Prologue

The young pup rolled over and tried to curl back up. He was writhing with suppressed excitement. Though he'd slept little, and an acrid scent drifting in was making him feel woozy, his muscles refused to relax, his fogged brain unwilling to relent and shut down. He couldn't calm himself.

The pup finally gave up. Thrusting his paws under him, he was in a sitting position in an instant. His eyes strayed to the large mound of gray fur, like a gloomy raincloud positioned in the center of the tree. Only a faint rising and falling in the flanks indicated it was alive, but the rat pup knew it was. Rock and Stone, his foster parents, were curled up. Fast asleep. Without any notion that the young pup was unable to imitate them.

His stomach gave another squirm, not out of unease, but awe as his memory relived a moment, which in his opinion would be worth dying for. That night he'd seen his first wolf!

Out travelling in the night with Rock and Stone, with the cold misty winds came a raw blood scent, dissolving into a sudden fear scent from Rock and Stone. This he couldn't understand.

Suddenly the ground rumbled with thundering pawsteps, like the sound of a giant predator in pursuit of prey. And then he saw the source.

The pup was unable to understand how small the wolf actually was, but for him a prodigious shadow streaked out onto open ground, a massive bulk, sprinting along frosty white grass. Ice crystals spattered the pelt of the shadow. A terrified jackrabbit was pelting away from the beast, its fur quite as pale as the sparkling grass, its legs beating faster than the rat pup's own heart. But it was unable to reach its home safely with the wolf on its track. With a leap like a squirrel crossing trees, the shadow was on the rabbit without hesitation. With a single bite, a flash of claws and fang, it was over in an instant.

The pup dreamily walked over to the creature as it was tearing at its meal. A rustling sound came from behind him, and some part of his consciousness realized that Rock and Stone had started forward after him, but he crossed through a thick bush, spattered with new, white, dazzling flowers, and no sound came from behind again.

He approached the strange creature without apprehension, and the head of the bulk looked up from his meal. His nose was larger than the rat's head, his eyes leaf green and as sharp as an eagle's, but gentler. His voice rumbled in his throat.

"Hello, small one. Do not be afraid; I am not planning on harming you". The pup had never expected such a thing, and alarm flared in his eyes and the very idea, but the wolf continued casually.

"Try some meat, as I think I am right in saying rats occasionally have it?"

The pup's eyes widened. He had never had meat yet in his life, and his fur prickled in curiosity. Wasn't the wolf eating something that had been alive and running moments before? Was that wrong?

But the wolf ate it without a thought. Tentatively the pup crept forward and tried a small mouthful. It was watery but juicy with blood, and very chewy. He swallowed with an appalled look on his face. "That was very good!" he squeaked.

"Meat is a normal diet of many animals around here, so watch out," the wolf warned. "But you shouldn't try too much yet".

The little pup looked up inquisitively at him. "Why were Rock and Stone scared of you?" The wolf hesitated.

"Though you are really too small to provide much of a meal, even for one wolf, many of my species would not waver in killing a rat. They fear for their son's safety."

"They aren't my parents. I don't know my real parents," the pup chittered bluntly. He had been found, while barely one quarter of a moon old, lost and nearly starved in a small rabbit hole. Rock and Stone had taken care of him ever since.

The wolf growled, neither in a benign or threatening fashion. He tore at the ground with his claws, large thick thorns biting into the ground.

The pup watched him for a moment, and then looked at his own claws. They were thin but strong, and splayed out in different directions. Though narrow, they were incredibly sharp.

The wolf was watching him again, and then he looked up, only his eyes staying on the rat.

"I must be going now. Take care". And then he was gone.

The pup stood rigid, wondering what to do. Suddenly, Rock and Stone burst through the bush, their gazes travelling wildly, and Rock grabbed the pup by his tail, guiding him to a small hole in a tree, warm and cozy.

He stood mutinously through a short lecture from the two older rats. They persisted that he stay away from wolves, or 'edon' as Rock, who knew words from other languages, called them. They were dangerous.

"But the wolf wasn't trying to hurt me. He was talking to me," the puzzled pup explained. Rock and Stone exchanged glances, and didn't speak for several moments. Then Stone looked at him gently.

"You cannot talk to a wolf. Rats and wolves can't communicate". But her words were wasted. The pup was asleep.

The pup raised his head irritably, and realized he had fallen asleep again. But he was woken by the strange, robust scent filling the tree. He sneezed a few times, and then started a hacking cough that caught in his throat. His body shook, and, unable to breathe, he fell over, as his eyes clouded. Before reality was lost to him, he saw his foster parents, awakened by his fit, glance around in fear. Rock darted around trying to find him in the thickly fogging air.

"Fire! Get out! Get out!"

******************************************************************

Dawn was warm.

The pack was curled up in various sleeping spots. No guard was stationed at the entrance. Even all of the pups were asleep.

A black head poked out of a jumble of sticks, then retreated. A second later, the whole body appeared. She was jet black, all around her body to her light pink nose and furless paws.

She padded restlessly around, and then ran straight into a rock, as though planning it all along. She disappeared behind a crack, hardly distinguishable in the weak morning light.

The black rat clawed her way down a gently sloping dirt path, until the ground was firm but soft, churned dirt acting like sand. Light came only from small cracks in the rock ceiling, now high above, illuminating only two small shining eyes staring at the newcomer.

"Spina? Is that you? Well, of course it is you, but what is wrong?" The packrat's voice sounded distinctly harassed to Spina. She knew she was not the only worried one.

"I cannot ascertain to that in our present proximity. Will you come out to the forest with me?"

Spina padded out gravely, the sound of footsteps behind her acting as an answer.

The two walked out of camp and to a patch of grass by a small pool of water. Spina looked straight into her friend's eyes.

"Ember, you are both herbist and seer. You know the pack is in a troubled time. We are not united. What can help us? Or are we destined to split and live as scavengers on our own, like our ancestors before us?" The urgency in her desolated voice showed she had nearly given up. Ember was alarmed. Spina was not like that. She hesitated.

"It is true the pack is in hard times. It was not always like that, but traditions go far back. Maybe the pack is dying. But I think something may help us. All we can do is—"

Spina stepped back. Ember had gone into a trance. Her eyes were fixed on the water, as though she could see bottomless depths in the shallow pool. Her tufted tail was gently dipped in the water, her eyes wide. The water seemed like fire reflecting her smoldering coat, with the sun rising right behind her.

Spina was not alarmed. She had seen Ember have visions before. She, however, felt a twinge of unease. Would it show a terrible ending to the pack, or would Ember interpret it as a sign to continue fruitless attempts to civilize them?

The sun was rising swiftly. Spina paced restlessly, knowing they would be easy prey, but she had to stay with Ember.

Suddenly the packrat relaxed. Her glow seemed to stiffen and drift away as she stirred.

"Well? What did you see?" Spina's apprehension made her sharp. She glanced around furtively. Ember looked straight into her leader's eyes.

"Help will come. Another rat," she murmured.

Spina looked at her in perplexity. She had been expecting advice, not...prophecy? How could a rat alone help a whole pack, who were unable to help themselves? Unless someone procured a master idea, this would not be of assistance.

"Maybe some rat knows a way, and they will be coming to us?" Spina suggested doubtfully. It wasn't as if she had any real hope. Ember didn't seem as pessimistic, but hardly ecstatic.

"I don't remember exactly what I Saw. But I know that a black rat, with a name like yours.."

"Like mine? Spina?" Her voice resembled crackling ice.

"No, no," the packrat soothed. "Think! Your name is different from ours. You are not called Thorn, but Spina."

"But the only one with a name like mine is Kara…." Her voice trailed away, and both looked down.

Kara was the newborn female. Normally, she was always given a wide berth by other rats. She was treated coldly, even though she barely spoke and had only recently gotten any downy fur. All of this was because of her eyes.

Kara was blind. This was slightly common, and not thought about much. But her eyes had a ghostly effect, indigo and dark, and seemed to shine. No pack member could remember a rat having eyes other than red or black. And Kara was the only member of her litter to survive birth. Though litters rarely had more than five surviving pups, it was extremely rare for none or one to not even last a day, or the birthing process. Some thought she was cursed. Spina herself had named the young pup herself. Kara meant emptiness.

"No, it was definitely an outsider. I do not know when they will come, or who they shall be. But we must treat all outsiders with caution." Ember looked alertly at her leader, who looked as though drawn from a pensive trance, as she looked up with worried eyes.

"Ember, what do you think we must tell the pack about this? They might panic, or spurn our theory….like last time," she added darkly. Ember frowned thoughtfully.

"If we don't tell them, then they will drive all intruders away as normal, and all shall be lost. Perhaps we ought to just let them know that all strangers should be brought back to the set, especially if their name sounds….different. Possibly we could start a new rule to always bring forth strangers to here, in case we can learn something from them."

Spina liked the packrat's logic. "But we need to tell some other rats the whole story."

"Firebear," Ember suggested.

"Yes, and his brother, Shale. What about Starshine?"

"Hmmm……"

Ember was slightly pleased. Starshine was very young, but had begun learning to be an herbist. Although she was youthful, Ember knew she could be trusted to keep a secret, and had taken a great liking to the inquisitive child. "She won't say a word. May I discuss it with her? The young ones have such creative minds," she persisted defensively, as though Spina had confided doubts. Her leader merely looked amused, and her muscles seemed to relax.

"She will be with you or Shale most of the time, so I see no need to scare her with the unknown. She's sharp, and bound to catch on eventually. But be gentle. If you make it seem as though we are in deep trouble, you may upset her.

"I don't think so," said Ember seriously. "She is playful as a pup half her age, but sharp. She may realize these things, even if she doesn't let on. She is young now, but who knows how she will grow up?"

They sat in silence for a long moment. Finally, Spina raised her eyes to the sky, where the sun began to blaze down on them. She longed for her shady den, and Ember too looked drowsy.

"We had better get back to the set and get some sleep. I'll hold a meeting during the Aura," Spina spoke firmly, wrenching herself to her paws in her usual commanding manner.

"Remember," Ember murmured," her eyes alight in an eerie manner. "Do not give up. Help is coming."

*****************************************************************

The rat pup staggered around a bit, trying to capture his thoughts. He was soaking wet and covered in mud and ash, but his insides felt like they were on fire.

Fire! He stumbled over on a flat rock and lay down, resting his damp fur on the smooth surface. The water still dripped from his belly fur.

He was unable to really recollect what had happened. All that sparked in his brain was the thought of running, running, and falling over into the icy, frothing water that churned into a gradually stilling pool. His thin, soft, downy black fur was unaccustomed to a soaking, and it had immersed itself over him, right through his fur.

Yet he still felt dizzy from inhaled ash. The mush was caked to his tail, which dipped in the water without sliding off. A sharp stone grazed it, and he withdrew it sharply to his side in time to see a thin, wispy trail of blood in the water, but he let it slip back into the cooling liquid. His wound cleared.

The pup began grooming his fur, sneezing through the wet ash. He did not allow his thoughts to brood on everything that had happened.

Finally, the young rat looked up into the far-away sky. Rather than purple and majestic with colorful streaks, it looked bleak and red as the sun set.

After a few moments, he pulled himself to his paws and walked onward, his steps gradually growing stronger. His head spun a bit, but nevertheless he trekked forward in search of shelter. No clear thought of where he was heading came to his fogged brain, but within a short time he came to a small clearing of dirt, only a few strands of grass creeping up. Low growing bushes edged the sides, and he wriggled under one with a small, enclosed space underneath. Curling into a tight, wet ball, he closed his eyes into narrow slits and slept.

He adopted blurred visions in his dreams, though he could never quite recall what came to him. Thick, gray fog clouds blocked his sight, but a familiar voice called out to him…Kemuri! Kemuri!

He writhed around in his slumber. Some part of his consciousness recalled Rock teaching him. Kemuri meant smoke.

The pup woke suddenly. His fur was dry, but his skin felt chilled. Had it not been a warm Bluesky night, he may have frozen to death. With that thought in mind, he poked his head out of the bush and sniffed rapidly with his small, sensitive pink nose. A pleasantly familiar smell enveloped him, and he immediately wriggled out from under the bush. It was a very dark night, and past midnight. The darkness lit him, and only a sliver of moonlight reached the low ground.

He looked back. Two large shapes sprinted toward the dirt clearing. One, though difficult to make out, was obviously the wolf he'd met the previous evening. He recognized the small, lithe shape. The other was larger, and a wispy scent seemed female. She had a beautiful mahogany coat, like that of a young tree.

The little rat frowned as they were running, wary of the female especially. At first they just seemed hesitant, their heads lowered toward the ground. Then he realized they were following a scent trail of prey.

They were headed right for him.

The wolves were hunting him!

The realization stung the pup. He'd thought they were good, but now he was being treated as prey.

As the two giants came nearer, he struggled to pull himself together. It was like climbing out of freezing water. He withdrew under the thick, heavily scented bush at a high speed.

He weighed his chances. Though he was fast, the creatures could probably get him in seconds if out in the open. However, the night was darker than his pelt, and the bush was rimmed with thorned leaves. If he was still and quiet, the pup thought, he may stay safe. His scent trail must have been half water.

Finally, the wolves arrived at the clearing. They seemed larger and more dangerous than ever. The female spoke.

"I picked up a scent of a rat. Do you think we could find one? Some of our pups are now learning to chew solid food. Some of them are recovering from the fire." Her voice was low and soothing.

"True, but it may now be safe. Rats can carry diseases. They are too dirty for pups," The familiar wolf replied.

Dirty!?

The pup felt a bit irritated. He wasn't fond of being treated as though he was contaminated with something strange. Then he froze. The young wolf was staring right at the small peak, where the eyes of the pup peaked out. Though it seemed unlikely that his dark brown eyes would have been seen there, the younger wolf knew his scent. Shamefully, the rat realized that the wolf was protecting him.

"True enough," the she-wolf growled. "Seki, I'm going to hunt nearer to the pack in case I am needed. Get some sleep soon. Tomorrow we are all going on a caribou hunt." She turned and darted off, her beautiful coat swishing, and her deep green eyes flashing.

The pup slowly crawled out from under the bush, so tense he almost walked on his claws. Once out, he waited on tenterhooks. The wolf, unable to see the pup, located him with his nose alone. His bright blue eyes rested on the rat, lighting up.

"So. You are here. You survived the fire." The wolf stared impassively at him. The pup was lost at words. He became sharply aware of how large and sharp the claws of the wolf were. For a moment he sorely hoped that the claws would retract. Then he remembered—the fabled cats did that. He was silent.

"Where are your parents?" the wolf rumbled. The pup didn't correct him. This was answer enough for the wolf. His hard eyes, softened, and he came forward to nuzzle the pup.

"What is your name?" he queried softly. The pup looked up and finally spoke.

"I don't really know. I never really had a name. Rock and Stone would have felt awkward naming me. I guess it doesn't matter now that I'm alone." He spoke bluntly, forcing his grief away.

The wolf stared at him appraisingly for a moment. "It is always helpful to have a name. You can never know."

For a minute both were silent, until the wolf broke it once more. "I shouldn't be out here alone much longer. I must get back to the pack, but I suggest that you stay clear of wolf territory from now on to be safe."

The pup nodded gloomily. He stared up, not knowing what he should say. A large nose touched his in farewell.

"If you ever come across a wolf around here again, stand your ground and ask for Sekitan Ibara, and they will fetch me. Most wolves honor bravery." Was that a warning glint in his eye? The pup searched for something to say in return. "Tha—Thank you for everything. I hope that someday I can repay you. Rock and Stone—" He broke off awkwardly. Seki nodded knowingly. "I will notify them of you if I come across them. If you survived, they may have, and are probably upset about you. Would you like me to do this?"

The rat looked up into his eyes, a manic glint in his own.

"Yes….I'd like that…."

The wolf was gone.

The pup walked slowly back to the bush, snuffling at a few scattered seeds as he went. He would eat and rest today and travel at night.

As he turned to the side, through a screen of leaves and glistening sky he saw a long field of trees. As he stared at the woods, his black eyes froze over, glazing cold and emotionless as he made his decision. He could not dwell on grief. All that was left to him was a life of travelling, through the woods and beyond. He was on his own.

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That morning, as the sun rose high, two rats went to sleep after a hard night, their black pelts keeping them warm. Though separated, inside each of them a seed of hope sprang alive, but with it the flower of dread.