Sora frowned as she exited the portal, arm around Gurakuqi; the Vulpes still seemed to be in utter shock. Ashley and Brandon were holding hands a few meters ahead of them; Cedric and Josie were holding tight to Ashley’s dress, glancing around at the dazzling room.
“Look! Look!” Josie pointed at the murals, tugging on her mom’s dress. “It’s like the super old city! Toto pressed that red crystal, and it opened a wall; can I, can I?”
“This is—is this real, mom?” Cedric whispered.
Ashley giggled. “Yes, dears, this is real.”
“You said that about Santa…” He cut off, tensing as he caught sight of Eyia.
Patting Cedric’s head, Ashley said, “Guys, this is Eyia.”
Eyia was by the wall; it looked like she’d been studying several smaller murals that appeared to tell a story. She turned as Ashley ushered her kids forward, and the Valkyrie added a bright smile; Josie was the first to take a step.
“Salutations,” Eyia called out, waving welcomingly.
“Cedric, Cedric,” Josie whispered as she slowly scooted forward, “that’s Charlit’s Web!”
“Yeah—no, it’s Charlotte’s Web—not Charlit’s…” He mumbled shyly, flipping around his mom’s hands to hide behind her dress.
Josie didn’t seem frightened in the least; she glanced up at her mother’s encouraging smile before running forward. “You’re so big! Bigger than my dad!”
Eyia knelt with a light giggle. “Yes, Asgardians tend to be of great stature; you humans are the small ones.”
“Humans—I’m a human! I’m tough, too!” Josie huffed, puffing out her chest and flexing her non-existent bicep. “I help my dad with his push-thingys.”
“I’m sure you do,” Eyia said. “You want to be tougher? You want to fight a Troll?”
Josie’s mouth dropped open. “I can fight a Troll, like Gomi?”
“I do not know this Gomi.”
“Uh,” Brandon forced a chuckle. “I don’t know, Jos.”
Ashley’s smile was forced. “At least not right now, Josie … maybe in a few years.”
“Seriously?” Brandon leaned in, whispering in his wife’s ear, but all she could do was give a weak shrug.
Eyia chuckled as she rose to her feet, making Josie step back to look up at her. “I slew my first Troll when I was around her age with this knife.”
A bright light appeared in her hands to reveal a magnificent red dagger; the red blade emitted waves of heat, and the ornate black metal handle was engraved with precious looking gems.
“I stole it off Dothaed, the mad Dwarf, during his drunken stupors; he enjoyed making his home brews … Dwarven Ale isn’t that great tasting,” she chuckled fondly. Leaning forward, she presented the weapon to the five-year-old girl. “I can show you how…”
“Umm, Eyia,” Ashley hurried over to Josie; the girl was wide-eyed and ready to accept the gift. “My kids haven’t been—umm, trained by a god since before they could even walk, Eyia … maybe we should start with sticks … not magical fire knives.”
“I see—yes,” Eyia muttered, rising again to cup her chin with her free hand, “without training, it would be quite dangerous for her. I suppose I forgot that human children do not slay Trolls as a rite of training.”
“You can tell us the story later,” Brandon said, forcing a laugh; he hugged Josie as Ashley guided her back.
“I would enjoy that,” Eyia innocently nodded.
“Sounds good,” Ashley sighed.
“What happened beyond the gate, sister?” Eyia asked, turning to face her, vision sliding to Gurakuqi; she was staring off into space, seemingly checked out of reality. “Any trouble? It seems as if you are tense.”
Licking her lips as everyone turned to look at her, Sora nodded. “Yes, actually—Bathin was there with some male Kitsune … a Kitsune that seems to hate my aunt.”
Eyia’s demeanor darkened. “You are unharmed?”
“Yes, my aunt sent Qebhet to make sure we were safe.”
“The daughter of Anubis that Mary spoke of? I suppose there is nothing to worry about, then.” Her features brightened.
“You looked scary, like Florina—when she gets mad at Bonnie,” Josie stated, looking up at the warrior with fascination.
Ashley cleared her throat. “Yes, Josie, Brandon, Cedric, let me explain a bit about—all of this.”
She took some time with them, talking about each of their members and a bit about their personalities. Both children seemed enthralled by the tales her mother was weaving, and Eyia went back to studying the paintings, Sora guiding Gurakuqi to join her.
After a few seconds of silence, Sora shot a worried glance at Mimi’s Assistant; her gray and white-tipped ears and tails were limp. “Gurakuqi … are you okay?”
Eyia’s cheeks bunched to the side as she glanced at the fox. “She has a new aura surrounding her that is quite serene; it prevents me from reading her Core.”
Sora nodded. “Qebhet healed the damage to—well, I think everything and more … more than what I did for Alice and Liz.”
Gurakuqi blinked her eyes a few times, and Sora realized that they’d changed from a clouded yellow to an ocean blue. “Sora,” she paused, hand pressed against her chest. “Everything … I don’t know how to explain it … everything’s—changed. What did—what’s happening to me?”
“Umm … to be honest, I don’t know exactly what Qebhet did; I know a little—do you want me to explain?”
There was no panic in Gurakuqi’s voice or expression; she just seemed a little puzzled. “I’d like to know.”
“Alright,” Sora gave Eyia a forced grin. “I’ll talk to her while you look around; could you show me what you found when I’m done?”
“Of course,” Eyia chimed.
Nodding her head toward the steps to the Red Gate, Sora said, “Why don’t we sit down.”
Gurakuqi followed her over, sitting beside her; her clear eyes waited for an explanation. Sora took some time to collect herself, running her hand through her hair to pull it back.
“I think—I think I need to be completely honest with you, Gurakuqi … where should I even begin?”
“Could you start with what was wrong with me?”
“What’s wrong with you,” Sora repeated. “Okay … so, there’s this—curse, kind of like a spell that’s attached to your genetics … well, everyone in this Realm that we’ve seen has it.”
“Yes, and it does a lot of—bad things. It makes you conform … subdues your rebellious urges. Essentially, it makes you all slaves to whatever you’re told, and—well, it seems like the ones that give the orders are the Vulpes Council. So—it stands to reason that they’d be part of it.”
“I see,” Gurakuqi whispered, glancing back at the Red Gate. “It’s a lot to take in … I’ll have to think about that. What about Qebhet; that was her name?”
“Eh—yeah. What do you want to know?”
“I don’t understand what happened on the other side—there’s so much I don’t understand. Yet—this feeling in my chest … I feel so light. When I looked at her—all I felt was peace. I knew everything would be alright.”
“I honestly don’t know a whole lot about Qebhet, but she’s like—a guardian goddess.”
Sora shifted her tails a little, rubbing her left ear for a moment. “Umm—Qebhet loves—she’s like a being of tranquility. Her presence promotes harmony; she washes away impurities and protects those given to her from outside threats.”
Gurakuqi’s tails moved to her left as she shifted to get a better angle to face her. “Given to her?”
“Gods and goddesses on the other side of the gate—there are times that they protect and guide humans and other creatures.”
“Like your aunt?”
“Yes—she’s told me she has many realms with humans on them; I mean—I don’t know everything about that. I’m sure it can get complicated.” Sora took a long breath, playing with a lock of hair. “I guess I really don’t know much at all. There are powerful monsters, gods, goddesses … everything in between.
“Reality is a lot messier than I thought it was—there’s so much to think about. I used to think things were black and white, but after everything I’ve seen … it’s not so simple. I can’t say if this genetic spell is a bad thing or not … well, I suppose at this point it is since it’s killing all of you. See? I’m so conflicted.” She groaned.
Gurakuqi’s eyes fell to the marble floor. “You’re trying to help us?”
“Trying,” Sora sighed, falling back; she laid against the stairs, staring up at the diamond speckled ceiling. “I don’t know if I’m doing more harm than good. My aunt mentioned something about that; it’s hard to improve a functioning system, and you’re more than likely to do harm. Is it worth the possible damage?” She whispered.
Sora’s eyes darted to the side as Gurakuqi’s lips curved into a soft smile.
“I don’t know how difficult these thoughts of yours are; I just can’t comprehend them, but what I do feel is … you’re trying. I think you should explain everything to Mimi … think about it a bit more. Mimi … I don’t feel the need to even use her title; I suppose that must have been something cleansed from me. How odd.” She mumbled.
“Anyways, that’s the only thing that came to mind. Mimi tries so hard; she’s really the best Head Supervisor we could have asked for. It might be this—curse—that you mentioned, but she’s been feeling ill. This has never happened in the eighty years I have known her.”
“Eighty years … that’s a long time,” Sora said, flipping out her hair before resting her head against the cold stairs.
“It doesn’t feel that long,” Gurakuqi whispered, watching her three flicking tails as they weaved in front of her. “I was selected to assist her in the expectation that I would become a Head Supervisor myself once I received my fourth tail. I feel like what you said before, to be honest. What does that mean? I feel like it applies somehow.”
“It means you’re not lying or saying something that you’re reluctant to say.”
“I think I understand … to be honest, I never felt comfortable fulfilling that role. I was always … reluctant. I’m more than happy to support Mimi for…” She paused, chuckling softly. “It feels so strange saying that.”
Sora licked her lips, closing her eyes. “I can’t imagine that … you’ve done nothing but support Mimi for eighty years, and you’d be fine doing that the rest of your life?”
They both turned as Ashley called out to them. “We’re going to go to one of the side rooms to sit down.”
“Okay,” she waved them off. “Raise your voice a bit and tell me when you’re ready to head back.”
Returning her focus to Gurakuqi, Sora supported the back of her head with her hands. “I … just realized something.”
“Realized what?” Gurakuqi asked, tone completely calm; her eyes were closed as she leaned back to join her, resting against the steps.
“The difference between what I did with Liz and Alice and what Qebhet did to you.”
“Oh, you released the spell on Alice and Liz?”
“Yes … they took it very differently; it was very overwhelming to them. They’re still sorting through everything; well, Alice is conflicted about a lot of things while I think Liz is just going into lazy braindead mode.”
“Lazy braindead mode?”
“Like—she just doesn’t want to think about anything and just put it off for later. With you, though—Qebhet infused your spirit with peace to help you transition. You’re free to think and act for yourself, and all your past experiences are synchronizing instead of clashing—like with Alice and Liz.”
“There’s a lot of questions I have,” Gurakuqi whispered before giggling. “I don’t know why, but the image of a slow-moving brook comes to mind. I’ve always been too focused on work and the pressure to live up to Mimi’s image, but at this moment, I just want to watch a brook.
“It sounds so foreign to say it … to be the one that says it. It’s a waste of time, but it feels so right. How would you describe this image in my mind?”
Sora smiled as her own mind fell into step. Taking a deep breath, she smelled the scent of the forest as she spun the magic around them.
Gurakuqi breathed in, opening her eyes; their environment had changed. They leaned against a large curved rock in the middle of a brightly lit forest; the sun’s rays broke through the trees to warm their skin as the soft sound of a stream moved across stones below them.
“How … magical,” Gurakuqi whispered, shifting to take in the beautiful landscape before settling back against the rock and closing her eyes. “I can hear the chirping insects, birds, and soft movements of animals around us.”
They laid in silence for several minutes, listening to the sound of nature.
Sora’s words almost came out in a whisper to not break the serenity flowing through them. “I’ve needed time to rest like this; it’s healing.”
“It does feel healing … why is that?”
“Letting everything flow by while you stand still—it helps to clear out the stress in your heart. You’ve never taken a break, have you?”
“A break from work? No—never.”
“Letting go of all the stress is nice … you should relax a bit more; take some time and soak it in, Gurakuqi. Just tell me when you’re ready to head back. We’ll stay as long as you like.”
“Thank you, Sora … this feels like a blessing.”
She fell silent after settling herself down across the stairs, tails lying flat against the steps.
Sora rose and exited the magical weave, continuing to feed magic into it as she moved to join Eyia.
The Valkyrie smiled at her as she moved to join her. “You have done a great many amazing things, sister.”
“What do you mean?” Sora asked, standing beside her while staring up at the walls.
“You have changed Jin’s view on Vulpes and helped so many creatures without so much as a desire for recompense.”
“I guess—I don’t know why, but I just do what I think is right. I’m not trying to be a hero … everything’s changed, and it’s so—so out of control. Doing good things just makes it—bearable.”
Her thoughts turned to Hikaru’s final statement. “Eyia…”
“Hmm,” Eyia folded her arms as she followed a story written across the wall, walking along the edge.
“Do you know anything about Kitsune that don’t serve my aunt?”
“My knowledge of Kitsune and Inari are sparse. I only know what my father has told me, and much of it relates to the aid she lent him. I was warned to be wary of Vulpes, but my father respected the Kitsune. I know nothing of a faction of Kitsune that is separated from your aunt. Perhaps Jin would know.”
“I see—yeah, Jin probably does,” Sora sighed. “My aunt told me it was wrong to think all Vulpes were female, but seeing a male Vulpes just … it kind of shocked me—then to find out he hates my aunt. I didn’t think any Kitsune hated my aunt.”
“I was unaware of male Vulpes myself.” Eyia sounded distracted as she moved further back, glancing back the way they’d come.
Scratching her left ear, Sora followed her gaze. “Figure anything out?”
“It is odd … do you wish me to explain?”
“Yes, please; I mean, Ashley’s got a long story to tell her family and Gurakuqi’s adapting to her freedom.” Sora returned her focus to the images with Eyia. “It looks like there’s a ton of stories engraved here. I mean, they were probably done when this gate was being built, right?”
“That is possible,” Eyia replied, motioning for her to follow her to the left side again. “You see these seven Vulpes with different gemstones for their tails?”
“Yeah, that’s probably the Vulpes Council.”
“Perhaps,” Eyia trailed off, stepping back to look at the multiple depictions across the wall. She was silent for a moment, causing Sora to scan the images more closely.
The far left of the wall started with the image of a bright blue crystal with seven Vulpes around it; each Vulpes had red tails. “Nogitsune,” Sora whispered, walking back to the spot.
“It looks like in the beginning; there were seven Nogistune that surrounded this massive blue crystal.” She moved down a little. “The crystal’s glowing … probably indicating that the gem was used to change their tail colors. The big multi-colored moons were created, surrounding this planet … the sun was formed after the Earth? That’s pretty wild.
“The big blue crystal was broken up between them … they used the gem to form different parts of the world before coming together to make this massive city. The gate was created, bridging the worlds.”
Her ears twitched as she reached the end of the wall. “The seven all brought the blue crystal shards together again; it shines, and that’s the end.”
“The crystal,” Eyia whispered. “To create something such as this Realm—it would require a lot of power; they did not use their own. Where did they get it, and what about the measures taken to prevent others from entering? It was done by Fox Magic, but why?
“If we are to believe that this mountain and images were crafted with this portal, then it would have been done at this point,” she directed their attention to a particular image, “but all of this seems to have been done at the same time. There is something we do not understand by these images.”
“Well,” Sora paused, looking up at the gemstones representing the heavens across the ceiling. “There’s a lot fewer stars in the sky than what we see outside. I mean, I suppose that could be normal, but at the very least, a long time has passed. I think you’re right, though; there’s something fishy going on with this.
“The gate was open and used when this place was created, according to these images; it just makes too much sense. It seems like there was a massive influx of people, like Miami, this could have even been a tourist spot, but you’re right … something’s very off. Maybe there’s some kind of magical energy in it that can tell us more.”
Studying the magic surrounding them, she frowned. “I’ve never sensed anything like this…”
Eyia ran her hand across a section before them. “I sense a force, but I do not understand this magic. Can you?”
Sora sucked on her lower lip for a moment before shaking her head. “It feels similar to Fox Magic, but … I can’t put my finger on it. It’s familiar, but not … it’s too complicated for me to grasp. I’ll ask my…” Before she could complete the words, her aunt responded.
“I’m afraid I cannot be of help to you on this mystery.”
“Because this is an important step for your growth. Understanding the magic within this vault of knowledge will tell you when you’ve advanced to a sufficient degree for the next task.”
“To be decided.”
Of course, it’s to be decided … what about Hikaru?
“A … disappointment … not your concern. I will handle Hikaru.”
Sora sighed before letting out a light whimper, knowing she wasn’t going to get answers.
“Yeah, she said she can’t help me with this one, and won’t tell me about Hikaru; this is important for my growth or something.” She did a full take of the mural. “She called this a vault of knowledge, though … I guess it’s like a library. I need to understand how the magic works; so—I’ll be coming back here to study it more often.”
“Yes, I can see why the wise one would call this a vault of knowledge; although, her statement on growth should be highlighted. My father once told me that knowledge is worthless without application. From what I know of your aunt, she is quite keen on the utilization of teachings.
“Knowledge is not power; knowledge without understanding is folly. Understanding how to exercise knowledge one gains to accomplish a useful task is wisdom. Wisdom is power; wisdom allows you to achieve goals. There may be knowledge here, but that is not the part that will help you grow; it is but one piece of a whole.”
“Such a smart child.”
She’s right, then?
“Eyia recalls the teachings of her father; they are difficult to argue.”
We’re talking about magic … just knowing what type of magic’s around me. How do I use it to accomplish something?
“Function, Sora; learn its function. You may know what a car does, but do you understand how it works, how it functions? No, not entirely, yet you used them so often, or a computer. You find some random utensils you’ve never seen before in the kitchen and know nothing about it, but they have a sharp edge you can use.
“You can repurpose a car to do many things if you have the knowledge and understanding to connect processes. To what end you accomplish that utilization will determine if it was wise or not.
“You do not know what the Red Gate really is or how the magic functions, but you were able to find a way to make it work. It’s like starting a car and pressing the gas to make it move forward. There is far more to discover.
“You’ve identified strange magic around you. What do you know about it? Think about the standard questions, Sora, who, what, where, why, and how. There is much here, but how you use it will change depending on each of those questions.”
As cryptic as ever.
Sora puffed up her cheeks for a moment before letting out the air. “Alright, well, I think my aunt’s given me my next homework.”
She groaned, running her fingers up her hair before fanning it out across her back. “Let’s look around a bit. We’ll wait for Ashley and Gurakuqi, then head back. I still need to meet with Mimi … let her know about Gurakuqi, and there’s the Vulpes Kari wants me to look at.”
Eyia followed her toward the doorway, brow furrowed. “You are friends with the Wolf now? I was uncertain if you were joking—as Jin likes to say.”
“Yeah, we made up. We had a few run-ins, but that’s in the past—most the conflict came from her brother.”
“Yes, Eric was a rather unpleasant wolf,” Eyia sniffed. “Still, his sacrifice gave us sufficient time to mount a retreat. I do not fully understand how our relationship with him stands, but he did offer up his life.”
“Yeah … it’s a bit complicated with Eric and Kari; I am friends with Kari, though.” She forced a chuckle, glancing at a picture depicting Vulpes’ working fields.
Eyia doesn’t know anything about Eric’s past. I can’t believe how little she actually knows about the rest of the party. Is it wrong for me to keep all of it from her? She trusts me completely, but … but it could cause a lot of problems.
She already hates Fenris Wolves, but she’s disciplined enough to hold herself in check. Me telling Eyia that I’m friends with Kari must conflict with her feelings. Still, I can’t abandon Kari … ever. I’m basically the only rope she has left.
Sora groaned, flicking her tails reflexively, trying to ease her tension while stretching out her arms.
“Something wrong? You need not worry about me; if Kari truly sees you as her friend, then I will do my best to accept her. It might—take some time, but I will try to understand your feelings.”
“Thanks, Eyia, it really does mean a lot to me. I’m just—working through some thoughts.” Pulling her left arm to the side, she sighed. “Everyone’s finally getting along. I mean, everyone’s a bit leery of Kari, but she’s trying her hardest. There’s just so much on my plate … gah! Now I’m complaining.
“No—I’m happy I can help; it’s just so messy … yet—it’s nowhere near as complicated as my aunt made it sound like it’s going to get. Relationships are tough … I’m scared about Mimi.”
Eyia frowned, looking down at her for a moment; they continued down a pathway they hadn’t traveled, absently glancing into the rooms they passed.
“The Head Supervisor does not have the means to harm us; although, if you are concerned for the children, then I understand. We must be watchful to keep them safe with possible threats lurking within the shadows.”
“No, I wasn’t thinking about that … although, yeah, that’s worrying, too. Mimi and the others are victims of some magical genetic curse that we don’t know the origin of. The problem is that they’ll willingly accept help, but they don’t understand what they’re … holy crap…”
They both stopped, Eyia waiting for her to explain her revelation.
“What you said … what my aunt said … it links to … I hate it when this happens! It helps, though,” she moaned, folding down her hears. “I don’t even know if it’s my aunt’s doing, Aiden’s, or just coincidence, or my mother’s, gah! There are so many people with so many plans!”
“Did I do something wrong?” Eyia asked with concern.
“No, no,” Sora shook her head, pursing her lips. “My problem is with … how do I explain it? I mean, my aunt told me a story about Adam and Eve that helped explain it.”
“Adam … Eve?” Eyia questioned. “What is that?”
“I don’t think I can tell it that well … the tree gave understanding,” Sora mumbled. “Anyways, just knowing something doesn’t mean you understand it. If you told someone what murder was and they’d never experienced it in their society, then they’ll just blink blankly.
“I mean, they understand death, but someone taking another person’s life for malicious intent … they wouldn’t get it. They could learn and know about it, but not understand it.
“Alice and Liz knew that I said there was something wrong with them; the curse makes it easier for them to believe me. They accepted it, and when I asked if they wanted help, they were pushed to consent. That’s one of the weaknesses my aunt was talking about. They don’t even … they don’t even have a choice to become free … they’re … mmh!” She slid her fingers down the sides of her head.
“I’m conflicted,” Sora mumbled. “How do I decide … should I even talk to Mimi about this? Could I even talk to her about it without causing some disaster? I don’t know. I just—I don’t know…”
Her ears twitched as Ashley spoke up; her voice carried through the halls. “Sora, we’re done expl…” Josie’s high pitched voice carried above her mother’s.
“I want to see Githa! Cat-girl, cat-girl!”
Eyia swallowed, clearly a little frustrated that she didn’t understand her distress.
Rubbing her forehead, Sora took a calming breath. “I’m okay, Eyia … I just—need some time to think about this. Helping could cause trouble, and not helping them would cause trouble, but … it’s just tough thinking about the scale—I’m just a little overwhelmed. Let’s go let Ashley know that we’re waiting for Gurakuqi.”
What if I talk to Kari or Mary about this? Maybe they’ll have a different take on it.
They met up with Ashley and her family; Josie wanted to ride on Eyia’s shoulders, and she happily agreed, listening with fascination to the child’s complex lecture on why piggy-back rides were the next best invention since ice cream sandwiches.
Gurakuqi called out to her after three more minutes, and they made their way back; the Vulpes seemed to have found a peace in not knowing all the answers and just listened. She held a composure that Sora couldn’t help but feel jealous of; there was no telling what was on her mind as she observed the kids with a tranquil smile.
Brandon and Ashley held each other around the waist, taking their time as they silently examined their new environment; Cedric was on his dad’s shoulders, glaring at Josie every once in a while from her high vantage point.
Sora kept silent as she pondered her internal dilemma; she wanted to help, but the amount of work that it would require for Alice and Liz alone to integrate back into a stable condition was massive and would require a lot of attention.
She knew she couldn’t give them everything they needed herself. She thought about Qebhet’s method, but couldn’t think of a way to accomplish anything near the same effect on a single Vulpes, much less an entire planet. It felt like a hopeless struggle.
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