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's quiet and doesn't snore like a wood borer bee," Hilael added. "You could be snoring like hog."
"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 or want to hit the wine," 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 replied.
"Well then, get packed tonight. I'll be going off in the morning," Shanku said slyly.
"Should you invite Katari?" Hilael asked.
"I'll stop by on the way out. He isn't quite as adventurous as us," Shanku replied.
"I'll come by again soon, sis," Turai said warmly and stretched his arms and wings out after he stood up. "It's been good to see you again."
"Please don't get yourself exiled again," Nari pleaded.
"You're happy, you're healthy, and you appear to be well provided for. I don't suppose I have any reason to begrudge how Zanzen's kept you all these years," Turai said with a wistful smile. Nari looked relieved, and after hugging him one more time, he was on his way.
The next morning, Shanku and Hilael donned their packs. "Well, see you in a few days or so, Ma!" Shanku called out cheerily.
"Whoa, whoa, where are you going?" Nari demanded with her hands on her hips.
"The guardians did say we Sylvans had to find this mystery grove, didn't they?" Shanku asked with a roguish grin.
"Yes, the warriors are to find it, not little cubs!"
"Those rugrats are 'little cubs'," Shanku said as she pointed to her youngest siblings, and then jabbed a thumb back at herself. "I'm practically grown!"
"Practically an unreasonable handful!" Nari said and crossed her arms over her chest. She glared at her daughter for a moment and then sighed. "Please, be very careful?"
"Naturally!" Shanku said cheerily and kissed her on the cheek. "With the ceasefire mandated by the guardians, we won't be caught up in any Sylvan squabbles, and just have regular ol' danger to watch out for. I didn't wander several years by myself without knowing how to handle myself! I'll take good care of Hilael, too."
Nari nodded sadly and watched her cubs disappear, again. Shanku made a quick detour to the crafters' quarters to seek out Katari and informe him of their plans lest he feel excluded.
"Again? Already? Do you really like to live on the road or something?" Katari asked in shock. "Nevermind, I know," he said and held his hands up in front of him. "Wanderlust!"
"Naturally!" Shanku laughed. "So, what say you? Coming along for another grand meandering through brush and bramble?"
"I'll have to pass this time," Katari said. "There's a lot of work to do and Papa can't spare me."
"Maybe next adventure, eh?" 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 or Sir Bibot and tell them 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 were arranged by the Blade, Fernwick, and Weolcen clans. Each were to patrol their respective borders in small groups, although by this point cooperation was becoming strained. Visiting allies like the Scissortail and Willow were encouraged to return to their territories for the time being, who gladly took up the offer to go home and get some rest until they were needed again. Even though the fearless Eor raiders were compliant with the temporary truce being enforced by the single encounter with the horned thing, the Fernwick were antsy to have them gone, and drove the search parties relentlessly by frequent messages through carrier gryphons to find the mysterious grove so the whole conflict could end sooner.
Provisions were also becoming a problem. While the southern Feral clans were happy to help feed the northern clans of the Nyre, no such kindness was extended to the Eor Sylvans. The raiders in turn had to make routine trips further into the plains for cattle and buffalo when they could not find mule deer, elk, or moose at the edge of the Nyre. Preserving food to survive the voyage from the Eor to the Nyre for the troops stationed there was not always successful and they frequently needed to supplement their supplies. Since the kurach had to take a break from fighting, the local gryphons and minocentaur made it quite clear the raiders were not welcome in their forest, and took advantage they were not bound to a ceasefire like the Sylvans were.
"What did the Nyre kurach do to win such loyalty?" grumbled an Eor Sylvan.
"This is not just a kurach's forest," hissed a gryphon. "And you are starting to take our game. Be gone!"
It finally got to the point that the Eor Sylvans had to return home, and the loyal Fernwick were permitted to stay in the northernmost part of the forest. After many assurances that the ceasefire would be honoured and that the rebels would not use the absence to wrest full control away again, the Eor Sylvans finally agreed to return to their own lands. Instead of veering out into the plains, they kept to the shortest point between the two forests, and were relieved they were not harassed by nightwing gryphons this time.
A party of Weolcen and rebel Fernwick were the first to come across the old grove. Broken tiles and stone columns littered the open areas between ancient and gnarled trees that almost fully obscured the ruins from both aerial and ground view. Instead of leaving immediately to report their findings, they began to explore the dilapidated structures.
"You have returned," rumbled a husky voice as a scout neared the opening of what seemed to be an old entryway. The scout very audibly yipped and jumped back.
"Who's there?" the scout demanded.
A large and shaggy gryphon stepped out into the light, seemingly blind from old age, and curiously having four cat paws instead of just the customary two felid hindpaws. "I am the Keeper," the opinicus stated simply and with authority.
"We were told to come here," the captain stepped forward. "What is it we're supposed to do with this place?"
The old opinicus clacked his beak and scratched an itch on his chest before replying. "You must offer a sacrifice. You little miscreants have caused a 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 warily, 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 opinicus cackled darkly. "So be it. Prepare your tribute now, or say your prayers and receive your absolutions."
No matter what they said, the ancient creature would not respond any further to them. The scouts left to report to their clans.
Shanku was relishing the freedom of travel once more and gaily fluttering along.
"We should keep to the empty places between the Blade and Weolcen borders," Hilael warned. "We may still fly straight into one of the search parties, but maybe we can go unnoticed. Even with the ceasefire, we shouldn't be reckless."
"I suppose that's a good reason," Shanku said slowly. "I'd already intended to anyway."
"Why am I not surprised you weren't willingly taking this route out of caution?" Hilael groaned. "Why, then?"
"Because if the grove is between the two territories, it stands to reason that slipping between the sheets is the most direct way to get to it!"
"Of course it is," Hilael sighed.
"We've already lost a lot of time having to straddle the Weolcen-Willow borders to get to the the Weolcen-Blade borders," Shanku said. "Let's not waste any time looking for it!" By following that line of reason, they ended up stumbling right upon the ruins in the ancient grove a few days after turning northward. "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 scouts looked quite upset. Much older as well."
"We're not scouts," Shanku grinned. "Just curious explorers. What sacrifice is it?"
"The others chose battle," he stated.
"What kind of battle?" Hilael asked.
"That remains to be seen," he replied. "They have not decided."
"My granddam said there used to be competitions here," Shanku offered.
"Ah, yes. The old tournaments," the Keeper nodded. "A good idea, if they arrive to the notion as well. Much more interesting than straight out flogging like they have been doing. You kurach shall come here to have a tournament to settle your differences, like you used to when settling territorial disputes. Better entertainment for me."
"Then what is sacrificed?" Hilael asked.
"Territory, of course," said 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 cryptically. "He misses you so, and it's been so long since a kurach didn't keep their words at the games."
"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 naïve 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 replied airily. "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 worriedly.
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 about him."
"You know about him?" Shanku pressed, terribly curious.
"Hush!" Nari said lowly. "He is one of those things we're not allowed to speak 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 said firmly.
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. It was more than our parties were able to get out of the old gryphon," 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, and after much research into old customs, 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 loyals. 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.