Disclaimer : I do not own Pokemon, or any of its affiliated companies including, but not limited to, 4Kids, The Pokemon Company, Game Freaks, or Cartoon Network. The characters written within this fic are soley based upon the fictional characters created by these companies, and the story is not meant to, nor will it, receive any monetary funding.

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Interlude : The Mandate of Heaven

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A fox should not be of the jury at a goose's trial.

-Thomas Fuller, pre-pokemon clergyman.

(=0=)

"I'm gonna be real with you. I would have preferred an arcanine."

"Of dust you came, and to dust you will return, mortal."

"Anyway, an arcanine. Loyal, loving, powerful as all get out. But I went for ninetales because of the mythos. Ghost-type but not, illusory powers, the whole deal."

"Our power is unquestioned in heaven and earth."

"So, you know that ninetales that is always seen next to the Imperial cultural leader, and the way that Imperials treat those with a ninetales in their party? That's the main reason why I was after it. It's basically common knowledge that having a ninetales is a sign of 'heavenly favor', which is a guaranteed in for the Imperial ticket."

"By definition, our patronage is divine."

"...only they're too rare and standoffish to ever catch. Honestly, I wouldn't be surprised if it does take one-thousand years for one to evolve. You know, if I didn't know better. So when I heard that there was just one running around on some estate for people to catch, naturally I became interested. That was my first mistake."

"One of many to come, no doubt."

"Oh my sweet Mew, shut up! Where was I? Oh yeah. The Imperials were almost eager to let me visit, which made suspicious. But Will was against it, so obviously I had to do it, if only to piss him off. Story of my life, right?"

(=0=)

We'd flown in a formation of fearow, with two pidgeots taking lead and rear guard. That alone was enough to denote the wealth of the place we were heading to.

But then, anyone wealthy enough to build and maintain a settlement outside the Routes was bound to be that stupidly rich. I guess the rumors about the Imperial coffers weren't all blitzle puckey.

The Wakahisa estate was spacious and built in the Imperial fashion, rising more in parallel with nature than against it. Rice-paper partitions, wooden slatted tiles and steeples, and a landing pad entirely of white riverstone met us as our convoy touched down.

Seeing a party of Imperials politely waiting our touching down in an organized manner under the arch that marked the boundary of the estate, I decided to make a first impression.

I angled my fearow with a series of quick soft touches into a sudden dive, and unclenched my thighs, letting myself slide. I heard my 'manager' - Will's babysitter - curse behind me.

The drop was about ten feet, but the path was sand, and I'd angled my descent purposefully.

I hit the sand already rolling with the momentum, and popped up face to face with Lady Wakahisa.

The Imperial woman was a study in their picture of the ideal yamato nadeshiko. High cheekbones and soft, pale skin framed narrow, hazel eyes, flecked with gold and cold with apathy. Her silver hair was drawn back in a elegant top-knot, the color suggesting an advanced age which contrasted sharply with the utter flawlessness of her features. Her small, lush mouth was downturned in a sour expression that looked comfortable on her face.

It was difficult to look away from her face, despite how intimidating the Lady was. Her white, formal silk raiment only served as an accentuation to her powerful features, rather than a distraction. At the very first glance, there was no mistaking the dominating personality that was trusted with the purse strings of every Imperial family of note.

I noticed a mildly surprised expression on most of her retinue, which naturally, in Imperial terms meant they were all completely scandalized. I noticed a girl my age, with similar looks to the Lady, and surmised her to be of some relation.

Feeling diplomatic, I extended an olive branch.

"Gary Oak, or Blue, whichever you prefer." I broached the silence with a chipper tone, slapping the sand off my hand and sticking it out. "Heard you had a fox problem?"

With very deliberate slowness, the Lady Wakahisa looked down at my hand, dour expression never changing. I noticed several of her people exchanging glances.

My manager jogged up, looking mortified as he fended off the downdraft from the powerful Flying-types now taking off again. "Wakahisa-sama, please-"

Without a word, the Imperial noblewoman turned her back on me and began stalking back to the manor, flanked by butlers and attendants. The glances were exchanged again.

My manager rounded on me, tightly controlled impatience in his tone. "Mr. Oak, there are certain customs and procedures meant to be adhered to when dealing with Imperial nobility. Did you even read the email I sent?"

I sneered. "Tried to, got bored, decided to keep it simple. I don't care how off the beaten path this place is - in Kanto, people shake hands."

Complete crap, of course. Thanks to years of tagging along after Gramps at parties and functions meant I knew how to parlay with every flavor of socialite in Indigo.

But all this arrangement, the eager way they invited me to participate in this so-called 'Rite'...this whole thing smelled like rotten remoraid.

So I'd poked a stick at the most obvious target...

...and gotten well, nothing. Should have figured the Imperial coin-counter would have a good poker face.

Whatever. I hadn't been kicked out yet.

"Oak-san," Came the firm, enthusiastic voice behind me. I turned.

Sasuke Gozen - or Gozen Sasuke, I guess, in their tongue - was the lordling who had insisted so firmly on my coming. He was younger than me by about a year or so, but that didn't really make a difference - they started'em young in Imperial households, especially the noble ones.

Personally, I thought his robes made him look like a complete dweeb at his age, but he'd probably started swimming in politics earlier than I had. The Gozen Clan was the second most prominent family in the Imperial party after the Himura, with rumblings that they wouldn't mind changing that. He'd been a stepping stone on the way to meeting Aya, my now advisor and contact within the Japanese.

A stepping stone who'd unexpectedly paid dividends.

"I have no doubts the Lady Wakahisa will forgive your slights, my friend." The young lordling said 'my friend' awkwardly, like he was trying the words out for the first time. "At the meal, no doubt- ah, Yokoko-chan!" He cut off abruptly, looking past me.

I found myself turning again. It was the girl from before, who'd stood beside the Lady.

She was a vision in formal robes of white and red - signifying piety or priesthood some near thing, I dimly recalled.

Now, some people have real trouble telling Imperials apart. For me, it's the opposite. All the subtle details and distinctions - I could tell a Japanese from a main continent Imperial in a dark room with one eye closed.

The cheekbones, the fine robes, and the resemblance were all clear as day to me - I'd bet my bottom idol that this girl was none other than the Lady Wakahisa's daughter - Yokoko Wakahisa.

Or Wakahisa Yokoko. Whatever.

"Oak-sama. Gozen-kun." She addressed us demurely, bowing slightly. "If you'll follow me."

Will's manager, Gozen and I followed at a distance. Each one of them filled my ear.

"Lord Gozen is right, Oak, we can repair our relations at dinner-"

"-a very c-comely maiden she is, isn't she, Oak-san? Why, I think she fancies me-"

I listened with no commitment, though. My mind had begun racing when my gaze had met Yokoko's.

Cold, calculating eyes. Weighing me up like a nugget on a scale.

Yeah, somebody was after something, here. As usual, it was probably my ass.

(=0=)

Dinner was a very formal affair. Even preparing for it was a big deal.

First we took off our shoes before entering. Okay, fine.

Then, we were offered tea to whet our appetites. Why not.

Then, we were summarily told to disrobe and bathe in copper bathtubs. Now, hold on one fucking-

I kid. The bathtubs weren't that bad. Sure, I'd never wanted to see that much of my manager (whose name continued to escape me, he was that unimportant) or Gozen, but getting scrubbed up by the washing girls was pretty nice. Besides, Gozen took it completely in stride, and I wasn't about to turn into a blushing maiden in front of that knobby kneed nerd.

I kept alert, though. My suspicion only grew in interacting with the help.

Now, Imperial servants are supposed to be invisible but supplicant. I was the guest of honor, and all I was due to get was deference in all things.

But I'm Gary goddamn Oak. The day I can't get a reaction out of someone is the day I turn in my pokedex.

I had to work my naked butt off to get it, mind you. I thought 'accidentally' standing up a few times to order more tea might do it. I thought breaking out my bawdiest jokes (the only Imperial I knew) would be able to do it. Finally, I thought informing them that my manager was only here as my uke, and describing in detail the things we got up to would do it.

It was only at the end of a rather inspired haiku about how my manhood and mastery of pokeballs were connected that I managed to get a blush out of a fluent kimono girl-

-who was almost immediately rushed out of the room by two others.

I subsided after that, in a dark mood. I hadn't done it all just to troll. I'd done it to confirm my hypothesis.

The servants had instructions about me. I was being handled very carefully.

In retrospect, that was their first mistake.

(=0=)

"Oak Gary-sama-" The herald began, before dissolving into a fit of Imperial I assume involved announcing me.

"So since you didn't read my package, I have to explain everything again." My manager hissed in my ear. "The Rite of Succession-"

I tuned him out once again. I only had eyes for the Lady Wakahisa.

The Imperial noblewoman was now clad all in red silk, rouged cheeks and golden hair ornaments resplendent against her paleness. By her side, Yokoko sat, clad in the same colors as before, if a slightly more fancy iteration. The two Wakahisas sat at the end of the very low table we would be dining at, with many important Imperial persons, Gozen among them already. The Lady met my stare unflinching, black-amber eyes hard and unfeeling.

My manager and I were also clad in robes by now, our clothes having disappeared in place of them by the time we got out of the bath. I couldn't decide whether it was a technique to put me off or an indirect insult towards my sense of fashion.

The herald finished and clapped two pieces of wood together rather loudly a few times. Then he bowed three times and retreated, still bent at the waist.

Imperials. It was probably both.

I noticed the eyes of the nobles attending following me as I rounded the table. Waiting for me to fail, or trip up. Searching for weakness.

I turned curtly on one heel and planted myself in perfect seiza, exactly in my proper seat, right at the Lady's left. Despite the famed Imperial stoicism, I noticed a few eyebrows raised.

Yeah, bitch. Honorable that.

"-don't intend that you actually catch the ninetales-"

I frowned, a blurb of the manager's prattling reaching me. "What? That's why I decided to come in the first place."

He sighed in exasperation. I felt a vein in my temple pulse slightly as excess blood rushed through it angrily.

"The point of the Rite of Succession is that upon completion, you - or rather, the Oak family - will be recognized as a great clan of Indigo, and as such, a worthy client. Your money will balloon like an angry jigglypuff with the Wakahisas as your bankers, never mind your status among the Imperials. Hardly anyone outside the blood is ever offered this honor. Don't mess this up, Gary."

Blue. I corrected him mentally, furious. But then, I thought about it and realized, Gary is fine, actually. You don't deserve to know me by that name.

"Sure." I replied, smiling easily.

We began with the meal. Polite, agonizingly boring small talk was exchanged - basically, it was considered to rude to start in on a sensitive topic in the middle of the meal, because it meant you might force the host to eject you to preserve good relations, raising the question of whether he intended to feed you in the first place...

I don't pretend to understand it. Tradition is the rotting fucking corpse of wisdom, but I paid it it's due all the same.

At least the food was good. Well, except for the venomoth caviar. Hate that shit.

Finally, Yokoko ordered softly that the food be taken away. Servants rushed in, a silent, deferent wave.

More low tables were brought in, and the seating was rearranged. Wakahisa attendants took up positions at the corners. Now, I found myself sitting across the long room from the Lady Wakahisa and her daughter, my manager at my side, with the guests and lords seated at two rows of tables to the left and right. The empty floor between us was less than ten paces across, but it felt vast.

"We begin, with the history of the Rite." Yokoko spoke, her voice now loud and sonorous.

The rice-paper partitions slid aside behind us, and I forced myself not to crane my neck around as my manager did. Several of the lords retrieved pipes to smoke - including Gozen, who might I say looked completely fucking ridiculous trying not to cough his lungs out.

Newcomers rushed into the space between. They were eleven, all dressed in strange garb. Nine were dressed in identical Imperial armor, each bearing a different mask, human faces twisted, daggers in their belts. One's armor was far more ostentatious than the others, bearing a short standard with the symbols of their language writ on it and a katana in his belt. His face was a vision of glee, mouth up-twisted into an expression of unsettling mischief.

And then there was the last, clad all in red furs and cloth. It's mask was the most detailed, with whiskers and snout artfully molded into clay. An animal.

No, a pokemon.

The actors all took up positions and froze, still like statues. The room was utterly silent, even the lords issuing only short hand signals for their pipes to be lit and such. I intuited that talking would be extremely rude at this point.

A musician entered with a long stringed instrument, and took a seat slightly behind and to the side of the Lady Wakahisa, a position of distinct honor. He did not begin to play.

"Long has it been known to we, the blood of the ancient Empire, that the kitsune are of great cunning. It is known that to outsmart them is impossible, and that many a dying samurai has lost his soul on the battlefield, attempting to barter for life or victory from the fox, who was known to have powers from beyond the grave capable of granting wishes."

The musician started up, playing deliberate, twanging notes, invoking a mysterious feeling. The pokemon actor moved, arms twisting in spiral motions. I recognized him now. Vulpix, first evolutionary form of the ninetales.

"But Lord Wakahisa was a man of great cunning, having won many vassals and great acclaim with his sly wit in the ravaged lands of the Neo-Dark age."

A fast series of notes. The gilded warrior leapt and unveiled a war fan, twisting it in complex turns. The other nine warriors knelt to him.

"The Lord Wakahisa was sure that if he could claim for himself the power of the kitsune, he could become shogun of all Kanto, and bring the disparate lands together under his rule. Long did he travel, accumulating lore upon the fox, until he was certain he could broker a deal."

The notes became yet faster, varying wildly in range. The nine warriors and Lord Wakahisa all jumped as one and began running in place, until The Lord alone jumped, landing and sweeping his fan in a gesture which made all of them freeze.

"They hunted out and found a young kitsune, wandering the wilderness, and confronted it."

Now, all eleven actors moved, twanging notes filling the room. The Lord and his warriors formed a line, chasing the fox in a short circle several times before the fox came to the middle, slightly to the right. Wakahisa and his nine warriors formed a half moon on the other side, facing it down. All froze.

"'You there, fox!' the Lord cried. 'I have traveled the land and know the truth of you, now. Nine souls do you need, given willingly, to take your final form everlasting and come into your ghostly powers. Nine wishes you must grant to do so; nine geas you must abide in life to wield the might of the beyond. In knowing, an accord do I seek with you.'"

The notes came more haltingly now. The Lord Wakahisa moved animatedly, leaping about like a mankey and jabbing at the fox with finger and fan.

"'Much does Lord Wakahisa know' said the fox, wise and canny despite its age. 'But does he know his own desire? Speak your words, man, and let us come to term-making'"

The fox made slow, elegant gestures, curling into a come hither pose and freezing as the music ended.

"'Nine lives do I offer, fox; these men sworn to serve me unto death, to serve in death. Loyal men are they, owning as I do all that they own; their wishes they will pass onto me, and I shall forge them to lasting oaths. The power of the underworld and the ninefold tails to shall be yours this day, fox, if you only agree.'"

The nine warriors stepped forward, now kneeling at the fox's feet. The Lord Wakahisa finished in an impetuous position, face half-hidden by his fan, now beckoning the fox as it was him.

"The fox laughed. 'So mote it be, oh wise Lord. Into your service, I am come.'"

The nine samurai unsheathed their wooden daggers, and in a gruesome display, gutted themselves in unison, crumpling into a kowtow to the fox, foreheads pressed the ground.

With a flourish, the fox actor sloughed off his dress, cloth and fur crumpling to the ground. I saw now why it had been so lumpy - nine white tails of no doubt authentic fur sprang up behind him, freed from their confinement. He removed his red vulpix mask, revealing a more minimalist white one beneath it. The ninetales spread its arms in a grand gesture.

"And so did the fox take up the souls, and swear nine oaths to Lord Wakahisa. Each oath a wish, spoken from the mouth of his samurai, in words he had before coached them-"

"What were the nine oaths, exactly?" I interrupted.

There were many gasps. The lords, after overcoming their shock, began muttering fiercely in their tongue to each other. Gozen looked betrayed; my manager looked absolutely livid. The actors were about the only ones who didn't react, but then, who the hell knows what sort of deeply offended, Imperial expressions they were making behind those masks.

I didn't bat an eyelash at any of it. I kept my eyes on the Lady Wakahisa. I'd finally gotten a reaction out of her.

She had arched one perfectly-plucked eyebrow, a indescribable expression on her face.

Well, if she wanted to have a staring contest, she'd picked the wrong opponent. I had years of practice against Red on the playground, and actually won half the time, where no other kid could go more than a few seconds against him without getting a headache. Fear and despair, ye bitch, for I am the king of ocular fortitude!

Yokoko, glancing between me and her mother, hesitantly started again. "...in words he had before coached them-"

"Ie. No. Leave us."

There was a voice I hadn't heard before. After an entire meal of silence, the Lady Wakahisa spoke, in a rich, low alto. The actors and musician didn't hesitate, practically scrambling out of the room. The muttering nobles subsided as well to silence, waiting on their host.

As the partitions closed, the Lady spoke. "Did the actors displease you, oh son of Oak? Or are you so eager to begin the Rite? If you like, I can summarize the rest."

I smiled lightly. "You didn't answer my question. The nine oaths?"

The Lady's full lips tightened briefly, before twisting into an answering smile. The expression looked uncomfortable. "To give no word that is false. To sire no heirs or keep counsel with other monsters unless given leave. To protect the grounds of Wakahisa Castle and the prosperity of the Wakahisa Clan. To allow by action or inaction the destruction or theft of the ball which contains him, nor the destruction of the sword of Lord Wakahisa. To remain within the shrine grounds, measuring twenty-seven thousand shaku by sixteen-thousand shaku, until bidden by Lord Wakahisa, or any master chosen by the Rite. To obey the orders of only the Lord Wakahisa, or any master chosen by the Rite. To harm not or allow harm to the direct descendants of Lord Wakahisa, or any master chosen by the Rite. To speak to inquisitors of the Lord Wakahisa and his oaths in full."

"Finally, to abide by the Rite itself as follows: that, in the event that a Lord Wakahisa does not exist, to obey the orders of a master chosen by the Wakahisa Clan. The master shall be one who, bearing the sword of Lord Wakahisa, passes within the shrine grounds of the castle. He shall then appear before the bearer, and not harm them till the time of next morning prayer. The bearer will be considered the master after they have retrieved the ball from the shrine, returned the fox to the ball, and returned the sword of Lord Wakahisa to such member of the Wakahisa Clan as chose them. Thereafter shall that one be master of he who is the fox, so long as they live and remain in the favor of the Wakahisa Clan. Should that one die or lose favor, he is who the fox shall return to the grounds to await a Lord Wakahisa, or another who complete the Rite. His master shall be none other than they who complete the Rite, or any member of the Wakahisa Clan the master so elects."

The Lady Wakahisa stopped abruptly, allowing a sharp silence to fill the air.

"As you can see, the Lord Wakahisa of eld thought them through quite extensively." The banker offered, a tad tart.

"Huh." I offered.

I sat a second, mulling them over carefully.

"They seem pretty airtight. So how'd he get screwed, then?" I asked curiously, ignoring the scandalized looks the guests exchanged at my ineloquence. "I mean, that's the way the story was going, wasn't it? How - ahhh." I cut off suddenly with an epiphany. "'Direct descendants', huh?"

The Lady Wakahisa's eyes narrowed slightly, her gaze becoming keen. "Quite. In spending so much time ensuring the survival of his line and legacy, Lord Wakahisa utterly neglected to include any clause ensuring his own personal safety. As soon as his oaths were sworn, the fox slew him, and to this day remains upon the shrine grounds."

There was a moment of uncomfortable shuffling among the nobles, possibly at the thought of being so close to such a powerful pokemon.

"Worried, son of Oak?" She continued smoothly. "As is stated in the oaths, the fox may not harm you once you take up the ball until next morning's prayer. The grounds themselves are only about five-by-three miles, and the path to the shrine is well-lit; surely not much of a journey for a trainer such as yourself. Nowadays, as I am sure you have been told, the Rite is mostly used as a ceremony to signify alliance with the Wakahisa Clan."

I snorted loudly. "If anyone should be worried, it's you. Your ceremony might lose some of its flash after I catch that fox of yours."

The Lady Wakahisa laughed. "So mote it be, trainer. Let us waste no more time. Yokoko, the sword. Son of Oak, your pokeballs; this ceremony, you will complete alone."

Yokoko rose smoothly, retrieving a katana from where it had sat behind her. The sheath was black laquer, and the end of the hilt was set with a large, red gem. The grip was warm to the touch as I received it in two hands, gauging the weight.

Reluctantly, I passed my pokeballs - Blacky, Aeolus and a raticate I'd bought to train both the others - over to Yokoko. "Keep an eye, will ya?"

The daughter of the Wakahisa Clan bowed briefly in acceptance. "If you will follow me. We will adjourn now to the shrine grounds."

I rose and followed her, sword held loosely in hand, feeling a bit peeved.

What a wordy fucking way to say something as simple as 'let's go'.

(=0=)

Few words passed between us on the way down to the shrine grounds, but those that did weren't frivolous.

We came to a halt in front of a great tora gate. A stone sentinel carved in the likeness of the ninetales stood guard at the gate, a lit paper lantern hanging from its jaws. Further down the path, I saw two more placed at even intervals, before the path wound into the trees and out of sight.

I regarded the path skeptically, hefting the ancient sword in my left hand experimentally. "What's to say the fox doesn't convince some other pokemon in there to schwack me? This pretty pigsticker will do shit all against the emboar I hear roam these parts."

"The kitsune is strictly bound - it can have no interaction with others of its kind." Yokoko reassured. Her hands fluttered nervously in her kimono sleeves.

"...'kay. Suppose a pokemon, of its own accord, decides it doesn't like the look of me. Doesn't like my face or something. What then?"

"I suppose you would endeavor towards haste, so that they might be exposed to it for as short a period as possible." The heiress answered smoothly, turning to show me her back. "Time is wasting. Good luck."

I watched her go, frown deepening.

"I think the shrine girl just sassed me." I told the empty air.

There was no answer. I sighed, and made my way down the empty cobblestone path.

The shrine ground path was extremely circuitous. It wound into gardens, into well kept fountain courtyards. The Lady hadn't lied - it was well-lit. The paper lanterns cast bright amber light onto the stones...

...and into the forest, where dark shapes loomed, immoving.

No bullshit. The first time I saw one I Mew-damn near shat my hakama pants. It took me a few seconds of measured breathing and almost ten minutes of tense walking past them before I snapped.

"Fuck this horror-movie crap."

Taking one of the paper lanterns in two hands, I wrenched it from its place with a metallic twang. The brass filigree was probably expensive and carefully made. The paper even more so.

I didn't care. I poked a hole in the side with my middle finger and pinched the handle out, cursing as a spot of wax burned my hand. Then I strode purposefully into the forest towards the shape, sword gripped tight.

The shadows bled away as leaves crunched under my feet, revealing...another statue.

This fox statue was different from the others. It was sculpted in mid-leap, face snarling. With this new knowledge in place, I recatalogued the shapes I had seen previously, imaginging them as foxes. It fit. But why build them off the beaten path?

I didn't hear or see anything. But I just barely smelt it.

Fur. And something strange beneath it-

My instincts screamed in warning, and I swung around, eyes wide and candle flickering.

Nothing but an empty forest, and the path off to my left.

My heartbeat began to return to normal, and I almost let myself believe it was my imagination.

But no. The crawling feeling at the base of my skull was no phantasm. I replaced the sword into my robe belt, and reached inside the breast, fingers curling around the scrap of paper I'd found there.

The siege of your mind is already underway. Your eyes and ears are the sappers.

I crunched back to the path and set off at a light jog, all too aware I was not alone.

(=0=)

I was getting lost.

No, that's not right. I was deliberately being lost. With each abrupt turn and pass through the shrine grounds, I became more and more convinced that it was designed to disorient.

Cute. I thought. As if I hadn't learned to tell direction by starlight when I was eleven, thinking I was already ready to head off on my journey.

Sure, the knowledge took a little dusting off, but I never forgot anything I learned. Not really.

I liked to think all Oaks had a natural sense of direction. Our family had first come into greatness by designing and masterminding the Route system - my great-great-to-the-nth-degree grandmother. I'd tried to take up cartography in homage, but Daisy had shot past me fast enough that I'd conceded the field to her. Maybe it was only on the women side of the family.

Astronomy had come easily enough, though. I quickly located a few constellations and oriented myself to where I estimated I had begun, drawing a line to the red roof I'd seen on the flight in, near the center of the shrine grounds.

Yes, I was nearly there.

Scratch that. I gave myself a pat on the back as I came around a bend, I'm right on the money.

The shrine was small, and open to the air. The forest around it had been cleared and flattened in a large circle to create an artificial clearing. The path from where I stood to the shrine itself was lit by a row of lanterns on each side. Absently, as I stepped out into the clearing, I noted gooseflesh ripple up my body.

Show time.

As I approached, every sound seemed to become louder. The scratch of my sandals. The sound of my breathing. I almost paused when I realized why.

The forest was falling silent. All the natural sounds - the rustling of leaves, the passage of the night wind, the off-time calling of nocturnal pokemon - were fading away, as if I were leaving them and the world behind.

A brief spike of primal panic shot through me before I bit down on my lip, hard, forcing myself calm.

Easy, Oak. Remember those goosebumps? There's a Ghost-type around. You've already been told everything you see and hear is suspect.

The wood panels of the shrine made no sound as I ascended. The world seemed to narrow down until all that remained was my objective.

The pokeball was old, very obviously so. The coarse case was obviously made of apricot shell, heralding back to the Neo-Dark, where metal was too scarce to be wasted on anything but the essential inner wiring and hardware. My hand hovered over it, and the night itself seemed to still slightly in anticipation.

It wants me to take it. Something happens when I do. Some clock starts running. My mind was working so furiously that I was surprised the skin of my scalp didn't start cooking. This springs the trap, whatever it is. Or rather...

Impulsively, I seized the pokeball and spun around.

The path was gone. And one by one, the lanterns began to wink out.

...rather, I've been in the trap ever since I walked in.

The forest was absolutely silent but for the now overly harsh sounds of my breathing. My flesh pebbled further, all my hairs seeming to stand on end, as if they were trying to escape my body.

The details crawled in slowly, as if they were always there, and it had just taken till this moment for me to see them.

Mist rose from the ground in wisps. The trees moved fitfully, writhing, boughs and branches straining as if they were trying to tear themselves apart. They were moving by themselves, I realized. The slight wind I felt against my skin wasn't nearly enough to move them like that.

And from the darkness, ghostly white shapes emerged. Ninetales.

Head height, with pure white silken fur, they regarded me with amber eyes that glowed preternaturally in the night.

Nine white foxes, on nine white paths. There were nine paths leading from nine shrines now, I realized, and almost laughed at the absurdity.

I was standing in the middle of a ghost story.

Not every fox did the same thing. Some stopped. Some paced languidly, others raised hackles, tails rigid.

They all said the same thing, though. Imperial.

"Omae wa mou shinde iru. Omae wa mou shinde iru. Omae..."

You are already dead.

A garish light began to rise from the horizon, and with it, a steady, dull roar.

Flames. The shrine grounds were burning.

I moved faster than I think I ever had before. My arm was blur, whipping the pokeball forward, red light exploding forward from the ancient device to capture the fox.

The red capture light pierced the center of the fox's forehead-

-and did nothing. Slowly, the ninetales dissolved into the mist that carpeted the forest floor.

I snorted. "Worth a shot."

And then I took off at the speed one might expect from one being chased by something not too far from a literal hound of hell.

Gary Oak: he died running through a burning forest full of ghost foxes.

Even in death, my cenotaph would make everyone else look like a loser.

As I fled, my overtaxed mind leapt into turbodrive.

With an hyper-analytical razor I began to prune my gathered insights, dividing the useful from the useless, separating the possible from the (hopefully) impossible. Trees, wreathed in fire and mist blurred past me as I marshaled the harried forces of my formidable brain.

The facts arrayed themselves in front of me. At least two of my senses couldn't be trusted, namely the senses most necessary for navigation. I was in the middle of my enemy's territory. And I had absolutely no means to defend myself beyond a sharpened edge of steel.

Distantly, I felt the warmth of the pommel stone, beating a tattoo against the palm of my hand, slick with sweat.

In summation I was helpless. With a cold mental flick I flayed the negative emotions from that thought and built upon it.

I was at the ninetales' mercy. Why, then, did it not strike to end things when it was obviously within it's power?

Deduction: something was obviously holding it back from doing so.

I stopped, allowing oxygen to rush back into my veins as I forced myself into creativity. All around me the shrine grounds raged, white shapes flickering at the edge of my vision, terrifying hoots and yowls filling the night.

A hidden trainer? I put aside the hypothesis. If some sadistic or hired trainer was directing it then I was well and truly bent, thus rendering the notion worthless to my current situation.

My mind seized upon a very likely idea: the nine oaths. Some facet of the oaths was holding it back from finishing me.

I catalogued its actions thus far. It had shown no compunctions about casting illusions upon me, so it could take action against me. A prohibition against direct injury was the most likely.

So it couldn't hurt me. Then why put forth the effort?

I slowly turned in circles, surveying the now utterly unfamiliar forest. A slow chill roiled my stomach as an epiphany struck me.

If it was as simple as a total ban against violence it would have simply hidden itself from ever being caught and let me go. After all, why expend the effort? The shrine grounds weren't large. Even blind and deaf, I would wander free of the sphere of its influence eventually.

I closed my glamoured eyes and concentrated, bringing back what I had learned of the Rite.

"... to obey the orders of a master chosen...passes within the shrine grounds...he shall then appear before the bearer, and not harm them till the time of next morning..."

It's not that it can't hurt me. The fox just can't hurt me yet.

"...Lord Wakahisa, you asshole."

I was literally living on a prayer.

I opened my eyes. The scenery hadn't changed. But this knowledge had changed the circumstances drastically.

'Next morning's prayer' could mean a number of things. It could be a set time, a variable time chosen, or whenever any Imperial cunt in the castle woke up early and decided to have a little 'ligion at the crack of dawn.

What it meant to me was I had until then to complete the Rite and become the new master. Otherwise, I would be the fox's to kill, either as a trespasser on the grounds or perhaps under the clause that I was trying to steal it's pokeball. Either way, I would be cooked.

Somebody set me up.

More questions, dark suspicions and conspiracies both bubbled up, but I suppressed them with effort.

I stared up, seeking some sign to guide me, and found nothing. The fox's magic had swallowed the night sky. There were no stars, only the dancing flames and hacking laughter of the beast I had entered this gambit to tame.

I would never escape this forest alone.

I ran until I found a stream. Running had been a cleansing process of itself. Not even the apparitions of the ninetales, leaping from open flames and behind trees to menace me could halt my progress.

First, I purged myself of my doubts and fears. Pain and injury were no strangers to me.

And death? Preposterous. I was Gary Oak. The very root of my personality rejected this sort of ignoble end.

Wielding my ego like a scythe, I reaped the insecurities which flagged at me, and then tossed it, too, aside. Ego would not save my life, not here.

Second, I rid myself of secondary objectives. Escape was untenable. Surrender was unpalatable. And failure was unsurvivable.

Only victory was plausible. Thus, the only path I had was to take the stolen vessel in my hand and bind the ninetales here, in the heart of it's fiefdom, where it's power was strongest.

I would capture the ninetales or die.

I took a step forward, and my foot sank down into something squishy and warm. A pungent odor filled my nose. I hardly noticed, as focused as I was.

The only question that remained was: where was the ninetales?

It would have to be close, to keep an eye on me, but far enough that the pokeball's light couldn't reach it.

Close enough to watch, but far enough to-

The realization was almost violent. My gaze snapped up to the castle, balcony still twinkling just above the treeline, and-

-To the honorable Oak Gary-sama, I formally extend-

-all-

-have not sired a male heir in over a century (source; Himura Clan archives)-

-the-

-"When the play draws to a close, ask after the oaths." The bath girl whispered, before being rushed away, pretending to blush-

-pieces-

-Imperial servants, never coming too close, always giving her a wide berth, the lord's faces stern and unchanging. Lord Wakahisa's mocking mask-

-came-

-Smiling, painted lips. "Did you know? A mile in shaku is actually-

-together.

"...oh."

(=0=)

It had been quite a night.

The nobles had gathered on the highest level of the castle to watch the spectacle from high above the shrine grounds.

It had been a very slow start. Watching the Oak boy be escorted by Yokoko downwards and then make his meandering way through the shrine path was something of a bore, so they'd subsided to gossip and pipesmoke. The Oak boy's manager, while not of the blood, had been trained to a level of manners acceptable to converse with.

The Lady Wakahisa and her daughter separated themselves, as was the norm for their gender and station.

"We do not belittle his talent. It is his manner that is an affront." Old Tokichi-sensei, a old and well-respected martial artist, clarified, top-knot bobbing from one side to another.

The Oak boy's manager, a clean shaven man in the early thirties nodded vehemently. "I couldn't agree more, honored elder. Why, as soon as this escapade is over..."

Before long, the Oak boy reached the shrine. Distantly, a thin line of red pierced the night as he activated the pokeball for the first time.

"Do you think he'll catch the kitsune?" Young Gozen Sasuke asked, wringing his hands on the railing nervously.

Several of the older men inhaled a great deal of smoke laughing. One of the older retainers, Shonosuke-sama, the well-respected president of a sumo society, took it on himself to assure him as the other elders coughed. "Young master, if you do not recall, even your older brother, surely the strongest of our blood in this generation, failed to catch Wakahisa's Bane. This did not stop him from capturing greater glories, even Koga's lovely flower, no? The Oak boy will fail, as all others did. Your chance will come."

The Gozen heir bit his lip and said nothing more, staring out across the distance.

More beams of red light lanced out from the canopy as the Oak boy fled through the forest in winding paths.

"It won't be long now." Akibahara-sensei, a notable name in porygon development confided, with the air of someone imparting great wisdom.

For a long while, things were silent after that. The young lord Gozen kept anxiously checking his timepiece, pocket-watch snapping open and closed at a rate that was almost improper. The full lips of the Lady Wakahisa pursed briefly in disatisfaction. Wakahisa Yokoko's fair face was as blank as a doll beside her.

Finally, after another round of tea, the noble Muramasa-san, a well-respected martial artist and pokebattler, spoke up.

"It is likely the boy, ego blinding him, refuses to now recognize his defeat. He would not be the first Oak to be so ungracious." Many heads nodded in agreement. "Unfortunately, I have encountered this problem many times myself in my own students, and it is unlikely to resolve itself in a timely manner. I am of the opinion, Wakahisa-sama, that someone should be sent to inform the Oak boy of his failure."

"No." The Lady responded shortly.

The men exchanged glances and fell silent. Such a response was somewhat outside the realm of politeness, but given how much higher in status she was compared to any of them, and given her position as their host, it fell to them to save face before her, rather than the other way around. One did not chastise the Imperial party treasurer lightly.

"As you say, Wakahisa-sama." Muramasa-san replied, with as much grace as was allowed to him.

Breakfast ended up being served on the terrace. Staying up through the night proved hard on some of the older men, but to bow out would be inexcusably rude.

The sun had just begun to dawn, when a large gout of flame erupted in the forest below, startling the collected nobles, many of whom had begun to nod off, despite themselves.

"Kami great and small!" Akibahara-sensei, a newcomer to the Rite swore. "The kitsune-!"

"...ah. So it is one of those." Tokichi-sensei, a more veteran attendee of the Rite, slowly surveyed his fellows, looking for the culprit. Several other elders' heads slowly swiveled as well, clearly wondering the same thing.

It was hardly surprising. The Oak boy had many enemies, and few friends, none of whom were in attendance. It wouldn't be the first time the Rite had claimed a life.

More gouts of flame spouted off, bursts of orange red in the distance.

The boy's manager was having a fit. "That fox is going to kill him! Do you know how much is invested in him!? Do something!"

Shonosuke-sama shook his head solemnly. "There is nothing to do. Oak dwelled too long. His life is now forfeit." He told the manager, lying and comforting at once.

Finally, the flames stopped. There was quiet on the terrace, a notable absence of chatter, as if the guilt of the murder would fall on whoever broke the silence first. The Lady Wakahisa wrinkled her nose, as if displeased. Yokoko was worrying at her lip in an unladylike manner.

"Is it over?" Gozen Sasuke asked, finally unable to contain himself. "Is he dead?"

"You fucking wish."

The Lady Wakahisa was the fastest on the draw, all of them whirling around-

-to behold Gary Oak, ancient pokeball in hand pointed straight at them. The boy's umbreon slinked noiselessly through his ankles, regarding them with glowing amber eyes.

The boy wore a vicious slash of a grin, his haori belt into which the Wakahisa family sword was tucked, and absolutely nothing else.

He also seemed to be liberally smeared with several pounds of, when the wind shifted and the smell hit them, what several men deduced to be shit.

"Wh-"

"You lose!" Blue hissed, and light exploded from the pokeball.

(=0=)

The red capture light lanced out impossibly fast, finally terminating in a static point on the Lady Wakahisa's breast.

The light remained there, motionless and unchanging. A very pregnant pause ensued.

The Lady raised one eyebrow. "How dramatic." She commented dryly. Next to her, Yokoko's eyes were impossibly wide.

The light flickered and died, the pokeball falling dull. I frowned, running my thumb over the oval photoreceptor.

"Now, if you wouldn't mind returning the family's property." The Lady continued, gesturing to one of her servants. The smartly dressed man stepped forward, hands outstretched.

Understanding dawned on me slowly, and I snorted, smile returning.

"No, I wouldn't mind. Returning the sword, that is." With one smooth motion, I yanked it free, divesting myself of the only strip of cloth I was then wearing. "To Yokoko."

Was that a flicker of fear I saw? "There is no need for that. My daughter will not be handling anything coming from such filthy-"

"Then you, then." I cut her off, baring my teeth. "How about you take it? I'll even give up the pokeball if you come over here and take it."

One of the guests finally overcame his no doubt massive emasculation in the face of my awesome girth and spoke. "The nerve of you!" He sputtered, seemingly too furious to speak. "How dare-"

"UNLESS! YOU! CAN'T!"

I screamed it as loudly and lustily as I could, and man, I have a decent pair of lungs. Many of the nobles flinched. Little Gozen looked like he was about to pinch a very honorable loaf in his pants. Good. I didn't feel like being interrupted.

"A few factoids that those trainers among you might recognize." I spoke slowly, languidly, savoring the taste. "The photoreceptor of a pokeball is designed to withstand nearly half a hundred times as much light as a capture light, or return light as some call it, puts out without melting. Do you know why this is?"

Several of their hands were drifting towards the inside of their robes. I fixed each of them with maddened glares, and the hands fell away.

"It's to accommodate the massive increase in energy that is your pokemon passing back through it. It's designed not to melt even over hundreds of thousands of uses, carrying pokemon large or small. This does not," I continued. "prevent the light from heating ever so slightly upon the return of medium to large pokemon."

I held up the ancient, apricorn-shell pokeball. "That's modern photoreceptors, of course. My question is this, essentially:" I finished, tapping the pad of my thumb on the oval of metal. "why, oh why, despite what we just saw, is this old piece of glass red hot right now?"

Lady Wakahisa's face was cold and unmoved. "This man is raving. Apprehend him and return the Wakahisa Clan's property!"

Instantly, several of the nobles rushed me. Kneeing one in his royal jewels, I bought myself enough space for a good throw.

The antique katana went flying, and landed in the arms of a startled Yokoko, which was all I saw before I got dogpiled by multiple master martial-artists.

"The ball!" I heard the Lady exclaim. "Recover the ball!"

And then-

"Wakahisa-sama!" Gozen yelped over the ringing sound of steel, which caught everyone's attention. "Look out!"

And then Yokoko drove her family sword through her mother's heart.

Everybody froze. I swear you could have heard a rattata fart in the ensuing silence.

Then the Lady Wakahisa's face twisted, past expression into distortion, before the woman disappeared entirely, vanishing into a cloud of smoke, the illlusion shattered.

Shock spread through the esteemed party like an eruption. The nobles started shouting. Gozen looked stricken.

I looked down at my feet, where faithful Blacky prowled at my side. The Dark-type made to rub up against me, before taking one offended sniff and thinking better of it. I snorted, scratching one clod that crusted in my hair. Fair enough, baby. I probably fouled up the Distortion World pretty good on the way here.

"What the hell is this!?" One demanded, immediately followed by many similar complaints. I spotted my manager, seemingly dumbfounded into silence.

It was a good look for him.

Yokoko flourished the katana, which seemed to get everyone's attention, before sheathing it with a click.

"What happened?" She asked rhetorically, tilting her head archly. All of the coyness and demureness from before had vanished like a summer rain. "In a feat unmatched since the first Lord Wakahisa, Gary Oak has completed the Rite, and in doing so ended a curse on my family centuries old."

Many of the nobles turned to look at me, including my manager and Gozen, who was ashen-faced.

I smirked and held up the pokeball. Before Yokoko's eyes could do more than widen, I released it.

The ninetales appeared as it had in the forest, white-furred and bare fanged. It grew ten times as tall in an instant, flames leaping up around the castle. The sound of wailing filled the air, and blood began to seep up from the floorboards.

The nobles cowered. Gozen shrieked louder than Yokoko. And my manager fainted. In short, it was awesome. I craned my neck to stare up at him, nonplussed.

The monster's voice boomed like a commandment from Arceus himself. "OMAE WA-!"

"Shut up, stop glamouring and roll over. Right now." I ordered him, in complete deadpan.

All the noises of the illusion faded. The scenery returned to normal, and suddenly the ninetales was normal sized again, and staring at me in what I'm sure was the closest vulpine equivalent to utter disbelief.

Then - with infinite, glorious slowness - the fox lowered himself onto his stomach and rolled onto his back. Tails splayed, paws wobbling in the air as it struggled to balance them, the ninetales looked a whole lot less threatening than the creature that had done its best to charbroil me in the forest.

I turned to look at the assembled nobles, most of whom seemed lost for words.

"Just so we're clear," I informed them daintily, still completely damned naked. "it's Lord Oak to you, losers."

Then I walked inside the castle, squishing with every step.

(=0=)

Eventually, a bath and short meal later, I found myself in the dining room with the assorted bluebloods, Gozen and Yokoko. Thankfully, my manager had yet failed to wake up.

Which was fine. He was so unimaginably fired anyway.

Now, I was the one at the head of the table. How much of this had to do with Blacky at my right side and the ninetales at my left was debatable. My guess was a lot.

As I had expected, most of them wanted to know how I did it. As do you, my dear interviewer. So I'll tell you, just like I told them.

I always did want to do my own parlour scene.

(=0=)

"The first thing you have to understand is that I don't go into anything half-cocked. There's always prep work to do beforehand."

"What sparked this off was Gozen's letter. I'd never heard of the kid before, or this Rite, so naturally I was suspicious. I asked to meet and he agreed."

"Now, if you ever meet Red and ask him about me, he'll probably tell you: one of the worst possible things you can do with me is lie to my face."

"First of all, it won't work, because I'm better at it than you. Secondly, it'll tell me what you want me to believe, which will lead me to what you want, which tells me how to deny you what you want, and honestly, if you're going to try and screw me you could at least make destroying your plans more of an effort. Half-assedness offends me twice as much in my enemies as it does in my friends."

"One thing I knew as soon as I started talking to Gozen was that he was playing me. I couldn't understand what he was after trying to get me to participate in the Rite. Plenty of noble heirs completed it each year, Aya told me so."

"I guess you might say it smelled funny. Geddit? It's funny because I smeared poo on myself later."

"So I looked him up. Turns out his older brother was the famous Samurai Gozen, that rising star of the Imperial party. He's actually a candidate for the Grand Finals this year. Which explains why sent his freaking little brother to kill me."

"Turns out, there's a hidden service you can pay for with the Rite, if you've got the cash. A one-time payment assassination, sent your political enemies in, get one culprit-free murder back. You can also put up money against it, but of course no one there was going to do that for me."

"I hope the irony of them paying Lady Wakahisa, who's been the fox the whole time, to have the fox eat their kids doesn't escape you."

"I mean, even I think that's a pretty dirty deal. And mind you, this is coming from a guy who got naked and covered himself in pig crap."

"Anyway, it's not like they were eager to let me know about that little detail. But once I offered to let the ninetales start chewing on them if they didn't start squealing, it suddenly became a whole lot more dishonorable to stay silent than let your tongue wag."

"I chopped off Gozen's shitty little topknot and sent him home, and man, let me tell you, you could have have covered three of me with the dookie he dropped in his shorts. You can tell Samurai Gozen that he's lucky I didn't send his head, and that he's welcome to try his own hand if he's not too busy having Jasmine or his imouto fight his battles for him."

"But how did I figure out that Lady Wakahisa was actually the fox, and where she was? Well, I'd love to take credit, but I had help."

"As it happens, ever since the fox had killed Lord Wakahisa and secretly taken over the Wakahisa Clan - yeah, there's that bombshell as gently as I can put it - it had been ritualistically replacing each female heiress once they'd produced another heiress and locking the remaining ones away. It all fit into the oaths, you see? The fox couldn't physically hurt them. But it could use its powers to alter everything the servants saw and heard, so they believed they were obeying the orders of the Lady Wakahisa to imprison some random lowlives in the dungeon. And all the while the new female heiress lived her life in anticipatory hell, perpetuating the fox's facade, until it was her turn to be replaced."

"Well, enter one heiress who decided she wasn't going to take it anymore. One might even say she'd had enough of that shit. Ha! Yokoko, that conniving, sneaky bitch."

"She'd been looking for someone who could finally capture the fox, and I was it. She'd studied the Rite her entire life, and knew exactly how much she needed to tell me to allow me to succeed."

"First, her loyal servant in the baths told me to ask directly after the oaths. That way, the fox was both bound by his oath 'to speak to inquisitors of its oaths in full' and its oath to 'give no word that is false'. That way, I got the full version of the oaths, and the exact wording. No bullshit, as it were."

"Next, Yokoko made sure a note was slipped into my new robe, ensuring I knew I was already trapped in an illusion. How could that be, you might ask, when the fox had to stay within the bounds of the shrine grounds?"

"I'll tell you. You remember how the Lady Wakahisa gave the measurements of the oath-outlined shrine grounds in Imperial shaku, then described the forest behind the castle in miles?"

"That was because the original boundaries of the shrine grounds included the castle. The fox, as the Lady Wakahisa, had contracted the castle, and slowly the old boundaries of the shrine grounds were forgotten for the new. So, you see, there was never any chance any of the Rite participants would ever find the fox in the forest. Because it was never there to catch. They would chase the illusory copies of the fox till dawn and return disappointed. Or, alternatively, they'd get killed by the fox come 'next morning's prayer', which was always much earlier than they'd expect."

"On the way down to the forest, Yokoko told me the actual measurement of a mile in shaku. Then she told me she'd be leaving Blacky out of her ball to 'stretch her legs'."

"All of it was Yokoko's plan. The fox had to believe that everything was going as usual. Because, you see, if we were found out, I would still be killed, because the fox would just hide till the morning prayer came and kill me while I was blind and deaf. I can't imagine what would happen to Yokoko after that."

"So after I figured all that out, until the very last moment, I pretended to be trapped. Then, after covering myself in some emboar droppings I found to mask my scent, Blacky popped in and pulled me out right before I got swallowed by one of the ninetales' flamethrowers, putting me down right behind the Lady Wakahisa, where I skunked her and Gozen while flashing half of Imperial high society."

"I guess you can say...I got down and dirty."

"...heh."

(=0=)

The interview ends with a few closers. 'Where are you going from here? Bugsy's Gym', 'Any girls in your life? How's your mother doing these days?', etc., etc.. The ninetales banters like I'd told him to before the interview began, the music plays, and I pop my mic off, walking offstage.

The door to my makeup room barely closes before the fox rumbles, manipulating sound to create speech.

"I am not your plaything, ape."

I pause uncapping my water bottle, before setting it down, sighing. Despite the fact that I knew that the deep, male, human voice the fox was using was just a result of it manipulating sound using illusion, it was still unsettling to hear.

"Tell me your name." I order it.

"Tenchouchikyuu-no-oomikami."

"Too long. Your name is now Chocho. Do you like that? Say yes, Chocho."

The fox snarls, baring his fangs hatefully. Nearby, on the mirror stand, Blacky shifts, eyeing the first new member of our team.

"Yes."

I glare right back at him. "Do you like it when I order you around and treat you like shit? Because that's the relationship we can have if you want to let your ego get in the way."

"You told the traitor that you would pass ownership of me over to her keeping once your goals were met if she supported you." The ninetales snaps, pacing the room. His tails flicker, nearly knocking over my coat rack. "I heard so. You cannot hide your double dealings from me."

I raise one eyebrow. "Yes, of course." I drawl sarcastically. "Because, like you, am bound by a soul contract with long-dead ghost to always speak the truth."

Tenchouchikyuu-no-oomikami's tails stop swishing so fiercely, and the fox fixes me with a level gaze.

"...you are saying you lied." He enunciates slowly.

"I'm saying that there's two ways this plays out." I inform him flatly. "One where you continue to be a moody sonuvabitch, I have to order you to do everything, and when I do become the Champion - because I will - I do exactly as I told Yokoko I would and transfer mastery of your pokeball over to her. The nightmare you spent over a century pretending to be a female human to avoid comes true, and you become the slave of the Wakahisa Clan, just like wily old Lord Wakahisa planned, way back when."

The ninetales is silent, staring slit-eyed holes through me.

"Well," I amend. "Not that wily, I guess. If he was really that smart he would have allowed the possibility for a woman to control you, preventing the whole 'female descendants are subjugated as punishment for his hubris for untold generations' thing that you had going on. Gotta love the Imperial patriarchy."

"Your point?"

I chug my water bottle and cap it. "The other way this plays out is that you consider the fact that I could be much more of a dick to you and I'm not. And maybe you start wondering, maybe this human isn't trying to enslave you because he knows that you're the most able when you're willing, and I want you to be willing."

The ninetales' lips rise, baring his teeth. "You have nothing you can offer me, human. Whether you die or you pass me back, I am bound for eternity to the land and blood of that accursed clan."

"Really?" I ask softly. "Are you sure? Because you're talking to someone who, if they become Champion, will have the power to seize lands and abolish titles like those of the Wakahisa Clan. I wonder, will those oaths to property and bloodline hold when neither exist?"

"Promises of future rewards yet earned, indicative of nothing." The ninetales scoffs, after a short pause.

I nod thoughtfully. "I suppose that's a fair enough assessment. And besides, if I die before that, or Yokoko rescinds the favor of her clan, you return to the situation you were in. So how about this - Tenchouchikyuu-no-oomikami, he who is the fox, I formally grant you leave to sire heirs and keep counsel with other monsters."

The ninetales rears back in surprise - probably because I say the last part in Imperial. I watch in interest as one of the fox's nine tails suddenly spazzes out, wagging madly to and fro.

"I guess that worked, huh? I just nullified that entire oath. Consider it a down payment." The fox settles slowly, now considering me in an entirely different light. "I'm sure I don't have to spell out the only two ways that can be taken back."

"You rescind leave...or you pass ownership to the female and she does." The fox says slowly.

I spread my hands, grinning. "That's right. If I die or Yokoko rescinds her favor, you don't become hers; you just return to the same situation you were in, minus that one oath. And if there's nothing you can do to say, improve your situation with your newfound ability to connive with other pokemon-"

I throw my hands up in air and turn my back. "-then I'm really not sure who I'm talking to. Because I thought I was talking to Wakahisa's Bane, who was able to see through the best laid contracts of ten minds and find the loopholes that allowed him to live like a king and dominate those who bound him for decades upon decades."

My new pokemon says nothing.

I turn back, and give him my most criminal smile. "You want the truth? I can replace Yokoko. I can't replace that, and-okay, seriously, is your tail all right there?"

The spasming tail is now seemingly trying to beat its way through the floor, slamming on objects all around. The other tails are moving a little squirrelly too, shivering fitfully.

The ninetales turns, and seems to notice for the first time. When he speaks, it is in a voice of deep satisfaction. "That one is Yoshitsune, whose oath you just nullfied. He is greatly upset." The schizoid tail falls limp suddenly, before returning to stillness. "The others are Katashi, Matsuyori, Takehiro, Shichiro, Yasuo, Tokiyuki, Akisame and Yasayoki. They cower, out of fear that you will defeat their own oaths, and loose me on the world unbound."

"Um." I say eloquently, not sure how to react to the fact that my newest team member apparently has literal human souls growing out of his ass.

"I wonder," Tenchouchikyuu-no-oomikami continues, tone now hard to decipher, "of the fact that they consider it possible, and you capable of it. That is...interesting."

The tails all shudder and fall still. I resist the unusual urge to gulp.

Thankfully, Yokoko chooses that moment to burst in, opening the door to the room without so much as knocking. In one hand she carries a smart phone, and the other, a hotdog loaded down with toppings. Her outfit - a riot of bracelets and jewelry and fishnets and buckles - is eclectic to say the least.

I take a moment to marvel at the fact that she's the first member of her family since the Neo-Dark ages to walk outside the Wakahisa Clan lands. Belatedly, I realize that all the new foods and clothes she's trying are probably her effort to make up eighteen years of lost time acting like the perfect heiress under the ninetales' reign of terror, and appreciate it accordingly.

Mainly, I appreciate how nice her tits look in that skimpy halter top.

Those are the first Wakahisa Clan tits to be seen outside the grounds since the Neo-Dark ages. That's history in the making, that is.

And you have to appreciate history.

She acknowledges her tormenter with a glance and a sneer. "Murderer."

I guess she hasn't forgotten the fact that her mother survived the castle dungeons and her grandmother didn't.

"Treacherous sow." The ninetales snarls back. Amiable for him.

My new manager turns to me and follows my gaze. "Ugh." She mutters.

I suppose 'Ugh' is me. Tearing away my gaze from her bountiful historical artifacts, I address her. "Yes?"

"I scheduled Misty and Bugsy. Also, Himura-sama is on the phone. Someone tipped her off because she's got a copy of the transcript. She's not happy."

I take the phone from her hand and sneak a glance at the fox. The ninetales stares levelly back, revealing nothing.

"Well," I reply flippantly. "if she's upset about the Imperial death ritual I revealed painting the Imperial Party in a bad light, then maybe they should have done something about it in the hundreds of years it was going on. Like, say, not have Imperial death rituals."

Yokoko nods distractedly, wiping a bit of relish off her chin. "The anonymous tip she got was from me. This way, she'll be suppressing every news source just in case the Gozen were trying to go to the media before we did. It should prevent word of the kitsune's capture from getting out until you pull it out during Misty's match."

Devious. "Good work." I admit, before raising the phone to my ear to begin my end of this scheme - damage control.

I can't be sure if I've got the fox's loyalty yet. But at the very least, Tenchouchikyuu-no-oomikami is on the team.

...I'm really going to have to find a shorter nickname.

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Kanto Pokemon Encyclopedic Index Entry # 038 ( J. #128 ): Ninetales.

Basic Characteristics: Pure fire-type, with access to many ghost-type abilities. Quadrupedal mammal, vulpine body structure, nine tails, fur coloration ranging from white to golden. Evolves from vulpix. Avg. height 3'07 (seated), avg. weight 43.9 lbs (warning, extremely small sample group).

Description: A pokemon of literally mythic rareness, the ninetales is highly present in Imperial mythology dating back even to pre-pokemon ages, making it notable as one of the few pokemon which supports the theory of unbroken evolution (see, unbroken evolution, staggered evolution).

Nicknames: The Fox Pokemon, Kiri of Ten-Thousand Scales, Wakahisa's Bane, kyuubi no kitsune.

"...rket reflects a surprising change. While the WCB lifecycle funds did take a hard hit, with investors pulling out in the wake of the news that the one managing their money was a NINETALES of all things, a resurgence in confidence has occurred in the wake of a interview by the Lady Wakahisa Yokoko, the new, verifiably human president of the brokerage, given after Gary Oak's startling defeat of Misty. 'Despite custody of the fox passing temporarily to PKMN Trainer Blue, honorable clients of my Clan can rest assured that the consistent growth they have always been promised and subsequently received will not change. The ninetales has taken up a new secondary occupation as a pokebattler and has ceded leadership to me, but will continue to buy and sell stocks with the same literally centuries-old economic wisdom and insight that customers have come to expect, a claim no other firm can boast.' In light of this..."

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Samurai Gozen: The stoic eldest son of the Gozen clan, 'Samurai' Gozen Mitsuhide is a famous dec-thirteen pokebattler and second-ring champion. Recently, his betrothal to Leader Janine, daughter of Koga, has been greatly spoken of in the Indigo news. Some see the joining of the two most powerful Imperial clans as a herald for a new Empire.

Kiri of Ten-Thousand Scales: The third national treasure of the Indigo League is a female ninetales who goes by Kiri of Ten-Thousand Scales, who has been the personal companion and tutor of the Indigo League Composer Laureate since the founding of the position. She holds a concert and art gala for charity each year to fulfill the promise she made to nine different artists with terminal diseases that their work would be remembered. She's also the flagship pokemon of the Imperial party, and a well-loved radio personality. For whatever reason, her consistent offers to thank the Wakahisa Clan for their constant funding and support with a personal performance have always been declined.