What has a voice every creature can hear,
Whispers when happy and screams without fear,
Tosses the trees using nothing but breath,
Circles in life and leaves in death?
What cannot be touched yet is stronger than all,
Eats away mountains and shatters walls,
Flows like a river no boat can ride,
Is never seen, yet never hides?
Jay had vanished again by the next day. Sethral had taken custody of the trap, and spent most of the morning holed up in her room inspecting it. Whipper, Silversand and the twins were playing a paw-slap game in the main hall when she emerged.
“No idea,” she said, tossing the trap into the middle of their circle. Creatures shied back. Taz eyed the metal device warily.
“What,” said Sethral. “It’s not set. It won’t hurt you.”
When the twins and Whipper continued to refuse to come forwards, Sethral rolled her eyes and pulled the trap out of the circle’s centre. Creatures relaxed.
“What did you find?” said Silversand.
Sethral pulled at the device’s pieces until it was laid out before her in some semblance of order. She patted a metal ring. “It’s Lowland-made for sure. My guess is that Winter commissioned it while she was down there this cool season, and then brought it back for testing. She probably had the Drakons plant in the Rocklands, which would explain why it didn’t catch Taz. It wasn’t very well set.”
“So you do think it was Winter?” said Whipper.
“I would think so. It couldn’t be the Drakons, because getting this back from the Lowlands would require crossing other flights’ territories without giving up their cargo. That, frankly, doesn’t happen. And who else goes between the Lowlands and this part of the South forest? Besides you guys and me,” she added, waving a paw at Whipper and Silversand.
Taz had shifted closer to get a better look. “Not to change the topic again, but how does this thing work? I’m kinda curious what it would have done to me if I’d been caught.”
Fletch smacked him.
Sethral began to rearrange the linked pieces, fitting some into others. She had to lean on the last one to slip it into place. Then she stepped back, picked up a stone that Silversand had been playing with, and tossed it into the device. Creatures jumped in their skins as the trap leaped, clamping the rock in a metal cuff. Sethral picked it up. A chain trailed from its side.
“You cut yourself on this part,” she said, running a finger along the cuff’s bottom edge. It was sharpened like a knife. “The whole thing was covered in dust, so my guess is it was buried for camouflage.”
“But couldn’t someone just run away with it?” said Fletch. Sethral held up a sharpened metal peg, connected to the trap by another chain. Scrapes indicated it had been thrust into a rock crack.
“So no,” said Taz, rolling his eyes. “I don’t want to know how much work Jay put into retrieving this.”
“Well, he did us a huge favour,” said Sethral. “Going back into the Rocklands when the Drakons have occupied Raventower? To find something that could easily have been a rock all along?” She held up the peg. “And then wrestling it out to bring back to us? He’s not acting like a rogue Coppertail, Taz. If this is part of some scheme of Winter’s, Jay just acted more like a renegade than the rest of us combined.”
Tracker’s Moon rolled into South Moon, and the forest thickened into a sumptuous carpet of green. Plants that had leaped to life in the sunlight dropped their seeds and slunk back into the loam, leaving behind them a forest floor so empty and repetitious that stories of it spoke of creatures who visited only to become lost, wandering for days unable to tell which way was east or west or up or down.
“‘Forest of Madness’, that’s what a few of the Lowlanders call it,” said Silversand cheerfully. She pounced on a leaf, then flung herself onto her back. She and Sethral had landed by the stream close to Rockhall, but the soil was no damper here than anywhere else. “I never understood it. There’s always the sun, and don’t the different patches even smell different? I don’t see how anyone could get lost. Well, I guess I did get lost once but—yeep!”
“Shut up!” hissed Sethral, flooring her.
Not ten tail-lengths away from them was a Hyenar. It stood poised with its crumpled ears perked and one paw off the ground. After a moment it trotted away.
“That’s a scout!” squeaked Silversand.
“They send one creature ahead to search for prey! The rest follow behind!”
“Was this one of the ones that attacked us by Greenfalls?”
“I don’t think so!”
“Then what’s another Hyenar pack doing in the South Forest?” Sethral tried to catch another glimpse of the creature, but it had disappeared.
“Let’s follow it!”
“For once, that might actually be a good idea.”
Sethral released the Royal and the two of them ran to the forest’s edge. Rockhall was flanked by boulder fields like the ones blanketing most of the South Cliffs’ rim. Hopping along those would cut any scent trail, and Hyenars, Silversand had stated, hunted by scent and nearly scent alone. She said their eyesight was terrible.
The Hyenar had been heading north when they had lost sight of it, so Silversand extrapolated its path and led them to the place it would likely emerge. The sun beat down on the two as they hunkered low on a boulder.
Sethral peered between the taller stones hiding them from the forest. “I don’t see it.”
“Give it a bit. They get distracted really easily, so it takes forever for them to get anywhere.”
“How did a second pack end up this far into the forest? That looked like a Western Shield Hyenar. Do you think maybe something is driving—”
Sethral ducked down with a hiss. Silversand scrambled to share her view. There was a shadow flitting through the forest’s edge. At five tail-lengths away, the colour and gait were unmistakable.
“That’s Jay!” whispered Silversand.
“The Hyenar will smell him!”
A heartbeat later the forest rustled wildly. Jay moved like a lick of wind, spinning aside so fast the Hyenar crashed into a boulder. There was a two-heartbeat flurry of motion, then both creatures disappeared.
Silversand’s mouth opened and closed like fish gills. Sethral was already in the air.
The Hyenar lay sprawled at the boulder field’s edge with an almost comically shocked expression. Its mouth still hung open in its last unuttered howl.
“You know, I’m really glad I don’t have Northlander enemies,” said Sethral. She traced the smell to the west. “He was heading back to Rockhall from out there again. I wonder where he goes?”
New moon rolled into full moon, and the last lingering cool of the season rolled belly-up and went peacefully to sleep. Sethral left for a day to scout, eavesdropping on Drakons and scouring places where Winter had been before. She returned to find Whipper waiting at the window. She shook her head.
“Are you sure she didn’t migrate?” said Silversand. The Saggitayria walked past her without a word.
Sethral dropped back into the great hall from Whipper’s alcove to find Jay in the sun by the window. He looked up as she landed. It was the first time Sethral had seen him smile.
‘You got him to sleep?’ he flicked.
“Yeah. Sleep-deprived little bugger won’t stop blaming himself for not knowing where his enemy is. I’m going back to bed. Shut Silverbutt up for me when she gets here.”
She headed for the tunnel, passing the twins on their way out. They greeted Jay and vanished out the window onto the flats.
Silversand held absolutely still in the shadows until Sethral was out of sight, then let out the breath she had been holding. She leaned back so she could see into the hall without being seen. As soon as he was alone, Jay winced and stretched in the sun. He was acting like his shoulders were hurting again. He curled around so the sunlight cascaded over them, then began to groom them as best he could. Why did northern creatures have to have such nice fur? She wanted to run over right now and groom the tricky spot for him, but then he would get scared or angry and she would not be able to answer the funny instinct that kept telling her that something was wrong with Jay.
A breeze from the window made the Northlander flinch. He got up and put his nose to the floor. Silversand looked down. She could see where most Royals had walked back in the days when the fort had been inhabited. Down the middle of this hallway, the stone was worn smooth, peppered by thousands of tiny claw-strikes.
Jay was probably looking at the same thing, because he circled the hall in a spiral, nose still tracing exposed patches of floor. Then he began to circle the boulder. He sniffed it, then tapped it with one paw, then circled it again.
Silversand stepped from the main tunnel. Jay startled when he saw her, then smiled. He had a nice smile.
“What are you looking for?” she asked.
‘Nothing in particular.’
She had him repeat the tail-talk, to make sure she had read it correctly. She had. “Just anything that’s interesting?”
He gave her another smile. ‘Pretty much.’
They joined forces. There were clear paths worn between the tunnels and exits of the hall, and around the boulder. Silversand peered up at a rough patch of wall and found it shredded with thousands of finite lines. She flexed her claws and scoured her own into the melee with a satisfied purr. Jay found a smear beneath the sand that could have been a blood stain, but in a clan of hunters, that didn’t mean much.
The wall grew rougher farther up, out of their reach until Silversand found a ledge running slantwise up the wall. Perched precariously at its end, she surveyed a particularly rough stretch ahead of her. It spread out as it rose, a jumble of geometric-sided protrusions the size of her head, crowding together and piling on top of each other until they were lost among the ceiling’s rock-teeth. Here and there a flatter stone was rubbed smooth and dented like cave-rocks carved out by drips from above.
‘See anything interesting?’ flicked Jay from below.
Even the ledge she was standing on was natural. Turning clumsily, Silversand began her descent and promptly lost her footing. She descended the slick, slanting path rather faster than she was comfortable with. When she hit the sand again, Jay had the grace not to laugh.
They found little of interest over the course of the morning. At sunhigh, Silversand plunked herself down on the floor. “I’m hungry.”
She looked plaintively at Jay, who looked skeptically back. ‘You are always hungry.’
Silversand flopped on her stomach, rolled onto her back and treated the Northlander to an upside-down pout. “I’m a growing creature; I need my food. Whipper’s the same. Where is Whipper?”
‘Sleeping. Keep the volume down.’
Silversand wriggled across the sand on her back to the sunlight pooling about the boulder. The glare was too bright, so she wriggled again to put her head in the boulder’s shade. She gazed up its smooth curve. Little rivulets were worn into it, so shallow they were almost invisible. They joined and forked like a braided stream all the way to the floor.
Silversand frowned. She flipped back over. “Jay!”
The Coppertail came over. Silversand pointed. At the line where the boulder met the floor was a crack. The sand that normally gathered in the joint had been drained away, into a crevice wide enough for Silversand to insert a claw into. After falling from the skylight, the boulder should have been nestled in the floor too snugly to shift. There should not be any crack.
Sethral arrived shortly after and joined the search. By midafternoon, no means of investigation had yielded clues as to what lay beyond the crack, nor how to reach it to find out. Silversand had established its depth by spending a mealtime’s worth of time sweeping sand into it. It never got full. Sethral had confirmed this depth by first blowing, then clicking her tongue into the crevice. The Royal, in a fit of annoyance, had even chucked herself at the boulder to try and make it move.
Whipper found the trio sitting in various states of frustration, staring down the boulder like it had stolen their snacks. “What’s going on here?” he said. When the situation had been explained to him, he too approached the stone. He circled it once, then in one movement sank his claws beneath the sand and heaved back a thin slab embedded in the floor. He nipped smartly aside as Silversand made to tackle him.
“Do you have any idea how long we spent searching that rock?” she said shrilly, afluff with indignation. You can’t just come along—”
“Hey!” yelped Whipper, dodging another attack. “How is this my fault?”
Sethral grabbed the cat’s tail. “Guys, come see what he found!”
They rejoined her, the Royal throwing a last swipe at Whipper, who ducked.
In the floor was a hole big enough to walk through. Sethral ran a claw along its slanted rim. “It’s brilliant. Part of this was a crack from the falling boulder, then whoever built on it continued the line to make the door. It takes Lowland skill to slant edges like this, so the slab doesn’t fall through.”
She lifted her wing, letting sun rays tumble down the hole. A tunnel sank away into the darkness, escorting a roughly cut set of stairs. On the rim above them was a word.
Sethral read it out loud. The renegades all looked at each other. Then everyone except Silversand looked at Silversand.
“What?” she squeaked as they burst out laughing. “Whipper, I don’t know what to do!”
“Okay, I can come,” said Whipper. “Sethral and Jay, you stay here and listen in case we need to call for help. Silver, your night vision’s better, so you go first. I’ll stay right behind you. Is everyone okay with that?”
Jay settled back and started grooming.
Sethral grinned. “Good luck!”
“Silver?” said Whipper.
Silversand nodded. Whipper gave her a light push, and the two of them descended into the blackness.