Sora passed a few plates as they took turns moving around the platters, loading their plates with food. She noticed Wendy trying to hide her glare, eyes darting to Kari every so often. Kari must have seen, but ate quietly, keeping to herself.
Ashley and Alice weren’t touching the food they’d prepared, choosing instead to smile at the others as they helped themselves.
“So,” Mary said, eyeing some of the purple dishes that were passed to her. “What—are all of these dishes? I mean, those look like purple eggs and ham.”
“Purple eggs and ham,” Nathan chuckled.
“For real,” Ashley giggled. “It tastes surprisingly similar. They have some strange ingredients here, but Alice was giving me a rundown.”
“What—color are your eggs?” Liz asked, suppressing a yawn. A smirk curved her lips as she helped herself to a fairly large portion, “Yellow?”
“Yes, actually,” Mary smiled.
“Weird,” she mumbled.
After a moment of silence, Mary looked around at the group as they slowly began eating. She cleared her throat. “I suppose I’ll be the one to ask. I don’t want to interrupt you just as you started eating, but … what have you decided, Sora?”
Sora swallowed the purple eggs she’d just taken a bite of; it did taste a little more potent than what she was used to. Taking a sip of the juice in front of her, she paused; it reminded her of a mix between apple juice and orange juice. She laid her utensils across her plate before releasing a long sigh; everyone eyed her expectantly.
“To be honest, I ended up actually resting last night. My aunt said I needed to rest my Spiritual Network, but she said some things yesterday that stuck with me.”
Looking for the right words, she shifted her tails a little across her lap. “I think … I want to be honest with them. If they ask for help, then I don’t want to deny them. That being said, I don’t know how to fix this place … I don’t know nearly enough. I fear that I could make things worse for them if I tried.
“I know the people here are hurting … I don’t know how to help them. Maybe I’ll change my mind as things go on, but for right now, I don’t plan on making this public knowledge. I’ll tell Mimi what I’ve done, and see what she wants to do.”
She licked her lips nervously, glancing between Alice and Liz. “I promise that I’ll help both of you however I can, and Kari has two Vulpes she’s asked me to help … I can’t stretch myself too thin, though, and I don’t really want to shout it from the rooftops. We just—have a lot on our plate, and we’re a small group … there’s no way I can fix every Vulpes in this entire realm.”
“I was wondering about that,” Liz mumbled, drawing everyone’s eye. “You’re supposed to be a Goddess, right? You don’t have the power to do what The Council does, though?”
“She’s only sixteen years old,” Mary said in her defense. “She’s only known she’s a Founder for … what, two weeks?”
“Yeah, it’s impressive she’s been able to do as much as she has,” Nathan sighed.
“What about Emilia? Is she stronger than Sora?” Liz pressed.
Emilia tensed, choking as she tried swallowing her foot. “N-no way! I—I don’t know how to do anything…” She mumbled.
Sora’s lips pursed as she read Liz’s Core, trying to understand her question; the others looked a little troubled as she watched Liz’s confused expression.
“Ah,” Sora’s ears twitched as her head dropped to the back of her chair. “You want to know how you’ll develop compared to us.”
“I mean … I just,” Liz sat back, ears laid back as she looked off to the side, “I just don’t really want to go into the fields today, and—and I don’t know what I should do. I was thinking—I don’t know—maybe I could just go explore the far forest. I’ve never been that far.” She mumbled.
Alice was rubbing her left arm, ears as flat as Liz’s. “It might seem strange to all of you—maybe, but you see—for over a century, we’ve been doing the same things, every day, and—I understand how Liz feels. It’s just a little stressful … this is the first time we’ve ever felt like not working.”
Ashley giggled. “What that must feel like … to be motivated to do something all the time. Well—manipulated to do something, I suppose … it makes it sound less appealing.”
“I don’t know—I really enjoyed my work,” Nathan said between bites.
“You were a workaholic, though,” Sora said with a soft smile. She frowned as Kari finished her plate and got up, taking her plate to the kitchen. “Kari?”
She stopped, turning with a questioning frown.
“Umm—where are you going?”
Kari’s cheeks pursed to the side before she sighed. “I just feel like going on another walk … I have some things to think about. Why—is there something you need?”
Sora shook her head, smiling at her; she seemed troubled about something. “No, sorry, I was just curious.”
“Have a good walk,” Ashley said, waving her goodbye.
“Yeah,” Kari whispered, staring down at her plate. “I’ll wash my dish and come back later … thanks again, Sora.” Turning away, she walked into the kitchen.
Sora sighed, turning back to the group; Wendy glared at the closed door before rolling her eyes.
Eyia cleared her throat. “Sister, has something changed with your relationship with the wolf?”
Adding a smile, she nodded. “Yes, we’re friends now.”
“Wow,” Mary whispered, brow creased as she looked back at the door. “You…”
“I can tell you the story later,” Sora cut in. “Anyways, I’m actually pretty hungry … well, I don’t need to eat, but it tastes good.” She chuckled. “Thanks, Ashley, Alice.”
Ashley folded her arms. “Don’t mention it; stress cooking helps ease my nerves … the kids always love it when I had a deadline or big meeting coming up.” She said fondly.
Eyia finished the food she was eating before saying, “I’m excited to meet them.”
“I’m sure they’d love to meet you too, Eyia,” Ashley’s laugh turned nervous. “Just—they’re kids, and not Asgardian gods … be gentle—please.”
“Of course,” Eyia nodded.
Jin cleared her throat after drinking some juice, a grin on her face. “Translation—we’ll start with tactical movement.”
“That would be a good place to start,” Eyia hummed. “I would often sneak into the Dothaed’s hole; the mad dwarf had a short-lived memory. It was quite easy to steal his food during the winters.”
Ashley’s smile was forced. “As fascinating as that is … please, nothing dangerous—just playing.”
“Of course, we’ll have great fun!” Eyia promised.
Jin’s breathed through her teeth, glancing off to the side with a slight shake of her head.
Mary giggled. “I think fun translates as training to Eyia.”
The others pursed their lips with solemn nods, causing Eyia to glance around at them in utter confusion.
“I—do not understand the atmosphere. Is training not fun for you?”
Nathan smiled. “Yeah, it can be. I enjoyed some of the paintball training exercises the department would set up. By the way, Eyia, are dwarfs small?”
Eyia’s brow furrowed. “Not the ones I have battled. Are they small in the Human Realm?”
“Well, my image’s shattered,” Nathan muttered, “and nope, no dwarves in the Human Realm … well, depends … I guess there are human dwarfs.”
They paused as Kari opened the kitchen door, empty-handed; without making eye contact, she moved to the door, eyes low, as if deep in thought.
“Bye,” Sora called.
She turned and waved, a forced smile on her lips before she disappeared through the front door, shutting it behind her.
“Human—Dwarves?” Eyia seemed utterly perplexed at the notion. “The dwarfs I am aware of are muscular, misshapen creatures; they are about the same size as the humans I have seen, similar to Nathan. They are quite hideous to look upon and have diverse powers.
“The creatures are quite taken by the opposite gender of different races, including Asgardian and human, so you must be careful around them. The females seek affection from powerful males of other races, and the males chase beautiful women. I slew the fourteen dwarfs on the island before leaving.”
Jin grimaced, her nose twisting. “They were a debauched lot … perverted. They have quite the colorful language; I had to restrain myself. I almost killed them … the way they talked to me.”
“That doesn’t sound very appealing,” Alice mumbled. “Is that normal?”
“Not like them,” Jin grunted, grabbing one of the meat dishes and digging in.
“I could teach you where their major arteries are,” Eyia offered with an innocent smile. “What are these human dwarfs, though?”
Everyone turned to Nathan, causing him to groan. “I should have kept my mouth shut … it’s a congenital disability … really small humans—they call themselves dwarfs, midgets, or little people … it depends on the person.”
“Why? Dwarfs may be smaller than gods, but they are not children. Do you call children such things too? I do not think children are misshapen, degenerate, ugly creatures.”
Githa giggled on the couch, and Jin lifted her eyebrows, waiting for Nathan to respond as the others quickly shoved food in their mouths.
“Uh,” Nathan breathed in through his teeth before shooting it out; he scratched his scalp, glancing around to find an answer. “We don’t—I mean kids aren’t the same thing as dwarfs…”
“Yes, that is why I’m confused,” Eyia said.
“You’re—conflating little people—with children … they’re different. Little people are adults humans that—that are just really small.”
“Oh—I see … how strange. I have never seen one of your little people,” Eyia said with a thoughtful expression. “I have a difficult time imagining how they would look.”
Nathan cleared his throat. “So … what other creatures were on that, umm, island?”
Sora wiped her mouth with the cloth next to her plate, getting up as she finished. “Alright, Ashley, I’ll just clean up, and we can go.”
“Please, don’t worry about it,” Alice said, rising to her feet. “I’ll get your dish.”
“Ah, sister,” Eyia said, turning away from her conversation with Nathan. “I will join you after finishing my meal and discussing this topic with Nathan. I wish to examine the images, and I look forward to meeting your family, Ashley.”
Nathan’s head drooped at the curiosity in her tone.
Ashley took a deep breath as she scooted back, rubbing her thighs. “Okay.” Her fingers were trembling as she used the armrests to lift herself. “I don’t know why I’m so nervous.” She chuckled.
Everyone wore an encouraging smile, and she followed Sora out.
“Thanks for cooking and cleaning up my plate, Alice,” Sora called back, shutting the door behind Ashley. She took the lead, Ashley following behind.
Sora paused as she caught a scent on the breeze, flowing from the opposite direction. She looked back, vision shifting between a few humans and Vulpes, and her focus centered on Olivia.
Olivia was wearing a simple long-sleeve dress with two blue ribbons on her left wrist, and beside her was a three-tailed Vulpes she’d seen at the meeting with Mimi. This Vulpes had three blue ribbons tied to her forearm. They were heading right for them.
Ashley turned, brow creasing with worry as she caught sight of the pair. “Is it already time to meet Mimi?” She whispered.
Both Vulpes shook their heads, picking up their pace to close the distance. The new Vulpes spoke first. “I apologize, Sora, but Mimi is feeling a little worse for wear this morning. Is it possible to postpone the meeting until later tonight?”
“Of course,” Sora breathed a sigh of relief. “I’m a little busy this morning, as well.”
“Is something wrong?” Olivia asked, glancing between them with a slight frown.
Sora pursed her lips to the side, vision darting to Ashley; she was shifting nervously. Should I tell them? I don’t want to lie … it could cause a lot of problems later.
“I know this might seem … tough to swallow,” Ashley’s hands tightened around her stomach as she looked down. “I—I want to be as open as possible,” Sora continued. “We’re going to get Ashley’s husband and kids; I understand you don’t know what a husband is, and children are pups.”
“I—see,” the new Vulpes whispered, turning to stare back the way they’d come with a slightly nervous edge. “Umm—might I join you? I’d like to understand—just a little, about how you bypass the gate … if that is alright with you.”
Sora paused for a moment but nodded. “I—completely understand. I have no objections … Ashley?”
Ashley shook her head; her throat was dry. “No—I have no objections, either.”
The Vulpes breathed a relieved sigh. “Thank you, Sora, and you don’t prefer any other name—do you?”
She was a little taken aback by her reluctance. “No—no, Sora’s my name … that will work just fine. What’s your name?”
The woman winced, and Sora noticed her ears twitch as her tails moved to twist around each other, but she caught herself; tails spreading out again, she took a quick breath before saying, “Gurakuqi, Lady Sora; I am second to Lady Mimi.”
“Umm—Sora’s fine … lady makes me think of my aunt.” She chuckled.
“Ah—I have offended you,” she mumbled, ears drooping.
“No, not at all!” Sora forced a smile. “I’m just … not really—my aunt’s elegance makes it natural for me to see people calling her lady, but me … I’m just a bumbling teenager.”
Both Olivia and Gurakuqi’s eyebrows rose as they glanced at each other. “That … I have not heard anyone speak about themselves in such a way before. It is … unfamiliar.” Olivia said, choosing her words carefully.
“It’s fine. Like I said, Sora’s my name, so that will do.”
“Very well, thank you, Sora.” Turning to Olivia, Gurakuqi’s lips curved into a smile that was obviously fake. “Please take care of Lady Mimi in my absence.”
“Of course,” Olivia said, bowing slightly. “I will take my leave, then.” At their nod, she turned and walked away, tails swaying with her exit.
Sora raised her eyebrows. “Well—should we get going?”
“Yes, please, I don’t wish to interrupt … just observe.”
They walked back the way they’d come, moving along the main road since she didn’t know how else to get to the proper path back to the Red Gate. She noticed their dresses were gathering a lot of attention, and it seemed Gurakuqi couldn’t keep her eyes off her.
“Is—something wrong with our clothes?”
Gurakuqi gave a start, quickly turning away her gaze. “Oh, no—no, they’re just—they’re lovely. I have not seen such quality items … the only thing I can compare it to is—is The Council.” She whispered.
“Well, the humans beyond the Red Gate have advanced in a lot of ways,” Sora chuckled. “They’ve made big improvements to clothing over the ages.”
Gurakuqi’s eyes widened. “The humans—they give you gifts?”
Sora pursed her lips, glancing at Ashley as she silently followed beside her, eyes downcast. She could smell her trepidation from the chemicals her body released. “Humans do give gifts to those they love … I made these last night, though.”
“You—made them? Those entire—the entire thing—in one night?” She asked with disbelief.
“Oh, I had magic, of course,” Sora laughed it off. “I made several dozen outfits; no one had any clothes, and they were torn or could barely pass as clothing. I just thought it would be nice if everyone had something of their own to wear.”
“That’s really thoughtful,” Gurakuqi mumbled. “I’ve never—that would have been a precious gift to receive, and you made clothing like those for—for everyone? Such delicate blue dresses … and those strange shoes?”
“Not a dress like mine,” Sora smirked, imagining Nathan in the outfit. “No, I gave them a lot of options … well, I guess I can just say magic. I gave them the liberty to choose out of every piece of clothing that I’ve owned or thought about buying.”
“I never could have imagined such a custom existed,” she whispered. “What is … buying?” She asked, testing the word on her tongue.
“Umm—I give up something of value to get something we both believe is a worthy equivalent. It’s kind of like an exchange of goods.”
“I see…” Gurakuqi fell as silent as Ashley as they made it to the edge of town, walking along the road that lead up to the Red Gate.
Sora took a deep breath to smell the sweet scent of the fruit on the trees around them. The human and Vulpes hadn’t begun working the fields, so the further they moved toward the forest, the quieter it got.
She smiled as she glanced around the fields. “Ashley.”
“Huh—what was that?” She asked, pulling back her blonde hair to look at her.
“I didn’t expect you to be this nervous. What’s going on?”
“It’s—this is just a big change. I’m worried about the kids … what if they suddenly hate me? What if Eyia’s too rough? What if this wasn’t the right choice … what if Brandan doesn’t…”
“Hey, that’s a lot of what’s! You gotta calm down.” Sora soothed. “You saw how upset your children were … they missed you to death.”
“Yeah … I know … knowledge, but it’s just hard emotionally…”
They fell back into silence, and eventually, they made it to the forest. The scene brought back memories of their first entrance to the realm with Rayla and Luna. The sounds of birds and insects escalated. Sora was doing her best to keep a strong face, but she was beginning to worry herself.
Inari said it’d be fine, but … if Bathin’s there. Why wouldn’t he be? She said she’d rather we fight the Vulpes Council rather than this guy that teamed up with Bathin. Why don’t you ever tell me everything! She fumed.
“Because information is important,” her aunt answered slyly.
There you are! Okay, whatever, but what did you do with Kari? You wanted to show her something, right?
“Indeed. Kari needs a kick in the butt to get her moving. You realized how broken she is? Her declaration that she’d die if you did … you’ve given her a line, and if that snaps, then she’ll drop into a place few have returned from, and never the same. That isn’t healthy, though. What we need to do is strengthen her, to give her some of her confidence back.”
I can see that … I feel like I need to be there for everyone, but there’s only one of me. I mean, you could help me with Intellectual Constructs, but I doubt that’s the answer. Each person really needs personal attention.
“You were talking about an exchange with Gurakuqi … what is the most expensive thing?”
“Good guess, but time is only a small portion of a larger root. Experience, Sora … you can have a ton of time but gain little experience. Experience is costly and requires many attributes that can fortify or shatter someone. They can be easy, tough, painful, joyful, and repugnant … all at the same time. It is the hardest thing taught, and the most valuable thing we can impart.”
I haven’t thought about it like that.
“You can seriously damage someone by robbing them of experience … that is one of the reasons why ethical discussions on murder can be so vehement. Experience is not just feelings either, but so much more; it’s like conflating knowledge, understanding, and wisdom … they are not the same thing.”
What should I do? Am I robbing this realm of experience by offering them something more?
“It’s a complicated question; it’s like discussing the rights or wrongs of colonization, technological advancement, religion, and so many other deep topics. The Native Americans lived on your continent for millennia, and they had yet to advance as a society in the least.
“They hadn’t domesticate horses, learn how to use the wheel, and were a bloodthirsty warring people; they would cannibalize, scalp, and murder enemy villages with extreme prejudices. Rape women and girls in front of their parents; skin parents in front of children, and do all manner of savage things … much of the history you’re taught glosses over many facts.
“You have the colonizers that came in and saw such horrors, and being in a much more mellow society that had dispensed with many of these cruelties, took a stand. Were they right or wrong?”
I guess it’s debatable, and relating it to us and what I’m worried about. She repressed a sigh. The settlers did bad stuff, too, though, right?
“Of course, nothing is ever one-sided; both sides shoulder blame. It’s like the Aztec and Inca; they had a ton of gold, but how did they get it? By brutalizing and enslaving others, conquering on their warpath, sacrificing to their blood gods, and here comes the Spanish, and they aren’t okay with that.
“Four-hundred men taking over an entire empire? Impossible, but they had the support of the slaves that wished to rid themselves of their slave owners. Were they pure and righteous all the time? Of course not. Did they wish to help? Yes. There is so much more to stories than what you are normally told.”
What about the smallpox blankets and mass genocide Columbus did? I don’t want to do anything like that! I know that we might have brought diseases in.
“Indeed, but you can be thankful that this energy coming up from the earth destroyed the harmful viruses; it has its good. Also, your people throw around the word genocide too loosely. It could not be applied to the Native Americans by definition; it dilutes the meaning.
It was merely a war where both sides won battles and lost battles, broke bread and had peace for fifty years at one time, and times where trust was betrayed on both sides, with the Native American’s eventual defeat. Who do you think broke that time of peace?”
The Native Americans?
“No, dear, the settlers; the decendents of those that brokered that treaty. As I said, war is never fair, and there is also a price that must be paid. The Native Americans were slaughtered, the settlers were slaughtered; they both sought peace, they both broke peace.
“Because they did not domesticate animals, such as horses, they were susceptible to certain viruses with the introduction of these new creatures, like any people that come into contact with a new culture.
“However, that myth of viral warfare is rather laughable, Sora, think about it for a moment. What would happen if you told the settlers there were little things all around them they couldn’t see, and it could be used as the most deadly weapon they could ever use?”
Sora’s brow furrowed for a moment. Wait … they’d just call it witchcraft; they didn’t know about germs back then.
“Yes, and saying that they engaged in viral warfare is quite laughable; it is merely propaganda retold by the ignorant that don’t look into the details of what they were told. Was it sad that so many died? Of course, but such is the way of the world and the darkness in all of humanity. Yet, many species destroy other species; it is the natural order to struggle against one’s environment.
“The Native Americans destroyed countless species, hunting them to extinction, and butchered many other cultures; the settlers broke treaties and did their own fair share of ruthless acts. Many also willingly wanted to join this new culture because of its advancements.
“Millennia of savage behavior, and then in less than a few decades, look at what has become of the product. Look what good has come of it; the culture continued to advance … you cannot change culture instantly, but the United States has managed to do a great many landmark things in such a short amount of time, and that is because it is a nation of immigrants.
“Cultures mix and match; it’s just natural. Is death inherently evil because it’s a natural process? No. Can it be tragic? Yes. The world is a complicated place, and everyone does evil and is capable of doing good; no one’s hands are clean.”
So … to cheer me up, you’re saying I’m going to make mistakes, and that’s okay. I just need to do my best to live as best I can. That … actually does make me feel a little better.
“Just like the settlers, you will make mistakes, and you will also do a lot of good; at some point in your future, you will have the desire to enact some terrible atrocious act of vengeance, which is not an if, but when, and how you handle that will affect the rest of your life. It was the same for every culture since cultures are just a group of people with specific ideals.
“We’ve already discussed the topic of whether people should be forced to live your own personal creed or pay the consequences. Isn’t life fun?”
Complicated … too complicated.
“Well, you’re coming upon the entrance. Have fun!”
Sora groaned as she scratched her ears.
“Something wrong?” Gurakuqi asked.
“No … just had some thoughts that are too sophisticated and entangled for the morning … my age. I shouldn’t be thinking about this kind of stuff, but life was never fair.” She mumbled, forcing a chuckle as she looked upon the entrance. “You ready, Ashley?”
Ashley’s lips were tucked under as she shook her head, voice a squeak, “No—not really … but you’re right; life was never fair.”
Taking a deep breath, they went inside.