Ch. 1

A cool wind refused to budge from the land. Nightly it tried to budge the human petulance from its shores. The hills shuttered as the leaves turned from summer towards the hibernation of winter. Among the leaves sat a short bulky imp, Natsumi. Her long legs draped over the branches while she listened to her arms, the trees. The skirt of nature's divine aid was made up of the tree's down, fluttered in the wind and tugged around her silky reddish skin. A toothy grin graced the face of the imp who hid among the colors. She blended in more like a fruit from the tree than the physical form the land manifested.

Natsumi would spend hours in the winds, twisting around and letting her arms taunt their currents as she twirled like a seed falling to the ground. She would laugh and throw back her head in great joy throughout the seasons while snow and rain would wet her with the sea's cool refreshing drink.

Now, perhaps in a more somber mood, she listened to the trees from one of her favorite perches. Something was coming and she did not like it. They stank like rank fish on a river shore and ate like rabid pigs on holiday.

"After him!" a cry came from the wretched humans. Something nicked her interest, a fleeting sight of who they could be chasing. She dismissed it as trivial-unless she must kill 'him' later. She resigned herself to investigate, but not until after the foolish bumbling humans had fled her forest.

Cries of anger bellowed from the forest depths as a thunder of clothed men ran after the wind. She could smell the fire, feel the ache of the long dead trees they held. The imp fled, her trunk. She wandered further into the safety of her branches. Oil scorched her nose as tears filled her eyes like the ash of her loss. Natsumi pulled her arms tight over her chest as she huddled by a tree on the edge of her cleared hill. The dead haunted her memory. She coughed and the branches of the land shook with her effort.

What did they chase to make such a racket?

The imp gazed out over the field of grass. stumps here and there sat like bricks of memory. Something was ahead of them, passed the field, coming close to the river. She could almost feel its paws upon her skin, the dirt squishing beneath its toes, but she could not pinpoint it. Dogs padded across her field, humans on their tails. Her dirt enveloped the human's beasts. They were caked from head to foot with fresh mud along their underbellies. She could feel them well because of that.

Gently, a finch upon an updraft, the imp fled to the sky. Her arms lifted to wings, and her skin fell away to feathers. She flew before the furious flustered lot and dove towards her river, the edge of her domain. The armor of the humans crashed after her when the dogs caught wind and began their howling barks. She felt the humans speed faster on her, packing the grass into the dirt, and the flowers she futilely tried to grow in memory of her lost trees.

What were they chasing? It was no longer a fleeting thought.

She passed the river. It is an angry thing that delves deep into the ground to separate her from her neighbor, though they were friendly still. She swam between the trees of her neighbor after the thief of her interest. Thrill filled out her feathers as they puffed on the wind. A chirp twittered from her beak as she tried to find her neighbor. Another finch joined her and danced around her side. She felt his knowledge like a warm glow she hardly could forget. He darted off, and she followed as she always would. Her heart fluttered with such delight at seeing Thoth again. She could hardly keep her wings from beating faster just to catch him.

He was reassuring, knowledgeable and old. Most of all, Thoth had seen the one the humans chased. Down the hills they flew, fluttering along the wind, until they came to a small cave off the old river bed. The cave was nothing more than an outreaching limb of rock which imbedded itself in dirt and supported itself with mighty trees. Still, it provided darkness and shelter from the wind.

Inside the cave a fox lay curled against the roots of the mightiest of trees. The fox shivered revealing freckles of gray in his dirty black coat. He hid from the wind while the finches came to rest on a branch to watch. They clutched the branch of an evergreen across the old river bank and stared down at the creature digging himself into the mud. Their heads tipped from side to side in the way that birds do, a quick jerk to the left, twitches gradually bringing it back to center, and little peeps of thought.

The humans tumbled through the woods. The dogs stopped at her river. Their noses buried in the mud of the banks. Human after human barreled through the underbrush, a thick thorny thing of thistles and barbs. First the metal clad humans came, those who guarded the town. Then their followers with torches came and kicked at the bushes the metal clad humans missed. She eyed her neighbor curiously. He shuttered his brown feathers and began to prune his wing, bored with her hunt.

The fox's ears perked up as the last of the humans fell passed. His head poked from the darkness, blue eyes glowing like the summer sky.

I want those ears. Natsumi realized with a tweet. She hopped around trying to think of just how she could get the fox to become her resident and allow her to change into one much like him. Surely she could convince him somehow to allow her the privilege. Many a great beast gave her such time.

She had hardly finished peeing up her thoughts to Thoth when a shiny metal caught her attention. It glinted in the broken sun that fluttered through the golden leaves and evergreens. The fox carefully picked up the trinket, a bracelet of silver, and made off into the underbrush with more expertise than a finch could fly in wind. Awe passed the imp as she leapt after her new fantasy and followed the flicking tail of the black fox that made off with a human thing.

"Natsumi, he stole from the humans. You need to be cautious with him."

Natsumi circled the old ratty haired imp, and twittered her denial before diving after the sneaky fox. Fear leapt through her throat at the thought of losing him again.

When the imp caught up with the fox, he had not gotten far. He was heading back towards her land, but gradually and at a steep angle from his mad dart into Thoth's domain. She idly wondered if this was her resident all along and no convincing needed to be done. If it was, this would be much easier. Still, she did not believe the fox lived in her land and called it home.

The fox slowed as he reached the river. He stopped in a bush staring out at the churning tides. The little black fox was nowhere near tall enough to make it across swimming. The imp watched with curiosity as the fox tried to determine the best way to cross the river with no rocks to jump on. She fluttered across and sat on a branch watching patiently from her spot as his enchanting blue eyes darted around in the darkness. They were nearly the only things visible to the imp from across the river.

The fox curled up, the black pelt glittering with the beginning of his winter coat. Natsumi changed back to her humanoid form, curious about what he was doing.

What was he waiting for?

She carefully hopped out to a rock that almost broke the surface of the river. Her red and gold skirt fluttered with the wind of the crashing water which splashed around her legs. She crossed her arms over her branchy top, staring at the ball of fur out of her reach. Her auburn eyes focused into slits as she watched the creature anxiously. Her brown hair, speckled with shrieks of red clay, and black waste, tickled her shoulders.

Dogs padded through her river towards their owners in her neighbor's land.

A deep chuckle echoed through the shuttering leaves. "Do you want me to kick him out?" Her neighbor asked from his spot hidden in an evergreen. "All it would take is a little push."

"No. He was watching me." She cautioned glancing up at her companion. She could feel his calming grace of bulky resilience waiting patiently. It annoyed her. "He just needs time to stop being so shy and dive in. Thoth, you said he was a thief. Is he mine?" she asked sweetly. A smile broke across her face as she folded her hands behind her back hoping that he was. Her voice was high and sharp. She had a throaty tone to her voice even with its pitch. It would be so much easier if he was already her resident.

"I don't know where he belongs." Thoth jumped out to the river with her, standing in his muddy glory. Evergreens hugged his chest as his deciduous leaves colored his hair blond. His sharp reddish eyes tore into her with dull curiosity. "He has passed me many times. He takes his shiny trinkets passed my lands towards the mountains."

Natsumi shivered and rubbed her bare freckled arms. "He takes them to the mountains? That is awfully far." Her head dropped in defeat as she gazed into the water. An urge to play came over the imp. She knelt and splashed the water through her hands. Fish took the blame. "Why can't he just be mine? I want to run around as a fox. I will hardly be able to sleep without time to play."

Thoth gave a throaty laugh and the fox's head flicked up to eye the two imps. He looked through the ghosts and into the lands. "My, his ears are sharp." Thoth whispered.

"Perhaps you should stay on your land so you do not to haunt him." Natsumi giggled, covering her apple red lips with her lanky hand.

"He will live." Thoth dismissed focusing on the creature at his side. "If you are so curious, how do you intend to cross the lands?"

Natsumi stood up and faced Thoth. "Carefully. I understand the risks of being seen by humans."

"Careful is not safe enough for those journeys Natsumi." Thoth reached out and touched her shoulder. "If you go further than three lands, you will have to remain in this form. You could be heard by the humans. If you dare venture passed there, they will begin to see you." Thoth's thick hand shoved out towards the fox. "Already the gifted fox can hear me and I am on the edge of my own land."

"The gifted creatures are different than humans," Natsumi absently claimed, not really believing herself. She pawed away the fly of irritation he presented. "We can never completely cut ourselves away from our gifted brethren. You are the one who taught me that we helped create the gifted creatures," she scolded bluntly.

Natsumi stared towards her counterpart focusing on him completely. "You have made such an adventure from your land." She reached out to touch a white hot scar that ran across Thoth's right eye. "You made a new home here after fleeing from gorge before the mountains."

"I made a home because of luck." Thoth walked from the river. The water crashing through his legs like a large stone had tumbled by. "You must be safe. If you do not feel safe, you must come home. Remember the laws of our kind Natsumi."

"I am not a child." Natsumi's eyes thinned as she glared at her neighbor. "I am just naïve to the world. Do not think me a complete fool."

The fox splashed into the water with a mighty leap. Natsumi yelped as she leapt out of the way, narrowly avoiding the fox who landed on her rock. She splashed heavily into the water, drenching both herself, and the fox.

Thoth laughed and flashed into the trees.

The fox landed on her shore and shook before trotting away into her heavy leaves.

Natsumi could only stare after the creature, curious, and surprised. She broke into a flash to follow the fox. Out of the water, Natsumi's hair mimicked the young river, splashing across her back. Her skirt tried to regain the colors of fall which shattered across her lands, and her feet fell heavily across the rocks and beds of leaves. The fox lead her back towards the village, much to her disdain.

The black fox dug into a bush not far from the river, aimlessly licking off the water from his fur. To get more water off, he shook like a wet dog and began to paw at his ears, clearing them. The white shattering through his black fur made him glitter like the shiny trinket he stole.

Natsumi ran her clawed hands through her bushy hair as she watched the fox. He kept his back to the imp as he cleaned off, ignoring her. She slowly walked closer to him, curious as ever about why he would steal from the humans. The imp circled him, her wet feet leaving small dips in the land.

"I know you're watching me Imp," addressed the fox. His ear flicked back towards her as his foot planted itself on the ground. He tipped his head some so his blue eye could see across his squared shoulder, but he did not look back.

Natsumi yelped and jumped away from the creature fleeing into the trees, far enough away to hide from his sight.

"You won't last long," he scolded. His voice was low like a rumble of a waterfall in the distance. The fox's lip caught on his front long fang as he held back a sneer. His ears flicked back against his skull at the thought before he began to search for something else to listen to.

The long black ears scanned the forest. She stiffened and held her breath. She shut her eyes and prayed he would not sense her. Fear and dread coursed through her like the first snow. She heard him begin to lick away the water again, ignoring her. Carefully, Natsumi opened her eyes to peek out at the small stranger on her lands.

The whiskers of white that fluffed out from his black coat lay flat against his legs. Water dripped off his belly. Thick tufts of white fur peaked out from the thinnest spots of black. His black fur still covered his back, head, and tail, but it was weaning gradually.

The fox curled up completely hiding his white fur from view and stared into her tree.

Natsumi froze as his piercing blue eyes dug into her. She felt a shock shutter down her back as she leaned into the trunk of her tree.

An angry squirrel chattered furiously from a branch above the fox's bush. He flicked his puffy tail like it was a dead skull that threatened him. The resident puffed and ranted at the beast below him scurrying slowly closer as he gathered up courage in his blind rage.

Natsumi bit her lips puffing out her own cheeks as her brows furrowed in frustration. She knew the mindless creature would continue until it was satisfied with the fox's reaction.

The fox's ears fell back when the squirrel began to squeak at him from nearly within range to snap at his tail. He shot a glare up at the creature, but quickly relented from his hiding spot, scooping up the small bangle of metal and vanishing into the woods. Natsumi sighed with relief as the fox left.

She couldn't follow him. He was already aware of her and that was the first warning sign. He would never lose his awareness of her, so she could never be secret around him. She felt her gut wrench as she realized her curiosity would go unanswered. She couldn't just let this die. She had to know if she could become a cute creature like him, and she wanted to know more about him! Those eyes of his were like the sea's own blue and she so desperately wished to see them again even if they scared the life from her bones.

Cursing under her breath, Natsumi retreated to her favorite evergreen on the edge of the river near Thoth's land. She needed to ignore this passerby and move on. Perched upon the scraggly branch of her evergreen, she felt her frustration well like a tremor.

"Is something the matter my dear?" Thoth questioned from across the river.

"There is. The fox knew I was there."

Thoth was silent.

Natsumi glanced towards her northern counterpart. "I want to follow him. He's piqued my curiosity." Natsumi took in a deep breath. Her small chest heaved with effort to fill itself. "Even knowing that I shouldn't let him know me, I want to have him as my resident."

"You could show yourself to him. It's not a law to avoid the gifted beings, just humans."

Natsumi let out a great sigh and her lips pouted out as she stared towards Thoth, calmed by his words. "What was your adventure about?" Natsumi questioned Thoth.

She heard him rustle, an unsettled feeling washed between them as the water's churned with effort to part them still.

Natsumi sighed and shook her head. "Never mind, I'm sure I would know if it was necessary. You gave me the knowledge I needed when I was formed."

Silence eased between them like the sighing of two boulders into their slots. Natsumi shivered as she rubbed her shoulders. Her mind fluttered over the fox that plagued her thoughts. Thoth waited for her quiet to break. He crept closer to her, gradually coming into the river.

"Why is he gifted!" Natsumi focused on Thoth with a heavy frown screwing her bushy brown eyebrows together. "I have not run into many gifted kind."

"You would have to ask him." Thoth's amusement raked Natsumi's anger. "There are many different ways that the gifted come about."

Natsumi frowned again and stared off towards the small creature on her lands. "He needs to leave. I can't stand not knowing with him here!" She stood on her branch and glared towards the creature creeping through her trees.

"How do you know he knew you were there?"

"He called out to me, and looked for me. I think he could hear me."

"Nonsense. He could feel you if he knew you were there. Go ahead and follow him. He cannot do much. It is worth it for your poor nerves." Thoth offered waving the girl off. He headed back into his woods.