The Heart of Home

A place to store and observe the texts of the Bonded.

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Songhue
Posting Elemental
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The Heart of Home

Post by Songhue »

It was her turn to watch the cubs - well, "turn" is probably the wrong word for it. There was no set order to things, with each of them helping to care for the young. Her own cubs tended to be a bit more of a challenge to keep track of, which was expected at their ages, and usually required some special considerations, yet the normal state of things was that the younger cubs would stay near the center of their den territory. There was always someone around to help keep an eye on them; today, it happened to be her.

Songhue was glad for it, as none of them resented caring for one another's wee ones. With everything that had happened recently, it was honestly refreshing to be able to simply relax with her own kind, without the need for meditation near the willow or the relative seclusion of her personal den. For the moment, she was helping to pick some poison barbs out of the fur of a small gopher; a tricky task in her bear shape, which was as tall as a young tree when she stood upright. The little one had been curious and, as little ones are wont to do, discovered why it was important to watch one's step the hard way.

It would be helpful if you were to wriggle a bit less, Songhue noted with amusement, and the young gopher-form cub squeaked out a miserable protest. The barbs were mild enough that their effects were limited to a burning itch, beyond the prickling sting of having them scratch agaist skin. Nothing truly dangerous if taken care of in a timely manner - and if they weren't consumed. Still, the agitation was enough to make being still remarkebly difficult.

Perhaps a story would help, Songhue offered, glancing around as other young ones wandered over from their play. They were getting tired; one of them, holding the shape of a young parrot, nestled next to her arm and seemed to doze straight off. Her youngest, Sisarra, was curled up between her shoulder blades - a feat that had taken a fair amount of patience on her part, as elkin hooves were norotiously sharp. It was the youngest, in the shape of a kirin, that truly decided the matter as he stopped heckling the older cubs to prance his way towards them. Within moments she was all but buried in young ones that sought the safety and warmth of her presence.

Where to begin, she mused, knowing that the best stories were true ones.

You disappeared, her oldest, Faelynn, suggested helpfully, and Songhue smiled as the young starwolf joined the other cubs in cuddling. She tucked herself under Songhue's chin, nestling into the thick ruff of her neck, and that was as it should be. She was a beautiful combination of her parents in this form; her wolf was made of fire given shape and substance, as was Songhue's, but for Faelynn her flames were golden and cast a bloody glow, the colors of her father's spirit. The silver flashes and rippling black shadows made her coat shimmer like burning water. However beautiful she was, however, she absolutely reeked. The stench of death and stale swamp water still clung to her face.

Songhue started grooming her, and Faelynn curled up against one large foreleg as the broad purple tongue swiped at her face. The fire tickled Songhue's throat in a familiar way, a feeling like having warm honey drizzle slowly past her tongue, and that, too, was as it should be. She had groomed Faelynn in this very form on the day she was born.

The young gopher was trying to squirm free, not that it was doing any good. She kept right on trailing the tips of her claws through every inch of fur, seeking the small splinters by feel alone. Sissarra shifted as Songhue started grooming Faelynn, disturbed by the motion, but she settled back into slumber almost instantly.

I was gone, for a while, she acquiesed, sneezing as one of her oldest's flames tickled her nose, and then there was quite the adventure. What do you know of my friends, young ones? Have you been warned away from Caustic, the one that is death itself walking our lands?

That caught their attention. She knew they had been warned of him; most of her kind knew better than to directly interfere with any of those under her personal protection, lest they face her wrath. For Caustic, however, the warning was different; he was dangerous. They knew of the one who was death itself given sentience, and they always loved to hear of his exploits.

Everything that's happened, it started while I had gone away; and it began when Caustic found me.
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Songhue
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Re: The Heart of Home

Post by Songhue »

I had healed, and as long as that had taken I had to take still longer to discover myself anew. Knowing the changes would be vital to mastering them; there could be severe consequences for all those tied to me, if the bonds weren't handled with the proper care.

The most obvious change was in my mate bond. With Rakakesh's help, I was able to discover that we could not sense one another as if we were sitting side-by-side, rather than merely having an awareness of rather our mate was resting or agitated. It turns out he's always been more sensitive to our bond, although that makes sense; he was the first to be aware of the link that the realm had placed between us. He was the one to court me. He also verified that the increased depth and breadth of our bond included more than communication; now, if he bleeds, I bleed. I have no problem with that, but he can't stand it. He's trying to use his abilities with refractive magic, the skills granted through his chameleon gene, to change how that works. His goal is to take the damage that would have been reflected onto me back onto himself; doubling his own injury in the process. Knowing his stubborn hide, he'll figure it out, although the finer touches of finessing the details will take him longer. I've decided to be amused by the whole thing.

The bonds with my cubs has changed, as well. Before, I could only determine if they were safe; now, I can sense intent. I know what they're doing, at least what they're trying to do. While I meditated, I was able to sense that Rielthon was working with a new idea, hoping that the blast of cold in the frostlily would make a good soothing balm. The trick was in getting the plant to become a pliable salve without compromising the everwinter frost that coated it.

There wouldn't be any risk of losing myself to these bonds now that I understood them, and most of the other bonds I held weren't altered in a drastic way - except that my friends, the Serians, had been a key factor in my healing, just as much as my family. The changes there felt less obvious, but worth exploring.

The meditation for these bonds took the longest. I had always been able to sense them, and to determine if they were home or in need of me; now, I discovered I could sense their emotions. I had checked in on BlackIce before coming to heal, and the discovery that he, of all creatures, was entertaining company had been both surprising and heartening. He was amused; that was better than I had hoped for. Perhaps this new friend would be the change that he needed.

Disentangling emotion is a very precise skill, and emotion itself is not my true talent. The bonds between souls is a strength of mine, however, so with enough focus I was able to erect something of a filter between myself and those I had bonded with. I could still sense their emotions, it was simply easier to determine that they were not my emotions. Of all the changes, this had taken the most work to master. Luckily, it was only Rakakesh who could share in what I sensed. My cubs could feel my attention focus on them, and that was certainly new, yet they received nothing else. My Serian friends seemed to feel the fluctuation of my power before, and sometimes they knew my joy, if I relaxed enough; now, it seemed that they could sense where I was. I could deal with that, as long as they weren't burdened with more. They didn't need to carry my troubles; I was meant to help carry theirs.

When I could finally stop turning my attention inwards, the realm had moved around me. It was a quiet, dry rustle that first caught my notice as I turned my focus outwards, the quiet sound of dead grass moving against flesh. None but my Guide had ever approached me when I retreated to the ancient willow.

Opening my eyes revealed Caustic standing before me, still as death. It wasn't until I stood that I realized I was in my alicorn form; it made sense, as I had just been communing with my "herd" in every sense of the term, from my family to my Serian friends. I had been sunning myself on a root as a python when I first began meditating, so the change was still unexpected.

He simply stared at me, waiting. It took me a minute to figure out what he was waiting for; Caustic had always drawn the darkness from me, always brought my savagery to the surface. We were kindred in that aspect, from the moment we first met. Until now; now, there was no surge of dark power to answer him with. I still held my wyvern shape, I could sense that much through meditating, but it was no longer so rife with blood-lust as to burst through at the sight of him.

This must be what it means to be healed.

The moment I realized why he was waiting, I also realized why he had found me. He had been speaking to Thorn before, the honey-voiced stallion with golden spikes, and there was little doubt to my mind that it had taxed him greatly. Caustic needed a release; he needed to be Death.

"You were gentle," I told him, and I placed my understanding in the words I pushed towards him, projecting as they do in order to speak. It was an acknowledgement of his effort, and a recognition of his need. Gentle was not a concept that came naturally to this stallion.

"Come," I said, and turned away with a flick of my tail, knowing he would follow. I didn't look back; I didn't need to.

"You've learned enough control that I can trust you to hunt." I didn't mention that this hunting would have limits; I didn't need to. He knew as well as anyone that if he caused harm to that which I was responsible for, I would end him. Or at least my bond with him; once, there may have been a real danger to his life, but not now.

"You could wander at night, as well," I suggested. I figured that he had demonstrated enough restraint that there was little risk of having him go on a rampage; and besides, if anything was stupid enough to try and attack him, it deserved to die. Some of them may even give him a fair fight.

"You were protecting me," he said, the realization tinging his words with a mixture of surprise and disgust.

"You are mine to protect," I answered.

"I am not yours," he countered, and stopped dead in his tracks.

I turned then, looking at the grass that had only browned at the edges in his wake, a sign of his essence binding to this land; to my land. He belonged here. He was bound to land and water, sensitive to the needs of the realm just as any other of Enchantra's chosen, and this binding was created through me. Were he a stranger, he could not walk with such acceptance as to leave the barest trace of his passage.

"Then leave," I told him, and stepped aside with an irritated flick of my tail to reveal a portal back to his birthrealm. I was not going to play this game; not again, not with him. And I won't force anyone to accept my help. I had told Bubble the same thing; he need only to say he had changed his mind and he could leave. I think it was a large part of what made him stay, honestly. I couldn't say if it would be the same for Caustic. We had, at best, fostered a grudging respect between the two of us, he and I.

"You wouldn't," he said, and his voice was all but a whisper, his body seemingly turned to stone.

"Choose," I demanded. I wasn't abandoning him; I was giving him the chance to abandon me.

He took long enough to answer that I started to wonder if he would walk through the gap between realms after all. It would hurt; I had grown fond of him, throughout our time together. I had enjoyed watching him and Rakakesh grow close; the first of my Serian friends that my mate bonded to, as well.

When he finally spoke, it was with every ounce of dignity he held. I hadn't expected less from him. "Yours to protect," he acquiesced, although there was a challenge to his voice, one that was clarified as he added "Mine to defend." He was not the kind to belong to anyone - that was alright. I wasn't the kind to own anyone.

"Don't let me down," I answered, and turned to continue walking.

"As long as you don't," he countered.

"Mine is not the bond in question" I said coldly, and I swear I could practically hear his smirk at having successfully irritated me. The jerk.

A comfortable silence fell between us as we walked, and I began to consider options to help him gain the release of his full power. Ideally he would be able to find Lock, his infatuation, yet he didn't have time for that right now. He couldn't wait for the one creature he trusted not to break under his corrosive nature to show up. Neither I nor Rakakesh had the sort of relationship that would allow that level of release, either, although Rakakesh would battle with him as another manner of helping. Their sparring matches are what had made the two grow close in the first place. Yet he couldn't push us in the way he could push his Lock. Night wanderings might prove useful; for now, I had to hope this hunt would be enough. I had sensed a disturbance in the realm, a great wrongness in our sacred breeding grounds, while I had turned my gaze inwards. Even with the focus on the changes to myself, I was still tied to the realm; I couldn't help but feel the pulse of her magic within me, a heartbeat separate from mine or my mate's, which I now shared.

"Why?" Caustic asked, and I had to remind myself that his kind did not openly share in empathy as mine did; he would not be asking why I sensed the heartbeat of two other creatures within my own.

"You're going to have to elaborate," I answered wryly.

"Why is your bond never in question?" he clarified, and there was still a note of derision on the word your. Caustic was not good at being polite. Still, I had to give him credit, he wasn't the type to mitigate someone just to make his own shortcomings less drastic. He never contradicted that my bond to them was above reproach.

That would be a difficult concept to explain to him. Caustic didn't understand such things as love or loyalty. I accepted that, even appreciated how forthright he was. I couldn't tell him that before this realm was whole again, before my species was able to return and thrive once more rather than withering away as refugees, that his kind and his birthrealm had been the closest thing I could find to what I was so desperately missing. I couldn't tell him that I was a nurturer, a healer, that I needed to help and to heal anyone I could; that I wanted to help each of them, in different ways. I had wanted to give him a place to belong; to give him understanding. I had no desire to change him, to soften him. He knew that there were others under my protection, others he was never to harm, but I also understood the need to walk a decaying land filled with destructive beasts that devoured all life - even their own kind - and to cleanse it in death. Acceptance was something he might understand. Maybe. Maybe not.

"Lock," I told him, the answer coming on a whisper of inspiration - a gift from a friend. I would owe her.

Lock was the closest he could come to understanding love; to understanding the need to protect. He would never betray her, so long as she provided what he needed. He would shadow her, trailing death behind them, destroying her enemies, if only he could bite at her, crowd her, reveal the entirety of his intimidating powers without having her break, without making her cower or resist him. If only she could handle the truth of what he is. His bond with her would never be in question.

"Why do you care?" he asked, turning his focus back to me. I had a feeling this was mostly serving as a distraction until we got to the killing part, so I played into it. So far, Lock had been a good reference point for anything that didn't revolve around destruction, so I kept with that line of thought. In all honesty, I found it rather surprising that he could understand what caring was, at least until I considered Lock again.

"My shadow of Death," I said, fondly using his moniker, "Lock is yours to protect. And you are hers to defend. Tell me why you care, and you will have your answer."

I could see his expression, out of the corner of my eye, and I sent out a silent apology to Lock at what I saw. He was beginning to question something, examining this bond he shared with her in light of the one he shared with me. Having him turn his attention to their relationship was probably going to put more of his focus on her than she may want. His needs, for the most part, were selfish. There was no telling what it would bring her, to have him truly focus upon her. I had a suspicion that he was starting to wonder what she needed out of him; he knew why he would never betray her. He knew why he chose to stay, even if his dominant nature made belonging somewhere feel restrictive. He needed that acceptance, the freedom to be as he was. But in order for there to be somewhere to belong, he had to refrain from destroying it; that was the hard part. What he did not know, I thought, was why Lock chose to accept his bond. What did she get out of it - what did he have to maintain in order to keep her?

"Mine to defend." he said again, and this time there was no challenge to it. It sounded like a vow, and for a moment I thought he was speaking of Lock. And then I noticed how he was looking at me; ears perked forward, neck arched high, and his eyes burning with the promise of violence as his steps lifted with a grace that was just shy of a dance. Somehow, I had gained his devotion.

I had no idea how to answer such a vow, not from him, but luckily I was saved by a grimpling. Or, more accurately, a grimpling burst out of the grass that had been tickling our knees and tried to rip a chunk out of Caustic's hide. Before either of us could react one of Rakakesh's shadowfoxes lunged at it, and I smiled as I realized that there had been three of them trailing us for a while. I didn't think Rakakesh sent them; I think they just like me. They're bound to him as my Serians are to me, and since I'm bound as his mate they see me as an extension of him.

"Go play," I told Caustic, and watched as he trampled the next one under-hoof. One of the shadowfoxes played with him, but the other two stayed with me. That ended up being a good thing since one of the destructive beasts managed to dodge Caustic's teeth and lunged for me. While the shadowfoxes were busy ripping out its throat, another one tried to sneak up on their flank; I ended up grabbing our friend's tail and yanking him out of harm's way before kicking the grimpling's skull in myself. That earned me a grateful wag before he used his magic to clone himself - a reflective magic that was strengthened through the bond with Rakakesh. That's why it's so hard to figure out how many of them are really slinking around in the shadows.

When I looked up again, Caustic had brain and green blood dripping from his mouth, hooves, and chest, but he seemed unharmed himself. This wouldn't be enough to sate his need to destroy, but it would have taken some of the edge off. We were getting close to his main target once we found the plains of he light sylphs, and as the sweat on his hide started to cool the small, glittering wisps of light began to appear. It looked to be snowing miniature suns as they danced their gratitude. Some of them tried to approach Caustic, since he was the one to clear out the infestation that had been wreaking havoc on their home, only to flitter away in a drunken wobble. They wouldn't die, but they would feel pretty awful for a day or so. Caustic didn't even seem to notice.

"Come," I said, and this time our three fox friends lead the way. Thrumming with murderous intent, Caustic followed.

"There is a place that is sacred to my kind," I explained, carefully choosing what I wanted to share. He didn't need to know that the plants which increased fertility grew along these banks, or that the breeding cycle of my species was tied to these plants; that as this lake and waterfall thrived, we ourselves came into season, and that as it rested, we rested. It was enough to say that it was important.

"There has been a great insult done to the energy of this place. Blood has been spilled in these waters, tainting the purity of the life here. I need you to hunt that which dares to defile our waters and insult our sacred lands."

Even as I said it, the foxes turned around, slipping passed us in a soundless ripple. They didn't leave, but they did hang back. This was not their place.

Caustic stopped near the edge of the water, looking up at the massive waterfall and the cascading rainbows that laced the white spray. I couldn't tell what he was thinking, but he had closed off any emotion; he was in the state that only a warrior knew, hardened for the kill.

He was patient; I didn't doubt that he could wait until his prey returned, however eager he was. But first, I had to make sure he could enter the grotto at the base of the falls. I wasn't worried about his ability to handle the water, but about the land itself rejecting him. Remember, this area is sacred for our kind; it is ours and ours alone.

As I watched, he took his first step, only to stop with his hoof still raised. The ground around him did more than wilt; it blackened as he tried to move forward, leaving wisps of smoke to curl around his hooves. In response, the water of the lake surged, first flooding out over the banks, then drawing itself higher.

I don't know what he saw, or how he heard it, but the spirit of this land drew itself up to deal with us directly. We would perceive it differently, but his bond to the realm would at least let him sense it. That there had been blood spilled without intervention by the spirit meant it had been done by one who was not tied to the heart of the land; an invader, bringing insult to my realm, my people, and myself. Ours was not the only species who could shift the fabric of the cosmos, and there was always a chance that some may find us, however well we hid ourselves.

We are bound to the land that we might hear and nurture her, as the realm nurtures us. While she can interact with us directly, it is up to us to protect her from those who are deaf to the beat of her magic. Caustic was not deaf to her call; but he was also not made for reverence. And yet, I couldn't instruct him on what to do. He had to gain entrance on his own.

To me, it looked as if a great swan had formed from light and water, and she stared at me with betrayal. I could only try to make things right; there was no use in trying to explain that we had not turned from the bounty she offered us. Kneeling, I placed my horn on the damp ground and sent a pulse of energy into the water, pushing my consciousness with it. I shared my sorrow at the wrongness of death finding its way here, and the indignation that propelled me to set it aright; and that I had brought my own Death to hunt that which tainted our waters.

The lake flowed up around my knees in answer, cool and welcoming, and the ground became less treacherous - I was accepted.

Caustic hadn't looked at me during any of this. He kept staring at the water, still as stone. He seemed to be listening.

"I will defend her," he said, and his voice was a low rasp of violence when he finally spoke. "And all that she claims as her own."

There was a flashing ripple throughout the grotto in response, with grass and plants shivering as much as the water itself, but he, too, was made welcome. The lake parted for his passage, leading him to the base of the waterfall, where he would wait until night. As he stepped forward, I found myself calling out to him, although I hadn't planned to.

"Caustic," I said, and met his deadly gaze as he looked back. "Don't let me down."

Something in his expression changed, although I couldn't say what. He stared at me for a long moment, his gaze filled with corrosive fire, before finally turning back to take up the hunt. He would find his prey and destroy them.

It was a task I had entrusted him with; there was no longer a need for me to be here. I turned to leave as the waters closed behind him, flapping hard to leave the ground, and the promise of death, behind me. The foxes ran beneath me as I climbed, racing me, playing in my shadow, and finally I let myself realize the truth I hadn't had time to address.

I was healed. Truly healed and made whole once again.

For a moment, I celebrated. I flew as high as I could, spiraling upward until my lungs burned for air and my wings had no sky left to push against, and the winds came and tickled my forelock around my ears, drawn by my joy. I invited them to play with me, to dance with my joy, and together we fell, the winds and I, my heart racing and my chest heaving as grass slapped at my hooves only to drop away once again.

I flipped and spiraled, climbed and dove, and as I passed the places that held those I love the wind would break off to dance about their ears, sharing my joy by sprinkling laughter. And as the forests and hills, the valleys and mountains gave way to the Great Sea, I dove once again and invited the water to play with us, to laugh with us. Between one flip and the next I went from my alicorn form to my dolphin, and the games began afresh with the leviathans and sea sprites that answered my laughing chirps.

For a time, I lost myself to the joy of being undamaged.
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Songhue
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Re: The Heart of Home

Post by Songhue »

Did the Death-touched get the desecrator? asked a squirrel that had all but disappeared into the fur on her shoulder.

So that was why the land sang, a tiny dragon intoned as he curled on top of her paw.

It makes sense for Poppa to view you as the most disciplined healer alive, yawned the hedgehog that had burrowed against her leg. He could never have helped the shadowfox.

She smiled, yawning a little bit herself as everyone became cozy. It made a few of them shift, but the touch of sleepiness that it added to the air was well worth the minor disruption. Little ones were more willing to lay down to rest if they felt that they might be joined.

Your Poppa is wise to know of discipline, Songhue admitted, and whuffed out an amused breath that earned her a sleepy-eyed squint from the hedgehog. It is not an easy thing, to learn of our own limitations. I'm glad for you, that you may be so fortunate as to learn from his insight.

It had certainly been a struggle for Faelynn; yet now, the wolf that yawned in her ear had truly discovered who she was. She was blossoming into a fine young warrior, and Songhue was incredibly proud of her. It had been so hard for this cub to accept what she was; she admired her father so greatly that for the longest time, all she could see was what she felt she should be. But Fealynn was not Rakakesh, and what's more, the youngling had been hindered from spending so much time away from their home and the magic that helped them to thrive. She had believed herself to have talents as a healer simply because she hadn't been able to see the slow growth of her warrior skills; and when they had been noticed, they had felt inadequate.

Self-awareness was as any other discipline; a long and difficult journey. And yet, what the hedgehog referenced was the healer's natural inability to cope with conflict. Keeping control of herself while smashing in the skull of a grimpling had not been a natural ability for her; Songhue had to distance herself from the action, focusing instead on the shadowfox in an effort to make certain there had been no damage. It was a schism within herself that had developed out of necessity, as she struggled to control the very beast that any healer could become if enough happened to break them.

Some of their more delicate healers couldn't handle even as much as she had done that day, but she had struggled for years to control the cold rage of imbalance; it had become such a habit that she carried it with her even once that battle was done. For most, the difference was easy to explain. If a warrior was to return to his den and discover that his family had been slain, he would hunt tirelessly for the perpetrator, and there would be a great deal of bloody suffering by the end of it. If a healer was to return to find the same, he would listen to the screams as he burned the perpetrator alive in their den - alongside their family, if not the entire colony. Healers that caused harm had broken something vital within themselves, and the difference was terrifying. Even their warriors feared it; not because the damaged healer offered any threat to a warrior, for the skill and strength would never match up, but because there would be little that could be done to restrain them from going to such extremes, at least without actively hurting them. In her case, Rakakesh stopped worrying about hurting her; he'd had to.

It was how she learned to allow part of her soul to rage without allowing it to consume her. And it was this very schism that had made it possible for her to do more than watch when her shadowy friend was in danger. Most of her kind would have barely been able to pull the shadow creature with them as they jumped backwards, and that may have bought her enough of a moment to allow one of the other two to intervene. The honest truth was that it simply hadn't occurred to her. For eons her mate had gone hunting, leaving her and the cubs in some new location that would be safe for the moment, and it had fallen to her to make sure that everyone was still there when he returned for them. She had gotten plenty of practice in there being nobody else to rely on.

But when he came back, when they moved on, it was different. When he was there, she could relax; he took care of them. He had ever been the exception.

The land pulsed beneath her, and for a moment the two suns seemed to grow warmer against her fur, making her rumble in contentment. Faelynn smiled beside her, basking in the feel of her mother's joy and the rightness that was a strong mate-bond. Some day, she would find a mate of her own; the bond already existed, stretching into eternity towards an unknown partner. When the time was right, she would know where it led.

Just as we feel the health and need of the land, Songhue noted, answering the dragon's observation, she shares in our joy, as well as our pain.

It was more true for herself, as well as Rakakesh, than for others; a byproduct of their new status as "nobility." Still, that didn't negate the fact that it held true for each of them.

If you listen very carefully you can hear the song of her magic, Songhue added, and she gave it the air of a conspiratorial whisper, granting the discovery the wonder it deserved. It made her smile to see them close their eyes and focus, and Faelynn had to bite back a laugh of affection as a few began to sway with the gentle pulse. Some of them heard the pulse clearer than others, but the very young were not yet disciplined enough to filter through everything they could sense. It was the same as having a superior sense of smell; being able to smell didn't mean it was automatically easy to make sense of all the input, much less hone the ability to actively pay attention to their noses.

The song was stronger lately, and growing by the day, which made it easier to detect. The spring equinox was coming, and soon the realm would call them to hunt. None of them would be able to resist the song of blood as it pulsed through them; even healers partook in the hunts. It was different than the violence that a warrior was made for. Songhue was just as much a predator as any other, even if she was not meant for battle, just as any submissive wolf who avoids pack conflict still brings down their prey.

The call of the song was strongest of all in the autumn, but they had begun to notice that each of the phases, each solstice and equinox, began to echo a version of the song that screamed in their blood during the autumn equinox. The spring hunt would bring them through only a handful of realms as the fabric between realms stretched thinner, and there would be enough gained to last them until the summer solstice, but there would be few strays picked up and it would not be of the level of their autumn hunt. In autumn, Rakakesh would bring down a boardread, and the rest would follow his charge. Come the midwinter hunt, upon the solstice, there would be little to find throughout the realms; it was then that they brought home the most strays.

The concept of finding strays that had been abandoned to the winter made a sour expression cross Faelynn's face. Some of her father's strays had not turned out well; one of them, in particular, she had sworn a bloodoath on. If Faelynn ever saw that creature again it would end in death. Songhue couldn't quite understand the concept, as it was a warrior thing, but she knew it was different than a grudge; this was a thing of honor, sworn with integrity, rather than something petty and spiteful. Faelynn was simply glad that her mother was willing to accept those parts of her that she couldn't understand. For a time it seemed that the two of them would ever be at odds, but lately Songhue came to realize that the abrasion between them had simply been a reflection of Faelynn's own struggles to determine who she was. It was a difficult age to navigate; all things considered, it could have gone much worse.

Still, for the spring hunt they wouldn't find such a haul. Once, long ago, there had been an elkin that had lost his mind during the spring rut which had fed them throughout summer, but that was a singularity. Spring normally gave jackalopes, ancient nightstalkers, skyswimmers, and sheebits to supplement what the realm could provide until high summer; a good hunt, even if not as impressive as their later ones.

The timing made it all the more important that any intruders be dealt with swiftly. With the hunt soon upon them, there was an increasing risk that these matters not be caught until too late.

Her song grows, the dragon on her paw said in a happy little sigh. The flaming bronze eyes were closed with the effort to listen, hidden behind sparkling, gold-dusted scales.

The spring hunt grows near, Songhue confirmed, and smiled as the earth-kissed dragonlet looked up at her. Soon, the suns will share an equal dance with the moons, making it easier to dance between worlds. Her song stirs the hunt in us as it gets closer.

Who will stay this time? yawned the lynx curled into her armpit with a sleepy lack of interest.

Whoever is called to stay, Songhue answered simply, and got a snort in response - or maybe a sneeze.

Most of them would be called to hunt, but a few - usually denwarriors, the ones that can only battle when there is a true need, when they or those they're protecting are cornered, some of who may still be milking for those young enough to need it - would feel the song flow past them. It was always someone different, but there was always some few who remained.

They'll eat first, in honor of their role, Songhue continued, telling some of the younglings what they should already know - yet few did, so new was it to finally have their home restored. They were chosen to guard our heart; it is a hallowed trust placed upon them. Then we share a portion of our hunt with the land, before feasting ourselves.

We share with the land? the lynx asked, and Songhue was rather amused to find that there was a bit less sleep to those ocean-toned eyes.

We do, she confirmed, and then winked at Faelynn as she added Can you tell me why?

Faelynn remembered this question - it was something they all knew without a need to have someone teach them, yet they had to make a point to awaken the knowledge. The lynx was one of the older cubs, and had already heard some of the tales, although none of them had ever been through a hunting call. So far, there had been a great deal of promise displayed in how quickly many of these key truths had been learned. Hopefully, this would prove the same.

To return strength, the lynx answered after an interminable silence, and while there was uncertainty underlying the words there was also the measured tone of repeating what had been said. After another pause, this one much shorter, the words began to lose their uncertaintyWe take from the realm, and in the end we become par. t of it; but she still supports us, even then. We need to give strength to the ancestors, and the realm that shelters us all, just as they give us strength.

Very good, Songhue rumbled, and gave the youngling a long lick to distract it for a moment as Fealynn produced a scrap of meat to share. The little lynx's purr was almost deafening - even if the meat had been found half-cooked and buried in the flamewolf's fur. Probably a bit of sea imp - salty, but satisfying.

With the hunt coming, Songhue continued, rolling slightly to let the younger ones drink if they needed to - Sissarra was, as usual, more than interested, we have to make certain that we give all the help we can to those who remain. Part of that help was my Death-touched friend hunting for the one who tainted our waters; and he did find them, she assured the squirrel. It was a scream that shook the lands that let me know when that happened.
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