Dawn had just broke over the Piltover countryside, and the sliver of rising sun cast the entire Walker house in an eerie, dusky glow. All was silent inside, except for one intrepid fox girl walking down the hall, a tall glass of frothy, warm milk cupped in her tiny hands. Her eyes glowed a dull amber, a yellow resembling that of antique gold trinkets.
The fox girl opened the door to Roland's room and, finding him still sleeping, walked up to where he lay and leaned over him, staring at his slumbering frame. He looked so peaceful, lying there face up with his mouth half open. She reached out and pinched his nose, held it shut, and waited.
Roland shot straight up and sputtered about, crying and cursing at the sudden awakening. He rubbed his eyes, then squinted groggily at the fox girl standing next to him.
"Ari, come on, really? What time is it?" he muttered. Margaret had decided to name the fox girl Ariel, but later decided to shorten it to Ari - the girl still had trouble forming certain syllables, and a short name was just easier for her.
The fox girl grinned and held out the glass of milk in front of her. "M..mil-k Roh-lan. Drin-k. Then fffow..est," she said, with a glimmer of excitement in her eye.
Roland flopped back down and groaned. He wanted to go back to sleep. He remembered agreeing yesterday to take the fox girl out on one of his hunting trips in the Piltover forest, but he hadn't expected her to wake him up this early.
"Ah!" A sharp poke on his belly button sent him jolting up again. "Fine, I'm up, just stop doing that." He took the glass of milk from her outstretched hands and took in a big gulp. It was rich and warm, probably milked only minutes before.
When he was done with the milk, he got up and started getting dressed. The fox girl had gone out to the kitchen to pick up some nuts and fruits to pack for their trip. Roland made sure not to wear anything that contained the Sentinel insignia. While the girl no longer became panicked and terrified whenever she saw the symbol, it still seemed to make her upset, so he thought it was best to just make sure she didn't see them. He ran his hands through his short brown hair and ruffled it so it wouldn't look like he had just woken up. Once he was ready, he went to check on the fox girl.
Ari was already packed and ready to go, her little backpack stuffed with snacks for the trip. She beamed excitedly at Roland. She was positively giddy - she had been cooped up in the farm since that day when the Walkers had taken her in. It had been frustrating for her the past four days, trying to learn all the new words and human customs, and at first she had been afraid that maybe they were going to cast her out and leave her to fend for herself, but it seemed as if they were beginning to trust her and accept her, and she was starting to feel the same way about them.
She had on Roland's old clothes. They were a bit big on her, and the sleeves almost came up past her elbows, but they were comfortable enough, though she had found the tail placement awkward until she switched to a skirt Margaret had modified to fit her. The skirt was long enough to cover and hide her tails, which still had not grown to their full length.
She tugged Roland's hand and pulled him towards the door, urging him to hurry up. They left the house and headed to the storage shed. Roland told Ari to wait outside. He came out with a couple of rods, traps, and a hunting rifle.
Ari stared at the rifle in admiration. Roland had shown her what the weapon was capable of a few days back. The thundering boom it made as it fired had reminded Ari of her first encounter with human technology back in the forest - the cloaked man with the hammer, who with a single blast from his weapon had caused so much destruction and had made her run in terror. Although Ari had decided then that humans were dangerous, chaotic creatures, in truth she was fascinated by the power they wielded, and had begun to embrace her life as a human. She wanted to learn and know more about...well, anything and everything - but she often felt discouraged and limited by her inability to learn quickly enough or communicate well enough.
She followed Roland to the barn, where they kept a small stable of three horses. There was only one horse inside - two had been taken by Henry for his deliveries. The remaining horse, Alto, was a large and experienced stallion. Roland saddled the horse and filled the saddle bag, then got on. Ari leaped up behind him and scooped her arms around his waist. The horse protested at the extra weight.
"Easy Alto. It's just me and a friend." Roland leaned over and stroked the stallion's neck, calming it down.
They headed out of the farm at a steady walking pace, not too fast, but slow enough so that Ari wouldn't have problems keeping her balance on the saddle. They headed west, away from the farm and towards the Piltover forest. As they travelled, Roland quizzed her on various things by pointing to them and asking her to name them. After awhile of travelling, Ahri began growing curious as to all the tools and devices he had brought.
"This?" Ari pointed to the long poles with strings attached to them.
"That's a fishing pole. It's what I use to catch and bring home the fish that we eat."
Ari wondered how a silly little rod and string could ever catch a fish. As a fox, getting her hands on a fish was a special treat, but not something that was easily done. She remembered one time skirting up and down a small river, lunging in vain at every fish, her mouth salivating as she thought of her delicious prize, only to come back hours later hungry and empty handed. Her mother had gathered a hoard of berries and insects, but refused to give her any - her way of punishing her for wasting so much time. Fishing was something to be saved for after the real work was done. Scavenging, gathering, hunting - those were what kept a fox alive in the forest. Her mother always knew best...
"Hey Ari, what gives? You don't have to hug me so hard!"
In her reverie Ari hadn't realized she had been gripping Roland tighter and tighter. She still missed her mother whenever she thought of her, but holding Roland tight made her feel safe and happy. She smiled and squeezed harder with her arms.
"Are you trying to kill me? Gosh!" Roland started wriggling around trying to free himself. He reached back with an arm aiming to pull some of Ari's hair to annoy her, but Ari quickly loosened one arm and grabbed hold of his hair, pulling it this way and that.
"Ow! Damnit Ari, you're lucky I have to keep Alto under control you stupid little punk!" Roland pulled on the reins to keep the horse from speeding up.
"Joke-ing, Rohlan!" Ahri let go of his hair and laughed cheerfully. This was one thing foxes and humans had in common, she thought - they both loved to play and joke with each other.
"Suffocating me in my sleep, pulling on my hair, bear hugging me to death...you sure have a weird way of joking," Roland grumbled. "If you're that comfortable already, we might as well go a bit faster." He grinned, and spurred the horse lightly to make it speed up. "Hold on."
The stallion transitioned into a faster, trotting gait, and Ari had to hold on tighter to keep from being bounced off. They continued on like this for what seemed like over an hour, until they reached the edge of the Piltover forest. As they neared the forest, Ari spotted two figures emerging from the trees, and Roland reigned in his horse.
The two figures approached them slowly. They looked like a couple - a slender, young woman and a large, muscled man. The man looked a bit weird, however...as if he had excess facial hair. Ari let out a surprised cry as she saw him whip around what looked like a lion's tail around his body. This man was just like her!
The woman walked up to where Roland and Ari had stopped, a faint, unconvincing smile on her face. She had long, wavy dark hair that went down past her shoulders, and stared at the pair with an unsettling carelessness, as if she thought they were nothing but some trivial curiosity. Ari, on the other hand, stared in amazement at the woman and the half-lion, her mind racing with questions she did not know how to ask.
Roland cleared his throat, and greeted the two. "Hello, strangers. I was simply on my way to the forest to hunt and gather some food. Unless you have some business, I'd like to be on my way."
"Oh, no, we don't have any interest in you, boy," the woman said casually. "The half-fox, however.." The woman turned to her half-lion companion. "Cyril, isn't she simply adorable?"
Cyril stared at Ari with his golden colored eyes. She could feel her heart begin to throb and ache with the desire to connect with the man before her, and she struggled to find some words to say, but the only ones that came to her were trivial: tree, spoon, table, fork. She understood more than that, but could not form them into spoken words. It had taken her so much effort just to learn how to string two words together in a meaningful way. The half-lion smiled at her reassuringly.
"Yes, she is very pretty indeed," Cyril remarked. "My name is Cyril. If you would care to tell me child, I would like to know your name."
Ari could sense that this man wanted to know what her name was. She moistened her lips, and struggled to speak clearly. This man, who was just like her, seemed to be able to talk as fluently as any human. Were there others like him? She wanted desperately to impress him, or at least not make a fool of herself. "Ah - ah...wi.." She bit her lip in frustration. "Ah..ri."
The woman let out a long laugh. It was a cruel and mocking laugh, one that sent a shiver of anger through Ari. Why couldn't she talk as fluently as that half-lion, Cyril?
"Ahri is your name, is it?" The woman turned to Roland. "You'll have to forgive me, boy. I did not know she was just a primitive. Cyril, lets be on our way. There is simply nothing interesting for us to see here." She began walking off, and motioned for Cyril to follow.
Cyril turned to Ari and smiled at her. Ari struggled to hold back tears. The way that woman had seemed to mock her - did they think she was stupid? Was that what Roland and Margaret thought as well? She desperately wanted to talk to the half lion, to probe his mind and find out more about herself and those like her. "Ah..." She decided to remain quiet. She was making a fool of herself.
"Child, you will have to forgive my partner's crass behavior. She means well, but she has had a rough day today." He waved respectfully at Roland. "Treat the girl well, boy. She seems to like you." He then turned and left without so much as a second look.
Roland spurred Alto further into the forest. He did not seem bothered by the encounter at all, which disturbed Ari. That word, primitive - she did not know what it meant, but the way that woman had said it, it made her feel as if she were nothing but some little plaything - some trinket that one would fiddle around with when amused only to discard it when something more interesting came along.
Roland whistled for Alto to stop, then motioned for Ari to get off. He jumped down from the horse, took a rope from the saddle bag, and tied it to a tree.
"You stay here for a bit, alright Alto? I'm gonna bring back some tasty morsels for you to eat later. Good boy." He stroked its mane calmly and smoothly. Ahri watched this in silence, and couldn't help but think to herself, did Roland view her in the same way he viewed the horse? She had assumed, or maybe wished, that she had found a new family, but in the end, wasn't she just another animal to them? Just some temporary curiosity?
"Hey Ari, what's wrong? Don't tell me you've had a sudden change of heart. Hurry up!"
Ari tried to put on a smile, and followed Roland deeper into the forest. She reached around into her backpack, took out two soft, juicy plums, and handed one to Roland. "Plum, eat-h," she said cheerfully.
"Maybe later, I'm not hungry."
Ari frowned and put the plums back into her pack. She was determined not to be just a burden to Roland. She perked her fox ears and probed the woods for any traces of sound - a crinkled leaf, a snapped branch, anything to indicate possible prey, or maybe even danger. Their walk was uneventful, to her disappointment, but after awhile they came upon a large lake. Roland sat down near the lake bed, took out two fishing poles and a small box from his bag, and set them aside. He then started rigging the poles with line.
Curious to see what was in the box, Ari opened it and peeked in. Inside were a bunch of live worms. Odd. Didn't Roland just say he wasn't hungry? Maybe he just didn't like plums? In any case, it had been a while since she'd had one, so she picked up a worm and popped it in her mouth. Nutty and chewy, just like she remembered them. She felt almost...fuzzy - a bit nostalgic, perhaps, as she reminisced about her past. She hadn't particularly liked worms as a fox, but food was food, and it had made up an important part of her daily diet. She casually picked up another worm, and was about to eat it, but Roland cried out and took her arm, stopping her.
"Holy crap Ari, did you just eat a worm? Those are supposed to be bait!"
Ari looked up at Roland, surprised. He had a horrible, disgusted look on his face. Did he not want to share his meal with her? She felt hurt, and started thinking that maybe he really did just view her as an animal. She remembered how Margaret and Roland seemed to treat the food meant for their farm animals as separate, and never "mixed" the food. She had tried to share her plum with him, and he refused - did he not even care about her enough to share his worms with her? Roland took the worm from her hand and tossed it away, upsetting her even more.
"Sssowy..Rohlan..." Ari muttered. She felt as if she had been fooling herself this entire time. What was she doing with humans anyway? She didn't belong. Humans had been responsible for killing her mother...for ruining her life! She remembered the real reason why she had wanted to come with Roland - it wasn't to go hunting. She took off running into the forest.
"H-hey, wait! Where are you going? Ari! It's dangerous!" a voice called out from behind her. She ignored it, and kept running through the forest path. She didn't want to stop, because she knew if she did she would start crying. She had tried her best to fit in with humans, to try and learn their language and manners, but everything about them was so complicated, so confusing. She wanted to just run away and be a fox again.
She burst through a strand of trees into a familiar clearing. There were no bodies or strange vortexes this time, nothing to indicate that anything out of the ordinary had happened. She tried to remember which bush her mother had come out of. She spotted it, and ran down that path, recognizing the tall oak tree she had used as support to help her stand up for the first time. She would have given up right here, if it had not been for her mother's constant prodding. She clenched her jaw in muted frustration, and continued onwards.
She ran through the barrier of plants and vines - the ones she had tripped over that first time, and looked around. It formed a small glade that was partially hidden by the walls of overgrowth and dense shrubs. She remembered it as her last happy memory of her mother, the place where she had spent her last night sleeping beside her. Why couldn't they have just stayed here? She heard a voice calling to her from the distance, begging her to come back. Was it her mother? Or was it...him? She ignored it - just like that day when she had ignored her mother's calls - and continued down the path her mother had led her.
Go away Roland.
I just want to be alone!
She persevered onward, ignoring the increasingly desperate cries calling for her, and kept running until she finally reached the small stream where it had all happened. She came to a stop, and scanned the ground, struggling for breath as she tried to hold back the onrush of tears. She did not want to be that scared, crying little girl who had just sat by and watched in silence as her mother tried in vain to protect her. If only she had done something sooner...
Her glistening eyes froze as she saw the headless body of a small fox. The body was half eaten, and bits of fur were missing where animals and wildlife had scavenged and desecrated its body. She knelt down beside her mother. Was this all that was left of her? She began furiously digging into the ground with her bare hands, scratching and scooping away flecks and piles of dirt. She growled in anger.
She deserved better than this.
It was all my fault!
Unable to hold back her tears any longer, she let them gather up in her eyes until they formed small droplets that ran down her face and blurred her vision. It didn't matter to her - she continued to scratch and paw away at the ground through the haze of tears, stopping for nothing.
She sensed another approaching her, but she ignored him. A hand reached out. To stop her? She wanted to swat it away, but instead those hands began digging with her. Slowly the hole in the ground grew bigger and deeper. Why was he helping her, Ari wondered? Why had Margaret and Roland even taken her in? She hadn't done a thing to deserve their help, yet they fed her, took care of her like she was their own.
They continued digging for a long time. A few minutes? A few hours? She didn't know how long. Her tears dried up and exhaustion took its place, but her frustration and anger continued. She didn't know why Roland insisted on helping her. He had followed her all the way here, when he could have just abandoned her. Had she misunderstood his intentions? She didn't know, and she didn't care. Deep down she just felt glad that he was here with her. She couldn't have done this alone.
Once the hole was deep enough, Ari got up and picked up her mother's remains. She knelt down, and laid her mother to rest. She stared quietly.
I'm so sorry. It was all my fault.
I promise you I will make you proud.
She yanked out a single strand of her hair, and placed it into the grave. Then together with Roland, they filled the grave back up.
It was done. She finally felt she had some closure. Roland put his arms around her and hugged her, trying to comfort and reassure her. He didn't know what this fox represented to her, but he sensed it was someone special.
There was no going back now, Ari told herself. She promised herself to embrace her life from here on out. It didn't matter if it was as a human - she felt she had a purpose. Her mother had believed in her, given her life for her, and she did not have the right to throw that all away. She closed her eyes, and bit her lip. She wouldn't cry. She was done crying.
I love you, mother.
Ari and Roland spent the rest of the day catching fish. Roland had led her back to the lake and shown her the worms, and how he had meant to bait them onto the hooks. Although Ari felt a bit sheepish after he showed her this, she just smiled and hugged him. It had just felt right - she had felt such a huge burden on herself the past four days, but now she finally felt like she could move on and embrace her new life.
Ari had a great time catching fish with Roland. Her first catch had been a big one - over a foot long. She had wanted to eat it then and there - but she knew Roland would freak out, so she decided to behave herself, and threw the fish into the storage box with a smirk. They ended up catching so many fish that they couldn't keep them all, and had to throw most of them back into the river. There was no time to hunt - Roland wanted to get home before dark, so they packed the fish that they had already caught, and started for home.
They rode home the same way - Roland in front, Ari behind, her arms scooped around his waist. Along the way, Ari began to feel this strange urge to snuggle her nose in his face and lick it - it was how her mother used to show her affection as a fox - but she wasn't sure he'd take it the right way. Besides, when she thought about doing it, she felt her face get all hot and red and uncomfortable, so she tried her best to put the idea out of her mind.
When they finally got back home, they found Henry and Margaret about to prepare dinner - perfect timing. Ari showed Margaret all the fish she had caught, and they picked out three different types of particularly tasty looking fish to cook and eat for dinner.
Roland went to bed early - he complained about how Ari had woken him up at five in the morning. Before Henry and Margaret could head into their room, however, Ari stopped them. She gave Margaret a big hug.
"Good nnight...Mar-gee," Ari called out happily. She finally felt as if maybe, she was really a part of the Walker family. Margaret laughed and hugged her back. When Ari tried to hug Henry, however, he just held out a hand and pushed her away, then gruffly told Margaret to come into the room. Ari felt confused about this, but Margaret just told her to go to her room and sleep.
Lying in her bed, Ari heard Margaret and Henry arguing. She wondered if it was because of something she had done. She could hear them through the walls, yelling loudly, though the words were muffled and hard to hear. They stopped after awhile, but Ari couldn't help but wonder if maybe she had done something wrong. Had she broken some human custom? Ari told herself that she would try her best tomorrow to learn as much as she could so she could fit in and stop upsetting Henry. Her eyelids began to grow heavy, and after a few minutes she drifted off into sleep.
Ari was jarred awake as a heavy, rough hand was placed over her mouth. A man picked her up, and started dragging her roughly out of her room. Ari struggled and tried to scream, but the man was much stronger than her, and began smothering her. She couldn't breathe, and started to panic. Oh, please, let go! She needed air! She frantically scratched at the man's hand in an effort to break free, but it was no use. Her lungs began to burn, and she felt herself getting dizzy. Her body convulsed in pain and fear.
Oh please, please just let go! I can't breathe at all! Ari tried to kick at the man, but she felt so weak, so confused. Her hands flopped down limp at her sides, and her vision started to cloud. She needed air. She needed air so bad...air...p-please...
Henry placed a cloth sack over Ari's head, tied it, then dragged her unconscious, limp body out of the house. He picked her up, then threw her in the back of his delivery wagon. He hitched up the horses, then headed north, towards Piltover.
He tried to ignore the guilt creeping up on him. He had told his wife repeatedly, after all, that he did not want to keep the feral in the house. That she was to stay only until she had recovered. The Piltover Sentinels had offered a reward of four hundred silver for the fox girl, and they could use the money.
Besides, ferals were considered dangerous. Although some rich families used the dumb, uneducated primeval types as house slaves, animosity between humans and ferals had been tense ever since the feral rebellion twenty years ago. Demacia, being the old fashioned, diversified immigrant city it was, still had a few free roaming ferals, but most of them lived in their own little pathetic villages and gatherings in the Valoran countryside. The Sentinels, for their part, made sure to keep their own Piltover territory free of the filth. There was a particular lion feral who still roamed the Piltover countryside causing trouble, but he was a minor nuisance for the most part.
Still, he couldn't help but feel guilty about the fox girl. What had they named her? Ari. She seemed so innocent, but he knew she would be dangerous one day. She was particularly extraordinary because of her nine tails - from what little he knew of ferals from his past experiences fighting them as a former Sentinel, their tails seemed to serve as a sort of "anchor" or connection to the rune magic flowing beneath the earth, and it allowed them to access powers and magics without needing to use quintessences. That's what made them dangerous. But it was also their weakness...
The dawn sun had begun to rise over the horizon, bringing light to the glorious city of Piltover off in the distance. It's central cathedral, the Sentinel Stronghold, had been built atop an incredibly massive and wide rune extractor, so that it rose up high into the sky above the rest of Piltover. It served as a testament to mankind's power and mastery over nature - mankind crafted and used rune magic for their own desires, and not the other way around.
Once inside the city, Henry maneuvered his wagon around the streets until he finally reached Pavel Heimer's house. Pavel Heimer was the chief scientist of the Sentinel Army, and he was the one who had offered the reward. The man was standing outside, and Henry waved and greeted him. He had on an impressive, decorated suit of armor, but it was only an illusion - his actual figure was otherwise frail and weak. His oily, black hair hung in tired little clumps which draped down over his face like little crooked fingers.
"Hello, Heimer. I have the feral, as promised."
"I knew I could count on you, Henry. You were always a good soldier." Heimer bared his teeth at Henry in a demented looking smile. "Your boy, Roland - he shows the same skill with the Rune Bow as you did. He shows promise with rune-tech too. He will go far with the Sentinels - I will make sure to put in a good word with Paladin Leonard."
Henry waved him off gruffly. "My boy doesn't need your help. Leave him out of your scheming, Heimer. Just give me the money."
Heimer quickly handed Henry the pouch of coins, then went over to examine the feral. He lifted her skirt to examine her tails, and gasped in glee.
"Nine tails. Amazing. Hee hee! She will teach us so, so much."
The fox girl began to stir about inside the wagon, and moaned quietly. "Roh...lan," she whimpered softly. "Roh..lan? Mar-gee...?"
Henry picked the fox girl up gently and led her off the wagon. The girl protested a bit, but complied with Henry's handling. She was weak and disoriented, and the bag was still tied around her head, so she likely had no idea where she was, or where she was being led.
"Heimer, I don't know what you plan to do with her, but you treat her humanely, ok? She's a feral, but she's still just a girl."
"Hen...wy? Hen..wy...scared. Dark." The fox girl seemed to recognize Henry's voice, and started to struggle, but Henry just held her tighter, tried to calm her down. Heimer just bared his teeth and nodded in anticipation. Henry tried his best to suppress his guilt, and handed the girl over to Heimer, then turned to get back in his wagon.
"Henry, you're a true patriot. Thanks for doing your part to keep Piltover strong and safe," Heimer called out nonchalantly.
Henry ignored him, and just snapped the reins, urging his horses to drive the wagon away as quickly as possible. He gripped the pouch of coins tightly in his hand, and never looked back.