"House meeting! House meeting! Get your asses to the front hall!"
Seshi's voice echoed down the central hallway and throughout the shrine. Everyone heard it, but they were a bit slow to react, in part because they had certainly not expected her to be the one picked to gather everyone for an important meeting. The shrine residents had also been a bit lazy lately, enjoying the downtime and relative peace after all the New Year events.
Already present in the front hall, Hebi wiped the sleep from her eyes. She'd been napping under the warmth of the kotatsu they'd set up there after the holidays were over. Inu arrived next, wiping sweat from her upper chest and forehead with a fresh towel. Incapable of being inactive for long, she had been lifting weights in her room.
"Any idea what this is about?" Inu asked as she sat down across from Hebi.
"Not a clue. But I get the feeling it's something Inara's been holding back on for a while." As a masterful liar herself, Hebi had developed a good sense of when she was being lied to, or at least being left out of important information. That went double when it came to Inara, after so many years together.
"Hi girls," Usagi called out as she entered the room. She was expecting a short meeting and hadn't bothered to remove her apron.
"Usagi," Hebi started, casting a narrow-eyed glance at the rabbit spirit, "you should put away any food you were working on. This meeting may be a big deal."
Usagi waved a hand. "No need. I was just doing dishes."
After that, Seshi, Akari, and Inara all arrived within seconds of each other. The human and nekomata took seats around the kotatsu, but Inara remained standing.
"First, I want to apologize."
"Huh?" Akari blinked up at the goddess. She couldn't recall anything Inara had done lately worth apologizing for. If anything, she'd been unusually awesome and supportive for the last couple weeks. But… there was a nagging sense at the back of Akari's mind, an itch that had been worsened by Inara's kindness instead of reduced.
"I kept this from you so that you could all relax and enjoy the holidays, so I'm sorry about that." She bowed her head and her five tails slumped low behind her.
"Kept what?" Seshi asked, running her hands through her hair like a cat cleaning itself. Her hair and clothes were a bit disheveled and her cheeks were oddly pink. And she was grinning like a satisfied fox.
Usagi's eyes narrowed and her ears perked up. "Seshi, were you just with Inara?" she whispered.
Keeping her attention on Inara, Seshi only answered with a shrug.
Inara ignored Usagi's whisper and continued, "On Christmas Eve, Akari's power saw an important vision about the future of this world."
"It did? I don't remember that."
"That's because it was too much for you and you blacked out. I took the vision in your place, and you seemed to forget all about it," Inara explained. "Which was probably for the best, because the vision was of the end of the world, but not in any useful or immediate way."
While the others stared at her in alarm, she scrambled to explain it better. "Um, it's the same as knowing that the sun will burn out someday, millions of years from now. Not practical, and harmful to fixate upon."
"O… kay," Akari said. "So how does the world end?"
Inara glanced away. "An unfortunate chain of natural disasters, I think. But that's not important."
Hebi watched Inara closely, suspicious, but she kept quiet.
"If it's not important, why are you telling us this?" Usagi asked with a deep frown set on her features.
"Because the vision itself was dangerous. It overwhelmed poor Akari, and was nearly too much for me when I took it over for her. Akari's visions are getting bigger because she hasn't been using her power, like steam from a natural geyser that's being bottled up. Without regular use, Akari's foresight is growing stronger and less focused. Instead of seeing small visions about her own future, like her subconscious desired when she got this power, she's getting vast yet useless prophecies about the entire planet."
Seshi cut to the chase. "Doesn't that make this an Akari-specific issue? Why the house meeting?"
"Because I need all of you to help her out with this." Inara turned to Akari. "You should use your power at least twice every day: once for yourself, and once for someone else. You don't have to take any action on these visions, but you need to choose to have them, lest they build up and overwhelm you again."
Akari was wide-eyed and silent, but gave a firm nod.
Inara looked each spirit in the eyes briefly, then said, "I need you all to ask her to use her foresight on your behalf. If you're curious about something, big or small, ask Akari about it. The more specific the request, the better, so that her power can be honed and focused, and that kind of question is more likely to get comprehensible results."
Seshi rolled her eyes and flopped backwards, propping herself up with her elbows. "You're giving us a recurring homework assignment to ask Akari for fortune tellings? Really?"
"Really," Inara answered. "And once her skills are more refined, she can start offering fortunes to shrine guests." She smiled at Hebi and added, "It'll be great for our finances."
All other eyes were on Akari, but she didn't know what to say. Her thoughts were a tangled mess of relief and alarm and excitement for the unknown. And that nagging feeling hadn't faded at all when she learned of her forgotten vision. If anything, it got worse. There was something Inara wasn't telling her.
Finally, she managed, "If this is what's needed to keep my power under control, I'll do it." She smiled and bowed her head. "I hope my foresight can be useful to all of you."
"I'm sure it will be," Inara said through a warm smile. "And make sure to use your power for yourself too. It can be as simple as wondering 'Will the weather be nice tomorrow?' or 'When is lunch going to be ready?' You just need to use it, to get practice and familiarity. Promise?"
"Wonderful! Now I'll let you all get back to your relaxing break. This weekend won't be as hectic as Hatsumode, but I am expecting more visitors than normal, between first-visit-of-the-year stragglers and new regulars."
The goddess strode from the room, her tails trailing behind her, indistinct and erratic. Three tails, then six, one, five, changing at random. Eight, the number of raw passion, wasn't in the rotation and Usagi had a suspicion why. She was glaring daggers at Seshi, who was whistling surreptitiously and trying to slink away.
Akari and Hebi, however, were both focused on Inara. They suspected she wasn't telling them everything and they were dead right. Inara had been central to that vision, and instrumental to the apocalypse it foresaw.
"So, is 175 degrees celsius right for this recipe?" Usagi asked, notepad in hand and ears alert.
Akari put a hand under her chin and leaned back on her cushion. "Um, that's not really a fortune… but I'll see what I can do."
She closed her eyes and tried to remember forward, to imagine what would happen if Usagi cooked her casserole at that temperature. At first there was nothing, and Akari started to doubt whether her power of foresight could be applied to cooking. Then…
Usagi was standing in the kitchen, hotpads ready and waiting as the timer on the stove ticked down. The instant it beeped, she silenced it and opened the oven door. She pulled the rack out, then sighed. The top of the casserole was golden brown, except in the center where the surface was higher. There, it was blackened and cracked. It still looked and smelled edible, especially the non-burned areas, but Usagi looked completely crestfallen.
Akari blinked herself back to reality, then said, "It was, or uh, will be a bit burned on top, but otherwise good. Maybe try a little cooler, or a few minutes less?"
Usagi gave a nod and hopped to her feet. "I knew it. Thanks Akari!"
I thought telling people's fortunes would be more exciting than this, Akari thought. But at least it isn't scary. She shivered as she remembered the feeling of powerlessness from her earliest visions, the overwhelming sensation of being drowned beneath the constant battering waves of possible futures. If practicing like this kept that kind of vision away, she'd happily keep it up.
She was about to switch to preparing for the morning shrine visitation when her cellphone let out a chime. She dug it out of her pocket and saw a notification about a text from an unknown sender.
Hey Akari, it's Nezumi. Seshi gave me your number. Got a minute?
Sure. What's up?
She said you can tell fortunes now. That's cool.
Can you check if Shika's job at the liquor store is gonna work out? She's getting all stressed about it, and if I know her, that'll make things turn out bad for sure.
Akari smiled. Aww, she's worried about Shika. Those two really are cute together. Like an old married couple. She giggled to herself. I guess they kinda are, if they've been together 40 years.
Yep! I'll take a peek right now.
Akari relaxed and tried to picture Shika at work. Akari had been to Shinjō Liquors before, so it wasn't hard to imagine Shika behind the counter, dressed in the green apron the employees all wore. Somewhere along the line, Akari's imagination crossed over into a vision and the scene came to life. Customers browsed the shelves and glass cases containing hundreds of different drinks, colorful displays boasted whatever sales were running at the time, and Shika rang up a basket of purchases at the cash register.
Akari was a little surprised to see Shika's furry deer ears sticking out from the sides of her head, but none of the customers were reacting. I guess my visions show the world as it really is, without the effect of illusions?
"Hey, you rang that one up twice," a middle-aged customer said, his tone a bit heated.
Shika glanced at him, then at the register display, then at the assortment of bottles on the countertop. Akari expected her to get flustered, but she just smiled and said, "Oh, it looks like I did. Sorry about that, sir. I'll get that fixed right up for you."
With remarkable speed, she removed the extra bottle of sake from the transaction, then scanned the rest of his order. She reached under the counter and pulled out a tiny bottle of reddish-gold whisky, and placed it in front of the man while bowing her head. "I apologize for that. It shouldn't fall on you to catch my mistakes. Here's a sample of Starfall Whiskey, on the house. They distill it right here in Shinjō, and it's one of my personal favorites."
The man looked a bit stunned as he accepted the gift. "Oh, uh, no problem. Thanks, miss."
"Thank you," she said with a wide, gleaming smile. "And please do come again."
The vision started to grow fuzzy, as if a fog was rolling in straight through the walls, but Akari continued to watch as another employee approached Shika. Judging by his different uniform, he looked like a manager.
"Good thinking giving out one of those samples to smooth things over. Got a ton left to give out anyw—"
Suddenly Akari was back in the shrine, phone in hand and feeling a bit disoriented. It was like waking up from a dream, including the way it rapidly faded from memory. She quickly typed a response to Nezumi.
Tell her not to worry. It looks like she's gotten the hang of things, and her manager likes how she handles customers.
Nezumi's response was almost instant.
I've got a bigger question for you, about a business venture I'm working on. Can I visit tomorrow to talk face to face?
Sure! I'll be around all day.
Akari was glad the conversation had been via text so she could hide her surprise. Nezumi had seemed so quiet and antisocial, at least when she wasn't drinking, and Akari hadn't expected her to act so familiar after such a short time.
I wonder what kind of business venture she's cooking up? Maybe something with that drone of hers? She really is a wizard with technology.
"Wait, right now?" Akari said, looking back at the dozen or so visitors gathered outside the main hall doors. The human guests were all doing their own thing, praying or just enjoying the relaxed atmosphere, but Akari wanted to be available in case they needed anything.
Hebi nodded. "It'll be quick. And the presence of humans nearby will force Inara to keep her emotions in check while we talk."
Akari chewed her lower lip for a moment, then said, "Okay, if you say so."
They confronted Inara in her bedroom, making sure to close the door securely behind themselves. The goddess was seated on a cushion near the center of the room, facing an open window and watching the winter breeze rattle the bare trees.
"Inara," Hebi started, "we have to talk about that vision. You weren't telling the whole story, were you?"
"Will you tell us now?"
Inara sighed and turned to face the two women. "I'd rather not, but I suppose the lack of understanding will cause you more distress than the truth." She gestured toward two pillows nearby. "Sit. Before I can explain the vision, I have a story from my past I need to share for context."
Akari felt herself growing excited, eager to learn more about Inara, but she suppressed the reaction; she got the feeling Inara wasn't proud of this story. She had kept this from them for a reason, and Inara's reasons were basically always sound. Akari calmed herself, then sat down on Inara's left. Hebi took the cushion on the right.
"This was from before I met Usagi. I had met Hebi in passing, but she didn't live here. I was the only spirit in this shrine, along with over a dozen priests and priestesses. The shrine was dedicated to the whole of Inari-okami, but the primary focus was definitely agriculture and harvests."
I knew this used to be an Inari shrine, Akari thought. But I never knew why Inara abandoned that name… Maybe I'll finally learn.
"I had a… very bad year. In a single cycle of seasons, I lost a dear human friend to sickness, I failed the town by providing a weak harvest, and then I…"
She stopped for a second, gathering her will. "I… had my heart broken. At the time, I saw it as a betrayal, a sudden and cruel abandonment in favor of another. But I know now that the signs had been there for some time, and she was simply following her heart, her truth."
Inara closed her eyes and spoke, and her words carried more than just their literal meaning. Sights and scents, emotions and moods were somehow embedded within her voice, and in an instant Akari and Hebi felt like they were there, back in Inara's past.
"I gave in to my despair," she said, and the others saw a vision of Inara slumped in the corner of this very room. Her precious works of art were toppled and scattered, and she wasn't even bothering with clothes despite the large flakes of snow that drifted in through the open window. The ones that landed on her skin didn't even melt, so cold was her heart.
"A season passed, and then another. When the humans needed me to bless their harvest, I wasn't there. When they came to pray, I didn't listen. I was convinced that my actions and their dependence on me had brought them suffering. I decided they'd be better off without me." Akari watched as the drifting snow melted and a warm breeze filled the room. She listened as summer cicadas sang and autumn rains rattled the roof. And all the while, Inara never moved.
"For five years, I waited, telling myself I was resting, recuperating. That I was letting the humans move on, encouraging them to grow strong by depending on themselves. I emerged to see how they had fared, and…" Inara couldn't finish the sentence, but the vision did it for her.
A nine-tailed goddess emerged from the forest into a wide field that had once been filled with rice paddies and workers. Now, there was only barren earth and the overpowering scent of death. Bodies, hundreds in all, were strewn across the landscape, slashed by the sword and pierced by arrows. Aside from the soldiers, innocent farmers had been cut down in their homes, now burned to ash.
War had come, a clash between feudal clans over land and power. And after years of drought and famine, the locals had been outclassed, and utterly devastated.
"My inaction brought destruction. My dereliction of duties had been directly repaid with disaster. Every single death could be traced back to me, to my selfish, foolish decisions. And in my grief, my bottomless despair, I believed that was my future. I was no longer Inari. I had become the Goddess of Disaster."
Akari was speaking before she even realized it. "But that's just not true! You didn't desire any of that. You were—"
Inara smiled and raised a single finger. "I know, dear Akari. I know that now. But it is reassuring that even at my lowest, I would have had your support." Then her smile faded and she continued her story.
"I pulled away from the public eye, restarting small and focusing on my own little patch of nature. I protected this mountain, and kept it free of human meddling. Through wars and famine, bounty and progress, I kept to myself and the spirits. Humanity earned their own victories, and sowed their own defeats without me. And that brings to me Akari's vision."
Akari leaned forward, intensely focused on Inara's face, her words, her body language. She needed to understand this, more than anything before.
"As soon as Akari and I became connected, and she brought to me the domain of foresight, I had feared that things would go the way they had before. Foresight is closely tied to disaster, to ill omens and times of peril. I was afraid that I was being pulled back to that dark side of myself. And I'm afraid that Akari's latest vision has confirmed it."
"What?" Hebi hissed when Inara didn't elaborate. "What was the vision?"
"I brought the apocalypse, the complete destruction of Earth that left humanity nothing but digital ghosts in the emptiness of space. Some time in the distant future, I intentionally sparked natural disaster after natural disaster, bringing down the very cosmos upon mankind's only home. The vision didn't reveal why I did those things, but there was no doubt that it was all my doing."
Akari didn't even need to gather her thoughts. "You didn't do those things and you never will. That vision was not destiny. I've seen my destiny as your Chosen One, watched every single way I eventually die in your arms. That vision was not an inescapable fate like mine. It was a warning, Inara. And I believe it was a warning meant specifically for you."
Hebi squinted at Akari, clearly wondering where she was going with this line of reasoning. Inara just blinked vacantly.
Akari looked Inara straight in the eyes and stated, "You said that foresight is tied to disaster, but I disagree. Foresight is a tool for progress. Disaster can come about through action or inaction, but progress comes only from effort, from collaboration and personal improvement, from love and forward thinking and using the tools at your disposal. Even your old domains, industry and harvest and fertility, those are all examples of change, action, and improvement. You are not the Goddess of Disaster, but the exact opposite. You are the Goddess of Progress."
Akari was nearly panting for breath at the end, surprised at her own intensity. The words she'd said felt like her own, yet also larger than herself. It was as if another Akari, wiser and more confident, had spoken through her mouth. She thought of the fox statues outside, one mundane and one divine, looking at each other with forward hope and retrospective pride, and Akari wondered if she had just reached across that gap and accepted help from her better, future self.
Then she put her hands on her temples. All this confusing future stuff is giving me a headache.
Hebi glanced back and forth between Akari and Inara without speaking. The conversation had long ago surpassed her ability to participate constructively. It was up to the goddess to decide what happened next.
Inara was quiet for a long moment, holding her chin with one hand. She almost spoke several times, but closed her mouth again. Then finally, she reached out and took Akari's hand.
"Thank you, Akari. Perhaps that vision was meant for me, as a warning against the temptation of despair. I am thankful you were here to guide me to the right interpretation." She smiled and gave Akari's hand a playful squeeze. "And… I think I rather like the title you've given me. Inara, Goddess of Progress… It does have a nice ring to it."