The crowds were growing as Vulpes, and humans returned from the fields; the carts became more and more sparse as the volume of people increased. There seemed to be segregated areas for humans and Vulpes as they continued to roam the town. The inn where they’d been led seemed to be in the Vulpes district, but there also appeared to be a class distinction. The area closer to the town center had more powerful Vulpes with more tails while the further they moved to the east, the more humans they ran into and weaker Vulpes.
Pursing her lips as she read the magnetic fields of the planet, identifying the directions each human and Vulpes group moved around them. There are hardly any Vulpes here. If the news spreads like I want, then there will be quite the upset. Judging by the way those humans reacted, they’ve never even thought about freedom; they’ve been brainwashed to think a certain way, but that was stripped away with ease. The moment I offered them new knowledge, showed all of it in illusions, and offered them something more than what they’ve been given … yes, this will most definitely work. The humans and Vulpes will eat out of my hands.
The buildings were just as well constructed here as the rest of the town; there was a little less stone, but the quality was equivalent. The humans wore the same simple fitted clothes as the Vulpes. There seemed to be a lack of clothing diversity in many regards, the Vulpes and humans lived rather simple lives. They worked in the fields, dried fruit and meat, prepared and recorded supplies for shipment, and talked among different social groups. There appeared to be specific circles of people that associated with their particular jobs and locations, but they were decent with others around them.
Fen moved to the side of the road, leaning up against the side of a building, arms folded. Jian stopping beside her, sharp eyes scanning the throng. The humans seem rather content for the most part, but there’s been no diverse thought. Vulpes run everything, and if they don’t accomplish a task, then they incur the wrath of these godlike beings. They see the Vulpes Council as living gods; they’re Vulpes, so, naturally, Vulpes are above them. I sit down with a few and show them some attention, likely the only personal attention a Vulpes has ever shown them, and they fall over themselves. I promise them something better, and they fall to their knees in tears. A smile curved her lips. What about the Vulpes?
She hummed, vision following two Vulpes as they moved to the north. The humans are all equally servants, but the Vulpes, on the other hand, belong to a distinct hierarchy. The humans are at the bottom, and weak one-tailed Vulpes are just above them. Mimi is the superpower of this area, which means I’m more powerful than anyone in this town. I doubt any Vulpes here can even weave an illusion; definitely nothing as potent as I can create. What will happen when they learn Sora can not only heal their spiritual networks…
She frowned. Wait … do they even know they’re spiritually sick? Two Vulpes passed by her and Jian, shivering and glancing their way as Jian’s fear aura struck them. They don’t … I mean, didn’t that one three-tailed Vulpes say humans don’t get sick, but Vuples do? She quickly scanned the humans around them, eyes narrowing. There are scars, even a few with lost limbs or fingers, but they don’t get sick because the realm’s sustaining force.
She looked up at Jian, feeling his unease. “Yes, give me some time. I’m just thinking. You’re right that this is a lot more complicated than I thought … this realm is standing on straws.” If they have any Vulpes nature left, I’ll draw it out. “Let’s go north.”
They moved down the street until they reached a junction; turning north, they continued up the road. The crowd swapped from mostly human to Vulpes as they entered a lower status district; strangely colored Vulpes were becoming more prominent, and they were drawing more attention. Of course we’d draw attention. Jian is far taller than any man I’ve seen here, and I have a white and black tail. I don’t see any two-tails; this must be the lowest Vulpes section. She smiled. Perfect.
Finding a resting place similar to the human building they entered. The layout was the exact same, fires dotting the ceiling and corners. Yellowish, orange, and brown-furred single-tailed Vulpes were scattered around the room, two were even in their full fox form; every fox stiffened as they entered, noise dying down, and every eye on Jian before sliding to her white tail.
“Good evening,” Fen greeted with an innocent smile, head tilting slightly, her black hair obscured part of her vision. Flipping it behind her ear, she moved to the bar, focus centering on the orange-furred Vulpes behind it. “Might you have something to drink?”
She swallowed nervously, the atmosphere deathly quiet, only broken by the muffled voices outside. Her grayish irises shot to her two tails before back to her yellow eyes. “Wh—what would you like?”
Taking on a confused expression, Fen hummed, glancing around the room. “Is something wrong?” I suspect none of these Vulpes are beyond forty.
She resisted a smirk; she could feel the tension in the air as ripples shot down every fox’s frame. The Vulpes behind the bar shook her head sharply, bound hair swinging back and forth. “No, nothing’s wrong! I—would you like some water or elrinic juice?”
Curiosity peaked, Fen’s eyes lit up. “Elrinic juice, what is that?”
The girl sucked on her lower lip nervously, glancing back at a bottle along a shelf behind her. “It’s an alcoholic juice that ferments inside the fruit before extraction. It’s strong right out of the fruit, so we mix it with crushed telerian nuts and hapima flowers.”
“How wonderful! I have never heard of it.” Fen smiled eagerly.
She took the bottle she’d eyed off the counter and a wooden cup from below the bar. Uncorking it, she poured out some of the bright red liquid.
Sliding her tongue against the inside of her teeth, Fen accepted the drink. “Pour another for Jian—please,” she added as an afterthought.
The girl’s lips became a line as she looked up at the large man, standing well over two feet above her. Her arms shook while pouring the drink, somehow managing to keep herself from spilling. She slid the glass over.
Fen’s eyes slid from her to the rest of the room with a frown, darting to a yellowish furred Vulpes that entered. The girl couldn’t have been more than thirty by the standard energy she felt from the others in the town. “Jalina, what’s that smell…” her words died as she caught sight of her and then Jian, visibly swallowing a lump in her throat.
“Welcome,” Fen greeted cheerily. “Why don’t you come sit down?” I’m probably the highest ranked person in this area for them. I have pure black fur, like Mimi, and I have two tails. White is also an extremely rare color, and it seems to play a part in the ranking structure.
“You—want me to join—you?” the girl asked hoarsely.
“Of course,” Fen said with a bright tone. “I’d love to understand a few things about this realm; you see, I’m not from around here.” The tension rose rapidly; she could smell the apprehension in the air and knew they sensed it too. “You don’t have to be so nervous,” she giggled. “I don’t know what it’s like in this realm, but I won’t bite. Now come, sit!”
Several Vulpes shifted uncomfortably as the girl mechanically walked to the opposite side of Jian, keeping several feet between her and Jian until she arrived on the opposite side where she sat on a stool.
Fen turned to the orange-furred girl behind the bar. “I assume you’re Jalina, correct?” She nodded, hiding her quaking hands behind her back. Turning back to the girl beside her, she asked, “And your name?”
“Lumia,” she squeaked.
Placing her elbow against the counter and resting her head against the back of her hand, she breathed a long sigh. “Is it strange for a two-tailed Vulpes to enter a building like this? I do sense that most of you are likely below the age of forty, but is there such a disparity in the association between two-tails and single-tails?”
Jalina nodded. “Normally—two-tailed Vulpes are near the southern part of the town—that’s where the stronger Vulpes tend to gather.”
Picking up her cup, Fen sipped at the juice; her tails stiffened as the liquid passed through her lips. It was sweet with a hard punch that followed, hitting her tongue. Swallowing, she cleared her throat, tails intertwining as she pressed her tongue against the roof of her mouth. “Wow … this is really good.” She muttered, feeling a slight burn in her nose and throat. I haven’t had anything like this before.
Jian frowned, picking the glass up, he downed it in a single shot, every Vulpes holding their breath. He licked his lips before releasing a short huff. “No, it’s not bad. It’s a lot different than saké.”
“It really is, but it has a good hit to it.” Fen smiled, turning to Lumia. “How can you tell how powerful a Vulpes is, or who gets to live in the southern district?”
“Well—color of fur and tails.”
Fen nodded, finishing her juice. Breathing out a long sigh, she slid her cup forward. “I’d love another glass—please.”
Jalina licked her lips, brow furrowed as she poured another glass. Her hands had become more steady. “A single cup is usually enough to get a Vulpes drunk.”
Humming, Fen accepted the glass, drinking half of it in a single shot, smacking her lips. She smiled at her comment. “Really, it’s that potent?” I see … she gave us the most potent drink they have, hoping I’d quickly get drunk. This is very out of formalities for them, having to entertain a two-tails.
Lumia looked impressed. “Yeah, I can’t even handle half a glass!”
“Interesting,” Fen muttered, smiling at the cup. “So, have you heard that I come from beyond the red gate?”
“No,” Lumia whispered, eyes widening. “I—really? You came—I mean, I can’t believe it! That place is—I’ve never heard of anyone coming out of the gate!”
“Lumia,” Jalina muttered. “Lower your voice.”
Fen heard the other Vulpes shift nervously in their chairs, paying close attention to their conversation. “Oh, I most definitely have.” She lifted her left arm, presenting Jian. “This is Jian, my protector. He is a monster known as a Bai-Hu, and is far stronger than Mimi.” Jian’s worry spiked at her statement. I know Jian, they view Mimi as the most powerful authority in this area, but power is their standard. You’ll understand.
She smiled as a shiver ran up every Vulpes’ back. “Oh,” Fen brought a hand up to her lips, glancing up with a thoughtful expression. “I guess that’s a bit sudden to just say…” A bright expression lit her features. “I know! Jian, show them some of your power, but not too much, we don’t want them to faint or die.”
Jian sighed, he now looked visibly troubled but did as she asked. He released a small portion of his spiritual pressure in a short, concentrated burst as to not alert the Vulpes outside. The Dragon or Valkyrie might have been able to detect it, but it wasn’t anywhere near a threatening force to them, so Fen figured they wouldn’t be alerted, and she figured Mimi wasn’t spiritually aware enough to detect a concealed burst of energy.
Fen studied Lumia, likely the weakest out of the Vulpes present; she went rigid, eyes defocusing as every muscle locked and the air froze in her lungs. Vision shifting to Jalina, she watched her body shake, eyes wide, locked on Jian’s neutral face. The outside noise increased, not a Vulpes willing to risk a breath.
“Oh, too much?” Fen asked, feigning a concerned and apologetic tone. “I’m so sorry! Are you okay, Lumia?” She touched her back, making a quake reverberate down her frame and across Fen’s arm.
Lumia slowly grabbed her left hand, sliding up to her arm as she shook. “I—I—what—I…” Her heart was pounding enough that Fen could feel its beats as she pressed her hand against her back.
“Shh,” Fen soothed, rubbing her back comfortingly; her heart pounded, she could feel its beats thumping against her hand. “I’m sorry—just breath.”
It took several minutes before Lumia was able to say something; she was the last Vulpes to get ahold of her fear. “That—that was a small portion of—of his power? You—that didn’t affect you—not at all?” She gasped.
Fen hummed, hand still pressed against her upper back to sooth the girl. “Oh—no, sorry, but I’m about as strong as Mimi. We just met with her this afternoon.”
Lumia swallowed a lump in her throat as she turned to stare at Fen in terror. “As—you—Mimi?”
Cocking her head, Fen frowned. “Is that so hard to believe? Oh…” She removed her hand, lifting a finger to her lips thoughtfully. “I suppose she does have four tails—I thought it was odd that all the Vulpes we passed were so weak.”
“Weak,” Jalina mumbled. “If—if you’re as strong as Mimi—just two tails—then what—what if you had four tails? How are you so strong?”
Fen felt that sentence strike her heart. She licked her lips, relishing the tingling sensation shooting down her spine to her tails. “Could you—ask that again?”
“How—how are you so strong?” Jalina swallowed.
Closing her eyes with a small smile, Fen breathed a long breath. I’m strong … they’re weak. This is it … this is the feeling I’ve waited for! Eyes opening, she replaced the persona, looking to the side with a concerned hum. “Well, I mean, I’m not that strong. In fact, Húli Jīng are the weakest amongst the Vulpes.”
“Weakest—you—no, that’s impossible…” Jalina whispered.
Humming, Fen smiled apologetically. “I’m really sorry, but I don’t understand why everyone is so tense? Of the Vulpes races Húli Jīng are the weakest, and I’m only a hundred and thirty-nine years old. I guess,” she brought her white tail around, stroking the slightly dirty fur, “I am borrowing a little power from Inari.” If only she did actually give me power…
“What do you mean, Vulpes races?” Lumia asked, heart still beating rapidly.
Fen pursed her lips to the side, swirling the cup of elrinic juice in her hands. “I—hmm, I don’t know if I should tell you about what it’s like beyond the gate. I mean, I don’t know if you could handle the truth.”
“What truth?” A brown-furred Vulpes at the nearest table whispered.
“Ack,” Fen pulled her hair back, looking troubled. “I—guess I can tell you. Do you really want me to tell you about the Vulpes Goddesses, the Founders of the Vulpes race?” Cowed by Jian’s early burst of spiritual energy, not one had the heart to retort about the Vulpes Council being goddesses.
Everyone waited silently with bated breath. “Alright,” Fen sighed. “So, where do you believe all Vulpes magic originates?”
“That’s—The Council,” Jalina muttered.
Fen shook her head. “I’ve heard some Vulpes say something like that, but how? Where did it start, what happened? What’s the story?”
They were silent as they all looked down at the floor, scouring their memories. Fen’s brow creased as no one answered. Seriously, no one even has a single story as to how they originated? No one has ever been bold enough to ask that question? Well, I suppose only Vulpes in the Capital would know, and not one of them can even journey there … wow, I never realized how much of an information block that was. Bravo, this Council has seriously done their job. If no outside force arrived, then this would just continue forever!
“You—don’t even know how Vulpes were created?”
Jalina opened her mouth for a moment before closing it. After another few seconds, she shook her head. “No…”
Fen looked around the room; every Vulpes had a shocked or dumbfounded expression as they stared at the floor or table in front of them. “Wow … alright, then would you like me to tell you how everything started? How Vulpes are treated outside? The Founders that can shape realms like this, entire worlds with the snap of their fingers?”
The room was still for only a few seconds before Lumia spoke up, “Yes, please!” Fen smiled at the spark in her eyes, the thirst for answers. Child’s play.
“The first Founder was known as The Vulpes, she was the first fox to unlock magical powers; no one is sure how that happened, it was countless ages ago, before even this realm ever existed or even the realm beyond the red gate. This Vulpes then had children; the lore is not clear who with, but the two beings that were born were Inari and Mia, the Second Generation Founders.
“The First Founder, Vulpes, taught the first foxes magic, unlocking their magical potential. Every Vulpes is descended from those first students of that First Founder. The history isn’t clear why, but she disappeared, no one knows what happened to her, but her daughters stayed among us. Inari, the older sister, she founded the Kitsune, further unlocking the potential of Vulpes to reach their utmost power.”
Lifting her white tail, she stroked the fur. “This tail is Inari’s gift. I attended one of her gatherings in a realm, similar to this world that she created for that express purpose. Do you know what I found when I arrived?”
Enthralled by her story, Lumia shook her head. “What was there?”
“Ogres, an entire empire,” Fen growled, vision narrowing.
Jalina cleared her throat at Fen’s tone. “What is an empire and Ogres?”
“A vile creature; they stand over eight feet tall, some warriors can even grow as tall as twelve. An empire is a massive nation, think about your Capital city and all the surrounding towns across the land, that is an empire. Clad in heavy armor, swords, axes, hammers, bows and using strange ritualistic magic, they captured Vulpes that entered the realm. You see, Inari doesn’t have her meetings for hundreds of years at a time, and in that space, the Ogres made it their home. They made a sport out of hunting Vulpes and keeping their tails for trophies!
“Imagine it,” she began to weave the magic to illustrate her story. “A hulking monster with bulging muscles, wearing all manner of tools of death, chasing after a young single-tail, fleeing for her life as wolves pursue, trained for the sole purpose of stalking Vulpes. Capturing a Vulpes, leaving a mark of capture in her body before throwing her back into a cell, spelled to resist magical attempts of escape.
“The next day, forced back into the jungle for the hunt, and if the Vulpes didn’t increase the time it took for them to capture her, she was killed. This continued day after day as different Ogre Hunters sought to find the cleverest, most resilient Vulpes, the most challenging hunt until they surpassed some record. This was a mark of advancement, and this game varied among different tailed Vulpes.”
Lumia’s eyes were wide with horror, clear that she’d never even dreamed of such a nightmare. “How—how long did this last?”
Fen hummed darkly. “I came in on the tail end of this empire; a few Vulpes told me of their trials, starvation, dehydration, lack of sleep even. One was a five-tail, restriction tattoos were placed on their body to control her, she’d been there for over a hundred years and was nearing her last hunt when they’d finally take her tails. Her mind wasn’t … all she thought about was methods to—she only thought about escaping the Elite Ogre Hunters.”
“I don’t…” Jalina seemed lost for words.
“Did that change when you arrived?” Lumia pressed, scooting closer to her.
Finishing the rest of her juice, Fen nodded with a light smile. “It most certainly did. You see, I was nearing the final point of the appointed time for the meeting. When I arrived, there were much higher tailed Vulpes already combating the Ogre legion, but it was a hard-pressed battle with their numbers and preparations around the gate. The thing holding the tide was the several seven-tails that had recently entered, Kumiho and even a Nogitsune.”
She showed the image of several Vulpes showering the Ogre defenses with all forms of elemental, arcane, and manipulative magic that made the Ogre army chaotic with puppet Ogre Warriors; recovering many captured Vulpes as they fought with vicious efficiency, they worked together to defend the weakened and wounded younger Vulpes. The room was filled with tension and excitement at the small victories they witnessed and winced at each wound a Vulpes received.
“The seven-tails were powerful, but even they couldn’t handle an entire Ogre empire. They were quickly running out of energy and retreating back toward the portal as the Ogre Elite Hunters began to target them … one fell, wounded by several of the Elites, killed and stripped of her tail; the Hunter that delivered the killing blow holding up her tails to the retreating Vulpes in victory.”
Tears fell down a few of the Vulpes’ cheeks as they witnessed the scene, every tail bristled. “Jian was rushing me back to the portal, but we were ambushed several times.” Ogres in chainmail, plate, and holding weapons drenched in poison or cursed with dark magic appeared around the space as she showed them several Vulpes huddling around her and Jian, Jian transforming into his true form. “Jian was swift, shredding every foe that stepped before us. We were nearly at the gate when it happened…”
She fell silent, causing Lumia’s ears to twitch. “What? What?”
Fen breathed in deeply, looking up; the ceiling was replaced with an open sky as she wove the magic. “She appeared … Inari. More radiant than the sun, she appeared in the sky ahead of us.”
Every Vulpes seemed to weaken at the knees and hold their breath as Fen felt tingles run down her own body; she showed an image of the perfect goddess above them, flanked by two of her Myōbu. “She’s … not even The Council…” Jalina muttered, eyes wide in disbelief.
“More radiant than anything,” Fen whispered. “Flanked by two of her most powerful Myōbu; Vulpes like you or me that have had every thread of potential unlocked within them, they stand beyond any Vulpes besides Founders themselves.”
Swallowing reflexively as she recalled the image; Jian and her rose into the air with every other monster and Vulpes that came for the meeting, rising toward her shimmering presence. The women around the room watched with bated breath, unable to breath as Inari’s image descended from the sky until they could see her stony orange gaze. The floor vanished to show the army below them, every Ogre paralyzed by Inari’s presence.
“The only thing she said was—Suke … the name of the most powerful non-Founder Vulpes, her right hand.” The room’s gaze shifted to the gold-furred Myōbu to Inari’s right; every one of her nine tails held unique glowing silver designs and strange runes. She had porcelain skin, a traditional Japanese kimono, and her hair was in a bun, held by a beautiful white and pink kanzashi. Her expression was hidden behind a beautiful fox mask.
She lifted her delicate hand and drew a white symbol in the air as she began to glow a radiant white. There were gasps all around the room as roots shot up from the ground from everywhere, wrapping around every Ogre in sight in a split second, snaking around their bodies; no sooner than it touched them, they began to wither before their eyes, life force ripped away, leaving only husks.
Fen licked her lips, nervous tingles still prickling her skin and making her fur stand on end. “I learned after—every Ogre, male, female, child, elderly, every Ogre in the entire realm met the same fate. Not one was spared—it happened in seconds, an entire world—every creature’s life force removed.” She swallowed, lips dry. “All done by Suke, not even Inari herself, but someone that’s an insignificant speck compared to the Goddess.”
More than a few Vulpes dropped to their knees at the overwhelming revelation, staring at Inari’s cold expression as she observed the genocide below; Jian’s emotions flew through their link as he realized her desire, and even a tad bit of fear touched his consciousness as he contemplated the possible consequences. “This…” Fen sucked on her lower lip for a moment. “This—is a Goddess—a Founder. She’s able to enhance normal Vulpes like you or I—enhance us to do this … that is the kind of gift a Founder can bestow. If Inari wanted, she could have snapped her fingers and destroyed the entire realm, reforming it at the same time to whatever she desires.”
Jalina was supporting herself against the bar, eyes unable to turn away from the image of Inari, voice hoarse. “But … The Council members—they must be at the location to change—I never—these kinds of worlds—these horrors—they’re beyond the gate—these powers?” Her body shook with terror, as did several other Vulpes, but Fen could feel the anticipation and reverence building in Lumia and several others.
Fen smiled in a compassionate way. “Oh, there are much more terrible and wonderful things that happen beyond the gate; it’s a contrast, where there is horror there is bliss. There are beings so powerful that they can make you strong enough to wipe out the life of an entire realm in moments, with a flick of your wrist, effortlessly—to never fear for your life again. That is the blessings you can have from Founders … and there is one that has entered your realm.”
They all turned to her, tear stained eyes wide. “Yes,” she erased the illusions, feeling her magic beginning to reach its limit from all her complex weaves and replaced it with a simple image of Sora. “The Third Generation Founder, Sora, daughter of Mia, niece of Inari—she can unlock your potential, just like Inari did to Suke—you can become goddesses, capable of that magic.”
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