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A note from Scott Edwards

POV

1. Sora Moore (Our Vulpes Founder with a new daughter to protect)

Recap: Sora is on the path to try and resurrect her family!  Kari's working on getting stronger with the semi-incomplete Intelligent Construct of her mother, auntie Inari's workin' on unlocking a portion of her father's side of her genetics, and our girls are hyped!

The downside?  They need to gather negative energy from this Yellow Section trial ... Yet, we know our teenage fox girl Founder, and she has a habit of doing stupid things because of her heart.  Let's hope she's learned how to moderate herself.  =(  At least for Emilia's sake.

I want to thank my patrons for continuing to support me:

MadGod, Jeff, Endo, Useless, Selvaria, Stuart Dye, Thea Nyx Petersen, Shakango Resident, GreatestSin, and my other Patrons!

Sora closed her eyes and entered the Outer Body Technique, delving into her spirit. The vision of the illuminated circular space opened up before her, and an inner peace filled her mind.

A small smile brightened her lips upon entering the controlled area, and she gripped her wrist behind her back, walking in a wide circle to gaze into the endless darkness surrounding her.

With a desire, she activated her magic, pulling her thick copper hair into a perfect triple-layer braid while looking up at the brilliant rays shining upon her. Sora instinctively dimmed the lights, finally taking the time to do something for herself while she had the time.

A music video she loved to listen to a few months back played all around her, filling her heart with nostalgia of a time before Junior High when everything was less complicated.

Memories of the three-week-long trip her father, Wendy and she took to various parts of the United States filled the space; some of the most cherished memories she had were within those weeks … the last big trip they’d taken together. She had so much fun seeing New Orleans, The Grand Canyon, Telluride, Yellowstone National Park, and Yosemite.

It was comforting to experience the best parts of her life again, even if only for a short time to clear her heart and mind, which was certainly one of the greatest gifts of the Outer Body Technique.

She could go anytime she wanted to Disney World with Wendy; they often did before becoming teens, when Kari came between all of her friendships; there was also the pressure her best friend had from her mother that became a factor as they grew older. Without Wendy, it just wasn’t fun to go anywhere, and so she hid in her protective ivory tower.

A giggle slid through Sora’s throat while watching her own bright 10-year-old smile through her father’s eyes, and the recording her Core made of his spiritual reactions when near the man. All she could feel was the love and joy he got, but not from the Grand Canyon Sora was freaking out over, pulling a frightened 10-year-old Wendy closer to a safe spot designed to look down. He was happy seeing his daughter’s energy and excitement.

The memory of how they parted fought to take her peaceful joy away, but all it took was an active desire to keep the current scene in progress for the horrible thoughts to vanish.

Swapping to her own point of view, she skipped to the part of the trip when her little 10-year-old joyful self was able to just jump into her father’s open arms.

Sora copied her younger self’s words. “I love you, daddy.”

A hot pressure touched her breast, and she wiped a bitter-sweet tear away from her cheek, dispelling the scene and brightening the space again. Turning around, she smiled at a copy of her father that she conjured with magic. She just needed to say what was on her heart. He didn’t have to respond, only smile and nod.

“Wherever you are … I know you still love me, Dad.” An awkward smile touched her lips while her vision dropped, cheeks reddening. “I’ve got a daughter now … it’s not what you’d think, ya know … a lot’s happened, and well, I’m just trying to figure out all this parent stuff with all the other craziness in my life.”

Her focus returned to her father’s understanding expression, and she took in a shuddering breath before letting it out. “I know it was probably really hard for you … knowing all of that stuff with Mom and not being able to tell me. Heh … I definitely would have thought you were nuts if you told me my mom was a Vulpes and I’d grow tails and ears at some point.”

Tucking in her lips, she walked over and pulled him down a bit so she could kiss his cheek. “You did your best to handle being alone … I can see why you never tried to date or anything now, too. It … took a bit for me to kind of think about it, but … just having Emilia with me and thinking about living on Earth is just … it’s not a place I’d really like to expose her to.”

She sniffed, clearing her throat. “You know, I might be able to meet my mom’s side of the family,” she wiped a few tears from her eyes, “isn’t that awesome?”

He nodded with the dashing smile that always melted her heart; she’d seen him having an empty expression every so often when at home, but whenever she came in, it vanished, and a hopeful light brightened his face.

Stepping in close, her arms tightened around his sides, pressing against his chest while mumbling, “I know you did the best you could, Dad … and I know you’ll be by my side, forever and always … I can’t wait to see you again.”

Her lips tightened, more tears close to her eyes, and she took a deep, trembling breath. “I love you.” Sora released the magic, causing him to vanish in her arms like smoke. “I’ll love you forever and always,” she whispered.

She took a moment to clean her cheeks; it felt better doing it herself than simply making it disappear like her aunt, and once done, looked up with a weak laugh. “Why does it feel like it’s raining, but … it’s not that cold?”

Eyes closing, she hugged herself, remembering her father’s body heat against her skin; his protective embrace enclosed around her. Vision opening, she rubbed her shoulders and steeled her heart.

The deep-seated emotional struggle had been dealt with, and it was time to be an adult; she was forced to grow up, and it was time to meet Shadow again.

Looking at her feet, a swirl hit her stomach as the bright ground vanished, and she descended to the depths of her Intelligence to greet the part she hid away. Sora’s duplicate gave her a smirk upon landing in the darkness; all she could see was her clone in the fathomless dark.

“Welcome back to the pit.”

Sora glanced around, returning the expression. “Is decorating really not your strong suit?”

“Heh,” Shadow held her hands behind her head, following her gaze, “I’m not some split Intelligence that needs to have a living space; I don’t see you decorating that high pedestal you’re on.”

“True,” Sora snickered. “Okay, so … you know why I’m here?”

Shadow lifted her hand in a passive gesture, morphing her domain to represent what appeared to be a World War 2 battle-zone; boys that looked no older than 16 to 18 mixed among the ranks of both sides.

“...” Sora’s smile fell, crossing her arms while watching the battle play out, men crying, screaming, and dying, bodies broken, blown apart, and blood soaking the upturned dirt of dugouts.

“This is what you wanted. Right?” Shadow asked with a short chuckle, walking to a nearby boy with his arm blown off, white-faced from pain, and thrashing with the limb that remained, his buddy trying to stop the bleeding until a medic could get to them. “How to deal with the ugly.”

Sora waved the scene away, not amused. “Yes … I suppose. I don’t know how that was going to help me, though.”

“Heh,” Shadow’s tails flicked in the opposite direction while walking a bit away, creating the scene of the werewolf boy Sora nearly killed in her apartment when Devin kidnapped her father. “You’re going to see dying children or Vulpes that look like children, even if they’re much older than you, but do you really think this is a rare sight?”

Sora’s gut and face tightened; she didn’t want to see this again. Her tails wrapped around each other; just seeing the memory returned the horrifying emotions that flooded her heart in the incident.

The eleven-year-old werewolf boy already had deep burns across his chest from her earlier inferno. He leaped on top of her when Devin ordered it, pinning her to the ground with his damaged body; incensed, foxfire lit across her tail before she pressed the flames across the werewolf’s face, causing a sharp howl of pain as he shoved her away.

Ron was in the elevator, shattered chair leg piercing his stomach, blood leaking onto the floor, and the werewolf reverted back to his human form. Severe burns ran from his face to his small chest, staring blankly up at the ceiling while jerking unevenly, in shock from the sheer pain he was experiencing.

“I saved him…” Sora whispered.

Shadow cut her off. “Heh, you don’t seem to be getting what I’m showing you. Why did you, yes, you, allow me to do that to an eleven-year-old kid?”

A lump dropped down Sora’s throat before releasing a sigh, gripping her left bicep. “It’s not like I knew he was eleven…”

“Hmm?” Shadow asked with a lifted eyebrow. “What did you think he was?”

“...” Sora figured where she was going and averted her gaze; her much more innocent counterpart picked up the dying boy in her arms, rushing to escape Stephanie’s icy realm.

“A monster,” Shadow responded, “the answer is, a monster. You didn’t see a boy, and so you had no problems killing it … not him, but it. You stripped its life of any value, and that’s perfectly fine! You just need to realize it.” Her counterpart replied, walking around Sora to face her again

Sora shook her head, tucking her lip under. “What would I have done if I knew he was an eleven-year-old?”

“No! Wrong! What would you have done if he died?” Shadow countered with a tilted head and smile, her tails shifting to the opposite side again. “Would you have given up on recovering our father … broken down into tears and just lied down and cried?” She taunted.

A long puff of air shot through Sora’s throat. “I don’t know.”

“C’mon,” Shadow goaded, walking forward to flick her forehead; Sora glared at her, rubbing the spot. “You can’t tell you that; I’m you! What would we have done? I want to hear it from you.”

Sora’s gaze fell, knowing the answer, but Shadow pulled another scene into focus to illustrate her point.

They watched a memory at the underground base when she was running with two human scientists, and then two frenzied werewolves turned the corner, spotting them; they pounced toward the three, wild eyes and bloodied teeth trained on the weak humans.

Flipping in the air, her past self sent a combustion at one, causing Sora to wince, fire eating through its chest and burning organs, yet it no longer felt pain and would attack to its dying breath. Sora dodged the other’s attack and threw it back down the hall.

Soon after, Eric rushed out of nowhere, grabbing both by the neck and nearly taking their heads off by slamming the pair into the floor.

The scene repeated with the werewolves on one side, and on the other, Mary, Nathan, and Ashley, Sora’s magic breaking their curse; however, this time, the beasts Eric killed were replaced by humans, both women, crying for help.

The brown werewolf’s monstrous hands shot past Sora, gripping their throats, taking them off their feet before crushing their necks against the cold steel floor. Her past self felt nothing for the two, instantly focusing on Eric.

She had to avert her gaze from the graphic scene. “I…” She trailed off with guilt.

“What, you didn’t know?” Shadow snickered. “One got salvation while the other got oblivion, yet you haven’t thought about either of those incidents since, and it’s the same for the boy until I brought the memory back. If you had killed him, you would have simply buried it in your closet and moved on because that was all you could do. It’s not bad or wrong … it’s reality.”

“I don’t want that reality,” Sora mumbled.

Shadow rolled her eyes. “So you want fantasy? Look, do you think you’d be this shocked and frozen if you grew up in the 1200s or 8th century? No, because this whole fear of kill or be killed has all but been wiped out from man’s conquest of the world; it’s a social persona you’ve developed through a soft, cushy 1st World upbringing. Do you think the kids in the Africa wild would bat an eye to kill a person? No, and that’s because of social constructs.”

“What’s wrong with that?” Sora asked with a deep frown.

“Oh, dear, am I hitting a nerve? There’s nothing wrong with that!” Shadow scoffed, turning their surroundings to Miami. “When in Miami, do as those in Miami.” It shifted into the hot savanna of Africa, watching kids drive cars with fully automatic guns while transporting drugs in the back. “When in Africa, do as those in Africa … or die. Don’t be stupid; you’re still living in your 1st World bubble when you’re not there anymore.”

Sora watched the kids laugh while talking gibberish; she didn’t even know what language they spoke. “Why can’t we make things better?”

“There it is!” Shadow mused, clapping with mirth. “There’s that 1st World savior complex at work! Civilize the savages! Well, guess what? They don’t want what you want, and so you either die trying to convince them peacefully, like so many others have, or do what has been shown to work … conquer them and civilize the wild by force! Who’s going to defend your 1st World morals in a wild world, and who are you to tell them how to live?”

They don’t know any better, though. Sora thought with a low growl but realized she was injecting her own thoughts into it. Different cultures would live by certain rules, and Shadow wasn’t wrong; every peaceful society was made that way by forced conquest and suppression of any opposition.

In fact, she was planning on freeing the Vulpes in the Yellow Section of the Capital, yet that didn’t mean they would stop their brutal lifestyle; they could just spread it across the world if left unchecked … and there it was, social control, forcing her morals on others.

“So what … when in Rome, do as the Romans?” She mumbled. “Don’t try to make things better?”

Shadow shrugged, wiping away the scene. “I couldn’t care less. Humans put a social, ethical paradigm around everything in their own little sphere. In some places, slavery is great, and in others, it isn’t. There’s no way to get around it; Inari said if you want something, then you’ll need to sacrifice.

“Okay. What are you sacrificing to make a peaceful society? Killing all those that choose not to abide by your holy laws, or brainwashing them and calling it re-education camps, or torture by stealing years off their lives in prison.”

“Yeah,” Sora whispered, “but you can’t just have those people in society…”

“Exactly,” Shadow giggled, “the social, ethical construct or persona people develop, crushing their true desires while breaking them whenever someone isn’t looking. Oh, I’ll just steal some office supplies that I don’t really need, but I just want to steal something or taking the extra money a store accidentally gives you and not return it.

“People don’t really believe in the rules; they play a subtle game and break it when no one is looking, or it's convenient. Career hobo millionaires to 2nd class immigrant labor; everyone is fine breaking the rules they don’t like but perfectly fine advocating against it in public, and we’re no exception. Look at the werewolves you had no issue killing that you could have saved.”

Silence stretched as Sora looked into the darkness, thinking about Shadow’s words, and after a moment, she asked, “What am I willing to sacrifice to get my desired outcome?”

Shadow hummed. “People like to think all lives matter, but that’s not really true; at least, we don’t act like it is. It’s a rather ridiculous thing to say, really; it’s a signal to the social crowds because everyone has a pyramid with the lives of certain people they value more than others. A mother will more often than not put her daughter’s life above her own. You can’t get around that logic, yet in 1st World countries, they perpetuate the idea that everyone has the same intrinsic value … they don’t.”

Sora hugged herself. She didn’t like that train of thought, but she’d already proved Shadow’s point and knew her darker counterpart was itching to pull up multiple instances where she’d put someone else’s life above others, including putting Mimi above her own and Emilia’s; she could have made Emilia an orphan because of that decision.

“I … suppose I was kind of blinded by a lot of things in a safe society.”

“You think?” Shadow asked, sending a hiss of air through her lips. “Aunt Inari doesn’t get involved with humanity for many reasons, and the inability to agree on anything as a whole numbers among them.

“There will always be someone that says violence is acceptable to shut down certain types of people they disagree with, which is even present in every 1st World country. I mean, personally, I don’t find much of a problem with it, but others do. It’s an endless cycle. And so … why will you not help one starving Vulpes out of the countless others that will die in this competition?”

Sora breathed out a heavy sigh. “Because … well, it’s not like I don’t value their life…”

“Mhm…”

“It’s just … I value Emilia and my family more … I can’t be everyone’s savior.”

“There it is!” Shadow clapped. “Nathan told you the same thing when Aiden was going to commit suicide.”

A lightbulb flashed in Sora’s mind. “You’re right … if it came down to saving Emilia or a random child … I would always pick Emilia first. I do have a pyramid of value for life … we’d be lying to ourselves if we didn’t say that, but that doesn’t mean I can’t help those I’m able to offer a hand to.”

Determination set in her breast, and she smiled at Shadow. “What would you do if I gave you full control during the competition?”

“Seriously?” Shadow rolled her eyes. “You won’t do it.”

“Of course not,” Sora chuckled, “but what would you do?”

Shadow smirked. “Simple. I’d win. I’d kill anyone that got in our way without guilt.”

Sora’s lips fell. “Even if it was Emilia?”

“Hmm … turning it on me now, huh?” Shadow mumbled, expression falling with her eyes. “No … Emilia is more important to us than even returning all of our family back to life.”

A warmth spread through Sora’s body. “Good … exactly what I wanted to hear. I may feel sad about the place I enter, and maybe I can’t help everyone, but until I’m in that situation, I don’t know what I will do until I’m in that situation. That being said … I know my goal, and … I can say few things could get between me and it. I’ll do what I must.”

Sora began returning to what her Shadow called her high pedestal.

“Call when you need!” Shadow grinned, waving her off with a wink. “Oh, and let me have more fun; you’re still so stuffy and stiff!”

“Alright,” Sora chuckled. I want to help people, but that doesn’t mean I’m the savior of the world … I can only do so much.

Something Inari told Ashley returned to Sora as she reached her white platform, forcing her eyes to widen; her aunt’s voice spoke in her mind from the recollection.

“Can you push yourself to the peak every single day? You know it, I know it. You must decide to be better. To fight. To carve out a place for yourself in the world. There are no excuses; get it done. Do you think I became one of the most powerful beings in existence because of luck? Because of my birth? No, I sacrificed; I grew; only the successful will understand that.

“Today, you will make better decisions. Stay true to yourself and your beliefs. Stay true to what’s important to you. Understand that to have anything of significant value, you must suffer, endure, and sacrifice; think about that. Many do not realize it, but that combination of words, suffer, endure, sacrifice, mirror another combination, faith, hope, charity. You must take up responsibility, accountability, and pure hard work.

“There is nothing more satisfying than making it on your own terms, to be the fire that drives you to be self-made. Everything that will come to you in the future will be from your own actions, not Sora’s, not mine, but your own agency. Cowards never start. The weak never finish. The strong never quit. Respect is not given; it is earned. Be fearless. Be powerful. Sacrifice now, enjoy the reward later. You don’t need my opinion; you have your own opinion, your own heart, your own purpose. Sacrifice for it. Make it happen.”

She needed to take everything she’d learned from her aunt and apply it; it was time for her to put down the training wheels and ride the bike.

Sora conjured a chair, sitting down to meditate on all the magical skills she’d learned. She went through her transmutation skills, molding the elemental structure of things to create clothes; it could be utilized in so many other ways.

Her illusions, foxfire, advanced senses, spiritual defenses, and manipulations that could influence the Intelligence, body, and spirit. The physical enhancements she received, nail extensions, minor shapeshifting, such as erasing her human ears, heightened spiritual perception, danger sense, and natural predator instincts.

She studied her time in Eyia’s dreams, able to invade other creature’s sleep, night vision, the manipulation of raw magical energy that she’d first seen her aunt accomplish in the Spiritual Plane.

There were so many abilities she had at her fingertips; most of what she could do was only limited by her imagination, instinctual magical weave experience, and the amount of power she’d gained.

Once finished reflecting on her abilities, she prepared to spar against her past opponents, starting with Bathin. She tried, at least.

The demon crushed her into paper in the blink of an eye; she couldn’t even twitch a finger before Bathin’s grinning spiritual imprint teleported right in front of her stunned face and killed her.

It was the first time she’d experienced death in her Core training exercises; the process didn’t really hurt, but she was sent from the battlefield she’d created to the center of her white platform.

Annoyed, she tried it two more times before giving up.

She didn’t expect the Demon Lieutenant to be so far above her; it seemed like a lifetime ago since she last saw the creature. Yet, both Githa and him would eat her alive … literally, and the battle sessions proved it.

Trying to make herself feel better, she used a general imprint of Mofupsi, the Yellow Seat, to gauge the difference in power.

Folding her arms, she was at least a bit happier to see Githa and Bathin both crush the woman. It was a bit of a back and forth, unlike Sora, but she only had a very surface-level understanding of the blonde Vulpes based on her spiritual defense.

Trying to go up against Mofuspi herself landed her into a one-handed chokehold, feet dangling as the woman laughed and snapped her neck without effort. Any magic she used simply bounced off her defensive shield.

Sora growled while returning to life. She should have expected it since the woman was a nine-tailed Vulpes that had lived thousands of years, but it was just aggravating to know she was so far behind.

A sad chuckle passed through her lips, dropping back into her chair within her Core; Fen would have been yelling at how privileged she was to even think she had a chance against a nine-tailed Vulpes with two tails.

“I’m so weak! Gah … who should I try next, though … I’m not getting anywhere fighting creatures that school me in less than a second. Githa, Bathin, and Mofuspi are no-gos … but what about Eyia?” She mused, creating an image of her Valkyrie friend.

Eyia had shown an example of her fighting style during their escape, battling Bathin’s shadow creatures and restraining Jin.

Why don’t we go with … ah, the mist sword with the barbarian spirit women.

Creating the battle scenario, Sora readied herself.

Eyia gave her a bright smile. “Ah, so we fight to the death? I shall do my best to help you understand real combat, Sister!”

“Thanks!” Sora returned the grin. “We can go when…”

Sora trailed off as she blinked, and Eyia was gone; her instincts told her to duck, but her head was already flying off to the side, watching her copper hair spread across the air, body toppling to the floor. Eyia’s broadsword had cut right through her neck, her friend wearing a concerned frown.

Everything went black, and she was suddenly lying on the ground, hair fanned out above her with the Valkyrie standing over her. “I did not expect you to be so slow, Sister … hmm, we must work on your speed and perception.”

“I’m … slow?” Sora asked, utterly baffled by the blonde girl’s teleportation … it had to be teleportation. “What the crap am I supposed to do? I barely even sensed you behind me. No! I was dead when I sensed you behind me!”

I can’t believe this! She didn’t even use her barbarian spirits! How could I see Bathin’s movements and not Eyia’s?

Eyia nodded with a thoughtful hum. “You have no combat skills, Sister. I hid my spiritual presence before striking, and you could not follow my sword technique.”

“You can do that?” Sora grumbled. “I could follow you for the most part when you fought those shadow things, and Bathin, but I tried it again, and he just owned me…”

“Yes, you saw me use this against the Daēva,” Eyia stated with a bright tone. “However, you were slowly increasing your spiritual perception throughout every fight; it was only natural given your desires at the time, and each confrontation allowed you to continue gathering energy and focusing it into perception.”

“So,” Sora mumbled, getting to her feet while brushing back her hair, “you’re saying I need to go study my own spiritual mastery during those fights? Mmgh … great.”

Eyia waved as she vanished, and Sora released a long sigh; she hadn’t expected it to be so complicated, but it made sense; she was acting on pure instinct in that situation. It gave her hope that she could surpass her limits by feral instinct when needed, yet that could be so much more if she learned how to actively utilize those skills on the spot.

She spent a decent chunk of her time observing the fights that occurred in the demon’s base and began to notice several essential skills several of her teammates were using.

Jin’s mastery over her own energy was peculiar upon deep study; she didn’t actually use a lot of power in her attacks, even if it was massive for Sora at the time. The girl was very restrictive when using the explosive force inside her, which was likely connected with the Dragon’s unwilling transformation.

She had yet to reach maturity as a Korean Dragon, meaning her body couldn’t handle the raging energy within her Core; so, she was very detailed with her magical and spiritual weaves. When she entered the Dragon Rage state, the force she released cracked the pillars, floor and shattered the glass above.

Sora was stunned to discover that Eyia’s mist and icy atmosphere also served as a constraining bubble, absorbing the deadly waves that would have killed the humans in the room and even affected Sora. Just the full release of Jin’s aura required Eyia to dampen, which then put her at an even greater disadvantage against the Dragoons, Daēva, and Bathin near the end of that encounter.

It was no wonder Eyia had taken her head clean off within the fraction of a second; she really was just that good and might have been able to defend against Bathin or Githa if she was prepared.

“Gah … Eyia’s a no-go, too…” She groaned, running her hands over her bound hair in despair as she saw the girl kill the Blue Dragoon. “Who can I really train against that’s near my level?”

She’d just finished analyzing each of the fights and learned how to better spread her spiritual energy out like a net; it was like a spiritual zone that could be used as a map to track movements, linked with her vision, yet there was a deeper root to it.

Sora was a lot stronger than she initially thought when it came to the aura she could produce, yet the speed, strength, and understanding still wasn’t near the level of Jin or Eyia. Her two friends were far more versed in utilizing their skills for combat.

A sudden question crossed her mind, and she visualized the person she hated most in the entire world … Eric. The image of their first meeting appeared, and his whole pack circled her.

The tall man gave her a smug, infuriating smile. “Do you honestly believe you can fight me?”

Sora grinned. “Let’s see! I’ve gotten a lot stronger than when we last met!”

“A second tail, hmm?” He leered at her as if she were dirt. “The hubris; if you had five, it would mean nothing to me.”

He nudged his head, and his pack attacked.

They moved like sloths as she expanded her spiritual aura, and Eric’s brow furrowed with question, recognizing the more advanced spiritual technique.

Knowing this was just a mock battle to sharpen her skills in combat, Sora had no hesitation. This is more like it!

Foxfire lit across both her tails as she whipped them out, far quicker than the weak human werewolves, and slid her left hand down her fur, arching her flames across her front. Her foxfire mixed with her desires and magic, circling in a spiral around her form before exploding.

The expanding heat consumed everything around her, much hotter, aggressive, and larger than she’d ever produced before, leaving ashen corpses across the entire construction site.

Eric transformed into his brown werewolf form, arms covering his face as the fire passed over him. “Impossible!”

Sora’s grin brightened when he emerged, fur scorched but relatively unharmed; this was Eric after Aiden gave him his feather. Battling Eric would tell her how far she’d come, and before her training was finished, she’d kill the pompous man without remorse.

The battle went back and forth, Sora retreating, using illusionary tricks by subtly bypassing his defensive barriers ever so slightly, which wasn’t easy, sending deceptive energy into his Core through his Spiritual Network.

Red electricity forced him to keep his distance at times to avoid the deadly blasts that could penetrate his spiritual defense; it was here, with higher perception, that Sora realized its purpose wasn’t simply to zap someone but break barriers.

He landed beside a pile of heated construction beams, dodging a stream of fire Sora blew from her mouth, forcing him back; the whole of Miami would be up in intense flames with the wildfire she was spreading, melting everything.

However, the part Fenris Wolf's natural magical defenses could combat the heat, and he snatched one of the long pipes of steel, throwing it at her with a snarl; the true difficulty he was having was physically catching her or predicting her actions, given what she’d learned from Eyia’s example.

At the speed the beam was traveling, Sora could barely dodge it but instead opted to lift her hand and direct her desires while weaving her magic; the projectile split down the center as she manipulated its molecular bonds, sending the two parts smashing through several buildings.

He was powerful, fast, and durable, but she had a lot more tricks up her sleeve, and she could feel the difference.

She tested something she’d learned from her aunt and Bathin’s example; molding the magical energy she’d recorded within the area into thin webs, Sora reached out her hands and was able to gather enough raw magic to form it around the stunned Fenris Wolf, holding him in place like Bathin had done to her.

Red electricity sparked across her two tails as she gave him a wicked grin, sending the current at the trapped werewolf.

“Damn Fox … what are you?!”

Upon seeing her combination attack, he decided to go all-in, transforming into his Fenris state, breaking the magical bonds with ease; there wasn’t enough raw magic in the area for a human mage to contain him.

His speed increased dramatically, powering through her electricity to appear right in front of her; she could see it, but her reaction time wasn’t sufficient to escape, causing a smile to brighten his lips. She tried to make a protective barrier, and he shattered it with ease.

I lost round one…

Large jaws closed around her body, and everything went black.

Waking up in the same location with the werewolves and Eric frozen in space around her, Sora scratched the back of her head, bringing around her hair to glare at her braid for no particular reason.

I can push him into his full Fenris Form, but he’ll own me with raw speed and resistance to my magic … even my True Fox Magic has a hard time doing damage to him, which is why normal mages using the magical energy in the atmosphere get bodied by magic resistant monsters.

Hoisting herself up with a small grunt, she hummed. The werewolves aren’t an issue … they’re just fodder for my fire. Eric’s durability is my primary problem; Kari would be the same; I mean, I couldn’t do anything to her in the gym but trick her into giving up the fight to save Lori.

Elemental manipulation doesn’t work on living beings if I can’t get past their spiritual defenses, and at that point, I can just mind control them, but that does take a lot more energy than simply outright destroying their Core.

Her tails curved around her back to lie across her lap. The force I generate with the electricity is designed like a battering ram to penetrate spiritual defenses, which means if it doesn’t get past, then nothing else will, and Eric just powered right through it at the end. Did it do any damage at all?

Rewinding the scene, she got up and walked over to the frozen image of her preparing herself to die and Eric’s gaping mouth closing around her.

Further examining the damage to Eric, she noticed he had one eye closed; there had been an effect, even when he was at 100%. It wasn’t impossible to win; she just needed to land the attack when he wasn’t 100%, yet that didn’t sit right with her. Sora wanted to beat him at his best. How, though?

She retreated a few steps to drop to the ground, crossing her legs and supporting herself while looking up at the still scene. There has to be a way to enhance my lightning attack.

Figuring her connection to the Realm Core was still in effect within her own Core, she reached out and asked it to give her a magical recreation of a book within the library to guide her.

Her eyebrows lifted in surprise as a small scroll popped up in her lap; changing positions, she opened it and browsed the contents.

Basically, the force was composed of True Fox Magic and functionally acted as a spiritual structure disrupter, finding the weakest areas of a defense and exploiting those flaws. According to the volume, it was a natural effect of True Fox Magic that separated it from most magical weaves, much like her foxfire and illusions, which were some of the most simple things for her to produce.

To increase its potency, she had to increase the amount sent but to do the damage she wanted, Sora theorized it would take nearly everything she had and would need to strike the beast’s heart.

In other words, to beat Eric at his strongest, she had to play a perfect game of bait and strike.

The small piece of parchment vanished in smoke as she tossed it to the side, getting to her feet. “Aright, let’s do this again!”

It took her ten deaths to start memorizing Eric’s movements, and each time, she began at her top condition; the more she battled him, the more she understood his spiritual flow and where he would run. She recalled this type of spiritual perception just after waking up from Eyia’s dream, gaining her second tail, but the perceptive skill had receded since then without practice.

On the eleventh time, she did it. Positioning in a way to barely dodge his jaws, Sora ducked under him and sent a max-charged red bolt right through his chest.

Little physical damage could be seen, but the energy ruptured his heart, bypassing his spiritual defenses, and just as she predicted, learning from Jin’s attack on the Fenris Wolf, Eric funneled everything into a wall against her singular strike, but it just wasn’t enough.

Eric tumbled across the ground like a ragdoll, lying still as he stopped, eyes wide open.

Sora breathed out a loud sigh of relief before jumping up with a cheer. “Yes, I did it! I won, all by myself! I am making progress…”

She smiled with the exhilaration rushing through her shaking body; the fight was close … she’d never felt more alive, too.

A sheepish chuckle left Sora’s throat as she glanced around; most of the buildings were utterly destroyed by Eric’s powerful attacks or melted by the raging flames she’d generated. If she were to go all out like this, then she’d be on the ground defenseless after the final attack.

Still, Inari said she would be gaining a boost during this competition, which could make all the difference. She didn’t know how powerful one of these Vulpes would need to be to fight Eric, but she was also going into a type of match-up she was unfamiliar with … magic vs. magic.

Taking a deep breath, she exited the Outer Body Technique; Sora had taken everything she witnessed since transforming and did her best to emulate the strong people around her. She was as ready as she could be and felt more confident than ever.

Opening her eyes, she saw Eyia smiling at her, sitting three feet away. “Oh … heh, finish early, or am I just late?” Sora asked.

Eyia shook her head. “I am still preparing myself; however, we are reaching the end of our time to prepare.”

“Is that so?” Sora mumbles, vision narrowing while glancing over at Kari; she was still in her own highly defensive Core, and now that she was more proficient with her perception, she learned her new friend was possibly even stronger than the Eric she’d been fighting, putting things into perspective.

I’m so freaking behind … although, I mean, Kari has grown up around her mother from birth and learned from her. What secrets is she learning?

“Hmm…”

“Mmh?” Sora glanced back at Eyia as she studied her. “What’s up?”

“The ceiling, but the sky is behind the many rooms,” Eyia innocently replied. “I do believe you have become much stronger; you have greater control over your spiritual flow, and several defensive flaws have been patched.”

Patched … not fixed.

“Thanks!” Sora chuckled. “Umm … so, what have you been doing?”

A troubled look touched the Valkyrie’s face. “There is a part of myself that I … do not utilize to the greatest extent, and I have been endeavoring to overcome my … detest of its use.”

Kari’s amber eyes opened, glaring at the tall blonde. “Sounds a little too much like what I’m doing.”

Oh, great…

“Oh, c’mon,” Sora groaned, flaring out her copper hair, “what’s up with you two hating something about yourself? I like Kari’s cute wolf side, and I’m sure I’ll love every part of you, Eyia!”

“Hey…” Kari growled. “Look, I’m not so cute when I’ve got blood soaking my fur and leaking out of my mouth.”

Sora’s eyes widened with a teasing grin. “Mmh … did I just hear you call yourself cute?”

“Why did I say that?” Kari huffed, crossing her arms and rolling her eyes.

“I agree with the wolf,” Eyia grunted. “She is not cute but a killer.”

“Someone gets it,” Kari chuckled.

“Objection!” Sora stated, pointing at her long fluffy tail. “No one with something that cuddly cannot call themselves cute; I speak from experience!” She said, fanning her tails and motioning at Kari with them.

“Anyway,” Kari said, changing the subject, “when are we supposed to head out?”

“Soon,” Eyia stated.

Kari seemed to be getting a lot more confidence because Sora couldn’t get a blush out of her. “Alright, and how's your training going, Sora?”

“Gah,” Sora sighed, “I’m so much weaker than I thought! Although, I did manage to beat Eric at his strongest when we first fought him.”

“Wait … seriously?” Kari asked with a furrowed brow. “You beat my brother with Aiden’s feather with my help?”

Sora shook her head, hair fluttering with the motions. “Nope, all on my own. It took like eleven deaths to figure it out and a lot of study, by the way; thanks for showing me basically most of what I learned to survive, Eyia,” she chuckled.

Eyia’s sour blue irises lit. “Oh, you used me as a training assistant, Sister? We can experience real-world training together after this competition; much can be learned that cannot be within the technique.”

“Eh-heh, umm … yeah, I don’t know, Eyia … I just kind of studied how you fought against all the waves in that colosseum. I tried to fight you, and within like one-eighth of a second, you took my head off without me being able to do a thing!”

Eyia hummed with an understanding nod. “Indeed, we must start you off with the basics of raven catching; ah, such fun times!”

Raven catching … c’mon, I think I’m a little more advanced than that…

“To find and catch 10,000 ravens in an hour is an important feat.”

Sora’s lips tightened upon the number. “Ten … thousand … in an hour?”

“Mh-hmm! The tricky ones are the rockhoppers that phase through solid stone, hiding in the caves.”

I take it back; I’m not ready for the raven catching … basics my tails…

It took another three minutes of banter before Jin, Hallaway, and Tola joined them.

Sora made a quick trip to check up on everyone, noticing Liz and Alice were having a really rough time. However, from what Sora saw, they were making progress with overcoming the issues they were born with while dealing with the harsh world they were introduced to from innocence. Their Cores were healing and being reinforced with the Realm Core’s guiding aid.

In a way, they were meeting a small fragment of their Shadows, unlike Sora that had been thrown pretty far into the depths of her Intelligence, dealing with a far less forgiving version of herself. Still, Shadow was not the full breadth of the darkness within her; she was at least sure of that. Inari brought her just deep enough to get everything she needed.

The part of her that was actively seeking Lori’s death by tricking Kari into killing her friend was still buried deep within, locked behind the mental blocks she’d trapped it in. There was a savage hidden inside her mind, an inhuman beast willing to do anything for just a laugh.

Walking over to her kneeling daughter before leaving, Sora checked on her; Emilia was struggling with manipulating her own spiritual energy, looking for a better path to get into her Core.

Sora giggled at how frustrated she was, mirroring her own agitation in her own training; she kissed her forehead, and went to where the others waited.

Tola transported them to the Council Chamber where Mofuspi was waiting in her yellow seat, turning a curious smile to them. “What’s going on, Tola, Hallaway? The tournament is about to begin.”

Sora took a deep breath and nodded, stepping forward to speak for herself. “Mofuspi, I wish to compete with Eyia and Kari. We aim to make it from Levels Seven to the Tower.”

Mofupsi’s smile didn’t fade, vision shifting to the table with a low hum. “You wish to join … which would mean you want to test your combat skills, yet to make it to the Tower at two tails? I am a little confused about why you would wish to compete to that degree.”

Her gaze returned to Sora. “Although, I have been very curious about how powerful you really are as a Founder, Sora. You are willing to risk your life to make it all the way to me?”

Sora nodded, causing the Yellow Seat to chuckle.

“I cannot wait to see your progress myself! Do you realize I will not change the rules, even if you hold ultimate power over this Realm? The tournament is a show purely showcasing your own talents and skills in mortal combat. Can you make a covenant to me here and now that you will seal that connection until you can win against me in a straight fight?”

“Seal my connection to the Realm Core?” Sora asked, stomach tightening at the prospect.

Tola and Hallaway gave each other worried looks, knowing what Mofuspi was asking of Sora; her ultimate authority and protection in the Realm came from that bond.

However, after a moment’s thought, Sora nodded, calling upon her magic. “I will temporarily transfer all my authority over this Realm to Mary; she may return it to me by a desire and will be made aware of why I have done this. Mary and everyone I consider to be within my group, excluding Kari, Eyia, and I, who will be in this life and death competition, will have immutable Realm protection. When I beat you, I will have that authority returned.”

Mofupsi clapped her hands as Sora felt the complex magical weave be spun from the Realm, sealing Sora’s genetic key to the kingdom. Mary and Emilia would retain their link.

Once Mofupsi felt the magic end, she said, “Welcome to the fight,” before snapping her fingers; they were teleported to the wall to begin their climb.

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