Tao wasn’t one to judge. Stealing was always the last resort of the desperate. After working hard got you nothing, after begging got you nothing… People didn’t steal for fun. They stole to survive. Tao looked at the fox, a prawn cracker hanging from its mouth.
“Might as well join me,” said Tao, patting the ground next to him. “Thieves like us have to stick together.” The fox tilted its head, its spring-green eyes fixed on Tao. “Don’t worry, I’ll share my food – thieve’s honor.” Tao opened another packet of prawn crackers. The fox sniffed the air gently before trotting over to Tao’s side. Tao placed the open packet in front of the animal, and the two ate in silence.
The moon rose from over the mountains, and the stars – more than Tao had even seen in his entire life – lit the sky like a thousand fireflies. Long after Tao and the fox had finished eating, the two of them sat there watching the night sky. And for the first time in his life, even though he was battered and broken – stranded in the wilderness with a strange animal – Tao felt like he belonged here. He felt content.
“The only good thing about pain,” said Tao, “Is that it reminds you that you’re alive.” The fox barked in a agreement, a strange, ghostly sound neither fully cat nor dog. Tao stretched out his good hand, and the fox nuzzled its head under his palm. Its fur was soft – warm, glowing with gentle heat of embers.
The animal was clearly someone’s pet – a collar was fastened around its neck, a deep green leather band that matched its eyes. Tao looked to see if it had a name tag, but found nothing. “I wonder what your name is, little guy?” The fox turned its head away from Tao’s hand. It seemed angry, almost pouting. Its large eyes stared hard at Tao, cautious and playful. Tao smiled. “A girl then? Let’s see. Your name is… Fu?” The fox barked in agreement again, and jumped to lick his face.
“Fu then,” Tao laughed. “Well what do you say, Fu? You want to come with me, girl? Go all the way to this Xiangbala place together?” Fu watched him again, her head tilted as if in disbelief. “I’m serious – broken bones or not, I’m going. Well, what do you say? Want to stick together?”
Without wanring, Fu leaped from Tao’s lap and disappeared into the darkness. She was gone. Of course she was, thought Tao. That was the smarter option, even for a wild animal. But then Tao heard the light patter of feet and the strange, ghost-like bark again. Tao looked up. Fu was sitting in front of him, a Taiji coin proudly held between her teeth.
“You are a Candidate now,” said the Gatekeeper, still hidden from sight as Tao passed through the gate. “This is good. The Great Spirit and the Dao have guided you.”
“And this is – I’m sorry, a candidate for what?” asked Tao.
“The Elemental Tournament, of course. The test to enter Xiangbala. To find your dragon, no?”
“But first,” interrupted the gatekeeper, “You must get to Moongate safely. And that is no small feat with the Cloud Forest between you.”
And with that, the gate closed behind him. In front of Tao, were steps down the mountain – steps so steep as to almost be a sheer drop before disappearing entirely into the mist below. Fu stood next to him, watching for his next move. Tao grinned. He had a broken wrist, less than two days’ food, a forest to cross. He took the first step down the mountainslope. He took the plunge.
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