III: The Beginning
As the late summer phased into the early autumn, so did the next stage of the young vixen's education as a capable independent. She had begun to observe the outside world with more curious eyes, and felt a profound disposition to wander off from the earth and explore the woods. A couple of her siblings, namely her two brothers, also felt these urges intensely. The parents were already aware of this natural hankering, and were well prepared to take them hunting with them. When they first understood this new development, the young foxes pranced around with excitement and anticipation.
This time, however, was the most fraught and unnerving for Mother, for she knew all too well the inexplicable dangers that lay ahead for them. Many creatures out there would easily make quarry of a young and inexperienced fox, and she hoped to prevent any dreadful casualties. In truth, she wanted to protect them, forever, from all the terrible things in life, to keep them as they were – innocent and happy – and never let them go out into a world of harsh reality. It was the impossible dream of all mothers, a forlorn fantasy that would be inevitably disillusioned. She knew she would have to make a compromise with reality, so she ultimately settled with a series of severely pragmatic and unadulterated briefings before taking them out to hunt with her.
You have been born into dangerous times. A sharp mind can be the key to survival…
While she had always been a loving and affectionate mother, she could easily double as a cold and inexorable instructress. She first began by lecturing her cubs in a tone that was solemn, straightforward, almost dour and regimented because, to her, survival skills were never a matter of fun and games. She wanted to lay down all the facts at face value, and let them understand the severity of these invaluable life lessons.
…But, as often as not, it will be your inherent physical traits that get you through the day…
From the very start of her decision into parenthood, Mother always took into consideration the survival of her offspring. She was an intelligent vixen with substantial experience. The generous liberty and permission she allowed during their playtime had its function: it allowed them to be constantly active throughout their early youth, providing the exercise necessary to be in prime physical condition. Even the selection of her mate was calculated to some degree; he had to meet a minimum standard of both physique and survivability, in addition to demonstrating reliability. Through some means of behavioral gauging or marital confidence, the dog fox had to prove his loyalty to her; for the last thing a vixen mother would want out of a relationship is to be left in the lurch with a litter of cubs and no provider of food when it is most needed. If he were to be killed valiantly defending her or the newborn cubs, then that, unfortunately, could not be helped. However, being abandoned by a heartless reprobate is absolutely unacceptable, and can be completely avoided. In light of these strict parameters, she was very wise and somewhat fortunate enough to have secured an ideal mate; one who exhibited both a firm devotion to her and a desirable physique, coupled with his innate talents and capabilities to support that devotion.
…And, in this regard, you will be superior to your more common woodland inhabitants.
In the weeks preceding their first hunting trip, Mother had supervised their practice on live field mice at a time she knew of their abundance, within the meadows just outside of the den. She wanted to make sure her young were well fitted with the basic movement and precision skills necessary to hunt live prey outside of the earth, and this controlled setting served as an ideal preparatory test site. To her immense satisfaction, each of the youngsters was able to catch at least two field mice.
For you are a red fox, a versatile predator, something truly special. Your sharp canines, your nimble bodies, and most importantly, your instinct.
To top off the preliminary training sessions the learning youngsters underwent, both parents arranged a surprise for them on the last night preceding their first real hunting trip. Mother gathered the five anticipant fledglings inside the den. It was the last time all seven members of the family would all be together inside the den. With a high-pitched, banshee shriek, she signaled the father to come in. At that moment, Father carefully ambled into the occupied chamber, evidently burdened by a large muskrat he snatched from the edge of a local brook.
It had been industriously crunching its powerful, beaver teeth onto hard clamshells by the water's edge, when a flash of flame red from behind had overtaken it by surprise. The potentially dangerous herbivore was rendered helpless, held by the neck by the dexterous dog fox. Over the hills and far away, it went for a terrifying joy ride unlike any other; Father carried the squirming muskrat, as if it were one of his own young, to the outskirts of the den and then stationed himself there, awaiting his promptings.
The cubs were first surprised at how fearsome a prey the muskrat turned out to be, once it was successfully deployed within the heart of the earth. A desperate fighter struggling for its life, it proved to be much more than any ordinary simulation. This specimen was much more dangerous than a common field mouse. The cubs strategically surrounded their target and calculated its moves, much like a tactical squad of soldiers training on a holographic projection. It would require much more than textbook maneuvers and parabolic assaults to take down this teeth-chattering menace. It was time to put their parents' hunting skills into practice.
The eagles of our world hunt alone to ambush unsuspecting prey. So too shall you join the wilderness, and become fierce hunters for yourselves.
Fortunately, the cubs were elusive and quick-witted, making it very difficult for the muskrat to get a solid crunch on any of them. In a sense, Mother had prepared this final trial as a test of survival. She wanted to see how well her young could handle a potentially dangerous opponent; how well they could integrate both offense and defense into a hunt that required both evasion tactics and precision strikes.
It was obvious to them that a frontal attack wouldn't work - simply put, those powerful buckteeth were to be avoided at all costs. Instead, the five artful trainees adopted a more practical approach: they kept their distance and surrounded the creature, assessing the situation. Each studied the creature's movements, carefully calculating his positional dynamics and reflexes, slickly avoiding the savage melee counterattacks triggered in response to their repeated attempts at a flank attack, and all the while making sure to stay just out of its reach.
The most skillful of the siblings was analyzing the target for a weakness, perhaps a structural vulnerability or a brief window of opportunity to strike and evade before it could successfully retaliate. As their instinct had directed them, all of their beady, adolescent eyes were fixated on that soft, scruffy neck of the muskrat. As is common with all canid species in a hunt, the neck – or any other practical inlet into the target's central nervous system highway – is a primary goal for the predator, because a solid grip here with its specialized canines spells checkmate.
Now, join the hunt, and embrace your destiny as a solitary predator. Join the wild.
The fearsome, semiaquatic rodent was beginning to falter, evident by the slower reaction times and slipping focus within an increasingly dire peril. The tireless worrying from all five assailants proved to be more than he could handle; it was a losing battle. Every rebound and successful warding of an opportunistic attack from a confident youngster left him back where he started: captive in the belly of the beast, at the mercy of his captors. It was a hopelessly fraught and terrifying dilemma. Lastly, to his immense disappointment, he was unable to keep up with the guile and agility of his enemies. It was abjectly demoralizing to be outwitted by these critters that were significantly smaller than his size. The muskrat's failure to subvert their incessant harassment served to further enrage him, which, although it made him appear more vicious and intimidating, only hastened his demise by worsening his reflexes. The foxes, having sensed this weakness in their adversary, assumed a more offensive formation.
Constantly, the muskrat struggled to focus its attention to at least two of the young foxes, but could not manage to keep all five of them in his field of vision. He unwittingly exposed the back of his neck more frequently, and for longer intervals of time, leaving him critically vulnerable to a blind-sided attack.
The bright red-orange vixen then witnessed the opportunity. Aim for the neck! Summoning all her remaining strength and speed, she essayed a precision pounce. Like she had done with Mother's brush, she acquired her target and left the rest to her dexterous body. With that, she barely managed to get a hold on the rodent's neck.
It was a feeble grip at best; her jaws had incompletely clasped around the spine and she could barely feel her fangs come in contact with that slender vertebrae. She simply lacked the energy and the firm hold necessary to deliver the finishing crunch. Slowly and tenuously, her grip began to weaken, her teeth loosing their vital hold on that delicate piece of anatomy. With one final shake, the muskrat hurled her off its back, liberating that neck from a nearly fatal entanglement.
Intent on achieving immediate revenge for nearly killing him, and, for once, winning a score against these presumptuous fledglings, he directed his focus onto the overpowered perpetrator, whose red-orange form was completely drained. She was paralyzed with fear, as she dreadfully anticipated that this may well be the end of her; for the dental apparatus of a vengeful muskrat would make short work of her slender body.
As he vehemently approached her, she desperately struggled to move… it was no use, for she had expended the last of her power. She never imagined, in all of her early youth, that she would end up dying in the same place she was born, at the fangs of some cornered, desperate rodent. This is the end, she thought,as the muskrat was just seconds away from landing a solid crunch…
The muskrat stood stiffly a few inches before her, paralyzed. As if by some miracle, it then collapsed onto the den floor headfirst, motionless.
"Timely takedown, big brother," she gasped, as she recognized that signature neck-snapping sound particularly characteristic of her strongest sibling.
"Not really," he said in a modest and apprehensive manner, "He left his back exposed for an inordinate amount of time. He must have been really intent on killing you."
He stopped for a moment, tearing into the body's vital organs to ensure its death.
"That was reckless of you, little sister," he continued, "You should know better than to strike without having a confirmed kill on your quarry, especially against such a dangerous target."
The young vixen wanted to argue against this, but then she realized how ungrateful that would be, considering the fact her big brother had just saved her life.
"Thank you for your advice," she replied instead.
"It was a pleasure," he responded, seeing no need not to accept the honest gratitude, and feeling a bit contrite about being somewhat harsh on his little sister.
As the rest of the family joined in the resultant dinner, the other siblings began to converse. Most of their attention was directed towards the close call of their misbegotten sister.
"Nothing like a little precision teamwork," the red-orange vixen's smallest, daring and incisive sister commented, rather facetiously. She was distinguishable by her sharp ears, a defining physical trait that strangely reflected her developing personality.
"And that was nothing like a little precision teamwork," replied the other sister in wry amusement, whose coat had begun to sport a brindle complexion, "We almost lost our sister today…"
She was right: now that she and her siblings were older and more self-reliant, they hunted independently of one another. Being that they are foxes, it is rarely the nature of their kind to hunt in groups. They had operated this hunting drill more so as five opportunistic assailants rather than a collaborative team. In fact, the strongest brother had successfully pounced and killed the muskrat at that precise moment mainly because he saw the chance to; only after the matter did he realize that he had saved his red-orange sister from a grisly and untimely death.
"Please, cut the chatter," stolidly interrupted their smaller brother. His physical talent was also exceptional, second to only that of his bigger brother. Furthermore, his gruff and forthright personality made him much more dependable than his other siblings. Likewise, whenever he spoke, he was always logistic and objective. He prided himself on being a very practical and down-to-earth sort of dog fox: straightforward, no-nonsense, and to the point. "And let's hear what Mother has to say about this."
Mother approached her offspring as they fed. She had been watching their struggle from the front of the den, and yet deliberately refrained from interfering even when the situation appeared most dire.
"Well done," she acclaimed to her young, "It seems all of you managed that muskrat finely, for the most part…" –she briefly eyed her blundering red-orange daughter in a reproving manner- "and it seems you are all ready to go on a real hunting trip tomorrow morning. I proudly commend all of you on your tremendous successes so far, seeing that all five of you have survived up to this point. However, do not rest on these laurels… greater challenges lay ahead of you in the near future."
She paused for a moment, gazing over her more mature offspring, tenderly recollecting the memories she had of them being the five, mewling little fur bundles she fondled within the depths of this very earth, only several months ago. Together, and with her mate, they had done so much together, having watched them develop, physically and cognitively, day by day. She thought of all their achievements so far, very satisfied with this recent milestone accomplishment. She wanted them to be aware, however, that this was only the beginning of a long and perilous journey, one that will probably to end in a tragedy for most.
"Please, enjoy this meal tonight," she added, rather softly, "It may be your last one for a long while, until you get well situated with the wilderness tomorrow. I really hope that all of you survive…"
With that, she departed with her mate outside of the den, to discuss some important issues with him. After they were finished, the siblings rested comfortably, lying atop the dry soil floor. They embraced what they knew to most likely be their last moment together in the den, brothers and sisters all.