Adventures of the Twin Tails Chapter 1-4

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.”

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.”

“Name them.”

“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?”

“Yep.”

“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?”

“Ew!”

“Not even on the cheek?”

“Hell no!”

“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.

Chapter 4 – Session 1: Boarding, Not Bored

“Ugh, what you got in here, kid?” the bus driver asked, barely able to hoist Ichiro’s luggage out from the belly of the bus.

Ichiro shrugged, whipping her scarf around her neck despite the heat. “Clothes, couple of books, a few tools, sewing supplies, my ceramic cooking knives…”

“Crikey, planning to get dropped off on some desert island?” he joked.

“I like to keep busy,” Ichiro said defensively as she hefted the handle and began pulling the heavy case behind her. “Thanks for the ride, sir.”

“Have a good one, kid!”

The Sol Suna hovered far above the Skydock Terminal of Darwin International Airport. Vaguely whale-shaped, the skyliner was three hundred meters long with about thirteen decks, not counting sub-levels and maintenance access. That the massive vehicle hovered above the ground at all was a testament to modern technology and engineering. Ichiro couldn’t help but gawk at the beautiful, sleek, organic contours of the massive vessel.

Trundling into customs, the security guard had to help Ichiro hoist her luggage onto the conveyor belt for scanning before checking her boarding pass, ticket and destination. Relieved to step through the scanners without anything beeping at her, she walked through the duty free stores in search of the luggage check and boarding area. Signs were few and far between and she couldn’t see any sign of her mother. It wasn’t until she finally made it out onto the open-air boarding platform that her phone beeped.

“Hey, Dad,” she greeted in Japanese, tucking the phone between her ear and shoulder so she could talk on the move while hauling her suitcase.

“Ichiro, did you get to the terminal ok?” he asked in English.

Not sure what was going on, Ichiro switched to English as well. “Yes Dad, bus trip was fine. I’ve found the boarding deck but I can’t see Mum yet. Or the luggage check. The signs around here are really confusing and the last time I saw a crowd this big I was on the other side of the counter.”

“Erm, yes, unfortunately I just got a call from your mother saying she’s been called away on urgent business again. I’m afraid you’ll be on your own for the trip back to Japan.”

Ichiro felt his spirits sink. “Oh.”

“It’ll be ok, she promised to meet us here,” he said, trying to be reassuring. “And I’m sure you can figure out boarding on your own. Do you have enough money for the trip? Things to read?”

“Yes, Dad, I’ve got enough money. I brought some books and stuff, everything will be fine. It’s just… A lot of people, I guess. I’m not that great with crowds.”

“You’ll be fine. Send me a message once you’re on board.”

“Sure,” Ichiro sighed. “Take care, Dad, I’ll see you there.”

Hanging up, she concentrated on tried to make her way to the closest ramp, deliberately not thinking about her mother’s broken promise. When she got to the ramp, a steady line of people was walking down from the ship and into the terminal, with a crewman nodding and smiling to each of them at the top of the ramp onboard. Dithering, Ichiro wasn’t sure whether to try to call his attention and ask what to do or simply walk up the ramp like she knew what she was doing. Her tickets certainly said that she needed to book her bags into the luggage check and there weren’t any signs around. She was starting to regret even bringing her scarf, it couldn’t fit in her bag so she’d just worn it forgetting that this wasn’t a country you could get away with scarves in summer.

Stopping a guy in a Hawaiian shirt who looked like an American tourist, Ichiro bowed in greeting. “Excuse me, sir, do you know where luggage check is?” He looked down at Ichiro and shrugged. “Sorry, kid, I think it’s over there somewhere,” he said, pointing vaguely, “you should be able to follow the signs.”

“Oh, thanks,” Ichiro said, looking to where the man had pointed but unable to make out anything. Dithering, she got out her phone again and tried checking the airport app to find the right terminal but the website was as much of a maze as the airport itself.

“Hello there,” a woman who’d just gotten off the ship greeted her, walking up to Ichiro. “Are you ok?”

Ichiro blushed, shrinking in on herself a bit. This woman was a bit more practically dressed for the hot weather, showing off a number of tattoos. “Um, I’m just trying to find the luggage check and boarding ramp, ma’am,” she said, waving her ticket.

“Hmm,” she said, nodding as she considered the problem. Turning, she yelled up to the crewman at the top of the ramp. “Hey! Anyone up there know where the luggage check is?”

When she didn’t get any immediate attention, Ichiro raised her hand to wave. “Excuse me, sir? I’m looking to board and I’m a little lost, do you know where I should go?”

The crewman finally took notice. “Oh! Uh, one sec, I’ll ask for you,” he called back before taking out his radio to talk to someone. He was sweating a little when he leant back over the railing to call down. “Sorry for the inconvenience, sir! If you follow the terminal hallway around to the other side of the ship, you’ll find luggage check and the boarding ramp. Welcome to the Sol Suna!

“Thank you, sir!” I called out, bowing slightly out of habit. Turning to the woman, I bowed slightly to her. “Thank you also, ma’am. I better go board. Hopefully I’ll see you on the ship.”

She smiled slightly before waving me off. “No problem, see you later.”

It was a long walk but once she knew where to go, she found the luggage check with ease. The stewardess was all smiles as she scanned Ichiro’s ticket, attached an RFID tag to the handle of her luggage and turned it over to a loading robot for processing. “Don’t worry, once your luggage is processed, a porter robot will take it to your room. If you’d like to tour the ship and get your bearings, it should be in your room by the time you’re done.”

“Thank you, ma’am,” Ichiro said, bowing politely before wandering up the boarding ramp.

It was impossible for an engineer not to approach the Sol Suna without a sense of respect and wonder. It simply became more impressive the closer Ichiro came. Upon setting foot aboard, she pulled out her phone to text her father a simple ‘Hi, I’m aboard, you can stop worrying now’ before connecting to the ship’s wi-fi and downloading the passenger’s app. A few seconds later, Ichiro had her earphones on and began her first tour of the ship, guided by the app.

#

Flopping into bed, Ichiro threw her scarf across the room and let herself sink into the soft mattress. The room was small, though all of the rooms seemed to be in the cramped confines, but still had a mini-fridge, wall-screen TV, bathroom and basic necessities. Her luggage sat in the corner with a nicely printed welcome card resting on top of it. There wasn’t any way she could face unpacking right now, so she just left it there and let herself drift into a tired half-sleep.

She was roused by a bleep on her phone. Finally opening her eyes again, she noticed it had gotten dark outside. Fishing her phone out of her pocket, she checked her messages. Attention, passengers of the Sol Suna, the message read, due to an emergency situation, we are recalling all passengers. Please return to the ship to embark as quickly as possible, we are casting off as soon as possible. Thank you for your co-operation.

Ichiro frowned and sat up. There weren’t any alarms or sounds of movement outside, so she opened her door and peeked out. There were a few people moving around outside but nobody running or panicking. Stepping out, she closed and locked the door behind her and began to wander, sending a quick text to her father to let him know they were leaving early for some reason. Finding a corridor that stretched along the windowed outer hull, she peered off to the south, trying to pick out Vollstahl on the horizon. It was remarkably, distressingly, easy.

There were flashes of light coming from Vollstahl, undoubtedly explosions rocking the town. Streaks of light arcing into the sky like tracer bullets. It was strangely eerie for Ichiro to watch without hearing or feeling the booming impacts, after all she knew those buildings, had walked down those streets. Any other year she would have still been there. Her eyes slowly got wider and wider as the situation sunk in.

Looking at her phone, she put her earphones in her ears and quickly dialled Minaba’s number. “Come on, come on! Pick up!” she shouted, quietly praying for an answer. Several people stared at her as they walked past but she ignored them. Looking down, she could see passengers walking quickly towards the disembarkation ramp, it looked like they’d moved the boarding ramp there and were checking people through as quickly as possible.

She breathed a momentary sigh of relief as someone picked up the phone. “Hi! This is Minaba’s phone,” the pre-recorded messages informed jovially, “I’m sorry I’m not at this phone right now, please hold a moment while I check the next phone.”

Ichiro cursed internally. Hope spiked once again as the ring tone bleeped, only to be dashed. “Sorry, I’m not here either, checking the next phone!” Another bleep. “Well, I’m not here either! Darn! Checking the next phone!”

“Damn it, Minaba! Just pick up the phone and tell me…” She trailed off when someone picked up. “Finally! Minaba what the hell is going on over there? Did you guys launch the…”

“Hi! You’ve reached the second layer of Minaba’s phone ring! Congratulations!”

“What? Wait, is this another phone message?”

“Unfortunately, I’m not currently at this phone either right now but keep on hoping! Transferring you to the next phone…”

“No, no, don’t forward me to the next phone! Damn it…” Ichiro was about to continue swearing when she remembered. “Oh, right, Minaba’s suck in the hospital right now,” she said to herself, feeling like a complete idiot as she hung up. Looking around, she saw a girl with a video camera who abruptly turned away but she was distracted when her smartphone’s screen began to flicker and when she looked back the girl was gone.

That was when the PA system chimed a comforting melody. “Everyone, please calmly return to your cabins,” a woman’s voice came over the speakers. “Some of you may have heard that there is an ongoing terrorist attack in the city to the south. Do not be concerned, we are well away from the activity and we are now launching and moving away from it.”

The Captain’s soothing tones just made Ichiro more nervous. The sudden lurch of the ship as it went underway almost made her stumble as she grabbed the railing for balance. Nothing was fine, a skyliner like this isn’t made for sharp turns and they were taking the long way around, pushing the engines as hard as they could. Nervous, Ichiro started gnawing her lower lip, checking the schematics for the Sol Suna she’d downloaded to her phone while on the tour. Her phone was flickering more and more and she felt the hair on her arms crackle from the static in the air.

The vague sense of unease suddenly solidified into horror. Pressing her cheek against the glass, she tried to get a good look down the bow of the ship to see if she could make out anything. It was hard to see and there didn’t appear to be anything ahead but instinct compelled her to only one explanation for the interference in the electronics and the crackle of static as well as the sudden urgency of departure. There was some kind of electric anomaly up ahead, even if it were invisible to the eye and she ship’s instruments, and it was getting stronger which meant they were headed right for it.

Jogging down the halls towards a maintenance hatch, a mad plan was forming in Ichiro’s head. The halls were empty now, most of the passengers obeying the orders of the voice on the speaker. Part of her was screaming that he should let the crew handle it but the flickering of her smartphone was still getting worse. Finally finding a hatch, she took out the multitool she kept in her pocket and began unscrewing the cover. She barely got one screw off before a big hand grabbed her shoulder. She looked up to find the guy in the Hawaiian shirt glaring down at her. “Hey, kid, what do you think you’re doing?”

Ichiro was at a loss for words for a moment before panic set in and before she knew it the truth was tumbling out of her mouth. “The static interference is from some sort of electrical field and we’re heading right for it! If we pass through it, the ship’s instruments could be fried! If I can get to the anterior dorsal fin, I can turn the ship and maybe avoid the epicentre!”

He blinked at her stupidly. “Wait, what?”

They both stumbled as the entire ship shook. Ichiro grabbed the edge of the hatch for balance but the man kept his hold on her. Feeling the hair on the back of her neck standing up, she stared down the hallway a moment before a flash of green lightning rocketed down the hallway, seemingly bouncing between the walls for a split second before slamming into her chest. Launched off her feet, barely sensate, her vision was clouded by a bright orange flash that lingered as an afterimage burnt into her retina. Striking the man in the Hawaiian shirt, she bowled him over, the smell of charred cotton and ozone ushering her into unconsciousness.

#

Noise. An incoherent babble of many voices talking at once. People stomping around, moving quickly. The occasional clatter of equipment or the distinct tearing noise of sticky tape. As awareness returned, she tried to gather the confused mess of conflicting memories scrambled around in her head. Her whole body ached, but even though it hurt the pain was at least something to focus on. A lifeline to draw her back into the world. She vaguely remembered a flash of amber light bright enough to wipe everything else away, the still image of green lightning burned into her memory. The smell of burning and the jolting of being carried somewhere at speed.

Opening her eyes, she found herself lying on a hospital bed in the corner of a busy room with a warm blanket over her. A doctor was arguing vehemently with a set of rich patients who were demanding that their bumps and bruises be treated immediately. The harried doctor kept trying to explain the concept of triage to them as he was treating a poor crewman with a broken arm. There were even more patients waiting behind them. The girl with the camera was documenting the whole thing, occasionally narrating commentary into the microphone but she couldn’t hear what she was saying over the hubbub. The guy in the Hawaiian shirt was nearby but hadn’t noticed that she’d opened her eyes yet, watching the doctor at work and waiting to see if he needed to intervene. She didn’t need the sign on the wall to tell her she was in the infirmary, the antiseptic hospital smell pervaded everything.

Moving a little, trying to decide if she should call attention to herself, she stopped dead. Nothing felt right. The blanket felt heavier than it should, though she could have put that alone down to weakness from injury. One of her shoes was missing, but when she tried to shift her foot it felt like her shoe was several sizes too large. It was easier to pull her foot right out than try to keep it on. Also, her clothes felt loose, like she was swimming in them. The way her hips felt bigger than they should also didn’t help, not to mention the strange sensation of weight at her chest.

It’s a dream, she thought, screwing her eyes shut and not daring to hope. Wake up, idiot! This is just a dream! She told herself. Pinching herself, she winced, feeling her tails twitch and her ears flatten back against her head. Wait, tails? Ears? What the hell?

Slowly sitting up, she looked down at herself and stared, stunned. Her clothes were, indeed, far too large for her now but the swell of her breasts was obvious through her shirt. Her hands looked smaller and the room looked bigger. Her arms were closer together, like her whole torso had shrunk. Her two bushy tails, each curling around so that she could hug them, left no doubt in her mind. She was a kitsune now, and a girl.

A flash of memory hit her like a punch to the temple. Standing inside a circle, amber lightning crackling through it. Akiko crying out for help inside her brain. A smiling yellow-haired kitsune teenager speaking in soft, reassuring, tones. “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,” she said in the memory. “D-d-does tha…” The image froze for a moment before coming back to life, her tone changing from reassuring to stern and commanding. “Listen to me. I am Yakyou, your godmother. I crafted this memory when I sealed you in case of an event where the seal was broken prematurely. I apologize for the necessity, it’s inevitable now that I cannot spare you this pain. Your name is Amaya, I was forced to seal you and your sister, Akiko, away. You should be able to hear her voice in your head soon. Do not be afraid, wherever you are I will find you, though I cannot guarantee my help. I believe in you both. Survive.”

It was done in a moment, the memory of a message shoved into her brain all at once. Amaya? Akiko? My name is… My name is Ichiro, isn’t it? Why doesn’t that name feel right?

Because you’re not Ichiro, a second, languid, voice answered. She sounded like she was waking up from a deep slumber.

Amaya’s heart began to race. It was surreal, exciting and frightening all at once. What happened? How had it happened? What’s going on? Her thoughts raced and the world began to spin. The entitled passengers began shouting, demanding attention with high-pitched whines that grated against her fox-like ears. It was all too much, she wanted to scream at them to shut up. She needed to get away!

Slipping quietly off the bed, Amaya landed on her feet next to a maintenance hatch in the corner of the room. She didn’t need tools to pry this one off, it came away easily. She heard the guy in the Hawaiian shirt shout for her to stop as he leapt over the bed to grab her but she was inside the tunnel and crawling away far too fast for him to catch her in time. Once she was around a corner, she knew there was no way for him to follow, he was way too big to fit his shoulders through.

Awesome, Sis! Akiko congratulated her. We probably want to keep moving, I bet he’s looking up the schematics to try to fish us out of here as we speak.

Sis? Amaya said as she kept moving down the tunnel. Akiko, you’re back? We’re back? WE’RE BACK!

Missed you too, Akiko purred fondly, giving her sister a mental hug.

They could hear the chime of the PA reverberate through the walls of the tunnel. Amaya assumed that one of the walls must run close to a hallway. “Attention, this is Captain Fry speaking. All crew are to report to the nearest engineer to assist in making the modifications to the hull. Any and all resources you or the passengers have that may aid in making the hull air tight are hereby requisitioned by my order. This is top priority!”

“What the fuck?” Amaya said aloud. “Why the fuck do we need to be air tight?”

Maybe we sank? Akiko suggested. Crashed into the ocean?

No, if we were underwater we’d just be dead, Amaya mused as she continued moving. We’d hear the water pressure crushing the superstructure and there’d be visible signs of leaking. A skyliner’s pretty air tight to protect the passengers from pressure differential at high altitude but it’s not perfect. Also, they’d be directing passengers to evacuate to the life rafts and such, not scrambling to reinforce the hull. This is weird.

I’m just glad we’re not that idiot Ichiro anymore. Ok, so where are we going? I assume you’re not just moving because I said so.

No, they need supplies and I can help. We can help. We’ve been working on uprights and robots for nearly ten years, right? A skyliner’s got to be simpler than that.

If you say so. Honestly, I wasn’t paying that much attention.

It took some searching but it wasn’t long before they found an exit to an empty room with a bunch of machinery. Amaya quickly identified the pumps, filters and syringes full of binary epoxy resin. “Awesome!” Amaya exclaimed, jumping and clapping her hands. “This is everything we could possibly need to reinforce the hull!” As the excitement passed, however, she had to lean against the wall, feeling a little dizzy.

Are you ok, sis? Amaya asked, sounding concerned. Are you sure you’re up to this?

Doesn’t particularly matter, does it? I can’t stop now; the engineers need these supplies to reinforce the hull. If they need to make the ship air tight, then it needs to happen before we’re all dead. Godmother told us to survive, and I’m going to survive, damnit!

Pushing the dizziness away, Amaya got to work shutting down the pumps, disassembling the control circuits for portability and packing everything into a handy orange workman’s bag that she could push through the tunnels. They were back underway in a few minutes, with Amaya’s smartphone schematics to help guide them to engineering. She wasn’t expecting the guy in the Hawaiian shirt to suddenly burst through the hatch ahead of her but she slipped through his grasp with a startled squeak, grabbing the bag and scrambling away.

“Stop!” he barked. “You don’t understand! We need those components!”

“We need ‘em more, mate!” Amaya called out over her shoulder before disappearing around another corner. She could hear him swearing in the distance.

He’s persistent, Akiko commented, and he found us way too easy. Someone’s helping him, there’ll probably be an ambush wherever you’re going.

It’s ok, engineering’s just up ahead. Once the engineers have these components, the ship will be safe and they’ll be thanking me.

Shoving open the hatch to engineering, Amaya pushed the bag through before crawling out to discover the stunned looks of three engineers. They seemed to be searching the nearby supply crates and storage rooms for the parts they needed. “Hey, what the hell are you doing down here?” the guy in charge demanded, walking over to her. “This is a restricted area! Passengers aren’t…”

He stopped the moment Amaya unzipped the bag and shoved it into his arms. “Here, everything you need to seal the ship plus modify the pressure controls for the double hull.”

A quick sift through the contents of the bag impressed him. “You’re… She’s right, this is everything we need. Where the hell did you get all this?”

Amaya grinned and shrugged. “I disassembled some non-essential systems. Once I heard the announcement, I figured this was top priority.”

“Thanks,” he said curtly before he started handing things out to his subordinates and barking orders. It wasn’t long before they were running in all different directions to disseminate the parts to where they were needed.

The guy in the Hawaiian shirt walked into the room with a large guy in a security uniform who seemed vaguely familiar. Amaya greeted them with a wave and a broad, smug, grin. “Hey, boys! I got the parts to your friends, I’m sure they’re getting this ship all nice and air tight as we speak!”

The guy in the security uniform paused before her, frowning down at her. He was black, obviously ex-military and distinctly unimpressed. The badge on his chest read ‘Capt. Rudyard Holt’. “Do you know where you got those parts?” he asked in a deep, vaguely British, accent.

“Like I told the engineers, I disassembled some non-essential systems,” Amaya admitted, confused.

“Those non-essential systems were the machines that operate the ship’s climate control systems. No climate controls, no air conditioning. No air conditioning, no CO2 scrubbers. We’ve got much bigger problems losing those than it just getting too hot in here.”

Amaya stared, stunned. “What? No! I-I know what I’m doing! I’m an engineer, I wouldn’t do that, I’d know… I was helping…” Her hands began to shake and she was getting dizzy again. She couldn’t help but sniffle as tears rolled down her cheeks.

Rudyard sighed. “I’ve diverted engineers to fix climate control. They should have all the spare parts they need, it’ll just take time but I don’t know what I should do with you yet. For now, I’m not letting you out of either my sight or Detective Reynolds here. Consider yourself in custody.”

OH HELL NO! Akiko’s voice shouted in Amaya’s mind. Out of the way, Amaya, it’s MY turn!

Amaya felt Akiko’s will shoulder her aside. She didn’t mind, all she wanted to do was crawl away and stew in her own uselessness. Their body shivered as it became even more slender, hair rippling as it shifted from black with ice-blue tips on her ears and tails to white with bright scarlet tips. When it was done, Akiko grinned. “You’ll never take me alive, coppers!” she declared, diving for the maintenance hatch.

“Oh no you don’t!” Holt growled, leaping to grab her. His hands closed around her two tails while she was still halfway through and he heaved her out, dangling her in the air.

Akiko screamed and kicked furiously. “EEEEEEEE! Pervert! Hentai! Hentai!”

Focusing, Akiko looked over Holt’s shoulder and glared at a point in the wall. The image came together easily in her head, the metal suddenly ripping with an audible screech as the pressure ruptured the hull. Beyond the hole was a spinning void full of stars as the air in the room was sucked out into space. Then it happened, or rather appeared to happen, just as she imagined. It was a rough and imperfect image, as rushed as Akiko was. It felt as if the air was being sucked away but nothing moved. Despite the spinning stars, there was no feeling of movement to disorient the viewers who weren’t in on the trick.

Still, Reynolds backed away, startled and someone outside the door screamed a high-pitched wail of alarm. “HULL BREACH! WE’RE ALL DEAD! Uh, wait, isn’t that an interior wall?”

One of Akiko’s kicks finally managed to hit Holt’s arm just behind the elbow while he was momentarily distracted. It didn’t hurt but the blow was in just the right place to numb his arm, letting her slip through his fingers as he cursed. “Ha-ha! Outta my way!” Akiko giggled as she scampered between Reynold’s legs and skipped lightly through the door, nearly running over the girl who was waiting just outside the door with her camera.

“You’ll never take me alive!” she called out, grinning wickedly as a million diabolical plans raced through her mind.



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