The hard, cold earth met my behind moments later when we all appeared in the middle of a snow-lined clearing surrounded by trees. I grimaced when my ears popped from the change in elevation and groggily held my head, trying to get a grip on myself. Holy hell… my brain was in a vice and I couldn't push out one coherent thought. I groaned and squinted at the unfolding scene.
The cute kitty had erupted into a bear-sized monstrosity. Fangs jutted out awkwardly from its mouth and green saliva oozed from between them, dripping with a loud sizzle onto the ground. It had two tails twitching behind it that were tinged black at the end and long claws jutting from its paws. The eyes were large and drooping with sharp yellow irises watching Elijah. I blinked and rubbed my eyes.
It was kind of funny watching the tiny fox with bows tied to the ends of his tails circling around the gigantic feline. Tiny balls of blue fire hovered around Elijah while he paced, probably waiting for me to get with the program. I slowly sat up and cursed my stupid job.
"Here for my soul, nekomata?" Elijah taunted through his mask. "It is quite safe from the likes of you."
The cat roared and slammed a huge paw on the ground but didn't verbally respond. I wondered if it could for a brief moment but it lunged for Elijah and I was otherwise occupied.
Elijah was much faster. He daintily avoided a swing from the cat's tail and hopped over to me, tails quivering. The nekomata spun around, smashing over some trees, and blindly charged toward us. I shrieked in terror and ducked my head to brace for the impact.
A wall of fire erupted in front of us and the cat hardly had time to skid to a stop. It paced around the flickering blue flames furiously while Elijah prodded my thigh with one of his little paws.
"The second command, Nora," he said. "Say 'roku'. That will free six of my tails."
"That's a lot of tails," I snapped.
"A rampaging nekomata is not easy to kill." He perched both paws on me and I could imagine him glaring at me through the white mask. "The word, Nora! Now!"
"Fine!" I reached underneath my shirt to press the seal, glaring at Eli, and said the damn word.
The fire wall fell apart to swirl around Elijah and momentarily left both of us exposed. I stared stupidly at the nekomata and it back at me while the small nogitsune beside me rapidly changed into the next form.
This was much more impressive, though he did still don the fancy blue ribbons. Six tails fanned out behind Elijah, who was now a bit bigger than the nekomata. The fur around his neck had become a thicker mane and both his ears and snout had elongated and sharpened to make him more intimidating. Blue flames danced around his paws as he walked away from me to confront the raging cat.
The cat snarled as Eli approached in a self-assured fashion that honestly would've pissed me off, too. I scrambled out of the clearing to watch from the forest. Getting between two fighting animals seemed like a bad idea when they weren't drooling poison or playing with fire.
Both of them froze. The feline sank into a crouch and its tails waved back and forth, waiting like all cats did for the prey to move first. Elijah bared his long, sharp teeth and an invisible moment passed before they were on one another in a flurry of black and orange fur. I watched in horror as their long fangs sank into one another's flesh, but no blood came out of the cat. Only Eli seemed to bleed.
They broke apart and Elijah landed gracefully in front of me. He waved his six tails back and forth and three copies of him appeared on either side, perfect replicas that even had their own facial expressions. I could see what he was thinking now because there was no longer a mask obscuring his face. The lips on his long jaw were drawn back in a low snarl and his sharp green eyes observed the nekomata pacing.
The copies of Eli moved in a circle around the cat, fanning their tails to distract it. Even I had no idea which one was the real thing. I swallowed and sat up, morbidly curious about their fight, and the Elijah directly behind the nekomata suddenly lunged for its throat.
They rolled into a pile of fur and snapping jaws and Elijah tried his hardest to avoid the toxic spittle. He pressed one paw to the nekomata's face and blue fire erupted around it, drawing a shrill scream from the cat's mouth. The green saliva dripped onto Eli's chest and he likewise yelped in pain. They rolled away from one another and neither of them moved, now perfectly still in the snow.
I tentatively left my hiding spot to check on my nogitsune before the cat. Elijah was lying on his side, green eyes roaming weakly, and his mouth turned in a smile when I knelt beside him. He was huge—one of his paws that I picked up was nearly the size of a dinner plate.
"Is there anything I can do?" I asked anxiously.
He coughed and closed his eyes. "No. I'm a bit rusty from being locked in my human form for so long. I will heal quickly with my soul nearby but the nekomata will heal faster. We should flee. Return me to my 'san' form and bring me back to the hotel. Jack has been clued in on recent events and will not question it: I will look like a simple puppy to passerby."
I looked over at the cat. It was breathing heavily with long gashes along its sides from Elijah's claws. Once or twice it struggled to get up and collapsed again with a pitiful whimper.
"I'll be right back," I said.
Eli's eyes widened when I stood up and he weakly raised his head. "Nora! What the hell are you doing?!"
Mildly terrified, I slowly edged around the nekomata's long tails so it could see me approaching. Its yellow eyes narrowed and it growled in warning but I carefully picked my way closer, past the gigantic paws towards its face. The mouth hung open at an odd angle and spit pooled on the earth. Grimacing, I knelt down a foot or two away and wrung my fingers.
"He's probably going to kill you when he gets up," I said. "If you want, I can try to help you, or you could join us and come back to the city. Or you could lie here and have your throat ripped out."
It was a lie; such a grand lie. The cat tilted its head slightly, intrigued, but didn't seem convinced. I needed to figure out how to help it… Elijah could use extra defensive help.
Something around the area of the seal prompted me to reach out and touch the feline's paw. It hissed and tried to jerk away but I held firm, sliding closer by a couple of feet in the process. I took a deep breath and blue light shined out of my palms that immediately erased some of the smaller cuts. Both the nekomata and I stared in pure shock at the healed area.
"You're welcome!" Elijah snarled. "That was courtesy of my own powers!"
"You need friends," I snapped back, moving my hand up the cat's orange furry leg to heal a bigger laceration. "I'm useless in fights so maybe this thing can help."
"My name is Katia."
I jerked back like I'd been stung when the cat's childlike voice interjected into my argument with Elijah. Its eyes had softened now and it abruptly reverted back to the tiny cat form I had been tricked by. It licked its paws and I spluttered in shock. Talking cats?! Talking fire foxes?! What the hell was next?!
"K-Katia?" I echoed.
She smiled. "Yes. You must be the soul shell of this foul creature. It is a pleasure to meet you, Nora."
"Oh… uh… yeah, you too." I cocked my head and watched her for a few seconds, enthralled. "So you're a spirit, too? What's a nekomata do?"
"We are housecats who grew old and fled into the mountains. We are associated with death and necromancy, quite unlike your little kitsune friend over there. Or should I say nogitsune? They're really quite alike, only the nogitsune has a chip on his shoulder."
"I'll rip your throat out!" Eli howled.
"Why did you come after us?" I asked.
Katia cleaned her ears next. "Consuming such a powerful soul would greatly increase my own personal power, but I now realize that is a pipe dream. Your friend—Elijah, was his name?—far outclasses me. I would like to take you up on your offer and accompany you from now on, both for my protection and your own. It will be a mutually beneficial relationship."
"There is nothing beneficial about nekomata," Elijah cut in, rolling over on his side. He was baring his fangs and the fire flickered around his paws.
The cat was suddenly engulfed in a green pillar of light and a little girl who looked to be about five was standing there, pouting. She was wearing an orange dress and black shoes and had brown hair pulled into pigtails. Her eyes were still an odd shade of orange and brown.
"Not even one measly good trait?" Katia wheedled. "You are a rude creature, nogitsune."
"Okay, okay, no more ripping each other apart," I said quickly. I reached under my shirt to touch the seal and spoke the word 'san'.
Elijah reverted to his smallest form and growled furiously at me for putting him in it. I sheepishly apologized and Katia darted toward him with her arms outstretched, squealing that he was adorable and she wanted to hold him. I stood silently in the clearing and watched my boss, in the form of a fox, being chased around by a little girl who was actually an evil cat spirit.
The red eyebrows on Eli's mask were drawn together angrily when I approached. Katia was nuzzling him and stroking the tuft of black fur behind his mask and I had a feeling she was going to get bit.
I sighed. "Okay, is the freak show ready to go?"
"As soon as your new pet returns to her cat form," Eli snapped.
Katia frowned but unceremoniously dropped him on the ground and did what he said. She and him started bickering as we walked back toward the hotel and I just shook my head. The $100k a year Elijah was paying me was beginning to make a lot of sense.