Evening chilled him through to his bones and the samurai cursed under his breath.
Winter was upon them as was evident by the lingering snowfall, which irritated Kagesuto almost as much as the spirit that /insisted/ on bouncing along beside him in her fox-familiar form. It was the most she could muster in her state, anyway; and he wouldn’t let his cursed blade’s inhabitant channel much more power than that. The samurai had no choice when he needed to wield the katana, but otherwise she was wrapped tightly at his side. A grizzled stare was cast her way as she flitted about near his feet. He cursed her silently for being so stubborn. She was powerful enough on her own to summon herself in this ethereal form. Thankfully for Kagesutoraiku, with his bindings on the katana itself, that was about the extent of what she could do with the blade sheathed.
He calls the blade Ikiryō, which means wraith. Her true name is Kaiyo, and if he knew this, he could wield her true power with incredible force; but he’s a stubborn old man and he refuses to listen to what he believes is a trickster spirit. When she’s out and about bobbing around as a ghostly fox, he just refers to her simply as that: fox. The only time she was ever able to appear to him in an almost full-fledged form, she had the appearance of a woman with fox-like features which included ears and nine tails. Since he truly believes he has been cursed, he doesn’t want to know more about her. So she’s ‘fox.’
The snow cover was thin, but enough to be cold underfoot. Kagesuto disliked the cold, especially since most of his old age had set in and years of abuse on his joints had really done him no good. As he grimaced now and rested against a tree to massage his knees, Kaiyo’s large eyes fixated on him curiously. She had become used to them stopping often in the winter, or cold days in general. Most of their traveling was done during the warmth of the midday, and never during the morning or night.
“No.” He cut her off sharply.
She was only the size of his boot, rose just above his ankle, and long enough to complete a comfortable ring around it; but with the glimmering red flame that rose around her, she almost looked intimidating. Almost.
“I said no.”
“Nice and warm,” she sang, wiggling her body and fanning out her tails.
“You’re going to put me in an early grave.” His eyes glanced up to glare at her as her flames extinguished.
“You’re human, you’ve already aged past your prime.” Her tone was serious as she looked his body over. “Did you forget?” Now she sounded like she was mocking him, and her grin did nothing to hide it. The samurai gave her a soured look and opted to discontinue their exchange, returning his focus to the stiff joints that were giving him trouble.
They idled there for some time and night had set upon them. It wasn’t a new path for them, even though their eventual destination was going to be far from their familiar areas. Kagesuto had slumped against the tree and began to doze off when Kaiyo alerted him with a strange yip. He startled awake, hand rushing to the hilt of the katana thinking there was danger. Instead, a blue orb of fire was wavering just above the ground a short distance from him. Kaiyo was skipping back and forth near it, trying to say ten different things at once to him—or to the flame?—which he drowned out. He’d never seen anything quite like it, aside from Kaiyo’s own limited fire powers.
“Is this yours?” He growled, finally looking at her.
“What?” She stopped her frantic movement and her tails stood straight up. “Have you heard anything I said!? The fire! Kitsunebi! Follow it! Kagesuto! Now!”
“What?” His voice was flat. He wasn’t on track at all. Did he fall asleep? Was he dreaming?
“Kagesutoraiku!” Her voice rose and she enveloped herself in flames again, using the strength of his full name to gain power over him. It was unique to those of her realm to empower humans with their own names; and if he knew her name, he could use it against her, but also unlock incredible power with the katana entrusted to her name.
“Please don-” His closed his eyes in frustration as he was made to unsheathe the katana. “Damned Ikiryō. I am not your puppet.”
“We need to go! It’s serious! They’ve come!” She continued to babble on as her fox form melded into the blade, morphing as pale red-orange flames licked wickedly about it until an ethereal woman’s figure stood beside him. She had sharp yellow eyes, red-purple hair, thick ears, and still nine tails, though she wasn’t dressed in any fancy kimono. Instead, she was dressed as if she was ready to fight. It was why when he first witnessed her in this form, he didn’t trust her. Even as he looked at her now, he cursed this situation. The blade wouldn’t cut itself.
“What?” He asked again as she set off toward the flame, watching her make strange movements at it. Was she trying to coax it into doing something? She was mumbling under her breath about the flame not responding to her, even in her current form. “Who has come?”
“The Kitsunebi! Come, Kagesuto! They’re waiting for you!” It was clear in her voice that she was growing impatient as she turned toward him, eyes eager. “Please!”
He raised a brow. Please? She had only said that once before. With the blade held at his side, he stepped forward only to stop again and narrow his eyes uncertainly. A second flame appeared the moment he took a step, and he was cautious to move anymore.
“They’re leading you,” she explained. “Follow them, please.”
Again, she pleaded. His grip tightened on her hilt and he did as she wished, grimacing as the small blue flames lit a path at his feet. She followed excitedly as his side, shorter than he was and attached at his arm. Even though she did not have a palpable form, her touch was fierce. It was the bond he unknowingly made accepting her when he took the katana in the first place.
The pair were guided toward a small shrine no larger than her tiny fox form, and the blue flames lit two lanterns on either side. A small fox statue guarded the middle. It was white in color with red whiskers and blue flames lighting its paws.
“You know him?” Kagesuto asked sarcastically as Kaiyo gasped otherworldly, kneeling before the shrine like her life lay in its existence.
“They say,” she began, and paused. “They say to tell the samurai thank you.”
“Oh, please.” He gave a great sigh, throwing the katana over his shoulders and leaning back. “What else do they say? What are we having for dinner tomorrow?”
“Kagesuto! These are my-”
“Just who the hell are you, anyway? Do I ask who, or what?” If he disliked anymore more than having to be burdened with a cursed blade, it was what he believed to be paranormal activities in general. He wanted to leave this place immediately. More than immediately. Yesterday.
“Finish with your friend. I’ll meet you… outside.”
“Kagesutoraiku!” She called, stopping him. Ethereal foxes had materialized around them, dotting the forest in glimmering dim light.
“Oh, well. That’s fantastic.” He pointed with the katana out toward the trees. “Look at all that.”
“Kaiyo,” the foxes chanted. “Forgiveness.”
A swirl of blue flame enveloped the samurai and he nearly thought his heart would give out. This was it then, was it? His execution?
“In life, she granted forgiveness to those who sought it,” they continued. “In the in-between, she teaches you. In turn, you carry her weight. We thank you, samurai.” Flames began to rise from them as well. “Please continue to look after our master.”
* * * * *
He woke slowly with the sun warm on his side though the winter air was crisp and sharp. Kaiyo was curled beside him staring at him with wide, unblinking eyes. Her small body had kept him warm in the night, he supposed.
“Can you pretend that you sleep sometimes?” He asked wearily, turning away from her.
“Do you remember?” She asked eagerly.
“What? Remember what?” His voice was hoarse. Had he been talking in his sleep?
“Forgiveness?” Hers was softer than normal.
“What the hell are you on about?” Sitting up, the samurai dismissed her question and rubbed his left armed tenderly. It was his sword arm. Had they fought something? A series of strange, faint and tiny pawprint tattoos ran up his arm for a moment before fading. Did he imagine it? He blinked and rubbed his eyes, pushing himself up to prepare something for breakfast.
Kaiyo patted her tails on the ground as she watched him move about. He didn’t remember her name or what had happened, but she was content to know he had been a good choice. That her familiars approved of him enough to show themselves to him and give him their blessing meant the world to her.