Going Under, the first book in the Something in the Water series, arrives Tuesday, September 5!

 

Chapter IV: The Imposter [Foxtrot]

Chapter IV: The Imposter [Foxtrot]

Zuru has never been one for transformation arts. It is a talent unique to demons, and one that is especially favored by the Kitsune no Youkai. Zuru, however, is an oddity among his kind, for the simple reason that he has never been quite adept at using the transformation skills he inherited from his ancestors.

The ease with which he transitions from one form to another now is simply due to practice: He slides from his natural state to the state of red fox many times most days, and he practices blending in with other items in the forest on a regular basis.

One thing that he does not often take the form of is a human, much less the human female. The easiest transformation to make into this form is a human male, with his tails and his ears still attached. Zuru has not quite perfected the art of becoming human.

So when he tries to transform tonight, his ears and his tails do not want to absolve themselves. He tries the transformation several times, but each ends with the same result. He becomes a slender young woman with blonde hair and stunning blue eyes, but his ears maintain their pointed shape and fur, and his tails still swish restlessly in the shadows.

He tries again. He curses and releases the transformation. He tries again. His tails get shorter, but his ears get longer. He growls in frustration and tries again. How will he be able to play his prank if he can’t even get the transformation right?

But Zuru is stubborn and determined. He will get the transformation right, even if it takes him all night to master it. Wolf howls in the distance, and he can hear Lynxie snuffling around, but he ignores them. They will be useful to his plan later on.

When Wolf howls, almost in his ear, he wishes he hadn’t left the safety of Kuni no Kori. He closes his eyes and tries on last time. He can see the lights from the lodge, burned into his retinas. Wolf comes bounding out of the pines, barking loudly, and Zuru is running on two feet toward the lodge, screaming for help in a human voice.

More lights in the lodge flicker on, and the dark-haired human is out of his hotel room. He’s closest to Zuru; Zuru can see old Ruse and his wife. The woman’s got the lantern, and Ruse’s got the rifle.

Zuru looks back at Wolf and sees his golden eyes gleaming in the flickering lantern light. Wolf bounds right up, jaws open wide, and Zuru screams, then ducks down as Ruse fires off a shot.

The bullet goes right through Wolf as he leaps high, ready to pounce on Zuru. Wolf yelps, then collapses to the earth, skidding back into the trees.

Ruse is still poised with the rifle. Mrs. Ruse is shaking as she approaches, and the lantern trembles in her grip. The dark-haired human is not afraid, however, and he runs to the weeping girl’s side. He crouches down beside her, and puts his hand on her shoulder. She shrieks and jerks away. Her face is covered with her hands.

Ruse purses his lips and lowers the gun. Mrs. Ruse runs to the girl, and wraps her shawl around the girl’s shoulders. “There, there, dearie,” she says as she leads the girl up, toward the lodge.

Ruse walks toward the body of Wolf. “Boy,” he says to the dark-haired man, “help me with the body. If his pack gets whiff of him, then we might not get out of here for a while.”

The man looks ready to protest; what does Ruse think? The wolves will come and block them in, out of a desire to avenge their leader? Ruse gives him a stern look, however, and lifts the bleeding end of Wolf.

“This is ridiculous,” the man says, even as he hefts the other end of the dead beast. “I doubt they’d hang around long.”

Ruse chuckles. “You don’t get out to the country much, do you, boy? Mother and I—we’ve lived here for years. We know these animals—sometimes, they’re more like people than most people.”

Zuru chances a glance over his shoulder, but neither man is looking his way. He covers his mouth with his hands and tries not to smirk, and Mrs. Ruse leads him inside. “That must have been quite the fright for you!” the old woman says. “Come in, and get warm by the fire. We’ll get you something warm to drink. . .here now, dearie. . .”

The woman guides Zuru to a chair and forces him into it. A blanket is brought, and the fire roars. Zuru stares at it, amazed by the leaping light. He’s seen the humans at their campfires in the summertime, but this—this is something else. He shivers. Feeling the heat with this body is so strange.

A cup is thrust into his hands. He stares at the steam coming off the liquid. It’s strange to hold things between his paws, to see his hands white and pure, long slender fingers and a thumb. He stares, then drinks from the cup. It’s hot. It burns his tongue.

Ruse and the young man take up chairs in the sitting room. Zuru keeps his eyes downcast, as if he really is shocked and scared. Mrs. Ruse keeps patting him on the back. “You must be so, so scared,” she murmurs.

Ruse is suspicious though. “What’s a girl like you doing, running around at night in the woods, eh?” he asks, leaning forward.

Zuru sniffles and glances up. “I—got lost. I don’t know where I am.”

Ruse rubs his throat. “Never seen you ‘round here before. You new?”

Zuru nods. “We—my mother and I—we’re moving into one of the new houses. We came out to see how close to done it was. Then, we decided to go for a hike—”

“And I see you’re quite properly attired for that.” His voice is dry with humor, even as he glances up and down Zuru’s lithe figure. Mrs. Ruse glares.

Zuru clears his throat. “And we got a little lost. I turned around, and then, she was gone.” His lips start to tremble. He shakes his head, then buries his face in his hands. “Oh! I can’t think!”

“There, there, dearie.” Mrs. Ruse pats Zuru’s back some more. “In the morning, we’ll get a search party together.”

Zuru sniffles loudly and looks up at her, his eyes full of unshed tears. “Oh, but! Morning’s so far away! What—what if something gets her?”

Mrs. Ruse just shakes her head and pats Zuru some more; perhaps it’s meant to be comforting. “What will be, will be, dearie.”

She moves out of the room. “Now,” she says, “why don’t we get you settled into your own room? It’s late, and you’ll feel better after sleep.”

She takes Zuru by the hand and leads him out of the room. Zuru almost stiffens when he hears the cries of the wolves coming closer. They’ve discovered their leader is dead, no doubt, and now, they come to learn how and why he died.

Mrs. Ruse unlocks one of the rooms. Zuru stands there nervously, with his back to the woods, waiting for her to open the door. She swings the portal open, then flicks on the light. “Come in, dearie,” she says, taking a step into the room.

Zuru follows quickly. Mrs. Ruse hands him the key to the room, then takes her leave. The door shuts. Zuru closes the curtains over the window and flicks out the light. He locks the door. Then, he takes a moment to revert back to his natural state.

He listens to the wolves howling. He decides he will have to wait for a little bit before he goes to bother the dark-haired human. He closes his eyes and sighs. He leaps up onto the bed and curls up there for a few minutes.

A few pale moonbeams peek through the space between the curtains. The bedspread is soft, and mattress sinks a little under Zuru’s weight. The voices of wolves grows closer, and if he looks out to the woods, he can see the glow of their yellow eyes as they converge upon the lodge. The scent of their leader’s blood is strong, and they must know.

Zuru feels exposed on the bed, so he hops down onto the floor, where the wolves and their prying eyes can’t see him. He crawls under the bed and curls up, winds his tails about his nose, and waits. The moon sinks lower in the sky, then finally, sets.

The wolves have set up a chorus. Lynxie and Coyote are staying far away. Zuru just hopes that the Kitsune no Youkai have the sense to stay away. He hopes that Kuenai and Umisen’yamasen are all right, tucked safely in their den. He hopes that his father is well on his journey to Huali.

The howling of the wolves dies down, and the sky begins to gray. Zuru crawls out from under the bed and transforms back into the woman he was when he walked into that room.

He pauses and looks at himself in the mirror. He frowns, then rakes his hands through his hair, until it stands up and knots. He contemplates the lack of circles beneath his eyes. Then, with inspiration, he rushes to the fireplace and uses the ashes to blacken his fingertips. He dabs some under his eyes, and the admires his tousled, sleepless look in the looking glass.

He tucks the key into his pocket, then steps into the coming daylight. It smells like autumn, and he pauses.

He tiptoes down the porch, listening to the wolves still in the brush. He stops at the door of the dark-haired human, then knocks on it.

One of the wolves has scented him; no matter what he does, Zuru will always smell like a fox. He presses himself to the door and knocks harder. The wolf is coming toward him now, teeth bared, as if Zuru had killed their leader!

The door opens. The wolf stops, seeing the human standing there—the real human. Zuru looks up at the dark-eyed human from beneath his bangs.

“Can I help you?” he asks. Oh, the way his brow creases in concern!

Zuru shuffles a foot across the floor. “Um,” she murmurs, “I . . . can’t sleep. All I can hear is—the wolves, and—”

He steps aside for her. Zuru wishes, for a moment, that he’d been born a vixen. He steps inside the room, and the door closes and locks behind him. The man gestures the prankster to the bed, then sits down in a chair and resumes working on his laptop.

Zuru frowns; this is not how things are supposed to go. The vixen waltzes in, charms the man, seduces him, then takes off running. But this man merely glances at him in this guise, then looks back at his computer.

Zuru sits on the bed and contemplates him. “Don’t you sleep too?” he asks at last, putting a finger to his lips. He gives the man a longing look.

“I’ve already slept,” he replies. “You should rest. The bed is free.”

Zuru licks his lips, then tries something else. “But the bed is so lonely. . .”

The man snorts. “I don’t do whores,” he grunts.

Zuru doesn’t know what that word means. He struggles on regardless. “Really,” he murmurs, “I’m scared. . .”

The man doesn’t even bat an eye. Zuru huffs; he is not deterred, however, because he loves a challenge.

“Please?” he whines. He reaches for the man’s hand, then holds it to his chest. “My heart is beating so fast. It won’t slow down. . .”

He stares at Zuru for a moment, then turns away with a sneer on his face. His hand hesitates, as though he is reluctant to let go. Zuru smirks and leans closer. “I’m so scared. . .”

The human has the decency to blush and look away. “I don’t even know your name,” he grumbles.

“Oh!” Zuru cries. “You can call me anything you like.” He bats his eyelashes and leans even just a little closer.

The human looks annoyed now. “I mean, your given name,” he growls. He frowns at her, and says, “Only a slut would tell me I could give her any name I want.”

He stands up. Zuru takes his hand and purrs, “Call me all your little names—slut, whore, whatever you like. I’m your little vixen, and my name doesn’t matter to you.”

He starts to pull away. Zuru lets his head loll back, and he says, “But yours matters to me.”

The human pauses. He looks back over his shoulder. “Why?” he asks in a low, dangerous tone.

Zuru smirks a little more. “Because,” he whispers, passing his tongue over his lips, “I want to scream it.”

The man blushes furiously, then turns away, sneering. “What makes you think I’d want to make you scream it?” Haughty human! He sticks his nose in the air.

“Then—” Zuru smirks; he is almost nose to nose with said haughty human.

But Mrs. Ruse calls loudly to them, shattering the spell. Breakfast is on the table, and seduction will have to wait. Zuru feels his lips fall into a frown, before he tears off, out of the room. He steps out onto the porch, fully intending to walk briskly to the central room on the other side of the lodge, head held high, when the wolf from before lunges out of the foliage at him, jowls snapping and flinging saliva.

He shrieks and stumbles back. This human form is weak, and there’s nothing he can do in front of the humans without giving himself away. The wolf’s nails click on the wood of the porch, and Zuru knows what he’s saying—“Fox, you killed our leader! I’ll never forgive you!”

A brass candelabra splits the air beside Zuru, and cracks down on the beast’s skull. A dozen howls are suddenly sent up to the sky. The human grabs Zuru’s wrist and drags him back inside, locking the door. They stand in the middle of the room, chest to chest, breathing harshly.

For a moment, everything is silent. Then, the jaws start snapping at the window. “Shit,” the human growls, then begins to shove furniture around the room.

Zuru would help. He really would, but moving anything in the state he’s in is impossible. Using any of his magic will be so strange to the human, and suddenly changing back is out of the question.

There’s more barking and howling. Zuru feels sick. This is his fault, and now the wolves are so angry with him. He hopes they don’t go down to Kuni no Kori. Oh, to the gods, don’t let them find Kuni no Kori.

He starts to shake, and he starts to cry. The dark-haired human catches him up, strokes his long, blonde hair, and says, soothingly, “Hush, hush. Don’t cry.”

Zuru’s so scared. Kuenai, Umisen’yamasen, and all his brethren are out there, unsuspecting in Kuni no Kori, and his prank has angered the wolves, so much that they want revenge.

The dark-haired human wraps his arms about him tightly, in an effort to stay the quaking of this strange body.

Finally, three shots are fired, and the wolves take off, howling and yipping. Ruse rips open the door, and tosses a .22 to the other human man. He eyes Zuru, then the man. “Nephew,” he growls.

Nephew? This man is a relative of old Ruse’s? Zuru almost wants to believe he must be adopted, for old Ruse and this human are nothing alike.

Ruse’s gaze lingers on Zuru for a moment, as if discerning, as if saying, “I see right through your disguise, fox.”

“I haven’t seen our foxy friend yet this morning.”

“The wolves would have kept him at bay,” the dark-haired one says logically.

He leads Zuru out of the room. They walk around the porch, to the central room. Mrs. Ruse greets them, all flustered. “Oh my,” she says. “Did they get you? I hope they didn’t hurt you. We’ll call Lorne up. He’ll set traps. I’ve never liked those things—”

“It’s not their fault,” Zuru blurts. When the humans look at him, he pastes his gaze on the ground. “Their leader died; of course they came to investigate. No doubt they’re angry; wolves love their leaders very much.”

“Hmph,” Ruse says, glaring at the blonde. “Most wolves won’t go after people over a trifle like that. You think they’d keep further away, after we showed ‘em we could take their biggest.”

“Safety in numbers,” the nephew says. “Perhaps the sheer power of numbers will overwhelm us. After all, we can’t shoot all of them at once.”

“I hate them,” Mrs. Ruse spits. “They’re always around here. Goodness, they scare me. I wouldn’t dare go out at night, if it wasn’t for Robert here. I wouldn’t still be living here. I’d move to the city, away from the dreadful things.”

“I’ll go talk to Lorne after breakfast,” Ruse says.

“I’ll go with you,” Nephew says.

“. . . the search party?” Zuru asks. He needs a chance to escape, to run back to Kuni no Kori. If they go into the woods, he might be able to make a run for it. Of course, it will be risky, with the wolves so nearby.

Ruse nods. “Of course,” he says. “We’ll go down to Lorne directly, and ask for his help searching for you mother before he comes here to set traps.”

Zuru could have cursed; he’ll have to be much more careful the next time he comes up to the lodge. Who knows where Lorne will set the traps? And he knows Ruse and Lorne won’t care if the traps catch something they weren’t intended to catch.

Ruse rises from the table and nods to Zuru. The blonde smiles a little and stands. He’s lucky he got the hang of this human form so quickly. Really, he should have been found out by now. “Come along,” Ruse says.

They set out from the lodge, both Ruse and his nephew clutching their guns. The wolves are still nearby. Zuru’s unease rests heavy in his chest. What about Kuni no Kori? But he can’t run yet. He must continue to play this silly little facade with the humans.

They follow the roads through the October dawn. The birds are calling, leaves are falling, and the woods smell so strongly of spice. Zuru realizes that summer is truly over. He sidles closer to Ruse’s nephew.

The sky has just barely turned blue when they knock on the door of Lorne’s cottage. The hounds bay and bark. They snarl at Zuru and snuffle all around his feet. Ruse tries to drag them away, but they won’t go. He kicks at them, and they whimper, but they don’t move far away from the girl’s feet.

Lorne throws open the door; he’s disheveled enough to tell Zuru that he’s just woken up. Zuru has never seen the man this close before. His beard is knotted and full of leaves. One eyelid droops a little lower than the other. His mouth is completely hidden. A flash of fabulous white runs from his forehead down his cheek, showing through the tan of summer. He’s in a pair of ratty long-johns with the top unbuttoned. He smacks his lips angrily and says, “Now see ‘ere, Ruse, what’s the bloody matter—”

“For gods’ sake, man! Put on some clothes! ‘Snot fit for the lady’s eyes!”

A hand covers Zuru’s eyes, and he finds himself blind in an interminable void of darkness, with only a little sunlight creeping through between Ruse’s rough fingers, making them a vibrant orange.

The door bangs shut again. Cursing is heard, and Lorne returns to the door, still wearing a dour expression. “What’s the meaning of this, Ruse? The sun’s barely up, and yet, here you are, knocking on my door.”

Ruse’s hand goes away. Zuru almost breathes a sigh of relief. The stout old man puts his hands on his hips, and says, “Now, Lorne, we got a job fer ya.”

But Lorne isn’t listening. Instead, he’s staring at Zuru. His eyes are glazed with shock and hurt, and he takes a step closer to the blonde girl. Zuru doesn’t know what to do, but backs up a little bit.

Lorne holds out his hands. His expression is a mix of hurt and awe; his complexion is washed out by the tension leaving it, and Zuru is suddenly confronted with a Lorne who is not a dour old man nor a hardened hunter.

The Lorne he knows is a monster. This man is not a monster, but a human being, holding out his wrinkled hands, and laughing at her. “Zora,” he chortles, “my love, where have you been?”

Lorne captures his hands and holds them tight. Zuru tries to pull away. He’s surprised by the old man’s warmth. “Zora,” he says, “where did you go? You left me that night—so long ago.”

He frowns at her hair, then runs a weathered palm down her cheek. “How is it that you have not aged, my love, when the years have so destroyed me?”

Zuru shakes his head and continues to pull away. “I—”

Lorne’s grip tightens, and his face constricts with tension and anger again. “Zora!” he growls. “Do you know how you broke me when you left?”

Ruse is calling to the man, but his voice must be drowned out in Lorne’s chaotic head. “Lorne! Lorne! Dammit, man, are you listening to me?!”

Lorne’s face changes again, excitement tearing over his features. “Oh!” he cries. “My love! I’ve spent the years preparing for your return! Come in, come and see—”

He drags Zuru into the cottage. “Look!” he cries. “You so loved foxes—you loved them so, Zora! I haven’t forgotten, I haven’t forgotten!”

Zuru nearly throws up. The walls are covered with the pelts of his brethren—tails, feet, heads all intact. Beneath his feet, a carpet wrought entirely of fox fur; the furniture all covered in hides. Everywhere, everywhere, the eyes staring out at him.

“And here—”

The bed, covered in a thick comforter. Zuru cannot imagine the number of foxes who have died to make this place the abomination that it is. Lorne has released him now, and struggles in the closet for a moment, before unveiling the most insidious article of clothing—

A wedding gown, tasseled with the tails, complete with a matching muff, and cape and hat. Zuru’s blood run cold. Lorne turns to him, arms laden with the garments. “It will be a winter wedding,” he says, and he is lost in a far-away place.

Zuru shakes his head, but Lorne ignores him. “A winter wedding, with my bride kept warm by the foxes she loved so very much,” he murmurs, “a winter wedding, for winter is when the foxes she loves so create their matches.”

Zuru runs. “No!” he cries. “I’m not Zora! I don’t know—who is she?! I’m not! I’m Zuru! Zuru!”

“Zuru!” Lorne barks. The pelts are forgotten. “Zuru, the pesky fox that man speaks to me of!”

Zuru darts out the door, and latches onto Ruse’s arm. “Oh!” he cries. “Save me, save me! The man is psychotic! He’s not safe!”

Ruse bellows, “Lorne!”

The man appears at the door, looking down the barrel of his .22. “I know now,” he says in a low, even voice, “what my Zora was.”

Zuru cowers behind Ruse. Lorne’s voice echoes in the morning woods. “She was a dirty, rotten she-fox!”

He looks wildly at Ruse and his nephew. “I’ll kill her now, and spare you two! The little devil! The vixen!”

The gun goes off, and the dogs go wild. Zuru takes off on all fours, his three tails wagging wildly, his blond fur shining in the sunlight.

“What the hell—”

The three men stare, but the dogs give chase. “What the hell is that?!” Ruse barks at last.

Lorne’s expression is intense. “So, it is true,” he growls. Then, he runs down the worn steps of his porch and chases after his dogs.

Ruse looks to his nephew. “Jett?” he asks, gritting his teeth.

“The Nine Tails,” he says. “The nine-tailed demon fox.” He laughs. “But they’re just a myth. No way—”

Ruse is toddling down the path after Lorne now. “Come on,” he barks to his nephew. “He’ll kill the damn thing. We need it in captivity. Living.”

Jett hesitates. Ruse looks annoyed. “Come on, boy!” he barks.

Jett sighs. “Coming, coming,” he murmurs and follows his uncle into the depths of the woods.


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