AN - I'm back! Sorry, I know it's been a hot minute since the last chapter — this one was a little slow to write cuz of school and stuff. Anyways, she's leaving home! About to go out on the road, all alone. Will she be okay?

Leaves danced on the breeze, rustling and skidding through the treetops. Though they were still mostly green, the colors had begun to change, and fallen acorns littered the geound. The predawn cold was biting: an early promise of winter.

Pulling her cloak securely around herself, Judy checked the ties on her pack one last time, tugging them to make sure they wouldn't come loose. She didn't want to have to fix it on the road.

"All ready?" Janie asked nervously, stamping her hindpaws and shivering. "Why do you have to leave so early? It's chilly..."

"The earlier I leave, the more daylight I have to travel," Judy replied, ruffling the fur on her sister's head. "And I'll need to travel fast if I want to make it there before it gets too cold. Summer ended a week ago. Besides, you could have said goodbye last night."

"But then you would only have Mr. Ingvar to say goodbye before you left, and I would feel bad," Janie protested. "And I won't see you for such a long time..." Her eyes began to well up.

"Hey, hey!" Judy said, pulling her in. She realized she hardly even needed to stoop — they were almost the same height. When had that happened. "Don't cry! You know I'll come back, even if Mom and Dad won't see me." She pushed her emotion down at that reminder of their silent disapproval. She had wondered if they would come to see her off, but the total lack of any message had been answer enough. She hadn't even seen them since the tournament... had it really been only yesterday?

Janie pushed away and straightened up, wiping away the moisture from her cheeks. "Well," she forced out, clearly still on the verge of tears, "it doesn't matter if they won't see you. You'll win that tournament in front of the king himself! Maybe he'll give you a medal or a ribbon or something, covered in gold leaf, that you could wear back. Then Mom and Dad'd have to take you seriously!" She sniffed, calming herself. "Anyways, I'll wait for you until you get back. I have plenty of friends now, ever since I stopped Lacie from bullying the other kits. You remember her, that sheep that I told you about?"

"Oh yes!" Judy exclaimed, the memory rushing back. "That was a while ago, wasn't it. What did you do?"

"Oh, it's not important," her sister said with a mischievous smile. "But I got her to stop being so cruel, and now I have real friends. And, well..." She trailed off, scuffing one paw against the ground, before looking back up. "I don't think I'm going to be a warrior like you anymore. You were a lot younger when you started than I am now, and besides, there won't be anyone around to teach me now that Mr. Ingvar's leaving. And you know our parents'll do everything they can to keep the rest of their kits from doing what you did."

Judy frowned pensively. "You're right. I certainly don't mind — after all, I want you to do what makes you happy — but what do you think you'll do?"

Tentatively, Janie said, "I think I'm going to try and become a merchant, like you were pretending to. Our Uncle Ronnie taught us figures, and I know he's been thinking about retiring in a few years, so he'll need someone to take over his business. I'm sure he'd be willing to give me an apprenticeship even though I'm a doe."

Judy could tell her sister wanted her approval. Saying the wrong thing now could crush her. "It's not something I ever considered for myself," she began slowly, "but if it's something you would enjoy, and something you could be successful in, then I'm happy for you! I don't care about you trying to do exactly what I did — you need to do your own thing."

Janie grinned, clearly delighted. "Thank you, Judy. I wouldn't be able to stand it if you had told me not to. Well... I guess you'd better say goodbye to Mr. Ingvar now, before you lose too much time. I'll see you when you get back." The two siblings hugged tightly, not wanting to let go, before Judy reluctantly pulled away. "I'll leave you two alone," Janie began, stepping back. "I don't want to get in the way. Write to me!" she shouted as she turned and pelted back down the path to the village.

"I will!" Judy called out, and smiled sadly. Who knew how long it would be before they saw each other again?

Behind her, Ingvar cleared his throat. "I'll be leaving as well, of course," he said. "Just after this, down the southern road. I don't think your parents would take too kindly to me staying, after I indoctrinated you into my savage cult."

"Oh, no!" the rabbit exclaimed. "Do they really think that?"

"I have no doubt that similar rumors are already spreading. Gossip moves fast, especially in such a small town. It's best for everyone that I leave before they decide to take action."

Judy looked down. "Well, I knew I'd be saying goodbye," she said, "but it's strange to think that I won't see you when I come back. Maybe it sounds odd... it's just that you've been a part of my life for such a long time. I can't imagine you not being around anymore."

"The most important thing a teacher can do is know when to step aside," Ingvar uttered matter-of-factly. "If I continued instructing you, it would only prevent you from truly learning to strike out on your own, and thus I would have fallen short of my true duty. This is not the last time we will see each other — but it is the last time you will fear our parting."

Always teaching me something, Judy thought. She bowed.

He did the same.

And nothing more needed to be said.

Ingvar went back into his hut and closed the door, shutting out the figure already receding along the road. Atop the table, his bag was packed and waiting. All his things were stowed away, all the hut's secret compartments were emptied, and nothing remained to be done but leave.

Staring at the spartan interior — which still looked almost exactly the same as it had for the past eight years — the old wolf sighed, something he did rarely. "I hope she doesn't think too poorly of me when she finds the truth," he said aloud. "But it's better this way, after all." He shouldered his bag and stepped out.

Inside the hut, all was dark and still. The life that had filled it for so long was finally gone.

Judy tramped along the forest way, humming a little tune to herself. It had been three days on the road, and after the initial loneliness, she was feeling just fine. The leaves were changing color; the air was finally cool enough to be refreshing after the long summer's heat, and her cloak shielded her from the worst of the cold at night.

She had picked up a nice-looking branch several miles back, and was whittling it as she walked; trimming off the bark and smoothing the handle. It would come in handy for such a long journey. Above her, birds sang. The sun hadn't yet reached its peak, and the air was warm. She was making good time, according to her map, and she could expect to make the capital in another few weeks if all went well.

Not for the first time or the last, Judy wondered what she'd find when she reached the city. It would be big, of course, and probably full of activity. There would be fancy shops and wealthy mammals and all sorts of amazing things. But she knew from her lessons that cities could also be places of poverty, filth, and disease. I suppose I'll just have to find out when I get there, she thought.

Her mind turned to something else, something she'd been thinking about on and off the past few days. Recently she'd been having a familiar dream, one she felt she'd had before. She was sitting by a forest stream, somehow moving with it even though she was still sitting on the bank. That was fairly normal for dreams. What was odd was how every time, she had the distinct feeling that she was going to meet someone, some mammal that was important in some way.

Every time, she woke up before she got to them. But she felt like she was getting closer each night. She could see up ahead that the stream was taking her into a secluded glade, where she knew that mammal was waiting for her. She wondered, not for the first time, what it meant. Was it simply a fantasy? Something in her future? Could it —

Then something snapped her out of her reverie. From the trees to her right, several birds took off in a whirring of wings, calling loudly. Judy's ears straightened up and her eyes narrowed. The birdsong had stopped. To most mammals, the wind through the trees would have been all they could hear. But to Judy, the rapidly approaching crackle of leaves was obvious.

With a single bound she leapt straight up and over the head of one assailant, rushing at her from the woods to the left. Two more were coming in from the right, and several others had emerged on the road both ahead and behind. Judy growled internally. Did they think she had the time to waste beating them all up?

As she dodged a cougar's swipe and thwacked another wildcat in the head, she admitted to herself that she did have the time. And what was she trying to be a hero for, if not to stop brigands like these?

Judy sheathed her knife — she certainly wouldn't kill them, and she didn't want to spill blood if she could help it — and assumed a defensive stance, staff held horizontally in both paws. It hadn't been meant for fighting, but it was better than nothing. And as if that wasn't bad enough, she wasn't wearing her armor — it was still in her pack.

Already more were coming at her, clutching notched-up swords and crude cudgels. From what she could see, they were all predators. And they were all around twice her height. Well, that was pretty much the usual, honestly.

She knocked the sword out of one's paw, twisting away from a badger's spear thrust, and spun around to drive her hindpaw into another's stomach. He collapsed, the wind knocked out of him. Behind him the others were gathering, but they looked wary of approaching her.

She was still facing four enemies: two wildcats, the badger, and a hyena, looking out of place in the forest. The latter launched a slow overhead strike, which she deflected easily before sending a straight jab into his chest. He went stumbling backwards, off balance. The two wildcats came at her then from both sides, with blows she saw coming from a mile away. Instead of waiting around to be stabbed, she elected to send both felines to the ground with a few quick smacks to the shins and ankles, followed by high kicks to their centers of mass. The badger backed hastily out of her reach.

Judy was now standing in a rouch circle of groaning mammals, most of whom were doing their best to crawl away. One tried to stab her from his prone position, so she kicked his dagger away and whacked him hard on the forearm. He yelped.

"Well," Judy said thoughtfully, "it looks like I beat up most of you guys already." She addressed her remark to those mammals still standing uneasily some distance away from her. There were a fair number — six or seven — but there were almost as many in the dust at the rabbit's feet. Unless they were a lot dumber than they looked, they knew the odds in their favor weren't good.

"You'll pay for that!" shouted a wolf with a hefty club. "Nobody beats on us and gets away with it!" A few others cheered in agreement. Judy mentally revised her opinion of their intelligence.

"Look, I didn't come here to beat on anyone!" Judy protested. "You guys tried to rob me, or worse! You don't get to complain if some mammal tries to defend themselves. I don't want to hurt anybody, so how about you just let me pass and we'll call it even?"

But she could tell they weren't listening. I really was going to let them go, she thought as she readied her branch. Oh well, I suppose.

A few minutes later, and Judy was tying the last knocked-out bandit to a large birch tree. Around her, the others were in various states of consciousness, while their weapons had all been bundled and wedged into the fork of a large aspen. "Don't whine so much," Judy chided a cougar good-humoredly. "I didn't hit you hard enough to cause any permanent damage. But one of you'd better tell me where the nearest settlement is, so I can find a place to put you all."

She was met by stony silence. "Come on, now," she coaxed. "Or maybe you'd prefer to wait here for another day or so while I go and look? I doubt any other mammals will show up — this stretch of road is pretty deserted. I think you'd be fine, unless a large enough snake happened to pass by..."

At this, a shudder ran through the group. "It's too cold for snakes," a mammal in the back spoke out suddenly.

"Maybe," Judy said conversationally. "But you know, they like to have a big meal before they go into hiding for the winter. A bobcat or a badger would be just the right size for a large python." Nervous glances followed this remark.

Judy waited a few more moments, drumming her hindpaw impatiently. "What'll it be, boys? A nice cozy gaol, or the belly of a reptile?"

The assembled mammals eyed each other, clearly wavering, before one sighed. "The nearest town is twenty miles away, but there's a monastery half an hour's walk down the road." He stared defensively back at his fellows. "Look, I'd take gaol over being swallowed, alright?"

"Well, I'm glad there's at least one other mammal here with some sense," Judy tossed over her shoulder as she turned away. "I'll be back soon, so don't go anywhere!"

The walls of the monastery loomed up before her, sheer stone laid by thousands of paws over decades. Though old, they were still far too smooth to climb. Judy thought they could repel an army, if properly defended. At the moment, their only defender was the single goat behind the elephant-sized gate... who nevertheless was exhibiting the tenacity of a soldier in a besieged fortress.

"This monastery is for the pure and virtuous," he was currently informing her through a small porthole in the door, "and females would only serve to corrupt the monks who —"

"I'm not trying to corrupt the monks!" Judy interjected, not for the first time. "I'm here to tell you that —"

"Whatever you're here for, it can wait. The rest of the brothers are still at noon prayer, and they are not to be disturbed by the hysterics of —"

"What's going on here, Brother Mainard?" asked a voice behind the doorkeeper. The goat bleated with alarm. "Brother Allsworth! I thought you were still at prayer." He shut the small window hastily, but Judy could still catch muffled conversation behind it. She huffed impatiently. After a minute, the port reopened, and Brother Mainard's head emerged looking rather cross. "Very well, you may enter," he said, clearly displeased with this turn of events. "But you'd better have a good story."

Judy wasn't sure if he would be able to get the huge gate open, until he swung out a smaller door within it, revealing a rosy pig in a monk's habit that Judy assumed was Brother Allsworth. "Do come in," he said graciously, ushering her through with her stick still in paw. "I wouldn't want to leave a supplicant standing around outside." Brother Mainard made a face at this, but said nothing as he closed the door and settled once more on a low stool behind it. The walls were so thick, the doorway was practically a tunnel, but they quickly emerged into a spacious courtyard, dotted with gardens and small outbuildings. Mammals were moving back and forth, all wearing the same loose brown robes.

As he led the way, Brother Allsworth leaned over to Judy and said, "I do apologize for Brother Mainard. He's still new to monastic life, so he's very passionate about maintaining our seclusion."

"I'm sorry to have to disturb you," Judy said, now slightly regretting her forcefulness with him. "But I didn't want to wait, so —"

"Of course, of course!" the pig said animatedly. "I understand completely. Here, we'll step into my chamber, where we can discuss this more decorously."

The monk's chamber was spartan, with few decorations, but his desk was spilling over with papers. Judy clasped her rough staff uncomfortably before leaning it gingerly against a wall. "Pay no mind to the clutter," he said. "I keep meaning to organize it, but... oh, you know how it is. One thing leads to another, new reports keep coming in, all that. Anyways, tell me: what brings you to our humble abode?"

"Well," Judy said, unsure how to begin, "I ran into some bandits on the road..."

"Gracious!" Brother Allsworth interrupted. "We have been hearing reports of them, but I'm astonished you escaped intact. What happened?"

"Um... well, they tried to ambush me, but they weren't very good, so... long story short, they're all tied up on the side of the road. I didn't know what else to do with them, and I didn't want to leave them to keep attacking mammals on the road. I thought you might be able to keep them here, or maybe you would know what to do..." She trailed off, staring down at the floor. When she raised her head, the pig was staring at her in astonishment.

"You... bested a troop of criminals? All on your own?" Amazement warred with skepticism on his features.

"Yes," she said stoutly, straightening up. If she appeared to doubt herself now, he would think her a fraud and send her away. "You may not believe me, but I did. And I need someone to arrest them, or at least a place to keep them in custody until the local lord can be notified. I won't let them just die in the woods, so if you can't take them in, I'll have to head to the nearest village and let them know. But if I'm turned away there as well, there's nothing I can do but let them go. They may be criminals, but they don't deserve a lingering death out in the cold." She finished her speech abruptly, worried that she had overreached, yet still determined.

Brother Allsworth chewed his lip thoughtfully. "I'd like to believe you, I really would... but even if I did, I wouldn't have the authority to make a decision of this magnitude on my own. I'll have to take you to see the abbot."

"Ah," Judy said. "Is he busy right now, or —"

"For something like this, he can make time," the pig said confidently, rising once more. "If what you say is true, then there's none to waste!" With that, he bustled out of the room. Judy grabbed her stick hastily and followed.

They crossed the large courtyard again, heading for the opposite side of the complex. Looking around, Judy saw monks going about their duties, carrying baskets of food or bundles of tools. Though some didn't speak, others called back and forth, relaying duties or simply making conversation.

"Perhaps you're surprised there's so much talk," Brother Allsworth said over his shoulder as they hurried along. "But our order doesn't require its members to take a vow of silence. Some take it voluntarily, after several years here. A few have never said a word since their arrival! As for me, I enjoy good company too much to silence my own tongue."

Judy grinned. She had to agree — he had been talking almost since she showed up.

They turned into a tall doorway and proceeded down a few cavernous hallways, passing other monks who nodded to Brother Allsworth as they passed, ignoring Judy as though she wasn't there. "Don't worry," her guide said cheerfully. "They don't have anything against you. They're just trying to shield themselves from impure thoughts." Perhaps thankfully, he missed the expression on Judy's face at this statement.

At last they reached an enormous door, with smaller doors cunningly nested inside like the one at the outer gate. Judy had seen such doors rarely in Bunnyburrow, where there were really only two sizes — sheep-sized and rabbit-sized. Brother Allsworth knocked quietly. "Come in," called out a high voice from within.

Stepping inside, Judy's first thought was that the room was empty. Though there was a desk and several chairs of varying sizes, no mammals could be seen within. Looking closer, though, she realized there was a crevice halfway up the wall. Inside it was an elderly mouse, sitting at a tiny desk covered in miniscule papers.

"Abbot Mortimer," the pig began respectfully, "we've received a visitor with an interesting tale, one I believe requires your insight."

"Oh?" the mouse replied, looking up from his documents. "Well then, do tell, Miss..."

"Hopps," she said. "Well, the short version is that there are about a dozen bandits tied to trees half a mile east, and I hoped maybe you could keep them here somewhere? The nearest town is a ways away, apparently, so... I don't like to impose, but there's nothing else I can do with them."

The abbot's visage remained calm but serious, and his dark eyes scrutinized her thoughtfully. "I believe you are telling the truth," he said slowly, "but I would certainly like to know how a mammal such as yourself managed to prevail over a group of outlaws, unarmed and entirely unscathed."

"Well, I wasn't really unarmed," Judy admitted. "I did have this branch with me. And those thugs weren't even very good. I can tell you the whole story if you want — it's a little long if I have to start from the beginning — but do you think you could take them in? Otherwise —"

"We could certainly take them," Abbot Mortimer replied. "We have several empty guesthouses that could be converted to cells, until word could be sent to town. And if they really are so close by, it would be easy to send a group to check the veracity of your claim."

He gestured to Judy's guide. "Brother Allsworth, choose a suitable company to investigate this, and make sure they are well-prepared to bring back a sizeable gang. Give them all the appropriate equipment for this endeavor. While they're away, you shall oversee the conversion of the guest quarters." The pig bowed and left swiftly.

The abbot turned back to Judy, folding his paws. "Now, Miss Hopps, perhaps you would care to share your story? I am quite keen on hearing it."

"Well," she began, "I suppose it all started at the market one day, when I was very young..."

Keeping it brief, she laid out the events that had brought her there — her family's expectations, Ingvar, her training, and the recent tournament. In a little more detail, she described the outlaws she had encountered.

"They sure didn't seem to have any kind of training," she said. "I'd guess they were driven to it by desperation. There's no other reason they'd be out in the woods with winter approaching, is there?"

"Correct," Abbot Mortimer sighed. "Those mammals were all ordinary villagers until recently. Weelwrights, tanners, carters, coopers — contributing members of the community. Then the town council passed a law requiring all mammals working in a trade to have a local guild license. In itself, there's nothing wrong with that, but the licensing fee is twice as much for predators, and the guilds are already prejudiced against them as it is. Some spent all they had applying for a license, only to be rejected."

"But that's not fair at all!" Judy cried out. "How can they justify making predators pay more?"

"Those in power can do whatever they like without justification," Mortimer said wearily. "There are few predators in the guilds, and only one or two I could name on the council. It's the same here as it is most places. Those that could leave did, looking for work elsewhere. Those that couldn't, for whatever reason, were forced to resort to theft or banditry."

The rabbit's face was set and hard. "I wish I'd known more about this when I was back home," she said bitterly. "I never realized how little I knew about what things were like in the real world."

"But that's what life is," the abbot said. "It's the journey from innocence to experience. There's no shame in not knowing something — none of us are born with any knowledge. Shame comes when you have an opportunity to learn something, and cling instead to comforting ignorance."

"Yes... I suppose you're right," she said. "Still, I have to do something. How could I call myself a hero, protector of those in need, if I end up fighting those mammals that need help most?"

"Choose your battles wisely, then," he advised. "Perhaps you're thinking of heading to the village, to speak to the council yourself and remonstrate them for their bias. You could do that. You could stop at every village you pass, and petition their leaders to overturn their restrictions against predators. You could give up the tournament and spend the rest of your life as an activist, agitating for rights and reforms. A worthy cause, to be sure — but is it the way for you to truly make a difference?"

She frowned. Before she could answer, there was a series of rapid knocks on the oaken door. "Enter," the abbot called out, and at once Brother Allsworth spilled into the room, panting. "The bandits were found by the road, Abbot, just where Miss Hopps said they'd be! The party returned with well over a dozen ruffians in tow! They're being put into their quarters right now."

"Excellent work, Brother Allsworth!" the abbot said approvingly. "That was speedy indeed. Have they presented any trouble?"

"A little, but nothing we can't handle," said the pig, puffing out his chest. "We recovered their weapons as well — all bundled together and just waiting nearby, easy as you could wish. Well done," he said, bowing to Judy. "You've taken a great trouble off our hooves."

"Oh, it really wasn't that much," Judy said, embarrassed. "And it looks like they were only doing it because they had to."

"Be that as it may," the abbot interjected, "you've done us and them both a considerable service. We'll keep them here, out of the wilderness, and mayhap in time they'll choose to stay. Unlike some sects, we have no objection to predators within our order. So you see, you were able to help them after all."

Judy smiled. "And in thanks," he went on, "is there anything you would like from us? We are not wealthy, but —"

"Oh, no!" she exclaimed. "I couldn't take anything from you, I really couldn't. Um — maybe just few provisions — but I'd better be on my way soon, you know. I don't want to waste daylight."

"Of course," he replied, eyes crinkling. "Have no worries, our larder is well stocked; you may take as much as you need. And do you know — I rather thought you might say something like that."

That night, Judy lay up in the boughs of an alder, strapped to a thick limb and bundled tight against the chill. "Am I doing the right thing?" she wondered aloud. "Maybe it would be better if I gave up. Maybe I won't do anyone any good this way." She listened intently, but the whisper of the wind just made her ears cold. She tucked them into her cloak and sighed drowsily.

"I suppose, since I've come this far, I can't turn back now... I owe it to Ingvar, at least, to see this thing through." She shut her eyes and pulled the cloak up, drifting off to sleep.

And then she wasn't in a tree. Judy was sitting on the bank of a babbling brook, chuckling as it made its way over mossy stones. Around her, the trees slid sideways. As if a string connected her to the water, she was moving with it, through the forest. If it was in the future, it couldn't be far away — the leaves were still trying to hold onto the last remnants of their green, same as where she was. Golden husks littered the ground. But was that blotch of bright red up ahead simply a maple, or could it be...

Sunlight filtered through the canopy. Judy blinked, then yawned. She growled slightly with frustration. She'd been so close to seeing the mysterious figure! Well, it would have to wait.

Quickly she untied herself, massaging her stiff joints, then slung on her pack and climbed down, ready to begin the day's walk. She stopped, seeing her breath plume white in the air. "First time it's been cold enough," she said quietly to herself. "And it was warm yesterday!" She only had until the 12th of Ventis to get to the city, and it was currently... She reckoned backwards. The proclamation had been signed on the 9th of Ignis, but she hadn't gotten it until the 28th, and this was her fourth day traveling. So she had only ten days to get to the city.

Shaking off her worry, Judy set out, setting a slightly faster pace than yesterday. She couldn't afford to dawdle. She'd never been there before and didn't know what she might meet along the way; any lost time could be disastrous.

She still had her staff. It would have to be enough if any mammal waylaid her again — she didn't feel it was worth it to put on her armor, which wasn't meant to be worn while traveling anyway. And she had seen few travelers on the road. Once she got to the main thoroughfare, though, traffic would certainly increase.

So she spent the rest of that day traveling, moving gradually further east. That night she had the dream again, and she could almost see the stranger — but a low-hanging bough obscured them from view.

The following day began much the same way as the previous one. Her stiff muscles loosened up as she walked, wondering anxiously whether nights of sleeping rough would affect her chances. But as the morning wore on, a strange feeling began to creep over her. She tried to put a name to it, but the closest she could come was a sense of nervous anticipation. Is it about to happen? she wondered to herself. Will I meet that mammal today?

And all of a sudden, turning a bend in the road, she spied the stream. She stopped still in her tracks.

It was one thing to wonder if she might find it, but another entirely to see it herself. It was the very same brook from her dream!

Slowly, she walked forward, stepping into the woods and off the road. She could always follow the stream back if she got lost. Leaves crackled as she stepped lightly onward. She recognized her surroundings — she had passed through here half-a-dozen times in her sleep.

Her heart beat faster as she emerged into a clearing. There was nobody there, but at one end, a small cottage had been built into a truly massive old oak, one so big that it would have taken fifteen or twenty Judys holding paws to encircle. Wisps of smoke rose from a small brick chimney between a fork at the base of two limbs, while a few small windows were set into the wood at intervals.

As she took another step forward, something suddenly sparked under her paw, and a globule of purplish energy burst up from beneath the leaves. It glooped all over her legs, then dribbled upwards over her upper body. It closed over her arms, shoulders, neck, and most of her face, then solidified, trapping her. Only one forearm, most of her ears, and her nose were exposed. Vainly she struggled to move. What was this? She thanked her lucky stars she could still breathe, but she was completely trapped.

Her ears straightened even further at the faint sound of a door opening, then closing quickly. Pawsteps crackled on the leaves. Her pulse was rapid, both with fear and excitement, and her heartbeat thumped against her ribs. This had to be the mysterious mammal in her dream! But would they take kindly to her being there? Would they be angry, or maybe even attack her? She wouldn't be able to run or defend herself, and she could see nothing but darkness.

The pawsteps came closer. The mammal broke into a run, then slowed as they approached her. "Oh, wonderful," said a male voice from somewhere in front of her. "Well, it's a good thing it didn't cover all of you, pal. Most of these traps aren't meant for a mammal your size." Her ears swiveled as much as they could in a vain attempt to pin down his location, which he apparently found hilarious — she could hear his suppressed laughter. "Sorry, but that's too funny," he said. Judy rolled her eyes unseen. Then around her, her coffin suddenly evaporated in a wisp of smoke, leaving her blinking in the sudden light.

Standing in front of her was a red fox, ears cocked slightly to the side and a look on his face that was somewhere between amused, annoyed and expectant. He was wearing rough peasant's clothes and a dirty apron stained with substances of various colors, some of which appeared to have gotten on his fur as well. In one paw he was clutching a wooden spoon, which he leveled at her. "Now," he said, with a smirk on his muzzle and a glint in his eye, "mind telling me what you were doing sneaking around my house?"

AN - And that's it! Our favorite fox is finally here! Gotta be honest, I was so excited for him to show up. Now things can finally actually start happening! Probably, right? So... I wanted to write this earlier, but I've been really busy, and the next chapter might be a little while as well. Basically, high school sucks. Anyways, leave a review or whatever if you enjoyed it — I always love reading them.

- [CC]