Judy had worn a pair of gloves for her pursuit of the hated fox. There was a practical reason for it, of course. The rough fish leather would prevent her paws from getting chewed up by sharp rocks as she climbed. But she hadn't brought the gloves for purely practical reasons.
She had brought the gloves because she couldn't bear to look at her left arm.
Judy loathed what the fox had done to her. It made her sick to even catch a glimpse of her terribly wrong paw and fingers without a glove to hide them. Her entire arm was disgusting, a mockery of what it should have been. The fox had tainted her, gleefully transforming a part of her into a copy of himself. The only thing Judy wanted more than to bring the fox to justice was to cut off her monstrous arm, to sever it completely from herself. It'd be better to have no arm at all rather than a fox arm, but until she caught him she still needed it.
But that didn't mean she liked it.
With the arm fully covered by her sleeve and the paw hidden beneath a glove, Judy could almost pretend that the fox had never mutilated her. Almost. But then one of the pads covering the palm and fingers of the paw that had been attached to her would rub against the glove and she'd become painfully aware of it again. The sensation was utterly alien, and Judy hated it.
But she wouldn't let it distract her. She focused on her task, clinging to a strong rope as she was lowered down into the depths of the crevasse surrounding Phoenix. The light of her alchemical torch was a pitiful pool of light, barely doing anything to illuminate her surroundings. Even the light of day above her seemed to be growing dim and faded as she went lower and lower, searching all the while for any sign of the fox's presence. She didn't see anything; besides the occasional cross-section of some long-forgotten tunnel or building, there was nothing but rock and dirt.
Gradually, at the point where Judy was beginning to wonder if even the alchemist-made rope would be too long to support its own weight, a foul-smelling body of water came into view beneath her. The water rippled and danced sluggishly, the force of the waterfall high above reduced to little more than a mist so far below the surface, and there was a nasty oily sheen to it. As Judy got closer and closer the sour and brackish smell of it started to become overwhelming, making her breathe through her mouth. Nick was going to purify it, a thought came unbidden into her head.
Judy shook her head violently to clear it, sending her swaying back and forth at the end of the rope. The fox might have claimed he was going to purify the water, but surely it had been a lie, like everything else he had said. He had played her for a fool, spinning an elaborate and almost certainly entirely fabricated story about his youth, and all to cover his true depravity. He was the worst sort of mammal, one who would work for a monster like Alfonso of New Quimichin. The fox had said he no longer worked for the vicious crime lord, but Judy felt in her heart it was another lie.
There would be a reckoning for his many lies, Judy knew, and the thought was a small comfort as she was lowered until her feet nearly skimmed the foul water. Judy gave the rope two sharp tugs—she was much too far down to even see the burly rhino and horse who had been playing out the line, let alone for them to hear her call out—and her downward motion stopped.
Judy dangled for a moment, playing her torch across the surface of the water, making it turn a sickly greenish-brown in the light, before she spotted what she was looking for. There was a narrow beach of sorts on the other side of the crevasse, made of slimy-looking rocks worn smooth by countless years. She kicked off from the wall as hard as she could, feeling the tough fibers of the rope moving within her grasp, and just barely managed to get a hold of the far wall. She pulled a spare alchemical torch out from her pack, tied it to the end of the rope, and then drove a steel climbing spike into a crack in the rock face. When she was satisfied it wouldn't move, Judy lashed the rope to the anchor and then climbed down to the beach as carefully as she could.
Once she was on the pebbly beach, which was just as slimy as it had seemed, Judy turned and looked back over her shoulder. With the torch tied to it, the rope was a beacon in the darkness, vanishing into nothingness as it rose toward the surface. It'd have to do as her landmark to guide herself back, and Judy did her best to fix it in her memory. With that resolved, Judy played out her torch over the stones of the beach, searching for any sign of the fox.
She wasn't entirely sure what she was expecting; but for all she knew the fox had been unlucky and slammed into the beach at the end of his uncontrolled descent. If he hadn't hit water, not even the quauhxicallis he had stolen would have been enough to save him. But if he had hit the water... Nick might be alive.
Judy shook her head again to clear it. She shouldn't be thinking about him like that, she knew. The hope that had timidly blossomed in her chest had only been the hope of catching him herself; it would have been the ultimate disappointment if she had nothing more to do than collect his battered and broken remains. So she walked along the beach in the direction the slight current seemed to be moving, fighting against her impatience to be as careful and meticulous as possible in her search with her torch.
After about half an hour, with no kind of sign of the fox, Judy wondered what she would do next. Her orders had been clear; she was to search for the fox until she found him or his corpse. Even if that took days.
Judy knew she couldn't give up, and so she continued onward, doing her best to be as thorough as possible. The strange reflections off the surface of the oily water made that difficult; it threw up shimmering rainbows of incongruous beauty, forming dazzling and amorphous shapes that refracted across the dull gray stone of the crevasse's wall. It made it so that her first thought, when she saw the glimmer of light, was that she had simply come across a puddle of water that had pooled in a shallow depression on the beach above the waterline. But as she got closer, Judy saw that it had to be something else. Something metallic and shiny.
Her heart began beating faster as she recognized it as a City Guard breastplate, and she hurried over to it, playing her light across it. The breastplate was scratched and battered, but it was the breastplate alone, with no sign of the mammal who had worn it. Except that the buckles meant to keep it secure had been undone.
Judy instantly realized the implication. If the fox had died on impact, or after bouncing down the unforgiving rocks of the crevasse's wall, it was possible he might have been separated from his breastplate. But the breastplate would be a caved-in and gore-soaked mess in that case, the straps cut or snapped by sharp rocks. But they had been undone, not broken. Which meant a mammal had been alive to undo them.
Judy picked up the heavy piece of armor, running her light carefully over it. There wasn't any blood caked to the breastplate, inside or out, but there was a coppery strand of fur stuck in the joint between the front and back pieces. Judy pulled it loose and looked at it, but she didn't have to roll up her left sleeve to know that the color was a perfect match. There could be no doubt about what it all meant.
The fox was still alive.
A frown suddenly crossed Judy's face as something else occurred to her. Why had he left the piece of armor on the shore? Surely he could have simply dropped it in the water and let its considerable weight take it to the bottom. Judy tried picturing what the fox must have done as he landed in the water. Perhaps the air had been knocked out of him and even with his physical strength increased by her quauhxicallis he had struggled under the weight of his clothes. But then he would have removed the breastplate in the water and lost it forever. So he must have removed it after he went ashore, but why? No matter how she scoured her brain, Judy couldn't think of a reason. The fox was many things, but stupid wasn't among them. He was clever, after all; it was one of the things she—
It was one of the things she hated about him.
He was a smug and condescending jerk, so wrapped up in his own love for himself that he didn't care about anyone or anything else. He was a criminal who delighted in crime, a liar who delighted in lying. How many lies had he told her in the short time she had known him? He had even dared to kiss her, and the thought of it turned her stomach more than even her ruined arm.
Why had he kissed her, though?
Something just didn't seem to fit no matter how Judy puzzled it over in her head. She didn't like the fox, and she never had. Judy had loathed him from the minute they had met, her dislike of him only becoming more pronounced once she had learned of all his crimes. But no matter how much she knew that to be the truth, it somehow didn't seem to reconcile with her memories. It was like a loose tooth she couldn't help but play with, feeling it wiggle and move and yet never fit right. Why had he done it? Judy suddenly became aware of the edge of the breastplate digging into her palm as she squeezed it tight. That was it. The reason he had kissed her and the reason he had left the breastplate behind had to be one and the same.
He was mocking her.
He was telling her that he was still alive as way of taunting her, letting her know that the game was still afoot. Judy dropped the breastplate and stood up as it hit the rocks with an almost musical clang. If that was the message he wanted to send, she had received it. Judy imagined, for a moment, how he would react when she finally found him. Would he beg for mercy? She was duty-bound to give it, after all; she had her orders to bring him back alive if possible. But perhaps, once his back was to the wall both literally and metaphorically, he'd lash out at her. Maybe she'd have no choice but to kill him. It felt like that thought should have been more comforting than it was, but there was something gnawing uneasily at the pit of her stomach. Judy tried pushing the thought aside and kept walking, but somehow she wasn't able to get rid of the nagging sense that something was wrong.
Judy wasn't sure how long she had walked before she came across another sign of the fox. It might have been minutes, or perhaps hours, before another red-orange strand of fur caught the light of her torch, seeming almost to glow with its own light. She didn't stop for it, though, and started moving a little faster. The beach was still narrow, but it had widened slightly so that there was a somewhat rockier part closer to the wall of the crevasse where the water hadn't been able to wear the stones smooth. She stuck to the slimy stones, though, not wanting to cut her feet on the sharper stones, and as she continued Judy realized it was widening even further, to the point that there was no doubt that there was some kind of actual path running alongside the wall. And there, in dust that must have been otherwise undisturbed for centuries, were a very distinct set of footprints that could have only come from a fox.
Judy paused only long enough to examine them. They were surprisingly far apart, which must have meant that he was running flat out. It almost certainly meant that the fox had been under the influence of a cheetah quauhxicalli, and the thought brought a grim smile to Judy's lips. That was, at least, one quauhxicalli he wouldn't be able to use against her.
The tracks were easy to follow, quite distinct in the thick dust caking the floor, and Judy brought herself to a jog, setting herself to a pace she knew she could keep up for hours if she had to. The fox tracks continued on, and she followed them for the better part of an hour. The tracks started getting closer together, which could only mean that the quauhxicalli had worn off, and he had lost his ability to move so fast. He had a significant lead over her—it had taken a not insignificant amount of time for Judy to first gather her supplies and then be lowered into the crevasse—but Judy thought that she had to be reducing it.
She was so intent on following the tracks that she nearly didn't look down a narrow gap in the wall, as the tracks continued on past it, but Judy did and was immediately glad she had. Through the narrow rocky archway the ground wasn't quite as dusty, but there, half-erased, was a dusty paw print. Judy swung her torch from the side path where the tracks continued going forward; the fox couldn't have possibly gone both directions. And then she realized what he must have done.
It was, she had to admit, rather clever. Perhaps it would have fooled someone else, but she knew him in a way that others didn't. The tracks stretching forward before her looked perfectly regular, and that was the problem. They really were perfectly regular, as was the dust near the archway. It was too perfect, too orderly, and it could have only meant he had used his alchemy to try to set a false path. Judy didn't even have to think about her decision before setting off through the archway, which led into a tunnel so narrow that if she had reached out she could have touched either wall.
It didn't have the look of one of the tunnels purposefully made by the mammals who had once inhabited the ruins, nor did it look like it had been dug out by a treasure seeker. The walls were rough, with none of the inlaid tile that the mammals of old had seemed to favor, and it had neither the perfect smoothness of alchemy nor the sharp marks of tools. The tunnel stretched off in the distance, continuing on for so long that Judy couldn't see the end of it; whatever was before her was in pitch-black darkness that her little torch didn't penetrate.
She steeled herself for the worst, and then set off down the tunnel, reaching out with all of her senses for anything out of the ordinary. But there wasn't anything; all she could see was the yawning black void ahead of her and the rough gray stone around her. The sound and smell of the water began to fade as she continued onward, until the only sound was her own footsteps and her heart in her ears.
"Hey Carrots," a dreadfully familiar voice suddenly called from behind Judy's back.
Judy spun around, raising her sword as she did. She prepared to lunge at her enemy, and then suddenly stopped in confusion. The fox was standing there, as she had known he would be. But in the light of her alchemical torch, she could see through him, his body ghostly and insubstantial, blurred at the edges like something seen through fogged glass. A half-smile touched his face as he spread his paws, palms up. "We need to talk," he said.
Judy here exhibits signs of what could be considered a body dysmorphic disorder, hating her alchemically healed arm and even wishing to cut it off. Her reaction is, perhaps, somewhat on the more extreme side, but it's actually a problem sometimes seen with prosthetic limbs. There are many people who receive prosthetic limbs but later reject them and stop using them, for a variety of reasons, including that the prosthetic never feels like it becomes a part of them.
The reappearance of head Nick here is something of a reference, but it'd unfortunately be quite a spoiler for me to describe. However, if it seems similar to something, well, there's a reason for it. I will say that head Nick's character is quite a bit different from that one, but it'd also be a spoiler to get into that now!
Otherwise, I don't have too much to say for this chapter. As chapter 51, this is now officially my longest story by total number of chapters, even if it hasn't yet surpassed "...And All That Jazz" for the total number of words. As to the total length of this story, well, the end is near. I won't give away just how close it is, but it is coming up relatively soon, and with that a new story will also be starting soon.
As always, thanks for reading! If you're so inclined as to leave a comment, I'd love to know what you thought!