Wanfeng wiggled his toes, enjoying the feel of the breeze between them. It was a rare treat for him to be able to go barefoot when in his human form. Back at the Sky Palace he always had to wear his slippers or shoes.
He paused to sniff the air, something he couldn’t help doing all morning. The peaty scent of the Jing River’s banks combined with the lush earthen smells of the grass and surrounding forest made him smile. But then he turned his head sharply with an inward growl. There was a rabbit close by. It was a scent he’d recently learned to recognize. But he couldn’t shift into his dragon and go play chase with it right now. He was busy.
Pushing back the ends of his dark ponytail the breeze lifted over his shoulders into his face, he resumed concentrating on the colourful blocks stacked before him.
The tower he was trying to build wasn’t working out the way he wanted but he was determined to fix it. He studied then adjusted several blocks until his wrist slipped and knocked into one, demolishing the structure with a clatter.
“Shh, my clever dragon. You’ll wake the baby fox.”
Wanfeng wrinkled his nose as he looked over to his mother, who reclined on a quilt with her friend the Woodland Queen, to the wicker basket resting on the ground nearby.
From where he sat, all Wanfeng could see of the basket’s interior were bundled folds of blanket, and a glint of silver.
“Silver fox, mama?”
The Woodland King drew his long stemmed pipe from his lips and laughed. The sunlight filtering down through the oak tree the man sat against cast his wild forelocks and broad leather-clad shoulders in dappled light of soft green and gold.
“No, young dragon. My little Xia is a white nine-tailed, like her beautiful mother.” The king blew a kiss toward his queen who blushed, a shy smile playing upon her lips. He then leaned toward Wanfeng and lowered his voice to a near whisper, as if sharing a secret.
“The silver you see is the name bracelet I made. The bracelet holds a spell that projects the moon floating across the stars to soothe Xia back to sleep if she wakes upset at night. What do you think, Prince Wanfeng?” The king winked at him. “I’m a very clever papa nine-tail, am I not?” He straightened and spoke with a normal voice again. “My queen and the Sky Dragon Empress greatly admire my ingenuity, don’t they.”
Both the Woodland Queen and Wanfeng’s mother rolled their eyes and shook their heads, laughing.
Wanfeng looked back at the basket.
He’d barely taken notice of it when his mother first sat him down on his mat with his toys, but now his curiosity was piqued. He’d never seen a white fox before.
Standing up with a bit of a wobble, he tugged the crinkled hem of his tunic over his knees and padded across the plush grass to the basket. Once there, he turned to his mother who smiled at him and nodded. All three grownups were smiling actually.
Wanfeng curled his fingers over a wickered edge and peered inside.
He huffed. Nestled among the folds of blanket was a small human face, the forehead of which was crowned with soft tufts of hair. Brown hair. There was no white fox to see.
Though disappointed, Wanfeng nonetheless studied the sleeping baby girl.
Her cheeks were flushed and little bubbles clung to a corner of her mouth. The baby’s hand was curled beside her ear and he glimpsed the narrow silver bracelet about her wrist. There was a character etched on the band. When Wanfeng leaned forward for a closer inspection, his motion rocked the basket. Tiny eyelids opened and Wanfeng jerked his head back. The baby began to whimper.
“Is she still teething?” he heard his mother ask.
The queen sighed. “Yes, she was awake half the night crying. I tried using a frozen cloth as you’d suggested. It worked well but only for so long.”
Wanfeng shoved some of his fingers into his mouth and rubbed the edges of his teeth. The whimpering stopped. He looked over his knuckles to see the baby staring right at him. But after a moment, she started whimpering again. Wanfeng cocked his head. Could he fix the baby’s teeth for her?
When he pulled his fingers out of his mouth with a wet plop, the baby’s pudgy arms worked themselves free from the blanket and she began to fuss in earnest.
“Wait a little more.”
Wanfeng glanced over his shoulder to see his mother place a hand on the rising queen’s arm.
Turning his attention back to the baby whose cheeks were flushing even redder, Wanfeng studied her chubby fists that clenched and unclenched in the air. He reached inside the basket and caught one of her hands. The baby’s skin was hot but her fingers were strong as they immediately curled around one of his.
And something happened just then that made his breath hitch. What felt like a spark ignited in his chest, and warmth spread through him like nothing he’d ever felt before.
“Ever so gently now, Wanfeng.”
The boy started at his mother’s words and snapped out of his daze. He blinked at the tiny fingers clasping one of his so tight, then looked down at the baby’s face.
She was smiling at him.
The wave of affection that engulfed him was so nice and comforting and made him very, very happy. He closed his hand lightly over the baby’s fingers.
Wanfeng turned to give his mother a triumphant smile. He fixed the baby! All he had to do was hold her hand… ever so gently.
The queen sat back down and stared in amazement. “Uh, Wanfeng is more than welcome to come visit us in the Woodland realm anytime he’d like. It would seem he has quite the soothing effect on my daughter.”
“A soothing dragon. Who knew there could ever be such?” The king chuckled as he puffed on his pipe. “Wait until I see the Sky Dragon Emperor next.”
“Thank you for helping, Wanfeng,” his mother said, quirking an amused brow at the king. “Come have some fruit and let Princess Xia sleep again.”
Wanfeng lowered his head to the baby’s ear. “Wait for me,” he whispered, slowly letting go of her hand. “I’ll be back.” The baby yawned, her eyelids drifting closed.
Throughout the afternoon, Wanfeng kept sneaking up to the basket to peek inside, careful not to jostle it. Each time, the baby would smile in her sleep and the strange warmth in Wanfeng’s chest bloomed.
He wished she was a little bigger. They could play together with his blocks.
The loud rustle of leaves overhead woke Wanfeng.
He sat up from his mat where he’d fallen asleep in the late afternoon sun and rubbed his eyes. Then rubbed them harder when a sharp gust of icy wind stung his face.
Wanfeng snapped fully awake at the Woodland King’s hard tone. Goblets and platters crashed to the ground as the three grownups bolted to their feet.
A rumble overhead made Wanfeng look up, just in time to see the sky explode red before he was knocked over onto his back by a violent gust.
“Wanfeng!” his mother cried out. He struggled to get up but the ground was shaking so hard he couldn’t. His blocks banged painfully into him as they were hurled into the air. The next thing he knew, he was scooped up in the Fox King’s arms and thrown to his mother who fell to her knees as she caught him. Wanfeng wrapped his arms about her shoulders and buried his face into her neck.
But the king and queen’s shouts made Wanfeng raise his head and he squinted through his mother’s streaming hair. Streaks of lightning ripped through the red sky. The air screeched and howled like a monster. The trees whipped to and fro. Leaves torn from branches stung as they struck his bare arms and face.
The king and queen were stumbling and falling on the buckling ground, trying to reach the baby’s basket. The river waters that had been gently lapping against the shore a short distance off now churned violently right alongside it. Wanfeng felt his mother launch a stream of her magic forward to try and snatch the basket, but nothing happened.
“I can’t break through! I can’t break through the storm!” she yelled.
Unable to look away, Wanfeng watched the king hurl himself forward, one moment a man, the next, a massive grey fox whose nine tails whipped in the wind. The fox scraped and scratched his way desperately with bleeding claws towards the basket. Over the howling winds, Wanfeng could discern the faint cries of the baby.
Then the wave struck.
The boiling waters of the river rose in a swell that swallowed up the basket in a turbid rush.
The queen’s scream made Wanfeng clutch his mother’s shoulders tighter and bury his face against her once more.
Wanfeng couldn’t remember much of what happened just after. Only that his father and a contingent of Imperial guard arrived from a cloud after the storm disappeared as fast as it came. His father ran straight to his mother and him and embraced them tight. Wanfeng had never seen his parents so upset before. But it was nothing compared to the wailing king and queen who kept diving in and out of the river in their fox forms. Wanfeng’s father ordered his soldiers to search the banks before he shifted into his great obsidian dragon and plunged into the river.
Wanfeng’s mother refused to put him down. Forced to keep looking over her shoulders, he was confused. Why couldn’t he see the basket anymore? Where had the baby gone? He wanted to see her smile at him again. He eventually managed to struggle out of his mother’s arms and run to the shore, only to be grabbed up by a soldier whose arms he could not break free of.
It was back in his room at the Sky Palace that night that Wanfeng overheard the sombre voice of his father tell his crying mother that soldiers had found the remains of the basket downriver amongst some rushes… empty.
“And I… will love you… babeee. Alllllways…”
Bon Jovi’s hit song from last year played through the speakers of the patrol car, much to Officer Piedro Santos’ delight as he sang off key to it, and much to his supervising officer Charles Franklin’s annoyance behind the wheel.
The dirt road they drove along was a convenient shortcut between towns. It ran along the calm shores of the Kegaska River where the most exciting things to happen were the occasional rowdy college kids skinny-dipping at night, or last summer when a fisherman had to be rescued after he fell out of his boat when 14 kg pike he caught bit him in the butt when it slipped out of his net.
Just as Santos readied himself to belt out the song’s final refrain, he and Jon Bon Jovi were interrupted by Franklin who’d finally had enough and shut the stereo off.
“Gimme some CCR or Allman Brothers any day. Not this whiny punk’s rambling.”
The tires crunched louder as Franklin turned them into the next curve, one that brought the patrol car right alongside the water. Santos smirked at his partner before he turned his face into the breeze of his open window. He gazed at the ripples of sunlight reflecting off the water.
“Just cuz Bon Jovi’s music is from the 90s and not 70s, doesn’t make it any less good rock, Charlie.”
“Hmph, maybe you can get the captain to let you take a side gig as a wedding singer or something. Make a few extra bucks so you can treat your supervising officer to lunch for once too.”
Santos turned his head to grin at his partner who normally would have taken the opportunity to throw a smirk back his way, but instead, the older officer’s brows shot up as his eyes fixed on something over Santos’ shoulder. “Charlie?” Santos looked back out his window, and his jaw went slack. “What the…”
High over the river was now a swirling patch of reddening sky… with crackling bolts of lightning shooting out of it.
Both officers jumped at the loud burst of static that erupted from the stereo which then began emitting an infernal buzzing. Appropriate, given the entire sky at that moment flashed from crisp autumn blue to devil red.
“Pete, hold on!”
Santos’ side slammed into his door as Franklin swerved their vehicle to avoid a bolt that struck the road. Rocks and grit shot into the air, pelting the car and cracking its windshield in a violent shower of pings.
“What the hell!” Santos had to shout to be heard over what was now a roaring of the atmosphere. The patrol car’s siren blaring even though it was switched off didn’t help.
Then the engine stalled out.
Siren and static cut off as the dash lights went dark. Santos watched Franklin twist the key back and forth in the ignition but to no avail. No turnover, no ignition noise, nothing. The older officer’s face blanched as he glanced up over the dashboard.
“Pete, get outta the car! Now! Move!” Another bolt of lightning was ripping up the road, blazing straight for them.
Buckles snapped and doors flung open as both officers leaped from the vehicle. The bolt struck the front of the patrol car, flipping it topsy-turvy several metres before it came to rest–doors closed and miraculously upright–on steaming tires.
The sharp smell of ozone lingered in the air, air beneath a once again clear blue sky.
“Geezus…” Franklin rolled off his back and into a sitting position, forearms propped on drawn knees. “You ok, Pete?” He rubbed slightly shaking fingers through his hair to shake out grit. “Ain’t nobody gonna believe this,” he muttered.
“Yeah, I’m ok.” An already standing Santos slapped dirt off his pants. “We better call this in fast, Charlie.”
The men headed for the car. Franklin let out a low whistle as they took in the state of their ride. The hood was scored with a black scorch mark but otherwise miraculously intact. The back windshield was now cracked to match the front but neither had shattered, the passenger and driver side windows had been open at the time so any glass damage would be inside the doors. Santos kicked a tire, eying the rubber that still steamed but none of the four were flat. And despite the car’s exterior being a dinged and dented mess, Franklin was able to open the driver door without a problem. Santos let out a ragged breath of relief when the ignition turned over and the engine started without a hitch.
And that’s when he heard it, a strange —mewling?— coming from over the riverbank behind him.
“Hang on, Charlie,” he called out to his partner through the open passenger window.
For some reason, Santos felt the need to put his hand on his holster as he cautiously made his way up the bank and peered down. At first, all he could make out were wet boulders where the river had splashed over them, along with clumps of torn up reeds and broken bulrushes.
Amidst the reeds he could make out something moving, something small and mud-streaked… white. A cat? Whatever it was, Santos found himself unable to ignore the pitiful sounds it was making.
“Charlie, come gimme a hand, would ya? And bring a pair of gloves.”
Braced on the edge of the bank, with Franklin holding on to one of his arms, Santos leaned over the side of a boulder just enough to reach under the wet ball of fur and gather it up. Franklin pulled him back and both officers stared down at what Santos held.
It was a fox, a baby one, whose white fur was soaked and caked with mud. The fox shifted weakly against Santos’ chest.
“I’m no wildlife expert but don’t foxes usually have only one tail?”
“Maybe it’s the pollution from that chemical plant over in High Falls?” Franklin scratched his forehead. “I heard they’re finding two-headed frogs and tadpoles in the river there.”
Santos was already making his way to the car. “Let’s get a blanket around it and take it to the vet off Buford Drive. It’s on the way.” Bundling the fox onto the back seat, he joined Franklin up front who’d started the car without any problems, the engine seemingly having survived what happened. Too bad the same couldn’t be said for any of the dash components. Franklin banged the two-way mic against the steering wheel.
“Nope. Whatever kind of storm that was, it fried everything else. Best head back to the station first,” he said. Santos nodded.
But before Franklin could put the car in drive, the mewling from the backseat stopped. It was replaced by a completely different cry. One very recognizable this time.
Both men slowly turned to look.
In the blanket where there’d been a white nine-tailed fox was now a crying baby.
You can find the completed Rivers of Fate on Elisabeth Long’s Wattpad profile.