The second year of King Jungjong’s rein (1507 AD), the year of the rabbit. Summer.
A fox with dark fur groaned as it lay collapsed on a remote mountain pass that few humans venture through. The little fox was covered in horrible wounds, her breathing ragged as if about to take her last breath, and she dug her paws with desperate energy into the earth.
“This is unfair.”
From the fox’s mouth came forth a delicate human voice reminiscent of a jade bead rolling on the ground. Had there been any passersby to overhear her, they would have screamed in shock, “It’s a phantom!” Granted, they would have realized at first glance that this tiny, dark fox was no ordinary woodland creature.
The black fox had eight tails. She was no ordinary fox phantom but in fact a gumiho, a being hailed as a mythical creature descended from the heavenly realm. Though she lacked the number of tails needed to be called a gumiho.
“I was mistaken to think I would be victorious with one of my tails missing.”
The black fox spat out these words suffused with bitter regret even as she continued to desperately crawl forward.
If she falls here, she will be picked off by a mountain predator and perish. Normally such creatures would be beneath her notice, but with her so injured and close to death, even a common wolf could spell her doom. At the very least, she needs to find a safe place where she can set up a barrier. Even a small crevice would do.
One such place was right before her eyes. Only a few strides away. She could have covered such a distance with a few steps, but the distance felt never-ending in her current state. Yet the black fox mustered all the energy within her body to crawl towards safety. The fear gathering in her breast from the distant sound of beasts behind her was too big an insult for her to bear.
She is in this situation because she underestimated that villain. All because her rage at the accusations falsely charged at her unbalanced her, causing her to fall for that villain’s sarcastic provocation.
No, even with ‘that tail,’ it wouldn’t have made a difference…
‘No, it is too late for regrets. Now is the time to focus on what is in front of me.’
She must focus on finding a way to survive.
It was a miracle that she managed to escape despite the attack; the injuries she dealt her attacker with her own near-suicidal attacks are what saved my life. So long as she survives, she will one day have a chance at revenge. That is why, no matter in how pathetic a state, she must survive.
The gumiho’s unrelenting desire for life drove her to finally reach the small crevice. Then, with what remained of her strength, she cast a small barrier. With this, even if that villain were to chase after her, she would stay hidden. This would also protect her from the mountain predators.
Healing from her deadly wounds and recovering her magical energy would not be accomplished after just a year or two of sleep. It might take several decades or even centuries before she was fully healed.
‘Seung-ook, I lament what happened. I had hoped to clear the charges falsely accused of me and clear this misunderstanding between us, but that is impossible now. When next I open my eyes, you will have departed from this world. It fills me with resentment and anger that I will not be able to reveal to you the truth.’
The gumiho slowly closed her eyes. She was so exhausted that she could no longer feel the pain permeating her body, and she struggled to keep her consciousness from fading.
‘If I can one day meet you in your next life…no, these thoughts are but idle noise. Even if I were to meet that person, it would not mend this misunderstanding.’
Am I already asleep?
The black fox, her consciousness in a dream-like state, saw that man looking at her.
Not the man when he sought to kill me due to his mistaken belief, but the first time, the time he himself sought to clear this misunderstanding between us.
The time when he, far from cowering in fear before a phantom, took out a knife and yelled angrily at me.
The time when he was overjoyed because I told him of the herbs that would heal the disease.
The time when I asked why it was he trusted the words of a phantom like me, and he bashfully explained that the honesty in my gaze gave him his answer.
And the time when he said I looked lonely, told me to drink away my sadness, and recommended me that bitter yet delicious alcohol.
Ah, ah. That’s it, of course.
It hurt so badly, as if my heart were being torn in two, to once again have a misunderstanding between us.
Back then, I thought I felt insulted that my pacifism was doubted.
I only now realize that I was mistaken.
Seung-ook, I was distraught that this came between us.
That is why I recklessly attacked that villain even though I had lost ‘that tail.’
All I wanted was to clear this misunderstanding and once again share a glass with you, to once again hear your hearty laughter…
But it is too late…
I think that I was in…
The tiny black fox slept as if death had taken her. This was no normal slumber but suspended animation as she healed her body and recovered her magical energy.
And so, 500 years passed.