The morning sun melted away the winter frost cloaking the city. Forlorn skyscrapers huddled together like rabbits seeking warmth, cold and dying from neglect. The foxes disregarded the dwindling heart of the stolen city, knowing the problem was impossible to fix without those who they had stolen from.
A blonde fox with a golden chain necklace strutted down the dusty street, holding his head in the air as he passed a homeless grey fox. The mother of four pups corralled her young closer to a tattered blanket- her only possession- as she eyed the stranger. When he passed, she went back to staring at the morning rush. There was the usual flurry of foxes rushing by, brushing against each other and weaving through small spaces to get to whatever place demanded their attention that day.
In the midst of the rush, two young foxes forced their way through. They leapt over the poor mother, startling her.
The first one was brown and small, with raggedy fur and a sly smile. A much larger white fox followed him. She had long, slender legs and big grey tipped ears that arched over her dirty head. Her footsteps were loud amongst a concerto of pitter-patters from the crowds as she ran down to the markets at the city’s edge.
They darted through a crowd of foxes who held their weaved shopping baskets around their necks. Frightened, an elderly fox dropped his basket, sending fresh oranges and mandarins tumbling across the ground.
The conversations around the young foxes drowned out their hysterical laughter. The exhausted shopkeeper gave them an angry look as they powered through the city limits, knowing he couldn’t do anything but report them.
They stopped when they came to the towering aspen trees of a forest. There were no fences or warning signs, only a foggy path daring them to explore. Rumours circulated about foxes being hanged as punishment for trespassing into the sacred place. It was where elder foxes went to die peacefully, and their spirits would linger before moving on to the afterlife.
‘Faith, I heard that there’s treasure in the forest,’ the brown fox said.
‘Don’t be stupid, Anderson! Remember what happened to the last foxes that went in there?’ Her voice faded to a whisper. ‘They never came back.’
‘Those are just fairy tails,’ Anderson exclaimed, ‘nothing is going to happen, trust me. The elders just tell you not to go in there because they’re hiding something cool. You know why there’s no gold in the city? It’s because it’s in there.’
Faith hesitated, then gave in. If there was treasure in there, then it would be worth the risk.
She sighed, and they trampled into the forest. The canopy overlooked them, dotted with colourful birds that sung unfamiliar songs that she could not help but suspect meant danger.
The trees lurched, hiding them from the sun and letting tiny flecks of light filter through their thick clumps of green and yellow leaves.
As they descended into the forest’s dark heart, Faith got jumpy. Her ears pricked up at every sound, and when her paws rustled through a pile of leaves, it almost sent her into hysterics. Something was watching them, she was sure of it.
‘I told you that nothing would happen,’ Anderson said, a smug look of superiority plastered on his face.
Faith stopped and sniffed the air. ‘Something’s not right.’
Growling came from the bushes, and she saw hungry red eyes.
Faith bolted, and Anderson followed close behind. ‘You were right!’ he shrieked.
The creature drew closer. Anderson felt its hot breaths puff down his neck, and heard the grotesque wheezing that came from the back of its tortured throat.
‘It’s going to get me,’ Anderson cried.
‘We’ve almost beaten it,’ she said. Her confidence disappeared when she realised there was a deep, cavernous hole ahead. A black mist coated the bottom, giving the occasional glimpse of the skulls and bones of long dead foxes. Broken paws reached out in hope of a saviour. Their jaws hung open as if they died screaming, and their necks were tied down by rusty chains that were nailed to the unforgiving rocky ground.
Sharpened rocks protected the other side, meant to deter intruders like them. They took the risk, sprinting and jumping over the gaping pit.
Anderson slammed Faith just as they were about to hit the rocks, stopping her from being impaled. He grinned, but then looked down and saw he had scraped himself on one of the jagged edges.
‘Anderson!’ Faith yelled.
He gasped. Blood seeped out like water and stained his fur. The creature paced at the opposite side of the pit, its eyes glowing at the sight of blood. A patch of light illuminated its body, revealing the untamed beast. Its muscles bulged, splotched with patchy black fur. Spikes arose from its hunched back, and foul breath that stunk of rotting corpses fumed from its wide nostrils. It licked its sharp yellow teeth as its view fixed on Anderson. How many foxes had it consumed to get that big?
They sat in silence, Faith curled up close to Anderson as they awaited their fate of becoming just another rumour of missing foxes.
A blue light shone around its body as the creature jumped, making it lose its direction and fall into the pit. Its neck twisted and its bones shattered like glass. Leaves descended down in a parade of colours as the ground trembled. The beast let out a final grunt before its world faded.
Faith looked around. Who had saved them?
It was one of the elder foxes. The weary grey fox had a black lining around his face, meaning that he was the highest-ranking elder in the city.
He looked at them with disappointment. Even for foolish teenagers, they should have known better.
‘Someone told me that you were around here,’ he said in a worn, crackled voice. Faith remembered her lessons in school. The elder’s name was Draven.
She knew that the elders were powerful, but what she had just seen was remarkable. She wanted to tell him how impressed she was, but instead picked the wiser choice to keep her mouth shut.
Anderson tilted his head, curious as to what the elder would say next.
‘Come with me,’ he said, choosing a lesser-travelled path.
‘What do you think he’s going to do with us?’ Anderson asked.
‘Won’t be anything good, that’s for sure. If he wanted us to live, then it would be counterproductive not to let the beast kill us. Might as well get the job done and not have any blood on your hands.’
She noticed that Anderson still walked with a limp, but the wound was starting to heal. The blood now trickled down in a streamline, instead of pouring onto the ground. The elder had done more than overpower the wild beast.
‘But what if we become one of those dream helper foxes? I hear that it’s a fate worse than death,’ Anderson said.
Faith shrugged. As a young fox, her mother had told her stories on what happened to misbehaving foxes. They were sent into the dreams of a human and had to help them for the rest of their natural lives. They weren’t allowed to see their families or friends ever again; banished from the Fox City and doomed to forever follow an ungrateful human.
She’d rather be eaten by the beast that had chased them than to spend the rest of her life helping a revolting human being.
‘It’s possible,’ Faith said, ‘but I hope not. I don’t want to become a fur pelt.’ She looked around. ‘Hey, this isn’t the way back to the city.’
The elder led them through a desolate landscape. He made no effort to hide his contempt with his infuriated glances.
Sand covered the ground for a kilometre ahead of them, meeting up with the forest to the right and the city to the left.
He led them to an abandoned church. It was the most pristine looking building in the whole city, with jewels lining the white arched doors and the walls painted to depict marvellous legends. This was the treasure they had been searching for.
Inside, they found a couple of the other elders sitting around a flickering blue fire on a lowered altar. The flames gave off an icy breeze instead of heat, burning on top of a golden plate. Anderson felt better after walking through the desert, not realizing how hot he was through the anxiety.
The two elders were a shade of silver-grey with ribbons of golden fur running around their bodies, splitting outwards like tree branches on their thighs. The icy flames made their fur sway, and they glared at Anderson with unnerving light grey eyes.
Draven spoke. ‘I found these two young foxes in the Skull Forest. They awoke the beast, and I had to... put it to sleep.’
The other elders’ ears pricked up, and they tilted their heads in fascination.
‘No one has been in there for years,’ one of them whispered.
‘They need to be punished, as declared by the rules that we have set out,’ Draven continued.
Anderson had expected this to happen. Even though he tried to stop it, a surge of panic flowed through his whole body, making the fur on his back prick up and his short breaths become faster.
Draven closed his eyes, and the fire extinguished itself. The room rose to a high temperature once again, the hot wind roaring inside and hitting them like a truck.
The shining gold plate became clear. Engraved around the sides were the compacted writings of an ancient language, and a large hole was missing from of the middle, where part of a drawing used to be. Lines divided it into three pieces, and each of the elders put a paw onto one and said a sacred vow.
The elders whispered to each other, trying to reach an agreement on the severity of the young foxes’ punishments.
After a few minutes, they returned to their normal sitting positions, and one of them curled up and went to sleep.
Draven swiped a paw over the plate, and the fire started again. The room once again became cold, the temperature rise so sudden that it was like jumping into a pool on a hot day.
‘We have reached a decision,’ Draven said, looking over to Anderson. ‘You will be sentenced to 10 years of labour in the Factory.’
Anderson’s ears dropped. He wouldn’t mind being a worker, but he was hoping for a lesser punishment.
‘And Faith, since you have been caught committing crimes before…’
Faith recalled the last time that she had been punished- she got a year of community service for stealing food from a market stall, dared to do so by Anderson.
‘…you will be sentenced to a lifetime of service as a dream guide.’
‘A life sentence?’ she thought. ‘That’s not fair.’
She opened her mouth to protest, but the elder stopped her. ‘Faith, I will not be changing my mind. Justice has spoken, and this will be your fate.’
Anderson looked at her hopelessly, his tail drooping to the floor and his head down. An elder led him out of the hut, escorting him to the factory in which he would be working for the next 10 years.
Draven ignored Faith’s desperate expression, and his left paw lit up with a bright white light, twisting around his leg like a ghost.
‘Goodbye, Faith,’ the elder muttered, and slammed his paw to the ground.
Faith kept silent, allowing an invisible force to pull her back into a world of guilt stricken euphoria. Her vision turned to a parade of patterns and colours, swirling around in the darkness. Her body twisted and compressed, then the darkness faded.
She was lying on the ground of a forest, blades of soft grass brushing against her fur and wildflowers flourishing throughout the hazy landscape. Lush green trees of every size surrounded her, and a waterfall gushed over a hill, forming a cool mist where the water met the gleaming rocks. Perhaps this wouldn’t be as bad as she thought.
A path of pebbles led to a wide old oak tree, its branches stretching out to embrace the clear blue sky. The gaping hole inside it held a glowing object, its soft rays reached her feet like a gentle wave washing into shore.
She stepped across the rocks, her tail held high, and crossed a barrier of blooming flowers that shed their petals as they swayed.
There was a scroll inside the oak tree, leaning against a potted daisy in the corner. The scroll’s title read ‘Commandments’, and she skimmed through it.
Most of the commandments were generic and easy to remember, but the lower part of it caught her eye. It stated that this was the place where she would stay while she’s not in a dream with the human that she’s protecting.
‘At least this place is nice,’ she thought.
A swirling portal opened by her side, shimmering like flowing water.
She wandered what it was for, but then remembered reading on the scroll that a portal would open when the human that she was assigned to was in a dream.
She dropped the scroll back into the tree, and stepped through the portal. Bright flashed of colour filled her vision, then she appeared in a new world.
Jane was a 16-year-old girl. She had long straight hair that parted to one side, and wore a golden butterfly charm bracelet that matched her necklace, but not her personality. She was an avid dreamer- a lucid dreamer, in fact. She became aware that she was dreaming every night, although she wasn’t good at controlling things.
She had gone to bed an hour earlier than usual, awakening in a dream that contrasted the usual fields and flowers.
Dozens of people walked by her in a wasteland of a city. Skyscrapers on the verge of toppling were obscured in dirt and bright green moss. Rodents roamed the streets and hid in the dark crevices of the buildings. The trees had dying purple leaves, and the bright stars of the night sky above smiled down upon her in their glimmering clusters. Although the ground should have been dark, it was as bright as it was by day, and Jane felt the heat on a railing as she leaned against it.
‘This is strange,’ she mumbled, stating the obvious in an attempt to calm her rushing mind.
The people around her smiled softly, some chatting to each other in small groups and others sipping on cappuccinos. When she went near them, they glared at her and the groups dispersed. Growing desperate, she attempted to start a conversation with a grubby homeless woman, but she held her head up high and walked straight past her.
Jane sighed, and not knowing what else to do, she went inside one of the skyscrapers.
Purple curtains draped the windows, and a thick red carpet went across the middle of the patterned brown floor. Golden paintings hung on the walls, with mythical creatures portrayed in explicit detail. The largest one caught her eye. It depicted some sort of spirit, with the head of a fox and a ghostly body that faded at the legs.
There was a lift among two potted sunflowers, and a mirror ran across the wall. She walked closer and looked at herself, finding that there was nothing out of the ordinary, with the exception of a few of her blemishes having vanished. She was still wearing the same pink pyjamas she went to bed in, and blushed as she realized that she was so tired that she had forgotten to take off her school shoes.
She stepped into the now open lift, and a second later she was transported to the highest floor- the roof.
As she walked out, she admired the city skyline. Grungy skyscrapers gathered far as she could see, touching the pink and silver clouds drifting through the dusky sky.
She sat down on the ledge of the building, dangling her legs over the side and leaning back just far enough not to plummet down into the concrete. However, she wasn’t afraid of falling, as she knew that in dreams she could never be hurt if she didn’t think she could be.
She looked down at the people walking on the filthy streets, and considered jumping off for fun. She entertained the thought for a minute, when a portal opened up near the skyscraper.
Sliding off the edge, the enraged wind screamed in her face, pulling her long hair above her in a sleek black trail. The ground rushed closer, and she braced for impact.
She slammed into the concrete, shattering the ground and send out cracked debris onto passers-by. The fragments went through their bodies, making them scream as they flickered in and out of existence. Then, as if somebody had flipped a switch, they started smiling again.
Putting her hand into the portal, she felt as if she was touching a thrashing sea. Seaweed brushed past her fingers, and she could almost smell the briny air.
The portal turned lava hot, and she let out a small scream as she pulled her burning hand out. “So that’s what scorched flesh smelled like,” she couldn’t help thinking.
A white fox walked out. It sighed and mumbled something when it saw her.
‘Who are you?’ Jane asked. Talking animals often appeared in her dreams, so she didn’t question it.
‘Faith. I’m your dream guide.’
Jane nodded. ‘What’s a dream guide?’
Faith sighed again. ‘It’s like a dream friend who shows you stuff and gives you advice.’
‘Cool, but why do I need one?’
Faith looked downwards. ‘Because every lucid dreamer needs one at some point in their lives, and it is my duty to become yours.’
‘I’ve never heard of that happening to any of my friends.’
‘Well, you don’t have a choice.’
Jane folded her arms, scowling. Startled, Faith backed away, baring her teeth.
‘Wow, what are you doing?’ Jane asked.
‘Go on, then. I know what you humans are like. You want to kill me, don’t you? Do it!’ she growled.
‘Calm down, Faith. I’m not going to kill you. Most humans don’t like to kill animals. I’m sorry that I got frustrated.’
Faith tilted her head. ‘Really?’
‘Yeah,’ Jane said. ‘Look, if being my dream guide is what makes you happy, then that’s great. I need some company.’
‘So you... don’t hate me?’
Jane shook her head. ‘I think that, given time, we’ll become great friends.’
‘It’s almost over,’ Faith whispered.
The dream dwindled, the buildings around them crashing down in a tsunami of rubble. The people disappeared, fading into dust, and Faith joined them.
The darkness overcame Jane as she struggled to stay in the dream, but it forced her to wake up.