Chapter 29: Imperial Grove

It was a long trek to Imperial lands. The Scissortail territory was about in the middle of the Nyre. Directly below them, the Peridæ, Willow, and Crawfen clans. Above the Willow clan were the Blade and Weolcen clans, the Weolcen clan also bordered Scissortail lands and was whose territory the small group had to pass through on the way to the only Imperial territory in the Nyre. Most of the Imperials lived in the Eor forest, next to the mountain range where the Highland lived.

Their escort was a quiet, but stern fellow. He had white and blond hair and fur, and his wings were a golden yellow and brown. He dressed in the traditional loose breeches and short tunic most of the Scissortails preferred to wear. Each of the small group travelled lightly with just a pack on their back. They had brought a few rations, but mostly survived on what Shanku and Katari caught for their supper and what Hilael could gather to make it better.

"You're a highborn, aren't you?" Shanku asked with a grin as she finished dressing a few large rodents she had caught.

"Yes. Why do you ask?" the escort asked.

"You haven't given us your name and you never work for supper," Shanku teased as she began to spear pieces of meat and vegetables onto sticks.

"I am Piram, and watching over you lot is work enough," he stated.

"You'll never survive out in the wild with that attitude," Shanku laughed.

"I have little interest in your survival stories, miss," Piram said with half-closed eyes. "And I certainly don't want any of your habits."

"Come now, prejudice is just going to cause trouble," Shanku said as she helped Katari finish preparing their camp fire. They dug a shallow pit and gathered many green branches with intentions of using them to make a smoker so they could keep their extra meat for a longer time. If they didn't eat it all while walking the following day. Shanku handed a stick strung with meat and vegetables out to Piram. "You're roasting your own meat tonight."

With a flat look, Piram took the stick from her and held it over the fire. Shanku stuck her stick into the ground and wedged a log under it so that her kebab could roast slowly without her having to hold it the whole while.

"A particularly lazy way of doing it," Piram said distastefully.

"You don't try to burn energy when you're out and about," Shanku said gently. "You never know when you're going to have to defend yourself from a predator either."

"Perhaps if you were more observant of your surroundings, you wouldn't make camp near a predator."

"Kind of hard to do if they're out hunting too," Katari said. "I've lost a kill a few times to a hungry cougar."

"I'm told you were one of the more average hunters of your class," Piram said.

"Just ignore him, Katari. If he wants to be grumpy and alone, let him," Shanku grumbled before he could protest.

Katari nodded and directed his conversation toward Shanku. "Since supper is the topic, what would you say was the strangest thing you ate while on your travels?"

"I would say," Shanku trailed off and sat thoughtful for a moment. "A squid."

"A squid?" Katari asked curiously.

"Yes. A squid. It's this kind of fish in the ocean. It's got a big head and a ten wiggly arms with little suckers on them," Shanku explained.

"Doesn't sound good," Hilael shuddered.

"Tastes better than it smells," Shanku grinned. "Crabs are particularly tasty. They get really big out at sea, unlike the little ones we have around here. So what's the strangest thing you two have eaten?"

"Minocentaur pie," Hilael grimaced.

"Aw, I like mino-pie," Katari chuckled. "I think perhaps poke salet."

"Isn't that poisonous?" Shanku asked warily.

"Quite! Mother boils it a few times to get out the toxins, and then she fries it for a long time in minocentaur or boar fat," Katari replied. "How about you, Piram?"

"Rabbit and mushroom kebabs," Piram said and swallowed his current bite.

"See? We bring you new experiences!" Shanku giggled.

Innugati trilled as she swallowed a small piece of meat whole. Piram recoiled at the sight of her.

"It's strange how the Sylvans are the only ones so rude to other species," Shanku commented with a sideways glance at Piram. "Can't help but think that's part of the attitude that got us out here in the first place."

"What's your point?" Piram asked coldly.

Shanku shrugged and would not reply to him. With a hrmph, Piram curled up onto the leaves he had scratched up and pretended to go to sleep.

We've got such a long way to go, Shanku thought. Both in distance to the Imperial Grove, and the Sylvans as a whole to stop being so xenophobic. She sighed heavily.

Katari set the green branches up around the campfire in the shape of a tripod, laced a few of the protruding twigs together to make a few horizontal bars, and placed the spare strips of meat over them to slowly cook over the next few hours.

"Mm, smoked rabbit!" Shanku grinned. She helped Katari watch the meat and keep it turned. Hilael sat quietly by and on occasion would bring fresh wood for their fire.

"Let's all get some sleep," Katari said when they had finished. Hilael and Shanku nodded and each curled up near the fire as it slowly went out during the night.

The following morning, Katari smothered the dying fire in dirt just in case it should catch up and set the forest on fire. They packed away the strips of smoked meat, gathered up their packs, and continued on. The air was crisp and the smell of new growth was heavy in the air. It put the pups in a good mood and they had short races with each other, much to the irritation of their escort who was not feeling quite as energetic.

Shanku came to a stop and stood perfectly still. She pricked her ears forward and sniffed cautiously. Katari and Hilael likewise stopped and looked curiously in the direction she did. But they were upwind and could not catch the scent. Shanku took a quick glance at her comrades and began to sneak stealthily away. Katari was impressed at how quietly she had learned to be but did not let his guard down.

"Come now, no dawdling. We must keep moving forward," Piram said irritably.

"Shanku heard something," Katari said warily.

"Probably that perpetually growling stomach of hers," Piram grumbled.

"No, it was something else hungry," Shanku said as she stepped from around a bush. "But it's gone."

The escort muttered a few incomprehensible things and lead them back on the way.

"What do you think it was?" Katari asked.

"I don't know. It seemed kinda big. It was upwind. It probably smelled me coming," Shanku shrugged. "I just hope it doesn't come back."

"At least we know it wasn't a minocentaur. Those big, plodding brutes aren't known for being quiet," Katari said.

"Aye, true that," Shanku nodded.

"Could it have been an Imperial?" Hilael asked.

"I hope not. So far all the skirmishes have been up on the Blade and Weolcen borders. I'd hate to think they've already come this far south," Katari shuddered.

"That would not be very wise," Hilael mused. "With only one Imperial clan in the Nyre, it would be too great a burden on them to fend off against three Feral clans, if not all six."

"I wouldn't think it all that smart to tick two other Kurach breeds and humans too, but they went and did that as well," Shanku said. "Make food, not war."

"What happens when you have to make war to make food?" Katari grinned.

"Go on a diet!" Shanku laughed.

"Speaking of food," Katari said with a grin. "I do believe you said you were now better than me at hunting?"

"Of course," Shanku said demurely. "And I daresay I have more experience at it now."

"Let's see about that then," Katari poked her on the shoulder. "Tonight, we'll have a fresh meal. We'll go off together and see who performs the best on the hunt."

"It's a date," Shanku nodded.

"Is now any time for your petty rivalry?" the escort asked tiredly.

"Do you want to have rations tonight?" Shanku demanded.

The escort shrugged and shook his head. Not many Kurach would turn down a fresh kill for supper.

"What if neither of you find something tonight?" Hilael asked.

"Then I guess whoever spies a catch first wins," Shanku mused.

Indeed, it was a few days before they found game. The days also passed without incident. Shanku and Katari would take turns listening and smelling for danger and fresh game, and all four took turns standing watch at night. Hilael turned most of his focus to finding good plants to eat kept their diet varied with various plants, roots, and fungus he found along the way.

"Hilael, I think you've missed your calling as a gatherer," Katari said as he leaned back against a tree one night.

"I'd be pretty miserable on just jerky and acorn rolls," Shanku agreed. "I never was that good at finding supplements when I was out on my own. Maybe you can teach me a few things?"

"Perhaps," Hilael said quietly and finished off his meal.

"So what exactly is it that you do?" Katari asked Piram. "Surely it can't be your job to look after messengers all the time."

"I am one of the elite guard," Piram said. "A step above a warrior as we are the personal fighters of the ruling class."

Shanku rolled her eyes and stayed quiet.

"You still have to train with the warriors, do you not?" Katari asked.

"Yes, but after we get our basic skillset, we then are taught by those speically trained for guarding the more important people of the Scissortail clan," Piram nodded.

"I'm stepping out for a moment," Shanku said and excused herself. Innugati did not join her and instead curled up on Hilael's leg. Shanku went out a good ways into the dark forest. When she was far enough away she knew the others could not hear her, her skin rippled and began to sprout fur. Her features changed, and soon she was in her feral form. She did not have an aura. Shanku had learned while hunting for the Highland how to suppress her aura so as not to attract the attention of predators. Or Sigrid, who was not fond of Shanku assuming the bare skinned "lesser form" that most Kurach preferred to stay in.

Shanku carefully tucked her tunic under her belt, dropped down to four feet, and padded quietly among the trees. It felt very good to be back in her feral form. Shanku grinned. Not so long ago, I hated the thought of becoming a "monster". Maybe those featherbrains were on to something after all.

The sound of a snapping twig and rustling leaves caught her attention. Stealthily, Shanku crept toward the noise. Her ears were facing forward to catch the slightest sound of movement and she thankfully was downwind this time. She recognized the footfalls as the same thing she had heard the other day. Every so quietly, she came up behind it. Whatever it was, it was making its way toward their camp.

The soft, orange glow of the campfire shone on the nearby trees as Shanku crouched behind a bush. It stopped and stood still. Shanku took the moment to try and recognize its scent. It was familiar, but she could not quite place it.

Innugati leapt off of Hilael's knee and started chittering loudly. The thing in front of Shanku hissed and sprang for Innugati.

Katari, Hilael, and Piram jumped to their feet and stepped back as a large, reptilian creature hit the ground and a feral Shanku landed on its back. There was a lot of snarling and hissing as it scrambled to get away and Shanku tried to pin it down. It kicked Shanku sharply in the stomach and knocked her off of itself. Shanku barely grunted and stood firmly on four paws as the thing righted itself and stood across from her.

It had dull, black scales, a long and sleek body, and cruel looking fangs and claws. And very familiar glowing, green eyes. It arched its back and hissed nastily at Shanku. She in turn lowered her head to the ground, arched her wings, and growled deeply.

Innugati barked and trilled at the thing, and dove repeatedly at its head. Irritated, it started to snap at Innugati to make her stop. Shanku sprang again and sank her teeth deep into its throat close to its head. Enraged, the reptile lashed out at her with its forearms. It left deep gashes in Shanku's arms before she could grab its feet. With several jerks of her head, she caused enough damage she could release her bite and jump back.

Shanku stood panting and bleeding away from it. The creature hissed and gurgled as it fell to the ground. It struggled a few moments as it bled out and became still. Shanku quickly spit out as much of its blood from her mouth as a familiar tingling sensation started.

"What was that thing?" Katari asked fearfully as it started to decay rapidly.

"I don't know," Shanku said and returned to her natural form. "But it reminds of the Port's Plague. It even rots like they do."

Hilael sat down by his sister and began to inspect and dress her injuries with water from his waterskin and one of the strips of cloth he had insisted on bringing. Shanku hissed a few times from pain as he cleaned her gashes, but she did not resist. Innugati landed on Hilael's shoulder, trilling and whistling as she squirmed uneasily.

"I thought those things could only be summoned by a warlock?" Katari asked and sat down far away from it as all that was left behind were some charred bones and grass.

"Not necessarily," Piram said and also took a seat far from the carcass. "There are creatures like that deep within the ground."

"So what's it doing up here, then?" Shanku grumbled.

"Something could have disturbed it and run it above ground," Piram shrugged. "I've heard of it happening when the dwarves disturb a nest of them in their mining."

"Yay," Shanku said glumly. She felt a bit funny and shook her head. "I sure hope it didn't have poisoned claws or blood."

The group passed the night uneasily and not many got much sleep. They got an early start on their journey the next morning and continued on. Shanku was a bit groggy and Hilael made them stop every few hours so he could check her arms. That afternoon, Hilael and Innugati left the group and strode off into the forest.

"Should we wait?" Piram asked.

"I'd appreciate it," Shanku said, gasping lightly. She sat down on the ground and nibbled at her shoulder.

"Are you alright?" Katari asked and knelt beside her.

"It itches!" Shanku growled.

"Don't scratch it, you'll make it worse," Katari frowned and put a hand on her shoulder.

Innugati took off and fluttered quickly between the trees. Hilael followed closely behind, glancing at each plant they passed by as he listened to the flutter of her wings to guide him. Each time she dipped and dived, he gathered that plant. She chirped and Hilael turned on his heel. He began to run back toward where he left the group behind, plants in hand.

Katari looked toward the sound of footfalls and saw Hilael come back with several oddly-colored plants. He sat down a bit aways from the others, dug around in his pack, and withdrew the stone bowl and rock he liked so much. He set to grinding up the plants as Innugati chittered and trilled to him. After he had made a rather odd smelling paste, he went over to Shanku and began to take off her bandages.

Shanku laid her ears back as she saw her scratch marks had turned the same dark green as the reptiles blood. Hilael began to rub the paste into her injuries. Shanku did not move her arm, but let loose a growl and hiss that sounded much like a cat having their tail stepped on.

"I think you've spent too much time with that cat," Katari muttered and shook his head.

"That goop stung more than the actual slash," Shanku snarled as Hilael redressed her injuries.

"You'll be fine," Hilael said. "Be careful next time."

"Next time, we sleep in the trees like I always did," Shanku grumbled.

"What are you, an Imperial?" Piram demanded. "Imperials sleep in the trees, we sleep on the ground!"

"Well maybe the Imperials actually got something right for once," Shanku snapped. "This is exactly why I don't sleep on the ground! I don't want to be level with those kinds of things. And frankly, I don't trust your fighting skills, Mr. Elite Guard."

"I assure you my skills are superior to yours," Piram narrowed hsi eyes.

"Alright, then. You, me, now," Shanku hissed and stood. She removed her pack and knife, and laid them aside. Shanku brought her fists up before her and took a ready stance.

"Would both of you calm down?" Katari groaned. "You're barely in any condition to fight right now anyway."

"Oh, no, I've been wanting to put this pup in her place for quite some time," Piram growled and stood. He removed his tunic and pack, and flung them back on the ground. Piram brought his fists up and waited.

Before Katari could protest, Hilael touched his arm and shook his head. With a sigh, Katari stepped back with Hilael. Innugati trilled and settled herself on Hilael's shoulder.

It was Shanku's challenge, so she felt obliged to make the first move to save face and not present as a coward. She leapt forward in a simple lunge, hoping to make him dodge to her left. He side-stepped her more obvious attack with a bit of a smug grin, until he saw her knee coming straight up as she continued her stride forward. She connected with his side and quickly pivoted back into a ready stance a step away from him.

"What kind of Sylvan uses knees?" Piram glared at her and held a hand over his bruised side.

"This one does!" Shanku quipped and charged him again. She opened her hands and kept her fingers tight together. Shanku struck out at Piram. He blocked her and landed a blow to the side of her head. Shanku flicked her ears in response and the two traded blows for a few moments. Shanku stepped back, and lunged again.

Piram side-stepped again, to the right this time and struck out with a clawed hand at her. Shanku dropped to the ground to avoid the slash and with her momentum brought her knee up hard into the back of his leg. He lost his balance and began to fall forward.

Shanku quickly flipped onto her back uncomfortably on her feathers, drew her knees up to her chest, and kicked him hard with both feet into the same tender place in his side as before as he hit the ground.

Piram groaned audibly and clutched his side. Shanku scrambled to her feet and stood back a few paces.

"Good grackles, pup," Piram said with a strained voice and one eye squeezed tight. "You kick like a bull."

"I know, I was trained by Kurach half a torso taller than us," Shanku said with a warm smile and offered a hand to him. "You're not so bad yourself!" Piram shook his head and let her help him out.

"Do you two have that out of your system now?" Katari asked grumpily. How in the world have you managed to live this long?

"That depends, are you going to keep being so snarky to us?" Shanku asked as she hauled Piram to his feet.

"I still think you're nothing but trouble," Piram chuckled. "But I suppose I should ease up."

"Thank you," Shanku grinned broadly. "Let's keep going."

"We'll have to slow down now," Hilael shook his head. "You're still sluggish from that thing last night and he's got an injured side."

"That was considered sluggish?" Piram asked skeptically.

"You weren't there when she took on Jagan and his three friends," Hilael said flatly.

"What kind of training did these giant Kurach put you through?" Piram asked as they continued on.

"Mostly one on one combat, but there were quite a few group fights. The Highland clans often clash with each other just to establish pecking orders and to have bragging rights. So they focus on blunt force attacks that would sooner incapacitate an opponent rather than make them bleed out or risk infection," Shanku replied. "It wouldn't be hard for them to do it either, their claws are much longer and thicker than ours, both proportionately and directly."

"A worthy adversary," Piram said wistfully. "I think I should like to meet them."

"Now don't go talking like that! You might find yourself in my position!" Shanku laughed.

"I will never understand warriors," Katari shook his head.

"Why is that?" Hilael asked.

"For the past week, they've been snarling and snapping at each other. One little tussle, and now they're best friends," Katari jabbed a finger back at Shanku and Piram as they laughed and talked about techniques.

"That is the way of each class. They must connect through their skill," Hilael shrugged. "Hunters hunt. Gatherers gather. Healers heal. Warriors war. They won't be satisfied elsewise."

"I thought Shanku was supposed to be a hunter?" Katari asked. "She's certainly put a lot of effort into it, and stalked that thing the other night pretty well."

"She is a hunter because she is a warrior," Hilael said simply. "They require similar skill sets, especially if it is a warrior trained to seek an enemy rather than wait for it to come to them. Much like how a healer must also be a gatherer."

"Unlike Piram, who seems trained only for combat," Katari said thoughtfully. "Do you think the other Feral warriors are the same way?"

"I hope not," Hilael said quietly. "I hope they are all hunting warriors rather than just simply warriors."

Katari nodded. He and Hilael walked on in silence as their injured comrades came merrily along behind them.

As per Shanku's advice, they began taking shelter in the trees at night. Shanku and Piram both healed from their injuries and Hilael's concoction also helped to prevent terrible scarring on Shanku's arms. Innugati had since taken up with Hilael and spent much more time with him than Shanku, much to Shanku's surprise. After two weeks of travel, they arrived at the Scissortail border without further threat from strange creatures from the underground or further arguments with Piram.

"So, should we announce ourselves to the Weolcen or something?" Katari asked and looked around. "It's not like they knew we were coming, were they?"

"We don't look like Imperials, so perhaps they'd just let us pass in peace?" Shanku ventured.

"They will stop us as we near their den," Piram said and looked around. He pointed. "There."

It was a runepost, a large stone with many carvings of both pictures and letters, used commonly by both Sylvans and Highland to denote territories. Piram walked around it carefully, then began to walk more north than the direction they had been travelling.

"You know which way to their den?" Shanku asked.

"There are special markings on the side that faces a Sylvan's den," Piram nodded. "So long as we don't present as threatening, we will hopefully be approached by a scout who will relay our message to the Weolcen and Blade clans."

"We have a message for them?" Shanku asked, puzzled.

"Mostly just an explanation of why we're here on their land," Piram shrugged. "But it couldn't hurt to inform them of our actions and see if they would like to join us."

"The more the merrier!" Shanku chirped.

They did not have long to wait. The following morning, there was a scout waiting below the tree they had slept in. He wore the traditional tunic and breeches, and guards on his forearms and shins.

"Identify yourselves!" he demanded.

"Howdy!" Shanku called out and climbed down the tree. She jumped down when she was about his height up. "We're Scissortails on our way to Imperial lands."

"What business have you with them?" the scout asked warily.

"I have it on good authority that the entirety of the Sylvans will be under attack from Arctics, Plains, and man if they don't learn to play nice with others," Shanku stated.

The scout gave a low whistle. "And what do you plan to do?"

"Talk some sense into them," Shanku grinned broadly.

"That is our intentions, however crudely put," Piram said as he joined them. "All we ask from the Weolcen is to pass safely through your territory on our way to them."

"The Weolcen will unlikely attack you, but no guarantees you can pass safely the closer you get to our opposite border," the scout shook his head. "We've had many raiding parties to contend with. You may even find a few Blade encampments."

"Have you need of Scissortail help?" Piram asked as Katari and Hilael came down the tree. Innugati wisely hid on top of Hilael's pack behind his back.

"Not yet, I don't think," the scout replied. "Not that I've heard, anyway. I'm sure a summons will be sent to the Scissortail requesting help if that changes. I'll inform others of your passing through."

Piram nodded and they parted ways with the scout. On occasion they would catch a glimpse of one of the Weolcen scouts as they passed through, but none approached them. The group was carefully directed away from the Weolcen den and allowed to continue on their way.

"I'm getting excited," Shanku said gleefully as the neared the Weolcen border.

"I'm not," Katari muttered. "What if we get attacked by a raiding party?"

"We fight back," Shanku said with a devilish grin.

"We're on a peaceful mission, I shouldn't think that wise," Hilael said and laid an ear back.

"We should stand our ground, but not go on the offensive," Piram mused. "Surely you can control yourself enough for that."

"Of course!" Shanku chuckled. "But it'd be so much fun to see what they're capable of."

Definitely not a hunter. Katari shook his head. I don't think her tree has all its leaves.

Marks on the ground let them know they were near the Weolcen border. The leaves and grass were disturbed, small limbs and branches were broken, and there was a faint smell of blood in the air from injuries.

Shanku became much more serious and alert as she crossed over into Imperial territory. Her ears were constantly flicking at the least noise and she was watching every shadow. She would not walk in any direction the wind carried her scent. Piram behaved in much the same manner. Katari and Hilael kept close behind them and kept quiet. Even little Innugati, usually fluttering her wings or chirping, sat quietly on Hilael's shoulder and did not stir.

"Where should we camp?" Shanku asked quietly as evening began to settle. "They are even more at home among the branches than I am."

"But at least in the branches we know they could not fall on us," Piram nodded. "We stay in the trees."

Hilael spotted a group of cedars and the group made their way to it.

"This'll be a prickly bed," Shanku shuddered.

"But the branches are thick and the scent is strong. They'd be hard pressed to find us if they didn't know where to look already," Hilael replied.

They paired off two to a tree. Katari with Piram, and Hilael with Shanku. They each chose a sturdy branch that allowed them to see the four sides around them and set their watches. Night came full on and the night life began to stir in its usual chorus of insects, birds, and frogs.

"Are you awake?" Shanku asked softly after some time.

"Yes," Hilael replied quietly. "Can you not sleep?"

"There're several pieces of bark poking me. I'd make too much noise evening it," Shanku chuckled lowly. "You?"

"The same," Hilael replied.

"At least I finally have some time alone with you," Shanku whispered. "We've all been glued at the hip night and day except when Katari and I split off to hunt for fresh meat."

"It's very exhausting. Much more stressful than I thought it would be," Hilael nodded. "But you probably wish to talk about something else."

"You know me so well," Shanku smiled.

"What's on your mind?" Hilael asked softly.

"This whole mess," Shanku shook her head. "I'm now officially through with my exile, but here I am out in unfamiliar territory once again."

"It's for a good cause," Hilael replied.

"I'm just not very easy with the cost," Shanku said glumly. "I should have been there for you."

"What's done is done," Hilael said gently.

"It still bothers me," Shanku said lowly. "It was my job to keep us safe and I messed up."

"I can handle myself better than most expect," Hilael said quietly.

"Why do you just stand there and take it?" Shanku asked. "How can you be so passive?"

"I'm not," Hilael said darkly. "But it is not worth their lives."

"Would you, if you ever...?" Shanku turned her head to glance back in his direction.

"Yes," Hilael said as casually as always. "So I do not. Better to implode than explode."

"And they have no clue," Shanku shook her head.

"They cannot ever know," Hilael said softly. "They scare too easily."

"I know how that goes," Shanku said with a quiet chuckle. "I still have to hide a lot of my thoughts and curiousities, even with Ma and Katari."

"They can handle it better than most," Hilael said thoughtfully.

"But not as well as you or me," Shanku said with a warm smile.

"No," Hilael agreed and looked wistfully through the bushy branches at the twinkling stars far beyond.

"So, surely not all the cubs have been mean to you since I left?" Shanku asked.

Hilael paused for a moment before he answered, "no".

"Why the pause?" Shanku asked curiously.

"There is one cub," Hilael trailed off. "She comes around often."

"Is she nice?" Shanku tilted her head to the side.

"Too nice," Hilael shuddered.

"Does she like you?" Shanku asked with a wry grin.

"That's what I'm afraid of," Hilael shook his head. "I feel hunted."

"That is what hunters do," Shanku giggled. "I'm glad to know not everybody has been cruel."

"It is a cruelty in its own way," Hilael whispered back. He was silent for a moment before he continued. "Katari, Muso, and Banhi have been fine. Each have had a few good friends."

"That's good to hear," Shanku sighed. "At least I didn't ruin it for everybody."

"Katari chose his path, for the most part," Hilael whispered. "He would not associate with any that took pleasure in your exile, or bothering us."

"He is a good friend," Shanku whispered thoughtfully. "Better than I deserve."

"At least your suitor doesn't stalk you like mine does," Hilael grumbled.

"He's not my suitor!" Shanku hissed.

"Sylvans court much differently than men or even other Kurach," Hilael said slyly. "He likes you."

"He told me to go away right after I came back!" Shanku blushed deeply and was grateful for the shadows cast by the cedar branches.

"Naturally. He was pretty hurt when you left," Hilael shrugged. "He had to come to terms with both your departure and return."

"Why did you tell me this now? In the middle of all this? This mission is going to be so much more awkward," she muttered quickly.

"Just continue to treat him like you always have," Hilael said quietly. "And he will continue to do the same."

"And now I worry just what all that will entail!" Shanku whispered back.

"What is there to worry about?" Hilael asked. "Would he be that bad?"

"No, just," Shanku paused and drew her knees to her chest. "I don't know. It's just kinda soon."

"I thought you had noticed," Hilael said quietly.

"I hadn't," Shanku shook her head. "He's just my best friend. I still see a tumbling cub that likes to explore like I do. Puppy love!"

"Puppy grew up," Hilael shrugged. "Don't worry. We'll be busy with this Imperial thing for quite a while. You'll have time to adjust to it."

"I guess I should thank you, then," Shanku whispered.

"You took me with you this time, it's the least I could do," Hilael smiled gently.

"If you think this is an adventure, let me drag you to the Wynfall market street some time," Shanku chuckled. "Just be sure and don't bite them, they can be kinda gross and nasty."

Hilael nodded and settled against the tree. The two became quiet and eventually fell into an uneasy sleep on the prickly bark.

The following morning they had a quick breakfast of some smoked pork they had prepared a few days back.

"We should be seeing a scout any time now," Piram said cautiously.

"Do the Imperial also believe in not using weapons?" Shanku asked.

"I almost don't want to find out," Piram replied.

That afternoon, they received their answer. A month after they had set out on their journey, they finally saw an Imperial. A scout dropped down from a tree in front of them. He had a dagger on each hip.

"Who are you?" he demanded.

"Messengers of the Scissortail," Piram replied. "We come bearing news."

"Have we not given our final word to the Scissortail?" the scout demanded.

"Our news is from beyond your northern border," Piram replied. "Tidings of war that could end us."

"You Ferals are always worried about some external force 'ending' us. What could have possibly coaxed you from under your dank rock this time?" the scout demanded.

"A wing of fully ascended and very angry Kurach," Piram said coldly. "Intent on declaring the entirety of the Sylvans their enemies."

"Fully ascended?" the scout asked warily. "What do you mean?"

Piram gestured to Shanku.

"Instead of this," Shanku said deviously as she stepped out from behind Piram in her feral form. "They're one step further." She stood on the ground with four feet and flexed her wings. She bared her fangs in a broad grin. "And they're better flyers and have sharper teeth."

"I see," the scout said slowly. "And who are these fully ascended Kurach?"

"That is for us to know," Shanku said as she popped back up to two feet and returned to her natural form. "And for your leaders to find out!"

"Will you grant us passage to your council?" Piram asked.

"I will," the scout said suspiciously. He gestured to the side and was joined by two other scouts. "We will take you, Scissortail."

The Scissortail fell in behind the scouts as they were lead away. One scout took the front, another took the right, and the one that had confronted them stood by the left of the procession. Shanku looked at them curiously as they walked along. Like the Ferals, the Imperials did wear the tunic and breeches common to the Sylvans. The scouts wore leather wrist and shin guards and each carried daggers. Their wings had the same solid and spotted patterns in two or three colors as the other Sylvans that Shanku had met. The only difference she could really note was the armour and weapons.

Shanku noticed that the scout on the left kept glancing at her waist. "Can I help you?"

"You carry a knife," he observed.

"So do you," Shanku gestured.

"I was unaware that Ferals approved of weaponry," he commented.

"Generally, they do not, but you know what they say about generalizing," Shanku shrugged, then she teased. "'You generally will embarrass yourself.' Mine is a gift."

The scout was silent again, but Shanku still noticed him looking at her.

"Yes?" She asked and looked at him pointedly.

"You two only have one color in your wings," the scout said. "And yours are black."

"Aye. Rare, I know," Shanku chuckled. "But there are a few others in our clan with solid wings."

"Very fortunate," the scout mused. "We all are spotted."

"No shame in that, I'm related to quite a few with spotted wings," Shanku nodded.

"Do they also change form as you?" the scout asked casually. Shanku gave him a sly grin and did not answer. The Imperials had often relied on the Ferals aversion to assuming the feral form and used that to their advantage in the raids. It was more than a little disturbing for them to see a feral Feral.

The group travelled uneasily together and none rested well at night. It was another week before their journey came to an end and both parties were quite grateful of it.

Some of the largest trees in the Nyre grew in Imperial territory. In the canopy of these great trees were many huts and walkways strung between them. Simple rope ladders dangled next to the trunk for those who could not fly up to the hanging city. The Ferals were lead to a chamber on the outskirts of the grove and told to remain there until they could have an audience with the leaders of the clan.

"This is nice," Shanku mused as she looked around the room. Designs were carved into the door frames and ivy grew over the windows. "Very fancy."

"We're not here for pleasure," Piram said.

"After that one night, I dunno about sleeping on cedar..." Katari muttered as he stared at the bunkbeds.

"Again, not here for pleasure," Piram sighed.

"You did a fine job of escorting us," Shanku teased as she elbowed him in the ribs. "We only nearly died once!"

"About to be a second time," Piram grumbled.

"C'mon, you two have gotten on so well over the past few weeks," Katari laughed as he sat down on one of the beds. "Keep it up a little longer so we can get outta here faster."

A supper of deer jerky and wild mushrooms were provided for the visiting Ferals, who soon after retired for the night. While the others were sound asleep, Shanku propped up on the window near her bed to stare wistfully out into the branches and night sky.

I spent so many years wishing to be back with my people, with my family, and my friends. Now that I'm back... I just want to leave again.

~ Shanku Ravenwing