B3 — 1. The Gate

Sora ran beside Fen with their small group in-tow; the bright sunlight that beamed through the trees was so surreal—greenery in general—after being trapped in that suffocating underground base, and the smells that met her sensitive nose were welcomed.

“How do we find the entrance to the Vulpes Dimension?”

A low growl came from the black-haired fox while scanning their surroundings.  “I don’t know!  It’s a story my mom told me…  If you are in trouble, you just have to wish to go there, and it will guide you—silly fairy tale stuff—like Humans have.  It’s just a bedtime story; a protected place without all the tests Inari has…”

Eyia’s lips tightened, arm around the back of Sora’s neck to help support herself as she carried the Valkyrie.  “I do not sense pursuit as of yet, Sister.”

Warning bells rang in Sora’s mind as she nervously glanced ahead at Kari, still leading the pack; the large jet-black wolf was still under her control, yet she was building strength so fast that it wouldn’t be much longer until her charm collapsed.

“That’s good.  Ugh…  Fen, he said you’d know a place…  If that’s all you can think of—well, then it has to be true.  At least… he hasn’t been wrong yet.”

“That doesn’t change the fact I have no idea how to get there!”

Nervously biting her lower lip, Sora’s stomach twisted as she chased after Kari.  Fox Magic seems to work on a similar principle…  You wish for something, and your energy is used to accomplish it—that’s how I heal and influence people—and Inari said it’ll be natural to me.

Most Vulpes seem restricted in magic, but I’m supposed to have everything as a Founder, and if it’s supposed to be natural to find this safe place when in danger…

Thinking about a safe place nearby, she expanded her spiritual perception to find something that responded to her plea; an inaudible pulse passed through her spiritual network, stopping Sora in her tracks.

The others skidded to a stop, and Jin took the moment to touch down and rest, breathing a tad heavily.  “What is it?”

“Do you feel that?”

Fen’s brow furrowed, scanning the thicket they were in.  “No?”

The pulse rippled through her again.  “There it is…  There’s some kind of signal that’s being sent on a spiritual level.”

Aiden turned back into his human state with a burst of light, sweat on his forehead.  “What do you mean?  I don’t feel anything.”

“I do not, as well,” Eyia muttered, scanning the woods.

Sora turned to the two-tailed Vulpes.  “Focus your spiritual perception—examine the waves around us—it happens every five seconds or so.”

“That’s hard and takes meditation—I don’t like doing it on the move,” her nose twisted as she realized something.  “Oh… so you can just do it without a problem, huh…  Founders,” she spitefully whispered.

Eyia seemed to catch onto Sora’s explanation, Nilly cuddling into the Valkyrie’s arms with a lazy yawn; her spiritual network was utterly exposed since the Holy Water had washed away her energy.

“My father told me Asgard functions in a similar way.  Which direction is the source?”

Shifting to the side, she nudged her tails to direct their attention, yet the moment she directed them to it, Sora knew the exact location.  “It’s…  I have it!  This way—follow me!”

She darted toward the source, jumping over the terrain, Kari leapt to her left to guard her unprotected side and making her a bit jumpy; the girl being so defensive in support of her felt so unnatural.

Why hasn’t anyone come looking for us yet?  Is Eric really able to hold Bathin off this long?  I guess if the Herald is supporting him, anything is possible.  I have to assume she chose that time to support Eric for a reason and gave him the information we’d need.  I guess Inari was right, instead of her giving us the answer, she gave us hints that we had to puzzle out…  A bit annoying.

The pulse was strengthening as they continued up a sharp mountain incline.  Where are we?  What’s with this vine-like plant that’s covering all the trees and ground…

Her thoughts blanked upon finding an oscillation ahead, centered in a small clearing; beams of light from the cloudless sky shining upon the glade, there was a small brook that trickled down the slope they’d climbed, and the scent of animals lingered all around her.

Slowing to a stop upon walking a little into the clearing, she looked at what appeared to be empty space.  “It’s right here… Eyia, do you know how we enter?”

The Valkyrie’s brow furrowed as she stroked Githa, following her gaze.  “Mmh…  My father told me you must have a key to enter such places.”

Jin hummed, floating behind them.  “If the story only says Vulpes can enter, then it could be linked to your unique spiritual energy; try interacting with it.”

Sora channeled her spiritual energy through her hand, waving it around in a wide area, and after a moment, the space lit like the sun; leaping back with Eyia and Jin, Kari ran in front of her.

“Is it an enemy?”

The giant wolf speaking almost made her trip, yet it didn’t take long for the phenomenon to snatch her attention again; the brilliant spark grew into a pulsating three meter wide radiance, causing Fen to hide behind her.

“Is—umm—is that it?  It’s, uh, real…  What will happen if I try to enter—Sora, Kitsune and other monsters can’t enter…  And with my white tail…”

Heart thumping a hundred kilometers a second, Sora took a deep breath.  “We don’t really have a choice, do we?  I’ll go last in case it shuts, and I need to open it again.”

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Eyia nodded, her arm strengthening around Sora’s neck.  “We should hurry, Sister; the way will not remain open forever, and I feel Bathin’s corrupting force building.”

“She’s right,” Jin hissed, turning to glare back the way they’d come.  “I don’t know how much longer we have.”

Kari jumped forward.  “I’ll check for traps!”

“Wha—Kari!”  Sora called out in shock; she was way too eager for the wrathful and desperate wolf she’d known for three years.

“I’m right behind you!”  Aiden called.

The Fenris Wolf vanished in the light, followed by the Firebird, Jin, a tentative Fen, and Jian with Wendy and the others.  Sora took one last look at the forest around them, arms tightening around Eyia in her princess carry.

“Sister…”

Githa gave her a dull look.  “Mrrroww…”

“Haaa…  Let’s do this!”

Jumping through, everything went white before color returned; eyes closed, she peeked them open upon passing through, studying the new place they’d entered—they were indoors.

Sora’s breath caught as a pressure hit her—power infusing the very air she breathed—it flowed around and through her spiritual network unhindered.  What is this atmosphere…  It’s charged with so much power, and penetrating every fiber of… of everything.

Stunned at the resonance making her insides quiver, she stared around the massive stone room they’d entered, turning to examine the bright four-by-four meter area.

“Sister, I can stand,” Eyia whispered, furrowed sapphire eyes focused on the single passage leading into a corridor.

Setting her down, Sora was a little surprised to find her arms shaking from fatigue; she hadn’t even realized how drained she was, yet this force flowing through her was filling her like spring water—there was something else attempting to latch onto her but her defenses easily repelled it—she couldn’t be sure if it was bad or good.

Eyia and the rest of the group moved a few meters toward the hallway, studying the rather comfortable space.  Chairs and couches filled the corners, and beautiful landscapes or Vulpes paintings lined the walls as orange globes of what Sora assumed was Foxfire provided light.

“What is this place?”  Wendy asked, shakily getting off Jian’s back with Nathan, Ashley, and Mary.

A soft hum came from Jin  “You feel that, Eyia?  There’s potent magic penetrating all my defenses—too many to count.”

Eyia somber nod followed her fervent eyes scanning unseen things.  “I feel it as well—unusual teeth hidden within—I am protecting Githa.”

“Mrroww…”  the cat mumbled, a pur rumbling in her throat as the Valkyrie scratched her neck.

Wonder was in every syllable of Fen’s voice.  “I’ve never felt so… so good before!  A warmth fills my soul…  This is the Vulpes Realm?  I thought monsters weren’t allowed into it.”

“Mmh?  Lady Githa…”

The cat suddenly jumped out of Eyia’s arms, landing on her feet to dash further into the only exit, disappearing beyond sight.

“Is she okay?”  Sora tentatively asked.  “What about this thing in the air?”

“Yes.  Githa has seemingly gained enough time to rebuild a semblance of a defense—she is quite proficient.  Do we go after her?  I only sense two beings in this dimension.”

Kari’s eyes were narrowed, staring around at their group and the closest to the hallway.  “I only smell two foxes that have ever been in this area…  Are we still in danger?”

“Haaa…  Follow me, Kari.  Please stay on your guard.”

Kari looked a little confused, resistance causing Sora to stumble a bit as she wondered if she should comply; her own powerful resilience was bolstering to the breaking point.  “I… guess I will.”

“Urm…  Sora,” Aiden muttered, forcing a smile and pointing at Kari’s back.

I know!  There’s nothing I can do about it.  I just hope she doesn’t attack us.

Eyia gave her a harsh glare that seemed to put Kari on the defensive, grunting and returning to look before following beside Sora.  Wendy, Mary, Nathan, and Ashley stayed close behind her as they walked further into the building.

Passing several room, just as comfortable and inviting as the last, Sora tried to search for any kind of deception, such as she’d seen in movies or read in books; all of this could be some super scary dungeon disguised to appear inviting, but then again, if Jin and Eyia couldn’t see it, she knew seeing past it was hopeless for her.

Voice soft, Ashley smiled while studying each area they passed.  “This looks like a waiting place…  A really nice one.”

Mary nodded.  “You’re right, and the furniture seems to be from all sorts of cultures—Egypt, old Russia, the Middle East…”

Sora glanced back; Eyia, Jin, Aiden, Fen, and Jian were following, Jian back in human form.  “Jin, have you ever been to another Realm or dimension?”

Jin shook her head.  “Mmh…  Yeah, but nothing like this; it’s more like Eyia’s island—I wouldn’t be surprised if this went to a full on Realm.”

“How did you get into Eyia’s place?”

“Eh…  I noticed there was an altered space and decided to check it out—really, that’s all there was to it—it was just weird.  The way you opened this realm, though…  It feels familiar, but I’ll need to investigate it further to be sure.  The power here is completely different than the island Eyia was on, but if this is what I think, then I can understand why.”

Humming softly when Jin didn’t elaborate, Sora studied the humans’ spiritual networks; they seemed to be strengthened by the force filtering through them, and with a tiny tied-off shield, they’d be fine.  Performing the magic, she released her aura, making the four come to an abrupt stop, a slight touch of fear creeping through them.

“What… happened?”  Nathan asked, clearing his throat.  “I feel like…  I can’t explain it.  I feel more exposed…”

The other three nodded with worry.

“Uh, eh-heh, well…  I stopped strengthening your spiritual networks.  It looks like this place is doing it on its own—I guess it’s not as potent as me personally protecting and empowering you—but it has a similar effect, and I thought it would be better for me to rebuild my strength.”

Mary nodded with a thoughtful smile.  “That is good forethought.  You know—now that you mention it, I did feel relaxed as we were escaping and when you broke our curse; I can’t believe I didn’t break down and cry on the ground.  It’s like—I’d compare it to a drug…  I could see it becoming quite addictive.  Just the slight boost in security alone that we just lost…  I, heh, feel compelled to ask for it back…  Sorry, but it’s an emotional reaction.”

Nathan nodded as he folded his arms.  “I agree.  If I felt like that in some of the shootouts I had as a cop…  Man, the clarity inside a stressful situation.  I mean, if monsters like you were in the force—the number of lives that could be saved.”

Fen snorted behind them, her envious tone returning.  “Not just any Vulpes can do that, which is probably why we were all able to make it in here in the first place.  The little princess here is a Founder— basically, a goddess among gods—and you can’t compare anything to what she can do.

“I’ve heard some of your human stories when you come into contact with gods.  Hah!  It can be horrifying or serene because of your weak spiritual networks; well, Sora here has a natural aura that is invigorating, but she can release it in many ways.

“If she wanted, she could change it to an offensive form, and,” she snapped her fingers, “you’d be snuffed out like a candle!  Even normal monsters like me.  My characteristic makes men trip over themselves—Sora could do all of that, too—Jian’s instills fear—”

“Uh-huh,” Jin sighed, cutting the tirade off.  “Great explanation little Ms. Jealous, but can we see what place we’ve landed in before you write a dissertation on how unfair life is?”

Fen glared at Jin but kept her mouth shut, moving closer to Jian and turning away with a sniff.

Eyia nodded, and Sora figured she likely didn’t catch the undertone.  “We must assess our current situation.  Once safety is assured, we can talk about frivolous matters, such as what abilities we have to support one another.”

“That’s a good evaluation,” Nathan muttered.  “We should probably try not to make too much noise, as well.”

Sora cracked her neck, easing the stress that had built up as she walked down the curving corridor.  There are so many people with us now.  I’d feel safer if Githa was here…  How long will it take for her to be recharged, and will she vanish like Nilly?  Why’d Githa run off in the first place?  Did something catch her interest or has she been here before?  It’s nerve-wracking to…

Her thoughts were interrupted as noises echoed through the halls up ahead; two female voices shouting in frustration.

“How did a cat get in here?”

“Is it one of those Nekomata Minalo told us about?”

“Yeah, I think so…  They’re supposed to have two tails in the stories.”

“Cut it off around the other side!”

“What?  Gah!  It jumped to the second level.  Luna, run up after it!”

“Mgmg!  Why do I need to run up there?  You can!”

“I’m the senior here!  Get up there.  Hurry!”

A few seconds later Luna’s low hiss made Sora’s ears twitch.  “Wait, no!  Come back down—please.  The cat jumped—Rayla!”

“You’re kidding me!”  Rayla yelled.  More sounds of frustration met them as they continued to walk down the hallway.

“Hmm…”  Sora glanced left at Eyia, intently focused on the paintings.  “You hear those two?”

Jian, Jin, and Fen nodded, but Eyia shook her head.

“I sense their presence but I do not have your acute hearing, Sister.”

The black-furred fox snickered.  “Sounds like Githa’s playing with them.  I want to make some illusions and play too!  Do you hear how flustered they are?  Hehe.  I think they’re close to tears.”

The massive waiting room they entered had three levels, and ahead was a wall of red; it was so huge, Sora was sure they could fit two or whales through it.

A strained grin lifted Sora’s cheeks upon seeing the two single-tailed teenage Vulpes, black fur bristled and tails weaving as they chased the excited Nekomata; Luna really did look close to tears as she followed Rayla’s orders, guiding her younger sister by their appearance.

“They must be extremely young—oh, twins!” Fen mused.  “Hehe.  They haven’t even noticed us.  They’re probably younger than you, Sora.  Cute—they’re just getting used to human form…  To be young again—eight…  No, ten or eleven?  Probably.”

So…  Not teens, huh?  Pre-teens.  Yeah, they do look around that age now I see them.

Luna was the first to catch sight of them, skidding to a stop and trembles breaking out across her small frame.  “Umm—R-Rayla…  Rayla!”

Rayla glared at Luna.  “What?!  We need to get that cat out…  Oh.  What…  How?!”

Fur sprouted out of their skin, morphing into small black foxes; their simple white dresses fell to the ground as they darted out from within the folds, making a break for the colossal red wall.

“Stop!”  Sora commanded, pushing her influence over them; Rayla and Luna froze inches before entering what she assumed was a gateway.  “Come here.”

The two black foxes turned, tearful eyes spinning with fear as their trembling bodies betrayed them, forcing the two to walk toward her; it repulsed Sora to instill such terror in these children.

Githa jumped on a sofa to curl into a ball to watch the pair quake before them; it was like daggers stabbing into her breast, watching these two kids look up at her like a wolf with her jaws closed around their throats, ears pulled back, tails between their legs, and sniffles rumbling in their throats.

I’m the worst…

Fen smirked while bending down, a sinister smile on her lips as one of her fingers extended for her claw to scratch under Luna’s neck.  “Hmm-hmm-hmm…  There, there, Little Pups.  Hmm-hmm.  We only have a few questions.  Were I you, I’d answer—”

“Fen!”  Sora barked.  “Don’t threaten them.”

“Hmm-hmm!  My bad!”  Fen snickered, dancing back a bit to grin down at the petrified girls.  “It’s been so long since I’ve threatened anyone; I was just having a little fun!”  She sniffed, giving her a wry stare.  “You take the game out of everything—Princess…”

She strolled to a nearby chair with Jian to sit, an apologetic smile on the man’s face, asking for his mistress’ forgiveness, yet once Fen’s tails were positioned over her lap, fingers intertwined, a predatory grin split her lips that made the twins cry.

Fen doesn’t deserve—  Sora stiffened as her influence over Kari snapped.  S***.

Her nervous smile turned to face the confused Fenris Wolf, a forced laugh bubbled out of Sora’s throat.  “Kari!  Eh-hehe…  I can explain!”

Nostrils flaring, contempt lit in Kari’s glowing amber irises.  “You—you…  You controlled me to—Sora, you follow…  You…  Eric…”

She’s so mad she can’t even breathe or speak right!  Okay…

Sora backed away a little, tails swinging around to her front in case the girl lunged at her, but something she hadn’t expected to see was the tears gathering in Kari’s embittered gaze; thickening throat touching her broken words, hot hair hissing through her teeth, her watering eyes snapped to Eyia, the Valkyrie’s spear appearing in hand.

“Eyia!  Hold up!”  Sora choked, the cutting waves of frigid energy making everyone shiver.  “It’s okay!”

“Why…”  Kari mumbled, a line of liquid running down her flushing cheeks and reddening nose.  “You…  Grrgmmgm…  Eric’s—Eric’s probably dead…  I don’t…  I don’t understand…  Grgmmm…”

Quaking figure mechanically walking a few meters away, she slowed to collapse to her knees, trembling fist lashing out at the floor; booms echoed around the silent room as she pounded the ground in frustration, pained screams making Sora’s hair stand on end.

“I don’t—why!  Why did he—I hate you…  Sora—I hate you!  I hate…”

Utterly breaking down in front of them, Sora’s tight fists pressed against her breast as she watched the most terrifying person in her life curse and sob on the ground.

Aiden walked over to put a hand on her shoulder.  “Kari…”

“Don’t touch me!  I—why would he do that?!  I don’t…  How can I avenge Mom when…  Stupid!  Everyone’s so stupid!”

Sora couldn’t help the shock that came from the desire to comfort the girl that had bullied her for three years; facing away from them, all that could be heard was Kari’s weeping, repeating how stupid everything was.

Fen giggled at her wails, but the two young foxes had dropped to their stomachs, paws over their heads and low whimpers escaping their throats.

Sora swallowed as the kids’ emotions fed through their spiritual network.  They actually think they’re going to die… eaten alive, and Kari…  I can feel the agony she’s in—it’s like every punch against the ground is aimed at herself…

Aiden took a deep breath, giving Sora a not too reassuring smile.  “Kari…”

“No!”  She answered, stumbling to a nearby chair to lash out, and screaming her rage, she threw it dozens of meters to fragment against the upper wall.  “No!  I don’t—he can’t be dead yet—he can’t…  What am I supposed to do?!”  Tearing into a nearby couch, she howled.  “What am I supposed to do?!”

Braver than Sora, Aiden approached her again to place a hand on her quaking back again.  “I’m still here, Kari…”

Her incensed amber eyes turned to him.  “Aiden…  What—why?!  Why did Eric do this—do that?  Why’d he do this to me…”

Kari’s tense hands twitched, sniffing as she radiated emotions so potent, Sora couldn’t move—terror, disgust, loss, hatred, misery—she was in utter agony.  “Why do I feel so helpless—I don’t want to feel—everything’s wrong…  Everything’s gone…  Everyone’s dead…”

Taking another deep breath, Aiden guided her to the corridor to cool off in another room.  “Follow me…  I’ll explain everything I know.  I’m sorry, Kari…  I’m sorry…”

She shook for several seconds, processing his words while rubbing her nose and eyes.  “It hurts so much…  Why…  Why does everything I want…  Everything I do falls apart…”

Aiden tried to hold back his own emotions.  “I’m sorry…”

Using her blood stained and ripped shirt to wipe her face, Kari’s coughs and sniffles became more distant as Aiden led her away.

Uncertain what she should do, Sora watched them walk away, skin tingling and depression settling in.  I never expected to see her lose it like that, but…  Yeah…  I guess it makes sense…

“Huu-haaa…”  Trying to release the tension in her chest, Sora shifted to give the kids a sad smile, and attempted to add a bit of cheer.  “Okay…”

She knelt in front of them.  “First off, let’s help you calm down a little…  Hmm… there—feel a little better?”  she asked, sending soothing spiritual waves through them.  “I’m not going to hurt you—and neither is anyone else here.  I promise you!”

Their trembles eased as they removed their paws to stare up at her.

“You—really won’t kill us?”  Luna asked.

“Mmh-uh.”  Sora was a little surprised, but less so after hearing Kari speak in her wolf form.  “I didn’t think I could understand you as foxes?”

Fen hummed, attention pulled away from reviling in Kari’s misery.  “Huh…  You shouldn’t be able to.”

“It’s the Council’s power,” Rayla mumbled.  “They help all of us communicate.  Y-You’recontrolling us…  Like we can control humans…  Not that we do!”

Fen laughed.  “Darlings, she’s a Founder—it’s much stronger than what we peasants can do.”

“Founder?”  Luna asked.

“What’s what?”

Fen’s vision narrowed, amusement dropping.  “Uh-heh…  Excuse you?  Founders are the descendants of the first Vulpes to gain magic.  Have you never heard of Inari?”

They both shook their heads.

“Mmh…  Mia?”

Again, they shook their heads.

“Impossible!” Fen growled.  “What do you learn in this Vulpes Realm?!”

Sora felt for the girls as they twitched under the envious woman’s glare.  “Fen… let’s give them time to recover  Hmm… how old are you two?”

“E-Eleven,” Luna squeaked.

“Oh!  Nice,” Sora grinned.  “I’m sixteen!”

They both looked at each other, vision moving to her two tails.

“Eh-hehe… yeah…  It’s a little complicated.  Haaa…  Why don’t we all take a seat!  We can talk this out, and again, as I said, no one will hurt you!  Right?”

Jin was already in a seat, lying down and looking up at the ceiling as if totally oblivious to everyone’s existence while pondering the meaning of life.

Eyia’s controlled offensive force had receded the moment Kari left with Aiden, and she was giving the girls a compassionate smile.  “Indeed!  As my Sister has stated; we mean you no harm, Little Ones.”

Mary came forward with Ashley and Wendy to kneel down and pet the trembling foxes.

“We’re sorry for frightening you, girls,” Mary soothed, Ashley following with a short laugh.

“Aww, you two are adorable…  You make me miss my kids.”

“They’re so soft, too,” Wendy cooed.  “Look at their tails—so cute!”

“R-Really?”  Luna asked, eyes widening and shivering a little at their gentle strokes.  “I…  I don’t want to be eaten.”

Eyes watering again, Rayla hesitantly mumbled, “I-If you are going to e-eat someone…  Please eat me and not my sister…”

“No, Rayla!”

“No one is going to eat you!”  Wendy repeated, and Sora released her control over them.

“O-Okay…”

Luna’s eyes drifted to their clothes.  “Umm… can we g-get those?  We’re—We’re supposed to try to—to practice staying in human form…”  she squeaked.

Sora nodded.  “Hehe—well, I don’t think any of us are groomers here!  I can wrap you in illusions if you want to get dressed again.”

Both their eyes widened again as they looked at her tails.  “You can use illusions… with red tails?”

Fen huffed.  “Not fair, isn’t it?”

“Mhm!  I can.  So, go ahead and get ready; I just made you invisible to everyone, but me…  Eh-heh, not that I think it will stop Jin or Eyia, but…  Yeah, some privacy!  Promise you won’t run away?”

Swallowing, they both glanced at each other before shaking their heads, spiritual networks confirming their commitment.

“Then go ahead.”

Letting them keep their privacy, Sora turned away to allow the girls to slip their dresses back on.  “We’re, umm, done…  L-Lady Sora…”

Sora released her illusions and looked at them, happy they’d learned her name.  Luna’s black hair hung to her thighs, but Rayla’s was cut at her upper back; they were identical twins, and cute as could be with their wagging tails.

Walking with them to a couch to sit together, she saw they were about seven inches shorter than herself for Luna to sniff the air.

“Umm…  Some of you aren’t Vulpes, right?  We’ve never met anyone other than humans.”

Sora stretched out her neck while Mary, Eyia, Nathan, and Ashley pulled over chairs, Wendy sitting on the opposite side of the twins.

“Let’s all gather round and introduce ourselves—including what we are.”

She judged that the twins had calmed down enough to release her aura, making the girls give a nervous swallow as her energy left them; they didn’t voice their internal concerns.

Maybe Mary’s right.  My aura is kind of a drug…

Wendy started, bright brown eyes lingering on their swaying tails.  “Hi, Luna, Rayla, my name is Wendy, and I’m a human.”

“Yo!  I’m Nathan, and I’m a human, too.”

“Hello, Rayla, Luna, my name is Mary.”  She waved at the twins.  “You girls are too cute!  And you really don’t have anything to worry about, okay?”

They nodded, sniffing as Luna rubbed at her eyes again.

“I’m a human too.”

“Ditto…  Oh, and my name is Ashley,” she said with a small laugh.

“Jian, and I am a Bai-Hu.”  At their blank stares, he added, “A tiger monster.”

They shook their heads and Jian fell into silence, brow furrowed.

“Hmm…”

“Don’t mind the peanut gallery,” Jin snickered, still looking at the ceiling and causing Fen to give her a dirty look.  “I’m Jin, by the way, and I’m a Korean Dragon.  Oh!  Heard of me, huh?  Hehe.  Take that, Tiger!”

“Jin…”  Sora sighed as the girls began to shake again.

“Hehe.  No, really—jeez, lighten up—I’m not going to eat you!”

“My friend is correct; no harm shall befall you.  Salutations, my name is Eyia.  I am a Valkyrie and Sora’s Sister.”

“S-Sister?”

Sora forced a chuckle.  “Eh, not like you two, but…”

“We’re… sisters?”  Luna mumbled, looking at her twin in confusion.

A rumble came from Rayla’s throat.  “What’s… a sister?”

“Huh?”

Everyone looked at each other in bewilderment, but Fen just plowed right through with a snooty sniff that made her guardian sigh.  “I am Fen!  I happen to be quite older than you, so you should do everything I say.”

“You don’t have to do anything she says,” Sora dryly muttered.  “Think of her as the annoying bird in the room.”

“Bird?  I am no bird!”

“Mhm…”

The twins giggled before turning to Githa, at some point returning to her human form; sharp teeth flashing, she directed a long fingernail at herself.  “Oh, hiya!  I’m Githa…  Oh, that’s right, I’m the kitty cat.  It was fun playing with the two of you!”

Her tails were weaving back and forth, making Sora smile again.  “Githa—just to be sure—you won’t eat them, right?”

Githa blinked.  “I don’t think so?”

“Yeah,” Sora’s vision darted to the girls as they hugged each other in sudden fright.  “Could you not eat them?  Please.”

“Sure!” she said with a big grin, gleaming fangs shining again.

Sighing with relief, Sora studied Githa for a second.  “So, while you’re human—though I guess it doesn’t matter here since we can talk with you as a cat—how long will it take you to regain your spiritual energy?”

Githa hummed.  “Maybe…  Hmm, a week?  Bathin should take about that long too…  I can’t believe he cheated!  I mean, I was totally winning!  How was I supposed to know his meat suit protected him against Holy Water?”  she pouted, sinking back into her chair.

“That… was a surprise,” Sora agreed, turning back to the girls.  “So, I don’t know if those other two will introduce themselves—the ones that left—but don’t be too worried about them.

“Hehe!  Lastly, there’s me, I guess.  My name is Sora, and I am a Vulpes Founder…  I guess you could call me a Vulpes goddess…  I can use every magic there is to a Vulpes.”

Rayla and Luna’s mouths dropped open.  “You—You’re like the Council?”  Luna whispered in almost a reverent tone.

Fen’s brow furrowed.  “You mentioned a council before…  What is this council?”

The girls ping-ponged off each other.

“They’re the most powerful Vulpes ever!”

“They can move the mountains and make the rain fall from the sky”

“They glow with pretty designs and rule the realm!”

Fen’s nose twisted.  “What color are their tails…  White?”

Rayla shook her head.  “No!  Oh, I’ve never heard of a Vulpes with white tails—only gray—the Council’s tails are all sorts of colors.”

“Pretty colors!”

“Yeah, like Lady Tola—Lady Tola has blue; I think she’s the prettiest!”

For once, Fen seemed speechless, and she mouthed the word several times, probably trying to picture it.  “Blue?”

Sora hummed, looking at her own tails, currently pulled around her front, and created an illusion around them.  “Like this color?”

They both moved to the edge of the couch.

“Woah!”  Luna whispered in awe.

“C-Can you make it lighter?!”

“Like this?”

“Mhm!  Yeah, blue, like that!  How did you do that?”

“Illusions?”  Fen questioned, and growled at Sora’s nod.  “So, they’re high-tail Húli Jīng.”

“No, they aren’t,” Luna stated with a shaky voice.  “They’re the gods of this Realm!  They give us everything.”

Fen’s glare silenced them.  “They’re no Founders—that’s certain—they must have obtained their powers from either your aunt or mother, Sora.”

“Meh…”  Sora shrugged.  “My aunt never said anything about a Vulpes Realm, but I wasn’t with her long.  Wait…  What if—maybe one of my other aunts is alive?”

Fen’s face turned ashen.  “What?”

Jin’s interest skyrocketed.  “Oh… what do you mean, one of your other aunts is alive?  Do tell.”

Sora took a deep breath.  “No, I don’t know…  I’m just shooting in the dark here.  I mean, my aunt and mother are really, really old…  Like millions of years old.  It’s not surprising most people don’t know much about them since I don’t think they really advertise.

“I’m the Third Generation.  In the Second Generation…  Oh, I just realized Inari only told me about my aunt Nari…  Uh, she didn’t get to my other aunt, but we were short on time.”

Pondering it for a moment, she recounted what she knew about her family, and once finished, Jin groaned.

“Really?  That’s what you know, huh…  Not much.  So, that’s her reason why we Dragons have this inborn hatred for Kitsune?  Well, that’s a bit disappointing if I’m being honest; I knew most of that but it was framed differently.

“Ugh…  If Gòng-Gōng was that stupid, then he deserved to have his orb taken…  I can’t completely trust Inari, though…”

Her vision darted to Fen, making the woman twitch and Jian straighten, but she didn’t address them.

Sora frowned.  “Jin, could you let Fen’s white tail pass?  She isn’t actually connected with my aunt—just given a chance to start the test to become a Kitsune.”

Leaning back, Jin hummed.  “I guess that’s fine.  I mean, honestly, after hearing your story, the bite I feel toward Kitsune has diminished…  Honestly, I feel a bit frustrated even believing it…  So stupid…”

Not knowing why she suddenly had a change of attitude but happy more peace was coming to their group, Sora breathed out a pent up breath with Fen before turning to the twins.

“I don’t know if this Council is connected to one of my other aunts, but Inari was clear that both my aunts were murdered, and that I was the only Third Generation Founder…  I don’t know, I have hope maybe one will be alive, but… yeah.  Of course…”

Everyone seemed to be waiting for her to finish, but she spontaneously didn’t feel like continuing.  Smiling apologetically, she muttered, “Actually, never mind—sorry, guys.”  

What if these are Mom’s… experiments…

Putting the thought in the back of her mind, she looked at the red light.  “Rayla, Luna… is the Vulpes Realm beyond that light?”

“Mhm…”  Luna nodded, her sister following.

“We were tasked with keeping this area clean by the Area Supervisor.”

“No one told us anyone could enter here, though…  We’re not supposed to go to the white light.  Umm…  Intruders shouldn’t be able to enter the red light.  You need the Council’s permission to enter the Realm unless you’re a Vulpes.”

“We’ve never seen any other monsters before…”

Typical bitter tone in place, Fen rolled her eyes.  “Well, isn’t that comforting.”

Sora’s features pacified as Kari and Aiden returned, though she raised an eyebrow when she saw Kari’s even further inflamed cheeks; the wolf girl split off and walked to one of the corners, sitting in an armchair on her own.

She’s numb… hopeless…  I can relate, but… who does she have?  Aiden, I guess, but I don’t think he’s too far from crashing…  Learning your faceless uncles caused everything in your life to…

Pulling up a seat, Aiden sat with a forced smile.  “What did I miss?”

A haughty huff came from Fen.  “Vulpes here don’t seem to know what a Founder is.  They’ve never even heard of Inari.”

His eyebrows rose as he glanced at the twins.  “Seriously?  That’s pretty oddfor an entire Realm of Vulpes to not know the origin of their species…  I mean, if it weren’t for the Founders, no Vulpes would know how to use magic or take on human form.”

“Really?”  Sora questioned.

Jin chuckled.  “Honestly, Sora, I can’t believe how little you know.  Yes, your grandmother unlocked magic in Vulpes and taught them a little.  Inari picked up from there and created the Kitsune.  The different Vulpes races originated from those that had their magic unlocked.”

“That’s news to me,” Sora said with interest.  “I wish I could have met my grandma—I bet she was amazing.  Just meeting Gloria was pretty awesome.”

Jin whistled.  “You didn’t tell us you met with the Fairy Founding Mother—talk about meeting privileged—was that when you were with Inari?”

“Eh-heh, yeah,” Sora said with a short laugh.  “Sorry, Inari asked for her to come.  There were a few other things that happened—like, uh, meeting the Herald of Sakura.  Well, not me… they did.”

Githa snickered.  “Nilly doesn’t like her, but she has tasty treats.”

Jin hissed, narrowed vision drifting to the walls as Eyia’s face turned ashen at the name.  “Yeah, I won’t say anything—you probably shouldn’t even speak her name…  Evil thing…”

Sora tucked her lower lip under and nodded.  “Mmh…  If my aunt wasn’t shielding me…  Well, I’d have been squashed like a bug.”

Everyone fell silent; the twins looked around in confusion, and after a time, Sora broke the quiet atmosphere, turning to Aiden to whisper, “What’s the plan with Kari?”

Massaging his shoulders, he tilted his head to look at the lonesome girl in the corner; Sora knew she could probably hear them.  “Well…  She’s processing all… you know…”

“Yeah…”

“Umm…  I convinced her to stay with me until she figured something out—eh, not that she can really go outside—being marked by her uncles…” he muttered, scratching his brow.  “This would probably be the safest place for her if they can’t get in, but… I’m not sure how much she cares anymore.”

Luna’s expression brightened.  “The Council will stop bad people; they can beat anyone!”

Fen snorted.  “Right…  Some false Founders are going to take on Second Generation Fenris Wolves that are basically immune to magic…  Brilliant.  Even a real Vulpes Founder would be at a disadvantage,” she added, pointed vision drifting to Sora.

Rayla and Luna responded by glaring at the spiteful black-furred Vulpes, which seemed to have the opposite effect, brightening the woman’s mood.

“Hehe.  Oh, but by all means—you should ask them to try!  Hmm-hmm, see what they say.”

Aiden licked his lips and hissed.  “I don’t know about that.  I mean, from what Eric said, Fenris Wolves aren’t nearly as purebred from the female Founder lines—such as Inari—which is the reason they’d, well… target Kari…”

Kari’s sullen Amber eyes shifted to him for half a second before drifting back to her lap.

“Umm…  They need more power than what they already possess.  So… yeah.”

Sora cleared her throat and turned to Githa; the cat appeared to be way too relaxed.  “I, umm, think Nilly went to fight one of the Fenris brothers—that’s why she left me.  What would that mean?”

A frown crossed Githa’s face, ears tilting with her head.  “Hmm… which brother?”

“Eric said it was Sköll,” Aiden replied, drawing the cat’s notice as she snickered.

“He’s the stupid one!  Nilly’s probably playing with him…  He’s not weak enough to be eaten—not that Nilly would want to eat him either because, eh… reasons, but she’s probably just having fun.”

Recalling the different forms she’d seen the Cat Founder take, a tought came to Sora’s mind.  “Does… it have something to do with the golden earrings she has?  Nilly would change ages and gain new earrings—well, and her clothing would change, too—hehe, which would be pretty convenient.”

Githa’s eyes widened, and she put a finger to her lips.  “Shh!  No!  It’s a super secret!”

“Mmh!  Okay…”

Sora bunched her lips to the side.  It looked pretty obvious it was linked to her appearance at least; I don’t think you can really call it that secret.

Scrutinizing their group, a long puff of air shot through her nose.  Is this really our only option?  We escaped, but we’re still caged in a sense, and we don’t know what’s waiting for us on the other side.  This Council could become our enemies…  No, we won’t gain many answers sitting around doing nothing, and maybe Bathin can find his way in here…

Suppressing a shiver, she glanced at all the broken furniture lying around the hall.  “Luna, Rayla, uh… will you get in trouble if this isn’t cleaned up?”

A start came from the two while examining the scattered wooden fragments.

“Oof…  Mmh, the Area Supervisor would be really mad…”  Luna mumbled.

A rumble resonated from Sora’s throat.  “I wonder if I could do it?”

“Do what?” Wendy jumped in, starting to feel more comfortable.

“I saw my aunt do something when I first met her…  I’ll need to see it again and study it.  Uh, one second—let me figure this out.”

Closing her eyes, she entered the Outer Body Technique, returning to the recorded scene to watch her aunt stretch out her hand; with her perception activated and new experience in detecting magic, she noticed an energy being molded around the mass of red gems to be sucked up.

“Hmm-hmm.  Well, it took you long enough, my Little Niece.”

Sora jumped as her aunt appeared next to her, studying her own actions in the progressive scene.

“A-Aunt Inari?  When… huh?”

Her aunt smirked.  “No, Sora; I am not the real thing.  I am simply an imprinted guide that she instilled in your Intelligence.  Your aunt knew you’d need a little support from time to time.”

“Oh…  Woah, so, uh…  You’ll always be with me?”  She asked, happiness budding in her breast.  “I can just… you know, enter the Outer Body Technique and see you?”

“Indeed!”

“Aunt Inari!”

Sora jumped forward to hug the giggling woman before she turned her attention back to the replaying scene.  “Here, let’s start with what you came here for.”

“Okay!  I’m listening,” she grinned, tails wagging slightly with the pleasure of having even some kind of realistic copy of her aunt nearby.

“Hmm-hmm.  You’re adorable!  Alright, concentrate…  Can you feel the magical force around you?  It was recorded within your spirit.  Naturally, this is not something typical Vulpes can do, but you, My Dear, are my beloved niece—not just any Vulpes!”

“Hehe, you always make me feel so special!”

“You are quite special, and I am not just speaking about the place you hold in my heart.”

“Aww!”  Hugging her doting aunt again, heart stilling with her reassuring presence, Sora followed her instructions.  “Umm, let’s see…  Uh-huh—I can feel it being shaped around us.”

“Excellent!  To be blunt, we, as Vulpes Founders, control magic with our desires…  The greater the desired effect will be on Existence, the more energy is required—so, be careful what you wish for,” she winked.

“Ah…  Okay, yeah, that makes sense—like when I wanted to heal my dad or Eyia.”

“Mmh—it was quite risky to attempt to remove the Daēva’s curse, and without assistance from Eyia or Aiden, you may have sustained substantial internal damage in the form of a spiritual reflux; it would have saved you from the curse but caused other issues.”

“Eh-heh…  I didn’t feel like I had a choice at the time.”

“Which is more than fair; my point is, be aware of the risks involved, and this will be something I hate to say… will require firsthand experience to sink in.”

Feeling as if she were letting her aunt down, Sora’s ears drooped.  “Sorry…”

“Haaa…  It is not something to apologize to, my darling…  It is simply something I wish I could protect you from that I cannot.  In any case, you may not have enough natural magical energy within your surroundings to accomplish your desire.”

“So I’ll need to use my own, right?  I think I’ve always used my own, though.”

“Indeed, which is something you should try to mitigate by drawing from the universe you currently inhabit—supplement your personal supply.”

“So, wait…  I think what you did was a bit similar to what Diane does?”

“Hmm-hmm.  If we are talking about moving a large stone, there are many methods of accomplishing it; the result may be similar, but my approach could be compared to a spaceship teleporting the rock to a malnourished child struggling against the object.”

“Haha.  I get it.”

“Still, you do make a fine comparison to the human magicians in this multiversal fragment that generally require an exceedingly vast amount of time to accomplish anything of worth—hehe, what they term, as powerful magic.”

The white zone to their left became a colossal plane for a beam of light to shoot down from the heavens to destroy a castle.  “Comical… but the limits of humans on the planet you left, while you, My Dear, could create a dimension with stars, planets—a brilliant firmament—which would be a simple enough task once you understand the principle of Existence.”

“You mean—woah…  I can basically create a universe?”  Sora asked, dumbfounded as her aunt directed her focus skyward to show the formation of dazzling celestial forces.

“Oh, Darling, Darling… you are quite a ways from being able to accomplish a task such as this, but how do you imagine humans, multiverses, or omniverses were forged?  The First Generation Founders plaything… a test in developing their own mastery.”

“So cool…  Umm, so how do I mold this raw magic within the atmosphere around me—like you did—just by wishing for it?”

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“Mmh…  It is much more than a wish, my niece.  You have only begun scratching the surface of your abilities.  It is an expectation that matter molds to your will; if you doubt the process, then it will unravel.”  The scene shifted to the fox twins.  “When you commanded them to stop, did you doubt they wouldn’t?”

Sora shook her head.  “No…  I knew my control was strong enough.”

“Exactly.  Now, there are limits, of course, but that is the basis of your abilities; the source of which that desire is fueled is the matter at hand.  You’ve been unconsciously using your own spiritually produced energy—wastefully, I’ll add—but you can use the magic in your environment to mitigate the loss.”

“Ugh…  I have so much to learn,” Sora groaned, rubbing her fingers through her copper locks.

“He-he.  Be patient with yourself, Dear; it will come in time.  As for this process, you simply must bring it under your control—don’t doubt that it will disobey—command and gather.  Magic can be fickle if you let it run its own course… hmm, which has been the misfortune of many a human mage.  Magic will scatter for the weak and gather for the ruler.”

Sora puffed out a long stream of air, stepping forward to embrace her welcoming aunt; it just felt so good to be held by someone who actually cared for you.  “Thank you, Aunt Inari…”

Inari brushed back her hair and kissed her forehead.  “Oh, how you spoil me.  Now…”

“Right!”  Stepping back, she concentrated.  “I know you aren’t really my aunt—hehe, but you are a symbol of her love…  At least, that’s how I feel, and that means the world to me!”

“You are such a treat!  I know the love your aunt has for you, and that being said… this isn’t the time to be dallying.  Allow me to be very clear, as well, Sora; I will not answer all of your questions about your aunts—understanding will come in time.”

“I get it.  Goddess stuff or whatever, hehe—my aunt’s a goddess!”

“Hmm-hmm—you are so silly—hmm…”

Sora straightened as her aunt’s expression grew somber.

“Your enemies can still reach you in this in-between space you’ve entered; Sora, you are in an admission hall to the Vulpes Realm—a place I… know very well that I currently cannot enter.”

Eyes widened, Sora shook her head.  “No, wait—does that mean you’ll…”

“No.  Heh, you could consider me sneaking behind the firewall through being inside your Core.  Still, I wish to warn you, My Adorable Little Niece… your choices in this place will bring lasting change, so think wisely and be prudent.

“Remember, your desire shapes the outcome of your magic, and I cannot tell you precisely how things will turn out from here, but I am on your side.  As a tip, examine the red gate, present your desires, and analyze what is returned.”

“Okay?”

“You’ll understand once you connect.”

“I, umm…”  Sora smiled and shook her head, embracing her aunt’s copy one last time before exiting the Outer Body Technique.  “I love you.”

Opening her eyes, she was met by Jin’s rather close face, causing her to lean back in astonishment.  “Wha—”

“What were you just doing?”

An impressed hum came from Eyia, standing nearby.  “I believe she was performing a mental battle.  Very useful and demonstrates your skill, Sister!  My father taught me such a technique that I use quite often.”

Sora shook her head.  “It’s, uh, kind of like that, but eh… it’s a bit more complicated.  It’s not just battling—it’s training and studying different possible outcomes—my aunt taught it to me.  It helps me gain insights that I normally couldn’t see.”

Jin nodded slowly.  “You’ll have to teach me about it because…  Hmm.  I’ve never had a real instructor, and the way your spiritual network shifted… I couldn’t follow all of it since your shield is fairly well placed—and I’m totally drained—but for a moment I was able to catch a glimpse inside…  The equanimity I saw was rather astonishing, and I think it could help me with my Dragon Rage issues.”

Rising to her feet, Sora stretched out, feeling rejuvenated since meeting her aunt again.  “I’d be happy to try and teach you—I, heh, don’t know if I’m the best teacher, but I’ll give it a shot.”

Sora’s countenance suddenly darkened as her aunt’s warning came to mind.  “I don’t think we’re safe yet.  Umm, Rayla, Luna, anyone who can find the portal can enter this waiting area, right?”

Rayla shrugged with her sister.  “I guess.  I mean, all of you came in—oh, but only people the Council approves can enter the red gate!  I don’t think the other monsters can enter.  Maybe the humans…  I don’t know.”

“Alright, hehe, well, I’m pretty sure they can!  I thought about trying something, but I think that can wait—Council or not, I’m confident we all can enter.”

The twins gave her doubtful looks, making Sora chuckle.

“I’ll talk to your Area Supervisor and make sure you girls don’t get in trouble.  Okay, let’s all go through the gate!”

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