Sora recognized the bizarre scent; it was the oddly dressed purple-eyed woman she’d seen in her hotel lobby. The sirens made Sora wince as she awoke. When was that woman in this room? Recently. Maybe forty minutes ago? Does she work for whoever kidnapped me; were they watching me for that long?
Frowning with unease, she lifted herself and ordered her tail out of the way. Her chest caught when there was a split in command, looking down, her vision fixated on two fully grown reddish orange tails. Hesitantly, she brought both tails around, running her left hand down her new tail.
She smiled. I have an aunt that helped me, family. She’s there for me unconditionally. Tears started gathering in Sora’s eyes as her throat caught. She taught me, loves me. I now have my second tail—why did I have to return now? I want time with my family, time with my friends, but there are so many walls. She looked up as the blaring alarm ceased. I want more.
Turning her attention away from her tails, she examined the room. What is the alarm about? Did Eric try to escape, or maybe Jin or Eyia?
Studying the new room, she jumped as she focused on Fen and Jian. They were fast asleep in hard metal chairs. Those chairs don’t look that comfortable, and Fen didn’t throw a fit? How did they sleep through that blaring alarm anyways? The room was deep into the ground and a retracted metal ramp twisted around the edges of the room to a doorway thirty feet above her where a black glass observation room loomed.
Letting go of some pent-up air, she looked down at the bed she sat on; it looked like a clinical bed. She did a once over of her attire. They didn’t change my clothes; I can at least be thankful for that.
Hopping off the bed, she counted eight cameras examining her. How many monitors do they have to keep in this place? Resting her vision on Fen, she debated whether she should wake her or not. I don’t know what happened to Aiden or Eric, and I don’t know what’s even going on. I want answers, but should I wake her? She’s probably fairly drained with the wards sapping her spiritual energy…
Calming the butterflies in her stomach, Sora walked over to Fen and lightly shook her shoulder. Sora’s tails bristled; she stepped back as Fen’s eyes shot open wildly, her claws extended, stiff hand lurching toward Sora’s neck. Sora’s brow set as her own hand reacted at the exact moment, grabbing Fen’s wrist and holding it back. Fen’s force quickly faded as her hand recoiled, and she darted to her right. Sora let go of her wrist, dancing several steps back nonetheless.
Fen held her hands close to her chest as she stared at Sora in terror. Sora felt something different about her. It was like she produced a small wave of pressure that had no substantial form, but she could calculate and read her movements from it. It seems Inari’s training paid off. I can perceive her spiritual energy.
Cautiously Sora asked, “Are you alright Fen?”
Fen looked at her tails. “You—you gained your second tail—at sixteen? Then you met with…” Sora quickly put her finger to her lips, pleading for her to stop; to her surprise, it worked. Fen’s jaws locked and she scooted back further.
Sighing, Sora walked back to the counter and lightly hopped up to sit atop it. Looking back at Fen, Sora asked, “What happened to Aiden and Eric?”
Swallowing, Fen slowly moved back to her metal chair and sat, nervously staring sideward at Jian. “Aiden, I don’t know, the guards took him away. I heard something about a cell. The wolf, he backed down when Jian came, and he went somewhere with more guards.”
Sora nodded solemnly. “I see.” She watched Fen fidget a few more seconds as she continued to glance over at Jian before saying, “You don’t have to be scared of me, Fen.”
Nodding, Fen tried loosening up. “You’re—alright then?”
Examining herself for a second, Sora said, “It seems so, but I’ve got a new tail as you’ve said.” Becoming a little curious, she asked, “What did it look like, when it—grew out?”
Fen swallowed again. “Fire, extremely hot foxfire, you were surrounded by flames and melted through a few floors. When I saw you next, you had a second tail of pure burning spiritual energy—I’ve never seen anything like it before.”
Humming to herself as she examined her new tail, Sora bunched her lips, trying to get a better view of her backside. “One time my tail caught fire when I had a skirt on, it burnt the whole back side to a crisp. It doesn’t seem to be happening anymore, has that ever happened to you?”
Sora turned back to Fen when she didn’t answer. Fen was looking down at the floor shamefully. “I’m—not like you.”
Not understanding what she meant, Sora said, “Excuse me?”
Fen’s tongue pressed against her cheek as she stared off to her left. “I’m not a Founder, or a Nogitsune, or even a Kitsune—just in a trial to become one.” Pausing, she whispered, “Húli jīng’s are a different kind of Vulpes; we can’t use foxfire or a lot of other things Kitsune and Nogitsune can.”
Piqued and finding no better way to pass the time, Sora said, “I know we don’t really know each other, but you know I’m new to being a Vulpes. Could you tell me a bit more about being one?”
Fen’s features flared with spite as she looked up at her. Sora identified jealousy in her aura, but it quickly faded as her vision shifted to the floor. “I—húli jīng are like—the lower class of Vulpes.” She was silent as she chewed on her lower lip, eyes shifting with desperation. “You don’t know what it’s like—of course, you don’t.” She started with tears echoing in her voice. “You don’t even know how privileged you are!”
Sora began to feel uncomfortable as Fen continued. “We were the last Vulpes to learn how to use magic, and every monster looks down on us because of it! We’re ostracized because we lack in generalized areas, such as foxfire, physical prowess, flight, dream manipulation, and intangibility. Then there’s you!”
Fen spat, making Sora jump. “You don’t even know the kind of abilities a Founder possesses that makes every Vulpes flock to Inari, no matter the price to join her privileged cult!” Sora felt Fen’s desperation as her emotions radiated with her spirit. “ Inherent attunement, elemental auras, space-time manipulation, elemental manipulation, immortality, Intelligence control, pure fox magic, and even the one thing that makes húli jīng unique, light manipulation!”
Sora’s stomach did somersaults at the burst of information. “I’m—immortal?” Inari did say that my mom and her have lived ages … the Spiritual Plane … no, maybe it’s Inari’s shrine … has a super condensed time-distortion. She actually meant ages.
Fen nodded, her face now red. “That’s right; you’re immortal. No matter how long you live, you will not die from natural causes—while I—húli jīng have the lowest life expectancy of any Vulpes, a hundred years. If I want to continue living, I have to consume other spirits—even that has its limitations!”
Sora could feel Fen’s emotions beginning to overwhelm her, tears beginning to gather in her eyes. Fen’s demeanor turned on a dime; her eyes widened with horror as she clasped her hands over her mouth, shoving down her emotions. Looking down at the concrete floor, she muttered, “I’m sorry.”
Sora was more than a little shaken by Fen’s tirade but confused by her reaction. Something’s really changed; her personality’s taken a one-eighty. Has she come to terms that I am a Founder? Inari said I’d be placed on a pedestal. I’m a little concerned to see what these people do with that information, but I’m glad to at least start getting some clear answers. Everything’s been so shrouded in secrecy. I feel for Fen. I know what she was feeling was true, she has felt third-rate all her life.
Taking a deep breath and releasing it, Sora put on an encouraging smile. “It’s alright Fen; you don’t need to push down all those emotions. As I said, I’m new to being a Vulpes, and I don’t expect any special treatment for who my mother and aunt are.” Narrowing her eyes and adopting a sly grin, Sora added, “Unless you’re trying to kill me! Then I’ll start screaming about how scary my family is.”
Fen looked a little unsure about her response but nodded. The silence stretched for a few seconds as Fen thought; Sora’s could tell she was pondering her words. Taking a calming breath, Fen cleared her throat and looked to Sora’s left. “Do you smell that odd scent?”
Glancing over at Jian, Sora frowned. Is he hiding his spiritual presence even while asleep? That’s impressive. “I know it. There was an oddly dressed woman in my hotel that had the same scent. She’s the first person I’ve seen with purple eyes,” frowning, she corrected herself, “If she was a human at all. I can’t tell what she is.”
“I see,” Fen muttered. “None of the scientists had that scent though?”
Shifting her attention back to her tails, she analyzed them. I can tell that my spiritual energy has increased, it’s like it quadrupled, including my regenerative capacity. Inari said the source of our power isn’t in our tails, but our tails are essential for maintaining and storing our spiritual energy. My body seems a lot more complex than Mr. Davis explained in my anatomy/physiology class.
She smiled at the thought; it seemed like a lifetime ago. Looking up, Sora found Fen scrutinizing Jian with worry. “Is something wrong?” Sora asked.
Fen slowly reached over and tapped Jian on the arm, instantly recoiling. Sora scooted a little closer as she found the same incorporeal sensation emitted from Jian, but he still rested. “What was that?” Sora asked. “I thought he was hiding his spiritual energy, but it was like your touch just turned it on, like pressing the power button on a computer.”
Fen looked even more concerned. “I thought it was odd that Jian would engage in a soul transmission at such a time, but I don’t know now. It’s almost like his soul was—paralyzed, but it would take enormous spiritual pressure for such a state to fall upon Jian.”
Sora noted that she had a hard time tracking Fen’s emotions and movements through her spiritual network unless she was focused on her. I guess I need a lot more practice. “What should we do?”
Fen was hugging her body tightly, unsure what action to take. “I—don’t know. I’ve never seen this happen before.”
Thinking in the ensuing silence, Sora asked, “When did you and Jian blackout?”
Swallowing, Fen said, “All of the examiners left, and suddenly I started feeling sleepy, no, there was something, something frightening, but that’s it. Next, I was awoken by…” Her face grew ashen. “What if it was…” She stared at Sora’s second tail.
Thinking back, Sora shook her head, knowing where Fen was leading. “No, I don’t smell…” She hesitated. Come to think of it; I couldn’t smell anything in the Spiritual Plane except when Gloria used some of her magic.
“She doesn’t have to be here in body…” Fen’s terrified whisper hung in the following silence.
Skin crawling, Sora remembered back on Inari’s talk with her. It’s all too obvious that she’s interested in me, but it wasn’t in mom’s plan for me to be rescued—well, she did say she would help me transition. Maybe it was her? Thinking hard for a few minutes, Sora decided she’d had enough runarounds. Clearing her voice, she asked, “What’s Inari like?”
Fen took a moment to answer as she searched for the right words; she also seemed distracted by Jian’s state. “Inari—she’s—when I first saw her, she was everything that I imagined her like. Too beautiful to look at; more radiant than the sun; power too great to comprehend.” She sniffed while looking down, whispering, “forever above me.”
Sora hummed at her explanation. My aunt certainly has a presence, and she was shielding me almost the whole time. To me, she seemed fairly grounded; sure, the other Vulpes treated her with respect, but I don’t think she looked down on them. She’s everything I wish my mom was, she was there for me, taught me, and helped me come to terms with being a Vulpes.
Her vision came back into focus as Fen gained the nerves to continue. “I—met with her. It was a few weeks ago, but I went to her for—help.” Her voice started to falter. “There was a gathering of Vulpes and other monsters that seek some form of advice or aid. She holds it every four hundred years in a dimension she created for that cause, and there are access points all over the world. Since the last meeting, Ogres had built an empire there, and were enslaving the Vulpes that decided to come early.”
Sora glanced at the cameras, but Fen huffed. “It doesn’t matter. From everything I’ve said to Jian over the past few weeks, they’ll figure it out.” Sora slowly nodded and waited for her to continue.
Taking a shuddering breath, Fen continued her story. “The Ogres had been capturing Vulpes that tried to use the dimension as a faster means of travel for two hundred years and hunted them for sport. There was a battle happening when I arrived with Jian. Stronger Vulpes with six to seven tails had come to seek servitude to Inari. You need that many tails and to pass certain trials to be considered; they had broken the traps the Ogres set and were pushing their warriors back. The stronger Vulpes fought for about half a day until Inari appeared with two of her Myōbu.”
“What are Myōbu?” Sora asked.
Pausing, Fen shifted in her seat. “They are the highest ranking Kitsune, the strongest Vulpes besides Founders, period. They have proven themselves with complete devotion, having passed all of Inari’s tests to attain the highest rank and honor. Therefore, all the blessings Inari can give, unlocking all their innate potential, and gifting them with immortality. It is what almost every Vulpes strives for, to be recognized by Inari to grant that blessing.”
Nodded, Sora thought back to her time with her aunt. “Do they have gold fur, have silvery designs on their tails, and wear fox masks?” Fen swallowed hard at her description, and Sora sensed a bit of fear mix into her spiritual network.
Nodding, Fen said, “Yes, they showed up with Inari and—the moment they saw what was happening, one of the Myōbu began glowing, raised her hand, and drew a symbol in the air.” Fen stopped, her breath became forced as her eyes relived a horrific scene. “Vines shot out of the ground and bound every Ogre insight then began sucking their life out, leaving only husks. The few that escaped scattered and Inari began the meeting. Their entire civilization was destroyed in seconds.”
Sora nodded, thinking back on her aunt’s first appearance, the massive tsunami of blue flames engulfing everything she could see. “I think I know what you mean.” Her raw power is unnerving.
Fen became quiet as she thought. “I revere Inari. She is the pinnacle of everything I wish I was; free without a single string, powerful, not bound by anything, and can have anything she wants.”
Sora’s face became unreadable as she thought on Fen’s words. I guess not many people would really know my aunt’s heart. The loss and frustration she actually feels, being weighed down by the perfect image that is set for her. I guess she is trapped in an image, some beings do rival her or are even more powerful, like Gloria, that watch to make sure the most powerful Vulpes magic isn’t used again, and she can’t have what she most wants—a child of her own.
Her attention diverted back to Fen as she continued. “I asked—what I needed to do, in order to join her temple.” Sora’s skin started to prickle as tears started rolling down Fen’s cheeks and her spiritual network showed a mixture of emotions. “She—didn’t want me—said my past guaranteed I could not join her faction. What did she mean my past? My mom left me with Jian. She didn’t want me! And—and when I started to—plead—she—she apologized like I was some pitiful creature.”
Slowly bringing around her white tail, Fen tried sniffing back her tears. “Just being near her awoke my second tail, but—she said all she could do was this—she infused an insignificant amount of energy into my new tail—turning it white. It protects me to a certain extent and makes other monsters hesitate to attack me, but it isn’t what I wanted … she said every Vulpes could attempt to pass her tests, but it would be difficult for me…”
Sora couldn’t help, but feel for Fen, but knew there was something more behind the scene. The beaten down little outcast that’s rejected by her own kind; there’s even racism in Vulpes society I guess. I don’t know if my aunt is a part of it, but there has to be something more that she did to Fen’s tail. Thinking about all the stories she had read on Húli jīng, she began to see things a little differently. All those bad stories about húli jīng might be true, but how much of it was bred into them by environment and social order? However, húli jīng do feed on spirits to extend their lives. It’s not so one-sided…
Sora cleared her voice when Fen stopped crying and started calming herself. “I don’t know much about you Fen, and I haven’t been with you for long, but I’m willing to be friends.”
Fen swallowed her tears and glared at her. “I don’t need your pity.”
Sighing, Sora asked, “How can I even begin to right any kind of wrong if you won’t accept it? I’m not pitying you, I’m relating to you.”
Fen’s eyes moved to the bottom left with a sour expression. “What do you know,” she muttered.
Scooting back, Sora brought up her knees and wrapped her arms around them. “Not much, I guess. I know that, but I’m learning, and with all the craziness in my life lately, I have to take it day by day to just stay sane.”
A caustic chuckle resounded from Fen’s throat. “Please, that’s just being a Vulpes. See, you don’t know anything.”
Sora’s vision hazed as she looked back on her actions over the last two weeks, and a sad smile creased her lips. “Maybe … I’m doing a lot of things I never thought I’d do. I’m scared—terrified, but I push it down with laughter and jokes, so it doesn’t consume me.” Lips suddenly feeling dry, Sora whispered, “I know it would if I let it. Maybe it’s just my instincts, maybe…” Looking up at Fen with a bright smile, Sora said, “But I like to think it’s my own will—that is what scares me the most—what if I’m not me anymore.”
Fen looked confused at her response and unconvinced. “We’re Vulpes; all we do is look out for ourselves. We scheme, we hurt, we trick, and we have fun, that’s what being a Vulpes means.”
Sora shook her head, looking down at the floor. No, that can’t be what I’m like. Besides, I wasn’t always a Vulpes … I think I was human; I felt human. True, I have strange compulsions now, but I still feel that piece in me, and Inari helped me see that.
“Please, you’re a Vulpes. Stop fooling yourself. We are shallow; we aren’t apex predators, so we survive by being such. We are predators—we just need to be more subtle and clever about it.” Fen scoffed.
Sora bit her lower lip. No, I refuse to think I’m ruled by instinctual desire to survive. The emotions I’ve experienced; Aiden’s misery and self-loathing, Ron and my Dad’s boundless love… Looking up at Fen’s condescending sneer, Sora thought. I can’t be like that. I won’t numb myself. Though … maybe it’s just because I’ve linked with such strong emotions and lived as a human that I’m different. If Fen could, would she be the same?
Both Fen and Sora jumped as the stairs in the walls started extending, and Jian’s eyes snapped open. He looked around calmly, his vision lingering on Sora’s second tail for a moment. Turning to Fen, he asked, “What happened?” Fen shook her head as she looked up with an alert posture.
Sora took a deep breath as she studied Jian. He’s awake. He doesn’t seem so intimidating anymore. Squinting her eyes, she thought there was something written on his forehead, his spiritual energy flowing up to it. What’s that symbol? She looked over at Fen to find her spiritual energy moved with her body motion, radiating outward, while Jian’s did the same, but shifted upward toward the mark. I don’t remember that symbol being there before?
Her attention was diverted as she heard the bolted door above being released. A woman she hadn’t seen before slowly descended. She looked like the other researchers with her lab coat and standard clothing, although she was young, possibly in her early twenties.
Sora moved to the edge of the bed and let her legs hang off, while Fen and Jian waited patiently for her to reach their level. She put on a pleasant demeanor, but Sora could tell she was very nervous. “How are you today?” She asked no one in particular.
Fen snorted, causing the woman to twitch. “Is it daytime?”
Breathing a slow breath, Sora rolled her eyes. “How is my father?”
The woman cleared her throat and fumbled with her tablet pc, trying to regain a little nerve. “Y—yes, I was told to tell you that your—father is at,” she cleared her throat again, “at another base. It was done so he could get the best medical treatment.”
A weight seemed to drop from her chest. She didn’t know how she knew, but she knew the woman believed in her own words. “Thank you,” Sora said with a grateful smile.
Sora’s skin prickled as Fen said, “Why have you treated a Founder with such disrespect? Caging her, demanding things of her, and hurting her? You’ve been lucky Mia hasn’t killed every last one of you.”
The woman’s body tensed, and her fingers started to shake, the tablet falling from her grip. Sora leaped off the table and found that time seemed to slow, but she knew she was just moving quicker than she was used to. Grabbing the tablet before it hit the floor, she straightened herself.
Shocked by Sora’s quick action, the woman tripped backward, arms flying out to catch herself. To Sora’s surprise, Jian fluently moved from his chair and caught her before she fell. Helping her right herself, Jian returned to his seat without comment. Sora’s vision flashed to Fen, who looked somewhat annoyed, before returning to the woman. Flustered, she straightened her coat and tentatively looked into Sora’s green eyes, she could sense her fear. Even mentioning the word Founder seems to have a substantial impact. Perhaps they’ve found out who I’m connected to now.
Smiling, Sora extended the tablet. “Here and,” she shot a glare in Fen’s direction, “I know you are probably just doing your job.” The woman shakily took the tablet. Taking a step back, Sora said, “You don’t have to be so scared of me. Just deliver the message you were sent to give.” She encouraged.
Licking her lips and swallowing the woman said, “Thank you. I was told to guide you to a clothing department and get you some new clothes. After that, you can take a shower and finally meet with Diane for lunch.”
Sora and Fen’s stomach growled at the mention of food and Fen huffed, “Finally some hospitality.”
Sighing, Sora nodded, “After you then, Hillary.” Sora’s brow furrowed, and so did Hillary’s, but she ignored it and nervously led the way up the stairs. Sora slowly followed with Fen and Jian behind her. How did I know her name was Hillary, she didn’t give it to me? No … maybe this is how it is for Inari, she just knows things from their spiritual network.