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One of the few luxuries afforded by Hollowroot was a rudimentary tavern.  It didn't have all the amenities of a tavern back in the Commonwealth.  It lacked most types of beers, food that didn't twitch, and a roof to start with. But it had chairs and a firepit and some tables and enough moonshine to get you hammered enough and really, what else could you ask for in a place like the Downside? Ignarius visited the place when he could. The barkeep liked him. He tipped extra in a good mood, and a trip to the tavern always put Ignarius in a good mood.

 "And a round for the Tempers," he declared, "Give us something strong enough to peel paint off the walls. 'Cause we cleaned house."

They'd just won a Rite out on the Ridge. They knew, from the rumors, they'd need to win many more: the word was that the Nightwings were back in town.

"This lady isn't sure she should partake in this," whispered Lady River in a tiny voice.

"Aw heck, quit worrying, kiddo." Ignarius patted the wyrm on the back of the head. He took care with her. Her head only rocked forward a little with the strength, "The wagon's got wings, don't it? We'll be off and out to the valley before noon."

"Provided these poisons do not keep us in our beds," muttered Pfumfta.

"What, you going dry tonight?" asked Ignarius. "Then hand over your round. I'll give it a good home."

"We did not say that," said Pfumta, coiling a bit around her steaming mug.

All in all, life was looking pretty bright for Ignarius, in the firepit, surrounded by exiles all looking to drown away their worries and sing broken songs. He didn't notice the stranger when he slipped in. Ignarius must've been real toasted -- the stranger was a big one. A demon, even.  The heavy cloak did nothing to obscure their broad shoulders or the forward sweep of their horns. They'd posted themselves at the table closest to the firepit, and seemed content to stare into it. Ignarius called in another mug for Lady River and shoved off his stool, sidling over with only a bit of a sway in his step.

"Yo, stranger," he said, "Been awhile since I've seen another set of horns."

The stranger said nothing, just lowered his head slightly. He was well into is transformation-- his heels high, his hooves fully formed, and his horns so long they nearly touched in the front-- at least, they would've if the tip of one hadn't been broken off.

"Not a talker, eh?" asked Ignarius. "Fine, gonna complain if I buy you a drink?"

The demon looked up. His bedraggled black hair slid over his shoulders.

"I gave that up when I came here," he said, in a deep, sad voice.

"Oh, buddy," Ignarius laughed, "You're living in hard mode, then!"

"As it should be," said the stranger, "It was an easy life that brought me here."

"You and me both, brother," laughed Ignarius. He ordered another round for himself.  The stranger eyed the mug with some distaste, but didn't say anything when Ignarius knocked it back.

"I'm giving you company," said Ignarius, "Whether you like it or not. Folks like you and me, we gotta have each other's backs, yanno? And look, if you want a way back to that 'easy life' of yours, your ticket might come up soon enough."

"You speak of the Rites," said the stranger.

It was if all the warmth was sucked from the room. Ignarius put down his mug.

"Uh. Yeah. So. You... already know about 'em," he said, sheepishly. "You want in? We could use a swing."

The stranger laughed, a soft sound like crackling flame.

"Your excess concerns me," he whispered, "But your sentiment does not. The bog crone is strong, but tell me, why do you travel with the wyrm? Someone so small could surely be little but a hindrance to your cause..."'

"Oy," said Ignarius, his smile fading. He dug his claws into the table and glared. "Lay off the Lady. She might be the size of my hoof but she can throw down with the best of us. And that's what we are, the best!"

"I see," said the stranger. He sat back, tiredly. He may have smiled, but the shadows from the fire made it hard to tell. "Then, my apologies, brother demon. You do for your own, after all."

Whether or not it led to a fight, Ignarius actually couldn't say. That was about the time tenth mug of moonshine finally hit him, and anyway when his companions dragged him back to the wagon, none of them could confirm they'd seen another demon at all.

Chapter Text

The collision didn't leave a scratch on the marvelous blackwagon they'd commissioned for the occasion of H. Manley Tinderstauf's glorious return to the Commonwealth, but the wagon made a terrible grinding noise the rest of the flight. By the time they'd landed at Black Basin, it refused to even roll, and alas, the Chastity was required to tend to the issue.  Or at least, two of the Chastity tended to the issue. Manley himself chose to oversee the process from a respectable distance. It was a very important part of the process.  Manley explained this to his cohorts as they worked, in great detail.

"I am delegating, you see. Good leadership requires knowing when to allow your so very competent subordinates to truly shine...."

"Think I'd shine brighter if we could have another set of arms holding this up..." groused Avrec, a savage with a rough countenance but a strong affinity for coin. It gave him a certain amount of good taste-- even if it made for poor conversation.

"Nonsense," said Manley, settling further back in his favorite chair. He'd found a very good sunspot and his leaves simply had to take it all in. "I am already contributing in the most constructive way. By which I mean, I have purchased the tools with which you work, and they are finest quality. Yes, yes. Extremely so."

"Ok, but I don't have arms," said Xaxania. She was harp, as it happened. Lovely girl. Absolutely amenable to blooding a fool if necessary, but only if!

"Fine, fine," sighed Manley, waving an arm. A vine emerged from the ground to hold the blackwagon steady. "Only because I care for you all so VERY much. I value your input. I should remind you I intend to give the finest recommendation upon my  return to-- all right, but what's taking us NOW?"

"Spanner's missing," admitted Avrec.

"And the toolbox," said the harp. Indeed, the finely inlaid chest had gone missing from its place of honor -- next to Manley's chair, of course.

"Oh," said Manley. He didn't drop the blackwagon in a fury. He was very proud of himself for not doing that. He ran his hand back through his leaves instead.  He could feel through his roots the crushed grass that indicated the chest had been dragged-- off into the deeper brush, not far from them. "Oh. Well that's just....so very inconvenient. I suppose we shall have to go looking for them, won't we?"

He remained seated.

"Go on," he said. "You go north. And you go east. I will watch the wagon. As that is the most dangerous job of them all, and I could not possibly risk you all at it."

They left in different directions. Manley waited. After a few hours, there was not a sign of the tools or the rest of the Chastity, and the sun had passed out of its more favorable spot. Manley uprooted himself.

"....we get what we pay for I suppose," he sighed, as he ventured into the wood himself.

He managed just fine. Unlike, say, a savage or a harp, Manley knew something about forests. So when the path closed behind him, and opened up in the completely opposite direction, Manley took it in stride.

"Well," he said.

When that path closed up to show him a solid hedge row, that didn't phase him either.

"Well."

When more rows began to pop up, forming a most definite maze, Manley clapped his hands. "Well, well, WELL," he said. "And will we have an explanation for this, hm?"

He found one. It was written in a set of vines that dangled over the nearest hedge, shaped out in an ancient language of the Westerly Wood that Manley, in all his radiant experience, happened to know: Those Who Find Humility Find Their Way.

Manley clapped his hands again.

"I see," he said, "How interesting. A certain someone seems to be having a bit of fun, aren't they? I wonder whoever that could be. Certainly not some infamous person with a design, hm? Nevermind, that. Let's play for a bit. I think you'll find me a most devoted opponent. And with no Rites to hold me back, no less."

And, with a flick of his wrist, Manley sent six spears of wood plunging up through the nearest hedge. They tore the bush apart in a second. Another bush sprouted in its place, taller this time.

"Hmph," said Manley. He tore at it again. And again. And again. More bramble grew up in its place, choking the path.

Through the branches above, the wind blew through like labored sigh.

'Oh, dear,' it seemed to whisper, 'this may take awhile....'

Chapter Text

As they waited for the the next cycle, the Essence trained.

"Umani, to me," called Tamitha. "Shikara, feet higher. They will drag you from the skies if you are not careful."

Tamitha Theyn did not train for the Rites. She trained for war. As far as she was concerned, the Rite was basic formality. Oh, if only she could just dash her enemies to the earth the way she did on the battlefield. If only the aura did not stop her from snapping men's necks with her wings. But, alas, as the Rites were the condition of returning to the front, she would play by their rules. For now, and only for now.

It didn't mean she wouldn't keep her soldier's sharp.

"Sun formation," she declared, and Shikara and Umani winged upwards -- as far as they could, with clipped wings anyway. Still, among the crags of the Glass Peaks, even a clipped harp could achieve decent altitude as they rode the hot thermals ever pouring from this land's molten innards. It almost felt like true flight.  Tamitha caught a burst of air and sailed upwards, savoring the feeling of the wind sliding through her feathers and the memory of her enemies shouts of disbelief.  She stooped and dived, peeling away only at the last moment. Her wing sisters followed her, almost to the last.

"Umani," she said sharply, wheeling around to face the younger of the two. She'd pulled out a second too soon.

"You gave your enemy quarter."

"I'm sorry--" started Umani.

"No apologies. Do it again," said Tamitha, "And again until the last kernel of fear crumbles and dies in your heart. Our fearlessness shall be our edge over our foe. Cripple them with it."

"Yes'm." Umani let the hot winds pull her skywards once more. Her next dive was better, closer to the earth. On the third attempt, the winds went cold and died suddenly, breaking Shikara's form. Her wingtip caught Tamitha's side as she righted herself. Tamitha rolled into a recovery, but Umani startled.  Her foot scraped the crag. She tumbled into the crevasse, wings folded around her face.

 

"Umani!" cried Shikara, skidding along the crag.

"Hold," said Tamitha. Shikara's wings were splayed in a panic, and Tamitha didn't trust her to keep her nerve. "I'll get her."

Tamitha jumped down into the crevasse.

She found Umani's bent headdress, some downfeathers, and a clasp, but no immediate sign of her wing sister. The crevasse below was larger than expected, the glass bottom rippling under Tamitha's feet. She caught the reflection of shifting plumage in the walls. Not russet, like Umani's wings or even red like her own, but pale silver, like ice...

And the opposite end of the crevasse, a strange harp folded her wings.  She didn't wear a uniform.

"Who's there?" called Tamitha. "Identify yourself. Line and unit. Now."

The strange harp turned. Her feathers didn't rustle as she moved. She was an older woman, her dark hair streaked with grey, and tied in a severe bun. This in of itself was a surprise to Tamitha. Few of the remaining harps had survived for nearly long enough to show such signs of age.

"What will you do?" asked the stranger, softly.

Tamitha recovered from her initial surprise, raising her wings in warning.

"I'm the ranking officer in this detachment," said Tamitha. "I ask the questions here."

But the stranger showed no reaction to this, only spread her own wings. She'd been injured at some point in her life. One hung a bit lower than the other, missing its tip. "I know who you are, Tamitha Theyn."

"Then you should know I suffer neither fools nor traitors. Answer me, or answer to me."

But the woman only stared at her with calm, grey eyes.

"If you gain your freedom," she said, enunciating very slowly, as though talking to a child. "What will you do?"

And, taking that for the challenge the woman so clearly intended, Tamitha lunged.

She missed, somehow. The strange harp was faster than her injuries and age should have allowed, stepping to the side without even a whisper of cloth. Tamitha struck out with her wing, a favored swipe move that had often stunned her adversaries.  The woman leapt over it, light and easy in the air, despite the fact she could no longer fly.

"If you know me you should know that," snarled Tamitha, waiting for her to land. "I intend to continue our people's fight."

She kicked out with a foot, but this too the woman only deflected with a wing pass of her own, sending Tamitha rolling.

"And what will you do then?" asked the stranger, cooly.

Tamitha pushed off the side of the crevasse and rebounded. The stranger dropped to the floor. Tamitha passed over her without connecting.

"Rally and fight, down to our last woman," said Tamitha, whirling.

"And what will you do then?" asked the stranger, righting herself. Not even a strand of hair had fallen from her bun.

"Fight on, while there is breath in me. Fight, and burn the Commonwealth to the ground. Do not think your little games intimidate me!" This time, Tamitha didn't aim for the woman's body, but her flowing robes. She caught a piece in her teeth-- or at least, she thought she did. The injured wing came down and struck her across the back. The stranger had more strength than expected. Tamitha slammed into the ground, winded. She stared up at her opponent. The woman hovered just a foot above the ground, kept aloft by soft, uneven wingbeats. She tilted her head to one side.

"And then?" she asked.

"...such foolish questions," gasped Tamitha, vision blurred, "You sound like my sister..."

When her vision cleared, she was back on the crag. She'd never left it. Shikara and Umani landed beside her, feathers puffed out in concern.

"Commander," cried Umani, who had never fallen into a crevasse. There was no crevasse to fall into, on this side of the peak. The Highwings Remnants had studied it well, when they'd marked it for training. "Are you all right? We saw you fall. I'm so sorry -- can you move?"

"How sloppy," muttered Tamitha. To dash herself against the crag like some fledgling. Hmph. She would erase the mistake. "I can move, Umani. Do not crowd me."

Her wing sisters hung back nervously. Tamitha stood, shaking out her plumage. She took stock of her condition. Stunned. The fall had stunned her. She was lucky her instincts were good. She'd pulled out of the ruined dive just in time. If she'd done it a second later, she'd have broken her neck. A bloodied lip and a cut above her eye was nothing on that.

"Winds change at a moment's notice," she said. "It is the way of the world. We must expect no quarter from anyone. Shikara, run that maneuver again."

"Er, yes'm," said Shikara, "Are you sure you are--"

"Again," said Tamitha, rubbing the blood away with a wing. She would not be fazed. Not by a fall, or by silly dreams, or anything else. "Until we are without fault."

Her wing sisters obeyed, as always.

Chapter Text

The Pyre died in one last guttering plume. An ocean wave sent water surging over the ship's deck. The rain fell harder, battering the ships' rotted boards, but the Pyrehearts paid it little mind. A bit of spray never meant much to a wyrm. Lady Seagrass materialized in a puddle in front of their own Pyre. Sir Deluge, startled as always by his teammate's return, coiled up into a ball.

"My miserable Sir Deluge," reported Lady Seagress, "This lady has done her duty. The day is ours."

Sir Deluge opened his eye.

"Is it?" he asked.

The Accusers re-materialized. Their leader took off his mask and threw it down. One of his teammates picked it up. Another took him by the shoulders and walked him off the field.  Not a one of them looked back.  The waters rose higher against the side of the ship, and without the break in the tempest afforded by the stars, the storm would swamp the wreck soon enough.

"So it is!" cried Sir Deluge, when it was clear their enemies were well and truly gone. "The Pyrehearts are victorious."

"And how furious they looked," marveled Lady Seagrass.

"As it should be," cried Sir Deluge.

"And graceless in their shameful defeat," added Lady Seagrass.

"The most graceless. We destroyed them," gloated Sir Deluge.

 "If it were allowed, this lady is sure they would gladly kill us all!"

"Yes, most gladly-- wait what?!" Sir Deluge froze.

Lady Seagrass wriggled happily. "Yes, yes down to the last of us."

"This knight does not approve. This knight does not approve of this at all!" shrieked Sir Deluge, but Lady Seagrass, undaunted, coiled around him in unmitigated enthusiasm, shaking him back and forth.

"Oh, Sir Deluge, how marvelous you look, victorious and yet shivering with unmitigated fear!"

At which point Sir Marsh emerged from his corner of the field, and cleared his gills. By now waves crashed into the side of the wreck more regularly. Foam flowed past them, along with rotted rope, flapping fish, and more than a fair bit of loose change.

"Well fought, Commander," said Sir Marsh, with dignity. He rather elderly by wyrm standards, having survived a whole 30 years. It had made him easily tired and eminently agreeable-- qualities Sir Deluge valued in an underling.  "Perhaps your fine subordinates had best retrieve the sigils?"

Lady Seagrass coiled herself tighter around her commanding officer.

"Yes," squeaked Sir Deluge. "Yes, you'd best!"

"And perhaps the commander ought to go on ahead?" suggested Sir Marsh

"Ngh," said Sir Deluge, now rather unable to speak.

"Would the Lady care to join me?" added Sir Marsh, helpfully.

"Ohh. Very well," said Lady Seagrass.

She released Sir Deluge from her artful stranglehold. Sir Deluge collapsed on the floor, face down in the foam.  He gagged and straightened, banging his armor with the tip of his tail.

"Well--do it! And make it quick!" he croaked, and let the next wave over the ship push him in the general direction of their blackwagon. It couldn't be called a retreat. He was eager to secure the safety of their wagon. That's right. The wagon's safety. Not his own at all.

Unlike the pathetic land dwellers that had made up their adversary, the Pyrehearts had been able to moor their blackwagon right next to the wreck. The wyrms' amphibious nature meant there was no risk of drowning if sucked under the ship, but it also meant the fastest route required a trip through the shattered hull, which was a network of broken beams, churning waves, and arms from the Titan Plurnes. Sir Deluge bounced from one beam to the next, careful not to slip in the spray. He was so focused on finding the wagon he didn't notice the glow of the water until he was nearly at the bottom level. At which point, the waters began to churn, forming a whirlpool filled with glimmering stardust. A water spout exploded upwards in the middle of what was once the ship's cargo hold. It shone bright like the scales of a fish in moonlight and roared like a crashing wave.

"AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAND SO IT IS," bellowed a voice from the deep, "AAAAH SWEET VICTORY, AND IN THE SPOT OF OUR OWN MIGHTY BATTLE. THIS ONE HAS WAITED SO LONG. YES, LOOK UPON US IN AWE. FOR THIS ONE HAS ARRIVED!"

The shimmering spray lingered in the air. It hung there, forming the shape of some great serpentine figure, wrapped around the ship's bent keel.

"BEHOLD, OUR HEAVENLY VISITATION, FOR OUR FAVOR IS UPON YOU. MAY YOUR NEWFOUND COURAGE FOLLOW YOU TO THE PEAKS OF MOUNT ALODIEL ITSELF. THE WISDOM OF THE UNDERKING IS YOURS. BASK IN ITS PRESENCE AND ASK WHAT YOU WILL OF HIM. WAIT WHERE HAVE YOU GONE? DO HOLD STILL. THIS ONE CANNOT SEE YOU IF YOU MOVE SO QUICKLY. HELLO? HELLO?"

When the Pyrehearts returned to the wagon with the sigil, they found Sir Deluge curled up in a ball beneath his bunk, shaking from tail tip to gills. A matter of vigilance, he explained. He was testing its balast. It was very important, he needed to do it, and Lady Seagrass and Sir Marsh were to be posted at the door for the rest of the night.

Chapter Text

The fires burned high, the stench of burning bones and moss filled the cavern. It would not be enough, it would not be nearly enough, but fortunately that would not be only thing offered on that starless night.

“Yslach,” said Udmildhe, as she threw fresh funeral dirt around the basin containing the flame. “Forgive us.”

A pair of cages hung over the basin. The flames lashed the bottom. Inside, the imps Ya’ul and Pi’ab squealed.  They’d failed. They knew they’d failed. And they knew now what was to come.

“Yslach,” said Udmildhe, “We shall pay your price.”

The price was blood. The bog witch knew this, too. So did the imps as they fluttered to the top of the cage, coughing on the smoke. The flames licked higher. Hungry. Very hungry. Good. It would be fed. It would be sated. And the next Rite would give it its true fill, crackling and dry.

“Yslach,” said Udmildhe, raising her hands, “Accept our sacrifices. Accept our next victory. The price shall be paid. It shall be paid in full.”

As if in response to her chants, the flames lashed. The mosses the witch had prepared turned them a sickly green, the shadows of the cavern danced as though in approval. Yes, the flame seemed to say, yes. Pay it.

“Blood to weaken your bonds,” promised Udmildhe.

The flame hungered.

“Blood to feed you,” promised Udmildhe.

The flame’s tongue lashed.

“Blood to slake your thirst,” promised Udmildhe.

The flame wondered why Udmildhe thought this would ever even work.

“Yslach?” Udmildhe froze, her arms extended over the basin. Even the imps paused in their shrieking, still hanging from the roof of the cage, their fur not yet properly ablaze.

Truly, whispered the flame, it was sloppy. As though blood would have any effect on the chains. Why, any basic animal sacrifice would set the Astral-born free. And what witch worth her salt would ever keep her lab in such disorder?

Udmildhe turned her furious eyes onto the flame.

“Who,” she said, “Who dares.”

A far finer witch than thou, Singed Mildew.

“We do not answer to that name,” hissed Udmildhe, “We never have. Who has told thee of it.”

 And the materials thou art using for the burnt offerings! Fresh funeral earth? Fresh?! The wetness would only dampen the fire. Never mind the bedding was all wrong anyway. Terrible configuration. Where would all that blood even go? Especially when burnt? Wasteful!

Udmildhe whipped around, a vicious curse already on her lips. The cages rocked. The shadows danced and swayed with them, but among those shadows she could find no hint of her intruder.

“Face us!” Udmildhe threw a blazing spell into the cavern wall. It banished the shadows.

The fire gurgled, as though in laughter. And you would use a simple firecracker? As though that would invoke anything? Sloppy, Mildew. Still so sloppy. Where are the notes? What is the process? Do you even have a control?

“Silence!” Udmildhe throwing another fist full of compounds against the walls. The noxious material rolled down the cavern wall, hissing and popping as it pooled. “Thou dost profane this sacred place!”

In what way? The flames swayed as though scolding her. How does one profane a place where some old charlatan sleeps in a potato sack? And a poor charlatan at that. Do you even label your ingredients?

There, across Udmildhe’s work table, a shadow bent, rummaging. It glanced up and shook its hooded head. Udmildhe raised herself in threat and lunged for it, her scales rattling in a fury. Glass shattered. Compounds spattered the floor. Udmildhe upended the table. And as for the intruder, as for the intruder….

The fire died. Nothing, it said in that last fading whiff of smoke. Nothing. Thou art nothing. The work here amounts to nothing. Thou shall beat a corpse and think thou hast found God.

The cages lay empty on their sides. The chain suspending them had snapped. The doors lay open. Up above, Udmildhe heard the desperate flutter of two imps on the wing, free and long gone on this starless, empty night.

In the basin, the embers smoldered: It will be another thousand years before one shakes even one link of this chain. Mark our words, Udmildhe. The price may be paid, but not by you.

The witch howled.

Chapter Text

"Krii*," said the imp-- a very old imp, with long torn wings and fur practically purple from age. The imp had appeared on the pile of rocks close to dusk, their shadow too large to ignore on the road.  "Skriiikiki, Ki. Nyargh, nynnnynnn, hyaah?**"

Barker tilted his head. First to one side, than the other. The imp watched him with blazing orange eyes. They burned with the wisdom of another age.

"Nyaa-nhn-hi. Kriilkkikli," said the imp, sagely. As the sun sank lower in the sky, light caught the little droplets of water in their fur--it winked, like stars. "Rrrr-- yaa.***"

The imp paused, for dramatic effect. Their wings rustled, but made no sound. Their squeaks had a particular drawl to it, as though their accent came from a time long past.

"Hnhn, ryaa. Kriikii.****"

Barker glanced back and forth between his teammates.

"Oy, mates," he muttered, "What this bloke's on about?"

Scarly and Marla shrugged. Charlson scratched his ear. Walfie sneezed. When Barker looked back, the imp was long gone.

Chapter Text

When the evenings grew cold in the valley, Dalbert Oldheart set out across the stones. He came to an outcropping, set his paws carefully, threw back his head and howled as the moon peeked out over the ridge.

“Father, do we have time for this?” asked Almer, with a hand on his hip and a curl to his lip.

“’Tis the season, my son,” said Dalbert. “There is always time.”

Winter meant the High Howling Days. It meant a gathering of chiefs: something that had not been truly allowed in the Commonwealth in years.

“But what about the Rites, Father?” asked Almer. “Why are we waiting on the moon when we should be checking the stars?”

“Because the stars are dark and quiet,” said Dalbert. “The Rites are done for this season. See how the Golden Star wanes? No, no, it will be some time before we are called once more.”

“Can we be sure, though?” asked Almer. His voice wavered -- in part, because he truly was afraid they’d miss a Rite, but also because he had trouble keeping his footing on the outcropping. He only had two legs.  Not a strike against him in any way, but it did make balance a bit trickier.

 Dalbert leaned against him gently to give him a brace, as he often had when Almer was just a pup.

“Nothing is ever so certain,” said Dalbert, “But when they begin again, we will know. For now, why not sing with me? I remember this was your favorite holiday. And you have such a nice voice for it!”

“Father!” said Almer, quite flustered now. Here now, he gave voice to his real concern: “But are we sure we should be doing this, after everything? Is there even anyone who’d answer? And would we even want that? Someone might come for you. Someone might…”

“Arrest me? Cast me down?  What would they do that they have not already done?” asked Dalbert. His son lowered his head. “No, Almer, do not take this as a mark against you. You did all you could.”

More, maybe, then he truly had to, but Almer was always so anxious, so dutiful, Dalbert didn’t dare risk crushing his spirit more.

“… is there even anyone who’d answer?” repeated Almer, quietly. Dalbert walked a circle around him and bumped his hand with his muzzle.

“There is only one way to know,” he said gently. “Will you sing with me, Almer?”

Almer’s stance softened. “Of course, Father.”

He cupped his hands over his mouth and howled. Dalbert joined him. Then they sat and waited. After a minute, they heard the answer from the north side valley, far away but strong.

“I hear it,” cried Almer, jumping in his excitement, “Do you hear it? They’re calling back to us! They’re coming across the valley!”

“Hm, what pack, do you think?”

Almer called out again. He got another reply. “High and looping. Snowheart, I think?”

“A cousin to us, then, good,” said Dalbet. He added his voice. Another answered him, this time from the east, closer than the last, and a bit more shrill. “And that one, who is that?”

“High and cackling.” Almer blinked. “Ashpaws?”

“So there is some reverence left in that one,” said Dalbert, with some amusement. A third voice joined the others, this one from the west. It was deeper and nearer than the rest.  “And this one?”

“Let me see.” Almer howled. The reply came. “I don’t know. I’ve never heard this one before. I’m sorry, Father. Who is it?”

Again, the howls.  This time they came unbidden, in growing concert, and this time they were answered by the others, in the north and in the east and stranger in the west, closer than ever.

“I could not say,” admitted Dalbert, “It is new to me, too.”

“There are clans you don’t know?

“There are many things I don’t know,” said Dalbert, he turned and padded down the ridge, Almer slid down behind him. “But let’s expand our knowledge, shall we? Answer for me again, Almer. Let’s meet them half way.”

And so it was the curs met in the rocky heart of the Jomuer Valley, running full tilt across the sands. They arrived in ones and twos and threes: A stately alpha from the Snowheart family (grateful for the company), the young firebrand from the Ashpaws (only slightly drunk), a couple of enthusiastic Proudfoots (who talked over one another constantly), and even a very reticent Firemane (in fine health). There were othersas well, who joined later in the evening, their family ties less distinct but their presence no less welcome. They ran and sang and ran more. They did this for the better part of the night, and not a one of them suggested Almer shouldn’t be among them.  It was clear he could mostly keep pace, and that he knew the songs even better than the rest of them, Dalbert included.

“At least some of these youngsters remember the point of all this,” muttered the Snowheart, “That bloody Ashpaws’ gone on ahead again.”

“Passion must count for something, dear cousin,” said Dalbert, gently, “It is good of him to show.”

“Hello! Hello!” called one of the Proudfoots, making circles in the grass, overcome by the joy of it all. “Hello from the Proudfoots! I love you all!”

“Hello,” Almer called back, “Hello from the Oldhearts! Don’t make yourself sick!”

He kept careful pace beside his father, always careful to watch his left side.

“Almer,” said Dalbert. “You can go ahead if you like.”

“It’s fine,” said Almer, “I’m not as fast as you.”

“I did not teach you to lie, Almer,” said Dalbert. Almer flinched. “Even if it is to be kind. You should show them what a son of the Oldhearts can do.”

“Are you sure?”

“Be wild,” said Dalbert. “Be free.”

And, with a sheepish smile, Almer Oldheart dropped back, crouched, and then threw himself immediately to the head of the pack.  Dalbert chuckled and fell back, his own paws weary despite the enthusiasm around him. It was here that one of the unnamed latecomers found him. The stranger padded up to his left side. He could not see him, but he could certainly hear and smell him.

“Ah, quite the pup you’ve got there,” said this newcomer, and just that was enough for Dalbert to recognize him as the voice who’d answered from the west. The one he had not been able to identify at a distance. “To think he had all that bottled up. This gathering might be the most fun I have had in an age!  Well done, Chief Oldheart.”

“And well met, friend,” said Dalbert, easily enough, “Though I am sorry to say I do not know your pack.”

“ ‘Tis all right, Chief Oldheart,” laughed the stranger, bumping him with his shoulder. Dalbert’s good eye was not much better than his blind one. He could only just make out the stranger’s long red coat. He smelled like fresh spices. “I shall forgive you your lapse. My family name is an old one. No one carries it in this day and age.”

The stranger picked up speed, leaping and bounding through the sands, which spat around them glinting like starlight. Somehow running alongside him made Dalbert forget his age, and his own limits, and he rushed to keep pace, ragged tail flying like a banner.

“But you carry it, friend,” called Dalbert.  “And that is something.”

“I do, I do!” laughed the stranger, and in his laugh came a bark that was answered by all the frontrunners ahead. Even Almer, who was unlikely to catch Ashpaws but was making a good show of it nonetheless. “And I shall carry it until the stars are faded and gone. You are a bit of a stickler, friend Oldheart, but you throw a fine holiday party and I must say I happy to run with you!”

“Tell me your name at least?” asked Dalbert. “So I might call to you like the rest?”

The stranger pulled ahead in a splash of sand.

“You have called it before,” said the stranger, over his shoulder. “Many-Manes, Many-Manes! Hello, hello!”

Then the stranger followed the pack around a pile of stones and vanished on the other side, as though he had never existed at all. Dalbert skidded to a halt. His tail dropped in surprise.

Almer came jogging back to him after a minute.

“Are you all right?” he asked, winded and worried.

“Y-yes,” said Dalbert.

“Are you sure?” asked Almer. “We can stop, if you’d like.”

“No,” said Dalbert, catching his breath. He looked up at the stars. He looked out across the desert, and saw a great expanse not yet fully crossed.  “Let us run with the families a little longer. The stars are still bright, and some of us are still so very young.”

Chapter Text

Lendel lay on his back in the middle the road. Darben and Vispa stood over him. Darben crouched next to him. Vispa tilted her head in askance. Lendel blinked the stars out of his eyes, and damn if his head didn't hurt.

"Did you see him?" asked Lendel.

Darben blinked.

Lendel shoved himself into a seated position. Dirt streaked down half his face. He swallowed half of it, and spat out the rest.

"The helmet. And the cloak," he insisted.

Vispa shook her head.

"You must have," said Lendel, waving his arm in the vague direction of the Ridge, some miles behind them. "He was right there--!"

Darben moved to take him by the shoulder. Lendel pushed him off. Lendel stumbled to his feet. He swayed, but ignored Vispa's offered arm.

"Who was he?" asked Lendel. He'd worked himself into a frenzy. Even with the shiner, he'd be at it for some hours yet.  "Where did he go? And why on earth did he just punch me?!"

Darben and Vispa just looked at each other. They could think of a few reasons.