The last days of the autumn equinox were upon the Yamato Valley, where only the harshest winds were not broken by the large mountain ranges around them. Beneath the bright red leaves that adorned the plum trees, a family of five made their journey home from the Dairintaisha, a golden shrine up the mountain. They walked single-file. much like wolves were said to travel. The father led the way, followed by the mother, who was followed by their three sons. The boys ranged in age from a young man of fifteen summers to a boy of five.
Small for his age, Kaen fidgeted with the purple moth-fur robes he wore. Dust and small tears obscured the faded ferrets dancing across the fabric. He imagined watching eyes hidden in the shadows around them. Kaen shivered under their gaze, clutching Kōri closer to his chest as he walked in his elders’ footsteps.
Kōri was a calico cat almost as old as the child who adored her. She purred in reassurance, tolerant as always of her friend’s tight grip. The soft chime of the bell she wore rang against Kaen’s racing heart and the whisper of the leaves in the wind. I will always be safe, thought Kaen, so long as I have Kōri with me. The cat was never far, always at heel. She shared the child’s bed at night, her purrs and hisses at the shapes cast by moonlight chasing away nightmares better than the ragged blanket tucked into the pouch at his belt.
The little family stopped in a clearing, each settling down and unpacking the meal they carried in the bag upon their backs. It would be the last for the day. Kaen unwrapped the cloth containing the two slices of bread, two fish, and a packet of his favorite tea. He tucked the packet away beside his blanket. While he waited for his mother to bring him his cup of hot water, Kaen shared his fish and bread with Kōri. The cat danced in circles, encouraging their human to toss bits into the air for them to catch mid-air to the smiling child’s delight. The bell upon the cat’s collar jingled out a happy tune as she moved. Then, Kōri turned with a hiss.
Kaen followed the cat’s gaze to spy a white fox. Its ears were folded and it made a distressed sound, rearing up on its hind legs just as Kōri had been. The creature was obviously hungry and hoping for a morsel of its own. He swallowed hard at the sight, then averted his eyes. White foxes consorted with Yasha - evil, white-haired demons known to steal children away and worse. Kaen focused on breaking up the food in his hands. If I do not look at them, surely the fox will go back to its master. He tossed another morsel high into the air.
Kōri launched herself up after the tidbit. But before she could sink her teeth into the sweet flesh, the fox shot from the underbrush. It kicked the cat aside and snatched the bit of fish from them before darting back into the trees.
Kaen scrambled to scoop up the fallen cat. Her white fur was dingy gray from her tumble into the dirt. He hummed as he petted her, hoping to soothe her damaged ego. “Peace, precious one, there will be more fish. I will share my milk tonight before bed.”
The offer was not good enough. Kōri kicked hard against his chest and shot after the white fox with a snarl. In seconds, the sound of her bell ringing in the air was the only sign of her.
For a breath, Kaen stared frozen after her. Then, his heart won out over his fear, and his feet moved as if they had a mind of their own. He focused upon the sound of the bell, terror filling him as it got further and further away. “Come back, Kōri! Come back! Wait for me!” Snarls and screeches replaced the sound of the bell. Kaen pushed past a tree, then stared in horror.
As the pair tore into each other, they tumbled dangerously close to an overhanging rock. A soft decline could be seen beyond the gray stone. The dust and leaves thrown in their wake caught the last rays of the sunset. His beloved feline friend’s claws ripped lines into the fox’s coat, turning the milky fur bright red. The fox sank its teeth into the cat’s leg. Kōri’s face contorted in agony. The scent of old copper tainted the air.
A scream tore from Kaen. He launched himself upon the combatants, one hand grabbing Kōri’s scruff, the other daring to latch onto the fox’s. He fought to pull them apart. If I can just bundle Kōri in my blanket and run back to camp… The child felt his foot catch on a root. He lost his balance but not his grip upon his cat and the evil fox. A flash of light like fire upon a mirror seared into Kaen’s eyes, forcing them shut. It felt as if his shoulders and side found every rock and root as they all tumbled over the side and downhill, landing with a hard thump.
The sharp sting of fangs in flesh forced his hold off the fox. The white fox danced upon a boulder in the distance, the sunlight reflected off its coat burning the child’s eyes anew. When Kaen managed to open his eyes a second time, the fox was gone.
Clutching the wounded cat tightly, the child stood up and looked around. “What is this place, Kōri?” He knew they had rolled downhill, but the land as far as his eye could see was flat. The wind in the trees sounded like laughter. He clung all the tighter to his feline companion. The world around him did not look real. The colors were too bright. “It is like the picture book Mother reads to us before bed.”
Kōri squirmed free. She landed upon three paws, the bitten one held aloft. She gave a soft meow and beckoned him to follow. When he did not move, she pressed against his legs, purring and nudging until he took the direction. The bell on her collar chimed, reminding Kaen of the larger shrine bells rung to ward off evil spirits. Would the smaller bell do the same?
The crisp, cool scent of fresh water reached Kaen’s nose. “Kōri, we need to get home. Now is not the time to look for more fish.” He could hear water rolling over rocks, almost making a tune of its own in time with the cat’s bell.
Kōri looked over her shoulder and gave a sharp, scolding meow. She led the way through two trees growing almost together. Her limp made her stumble.
Kaen reached down to scoop her up, then caught sight of the riverbank. He shoved his bitten hand into his mouth to stifle a scream.
A man and a woman knelt beside the bank, their white hair reflecting the remaining sunlight. The woman washed a white fur coat in the river, her hands dipping it in, then wringing it out over and over again. Crimson flowed downstream from the snowy fur. Even the pair looked like a picture made of ink on paper rather than flesh and blood.
Kaen smacked into the trees behind him as he took a step backward. A loud crack echoed off the trees and across the water. Quick as a striking snake, the child pulled his foot away from the twig he had crushed in his haste.
Both Yasha looked up. The male’s lip curling in disgust. The female, however, looked only curious. She stroked the coat in her hands, lingering over rends in the pelt.
Kaen hit his knees, covering his head in his hands. “Please,” he pleaded. “Do not harm me! I just want to go home! Please!”
Kōri put herself between the strangers and her human, low growls rumbling in her throat.
“Hush, cat!” The male’s voice was harsh and cold. “Were you not so prideful -”
The female laid a hand upon the male’s arm. “Peace, all of you.” She met Kaen’s gaze, and hers softened when he shuddered. “You do not belong here, child. The door between this world and your own closes soon. To find your way home, you must seek the aid of the moth with the silver tongue.” She pointed out a trail to the west. “Go. You will know him when you see him.”
Kaen stood from where he knelt, bowing. “Th-thank you, great lady, for your mercy.” He said no more, turning at Kōri’s nudging and walking down the path as quickly as he could.
If he believed his eyes, he would have thought the path an expertly painted mural on a room divider. The trees seemed flat and paper-thin, yet touching them gave them dimension. Time itself felt frozen, as though it had fallen asleep, the world slipping through its usually busy fingers, and no matter how far they walked, the sun did not seem to move.
Just as Kaen began to suspect they had been tricked, Kōri moved in front of him and meowed. He stopped short, trusting the cat knew best.
Upon a rock at a bend in the path sat a moth larger than the cat herself. Its wings were a vibrant shade of purple much like Kaen’s robes and its eyes glowed a brighter orange than the sunrise. In its forelimbs rested a teacup. A steaming teapot sat to its right. It hummed then sang, its voice smooth as silk and charming as a member of some great house.
“E-excuse me?” Kaen fumbled to stand before the moth. “I was told you could help us find our way home?” he asked, bowing respectfully.
“Oh?” The moth tilted its head, then held out the teacup. “Were you also told no aid comes without a price? You would not happen to have a spot of tea on you, would you, child?”
“I…” Kaen patted his pouch, surprised to find the packet of tea still there and intact. He held it out like an offering at a shrine. “Yes. Is it enough?”
The moth took the packet and dipped it several times into the teacup. After a sip, it smiled. “Seek the snake who refuses to fight. They will point you in the right direction.”
Kaen bowed once more and followed the moth’s nod further down the path. I hope this is not just a spirit’s game. He had no choice but to trust. He skidded as Kōri stopped short once more, her eyes upon the trees overhead.
A small snake lay wrapped around a branch, watching them through sunset eyes.
“Excuse me, but are you the snake who refuses to fight?”
“Yes.” The snake slid down the tree trunk and curled in front of him. “Why do you ask?”
“A moth said you could help me find my way home?”
“No aid comes free. Do you have a comfort object?” The snake shivered. “Nights will be getting cold soon.”
Kaen swallowed hard. Well, what good is the blanket if I never get home? He pulled his blanket out and wrapped it around the snake. “Is this good enough?”
“It will do.” The snake smiled and pointed further down the path with his tail. “Seek the ferret covered in scars. He will tell you where to go.”
Kōri’s chiming bell rung out with every step they took down the dusty path. She rubbed against the child’s legs every few steps, her purr a comfort. The calico stopped short, almost tripping Kaen, her fur rising as she growled.
Two ferrets danced around each other. One was more scars than fur, its pelt so filthy there was no way to determine its color. The other was purple-black, unhindered by the foreleg it was missing. Upon noticing the child and their feline companion, the three-legged ferret pushed the scarred one behind them, its teeth bared in warning.
“Excuse me,” Kaen said in a soft tone. He clasped his hand and bowed. “I was told to seek aid from the ferret covered in scars. Please, I just want to go home.” The child expected the response, and added, “I know no aid comes free. What price do you ask for yours?”
The scarred ferret sat up on its haunches. “A kiss or a taste of blood.”
Kaen shivered. I have been bitten once already. What is a second? He offered the hand the fox had sunk its fangs into. He bit his tongue not to cry at the sharp pain.
“Many thanks.” The ferret licked its jaws happily, its companion nuzzling its side. “Seek the wolf who bears a collar. They will take you where you wish to go.”
How many more creatures will I be told to seek? Kaen scooped up Kōri, holding the cat tight. He eyed the sunlight, which had still not moved. Will we ever get home? As he expected, further down the path lay a large wolf, its coat black and blue-gray.
The wolf raised its head, revealing the thick black leather collar about its neck. It tilted its head to the side, waiting.
Kaen drew a deep breath and bowed once more, Kōri still clutched close. The cat’s purr and nuzzling gave him strength. “Please, great wolf, I was told you could show me the way home. What price do you ask for your aid?” Kaen shivered. What more do I have to give?
The wolf stood and stretched, yawning in a fashion that bared all of its sharp fangs. “None.”
“What?” Kaen stared in surprise. “No aid comes free. Everyone before you has demanded some price! Why do you ask for nothing?”
“Just because you can,” said the wolf, coming up alongside the child and their cat, “doesn’t mean you should. Get on, child. I will take you where you need to go.”
Kaen swallowed hard but climbed onto the wolf’s back. One hand held Kōri in place, the other gripped the thick collar. The wolf walked softly. The only sound was the chime of Kōri’s bell on her collar. The wolf carried them to a place where two trees stood intertwined, their woven branches forming an archway, not unlike that over a shrine gate.
Seated upon a boulder by the doorway of branches was the Yasha woman, a pristine white fox upon her lap. The fox’s fur was damp but clean.
Kōri snarled, leaping off the wolf to stand between the child and the white-haired demons.
The fox curled its lip, its tail swishing not unlike the furious cat’s. It moved to leave the woman’s lap, but she curled her fingers into its scruff. She raised a brow. “Excuse my husband, child.” She nodded at the twisted branches. “Peace, cat. The threshold lies before you. But before you go, tell me, child, what have you learned?”
Kaen slid off the growling wolf’s back. He closed the distance between him and Kōri, scooping her up and clutching her to his chest. “Aid is more likely gained if you ask for it.”
The woman smiled and nodded. “Though when it is not granted when asked, sometimes it must be taken.” She scooped the fox into her arms just as Kaen held Kōri. “Do you understand?” She walked over to the wolf’s side, leaving the path to the threshold open.
Kaen nodded, petting Kōri. “Next time someone in need asks my help, I will not let fear stop me from giving what I can.” He bowed to the Yasha pair and the blue-gray wolf, then stepped through the door. A bright flash of light forced his eyes closed once again. When he opened them, he found himself lying at the bottom of a hill. He could hear his family’s voices calling for the two of them. Had it been just a dream? He scrambled to his feet, eager to be back in his family’s embrace. “We’re here! Here!” he called as he climbed back up the hill, Kōri held tight.