In the Beginning Times, when the Creative Spirit walked among his children on Earth, the animal spirits competed for his affection. He encouraged them to foster friendships with one another, but most of them would focus only on him. This was true even when they appeared to be working together to accomplish a task he had set for them. Of all the animal spirits, none was more short-sighted than Wolf.
Red Fox came to Wolf with a fox coat cradled in her arms and held it up for his inspection, a satisfied smile panted across her dainty muzzle. "Father went on and on about the job you did designing the wolf's coats. Since you seem to be the expert on making animals beautiful, I thought I'd get a second opinion on this. What do you think?"
The coat was mostly gray, with silvering fur solidifying into black on the ears, legs, and tail. Wolf regarded her with narrowed eyes and scratched his chin absentmindedly. "That is hideous. You have no idea what you are doing, do you?"
Red Fox's eyes flashed and she launched herself at him. She tried to swipe the smirk off his face, but he merely grasped her wrist and squeezed hard enough to wring a yelp of pain from her. He laughed softly at the sound.
She opened her mouth to give him something to laugh about with her teeth, but all thoughts of fighting fled both their minds when they felt fingers wrap around their scruffs and lift them off their feet. They tilted their heads upward and met the eyes of the Creative Spirit. Red Fox dipped her head to the ground, and Wolf felt his tail curl between his legs.
The creator scowled at them. "How wrong I was to make you as you are! Your bodies are grown, but you have the minds of children. Why can you not be more like Gray Fox, who is kind to everyone? I want you to go sit far away from each other and think about what you did."
He set them on their feet hard enough to send a jolt through their bones and pointed his hands in opposite directions. They slunk away until they could not see him anymore, then sat with their backs to him.
Wolf wrapped his paws around his knees and bristled with rage. He thought about what he had done, and he thought beyond it. Red Fox annoyed him, true, but he could admire her cleverness and tenacity. Gray Fox, on the other paw, was a simpleton who didn't know how to strive to be anything greater than what he was. Sometimes Wolf thought he was barely more intelligent than the manitous, the creator's spirit servants who were incapable of applying their minds to more than one task at a time.
He could accept being less critical of the other animal spirits if that would make his father happy, but his patience with being compared to Gray Fox had reached its end. He felt sick every time he saw him. Part of him wanted to do something to just make him go away, to hurt him, but what could one do to a fellow immortal? He brooded over this until he heard the creator calling his name.
The Creative Spirit stood rooted to the spot like a cliffside with an angry face weathered into its features. "Well, what do you have to say to each other?"
Wolf looked at Red Fox, who stood with her eyes fixed on the ground and a paw rubbing her sore wrist. He picked up the discarded fox coat. "I apologize, Miss. Here, if you just tweak it a bit it looks quite lovely." He waved his paw over the fox's tail and a splash of white appeared at its tip. "Think about contrasting colors and how their placement will draw the eye."
Red Fox mumbled a quick "thank you," and held the coat up for inspection.
The Creative Spirit ran his hands over it and smiled. "Nicely done, both of you. Now, run along and play nice."
Red Fox hugged the coat to her chest and nodded.
Wolf watched her trot away to find a fox worthy of modeling it. He turned to speak to his father but found the Creative Spirit gone, having left him alone yet again to survey the world and visit with others. He found this did not bother him as much as it usually did. Spending time alone with his thoughts had cleared his head. He would not have to worry about Gray Fox for much longer.
Spider was separating herbs and preparing them for drying when he felt a heavy paw grasp him by the shoulder. He jumped and shrieked.
Wolf laughed. "Calm yourself, my friend. I have come seeking advice on a particularly difficult potion I have in mind. If there is any chance in seeing it made, it lies with you."
Spider regarded him suspiciously. Though Wolf's company always brought him a sense of unease, he could not deny how good it felt to hear his skills acknowledged. He straightened up and pretended he had been waiting for Wolf all along. "No problem. If you want to commission me you'll have to give me something in return though."
Wolf tightened his grip until his claws dug into Spider's shoulder and drew a wince from him. "What are payments between friends? Besides, if you can make this potion it will benefit you as well."
Spider spoke through clenched teeth. "Very well. What do you need to have done?"
Wolf let go. "Eternal sleep. Do you think you could make that happen?"
A distant look crossed Spider's face. "Maybe… What would you use it on?"
The grin that swept across Wolf's muzzle sent a chill through Spider. "Oh, I was just thinking about getting a little gift for Mr. Perfect."
Realization brought a tentative smile to Spider's own face. "Oh yeah, he's done so many great things for us, it's about time we get him something. Yeah, yeah, give me a little time and I'll see what I can do."
When Wolf returned Spider beamed and held out a clay bowl filled with red paste. "Eternal sleep in a delicious mixed berry sauce."
Wolf patted him on the shoulder. "Good work. Bring it along then, and we can get this over with as quickly as possible."
Wolf smiled just enough to show the tips of his fangs. "Of course, my friend. I would not think of leaving you out of any part of this. We are in this together."
Spider gulped. He stared down at the potion, wondered if Wolf might consider saving some to share with him after the deed was done. He decided to play it safe and help.
They found Gray Fox on a sunny hillside surrounded by a litter of fox kits. While more creative minds worked day and night to add improvements to the animals and impress their father, Gray Fox readily admitted he could not think of much to change about his foxes. He spent his spare time playing with them or distracting the others with idle chat.
Gray Fox smiled and waved when he saw them. "Hello!"
Wolf nudged Spider forward. "Hello, friend. We could not help but think about how hard you have been working lately, and decided to bring you a little something. Spider?"
If Gray Fox noticed the anxious look in Spider's eyes or the way his hands trembled when he handed over the bowl, he did not show it. "Thank you so much! Do you want to share it?"
Spider held his hands up. "No! I mean, that's quite all right. It's all yours."
Gray Fox smiled and dug his paw into the bowl, gathering a glob and dropping it on the ground. The little foxes wrestled over it. He scooped the rest into his own mouth. His eyelids drooped and he laughed at some joke the others did not hear, then he crumbled to the ground and began snoring.
Wolf shoved Spider forward. By now Spider did not have to question his role and merely lifted Gray Fox out of the pile of fuzzy bodies that had dropped around him and hurried after Wolf. They walked until Spider's feet grew sore, but he did not dare complain.
Just when Spider had decided Wolf had no idea what he wanted to do next, he stopped and motioned to a depression in the ground. It was full of leaves and looked completely unremarkable. "All right, toss him in."
Spider hesitated for a moment in confusion, then stepped to the edge of the depression and gently lowered Gray Fox into it. The ground shifted under his dead weight and he began to sink. It happened so slowly that only the particularly panicky or injured would have a hard time climbing out, but Gray Fox had no such option. The only trace of his memory was a patch of displaced leaves that would be smoothed out soon enough.
Spider shivered, but the look of satisfaction on Wolf's face kept him from speaking up.
Despite his power, the Creative Spirit was unable to locate his missing child. He flew over the land and sent out the manitous and animal spirits in search parties, but could find no trace of Gray Fox. The first one to find anything resembling a clue was Coyote.
This was only because Coyote got bored and distracted. He was just wandering up a hill that he expected to be like any other hill his tired feet had crossed when he discovered a strange thing. A mother fox sat outside her den, licking and nudging at a litter of still kits. On closer inspection Coyote found they were not dead but trapped in an identical state of sleep. Knowing how unusual this was for such energetic young creatures, he scooped them up and took them to the nearest person he thought might be able to explain it.
Coyote found Spider returning home after a day with the search party. He ran up to him and tossed one of the limp bodies into the air, barely managing to catch it before it plopped onto the ground. "Hey Spider, look at this! Weird, huh? It's like they can't wake up. Is there some kind of plant growing around here that can do that? I'd love to get my paws on some!"
He did not fail to notice the look of panic that flashed in Spider's eyes. A smile slowly spread across his muzzle. He held up one of the not-dead kits by the scruff and wiggled it in Spider's face. "Hey," he said in a high-pitched voice, "Uncle Coyote says you know something about what happened to us, and that stupid Gray Fox guy too. Tell us tell us tell us!"
Spider covered his face with two of his hands and waved the other two at Coyote. "I am very tired. Please, come back tomorrow."
Coyote poked him with the warm ball of limp fuzz. "Nuh uh. Father is going nuts with worry. We can't keep him waiting."
Spider's hands slid down his face and he glared at Coyote. "Why do you care? You cause him plenty of worry yourself."
Coyote placed the furball on his head and tried to see if his balance could keep it there. "Because it is a mystery, and the only mysteries I like are the ones I create. Besides, I know you. If you had anything to do with this the guilt would eat you until you blabbed about it to someone anyway."
Spider sank to his knees and started crying. "It's true! It wasn't my idea! It was Wolf. He made me."
Coyote tilted his head, just remembering the baby fox in time to catch it. "Is that so? And am I correct in guessing that we will need something to reverse this when we find him?"
Spider sniffled and wiped fat tears from his eyes. He rose without a word and went into his house, returning with some paste in a bowl. He stuffed a little into the mouth of each kit. "I made it right after we… I thought maybe I would go back and… but then I was too scared…"
The little foxes began wriggling, and soon Coyote was struggling to keep a hold of them. Spider helped him carry them back to their den, then led him to the sinkhole that had become Gray Fox's living tomb. He averted his eyes and pointed. "I put him down there and the ground swallowed him up."
Coyote grinned. "Well, this is your big moment. You can do it. I believe in you!"
Spider didn't have to ask, but he did anyway. "What?"
Coyote laid an arm around his shoulders and waved the other over the sinkhole. "Good deeds and bad deeds cancel each other out. How else will you be forgiven for doing such a ghastly thing if you do not go in yourself to fetch him?"
The look on Spider's face fell blank, before sparking with a hint of anger. He backed out of Coyote's grasp. "I don't think that's how it works."
His reluctance was met with a laugh. "You're mad because you know I am right."
Something in the back of Spider's head urged him to give up. He listened to it. With a sigh he stepped to the edge of the sinkhole and dipped an arm into the ground. The deceptively firm looking soil swallowed it up, but he could not feel any trace of Gray Fox's body. He stood, wiped wet earth from his arm, and looked at Coyote. Coyote gave a nod of encouragement.
Spider used his silk to make a rope. He tied one end around his chest and the other around a tree. After a few minutes of hesitation he plunged into the sinkhole and let the horrible muck devour him. He paddled through it with surprising speed until one of his flailing arms struck something solid. He wrapped two around it and let the rope guide him to the surface.
Gray Fox was alive but no longer breathing. Spider forced a potion down his throat that cleared his lungs with violent coughing, then administered the eternal sleep reversal. The sleeper's eyelids fluttered open and unfocused eyes met the faces leaning over him. "Spider? Wolf? What was in that…"
Coyote gave him a slap on the back that brought up more mud. "Welcome back, chump. Ready to go tell Father what happened? I simply cannot wait. If he flipped his gourd over the stuff I do, I can't imagine how he's going to react to this."
Spider trembled. "Please don't! I set it right. He'll be so mad, he might even unmake us!"
Gray Fox regarded Spider's mud-stained form as if seeing it for the first time. He coughed again and held up a paw. "It is all right. If you promise you will never do anything like that again, I will forgive you. I will think of something to tell Father, unless you or Wolf chose to admit the full story to him."
Spider flopped onto his back and let out his breath. "Pheew! Thank you!"
Coyote trailed along to listen to Gray Fox's account of being discovered and rescued from the sinkhole by Spider. Skepticism was written plainly on the Creative Spirit's face, but a slight shaking of the head was all that betrayed what he thought of Gray Fox's decision to protect those who had wronged him.
Before the search party dispersed Coyote found Wolf and patted him on the back. Wolf stood stiff and his coat bristled like a porcupine's quills. "What luck, huh? Aren't you glad to have him back with us?"
Wolf seemed to be swallowing some kind of manic rage that was trying to break the surface of his frozen face. He turned away and stalked back toward his home.
Well, Coyote thought, let's see him try something that bold again!