“It all started with my cousin, Penny. She woke me up before the sun had risen, begging me to go hunting with her.”
It all started with my cousin, Penny. She woke me up before the sun had risen, begging me to go hunting with her.
“Felicity, please come with me… Nobody else is up yet, and you know that I don’t like going out and about in the forest alone. Especially when it’s dark out,” Penny groaned. She pawed at me playfully.
“Penny, I really don’t want to go hunting right now.” I glanced at my aunts, uncles, cousins, brothers, sisters, and parents. They were all still asleep. Unlike most foxes, my family lived and hunted in a pack. We were unique in that way. Anyway, the Den was cozy and warm, and I didn’t want to go out into the cold morning air.
Penny was relentless, though. After a while, I gave in. We walked to the entrance of the Den. The birds had just started their morning songs, and the sun was slowly starting to rise. I sniffed the air, which smelled like rain and flowers.
We walked in peaceful silence. When we got to the River, Penny found a worm and dangled it in front of my snout. I devoured it and dug around in the mud to find one for her. We had played this game since we were able to hunt. Soon, the sun was up, and our stomachs were full.
That’s when the storm arrived. I had sensed it when I woke up, but I had pushed it away, thinking it was nothing. A cloud blocked the sunlight. I looked up and noticed that it was dark gray, a sign that the storm would be big and really wet.
“Penny — ” I was cut off by a loud crack of thunder and a flash of lightning. A big, fat raindrop landed on my nose, and the rain started coming down hard. Penny and I scampered under the trees, hoping for shelter from the rain, but the trees were no help. The rain still leaked through the thick leaves.
“Grrr… ” I heard my least favorite sound: the growl of a wolf. I spun around and saw the leader of the wolves that lived in the forest, Winter. She was a huge wolf, with whitish-gray fur and gleaming, black eyes. Winter and her pack were horrible, any fox’s enemy.
Winter growled again, baring her sharp, white teeth.
“Felicity, run!” Penny howled. We ran in the opposite direction of Winter, towards the River. The River was now quickly flowing and sharp rocks jutted out of the water. Winter raced after us.
“Penny, we’ll have to try to jump across the River!” I shouted over the roar of the storm.
“I don’t think I’ll be able to!” Penny yelled back.
“You’ll have to try! I’ll go after you! Don’t worry, I believe in you!” Penny looked at the River with uncertainty and back at me.
“Okay, I’ll try!”
Penny took a running start. Then, she leaped gracefully into the air, but she didn’t leap far enough. Her paw grazed a rock and threw her off course. She fell into the River with a loud splash.
“Aagh, Penny!” I shrieked.
“What are you going to do now, fox?” Winter growled.
“I’m going to go after her,” I replied.
I jumped into the River. It was cold and disgusting. I hated water. I saw a flash of orangish-red fur and tried to propel myself through the water towards it. A log came passing by me, and I dug my claws into it so that I wouldn’t have to swim in the raging water. When I pulled myself out of the water, my head hit something. Then everything went black.
I opened my eyes and found myself resting on the forest floor. I had a sharp pain on my forehead, and my paws ached.
“Felicity! You’re awake!” I heard a familiar voice. I turned and saw my favorite fox in the whole entire forest, Penny. Her fur was dirty and matted, and I figured that I probably looked the same. I stood up unsteadily and looked around. We were in a part of the forest that I had never been to. The trees were taller and darker, the ground was a lot rockier, and there were a lot more spiky bushes. I was lying on a tiny patch of brownish moss.
“Penny, where are we?” I asked. My voice was a little raspy.
“I think we might be in the Dark Forest. It sure looks like it, from what Grandfather told us,” Penny said.
Our grandfather was a traveling fox. He traveled to many forests, and he would always come back and tell us what he had seen. He had once told us about the Dark Forest, the place that the River had taken us. He had said that it was particularly unpleasant and not a place for a fox to live. Apparently there were “things too terrible to speak of” in the Dark Forest.
“We’re in the Dark Forest?!” I shrieked.
“Shush… You don’t want to yell in this forest. The Creatures will awake, whatever they are. Remember how Grandfather said that they come out when the sun goes behind the horizon? We have to get back before then,” Penny said.
“Oh, sweet Mother of Rabbits. How are we gonna get back?” I looked up. The sun was already high in the sky. “We will have to find some sort of shelter before the sun is gone.”
We began running in the direction that seemed like the direction of home. I was running a lot faster than Penny, who looked quite tired. And hungry. I slowed down, so she could catch up with me. She looked at me wearily.
“You okay, Penny?” I asked.
“Yes, I’m fine. Just a little tired. I’m not used to running this fast and this far,” she replied, panting. After a while, we stopped running, attempting and failing to find food.
The clouds in the sky started to turn pink and purple. My heart raced. The sky was turning darker and darker every second. I guessed that we only had a small amount of time left of daylight. Then, there was no light left.
“Oh my — ” I never heard what Penny was going to say. There was a terrible noise, like a sick eagle being eaten by a growling wolf. Penny edged closer to me. Then, we saw the first Creature of the night. It was almost indescribable. The dark made it hard to make out exactly what the Creature looked like, but I could partially see it. It had the yellowest teeth; gleaming, red eyes; horribleness; pain; and the worst things imaginable. The level of sound increased, telling me that more Creatures were coming close. We couldn’t see them completely, but I had a good idea of what they could do to a fox. It was like the Creature could bring back the worst memories and take away all happiness. It was the worst thing I had ever experienced in my whole life.
“Run!” I cried. But Penny was frozen with fear, whimpering. I nudged her, and she didn’t move. She slumped against me. More Creatures emerged from the depths of the forest. We were completely surrounded. It seemed like there was no way out.
Unexpectedly, Penny straightened up and shouted, “Felicity! There’s a gap right there! Hurry!” She ran off, and I followed her. The Creatures swiped at us, but we squeezed through the gap and darted into the forest.
We ran and ran and ran for the second time that day. It was completely dark, and we couldn’t see a thing; the dense leaves overhead blocked out all the light from the moon and the stars. I bumped into a tree once or twice, which slowed us down a lot.
Eventually, we couldn’t run anymore, so we tried to find a safe place to sleep. Penny suggested just sleeping up a tree, but that made no sense since foxes can’t climb trees. I guess she was just delirious from all the running that we had been doing and all the stuff we had been through. We walked for a little bit until we found a dark cave that looked calm and deserted.
“This might be okay,” I said. I peered inside to get a better view of the interior. The walls were nice and smooth. There were a few dead leaves that looked damp and a few fuzzy lumps that I assumed were dead mice. “Penny, there are mice! We could eat them!”
“Yeah,” Penny said. We lunged for the mice and gulped them down. They were really lean, and they seemed as though they had been malnourished when they were alive. They tasted weird and sour; they were nothing like the delicious worms and rabbits of my forest.
Bellies only halfway full, we curled up in the unfamiliar place and tried to fall asleep. Penny was a fast fall-asleeper, but not me. I had never slept away from home.
I adjusted my position so many times, but the cave wasn’t the same as the Den. I then realized that I was lying on a sharp rock. I pawed at it, trying to get it out of the way without waking Penny. It bounced away with a loud clatter.
Only partially satisfied, I lay on my side and fell into a deep, uneasy sleep, full of weird dreams.
I was walking happily through the forest. I hummed an old fox melody that had been passed on for generations. All of a sudden, the sky blackened. I was surrounded by things that looked like Creatures mixed with wolves. Then Penny was flying above me shouting misleading directions at me. Then she turned into Winter, the leader of the wolves. Winter-Penny came down and stared at me menacingly. She bared her teeth and growled.
I woke up with a start. It had all been a horrible dream. Penny was already wide awake.
“You okay, Felicity? You were moaning and groaning in your sleep. And kind of shouting.”
“What did I… shout?”
“You were saying things about Winter and how she was attacking you. Well, the sun is up, so let’s go attempt and probably fail to find food.”
I laughed at this, even though it wasn’t a laughing matter. It just seemed crazy how my cousin and I were stuck in a creepy forest when just yesterday we had been joking around about worms. Penny frowned at me.
“Felicity, this isn’t a joke. We need to find our way home. But first, we’ve got to find the River,” she said, glaring at me. I was surprised. I’m usually the one who thinks logically and stays on task. Penny just goofs off most of the time. It was like we had switched roles.
“Well, okay then. Let’s go find food and then the River. Or find food by the River. I don’t know,” I said. Penny stopped glaring, but she still seemed a little stiff and distant. I wondered why. Maybe because I laughed? But Penny was not usually upset by things as small as that. I thought about that as we looked for food.
I dug around in the mud. Mud, mud, rocks, mud. Nothing but mud. Out of the blue, I glimpsed something pinkish and wriggling. Slowly, it came into view. “Penny, look! A worm!” I turned around. Penny was facing the trees, just sitting there. “Penny? You okay?” I walked over to her and pawed at her back.
She turned around and looked at me like it was her first time seeing me. Her eyes looked blank. Then, she bared her teeth and growled. She pounced, and I scurried backwards. It was terrifying. Penny had never acted like this, ever, even during our worst disagreements.
“Penny! It’s me… Felicity… ” Penny’s eyes looked full and normal again. But that encounter scared me. “I found a worm.” I split the worm in half and gave the bigger half to Penny. I had the idea that she had acted weirdly because of the lack of food.
I started to walk in the direction that I thought we had come in the night before. Penny followed me. Soon, she was acting mostly like herself, but she was a lot quieter. I finally gathered up the courage to ask her what happened earlier.
“Penny, what happened earlier? When you went kind of crazy. You know, you pounced and growled. At me,” I said cautiously. Penny looked confused.
“Wha — Oh, yeah. Sorry that I was rude about your dream,” Penny said. I looked at her weirdly. But before I could say anything else about it, I saw something shiny. There was a gushing sound, and I realized that it was the River.
“The River! Penny, look!”
“Yay. Awesome. I have to stay here, though. For the greater good of the Creatures,” Penny mumbled. It sounded like she was reciting a story, like it wasn’t actually real. My heart skipped a beat.
“The Creatures? Why?”
“Because. They need me.”
Something was very wrong. Penny, wanting to stay with the Creatures? She was obviously possessed or hypnotized or something like that. Grandfather had said that if one got too close to a Creature, they would never be the same. Unless they got help from someone unreachable for a fox. The Wise Old Owl, who lived up in a tree right next to the Den, and foxes can’t climb trees (obviously). The Wise Old Owl knew all the secrets of the whole world, even the human secrets and the wolf secrets. But she would only share the secrets if you were in critical need and even then, only if you paid. And she never, ever comes onto the ground.
Suddenly, an idea popped into my head. “Penny, where the river leads, the Creatures will be there. Remember? We’ve lived with the Creatures all of our lives. They are… um, our family.” Penny’s curse must have made her really unintelligent or willing to do anything that had to do with Creatures, because she nodded with excitement and grinned.
“This is an amazing idea.”
I started walking in the opposite direction from the river, but Penny’s voice interrupted my thoughts. It was still vague, and it still sounded hypnotized. “This place seems familiar in my memories of the Creatures. Are we close to them?”
This place did indeed seem familiar. Right at the edge of the Dark Forest, there were fox paw prints and a big patch of moss. It was the place where Penny had woken me up on our first day in the Dark Forest. There was that tree… and those rocks… and… a Creature? My heart leapt, and I bit back a yell. What was it doing in the daylight?
“Oh Creature, I am your humble servant.” Penny bowed down to the Creature and motioned for me to do the same. I wanted to give her a disgusted look, but I had to play along. Reluctantly, I bowed down next to her.
The Creature made me feel horrible, but its power seemed weaker this time. I held all of my feelings inside and tried to avoid gazing at its ugliness. It was huge, with twelve spiky legs and many teeth. It stood on all of its twelve legs, and it had one pair of gruesome pincers. Its small amount of fur was greasy and greenish-gray. It looked like it was sweating goo, and it was drooling reddish brown saliva. It was pure evil.
I gritted my teeth and said, “I am… totally your humble servant, Creature.” It was the exact opposite of what I wanted to say. Penny looked at me proudly.
Without a warning, the Creature jumped and tried to attack Penny. Penny just stood there, willing to do anything for any Creature. I acted quickly, pushing her away just in time. “Penny, we need to go! This isn’t a Creature, it’s something disguised as a Creature!” I lied. Penny looked shocked. She looked like she might be sick for a moment, then she bared her teeth and growled menacingly.
“Grr… You imposter!” She got ready to attack, but I nudged her towards the river.
“We are wasting time, Penny. We need to get home. This won’t solve anything.”
Penny let my words sink in for a second, then she let me lead her away. The Creature trailed slowly behind us, leaving an icky green sludge behind it. It was really weird how it wasn’t attacking us. It was like the lion that Grandfather had told me that he had seen once, stalking its prey before attacking.
I kept looking over my shoulder. Every time I looked, it was still there, but it never showed any signs of attacking It was really quite bizarre. Maybe, a thought occurred to me, it can’t attack during the day, and that’s why it only comes out at night. That is probably why it is so weak right now and creepily following us.
Gradually, things became more and more familiar. Less and less evil-looking. I finally saw a place the Mama had taken me and my sisters and brothers a lot when we were cubs. It was an hour’s walk from the Den, so we had to be close. I was worried, though. The Creature was still following us, and I didn’t want to lead it to my family.
I decided to do something dangerous. I tried to find a place, any place, where a dead tree had fallen over the river. The storm had knocked over a tall, skinny tree, so I hopped up onto it. It wobbled and swayed when Penny jumped up behind me. We crossed safely, but somehow the Creature did too, even though the branch would probably be too weak to support its weight, and it had no wings. This was part of my plan, though.
After a little while, we passed the Den. I looked at it longingly. I just couldn’t stand seeing it and not stepping inside. Unable to stand it, I told Penny to wait outside a little ways away from the Den. She did as she was told, with only the Creatures and the “Imposter” on her mind.
The Den smelled great. Like home. I was home. “Mama! Papa!” I called through the dark tunnel that led to the main room of our den.
“Felicity? Is that you? Where have you been?” Mama’s voice rang throughout the tunnel. I picked up my pace and found her and Papa and most of the family in the room. Everyone’s eyes lit up at the sight of me, but they noticed quickly that Penny wasn’t there. Because of that, most of their smiles faded and turned into confused looks.
My Aunt and Uncle both asked at the same time, “Where is Penny?”
So I told them the whole story, of how we wound up in the Dark Forest to seeing the Creatures to Penny being cursed to the Creature following us home. They looked more and more concerned every second. “So what’s happening now? Why are you here if you haven’t broken the curse?” my annoying little cousin Liza whined. But I couldn’t blame her. Penny was her sister, after all. “Do you even know how to break the curse?”
“As a matter of fact, yes. We have to do is talk to the Wise Old Owl. She knows everything, and she might be able to break the curse.” I felt like I was giving some sort of speech because everyone nodded and listened to me with thoughtfulness. Before, nobody took me seriously, and nobody listened to me.
We shared ideas of how to get the Wise Old Owl to come down. My brother even suggested pretending that the forest was on fire and her tree was burning up, but then we realized the she would know whether or not the forest was burning since she knows everything.
Finally, we decided on a boring, basic idea. It was to catch a fish and offer to give it to her if she gave us the information we needed. But we planned to do that after leading the Creature away from the Den. I knew just the place to lead it to. The Wolf Den. My family agreed that we should do that. Papa insisted on doing it by himself, but Mama refused.
“Either we all go, except for the little ones, or none of us go. That’s the way it is. We have to stick together,” she declared.
So we set off. The Wolf Den wasn’t too far; it was a short walk. My Aunt stayed home to look after the little fox cubs and the rest of us filed out of the Den one by one. We all walked over to Penny, who was still standing many steps away from the Den. “Penny, these foxes are our friends. They’ll… um, help us get home,” I said nervously.
Penny just nodded and kept looking at the “Imposter” angrily. Papa and Mama led the way to the Wolf Den, having been there many times to make deals. My Uncle and Aunt were close behind them, and everyone else was in between them. I was in the rear so that I could keep an eye on Penny. The Creature was behind us, still leaving a trail of green sludge.
After a short time, we reached Wolf Territory. The wolves had made a huge borderline out of fallen branches and pinecones. There were two muscular-looking wolves standing guard. One snapped at us, ready to attack.
“We… We have a gift for the wolf pack,” Papa said.
“What’s that thing in the back?” said one wolf. “The ugly thingy.”
“The gift, obviously. Can’t you wolves see?” Papa said. He was getting worked up and tense, which wasn’t part of the plan. Mama nudged him, and he calmed down slightly.
“Okay, we’ll take the gift. You can bring it to the entrance of our den and leave it there.” They let us pass, and we marched to the entrance of their den. Our loud marching alerted Winter and her sons and daughters that we were coming, and they met us next to the entrance of their home.
“What are all of you foxes doing here?” Winter’s oldest son, Orvar, grumbled. He glared menacingly at us.
Mama said calmly, “We’re here to deliver a gift. If you look behind us, it’s right there. See?” Winter’s eyes shifted from Mama to the Creature that was standing right behind me. “It will protect you. We have found it, and now we are giving it to you as a peace offering.”
Winter and her children stared at it for a few moments. Then they bared their teeth and smiled evilly. “Okay then. Give it to us and never return! You foxes are banished from our land! You were banished years ago!” Winter said. Everyone tensed, ready to fight the wolves. But we didn’t have to. The sky did it for us.
I looked up and noticed that my plan had worked. The sky was turning dark purple, and there were bright little dots scattered around up high. My family realized this, and we slowly backed away. This aggravated all the wolves.
“Where are you stupid savages going?” Winter’s daughter, Callisto, said. We said nothing and let the Creature do its job. It started running towards the wolves. Winter’s face was full of terror and so were Callisto’s and Orvar’s and all the other wolves’. But before I could see their terrible fate, Mama and Papa led our pack back into the woods, away from all the chaos.
When we were safe in Fox Territory, we rejoiced. We whooped and barked and howled, nuzzling each other and licking each other affectionately. I was only reminded of the Wise Old Owl when I saw Penny looking out of place among the others, standing on the sidelines with that blank look on her face.
“Hey, Penny. You okay?” I asked her with gentleness.
“I want to go home. I want to be reunited with our family, our real family. These foxes. are not the same as the Creatures. Take me to them. You have to,” Penny ordered. I could tell that she was restless and I sighed.
“Fine. We leave at… dawn, okay? Dawn.”
Penny nodded firmly. I told Mama and Papa that we were leaving at dawn for the Wise Old Owl’s tree. Mama agreed and said that it would only be me, her, Papa and Penny. She said that the more foxes we brought along, the less likely the Wise Old Owl would be to accept our plea. She also said to call the owl Ms. Kokka because she would never respond if we called her “Wise Old Owl.”
I woke up to Mama and Papa pawing at me. Penny was standing behind them, looking as vacant and cursed as ever. Mama caught a salmon from the river as payment for Ms. Kokka’s services. Then we started off toward the Wise Old Owl’s — Ms. Kokka’s — oak tree.
“Felicity, are you sure we can trust these foxes?” Penny whispered. She looked scared.
“Of course. I’ve known Mama and — er, these foxes for a while. They’re taking us to the Wise Ol– I mean, the Creatures now. Woah.” We had arrived. The oak tree was ginormous. I could barely see the sky because there were so many leaves. Close to those leaves was a big, hollow hole. I caught a glimpse of a yellow beak.
“What are we doing here?” Penny demanded.
“We just have to do an errand. Then, we’ll take you two to your home,” Mama said without missing a beat. She was amazing at pretending. “Oh, Ms. Kokkaaaaaaa!”
The owl flew onto the closest branch near her nest and glared down at us. “What do you want, you idiotic, foolish, imprudent foxes?” Ms. Kokka’s voice was old and grumbly. She obviously hated her job, but the whole forest depended on her.
“We need your help! One of our dearest friends has been cursed! By creepy beasts that live in the Dark Forest!” Mama yelled.
“Surely you know there’s a price, after barking up my tree so many times,” Ms. Kokka said.
“Of course, Ms. Kokka. We don’t have much to offer you, except for a freshly caught salmon from the river. We hope you accept it in return for reversing the curse on our dear friend.”
“Well… ” My heartbeat quickened. “Since you went through all that trouble to get me a minuscule, infinitesimal salmon, I’ll help you. I’ll break the curse, but you must come up here.” The owl smirked. “I do not feel like flying down on such a hot, sweltering day.”
It wasn’t hot at all. Ms. Kokka clearly just wanted some entertainment. But I was willing to do almost anything to get my cousin back to normal. “Let’s do it.” Mama was determined, too. And so was Papa. He was already making his way over to the tree. Penny decided to stay on the forest floor (which was probably for the best, because once we got to the top, we could tell Ms. Kokka who was really cursed — Penny, not some dear friend).
I started to climb the tree. No, I started to scratch at the tree. It was impossible to get a grip on the bark. I inched my way up to the closest branch, which I hurled myself onto to catch my breath. Mama and Papa emerged a minute later, gasping and panting. They were older and larger, so this would be way harder for them than it was for me. We slowly made our way up the tree, which was amazing. We were probably the first foxes in history who had ever climbed a tree. Wherever I stopped for breath, Mama and Papa stopped too.
Climbing was excruciating. I had always envied squirrels and raccoons, but now I was glad that I didn’t have to climb trees. The sun inched its way up along with me and Mama and Papa. By the time we were halfway up in the tree, the sun was halfway in the sky. The leaves of the oak tree blocked out its bright rays, but I still felt like I was burning up. My mouth was parched. I felt like I hadn’t eaten in five days. When I got up to that despicable owl’s lair, I would tell her just how evil she was. But she’s helping us make Penny normal again, I reminded myself.
Finally, just as the sky was turning purple, we reached the horrible Ms. Kokka’s nest. It looked disappointingly normal. I had thought that she would have human tools and creations (like those weird glowing things that humans tap and they talk to spirits), but it just had a bunch of sticks and hay. There was a golden circle with markings on it, but that was the only special thing in there.
“Ms. — Ms. Kokka?” I asked. The old owl emerged from the shadows.
“Yes? Oh, my, You’re actually here? I thought you would never be able to do it,” Ms. Kokka said.
“We climbed your tree. Now, please break the curse on my cousin. Please. She’s the fox down there. She got cursed by the Creatures, and now she thinks she’s one of them. We really need your help. Please.”
“Well, I haven’t done magic in many years.”
“Come on. We’re counting on you!”
Ms. Kokka nodded mysteriously. Then she started chanting in a weird language. Purple dust with gold flecks in it started flying around her. Her eyes started glowing yellow, and she rose up without even flapping her wings.
The purple dust drifted down the tree. It swirled around Penny. Her eyes widened as her paws lifted off the ground. The blankness left her eyes and her shoulders relaxed. Ms. Kokka brought the dust back up the tree, and then it swirled around Mama, Papa, and me. It brought us down to the ground, right next to Penny, who rushed to me and nuzzled me.
“Felicity! I can’t believe that happened! Oh, sweet Mother of Rabbits! I’m so glad that I’m okay! And that time with the Creatures was insane! Mother of Rabbits! Wow!”
We made our way back to the Den. The whole family embraced us and smothered Penny with nuzzles and licks.
Later, Penny and I vowed, under the light of the fireflies, that we would never let anything bad happen to each other ever again.