Sora took a deep breath as they entered the town. There were quite a few humans and Vulpes hauling carts of fruit, grain, and vegetables down the streets and empty carts moving the opposite direction. Sora recognized wheat, onions, carrots, tomatoes, and pears, but there were quite a few she didn’t have the vaguest idea about. There were a lot of booths set up with soup and bread around the area; people and Vulpes eating shortly at portable stations before returning to work.
Her lips pursed as she heard nearly everyone’s stomach growl at the sight of food. “Let’s first meet with Mimi and then we can deal with food.”
Mary nodded. “We wouldn’t want to break any customs or rules that we are unaware of.”
“Not even a little bit of food?” Fen pleaded.
Sora shook her head. “We need to be careful.”
Fen’s lips turned into a pout as they continued along the road. She resisted a sigh as Fen stealthily snatched a human’s bread bun when everyone’s attention diverted to members of their group. Fen tried to keep her theft hidden from her as she turned away to nibble at the loaf.
Certain members of their group were attracting a lot of attention. There were quite a few humans, mostly male; however, it seemed the ratio was seventy percent Vulpes, and twenty-five percent male human, five percent female. They all wore simple clothes, some were dyed, but most were simple gray and white.
She noticed there were mostly Vulpes walking around in a more leisurely manner. There wasn’t a clear distinction between hair color; there were gray, brown, orange, black, yellowish-tinted, and she even saw a silver-furred Vulpes, and there were all in many shades. It was clear that any shade of red was quite rare, but she’d only noticed one silver-furred woman that had been two-tailed. There were two or three pale pink and grayish-blue haired Vulpes that caught her eye. There were several that were two-trailed, none three or above. How can you identify the different races and their abilities like this … how are there so many different shades?
Focus returning to her surroundings with her stomach being quieted, Fen seemed to actually take notice of the Vulpes around her. “What’s—I can’t—this…” She seemed to be having a panic attack; the bread being crushed in her grip. “What happened here? This doesn’t make sense—what are they?”
The twins seemed puzzled by her reaction. “What do you mean? Wait—can you magically create bread?” Luna asked with awe.
“I’m a little curious myself,” Jian said, shocking Sora and a few members of the group.
“You actually have a voice?” Jin smirked in his direction. Her vision scanned the throng. “I must admit though, this is quite odd.”
“I agree,” Jian muttered. “The wide variety of shades is … troubling. What could have caused this?”
Luna cocked her head slightly as she walked backward. “Umm, I don’t get it. Is it bad to have a lot of different hair colors where you’re from?”
Rayla hummed, scrutinizing Sora. “Yeah, really, isn’t she the odd one? Her hair is such a pure color of red … I’ve never seen that before.”
Fen took a steadying breath, she looked a little dizzy. “No—it is this place that is odd. What are they? Really … what are they? In the human realm, Vulpes have very distinct color distinctions between races … here, I—where do I begin—it’s—wrong…” She shook her head before shamelessly returning to her bread. She’s a real piece of work … she tries to hid it at first and then once she’s discovered acts like nothing’s wrong … is that what I’d be like if Inari hadn’t helped me control my urges? I guess I did get a little testy with her earlier though … I lost control—she did have to make fun of my flirting though … was I flirting?
Trying to put the thought out of her mind, she enhanced her spiritual perception and looked at the Vulpes around them. There’s something odd about the varying shades … their spiritual network seems damaged. No wonder they have so few tails—could their spirit even sustain more? If they obtained a new tail, it could damage their spirit and kill them. The energy within the atmosphere around us is helping their spiritual network function, but many of these Vulpes probably couldn’t survive without this life support.
Clearing her throat, Sora whispered, “Jin, Eyia, do you see their spiritual networks?”
They both nodded. Eyia had a sad note in her voice. “Indeed, compared to the twins, they are of much weaker stock. Perhaps the twins were sent to the other side of the gate because of their resilience, in comparison to the population. The power is stronger here than in that waiting room.”
Jin hummed. “You could be right Eyia … I’ve noticed some bizarre things with language too.” Everyone but Kari moved in a little to listen.
“How so?” Eyia questioned, eyes scanning the crowd for signs of danger.
“Everyone is speaking a slightly different dialect of the same language, but it is being translated in real time. You are speaking in Asgardian, but it is being translated to this common speech everyone is speaking. I am speaking Draconic at the moment, but it is being interpreted as well. It feels, unusual … unnatural.”
Wendy frowned as she listened in. “Does that mean—there’s magic that’s affecting everyone, everywhere at the same time?”
Eyia nodded. “It appears that way. It would require a remarkably powerful individual or group to accomplish such a task.”
Jin licked her lips a bit nervously. “We’re talking about Founder level magic—universe warping level.”
Githa chuckled. “Mhm, mhm, that’s right! Very powerful magic is all over the place; shooting up from the ground and expanding into the sky.” She said while making an extravagant motion.
Brow creasing, both Eyia, and Jin quickly glanced at the floor before their eyes darted around the area. “You’re right,” Jin muttered. “It is flowing from the ground.”
Sora examined the current of energy around her and tracked it. “What does that mean?”
Githa giggled mischievously. “Something powerful is within the earth, fueling this dimension.”
The twin’s eyes lit at Githa’s explanation. “Really? It must be the Council’s power! They make everything happen!”
Kari smirked. “The sun is their handiwork too?”
“Yeah! It is!” The twins stated in unison.
“That makes me wonder something,” Nathan’s lips pursed for a moment. “How do you tell days in this dimension, and years for that matter?”
Rayla’s hands cupped the back of her neck. “Every three-hundred and sixty-five days the yearly harvest festival takes place … that’s happening in a few days. We judge days off the seven colors of the Council…”
Luna cut in. “In order: Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, and Violet! Today is Blue.” Fen just shook her head at the hair colors of the Council, seemingly in denial. She’d finished eating the bread.
Eyia’s brow furrowed. “Like the Bifrost?”
Githa seemed to turn into a cat while they weren’t looking and had leaped back onto Mary’s shoulders. “That’s what I thought! The rainbow bridge at Asgard; it’s the same colors. It’s so pretty.” She purred.
Sora’s attention was diverted as they entered a large square, a massive four-story stone building in front of them that appeared to be a gathering hall. Most of the Vulpes around them hurriedly moved away and gave them a wide berth, a few Vulpes near the opening, up the stone steps, darted inside once they saw their small party.
“This is where Mimi is,” Luna said cheerily.
Sora nodded. “Alright, let’s try not to cause any trouble; judging by the strength of the Vulpes we’ve seen, they are in a very delicate state. I think everyone we’ve seen so far would be killed if Githa released her spiritual energy … we don’t need a mass slaughter.”
Githa hummed. “Many of them are as weak as humans; they probably don’t taste good at all … they have no substance.”
Mary chuckled nervously. “Githa, could we not talk about how people taste … it could leave the wrong impression.”
“Really?” Githa questioned. “That’s so strange … I thought people would be happy to know they taste good.” Githa’s so unusual … I guess she comes from a world of Nekomata; they must have a very different culture.
Ascending the stairs toward the entrance, they walked through the large open doors; the interior was of a sizable hall that branched into a T, with closed wooden doors ahead of them. The interior was stone, and more decorations of paintings and a few statues were evenly placed along the walls. The floor was well polished.
The group paused as a gray three-tailed Vulpes met them; the rest of the hall was empty. “My name is Gurakuqi, chief assistant to the Area Supervisor. Mimi has heard of your arrival; if you could please accompany me to see her.”
Taking a deep breath, Sora initiated. “Thank you, Gurakuqi … I hope I didn’t slaughter the pronunciation. Thank you for guiding us.” She nodded without comment and turned to lead them. Luna and Rayla had grown quiet and reserved in Gurakuqi’s presence.
They were led down the left hall, passing multiple rooms with closed doors; bright red balls of fire lighting the building, and a few paintings were placed across the walls that were of notably less quality than the resplendent gate artworks. Moving up a few flights of stairs, they made it to the fourth floor, stopping in front of a half-open door. Pushing it in, Gurakuqi gestured for the group to enter.
Inside was a large room with a massive polished rectangular table; they were met by several Vulpes of varying colors, all but one had three tails. Mimi was standing at their center; the chairs in front of them pushed in. She had four puffy black tails and was dressed in a fitted simple long-sleeve blue dress. Her long hair was pulled back into a tight bun, and she seemed to have Asian characteristics, but there was a hint of something else mixed in.
Mimi and the Vulpes behind her watched them enter, expressions emotionless, but Sora could smell their apprehension. The three-tailed Vulpes’ spiritual network was nearly open, while Mimi’s was guarded by a weak mask; Sora could easily penetrate it and see their emotions. She can smell that we have non-Vulpes monsters and that we’re not frightened in the least … our ease is what’s putting fear in them.
Their escort circled the table to stand behind Mimi as she spoke. “I’ve heard about monsters entering the town … non-Vulpes. What is your business in the Vulpes Realm?” Her voice was slightly higher than Sora expected.
Fen scrutinized Mimi as they entered, ignoring her question. “She’s a four-tails? She seems so weak though.”
Sora breathed an exasperated sigh as she glared in Fen’s direction. “Seriously, Fen? We meet the leader over this area, and the first thing you do is insult her.” Wendy scooted in closer to her with the twins, her tails brushing against Wendy’s side.
She huffed. “Well, it’s true, isn’t it? You can probably do more than just smell their fear…” The twins moved closer together, sensing the foreboding atmosphere.
Aiden cut in. “That was uncalled for and extremely rude.”
“We need to calmly sit down and discuss our case,” Mary said.
Ashley nodded. “They were kind enough to guide us here; they obviously would like to hear what we have to say. We aren’t here to fight.”
“I agree,” Eyia stated. “We must present ourselves honorably.”
Fen chuckled. “Honorably? They can probably tell just by looking at Jian. He could lay waste to this entire place…”
Sora’s eyes widened as her fur bristled. Her vision shot toward Mimi and her group as time slowed around her; she watched their spiritual networks indicate they were about to attack, claws extending as they shifted to run around the table. They’re terrified, but Fen’s remark threatened the town … she’s trying to catch us off guard to prevent any casualties. Her gut tightened when she felt Eyia moving to counter Mimi, her cold atmosphere bursting forth.
“Stop!” Sora commanded, forcing her influence past Mimi and her Vulpes’ defenses.
Her breath caught as Skofnung’s heavy blade was held stationary inches from Mimi’s wrist, her clawed hand extended. They hadn’t been able to move a foot before Eyia had intercepted them. “What—I’m paralyzed…” Mimi’s tone quivered slightly as her vision locked on the blade as mist frothed down its length and over her arm.
Sora took a deep breath. “Eyia, it’s okay.”
Eyia’s intense glowing irises calmed as the sword vanished in a flash of light, the mist it bore fading. She walked back to her previous position by the wall without a word. Taking a deep breath, Sora noticed Fen’s smirk. She just loves causing me trouble!
Jin hummed with a small frown touching her lips. “That was a rash move, Mimi. You’re all lucky Sora froze you. If Eyia hadn’t sensed everything was under control—you’d all be cut into little pieces.”
Ashley, Nathan, and Mary sat in some chairs with heavy grunts. Nathan rubbed between his eyes tiredly. “Could this get any worse?”
Mary’s head lowered as she massaged her neck. “Sora—this was a terrible first impression.”
Nathan nodded. “This looks like a hostile takeover.”
Sora’s fox ears twitched with annoyance as she scratched the base of her left ear. “I know—Mimi, if you could all retake your seats—let’s try to start this over.” Looking around at their group, she added, “We should all take a seat too; we’ll have a calm discussion.” Under her influence, Mimi and her Vulpes took their seats, faces ashen, and the rest of the room picked a chair, except Kari; Kari posted herself at a window and stared out, seemingly uninterested in the conversation. Githa hopped down from Mary’s shoulders to her lap, curling into a ball, appearing to fall asleep.
“Okay,” Sora breathed. She turned to the twins, tears in their eyes as they huddled behind her chair. “It’s alright, Luna, Rayla, everything’s okay now.”
“You aren’t going to hurt Mimi?” Rayla questioned with red cheeks.
Luna’s lips trembled. “Please don’t hurt Mimi.”
Turning back to the Vulpes, Sora said, “Mimi, I’m going to release my control over you. I highly recommend you do not try to attack us—we just want to talk.” Waiting a moment, she watched their fearful auras calm a bit before releasing them.
Ashley glanced at the twins with a slight frown. “Rayla, Luna, I think Mimi and the others would be more comfortable if you joined them. Could you go sit with them?” They nodded and slowly walked over to Mimi’s chair, ears and tails low.
Sora’s eyes followed the twins with concern. They feel like they did something terrible, but they don’t know what it was. Poor girls.
Mimi’s ears were pulled back a bit as her four tails stiffly held their positions. “Who are you and what do you want?”
Mary spoke up. “First, I think it would be appropriate for us to introduce ourselves. I can start.” They each went around the table, Aiden disclosing Kari’s name.
Rubbing at the tension in her shoulders, Mimi said, “I understand you have a great amount of power … I understand we cannot do anything to stop you. I appreciate that you are trying to smooth over the hostility, but this is very new to us—we have never encountered other monsters before. How did you get past the gate?”
Everyone turned to Sora. Scratching at her temple, she leaned back tiredly. “I’m a Founder. Does that mean anything to you?” Mimi and the other Vulpes shook their head. “Okay, how do I explain this … I’m basically—I’m like a goddess—I was born with a great amount of power and abilities—no Vulpes can match my growth, I guess. I was able to open the gate.”
Mimi looked like she’d swallowed bad medicine. “I see … are there more monsters joining you?”
Sora shook her head. “I can see your emotions and judge your thoughts to some extent based on your spiritual network. No, I will not be bringing any more monsters into the Vulpes Realm. I don’t plan to harm or take advantage of any of you either. We were escaping from a place that had us imprisoned, and this was the best option for us to get away. We don’t intend to upset the balance of this realm or anything.” Mimi’s vision narrowed as she looked down, pondering her words.
“I have a few questions,” Mary interjected, and everyone’s vision centered on her. “Mimi, is there any specific title or rank that we should address you with? Such as Area Supervisor.”
Shifting a little, Mimi surveyed their group before shaking her head. “You may call me by name if you wish.”
Mary nodded. “Right, Mimi, I don’t quite understand what kind of political system you have here, but we are, in essence, illegal aliens. We came into your land without going through proper channels, which, from what I understand, only the Council can authorize. Is that correct?”
Relaxing a little, Mimi glanced at Sora for a moment before returning to Mary. “That is how it has always been in the past. I have only heard legends of people coming through the gate, back when I was at the capital.”
Ashley took a deep breath. “Then people entering the Vulpes Realm is an infrequent occurrence?”
“Very rare,” Mimi nodded. “Last I heard, a Vulpes entered twelve hundred years ago. That isn’t something discussed in the towns, it’s talk within the Capital.”
Nathan folded his fingers, eyes downcast. “Then, is there a distinct difference between information gathered within the Capital and the town?”
“I would imagine,” Ashley hummed thoughtfully, looking at Mimi. “If only higher tail Vulpes are allowed in the city then the most ancient knowledge would be passed down or rumored therein.”
“That would make sense,” Nathan agreed.
“Excuse me,” Mimi said with furrowed brows. “I don’t understand why the humans are leading the discussion. Why would powerful monsters let the humans dictate what is said?”
Mary, Nathan, and Ashley all seemed to sag at her response, and Sora could feel a bit of despair enter their emotional field. I see … they were afraid of this. Humans are seen as lesser beings here; they don’t have much of a voice.
To Sora’s surprise, Jin was the one that answered. “I think it’s fairly simple. These humans have much more experience with this form of setting. Personally, I’d simply just take what I wanted from you; however, Mary has brought up a few points that have made me ponder that response.”
Eyia nodded. “I agree. The humans seem to have a great deal of experience with political structure and foreign affairs. It would not be wise to discount their input simply because they are human. My sister also seems to hold their wisdom in high regard; therefore, it is only natural that I listen.”
“Sister?” Mimi glanced around the table. “I do not smell anyone that is similar to you.”
Eyia looked to Sora. “Not by blood, but by deed. Sora has earned the right of sisterhood based on feats. She has earned my trust; it is rare to find someone that would open themselves up so willingly to strangers and provide for them. She supported and aided me as a sister; equity demands payment. We support one another as family.”
Touched, Sora felt her nose burn a little. “Thanks, Eyia.” She turned to Mimi. “Mary has had a lot of experience as a psychiatrist. Ashley was a reporter; so, I assume she knows a bit about a few topics. Nathan was a ranked police officer; it’s natural that he’d know quite a few things as well—not that you’d know what those are. They worked in professions that gave them a lot of knowledge that we don’t have. Their opinion is as valid as any other person—being around me.”
“That’s—odd to me,” Mimi mumbled. “Those of higher power are the ones in charge.”
“Is there no checks or balances to prevent abuse of power?” Ashley asked.
Eyes downcast, Mimi shook her head. “There’s only the Council and the supervisors. If a supervisor does not like something a Vulpes or human does then they can do what they wish. It can only be overturned by a Vulpes of higher rank.”
Nathan shook his head gravely. “Tyranny … it isn’t a kind of system I want to be a part of.”
Githa purred as Mary gently stroked her side and scratched her head. Sighing, Mary frowned. “I understand, Nathan. I don’t want to be in a tyrannical government either, but it isn’t like we have a right to step in and do whatever we want. Revolution is a movement of the people; if a system collapses then the people will just return to their roots, and it’ll start over again. Trading lives for a temporary form of unstable freedom that could lead to even more death and bondage than before.”
“I get that,” Nathan’s head rested against his chair, staring up at the ceiling. “Our group is like a special forces unit though. It’s not like we’re just any illegal aliens that stumbled onto a foreign nation—I mean, if I were to transplant the current situation to the U.S. … it’s scary.”
Ashley rested her arms on the table with a nod. “Yeah, in comparison, it’s like a group of illegal refugees storming the Miami mayor’s office and held the cabinet hostage. It doesn’t even sound like they have a military to respond to the situation.”
Nathan grunted. “Why would they need one? The gate is a pretty decent barrier. They’ve never had opposition.”
Mimi’s composure kept dropping as their conversation continued, making Sora nervous. She’s realizing just what kind of situation this is … isn’t she? I’m a part of this terrorist refugee group … we’re invading their livelihood.
“I get the moral implications,” Mary stated solemnly. “We were running from an oppressive organization to become oppressors ourselves.” Her vision shifted to Mimi. “I know we’re not really giving you much of a choice. I think it would be best if we talked with the leaders of your nation, but at the same time—Sora presents a real issue for them that could get all of us in trouble.”
Aiden breathed a heavy sigh. “You’re talking about the gate?”
Mary nodded. “This is a tyrannical system with the only pass into this closed country being the Council. Suddenly, there’s a person that could destabilize that power.”
Sitting a little straighter, Ashley rested her elbows on the table and supported her head. “You couldn’t just extradite her; she could be mad about being forcibly removed and return with an army … since she could just reopen it.”
Nathan cracked his neck. “Which leaves imprisonment or death.”
Fen seemed to finally catch on to what the humans were saying. “Wait—they can’t do anything to her though. Inari or Mia would shatter this dimension.”
Mimi’s eyes widened as she swallowed. “Shatter—the dimension?”
“Of course,” Fen rolled her eyes. “Destroying a dimension as small as this would be easy for Mia or Inari. I mean, Inari can make realms like this with a snap of her finger—I recently visited one.”
“What do you mean—shatter the dimension?” Mimi pressed.
“Are you serious…” Fen was cut off by Mary.
“Fen—that isn’t helping, and will only drive a bigger wedge between us.”
Somehow Mimi had turned even paler. “You’re—like destroy the entire realm—the Council would stop something…”
Kari laughed from the corner, causing everyone to go silent. “This is stupid.” She turned to Mimi with an annoyed expression. “It boils down to this. Your Council is nothing; they’re weak, and there are beings much stronger than them out there. Two such beings are related to that fox, and you and this entire realm could be destroyed if you anger them.” She turned to Sora and cut off Mary before she could speak. “Be honest, Sora. What do you think Inari or your mom would do if they killed you?”
Sora felt a shiver run down her spine as she remembered her aunt’s words. “Honestly—my aunt—she’d break anything involved … she isn’t kind to anyone she thinks as her enemy. I have no doubt she could easily destroy this realm and everyone in it.”
“With a snap of her finger,” Fen stated darkly.
Mimi and her Vulpes looked down at the table in front of them, clearly shaken. So, in the end, the weight of my family hangs over their heads … is this a small part of what Inari said about being a Founder?
Loosening the muscles in her neck, Sora sighed. “Kari may be right, but I don’t think it will come to that. We were guided here by someone—something that is extremely powerful … at least on par with my aunt. I don’t think they’d do that if they knew something bad would happen to me; my aunt seems to know everything too. I don’t think it will come to that.”
Kari shrugged with a huff. “At least you have family that cares for you.”
Sora felt winded at her statement. I didn’t expect—her words were filled with such spite and bitterness … her emotion was like an actual blow. Did I lower my guard? Swallowing, she stretched out her arms, regaining her senses. “Mimi, can we bother you with a place to stay, some food, and we can discuss these things later? We’ve had—it’s been a rough few days. I think some time to process everything would do some good. We don’t have to be hasty, and I’m more than willing to help out with the harvest and labor if needed; I’m the one that brought everyone here in the first place, so I need to take some form of responsibility.”
Mary smiled at her, and Nathan nodded. “It’s a good proposal. We can think everything over and come back to discuss how we’ll proceed when everyone’s emotions settle.”
Mimi sagged back into her chair. “That—seems wise. Olivia, would you take them to the town guest house and see to their needs. We can reconvene tomorrow.”