Spring has come to Kuni no Kori. The last of the winter snow is melting, and the rushing of the streams can be heard again. Songbirds, back from the south, rejoice in the spindly arms of the trees, hiding among the translucent greens of new leaves. The wind blows softly, with a kinder, gentler disposition and brings warmth. The sky, which was washed out by the winter’s cruelty and snow, has regained its vibrancy, and the sun burns through the blue, bringing warmth to the earth below.
Jett takes the splint off Zuru’s leg. The fox tests his paw hesitantly, then dashes around in an excited circle. It has been ten days since Zuru was first entrusted to Jett’s care. Zuru trots around the yard.
The ride into the city is a long one. They take Uncle’s flatbed truck, with Zuru in a cage on the back. The cage is secured and covered with a tarp. Zuru barks and yips, but Ruse ignores him. Jett sighs and gets into the truck.
Zuru is digging himself a den. Jett is sitting on the porch, watching the fox dig. The .22 is nearby, just in case a wolf decides that it is prime time to take revenge for Wolf’s death. Zuru’s paws are still wrapped in bandages, and Jett worries he will have to wash the wounds again before the day is out. Zuru doesn’t mind; were he strong enough to take a human form, he would probably suggest a mutual bath. Since he is not, however, he will settle for being fox-handled.
He has dug a fair-sized hole, for the earth is pliable. Still, he is not necessarily pleased with it, as he’d feel rather more comfortable if he had two or three alternate exits. Jett is apparently displeased with Zuru’s den-digging zeal and hauls the fox up out of his new foxhole.
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.
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.
Zuru does not weather the night deep in the den. Zorro might be wounded, but Zuru is hungry, and the night is prime for hunting. He does not travel far, for he can hear Wolf howling to the North, toward the lodge. Lynxie is no doubt prowling the woods, combing the area for game to sate her hunger. Coyote is closing in on the edge of Kuni no Kori.
Zuru catches little, for the other creatures sense the stench and call of their predators. The rabbits are hidden and still in the darkness, deep under thickets. Deer are lying still in the meadows—not that Zuru would attack them anyway. Voles and mice seem to have disappeared from the world altogether, and an owl screams in a tree with rage.
Zuru does go on, and trots on over to Lorne’s. Lorne is an elderly human who lives on the edge of the forest. He is a huntsman and keeps fox hounds. He claims to know where Kuni no Kori is, and firmly believes that the love of his life was killed because of the Kitsune no Youkai. He ruthlessly traps foxes for this reason. He makes a pretty penny on selling their pelts, something the Kitsune no Youkai greatly resent him for. Many of Zuru’s people feel that the humans are rewarding Lorne for murdering their people. Some of the extremists want to converge on the humans and punish them. So far, they are a small group, however, and Zorro has been able to stop them from moving.
Zuru always finds some humor in the fact Lorne’s name means “fox” in the local human tongue.