Chapter 20 – Secrets Unbound

The forest wafted from side to side in the dusk air. Birds sang and twittered as they flew home to roost. Shadow sat, his arms tucked under him, watching the mountain disappear from view. He had been with the Joven Suns for a day now, and all he had done was worry. He knew how many beasts lived in the mountain, and how strong they were.

He felt better now and had gained a little weight. The Joven Suns had become determined to create a leader in Shadow after Jok had been exiled. Shadow was grateful for the food they brought him, and the nest they had given him above ground. He had a difficult time explaining to the cubs that he didn't like living in tunnels.

The sun gave one last ray of warmth before falling over the edge of the mountain ridge. Fensis hill became harder and harder to see in the low light. When it became nearly impossible to see even the outline, Shadow stood.

He had eaten not long ago, courtesy of Trap, who had caught him a large rat that dragged along the floor as he held it in his small jaws. The dark green bush that lay directly in front of Shadow rustled slightly and then became still. More food? He asked himself, before stretching and slowly walking up to the plant.

A small black nose poked itself out before Shadow arrived. The cat froze with his paw still in mid-step. He sniffed at the strange body part, as it sniffed back at him. It smelled like fox, so Shadow settled the fur on his back and sat back on his small haunches. The nose retreated into the bush and the forest became silent.

"Hello?" Shadow questioned the bush loudly. It gave a small shudder, before a fox walked from it. His bright orange fur and white paws were unmistakable.

"Jok" said Shadow, trying to sound friendly. The fox gave him a weak smile but it held no truth, and quickly evaporated.

"Shadow, I risked my life coming back here. You have to know what I've found out." Shadow nodded and began to lick his tail. Jok looked at him and then continued.

"I've been living in Spring's wood, just up the blood river. It's usually a favourite hunting spot for the Lik'an. This morning, none came." Shadow licked the very tip of his tail and yawned.

"So, maybe they found a better spot." He said casually. The fox seemed distressed as his eyes wandered to the fog where Fensis Hill was usually visible. He shook his head and looked at the grassy floor.

"No, at least one would have come. I fear that your friends have been captured." The words left his mouth and hung in the air for a second. Shadow thought for a moment, pondering the gravity of this situation.

"How much do you know about the beasts?" He asked, as fearful images of his friend in distress pushed there way into his mind. Jok creased his face as he thought back. Shadow waited, his thoughts now racing with images of Vulpi and Genib in dire circumstances.

"I don't know much at all. They always kept their business private, and never told me anything of real importance." Shadow looked doubtfully at the young fox. How was he ever supposed to trust this Rag'an?

"How do I know you're not trying to trick me? You must see how it's hard for ant animal to trust you." Jok nodded, looking frustrated.

"I really do think Genib and Vulpi are in danger. You have to believe that I don't talk to the beasts any more. It was a mistake for me to ever get involved with them." Shadow heard sincerity in his voice, but a small part of him still didn't trust Jok.

"Well, I guess I have no choice but to trust you really. If Vulpi's life is in danger, then we will have to help him." Shadow turned to the fog, as the small Rag'an stared at the cat.

"We will have to go to Fensis Hill. There is no time to spare." He said, seeing his mission clearly now. Jok began to nod, but then stopped himself.

"We need more help, but the Joven Suns will never trust me again." Shadow laughed and trotted off towards the main camp. His grey bushy tail flicked from side to side as he moved.

"They will. Leave that to me."

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The veil brushed against Vulpi's whiskers as he walked into the darkness. He closed his eyes, waiting for some kind of shocking experience. His paws still stood firm on ground as he exhaled. He glanced back and saw the beasts talking to each other, occasionally taking a quick look at the veil, hoping to catch a glimpse of what was happening inside.

Vulpi turned. Genib was no where in sight. Vulpi stood for a few moments, waiting for his keen eyes to kick in and help him. He saw the outline of a tunnel emerge. Great, more stone tunnels he thought, I could use some soft earth for my feet right about now

He carefully moved down, through the passageway. He stuck to the walls, not knowing what could come out from the shadows. Shadow! Vulpi mouthed the name as he thought it, I wonder how he is. We came all this way for him; we barely even got to talk.

Vulpi heard the shuffling of paws from up ahead and strained his eyes and ears.

"Vulpi" it was Genib, his friendly voice was a welcome sound in the cold and stony tunnel "follow me." They walked onwards through the passage. It was only when Vulpi's feet began to ache that he noticed something.

"Genib, are we going up?" he asked as the slope of the floor became more and more noticeable. The air began to chill around them.

"Yes, it shouldn't be far now" Vulpi looked around, all over the walls, small formations of icy crystals were beginning to appear. His eyes burned slightly against the frozen breeze that blew against them.

"Through here," whispered Genib as they neared a narrow section of the passageway. Vulpi moved ahead of his old friend and crouched. He crept along the floor, which was coated in a thin layer of ice. The tunnel abruptly ended and opened up into a medium sized cave. There were small pinpricks in the icy roof, that shone light through into the other wise dark cavern. In the front of the space there was a stony floor, dotted with pebbles and piles of dust. Towards the back of the room the rock floor raised up in a pyramid shape. Steps of rock formed an easy route to the top

Atop I lay a shadowed area, blocked from view by cobwebs and ice pillars.

"Welcome to my throne room, Rag'an." The voice was no longer as echoed as before, but it still carried a chill in its tone. Genib moved a few steps forwards, until he was in the centre of the largest pool of light.

"How are you still alive?" he asked, his small voice practically inaudible next to the Queen's. Their came a rattling from the far end of the room, and Vulpi shuddered as the cavern shook slightly.

"I talk not to you, Genib" A smaller rattle pulsed through the mountain, "Vulpi, you have questions. I hear them." Vulpi looked at Genib who nodded his head and stood back. Vulpi took in a deep breath and stepped to where the old Rag'an had been stood only a few moments before.

Vulpi could not remember all the questions that had been lodged inside him since their adventure began, but one stood out in his head.

"What are the beasts?" He said, trying to make his voice as loud as was possible for his size.

"A good question" replied the Queen, as Genib nodded.

"The Lik'ans are my faithful soldiers. Years ago they were no different than you two. Small scared Rag'an. But spending fifty lifetimes under my rule can do things to you. Now they are beacons through which my rule can extend beyond this prison of stone and ice." She replied. Vulpi had had no idea that they were foxes.

"What did you do to them?" He asked, unsure of whether he wanted a real answer or just wanted to avoid any silences. The Queen replied with a simple sentence and then became quiet

"I did nothing to them. They became tainted by my influence, and I allowed it. Now they are fused between their Rag'an spirit and my mind."

Vulpi turned to Genib, who was gesturing with his head at a small tunnel that lay to the left of them. It was made of hard ice and ended in a snowy block. The two foxes could see light through it. Vulpi shook his head at Genib. They had no idea where it went. Genib nodded slowly and began to cautiously creep towards it.

Vulpi knew he had to distract the Queen, so he dug deep for more questions.

"Why did you come to the pack-meet?" he asked loudly, moving in the opposite direction from Genib, to try and draw her focus away.

"Ha!" she exclaimed loudly, causing the cavern to shake once more. Vulpi glanced at the ceiling, where long thin icicles hovered dangerously above his head. "The pack-meet was my creation! It was a way to keep all the animals of the south in one place, whilst my servants pilfered your precious food."

Vulpi nodded and spoke again.

"Why did you take some animals here? What use are they to you?" Genib was mere feet from the tunnel entrance now.

"They are of no use to me" replied the cold voice, "but soon I will reveal myself, and take control of the forests of Mirinal. I thought it best to assert my power on the animals at the pack-meet. Fear will keep them in check."

A force hit Vulpi, like he had been slashed across the face.

"And now Vulpi, you must be killed. I cannot allow you to go home, no matter how much you want to see Berin." Vulpi regained his footing as the cavern shook violently from side to side. Dust and small chunks of snow became dislodged and fell all around him.

Genib yelled something, but Vulpi couldn't hear over the roaring of stone and ice. He looked to the top of the pyramid and then to Genib.

"Vulpi, we have to go!" He screamed "Come on!" Vulpi ducked as large chunks of ice and rock hit the ground and exploded round her. No, this has to end. Now. He pushed off from the floor and raced towards the throne. Genib screamed at him from the corner off his mind, but it was drowned out.

His feet skimmed across the floor as he reached the bottom of the rock steps.

"You would dare to approach me?" The voice was inside him now, its freezing breath attacking the inside of his mind. He shook his head and turned. Genib stood, squashed against the corner of the cave as debris crashed to the ground all around him.

Vulpi ran, knowing that everything he had done over the past weeks was culminating in this final moment. He reached the top of the stone and leapt through the webs and past the icy pillar, he sailed into the darkest corner of the room, his fangs bared, ready to attack whatever lay in front of him.

A loud crack, like a tree falling exploded all around him. In a flash of bright light, a pain shot through his mind that ripped his consciousness away. He flew head first into a dusty pile and lay, as the cavern shook and the tremors cracked the rocks around him.

He stood, his face bleeding heavily, and looked around. A small pile of bones was all that lay in front of him. No vicious queen, no angry royalty. The bones were perfect white, and looked more like pure ice than anything else. A small amount of steam rose from them as Vulpi backed away, his feet slipping on the iced floor.

He turned and jumped, landing on the floor far below. He saw Genib through the haze of snow and rock.

Vulpi pushed all his energy into running as the pyramid crumbled and fell into the cavern below. The young Rag'an heard the deafening grinding as chunks of rock nearly toppled on top of him. He passed Genib and shot down the icy passageway. He heard Genibs laboured breathing behind him.

He shouted loudly as the top of his head collided with the snow wall. It burst outwards easily and Vulpi found himself flying through the air. His feet and tail whipped around as he landed with a soft plunk in a large snow bank. He heard the sound of Genib landing next to him, and looked up. A large cloud of dust exploded from the mountain side and lingered in the air.

The world became silent once more as Vulpi gasped for breath. When he stood small drops of scarlet blood stained the otherwise untouched snow. Wind and sleet blew around Vulpi as he moved over to Genib. The old fox was already up, on his feet and licking a badly cut paw.

"We did it." Said Vulpi breathlessly, glancing up at the now blocked hole they had come from only moments before. Small pieces of dust and grit began to settle all around them. Genib looked up at Vulpi with a smile on his face.

"Yes, we did it." He said, moving towards the edge of the snow.

"Look there is a path just down there. It probably goes to the main entrance." Genib lead the way, limping slightly on his injured pad.

The stone path was practically unused, and covered with a thin layer of powdery snow. As they walked, Vulpi started to hear strange noises carried on the wind. A scream, barks and roaring floated into his ears.

"Sounds like there's a fight at the Mountain Gateway. Come on!" he said as he began to run quickly down the steep trail. Vulpi followed, fearing what they might find when they arrived.

The sounds were much louder now, and Vulpi heard the sounds of a ferocious battle. They ran past the boundary between snow and rock, and Vulpi saw the path that the beasts had carried them up appear. The two foxes leapt and landed on the hard surface.

"This can't be good." Whispered Genib as they quickly ran up the path that they had been carried along just hours ago. Only one corner remained between them and the ensuing fight. Genib went first, quickly racing round the corner. Vulpi stopped and peeked round the stony wall.

In front of him there was fox and Lik'an, gripped in a furious struggle. Vulpi recognized most of the foxes, and it was only when he saw a flashing of flame orange fur from the other side of the stony platform that he realized where from. The Joven Suns had attacked the White Mountain, and now they fought tooth and claw to try and kill the beasts.

Vulpi saw the little Rag'an, Trap, with four other foxes, all trying desperately to subdue a huge monster. Vulpi ran, his feet now raw from this long journey and hurled himself, once again, at the large brown Lik'an. It barked loudly as he clamped down on its leg and twisted. Vulpi heard a small crack of bone shattering. Trap and the other cubs jumped atop the beast, ripping at its flesh as it whined loudly on the floor.

Then Vulpi saw him. Shadow, backed into a corner, with two small beasts approaching, his back was arched and he spat violently as they both came close. Vulpi jumped from the beast and ran, dodged and diving from the beasts that lunged for him.

He jumped, pushed off from the back of a beast, which stood over a bloody, mutilated fox, and landed with his paws extended on the side of one of the Lik'an. It howled as Vulpis claws dragged along its flank. The slightly larger beast roared and bit down hard on the scruff of Vulpi's neck. Vulpi heard a hiss and then felt the pressure lift from his skin. He turned to see Shadow gripping tightly to the head of the beast, as blood poured from its eye sockets. It fell away into the dark hall.

"Shadow, what in Rag'eers name are you doing here? You shouldn't have come here." Shadow turned and smiled at Vulpi.

"Why not? You needed help, so I came." He said simply and then puffed out his fur as a beast approached. It opened its mouth and ran towards them. Vulpi ducked and rolled to the left of it, as Shadow jumped up and landed to the right of it. Shadow raked his claws along its torso as Vulpi bit furiously and its front paw. It gave a short bark and leapt away. All around, the foxes overpowered the beasts, by shear numbers. The showed no remorse, their revenge for a lifetime of fear under these animals.

The noise began to die away as Vulpi ran with Shadow to the middle of the stone clearing. The air became silent as foxes walked towards the pair. Genib came and stood by the right side of Vulpi, as Shadow sat on the left.

A whine filled the air as one of the beasts rolled over and became still. Vulpi saw Jok, his head cut badly behind his ear, and his mouth bleeding. Trap and so many other cubs that he had come to know all stood before him, there eyes looking up in amazement. As he tried to think of some words to say.

Shadow nudged him friendly, and Vulpi knew that his journey was finally over.

The dark entranceway to the mountain lay behind them, and they stood just a few metres from the edge of the drop, which fell away into a misty abyss. Vulpi opened his mouth to speak, but felt the wind knocked from him. He flew through the air, towards the cliff, and powerful jaws clamped onto his neck.

He landed and twisted free from the attacker. He tried to squirm free as time seemed to stop. He managed to turn and found himself staring into the face of Trix. Her eyes was slashed so badly that it could not even open, and she wore a crazed grin on her face. Vulpi turned his head and watched as Genib and the cubs ran towards him, their faces filled with shock and anger, but Vulpi knew it was too late.

Trix opened her hideous jaws and brought them down upon him. Then, to Vulpis surprise, he felt Trix's paws lift from him. He heard her scream as her body was thrown from the stony flat and over the edge, into nothingness. Vulpi's spirits soared as he thought of Trix receiving what she deserved.

But as he glanced sideways and saw not only Trix but another falling from existence, his heart plummeted into the depths of horror. A fluffy grey tail and retractable claws gripped to her side as she disappeared from view.

Vulpi screamed and ran to the edge, but it was too late. Vulpi watched as the face of his friend, his muddy brown eyes, his long whiskers and small jaw dissolved into the mist below.

The clearing became silent once again, only this time it was filled with fear and depression. There was no victorious feeling as Vulpi stood and turned to the foxes. Genib muttered something to the young foxes, but Vulpi could not hear it. His mind became numb and cold as he saw again and again the image of Shadow, falling to his death, trapped in conflict with Trix.

He slowly walked over to the Mountain Gateway and peered inside. It was littered with rocks and dust, from the quake. The beast that Shadow had attacked laid dead just a few steps from the entranceway, his face mangled and his body in a pool of blood.

Vulpi cleared his mind and stepped back outside.

"Where are the other prisoners?" asked Vulpi, hoping for some good news.

Jok stepped forwards, now forgiven by his friends and talked.

"They escaped during the shuddering, we told them to go back to the everlasting forest as they met us on the way up here." Vulpi nodded. They had won, but this seemed hollow and tainted by the fact that Vulpi would never see shadow again, never hear the sound of his voice.

Genib stepped forwards, his bloody foot leaving patches on the ground as he walked.

"Today we proved to all of Mirinal, that Rag'an spirit can overcome all. We remember the memories of our lost friends. This story shall be told here for hundreds of years." The young foxes muttered their agreement, and began to turn around and head home.

"Don't worry" said Genib, as he approached Vulpi, "the pain will heal. This victory shall be sweet in the long run." Vulpi nodded and walked towards the stone path with his friends.

"So Genib, what will you do now?" he asked, curious to how the old Rag'an would spend his time.

"I guess I'll go back to my forest, try and live a simple life, unless another adventure comes to find me." He laughed and winced as he put too much weight on his bad paw.

"What about you, young one. You're the one with all his life in front of him." Vulpi thought but realized there was only one thing he felt like doing.

"I'm going to my Vix, and I want to see my cubs." Genib nodded and laughed as they both started the long journey back home

Epilogue

The shrouded cavern was quite as a lone bird circled above its jagged edge. Its call penetrated the mist and fog that clung to the stony walls and echoed, reverberating and bouncing until it reached the bottom. The floor was dotted with white flowers and small rocks. A small trickle of blood ran along the width of the cavern. It came from a body that lay nearby. Its striped legs and dark range fur were scruffy and looked broken.

Across from it lay another lump, this one smaller. It was grey and had long, wavy fur. Its tail was bushy and its legs seemed fine, and its face lay gently on the ground, like it was sleeping.

Its eyes flickered slightly and its whiskers twitched. One foot moved slowly on the ground and then the other swept across the floor. It stood up, its legs cracking slightly as it did so. It faced the wall and sniffed at the body of the other animal. It turned and stared up into the sky, with eyes as blue as crystals.