A creature on rock will leave no tracks,
But trace it back and time has written
More than anyone could in stone;
This hall of rock was once a home.
The next day dawned bright and clear. Light flashed in Whipper’s eyes as he opened them slowly. The ceiling of his alcove was sparkling. He got to his paws and crept to the alcove edge. A cat-like creature was chasing sunbeams across the hall floor with a stolen Drakon trinket—a pawring, or a gem. It was moving too fast to tell. The creature sent pale sand spraying as she wheeled and pounced, attacking her stolen toy.
Whipper blinked. Her fur. It was pure silver. Not the dull, whitened silver of old age, even … she shone in the sun like the toy she was chasing, and she looked no older than he.
The cat darted back into shadow to stalk things. Whipper strained to make out more details. She was as tall as the Saggitayria, or a little taller. Standing up straight, she could probably butt her head against the Rocklander twins’ chests. Her limbs were lanky like an adolescent Flatlander’s and her paws were at least a size too big for her. He was amazed she could coordinate them so smoothly.
The cat glided forwards, belly flat on the ground. There was a blinding flash. The toy was flung across the hall floor; she bounded after it with tail flying, caught it, and killed it thoroughly. She was purring. Whipper cocked his head. Her weapons besides claws were smooth copper horns that hooked upwards at the back, and the pointy teeth of a hunter. She also kept skidding in the sand. Given a better surface, she was probably fast.
A sound from the hallway made the cat freeze. Well, except for her tail, which lashed like she was trying to swim with it. She had the toy in her mouth. Limbs flew as she scrambled up the wall. She found a ledge near the ceiling and attempted to blend into the stone. She actually succeeded.
One Rocklander twin wandered into the hall. By his spiked fur, Whipper guessed this was Taz. The Coppertail yawned, then jumped as a rock flake bounced off his nose. He frowned at the ceiling. There was nothing there. He walked to the window and peered out, slouched, and wandered back again. He flopped on the boulder at the center of the hall and rolled in the sun. A rock flake bounced off his nose again.
Taz glared suspiciously at the skylight and rolled off the boulder. He poked about the hall for a bit, then vanished back down the main tunnel. There was a mingled hiss and yelp as he entered it, then a surprised greeting and a laugh. Taz carried on down the tunnel, and the Saggitayria emerged into the hall.
Whipper held his breath. Groomed out and standing up, she was taller and stronger than average, with heavy wings and shoulders that promised to be broader. And she looked like she had more growing to do yet. Whipper was jealous. He had never been the smallest in his clan, but he had never been big, either.
Like all Saggitayrii, this one had a narrow muzzle and backswept horns, and paws that were Coppertail-like on her back legs—fused toes and all—but hawk-like on her front ones. Her forest-green fur was a shade darker than Taz and Fletch’s.
The Saggitayria meandered to the center of the hall, just as Taz had. Whipper waited. Sure enough, a rock flake hit her on the nose. She pounced. In a heartbeat she had ejected the cat from her hiding place and wrestled her to the ground. The cat escaped and fled giggling down the main tunnel. Whipper had to clap a paw over his mouth to keep from laughing. The Saggitayria had retraced the rock flake’s trajectory and immediately deduced its cause. This was a smart one.
Mind you, the cat had also had pretty good aim. Three nose shots from halfway across the hall. Whipper decided that all of these creatures were interesting.
After the incident with the cat, Sethral stayed in the hall and waited for the twins to show up again. Not because she was feeling territorial or anything… she just liked the hall. She smiled. Maybe she could lie in wait over the big back tunnel and jump on the cat when she tried to return. She had a feeling the creature would have a very satisfying startle reaction.
The twins reappeared around sunhigh, at the same time that Jay bounded in through the window from outside. He noticed her immediately, and Sethral thought she saw a cagey look flit behind his eyes. He had a leaf and a leaf bundle in his mouth. He poked Taz with his nose. The Rocklander followed him away down the hallway. Fletch looked around to see what Jay had seen and spotted Sethral over the hallway entrance.
She fluttered down to greet him and jerked a thumbclaw surreptitiously towards the hallway. “Was he out there with the Drakons?”
Fletch shrugged. “He does that all the time. They don’t usually bother him.”
“Well that’s convenient. Also, does he speak?”
“Not that we’ve ever heard. But he can’t growl either, so he’s probably a true mute.”
They chatted quietly until Taz returned. Fletch immediately fussed over him. As Taz fended off the attention, Sethral caught a glimpse of his paw. It had been treated and sealed with resin, then glued over with a tidy piece of desert leaf. Taz walked on it easily and the bandage didn’t move. Jay was good. And he wouldn’t have been instinctively familiar with those plants, either. Sethral scoured her brain. She vaguely recalled having heard stories about a mute Coppertail-type, or maybe a healer one, but she could not for the life of her remember the details. She resolved to keep a closer eye on Jay.
The Drakons showed no sign of slowing by midafternoon, but that was hardly surprising. Drakon society had an impressively organized superstructure, and the local flights’ decision to join Winter was bound to make for a long event. Sethral woke from a long nap to find Fletch in the main hall. He seemed to be escaping the cat and Taz, who were playing what sounded like tail-tag in the hallway. By the yelps and giggles, it appeared they were chasing each other, having lost track of who was ‘it’.
“We were just thinking,” said Fletch. “If we’re all going to be here for a while, then it might be a good idea to decide on rooms. Personal dens and a dirtplace and such. Opinions?”
“There are more rooms in this place?”
“Tons. You haven’t explored yet?”
“I got here last night, fuzzface. Not everybody wakes up a moon’s paw-length to sunrise and can go all day without food.”
Fletch gave a guilty grin. “Okay, fair. But yeah, this place is huge. You should come see the back tunnels. Hey Taz! Silver! We’re going on a fort tour.”
The cat raced Taz to their side. He skidded to a halt and she crashed into a wall. She rolled away giggling and batted at Fletch’s paws. He hopped out of reach.
The cat extended one paw towards Sethral’s wings and got a snarl. “I’m Silversand,” she beamed, retracting the paw.
“Sethral,” said Sethral testily. She stalked ahead to walk beside Fletch. From the corner of her eye, she strained to make out more details of Silversand’s shape and colouring. She could have sworn she’d seen silver when she had wrestled the cat off the ledge in the main hall. Now it was too dark to tell.
The biggest tunnel off the hall was taller than it was wide, with a stately, arching ceiling and straight walls. Sethral could stretch across it with tail extended and room to spare. Damp slimed rare patches of the walls, but the sandy stone of the ceiling didn’t have rock teeth. The air stirred, kept fresh by porous stone. The group had gone scarcely a tail-length when a room yawned beside them.
Fletch grabbed Silversand’s tail before she could barrel inside. “There’s a ton of rocks in that one. Be careful.”
Sethral stuck her head past him and sniffed the room. There was no trace of habitation; not even cave bugs or snakes. The rocks Fletch had mentioned were heaped against the walls. Interesting.
The next cave was smaller and very damp. Fletch rolled his eyes as Silversand charged inside and promptly wiped out on an algae slick. When the cat had been retrieved, they returned to the hallway and were promptly confronted by a tunnel fork. Sethral saw Taz mark the wall as Fletch led the way down the smaller fork. She grabbed a rock and began to do the same.
Fletch had not been kidding about the size of the fort. The main tunnel ran big and strong deep into the cliffs, but branches sprouted off it like the threads of a spider’s web. These side tunnels looped, split, rejoined, and crossed each other, confounding every attempt at mapping. Sethral’s tunnel-marks were soon rendered futile. The twins, somehow, maintained their directional sense.
Then along every tunnel were caves: small and low, big and round, tiered, clumped, and each as uniquely textured as the last. Some had boulders, others sand, others just a bare floor. Alcoves and shelves dotted their walls. Even the rocks they were carved from varied, from red and grainy like the cliffs, to the cool, smooth grey that underpinned most of South Shelha.
As if the large hallways weren’t enough, the cave network proved honeycombed with smaller tunnels, too; burrows through the stone, scarcely tall enough for Sethral to enter. Sethral was pretty certain now that this entire cave network was only half natural. These caves should not all have been level with one another, and the floors of many should have had rock teeth to match the teeth on their ceilings. Few actually did.
At the end of the main tunnel—a very long walk—was a small cavern half occupied by a pool of water. Moss made damp pillows of the floor around it, and more mosses on the ceiling lit the cave with a faint green light. Glowing mosses were not uncommon in the deepest caves of South Shelha. This fort had a lot of them: pale green ones in damp rooms and orange ones in dry passageways. It was a dim light, but enough to walk by.
Room-finding turned out to be far more fun than Sethral had anticipated. Silversand had night vision and could spot features in the darker caverns that she could not. The twins’ vision was only slightly better than her own in the dark, but Taz had a memory like a steel trap and had explored the fort before. “That’s Jay’s,” he said quickly as Silversand ran to another doorway.
She hopped back like she’d been stung, then edged forwards wistfully. “I want that alcove.”
Fletch wrapped his tail around her neck and pulled her away as she began to drift inside. She kept looking back as he towed her down the hall. Sethral sniffed the room surreptitiously. Jay was definitely in there, though he hadn’t made a sound. If the well-settled scent of herbs was to judge, he had been living here for some time.
This prediction was confirmed many rooms later. The twins stumbled upon a cave filled with plants and the sweet hay scent of bedding. A drying room. Bracken and ferns lay spread over rocks, and grass padded the floor. Fletch found moss higher up, on better-ventilated ledges. Silversand rolled in the mats of grasses.
“You think he’d let us use this place too?” said Sethral.
“Probably,” said Fletch. “There’s plenty of room in here and this bedding could be piled way thicker before it stopped drying right. As long as we keep it clean, Jay shouldn’t mind.”
Silversand bounced off a rock, spraying grass stems everywhere. Taz caught her. She wrestled his paw.
“So just keep that one out and we’re all good,” said Sethral. She fingered a piece of moss, noting the quality of the air around its ledge. It had been drying for half a moon, give or take a few days. The thick ferns were even older.
They moved on again, Silversand shedding grass stems down the hallway. Taz picked one up and hid it in his fur.
Another room had clearly been a dirtplace once, and it turned out they had all been using it as such again. The small cavern was taken up by a moss-lined pit a tail-length deep. A bridge across it had been recently reinforced, and used bedding layered the pit bottom. Sethral thought she could hear water somewhere down there. She was disappointed. If the bedding had just been a pile somewhere, she could have found the bottom of it and determined how long Jay had been sleeping in the fort. She supposed this was a better use for it, but still.
Sethral found her room of choice not far from the dirtroom. It was a smallish cave with a flat floor and rocky sides. She hopped up on an outcrop and made it around the room without touching the floor. There was even a raised spot flat enough for beds. “I’ll take this one.”
She debated starting her hunt for bedding, then realized she would rather hang out with the twins. Also, Silversand had disappeared. “Where’s catface?”
“Well, she was distracted by a beetle,” said Fletch. “Now she’s probably back at Jay’s room. There was an alcove in the wall she was eyeing.”
Taz murmured something, looking concerned. They whispered back and forth for a bit, then Fletch shook his head.
“I’ve thought about that too, but you saw it. He didn’t respond. And he’s still here, Taz. If he didn’t like it, he could always leave.”
“Didn’t like what?” said Sethral.
There was a pause.
“Jay doesn’t like revealing himself to creatures,” said Taz. He glanced at Fletch. There was some kind of telepathic exchange between them; their tail-swishes contained no actual words.
Fletch turned back to Sethral. “Let’s just say that except for Taz and I and the herd, you guys are the only creatures who know Jay exists. You and Silversand. And he’d rather keep it that way.”
“He’s killed Drakons that’ve gotten too close before,” said Taz. “Probably more than Drakons, too.”
Fletch shrugged. “We’re not certain, but we think it has something to do with Winter. He’s calmer in the growing and storm seasons, when she’s away. He probably trusts you because you’re a Saggitayria; you’re almost guaranteed to be Winter’s enemy, or at least neutral. You would never work for her.”
“Damn right I wouldn’t.”
“And I dunno about Silver, but I guess he trusts her too. Possibly even more than you.”
Sethral’s mind leaped back to the cat. She had to see Silversand in full light, sitting still if possible. First the black fuzz, and now this.
She didn’t think she could ask the twins about Silversand yet, so she switched the topic. “Well I’m glad if that’s the case; he doesn’t seem like the kind of creature I’d want to cross. Now, we still haven’t found a room for you guys. Let’s keep exploring.”