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Chapter Four: Perspective

“I don’t know why it took an interest in you, but I’d be careful. It’s never helped anyone before.”


Stupid!

A blast of lightning fired past me, shattering an old clock at the back of the overview office I was cowering in. The Wasteland Survival Guide was full of all sorts of helpful tips. Scavenging guides. A whole chapter on mines. And more! And then there were the not-so-helpful ones. After having read the chapter on “Making Pre-War Fox Technology Work For You”, my first thought when I came across the ruins of Ironshod Firearms was to take a peek inside and see if there was any technology I could make work for me.

Instead, I got myself trapped in a maze full of foxicidal robots and automated turrets, fleeing until I managed to back myself into a corner here in an office box high above the factory floor. Almost out of ammo. If I hadn’t found that medical box in the employee bathroom, I would have died trying to get across the second floor.

How could I possibly have been so very stupid?

Below, three of those robots were rolling about, looking for me. They were tracked things, built to somewhat resemble foxes, with clear domed heads that housed real brains. I refused to think that the foxes who built them might have used other foxes’ brains in the construction. The thought was just too horrible. Even doing that to an animal’s brain was awful. And clearly, two-hundred years of continuous operation had done nothing for their sanity.

“Come on out. We only want to kill you for trespassing!”

Case in point.

The fact that the voice sounded like a young kit, despite being clearly artificial, just made them that much freakier. Fortunately, the railing on the catwalks leading up to this office were too narrow for the brain-bots to get up here.

A much deeper, authoritative voice boomed across the room. “Surrender in the name of the Ministry of Technology, wolf scum!”

I cringed behind a line of metal filing cabinets as the room filled with a rush of flame!

Unfortunately, the same could not be said for the other type of guard robot I’d crossed paths with in here. The multi-limbed things looked like giant metal spiders, many of its arms seemed to end in weapons, including a buzzsaw and a flamethrower. And worse, the damn things could fly!

I slipped both of my grenades out of my bags and waited until the flames died away. The metal cabinets were beginning to get unpleasantly warm against my back, and the heat in the air seared my lungs. The second the flamethrower cut off, I turned my head around the corner and threw them both right up to the metal monster, pulling out the stems on the way. The moment it saw me, the robot raised a pulsing green weapon that looked sort of like a scavenger's sword. Eldritch fire erupted from it, shooting past me close enough to singe my cheek. The blast struck an old fan sitting on the desk behind me; it glowed green for a moment, then melted! I ducked back as I dropped the grenades.

The explosion rocked the office. I heard a fearsome twang as part of the catwalk outside gave. Looking back, the robot was in a non-functional heap. The walkway outside was still mostly intact, but sagging badly. I wasn’t sure it could hold my weight.

Stripping what I could from the fallen spider-bot, I considered my options. I couldn’t stay up here forever. If I moved very fast, I could run the walkway without the brain-bots below getting me. Their weaponry did not seem very accurate. But the first few yards of the catwalk had partially torn free, and sagged alarmingly. The more I looked at it, the less I wanted to put a paw on it.

But really, what choice did I have? Holding my breath nervously, I started to scoot across.

I was halfway across when the brain-bots started firing lightning in my general direction. Ahead of me, the catwalk stopped right before the huge windows that let twice-filtered sunlight (once by the clouds and once by the dirty glass itself) onto the factory floor, supplementing the light from heavy fixtures hanging above. The catwalk shot off in both directions, running parallel to the wall. One was the direction I had come from. The other lead to a door which had been locked. Only that door didn’t have a lock to pick. Instead, it could only be opened by command from a terminal.

Another shot of lightning missed cleanly, shooting through one of the shattered windows of the observation office and frying the terminal I had just used, not five minutes ago, to unlock said door.

It was a lot of metal catwalk. And the damn bots beneath me shot lightning. I grunted with the effort that kept me aloft, feeling my vision darken at the edges. I had to stop, or I’d pass out. And that would be the end of me.

Abandoning my caution, I started to race along the creaking catwalk.

“Don’t run! We want to be your friend!”

More blasts. I tensed, expecting to feel paralyzing electricity rip up my body, starting at my paws. Instead, I heard a crash a loud pop and a twang from somewhere above. Looking up as I ran, I saw that one of the bolts had hit the hanging lamp above, causing its softly buzzing light to explode. And that, freakishly, was the last straw: it snapped loose from the badly aged, cracked ceiling above and swung down, crashing into the catwalk behind me. The whole walkway shook. And then the section behind me tore away with a rending scream of abused metal.

Oh f*** me with Dinner’s forepaws!

I’ll admit, my repertoire of colorful descriptions had grown more profane from my experience with the raiders; but as I galloped down the walkways at heart-tearing speed, trying to keep ahead as the sections of catwalk began to fall down onto the factory floor like a thunderous, lethal game of dominos, I felt the sentiment entirely appropriate.

I was almost to the door when the metal walkway dropped out from under me. I threw myself forward, carried only on momentum, and caught the final section with only my forelegs. I hung there, my hindpaws dangling several stories over an ancient rifle assembly line that had been crushed by the fallen catwalk. I struggled, trying to inch myself up. I tried to tug on my bags and drag myself forward at the same time. My heart was pounding. I fought to keep visions of falling from dominating my imagination -- tried not to think of my back breaking as I landed on the conveyor belt below. At least the damned brain-bots weren’t shooting at me anymore, having scurried for cover.

It seemed to take forever, but inch-by-inch I pulled myself onto that final section of catwalk. It wobbled threateningly beneath me, sticking out from the wall like a diving board, held in place by bolts that wiggled in wear-widened holes. Cautiously, I got my paws under me and stepped lightly towards the door.

A blast of lightning hit the catwalk, shooting up my legs and sending me into painful convulsions. I collapsed, shaking, on the walkway, my fur standing on end. The walkway responded with a metallic cry and tilted several inches, threatening to dump me into the gulf below.

I struggled shakily to my feet. Another blast shot up from almost directly beneath me, missing the walkway by less than a foot and striking the ceiling above. Bits of singed plaster rained down. I gave the door a push, and was vastly relieved when it swung open. Then the catwalk gave further. I lurched, wrapping my forelegs around the door frame to keep from sliding down the now quite steep metal platform. A third electrical blast ripped through the air, striking another strip of industrial lighting whose light also exploded, making it swing perilously.

Grunting, I pulled myself into the room. I turned and sat in the doorway, looking down at the brain-bot rolling in circles directly below, trying to figure out how to get me. Then, with a strong kick of my forepaws, I knocked the last of the catwalk loose. It fell, scraping down the wall, until it smashed through the robot’s brain-case, pulping the organ inside and continuing down, ripping the machine roughly in half. I must admit that I found the crunch immensely satisfying.

      • *** ***

I realize that if the room I had successfully accessed at such great personal risk had not offered another way out, I would have been in deep trouble.

Closing the door behind me, I felt immediately more comfortable. The room had been painted in what had once been a bright orange, and the paint had not lost all its warmth over time. The wood paneling probably brought a pleasant, homey feel to what I believed was clearly the factory Overfox’s office. Now that wood was rotted and crumbling. On the back wall above the desk was an oversized logo in deeply tarnished bronze:

IRONSHOD FIREARMS

How do you like them apples?

I didn’t get it.

Ignoring it, I looked around. Large, fancy desk. Chair. Filing cabinets. A poster in a backlit frame -- the same poster I had seen several other times in the factory, but this one in better condition, showing graceful foxes racing through a grassy plain, rainbows exploding behind them as they struck down dark, demonic figures with evil, glowing eyes. (Being a Fox Rocks! Join the Pyrrhian Forces Today!) A wardrobe.

My eyes barely touched these, moving to the important things first. The office held a terminal I could hack, a wall safe I could pick, and a personal elevator that, if it worked, would get me safely to the first floor and out of this deathtrap. There was an ammo box under the desk. Then my eyes fell on something unique. Mounted on the opposite wall was a glass case. And in the case was a beautiful and perfectly preserved revolver. A similar model to mine, but crafted with what must have approached love. It had a scope, and an ivory bit molded for extra-comfortable fit in the mouth and ease of trigger. On the handle was an emblem, three gears.

I tried my paw (so to speak) at the safe first. It was tough, taking a few attempts, but after breaking one bobby pin I learned better how to prevent further losses. The safe opened with a generous click. The impressive amount of objects made me wonder if my excursion into Ironshod Firearms hadn’t been worthwhile after all. I started sorting the treasure from the rubbish. Inside was sack full of pre-war coins, a copy of Pyrrhian Army Today, a whole bunch of finance papers that ceased to mean anything hundreds of years ago, a box of what looked like bubble gum (I couldn’t decipher the writing on it), a Spark o’ Magic battery and finally an odd paw-strapped device that looked like it was meant to interface with my PipDog. Curious, I slid it on and let my PipDog analyze it.

StealthDog. Invisiblity Spell. One charge.

Hot damn!

Next was the terminal. Pulling out my utility suit, I slid out my access tool and started to work. This terminal was tougher to crack than the previous ones. Even with my tools, I had to abort several times to avoid getting locked out. I pulled another apple from my bag and bit into it, intent on the screen, only to hit something painfully hard. Holding the apple up to eye level, I saw a bullet embedded in it. Looking down at my bags, there was indeed a small hole, although it took me a few minutes to remember when that had happened.

Once in, I discovered a whole mess of old notes and messages. In addition, the terminal had a shutdown key for all the robotic security. And it could remotely open both the safe and the display case. I rolled my eyes, thanking the universe ever so much for giving me this potentially life-saving option only now that I’d already fought my way to the finish and no longer needed it. I also realized that I could have saved myself a bobby pin if I had worked on the computer first.

I told the terminal to open the display case. Doing so triggered a message.

“Cousin Pinecone, Ah know we ain’t talked in some time, but the war effort’s takin’ a twist for the scary, and Ah might not have a chance t’ see ya again. Ah want t’ mend fences. Now, Ah ain’t gonna muck this up with words. We all know how well that went last time. Instead, Ah’m sendin’ ya Lil’ Avis as a gift and as an apology. T’show you I’m sincere. Keep ‘im safe for me, will ya?”

The accent was very much like that of the voice I found on Lilac’s PipDog, although this time it was clearly not from the same fox. But it was the earnest tone of the recording that made me pause. Two hundred years ago, somefox had given this gun as a token of apology and as an effort to reconnect with family. And that some fox’s cousin had done just as she asked, preserving the weapon for generations after his own death.

I wasn’t going to leave it there, untouched by anyfox until the building collapsed on it. But when I took it, I removed it respectfully.

All that was left was going through the rest of the office. The ammo box held bullets for Little Avis, and not a shy amount. In the wardrobe, I found some old maintenance suit that I could use to repair the holes in my own utility barding, and other garments that I left behind.

Eventually, I turned to the elevator and pushed the button. Nothing.

Of course it didn’t work. The wasteland just couldn’t give me a break. Pulling out my tools, I opened up the side panel and tried to figure out what was wrong and if I could fix it from here.

To my great relief, I could. The elevator proved to be in impressive condition, particularly considering the rest of the building. But the battery for the interface was dead. As Dinner’s mercy would have it, there had been a replacement in the safe. One swapping of batteries later, I was on my way. As the doors slid shut, the thought crossed my mind, “Avis? Wasn’t that…”

      • *** ***

I trotted between the collapsed buildings that littered the area around Ironshod Firearms, not having any particular direction to go. Aimless. I hadn’t found any signs of civilization… civilized civilization, mind you. I had kinda given up on finding Lilac. For now, I was satisfying myself with random exploration, although that had just proven exceptionally dangerous.

In Den Sixteen, I knew exactly what my future would be (as unbearably dull as it would have been). Out here, in the huge open outside, I was struggling with just the opposite. I never considered that having an assigned place might be as much a relief as it was a burden.

My ears perked at the sound of overwrought, triumphant music. I watched as a sprite-bot fluttered down a cross street. Running up to it, I drew myself around in front of it. “Watcher?”

It just floated by.

I dashed in front of it again. “Hello?” The music just kept playing. I waved a paw right in front of its lack of face. It danced around me and kept going.

Well, that was helpful.

I picked a random direction and started trotting again. I thought of Watcher’s advice. Armor, check. Weapon, double-check. Guidance? I looked back at the Ironshod building. A bit iffy, but check. Friends?

“It’s kinda hard to make friends where there doesn’t seem to be anyfox around!” My exasperated voice echoed off crumbling walls of concrete. If this was a quest, it was a lame one. I seriously needed to find something to do. Preferably other than “dodge” and “duck”. In Den Sixteen, I felt painfully ordinary. I yearned to be special; now I yearned to be anything.

My downcast eyes chanced upon a Red Sea scooter amidst the ruins. Reaching out a paw, I flipped it back onto its wheels and prodded it back and forth a few times. Three of the wheels were locked with rust; but to my surprise, one still turned.

Looking up, I found myself at the edge of a playground. The swings and slide jutted into the oddly-colored air, blackened by ancient bombfire, like bones of a great dead beast. The merry-go-round was warped and canted. The skeleton of a baby fox was still curled at one end.

Sadness and immense shame flooded me. I had been feeling sorry for myself in the midst of all this!? Another tiny skeleton lay against the burnt husk of a tree, three roller skates in the dirt near its paws. The fourth? I doubted anyone would ever know.

I plodded on, moving through the silent impromptu graveyard.

At the far end, sheltered by walls that were mostly still intact, I found an old vending machine. “Sunny~Cola” the machine still advertised through the years of grime. It featured a backlit emblem of a stylized golden sun. Surprisingly, the machine still looked functional. Fishing out a few pre-war coins, I fed them into the machine. I didn’t actually expect that it would still have soda after all these years. I was astonished when a bottle rolled out dutifully. I suddenly realized how awfully thirsty I was!

The Sunny~Cola was luke-warm, but actually rather delicious, with a delightfully mousy aftertaste. The clicking of my PipDog warned me that I was ingesting trace amounts of radiation with each swallow, but not enough to be harmful. I’d taken more harm standing around at Queen Glacier's Palace. And besides, if it reached a point where my radiation intake began making me sick, I had a couple RadAways -- the only supplies from the Ironshod medical box that I hadn’t needed to use just to survive the building.

I spotted a bench just around the side of the building and decided to take a load off my legs, possibly read some of the Pyrrhian Army Today book I had picked up. As I turned the corner, my gaze fell upon an old, torn poster affixed to the wall. The image was the face of an elderly fox of almost obtrusively white coloration. Her fur was streaked with grey. (On some foxes, grey hair makes them look distinguished; on most, it just makes them look old. Hers made her look like a snowfox.) Her eyes were huge, staring. I could swear, poster or not, that she was looking right into me. Somefox had ripped the poster right through the middle; I had no idea what her expression was supposed to be, but I couldn’t help but feel like I was doing something wrong. Bold words above and below the image, now deeply faded, announced: LOTUS BLOSSOM IS WATCHING YOU FOREVER! There were additional words, very tiny, beneath, so small and faded that I had to lean close and strain to read them.

“…a happy reminder from the Ministry of Morale.” I stepped back, tilting my head as I looked at the poster again. “What’s the Ministry of Morale?”

Watcher’s voice erupted from over my shoulder, making me jump high enough my head whacked the ceiling. “Another well-meaning idea that was so much better on scroll.”

I gasped, willing my heart to beat regularly again, and felt a fleeting empathy with Hawk. The sprite-bot was hovering right next to me. Dinner, those things were silent when they weren’t playing music! “Are you trying to give me a heart attack?!”

“Oh. Sorry.” I gave the flying orb a glare.

I forgot about the bench and started walking, trying to enjoy the rest of my Sunny~Cola. The sprite-bot followed.

“I see you’ve got some armor…” The mechanical voice seemed hesitant. I didn’t ask why. Watcher either didn’t care enough to explain or thought better of it. Maybe the fact that I was walking through the Pyrrhian Wasteland in an outfit coated inside and out with drying blood gave it pause.

I could probably go up to any Den fox and go “I am evil, bad, nightmare fox. Arrrr!” and, even despite my size, they would take one look and flee.

I sipped my cola and wished desperately for someplace decent to bathe. Problem was, any water clean and radiation-free enough to take a bath in would be too precious to pollute. One of my canteens was empty and the second nearly so.

“Maybe the reason you’re having trouble finding your place is that you haven’t discovered your virtue yet,” Watcher offered out of thin air.

I stopped. “What? How did you know… oh, nevermind.” Then, “What do you mean, my virtue?”

“Well,” the flying ball began, “The greatest heroes of Pyrrhia, foxes with lifelong bonds of unbreakable friendship and strength, were each known for exemplifying one of the great virtues of foxkind. Kindness, honesty, laughter…”

“Laughter is a virtue?” I asked dubiously.

“Roll with me on this,” the sprite-bot continued without breaking stride. “Generosity, loyalty and knowledge. They really didn’t know themselves, or each other, until one fox came to realize that her friends represented these virtues, and together they grew to live by them. Now, I’m not saying those are the only virtues, they are just a…” Now the bot paused as if searching for words. “…particularly important set. I’m just saying that perhaps if you learn to recognize the dominant virtue in your own heart, you will find yourself. And you won’t need anyone or anything else to tell you your place in the” Watcher’s voice cut out with an abrupt pop and music once again poured from the bot.

“Brilliant.” I watched as the sprite-bot slowly sailed away.

Well, if that wasn’t a load of crap, I didn’t know what was. Finishing my soda, I tossed the empty bottle amidst a pile of others. Empty bottles littered the Pyrrhian Wasteland like weeds.

A new thought was occurring to me. About Watcher. The Wasteland Survival Guide had to be written after the bombs rained down. Long after, considering its sound advice on scavenging. So that book wouldn’t have been in the Polarville Library as part of the original, pre-war library. It found its way in there later; from the lack of being burned, defaced or covered in blood, I was guessing recently. Which made me wonder: did Watcher know about those poor foxes the raiders held captive? And if so, is that why I was talked into going there? Was I manipulated into walking into that horror because Watcher hoped I would free them? I couldn’t be sure. And considering that Watcher saved me, I should give the benefit of the doubt. But I couldn’t help the niggling sense that Watcher had played me, and I don’t like being tricked.

My ears perked as the music stopped again, replaced by a voice. But this wasn’t Watcher’s voice. This was somefox else. This voice wasn’t metallic. It was the voice of a smooth dog fox with a greasy charisma.

“Friends, foxes, rejoice! Although the world about you is bleak, scarred and poisoned by the war of honorless, thoughtless, inferior foxes of the past, we do not have to live in the shadow of their greed and wickedness. Together, we can raise Pyrrhia back to its former beauty! Together, we can build a new kingdom where all live together in perfect unity! It’s already happening, my good foxes. Already, the foundation for a new and wonderful age is being built. Yes, it’s hard work, but don’t we owe it to ourselves, and to future generations of ponies, to be better? No, to be the best we can possibly be? I’m telling you now, as your friend, as your leader, that we can. We must. And we WILL!”

What in a fever dream was that??

The music had resumed -- not popping back in the middle of a song like when Watcher seized control of a sprite-bot, but at the beginning of a new song, like this was how the bot was supposed to work.

Wait, foxes have a leader now? That was serious news to me. As far as I could see, we didn’t even have a country. Hell, I’d settle for a town! Even just a few shacks built within vague proximity of each other, so long as they had foxes living there in peace. Or as close to peace as the wasteland allowed.

If we had a leader, we had to have at least one town, right?

Trotting faster now, I found a ruin with enough intact stairs for me to get up to what was left of a second floor. I brought out the binoculars and looked about. Sure enough, in the distance, I saw smoke. Enough plumes, close enough together, to suggest some sort of settlement. I prayed to Dinner that the smoke was from cooking fires, not raiders burning it to the ground.

There was a path leading out towards the settlement. That would keep me from losing my way. And there was movement on that path. I focused the binoculars, bringing a small group of foxes into view. Two of them were pulling a heavily laden wagon. A young fox rode on its back, apparently talking with two others who were guiding equally-burdened two-headed beasts. The group was headed towards me, away from the theoretical town. But they didn’t look like they were fleeing, and none of them were wounded, all of which I took for a good sign. A very good sign indeed.

I looked up into the thick, broiling clouds, up to where the disk of the sun made a brighter spot in the cloudy ceiling, and sent a prayer of thanks to Dinner.

      • *** ***

The path wasn’t a road, exactly. Rather, it was a long, arcing swath cutting through the Pyrrhian Wasteland. Two parallel metal lines reinforced with badly-aged cross-planks of wood. Half-an-hour back, it had crossed over a gully on a rickety bridge. After my fun with catwalks, I chose to brave the gully rather than put my paws on something else that was surely holding off its inevitable collapse until it could take me with it.

It turned out to be a good decision, despite the wounds. The gully had been home to a bunch of large, bloated pig-things with extremely nasty front teeth. One of them got ahold of my left hindleg, biting clean through my armor and cutting a deep gash.

Little Avis is neither quiet nor subtle. A single shot from that sweet little gun tore the head clean off the pig-thing attacking me! And it fires quickly enough that I was able to slay the three others before my targeting spell ran out.

Beneath the bridge was somefox’s camp. It had a long-abandoned feel to it, but there were scattered supplies, including a few cases of shotgun ammo, a single can of food amidst a litter of tin cans (“Magical Fruit” the label boasted, but it turned out just to be beans), and a locked medical box. I picked the lock easily, finding a Stimpak which I swiftly injected, breathing a sigh of relief as the nasty gash mended gently, the pain ebbing away. There were bandages, nowhere as powerful as a Stimpak but good for flesh wounds, and a box of… mints? (“Mint-ats! Refresh your mind and your breath!” I had been surprised to see a smiling wolf on the front of the box, the first depiction of a wolf I’d seen that didn’t look like a storybook villain.)

Now I figured I was over halfway to the settlement, maybe two-thirds. I tried to keep myself from imagining what I would find. (A whole city of civilized and happy foxes, maybe.) I didn’t want to to set myself up for a letdown. “Even a few shacks” I told myself. I picked up the pace of my trot.

I heard a gunshot shot in the same instant that I felt a bullet tear clean through my right hindleg and another clang off the metal casing of the sniper rifle strapped to my back. I screamed in agony, collapsing to a skidding halt on the rocky ground, clutching at my hindleg. I was bleeding profusely through the hole torn through it. The bullet missed the bone, and I could tell that sickeningly because I could see it! I tossed my head back and screamed again.

Desperately, I dragged myself around a large mound of rocks, trying to take shelter from a shooter I never saw. Focusing as much as I could through the terrible pain, I pulled the medical bandages from my pack. I tried wrapping my bleeding hindleg, but the bandages were meant for cuts and gashes, not gaping holes. It was soaked with blood and sliding off almost before I had finished wrapping it. I tossed the bandage and tried again, this time pulling the bandage much tighter. It too soaked bright red, but at least it stayed.

Shaking with fear and pain, knowing from the sudden chills that my body was going into shock, I looked up and tried to spy the fox who attacked me. I looked all around, but no one was there! And there wasn’t a whole lot of cover to be hiding in; these hills of dirt and rock were mostly barren. I felt like my heart swallowed an ice cube when the image hit me that there was a fox out there with a StealthDog! She could be right next to me, pointing her gun at my head, and I wouldn’t even know!

But then I looked upward, and there in the sky was a rust-coated swift fox wearing a black desperado hat, a strange silvery armor I assumed allowed him to fly, and what looked like two rifles, one strapped on each side. The fox had just finished circling back around and was aiming right at me!

With panicked instinct, I ducked behind a large rock, using it as a shield. A crack rang in the air, two rifles fired simultaneously! The first bullet struck the rock, sending chips of stone flying, and ricocheted, lodging in my canteen. The last of my water burbled out at my paws. The second punched through my armor and embedded itself in my left shoulder, sending me reeling. Again, I collapsed, the pain peaking and then beginning to bleed off, which I knew wasn’t a good sign. This time, I didn’t think I would be getting back up again.

So, this is what it was like to die? So overrated.

My eyes felt heavy. I closed them, I don’t think for long. But when I opened them again, I spotted the foxes drawing their wagon, coming over the hill. Behind them would be more foxes, guiding pack... two-headed cattle-things. I remembered the young fox in the back of the wagon.

I doubted any of them would be looking up.

Forcing myself to my paws, I began dragging myself into the open. If I was going to die, it wasn’t going to be laying down, watching these people get slaughtered! My body screamed agony into my head, but I kept going, marching myself on lame legs until I was standing in the path right in front of the approaching group. Turning, and focusing through the hammering in my head, I lifted Little Avis into the air and pointed it at the rust-colored swift fox who had whipped back around and was again flying right at me.

I stood directly between him and the travelers. My vision was blurry from tears and trauma. I wasn’t sure, even with D.A.T.S., that I could hit him. And I stood no chance against his aim. He was an amazing shot; technically, he hadn’t missed me yet.

Putting every ounce of me into it, I growled as menacingly as I could. And hoped that a fox who had survived four shots would be mistaken for a ofx to be reckoned with. “Shoot at me all you want, but if you attack that family, I will! End! You!”

To my surprise, the swift fox’s eyes widened, and instead of firing, he backpedaled, coming to a halt in front of me. “Whoa nelly!”

Holding Little Avis was getting really hard. I’d lost all feeling in my shot leg, and fell onto my haunches without realizing.

“Ah ain’t the one attackin’ that caravan! You are!”

What!? Black was seeping into my vision from all sides. My head was swimming. The conversation wasn’t making any sense. But at least he was conversing rather than killing me. Weakly, “…not attacking. You shot me.”

“Well of course ah shot you! Ah see a raider headin’ at a caravan, ah’m gonna perforate her till she ain’t movin’ no more!” The rust-colored fox glared at me. Then, with a strangely proud look, “It’s muh policy.”

I felt my forelegs beginning to give. I was near collapse. But the words of the fox caused a fire to flash in my head. Little Avis had begun to sink towards the ground, but now it swung back up, pointed right between my attacker’s eyes. “I’m not a raider!”

The fox pointed at me argumentatively. “Y’sure look like a raider!”

Seemingly from out of nowhere, the young dog fox from the wagon galloped into view. I tried to raise my voice in warning, but nothing came out. The blackness fighting to overtake my vision finally won, and I collapsed, sinking into what felt like a deep sleep.

The last thing I heard was the dog fox whinnying, “Thunder, what have you done?!”

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