In less than two hours, Inara had scoured all traces of the mystery woman from the memories of Shinjō's people. Akari's list of exposed people had been incomplete but Inara found more than enough clues inside the other victims' memories to track down the missing victims: two young men working at a Buddhist temple on the north edge of town. It seemed that the specific religion didn't matter to the mystery woman; she had been willing to feed on anyone with enough spiritual, carnal, and life energies.
With that taken care of, Inara crept southward through the city, acting like a real fox and sticking to waterways and parks to reduce suspicion. It wouldn't do at all to draw attention now, right after she'd spent so much energy removing evidence of the supernatural.
But the instant she was back inside her forest south of the city, she became a blur of orange bouncing from tree to tree, skipping the ground entirely. Her final jump took her over 30 feet through empty air and she landed daintily right in front of the main shrine stairs. She returned to her humanoid form, complete with an elegant blue silk kimono, then went inside.
The entire household was there, gathered around the spiritual circle and staring at its captive. Only Inu had kept her distance, standing guard by the doorway.
Hebi quickly rose to her feet and addressed Inara, "Welcome back, Boss. Excellent work capturing the culprit. We've been trying to get information from her, but she refuses to speak to us."
The others rose as well, except the prisoner who sat cross-legged in the glowing white barrier, her back straight and prideful.
"Thank you, Hebi," Inara said. She approached the circle, then just watched in silence for a full minute.
The spirit woman squirmed for a bit under Inara's imposing gaze, then shrugged it off and went back to silently staring at her various captors. Her attention lingered on Akari most of all, and there was a hungry look in those vivid green eyes that made Akari slightly uncomfortable.
"As Hebi said, you sure are wearing a lot of glamours. Let's see what you really are," Inara finally said, holding one palm outward toward the woman.
With a puff of white smoke and a whiff of bitter scent, all of her glamours were dispelled. What was left behind was a beautiful woman with glossy black hair to her shoulder blades, pointed cat ears, and not one but two black tails, long and slim. Her fake clothes had also been dispelled, leaving her quite naked. She was slender yet busty, her figure flawless. Her face was also gorgeous by any standards, with soft angles and captivating emerald eyes.
Hebi gasped as she saw the two cat tails. "A nekomata…" she mumbled to herself. "That's why she's so powerful."
Inara sent Usagi to fetch a bathrobe, which she then passed through the barrier for the woman to wear.
The cat-woman draped it over her shoulders for warmth, but she didn't bother to close it up. She seemed comfortable showing skin, to say the least.
Inara asked, "Will you talk to us?"
The woman answered with silence and a glare.
"Very well. I could provide you with some undiluted spiritual power, with all the energies you've been stealing, and at a higher quality. Or you can stay in that barrier and starve for a few days to loosen your tongue. It's up to you."
"Fine, I'll talk!" the woman blurted. "Just don't starve me."
Inara smiled kindly. "Alright. Let's start with introductions. I'm Inara and I'm the goddess of this shrine. What's your name? A quick summary of your history would be nice as well."
"The name's Neko."
"And I've been wanderin' around Japan for a couple hundred years, borrowin' energy from people to survive." Her way of speaking was simultaneously modern and dated, a swirling blend of every generation's teen language. The dialect of disrespectful youth.
Usagi cut in, "Stealing, you mean?"
"It all returns to them eventually, so it's borrowin'," Neko said with a shrug. "And you should finish your introductions. Who're the bunny, the dog, the snake, and this weird human?" It wasn't clear how she had deduced their animal aspects.
Hebi fielded that question. She pointed at herself and other other women and introduced them, "I'm Hebi and this is Usagi, Inu, and Akari." Neko giggled at each of the other spirits' names, as if she found them deeply amusing.
Akari didn't like Neko's attitude one bit. She said, "You went by lots of different names in town. How are we to know that Neko is even your real name? It's pretty literal, after all."
The other girls shared a quick glance while Neko grinned wide, showing her sharp incisors. "I admit it ain't a great name." She leaned toward Akari, as close as the barrier would allow. "You wanna give me a better one?"
Neko's robe fell open and Akari fought to keep her eyes up and away from that gorgeous body. Then before she could answer the question, Inara's hand clamped down over Akari's mouth.
"She does not," Inara answered firmly.
Then Inara let go of Akari and stood tall. "Now, Neko… I cannot allow you to continue your current actions, your previous methods of survival. Your theft of energies is far too disruptive and dangerous to the people of Japan, and your desecration of love must stop."
Inara's voice deepened, not in pitch but in potency. These were the words of a goddess, speaking with her full authority. "You have two choices: stay in that barrier while you starve and wither away until you regress into a minor spirit, or take your sustenance from me and stay on shrine grounds where you can't cause trouble for humanity."
Neko somehow still had the nerve to scoff. "Not much of a choice, huh? Either I suffer a fate worse than death, or I move into your little shrine and play nice with your weird little cult?" She grinned again. "Or is it a harem?"
Inara leaned forward and the light of the glowing barrier cast menacing upward shadows on her face. With her voice level and unyielding, she said, "If you'd like a third option, I'm sure I can devise an even worse fate."
Sounding less than enthusiastic, Neko said, "Sure, I promise to live here, so long as you give me what I need."
Inara nodded and said, "You'll be contributing to the shrine too, Neko. Think of me as your employer, and the energy you need is your payment."
"Don't worry," Hebi interjected, "She's an excellent boss."
"Sure, whatever. Now let me out. I'm not some zoo animal to gawk at." Despite those words, she seemed to like attention and she was still showing off her bare body through her open robe.
"But this isn't permanent," Neko added the instant Inara brought the barrier down. "Someday I'll want to leave this boring mountain, alright?"
Inara smiled. "Of course. We can revisit the terms after you've proven yourself trustworthy. Until then, please look to Hebi for guidance on how things work around the shrine, and be on your best behavior."
Meanwhile, the other women were not particularly happy at all. A new addition to the shrine was disruptive enough, especially now that they had public relations to manage, but Neko was an unwilling recruit who already had a reputation for causing major trouble.
Not even three hours later, under cover of complete darkness, a solitary figure crept out an open window on the shrine's north side. She dropped gracefully to the ground, then darted to the edge of the clearing.
The instant that the fugitive exited the shrine boundary and crossed into the woods, she fell to the leaf-strewn ground in a heap. Her human form faded away like smoke, leaving behind a small black cat with just one tail. Unsteadily, she got to her feet just in time to be scooped up by the ruff of her neck.
"I thought you might try something like this," Inara said, not disappointed so much as unimpressed. She held the cat at arm's length. "I placed some limitations on your abilities, putting them back on par with a major spirit's. Your glamours will only work within the shrine grounds. Everywhere else, you are basically a normal cat."
In a raspy voice that a normal human would have heard as meowing, Neko replied, "So I'm in a slightly larger prison now?"
"For now. But if you play nice, I just might help you out on your little quest for a name."
The next day was surprisingly calm. Neko just napped inside all day, following sunbeams from room to room, and Akari and the others were happy to let her do so. They were busy all morning running Mori-jinsha's first weekend worship ceremony, which had an attendance of eight people. Not a great turnout, but acceptable.
Inara was in a playful mood and had wanted to make a quick appearance at the end of the ceremony and maybe work a tiny miracle, but Hebi and Akari talked her down from it.
"Let's keep things simple for now. We already have one gimmick with the cosplaying miko," Hebi implored. "And you said yourself that you aren't quite willing to go public yet."
"Fine," Inara whined. "Oh, Hebi, Akari? Would you like some cosplay ears of your own? I can whip up some magical ones for you. They'll wiggle with your thoughts and everything!"
Akari shook her head vigorously. "No thank you, miss Inara. We don't want them to be realistic, remember? That's why Hebi has to keep her tail hidden."
Inara pouted. "Bah, that's right. Well, in that case, I want you both in fake animal ears by next weekend so we have a consistent style. I bet you can craft some wonderful ears, Akari. Maybe tails too."
Akari scrunched up her face in thought. "I think I can do that. I'll just need some materials and more time on that rental sewing machine."
"At this point, we might as well buy it," Hebi said, matter-of-factly. "We'll surely need it again, especially if Neko joins us as a shrine maiden. She'll need a miko outfit of her own."
"Ooh, her ears sure will be cute in that outfit. Make it happen, girls," Inara said as she turned and left the room, her attention already on something else. Trailing behind her was a blur of tails, bouncing from one to eight and every number in between. Inara's mood was unstable, but not in a problematic way. From what Hebi had seen in the past, a bit of outside stimulation would soon cause Inara to settle into one mood until its needs were met.
"Are you alright, Inu?" Akari asked. They were getting in a quick workout before dinner, but Inu was oddly impatient and fidgety. During Akari's sit-ups, while Inu was supposed to be holding her feet, Inu had stood up and started pacing around the clearing.
"I'm fine," Inu said, even though it was clearly a lie.
Akari gave up on her sit-ups. "Is it because of Neko?"
"No, it's not that. I don't like her, but I can't even focus on that right now."
"So what's wrong?"
Inu quickly looked away, but not before Akari noticed a splash of red in her cheeks. "It's nothing. It's under control." Then she went back to fidgeting and pacing, and even petting her own tail.
Doesn't look very under control to me, Akari thought, but it's not my place to meddle.
Then at dinner, Inu didn't join the rest of the household, but neither did Inara. Neko was there, still yawning from her latest nap.
"Thanks for the food," Neko said stiffly, at least attempting to behave well.
"You're welcome, Neko," said Usagi with a smile. "I hope you enjoy it, and please let me know if you'd like anything specific in the future."
Akari half expected Inu to throw out a snarky comment like, "I'd like more meat," but she wasn't there. I wonder where she's at? Maybe talking to Inara about whatever was bothering her? I hope she works it out and returns to her normal self.
Suddenly, a loud voice carried through the entire shrine, yelling, "Not me! Not me, dammit!"
Akari set her chopsticks down, confused and worried. "That sounded like Inu. What's she saying no to?"
The sound of a single giggle drew Akari's eyes to Neko, who was grinning from ear to ear. "Oh, you are hilariously naive."
Akari frowned. "What do you mean?"
Neko looked to Hebi and Usagi, a knowing smile on her face. "I bet your friends know exactly what's going on. Ask them."
Akari took the bait. "What does she mean?"
Usagi blushed bright red and looked down at her food, but Hebi was willing to answer. She said, "Remember when I told you about each of our relationships with Inara?"
Akari nodded. She had no idea where this was going, but she didn't like the feel of it.
Hebi continued, "Inu and Inara share a needs-based relationship. Sometimes Inu gets into a state, what you might call 'heat', where she literally needs sexual release. Inara helps her with that."
Akari felt her face grow hot. She understood a little why Usagi had refused to answer, but she was still curious about something. "So what did the 'not me' thing mean?".
Hebi leaned close and explained, "The word you heard wasn't N-O-T. It was K-N-O-T."
Akari blinked, still confused. "Like a knot in a rope? Like your shibari stuff?"
Neko was giggling aloud now, unable to keep a straight face any longer. She blurted, "Have you ever seen dogs going at it? Like really boning? The guy-dog's dick has a round bit near the base that inflates while it's inside the girl-dog. The dick is too thick to get back out, so they're locked together for a good long while. They call that knotting."
Akari was more confused than ever. "D-dick?" she stammered. "Inara doesn't have a dick." Then she figured it out. "Oh! Does she have one of those strap-on things? With a knot on that?"
The whole time, Akari was thinking, This is way outside my comfort zone, but it's good to expand your comfort zone, right?
Usagi shook her head. She was finally willing to talk to clear up the misunderstanding, even if she wasn't willing to meet Akari's eyes. "No. You know that Inara can transform, right? Well, she can transform specific parts of her body."
Akari blinked, staring at nothing. "Huh…" she said, thinking, Transform just some parts of her body?
She swallowed, feeling her face burning hot and her vision blurring. "Oh." She gave herself a dick? Like men have?
Then she hid her face in her hands. "Ohhhh." No, like dogs have.
Akari pushed her plate aside and slumped to the table, hiding her head under her arms. She couldn't help but imagine exactly what was happening just a few rooms away, between her friend and her goddess, her crush.
"I wish I never asked…"
Neko burst out laughing. Between bouts of laughter and gasps for air, she managed to say, "Oh damn, this is crazy funny. I think I'm going to like it here after all."