Bonus Chapter 7 – The Cheating Fox

Kitsune are not beastfolk.

That might sound confusing, so let’s take it from the top, to make things more clear.

Beastfolk are a type of mortal being; it’s a broad term, not referring to just one race, but a ton of different races that share just enough similarities that they could be considered related, and that main characteristic was their connection to a specific animal species. Which, to be fair, plenty of races had normally; humans were related to apes, drakes to lizards, nurans to frogs, so on, so forth, but beastfolk were, essentially, people who had an innate connection to Therian, the God of Beasts.

How that connection was formed and how it manifested varies, but the general gist is the same; beastfolk can transform into whatever animal they are connected to; wolves, boars, lions, tigers, bears, crocodiles, sharks, rabbits, raptors, etc. The type of animal tends to be a carnivorous predator–though obviously rabbits miss that mark, so who knows what’s with that–and the beastfolk/“therianthrope” in question are capable of transforming into one type of beast. Only one, no big multi-shapeshifting here! 

But they can take on any hybrid form between, say, “fully human” and “fully wolf”, and gain massive amounts of strength, speed, and stamina regardless, so it’s easy to understand why people might go to Therian to try to get her blessing. Unless they’re a tiger; those apparently got that from the Lightning God in the west, and there’s a few cute little legends about how that happened, usually involving the two gods making a bet of some kind, but that’s just speculation, and has nothing to do with kitsune in the slightest.

Because Kitsune are demons.

They’re not a mortal race, they’re a demonic one. Yes, they do live directly in the mortal realm of Estus most of the time, they won the right to do that, but that doesn’t mean their nature is fundamentally mortal. There’s arguments and whatnot to have by silly people who like semantics, but the basic nature of all kitsune, even the ones with a mortal parent, is a demonic one.

They didn’t grow from the mortal seas until their backs straightened and they walked upright; the kitsune were born from the wistful ideas of a dreaming Ancient, whose thoughts and feelings twisted around themselves until they shaped into thinking beings. That was why the kitsune were the way they were, why their forms could shift, why they were solely female in appearance, why, with great age, their bodies did not weaken, but grew stronger than any others.

And it was also why they could cheat.

See, there were many names for the race commonly known as the kitsune–which was, obviously, one of them, duh–such as kumiho, huli jing, and jiuweihu, but the last one was technically supposed to be reserved for the nine-tailed, the smarmy grannies of their race who all really had a way overinflated opinion of themselves, in Kiyoshi’s humble opinion.

Sure, living to be nine hundred was impressive, she could admit that. Most kitsune didn’t have the sheer drive to last that long; they’d bite it going after something bigger than they realized or let themselves drift off after a fulfilling life. Kiyo couldn’t count the number of stories she’d heard where a kitsune found the love of her life and then decided to pass away with them when that time came. And sure, she did find those stories heartwarming and there was a certain appeal to having someone to love just that much, but still! She wanted to be powerful! And it was absolute shit she had to last that long just to have that many tails!

So yeah, that’s what brought her to where she was now: traipsing through the jungle alongside a noble traveling companion.

“Uuuuuuugh, it’s so hot todaaaaaay,” Nibi Yotsuya, said noble traveling companion, a kitsune like herself though with short hair and a generally skinnier–and less well-endowed–figure, whined, tugging on the front of her sky-blue shirt, “Why’d you have to pick today to doom yourself? You could’ve waited for a breeze, at least…”

“Oh Suya, Suya, Suya, my silly silly Suya, why in the world would I wait~?” Kiyo chided, grinning back at her silly subordinate as she marched forward in her far more practical jungle explorer’s outfit, “The whole point here is that I’m done waiting and for things to come my way~. I’m seizing the day here!”

“Seizing your death, more like,” Suya continued to grumble, but followed anyway like a good kit. Yes, she was over two hundred years old, but that was still sixty years younger than Kiyo, thus kit status was forever hers.

It was probably a bit hypocritical of her to get annoyed at her elders who called her kit, only to then lord over the kit status of those younger than her, but eh. Either way, it’s not like Suya wouldn’t get anything out of this either. Best case scenario, she becomes stronger too, but at the very least she would gain status of being the companion of the youngest nine tails to ever exist. 

“Well, if I must seize death to seize my power, so be it! Though I doubt we’d meet a dullahan on this journey.” 

“…I swear, if we do, you’re on your own.” 

Heh, teasing Suya was always so fun, but really, she had no reason to be so nervous. Dullahans only appeared when people died or were dying, and Kiyo had no intention of dying here. No, this was far too soon for her. 

That being said she wasn’t exactly sure about what she should do after she gets her power. Living a life of decadence was obviously going to be the first thing she does. Having a family also had its own appeal, but she had yet to meet anyone that appealed to her like that. She was a kitsune with standards, so if she was going to tie herself down with somebody, they’d have to be the absolute perfect specimen of…well, whatever she wound up finding appealing about them.

At the very least, she didn’t care about any flaky types who only wanted a one night stand. Sure she might be flirty, but she wasn’t easy.

“Heeeeey, Kiyo, I found it!” Calling out from ahead of her, Suya waved her hand to signal Kiyo to come over. And, with a grin, she darted over, leaving small craters on the floor as she rushed forward, eager to find the location she so desired. 

Before them lay the ever legendary Fox Shrine, a simple pagoda made of orange stone and bronze tiles. Now, unlike the churches or temples of the gods, the shrine before them was not one of religious significance, no; what it instead signified was the victory the kitsune achieved to live among the mortals. However, much like their desire to leave the Nine Hells, the shrine had been long abandoned. All those who once lived there moved on, looking to find new homes or just travel among the mortal lands. 

Yet even so, despite the complete lack of a caretaker, the shrine was magnificent as ever, standing proud in the center of the deep jungle. Only the vegetation growing up its walls and hanging from its three roofs signaled the lack of any living residents.

“So, what do we do now?” Suya asked with a bored frown. Someone clearly wasn’t interested in the grand sight of the shrine. Hell, she looked like she just wanted to be done with this. But Kiyo wouldn’t let her attitude bring her down!

“That is an excellent question! One I shall have the answer to, once we get inside!”

“…Please don’t tell me we came all the way here without an actual plan.” 

“Don’t worry, I won’t.” Smirking, she went on ahead, ignoring the exasperated sigh from her companion as she trudged in behind her.

The interior of the shrine wasn’t anything to write home about; pretty empty, really, probably because, again, no one lived there. The floor was simple tatami and the stone walls were totally barren; not even vines were growing on them. Really, the only even slightly interesting thing was the statue right in the middle. And by slightly interesting, Kiyo meant very very interesting!

“Ooo, aren’t you a beauty~!” she teased as she walked up to the statue, examining the fox-headed woman set in stone. “She” wore a traditional kimono and some type of headdress with rods spreading out from it, mimicking the sun, and had one hand laying, palm up, in her lap while the other was held up near her chest with three fingers up, the thumb folded in her palm and, curiously, her middle finger down, rather than the pinky. Hm. Were those movable joints in her fingers? “My my, and you have secrets too~! Quite the alluring lady we have here, don’t we Suya~?”

Suya just sighed, looking annoyed. “Sure. Is that all that’s in here? There’s no staircases?”

“Well, if you want to search, you always could.”

“Mgh.”

Kiyo chuckled at her subordinate’s grumbling, then glanced over the statue, looking along its body for any more grooves or ridges. The ears had joints to them too, so they could be moved, but they were locked in place when Kiyo gripped one. The statue’s back didn’t have anything of note; the woman carved there didn’t even have her tails showing. Perhaps as a way of signifying she didn’t represent any particular kitsune? Or maybe they were hidden somewhere…

She glanced up at the headdress and counted the spikes. 7 in total, six jutting out on each side and one pointing up at the ceiling. Up on the ceiling…2 black dots, set in a puffy, yellow cloud, almost like eyes.

Back with the statue, the right arm–the one being held up–wasn’t moveable, but the left had just enough joints to move it up into the air, the back of its hand facing the entrance. It was higher than the other hand, but did that signify anything? Nothing she could tell, at the moment, but the fingers there could be moved too, so it was the fingers that were important.

So how were they important? Five fingers on a hand, but the thumbs couldn’t be moved on this statue. Two hands, each with four moveable fingers. The simple thing to assume would be that the fingers should be raised to make nine, due to the cultural associations that number had to kitsune. But only eight fingers were in play, so they wouldn’t be added together. Or would they be? 

Kiyo tapped each of the raised fingers, humming to herself. They could each be moved, and there was some significance to the right hand’s middle finger being lowered. Eight fingers. Index, middle, ring, pinky. Assuming each would be assigned a value, which was something of a leap but the first idea she had, then logically it would be increasing from 1…but then if the thumb was counted, would it be increasing from 2 instead?

“Index equals two, middle equals three…” she mumbled, tracing her hands over the fingers. The two dots on the ceiling meant something. Two fingers raised? Perhaps. The middle finger was already lowered, so if she lowered the index, that would leave the ring and the pinky, equally 4 and 5 respectively, so together, that would be 9, the significant number. Two integers to make nine.

Nine and nine would be eighty-one, wouldn’t it? But…there were seven rods on the woman’s headdress. Was the second number seven? Or…The second digit was seven. The fingers on a hand were added together. The fingers on both hands were multiplied.

“That’s it, isn’t it?” she purred, earning a weird look from Suya as she poked at the walls.

“What’s it?”

“Something tricky, silly, and immature. Precisely the kitsune way~.” And with that, she lowered every finger on the left hand except for its middle, leaving that held defiantly upright. 9 times 3.

“Pff, yeah, sure, if you say so.”

“You might want to stand back,” Kiyo advised as she leaned up to the statue and lightly pushed on its now moveable ears, both clicking into place.

“Uh, why-Gh-!” And the ladder dropping from the ceiling clocked Suya right on the head.

Kiyo sighed at her silly subordinate’s goofy actions, then strode right on over and picked her off the floor. “Up you go~! No lazing around while I solve everything, kay? If I wanted arm candy, I would’ve brought…” She paused for a second, considering how many other kitsune she actually knew. “…Maybe Riho? Her tits are pretty huge…point is, up we go.”

“Yeah yeah, alright. But you go first.”

“Oh~? Are you hoping to get a look at my backside on the way up~?”

“More like keeping you from getting a peek at mine.”

Kiyo giggled. “Fair.” And up she went, climbing to the second floor of the pagoda, where another puzzle awaited. A surprisingly simple one, all things considered.

The room was square, much like the previous one, though the pattern on the floor took on more of a pentagonal shape, with a shelf in the center, consisting of three racks. On each rack were three orbs, all with different colors and patterns; nine total, because her ancestors really loved sticking to a theme.

“Oh, those are pretty,” Suya murmured when she saw them, and yes, they really were. They were like marbles; translucent orbs with patterns under their surface, stretching and adding further color to the glass. There was a red one, a purple one, and a green one on the first row; yellow, cyan, and magenta on the second; and black, white, and orange on the third.

On the floor, in the pentagon, there were obvious divots in each corner, and a quick glance towards the ceiling showed Kiyo that there was a similar triangle with similar divots up there. Eight in total, leaving one extra…Something to figure out later. 

“…You know, I count one too many orbs for the divots. If this is a puzzle, one is probably in there just to trick us,” Suya said as she looked over the orbs, “And these orbs do look rather pretty, and could probably fetch quite a bit.” 

“If this is your way of asking if you can take one, then sure, go ahead. But only when we’re done, okay?” 

“Well if you insist~!” Grinning, Suya began to admire the orbs, obviously thinking to herself which one she wanted the most. As she did so, Kiyo looked at the orbs as well, wondering where exactly they would go in the divots. The most obvious idea to her was that one from each row would have to go on the ceiling, but which would it be? 

She walked around the shelf, then hummed as she noticed there seemed to be writing across the back, one line where each rack would be. “Dusk, noon, dawn…”

“Eh? What’s up?”

“Thinking things.” So, dusk meant dark, that much was obvious, and that followed that dawn would probably be associated with light, meaning noon…well, what would noon be associated with? Light too, really. It was midday, when the sun was highest in the sky. So then what did dawn mean? Unless it meant “to dawn”, like a revelation…But revelations had associations with light too. Unless…

“Suya, take the orbs off the shelf.”

“Eh? Why?”

“So they don’t fall when I flip this.”

“…Kay.” 

Once Suya did just that, setting all the orbs gently on the floor, Kiyo did precisely what she said she would and flipped the shelf over, where it quickly became clear that there were parts of the shelf that folded inward. Some further maneuvering later, and Kiyo had made a sort of large, three step staircase that reached the ceiling, where the divots were located. “Ahh, so that’s how we get up there…” And now, the writing had been flipped around, so dawn was on the top and dusk was on the bottom, with noon still remaining in the middle. “Highest point to lowest point…”

“So did that help you figure something out or what?”

“Perhaps~! I suppose it depends on where the peak will be on this mountain to the heavens~.”

“…Is this a history thing?”

“Mythology or philosophy, I believe.” And investigation would show her if she was right. So she walked around the pentagon, looking at each of the divots. While there weren’t any convenient marks to say where each orb went, there was further writing around each circle; small logograms inscribed around them, each describing an action. Splitting, crossing, crushing, drilling, and exploding. “Oh now that just makes things easy.”

“Eh? What does?”

“What does the iron head of an axe do to the wood it crashes down on?”

“…What?”

“It splits the wood. The wood falls and crushes the earth. The earth loosens and crosses the water. The water…actually, I guess the water drilling works with earth too, since it would drill through it to erupt as a geyser? But the point of it is to beat fire, which explodes over and melts metal.”

“Uhhhhh…?”

Kiyo went over to the orbs, picked up the red one, and put it right in the one marked “exploding”. “Fire ‘explodes’ upward as it ignites. Though I’m not, like, super great at western languages, so this one could mean ‘pounding’? Which I think still works for fire, since it can mean like the pounding sound of an eruption.”

“…I’m lost.”

“It’s the five elements philosophy. I believe Liorzula, the major western country in the Sun Lands, was the one to put the theory into writing,” Kiyo explained as she picked up the green and yellow orbs next, “Think of it as an explanation for how natural elements work in harmony, generating and overcoming each other in a cycle. Wood births fire by fueling it, fire births earth by forming ash, earth births metal through veins of iron, metal births water by cooling and gathering moisture, and water births wood by providing sustenance.”

“But the gods didn’t do that though?”

“It’s not a god thing, it’s a nature thing. Which I guess is kind of the same thing, but it’s ideas, y’know? I mean, I’m pretty sure it’s old philosophy too, considering there’s tons of other proposals out there and whatnot.” She deposited the green orb into the divot marked “crushing”, then went past the red orb to put the yellow one on its other side, in the divot marked “crossing”. “In fact, I’m pretty sure Liorzula actually combined Earth and Wood and added in Lightning in later years if we’re speaking about political factions and dynasties, though that’s still back in the third era, so that’s easily thousands of years ago.”

“Kay? So you’re doing this off of some ancient philosophy?”

“Yup! Though the philosophy is still around. It’s not like ideas just die because something new gets popular. As long as it doesn’t hurt people, people will be drawn to it, and even if it does hurt people, plenty of people will still be drawn to it.”

“Right…so, water and metal next, right? I don’t see a gray one anywhere.”

“That’s because we’re working off of a different color system. Gray doesn’t symbolize metal here, white does, because of how light glints off of metal.”

“Wait, really? But isn’t the metal god born from darkness?”

“Yup! Which, I imagine you could make the argument, is why it reflects light instead of taking it in. Unless there actually are metals that absorb light, which there might be…” Kiyo considered that, then shrugged. “Well whatever, I’m not a smith. As for the water one, it’ll be black instead of blue, because it symbolizes the depths of the ocean.”

“Uh, are you sure about that one-” Suya flinched as Kiyo dropped it into the proper hole, then paused as each of the orbs glowed and lines began crossing from each corner of the pentagon. “…Or you’re super right, okay, sure.”

“See~? Besides, if it wasn’t going by the five phases, I would’ve taken the orange orb for fire. Orange is a much more fiery color than red, which really should be considered more a ‘blood’ thing, don’t you think?”

Suya shrugged, still focusing on the lines of elemental power tracing along the pentagon. So Kiyo left her to that as she gathered up three of the four remaining orbs. Specifically, the orange, the cyan, and the purple, though Suya did notice when Kiyo climbed to the top of the staircase.

“Uh, wait, if this is, like, a five phases thing, what’s that one supposed to be? Three phases?”

“No, that’s a Light Lands thing, actually. See, due to the prominence of the gods of plants, fire, and water over on that continent, they essentially cut the other two from the philosophy to develop the idea of Wood, Fire, and Water acting as a natural, elemental triangle. A simplified philosophy for a more simple people, one might say if they were feeling mean.”

“Which you are.”

“Me? When am I ever mean~?”

Suya sighed, because she was adorable like that, then just shrugged as she picked up the last orb. “So what’s the trick then?”

“Simple. While you stand among the natural elements of the land, I stand at the peak of the mountain and touch the sky. And what elements lie in the sky?”

“…Birds?”

“Birds aren’t an element, Suya, though that is a cute idea. No, here in my arms, I hold Light-” She held up the orange orb. “-Dark-” She put it back and held up the purple orb. “-and Air.” She repeated the action, this time holding the cyan orb.

“Ahhh. You lost me. How’s orange, blue, and purple equal light, air, and darkness?”

“Orange for the dawn when the sun does rise, cyan for the noon and clear, breezy skies, then purple for the dusk when all light dies~! Thus we find where our truth lies~,” Kiyo composed on the spot, smiling as she slotted each orb into the proper divots, where they held fast in defiance of gravity.

“Okay, did you come up with that on the spot, or…hey, wait, how do you know which spots hold which orb?”

Kiyo paused, then shrugged with a silly grin. “Yeah, I don’t know. I’m just guessing on this one.”

“Wait, you’re what-” Then the ladder to the next floor dropped and Suya squeaked. “A-Ah-D-Don’t do that!”

“What~?”

“Don’t just guess in the sacred temple place thing!”

“Oh~? And here I thought you weren’t taking this seriously~.”

“That was before all these puzzles! Places like this are usually trapped aren’t they?! If you mess up, who knows what’ll happen!” 

“Aw, come on now Suya, everything will be okay~.” Grinning, she patted the younger kitsune on the head. “I was just teasing anyway~. The colors in the triangle line up with the same colors they were on the shelf with. Cyan points towards yellow, orange points to the line between black and white, and purple does the same for red and green.”

“…Oh.” Suya stared at her, then pouted, looking absolutely adorable with her cheeks puffed out. “Mean.” Turning away from her, Suya grabbed the final orb, holding it close as she did. 

“Heh, well come on, onto the next floor~!” Marching on up, Kiyo couldn’t help but feel excited over what was to come. She was another step closer to her goal, and it looked like there was only one more to go. 

And on the next floor there was only a hammer. No, wait, there were also circles on the floor, nine in total, all different colors and arranged together on one half of the floor.

“Hm~ Now what could this mean?” 

“Well…if there’s a hammer we probably got to break something yeah?” Suya suggested, causing Kiyo to look at the hammer, and then back to her, and then to the orb. “…Wait.”

“Oh, Suya~!”

“No!” Holding the orb close and tight, she turned away from the smirking kitsune, trying to hide her treasure. “That was just a guess! And besides, even if that’s right, wouldn’t it make more sense to break the rings or something?!” 

“But that would damage it, and if we needed it fine for the actual puzzle, then we’d be screwed. Better safe than sorry, no~?” 

“B-But what if that’s wrong and I don’t end up getting something from this!?”

“I’ll owe you one~?”

“You already owe me for coming here!”

“…I’ll owe you two~?”

Suya still glared at her, then let out a little whine as her head slumped. “Okaaaaaay, fiiiiiine…but you better get me, like…something fancy in the same color, you got it? Like a necklace.”

“Or a ring~?”

And that earned a frown. “Maybe I oughta break it on your head instead. That could be the puzzle.”

“Aw, no need to be like that~” Kiyo grinned, then easily hefted the hammer, twirling it for a moment before letting it rest on her shoulder. “Now, let’s get to smashing~!”

Pouting, Suya set down the orb, taking a few steps back as Kiyo brought up the hammer. And in the next moment the hammer was brought down. 

A sharp crack resounded around the room as it connected. Setting the hammer down, Kiyo looked down to see several cracks spread across the point of impact, before the top of the orb fell in, revealing a…type of liquid? Kneeling down, Kiyo sniffed the reddish liquid, trying to see if she could tell what it was. 

“Is that… foxtail?” Dipping a finger into the liquid, Kiyo tasted it, discovering that it was indeed foxtail–albeit a very aged foxtail–a rather strong tea that had been created by the kitsune as a celebration of their freedom from hell. Nowadays, it was more so a common drink for kitsunes.

“…Huh. That’s odd.” Suya said as she also kneeled by the orb. “Do we have to drink it?”

“Hm…” Standing up, Kiyo walked over to the rings. The rings had to be important somehow, but what did they have to do with the tea? For that matter, why was it in an orb? Did the orb symbolize something? 

“Wow! This is stronger than the usual foxtail,” Suya said as she sat down next to the orb, evidently drinking from it, “I guess being stuck in that orb for however long must have done that.” 

…Stuck. The Foxtail tea was stuck in the orb…Grinning, Kiyo walked over to her. “Thank you Suya~.”

“Uh, for what?”

“Giving me a very good clue. Now, orb please.”

“Aw, you always take my neat stuff…I feel like this should be three you owe me.”

“I already owe you a second thing for requesting the orb, so this should count for that, no? Now gimme.”

Suya grumbled, but Kiyo got the orb regardless, and then she began pouring it into the rings on the floor. “Aw, you’re gonna waste all of it!”

“Nope~!” Kiyo grinned, tilting the orb to show Suya the level of tea inside hadn’t changed at all. “It wouldn’t be a very good puzzle if you could permanently mess it up, now would it?”

“…I feel like most dungeons have puzzles that’ll kill you if you mess them up. That’s pretty permanent.”

“Yes, but they weren’t designed by kitsune, which is their loss. Now shush.” She shushed, and Kiyo continued her work, each ring filling with the strong tea and slowly spreading down lines that formed in the floor, creating a pattern from one half of the room to the next. To absolutely no surprise, the image turned out to be a stylized nine-tailed fox, standing proud in front of an arch. And the instant that half of the floor filled in, the arch rose up, forming a gateway that suddenly grew, adding stones to its sides and a roof at its top until it mimicked the image Kiyoshi had seen so very long ago of what was simply known as a Hell Gate.

“…Woah. Uh. Kiyo? You…sure about this one? That’s…” Suya gulped, staring at the empty gate. “That feels…creepy.”

“Does it?” Weird. It felt cozy to her. Maybe a little sad. Like seeing part of a childhood home after years away. 

Then something dropped from the gate. It was an orb, much like the ones downstairs, but attached to a chain, hanging in the center of the gateway. It wasn’t quite like them though. It shimmered with not only orange light, but a mix of white, black, and yellow in it. Red too, or perhaps brown? It shimmered, distorting the air around it.

“O-Okay, yeah, that’s enough for me, nope, not interested anymore. C-Come on, let’s just take our new fancy everlasting teapot and leave now, please?”

Kiyo paused. Suya did deserve a reward here, true. So she handed her the tea orb and smiled. “Don’t worry, I’ll try it first and prove it’s nothing to worry about~.”

“H-Ha, ha, no, no, that’s like the worst idea I’ve ever heard you had, so no?? Don’t do that??”

But Kiyo did, because there was no way she was turning back at this point. So she clutched the core between both her hands and smiled down at it as she felt its power pulse against her palms. “Hello there~ Now, I don’t know if you’re any sort of alive, but I can feel something in you…so why not just give it over to me~? We solved your puzzles, so don’t we deserve a reward~?”

“K-Kiyo, seriously, let’s go. Now, please.”

Kiyo grimaced, glancing back at Suya. “Suya, I’m not waiting six hundred years just so some damned grannies will respect me! If this is my way of getting nine tails early, then I’m taking it-”

1

Kiyoshi saw a gray town beside a gray sea. A gray beach stretched into gray waters as gray boats floated over gray fish larger than any she’d ever seen before. The gray buildings were uniform, stretching out in solid rows beside gray roads that reeked of tar. There were gray districts of gray houses where gray devils sat at gray desks and poked their fingers at gray machines made of glass windows that burned with light. 

Not a splash of color existed in the First Hell. Gray shades walked beside gray demons as gray snakes crawled across walls and gray roaches skittered over a corpse leaning beside the building by her and no one noticed a thing. But they did notice. They did not care.

It was so bland. It shouldn’t be, but it felt so bland and average and unremarkable that it could be any town anywhere in all of existence and no one would ever bother with it-

2

Kiyoshi saw a city on a vast plain, where pink rivers ran in curved lines through fields of yellow grass. Fragments of structures long broken dotted the landscape, statues and monuments she couldn’t quite make out, but the city itself shone with lights. Massive towers stretched high enough to scrape the rosy sky as black winds whistled past them, rising and diving and ripping clothes from devils that seemed more amused than flustered, and maybe a bit more than amused judging by the looks they gave one another.

The Second Hell felt alive, thriving beneath its pink moon; so very much like the mortal world in so many ways, yet altered and twisted just the same, eternally wrapped in a starry night. Kiyoshi noticed the towers were not motionless. They moved and throbbed with life too, shivering in the wind as canals full of bathers and roads littered with barely clad luxurians wove around their massive forms.

She was almost tempted to stay a while, particularly with just how curvy everyone seemed, but alas, she was pulled along-

3

Ooo, good place, very good place! Unlike the previous two realms, the Third Hell had an energy that surged forward like the succulent aroma of well-cooked meats, as those devils she could see drowned themselves in carnal pleasures and delights. 

Parties raged on large plateaus, layered and shaped like cakes topped by bustling marketplaces and beautiful parks with striped trees topped by spherical candies–everything smelled so sweet and savory and she couldn’t help drooling! 

It was so bright and gorgeous too; rivers of chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry syrup waterfalled from layer to layer as orange devils gorged themselves on so many different foods and candies she could barely recognize while their pink kin–the same type she’d seen in the previous circle–strutted around in barely anything, serving and seducing, their long tongues licking–

Then something went odd. Maybe she stepped wrong, or maybe it was just time to go, and the scents changed. Instead of sweets, spices, and salty meats, she was suddenly hit by sour, bitter aromas, nearly giving her whiplash with how quick it hit her. She blinked tears from her eyes, clutching at her nose for a moment, before it clicked that she was at the bottom of the plateaus. The place in between them, the depths beneath the grand heights, where the once sweet syrup twisted into bitter liquor and sour wine, the rivers rushing into deep lakes that were surrounded by stone docks and twisted trees covered in weeping faces.

Green demons lived down here, bitter and drunk, grumbling to themselves as they glared up at the sky, which had changed from a brilliant orange to a deep, dark blue. The same blue she saw in the eyes of one devil–whose body was completely wrapped up in steel that masked his face and defined his body–that noticed her, and started walking towards her–

4

Kiyoshi felt really turned around. Sure, good she didn’t have to hang around any creepy demons reeking of envy and despair, but also why was there a city in the sky? It wasn’t like it was floating there on islands or anything like that; it looked more like the roof of a cave, with white towers hanging down like stalactites. There weren’t any rivers there, only lakes, and they seemed to be leaking down, forming a weird sort of rain in localized spots on the “floor” of the “cave”.

Which had its own city. Its own very big city. The previous Hells had at least some plants and patches of nature, strange though it might’ve been, but the Fourth Hell looked almost…what was the word? Mechanized? There were so many massive contraptions around–like strange levers moving in a rhythm or massive gears on the sides of buildings that were doing…something–that she’d never seen before…and, well, she sorta didn’t know what to do? It was weird. Alien, in a way that was hard to figure out, especially compared to everything she’d seen before…

There were still some layers too, with raised platforms that fancier towers stood on, going from gold to platinum, and there were plenty rivers of molten gold around and so much steam and smoke rising up that there was almost a layer of clouds between the floor and ceiling, and the platinum towers seemed to have horns–no, not horns, claws; massive claws reaching for the city above them–

5

Kiyoshi shook her head, trying to clear her headache. That felt so weird–

“Oh? Hello there, little sister.”

Kiyo blinked, then looked up at the very, very, very big snake staring down at her. Very big. Massive, really. With hair, also. Black hair, very silky, framing her white face. Faces. Many large snake heads, with black hair–also curved spines going down her tangled necks that merged into a single back–and very intelligent red eyes staring straight at Kiyo.

Who grinned, and curtsied as best she could. “Hello there, elder sister. Forgive me for my intrusion.”

“It is of no intrusion, little…ah, my mistake,” the snake continued, tilting her head as her forked tongue–itself a bright red–flicked out, “You are not quite my little sister, are you? Little you are, kin you may be, but not sister, no.”

“Then what might I be to you, my elder kin?”

“A cast off,” a snarling voice interrupted, one that sent a shiver straight down Kiyo’s spine as she was hit with the instinctive desire to flee–

And she smoothed that down entirely, brushed her clothes down, and turned to face her new guest–or perhaps host would be more accurate–with a happy smile. “Greetings, honored elder.”

“Ha! Save your false politeness for one who cares, fox,” snarled the massive lion, his golden eyes glaring at her with thinly veiled contempt. He seemed bigger than the snake–ah, shit, Kiyo should’ve asked her name; sharing names would’ve put her on a more even footing–and where she was a pale white, he reminded Kiyo of a mountain under the sunlight. Gold fur covered most of his body, but where it didn’t, she could see brown scales shaped like cracked rock, and his dark-brown mane looked more like a set of sharp spikes than hair. 

He also had a single, gold horn on top of his head, like a cute little crown. “What do you find so funny!?”

Ah, her lip twitched. “My apologies, honored elder, yet I must contradict you. I do not find humor here, but joy at seeing one so gracious and resplendent.”

“Your attempts at flattery do you little justice, fox.” His massive face was suddenly right in front of her. “Speak the truth, or I will become very angry.”

“…You horn’s really cute and makes you look like a doofus, but like in a pretty cute way? Like it’s adorable, like a unicorn but without the horn being attached to something as creepy as a horse.”

“…” He stared at her, his expression unchanging. Meanwhile, the snake started giggling, which Kiyo considered a very good sign.

“What are you two doing?” And there was a third one. 

Kiyo turned to the newcomer, and smiled a little more easily. Wolves were familiar, she’d met a few lycans before, and she’d already met a huge white snake and a massive golden lion, so a giant black wolf wasn’t especially shocking. He was also the simplest of the three, since he just seemed to be a huge wolf with black fur and mismatched eyes–one orange and one white–so that, of course, meant he was the most suspicious. “I was complimenting my honored elder’s cute horn, honored elder.”

“So I hear. You were being very loud, elder brother.”

“Bah! It is my right to be loud! Who do I disturb here?!”

“Sister Tortoise, potentially.” The wolf tapped the grassy ground beneath them. “Ho, Sister Tortoise. Do you mind my brother’s inanity?”

“Gh-You overstep!” the lion snarled, before Kiyo heard an odd, low sound that reverberated through the air and the ground beneath her feet. Which she was pretty sure was the back of a giant tortoise. Just from a few context clues. Which raised a lot of questions, since the only other thing she could really see of the environment was a wide plain of green grass, and a partly-cloudy sky that looked like a jade green, contrasted by an amber sun. 

“No, I step where I am able. Do I not, younger sister, little sister?” He glanced at the snake, then to Kiyo, and the snake giggled again.

“Apologies, older brother, but the little one is not our sister. A niece, I think the proper term would be,” the snake offered, one head rising from the tangle of lazing heads.

“Little niece then. My thanks, little sister.”

“Ah, my rank has decreased…this was my folly.” It was weird, seeing a snake pout, but also sort of cute. She was surrounded by really cute demons right now in a Hell that felt strangely homey. But then again, the kitsune did supposedly come from the Fifth Hell, so that all tracked rather nicely.

The wolf chuffed, then nodded to Kiyo. “My greetings to you then, little niece. You have met my little sister, Xiangliu, and my elder brother, Xiezhi, so you may know me as Tiangou.

“Don’t state my name so freely! I have given no such permission!” Xiezhi snapped, growling again, before he suddenly flumped down and started grumbling into his paws. “-showing such complete disrespect…”

“My apologies for him-”

“DON’T APOLOGIZE ON MY BEHALF!”

“Snrk-” Kiyo tried to cover her laugh, but now Xiezhi was glaring at her. So she turned her head and whistled unconvincingly as she looked at…huh, that was a horse. A horse in the sky. Weird.

Then there was a snake face in front of her face. “Hello again, little niece. I mean you no trouble, yet it has struck me that I know not why you are here and what your own name is. May we rectify these errors?”

Kiyo grinned, then bowed to Xiangliu. “Of course, honored aunty~”

And Xiangliu immediately lit up. “Aunty?? Awww, I am an aunty! My rank increases once more!”

“Feh. Idiot coldblood.”

Ignoring Xiezhi, Kiyo straightened. “My quest, honored uncles and aunty, is to gain nine tails by traveling through the realms my people once dwelled within. My name, which is solely my own, is Sanbi Kiyoshi. It is a pleasure to meet you all.”

“Hmph. So you can be truthful, fox.”

“Course I can, honored unky~”

His eye twitched. “I will not tolerate disrespect-!”

“Why Sanbi?”

Kiyo glanced at Tiangou, which got Xiezhi to growl at being ignored, and turned to address him. “Because I have three tails, honored-”

“You have four.”

Kiyo blinked. Then she glanced back at herself and lifted her tails- “Oh shit, I have four tails.”

“Don’t cuss,” Xiezhi chided, as if that was in any way important at the moment. Kiyo, meanwhile, was quite rightfully distracted with petting her own new tail because she now had four of those. Which meant her method was working!

“My apologies honored unky, I am simply ecstatic to see that my plan has been successful~” 

“Stop calling me that!” Unable to keep the grin off her face, Kiyo bowed to Xiezhi. 

“Very well, Xiezhi, if that’s you-” And before she could finish, she found herself stiffening as Xiezhi suddenly moved in, his maw mere inches away from her. 

“You do not have permission to use my name.”

Well, Kiyo definitely got that message loud and clear, taking a moment to calm herself as the lion pulled back. 

“Aw, come now, elder brother, today is quite an exciting day for her, so let’s not ruin it for her~,” Xiangliu chided, still swaying happily.

“She needs to learn her place.” 

“And terrifying her won’t teach her anything,” Tiangou added, “All she will learn is how to manipulate you so she doesn’t anger you. Or did you not learn that lesson before?” 

“Hmph, as if I would be tricked by someone so young.” 

“…Excuse me honorable uncles and aunt, but am I correct in assuming that lesson involves my ancestor?” 

“Of course. Fox could always trick elder brother into doing what she wanted,” Xiangliu explained, “It was very funny to see because elder brother would always rage, yet older sister would always escape.”

“Bah! Fox was a preening fool! Cunning, yes, and I will agree she was canny enough to deceive even me, but the damnable brat was too focused on herself and her beloved tails! Just as you are, fox,” Xiezhi snarled, glaring at Kiyo again, “You seek to mimic her here, don’t you? Traveling to all the infernal realms and then sneaking off to the mortal lands, as though you could ever find a true home there!”

“Elder brother was deeply upset by older sister’s departure-”

“Of course I was! That should be obvious!” Xiezhi flopped down again, grumbling and growling, “Everyone seems so insistent on leaving, as though the worlds out there are somehow grander than our home! Tiger went to that blasted heaven of lightning, Bear spends all her time in those damnable snow courts, and Fox wandered away into the mortal lands with all the rest of her kin! So many of our own people, leaving for what? A chance for love? What was she even seeking?”

“My apologies, but I do not have an answer for her actions. All I can say is that I am doing this simply because I wish to.”

“Hmph, so you’re marching through the hells out of a simple whim?” 

“Of course, isn’t that what motivates us all? I desire to have nine tails, so I shall take the fastest way to get there, even if it means risking my life.” 

“You’re an idiot.”

Kiyo shrugged. “I can live with that.”

“Even if it means you die today?” 

“Of course. Even if it’s something petty, I’ll stand by my ambitions and desires.” 

“Is that so? Well, in that case, far be it for us to keep you waiting.” Grinning, Tiangou laid down on the floor too, smirking at her through his paws. 

“Hmph! The sooner she leaves, the better.” 

“I’ll miss you too, Kaichi~,” Kiyo purred, hiding a smirk as Xiezhi did a double take. 

“What did you call me?” 

“You didn’t want me to call you unky and I don’t have permission to use your name, so I gave you a nickname~! Ah, and I didn’t forget about my other unky and aunt~” Grinning, she pointed at Xianglu. “Orochi.” And then at Tiangou. “Okami.” 

“Awww~ what a cute little nice I have~,” Xiangliu chirped, giggling happily. 

“Heh, well, if you’re giving us a name, perhaps I should give one to you.” With a sly grin, Tiangou looked down at her. “Farewell, Kiyoshi Hachibi.”

Her eyes went wide, immediately catching the fact that he specifically called her eight-tail

6

Kiyo landed amid-

“MOTHER FUCKER!

-a land of glass and molten earth, where lava poured from broken mountains and blackened cities rose amid burning calderas-

“THAT ABSOLUTE SON OF A-”

-while far above, in the smoke-filled, crimson sky, immense, serpentine dragons, the everlasting ancestors of the great beasts that called the mortal realm their home-

Kiyo started kicking at a rock, cursing rapidly and, by this point, almost completely unintelligibly. 

–…Suffice to say, the Sixth Hell really wasn’t catching her attention. Even if it really should, because there was a certain gorgeous beauty to the land of eternal fire–

The rock started to shift, its single eye blinking on the other side of it, before the blackened rock demon began to get up on its spindly limbs–Then Kiyo full on punted it, sending it flying up to bounce off the side of the mountain she was on, and roll down to the very bottom, where it dropped, dazed, into a pool of lava.

7

Kiyo yelped as she abruptly dropped into the Seventh Hell, landing through a series of white, dusty branches on the way down to a sea of blood, which she landed in with a large splash. She coughed and swore at the sky as she pulled herself up onto the beach of black sand–

8

And wound up blinking as she found herself in a massive world of books. Which she was leaking some blood on. It wasn’t her blood, but there was still blood dripping down from her skin, hair, and clothes, to soak into the platform of paper she was standing on. It floated above huge stretches of pages, stretching like bridges between enormous walls that held words, but not on paper. 

There was a strange sensation as she tried to figure out just what she was seeing, as the blood kept on dripping and started to form into words on the pages. The sky was made of patterns and fractal shapes inked in blue that dripped down like rain, but only here, in this hole. It was a hole. 

A massive cavern in a plane filled with multiple great holes, each formed in different ways and calling to different genres. She could see things forming from the pages, structures being built out of words and diagrams, sketched into reality right before her eyes, and she had a sudden, intuitive understanding that–

9

It was cold.

The Ninth Hell was frozen over. It had that inherent feeling to it. Not that it was always icy, or that it was born out of the cold; something had deliberately frozen a place that was once alive. Or perhaps alive “in a different way” would be more accurate, because she could see demons living among the ice. 

Manta rays flew in the frozen sky, where clouds floated as clumps of frost rain hail on massive glaciers that pretended to be mountains. She saw a woman there, in a palace carved out of a false mountain.

The leviathan’s eyes were half-lidded as she slumped on her throne, a bottle of wine in one hand as she clutched at her hand, staring at nothing, until she noticed Kiyo. They widened for a moment, a sudden confusion coming to her, that quickly turned to murderous–

E

And Kiyo was back.

Back in the shrine where her journey had begun. 

“Suya, it worked!” With a large grin, Kiyo whirled around–Then paused when she realized her companion wasn’t there. Ah well, Suya did seem a bit freaked out, so it made sense she probably booked it. Not to mention Kiyo had been gone for, like, at least an hour. 

That being said, turning to look at her back, Kiyo nearly squealed at seeing so many new, fluffy tails waving above her rear. Though she did let out a curse under her breath at counting only eight tails. Fucker actually put a curse on her with that stupid nicnkame. Now she had to wait another hundred years before she could become a Kyubi!  

Kiyo pouted and hugged her tails, sulking at being forced to wait, before she finally decided to head out of the shrine. Not like Suya would have gotten far, so finding her would be easy enough.

She did notice that the shrine was weirdly empty though. The ladders were still down, but the shelf and all the orbs on the second floor were gone. Even the ones up in the ceiling. 

Then on the first floor, the statue was missing. Which was double weird, because while she could see Suya decided to take all the orbs with her as “payment” for all her scares, that statue was probably super heavy, and she kinda doubted a two-tail like Suya could carry it so easily, along with all those orbs.

Not to mention that there was no way for her to do all that in just an hour…hm, was she gone for longer? Going between the levels of hell was rather tricky to do one after another, so it’s possible it wasn’t exactly an hour…well shit, Suya was probably all worried. Though Kiyo had to admit, she did want to see how Suya looked when she was worried. It would probably be cute. Anyhow, if Kiyo had to guess, it’d probably been a few days at most, given that it would take some time and help to move the statue.

Smirking to herself, Kiyo hid her newly gained tails with a simple illusion as she walked out of the shrine, eager to surprise her friend with her achievement. She hummed to herself along the way back to her village, which was a fair distance away. 

So if she didn’t run, it would take a bit of walking. That being said, a part of her wanted to test her new powers, and if someone wanted to interrupt her stroll, oh well. 

Or something, as things turned out.

Grinning, Kiyo couldn’t help but feel the coming catharsis as she stared at the wolf before her, that, while not as large as her honored uncle, was still larger than her. As the wolf growled, wind began to pick up around it, signaling what kind of creature it was as easily as the gray spirals twisting around its otherwise tan fur. And with a roar, a burst of wind shot at Kiyo, passing straight through her. 

The wolf let out a confused growl as Kiyo looked up at it, tilting her head with a grin. And several more bursts of air were unable to hit her, passing through her completely. So, with an angered roar, the wolf leapt forward, smashing down on Kiyo. 

“You know, if you’re trying to hit me, you should at least aim at me.” Kiyo said from atop the wolf.

It let out a funny little yelp, before wind burst out in blades from its back, carving off in crescents that chopped down branches and carved into tree trunks.

“You know, I don’t think wolves are normally jungle animals,” Kiyo noted, tapping her chin as she walked around its side, earning an immediate glare and then a howl that burst straight through the dirt her copy was made of.

“So did dear unky send you after me~?” she asked, patting the wolf’s other side. It snapped at her, so conversation didn’t seem to be its strong suit. Now, she, on the other hand, was both an excellent conversationalist and suddenly very good at catching a wolf’s snapping jaws with one hand and holding its mouth closed easily. “You know, it’s not nice and proper to try and attack someone trying to have a conversation with you~” 

The wolf didn’t appreciate this lesson in etiquette, snarling instead and trying to lunge forward as gales erupted from its fur, which burst apart the leaf clone Kiyo had made while the kitsune herself wrapped her arms around the wolf’s midsection and bent back, suplexing it straight into the dirt with a triumphant shout to drown out its pained yelp.

“Now then, are you going to be listening, or shall we have to do this again~?” Kiyo questioned as she looked down upon the injured wolf. A grin spread across her face as the wolf let out a pained whimper. “Good. Now then, as payment for being so rude, why don’t you give me a ride back home, I have to groom my tails so they’ll be presentable when I surprise my friend~.”

The wolf whined again, so she gave it a slap on the snout, and that seemed to take whatever fight was left out of the silly beast. So Kiyo had a proper mount as she headed back home for the first time in however long she was gone. Which she was starting to think may have been longer than she assumed, since Anrusho was looking a whole lot bigger…

Anrusho was by no means a small coastal town, but now it looked like a full blown port city. The walls were higher and set further out, they had actual stone gates…was that marble? She could see some marble buildings built up near the wood ones she recognized. In Skiritaba, marble meant gorgons, and while gorgons in general weren’t exactly enemies to the kitsune tribes, they weren’t exactly friends either. They hadn’t been conquered by some new demon lord, had they?

No, one of the gate guards was a kitsune, so…well, maybe she was a collaborator? Hm. Questions to be asked and answered.

And pretty easily too, since the gate guard took one look at her and immediately bowed. For a second, Kiyo thought she was just that recognizable, but then it clicked the one-tail was bowing to her because she had eight tails. So she was still getting some deserved deference, just not for the reason she assumed.

She was also mistaken on her other assumptions; no, they hadn’t been conquered by any gorgon demon lords, and no, the kitsune at the gate wasn’t some type of traitorous collaborator.

Or at least they were the type that still showed respect to those higher up despite being a traitor. 

Hopping off the wolf, Kiyo petted it on the side and grinned up at the cowering wolf. 

“Well, I suppose this is where we part ways! Feel free to give my uncle my greeting if you see him~.” Letting out a whimper, the wolf turned around and ran away, disappearing into the forest nearby. Turning toward the still bowing guard, Kiyo gave her a slight nod. “Greetings guard, I am S-Hachibi Kiyoshi! May I enter this fine city that I clearly haven’t been to for a longer time than I thought and has changed drastically in the time I’ve been gone?”

The guard straightened, finally, earning a weird look from the gorgon who was working with her. Both were pretty cute ladies, very lean and fit, and the gorgon’s green scales did shine quite nicely in the sunlight, but Kiyo really shouldn’t get distracted by that type of thing. “O-Of course, oh honored-Did you say Kiyoshi?”

Oh, that was a quick change. Awe to confusion really quickly. “That I did. Does my reputation precede me~?”

“…Ah…N-No, sorry, just, there was a different kitsune with that name, and she, uh…a-anyways, um, welcome to Anrusho! Back to Anrusho! Since, you said…uh…”

The gorgon sighed and adjusted her black glasses. “Welcome to Anrusho, Miss Hachibi. Please enjoy your stay.”

“Y-Yes! That, all that stuff. O-Oh, and please feel free to visit Kisuya, the best tea shop in Skiritaba!”

“Kisuya? Huh…” Well that was a very interesting name. “I think I will. Thank you, Ichibi~” 

She grinned and ruffled the younger kitsune’s orange hair, who bore it with the familiar pout of someone who was very used to older ladies treating them as cute, then glanced at her gorgon friend, who had snake hair. “Hm…do you want me to-”

“Ah, no, thank you though.”

“Why’s it that they always ask you?” the kitsune guard complained as Kiyo walked on through, pouting up at her taller companion, “With me it’s always just immediate ruffling…”

“Probably because your hair won’t bite. Also, you’re cuter.”

“E-Eh? H-Hey, don’t say things like that so suddenly!”

Kiyo giggled to herself, grinning cheerfully as she walked through the familiar-yet-changed streets of her home. So many buildings were the same, yet so many had changed too…

She strolled down by the waterfront, taking note of the many ships coming to and from their much larger docks, until she found Kisuya, which was a surprisingly cute and cozy little teahouse. From what she heard, she was expecting something big and opulent, but it was just a story tall and not especially large. Maybe the size of a normal restaurant? It had orange walls and red tiles on its roof, plus a rather cute curtain showing two foxes cuddling for its front door, their tails curling around each other.

Kiyo smiled as she pushed through the curtain and glanced around the interior, where her smile immediately got far wider. It was hard not to beam at the cozy interior, especially with its decorations. Specifically, the very familiar statue of a fox-headed woman set up against the counter, at the end of the path leading between two rows of tables, and the eight orbs set on small pedestals in alcoves across the walls. All very fancy, all very nice, and all confirming for her that this was, indeed, her cute subordinate’s cozy little tea shop~.

Though she didn’t need all that evidence, since Yotsuya was standing right at the counter there. And upon seeing her, Kiyo’s grin turned mischievous. “Excuse me, I’m looking for the owner of this establishment.”

“Well you’ve found her,” Suya replied cheerfully, looking quite cute with her longer hair tied up in a bun and a white apron over her traditional red yukata, which further had some nice little orange flower patterns across it. She glanced up from the ledger she’d been looking through, smiling adorably. “Welcome to-…”

Kiyo grinned. “Hey there~!”

Suya kept staring at her, then walked out from around her desk, moving a little stiffly. Then she poked Kiyo’s cheek, as if testing how real she was.

“Ooo, you’ve gotten much more forward–” Then Suya punched her straight in the face. Actually managed to knock her back slightly too, huh. “…Okay damn, your right hook got a lot better too–” Then there was a soft “whump” as Suya immediately hugged her tight, pressing her face into Kiyo’s chest.

“Y-Yh sthphd fhkhn’ hsshhl! G-Ghdmnn…” she blubbered, “M-Mhss’d mnyu s-soh m-m-mchh…”

“Aw…I missed you too,” she replied, returning the hug with a soft smile. Though she did take the opportunity to check out Suya’s tails. Not her rear, her tails specifically; there were still two of them, which meant Suya was still a Nibi and Kiyo hadn’t been gone long enough for her to become a Sanbi, so she was good! Kinda! Definitely less than a hundred years gone, so that was good. “Speaking of, how long was I actually gone? I couldn’t really tell.”

“…mh?” Suya looked up at her, tears still leaking down her cheeks and snot coming from her nose. Which probably meant Kiyo should change her shirt. “…what?”

“How long was I gone? It felt like only a few…minutes, I suppose, to me, but clearly a lot more time passed here.”

“…Kiyo…what?”

“Suya, do I really need to repeat myself again?”

“…f-fifty-nine years. You’ve been gone for fifty-nine years.” Well. Definitely needed to change her shirt then. Probably get a bath in general…The blood hadn’t carried over from Hell, but still.

“Uh, hon? Somethin’ wrong?” Kiyo glanced up-…hm. That was a rather big orc. Now, all orcs are big, but this one was pretty broad and chubby, though with a strong, clean-shaven jaw. His black hair was tied back in a ponytail and noticeably cut short on the sides of his head, and he wore a matching blue yukata with white flowers on it. “Oh, hello. You a friend’a-Ah, are you a friend’a my wife’s?”

“…Wife?” Kiyo looked down at Suya again. Then very deliberately twisted out of her hug, leaving Suya blinking in confusion at her, then grabbed her wrist and looked right at her hand. More specifically, at the ring on her hand. “…”

“O-Oh, right! Ah, Kiyo, I forgot to mention it, but, well…” Suya was blushing. She looked adorable, if still a little puffy from crying, but also she was blushing like a lovestruck ichibi. “…th-this is my husband, Lum.”

Suya had a husband. Yotsuya had a husband. Before Kiyo. Hm. Okay, no, jealousy later, happy now!

So Kiyo swept Suya up in a big hug. “Awwwwwww, congrats~!” She gave Suya a few little twirls, grinning as she blushed and protested and grinning wider when she noticed Lum chuckling at the sight, before she set Suya down and promptly got to the important questions, “How long have you two been together? When and where did you meet? What’s changed while I’ve been gone? How big is his–?”

“Kiyo!” Suya shouted as both her and Lum blushed heavily. 

“What? Can’t blame me for being curious, after all the cute little kitsune that used to follow me around now has a husband, so I want to learn everything I can~!”

“T-There are some things that are private!”

“Fiiiine, but I still want to get to know him, afterall I’m sure he’d love to learn all the cute stories I have of you-” 

“Shut it!” Giggling, Kiyo rubbed Suya’s hair as she blushed heavily, before looking over as Lum cleared his throat to get their attention. 

“Would ya like some tea? We got the best foxtail in the city.” 

“Foxtail?” So she did in fact use that orb from back in the shrine. Heh, such a smart girl. “Clever~! So you used your endless supply of tea to make a tea shop?”

“Ah…well, yeah, that is part of it,” Suya admitted, “But I did sort of need funding before then, so I sold off some of the other orbs to get money. I mean, they’re mystical treasures and all, so plenty of people wanted to buy them up, collectors especially.”

Kiyo paused, then glanced at the still very present orbs along the wall. Hm. “They’re cursed, aren’t they?”

“Aw, come on, I wanted to explain it…”

She giggled, patting Suya’s head as she pouted. Of course, she wanted to hear all the nitty gritty details, so the two of them soon took their seats at one of the tables while Lum brought them tea. It really did taste fantastic~. It wasn’t hard to see how Suya managed to get so successful with it, and also apparently formed a treaty between the kitsune and gorgons of Skiritaba, but that came later. Foremost-

“So, cursed jewels?”

“Yeah, it’s weird. I guess the shrine considers me the rightful owner of the jewels since I also completed the trials or something? But I was allowed to leave the Fox Shrine with all of them, and I could sell them fine, but anytime I sold them, they always wound up coming back to me for some reason or another. And thankfully no one I’ve sold them to has come after my head so that’s a plus.” 

“So it seems, I guess that means I don’t owe you anything since you made off so well~.” 

“Haha, yeah, no. You still owe me a lot.” 

“I only owed you two.” 

“That was before you disappeared for fifty-nine years.” 

“…So that’s three then?”

“At least four. Maybe even five.”

Kiyo mock gasped. “Five?? You go too far!”

Suya stared at her, then snorted and broke into more giggles, which Kiyo couldn’t help but smile at.

She took a sip of her tea to hide that though, then continued, “So, what’s the story with all the gorgons moving into town?”

“Ah, yeah, that’s sorta related. See, I have a pretty much limitless source of perfectly brewed foxtail tea here, but I still wanted to sell other teas, so I reached out to local coteries and such to get more leaves, and it sorta spiraled into a whole big thing of negotiating trade and bringing in business and then suddenly more people wanted to use Anrusho as a port because of the growing business and then Granny Natsumi started taking advantage of it to talk with important people and make deals and all that.”

Well, good to know that old biddy hadn’t changed. Which might not be a good thing, considering how mad she could get when Kiyo was younger and did some less than responsible things. Disappearing for fifty-nine years might top that list…

“Afterwards, it became more of a common sight to see gorgons in town as talks went on, and it kinda spiralled from there to what you see now.” 

“A full city with brand new buildings when we used to be a little seaside village?”

“Yeah, basically. I mean, I did say I talked to coteries and stuff, like the Rainleaf Coterie and all their branches. I think there’s even some talks about the Latesuns moving around here?”

“Damn, you really are doing well for yourself. Nice tea shop, position of influence, hot hubby-”

“Kiyo, no.”

“So, what else is going on in the world?” Kiyo asked even as Suya frowned at the deflection, “If things have changed here, there’s probably plenty of other news coming around.”

“…Well, you missed the rise of an entire Demon Lord. Some prick named Irascagan who died…eight years ago?” She glanced at her husband to confirm, and he just shrugged. “About that? About that. As for current events…I guess there’s some stuff up north? Ah, northwest, over in Olafi.”

“What, a new Demon Lord?”

“Nah,” Lum spoke up, “Somethin’ different. It’s somethin’ different. There’s some type’a new noble rulin’ over all the vampires in Inrapa and she’s makin’ a push up north.”

“North? As in lycan territory north?” 

“Yeah, not exactly sure if it’ll turn inta war up there, but I doubt it’ll go well.” 

“Hm. You two know anything about this noble?” 

“She’s from a small family, or used ta–to be. Lower noble family. I don’t know much about them, my tribe never went to their territory.” 

“All I know is whatever gossip gets passed around town,” Suya added, sounding dismissive even as Kiyo’s curiosity grew, “Supposedly, she’s a human, though there are some saying she’s a demon possessing a human, and others say she’s just a figurehead for the next big bad demon lord.”

“Is that so? Well, do you know her name at least?” 

“Valondrac, I think.” 

“Huh. Well, a lady like her must be pretty interesting. Though enough of that, how did you and Lum meet?” 

“Oh, well, Lum and his tribe stopped by the city around three years ago.” 

“I was a hunter, didn’t know common, but friends wanted me to come into town with them.” 

“Ooo, let me guess, he came into the shop and it was love at first sight~!” The laugh Suya held back told Kiyo that this was not, in fact, the case. 

“His friends dragged him into a bar where they got drunk, and he had to stop a fight that they tried to start.” Blushing a bit at the memory, Lum rubbed the back of his head. 

“Yeah, and I brought ‘em here to try to get ‘em outta it. It weren’t the best first impression, but Yotsuya was nice to us and I came back again when I was sober, to pay her back. Came back a few more times after, and we got to talkin’, once I knew what words she was sayin’.”

“Well we did speak before then, though it was mostly…see, he’d speak with what he knew, which was mostly short phrases, and I started learning orcish to help with it, and I guess that was kind of the connecting point? I mean, I got interested in learning just to talk to him, and, well…y-yeah, um, that’s about it? I-I mean, he kept coming back, a-and I liked seeing him, so we talked, and, yeah.”

Kiyo grinned. “Hmm~ So, rather than the tea, Mister Lum over there was coming around for you~?”

“K-Kiyo!”

“Yeah, that sounds right,” Lum admitted, blushing a bit, which got Suya to turn completely red. Which was adorable, if…thought provoking. Just by a little coincidence like that, these two wound up becoming so close? Just with luck?

It wasn’t like Kiyo hadn’t had relationships before, but everyone she wound up with turned out so flaky and unwilling to commit…Did she just attract a certain type of person? It was strange. Here she was, the one who took the initiative, but Suya wound up helping their entire town grow just by tagging along with her. Just by being at her tea shop, at the right time, she met a man she fell in love with. Was it really just up to luck? Or was it that she picked the right time to take initiative?

Kiyoshi had run off in search of power, and Yotsuya had tagged along. Kiyoshi had spent almost six decades in hell, and Yotsuya had founded her own tea shop. Kiyoshi was screwed out of gaining all nine tails, and Yotsuya found a husband. What was the common thread?

Was it…being helpful? Yotsuya was just helping people in all of those circumstances, and it led to good things for her…yes, that was it. That had to be it! Kiyo just needed to be more helpful! Now, who needs help…?

“Uh…Kiyo? You’re getting that ‘I have a great idea’ smile,” Suya said, more than a little worried, “What are you thinking?”

“Just a way to one-up you, my bestest friend in the world~.”

“…Kiyoooo, what does that mean?”

“It means I’m thinking of getting a job over in Olafi!”

“…Kiyo no-”

“Tell Granny Sumi I say hi!” She downed her tea cup, saluted, and the “Kiyo” at the table promptly collapsed into a pile of leaves while the hachibi herself jumped from rooftop to rooftop, grinning and giggling to herself. Now, how to convince a Demon Lord that Hachibi Kiyoshi would be a great addition to her forces?


Probably would have helped if Kiyo had actually asked where in Olafiba this lady was, but after a rather long trip, and some annoying searching, she managed to find where exactly Claire Valondrac was staying. Staring up at the Ota Keep of God Maw, Kiyo grinned to herself as she snuck her way in, slipping over the walls and in through a servant’s door to find where exactly the “Marchioness” was. 

And fortunately, she’d practiced her illusionary skills on the way over, so getting around the lycan guards and servants wasn’t too tricky. The poor wolves trusted their sense of smell just a little too much when it came to searching, so all she really had to do was make sure to mask her own scent with the smells of whatever room she went through. Not erasing her scent entirely though; leaving gaps like that made people take notice. No, the real trick to stealth was making the wary think everything was exactly as it should be.

A bit odd to see only lycans around though. Maybe she was in the wrong place?

Eventually, however, she did find a room with quite the spread of species, so, of course, with her natural intuition, she assumed that the one sitting at the head of the long table was the leader. 

“-reports say they found a vein of mithril in the Jorakin lands, so we shall, hopefully, have enough for your project soon, my lady.” Well that and the fact that a vampire was deferring to her was also a big clue. 

“Y’want me ta send some’a my tribe ta help bring the stuff over? Might be trouble if it gets stolen,” offered the blonde orc as she leaned back in her chair.

“Why don’t you just go yourself? Fighting is all you seem good for so there’s no need for you in these meetings,” responded the delightfully scarlet dryad, not even bothering to look in her direction as she drank some tea. 

“In that case, guess ya gotta stay. Can’t risk hurtin’ a dainty little flower like you.” 

“Refrain from arguing from meetings, or both of you will be kicked out,” threatened the blond lycan, the annoyance in his voice telling Kiyo this was more of a regular occurrence than not. 

“Banter aside, I don’t think you need to send anyone over there yet, Leok. However, if need be, I’ll ask you to.” 

“Oh oh, how about you send me instead, I’m sure I’ll be a great help!” Kiyo cheerfully asked, before suddenly finding razor sharp claws and vines at her throat. “…so this is what trying to be helpful gets me.”

“Who the hell are you?!” the lycan snapped, keeping his claws at her throat even with the uncomfortably thorny vine wrapped around her neck. It didn’t stop Kiyo from tilting her head though, grinning as she deliberately let her tails wag.

“Hachibi Kiyoshi, cutie~ Nice to meet you~” she purred, deliberately keeping her arms crossed under her chest to push it up slightly. The kimono she’d picked for this meeting was a cute orange one decorated with yellow lilies, patterned to look almost like flames. It was also deliberately cut short around her legs and open at her chest to show off a generous amount of cleavage.

Not that the lycan seemed to care, just looking annoyed. She waited for a moment, searching his face, then nodded, resigned. “Right, gay, got it. Alright, hmm…does anyone else feel like getting close~?”

The orc snorted in amusement, the dryad rolled her eyes, and the vampire raised an eyebrow, but it was the human whose reaction she was really interested in. And she looked curious.

“How did you get in here?” Valondrac asked, then shook her head, “No, better question. How long were you standing there?”

“Not too long~! I just wanted to help out, since you seemed so stumped by your little problem. After all, your generals were arguing so much, it seemed like I may as well do you a favor~.”

“And why does an eight-tailed kitsune want to do me a favor?”

Kiyo grinned. “Because I want to join you, oh great ‘Marchioness’, if that’s fine with you.”

“Sure, welcome aboard.”

Every general immediately whirled to stare at her, a number of protests echoing out before Valondrac held up a hand, then pointed right at Kiyo. Not the Kiyo with the vine around her throat though. The real Kiyo, standing at the opposite side of the room, who blinked. “Consider yourself on probation though. Or maybe on a sort of trial period? I’m usually the one who seeks out my subordinates, so you’re going to have to prove yourself if you’re really serious about joining up with my armies.”

“…Heh.” She smirked again, letting the clone dissolve into dust as she stepped forward, earning alarmed looks from her future colleagues. “No problem~ After all, I’ve been to hell and back, what’s a few more trials~?”

That earned her a number of confused looks, but she paid them no mind. Well, she paid them enough mind to be amused by them. 

Kiyoshi had a feeling she was going to enjoy her new job.

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