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Mist hung low in the mountainside forest, raising the hairs on the child's tail as he stalked toward his prey. As long as he had been here, these woods were yet foreign to him; each inch he grew brought with it a new perspective, changing everything he thought he had known. Some things would never change, though. Not the comfort of softly streaming rays from a rising sun cutting through the canopy, nor the feel of grass between his toes, still wet with dew, nor the smell of a wayward goat unaware of its fate, nor the thrill of a clean kill. It was a rarity for him, but growing more common with each venture out of his cave.
For all of that, though, he'd just as soon have his mother's warm embrace, or his father's deep whooping laughter. The thought of home quieted his steps, steadied his breathing. His parents had taught him well, and their faces conjured up every lesson. You'll want to keep your eyes on your prey, but your feet are more important. You can't hear twigs, or rocks, or pitfalls. Silently, he stepped forward, toes sinking into muddy grass as he let loose his claws. Be mindful of your shadow, and your smell. They're as much a part of you as your limbs. Ducking from thick trunk to bush to boulder, he worked his way toward the sun – and his quarry. Remember the wind, always. It's a fickle thing, and it can ruin a man. That much, at least, was easy.
Before the goat could blink at him, his claws were soaked in its blood.
Finally allowing himself a satisfied sigh, he looked over his work. He had mostly kept it to the head, though a gash or two had slipped to the creature's chest as it fell. It was a messy affair, blood and brains and bowels all emptying onto the earth, but it was cleaner than his usual, which brought a small swelling of pride upon him. Some day, he hoped to be able to match his father's precise strikes. He remembered fondly the time he had gone out with him and returned with two deer, a boar that took two men to carry, and a rack of pheasants, each of them unmarked but for one or two bloody holes in their heads.
Of course, his father had been a hunter all his life. He was fond of boasting over crowded tables that he had taught Tenma himself, and though everyone knew it was a lie they let him weave his tales. Dogs couldn't afford to look down on dogs, and none among them could fault him for taking pride in his work. He was the best hunter among them, a captain of his own squad for all it was worth. Sometimes they would pat the child on the head, which he liked, and tell him all about how great he would be some day, which he liked even more.
The buzzing of flies reached his ears, the quickest of the bunch. Cursing their constant presence, he strapped the feet of his prize together as to carry it, and made his way toward the nearest entrance to the caves. Before ten steps, though, he was pinned to the ground. They're back, he thought disdainfully. No sound had ever marked their coming, nor had he been able to catch a glimpse of them. He knew only their voices, and that when they came for him it meant pain and loss. Maybe this time they'll make it quick. They never did.
The raspy one was the first to speak. "What have we got here? Seems like our little puppy's growing some fangs." His voice grated on the child like nails against bark. It hadn't always, but he was the cruelest of the three, and he liked to talk while he beat him.
"Big ones, too. Got yourself a pretty decent billy, didn't you, kid?" This one's voice was deeper. It almost sounded like his father's if he let it, and that made it all the worse. The others laughed at some joke he didn't understand.
The woman, though; she was the worst. "And a clean kill, too. You're growing into quite the hunter." A soft rustling drew her closer to his ears, and he could feel the stroke of a finger on one as she spoke. "I might just lay claim to you, if you keep this up. Wouldn't that be fun?" The thought made the child's stomach crawl, and he turned his head as best he could. His nose scraped against the dirt, and it trudged up the smell of death. Blood wasn't so pleasant when it was rubbed on his lip. "No answer for me?" Her voice sounded hurt, but she was a bad actor. He didn't reply, and when next she spoke he could barely hear it over the ringing her kick left in his ears. "Fine! Suit yourself!" Another strike, this time a stomp on his back that blew the air from his lungs. "Fucking mutt." There was a splash, and a warm wetness on his cheek. He couldn't close his eyes fast enough to keep the spit from them.
His father's impostor didn't hesitate to hit him for so long. "You know, most of your kind would consider it an honor to serve our dear Touko." Each blow came in a different spot, and each one was more agonizing than the last. He had plenty of practice taking them by now, but pain is pain, and by the end of it he could do little more than lay limply in the dirt, waiting for the end of it.
The raspy one continued, just as fiercely and just as scornfully. "You should learn your place, kid. We don't like doing this either. It's for your own good!" The last one had been more than he could take, and he let out a cry despite himself. This time the blows felt different, sharper. A stick, he realized through a rapidly thickening haze, as bits of skin were rended from his back.
Touko picked up where he left off. "Look, kid, you can't function in society like this. We're doing you a favor." He didn't understand her. They said this or something like it nearly every time, but his parents had never hurt him like this, and his friends wouldn't either. If anyone was going to do him a favor, wouldn't it be them? The idea of suffering by their hands like this made his heart ache. "Look at that! He's crying!" Was he? His whole body burned, it was hard to tell. "This little shit is actually crying. Listen. Listen, kid. Are you listening?" He tried to respond; a word, a nod, a twitch, anything, but their blows were too fierce and his body refused to move.
"I said listen!" He was struck for his disobedience, and he coughed painfully in reply. "My father's fought in wars. He's seen men die – good men, friends and family. He's got scars all down his body, and he fought to the end of every single battle, and he never. Cried. You know why?" He found it hard to believe, but he wouldn't dare say as much even if he could. He was struck for not answering. "Because he's a real tengu. You? You're fucking pathetic. I change my mind about taking you. Your goat's worth more." Another rustle, and he knew his goat was theirs. "I don't even want to look at you. Let's get out of here, guys." With one last kick, the three of them were gone.
The child lay there for a long time, listening to flies gather around the blood his goat had spilled when he dropped it.
Under the surface, sunlight gave way to lanterns hanging secure from support beams and rafters. On other days the child would entertain himself throughout the long, twisted, and lonely walk with the shadows they cast on the rough-cut walls, dancing flames bringing life to the creatures of his imagination. Today, he struggled to keep his eyes open in the darkness, searching for the gaping hole that was the entrance to his home. "A dog should always be ready to answer when called," he had been told when he asked why they didn't get doors, too. "A door that never closes is a waste of space."
Haruka Minamiyorinu had just set herself to the task of cleaning her family's hovel when her son stumbled weakly through the door. It wasn't much of a home by tengu standards; what little furniture occupied the two rooms they were allowed was stone, carved out from the expanse of rocks like so many of the dogs' quarters. The only comforts they had they would weave or reap themselves, though the more skilled weavers were happy to trade their services. No one is good at everything, after all. A home is what you make of it, though, and his mother's mere presence gave the boy solace, let him forget his aching legs for a moment. He had eyed a few fallen branches he might have used as a cane on his way in, but his pride hadn't completely abandoned him yet.
"Mom..." Fighting to keep the tears from welling up again, he called from the doorway with a trembling voice.
"Yes, my love?" Though her answer was calm, she couldn't keep the tinge of worry from her voice as she called back from out of sight.
It was harder not to cry, this time. He knew she didn't mean any ill, but for just a split-second the boy was angry with her for not rushing to him as he'd hoped she would. "...Can I have a bath?" His legs shook underneath him, ready to give out ages ago. It wouldn't do to be weak, though. I'm a real tengu, too, he thought, putting all his strength into standing. I'm a real tengu.
"Of course, love. Go sit in the basin, I'll be right there." Walking was beyond him, though. Having stopped moving, the fatigue set in his legs, and their violent shaking became too much for him. He dropped to his knees and bit back a cry as his injuries stabbed through him anew.
What little noise he made was enough for his mother, though, and in an instant she was on him. "Ichijin! What happened?!" She hadn't expected an answer; he wouldn't give one the last six times, either. Putting her question to the side before it was even out of her mouth, she tried to help him up. Her hands were gentle, but no amount of gentleness could soothe his sores, and he cried out agonizingly. "Come on, honey, it's just a few more steps. Mommy's gonna make this all better." Knowing how much it would hurt was enough to help him bite back his voice, and when she next lifted him Ichijin stood with a whimper. By the time they reached the one-person bath that stood in the corner, his mother had to lift him into it herself.
"Just relax, honey. The fire's started up, I'm going to find some medical supplies." Haruka had been raised to be a nurse, though being a dog it was as much as she could hope to be. She had never been allowed into battle, and she would never be given more than an assistant's role, but the profession had been kind to her nonetheless. Being able to treat her husband and later her son had been more than enough to make it worthwhile for her, and other dogs were especially grateful. Her work was endless, though, and her body was anything but tireless. Even now, her silky black hair was in disarray and bags hung heavy under her deep green eyes as she ran off to some cabinet or another. Ichijin couldn't keep his attention focused once the water had started warming.
One thing was clear, though. A sharp voice called from the tunnels, "Haruka! Haruka, where are you?" It echoed in through their 'door', only just close enough to hear.
In that instant, Ichijin knew his wounds would wait. "Coming!" She could spare him only one light kiss on his untouched forehead and an, "I'm sorry, love. I'll be back." before rushing off to meet her master. That much he couldn't blame her for. She had been claimed long ago; good nurses were in high demand. Still, the bath was enough to soothe him somewhat, and in its warmth he watched the shadows dance on the walls as he slowly fell asleep.
When he awoke his mother was still gone, but Isamu Minamiyorinu was waiting for him, all sinew and grit. His short-cut hair made his rough skin and sharp jaw clear as day, and when the fires hit his ruby eyes they burned right back. The moment he laid eyes on him, the boy nearly swallowed his tongue; for an instant he thought it was the impostor. He wasn't pleased, Ichijin could tell. "Crows." Leaning over the side of the bath, unafraid of the flames beneath it, his father said the only word that needed saying. "What did you do this time?" His voice was barely above a whisper, but the words were striking all the same.
He could keep silent for his mother, but his father's glare demanded answers, and he couldn't help but give them. "Nothing," Ichijin replied warily, his voice cracking a bit as he remembered. "I was hunting, and they just..." His voice trailed off, unsure of how to continue. He wouldn't dare lie to his father, but he was just as hesitant to accuse the crows of this.
Isamu, though, wasn't. "Pinned you, beat you, took your quarry?" His voice was low and steady as his face. He wasn't one to show his son anger, but he could tell it was there all the same. "An old story."
"A true one." Having his father say it first emboldened him, though he fell silent all the same.
For a short while, they sat together, content to stew in shared contempt. As the fires grew dimmer, though, questions raged in Ichijin's mind, demanding to be asked. "Why do they do this? Why do people let them do this?" It didn't seem fair, and truly it wasn't. He'd never done anything like this, but they came for him all the same. Near as he could tell, no one came for them.
"...Even if they're tengu, a crow's a crow. They take what they can take, and give nothing in return." The answer only raised more questions, and now they buzzed in his head like flies around death.
"Then why do they deserve to? Why can't someone stop them?!" Without realizing it, he had started shouting. His father stared at him hard, and he sunk down in his seat. "It's...it's not fair."
A sigh escaped Isamu's lips, tired and resigned. "No, it isn't. But it's the life we're given." Reaching over with a thick arm, he reached over to rest a hand on his son's head. Slowly rubbing his fingers through his hair, he continued. "Listen, Ichi. We're tengu before anything. Before men and women, before dogs and wolves and crows, before we're youkai, we're tengu. If everyone got revenge for every quarrel, the mountain would collapse before anything got settled. I know you have no love for them, but they're your brothers just the same, understand?" He didn't, really, but he nodded anyways. "This mountain is the only place we have, and it takes all sorts to keep it ours. I know it isn't easy putting things behind you, but...try to make it work." There was a sadness in Isamu's eyes, but pride shone through it when his son replied.
"...Okay, Dad." He couldn't hide his anger, but he had never broken a promise to his parents before, and he didn't intend to start.
"Good. Now, what should we do for dinner?" It was supposed to be goat, tonight.
Ichijin didn't have to wait long to meet them again. Sitting on a soft patch of earth by the river, he had been practicing carving, a small pile of wood by his side and a dulled dirk in his hand. As always, he was on the ground by the time he knew they were there. His wounds had already healed by then, sped along by both his mother's aid and his nature as a youkai, but their very memory made the spots they had once been sore. It was harder than ever to bite back a cry when his cheekbone landed hard on rock, and harder still when they greeted him with a stomp. The earth beneath him was rocky, and the blow came from both sides because of it. There was a slow burning in his arm where his dirk had landed, though thankfully it was only a scratch.
He was the first to speak, this time. "What do you want?" His father's talk rung in his head. If they were really his brothers, they'd respect that much. He still clenched though, bracing for the inevitable blow. It didn't seem to matter what he did or didn't do, they would strike him as they fancied.
Today, they didn't. "Holy shit, he has a voice!" Touko sat on his back, crushing his ribs against the stones beneath them. When next she spoke, it was from beside his ear. "Or am I hearing things? Did you ask me something, kid?"
Speaking was difficult under her weight, but with labored breath he repeated, "What do you want?"
What came out was more of a groan, but they understood him well enough. "It looks like he wants to talk to us for a change. Let him up." That easily, her weight was off of him, and their arms lifted him to his feet...and a hand's width higher. For the first time, he glimpsed his tormenter, a gaunt woman with hair black as night like almost all the crows. You might see brown among the younger ones, but even that tended to be dark enough not to make a difference. Her eyes shone blue as the sky, frightfully beautiful things under carefully plucked brows. Her lips were thin and straight but for the edges, where there was the slightest hint of a smile. The white and red robes of scouts hung over all three of them; he could tell that much from his peripheral vision. He didn't want to risk taking his eyes off Touko, though.
"That's a pretty odd question, kid. What do we want..." Tapping her chin thoughtfully, she paced for only long enough to turn her back to Ichijin. "I know you're a little too simple to get this, but. Scouting's a boring job. I was going to be a general, you know. Studied my ass off, too. I know damn well I'm qualified. They put me here, though. With the scouts." He didn't quite follow why she was telling all this to him – or to the clouds off in front of him, anyways. "Sure, it was fun at first, but I need something to do. There's been nothing to report for weeks. You see where I'm coming from?" Truthfully, he didn't. Wasn't it enough to spend your days in the open air? Wasn't it good enough to live to explore the mountain they called home?
He was still too frightened to speak his mind, though. "Yeah, I think."
She turned to face him with that sickening half-smile of hers. "You're not such a retard after all, are you? So if you get that much, maybe you can answer your own question. What do we want?" She leaned in close, her lips beginning to part over teeth smooth as a human's, but sharp as razors.
It was clear that she wanted an answer. "...Something to do?" he hazarded.
The answer only drew out a sigh from her. "Dumbass. Well, hey, maybe if you learned how to talk you learned how to fight, too." Nodding to the one to his left, she drew a dirk from her belt. When his hand was free of Ichijin, whose feet landed sorely on the rocks, she tossed it to him.
This one was short and small, a wolf by the looks of his tail. Dirty white ears over matching hair; one of the higher families, most likely. He kicked off his sandals and spun the blade in his hand, experimenting with the grip. Small as he was, his muscles more than made up for it. He looked like he might lift the mountain if he needed to, veins popping from exposed arms. The sleeves of his outfit were torn; some of the scouts favored the style, but Ichijin always thought it looked stupid. "Don't worry, kid. I won't kill you." The raspy one.
The other let go of his arm and backed away. All eyes were on him, but he hesitated to grab his knife. "Do I have to fight?" Nothing they did made much sense to him, this least of all. He hoped it was all some bizarre joke.
"I guess you don't have to, but that doesn't mean he won't." Ichijin didn't want to look at his father's impostor. If he pretended hard enough, it almost seemed like his words were encouraging, and he didn't want to know whether they looked alike, too. "Five seconds."
Not waiting for him to count further, he bent to pick up his knife, holding it awkwardly. He'd never needed to fight with it before, nor had he wanted to. He understood which parts cut things, though, and figured that was half there was to know.
The fight, if you could call it that, was embarrassing beyond anything he'd suffered before. The wolf boy never even cut him, juggling the knife in the air as he deflected every strike Ichijin attempted. On the fourth go-round, he lost his knife and was promptly offered his opponent's. He was at least dextrous enough to catch it by the handle when it was tossed to him, but it didn't help him any. Without a knife to juggle, the wolf was all the nimbler, and after the tenth failed strike he bored of the game, ending it with a single knee to the stomach that sent blotches of color across Ichijin's vision.
One of the blades landed with a thunk, close enough to Southpaw's ear to leave behind a scratch and a sharp burning. They'd not cut him before, and knowing that they could made his position all the more terrifying. "Nice try, kid. Maybe if I was one-legged you would have gotten me."
"What happened to those fangs, kid? I was hoping you'd last longer than thirty seconds." Thirty seconds was longer than he'd been hoping for even before he realized how outclassed he was. "Maybe we should teach him a thing or two." He'd only realized what his father's impostor meant when his foot made contact, and by then it was too late to stop the onslaught. It was all he could do to try not to think about it.
When they allowed him a painful breath, he wheezed out a single question. "Why?"
He could swear he heard a laugh, though he may have only imagined it. "If you still have to ask, it means we're not done."
He waited patiently as his brothers taught him their lesson: a dog's place was at his master's feet.