Last night was a blur. It was dark and stormy -- one of the hardest storms Osthaven has ever seen. It was the perfect cover for a raid on the mountain fox demons. But I was disappointed that the Elders forbade me from going.
I couldn’t sleep that night. Maybe it was the sound of the wind clawing at the cabin walls, the rain gnawing at the roof, or the occasional hiss of the fire as stray raindrops funnel down the chimney.
But over all that commotion, I still managed to hear a sharp knock on my door.
As I answered it, only the howling wind and the spray of the rain greeted me. But then something grabbed my ankle -- a crumpled figure in a thin cloak. I didn’t even need to hear the soft words leaving their lips before I scooped them up and brought them inside.
I couldn’t see any of their face past their hood, nor did I ask their name. I had brought a complete stranger into my cabin like a fool.
My grip tightens around my snaggletooth dagger. A jagged bone blade narrowed down to a wicked point -- the perfect tool for killing fox demons.
And that is exactly what laid across my bearskin rug. A fox demon. I, Alistair, a fox hunter, had brought home and cared for the very thing I’m trained to kill. I had even slept peacefully with this creature under the same roof.
My eyes run over its figure. Its once soaked cloak had dried into an uncomfortable looking cocoon that encased its body. My gaze soon lands on its bare feet, one of the ankles messily bandaged by my hand. Next to them lies a bushy, ruddy red tail.
force my eyes back to my dagger, breathing heavily. My knuckles are turning white. Why can’t I do it? Why can’t I just kill the beast and bring honor to my family? To my village? My teeth tear at my lower lip.
It’s because it’s injured, a voice in the back of my head speaks up. You have an unfair advantage. Killing in this matter will only bring you shame.
My grip loosens. That makes perfect sense. My village would be impressed with the kill, but I would know I obtained it unrightfully. I even my breathing. This is the way, I think. I wait until the demon can put up a fight, then I strike. I’ll fight with honor.
I’m broken out of my thoughts by a loud yawn. I instinctively tense as the fox demon begins to shift. It slowly sits up, moving with a gracefulness I’ve never seen before. Its hood slowly falls away, revealing a pair of pointed fox ears the same color as its tail. It soon turns to face me, peering over its shoulder with an air of indifference that makes my blood boil.
It must be a trick the demon is pulling on me -- some kind of appearance alteration spell -- for it looks nowhere near what the Elders said. The wild orange fur is nowhere to be seen, only fair skin and straight reddish hair remain. The maw full of fangs has been replaced with a pair of delicate pink lips. The fox’s snout is a human nose instead, small but red from the oncoming of a chill.
But its eyes... The one thing the spell must not have hidden. They’re blood red, full of trickery and deceit. The fear in them as they land on my dagger? Only a lie.
The silence is tense. I remain sitting on my stool near the table while the fox demon doesn’t move a muscle on the rug.
“I see you’ve noticed my dagger, fox demon,” I say.
Its ears twitch at my words. “Yes,” it replies. “A snaggletooth tooth. I’ve heard that only the most experienced hunters can take those creatures down.”
I struggle to keep my face a neutral expression. Its first few words to me are already blatant flattery! Not to mention it has the voice of a man but the face of a woman!
I shoot from the stool and the demon flies to its feet in response. I watch in dull amusement as it limps on its right foot, hissing in pain. It stares at me like a wounded animal: eyes wide, ears folded down, and pressed against the fireplace like its life depends
I sheathe my dagger. “You better be glad I haven’t killed you already,” I tell it. “You can stay here -- quietly -- until your ankle is better.”
I begin to walk to the far side of the cabin, but something cold catches my wrist. I spin around, not bothering to hide the disgust on my face. In that short amount of time, the fox demon has managed to get so close that our noses are almost touching.
“Why?” it whispers, staring up at me with those devilish eyes.
They smell good, floats through my mind. I exaggeratedly scrunch my nose up to stifle the thought. Just because the sweet scent of mountains and rain is a change from the overwhelming bodily funk of the village does not mean this fox smells good!
“Don’t question me, fox demon!” I growl. I grab its hand off my wrist and walk it back over to the rug. “Don’t move from here,” I command.
I resume my original task of searching through my cupboards for my breakfast of beef jerky -- the only normal thing about my morning.
“Do you really have to keep calling me ‘fox demon’?” it complains from the rug.
I glare at it from across the room. “Of course I do!”
“Would you like me to call you ‘human devil’?” it shoots back.
My brow furrows. Human devil? I think. “No, that’s silly,” I say.
A smug grin threatens to split the fox creature’s face in half. “Exactly my point.”
I twirl around and slam my hand on the table. “You used your stupid fox trickery to get me to say that!”
My outburst had the opposite effect on the creature. It threw its head back and laughed, high-pitched almost like the yipping of a dog.
I have to be extra careful, I think. I can’t fall for any more of those tricks. Suddenly, I am struck with a genius idea: if I cater to the fox, then it won’t have to trick me into what it wants! I smirk to myself. I’ve outsmarted the fox.
“Okay,” I say. “Point made. What would you like me to call you, then?”
The fox demon’s laughter abruptly cuts off. “Wow, what a change in heart,” it dryly remarks.
“Well?” I say pointedly.
It pulls its tail into its lap and stares up at me with the biggest smile. “Tohru. And I’m a kitsune, not a ‘fox demon’.”
I only nod and return to my search. “I’m Alistair.”
Now when we meet on the battlefield, you can properly beg me for mercy.
I lean against the rickety wood fence, watching the fox hunter trainees spar against straw dummies. All of the young boys swing their swords in wide, inexperienced arcs. Seeing them eases my soul, allowing me to forget about --
I lurch forward as something hard smacks my back. "Heyo, Alistair!" a hearty voice greets me.
I curse internally and turn slowly to face my fellow hunter. I always despise the fact that I have to look up at the giant of a man to meet his eye. "Hallo, Leonhardt."
"Extra timid today, aren't we?" Leonhardt guffaws.
"No, you just started me," I smile.
"Us hunters never startle, Alistair," he replies solemnly.
I awkwardly clear my throat. "So how did the raid go?"
"It was glorious!" he suddenly roars. "The mountains flowed red with blood and blazed orange through the downpour with an inferno!” He pauses to take a breath. “My crew and I have brought much honor to Osthaven by eradicating that fowl fox demon settlement!" he pounds his chest proudly.
My smile begins to strain. “I’m glad to hear the raid was successful.”
“Oh, how I wished you were there, Alistair!” Leonhardt sighs. He takes a rough hold of my shoulder, giving me a little shake. “But we need someone to protect the village while we’re gone, don’t we?”
My mouth muscles are burning with how hard they’re working. “Right.”
“Hey, that’s my Alistair!” he gave me a hard pat on the shoulder before walking away.
I might’ve imagined him laughing at me under his breath as he left. I turn back to the trainees, but this time, I’m unable to get that stupid fox out of my mind. Will my convoluted plan bring me true honor?
I creak open the door to my cabin, careful not to let the candlelight within leak into the night. Despite my abode being farthest from the village center, I can’t risk anyone knowing. As the door thuds shut behind me, I let out a breath I didn’t know I was holding.
“Oooh~” arises from near the fireplace. I see the ears pop up past the table before I see the face. “What’s that smell?”
I drop my bundled meal from the mess hall onto the table. “Dinner,” I answer.
The fox dem -- kitsune hopped off the rug and occupied the nearest stool. It -- he -- she -- they eyeball the meal, tongue lolling out like the animal they are. They suddenly snap out of their trance, covering their mouth with a hand and folding their ears down.
“Forgive me, Alistair,” they say.
I straighten up as my name leaves their lips. I hate how naturally they said it, how right it sounds with their lilting accent.
They look down. “I haven’t eaten anything since yesterday morning...”
I say nothing as I sit across from them and begin unwrapping the dish. The smell of roasted venison and potatoes fills the whole room. It’s almost enough to make me start drooling as well. A few moments later, a large plate of juicy brown meat and steaming potatoes sits between the two of us.
I whisper a prayer before eating. Instead of immediately tearing into the meal, Tohru waits patiently for me to finish -- much to my surprise. Once done, I reach for a slab of venison and take a bite. I let my eyes shut as I enjoy the familiar gamey taste; for that brief moment, I was able to forget about what was sitting across from me.
I peek at Tohru. They’re nibbling away at a piece of meat like some kind of rabbit. I can catch flashes of their fangs in the candlelight as they eat. Maybe they used another spell to reduce how violent they look.
“Are you not hungry?” I ask, mouth full of food.
They look up at me, blinking. “I am.”
I gulp down my current mouthful. “How come you’re eating like that then?”
“Well...” their eyes slide away from mine. “Whoever made this doesn’t know how to cook.”
I raise an eyebrow. “How does a fox demon like you know anything about good food? And on that matter, how do you know anything about table manners?”
Tohru sets the food back on the plate before meeting my gaze, crimson eyes blazing. “You think I lived like some kind of animal up on the mountain? Devouring raw meat straight from a kill?”
“Ye--” I start.
“No!” they bellow. “I had a family, and we ate meat cooked and seasoned with herbs around a dinner table! And the one night I skipped dinner, I never got to see them again!” their voice cracked.
Shocked into silence, I can only stare at them. Their ears flopped lifelessly on their head and their face was twisted with agony. Tohru lets out a poorly stifled sob, and before I know it, tears well up in their eyes. As they try to furiously blink them away, I can’t tell if this is a well-performed act or genuine emotion.
Imagine if someone came and burned down Osthaven, killing everyone, including your parents, a voice in my head whispers. The problem is, I can’t imagine it. It’s impossible that something like that could happen. I wouldn’t be able to live anymore -- this village is my everything!
My heart sinks as everything finally clicks. “I’m sorry,” spills out before I can stop it.
Tohru sniffles. “You don’t mean it, fox hunter,” they hiss. “I know it was your people who did this.”
They get up and limp back over to the rug. They carefully ease themself onto the ground and sit with their back facing me.
“Why did you come here then?”
“Because there’s nowhere else to go.”
I shoot up and rest my hand on my dagger. “I could kill you any second.”
“But you haven’t yet.” Tohru turns to face me, their eyes puffy. “And something tells me you won’t. Unless this is a type of game you hunters like to play with your prey.”
Me? Playing games? This fox is out of its mind! I think. “Us hunters have no games,” I say, trying to channel Leonhardt.
“No wonder you’re so dull,” they remark with a weary smile.
I sit back down with a huff, my face feeling like it's on fire.
Tohru turns back to the fire, hugging their tail to their chest. “But I’m glad I happened upon your house instead of one of the others, Alistair. You’re nothing like what I’ve been told about fox hunters.”
“You’re nothing like what the Elders told me about fox demons either,” I mumble.
They give a light chuckle before laying down on the rug. I resume eating, wondering if the village chefs use any seasoning in their dishes.
I shift in bed. That voice is surely part of a dream for I live alone.
“Alistair,” the voice whispers again.
Something pokes my arm. I spring awake, throwing off my blanket and frantically looking around. I quickly spot the kitsune leaning on the side of my bed. Tohru gives me a small smile as if the cute display could forgive their transgression.
“What do you want?” I sigh.
“I wanted to know if there was somewhere I could clean myself,” they rub their arm. “I couldn’t sleep well because of how gross I felt,” they add, mumbling.
I pinch my nose. Fox demons clean themselves? I haven’t had a bath since three days ago. If I break my normal schedule of washing every week, the other hunters might become suspicious!
“The river is very far from the village. I would have to get a horse from the stables...” I explain.
Tohru’s face drops. “Oh, I see...”
For some reason, I feel bad? Maybe it was the way they dejectedly limped back to the rug. Fox demon or not, I couldn’t bear that sight. I can’t let Tohru know that though.
“I have to go to the stables today anyways. Hunter business,” I fib. “After that, we can go to the lake.”
Their ears perk up and they whip around to face me, eyes wide. “Really?”
I fall back into bed, coving my eyes with my arm. “Don’t make me change my mind.”
I peek at Tohru. They're wearing another face-splitting smile. I feel my lips involuntarily twitch to form my own smile, much to my frustration.
The sun seems to glare at me past the canopy of trees. My nose hurts from scrunching it up for so long. Why didn’t I make Tohru ride behind me instead of in front of me on this stupid horse! The gray mare snorts, seeming to hear my mental insult. Tohru leans forward and pats her neck, whispering some animal speak into her ear; their tail also flies up and brushes my face.
My hands tighten around the reins as I pretend they’re Tohru’s neck.
A few more minutes and we finally arrive at the river. The clear water bubbles gently as it snakes through the forest, the trees providing the perfect amount of shade over its rocky banks.
I spring off the horse, glad to have my own space back to myself.
“A little help?” Tohru says. They’re now sitting side-saddle, hands outstretched towards me.
Curse that crippled foot, I think. I grab their waist, trying not to cringe as they wrap their arms around my neck, and place them on the ground as carefully as possible.
“Thanks...” they say slowly.
They still haven’t let go of me yet, only continuing to stare up at me. I don’t let go either. I relish the feeling of having someone shorter than me around. I’m definitely not counting the specks of brown in their red eyes!
“As lovely as this is, I should really get on with my bath,” Tohru finally says, making me break count.
“Right,” I mumble. I curse internally at how weak that sounded.
We awkwardly let go of each other. Tohru limps over to the riverside while I head to the nearest tree to tie up the horse. After I loop the reins securely around a branch, I make the mistake of looking at Tohru again.
Their cloak and a dirty sleeveless tunic were strewn about the rocks, which left Tohru in only a pair of shorts. Of their own volition, my eyes trail down their back; I find myself surprised at the lack of blemishes it contains. I also find myself admiring their form. Most Osthaven men are burly and the women stout, but Tohru doesn’t fall into either of those categories. Instead, they’re slender and elegant. Both are things I thought I would never experience -- would never desire -- in a person.
My eyes finally land on the fox tail coming off their tailbone, snapping me back to reality. If only you were human, I think in a moment of weakness.
“Like what you see, Alistair?” Tohru teases, breaking me out of my thoughts.
If I say “no”, I would be lying but I can’t say “yes” either! I settle with turning away in shame, my face burning.
“I’ll take that as a ‘yes’!” they laugh.
I hear the water splash a moment later. I hold my head. What is wrong with me? I think. Wait, it’s not me. I must have gotten some kind of spell placed on me. It’s only been about a day -- that should be plenty of time for a spell to be cast. Right?
We ended up staying until sunset because Tohru decided to wash his clothes as well. Oh, and in another unlucky series of events, I discovered that he is in fact male. Or maybe it was more tricks. I don’t know anymore.
I’m surprised no one caught me when I arrived back at the stables so late. When I got back home, Tohru was sitting on my bed with a contented smile. I would complain about any bugs he could bring into my bed, but he looks cleaner than I do.
“Why are you on my bed?” I ask.
“‘Cause it’s comfy. Also ‘cause I need you to rebandage my foot.” He held out his leg. My old bandages were nowhere to be seen, only a slightly pink ankle.
I forcefully exhale. “Fine.”
I rummage in the chest at the foot of the bed before pulling out more linen strips. As I begin wrapping, my curiosity gets the best of me.
“How did you injure yourself?”
“Escaping down the mountain. The rain made everything slippery, and I fell...”
“I’m sorry that happened to you. Truly,” I say. “I can’t apologize for the rest of the hunters, but I apologize for my affiliation with them.”
And to think I wanted to go on that raid, I think. How could they have slaughtered a
family like that?
Tohru scoffs. “Apology accepted.”
I finished rebandaging his foot a moment later. “It should be better soon,” I say. “Thanks,” Tohru smiles.
I allow myself to smile back.
I feel something brush against my neck. I shift in bed, thinking nothing of it. Until my arm bumps into something that shouldn’t be there. I crack open an eye before launching out of bed with a shout.
Tohru springs to life as well, sitting up in my bed with wide eyes.
“What are you doing?” we ask simultaneously.
“I’m trying to get away from you!” I scream.
“And I was trying to sleep!” Tohru retorts.
I feel the heat rising in my cheeks again. “With me in my bed?!”
“Yes?” he tilts his head. “I thought you wouldn’t mind.”
“What?!” I stutter.
“With the way you looked at me yesterday, I thought you wanted to--” he starts.
My face is certainly only fire. “No! Shut up!”
Tohru sighs. “Sorry if it bothered you so much. How about I make it up to you with a properly cooked meal tonight?”
I scrunch my eyebrows, my embarrassment waning. “Meat cooked with herbs?”
Tohru nods. “I think you’ll really like it,” he smiles. “I’ll go searching for herbs later today!”
“I don’t think you should walk in a village of fox hunters by yourself...” I cross my arms.
“While I appreciate your concern for me,” he giggles, “I’ll be fine.”
“No. We’re going now when the sun is still low,” I say. I cannot have anyone stealing my kill!
“Yes. The two of us.”
Tohru falls back into the bed, wearing a sly smile that makes my stomach do flips. “Sure.”
Instead of being able to sneak away with a horse from the stables this morning, Leonhardt had caught me. Questioned where I was going at such an hour. I hope my excuse about doing an extensive check around Osthaven was enough. Of course I would only start lying to my brethren for a fox.
As we ride through a meadow, I pray that this fox isn’t rubbing off on me. I’ve already accepted that he’s bewitched me, I just can’t infect the rest of the hunters with this curse.
“Stop here,” Tohru suddenly says. His tail flicks up to smack my chin, and I could’ve sworn that he did it on purpose that time.
We’re in a grassy field near the base of a mountain -- the same mountain where the raid was held. I get off the horse and then help him down. We didn’t hold each other for as long today, for Tohru was on a mission. He took deep sniffs with his nose in the air before crouching down and sniffing some more.
Suddenly, his ears perked up and he sat on the ground. “Alistair, come look!” he called me over, beaming excitedly.
I walk over, the horse trailing behind me. “What is it?”
Tohru rips up what looks to be grass and holds it up to my nose. “It’s Afeine grass! It smells amazing.”
I take a sniff. The grass smells fresh and slightly sweet. It smells kind of like Tohru, my mind says. I choke on my spit at the thought.
Tohru snatches his hand away. “Sorry! Not everyone likes the scent, plus it won’t be helpful since it’s tasteless...” He sprinkles the blades back onto the ground. “Sorry again,” he mumbles.
He crawls over to a slightly taller patch of grass and begins pulling it up. “This is lemongrass,” he says. “It’s what’s really going to turn that gamey slab of meat around!”
“Sure,” I scoff. “You just don’t understand the appeal of the gaminess.”
Moments later, Tohru has a nice bundle of lemongrass and we’re ready to go.
Asking for raw meat at the mess hall gained me many stares. Everyone in the village is so busy that having a precooked meal is the easiest route, not to mention the honor it brings to the chef to cook for the fox hunters. I basically offended the chef and declared to everyone that I have nothing to do in one go.
This food better be worth it, I think as I trudge back to my cabin. After slipping inside, I spot Tohru’s makeshift grill over the fireplace. He must’ve put it together with some fox magic.
I soon find the actual kitsune sitting on my bed again. He slides off before walking, without any limping, over to me.
“Thank you, Alistair,” he smiles as I set the platter of raw meat into his outstretched hands.
“I’m expecting something that tastes amazing,” I grumble.
“Just leave it to me!” he giggles.
I can only shake my head as I shuffle over to my bed before sprawling out on it. For some reason, that sounded more reassuring than it should. I don’t know how I got to trusting a fox demon enough to sleep in the same room and to cook my food, but I’m oddly at peace with it. I shut my eyes.
I don’t think I’ll be able to kill Tohru.
I’m soon awoken by the most delicious smell. No, not the gamey smell of venison. A sweet, tangy scent. I rise up, eyes still closed, sniffing the air.
“You’re awake just in time!” I hear Tohru’s voice.
I open my eyes to a plate of steaming grilled meat and herbs atop the table. Tohru sits in the seat farthest from the bed, wearing a shy smile. I slide out of bed and sit across from him, barely able to stop my tongue from lolling out this time.
“I hope you enjoy it, Alistair,” he whispers.
It’s almost as if he knows how much I like hearing him say my name... I think. I hastily say a prayer before tearing into the meal.
It’s like nothing I’ve ever tasted before. A sharp tanginess has replaced the gaminess, and there’s now a sourness that accompanies it as well. I find it strange that I can’t taste the sweetness that I smell, but I don’t mind as it tastes good without it.
Tohru watches me devour the whole plate, herbs and all, with an unreadable expression.
After I finish, I lean back, smacking my lips. “I think you’ve made everything up to me with this, Tohru,” I say.
His ears flick as his name leaves my mouth. He rises out of his seat, expression grim. He stalks around the table before sitting atop my bed, facing me.
“What’s wrong?” I ask.
“Turn around and face me before you become paralyzed in place,” he commands, ignoring my question.
Before I had a chance to question him, I felt something in my left leg: thousands of bees stinging me at once. My mouth hangs open in surprise before my gaze falls on the empty plate.
“Afeine grass causes paralysis,” Tohru explains. “I was certain you would recognize its scent, but you didn’t, surprisingly...”
I twirl around in my seat to face him. “Why are you doing this?!” I bellow.
“Because I have to.”
I reach for my dagger, but my right hand falls limply to my side. The bees have claimed my left hand as well. I feel a wetness gather at my eyes as a growl rises in my throat.
Tohru closes the distance between us, sitting in my lap and grabbing my dagger himself. He stares at me, eyes half-lidded as if deciding to kill me or not. He suddenly throws the weapon away; it clatters against the ground as it slides towards the door.
“Oh, Alistair,” he says softly, trailing a finger along my jawline. “If only you were a kitsune...”
“What?” I sputter out.
“But fate has cast us as enemies,” he continues. “It’s why I used this time to spy on your village so the kitsune can plan the perfect attack.”
My eyes widen. I can’t believe what I’m hearing. I had let down my guard. I--
He cups my cheek. “However, you thought you could break your role. What a silly little fox hunter! Your naivete made this whole operation possible.”
“I-I trusted you,” I stutter, the function in my lips failing as they go numb.
“Didn’t your village Elders ever tell you to never trust a ‘fox demon’, Alistair?” he smiles, tilting his head playfully.
He’s mocking me! I think angrily.
There’s suddenly a sharp knock on the door. Seconds later, it bursts open, revealing another kitsune cloaked in all black. Only their eyes and fox features are visible.
“Commander Tohru!” the kitsune cries.
“I’m just finishing up here,” he says to the soldier.
Tohru turns back to me, staring into my eyes. I start to count the brown specks in his again in an attempt to calm myself.
“I can’t escape my role, and neither can you,” he whispers.
He suddenly leans in, brushing his lips against mine in a kiss. I can just barely feel it due to the numbness, but it still causes a flurry of emotions within me. Anger, longing, disgust, sadness, and finally back to anger again.
“Goodbye, Alistair,” Tohru says.
And with that, he was gone.
I was all alone in my cabin as I began to hear the screams of the villagers past my open door. Then came the roar of the flames. I sat there, unable to move at all, waiting for the fire to find my house and consume me for my sins. But it never came.
This was the worse kind of torture. But my heart, now two broken halves of stone, had never been set on something so hard before.
I’ll kill them all. Every last kitsune. Tohru especially. Everything he did was a lie. And I ate it up like a hungry dog. Now everything I’ve ever loved is gone.
Kitsune may not look the part, but they’re demons through and through.
Eggs, the winner of WriterVana's April 2022 writing contest, is a fiction, fantasy, and poetry writer.