Title: Spirt of the Fox
Author: Silver Dragonfly
Genre: General, Supernatural, Drama
Rating: PG -13
Fandom: Yu Yu Hakusho, Teen Wolf
Character Focus/Pairing: Kurama (Yu Yu Hakusho)
Warnings: possession (of the spirit or soul), Canon typical violence, minor character death
Challenge: Big Moxie Q2 – Fusion
Beta: N/A – This is a grammar-checked 1st Draft. I will likely go back and do a full edit later on but wanted to get the story up for Big Moxie 2023 – Q2.
Summary: Ten years after the first Maikai Tournament, Reikai calls on Kurama to help with a case once more. This case takes Kurama to North America where he must learn to navigate a very different supernatural community that he is used to. Reikai’s lack of oversight in the Western World of North America and Europe has created many problems and the further he investigates, the more Kurama uncovers. While uncovering and navigating these new dangers he must deal with his primary task and find the demon that Reikai has detected is breaking free of its prison.
See the main story page for Author Notes.
Kurama dug down carefully through the layers of ferns and plants to reveal the ground below and frowned at the disturbed dirt and detritus below. It was the fourth empty nest of the carnivorous plant he had found today. Cleary the Makai-native plant was self-aware enough to realize that it was no longer the hunter, but the prey. He sat back on his heels and considered the problem. The first few had been easy enough to find and deal with, the next several had adapted better to their new surroundings. This one however was taking its adaptability to a level he normally only saw in the deepest jungles of Makai, not in the nature preserve north of the mountain that was his namesake in the Kyoto prefecture of the Kansai region of Japan in the Ningenkai.
There was no way this particular plant had found its way here on its own either, someone would have had to have brought it. Whether they knew what it was they carried before they themselves had very likely become a victim was another matter altogether. He had not found any signs of human remains, yet this plant wouldn’t likely leave any. The few victims that had been found the priests of the Inari temple in the region had dealt with. That had held true until one of the priests themselves had been attacked. They had then reached out to Kurama to come investigate and deal with the infestation.
Kurama sighed; he would have to find bait for a trap. He began to gather his tools and repack his knapsack, then paused sensing someone new had arrived. He stood slowly and stretched before looking out at the trees around him. No one was visible. He hummed in thought and then smiled. “You can come out, Botan.”
“Hiya Red. It’s been a while.” The pale blue-haired Shinigami of Reikai greeted him, her personality bubbly as always.
“It has indeed. Koenma keeping you busy?”
Botan laughed, “Oh you know me, I don’t like to sit around idle. I do miss meeting up with you and the other boys. Yusuke and the others never let things be dull.”
Kurama smiled at the memories of the trouble that used to find them regularly. “Well, it’s good for the rest of the world that we aren’t needed to fight for the good of the world. How so many things managed to slip past King Enma and land on Koenma’s desk I will never understand.”
“Bureaucracy.” Botan nodded sagely. “I haven’t been able to drop by the mountain shrine lately, have you kept in touch with everyone?”
“Oh, we’ve all drifted apart somewhat but we still get together every few weeks or so if we can manage it. It’s been nearly a couple of months now though, unfortunately, and maybe a while yet before we all get together again sadly. Yusuke is being kept busy with his job as a trainer in Makai and the travel back and forth between Makai and Ningenkai. He not only brought stability to Makai with the implementation of that three-year tournament election system he orchestrated ten years ago but found himself a career. Last I heard, he had to make one last trip before he comes home for an extended stay. Keiko is five months pregnant.”
Botan’s jaw dropped. “You’re joking!”
Kurama shook his head. “The absolute truth. She’s thought about taking an extended leave up at the shrine herself with Yukina and Shizuru but decided to stay in town with her mother for the time being instead.”
“Yusuke must’ve flipped!” Botan said with glee.
Kurama bit back a snort, flipped was one way of putting it. “He flat-out fainted from what Keiko told everyone. Some big tough spirit detective, can’t handle the news he’s going to be a father.”
Botan twisted her fingers and fidgeted, “I really do need to take the time to catch up with everyone. I miss the girls’ days with Keiko, Shizuru, and Yukina.”
“I’m certain they would be happy to see you.”
“So Shizuru is staying up at Genkai’s old place with Yukina?” Botan asked.
“That’s right. She’s taking distance courses for nursing while Kuwabara is tied up in his apprenticeship.”
Botan’s eyes went wide, “He got it then?”
Kurama nodded. “Yes, he’s learning the art of the forge from one of the last few known swordcraft masters. His master required him to commit to the apprenticeship up front with no distractions for at least ten years, so he begged Shizuru to look after Yukina before he packed his bags and accepted.”
“Wow, that’s amazing for the big lug. Is Yukina okay with it?”
“She seems to be happy for him and enjoys the letters he sends her weekly. She has also been following along with Shizuru in her medical studies to see how it compares to what she already knows. Hiei, of course, is happy to have Kuwabara away from his sister for the time being.”
Botan huffed. “He would. Is he still working the patrols between Makai and Ningenkai?”
Kurama shrugged. “When it amuses him to do so. He does enjoy tricking the humans that stumble too far into the Maikai to wander back on their own. He thinks my own continued efforts to blend into human society are boring.”
Botan shook her head amused, “That guy would. Just what are you doing out here in the middle of the forest anyways?”
Kurama hummed as he bent down and laid his palm flat on the ground for a moment before he rose again with his knapsack in hand and tossed it over one shoulder. “Hunting a few invasive species.”
Botan frowned. “Invasive plants? Here?”
Kurama grinned sharply as he eyed a trembling leaf patch just behind Botan to her left. “Yes, this one in particular is a bit vicious.”
“What’s it doing? Killing other plants or the trees?”
“Not exactly—Ha!” Kurama lashed out quickly with his favored rose whip and smirked as the plant now ensnared in its thorns squealed and thrashed. “I’ve been hunting this fellow for days.”
Botan whirled as the whip snapped past her and stared wide-eyed and mouth agape as she pointed at the plant that even now Kurama was busy subduing further her feet slowly sinking out from under her. “That’s a Kui Korosu!”
Kurama glanced her way. “I’m surprised you recognize a soul devourer.”
“It tried to eat me!”
“So, it did. Your spiritual energy must have been quite a tempting snack. It had been hiding from me for the last several days.”
“You let it go after me!” Botan shrieked.
Kurama frowned at her. “Calm down, Botan. I did no such thing. I told you it had been avoiding me. That it decided trying to eat you was worth the risk of my catching it, is not my fault.”
“You could have warned me!” She huffed.
Kurama chuckled. “Where is the fun in that?” With a final flare of his youkai, the writhing Kui Korosu shriveled up and crumbled to ash. “After all, how was I to know you weren’t out here because of it in the first place? Now, how about you tell me what it is Koenma wants?”
Botan pouted. “I can’t just come to see you?”
“In the middle of nowhere?” Kurama countered as he offered a hand back onto her feet.
“Fine. Koenma wants to see you right away. He has something that has come up that he really hopes you will agree to look into.”
Kurama frowned, “I thought my community service time as part of Yusuke’s team was resolved?”
Botan shook her head and held up her hands in surrender, “No, nothing like that! Will you come see him, please? I can’t explain it here.”
Kurama sighed and looked around them to make sure he wasn’t forgetting anything. “I need to stop at the Inari temple first.”
“No problem!” Botan said brightly, her oar already in hand.
Kurama sidestepped an administrative ogre before they could collide and send the stacks of files the ogre carried flying everywhere. Everywhere around them Shinigami like Botan and other various administrative staff members were busy rushing around carrying various stacks of files while still more staff were sorting through stacks of files that were towering over the desks they were piled up on.
Kurama frowned as he took the sight in, even in all the years and crises he and Yusuke’s team had been called in to help solve he had never seen the administrative offices of Reikai look quite like this. “Botan, what is going on?” he asked, still trying to find some hint of pattern to the chaos.
Botan shook her head sending her blue ponytail to swish behind her. “Koenma will explain. This way!” She quickly dodged another file-laden ogre and began heading toward the hallway that Kurama recognized as leading up to Koenma’s office. Kurama frowned. Something big was going on, but only he had been called? This didn’t make sense. He followed Botan even as he puzzled over the issue. Each floor they passed just showed more of the unusually busy staff and a chaotic number of files being reviewed. Kurama was almost relieved to find the hallway leading into Koenma’s office free of the stacks of paper. Botan glanced back at him with a reassuring smile before she knocked on the office door.
“I’ve brought Kurama, Sir,” Botan called back through the door.
“Well, why didn’t you say so! Bring him in!” Botan huffed but pulled the door open and gave Kurama a wry smile before gesturing him to enter.
Kurama nodded to her and entered the office, not quite sure what to expect this time. The flurry of paperwork present throughout every other floor was absent save for a single folder set in the middle of the desk. The tall office chair itself was turned away from the desk and instead was facing the large flat screen panel mounted on the wall behind the desk that currently was displaying a series of clips of what appeared to be wolf-based youkai in various interactions with humans.
The video paused and the screen went blank before the chair turned to reveal the familiar toddler-like appearance of the prince and leader of Reikai. It was a relief Kurama realized that he was still in the toddler-like form as it meant he was still conserving his power and had not been forced to do anything drastic as of yet. The only time Kurama had seen Koenma assume the form of a young adult which was more in line with his true age, had been when he had been on Ningenkai or been about to enter a situation himself instead of just sending one of his various agents. The scowl and crossed arms were familiar enough, even if they did make Reikai’s leader resemble a pouting toddler in mannerisms as well as body.
“Thank you for coming in, Kurama,” Koenma spoke first.
“I must admit, I was surprised by Botan’s summons. Even more so by the situation downstairs.” Kurama answered, his curiosity not willing to wait for pleasantries any more than Koenma’s temper by the looks of things.
“Two months ago, we got an alert about the seal on a particular demon’s prison weakening. Turns out this was the second alert on the file, but the first one went unreported as a warning, but no danger was identified. The second was more severe and so caught more attention.” Koenma explained.
Kurama frowned. “You deal with demons all the time, what is so special about this one?”
“Tell me,” Koenma began as he opened the file that had been waiting on his desk. “What do you know of the chaos fox known as The Nogitsune?”
Kurama blinked in surprise, “They were an individual well known for possession and mischief in Makai. However, they disappeared and hadn’t been heard from in almost a century if I’m not mistaken.”
Koenma nodded. “We received a report from a Tenko Kitsune in Ningenkai in the 1940s about its presence in the Ningenkai, specifically in The United States. The Tenko reported the matter dealt with in that The Nogitsune had been captured and sealed away. The Tenko refused further contact with Reiki but did provide us with the required energy signature to keep a monitor on The Nogitsune’s seal. Nothing more was done about it at the time beyond filing the report and setting up the monitor system.” Koenma explained.
“This is the demon you received the alarm on?” Kurama asked, beginning to suspect where this was going.
“Correct. We reached out to the Tenko Kitsune who reported the issue but have been unable to establish contact with her. No location details for the whereabouts of The Nogitsune’s prison were documented other than ‘in a jar’, so you can understand our concerns.” Koenma explained.
Kurama hummed, “Yes, it could literally be anywhere. In any type of vessel that could be described as a jar, and due to the alarms you’ve received, in any state of repair.”
“Just so. I would like you to track down the Tenko Kitsune named Noshiko and find out what more you can about the original event as well as The Nogitsune’s current condition. Once located, if at all possible, do what you can to deal with The Nogitsune so it does not become a problem. We do not need a chaos fox with a taste for murder running rampant in North America!”
Kurama frowned. “I understand, Sir. I may have a personal history with The Nogitsune, is that going to be a problem?”
Koenma’s eyebrow spasmed. “What sort of personal history?”
Kurama shrugged, “I may have known them in the past in Maikai if they are in fact the kitsune I suspect they are.”
Koenma scowled. “Will it interfere with you representing Reikai on this matter?”
Kurama shook his head. “No. I may have made banditry a habit in the past, but my alignment with Yusuke and my human connections has changed that permanently.”
“Very good,” Koenma said, obviously a bit relieved. “This file has all the information we were able to find on The Nogitsune and Yukimura Noshiko. If you decide you need backup, please contact Botan and we’ll see to arranging it.”
“If I may ask, this alone can’t be the cause of the mess downstairs?” Kurama asked.
Koenma scowled and seemed a hair’s breadth away from a complete temper tantrum. “My father, somehow, let all active Reikai agents lapse throughout North America. We are scrambling to find anyone still alive we can begin to re-establish a network with.” He explained, his words clipped.
Koenma sighed, “Be careful Kurama. We don’t know what is going on in the Supernatural world in that area of the world currently. This is the first alarm we’ve had in that region in over two hundred years. If that Tenko Kitsune, a Japan native, had not followed normal procedure to report The Nogitsune to us, we never would have known, and even then, details were missed.”
Kurama nodded, “I understand, Sir. I will let you know when I’ve made contact.” The red-headed spirit-fox turned human turned and headed out the door, his mind already working over the puzzle of how to track the Tenko Kitsune.
Kurama entered the kendo dojo of Ridgevale in Colorado with an amused smile as he took in the signs that were clear to one like himself, that a kitsune spent a lot of time here. Her power was layered into the entire structure, making it very clear that nothing that happened within these walls went unnoticed. She had very clearly been settled here for a number of years, which matched the information his source had given him.
“Can I help you?” a young man asked as he approached Kurama, college-aged, and a student of the dojo by the look of the gi he wore.
Kurama bowed respectfully. “I was told I could find Yukimura-sensei here?”
The young man hesitated, a frown marring his features.
“It’s all right Mark-san. I’ll see to our visitor. You have a class starting shortly.” The woman who came up from behind the young man appeared to be in her thirties. She wore her years well, but then all kitsune generally did.
“It’s good to meet you Yukimura-san. Our mutual friend, Houshi-san in Kyoto, told me where I might find you.”
The Tenko kitsune’s eyes narrowed at him shrewdly. “And how is Houshi-san’s health?”
Kurama smiled easily, “Very good. I had just finished clearing out a tangle of invasive plants for him in the region. He was quite pleased to be able to help when my next assignment required information, he was able to help me with.”
She remained formal and stiff, “Come, we will have tea in my office while we discuss the reason for your visit.”
“Of course, Yukimura-san.”
Kurama followed her easily, not interested in making her more uneasy than she already was. He understood her concern after all, he was no heavenly kitsune like herself, despite his current affiliations with Reikai. The heavenly kitsune, more commonly called Tenko, were a unique group. Their powers were almost always rooted in their divine affiliations with the kitsune goddess Inari and had an inherent element of reiki to them. Kurama, as a Yoko kitsune, even one so deeply affiliated with nature as he was, was still considered wild, unpredictable, and dark, just for being more attuned to a demon’s primal instincts. He was not surprised by her immediate distrust and dislike in the least.
Yukimura waited no longer than the time it took for the two of them to be seated and her office door locked, and sealed before she once more gave him the stink eye. “What could a Yoko possibly want with me? Particularly one who is hiding like you seem to be. Possession of humans is not allowed by Reikai and will get you sealed and evicted back to Makai.”
Kurama chuckled, “My name is Minamino Shuichi, I was born to a human mother, here in Ningenkai, so my presence here in Ningenkai in this form is completely legal. Before that happy-unfortunate event, I was known as Yoko Kurama. I am actually here on behalf of Reikai, Tenko Noshiko.”
She frowned and rose to pick up an electric kettle waiting on a side shelf. “I imagine Houshi-san told you then, not only how to find me but of my marriage to a human man. This conversation may require tea.” She quickly set about checking the levels of heated water available in the kettle and setting out two cups.
“Roughly sixty years ago you reported the sealing of a being known as The Nogitsune to Reikai, is that correct?” Kurama asked.
Noshiko froze in her motions, the water beginning to overfill her teacup before she caught herself. She quickly set the kettle down on the waiting hotplate and fetched a towel to wipe up the excess water all without saying a word. But Kurama watched her carefully, taking note as her fingers trembled, and her shoulders tensed and trembled in turns as she tried to keep from shaking.
“What do you need to know?” she finally asked, her voice a broken-sounding whisper. Kurama hesitated for a moment, wondering if she would even be able to give him the information, he needed based on her reaction so far, but pushed on. Tenko were not recognized for weakness in the face of strife, she may be in a weakened, but she was not broken.
“Based on the report you filed, Reikai set monitors on the energy signatures of the sealed prison of The Nogitsune. Sometime in the last decade, a warning was triggered, but it did not garner any attention from the staff who monitor such things. Roughly two months ago, a second alarm went off. The seal was weakening and would eventually fail, it’s just a matter of when.”
Noshiko Yukimura sank back into her seat slowly, her hands clenching on the desk surface before her. “I cannot help you. I gave everything I had to seal that creature. I have a daughter; she knows nothing of what we are. I thought to protect her from all of it. I cannot abandon her to help you with this.”
Kurama smiled softly then, “You know, I had planned to return to Maikai once I had recovered from the injury that saw me flee to Ningenkai in the first place.”
Noshiko frowned. “What changed your mind?
“My human mother and her willingness to take injury in my place, an injury that I caused even. It is an experience that changed my spirit.”
“And why are you telling me this?” She asked surprised.
“Because a mother’s desire to protect her children is a powerful motivator, and I want you to know that I understand what is driving your decision now. What can you tell me about The Nogitsune’s prison and its location?”
Noshiko frowned, “I sealed it in a jar. Nothing special about the jar, it was what we had at hand, but I gave up all my long years of wisdom and power to imbue it with the strength to contain that chaotic beast. A werewolf by the name of Ito Satomi helped me trap it. Then we buried it under a magical node somewhere in Northern California.”
Kurama frowned, “That’s it?”
Noshiko half shrugged. “Beacon something or other, I don’t remember. Some years ago, someone cast some sort of ward over the node that had made remembering it impossible. I would recommend contacting Satomi Ito, she still lives in that region.
Noshiko met his eyes evenly, her own power rising to the surface. “If you fail and the Nogitsune gets loose, it will cause as much mischief, mayhem, chaos, and death as it can get away with before it is dealt with again. I…” She trailed off turning to look at a photograph that hung on the wall that was clearly of her family. “If that happens, you must act quickly and decisively.”
Kurama nodded. “I understand your position on this matter Tenko Noshiko. Thank you for the information.”
“Wait.” Noshiko had risen to her feet, her palms pressed to the desk as if she would race after him. “Yoko Kurama, I know of your history. Tell me, how is it you came to serve Reikai?”
Kurama smiled to himself, “A human boy with a big heart determined that it was a terrible sin for me, a son, to die in his mother’s place and cause her to grieve me at the cost of her health. He saved my life and that of my human mother. May your fields shine bright in the starlight Tenko Noshiko.”
With that traditional farewell, he exited the office and headed out to his rented car. He had more research to do.
Kurama had made it back to his rental car and managed to navigate out onto the highway back toward his hotel before his self-invited passenger announced herself. “So, that’s it then? One conversation and you just leave?”
“It’s nice to see you again, Botan,” Kurama said with a smirk as he glanced at where she had made herself at home in his backseat. The blue-haired Shinigami leaned forward to brace her elbows on the front seats and rested her chin on her forearms.
“Come on Red, you had to know we would be keeping tabs on your movements,” Botan said amused.
“Of course, your attempts at sneaking up on me still need work.” Kurama offered evenly as he met her gaze in the mirror before returning his attention to the road before him.
“You didn’t find Tenko Noshiko then?” Botan asked disappointed.
Kurama hummed in thought as he considered what exactly to tell her. “No, you were correct in guessing that I did find Tenko Noshiko. She has settled in this area with her human husband and daughter. My sudden appearance upset her quite a bit.” Kurama offered.
Botan frowned. “Why would she be upset about someone from Reikai… unless she recognized your other self-first?”
“That would be correct, and her own experience with our current quarry left her very uncomfortable with any kitsune using a form of possession. It was a rather enlightening conversation.” Kurama said, a bit amused by his handling of it all.
“Is that why you are leaving after just one conversation with her?” Botan then asked, frowning.
“Not exactly. While it’s true I made her feel uncomfortable and threatened, she did at least hear me out. Unfortunately, there is now more than just a damaged seal likely at work. She could no longer name the exact location and the vessel she used to seal it was rather commonplace in form from how she described it. Other supernaturals and a magical node somewhere in Northern California are also likely involved. That, unfortunately, was all the information she could give me.”
Botan let out a heavy sigh. “Well, that blows.”
Kurama barely held back the laugh her sudden statement startled out of him. “Yes, yes it does.”
“More research then?” Botan asked.
“That would be correct. Hopefully, it won’t take me too long to pin down the exact area using the information Tenko Noshiko provided me.”
Botan flopped back in the seat and Kurama watched her in the mirror as she tapped her fingers on her chin and lips idly in thought. “Do you think Reikai should approach Tenko Noshiko individually to solidify our contact with her?”
Kurama nearly flinched at the thought of how the defensive mother would react to being approached again. “I’m not sure that’s wise. She’s likely to be very defensive against anyone remotely supernatural regardless of association due to her family. Best to give her space.”
“Will you need help with your research?” Botan asked.
Kurama shook his head. “Not yet I think. If Reikai still had a solid network with the supernatural community in the Americas, then that could probably be of assistance. From the mess Koenma described, I’m better working from mundane sources and finding what supernatural ones exist from there.” He smiled wryly then. “It won’t be the first time I’ve had to establish contacts from nothing.”
“Right. I’ll update Koenma on your progress.” Her appearance shifted from casual civilian clothing into the typical kimono of her role as Reikai Shinigami, a clear indicator she was no longer visible to casual non-paranormal observers. She floated gently up and phased out of the car on her traditional oar and was quickly floating along at speed alongside his driver-side window. “Don’t be afraid to call for help!” She called out and then soared up into the sky and disappeared.
The trees that made up the bulk of the forested area of the trail Kurama currently followed were mostly variations of pine, fir, hemlock, with cedars mixed in. It was a robust and healthy forest, despite it lacking the more otherworldly feel of the forests he was more used to spending time in. However, he was having to spend a fair amount of time establishing a network of contacts local to the area before he could make contact in the area he was truly aiming for, let alone with his primary targets. This meant playing nice, making friends, and doing favors.
He hoped Koenma realized that he would have to send another team to follow up and make additional connections of their own as Kurama’s connections would not stand for Reikai by themselves. He could help make it easier perhaps, but Koenma was going to owe him big.
Kurama had been able to make a few contacts with the local supernatural community in Colorado before he had left that area, but they had been able to offer him little in the way of information on contacts west of the Rocky Mountains. The supernatural community in the Americas was isolationist and close-mouthed. If you didn’t already know someone, who knew someone, then they were very reluctant to share their own network of contacts with you. Their paranoia about being discovered was alarming and concerning, considering Reikai’s lack oversight in the region. If Reikai wasn’t policing the supernatural, it slowly becoming clear someone else was and that was a problem Kurama wasn’t sure he wanted any part of.
His search had brought him a fair bit further north than he suspected his actual target would end up being, but his contact back in Japan had been able to put him touch with one of the only true Shinto kitsune shrines that existed on the North American continent. From here he hoped to be able to branch out and make more real connections with the reclusive wolf packs and other supernaturals that he had come to learn lived scattered amongst mundane humans with most, none the wiser, just as Noshiko had been with her dojo.
It was at that moment he rounded a final turn in the path and nine sets of nine steps leading up to the shrine rose before him. After each ninth step, a red Tori gate rose gracefully and bracketed the smoothed landing, its talismans secured tightly to the shimenawa rope suspended from it. He could feel a faint resonance from each tori gate as he began his climb, but it was distant, and nothing like the kitsune shrines he had visited in Japan, and yet there was recognition and power here.
He reached the top step and paused, his eyes taking in the tree carefully warded with a well-tended space around it. It wasn’t a yorishiro tree capable of housing the little kodama spirits, but it was being honored and treated like one. He surveyed the grounds, and while he recognized many of the trees could have the potential to grow into the sacred yorishiro, none of them actually were. It explained why the shrine’s presence felt so faint, and yet, it required an attuned kitsune or similar spirit to shepherd the trees into that form and it was very clear to him that the balance of such things on this continent was not normal.
“Can I help you?”
Kurama turned to the voice and found a man dressed in the traditional Shinto priest robes had joined him. “Your tree lacks the spiritual growth to house the kodama you are trying to provide for,” Kurama stated simply, curious to see what the response would be.
“Ah, you must be Minamino-san.” The man said with a grin. “Come inside, I’ll make us some tea.”
Kurama smiled, “Tea would be wonderful, thank you.”
He led him down a path around and behind several of the shrine buildings until they were soon walking down another manicured path. The priest turned over his shoulder and smiled at him, “When _Japanese Priest_ contacted me about helping you get in contact with the local communities, I was quite surprised. I had hoped to get your help for some time you see, but _Japanese Priest_ had said you were unlikely to leave Japan, but here we are.” It was then they approached a gate in a tall fence which he quickly unlatched and led them through to reveal a decent-sized cabin hidden behind.
“Ah forgive me for not properly introducing myself, I am Ken Takai, humble priest of the _Shrine Name_ here in the Northern Pacific of North America. We serve the Buddhist and Shinto communities of many up and down the Pacific coast, though few are able to make the trip to visit in person on any regular basis. You’ll find the supernatural community is much more territory driven across this continent than it is throughout Japan these days.”
Kurama hummed in consideration, “Yes, I suppose that does make sense. Most of those who would be prone to such territorial behavior retreated to Maikai when the barrier went up between Ningenkai and Maikai across Japan and the Asian continents. From what little I’ve learned from Reikai, that didn’t hold true for Europe and the Americas.”
“No, and even with my position here, I am still not considered a true insider to the community.”
Kurama frowned at that. “Why is that?”
Priest Takai laughed. “I am no shapeshifter or fae. I have nothing other about me, nor am I a magical or nature-touched like the druids. At most, I am blessed by Inari, and that lets me be ‘in-the-know’ as it were, but not of the community.”
“If that is true, will you be able to even get me an introduction?” Kurama asked.
“Ah, that is the most interesting thing about my position. My blessing from Inari means I have a form of true sight, even if I have no other real gifts. This means those that do know me, trust my word when it comes to my ability to identify others. I can give you an introduction to the packs in Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, and a mixed community that lives scattered around Sacramento.”
Kurama blinked in surprise, “They stay in the cities?”
“Yes and no. Some prefer to live in the suburbs. Some commute in for work. It depends on the individual, but there is only one Alpha for each of those city areas at large, so it easiest to refer to that way.”
“You mentioned that you had wanted to get in contact with me specifically before?” Kurama asked, deciding to shift the topic away from his own goals temporarily. It would do no good to back himself into a corner after all, and he was curious.
“Ah, yes. Your reputation precedes you in our circles Minamino-san, both of your identities in fact. You’ve made quite a name for yourself recently in Japan in dealing the sacred trees and invasive species amidst the protected spiritual forests. For those of dedicated to Inari, we are quite familiar with the legend and myths of the nine-tailed Youko Kurama.”
Kurama tensed, there were many reasons a priest of Inari could want to seek him out, both good and bad. Either way, he would have to proceed carefully, and he had no desire to become an offering to the kitsune goddess herself at this point in his existence.
“I wish to make this shrine a sanctuary. To do so, the shrine needs a stronger innate spiritual presence. The best and safest way for us to accomplish that is to cultivate the yorishiro and the kodama that live in them. As I’m sure you noticed, we have many native trees here with the potential, but that lack the innate spiritual presence to attract and give life to the kodama.”
Kurama relaxed and smiled, “And this is why you hoped to bring me here.”
“Just so. You are well known for your tending of the yorishiro in various areas of Japan, and from all accounts, there are no records of you ever being asked to do. Then there are less well-known stories of the birth of the first yorishiro.”
Kurama chuckled, “You are well-studied on the subject Takai-san.”
The man grinned, “It is a passion of mine. I may be a humble priest of Inari, but I am nearly ready to defend my dissertation for my Ph.D. in botany.”
“So, what is it you expect me to be able to do?” Kurama asked, he already suspected what the priest wanted, but he wasn’t going to give anything away.
“I would like you to start whatever process is needed to help one, or more of the trees here begin the transition. If possible, I would also like to learn what is required to do so.”
Kurama blinked. “You said earlier you had no real supernatural gifts?”
“It is necessary then? A supernatural talent?”
“The first yorishiro to come into being in all of Japan, was the product of a young spirit-gifted kitsune’s curiosity and experimentation. The end result was the creation of the yorishiro, the birth of the kodama, and the kitsune in question earning both their second and third tails. Many of the yorishiro that followed, sprouted from seedlings of that first, came from trees in which the kodama choose to attach themselves to, or a hybrid combination of both. “
Ken drooped in his seat. “It is not possible then?”
Kurama shrugged. “Not impossible, just difficult. Your best option would be to petition Reikai in the assistance in finding a willing kodama colony to migrate. They are rather adventurous little spirits and will take care of the trees that they choose to make their homes. That is what the yorishiro is, in the end. A symbiotic relationship between the host tree and the spirit creating something unique and other.”
Priest Takai frowned. “That’s not the first time you’ve mentioned Reikai. I do apologize Minamino-san, but I’m not familiar with the term, can you explain?”
Kurama barely kept from physically wincing. This was bad. “Reikai is the governing body of the supernatural world across the globe as you know it. They have a very strong presence throughout all of Japan and Asia. It was their organization and forces that were responsible for the retreat and all but complete separation of the more malicious and primal youkai from the mundane. There was a very solid barrier between the two realms until only recently, and even then, that boundary is monitored, and traffic crossing kept to a minimum. Just as humanity has seen the worst of the supernatural throughout history, so the supernatural has seen the worst of humanity.”
“And this Reikai oversees it all?”
“Of course, it is the physical representation of the spiritual world, and all souls pass through that space before moving on in whatever fashion they are inclined to do.”
“And they have employees who interact with both sides of things?”
Kurama sensed the Shinto priests growing anxiety with their topic. “They largely work in their own realm and only intervene in the human, or Ningenkai when necessary. It does happen though that supernatural forces clash, either with each other, or with the mundane and an intervention is required. I have worked in the past on such a team for Reikai in Japan. Their lack of contacts here in the Americas is what led me here to you now, as I am having to do all the groundwork myself as whatever contacts they had all dried up and vanished in the last 200 to 300 years.”
The priest let out a breath and seemed to relax slightly at that. “They are not responsible for the Hunters, then.”
Kurama frowned at the weight of meaning put behind the word. “You mean something specific, when you say, ‘The Hunters’?”
Priest Takai blinked in surprise. “You mean, you don’t know? But you are a supernatural yourself! Surely you were warned— but if they do not have a presence in Japan. You will have to take care Minamino-san. The Hunter families originated out of Europe and migrated to the Americas just as so many others did in the seventeen and eighteen hundreds. The supernatural community was of course already present in the native populations, but that is a story in and of itself.” _Priest Name_ gestured as he explained.
“The Hunters came and established themselves as the policing force of all those who are of other nature, whether they needed it or not.”
“I imagine most did not,” Kurama said wryly.
“Just so. Most prefer to police their own when there is an incident that requires it. Occasionally a situation requires assistance from outside the immediate community, but The Hunter families, for all that they claim to follow some honorable code, are really nothing more than racist and bigoted bullies looking for any excuse to hurt, persecute, and kill that which is different.”
“You have quite an opinion about it,” Kurama said a bit surprised. Generally, those called to serve Inari were fairly neutral and even-tempered.
“Yes, well, I had a pair of gifted youths who were affiliated with a pack that used to live nearby that were considering taking up oaths with the shrine. They were killed along with all the rest of their pack in a terrible fire several years ago. The fire itself was ruled as an accident and the entire thing a tragedy, but entire packs just don’t die in disasters like that with no survivors.”
“Not a one?” Kurama asked.
“None that have come out publicly. If they did survive, they went to ground and ran.”
“This of course happened just one month after their emissary, that is an individual affiliated with the pack who is magically gifted but not necessarily a shape shifter, was killed in a terrible car accident. I’m afraid it left them vulnerable.”
“And you think some of these Hunters are to blame?”
“It is the only thing that makes any kind of sense Minamino-san. I have known and been loosely affiliated with that pack my entire life. It might have become more, but my calling was always this shrine and so nothing more came of it, and I lost many close friends in that fire. The whole ordeal is a terrible tragedy and when I tried to reach out to others in the supernatural community for help, I received letters of sympathy but each pack has to look out for their own. They can’t risk drawing more attention to themselves and bringing the Hunters down in force.”
Kurama felt a little ill at the picture being painted. “And these Hunters answer to no one?”
“Supposedly they have some council, but there is no real way for isolated packs to make a complaint or petition against them. It’s not like they can bring it to the mundane investigative forces, even if it is a murder of a terrifying degree.”
“Yes, I could see where that would be an issue, and I appreciate all the information you’ve been able to provide me. Would it be all right for me to put you in contact with a representative of Reikai? At the very least you could work with them to see about finding a family or colony of kodama willing to migrate.” Kurama asked, deciding to try to move the conversation away from what would likely be a very large problem that was out of his scope, and he had every intention of dropping in Koenma’s lap.
Ken smiled wearily. “Yes, thank you. I think that would be very helpful. I’ll make sure you get the names of all the packs I still have a connection with, and who to make contact with. Was there a particular pack you were seeking?”
“I’m seeking to intervene with a particular supernatural element before it breaks out of its last known imprisonment. I was charged with this task by Reikai. Unfortunately, the information is over sixty years old and my first contact was able to give me little concrete. I have a very rough location and a single name.” Kurama explained.
“Well, that isn’t concerning at all.”
“I was given the name of an Alpha werewolf, Satomi Ito, do you know of them?”
Ken blinked in surprise. “Alpha Ito is a longtime patron of the shrine, despite her personal philosophies being more Buddhist than Shinto. She almost never makes the trip to visit it in person, but she sends us donations regularly. I should be able to put you in contact with her easily enough. If that was the name you were given, I Northern California to be the location?”
Kurama eyed the priest warily, “What do you know?”
“Only that the pack that used to be the most well-known and respected up and down the entire Pacific Coast vanished in a fire much like my friends. There were supposedly a few survivors, but they did not stay in the area. Beyond that, anyone of any magical ability who lives within 200 miles will tell you there is something wrong with the land in that area. The magical energy seems to becoming chaotic and drawing in problems. Those further out noticed the trend starting about fifteen years ago and has slowly been increasing in both frequency and severity.”
Kurama considered that information and suspected the first alert about the Nogitsune seal that Reikai had received that had gone unreported would match that timeline. “Then yes, that does seem to fit into my investigation.”
“I do not envy you going into that mess one bit. Those of the supernatural community who drift that way tend to disappear or end up dead.”
“What of Ito-san?”
“I will reach out to my contact with her pack tomorrow. We will see what form of communication they are open to initially and if they want a meeting in person. I am willing to facilitate such a meeting here, but Alpha Ito may prefer a more neutral ground or even something within her territory.” Ken explained. “It all depends on how she reacts to the news of your presence and identity. I will of course, only share with them what you wish me to.”
“Thank you, Takai-san, that is much appreciated.” Kurama considered his next move. “Do you have somewhere nearby that I could stay while arrangements are made? I will reach out to my contact with Reikai and arrange your introduction. I would also like to take a closer look at the trees on the grounds that have the potential to become yorishiro.”
“Yes, yes! Of course, we have several small guest cottages. We are honored to host you for as long as needed, you can stay in this cottage here, actually.” Ken said excitedly. “I will go and start the arrangements. Thank you, Minamino-san.”
Kurama chuckled at his excitement. “Thank you, Takai-san.”
Kurama waited for the priest to leave and then explored the small cottage in full, taking note of exit routes and security as he did so. He settled in for the night and sent a meeting request to Botan beginning his research into job options for himself in the region of where he suspected he would be heading. He kept the search parameters fairly broad and sent off several emails to research departments of some of the local universities with potential in the environmental sciences.
“Well, this is cozy,” Botan said in a way of greeting as she strolled into the small sitting room, he was set up in.
“Hello, Botan,” Kurama said in way of greeting and quickly updated her on what he had learned, as well as Ken Takai’s request regarding kodama.
“This is good news! Koenma will be thrilled that you managed to find a contact point like this. I’m sure he’ll be more than willing to grant Takai-san’s request regarding a kodama colony. They are some of our best sources of information with how they love to gossip.”
“Yes, and once they are here, I’m sure it won’t take them too long to start spreading,” Kurama added. They had done just that when he had first helped migrate some to regions of China only a few decades before the separation between Ningenkai and Makai. Being separated from the spirit trees and their kodama had been his biggest regret in migrating to Maikai in those early days since they had not moved with the rest of youkai kind.
“Anything else to report?” Botan asked.
“Not at this time. I’ll know more after I meet with Ito-san.”
Botan nodded and then summoned her oar to hand before perching on it easily. “I’ll go report this to Koenma. Take care!” She called out as she flew off.
Kurama shook his head and returned to his search. He wanted to be ready to move once he was certain of his destination.
Alpha Satomi Ito had agreed to meet with Kurama at a Japanese botanical garden in Portland, Oregon. The garden had a lovely tea house on their grounds that Alpha Ito arranged to use for them to meet. It gave them a public and yet private location. Kurama had arrived early and spent a fair bit of time in the botanical garden and enjoyed it. He wasn’t quite a fan of the very man-made look of the gardens as a whole, but he understood the reasoning behind it, and it made him want to branch out more. He had also identified several trees on the grounds that had the potential needed for the kodama to spread out into which was promising for the little spirits to spread once they settled in the region.
The meeting with Alpha Ito was tense to start with but quickly settled once his identity was verified and his intentions made clear. Red eyes had flashed frequently as he explained about the warning system that had been triggered in relation to The Nogitsune’s prison.
“That creature must not be allowed to roam free again. Chaos and death is all it brings to everyone it meets.” She all but growled as he finished his explanation on why he sought her out.
“Reikai would appreciate a full report on everything you remember about the previous incident when it first appeared in this region,” Kurama explained. “I would also greatly appreciate it if you could give me more directions about where to find where it was imprisoned. Noshiko-san was not able to tell me much more than Northern California.”
“Northern California has long been the territory of the Hale Pack. Some years back, before I rose to the status of Alpha, something in the heart of the Hale Pack territory changed drastically. I attempted to visit the site of The Nemeton of this region but was no longer able to find it. Something or someone is keeping it hidden. Then, near the beginning of this year, the Hale Pack all died in a fire.”
Kurama frowned. “You are telling me an entire family of supernaturally enhanced people were killed in a common house fire?”
“That is what the local reports said. The tragedy of it was ruled as nothing more than an accident and nothing more was done. We know better. The only survivors of the Hale family vanished quickly from the area as if they were running from an enemy who hunted them.”
Kurama grimaced. “Hunters killed the entire pack and made it look like an accident.”
“Yes, that is what I and many in my pack believe. There were many affiliated with the Hale Pack that were not part of the Hale family itself. They have also either vanished or quickly left and joined other packs in this region.”
“And what of this Nemeton, have you been able to seek it since the fire?”
“I have not tried. All of Beacon County and the nearby forest preserve that the Hale Pack once watched over has become more feral. I fear what it means for the future if it is not stabilized.”
“Beacon County?” Kurama asked.
“Yes, my own territory borders the county, but I will not try to claim what was once the Hale Pack territory. Something is still watching that territory and it is not friendly to outsiders. If you choose to go there, you will have to take great care, Minamino-san. It only takes a small pebble to start a landslide of trouble.”
“But that is where the Nogitsune was imprisoned?” Kurama wanted verification before he began finalizing his own plans.
“Yes, in the heart of the Hale Pack Territory, amidst the roots of The Nemeton itself. If that creature is what has brought ruin to the Hale Pack, then we are all at risk if it is not dealt with.”
“I do not believe the Nogitsune has broken free, but that does not mean it has not managed to influence those within its reach. I will have to investigate it to be sure.”
“And if it is breaking free?” Alpha Ito asked carefully.
“Then I will be making arrangements to remove and re-seal it as required.” Kurama let his aspect blend further with his human form, knowing this would cause his eyes to flash gold and the aura of his kitsune nature to be visible to all with the spiritual senses to see it.
Alpha Ito’s own eyes flashed red even as the beta wolves behind her flashed gold. “Well Minamino-san, you are quite unexpected, but even Tenko Noshiko had problems with that chaos creature.”
Kurama shrugged. “I am no fool Ito-san. If I require assistance, I have contacts I can all.”
She blinked in surprise then. “You will not expect myself or my pack to aid you?”
Kurama smiled then, relaxing. “It sounds like you have already been traumatized enough by The Nogitsune. I know its weaknesses and it will not be able to impact me.”
She stared at him then for several long moments before nodding. “I see.” She pulled out a business card and laid it down between them on the table. “If you need me or have any further questions, you will know how to reach me.” She paused then. “There is one more thing you should know. Rumors say there is one member of the Hale Pack still left in Beacon Hills. Peter Hale, born beta wolf, is rumored to have survived the fire, but in terrible condition. The last I heard, he was unconscious and being moved to a long-term care facility. His injuries were extremely severe from all accounts I was able to learn of, but access to him has been banned for anyone other than his immediate family who have left him there alone. If he is healing at all, he is in agony, and if he is not healing, well perhaps mercy would be better.”
Kurama blinked a little in surprise at her last comment, he hadn’t expected someone who lived amidst humans to be quite so callous. But then he considered the little bit he knew of the supernatural creatures called werewolves. They were not well known in Japan or the Asian and Indian parts of the continent, their more youkai counterpart being more common in their areas. From what he had learned since his arrival in North America, the werewolves that were common here and most of Europe into Russia were very pack oriented. The Alpha was more than just their leader, they were safety, security, and the heart of the pack. “If I am understanding this correctly, Mr. Hale lost his family and Alpha, only for whoever inherited the Alpha position to abandon him?”
Ito-san’s lips pursed in her displeasure. “Yes, that is what I understand of the situation. Mr. Hale’s niece, Laura, should have been next in line to lead their pack and she was one of those rumored to survive. It is a terrible thing she has done to what remained of her pack beyond those who were killed.”
“I see. I do not know if my own task or investigation will put me in a position to help Mr. Hale or not, but I will certainly keep it in mind.” Kurama offered, not quite sure why she wanted him to understand this particular victim’s position. “This Nemeton however, is it the magical node that Noshiko mentioned? And what is The Nemeton exactly, you mentioned roots?”
“I’m a little surprised you have not heard of what it’s like before Minamino-san.” Alpha Ito said wryly. “To put it simply, The Nemeton is the physical manifestation of the magical node itself. The node is both protected by and feeds The Nemeton. This in turn creates a tree that is something out of the ordinary, larger than typical for its species. If we were in Japan or even Asia, I would have suspected it of being yorishiro. The tree itself has a presence and may even have a level of sentience, but that is not something I could prove in any fashion.”
Kurama was intrigued. “I look forward to investigating it for myself.”
Alpha Ito smiled wryly, “If you can find it.”
Kurama smirked at that, “I have a particular affinity for plants. If it is as powerful as you have suggested, I doubt I will have much trouble once I am in the correct area.”
Alpha Ito shrugged. “As you say. Good luck with your investigation Minamino-san. Please try to send me a warning if the monster breaks free.”
“Of course, I thank you for taking the time to meet with me, Alpha Ito.” He then offered a file which one of her beta’s intercepted. “I’ve included my contact information as well as a method for reaching my contacts with Reikai.”
“I will be sure to contact them if we hear news of your demise.” Alpha Ito rose to her feet and then paused, “If you have time in the future, perhaps we can play a game of go?”
Kurama grinned then, “I would be honored.”
The Alpha nodded once and then left with her beta’s following closely behind her.
Kurama watched them go and considered what he had learned. A sentient tree linked to a magical node was what he would be looking for somewhere in Beacon County. It wasn’t the ideal location, but it was much better than what he had previously. He reviewed all he had learned as he left the tea house and re-entered the Japanese gardens, walking easily through the paths.
There was something sticking out to him. She had called Peter Hale a born-wolf as if that had more meaning to it. He had learned the basics of hierarchy from the pack he had met in Colorado. The Alpha being the anchor and leader of the entire pack, the rest revolving out from that point. The betas, all those werewolves who were part of the pack but had eyes of blue or yellow instead of red. The omegas, werewolves who were without pack, outcast, exiled, or even orphaned. The most important thing to remember about the omega rank, was they were the least stable and unlikely to think logically. In that way, it was clear that the pack bonds served a very crucial role to the werewolves’ wellbeing.
Kurama wondered what that meant for Peter Hale, if he was already an omega despite his survival of a tragedy or if it was merely just torture that he lived now. Kurama shook his head at the thought, it wasn’t important now. He would look into it if he could, but at this point, it was not part of his investigation. For now, he would have to finalize his mundane cover now that he knew where he needed to go.
Kurama was finally en route to Beacon Hills after several more days of research, emails, and phone calls. He had looked up a fair bit of information about the local forest preserve that a good portion of was within the county’s borders. The preserve itself was mostly wild wood and foothills wedged in between two mountain ranges. Many of the small cities that bordered the edge of the preserve boasted hiking and walking paths along with some camping around the lakes that were also within the preserve.
He had eventually found information on such locations near Beacon Hills, but it was underrepresented compared to all the others and Kurama suspected this was either intentionally organized by the werewolves who had lived or still lived in the area, or yet another symptom of the ‘keep away’ phenomena both Tenko Noshiko and Alpha Ito had described. Whatever it was, it had no impact on him, at least as of yet.
Now after completing his preliminary research with some locations already in mind to search, he was en route and should be reaching Beacon Hills in just a couple of hours.
Power lashed across his senses, and he swerved wildly for several moments before he was able to stop on the side of the road and thankfully not in the trees that were close in on both sides. Kurama grit his teeth as something other reached for him, pain, fear, and a desperate pleading pushing at him. No yorishiro had ever reached out to him in such a way. The spirit trees he had once helped foster were always calm and welcoming, except for those that had gotten pulled into Maikai during the separation. There had been few of those, but Kurama had taken note of each one and been disappointed and vexed as each slowly descended into corruption and became more bloodthirsty things that had more of a youkai presence than spiritual. When one of them had tried to eat him, he had washed his hands of them. It had been a pleasant and welcome surprise upon his return to the Ningenkai.
“Well…” he said softly to himself, “I really don’t think finding this Nemeton will be a problem.”
He started the car up again and pulled back out onto the road. Just a few miles further down the road, he eyed the ‘Welcome to Beacon County’ sign as he passed it with wry amusement.
Kurama blinked at the sensation.
He frowned at the unease that tried to subtly guide him to turn back.
Kurama huffed at the last, whoever this was, wasn’t nearly as intimidating as they thought they were. However, it was now very clear that someone was actively trying to keep others, be they shape shifters or some other sort of supernatural out and away. Kurama smiled slowly as he saw a sign indicating Beacon Hills was less than an hour away. Perhaps he would have a good hunt here after all.
Getting settled into Beacon Hills had taken both no time at all and more time than Kurama had anticipated. A hotel for the first week had been necessary as he went through the logistics of finding more long-term housing and learned the basic layout of the small city. He had finally been able to arrange for a rental cottage that was near the preserve but would not be able to get settled in for a few more days due to bureaucracy. Kurama had questioned the delay with the property management company who in turn had explained that a large number of rental properties like the one he was taking had been independently managed by the Hale Family. Due to the recent tragedy, it had taken some time for a previously unaffiliated third party to take over management. The pieces were still being sorted out and this unfortunately caused some delays.
It was more information about the Hale Pack that started to tell Kurama that the family and pack had been very involved in their community, not just a weird family living on the outskirts of town. This was a supernatural family who had blended and part of their mundane community, well-liked from the bits of gossip he had already heard just traveling through town on errands. Six months since the Hale fire and the tragedy was still a frequent topic.
Furthermore, he had specific dates now to go to work from. The Hale fire time frame matched up almost exactly with the time of the alert about the Nogitsune’s seal weakening in Reikai’s report. He was beginning to suspect there was a link between The Nemeton and the Hale Pack. He would need to do more research to see if there were any other symptoms dating back to the Hale fire, or if there was anything of note that happened when the first alert on the Nogitsune’s seal was triggered.
Kurama pulled open the door to the local sheriff’s station and slipped inside. He scanned the room as he waited for the person currently at the counter to finish. Several of the staff were working at their desks and a few more were moving around as they moved from one task to another. Toward the back, he could see a closed office door with the Sherriff’s badge emblem emblazoned on the door’s window. His attention was pulled forward as a deputy came up to the counter focused on Kurama.
“Can I help you?”
Kurama smiled warmly, “Yes, I need to file several permits for my work.”
“And you are?” the deputy asked as he pulled a drawer open beneath the counter and began to pull out a few forms.
“Suichi Minamino. I’m doing several environmental surveys in the local preserve for Impact Life Institute.” Kurama accepted the forms and pen and immediately began to fill in the required information. “I won’t have access to where I’ll be staying for a couple of days yet, should I also provide my hotel information?”
“Well Mr. Minamino, that should do well. Are you having trouble finding lodgings?”
Kurama shook his head. “No, just some delays in the paperwork due to a transition in management from what I understand.”
“Ah, you must be looking at one of the old Hale properties. I’ve heard they’ve been having some logistics issues with the management.”
“Yes, that is my understanding. Such a terrible thing for a family so embedded in your community to be lost like that.”
The deputy eyed him warily, “Yeah, you could say that.”
“And your name sir?” Kurama asked as he finished up the form and pulled out the permits he had gotten from the Institute before he left Portland. It had been quite convenient that they had a range of research requests for the region he wanted to work in.
“Deputy Noah Stilinski. And how long do you think you’ll be in town Mr. Minamino?”
Kurama hummed in consideration, “That depends in part on what I find after I begin my survey. The initial scope of the requests is simple and could wrap up in a couple of months, but if more detailed information is requested after my initial report; I could be settling in for some time.”
“What sort of research do you specialize in?” Deputy Stilinski asked then, curious.
“My focus study has been on invasive species and their impact on the local ecosystems.”
“And you think that’s a problem in our preserve?” the deputy asked a bit surprised.
“Oh, I have no doubt there is some impact at the very least. How much and the severity is what I’ll be looking into.” Kurama was actually curious to see if there were more mundane variants of Makai plants he was familiar with
The deputy hummed as he reviewed the paperwork and permits. “Well, everything seems to be in order here Mr. Minamino.”
“I was hoping you could provide me with where to find maps of local trails and, if possible, copies of any reports about strange flora in the area. Perhaps contact information for the forest rangers as well?” Kurama asked. The more legitimate reasons and expectations he set for his presence here now, the less likely anyone would question it later, even if things took a bizarre turn.
Noah stared at him and blinked. “The first and last should be no problem. You will have to submit a formal request for the second.”
Kurama smiled wryly, “Is there a form?”
Deputy Stilinski blinked again and then sighed as he moved to a completely different file cabinet. “You will have to limit it to a specific date range.”
Kurama nodded in understanding. “Of course.”
“When will you begin your surveys?” Deputy Stilinski asked as he watched Kurama fill out the request form.
“I was hoping to start getting a feel for the preserve starting this afternoon and the rest of the week. This is the last of the paperwork I needed to get filed before I could start.” Kurama explained gesturing to the permits stacked neatly with the forms the Deputy now had stacked before him.
“I would recommend you avoid working in the preserve overnight if you can. If you must don’t go alone.”
“Is there a known wildlife issue?” Kurama asked, curious.
“Not as such, but strange reports always seem to come out of the woods at night.” Deputy Stilinski explained.
“I’ve found that to be true of many natural forests. You’ll find humankind does not always manage well in environs they do not live in themselves.” Kurama countered.
Deputy Stilinski eyed him, “True enough, but be careful. I would be remiss if I didn’t advise you to be cautious. I’d rather not have your face show up in a missing persons report or worse.”
Kurama frowned but nodded. “I understand and will proceed with necessary caution.”
Deputy Stilinski nodded as he stamped several of the forms and then stepped away a moment to make copies. He returned in short order and handed Kurama his set of the forms. “Oh, you might also want to contact the local horticultural and gardening clubs. If there has been an invasive species in the flora of the area, they are likely to know at least something about it.”
Kurama eyed him in surprise, “That would be helpful. Do you know where and when they meet?”
“Not recently, no. They usually have signs up at the local library and grocery bulletin boards. They do have a monthly newsletter of sorts as well; you should be able to find copies at the local library.”
“That is incredibly helpful, thank you.”
The Deputy smiled at him and tapped the small pile of paperwork into a neat stack. “No trouble at all and welcome to Beacon Hills Mr. Minamino.”
“Thank you again, Deputy Stilinski, for all your assistance.”
Kurama left the Sheriff’s station with the file full of permits in hand and headed back to his hotel. He would continue building up his mundane cover in town over the next few days and then head out into the preserve.
A wave of energy filled with the emotions of pleading and need washed over him just as it had several times now since he had crossed into Beacon County. Whatever the source was, it was aware of Kurama and seemed to think he could help them. Kurama had theorized and was now almost certain that it was The Nemeton he had learned about from Alpha Ito, but he would not be hasty. The last thing he wanted to do was draw unwarranted attention to himself as a newcomer. He tried to send back the feeling of patience and waiting. If he was lucky the presence would stop reaching out so aggressively as that too could attract the attention of a darker sort.
Kurama sat at a study table in the local library surrounded by piles of reports and articles he had been gathering as he researched the area’s flora per his mundane job description’s requirements. Carefully mixed in were articles and reports surrounding the Hale family and their tragic ending.
From what he had learned from the articles he had found, been told by Alpha Ito, and picked up from the local gossip. Peter Hale’s situation was a tragedy all on its own, and one he felt ill-equipped to deal with. Kurama sighed, there was no way around it, he would need to call in backup. He glanced at the time and decided to pack up his findings for the day. Once he was home, he would make the required call regarding backup.
He was gathering his notes and copies when a sharp pain stabbed through his temples just as another wave of malice from the dark ward around the county washed over him. He braced himself against the table, waiting for the worst of it to pass. He frowned as the energy pulsed against his senses, its dark whispers more grating each time. Once the attack had passed, he reconsidered how that ward was affecting him. It had been getting steadily worse the longer he had been in the area, and he was beginning to suspect his own dual nature was in fact making the effect worse. He quickly finished up with his packing.
“Mr. Minamino, are you okay?” the librarian asked, clearly concerned. Kurama had spent a lot of hours in the local library the last few days and the staff had been kind, helpful, and incredibly curious about Kurama.
“I’m fine, Ms. Ellinson. Just a bit of a headache from all the reading. I’ll be fine once I get some dinner and fresh air.” Kurama said with a smile as he rose to his feet and picked up his bag.
“Is your research all done then?” she asked, looking a bit saddened at the thought.
“For now, I think so. I have plenty of fieldwork yet to do.” He explained.
“Well, don’t be a stranger, and don’t forget the gardening club meets on Thursdays!”
Kurama nodded his head and waved a final farewell as he exited the building. The gardening club… he shook his head in amusement. He hadn’t any intention of letting himself be headhunted into such a club. He had enough of such attention in high school and university.
Kurama had found the newsletters Sheriff Stilinski had mentioned in the library archives. In them, he had found quite a bit of news about the community that most would likely call gossip than actual news. Despite the prevalence of gossip, he had found a strange series of reports about the seemingly random increase in wild wolfsbane that had been found by several members in the preserve. The first such records had been nearly a year before the Hale fire tragedy and Kurama highly doubted the plant was being curated by the Hales in the preserve. He could think of no reason for a family of werewolves to allow grow wolfsbane wild and uncontrolled.
He had already added checking the locations and their proximity to the Hale properties to see if there were any obvious patterns to where the plant was showing up.
Another wave of malice and an increase in the pulsing in his temples almost made him physically wince and rest against his Prius as the wave passed. This was starting to become a problem.
Thankfully Kurama suffered no more waves of malice from the ward on his way back to his home. The fact that it was affecting him so much was giving him new thoughts on its intended targets and purpose.
Kurama was well aware of what such dark energy could lure in despite its less-than-welcoming message and intent. There was a time in his life in Maikai that he personally would have found just such a ward an invitation to investigate and discover just what it was hiding. Now, however, his patience for the malice and subtle attack-like nature of the dark ward was starting to irritate him to the point where he was almost tempted to forgo his original plans and just start hunting the source of the ward. That, however, he knew was a terrible idea and likely one of the more subtle traps laid in the ward itself.
He put away his research in the room he had designated as an office space and pulled out the cellphone-like device Reikai operatives made use of these days. Much more efficient than the old mirror compacts the Reikai Tantei team had used in the past. He turned on the communicator and blinked in surprise at the static-filled image on the screen. He could barely make Botan out at all.
“Ku…ma, thank good… … haven’t been able …ach you for days!”
“Botan, calm down, the connection is terrible,” Kurama said slowly, his mind whirling at the possible causes of such a disruption. Either this ward was more powerful than realized, or The Nemeton itself was also a factor. Perhaps both.
“Hav…you had luck in finding the Nogitsune?”
“Not directly as such, but I’m very close. There are complications, and I need some of that backup you promised me.”
Botan blinked and frowned, then brightened as she seemed to get his message. “Of Cou… …’ll get in touch with Yuu…away!”
“No, not Yusuke. Botan, I need a healer. A supernatural healer, as well as someone who can be more subtle who doesn’t mind a bit of sneaking. Oh, and also speak the local language.”
Botan seemed to become confused then her mouth dropped open in a small o of likely both understanding and surprise.
“Hiei is going t…o mad!”
Kurama rolled his eyes. “I’ll deal with Hiei. Do you think you’ll be able to convince them?”
Botan considered that, “I’m not su…. but I think so.”
“Wonderful. One more thing, there is a very dark ward surrounding the region I’m in. You’ll have to help them come in from outside the county.”
Botan frowned in concentration, then nodded in understanding. “Got it. Leave i… …e. Your last re…t said you …e go… to Be…n …ls, C…rnia. Is that still the place?”
Kurama took a moment to parse through her question but then nodded, “Yes that’s correct.”
“Anything else?” Botan asked as her image became clear for the first time in the conversation.
“I’ll be working to deal with the ward and its caster in the meantime, so I may be out of contact.” Kurama pulled out a piece of paper he had written down the address of the property he had rented earlier and triggered the scan function of the device. “This is where I’ve set up in the area.”
Botan seemed to move and shake as she moved to the Reikai equivalent of a printer. “Got it. Be careful Kurama. I’ll have your backup there as soon as I can. Botan out.”
Kurama eyed the communication device with concern and consideration as he contemplated the interference they had dealt with. He needed more information, a defense against that ward, and a plan.
First thing first, he needed to identify the one who had cast the dark ward. Second, he needed to find and visit The Nemeton before its own demands made the migraines from the dark ward even worse. It was time to go hunting.
It was a matter of minutes before he was packed up and changed into clothing more suitable for an extended visit in the preserve.
Shizuru Kuwabara knocked on the front door of the address Botan had given her before she pushed them through a portal and what felt like halfway across the world. The bubbly death spirit had shown up and quickly explained that Kurama was on a mission for Koenma Jr. and had requested backup, specifically her and Yukina’s support. Shizuru had been amused and it had only taken one glance at the bright and hopeful on Yukina’s face to agree. That had led them into a flurry of packing, followed by a hurried promise from Botan to fetch anything they forgot as well as tell Shizuru’s brother that they would be out of touch in case he tried to call.
Shizuru frowned as time stretched on and there was no sound of movement or response from within the house. “Did Botan give us a key?” Shizuru asked even as she began to survey the rest of the front of the house.
“I don’t think so. I can’t feel Kurama-san’s presence inside or anywhere nearby.” Yukina answered as she glanced around them at the neighborhood. The house itself was a good distance away from any of its neighbors and the entire area was quiet. “There is a very malicious ward somewhere nearby as well.”
“I thought that was what I picked up on, Botan said Red was looking into some sort of ward that had been interfering with their communication, but he should have been expecting us.”
Shizuru headed off the front walk and toward a small foot path that led around the side of the house and motioned for Yukina to follow her. They reached the back of the house and felt the edges of whatever protections the kitsune had placed as they passed through them easily.
Yukina frowned as she rested a hand on the wall of the house right next to the edge of the ward. “Kurama-san has not been home for at least a day.”
Shizuru sighed and looked around the yard. It was definitely the type of place for Kurama to hole up in. She could see several indications of his presence in the yard and landscaping. “Well, let’s see if he left a note or anything for us.”
She led the way through the back yard to another door at the back of the house. Shizuru laid her palm flat on the glass pane and concentrated, sensing out the energies of the ward their friend had left behind. “We are keyed to the ward and the back door is not locked in any mundane way.”
“I don’t suppose he worries about unexpected visitors from this way, not with this planted right beside the back entrance,” Yukina said as she crouched down and ticked the underside of what to most looked like normal roses. A gaping mouth full of teeth appeared from the center of the blossom and chirped at the ice-maiden youkai. “If this was not Kurama-san’s work, it would have already taken several bites from each of us.”
“Figures,” Shizuru muttered under her breath even as she pulled the sliding door open. She stepped aside upon entering to allow room for Yukina to enter behind her and then pulled the door closed again behind them. Shizuru turned and surveyed the living space they now stood in. “Well, let’s see if Red left us a note.”
The two split up as they began their search, moving from room to room. Shizuru was in the middle of checking what appeared to be the third bedroom but had not yet found any sign of the silver spirit fox.
“Shizuru-san! Come, I think I found something.” Yukina called out quietly from just across the hall. Shizuru took one last glance around the room she had been checking before heading across the hall. She paused just in the doorway, “An office, good find.”
“Look here, he left several files out with his research here,” Yukina said even as she had one of the folders open and was skimming through the documents. “Half of this is in English, can you read it?”
“As long as it isn’t too technical, I should be able to.” Shizuru stated as she came around the desk to look over Yukina’s shoulder at the files she had laid out. “At least his personal notes are all in Japanese.” She fell silent as she began to skim-read through the documents. “Well, I can see why he wanted us. Did you understand this bit here about a type of supernatural shifter who is in a long-term human care ward?”
“I hoped I was reading that wrong. All the shifters I have met have always had accelerated healing; it’s often how they manage to survive shifting at all.” Yukina said as she looked at the document Shizuru had pointed out. “Kurama-san has notes here about getting the victim removed from the long-term care ward and set up here where we can tend to the poor man.”
“Peter Hale,” Shizuru murmured as she reviewed Kurama’s notes. “The guy has to be going insane with pain. It’s been months already and Kurama speculated he was continuously being poisoned as the main reason why he hasn’t healed yet.”
“Can we do anything about it without Kurama-san?” Yukina asked. She could not stand to see anyone suffer needlessly.
“Maybe…” Shizuru muttered. “Let’s get settled in tonight and start researching this long-term care ward tomorrow. Hopefully, we will have heard from Red by then.”
Kurama stifled a groan as he regained consciousness. He carefully relaxed muscles that had started to stiffen up as he carefully took in his situation without opening his eyes. He was lying on a hard cold surface, likely concrete by the smell of it, a holding cell based off the old scents of blood and waste buried under the pungent smell of ash and wolfsbane. He gently flexed his arms and was surprised to find his hands free. He opened his eyes slowly and visually confirmed the presence of a cell. He could just barely make out two more cell-like spaces on either side of the one he currently occupied. The cell bars and the floor around it were lined with the ash and wolfsbane he had already caught the scent of.
Someone clearly thought he was a were of some kind. He reached out with his youkai very carefully even as he closed his eyes once more and studied the magical properties of the ash. Mountain ash he realized and had to fight back the smirk that threatened to spread across his lips. Clearly whoever had caged him had never dealt with a true youkai of any strength. Mountain ash was a mere annoyance to all the youkai he knew, but not any true deterrent or protection.
Kurama considered how he had ended up where he was, the last thing he remembered was that vixen, Tzila Hoshino, laughing at him. She had been all too amused at his new status as a human hybrid. Her mocking tones still echoed in his mind even now.
“Well, well, well. If it isn’t the Youko Kurama himself, and what is this? The high and mighty spirit fox has debased himself with a human body. How…. scandalous!” Her laughing voice had filtered through his mind as soon as he had found the forest clearing that held the damaged Nemeton.
Shadows had flickered in from the clearing edges shifting into the shadow of a familiar nine-tailed form he had once known very well indeed.
“Tzila Hoshino. I heard you had been sealed. Someone finally took serious offense to your tricks and games I see.” Kurama had answered, not willing to let her control their conversation.
The shadowy and sultry voice huffed, “That Tenko ripped me from the void and didn’t have the common sense to bind me properly.”
“And yet, here you are.”
“So I am, and here you are, my dear Kurama, come to set my glorious self free.”
“Oh no, Tzila. I’m here to see you are dealt with properly this time.”
The vixen’s presence thickened, and pleasure echoed through it. “Oh Kurama, do you promise?”
Kurama rolled his eyes at her dramatics. A sharp sudden pain lanced through his skull, and he had lost consciousness moments after. Kurama mentally sighed. It seemed he had tripped an alarm he had missed on his survey of the dark ward, or Tzila had purposefully distracted him. Either was likely at this point. He was now certain the magic user he needed to deal with was a corrupted earth mage of some sort. That could complicate things as he had never dealt with the Western earth mages and their style of magic in the past. That the mage could not recognize he was a youkai specifically, was telling. The mage’s energy was also very clearly not the spiritual energy most frequently found among humans in Asian countries or anything like his own mastery over plants.
He rose to a sitting position and surveyed his surroundings with all his senses once more. It was an open space of decent size with several doors to what appeared to be storage rooms on one side. Another door with heavy warding and locks was in the far corner opposite his cell. A long counter with various drawers, cabinets, and shelves filled most of the remaining wall space. The shelves themselves were full of sealed jars in a display that would not have been out of place in an apothecary when such shops were common. Along the wall opposite the hall door was another closed door and more storage shelves.
Kurama had not heard the telltale buzz of electronic monitoring earlier, and as he did a visual survey, he saw nothing he recognized as video or audio surveillance, or any technical equipment of any kind. There were no windows, so either the space was deep enough underground that such was not possible, or he was in a room with no exterior walls. He had a feeling it was more likely the former as he could sense some plant life through the thick wall now at his back. There were at least a couple of trees of some age close enough to the walls that their roots were likely pressed up against it. He began to seek those roots out with his youkai, melding them into the mundane plant life. It would take time; mundane plant life was easier to control but took more setup as it had none of the inherent energy channels found in Maikai varieties.
He returned his focus to the long counter and bays of cabinets and shelves that filled the walls not already occupied by the cells and doors. Several old books rested on the counter, and he could smell the aged paper and leather behind several of the sealed cabinet doors. Resting near the end of the counter closest to the door he had flagged as the most likely to be the entrance and exit from this place was the gear he had taken with him into the preserve. It seemed the corrupt mage expected him to disappear with no trace and Kurama was certain he would not be the first the mage had disposed of in such a fashion.
He had no such intention of letting the mage do any such thing. Kurama considered his resources and the best way to deal with this problem. He would have to take care not to cause any suspicion. There was no telling what exactly the mage had stored in all those cupboards, not to mention the storerooms. No, a simple clean solution would be best. He could call in Botan to help him empty the premises of anything supernatural. After that, a weakness in the foundation burying it, all may be for the best. That would come later, first the mage.
He ran his fingers back through his long hair, which was to this day his only real vanity but was also a matter of utility. Unlike his days as Youko Kurama and even his youth in Japan as a human, he kept it tied back in a loose warrior’s tail, mostly for convenience’s sake. Having retrieved what he needed, he took careful aim and planted his seeds in opportune places. No sooner had he done so than he heard distant footsteps and moments later a key turning in a heavy lock.
Kurama kept his face impassive as the lab coat-wearing figure entered the room a familiar file folder in the man’s hands. The man took the time to lock the door behind him and tucked the key away in one of his various pockets. He walked across the room to the long counter space and placed the file down with a definitive slap.
“Well, Mr. Minamino, is it? You’ve been digging into quite a bit of research since your arrival here in Beacon Hills, and quite a bit of it does not seem related to your so-called environmental research job.”
Kurama studied the normal-looking human man silently. He was average looking, for a human. Taller than most of the people Kurama knew from Japan, but that was typical here in the Americas. A nametag stuck on the man’s coat declared him Dr. Deaton. His aura however was a thing of twisted mastery. Even with the barest study of it, Kurama could see the layers of masks the man had layered over himself.
“What is it you hope to find here, Mr. Minamino?”
Kurama met his gaze and then chuckled; the man really had no clue.
“I assure you, Mr. Minamino, this is not a laughing matter. I may be mostly retired in the supernatural world—”
“I beg your pardon?”
“There is no need to be humble,” Kurama stated even as he leaned back fully on the wall of his cell. He really shouldn’t play with his prey. “Your ward is a thing of art. Though I could do without the nausea and headaches it inflicted. Not very nice, Dr. Deaton.”
Deaton frowned at him in clear irritation. Kurama could almost hear the doctor grinding his teeth. “I would like to know, Mr. Minamino, just what your interest in the Hale family is.”
“Present tense, how very interesting. Tell me Dr. Deaton, just what are you a doctor of? This whole hidden dungeon and apothecary setup you have going on here really doesn’t fit any of the doctorate studies I’m familiar with.” Kurama asked, ignoring the man’s question outright.
Deaton stared at him in exasperation. “If you must know, I am a veterinarian by trade, and I assure you my doctorate is quite real. Now, will you be so kind as to tell me why you were researching the Hale family?”
That was when Kurama realized this corrupt mage had been posing as the late Hale pack’s emissary. It was no wonder the Hunters had managed the near-total decimation of the entire pack. The Hale family had been poisoned from the inside out long before the Hunters even came to town.
“Do us both the courtesy of not pretending you actually care. That you are actually trying to protect anything that is left of that misfortunate family.” Kurama barely kept the icy fury from leaking into his aura and releasing his youkai before he wished. He had not faced a human so self-serving and despicable since his days serving on the Reikai Tantei. It tracked that he would do so again now while on Koenma Jr.’s payroll yet again. Why was it that the Reikai’s failures always ended up being left to those not directly related to Reikai to clean up.
“I assure you, Mr. Minamino. My care is genuine.” Deaton stated even as he turned to one of the cabinets. Kurama was almost disappointed; he had hoped to get a little more information from the mage. However, Kurama also had no interest in waiting for whatever plan the corrupt mage had planned. He let his youkai loose and the seeds he had placed earlier sprouted and grew in a surging fury of biting, tearing, cutting and sucking thorns, leaves, and whiplike stalks. In mere seconds Deaton was fully restrained.
Kurama rose to his feet and brushed off his slacks before he stepped forward and with another brush of his youkai dispelled the ward around his cell before he stepped through the now open door. Deaton watched him with growing horror even as he continued to struggle in the hell rose’s embrace. Kurama watched calmly as the Makai native plant drank deep of the man’s blood and buds began to form all along its branches.
“Well, I’m afraid the living members of the Hale family will no longer have to suffer your lack of care.” Deaton struggled and cursed but that only gave the hell rose more opportunities to dig in and then the corrupted mage was choking on vine and leaves alike. Deaton’s eyes burned with anger and fear all rolled into one, but there was nothing he could do. The hell rose had once thrived on the unwary who could channel the various energies of the world. It had evolved further as it feasted and hunted the youkai of Maikai. Far greater mages then Deaton had fallen prey to it for centuries. There was a rattling wheeze as the mage struggles faded to nothing moments before the buds swelled and began to bloom.
Kurama sighed in relief. He really hadn’t wanted to hear the man’s screams as the hell rose consumed his flesh along with his blood. He turned his attention to the storage rooms. Time to see what he could find that would be worth keeping or needed destroying. Then he could make sure the late Dr. Deaton’s dark ward was fully dispelled and no longer leeching power from the damaged Nemeton. He had not been able to investigate the large tree stump and its unfortunate circumstances in full due to Tzila’s timely distraction just before the ward had rendered him unconscious. Ensuring that particular situation would not be repeated would be his first priority. He finished tearing down the corrupted mage’s wards even as the magic began to unravel with their caster’s death and quickly set to work.