“I ask that a lot myself,” Hayato admitted, “but I wouldn’t have married her if I didn’t have faith that she knows what she’s doing.”
“Then what are you going to do?”
Hayato shrugged. “What my wife says, go out there and have a chat.”
Helping the old man up again, Hayato lent him a hand as they walked out onto the front porch. The torches were plainly visible, bobbing as their bearers tromped down the road towards them. It wasn’t until they were a few feet from the gate that Riku noticed the two men and called the mob to a halt. “Kuro? Get out of there! We’re taking Amaya into custody!”
“Eh, sorry sir but my wife may have something to say about that,” Hayato called back, scratching the back of his head.
“Shush, boy! Get down from there this instant!”
“What? Why? You’re all free to come in if you like,” Hayato said, casually picking some wax out of his ear. “I can’t promise that you’ll be able to leave, though. I’m not the strongest guy in this village and some of you look way too heavy for me. Besides, what are you going to do, great-grandfather? Burn down our ancestral home?”
“Better one house than a whole village!”
“You’re right! What’s one house of many? One parent of many? One baby of many? Why bring the whole village with you when just one child-killer would do?”
Several members of the mob shifted uncomfortably. “We’re not here to hurt the baby!” Riku insisted. “We’re going to put it where it can’t hurt anyone!”
“It? Where do you get off calling Amaya an ‘it’?” Hayato demanded. “Taking a child from her mother, you should all be ashamed of yourselves!”
“Even if she’s just an innocent, somehow, she’s a risk to all of us! If the other races discover our secret...” Riku left the threat hanging unspoken.
Hayato was about to reply when a burning yellow streak shot over the mountains, arcing down to impact in his front garden with enough force to shake the patio. Once the dust cleared, a small blonde figure leapt forward, hugging Hayato fiercely. “HAYATO! Look at you, all fatherly and grown up now!”
Frozen, Hayato cringed away from the far-too familiar thirteen-year-old girl. “Uh, do I know you?”
Jumping up, she lightly smacked the back of his head. “Oh, silly! Of course not! We’ve never met before!”
Riku trudged forward, kicking in the gate to clear his path. “Now what the hell is this? Who are you?”
Stepping to the edge of the porch, the girl’s amber aura blazed to life, a halo of nine tails emerging from her form accompanied by a peal of thunder. “I am Yakyou, Setsuko’s master and Godmother of Yukimura Amaya.”
The entire mob took a step back as Riku’s face turned white. “Yakyou? The Uncounted Calamities?”
Smiling, Yakyou leant forward, reaching out to pat the old man on the cheek. “You’ve gotten old, Riku. Why don’t you go yell at some clouds or something?”
“Sensei, is that you?” Setsuko asked placidly, holding Amaya in her arms as she stepped out onto the porch. Yakyou span about with an excited yip, skipping over to coo over the baby girl. “Awwww, she’s so cute!”
Amaya giggled, reaching out to grab Yakyou’s finger in her iron grip. “That’s right, I’m your Godmother, little one,” Yakyou told her earnestly, “we’re going to have so much fun together!”
Hayato felt a chill go down his spine.
Kuro coughed. “Great Yakyou, maybe you can clear something up for us on the matter of Amaya.”
Yakyou’s left ear flattened to the side of her head while her right cocked up curiously. “Oh?”
“How can it be that a Kitsune could be born with two tails?”
“Ooooooh, is that what this is all about?” Yakyou glanced at the mob still fidgeting beyond the fence. “Wow, have you all really forgotten so much of our history here in the sticks? That’s easy, it just happens.”
Riku spluttered. “But how? It can’t ‘just happen’, she’s two people!”
Yakyou held her face with her free hand for a moment. “You’re lucky my therapist is trying to get me to cut down on massacres. Sometimes, like every other species, Kitsune are conceived as twins. Even more rarely, those twins become so synchronised with one another that they merge, not into a single body and soul such as occurs in humans, but as twin-tailed foxes.”
Murmurs broke out through the mob. Several shouted angrily before dousing their torches to stalk back down the hill. “No! Wait!” Riku called out desperately as his support crumbled. “She’s still a danger to the entire village! What will the rest of them do if they learn about the merger?”
“I came here to protect my own against a Kumiho!” someone shouted angrily.
Kuro stepped forward. “Please, all of you return to your homes! I understand that you have your concerns and I promise that they will be addressed in legal counsel. There is no danger here, please leave this happy family in peace!”
Once the mob was dispersed, Kuro picked Riku up off the grown and hoisted the old man’s arm over his shoulder. “Come on, you old fool,” Kuro sighed, “let’s go get drunk together, like in the old days.”
While the women chatted excitedly as they moved back into the warmth inside and the elders began the long trek down the hill, Hayato felt the tension drain out of him, sinking into a curled heap on the porch. “What did I do to earn a life with this much excitement?” he asked the empty air plaintively.
Chapter 2 – Childhood
“Get back here this instant, Akiko!” Ikeda Rokurou screeched, chasing the six-year-old twin-tails as she ran atop the fence, clutching a bushel of apples to her chest.
Akiko! Please stop! Amaya cried while her sister giggled compulsively.
“Don’t be such a stick-in-the-mud, Amaya!” Akiko chided, swishing her white tails as if the wind would give her an extra boost. “It’s just a few apples! Rokurou’s got a whole orchard!”
“How do you think I earn a living?” Rokurou puffed.
“Ok, old man, here,” Akiko said, throwing an apple over her shoulder. The apple landed underneath Rokurou’s foot and the farmer catapulted face-first into the dirt. Akiko continued to laugh as she hopped down off the end of the fence and slipped into the underbrush.
Akiko, that was mean, Amaya accused her sister.
“Eh, a farmer shouldn’t be so out of shape, he needed the exercise. Besides, I didn’t hear you complaining when I suggested we climb up and nab a few of these beauties.”
I was hungry, Amaya muttered, and I thought we’d only take one or two, not a whole bushel. Besides, you know Rokurou’s just going to make father pay for all this, then we’ll really be in trouble.
Akiko settled under a bush and took a bite out of one of the apples. It was delicious. “Mmmm, I’ll say this for him, Rokurou grows some nice fruit. Don’t worry, sis, Dad’s a soft touch. Just flash him the doe-eyes, you know he can’t resist those.”
A large hand shot through the bushes, grabbing Akiko by the scruff of and hoisting her out of her hiding spot screeching and kicking. “Care to repeat that, Akiko?” Hayato growled, farmer Rokurou a few steps behind him.
“Um, no,” Akiko said before retreating back into Amaya’s subconscious. Her hair and fur darkened to blue-black with ice-coloured tips on her ears and tails and Amaya found herself facing her father’s angry red glare.
“Father! I’m sorry,” Amaya squeaked. “I only meant to take one!”
Hayato snarled. “Oh, no you don’t, you’re not getting out of this one, Akiko! Get back out here this instant!”
Yeah, no, that’s not happening, Akiko scoffed.
“She’s not going to come out, Dad,” Amaya admitted sheepishly, flinching away from his wrath.
Scowling in frustration, Hayato let Amaya down gently. “All right, just gather those up, give them back to Rokurou and say you’re sorry. I’ll pay for any that were ruined but you’re in a great deal of trouble, young lady!”
Yes, Dad, Akiko mocked.
Amaya slapped herself on the side of the head.
Ow! That hurts both of us, you know!
“I can’t keep dealing with this,” Hayato ranted as he paced the living room floor. His wife was placidly sewing, repairing a hole in one of Akiko’s short kimonos. “Every day she’s causing trouble!”
“She’s a spirited young girl,” Setsuko agreed, “much like I was at her age.”
“Times have changed,” he grumbled, “the Community doesn’t need kunoichi anymore. The two of them are so different, how did they ever synchronize?”
“Amaya might be more level-headed but don’t think for a moment’s she’s blameless,” Setsuko said. “If she wants something, all she has to do is plant the idea in Akiko’s head.”
“This is all Yakyou’s fault,” he accused, waggling his finger at his wife. “I should never have agreed to let her into our daughter’s lives.”
“Sensei Yakyou can be difficult but believe me when I say that there’s meaning behind her apparent madness. I genuinely think she can help us.”
“Oh, no! Not again! Not after last time! Kyo’s cats haven’t been the same! I’m not going to let that perfidious, antisocial, sociopathic, immoral, lecherous, evil witch anywhere near our daughters ever again!”
There was a long pause as Setsuko stared flatly at him, her three tails braiding themselves together as the awkward silence continued.
“You’ve already called her, haven’t you?” Hayato asked.
Setsuko nodded, her ears bobbing slightly with the motion.
“And she’s standing right behind me, isn’t she?”
His wife nodded again.
Slowly turning his head, Hayato felt sweat trickle from his brow. “Yakyou! What a pleasant surprise!”
Before he could go any further, Yakyou kicked him in the face, sending him sprawling across the floor. “I heard everything you said, you little weasel!” Yakyou growled, flaring with bright amber light as her nine tails swished angrily, one hand balled into a tiny fist.
“Pardon him, Sensei,” Setsuko apologized while she picked her husband off the ground. “He’s merely concerned for our daughter’s welfare.”
She harrumphed, folding her arms across her chest. “I keep telling you, there’s nothing wrong with Amaya and Akiko. They’re just a bit precocious. Of course, if you’d let me train them…”
“No, I’m not just going to hand my daughter over to your ‘training from hell’!” Hayato said, stomping his foot. “The world has changed and the Community has changed with it, like it or not. Our daughter has to live in this new world and learn its rules but even Kuro is worried that we won’t be able to keep the Kitsune’s secret for much longer. If Amaya or Akiko make a mistake, they could be blamed for the consequences.”
“Kitsune only merge with willing people,” Yakyou countered. “Kumiho are criminals, plain and simple.”
“Sensei,” Setsuko interrupted. “We understand the ethics but you have to admit, the other races we share this world with won’t see it the same way. Also, I love my daughters dearly but would you trust a child with the responsibility of the merger? None of us know how long it might be before she’s ready to merge again, what if she rushes into it for all the wrong reasons?”
“Have you talked to Amaya and Akiko about this?” Yakyou asked. The two parents looked at each other guiltily. “Just as I thought. If you don’t mind, I’m going to go play with my goddaughters for a little while.”
Leaving Hayato and Setsuko to argue, Yakyou gnawed her lower lip as she crept through the house, following her life-force sense to Amaya’s bedroom. The little dark-haired girl was busy playing with her dolls, though her ears were flattened and slightly droopy, indicating sadness. Closing the door behind her, Yakyou skipped over to her goddaughter’s side and sat cross-legged next to her. “Awesome! What are we playing?”
Amaya smiled despite herself. “Witches and monster hunters. The heroic witches have trapped a mob of murderous hunters who’ve kidnapped an innocent vampyre.” She paused for a moment before flinging herself into Yakyou’s arms, unable to hold back her tears.
“There, there,” the nine-tailed kitsune stroked her goddaughter’s hair comfortingly. “What’s wrong?”
“Akiko’s not talking to me,” she sobbed, “and the village is talking about sealing her away. I don’t want her to leave, it’s not fair to keep her locked away.”
Yakyou sighed. “Akiko? Come on out, auntie’s here.”
Amaya’s sniffling stilled as her hair turned from black to white, the tips of her ears and tails flaring scarlet. Pulling away from her godmother, Akiko wiped the tears away and crossed her arms defiantly. “I didn’t do anything really bad this time, I don’t know what the fuss is about.”
“Me either,” Yakyou agreed, scratching the back of her head. “Best thing I can say is that your parents are scared for you. That you might hurt yourself. As for the rest of the village, they’re a bunch of spineless wimps.”
“You think Mum and Dad will let us go train with you?” Akiko asked hopefully.
Oh, please, can we? Amaya echoed hopefully.
“I think that’d be for the best but I doubt either your parents or the village will agree that’s the best thing for you,” Yakyou sighed. “Being the Uncounted Calamities has a downside. You know my training will be harsh, don’t you? I’m not an easy mark like your father and I’m not going to be as soft on you as your mother will be.”
I don’t think a teacher should be soft on their students, Amaya said. And we don’t really get along with the other kids at school. Most of them can’t even do illusions or change yet. Plus they get creeped out with Akiko and I being two people.
“I see,” Yakyou grumbled. “I’ll have a talk with your parents and old man Kuro and see what I can do. Besides, we’ve got a vampyre to save!”
“The council has decided,” Kuro sighed heavily as he sat down with Hayato and Setsuko. Yakyou was dozing in the sunlight on the porched, curled up inside her bright yellow nest of tails. “Akiko is to be sealed at least until Amaya comes of age.”
“I was afraid of this,” Setsuko said. “However, Akiko is also my child and I don’t think this is the best for her. The council is dictating what is expedient for the village, not the best for her.”
“It is my opinion, after reviewing the reports from her teachers and the many police reports, that Akiko is as much a danger to Amaya as she is to herself or the other children. Naturally, the elder’s ongoing concerns about Akiko exposing the secret of the merger to the Community at large is also a heavy factor in our decision. I’m sorry but if your family is to remain here…”
Kuro paused as Yakyou stirred. When the nine-tailed kitsune failed to awaken or move, he breathed a sigh of relief.
“I’m sorry, Setsuko, I have to agree with the council’s decision,” Hayato said.
“You can’t think this is the best for her,” Setsuko replied. “What will happen to her personality if she’s sealed? Amaya will grow up without her and when the seal is removed, she’ll still be a six-year-old girl.”
“Amaya will be strong enough to maintain control then,” Hayato asserted. “She’s the more level-headed of the two anyway. She’ll be sad to lose her sister for a while but it won’t be forever.”
“Setsuko,” Kuro said, “one retired warrior to another, you know that sometimes we must make sacrifices for the good of the many. I don’t like this either, not one bit, but your daughters are a problem that we need to solve. Sealing Akiko is risky and, even though I’ve been asked to lead the ceremony, I admit that I’m not sure what the outcome of the ritual will be. If you were to choose to flee the village with Amaya and Akiko, I would understand.”
Yakyou sat up suddenly, startling the three kitsune inside. Drowsily rubbing her eyes, she rolled inside, springing up into a cross-legged sitting position like a spring-loaded board. “You’re all a bunch of morons,” she observed sleepily.
“Please stay out of this,” Hayato grumbled, “we’re Amaya’s parents, it’s our right to decide what’s best for her.”
“What’s best for her or what’s best for yourself?” Yakyou asked, turning to spit onto the tatami mat beside her. The spittle smoked and fizzled as it ate its way through the woven straw. “Maybe now you idiots will listen to my proposal. Let me take Amaya and Akiko on as my student. Setsuko can vouch for me.”
Setsuko looked away from Yakyou as all eyes turned towards her. Taking a deep breath, but unable to look her master in the eye, Setsuko shook her head. “I’m sorry, Sensei, but I don’t want my daughter to have the life I endured. I retired to the village to leave that life behind.”
“Is that what John wants?”
“Yes,” she said, finally turning to look Yakyou in the eyes.
“So you’re happy sacrificing your daughter for your own happiness too,” Yakyou accused, her eyes narrowing. “You disappoint me.”
A heavy silence fell over the group. Hayato took his wife’s hand to comfort her. “It’s ok, we’re doing the right thing for Akiko,” he reassured her, glaring at Yakyou. “No matter what she thinks.”
Yakyou smiled viciously, showing off tiny fangs. “You’re a brave man, Yukimura Hayato. Stupid, but brave. Perhaps stupidly brave, or maybe just stupid. No, wait, I’m right. It’s just that last one. Do you really think you can seal Akiko away safely, Kuro?”
Kuro wiped his brow. “Yes.”
“How reassuring,” Yakyou purred. “Well, it looks like none of you need me anymore. Don’t come crying to me when you find you’ve broken your pet and she’ll hate you for the rest of her life.”
With that, Yakyou disappeared. Kuro held his breath as he swiped his hand through the air where she’d been sitting a moment before. “Is she really gone, Setsuko?” Kuro asked.
“I-I don’t know,” Setsuko sobbed. “She’s never done that to me before.”
“It’s ok,” Hayato reassured his wife, hugging her while looking at Kuro. “We’re better off without her. Right, Kuro?”
Looking down at his feet, Kuro wondered if they were really doing the right thing. But he nodded, just to reassure the couple.
Amaya was sobbing as Setsuko led her into the middle of the circle, hugging her doll. “It’s going to be ok, all right Amaya? Elder Kuro is just going to let Akiko sleep for a while.”
“Akiko doesn’t want to sleep, Mum. Please don’t,” Amaya begged.
Forcing a smile, feeling sick to the stomach, Setsuko knelt and kissed her on the forehead. “Don’t worry, she’ll be back with you before you know it.”
Kuro was sweating as he checked and triple-checked his circle. Elders Shinobu and Riku stood nearby with Hayato, who was frowning.
“Please stop,” Amaya continued to beg as her mother stepped out of the circle. “Akiko promises she won’t be bad anymore!”
“I’m sorry, Amaya,” Kuro said, sinking into a cross-legged position in front of her. “We’re not doing this to punish you or Akiko. The world’s a dangerous place and we’re doing this to protect you, so you can stay in the village and be safe.”
With that, Kuro clapped his hands together, closing his eyes to focus. “Just stay still, Amaya,” Setsuko told her daughter as the circle around her began to glow.
Amaya looked down at her doll, then up to her mother, across to her father and then at elder Kuro’s face screwed up in concentration. “No!” she cried out, hurling her doll directly into Kuro’s face. The circle’s energy crackled as Kuro’s chant slipped, snapping the elder out of his trance. “Amaya!” He cried out, reaching out but unable to move from his full lotus as the magic of the circle raged out of control. Setsuko was faster, reaching out to grab Amaya. Amber lightning arced from the circle the moment the tip of her finger crossed the threshold, throwing her across the room.
“Mommy!” Amaya called, turning around to see lightning crackling all around her. “No! Amaya! Stand still, honey!” Hayato snapped, caught between caution and leaping to his daughter’s aid. “Kuro! Drain the life force from the circle!”
“I can’t!” Kuro called out in horror, sweat trickling down the lines of his face. “There’s too much!”
Setsuko rolled onto her hands and knees, coughing. “If you don’t do it, old man, I will!”
“It’ll kill you!”
Hayato looked into his wife’s eyes and knew that look. “No!”
Reeling to her feet, Setsuko set herself, determined to run straight ahead and have the energy of the circle ground out through her. Hayato might anticipate what she was about to do, but she was still faster. Closing her eyes, she leapt forward. The circle exploded, throwing Kuro, Hayato and the other elders along with Setsuko back against the wall. “Amaya!” Setsuko shouted, coughing as she crawled toward the small crater. As the smoke and dust cleared, Setsuko’s eyes widened. Standing next to her daughter, both completely unscathed, was her master, Yakyou.
“Ugh, I’m done cleaning up your messes for you, Setsuko,” Yakyou griped, brushing dust off of her kimono.
“Sensei!” Setsuko cried, the word bursting from her throat along with her tension. “Thank you, Sensei.”
Amaya hugged Yakyou’s leg tight, burying her head in her godmother’s kimono. “Amaya,” Hayato called out to her, reaching out for her hand. “It’s ok, come here.”
Shaking her head emphatically, she shied away from her father, still clinging to Yakyou. The nine-tailed fox smirked. “I don’t think she’s going to trust you for a bit, Hayato,” she said, shrugging. “Why don’t you leave her alone for a bit?”
Hayato slumped, sinking to his knees. Kuro scrabbled over to bow in front of her. “Great Yakyou, I’m sorry. I wasn’t skilled enough to perform the sealing spell. Please, I beg your help!”
Yakyou scowled. “Really? After all this, you’re still set on this course?”
“What else can we do?” Hayato protested. “You might be older and more powerful than all of us, but we’re not like you. We need other people around us, people we can relate to. People we can work with to make something better and live in peace. Would you have all of us leap from conflict to conflict like you do? Never have a place to rest our heads? You don’t understand normal people at all anymore!”
“You’re pushing it, lunch meat,” Yakyou growled, her voice inhuman. “Distain me as much as you want, I’m the only person here who could save your child.”
“If you wanted to help, you could have done the sealing spell yourself!”
“Except that I find your plan immoral,” she retorted. “Amaya and Akiko both want to train with me, surely that’s a better solution than this madness.”
“No! I love my daughters, I won’t let you turn them into soldiers like you did with Setsuko!”
“And so you’ll attempt the sealing again? Even without me?”
Gulping, Hayato drew himself to his full height, resolute. “Yes. It’s the best thing for my daughter.”
Yakyou scowled, looking down at the wide-eyed Amaya. “If you insist on doing this, you leave me no choice. I will do as you ask but I have terms.”
“I will seal both Amaya and Akiko,” Yakyou said, “until they come of age. Obviously neither you nor Setsuko can handle the responsibility of a child, and you won’t abdicate that responsibility to me. Therefore, you will send them away. The village and I will help you pay for their schooling elsewhere. You can visit but someone else will raise your child, do you understand?”
Hayato dithered, scuffing his feat. “Your terms are too cruel…”
“You have no right to speak of cruelty to me!” Yakyou shouted, her eyes flaring amber. “Forcing your own child to shoulder your burdens!”
“Hayato, stop,” Setsuko interrupted them. “She’s right. Agree to her terms.”
“Setsuko,” Hayato gasped, “we can’t…”
“We’ve done enough,” she said, pulling herself to her feet. “This is the best compromise. When Amaya and Akiko are of age, they can decide their path for themselves. We’ve abdicated our right to choose for them.”
Amaya yanked on Yakyou’s kimono. “Auntie? Are you going to put Akiko to sleep?”
Yakyou looked down on the little girl and smiled. “No, sweetie. I’m going to put both of you to sleep. You’ll be someone else for a while and you won’t remember any of this but when you wake up, you and Akiko will be together. You’ll also share all your memories from until then. Does that sound so bad?”
Amaya shook her head. “No. We trust you, Auntie Yakyou.”
“Good girl. Now close your eyes, this will be over in a moment.”
Nodding, Amaya closed her eyes.
Ichiro stirred, shaking her head as she got up out of bed to find her father and mother sitting beside her bed. Heyato and Setsuko looks at each other dubiously. “Mum? Is something wrong?” Ichiro asked, getting a weird vibe.
“Are you all right, Ichiro?” Setsuko asked, taking her hand.
“Got a bit of a headache. What happened?”
“Nothing, son,” Hayato lied smoothly. “You just took a bad bump on your head but the doctor says you’ll be fine.”
“That’s good, I’m still sleepy.”
Mum squeezed her hand. “That’s ok,” she said, “you can sleep. In the morning we have to talk to you about your new school. There’s a… scholarship the village is offering to Bravura Academy in Australia. If you need anything, we’ll be right in the next room.”
“Ok,” she said, the apparently human boy turning over to lie on her side before drifting off.
Outside, Hayato and Setsuko stared at each other for a long moment. “Hayato, I…” Setsuko began but she was cut off by a wave of Hayato’s hand. “No, I know what you’re going to say. I love you and I think we both need to be there for… Ichiro,” he said, finding it hard to wrap his mouth around the name. “But I can’t help but feel like I’m a failure as a parent. And I don’t think I can sleep next to you, knowing what I did. I’m going to take the couch for a while.”
“We did what we thought was right.”
“Did we?” he asked, brow furrowed. “I think you were trying to do the right thing. I’m not so sure I was. In the end, it’s like we just gave her up. I need to sleep on it. We both need to sleep on it.”
Agreeing, the couple went to separate rooms, to separate beds, not fully realizing that they wouldn’t be sleeping with each other ever again.
Chapter 3 – High School
“All right,” Mrs. Brockhurst called from the cockpit of the squat ZX-P79 upright. “I’m about to turn the ignition, Ichiro. Keep an eye on that pressure gage.”
“Roger, ma’am!” Ichiro called back cheerfully from between the upright’s legs. The ZX-P79 was thirty-three years old, built by a now defunct Chinese car manufacturer that had styled it to look like a cross between a workman’s van and something out of a 70’s sci-fi movie. The squat design, wide stance and low centre of gravity got around early upright’s problems with instability in a construction environment but made it slow and ponderous. Surprisingly strong spindly arms could unfold from the sides with a variety of attachments to aid in lifting and carrying loads safely. Altogether, it looked like a head with stubby arms and legs, combined with the sheer number of jury rigged repairs forced upon it, it’d earned the nickname Gremlin many times over. Unfortunately, the chassis was starting to rust, the panelling was dented to hell and rubber tubes were getting harder to replace. It wouldn’t be long before the school would have to scrap her, so this year’s school festival was probably her last ride.
Gremlin puffed to life, motors revving fitfully as a gout of black smoke coughed into the workshop, rising to linger under the tin roof like a storm cloud. Ichiro watched the pressure gage for the leg hydraulics rise towards the red bar. “Pumps are working,” she shouted to Mrs. Brockhurt over the noise. “It’s inching towards the redline but seems to be slowing down.”
A sudden rattle made Ichiro wince. “Hang on! We’ve got a loose fitting somewhere!” Checking the rubber pipes that snaked down the leg behind the knee, she found the loose fitting. “It’s ok, I’ve got it!”
“Do you need me to shut down?”
“No, I’ve got this,” Ichiro said confidently, drawing a wrench from her toolbelt. Taking a deep breath, she slipped the jaws of the wrench around the fitting, flicking the worm-screw several times to get a tight fit and slowly twisting the fitting clockwise. She wiped her brow when the rattling stopped. “Yes! I got it!”
Ichiro had a moment of relief before her gaze flicked over to the pressure gage which had just hit the redline. Gremlin’s orange hazard lights lit up the workshop as sirens bleared. Dogbiscuits, she thought just before the hose ruptured, hissing as oil sprayed across her face and overalls. “Ugh! I don’t got it,” she lamented, watching the pressure gage drop like a rock.
Mrs. Brockhurst powered down the upright before hopping off Gremlin to find Ichiro sorrowfully wiping her face on an oily rag. Slapping her on the back, she grinned. “Well, that’ll teach you to some caution in the future. No big deal, Mr. Yukimura, we’ll have to double-seal the fittings and maybe wrap some duct tape over the older hoses. Gremlin should be ready for the school festival parade by tomorrow.”
“Yeah,” Ichiro sighed, internally wincing at being called ‘mister’. Not that Mrs. Brockhurst could know better, she reminded herself. She wasn’t exactly open about being trans.
Absently wandering over to the garage door, Ichiro leant against the frame to take in the view. The garage sat atop a hill on the edge of campus, a long, flat, expanse of grassland, sporting fields and test tracks stretching out below. Beyond the fields was verdant bushland and sprawling townships spread across rolling hills. The sky seemed huge, high, white, clouds drifting leisurely overhead. A single skyfreighter could be seen near the horizon, headed south from Darwin to Alice Springs.
Ichiro felt an ice-cold stab in her back, which made her jump. Chuckling, Mrs. Brockhurst handed her the soft drink fresh from the fridge she’d just been poked with. “Drink up, you’re dehydrated. Can’t help it workin’ under the tin roof,” she said, sipping her own drink.
Nodding, Ichiro cracked the can open and took a sip, suddenly feeling the thirst she’d been ignoring during work. Mrs. Brockhurst, noting that the teacher was an inch shorter than her. It was easy to forget with her stocky frame and musculature, in her mind’s eye Ichiro always saw her as a giant. “Lovely view,” she commented with a smile. “One of the reasons I took this job at Bravura. Peace and quiet. Well, when we don’t have kick-ass racing power frames screeching around the track at a gazillion kilometres per hour.”
Ichiro put on a grin she didn’t really feel for her teacher. “Minaba thinks the prototype will be ready for trials by the end of the holidays. Well, assuming she’s out of hospital in time. Unfortunately, I won’t be here.”
“Oh? Family vacation?”
“Yeah,” Iichiro answered sheepishly. “First vacation time Mum’s gotten since, well, ever. Dad’s new book’s doing well, so we’re going to meet up in Tokyo and see if they can stand each other for a couple of months. Leaving for Darwin in the morning.”
“Hell of a thing to be caught between. Hoping they’ll get back together?”
“Not really,” Ichiro admitted. “Maybe back when I was younger, I wanted that. What I think I really wanted back then was stability but I can’t really remember a time when Mum and Dad weren’t fighting or looking guiltily at each other. I reckon something happened that they don’t want to tell me or talk out. Nah, they’re better off separated, some couples just aren’t meant to be.”
“Mature of you but at least they’re trying. What sort of books does your Dad write?”
“Marriage counselling and parenting guides.”
Her flat stare said everything she was thinking. “Aren’t you an only child?”
“And you’ve been in boarding schools since…”
“Since I was six,” Ichiro finished for her. “Yeah.”
She shook her head and chuckled at the irony.
Finishing her soda, Ichiro glanced at the digital clock on the wall over the workshop office door. It was only quarter to four, plenty of time to get back to the dorm before curfew. Then realization struck her, her Community Studies class began in town at four and it was a twenty-minute ride. “Ah! I have to go!” Ichiro cried, unzipping her overalls while hopping towards her book bag as she attempted to get the legs over her boots. “Nakamura-sensei’s going to kill me if I’m late again! Sorry, I’ve got to go!”
Mrs. Brockhurst watched her with wry amusement as Ichiro scrambled to make sure she had everything she needed. Just as she was about to sprint out the door, the teacher threw her a set of keys. “Go on, borrow the scooter. And if you’re still late, tell Nakamura I kept you.”
Nodding in thanks, Ichiro grabbed the handles of the refurbished old Vespa from the corner of the workshop and kicked it into gear. “Thanks, Mrs. Brockhurst!” she yelled, waving behind her as she raced down the paved footpath and onto the road, wind whipping through her hair.
Ichiro tried to keep to the speed limit and not rush just in case but she still caught herself going too fast several times. The town of Vollstahl was a few hours south of Darwin, a relatively tiny, remote, town. The perfect home for Bravura Academy, boarding school for the weird and wonderful from psychics and mages to stranger people besides. Vollstahl also had a fair Community presence, though the existence of non-humans was still a secret to the world at large.
Community Studies was an extracurricular course designed to give kids with unusual backgrounds a grounding in the Community and its culture. The course was funded and run by the Psyche, a foundation dedicated to the advancement of the Community, and provided extra credit to Bravura Academy students. Nakamura-sensei looked down his nose over his glasses as Ichiro burst into the room, puffing. “Sorry, Sensei, Mrs. Brockhurst said to tell you we ran a little overtime working on Gremlin.”
He checked his watch. “Not at all, Yukimura, you’re right on time. But you’re still the last person to class, again. Take your seat.”
Ichiro flopped into her chair and pulled her notebook and pen out of her bag. Crystal gave her a withering look from where she sat to Ichiro’s left. “Undisciplined akira,” she mumbled low enough for her to ear but not the teacher. Ichiro sighed. Akira was a derogatory term for a psychic who didn’t bother training their talents. It wasn’t that Ichiro wasn’t interested in training her talent, there was just so much else she was doing. Motor shop, robotics club, home economics, cooking at the food stand, cosplay club, video games… Not enough time in the day. But to an overachiever like Crystal Eldred, a member of one of the Breholm families, Ichiro was the lowest scum.
“Well, since we have my fellow countryman here on time today, let’s take a look at a race synonymous with Japan today,” Nakamura-Sensei said, sitting casually on the edge of his desk. “Who can tell me anything about Kitsune?”
Crystal immediately put her hand up.
“Can anyone other than Crystal tell me anything about Kitsune?”
Sighing deeply, Ichiro raised her hand.
“What?” Crystal scoffed, genuinely surprised. “Put your hand down, you don’t know anything!”
A few of their classmates tittered. “Crystal,” Nakamura-sensei chided.
“But he never knows anything!”
“I am Japanese, remember?” Ichiro asked rhetorically. “Kitsune as a whole are strong supporters of the Community despite being enigmatic and reclusive. They tend to gather in exclusively kitsune villages in remote areas and are known to be skilled illusionists. They have variable morphology, some are more fox-like than others and have to use illusions to pass in human society. The older they get, the more tails they get with nine tails being the highest number on record. A good rule of thumb is that the more tails a kitsune has, the more dangerous and eccentric they are. They’re also known to be, um, promiscuous. Which is probably based on unsubstantiated rumours, kinda like the succubi.”
“Of course you were paying attention during the lecture on succubi,” Crystal grumbled. “Boys.”
“Sensei,” Holden called from the back of the room, “maybe Ichiro’s really a kitsune!” He got some snorts and chuckles for his effort.
“No,” Crystal turned to inform him. “Kitsune are powerful illusionists that can shape reality at their whim. Ichiro can barely create a realistic figment of a pencil.”
“Wow,” Ichiro mumbled. “Getting a little cold under all this shade.”
“Come on, illusions are just parlour tricks,” Holden said, snapping his fingers to spark a fire that he held in his palm. “It’s not like they control matter and energy.”
Crystal shrugged. “My father said that illusionists can be some of the most powerful life-force users and not to underestimate them. I assume he meant those that apply themselves.”
“All right, all right,” Nakamura-sensei said, “I think we can all lay off Ichiro now. Crystal’s father was right, illusionists can be very dangerous. Highly skilled illusionists can create objects out of their imagination that are as physically real as any object that we’re used to. Ichiro-kun, if you had to call out any one thing about the kitsune’s relationship with the Community, what would it be?”
Ichiro considered the question for a moment while trying to ignore Sensei calling her ‘Ichiro-kun’, a masculine suffix. “They’re a bit of a paradox. They are some of the strongest Community supporters, known for great compassion and violence when either is called for. They’re fun-loving and gregarious, yet they keep to themselves and hide behind their illusions. It’s not just the behaviour of the many-tailed kitsune that make people call them eccentric.”
“How do you know all this?” Crystal asked.
“My godmother’s a kitsune.”
Nakamura-sensei’s eyebrows shot up. “I didn’t know that. Did she teach you illusions?”
“No,” Ichiro shook her head. “Mum and Dad are human illusionists, my godmother taught my mother. Mum told me that she wanted to train me too but they got me into Bravura on a scholarship. I can’t even remember my godmother but I figured I should read up on her people, you know, just in case.”
“Maybe she should have trained you,” Crystal suggested.
“Hey,” Holden called out again, “are we sure Ichiro’s not a kitsune? His parents are illusionists, his godmother’s a kitsune and he could be using illusions to appear like anything he wanted, right?”
“I told you, he can’t even produce a believable illusion,” Crystal rebuked.
“But that’s the double-blind, isn’t it? Like, he could be a really great illusionist and appear completely human, even to touch, right?”
“Why would a powerful kitsune want to hang around a school? Surely they have better things to do.”
Ichiro grinned. “Oh, no, it’s better than that, Holden. Not only am I a nine-tailz, not only is my current form a mere illusion, all of you, the town and Bravura Academy are just my phantasms.”
Crystal glared at Ichiro flatly. “What?”
“Yes, I created this entire charade for my own personal amusement,” Ichiro declared. “All of you are merely puppets, dancing to my tune.”
Andrew on the opposite side of the room put up his hand. “Is that even possible?” he asked once Nakamura-sensei had acknowledged him.
“No!” Crystal interrupted sensei before he could say anything. “We’d know if we were phantasms! Can’t you tell he’s lying? He’s a terrible liar!”
Standing up, Ichiro stretched. “If you need me to prove my power, Crystal, then I will.” Sweeping her gaze over the rest of the students, she stretched out one arm in a grand gesture. “You, Robert.”
He blinked. “What? Call me Bob, damnit!”
“Am I accurate in saying that you would never kiss me in your entire life?”
“Not even on the cheek?”
“Then I compel you to come here and kiss me on the cheek! Obey me, my puppet!”
Bob struggled a little like he didn’t want to get up but some force was making him stand. Extending his cheek towards the boy, Ichiro struggled to maintain her composure as Bob approached step by laboured step, puckered his lips and laid a kiss on her cheek.
Ichiro immediately ducked under the table as Bob picked up her chair and tried to brain her with it.
Bob’s fist hit Ichiro’s shoulder with a dull thud. “Ow,” Ichiro said, chuckling so hard that she barely felt any pain, “gomen, gomen… I’m sorry.”
“I don’t kiss girls,” Bob growled, “but I guess the look on Crystal’s face was worth it. Plus one of your cooked dinners for free. I came this close to getting detention, Ichiro.”
They were assembled in the dorm room kitchen while Ichiro was busy preparing meals for a small army of ravenous teenagers. As one of the school’s star cooks, Ichiro was able to make a little money playing dorm mum when she wasn’t working at the food stand. All the profits went into her savings, genetic modification treatments weren’t cheap. “I’m sorry,” Ichiro apologized again, casually flipping an omelette, “I couldn’t help it and you were the only person I thought would go with the prank. Sensei didn’t give you detention? I’d go confess if it’d help.”
“Nah, Nakamura just gave me a warning. He twigged to the prank and let it go, said something about Crystal and the others needing to learn to pay attention.”
“A sensitive would probably be able to tell what was an illusion, even if it was a phantasm,” Ichiro mused.
“You surprised the shit out of me. You are a terrible liar, you know. Besides, that kind of thing isn’t your style.”
“Guess they pushed a little too far.”
“I think Crystal’s got the hots for you.”
Ichiro snorted. “She hates my guts.”
“Hey, my dad says that if a girl treats you like dirt, they like you.”
“Your dad’s been married four times,” Ichiro observed. Finishing up the omelette, she plated it, gave it some garnish and put it in front of him.
“He also knew I was gay when he told me that,” Bob sighed as he picked up his fork and began to eat. “How the fuck do you get this so fuckin’ fluffy?”
“Practice,” Ichiro said, shrugging. “I hope you all can feed yourselves without me.”
“Wait, you’re leaving? For the whole holidays?” he asked, horror in his eyes.
“Yep, you’re all going to have to learn to fend for yourselves. Oh, who the hell am I kidding, you’ll all gain thirty kilograms from all the fast food by the time I get back. And the dorm will look like someone dropped a bomb in here. I just hope you all remember to shower.”
He didn’t argue.