Sparkleaf Chronicles: Vulpes Eternal
Date: November 19, 2013
Kolfurinn. Towering 15,000 feet above sea level, the snowbound mountain was the king of its range. In ancient times, natives saw pillars of fire rising from its icy peak and mistook the mountain for a raging volcano. It would be years before scientists arrived and identified plate tectonics at work in Kolfurinn's depths.
Between the snow line and the peak, a seven-tailed fox poked his head out from a cave entrance, white flecks of snow clinging to his whiskers. Dragonhide armor over tangled fur, Sparkleaf stepped out into the open, clutching his trusty lance.
The myth-hunter adjusted his tall Raichu earpieces, magnifying his hearing until he could hear the sound of his sleeping prey. The smoke from burning villages still left a dull haze at the base of the mountain, far beneath the cold, white wind.
At the mountain's summit, a dragon with scales of gray and white rested in her cavern, gazing sleepily into the swirling world beyond, surrounded by her mountainous plunder. Tiny plumes of cold steam rose from the dragon's nostrils, its snout thin and slender.
Above the white dragon's head loomed a roof of gray rocks. Glittering riches lay heaped around the ancient beast, gold and silver bars, tablets, and precious stones. The dragon's scales gleamed like moonlight, a rocklike ridge of ivory spines running down her back.
A slim projectile sailed up through the snowflakes in the air, drawing a sturdy rope up toward the peak. Steel arms unhinged in midair like an umbrella, landing with a thump in the snow.
Slowly, the grappling hook retracted until it clanked back against a row of snowbound boulders, anchoring into place. Testing the rope's strength, the fox shifted his earpieces, dampening outside sounds in anticipation.
The dragon heard the grunts of the climbing warrior below, but still, she did not stir. There had always been adventurers on the mountain, but surely none would be foolish enough to attack the likes of her.
As if in rebuttal, a miniature spear flew out from the howling wind, sailing past the dragon's head. Giving a furious shriek as the spear clattered to the floor, the dragon rose to her feet, red eyes gleaming against bone-white scales, her wings spreading.
A second spear flew at the dragon's head, barely missing her neck. Shadows moved on the walls as Sparkleaf dashed forward into the cavern, wielding a sapphire-blue lance. Furious dragon claws tore after the fox in a frenzy, scattering piled riches. The warrior moved with blinding speed as the dragon spat white fire and lightning, briefly revealing a pair of orange eyes under his dragonskull helm.
Blue steel struck the cavern's floor, a blur of tan fur and green scales vaulting over the dragon's swiftly sweeping tail. As he hit the floor, the fox rolled to one knee and sprang forward at the dragon again, lance raised.
The dragon snarled as the sapphire lance struck her, the very tip cracking her scales. Sparkleaf turned to dodge her counter, but moved too slow. A white tail swept from his blind right, throwing him aside, flicking his lance in the opposite direciton. His earpieces cracked as he hit the cave wall.
The dragon scrambled towards the unarmed fox with hungry, drooling jaws. Patting his elbow caps, Sparkleaf pulled several steel shafts from his bracers, each telescoping to two feet long with a click. The dragon howled and stumbled as the miniature spears pierced her wings at key pressure points, stalling her mid-lunge.
With a hiss, the dragon quickly recovered her senses, whirling around as the fox darted under her claws. Diving into a roll, Sparkleaf snatched up his sapphire lance as he tumbled past, gasping for breath.
Sliding onto his back, the fox struck up at the dragon with his lance, glancing off the thick neck plates. His teeth clenched as her claws raked at his armor. No natural talent, no blessing; just a blade on a stick and a fox's luck.
He stabbed and stabbed at the dragon, until finally he felt the tip lodge in a crevice between her belly scales. Elated, he threw his weight behind the lance, rising to one knee for leverage.
The dragon's eyes widened as the spearhead sank into her flesh, scales twisting and cracking. Her tail lashed against the cavern floor as she clawed wildly at Sparkleaf and at the blue shaft protruding from the underside of her snout, fire licking out from her throat wound and down the lance's length.
The great beast gazed down in one final leer as Sparkleaf shook in his boots, concealing the terror in his eyes. Hunter and hunter, hunted and hunted, they stared at each other in the chilling wind, silent and motionless.
Slowly, the dragon's eyes closed, and she tumbled to the floor, dead.
"And so Sparktail doesn't say anything, of course, because he's silent and awkward, and he's distracted. Then Thalia goes up to him all playfully, and she goes, 'Sparktail, some days I bet you could fall off a cliff and not even notice.' Sparktail blinks, and stares at her, because he didn't even notice her approaching until just now..."
The door opened, and Sparkleaf quickly hid the Raichu and Leafeon plush dolls under the table. It was a cool, autumn day, and until a few minutes ago, he had been alone in the staffroom of the Chat Tower overlooking the city of Shioko.
"Playing with your toys again, Sparkles?" laughed Kat as she entered. "You know, some days, I bet you could fall off a cliff and not even--"
"Yeah, I think I'd notice," said Sparkleaf quickly. He glanced around the room, but couldn't spot any security cameras. Well, it was hard to hide from an administrator in her own domain. And as they said, here in the Route, Kat was top dog. "Um, did you need me for something?"
"Why, I do, in fact," said Kat brightly, plopping down a thick stack of papers. "See, Sparkles, if you weren't so busy hunting overgrown lizards, you'd be attending the board meetings like you're supposed to. And then you'd be less likely to ask stupid questions!"
The fox winced as Kat ruffled the top of his head. His ears were particularly sensitive without his helmet. "W-well, the city's not quite what it used to be," said Sparkleaf a bit defensively as Kat took a seat across from him. "But I'm all ears. What do you need me to do?"
"Well, it starts with..." Hesitating, Kat frowned. "Hey, something wrong with your eye?"
Wincing, Sparkleaf tilted his head slightly, angling his right eye away from her. "Nothing to worry about. Go on."
Still frowning, Kat slid a manilla folder across the table. "I need you to check up on a Routepost tomorrow morning," said the administrator. "We've been getting Level 2 reports from Refrain. The details are in here, but any questions?"
No resentment, no bitterness in her eyes. No blame for all the time he'd spent away from Shioko. She trusted him enough to give this mission to him. "No," said Sparkleaf, smiling nervously. "Thank you. I won't let you down."
Some context may be necessary for those unfamiliar with Kat's domain. Shioko City was the urban center of a greater province, officially designated Route 50, or simply "the Route." Though diverse and many, the one thing that united the Route was their love of Pokemon.
One summer morning, Kat and one hundred youths left their homes in the Hollow Quarry and set down the road to start a new life. Among their numbers were Sparkleaf's mother Xetaja. Not his alterfamilial mother, mind you, his cyberfamilial mother. Sparkleaf himself was also one of Kat's charges, back then.
Under Kat's watchful eye, they settled down in a lush, open valley and claimed it for their own, opting to name the province after the road they had wandered. Route 50 was born that day.
But the staff had scattered over time. Activity had been declining for a while. That was why the four Routeposts were built: Wynaut, in the north; Dunsparce, in the east; Seadra, in the south; and Audino, in the west. Under Coordinator Frosti, these survey centers maintained contact with Staff HQ.
Routepost Audino was located in the village of Refrain, a suburban community located a fair distance from the city of Shioko. If there was trouble in Refrain, the Routepost would be the first place to investigate.
The fox blinked. The mist in his eye was getting thicker. Tossing out the broken Raichu earpieces, he examined his dragon-hunting equipment. Piece by piece, he inspected his dragonhide armor with his left eye, replacing damaged sections with freshly cut hide.
His mind was in constant flux. Thoughts flitted between idealism and cynicism, between loyalty and autonomy. The more his writing progressed, the more dissatisfied he became; and the more he immersed himself, the more surreal his surroundings seemed.
The evening breeze swept in through the window, cool on his fur. Yawning, Sparkleaf shook his tails and rubbed his eyes. He hadn't gotten a full night's sleep since his return from Kolfurinn, and his mind was starting to blur; but there were still more things to take care of.
At that moment, an eerie howl echoed across the lonely chaparral, setting his fur on end. Opening the door, the fox poked his head outside, eyes scanning the forlorn landscape; but in the pale moonlight, all he could see was lonely brush and parched scrub, swaying in the wind.
"You volunteered for this? You're crazy," laughed Laurel, shaking her head as she wiped the counter. "There're easier ways to save the world, you know. Like recycling."
It was early morning, and the bar was still practically empty. Leaning on the counter, Sparkleaf looked away uncomfortably. Outside, his Skarmory was still grazing. "Who said anything about saving the world? This is just what a moderator does."
Grinning, the lynx filled a mug with foaming mead and held it out to Sparkleaf. "How about it, kid? Consider it on the house."
Cringing, he shook his head. "No thanks. You know how I feel about that stuff."
"Ha, your loss." The lynx handed the mug to an old man at the end of the counter. "The Route's a nice little town, I'll grant. But it's awfully quiet these days. Not like the good old days, you know?"
He shrugged. "The Route's been inactive for a while. The entire staff has, really. That's why the Routeposts are important. Gotta bring everyone back."
"Sounds like a sunk cost. Best to cut your losses here!" Turning serious, she looked Sparkleaf in the eye. "Listen," said the lynx sternly. "The few rumors about that place even make the hyenas shudder. Be careful."
Sparkleaf grinned. "I'll be fine. Foxes are lucky, you know."
She prodded him in the chest. "That's right, luck. You foxes are all luck and no skill. Sometimes I wonder if you've been tricked by your own illusions, you know? You wouldn't even know until it broke. And where would that leave you?"
He sighed and looked away. "As long as my luck holds out a little longer, I'll be all right. Things always seem to sort themselves out." Picking up his lance, Sparkleaf headed for the door. "See you later."
Laurel stamped her foot in irritation. "I'm serious," she called as the fox headed outside. "You might be a fox, but you're no wolf!"
Sliding down from his Skarmory's back, Sparkleaf hit the dirt-paved street. Today, he had the mullet of a Ninetales and two false tails accompanying his seven. This was Routian business, after all.
Planting a wooden stake, Sparkleaf tethered his Skarmory and patted its beak before heading into Refrain, spear and equipment clipped to his belt. Wearing his full armor, he trotted down the street solidly, comfortably.
White walls with green fiberglass shingles and chocolate-brown edging. Approaching Routepost Audino, Sparkleaf knocked on the front door. No response. Slotting in his staff ID, he unlocked the door and entered.
Quickly, the fox ducked as a fireball flew over his head. "Sky, no!" hissed a girl with an icy-blue scarf, waving her hands.
The smoke cleared, revealing a Zorua perched on the front desk, a fire-pendant hanging from her neck. "Oh, it's just Sparks," said SkyWarrior with a nervous laugh. Sighing, Frosti lowered her hands. "'Ello there. What brings you all the way out here?"
He rubbed the back of his head. SkyWarrior and Frosti, two of the renowned Seasonal Sisters of the Route--and his friends. "Hey, you two," said the fox, grinning weakly. "Kat sent me to check up on the Routepost. Level 2 alert?"
"Actually, that was my request," explained Frosti, stepping forward. She exchanged an ominous glance with Sky. "Listen, Spark, the oracle system's been sabotaged. Could you come with us for a bit?" Nodding, the fox tightened his grip on his lance and followed the sister down a hallway.
"I filed the report as a Level 2, but the truth is, we've been having a bandit problem," explained Frosti grimly, her footsteps echoing off the tiles. "Abductions. Demonstrations. Vandalism. The Route's been quiet too long. People have gotten restless out here."
"Bandits?" repeated Sparkleaf, incredulous. "Why haven't we heard about this before?"
Frosti shrugged. "People don't want to make a fuss. They'd rather deal with things themselves, even if everyone else has to deal with the same things. Besides..." Her voice dropped. "You guys haven't exactly kept the site in order lately." Sparkleaf flinched, but couldn't deny it. She was right, after all.
They reached an open door. Inside, a silver-haired man was checking the readouts on a centrifuge. "That's William, a private forensics analyst," explained Frosti. "He's been running tests on the incidents. I think the latest one was a girl who vanished into the woods?"
Glancing up, William spotted Sparkleaf. "Will, this is Sparks--sorry, Spark of Leaves, our resident fox," said SkyWarrior. "Let him know what's going on, kaykay?"
William shook Sparkleaf's hand. "A pleasure meeting you, Mr. Leaves," he said, smiling. "I haven't much to offer, but hopefully, I can be of use."
Shrugging, Sparkleaf looked around the room. Medical equipment with flashing lights and racks of glass vials lined the walls. "Any help is appreciated. What've you got, doctor?"
"Please, just call me Will; I have no doctorate." He led Sparkleaf over to a computer screen. "We picked up samples from the location where the girl was last seen. I've been running scans the last few days. My assistant's fetching the printouts--"
He broke off as a young woman entered the lab. "Ah, perfect timing, Abby," said William as she handed him the printouts. "Mr. Leaves, this is my assistant, Abigail. Abby, this is Spark of Leaves, from the Shioko moderation team."
Abigail nodded curtly. "I see. Hello." Removing her glasses, she wiped the lenses on her lab coat. Her dark, sharp eyes swiveled around the room.
Flipping through the printout, William stopped at a bar graph."Here it is. Coordinator Frosti, Mr. Leaves, please look closely." Sky climbed onto Frosti's head as Sparkleaf stared at the page. "Blood, leaves, hair, soil," said William, pointing at each bar. "And ceramic dust."
"Ceramic dust?" echoed Sparkleaf. "Why?"
Frosti clapped her hands. "Oh yeah, that's right! You weren't here when we built the town. Back then, Coolio ordered a shipment of fresh clay to sculpt the fountain, but then the flu hit her, hard. So we ended up using the clay in roof tiles."
"Only for the original buildings, of course," said William. "And then, climatological and meteorological factors have led to profound deterioration. Long-term residents would experience semi-constant epidermal exposure to scattered particles..." He paused thoughtfully. "Possibly respiratory exposure as well."
Sky stared blankly at William. "If you don't mind, could you dumb it down a bit?" said Sparkleaf tentatively. He shrugged, grinning. "I'm just a simple Pokemon, after all."
Abigail rolled her eyes. "Will just means the rooftops eroded over time, so it's perfectly reasonable to find ceramic dust," she said briskly. "It's in the air, on the ground, on your clothes; you might even be breathing it. If you live around here long enough, that is."
"Only the original buildings have those, mind you," added William. "There's no DNA matches with the Routepost's records, so the victim's most likely not a Routian. And the ceramic dust wasn't diffused into the victim's blood--"
"Not the victim? So the ceramic dust must've come from the attacker," said Sparkleaf thoughtfully, glancing at the report. He blinked. For a moment, he thought the data listed traces of--
"Anyway, we'd best get a move on," said Frosti as Sky tugged Sparkleaf aside. "Will, Abby, keep up the good work." Nodding, the analyst and the assistant waved the trio back out into the hallway.
At the end of the hallway, Sky pressed her paw to a glass pad as Frosti performed a retinal scan. Green LEDs lit up, and a set of steel shutters slid open.
Eeveebot security guards saluted the sisters as they passed, Sparkleaf following close behind. "Here we go," said Frosti grimly as they entered the oracle system.
Sparkleaf's eyes widened in shock. Severed power coils and trampled parts were strewn around the room. He stared at a section of discarded plastic casing, shredded open as if by a fireman's axe--or large claws. "Who has access to this room?" he said faintly.
SkyWarrior sighed. "Just Kat, Xetaja, and the three of us." She padded over to the broken coolant tank. "This is why we called you here. Night stalkers, we can track, but sabotage..."
The oracle system was the core of Frosti's Routepost project. Using the collected data, the oracle formed projections for the future of the Route, which the Routeposts relayed back to Shioko. Without the oracles... Route 50 might continue to stagnate and decay.
The fox squatted down next to a smashed node. His eyes narrowed. A tuft of gray, shaggy fur had snagged on a protruding corner. "Hey wait... this fur--"
Sky squinted at the fur as Sparkleaf held it up. "It's not from a Pokemon, I can tell you that." The Zorua held up a paw next to the fur sample for comparison. "Yeah, definitely not. Trust me, I've changed into every Pokemon under the sun."
Frosti examined the fur sample. "Maybe it's wolf hair," she said thoughtfully. "Might want to check with Twiggy. She'd know these things."
Nodding, Sparkleaf sealed the fur tuft in a plastic bag. "Don't worry," he promised the duo, his eyes flashing. "I'll do everything I can to fix this."
Eating a lotus cake, Sparkleaf sat on the village green, the common pasture in the center of town. Grass poked through seams in his armor, tickling his fur. In the middle of the green lay an unfinished statue base. For Coolio's unfinished sculpture, perhaps?
From the commons, he observed the streets of Refrain. Information drifted toward his perked ears, from open windows, through thin walls, from chatting passerby.
"Yeah, last week it got the neighbors," said Apsa to her friends. "Just disappeared from their homes like that. Whoosh!"
"They got us pretty good," said Metatyph to his sister. "It started appearing after that one rainstorm, right?"
"I'm not saying it was aliens," said Pope on the street corner. "But you know what? It was aliens!"
"Ayy, Sparklein Sydir!"
Blinking, Sparkleaf looked up from his cake to see Twiggy, third and youngest of the Seasonal Sisters, in green and crisp brown leather. "Twigs, greetings," said the fox, dipping his head slightly. "I must say, this village is quite the--eh?"
He broke off as Twiggy rubbed his fluffy ears. "H-hey, stop that," he protested, trying to sound tough and aloof... and failing. "Aw, come on... listen--"
"So much for the mighty hunter," said Twiggy, smirking. Pulling her hand away, she cleared her throat. "Anyway! I heard Sky and Frosti called you to handle the recent shenanigans, yeah?"
Sparkleaf nodded. "Actually, I need your help," he said. "Looks like the culprits left some fur behind." Taking out the fur sample, he held it out to Twiggy. "You think the bandits have started using dogs?"
"Wolf hair?" she uttered, taking the sample from him, holding it up to the light. Unsealing the bag, she sniffed the hair tuft. "Not sure, but it smells of onion grass. Wolves usually avoid that stuff."
Staring blankly, he accepted the sample back from her. "Onion grass? What?"
Twiggy shrugged. "Onion grass. It's not an actual onion or anything, they just call it that. It only grows in the northern foothills. Wolves hate it, usually. But these wolves have been frolicking in onion grass, no doubt about it."
"If it stands out, that makes things easier. Maybe I can have this resolved by tonight." Sparkleaf took out a map of Refrain. "Can you show me where onion grass grows?"
"Yeah, sure." She took the map and marked several locations with a marker. Then, handing the map back, Twiggy looked at the fox, concerned. "Hey, Spark?" she said suddenly. "What happened to your eye?"
He froze. "You noticed?"
She crossed her arms. "Of course I noticed. Everyone's noticed. You're squinting a lot these days. Something's wrong with your right eye, isn't there?"
Sighing, Sparkleaf lay down in the grass. His right pupil was filled wth white mist. "I think it's a curse," he said after a moment. "It's been like this for a while. Probably ever since my first dragon."
He held up a furry hand, outlined by the sun's rays. His right eye could barely see it through the pale blur in his pupil. "Anyway, it's no big deal," he said, shrugging. "I can still fight just fine."
The corners of Twiggy's mouth twisted. "You'll get yourself killed if you keep up like this, foxyfox."
After comparing the maps, Sparkleaf found only one location that had both ceramic shingles and onion grass: an abandoned studio atop a low hill. Trudging up the trail, he gazed toward the distant chaparral, dull hills dotted with dry shrubs. Somewhere tucked between the ridges, his shack was settling in the night air, empty.
A hike through the wilderness. This was certainly Sparkleaf's sort of adventure. But at the same time, he didn't quite know why Kat sent him here. Sometimes, Sparkleaf wondered why he still served the Route. He hadn't felt qualified when he was recruited, and he certainly didn't feel qualified now.
As he approached the house on the hill, his eye caught the gleam of two, three, four gun barrels. How had gangs gained a presence here? Had he really been away from the Route this long? Lance in hand, he raced up the slope and leapt into the air, bullets streaking below him.
To the bandits, Sparkleaf appeared to be dodging their bullets. An optical illusion, of course. Bullets moved at higher speeds than any creature on earth. So, Sparkleaf didn't move to dodge the bullets, but instead to dodge the bandits' eyes.
In theory, any animal could evade hunters by identifying and reacting to early stimuli. And with enough practice, a hunter could adjust their aim in time to account for a flighty animal. Certainly, these bandits had faced all sorts of creatures, here on the outskirts of Routian territory.
His lance plunged into the first target's chest as he landed. All beings had a limit to how much information they could absorb in an instant. The faster they had to react, the less information they reacted on, and the easier it was to deceive them.
A blackjack swung at him from behind, striking the grappling hook on his back as he pulled his lance free. Discarding the extra weight, Sparkleaf spun to face the other bandits. With deft, decisive attacks, he tore through them, one after another. Their bodies sprawled across the ground, their rags stained red.
Blood dripping down his lance, he raised his visor and looked up at the abandoned building. Red ceramic roof-tiles, like a dragon's scales. The fox stooped down to pluck a blade of grass, thick as a yucca leaf, layered like an onion, grass within grass within grass.
He frowned at the front door. His ID would him grant him clearance, but if a bandit gang was using this place as a hideout, the front was likely booby-trapped. With the back end of his lance, he smashed in a window and climbed inside.
His tails brimmed with light, kitsune-bi illuminating his surroundings. The interior looked nothing like a studio: The floor was strewn with dirt and onion grass. Desks, chairs, and couches had been cleared to one side, replaced by square glass pillars.
He should have stayed on full alert. Too late, Sparkleaf noticed the footsteps approaching. Two hostiles with protective gloves, both armed. Immediately, he dropped to the floor, extinguishing the light from his tails. Darting between pillars, he quickly wove across the room, leaping at the bandits from the side, running them through with his lance.
More shots, this time from the loft overhead. Stray shots grazed his leg bracer. A few degrees off, and they would've pierced the thick dragonhide at the seams. Heart racing, Sparkleaf ran up the steps, darting from side to side. He shoved his lance against the first bandit, forcing the rifle aside, pushing him into the other bandit before skewering them both.
Tails crackling with static, he pulled his bloody lance free and stared at the bandits. They were all Routians, once. He should be protecting them. But since Shioko had left them to their own devices for so long, they had become enemies.
Without warning, pain exploded on the right side of his head, and he tumbled down the steps, hitting the floor. The blow sent a discordant vibration through his body, tendrils of melting, fading light. A familiar face loomed over him. "Ah... I should've known--"
Standing over the fox, Abigail smiled nastily. "So, the stories were true, you really are a kitsune," said the lab assistant, kicking Sparkleaf's lance out of reach. "Just a simple Pokemon, my foot. You're a proper demon. Just like a vampire."
Reeling, Sparkleaf tried to stand. His false tails and mullet had vanished, his true tails tan once more. Everything felt wrong, all wrong. Why did he suddenly feel so weak? His armor felt restrictive and heavy, his limb muscles taut and sore. "What did you do to me...?"
"Then again, maybe vampires aren't so bad," continued Abigail, squatting down. "Vampires drink blood, yeah. But monsters like you drink people's souls. Tell me. Was it fun, preying on the Route this long?"
In her hand, she held a five-pronged vajra. A sudden chill swept over Sparkleaf. Vajra, thunderbolt diamond of truth, obliterating deceit with a single blow. "What...?" How? How had they been this prepared?
"Now now, Abby, let's not damage the prey," said a voice from the corner. "It's more fun this way, isn't it?" Abigail backed away, and Sparkleaf's eyes widened as William approached.
There was an odd look in the analyst's eyes, a hint of a starving dog. "Remember us from the Routepost?" said William calmly. "Yes, that's right. You were eating a lotus cake, looking for bandits. And here we are. I'm surprised you even found us."
The fox's body swayed. He felt raw and vulnerable, as if the entire world had shattered in an instant. He patted his bracers, his belt. No rope, no spears, no equipment left. Turning to flee, Sparkleaf tripped over the weight of his own boots, falling to the floor. Desperately, he pulled a thin layer of illusion around himself.
Smiling, William adjusted his glasses. Calcite lenses refracted the dim light, countering the interference from the fox's illusions. "You only have yourself to blame, you know," said the analyst, pointing at Sparkleaf, who froze. "You abandoned Shioko. You abandoned the Route. You selfishly let it fall into this state."
Dazed, Sparkleaf stared around the room. More bandits along the walls. Routians with familiar faces. "Abductions? Vandalism? We were searching for recruits," said Abigail. "Just for once, we needed Shioko to hear us. It's a shame, really. Frosti and Sky will never understand how they saved the Route."
Vajra and calcite, bane of kitsune illusion. This must been a trap from the start. A trap for him. But the truth was that Sparkleaf had never actually been that strong. Foxes never were. That's why he trusted his mind to fulfill his self-image for him.
"A beast like you or me is just a danger to the Route," said William, removing his lab coat and tossing it aside. Smiling, he glanced out the window that Sparkleaf smashed earlier, a full moon rising in the night sky, illuminating the pale scar on his right arm. "Ah, you saw something unusual on the report, didn't you? Not wolf hair... werewolf hair."
In that cold, silver moment, William removed his glasses and stepped into the moonlight. Abigail's eyes lit up with savage delight, and Sparkleaf froze. Dark silver fur covered William's face and body, his build growing, bones thickening, muscle and tendon swelling. Lupine ears and muzzle, a shaggy tail, a pair of icy blue eyes.
Lycanthropy. True transformation between beast and being. A transformation that Sparkleaf's illusions could not replicate, only imitate. Terror stirred in the fox's body, followed by the curtain of despair. With a fanged smile, the transformed William lunged at Sparkleaf.
His memories after that were a blur.
A dark shadow, cutting across his vision. A sigh of disapproval. "Here you go again. Always getting yourself into trouble. Just what am I going to do with you?"
Another sigh. "Nothing, I suppose. I'll do nothing at all. Oh, I should narrate this. Ahem: Trainer rushed their unconscious Sparkleaf to the nearest Pokemon Center, protecting him from further harm."
"And the attendant says... 'First, I'll restore your Pokemon to full health.' Then she puts Sparkleaf in the healing machine. Blip, blip, blip... wait, there's just one of you. Just one blip."
"Once the machine finishes, the attendant takes Sparkleaf out of the healing machine. Instead of her usual catchphrase, she says, 'We hope you excel!' And then you wake up, or something."
Sparkleaf's eyes flickered open. Back in bed, back in his clifftop shack. Safe and alive, his dragonhide armor strewn on the floor. His gaze drifted around the room, his head heavy. Heavy? Why? Oh... right--
"Hey, you're finally awake," said Laurel, sitting in a nearby chair, flipping through a magazine. "Took you long enough. But you pulled through, eh?"
The fox sat up too quickly, blood circulating through his bruised, sore body. "Laurel?" he uttered, staring at the lynx. "What're you doing here--" His words collapsed into a fit of coughing.
He felt Laurel's hand on his shoulder, steadying him. "Hey, lie down," said the lynx sternly. "You might not be fully recovered." Nodding, Sparkleaf slid back down, head resting on his pillow. "Anyway, I closed up early. No one's shown up all day. So I might as well check up on you."
He stared up at the ceiling, just with his left eye. The mist in his right eye was so thick that he couldn't see anything else now. "What happened?" asked Sparkleaf weakly.
"One of your seniors came and dropped you off, two nights ago," said Laurel. "Said you'd had a rough night. She left this, too." Sparkleaf flinched. In the lynx's hands was his lance, cracked and tarnished, its blue luster gone.
Laurel frowned. "What happened in Refrain, anyway? Haven't gotten any contact from them since. Geez, you seem out of it." She grinned. "If you were gonna get wasted after all, you should've done it at my--"
"I lost," mumbled Sparkleaf. The lynx blinked as the fox stared bleakly at the ceiling. Vajra, thunderbolt of truth. Lycanthropy, true beasthood. "I think... I was playing around again, and I finally went up against the real deal."
The lynx stared as Sparkleaf pulled the sheets around him tightly. "I... I thought I was very good at illusions," muttered Sparkleaf. "I could make anything. I could do anything. I could be anything. But it's like you said. All luck, no skill."
Laurel frowned. 'Hey! I was just messing with you, okay," said the lynx worriedly. A faint smile flickered. "Your illusions are fine. Come on. You just have to look around to see everything you've created--"
"Stop! Please... please stop." Recoiling, the fox curled up into a ball. "Laurel... you were right. I'm just a fox. Everything I've done through all these years... it was all worthless. A fake. An illusion..."
The lynx gazed at him for a moment, then nodded silently. "Say, Sparkleaf," said Laurel tentatively, resting a hand on his shoulder. "What if I could prove the strength of your illusions to you?"
He cracked one eye open. "What do you mean?"
Laurel looked down at the floor uncomfortably. "Do you trust me?" she said finally. Briefly hesitating, Sparkleaf nodded. "Here's the thing, Spark of Leaves. You think your illusions are worthless? You're wrong. Because--"
Leaning in, she whispered into his ear. The fox's eyes widened in horror. "Laurel?" he whispered.
How could he have missed it? It should've been obvious. He had never liked to kill off his characters, not even after all the battle scenes he'd written. Even when he knew a character had to die, he could not bring himself to end their lives.
One cold night on Sharpedo Bluff, Laurel's health took a turn for the worse. Her mate, Ilun, stayed at her side as the hours dragged on. Such was the Espeon's pain and the Linoone's grief that the commotion woke their daughter, Venvel, in the middle of the night.
Once morning came, Venvel would help bury her mother's body, forced to accept this pain, this emptiness. The Age of Explorers was marked by many such losses. Death was simply part of a harsh, unforgiving world. Thus Sparkleaf wrote.
But the writer could not accept such pain. His life was too soft, too easy compared to the lives of his characters. So he never completed Laurel's death, stalling it for years and years.
Yet the Espeon's death was too pivotal. Unless Laurel died, Ilun would never accept Sektek as an apprentice. Unless Laurel died, Venvel would never seek the future. Unless Laurel died, Sektek and Venvel would never become Sparktail and Thalia--
Light from the curtains passed through the lynx's elbow as she stood up, her body beginning to vanish. With a small whine, Sparkleaf tried to reach out to her, but his hand passed through hers, the illusion fading.
"I didn't want to tell you," said Laurel, smiling sadly. "I... I forgave you some time ago, really." Her lower body was gone, her arms and torso following after. "So please, don't forsake your imagination." Her eyes found Sparkleaf's, her head fading. "Keep writing. For my daughter's sake..."
And she was gone. No, she had never existed in the first place. There was no lynx fur, no warm spot where she'd been sitting. Breathing hard, Sparkleaf stared at the floor in shock, the bedsheets falling from his grasp.
Slipping down from the bed, the fox stared at the star ball on his desk, the story unfinished. It should have been complete. But he kept changing things. Kept fracturing his own creations. Kept rewriting, and rewriting, and revising.
Taking the star ball, he gathered his armor, piece by piece, and stored each piece in the closet. His armor might not be the product of kitsune magic, but it was an illusion, all the same. An illusion he'd woven around himself for reassurance.
There was no shame in constructing an identity, of course, but he had lost himself to that illusion, abandoned his writing for a dragoon's pride. How foolish he had been! He had neither Kain's strength nor his gentleness.
He stumbled over his lance, lying by the front door where Xetaja had left it when she carried him home, two nights ago. Next to the tarnished lance was a staff memo, timestamped at twelve hours ago. Staring at the lance and the memo, he pushed them away and headed outside.
How could he have ever dreamed of leaving? For the first time in years, his heart hurt when he gazed down at Shioko. Little wonder that his eye had been obscured by mist, when he had refused to see himself properly for so long.
Illusions could not protect him from the strain of dragoon maneuvers. Over time, the strain on his body from his endeavors accumulated, filling his eye with mist. A self-inflicted curse.
Falling to all fours, the fox gazed across the lonely chaparral, hands and feet returning to paws, his tails billowing in the wind. He had neglected his duties to heaven and earth for a long time. Even so, he prostrated himself on the earth, offering himself to the sky.
A soft laugh. "Will you contribute to the harvest, after all?"
Sparkleaf's ears perked up. Before him was Inari, the Ten-Tailed God herself, cross-legged on the chaparral. Her eyes twinkled slyly, her gold-white tails swaying in rhythm. "You've caused quite some trouble, little fox." She smiled slyly. "As fitting for any fox."
He grew anxious. He had very little to show for the last few years. Taking the star ball, his unfinished story, he offered it up to Inari. Chuckling, the goddess held up the star ball for inspection. "This was a fine harvest," she said. "But it is an old yield. You are capable of a fresh yield, no?"
Sparkleaf hung his head in shame. "Do you know why you lost, little fox?" said Inari. "You lost because you fought like a wolf. You lost because you were still playing around. But this time, you will win. This time, you will fight not like a wolf, but like a fox." Surprised, Sparkleaf lifted his gaze, and the earth began to resonate.
He felt the touch of a goddess behind his ears, fingers tracing under his chin, passing a slice of fried tofu into his mouth. Images projected directly into his mind, sacks of alabaster rice and golden wheat.
Red and blue shadows flickered in his right eye as he chewed and swallowed, softening his unkempt fur, healing his injured body, reunifying his fragmented spirit.
Taking a red neckerchief, Inari gently tied it around the fox's neck, completing the contract. Blinking several times, Sparkleaf slowly raised a paw to his right eye, staring at the goddess. The mist in his eye... the curse was lifted! He could see!
Inari smiled down at the elated kitsune. "Now go and tend your fields, little fox," said the goddess, her eyes gleaming. "Tend to the fields of the Route, which you love, so that they may reap a bountiful yield."
Tails converged into one, the fox made his way toward Refrain. He wore no armor and carried no hunting gear. Tucked into his neckerchief was a dagger fashioned from an azure spearhead, the sole intact piece of his lance.
His Skarmory was still tethered outside the village. Dagger in tail, he cut the Skarmory loose, setting the armored bird free. Spark of Leaves had assumed his proper role, and that role needed no steed of war.
Bandits prowled the streets of Refrain, the people of the Route gone. No, they were all inside, hiding in fear. The staff memo by his front door already explained the situation.
The morning after Sparkleaf's defeat, William and Abigail made their move. Their bandits burned the Routepost to the ground, cutting off Refrain's contact with Shioko within hours.
Sparkleaf glanced around the street. Bandits pointed as they spotted him, slowly reaching for blackjacks, knives, and rifles. He tilted his head. Last time, they attacked on sight. Now, they were more hesitant.
"Probably the one," said the lead bandit after a moment. "Take it out to be sure." Sparkleaf sat back on his haunches. Mana flowed through his body as the bandits approached. He would not charge recklessly into peril like a wolf anymore. The fox raised his converged tail, manipulating the threads of fate.
The air filled with the sound of shattering ice as the bandits fired, their guns jamming, melted snow running down the barrels. "Spark, you okay?" called Frosti as she landed a few feet away, followed by SkyWarrior and Twiggy. Blinking, Sparkleaf nodded. "A'ight, cool. Sorry, we're stealing your kills!"
One by one, the bandits transformed, throwing aside their now-useless rifles, jet-black fur sprouting over their bodies. Gleaming werewolf eyes turned away from Sparkleaf and toward the Seasonal Sisters of Shioko, growling.
A fireball flew from SkyWarrior's open maw and engulfed the lead werewolf, incinerating it whole. "Fight me," hissed Twiggy as she pressed her glowing palms to the ground. Tree saplings burst up from beneath the werewolves, thick vines coiling around their bodies, tearing them limb from limb.
Sparkleaf held back a grin as the remaining wolves fled. The outline was falling into place. For once, he didn't mind having no direct role. "Sorry I went dead on everyone," said the fox to the three sisters. "Let's retake Refrain, okay?"
The sisters looked at him, surprised. Had something changed in Spark of Leaves, they wondered? "We gotta clean up this village, after all the effort we've put into this project," said SkyWarrior finally. "The leaders are at the village commons. Don't do anything rash, kay?"
He smiled as the sisters hurried off down the street. "I won't. I promise." Their clothes and fur were tattered and torn, but their eyes remained fierce and bright. Whether they came to his aid because of him, or because of their own wills, they would always be his friends.
A cool breeze filled Sparkleaf's fur as he approached the commons. On the village green, Abigail and a transformed William had set up a bonfire, flanked by thirty werewolves and a handful of human bandits. "Hi there," called Sparkleaf, crossing the green, blades of grass tickling his paws. "Where did we leave off?"
Kitsune-bi floated around Sparkleaf as bandits fired at him, his fox-fire lining up with their rifles, intercepting their bullets and reflecting them back. A shocked silence fell over the commons as the humans dropped to the ground, dead.
Eyes narrowing, William motioned for the werewolves to part, giving him a clear line of sight. "So, the animal walks willingly back into the traps it once escaped?" said the silver werewolf. "You haven't even got your armor. You must want to die very badly."
Sparkleaf smiled. "You don't understand because you think like a wolf." Rising onto his hind paws, he drew the azure dagger from his red neckerchief with his tail, a simple white robe settling over his body. "Only a fox would understand."
William's features twisted into a snarl. "Oh? You know what you don't understand, Spark of Leaves?" he growled, clenching a fist. "Imagine a man who lived a simple, honest life. Who had no fantasies or dreams, only concrete goals. Who dedicated himself to helping others, each and every day. Until a stray wolf appeared at sunset and savaged him, turning him into one of its own."
A low, rumbling howl stirred among the bandit werewolves, discordant notes of sorrow. "That was three years ago," said William heavily. "The one who should have protected me... wasn't there. It was months before I learned that he'd moved out of Shioko, to a cliff on the edge of Routian territory."
Blinking, Sparkleaf took a step back. "What...?"
"Don't you get it?" snarled Abigail, tightening her grip on her vajra, her knuckles whitening. "William's like this because of you, Spark of Leaves. Not because of Kat. Not because of the Sisters. Because of you."
Sparkleaf lowered his head. "I'm sorry to hear all this," said the fox carefully. "I can't change what I've already done. But nothing like that will happen again."
"That's it? You think pretty words will solve this?" said William bitterly. He gestured to his fellow bandits. "You see my brothers? My curse is forever, but they willingly share my burden for a brief time. A wolf's loyalty is forever. While you, you've done nothing but drain the lives of everyone around you. You don't deserve your place."
"You're right, I was irresponsible, and you shouldn't have ended up like this," said the fox. "But what you've done here, this goes beyond a protest. What you've started here is a full-blown rebellion. Not against me, against the entire Route. So... to make up for the way I screwed up back then... " The fox lifted his gaze, his orange eyes glowing. "I'll start with you."
A rallying howl from William. A ripple ran through the crowd of werewolves, a chorus of barks and growls filling the air, luminous eyes hungrily turning toward Sparkleaf. A single werewolf had defeated him before. Now, he faced thirty of them.
Mana surged around Sparkleaf, his tails fanning back out into seven. In each tail, he held an azure spear with scarlet markings. Just as his lance was an extension of his blade, his stories were extensions of his own will. "Inari's blessings to all the Route," announced the fox, lifting his tails.
At an order from William, the werewolves charged at Sparkleaf. Sapphire points and ruby edges met swiping claws and ravenous jaws. These bandits were proof of the Route's decline, their transformations a protest to Shioko's long silence. In their eyes, Sparkleaf was the hero of the Route, the source of all their misery.
But Sparkleaf wouldn't regard himself as a hero. A hero fought with bravery and determination. So he didn't invest his heart and soul into the battle. Instead, he moved like his own writings, ever flowing, ever changing. If anything, he would consider himself more of a guardian spirit.
Unburdened by armor, he moved swiftly and gracefully, weaving between their attacks, tails striking along elegant trajectories. The smell of graphite and rubber filled the air as the fox wove his tale. Every attack, a new detail. Every step forward, a new thought. If Sparkleaf had to give a name to this fight... he would call it a dance of seven tails.
Covered in shallow, messy cuts, the werewolves formed a tight circle around Sparkleaf. His robe still untouched, the fox stepped back and brought his spears together, crystalline shards flowing into each other, melding into a ball of stars. Taking the sapphire dagger from his tails, he traced a word upon the air.
As the wolves lunged in for the kill, the star ball flashed and released a mighty shockwave, forcing them to their knees, the seal taking effect. Kitsune-bi circled around the bandits as they glared up at Sparkleaf, muscle and tendon shriveling, bones narrowing, dark fur retracting, gradually stripping them of werewolf form.
"Monster," hissed Abigail, swinging her vajra at him. But Sparkleaf was already stepping out of range, dodging William's enraged swipes. Tendrils of light flew from the star ball, latching onto Abigail and William, fox-fire sapping their strength. "You... what are you doing...?"
The fox padded toward them, tails swaying under the hem of his white robe. "You wanted Shioko's attention, right?" said Sparkleaf, tilting his head at an angle. "Don't worry, I'm sure Kat and Frosti would love to decide your fates themselves."
Turning in a circle, the fox traced another word on the air with his dagger, activating a link to Shioko. "I apprehend you all in the name of the Route." Red filaments formed a mesh around the bandits, then William and Abigail. One by one, they sank to the ground, immobilized.
At last, the commons were quiet once more. In the distance, the streets of Refrain, too, had gone silent, the Seasonal Sisters emerging victorious. Wiping his dagger on his robes, Sparkleaf tucked it back into his neckerchief.
Gazing over the prisoners strewn across the village green, Sparkleaf retrieved the newly-formed star ball and raised his gaze to the sky. Blinking, he reached out a hand to catch a handful of foxtail grass, gently descending on the breeze of the harvest.
"And so Thalia tries to sneak up on Sparktail, and right when she's about to tap him on the shoulder, he turns around. And she's like 'Wha? You saw me?' And he just smiles awkwardly because actually he noticed her the whole time and was just too shy to say anything..."
He didn't expect to receive any praise for that day. That was just his duty as a moderator. It had been for years. He'd just forgotten, at some point. The characters had already been created. Now, he simply needed to resume their development.
Having accepted Inari's will, Spark of Leaves retired as a myth-hunter. Selling his clifftop shack and hunting gear, he moved back into Shioko City. On May 30, 2014, he released the final chapter of LotE, yielding a grand harvest for his goddess.
He has not thrown his armor away. A fox does not part with his toys so easily, after all. But surely, even a fox like Sparkleaf can change. And as a myobu of Inari, he will continue to tend the fields of the Route which he loves.