If you ever get the chance to go to the nation of Yokuatsu, do yourself a huge favor and don’t. The ruling class of Yokai has an almost cult-like mentality when it comes to their worship of the Death Lord Quietus. It feels super unsettling.
If you ever happen to find yourself in the nation of Yokuatsu, maybe a wizard forcibly transported you there, or maybe your airship has gone off course and you had to emergency land there, or perhaps you just had the misfortune of being born there, then you should probably seek out the village of Gajog. The fanatic worship of Quietus still exists there, but the Yokai rulers are way outnumbered by the halflings.
It’s not exactly an idyllic place, but it’s not the worst place to spend a childhood if I do say so myself. The food is excellent, the parties are incredible, and don’t expect a holiday to pass without an enormous feast. Halflings really know how to build a community even while being oppressed by some of the worst despots in all of the realm.
I know all of this because I did have the misfortune of being born in Yokuatsu. At least, I think I did. When my parents found me, they thought I was a newborn fox cub. I wish I could remember the surprise on their faces when I said my first word six months later. I’m sure it was hilarious.
See, I happen to be one of those Yokai things. I don’t really know much about my race, other than every other one I’ve met has the personality of a flaming pile of dicks. I don’t know if it’s the crazy religion or if they’re just built that way. I mean, I don’t think I’m built that way. Then again, who’s gonna tell you to your face that you’re the worst.
My mom and dad kept me hidden as best as they could, but we were lucky that by the time I got a couple of years old, I started doing some crazy good illusion magic. It didn’t take me long to learn that if I wanted to go outside, I’d have to make myself look like I could actually be my parent’s little girl. Which, I mean, I already was. I just had to look like them. Never mind, you guys get it.
Wow, that’s enough about my history. I’m probably boring you guys. Anyway, let me tell you about what you came for.
It was a day like any other. I pulled an invisibility veil over myself before leaving my house, with my pockets full of weird stuff. I made sure I had sticky, smelly, and soft things. The three S’s of pranking. I walked out the door and headed into town.
I slathered some jelly onto several doorknobs throughout town. I focused on the government buildings the Yokai guards tended to frequent. Then I camped out and watched them as they returned back from duty and ended up getting their fingers covered in it. It took me a while to figure out the best way to do it. You can put it on the front of the knob, but it’s too obvious, and they see it before they open it. They almost always pull out a tissue or use some kind of magic to clean it off. You can’t put it too far on the back because some people have short fingers, and they never even make it that far back. The best spot is right along the backside of the doorknob. When just about anyone goes to open the door, their fingers naturally go there. And there’s no way they’d see it before! It’s so good!
Once I slather my last doorknob of the day, I always stick around and watch my next victim get slimed. It was a pretty beefy wolf-man. Not a werewolf, like a man that is also a wolf. I was excited it was someone fuzzy; the jelly really gets stuck in their fur. He reached his hand to twist the knob, and I saw him pull it back quickly once his hand landed on the jelly. He looked down at his hand, and the look of disgust was precisely what I was looking for. I made sure to add a silence layer to my veil to comfortably laugh my tail off.
Not literally, I still have my tail.
He seemed utterly at a loss. He couldn’t open the door without getting more jelly on his hand. And he couldn’t reach into his pocket to get something to clean it without smearing jelly all over his clothes. He let out a frustrated howl.
This was priceless! He whipped around and headed back towards the street he’d just gotten off from. I didn’t really know what he was doing now, but I had to follow him to find out. I knew it’d be amazing.
He angrily stormed down the street. Maybe he was going home to wash up. I really screwed his day. Awesome. As he continued to stomp away, his shoulder ran into an elderly halfling woman. She ended up getting knocked down. This was a little less funny.
“Watch where you’re going!” He growled at her.
“I’m very sorry, young man, I didn’t mean to . . . “ she began.
“I don’t care why you were there, but don’t think you’re not going to get punished for it,” He said, pulling out his standard-issue guard whip.
I had to do something. I crept up behind the guard and tapped him on his shoulder. His head swung around, but I was invisible. I crouched down as his whip snapped above my head.
“Who did that?” He demanded.
I crawled over to his opposite side and pushed on the backside of his opposite knee, forcing him to crouch.
“I’m not kidding! Whoever is trying to mess with me is going to pay!” He fumed.
I snuck around to his frontside and saw my best option for optimal fun. All the guards wear these garish belt buckles. They are silver and feature a skull prominently. Little too dark for my tastes, but I wouldn’t mind adding another one to my collection. My fingers worked quickly to detach the buckle from his belt. The buckle also became invisible once it entered my veil. I took two giant steps back.
The wolf-man stood up, and once his legs straightened out, they fell to his ankles. Everyone in that part of town could see his wolf bits. The look on his face quickly shifted from anger to abject horror. He was clearly going to file this one away the next time someone asked him his most embarrassing moment. I took a deep bow for no one but myself to see. This was one of my proudest prank moments.
The wolf pulled his loose pants off the ground and quickly covered himself. He turned around and began to run down the street.
“Don’t think I’ll forget this!” He yelled back to no one in particular. “I’ll be back! Then you’ll get it!”
He disappeared into the distance.
“That was quite a show,” the old woman said, looking in my direction.
It was a little confusing. I thought my invisibility veil was still active, but maybe I’d let it fall?
“You can see me?” I asked.
“Don’t think you can get to my age in a place like this without picking up a few tricks,” she said.
“Well then, thank you. Personally, I am glad someone was able to see that,” I beamed.
“Yes, you are quite skillful. I owe you a debt of gratitude,” the woman said.
“No, don’t think anything of it,” I said. “I was the one to get Mr. Mean Wolf worked up in the first place. I’m the reason he knocked into you.”
“Nonsense,” she said, “a little sticky finger is no reason to run into a kindly old woman.”
Did I tell her about the jelly?
“I’m Kaori,” I said, “I usually look like a halfling when I’m out, but I didn’t think anyone would be able to see through my veil.”
“Yes, I know Kaori. You have nothing to fear. I will tell no one that a Yokai turned on one of their own. My name is Si Woo,” she said solemnly.
Who was this woman? This was starting to get weird. I liked it.
“Oh, I get why you’d think that. I’m not really a Yokai. I mean, I am, but I’m basically a halfling,” I rambled.
“I understand. It must be hard for you to live among your own kind and not be able to connect with them,” Si Woo said.
“Yeah, I mean, I guess it is. I haven’t really thought about it. I’ve always thought of myself as a halfling in a fox-girl’s body. But I guess it is a little weird,” I replied.
“I believe I can be of assistance. I can transport you somewhere else in this realm. Somewhere you can find people that understand you,” she offered.
I didn’t expect her to say that. I really didn’t even expect a thank you. But it didn’t sound so bad.
“That does sound nice,” I admitted. “I love my family, but I’ve never felt like I fit in. My family is happy with getting by, and I want more than that. But I don’t want the kind of life the Yokai here are offering.”
“Yes,” she began, “I can offer you a place to belong. Please. I owe you that much.”
“Could I think about it?” I asked. “I’d like to talk it over with my parents.”
“Of course,” she said, “Take the rest of the day to think it over. You can meet me at the house near the memorial fountain. You’ll know the one. But don’t take too much time, Kaori. My power is limited here.”
“Sure,” I said tentatively, “I’ll meet you there with an answer. Thank you.”
I ducked into an alley to drop my invisibility veil and throw up my halfling disguise. I needed time to think on my way to talk to my parents, and I couldn’t spend the brain space to pay attention to where I was going. It turns out that people don’t know to get out of your way when they can’t see you.
I liked the idea of finding a place where I could feel like I belonged, but I’d lived in Gajog long enough that I couldn’t even imagine what kind of place that would be.
It was true that I didn’t fit in here. All the halflings I’d met have been really kind and supportive, but most of them didn’t really know what I truly was. Halflings had been oppressed for generations here, and it took every bit of their goodwill just to survive. They made the best of the horrendous situation they were in, but they struggled too much to even think about finding a way out of it.
Then the Yokai here were hard to even think of as individual people. When I talked to one of them, it always felt like I was talking to the collective ruling class. I could never understand how anyone could live without any clear sense of individuality. I’m all about individuality.
Who does a trickster-fox-girl that’s great with illusion magic fit in with? I knew there were other countries out there at the time, but I didn’t know anything about them. No one even seemed to consider what life would be like outside of Yokuatsu; the freedom propaganda convinced everyone this was the best life could be.
I always felt like there was something else out there. I always thought I’d end up somewhere else. I just didn’t know it would happen this fast.
Haru and Daeshim Akutare ran one of the best inns in all of Gajog. And that wasn’t just because it was the only inn in Gajog; They served some of the best comfort food this side of the realm. It had the perfect blend of tang and spice. They created a friendly atmosphere that made everyone feel like they were home. Especially me, since The Crackling Stove was my home.
I breezed past the front entrance with the painting of a smiling cauldron I’d put over the sign when I was young. My parents were concerned it would confuse customers.
“But our name is the Crackling Stove. Won’t having a pot above our door confuse people?” They’d ask.
“That’s the joke,” I’d reply.
Even though they didn’t always get my sense of humor, they always encouraged me to embrace it. That’s what made leaving my parents so hard.
I came to the kitchen entrance and jiggled the knob in just the right way to trip the lock. My parents hated it, but I never saw the harm. It was way easier than carrying a key. I closed the door behind me and dropped my disguise.
“Mom! Dad! I need to talk to you!” I yelled across the inn.
“Kaori,” Mom said, walking through the swinging door that connected the two rooms. “You don’t have to yell. We were just in the dining room getting ready for the lunch rush.”
My father followed in behind her.
“I’m sorry, Mom,” I stammered, “But this is really important.”
“Please tell me you didn’t dye all the mayor’s clothes pink again,” Dad sighed.
“Not this time, but that is still my best prank to date. I stand by it,” I said.
“It was funny to see him wearing pink for two weeks straight,” Mom admitted.
I loved it when my antics made others laugh. That’s all I ever want from them.
“Then what is it?” Dad asked.
I went into the whole story about the jelly, the guard, and the old woman. I may have been talking really fast, but I didn’t want to forget any details before I got to the end. They were a great audience. Their face alternated between disgruntled sighs and brief giggle fits. All the reactions I’ve come to expect from them.
“But the old lady could see through my invisibility. Then she thanked me and offered to send me to somewhere that I would fit in better. I really want to do it, but I don’t want to leave you guys, and I don’t want to abandon all our friends here,” I concluded.
The bit about me leaving elicited a gasp from Mom and a look of disbelief from Dad. They exchanged a look that conveyed some sort of understanding. We sat there in the quiet for what felt like twenty minutes. It was probably more like three seconds. I hate awkward silences.
“But if you guys don’t want me to go, I understand, and I totally won’t do it. You guys mean the world to me, and I don’t want to do anything that would disappoint you.”
“Since when?” My dad chortled.
“What?” I asked, offended.
“Since when have you cared about what we think. We love you, Kaori, but we’ve made it clear we disapprove of your pranks. It’s too dangerous for you,” Dad said.
“Don’t get us wrong, honey,” Mom said, “We think you do everything for the right reasons, and we know you care about us, but we just worry.”
I guess none of this was really a shock. My parents told me how they felt, but I never wanted to hear it.
“So you don’t want me to go?” I asked.
“We never said that,” Dad said.
“I mean, obviously, we don’t want you to go. We’d definitely miss our little girl,” Mom said.
“But we want what’s best for you,” Dad finished. “We know you’d be happier somewhere you could find people that understand you.”
“We’ll always love you, Kaori, but don’t let us hold you back,” Mom said.
“Is there anything I should worry about?” I asked. “I thought you’d be more worried about me going away with a random old woman.”
“That’s the part we’re the least worried about,” Mom said.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” I asked, confused.
“There’s a legend among our people that one day the Chaos Lord Pappugan would choose a champion from this region. That person is supposed to go off and become a hero before coming back here to liberate Yokuatsu,” Dad explained.
“And dear, there is no one more deserving to be a champion of chaos than you. I say this with love, but you are the living embodiment of chaos,” Mom said.
“Thank you,” I said with all the sincerity in my heart.
“But please, pack warm clothes. You have no idea where you’ll be going,” Mom said.
“And take some food,” Dad said, “We just finished the noodle and shrimp dish, pack some up. They might not have good halfling meals where you’re going.”
“Don’t worry, Dad, you guys taught me how to cook a long time ago,” I reassured.
“Right,” Mom said, “You’ll need cooking supplies. I’ll start packing some up for you.”
She began rushing to the other side of the room to grab a bag.
“I’m fine, guys,” I said, “I’m already all packed up. I’ve got everything I’ll ever need in my prank bag.”
“But how will you cook?” Mom asked with tears in her eyes.
This obviously wasn’t just about cooking, but she needed to feel like she was helping. I glanced around the kitchen and spotted an iron skillet hanging beside me. I reached up and took it off its hook.
“How about this. I’ll take this skillet to cook on,” I said.
“O.K.” Mom said. She began to gather herself.
I walked over and gave her a big hug, and kissed her cheek. She nuzzled her face deep into my fur. She held me tightly. She pulled herself away and removed a yellow silk scarf from her head.
“This belonged to your grandmother,” Mom said as she looped it through the opening in the skillet’s handle and tied it securely to my waist.
“It clashes horribly with my lavender dress,” I smiled.
“I knew you’d love it,” Mom replied.
“I really do,” I said. I reciprocated my mom’s embrace.
“Take this too,” Dad said, producing a pouch of coins from under his coat.
“Dad, I can’t take this. This is your seed cash for the day. You need it for the inn,” I said.
“I won’t hear another word of that,” he said. “We just won’t give change today. My daughter comes first.”
“But I don’t even know where I’m going,” I said, “What if the currency is different?”
“Gold is gold,” he said, “Merchants will take it.”
He opened the flap on my prank bag and dropped the gold inside.
“Thank you,” I said, hugging him.
“If you can,” Mom said, “Try to visit or send us a message. We don’t want this to be the last time we see you.”
“Neither do I,” I said, rubbing tears away from under my eyes.
“We love you, Kaori,” Dad said.
“I love you, too,” I said. “Thank you for taking me in all those years ago. I can’t imagine what I would be like if the other Yokai found me.”
“You’d have found a way,” Dad said, “You’re too independent to control. Trust me.”
“With all my heart,” I replied.
I walked out the front door of The Crackling Stove without any veils on me. From that day on, I was finished hiding.
These stories serve as inspiration for the upcoming short story collection, Tyranny of the Fey. The collection will be released in Fall 2023. You can get a $1 preview now!