Sora was speechless; she stared into her aunt’s calculating orange eyes as she studied her broodingly. After a few seconds of examination, her aunt’s smile warmed as she closed the distance in an instant. Sora’s body began to tremble as the fire inside her spread.
Inari kneeled slightly to consider her stomach. “Such crude and unrefined magic.”
Sora breathed a sigh of relief as the flames within her died, and she stumbled back, falling to her butt. Her aunt was studying Diane’s wards as they sat suspended in the air, lips pursed. “You—you’re Inari … my aunt?” Sora asked.
Full lips curving into a pleasant smile, Inari straightened, the wards rising with her. “Aunt,” she repeated, testing it on her tongue, “Aunt Inari. Such a lovely ring that makes my ears twitch with joy. I—have a niece…” Sora stayed silent, still in shock.
Her tongue slid across her lips. “A niece I had no knowledge of … that was being killed.” Sora noted a sharp tone in her voice, but it didn’t show across her face nor felt the slightest hint of malice to put her on guard.
Inari’s attention shifted back to the wards, her finger tapping one paper. The ink separated, hanging in the air. “Human by design; dreadfully weak for the humans I’ve encountered in the universe you hail from—hmm, they seem to be regressing in arcane adequacy since the Middle Ages. Diane was its creator, I assume?” she asked, eyes shifting to Sora, but before she could respond, she nodded, and both ink and paper burst into blue fire.
She hummed as she turned to the second ward, the ink separating and vanishing in flames, but her vision didn’t leave the paper. “This is infused with a separate magical force, crafty by human standards. Slightly more effective than advanced human spellcraft, but not human in origin.” A curious smile touched her features. “Morgan … causing trouble among the mortals again. I’ll need to have a little chat with Gloria.” The paper vanished in a pulse of white light.
Inari turned to her with a compassionate smile. “My Little Niece, I will thoroughly enjoy sitting down with you, but you’ll have to excuse me for just a moment.” She turned to her left. “Suke.”
Sora stepped back as a gold-furred, nine-tailed Kitsune appeared before Inari and kneeled. All her tails had unique glowing silver designs and strange runes. She had porcelain skin and wore a traditional Japanese kimono, but a beautiful fox mask hid her face. Her hair was in a bun, held in place by a beautiful white and pink kanzashi. Her voice sweet to Sora’s ears, “Yes, my Lady?”
“Request Gloria to visit the Shrine,” Inari said with a thoughtful expression. She folded her right arm across her stomach and brought her left hand to her chin, humming. “Tell her I’m investigating an incident involving one of her subjects, Morgan le Fay. Her magic was involved in restraining a member of my family. Gloria is usually busy during this hour; wait for her to finish, and then escort her to the shrine when ready.”
“Yes, my Lady,” Suke vanished.
Inari’s vision narrowed as she looked up at the sky, her lips becoming a line, but it only lasted a moment. Turning to Sora, she smiled warmly. “Now, my niece, why don’t we introduce ourselves? I am Inari.”
Swallowing as she rose, Sora asked, “You—are my aunt then? Uh—Sora. My name is Sora Moore.”
“It would seem so,” Inari stated with joy. “Moore, hmm … Shall we go somewhere a little less—inhospitable? Nun’Yunu’Wi are the least of your worries in these parts of the Spiritual Plane.”
Inari flicked her tails casually, and every blue flame across the endless expanse rose and shot toward her; they fanned around her tails, absorbing into her pure white fur. Small shimmering blood red stones littered the area where the flames had been.
Stretching out and opening her left hand, the red gems lifted off the glistening floor and floated to her, hovering above her hand. She closed her fingers into a loose fist and the giant ball of stones silently compressed until they turned into a bright red light. The light was absorbed into her palm as she opened her fingers.
Sora watched in fascination. “How did you do that? Is it telekinesis?”
Inari chuckled. “No, Dear, you are very young.” Sora blushed and looked at the floor. “No harm, Sora. I simply molded raw magic into a semi-corporeal form to gather the spiritual residue that the Nun’Yunu’Wi had amassed for themselves.”
Looking up with shock, Sora asked, “You can mold raw magic to be physical? Is that hard?”
“Of course I can.” Inari sighed lightly before continuing, “Raw magic is fairly weak. You must be relating its difficulties to human pretenses, amusing creatures. No wonder you didn’t peel off those pathetic excuses for magic. All you needed to do was use your spirit instead of your physical body, or radiate your spiritual energy into an offensive form; rudimentary basics, My Dear.” Sora didn’t know what to say. Inari’s vision narrowed as she looked up at the sky, her lips becoming a line, but it only lasted a moment. She turned, warm smile returning as she motioned to her. “Follow me.”
Sora complied without question; it seemed natural to obey. The feeling only lasted a second and then she doubted herself. This must be a form of control. Something that Vulpes naturally have, but I honestly doubt she’s even trying to persuade me. Does she naturally put off this aura of influence? What would happen if she truly tries to sway my decision? The thought terrified her.
Her internal debate ceased when she realized she wasn’t on the white plane anymore. She now walked behind Inari along a cobblestone walkway. Massive polished wooden archways ran alongside the path, each one inscribed with unreadable symbols, not one the same. The gates were spaced apart to allow sunlight to pass through overhead foliage; she could make out a dense and thriving forest beyond. It didn’t take her long to realize the poles were slowly drawing closer together. Before long they were only small sheens of light that passed into the darkening passage, yet she could still see as clear as day within a few seconds of crossing into the darkness.
Clearing her throat, Sora asked, “What’s the wood covering for—and the symbols?”
Inari’s tinkling laughter cut the air and drew Sora’s attention to her face as her tails twisted around each other. Two bright balls of pulsating blue energy sprang into life; they began circling Inari’s body, lighting the dim walkway, and suddenly the runes across the beams started to glow, and Inari explained as they began climbing stairs.
“Each one represents a gate; they are called ‘torii gates.’ What do they represent? They mark the transition from a place profane to a place sacred; you are entering my shrine, my sanctuary. What do the symbols represent? Very powerful magic,” she stated without explanation.
Her expression became unreadable as she slowed to a stop and looked back the way they’d come. She hummed darkly, and Sora caught her frown as she whispered, “What could you possibly want to have followed us all the way here? Though your entrance could be useful when that whelp arrives, she is bound to pick a fight,” she finished with a sigh.
Following her gaze, Sora asked, “Is something wrong?”
Inari shook her head with an amused grin. “Just some uninvited guests that decided to follow us. One can wait at the bottom until the second arrives—the second is not that bright, so she has lost herself in my illusionary maze; she never learns and is never polite. In all honesty, the first should be an honored guest. She helped out my mother—your grandmother—in an unexpected way, but I am not too fond of her kind. So, formalities can wait.” Inari turned to smile at her. “Besides, nothing is more important than you.”
She swallowed as Inari turned and continued to ascend the stairs, Sora in-tow. The way she says that—why am I so important to her?
They walked in silence for an unknown period; Sora couldn’t tell if it had been long or short. They arrived at what seemed to be the top of a mountain; it was surprisingly smooth and clear. Trees were spread out in patterned ways, and two streams flowed down both sides of the grassy field. There were cobblestone walkways that led between a few buildings; however, the center path led right toward the middle of the area.
In the center stood a massive tree sprouting out of the ground, it reached high into the heavens with its huge branches housing numberless leaves that spanned much of the sky. A shrine sat in front of it, elegantly built; Inari led them toward the building without hesitation.
Playing, reading, and conversing around the area were Vulpes. Most had pure white hair and tails, but there was the occasional fox that had a few black, gold, or gray. Sora guessed there were at least a hundred, and all had an upward of seven tails. When Inari passed, they quit whatever they were doing and bowed; no words were exchanged, but Sora could feel their profound respect.
Nervous jitters began playing inside Sora’s stomach. What am I getting myself into? The internet paints her as a guardian, but from what real monsters have told me, she’s hated and dangerous.
Pure gold-furred Vulpes with nine tails opened the doors, which both had a three tail detailing that glowed with runes. Their faces were covered by masks of varying design but represented a fox-shaped head, and each was dressed in a kimono. The room was simple with several evenly placed cushions that were positioned in front and atop a platform. The stage had been built into the structure and raised a foot above the surrounding floor. Silken blinds could be pulled together to obscure the dais but were tied back at the moment.
Inari lightly hopped onto the platform and sat atop many brightly colored cushions. Smiling, Inari gestured for her to take a seat.
Obeying, Sora waited, trying not to shift.
Muse rising, Inari said, “Go ahead, Niece,” she tasted the word again, licking her lips curiously. “I never thought I’d say that word.” Smiling with delight, Inari repeated herself, “Go ahead, Niece; I understand your reluctance. Ask your questions or if you prefer I can answer them without expression.”
Biting the lower edge of her lip for a moment, Sora asked, “You can—read my mind?”
Inari nodded. “Yes, it’s more complicated than that, but in essence, yes. However, it would be rather boring if only I were the one to speak. I’d enjoy conversing, despite my foreknowledge.”
Nodding slowly, Sora asked, “I’ve heard that my mother, uh … hates you—even more than the dragons.”
Why would I ask that first?
Inari’s bright mood didn’t diminish in the least. “Jin is a very young dragon that has only surface knowledge regarding both Vulpes and Dragon history. Your mother and I are sisters, of course, while we don’t like each other at times, we don’t hate each other. The dragons, however, do have a reason to hate me, shallow as it may be, but no excuse to hate Kitsune. It’s all fairly petty of them. I killed Yìnglóng’s first-born son and stole his Orb.”
Sora bit her lower lip again, peeling off a bit of skin. I really should stop licking my lips so much; I’ll start to ruin … priorities … where is my mind taking me lately!
Inari shifted on the pillows to lay on her side. “You don’t have to look at me with such uncertainty. Gong-Gong was hardly a saint. In fact, he caused a calamity that nearly destroyed the humans; although, many such incidents nearly annihilated them. Such a fragile race, yet they thrive; that’s what makes them interesting.”
Humming lightly, Inari said, “I see that you do not understand your heritage. You know, your grandmother didn’t have a name—heh, the First Generation had some secret names for each other, but we weren’t invited to the club—although, she didn’t need one as she was the Vulpes.
“However, humans give everything a name; they called your grandmother multiple names over different cultures, and ages, one among them was Amaterasu, for a time. Humans are quick to give anything with power titles like that. In any case, your mother and I were born to a litter of four.”
Sora’s eyes widened. “You mean, I have two more aunts?”
Inari shifted to lean back, deep in thought as she stared at the wall, a slight smile on her lips. “You know, the people of Jeju were a little confused about your Aunt Nari—her name means lily, and she truly was the most beautiful of my sisters.
“They named her Yeongdeung Halmang and Yowang Halmang—wife of the Dragon King. Gong-Gong was a second-generation Founder, a king of dragons, and he wanted Nari with an obsession.” She paused for a moment before continuing, “You know, the Jeju even named me Jacheongbi at a time.”
She looked up, deep in thought, demeanor darkening sharply but Sora felt no danger. “The reason I killed Gong-Gong was that he was involved in your Aunt Nari’s murder with the Cyclops King Polyphemus—though Odysseus blinded him and then he was killed before I could exact my vengeance. Now, this was all orchestrated by the first-generation Founder of the Tanuki, Tsukuyomi.”
Inari’s claws extended as her hand rested on the dais, biting into the wood as her eyes scorched with odium. “Responsible for the death of over half our family; both your Aunt Nari and Seiōbo as well as your grandmother!”
Nodding, Sora felt weak. I learn I have two more aunts, a grandma, and then find out they were killed—of course, they were killed. Why can’t I have a complete family?
“So, Gong-Gong was involved in killing my Aunt—umm, Nari, I think, and that’s why you killed him—now the dragons hate all Kitsune?”
Inari’s features lightened with a sigh. “Yes, because of Kitsune’s connection to me, they spite them. Yìnglóng saw Gong-Gong’s part in your aunt’s death, yet refused to take the appropriate action. So, weakened by his own stupidity and pride, I killed him.
“The only way I could kill Tsukuyomi was to obtain Gong-Gong’s Orb, and therein lies the true reason Yìnglóng—the first-generation Dragon Founder—hates me. She could accept his death by my hands for our loss, but not the theft of his Orb or power. Not all dragons hate me, though. Gong-Gong’s sister, Nüwa, understood and cleaned up after Gong-Gong’s mess. She’s one of the few dragons that uncharacteristically does not let pride blind her.”
Sora nodded, she strangely believed everything her aunt said, but at the same time, she didn’t know if it was her own will or not. Getting to a more pressing issue on her mind, Sora asked, “When you saved me from those—whatever they were called—yo-you said, what has my baby sister done? Like—I’m a bad thing?”
Inari’s brows came together with concern. “No, Dear, of course not. I was just a little shocked.”
Swallowing, Sora lost all her fear. She felt like she could tell her aunt anything. “You also said you never expected to say the word Niece. From what I understand, Vulpes only give birth to girls, so—why would you never be able to say the word?”
Sora was surprised to hear a depressed sigh come from Inari. “Regrettably, both your mother and I are—were—unable to bear children. Also, it is a false notion to believe all Vulpes are female, while, true, the clear majority are, very rarely there can be male Vulpes born.”
Speechless for a moment, Sora slowly gained her senses, bypassing her correction about male Vulpes. “She was—was unable to bear children—then you two were mistaken?”
Inari chuckled mirthlessly. “No, Dear, we were not mistaken. Your mother and I have lived far beyond the timeline of human history. We have lived ages—not including time distorted zones such as my sanctuary—and I am sure both your mother and I are—were—barren.”
She spoke the word with vehemence. “We can cure infertility in just about anything, healing all manner of wounds, even death if we are swift enough; however, we have never been able to cure each other’s infertility.”
She looked at Sora with confusion swimming in her orange eyes, and for a moment, Sora saw darkness that was deeper than any void she’d experienced or could imagine. It lasted less than a second before her vision was masked with pain. “As with all Vulpes litters, I was born with more than one sister as I explained. Two of my sisters are dead, leaving only Mia and me to carry on our mother’s genes, the founder gene. Alas, I assumed it wasn’t meant to be. Instead, I turned to teach and shelter Vulpes not my own.”
Her countenance seemed to brighten and with it the entire room. “However, now that I see you, I see it is not impossible. How did my sister—your mother do it?” she eagerly questioned. “From your features, I assume your father was from the continent Ériu claimed. It is also apparent that your mother obtained your birth through unnatural means by your aura and appearance, but by what means? There is an odd feel to you that I have never experienced, and that is an oddity in itself.”
Sora’s brain was on overdrive, and she began feeling overwhelmed, facts about her mother or more misconceptions she had about her mother shattering, learning about her family lineage, and now accusations about her birth. Stumbling over her words, Sora asked, “My mom can’t—what’s a Founder—what do you mean I was born unnaturally?” Her head began to hurt with all the questions digging around her skull.
Inari began to laugh and soon she was rolling across her cushions, tails whipping around her. Her laughter cut as her expression turned serious, and she slowly rose to her feet. “It seems our honored guest has arrived.”
She lifted a finger, and the cushions lifted off the dais to make two seats facing each other on the platform. Turning to Sora, she said, “Gloria is the first-generation Founder of the Fairies, you could even say she was the first fairy. So, please show her respect, as a third-generation Founder in a family member’s home, you should stand when greeting her and bow shortly. Please take a seat after she has seated,” Inari instructed. “Only speak when I say to. It is an honor to be in the presence of a first-generation Founder; there aren’t many left, and they are vastly powerful, even I cannot compete with Gloria.”
Nodding, Sora felt butterflies in her stomach as she rose. “Is it alright if she knows I am a Founder?”
Giggling, Inari said, “Darling, she will sense it the moment she steps foot in my sanctum. You will not need to say a word.” It was then Sora noticed her elegant and composed presence that reminded her Inari, her aunt, was considered a Goddess. “She will enter the shrine in five seconds.”