Hajime flexed his fingers, trying to warm them up, before resting them on his katana. The night air was cool. Gravel crunched too loudly under his boots as he walked across the village's alleys.
He'd been patrolling the town for three nights, and still nothing. During the daytime, he'd explored the bamboo forest surrounding the village, setting a number of traps between the tall bamboo stalks where the ground appeared recently trampled. He'd spoken to several villagers, alerting them of his intentions and giving them instructions on how to behave at night. He was sure they would obey. No one would dare disobey the orders of a samurai, and even though he wasn't exactly... any longer... Damn. They would listen to him, and that was enough.
Hajime had never before met a fox spirit. The trickster spirits haunted houses and villages, stealing food and whatever tickled their fancies from the inhabitants. They could shift shape as they pleased, possess people, and ensnare a man's mind with their charms and illusions. Hajime had heard that they could change a field into a kingdom or a cave into a sumptuous palace. They could create pockets in reality and trap a man there for years if they so chose. Hajime fingered the deep red silk ribbon securely fastened around his right wrist. He'd received it from Tanaka-san. The man claimed a priest had blessed it years before, and that it would grant Hajime protection against the fox's enchantments. Hajime hoped he was right. He was not keen on losing his mind and spending the next decade frolicking in a cave at the mercy of some horrific spirit.
The sharp sound of a bell broke the quiet. Hajime stilled, every muscle tense, and listened. It came again, a single silvery sound somewhere in the alleys to his right, and then a loud, jingling noise cascaded through the night, dozens of bells tumbling to the ground. In an instant Hajime was running, the thrill of the chase sizzling and burning in his veins. He'd tied strings of bells up all around the village, in the hidden passages he'd pinpointed between roofs and back alleys, and summoned his powers of intimidation to order the citizens to keep indoors at night. The fox must have stumbled across one of the strings and snapped it. It was incredibly careless of a spirit, but Hajime had been counting on the fox feeling so assured in its supremacy over the village that it lowered its guard.
He'd been lucky. He knew he wouldn't have a second chance.
A small vulpine shape caught his eye, shifting quickly from shadow to shadow. As he watched, it hopped onto a cart and then jumped to a roof and set out running, betrayed by the moonlight.