After Turai had been given time to greet his father, Shanku brought him home to let her mother see her brother again.
Nari, of course, was thrilled to see him again, and called her youngest cubs over to meet their uncle for the first time. Muso was rather curious, as always. Banhi...
"You are not sleeping in my nest. Shanku takes up too much room and I don't want any other 'long lost kinfolk' squishing me," sassy little Banhi said.
"Shanku is a bit of a nest hog, ain't she?" Turai laughed. "I didn't like sharing my nest with her all that much either!"
"Hey, hey, hey!" Shanku yipped. "I'm not that bad!"
"Indeed not," Hilael nodded.
"See? Hilael likes me!" Shanku grinned.
"Actually, what I meant was that Ma is the only one who doesn't snore like a wood borer bee," Hilael added.
"Do not!" Shanku, Muso, and Banhi exclaimed in unison.
"Ladies do not snore, they snuffle," Banhi corrected him.
"You have quite a handful, don't you Nari?" Turai gleefully asked.
"Wouldn't give anything for them. No matter how many times they make me reconsider," Nari nodded solemnly.
"Can I borrow one next time Ma starts in on me about not having any yet?"
"She's not crazy enough to fall for that yet," Nari said flatly.
As Nari and Turai chatted and caught up on the happenings in each other's life, with colorful commentary from Muso and Banhi, Hilael noticed Shanku lost in thought.
"Is something wrong?" He asked.
"The grove," Shanku said softly.
Hilael nodded once and was silent for a few moments. "Can I come with you?"
Shanku tilted her head to the side curiously. "Am I that obvious?"
"I'm surprised you hadn't left yet," Hilael shrugged.
"Well then, get packed tonight. I'll be going off in the morning," Shanku chuckled.
"Should you tell Katari?" Hilael asked.
"I'll stop by on the way out. He isn't quite as adventurous as us," Shanku replied.
The next morning, Shanku and Hilael bid their mother goodbye despite her protests, and also informed Katari of their plans lest he excluded.
"Again? Already? Do you really like to live on the road or something?" Katari asked in shock. "Nevermind, I know. Wanderlust!"
"Naturally!" Shanku laughed. She playfully punched him in the shoulder and made her way out of the Scissortail den. As soon as they were out of sight of the entrance, Inugatti slithered up to Hilael's shoulder where she intended to remain happily perched for the duration of the trip.
"So, rumour has it that thing said it was between Fernwick and Blade territories. Never been there before. This'll be fun!"
"This is so much faster!" Shanku chirped as she sailed above the treetops. "Now that the dragons and gryphons have lifted their flying ban, we can get up there in no time!"
"I assume you asked them first?" Hilael asked worriedly. "Innugati is dragon enough for me to deal with."
"Of course," Shanku nodded. "You really think I'd drag you along without doing a little checking first?"
"You do have a rather reckless history..." Hilael responded.
"Only when going solo!" Shanku grinned.
"So what do you plan to do if you should find this mystery grove?" Hilael asked.
"Probably check it out a bit. See what's so special about it," Shanku replied.
"That's it?" Hilael asked incredulously.
"Nah. That's just first. After that, I'll probably go find Da and tell him where it is, just in case nobody else has found it yet."
"And if somebody has? They could be guarding it. Those strange creatures may even be guarding it," Hilael warned.
"I'll worry about that when I get there," Shanku giggled. "No need to borrow tomorrow's troubles when I'm bound to find plenty today!"
Hilael sighed and let it be. It was truly a mystery to him how she had made it this far without getting herself seriously injured, killed, or into far more trouble than she get out of. Somebody needed to tag along to keep an eye on her before that happened.
Meanwhile, search parties are arranged by the Blade, Fernwick, and Weolcen clans. Each are to patrol their respective borders in small groups, although by this point cooperation is becoming strained. Visiting allies like the Scissortail and Willow are encouraged to return to their territories for the time being, who gladly take up the offer to go home and get some rest until they are needed again.
Even though the fearless Eor raiders are compliant with the temporary truce being enforced by the single encounter with the horned thing, the Fernwick are antsy to have them gone, and drive the search parties relentlessly to find the mysterious grove so the whole conflict can end sooner.
Provisions are also becoming a problem. While the lower Feral clans are happy to feed the upper clans of the Nyre, no such kindness is extended to the raiders. The raiders in turn must make routine trips further into the plains for cattle and buffalo when they cannot find mule deer, elk, or moose at the edge of the Nyre. While the Kurach must take a break from fighting, the local gryphons and minocentaur make it quite clear the raiders are not welcome in their forest.
"What did the Nyre Kurach do to win such loyalty?" grumbled a raider.
"This is not just a Kurach's forest," hissed a gryphon. "And you are starting to take our game. Be gone!"
A party of Weolcen and rebel Fernwick are the first to come across the old grove. Broken tiles and stone columns litter the open areas between ancient and gnarled trees. Instead of leaving immediately to report their findings, they began to explore the ruins.
"You have returned," rumbled a husky voice as a scout neared the opening of what seemed to be an old building. The scout yipped and jumped back.
"Who's there?" he demanded.
A large and shaggy gryphon stepped out into the light, seemingly blind from old age, and curiously having four cat paws instead of the customary two.
"I am the Keeper," he stated.
"We were told to come here," the party captain stepped forward. "What is it we're supposed to do with this place?"
The old gryphon clacked his beak and scratched an itch on his chest before replying. "You must offer a sacrifice. You little miscreants have caused an good deal of headache during your time in this world, and you are long overdue for paying penance. And he will be coming for you soon."
"He? Who is 'he'?" The captain asked, and then snapped, "Then you tell him we will not go without a fight!"
"You have forgotten? Perhaps you should try to remember," the old gryphon cackled darkly. "So be it. Prepare now."
The scouts left to report to the others.
Shanku and Hilael had long left the Scissortail border and were skirting the region between the Blade and Weolcen lands to keep from drawing attention to themselves. It wasn't wise to travel without an official escort during these times.
By following that line, they ended up stumbling right upon the ancient grove.
"What luck!" Shanku chirped.
"Suspiciously good luck," Hilael muttered.
"Look at all this old stuff," Shanku said with starry eyes as she wandered around the ruins. "This is the old language! And to think, all those lessons Sigrid put me through would actually be useful."
"Can you read any of these old runes then?" Hilael asked as he stopped before a crumbling wall with faded carvings.
"Maybe," Shanku said softly as she walked up to it, ears standing almost straight up in curiousity. "Mmm... Something about atonement."
"Sacrifice," came the husky voice behind.
"Howdy!" Shanku said cheerfully as she and Hilael turned to meet the Keeper.
"I did not expect to see another of you so soon after the other day," the Keeper noted. "The others looked quite upset."
"We're not scouts," Shanku grinned. "Just curious explorers. What sacrifice is it?"
"The scouts chose battle," he quipped.
"What kind of battle?" Hilael asked.
"That remains to be seen," he replied.
"My granddam said there used to be competitions here," Shanku offered.
"Ah, yes. The old tournaments," the Keeper nodded. "A good idea. You Kurach shall come here to have a tournament to settle your differences, like you used to when settling territorial disputes."
"Then what is sacrificed?" Hilael asked.
"Territory, of course," mused the Keeper. "And if the agreement is not honored, he will come for the derelict."
"Who might that be?" Shanku asked innocently. "The winner?"
"The one who wants you back since the fairies stole you away," the Keeper said crypticly. "He misses you so."
"Then why doesn't he just come and talk to us?" Shanku asked curiously. "Most of us are pretty friendly."
The Keeper barked a raspy laugh. "Such a na´ve little pup. Things do not work that way. It is not his custom, but I suppose he could be asked to make an appearance before the start of the games."
"Shanku, I don't have a good feeling about this," Hilael muttered to his sister.
"Smart pup," the Keeper rumbled. "Not many have met the Goblin Hound and walked away as they were before."
"We should leave," Hilael urged.
"Indeed. You will be missed. But I shall expect to see you back here for the games," the Keeper chuckled and withdrew.
"Well, that was interesting," Shanku nodded satisfactorily.
"This is not good," Hilael warned.
As promised, Shanku promptly made her way home with Hilael, who remained rather lost in thought over the meeting with the Keeper.
"Aw, c'mon Hilael, he wasn't that bad!" Shanku grinned nonchalantly.
"Does this 'goblin hound' not worry you?" Hilael asked uneasily. "Goblins aren't quite like the gremlins. They're more like minocentaur. Not something to take lightly."
"So long as it isn't worse than those blasted yamaer, I'm not too worried," Shanku shrugged. "And we've actually gotten some minocentaur to work with us recently with this whole conflict mess, so maybe we'll get lucky with the goblin hound."
I hope you're right, Hilael thought.
Their mother was very relieved when she saw them arrive home early one morning. As Hilael withdrew for a much needed bath after the trip, Shanku helped her mother with her chores and told her about the old gryphon in the ruins.
"You might want to tell your father or grandsire Bibot about him," Nari said at length. "Word has it the scouts found the ruins, but won't yet say what the threat was about."
"The goblin hound?" Shanku suggested.
Nari visibly grimaced. "Don't talk of him."
"You know about him?" Shanku pressed, terribly curious.
"Hush!" Nari said lowly. "He is one of those things we're not allowed to talk of."
"You can't drop such a thing as that and not expand on it," Shanku whispered back excitedly. "What is he?"
"Mostly revered as a demon. Just the fact you know of him could get you accused of the worst kinds of witchcraft," Nari said quickly. "You weren't given his name, were you?"
"Nope," Shanku shook her head. "But what's so bad about him?"
"From what old tales I've heard, he'd make your minocentaur warlock at Port Tephras look like a vulnerable fawn."
"Eh, heh," Shanku chuckled nervously. "I guess Hilael had good reason to look so worried."
"Hilael has good instincts," Nari nodded.
Shanku changed the subject to harmless things that had happened while she was gone and quietly pondered the terrible hound. Later that evening, she sought out Bibot once more to relay her findings, but carefully avoided mention of the vile goblin.
"We need to discuss this sneaking off," Bibot said sternly.
"You can't deny I find useful things!" Shanku said as she flashed her most charming grin. "The clan could use a sneak."
"That is debatable, but I shall pass along your encounter," Bibot shook his head with a frown. "I don't know where you get such traits from."
Shanku smiled sweetly, kissed him on the cheek, and returned home.
Within a fortnight, it was announced among the Sylvans that a tournament would be held at the old ruins, with a certain number of each clan participating in the games. Fernwick, of course, would have two sets; one for the rebels and one for the fundamentalists. The tournament was to be scheduled to coincide with the autumn festival and most festivities held there.
Many of the Sylvans welcomed the announcement, seeing it as an interesting addition to their usual celebrations. Rumors of the goblin hound, of course, were kept only between the elders of each clan to keep from alarming their people.
So began preparations for both the festival and the end to the disputes.
This is not an easy secret to keep. And not one I want to have either! I don't even want to know how Ma found out about this "goblin hound". But, yet... I so very much want to know who and what he is, and why he has such a reputation. I've got a bad reputation it seems, but I'm not bad, am I? It's something I'll need to learn about alone, I know that much.
~ Shanku Ravenwing