B3 — 42. Party Crashers
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Sora was about to enter entered the long corridor leading inside the mountain with Ashley and Gurakuqi, but the three-tailed Vulpes paused, causing them to stop.

“Something wrong?”  Sora asked.

A lump dropped down Gurakuqi’s throat; she bit her lip, tails twisting together as she stared at the dimly lit corridor.  “I—I’m not supposed to—to enter…”

Ashley’s brow creased, and she took a deep breath, calming herself.  “But you told us you wanted to come? Did Olivia know?”

Gurakuqi slowly shook her head.

A concerned hum left Sora’s throat.  “Then—are we going to get into trouble taking you inside?”

“Oh—no, no … I—it’s only supposed to be entered by the chosen cleaners, Rayla and Luna…”

“Right,” Ashley muttered.  “I remember that now, but—why did you ask to join then?”

“I wanted to be helpful—to Mimi … I was … I wanted to know more about you, Sora.”

“Me?”  Her lips pursed to the side.  “I—guess you can go back if you want—but why do you want to learn more about me?”

Gurakuqi shook her head, hair bouncing around her face.  “No—no, I need to—to know…”

“Know—what?”  Sora asked, but when Gurakuqi just shuffled her feet, she let go of a sigh.  “Alright, well, you can follow if you want.”

Sora nudged her head toward the entrance, and Ashley walked with her inside, Mimi’s assistant hesitantly in-tow; they passed multiple rooms filled with furniture that must have been used for entertaining guests, and she suddenly realized how strange this realm was.

The Vulpes Realm hasn’t received guests for as long as they can remember, and visitors are only rumors in the capital city, from what Mimi said; Gurakuqi obviously wouldn’t know much.  Why are there so many rooms? I bet we could even find bedrooms inside this mountain if we went exploring … I guess Emilia would have needed someplace to stay while guarding this place.

She must have been so lonely here; she had to erase her presence, live alone, the only other people she’d see would be the twins and waited for something that would likely never happen in her lifetime.  How many others were there before her? No wonder she was a little curious when we came through. Well, she wasn’t the Emilia I know back then.

Turning her attention back to the walls, she hummed thoughtfully, noticing Gurakuqi’s rigid posture as she took everything in.  “There are some nice paintings decorating this place.”

Ashley seemed a little distracted but looked around, clearing her throat a little.  “Y-yes, these are lovely pieces of art. It’s a little strange, to be honest.”

Sora caught Gurakuqi’s folded ears shoot up.  Smiling a little, she asked, “You mean why we didn’t stay here, to begin with?  I guess we would have needed to hunt or something for food.”

“Oh, no,” Ashley chuckled a little, relieving a bit of her nervousness.  “I suppose we could have done that, but we had other things on our minds yesterday … a lot happened yesterday.

“No, what I was thinking is that in a regime, or when a dictator rules a place, they’ll usually burn the books, destroy the art, ruin anything that detracts from the iron utopia they’re trying to build.  We have signs of that in the town, but everything is pristine, and purposefully kept that way. The art quality in the town is of much lower standard; so, why leave these standing?”

“It could be because of magic,” Sora offered, glancing back at Gurakuqi; her ears were pulled back again as she stared at the floor.  “I mean, I haven’t really checked the area out. Maybe I could study the magic in the place a bit more and find some answers.”

“Maybe, but I think that can wait.”  Her eyes shifted to the black marble floor before turning to the white marble walls.  “No,” she chided herself, “the kids would hate being cooped up … they like being around people.”

“Thinking about keeping them here?”

“You can’t,” Gurakuqi squeaked, causing them to shift their attention to her.  She seemed to shrink under their questioning looks. “I mean—this is—it’s a sacred place.”

Taking a deep breath, Ashley groaned, rotating her neck, her long blonde hair shifting a little as she whispered, “Sora…”

“Yeah?”

“You’re sixteen, right?”

“...Yeah?”  Sora replied, realizing they were ignoring Gurakuqi’s statement.

“I mean, I know you’re not a normal sixteen-year-old girl, but … what would you think about coming to a place like this?”

Understanding what she was getting at, Sora folded her arms; her tails twisted a little as she glanced around the wide hallway.  “Me, personally … I don’t even know. I wouldn’t be in this situation without knowing a lot of other things that would change my opinion.  Your kids, though, and your husband … hmm. I think you’re overthinking it.

“Your husband just seems like he wants to be back with you; I mean, he dropped his entire life and possibly seeing his other family members ever again to get back to you.”

A slight blush touched Sora’s cheeks.  “Actually, that’s kind of romantic, now that I think about it.  He dropped his job, friends, family, and everything to rush to your side.  Of course, he’d bring the kids, and that’s even more of a … yeah, he seems like a really dependable guy.”

“He really is,” Ashley mumbled, rubbing her left arm.

Gurakuqi seemed a little lost, likely not understanding a lot of the vocabulary they were using.

“Your kids just want their mom, and they’ll be super happy to see you.  I think they’ll like the others, well, Githa’s iffy. Aiden seems like he’d be good with kids.  Kari’s changed. Fen … Fen would have probably scared them. The more I think about it, the more I realize how good of a decision it was to kick her out … it sounds horrible, but I can’t really think of many positive things she brought.”

“What...”  Gurakuqi shouted, causing both of them to jump at her high-pitched choke before she began coughing.

“Woah, hey,” Sora muttered, staring at the woman with concern.  “You okay?”

“Y-you—you kicked out—Fen’s no longer your—your…”

“Ack,” Sora scratched the back of her head as her spine tingled a little.  “I forgot … you don’t really know anything about us. No … Fen’s no longer with our group.  I just realized that … crap, she’s loose in your Realm and pissed because of me. Sorry,” she breathed through her teeth, “I’ll … think of something.  I’ll find her and tell her to not cause trouble or … that might even cause more issues.” She groaned.

“I—I don’t understand … what about—what about you helping Vulpes … enlightening them?”

“Oof,” Sora winced.  “Mimi found out about that a lot sooner than I thought … I was going to tell you guys,” she mumbled.  “I just—it’s been a little hectic, and I haven’t seen her since yesterday … was it morning?”

Gurakuqi appeared utterly lost with what to say; her mouth was hanging open as if she wanted to stay something but didn’t know how to say it.

Clearing her throat, Sora rubbed her forearm, releasing a forced chuckle.  “Well—umm—can we save that discussion until we meet with Mimi? I’d like to sit down with her, and—there’s a lot to discuss.”

“I’m—sure there is…”  Gurakuqi swallowed, rubbing her shoulders as if cold.  “Very well,” her voice had turned hoarse, “I certainly won’t press the topic if that’s what you wish.”

“Thanks,” Sora sighed.  “Still … I know it’s bad, but I’m glad I don’t have to deal with that fox.”

“Yes,” Ashley sighed, “but like you brushed on, we also have to consider the harm she can do without oversight, as harsh as that sounds.  She’s a Vulpes with a rather—volatile nature; I can’t imagine her taking rejection well.”

“R-rejection…”  Gurakuqi whispered, almost too low for Sora to hear.

Sora groaned, knowing how bad it must look for her.  “I guess my aunt would say … pros and cons,” she said with a fake laugh.  “Cause and effect. My decision will bring good and bad … man, this world is so complex.”  She scratched her left fox ear as it itched. “I don’t know how she does it.”

“Experience,” Ashley replied, causing Sora to halt in her tracks.  Brow furrowing, Ashley turned to stare at her, and Gurakuqi almost ran right into her.  “I’m so sorry!”

Ignoring the Vulpes’ hasty apologies, Ashley asked, “Did I say something wrong?”

Her copper hair weaved back and forth as she shook her head.  “No, it’s just—no, you’re fine, Gurakuqi … my aunt talked about experience on our way over here.  I just … it’s a little concerning. Everything she says tends to foreshadow something.”

“A-aunt?  I—what is an—an Aunt?”

“One of my relatives,” Sora replied absently before realizing what she’d just revealed.  “Uh—it’s not that important, Gurakuqi … it was just—eh, a thought I had.”

“What—thought did you have?”

Thinking back, Sora paraphrased her aunt’s words for Ashley and Gurakuqi:

 

“Time is only a small portion of a larger root.  Experience … 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.

“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.”

 

Sora finished it up by saying, “There are some—historical accounts that I thought up to illustrate the point … like the Native Americans and British Settlers.  There’s a lot I didn’t … think about before.”

Ashley cupped her chin with her left hand as her right hugged her stomach.  “It’s wise advice … robbing them of experience. I suppose it applies to all of us; She tends to throw you into the deep end of the pool, and let you figure things out.  However, she’s prepared the person enough to give you the best chance possible to succeed.

“A butterfly emerging from chrysalis comes to mind … if you help a butterfly out of its shell before blood can get to its wings and they can harden, then you could actually kill it by hampering its development.

“From the lecture, she leans more toward the chaotic side, but that’s somewhat expected because it’s her; however, she sets up an appropriate structure beforehand to prepare you to contend with that chaos … not without struggle, but with knowledge to … no, experience to combat it.”

Gurakuqi looked completely lost now; her eyes were big, and ears pulled back as she stared between them, not even knowing where to begin.

A smile touched Ashley’s lips as she looked up at her.  “Thank you, Sora. That helped me calm down a bit.”

“So … your kids need to experience new things?”

“Is that—what that all meant?”  Gurakuqi asked.

Motioning for them to continue, Ashley nodded.  “In a way. We all must experience new things, and many of those will be unexpected since we are not in a closed system.  I suspect that even Inari could be surprised.”

“I-Inari?  That’s the—the Goddess … the one that is above—above even The Council?”  She asked; the tail end was almost unintelligible as her voice dropped.

Sora’s brow furrowed as she glanced to her left at a painting, showing the bright celestial bodies and the colorful sky above, speckled with many stars; she expected Gurakuqi to be fearful of her aunt after what Kari had told them in the meeting the other day.  “She was surprised … by me. The way she put it, it’s the most vulnerable she’s been in … in a long time.”

The three-tailed Vulpes beside them seemed to be holding her breath.

Ashley’s smile turned rueful.  “I can understand why, and I’m sure you are beginning to understand with … you know.”

A soft sigh left Sora’s lips.  “I chased Fen out because I felt like she’d be a danger to us.”

“See, you’re starting to understand Inari a lot better than you thought.”

“I guess, but … my mom just keeps getting further away,” Sora whispered.  “I don’t know her circumstances, but … there’s just so many questions that—that hurt to ask.”  She swallowed.

Ashley didn’t respond right away, head tilting to stare at the ground.  “I can’t say … has Inari given you any clues?”

“You’re—in contact with Inari, right now?”  Gurakuqi cut in, voice shaking.

Sora absently scratched the back of her hand.  “It’s complicated, Gurakuqi.” She fell silent; cheeks pushed to the side as they entered the main gate room; it was as dazzling as ever.

Gurakuqi appeared overwhelmed, ears pulled back, and gray tails limp as she stared around.  The murals of glistening gems depicted Vulpes of all different tail colors, glorious landscapes, and the massive gated city was as impressive as the first time she’d laid eyes on it.

The white marble walls, sparkling gem inlaid black marble floor and white pillars spaced around the hall glowed with an inner light, reflecting the bright orbs of red fire, suspended in the air.  The black marble ceiling was dotted with diamonds to mirror stars and constellations; she noticed that the large heavenly bodies were visible, but didn’t appear as close as they seemed in the actual sky or murals.

She glanced at the brilliant black marble steps leading up to the arch and its arcing frame that encircled the red portal.  “As breathtaking as ever.” She muttered, not wishing to delve deeper into the conversation.

“This is—unbelievable,” Gurakuqi whispered, fixating on the Red Gate.

Sora’s ears twitched as she expanded her hearing, listening back the way they’d come; she could hear someone walking their way at a swift pace.  “I think Eyia’s just about caught up.”

“Good,” Ashley added a forced smile.  “We can wait a moment.”

It really was a moment; Eyia strolled into the room, head darting around curiously; her frosty eyes locked on Gurakuqi.  It appeared like she was walking, but her stride and how quickly her legs moved made it seem almost like a run.

“Sister, I am glad I was able to catch you.  Will the Vulpes be joining you?” She asked without the least hint of strain as she stopped in front of them.

Understandably, Gurakuqi locked up, trembling at the sight of the Valkyrie; the last time she’d seen her, she’d had a weapon in hand, moments away from slicing off her boss’ hand and issuing threats.

“How is everyone?”  Ashley asked, frowning at the Vulpes as she began to hyperventilate.

Sora sighed, pushing her calming energy into Gurakuqi’s Spiritual Network; the woman slowly calmed down, and Eyia continued as if not noticing the Vulpes’ panic attack.

“Good, Nathan explained to me what a human dwarf is, which is a rather odd topic.  I have not heard of such a thing. Aiden also wishes me to tell you that he has been victorious in the eating contest; I was unaware that there was a competition.”  She said with a sad tone.

Sora’s face turned ashen, causing her focus to slip, and Gurakuqi’s emotions to spike again; readjusting the energy, she shook her head.  “No—wait … that doesn’t count! I—I forgot! There was just so much to think about … he didn’t even warn me. Of course he wouldn’t!” Sora growled.  “No way I’m accepting that! We didn’t even have a judge.”

Eyia’s brow creased with concern.  “Aiden asked Jin which of you ate more; Jin pays close attention to food stock.  She declared Aiden the victor.”

“That dirty bird!”  Sora muttered. “He went to Jin to seal the deal … no, we’ll have a rematch … I’m not getting stuck with that responsibility without a fight!”

“Responsibility?”  Ashley and Gurakuqi curiously asked in unison.

“It’s nothing … umm, so, Eyia, what are your plans?”  She asked, causing Ashley to chuckle and Gurakuqi to tilt her head in confusion.

“I plan to study the art of this place,” she said with a bright smile.  “When I was but a small girl, my father showed me many works done in Asgard within the dream.  He advised me that a culture can be better understood by the artwork of their past.”

“That’s not a bad idea,” Ashley commented, looking around at the murals.  “Maybe in a few days, when—if things settle down, then I’ll do a little study myself.”

“Very well,” Eyia grinned brightly.  “I will also perform a sweep of the interior to scout out any dangers.”

“I appreciate it, Eyia, and if you could make a mental map of the area.  I’m sure the others would like to know a bit more about the layout.”

Eyia nodded.  “I will.”

Sora turned to Gurakuqi, rubbing her back a little.  “You okay? I’m going to ease off my energy now.”

“You did something to calm me down, right?”  She tentatively asked.

“Yes, there—I’m easing back, no—don’t panic … Eyia won’t hurt you.”

“So long as you do not harm us,” Eyia stated with a simple smile.

“Right … I see,” Gurakuqi mumbled, taking a few deep breaths.

Once she had calmed down, Sora grinned at her.  “Good—see, we’re not so scary!”

Gurakuqi swallowed, nodding quickly, and averting her eyes.  “Is—is it really okay—I mean … if you go beyond, then—we’ll be stuck—we’ll die—we’ll…”

“If you want to stay, that’s fine, but we’re going through,” Sora cautioned.  “We’ll be back in a bit.”

“I—I need to know—to explain it to—to Mimi…”

“Okay,” Ashley took a deep breath before turning back to the gate.  “Sora … I think I’ve wasted enough time hesitating. Let’s go see if my family’s outside.”

“Should I investigate first?”  Eyia offered, brow setting as she glared at the portal.

Sora shook her head.  “No, I think I’ll trust my—Inari; she said it would be safe to pick them up, but she also said it wouldn't be safe to leave the Vulpes Realm permanently.”

“I see,” Eyia’s smile returned.  “If the wise fox has stated it, then it must be safe.”

“Not safe—permanently?”  Gurakuqi mumbled to herself.

Wow, Eyia trusts you so much.

“Yes, her father had a hand in that; he should have warned her about my fickle nature.”  Inari giggled in her mind.  “And poor child … Gurakuqi is fighting through quite the internal tide.  She’ll feel sick to her stomach once she leaves; be prepared.”  

Alright … and I don’t think I’ve seen any fickle side to you…

“Darling, that’s because you can’t see all my movements.  It’s one reason why it’s so hard for all my acquaintances to determine what I’ll do.  Protect, attack, standby and watch, shift a few events here, or hold back support there … there are so many wonderful options with so many possibilities.”

Scratching her head, Sora sighed.  “Alright, Ashley, Gurakuqi, let’s go.”

They strode forward, Sora helping guide the hesitant three-tailed Vulpes along, and with some coaxing, they passed through the Red Gate, waving goodbye to Eyia.

Sora blinked as she reached the other side, glancing around the brightly lit multi-layered space, but the first thing she noticed was the sound of children and a strange scent she’d never experienced before; it tickled her nose, yet it was pleasant, and almost gave her the impression of a rainstorm, but much crisper.

Her eyes first met Brandon’s hazel irises; he was sitting in an armchair, nervously ruffling his brown hair.  His features froze as he saw them; it seemed like his heart had stopped.

The kids were running around chairs, seemingly playing tag with Cedric, obviously baiting Josie on, but it was the fourth member that kept her attention.

“Qebhet?”

She had to help support Gurakuqi as she almost collapsed, stomach heaving; Sora was quick to action, easing the strain on her body, dependant upon the much stronger energy permeating the Vulpes Realm.  Her attention returned to Qebhet.

The small girl was at least an inch shorter than Cedric, and her long bright blue hair was done up in a Japanese-style bun; a white streak ran through her hair that hadn’t been there before, likely given to her by Inari.

The little snake-girl’s soft features showed utter joy as they emerged; her bright ocean green reptilian eyes fixated on her.  “Lady Sora,” she said in her sweet, humble, and pretty voice while performing a curtsy. “I am delighted to meet with you again.”

Sora swallowed reflexively, vision sliding down to her elegantly designed blue dress.  “I—didn’t expect to see you so soon.”

“I suppose it has been a rather short time since you met me,” Qebhet acknowledged, turning her bright smile to Ashley as she rushed forward, tears falling down her cheeks as Brandon ran to sweep her off her feet in a bear hug; the kids were quick to follow their example.

“Ash!”

“Mom?”

“Mommy!”

Josie almost tripped running behind Cedric to latch onto her mother’s opposite leg.

“I—I missed you,” they both bawled.

Sora walked over to Qebhet, guiding Gurakuqi; she seemed to be in an utter daze, lost to the world.  The family babbled unintelligible words to one another as they reconnected. Josie and Cedric were trying to form coherent phrases to explain how hard it had been for them, like not having their special days, hugs, or stories, but Ashley and Brandon couldn’t even do that, just shaking in each other’s arms.

Qebhet’s small head tilted, the free part of her bun waving to the side as she looked at Gurakuqi with concern.  “Such … damage—how horrifying.” She whispered.

Floating up a foot, Qebhet touched Gurakuqi’s forehead.  Sora felt a clean energy flow through her link, connecting her to the Vulpes.  She’d never experienced something so pure; it was like she’d been a filthy mud pit, and now she was a pristine pool of crisp water.

Gurakuqi blinked a few times before looking down at the smiling girl in front of her.  “What—did you do to me?”

The snake-girl’s features creased with concern as she floated back a few feet.  “You were infected by foreign energy that had corrupted your Oltera Nexus, down to its core functions, hampering its ability to produce and sustain your spirit.  There were also harmful weaves of magic from Vulpes origin that could have harmed you and many others. I cleansed all alien forces within you and enhanced your spirit’s integrity.”

Sora eased back her connection to the Vulpes.  “Can you tell me anything about it?”

“It was quite deadly,” she said, turning to her.  “There was a connection leading back to the realm beyond that portal; several weaves were preparing to activate, but I washed them away.  There is no need for concern.”

Sucking on her lower lip, Sora folded her arms.  “Qebhet … how powerful were they?”

“Of decent strength, but nothing too concerning … although,” she hummed thoughtfully, “I suppose that depends on your understanding of power.  I would not recommend you trying to combat such a force alone.”

“Yeah … without Inari’s help … I would have caused a mess, and it looks like there might be even more problems than I originally thought.”  She grumbled. A smile touched her lips before she held out her hand. “Anyways, you make it sound like it’s been a long time for you.”

The girl floated forward and cheerfully took her hand, shaking it with a soft grip.  “It has been a while; I have been helping Inari in several tasks. Time functions differently in different planes.”

“I suppose it does,” Sora chuckled.  “So, are you coming back with us?” She asked with a hopeful tone.  “I could actually … yeah—really use your help.”

“I apologize,” Qebhet’s lips dropped, “I have other tasks to complete.  However, I do believe we shall meet in time! I am most indebted to you.”

“No, Qebhet, please don’t treat me like my aunt.”  She frowned, unable to catch herself, but it seemed like Gurakuqi was utterly lost in her own thoughts.  “I’m just Sora, okay? I think you’re too cute to be calling me Lady Sora.”

“If that is what you wish, then I shall call you Sora, Sora,” Qebhet giggled before her features saddened, hands dropping back to her front.  “I was in a very lost state when you found me … and it is because of Lady Inari that I have a purpose again! However, it is all thanks to you that I was able to meet the White Lady.  Thank you, Sora.”

“White Lady … that’s a new one,” Sora chuckled.  “I don’t know, maybe, but it was my aunt that chose to go to that location to help Mary a little,” she cut off, releasing a soft sigh, “but then again, it’s my aunt we’re talking about here.  She plans things so meticulously, yet says she’s fickle.”

Qebhet smiled.  “Lady Inari is quite mercurial.”

“Sora, might I use a bit of your power?”

She licked her lips.  I guess I’m not surprised.

“Some things are best done in person, and we only have a little time left, by my calculations.”

Right, right…

Sora released the tap on her magic, and her brow creased as the strangest pattern of Fox Magic she’d witnessed yet was woven and executed; it was so quick and detailed that she hardly recognized what was happening.

Qebhet’s smile vanished, and for a moment, she seemed slightly confused before her brow set.

“What’s going on?”  Sora asked.

“Many things … quite a great many things,” Qebhet whispered.

She turned, and Sora felt her worry fade as a calming wave seemed to lift her into space; it wasn’t physical as much as spiritual, even more powerful than her previous action.  Her concern and nervousness vanished as a clarity even greater than the Outer Body Technique washed over her; Qebhet was radiating a soothing aura deeper than any ocean.

Two figures appeared several feet away, Bathin, and to Sora's mild surprise, a male Vulpes with nine golden tails and fox mask similar to the ones her aunt’s Kitsune used; each tail on the Vulpes held many runic symbols that she’d seen on Suke.

She didn’t feel stressed in the least, despite a powerful Demon standing before her with a Vulpes that by all rights should be connected to her aunt, a little surprised, but not worried.  She couldn’t even feel Bathin’s demonic presence with Qebhet’s colossal energy by her side. Gurakuqi seemed on cloud nine.

“We meet again, daughter of Mia,” Bathin chuckled, but his lips twitched; his black eyes and deep red irises narrowed, giving his expression a nervous edge.  “I believe you must be Qebhet … Anubis took you in as his daughter, did he not? A shame how that ended.”

“Hold your tongue,” Qebhet’s posture was lax as she floated in the air, but her undertone held a hiss.

“How … unexpected,” the Vulpes muttered; he’d been staring at Sora the entire time, but now his golden irises moved to the little snake-girl.  “Inari was a step ahead of me … I suppose I’ll need to bide my time a bit longer. I am ill-equipped to handle a purification being as potent as yourself … and it seems that old hag has helped you breach the Core Wall you’d hit.  How … unfortunate.”

Sora’s tails bristled at his disrespectful tone; it almost felt like a personal attack against her with how highly everyone spoke of her aunt.  “Hey, don’t talk about my aunt like that!” Sora snapped.

“I agree,” Qebhet’s hair began to rise as a blue glow surrounded her, and Sora’s stomach did somersaults; Ashley and her family were quiet but calmed by the aura.  “It is time for you to leave, Hikaru, Bathin.”

“I suppose it is,” Hikaru muttered.

Bathin popped his tongue.  “A shame. After all that preparation to lead Inari away, but I suppose it is the sly fox devil herself we’re dealing with.”

Sora’s jaw locked.

Hikaru’s long golden irises shifted to her, somehow clear behind the mask.  “I wonder what you’d think about your beloved aunt if you knew all her dirty little secrets?”  With a thoughtful smile, both Hikaru and Bathin vanished, and Qebhet’s calming aura faded.

“Is—is he really gone?”  Ashley asked, muscles tight as she hugged her kids, between Brandon and her.

“What—were they?”  Gurakuqi whispered in almost a delirious state.

“Yes,” Qebhet said with a reassuring smile.  “And I am sorry I cannot answer your questions.  I must return to Inari’s Sanctuary, which means I need you to return to the Vulpes Realm.”

Taking a long breath, Ashley and Brandon nodded, shepherding the reluctant kids toward the gate.  “B-but, we haven’t said goodbye to Qubetta!” Josie protested.

“Qebhet,” Cedric corrected, “and yeah, we haven’t!  Where’s she going?”

“Yeah, she should come with us!”  Josie cried. “I like Qubetta…”

“I know—I know,” Brandon sighed, “but Qebhet needs to go home.”

“When can she come back to play?”  Josie asked. “I were teaching her tag!”

“Hey, I was helping too!”  Cedric added.

“Nu-uh!  You never let me touch you.”

“I’m not supposed to!”

“Uh-huh!”

“Kids,” Ashley forced out a chuckle.  “Maybe you’ll see her again, but right now, we need to show you a new magical world.”

Cedric’s eyes widened.  “A new…”

“Magical world!”  Josie finished, staring at the big red portal.  “Like the Fairy Portal under the castle?”

“Yes,” Ashley soothed, “but there are fox-ladies in this one.”

“That sounds so cool!”  Josie said, bouncing on her toes.

“We need to wait for Sora to open the gate, though.”

Both kids turned to stare at her, wide-eyed; their eyes moved from her fox ears to her two intertwined tails as if it was the first time they’d noticed her.  “She’s a fox-lady and another one!” Cedric gasped, pointing at them.

Brandon and Ashley smiled apologetically at her, and she returned the expression with a short sigh.  “Alright, let me open it up.”

Sora walked over to the gate, guiding a confused Gurakuqi to the edge.  Glancing back at Qebhet, she sighed, not fully willing to let her go. The little snake-girl was smiling warmly, waving her goodbye.  “I expect we will meet again; thank you, Sora.”

“No—thank you,” Sora returned.  “Thanks for bringing Brandon and the kids here, and for healing Gurakuqi.”

Repeating the same process she did before; Sora opened the gate.  It changed colors again, allowing the kids to run through with Ashley and Brandon close on their heels, shouting, “Slowly!”

Taking one last glance at the bright blue-haired snake-girl, Sora smiled and went through, ushering the overwhelmed Vulpes with her.


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