B3 — 48. The Worm

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Change In POV:  Sora


Sora strolled with the children running around, laughing as they explored the edges of the road.  Brandon had been hesitant, but Ashley assured him that there weren’t any predators; so, they’d let the kids down to lead the way at their own pace.

Gurakuqi wore an amused smile as she watched Cedric and Josie peer into the forest, comparing their journey to dozens of stories their parents had told them.  Josie appeared to mispronounce a lot of words, and Cedric was always on top of correcting his sister, but she had learned to filter out her brother’s edits.

Eyia had been more concerned about Sora than the children; she’d been studying her for several minutes, likely trying to come up with a way to ease her stress.  A heavy sigh left, Sora’s lips, drawing Ashley and Brandon’s attention.

“Are we troubling you too much?”  Ashley asked, brow creasing with concern.

Sora scratched her left ear before playing with her hair, eyes still following the kids.  “No, it’s not you. I’m just worried about the Vulpes and humans in this realm.”

Brandon scratched the back of his head.  “Ashley told me about the sickly state the residents are in.  Is that what you’re concerned about?”

Finally, having someone new to talk about the situation gave Sora the urge to push forward.  “I mean, I can heal these people, but … it’s a massive change. I could cause more harm than good.  I might draw some negative attention from the Vulpes Council, but that’s not what really bothers me.  I’m just worried about the people that are suffering, and they don’t even know it.”

He fell silent, and Ashley squeezed his arm with an encouraging smile.  After a moment, he shook his head, glancing her way before his vision returned to his kids.  “I don’t think I can be of much help. My first priority is my kids. If others are suffering, then it’s terrible, but everyone has to have their priorities.”

Ashley hummed, leaning her head against her husband’s muscular arm, drawing the attention of everyone but the children.  “When Inari explained Yin and Yang, my mind went to a thought exercise we did in University. Well, nevermind … I’m sure Mary could explain it a lot better.”

Everyone’s eyebrows rose as Gurakuqi said, “Please continue.  I don’t know what University is or this Yin and Yang, but I’d like to learn more about your lives.”

Clearing her throat, Ashley looked after her kids, running ahead of them to look at strange colored bushes and flowers.  “Kids may seem so carefree and … sometimes we can trap ourselves into longing after those times we remember … back when life was so simple.  However, life was never simple, we were just innocent … ignorant.

“In some ways, I can see how that can be desirable, but we all must grow up.  Children require someone to baby them, take care of them, handle all the horrors we wish to escape from.  Being able to see their innocent eyes gives me the strength to face all the terrible decisions I must make.”

Brandon chuckled.  “To them, this is a wonderful adventure, and they don’t really understand the dangers that we must protect them from.  Are you saying that maybe the Vulpes of this place are like that?”

Ashley shook her head.  “No, remember when we discussed what the kids should and shouldn’t watch?”

He nodded with a soft rumble in his throat.  “Yeah, we can’t shelter them too much, but we need to ease them into certain things.”

“The more I’ve listened to Inari, the more I’ve come to understand how vital it is to set your priorities in clear lines.  Love has a lot of different levels … our entire lives are governed by hierarchies that we place ourselves. My family has topped that list … even though I lost sight of that a while back.

“Sora,” she shifted a little to look past her husband.  Sora’s ears twitched as she met her vision, waiting for her response.  “I used to want to save the world … kind of like the weight that’s weighing on your shoulders right now, but … even your aunt has her limits.  You see one life, and we can imagine their hopes and pain … then you look at ten; it becomes harder … then tens of thousands, millions—you just can’t—it’s impossible.

“It’s just as your aunt said, we only have so much compassion and love we can realistically give.  That’s not to say I hate them or don’t care about them, but … I’m human, I’m finite, and I only have so much time and energy.  I have people that depend on me, and I answer to them before the starving kid in Africa—as bad as that sounds—it’s a reality.

 “Life is so complicated—honestly, I never thought of all the problems opening borders or giving away everything you have can bring up.  It’s easy for people that don’t have a lot of responsibility to point fingers, but they’re no different when reality starts knocking.”

“I get that,” Sora muttered, ears dropping as her eyes fell to the dirt.  “I really do—I still can’t stop thinking about it.”

Gurakuqi was holding her stomach with her left hand while cupping her chin with her right.  “I don’t quite get the full implications of that, Ashley. Could you explain it another way?”

Taking a deep breath, Ashley forced a smile as her kids ran back to them.

“Mommy, piggyback ride!”  Josie demanded, lifting her arms up.  “Cedric keeps saying mean things.” She cried, sticking her tongue out at her brother as she clung to her dress.

“Nuh-uh!  I didn’t!”  He shouted. “You forgot the name of Nunu, and I reminded you, and you got mad.  Dad!”

Ashley bent down to pick Josie up, cheeks bunched to the side as her eyes narrowed.  “Josie…”

Josie tucked her lower lip under her teeth.  “I—I didn’t! He was the mean one … he said—he said I was stupid.”  She teared up.

“No, I didn’t … I said she couldn’t say things right!”  Cedric defended.

“Alright,” Ashley took a long breath before hoisting her daughter on her shoulders, having a little trouble with her dress.

Brandon quickly helped before getting down to Cedric’s level.  “You know your sister has a hard time since losing one of her teeth.”

“Yeah—but it’s all the time…”

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“She looks up to you, c’mon, champ,” Brandon ruffled his hair before smiling at him.  “Would you let someone else talk to your sister like that?”

He quickly shook his head, looking down, “No … sorry.”

Eyia smiled.  “That was—interesting.  The way you talked to them, I have not seen such a way to handle a dispute.  Are there no consequences?”

“Only if things escalate,” Brandon replied.  “These guys are pretty smart, though; they know what they can get away with and what they can’t.”

Josie’s tears were quick to stop, and she smiled, playing with her mom’s blonde hair.  “Yeah, dad lets me have two cookies!”

“Is that right?”  Ashley asked, eyebrow lifting.

Brandon winced, sucking in through his teeth.  “That was our secret,” he muttered with a forced smile directed at his daughter.

“Yeah, but mom told me she knows all secrets?”  Josie said with a questioning look.

“Not fair!”  Cedric complained.  “Mom only lets me have one…”

“If you two didn’t get so wound up on sugar at night, then I would give you two,” Ashley said, glaring at her husband.

“Do I smell favoritism?”  Sora asked with an impish grin.  “Sounds like something my dad would … do,” she trailed off, thoughts returning to her father.

“Sora?”  Eyia asked.  “You were cheering up?  Have you not known what happened to your father?”

Her tongue slid over her lips before she swallowed, looking up at the bright sky; puffy clouds dotted the heavens, moving slowly toward the mountains.  “My aunt told me that he disappeared … was taken. She’s looking into it, and there’s nothing I can do about it.”

“That’s terrible,” Ashley whispered, wincing as Josie pulled a bit of her hair.  “Careful, honey, careful. Do you have any clue who might be behind it? Is it Bathin?”

“No—they left no trace that my aunt could detect, which means it’s something much more powerful.”

“From what I could see, he had the heart of a warrior,” Eyia assured.  “He will fight through Muspelheim to return to you!”

A soft smile touched Sora’s lips as she nodded.  “Yeah … thanks, Eyia.”

Clearing her throat, Ashley turned her attention back to Gurakuqi.  “Umm—let’s see. Let me put it this way; two people are drowning, one that you love a lot, but they don’t love you back.  The other loves you a lot, but you don’t love that person. You can only save one of them. Whom would you save?”

“Huh … what a terrible situation,” Gurakuqi whispered.  “I don’t know if I could come up with an answer … if I do nothing, then both will die, though.”

“Yeah, one of those impossible situations,” Sora sighed.  “The complicated ones that suck.”

“I do not see the issue?”  Eyia said, folding her arms.  “I would save both.”

Brandon and Ashley chuckled, and Josie said, “I want to save my mommy!”

“Yeah,” Cedric mumbled, “please don’t go again, mom.  We were—were really worried.”

“I won’t leave you again,” Ashley reassured before turning her patient eyes to Eyia.  “The point of this question is that it is impossible to save both. It’s an impossible choice, but one you must make and live with.”

Eyia’s expression fell as she well into deep thought.

Gurakuqi folded her arms, a shiver running down her body.  “I’ve never had to contemplate such a decision—both seem wrong.”

“That’s the point.  There are people that have been in that situation … it’s not supposed to have a right answer.”

Sora’s tails twisted around each other as she decided.  “Honestly, I’d save the one I loved … even if they hate me.  If I let a person that close to my heart die, then it’d be like I died … I don’t know how I could live with letting the other person die, but I’d have to.  It would just suck.”

Her mind flashed back to several short stories and books she’d read in school.  “Unrequited love is such a terrible thing … but there’s no answer to it. Even if you love someone, and they don’t love you back—it’s just a reality you have to live with.  So, do what I can in an impossible situation … I think I can handle that answer for the time being.”

Eyia and Gurakuqi continued to ponder the question silently; it seemed to be a rather difficult one for them to resolve.  Josie and Cedric soon wanted to get back down and explore the road as they entered the massive tree grove while Brandon and Ashley held each other around the back, watching them.

Sora glanced over at the brooding pair.  Normally, people would brush such a question off and not actually think about the consequences, but not these two.

Her focus returned to the laughing children; you wouldn’t have thought that only a few minutes ago, they’d been fighting.  Ashley’s thoughts hung on her mind. We sometimes wish we could return to being children, but life was never simple; we were just innocent, protected … someone else always solved the issues.  I guess it’s us trying to throw away our responsibilities.

Allowing someone to get hurt without taking a stand is supposed to be just as bad as doing it yourself.  It’s easier said than actually being in the situation … it’s way more complicated. People also say it’s irresponsible to attempt to help someone if you can’t give them what they need … you’ll just make matters worse.

If people don’t ask for help, then I shouldn’t butt in to enforce my own values on them, but at the same time, they don’t know they need help … they aren’t even fully able to give consent if they know.  I want to help, but how … why are these questions not going away?

She was brought out of her thoughts by Eyia’s warning.  “Sister, Olivia is running toward us.”

Following Eyia’s outstretched arm with her eyes, she spotted the woman; she was holding her dress up as she ran, causing Sora’s stomach to tighten.  She looked frantic, which put concern on Gurakuqi face. She picked up her pace with a short huff, Eyia and Gurakuqi joining her.

Great … I’m going to have an ulcer at this rate!  Well, I doubt I can actually have an ulcer … what is it this time?  Please, don’t let it be Fen … please don’t be my fault in some way … am I asking too much?  Probably…

“S-Sora!”  Olivia wheezed, gasping for air as she slowed.

“Is it Lady Mimi,” Gurakuqi questioned, touching the woman’s shoulder to get her attention.

Swallowing before taking several more deep breaths, Olivia nodded.  “Yes—s-she—she’s getting—getting worse. Came—a messenger came—an Inquisitor is coming.”

“W-what?  What is an Inquisitor?”

Sora stiffened, recognizing the word and what it was related to; ears pulling back, she asked, “Someone sent by the Vulpes Council to get answers?”

Both women looked at her with shock.  “How…”

“I recognize the word—probably the translation thing … never mind that, what about Mimi?  I didn’t know she was that sick. Is this normal?”

Gurakuqi  shook her head.  “She wasn’t that bad when I left.  What’s happened?”

“A lot,” Olivia mumbled, turning to Sora.  “Lady Mimi, she’s asked for you … will you come?”

“Of course,” Sora said, turning to Eyia as her brow set.

“I will join you.”

Sora’s lips pursed as she turned to stare at the family; Ashley and Brandon were gathering their children, picking them up to join them.

“Sora?”  Ashley asked, worried eyes moving between the Vulpes.

Adding a forced smile, Sora shook her head.  “No, Eyia, you should go with them. See them back to the others, and then you can find me.  Umm … Olivia, can you guide her to me when the others are sa—brought back to the building you let us use?”

“Umm—I guess…”

 Gurakuqi spoke up.  “I’ll guide her to Lady Mimi, Olivia.  Please see them back, and don’t worry. I’m sure everything will work out.”  Sora could tell she was lying, but she was even more convincing than her, yet she was sure this was the first time she’d ever lied.

Olivia breathed a relieved sigh.  “I’m thankful, Lady Gurakuqi. I was so worried.  I’ll guide them back and return with haste. I’m grateful to see that you are unharmed.  Lady Mimi and I were worried for your safety.”

“Yes, there’s nothing to be concerned about,” Gurakuqi assured, patting her hand.  “Now, we must be off. Sora?”

“Y-yeah, I’m right behind you,” Sora muttered, kicking off her flats.  “Eyia, can you take…”

“Yes, sister.”

“Thank you!”

Gurakuqi dashed off, causing Sora to stumble after her; she was shockingly fast.  Increasing her Spiritual Perception, she observed the Vulpes’ Spiritual Network as the wind rushed past their ears.  Her black dress pressed against her body as she matched the woman’s pace.

Her eyes widened as she watched her absorb the energy of the air around her, fueling her body’s rapid intake of resources.

Elemental Conversion … I do it naturally, but where did she learn how to do it?  Can she do it instinctively now, after Qebhet purified her? Why’s her Spiritual Network acting like that … is she consciously doing it?

I don’t think she is … it’s almost like her Spiritual Network was refined to take it in passively.  Wait … her Oltera Nexus was designed to take in the poisonous energy around us … Qebhet flipped it around to intake Elemental Energy.  Wow, that’s brilliant! I can’t believe I didn’t realize it until now; it was right in front of my face.

“I’m impressed, Sora!”  Inari chimed with a bright one.  “You understood that after a single look.  Of course, you are a Founder, but that deduction was quick.”

Quick?  I couldn’t catch it the first time.

“It’s because she wasn’t utilizing it quite yet.  She needs all those resources right now; it’s the reason why she can move so quickly and without pause while Olivia was completely breathless.  Qebhet has a special touch with her magic, and she can come up with some rather ingenious answers without thinking about it at all … Anubis chose her for a reason.”

Can I do that?

“Not quite … you can do a much more simplified version.  Gurakuqi is a lean, mean, well-oiled machine now … tuned and ready for action.  That little modification is only the tip of the iceberg; there’s also the issue of the dangerous magical forces that she washed away without so much as a thought.  That part requires a lot of concentration on your part; what Githa did to Emilia is something impossible for you at this moment.”

I can’t help Mimi, then?

“Mimi is another case.  Why would she be sick?”

Sora was a little surprised at the time they were making; they were just about to make it into the town, buildings, Vulpes, and humans watching their race with wide eyes as they shot past them.

Umm … she’s thinking about doing things that she shouldn’t?  Her seal is acting up, but there could be a million reasons for that, right?

“Not normally; these Vulpes are blissfully living in their robotic society without any thoughts that might enact the seal’s wrath.  What does that mean?”

Crap … I’m to blame.

“Perhaps, maybe someone else.  You’ll find out when you arrive.”

Sora’s jaw locked as they neared the town’s center, heading right for the administrative building.  Can I do anything…  Her ears twitched as she heard a sharp squawk that was completely unfamiliar to her.

She licked her lips, slowing as they entered the center square, mumbling, “Gurakuqi, what’s that?”

The Vulpes slowed with her, breathing heavily, but recovering quickly.  “Umm—I don’t really know.”

What Sora could only describe as a mix between a pelican and a griffin stood on the roof of a nearby three-story house, looking down at them with a cocked head.

Gurakuqi dismissed the fantasy-like creature like it was an orange on an orange tree.  “We need to go in to check on Lady Mimi.”

“Okay…”  Sora mumbled, following her in through the door.

She shut the door behind her and had to run a little to catch up to Gurakuqi’s quick pace.  They broke into a run as they heard violent coughing coming from the second floor.

Bursting into the room, Gurakuqi gasped, dashing to the bedside to kneel beside the sick Head Supervisor.  “Lady Mimi! W-What happened?”

Mimi looked like she’d contracted a terminal illness; her face was yellow and gaunt.  She’d lost several pounds, her face sagged, and there were dark shadows under her yellow eyes.  It looked like it took effort to smile as she tried lifting herself up.

She struggled to speak, tears falling down her cheeks.  “Gurakuqi … thank The Council—you’re safe.”

Sora’s throat tightened as the Vulpes’ relief radiated around the room, forcing her to cover her mouth and tighten her fist against her chest.

“I was—so scared,” Mimi cried.  “Olivia—she said you were—were going beyond the Red Gate.”

“Lady Mimi…”

Mimi’s brow creased as she touched her cheek with her right hand.  “Gurakuqi … your eyes, and your tails … there’s no longer black specks in your gray fur?”

“I’ll explain in a bit,” Gurakuqi promised, turning back to Sora, blue eyes pleading for her help.

Mimi followed her gaze.  “Oh—Sora … I can’t believe I didn’t see you!  My nose,” she coughed violently; she almost seemed in a dazed.  She chuckled weakly. “I apologize—my nose—I can’t smell anything, and there’s this—ringing in my ears.  It’s the strangest thing…”

Sora’s lips tucked in, and her fist pressed against her chest as she examined Mimi’s Core.  Her Oltera Nexus … it looks like it’s bleeding!  What’s happening to her?

Hurrying forward, tails glowing with a blue light as she positioned them over the dying Vulpes.  She growled as she repaired her body; Mimi’s physical signs of sickness quickly vanished, but her Oltera Nexus wouldn’t heal.

“That’s pretty … how do you do that?”  Mimi asked, smiling deliriously at the two tails hovering over her.

“Well?”  Gurakuqi asked.

Sora shook her head.  “I’m trying, but it’s not good … I need to figure out another…”

“How horrible,” her aunt released a soft sigh.  “The reason why you’re not having much success is because there’s a spiritual worm inside her Oltera Nexus.  This was not in the others. It was dormant until something changed in Mimi’s spirit. She began to fight the influence of the seal, and that awakened the creature.”

What?!  There’s literally something inside her spirit eating her?  How do I get it out!

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“It won’t be easy … impossible for you, but there is a method we can try … I cannot express how painful it will be.  It’s not something I like, but … would teach you a valuable lesson. I was dreading this moment.” Her aunt groaned.

What?

“Sora … please,” Gurakuqi grabbed her dress front with a desperate look on her face.

“I hate these limited options,” Inari complained.  “It makes me feel five thousand years old again … it will be more painful than you can imagine.”

Aunt Inari!  C’mon, she’s dying…

“Yes, yes … there’s no possible way for you to dig the thing out.  If you so much as nicked it, it would divide and become even more deadly.  This is a rather nasty piece of work, and you would more likely harm Mimi than help her by trying to operate.  Without my direct intervention … which teaches you nothing … I hate exposing you to danger. Fine, okay … you’re going to have to lure it out and into yourself.”

How?

“Geez, my, you’re so helpful!  I’d never expose myself like this for someone with the relationship you share with Mimi … connect yourself to her emotionally and inject her Oltera Nexus with your energy.  It’s not going to be pleasant.”

Sora complied, as Inari explained; her blue aura fading as she scooted closer to the dying woman, Gurakuqi still clasped to her dress, crying.   Sora’s tails shot straight into the air, fur bristling as a chill colder than Eyia’s ice invaded her Core as she established the connection.

The pain that Mimi felt was more than physical; it reminded her of her change, millions of daggers digging into her bones, wriggling around, boring into her spirit.  Mimi didn’t even know what was assaulting her, and the happiness and relief she felt, knowing her assistant was alright put resolve in Sora’s stomach.

“This is just the start … the real onslaught begins when it burrows out.  This is more of a brute force method that would take a decently trained Kitsune to achieve … good thing you’re a Founder.  Your resilience and attunement are on a whole different level. Still, I hate this … to allow such a filthy creature into your spirit … your mother would have my tails, and I wouldn’t blame her.”

Sora was a little nervous by her aunt’s reaction; her calm demeanor was always something transcendent, but every once in awhile, she saw the character underneath the cloak of the immaculate goddess.  It also did more than frighten her a little. She began injecting her emotions into Mimi’s Core, effortlessly bypassing her remaining defenses.

“The issue is how big the little nasty has gotten; you must wait until the very tip of the tail has entered your spirit before purging it from your system.  Now, it’s starting to smell the bait … the filthy thing loves emotions … they originate in the Oltera Nexus, after all. You’ll need to support Mimi’s Core while drawing it into yourself … yes, it can’t help but go mad at the scent of Founder energy.”

Sora swallowed nervously, fighting past the pain as she fed supporting energy into Mimi’s Core.  The worm shot through Mimi’s Spiritual Network, causing Sora’s hands to shake as it followed the link, bypassing her defenses.

Her toes curled, and her jaw hurt as she fell against the bed, sweat beginning to appear at her brow.  This was the closest pain she’d felt to her change; a cry left her lips as she began to shake, but managed to keep the link steady, curling into a ball atop Mimi’s legs.  If anyone said anything, she couldn’t hear, even her aunt’s voice became faint.

The worm felt violating as it crawled through her Spiritual Network, quickly following the trail of emotion to her Core.  It crawled, convulsed wildly, slammed against her Spiritual Veins, and twisted back and forth. The worst feeling was some type of spiritual ooze it’s body left, causing an irascible itch that couldn’t be scratched that felt like white fire.

It hurts … it burns … it’s inside me…

“Hang in there, dear … just a little longer.  There! It’s free, purge it … imagine fire, purifying your entire Core, bathe in the inferno!”

Following her instructions, Sora could feel the creature writhed as her aura lit within her; her mind faded in and out; she partially felt things strike her body as she thrashed.

“Sora … no, you must keep the link active … focus on my voice.”

I … I’m here … why did it feel like that?  It wasn’t … it didn’t feel like that for Mimi…

Her physical senses slowly returned; she was shivering, hugging her body at the foot of Mimi’s bed.  Mimi and Gurakuqi were huddled againtst the headboard, eyes wide with fright; both of them were bleeding on their chest and arms.

“S-Sora … a-are you okay?”  Gurakuqi stammered.

Sora blinked her wet eyes, sniffing back snot.  “Y-yeah … I’m—I’m okay—now … what happened?”

“That worm is … a rather nasty thing; once it tasted your energy … Founder energy is like crack to a great many creatures.  Every taste made it more crazed and powerful. It’s one of the many reasons why I strengthened your defenses so thoroughly when you were with me.”

Breathing deeply, she sat up, both Vulpes stiffening as they pressed against each other, still pressed against the wood.  “Y-You went crazy…” Mimi mumbled, now looking completely healthy, but marked with claw marks. “You collapsed and—and started screaming—then thrashing.  We tried … we really tried to help … you started going wild, though. A bright red fire surrounded you. It didn’t burn us—but—but you scared us.”

Rubbing her cheeks with the back of her hands, Sora cleared her throat; she lifted her hands to stare at her extended claws on both her fingers and toes.  “I … hurt you?”

For only a moment, the shock cleared her mind; the sheets and bed were torn to shreds, feathers and cotton flung around the room.  “Just—give me a…” She moaned as the feelings returned, carved into her spirit; the memory of the thrashing worm inside her. Her body still felt contaminated.

Jitters ran down her spine to her tails at irregular intervals, causing her fur to stiffen.  Even the knowledge of hurting the two cowering Vulpes was washed away as her spirit convulsed.

That … I feel violated … like it’s still there…

“No, it’s gone, dear … I told you I hated this solution.  Just give it some time—relax. You have plenty of energy to sustain Mimi, and their wounds aren’t fatal.  Once you’re feeling a little better, then we can begin the healing process.”

Mimi and Gurakuqi cried a few things, but she couldn’t figure out the words; her spirit kept returning to the defiling creature that had burrowed inside her, and her vision washed out again as she collapsed.


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