Akari was halfway dressed when her phone rang. And she actually recognized her ring tone this time. She finished pulling her t-shirt down and answered, "Hello? This is Akari."
A shy-sounding voice said, "Hi, it's Hanako. I got your number from Jin. Sorry for falling asleep while you were visiting."
Akari nearly slapped herself for forgetting to leave her phone number when she'd visited. At least Hanako thought to ask Jin, Akari thought, then she said, "Hanako! It's great to hear from you! Are you feeling better?"
"I am, actually. And I wanted to thank you for the visit. And for being so understanding about, um, that stuff."
Ah, she must mean her sexuality, Akari thought. "You're welcome. I'm just happy I could help you out."
There was an awkward pause since Akari didn't know what else to say, then Hanako blurted, "Um, can I ask you a huge favor?"
Akari steeled herself. Hanako had been through a strange situation and could really use some support, even if it wasn't easy to provide. Akari answered, "Sure. I'll do whatever I can."
Haltingly, Hanako asked, "Can I call you… when I have questions about girls? I really don't have anyone else to talk to about… that side of me."
Akari smiled. "Of course. As I said before, I'm no expert and I'm still trying to figure things out for myself, but I'll happily listen and give what advice I can." An idea occurred to her and she added, "I also have access to some friends with more experience, so I might be able to share some of their wisdom too."
"Oh, that would be amazing! Thank you, senpai! You're the best."
"Glad to help, Hanako." Akari was just relieved that the 'big favor' ended up being something she could actually do. Being a mentor was stressful work.
Hanako thanked her yet again, then said, "Well, I've got to get to work and I'm sure you're busy too. Seeya!"
Akari couldn't help but smile. This version of Hanako was so much happier than the zombie from the day before. "Have a good one, and beware of mysterious strangers," Akari said, only half joking.
Hebi stood at the end of the table, dressed in a black jacket and tight pencil skirt with a clipboard in hand. She cast a narrow-eyed glance at each of the three women gathered, then said, "I already took the liberty of catching Usagi up on the situation as it was last night, so I'll just focus on my new discoveries."
Inara nodded serenely, but Akari was nervous. Inu isn't here for this. That can't be a good thing, right?
Hebi kneeled next to the table, set her clipboard down, and started reading her notes. "I camped out in town last night and I was able to observe the mystery woman. I can confirm that she is a spirit of some sort, but I was unable to tell much more than that. The reason for that is: every time I saw her in person, she was covered in magical charms or glamours to hide her true nature. There were multiple layers, each apparently serving a different purpose."
She listed off, "One glamour made her visible to humans; one hid her animal features, but it seemed prone to failure, giving the occasional glimpse of her ears; another let her conjure temporary clothing that had physical mass but ceased to exist if she got too far away; and finally, one glamour hid her spiritual essence and covered her tracks."
Hebi took a breath, then continued, "Those effects seemed to be powered by a mix of the energies she's been stealing from humans in Shinjō: life, carnal, and spiritual. She seems to seek out one person to feed upon each night, and the victim is utterly exhausted for three or four days. Oh, and thanks to a hint from Akari, I believe that cats can see right through her disguise. They have a natural connection to the spirit world, but there may be some natural animosity at play as well."
Natural animosity? LIke cats and dogs? Akari thought. I don't like the sound of that…
Then Hebi looked right at Akari and added, "Oh, and this mystery woman is not Inu."
Akari practically melted with relief, but Inara just smiled and said, "Of course not. Inu returned early last night and was with me until morning. She should be a little less rowdy today." Her tone of voice had a hint of suggestiveness in it.
Akari opened her mouth to ask something, then decided she didn't really want to know.
Hebi resumed her explanation, "Overall, I believe this woman is incredibly cautious and intelligent, not to mention quite powerful. For a major spirit to be able to interact with humans is significant enough, and this woman can do it outside of sacred grounds." She frowned, her already narrow eyes narrowing further. "Even if she wasn't going around sapping people's strength, the implications of such a powerful spirit infiltrating Shinjō are profound."
Inara folded her arms across her chest and gave a serious nod. "This is beyond you girls now. I'll need to venture into town myself to take her down." After that violent statement, she moved right into, "Akari, I need that list of people who interacted with her, to erase their memories."
Akari was still caught up on the 'take her down' part. Panicked, she said, "Wait! Can't we try talking to her?"
Inara blinked, then smiled kindly. "Of course we can. That was my plan all along."
Akari could breathe again. "Oh, sorry. It sounded like you were going to hurt her."
Inara's smile didn't change shape, but it took on new meaning as she said, "Only if she doesn't cooperate. Just like people, not all spirits can be reasoned with."
After Akari had reluctantly handed Inara a list of names and addresses, including that of the latest victim that Hebi had witnessed, Inara stepped out into the moonlit night. It was a little chilly, but nothing her fox form's fur coat couldn't handle. Before transforming, she had cast a few charms on herself to hide her power as much as she could. It was impossible to hide her godly power entirely, but the glamours would be good enough as long as she didn't linger anywhere too long.
She started running and bounded through the forest at impossible speed, her paws making firm contact on familiar stones and ancient trees that she had watched grow from saplings. After spending centuries here, she knew these woods as intimately as a lover. She leapt over startled wildlife and lesser spirits, jumped a creek without fear, and savored the rush of covering so much ground so quickly. But her confidence quickly faded when she reached the city's edge.
She noticed the streetlights first, garish and yellow. Those ugly imitations of natural sunlight were visible from miles away despite providing surprisingly poor lighting. Mankind loved to change the world to suit them, but they so often stopped halfway. They settled for a mediocre solution, when a little more care and effort could achieve admirable results that were also in harmony with nature.
She shrugged and stepped into the street. This was no time for critiquing humanity's industriousness. This night, they needed help. She crept from shadow to shadow, dodging curious teenagers, a stray dog, and even an old woman who seemed to sense that Inara was no normal fox. She darted away through a cluttered alleyway and resumed her search.
It took nearly an hour to find the woman's trail. Her essence-masking glamour was surprisingly effective, but it was also too narrow: it didn't cover her mundane scent. Inara's vulpine nose caught whiff of an odd scent, not quite human nor animal. And it smelled faintly of sweat and sex.
I have you now, Inara thought with a toothy grin. She sniffed the air a few times, found which direction the scent was stronger, and set out along the trail. It led her through a small park, over a bridge, and eventually to a small house with a well-tended yard. It had a one-car garage that smelled of oil and gasoline, but there was no car inside. The ground floor windows shined with light, so Inara climbed onto a small garden shed and peeked into what turned out to be the kitchen.
Two women sat at a table, talking. One looked a bit older than the other, maybe 30, and both were quite pretty. They both wore similar fashionable autumn outfits, cardigan sweaters over knee length skirts, as if they shopped at the same store. To Inara's eyes, the younger one was practically shimmering with magic, and she definitely wasn't human.
Inara overheard the older woman say, "Thank you for coming over, Tsume. It's so lonely when the house is empty, and Masahiro is gone for weeks at a time. He's a traveling salesman, you know."
The other woman, now calling herself Tsume, said, "Oh, my dear Yua, it's terrible for someone as wonderful and beautiful as you to be left all alone like that. Women like us have needs, after all."
She reached across the table and gently caressed Yua's cheek. The older woman looked surprised at first, but soon leaned into it. A human couldn't have known, but Inara spotted a spark of carnal energy fly between the women, a magical nudge to push Yua's loneliness and desire over the edge, to make her willing to cheat on her husband.
Inara's domain, her list of godly responsibilities, encompassed things as diverse as industry, rice farming, and fertility. But her personal focus, her credo and her true passion, was love. Love was kind, caring, compassionate, deep, devoted, and consenting. What this spirit was doing to her victims, to poor Yua, was not love. It was an abomination and it needed to cease.
Inara leapt into action. She dropped her animal form and passed through the window, landing in the kitchen as a nondescript figure, glowing brightly. She quickly solidified into her goddess form, complete with a regal kimono and a golden disc of light floating behind her, then her tails lashed out and coiled around the spirit woman.
'Tsume' flailed and fought, letting out a frustrated hiss, but she was easily overpowered. The tails quickly wrapped her up in a cocoon so tight that no part of her was visible. The cocoon shimmered for a full second, then Inara unfurled her tails and the spirit was gone.
Yua was predictably startled and confused. Her eyes were wide and panicked, her skin pallid and damp with sweat. She stammered, "What was— Who are— Wha—"
Inara stepped forward and placed one finger on the fearful woman's forehead. She whispered, "It is alright. I will not harm you. You are safe now."
Yua visibly relaxed and closed her eyes, then her body started to shudder slightly. Her muscles twitched like those of a dreaming puppy as her memory was searched and altered. Inara erased the memories of 'Tsume', who Yua had apparently met just an hour before at the mall, then added a little bit of encouragement in their place.
Inara whispered, "Your husband loves you very much. In the future, when your loneliness and your needs grow too strong, think of him while you pleasure yourself. And when he returns, merely mention what you did and he'll surely sweep you off your feet and carry you to straight to bed."
Meanwhile, back at the shrine, there was a burst of white light in the center of the main worship hall. When it faded, a dark-haired woman stood in its place, wearing a purple cardigan and a long black skirt. She crouched to the floor and sniffed at the air, then cautiously crawled forward. Almost immediately, her face squished against an invisible barrier. It shimmered with magic, revealing a cylindrical wall all the way around her. On the floor, geometric lines of glowing chalk radiated outward from the four-foot diameter circle that held her.
The woman backed away from the wall, then swatted at it with one hand. On the second swipe, a spark arced from the barrier to her hand, scorching it slightly. She hissed at the wall, then licked her wounded hand while she peered around at the empty room. Eventually, she sat down cross-legged and waited.
A few minutes later, Usagi jogged in through the front door, carrying a bucket of gardening supplies in one hand. Since the moon was full and bright, she'd been able to do some last-minute work to put up a fence of wooden stakes and twine around her vegetable garden before the morning's human visitors could accidentally trample it.
Usagi's thoughts were completely focused on getting a small splinter out of her thumb and washing up, so she passed right by the mystery woman in her prison. Then Usagi stopped and did a double take, finally taking in the strange guest with her dark hair and piercing cat-like eyes. Usagi had some idea who the woman was, and she knew that Inara was still in the city, so she immediately dropped her bucket and sprinted deeper into the shrine to tell the others.