Chapter XX

Fate is the determiner of choices to be made. Inevitability, of when those choices will coincide.

~The Forest Hag, the Freshwater Undine of the North, the East Wind Sylph, the Southern Ash Gnome, Salamander of the West, Djinn of the Mountains, Baba Yaga, Kali, Cernunna, Simurgh, Morgan le Fay, Spider Woman, Polaris, Solar-san. Other aliases to come.

Both Chief Itan and the Tsar Remus paced around the trees, uneasily.

"I'll say this – it was YOUR cub who brought that Human into the forest." The Wolf Chief growled. The Tiger Tsar extended his claws and scratched at the ground.

"Other Humans brought him here. I firmly believe that if Silus had not intercepted him, he would have done more harm to this forest than if he had not."

Chief Itan snarled in a way that could have been a sneering laugh.

"That means nothing for how the forest is, now. You could sit and remain calm, perhaps – I heard each tree cry out as they crumbled under that demon. I'll bet you Tigers wouldn't last a day if you had to feel what we wolves had to."

Out of the branches over their heads, a rattling shower of sticks came down, as though an army were throwing their spears. Chief Itan ducked out of the way, then barked up into the trees.

"Baboo! Is this how the apes greet their fellows?" Tsar Remus chuffed, lifting his paws to bat the sticks away from his face. Up in the branches, both the heads of the Tiger and Wolf clans heard an undulating cackle.

"I caught wind there was a Sponger Human in the forest tonight. Where he at?" Baboo called. Tsar Remus sneered, but said nothing.

"Where have you been?" Chief Itan growled, "He's been here for a five moons. That half-Human spawn of yours already tried stealing his eyeballs and accompanied him to the Human forest to retrieve my son's head."

"I know that!" The Ape howled, irritably, "I wanna know where he be at, now."

"Back to the Human forest. Or did you not notice the destruction done by the Mora?" Tsar Remus sat down and reclined, making himself comfortable.

"Is that what it was?"

"You useless, chattering apes!" Chief Itan growled with his lips mostly closed.

They were interrupted as Tsar Remus stuck his head straight up and sniffed the air. Chief Itan and even Baboo up in the tree stopped their squabbling enough to turn their attention to what it was the Tiger Tsar smelled.

"Is it the Kaiser?" Baboo finally asked. Chief Itan also crouched down, ready to pounce or sit, whichever might be needed. The ground shook, just a little, then stilled, then shook again. In the distance, all of them could hear a sound like thunder rolling from a miles off storm.

"Hmm... I thought Kaiser Tarrant had gone South with his sounder. Why's he returning, alone?" The Wolf Chief muttered, more to himself than asking either of the other two.

"Because we received word that the Tsar of the Tiger clan wanted all seven of us to gather." Came a voice from the gloom of the pine trees just on the other side of the clearing. Chief Itan's head swiveled, his ears pricking forward and his tongue lolling out of his mouth with obvious pleasure at the sound of the voice.

"Well, Lord Hart – didn't think we'd be seeing you again so quickly." It wasn't the joy of greeting a friend. Rather, it was closer to the delight at seeing a favorite kind of candy on display.

"Stay back, Wolf." Lord Hart's voice, though gentle and soft by nature, still commanded firmly. Chief Itan's back haunches inevitably sat, "My people are still in mourning."

Stooping his head, Chief Itan's ears folded back, briefly.

"My pups told me – they saw what those rats did to one of your kind." He agreed, "The Wolf Tribe offers it's sympathies." Lord Hart said nothing. "How did you hear so quickly? I figured on Baboo – he's an ape – but I didn't send one of my pack to alert any of you."

Over their heads, there was a rustling, flapping noise. A single, long, gleaming orange feather came floating down from the treetops.

"Oh."

"His grace, Herodutus." Lord Hart said, even after Chief Itan had already understood.

"Guess that means we be waitin' on..." Baboo started, but let out a loud shriek and pounced out of his tree and into another, "GEEZUS! Naga, don't you be sneaking up on me, no more." The branches of the trees bent and rustled, as if something large and heavy was being laid on them like a heavy rope or chain, "Where you been, anyhow?"

The branches started to rustle again, this time as though something were jumping up and down on them. The noise it made almost sounded like a rolling tide on a beach and the way the leaves shook, it looked like ripples in the trees. Baboo groaned, then peered down at the Tiger Tsar.

"Remus, man... could you..." Tsar Remus cleaned his paws, then smugly sat back.

"He's been to the Ocean of Milk." He said, simply. Baboo spat, then started screeching again.

"I don't like depending on nobody for nothing. 'Specially not a..."

"Now." All of them stopped speaking, immediately. The voice hadn't been like any of theirs – it was a female voice, for one. For another, they all knew how they heard each other. They spoke with their voices, and listened with their ears. This voice seemed to speak directly into a place inside of them. It was as though the physical body had no meaning for the owner of the voice, "It is not becoming to quarrel when a High Council has been called."

Tsar Remus stooped his head, slightly.

"It's only in our nature to not get along. You understand, Baba?" This was the only one whom the Tiger Tsar ever bowed his head to.

"It is in the nature of Humans to do what they can to survive, even if it means they must crush all others underfoot." She said, "If you and your clan wish to separate from Humans, entirely, you must remember that nature is no excuse if you do not pardon others for similar offenses."

None of the seven could say anything to that.

"Then, Spider Woman... this Human... does that mean he is...?" Chief Itan asked.

"Yes." She replied, not needing any further words from the Wolf Chief, "The."

Both the Chief of the Wolf Tribe and the Tsar of the Tiger Clan lowered themselves completely to the ground, as though overcome with shame.

"But... he's still too trapped in the world of Humans." The Hag continued, even as the breeze started to puff in gusts and swirl around the trees leaves and branches, "He cannot escape from them, no matter how hard he tries. We shall have to break those bonds, as quickly as we can."

"Me and my clan can get in and outta that forest in leaf turns. And you should see my little tail go at it – he know that place bettera'na Humans, theyselves." Baboo interjected, excitedly, "We could get him in and out before anyone've us sheds another hair."

The Polaris tutted.

"Now, now." She spoke still softly and gently. It was enough to calm Baboo, "If we do so in such a brusque manner, that risks damaging the little bit we've already retrieved from the Humans. If we truly want to do this properly, we need to do so with subtlety and caution."

None of the seven spoke for a long time. Finally, Lord Hart dared to ask.

"What would you advise, then, Lady le Fay?"

She didn't answer directly. In the silence, a brown, dying leaf snapped off a tree branch and floated down to the forest floor. All seven of them heard the soft pat as it landed among the ivy growing between the grass roots.

"I would advise we move slowly." She finally said, as if that were not obvious enough, then continued, "I would advise continuing to expose him to the forest. Let him learn the ways of the clans he already has met. Let true nature draw him away from the Humans."

Tsar Remus, Chief Itan, and even the impertinent Baboo all bowed their heads.

"We shall do our best to persuade our cubs." Tsar Remus promised, for all of them.

"Then, we must gather the other twelve. Only then will everything become clear and the future finally set into motion."

There was a gust. The leaves on the trees rattled, and all their branches parted at once, as though to allow passage for a great being through them, into the sky.

All seven of the clan leaders turned to leave. Walking the way they'd come, Chief Itan heard Tsar Remus chuckling. There was a remarkably Wolfish grin on his face, for a Tiger.

"This should prove to be interesting." He murmured.

To be continued in:

Eradica Vita