Sora passed several rooms as she caught up to the group; everyone had met at the entrance. Large stone pillars were erect on either side of the massive doors leading outside. When she left the warm sensation of the mountain to be embraced by the energizing sky, Sora couldn’t help but smile.
The surroundings were green and lush; it added a new type of energy that she’d only just realized helped her stay alert and focused. I think I felt this when we escaped. Is this what green forested areas give me?
There was a cobblestone path that led down to a slope, twisting into the forest. Kari was the first to speak as they examined the area, tone dull. “So, this is where I spend the rest of eternity…”
Aiden sighed. “Well, it doesn’t seem too bad. We don’t know how long we’ll be here too.”
“What other choice do I have…” Kari mumbled as she sat on one of the descending steps, glaring off into the forest. “At least I smell game in the forest.”
Staring at Kari with concern, Aiden asked, “Sora, where to first?”
“We’re going to see Mimi,” Luna said as they both broke away from Sora, motioning for them to follow.
They all hesitated for a moment before falling in-tow, looking around at the vibrant world. Flowers and bushes were everywhere; the large trees were unfamiliar and weren’t too close together. The sun was yellow and sky blue with a few puffy clouds in sight. The mountain range behind them seemed large and imposing, and they couldn’t see much beyond the forest to know what awaited them.
Sniffing, Sora noticed so many familiar scents she’d come to recognize. “Rayla, I smell animals here, there are squirrels, rabbits, deer—so many.”
“I don’t smell any predators though; none that I recognize…” Kari added.
“There aren’t any predators. Animals are just hunted by the humans and Vulpes.” Rayla said as if that was natural.
“You guys can’t keep the entire population in check, can you?” Nathan questioned.
“I think we do good.” Luna frowned. “We’ve never had problems. There’s always food and never too many.”
Ashley hummed. “Do you eat a lot of meat then?”
The twins shook their heads. Rayla twisted to face them, tail wagging slightly as they continued. “Not really. We do eat meat, but we also grow crops and have fruit fields. We provide a lot of food for the city and other areas.”
Mary nodded. “You’re the agricultural district then? You do trade with the capital. Are there merchants or is there a more advanced economy set up?”
Rayla’s brow came together. “Umm, I don’t know what that means.”
“We don’t trade with the capital; we offer gifts for keeping our crops safe,” Luna stated. “We do trade a bit with the other areas though.”
“Is this a unitary state with the Council as the governing power then?” Mary muttered.
A rumble left Nathan’s throat. “I don’t know about that … is the Council elected?”
“What’s that?” Luna asked.
“An oligarchy?” Mary whispered.
“What’s that?” Wendy asked, both Rayla and Luna listening with interest.
Taking a deep breath, Mary scratched the back of her neck. “I guess I wouldn’t say it’s an oligarchy … it seems more like a dictatorship. It seems like they have absolute power. Only the Council have the ability to allow immigration and the collection of tax on the surrounding towns, likely to give perks or specific benefits to a select few friends … I guess it might have some affiliations to an oligarchy … is it a state or one nation throughout the whole realm?”
The twins didn’t seem to understand what Mary was saying but nodded. “It’s just us,” Luna said.
Rayla’s lips pursed. “The Council rules everything.”
Wendy seemed a little lost on all the terminology. “What does that mean for us?”
Ashley sighed deeply. “That we’re basically illegal immigrants…”
Sora patted her on the back reassuringly. “Don’t worry about it too much. We’ll work it out, and it’s not like they had an admission center …. well, not one that was staffed”
“What are you guys talking about?” Jin questioned. “All those political terms … I know the definitions, but why is it such a hot topic?”
Mary showed a sad smile. “I’ve been thinking about it since we went through the gate. We’ve lived in a nation very different than this. It’s just a little scary thinking about living our entire lives in a place with so little … individual security.”
“You’re right,” Ashley said with a heavy tone. “Since being captured by that organization … I think I’m coming to realize I won’t be able to see my husband or kids again.” Her face turned red as she sniffed back tears. “I could put my family in danger if I returned, and staying in a place like this … it’s just a lot to take in. Maybe we criticize some decision the Council makes and we’re put to death or tortured … trespassing into their borders and extradited or something…”
“The Council isn’t like that,” Rayla said with an incredulous grin.
“Yeah, they give us water from the sky and sunlight. The Council even keeps the ice away, and if you get four tails, you get to go to the city!”
Fen sniffed. “Why is four such an important number?” Her two tails twisted around each other. Both twins had blank looks on their faces before shrugging, making Fen’s nose twist sourly.
“I still don’t get why you’re so worried.” Jin frowned, hands behind her head. “Every place is the same. If you don’t like something, then change it.”
Ashley forced a laugh. “That’s easier said than done … I assume being a dragon, not many people—monsters would challenge you.”
Jin nodded. “Right?”
Nathan swallowed as he watched some colorful birds fly overhead. “It’s—eh, how do I say this … have you lived in any set ruling system?”
Jin shook her head. “Not for a long time. I just wander around and find things that interest me.”
Nodding, he looked toward Eyia. “You’re a Valkyrie—if I remember correctly?” She nodded. “Right—and your homeland had a ruler, like Odin … before his death?” Again, she acknowledged his statement. “Then, what would happen if some people barged into Asgard uninvited, without talking to anyone or going through the proper channels?”
“They would be intruders and imprisoned, tried, and if found guilty of the law or a threat, executed,” Eyia stated.
“Precisely,” Ashley sighed.
“That doesn’t matter,” Fen scoffed. “We have a Vulpes Founder with us. What can they do?”
Sora frowned at her statement, but Mary interjected. “That is another concern I’ve thought about. Why would a major legend, such as the birth of the Vulpes race, be lost?”
Fen was silent a moment as she thought. “I—that doesn’t make sense. I mean, as far as I know, it’s a story every Vulpes learns from their parents.”
Ashley breathed through her teeth. “I think I know where you’re going with that, Mary. If Sora, a Founder or goddess, could mess with the magic at the gate, she could mess with a whole lot of other things. In a tyrannical society, that would be a real threat. Any being that could combat this Council would have been wiped from history; it’s classic totalitarian style.”
“What was your occupation?” Nathan asked with lifted eyebrows.
“I was an investigative reporter … not anyone big, but I caught wind of some odd—that’s how Eric caught wind of me…” She trailed off, face passive as she looked into her past.
Nathan nodded gravely, and Sora’s gut tightened as his feelings shifted, underlying negative emotions surfacing. “I get that.” He glanced at the twins, which seemed unable to follow their conversation. “Sora,” Her head turned toward him as his throat caught. “I—I feel really pathetic saying this—I’m thirty-two years old—a police officer lieutenant…” Glaring at the ground. “I’m useless … powerless. I can’t do anything and need your protection.”
His nose twisted at Fen’s snicker, but his emotions told her that he knew he couldn’t do anything about it. Sora tucked her lower lip under her teeth. He’s lost purpose … realized he’s being dragged around by us and there’s nothing he can do without our protection. What can I do to lighten his spirit?
Licking his lips, he rubbed the back of his neck, working around his shoulders. “I—I’ve been thinking about this over the last few weeks—since coming into contact with Eric. How powerless I was and when he turned me—the hopeless rage—I didn’t know where to put it; I couldn’t lash out at him—then…” He looked up at her and sniffed, face turning red. “My mind was red, all I saw were bodies I ripped to shreds, people in lab coats—then you showed up … broke that nightmare and gave me a semblance of my life back.” He wiped back a tear. “Thank you.”
Sora was stunned at his emotional swap and could feel similar emotions of gratitude from Wendy, Ashley, and Mary. “You—you all feel this way—but I’m just a teenager—I’m just learning…”
Wendy hugged her from behind. “You helped me when my mother abandoned me—you even wanted me adopted … as a sister. You’re not just some teenager; you really saved me.”
Sora shook her head. “N—no—I didn’t! I’m the reason you were captured and, your mother always hated…” She trailed off as Wendy’s emotions flooded into her. What—how? Is it proximity? She… Sniffing back tears, she hugged Wendy back, ignoring Fen’s feigned gag. “I do want you as a sister.”
“Indeed,” Eyia beamed. “Sora is a wonderful person. She bought Jin and me food without expectation of repayment when we entered your world. Brought us to her home, fed us again, let me use her facilities, entertained us, presented a gift to me, and offered to lodge us. She is truly a wonderful sister to have.”
Sora swallowed, feeling warm from the tips of her ears to her tails; the emotion was so thick she could almost taste the sweet flavor on her tongue. “Thank you—everyone.” A differently sweet scent carried over the wind that made her mouth water. What’s that?
Mary smiled at her, breaking her train of thought as her emotions fluctuated. “Sora, you have saved us … you don’t—perhaps you do know how we felt. I’ve never felt so helpless, and it wasn’t you that made us feel that way, but it was you that helped break us free. I can’t help, but feel real concern though,” she swallowed. “With where we’re going—a place that does not know of Founders, nor what you are capable of. It would be prudent to expect resistance.”
“Mimi’s really nice though,” Luna said, facing forward as they broke into a clearing.
Rayla scratched at her neck. “She is, but she can be scary if you don’t do your work!”
Luna shivered, tail stiffening. “She can be scary.”
“How many tails does she have, and of what color?” Sora frowned as Fen’s smiled innocently back.
“Umm, she has four tails, and they’re black. They’re bushy too!” Luna giggled.
“Don’t try to play with them though,” Rayla glared at her sister.
Luna looked away with a pout. “We were ten! She used to let us play with them…”
Fen shrugged, any hint of worry vanishing. “Not really that concerning then; if she’s only a four-tailed Húli Jīng then Sora and the rest of you should have no problem with her. Plus, if she’s the Area Supervisor, then she’ll probably be the highest tailed Vulpes in the area.”
“Mhm, she’s super strong!” Rayla said, not catching Fen’s meaning.
Fen chuckled at her statement. “Of course she is.”
Sora turned her attention to the fields as they rose past a small hill. There were dozens of fruit trees planted around them in even rows. Vulpes and humans alike were moving between the rows with hand-drawn wagons. Sora couldn’t tell what type of fruit it was. The fruits on the trees to her right were in the shape of a banana, but small red spikes protruded at odd angles, and they were purple. The ones to her left were yellow and diamond shaped with thin black fur.
“Odd fruits,” Wendy commented.
Githa’s eyes lit up as she saw all the trees. “Tolira fruit! I love tolira fruit.” She vanished off Mary’s shoulder, making her jump.
Sora lost track of her movement. Her vision darted toward a woman’s frightened gasp. Githa was back in human form near a hand-drawn cart; Sora’s legs froze as the entire cart burst into flames and flowed into Githa’s mouth. Did she just … we haven’t even … we look like terrible people now!
The gray one-tailed Vulpes woman stumbled back and fell to her butt, her white dress folding around her legs as she trembled. Fen hummed with interest. “A Brer? I haven’t seen that Vulpes race before, but from what my mom said, they’re not all that strong.”
“That tastes so good!” Githa said with a wide grin.
Sora’s hesitation didn’t last long, and both Rayla and Luna seemed too stunned to move. “Githa! You can’t go around eating other people’s things—it makes us look bad … you even ate the cart.”
Githa’s brow creased. “Really? No one complains when I eat food in Asgard … they all laugh.”
The Vulpes scrambled back, a few humans and Vulpes of varying tail color began running away. Sora bit her lower lip nervously. What should I do? If they tell Mimi we are causing trouble it’ll be bad, but I shouldn’t control them all … how should I make up for Githa’s thoughtless action?
Spotting an empty cart one of the men had abandoned, a solution formed in Sora’s head. Extending her will and taking command of the magic around her, she imagined arms, pulling the fruit off the trees and filling the empty cart. Her eyes darted around the area as a mass of fruit lifted off the trees, racing past the fleeing people to fill the cart to the brim. The flying fruit made the running Vulpes and humans pause as they darted past them.
Fen looked at her with jealous eyes before her cheeks puffed out and she turned away, but Luna and Rayla looked mystified. “Did—you do that?” Luna asked in awe.
Sora nodded. “Yes, I’m terribly sorry about what our friend did. Can you two go explain that to them? We mean no harm.”
Nodding excitedly, they both ran toward the group; they seemed to know the twins because they waited for them to approach, though it was clear they were still afraid.
Sora sighed with relief as Githa jogged back over to them with a beaming smile. “You’re more skilled than I thought, Sora! When did you learn to harness raw magic?”
Aiden’s eyebrows lifted. “Is that what you did? That’s pretty impressive.”
“Yes,” Jin said with a dubious grin. “It is a bit impressive. I’ve only begun experimenting with it. Lessons from your aunt?”
Scratching the back of her head, Sora forced a smile. “You could say that. I saw her do something similar and she did teach me a bit about it.”
“How is that fair?” Fen sniffed. “You’re a Founder, have a natural aptitude for basically everything, and your aunt, the strongest Vulpes, gave you a short free lesson that put everything I’ve ever learned to shame … even your illusions are a few tails higher than mine…”
“It wasn’t that impressive,” Kari muttered.
“Jealous much?” Nathan muttered.
Fen glare shot to him. “You—have no idea.” Jian put his hand on Fen’s shoulder, which made her sigh. “What do I expect—she’s a Founder … she could learn a thing or two about flirting though.” She added with a smirk in Aiden’s direction. Resisting a blush, Sora created an illusion of herself flicking Fen’s nose, who squealed in alarm as the illusion materialized in front of her and she tripped, falling on her butt.
Everyone laughed as the tension eased, even Eyia giggled. Kari smirked, arms crossed. “That was pretty funny though.” Jian frowned, but helped Fen get back to her feet; she didn’t look happy as she glared into the field, cheeks burning.
“Well,” Sora said with a slight sigh, feeling a little better. “Let’s try to smooth this over. They might get spooked if all of us crowd them, so I’ll go with Githa.” She swallowed as she glanced at the smiling girl. “Githa—could you apologize for eating their cart?”
Githa nodded enthusiastically. “I didn’t know they’d be upset.”
They walked over to the group at a slow pace. The humans and Vulpes stiffened as she neared, but Luna and Rayla spoke up. “It’s okay! Sora opened the gate; she wouldn’t hurt you.”
Sora felt nervous at their explanation and the confusion that swept the group, a few people muttering about the shocking revelation.
“She opened the gate?”
“That’s impossible … only the Council can do that.”
“Luna and Rayla were cleaning it today though … they’d have to know.”
Sora sniffed the air as she approached. Four human men and three Vulpes. Fen called the gray-tailed Vulpes a Brer … I don’t remember reading about them on the Wiki page, but she said they weren’t supposed to be that strong … Githa’s with me too and all the Vulpes have a single tail.
“Hello,” Sora started. “My name is Sora, and this is Githa.”
Githa waved with a broad smile, fangs showing. “Sorry for eating your cart. I didn’t think you’d mind—tolira fruit is so good, and you gathered so many! I was so hungry … I’m sorry.” She repeated, ears laid back and eyes wide.
“You … aren’t human or a Vulpes?” One of the human men asked.
A black-tailed Vulpes shook her head. “I think she’s a Nekomata? This Vulpes—Sora, opened the gate to allow these monsters through?” She asked Rayla.
She nodded. “Mhm, that’s right. She says she can see how the gate worked and was able to allow non-human or Vulpes to enter.”
“That’s what she did,” Luna confirmed. “It was super awesome!”
Sora looked back at the spot the cart had been and scratched the back of her neck, copper hair shifting. “I don’t know if just filling a new cart will make up for the work you did, or the cart Githa ate … we can try to work it off. I don’t want to hurt our relationship before it even begins.” She sensed their nervousness ease a little.
The black-tailed Vulpes breathed a sigh. “Thank you for that. I—it’s shocking to see anything but human or Vulpes. What…” She cut off as she stared back at their group. “What’s with their clothes … is that blood?”
Sora cursed internally. I can’t believe we didn’t consider this. No wonder Luna and Rayla were so frightened of us at first glance. “We—there was an incident that occurred. That blood is mostly their own.” She stated, glancing back at their group. Jin’s white spandex top and bottom was covered in dried blood as was much of her body. Kari’s clothes were drenched in red as was Jian’s, they both had many rips in their material. “If possible—we’d love to get new clothes … we’ll have to talk to Mimi about that.”
“You’re going to see Mimi?” The Brer whispered.
Luna spoke up with a wide grin. “Yup!”
“That would—I think that’s great.” The black-tailed Vulpes swallowed. “If you continue down the road for a little ways you’ll see the village—I assume Luna and Rayla are guiding you … it’s not far.”
Sora nodded with a sigh. “Thank you for understanding. I’ll tell Mimi what happened and see what we can do to make up for it.” They nodded, moving off to another cart to fill it. Sora, Githa, and the twins returned to the group.
“Everything work out?” Mary asked.
“Somehow,” Sora said tiredly. “We aren’t far from the village. I think the sooner we talk to Mimi the better. I mean, look at us … we look crazy—like we just broke out of prison or something. Jin, Kari, and Jian have blood all over them.”
“Well excuse me,” Kari huffed. “I’ve been busy mutilating myself trying to escape since I woke up … what have you been up to? I smell the food on your breath, soap on your body, and see your pressed clothes. Must have been hard…”
Sora rubbed between her eyes. “I—it wasn’t easy, Kari … whatever. Let’s just go see Mimi and get this over with.”
They walked in silence until the village came into view, passing many people that hurriedly gave them room on the road as they moved on. It looked more like a town than a village; the number of houses was many as they stretched for quite a while, a few up to three stories tall. They were all fairly similar in appearance and design, but there were small differences in each one. The walls seemed wooden, while the roofing was bark. There were a few figures atop some roofs, fixing damages.
“How many people live in this town?” Ashley asked.
“Hmm?” Luna questioned.
Rayla looked thoughtful. “Umm, I think there’s like—nine thousand people—maybe ten?”
“You’re kidding?” Fen said with wide eyes. “That many Vulpes—all with less than four tails?” She looked stunned as the twins nodded.
“There are human men and women too—much fewer women though,” Luna added.
Mary bit her lower lip at the information. “This is going to be worse than I thought … a nation like this—this is only a town … we need to make a good impression.”