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Kari thought on her mother’s words, but the next thing out of Alva’s mouth felt like Eyia’s cold aura running down her spine.
“Kari, not much time as past outside, and it would do you good to return. Observe the town, seek to understand how you want to live.”
“No, I don’t want to leave,” Kari whispered; she pressed against her mother’s arm, the smooth, warm sensation it left against her skin, causing her to tense. All she wanted was to snuggle next to her mother forever.
“Kari … I’m not leaving you, but you do need to function in the outside world. You’re not a lost cause; believe in Sora.”
“I don’t—how do you become a good friend? You need to stay—teach me,” Kari’s nose burned slightly. “I’m too good at messing everything up.”
“My little pup,” her mother sighed. “We both know you wouldn’t survive out there in the world alone; as much as it pains me to say it, you’re too broken. You can mend, given time, and Sora can help.”
“You—really think I can?”
“Of course, now, go out and take in what you see. Just walk around; you don’t need to have a destination.” Her mother’s delicate hands tightened around her arm as the vision faded.
“Mom!” She shouted, but the heat against her arm didn’t fade as the image of the kitchen returned, water running into the pipe from the facet before her.
She swallowed as her mother’s voice returned in her mind, Alva’s warm touch sliding down her arm to wrap her hand with invisible fingers. “I’m right here, Kari.”
I … you promise?
Taking a deep breath, she did a quick glance around the room before lifting her hand to touch her cheek; her wet cheeks were gone.
“I cleaned you up; if you went out red-faced with tears running out of your eyes, then Sora would never let you go unaccompanied.”
I … need to go alone?
“You have me, and Inari … her privacy statement does not extend beyond our first reunion. Foxes are tricky; she’s listening.” Alva sighed. “Isn’t that right?”
Inari’s amused giggle echoed in her mind. “This will be fun, Alva. It has been entertaining, dealing with creatures that don’t know me that well. My little darlings are so cute, but so naive. I’ve been doing my best to prepare them; however, I knew Kari had her part to play, and you’d be needed.”
After a moment’s hesitation, Kari finished scrubbing the dish and set it on the drying rack. I remember you telling me a story about Inari. Basically, she’s really sly and could have planned every action or be completely chaotic without a plan at all.
Inari’s charm was nearly palpable. “The tale of Nyx and I … what a story, but you left ages of details regarding that incident. How rude to only describe me, but I suppose it would bring up bad memories, and it does illustrate my nature shockingly well.”
Alva cleared her throat as Kari prepared to walk out of the room, finding Inari and Alva’s discussion more than sufficient to distract her from what was on her mind.
“The Primordials always are a sour topic for Founders.”
“Yes, well, I would rather not concern our little pups with such things; they have enough to worry about. Kari has an important part to play in Sora’s potential development.”
What part is that? Kari walked out of the kitchen, making her way toward the door as she listened, kept her eyes low.
“Bye,” Sora called out to her.
She looked up, adding a forced smile; no words came to mind with the two Founders deep in their own past reflections in her head. Aiden seemed shockingly focused on his plate; he didn’t even seem to realize she was leaving. Opening the door, she went outside, still listening to the odd conversation happening inside her head.
Her mother responded. “Inari is preparing Sora and her group for a great many confrontations; mental, spiritual, and physical battles are ahead of you. Inari gave me some information, but not all that much time has passed since I died. I can put together my own image of the strings of fate. Some of Inari’s decisions are questionable to me, and I suspect Mia would disapprove of many.”
“If she disapproves, then she’d give me a piece of her mind.”
“Unless she couldn’t,” Alva interjected.
“That is also a possibility with my prods; I’d love to give my sister my own thoughts on her decision to keep me in the dark, but she is currently not responding to my requests for a meeting … which is odd. There’s no doubt she knows her daughter has made contact with me.”
“That is odd … last I heard she was speaking with The Herald of Sakura, which isn’t surprising, given your family’s past with the creature.”
“Yes, The Herald … she’s as tight-lipped as she was during the war … no side fully trusting her.”
“Her part in ending that conflict was instrumental, though. Are you sure Mia would want you to advance Sora’s growth to this extent? It could harm … ah, so he’s involved. That makes a lot more sense.”
Inari’s tone turned inquisitive. “He is … which adds so many players to the mix; he’s connected to everyone in some fashion, and of course, my sister would be wearing a frown; our methods are vastly different. She’s much more heavy-handed, always has been.”
“It depends on the circumstances; I recall your confrontations with Hyperion.”
“Well … that was during times of war; I was a lot younger, then. If I recall correctly, you temporarily lost one of your legs in that battle. It wasn’t the time to be subtle.”
“Times have changed,” Alva sighed. “What would my father have thought of this age of non-aggression?”
“Fenrir … there was a reason he was chained; you weren’t privy to that particular conversation. The First Generation might not have liked it, but even Fenrir himself understood. Poor Nilly, she was fairly close to your old-man.”
Alva’s released an annoyed growl. “I was never too fond of the cat Founder; Nilly was the worst.”
“Hehe, well, she did pull a lot of his attention away from you and your siblings. Even my mother was never sure what that cat’s plans were … we were all shocked by her sacrifice. I’m even more mystified by my sister’s connection to the Nekomata Faction; I’ve looked into it, but it just keeps getting more puzzling … exciting, really.”
“I see … with how she’s been connected to Sora, it makes sense you’d want to confront Nilly directly,” Alva mumbled. “Does Gloria know anything?”
“Please … that Fairy is even more tight-lipped than The Herald. You should have seen them playing footsy with one another; some people never change.” She sighed. “The number of creatures that could give her trouble could be counted on one hand, though. Excluding her irrational family.”
Alva’s tone turned serious. “You went to see Nilly yourself, which means…”
“Yes, I saw your brother; was your brother always so handsome? I don’t recall Sköll having such a chiseled chin; the light flecks of white in his fur seem more alluring to me for some reason since the last time I saw him. By the way, I beat him in a show of strength during one of our Founder competitions; he pursued me for millennia after … I only alleviated myself of the guy after collapsing a dark dimension on his head. What a time…”
Her mother made a gagging sound. “Are you trying to make me vomit?”
“C’mon, we both know I caught more than your brothers’ eyes. It can be exhausting … so many suitors to reject. The time it wastes…”
“You lived for the attention,” Alva growled.
“Well, if it comes to me, then why shouldn’t I revel in it?”
“My brothers, though…”
“What can I say? They always had a certain charm about them, one of the few traits they inherited from your father. Ugh … you reminded me about Fenrir and my mother.” Inari groaned. “One particular banter session is playing in my mind … make it stop…” She moaned.
“Oh? I rather enjoyed your mother when she’d come over. She always brought out the best in my father.”
“Alright, let’s move on from that … you’ll make me gag. Your second older brother has grown quite impatient over the years; it truly is a sad sight to see family fracture like yours. I spoke with Nilly while she was keeping him locked in a spatial loop, hilarious, really … the words he was spewing. Nilly’s certainly something, but being on the higher spectrum of First Generation Founders, she better be … even if she’s not fully there.”
“What were your examinations on Githa’s participation? Could she become a threat?”
Inari hummed prudently. “That really depends on Nilly’s goals … the Nekomata Faction in itself is like an extension of Nilly’s will. The more I discover about my sister’s network around Sora … the more concerned I get. I’m playing catch-up.”
“Which is why you’ve been making such bold moves. Hikaru makes your position difficult, though, and if Beelzebub is backing him, then he could become a real obstacle. I’m sure your sister didn’t plan for demons or Hikaru catching wind of Sora and, by extension, my daughter.”
Inari went silent for a moment. “I’d rather drop that topic,” her tone held a touch of discomfort. “Thank you for the talk, Alva. I have other things to ponder.”
Kari’s brow furrowed as she absently stared around the town; there were groups of people moving to large houses, and she could hear Vulpes giving directions inside, preparing to start today’s harvest. Every person wore the same grayish plain clothing and content expressions she’d come to expect.
She continued to roam, mind now working with Inari’s disappearance; it felt comforting, listening to her mother’s voice posing questions, and slightly humorous to hear them banter. I didn’t think that fox could shut up. I know about Bathin and his demons, but who’s this Hikaru?
Alva sighed, tone heavy. “Something that Inari would rather not talk about; my child, you have many regrets, and so do I. What I can say, Hikaru is one of Inari’s greatest heartbreaks. He may be a problem in the future, but that is an opponent that Githa would not be able to repel.
“It took Inari positioning multiple Kitsune around hundreds of realms to bring Ashley’s family here safely, and ultimately using Qebhet to counter him. In terms of raw power, he easily defeats the girl, but in attribute, he is at a severe disadvantage. Qebhet is a unique creature, powerful if used properly, and she has been taught by one of the best.
“Needless to say, Inari is working tirelessly on that problem. He is not someone you need to concern yourself with.”
If he’s after Sora … I feel like I should know.
“If it would help, then I would tell you; however, knowing would bring more pain, confusion, and hamper potential future outcomes. Inari must tread carefully with Hikaru, and if she must be careful … Inari slew a First Generation Founder. Her … obsession is legendary. She will find a way to deal with Hikaru.”
I guess. Kari sighed, but a soft smile touched her lips. It’s just really nice to talk to you again. When can we see each other … like before?
Her mother’s tone was soft. “When you ask Sora to teach you the Outer Body Technique. You won’t be alone; Emilia, Jin, and Eyia wish to learn more about it.”
A lump dropped down her throat. Eyia … couldn’t you teach me?
“Of course, however, learning it from Sora will accomplish several goals that I want to be achieved as your mother.”
Kari rubbed her left arm, lips pursing as she made it to the edge of town, staring out at the tree fields. I’d rather you teach me.
“I know … you’re embarrassed and scared of messing up Eyia and Sora’s relationship.”
I … I mean, I haven’t really … Sora’s seen a part of me … it is kind of embarrassing. I don’t want to bother her, too … everyone wants a piece of her.
“Don’t lie to me; you want to spend more time with her. You’re conflicted with how the others will see her if she spends time with you. Inari told you to put some faith in the girl. If there’s one thing she’s surprisingly proficient in, it’s getting people to work together. She has a rare aura, shaped by her desires; however, there are always drawbacks.”
Kari scratched her neck, hair tickling it; her eyes scanned the area, like Inari, trying to avoid the conversation. Alright, what should I be doing here, then?
Her mother went silent as she stopped beside a rock; many humans and Vuulpes were funneling out of the town, all glancing her way. Still expecting an answer, Kari sat down, crossing her legs before staring down at her clothes.
I can’t believe Sora made me clothes … is there anything I can do for her? I mean, she’s getting more used to her magic … she’s even going to teach … well, if she wants to show me it. She could be too busy … it’d be nice to see mom whenever I wanted, though.
The rising sun was burning away the morning chill. There were only a few puffy white clouds moved across the sky, the wind blowing them toward the towering mountains and away from town. The citrus scent of the fields and the soap the townsfolk used to wash their bodies carried to her along the breeze.
Her amber eyes darted to a man in his mid-twenties as he approached her. Great, what does this guy want?
“Hey, my name’s Galian. I heard that we had some visitors; you wouldn’t happen to be one of Goddess Sora’s apostles?”
“Apostles?” Kari repeated, lifting an eyebrow. “Sora doesn’t have any apostles.”
The man’s brow creased. “I—don’t understand. Is there another word for her messengers? Fen, her herald, announced the arrival of the grand goddess, the Founder, Sora. She is giving us new instructions on what we should do with our lives.”
Kari sucked on the roof of her mouth as her focus moved between a few parties that seemed to have heard her response. Fen … that Huli jing that was causing Sora trouble. She wasn’t in the house with them, and she wasn’t there for breakfast. What happened to her?
She leaned back, studying the man as he waited for her response. I can’t sense any Huli jing magic on him. He actually believes Sora’s some supreme being, come here to lead them toward something grand. There’s no way she’d be wrapped up in something like that. I haven’t heard her say anything about it, either. If she’s causing Sora more trouble … with everything that’s on her plate…
A bright smile touched Kari’s lips. “Please, tell me everything Fen told you. Sora needs to hear exactly what she’s been saying.”
The humans looked around at each other with relieved expressions. The first man bowed, making Kari’s smile falter as he explained.
“The great herald has gone on a pilgrimage for her holiness; it is supposed to be kept a close secret,” he whispered, glancing back at the other humans while leaning in closer. “I am a part of the Inner Brotherhood; the herald has opened our eyes to The Council’s lies.”
Kari licked her lips before biting the lower edges. “That right?” She mumbled.
Fen’s starting a cult around Sora? What in the world’s going on? She may have been fairly intolerable, but to go from a mild annoyance to using Sora’s image as the face of some kind of rebellion … it’s only been a single day.
“Yes,” Galian said in a hushed tone. “The herald has gone to other towns to bring more to our numbers. We are proliferating … a word the herald taught us; the high-tails are our enemies, but we’ve gathered a number of the single-tails. They have yet to be fully corrupted by The Council’s lies.”
Kari pursed her lips, clicking her tongue a few times. “Oh-boy … thanks for letting me know, Galian, right?” At his nod, she continued. “Right—I’ll talk to her … holiness, and I’ll probably be seeing you again sometime today. We have a lot to discuss.”
Galian crossed his left hand across his chest, folding his three middle fingers together while extending his thumb and picky in some kind of sign. “I await to be of service!” He said, obviously not understanding what real secrecy meant.
Kari reluctantly mirrored the gesture. “Great … we have secret codes.”
She watched them leave back to their duties, laughing and talking in hushed tones with one another about some kind of grand vision granted to them by Fen.
What’s going on? How did she become some preacher spreading the gospel of Sora around in a single day? She’s spreading anti-council propaganda and having her converts bring in more followers. It’s catching on like wildfire, too … how? Mom, do you know?
“This would be something best discussed with Sora.”
I don’t want to bother her, though … she’s going to help Ashley with her family.
“Yes, she is outside of town at the moment. What will you do in the meantime?”
Kari’s knees pressed together as she stared down at the dirt, shifting her feet against each other.
“I suppose I should rephrase that,” her mother said in a bright tone. “What would you do in this kind of situation?”
Kari’s brow set as she looked after the men. Get down to the root of the problem; see how far this cult has spread. Fen’s left the town, but she’s left people she’s confident can continue spreading the word.
They’re like sheep; I need to find the shepherds. The ones that were first converted by Fen. Galian seems to be a major player. He walked right up to me without showing any hint of fear. I can be useful to Sora by getting all the facts by the time she gets back.
If Fen’s sent multiple people to different towns to continue spreading whatever beliefs they’re preaching … this could be disastrous for Sora’s image with The Council. Does Fen know what she’s done? I won’t know just how bad the damage is until I discuss what I found out.
“There you go,” Alva chimed. “You’re worried about Sora and looking for ways to ease her burden. You’re doing what friends do.”
Kari took a deep breath. We’ll see how well I do…
She cut off as a man dropped down beside her; her skin bristled at his entrance. She glanced over at the man with a questioning look; she couldn’t sense him. He had no scent, no spiritual presence, yet appeared entirely ordinary, handsome, but ordinary.
He was thin but muscular; his light scruff suited his face well, and thick light brown hair curled slightly at the edges as if he’d been wearing a hat. It was pulled back to clear his forehead, but was loosely combed; it was as if he’d just woken up, pulled his hair back and went on his way.
His face was something outside of a movie, chiseled by a master sculptor before being put through dozens of CGI filters, and she swore his light brown eyes could penetrate her spiritual defenses with ease.
The man couldn’t have been more than twenty-eight, and the wrinkles at the edges of his eyes creased as his smooth lips lifted into a perfect smile, showing glossy straight teeth. “Why, hello, Kari. How are you? Oh, my name’s Frank, by the way. Quite an interesting turn around from where you were a few weeks ago.”
Kari was a little lost with how to respond, but her mother held no reservations. “Frankenstein! I was wondering when you’d show up.”
“How clever,” Inari mused. “So, my suspicions were right … you appeared to my niece the day before her change; you had a hand in my sister’s pregnancy. Appearing again in that form means you want to convey something to us.”
“Ladies,” Frankenstein chuckled, his tone low and rich. “It has been quite some time. Well, I suppose I never dealt with either of you directly, more your parents.”
Kari noticed that not a single person looked their way; it was as if they were now invisible. She swallowed, feeling slightly nervous with Inari and her mother’s reactions to this newcomer; if he dealt with her grandfather, then he was not someone to be trifled with.
Clearing her throat, Kari asked, “Frankenstein … as in, the human legend of Frankenstein?”
His smile grew. “Ah, yes, Mary Shelley was a lovely young woman, destined for misery, but she had an interesting mind. I met her before her summer interval in Geneva, Switzerland, where she’d come up with the riveting story to shock generations; I may have added bits and pieces of my own life here and there. She was great company, intelligent. The moral qualms of the tale painted quite the picture.”
“So, the anticipation is killing me,” Inari breathed. “What brings the likes of you here? The Herald of Sakura is watching.”
“She is, but the girl could never see me unless I willed it. This conversation is for your Intelligences alone; I needed to see about your cute little daughter, too, Alva. She’s growing quite beautifully.”
“Fascinating,” Inari hummed. “I didn’t know you were acquainted, Alva.”
“No, not to your knowledge,” Frankenstein replied with an innocent smile.
“I … don’t get it,” Kari mumbled. “What’s going on, mom?”
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