The black market was an underground place where the world’s finest came out to play. Their pockets were heavy with cash as they browsed the various wares from drugs packed into pill form to a pair of human kidneys. There were even live specimens to choose from — exotic animals and women alike.
On one of the many stages stood a woman wearing nothing but a few pieces of lace from the local lingerie store. Although she was one of the lucky few to even wear such meager articles of clothing, they did very little to hide her nudity and she still shivered at the amount of prying eyes that looked her way.
Occasionally, someone would pay a little extra for a closer look and that’s when the girl would moan and struggle the most.
These moans had a way of traveling through the entire market like someone was blasting them through an intercom system.
Aspen’s sensitive ears twitched at the sound. She cowered within her cage, a structure meant more for a hamster than a fox. The metal frame dug into her sides, inflicting new pain to her already bruised flesh.
“Oh, quit your whining.” A large, hulking man dressed in white kicked her cage so hard that it went flying into the adjacent wall.
Aspen tumbled until her world became a blur and then some. Her whole body screamed with agony as she attempted to rise to her feet but her legs were too weak to support her body weight.
“Would you look at yourself? Pathetic.” He spat as he took her cage by the handle and brought it up to eye level. “If I don’t sell you tonight then I hope you’re prepared for what’s to come because it won’t be pleasant.” He paused, glaring at a young woman who had stopped to stare. Her fingers glittered with diamond rings.
“How much for the cat?” She asked as an older man sporting a velvet suit placed a hand on her shoulder in warning.
“Another?” The man’s voice was thick and mature like a glass of mulled wine. “Your collection —”
“Has nothing to do with you, Perceval.” She snapped. “And it would be wise of you to remember that.”
“Look, I’m not going to stand here and listen to you two bicker all night. Time is money and currently, you’re wasting both.” Aspen’s owner stood in a firm stance, glaring at the odd couple.
From her upturned cage, Aspen watched the scene with growing anxiety. What was going to happen to her now? She did not like the look of the girl with the diamond rings – not one bit. Already, she could imagine the anguish they would cause her like an expensive dupe for brass knuckles.
“How much for the cat, I said.” She tapped her foot against the ground with impatience.
“Answer the girl.” The man who seemed to act as her bodyguard growled.
Aspen looked over at her with wary eyes. Her owner was nearing his breaking point and the last time that had happened, he had dangled her from the third story balcony by the collar. Her neck was still bruised from the ordeal and that same collar was still way too tight.
He started forward, approaching this so-called Perceval. “I suggest you get leave before —”
Just then, a howl erupted from the stage. A piece of unruly merchandise had warranted the whip. Their cries grew louder and louder with each swing. The bids became higher and higher. They were enjoying her pain.
Speaking of which, the girl with the diamond rings took advantage of the commotion to snatch Aspen’s cage. It swung slowly as she examined the tiny, terrified fox.
Her eyes widened, revealing flecks of purple around the iris. “A changeling…” The girl mused to herself.
“Do not address me in such a manner, Perceval. You forget your place.” She hissed, top lip curling to reveal sharp canines followed by a row of perfectly straight teeth.
“I don’t have the time for this nonsense.” Aspen’s owner snarled as he lurched forward with every intention of grabbing the tiny cage.
But the woman was fast, side-stepping to avoid the brute. He lost his balance and fell head first into a pile of crates.
Alexandria clicked her tongue against the roof of her mouth. “I’m disappointed, Maverick.” She said. “I honestly thought you were better than this.” Again he charged and again she dodged. Aspen was caught in the crossfire of their cat and mouse game. “I guess the rumors are true. You’re losing your touch.”
He narrowed his eyes in her direction. “How do you know who I am?”
“I have my means.” She said while looking at the sorry excuse for a changeling. “I was going to make you an offer on the fox but on second thought, I think I’ll just take her free of charge.” She snapped her fingers and Perceval responded by holding open a burlap bag.
Alexandria dropped the cage without a second thought. Aspen yelped with surprise as her stomach flew through her mouth – or, at least, that’s what it felt like.
And then, her body crashed against the side of the cage.
The locking mechanism had snapped from the impact, already weakened by the bumpy ride to the market.
This was her chance to escape – the moment she had been waiting for. But she was still inside the burlap bag. Her thoughts raced with desperation. She needed to handle her escape with care because if she was caught attempting to flee, Maverick wouldn’t think of giving her a second chance. He would strike her down once and for all or, worse yet, he would make her beg for death without giving her the sweet release she so desperately desired at this dark point in her life. To die meant she would no longer suffer for the sick enjoyment of another. She’d finally be free from the pain – the agony – of her existence.
Maverick was done playing around. He was there to make money, not to deal with the antics of some spoiled brat.
He snatched the bag from Perceval.
Aspen spilled out of her cage with the violent jerk.
Then came another as Alexandria dug her claws into the fabric, narrowly avoiding the helpless fox within.
The two tugged with all their might like a couple of children fighting over a toy.
“You don’t know who you’re messing with.” Maverick warned as he yanked with all the strength he had but it didn’t make a difference.
Alexandria planted her feet against the ground, body unmoving even against the barbarian that challenged her. She grinned a wild grin.
“Neither do you.” She said as she gave the bag a yank of her own.
The bag gave way and Aspen crashed into the ground. Before anyone could blink, she made her getaway.
“Someone get that fox!” Both Maverick and Alexandria shouted in unison.
Aspen put all of her energy into keeping herself in motion which was difficult considering what little strength she had left after years of neglect. But somehow, she found the reserves she needed to weave between moving feet and dodge hungry hands.
She couldn’t let herself get caught.
It would end her.
So she ran and she ran and she ran until she spotted an opening that led to the sewers. It was where they disposed of worthless merchandise, both alive and dead. But those who clung onto life never did so for very long.
Aspen had no choice but to join them. She sunk right into the vile sludge.
“She’s a goner.” Someone said.
Maverick half considered going in after her but he would never stoop so low. Alexandria had a half a mind to push him. He belonged with all the other filth.
Meanwhile, Aspen surfaced and gasped for air as the current dragged her along. She had never known how to swim. The best she could do was flail her arms and legs. By some stroke of luck, she caught hold of a dingy fur pelt and used it as a raft. As she floated along, she tried ignoring the questions pressing against her skull.
Who had this pelt once belonged to? How much had they suffered just so someone could throw out their pelt into the sewers? How many others had shared a similar fate?
Aspen was close to dozing off with fatigue when she spotted a ladder that led to a half-open manhole.
That was her only chance at survival because if she didn’t make the jump now, she’d be carried all the way to the ocean and that was no place for a non-swimmer.
She struggled to her feet, rushed forward, and leapt onto the landing. Her jump wasn’t long enough and she now hung precariously on the edge.
Every muscle screamed in protest as she pulled herself up. That pain continued as she started up the ladder – a feat much more difficult in her fox form.
On the surface, rain fell in torrents, drenching her fur even further. A crack of thunder boomed through the sky, scaring her half to death. She skidded off the road and into an alleyway where she found shelter inside a cardboard box.
With no strength left to call on, she curled into a ball and closed her eyes.
Honestly, it would be nothing short of a miracle if she made it through the night.
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*Featured image of underground market by iancjw
*Fox trapped within cage by didizuka