Ashley’s Change; Sora’s POV
The sun was dipping low in the sky; Sora was standing in front of a nice white themed house, the many windows showing bright lights inside. The front yard had large four-foot bushes that fenced it, and to their left, a gate led around the side of the house; some kind of fern grew on the bars, showing brilliant light purple flowers. There was a circular room to the right of the house that was built for viewing, lined with windows and ferns surrounding the outside.
There were two BMW’s in the front driveway that seemed fairly new; a hedge grew behind them, separating the house from the driveway. To the right of the driveway was a path that led to the glass-paneled, white framed front door, and the second floor had a large patio that wrapped around the house, white rail guards lining the edges for safety and grill showing against the left railing. Looking to her right, Sora read the signs above a stop sign, Royal Palm Avenue and 34 Street.
Ashley sighed beside her, peering through the windows, Inari to her right side; as instructed, Sora began to shield Ashley from the calming energy that sustained her. Her gaze shifted to her aunt as she used her energy to form a shield around Ashley. Another shield?
What’s that for?
“Ashley will go through a rough start, and it’s best if she’s in complete control.”
Ashley swallowed as she glanced over at her. “Um, I—you’re reducing that calming effect of the Vulpes Realm … right?”
Sora nodded with pursed lips. “Well, kind of. I’m just blocking the energy from being transferred to your copied Intelligence, but my aunt also made a shield around you so her influence won’t affect you.”
“Right,” Ashley sighed, rubbing her left elbow, vision returning to the house. “We’re invisible—right, Inari? And thank you for the shield. It’s comforting knowing that I’m one-hundred percent me.”
“That is correct,” Inari folded her hands behind her back, tails fanning out as she studied the white house with casual interest. “You can walk through walls like a ghost, but this realm functions in essence to your desire and imagination.
“If you plan to sit in a chair, then it will be solid; however, you are not sitting in the chair in the human realm, but a representative construct created by your desire. That being said, there are limits within this realm connected to your internal energy, but sitting down is simple enough.”
“Good to know,” Ashley mumbled, running a hand through her blonde hair. She hesitated for a moment before walking forward, moving through the walls, Sora and Inari following. They entered a kitchen; it was nice with new appliances, and there was the sound of children giggling further into the house.
Sora hummed as she glanced around the area. “So, how many kids do you have?”
“Two, a six-year-old boy—seven now, and a five-year-old girl … Cedric and Josie.”
They walked further into the house, moving through the kitchen wall to the bedroom behind it. The room was split between a girl’s and boy’s side with a bunk-bed against the left wall. Under the back window, there were shelves with dinosaurs, legos, and soldiers with military vehicles, while against the right wall were even larger shelves with mermaids, Barbie, and a small castle dollhouse complete with Disney princesses and accessories. The colors were split down the middle with blue and pink, glow stars spread across the ceiling.
Sitting against the wall on the bottom bunk leaned two kids and a man. Ashley’s throat caught as she held her fist against her lips, left hand clamped around her stomach.
The man held an Ipad in his hands as the two kids nestled next to him. He told them a story, swiping his finger against the screen. His hair was brown and clean cut; Sora guessed he used putty to sweep it to the left side. His eyes were hazel and he had a closely trimmed beard and mustache. He was handsome and seemed to be in his late twenties.
It was obvious that he was trying to be excited for his kids, but was exhausted; he had a deep, mature voice. “The great king and queen of Roenia, Tommy and Irean, had finally overcome the great dragon Jordane and returned peace to the land. However, the peace didn’t last.”
Cedric was watching the tablet with anticipation. “Was it Erlshine again? Did he break out of the crystal prison?”
“No,” Josie shook her head frantically, blonde hair whipping around. “See the clouds! It’s Empmess Etita!”
“Empress Etnna,” Cedric snickered. “Not Empmess…”
“Oh,” the man hummed lowly. “I think this next evil is worse than even Erlshine and Empress Etnna.” Cedric and Josie’s eyes widened.
“What?” Cedric scooted closer to get a better look at the screen. “How? Erlshine blew up part of the castle!”
“Nu-uh!” Josie huffed. “Empmess Etita has that—that thing, with the staff and the whoosh!” She made a hand gesture before snuggling closer to her dad.
“You told your children fascinating stories,” Inari chuckled.
A tear slid down Ashley’s cheek as she sniffed, taking a deep breath. “There’s a site that has a lot of pictures on it—you can swipe through and make up your own stories … Brandon and I—we’d take turns each night. They never forget…”
Brandon smiled at his two kids, bags under his eyes. “Everything was fine with all the villains trapped in their prisons, but that’s when a new villain appeared; he had heard about the great powers that King Tommy and Queen Irean had and wanted to take it for himself. This villain’s name was Kren, and Kren had the Emerald Stones.”
Cedric sucked in his breath. “What? That’s impossible!”
“Why? I don’t remember … what’s the Embald Stones?” Josie looked up at her dad, face filled with quesiton.
“It was,” Cedric paused. “Wait … that was Wester’s magic, right? Wester was trapped in that underwater prison, and his powers were put into the Emerald Stones. Didn’t Tommy throw them into the Eternity Well? That’s how they fixed the broken sky.”
“Oh!” Josie nodded. “Yeah, the Wishing Well, I remember! The big boom that came from the sky and the cracks, swoosh!”
“Yup, yup,” Brandon chuckled. “You’re both right. No one’s seen the Emerald Stones since then, but now Kren has them, and what’s he do with them?”
“Crack the sky?” Josie asked.
“Na,” Cedric huffed. “Too easy … umm, I don’t know.”
Brandon flipped the page, causing the kids to gasp. “Remember, the Emerald Stones were a part of Wester’s magic, he could open rifts. And so, Kren snuck into the castle one night, freezing the guards with his magical frost wand before creeping into the King and Queen’s chambers and … you’ll have to figure it out tomorrow night!”
“Aww,” the kids cried in unison. “But we just started!”
Sighing, Brandon shifted his weight to ruffle both kids’ hair. “I know, squirts, but I have work really early tomorrow, and I need to get some sleep.”
“What about mommy?” Josie pleaded, making Ashley quiver. “When’s she coming home?”
Brandon seemed to stiffen at her question. “I—I don’t know, princess … I don’t know…”
“But I want her!” Josie’s face scrunched up with tears beginning to fall down her cheeks. “She didn’t tell us a story—not forever! And house, and lunches…”
“Hey,” Brandon’s tone became thick as he hugged his daughter. Cedric seemed to have a better grasp of the situation because he was trying to hold back his own tears. “Your mother loves you two so much, and I know that she’d be right here reading you a story if she could. Just hold on a bit more, okay?”
“I don’t want to!”
“She hasn’t—she hasn’t—not finished the Firefly story…”
Sora could feel the guilt and heartache that compressed Ashley’s heart at her daughter’s pleas. Is there anything we can do?
“Just wait; let Ashley cope.”
Brandon lifted his daughter to the top bunk, tucking her in. “I’ll tell you what, I’ll make you the same roasted chicken salad wrap your mother…”
“That’s special Tuesday, though … when mom’s home early,” Cedric said from the bottom bunk, voice cracking as he hid his face under his blankets.
“Yeah,” Josie sniffed. “I miss special Tuesday.”
“That’s right,” Brandon sighed, running his hand through Josie’s hair. “That’s right … well, why don’t we make a special Thursday then?”
“It’s not the same…” Josie huffed, turning away from her dad to stare at the wall.
“Yeah, no, I know,” Brandon whispered. “I do…” He breathed a long sigh before rubbing his daughter’s back under the blankets. “I know.”
He sniffed before pulling up the rail guard and reached down to ruffle Cedric’s hair. “Thanks for being tough, champ. I’ll see you two in the morning.”
Ashley’s emotions were all over the place as she quaked next to them, but she couldn’t speak. She watched Brandon slowly go to the windows and check the locks and bars were in place before leaving the room, shutting the door behind him.
Taking a shuddering breath, Ashley moved to the side of the bed. She stared at her daughter as she began to cry under her covers. “C—Cedric…”
Cedric’s voice was thick. “What?”
“Why won’t—dad won’t tell us where mom is?”
“He doesn’t know.”
“Was she—was she kidnapped by Gorin? Like—like Queen Irean?”
“I don’t know.”
“I’m scared … where’s mom … Cedric?”
“I’m scared too.”
They both cried softly; Ashley reached out a hand, but it passed right through them. Clearing her throat, she asked, “Inari … what should I do? People are watching to see if I come back, right?” She breathed in sharply. “What should I do?”
Inari hummed darkly. “It’s not an easy answer, Ashley, and yes, there are watchers, but Bathin wouldn’t use humans to watch for signs of Sora.” Inari dipped into Sora’s energy pool and used a small amount.
Sora’s eyes instantly moved to the corner of the room as she saw a red glow appear; the shape of a small imp appeared, saliva dripping down its lips as it stared at Cedric.
Ashley’s muscles tightened. “That thing’s—that’s in my kid’s room?” She growled.
“Yes,” Inari stated, glancing toward the left wall. “There are several various demons hidden throughout the property. Searching for any hint of spiritual energy. I understand your enmity, and the protective urge you’re experiencing is natural, but if we were to do anything to these demons, then it would alert Bathin to focus on your family.”
“Then—what can I do?” Ashley seethed in frustration. “My kids, my husband … they’re suffering, and I’m right here! You’re a Founder, can’t you just burn all of them? Send them back to hell or destroy them?”
Inari turned to stare at the imp. “It certainly is possible; Sora has the energy, and I have the experience to handle every demon here. Utilizing Sora’s energy, I could destroy Bathin with a snap of my finger; however, there are more things to consider in the grand scheme of things. So, I won’t be doing that.”
Ashley’s jaw locked as she stared down at Cedric’s quivering frame. “If you had kids, you wouldn’t say that.”
Sora stiffened at her retort, turning to study her aunt. Inari’s features were passive, revealing nothing. “Perhaps. I have intervened quite a bit for my niece; however, as you said, I am a Founder, and Founders play a much longer game.
“Sora is no different than your kids; innocent of the world she’s in, sheltered and protected by her parents, yet she also grew up without her mother. There are pros and cons to everything, but there is a must, and that is to learn how to combat this world, not hide from it. Everything is a lesson, even if it hurts the parents that must suffer for their children to stumble and fall, they must learn how to stand on their own. Use your experience to recognize which battles they can handle and battles that you must step in to help.”
“How? I’m powerless here … and how can they being without their mom be a lesson?” Ashley muttered, disappointment, anger, and despair, filling her chest. The question struck Sora’s heart. She’s right … what lessons can be learned from living without their mom … without my mother?
Inari was silent a moment. “Ashley, the world isn’t fair and never will be; rather than putting your effort into trying to equalize it, you should focus on what’s important in front of you. Your attention is limited, and so are your choices. You have three options in life; the sword, the diplomat, or the slave. These three options are made in every interaction and have many branching categories within them, but those are the base decisions.
“Is it right that you were taken away from your children? No, it is not, and Eric is to blame for that, but blaming someone won’t change the circumstances or the world. What are your options? If you lie down and give up, then what happens?”
“I lose my children,” Ashley growled.
“Can you fight with your own strength to overcome your obstacles?”
“Then, your last option?”
“Diplomat … I’m in this mess because of Eric, but he has no power over my circumstances. So … enlist aid elsewhere or bargain with Bathin to allow me to return to my life.” Bargain with Bathin? Seriously? I mean, I guess that’s an option, but still…
“What is your choice?”
Ashley swallowed; Sora could feel the turmoil that was twisting her insides. “I doubt you’d let me bargain with Bathin.”
Both Ashley and Sora’s heads snapped toward Inari. “Huh?”
A slight smile curved Inari’s lips. “Why not?”
Ashley’s brows creased. “Well—because that could endanger Sora.”
“If you choose to try and bargain with Bathin, then I will not stop you. I will even take us to him and provide the proper protection. If that is what you desire.” What are you doing? Is this a test?
“Sora, life is a test. What you are is comprised of the decisions you make, and I don’t lie, if she chooses so, then I will comply. I’ve given my word.”
A frown creased Ashley lips as she studied the floor; she was seriously considering the possibility. She turned to her son with sad eyes. “No, I don’t think I can make a deal with a demon. I’d only put my family in even more danger, and he’s not the strongest potential ally I have.” She stated, turning to Inari.
“Oh?” Inari’s smiled turned mischievous. “I am but an Intelligent construct created out of magic.”
Ashley sighed with a light chuckle. “That could destroy a demon as powerful as Githa with Sora’s power alone. You may be just an Intelligent construct, but your an Intelligent construct with all the knowledge of one of the oldest and most powerful beings in existence.”
“What are you asking?”
She turned back to her son, hand resting atop his side; he’d stopped crying and seemed to have fallen asleep. “Could you help me save my family?”
“Nothing in this world comes for free. What are you willing to sacrifice for that?”
“C’mon,” Sora groaned. “Look at her kids … can’t I help her?”
“Of course you can,” her aunt smiled.
Ashley and Sora looked at her, and Sora scratched her left fox ear with irritation. “What?”
“Think about it closely,” Inari patiently prompted.
“Ah,” Ashley chuckled sadly. “She’s saying you can help me all you want, but if I want her help, then I’ll have to sacrifice something.”
Inari’s tails shifted behind her. “Choices, Sora. We all must make them and live with the consequences.”
“Why? I can help her though. Can’t I?”
“Well—umm…” If I take out the demons, then Bathin will know something’s up. Can I bring them with me?
“Oh? Think about the consequences.”
I … they’d be in the Vulpes Realm.
“How would you get them there?”
Sora’s brow creased with concern. Eh … I don’t know…
“Sora, I have no problem with you helping her, but it will be your decision to do it, not mine. If she wishes for my support, then she’ll need to make the proper sacrifice.”
What is that though?
At Sora’s tired growl, Ashley bent over, cupping her face. “I don’t know what to do, Sora.” She took a long breath. “I don’t want to use you either … I already owe you my life.”
“Why don’t you take some time to think then?” Inari offered. “We are not in a rush.”
Ashley rubbed her eyes. “I think that’s wise.”
Getting up, she looked at her daughter’s wet face, she’d fallen asleep. Placing a hand next to her, Ashley paused for a moment before turning and walking out of the room through the closed door. She walked to the stairs, climbing to the second level with Inari and Sora in-tow. Does mom feel this way about me? I can’t even describe the emotions swirling around inside Ashley … it’s like a physical pain that’s spreading across her whole body … she feels poisoned. I guess those are my danger signals to not connect an emotional tether.
Getting to the second floor, they entered the master bedroom. The lights were out, and Brandon was kneeling by his bed, voice thickening; Ashley walked over to his side, sitting beside him on the mattress as she looked down at his bowed head, hugging her sides to keep her hands from shaking.
“Lord, I know I’m not perfect … we don’t go to church all the time, and we don’t offer tithing that often, but … she’s the mother of my children. Where is she? Is she alive? I just—I don’t know.
“I had—it was rough today. I caught Tory telling Pete that Ash had skipped out on us, but … it’s Ash, there’s just no way, but … it’s been six months, and not a word. I’m—I’m beginning to lose hope, Lord. I don’t know if she’s dead or left us or … I miss her. The kids keep asking questions and—how do I answer their questions? I’m not focusing on work, I’m forgetting things. It’s just—it’s rough. Please—please, bring her back to us … Amen.”
He stayed still for several seconds before taking a shuddering breath and rising. Wiping at his cheeks, he moved to his bed and picked up his phone from the wireless charger. Dialing a number in the recent calls, he waited.
“Hey, Brandan … look, man. I know it’s rough, but no, there are no updates on your wife, and it’s late.”
“No bank activity? No hidden accounts or…”
“No, Brandon; we’ve gone through all of this … good night, I’ll call you in the morning.”
He brought his phone down, staring at the screen blankly. After a few seconds, he sighed deeply and replaced it on the wireless charger. Getting into bed, he stared up at the ceiling. “Ash … where’d you go?” His throat caught for a moment before he sniffed, turned over in bed, he closed his eyes.
Sora’s heart burned. He’s … this is so bad … and I thought I couldn’t hate Eric more. This is just one family too; he’s done this to so many people. They’re all dead now too … their families having no clue what happened to them.
Ashley scooted to the opposite side of the bed; lying down, she stared at her husband’s face, tears falling down her cheeks. “My options are terrible.” She whimpered. “Inari, is there any gods that can help me?”
“Of course,” Inari hummed, moving to the window to look out at the night. “There are plenty that would be able to lighten your circumstance, but how would you find them?”
“Just as I thought … you’re my best option.”
Wiping at her cheeks, she rubbed her palm against her forehead, pulling back her blonde hair. “If I were to offer the required sacrifice … what would you do?”
“That would depend on what you wanted; there are several options you could choose from, but that would come after the sacrifice.”
“All I want is them to be happy.”
“We had this discussion, Ashley.”
Are you talking about the lecture?
“Right—it must be comprehensible, enjoyable and self-maintaining … life isn’t meant to be happy or fair, it’s meant to be meaningful…”
Sora hummed lowly. Meaningful … not happy. Wait, didn’t you say that happiness is a part of a meaningful life?
“It can be, but that doesn’t mean you’ll be happy all the time; opposition in all things. Without the sorrow and misery, then you wouldn’t understand or enjoy the bliss. Fulfillment after the journey brings joy, the hindsight, the reward; being thankful about all the circumstances that brought you to this point. The sweat and the blood that mark the trail.”
What does she have to be thankful for? Eric ripped her away from her family, she was turned into a werewolf and forced to do terrible things, and now a demon has assassins in her house!
“Things aren’t so simple, Sora. There are many things she’s currently thankful for, if you’ll look, and many of them involve you. You saved her from the curse Eric placed, you protected her without so much as a thought, and you provided for her when she had all but lost hope; her husband has not given up on her, even if it’s killing him every day. Her kids and husband are alive, they still cry for her and want her in their lives.
“There is so much more. She’s closer to her goal than you both understand. The pure chance that everything lined up for her to be here, at this moment, let’s say, without a little bird, none of this would be possible.”
Ashley rolled to her back, staring up at the ceiling as her husband nestled further into the sheets, hand passing through her husband’s. “The lecture…” She was silent a moment as she thought back, emotions starting to stabilize.
“I think I understand a little. I was fairly wrapped up with being a journalist, trying to expose all the corruption in Miami … often that did get in the way of my kids and husband. I can see why Brandon would think I’m dead; I made some enemies in the Cartel a year ago.
She repeated Inari’s words. “The world isn’t fair and never will be; rather than putting your effort into trying to equalize it, you should focus on what’s important in front of you. Your attention is limited, and so are your choices. I should have focused more on my family than my job … we had the means to live that way.”
Inari’s tails shifted in the dark, back turned to them. “I didn’t say that, Ashley.”
“No,” she sighed, “you didn’t, but it’s what I feel. You’re saying that there are many choices in life and we make those decisions and must be willing to live with the consequences. I was an investigative reporter, and that came with the territory that I might never see my family again. That never felt so real to me until this point; I blamed it all on the scumbags that were ruining the city my family was in, and I was doing something about it, but … I lost sight of what was important.
“I should have focused on my family more than the story … because, without my family, my job loses meaning. I don’t have to be a reporter, but I do have to be a mom; that’s what’s important to me. Now it’s super complicated though … because I made the choices that got my family here. I chose to hunt down dangerous people like Eric; I made the bed I’m in.”
Sora leaned up against the doorframe; tails wrapped around, she played with her second tail, stroking the fur. “But … I mean, I guess, but you were just trying to do what was right.”
“It’s not so simple, Sora.” Inari shifted to look at her. “Everyone is in a boat on the waters of life. Every decision you make will ripple out into space and interact with the ripples of others. If there’s a bigger disturbance, then that can destroy the effect your ripples produced and destroy it or create waves that crash against you.
“You may not have chosen where your boat is upon the lake, but where you toss your rocks into the pond, which direction you go, how you feel along that journey; these are your choices, but you cannot choose to leave the water. You are here, you exist, reality exists, and you must understand that. You will affect your environment and your environment will affect you, no matter the choice.”
Sora was silent as she thought about her aunt’s words. Life isn’t fair, but it was never meant to be … didn’t she say that we are all born unequal, that is something that can never be changed? What decisions do I make then? It’s going to be unequal to begin with, and there will always be opposition … opposition in all things. Three choices … hmm.
Ashley covered her eyes. “I tried to do what was right … it’s not so simple.” She chuckled mirthlessly. “It isn’t so simple. Where is my priority? Three choices, but what’s the reason behind my choice? My family, my kids, that’s my reason, but now how do I find an answer?”
Inari turned back to the window, and Sora could feel the hair on her neck begin to tingle as her aunt spoke. “Why is it we don’t believe in ourselves? Why is it that as soon as things get tough in our lives, we start doubting; we start thinking we may not make it through? Stressing, worrying, imagining things that may go wrong in the future?
“Ashley, the most frustrated person, is not someone without money, family, or respect. The most frustrated person is a person without a purpose. The mind is powerful, but it can also be destructive; it can be your greatest friend or your worst enemy. The person you see in the mirror will always provide you the greatest challenges you will receive in life, not the man across the street or in some nameless skyscraper.”
She turned toward Ashley. “Take control of your life, control of your mind. Too many people focus on the exterior, the world at large, but if you can conquer yourself, then you can conquer anything. It is easy to be positive when everything is going your way, but will you be one of the very few that stands up when things are tough; when everything is going against you?
“You are here to fulfill something that no one else can provide, except you. That’s when your story will be born; history is filled with people that gave up on their journey or before it even started. What’s important to you? What brings you happiness?”
Ashley swallowed, scooting back to the headboard, she hugged her legs to her chest. “Being with my family.”
“I know you’re tired of being the victim. Fear will imprison you; so have courage. Fight back. Your husband, your kids, they need hope. They need you to stand up, to fight through your challenging moment, to shine through the darkness and take hold of their future. That is what parents do for their children. Courage is not the absence of fear, but the drive beyond it. Courage is when you stand and fight.”
“But how? I don’t have any power…”
“You think you can’t do this. That you might as well give up. You will never be strong enough to achieve what you desire. Believe in yourself, there is nothing more important. Your religious texts and legends are filled with it.
“Most people are bloated with ordinary, but you have something more to offer. We feed off each other, and we look up to someone great like they’re special, but they’re just like you. They have doubts, they have struggles, and just like them, you have that greatness inside of you.”
Sora could feel a fire start burning in Ashley’s chest. “How?”
“The only way to make that greatness come out is to take one step toward your goals. One step, and then another. Find a way. Nothing beats character and hard work. Limitations? There’s no such thing as limitations; the only thing holding you back is yourself. Your own views of what is and what is not possible. Your desire to sacrifice more than your competition and your belief in yourself to find a way. It might be hard, but is it harder than living a life without your family?”
Ashley shook her head. “No…”
“Can you push yourself to the peak, every single day? You know it, I know it. You must decide to be better. To fight. To carve out a place for it in the world. There are no excuses; get it done. Do you think I became one of the most powerful beings in existence because of luck? Because of my birth? No, I sacrificed, I grew; only the successful will understand that.
“Today, you will make better decisions Stay true to yourself and your beliefs. Stay true to what’s important to you. Understand that to have anything of significant value you must suffer, endure, and sacrifice; think about that. Many do not realize it, but those combination of words, suffer, endure, sacrifice, mirror another combination, faith, hope, charity. You must take up responsibility, accountability, and pure hard work.
“There is nothing more satisfying than making it on your own terms, to be the fire that drives you to be self-made. Everything that will come to you in the future will be from your own actions, not Sora’s, not mine, but your own agency. Cowards never start. The weak never finish. The strong never quit. Respect is not given, it is earned. Be fearless. Be power. Sacrifice now, enjoy the reward later. You don’t need my opinion, you have your own opinion, your own heart, your own purpose. Sacrifice for it. Make it happen.”
Sora was biting her lip as she listened to her aunt’s powerful voice. That’s … that’s kind of like what you were teaching me with Eyia.
Ashley took a deep breath as Inari finished; she looked into Inari’s orange eyes, hard with determination. There was silence as she turned toward her husband, and after a moment she said, “Okay. Let me speak to my husband.”
Sora swallowed nervously as she watched her aunt turn back to the window. Oh, I guess that’s my task. She … wow. You’re so intense.
Getting up, she walked to Ashley as she sat beside her husband’s sleeping form before it struck her. Umm—how do I do it?
“Penetrate his spiritual network, enter his Core, and feed your desire into his Intelligence. Don’t pull his Core out, like you did before, simply beckon him to follow you; he will accept. This is an internal path that will not be sensed by the demons. Demons find it difficult to navigate spiritual networks since it is foreign to their own demonic biology.”
Following her instructions, Sora felt his Intelligence following the trail she left. He suddenly separated from his body, sitting up, he stared with wide eyes at her. “What … a fox goddess?”
Smiling nervously, Sora made a peace symbol. “Guilty as charged.”
His attention shifted to Inari’s shifting white tails in mesmerizing fascination. “How can…” Ashley gently pulled his face toward her, features soft with compassion and love as tears fell down her cheeks.
“Ash?” He seemed confused before his eyes moved back toward Inari. “Ash, what’s … what’s going on? Am I dreaming?”
His vision returned to Ashley as she shook her head. “No, this isn’t a dream.” She giggled. “Well, who knows, maybe it is. I don’t know how this works, but I’m really here.”
His eyes grew, and soon he was shaking, tears leaving his eyes as he pulled her into a bear hug. “Ash!”
“Ugh,” Ashley gasped. “Hey … still—still a girl,” she gasped.
“Oh, I’m so sorry,” he quickly released his death grip.
Coughing a few times, Ashley smiled at him, cheeks wet. Taking a deep breath, she hugged him, face flushed; his arms returning the gesture. “I missed…” She began to break down. They fell atop the bed with cries and shakes, quivering in each other’s arms for several minutes.
Brandon’s voice caught. “What—what happened?”
“I can’t…” Ashley whispered. “I just—I can’t…”
Inari turned toward them, tone soft. “I can speed up that explanation. My name is Inari, the same goddess mentioned in Japanese culture. I can give you all of your wife’s experiences; her emotions, her thoughts, everything since she disappeared, but it will be quite powerful. Since it is for such an extended period, I will lighten the burden, and I can do the same for you, Ashley.”
“Please,” Brandon began to say, but Ashley cut him off.
“What’s the … I see. Okay, I accept that.”
Sora’s brow furrowed. Wait, did you tell her something? How? I didn’t feel you use my power.
Her aunt’s giggling tone entered her mind. “Some things are so subtle you don’t have the experience to detect, dear.”
Why couldn’t you just say it out loud?
“You could read her mind if you really wish to know.”
Sora repressed a growl. You know I don’t want to invade her privacy if I can help it…
Her tone was amused. “That’s your choice.”
You’re so crafty…
She watched Inari hold up her hands and use her magic; lights began to appear above her hand before condensing into two small glints of white light. They both moved to Ashley and Brandon, and they took them in their hand. They both stiffened in shock before their hands intertwined. Without words, they looked at each other with pain and love in their eyes.
“So, what is your decision?” Inari questioned.
Brandon licked his lips before turning to Sora and then Inari. “Thank you—thank you for taking care of my wife and—and giving me this chance. If it means being with my wife, then I’d happily move, but I’m concerned about the children.”
He turned to his wife. “Ash, do you think this Vulpes Realm will be a safe place for our kids?”
Ashley was silent a moment, emotions conflicted. “Mhh, no, it won’t be completely safe, but—I’m sure we can forge a safe environment—you know what I mean.”
Sora frowned at her response and Brandon’s nod. I know they’re thinking about me … what’s this have to do with me, Aunt Inari? The sacrifice? I don’t understand.
“Do you want me to tell you what sacrifice Ashley and Brandon have made to be reunited?”
“Well, then ask them. See if they’re comfortable discussing it.”
Growling, Sora glared at her aunt. Is it something I won’t like? You’ve been super open until now. Turning to Ashley, Sora asked, “I know my aunt asked you to sacrifice something, and it has to do with me somehow. What deal did you make?”
Brandon smiled, gripping Ashley’s hand. “Nothing that’s not worth being a family again.”
“That doesn’t tell me anything!” She huffed.
“Basically, to treat you like our own daughter,” Ashley said with a warm smile.
Sora pursed her lips. “Something tells me there’s more to it than that, but okay…”
Inari hummed, turning to Sora; her lips were curved into a slight smile. “Sora, I think we are finished with Ashley’s trial.”
Her left fox ear twitched with irritation; scratching it, she sighed. “First, what about Cedric and Josie? If they’re going to be a family, then when will they come to the Vulpes Realm?”
Ashley cleared her throat. “I will need your help, Sora. Tomorrow morning, can we go to the gate and get them. Inari will be sending someone to pick them up and bring them to the gate … Cedric and Josie will love this; it’ll be like a fairytale to them. They’ll love you.”
Sora bit her lower lip. Wait, so you are bringing them to the Vulpes Realm? We’re in a pretty volatile position right now though … is that okay?
“Decisions, Sora. We all make decisions. You must respect theirs as much as they respect yours. They’ve earned that, have they not?”
What about Brandon? His Intelligence?
“He just needs to enter his body; I’ve already given him the information.”
Sora huffed. “This is so complicated…” With that, she prompted their copies to return.
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