The vortex swirled around Duke and the fox he held, spinning them both around gently, as though they were clothes in a dryer, then abruptly dumped them both onto the ground.
The former thief rolled, so as not to land on the little fox, and wound up flat on his back, looking up at the sky.
Oooo… maybe I’ll lay here a minute… He gasped, trying to recover the air he’d had knocked from his lungs.
“Are you okay?”
He lifted his head enough to peer at the fox, who was curled up on his chest, and watching him intently.
Duke dropped his head back, wondering how on earth he had gotten himself into this. “I landed wrong.” He said simply. “And when we figure out how to fix you up permanently, you have some explaining to do.”
“What would you like to know?” The fox asked, still studying him.
“How a fox learned to talk would be nice.” Duke commented, finally getting his wind.
“I’m only a part-time fox.” The feminine voice explained.
The fox blinked at him. “I’m an alien that’s been spliced. Or at least, that’s how it was explained to me…”
“Spliced?” Duke sighed. “Nothing’s simple with you, huh? Okay… how about giving me your name?”
“Fox?” He asked dryly.
“Fox Argent. That’s the only name I know.” She pronounced Argent roughly like ‘are-shown’.
The ex-thief frowned, turning the name over in his mind. “Argent. That’s French, isn’t it?”
“Yes. It means silver. I’m a silver fox, and my name is Fox ‘silver’. And if you laugh, I’m going to get upset with you.” The fox commented in a mild tone. “It’s the name my friends gave me.”
“Your friends are - ?”
Fox remained silent.
Duke made a face. “Okay, if you aren’t gonna answer my questions, you can get off ‘a me, and we’ll get going.”
“Sorry.” Fox daintily climbed down, and curled her tail around her paws. “What’s your name?”
“That’s French, isn’t it?” She asked, trying to sound innocent.
“Doesn’t that mean - ”
“I am well aware of what it means, and that around here, I’m dangerously close to sounding like a restaurant dish.” Duke commented dryly, getting up. “And if you laugh, I’m gonna get upset with ya.”
There was a trace of humor in Fox’s voice. “I think we can come to an agreement…”
“Let’s hope so.” He agreed, dusting himself off and looking around. “That gem knows it’s stuff. We’re right in front of the Royal Palace of Anaheim.”
Fox glanced up at him, puzzlement showing. “This is City Hall, isn’t it?”
“In our dimension.”
Duke chuckled. “Picture a room that has a mirror takin’ up a whole wall. Everything ya see in your side of the room is one way, and everything in the mirror is exactly the opposite. Now imagine the mirror wasn’t just a reflection, but a whole other room, except in a different dimension.” He explained, trying to keep it simple. The idea of alternate dimensions had come easily to him, compared to the other ducks, simply because he had traveled to a few himself, trying to evade the law.
“So this is a reflection of Anaheim, but not ours.”
“Right… ‘cept the people here would say that we live in the reflection.” He pointed out. “Anyway, this place isn’t exactly a mirror opposite… but we’ve essentially come through the looking glass, into the other room.”
Fox nodded slowly, trying to absorb this new twist. “So this is the Royal Palace.”
“Right.” Duke approved, trying to slow his pace so she wouldn’t have to run to keep up. “And this Anaheim is ruled by magic, so watch your step.”
“So you got that green gem here?”
“The amulet? Yeah… took it from a sorcerer. An evil one, called Asteroth.”
“I wouldn’t trust evil magic… or any magic, for that matter. I don’t think it would heal me.” Fox commented.
“That’s why we’re here. I’m hopin’ somebody is used to patching up mythical animals.” Duke replied, only half-joking.
Fox trotted up the steps after him, and sat waiting as he knocked on the huge wooden door.
A centaur opened the door after a moment, and glanced down at the drake. “Business?”
“Duke L’Orange. I was one ‘a the ones that defeated Asteroth. I need His Highness’ assistance…” The ex-thief explained.
“His Highness is busy.” The centaur said dismissively, and shut the door.
“What - ? Damn it!” Duke pounded on the door in frustration. “That was a month ago! You’re telling me you’ve forgotten already?”
The door stayed shut, and he sank down beside Fox. “I don’t believe this…”
The fox nosed his elbow sympathetically, and he sighed. “I guess we’re breaking in, kid.”
“I’m twenty-five.” Fox informed him.
He glanced at her, surprised. “Oh… sorry. You’re almost my age.”
“Seven, actually. Just turned it a couple months ago, this February.” He replied absentmindedly, trying to remember how his Anaheim’s City Hall was laid out.
“You’re a year and a half older.” Fox replied conversationally, stretching out and laying her head on her paws. “So how do we get in? Any secret doors?”
He blinked. “Yeah, actually… on the other hand…” Duke pulled out the amulet and grinned. “Why do it the hard way?”
Fox eyed the gem suspiciously, and gave a small sigh. “I don’t like that thing.”
“It’s keeping you alive right now, sweetheart, so don’t get too mad.” He replied, and pictured himself and the fox inside the main chambers.
There was no tunnel this time, simply a flash of light, and the Council chambers appeared around them.
Duke glanced around, scanning the room for Prince Borg, but the pair of guards coming towards him were a more immediate concern.
He drew his saber, and felt the fox press against his ankles.
“Stay back. I don’t wanna trip on ya.” He warned, the guards unsheathing their own swords.
He had no more time to worry about his new friend as Duke blocked the first guards clumsy attempt to disarm him.
A familiar, high-pitched voice that sounded as though it came from a young boy echoed through the chambers, and both guards halted, as though invisible strings had pulled them up short.
Duke eyed both of them, still wary, but managing a grin. “Nice timing, ya Highness.”
A small boy came down from the dais, his green eyes sparkling. “My apologies, good friend. It has been many weeks since your last visit, and the door warden is new.” He gestured dismissively to the centaur, who had appeared at the first sounds of trouble, and now backed away, looking embarrassed as he bowed low.
“Good help’s hard ta find.” Duke agreed, re-sheathing his saber. “So’s good magic.” He added. “My friend here was injured, and I think she’s too far gone to be helped by anything besides magic. Trouble is, the amulet we took from Asteroth doesn’t seem ta last.”
The prince knelt down to examine the silver fox. “Any friend of yours is welcome here. I must agree though - Asteroth’s magic will not last. It is a rare kind of magic that will not wear off when the charm or amulet is taken or lost. Anything wished for will vanish, as soon as the amulet leaves the wisher’s possession.”
“You mean if the team ever lost the amulet, we’d all wind up back here? We did wish to go home on it…” Duke frowned, dismayed at the thought.
“No, friend.” Borg laughed. “The amulet will act as means of transport without revoking it, because the amulet itself must come too. If transport were reversible, then the amulet never would have traveled to the particular place it was stolen.”
“Right…” The former thief replied slowly, not entirely sure he did understand. “Magic’s a little too confusing for everyday life, eh Fox?”
“I suppose so. I am used to life’s being a bit beyond my grasp. It allows me to still see everything as though it was a miracle, instead of some chemical, metaphysical process.” The fox answered shyly.
Borg blinked in surprise, but remained unfazed.
“Aye. There isn’t magic that will easily fix a wound – it can be reopened by a counter spell, or by losing the charm or amulet – or the spell caster’s death. However, I have a mage that deals completely with the art of healing. He surely has something that can help your friend.” The diminutive prince answered. “This way!”
Duke followed after the prince, easily keeping stride with him, and glanced back to see if Fox was keeping up.
She was, padding silently along, and glancing around her as she came.
Place hasn’t changed much… of course, with Asteroth gone, they got rid of those skeleton decorations… Duke noted.
The Prince came to a small door in the hall, and it swung open of its own accord.
“Mage! I’ve a patient for you!”
Duke stepped into the room, just in time to see a tall, wizened man step out from a stack of books.
“Who is the patient, Highness?” He asked in a gravelly voice.
The wise man seemed undisturbed by the appearance of the talking fox. “I see. Please explain the injury to me.”
Fox launched into a brief explanation, and the mage fetched a few bottles as she spoke.
Fox glanced at the mage as he set a small dish filled with a clear liquid in front of her, and began to obediently lap at it, making a face at the taste.
“Can you fix her?” Duke asked, glancing at the wise man. “I’m still not sure what happened.”
“I can heal her, but unless you are aware of who caused such a wound, I cannot promise she will stay safe.” The mage answered seriously.
“Yeah… that’s been buggin’ me too. I still haven’t got a clue as ta where she came from, or who she is.” Duke answered. “I’m not even sure what - ”
He stopped abruptly, noticing that Fox was swaying on her feet. “You okay?”
“I’m… feeling… weird…” She slurred, and sank down with a quiet sigh.
The ex-thief glanced at the mage. “You drugged her?”
“She would most likely rather be unconscious when I am ready to sew her up.” The mage replied serenely. “The Prince and yourself may wish to be seated. This could take a bit of time. I have no magic here, but I know of several herbs that increase healing time by sevenfold. Still, she is in a bad way, from the sound of it.”
Duke handed over the amulet, and the healer set to work.
Fox opened her eyes slowly, trying to shake off the hazy feeling that was buzzing around her head.
She was no longer in the old library, but in some sitting room, curled up on the sofa.
She blinked, and slowly pushed up into a sitting position. “I’m not feeling as good as I was…” She mumbled.
“The mage says ya oughta take it easy for a while.” Duke commented, getting up from the chair he’d been sitting in. “But if ya feel like talkin’…” He added meaningfully.
Fox winced at the dulling pain in her side, and the full realization of what had happened hit her.
Elusive had shot her, justifiably angry that Fox had nearly exposed herself to an outsider. And she had run… which mean that she wouldn’t be welcomed back. Ever. Her friends had finally turned on her, and she was stuck with hiding from them for the rest of her days.
Because they’d kill her if they saw her.
Fox lay back down, closed her eyes, and began to cry softly, covering her face with her bushy tail.
Duke paused as he sat down on the edge of the sofa, hearing a foreign sound, and saw the fox was trembling… scared of something.
It finally sank in that she was crying, sobbing actually, as though her heart was breaking.
He winced. He was used to women crying, he’d seen a lot of tears… most of them genuine. But he still hated to see one cry – even if they weren’t his species.
“Does it still hurt?”
Fox continued to sob quietly, not answering.
The former thief glanced heavenward, wondering momentarily if the Almighty was doing this just to drive him crazy, and awkwardly stroked the little fox’s head, trying to be comforting.
After a couple minutes passed, and Fox showed no signs of letting up, he started to worry a bit. “Fox? I wanna help ya, I really do… but I don’ know what’s going on anymore… Can I help?”
Fox made an effort to speak; all she managed was a shuddering sigh.
Duke curbed any impatient thoughts he was having, and waited. If you left a long enough silence, most people grew uncomfortable and started talking to fill the space. He’d used the trick often enough, and it always wound up telling him more about a person and their thoughts than any amount of prying had ever yielded.
It worked this time too.
“I’m sorry.” Fox managed, hiccupping as she tried to stop crying.
“Why? This might be the mirror Anaheim, but I don’t think there’s a law about crying. Are you okay?”
She peeked out from behind her tail shyly, her fur streaked with tears. “I-I’m okay…”
“You wanna tell me why you got shot?” Duke asked, then changed his mind. “Actually, why don’t you fill me in on why you were hanging around the Pond the first time I saw ya.”
“I was… trying to find a way in. I was curious about the alien ducks the newspapers kept raving about.” She answered.
He glanced at her sharply. “You were the person that was messing with the lock?”
The ensuing silence answered him, and he started putting the pieces together. “You ran when I yelled at ya, and I lost you when you turned into a fox.”
She nodded. “It was the quickest way to lose you. I nearly died when you jumped over that car… I thought I’d been quiet…”
Duke chuckled. “You were. I just kinda sensed you. When you spend your life stealing, you get something close to a radar for sensing people sneaking up on ya.”
“You steal?” Fox asked, curiosity overtaking the sadness.
“You haven’t heard of me before, have you?” He commented. “I used to. I was good at it.” A huge understatement, but it’s not important…
“What made you stop?”
Duke winced. “A lot ‘a reasons… I don’t know if you’d understand.”
He hesitated. “Maybe later. So who shot ya?” The ex-thief changed the subject hastily.
“A friend.” Fox replied, sinking back behind her tail.
He glanced at her, surprised. “You know, where I come from, friends don’t shoot ya. S’this some Earth custom I’m not familiar with?”
“No. I disobeyed.”
“And they shot ya for it?” He asked, not liking the picture he was getting. “Are you in a gang, or what?”
“No!” Fox protested, sounding distressed. “Not a gang. Just some… friends. Hiding.”
“Hiding from - ?”
Duke caught the bitter note to her reply. “Normal, huh? What, you’re telling me the X-men are real?” He kidded.
The humour fell flat. “You try being hunted like an animal!” Fox spat, her fur bristling.
Duke avoided the obvious retort that spring to mind. “I’ve been hunted, sweetheart.” He replied quietly, without rancor. “I’ve spent nights on heating grates with a knife in my hand and one eye open. I was rounded up like everyone else on Puckworld and stuck in a work camp, where you prayed you’d only pull the sixteen hour shifts, instead of the twenty. I had a trusted friend turn on me, and shove a sword in my eye. I got the eye patch when a little kid ran away from me, screaming, because of the man that had a cyborg eye growing in his skull. I’ve been branded a criminal, an outlaw, and a fugitive by everyone, including most of my own teammates, which means I’ll never have a normal life. Ever.” He turned away, the rawness of the words eating at him, and Duke wished he’d just kept quiet.
Fox was quiet a moment before she replied.
“I don’t know who I really am, or who my parents are. They left me stranded here when I was very young, an alien among humans. I have nightmares sometimes about that time.” She added softly. “I don’t know who my parents were, but I know they didn’t want me. I remember that. I was around three years old, I guess, when my world fell apart.” Fox buried her nose between her paws.
“Someone eventually found me roaming the streets and took me to the police. Since I was an alien, they turned me over to a science lab for study. After a couple days, I was stolen… I think. Someone had gotten wind of the baby alien, and decided they wanted it. I remember being grabbed, and knocked out. When I woke up, I was in a room – a cage really – with other kids. Some were older, most were about my age. All I have is these vague nightmares about my childhood. I know most of the facts because I broke into the computer systems to get my file when I turned twenty. That was the year we turned on him.”
Duke’s blood ran cold. “Turned on who?”
“Dr. Bryant. He was running an illegal laboratory involving experiments with human DNA. He thought people would pay millions of dollars to have their DNA altered – so they can be faster, smarter, stronger, thinner, more beautiful. It’s the ultimate step… no more face-lifts, diets, or painful surgery… just an injection that contains the foreign DNA, and some bio-chemicals that replicate it. One shot allows your genetic makeup to be altered permanently. He took young kids off the streets, ones nobody would miss, and used them. I was his star, because I was an alien. He tried to figure out how to create a human chameleon – someone that could shape-shift at will. I was studied for that purpose, and eventually, he tried the formula on me. It didn’t work the way he wanted, and I was only able to become a fox at will. He never got anything else to work on me. But the altered DNA turned my hair white, almost the same color of my fur right now, and it left this odd mark.” The fox turned her head towards him, displaying the pure white silhouette that resembled a fox head, which stood out sharply against her silver fur.
“Where’s Dr. Bryant now?” Duke asked, half suspecting the answer.
“Still alive, I’m afraid. Elusive and Lethal tried to kill him during the uprising, but he got away. The majority of his experiments were finally old enough to fight back, and we had bided our time, trying to learn everything we could before we broke out.” Fox answered softly.
“How many ‘experiments’ did he have?”
Fox paused, considering the question. “I would say over fifty.” She replied, not noticing the expression on Duke’s face. “He was still using kids right up to the breakout, and that came five years ago. Some of us are over forty, and a few of us are as young as six.”
Duke could feel his feathers pricking up from the ghastly statement. “So that’s what Splicer means?”
“When DNA is taken from a subject, and parts are snipped out, the DNA that replaces it is spliced in.” Fox answered, sounding as though she was quoting from a textbook. “So anyone that has had their DNA altered is known as a Splicer, just like anyone that has had some body part or function replaced by a machine is called a Cyborg.”
“So… who’re Elusive and Lethal?”
“Splicers. When we broke out, the oldest ones assumed control of the group, and responsibility. The ones that wanted to be on their own, left. Everyone else stayed. But with the understanding that we were to be silent and unnoticed, the wraiths of society. If anyone was ever discovered, people would start asking too many questions, and we’d be discovered. And people lock up what they don’t understand. We’d all be thrown in prison, to keep humanity ‘safe’, or be put back in some laboratory.” Fox explained. “Elusive can dematerialize. If a mist, or a sparkle of light trickles into a room, you can expect to see it transform into her. Dr. Bryant also replaced the DNA code for her hands – she has multi-pronged whips now. Lethal was spliced to allow a high tolerance for toxic substances. As disgusting as it sounds, he spit in someone’s face once during a fight – and it was corrosive enough the man lost some of his skin. If he scratches you, or bites, it can be fatal. Elusive can’t go out in regular society – she’s too abnormal looking. But Lethal looks perfectly ordinary – it’s partly why he’s one of the group’s ‘police’.”
“And these guys are just roaming around loose?” Duke asked, glad he was sitting down at the moment. These Splicers could be more dangerous than anything the team’s ever faced…
“What crime have they committed? Don’t they deserve to be free?” Fox argued.
Duke snorted. “I don’t know – are they happy, stable personalities? Look, no one should be locked up without a reason, but if any one of your ‘friends’ gets it into his or her head ta hold Anaheim hostage, it sure as heck sounds like they could do it. Maybe they’re all pussycats, but that doesn’t means I want them next door.”
Fox got up, and sat down with her back to him.
“Are they the ones that shot ya?”
“I broke a rule. I could have exposed the group. They won’t let me come back now. They’ll shoot me on sight, rather than trust me. Their safety depends on not trusting anyone.” Fox began to cry again, struggling not to.
Duke softened. He really hated to see people cry, especially a woman who was trying desperately not to – and crying over losing the same people that had shot her.
“You don’t have to go back. You can stay with me and the team.” He offered.
Fox stared at him, her eyes narrowing. “Why would you help me?”
“Because you need it. And I hate ta see you cry.” Duke answered gently.
Fox looked away.
“Look, I promise no one will hassle you about it.”
“Only if… you promise not to tell them I’m a Splicer.” Fox pleaded. “Just give me a couple days to heal, and then I’ll morph back to my real self and meet everybody. But I don’t want them to know.”
Duke sighed. “Three days. I’ll give ya three days, and then we’ll have ta tell ‘em.”
Fox sighed, looking a bit downcast. “Three days. She agreed quietly.
“Ready to get outta here? Or would ya rather stay a while?” Duke asked.
She hesitated, then glanced over at him. “I don’t mean to sound ungrateful, but I guess I’d rather get home… um, I mean - ”
“The Pond is your home, as long as ya need. If the others knew about ya, they wouldn’t mind either. The humans around here are a little nervous about aliens sometimes.” He advised.
“Home, then.” Fox requested. “I’m not entirely comfortable here… seeing creatures out of fantasy books is unnerving.”
Duke wisely refrained from mentioning her own appearance at the moment, and was saved from a diplomatic reply by the Prince sticking his head in the door.
“Ah! And how is the lady feeling now?”
“Much better, thank you.” Fox answered.
“We appreciate the help, your Highness, but I kinda borrowed the amulet without running the idea through a committee.” Duke commented wryly. “I need ta get back and set things straight.”
The Prince grinned. “I will see you again sometime, then. Please return, if there is any way I can aid you. Farewell, good friends!”
“Yeah, we’ll see ya.” Duke picked up the small fox gently, and thought of home.
Fox, Dr. Bryant, Lethal, and Elusive are copyright me, 2003. (Hey! It rhymes!)
The term 'Splicers', I would like to say is copyright me... I'm not sure I *can* copyright a term like that though. *shrugs*
Duke and Prince Borg are copyright Disney, though I've always thought Borg looked suspiciously like Zelda, from the vid games...
The Centaur door-warden and the Mage are my creations... but I'll probably never use 'em again, so Disney can have them. ;) So there.