Thank Shelha the twins had a directional instinct. It was late afternoon by the time the trio (they had never regained Silversand) emerged into the main hall, laughing, falling about and bumping into each other.
“And then Taz says, ‘Hey, guys, I think there’s water in here,’ and the next thing we hear …” Sethral and Fletch were almost crying and had to lean against each other for support. “Is a splash …”
Taz sniffed and strode ahead, his wet fur spiked. Sethral imitated the splash, and she and Fletch slid to the floor.
“Stop it, I can’t breathe!” cried the Rocklander.
Taz tried to feign aloofness but could not hold it for long. “And then let’s not forget the ‘spider’ in the back room,” he said with a sly grin. “You know, the one that dropped into hoppy here’s wings? I don’t think I’ve ever seen a creature try to backpedal from their own body so fast.”
Sethral snatched a piece of grass and tore after him, threatening to dump it in his fur in the dark to see how he reacted. Taz fled, making gleeful war whoops.
The twins had not been able to decide on a room and so had elected to sleep in every candidate until they found the one they liked best. While they debated where to start, Sethral looked about the hall. She could smell Silversand—and there was stray grass on the floor—but the most recent scent was from some time ago. She recalled what the twins had said about Jay.
“Do you think we should check on Silversand?” she said, interrupting a comparison of moss and sand. The twins exchanged a glance.
“Might not be a bad idea,” said Fletch.
They retraced their steps to Jay’s room. Fletch put his tailtip to his lips as they approached the door, then flicked something. Taz retreated to the shadow of the wall and sat. Sethral, not sure what the flick had said, stayed with him. Before long, Fletch came sneaking back. He flicked something else. Sethral waved an ambiguous paw at his tail and looked disgruntled. He cocked his head. She pointed back towards the hall.
“You don’t know tail-talk?” said Fletch as soon as they were back in the hall.
“I thought all clan group Saggitayrii learned it,” said Taz. “Or are you not from the clan groups? I kind of assumed you were.”
A portion of Sethral’s clan made up the clan groups, organized entities with cultures of their own and a reputation for education. They were probably the most respected category of creature in South Shelha.
“I am,” said Sethral. “Nova, the big one. But I ran away before I got taught. I would have started classes within a season, I think, but back then I didn’t want classes any more than I wanted frogs in my fur. I know a word or two, but not enough to communicate.”
“Do you want to learn it now?” said Taz.
“I might just, especially if Jay’s a mute and all. If we’re going to stick together, it might not be a bad idea.”
They all found themselves looking at each other.
“Don’t shut up on me,” said Sethral. “I know we’ve all been thinking the same thing.”
“Yeah,” said Taz with a sigh. “We can’t really deny it. We had this conversation while you were making your bed.” He nudged Fletch, who looked at the floor.
“I thought we were being selfish for even thinking about it.”
“It’s not so selfish if it’s Winter who’d suffer for it,” said Sethral. “We three at least all want to watch her, now that she’s acting strange, and I know another creature who does too. We could form a band. A renegade alliance. Goodness knows, we could probably accomplish more together than each of us could on our own.”
“Renegades.” Taz smiled. “Seth—you don’t mind if I call you Seth, do you?—Silver wants to fight Winter, too, though she says she’s never known how and she’s not quite sure what she would have to fight with.”
“I don’t think Jay would stay,” said Fletch, “but then again, he could always surprise us.”
“Renegades,” said Sethral, testing the word. It sounded much better when it wasn’t Winter saying it. “And speaking of Silver and Jay, Fletch … what was going on in that room?”
“Silver got her alcove,” said Fletch, “and I don’t think Jay’s left. He wasn’t in there, but his bed looks like he plans to stay.”
“I don’t think he’d give up on that nice of a healer’s room without a fight,” said Taz, hiding a smile.
“Surprise, surprise. I think we should do it, Seth. We could at least try working together, and if it doesn’t work, we could go our separate ways.”
“I say it’s worth a shot, even if just to avoid a battle over who gets to keep this fort,” said Sethral with a laugh. She put out her paw. “Renegades?”
Taz and Fletch added their tails to the pile.
Sethral let her eyes stray to the upper walls. “Now all we need is the Black …”
Sethral awoke earlier than usual the next morning, starving. She meandered to the main hall and checked outside. Drakons circled over the Rocklands. They had occupied Raventower. Shucks. She had liked those caves.
The back caves yielded lots of bugs and a few familiar fungi. Sethral found enough to mute her stomach’s roars into grumbles, then returned to the main hall. The Rock Flats were warming to another River Moon day—the first moon after the cool season—and shimmered like water. The light from the window and skylight illuminated one of the two other tunnels leading off from the hall, which in turn reflected a faint backglow across the hall to where the third lay.
Sethral approached the third tunnel. It looked like it might once have led to the cliff base, but it had long ago caved in beyond repair. She left it and crossed the hall. The second tunnel was the smallest of the three and almost perfectly round. Its smooth floor sloped gently to a single room. Sethral caught her breath. Light poured through two paw-sized skylights, illuminating a wall that had been sanded to a river pebble’s texture. Spanning two-thirds of it was a web of thousands of tiny lines.
Sethral approached the wall feeling like the floor would give out on her at any moment. The pattern only became more intricate the closer she looked. Only half the lines were contributing to its spread, each bursting into up to twenty daughter lines, of which half burst again. The spreader lines seemed thicker than the rest. Sethral inspected them to find that each was not one but two parallel lines, running so close together they were almost indistinguishable. Some of the non-spreaders had parallel lines too, but most were alone.
Was this a family map? Sethral stepped back. Very few species tracked lineages like this. If this was a family map, then the parallel lines would be mates and the fans would be their children. She spotted a double line near the bottom and touched its single offspring. One nearby had at least six. She touched another fan; nine lines, of which not one fanned again. Her claw slipped sideways as she ran it down the parent lines. There was another mark in the stone that she had not seen at first. She peered closer.
No. It couldn’t be.
Shelha had once been home to several more species than lived in it now. Among these were the Royals, the well-organized cat race that had inhabited the South Forest until three hundred years ago. Like Sethral’s clan in the far south, they had protected their homeland and the creatures in it from their counterpart and other predatory species. The two clans had been on excellent terms.
Also present in the past were the elementals, unique Coppertail types with abilities linked to their separate slices of the world. The Raindai of the sky, Sabletine of the earth, and Nyasi of the grass had been as known and respected as nearly any Coppertail type was today.
Shelha’s history also contained two stretches of time that no species had any records from. Known as the Great Silences, they had spanned unknown periods but had catastrophic consequences. In the first, the ancient Saberell race had vanished, leaving Drakons without a counterpart until Saggitayrii had taken the Saberell’s place. The second Silence had struck just three hundred years ago. In it, both the Royals and all elementals had disappeared.
The Royals had structured themselves into camps and a base, the camps spread out throughout the forest and the base at the cliffs. The base in the cliffs. Sethral closed her eyes and panned back through her memories of the rooms she, Silversand and the twins had explored. There had been no hint of what might have happened to the Royals. The soft stone had borne no signs of battle, and the rooms had been devoid of any signs of old life. There had certainly been no bones. It was like the entire Royal race, members, nests, healer’s supplies, Lowland tools and all, had just up and disappeared.
Creatures had long assumed something had killed the species, but this didn’t look like that. This looked like they had left on their own.
Sethral leaned against the wall. Maybe if she could find the exit they took, she could find a clue. There had to be some clifftop access from this fort. She could not see an entire colony of creatures moving out of here—let alone living here—any other way. She shook her head and stepped back into the hall. A blinding light hit her across the face. She reeled back. A creature made of light was sitting on the main hall boulder, looking up at the skylight. She jerked her head around as Sethral stumbled away.
“Silversand? Ow; watch your fur!”
“Sorry!” Silversand hopped off the rock and out of the skylight’s sun circle.
Sethral stared at her, dumbfounded. Words made themselves into bundles and jumped around her mouth. Their way out seemed to have frozen.
“The Drakons are scattering,” said Silversand, oblivious to the Saggitayria’s gape.
Sethral rubbed her eyes. They weren’t deceiving her.
“We could get Taz and Fletch and go find something to eat,” continued Silversand, frowning as though thinking hard. “We’d be safer out in the forest if we all went together, and we’d be safest if Jay came too, but I don’t think he will so it’s just us four. Do you think Taz and Fletch would come? I’ll go ask them.”
She left in a flurry of limbs. Before long, the four were grouped at the window.
“I can fly cat here to the clifftop,” said Sethral. “You two are on your own. Do you know any way up closer than the passes?”
“There’s a couple,” said Taz. He peered out the window. Drakons swirled lazily over the Inner Rocklands, but the sky nearby was clear. He pulled back and flicked something to Fletch, who nodded.
“We’ll see you by the stream to the east,” he said. He and Taz dropped out the window.
Sethral moved her wings grudgingly off her back, letting Silversand on. “You weigh a ton,” she grunted. The cat purred.
The forest was silent and eerily still, like air trapped between pond rushes. Sethral lifted her head, feeling the difference immediately.
Silversand was nose-beeping the sky. “It feels safer than before,” she said, confused.
“Let’s just keep walking.”
They met up with the twins. Sethral hoped what she was sensing was not actually the case. For once she hoped she was wrong. That Silversand was wrong. That the twins’ instincts—now leading them to relax and walk more easily through the forest—were also wrong. She led the group to a pocket of bushwood, forest with rare ample underbrush, where they dispersed to hunt or forage in silence.
The foraging party barely made it back into Rockhall before the stewing feeling broke out. Sethral snarled as Silversand pranced around her.
“But she can’t be!” wailed the cat. “She was here just a quarter moon ago, or half a quarter moon, or … I saw her!”
“You saw that forest, Silver! You saw those Drakons, just as clear as I did. Are you still going to argue with me? Are you?”
“But she was right here! And when has she ever done something like this before?”
“That doesn’t mean a thing!”
“But if Winter’s not acting like Winter any more, then what is she? I’m scared!”
“Are you a kitten?”
“Sethral,” said Fletch. “Be civil. Have we considered the other options? Have you considered them?”
Sethral rounded on him. “Don’t talk to me like that! You think I would make a claim like this without considering every possible other outcome? Without knowing it was at least a likely possibility? I don’t want this to be true any more than you do. Listen to me. I’ve been watching Winter for the last three cool season starts and ends. She follows patterns, and everything else in this forest follows patterns around her. The Drakons didn’t just suddenly shift their behaviour because Winter called off their hunt and told them to go back to ordinary business. I’m their freaking counterpart; I would know. They’ve gone back to their normal behaviour because Winter’s gone.”
“But where could she have gone to have disappeared so quickly?” said Taz. “Answer that.”
“We’d have heard about it if she’d crossed the cliffs to go north, and she’s nowhere that the South Forest Drakons could have followed, or they would know about it. I’d guess she’s still here. In the South Forest, but gone underground. In the mountains or something.”
“Like that makes any sense,” pouted Silversand. “Maybe you just missed them. Maybe the Drakons are talking about it and you just haven’t heard. Maybe—”
Sethral was about to tackle her when a quiet voice said, “Sethral’s right.”
Everybody spun around. There was no one else in the hall.
Then a small, black shadow detached from the ceiling and dropped to the boulder. Silversand hissed furiously and fled behind Sethral, who snarled. The twins bolted to their feet.
“Black?” squeaked Silversand.
“Whipper.” The newcomer dropped off the rock. He was no taller than Sethral’s shoulder, with a cute, pointy muzzle, long body, delicate paws like Watermouse hands, and a tail as long as he was. His fur was long and very black. He looked no older than Silversand, who, Sethral had discovered, was several years younger than herself.
They parted like fish as he lay down and tucked his paws beneath his chest. He watched the sand nervously. “Sethral’s right,” he said, “and I’ve been following Winter for all of the last five cool seasons. The Drakons wouldn’t be acting like this if she was still out in the forest, and Silver, you should trust your instinct. It won’t lie to you.”
“But … but …”
“Five years,” said Sethral quietly. “You’re a Forester. You escaped the North Forest fire.”
Silversand had fallen flat on her stomach and seemed unable to get up. “The Forester clan’s supposed to be dead!”
“You’re one to talk,” said Sethral.
“They are,” said Whipper.
Sethral put a foreclaw over her mouth.
“Oh, I’m so sorry,” said Silversand. She crawled up to his side. Whipper did not pull away, so she snuggled up against him.
The twins were both staring at Sethral.
“What did you mean, ‘You’re one to talk’?” said Fletch.
“You didn’t realize?” said Sethral. “Silver’s a Royal.”
She jumped. “What? Yeah, I’m a Royal. You didn’t know?” She looked confused.
“Silver,” said Fletch, “there hasn’t been a Royal in the South Forest since the Last Great Silence. There isn’t a creature alive who’s seen one, outside of stories. This may come as a shock to you, but your species is supposed to be dead. Sorry, Whipper,” he added. The Forester shrugged.
“Anyway, that’s how she found this place so fast,” said Sethral.
Silversand looked even more confused. The twins looked from one to the other.
“What place? You mean this place?” said the cat. “I don’t know this place. I mean, I knew, but I’d never been here and I really didn’t know—”
“Are you serious? Please tell me you’re joking. Silversand, you’re sitting in Rockhall. It was your clan’s home base, for Shelha’s sake!”
Silversand and the twins all bounced to their feet.
“What do you mean; you mean the Royal fort?”
“Sethral, how did you—”
“Is there a single creature in this fort who is not as oblivious as a nut-minded squirrel?”
Whipper was laughing into his paw. ‘I knew,’ he flicked. She knew those words at least.
“You know tail-talk!” said Taz.
“I lived with Coppertails once.”
“Rockhall, Rockhall, I found Rockhall! Eeeeeee!”
“Silverbutt, sit down and shut up for two consecutive heartbeats, if by Shelha’s name you’re capable. Where is your clan?”
Silversand plopped down. “I have no idea. I’ve never seen my parents or my clan. I don’t even know where they are. I was left in the South Forest when I was a kit.”
“Isn’t that normal?” said Taz.
“You’re a Coppertail, Taz,” said Sethral. “Shut up. Silver, where have you been since then?”
“I ended up in the Lowlands with a nice couple named Ferrin and Ilia, who took care of me. Then I lived on my own again. I came here following Winter half a moon ago. Well, following Whipper, but he was following Winter. I’ve lived here before, but that was a long time ago. That’s all I know. Even this.” She batted something at her throat. It was a fine chain, strung with a three-leaf clover wrought from wire.
“Silver,” said Sethral, “I think there’s something you need to see.”
The fanning lines of the family-map shone softly in the light of its skylights. Sethral pulled Silversand to the wall and pointed. At the end of the line she had examined before was a tiny, three-leaved clover, carved in the stone. Dozens, even hundreds of tiny insignias decorated streams of lines.
“That,” said Sethral, “was the mark of the most respected bloodline of the Royal race. The Monarch family. They made up half the ruling council of the clan, most of its best warriors, and nearly all of its best peacekeepers. How long have you had that chain?”
“As long as I can remember. I used to trip over it as a kit.” Silversand smiled at the memory.
“What end of the forest were you left in?”
“The west one.”
Both of them looked back at the web of lines.
“It doesn’t taper out anywhere,” said Sethral.
“I wonder where I would fit …” said Silversand wistfully.
Sethral shoved her head. “Nowhere, dummy. Your clan hasn’t updated this map in three hundred years. You’d be somewhere up there.”
She pointed to the middle of the untouched ceiling. Silversand leaped at her. They wrestled across the ground until Sethral got the upper claw and pinned her opponent. She rubbed Silversand’s head on the floor, then stepped off of it and walked away. “Shelha. All we need now is an elemental and we’re set to go. Lost species’ reincarnation team, that’s what we’d be.”
“An elemental or a Saberel,” said Whipper, smiling.
“I would love to meet a Saberel.” Sethral spun around. “They were so good, the Drakons are still petrified of their colour. Think of what we could learn from one! My clan would never be the same again.”
“I would never want to meet one,” said Silversand in mild panic. “Sethral, they were killers! They didn’t make friends and they’d sell out their own siblings or parents or kids just to stay alive. You know the stories. And besides, if they were still alive and strong, your clan wouldn’t be the Drakons’ counterpart. You overtook it because they died out.”
Sethral snorted. “They were survivors. Any creature can act heartless when they’re a survivor. But no clan can survive without having at least a bit of a heart. I bet you they just suppressed it.”
“Why are we arguing about dead species?” said Taz.
“Who says they’re dead? She’s alive.”
“Sethral, stop it,” said Silversand, when Whipper looked away.
Fletch lay down and put his forehead on his paws. “Shelha help us. When you guys are done arguing, do we want to try and think of something to do about Winter? Or is that too far gone by now?”
Sethral banged her fist on the floor. “I say we split up.”
Everyone stared at her.
“What,” she said. “We’ve got five creatures now, and the most effective way to look for someone is to cover more ground. Whipper, Silver and I could go back to Greenfalls to hunt for clues around the mountains; we’re all small and highly to relatively sneaky, and we’re comfortable in the forest. You two could probe the Drakon central in case there’s classified information flying around. Drakons always talk in common language about Winter; their language is too simple for it. And if you’re there, we’ll know if and when Winter shows up again, too.”
“Sounds like a plan,” said Taz. “Hey Fletch, we can camouflage.”
Whipper looked happy, if a little bemused.
Fletch nudged him. “Looks like you’re adopted now.”
“I’m okay with that. I didn’t think it would be so easy, though.”
Fletch shrugged. “Creatures in the South Forest are nice—most of the time, anyway. And besides, you’re a renegade.” He shot a sideways grin at the Forester. “You already belong.”