“The nimble young fox
leaps through snow and shadow with
blood upon his lips”
Traditional Japanese Haiku, Bunkya era (1861-1864)
A small red fox trudges through seemingly endless white snow, where nothing else can be seen save for some branches sticking up through the snow – and patches of blood dotted about the fox's footprints.
An elderly man sits in a room, he paints some paper before him with thick black strokes. He supposes that he is blessed with great fortune – to have lived as he has, for as long as he has – certainly longer than most men, and even longer than many of his fellow warlocks. He decides that he should be content with all he has done, but knows that it is the way of all creatures with intelligence, that once they have an awareness of their looming demise, all they can think of is the things they haven't done. As he continues painting, he reminds himself that he has never tasted an American hamburger, nor cracked the pages of Tolstoy's War and Peace. Never driven a Bugatti, nor thrown a boomerang. 'I have never -' he starts to think, before telling himself that it is foolish, that these thoughts are a waste. But, he decides that there is so much he suddenly would like to say, but, he senses his fate, and is aware that there is no way to avoid it. Suddenly, a green-skinned, clawed creature hisses and lunges towards the old warlock.
Wanda Maximoff a.k.a. the Scarlet Witch walks across the snow-covered ground, in between houses, where men are outside shovelling the snow. Wanda is wearing a bright red cloak with a fur-trimmed hood, and thinks to herself that she hates mysteries – hates not knowing something she needs to know – it makes her uneasy – and that scares the hell out of her. Wanda didn't know Hiroshi Tanaka, but had certainly heard of him – a mighty warlock in his time – the Aoi Master – and even though they had never met, she still felt his death from across this planet – like a part of her was being torn into pieces. 'I need to know who killed him' Wanda thinks to herself.
As she walks on, Wanda thinks that it is so easy to lose oneself in Kyoto, as it is such a strange and unique place. Looking from an old traditional building that sits on a lake, to a modern thriving business area, Wanda remarks that Kyoto is a mixture of the past and present, with shrines and temples and beautiful parks, next to the “fake historic” of the Toei Uzumasa Eigamura where people watch as cinema is made. There is Nintendo, and the International Manga Museum. New, old. Old, new... all in one city.
Nearby, the fox is huddled against a building. 'Wanda Maximoff... that is you, isn't it? Why do you walk me by? It's me, Hiroshi Tanaka, I'm – no. Four legs. Fangs. A pelt and a tail' the old warlock suddenly realizes as he moves past a reflective surface – and sees his new fox appearance. He realizes he has been reborn in his new life, and so much of his life he has already forgotten. He wonders why he died, and quickly follows the Scarlet Witch, hoping she can help him, help him to learn why. Hiroshi Tanaka the fox stops and watches as Wanda comes to the first stop on her trail, the home of Maki Hokkaido, inspector of police, retired, the man who dealt with the Aoi Master whenever the authorities were involved in his exploits – and by all accounts the closest thing Tanaka had to a friend. And as Hiroshi Tanaka the fox waits outside, a shadowy figure hisses and moves closer.
'Was I his friend? I like to think so. I certainly hope the Aoi Master thought so' Maki Hokkaido remarks to Wanda as they sit across from each other in a living area. Hokkaido informs Wanda that Tanaka was a hard man to read. Wanda explains that it is something she is realizing about herself – as witches and warlocks – magicians in general – all have their walls and veils. Hokkaido informs Wanda that he is no longer a policeman, but that he was a liaison for the Aoi Master's entire career – when he'd combat magical villains and enemies of Japan. He reveals that when the Aoi Master decided he wanted to retire, it made him realize it was probably time for him, too. Hokkaido adds that Tanaka was an interesting man – tantalizing and oblique. 'For instance, something I've always suspected – Kyoto was at the top of America's list for the atom bomb back during the war. Did you know that?' Hokkaido asks. Wanda frowns and remains silent. Hokkaido tells her that one of the Americans in charge of selecting the targets had spent his honeymoon here, and was so touched by the city's beauty that he chose Hiroshima instead.
Hokkaido claims that he knows Hiroshi cast a protective aura over the city back then as a young warlock, and has often wondered if that had helped in some way. 'Didn't you ask him?' Wanda enquires. 'As I said, he was vague on the matter...as he was on a lot of things' Hokkaido replies, before stating that Wanda must seek answers to his death. 'His murder' Wanda declares, before asking Hokkaido if he can think of any enemies Hiroshi had – anyone from the past. 'Honestly...no' Hokkaido replies, informing Wanda that when Hiroshi retired, he told him that all his old foes were either dead, or he had made peace with them, and was very adamant that should be so – that he wasn't leaving threats and enemies for whoever succeeded him. Wanda asks who that was, adding that she had no idea anyone had up the mantle of the Aoi Master. Hokkaido slumps over and announces that he doesn't think anyone has.
Wanda steps back outside. 'The trail continues. The hunt' she thinks to herself as she makes her way to the one other person who truly knew the Aoi Master – Noriko Furuya – Tanaka's lover – for many years, anyway. The Hiroshi follows Wanda, and as he comes to Noriko's house, he thinks 'my darling... not a day goes by when -' but suddenly, the fox's senses overcome him, as he sees garbage, and can smell some food in amongst it.
Inside, Wanda stands near Noriko in an office or library. Noriko informs Wanda that she and Hiroshi were together for many years, and would go as far as to say that he was the love of her life. 'Of course, I'm not dead yet, but I don't see any greater love on the horizon. Not at my age' she adds, before Wanda asks her how she and Hiroshi met. Noriko explains that she was a reporter, and back then, that wasn't a job for women, not here in the city anyway, so she was something of a vanguard, and is proud to say it. Noriko reveals that she was covering a murder – a savage slaying, thought to be a maniac's work, and she was the only one who thought it went deeper still, and her investigation led her face-to-face with a deadly supernatural entity – a Bridge Troll, to be precise. Noriko adds that she was moments from being the Bridge Troll's next victim when Hiroshi rescued her. 'For me, it was love at first sight. Hiroshi, I mean, not the Bridge Troll. Ha' Noriko laughs.
Hesitantly, Wanda asks Noriko why she and Hiroshi parted. Noriko looks sad, and explains that is where their laughter stopped, as he was cursed by a ghost or a witch – or a ghost of a witch – she forgets. Noriko begins to cry as she reveals that the curse was unbreakable. 'I'd die and be consigned to hell if we stayed together. I loved him so much that I was willing to take that chance. And he loved me so much that he was not'. Wanda asks Noriko if she had rancor at their parting, to which Noriko replies that she would give that ghost witch a good talking to if she ever saw her – but no. 'I understood Hiroshi's choice. I loved him then, now and forever'. Noriko then tells Wanda that as to who might do him harm, she is afraid she has to agree with Inspector Hokkaido – he no longer had anyone. Wanda then tells Noriko that she knows she and the Aoi Master never married, and asks if they had children. Noriko replies that she wishes it was so, but states that they didn't, and asks Wanda why she enquired.
Wanda comes to Kyoto Prison, where another of the Aoi Master's acquaintances resides – but perhaps “acquaintance” might be a poor choice of words. Hiroshi follows Wanda and waits just outside the prison grounds. 'Ah, Jun Yamada, my old foe -' he thinks to himself, before the fox's instincts take over, thinking it is time to burrow, as the wind is cold. Hiroshi regains control, worried that he is losing himself.
Soon, inside the prison, Wanda sits on the other side of a glass wall, while Jun sits opposite her, and admits that he was never as powerful as he let others believe – or himself believe, for that matter. 'Really, Mr Yamada?' Wanda replies. 'Oh, absolutely... otherwise I wouldn't be here rotting the last of my existence away' Yamada replies, explaining that the blue enchantment aura of the Aoi Master still cloaks him, even after his death, preventing him from using his own magic to walk free. 'That's how “not as powerful” I truly am'. He claims that, had he been greater, he probably would have tried for world conquest, not just Japan – although he would have been happy with just Kyoto, but the Aoi Master kept even that in check. 'Still, Mr Yamada, in your guise as the Black Bullet, you were his most frequent enemy' Wanda reminds Yamada. 'Black Bullet. What a silly name' Yamada admits, confirming that he was persistent all right. 'Maybe that was my magical ability' he adds. 'You should have seen me... combining magic and science. My own version of Doctor Doom – at least that's how I saw myself' Yamada explains.
He grits his teeth as he tells the Scarlet Witch that the reality of it all was that while Doom is all the greater for combining his powers, 'I was neither fish nor fowl, as the saying goes'. He informs Wanda that at every one of his attempts at larcenous greatness, the Aoi Master brought him failure and shame. He apologizes for talking too much, and asks Wanda – addressing her as Ms Maximoff – what she wants to know. 'You mentioned something about the Aoi Master's enemies?' he asks. 'Yes, apart from you, who were they?' Wanda asks, adding that she is told that he had none, but, she can't believe that there isn't one grievance, one past foe lurking out there, waiting or hoping to take his life. Yamada tells the Scarlet Witch that she has to understand the way of the Aoi Master – a defeat by him and his magic – witchcraft, as she would call it – at the end, there was an order – order of the mind, order in the world – acceptance.
Yamada adds that he never knew of anyone who didn't admire him, even if the authorities were putting them in shackles at the time. 'Hmmm' Wanda replies, before asking Yamada one other thing: 'Did he have any children?' 'That's an odd question to ask me. I have no idea' Yamada replies, suggesting that Wanda ask Benchley, he would know. 'Benchley? I'm not sure I know of any Benchley' Wanda replies, to which Yamada remarks 'Oh? Now that does surprise me'.
Shortly, Wanda stands on a bridge over a small lake in a snow-covered park. 'Benchley? Mister Miles Benchley?' Wanda calls out as a man in a tall dark hat and holding a black umbrella approaches her. 'Yes, and who might you be? Whoever you are, you're interrupting my walk' the strange man declares. 'Oh, I think you know who I am. Although, I confess until a short while ago, I had no idea you even existed' Wanda tells him. 'Well, I am a private fellow, Ms... err, Maximoff? Anyone would tell you that about me' Benchley replies. 'Actually, they wouldn't, Mr Benchley, and you know that' Wanda declares, reminding him that he placed a magical spell upon them, so all knowledge of him was forgotten – any memory of his existence. 'Indeed? Well, assuming I could even do such a thing, why would I?' Benchley asks without showing any emotion. 'Because as the Aoi Master's manservant you knew that he'd never had children... and that if so, his abilities would in all likelihood have been passed on to an offspring. With no heir, however, you knew his powers could be yours for the taking' Wanda points out.
On the edge of the lake, Hiroshi the fox sees Benchley, who asks 'Manservant? I don't know what you mean'. Wanda states that Doctor Strange has Wong to assist him, and the Aoi Master had him – Miles Benchley. As Hiroshi watches from the edge of the lake, Wanda tells Benchley that he wanted Tanaka's powers and found some way to acquire them upon killing him, then with those powers created some kind of hex so no one would remember that he was associated with Hiroshi Tanaka to begin with – only Jun Yamada the Black Bullet in prison, with an aura that Tanaka had conjured around him, was shielded from that spell. 'That's how he was the only one who remembered you' Wanda explains, before pointing out that now she does, too. 'And that means you're done' she warns Benchley. Benchley's skin becomes yellow and his eyes appear sunken as he admits that he would be in normal circumstances against a witch of Wanda's power, except that she was vague on one point – how he got the means to receive the power of the Aoi Master. 'I made a pact with an oni, Wanda Maximoff – you know what that is, I'm sure – a Japanese demon who now abides within me' Benchley announces.
Suddenly, Miles Benchley transforms into the hideous creature, large jagged teeth barely fit into his mouth, his eyes, wide with craze, and strange faces pushing through his abdomen. 'And don't think I haven't followed your trail as you have followed mine. Look who I've collected. Look who's here. Hurt me and you hurt them, too!' 'Help us!' one of the faces calls out. 'Wanda, it's me, Noriko!' cries Noriko Furuya. 'Free me, Maximoff! Save me!' another cries. Wanda sees that Benchley is right – she can't hurt him without risking the others' lives. Nevertheless, she casts a hex, but Benchley leaps away from her, announcing that his powers, the ones he got from Tanaka, are weak in him for now, the oni feeds on them and hungers so. 'But I will master it – tame it! The power of the Aoi Master will be mine! And until then – I have the oni's rage!' Benchley boasts, rushing forward to Wanda. 'Great' Wanda thinks to herself, deciding that with the innocents in his possession, she dares not fight strong. 'I have to fight smart'. She casts another spell, which apparently misses Benchley as the energies contact the water beneath the bridge they stand on.
'You miss a target as big as me? You're either too shaken to be a true threat...or your abilities are exaggerated' Benchlet suggests. Wanda falls backwards. 'Perhaps they are' she replies, before casting another hex and informing Benchley that the one she fired earlier was one of Japanese shiro macho for purification, and not meant for him at all, but the waters beneath him. Wanda explains that by magically purifying the lake, it became the equivalent of holy water, protecting his victims, but not the oni. Benchley is blasted off the bridge by Wanda's second hex, and he screams, before Hokkaido, Noriko and Yamada all return safely over the water.
Water walks away, down a snow-covered path and thinks that her time here in Kyoto has come to an end, that the Aoi Master's murder didn't just call to her, but called her away from visiting her homeland as she had planned, and should already by there by now. Wanda supposes that she should be a little thankful, as she is still scared of what she will find there. She tells herself that witchcraft's sickness – and the cure – both await her in Eastern Europe – she is more certain with every passing minute. 'And with every passing minute...I merely delay the inevitable'. Wanda decides that she must go, and continues on. Just then, Hiroshi the fox emerges from some shrubs. He is happy, content. He wants to thank the Scarlet Witch. 'I want – but – don't remember who – why – smell rabbit'.
The fox's senses have completely taken over and he races away from the Scarlet Witch, into a forest. 'Catch, bite, eat' his instincts tell him. Racing across the snow, the fox knows that he must be quiet.