Mishio's Return

10

10

Chapter 1: Awakening and Escape

Within a lightless cavern hidden deep below the earth that rumbles under an unnatural quake, a bundle of fur twitched and sighed. That bundle stirred further, stretching apart as its four tails parted to reveal a young woman of oak-brown hair, hand raising to feel her hair, breaking the silence with a single yawn.

"Shiomi… where are you? I thought you'd be clinging onto me…?" Mishio raised her head and blinked blearily in the darkness. She sniffed lightly and… If the overwhelming scent of a thousand other foxes didn't jolt her to full wakefulness, her adjusting sight finished the job.

Hundreds of other multi-tailed vulpines were huddled in the back, scattered across a massive chamber. Mishio rubbed her eyes and stared harder. Her entire pack-family was here, as was neighbouring pack-families and those she had never encountered before… Yet her cream-tufted sister was not.

Mishio bolted up in alarm, reaching to the wizened fox close to her side.

"Hak-aaah!" Mishio recoiled as her fingers passed through some unseen veil that separated normal darkness from some sort of inky-black, a siphoning of warmth and colour that this eerie sensation smeared across her hands. Pulling back and observing the sensation and life return to her hands, Mishio cursed under her breath and plunged her arms straight into the darker-than-dark, seizing the elderly fox and pulling him out fast enough before it consumed her wholly.

"Hakishi… Hakishi! Old fox! Hurry up and get up, we have to go!" She shook the fox about and pinched its snout, watching elder Hakishi groan as he returned to full animation.

"…Mishio? What is going on?" He barely gets the chance to paw at his eyes as a hand reaches over his scruff and yanks him further up in the air.

"Something that's not right!" Mishio looks back and sees it properly: a tidal wave of darkness drowning the rest of the foxes into unnatural stillness, its edges lapping close to where she had laid. She peeks past the entrance into what appears to be the main corridor and gasps; to her right echoed a bestial roar, a sound of metal striking metal… but also was there light. To the left was a dark, inky void trying to surge forth and reclaim the area it formerly dwelt in, driven back with each sonorous clang.

"…after all I have endured, these centuries of mockery! My rightful seating upon the Chrysanthemum Throne, snatched from my grasp so long ago… I will not be denied my rightful fate as True Emperor of Japan!"

Mishio shuddered at the rage unleashed in the striker's voice, but there was nowhere else to go. She and Hakishi will just have to worry about whoever that is when the time comes to pass.

"This cave, it wants to swallow us back in. We have to go towards the light! Hurry!" Mishio stumbles as Hakishi fell out of her grasp, now changed fully to a scrawny elderly man in a loosely-tied, faded-blue and patch-pocked yukata.

"I can see that!" The two break into a run down the corridor. Right at that moment the agitator finally gives up on his efforts, snarling between labored breaths.

"So close, yet so far… My people… My army! Damn you dead humans and your accursed seal to the deepest pits of hell!"

After a final string of curses the agitator leaves, the light rapidly fading behind him. With the disruption gone the mystical void surges forth once more, keen to lay claim to all it was driven from.

"Hakishi! We have to move faste-" Right there was when a cane flew across Mishio's ankle, sending her into a sprawl.

"Out of my way, insolent animal!" She barely looked up to see another old man with an elongated skull hurriedly stumbling past her to the exit, walking cane clacking against the stone.

"Didn't they teach you children any manners? Respect your elders!" Mishio did not have time to curse him nor seize at his own ankle; She looked back in horror as the darkness had already swallowed half of her, feeling her arms grow limp as the colour and the life surged away from her body.

She tried to scream, but even the wind was seemingly stolen from her breath. However, two wiry arms reached back and seized her own hands, Hakishi beginning a tug-of-war with the dark for his grandniece's fate.

"Mishio! Change to a fox!" Mishio did as she was told and reverted back to her smaller, lighter form. Hakishi successfully pulls her from the dark, only for it to swirl around his own ankles to claim him back into its yawning depths. Without hesitance he spins to throw her towards the exit, falling unto his hands. Mishio bounces and skids to a halt mere meters away, reverting to her human form and unsteadily getting back up, trying to reach back him.

"Hakishi… Old fox!" The old man looked back at her calmly, reassuringly, and motions for her to stay back even as the darkness swallows most of his body.

"Mishio - go. Seek help, seek your… sister…" That was when Hakishi and his fading voice was fully consumed by the ravenous dark, and Mishio knew he and everyone else was beyond saving - for now.

"AAAAaah! Aaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhh!" Mishio runs as fast as her legs would allow her to, screaming with every breath exhaled, ignoring the burning in her legs from the exertion. She reaches the entrance where a brass disc hovered in the air, and stops.

The air before the disc… Something was wrong. She saw smaller Yōkai from the closer tunnels half-submerged across it, greatly slowed in their efforts to escape with their limbs moving in slow motion. Mishio looked back and saw the tunnel growing darker. She didn't have a choice.

Mishio rears down, and bursts into a final sprint, plunging straight through the thick and viscous air. Like diving into water she burst through the initial layer, only to greatly slow like the rest. In her greater size and momentum, she had managed to surge past the little Kanazuchibō desperately riding their Okka as mounts, a Tsukumogami made of an umbrella hopping along on its single leg, catching up to the boy-like Tōfu kozōs still pulling their baskets and carts through the honey-like air.

Mishio's eyes dart about in alarm as her limbs slowly glide through the air. A foot took an eternity to traverse, her panicked flailing reduced to a serene glide. Was this the brass disc's doing? A final measure to ensure none of her kind could escape these tunnels? Why?

Mishio had barely made three meters through five of this frozen air when the darkness finally presses against the barrier, inserting numerous wispy limbs through to steadily surge towards all escapees. While also affected and slowed within this region, it continued to move steadily, faster than the escapees.

It plucked the Kanazuchibō and their Okka from where they rode. It seized the leg of the Tsukumogami (then its tongue as it screamed) and pulled it back in. The Tōfu kozō were next to go. Ahead of everyone else, Mishio was now but a meter to passing the brass disc, its silent floating marking the end of this gateway.

N…no… So close…

But just by a foot before passing the barrier, Mishio tripped once more as the darkness finally caught up and coiled about her ankle. As she slowly descended towards the floor, the girl thought fast within that stilled time and gradually changed back to a fox, her shrunken ankle slipping free of the shadowy lasso as it shrank out of reach of her paw.

Not to be outdone, the darkness made a final desperate lunge to catch its fleeing prisoner, stretching ahead and snagging her other paw.

Mishio finally hits the floor, growling fearfully as a her paws climb forward, stretching one after another past the edge of the seal even as the dark attempts to pull her back in.

The shadow's grasp drained the life from her leg, causing it to fall limp and leaving her with three more to tense against it. The shadow splits off and reaches to her other hind leg, leaving only her front legs to struggle against it.

Mishio snarls as she continues to force one paw ahead of the other as if scaling a cliff, desperately fighting for every inch as her mind reduces to a single primal thought: Escape.

And as the lost feeling in both her legs stretched forth to her waist she turned to her thoughts. Anything else to give her strength, and there she found one: a single memory, the desperate cry of a scared sister she promised to always be there for.

Mishio! Mishio! Please don't leave me!

Mishio screams and pulls herself forward in a last desperate surge of strength, and is hurled forward as the shadowy force pulling on her snaps off. She spins in a circle as she violently ejects from the barrier's stilled air, impacting the wall by the flight of steps. Its quarry beyond its reach, the shadows wordlessly retreat back to the shadowed regions behind the chipped and cracked brass seal.

Mishio would have normally taken the time to gloat and spit, but after all that had happened since her rude awakening, she could only bring herself to fall into a semi-conscious daze, with only the echoing memory of her sister's sobs fading within her consciousness.



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