A distant scream reverberated around his mind, and the previous darkness slowly began to take shape. A silhouette surrounded by shadows cast by distant fire stood a few strides away. ‘Human’ was the first thing that entered his mind; although he’d never come in contact with their scent, he knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that that’s what it was. The silhouette opened its mouth, forming words, though they were never given a voice.
A movement to the right caught their attention, and from the red-orange flames came a golden-pelted fox. It screeched before throwing itself at the human. A scream tore from her mouth, slicing through the background noise of fire that seemed to be crackling with laughter. The words she said were incoherent until the very last moment. “Kaito!”
The touch of something else broke through his subconscious and Kydto jerked upward.
“Hey, easy, it’s just me.”
Shaken from his dream so suddenly, it took a moment for the present scenery to properly focus. Trees towered above, sending the dappled morning light onto the underbrush. He had been leaning back against one of the larger deciduous trees, although when he’d been woken, Kydto had shuffled forward, grabbing the scabbard of his katana and posing to defend from a non-existent attack.
“Mavrik.” He finally spoke the name of his traveling companion as the man’s golden eyes bored down on him. “Sorry.” Kydto released the word with a sigh as he ran a hand through his long hair to tie it up into a high ponytail.
“It’s alright, but, are you okay?”
“Fine.” He brushed off the man’s concern in a nonchalant tone as he stood. “Shall we go then?”
Mavrik nodded and the two started through the forest in a general southerly direction. Kydto was supposed to be paying attention to his surroundings, looking for the members of Fzakhan intruding on their territory, but his mind remained on the dream. ‘Kaito’ she’d called him. Well, he had been looking for a name to go by when he entered Japan a few days from now. That seemed more than suitable. In addition to her voice, her scent also lingered in his nose. It was sweet, but with another, more floral essence that he couldn’t identify.
It doesn’t matter, he told himself as he tried to push away the thoughts. It was just a dream. You have more important things to focus on now.
With that small bout of mental encouragement, he fully turned his attention to their path. It was most certainly worn from the comings and goings of individuals both in humanoid and in their true animalistic form, but even though the foxes of Fzakhan were rumored to be passing through here, Kydto could detect no trace of their scent.
“It’s strange isn’t it?” Mavrik spoke, voicing Kydto’s own thoughts. “I suspect we would’ve found something if they really did come here recently, but nothing seems out of the ordinary.”
“Indeed- wait.” Kydto cut himself off as he heard the barest of rustles in the undergrowth to their right side. He could’ve easily passed it off as the wind, but something about the abruptness alerted him.
Both men stilled, holding their breath. There! This time when it came, they both heard it and darted for the spot. The breaking of sticks and kicking of dried leaves was clear now as the individual fled. Unfortunately, the Fzakhan member wasn’t fast enough. Kydto caught up first, drawing his katana to land a blow, but as he swung, the red-haired man threw himself to the side, dodging the hit.
Growling under this breath, Kydto continued his pursuit, but now he’d fallen a half step behind. It was Mavrik this time that took the initiative, making a loop to herd and corner their prey. It was when they reached a large outcropping of boulders that they finally forced the man to a stop, and with no other choice, he turned to face them with a short dagger drawn.
With a shout, that dagger exploded into flames which then shot at Mavrik and Kydto. They ducked, skirting around the fire while Kydto surged forward once again to land a blow. His black-bladed sword now glowed a bright blue as electricity arched and crackled over the metal.
Kydto moved to land a fatal blow then, jumping behind his enemy and striking at his exposed back. The man opened his mouth to release a scream, but before sound could be put to it, he, like all of them, dissolved into ash.
For a long moment afterward, the silence was broken only by the whistling of a breeze.
It was Mavrik who broke it. “I thought almost all of them had been killed during the last war, but he seemed pretty old for a Cyiav male.”
“I agree. He might have gone into hiding to prevent the military draft at the time, but that doesn’t explain why he’s here now.” Kydto paused, holding his katana out toward Mavrik, “Or, why the scent of his blood is so muffled.”
“I can’t believe it’s just-”
Mavrik cut off as something in front of him caught his attention. At the same time, Kydto had also caught the movement of two individuals out of the corner of his eye. The pair’s warnings came out simultaneously. “Above!” “Behind!”
Kydto whirled to face three Fzakhan members who were falling down from the boulders, sword points aimed at his head. He ducked, spinning in a semicircle as he did so. Lightning built around his body and exploded upward to meet his attackers.
He’d hit all three, though it was not a fatal shot for any of them. They landed roughly in a triangle around him, and Kydto picked the one who was most unbalanced and whose face displayed the most pain to go after first. He charged, dodging a pillar of fire aimed at him as he moved, and struck diagonally downward at his opponent.
The young man yelped, but managed to avoid the hit by leaning back. Unfortunately, his already weak balance was destroyed in the dodge, and he fell onto his back. Kydto used the opportunity to stab downward, but the man still hadn’t given up, as he shifted all of the weight onto his arms and made to flip backward. His feet, now aflame, kicked out at Kydto’s sword hand with the aim to knock the weapon from his grip. Kydto was faster, spinning the sword as he reversed his grip on it. The blade, now pointed backward in a manner that was more befitting of a dagger, was swung in a horizontal arc, and this time, finally connected with Kydto’s opponent.
Once he’d fallen away to ash, Kydto turned his attention to the other two. They had used the handful of seconds that he'd been attacking their third member to regain their balance, and now with an opening, they lunged. Once again, Kydto sent bolts of electricity toward them. The two dodged the hit easily, each sidestepping toward the other - exactly what Kydto had wanted.
He ducked down low as the Fzakhan swung their blades, and from behind him, Mavrik jumped over Kydto to intercept them. Like this, Kydto and Mavrik switched their pair of opponents without skipping a beat. Kydto’s group, who had been expecting another electrical attack, were stabbed through with Mavrik’s cold silver saber; and Mavrik’s former pair, who had fallen into an easy rhythm of avoiding the saber, were met with a massive bolt of lightning.
The crackling of flames and the vibrations of thunder drowned out any final cries of their opponents, leaving only an echo.
Mavrik was the first to take a deep breath and straighten himself after the conclusion of their skirmish. “Five against two huh? Someone definitely wants us dead.”
Kydto nodded as he moved over to the small heap of clothes and armor left behind from one of Fzakhan. What he pulled out he’d seen very briefly in their skirmish - a small black bag that had been attached to their belts. Opening it, he found remnants of a plant stalk picked clean of it’s leaves. “My guess,” Kydto began slowly, working to organize his thoughts as he spoke, “is that this is their key to disguising their scent.”
“A plant?” Mavrik spoke. “Can a plant do that?”
“We are what we eat, or so they say. There are a couple of herbs that can change one’s scent slightly if a lot is consumed at once, so I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s also a plant that can dilute it somehow. But I don’t know what this is.”
“Beats me. My plant knowledge begins and ends with narcbyer bushes.”
A wry smile came over Kydto’s mouth as he thought about the sweet berries that he'd had mixed into various herb concoctions over the years. Perhaps they did taste good when eaten alone, but the only thing they reminded him of was a foul, bitter scent and pain.
“We’ll take it with us. Ayhgta might be able to figure it out. Although I doubt we’re going to find anything else, let’s finish our loop of the south western border before heading back.”
It was three days later that Kydto found himself kneeling before his father as he presented the findings of their trip. “My best guess is that they’re hiding their scent with the leaves of whatever plant that is and using it to invade our territory. Although I can’t confirm or deny if it was a small group acting alone or if it’s part of something larger.”
“What did Ayhgta say about the plant?”
“Only that it was a ‘non-herbaceous ground flora'. She couldn’t tell anything more from just the bits of stalk that we found in their bags.”
A sigh came from him as he turned to the left, facing the last individual present in the room. “What do you think Zhuon?”
Zhuon’s deeper voice came out measured and steady as he replied, “It’s early for Fzakhan to try starting another war. They still haven’t recovered from their last loss to us. Because of their haphazard military recruitment tactics, at best, all of their men would be a couple of centuries old - still just children. Trying to invade on a larger scale could destroy them permantently, but, I wouldn't put anything past the foxes. I think it would be wise to send a second scouting group to stay in the area for a while, just in case.”
“Do as you see fit, and keep me updated on any unusual developments. Kydto,” he looked up as his father spoke his name, “You’re ready to depart tomorrow?”
“As ready as I’ll ever be I suppose.”
“Good. I know you are infinitely familiar with the laws and will be cautious, but it deserves re-iteration nonetheless. Humans, lesser though they are, can be rather observant at times, so be careful not to expose yourself.”
“Of course.” With a final, formal bow, Kydto rose from his spot and headed back to his room to double check his preparations. Tomorrow, he’d enter Nigekai, and embark on a completely new life, undoubtedly different from anything he’d never known before.