Ash from a thousand fires rained down on the parapets of Awazu’s small fort. Screams sounded in the distance as regiments were shattered. Horses bellowed and cavalry clashed like thunder. Minamoto gazed over the streets and realized the end had arrived. His cousin’s army would have its revenge for Kyoto. Tomoe stood at his side, her concern divided between the battle and her husband. Her lacquered iron armor shone in the darkness, reflecting the surrounding chaos.
The stranger was there too; the Rattenfanger. The foreign word was as distasteful as his presence. He had been a boon with his sorceries—redirecting the enemy, rallying allies and raising morale. But not by Minamoto’s command. The Rattenfanger’s allegiance had been to another, and his help had come at a cost. A painful cost. Minamoto’s eyes, sad and bitter, flicked to his wife. She took the look as an order.
“I’m ready to lead the last charge,” she told Minamoto. There was no fear in her voice. It could take a hundred men to finally put Tomoe down; she was no earthly creature. But a hundred, hundred of his cousin’s men were calling for their death. The Emperor had decreed it. Even skill, magic, and a fox’s cunning would not preserve her upon that field. It was something he could not allow.
“I will lead the charge,” he told her. She nodded her assent, not recognizing his full meaning. “You will not accompany me.” He was surprised when Tomoe smiled.
“After all our battles, you think I would miss our last ride?” She placed a hand on his shoulder, and hugged him softly. “I am your soldier and your wife, dutiful till death. Perhaps you think my heritage releases me from that burden?” Her smile was wistful, but teasing as always. It was that playful confidence that had so entranced Minamoto through the years. This time, however, it made him angry.
“No! You will retreat from the field and you will do as I say. You are still my wife.” He walked past her as if the conversation was over, but he knew it was not. She orbited around his front with predatory speed.
“You would put that dishonor upon me? Could I live with such an order?” Tomoe asked him. She was drawn to her full height, simmering underneath but outwardly controlled. Still, the false reality of her disguise began to shimmer, her eyes blushing orange. It pained him to do this; their arguments were rare, and he valued having her by his side. But not today. He stepped past her once again and stood before the Rattenfanger.
The foreigner was strange, his face without distinction. Perhaps he could be mistaken for Nippon to a careless onlooker. Ratten watched the exchange without a word; Minamoto put a hand on his shoulder and leaned in to whisper.
“I know,” was all he told Ratten. Ratten was startled, and made to respond, but Minamoto stopped him, speaking aloud. “You know why I have to do this, Rattenfanger. If you care about her, get her to safety.”
“You wouldn’t!” Tomoe yelled. She was alarmed now, unable or unwilling to keep up appearances. Sable-pelt, triangular ears were visible on the top of her head, the white tips twitching in anger. Ratten stared; Tomoe stared back. Her hand clutched the hilt of her sword. He knew it was a betrayal of what she believed, but it was a betrayal with which he would live. And so would she. Ratten drew for the rosewood flute and began to play.
She broke towards him as the music brayed, trying to escape. Ratten pulled it into place while her sword was on its downstroke. Tomoe was fixed in place as he played, paralyzed. Her eyes were the orange of a sunrise before a storm, full of a fury unmatched. So different than the trickster Ratten knew. The tune snorted like an overburdened packhorse, barely keeping Tomoe’s will in check. But he knew the tune would not fail. Perhaps if she were aged into five, or seven tails. Not with three. No, not with three
With the help of attendants they mounted a horse, Ratten still playing, and rode beyond the gates of Awazu before the night broke. None who sallied from the fort survived first light.
“Do you have any idea what you’ve done?” Tomoe demanded as they hid in the far woods. Her tears were silent, shining crystal on her narrow face. She supported herself on the trunk of a large tree, overwhelmed with shame. With no one left to hide from, her sable ears remained conspicuous. At the base of her skirted armor, three black-and-white fox tails swung like pendulums. The first light of dawn had begun to spread, revealing the smoke of Awazu. The outcome of the battle was obvious even from this distance. Ratten did not answer, busying himself with the lamellar plates on the horse.
“The shame of it! You have no idea!”
“There’s no shame in it; it’s my damn fault. That was Minamoto’s whole point.” Ratten argued without looking back. He silently cursed the clever bastard.
“And now he is dead, and I am not at his side. I have failed him.” She mourned. “You had no right.”
“I had no choice,” Ratten shouted back angrily, moving to face her. “I love you.”
Tomoe sneered. “A common man’s excuse to tread upon a woman’s wishes. That is my husband back there, Rattenfanger. At least allow him some small rest before you blacken his name.”
“I was doing what he wanted, Tomoe. What he asked.”
“What you wanted.” Tomoe cut him off. “Don’t try to confound his wishes and yours. You can’t understand half the man he was.”
“I’m sorry such trash saved your life,” Ratten growled sarcastically, though he kicked himself even as the words arose. It was only fear which drove them – fear that she was right, that she would hate him. “I get that just surviving isn’t an end unto itself, but I seem to have something of a knack for it. I couldn’t watch you die for no reason.”
“You can never understand,” Tomoe told him, shaking her head in disbelief, “How I ever thought you might understand our way of life. The meaning of honor and duty. You are a wanderer with no loyalties. What a mistake. To have done such a thing to…” she hid her face in a hand, unable to speak the name of the departed.
Ratten was stung, looking downward. She flung secrets he had shared with her like stones—but he didn’t blame her. “I’ve tried to settle, you know that. To be something else. We can’t run from our nature, Tomoe; from what we are. I’ve learned that the hard way. You knew that with Minamoto, too.”
It was her turn not to answer. Silence stretched across the minutes before Tomoe spoke again.
“Leave, Rattenfanger. Maybe someday I will forgive you.”
He took a step towards her, but her cold voice stopped him.
“You saved my life, and I won’t forget that. A nogitsune must always repays her debts.” It sounded less like a promise than a threat. “Go.”
He left her the horse and walked deeper into the forest, no destination in mind. Minamoto’s last maneuver had been more decisive than the sacking of Kyoto. Ratten was a wanderer once again. Alone.
“I thought swords have been illegal since the fall of the Shogunate,” Ratten teased, stepping within the rice paper walls of the small tea room. The hushed sounds of the tiny restaurant clicked and clattered like home. Tomoe smiled as only she knew how—as if she knew a thousand secrets, and they all were bad news. Tomoe loved bad news.
“This?” She asked, touching the sword, which was now a delicate umbrella. “I’m surprised you saw through that. Is anything else showing?” She made a drama of checking her ears and the seven tails that swished behind her on the tatami mat.
“You’ve aged well through the centuries; they are still shining as ever.” Ratten offered, taking his own seat at the table.
“They are rather beautiful,” she admired satirically, “Soft, not bristly. And the color is quite striking, too. You have refined sensibilities compared to your bad, old days.”
“Showoff. So you’ve gotten used to the color, I take it?”
“Seven hundred years from Inari’s grace and you begin to forget it was ever red.” She admitted, regret creeping into her voice. “Though, I would do it all for Minamoto again.” Ratten grunted an affirmative. They had long ago reconciled that chasm—an eternal rivalry was too boring for the nogitsune—but it was a topic dutifully avoided for the most part.
“How’s your family, Ratten?” Tomoe asked, as an attendant brought a fresh pot of tea. The serving woman looked tranced, and carefully poured for Tomoe and Ratten. She bowed deeply, without making eye contact, and backed out of the room.
“That was a bit formal, wasn’t it?” Ratten asked, surprised.
“The entire restaurant might believe they are hosting the Imperial Court,” she said, shrugging with her eyes closed.
Tomoe looked wounded at his perturbance, “Do you know the last time they set out a bundle of rice on the doorstep for Inari? I may be out of grace, but not practice. It’s the principle of the matter.”
“You’ve certainly become far more skilled,” Ratten drawled. He wasn’t sure he appreciated the trick.
“Illusions are my specialty, and I age well. Now, tell me. How is Saya? Are the two of you happy?” Tomoe’s eyes gleamed with curiosity. Ratten had rarely seen her so attentive. Fortunately, it was a proud topic he was always anxious to cover.
“I wanted to tell you.” Ratten beamed, “Now we are three. We have a son. Two months old, healthy and happy.”
“You’ve only been married two years,” Tomoe exclaimed, “you didn’t wait long.”
Ratten agreed with a nod. “We thought it was for the best. It was important to her.”
“You didn’t have any concerns?”
“Why would we?” Ratten puzzled. “I suppose with the new government, and the uncertainty that brings. But every era has dangers. I couldn’t let that define our lives.” He rambled on for several long minutes about first smiles, sleepless nights, and riverside walks in the bouncing, disordered manner of all new fathers and happy husbands.
It was incredibly boring. But Tomoe was bobbing her head, as if dwelling on a revolutionary philosophy. She often got this way when Ratten came to visit these days. She took another drink and thought for a time. “No problems? It sounds too wonderful.”
“None,” Ratten looked content, “In many ways Saya reminds me of you.” There was a brief glimmer of fright on Tomoe’s face, but Ratten misunderstood and laughed, “Just the way she…I don’t know. She lives, she’s always a surprise. That sounds…nothing like I want it to.”
“Words fail the bard,” Tomoe arched an eyebrow. “How unbecoming.” The tea was almost completed, and Tomoe had heard enough. She was probably stir crazy from the endless domestic chatter. Even as a wife she had been a peerless warrior – the mundane was anathema to her. The great bard was not helping matters with his vanquished storytelling skills. “With the snow you should be home soon,” she said, suggesting her own desires as his idea. A force of habit. In this case he acquiesced gladly.
“I will stop by again soon, Tomoe.” He promised as he stood, bowing.
“Check up often,” she reminded him as he exited. The polite smile transformed on her face to a look of concern after he was gone. The concern remained, protracted, as she pondered secrets only the nogitsune knew.
The snow blanketed the countryside in muffled whispers. Travel was slow, but a few passing carts and horse riders trampled the path enough to mark the way. Ratten whistled a mindless tune and watched children play at winter games. Icicles flew like arrows, and jolly finger-pointing followed. A snow man had been constructed on the side of the road, helpfully pointing the way into town. It wore a ragged scarf and a set of reed pipes were stuck in its mouth.
Ratten wasn’t sure why, but the sculpture startled him. His ditty stopped and he stared for a long while at the snowman, trying to determine the source of his fascination. It was not particularly well made, or grotesque, or alarming. It simply tickled the base of his mind, like the epiphany of a solved riddle. Why this was the case eluded him. Shrugging he continued home and went straight into Saya’s arms. He rested his chin upon her head and revelled in his fortune.
“Did you miss me?” Ratten joked. Saya obliged him, harumphing lightly.
“Not a bit,” she chided. “Shinji is napping, so try to keep your voice down.”
He nodded as they unwound themselves. “I brought home a duck and some rice balls for dinner,” Saya brushed a lock of her short black hair out of her eyes, setting her book down. She looked at him as if he were mad. The reaction was more common than Ratten ever would have imagined. “I’ll get them star… Why are you looking at me like that?”
“Rice balls…and a duck?” she grinned. Saya’s amusement danced in her gaze. “That’s your idea of dinner?”
“Those are your favorites…” he rubbed the back of his head, realizing mistakes had been made, but unsure of their exact nature.
Saya laughed. “Alright, I’m not complaining. Stoke the fire, and then come out back. The sun will set soon, and it’s a clear day.
Ratten busied himself preparing the duck, spitting it and placing it over the fire. Satisfied that it would cook slowly he joined Saya outside. The sun had crept near the leading edge of the far mountains. Fire had just begun to light across the peaks, and the few clouds in the sky were the color of cooked crab. It was a daily ritual Ratten wouldn’t give up for the world. He held Saya close and swayed with her as they shared the view. His wife hummed a traditional song that told the story of Amaterasu and the transition to night. As if summoned by the music, the snowman and his reed pipes rose to the top of his mind.
“Why don’t I play us a song?” Ratten wondered to himself. Saya accepted with an ‘ok,’ and he went back inside. His rosewood flute should be around somewhere. It occurred to him he had not looked for it in months. In fact he couldn’t remember the last time he had played it. Saya had certainly never heard him play, as far as he could recall. A forgetful secret he would remedy. He shuffled through drawers and dressers, underneath mats and behind furniture but could find it nowhere. Saya discovered him searching a chest on his knees. His head panned about the room like a nervous gopher—a universal sign he had no clue where the instrument might be.
“Is there a problem?” Saya checked, turning the duck as she did.
“No,” Ratten told her, “I just lost something.” It puzzled him, but there was no reason to worry. It was only a flute. Shinji began to cry in the other room. “Ah, no time for music anyway,” he sighed. He went to the bedroom and picked up his small son, rocking him gently, singing the song Saya had begun. In a few minutes, dinner was finished and the flute was forgotten.
Ratten awoke in a sweat, escaping from the already forgotten horrors that had harried him in his dream. It was late, and a spring breeze lilted through the open window. The darkness was almost palpable; only a pale sliver of moon illuminated the night. Beside him Saya breathed softly, undisturbed by his crash into consciousness. Shinji tossed fitfully in his crib at the base of the shikifuton. The small boy was crawling now, and was in the midst of a daring escape from his blankets. Not a thing was out of place. And yet something was wrong.
Ratten felt as if a sound had disturbed him from his reverie. A scratching or clattering from within the walls, just at the edge of perception. He remained very still, listening until the silence began to play squeaking tricks on his ears. Finding nothing, he reached across to the lantern and lit the wick with a match. Shadows rose to life on the walls like charmed snakes.
As they did, Ratten could see one of the smaller shadows peel away from the pack and skitter along the corner. It ran with frightening speed, straight for Shinji. Ratten hollered in panic and picked up one of Saya’s heavy books. He threw it as hard as he could, and it planted into the wall with a heavy thud. Pages splashed up from the floor. The shadow was dispersed. Saya flew awake and Shinji began to cry.
“What happened? What’s wrong?” she asked, touching Ratten’s arm before turning to light her own lantern. She crawled over and picked up Shinji, then brought him back to sit by Ratten’s side.
“I thought I saw something…” Ratten admitted. He might have been embarrassed, if not for an unplaced fear that wormed in his gut. He tried to solve what it was that had terrified him so. What had he thought he’d seen? Perhaps the unknown dream lingered in his thoughts. “It’s nothing. I’m sorry, it was just a bad dream.”
Saya looked doubtful. “Are you sure it is nothing?” She asked, rubbing his back. He nodded and kissed her forehead.
“Back to sleep; let’s just forget about this.”
“This is the third time this week you’ve had nightmares,” she consoled, “you don’t have to hide anything from me.”
Ratten was shocked, eyes wide. “Saya, I would never, ever keep anything from you. He pulled them both close, “We never keep any secrets beyond the sunset, remember.”
“Today’s sunset hasn’t come,” she half-joked, “I’m here if you need me.”
“I know,” Ratten said. If he could have gifted her the euphoria her simple statement provided him, he would have, a thousand times. “But truly, I can’t even remember what came to haunt me. So back to sleep.”
Saya accepted with some hesitance, keeping Shinji with her for the night. Ratten found no slumber, trying to piece together fragments of his nightmare until dawn finally arrived.
The next day, Ratten had a mission. He left the house early in the morning and made his way into town. The cherry trees along the high road were shedding pink petals into the warm air. Another perfect day. Merchants and travellers greeted him as he walked, but he was far more terse than normal, distracted by his calling in town. When he arrived, he made his way to the tea shop. But instead of going inside, he followed his instinct into the alley in the back.
Refuse had been collecting there since the beginning of the week, and trash and compost were piled high. He picked up a stick and poked through the remains, only vaguely aware of the absurdity of his work. There was something he wanted to find here, something that would banish his nightmares—or bring them into maddeningly clear focus. Either way, it would be answers. When he came up empty handed, he checked under the building’s raised floors, as well. But all he could see were pill bugs and tangled spider silk among the wood supports. What was he doing? The irrationality of following random tugs was gnawing at his gut. Was it the nothing his sixth sense was trying to see?
He wandered back out into the street and took the long way to one of the town’s largest farms. Ratten went right to the shed where the food was stored and walked the exterior, sighing to himself as he attempted to find a discrepancy that might release the tripwire in his mind. He was about to give up when he spotted a bored looking tomcat lounging in the sun. It was the flash-bang of a flintlock.
“Rats,” Ratten mumbled to himself. That was what had troubled him; what had kept him awake, jumping at ghosts. There were no rats, anywhere. He hadn’t even seen a mouse. Not just here, or back at the restaurant. He hadn’t seen a rat in…It was as if he had forgotten the species even existed. The whole idea was impossible, but that did nothing to fill the void that leered in his mind. Ratten groped blindly for when the last encounter had been. Venice? France? He seemed to remember being on a passenger ship, just a few rats in the cargo hold. He had played – Ah, but the music!
It clicked into place with a dread that set him running back to town. Music, a flute, pipes; it was imperative that he restore his magics. How quickly Ratten had dismissed his wayward instrument. The remembrance came as if through a fog. He had not played in years, and without it he was near defenseless. The rats could strike at any time. His enemy had cut him off from his greatest asset, taken the very sense of it from him.
Ratten had to get back to Saya and Shinji. But first he needed a fine instrument. It would serve as weapon and messenger; hopefully he could request help and insight from a few who owed him favors. People and favors that only just now had been restored to memory.
“No, what is wrong with this shop!” Ratten yelled in frustration. The owner recoiled under the abuse. “I’m sorry, Ratten-san, these are all fine instruments.”
“Every one of these is miscarved or misaligned. The notes are wrong, I can’t use them!” He slapped the latest failure down on the counter. “What else do you have?”
“That’s the last one, I’m afraid,” the owner bowed for forgiveness. Ratten glowered at him, hardly believing his situation. A collection of degenerate pipes and flutes, how could every instrument in town be… .
“Thank you anyway…” he told the proprietor, cocking his head suspiciously. As he rushed out the door, he felt his paranoia double. It was entirely too convenient that there was no weapon to find. He had only one friend nearby whom he might be able to count on. Tomoe was a music lover—perhaps she even had a set of pipes he could use. Moreso, it struck him as the safe course of action. He ran back to the restaurant as fast as his legs would take him.
The door slid aside, nearly tossed off it’s moorings. Another door, then another. Diners looked at Ratten alarmed, but he paid them no mind. The waitress approached him, frightened. She recognized him from many previous meetings when he had not been part of the ‘Imperial Court.’ “Is there something I can do for you, sir?”
“Tomoe, is she here?”
“Your friend? She came for her daily tea and left about five minutes ago…”
Ratten was back out the door before the woman had finished, sprinting zig-zags between parallel streets. By chance he spotted a woman in a red kimono slip around a distant corner and he gave chase. A minute later he jogged up next to Tomoe, ragged and wild eyed.
“Ratten, what is -”
“Tomoe, something’s wrong.” The words tumbled from his mouth in a blur, “It’s hard to explain, but I think the rats are up to something. They took my rosewood flute, damaged all the instruments in town. And somehow, I don’t know, but they made me forget. I think Saya and Shinji are in danger. I need your help and I need a weapon, do you have anything?”
Tomoe looked stunned, but collected herself quickly. “Of course I’ll help, Ratten. In every way I can. You know I would sense any danger near town; I’ll keep watch.” Ratten nodded grateful, swallowing hard. “I don’t have an instrument on me, but let me see what I can fetch. Can I bring it tomorrow?”
“No, I need it tonight,” Ratten told her. No risks.
“Of course. Tonight.” She smiled nervously. “Are you sure you’re ok?” Tomoe risked. Ratten scowled.
“What do you mean, ‘Am I ok?’ Do you think I’m making this shit up?”
“No,” Tomoe shook her head sadly, “No, I’m sorry. I will come by tonight. But try to calm down; nothing will be gained from panic.”
Ratten agreed wholeheartedly. However, the dread dogged him all the way home and for the rest of the night.
Both Ratten and Saya were awake when Tomoe finally arrived. He was pacing ravines in the wood floor, while Saya worried the hilt of a bokken that leaned against her chair. Ratten had tried to explain that her swordsmanship would not protect her from an evil such as this, but he couldn’t explain a hundred lifetime’s worth of memories so easily. If her years of training comforted her, then there was no harm.
So he continued to pace, while Saya’s anxiety increased by sour drips. No attack came, no disturbance lit the evening. The longer it went, the more Ratten began to ponder. Why would the enemy wait? What did they want? There had been so many opportunities to make a move. Where were they?
Tomoe hurried in, carrying an ebony set of pan pipes, offering a slight bow. Ratten returned the gesture and turned to Saya.
“I don’t think you’ve been properly introduced. This is Saya; Saya, this is Tomoe, an…old friend.” That phrase had ended so many other relationships he nearly choked on it. But Saya seemed unconcerned as she bowed. Tomoe ignored her and passed the pipes to Ratten.
“Tomoe…” Ratten hissed, jerking his head toward Saya. The nogitsune made a sound of embarrassment and bowed back quickly. It had been quite an insult, even if Tomoe cared little for formalities. Still, there were greater things about which to worry. He tested the pipes; they felt familiar in his hands and the notes were unsullied. It would work well.
“Thank you, this is perfect.” Ratten declared, feeling a bit less exposed. Tomoe still looked nervous.
“Ratten, are you absolutely sure you aren’t chasing ghosts? I don’t sense anything wrong -”
“I didn’t imagine forgetting about…them, Tomoe,” he explained to her again, carefully avoiding the bizarre topic for his wife’s sake. “Something is coming.”
Tomoe shrugged, but wouldn’t yield. “It’s just…You told me once that we can’t run from our nature. I’m afraid if you take those,” she pointed at the pipes, “you are going to prove that true.”
“I won’t be defenseless.” All could tell it was the final word.
“Then I will be here for you if you need me. Just be careful.” They shared goodbyes and Tomoe left them. Saya and Ratten shared the night in sleeplessness.
The entire next morning and early afternoon Ratten played small messengers into the air. He drew the magic in with a simple tune and then whispered a missive to the summoned spirit. So burdened with information, it winked off to do its work. The magic was subtle, unrecognizable as anything more than normal playing and troubled mumbles. It should take no more than a few hours to arrive and return no matter where the target might be. He had tried Eir multiple times, Shahrzād, two dragons, even the Rat God. So many friends and enemies he had simply forgot existed. None responded. The paranoia began to creep back by the time dinner was ready.
“Are you going to tell me what’s going on?” Saya asked him as they sat at the table. A simple dinner of fish, vegetables, and rice steamed and bubbled in stone pots, still overflowing with heat. He could tell from her tone of voice there would be no further delaying.
“Rats,” he began, “ I’m afraid of rats. I know it sounds odd, but they’re my…enemy, I suppose you’d say. I’ve fought with them for eons. They’re intelligent and clever and insidious; somehow they made me forget all about them.”
Saya listened carefully. She was aware that Ratten did not age, and held some other small secrets, so this news was not the most unbelievable thing she had ever heard. But it was very close.
“So you saw these rats. And they’re coming here?” Saya worried aloud.
“No I didn’t see any. That’s what’s wrong. There aren’t any. Anywhere. I forgot them, they’re gone!”
“That sounds like it should be a good thing…” Saya told him. He sighed, trying to be understood.
“You sound like Tomoe. The rats will not let up, ever. It’s hard to explain, it’s like we’re entwined. I’m amazed nothing has happened so far. In the past; well, they’ve never allowed me peace before.” Ratten glanced around nervously, as if the mention of his eternal enemy might conjure them.
“If you forgot, maybe you already killed them all,” Saya reasoned, giving a nervous but hopeful grin. Ratten could only scoff a laugh. “How?”
“Maybe you drowned them all?” Saya joked, trying to add some levity to the conversation. When Ratten grew pensive, she seemed to rethink the statement and change topics. “Um, with your music? You seemed to think it was important somehow. You’ve been waiting for those pipes.”
“Mm,” he nodded, but inside Ratten was troubled. “It might sound strange, but the music I play has some magic to it. It will protect us; I promise.”
Saya placed her hand on his from across the table, and smiled warmly. “I trust you,” she assured him, but again a teasing smile played at the corner of her mouth. “Though perhaps I would be a bit more confident with a sword than a few tunes to hold the castle.”
He laughed bitterly, but even tainted, the chuckle was welcome. He was grateful Saya knew how best to calm him. “Don’t worry, milady. I may not be a fighter, and certainly surviving is no end unto itself, but -”
“You have a certain knack for it? Not this speech -” She stopped mid-sentence a look of confusion and shock blended on her face. It took Ratten a long moment, but a sick horror crept over him, like peering over the edge of a cliff before a fall. He narrowed his eyes, and leaned back, boring for answers as his mind raced.
“Not this speech…what?” He asked her. As if on cue, Shinji started crying in the other room.
“Ah, Shinji again. I had better go check on him.” She said, but Ratten grasped her hand and kept her gently in place with the connection.
“What were you going to say, Saya? Not this speech…”
Saya laughed, but the act was strained. A nervous stall more than any amusement. “It was just so melodramatic. I found it funny.”
“But you finished my sentence for me.” Ratten continued. There was a hint of anger in his voice now. “You knew what I was going to say.”
“Just a guess. You probably said it before.” She shrugged. Ratten merely shook his head.
“No. No, I never said that before. Not to you. So it wasn’t a guess, was it? Not this speech again. Is that what you were going to say?”
“I’m not sure, Ratten. I need to go check on Shinji.”
“That isn’t going to work. Did I drown all the rats, Saya? Do I have a knack for survival?” His voice was steadily rising as new facts dawned on him, each more painful than the last. A fog was lifting – one innocent, anachronistic phrase the catalyst. “As far back as I can remember us, I can’t recall seeing a rat. I can’t recall playing music. When did we first meet?” He began to bombard her with questions, “What city are you from? Who are your parents? What’s my favorite color?”
Saya was confused, and no answers were forthcoming. “I love you…”
He frowned, “Shut up,”
“I said shut up. As in, close your mouth and stop talking.”
“Ratten calm down. I can explain, I swear.” Saya pleaded.
“No you can’t. Don’t even try.” He began to reason, “I forgot so much; old friends, places, events. But there’s one person I didn’t forget, isn’t there? One person was always there, watching and bitter. So that means…”
Ratten put the pipes to his mouth and began to play. A tune that revealed truths, that pulled back the veil of illusion. It was simple and exacting, prancing, staccato. The result was slow – the magics being countered were masterful – but soon Saya began to fade and then vanished. “Goodbye,” she apologized as she was snuffed. The crying in the other room ended a second later. The house had become old and dusty, the life stolen from it.
Ratten bit down on his fury until his teeth felt they would crack. He shook and clutched the pipes so tightly his knuckles went white. But the fury was borne of loss, and soon the loss overtook—like high tide on a sand castle. He fell into a chair and went blank. Ratten was alone again. Someone was going to pay.
Tomoe turned slowly on the empty dirt road that led out of town. Perhaps she could sense a confrontation, and the first layers of her disguise were abjured. Seven fox tails dusted the ground below her kimono. Ratten looked crazed, his eyes incarnadine, hair disheveled. He held the pipes like a threatening knife.
“I take it you have seen through it all,” she observed.
Ratten took a step closer, shaking his head. “Why’d you do it, Tomoe? Why would you do that to me?” He stared through her, such was his disgust and pain. It was not a person or friend before him, but a blight, a sore. To focus upon Tomoe might have thrown him into a frenzy.
“You can still go back, Ratten,” she told him, not acknowledging his line of questioning, “I can repair it, give your family back to you.”
Ratten bellowed like a wounded animal and began to play a song he had not attempted since Hameln. The sound of it rose up, echoing off emptiness. It nickered in giddy excitement, skeletal, sensing the master’s lack of restraint. Sensing an end. Wings of shadow spread fractally upon the ground, and the area for hundreds of yards became dark. The sun and sky were sackcloth, as if occluded by ash.
Tomoe looked shocked for an instant, then leapt back as the shadow approached. Her surprise earned her a twisted scar upon her leg. It crept red and sick upon her pale skin. There was a sudden flash of electricity and Tomoe cast off the last of her masks. A fox, large as a mastiff, sable streaked, crouched and growled. Seven tails swayed and peacocked behind her, crackling with energy. Reality cowered around the nogitsune, a puddle of distortion, like heat off a desert. The seeking shadow searched vainly for passage.
“What are you doing?” Tomoe demanded. Her voice came from nowhere now, more an impression that Ratten could sense. Ratten, unconcerned with controlling the song, answered her. As soon as his lips left the pipes, the music screeched like shearing metal and a gust of wind made the trees groan.
“Why would I want to go back to that lie? Was that your revenge, Tomoe? Because I took Minamoto from you? How long have you planned for this; smiled daggers?”
“Ratten, it isn’t like that…” she tried.
“Liar,” He began playing again, and the sound of trumpets bleated in the heavens. Ratten staggered, the whites of his eyes blooming red. A trickle of blood trailed from his ears. The song was almost released.
The spreading wings pressed upon Tomoe with renewed vigor. They raked her fur, trying to grapple her into submission. She had not expected any of the bard’s assaults to prove fruitful— not with her age and power. Her tails cavorted feverishly, raking counter-attacks with lightning, but losing the battle.
“Ratten,” she called, distracted, “You’re confused. Look at what you’re doing! I wasn’t trying to hurt you!”
“Then why!” he choked. Another blat sounded, and the roaring was so loud it was almost like silence. The nogitsune snapped and bit at the implacable nihil.
“Ratten! Don’t…” Lightning lanced out and struck him, sending him sprawling. He held onto the pipes and went back to playing, furious. The song would have continued at this point even on his death. And once it reached an absolute silence, they would all vanish together. Perhaps Tomoe could have escaped this blackest of dirges with nine tails, he knew. But not with seven. No, not with seven. A fitting end to this pain.
And then Tomoe struck him harder than the lightning. “I did it for you, you damned idiot! I promised you! Remember!” His eyes were empty, stupefied. “Snap out of it and think for a second. It’s almost free!”
Ratten couldn’t believe it. The implications were agonizing, but the events added up in his mind. He put the instrument to his lips and began to try and reign in what he had done.
“You asked me to create an illusion for you. You wanted a rest. I tried to convince you not to, Ratten, I begged you. But with your music and my illusion we created a false life. A place where you could forget the rats, forget the wandering; live. I didn’t think it was possible to run from your nature…”
The music was clattering with laughter at Ratten’s poor attempt to back out of his mistake. It surged and buffeted around him, tipping him back and forth. The noise was just a ringing in the ears now, too loud to register. In a few more moments, his idiocy would kill Tomoe. A friend who had been willing to attempt the impossible; to caretake over a deranged dream on the futile chance it could bring him some happiness. He focused all his will on carving her a reprieve. He was drawing the void’s attention to him. Perhaps she could protect herself beyond that.
“About time,” she said wearily, no longer under constant assault. Her fur was matted with blood and cuts, but she refused to be slowed or to lose her edge. Unbreakable, he believed. “Keep it distracted, I will try and put it back or banish it.” She was old, and wise, and a powerful nogitsune, but even she did not fully understand what Ratten had unleashed.
Ratten knew that if she tried, his meek protection would be lifted. But he couldn’t risk speaking again to warn her. The dirge would turn back upon her, and its attention would never again be lifted. He would either stop it here or Tomoe would die—because of him. The wings slashed like blades and burned like ice. Ratten peeled off the highest notes he could, trying to punch some sound through the cacophony. Pain began to swelter in his head, growing until it was a scalding ice pick, stabbing and stirring.
The creeping doom was no longer mocking, perhaps having detected a threat to its freedom. It pushed against a shrinking bubble that had laced about it unnoticed, delicate as spider silk, but strong when bound together. Ratten had stalled its growth. Apoplectic, the music crested and slammed down upon the bard. It burrowed into his head seeking agony. Ratten was knocked prone and his back arched to the breaking point. His scream was terrifying and inhuman. Something in his head popped, and he felt a river of blood upon his face. But this was exactly what he had hoped for. The binding threads followed the dirge in its diving attack and drew tight. The song had pulled its own noose.
“In the end, you’ll only take me,” he said to the tune that had, for so long, been his hateful ally. The nothingness seemed satisfied with that arrangement.
“Use your music on me again, Ratten, and I’ll make you believe you’re a turtle for the remainder of your miserable existence.”
Ratten’s blood-crusted eye cracked open. There was a fox before him, panting a laugh. When he blinked again, it was a bruised and cut swordswoman. Tomoe was adjusting bandages upon his head. One of the wraps covered his left eye. He reached to touch it, but she gently held him back, shaking her head.
“There was nothing I could do about that, Ratten.” She apologized, “But it does make you look… mysterious and dashing?” He tried to smile a thank you for her attempt at humor, but ended up spitting out the gore and saliva that had pooled in his throat. She helped him sit up, knowing he would mend fast. “I’m somewhat surprised you survived—but I am a fantastic field medic.”
“How…long?” he croaked.
“You slept for two days, drooling on me. Disgraceful -”
He shook his head slow, “How long?”
“Oh.” Tomoe was somber, “A year, give or take. Not everything happened as it happened. I had to adjust certain memories, certain events. Most of the town wasn’t even real. But…a year.” A nothing and an eternity.
“Not…your fault,” he said. Ratten remembered now, remembered the deal, remembered why he had made it. The difficulty of it had required their magics in tandem. Tomoe had indeed tried to warn him, but he had seen a quick fix, a chance at a long, boring life. One where his loved ones wouldn’t end up as targets. She was an old, wise nogitsune. The better the advice, the more rarely he took it. His nature had caught up in the end.
He closed his eyes and rested a few hours more, while Tomoe dutifully tended his wounds. Soon he could walk, but his eye was beyond recovery. He’d wear the scar so he wouldn’t forget.
“How real was she?” Ratten asked her later, while he prepared to move on. Tomoe looked confused. “Saya. Was she…I don’t know. Could she think?”
“It’s a bit complicated; I might have put a bit too much of me into Saya. She had a will of sort…” Tomoe realized that wasn’t what her friend was asking. “How real is anything, Rattenfanger? Was she real to you?” He thought, feeling like an imbecile, but gave an affirmative nod. “Then remember it fondly,” the nogitsune told him.
Ratten would return to wandering. He thanked Tomoe and collected his things. She still had his rosewood flute, returning it now per agreement. As he walked away Tomoe delicately nudged; despite all that had transpired, would he go back? Had he found what he sought? Would he have her try again?
He looked back at her, as she stood in the doorway of the home he had never known. “It wasn’t real, Tomoe. I’m happier this way.”
And then he turned and walked away. A half-smile cracked upon his face, jagged like a wound.
He was happier this way. That is what the Rattenfanger told himself.