“So, now that you’ve succeeded in victory over me,” Coyote smiled broadly at me, but it wasn’t one of kindness. “Which one are you going after next? The Bird of Storms? The World Serpent? The Sphinx Queen? The First Unicorn? Or,” his eyes glinted, “perhaps none of those. What about that wolf on that island you visit?”
I glared. “That wolf is not even worthy of a title. Why should I bother with him?” At least, I hoped he was not worthy of a title yet. If he was, then his fate would not be far behind. That was not something I wanted to witness. Even someone like me would be in danger if the fate Fen was foretold to bring about happened.
Coyote laughed, arching his spine far beyond the limits of a normal canine. “Oh, Val, you silly fox. How could you believe that? The time of chaos is upon us and the fates are finally starting to turn. Even you are wrapped up in the great tapestry of fate, no one can escape it!”
“Shut up!” I roared. I was furious at this mongrel. How dare he decide that I wasn’t in control of my own destiny? “I’m not part of any tapestry! I decide my fate!” Now more than ever. The Great Beasts were the keys I needed to finally break out of the prison of binding the Elders had trapped me within.
“Fate controls our destiny and we control fate,” Coyote replied cheerfully. “It is as simple as that.”
That made no sense and I was about to say as much when a loud boom of thunder in the distance interrupted me. I jerked my head to the horizon to see the rising luminous circle of the moon bloated out by grotesque storm clouds. The rioting clouds sparked with flashes of lightning and thunder rolled from it almost constantly. I had never seen a storm like that before in all my many years of life.
The calm desert breeze stilled and the crickets stopped their chirping. Hairs on the back on my neck stood up as the very air became electrified. This entire plain seemed to still, waiting for something to strike. The calm before the storm.
Until a barking laugh broke the stillness. I whipped my gaze around to fix it upon Coyote. His snout was pointed to the sky and laughs seemed to spill from his tongue like he had no control over it. “Looks like your next challenge had already been decided,” he laughed.
“What are you talking about?” I called over the thunder. Wind was starting to pick up, much fiercer than before. It rushed through the plains like it was trying to wipe this area clean of everything. The storm felt alive, like it was coming straight for me.
Icey fear quickly doused my flaming rage. The cool tendrils of fear and worry made their way straight down to my soul and made me wish that I hadn’t sent my scythe away. It would still be a little while before I could call it back. I only had my natural defences to protect myself against whatever was coming.
“You’ll see soon enough,” Coyote laughed. “Good luck little White Fox.” He transformed into his smoke form and flew away into the night, his voice almost ripped away by the rushing wind.
“No!” I cried automatically. My hand stretched out towards him reflexively. Then I realized that I didn’t want him to leave me and retracted my hand with a twinge of self-disgust.
What the Hades was I doing? Why was I suddenly so desperate for him to stay with me? I was Valarian of the Foxes, the Fifth of the Four Ancient Foxes. I needed no one. Least of all a mangy mongrel trickster who took one of my arms. I snarled at my own weakness. It was unfounded. I had beaten one of the Great Beasts. I was stronger than ever. I could take whatever this was.
My fear slowly unwound itself from my insides, replaced by my own confidence. The storm, standing out against the unblemished night sky like a bruise, was growing bigger. The thunder was louder, the lightning brighter, the clouds closer. Whatever it was, it was coming straight here.
I sank down to a crouch, my claws popped out of my fingers and fangs filled my mouth. Blue fire licked at my hair and clothes as my foxfire enveloped me, lighting up my surroundings with a pale blue glow. This was the best offence I could create without my scythe. Though, this was enough to take out armies. I could only hope that whatever was in that storm wasn’t more powerful than Coyote.
Something wet and cold splashed on my forehead, dripping down into my eyes. I blinked it away only for another to take its place. And another, and another. Soon, a wall of cold water was pouring down from the heavens in torrents. The pulsing rain was met with another boom of thunder so loud it made the rocks around me tremble. The final rays of twilight had disappeared behind the curtain of water created by this massive storm.
I slashed my hair out of my face and turned into a fox, keeping my foxfire alive around me. What was coming? Could I even defeat it? I had to, though. I had to live to be free again.
Suddenly, an ear piercing shriek like that of a bird of prey echoed through the storm. It was louder than the pounding rain, louder than the booming thunder and crackling lightning. It was the sound of a hunter finding its prey. The sound shot straight into my ears and burrowed in like a centipede, causing unimaginable pain in its wake. I cried out, my howl mixing with the sounds of a storm. Just when I thought I would lose my mind if I heard it any more it cut off and the pain disappeared.
My breaths were heavy as I cursed my ignorance. I knew what was going on now.
I should have figured that defeating Coyote would get the attention of the other Great Beasts. Although I didn’t think that it would bring one of the Master Beasts straight to me. It was the only explanation. Only one of the Master Beasts could create a storm on this scale. I was a fool for not clueing into it sooner.
A being capable of creating thunder with every flap of its wings. One who could command lightning, hail, and rain as easily as I used my foxfire. One of the original Great Beasts, the Bird of Storms.
Another piercing cry almost brought me to the ground. My foxfire flickered as my concentration was broken into pieces. I pressed my paws onto my ears in an effort to block out the cry. Spots swam in my vision as something materialized out of the dark clouds above me.
A crack of lightning split the sky and lit up the bird with its light. Every flap of house-sized bird wings sent another boom of thunder through the night. Dark blue feathers covered their body and wings. Shocks of electricity crackled through their feathers, lighting up the night with every flash. The talons adorning their feet were easily as sharp as the finest swords, their beak looked as if it could rend the flesh of any Supernatural into ribbons. Their eyes were large and dark, speaking of sights more horrible and wonderful than I could ever imagine.
I thought of myself as one of the finest Supernaturals, but this creature was greater than me by far. Here I was, Valarian of the Foxes, crouched on the ground like some groveling servant in its presence. Some fox I am, I thought bitterly as the last of my fire blinked away to nothing.
But I couldn’t do anything to salvage my pride.
I was but a kit in the presence of the thunderbird.
Those infinite eyes fixed upon me and a chill of true fear shot through me. Whatever fear I had ever felt in my life was nothing when faced with this being. Even the Elders would cower like kits faced with the thunderbird’s might.
“You are Valarian of the Foxes,” the thunderbird said to me, their voice no longer the hunting shriek of a bird of prey. Now they sounded like thunder, echoing deep and dark to my bones.
The thunderbird was talking to me. I did not know if that meant that they were going to let me live or kill me after hearing what happened. I knew there was no way I could fight that thing and win….But…
I didn’t want to die. I wanted to live. I wanted to beat the Great Beasts and defeat my masters. I wanted to be free again.
With that realization, I found the strength to resist the might of the thunderbird. I forced my shaking legs to support me and did something I never thought I would do outside of the Elders. I released my tails.
All nine of my white tails spread out around me like a peacock’s fan. I sat, letting them settle around me and lit small orbs of foxfire on each tip. This was a symbol of strength I had seen the Elders do countless times to assert their superiority. I never thought I’d use it, but now seemed like the perfect time. “Yes,” I forced my voice to be strong. “I am Valarian of the Foxes. And you are the thunderbird.”
“I am the guardian of this land and its Balance,” the thunderbird replied, their voice shaking the grass in front of me. “You have defeated one of the beings under my skies.”
Coyote, that had to be what they meant. “I defeated the Trickster of the Plains,” I held my chin high, forcing myself to stare down the length of my snout at the massive bird hovering in the storm above me.
The thunderbird said nothing, making me worried that I would be struck with lightning soon. I had no idea if my immortality and regeneration extended to Great Beast lightning, but I did not desire to find out. “Thunderbird!” I called before it had the chance to electrocute me. “I was sent here to defeat the Great Beasts and learn the extent of the chaos to be caused by the unraveling of the Balance.”
“Is this of your own will?” they asked.
I faltered momentarily before answering. I usually would have dived head-long into the waters of sarcasm and derision to answer that. But it would be a very bad idea for me to bad-mouth a truly immortal Great Beast. “N-no,” I finally got out. “My masters, the Four Ancient Foxes, gave me this task.”
“I see.” I was usually fairly good at reading voices, but the voice of the thunderbird was impossible to read. It was purely thunder given shape. “If you wish to discover what will befall the residents of the Great Worlds, I am not the Beast to go after. Instead focus on Jormungar and the creatures under his domain. The World Serpent sees the threads of time clearer than any other in these worlds.”
I gritted my teeth. Jormungar, the World Serpent, said to reside at the bottom of a vast ocean. He was the creature that oversaw all of the Middleworld. The strongest and eldest Great Beast. He is said to be the only thing that could destroy a Great World.
And, of course, I would have to get the information I needed to be free again from him. The fates Coyote spoke of must have really hated me. But the World Serpent was between me and freedom. I had no choice but to claim victory over him.
Then something struck me. A grin spread across my face before I could stop it. “Are you suggesting I take down the Great Beasts directly connected to the World Serpent?” I asked the thunderbird.
Just like Coyote was connected to the thunderbird, there would be Great Beasts that were connected to the World Serpent. I only knew of a few, the Horned Serpent, the Hydra, and the Dragonfolk. All strong, yes. But, if I defeated the weaker ones and gained some of their power, then I could eventually amass enough power to take on Jormungar himself.
“The World Serpent and I are the strongest of the Great Beasts,” the thunderbird told me. “We have been rivals since our creation. I am not above using you as a way to finally become stronger than him.”
So even the almighty Great Beasts were held down by emotions. I would be lying if I said that didn’t help me regain some of my confidence. Seeing that the Great Beasts were no better than me. In the end, I suppose every creature on these worlds was the same. We wanted to be strong, we wanted to live the way we valued, and we would fight to keep what we cared for.
“Do we have a deal?” the thunderbird asked. “In exchange for helping me defeat Jormungar, I will not get in the way of your quest or punish you for the defeat of Coyote. A good deal, is it not?”
I transformed back into a human, brushing my rain-slicked hair out of my face, I smiled my most devious smile. “Indeed it is. You’ve got yourself a deal, thunderbird. I’m going to help you beat the World Serpent.”