* * * * * * *
Sora opened her eyes, arms brushing against Wendy’s hand as she stretched. Twisting her body, she sighed before sitting up; she caught the others doing the same.
“That was so strange,” Ashley whispered, cracking her neck with light moans.
Nathan nodded. “Yeah, it felt real, but at the same time my body felt weightless.”
Sora frowned as she looked left, watching Wendy jump at her in slow motion, arms open wide. Eh, what’s she doing? Is she trying to tackle me or hug me? At least she looks happy…
Smiling, she repositioned her tails and waited for Wendy’s arms to envelop her. Falling back to the bed, Wendy squeezed her as they held each other. “What’s up?”
“I’m just … thank you for helping us, Sora. I don’t know what’s going on back home, but I know you’re helping me work through … everything.”
She rubbed Wendy’s back as her energy rapidly left her body. “Well, whatever we’re all doing in the Human Realm, my energy is being sucked up like crazy.” She chuckled.
“Will you be alright?” Mary asked, brow furrowed with concern.
Wendy released her grip, pulling back her brown hair, but Sora stayed lying atop the bed. Shifting her hair out of her face, she stared up at the ceiling, and flicked her tails back and forth, lips pursed as she gauged the rate her power was being spent.
“I think it’s fine. I’m getting a lot of energy from the natural aura this realm produces; it’s about as much as I get under the open sky. I don’t know what it’s all being used for, but I can feel each of my Intelligent Links requesting power. I’m letting my aunt manage my energy right now, so it should be fine.”
“That’s good,” Ashley sighed before rubbing her left shoulder. “To be honest, I’m a little scared about the merge. It just … it feels like I’m not even taking part.”
Mary shifted her weight on the bed, looking down at the floor. “I understand that feeling; I’m also nervous—anxious. A lot is riding on this, but I trust Inari.”
“Really?” A low rumble resounded in Nathan’s throat. “I don’t know … she’s powerful and all, but trusting her beyond her aura? Do we really even know her?”
Ashley’s feet shifted against the floor, pawing the polished wood. “I know her aura can be scary, but I can’t think of any reason why she’d try to deceive us … we’re insignificant humans.”
Sora’s lips fell. “Hey, I don’t think you’re insignificant humans.”
Wendy’s left hand found her right and squeezed as she sat next to her.
“She’s not wrong, Sora.” Wendy smiled sadly, falling back to the bed, brown hair bunching around her. “Your aunt is so far above anything we could ever hope to understand … I didn’t even recognize all the vocabulary she was using. Your aunt is more intelligent than all of humanity combined, probably the entire history of humans combined, but, because of you, we had the opportunity to meet her.”
“Yeah, but she’s still my aunt,” Sora mumbled.
“Imagine that,” Ashley chuckled lowly. “Think about the stars in the sky, the world itself, all the wonders of the universe. Your aunt not only understands all of it but can create it; someone that could reform universes and destroy billions … uncountable lives with a snap of her finger. That kind of power and she spent time with us—helped us … insignificant specks of dust—us.”
Nathan leaned up against the side of the ornate bedpost. “There has to be more to it than just humoring Sora … from her lecture; she doesn’t just do something for a single reason. She’s looking into the future and moving strategically.”
I mean, sure, but it’s not like my aunt’s out to get them or even sees them as specks of dust; maybe she did it for many reasons, but they’re positive reasons. I guess this is what she meant when she said people would have a higher standard for me as a Founder. They just don’t realize she’s a normal aunt … a Founder aunt, but still an aunt.
Ashley smiled warmly as she caught Sora’s deep frown. “Sora, we’re not saying she doesn’t love you; it’s just hard to comprehend a literal goddess personally taking an interest in you … especially after standing in her … the only word to describe it is—glory, and that wasn’t even close to the real thing.”
Sora watched each human’s head nod.
Wendy shifted a little next to her, arching her back. “I—didn’t follow a lot of it, but she was beyond gorgeous, overpowering—amazing.”
She dropped back down to the bed with a sigh, making it quiver. “It felt like I’d known her all my life; she wasn’t a stranger at all. It’s so confusing … not that she wasn’t a stranger—me being surprised about thinking that is strange.”
“Now that you mention it,” Mary hummed. “You’re right.”
“But what did you think about the lecture?” Nathan asked.
“Intelligent—purposeful,” Ashley muttered.
Mary nodded. “I remember all of it … all of it—like it’s written into my head, my bones.” She lifted her hand to stare at her flexing fingers. “Inari made sure we wouldn’t forget … I have a bad feeling about what’s coming. She’s preparing us for something; more specifically, she’s preparing Sora for something and for us to be a support to her.”
“But what?” Sora released Wendy’s hand to push herself up, scooting back against the headboard to stare at Mary. “What does she expect of me?”
Everyone looked down at the floor as they thought.
Ashley was the first to lift her eyes. “I—don’t think she expects anything from you, to be honest; everything was built in a calculated way. I think—she’s trying to strengthen your resolve and give you a heads up that there will be rough waters ahead; she’s preparing you for whatever decision you wish to make.”
After a moment, Mary nodded. “The lecture was clear; your aunt wants you to think carefully about your decisions. She showed you that the world isn’t so black and white, and you have to be careful about which direction you choose, but also to be your own agent. She made it transparent that this realm is not as clean as it first appears.”
Pulling her copper hair over her left shoulder, Sora leaned her head against the wood. “This realm is in trouble; I know that much. These Vulpes are dying, and it sounds like it’s getting worse every generation. They have a really odd structure, and I get the feeling there’s so much more wrong than we’ve seen.
“Not only that, but we’re trapped here, and I don’t know for how long. Bathin’s trying to get my energy for some reason, so we can’t go out, but we can’t stay here forever either.”
Wendy huffed, “It’s so complicated.” She rubbed her forehead before running her hand down her face.
Mary smiled. “You’re absolutely right, Wendy, but we don’t have to be hasty. There is a lot to process, and there will be a lot more to work through later. We have been so wrapped up in chaos recently that we haven’t had the chance to let our hair down and relax.”
She paused for a moment before looking around at each of them. “Let’s go wash-up and rest a little. I know that with Inari’s guidance, our Intelligent Constructs will return to us at the appropriate time, and at that time, we will have many more answers … and probably a lot of questions to discuss.”
Nathan chuckled softly. “I hope you’re right about those answers because … I’m totally lost on what to do.”
Sora stretched out her arms and tails with a light groan. “Alright, didn’t you say there was some kind of shower?”
Ashley got up, stretching her legs. “Yeah—it looks like there’s a piping system, but I don’t know how you’re supposed to use it. There’s a line on the wall, maybe that’s got something to do with it.”
“Let’s go see then,” Sora said, scooting off the bed.
The four of them followed Ashley down the hall; Sora examined the decorations a bit more this time as they passed. Several of the paintings were similar in their crude style of scenery, but one or two were of significantly higher quality. She noticed some form of magical film coating the works that she assumed was protecting them from wear.
This realm has interesting magic; they aren’t strong, but they’ve developed a form of art with how they weave it.
Entering the room, Sora took a quick look around, searching for anything out of the ordinary. The wooden floors and walls were tinted with a reddish hue and were infused with magic, which made them give off a faint glow. There were small grates cut into the floor, likely to drain the water and a shelf to the right of the door with a cloth sheet on a rod to protect clothes from getting wet.
There were no windows, but the space was lit by heatless globes of fire that rested in the corners near the ceiling. The reddish glow they produced mixed with the copper-colored metal tubes near the ceiling to give the room’s aesthetic a warm feel, but the thing that caught Sora’s eyes was the magical traces along a purple to blue line painted in the middle of the back wall. Sora moved further into the area, eyeing the glass bottles along a small shelf in the back left corner.
“This is,” Wendy paused as she examined the pipes. “Are you sure this is a shower?”
Ashley shrugged. “It’s the only one that looks like it would be a shower … the glow is kind of magical, to be honest.”
“No kidding,” Nathan muttered. “I think the toilet is the next room over; same glow.” He followed the copper tubes with his eyes, studying the near-perfect sized holes in the walls they fed into. “Do they have insulated walls with piping?”
Mary stayed silent as she bent down, hands rubbing the smooth floor, but she appeared to be listening to everyone’s comments.
“Maybe,” Sora hummed. “There’s a lot of magic in this room—a lot more magic than what I’ve seen throughout the building.”
“What kind of magic?” Mary whispered. “The floor is as smooth as sheet metal, but … it has grip against my feet; that’s so strange.”
“Give me a second.” Sora walked to the pipe and tried examining the magical properties. “I get the impression that this acts more like a vacuum than a pump … this must have taken a lot of time to make—probably a lot more troublesome than it had to be; every hole has been enchanted to suck out what’s inside.”
Wendy pursed her lips. “Even I know a pump would be easier than that.”
“Right,” Mary smiled with a light giggle. “However, this is primarily a magical society, not a technological one. So, perhaps they have things we’d be jealous of or don’t understand; what about this floor, Sora? I’m sure it is enchanted with something to make it water repellent.”
Bending down, Sora nodded. “Yeah, it repels water and has some enchantments to prevent slipping. How did you know; just a guess?”
“Yeah, just a guess.”
Ashley held her left arm against her stomach as her right hand cupped her chin. “What about a power source, Sora? Magic isn’t just unlimited, is it?”
Sora’s ears twitched as she stared at the floor. “Um, I don’t really know. I mean, I generate my magical energy from all sorts of things, but there is natural raw magic all around us. My aunt told me that humans have a difficult time controlling it, but in reality, it’s very weak.”
Wendy giggled. “Probably by goddess standards.”
“No joke,” Nathan huffed. “So, these things basically run off a natural generator then?”
Taking a few seconds to map out the magical core of several enchantments, Sora frowned. “Wait … it’s not drawing energy from natural magic. It’s using the energy that’s being produced from inside the earth.”
Mary rose to her feet; eyes narrowed as she stared at the wooden floor. “Inside the earth … you mean, not natural energy, but the energy that’s empowering the Vulpes and humans; the energy stabilizing our emotions?”
Sora nodded. “Let me examine the rest of the room.” Taking her time to learn more about the Vulpes enchantments, her forehead creased with confusion. “Everything’s using that energy, the raw magic in this realm is going unused. Natural energy, magical force, spiritual energy, there’s a ton of varieties that you could pull from, but everything’s linked to that one force.”
“Why’s that so surprising?” Nathan asked, leaning up against the door frame. “If they haven’t needed to use any other form, why diversify.”
Sora found herself stumped. “Well … I don’t know. It just feels a bit odd.”
Ashley tilted her head, vision shifting to the bottles. “I’m with Sora,” she muttered. “It’s strange that they’d only utilize a single source of energy with so much potential around them. It could be the society; they’ve only been taught a specific way.”
“That has a high probability,” Mary nodded. “From Inari’s lecture and from what we’ve experienced so far, we can assume that this realm has been subject to strict regulation. Naturally, there would be a specific method used as a default. They likely don’t even know how to utilize any other type.
“However,” she smiled at them. “I thought we were going to put away all of this brooding and let our hair down. Nathan, if you could give us some privacy.”
Nathan held up his hands. “Got it. I’ll go check out the top floor; maybe there’s a second shower.” He promptly shut the door.
Ashley smiled at Mary. “I thought you’d want to lead the discussion on all the serious talk.”
Mary began unfastening her scientist coat. “To be honest, Inari wore me out,” she chuckled tiredly. “There’s … there’s just a lot to process, and the brain needs,” she paused, brow furrowing as she half removed her coat. “Brain or Intelligence?” She took a deep breath, shaking her head. “Either one, it needs a rest.”
“I totally agree,” Wendy dropped to her butt before lying sprawled out against the wooden floor. “The big thing I got out of it is to be watchful. The eye on the pyramid; to look out for danger.”
Sora frowned as she watched Ashley and Mary undress before looking down at herself, suddenly being reminded about her age and the implications of her transformation.
Mary caught her examining eyes and smiled. “Sora, are you concerned about how you look?”
Wendy’s brow furrowed as she shifted her head, watching Sora blush, ears pulled back. “Seriously? We’re only sixteen. Mary and Ashley are like in their late twenties or early thirties.”
“Twenty-nine,” Ashley muttered, examining herself with a frown. “My last kid did leave some stretch marks … I wonder if magic can fix that.”
Mary giggled. “Honestly, now we’re comparing figures? I’m the old one at thirty-two, and I haven’t even had kids yet … Rick and I were talking about it.” She looked off into the corner, lost in thought.
Sora took a deep breath before slowly taking off her own clothes. “Kid … aging … I don’t know if I can do either of those. What if I look like I’m sixteen—no, fourteen, because I look so freaking young … what if I’m stuck like this forever?”
Wendy sat up, deep frown in place. “Well—worst case, you’re super cute forever, but you can probably change your appearance through magic, right?”
“That’s what I was going to say,” Mary smirked. “The beauty of magic.”
“Maybe … it just bothers me a little,” she mumbled, taking care to remove her tails. She grew a little self-conscious with everyone staring at her. “What?” She asked, flushing as she hid behind her tails.
Ashley’s head tilted, eyes fixated on her tails. “It’s just … your tails.”
“Yeah,” Wendy hummed with interest as she moved a little closer. “Is it really attached to your butt?”
“No!” Sora fumed, hugging her tails and backing away. “It’s my lower back,” she muttered. “It’s not attached to my butt…”
“Hmm,” Mary lifted an eyebrow. “What about your ears, are they attached to your skull? I see your normal ears.”
Sora’s ears twitched. “Why are you three suddenly so interested in my body?”
Ashley’s smile grew as she moved to her right side. “You were the one that brought up our bodies first; isn’t it fair that we’d be curious?”
“C’mon,” Wendy brown eyes pleaded. “We just want to see; it’s not like the other Vulpes would show us, and Fen … she scares me, to be honest.”
Mary puffed out a long breath. “Fen is frightening.” Her smile turned soft as she stretched, “Would it really be that bad to let them get a closer look?”
Cheeks pink, Sora shivered as she felt their curiosity. “No … but it’s embarrassing.” Ears low, her green eyes shifted to the floor. “I’ve never shown anyone … well, some kids…”
“Kids?” Ashley questioned as she put her hands on her hips; body exposed, she didn’t show an ounce of shame.
“I guess … alright, fine. Just don’t—don’t touch them, please,” she pleaded, eyes closed as she stepped forward a little.
“You don’t have to be so tense,” Wendy chuckled. “We used to compare our growth all the time in grade school.”
“Yeah, grade school,” Sora mumbled, “and I didn’t have fox tails and ears.”
The silence stretched for a few seconds as the three of them closed in on her. After a moment, Wendy moved in to get a closer look. “They’re so fluffy and real looking.”
“Well, she is a Vulpes,” Mary whispered. “Does it hurt your ears when someone screams, or there’s a loud noise?”
Sora swallowed, opening her eyes to stare at the floor. “No—well, not usually. It did hurt a lot when they first grew…” She bit her tongue, tittering at the sharp pain.
“Grew?” Wendy asked.
Sucking on her tongue for a second, she groaned. “Well, I think—I had a splitting headache; it was like my head was ripping open, and all the noises around the area grew super loud. My heartbeat was the loudest; I had to soak in the spa all night with my head in a cushion.”
“Crazy,” Ashley moved around to her back, making Sora’s body tense. “What about your tails? Do they have a crazy story?”
Mary nodded as she followed Wendy and Ashley to her back. “Yeah, didn’t you only have one tail before? When did you gain your second?”
“That’s right … she did only have one tail back in Miami, but—when I saw you in that underground base, you had two. They are just above your butt, like at your belt-line.”
Sora yelped as Wendy touched the base of her tails, causing her fur to stand on end. “Hey! I said no touching,” Sora huffed, jumping forward and flipping to face them, cheeks rosen.
Wendy smiled mischievously as she watched Sora grasp her tail-base. “They’re so soft; I bet you’ve used them as pillows.”
Frowning, Sora glared at the floor. “No—just, kind of like a blanket…”
“Cute,” Ashley cooed.
“Can we be done with pick on Sora?” She mumbled.
They laughed, causing Sora to smile shyly as their emotions radiated to her. At least their mood is good.
“Oh, and my tails, my first tail hurt like crazy, but was pretty easy getting used to … my whole weight actually changed.”
Ashley huffed, looking down to poke at her slight love handles. “You gain a tail, turn from human to Vulpes and freaking lose weight; not fair. Do you know how hard it is to work off baby fat?”
Glancing between Ashley, Mary, and Wendy’s chests, Sora’s lips dropped into a sulk; even Wendy had a better figure than her. “At least you guys have some fat—I’m freaking skin and bones.”
Wendy’s sly grin grew. “Right, what kind of goddess are you? I mean, where do you take your genetics from because it definitely isn’t from your aunt.”
Both Ashley and Mary made an oof face that made Sora’s ears turn red.
“Eh,” Mary breathed through her teeth. “Wendy, you can’t compare her to Inari; I mean, her aunt’s in a whole different league.”
“Thanks … thanks a lot,” Sora glared at them. “You know, I could look like anyone I want!” Spinning an illusion, she made herself appear as her image of Vivian. “See?” She smirked, adding the mirage of a similar aura that she’d seen her aunt produce.
The three girls lifted their eyebrows as they appraised her; Sora continued to feel more and more pressure as the silence stretched, but she masked it with the illusion.
Eventually, Ashley shook her head. “Nope, I get what you’re going for, but it just doesn’t even come close to the umph as your aunt.”
“Yeah,” Mary mirrored Ashley. “Not even in the same universe,” she clicked her tongue. “It just comes off a bit childish compared to her radiance. You should have picked someone average to try and copy instead of a literal goddess.”
Wendy doubled over laughing.
Her illusion became fractured with her shaking nerves. “What!” She squealed, looking down at herself. “But—but I am a goddess…”
“Oof,” Mary hummed with a furrowed brow. “Didn’t Inari say something about there being different levels of goddesses? I mean, you’re like … let’s see, what’s a good comparison?”
She clicked her tongue a few times. “Ah, in goddess level rankings, it’s like this: There’s a big jungle with lots and lots of scary animals in it; well, your aunt is like a Jaguar, and you … eh, well, you’re like the blade of grass that aphids murder.”
Sora’s mouth dropped open as Ashley’s hand shot to her lips, “Pfft.”
“She’s … aphids murder her.” Wendy gasped.
“Wha—seriously,” Sora mumbled. “That was so mean…”
Mary breathed through her teeth. “Perhaps it was, but you can’t say it isn’t true.”
Lips pursing, Sora glared at the three humans. “Have you three met any other goddesses?” They paused, brows furrowed as they thought. “Didn’t think so! I could be a baby mouse for all you know!”
“Okay,” Wendy smirked. “A baby mouse? I was actually taking you seriously for a second.”
“Well, I know—I just—I can’t compete with Inari,” Sora whispered, her illusion collapsed. “Can we get back to washing up instead of judging the poor fox-girl with dreams of growing up?”
“Right,” Mary giggled.
Ashley took a deep breath massaging her chest. “It feels … so long since I’ve laughed. Thanks, Sora.”
Wendy twisted her hips, cracking her bones. “You’ve been acting more and more like your old self,” she grinned. “I like seeing you this way.”
“What … picked on?” Sora was only able to keep her serious face in place for a moment before she started laughing, the other three joining in.
The atmosphere lightened, and Sora began to study the magical workings of the purple and blue line on the wall. “Interesting,” Wendy, Ashley, and Mary gathered near her.
“What?” Wendy asked, staring at the lines. “Is it like a hot to cold meter?”
Sora shook her head. “No, it’s a pressure gauge. Purple is high and blue is low to off; it’s pretty straight forward…” She cut off as Wendy reached out and slid her finger from low to the bright purple at the other end.
Ashley and Mary stiffened, but Sora didn’t feel anything bad about to happen. Her environment slowed as she turned and watched a light shower of water shoot out of the pipe; most of the room filled with the light spray. The water touched her skin, causing her to frown. It’s cold, but low and high temperatures don’t really bother me.
Her fur bristled with Wendy, Ashley, and Mary’s squeals; Ashley quickly slid the water off. Sora smirked at their damp bodies as they stared at the floor with sharp shakes and chattering teeth. “So—so—cold…” They mumbled.
“Serves you…” Her attention shifted to her right as she felt Eyia shoot through the floor in a cloud of mist, reforming in an instant with a golden sword in hand, ornate diamond necklace at her throat.
“Sister, I did not sense any danger; are you alright?”
Chuckling a little, Sora glanced back at the three humans. “Yup, they just can’t handle a little bit of cold water.”
“Lit—little…” Wendy breathed sharply, eyes wide.
Eyia’s eyebrow lifted. “They cannot? We must prepare them then; it is essential that we be prepared for frigid situations.”
She sensed the sluggish reaction of Nathan running down the hall. Eyia was here in less than two seconds … I mean, hearing the screams, recognizing possible danger, and then reacting in that time. She really is something.
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