|Written By:||Ree Soesbee|
Nightmares by Ree Soesbee
Around her, the forest crackled and twisted, turning every step into a shout. Even the greatest hunters cannot be silent in Kitsune Mori - unless they are one of the spirits who live there. Branches creaked overhead, but their noise was no more than a greeting to the young samurai-ko that moved beneath them. Her footfalls caressed the dry branches, the crackling leaves, and yet the only sound that escaped was the soft sigh of the wind.
Kitsune Mori was her home.
"Follow your own path," Shinsei taught, "Or you will fall into the pitfalls left behind by others."
The forest sounds grew thicker, heavier in the dusky twilight. There was not much time now, and soon the night would cover all paths and blur all ways. The forest would sleep - but the spirits of the kitsune who lived there, would awaken. The sword hung at her side, slung across her back by a thin cord of her own hair.
It, too was sleeping.
Her dark red-brown hair, a rarity in Rokugan, hung thickly about her face, pulled lightly back with a forgotten piece of twine. Once, it had been dyed black, but the walnut stain had lessened over her long journey, and hints of its true color gleamed through. Green-brown eyes, their color reflecting her heritage, shone under the knitted brows. Her fingers were slender, but calloused from use of the nagamaki she carried, and her sleeve bore the mon of the Fox.
"Ryosei," the wind whispered, and the vines beneath her feet shivered. She took another step toward the ancient grove, and the trees shook again. "Ryosei..."
This time, the voice was audible. The samurai-ko stopped, peering through the brush to her left, and saw a white flash.
It was small, as spirits go, darting from bush to bush in a near-frantic attempt to stay hidden and yet carry its message to her. "Stop, Ryosei," it snarled softly. Red ears pricked behind a thornbush, and the flash of a whitefurred breast shone through the vines beneath an ancient oak. "Stop." The kitsune spirit shivered in the shadow of a pine tree, leaping across a fallen branch in its excitement. Twilight deepened.
"Greetings, honorable one," Ryosei nodded politely. "I salute you with blessings" She reached into a small bag tied at her waist in order to pull out one of the sweetened candies there. "Take this, and let your daughter pass"
But the kitsune ignored her, staring to the west as if in fear. Its foxlike nose quivered once, then the too-bright green eyes of the spirit turned again to her. "Please... stop."
A howl pierced the night, keen and clear, and the little kitsune leapt away, twisting its body in midair as if caught by a snare. Ryosei stared after it as another howl rang out, then a third. A fourth. The small one barked sharply, stared longingly at Ryosei as if to speak more, and then, as a fifth howl rang out only a few steps from their side, it fled into the forest with a broken sob. Fox feet scrambled at branches and leaves until the spirit vanished into the underbrush, lost to the forest and to its pursuers.
Ryosei stared in shock as the forest moved around her. For an instant, she was frozen, and then her nagimaki was in her hand.
Four more kitsune stepped from the brushes, one lifting its head in a long howl of remorse and woe. The eldest one, the largest, had patches of silver behind his graying ears, and one green eye was dulled with age. Seeing her, the others paused in their chase and the hair on their hackles raised in tension. Ryosei slowly lowered her weapon - these were spirits, after all - and carefully bowed to the kitsune.
The spirits nodded, and the three younger foxes looked at each other with narrowed green eyes. "You are Ryosei-chan?" the elder barked gently, though he knew the answer.
"Hai, Genkuro-sama. On a mission for my father... to complete my gempukku" Though she looked younger, Ryosei had seen sixteen winters, and the spirits of the forest had run with her from the day she was born. The old kitsune nodded.
"Do not let us disturb you, child," he sniffed. "We hunt a traitor"
"Traitor. . . ?"
"Iye" The old fox refused her question. "This is not the business of mortals" The other kitsune began to sniff the air, catching scents as they passed in the wind. "You will not be allowed to interfere... indeed, as we are not allowed to interfere, ourselves." With that, one of the kitsune howled, catching the scent, and the pack moved.
Genkuro, the gray kitsune spirit, paused. "Mark this day well, childling," he whispered before fading into the trees. "And remember... dreams are truths."
With that, the path was silent again, and Ryosei knelt alone in the brush of a chilly evening, more aware than ever of the lack of sun through the trees. Shaking her head slightly at the strangeness of the evening and the enigmatic words of the ancient kitsune, Ryosei stood and placed her nagimaki back in its carrying sheath. Then, with a sigh, she leapt into a jog down the twisting forest path. Her father was waiting, and she must not be late.
The grove of Inari is one of the most sacred place in Fox land, a place where the ancient kitsune spirits first approached her ancestors, bringing words of peace and gratitude. The branches of the grove spread open before her as Ryosei stepped into the clearing, and the bitter smell of lantern-oil tinged the forest air.
"Father?" She murmured, moving forward again.
"Here, daughter" Gohei's voice was as brittle as pine, and his age covered his face with deep wrinkles and liver stains. He nodded his head politely as Ryosei knelt and formally bowed, and his dark eyes shone with anticipation. Two foxes turned toward her, startled, and fled through the trees. As she murmured words of respect, Ryosei caught a glimpse of their eyes. Brown. These were simple forest-beasts, nothing more. Not that she should have expected the spirits to be here - the kitsune had never been close to her father, for reasons Ryosei did not understand.
"I have completed my task, father," She said proudly, as she had the night before in the audience hall of the Fox Clan. "I bring you the sword of our ancestors, so long lost beneath the mountains of Otosan Uchi, hidden in deep caverns and behind guarded paths" And, as he had asked, she had come tonight to present the weapon to him privately, a task set from father to daughter to honor the blood between them. Ryosei withdrew the weapon from its saya, laying it upon the ground in homage to the ancestors of the Fox.
As she did, the wind began to whisper, and the trees shook with sudden fear.
"Lost..." Kitsune Gohei murmured, kneeling to accept the blade. "For nine hundred years, hidden. Since the time of the First War against the Dark One, the ancestral blade of the Fox has remained hidden from the light. Taken by the Emperor, the Shining Prince, son of the first Hantei, to honor our path as Shinjo's children, it was reforged at the hands of Togashi Nyoko, and its hilt is bound with the silk woven from the Kami's own hair. And then, lost to us for nine hundred years." His hands shook as he ran the palms over the smooth black cords that wound around the hilt of the katana like a thick web of darkness.
"Stolen by the Scorpion." Ryosei completed the tale bitterly.
"They needed it." Gohei stood, carrying the blade as if it were a treasure greater than life. "And now, in this time of darkness, they need it even more." Ryosei looked up at her father with the question clearly written on her fine features, but he paid no attention. With a gentle hand, he placed the sword atop the carved white fox statue of Inari that served as a low ritual table for the grove.
"The hilt, wound with the hair of a true Kami... where better, to hide their secrets?" Gohei's hands unwound the silk reverently, pausing as his old hands shook with the failing disease of an ancient man. "Where else...to protect their lies?"
From her stance at the edge of the grove, Ryosei saw the silk fall away from the sword's hilt in soft patches, rotted with age but still gleaming and fine. Beneath the silk, the soft, carved wood frame of the tsuka began to show, and beneath that...The wind tugged at her clothing, and the earth's deep fastness shivered faintly beneath her feet.
Ryosei squinted in surprise.
Beneath the wooden tsuba of the katana's hilt, a scrap of black paper had been wedged. As Gohei began to slide the tsuka free, Ryosei could see the metal tang of the sword's blade, wrapped within a scroll of strange black paper. Paper made out of a sheet so thick it could have been taken from a man's own skin...
"Father..." Ryosei said, standing as the wind began to whip the trees and tear at the earth beneath her. "Father what are you doing?"
"Immortality, child," he laughed, holding aloft the scroll. "You have brought me immortality... and I am seizing it!" His howling cries echoed through the grove, and the ancient katana fell to the ground, its blade's sheen darkened by dirt... and by Gohei's own blood.
"Father, no!" She screamed, reaching for her nagimaki and staggering as the earth beneath Kitsune Mori shook the forest with a pounding blow. "You cannot do this!" The ground steadied, then bucked again, and her weapon flew to the ground as she fell.
"And with your blood, daughter," the creature who had been her father turned toward her, but his brown eyes had become cavernous, hidden like cysts in a face of ruined tissue and swollen muscle. "I dedicate this sacrifice to the Dark Lord!" The sword of the Fox, a steel tooth with no hilt, shone in one hand as the scroll began to unroll upon the broken back of the white fox table. "Fu Leng. Make me your walking horror, to rule the night at your command. Give me immortality!" The last word was a high-pitched scream, swallowed by the night and the roar of wind.
As the Fox Clan sword raised above her, the earth shuddered and rolled. Trapped on the lip of a tremendous chasm, Ryosei could not move, could not roll, could not escape the downward plunge of the blade. She saw her father's maggot-infested hand shake once more, and then he screamed again. This was not a scream of triumph, but of rage. He turned, grasping at his back, and Ryosei saw the reason her life had been saved.
A small kitsune with a gleaming white breast, hung by its teeth from the side of Kitsune Gohei's throat. Blood poured from the wound, and a savage blow of lighting reflected in the green eyes of the spirit creature.
"Run..." Ryosei heard it yelp, as her father's sword tore into its side and threw the kitsune to the ground. "Run!"
Another lurch of the earth threw Ryosei to her knees on the far side of a rapidly widening cleft. Her father screamed in outrage, lifting the sword again, and again, stabbing into the heart of the kitsune at his feet.
Knowing she could not win the battle, the daughter of Gohei fled into the woods, reaching for the ancient oaks to give her shelter from the blood and the storm.
Morning parted the clouds, and a ray of light spilled onto Ryosei's face as she sat suddenly up from her sleeping fouton. The palace of the Kitsune seemed strangely quiet after the night's festivities, and Ryosei remembered the gay laughter of her gempukku ceremony. Images flashed through her mind as reality... kneeling before the court, seeing her father's proud congratulations. Could it have been a dream? Her muscles began to relax in relief, as she turned to look at the ornate sword-stand on the low table.
It was empty.
Beneath it, in a small and bloody pile, lay the skinned pelt of a white-breasted fox.
"Dreams are truths" The ancient kitsune's voice rang in her head. "And we are not allowed to interfere."
Ryosei knelt before the bloody pelt on the floor with reverence, bowing her head to the kitsune's courage. "I know that you cannot interfere in my destiny without penalty, my kitsune brothers," Ryosei swore, "But I can seize the future... and change it to my own"
"One day, I will find you, father... I swear that I will."
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