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Fox's First Steps by KrisSnow (critique requested)

Fox's First Steps

Reo paced in the company's room of steaming vats. Tanks of mulberry fiber and hibiscus root bubbled in smelly lye, stirred by his aunt while a cousin brought more wood in.

"You don't need that silly magic wand," his aunt said, watching Reo fool with a chemical testing strip. "The old recipe still works."

Reo said, "We need to be better, if we're not going to buy the mechanical rollers to make paper the new way. I had to buy this acid-sensing tool myself."

"You spend all your money on the gadgets. Where's this one from, France?"

"Someplace called Belgium."

"Away with your widgets. You've been fretting all day anyhow."

Reo walked out, sighing. Snow blew through the streets and across pagoda roofs. In the distance a train huffed along a metal scar that had replaced centuries-old homes and shrines. He needed a drink.

But when he got to his favorite shop, he'd hardly sat down on the straw mats with a cup of sake and a book when one of his friends, Haru, arrived. "Makoto got locked up!"


The short, shaggy bookseller said, "Government men took him, saying he's crazy."

Reo cursed. "Let's go see."

Two swigs later, Reo was up and out to the chilly February morning, on the way to Bedram Hospital. Named for a facility in distant England, it loomed three stories tall on the city's edge, with a spike-topped fence that barely contained the seemingly constant construction. Reo and his friend Haru entered through an unlocked gate and a courtyard of torn dirt, and reached a white plaster office.

"Shen Makoto?" said the secretary. "Room 19. Are you family?"

"Friends," said Haru.

"Family only."

Reo smiled and lied, "He's a friend; I'm a cousin. We'll be quick." He brushed past the desk and ignored the secretary, who was talking about a visitor log.

The halls bustled with inspectors and construction workers in varied uniform. Reo reached 19 and peeked into a cell with bars. A skinny young man slumped there in a restraining jacket.

"Makoto, what happened? Is this about the foxes again?"

"I found something. The urn of marbles in my room. These men think they know everything, but some of them want more."

"Calm down. What's going on?"

A heavy hand landed on Reo's shoulder. "He's being treated, and you shouldn't be here."

"Treated for what?"

"None of your concern." The orderly steered Reo away.

Makoto complained, "Haven't lost my marbles!"

Back in the courtyard, Haru was getting shooed out too. Reo told him, "I barely got to see him. Whatever the 'treatment' is, it doesn't look willing."

"The hospital staff assured me all patients are treated with the kindness and wisdom of the latest German science."

Reo walked to their stricken friend's house. Makoto's mother answered the door, looking tearful. "We were treating him the traditional way, but no, the authorities wanted to fix him."

Makoto had always been the odd member of the book club, full of legends and wild ideas. Most recently the group had been reading a text of what was called anthropology, about the Ainu people of primitive Hokkaido. The government was using new science to scour the world for old wisdom.

His mother led Haru and Reo inside for tea. She said, Makoto had claimed to have found something amazing. In his usual manic state, he'd been rambling about the mythical kitsune fox spirits and needing to build shrines. Then, doctors took him away.

She said, "Normally someone acting possessed by the kitsune would get prayers and offerings of rice." She smiled slightly. "And if that didn't take, a beating. I went through all that, once. Don't know if there was ever any truth to the spiritual part of it or if I was just being a silly child. But our remedy worked."

Haru told her, "Did you sign anything? Did you give them permission to grab him?"

"No! They just nabbed him while he was drunk and mouthing off about foxes and the government."

"Ah. That may've had something to do with it."

Reo said, "Even so, this is wrong. You should demand his release in person. May I see what he was working on?"

She nodded. "All right, look around. He's not crazy, just excitable."

"Yes, ma'am."

Reo went to Makoto's room. The man spent much of his money on books, and could read German and English and some French. He was a translator by trade. Reo's eye fell on a bronze jar of marbles. Curious, he dug around in it and found a scroll on a jade rod. "Old parchment," he muttered.

"Any ideas?" said Makoto's mother. Reo was about to speak up, but she added, "I'm going to show all this to the authorities. It'll prove he's just a scholar, nothing more."

Reo stuffed the scroll into his sleeve. "It's probably best that you explain they don't have permission."

Haru told her, "I'll help you find a lawyer to say it more forcefully."

Reo nodded and left. He needed to get back to the paper mill, and think.

He checked in at work, got distracted by ordinary production problems, then that evening retreated to his room. If doctors would think Makoto insane for having many books, Reo of the paper-maker family wasn't much better. (The company also dabbled in the making of gambling cards with a local firm called Nin-Ten-Do.) In privacy, Reo opened the scroll.

The dialect was archaic, something like what Emperor Meiji might speak. Foxes played around the kanji characters. With fine calligraphy, its writer had described something about a donation of magic. His attention locked on a bit of unreadable text... which glowed, and burned away the page.

Its flame leaped into him. Reo yelped and staggered, but it was only pleasantly warm. His clothing rippled in an indoor wind. In moments it was over and he was sprawled on his bed, bruised. "What was that?" he said. His voice had an alto growl to it. "Huh?"

Sitting up made him feel light-headed, light in general, and wrapped in blankets. He put one hand to his head and felt long hair tickle his cheek, and his ears sitting up too high, flicking. Lowering his arm again made one side of his kimono slip loose down his shoulder. He stood up in confusion, feeling like the high ceiling was a little farther away, and a thick fuzzy brush twitched behind him. Turning around to see it made him spin twice and discover that he'd grown a silver-furred tail.

He yipped and crashed into a bookshelf. Footsteps pounded nearby. He didn't want to be seen like this, whatever was going on! By some instinct he grabbed the tilted shelf and instead of just steadying it, scurried up along it to the rafters. "Nothing to see here!" he thought.

His aunt slid the door open and peeked in, scowling. "What's he gotten into now? Reo, where are you?"

Reo was overhead, braced between the shelf and a beam. He tried to keep still and silent but the woman looked around, frowning. She left again, muttering, "Probably went drinking."

After long moments Reo breathed hard, and felt his chest bounce. He barely avoided making more noise when he dropped down to his bed and the floor. His kimono hung loose, revealing a soft, heavy chest covered in silver fur like his new tail. To the extent his brain could function for the next minute, he thought, "Did the scroll do this? Where is it? It burned away!"

His hands felt twitchy, delicate, and they ended in little claws. If anyone saw him they'd have questions like him, and might dissect him for science. He had to disguise himself, had to --

Just like that, he rippled, and changed. His clothes stretched tighter at the shoulders, looser in front, and he didn't want to think about exactly why. He looked and felt like there was a thin layer of colored glass around him, hiding his true shape.

"Illusion!" he murmured. His voice felt normal again but there was a faint purr or growl to it that made him blush. So Makoto had been studying magic, and had found that some part of it was far more real than a vague blessing! Reo would've loved to study the concept with his friends, who'd argued over too many drinks about miracles and spirits and bacteria. Right now, he had to visit Makoto, and he doubted visitor hours were still going.

He could still seek help, though.

This evening the streets had a mix of light and dark. In some places new electric lamps shined on a modern factory or shop while near others, paper lanterns burned on wooden poles. Some of the old lights were broken and some of the new ones, painfully bright.

In one of the shadowed spaces a man stepped out from an alley. "Going somewhere tonight?"

Reo took a second to process that. Then another to recoil from the man darting closer to grab his arm. The mugger got a better look... and paused, frightened by whatever he saw.

Reo tried using that moment. He growled like an animal. The man fled, kicking up last week's dirty snow. Reo stood there stunned, looking down at himself. The illusion had cracked due to his fear, maybe. He didn't know how any of this worked!

So he hurried onward to the shrine of Fushimi-Inari. The park embarrassed the new government and there'd been a near-riot when a parliament member proposed sweeping it away. Thousands of doorless, ornamental gates stood here in stone and orange-painted wood, forming vast tunnels that wound up and around hills. Each one was carved with prayers for good fortune and the names of donors, including his grandfather.

Reo used these shaded pathways even though nothing physically stopped him from going around. However foolish the superstition might be, the paths were in places chosen for sensible reasons. Guarding them were paired statues of foxes. They glared, slit-eyed, holding scrolls and keys. He waved, saying, "I wasn't sure what to make of the myths."

Walking through here made his skin prickle. He looked down and gulped. He'd reverted to looking like a girlish fox-person. His ordinary self was only a disguise now. He hurried on through the paths, not sure what he was looking for.

The outdoor shrine had a trail he didn't recognize, where the gates were hazy and led around a corner where they probably didn't fit. He shivered and set foot on this road, but felt himself pushed gently back. He had the sense of not being prepared.

Then there was one person he still needed to talk to, ready or not.

He steeled himself to try the skill of illusion again and felt armored in it, disguised as himself. He made sure his family knew he was all right, dodging their questions about where he'd been other than to say he'd visited the shrine and was distracted by Makoto's problems. His aunt and others assured him they'd heard from Haru, who would fetch a lawyer tomorrow.

Reo nodded, went to bed, and decided that wasn't good enough. Something more than madness was at work. So his first test was to escape from his own home at night. He slept for an hour with surprising comfort, considering he wasn't eager to undress and get a good look at his changed self. He woke up with a yawn that reminded him of his narrow muzzle and sharp teeth. His little foxy yip made him blush.

He got up, pulled on a hooded jacket, and slipped out of his room. Several relatives lived in the hall, and he knew the boards creaked. But which? He crouched and squinted, trying to recall. His ears flicked and threw his hood back. Though his night vision had improved he had no real sense of the noisy areas... really he was overthinking this. Reo simply left his door closed, shuffled down the hall without lifting his feet much, and ignored the creaking. Not like even his nosy aunt would care.

Outside, cold wind blew through his fur. He kept to the shadows, torn between keeping his hood up and wanting good vision and hearing. He let it fall again; people probably wouldn't see through his disguise at a distance.

Reo avoided the few distant folk still walking around this late. The hospital complex loomed larger, its gate shut and yellow lights burning along its upper reaches. Reo eyed the fence from a distance, feeling absurd. Who was he to try sneaking in, and risking arrest, not to mention humiliation for his family?

He took a deep breath. If he avoided looking like his human self, he couldn't be identified. It was just a matter of personal harm, versus the sense that Makoto might be beyond help from a mere lawyer. He let his illusion drop.

Reo vaulted over the fence with surprising ease and landed in the courtyard. A guard stood with a lantern near the front door, scratching himself. Reo kept low and scurried behind a bush. How foolish! He knew nothing about sneaking.

That front door had to be locked. Reo wasn't getting past it or its keeper. His ears flicked and drew his attention toward a pigeon on the roof. The first floor had a shed or something sticking out. He gulped, circled around the building, and found a handhold to pull himself onto the shingles. Tougher than it looked; he wriggled and kicked to find purchase and banged his chest painfully into a gutter. He thought he heard the guard moving around below, so he lay flat for a minute. From there he found staggered brickwork that was meant to be decorative but served as a ladder. This part was easy. He scurried up without thinking about the height. He was on a flat roof now, not a nice pagoda structure but bare concrete.

An iron hatch offered a way in, but it only opened half an inch. Reo's claws clicked against its bolt. Shouldn't he have some kind of magic to bypass any lock and fool anyone? Otherwise he had no idea what he was doing and would surely get caught and gutted! He crouched and tried to breathe. At worst he'd scare people off with a monster act. He studied the bolt and found he could sneak his slender fingers around the mechanism and twist it. The metal popped loose.

He took a ladder down into the third floor. Silent beige halls stretched through the building, lit poorly by yellow electric bulbs at the ends. No windows except for panels on the reinforced doors. What was this, a hospital or a jail? A man was howling in anguish, ignored by all. Never mind; Reo had to get down to the first floor. The stairs were easy to reach. The second floor had a watchman who nearly spotted him, so he hurried farther down. The first floor's rooms of obvious prison bars made striped shadows where the ceaseless light shined through onto slumped, restrained mental patients. Each door had a clipboard of notes. Reo came to number 19 and found it empty. He cursed. The clipboard read "Delusions; transfer to Underworks".

A basement? He didn't remember one being dug. Where was the entrance? Reo explored and a man raved, saying "I'll kill them all!" to nobody. Another voice just sobbed. Reo's ears flicked backward. Were all such places like this? There was a door labeled "Restricted" and "Verboten", with faint wind blowing around its edge. Reo's fur prickled. The way was locked more securely than the roof.

Great. He'd heard a keyring jangling on the second-floor man. A solution presented itself but he didn't like it. He made himself go back upstairs to stalk the watchman. That man was leaning against a wall, whistling to stay awake. Reo watched from the shadows, growing frustrated. He should have tools, spells, secret techniques. When the guard walked into a restroom, Reo had a minute to act. He slid down the hallway toward a door where he'd heard somebody praying, and he stood tiptoe to peek through the door's window. "Psst!"

The resident was a bald, sunken-eyed man who stared at him. "You can't be real."

"I'm trying to help a friend. In a minute, please, can you distract the guard?"

"They take people away. They don't come back."

"Something's wrong here. Please, distract him."

The man said, "Did Inari-sama send you?" The patron god of the shrine of gates remained popular even in this new age.

"I... suspect so, yes." In what sense, he still needed to learn.


Reo snuck to the side of some lockers, and waited. The door opened and boots thudded. The bald man called out, "You, Senji! I have a secret for you. Do you want to make some quick money?"

The guard answered with a vulgar no.

"No, really! I left a good pipe near my cash at home, and --"

Reo ignored the patter. The guard had stopped walking. Reo crept closer while the two men spoke. The keys were right there in a back pocket... Reo slipped them up and out, then stepped away. By instinct he flattened himself behind the lockers again.

Just then, the guard said, "Did I drop...? Must've been by the toilet." He stomped away from the cell to search the bathroom. The moment he went in, Reo fled down the stairs. He grinned.

Back on the first floor, he hastened to the forbidden door and found the right key, made in a unique Western style. He went in, and down.

The basement or underworks was unfinished. Concrete gave way to bare stone and passages of hot, humid air. Sparse electric bulbs buzzed. No footsteps sounded. Someone breathed heavily from a sealed, windowless room. Then there was a table of electric tools like paddles and an array of little bottles. Another room held a large tin bathtub. The halls curled and branched in a nonsense pattern as though this floor were a mine or a treasure-hunter's delve. Noises that could have been human or animal came from another room.

There wasn't much time. Reo's search led him to a crude cell hewn from the stone and barred with bamboo. It still smelled of fresh dirt but had the same tang of iron as the rest of this muggy place. In there, three men and a woman languished in paper-thin rags. Reo said, "What in Inari's name?"

Makoto was among them, battered and shaved bald. "Who, what?" His less-bruised eye widened. "Am I seeing things?"

"Makoto! What are they doing down here? I've come to get you out."

"So the foxes are real," said the woman crouching in the far corner. "Thought he was crazier than me."

"Never mind that. Let me unlock this." Reo fumbled for the right key.

Makoto said, "They take the key home. Use that." He gestured behind Reo, to where a collection of knives lay on a tray.

Reo began sawing at the bamboo with the biggest blade and handed another to his friend. "How did you find out about the kitsune?"

"I learned of a hermit from Hokkaido. He had a scroll but had never learned how to unlock its magic. He gave it to me, and somehow the authorities took interest. I hid it, but they kept asking me where. Only one friend of mine knows. Does Inari want the scroll back? I have so many questions."

"Me too." A bar snapped. He helped break it in a second place, making room to sneak through. Everyone crawled out to the hall.

"How can we get out?" asked Makoto. "Do you have some magical trick?"

Reo winced. "I would hold onto those knives."

He led them upstairs to the front door. He unlatched it quickly and shoved it open. The guard had been dozing and the group might have walked right past, if Reo had known that. But now the sentry scrambled to his feet and shouted.

Reo slapped one hand over his mouth. The guard shoved him back easily, but Makoto and the others grabbed and disarmed him with the threat of blades. Reo said, "They're leaving. Don't interfere."

Makoto whispered to the most battered two prisoners, "Go along, quickly." They limped away. That left him, one other man, and Reo with the watchman.

The guard said, "What is this? It must be a costume."

"Maybe you're mad," said Reo.

Once the others had a head start, Reo and company led their captive a hundred paces away and let him go. He immediately ran off, shouting. Reo led the retreat from there.

Reo said, "You're all still in danger! Maybe your families."

"We'll have to vanish," Makoto said, and bowed. "Honorable fox, please warn the paper-makers on Ridge Street. May Inari look kindly on my research; I meant no disrespect."

"It's fine. I'll leave supplies for you, at the shrine's south corner at dawn."

Reo led the escapees down an alley and paused for breath. He handed over his stolen knife. He said, "What are they doing down there?"

"Some German-Japanese research program. Searching for something, located in the mind. They said something about their African colonies too. Whatever it is, we're the first basement dwellers to leave."

"Good luck." Reo impulsively hugged Makoto, stepped back blushing, and ran off.

The hospital's masters would have no sane reason to suspect Reo. He hurried home, crept in, and filled a bag with bread and fruit, spare blankets, and sandals. He returned to the shrine of many gates, dropped off the haul, and went deeper in.

Once again the trail led him in an impossible direction. He drifted out of line with the ordinary ways and found himself around a corner, out of mortal sight. But no force pushed him back. The wind around him only stirred his fur and tail... and a second tail that wiggled behind him.

This time a stone tablet barred the way to yet more gates in the night. Writing chiseled itself into place as he watched. "You've set foot on the path, little one, and may not turn back now. But you did well without relying on magic, so you may begin learning more."

Reo spoke to the stone as though it might hear him. "What are you? Inari?"

More writing appeared. "And merely a window, a servant. Your friend will be guided to safety. I would have you find a certain relic that should not fall into evil men's hands." A map swam into existence, and a sketch of a famous new museum.

"There? There's no way I can snatch a scroll or something from there."

"Don't be so sure of your limits. It's not a scroll but a gem. The scroll you found is of a special type, donated by one much like you long ago. She graciously gave one tail for it. One day, you might do the same to start someone else along. Go for now, and return when you are ready to walk farther."

"You want me to go there, and come back here?" said Reo. The scratching of kanji on stone had become the only sound, and he felt the swishing of his tails against his legs.

The stone addressed him once more, as the wind returned to push him back to reality. "This path is most visible to you here, but it can be found anywhere in the quiet and stillness. Go, outwit the enemy, and learn."

Reo tumbled into the ordinary roads of the shrine garden but landed on his feet with surprising ease. The rising sun had begun to peek over the horizon and make the world seem like a real place again, not a dream. But Reo still wore a silver pelt and a pair of tails, and couldn't forget the attention he'd drawn. He started back toward home to sneak back into bed and the disguise of his old human self. Even if he fooled everyone else that nothing had changed, he'd learned more about the old legends than he'd ever expected. He might well be adding to them soon.

Fox's First Steps (critique requested)


A kitsune transformation in 19th-century Japan!

Inspired by reading about the treatment of mental illness in Japan's exciting Meiji era (late 19th century). The people scoured the Western world for new scientific ideas, and in particular modeled a new generation of madhouses after the latest German theories. As noted, "fox possession" was considered a mystical ailment that should be treated by ritual, but The Science said that other means were better. There's also a history book called "Mad In America" with a similar contrast between The Science and more traditional means of treatment. Finally, I'd just finished reading a book called "A Burglar's Guide To the City" (about burglary) and a translation of an old ninja instruction manual.

But anyway, that's just background. I wanted to write a kitsune transformation! Had to restrain myself from adding explicit rules about exactly what powers Reo is eligible for: maybe agility, feral-fox shapeshifting, or illusions? A neat one to get would be an upgradeable pocket dimension, based on stories of foxes having a semi-real hidden mansion.

Commission for Stellar Vulpine. Icon based on:

Submission Information

Literary / Story