1.Kari (The Bully Turned Shy Friend!)
Recap: Eyia just super blew through every Vulpes without her armor or weapons … shedding their fur by freezing it off their tails as the condition … Unfortunately, Kaizer didn’t keep his word, and well … considering he sealed the challenge in a vow with the Barnstokkr Tree … She just up and arrested the dude for trial. Poor Eyia, though; she’s gonna have to have an audience with the powerful figure, too.
Now, we go to Kari!
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Kari glanced back at the stoic Valkyrie that had grown silent after the dumb male Vulpes broke a contract with the Barnstokkr tree. Of course, she’d heard of the legends; her family had made the Asgardian interwoven realms their home for eons, which meant her mother naturally recounted tales to them before bed.
It was a rather stupid thing for him to do, but considering he’d never experienced anything outside of this messed-up city, Kari was more surprised at Eyia. Surely, she should have been more intelligent than this … She certainly acted high and mighty.
According to her mother’s stories, the Barnstokkr required a complete account from both parties before judgment was cast. Eyia would likely be cross-examined by the ancient wooden being when she next slept, bringing to question her own decision to enter into a binding agreement with the Vulpes. If she’d done it simply to invoke the Barnstokkr’s contract with the knowledge he would break the bond, then she would not be let off so easily.
Kari’s mouth creased, her dull amber irises returning to Sora as she acted tough and uncaring. Mofuspi vanished in golden light, working on conducting her little competition to fill Kaizer’s place among the Yellow Faction’s hierarchy.
You’re getting over your head … again, she wanted to say, but ever since she’d connected with Sora’s Core, it had been difficult to speak in general. There was so much she wanted to say—to apologize for, and learn about Sora—to yell at her and tell the overcaring fox she’s stupid—to get her to knock off her ridiculous fox games, but she couldn’t.
Sora gave her a sly smirk, probably thinking Kari was judging her performance as an A-grade performance … not that it took much to convince people to do what you say when you have the power to blow up their entire Realm.
“Humph…” Kari stood off to the side with the two Vulpes brats Sora had saved.
Niki had been enchanted by Eyia’s performance, more interested in the ice than her trained movements, but her older sister was more starstruck by Sora’s take-charge attitude—which was totally new to her, and having touched the girl’s Core, she knew her friend was playing with fire by tapping further into her Shadow.
Still, some parts of her change Kari approved of—the teasing and constant jabs she could do without.
A low growl rumbled in her throat, and her thick black tail swished to the opposite side as Sora calculatingly went down the line of Vulpes that had gathered, scanning their Cores to determine who she’d bring to the next level. Predictably, she found a lot she didn’t like about the women, walking up and down the lines without selecting a single one.
You’re not gonna find a perfectly innocent Vulpes among this crowd—Just pick some at random, geez … it’s not complicated. The real problem’s about to arrive, though…
Kari’s lips tightened, focus darting to her left as everyone jumped; Mofupsi was back—and she’d brought Sora’s winnings.
She could sense Sora’s uncertainty through the slight twitch her ear gave and how her tail lifted two centimeters. Sora, Sora, Sora … You really had no clue what you would do with the boy when you ‘won’ him … In Mofuspi’s eyes, he’s basically your slave now.
Mofupsi couldn’t have missed the small hints of discomfort that Sora exhibited, but perhaps she was just too in-tuned to it since they’d shared that brief bonding moment. Although, if Sora did know, then why would she keep teasing her?
The yellow-furred Vulpes gave no indication she could see Sora’s unease, plopping the confused and disoriented boy on his butt atop the immaculate stone floor. “Here’s your prize, Sora! Oh, I’ve gotta get back to the other stuff—Heh, don’t be too rough with him!”
Really… Kari glared at the snickering nine-tailed Vulpes. “Hold up.”
“W-What’s happening?” Zeri whispered, cinnamon-colored fluffy tail shifting left and right while turning to understand what was happening. “I was … There was so much red, and … You…” he stopped on Niki’s sister, fixated on her arm. “You’re…”
“She’s healed!” Niki squealed; the small fox child was wiggling back and forth in her sister’s tight embrace. “Lady Sora healed my sister!”
Mofupsi’s mouth fell, turning her attention to Kari as Eyia released all of the Vulpes in her spiritual prison. “Oh? Is there something you need … Your name was…”
Sora’s brow furrowed, two tails doing their best not to twist around each other while her scattered brain tried to process which thing she should focus on. “Kari…”
She held up her hand. “No—I have this…” Someone has to because you can’t think clearly when it comes to innocent kids like this.
Her friend’s green eyes creased, adding a clearly forced smirk, turning away with a shrug. “Eh … yeah … whatever…” she tried to play it off.
Sora … No, she grew up in a totally different environment than I did…
Sighing, Kari glanced over at the defeated Vulpes; they were numb, minds slow-moving gears as they tried to come to terms with the results of their failure. On the other hand, Zeri, the poor innocent boy, was slowly regaining his bearings—judging by his reaction, the yellow-furred Vulpes had forced him away with magic and teleported them here.
“Where … Oh, are we in the square for the test … I’ve never seen the Fur Stripping Ceremony … Is that Eselia, and…”
Zeri’s mouth dropped open as he saw Mofupsi floating behind him with her legs crossed, but anything anyone would have said was drowned out by the sudden screams of the furless Vulpes as they caught sight of the cinnamon-tailed boy.
“Goodness…” Mofuspi muttered, leaning back to glare at the fleeing women, all hugging their hairless tails from the embarrassment of being seen by their idol.
Expectedly, given the chaotic emotions flooding the atmosphere, Sora’s expression started to crack—Vulpes, more than 400 years old, couldn’t live with the fact a 17-year-old boy had seen their naked tails—Kari knew it would come to this with the boy leaving them.
Kari enhanced her voice, volume normal to those around her. “Mofuspi, if you could allow Mary into the 5th-Level, then we’d leave Zeri here for the time being.”
All the four and five-tailed Vulpes froze at her comment; she instantly became the center of attention.
“Fenris Wolf,” Eyia icy spheres hounded her, a dangerous aura expelling from the girl as Kari folded her arms and shifted her hips to return the glare, “what are you scheming?”
Sora hid her shock and concern with a hum. “… What purpose would that serve, Kari?”
Mofupsi’s tails stilled as she listened, tapping her lips with interest.
“Simple,” Kari’s hard amber irises settled on the Asgardian warrior, “if you could thaw that frozen heart and brain for a moment to think.”
“Guys…” Sora moaned, scratching both of her ears. “Can you two get along for a single minute?”
“Unfortunately, it is unlikely, Sister,” Eyia stated. “Fenris Wolves cannot be trusted.”
“Ha!” Kari rolled her eyes. “Yeah, just like Asgardians can be trusted to screw everything up—the vicious cycle, right?” she snapped, taking a note from Jin’s example. “Stupidity running around a hamster cage!”
“… I am not a hamster cage…” Eyia mumbled, vision hazing over with confusion as she tried to understand the comparison and failed. “My … people are not hamsters .. cages, or stupidity!”
“Heh … uh-huh—I’m just recounting history, you overgrown popsicle!”
“P-Popsicle…” Eyia growled. “I am not flavorful ice on a stick!”
Kari smirked, giving her a short shrug. “I suppose you’re right—at least popsicles taste good.”
Eyia’s spear appeared in her hand. “Are you threatening to eat me?!”
Sora jumped between them, but Kari knew she would, and the Valkyrie would back down—it was just one small way she could get back at the stupid Nordic girl. “Hey! Hey! Cut it out … Seriously—We’re in this together.”
“Whatever…” Kari mumbled, jabbing her finger at the cowering teenage Vulpes. “Anyway—the boy’s dead weight.” Her statement caused every four and five-tailed Vulpes’ eyes to level poison-coated daggers at her, yet she continued anyway, ignoring Eyia.
“Mary’s stronger than this entire district combined—There’s no chance anyone could lay a finger on her, and you know it. She’ll keep an eye on the boy—We can’t have anyone else watch your winnings, or they might ‘gobble’ him up,” she mumbled, rolling her eyes again.
“Oh … True, I guess…” Sora whispered, folding her arms while still giving Eyia and her a leery gaze; at least Eyia put away her weapon.
Mofupsi clasped her hands together while leaning forward to study them. “How … fascinating! Perhaps the two of you can enter the ring against one another at one point,” she chortled. “It certainly seems both of you need it.”
“We’ll stay in our own lane,” Sora growled. “Heh, you would need that to actually cause some damage, though. Right, Kari?”
Kari huffed, walking away to meditate in the tiny bit of free time they’d been given. “As if that would be a competition at all.”
“So you do admit your head would be on my spear,” Eyia laughed.
“Heh … Typical Asgardian—dream big and die lonely.”
The retort had more effect than Kari anticipated because the blonde girl’s jaw snapped shut.
“My … Your group is just throwing my whole district into chaos. He-he-he,” Mofupsi grinned, glancing around at the hopeful and apprehensive Vulpes. “Hmm … You understand, these Vulpes have never even seen a human, Sora … That’s not until the 4th-Level, but I suppose it’s acceptable, for now.”
She snapped her finger as the crowd parted for Kari. “Tola, if you could be so kind as to join me for a moment!”
The blue-furred Vulpes appeared out of shimmer light, scanning the field with a disapproving expression. “… Has something come up, Mofupsi?”
Every fox’s head fell to the smooth stone ground again.
Sora promptly took over, if for no other reason than to get Kari and Eyia’s focus off each other, which was precisely what Kari wanted—to be alone for a while. Plus, she’d provided Sora with just the slight nudge she needed to get out of her little mental trap.
Of course, Eyia’s fixated, hateful look was uncomfortable.
Kari needed time alone, and Sora would be fine, especially if Mary was coming to take over babysitting duties; the human had the full authority and protection of the entire Realm, temporarily granted to her by Sora.
She had to prepare—Eyia showed off on this level, and it would be her turn next … If there was just one thing she could be helpful to Sora in, then it was this … she knew how to make people hate her, and while leaving him here would stop the Vulpes from committing suicide, the moment that small string was pulled away again, the murder in their hearts would have cemented.
It was honestly the best play to maximize their negative emotional generator, and it came naturally to her. Although … It had become more challenging to act that way.
She reached up to vehemently scratch her large, twitching ears. Their next challenge was going to be her show, and her mother was helping her prepare in so many ways.
“… H-Hey!” Reaching the edge of the square as Sora, Mofupsi, and Tola discussed how the 5th-Level would take the human and boy, Kari’s eyebrows came together—Niki and her sister were running after her. “Hey!”
The elder sister’s legs locked up at the dirty look Kari gave her, almost causing the girl to trip, yet Kari’s attention was drawn to the Valkyrie’s intense, fixated blue irises. Geez … Can you chill for like five minutes … I’m not going to eat them … although…
She grimaced, thinking about the rest of her family; in Kari’s heart, she couldn’t blame Eyia for the way she acted—before, the Valkyrie was insufferable, but after gaining a small piece of self-reflection, Kari realized she wasn’t all that different from her uncles after all … Look what she did to Sora and so many other girls.
Her expression further frightening the Vulpes. Niki’s sister swallowed a lump in her throat, two tails tucked under and tightly betwixt. “I—I just wanted to say t-thank you f-for…”
“I’m busy,” Kari dismissed them, brushing back her absurdly thick black hair, her tail flicking to the right with annoyance. “Go bother the blue bitch.”
“You are the filthy female dog,” Eyia shot back in a whisper across the square; the fact she heard her told her all she needed to know.
“Umm … I—I can wait until you’re not busy,” the girl hesitantly whispered, following after her.
“Sis,” Niki hissed, looking up at her. “This one’s the angry one…”
Her sister slowly shook her head, large ears laying back. “No … I—I know she’s not a bad person.”
Kari’s gut tightened, fingers slowly closing into fists as her lips became a line. … I’m not a bad person … I’m not a bad person… “What do you know about me? What’s there to even thank me about…” She growled, storming off.
The few Vulpes ahead of her swiftly parted, leaving her a clear path to the 4th-Level’s gate beyond them … The sisters followed.
Kari wanted to yell at them, chase them off, but she bit her tongue—it just didn’t feel right to shout the foxes down, which caused her temper to further flare.
… What’s wrong with them—with me?! Gah … I totally hate being followed—I hate it! Why is it so hard to tell the stupid kids to back off? Kids? … one chick is like … over a hundred! She’s over five times my age! Shouldn’t she know when to just leave things be … I need to focus…
She stormed through the city streets, finding her way to the gate and sitting outside of it; not a person was in sight, all in attendance at the square to see what would happen to their beloved Zeri.
Trying to work around her feelings, Kari transformed into her Fenris Form, towering over the tiny foxes, which did elicit a frightful shiver from them, but they were far braver than Kari gave them credit for.
She sat down in front of the glistening golden gates, wrapping her tail around her base and closing her eyes to concentrate; the two Vulpes sat across from her, both in their original fox forms. … Are they making fun of me … copying me … How annoying … cool it … calm … deep breaths … tune them out. Nobody’s…
Niki sneezed, sniffing and looking over at her sister. “Psst … Hey! You know, Sora gave me a name—She called me Niki!” she squealed. “Oh! What’s your name again? Didn’t Mom and Dad give you one a long time ago?”
“… Not that long ago … Umm, it was Yeven…”
“Oh, that’s right! Yuphon…”
Yeven smiled, and Kari had a hard time restraining a smile herself.
“Yeah, Niki … yeah, Yuphon works, too…”
“We both have names!”
Unable to find her balance with the distracting pair, Kari cracked open an eye. “… Gmmmgghh…”
They both froze, ears back while staring into her singular, large amber eye that was fixated on them. Finally, a hot, drawn-out puff of air passed through her wolf-like teeth.
“… I can’t concentrate with the two of you flapping your gums … Okay, Yeven … What do you want so you’ll leave me alone?”
Yeven took a deep breath herself, puffing it out before sitting up. “Umm … First, I wanted to thank you for the thing you said on our way to the square.”
Kari’s eyes furrowed. “Thing I said … Oh. When I told you how we found your sister?”
She nodded, eyes utterly serious. “Yes … I was separated from her in the chaos before the rush to the wall—Sora helped her,” her focus fell to the stone, “but … I feel that you had a larger role in that than anyone’s said.”
“Pfft … he-he-he-he,” Kari’s stomach rumbled, her chest heaving. “Bigger—bigger part? I literally did nothing! What are you talking about?”
Yeven cautiously shook her head. “… I don’t think that’s true.”
Falling to her belly to better see them, Kari crossed her front paws, tail swishing back and forth as her mood brightened; she didn’t laugh too often, but this fox was delusional. “Why? Am I lying to you?”
“… I don’t know,” Yeven mumbled. “It doesn’t sound like it—which is confusing.”
“Yuphon … Let’s go see what Sora’s doing—she’s so much nicer.”
Yeven’s two tails shifted over to stroke her sister’s tiny back. “Be patient, Niki.”
“I love that name,” the girl giggled. “Say it again, Yuphon!”
“Niki … Now, give me a second, okay?”
The red-furred older sister gave her a puzzling look. “… I get these feelings, and I think you had a big part in why Sora saved my sister—That’s all I know, and … and I just wanted to say thank you.”
Kari shook her head. “For real—you’re more of a dreaming kid than your little sister. I’m a Fenris Wolf—do you know what that means?”
She shook her head. “No … I don’t know what a Founder is either … What I do know is that you’re a nice creature—You haven’t even thought about eating us like that other woman said.”
Growing less happy about the direction this was going, Kari grunted. “Why did you follow me in the first place … Just to say that?”
Yeven’s chin lowered to her paws, depression in her whispering voice “… I’m afraid, Kari…”
“Nu-uh!” Niki said, scooting over to nudge her side. “Yuphon’s not scared of nothing! My sister’s invincible!”
She wrapped her tails around her sister, snuggling closer to her, yet her voice was still sad. “… I’ve been afraid ever since we woke up in this place—I don’t know how we got here or what we did to deserve this punishment … I just want to feel safe, and—and I feel safe with you,” she smiled, tears coming to her eyes. “I’m sorry we’re bothersome…”
S-Stupid … They’re so stupid … crying—stupid—foxes…
Kari’s throat seized up, unwanted tears wetting her own fur as they ran down her face. “… You think … You feel safe with me?” she choked, desperately trying to understand why her body was breaking down.
Yeven sniffed, her sister now crying as she tuned into the mood. “Y-Yes … I’m sorry, Kari…”
“Why … Why now…” she sobbed, burying her face in her paws.
All Kari wanted was a place to feel safe—to build a home that was safe. She tried at school—to protect the girls under her—failed miserably at it—they hated her—feared her, but here were two random Vulpes she’d barely known existed for more than a few hours, following her around to feel secure.
Is … Is that why I’m still here … Still with Sora? … Sora makes me feel safe … secure … like I shouldn’t hate myself…
“W-Why … Why is life so hard?” Kari cried.
Yeven’s frame trembled next to her sister. “I—I don’t know … It’s always so hard…”
“Why are you crying…” Niki whimpered. “I—I’m sad now … D-Don’t cry, Yuphon…”
It hurt—it hurt worse than the beatings her brother gave her—the hate everyone gave her—everything went back to her brother standing over their mother’s corpse, her flesh and blood glistening on his smiling, tear struck face … she was a naked pup, lying on a mountain of the dead that was the Fenris Curse.
“… I just want my family back…” she whimpered. “… Tiri … Mom … Aiden … Even Eric … I just want my family…”
“M-Me, too…” Yeven cried. “I … I just want to be back home—helping to mine the rocks—I don’t even care about the new stuff…”
It took time for Kari to calm down; the walls she’d built were collapsing—and it was with two random Vulpes. How did it turn out like this?
A shiver ran down her frame as she slowed the burning air pumping out of her throat. “… Stay as long as you like—okay?”
“Mhm…” Yeven smiled. “T-Thank you, Kari.”
“I-Is she nice?” Niki asked, trying to stop her own tears.
Yeven nuzzled her head. “… Really nice.”
“Okay … I like her more.”
“He-he-he…” Kari sniffed, clearing her throat before focusing. “Okay … I’m going to start meditating.”
“We’ll be quiet,” Yeven assured. “It’s time for Niki to sleep, anyways…”
The small child yawned, her small frame spent after crying. “Y-Yeah … I’m sleepy … T-thank you, Yuphon … Khri…”
She gets her own name but no one else’s … Wait, she did get Sora’s right … figures.
Taking a deep breath, Kari retreated into her Core; she couldn’t bring herself to ask for Sora’s help to advance to the next stage of the Outer Body Technique like her mother kept pestering her about—what she did know was enough to get by—she didn’t have to bother Sora.
Her mother was waiting to wrap her arms around her. “I know it’s unfair, Kari … You’re paying for my mistakes and errors … You all are, but you’re not alone anymore.”
“M-Mom … I just stopped crying,” Kari moaned, chest heaving against her mother, trying to feel the heartbeat that no longer existed in her world.
“I know,” she whispered, arms tightening around her. “I know … It may hurt knowing Sora can get her family back while I’m destined to fade away … but you can grow beyond me with her, Kari. There are so many loving, supportive people that are waiting to hold you.”
“… Eyia will never accept me…”
“What?” she mumbled as Alva pulled her back to give her a motherly stare.
“… Eyia is dealing with her own pain and hurt … You all are, and in time, she’ll have no one to rely on but you.”
“I don’t want that responsibility,” Kari mumbled, head falling against her mother’s bosom. “… I’m so tired, Mom…”
“Day by day,” she returned, lifting her chin up to look at her smiling face.
“… Day by day … What?”
“Your life is getting better. Tell me I’m wrong,” she challenged.
Kari wanted to, but she couldn’t lie to her mom. “… I know … It doesn’t make it easier, though.”
“A better life is not an easy one, my daughter,” Alva whispered, gentle arms embracing her again. “Now … You must dig deeper and find the power sleeping within you—your mother mistakenly believed his power lay in the rage, hatred, dominance, and pride.”
“… Pride is a component,” Kari mumbled, brow creasing as her mother turned her attention to a past memory.
It was the first and only time Alva had shown their family the legacy they’d inherited. Her mother’s sleek, silver-furred form radiated with crimson light as she grew, expanding to the size of a small planet in the dimensional plane she’d created.
“It is not pride, my daughter, but courage that is the true source of strength of our family—fear is what restricts us, which is why my brothers will never be our father, no matter how much they consume. To keep up with Sora … You will need to face your own inner demons, Kari.”
“… My own inner demons…” It sounded easy, yet her cut churned at the very thought. “… How can I if…” Kari’s wet eyes widened. “…”
“You understand?” Alva sighed.
A clamp squeezed her heart as she realized why she’d always lost. “… I’m afraid of Eric…”
Her brother’s cocky, looming face leered down at her from a few feet away, causing Kari to whimper and tighten her grip around her mother’s back. “M-Mom…”
Alva soothingly rubbed her back. “Shh … shh … Kari, it’s not going to be easy—but you need to talk to your brother … To understand him … at least a little if you hope to do what you’ve set in your heart.”
Kari couldn’t even look at him, her head buried in her mother’s chest; she couldn’t talk. No … I … I was brave … I faced him … I fought him … I’m strong… Yet, she couldn’t stop trembling.
“No, Kari … You acted out of desperation, which is associated with courage, but far from the real thing—it’s fleeting—temporary, and you do not need to defeat your brother with strength … Remember that.”
“Eh … Mom … Mom?!” she stumbled forward as Alva vanished, leaving her with Eric’s imposing presence standing several feet behind her.
Quakes ran down her frame as she hugged herself, slowly turning to face her pompous brother—this was Eric before that strange change in him … The demon in her heart.
“Now, is that the proper look to be giving your Alpha, Sister?”
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