A frown creased Ashley’s lips as she studied the floor; she was seriously considering the possibility. She turned to her son with sad eyes. “No, I don’t think I can make a deal with a demon. I’d only put my family in even more danger, and he’s not the strongest potential ally I have.” She stated, turning to Inari.
“Oh?” Inari’s smiled turned mischievous. “I am but an Intelligent construct created out of magic.”
Ashley sighed with a light chuckle. “That could destroy a demon as powerful as Bathin with Sora’s power alone. You may be just an Intelligent construct, but you’re an Intelligent construct with all the knowledge of one of the oldest and most powerful beings in existence.”
“What are you asking?”
She turned back to her son, hand resting atop his side; he’d stopped crying and seemed to have fallen asleep. “Could you help me save my family?”
“Nothing in this world comes for free. What are you willing to sacrifice for that?”
“C’mon,” Sora groaned. “Look at her kids … can’t I help her?”
“Of course you can,” her aunt smiled.
Ashley and Sora looked at her, and Sora scratched her left fox ear with irritation. “What?”
“Think about it closely,” Inari patiently prompted.
“Ah,” Ashley chuckled sadly. “She’s saying you can help me all you want, but if I want her help, then I’ll have to sacrifice something.”
Inari’s tails shifted behind her. “Choices, Sora. We all must make them and live with the consequences.”
“Why? I can help her, though. Can’t I?”
“Well—umm…” If I take out the demons, then Bathin will know something’s up. Can I bring them with me?
“Oh? Think about the consequences.”
I … they’d be in the Vulpes Realm.
“How would you get them there?”
Sora’s brow creased with concern. Eh … I don’t know…
“Sora, I have no problem with you helping her, but it will be your decision to do it, not mine. If she wishes for my support, then she’ll need to make the proper sacrifice.”
What is that though?
At Sora’s tired growl, Ashley bent over, cupping her face. “I don’t know what to do, Sora.” She took a long breath. “I don’t want to use you either … I already owe you my life.”
“Why don’t you take some time to think then?” Inari offered. “We are not in a rush.”
Ashley rubbed her eyes. “I think that’s wise.”
Getting up, she looked at her daughter’s wet face, she’d fallen asleep. Placing a hand next to her, Ashley paused for a moment before turning and walking out of the room through the closed door. She walked to the stairs, climbing to the second level with Inari and Sora in-tow. Does mom feel this way about me? I can’t even describe the emotions swirling around inside Ashley … it’s like a physical pain that’s spreading across her whole body … she feels poisoned. I guess those are my danger signals to not connect an emotional tether.
Getting to the second floor, they entered the master bedroom. The lights were out, and Brandon was kneeling by his bed, voice thickening; Ashley walked over to his side, sitting beside him on the mattress as she looked down at his bowed head, hugging her sides to keep her hands from shaking.
“Lord, I know I’m not perfect … we don’t go to church all the time, and we don’t offer tithing that often, but … she’s the mother of my children. Where is she? Is she alive? I just—I don’t know.
“I had—it was rough today. I caught Tory telling Pete that Ash had skipped out on us, but … it’s Ash, there’s just no way, but … it’s been six months, and not a word. I’m—I’m beginning to lose hope, Lord. I don’t know if she’s dead or left us or … I miss her. The kids keep asking questions and—how do I answer their questions? I’m not focusing on work, I’m forgetting things. It’s just—it’s rough. Please—please, bring her back to us … Amen.”
He stayed still for several seconds before taking a shuddering breath and rising. Wiping at his cheeks, he moved to his bed and picked up his phone from the wireless charger. Dialing a number in the recent calls, he waited.
“Hey, Brandan … look, man. I know it’s rough, but no, there are no updates on your wife, and it’s late.”
“No bank activity? No hidden accounts or…”
“No, Brandon; we’ve gone through all of this … good night, I’ll call you in the morning.”
He brought his phone down, staring at the screen blankly. After a few seconds, he sighed deeply and replaced it on the wireless charger. Getting into bed, he stared up at the ceiling. “Ash … where’d you go?” His throat caught for a moment before he sniffed, turned over in bed, he closed his eyes.
Sora’s heart burned. He’s … this is so bad … and I thought I couldn’t hate Eric more. This is just one family too; he’s done this to so many people. They’re all dead now too … their families having no clue what happened to them.
Ashley scooted to the opposite side of the bed; lying down, she stared at her husband’s face, tears falling down her cheeks. “My options are terrible.” She whimpered. “Inari, is there any gods that can help me?”
“Of course,” Inari hummed, moving to the window to look out at the night. “There are plenty that would be able to lighten your circumstance, but how would you find them?”
“Just as I thought … you’re my best option.”
Wiping at her cheeks, she rubbed her palm against her forehead, pulling back her blonde hair. “If I were to offer the required sacrifice … what would you do?”
“That would depend on what you wanted; there are several options you could choose from, but that would come after the sacrifice.”
“All I want is them to be happy.”
“We had this discussion, Ashley.”
Are you talking about the lecture?
“Right—it must be comprehensible, enjoyable and self-maintaining … life isn’t meant to be happy or fair, it’s meant to be meaningful…”
Sora hummed lowly. Meaningful … not happy. Wait, didn’t you say that happiness is a part of a meaningful life?
“It can be, but that doesn’t mean you’ll be happy all the time; opposition in all things. Without the sorrow and misery, then you wouldn’t understand or enjoy the bliss. Fulfillment after the journey brings joy, the hindsight, the reward; being thankful about all the circumstances that brought you to this point. The sweat and the blood that mark the trail.”
What does she have to be thankful for? Eric ripped her away from her family, she was turned into a werewolf and forced to do terrible things, and now a demon has assassins in her house!
“Things aren’t so simple, Sora. There are many things she’s currently thankful for, if you’ll look, and many of them involve you. You saved her from the curse Eric placed, you protected her without so much as a thought, and you provided for her when she had all but lost hope; her husband has not given up on her, even if it’s killing him every day. Her kids and husband are alive, they still cry for her and want her in their lives.
“There is so much more. She’s closer to her goal than you both understand. The pure chance that everything lined up for her to be here, at this moment, let’s say, without a little bird, none of this would be possible.”
Ashley rolled to her back, staring up at the ceiling as her husband nestled further into the sheets, hand passing through her husband’s. “The lecture…” She was silent a moment as she thought back, emotions starting to stabilize.
“I think I understand a little. I was fairly wrapped up with being a journalist, trying to expose all the corruption in Miami … often that did get in the way of my kids and husband. I can see why Brandon would think I’m dead; I made some enemies in the Cartel a year ago.”
She repeated Inari’s words. “The world isn’t fair and never will be; rather than putting your effort into trying to equalize it, you should focus on what’s important in front of you. Your attention is limited, and so are your choices. I should have focused more on my family than my job … we had the means to live that way.”
Inari’s tails shifted in the dark, back turned to them. “I didn’t say that, Ashley.”
“No,” she sighed, “you didn’t, but it’s what I feel. You’re saying that there are many choices in life and we make those decisions and must be willing to live with the consequences. I was an investigative reporter, and that came with the territory that I might never see my family again. That never felt so real to me until this point; I blamed it all on the scumbags that were ruining the city my family was in, and I was doing something about it, but … I lost sight of what was important.
“I should have focused on my family more than the story … because, without my family, my job loses meaning. I don’t have to be a reporter, but I do have to be a mom; that’s what’s important to me. Now it’s super complicated though … because I made the choices that got my family here. I chose to hunt down dangerous people like Eric; I made the bed I’m in.”
Sora leaned up against the door frame; tails wrapped around, she played with her second tail, stroking the fur. “But … I mean, I guess, but you were just trying to do what was right.”
“It’s not so simple, Sora.” Inari shifted to look at her. “Everyone is in a boat on the waters of life. Every decision you make will ripple out into space and interact with the ripples of others. If there’s a bigger disturbance, then that can destroy the effect your ripples produced and destroy it or create waves that crash against you.
“You may not have chosen where your boat is upon the lake, but where you toss your rocks into the pond, which direction you go, how you feel along that journey; these are your choices, but you cannot choose to leave the water. You are here, you exist, reality exists, and you must understand that. You will affect your environment and your environment will affect you, no matter the choice.”
Sora was silent as she thought about her aunt’s words. Life isn’t fair, but it was never meant to be … didn’t she say that we are all born unequal, that is something that can never be changed? What decisions do I make then? It’s going to be unequal to begin with, and there will always be opposition … opposition in all things. Three choices … hmm.
Ashley covered her eyes. “I tried to do what was right … it’s not so simple.” She chuckled mirthlessly. “It isn’t so simple. Where is my priority? Three choices, but what’s the reason behind my choice? My family, my kids, that’s my reason, but now how do I find an answer?”
Inari turned back to the window, and Sora could feel the hair on her neck begin to tingle as her aunt spoke. “Why is it we don’t believe in ourselves? Why is it that as soon as things get tough in our lives, we start doubting; we start thinking we may not make it through? Stressing, worrying, imagining things that may go wrong in the future?
“Ashley, the most frustrated person, is not someone without money, family, or respect. The most frustrated person is a person without a purpose. The mind is powerful, but it can also be destructive; it can be your greatest friend or your worst enemy. The person you see in the mirror will always provide you the greatest challenges you will receive in life, not the man across the street or in some nameless skyscraper.”
She turned toward Ashley. “Take control of your life, control of your mind. Too many people focus on the exterior, the world at large, but if you can conquer yourself, then you can conquer anything. It is easy to be positive when everything is going your way, but will you be one of the very few that stands up when things are tough; when everything is going against you?
“You are here to fulfill something that no one else can provide, except you. That’s when your story will be born; history is filled with people that gave up on their journey, or fell short before it even started. What’s important to you? What brings you happiness?”
Ashley swallowed, scooting back to the headboard, she hugged her legs to her chest. “Being with my family.”
“I know you’re tired of being the victim. Fear will imprison you; so have courage. Fight back. Your husband, your kids, they need hope. They need you to stand up, to fight through your challenging moment, to shine through the darkness and take hold of their future. That is what parents do for their children. Courage is not the absence of fear, but the drive beyond it. Courage is when you stand and fight.”
“But how? I don’t have any power…”
“You think you can’t do this. That you might as well give up. You will never be strong enough to achieve what you desire. Believe in yourself, there is nothing more important. Your religious texts and legends are filled with it.
“Most people are bloated with ordinary, but you have something more to offer. We feed off each other, and we look up to someone great like they’re special, but they’re just like you. They have doubts, they have struggles, and just like them, you have that greatness inside of you.”
Sora could feel a fire start burning in Ashley’s chest. “How?”
“The only way to make that greatness come out is to take one step toward your goals. One step, and then another. Find a way. Nothing beats character and hard work. Limitations? There’s no such thing as limitations; the only thing holding you back is yourself. Your own views of what is and what is not possible. Your desire to sacrifice more than your competition and your belief in yourself to find a way. It might be hard, but is it harder than living a life without your family?”
Ashley shook her head. “No…”
“Can you push yourself to the peak, every single day? You know it, I know it. You must decide to be better. To fight. To carve out a place for yourself in the world. There are no excuses; get it done. Do you think I became one of the most powerful beings in existence because of luck? Because of my birth? No, I sacrificed, I grew; only the successful will understand that.
“Today, you will make better decisions Stay true to yourself and your beliefs. Stay true to what’s important to you. Understand that to have anything of significant value you must suffer, endure, and sacrifice; think about that. Many do not realize it, but that combination of words, suffer, endure, sacrifice, mirror another combination, faith, hope, charity. You must take up responsibility, accountability, and pure hard work.
“There is nothing more satisfying than making it on your own terms, to be the fire that drives you to be self-made. Everything that will come to you in the future will be from your own actions, not Sora’s, not mine, but your own agency. Cowards never start. The weak never finish. The strong never quit. Respect is not given, it is earned. Be fearless. Be power. Sacrifice now, enjoy the reward later. You don’t need my opinion, you have your own opinion, your own heart, your own purpose. Sacrifice for it. Make it happen.”
Sora was biting her lip as she listened to her aunt’s powerful voice. That’s … that’s kind of like what you were teaching me with Eyia.
Ashley took a deep breath as Inari finished; she looked into Inari’s orange eyes, hard with determination. There was silence as she turned toward her husband, and after a moment, she said, “Okay. Let me speak to my husband.”
Sora swallowed nervously as she watched her aunt turn back to the window. Oh, I guess that’s my task. She … wow. You’re so intense.
Getting up, she walked to Ashley as she sat beside her husband’s sleeping form before it struck her. Umm—how do I do it?
“Penetrate his spiritual network, enter his Core, and feed your desire into his Intelligence. Don’t pull his Core out, like you did before, simply beckon him to follow you; he will accept. This is an internal path that will not be sensed by the demons. Demons find it difficult to navigate spiritual networks since it is foreign to their own demonic biology.”
Following her instructions, Sora felt his Intelligence following the trail she left. He suddenly separated from his body, sitting up, he stared with wide eyes at her. “What … a fox goddess?”
Smiling nervously, Sora made a peace symbol. “Guilty as charged.”
His attention shifted to Inari’s shifting white tails in mesmerizing fascination. “How can…” Ashley gently pulled his face toward her, features soft with compassion and love as tears fell down her cheeks.
“Ash?” He seemed confused before his eyes moved back toward Inari. “Ash, what’s … what’s going on? Am I dreaming?”
His vision returned to Ashley as she shook her head. “No, this isn’t a dream.” She giggled. “Well, who knows, maybe it is. I don’t know how this works, but I’m really here.”
His eyes grew, and soon he was shaking, tears leaving his eyes as he pulled her into a bear hug. “Ash!”
“Ugh,” Ashley gasped. “Hey … still—still a girl,” she gasped.
“Oh, I’m so sorry,” he quickly released his death grip.
Coughing a few times, Ashley smiled at him, cheeks wet. Taking a deep breath, she hugged him, face flushed; his arms returning the gesture. “I missed…” She began to break down. They fell atop the bed with cries and shakes, quivering in each other’s arms for several minutes.
Brandon’s voice caught. “What—what happened?”
“I can’t…” Ashley whispered. “I just—I can’t…”
Inari turned toward them, tone soft. “I can speed up that explanation. My name is Inari, the same goddess mentioned in Japanese culture. I can give you all of your wife’s experiences; her emotions, her thoughts, everything since she disappeared, but it will be quite powerful. Since it is for such an extended period, I will lighten the burden, and I can do the same for you, Ashley.”
“Please,” Brandon began to say, but Ashley cut him off.
“What’s the … I see. Okay, I accept that.”
Sora’s brow furrowed. Wait, did you tell her something? How? I didn’t feel you use my power.
Her aunt’s giggling tone entered her mind. “Some things are so subtle you don’t have the experience to detect, dear.”
Why couldn’t you just say it out loud?
“You could read her mind if you really wish to know.”
Sora repressed a growl. You know I don’t want to invade her privacy if I can help it…
Her tone was amused. “That’s your choice.”
You’re so crafty…
She watched Inari hold up her hands and use her magic; lights began to appear above her hand before condensing into two small glints of white light. They both moved to Ashley and Brandon, and they took them in their hand. They both stiffened in shock before their hands intertwined. Without words, they looked at each other with pain and love in their eyes.
“So, what is your decision?” Inari questioned.
Brandon licked his lips before turning to Sora and then Inari. “Thank you—thank you for taking care of my wife and—and giving me this chance. If it means being with my wife, then I’d happily move, but I’m concerned about the children.”
He turned to his wife. “Ash, do you think this Vulpes Realm will be a safe place for our kids?”
Ashley was silent a moment, emotions conflicted. “Mhh, no, it won’t be completely safe, but—I’m sure we can forge a safe environment—you know what I mean.”
Sora frowned at her response and Brandon’s nod. I know they’re thinking about me … what’s this have to do with me, Aunt Inari? The sacrifice? I don’t understand.
“Do you want me to tell you what sacrifice Ashley and Brandon have made to be reunited?”
“Well, then ask them. See if they’re comfortable discussing it.”
Growling, Sora glared at her aunt. Is it something I won’t like? You’ve been super open until now. Turning to Ashley, Sora asked, “I know my aunt asked you to sacrifice something, and it has to do with me somehow. What deal did you make?”
Brandon smiled, gripping Ashley’s hand. “Nothing that’s not worth being a family again.”
“That doesn’t tell me anything!” She huffed.
“Basically, to treat you like our own daughter,” Ashley said with a warm smile.
Sora pursed her lips. “Something tells me there’s more to it than that, but okay…”
Inari hummed, turning to Sora; her lips were curved into a slight smile. “Sora, I think we are finished with Ashley’s trial.”
Her left fox ear twitched with irritation; scratching it, she sighed. “First, what about Cedric and Josie? If they’re going to be a family, then when will they come to the Vulpes Realm?”
Ashley cleared her throat. “I will need your help, Sora. Tomorrow morning, can we go to the gate and get them. Inari will be sending someone to pick them up and bring them to the gate … Cedric and Josie will love this; it’ll be like a fairytale to them. They’ll love you.”
Sora bit her lower lip. Wait, so you are bringing them to the Vulpes Realm? We’re in a pretty volatile position right now though … is that okay?
“Decisions, Sora. We all make decisions. You must respect theirs as much as they respect yours. They’ve earned that, have they not?”
What about Brandon? His Intelligence?
“He just needs to enter his body; I’ve already given him the information.”
Sora huffed. “This is so complicated…” With that, she prompted their copies to return.
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