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Yucatan Job: Fox Metal

Chapter Text

Standing on the steps of the temple, Master Xio watched the novices training under the bright autumn sun. The Fox Clan families had been sending fewer and fewer of their daughters to the temple every year. She could not pinpoint the exact moment in time when the people lost faith in their God but after centuries in hiding she suspected it was inevitable. The freedoms of the modern world were just too attractive. The daughters of the Fox Clan could do many things, and live lives in the outside world that were only dreamed of when they first came to this place and learned of its dangers.

When they had originally come to this land, attracted by one of the local deities that looked favorably upon their patron the Fox God, they had tried to fit in. And now they were just seen as eccentric worshipers of the kami Inari. This allowed them to pursue their own lives amid the mountains and stay hidden from those who would take advantage of their presence. All her clan wanted was to live peacefully amongst nature, free from the pressures of living in a land of constantly evolving tech.

But now the time had come to send out messengers to assess the coming of the Serpent Clan. The emergence of the Serpent Clan had come as a surprise to the Elders. After so long they’d thought they were alone in this sector. The Fox Clan was not one of the original Thirteen clans. But sharing some of the same history, preferred to avoid contact with the Clans.

Master Xio would need to select several priestesses to be Clan messengers who would journey and request an audience with the the elders of the Serpent Clan.

Xio loudly clapped her hands, gaining the attention of all of the Clan in the courtyard. Everyone stopped and silently turned towards her. She could see the questions in their eyes.

"Come, we must meet to discuss many things," she said, gesturing towards the temple. "The time of prophecy is almost upon us." Stepping to the side, she watched her clan flow into the temple, some eagerly, some with frowns upon their faces.

Once they had all entered, she followed, the towering doors closing silently behind her. Nodding at her fellow elders and the novices, she gracefully walked towards the center of the brightly lit chamber. Sitting down on the steps below the dais, she waited for the other elders to join her.

"We have all heard and watched as the Serpent Clan has made itself known to the world," she began. "The Elders have discussed long and hard for many weeks what our response should be. They are not our Clan. We have always avoided contact with them. They work in the light and we hide in the shadows. But they are preparing this planet for something and we can no longer remain idle. We have made this place our home and it will be defended."

Senior Trainer Yetsui stood up. "What would you have us do, Eldest?" she asked. "I have watched this so called clan. They bring all of the things we came here to avoid. In their zeal, they will turn this into another spiritless planet, stripped of all that is good."

"Their culture bears some resemblance to the Mayans of the Americas," Elder Yusif said, slowly standing. "Not all of the Clans worship technology above all else. It will be our task to show them a better way forward."

"How will we get their attention without losing ourselves?" Trainer Olin asked. "Our skills and being do not flow well in the cities. We must protect ourselves from contamination."

"Messengers shall be selected and trained," Xio said. "They will have our full support as they go out into the world and meet this Clan. The selection and training will begin tomorrow," she said. "We shall all have our parts to play. Survival of all that we hold dear depends on it."

Xio stood and watched the others leaving the temple, some to go back to their training and others to disperse out to the villages of the clan.

"You have a plan," Yusif said, taking her usual place at Xio’s side. "We have discussed all of the possibilities, read the tea leaves, and sprinkled ashes. The signs are not encouraging. This may be the end of us. We have not agreed with any course of action that hastens that."

"I refuse to entertain that idea," Xio said. "We came here to escape, but we are not helpless. We have many talented clan who can make a difference."

"We are not warriors like this Serpent Clan," Yusif said. "They are preparing for a war and we are pacifists. We will have no place in the world they are creating."

"But a war with whom?" Xio asked. "The Thirteen have protected all who lived in their sectors with ferocity. The signs say something is coming but we gave up all of our tech centuries ago. We are blind. All we have left are ourselves."

"Rumor has it that they know where all those of Clan blood live," Yusif said. "Why not wait until they come to us?"

"You know why," Xio said. "We are not of the Thirteen. Our blood is different. Our ancestors were fellow travelers but not of the same clans. They will not be able to find us unless we come forth. They do not know we exist."

"Is that your real plan?" Yusif said. "Messengers? I would not fall for that."

"Yes, messengers of the Fox God," Xio said. "Them!" She pointed at a handful of novices out in the yard. "What do you see?"

"Nothing special," Yusif said, looking back at her.

"Look again, this time with your third eye," Xio said. She waited while she muttered a few words to herself while gazing at the novices.

"How did we not know this?" Yusif asked, gazing fearfully at the novices. "They reek of power."

"The Fox God provides," Xio said, Yusif automatically echoing her words. "Though I suspect it is not that simple. We no longer have the ability to predict the appearance of those favored by the Fox God but our ancient histories claim they will make an appearance when needed."

"They are novices," Yusif said. "They are not ready to go out into the world. They may never be ready. Power is not enough."

"No. But they will become ready," Xio said. "They must be trained in all of the ancient ways of the Fox God."

"Very few have the ability or will to survive it," Yusif said. "And how will we be able to get them ready in time?"

"There will be enough time," Xio said. "We will begin tomorrow. You shall guide their training."

"Yes, Master Xio," Yusif said reluctantly, nodding in agreement.

"I don’t like the way they are looking at us," Yui said in a whisper to the others gathered near the well. "Like something to be tied up and thrown in the river."

"We are strong," Su said. "Did we not come here on our own when everyone in the village told us we would die? They said we would never succeed."

"Yes," Moa said, looking up, with faint glee in her eyes. "We came when no one expected us to. We came because of the visions you had."

"The visions have started again," Yui said. "It is like one of the shows my brother likes to watch. Giant robots. Space ships, soldiers fighting."

"Why don’t I get those kind of visions," Moa said, pouting. "All I get are crumbling ruins."

"Ruins have treasure," Su said.

"And monsters," Yui added.

"I’m hungry," Moa said.

"You’re always hungry," Su told her. "The mystery is where does it all go? You eat more than the both of us but always look starving."

"Efficiency," Moa said.

"Efficiency?" Su said. "What does that mean?"

"I don’t know," Moa said. "That’s what Doctor Lee said. She said my heart is very efficient."

The bell began ringing, signalling the next meal.

"Come on," Moa said, pulling on Su and Yui. "Don’t wait."

"Don’t be so pushy," Su said. "There will be plenty of food. The Eldest in training are on a training trip. You might even get seconds."

"Yeah!" Moa said, jumping up and down. "Seconds."

"Not if you keep that noise up," a shrill voice coming from their right said. "What are you twigs talking about?"

"Nothing," Su said, Moa and Yui nodding in agreement.

"Just lunch," Moa said. "And she gets to go first," she added in a whisper.

"I will be going first," the voice said. Steps receded into the distance.

"Now there won’t be anything left," Moa said, pouting.

"We still have the 'magic' mushrooms," Su said.

"Didn’t we give it a different name?" Yui said. "And they taste like week old banana peels."

"So you should like them," Moa said, muttering under her breath. "Just like that stinky cheese you forgot to put back. My clothes will never lose that smell."

"Maybe if you washed them?" Su said, dodging. "A little soap and water does wonders."

"Moa is allergic to soap," Yui said.

The dinner bell rang for the second time, interrupting their argument. Shaking her head, Su turned and headed towards the dining hall.

Before they could reach the dining hall, they were stopped by Master Xio, whom they had not spoken to since becoming novices three years ago.

"Su, Yui, and Moa," she said. She gazed piercingly at them for several long moments. "You will report to Elder Yusif in the morning. She will guide your training until you are told otherwise."

Expressionless, Su bowed slightly. "Yes, Master Xio."

"Go," Master Xio said, waving them on.

From the shadows, Xio watched as the Elder took the first steps in preparing the Messengers for their task. If she had not seen the spark of the Fox God in their eyes, in their very movements, she would have picked someone else. They looked too young to her ancient eyes.

"Things will change," Yusif said, looking at the three young novices sitting on the grass in front of her. "You are no longer learning for the glory of the Clan. Before, you would have been ready to go out into the world as full fledged walking priestesses of the Clan, versed in the basics of our art in another year. If you passed your trials."

"If?" squeaked Moa.

"There is no guarantee," Yusif said. "No matter how blessed a novice may be by the Fox God, the trials will show their true metal. Not all pass. But we shall see. You have been picked for an important task and will take the trials soon."

"Us?" Yui said faintly. "Why us?"

"I do not need to tell you, isn’t that correct Su?" she said.

"No," Su said. "Most novices do not receive visions and gifts from the Fox God. Though I do not think it is meant to be a blessing."

"Correct," Yusif said. "It has been a long time since the Fox God picked among us for a special task."

"Do we have to?" Moa said. "I like things the way they are."

"Change is coming," Su said, poking Moa. "You knew this. Both of you."

"Yes," Yusif said. "You will take the trials at the next moon. We shall begin preparing today so that you can be ready."

"And then what, Elder Yusif?" Su asked.

"You have no doubts?" Yusif asked, raising an eyebrow.

"Should I?" Su asked. "I have seen the trials in my dreams."

"Dreams do not always come true," Yusif said.

"That’s what I keep telling her," Moa said, grumbling, pulling at the grass nervously. "She sees so many things that don’t happen."

"Because we took steps to avoid them," Su said. "Did not my dreams protect us when we first journeyed here?"

"Yes," Yui said. "But we could have gotten away from those bandits anyway."

"Once the trials are over, we shall discuss these visions," Yusif said. "Like all gifts from the Fox God they can be improved with training."

"Of course, Elder Yusif," Su said.

"We shall be very busy until the trials," Yusif said. "You must complete your novice training by then."

"We had a year left," Moa said. "How will we do a years training in less than a month?"

"We have techniques for speeding training up," Yusif said. "We don’t use them often, but in this case we shall take the risk. There is much else you must learn following the trials."

Moa poked Su, hard. "See what you’ve gotten us into?"

"Can I go home?" Yui asked. "I don’t want to take the trials."

Yusif frowned at them.

"We will be ready to take the trials," Su said to Yusif. "Ignore them. They prefer to be contrary."

"We were going to that concert," Moa said. "My younger sister is trying out for the Maestro Team afterward."

"She can do that without our help," Su said. "She will understand."

"No she won’t," Moa said. "She wants to be an idol. She thinks we are doing strange boring things."

"Enough," Yusif said. "We begin now. To pass the trials your form must be perfect. Going to concerts and becoming idols will not help you with the trials."

"You haven’t explained how we’re going to pass them," Su said. "Perhaps you should begin."

Yusif sighed. Gracefully standing, she gestured for them to stand. "Come. We shall start."

"What is this?" Su asked, as the door closed behind them.

"You are aware of the history of our Clan," Yusif said. "That the Fox God guided the Prophet to this planet and land, leaving behind all of the trappings of tech our people had immersed themselves in to lead a simpler life."

"Yes," Su said.

"Well, it isn’t quite true," Yusif said. "Although we only use the tech of the land we live in, we have not completely given up all of the advancements of the outer worlds. This is one of the things we have kept."

"Are those traveling pods?" Yui asked excitedly, looking at the six long object in the center of the room. "Do we get to go into space?"

"No," Yusif said, frowning. "They are not. The Clan abandoned our travel pods when we settled here."

"Well, that is disappointing," Moa said. "I wonder if the Serpent Clan would let us have a ship? They look like anime warriors, they must have tech."

"What the Serpents have is not relevant to our task at the moment," Yusif said. "These are training pods. They will increase your learning ability many times and prepare you for the coming trials."

"Why didn’t we use them until now?" Moa asked. "Why do we spend so long as novices if we have these?"

"Because it is Thirteen Clan technology that we borrowed," Yusif said. "The Serpents may be able to detect our usage of it and we are not ready to reveal ourselves to them. If this was not important you would not have been told of their presence until you became elders. Also, we are not a perfect match to the ones they are designed for. Long term use may not be healthy."

"Long term?" Yui asked, running her hands along the smooth sides of the nearest pod.

"The Thirteen are able to spend many months without interruption in the pods. We cannot," Yusif said.

"What happens if we do?" Yui said.

"You will lose your connection to the heart of the Fox God," Yusif said, "if you are exposed for more than a real day at a time."

"Aren’t all days real?" Su asked.

"The pods are different," Yusif said. "Time in them flows differently. You shall see."

"How do we use them?" Su asked.

"You must wear pod suits," Yusif said. "You will find them over there. She pointed at a door. "Put them on and come back out here."

Going through the door, the three novices found themselves in a room similar to the changing rooms in the bathhouse. Three piles of cloth sat on a low bench.

"Do you feel that there is something she isn’t telling us?" Yui said, picking up one of the piles and shaking it out. "How do we put this on?"

"There is a lot the Elders aren’t telling us," Su said.

"What do your visions say?" Moa asked.

"Nothing helpful," Su said, also picking up one of the garments. "Just that we go along with this and learn new things. Some of them strange."

"Strange how?" Yui said, stripping off her training gi. "It’s like wearing nothing," she said, after pulling it on.

"I think we become idols," Su said, frowning down at herself after pulling on her own. "I am not sure why the Fox God needs us to become idols."

"My sister is going to be mad if we become idols and she doesn’t," Moa said. "She’s been going to idol school for the last year to learn how to sing and dance."

"We have a higher purpose," Su said. "If we become idols it will not be to become famous."

"I can’t see us as idols," Yui said. "None of us can sing."

"Maybe that’s what we learn after the trials?" Moa said.

"We’ll see," Su said. "We can talk about it later, after the trials. Until then there is no point."

"Have you seen if we all pass the trials?" Moa asked, as they trooped back out to the pods.

"It doesn’t take a vision to predict that you will pass," Yusif said, looking them over. "You have been blessed. You cannot afford to fail."

Su shook her head at Yui and Moa, silently telling them to leave it alone. "Are you joining us?" she asked Yusif.

"No," Yusif said. "The pods have been programmed and will teach you what you need to know. Now pick a pod and get in."

"How?" Moa said, standing next to the furthest pod. She jumped in surprise when the top half slid open.

"You get in and lie down," Yusif said. "The tops closes and a fluid fills the pods. You must not panic, just continue breathing. In a minute you will find yourself in the training area. You will be guided from there."

The three novices cautiously climbed into their pods and lay down. The pods closed and there was a low humming sounds before it was quiet.

A dark masked figure separated itself from the shadows, joining Yusif in watching the pods.

"Half truths and lies?" the figure said. "I thought better of Master Xio."

"They will be ready for the trials," Yusif said. "Even you cannot deny us our place in the coming war."

"No, but your way may cause more problems than it solves. You are like the mythical Jedi in hiding from the Empire. The Serpent Clan may not trust you if you suddenly appear claiming moral superiority and ask them to follow your lead."

"We shall see," Yusif said. "When will you reveal yourself?"

"There is no need," the figure said. "The pods will provide the training you have requested for your novices. Do you really wish to risk them with this venture?"

"They are blessed by the Fox God," Yusif said. "They will survive."

"We shall see," the figure said, before disappearing back into the shadows.

"Do we know who that is?" Master Xio said, joining Yusif.

"I suspect a rouge clanswoman with her own agenda," Yusif said. "This planet is visited more often than the Galactics think. Their precious Serpent Clan are not the only ones here."

"The Serpents have official backing," Master Xio said. "We are what they would consider illegal immigrants."

"As long as they don’t mistake us for those pirates," Yusif said.

"We are civilized," Xio said. "The pirates are an annoyance."

"They will do something to provoke the Serpents and get themselves wiped out," Yusif said.

"And we shall help them along that path," Xio said. "As we have done in the past."

"Yes, Master Xio," Yusif said. "How do our other plans progress? Su’s visions have shown her some of what is to come."

"Visions are unreliable without years of training," Xio said. "It is an interesting idea. What better way to give them the freedom of movement they need."

"We know nothing of that world," Yusif said.

"But we will learn," Xio said. "How long will they be in the pods?"

"This first time? A day in real time. A month in pod time."

"And you did not warn them?" Xio said, frowning. "Our mysterious assistant has a point."

"They were told that time moves differently in the pods," Yusif said.

"I will leave you to your watch," Xio said. "We will need to discuss a schedule for guards. We cannot leave them unprotected."

"All taken care of," Yusif said. "Only we can enter this chamber while the pods are activated."

"Good, good," Xio said, nodding. Hands behind her back, she strolled out of the chamber deep in thought.

"We shall see," Yusif said to herself, seating herself between the pods and the door.

"Where are we?" Moa asked, looking around.

Su hummed to herself, turning in a circle. "It looks like the temple grounds."

"When did they look like this?" Yui asked, frowning.

"When the clan first moved in it was an old ninja temple dojo," Su said. "It’s cleaner than the old pictures show it but it’s clearly where the temple will be."

"Oh," Moa said. "What kind of training do you think this will be?"

"What we were already doing," Su said. "Just faster somehow."

"It’s what some call virtual reality," a female voice said. "Fans of the Star Trek video show might call it a holodeck, though it is really neither."

The novices turned towards the voice. A flickering, vaguely female figure stood in the door of the building that would become the temple.

"Who are you?" Su said, stepping forward and partially shielding the other two smaller novices.

"Many things," the figure said. "Here and now this one is your trainer."

"What are you?" Yui asked. "Are you in one of the pods like we are?"

"In one of the pods? No," the figure said, coming closer. "What do you think of the training grounds?"

"Looks like our temple," Su said.

"A superficial resemblance," the figure said.

"What do we call you?" Su asked.

"You may address me as Ka’nsah," she said circling them.

"You look odd," Yui said. "You flicker."

"The pods are old," Ka’nsah said. "The software has been upgraded but there isn’t enough mana to run everything at full power."

"What if it breaks while we’re in here," Moa asked, looking around nervously.

"If containment starts to fail you will be released from the pods," Ka’nsah said. "Enough questions, we have a lot to cover."

"Isn’t this just more of what we were already doing?" Su asked.

"That is the expectation," Ka’nsah said, "but you have a long way to go. We shall start from the beginning with the first forms and once you have proven proficient we shall move to the second and third forms. And then we shall take a break."

"The first, second, and third forms?" Moa said faintly. "Today? We just started the third forms yesterday."

"As I said, miles to go before you sleep," Ka’nsah said. "Did not your Elder explain? Each day on the outside will be a month in the pod."

"Oh," Yui said. "But we didn’t bring any food. Can we eat in here?"

"The pods will provide," Ka’nsah said. "Come." She gestured towards the temple door.

"This does not look like the temple," Su said, stepping inside, followed by the others. They found themselves in a large hall with a ceiling several dozen feet above. The walls were decorated in mosaics of mythical creatures.

"No reason for it to be," Ka’nsah said.

"Is that the Fox God?" Moa asked, pointing at a large canine figure at the other end of the hall.

"No," said Ka’nsah. She pointed at a large woven mat in the center of the hall. "You shall demonstrate your knowledge of the first forms."

"There are only three of us," Su said. "How do you wish us to proceed."

"The pods have provided training partners for each of you," Ka’nsah said. "Shall we begin?"

Three fox headed figures appeared on the mat, silently waiting for them.

Ka’nsah circled them as they began, providing commentary as the morning wore on.

The training partners disappeared. The novices tiredly collapsed onto the mats.

"You have done well," Ka’nsah said. "If you continue as so, you shall not need to relearn the first form."

"How long?" Su asked.

"And when can we eat?" Yui said. "I’m starving. I didn’t think I would be hungry."

"Pod training is not just a mental activity," Ka’nsah said. "As your mind learns so does your body. Otherwise there would be no value to physical training."

"Oh," Moa said. She frowned. "I don’t know what you mean."

"Really?" Yui said excitedly. "I understand, I think."

"I believe I also understand," Su said. "The pods train both mind and body, correct, Old One?"

"Correct," Ka’nsah said, "but this one is not an Old One. They no longer exist on this plane."

"Apologies, Ka’nsah," Su said. "I did not mean to offend."

"Accepted," Ka’nsah said. "This one is just a simple teacher."

"So we keep all of these bruises?" Moa said, grimacing.

"The pods heal such damage at a normal rate," Ka’nsah said. "Your Elder warned you that you cannot stay in the pods? Yes?"

"Yes," Su said. "She said our Clan was not compatible with long residence in the pods."

"That is a rough approximation of the truth," Ka’nsah said. "The physical changes are stressful but it is the juxtaposition of the mental and physical changes that are dangerous for your kind with long exposure. The ones the pods were created for are different in ways your ancestry lacks accommodation for."

"But we are fine in short doses," Su said.

"Yes," Ka’nsah said. "Enough idle chatter. You shall partake of nourishment. I believe you will find this enlightening."

A low table appeared before them. Three large bowls and spoons appeared on it. The novices eagerly moved to the table, each sitting in front of a bowl.

"What is it?" Yui said.

"It has an interesting smell," Moa said.

"This is a traditional soup of the Serpent Clan," Ka’nsah said. "It is served to those about to go into battle."

"There is no meat," Su said, stirring her soup.

"They are a space faring clan," Ka’nsah said. "Meat is rare on the long ships."

"I like it," Moa said, cautiously sipping from her spoon. "Better than temple porridge."

"Will we be able to try other Clan foods?" Yui asked.

"Yes," Ka’nsah said. "Knowing the cultures of those you travel among is important."

"Pizza?" Moa asked. "We never get pizza in the temple during training."

"Pizza?" Ka’nsah said, sounding puzzled.

"It’s a common food on this planet," Su said. "A large flat bread with may possible ingredients."

"This one is not familiar with that dish," Ka’nsah said. "It does not resemble any of the Clan foods."

"We’ll have to introduce them to it," Yui said. "I’m not giving up pizza. The Fox God would never demand that of us."

"The Fox God is not a cook," Su said. "But I’m sure you can put your powers to good use and introduce them to pizza."

Ka’nsah silently observed them as they finished their soup. Once they were all done, the table and bowls disappeared.

"Let us continue," Ka’nsah said. The training partners reappeared.

"Are we done?" Yui asked, as the training partners disappeared.

"For the day," Ka’nsah said.

"I need a shower," Yui said. "I stink!"

"It’s just virtual stink," Moa said. "I’m sure the pod can make you smell better without a shower."

"I would like a shower also," Su said. "Even if it isn’t real."

"The bathing room is behind that door," Ka’nsah said, pointing to an arch in the far wall. "The evening meal shall be provided shortly."

"Enough time to get clean?" Yui asked.

"Yes," Ka’nsah said. "Go and refresh yourselves."

"I hope the water is hot," Moa said, eagerly walking to the arch.

"It’s virtual," Yui said. "It should always be hot."

"Unless the Ancients who designed the pods liked cold water," Su said.

"Don’t give them any ideas!" Yui said. "Just because you like cold showers and ice baths doesn’t mean we do."

"It toughens you up," Su said, following them through the arch.

"It’s not fun," Moa said. "And if you ever turn off the hot water again while we are in the showers we shall not be happy and you will regret it."

"We shall see," Su said. "We will not always have hot water for bathing."

"That better not be a vision you had," Moa said. "Or I’m quitting."

"You can’t quit," Su said. "Once we entered the pods there was no going back."

Yui stuck out her tongue, and then started stripping. "It’s a good thing they didn’t pick any of the sons of the Fox God for this. They couldn’t handle it."

"We don’t know that," Su said. "They could be training somewhere else. We aren’t the only Fox Clan temple on the island."

"If there are I hope they are cute," Moa said, stepping into the steaming shower.

"As long as they are well trained it doesn’t matter what they look like," Su said, following her.

"Some of us have an aesthetic appreciation for the appearance of the Sons of Adam," Yui said.

"Sons of Adam?" Moa said, puzzled. "Who are they?"

"My sister was reading about worshipers of a Lion God the last time I was home," Yui said. "They were the Sons of Adam and Daughters of Eve."

"It sounds like something from the Christian God’s Bible," Su said.

"I have never read that," Yui said, before rinsing her hair. "It’s possible. The natives of this planet have so many different ideas about their gods."

"I prefer the simple life of a Fox God priestess," Moa said.

"We are not priestesses yet," Su said. "We must pass the trials first."

"And then what?" Yui asked.

"We will find out what the Elders wish us to do then," Su said. "We know it will involve the Thirteen in some way."

"I don’t think the Thirteen need Fox God priestesses," Moa said. "They have their own gods."

"I wonder what their gods are like?" Yui said. "Do you think we will learn about them?"

"Possibly," Su said.

"Refreshed?" Ka’nsah asked as they once more joined her in the middle of the hall. She patted the training mat. "Please sit." A table appeared in front of them.

"What’s for dinner?" Yui said.

"All you think of is your stomach," Moa said.

"Food is important," Yui said. "We need to keep up our strength."

"Yes," said Ka’nsah. "Training requires energy." Bowls appeared in front of them as they had earlier in the day.

"Not soup?" Moa said, peering into her bowl. "What is this?"

"A dish favored by the Tiger Clan during their naming ceremony," Ka’nsah said. "It is supposed to impart great wisdom."

"You can have my share," Moa said, pushing her bowl at Yui. "You need it."

Sighing, Yui pushed Moa’s bowl back, before taking her own and poking its contents with her chopsticks. "What is it made from?"

"Protein and plant matter," Ka’nsah said.

"No mushrooms?" Yui asked.

"No fungus," Ka’nsah said.

"Good," Yui said before sampling the dish. "It’s okay."

"Protein?" Su asked.

"It is similar to your soy bricks," Ka’nsah said.

"Tofu? It doesn’t taste like tofu," Moa said. "And it’s chewy."

"Not my favorite Thirteen dish," Su said. "But edible."

"Doe that matter?" Yui asked. "It isn’t real."

"It is as real as anything here," Ka’nsah said.

"So, not at all," Yui said. "Do we get dessert?"

"When do we get to go back to the temple?" Su asked, putting down her empty bowl.

"You shall sleep here," Ka’nsah said. Pallets appeared against the opposite wall. "We shall continue with the forms in the morning."

"I’m bored," Yui whispered from her pallet.

"Sleep," Su said. "You need to be rested for tomorrow."

"I’m not tired," Yui said. "I need something to do."

"We can review the second forms," Moa suggested.

"That’s not what I had in mind," Yui said. "I don’t need to review the second forms."

"Run around the compound?" Su said. "That should tire you."

"No," Yui said.

"Then sleep," Su said, pulling her sheet over her head.

"Sleep." Yui muttered to herself. "I’m not tired. And it isn’t real."

"It’s real enough that some of us need sleep. So sleep," Moa said. "You heard what Ka’nsah said."

"You two are no fun," Yui said. Flopping back, she closed her eyes. "Sleep. sleep. sleep. I’m not tired yet!"

"If you don’t go to sleep, I will make you," Su said, growling at her. "Now!"

"Yes, Su," Yui said softly.

Chapter Text

Later that night, Yusif watched the pods as they silently opened. The novices slowly sat up, covered in a faintly glowing goo.

After they had climbed out of the pods she pointed towards the bathing room. "You’ll want to wash that off before it dries," she said.

The novices silently headed to the bathing room, following her directions. She watched them, wondering. She didn’t know them well enough to know if there had been any changes. While she waited, she set out a light dinner, rice and a simple broth. From her one exposure to time in the training pods she suspected they would not be able to stomach anything complex, not even the food novices were normally fed.

The novices rejoined her shortly.

"You appear to have suffered no ill effects of a day in the pods," Yusif said.

"It was a month," Moa said. "We were in there for a month."

"Yes," said Su.

"It feels very strange," Yui said. "I feel different on the inside but you are wearing the same clothes you had on when we went in."

"Yes," Yusif said. "That can be disconcerting. But it is something you should be able to adapt to." She gave them a few minutes to eat before continuing. "How is the training progressing?"

"We have reviewed all of the first and second forms," Su said. "We are now starting with the third forms. Another day and we will be done and ready for the upper forms required for the trials."

"So you will be ready in time for the trials," Yusif said. "Good, good."

"The training is interesting," Moa said. "But there’s nothing to entertain us when we aren’t training."

"Yes," Yui said. "In the pods it’s train, eat, train, eat, sleep. With nothing else."

"Once you are into the upper forms, it will be more challenging," Yusif said. "And it is not all physical training. Your minds must also be ready for the trials."

"Can’t we just skip the trials?" Yui asked. "If we know everything why do them?"

"It is traditional," Su said. "We’ve discussed this."

"The Clan must have confidence in your abilities," Yusif said. "Passing the trials will show the Clan that you are worthy of the task set before you."

"I hope they appreciate what we are going through for their approval," Moa said.

"Your effort is understood," Yusif said. "The Elders have asked this of you three."

"Do we get a vacation after the trials?" Yui said.

"Vacation?" Yusif said, gaping at her. "You are novices. After the trials you will be priestesses. There is no time for being lazy. The future of the Clan and this land depends on your skills and training."

"It was just a thought," Yui said. "I think we’ll need a break after the trials."

"We’ll get a break," Moa said. "In the infirmary."

"Infirmary?" Yui said, her voice raising.

"In the last ten trials, even the novices who passed spent at least a month in the infirmary afterward," Su said. "The trials are very dangerous."

"And those are the novices prepared for them the normal way," Moa said, winking at Yui.

"But they all lived, correct?" Yui said. "No one dies during the trials?"

"The ancient Clan records don’t say what happened to those who failed the trials," Su said. "Elder Yusif can better answer what happened in recent trials."

"No, there have been no deaths during the trials, in living memory," Yusif said. "The most common failure has been due to exhaustion. We provide the necessary training to all novices for the trials. If a novice is not ready for the trials after four years of training, they are not fit to be Clan priestesses."

"So, fail once and that’s it? Back to the villages?" Yui asked. "Why didn’t I think of that? Then I can become an idol like my sister."

"Those who wish to retake the trials are allowed to do so," Yusif said. "But very few do."

"You aren’t going to fail the trials," Su said. "All three of us will pass."

"How can you be so sure?" Yui said. "Did you have a vision?"

"Of course she did," Moa said.

"Things may change," Su said, "but all of my visions after the trials have the three of us together. So either we all pass or we all fail. And I do not plan to fail."

"That is good to know," Yusif said, "but do not become arrogant. Even so you must still participate in them."

"But if we pass, why take them?" Yui said.

"You can’t talk your way out of the trials," Moa said. "The Elders may feel we need to prepare to take them a year early but they will still insist we take the trials."

"Yes," Yusif said. "You will take the trials as planned. And until then you shall prepare in the training pods."

"Yes, Eldest," the novices said, bowing.

"Off to bed," Yusif said. "We shall meet here again in the morning."

"Yes, Elder Yusif," they said, bowing again.

Lying in their sleeping chamber in the temple, the three novices quietly talked about the previous training session in the pods and the upcoming trials."What did Elder Yusif mean by saying it wasn’t just a physical trial?" Yui said. "In the three years we have been novices the trainers have all said that what we need to pass is to understand and embody the ideals of the Fox God. But all they teach us are the different forms."

"You need to stop sleeping during class," Moa said. "You should know enough to be a priestess of the Fox God already. What does a priestess do?"

"Guides her village, and protects it from evil," Yui said. "Sees to their health. Blesses babies, and the dying. Priestess things."

"Priestess things," Su said, sighing. "The forms are just physical preparation for the role of Fox God priestess. All the other things we have been learning are the important parts. The trials will tell the elders if we are ready to be priestesses. And not just if we can defeat bandits."

"Of course," Yui said. "But how will the trials do that?"

"The trials are hidden from me," Su said. "I have never been able to see them."

"So you’re as unknowing as we are," Moa said. "Why haven’t you told us this important fact?"

"I have," Su said. "I’ve been very clear to both of you of what I can and cannot see."

"Well, you need to say it more often," Yui said. "Did we learn anything useful in the pods today?"

"The training partners expect perfect form," Su said. "They were constantly correcting us as they reviewed our knowledge. And the forms were different, closer to the ancient forms. They did not allow us to move on to another form until we were perfect."

"So now we’re better than we were before the pods?" Moa said. "Would we do better against the other novices?"

"Yes," Su said. "The ancient versions of the forms are more efficient. They may appear the same to an untrained eye but the others would have a difficult time defending against them."

"So we approve of this?" Moa said. "Do we tell Elder Yusif?"

"No," Su said firmly. "The ancient forms will be an advantage in the trials. An advantage we do not want to lose."

"What do you think we will learn tomorrow?" Yui asked. "Do you think we will complete the third forms?"

"That was the stated goal," Su said.

"Will we use the training pods until the trials?" Yui asked. "Or only until we have finished the fourth year training?"

"There are the exhibition matches the week before the trials," Moa said. "We will want to participate in them."

"You just want to bet on the matches," Yui said.

"We will win all of our matches," Su said, "I am confident."

"Vision confident or you believe we will be the best to take the trials?" Moa said.

"We shall be the best," Su said. "We are already the best of our cohort. After this training we will be the best of the fourth year novices also."

"Do they know what we are doing? Do they know about the training pods?" Yui asked.

"It is not a secret that we are being given special training, but I do not believe the nature of the training is known," Su said. "They will not expect to see us in the trials."

"But if we participate in the matches does that not mean we will be taking the trials?" Yui asked.

"Advanced novices are allowed to be in the matches in their third year," Su said.

"There is an ancient rule," Moa said. "A third year novice who remains undefeated in the matches may be selected to take the trials."

"I had not heard that," Su said. "How did you find out about it?"

"My cousin told me about it the last time I was home. I looked it up in the library," Moa said. "It was a rule a long time ago before we came to this planet. It has been a thousand years since it last happened and a third year novice took the trials."

"This year there will be three of us," Su said in the tone of voice Yui and Moa knew meant they would or would die trying. "We shall earn our places in the trials."

"Then we need to sleep," Moa said.

"Finally," Yui said. "I thought you would go on all night."

"Back so soon?" Yusif asked the masked figure and it appeared from the shadows.

"I am not far away," the figure said. "I shall remain until your novices finish the trials."

"You are watching the novices," Yusif said. "How are they progressing."

"They are exceeding my initial expectations," the masked figure said. "They are naturals and shall make your clan proud."

"Will the Serpent Clan allow them a place in the coming battles?" Yusif asked.

"They may ask for more than you are prepared to give, but I cannot speak for them," she said. "Their ruling Council is not what was predicted by the signs. It is young and may not act as an old Clan Council would."

"We cannot sit on the side while the fate of our people and adopted lands are decided by one of the Thirteen," Yusif said. "The three novices are among our best. The Fox God has told us so. And after this training none will stand in their way."

"They are still young novices," the stranger said. "Do not expect more from them than they are able to give. The training has been simple so far."

"But they will learn the correct forms for dealing with the Thirteen,? Yusif said.

"Yes," the stranger said. "They will not realize but the training plan will teach them the ancient forms from when your clan was equal to the Thirteen, before your Fox God turned it in a different direction."

"The Fox God knew what was best for us," Yusif said. "We could not have survived in that form much longer. Our families were wasting away. We are not afraid of conflict but our hearts are not what they once were. We are a peaceful clan. A healing clan. We are no longer a war clan."

"If you say so," the stranger said. "Peaceful warriors too have a place in the world."

"Will we have a place in it in the end?" Yusif said. "We will be unable to hide in the end."

"Only the stars can answer that," the stranger said. "In battle the timid die."

"Your stars are different than our Fox God, I think," Yusif said. "Our Fox God led us away from extinction in the times before. Now all signs say we must become a part of it if we want a place in the future."

"Even your novice with the visions would be reluctant to make claims about the gods," the stranger said.

"You have shown excellent progress," Ka’nsah told them at the end of their fifteenth full session, more than a year of training in pod time. "Your proficiency with the forms of your Fox God honors your clan."

"We have covered every form and mystical art known to the Clan," Su said. "What more is there for us to learn to prepare for the trials?"

"There is yet more to learn beyond the trials," Ka’nsah said. "Interacting with the Thirteen on an equal level will require much more than has been covered."

"Do we need to prepare for the Thirteen?" Moa asked. "Now?"

"Can’t we do this later?" Yui said. "If we’re ready for the trials now?"

"Now is the optimal time," Ka’nsah said. "It is not sure that the pods will continue working if shut down."

"So, stop now and maybe not get to continue, or continue and finish training," Su said.


"We will need to discuss this with Elder Yusif," Su said. "What further training are you offering?"

"Familiarity with the skills and battle training of the Thirteen," Ka’nsah said. "And knowledge of their technology. You must be familiar with their thinking to avoid miscommunication."

"Will you teach us to fly their space ships?" Yui asked eagerly.

"That is beyond the capability of this training facility," Ka’nsah said. "Go. Return tomorrow if you find the plan acceptable."

"Yes, Master Ka’nsah," Su said, after looking at Yui and Moa.

Watching them climb out of the pods and head to the bathing room, Yusif continued to be amazed at the changes to the novices after more than two weeks of using the training pods. They were no longer simple novices with the light of the Fox God in their eyes. They moved with the smooth gate of highly trained athletes. There was a certain toughness to them that they had originally lacked. They no longer had the softness of most novices their age.

She pitied the other novices who faced them in the pre-trial matches.

"Come, join me in tonight’s meal," she said, waving at the low table. "How was today’s training?"

"We are done," Su said. "Master Ka’nsah has taught us all we need to know of Clan forms."

"That is good," Yusif said. "The trials are in three weeks."

"Master Ka’nsah has said there is more to teach us," Su said. "That we can learn to understand how the Thirteen think and communicate more effectively with them."

"I see," Yusif said. "Additional preparation would be interesting. It has been a long time since we have had direct contact with any of the Thirteen."

"So, you agree?" Yui asked. "Master Ka’nsah said that the training pods may not continue to work if we wait until after the trials."

"That will be taken into consideration," Yusif said. "The Elders will need to discuss this. We will give you our answer in the morning."

"Yes, Elder Yusif," Su said.

"Thank you, Master Yusif," Yui and Moa said.

"Tell me what you learned in this past session," Yusif said.

"We learned how to channel our inner life force," Su said. "And to combine it with the upper forms."

"It was like being a Jedi," Yui said eagerly. Holding her hand above her plate, a potsticker slowly rose midway in the air.

"Or one of those anime martial artists," Moa said. "With just a little soul power you can walk on walls."

"And the forms are very adaptable to this energy," Su said. "Though it takes much practice and energy to maintain the ability."

"Even in the training pods we were starving after an hour of that," Moa said.

"Those are ancient techniques," Yusif said. "There have been no Elders or trainers able to teach them since we came to this place. You will need to teach these techniques to us when you return from assisting the Thirteen."

"Yes, Master Yusif," Su said, giving the others a subtle nod.

"What do you think?" Master Xio said, watching the novices go into the temple. "Should they continue? There is no guarantee that they will pass the trials. Any other possible candidates would have to prepare for the trials in the traditional fashion."

"We cannot predict the results," Yusif said. "Even novice Su will not claim to do so. Her visions do not provide a definitive prediction."

"I suspect her visions have become more efficient, given the account of the techniques your friend has give them in the pods," Master Xio said.

"My friend?" Yusif said.

"I am well aware of the source of this," Master Xio said, waving at the chamber containing the training pods. "You did not suddenly discover how to use ancient technology. Though I am unsure of the motives of the being behind this."

"My motives are my own," a voice said from the chamber doorway. Stepping out, the masked stranger sat on the steps and waved at the ground for them to sit. "There is a need for your Clan in this upcoming conflict."

"What do we call you?" Xio said, facing Yusif’s co-conspirator for the first time.

"I have many names," the masked stranger said. "Your trainees call my training avatar Ka’nsah, which is appropriate for that place. I am just a shadow in this time and place."

"Why only these three?" Xio said. "Should not the whole clan be preparing for what is coming?"

"The conflict is still several years away from this now at last estimate," the stranger said. "When the time is right, additional training and assistance will be provided to your clan and others. But there is a more immediate need for those three to prepare the way and spread the message to others."

"So, they will not face this alone?" Xio asked.

"No," the stranger said. "But I will make no promises. There is danger for all involved in this enterprise."

"What will they learn?" Xio said.

"They will learn everything we can teach them," the stranger said. "To sing. To dance. To spy and captivate. To fight. To kill."

"Our priestesses are taught that killing is the last resort of the desperate," Xio said with clear disapproval.

"To survive one must be desperate," the stranger said. "But they must be able to do what is necessary."

"Sing and dance?" Yusif said. "That is not something we have anyone to train them for."

"The training pods will provide," the stranger said. "Though that is not one of my many skills, there are others available to provide that training."

"And then what?" Xio said.

"Young Yui wishes to be an idol," the stranger said. "No, she isn’t serious. Just an element of sibling rivalry. But arrangements are in progress. Following the trials an opportunity will arise to make that wish come true."

"Why would we allow this?" Xio asked. "We are a simple, private clan."

"Because what better way for a God to gather worshippers than for the god’s priestesses to be seen in this world?" the stranger said. "Than to have a stage to give her message from? Though young Su is better suited for that role than the other two."

"I cannot see what your plans mean for the Clan," Xio said.

"A future where they will not need to hide from the Thirteen, and their sins are forgiven," the stranger said. "The price of that forgiveness is this."

"There is nothing the Thirteen need to forgive," Xio said. "We were within our rights as a clan to do what we did."

"The Galactics and Council of Clans see it differently,’ the stranger said. "But that is none of my business. I am merely facilitating this small action." Standing, she appeared to disappear in front of their eyes.

Xio waited several minutes before saying anything. "I am not confident that this is wise," she said. "But, continue down this path. Whatever they learn they can teach, if nothing else. Let us just hope they do not suffer from stage fright."

"What do we tell them?" Yusif asked.

"That the Elders have approved of the additional training," Xio said. "Two more weeks. And they must sign up for the matches both singly and as a team."

"Yes, Master Xio. What of the plans by this shadow?" Yusif asked. "Do we tell the novices?"

"No. Just tell them it has been approved," Xio said.

"And the Elder Council?" Yusif said.

"That will be my task," Xio said. "It is just a formality. The other Elders are comfortable with their positions and will agree to anything that does not threaten their comfort."

"They were great in their prime," Yusif said. "They guided the Clan wisely during times of trouble

"Which was long ago," Xio said. "After the trials we may need to encourage them to retire."

"I do not envy your position," Yusif said.

"No, it will not be a comfortable task," Xio said.

"I am glad to see that you have returned," Ka’nsah said.

"We have been given fourteen additional sessions," Su said, "to learn what you can teach us of the Thirteen."

"Excellent," Ka’nsah said. "In past sessions we focused on tasks exclusively in preparation for your trials. We shall proceed in a different manner for the remaining sessions."

"Yes, Master Ka’nsah," the novices said.

"In the mornings we shall examine and learn the martial arts of the Thirteen. In the afternoons their culture and languages. When we are done you will be able to infiltrate any of the Thirteen."

"Are there not physical differences among the Thirteen?" Moa asked. "How will that be possible?"

"Yes," Ka’nsah said. "Each of the Thirteen comes from different genetic stock. Although they originated on a single planet many millennia ago, they have diverged, in some cases drastically. We shall start with the Clans known to be present or to have been present in this sector."

"Martial arts and culture?" Su said.

"Correct," Ka’nsah said. "We shall also begin working on other techniques for blending with a population. Some of the Clans use technology to a degree that may make you uncomfortable. That must also be dealt with."

"Let’s begin." The now familiar training avatars appeared in front of them. "First we will cover the basics known to all warriors of the Thirteen."

"It feels like we are starting all over," Yui said, that pod night after dinner. "Did we expect this?"

"It is just another art," Su said. "The forms are different but so is the culture that created them."

"Understanding the culture brings greater understanding of the forms," Moa said.

"I understand that," Yui said, "but how will we remember all of these different things."

"Have you noticed how things learned in the training pods are easier to remember?" Su asked.

"Yes," Yui said.

"It is part of the 'magic' of the pods," Su said. "But is also why they are dangerous to use for us."

"How do you know this?" Yui asked.

"I asked Ka’nsah why the pods were dangerous for us," Su said. "They were developed by the Thirteen for their specific physiology. We will have reached the limit of our pod training time when this is over. More than thirty days and they will begin to damage us due to the differences between us and the Thirteen. And it will be irreversible."

"Why do we have them if they are that dangerous to us?" Yui asked.

"Only the Ancients who stole them from the Thirteen know why they took them," Su said. "And only the Elders know why one of the Thirteen is helping us use them now."

"One of the Thirteen is here?" Yui said. "Helping?"

"How else?" Moa asked. "We have not had the technicians to repair or maintain the training pods since landing here. They died with our ships. And did not Elder Yusif say that the Thirteen could detect pod usage?"

"Oh," Yui said. "Are we safe?"

"It’s too late to worry about that," Su said. "We must be prepared to protect our clan if the Thirteen come to take revenge but that may never happen. If they were going to appear they should have already."

"Do you think the Thirteen know we are here?" Moa said. "On this planet?"

"In general?" Su said. "Very unlikely. That they haven’t come after us for some ancient slight? They probably don’t care or have forgotten."

"The Serpent Clan has appeared and reclaimed their lands," Yui said.

"They were not here when we came to this place," Su said. "But the pods just make remembering and learning easier. We still must practice these skills to retain them as useful skills."

"So, even when we finish with the pods we must continue training?" Yui said. "I changed my mind. Let’s become cooks."

"You can become a cook when we are done," Su said. "We will always need cooks but we must survive the challenge first."

"Trials first, then whatever challenge the Elders set for us, and then you can become a cook," Moa said.

"Okay, okay," Yui said, huffing. "At least we have a purpose. And don’t have to go to cram school or university."

"If you want to go to a non-Clan school after becoming a priestess it can be done," Su said. "But it is a lot of work to be ready. My aunt became a doctor after becoming her village’s clan priestess. It took her longer to qualify for the necessary schools. But she did it."

"The Clan boys don’t have that problem," Moa said. "My brothers are all going to college. They will serve the Clan in other ways."

"My brother is taking over the family farm," Su said. "He was in the Navy for four years. He says it must be something like when the clan traveled in space, but the clan ships would have been safer because it was full of families."

"We aren’t going to learn how to fly spaceships," Yui said, "but maybe we’ll still get to go on them. The Serpent Clan must have them - they go places."

"They are this sector’s peacekeepers, according to Ka’nsah. They cannot do that without space travel," Moa said. "Their Ruling Council seems strange. They call them gods."

"All of the Thirteen have similar Ruling Councils," Su said. "Ka’nsah said that they all have the same structure but the actual power can vary based on the Clan."

"Will we meet them?" Yui asked.

"Time will tell," Su said. "We still have a long way to go."

"Do you think anyone will notice that we are older?" Yui asked. "Thirty days in the training pods. But for us that is more than two years. Do we look different?"

"Ka’nsah explained but I did not understand," Su said. "We retain some things but not others."

"We don’t age in the pods, because we are not of the Thirteen," said Moa. "But our bodies are affected by time in the pods. You’ve noticed the changes."

"Yes, but will anyone else?" Yui said.

"I believe so," Su said. "Have you noticed how Elder Yusif stares at us when we leave the pods? Something is different about us."

"As long as it doesn’t scare away boys," Yui said, giggling.

"Boys will be the least of our problems," Moa said. "We need people to take us seriously as priestesses."

"What will we be learning in this session?" Su asked Ka’nsah when they returned to the pods on their twenty-fifth session.

"Something a little different. You have learned the basics of the martial systems of the Thirteen, though you are not masters of all the ways in which they fight, and have a good grounding in their cultures and what their technology is capable of."

"I still want to learn how to fly a spaceship," Yui said.

"You’ve been asking for that since we started training in the pods," Moa said. "I don’t think the answer will change."

"No," Ka’nsah said. "You will not be trained to pilot or navigate any of the known types of vehicles used by the Thirteen. We have two tasks left before we must finish." "What’s left?" Su asked. "We have done everything you told us we would learn."

"All of the Thirteen have armored environmental suits, for many different purposes. You shall spend the most time with members of the Serpent Clan so shall become familiar with several different kinds of suits they wear. And the different suits worn by the other Clans."

"Yes!" Yui said excitedly.

"They aren’t spaceships," Moa said.

"No, but the Serpent Clan troopers wear real armored hard suits," Yui said. "My brother showed me the last time I went home. They look like anime characters, except real."

"I still don’t understand why you became a novice," Su said, shaking her head.

"Because you and Moa asked me to," Yui said. "I may be fascinated by the land we live in and its culture but I am still Clan and know how important our traditions are, and how important our priestesses are."

"What is the other thing?" Moa asked.

"We have discussed with your Elders what your camouflage in the outer world will be," Ka’nsah said.

"Camouflage?" Yui asked.

"One priestess can easily travel with her small entourage," Ka’nsah said, "going about the business of the Clan in the outside world. But the three of you together would attract too much attention in the wrong places as priestesses."

"Why are you teaching us to be stealthy?" Su asked. "We can travel without attracting attention and won’t need this camouflage."

"When on the secret business of the Clan you are correct, but you are also representatives of the Fox God. And that requires a certain amount of ceremony."

"If you say so," Su said. "How will we do that?"

"You will become idols," Ka’nsah said. "This will provide the cover to travel internationally and to seek out others for the glory of your clan and the Fox God."

"That… makes no sense," Yui said. "The Elders have lost their minds."

"I agree with Yui," Moa said. "Which is unexpected." She frowned. "Idols are the last thing we should be if we want to successfully promote Clan interests and work with any of the Thirteen for whatever reasons the Elders believe we need to."

"I do not understand this camouflage," Su said. "I do not know how we can become these idols. We are not musicians or whatever they do."

"We can learn," Yui said. "My sister told me how they make idols. In many cases they are normal teens who go to a casting call like actors. But it’s for singing, or other things. We would need a gimmick and some talent, and someone with connections but not much else."

"The talent might be an issue," Moa said. "I don’t sing or dance. Do you?"

"No," Su said. "There has been no need as priestesses."

"Your skill with the different forms give you the physical training and strength," Ka’nsah said. "You will need to learn to dance and follow directions, but we shall train you in that here, using methods from idol schools. We shall also provide you with voice lessons. An avatar of a musical trainer has been found."

"So, we get to sing and dance and be idols?" Yui said. "My sister will be so jealous."

"Hopefully this music avatar can teach you to sing," Moa said. "Your shower singing skills have destroyed more than one pair of ear plugs."

"In the shower, no one can hear you sing," Yui said. "It’s the perfect place to let it all out."

"I think you mean 'no one can hear you scream'," Moa said.

"You shall continue to practice your forms, and the forms of the Thirteen," Ka’nsah said. "Following the practice you shall learn to use the more common environment suits. In the afternoons, you shall prepare your camouflage."

"Practice, dress-up, and singing," Yui said. "Got it. And here we go," she added when their training avatars appeared in front of them.

"My throat hurts," Yui said, hoarsely. "That music avatar is tough."

"It was not bad," Su said. "I enjoyed it."

"You have an actual, trainable voice," Moa said, flopping down on top of her. "Yui and I can make singing noises but we aren’t going to become famous for our voices. If we become idols it will be because we are hiding behind you."

"Hiding and dancing," Yui said. "We’ll do the dancing and you can do the signing."

"We will all have to sing, and dance," Su said. "We are a team."

"A tired team," Moa said. "Dancing and the forms use different muscles. Ka’nsah said the forms would help but the music avatar does not appear to know this."

"It is a challenge," Su said, nodding. "But we have not really been challenged in months. The forms all require similar effort. They may require different movement but it is not the same as dance."

"The music avatar is preparing us for expressing emotion through sound and movement," Yui said. "It is more of a change of purpose. The forms require tight control in a different way."

"But we are still doing the forms," Moa said. They are important."

"Yes," Yui said. "We still must pass the trials. We won’t be able to sing and dance our way through them. Though, imagine if we could." She grinned to herself.

"I did not enjoy the suit training," Moa said. "It felt very restricting. I do not know how they can fight in such armor."

"Those are not modern Serpent Clan fighting suits," Su said. "They were Tiger Clan and Gold Clan. Their suits are defensive."

"How do you know this?" Yui asked.

"I pay attention," Su said. "Those were the suits depicted in the material on the Tiger Clan. We have seen Serpent Clan armor before and that was not what it looks like."

"Will we get to try out the Serpent Clan suits soon?" Yui asked. "It was like wearing a tank."

Yusif and Master Xio watched as the novices climbed out of the training pods on their final day. They briefly glanced over before heading to the bathing room.

"There is something different about them," Master Xio said.

"They’ve been learning in the training pods for a month," Yusif said.

"That is not very long," Xio said.

"But each day here was a month in the pod," Yusif reminded her. "They are different."

"Hopefully not too different," Xio said. "They still need to relate to the others. We wanted trained priestesses, not warriors."

"They are not warriors," Yusif said. "While it is possible to use training pods to create warriors, that is not what was done here."

"Master Xio. Elder Yusif," the three novices addressed their Elders as they joined them back in the training chamber.

"You are done," Xio said. "Do you believe you are ready for the trials?"

"Yes," all three said.

"Good," Xio said. "You may go back to your rooms. The pre-trial matches begin in two days. I would recommend you spend the time contemplating what you’ve learned. Please join Elder Yusif in the morning for assessment."

"Yes," Yusif said. "Go to dinner and rest. We shall meet in the morning after breakfast."

"Thank you," they said, bowing and then leaving.

"You will test them tomorrow," Xio said. "We need to know that they are ready for the trials."

"Yes, Master Xio," Yusif said, before leaving herself.

Xio stood in the chamber silently contemplating the training pods. She didn’t envy their experience. A month in the temple training pods had taken them through years of training. They would be different, and others would notice. She hoped the sacrifice was worth it. Not just for the Clan but the future.

"It will work out," the stranger said, appearing next to her. "The training pods have been used for a long time for purposes such as this."

"We are not of the Thirteen," Xio said, glancing at her. "This will change them in unexpected ways."

"Would you like to know a secret?" the stranger said.

"I will not like it, will I," Xio said, hearing something in her voice. "Tell me this secret."

"The Fox Clan is not of the Thirteen, that is true," the stranger said. "But they come from the same stock, the same galactic origin, though the Thirteen have changed themselves in ways that would horrify your God."


"Of a sort," the stranger said. "It is a closely guarded secret among the Clans that there were splinter groups who did not abandon the truly old ways when the Thirteen first set out."

"What does that mean for this clan?" Xio asked.

"Nothing. Everything," the stranger said. "Forgiveness may never come from the Clans but they may never seek it. Only time will tell."

Chapter Text

"These are all of the novices qualified for the trials?" Yui said, looking around the temple training floor. "I thought there would be more of us."

"Fewer and fewer every year," Su said. "Master Xio said that there is little to attract our people to become priestesses. This world is a bigger place with many more opportunities away from the temple."

"You said it yourself," Moa said. "Your younger sister didn't want to be a novice, she'd rather be an idol or go to university."

"I didn't realize that so many felt that way," Yui said. "How do we change it?"

"We pass the trials and go out into the world," Su said. "This is an exciting time. We have the reappearance of the Thirteen and all of the changes they will bring."

"But our clan ran away from those kinds of changes and ended up here," Yui said, watching the first bout between a tall novice and one half her size. "Where can we go now? We don't have space ships and the Thirteen could find us wherever we went."

"Maybe it's time to grow," Moa said. "Maybe the clan can find a new purpose and not run away from those things."

"We are not running," Su said.

"First we have to win our matches, and then pass the trials," Moa said. "Then we can worry about running and all of those things we learned."

"You must only use the novice forms," Su said sternly. "The Thirteen forms would not be appropriate."

"There are combinations and ancient forms we can still use," Moa said. "They will not have experienced them in training.

"Our first match is after lunch," Yui said. "You must defeat the winner of this match." She nodded at the two novices scrabbling in the clay.

"Her technique is flawed," Su said, pointing out the taller one. "She cannot win by brute force alone."

"The smaller one has a good grasp on the basics," Moa said, in a low voice, nodding at the red-haired novice. "But you were better before we had the pod training. Though I would recommend not playing with her. Make it quick."

"The matches are supposed to be exciting," Yui said. "Do we want to make them boring?"

"We will not play, this is serious," Su said. "Defeat your opponent as quickly as possible. We will need as much time as possible to prepare for the trials."

"Look at this one," Moa said, as the second match began. "She is a natural."

"That is Lee-quan," Su said. "She comes from a long line of priestesses. She rarely loses."

"She is not going to win this time," Yui said. "Q'dan is better, if not as polished."

"Which would you rather face," Su asked.

"I have beaten both," Yui said. "They are well trained and know their forms, but there is something missing. You can feel it when sparing with them. They do not have that spark."

"None of the fourth year novices have that spark of the Fox God," Su said. "That is why we are being given this chance. We have it and they don't."

"Arrogance is a fatal flaw," Moa said. "Self knowledge requires knowing one's own flaws and being able to work around them."

"Knowing we will win is not arrogance," Su said. "We are better trained and motivated. To them this is the end of their training. We have larger goals. That is why we must win."

"You will face the winner of the fifth match," Yui said. "Shall we place bets on how long it will take?"

"The fifth match? They are the top in forms for the fourth years," Moa said. "It shall not be easy to beat either of them."

"As long as you beat your opponent," Su said. "We are better than any of them."

Moa bowed to her opponent, the winner of the first match. The red haired novice bowed back. She exuded confidence after easily beating her opponent in her first match. Moa did not expect it to be easy. No matter what she'd said to Su and Yui, she was aware that all of the fourth year novices were well trained. Not as well trained as they were but any novice reaching their final year was not weak.

Moa stood calmly, waiting for the other novice to move first. From watching the first match she knew that her opponent was not patient.

She ducked under her first move, one of the forms designed to end a fight quickly. Moa wasn't as skilled in the forms as Su or Yui but she hadn't fallen for that opening gambit in longer than she could remember. As she straightened she threw what looked like a tentative third year form.

The red head fell for the feint and approached within Moa's reach, earning a backhanded darting form in return. It wasn't meant to do much more than set up for another form, but the force of the blow shocked the novice, throwing off her form. They danced around each other trying to find an opening.

Moa took a direct blow to her back, while shielding her face from the force of the return blow. This placed her in the place she needed to be to finish the match. In what looked like a flashy swinging of arms and kicks, she forced her opponent to the edge of the match square. It wasn't her favorite of the upper forms but it was rarely used.

With her opponent cornered she paused for a second to bow. She then launched herself forward using another rarely used form. One that had no good counter. At the end of it she struck her opponent quickly, knocking her off her feet. She stood there waiting for her to get up. She gave her a minute before turning to the judge for the call.

"Done," the judge said. "Moa shall proceed to the next round."

Moa nodded, before stepping to her shocked opponent and helping her to her feet.

"Where did you learn that form combination?" the red haired novice said, once she'd caught her breath. "They do not teach us to use them in that way."

Moa shrugged. Explaining the training pods was not something she was allowed to do. "They seemed to go together," Moa said. "Some forms fit together in ways our trainers don't realize."

"You were surprisingly good," the red haired novice said. "I would be honored to train with you after the trials."

"That may be possible," Moa said, nodding before turning and heading towards the sidelines where Su and Yui waited.

"You could have finished the match sooner," Yui said. "She is not as skilled."

"It would not have been fair," Moa said, sitting down. "She deserved a chance to demonstrate her own skills."

"It is not about fairness," Yui said. "It is about showing you are ready for the trials."

Yui casually stepped into the match square, as if strolling to dinner. Q'dan cautiously joined her. Yui had beaten her in all of their previous training matches.

"You are looking good today," Yui said to her. "You did well in your first match."

"Thank you," Q'dan said, clearly surprised at the compliment.

"I shall make this quick," Yui said. "It is almost dinner time."

"I shall not," Q'dan said.

"Begin!" the judge shouted.

Unlike Moa, Yui preferred to attack immediately. She led with a foot form, aimed at Q'dan's middle. Not expecting it to connect she followed up with a head form, causing Q'dan to duck, right into another foot form, knocking her to the ground.

Yui stepped back, allowing Q'dan to get back up. The grappling forms were not her favorite and she avoided them when possible.

Q'dan nodded to her, and immediately fell into a back hand form, which required quick reaction for Yui to avoid. Spotting an opening, Yui returned with a rolling shoulder form, once more knocking Q'dan down.

As the match progressed, Yui and Q'dan quickly traded blow after blow. Yui was able to stay on her feet the entire time using forms that kept her in control of the match, while Q'dan had trouble avoiding the upper forms Yui was using.

"Done," the judge said, following a long stream of forms that left Q'dan flat on her back in the match square. "Yui shall proceed to the next round," she said as Q'dan slowly climbed to her feet.

Yui bowed to the judge and to Q'dan. "Good match," she said before exiting the match square.

"That wasn't as fast as I expected," Su said.

"Ending it in a single form would have looked suspicious," Yui said. "And would have been boring. When is your match?"

"It is the last match of this round," Su said. "Tonight."

"It shall be interesting," Moa said. "You are better. But they have not lost a training match all year."

Su stretched as she waited for the judge to signal the match was to begin. Both Yui and Moa had won their matches, and she could not lose hers. In the long run it didn't really matter as long as they passed the trials, but it was a matter pride.

"Begin," the judge said.

Su bowed to the judge and then to her opponent. Her style was not the calm flowing forms of Moa or the aggressive forms of Yui. Su preferred the subtle approach, though there wasn't much time for that in a forms match. But the simple forms often had the greatest affect.

As her opponent tried to take her down with a wind form, Su blocked and flipped them with a simple leg block form. Following through with a back roll into an elbow form, she knocked down her opponent, who stared up at her in a daze.

Su found herself blocking one power form after another, quickly driving her to the edge to the match square. With no room left to maneuver, Su attached with a modified power form of her own, one designed to end a fight quickly. Although it was taught in fourth year, it was rarely used, requiring extensive training to be effective.

This time, her opponent was knocked down and appeared to be knocked out.

"Hold," the judge said, stopping the match. It wasn't against the rules to knock out your opponent but it happened rarely. Two trainers rushed over to examine her fallen opponent.

"Done," the judge announced. "Su shall proceed to the next round."

Su was joined in the match square by an excited Yui and Moa.

"You did it!" Yui said. "I thought you'd have to forfeit."

"There was no chance of that," Moa said. "I told you she had it all under control.'

"It did not look under control," Yui said. "Those wind power forms are hard to defend against using the novice forms."

"Yes," said Su. "Fortunately, there is enough variation that I was able to use several forms that are not often seen in training matches."

"However you did it, we need to celebrate," Yui said. "Tomorrow we have more matches to win."

"And one of us needs to win it all," Moa said.

"We may be matched against each other," Su said. "If they want a single winner, we must at some point."

"I can beat both of you at once," Yui said.

"That was a fluke," Moa said. "It will never happen again."

"We shall see," Su said. "That was just for fun. This is for honor."

"We are the only team to win all of our matches so far," Moa said.

"They won all of their matches against the fourth year novices," Master Xio said, watching Su, Moa, and Yui walking out of the match square.

"Tomorrow they must face each other," Elder Yusif said. "They will not restrict themselves to the novice forms."

"I believe they will," Master Xio said. "They know their own abilities better than anyone else."

"Novice Yui will not be able to resist showing off," Yusif said. "And against each other they will not worry about injury. Against the fourth years they would have risked hurting someone using the advanced forms."

"They showed excellent restraint," Master Xio said. "If we did not know of their training we would have not noticed the subtle differences in style."

"We have chosen well," Yusif said. "When they pass the trials they will show that they have earned their place."

"Yes, they are what we wish all novices to be," Master Xio said. "But they have not passed the trials yet."

"They shall pass," Yusif said confidently. "They have been blessed by the Fox God."

Master Xio stood in the center of the match square facing the three novices. "We do not reward the winner of the pre-trial matches," she said. "But we do acknowledge that they are the best of our priestess candidates and allow them to take the trials first. Su, this year it is your honor. Although you, Moa, and Yui are third year candidates, the three of you have earned a place in the trials tomorrow."

The three novices bowed low, to the cheers of the other novices. There had been much surprise when they'd completed the matches undefeated by any fourth year novices. But once the shock was over, everyone had been excited.

"I don't think they realize what's next," Yui said to Su and Moa over the shouting of the other third years novices. "But the fourths do." She nodded at the small group of fourth year novices, some of whom they'd defeated during the pre-trial matches.

"They will know next year," Su said.

"There is no break between the matches and the trials," Yui said. "Don't we get to rest first?"

"Tonight," Moa said. "You can rest all you want tonight."

"Generous," Yui said.

"You can rest after the trials," Su said.

"Will they tell us what the trials are?" Yui said. "They say we have been training for them but never what they really are."

"I cannot say," Su said. "You know my visions do not let me see into the trials."

"We can travel in teams," Moa said. "Up to four novices in each team. Or alone."

"How do you know that?" Yui asked.

"I asked one of the priestesses last year," Moa said. "I wanted to know if we had to face the trials alone."

"And we don't," Su said. "How is it a fair trial if there are different sizes of groups?"

"Because the trials are not just a measure of what we've learned but a measure of who we are as a people," Moa said.

"Contrary to rumor, the trials are not an attempt to thin the ranks of novices," Master Xio said, meeting with the candidates the following morning. "You all shall have equal opportunity to succeed. If you are unable to complete your trials you are welcome to continue training and retake them."

"We have ten trial groups this year," Elder J'dan said. "And one candidate who wishes to take the trials alone."

"Each group shall be given a task as their trial. If you are diligent, there is no danger for your task but it will challenge you in mind, body, and soul," Elder Yusif said. "When your group is called, please follow Elder P'tan."

"We would be last," Yui said, as all of the other groups had been led out of the temple and sent on their way.

"Please remain seated," Master Xio said, sitting down next to them, followed by the other elders. "All tasks in the trials are unique, within certain boundaries. But they all provide the Elders with clear indications of your suitability to become clan priestesses."

"There was much discussion of your task," Elder Yusif said. "Your training for the trials was not the traditional training. A normal task would not be a challenge. And would not provide a clear measure of your potential. So we have come up with something special."

"Special?" the novices said.

"How special," Yui asked.

"There are places where the walls between the worlds are very thin," Master Xio said. "You shall travel to one of these places, journey to the other world and retrieve a token left there by the Fox God in his travels."

"Sounds simple," Yui said. "What's the catch? What is really happening?"

"No, it isn't simple," Yusif said. "This token is a sacred relic that others are searching for."

"Sneak in, sneak out?" Moa said. "And don't get caught?"

"Are there monsters guarding this relic?" Yui asked.

"Not that we are aware of," Master Xio said. "But its guardian will not allow it to be removed without much persuasion."

"So, sneak in, bribery, sneak out," Yui said. "This does not appear to be a huge task."

"You are leaving something out," Su said. "Are all trials this vague?"

"Yes," Yusif said. "Part of the trial is finding the true task."

"Which is?"

"We cannot tell you," Elder J'dan said. "That is part of the trial. When you return you will tell us all you have learned."

"So, test at the end?" Yui said. "We can do this."

"What are we allowed to take with us?" Su asked. "Will we need money or food? Special equipment or clothes?"

"And how long do we have?" Moa asked.

"The trials are normally a month," Master Xio said. "But time between worlds often runs at a different rate so it may take longer. Or less. Do not expect it to end on a specific day. The trials end when they end."

"So keep going until we find it and get back," Yui said. "Got it. No pressure."

"When do we begin?" Su asked.

"Go to your rooms and get what you think may help," Yusif said. "But remember that you must carry everything you take yourselves."

"No transportation?" Yui asked.

"Foot," Master Xio said. "Unless you are able to find something on the other side. You cannot take anything large across the barrier. It must be on your person when you go across."

"What do we do when we want to come back?" Su asked.

"We will be watching," Master Xio said.

"An Elder will bring you back across," Yusif added.

"Don't forget," Yui said. Su and Moa nodded in agreement.

"They took it well," Yusif said.

"I do not believe they have realized how difficult a task they have been given," Elder J'dan said.

"If they succeed we will have one of the great relics of the Fox God in our possession," Master Xio said.

"If they don't succeed we will have lost them," Yusif said. "I believe we should have sent them on a different task."

"If they are truly blessed by the Fox God they will succeed," Master Xio said.

"Or maybe the Fox God will want them for himself and he'll keep them," Yusif said.

"Or the Fox God will slay them, and us, for daring to seek the token," Elder J'dan said.

"Go on a quest and possibly not return?" Yui mumbled as she prepared a small pack with clothes and other necessities. "Why certainly, Master Xio. Don't mind if I do."

"We will return," Su said. "This is not exile."

"If we don't find that token and return with it, it might be," Yui said.

"Please be positive," Moa said. "And think of the adventure."

"Through the walls of the world? What does that even mean?" Yui said. "Is it magic? Or science? We don't know magic. We don't know much science," she said, grumbling.

"We will find out," Su said. "But if it required magic would they not have taught us enough to get by?"

"Ready?" Moa said.

"What are you bringing?"

"Enough clothes for several days. And some gold and silver, that I was given," Moa said.

"Food?" Yui asked.

"You always think with your stomach," Su said. "We can get some travel rations from the dining hall."

"Travel rations? Do we have to?" Yui asked. "They taste bad. Maybe we can forage for food on the other side."

"We do not know if there is anything edible on the other side," Su said. "Finding out we would starve on the other side would be too late to do anything."

"Can we bring some treats with us also?" Yui asked.

"A couple things," Su said. "But nothing bulky. We will want to move fast."

"Ready to go?" Yusif asked the novices, as they returned from packing.

"Yes, Elder Yusif, Elder J'dan, and Master Xio," Su said.

"Excellent," Elder J'dan said. "Please follow me."

"How are we getting there?" Yui asked the others in a low voice, as they followed her out of the temple.

"The entrance is an hour from here," Elder J'dan said, gesturing at the temple van. The novices got in the back of the van, piling their bags in the back.

"What can you tell us?" Su asked, as the driver started up the van and drove out of the temple complex.

"Please save questions for when we arrive," Elder J'dan said.

"Yes, Elder J'dan," Su said. "Time for a nap," she said to the others, sitting back and closing her eyes.

"A nap?" Yui said. "Excellent idea." and she also closed her eyes.

Moa shook her head and leaned against the window and watched the passing landscape. Time passed in a blur as the van headed towards the mountains. An hour later they came to a stop in a small clearing.

"Are we there yet?" Yui asked, sitting up.

"If not we are very close," Su said.

"Cheerful looking," Yui said, looking out at the forest.

"Take your bags," Elder J'dan said. "I shall return shortly," she said to the driver.

The three novices followed her out of the van and into the forest. They followed a rough path for several winding kilometers through tall trees and over several rope bridges before reaching a tall stone doorway in a cliff face.

"This entrance will only open from the outside," Elder J'dan said. "To return someone must open the gate for you."

"How will you know to come?" Su asked. "How do we signal you?"

"Light a fire in the altar in the chamber," Elder J'dan said. "Someone will come to fetch you."

"It took us more than an hour to get here," Moa said. "So, someone will open this for us an hour after we light the signal fire?"

"Of course," Elder J'dan said.

"So, we just go in and then what?" Yui said. "Do we get a map? Or even instructions?"

"Here are your instructions," J'dan said, handing each of them a small leather pouch. "Everything you need to know is there."

"Can we ask a question before we go?" Su asked.

"You may ask," Elder J'dan said. "I may not answer."

"What are our chances of success?" Su asked.

"I cannot answer that," Elder J'dan said. "This is a special trial. We have never sent novices on this path."

"So, others have attempted this and failed," Moa said. "Do we know what happened to them?"

"You have all of the information available," Elder J'dan said.

"Thank you, Elder J'dan," Su said, bowing to her. Yui and Moa followed suit. "Come," she said, and stepping to the door pushed it open. Pausing for a moment, she stepped through. After Moa and Yui joined her inside the doorway, the door closed behind them.

"Not a friendly place," Yui said. "Do we have any light?"

"Over there," Moa said, pointing at a bright circle of light across the chamber. They carefully stepped into the light.

"Do we have the same information?" Moa said, opening her pouch. She looked quickly through its contents. "A map, a drawing of the token, and a phrase book?"

"The drawings are the same," Yui said, comparing hers to the others. "The map looks like it's only part."

"They form a larger map." Su said.

"The phrase books are the same. Anything else?" Moa asked.

"Directions for opening the portal from this side," Su said, holding up another piece of parchment.

"How do we get back?" Yui said. "No point in going if we can't come back."

"It says we can use the token as a key," Moa said. "Though not how or where."

"It must be part of the trial to figure this out," Su said. "If we can't figure it out we'll fail."

"If we can't figure it out, we'll die," Yui said.

"That makes the task very simple," Moa said. "We can't fail."

"That is a good assumption," Su said. "Failure is not a valid option."

"How do we open the passage to the other place?" Yui said.

"Looks simple," Su said. "Stand in the center of the chamber in the Fox God's symbol and ask the Fox God to take us there." "Well, let's get this over with," Yui said. "The sooner we find the token the sooner we can go home."

"Packs?"Moa said. "In the circle or on our backs?"

"Packs on," Su said. "We do not know if they'll travel with us if we aren't holding onto them."

"Wouldn't want to lose them," Yui said.

"Ready?" Moa said.

"Ready," Su said, stepping into the circle. Yui and Moa quickly joined her. As soon as they were all ready, Su started reading the prayer to the Fox God.

"When is something supposed to happen," Yui asked in a loud whisper, as soon as Su had finished speaking.

"It already has," Su said. "We are now in a different place."

"Looks the same," Yui muttered.

"It is a different world," Su said. "Many things may be the same. Others will be very different."

"Well, this one is very different," Yui said, who'd opened the door and peaked out. "We aren't in the middle of the forest any longer."

Moa joined her at the door. "No, that isn't the same," she said. "We can't stay here."

Su quickly gathered up their equipment and joined them at the door. "We need to get out of the temple," she said, after taking a look. "They may not be very friendly when they discover us in their temple."

"Where is the token from here?" Yui said.

"To the north of here," Moa said, looking down at her piece of the map. "Right on the edge of this map."

"It's getting dark," Su said. "Wait until it's dark out. Did we bring any torches?"

"Rechargeable light sticks," Moa said, holding one up.

"I don't think there's any rush," Yui said, kicking at the floor. She waved another light stick at the floor. "Look at the dust. I don't think anyone has been in here in a long time."

"Does the map show this town?" Su asked, while watching the people moving between a large fountain and low buildings.

"No," said Moa. "Just the fountain."

"So our maps are wrong," Yui said.

"Or old," Su said. "We don't know how long ago they were made."

"Well, hopefully no one has found that token already," Moa said. "We didn't come here just to sight see."

They sat in a circle out of sight of the door and waited.

"We've seen the sights," Yui said, an hour later. "And it's now dark. Time to move on?"

"Time to move on," Su said, nodding in agreement.

Opening the door just enough for them to squeeze through, the three novices slipped out into the courtyard. When no one seemed to notice them, they started walking around the fountain, towards the road leading to the outskirts of the town and towards the token.

"Too easy, so far," Yui said.

"Not very curious," Moa said, looking back at the town they'd come from.

"We blend in," Su said.

"Not intentionally," Yui said. "We must look familiar in our traveling cloaks. They paid no attention to us."

They walked for an hour until it was too dark to travel safely.

"How far to the token?" Su asked. "Can we make it tonight?"

"No," Moa said. "If this map is accurate, based on how far we've come so far, it'll be several days travel."

"The sooner we find it the faster we can get back," Yui said.

"But not in the dark," Su said. "We need to make camp."

"The map has a small building on it just up the road a bit more. We can stop there," Moa said.

"This is spooky," Yui said, poking her head into the small stone hut. "It has a fireplace," Moa said, joining her. "We just need wood and we'll be warm all night."

"But no door," Su said. "We will need something to block the door."

"Stones," Yui said, pointing at a row of large rocks along the side of the hut. "They've been used for that before."

"Good," Su said. "Moa, find something to burn."

"As you wish," Moa said, giving her a low curtsey.

"Silly," Yui said, poking her. "I'll come with you. Wouldn't want you to get lost in the woods."

Sighing at their antics, Su stepped into the hut, and looked around. It was only slightly bigger than their rooms in the temple, but would be okay for the night, she decided.

"There's a lot of dead brush along the edge of the forest," Yui said, dragging in a large armful of broken branches. "There's a stream back in the forest. Moa went back to get some to clean with."

"What is she carrying it with?" Su asked.

"There were two stone buckets on the other side of the hut," Yui said.

"Good," Su said. "Do we need anything else?" she asked when Moa returned with the water.

"A fire," Moa said. "We can use it to heat some of the water."

Yui learned back against the stone wall, watching Su writing in her journal in the flickering light, while Moa was carefully repacking her pack.

"This doesn't feel very trial-like," Yui said.

"It's like a story from one of those novels you get from your sister," Moa said. "Adventurers travel to a distant land on a quest."

"Those are full of exciting action," Yui said. "Constant attacks by monsters, and witches, and dramatic rescues. This is boring."

"I'm sure there will be excitement at some point," Su said. "But the less the better. We want to get the token and get home with as little excitement as possible."

"But is it really a trial?" Yui said. "We work together now, and don't need to learn how to get along. We've trained together for months and know our strengths and weaknesses. Things we are supposed to learn on this trial."

"The Elders believe this is a challenge for us, otherwise they wouldn't have assigned it to us," Su said.

"We should sleep," Moa said. "We still have a long way to go in the morning. And then home."

A low growling woke Su several hours later.

"What's that?" Yui asked in a low voice.

"Something outside," Su said. "It can't get inside."

"The rocks we piled in the door wouldn't stop a drunken fox," Moa said. "There must be something else keeping it out."

"There's a glow around the door," Yui said.

"Glow? I do not see a glow," Su said, shifting until she could see the door in the very dim light.

"It's very faint," Yui said, "like that moss that grows in caves."

"That must be something only you can see," Moa said. "Like Su's visions."

"What's your 'magic' power?" Yui asked, as they listened to something snuffling outside. "We can all use chi, Su has confusing visions, and I apparently can see something glowing."

"I can listen to you ramble without killing you?" Moa said.

"That's not a power," Yui said.

"It's a miracle," Su said. "The Fox God must be watching over you."

"Or everyone else," Moa said.

"We all have our talents," Yui said. "But mine is useful. I can read in the dark."

"I am going back to sleep," Su said. "Whatever it is it isn't coming in here."

"Sunrise is very soon," Moa said. "We need to be ready to go as soon as it passes."

"Whatever you say," Yui said, laying back down.

"No idea what that was last night?" Moa said. Su and Yui had carefully examined the trail of footprints left behind.

"It was wearing something on its feet," Su said. "But it wasn't very large."

"It tried to move the rocks we blocked the door with," Yui said "but it wasn't strong enough."

"Not ghosts?" Moa asked. "Or monsters?"

"Monsters would have made a bigger mess," Su said. "They did not leave anything behind. We should go before it comes back."

Nodding, the other two novices picked up their bags and stepped away from the stone hut. Su stepped in and returned with her own bag.

"This is not a simple cave," Su said, looking up at the large temple to the Fox God, built into the side of the large cliff face. It jutted out of the stone wall several hundred meters. "It is bigger than our temple."

"It also looks abandoned," Moa said. "Do we know where the token is in this place?"

"No," Su said. "The maps say it is here but nothing exact."

"So we need to search for it," Yui said. "Ever feel like an ant?"

"Not until now," Moa said, looking up at the very tall temple face. "Where do we start?"

"Along the sides," Su said. "We need to look for any hidden surprises. The deadly kind. I don't want to have to explain to Master Xio that I lost you because you weren't looking and fell into a pit."

"A pit with glowing green slime," Yui said. "Like that one." Yui pointed at a large pit along the western wall of the temple face. "Fall in that and you aren't getting out of it."

"At least we're prepared," Moa said, taking out her glow stick and guide rope. "We don't have a map of this building, do we?"

"No," Su said. "Just a mark on the map that it has the token in it."

"So it could be anywhere in there," Yui said. "Suddenly not looking simple."

"First step when going into an unknown situation?" Su asked.

"Survey the situation," Yui said. "We need to know exactly what is in there so that we can eliminate the ordinary and find the target."

"So, Yui can hold the guide line first," Moa said. "And we can quickly get a sense of the size of the problem."

"As long as you don't get lost," Yui said. "I do not want to have to find the token by myself and have to explain what happened to you to the Elders."

"If you don't let go of the guide line, it shouldn't be a problem," Su said. "We'll take it in quarters first."

"This does not look this big on the outside," Moa said, standing in the middle of the temple ante-chamber.

"There may be magic involved," Su said. "Strong enough for Yui to see it."

"We should really have her in here with us," Moa said, nodding in agreement. "Seeing the old magic would be very useful here."

"Someone needed to anchor the guide line," Su said.

"Chalk or breadcrumbs would have worked too," Moa said.

"We did not bring chalk or breadcrumbs," Su said. "Nothing is foolproof."

"Next time we need to bring chalk," Moa said. "It has many uses."

"If we find the token we won't be back," Su said.

"You don't think the Elders will find another task for us where we can find chalk useful?" Moa asked.

Yui suddenly joined them in the first chamber.

"What are you doing in here?" Su asked.

"There's something out there," Yui said, breathlessly. "Something large and smelly."

Chapter Text

"You're armed," Su said, frowning. "And you've brought all of our things inside."

"With a knife," Yui said, patting their equipment just inside the door. "We didn't bring any weapons for something that big."

"No, we didn't," Su said. "Why didn't we think of that?"

"Because it didn't seem like we needed them," Moa said. "And we were only allowed to bring things we might have in our rooms, and swords or anything like that we don't keep in our room."

"Does this mean we've failed the trials?" Yui said. "We're going to die, and we just got here."

"No, we are not going to die," Su said. "We know more ways to defend ourselves and fight than anyone else."

"There was a reason we have all of that training in the different forms," Moa said. "It's not just for exercise."

"Oh, right," Yui said, taking a deep breath. "But we've never needed to fight real things or people. It was all training."

"Why the panic?" Su said. "We've had years of training. The Elders did not send us out here unprepared."

"Feels like it," Yui said. "And it was smelly. We've never trained with something smelly."

"Come along," Su said. She cautiously looked around the outer chamber. "Nothing here."

"It's hiding," Yui said. "Or it went into another room."

"What is that smell?" Moa said, waving her hand in front of her face.

"The thing," Yui said. "It smells like that."

"If it came in here it left," Su said.

"That's a large whatever it is," Yui said, staring out into the valley. "I'm staying in here."

"Not sure what it is," Moa said, "but it isn't small. And wouldn't fit through the door so we're safe in here. Possibly. If it doesn't breath flame."

"Thanks for that thought," Yui said, groaning.

"We'll have to go past it to leave," Su said. "So start thinking about how to scare it away or kill it."

"I don't think we can kill that," Moa said. "It looks very Western dragon-like."

"If we don't find the token, we're stuck here anyway," Yui said.

"It's here," Su said.

"You've had a vision?" Moa asked, perking up. "Did it tell you where in here it is?"

"No," Su said. "But I had visions last night of us with it, and handing it to the Elders."

"Well, that's good," Yui said. "Now we just have to find it to take back with us."

"We have not finished exploring this temple," Su said. "It will be here somewhere."

"We should split up," Yui said. "We can each take a part of the temple."

"No," Su said. "It is safer to stick together."

"It'll take longer to find the token," Yui said.

"What is the rule?" Moa said. "Stick together, and don't go out on your own."

"So we'll die together," Yui said. "I can accept that."

"You have become so negative," Su said. "When did you become such a negative person?"

Yui shrugged. "The pods? How can we be positive when we spent so much time learning about the Thirteen and all the things that drive them. Or why our clan is hiding from them? How?"

"I can't answer that," Su said.

"We need to find the token," Moa said. "Philosophical discussions can wait."

"I'll draw the map," Yui said, taking out a small pad from her bag. "What do we have so far?"

"This chamber, and a hall leading to an inner hexagonal chamber," Moa said. "The inner chamber has a door in each wall."

"So, this chamber has two exits, one to the outside, and one to that inner chamber," Yui said.

"Correct," Su said. "We should start to our right in the inner chamber and follow it around."

"Good enough," Moa said. "And no going up or down stairs until we've explored the entire level. It would be too easy to miss something."

"Let's take a break," Yui said, sitting down on a stone bench next to the door. Opening her pad, she started making notes on the map.

"How much have we covered?" Moa asked, sitting down next to her, and taking out her water bottle.

"This is the second door," Su said. "And there were ten rooms along that long hall."

"They looked like sleeping chambers," Yui said. "The first door led to storage rooms or craft rooms. Or utility rooms."

"So we don't really know what those rooms were for," Moa said.

"No," Yui said, nodding. "Could have been anything. But there were no visible stairways in either direction. And no doors leading out."

"That was unexpected," Su said. "There must be other ways in or out."

"It's built into a mountain," Moa said. "We only saw the front. Which is very large but it isn't the whole thing."

"This could take days," Yui said, flipping over to another page. "Unless we get lucky and find it soon. Why didn't whomever found it say where it was?"

"It would have been too easy," Moa said.

"Or they were eaten by that thing," Yui said.

"If they were eaten they wouldn't have been able to tell the Elders it was here," Su said.

"Our next task, once we get back, is going to be to bring the token back here for the next trial," Yui said.

"Possible," Su said. "But unlikely."

"The reason why the Elders want the token was certainly very flimsy," Moa said. "I wonder what the other novice trials were?"

"We aren't allowed to talk about the actual trials," Su said. "Other than very general descriptions."

"Just enough to sound impressive and scare other novices," Moa said.

"I can do that," Yui said, grinning. "I'm good at the scaring part."

"You?" Su said, raising an eyebrow in disbelief.

"I scared you!" Yui said.

"You surprised me," Su said. "I wasn't expecting such a loud voice from such a small person."

"I'm not small," Yui said, objecting.

"We're the same size," Moa said. "Normal. It's Su who's a giant."

"I'm not a giant," Su said. "I'm just a little taller than you both."

"If we ever become idols, you'll have to stand in the middle," Yui said. "Or we'll look odd and people will laugh."

"The idol plan just doesn't make sense," Su said, shaking her head. "I think someone just wants the Clan to have idols and came up with a way to make that happen."

"Why?" Moa said. "Why would the Clan need idols?"

"Another way to make money?" Yui said. "There's no money in priestesses if no one wants to be one. But an idol farm?"

"Not a better reason," Moa said. "At least, if we become idols, it won't be for long. How long do idols last? A year or two?"

"It won't matter if we don't find that token," Su said. She clapped her hands. "Enough of a break."

"Yes, bossy," Yui said, stuffing her pad back in her bag. "Next door."

"After you." Moa said, waving Su through the door. "At least we can hide behind her," she said in a loud whisper to Yui. "She can't hide behind us very well."

"But I don't need to hide behind you," Su said, as she cautiously poked her head out of the door. "There are two of you so while you're distracting them I can sneak up behind them."

"Finally, stairs," Yui said, when they reached the end of a long, wide hall.

"Wide ones," Moa added. "Must be important."

Yui took out her map and quickly scribbled on it. "It's in a direct line with the main entrance."

"We'll come back to it," Su said. "Let's finish up the rest of this level first."

"It's probably up there," Yui said.

"We don't want to miss anything important, especially if we have to come back," Su said.

Yui nodded, putting her pad away again. "So, next door?"

"Next door," the other two agreed.

They headed back down to the hexagon room.

"Smells like that thing again," Yui said, once they reached it.

"Maybe it lives inside the temple?" Moa said. "In one of the chambers we haven't checked yet."

"Possible," Su said.

"That one is glowing," Yui said, pointing at one of the remaining doors. "Must be sealed."

"This one first," Su said, pointing at the one next to it.

Stepping into the fourth door, they found a small platform at the top of stairs leading down into the dark.

"And that's where the smell is coming from," Yui said. "It must live down there. Let's save that one for later."

"Yes," Su said. "If that monster is down there we don't want to disturb it."

"Unless it is guarding the token," Moa said.

"Next door first," Yui said. "You can go down there if you want."

"No, it can wait," Moa said. "Let's look at the one with the magic seal."

"How do we get past the seal?" Su asked, carefully examining it. "It doesn't look any different from the others."

"I can't tell you," Yui said. "Our training didn't cover breaking into magically protected rooms."

"We learned how to break a curse," Su said. "Isn't it the same thing?"

"That was a priestess healing blessing," Moa said. "Not magic of this kind."

"Wouldn't hurt," Yui said. "We also know the chi forms of the Crystal Clan."

"Which is not magic either," Su said.

"We could sing at it," Yui said. "We did spend several months in the learning pods learning how to sing and dance. There are rituals that have dances in them."

"Let's keep it simple," Su said. "It might just be an alarm. What do we have that we can throw at it?"

"Living or dead?" Yui asked. "A sock or an apple?"

"Don't waste an apple," Moa said. "Or a sock."

"I'll be right back," Yui said, putting down her bag. "Don't go anywhere." Turning, she headed towards the entrance.

"Where are you going?" Su yelled at her retreating back. Yui waved over her shoulder but continued.

"She's going to be a famous priestess some day," Moa said.

"Famous for being good?" Su asked.

"Or for doing something very bad," Moa said. "I have never understood why she wanted to be a priestess." At Su's look she added, "other than you asking us to come with you. She doesn't fit in the mold of most priestess candidates."

"That is not a bad thing," Su said. "They are asking us to do something different. We will still be priestesses if we pass our trials, but they have given us far more training than is necessary for Clan priestesses and an undefined task related to the Thirteen and some unknown future conflict we will help with."

"I don't see how three new priestesses can help the Thirteen," Moa said. "And, as you said, idols don't seem to make sense either."

"Don't worry," Yui said, rejoining them, carrying several branches and rocks. "We'll be the best idol priestesses the clan has ever seen. Why doesn't matter right now. And we'll have fun doing it. My sister will be so jealous."

"We didn't become novices to make your sister jealous," Su said, growling at her.

"No, that's just a bonus," Yui said, smirking. "Now, stand back."

"What are you doing?" Su asked.

"Testing an idea," Yui said. Putting down the rocks and all but one stick, she cautiously approached the door. Standing to one side, she thrust the branch into the center of the opening. There was a snapping sound and she pulled the branch back.

"Look," she said, showing them the stick. "It chopped the end off."

"So, good thing we didn't try to go through the door ourselves," Moa said.

"Yes," Yui said. "Might have been painful," she said.

"That doesn't get us past it," Su said, taking the stick and examining it closely. "Will it stop one of your rocks?"

"Let's see," Yui said, lobbing a small stone towards the door. Seconds after it passed through the door there was a puff of dust and the clatter of bits of stone falling to the ground.

"The token could be behind that," Moa said.

"Or it could be elsewhere," Su said. "There must be something important through that door, but that doesn't mean it is what we are looking for. We don't know what the people who built this temple thought was important."

"So, check out the rest of upstairs and then come back here?" Moa said. "Whatever is in there isn't going to leave while we do that."

"Save it for later," Su said, nodding. "We'll come back to it if we don't find the token elsewhere."

"How far up do they go?" Yui asked, standing at the bottom of the stairway on the second level.

Moa threw a small stone as hard as she could up the stairs. There was a very faint clattering when it hit. "At least thirty meters," she said.

"Careful," Su said. "It might be booby trapped. "One on the steps at a time."

"I'll go first," Yui said, placing a foot cautiously on the first step and putting her weight on it. When nothing happened she quickly sprinted halfway up until only her feet were visible from the bottom. "Safe," she said. "There's a platform further up."

"Go ahead," Su yelled up. "We're right behind you."

"So, do we let her get to the top alone?" Moa asked, stepping onto the first step.

"No," Su said. "Go."

Nodding, Moa raced up the stairway, reaching Yui and then urging her forward. When they had both disappeared into the darkness, Su raced up the steps to join them, not stopping until they were all on a platform with several hundred more steps to go.

"Long way up," Moa said once they were all together again, before moving to the next landing.

"It better be up there," Yui said. "And nothing else."

"It's probably a tower," Su said. "There are several visible from the outside. Notice how it curves slightly? It's taking us back to the front of the temple.

"Well, we can always jump," Moa said. "We haven't tested that aspect of the chi forms, falling from high places."

"You can try it first," Yui said. "I'd rather try it from a lower place."

"We'll take a break at the top," Su said. "We're almost there."

"Good," Yui said. "It's a long way up."

"And there it is," Moa said, pointing up towards a landing. "Only a few steps to go."

"It must be something important," Su said, looking up. "There's a door there."

All three of them reached the landing at the same time.

"A locked door," Yui said. "With another magic seal of some kind."

"Of course," Moa said. "But this has an actual door."

"Which means?" Su asked.

"Alarm, not a booby trap," Moa said.

"Not necessarily," Yui said. "But let's try a priestess blessing on an ofuda this time. I left all of my sticks down at the bottom.

Sitting on the top step, Su took out a small strip of rice paper, a bamboo pen, and a small bottle of ink. Pausing for a minute to think, she carefully drew the ideographs down the strip of paper. She blew on it gently to dry it before showing it to the others.

"Think that will work?" she asked.

"Not what I would have used," Moa said. "The Clan meaning is not exactly the same as the Kanji with those."

"It's really about intent with magic," Yui said. "The actual language shouldn't matter. Though calling on the gods of the Thirteen in one of their languages might lead to unexpected results."

"You say that from experience?" Moa said.

"Possibly," Yui said, grimacing.

"Shall we see?" Su said. First she put away her paper, pen, and ink. "Ready?" she asked, stepping close to the door.

Yui and Moa nodded, stepping to the side.

Su slapped the ofuda against the door and ducked to the side. Nothing happened for several long moments. And then a hissing started coming from where the ofuda was stuck to the door. After a minute a dark mist started coming from the same spot. This continued for even longer and suddenly stopped, following by the door dissolving into a fine dust in the doorway.

"Well, that was different," Yui said, looking down at the pile of dust. "Should it have done that?"

"Unknown," Su said. "I've never used that on a magical object. It's mainly used to purify something or someone who has been touched by evil. Or so our training claims."

"It worked," Moa said. "That's all that matters right now." She cautiously touched the dust. "Is there any remaining magic?" she asked Yui.

"Not a drop," Yui said. She looked into the chamber. "And nothing in there is leaking magic."

"There must be something important in there if they bothered to use real magic to keep a door closed," Moa said. She looked at Su, who was leaning against the wall. "Are you okay?"

"Yes, yes," Su said. "But that took energy that I wasn't expecting."

"How much?" Yui asked. "And how long until you are ready to continue?"

"In just a moment," Su said. "It was like using the 'water skipping form' three times without stopping in between."

"Better you than me, then," Yui said. "Those wipe me out for hours." She dug into her pack and pulled out a handful of nuts and gave them to Su. "Eat these, the salt will help."

They sat at the top step for several minutes until Su had recovered, then they gathered up all of their things and prepared to go through the door. Nodding to each other, they stepped through the doorway, carefully avoiding the door dust. They found themselves in a short hall, lined with mosaic images.

"Look, someone feeding that beast," Yui said, pointing at one picture. "Guess it belongs here."

"Yes," Moa said. "Like a large guard dog." She pointed at another picture showing the beast stomping on a group of armored figures.

"That might explain why it's empty," Su said. "Anyone who tried to move in has to deal with that first."

"Is that the token?" Yui asked, pointing at another picture showing a figure wearing a glowing object.

"Possibly," Su said. She walked up to the door at the end of the hall. "Is there any magic on this one?" She asked Yui.

Yui carefully examined the door. "I don't see anything," she said, "though I can't make any promises of what is on the other side. Might be nothing. Might be a trap."

"We'll just have to open it then," Su said. "Step back." Examining the door carefully, she stepped back and kicked it. There was a cracking sound and it opened less than a meter.

"Not rusty," Moa said, looking at the hinges that had been revealed by the kick. "What's on the other side?"

"Someone's bedchamber," Yui said. She slipped into the chamber. "A cleric? There are a lot of scrolls." She touched one and jumped back when it crumbled into dust. "Scrolls we aren't taking with us."

"Aren't taking with us?" Moa said, puzzled, joining her. "Ah," she said when the dust was pointed out.

"Whomever it was, is still here," Su said.

"So we just broke into someone's tomb?" Yui said. "We won't catch something, will we?"

"Whatever killed them should be long gone," Su said. "The only thing keeping it all from turning to dust was that door."

"Do you think whomever told the Elders about the token ever looked in here?" Yui said.

"Only if they were able to get past that sealed door without disturbing it," Su said. "But very likely not."

"It's probably magical," Su said. "Do you see anything in here?" she asked Yui.

"Nothing," Yui said.

"What about this chest?" Moa said.

"if the token is wooden or cloth, and in there, opening it might cause it to disintegrate," Su said. "Be careful."

Yui tapped it with her foot, causing it to turn into a pile of wood fragments. "Well, if it did we wouldn't be able to take it with us."

"What's that?" Moa said, pointing at a metal object. "Is that the token?"

"No," Su said. "Is it magic?"

"It has a glow to it like that doorway on the ground level," Yui said. Brushing away the wood and dust, she picked it up.

"That could have killed you," Moa said.

"I'm not touching it," Yui said, showing them the piece of leather she'd used to pick it up."

"There's nothing else here, unless you want to look there," Su said, pointing at the skeleton on the pallet.

"No," Yui said. "Let's go back down. We still have that other chamber and the basement to check out."

Su and Moa nodded, following Yui out of the room, down the hall and to the steps.

"What we need is a slide," Yui said, looking down the steps. "It would be much faster."

"Not much of a railing to slide down," Moa said. "Not very smooth."

"I'll pass," Yui said. "That looks like it would hurt."

"Going down those steps was easier than going up," Yui said, as they paused at the bottom to catch their breath. "I'm surprised it wasn't booby trapped."

"We haven't found any real traps yet," Moa said.

"It's a temple, not a tomb," Su said. At Moa's disbelieving snort, she corrected herself. "It wasn't built to be a tomb," she said.

"It's a tomb now," Yui said. "Probably shouldn't mention to anyone that we disturbed the dead person."

"Only the Elders need to know we were even here," Su said. She looked at the doorway as they approached it again. "Will we need another blessing for this one?"

"I suspect not," Yui said, holding up the small metal disk. "I think it's a key of some kind." She touched the doorframe with it. There was a low hum. "And the magic is gone," she said. "Where's my stick?"

Moa handed a long stick to Yui. She cautiously stuck it through the doorway and pulled it back.

"Nothing?" Su asked.

"Gone," Yui said. "It should be safe." Putting the metal disk in a pocket, taking a deep breath she cautiously stepped through the doorway. Turning around she waved impishly at the others. "Safe. Though we'll need a light," she said. "It's dark in here."

"The temple light isn't working?" Moa said, stepping through the doorway.

"No light," Yui said, taking her glow stick out of her bag. "Looks like an altar room."

"If the token is a holy object it should be in there," Su said, following, glow stick held high.

"That's an evil looking altar," Yui said, standing in front of it. A large obsidian top lay on a large block of glowing green stone. "And it feels evil."

"Is that magic?" Moa asked pointing at the glow.

"Not our kind of magic," Yui said. "Must be some kind of glowing rock."

Su approached the altar. "The writing on it isn't one I'm familiar with," she said. "But that is the symbol of the token."

"So, we've come to the right place?" Yui said. "Where do you think it is? In a hidden chamber? Somewhere else?"

"Place the metal disc on the token symbol," Su told her.

"Why?" Yui asked.

"Because I have a feeling about this," Su said.

"Vision?" Moa asked.

"No," Su said. "Still no visions about this temple."

"They must be broken," Yui said. "If I were the vision gods I would have given you many about this place. It's just the kind of place where they would be useful."

"I have no control over when and where they occur," Su reminded her. "Put the disk on the symbol," she repeated.

Nodding, Yui carefully lay the metal disk on the token symbol on the altar, not touching either in the process. She jumped back as the disc sunk into the stone.

There was a loud grinding noise. The altar started to sink into the floor, revealing a stairway leading down.

"Who wants to look?" Yui said. "That is really looking like a trap. A bad one."

"I will," Moa said. Taking off her bag and jacket, she approached the stairs. One agonizing step at a time, she descended below the floor. "You need to see this," she shouted up several minutes later.

"If it's the token, just bring it up," Yui said, shouting down into the hole.

"That may be difficult," Moa said loudly.

"Coming," Su said. "Do you want to stay up here?" she asked Yui.

"And not have all of us die together?" Yui said. "If I'm dying and reincarnating I'm doing it with the two of you. You can't get rid of me that easily."

"You have strange ideas," Su said, sighing. "We'll be right down," she shouted back to Moa.

"What did you find?" Su asked once they were all in the hidden chamber.

"That," Moa said, pointing at one of the walls, which was clear crystal. Embedded in it on the other side was the token. And beyond it was a larger chamber containing a large collection of spears, shields, swords, and broken armor. In a far corner was the large beast, snorting flame and carefully watching them.

"How do we get it from there?" Yui said, cautiously touching the wall. The beast growled when her fingers neared the token.

"Is it possible?" Moa said. "We don't have the right weapons. And even those probably wouldn't stop it."

"We need to find a way into there," Su said, waving her hand, "and then one of us can distract it while we run in and grab the token."

"If that is even possible, we will still need to find a way to get past it and away from the temple." Moa said.

"The other stairs?" Yui asked. "The ones we haven't explored yet?"

"Possibly," Su said. "They must have had a way to feed it, somehow."

"All they had to do was line up some knights, and instant dinner in a can," Yui said. "Probably didn't take much."

"I don't think it will find us much of a challenge like this," Moa said. "No armor or weapons."

"We do have speed," Su said. "We should be able to outrun it."

"Yui can outrun it," Moa said. "Not sure we can."

"Let's see if we can draw it out," Su said, turning and heading back up into the altar chamber.

"How?" Moa asked, quickly following.

"Yui will go outside and attract its attention," Su said. "And we'll see how long it will take."

"I will?" Yui looked at her skeptically. "How?"

"You'll think of something," Su said.

"Sing," Moa said.

"It'll never come out if it hears me singing," Yui said.

"You have a decent voice," Moa said. "More than enough to be a dancing idol. It won't be able to resist."

"If it eats me, I'm going to haunt you both forever," Yui said.

"It won't eat you," Su said.

"How do you know that?" Yui said.

"You'd be too tough and stringy," Su said. She jumped back away from Yui's swinging hand.

"Ha, ha," Yui said, poking her. "You need to work on your jokes. Moa tells better ones."

"Before you do this, we should check the other stairway down," Moa said.

"Of course," Su said.

"We'll have to come back some day and finish exploring," Moa said, as they stood on the landing looking down another hall at the stairway on the other end going back up.

"But first, we need to see where this goes," Su said. "If it doesn't go down into the monster's den we will need to check that one. You have all of this recorded on your map?" she asked Yui.

"Yes," Yui said. "Some day someone will have to measure these halls and chambers. My sketches don't give a good idea of the actual size."

"It's good enough for us," Su said.

They cautiously went down the stairway, towards what they hoped was the beast's den. At the bottom was a large rusty iron and wood door.

"How do we open it?" Moa asked, carefully examining the door. "Looks like it hasn't moved in a very long time."

"It look like it is cemented in place," Yui said. "And it isn't cursed, so we aren't using magic like the last two."

"There must be another way in," Su said, frowning. "Let's check the altar again."

They returned to the altar room and climbed down into the lower hidden chamber, carefully examining it, inch by inch.

"What's this?" Yui asked, pointing at a slight indentation in the far wall with a loose piece of stone.

"A secret switch?" Moa said. "But what does it do?"

"Turn this room into a death trap?" Yui suggested. "We haven't seen anything like that in the entire temple. There must be at least one real trap, besides that smelly beast."

"How do we test it?"

"One of us stays down here and presses it?" Yui said. "I'll do it."

"None of us should do it," Su said. "None of us are expendable."

"We need that token," Yui said. "Or we go back and say we failed."

"We can't," Moa said. "There are too many reasons we must succeed."

"Press it now," Su said. "We all do it or none."

"Are you sure?" Yui said. "If we all die, we all fail."

"Yes," Su said. "Do it!"

"Okay," Yui said. She looked at them both before pressing on the hidden switch. There was a loud grinding noise and the wall containing the token started to move back into the beasts den. At the same time, the entrance above them started to close.

"Press it again," Su said. Yui pressed the switch again and the process reversed itself.

"Did the beast notice?" Moa asked.

"Yes," Yui said. "It was starting to get up when we reversed it."

"How far would it have to go for us to get the token?" Su asked. "And how long?"

"At least half way," Moa said, "and then I could get it. All the way for you to fit. It wasn't moving very fast. We'd need the beast to be gone for at least five minutes."

"I could get it," Yui said.

"We need you to draw it out of there," Su said. "Just like we planned."

"Okay," Yui said. "I go outside and make noises until it shows up, run around and keep it out there and you grab the token?"

"Yes," Su said.

"Let's not do that again," a mud and weed covered Yui said, later that day.

"You need a bath," Moa said. "You stink."

"Do you have it?" Yui asked.

Su held it up, wrapped in leather. "We put the metal disc in its place."

"Did you get anything else?" Yui asked, hopefully.

"Yes," Moa said, holding out a short spear and small katana. "Which would you like?"

"The spear," Yui said. "You are much better with sword work than us." She eagerly took the spear. "What is it made from?" She twirled it like a baton.

"A metal I don't recognize," Moa said. "The katana is made from the same material. Very sharp."

"What did you get from the beast den," Yui asked Su.

"Just the token," Su said. "I do not need anything else."

"We can always go back down there," Yui said.

"No, we need to go," Su said. "The trial is not complete until we return safely home."

"Sleep would be helpful," Yui said. "But not here."

"We can make it back to the stone hut," Su said. "There is water there and we can cook our evening meal."

"And the beast?" Yui said. "It's still out there."

"It appears to be sleeping," Moa said, returning from the altar room. "You wore it out."

"At least it didn't breath fire," Yui said. "That would have been a problem."

"The chi fire forms make you inflammable," Su said.

"Only if you are good at them," Yui said. "I can do them but not while being chased by a beast like that."

"We will have to practice that," Su said. "You should be able to do all of the forms under pressure. Including the chi forms."

"I'm ready to go," Moa said. "Everything is packed and put away."

"Time to go," Yui said, bouncing excitedly. "We have the token, and new toys."

"And now we just have to get back to that village and sneak into that old building," Moa said. "After dealing with the beast, and magic here, it should be easy."

"And now you just cursed us," Yui said, groaning. "You know better than to tempt the Fox God's brother Coyote to play tricks on us."

"Brother Coyote likes me," Moa said. "You're the one he likes playing tricks on."

"That's because you convinced him to do so," Yui said, shaking her head. "Though I don't know why he doesn't play tricks on Su, she's so serious."

"We have come to an agreement," Su said. "Brother Coyote does not play tricks on me and I do not skin him alive."

"You aren't supposed to threaten the kami," Yui said, staring at her. "Especially the native ones."

"He shouldn't have pulled my hair in the bath then," Su said haughtily.

"How did you catch him?" Moa asked, curious.

"Don't play tricks on someone who can see the future," Su said.

"That's much better," Yui said, returning from the stream, her wet hair wrapped up in her towel.

"Cold water," Moa said. "I don't understand how you can like it."

"Because even cold water is better than mud and sand," Yui said. "And it is good for you."

"It might be good for you," Su said, "but the rest of us prefer hot water."

"You get used to it," Yui said. "Father couldn't afford to heat the baths at home except for special occasions. I didn't take hot baths every day until I became a novice."

"So, now we know your secret," Moa said. "You became a novice for the hot baths."

"There are worse reasons," Yui said. "One of the third year novices became one because she wanted a husband and he said if she became a priestess he would marry her."

"A husband? A priestess cannot marry for their first ten years," Su said. "And then you must get permission from the Clan Elders."

"She didn't know that when she became a novice," Yui said. "And once you become a novice, the only way out is to fail the trials."

"So, this third year is planning to fail the trials just for a husband?" Moa said.

"Not anymore," Yui said. "She said he'll just have to wait if he really wants to marry her. She wasn't giving up becoming a priestess for that."

"She saw the light?" Su said.

"She saw that a priestess has more power than a wife," Yui said.

"I'm not sure a power hungry priestess is any better than one who does it for a husband," Moa said.

"We all have our reasons," Yui said. "We followed Su. Is that a better reason? Friendship?"

"There are truly no bad reasons to become a novice," Su said. "But you must really desire to help our people to become a true priestess. And that is why it takes four years and the trials. At least we have an important role in our villages. Not all mikos have what we do. Often they are little more than temple servants."

"They aren't clan," Moa said. "A Clan priestess and a miko are very different things."

"Tomorrow we should be back," Yui said. "Then what happens?"

"We find out where the Elders want us to go. They may want us in Clan villages or they may still want us to become idols and travel for the glory of the Fox God," Su said.

"Or for some other reason," Yui said. "I still do not see how being idols brings glory to the Fox God and the clan."

"It certainly does not fit with our training," Moa said. "We were able to defeat all opponents from the fourth year in the pre-trial bouts, but we were not challenged by anyone who could beat us."

"I would like to have a bout with one of the Thirteen warriors," Yui said. "The Serpent Clan warriors are fierce."

"They are also a foot taller than us," Moa said. "With real combat experience."

"But at least it would be a challenge to go against true warriors of the Thirteen," Yui said. "Don't you agree?"

"It would be interesting," Su said, nodding. "We have been trained in many of the same forms."

"I'm sure not all of them are as tall as the ones who appear in the media," Yui said. "They are related to the Mayans of the Americas and they are not known to be much taller than we are."

"We will not know unless we are able to meet them in person. Which, for simple village clan priestesses is very unlikely," Su said. "Even if we become idols, what reason would we have to meet them?"

"They could be fans?" Yui said.

"If the Fox God wants us to meet members of the Thirteen, it will happen," Su said, shaking her head. "I have not seen it."

"That was close," Yui said, slipping into the old temple behind Su and Moa.

"That was unexpected," Su said. "An all day market in the square and some kind of celebration."

"They were celebrating the defeat of the Fox Temple," Moa said. "It would not have been healthy for us if they knew we are Fox God novices."

"We aren't the same," Su said. "Our temple does not oppress its clan or others."

"They wouldn't care," Moa said. "If they had stopped us, and found out we are affiliated with the Fox God, they would not have cared."

"So we need to get out of here as soon as possible," Yui said. "Before someone remembers seeing three strangers and comes looking for us."

"Do you remember the ritual for opening the wall between worlds?" Yui asked.

"Elder J'dan said we did not need one," Su said. "The token will open the way for us."

"Then open it," Yui said, peeking through a crack in the door. "Some uniformed men are heading this way."

Su nodded, and took out the token. "Where is the mark we left?" She took out her glow stick and held it to the floor. "Come over here," she said. They quickly joined her. She then bent down and drew a circle around them and grabbed them both in her arms. "Take us home, Fox God," she said in a loud whisper. "There's no place like home," she repeated over and over again.

As they waited for the Fox God to grant their wish, there was pounding on the doors of the temple. Just as they were pulled away, a group of men loudly burst into the temple shouting things they couldn't understand.

As soon as they reappeared in their own world, they collapsed in a pile on the floor.

"There's no place like home? Really?" Yui said.

"It worked," Su said. "We're home."

"And we could have ended up in Kansas," Yui said. "Wherever Kansas is."

"Possibly," Su said, winking at her.

"So now we wait," Moa said, ignoring them. "How long did Elder J'dan say it would take for someone to come and get us out of here?"

"Why can't we do it ourselves?" Yui asked.

"The temple doors can only be opened from the outside," Su said. "And she said up to three hours since they wouldn't know exactly when we would return."

"I'm hungry," Yui said, sitting up and looking around.

"Traveling between worlds does that," Moa said.

"How do you know that?" Yui said. "They don't teach that in any of the novice or training pod classes we took. I would remember that."

"Because we were all hungry when we went the other way," Moa said. "We should have enough left for a meal."

"As long as we aren't stuck in here for longer than a day," Su said, "we can eat something, but save some just in case."

"Yes, Su Mom," Yui said, poking her. "We'll save some for a snack."

"We should sort through our packs," Moa said. "It'll save time later."

"Good idea," Su said. "Go through all of your pockets."

"We should have only three things we didn't take with us," Moa said. "The token, the katana, and the spear."

"Possibly other things," Yui said, pulling things from her pockets. "Does it matter if we brought something else back?"

"When did you have time to take anything else?" Su asked.

"This," Yui said, pulling a small object out of her bag. It was a small green gem. "It was in that room in the tower."

"It isn't magical, is it?" Su asked.

"Would I do something that stupid?" Yui asked, pressing her hand to her chest in faux 'sadness'.

"You managed to 'borrow' a training baton without anyone noticing," Moa said. "And there was the time you brought 'extra' sweet buns back to our room."

"Yes," Su said. "You would. But as long as it isn't cursed or have any magic, I won't say anything."

"No, no magic," Yui said. "That one I used to distract the beast."

"Good," Su said. "Does anyone have anything else?"

"Unfortunately, all of the scrolls turned to dust when I tried to pick them up," Moa said, "so, nothing."

"How much longer do we have?" Yui said. "I could use a nap." Bunching up her bag like a pillow she lay down.

"I'll wake you when Elder J'dan arrives," Moa said. "You can sleep also, Su," she added.

"There'll be plenty of time to sleep in the van," Su said. "I'll take a nap then. I need to meditate."

"Visions?" Moa said. "I thought you only got them when you were sleeping?"

"Most were. They've gotten stronger since the pod training," Su said. "The dream visions still are vague most of the time, but they've started coming more often when I'm awake."

"Go, meditate," Moa said. "I'll keep an eye on everything. It's not as if anyone will bother us in here."

"Wake up," Moa said, poking Yui. "Someone is here." She looked over at Su, who nodded to her and stood up, stretching slowly.

"That wasn't enough," Yui said, grouchily.

Before Moa could respond, the door slowly opened with a loud screech, causing them to all wince.

"You are well," Elder J'dan said, standing in the doorway. "You accomplished your goal?"

"Yes," Su said.

"Can I see it?" she said eagerly.

"I would rather we present it to all of the Elders at the same time," Su said, nodding at the two trainers that had accompanied her.

"Yes, of course," Elder J'dan said. "Do any of you need any assistance to get back to the van?"

"No," Su said. "We are all mobile. Let's go," she said turning to Moa and Yui.

Moa and Yui quietly picked up their bags and followed her out of the temple and out into the sun.

"Has it only been three days?" Yui said, blinking in the bright sunlight. "It feels a lot longer."

"You have been gone a week," Elder J'dan said, leading the way down the path.

"Oh," Yui said. "That explains it. They need to bring the road all the way up here."

"It is on private land," the Elder said. "We would be required to pay for it. And we would prefer that it not receive many visitors. We would have to maintain a full time presence."

"Ah," Moa murmured.

"A different van?" Yui said as they reached the parking lot.

"We did not know in what condition you would be in," Elder J'dan said. "It is best to be prepared."

"We completely understand, Elder," Su said. "It was merely surprise. Most of our journey was a relatively safe one, and we received no injuries."

"Not without trying," Yui said. "There were several moments where things could have gone badly."

"Let's save recitation of our trials for later in front of all of the Elders," Su said.

"Sorry," Yui said. "New audience."

"Who may not be allowed to hear of everything that occurred," Moa said. "It will keep."

"Oh, right," Yui said, blushing. "I believe another nap is in order. If someone would wake me when we get to the temple, I would appreciate it."

"Of course," Moa said. "Take your nap, it's been a long couple of days."

Yui nodded, lying down on a seat in the back. Su and Moa sat down close by, keeping her company, and to avoid any questions from the trainers. They spoke in low voices.

"Nosy," Moa said.

"They're just curious," Su said. "Only the Elders know where we went and why."

"But most of them do not know what Master Xio and Elder Yusif have planned for us, I suspect," Moa said.

"That is expected," Su said.

"Yui barely made it," Moa said. "She does not do well when expected to behave. She is still her age and not overly serious."

"She is not typical of most novices," Su said, smirking. "If she were not ours I do not believe she would have stayed at the temple to complete training."

"I agree," Moa said. "She is still innocent."

"She is good at giving the appearance of innocence," Su corrected her. "We should follow her example. If we are destined to become idols, we need to appear our age, and not common priestesses."

"Understood," Moa said. "She will be amused."

"We may need lessons on how to be carefree," Su said. "And how to act our perceived ages."

"A challenge," Moa said. "Idols are not novices."

"And we are no longer novices," Su said. "It will be good practice."

Chapter Text

The van pulled into the temple grounds at dusk. After waking Yui, the three priestess candidates exited the van and looked towards the main temple.

"Where are the Elders meeting?" Su asked Elder J'dan, when she joined them. "They do want to see us immediately, do they not?"

"They are in the private meeting room on the upper level," the Elder said. "I shall take you there in a minute."

Su, Yui, and Moa nodded, and waited for her to finish directing the trainers to put away the van. As they waited, they noticed a small crowd gathering in front of the main temple entrance.

"What is happening?" Yui asked softly.

"They are waiting for you," Elder J'Dan said. "You are the last candidates to return."

"We're famous," Yui said, happily.

"We're late," Su said. "All of the others have probably been assigned to their villages and are just waiting for us for the celebration ceremony."

Elder J'dan looked slightly embarrassed. "The ceremony was last night," she said. "The Elders decided not to wait."

"Why?" Su asked, her face going blank. "Did we not earn a place in the ceremony?"

"All of the others completed their trials and you were the only third year novices to take the trials," the Elder said. "It was felt that you would not mind if they took place without you."

"So, we won all of our bouts in the pre-trial matches. We completed an exceedingly difficult task for our trials, but no one thought we'd like to take part in the ceremony to celebrate?" Yui said, stepping into the Elder's space. "Did they think we did all that for fun?"

"Come, Yui," Su said. "Let's go to our room, it's been a long day and I'm tired."

Moa nodded, and pulled Yui away from Elder J'dan. "If the Elders want to see us they can do so tomorrow," she said. "We have more important things to do."

"We do? Yes, yes we do," Yui said, glaring at the Elder.

"The Elders are waiting for you," Elder J'dan said, protesting.

"It won't hurt them to wait another day," Su said. "It isn't like they needed us here for anything important. One more day. Come ladies, let's go home."

Giving Elder J'dan a very slight bow, just bordering on appropriate, Su led the other two back to the temple dorms and their beds.

"That was unexpected," Yusif said, looking down from a window in the meeting room, watching the three novices head away from the main temple. "Do they think they don't need to come to us at the end of their trials to certify their completion?"

"Someone needs to fetch them," Elder Yaten said. "We don't have all night."

"Let us hear from J'dan before we send someone," Yusif said to him.

Elder J'dan rushed into the room, almost tripping over her own feet in her hurry.

"Where are they?" Master Xio said, frowning.

"They aren't coming," J'dan said. "They said if we still wanted to see them it could wait until tomorrow."

"Which one?" Xio said.

"The middle one, Moa," J'dan said.

"That's surprising," Xio said. "She usually follows the other two. And Su usually shows proper respect for her elders."

"They were not happy," J'dan said.

"Was the task set for them too difficult?" Yaten asked. "Did they not expect their trials to be a true measure of their fitness?"

"That was not the problem," J'dan said. "They were unhappy that the trial completion celebration happened while they were gone."

"Ah," Yusif said, nodding. "I did try to warn you. They deserved to participate in the ceremony with the others."

"They are third years," an Elder protested. "They can go next year with their peers."

"They won't be here, next year," Yusif reminded them. "They took the trials. They even won the pre-trial bouts. And I expect they passed their trials. They had every right to attend the ceremony."

"We needed to assign the new priestesses to their villages," Elder Kito said. "Those three aren't being assigned to villages this year."

"That does not matter," Yusif said, heading to the door. "They should have been honored as they deserved."


"Yes, Master Xio?"

"Tell them we will meet with them after lunch tomorrow," Xio said.

"Yes, Master Xio," Yusif said, nodding at the others before leaving.

"We can't let them show disrespect for the Elders like that," Elder Taun said. "If we let them get away with that, what will the other novices do?"

"They are no longer novices," Master Xio said.

"They have not been declared such, by this Council," Elder Kito said.

"A mere formality," Master Xio said. "We have invested too much time and training in them to punish them for our error."

"We shall regret it," Elder Kito said.

"We shall see," Master Xio said. "This meeting is adjourned until tomorrow."

"That was an interesting reaction," a familiar voice said in Yusif's ear as she entered the novice dormitory. "They have minds of their own. They will not be boring little priestesses."

"Is there anything you don't know?" Yusif asked, continuing down the hall, not startled by the masked stranger's sudden appearance.

"I do not know how your young novices fared in their trials," the stranger said. "I do expect they performed outstandingly."

"They will be meeting with the Council tomorrow," Yusif said. "I'm sure you can find out then."

"Yes," the stranger said. "It shall be interesting to see how they handle the Council."

"They are not happy with us," Yusif said. "But I do not blame them."

"I am sure it was just tiredness that caused that reaction," the stranger said. "They will be in a better frame of mind tomorrow." And as suddenly as she appeared, she was gone.

Shaking her head, Yusif entered the third year common room. As soon as she stepped through the door, the noise died down.

"Don't stop for me," she said to the novices. "I am just passing through."

"Yes, Elder Yusif," the braver ones said. She continued through to the hall that contained all of the third year novice rooms. Coming to the room that belonged to Su, Yui, and Moa, she paused for a second and listened. Not hearing anything, she knocked quickly.

Moa opened the door a crack, giving Yusif a surprised look. "What brings you here, Elder?" she asked.

"I wanted to know how the three of you were doing after your trials," Yusif said. "And to pass along a message from Master Xio."

"Come in," Moa said. "What did she say? She wasn't angry was she?"

"She said that the Council would meet with the three of you after lunch tomorrow," Yusif said.

"That was it?" Su said, clearly surprised.

"That was the only thing worth mentioning," Yusif said. "Some of the Elder were upset that you didn't meet with them tonight, so expect some tough questions about your trials."

"I felt we could do better things with our time," Su said. "The token will keep for tomorrow."

"So you really brought it back with you?" Yusif said.

"Of course," Su said. "That was why we went."

"Were you able to explore the temple?" Yusif asked, sitting down in the chair Moa offered her. "No one has made it inside before."

"Yes," Yui said. "It would have been useful to be warned about the large beast guarding the temple," she added.

"There was not one when I visited the temple when I first became a priestess," Yusif said.

"You've been there?" Yui said.

"Yes, but there was an army camped outside its door," Yusif said. "I did not have time to wait for them to leave."

"How did you know the token was in the temple?" Su said. "It was in a hidden chamber in the altar room."

"I cannot explain how I knew," Yusif said. "But you were able to bring it back?"

"Do you want to see it?" Yui said.

"No, I can wait until tomorrow," Yusif said. "It will not melt."

"No, Elder," Su said, nodding.

"You are not celebrating," Yusif said, looking around their room. "I expected a party."

"We aren't really feeling like celebrating," Yui said.

"You should have a party," Yusif said. "Your fellow third year novices would like to celebrate with you. They are very proud of you."

"Really?" Yui said. "The Council didn't think anyone cared if we were there or not. We haven't had anything to do with our year in a very long time."

"They do not know that," Yusif said. "They know you were given extra training but they still see you as part of their year. And completing the trials as third year novices is a big deal. It hasn't happened in centuries."

"We can have a party," Yui said. "Yes?" She pouted at Su and Moa.

"If you really want one," Su said, sighing, "but we still need to meet with the Elder Council tomorrow."

"That will not be a problem," Yui said. "Be right back!"

"Will you join us, Elder?" Su asked.

"You don't need me here," Yusif said. "It would ruin any party, if I recall being a novice myself correctly."

"You are still welcome to stay," Su said.

Yusif stood. "No. I thank you but this is your chance to celebrate. After the Council meeting tomorrow you may be too busy for anything like this for a long while."

"You look proud of yourself," Su said, when Yui woke her up. Getting up from her pallet, she quickly dressed in her formal novice robes.

"Last night was fun," Yui said. "And we now have our own loyal minions if we ever need them."

"How do you do that," Moa said, groaning from her own pallet. She pulled her quilt back over her head. "It's only been a couple hours."

"It's all a matter of will," Su said. "It's important to be awake as soon as possible."

"Well, do it somewhere else," Moa said, from under her quilt.

"Breakfast?" Yui said, poking Moa. "If we get there early enough they will still have those tiny sweet buns you like."

"If I must," Moa said, crawling out into the room. "Dressing up? Why?"

"We have not received our priestess robes yet," Su said, "but we must behave with the dignity of our new station. Therefore, our best."

"If we must," Moa said, pulling her carefully pressed novice robes out. "Meeting with the Council after lunch?"

"Yes," Su said.

"What do we do until then?" Moa asked. "No training, or classes."

"Stretching, and the upper forms, after breakfast. And then the library," Su said. "We need to keep up our training."

"Boring," Yui said. "How about something exciting?"

"We've had our excitement," Moa said.

"What did you have in mind," Su said. "We need to be here for the Council meeting."

"Do we have to?" Yui said.

"Yes," Su said. "We need to turn over the token and officially become priestesses. Ignoring them again would not be wise."

"That is amazing," Master Xio said, watching the three novices in the training yard from her office window. "Are those the forms we teach the novices?"

"The original forms," Yusif said, watching with her. "And some variety. They've turned what they learned in the training pods, and as novices, into their own forms."

"How much of that is from the Thirteen?" Xio asked.

"Enough to make them very formidable," Yusif said. "Our forms don't have counters for many of the forms used by the Thirteen. And they have been trained to use the forms for more than basic defense."

"We will make use of their training," Xio said, thoughtfully. "A fresh perspective into the forms will be welcome."

Yusif nodded. "Have you arranged for the next stage in their training?" she said. "They received basic musical training in the training pods but they will need Idol training to be effective agents in that role."

"The Xan-Tsu Idol School has openings for new Idol candidates," Xio said. "If they can pass the auditions, they will be placed in a large idol group."

"Does that give them enough freedom for our purposes?" Yusif asked.

"If they can do that for a year, we have an agreement with one of the school's associated impresarios to start a group with them sponsored by the temple," Xio said.

"Does this impresario understand our purpose?" Yusif asked.

"To some extent," Xio said. "He will select the music and idol gimmick, but we will direct them."

"How did you convince him to do this?" Yusif said.

"I can be very persuasive, when needed," Xio said. At Yusif's skeptical look, she shrugged. "He is excited at the opportunity to try something different than using the current Idol mill trainees. We will be paying for any additional required training and living expenses for the three of them and any other required persons."

"We can afford this?" Yusif said.

"Yes," Xio said. "It will come out of our special fund."

"Ah," Yusif said.

"You have the token?" Elder Yaten asked the three novices standing in front of the Council.

"Yes, Elder," Su said, stepping up to the long table they were all seated at. Joining her, Moa placed a small piece of soft leather in front of him. Su then placed the token on the leather, where it glowed softly.

"That looks like the correct token," Yaten said. "Elder J'dan, if you would confirm that this is the correct object?"

Elder J'dan carefully picked up the token, and examined it, carefully cataloging every blemish. The last thing she did was lay it on the outstretched hand of the Fox God.

There was a bright flash, and the Fox God was bathed in a right green light, focused on the token. When the light died away, the token was gone.

"It was accepted," Elder J'dan said, breathing a sigh of relief.

"Good," Master Xio said. "We can proceed then. Elder Yusif, please continue."

Yusif stood, and came around the table to stand in front of the novices. "Hold out your left hand," she said.

Solemn expressions on their faces, they followed her directions.

"The Fox God has deemed your token acceptable. As Clan priestesses, you are expected to uphold the honor of the clan and the Fox God, and perform tasks as assigned by both." Yusif placed a green crystal embossed with the same symbol as the token in their outstretched hands. "Do you swear allegiance to the Clan and Fox God, putting the future of the clan ahead of your own?"

"Yes, Elder Yusif," They said. As each novice spoke the crystal seemed to sink into their palms.

"You are now priestesses of the Clan," Elder Yusif said. "Please remain here. There are other things to be discussed." Chairs appeared behind each of them.

"Please sit," Master Xio said, once Elder Yusif had returned to the table. "Decisions must be made."

"Normally, we assign new priestesses to work with one of our village priestesses," Master Xio said. "We do not have any village priestesses to assign you to at the moment and have an alternate assignment."

"This is highly unusual," Elder Yaten said. "They should stay here, as assistant trainers until they can be assigned to a village."

"And we have already decided," Master Xio said. "As we discussed, they shall become roving priestesses, representing the Clan and the Fox God in the outer world."

"In order to become clan agents, additional training is required," Yusif said. "Tomorrow you shall report to the Xan-Tsu School in the city."

"The Xan-Tsu Idol School?" Yui asked.

"Yes," Master Xio said. "They will provide additional training, if you can pass their entrance audition."

"You want us to become idols," Su said. "May I ask why?"

"This will give you the opportunity to spread the word of the Fox God beyond our small community," Yusif said. "And freedom to pursue tasks for the clan without suspicion. It has been many years since we have had roving priestesses, and we expect you to excel for the honor of the Clan."

"Yes, Elders," they said. "Master Xio."

"You are dismissed," Xio said. They nodded and quietly left the room.

"They were not expecting us to go through with it," Yusif said.

"I did not expect you to go through with it," Elder Yaten said. "They do not show the proper reverence for the Council. Why are they being given this mission?"

"Why is this mission necessary," one of the other Elders asked. "There is nothing in the outer world that we need."

"I have explained," Xio said. "Nothing has changed since then. We need a way of engaging with the Serpent Clan if they ever come to us, and this is how the Fox God has guided us to do that."

"They really did it," Su said, standing at the top of the stairs leading into the temple. "I did not think they would."

"Their reason is still flimsy," Moa said. "I do not believe this talk of roving priestesses. It is nonsense."

"It does not matter," Su said. "The Fox God has some purpose for us, and this is part of it."

"We get to go to an idol school," Yui said. "Idol training at the best idol school in the city."

"Didn't your sister have an audition with them?" Moa asked.

"Yes," Yui said. "She did not get in. They have auditions every month. The next one must be tomorrow. We might meet her there."

"I am not prepared for an idol audition, whatever that requires," Su said. "Can we speak to your sister about this?"

"She won't believe us if we tell her why," Yui said, "but she likes talking about what happened."

"We should be able to use the phone in the temple office," Su said.

"Let's do that now," Yui said. "She should be home right now."

"Why do you want to know?" Hsu said, when they reached her. "What reason does a clan priestess need to know how an idol audition works?"

"Would you like the truth or something that makes sense?" Yui said.

"If you are offering the truth, you must think I won't believe you," Hsu said. "This truth I have to hear."

"The Elders want us to go to idol school," Yui said.

"No, that makes no sense," Hsu said. "An idol and a priestess have almost nothing in common."

"Almost nothing in common?" Su said. "What do they have in common?"

"High expectations," Hsu said. "The phrase is 'squeaky clean'," she said. "An idol is expected to give the appearance of perfect innocence. Just like a priestess. Do something that makes you look like a normal person, and you can be fired. You are not allowed to have relationships with people who are not approved by the idol management."

"So, no boys?"

"Or girls," Hsu said.

"Why do you want to become an idol then?" Su asked. "This is actually worse than being a clan priestess. Yes, we have rules, but we are expected to be adults."

"We will be at the auditions tomorrow," Moa said. "Will we see you there?"

"I had not planned to go," Hsu said, "but this I need to see."

"The auditions are open to everyone?" Su asked.

"No," Hsu said. "But if you are preparing to re-audition they allow you to see the auditions to prepare."

"You do not appear to be dressed properly for your station," Yusif said, joining them after their morning meal.

"We must dress like the others," Su said. "This is what we discovered they wore."

"We called my sister last night," Yui said. "She's been to several idol auditions there, and recommended we dress our age and not our place."

"Ah," Yusif said. "I see. I do not, however, see how this will help."

"Are you taking us there?" Moa asked.

"We should walk from the nearest bus station," Yui said. "It will look more natural. Driving up in the temple van will make us stick out, and not in a good way."

"You look almost normal," Hsu said, meeting them in line at the Idol factory's auditorium. "As long as they don't look too close."

"What's wrong with us?" Yui said, looking at Moa and Su.

"You have that martial artist smoothness to your walk. And you have real muscles," Hsu said. "You don't look like real teens."

"We are teens," Su said. "All Clan priestesses start out young."

"It may not matter," Hsu said, shrugging. "It's a large crowd today. The judges must be some special group. They may not get to you, they only audition so many for each new idol group."

"I don't want to do this more than once," Yui said. "I can't see how you keep coming back."

"Because it's fun," Hsu said. "I realize my chances get worse every time I try out, but the experience is worth it."

"If you don't make it onto an idol group, what will you do?" Su asked her.

"College," Hsu said. "I've passed the entrance exams for the best college prep school in the city. They guarantee college entrance."

That afternoon, they watched the other auditions from the back of the large auditorium.

"You were lucky to go early," Hsu said. "They haven't gotten through half of the line yet and it's almost time for them to stop."

"It was an odd experience," Su said. "To sing by myself and then with others. And then dancing with several different groups."

"Dancing is not your best talent," Moa said.

"But your voice beats the others we've heard so far," Yui said.

"You all did surprisingly well," Hsu said. "It isn't really about talent. They will teach you everything they want you to know. But you need to be special in some way."

"So you think they will pick us?" Yui said.

"You were more polished than most of the ones we've seen today," Hsu said. "You can sing and dance, so they won't have to start from the beginning. Look at those four," she said pointing at a group on the stage being run through choreography. "They can't follow directions, and are all over the stage. You need to be able to sing and dance at the same time and they can't do that. But I don't know. It depends on what they are really looking for. Singers? Dancers? Both?"

A loud horn sounded in the auditorium. The current group was directed off the stage and the musical director for the school came up on stage.

"If you can come up on stage when we read your names, that will be all for the day," he said.

His assistant started reading names from a clipboard.

When she called Su, Yui, and Moa to the stage Hsu gave them hugs and invited them to her house once they were done.

"The rest of you can go home. If there are any later openings, we will contact you," the director said. There was a murmur of disappointment from the ones not picked.

"Good," the director said. "We are going to be busy for the next few months turning all of you lucky girls into the hottest idol group in the world. We have some papers for you all to sign, and a list of things you will need to bring tomorrow when you come back. Everyone will be sharing rooms. Four to a room. They will be assigned tomorrow. If you have any preference make sure Judy here knows."

He looked at the sixteen girls. "Any questions? No? Good." Nodding to 'Judy' he left the stage.

"These are standard idol development contracts," 'Judy' said, handing them all thick stacks of paper. "Bring them back signed tomorrow. If you don't come back tomorrow morning by 8AM we'll assume you don't want to be an idol and we'll call one of the alternates. And my name is Jas. If you have any problems bring them to me, not him. Any real questions?"

There was silence from the future idols as they stared down at the contacts.

"No? Good," Jas said. "Come tomorrow and be prepared to work hard. Being an idol isn't just standing on stage looking pretty."

"That... was different," Su said, as they walked to the subway. "Do we still want to do this?"

"It's just different training," Moa said. "We handled three years of novice training, and all that time in the training pods, and the trials. A few months of singing and dancing shouldn't kill us."

"The training pods count as more," Yui said. "A month on the outside was almost three years in the pods."

"In our heads," Moa said. "We didn't get older."

"But we are in better shape than any of the others," Yui said. "So it's all going to be how well we can get our heads into being idols."

"Should one of the Elders look at this contract?" Moa said. "To make sure we aren't signing something we shouldn't?"

"My mother is a lawyer," Yui said. "She'll tell us if there is anything to be concerned about."

"You aren't upset, are you?" Yui asked Hsu, following her into her room.

"Why would I be upset?" she asked.

"I'm going to be an idol and you won't?" Yui said.

"You're a clan priestess going undercover at an idol school," Hsu said. "Like in a bad spy movie. You aren't doing it for the same reasons and don't really want to be an idol for a career. There's nothing to be upset about. If you do well as an idol I can probably use that to get into the school myself. They like that kind of thing, sisters who are idols."

"Well, I'm the cute one," Yui said.

"And I'm the beautiful sister," Hsu said, giggling.

"We should check to see if Mother has finished looking at your contracts," Hsu said. "You still have to go back to the temple and pack."

Yui nodded, and left Hsu's room, with her following behind. "Mother?"

"Yes, daughter?" Lady Rowan, their mother, said.

"Can we sign these?" Yui asked.

"They are standard five year Idol contracts, as they told you," she said. "Which means they are in favor of the management company that owns the Idol group. They can let you go at any time, but if you want to leave the Idol group for your own reasons before the contract ends you will have to reimburse them for anything they have given you. Training, clothes, travel that is not Idol related. You can buy out the contract but it will cost more than that."

"That's standard?" Su asked. "Why become an idol if you are stuck like that?"

"You mean, why does an ordinary girl want to be an idol?" Yui's mother said. She pointed at Hsu for an answer.

"Fame and fortune?" Hsu said. "But any smart person knows the fortune is like kami gold. You can't spend it. But the experience is valuable. The contacts you make can lead to other things."

"Like?" Moa asked.

"Going solo? Or starting a band?" Hsu said. "Though most ex-idols end up working in an office somewhere."

"So don't expect to get rich or owning it at the end," Yui said. "Fortunately we have other plans."

"Ladies, here are your room assignments," Jas said, the next morning. "Four to a room, meals are provided."

"Looks like we get to share," Yui said. "Who is Yanzy?" She looked at the others who were forming their own groups, leaving one person standing by herself.

"That must be her," Su said. "She's tall. Aren't idols usually shorter?"

"She's coming over here," Yui said.

"I am Yanzy," she said, bowing low. "Are you Su, Yui, and Moa?"

"Yes," Su said. "That is us. Shall we take our things to our room? They are giving us a few minutes to settle in our rooms before it starts."

Yanzy nodded and followed them across the street to the chain hotel they would be staying at.

"Cozy," Yui said, looking around the small room with two bunk beds crammed into one side.

"For short people," Su said.

"The world is designed for short people," Yanzy said. "It is livable."

"Do you prefer the top or bottom bunk?" Moa asked her. "Su is a bottom bunk."

"I will take bottom also," Yanzy said. "You all know each other?"

"Yes," Su said "We grew up together and have been attending the same private school."

"And you all will be idols together?" Yanzy said.

"That is how it seems to be working out," Moa said. "We hope to someday be our own group but that takes time and luck."

"I would prefer to be a solo idol," Yanzy said, "but, unless you are an outstanding talent, you have to go through an idol factory like this one first before you can go solo."

"Are you a better singer or dancer?" Yui asked. "Su is 'our' singer. She's not a bad dancer but we are much better."

"That's because they are closer to the ground," Su said, winking at them. "They can't get enough air to sing properly."

The first month of idol training was harder than they expected, but not because being an idol was physically hard. It was very different than their life as novices. They had become comfortable in their lives at the temple and now they were starting over. And saying they came from a small private school only took them so far.

Fortunately, Yanzy was willing to help out when their knowledge of pop-culture had holes in it, and things lightened up the second month as the group came together as a solid unit.

"Still want to be an idol?" Yui asked Hsu one Sunday while visiting. "If we hadn't been in excellent shape from our temple training we wouldn't have made it the first month."

"Do any of the others know that your 'private' school was a temple and that you are actually priestesses?"

"No," Yui said. "We've been able to keep that a secret."

"When is your first concert?" her mother asked.

"We have another month before they think we'll be good enough for a real audience," Yui said.

"That bad?" Hsu said, giggling.

"We aren't bad," Yui said. "Tell them we aren't bad, Su!"

"We show promise, I believe Director Zola said," Su said.

"How many have dropped out?" Hsu asked, reaching over to poke her sister.

"They've replaced five with alternates," Moa said. "They weren't up to the physical challenge."

"So, no replacements for talent?" Hsu asked.

"No, you were correct," Su said. "They didn't pick us for singing ability. They have voice coaches and dance coaches. I'm not sure how they decided. Yanzy, our roommate, doesn't really fit in, but they picked her and she's doing well."

"She's the tall one?" Yui's mother asked. "Likely for contrast with the rest of you."

Chapter Text

"It doesn't feel like three months," Yui said, staring out at the audience through the curtains.

"We sound good together," Yanzy said, in a low voice as they wait for the show to begin. "They turned us into an actual idol group."

"They do call it an idol factory," Yui said, smirking. "Once they send us out to make them money they'll start on building the next group."

"They sell the groups they make to impresarios," Yanzy said. "Or they sell parts of groups."

"Very commercial," Su said. "Everything we do makes them money."

"It's like living under a microscope," Moa said. "I don't think we've had privacy in months, except on Sundays when we get to go visit friends."

"They're just looking out for their investment," Su said. "At least they don't take pictures all the time."

"We don't get anything for those photo-books they did," Yui said. "And they had all of those fake poses and pretend events."

"It was in our contracts," Moa said. "We sneeze and they'll make money through a sponsorship with a cold medicine company."

"Something to remember for the next time," Su said. "Get a piece of the sides."

"Better yet, the main dish," Yui said, quickly dodging Moa's jab.

"Ready?" the director said, walking along the line of girls. "Go out there and entertain!"

After five songs, they went off stage and away from the cheering crowd. After a few quick words from the director, they all landed in the dressing room, collapsing in companionable silence.

"I've been more tired than that before," Su said. "But not this buzzy."

"It wears off, eventually," Yanzy said. "Don't renew your contract or sign anything important right after a concert. Bad things may happen."

"That sounds like something that would happen to Yui," Moa said, laughing.

"Time to pack up and go back to the hotel," Jas said, standing in the door.

"Did they like us?" Yui asked, before she could leave.

"Well enough," Jas said. "Be prepared to work hard tomorrow, we have an appearance on the morning shows on Friday."

"On television?" one of the other girls said, excitedly. "Do we get new costumes?"

"No," said Jas, "the same costumes you are wearing now, so get them off and hang them up so they can go to the cleaners."

"Yes, Jas," they all chorused.

"She has us well trained," Su said, once she'd left the room. "Like puppies."

"Or seals," Yui said. "Balancing balls on our noses."

"That makes no sense," Su said, standing.

"I'm tired," Yui said, holding out a hand. "Sense is not happening right now."

Su pulled her to her feet, and then Moa and Yanzy. "Dinner?"

"Soup and crackers? Yum," Yui said. "How about something better tasting?"

"Who's paying?" Moa said. "We have no money."

"I have enough left over from my birthday to buy us a pizza," Yui said.

"Okay," Moa said. "Order it when we get back to our room. But nothing strange on it."

"Strange? Pizza is just bread with anything on it," Yui said. "There's nothing strange that can be put on pizza."

"There was that time you ordered it with kale," Moa said. "And peanut butter. That was very strange tasting."

"It was the special," Yui said defensively.

"It was the special because they had ingredients they needed to get rid of. And some people will try anything," Su said.

"I once had a pizza American style," Yanzy said. "Bitter red sauce, stringy cheese, and some kind of hard sausage."

"Pepperoni and cheese is a classic," Yui said, nodding. "But it seems to be impossible to get right."

"Sushi chefs should never open pizza restaurants," Moa said. "It's a different style."

"Just like idols should never sing country music or that kind of music with drums and guitars," Su said. "At least we are pop idols and not country idols."

"When is our next day off?" Yui asked, following Su up into the bus back to their hotel.

"Two weeks," Su said. "We have a concert and then we get the next day off."

"We aren't famous yet, are we?" Yui asked.

"No," Moa said. "You have to do something to become famous."

"Or be clever," Yanzy said. "There are people famous because of what they know."

"What do you want on your pizza?" Yui said, holding up their room phone.

"Is it that sushi place or the real pizza place?" Su said.

"Pizza," Yui said. "It's cheaper. The sushi pizza place costs twice as much for half the amount."

"That makes sense," Moa said, flopping down on one of the lower bunks. "The sushi chefs are artists, so they charge more."

"We're artists," Yui said, "maybe we should charge more also."

"Musicians don't count," Yanzy said. "Just be glad we can eat. Most musicians in Western countries starve before they become famous. They aren't considered artists of that sort."

"And we want to be idols, why?" Yui asked. "The management company gets all of the money from everything we do and we get nothing, except maybe soup, and sore throats and feet."

"Philosophy has no place in an idol factory," Su said. "It's a very commercial enterprise, designed to separate the fan from their money."

"There are famous idols," Yui said. "How did they become famous?"

"A good PR budget," Yanzy said.

"That's what we need," Yui said. "A budget."

"I don't feel as if we are accomplishing anything," Su said, six months into their idol experience. "We're part of a group of girls that travels all over the country making something resembling music."

"We get fan mail," Moa said.

"From creepy men," Su said, standing. "We sing the same music as every other large idol group."

"They feed us," Yui said. "And we get to go places."

"When was the last time we did our forms?" Su asked, starting to pace in their small hotel room.

"Last week?" Moa said, pulling her feet up out of Su's way.

"We need to find more time for the forms so we don't forget them," Su said.

"We get just as much exercise with the running around and dancing as we get from doing the forms," Yui said.

"We can get up earlier," Moa said. "Get up an hour earlier and we'll have time to do the forms."

"Where?" Yui asked.

"Where what?" Su asked, stopping to face her.

"Where do we do the forms?" Yui said.

"We need space and some place we won't be disturbed," Moa added.

"We can start with a morning run," Su said. "Do that for several weeks until everyone sees us doing that and then we can find a private place to do the forms."

"Yanzy will want to come running with us," Moa said.

"That isn't a problem," Su said. "And, if she has any interest we can teach her the forms."

"Teach?" Yui said, squeaking.

"Some day we will become teachers, temple instructors," Su said. "This will give us an opportunity to see if we can teach."

"And what will you tell her about the forms and why we do them?" Moa said.

"The truth," Su said. "It's something we learned in school."

"Which we don't talk about whenever anyone asks," Moa said, "They already think it's an odd place. Throwing in the forms will just make them believe it more."

"So, we have a plan?" Su said.

"A plan," Yui said, jumping to her feet. "An excellent plan, I was feeling rusty."

"No that's because you are somehow not getting taller," Su said. "Even though you are growing, it doesn't appear to be going anywhere."

"She's not getting rounder," Moa said, reaching over to poke her.

"Unlike you," Yui said, dodging. "It must be going somewhere."

"To your head," Su said, shaking her own head.

"What forms do you want to focus on?" Moa asked, pulling out a pad to write on. "From the beginning or the new ones from the Thirteen?"

"No preference," Su said, gracefully sitting down. "We need to know them all."

"Can I come with you," Yanzy asked, one morning several weeks later, when she saw them dressed for running. "I need some variety. Something other than aerobics to our own music would be welcome."

"You don't like idol music?" Su said, grinning. "It's very popular in some places."

"It isn't bad," Yanzy said, laughing. "We do sing it all day long. But doing aerobics to it isn't enough. I need exercise that is challenging, not just healthy."

"We can provide that," Su said, nodding. "We have a routine, of which running is just a small part."

"How much exercise do you really want?" Moa said, leaning against the door. "You can run our normal route with us and that's it, or you can try our other exercises."

"How far is your normal route?" Yanzy asked.

"Ten kilometers, if we can find a safe route in whichever city we're in," Su said. "Less if we can't and have to run at a local health club. Going around in circles on a small indoor track is not effective exercise."

"Yui goes crazy if we run inside for too long, and they make us leave," Moa said.

"I behave appropriately in cases of extreme boredom," Yui said firmly. She turned to Yanzy. "Don't make any decision until you see what we do."

"Okay," Yanzy said. "I'll run with you and then decide."

"Do you have to be back for anything this morning?" Su asked her. "We are usually gone for two hours."

"That's how much time we were able to get Jas to agree to," Yui added. "She had to see what we were doing first, before she approved of our alternate exercise program."

"We do have to attend all other team building exercises," Moa said. "So this isn't a way out of those."

"The group team building is usually fun," Yui said, giggling. "If you skip the aerobics."

They patiently waited for her to change into exercise clothes.

"Shall we?" Moa said, holding open the door. Nodding, the four idols started off with a slow jog to warm up, gradually moving into a fast pace.

"We can slow down," Yui said, keeping an eye on Yanzy.

"No, this is good," Yanzy said, her face red. "I haven't had this much of a workout in months."

"We're almost there," Su said.

"We're actually near our hotel," Moa said, when they stopped in front of a nondescript building. "We ran in a circle and ended up back here."

"It's a private dojo chain," Su explained, waving at the building. "They have dojos in almost every city. You can rent a training room by the hour. They usually have rooms available in the early morning."

"How did you find out about it?" Yanzy asked. "And how can you afford it?"

"A friend of our families owns it," Su said. "So we don't pay much."

"We also give them our spare comp tickets to our concerts," Yui said.

"I never use mine," Yanzy said. "No one in my family likes our music. It's too tame for them."

"Too tame?" Yui said. "Or too sugary? I'm surprised we don't have dentists traveling with us."

"Don't suggest that to Jas," Moa said. "She'll find dentists willing to open booths at our concerts."

Yanzy shrugged. "My brother plays drums American style, and one of my cousins plays bass guitar. They're in an underground rock band in Tokyo."

"Ah," Su said. "Yes, we are tame compared to that kind of music. Why are you in an idol group instead of doing that?"

"I wanted to try something different," Yanzy said. "To sing, and get paid. They have to have office jobs to pay their expenses."

"So you play an instrument?" Yui asked. "Why are we just finding this out now?"

"It never came up," Yanzy said. "Electric guitar, though I had to sell it to pay for singing lessons."

"We'll have to find you a guitar," Moa said. "We need to hear you play."

"It isn't something we can do in the group," Yanzy said.

"Tomo plays her piano sometimes," Su said. "Why not guitar?"

"Electric guitar isn't something idols do. There are famous idols who play the piano," Yanzy said. "So that is acceptable."

"Well, if we ever get our own group, you can play guitar," Yui said.

"And we need to get moving," Su said. "We have to be back at the hotel in an hour."

"Yes boss," Yui said, stepping up to the door and pressing the doorbell. "Moving."

A smartly dressed office lady opened the door and bowed to them. "Lady Su, Lady Moa, and Lady Yui, please come in." She raised an eyebrow at their fourth.

"Good morning, and blessings of the Fox God on this house," Su said formally. "This is our friend Yamoto Yanzy. She will be observing and possibly training with us today."

"Honored to meet you, Lady Yanzy," the woman said, waiving them in. "The Fox Room is available this morning."

"Thank you," Su said. "Would it be possible to find a gie for Yanzy? She's taller than us, as you can see."

"Of course," she said.

"Good," Su said. Bowing back, she led the others to the locker room.

"All of the dojos are the same," Yui whispered. "So if you know where things are in one, you won't get lost in another. The Fox room is dedicated to the family kami."

"You aren't just girls who wanted to become idols, are you?" Yanzy said in a low voice as they changed.

"I've always wanted to become an idol," Yui said. She waved at Su and Moa, who were waiting for them to finish changing. "These two? They had other plans."

"Plans change," Su said, leading them to the Fox Room. "We were something else before becoming idols and we'll be something else after. And right in this moment we will show you our other exercises."

"There are five Fox Clan forms," Moa said, stepping into the center of the room. "The basic forms, which we'll show you today, and upper level forms."

"We can give a brief demonstration of the upper level forms but actually doing them takes years of training. The basic forms we will teach you we learned when we were ten," Su said.

"That was amazing," Yanzy said, after Yui and Moa demonstrated several of the upper forms. "Very graceful. Is it an art like bushido? Or does it have another purpose."

"It is intended as both a mental and physical exercise that is defensive in nature," Su said.

"So, if you learn these forms you can defend yourself?" Yanzy said.

"Yes," Su said. "There are other forms that can be used for actual combat but they are rarely taught outside of the Fox Clan."

"There hasn't been much use for those forms," Moa said. "It's taught to novices of the Fox God as a form of exercise."

"You've spoken of the Fox God," Yanzy said. "This isn't the same kami as Inari?"

"No," Su said. "They have similar forms but come from very different traditions. The Fox Clan families are the only ones who worship the Fox God."

"Worship isn't really the correct way to phrase it," Moa said. "The Fox God don't really ask for worship or for people to join in worship. He is closer to that uncle who gives advice that should be followed because it is good for you. We give him respect and thanks for protecting the Fox Clan families in times of trouble."

"The school we attended was part of the main Fox God temple," Yui said.

Yanzy nodded. "That is not what I expected," she said. "There is no Fox cult?"

"Some would say it's a cult," Su said. "It isn't a traditional religion or belief system like Shinto. But you didn't ask for the Fox God lecture."

"We've been trained to explained who the Fox God is and how he isn't a threat to any of the other kami," Moa said. "But no one ever asks, though Su can spout it all when prompted. We are sorry if you were offended."

"I am not offended," Yanzy said. "I will admit to not being very religious and not interested in worshipping anything other than music."

"Good, good," Su said. "So, just running with us? Or would you like to learn the forms."

"Or start learning the forms," Moa said, correcting Su. "Although it isn't considered one of the martial arts, it takes the same dedication to learn the different forms. Most practitioners start very young."

"Definitely the running," Yanzy said. "The forms seem a little more useful than aerobics."

"At least as much exercise," Yui said. "And good for self defense once you've learned enough of them."

"So you'll join us again tomorrow? We have two more days here," Su said. "I'll let Jas know that you are joining us for our outings."

"That went well," Su said in a low voice, later that night, after Yanzy had gone to dinner with Yui.

"Yes," Moa said. "A little heavy on the Fox God but you avoided talking about a lot of the history of the Fox God."

"There isn't a lot that can be said without explaining the true history of the Clan families," Su said. "Explaining that the Fox God is more like an honored uncle than one of those European smiting gods requires knowing that history."

"Well, we aren't supposed to convert anyone so I think we are okay. That isn't what a Fox God priestess does," Moa said. "That isn't our role."

"She doesn't know we are priestesses," Su said. "I don't think she'll ever need to know."

"I want to hear her playing guitar," Moa said. "It would be a very different sound than what we are doing now."

"We still have another six months, before we have enough experience to create our own group," Su said. "I think we should take Yanzy with us."

"How?" Moa asked. "The agreement the elders have with their impresario is only for us. Unless you have had another vision?"

"Not a complete vision, more of a feeling that Yanzy is a part of this," Su said. "We need to find her a role."

"She plays an electric guitar, her brother drums, and a cousin plays a guitar," Moa said. "Add us and we have a band."

"We know how to be idols," Su said. "What kind of music would we play if there are three instruments and us?"

"I don't know," Moa said. "Maybe this impresario would have an idea."

Before they could continue, the door to their room opened and Yui skipped happily in, followed by a grinning Yanzy. "Guess what!" Yui said.

"What," Su said.

"You're supposed to guess," Yui said, disappointment clear.

"Sometimes you miss things," Yanzy said shaking her head.

"We've been invited to hold a concert for the ambassador for the Mayan aliens," Yui said. "She's going to be in Tokyo next month."

"How did Jas arrange that?" Su asked.

"Not sure," Yui said. "She must have connections."

"Will we get to meet her or is this just a concert?" Su asked.

"Just a concert," Yui said. "She was curious about our music and someone invited her to hear us live."

"Jas is going to train us so hard to impress them we're going to die," Moa said. "We're going to be so tired we'll fall asleep in the middle of the concert."

"If she kills us we won't get to meet the alien ambassador," Yanzy said. "They say she's their best musician ever. She has memorized all of their songs and a large number of ours."

"Does anyone really know anything about them?" Su said. "They just suddenly appeared several years ago and took over part of Mexico."

"Just rumors," Yanzy said. "They have space ships, and an army and embassies around the world. And they are all women."

"Girl power!" Yui said. "We definitely need to meet them."

"They cleaned up the Yucatan when they took over," Yanzy said. "Got rid of the drug cartels and took over the government and got rid of corruption."

"Sounds like paradise," Moa said. "There must be a catch."

"You have to be one of them or related to live there," Yanzy said. "They came here over a thousand years ago, disappeared and came back. There are a lot of native Mayans related to them somehow."

"So, paradise but only for a few," Yui said. "That's disappointing. But maybe some of us are related?"

"Not me," Su said, sighing. "I can trace my family back before that and none of them were Mayans or those aliens."

"Me neither," Moa said. "How about you, Yanzy?"

"No, all ancestors accounted for," she said sadly.

The group came out on stage and lined up in their regular configuration. Jas nodded at them to begin, and the music started.

"They have beautiful voices," Rachel said, leaning towards Brittany and speaking in a low voice. "But isn't this like a puppy mill?"

"How so?" Brittany asked.

"Don't they churn out idols constantly?" Rachel asked "When a group wears out its welcome they replace it with a new one? And there's an age limit?"

"Well, the Japanese maestros figured out years ago how to package a constant flow of new talent into a very profitable business. It's very formulaic. And only works in this culture," Brittany said. "Just like there are certain things in our Clan that wouldn't work for anyone else, idols are a product of their culture. You'll occasionally see a western band where someone has tried to do the same thing but not at this scale."

"So, idols are really like boy bands?" Rachel said. "Even with the wholesome cuteness?"

"More or less," Brittany said.

"So, why are we here? It isn't something we would want to emulate. I don't think we have anyone in our clan who wants to be an idol." Rachel leaned forward for a closer look. "An overabundance of cute, I think. But nice voices if a little fast for my taste."

"That's part of being an idol. Singing fast in a high voice, most of the time," Brittany said, giggling. "And being young. Idols are mainly geared towards teens and pre-teens with money.

"So their audience ages out just as fast as they do?" Rachel said.

"Yup," Brittany said. "As for why we're here? I have plans for several of them."

"What kinds of plans," Rachel asked.

"Long range plans," Brittany said. "I needed a reason to be here."

"So I'm just your beard?" Rachel asked, giggling.

"Without the beard part," Brittany said.

"So, who caught your interest?" Rachel asked, trying to get another look at all of them as they danced.

"Fifth over from the left, and the seventh and the twelfth," Brittany said pointing them out. "They're part of a special project, though they don't know we are involved."

"How special?" Rachel asked. "They look like the others."

"What do you know of the Kitsune Clan?" Brittany asked.

"Those Fox God followers?" Rachel asked. "They weren't part of the original thirteen clans but always seemed to be around when we needed an extra hand. And then they disappeared."

"They had a falling out with the clans," Brittany said. "It happened some time after our problems. They've been in hiding ever since."

"Do we know what happened?" Rachel asked.

"Not a clue, though they think the Clans will punish them if they are ever found," Brittany said, "so it must have been a doozy of a falling out."

"Well, we can always use the help, if we find them," Rachel said. "As long as whatever happened isn't something unforgivable."

"I'm still digging into that," Brittany said. "Only members of the Council of Clans have access to that info, and we aren't exactly."

"So, you know where they are?" Rachel asked.

"Yes," Brittany said. "Those three are some of their best trained in this generation. They call them priestesses of the Fox God but they are something a bit more than that. Peacekeepers, leaders, and a few other things which they receive years of training for."

"Why are they here, being idols?" Rachel asked. "This must not be a challenge for them."

"As I said, I have long range plans," Brittany said. "I might have had a hand in them becoming idols. They've also been trained in the basic fighting techniques of the Thirteen Clans. They aren't quite up to the level of our troopers but experience would fix that."

"I won't ask how you made that happen," Rachel said, frowning at her.

"Good," Brittany said, smirking. "This is only the beginning of my plans for making use of the Kitsune Clan."

"I would like to be kept in the loop though," Rachel said, sitting back in her seat.

"Not a problem," Brittany said. "Shall we go meet some cute idols?"

"That's what we're supposed to be here for," Rachel said. Standing she headed towards the musical director and his assistant, followed by Brittany and Rachel's bodyguards.

"Where have we seen that one before?" Moa asked Su in an undertone, as they gathered around the alien women after running through their routine.

"She does look familiar, but I can't say from where," Su said. "The others? Not familiar at all."

"She's watching us," Yui said.

"They don't look like aliens," Yanzy said.

"What should aliens look like?" Su asked.

"Like aliens?" Yanzy said. "Different. They wouldn't fit in."

"So, could we be aliens?" Su asked.

"No," Yanzy said. "You don't act like others.

"It's probably all part of the plan," Moa said. "If we were aliens we wouldn't want anyone to know it."

"Su, Moa, Yui, and Yanzy?" Jas said. "Please come over here. Our honored guests have a question for you."

"Yes, miss?" Su said, leading them over. They found themselves under the piercing gaze of the two obvious bodyguards. Su could feel her defensive chi levels automatically increasing. She struggled to force it down, and could feel Yui and Moa doing the same thing.

"I was curious," the alien ambassador, who'd been introduced as the Lady Memory, said, a faint accent giving her voice an exotic sound. "Jas said that the four of you live together?"

"Yes, ma'am," Su said. "Since the first day."

"Does that influence your performances, being so close?" she asked.

"We do spend a lot of time together," Moa said. "We run together in the morning and exercise together."

"It gives us a strong awareness of where each other is on stage, and that carries over to our performances." Su said.

"I'd noticed that there is a certain flow to your performances," the Lady said.

"Do all of your group train the same way?" the other alien asked.

"No," Su said. "We needed something a little more active. The others are happy with the regular training."

"All of our members are equally trained," Jas said quickly. "But not all have the same past experience. Or need the same physical training to maintain appropriate energy levels."

"What do you think?" Rachel asked Brittany and the twins later in their Tokyo embassy, after they'd left the idols to go back to their normal routine.

"They have training in one of the arts," Kili said. "They reacted to our presence as a trained acolyte would."

"But they were able to hide that reaction," Fili said. "I don't think anyone else noticed."

"No, the others were unaware," Brittany said. "Their friend seemed to notice that something was going on. But I don't think she knows what it means."

"So there's a fourth, in this little group? Was that part of the plan?" Rachel asked.

"No," Brittany said. "That they would involve someone outside their clan is a little surprising."

"I would like to see them performing, without the entire group," Rachel said. "They fit in with the others, though that is obviously the intent, to not have any stars that aren't picked by the music director."

"I think I shall drop in on their morning training," Brittany said.

"Take the twins with you," Rachel said.

"As observers only," Brittany said. "But we'll need to bring in your backup bodyguards."

"I don't need bodyguards," Rachel said, protesting.

"I disagree," Brittany said. "They will be here shortly."

"Try not to frighten them," Brittany told the twins. "Although they have had training in the arts, the purpose was different than yours. They were not trained for war."

"We shall keep that in mind, Lady Shadow," Fili said.

They stood, shielded from sight, waiting for the four idols to appear. Kili and Fili wore their standard hard suits while Brittany wore a Shadow command suit that allowed for greater mobility.

The four young idols came running down the sidewalk at a fairly brisk pace. They seemed to glow from the exertion.

"That's fast for non-troopers," Kili said. "They must be in good shape."

"Interested in talking with them?" Brittany said. "Or just observing?"

"Are we going to be working with them in the future?" Kili asked.

"Very possible, though they don't know it," Brittany said.

"So, the Shadows have plans?" Fili said, clearly amused. "We'll be nice then."

The four idols stopped in front of the dojo.

"There's someone here," Su said. "I can feel them."

"Yes," Brittany said, decloaking, followed by Kili and Fili. "You are not alone."

"We haven't been introduced," Su said, hiding her surprise at the sudden appearance of the armored figures.

Brittany retracted her helmet. "You may call me Lady Shadow of the Serpent Clan of the Thirteen Clans of the Pan Galactic Confederation. Which is a mouthful, so you can just call me Shadow."

"Lady Shadow," Kili said firmly.

"Contrary to what Kili and Fili here say," Brittany said.

"What can we assist you with?" Su asked.

"Singing tips?" Yui asked, getting poked by Yanzy for her comment.

"We were curious about your training routine," Brittany said. "My understanding is that it is not normal idol training?"

"No," Su said. "Though, if you prefer we can discuss this inside?" she added as the door opened and the dojo caretaker poked her head outside, pausing when she noticed the additional people.

"We can do that," Brittany said. She stepped back, allowing the four idols to enter the building.

"If you do not mind waiting a minute, we will change first," Su said, pausing just inside. "We only have a limited amount of time for our training."

"Go right ahead," Brittany said. "We are here to see you."

"Please show them to the training room," Su said to the caretaker, "we'll join them in several minutes."

"Yes, Lady Su," the caretaker said.

"What do we do?" Yui asked, as they dressed for training. "Why do you think they are here?"

"They must have seen something yesterday that made them curious," Moa said.

"The three of you looked startled for a moment when they asked us over," Yanzy said. "And there was a strange feeling in the room."

"Ah," Su said. "I thought I suppressed that reaction."

"I too," Moa said.

"Understandable," Yui said. "They are dangerous, and we reacted with self defense forms."

"Idols who show that kind of control, and reaction, were probably not what they expected to see," Yanzy said. "I don't think anyone else noticed."

"Good," Su said. "But we also need to focus on that aspect of our forms. We should have more control."

"They may know more than we are ready for," Moa said. "What will we do?"

"You should explain to me so that I am not surprised by whatever they say," Yanzy said, looking at all of them.

"Yes," Su said. "Do you agree," she addressed to Yui and Moa.

"I have no problem with it," Yui said. "I trust Yanzy to keep a secret."

"Are you sure you want to know?" Moa asked Yanzy.

"Unless you are secret demon hunters, then yes," Yanzy said. "That I'm not ready for."

"No, not demon hunters," Yui said, giggling. "No Devil Hunter Yoko's hiding in an idol group."

"But, we do have alien ancestors," Su said, watching Yanzy carefully to see her reaction. "And not from another country."

"Oh. Oh!" Yanzy muttered sitting down suddenly. "You're real aliens? Like them?"

"We can't speak for them," Moa said. "We don't really know how our families are related to their Clans, though there was some connection in the distant past that our Elders won't discuss."

"But you don't seem like aliens," Yanzy said.

"Thank you," Yui said, bowing deeply to her. "I have done what I can to make sure we appear like normal teens."

"If you hadn't said something I wouldn't have known," Yanzy said. "Do you think they know?"

"Possibly, though no one has mentioned it to us," Su said.

"So, is there some secret alien reason for becoming idols?" Yanzy asked. "Is that why you are addressed as Lady Su? You said the dojo is owned by family?"

"If you will be patient, we will try to answer your questions," Su said. "But first we must deal with them."

"I can wait," Yanzy said. "This is exciting."

"Hopefully not too exciting," Moa said.

"They are informing their fourth," Brittany said, over the comm, to Rachel. "She apparently did not know. But appears okay about it."

"You plan to take advantage of that," Rachel said.

"Of course," Brittany said. "It's an opportunity. And they are coming. I'll let you know what happens."

Su, Yui, Moa, and Yanzy filed into the training room. The aliens were standing in a relaxed manner in the center of the room. The idols stopped, facing them.

"What would you like to see?" Su asked.

"We are interested in your normal routine, Lady Su," the Lady Shadow said.

"We are equals," Su said. "I am Su, this is Moa, Yui, and Yanzy. In this group no one is better."

"I am just a beginner in these forms," Yanzy said. "So, that isn't quite true."

"You are doing well, for 'just a beginner'," Yui said to her. "But Su's point stands. We do not use those forms of address among ourselves. That is something for a different time and place."

"Understood," Lady Shadow said.

"That was amazing," Yanzy said, when they returned to their hotel. "The Lady Shadow taught you new forms. And the other two, Kili and Fili, they are very different."

"They are all taller," Yui said. "And their art is different."

"Because they are soldiers," Moa said, "It isn't just art, it's survival."

"And they wear armor, which affects how they use the forms," Su said.

"The forms she taught us were not Serpent Clan battle forms," Moa said. "They are something else, some other art that I did not recognize."

"She was amazing," Yanzy said. "Do you think we'll see her again?"

"She seemed to be interested in us more than in the idol group," Su said. "I can't see the purpose. I have figured out who she reminds me of. Ka'nsah."

"Ka'nsah?" Yanzy asked.

"A teacher we had," Yui said. "Yes, I see it. The same way of moving, though not of speaking."

Reaching their room, they piled in and flopped down on their beds.

"We don't have anything until after lunch," Yanzy said. "Explain."

"We cannot tell you everything but we will tell you what we can," Su said. "What do you want to know?"

"Aliens? You don't look different, and we have been living together for months so I would think I would notice?" Yanzy said.

"There are many beings in the universe," Su said. "Humans and our clan share similar genetic code. You can see the same thing with them. Our Elders claim there are common ancestors thousands of years ago, but they don't know where they came from."

"Why don't you have all of the technology they do?" Yanzy asked.

"We left a lot of it behind when we came to this planet," Moa said. "The clan Elders made the decision to live as natives, though we kept many of our traditions."

"The school you went to? Was an alien school?" Yanzy asked.

"Well, it wouldn't make sense for anyone else to go to it," Yui said. "It was our temple school, for women who were training to be clan priestesses. Everything we learned there was for that."

"Priestesses?" Yanzy said. "How do the forms fit into that?"

"The forms are a form of meditation and exercise," Su said. "And self defense. You have to know all of the clan forms to become a priestess."

"One of the things the Clan kept was our religion," Moa said, nodding. "We are not Shinto, or Buddhist, or any other local religion. We have our own gods. The Fox God and his brother Coyote and others."

"And you're priestesses?" Yanzy asked. "Why become idols?"

"We can't answer that completely," Su said. "Our elders felt there was more for us to learn and that becoming idols, or attempting to become idols would be useful. We suspect they had other reasons but Yui wanted to become an idol so we agreed."

"My sister has been trying out for idol school but never makes it past reserve," Yui said.

"But doesn't that conflict?"

"How?" Moa said. "We signed the idol contract like you did. We may be trained priestesses of the Fox God but we are also idols."

"The Fox God moves in mysterious ways," Su said. "Which is true."

"You are not what I think of when I think of priestesses," Yanzy said. "You have too much fun. You aren't serious. And there are the forms."

"A Clan priestess is different," Su said. "I don't think it translates well. It means having a connection to the Fox God but that isn't a chain."

"What will happen when your career as idols is done?" Yanzy said.

"We don't know," Su said. "Become teachers at our temple? Or village priestesses?"

"Our Clan will have something for us," Moa said. "Not many of us become priestesses. It takes a lot of time to train to become one."

"I would like to go to college," Yui said. "Like my sister."

"You're really normal," Yanzy said, nodding to herself. "Normal for people who's ancestors were aliens and have a different upbringing."

"Normal? Yes," Yui said. "But it can take a lot of work to get there. Look at what we started with." She pointed at Su and Moa. And then burst into laughter at the look on Moa's face.

"The other aliens, the Serpent ones?" Yanzy said. "How does that work? Why are they here to see you?"

"We don't know," Su said. "The Clan Elders have kept any information about them secret. We only know what you know."

"Which isn't much," Yanzy said. "Mayans, and settled in the Americas, and look like American super models. And there's some mystery why they came here many centuries ago and then disappeared until recently."

"They don't all look like supermodels," Moa said. "Their ambassador doesn't."

"They would make the gods jealous," Yui said, sighing. "Kili was the prettiest."

"Too tall," Moa said. "But loyal. Did you notice how protective they were of Lady Shadow? Whenever one of us got too close, they were there between us."

"They were doing their job," Su said. "They were obviously her bodyguards."

"They can guard me any time," Yui said, floppy back on her bed to get away from Moa's fingers.

"You are short enough," Moa said, smirking. "Their ambassador is your height."

"Hey!" Yui said, throwing a pillow, which hit Su, missing Moa.

Their room was quickly filled with flying pillows as the others joined in.

Chapter Text

"What do our alien overlords want?" Ho Dio asked his assistant. "I've always wanted to say that," he added with a laugh.

"They are not our overlords," Kiki, his assistant, said to him, repressively. "They saved us from bankruptcy after your last idea for an idol group failed and now they have a controlling interest."

"The world just isn't ready for country idols," Dio said, sadly. "I still believe it is an idea worth exploring. Maybe next year. So, what do they want from us?"

"Do you remember our deal with that Fox God temple?" she said.

"Create an idol group for some of their priestesses? Yes," he said. "Have they met the agreed upon conditions for that?"

"Have some of their people become members of a successful idol group?" Kiki said. "Yes." She handed him a review of the newest idol group to reach the top one hundred on the national charts. "The group isn't that special. Just another idol factory product. They'll be gone in a couple years, once they age out. But right now they have talented songwriters and have extreme cuteness. And three of the Fox priestesses are in this group."

"Do we know why they wanted us to do this?" Dio asked, glancing through the review. "And why did I agree to it?"

"Reason? I don't think they ever gave us a reason. And you agreed because of your ex-wife," Kiki said.

"Ah, yes," Dio said. "One of the divorce conditions. If I agreed to it she wouldn't sue me for everything. Did I mention that she was one of their priestesses when we met? But she had to give that up when we married."

"No, you didn't," Kiki said.

"I suspect something very cloak and dagger is behind it," Dio said, putting the review down. "How does this relate to our new owners?"

"They've tentatively approved of an experimental idol group," Kiki said. "They've given us a separate budget to pursue creating it. We just need an idea for the group that they'll agree with."

"We aren't allowed to tell anyone about this are we," Dio said, frowning as he contemplated the lost promotion opportunity.

"The appropriate government agencies know of our relationship with the Serpent Clan, but you signed a large number of NDAs as part of the purchase," Kiki said. "So, no, you can't use our owners for publicity."

"So, we can experiment with an untried idol group idea, make our alien owners happy, make those crazy Fox people happy, and possibly make a lot of money, if it's a good idea," Dio said.

"Yes," Kiki said. "And we still have our regular operating budget for our other idol groups."

"What's your plan?" Dio asked.

"My plan?" Kiki said, looking at him in surprise.

"You're the brains behind our success," Dio said. "If I had listened to your opinions about that last idea, we wouldn't have gone bankrupt."

"It is good that you acknowledge this," Kiki said, nodding. She handed him a multi page document. "One of the reasons the country music idea failed is that it isn't music you are very familiar with. A successful new group needs to have an existing fan base to tap into. You taught me that. We didn't have anyone deeply versed in country music to steer it in the right direction."

"So, you want us to create an idol metal group?" Dio said, amazed. "Has it ever been tried?"

"There are several metal bands signed with the entertainment conglomerates, underground metal bands, and club bands playing this kind of music," Kiki said. "But no idol groups playing music like this. It's perfect. You know this music. What were you playing when I came in here?"

"Judas Priest," Dio said. "But what's our hook? It needs to be something new, not just heavy metal sung by idols. They won't be taken seriously, and for this to work, it can't just be because they are cute."

"That's your job," Kiki said. "I can give you the plan but you need to provide the inspiration. This is for those Fox people, so make that part of their theme."

"Good idea," Dio said. "They can be on tour bringing this new kind of music, this new metal, to the masses, for the Fox God." He thought for a moment. "Needs some work to really sell it. But yada Fox God yada something. It'll make the Fox people happy and seem very mysterious. And make us a lot of money."

"Of course," Kiki said. "And any profit we can roll into other projects."

"Is that in our contract?" He asked.

"We have to break even with our other projects," Kiki said, "but we can be creative."

"So, we need to get these three," Dio said, tapping the idol group list. "Do we have a plan for that?"

"Page 4," Kiki said. "We can buy their current group and then spin them off."

"And what do we do with the rest of their current group?" Dio asked. "We're going to be busy getting this new metal idol group going."

"We'll find some use for them," Kiki said. "Maybe try your country idea again if we can find a maestro who knows country like you do metal? Or some other type of music?"

"I'll have to think about this," Dio said. "We don't want them sitting around. There's no profit in idle idols."

"But buy them?"

"Yes," Dio said. "As soon as possible so we can get things going. Rapping idols?" He shook his head. "No, wrong kind of audience. What other kinds of music can be done with idols that hasn't been tried?"

"You'll think of something," Kiki said.

"We have important news," Jas said, before they started their daily practice. The idols stopped warming up and joined her at the front of the stage. "Our management company has sold this group's contracts," she said.

"What does that mean?" One of the girls asked.

"It means that you now work for someone else," Jas said.

"Are you coming with us?" Moa asked. "Who will determine what we sing?

"They only wanted the group, and all of you of course," Jas said. "They have their own maestros and impresario to guide you. But I will remain with you through the transition."

"What about our concerts next month?" One of the other girls asked quietly.

"They have been put on hold for now," Jas said.

"So they are shutting us down?" Yanzy said. "Can they do that?"

"It's in our contract," Yui said. "They can fire us all if they want to, no questions asked."

"Or you can quit," Jas said. "Your contracts allow you to quit with no penalties if ownership of the group changes hands, or we change the kind of music that we expect you to know."

"So, if we became a singing baseball team, we could quit if we didn't think we could do that?" one of the Tomoe twins asked.

"Yes, in the unlikely chance that something like that happened, you could check to see if your contract covers that," Jas said.

"What do we do while we wait?" Moa said.

"You will continue to practice," Jas said. "They did not buy the group so you can sit and talk all day long."

"So, the same as before until they tell us what to do?" Yui said.

"Yes," Jas said. "So get back into position."

"An interesting group," Dio said, watching a recording of the idols practicing.

"We have been successful in training them," Jas said. "We selected girls who can adapt to the needs of an idol group. You have not told us what you plan to do with them, but they should all be able to handle anything you would expect a trained idol to do."

"Trade secret," Dio said. "We already have plans for some of them. The others, we are still discussing how they will be used in our organization."

"I will make our assessments available to you," Jas said, nodding. "Some are more suited for certain types of music than others."

"We welcome your observations," Kiki said. "These are the ones we would like to work with first." She fast-forwarded the video to show a group of four. "The three on the left."

"The four of them spend a lot of time together," Jas said. "Where you find those three you'll find the fourth."

"We will keep that in mind," Dio said. "Please include the profile of the fourth."

"Verdict?" Dio asked Kiki after reviewing the profiles and the video.

"They have promise," Kiki said. "I do not know if we would have given them a second look without the incentive but we can work with them."

"How much more work will your plans for them require?" Dio said.

"We need a trained band. These three are singers and adequate dancers but this kind of music, whatever you want to call it, requires a band to back them up. They may be able to learn, but it takes years to be able to play at the level we need for this to work."

"Can we use this fourth idol?" Dio asked. "Does our contract allow us to build the group with more than the three?"

"We have a lot of freedom," Kiki said. "We just need to create an idol group centered on them. How we do it and who else can we use? However we want, as long as we stay within our budget."

"So, we can use her," Dio said thoughtfully, nodding. "But is there a role for her?"

"According to her profile, she can play lead guitar," Kiki said. "And she's been training with the other three. Some form of martial art."

"But can she shred?" Dio asked. "Can she handle the pressure of this new metal? Or old metal?"

"She can audition like any of the others for the backup band," Kiki said. "No favors."

"Good," Dio said. "Set up meetings with these three, and let the others know that we are auditioning for a backup band for a new idol group. They can audition themselves, or recommend others."

"Got it," Kiki said. "Have you worked out the background story yet?"

"The Fox God is bringing a new type of music to the world, Fox Metal, and it's a fight against the old guard," Dio said. "That's all I have so far. Good versus the evil of chaos and complacency."

"Okay, I can work with that," Kiki said. "We'll need to bring in a costume designer. What do you have in mind?"

"Something gothic," Dio said. "Victorian?"

"That will attract a certain kind of audience," Kiki said, frowning.

"As long as the music is based on traditional idol themes we'll have the right audience. We may attract others but these are still idols. We want a different kind of music, not unrecognizable idols," he said.

"Should be interesting," Kiki said. "I'll arrange interviews and auditions."

The next day at practice, the idols were all talking about the changes. They'd all be given the opportunity to try out for a position in an unnamed idol based band, though most were singers and the call sheet specified instruments.

"Are you going to try out?" Yui asked Yanzy.

"There isn't much time to prepare. I haven't played seriously in months," Yanzy said. "I'll have to get my brother to bring up my spare guitar."

"You can use one of the training rooms at the dojo to prepare," Su said. "They are sound proof."

"What about the three of you?" Yanzy asked.

"None of us play musical instruments," Moa said. "If they are looking for singers we can try out."

"Su, Yui, and Moa?"

"Yes, Jas?" Su said.

"Maestro Dio has asked to meet with the three of you," Jas said.

"Alone or together?" Su asked, frowning. She'd been waiting for the opportunity they'd been promised. But as time went on she'd wondered if it was ever going to happen. Wondered if her visions were wrong. This was the first indication that something might happen.

"Alone to start with," Jas said. "Maestro Dio and his assistant would like to see you one at a time to discuss your position in the new lineup."

"Of course," Su said. "When?"

"Now," Jas said. "They are waiting in the Maestro's office."

"Of course," Su said, bowing to Jas. Turning to the others, she raised an eyebrow before turning and gracefully leaving the stage.

"Do you know what Maestro Dio wants to talk with us about?" Yui asked.

"No," Jas said, "but I suspect it was related to this new idol group idea. You will have your turn."

"You wished to speak with me, Maestro Dio?" Su said, stepping into his office and closing the door.

"Yes, yes," Dio said, giving her a long look. "We are creating a new kind of idol group and I would like you to be part of it."

"What of the group I am in now?" Su asked. "What are you proposing?"

"We have not decided what to do with the original group," Dio said. "That is still being discussed. But what is your response?"

"What kind of group will it be?" Su asked. "What kind of music? I do not currently play an instrument."

"A new kind of music," Dio said. "For which we want a new type of idol. We have several openings for singers and believe you can fill one."

"What kind of music?" Su asked.

"Fox Metal," Dio said. "For the glory of the Fox God."

"Fox Metal?" Su said carefully. "I am unfamiliar with it."

"It is new, as I said," Dio said. "If you need something similar to compare it with, it is a genre of heavy metal."

"I am not familiar with that musical genre," Su said. "But I am willing to learn."

"Good," Dio said. "You are excused from practice for the rest of the day. There will be a meeting tomorrow morning to discuss details. Until then, tell no one about this."

"Thank you, Master Dio," Su said, bowing to them. Turning, she left the office.

"She's definitely one of them," Dio said. "She has that way of moving that Fox God priestesses have."

"Yes," Kiki said. "It should be interesting to see how that presence works on stage."

"Yui, you can go in now," Jas said, when Su returned five minutes later. Su nodded to her. Moa followed another ten minutes after when Yui also returned.

After all three of them had spoken with Maestro Dio and his assistant, they went back to their hotel room and discussed their meetings.

"What do you think?" Yui asked, "Were we correct to say yes?"

"Yes," Su said. "This is the correct path for us."

"This Fox Metal music? Where did the idea come from?" Moa said. "And for the Fox God?"

"This must be the opportunity promised by the Elders," Su said. "But this heavy metal music is not something I am familiar with."

"It will require research," Yui said, nodding. "What about Yanzy?"

"She said she would audition for the band," Yui said. "Her brother is bringing her guitar when he comes to audition. She also said she would help us become familiar with this heavy metal music. She laughed when I told her about it."

"It is something we haven't heard before," Su said. "But it should be possible to learn it. We have survived harder tasks."

"It sounds more exciting than idol pop," Yui said. "Though I would like to know where the name came from."

"Fox Metal for the Fox God," Su said. "The Maestro must have discussed it with the Elders."

"Do we pretend we don't know that?" Moa said.

"For now," Su told them. "We do not know how much he is aware of."

"Where do we want to go for dinner to celebrate?" Yui said, jumping up.

"We should wait for Yanzy," Moa said.

"Of course," Su said. "She is a part of this with us."

So, we'll find a place for her even if she does not pass her audition?" Yui asked.

"Of course," Su said.

"Good!" Moa said.

"Because we like her, and not just because you had a vision?" Yui said.

Su nodded.

"Excellent," Yui said.

"What is our current status?" Dio asked Kiki, after interviewing the three priestesses.

"We have the three idols, and have arranged for auditions for the backing band," Kiki said. "One of the other idols, their fourth, has signed up for the band auditions."

"Good," Dio said. "And the remaining idols?"

"Two have quit, leaving us with ten," Kiki said. "A more manageable number."

"Can we spit them into two different groups? So we would have the Fox Metal idols, and two groups of five? One country and one R&B?"

"Yes," Kiki said. "We'll start evaluating the ten to put them in the right group. We'll need impresarios to guide them. Do you have anyone in mind?"

Dio handed her a list of names. "Here," he said.

A month later, the backing band had been picked, including Yanzy, Yanzy's older brother, a cousin, and two others.

"How do you think we're doing?" Yui asked Su, while taking a break during one of their morning training sessions. Su had, unsurprisingly, been selected to be the lead singer with Moa and Yui backing her up and doing the more acrobatic stage movements.

"I don't know," Su said. "This is so different from what we did before. I have no way to judge it. We need an audience."

"It's the songs that will matter to the audience," Yanzy said, looking up from her guitar. "They need to have traditional wording for idol songs but the music must be hard rock or metal for this 'Fox Metal' to be unique and succeed."

"You must be enjoying this very much," Su said. "Real playing and you don't have to dance."

"Being part of your band? Yes," Yanzy said. "Watching as Maestro Dio and his assistant turn their idea into an actually idol group is fascinating. Usually, the concept for an idol group or band is already set in stone. Getting to see it as it is formed from a basic idea is very different."

"And being considered a legitimate form of music, instead of pop," Yui said, poking her. "Now you won't be embarrassed to go home."

"Your brother and cousin being in the band must be great," Moa said.

"Yes," Yanzy said, grinning. "We've been playing together for years. Being paid to do so is great."

Several weeks later, Maestro Dio and his assistant Kiki called the three girls into his office.

"Please sit, we have many things to discuss," Dio said, "now that we believe you are coming together as a group with your backing band and are integrating nicely."

Su and the others nodded, sitting down on the couch in his office, facing him and Kiki across a table.

"We will begin playing in reasonably large venues beginning next month," Dio told them. "You are sounding good and we want to start getting press attention. And to give you experience with the different audience dynamic this music brings."

"Yes, Maestro," Su said. "Do you have a full schedule of concerts lined up yet for us?"

"There is some flexibility in the schedule," Dio said. "We will spend this year building the audience for Fox Metal in this country. Next year, if all goes well, we shall begin to go wider."

"This is not how a normal idol group begins," Su said. "From my observations they rarely exist for more than a year or two."

"Audience fatigue," Dio said, nodding. "Yes, there is a limited life in any idol group. Strike while the moment is hot and hope to spin off individual singers or smaller groups. That is why there are so many new ones."

"Your previous group was not building an audience fast enough to survive long term," Kiki said. "It was providing reasonable returns and they weren't losing money, but the music wasn't anything special and there were no really standout performers to increase interest."

"I thought we were good," Yui said, frowning.

"It's a business," Kiki reminded them. "It's driven by more than what the individual idol knows."

"We understand," Su said. "The vision from the inside is not always the same as an outer view."

"Why did you decide to do this one differently?" Moa said. "If we may ask?"

"There are multiple reasons," Dio said. "We were rescued, as some would call it, when our last idol group flopped. Badly. Sometimes the type of music matters and I picked one that did not resonate well with the current culture. Our management company was purchased, and we were given another chance. We needed a group of trained idols who could learn new things without starting completely from the beginning. The management company that created your previous group sold it to us."

"They were convinced it would be more profitable to start fresh with another group than drag that one all over the country for little gain," Kiki said. "It did not take much convincing for them to sell."

"There was also the matter of your Elders," Dio said. "We owed the Fox God temple."

"You owed them," Kiki said, correcting him. "It was a personal debt."

"Yes, yes," Dio said, growling at his assistant. "It was personal. But that doesn't really matter. Your Elders asked for us to create a group with the three of you, and we could not refuse. And we have. Our new owners and your Elders have not met but their similar requests have provided this opportunity."

"We are honored that you thought so," Su said. "We had wondered where the ideas came from."

"The theme being about the Fox God and the type of music being 'Fox Metal' was a big clue," Yui said.

"We needed something unique," Dio said, nodding. "Using metal as the base music, all of those guitars and drums. Loud and fast music. That is the uniqueness. But for it to work we needed something dramatic and theatrical. We don't want to be too realistic with the Fox God, so it becomes a story of the creation of a new music to replace an old one."

"A story of rebirth," Moa said, nodding. "We are honored that you believe we can do this."

"Yes," Su said. "Our experience is relatively new with being idols."

"With your voice," Dio said to Su, "and Moa and Yui to back you up, though we'll need to give them their own time in the spotlight, it cannot fail. It is a compelling story."

"We will do what you need us to do, to ensure the success of the group," Su said. "We say this as your idols, band members, and as priestesses of the true Fox God."

Dio and Kiki sat up straighter at this pronouncement. There was something almost noble in Su that moment as she spoke. A glowing confidence in the rightness of their venture.

"We will need to produce an official recording and merchandises, before the first concert," Dio said, getting back to business. "It is one way we pay the bills. We will meet with the recording studio tomorrow. You have not had any experience in a sound studio, as I understand it."

"No Maestro," Su said. "In our previous group they recorded us on stage, both video and sound and created recordings from that."

"Yes," Dio said. "That is how it is normally done in the early stages. But for this, we want high quality recordings of all of your songs from the beginning. Later, we will work on dramatic music videos in keeping with the story we are telling."

Their first concert in front of a real audience was exhausting, and exhilarating. They had barely a week to recover before they had another concert in the same venue. Then they moved to another city. The recording of their music sold well, to those who attended their concert. They got better, and found their groove. They worked on new songs while on the road.

Time flew fast. A year of touring and they were ready for a break.

"It's been a year. You are all tired," Dio said, joining them, the backing band, and support staff, for a private dinner one evening in Kyoto. "There is an opportunity for a live television appearance next week in Tokyo. You will have a month after that to rest and then we will make decisions about future plans."

Su, Moa, and Yui nodded. A break from performing for a month to recharge would be very welcome. Time to see family, and check in with the Elders.

Master Xio met with the Elders in the early morning.

"Our wayward idol priestesses, Su, Moa, and Yui will be returning to us for several weeks starting next weekend," she said. "It is time to reassess their time away. Elder Yusif, you have been following them. What are your thoughts?"

"I tried to listen to their music with that first idol group and it was sugary sweet pop, that you don't remember afterward," Yusif said. "Something my grandchildren would listen to."

"We did not send them way to become famous idols," Xio said. "That was just a learning phase."

"The new group is very different. they are still singing songs with the same kinds of words, but the music is very different. It sounds like noise, to my old ears," Yusif said. "But it grabs your attention and has a lot of energy."

"How are they maintaining their training in the forms?" Xio asked.

"Unknown," Yusif said. "We have heard they are using the Fox clan dojos in the cities but there have been no reports other than that."

"We will meet with them and get answers to these questions," Xio said.

"Yes, Master Xio," Yusif said.

Hsu stared in amazement at her sister and the others, sitting in her home eating dinner. "You have a meeting with the temple Elders tomorrow," she said. "What will you say to them? They cannot have expected you to become famous."

"We aren't famous," Yui said. "We have a following but there are others much more famous than we are."

"You are the first metal idol group," Hsu said. "You are doing something very different. You are amazing on stage and you have an amazing band."

"It is certainly different," Su said. "But that is what it takes to get ahead. Too many pop idol groups are the same as the last one."

"Boring," Yui said. "We are not boring."

"What will they say about the Fox God your music is for? That isn't our Fox God," Hsu said.

"No, it isn't really the Fox God," Su said. "Just a dramatic story."

"Instead of those fake stories about boyfriends and competition between different idol groups, we have a more interesting story to explain our music, and our costumes," Yui said. "It's show business."

"Aren't you concerned it is sacrilege to do that?" Hsu said. "What does the Fox God think of this?"

"If he doesn't like what we are doing, he hasn't said anything," Su said. "I have had no visions of his displeasure."

"I think Brother Coyote finds it all amusing," Yui said.

"I do not think that is much better," Hsu said, sighing. "Brother Coyote is chaos."

"Brother Coyote is important," Moa said. "But the Fox God is not shy about expressing disapproval. If he did not want us doing this he would have told us in some way."

Su, Moa, and Yui met with Master Xio and Elder Yusif for lunch the next day.

"It has been two years since your trials," Master Xio said. "What is your next step?"

"We will be going on tour again at the end of the month," Su said. "We are building awareness of the Fox God, through our music."

"But it isn't the true Fox God," Master Xio said. "Does this music, this noise do honor to the clan and Fox God."

"It spreads awareness, and gives us a better understanding of the world," Su said. "The Fox God has not asked us for more than we are doing."

"Have you had any contact with the Serpent Clan or any of the other Thirteen," Xio asked.

"Yes," Su said. "We briefly met with their Lady Shadow last year. She taught us a new form."

"Have you had any further contact with them?" Master Xio asked.

"No," Su said.

"Are you keeping up your forms training?" Yusif said. "And the other training?"

"Yes," Moa said. "As well as we are able to."

"Good," Yusif said. "Will you be able to spend time here for a refresher in the pods?"

"Yes," Su said. "We have taken a month long break to visit here and to visit with family."

"Excellent," Yusif said. "Spend the rest of the day in contemplation and we will meet in the training room first thing in the morning."

"We have arrange for several days in the training pods to refresh your forms training," Yusif said, meeting them in the training room the next morning.

"Will we make use of this training soon?" Su asked. "It has been two years since initial training in all of these forms and the priestess trials."

"We have been informed that you will begin touring to other places. You may encounter occasions where this training is useful," Yusif said. "You will be roving agents of the Fox God, and he shall have you undertake important tasks."

"Is this directly from the Fox God, this tasking?" Moa said.

"Yes," Yusif said. "We cannot explain more. The Fox God will guide you."

The three priestesses nodded, and quickly changed into the training suits for the pods. It had been a while but they still felt familiar.

"See you on the other side," Yui said to the others, before climbing into her pod.

Yusif watched as all three got into their training pods and the pods took over. She would remain on guard until they returned. The shadow stranger had reluctantly agreed to this additional training.

They came to awareness standing in the small square in the pod Temple grounds, a familiar figure waiting for them.

"Ka'nsah!" Yui said happily. "It has been a long time."

"You are here for a refresher and some additional training," Ka'nsah said. "Let us begin with reviewing the forms."

"You don't seem happy to see us," Yui said, as their training avatars appeared.

"You ascribe emotions to me that I do not have," Ka'nsah said.

"I'm tired," Yui said. "Has it only been one day?"

"Less than one day on the outside," Su said. "But you burn more energy during a concert than a day of training."

"No," Moa said. "The forms require much more energy than all of the running and jumping on stage. It's just different."

"And you do a lot less," Yui said. "While we're running around, you are mostly standing in one place singing."

"It is not about energy expenditure," Ka'nsah said, interrupting them. "You need to work harder on your chi forms when you are not here."

"Will you teach us how to teach the upper level forms to others?" Su asked. "One of our bandmates has reached as far as she can with our training knowledge. We want to take her further."

"You have it within you to teach everything you know," Ka'nsah said. "But not everyone can handle the forms to their utmost."

"We believe she can," Su said, nodding. "We will reevaluate our training methods.

They climbed out of the pods the first day after a month of virtual training, excited. Cleaning up, they joined Elder Yusif for a late dinner.

"You appear happy," Yusif said.

"We didn't forget the forms," Su said, picking up her bowl. "We do need to spend more time on the more esoteric forms, and the forms of the Thirteen, but in general we still know them."

"Tomorrow will be something new," Yui said. "Things to help us with our tasks for the Fox God, according to Ka'nsah."

"That is excellent news," Yusif said.

"We are preparing for something," Moa said. "But no one will clearly say what. Just 'the Fox God wills it'."

"What do you recall of the reasons for our clan to come to this planet?" Yusif said.

"Nothing," Moa said.

"That the Elders would explain, someday," Yui said, correcting her. "It is clear we are hiding from something."

"Too many things," Su said. "My visions do not tell me this. The Fox God does not want me to know."

"It's really a simple thing," Yusif said. "In times past, we were given a responsibility by the Council of the Thirteen. And we failed to keep the promise we made. The Elders at the time felt it better to leave than to face the wrath of the Thirteen, much to our shame."

"So, the Thirteen are looking for us," Su said.

"No, they are not," a voice said. "The Fox Clan was given an impossible task by the Council. Failure was expected. If the Fox Clan Elders had returned to the Council, nothing would have happened. They would have been rewarded for their perseverance and loyalty to the Thirteen. But they ran instead. And now owe the Thirteen a debt."

"Who is that?" Su asked, raising her voice.

"You know me by several names," the voice said. Walking into the lit area, the stranger appeared before them.

"You claim the Thirteen aren't looking for us, but have not given proof," Yusif said.

"Lady Shadow?" Su said, quickly standing, followed by Yui and Moa. "Why are not the Thirteen looking for us like Elder Yusif claims?"

"You have met?" Yusif said, surprised.

"Lady Shadow is of the Council of the Serpent Clan," Moa said. "We have met."

"It was through her that we were able to repair the training pods for your training," Yusif said. "Is this some plot by the Thirteen?"

"Yes, I am on the Clan Council, but no, this isn't a plot by the Thirteen. This sector is the sole responsibility of the Serpent Clan. The rest of the Thirteen have no say in what we do."

"Why are you helping us?" Yusif said. "What purpose does this training serve for your clan."

"You are repaying your debts," Lady Shadow said. "Some day, in the future, we will have need of your clan, and your priestesses. Until then, proceed as you have been. Follow the wishes of your Fox God."

"And tomorrow's training?" Su asked.

"You will find it useful for the tasks given you by the Fox God," Lady Shadow said.

"How can you know the wishes of the Fox God?" Yusif asked her. "He does not speak to others outside of our clan."

"That is not quite true," Lady Shadow said. "It is possible to communicate with him, though it can be difficult."

"So, will we see you again?" Su asked.

"You may," Lady Shadow said. "Or others of my Clan." After saying this, she silently disappeared into the darkness.

"So, we are part of some plan by the Serpent Clan," Su said, sitting down with a sigh. Yui and Moa quickly followed, returning to their meal.

"I was not aware of this," Yusif said. "I will have to inform the Elders."

"We shall continue with the training tomorrow," Su said. "For whatever reason the Serpent Clan is doing this, we are still following the wishes of the Fox God. If he does not want us to work with them he will tell us."

Yusif bowed down to her in agreement. "You are full fledged priestesses of the Fox God," she said. "You must listen in your hearts to what the Fox God wants from you. We can only provide guidance."

"From my visions, it appears as if the Serpent Clan's need for us is far in the future," Su said. "All signs are vague."

"So continue as you have," Yusif said. "We will be here when you need us."

"Yes, Elder Yusif," Su said.

"What do you have for us today?" Su said, when they returned to the training pods the next day.

"The Lady Shadow has asked that you be given training in her own tradecraft," Ka'nsah said.

"She knows unique forms," Moa said. "But that is not what you mean, is it?"

"You are correct," Ka'nsah said. "The Lady Shadow is the Serpent Clan Spymaster. She has an unique ability to discern and discover all knowledge. It is considered impossible to keep secrets from her."

"So we get to learn how to be super spies?" Yui said, excited.

"It is a lifetime endeavor," Ka'nsah said. "It would be impossible to become this 'super spy' in the time we have been given. But what we will do is teach you techniques for gathering and understanding information. For investigating and preparing. A skill with a multitude of uses."

"Okay," Yui said. "Show us."

"How did this session go?" Yusif asked when they'd returned from the training pods.

"I'm not sure," Su said. "This was really Yui's thing."

"We learned how to be agents," Yui said.

"Agents?" Yusif said, puzzled.

"Detectives?" Moa said. "Investigators? Using Serpent Clan techniques."

"Is this going to be useful?" Yusif said. "In your work for the Fox God?"

"We believe so," Su said. "We have two more sessions. There is still more to learn."

"We are setting dates for an international tour," Maesto Dio said, when they met again after the break. "Dates in North America, and Britain."

"How many?" Moa asked.

"Four in each country over two months, and ending with two concerts in Mexico. After we will evaluate the response and determine where else to expand to."

"That doesn't seem to be a lot for a world tour," Yui said.

"We are starting slow," Kiki said. "There are small audiences for idol music in a number of other countries but your sound is different enough that we believe we can attract a different kind of audience."

"You mean, an audience familiar with metal who might be interested in Fox Metal?" Su said.

"Yes," Kiki said. "If you were an ordinary idol group we would already know where to book dates for a world tour. But 'Fox Metal' is different. Idol pop themes set to heavy metal music will find a different audience."

"Concerts in Mexico?" Yui said. "Would one of those be in Cancun?"

"Yes," Dio said. "We received a special request for a concert."

"So, we'll finally meet real aliens?" Yui said. "The fabled Council of the Serpent Clan?"

"Real, official aliens," Moa said, grinning.

"We've already met several of them," Su said.

"This is different," Yui said, poking her.

"It is possible," Dio said. "But there is no guarantee that they will be there."

"Will we be able to do some new songs?" Yui said. "Just for this occasion?"

"We are working on new material," Dio said. "For this tour. And the theme should be more intense."

"Will we get to write our own music?" Moa asked.

"Do you know how to write music?" Dio asked pensively. "Idol music?"

"Not yet," Moa said. "Wouldn't it be more authentic for us to sing our own music?"

"The writing team is very practiced at turning out appropriate music," Dio said. "They are very familiar with idol music and heavy metal."

"That's a no, isn't it," Yui said, sighing. "What would convince you?"

"You will need to learn a lot more about music," Dio said. "Right now you are just idols. Yes, it is a more energetic form of idol music, very metal oriented, but you need to become more."

"Can we work on it?" Moa said. "Learn to play instruments, write music?"

"We will have to think about it," Dio said.

"It was bound to happen, Boss," Kiki said. "They want to do more. And they are feeling creative."

"Nothing kills an idol group faster than the talent wanting to show how talented they are," Dio said, grimacing. "Fortunately, they are mature for their ages, and will understand why not."

"Will they?" Kiki asked.

"Fox God priestesses? Yes," Dio said. "They have a high sense of honor and of responsibility. My ex-wife was one, as you may remember."

"They are also used to getting their way," Kiki said. "We have not kept tight control of them like we would normal idols."

"So, what do you think we should do?" he asked. "This does not work without them. They can sell the Fox God story better than anyone else. And our owners insist on them."

"Train them," Kiki said. "Turn them into full musicians, not just idols. Either they will learn, or they will discover how hard it is."

"And what of the songwriters?" Dio asked. "They will not want to lose their jobs. And the band?"

"Simple," Kiki said. "This isn't that kind of group. Teamwork requires an actual team and they sing and the band plays and the writers write. If those three want to learn how to write songs they must do it with the songwriters. They need to know that they are not replacing anyone. They are learning so they can be better prepared. If they know how the songwriters work, they can sing the songs better, or be able to understand why a song works."

"And the musicians?" Dio asked.

"They are already friends with the band. If they learn to play instruments, they will understand the effort it takes better."

"You are just spewing words," Dio said.

"Does it sound good?" Kiki asked.

"Anyone else would be fooled," Dio said. "Those three girls? No. We just tell them the truth. We need them to sing their hearts out on stage. They can learn to write songs, and play instruments. We'll even arrange tutoring. But as long as they are a part of this group, they are who they are. No arguments."

"Tutoring? Or offer to send them to a good music school when the band is finished," Kiki said. "If they want to continue to be musicians after."

"That could be a long time from now," Dio said. "But that's a good idea. Between performing, and practicing and learning new routines, they will be too exhausted to rebel, if they ever get that tendency."

Later that evening over dinner they discussed the meeting.

"They aren't going to let us write our own songs," Su said. "Why bother bringing up the idea?"

"Because we are not just idols," Yui said. "They need to be reminded of that. They may not allow us to write our own songs but they may make some concession and give us some creative freedom."

"What did you do now?" Yanzy said.

"Told Maestro Dio that we wanted to write our own music and play our own instruments," Moa said.

"Why would you want to do that?" Yanzy said. "The songwriters have years of experience turning insipid flowery ideas into catchy idol songs, and the band is good at turning those into your Fox Metal."

"We don't actually," Su said. "At least I don't. But we want to keep Dio and Kiki on their toes."

"I don't either," Moa said. "But watching the band turn those sugary sweet words into Fox Metal is amazing. The way you work together with the songwriters? That I would like to learn how to do. To have some input into the band's music looks like nirvana."

"Or, to put it another way," Yui said. "We want to be artists like the band and songwriters also."

"But you are artists," Yanzy said. "You don't have to create something to be an artist. You have to be able to interpret, to inspire, to be an artist. The Fox Metal works because of what the three of you bring to it. We could be writing nonsense and you could sell it. But if you convince Dio that you think you are too good to work with us? That won't go well."

"So, don't play games with Dio?" Su said.

"Don't play games with Dio," Yanzy said, nodding.

"Are you excited for the world tour?" Su asked Yanzy, changing the subject. "We will be playing in a few different countries."

"Yes," Yanzy said. "My cousin went on tour with another band a few years ago, but the rest of the band hasn't been out of the country."

"One of our stops will be in Cancun," Yui said.

"A concert for the Mayan aliens?" Yanzy said. "How did Dio manage that?"

"It was a request, apparently," Su said. "It isn't clear if it is just for them or that they have just requested it as part of a cultural outreach."

"We should do a new song for them," Yanzy said. "A welcome from your Fox God."

"That’s really why we wanted to write our own music for this tour," Su said. "We wanted to do something special."

"But that didn’t get us anywhere," Yui said. "Dio said no."

"I can bring this up with the writers and the band," Yanzy said. "If we can come up with several good songs that everyone of us likes it should be easier to get Dio to agree to include it in the set list."

"Can we help with the songs?" Yui asked.

"I can’t promise anything," Yanzy said.

"We understand," Su said.

Chapter Text

"So, there's going to be a concert in the enclave in three months," Rachel said, sitting down in Brittany's office. "This j-pop metal band. They call their style Fox Metal."

"Yes," Brittany said, looking up from her desk. "It's the three idols we met several years ago."

"The Fox Clan priestesses?" Rachel asked. "Are we going?"

"It would be too disruptive if we went in person," Brittany said. "This is something for our people to experience."

"Part of your plan?" Rachel asked.

"Yes. We will meet with them after the concert," Brittany said. "It is getting close to time they are put to use."

"What exactly do you want them to do?" Rachel said, frowning.

"First, We need to draw out the remaining Black Hats and finally take care of them," Brittany said. "The group will be traveling to certain cities where there have been signs of the Black Hats. The idols will investigate each of these locations."

"Are they trained enough?" Rachel asked. "They were just teens the last time we saw them."

"They will be," Brittany said. "This isn't something we can send our people out to do. The Black Hats will know who they are and go further underground."

"Are you sure now is the time for this?" Rachel said.

"Yes," Brittany said. "We need the Black Hats dealt with before the Bugs get here. We don't need someone stabbing us in the back while we're busy off-planet. And they will be in a unique position to look into this without being suspected."

"If you say so," Rachel said. "I still don't like this idea."

"If it doesn't work, you can say 'I told you so'," Brittany said. "But I think it will be good training for them."

"Training? So, you plan to keep them working for you?" Rachel said.

"If possible," Brittany said. "The Fox Clan needs a purpose, besides worshipping their Fox God, and turning them into roving troubleshooters like this might be good for them."

"What will their Fox God think about this?" Rachel said. "He isn't part of our pantheon, and probably doesn't care what we are up to."

"Well, he isn't a god in the traditional divinity sense," Brittany said. "He's really just a non-corporeal being who has adopted the Fox Clan. He and his brother Coyote."

"Should we be concerned about such an entity interfering with our planet?" Rachel said.

"Not at all," Brittany said. "I've had several discussions with him, about this idea."

"Brittany! That could be dangerous," Rachel said, wide eyed.

"I might have had a little help from my ancestral totem and Lady P," Brittany said. "She's more powerful than the two of them, and helped with the negotiations."

"If we have all of these powerful beings running around, why aren't they helping us with the Bugs?" Rachel asked.

"I'd like an answer to that also," Quinn said, joining them on the comm channel.

"Because they are limited in what they can do," Brittany said. "We've discussed this before. They aren't gods in the Earthly sense. They aren't allowed to directly interfere with the physical world. They can provide direction and advice but not actions."

"Do we pay them?" Quinn asked.

"No," Brittany said. "They think of us as annoying children."

"So, they just watch us play?" Rachel said, frowning.

"More or less," Brittany said. "The Fox God does assist the Fox Clan if he feels they need it. And he agreed that they've been wallowing for far too long."

"They should have come forward when things went tits up," Quinn said, grumbling over the comm. "Instead of running away."

"The Council of Clans shouldn't have put them in that position in the first place," Brittany said. "It was guaranteed failure."

"Our clan wasn't around at the time," Quinn said. "Why are we cleaning up this mess?"

"Because we have no preconceived notions about the whole affair," Brittany said.

"So, the neutral party gets the shaft?" Quinn said. "I'll leave you to it then. Let me know if you need something."

"Of course, Quinn," Brittany said.

"She's not happy with this whole thing," Rachel said, once Quinn had left the channel.

"You know how she gets when it comes to honor," Brittany said. "She won't hold it against the priestesses, but if she ever runs across any of the cowardly Fox Clan Elders who were too afraid to deal with their problems, it won't turn out well."

"Well, I agree," Rachel said. "Their elders are not getting a Christmas card from me any time soon."

"Understood," Brittany said. "Though they've been dead for centuries."

"Not getting any songs written in their honor then," Rachel said firmly.

"Duly noted," Brittany said, laughing, as she watched Rachel flounce out.

"This is Cancun?" Yui said, looking out at the scenery on the ride to their hotel. "Looks very tropical."

"It is," Su said. "Very near the equator."

"Nice to come to some place warm," Moa said. "London was freezing. I thought I would turn into an icicle on stage."

"You were running around too much for that to happen," Yanzy said. "I don't understand where you three get the energy."

"From the same place you do," Moa said. "Lots of training and exercise."

"And tons of carbs," Yui said. "Fortunately, Dio got us a good nutritionist when he saw how much energy that kind of music takes compared to being a pop idol."

"Not sure where you put it," Yanzy said. "If I didn't exercise like crazy I would turn into a balloon on that food."

"It's a talent," Yui said. "And some of the advanced forms we practice help burn it."

"What's our itinerary," Su asked Kiki, who'd flown in with them on the chartered group plane.

"The three of you have dinner with some locals," Kiki said. "Then a good nights sleep. The concert is on Friday, you can rest on Saturday, and we fly out on Sunday."

"Why doesn't the band have to come?" Yui asked.

"Because we're the band," Yanzy said, smirking. "We'll be doing traditional pre-concert band things."

"You mean, getting drunk and thrown into jail," Su said, frowning at her. The rest of the band, which had been mostly ignoring them while discussing what Yanzy always referred to as 'band secrets', burst into laughter.

"Do we have time for any sight seeing?" Yui asked, after the laughter had stopped. "It might be years before we come back, if ever. I'd like to see some alien things."

"After everything is ready for the concert," Kiki said. "You know the rules."

"Rule One - Never miss a concert sound check," Su said, sticking up a hand.

"Rule Two - Always be prepared to sing any of our songs," Moa said, holding up both hands.

"Rule Three - Do whatever Dio and Kiki say," Yui said, giggling.

"Rule Four - Never forget Rule Three," Kiki said, nodding in agreement.

"So, once the crew is happy with the setup and we've done a sound check, we can go on a tour?" Yui said.

"We've arranged for tour guides for Saturday," Kiki said.

"So, adult supervision?" Su said. "Aren't we old enough to do this ourselves?"

"If something happened to you, because we didn't arrange for guides, the tour would have to be cancelled and your Elders would kill us, after our owners killed us," Kiki said.

"So, Rule Zero, Don't die because Dio and Kiki would get into trouble?" Yui said.

"Exactly," Kiki said, smirking.

"Ready to go?" Kiki said, knocking on their hotel room door. "Our hosts have sent transportation."

The door opened, and the three idols trooped out.

"I'd rather go do something with the band," Yui said, sulking. "They know how to have fun."

"You can do things with them next time," Kiki said. "But we are here upon request and you can't just run off."

"We never get into trouble," Yui said.

"There's always the first time," Kiki said. "And although you don't need a squeaky clean pop idol resume, you still have to behave in public."

"In other words, we have to pretend to be boring," Yui said. "And, we don't even get to meet any of the classic metal bands while we're here. They're so nice."

"We usually get to meet them when we play festivals," Su reminded her. "And it's a good thing they fall for your 'cute idol' act. If they knew what you were really like, they'd run away in fear."

"I am a 'cute idol'," Yui said, batting her eyelids. "I'm the epitome of cuteness."

"I think I'm going to be sick," Moa said, holding her stomach.

"You do the same thing," Yui said. "Just because Su-stick-in-the-mud has to take the music seriously doesn't mean we can't enjoy it."

"I enjoy our music," Su said, as they followed Kiki into the elevator. "Once you get used to how loud metal is it can be very poetic. And Brother Coyote approves of it also."

"Brother Coyote has heard you play?" Kiki said, looking around nervously.

"Does Maestro Dio know that you are a former Fox God novice?" Su asked, raising an eyebrow at Kiki.

"No," Kiki said. "It isn't relevant."

"Yes it is," Yui said. "That's one of the reasons we trust you. You understand. Though Master Xio claims it is just a coincidence that you went to work for Maestro Dio. And none of your records are available, just your name on the novice rolls."

"None of the 'failed' novices are in the records," Kiki said. "It isn't an honor to fail the trials or drop out."

"I think you should join us, and Yanzy, for our morning runs and training sessions," Su said. "It will be good for you."

"I haven't done any training in decades," Kiki said. "It isn't necessary."

"We'll see," Su said, winking at the others. "I think it would promote team unity."

"Who are we having dinner with?" Su asked, as they got into a black SUV. "You didn't say."

"It was arranged by Maestro Dio," Kiki said. "I am just your chaperone."

"We're going somewhere where we need a chaperone?" Yui said excitedly.

"The Elders felt you needed a chaperone," Kiki said, in a low voice, nodding at their driver.

"You may seek freely," their driver said, in perfect Japanese, "this is a secure vehicle."

"It is?" Kiki said. "If you would introduce yourself?"

"I am Lady Black," their driver said. "I am the chief liaison between the Council of the Serpent Clan and foreign governments."

"Ah," Su said, straightening up into her best formal priestess pose. "We are considered a foreign government?"

"Tonight you are," Lady Black said. "Tomorrow you will once more be just musicians performing in the city."

"Who will we be meeting?" Yui asked, her voice taking on similar tones to Su's, to Kiki's obvious surprise.

"Several members of the Council wished to meet with you," Lady Black said. "They feel that their direct presence at your concert would be too disruptive."

"We've had famous people at our concerts before," Moa said. "It isn't usually a problem."

"A large number of your audience will be Clan," Lady Black said. "The presence of any of the Council would be disruptive for a number of reasons."

"So, we are meeting with this Council, as representatives of our Clan?" Su said.

"Yes," Lady Black said.

"We aren't really dressed for such a momentous occasion," Su said.

"This is not a formal audience," Lady Black said. "It is a more informal occasion. A chance to meet and talk over dinner."

"That's good," Yui said, "because I didn't bring my formal robes on this trip."

"Neither did I," Moa said.

"I did," Su said, softly.

"Of course you did," Yui said. "You're the one with visions. You probably knew about this meeting months ago, and didn't warn us."

"There didn't seem to be any need," Su said. "We will meet, discuss several important issues, have a nice dinner, and head back to our hotel."

"You have visions?" Lady Black said, raising an eyebrow.

"Yes," Su said. "I have been blessed by the Fox God."

"They aren't always helpful," Yui said. "She gets lots of static and can't see very far into the future."

"She did not need to know that," Su hissed.

"Few Fox God priestesses have had that ability," Kiki said, nodding as if something suddenly made sense. "I'm surprised that the Elders did not lock you up in the temple."

"Brother Coyote may have threatened them," Su said smugly.

"He did?" Yui said. "You haven't told us that story. Why not?"

"Some other time," Su said. "It isn't important right now."

"So, you have direct contact with your gods?" Lady Black asked.

"Brother Coyote likes to make a nuisance of himself," Moa said. "Though he has promised to stay away from our concerts this time."

"I only speak with the Fox God in visions," Su said. "He is not very verbose."

"This is the home of Lady Francine," Lady Black said, as they pulled up to a gate. "She is the sister of the Lady of the Hands, the Council War Leader. The Council families have rotating dinner parties when they are all on planet, and it is her turn."

"So, it truly is an informal occasion," Moa said in a low whisper. "Please do not embarrass us," she said to Yui.

"Chief Xeno will return later to take you back to your hotel," Lady Black said. "I believe you will enjoy the evening. The Council are very charming people."

The idols and Kiki got out of the SUV, and nervously watched it drive away.

"Come in," a familiar face said, from the door.

"Lady Shadow, it is a pleasure to see you again," Su said, climbing the steps to the porch, followed by the others.

"You can call me Brittany tonight," Lady Shadow said. "This is an informal gathering. The others are inside. They thought you would be more comfortable if I met you here." She ushered them into the house.

"This is a lovely home," Kiki said, looking around.

"Thank you," another blonde woman said, rising to greet them. "It's based on an ancient traditional Clan dwelling, though with less tech. I am Fran, welcome to my home."

Everyone rose to their feet.

"I was expecting you to be older," Lady Q said. "You don't seem to match what I've heard about you."

"How are we different," Su asked, sipping the fruit drink she'd been given.

"You three are priestesses of your Fox God, which I assume requires long training. And you are experienced martial artists. But if I'd seen you on the street and didn't know of your history, my first thought would have been 'school girl'," she said. "Which I know isn't fair, and knowing what we were capable of at your age, I shouldn't underestimate you."

"You are in charge of soldiers, correct?" Su said, after thinking for a minute.

"Yes," Lady Q said.

"How old are they?" Su asked.

"In general, they are in their early twenties," Lady Q said. "Some a little less, some a little more. But they'd been training for years before joining. I can see what they are capable of just by looking at them. You? Your abilities are very well hidden."

"Q, your troopers give off a certain 'vibe'," Brittany said. "They couldn't be anything else other than soldiers. If I wanted to take one of your troopers and turn them into one of my spies, I could do it. But it would require a lot more effort than if I started with someone without training of any kind. Their identity is so wrapped up in being your troopers that anything different requires major attitude changes."

"Part of our training is in how to appear harmless and nonthreatening," Su said. "A priestess is not a warrior, no matter what training we have had."

"They do pull off 'innocent idol' very well," Kiki said. "Someone who wasn't aware of their training would dismiss them without a thought. If I hadn't had some of the same training, I wouldn't have spotted them."

"Once you know what to look for, it is possible to pick your priestesses out of a crowd," Brittany said, shrugging. "So, we'll need to work on that aspect. But you are mostly just what we need."

"You haven't really given us any idea of what you want from us," Yui said. "We have commitments, and cannot run off at the drop of a hat, as the saying goes."

"We have connections to your management company," Brittany said. "So that isn't a problem."

"As long as you don't need them in the middle of a concert or while preparing for a concert, they are available," Kiki said. "Though, they still are teens, so they shouldn't be put in situations that are harmful."

"No, we want nothing of that sort from them," Brittany said. "Being harmless appearing idols, they have a way into places we can only go heavily armed. Yes, they need to be able to defend themselves but the things they can do would require silently slipping into places. Not attacking."

"What exactly do you have planned for us?" Su said.

"We have enemies," Brittany said. "It may not seem so from the outside, but there are forces that do not want us to succeed."

"Succeed at what?" Moa said. "It isn't very clear to us that you are doing anything except here in Cancun."

"That is intentional," Lady Air said. "We aren't ready to reveal our plans to the world yet."

"Can you give us some idea?" Su asked. "You are asking for a commitment from us but we are missing part of the puzzle."

"It's simple," Brittany said. "There's a conflict coming to this sector that may involve this planet and we are preparing its people for that possibility. Part of which will prepare them to join the Galactic Confederation."

"A conflict? With who?" Su asked, frowning.

"They don't have a pronounceable name," Brittany said. "They're called by some Species 999 or the Krall, though we've been calling them the Bugs, for lack of a better term. They appear from nowhere, rampage through the galaxy like a swarm of locust and disappear again, not to be seen for several millennia. The Thirteen Clans, so far, have been the only forces able to stop them. And even then, we haven't been able to defeat them completely in all of our encounters."

"Why would you need our Clan's help?" Su asked. "We don't have armies or weapons. All we have are priestesses, our temples, and the Fox God."

"As I mentioned, we have enemies. They do not want us to succeed in preparing this planet for joining the Confederation. Even if it means their destruction. We need your help in rooting them out before they cause real damage."

"Do these enemies have a name?" Yui asked.

"They're the Men in Black, or Black Hats," Lady Q said. "They operate in the shadows along with remnants of the Red Pirate bands."

"Real pirates?" Yui asked excitedly. "We'll get to fight pirate?"

"Space pirates," Lady Air said. "But we don't really want you fighting them. While on tour, you would be booked into locations they've been sighted in, and you would investigate. If you find something, you would call us in."

"So, not fighting pirates," Yui said, sighing in disappointment.

"You could get hurt," Kiki said. "You still have a responsibility to the company."

"Will we get any special equipment?" Yui asked. "Invisibility cloaks? Weapons?"

"Our equipment designer is looking forward to working with your costumers," Brittany said. "She can improve your costumes so that they protect you from any known weapons."

"So we go into battle, so to speak, dressed in our stage costumes?" Su said, frowning. "Won't that be dangerous? Someone will recognize us."

"Two different things," Brittany said. "More protective costumes, and disguises. Of sorts."

"I'm not sure I understand the distinction," Kiki said. "But it won't hurt to see what they can come up with."

"You want us to be superheroes?" Yui said. "But won't it be obvious that this is us?"

"Superheroes?" Su said. "How did you get that idea?"

"Disguise?" Yui said. "I'm assuming the costume changes are for our safety. If someone attacks while we are on stage we'll be protected. But what about our band and crew?"

"Band?" Rachel said, frowning.

"We sing and dance," Su said. "But it is a form of metal. We have a backup band that creates the music that turns us from boring pop idols into something else."

"We go all the way to eleven," Yui said, giggling. "But the band is an important part of that. Without them we'd be boring."

"They take teen pop songs from our songwriters and turn them into 'Fox Metal' songs," Moa said, using air quotes.

"The band will get bullet proof stage costumes also," Brittany said. "But they won't need disguises. Their costumes are already disguises. Who knows who they are when they aren't on stage?"

"Some of our more devoted fans," Su said. "There are websites devoted to the mystery that is our band."

"How do you know that?" Yui said. "You never use a computer."

"Yanzy showed me," Su said. "She was trying to shock me, I think."

"Sounds like her," Yui said. "I still think she should have been our fourth."

"Yanzy?" Rachel said.

"She was our roommate when we started out as pop idols," Moa said. "She's now in the band. She likes that much better. She doesn't have to dress up like an idol."

"And she gets to shred it on stage," Yui said. "She's much happier using a guitar and not her voice, except for the occasional scream."

"Oh," Rachel said. "She's the unusually tall idol we met with you."

"Yes," Su said. "Most idols are shorter."

"Su is actually considered tall for an idol," Kiki said. "Most idols are picked with certain looks."

"Short and dainty," Yui said.

"At least you have the short part of it correct," Su said. She dodged Yui's poke.

"And you sort of have the 'dainty' aspect going for you," Yui shot back.

"Being an idol is like being a Disney character actor," Brittany said to a puzzled Quinn and Santana. "It's all manufactured even if the idols must have actual talent."

"The 'Idol Industrial Complex', is what Yanzy calls it," Yui said. "You have to have some talent but you also have to be part of a successful idol mill to make it."

"The idol mills go through thousands of girls a year in search of the best combinations," Kiki said, nodding. "Fortunately, we have a source of funding that will allow us to properly develop this group over time."

"I don't want to know," Lady Air said, "do I Brit?"

"No," Brittany said, smiling. "It's all under control."

"Try on your new costumes," Kiki said, coming into their dressing room pushing a clothing rack. "And the disguises."

It took them several minutes to rearrange things in their dressing room.

"I'm not sure I want to be a superhero," Yui said, looking at her disguise in the mirror. "I look like some Victorian fetishist's wet dream, to put it politely."

"Well, no one will think it's you," Yanzy said. "So you can run around and do things without being recognized."

"What is our superhero team name?" Yui said. "If someone sees us we need to be able to tell them who we are."

"We aren't superheroes," Su said. "We are idols and secret agents."

"But we still need a name," Yui said.

"No one will see us in our disguises," Moa said, "so a memorable name isn't necessary."

"You look cute like that," Yanzy said. "But you'll need to work on your forms in that costume."

"The Three," Yui said. "Something simple. We'll be 'The Three'".

"The Three what?" Moa said.

"Just the Three," Yui said, tugging at her short skirt. "Like something out of Sailor Moon. They had some strange names for villains."

"We aren't villains," Su said.

"We look like we could be," Yui said, turning trying to see her back. "With this black lace, short black skirts, and leather corsets, and black gloves. We just give off an evil sexy kawaii vibe."

"Who picked these costume disguises?" Yanzy asked, running her hand along Yui's shoulder.

"It was a collaboration between our costume designer and their armorer," Kiki said. "Apparently, the disguises have a few features that they feel you three will need, not just being bulletproof."

"As long as someone shows us how to use them," Su said. "It's nice they want to help us out, but being unable to use the gadgets they gave us, because there wasn't time for someone to teach us would not be good."

"Yes," Kiki said. "Someone will come by to teach you how to use the equipment."

"So you will get to meet some of these aliens also," Yui said. "It'll add just that bit of authenticity to your playing that you always complain about."

"I'm not complaining," Yanzy quickly said to Kiki. "She's just kidding."

Kiki shook her head at them. "Fortunately, we already picked the three of you," she said. "We don't have time to recast."

"You're the best," Yui said, hugging her.

"This is Joy," Kiki said, introducing the young woman following her into the dressing room. "She will be teaching you about your disguises."

"See," Su said, subtly waving at her. "They aren't all blonde."

"And they all still look like supermodels," Yui said, sighing. "Tall and sexy."

"Ladies," Joy said, bowing slightly. "I'm here to make sure you are outfitted correctly with your new clothes."

"Will we get armor also?" Yui said hopefully.

"No," Joy said. "It would take too long for you to learn how to wear it when you need to. It can take a year to become comfortable in a suit of that type. And many more to become proficient in its use. This will just take several days, and it isn't more than basic protection."

"What's your job, besides showing idols how to dress?" Su asked.

"I am an assistant to Lady Shadow," Joy said. "I work on an infiltration team."

"Infiltration?" Su asked.

"Sneak in and spy on someone," Joy said. "Having the correct equipment and knowing how to use it is very important. Let's go over the suits."

"We have three disguises," Su said, pulling over the clothing rack. "And our regular stage costumes of course."

"Good," Joy said, pulling out the disguises. "The first step is to make sure everything is in working order. No torn or damaged materials. Your life could depend on it."

"This material is different," Su said. "It feels like leather but what is it?"

"It's a synthetic material," Joy said. "Much of the functionality of the suits is built into that material. It's energy resistant, hopefully long enough to get away, and projectile and blade proof. It's also usable for hostile environments. There's an emergency oxygen supply in the collar."

"So, outer space?" Yui said.

"For a very brief exposure? Yes," Joy said. "But they aren't meant to be used long term like that. They will improve your chances of survival, if you don't do anything foolish."

"Foolish like getting chased by a three ton dragon?" Yui asked.

"I haven't seen any Earth dragons," Joy said. "But if it's anything like the fire drakes of Lecticon Six, then yes."

"It wasn't on Earth," Moa said.

"We didn't have a choice at the time," Su said. "And Yui can run very fast when she wants to."

"I think I still have grass burns from that one," Yui said, rubbing her back. "I almost became a light snack for that monster."

"It was certainly frightening up close," Moa said. "If we ever go back, we'll need better weapons. A knife just isn't enough."

"A knife against a dragon? That takes either craziness or extreme courage," Joy said.

"A bit of both, I think," Moa said. "I couldn't do it."

"Which is why you weren't the one doing it," Yui said, smirking. "I'm special."

"Fast and small," Su said.

"We need to adjust the suits," Joy said, "so you need to put them on."

"Here?" Su said. "Can we do this back at our hotel?"

"If you wish," Joy said, "but the sooner the better."

"Are you expecting something to happen?" Yui asked, going over to the makeup table. Grabbing her bag, she started packing her personal make-up.

"No," Joy said. "Not here in Cancun. But it is better to be prepared."

"Always good advice," Kiki said. "Something they drill into them at the temple."

"Drilled into you also," Moa said, also packing her make-up. "Though maybe that didn't stick?"

"Some things you never forget," Kiki said. "Novice training was good training for becoming an assistant."

"Even the Fox God?" Su asked.

"Yes," Kiki said. "Dealing with the Fox God is just like dealing with someone like Maestro Dio. Except the Fox God is nicer."

"You have the same training?" Joy asked, looking at Kiki.

"Similar training," Kiki said. "At least the first few years. My understanding is that they have received much more intense training beyond what I received. And the idol training, of course."

"We received the extra special training, in Clan training pods," Yui said.

"Ah," Joy said. "We use them extensively in the Serpent Clan. That's how I learned your language."

"You speak it very well," Su said. "Most of our experience in the pods was to advance our learning beyond the normal range. Most novices train for four years. We had three. And time in the pods."

"It didn't make us look older," Yui said. "I was hoping to get taller."

"You have to have full Clan genetics to get the full features of the pods. How it affects others varies," Joy said. "I'm not sure how it affects your clan."

"We got the learning, and retained it and muscle memory," Moa said. "But the physical effects? Not as much."

"We had to train hard to keep the muscles the pods gave us," Yui said, grimacing.

"So, back to our hotel?" Su said. "Are you coming with us?" she asked Kiki.

"I need to finish checking the stage and talk with the band," Kiki said, "and then I'll go back. You don't need me for this, do you?"

"I thought you might be curious," Su said.

"I am but I have other things to do," Kiki said.

"Okay," Su said. "We'll see you back at the hotel later."

"If we weren't idols, I would suspect we were dressed by otaku," Su said, pulling on her suit liner.

"Well, our troopers wear armor that looks like it came from a cartoon," Joy said. "If you look hard enough."

"Why does it look like that?" Moa said, also stepping into her suit.

"For a very simple reason," Joy said, giggling. "Lady Q, our glorious Lady of the Hands, is a fan of several female centric anime. So she had them designed to look similar."

"Oh," Yui said, nodding. "I can guess which ones. They have a distinctive look to them."

"Licensing must have been an issue," Su said. "Every time we have a costume redesign the lawyers have to check to make sure we aren't copying anyone too closely."

"According to Lady Shadow, no one ever complained. And the sales and streaming of those series went through the roof," Joy said.

"Money, the way to a lawyer's heart," Su said.

"We don't have lawyers," Joy said. "At least not the way you do."

"They aren't my lawyers," Su said. She squatted down, flexing her knees. "If we could get rid of them I wouldn't be upset."

"Not until someone started singing your songs and dressing like you do and not paying," Yui said. "Then you'd want them."

"You're biased," Moa said. "Your mother is a lawyer."

"A good one," Yui said. "She reviewed our contracts before we signed them, so there were no surprises."

"There is that," Su admitted. "They do have some use."

"How do we look?" Moa said, posing in her new suit.

"Not bad," Joy said. "But it needs a little adjustment around your waist and shoulders. It needs to be snug, not tight." She took a small device and ran it along those areas, shrinking the material slightly.

"It's sort of like wearing a catsuit, with a skirt," Yui said. "What can we do in it?"

"It's mostly protective," Joy reminded her. "It doesn't contain any weapons, and most of the electronics are passive."

"We don't need weapons," Su said. "If it keeps us from being squashed it has done its job."

"What kind of electronics?" Moa said.

"Warning systems, and tracking," Joy said. "If you get lost it can help you get home. Or if you get kidnapped someone can find you."

"As long as you are wearing it," Su said. She pulled at the sleeves. "Are there gloves?"

"Same tech as the face mask," Joy said. "When you need it they'll be there. So there'll be gloves when you need them."

"That's great tech," Yui said. "My sister could use something like that. She's always loosing gloves."

"Some day it'll be available for everyone," Joy said. "But right now the planet doesn't have the excess manufacturing capacity for the kind of demand there would be."

"What if we grow?" Yui asked. "Will we outgrow these?"

"No," Joy said. "They'll grow with you."

"We'll need to train wearing these," Su said, reaching towards the ceiling. "It fits like a tight glove."

"But very flexible," Yui said, doing a forward flip in place. "Not too tight when moving."

"You should be able to fight in them, even though that isn't their purpose," Joy said.

Clapping could be heard from the door. All eyes turned towards the door, where Yanzy and Kiki stood, clapping.

"Those are sexy outfits," Yanzy said. "Maybe you should wear those on stage and put your costumes away."

"They don't quite fit with the look we are going for," Kiki said. "All three of you do look good in those suits but they are too mature and boring for the band."

"Some day," Yui said. "Some day we'll get to wear sexy costumes on stage, instead of cute."

"But not today," Kiki said. "Fox Metal is about the entire package - cute idols singing pop songs with a heavy metal overtone. Sexy would be distracting."

"To say nothing of how some countries would consider it inappropriate for your apparent ages," Yanzy said. "So you couldn't play there."

"Most of our concerts are in Western countries," Su said. "Have there been complaints about our costumes?"

"No," Kiki said. "Complaints about other aspects of the act, but not the costumes specifically."

"Not everyone likes our music," Su said, nodding sagely. "They need more exposure to the Fox God to overcome that issue."

"Or a visit from Brother Coyote," Yui added. "He'd cure them of their issues."

The other two priestess idols nodded solemnly, before all three burst into laughter.

The TV studio in Tokyo was very similar to others they'd given interviews in. The only difference was the teen interviewer, someone several years younger than them.

"Welcome back to the Teen Metal Show," the host said. "I am Jody Pu and today we have Su, Yui, and Moa from the hot new metal band Fox Metal. You've been together for a year now, how is it touring with a band and traveling to so many exotic places?"

"Thanks you for having us on your show," Su said. "We've actually been together for a lot longer than that."

"Oh, that's right," Jody said. "You went to the same private school together?"

"Yes," Yui said. "We discovered the Fox God and his metal music while in school."

"We started out in an idol group together," Moa added. "We were a part of that scene for two years before the opportunity came to join together with a band where we could play just Fox Metal."

"Your 'kitsune' band is very talented," Jody said. "How did that happen?"

"One of our friends from the idol group is a talented guitar player," Su said. "When she heard we were going to go on tour and play metal music she auditioned for the band, and brought along her brother and cousin."

"So you aren't the only idols to experiment with metal?" Jody said.

"Fox Metal," Su said. "We've been doing it long enough that I think we can stop calling it an experiment."

"Fox Metal, of course," Jody said. "Can you explain the difference?"

"It's music made in harmony with the Fox God," Su said. "A positive message set to the wonderful hard playing metal."

"How different is it from what you did before?" Jody asked.

"The type of music is different," Yui said. "Pop songs played with a real metal band, such as the one we work with, take on a whole new ambiance. It's like turning it all up to eleven."

"We still sing of innocence and the things that interest our age group," Moa said. "But now we do it with energy, and loud drums and energetic guitars."

"You don't play any instruments," Jody said. "Why not?"

"We have such a wonderful band," Su said. "We've been vocalists and dancers for years. We've dabbled in some of the instruments our band plays but they take it to another level. Their music melded with our words? I don't think there's any better band at what we do."

"And there's only so much energy to go around," Moa said. "It takes all of our energy to get up in front of crowds and be 'on' for an entire concert. I don't know that we could keep that up if we were also playing instruments."

"What we do now works," Yui added. "It's a team effort."

"You were recently in Cancun," Jody said. "What was it like playing for all of those aliens?"

"Not much different from playing to any other audience," Su said. "They loved our music. We would have loved to stay but that isn't how things worked out."

"We tried to get rides on their spaceships," Yui said, "but they didn't allow us to do that. I think it was insurance."

"Yes, our insurance company didn't want us doing that," Su said.

"When we come back from our break, the ladies of Fox Metal will sing one of their new songs," Jody said. "And cut!"

"That was great!" Jody said, as they relaxed. "I don't often get to ask serious questions in these interviews."

Su nodded. "We understand."

"You'll all have to come back some day when I can ask you all of the personal questions I couldn't today," Jody said, grinning.

"We are still idols, of a sort," Yui said, nodding at Kiki, who was their media chaperone for the interview. "Some things must remain a mystery."

"It's standard practice," Kiki said, shaking her head. "You may be non-traditional idols, but there are still some expectations for your behavior."

"Some day, we'll do a tell-all book and dedicate it to your memory," Yui told her, smirking.

"After I'm retired to some other country," Kiki said.

"Of course," Su said, joining in. With a signal from the director they stopped talking and quickly took their places.

"And we're back," Jody said, after adjusting her microphone. "The ladies are going to sing their top ten hit for us now."