182 The Kitsune“s Dilemma*
It was said the Fairy Forest was so large that one could not see the end of it in any direction even if they had climbed the tallest tree within. Not that anybody had ever traversed it but those who were born within. And of course, those who were born within never saw fit to share their treasured forest with outsiders.
It had been an age since Juline had last visited the Fair Forest. She'd been little more than a child when she had done so last time. As curious as her great nieces, Lua and Lia. The Fair Forest was not a domain of the merfolk, but Juline had decided that if such a place existed, a place said to be more wondrous than even the merfolk citadels of the Wide Ocean, then Juline needed to see it with her own two eyes.
Arrogant in her own abilities, she hadn't anticipated that the underground rivers and lakes were home to creatures that despised guests. She'd been injured, and in seeking shelter, had ended up in a lake near the home of a pair of two rather intelligent foxes. Foxes that, considering their four tails, were far more than they seemed.
She had talked with the curious foxes, surprised that they knew how. She had never heard of such creatures, and they had never heard of merfolk like her. They shared stories in the days that Juline healed, then, after many days had passed, the older of the fox sisters gifted her a small crystal.
"It will let you pass through back to the ocean," the fox had said, her intelligent eyes warning of what would happen in Juline misused this gift. The stories the fox had spoken of were warning enough.
She had returned home safely, but had refused to lead anyone else back there.
That had been over a century ago.
Juline had heard enough stories from the sailors at various ports to know that it was very probably the sisters were still alive. However, the question lingered in her mind as she led her brethren through underground rivers to the lake she remember her crystal allowing them to pass through unharmed.
She'd questioned it for the two weeks journey here. Not just on her own account, but on account of the creature they brought with them. While it had not been obvious at first, in the last couple of days his body had started to carry with it a sort of decay. One which was consistent with that of a dead being. And yet, his heart still beat. One part of her told her to just leave the body somewhere it would never be found and leave. The other part, the curious part that had led her into these caves as a child, told her that the foxes were a good solution. A solution to a problem she and her people had not the knowledge nor the resources to solve.
But the Fairy Forest, the place that was reknowned worldwide to be impregnable to races not born inside it, surely they would know. It's history was longer and more profound than any other place. It was not her place to pry, she could only hope that when presented with this strange young man, they would know what to do.
Just below the lake, Juline paused, "We're here".
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The warriors that had accompanied her looked to one another, then back to her, waiting for her orders.
"I'll go on alone. No one in the Fairy Forest likes company, let alone the unexpected kind," Juline sighed. She clung to the crystal, hoping that she would not be turned away. She then reached out with her abilities, the water swirling around the young man and dragging him behind Juline as she rose up and into the small lake. She surfaced at its centre, looking around. It was night, but in the Fairy forest, night was when life bloomed. Luminiscent flowers and tiny spokes of light that looked like stars filled the area around the lake. Even the water itself seemed to illuminate in the moonlight. Thriving in its natural state.
Juline cautiously moved forward, reaching up and placing the crystal on a stone on the shore. She waited about a metre back from the stone, her breath baited in suspense.
Would they come? Juline waited until the moon was about to set, then turned to dive back down, her visit failed.
"Leaving without even saying hello?"
Juline turned back quickly, there, on the stone playing the with crystal between her two paws, a fox with fur like a golden sunrise lay. She was more mature than Juline remembered, and more than that, the Fox had twice as many tails.
Rather than the four of last time, eight flitted and danced behind the fox. Juline looked on in wonder. She was just as beautiful though. Just as elegant. Juline bowed her head respectfully.
The older sister. Surai was far more gentle than her sister, and most believed her to be wiser as well. Juline could not help but think however that they always underestimated the younger sister, Kali.
Surai titled her head to the side, "It has been an age, Juline. What brings you here to my humble home...and I sense that you don't come alone".
Juline sighed, "Forgive me for intruding, Surai, but our council did not know what to make of him, nor what to do with him. He was being pursued by a Magician with affinities for both water and shadow. Those who found him managed to conceal him, but we do not know if the Magician will return, nor if she will come with allies. We cannot hope to protect against such a force for a stranger".
"Then why bring him here?" asked Surai.
Juline turned as the water brought the young man to the surface, then she delicately lifted his shirt.
"Because we sensed he is more like you than us".
Surai, who until then had appeared elegant, but rather lazy. Suddenly rose, and between one step and the next, seem to transform to the image of a human woman with bare feet and flowing gossamer white robe. Her golden hair fell to her waist in waves, and her intelligent golden eyes peered curiously at the black lines that Juline revealed. Atop her head, her fox ears remained with their golden sunrise fur with darker tips. Her eight tails also remained presented at the base of her spine, fanning out as they rose in curiosity, their white tips almost glowing with how clean they were.
Surai stood with the water to her knees as she delicately took the shirt from Juline and lifted it higher to reveal more of the black marks.
Her eyes darted along them, first amazed, then growing sad, and finally, concerned.
"You can read them?" Juline realised.
Surai paused a moment, then let the shirt fall with a wet smack against the young man's skin. She then rounded him to the side and took a look as his pale face for a moment. Then she placed a hand on his chest and closed her eyes.
She stood there for another moment in silence, then her tails and ear twitched as her eyes fluttered open.
"You are right, he is more like me than you," she stated.
Juline smiled, "Then will you hel-"
"But he is not like me at all," Surai continued. She then turned and stepped out of the water back onto the shore before she looked at Juline, "And he will not be welcomed here the way he is. Little more than a child, yet with such desolating power. He will be nothing but a plague for this forest".
Juline blanched, the water's hold on him falling away. He dropped to into the water with a splash, and seemed to float for a moment before sinking to the floor of the lake.
"I'm sorry, I did not know," Juline stated.
Surai did not turn to look at Juline. She seemed deep in thought. Her eyes turned back to look at the young man lying beneath the surface of the water. She looked torn, and for a moment, Juline truly thought she was going to walk away, then, Surai turned back and stepped into the water before hauling the young man out onto the shore.
"But, I though you said-"
"You have done all you can, Juline," Surai spoke as her hand softly caressed the young man's face, her eyes full of concern, "Thank you for your visit".
Juline hesitated only a moment before she dived back into the lake, the sun rising to the east.
Surai looked down at the young man's face before she leant down and pressed her lips to his, breathing hair back into his cold lungs.