Ears—the fennec cub was a ball of puppy fur with enormous ears and a long, pointed nose. Cyrene cuddled him to her breast as the little fox squirmed to get free. She nuzzled him with her cheek and got the end of her nose nipped. “Damon, that was bad. What am I going to do with you?” She set him on the moss-covered ground, and he began tugging at the hem of her filmy gown. “Damon, stop that. Now, it’s time for a nap. Be still.” She laid her head on the soft tuft of velvety moss, closed her eyes, and let the sound of gently falling water lull her to sleep. The body of the little animal felt warm against her side.
The harsh scream of a hawk woke her in a panic. Feeling for Damon and not finding him, she leapt to her feet and called his name. The hawk screeched again, and she saw that there was nothing in those wicked talons. She began a frantic search for her precious pet before the sharp-eye raptor spotted him first. Following the stream against the flow of the diaphanous water, she called his name desperately.
“Gaia, have you seen my Damon?” she asked the dryad of the oak grove.
“It’s not my job to keep track of your suitors,” the haughty tree nymph retorted.
“No, Damon is a baby fox that Aeolus gave me at the Dionysia on the full moon last.”
Gaia laughed cruelly. “What sense does it make to give a water nymph a fox? He should have given you an otter.”
Cyrene contorted her elfin face. “Go suck an acorn.”
“Give yourself a thrill, Cyrene, douche with tadpoles.”
“Oh, go back in your knothole.” Cyrene stamped her foot and continued up the stream calling her dear pet’s name.
Near the place where the brook bubbled from the rocks, she spied a blur of reddish brown. The little beast’s ears perked at the sound of his name, and he looked at the willowy girl who ran to catch him. Damon turned and darted into the grotto.
“I’ve got you now,” Cyrene said laughing. She picked her way across the stepping-stones cool and slick beneath her bare feet. The joyful water frolicked from the fountain in the center of the brooding cavern. Little Damon taunted her from the wet stone floor at the back of the smallish hollow. “You can’t get away from me now,” she giggled as she splashed through the last few steps in the pool.
But Damon wasn’t finished with the game. His tiny paws thumped on the damp floor as he vanished behind a boulder. Cyrene sprinted after her playmate. To her dismay, he vanished into the blackness of a hidden chasm there.
“Damon, you come out of there this instant. If I have to come get you, I’ll bump my head on the low ceiling or fall into some bottomless pit.”
The little fox made no sound.
With a sigh, the girl flipped her golden tresses behind her shoulders and started into the Stygian darkness feeling her way along the humid walls. She focused her mind on her sisters of the stagnant waters. She sent a plea to the fens and marshes, cupped her hands, and opened them to release the faerie light. A bluish ball of cool light danced on her palm. It barely vanquished the gloom but offered enough illumination to spare her cracking her skull on the jagged ceiling.
The flickering orb of light also made Damon’s beady eyes glow. “I see you,” she tittered, and the tiny fox turned again to flee deeper into the inky labyrinth. Cyrene followed by the glow the cold fire, but it rolled from her hand and bounced along the floor. Blue became green. It flared and subsided to blue again with perhaps some orange. In the brief flash of brightness, she saw it—a face, creased and leering. “Oh,” she gasped, “who are you?”
“Are we lost, little girl?” a disembodied voice asked from the darkness.
“I’m looking for my baby fennec, Damon.”
The marsh light twinkled to life and floated around her head. She could see nothing beyond its feeble glow.
“Are we lost, I say?” the voice had an unpleasant edge of mirth.
“I don’t think so. As soon as I catch Damon, I’ll go back the way I came.”
“Did you come this way?” The will-o‘-the-wisp swished sidewise as if thrown by an unseen hand. “Or that way?” The purplish fire blazed in front of her in the opposite direction. At each end of the arc, she saw the gaping maw of a divergent tunnel.
“I don’t think I came from either of those passages.” She felt confused and frightened.
“Are we lost then, little girl?” the voice in the darkness cackled.
“Again, I don’t think so, but if you might help me catch Damon, I’ll be out of your way.”
“If we catch the little beast, we eats it.”
“No,” Cyrene wailed. “He’s hardly got a morsel of flesh on his tiny body.” She tried to capture the shimmering constellation of light. Her hand went right through it. Shadowy palms reached from obscurity, engulfed, and extinguished it. The naiad sent her prayers back to her sisters of the stagnant pools, and again the magic fire kindled in her hands. “Damon, Damon,” she called, and heedless of the scarcely seen menace, resumed her pursuit of the impish canine. Her fen fire flared once more, pulsing yellow and revealing the malign features.
“Your precious tidbit did not come this way, little girl.”
“Well, which way did he go then?” She stood rigid feeling her imperious side return.
“Which way will you go, little girl?”
“Stop calling me little girl. I’ll have you know, I am the daughter of a king.”
“Doesn’t make you any less of a little girl, and now you’re a lost little girl who cannot even find my supper.”
“I’ll not hear any more of this. Damon is simply not edible. And who are you anyway?”
The murky countenance faded into the gloom. Cyrene tried to thrust the globe of light toward it, but the bauble of blue morphed green and pink and tumbled from her tenuous grasp. She followed the feeble source of light if only to stay in its comforting sphere.
A plaintive yip froze her. She swatted at the glowing cluster and succeeded in swishing it in the direction of the sound. Tiny eyes burned in the umbra and the diminutive cub cowered on the cold stone. Scooping him into her arms, she embraced his soggy fur while he squirmed and kissed her chin.
“Ah, we have found our victuals, have we?”
“I have found nothing of the sort, whoever you are,” Cyrene tried to sound bigger than she felt.
“Give us a taste.”
“Don’t be absurd. Damon is safe now, and we’re going home, thank you.”
“We are going home, are we? Do we know where home is?”
“We’ll find our way. You needn’t worry.”
“Did you say you came from this way?” As before, the wraith contained the nebulous swamp light and shone it on the entry of a passageway, then swung it toward another. “Or this way?”
“We came from the way we came. I shall simply retrace my steps.”
“Oh, really?” The cluster of scintillating blue pinpricks swept around her colliding with a blank wall. They slid to the floor and recoalesced. “Did you say you came from that way?”
Cyrene’s bluff wilted. “Which way did I come?”
“Little girl is lost. Now we shall have her precious, and we shall have our dinner.”
“No,” she pleaded. “Which way did I come?”
“Little dog first.”
“He’s not a dog, and you shan’t have him. I’ll find my way.” She attempted to gather the recalcitrant ghost-light. It flowed over her hand while she clutched tiny, wriggling Damon with the other.
Invisible fingers pinched her curvaceous haunch. “Succulent. Perhaps we let the bony beast be and dine on the lost little girl.”
The ghostly thumb and finger made her leap and cry, “You don’t know who you’re dealing with. I shall no more let you eat me than Damon.”
Cackling, the hideous visage thrust toward her face barely perceptible in the meager radiance. “She won’t let us? However does she plan to stop us?”
“You don’t know who you’re dealing with.”
“We heard that before—daughter of a king. All the more toothsome it sounds.”
Cyrene forced her mind to calm. She let her energy flow with the current sending her will to the fountain that frothed in the grotto spilling gentle water into the brook that was her domain. With her naiad’s will, she bent the course of the obedient fluid. She heard the trickle increase to a torrent, and then to a rapid. The first wave curled around her dainty feet and quickly floated her sheer garment to her thighs. In heartbeats, the surge wafted her on its sacred bosom deeper into the bowels of the earth while sweeping the dreadful mountain nymph with it.
The column of water carrying Cyrene and her beloved, but drenched, fennec pup rose through a rocky chimney while leaving the drowned shell of her nemesis far below. Sweet sunlight warmed her face as the sheltering deluge emerged from the netherworld placing her and her charge gently onto the sandy bottom of a limpid pool. The naiad gracefully unfolded her silky legs, swept her flowing locks from her eyes, and adjusted her transparent gown before taking poor, soaked Damon to the grassy bank where he shook the water from his downy coat. He shivered and supplicated her to take him to her breast. She embraced the fickle little beast that licked her face and once more nipped her nose.