Zuru runs like he’s never run before. His tails are straight out behind him, counterbalancing him as he weaves back and forth through the foliage. Occasionally, he wags them, scattering his scent.
The dogs are still gaining on him, however. Their baying rings in his ears, even as he lays them down flat.
He leaps over the edge of a ravine, stumbling when he lands. He finds his footing in the loose dirt and keeps running.
There’s more barking now. He lets his eyes widen as he scopes the forest. Like shadows, the wolves are weaving between the trees. Their eyes glow, and their pink mouths are such a giveaway. Zuru has never been frightened like this.
He turns back and begins to run the other way. A wolf leaps out of the bushes at him. Terrified, he leaps to a low-hanging branch and begins to climb. True, it’s not really his strong suit, but to escape those jaws, he will climb to the top of the tree.
Jaws clamp down on his left tail and begin to pull. He wails in pain, then digs his claws into the bark of the tree. The wolves have gathered around now, barking up at him. Lorne’s dogs are hanging back, afraid of the larger canines.
Zuru wails again, then barks in fear when a shot explodes near his head. He turns to see Lorne crouched down atop the ravine, firing at him.
He loses his grip on the tree and falls back. The wolves rejoice and prepare to pounce on the fox. Zuru wags his tails desperately, but they can do nothing. He lands feet down, tries to dodge the snapping jaws. He yips every time they snag him on their teeth. He butts his head against their legs, their flanks, and he tries to make his way out of their circle. Another tug on his tails, a bite to his front paw. He leaps onto the head of one wolf, then dashes along its body, even as the others snap at him.
He leaps clear of them and goes running at the humans. His fur his matted with blood. He feels open, sore. He barks at the humans.
Lorne is still firing at him, the damned fool! He dances round the bullets, until one catches him in the ribs. He wails, then goes down. The dogs race down the ravine. The wolves have caught up. Lorne is firing; so are Ruse and his nephew. They won’t let their prize go to the wolves.
Zuru gets up again and leaps away from the hounds. The dogs and wolves collide with each other, barking and howling. Zuru goes running to the humans again. Lorne shoots; the bullet lodges in his paw, and he goes down again. He struggles up, but can’t manage to limp along with a shattered bone. He lies, instead, on the floor of the forest, with dirt and blood mixing together.
“Call off the dogs!” somebody barks at Lorne, and Zuru watches as the dark-haired human trots down into the ravine.
“Don’t!” Ruse calls. “The wolves—” The stout man turns viciously on Lorne, snapping, “Call off your damned dogs, at least! Lorne! For pity’s sake!”
Zuru stares at the human leaning over him. It happens quite too quickly to comprehend; one minute, the human’s coming toward him. Then, the human is over him, and he’s no longer lying on the ground, but draped across the human’s arms. Then, they’re going back toward Ruse and Lorne. The world is strangely choppy.
There’s a familiar wail, followed by distressed barking. Zuru sees Umisen’yamasen on a knoll, wagging his nine majestic tails. Even the wolves cower from his magnificence. Zuru curls tighter against Ruse’s nephew.
Another bark, louder and angrier this time. Zuru yips, but it’s a weak sound. Father has come back. Zorro struts into the ravine and snarls at Ruse’s nephew. The wolves cower and begin to run. Lorne’s hounds lay themselves out in flat submission; they know when they are bested, and they know the King of Demons when they see him.
Zuru is lowered to the ground. Zorro stands over his son, eyeing him for a moment or two. He looks back to Umisen’yamasen. “It is grave,” he says at last.
Zuru notes that the forest feels colder somehow. He closes his eyes a bit, and everything dies out of focus. Zorro keeps speaking to Umisen’yamasen, in a quiet tone that is almost like the voice of a fox-mother lulling her kits to sleep.
It is only Umisen’yamasen’s sharp warble that keeps him awake. The humans are silent. The whole world is silent, except for those two great demon lords. Zorro pads through the humus and leaves on the floor. He nudges Zuru, then looks at Ruse’s nephew, a look that implores help. He knows that even demon magic cannot help some wounds, and he knows that the humans have better medical than his kin could ever dream of.
The human doesn’t say a word, but slowly picks Zuru up. Zuru closes his eyes and hangs, limp. He’s still bleeding.
The trip to the lodge is silent. Lorne does not follow them; Zuru does not know where he goes. He is vaguely aware of being set down on the porch, and he sees shadowy figures weaving between the trees. The wolves will not let him be, not even after two immortals step in to protect him.
Mrs. Ruse is startled by the blond fox, but she tends to him nonetheless. Nephew watches over him. Ruse clicks his tongue; he’d rather not take care of a wild animal in his own home. But, he thinks, if this is really a nine-tailed demon fox, he’d be better to take care of it, then sell it.
Zuru finds he is lucky; Nephew was intending to spend the first two weeks of October with his aunt and uncle. He has just finished veterinarian studies at a school and is now studying wildlife. He instructs Mrs. Ruse on how to tend to the wounded creature.
Mrs. Ruse bathes the wounds with a stinging balm, and Zuru yelps. Nephew holds his head, however, and shuts the fox’s muzzle tight. Zuru doesn’t understand; this hurts! Would his father really abandon him to torturers and fox murderers?
Nephew stitches some of the worst wounds, and he wraps them. He pulls the bullet from Zuru’s flesh; the three-tails screams. Then, he’s lying on something soft, so soft, and he’s in front of the fire, with Nephew’s careful hands washing the blood out of his fur.
If he were still a kit, he might have purred. Instead, he closes his eyes and dreams.
In the morning, he is lying by the embers of the fire in Nephew’s hotel room. The window has been outfitted with metal bars. Nephew pokes the fire and stirs the embers. “Uncle says it will help protect all his guests from the wolves.”
Zuru closes his eyes again and rests more. Wolves never bothered the lodge before. It is his fault. He let Ruse kill Wolf, and now, the wolves will grudge Ruse forever. Zuru shifts a little, then curls up with his tails over his nose.
Later, he wakes when Nephew starts undressing and cleaning his wounds. “Lie still,” Nephew says, and Zuru is motionless, waiting for the human to finish with the stinging balm. The wounds are cleaned and rewrapped.
Zuru does not know how long he sleeps. He drifts between places. Nephew gives him a bowl of water, and he drinks. Then, he sleeps again.
When the moon rises, however, he is woken by the sound of the wolves crying. They are mourning their lost leader in the middle of the woods. Zuru shivers. Nephew is putting more wood on the fire.
Zuru is awake now, and he does not feel like sleeping. He watches the fire some. He and Nephew are silent. Nephew eventually points to the plate of food on the floor. “Aunt brought that,” he says.
Zuru wonders if he ever sleeps. Slowly, he gets up off his blankets and limps to the food dish. He licks the platter clean, then returns to his blankets by the fire. Nephew tugs the blanket over him when he shivers.
He closes his eyes again and drifts back to sleep.
When the sun has risen, the wolves stop crying. They retreat deeper into the woods for the daylight hours. Zuru wakes and stares at the dead ashes of the fire. Nephew has gone to sleep. Whining, Zuru gets to his feet and walks about a bit. His paw still aches every time it touches the floorboards. He limps about the room. When he finds nothing to eat nor to drink, he limps back to the blankets and barks loudly.
Nephew startles out of his slumber and stares at the fox. His first instinct is to run away, but the fox persists, putting his front paws up on the human’s ankles, and barking again. His ears flatten back, and he looks annoyed.
Nephew gets to his feet. “Food. Right.” He looks scared, as if the three-tailed creature might try to eat him instead. Zuru barks again, then sits, and wags his tails. ‘I’ll wait,’ his posture says. Nephew heads to the door and opens it up.
He stares at Zorro, who drops the dead rabbit and looks up at him. His nine tails swish as he looks up at the human. His gaze is intelligent, and it scares the human some. He looks around the human’s legs and barks at his son.
Zuru yips and limps across the floor. He butts his head against his father’s chin in thanks, then tears into the meal provided. Unlike true foxes, the nine tails are unusually affectionate, and their families remain close-knit for a longer time.
Nephew merely stares at them, then steps out of the room and shuts the door. He looks ill; apparently, watching animals devour dead, raw meat doesn’t sit well with him. Zorro chirps in confusion, and Zuru continues to eat.
Zorro sits for a while, watching the woods. His tails flicker back and forth restlessly. “They take good care of you?” he asks at last.
“Yes,” Zuru replies.
“When you are well,” Zorro says, “you will come and meet your bride. Yin Mi is with us now.”
“You will send her up?” Zuru asks.
“Perhaps,” Zorro says. He smacks his lips together in thought. “Perhaps. You will not be well enough to go soon?”
Zuru shakes his head. “I doubt that,” he mutters. “My paws still pain a lot. The humans have put something in me. Like their string, and tied me together.”
“Stitches,” Zorro informs him. “Then yes, I will send Yin Mi. When you are well enough to come outside, dig a den near here.”
Zuru nods, and Zorro leaps down off the porch. He trots back into the woods and disappears. Zuru limps around to the front door. He sits there, watching the woods. Mrs. Ruse is clearing breakfast. Ruse is telling Nephew what to do.
“Jett, you understand that we can’t keep a fox here. A real, live fox.”
“We can’t exactly let him go. He’ll be killed for sure.”
“I mean, we can’t keep him.”
Jett blinks. “We couldn’t possibly sell him, not in the state he’s in.”
Ruse’s fist on the table. “Dammit!” he cries. “Don’t you understand? As soon as he’s well, he’ll bolt!”
Zuru barks at the door, then whines. He doesn’t like this discussion. He is not going to be sold. He almost snarls. His father is right—humans are disgusting creatures.
Mrs. Ruse opens the door for him. “Oh!” she says. “Jett! You know better than to leave him out!”
Zuru trots into the room, then yips some, as if to make his opinion on the subject of selling him expressly known. Ruse’s mouth is clamped tightly shut, but Zuru is looking at him. Zuru will go back to Kuni no Kori, and that is the end of things. His tails curl angrily.
“We should bathe him,” Jett says, getting to his feet. “All the blood’s not out of his fur yet.”
Ruse sneers. “You hold his mouth,” he grunts. “I’m not getting bitten.”
Mrs. Ruse captures the three-tails in a towel and takes him toward the bathtub. Zuru squirms; he feels well enough that he doesn’t want humans to carry him. He won’t snap, however.
Mrs. Ruse puts him in the tub, then runs the water. Zuru yelps and tries to get away from the splashing water. He might run through the creek to get rid of his enemies, but it doesn’t mean he enjoys being thoroughly soaked.
Then comes the soap. Mrs. Ruse lathers it all together, then slaps it into his fur and rubs. Zuru yelps and whimpers. He throws his ears back and gets down low. He submits, he submits—stupid human, stop trying to exert your dominance!
Zuru yowls, then tries to escape from the clutches of the evil woman. The bathroom door is closed however, so he’s got nowhere to go. He shakes his head and backs up. He bares his teeth at Mrs. Ruse. She just hums, however, and dumps water all over him. He stands there for a moment, dripping wet, with his ears flattened.
Then, he shakes himself out. “Oh!” Mrs. Ruse cries, and tries to shield herself from the water flying everywhere.
Zuru’s eye twitches. He’s still wet.
Mrs. Ruse scoops him up out of the bath in a towel. She sets him down on the tile floor and rubs him down vigorously. He thinks it might hurt more than being scrubbed. Then, she picks him up again and takes him out to the dining room. She settles him down in front of the fire place. Jett is poking it to life.
Mrs. Ruse brings a blanket and settles the three-tails on it. “There we are!” she says, putting her hands on her hips.
“Mother!” Ruse growls. “What were you thinking? Bathing the fox all by yourself—what if he bit you?”
She pats Zuru on the head. “Oh! He’s such a good little fox! I don’t think he would. Would you, foxy-woxy?”
Zuru looks confused at the nickname. Mrs. Ruse pets him. He snaps at her nose, then closes his eyes and lets her rake her hands through his fur. It’s helping him to dry faster, and he’s cold.
He eyes Jett warily, then smirks.