The murmur of the water in the river was a constant sound, joined occasionally with birds chirping and the loud croak of frogs. Smells of fresh water and greeneries were another constant, one that she could push away from her thoughts as she pulled the string of her bow back, the magic arrow nocked and ready with a faint glow. She was aiming for the bird resting on the branch a few meters away from her. A tiny one, perhaps only enough for eating once, or if she pushed it, twice.
A few times, Helen could let loose her arrow and maybe get the bird. That small avian with black and brown plumage, its black eyes gazing somewhere. But that was just a ‘maybe’, not a certainty. So she calmed her breath, ensuring she barely moved as she kept the string taut. The bird moved a few more times, as if wondering if it should like to fly down and catch a few meals. But it didn’t fly down, just staying on that branch… It spread its’ wings-
Her arrow flew straight and true towards the bird. For a moment, the bird stayed on the branch, not flying, not falling down. Helen stopped breathing, she was sure she hit the bird’s head but without any marks, it was hard to be certain. Then the bird toppled and she relaxed her tense body, immediately walking forward to grab the dead bird before any other carnivores decided her prey was theirs to grab.
They probably wouldn’t though, the last time a fox- different one, not the one she was hunting, tried to steal her prey… well, she had shown why it shouldn’t get close. She also gained another day of ration on the process so it was pretty good. Too bad the rest of the hunting animals decided to give her a wide berth after though… made it a bit hard to get some meat for her next meal, but at least it meant she had no worries to fight with anyone for the food.
Once Helen had grabbed the bird, she moved to the right, back to the river. One bright side of using a magic arrow was how the corpse stayed intact, ensuring no blood was spilled since that would attract a strong predator, or in the worst case, a magical beast. She could fight one but… she let out a soft sigh. It wouldn’t be an easy fight, and considering she was in the forest for catching another thing… Yeah, no need to increase her difficulty.
When she arrived near the river, she started to prepare the bird for the eventual roasting later. First, it was time to pluck the feathers, an action she had done so many times that she could just do it mechanically, her mind drifting towards other things.
Today marked the seventh day she was exploring this forest, trying to find any trace of the Mamono. So far, the only ones she had found were normal foxes, or just any other animals. One time, she saw deer’s hoof steps but she didn’t think it was the Winterdeer’s considering the season. Maybe a wild deer coming off the grassland into this forest to get some more meals.
When her hand felt like it was only grasping bird skin, Helen looked back down and noticed that it was finally bare. Grinning, she pulled out her dagger and started to cut the bird- from cutting off the parts with very few meats, then to pulling out the innards as well as the crop, the semi-digested food within the bird’s chest cavity. Those were things she had no need for and better to just throw them and let the river take care of the rest. Including cleaning the excess blood and tissue off the carcass.
“Alright, time for cooking this-” Helen jerked, immediately giving a look around the forest. It was silent, the only noise was only her own breathing and the gurgle of the river. She gripped her dagger a bit tighter, suspicious that there was something around, something so dangerous that its mere existence was able to make preys flee the vicinity.
But moments passed, and nothing seemed to happen. No rustle, no animal sounds- just one moment of silence then the forest being loud again, as if nothing had happened. But Helen was certain that something had- so reluctantly, she took back the bird meat and walked forward. Just following the riverbank until she felt she was far enough from where she had hunted the bird and cutting the carcass up. It should be safe, but even here, there was that uncertainty brewing once more in her mind.
Fire didn’t help her feelings. The smell of roasted bird, always, always sending her stomach to rumble in hunger and making her mouth salivate- also didn’t help. They were just a moment’s distraction, and not even the taste of freshly-killed bird helped to take that sense of unease swirling within her guts.
In this situation, perhaps she should just continue onwards. Bury the bones, kill the fire and continue her trek. But the sun had set and she didn’t think she would fare well during the night. Reluctantly, she left the fire to crackle, feeding a few more sticks into it so it wouldn’t die anytime soon… then leaned towards a tree, preparing to hopefully get a few winks of sleep before the sun would rise again.
That night, her rest was uneasy, her dreams plagued with some sort of nightmare that always watched… but never showed itself.
Ever since Helen had woken up, she had spent her time checking around the camp. Not too far off, just around ten steps away or so but she inspected everything carefully. The slightly damp earth and rocks covered with moss and other types of vegetations. All of them inedible for humans like her though unfortunately. Then she looked up, to see if anything was perching on the trees or not. Unfortunately, the answer stayed firmly on ‘nothing’.
None on the grounds, like rodents, other small mammals or even snakes. The treetop too was bare except for the leaves and branches themselves, no birds showing themselves to her… even though just yesterday she had seen multiple flying around and singing so loudly. But now the only sound she could hear was the roar of the river next to her, no other voices joining in the lone, but constant drone.
She frowned, tapping her hips uncertainly as she continued to walk around where she had searched. Just to look again, to ensure that she hadn’t looked wrong. But the more she did it, the more certain that she hadn’t inspected wrong- there truly was no animals around her. Some signs that there had been a den, a bird’s nest on another tree… but the animal owner of those habitations weren’t there, only leaving an empty living place. The places weren’t abandoned a long time ago either, with one of the dens she had found had a pile of seeds and nuts, fresh ones. No rodents she had learned about would leave a food trove like that alone.
Right, she should just move forward since it was morning now, just as she planned yesterday. Taking care to ensure she had no stray embers in her campfire yesterday, she checked that the buried bones were undisturbed as well. Once she finished all of that, she checked her own equipment- bow, dagger and the items she had bought to capture the Mamono. All of them seemed to be in order so without any reason to delay her walk any further, Helen continued the trek deeper into the forest.
But even though she did that, she stuck close to the river, refusing to stray too far. A constant source of fresh water was always important, even more so when she couldn’t be sure of when the next rain would fall. It could be in an hour, tomorrow, next week, no one knew. Not helped with the fact she also wouldn’t know how long and how strong it would be. So even if a rain started, it might not help at all.
Time passed, the sun slowly rising up to its zenith and the unsettling feeling she felt from yesterday still stuck around. The more she walked, the more the emptiness she could feel around her seemed to drag on. Even a constant drone from the river, the one she took comfort from started to grate when it was the only noise she could hear. Just the roar of water continuously filling her ears, with the occasional rustle of leaves from wind breezing through.
Just two of the same sounds over and over again… maybe she should try to tune out the river’s noise but it refused to stay the same- the same as the winds. So she just had to get used to them, focusing on the other sensations like the coolness from the wind and how the forest felt humid against her skin.
She didn’t know how long she had walked, just that the sun had lowered slightly from the top position, perhaps around halfway down. Soon it would be time for her to camp once more, this time eating her rations instead of hunting a prey since she hadn’t seen anything. Seriously, her gaze didn’t fall onto any single animal, just the occasional insects that scuttled around. Perhaps those weren’t affected by whatever drove the animals away from her…
Looking to the side, she could see how dark the forest was. The trees within the deeper part had grown tall and with their thick foliage, they prevented sunlight from reaching the ground below. Not the most welcoming of places as always, but it was probably time for her to go deeper, to finally let go of the river she had been sticking with. Reluctance still coiled in her guts even though she still looked, temptation pulling at her to finally pull the trigger.
As the sun lowered… Helen bit her lip, uncertainty still flickering through her heart before she finally decided to walk into it. Her surroundings turned dark, the foliage above dense enough to prevent the sunlight- there were only a few places she could see where the sunlight managed to pierce through.
Slowly but surely, the river’s sound receded away, exchanged by the still forest- no, it wasn’t like the silence she had before. From afar, there were now sounds of birds singing and the rustling of animals going through bushes without caring if a prey heard their movement. But those were still far away from her, and so she decided not to move closer and instead stayed within the emptiness, to try and see if she could find the culprit.
Definitely not easy, and the setting sun didn’t help her to see and find anything. She was about to give up and see if she could try again tomorrow morning when she saw them. Pawprints, just a few of them but completely clear on the soil. Carefully, Helen knelt down, feeling glad that the thick forest prevented these to be hidden under the grasses. Maybe she missed some next to the river because of that? Probable but no use to ponder about it now.
Leaning even closer to the prints, she noticed that it had a pad with four claws, all of them curved inwards. That had to be a fox’s print but… it was bigger than any fox tracks she had seen previously. Not as big as a bear’s for sure, but big enough that she could safely say it was two times larger.
So these tracks were this deep in the forest, and add the fact that it was larger than normal prints THEN add another fact that the animals all had fled from this area… it all pointed out to a Mamono.
A grin slowly spread across Helen’s face, she was sure what it was now. There was no mistake, and so it was time to follow the tracks now. To finally capture and bring that fox back to the noble and get the money in her hands.
“Just you wait… I’ll get you!” She murmured, her mind filled with thoughts of gold that would fall into her hands even as she followed where the tracks pointed.
Two days had passed since she first saw the marks. She had walked deeper into the forest, the trees changing shape from normal ones into twisted form of something. They still felt like a tree and yet they differed. A difference in such a fundamental level that even if their superficial looks were the same, the inside was different. There was nothing she could do about them except going forward and taking note though, unfortunately. But with that and how at first she was excited that she could find the fox and get the money soon, she got really excited and started to walk deeper- not forgetting to leave some marks so she knew where she was going. But after the sun had set and she took another nap, she could think slightly clearer and finally noticed some things. First, she saw how the marks weren’t far off from one-another, ensuring that she could always follow the tracks wherever the Mamono went. Second, the fox Mamono did something to any of the animals around the tracks. Some were killed, and while she knew she shouldn’t, Helen still took them as her food. But most of the prey were made to run off- the tracks that were left showed that. So the fox wanted her to keep following, and to have enough food… but for what reason, she had no idea.
Gritting her teeth, Helen continued to push forward. This might be just a trap, but that meant she just had to show that it was stupid for a monster like that fox to think it could stand on the same level as humans. She should be fine too, her body was in excellent condition and her magic was humming beneath her skin. After all, without doing any hunting for herself, it ended up with her magic just staying within her, not being used and just continuing to build up. To be honest that also wasn’t a good situation for it, but she didn’t want to use too much just in case she needed her magic… She only had an average amount, so she couldn’t use them frivolously like some magicians she saw in the city. At least the fact she had magic helped her hunting though, turning her from an average hunter into a ‘good’ one. She had seen some Great Hunters during her past jobs and they were amazing. To turn even a herd of magical beasts to do what they wanted and kill just the required amount… She didn’t even come close to their ability.
But that didn’t matter right now, what mattered was the fact she was getting close to the fox. The tracks were getting closer with one another, and the trees started to become sparse, as if they were no longer impeding her progress. Soon she would meet the fox and… how would she defeat it? She had no idea beyond subduing it with the collar and ropes. Other than that, perhaps she could try to knock it out… if she modified the output of her magic arrow, she might be able to do it. Her electricity should be able to help knock it out as well. But this meant she had to be careful, to be able to trick it so it would do what she wanted instead of her doing what it wanted.
Before she could try to think more of her plans, none of the twisted trees were around her anymore, all of them replaced by blades of grass. A field of grass, surrounded by something that was a tree and yet not… and those grasses surrounding a huge slab of stone. But what caught Helen’s attention wasn’t the huge stone but what was standing on top of it. Her mouth opened slightly in surprise as she looked, only able to take note of what it was.
A fox, there was no question about its form. Four legs, with a vulpine head and the two triangle ears sticking above its head, all covered with beautiful, golden furs that looked soft to the touch. But what really pulled her attention was the nine tails it owned, each of them swaying slightly with the breeze flowing in the meadow. Its golden eyes looked at her, not impassively but full of judgment, as if deciding something the moment it saw her here, standing in front of it.
She knew she had to move fast, right now, the moment the fox was just standing on top of the boulder without moving itself. But she could only stand there, as if transfixed with its beauty and the power it held. Yes, this close she could notice that this was no mere normal Mamono- this feeling of magic... she felt as if she was standing next to those magical beast herd hunts she joined, before the beasts were thinned down to a more manageable level.
For a brief moment, she wondered if Karl had known about it- but as a Demonslayer and as the hero known to the land that seemed to be doubtful. So this Mamono had lived here for some time, long enough that there were talks about it in Forfense. Then a noble family took heed of the talk and wanted to get it, probably all thanks to the recent fad of getting Mamono as a pet, something they could own to compare with other nobles.
She shook her head, she knew she could spend forever just thinking and being angry about what was happening- but for now she should focus on this, to do her job and catch the fox. The fox was calm too, full of power and still, unmoving on top of the stones. There were chances for it to attack when she was thinking but it kept still, perhaps thinking that it was so strong that it didn’t need to be wary of her. But she would show that fox what it meant to fight against her. Other hunters failed? Then she would just become the lone victor and she would finally be able to be better.
While the fox stood there, watching her without moving, Helen took her bow. Moving slightly, she went into her normal stance, one she had used to shoot that bird a few days ago. The one she had used to hunt ever since the beginning. She used it because she knew that she couldn’t knock it out with one attack. So instead, she had to ensure she leveled the playing field as much as she could.
The string on her bow followed her fingers as she pulled, pouring her magical power into the empty space between the space of her fingers to her bow. But she didn’t let them rampage, instead she kept her power in tight control, lightning crackling next to her ear, a shaft of pure electricity already formed in that place she had decided. This action wasn’t something she had done before, but instead something she believed right now she could do. Usually, she used a pure magic arrow, which while shaped like an arrow would attack a beast’s internal organs instead of the skins. It would wound the fox but that would be irreversible damage… not to count that if she aimed wrong, a possibility where she hurt the Mamono so badly it would die would arise. To be honest, she didn’t believe she could do that though. Chances were, the previous hunters were better than her and had done so. Instead she focused on the electricity, knowing that anyone or even any creatures hit by it would lose control of their muscles.
Her left hand continued to stay steady as she kept watching, slowly moving the bow to aim towards its body. Another advantage gained from using electricity, a pure magic power arrow would force her to aim at somewhere debilitating, one she still had no idea where she could aim without hurting the fox too much. She breathed once and let go of the grip within her right hand- a clap of thunder and a howl filled her ears, the fox spasming on top of its place. Its ‘throne’, perhaps.
Thinking too long would be fatal in this situation. At once, she immediately made another arrow, loosening it upon the fox. Another clap resounded within her ears but that was when she finally saw it. Nothing stood upon the rocks anymore. “Wh-” She couldn’t even voice her bewilderment as she stepped back unconsciously. The claw that should have reached her didn’t, missing her by mere distance.
This close, the fox’s size showed how small she was in comparison. Its mouth filled with gleaming, white colored fangs. Blood roared in her ears, her left hand already pulling out her dagger, its length filled with her magic. At first she thought she could try to not hurt it but now… no other choice stood in front of her. People said Mamono could be reasoned, but this showed they were just animals. Magical beasts that could pretend to be humans.
Another of its claws swiped forward, it should be so fast that she couldn’t see. But this time she had time to swing her dagger forward, making the metal to meet its flesh- No smell of iron instead all she got was the smell of burnt fur. Another howl, not a pained one but even so, the fox pulled back, jumping and putting distance between them. Its golden eyes peered at her, this time really looking as its nine tails unfurled, fanning behind her.
Was it planning to use magic?!
No, she couldn’t let it do that. Decision came easily as Helen immediately ran forward, pulling the bow on her right hand with her teeth, the lightning arcing dangerously close at her. Her teeth hurt too but she had to believe.
But even as she did that, the fox pounced forward at her, mouth opening as if it wanted to chomp her, claws also coming from both her left and right.
No way to dodge. So Helen just let her arrow loose straight into its mouth, letting go of the strings she had bitten. That broke its momentum, the fox closing its mouth as it jumped back again.
“Hmph, why are all the hunters having problems? You are just a stupid animal even if you are strong.”
Her words rang true, but Helen had no intention to let her guard down. Knock the fox out with her electricity then she could relax. But as she pulled the string once more did she realized how she had underestimated the fox’s speed.
Within that second, the fox had swallowed the distance once more.
Fear struck deep. But she pushed through, her teeth on the string once more, pulling it while lighting continued to form. She should have let go of the dagger. But this close- she couldn’t trust she could finish it with the bow.
Paw descended upon her. Fragments of wood filled the air.
But the effect was obvious the moment after. The fox had withdrawn its left foot, and even without another howl- this close, she could see it. How the left foot was shaking even as it kept it away from her.
The electricity hadn’t been effective. Okay, it was on its left foot, but that wouldn’t let her fulfill the request. Not much weapon left except for her dagger now as well. So, transferring the dagger to her right hand, she moved her left hand to her hips. Nothing more to do except one thing.
She kept her dagger facing forward, magic pouring into it while she backed off. Luckily for her, the fox stayed wary, not jumping closer. That let her to continue making her distance and making the thunder to crackle stronger and stronger-
Her hand moved and the dagger flew towards the fox. No sudden sounds of lightning, just a dagger filled with magical electricity.
The fox jumped- no it leapt. It didn’t reach ridiculous height, but it was enough to avoid the dagger. All her magic had been depleted for the electricity that crackles within it, but that didn’t matter. Right now, everything felt like it was in slow motion. Helen focused on just pulling out the collar while she held it in front of her. Spreading her hand, the collar followed, stretching and stretching even more, growing bigger straight in front of her eyes.
It was still surprising even though the shopkeeper had told her. Still, her eyes could only watch as the fox’s jump brought itself towards her- towards the collar. First the muzzle went through, then the cheek, the ears and her hand released her hold.
Just before the fox’s head would have slammed towards her, the collar shrunk, fitting itself on the fox’s neck. Then… she could only stare at what happened next.
It froze in front of her. Just a second then- everything changed. The body contracted, turning smaller- then what happened first was that her head changed. It turned into a human’s head with flowing golden hair and a pair of fox’s ears on top. The transformation didn’t stop there, just continuing from her head, neck, body, limbs… and yet, the tails stayed.
Her mouth opened, then she closed it again, uncertain of what she could even say. The fox- wait, the Mamono’s face looked beautiful. The unblemished white skin, just the right amount of blush on her cheeks, those golden eyes perfectly framed- Helen’s breath caught in her throat.
No, she… Helen shook her head, watching the fox carefully. Taking note of how the Mamono was wearing an outfit instead of being naked. It was a type of clothing she only heard before, from far in the East… pink flowers adorned the vibrant purple kimono , with a yellow sash tying it together. Her lower side wasn’t fully covered, and Helen’s cheeks flushed with embarrassment as she saw the legs-
“My face is up here, miss Hunter.” Even the fox’s voice was melodious, beautiful and captivating as Helen unwittingly looked up. Back to that face that seemed to keep drawing her attention, even if she still managed to catch how the tail seemed to continuously sway on the fox’s back. “-hello?”
Helen jolted, a little surprised at how close the Mamono had become. What had happened? She heard the voice and then she watched and then… She frowned, the memories blurry, lost in some sort of fog she couldn’t get through. But she knew the memories were still around, it was just as if they couldn’t be grabbed anymore.
“- so, it’s nice to meet you. Can you tell me your name?”
Another blink, and it seemed as if she had skipped forward a few minutes. “… It’s Helen.” She muttered, shaking her head once more to clear the fog that seemed to creep back within her mind. Listening to Mamono kept make her lose attention to what was currently happening as well… Mrrgh, better finish what she needed to do.
Taking out the ropes, she walked closer to the strangely obedient fox. “Are you not going to run off?” She finally asked when they were close enough.
Tilting her head slightly, the Mamono shook her head without taking too long. “Maybe, but I’m not as strong in this form. You’ll capture me easily~” The fox murmured, sidling closer towards her, the golden tails behind her moving languidly.
But she could only stare at the fox in answer with incredulity. What kind of answer was that? Apparently something the fox could accept, considering how she stayed still while Helen moved the hands into position in front of them- trying her best to ignore how smooth the fox’s skin felt. The slight warmth…
No. Instead she just focused on tying the fox. Only need to tie her wrists, ankles and some sort of restriction on her arms. Not too hard, especially when the one tied wouldn't try to fight. She knew how hard it was to tie a wriggling prey because she had to bring them back alive, the animal struggling every which way… really had to fight the animal's strength to even make a good knot so they were tied down properly.
Taking the fox's wrist, Helen tied them together on her back. While doing so, she carefully looped the rope twice before bringing it up and back around the chest.
"You have quite the knowledge for tying, hmm?" The fox said, a smirk growing on her face while saying them in such a way it felt like a tease.
"Nope." She nonchalantly replied, certain in the fact that she was still pretty beginner about it. But for now she managed to loop around the chest a few times before finally tying them securely on the back. "Done for your upper body…"
Hearing that, the fox started to pull and strain against the ropes, intent to give them a workout. Luckily for Helen, the rope was strong and so the fox’s actions barely made them budge before she let up, stopping all the struggles she was doing. "Very good work, miss Hunter." While there was a tinge of disappointment, it was overwhelmingly full of praise. Definitely felt so different.
Kneeling down, Helen prepared to make another knot for the ankles. First to make a double loop, through the ankles while ensuring they were wide enough the fox could still walk comfortably. Not too hard, and once she was done, she put another knot so it wouldn't be easy for anyone to remove it. It wouldn't be easy for herself too after all.
With all that done, she finished tying up the fox. Then she finally unfurled her last ropes, tying the collar with it before she held the rope in her hands. While she still felt unsettled at how much the fox didn’t try to fight, especially after that little bout… She didn’t want to give any chances. Besides, no one she had seen before ever willingly let themselves be bound to be honest. With this one letting her and even talking with her captor amicably, she couldn’t help but get suspicious of her.
Ugh, no. She just had to focus that this whole thing was just a job and she would then get enough money frugally for a long time. At least that money would be enough for her to get a replacement bow and she had no need to buy a new dagger as well- she just had to remember to grab it before leaving.
“So the soldiers decided they’ll let me go instead of doing anything else once I’ve said that. Such a quick change of tune… Shows how much they can be trusted, really.” The fox, or to use the name she told her, ‘Fujiwara no Yoshika’. Long, regal name that brought about an unsettling possibility, especially remembering that the Far East had very different traditions. Even the naming scheme was the opposite of the usual, if what the fox said was true that Yoshika was her given name with Fujiwara being her family name. Not sure why she was so forthcoming about it, but Helen had no problem getting to know more.
The problem came when words continued to tumble out of the fox’s mouth. How Yoshika continued to speak, to talk about anything from both praises and critiques when they fought, to political things she wasn’t sure how the fox even knew. Sometimes, she even quoted about some heroes from decades past. The things she quoted weren’t even flattering either, saying how cruel the heroes were, how calculating and cold. Of course, she knew that they were still human, and so couldn’t be a paragon of heroism and virtue. But the way Yoshika painted them felt as if they deliberately ensured a way to hurt the magical beasts best, especially the Mamonos.
No, she couldn’t think of that. This fox wasn’t a human, but a Mamono. So from her point of view, that seemed to be what they were doing. That the heroes were torturing them, that they were such a cruel people that they hurt and killed the Mamonos, even the weak and young ones. But from her own knowledge, Mamono themselves were dangerous. Even a child could end up killing a grown man, easily overpowering humans in both strength and magical power. From the ballads she remembered hearing, they were amazing, to be able to win against not one, not two but a whole group of Mamonos… and yet the same virtues lauded by the humans were the ones that were demonized by them.
She really had to stop pondering on this, if someone knew, she could be accused as Mamono lovers and that would destroy her reputation completely. She wasn’t a noble that could play such things off as eccentricity, or even a hero, really. Although she wasn’t sure that being a hero would completely shield her off if the public got a whiff about that. Sometimes, the more famous someone was, the worse they ended up once their reputation was turned around like that. Then there was the fact that even if it wasn’t true, anyone hit with such a reputation had no more place in that city or even country. They would have to move far, so far that no one would know about them anymore… and they had to pray no one from their old place came by. That would be unlucky, but sometimes some people really had misfortunes clinging to them like that.
“Heyy, are you listening to me?” The fox leaned in, her mouth so close to Helen’s that she jolted in surprise, staring at the grinning fox. “It’s not fun talking if the other party wasn’t listening, you know?” The fox continued to talk, keeping her body really, really close to Helen. Even her tail was spreading out, making her look bigger while they slowly curled forward. “Unless you are listening to me, dear?” She murmured, voice soft and husky and sent shivers down her spines.
Blood rushed to Helen’s cheeks, the hunter barely able to push the fox away, including the questing tail that seemed to want to cover her in the fluff. They felt very… soft to the touch... She could admit that in her mind, but she would never say it in real life. Never. “O-oi, cut it out.” She muttered, even her voice sounded weak in her ears… There was no way the fox would listen with that.
Indeed, she didn’t. Instead, Yoshika sidled closer, her tails poking and curling around her body, surrounding her with warmth and softness. “Come on, miss Hunter. Let’s have a little fun~” Her tone was insidious, and involuntarily, even Helen relaxed into the tails. With Yoshika leaning closer, so close that she could smell the foxgirl. She had a nice smell, some sort of sweetness that reminded her of a beautiful flower-
Wait, I’m supposed to keep her under control, not this kind of… whatever is happening.
But this is so soft. So nice. No worries about anything.
That’s why this is so dangerous! We have to get out of her touch NOW.
I don’t want to though.
“-ut it’s no fun if you give up this quickly, isn’t it?”
Blearily, Helen blinked slowly. Something had happened between the last thing she remembered and how the tails had let her go now, a part of her thoughts felt like she missed the fluff but certainly it was because she never felt that kind of texture. Something that soft and luxurious feeling was always something she couldn’t afford, only those rich families could even think about touching them, let alone buying. Nonetheless she couldn’t afford to be distracted right now. First she had to stop those chatters...
Standing up a bit straighter, she scowled at Yoshika with a frown, “Alright, stop the chatter now. I have captured you and I prefer that our walk back to be a silent affair.” Indeed, the fox had been a chatterbox since the moment she had tied her and Yoshika hadn’t stopped. Not even for drinking some water.
The fox’s answer was something she expected, but definitely not something she wished. “But why should I? I want to know more about you and shutting up doesn’t seem to be a good way for it.”
“Well I don’t want to and I’m the one handling things around here.” Helen scowled even fiercer, trying to do a little intimidation on the fox. “If you don’t shut up, I’ll cut off your tongue.” Just a threat, considering the noble specifically wanted her to not hurt the fox. But she didn’t know that and she wasn’t about to tell.
“Really?” Yoshika smiled with a hint of condescension, her golden eyes gazing at her as if she was just a child doing a temper tantrum. “That’s a bit hard to believe, especially with all these ropes to tie and null my magic. Seems to show that you don’t want to hurt me, hm? Actually, maybe you do want to hurt me but you have an extra reason to not do that… Something like a third party…”
Helen froze, but that was just a moment before she forced herself to relax. No, the fox didn’t know. She was guessing and if Helen froze up and adopted an interrogating stance, the fox would know that her guesses were right. The best thing to do right now is to turn it around and make it as if it wasn’t true at all. “Hmph, or maybe I’m just seeking to get as much money as I can. If you prove yourself to be too much for your worth though…” She let her words trail off, letting the fox to put the words herself. The best denial was not saying something but the other party thought she did and so accepted that assumption without asking more.
Even through that though, the fox continued to stay relaxed, her golden eyes watching her with amusement. “Do it then, miss Hunter. We can even do a little bet with you killing me~ How about it?" The smile turned into a smirk then while she thrusted her body forward slightly. Daring her to do it.
It would be so easy too, her dagger was still there, strapped on her thighs. Just need to pull it out and- Helen gritted her teeth, looking away. "Stop that." She tried again, but this time when the fox opened her mouth, just about to retort back at her. But instead Helen cut in, preventing Yoshika from saying whatever she wanted. "Fine, if you can't shut up then I'll gag you." She snarled out, glaring into Yoshika's eyes, also secure in the knowledge that this was finally the threat she could back.
Which seemed to finally make the fox realize who was holding the power here. With the fox backing off, taking away the constant sweet smell and warmth, Helen could feel her head slightly clearer. “Fiiiine, but only since you asked for it.” Yoshika said, finally ending her stream of chatter and putting back some distance between them. It seemed that the fox had no desire to be that close if she wasn’t talking like before.
Back to walking, and this time Helen could loosen her tense shoulders. For now, she ensured that the rope was still held within her hand, she refused to entertain the possibility of the fox running off. Although even if she managed to do that, with the fact that the fox was collared, tied and had her magic nulled… She probably wouldn’t. But better safe than sorry. Besides, doing this also helped to ensure that she couldn’t get too far so it wasn’t too bad.
It was hours later before Helen finally stopped, the surroundings had gotten too dark for her to soldier on. Even if the moon had risen high into the sky and joined with the twinkling stars, they still weren’t giving enough light for her to see too far away. So reluctantly, she stopped and started to prepare for the camp.
Dry twigs and branches to light up into a fire, and then some ration she had prepared from Forfense, another prey she had hunted while they walked and water. Of course, she gave some of the food to the fox as well even if she was reluctant to do so. While the fox probably could survive without food for a while, she didn’t want to test that. Better do some more hunts while going back than trying to explain to the requester that she hadn’t done her best for capturing the Mamono… yeah no, that seemed to end up with penalties in her rewards and that was the opposite of what she needed.
While eating the bland food, she was glad for the silence the fox was giving. While a slight worry still niggled at the back of her mind, that the fox had some sort of aim while following her orders, as long as she got the result she aimed for then who cared for her means? No one else but herself. Which she didn’t really care for to be honest.
With that said, she walked closer to the fox, she was about to sleep and that meant it was time to check the knots and the rope’s condition. She had checked it every time she remembered, but always good to recheck and ensure things were staying the same.
“So… do you mind telling me why you do this?” The fox’s voice was soft, a slight tilt on her head as she looked at her questioningly.
At first, Helen wanted to sush Yoshika but… she let out a sigh. “Money. The reward for you will be enough for myself and I’ll even be able to send some more to my family back home. It’s my responsibility to do this, especially remembering that I’m the only one that is able to use magic.” The responsibility felt heavy on her, even if she had done it constantly over the years. Sometimes she wished she could stop, but then she remembered the situation in the village and she really couldn’t leave her family alone. She wouldn’t be able to live with herself if something happened and she didn’t help them.
But the most surprising moment was how the fox looked at her sadly the moment she heard Helen’s words. How Yoshika’s tail drooped, the fox getting closer with worry lurking in her eyes, her mouth opening to say something-
That was too much. “Don’t say anything. I have let you speak but there’s no need for it anymore.” She murmured, cutting off any words as she turned away from the fox, immediately walking back to the fire. “I’ll sleep for a bit now, tomorrow we’ll continue our walk.”
This time, the fox gave no reply; just a sad gaze as Helen closed her eyes, trying to push away the look Yoshika was giving her as she slowly let sleep claim her.
Waking up meant another day of walking through the forest, where Helen was trying to go through the same way she came. Or at least that was the plan before she realized the truth of the situation. At first, the marks were fine, with her older marks easily found and things were mostly straight lines from one mark to another. Before long, things started to change. The order of her marks differed from how it should be, with her finding even older marks before finding a newer one. Then things changed even further, the marks that should be there weren’t and while Helen didn’t want to think about it… there was an unsettling realization growing inside her.
No. It’s not possible… isn’t it?
Looking back to the fox, Yoshika seemed to be relaxed while following her guidance. At least she didn’t have any problems on that front… So back to her first problem. She couldn’t even trust any marks she had found since she had no idea which was which. Looking up to the sky also wouldn’t help considering the trees obscured any views with how thick they were.
Gritting her teeth, Helen chose to continue on- not like she had any other choice. Time passed slowly, and she still couldn’t find her bearing even though she left some new cuts on the tree. From her point of view, it was possible that if old marks didn’t help, then new ones could. Even if she wasn’t certain what she could do if this one didn’t work out.
When the sun no longer shone down to the forest, she finally signaled to stop for the night. Today somehow felt tiring, more than when she fought the fox yesterday… Perhaps because the forest felt hostile against her, and how she still couldn’t find a way to get out. If she could at least reach the river again, things should be working fine but she didn’t see a way and that was frustrating.
Preparing the fire and the meal, Helen let out a sigh, covering her face with her hand. This whole thing felt like a disaster now. Why did she even accept this request? Oh wait, she needed that money. She couldn’t lie and say she wasn’t attracted to those rewards too. Even if Karl didn’t goad her, at the end of it, she knew she would have ended up picking it up.
“So… what kind of jobs have you done for your family? You seem mature enough to have done a lot of things.” The fox suddenly asked, breaking the silence that had permeated between both of them for hours. But Yoshika looked relaxed, as if she wasn’t expecting to get an answer. Instead she just looked towards the crackling fire between the two of them, her tails swaying slightly on her back.
At first, she didn’t want to answer. But as the silence stretched between the two of them, the food didn’t help to distract her mind… Helen sighed, finally opening her mouth, “Various kinds of jobs to be honest. Odd jobs are everywhere and not everyone is willing so… I do them and get compensation for it. Not too shabby and definitely put food on the table.” Stopping there for a bit, she waited to see if the fox would try to press her.
But there was none of those, a sound that sounded like an affirmation while Yoshika gave her a nod. Just one of understanding, even if Helen wasn’t sure how a fox understood that. How could she know the feeling of not wanting to do a job, and yet still did it because she knew her other specialties couldn’t give her enough money in a steady manner.
“I… I’d rather use my other abilities more, to be honest.” She finally continued, looking down towards the fire while pulling her sleeves a little. “Hunting animals or using my electricity to stun and capture them… it’s one of my reasons to do this job too.” She ended, her hand no longer just pulling but instead grabbed her sleeve tightly, bunching and making it even more wrinkled. Forcing herself to relax, she let it go and tried to smoothen it in vain. She knew it wouldn’t work, but she just didn’t want to let it wrinkle too much.
The fox gave another sound of affirmation before finally speaking again, “So you are thinking of me as an animal. I see, very enlightening.” Yoshika’s voice wasn’t angry, it was flat, neutral as if she didn’t care what she was saying at all and that made it even worse.
Slowly, Helen looked up towards the fox. Her wordings were uncomfortably straightforward, but that was what she thought. After all, she didn’t think much about the request to capture Mamono and brought her to the noble. It didn’t matter that Mamono could talk, could be reasonably negotiated with, she even heard some old folk tales where Mamonos ended up protecting humans against magical beasts. Wait, with how she captured Yoshika, with that collar and ropes-
Helen’s eyes widened. Her mind brought back the imagery of humans within those same restraints, and she knew what people called those. ‘Slaves’. She wasn’t sure what it meant that she did the same thing to a Mamono that if one did to a human would mean the humans were enslaved. A property completely owned by their owner. But Mamonos weren’t humans, they couldn’t be slaves then. It didn’t matter if they had their own intelligence, they could talk and reason like any other humans.
“That's-” She tried to start, to deny Yoshika’s words but her voice wouldn’t come out. Guilt churned in her stomach, nausea joining it at once, making the bland food she had eaten threatening itself to surge out; but she suppressed it, trying and barely able to hold it back. “I… I’ll sleep now.” She finally murmured, refusing to look towards Yoshika.
She didn’t want to see the disappointment that had to have formed on the fox’s face. After all, this meant she refused to answer, to think of what she should be thinking of what this current request of hers meant .