This story will be true until the night ends; only if the night ends will you know the story wasn’t true.
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There is a type of fox spirit whose power is measured in their tails. A three-tailed fox is adolescent, while a nine-tail is ancient and powerful. Still, even the weakest fox spirits have power. They send dreams, bend minds, take any shape they like. They can look like anyone, even your child or closest friend.
Naturally, such spirits are mischievous and mercurial.
There was a young three-tail who fell in love with a mortal noble’s son. While passing through the forest near his home, she saw him rescue a wounded rabbit and was intrigued. She followed him silently for a time, watched him go home and take care of the animal. But she had to take the form of a bird, and watch him from the air outside his window, because the boy’s father had invested in powerful spirit-wards.
The wards were thorough; every door and window was like a solid wall to the fox-girl. Soon she realized that around his neck, the boy wore a protective charm so that he wouldn’t see or hear spirits. She could only reach him through his dreams — and there only rarely, for he almost always wore his charm while asleep, to dispel enchanted dreams. And he almost never remembered his dreams upon waking. He could learn things in dreams, but not remember.
The three-tail fell so quickly that she could hardly think, hardly breathe. The world only held color when she was near him. Soon, she haunted the boy’s home. She wept at the threshold and she slept, night after night, in the nearby wood. She tried to speak with him, but of course his protections rendered her invisible; he thought her voice was only the wind. She became so distraught that her father noticed and decided to rid the world of this pesky mortal.
Her father was a powerful eight-tail, but he could not himself penetrate the wards, so he sought other spirits to do the dirty work. He found a lowly river spirit who specialized in water-borne illness, and he ordered the spirit to poison the noble’s son. But the three-tailed fox-girl — ever-watchful at the boy’s house — saw the water spirit sneaking about, and she threw herself on the ground to beg mercy.
The water spirit told the fox-girl: “My river is blocked, and this pains me. If my river is unblocked I will spare the boy,” and so she worked for weeks to open the river. She made alliances with animal spirits, to move stones and branches. She sowed omens in human dreams, showed them visions of clear-flowing water. The river was soon cleared, so the river spirit defied her eight-tailed father, and the boy was spared.
Several times, her father tried to arrange the boy’s destruction, and several times she outmaneuvered him. The fox-girl grew in cunning and influence as she built her network across the realm. Soon, she had another tail: she was a four-tail now.
Eventually, her father tired of trying to outsmart his obsessed daughter, and he took a new tack. He went to spirits all over the world to find new suitors for the girl. He told them that she was creative and charming and clever, and some of them believed him. The fox-girl received visits from handsome spirits, noble spirits, brilliant spirits. Star spirits came to shine with her, and air spirits made her laugh.
Yet none of those spirits held the humanity of the noble’s son. So, still, her heart remained with the compassionate boy.
The four-tail became exhausted by the incessant suitors. She closed her door to them, but her father helped them sneak around and invited them to family dinners. Finally, she decided to prove to her father that the mortal boy was worthy of her love. Then, she thought, her father would leave them both alone.
But how could she prove it?
Years had passed. The mortal boy was growing into a strong young man, though the adolescent fox spirit looked the same age as ever. He liked swordplay and archery and often chased mortal girls, but he had other interests too, from calligraphy to the healing arts. As she watched, the fox-girl concluded that she must help him find his passion, the inner light that would motivate him to become great.
Moving again among the spirit courts, the four-tailed fox sought the best teachers she could find. She asked them to come with her and visit the mortal man in his dreams, to give him dream-lessons in every topic he might enjoy. He learned poetry; he learned many arts of love; he learned basic medical techniques. But when he awoke and looked around in clear daylight, he saw that the most powerful men in his world were warlords. His eyes became filled with their glory and he chose to focus on the art of war.
The loyal fox-girl arranged fortuitous situations and powerful talismans. She traded favors for prophesies so she could send the man dreams of the future. Once, she forged a great crisis so that he would have a great opportunity. Her machinations became more and more skilled, her position more and more respected among other spirits. She gained one, then two more tails.
Almost without thinking about it, she shifted her appearance to be less of a cub and more of a woman. And her mortal man became wealthy, famous, and feared among humanity.
One day, like a fever breaking, the six-tailed fox spirit looked at her love again, and she saw him for what he had become.
She saw that his head had been turned by status and that he had lost his compassion. She saw that he had fought petty battles for stupid reasons, that he had hardened his heart to lives lost. She saw that he no longer stopped to help with wounded animals, nor wounded humans, nor any wounds at all. He was strong and clever and handsome in middle age. Yet he was not the kind person she had loved.
Then the six-tail looked at herself and saw what she had become. Though he had never known she was there, she had learned the joy of aiding someone for love. He had not seen her grow, but she had grown into a great connector and a wise negotiator. Her father had stopped paying attention to the mortal man entirely; now he was so proud of his daughter that he called her to his side every time he made an important decision.
With a smile, the six-tailed fox-woman turned from the man and left him behind.
“Well,” she said to herself, “that was worth doing.”
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Dedicated to Sky, for the prompt.
And thank you to Priceless, for the night.
Originally created in 2013.