Hello, everyone, and welcome back! Sorry this is a few days past the deadline, but things came up that my dA journal will explain. Now we get into one of my most looked-forward-to sections of Steel in the Moonlight! I've been waiting to write this for a while, so I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!


Chapter 37: Yunalesca

(Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood OST 3 - Philosophorum Omega)

"Hail, Lord Nobunaga!"

The cry rang out through the darkened hall of Idaina-yosai's shogun, and everyone within it – the assassins standing guard, the imps working beneath their eyes, and the bearded old scribes scanning over their various notes splayed out across the many tables that had been moved off to both sides of the massive entrance hall – immediately stood at attention and either saluted with a fist over their chest or a deeply respectful bow. One of the imps took a tad too long to get into position and received a sharp kick from the nearby assassin for his slowness.

Ka-chink, ka-chink, ka-chink.

The sound of their leader's armor shifting with his footsteps was heard long before the man himself was seen…and he certainly made quite a sight when he finally stepped through the massive wooden doors and stopped just within the entrance, his midnight black armor casting a sinister shadow across the torch-lit floor, and his matching cloak shifting slightly on his shoulders as the underground wind brushed against it.

Scanning the room with the red lights of his faceplate's eyes, the Lord of the Black Hand looked over each and every person in the room from where he stood, each one of them refusing to meet his gaze and looking down at the floor submissively…the worker imps especially, considering that they were at the bottom of the food chain as far as HE was concerned.

"…As you were," he finally spoke, folding his arms behind his back and slowly pacing forward. He was quickly followed by the sound of marching footsteps, as through the door behind him came his entourage of soldiers, covered in their red-dyed bamboo armor and carrying their swords of jagged black obsidian.

Not that the Lord of the Black Hand needed bodyguards…but it helped reinforce the point that he was not to be trifled with.

Proceeding straight ahead, Nobunaga strode through the center of the large entrance hall and through the opening in the far wall where all the major activity in the building seemed to center around and originate from. Going down the stairs ahead without a moment's hesitation on either his part or his retinue's, he passed the many murals depicting the Takeda's moments of various triumphs and historical events, paying no heed to any of them as he eventually reached the bottom and entered into the secret chamber…the chamber containing their latest spoil of war.

The large archway reached high above them, humming slightly as proof of the power that still resided in the artifact. The green lines pulsing with energy glowed brightly in the darkness, lighting up the room to the point that the many scribes lined around it could write upon their scrolls with little to no help from the nearby candles that lay upon the tables nearby, all of them strewn with notes and various instruments of study.

Though no one around him could see it, a tiny smile creased his face the moment his gaze fell upon the artifact.

"Hail, Lord Nobunaga!" the bodyguard to his right barked out, and everyone in the room immediately dropped what they were doing and either saluted or bowed low to their leader.

Unfurling one of his arms out from behind his back, Nobunaga waved dismissively to put them all at ease, before moving closer to the large warp gate that the Takeda had managed to conceal from his people for so long, even after both sides had retreated from the ongoing war between Nippon and the Land of Darkness. Passing through the crowd of scribes and workers, Nobunaga came upon a stalwart line of Black Hand assassins, loosely standing shoulder to shoulder as they stood guard over something.

Another gesture with his hand, and the line immediately move aside for him, revealing a lone man sitting upon a fallen stone, his back turned to them.

He too was garbed in black armor, though it had clearly seen better days: many of the metal plates bore dents and were covered in a thick coating of dust, not to mention the unexpected long black cloak across his shoulders that now sported a tattered and torn trailing edge, with various holes having been punched through the fabric. Tightly wrapped bandages were seen around his right arm and left leg respectively, dark red stains seeping through for all around him to see.

The man was a mess, but his weapon seemed to have escaped harm…

…a large obsidian scythe, resting across his lap as he drew a whetstone across its finely honed edge.

Hearing Nobunaga's approach, Kurenai, the Assassin Commander, looked over his shoulder at him before using the scythe's haft to push himself up and turning to face him with a slight, but reverent nod.

Respectful, but not overly so…one of the many things that Nobunaga liked about the assassin.

Looking him up and down, Nobunaga finally spoke, "You look like death warmed over, Kurenai."

"It's just a few scratches, my lord…nowhere near enough to keep yours truly down for the count," Kurenai replied, his casual tone lacking any form of submissiveness and making the soldiers around Nobunaga bristle at breach of conduct.

The black samurai merely stared them down however, before turning his gaze back to the assassin commander.

"As expected. At this point, you have survived so much that I doubt anything could truly kill you, Kurenai."

"Thank you for the compliment, my lord," Kurenai muttered, bowing his head slightly as Nobunaga strode past him towards the large archway towering above those in the room.

"So…this is what you wished to show me?" Nobunaga eventually spoke, extending his gauntleted hand and running it down the archway's perfectly smooth surface as his black armor was bathed in the green light that the artifact was generating.

"Yes, my lord. I have reason to believe that this is what our people have been searching for, since we first heard rumors of its existence centuries ago."

"Oh?" Nobunaga inquired, rubbing his fingers together as if to test the composition of the material that the archway was made out of.

Kurenai nodded, gesturing to the nearby group of old men, each robed in black and red and bearing long scrolls with equally long beards to match. "The scribes have all but confirmed its nature: this artifact IS of Moon Tribe origin, and they have all the reason to believe that it's the exact same artifact that the Takeda once used to launch attacks upon the Land of Darkness."

Nobunaga slowly looked up from his raised hand, the appendage unconsciously curling into a tight fist…but he managed to stifle whatever angry emotion he was feeling and turned to face the assassin commander once more.

"…It is a curious thing, Kurenai…"

"What is, my lord?"

Nobunaga stared down at the ground for a moment, before making a quick gesture to his retinue of bodyguards, the red samurai immediately doing an about face and moving to herd the rest of the humans and demons out of the room. The assassins looked to their own respective leader, who merely nodded in response, giving the O.K. for them to leave as well.

Within seconds, the simple gestures of the two men had emptied the entire room…a subtle, yet mighty testament to the amount of leadership they both possessed.

"You have heard the "official" story, have you not?" Nobunaga finally spoke, pacing over to the assassin commander's side. "The one detailing the demon attack upon this place, that utterly broke the backbone of the Takeda in Nippon?"

"Of course, my lord."

"Speak freely, Kurenai," Nobunaga immediately responded, placing a heavy hand on Kurenai's armored shoulder. "You've more than earned that right in recent years."

"…Alright, then," Kurenai replied, and thought Nobunaga couldn't see his face, he was certain that the assassin commander was smirking. "Yes, I've heard of it, and I've read the scribes' journals on it several times. Who hasn't?"

"Then, being so familiar with it, you will recall that our people were so devastated by the war at that point in time that our ancestors of a hundred years past were unable to participate in that very battle ourselves?"

"Yes, I remember. Our people had regrouped in the Land of Darkness and were in the process of licking their wounds when Orochi and the demons under his command launched their strike upon Nippon. They started with Idaina-Yosai, and worked their way through Nippon from there, eventually leading into the tale of the Sun Goddess purging them all before striking down Yami himself. We both know this story up and down, Nobunaga. Any particular reason why you're choosing to remind me of it?" Kurenai demanded to know.

There was a brief silence on Nobunaga's side, before he eventually spoke, "…When we questioned them about the attack on Idaina-Yosai, the demons never reported having found anything of particular interest, did they?"

Kurenai was beginning to guess what the Lord of the Black Hand was suggesting, but just to be sure, he narrowed the four glowing red "eyes" of his full head-encasing helmet and asked, "Just what are you getting at, Nobunaga?"

"It seems a tad…convenient, wouldn't you say? That the demons never found this this cavern, and the artifact within it, despite having completely ransacked the place?"

"Maybe they just missed it."

"And maybe they CHOSE NOT TO TELL US!" Nobunaga suddenly roared, making Kurenai flinch involuntarily before he stopped and took a deep breath to calm himself.

"…You would agree with me, Kurenai, that although there are many demons that are clumsy and stupid, there are many, many more that are both intelligent and cunning?" he finally spoke, resuming his pacing motion with his arms folded behind his back.

Kurenai merely nodded, not trusting himself to speak.

"There is no doubt in my mind that they found this place, Kurenai…" Nobunaga rasped, stopping to stare at the archway again. "They found it, and sealed it away again."

"Even if that's true, why would they deliberately choose not to tell us about such a find?"

"Perhaps they intended to force us to increase our reliance upon them…them, and their wretched demon gates," Nobunaga growled.

Kurenai could only nod in agreement. The demon gates were slow and painfully difficult to manifest for the trip between the Land of Darkness and Nippon, and even then could only be placed in certain locations considered…corrupted enough.

"Or maybe they're intentionally trying to stall our progress," Kurenai finally spoke up. "Trying to keep us from finding a better future for our people, by forcing us to rely on their gates in order to travel to and from Nippon."

"Then we think alike on this matter, my most loyal and trusted soldier," Nobunaga stated, adjusting his cloak. "But regardless of their reasons, I intend to have a long and wholesome talk with the so called 'commander' of the demon army."

"I see…but are you certain that Orochi will give you the answers you seek?"

"He will, or he will suffer a fate worse than death. The Black Hand holds dominance over his spirit, Kurenai…he will speak so long as he remembers that little fact," Nobunaga spoke evilly. "I intend to get to the bottom of this…but in the meantime, I want your underlings to continue their work here."

Striding back in the direction of the staircase, Nobunaga spoke over his shoulder, "Have the scribes learn all they can about the artifact…and when they are finished, have it disassembled and brought to the shogun. You know the importance of this discovery as well as I do, Kurenai…it would be in our best interest not to squander this opportunity."

"By your word, my lord."

Nobunaga continued towards the staircase that would carry him back up to the Takeda shogun…but stopped in the entrance of it.

"Oh, I almost forgot Kurenai…how did your little escapade involving the Sword-Wielder go?"

Behind him, Kurenai visibly stiffened.

He had secretly been dreading the moment when Nobunaga inevitably asked him about the assured victory that had somehow turned into a massive failure at the last moment, and had been trying to think up an excuse the entire time beforehand…but now that the Master had put him on the spot, he suddenly found himself short on words.

"I…uh…yes, well, about that…"

He flinched when he heard Nobunaga's bootsteps, a clear indicator that the Lord of the Black Hand had turned around and was currently boring holes in his back with a piercing gaze.

"Hmm? Something you wish to tell me, Kurenai?"

The assassin commander suddenly realized just how hot it was inside all of his armor, and he could feel streaks of sweat making their way down his face from within the massive helm encasing his head and neck.

He felt Nobunaga's presence behind him, and dreading what was about to happen, slowly turned to look at the Lord of the Black Hand…face to face with the devilish grin of his faceplate.

Nobunaga visibly sighed, and spoke, "…He escaped, didn't he?"

Kurenai gulped, and slowly nodded. "H-he…er…had more help than…I was expecti-AAAAAGHHH!."

The loud scream that suddenly echoed through the cavern proved to be an excellent representation of the pain one felt when one's arm was suddenly grabbed and twisted around behind them to the breaking point.

"Help? He had more HELP than you were expecting?" Nobunaga scoffed, sounding oddly calm as the assassin commander writhed in his almost casual looking one-handed grip. "Oh please, Kurenai, I expected more of you!"

"Master, please, I did my- GAAAAHHH!" Kurenai tried to rapidly explain, before another twist of the arm cut him off.

"I send you on a simple task to kill a boy, barely into his adult years, and he gets away because he had help?"

"IT WAS THE DAMNED WOLF!" Kurenai wailed, and the pressure stopped increasing.

"Hmm? The Goddess of the Sun?" Nobunaga inquired, sounding slightly intrigued.

"She…she was the reason he got away! She was powerless one second, and then attacked me with all her force the next! I swear to you, my lord, I would have succeeded beyond a doubt had it not been for her and those damned kitsune!"

There was silence on Nobunaga's end, before he released the pressure on Kurenai's arm, the assassin gasping as he stumbled forward and held the painfully sore limb with his other arm.

"So he is already drawing allies to himself from among the kitsune?" Nobunaga thought to himself, as Kurenai nursed his painful limb. "Hmph…just like a Sword-Wielder to align himself with those damned foxes. His abilities must be progressing more quickly than I anticipated."

The assassin commander finally managed to get his composure back and stood up straight, cradling his painfully throbbing arm, just in time for Nobunaga to stomp up to him and snarl, "Where is he now? Can you prove your usefulness in THAT regard, at least?"

"Y-yes, my lord. One of my scouts I sent in pursuit of him managed to bring back information of his location…shortly before he died from an infected arrow wound in his leg," Kurenai remarked callously. "He said the boy had been taken to a place in the forest located near the river leading out of this cave."

"And that helps us how?"

"It is a place that kitsune undoubtedly inhabit…he was quite clear on that before he expired. With that bit of knowledge in mind, and some elbow grease, it should be a simple matter of finding it."

"…Hmph. Is that so?" Nobunaga replied skeptically. "And just how do you intend for us to find a place inhabited by a breed of creature whose entire existence revolves around trickery and the confounding of the minds of men?"

"I WILL find them, Lord Nobunaga…you have my word on it!" Kurenai spoke.

Nobunaga seemed unconvinced, and said, "…I sense something else to this…why the sudden enthusiasm, Kurenai?"

Despite the pain in his arm, the assassin commander chuckled darkly, and said, "With all due respect, Nobunaga…I want another crack at the boy."

Beneath his faceplate, the Lord of the Black Hand smirked. "No prey eludes your blade twice, am I correct?" he quipped.

Kurenai's chuckle turned into a laugh, and he added, "Yes my Lord…and besides…who else to deal with kitsune than the Prime Hunter of the Black Hand?"

Nobunaga considered him for a moment, reading the assassin's body language…then finally nodded.

"Very well then…but Kurenai?"

"Yes, my lord?"

"I do not tolerate continued failure among my ranks. Make a habit out of this and I will break your bones. Is that understood?"

Kurenai managed to stifle a nervous gulp, and bowed his head. "Yes, my lord."

But Nobunaga was already gone…up the staircase and out the door of the shogun, his bodyguards moving to catch up with him as the workers he had sent out moved to get back to work.

His next stop: Orochi. The demon lord had some explaining to do…and Nobunaga would rip the answers from his very soul if he had to.


"Uh…Waka? Why is this kimono so thickly padded?" Alex found himself asking, as the complete set of clothing was dumped in his lap.

"It's rather chilly outside, mon ami. You should wear it to help ward off the cold…and besides, you wouldn't want to go wandering about in your underwear, would you?"

"…Point taken," the young man muttered, attempting to slip the garment on with his good arm several times before giving up and letting Waka do it for him while Ammy watched on.

"Are you certain that you feel well enough to move about?" she asked with concern in her voice. "You may want to rest for another day or so and-"

"Nah, I'm feeling alright, Ammy," Alex interrupted, gently swinging his legs over the side of the hammock and testing his footing before slowly standing up straight. "Some minor throbbing, maybe, but I really don't feel that bad, all things considering…"

She audibly huffed, making Waka smirk as he assisted Alex with the pants section of the outfit ("Keep your hands where I can see them, Fruit Basket!"), and finished tying off the sash, leaving Alex dressed in a well-made men's light blue kimono with his slung arm resting within the depths of the outfit and the empty sleeve hanging loosely at his side.

"Huh…not bad," the young man finally said, looking himself over. "It's gonna take some getting used to having only one working arm, though."

"Not to worry. You should be right as rain before long," Amunae's voice spoke in his mind, which drew Alex's attention to Aku-Hametsu, still propped up against the wall of the hut near his hammock and the pile of leather and metal plates that served as his armor.

"Well, glad to hear it then. But I'm just happy we're finally out of those damn caves…" Alex responded, going over to the sword. "At least there doesn't seem to be…any…"

His voice trailed off, when he looked more closely at his piled armor and realized something wasn't quite right with it.

"…permanent damage," he finished slowly, bending down and grabbing one of the plates.

Lifting it up, he finally discovered the horrible truth…the leather padding that went under the metal plates was now bearing several extremely large cuts through it, many of which left the leather completely severed in some sections. It was as though someone had taken a knife to the padding and completely mutilated it…and that was even before he noticed just how horrible a condition the metal plates themselves were in: the chest and shoulder plates were dented beyond belief, bearing some heavy scoring from the various attacks and elemental disasters it had warded off.

Needless to say, the armor was ruined, and now that he had finally gotten a good look at it, Alex found himself amazed that it had even held together as long as it had.

"…Well that's just dandy," he muttered, dropping the ruined armor piece and putting his hands on his hips, shaking his head all the while.

"I'm sorry, Alex…" Ammy said, coming up beside him. "It seems that, in order to get at your injuries in time, Yunalesca was forced to cut the armor from your body with her knife."

"Hmmmmph…" Alex sighed through his nose. "I'm a little more worried about Gizo…he told me it was his best work, which probably means he's going to be totally crushed when he finds out what happened to it."

"I'm certain he will understand," Ammy reassured him. "For now…you should be glad that you're alive."

"Yeah, yeah, I know…" Alex acquiesced, trying to cross his arms before realizing that he couldn't and settling for resting his good arm atop his slung one instead. "All to save my life and stuff like that."

"We will find you another, mon ami!" Waka stated.

"Where? In case you haven't noticed, we're in the middle of a freaking kitsune tribe, which means there's probably no metal armor for miles around! And don't ask me to settle for just plain leather, because there's no in hell that stuff's gonna protect me from scythe-wielding freaks like Kurenai!"

"Patience, young one," Amunae spoke up. "This place may yet hold some secrets, and you may be surprised by what you find within it."

"So you're saying that I'm gonna have to go on some kind of scavenger hunt then?" Alex replied in a snarky tone of voice.

"That is not what I meant."

"Be more specific, then, fox-face."

"Oh, I shall."

"If you two are quite finished…" Ammy cut in, pulling Alex away from his little argument, "While I was outside, a messenger came to me, saying that the Chieftain of this village would like to speak with Alex and I once he awoke. Considering the hospitality that this village has shown us thus far, it would be rude of us to keep him waiting."

"Quite so, ma Cherie," Waka spoke up. "Feeling up for a little walk, Monsieur Alex?"

"Yeah, I guess. But I'm not too keen on just walking through the middle of a village of kitsune. We're gonna stick out like a sore thumb here!" Alex complained.

"So be it then," Ammy spoke, sounding unworried as she turned with a flick of her tail and padded towards the entrance. "Come along, Alex."

"Ugh…coming…" Alex muttered, falling into line behind the white wolf and leaving Waka behind in the hut with all his belongings.

Fortunately, his uncertainty about the place he was about to go through was forgotten the moment he stepped out the door and beheld Kawa Village in its entirety.

"Holy…" he whispered, stopping next to Ammy as the two of them took in the sight.

(Assassin's Creed 3 OST – Connor's Life)

From what he could see, the entire village seemed to be set along a very large stretch of lightly sloping ground at the foot of an extremely tall mountain. This lightly sloped ridge, which they were standing near the top of, appeared to be within the confines of a somewhat shallow, bowl-shaped valley set between many different mountains, filled to the brim with trees that made up a thick forest. Many of these trees also filled the village…or rather, the village seemed to fill the forest, as the trees vastly outnumbered the few huts that he could spot in between them. From where he stood, he could also hear the faint sound of running water in the distance, giving proof to the words that Amunae had told him about these particular foxes being River Kitsune.

Looking behind him, further up the mountain, Alex could also see some kind of large, winding pathway leading up the steeper parts of the mountainside, towards some kind of larger and more permanent looking hut at the very top, inside some form of indent within the side of the mountain that allowed it a totally uninterrupted view of the valley below…obviously, a dwelling for someone important within the tribe.

It all had the feel of something…mysterious. Like some kind of "hidden valley", a place separate from the world around it.

It felt…peaceful. Serene, yet with an underlying sense of strength and dignity to it.

"…So this is Kawa Village, huh?" Alex finally spoke, after taking it all in.

Amaterasu nodded. "Home of the River Kitsune, possessing the most legendary of healers among the kitsune tribes."

"Where'd you hear that from?" Alex asked, already knowing himself from Amunae, but curious as to how Ammy knew about such things.

"We HAVE been here for three days thus far, Alex…it only makes sense that I would have heard a thing or two about our gracious hosts in that time."

"Right…ok, then. Let's get going. Shouldn't keep the chieftain waiting, right?"

"…Yes, I suppose. Follow me."

Walking behind the wolf, Alex found the two of them descending into the trees below, and he asked, "Uh…shouldn't we be heading the other way? Like, up the mountain to that big hut above us?"

"Normally, yes, but I heard that Chieftain Keikai likes to walk among his "subjects" during this part of the day…sort of a morning routine for him. Therefore, we shall find him down here eventually if we search around."

"I don't know…this forest looked pretty big from what I saw up there."

"Don't worry. I should be able to sniff him out," she replied, putting her nose to the air as they continued walking. Passing by several huts, many of them lit up by the beams of sunlight filtering through the trees, Alex could see the inhabitants of the village going about their business, many of them stopping and staring as the two of them went by.

All of them were in their various forms, either humans wearing their kitsune masks and matching light blue kimonos, or multi-tailed foxes lounging about in the shade of the trees…but none of them seemed particularly pleased or angry with the two outsiders walking through their village, judging from the expressions that Alex could see upon their faces.

It was with a neutral outlook that Alex and Ammy were regarded…two strangers in a land they didn't entirely belong. Alex simply hunched his shoulders and kept walking, all too aware of the many pairs of eyes both seen and unseen boring holes into them as they went.

"Sheesh…friendly place, huh?" he sarcastically remarked to Ammy.

"Steady, Alex…they are simply unaccustomed to outsiders. They will become used to your presence here eventually."

"I hope your right…I REALLY hope your right…" Alex replied. "…because I'm getting that 'new kid in school' vibe all over again."

She simply chuckled, appearing as unconcerned as usual.

"Find him yet?" the young man eventually asked several minutes later, the trees around them growing thick and close together as they entered the more heavily forested areas of the valley, and the gentle burble of the river sounding close by.

"Almost…be patient," was all she would say, putting her nose to the ground and sniffing around a bit. "I need only a moment."

It was Alex's turn to huff at this bit of news, and moved off to the side as he looked around the forest a bit, hearing the chirping of birds and the rustle of leaves in the light, yet chilling mountain wind that was no doubt blowing off of the highest peaks of the mountains surrounding them.

"Pretty nice place, if it weren't for all the suspicious neighbors around…" he thought. "I bet Oki and Issun would agree with me if they were here right now."

Pacing about, his gaze focused on the shifting branches above, he didn't notice the tiny glint of metal that suddenly flew from the nearby bushes until his foot bumped it and made him look down.

"Huh?"

Spotting it laying in the forest grass, Alex bent down and picked it up in his hand, looking closely at it.

A gold yen coin. A pretty valuable piece of currency from what he had learned during his time in Nippon.

Looking about for where it could have possibly originated from, Alex spotted another glint on the edge of the brush surrounding him and Ammy…another gold yen coin, lying innocuously in the grass.

Going up to that one and picking it up too, Alex again spotted one further ahead, leading further into the trees…and another beyond that.

"Does someone have a hole in their wallet or something?" Alex mused to himself. "'Cause they seem to be losing a lot of money here…"

Sneaking a quick glance back at Ammy, who was still busy sniffing around, Alex looked back to the trail of gold yen coins ahead of him and thought, "Ah…what the hell. Might as well find who's losing all this money. I don't think anything's gonna jump me here anyways…"

Pushing into the thick brush ahead of him, Alex followed the trail of coins deeper into the forest, gathering them up as he went…and unconsciously leaving Ammy behind.

"Ah, there we are!" Ammy finally declared, having found the correct scent she was looking for. "He should be this way!"

Looking around for the young man, she suddenly realized that he wasn't there anymore.

"…Alex?"


"…And that make twenty-two…" Alex thought, as he gathered up another coin, his hand full of the golden pieces as he continued following the trail of money through the forest, his focus on finding the little pieces of metal making him unaware of where he was going within the forest.

"…Twenty-three…"

"Hee hee hee hee…"

Alex's head snapped up at the sudden sound of giggling, and his gaze immediately searched around as he peered through all the forest growth for the source of the sound.

"…Is someone out here with me?" he thought suspiciously.

"Hee hee hee, oh ho ho ho…" the giggle came again.

From what he could tell, it definitely sounded feminine in nature, and was coming from somewhere…above him?

"Uh…hello?" he called out, searching the tree branches.

Nothing.

"I must be hearing things…" he thought, walking to the next coin in line and picking it up. "…Twenty-four…"

"Hee hee hee!"

"There it is again!" he thought, looking back up, and again spotting nothing. "Who's making that sound?"

Little did he know that, in the following moments, his question would be answered.

SNAP!

"ACK! OH NO! LOOK OUT!"

Hearing the shout from directly above him, Alex looked straight up…just in time for something to land on top of him.

"WHOOF!" he yelled, as the air was expended from his lungs…and he caught a brief glimpse of all the gold coins that had been in his hand flying into the air, glittering as they caught the sunlight…

…and suddenly, he found himself covered in…dead leaves?

One heaving cough escaped him, and all of the leaves covering his face flew off in the following poof of air, followed by several more coughs as his lungs finally began to catch up to what had just happened.

"…Ow," was the first thing he said, the moment he could speak again. Slowly and achingly propping himself up on his elbows, Alex looked up…

…and saw her.

"…Holy Jesus…" he breathed inwardly, not trusting himself to speak.

It was a kitsune, that much was certain…but she was unlike any kitsune he had seen before, save for the form he took on whenever Amunae possessed him. She had the same relative body structure of a human, but she was entirely foxlike in appearance…fur covered her body, her three tails were splayed out over her digitigrade limbs, and her hands and footpaws all had padding on them similar to an actual fox's. Claws tipped each of her fingers and toes, not to mention the sharp teeth that were within the long and narrow muzzle that made up most of her foxlike face…a face that he could actually see, due to the mask that seemed to have fallen off beside him.

Beautiful and dangerous…and she was lying on top of him.

"Mmmmff…" she wheezed, rubbing her handpaw over her face as she lifted herself off of his chest…and then suddenly seemed to realize what had just happened.

She quickly looked around, appearing to panic slightly, right up to the point she looked straight at him, directly into his eyes.

They lay there and stared at each other for a moment, before Alex managed to gather up enough of his bearings to say one, very important thing:

"Uh…hi?"

(Tsubasa OST – A Tiny Sunshine)

In a flash, she leapt off of him and dashed into the forest, scattering leaves in her wake as she tore off faster than anything he had seen before…leaving her mask behind in the process.

"H-hey! WAIT!" he yelled, scrambling onto his feet as quickly as he could with his damaged arm and gathering up the kitsune's mask as he took off after her.

In the back of his mind, he knew that this was ridiculously crazy in a way: chasing a kitsune that was undoubtedly faster than him, through a forest that he knew next to nothing about, all to return a mask that he wasn't sure she actually wanted back badly enough to face him again. And yet, something drove him onwards, following her as fast as he could, barely spotting brief flashes of her tails whipping about behind her as she swiftly and agilely darted around the trees and brush that Alex found himself having to plow through more often than not.

Eventually coming into another small clearing, Alex pulled to a stop, his hands on his knees as he tried to catch his breath before standing back up straight and looking around for her in the forest, eventually throwing his hands up in exasperation…and completely unaware of the fact that she had emerged from the trees behind him, arms folded behind her back as she quietly sashayed up behind him, silently remaining directly behind him even as he turned circles trying to find where she had gone.

Had he known she was there, he might have seen the toothy, mischievous smile upon her face, the tip of her tongue sticking out from between her teeth like she was blowing a silent raspberry at him. Eventually tiring of this, she reached out deliberately with her clawed hand and quickly plucked the mask from his own, letting out an amused giggle when he suddenly whipped about and caught a glimpse of her quickly slipping it back on before taking off again.

Making a very exasperated sound and shaking his head, Alex ran after her again, becoming vaguely aware of the fact that this was quickly becoming less of a chase and more of her baiting him on…but it was too late for him to stop now. He was fully caught up in the spirit of it all, and found himself being driven on to try and find her, the only things hinting at her passage being a quick glimpse of her around a tree or her delighted giggles.

Several minutes later, his lungs finally giving out, Alex was eventually forced to come to another stop. Falling against a tree and wheezing heavily, thinking, "JESUS, she can run fast!", he soon realized that he had lost her in the maze of the forest again.

"Well, at least she's got her mask back, wherever she is now. But…I would've liked to meet her at least…" he eventually thought, feeling a little disappointed that he hadn't even gotten a good look at her before she had vanished.

(Fairy Tail OST – Mirajane's Theme)

Letting off a sigh, Alex turned around to try and make his way back to Ammy…

Then he heard it.

Singing.

There seemed to be no words to what he could hear; only tones and inflections…singing for the sake of singing.

It was a beautiful, melodious voice…one that seemed to twist through the trees like the wind, the soft notes dancing around him in the air.

He unwittingly felt himself being drawn towards it.

Through the trees and brush, across stretches of dirt and grass, his path wound about as the voice seemed to guide him…to pull him towards its owner, almost like a siren song, even though Alex didn't really feel like he was in any danger.

Perhaps another effect of the music…but at this point, he didn't really care. He had to find the source of it.

Emerging from the woods into another clearing, he realized that he had found the river, wide but shallow as the water flowed by gently.

And he saw her.

She was sitting atop a small outcropping of rock above the water, her body framed by a ray of golden sunlight…and now that he finally had a good look at her, he realized that her fur was a brilliantly icy shade of white…so white, in fact, that it almost seemed like a light blue in color, the same color as frozen snow in bright moonlight. The fur on her hands and footpaws, visible due to her rather revealing light blue kimono, had more of a grey color to them, as did the faded rings bordering the tips of her tails…but the brilliant head of hair she had, flowing down her back all the way to her waist, was completely untouched by the grey colors, and almost seemed to be sparkling with an icy quality in the sunlight.

She was currently washing her hair, scooping up handfuls of water and combing them through it with her handpaws as she continued to sing, bringing the young man closer to her until he was standing at the food of the large rocks she was sitting upon.

"Uh…h-hello?" he finally forced himself to speak.

She turned, just barely enough to look at him over her shoulder…and she gave him a sweet little smile, turning back to the river as she continued to sing in her beautiful, harmonic voice.

Unsure of whether he should proceed forward or not, Alex nonetheless found his body moving of its own accord, clambering up the rocks towards her until he was standing almost right next to her.

"Um…uh…" he began uncomfortably, his throat feeling dry from his nervousness. "I…uh…I-I think you…uh…dropped your mask."

She said nothing, and only continued to sing.

"B-but…um…you probably already knew that…since you took it back and all…" he trailed off, rapidly losing his nerve and considering the possibility of going back into the forest before he screwed something up.

As if she knew this, the kitsune stood up and gently shook her handpaws off, the song winding to a close as she finished her little chore and slowly turned to face him, her three long tails gently swishing about behind her.

"…Well…" she finally spoke, her normal voice sounding no less amazing than her singing voice, "…I figured that since you went to so much trouble to retrieve it for me, I should at least thank you in person instead of running off and leaving you to wander about in the forest."

"Oh…! Uh…yeah! I-I mean…you're welcome!" he sputtered, butchering his sentence horribly as his mind tried to catch up with the situation at hand.

She idly played with the tips of her tails, staring at him out of the corners of her brilliant icy blue eyes with the corner of her mouth turned up into another sweet smile, before she eventually said, "You seem…tense. Would you like to sit down for a moment?"

"Yeah…sure…" he answered, sitting down a little awkwardly due to his own good arm as she came over and sat down beside him…close enough that it made him sweat a bit along the back of his neck.

"How is your arm feeling?" she asked him, holding out her handpaw and gesturing to his slung arm.

"It's…good…I think…" he replied slowly, trying not to bite his lower lip when she began to feel over it.

Noticing his tenseness, she said, "Relax, Alexander…I am not going to bite you. I am above such barbaric practices."

"Wait, you…you know me?"

"Of course I do!" she responded cheerily. "I have been the one tending to you all this time, after all."

"Then…you're Yunalesca?"

She smiled sweetly again, and nodded. "At your service."

"Wow, uh…" he said, unsure of how to respond. "Um…nice to…finally meet you. Er…was that you that I saw when I woke up those three days ago, or was that someone else, or…?"

"It was I…" she replied, finishing her examination and letting him have his arm back. "I was rather surprised to see you waking up already, despite your injuries…but regardless, it was far too early. I had to put you back to sleep so your recovery would be more effective."

"Well, it sure worked," he sort of chuckled, growing a bit more comfortable now that she and him were actually talking. "Uh…thanks for taking care of me, by the way."

"It was nothing I could not handle…but you are welcome. Your wounds were severe, but I have dealt with such injuries before."

"Yeah?"

She nodded, looking straight ahead as she put her handpaws on her knees and leaned back a bit. "I have treated many of your kind before…this was no different, save for the way you arrived in our village."

"How I arrived…? Well, how did I get here anyways?"

"I carried you."

"YOU carried me?" Alex exclaimed. "Well…geez, you didn't have to do THAT much!"

"Perhaps not…but I did so anyways. It was no trouble, I assure you."

"Well, again, thanks. I really appreciate it, considering you saved my life and all!" he chuckled.

She smiled and nodded again in acceptance, before looking into the sky and appearing to examine the sun's position in it.

"Ah…it seems to be time for your daily medicine," she declared, reaching down and bringing up what Alex realized was a large shoulder satchel of some kind. Opening it up, she reached in and pulled out what looked like some kind of corked flask, popping said cork off and handing it to him.

"Drink that…it will help with your injuries, I assure you."

Sniffing at the flask a bit, Alex shrugged and tipped it up, drinking a few sips from it before smacking his lips a bit awkwardly and saying, "This is the same stuff you gave me three nights ago, isn't it? What exactly is it?"

"It is soba…an elixir, the recipe of which has been passed down in my family for generations," she explained, gesturing for him to drink more as she continued to talk. "It strengthens and supports the natural flow of ki – your life force – within your body. Drink this once each day, and your injuries will heal in days instead of weeks, your broken arm included."

"Really?" Alex inquired, genuinely impressed by that figure. "Geez, handy stuff then. Why the heck don't you mass produce this stuff?"

"I…beg your pardon?"

"Nothing, nevermind," he laughed, finishing off the flask and handing it back to her.

There was a bit of silence between them, Yunalesca seeming content to watch the birds flit about in the treetops above while Alex tried to think of something else to say.

"So…what exactly was all that back there?"

"Hmm?" she responded innocently.

"You know…the gold coins…and you falling on top of me."

"Hee hee hee…" she giggled suddenly, before she realized what she was doing and hurriedly moved to cover her mouth.

"I…er…" she began, sounding a bit nervous herself now. "I…may have been…using you for practice."

"Practice? For what?" he demanded to know.

"…For my trickery."

A smile broke out on Alex's face as he realized what she was getting at.

"You were trying to play a kitsune trick on me, weren't you?" he declared, pointing a mock-accusatory finger at her.

"A trick? I have no idea what you are talking about!" she sniffed.

"Aaaaah, I think you were trying to trick me!" he laughed, deciding to press the advantage. "You were trying to lure me into something with all those dead leaves disguised as gold yen coins, weren't you?!"

Unable to contain her mirth, she broke out into the sweetest and most pure laugh he had ever heard from a woman before.

"Alright, you caught me!" she squealed gleefully, throwing her hands up in surrender. "But how could I resist when you were wandering about so cluelessly with your wolf friend? You probably would have run your head into a tree without her guiding you!"

"Oh, geez, Ammy!" Alex suddenly exclaimed, realizing that he had left the wolf behind as he stood up. "Crap! We were supposed to meet the chieftain and I just freaking left her behind! Geez, where is she now?!"

As if on cue, another voice cut through the forest, this one masculine in nature. "Yuna! Yuna, where are you hiding this time?"

"Ah, do not worry. Here comes my father now!" Yunalesca said cheerily, as Alex nodded…and then suddenly did a double take at her.

"W-wait! Your dad…he's the chieftain?"

"Well, of course! Why would he not be?" she spoke matter-of-factly.

"Yuna, you had better not be cavorting around with that human, or so help me…!" the voice yelled, closer this time…and suddenly, Alex felt very unsure about his situation.

"Oh…oh dear…" Yunalesca spoke quietly, sounding not so cheerful anymore. "I forgot…"

"Forgot?! Forgot what?!" Alex snapped.

"My father…does not hold humans in the highest regard, nor does he think well of outsiders."

"WHAT?! Why didn't you tell me earlier?!"

"Well you never asked!" she exclaimed innocently, making Alex want to facepalm in the face of such infallible logic.

"Yuna, I know you are here! I can smell you all over this place!"

"Well what do I do then?! I don't want to stick around and get skinned alive!"

"He wouldn't dare skin you alive! Not as long as I am here, at least!" she snarled suddenly, making Alex stare at her quizzically, before she calmed down and spoke, "…Perhaps it would be best if you were simply not seen with me yet…my father is still a tad angry with me."

"For what?"

"I will explain later! For now, just go, before he sees you!" she laughed, making the whole situation seem a lot more comically tense than it actual was.

"Alright, alright!" Alex finally said, getting up and heading back towards the forest. "But we're meeting up again later…right?" he added, sounding almost…hopeful?

She smiled and nodded again. "I will see you at my hut tonight. We can discuss more there."

Nodding, Alex turned and dashed back into the forest…running almost headlong into Ammy, who just happened to be going the opposite direction.

"Alex! THERE you are! You had me worried sick!" she exclaimed, skidding to a stop on her paws. "Where were you?!"

"Uh…getting to know the locals?" Alex responded lamely, rubbing the back of his neck and hoping he was far enough away that his voice wouldn't be heard.

"Well it will have to wait!" she declared, biting into the hem of his kimono and trying to pull him along. "You need to come with me NOW! They've found Oki and Issun!"


Gasp! Fluffy stuff!

And GASP! Oki and Issun make their return! Tune in next chapter to see what happens!

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