Chapter 38: Challenge

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"There is great unrest in the forest," spoke the great woodland fae, Eirayna. "It is involving more and more creatures, destroying more and more, and I fear it will escalate even further if something is not done. We need a solution to this problem, and quickly."

"It wasn't my idea to give them two bodies and two minds," Hesperos the faun guardian said as he glared at a fluttering fairy nearby.

"You would if you'd ever had interesting ideas," Pavla retorted.

"What's done is done and cannot be undone. How do we address the issues at hand?" Eirayna asked as she placed four of her wooden palms together.

"That anger will not simply vanish overnight," Pavla shrugged. "Nor will it go away quietly. Find a way for them to refocus their anger to something else."

"And what would you propose?" Eirayna asked.

"A fight," Kyros suggested.

"Haven't they done enough of that lately?" grumbled Hesperos.

"A more controlled fight," Kyros explained. "Like they used to do, long ago in that one grove. Where they'd put forth their best warriors to settle disputes for them. Like how my Sylvans do now with their little games between each other."

"It could work," Eirayna nodded. "If they can agree to it."

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"They will agree," said a shadowy figure forming nearby. "Just as they haven't forgotten the pleasure of the hunt, they haven't forgotten the thrill of a good test of skill and mettle."

"Good to see you, Kleu," Eirayna nodded to the goblin hound, causing a gentle swishing sound through the leaves on her branches. "I'm glad you could join us."

"Just say the word, and they will be mine again," Kleu growled softly, his leathery wings sofly fluttering in the evening breeze. Strange hoofed creatures with long horns appeared around him, restlessly pawing at the ground.

"No, not yet," Eirayna shook her head, making her leaves rustle again. "The kurach have not fallen so far as to be returned to your shadows."

"I should think not as well," Kyros snorted. "The Sylvans in my neck of the woods have behaved well for the past thousand years. I would not want to see them punished because the Eor guardians couldn't keep their kurach in line."

"There may be more to that situation than meets the eye," Eirayna warned. "It is not yet our place to judge those of the Eor. We cannot uproot so large a people. It would have a devastating effect on the land to have its balance shifted so suddenly."

"But I can," Kleu stated. "I am not as restricted as you choose to be. The land will recover, and the kurach belong to me by rights anyway."

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"Boundaries are good things," Pavla said.

"You cannot argue against my efficiency, nonetheless," Kleu said as he gave her a fanged grin. Pavla shuddered and hovered closer to Hesperos.

"A time and place for all things," Eirayna nodded. "But for now, simply send them a warning, along with our suggestion to bring this violence to an end."

"If they do not agree with your suggestion?" Kleu asked gleefully.

"We shall cross that path when it comes," Eirayna said sternly.

"As you wish," Kleu bowed his head, closing his glowing blue eyes and hiding the dancing flames, and vanished with his pack of faithful followers.

"Bloody hell, that hound scares the daylights out of me," Pavla muttered.

Another skirmish was winding down as exhausted Feral and Imperial kurach began to withdraw and rest, still at an impasse as to who had the right to live in the Nyre, and neither willing to concede to the other.

"Kurach," snapped an angry voice nearby.

The Sylvans looked around and saw the strange horned thing looking down on them from one of the many large rocks in the Nyre. Instinctively, a shudder ran through them, even though they did not recognize what it was.

"You don't remember us, but we remember you. And if you continue on, we will be acquainted again," it snarled, making the beard on its boarish snout twitch. "There is an old place between the Fernwick and Blade territories. I suggest you find it and figure out how to use it again."

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The Sylvans glanced uneasily to each other as the cloven dog-like creature turned and disappeared.

"Anybody know what that thing was?" one nervous warrior asked another. "Makes me more anxious than a minocentaur with a pet yamaer."

"It was just one. Why listen to it?" demanded one skeptical warrior. "We've never even seen its kind before, so there can't be that many of them."

"It also vanished in plain sight like some kind of ghost, so who knows how many is hiding wherever it came from?"

Too tired to argue much further than that, the exhausted Sylvans soon retired to their camps and the captains filed reports to their superiors.

"We should call a truce for the time being," Udom acknowledged. "The spirits of this forest have become angry. It would be unwise to ignore them."

"Perhaps it will give us the time we need to pull more troops from the Eor for one final push," Walentyna suggested.

"No," Heyne said quickly. "If the guardians said no more fighting, they mean no more fighting. I do not want to suffer the consequences of disobedience."

"One must wonder why they took so long to step in if such things displease them so," Richelle said coldly. "Apparently they do not have the lust for battle as our guardians do."

"The spirits are wiser and older than us. They must know something we don't, and about something that has recently happened to be severe enough to warrant their interference," Heyne thought aloud. "Regardless, we have many dead to bury and injured to heal. I will with the rebels to signal the ceasefire."

Udom nodded and Heyne strode out over the battlefield alone. He twice flared his wings broadly to signal his intent. Ryan crossed the bloodied capital to meet with him.

"Heyne," he said shortly.

"Ryan," Heyne replied just as coldly.

"The guardians have now gotten involved," Ryan stated.

"The Eor Sylvans still thirst for battle, but we must call a truce for now," Heyne said.

"Agreed," Ryan nodded once, "and work quickly to find this mysterious place in the Nyre they mentioned."

"A wise choice, little kurach," cackled the horned thing nearby and vanished again.

Heyne looked back quickly to Ryan with a worried expression on his face.

"The spirits have heard us, and will act swiftly if your allies do not cooperate. We will withdraw to outside the city and not antagonize them, and send search parties immediately, as you can no longer freely move through the Nyre," Ryan said. "You are welcome to stay in the upper half of the forest. We will send villagers loyal to the old ways to you." Heyne nodded and they parted ways.

⁂

"Got any news for us, Grandsire Bibot?" Shanku asked cheerfully as her grandfather sat down at the family's table.

"Odd news," Bibot muttered and rubbed his tired eyes.

"Like what?" Nari asked curiously.

"Some odd looking messengers from the spirits dropped by the battlefield and spooked the warriors," Bibot replied.

"What kind of messengers?" Nari asked. "And what messages?"

"Some strange mismatched things with long horns," Bibot shrugged. "While they didn't look all that frightening, all the captains and their flanks said they had a strong urge to flee at the sight of it. They claimed we needed to find some old Nyre grove."

"How do you find a grove in a forest?" Shanku asked skeptically.

"They gave us a general idea where it's located. Each clan is inclined to look for it since their warriors weren't standing very strong around them," Bibot replied.

"Even Zanzen?" Nari asked worriedly.

"He told me himself when I recently visited the front," sighed Bibot. "And given the things I've seen him stare down and defeat, it has me unsettled. If the old tales are true, disobeying a direct order from the guardians will results in swift and severe punishment."

Nari and Shanku exchanged glances.

"If you'll excuse me, ladies," Bibot nodded.

"Take care, Sir Bibot," Nari responded.

"Any idea what creatures they are?" Shanku asked after he had left.

"I was hoping you knew," Nari shuddered.

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The following day, Shanku was helping Hilael and Misen gather various herbs and roots for medicine and meals. They paused a little after midday for a quick snack as the day's heat began to intensify. Not long after they had finished eating, a rustling nearby caught their attention. Still full of motherly instincts, Misen strode out to investigate it first and potentially protect her grandcubs since it sounded too large for a rodent. Shanku and Hilael heard a squeal after she disappeared from sight and quickly rushed to her aid. Instead of finding her in distress, she was tightly hugging a kurach as a yellow cat smiled mischievously nearby.

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"Uncle Turai!" Shanku beamed.

"Shanku, help?" Turai gasped as he struggled to break free from the ecstatic dame.

"You're home! You're finally home!" Misen chanted over and over again. "You've come back to us!"

"What took you so long?" Shanku asked as she attempted to surpress her giggling. Turai glanced emphatically at his mother as she continued to smother him. Shanku finally burst out in laughter and tried pitifully to help free Turai from Misen.

Hilael kept a modest distance. He wasn't one much for strong expressions and there were three distinct and strong emotions being put off from the wrestling trio. The cat came and sat near him, still smirking.

"Ryoichi?" He asked. The cat nodded.

"Certainly took you long enough," Shanku teased after Misen composed herself and eventually released her estranged son.

"Got a little distracted along the way," Turai grinned sheepishly. "You've grown."

"It's been a good three years. Found a nest of hens, eh?" Shanku asked flatly.

"Not quite. Ran into that old friend of yours. The ranger," Turai replied as he sat down on a raised root.

"How is he lately?" Shanku asked as they all took a seat nearby.

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"Good, good," Turai nodded. "I explained your situation to him, so he doesn't want to 'kill the demon' anymore."

Shanku shuddered. "Never could convince him I wasn't one. I suppose news of The Black Plague didn't help any."

"Yipe!" Turai yelped as Misen's heavy hand connected with the back of his head.

"And on that note, just what do you think you were doing as a lowly sea brigand? I raised you better than that!" Misen demanded. "And then forcing my grandcub into the trade!"

"I didn't have much choice," Turai began.

"Oh, nevermind. We'll discuss it later," Misen waved. "What's important is all my family is finally back where they belong."

"So what's this I hear about a mutiny?" Turai asked curiously. "The Peridæ have been rather tense and even suggested I come home early. I saw a large troop of them pass through a while back."

Shanku explained to him what she knew, along with colorful remarks from her granddam about the whole matter.

Turai gave a low whistle after he was caught up on the Sylvan skirmishes. "They always were good at getting into trouble."

"And they wonder where we get it from, eh?" Shanku asked devilishly.

"So who is this handsome young fellow?" Turai asked and gestured toward Hilael. "Finally find yourself a mate?" Hilael looked horrified.

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Shanku growled vehemently and cuffed the back of her uncle's head. "That is Hilael, my younger brother and your nephew!" She snarled.

"My apologies!" Turai yipped. "You're certainly her grandcub..." He turned to Hilael and said quietly, "no wonder you don't talk much. These two are dangerous." This time he was simply met with the fiery glares of his lady kin. "Speaking of uncontrolled violence," he continued, "what do you suppose they'll do at this mysterious grove?"

"Well, I remember tales of the old days when disputes were settled with competitions," Misen said matter-of-factly. "It's where our cubs get some of their games and toys. I do believe we have carried the tradition forward now with the regular war games between the clans."

"Kinda hard to picture a big, bad warrior cuddling with a doll," Shanku snorted.

"Hunters still do. There are races to see who gets to a deer first to see who should do the most chasing in a hunt," Hilael stated.

"On the Seacat we often had wrestling matches and other contests during long times between pillages," Turai said as he scratched his chin. "I can see the wisdom in these war games."

"Maybe it'll work," Shanku shrugged. "What else could the guardians want from that grove?"

"A bloody sacrifice?" Turai suggested.

"Absolutely not!" Misen cried.

"Maybe it'll mean Da will get to come home too," Shanku said hopefully. "If we just have to play some silly games, he won't be needed to fight anymore."

Ryoichi exchanged a confused glance with Hilael, both doubtful to the possibility of her simple suggestion.

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"Maybe." Turai forced a very awkward grin. Not looking forward to that meeting.

"So what if they find something else in that grove?" Shanku asked, quickly changing the subject. Forgot about their history.

"Like a big, angry, hungry dragon, for those sacrifices you're hoping for?" Misen suggested grumpily. Innugati chattered angrily from her position atop the gathering bag. Misen nodded to her. "You're a nice one."

"When'd the Scissortails let you start keeping pet dragons?" Turai asked in surprise.

"They don't really know about her," Shanku replied uneasily. "She hides under our wings when we're around the others."

"You seem to have a knack for being sneaky," Turai teased.

"Not sneaky enough. I get caught too much!" Shanku groaned.

"Which is why it's fortunate little Innugati is as intelligent as she is," Misen laughed. "The Scissortails have surprised me and started working with gryphons, but I do believe it will be a long time off before they begin that with dragons, no matter the size. Now, son, what have you been up to all these years? You can help us and talk at the same time, can't you?"

Turai shrugged and began to help them hunt plants as recounted his tale from the time he was exiled after the fight with Zanzen until just recently when he chose to return home.

"So, uh, where am I supposed to stay?" Turai askedafter he had finished his story.

"I suppose you could stay with me and your sire until you get a room of your own," Misen mused as she pulled up a bit of yellowroot.

"Does he still snore like a congested bear?" Turai asked warily.

"Oh, you know it!" Shanku giggled.

"Perhaps I should ask Tahir if I can stay with him then?" Turai sighed.

"Tahir is very busy these days. Two new cubs, you know," Misen nodded. "And very busy leatherworking too."

"I guess he got to pursue that dream then," Turai observed.

"And his mate is quite proud of him. She's a lovely creature. You know, she has an unmatched sister," Misen trailed off.

"I just got back and you're already trying to pair me off?" Turai demanded in shock.

"Now ya know how it feels," Shanku teased.

"You are the only one of my cubs who has not yet given me grandchildren," Misen said sternly with the sideways glance only a mother can give.

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"None that we know of," Shanku muttered under her breath.

Turai nudged her in the ribs forcefully and gave her a glare to be quiet. Shanku just grinned as devilishly as she could in return.

"Have you put much thought as to what you'll do now that you're back?" Misen asked.

"What do you mean?" Turai wondered.

"We all have to earn our keep somehow, son," Misen explained. "I now gather and heal, your sire teaches weaving, your sister still hunts, your brother has his leather..."

"Oh, erm..." Turai began uneasily. "I'm not entirely sure what I could do. Or could learn to do."

"I taught you how to spear fish," Shanku reminded him.

"You taught me how to get sopping wet without anything to show for it," Turai said flatly. "I never did manage to catch a fish!"

"If one of your monkeys with opposable thumbs would be so kind, I have found one of your vile tasting weeds and can't get it out of the ground," Ryoichi called out. Shanku was happy to oblige.

"Good to see you again, Ry'ichi," Shanku said warmly. Ryoichi slowly blinked contentedly at her.

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