C h a p t e r 11

So he and his sisters and mother left

Left their home to roam the wild streets

Left to find new dogs to join them

Left to find the weak

The downtrodden

The alone

He shifted his weight for the umpteenth time that night, trying to get comfortable on the few scraps of cloth that had become his nest. It was quickly proving to be an impossible task. He let out a quiet whuffle before opening his eyes to see the moonlight filtering through the broken windows, dappling the wooden floor in strange patterns.

The shack was bigger on the inside than it appeared from the outside, but only slightly; he still had dogs sleeping on either side of him, apparently peacefully. He felt the slightest prickle of jealousy.

Why is it that I can sleep outside in the middle of a field, but I can't fall asleep when I'm all warm and cozy in a safe little house? He twitched his nose with frustration and heaved himself to his paws. It was obvious that curling up in a ball and hoping for sleep wasn't getting him anywhere.

And then I am awfully curious about what went on between those three while I was gone, he thought with a glance in Felicity and Duke's direction, his expression gentling slightly as he gazed down on the dark brown female. She seemed much smaller when she was curled up next to Duke, her muzzle resting against his stomach. Her expression was calm and gentle, almost peaceful.

I wonder if Cora—His thought broke off as a quick look around the room revealed that Cora was not present. He frowned, wondering where she had gone; he turned towards the front door, which was still standing slightly ajar, and took a step forward before freezing as he saw Simon, whose muzzle was tilted towards him. Pancho felt a rush of relief as he realized the rusty dog was asleep, then felt a chill as he remembered their last conversation.

He's ambitious, scarily so…and he definitely doesn't like housepets, perhaps more so than everyone but Cora…getting in his way really isn't a good idea. I need to be careful, in case he snaps or something….

With another anxious glance towards the sleeping Scout, he slipped out the door—

-and let out a surprised yelp as he stumbled over a warm body, tumbling to the ground. He scrambled to his paws clumsily and blinked down at Ebony.

"That kinda hurt," she said with a playful growl and a twitch of her low-hanging ears. "What are you doing?"

"Sorry," he said, flushing with embarrassment. "I just needed some air. I couldn't sleep. I forgot you and Cooper are out here…where is he?"

"Out back," she replied. "Probably asleep, though, he's really tired." She yawned. "I'm really tired too, actually. Want to chill with me?"

"I was going to look for Cora, actually…it's probably dangerous for her to be on her own," he said. Ebony chuckled.

"Didn't you guys fight some Ripred dogs or something? Don't you know she can take care of herself?"

He couldn't help but smile back. "Yeah, she's pretty fierce…I guess I'm just being a bit nosy. Still, it doesn't feel right to leave her by herself. Do you know where she went?"

Ebony gave a feeble shrug. "Somewhere in that direction, I think?" She pointed with her muzzle into the field. "I'm not completely sure, though…."

He touched her shoulder with his nose. "Thanks. I'll go take a walk and look for her, I should be back soon."

"Keep an eye out for any Ripred dogs, okay?" she grinned at him, her white fangs sharp against her black fur. He nodded quickly, before trotting in the direction that she had indicated.

The weeds and grass grew thicker and taller as he went, about chest level. He sniffed the air hesitantly, but Cora's scent was faint. The dim moonlight wasn't much help either; the moon was smaller than it had been the night before.

He winced as he stepped on a small rock embedded in the soil, sending pain running up his leg; his paws were desperately sore from all of the running he had done, and he wished that his paw pads would simply toughen up so he didn't have to face a day of pain and misery each morning.

It was then that he went sprawling for the second time that night.

He found his nose pressed against the ground, soil collecting in both nostrils; he snorted and tried to raise his head to cough, only to find weight pressing down on his back. He yelped as one of the attacker's paws pressed against his shoulder where the Ripred dog had bitten him previously. Images flashed through his mind – a Ripred dog with a foaming mouth and bloody muzzle, bodies lying on the wood floor and staring ahead vacantly, Cora's bloody muzzle – and he squirmed with panic.

"Pancho?"

Cora's voice was sharp in his ear, and for a moment he realized, before realizing that there was a tinge of anger in her words. "What are you doing out here?"

"Please let me up," he whimpered. "My shoulder really hurts…."

He felt her weight shift off of his injured shoulder, but she still didn't let him up. "What are you doing? Why did you follow me?"

"I just wanted to make sure you were okay! I didn't think it was a good idea to just leave you out here!" he whined, still trying to wiggle out of her grasp.

"I don't think I asked anyone to come after me," she growled, her voice as sharp as a jagged thorn.

"I know, I know…please get off of me, it's really hard to breathe and there's all this dirt in my nose…." He winced as he realized that he sounded like a pathetic pup, but to his relief the weight lifted as Cora let him get up. Instead, he rolled onto his back, exposing his tender belly in an act of submission as he blinked up at her. "I didn't mean to bother you, and I'm sorry I tripped over you…I couldn't smell you, or see you…."

"Yeah. I doubled back to the creek to roll in mud so no one would be able to follow me. That worked out really well." She glared down at him, her eyes glittering dangerously in the silver light.

"Sorry. I wasn't trying to spy on you or anything, I just wanted to make sure you were okay."

She squinted at him. "Since when have housepets ever cared about our safety?"

He held in an exasperated sigh. "I wouldn't be here with you guys if I wasn't. I wouldn't be trying to help if I didn't care. Just because you're all strays doesn't mean I can't care, right?" He struggled to hold her gaze, but it was difficult; such intimidating authority glimmered in their dark depths. "Despite what you think, not all housepets are selfish."

She twitched her nose with irritation. "I suppose you've proved that by helping out…doesn't mean I like you, though, so don't get that idea. As soon as I can send you off, I will. With glee."

The ends of his mouth twitched into a smile. "I've got no doubts about that." Then, he cocked his head to one side. "Okay, we've established what I was doing. What were you doing out here?"

"Who says I have to tell a Collared what I'm doing out here?" she snapped, her hackles raising.

"You have to admit, it's a little weird being in the middle of this field all by yourself, in the dark," he pointed out defensively. She looked away from him, looking up to the moon.

"If you must know, I was praying to Growl," she said, her voice icy.

"What about?"

She growled at him, and he winced again. "Sorry, didn't mean to sound nosy."

Her glare faltered as pain flashed in her eyes; she looked away quickly, but not quickly enough to mask her grief. Pancho rolled over and sat up, edging closer to her, sensing her sorrow.

"I know you have to put up a strong front with everyone else," he said, his voice soft. "You've got to be a dependable First and all…but you don't have to with me. I can't judge your leadership or anything like that. And I won't tell anyone if you show weakness. You can trust me."

"I don't want to trust a Collared," she said, but her voice was splintering like glass. She suddenly ducked her head, her ears lowered.

"Then don't think of me as one," he said simply. "Think of me as…as a friend, I guess. Or if not a friend, maybe a…confidant? Like I said, all this First stuff…I don't know anything about it. I can't judge you based on what I think a leader should be. To me, a leader is just the dog with the biggest house and nicest People." He smiled, but Cora didn't so much as twitch her nose at his joke.

"I don't want to talk to anyone about it," she said. "Least of all a Shim…but you were the only one there, the only one with me when…when we found everyone, when Solomon died, when Tanner…." She took in a shaky breath. "I've been dreaming of them the past three nights. They keep asking me why I haven't taken revenge yet, what I'm waiting for…if I've deserted them, or if I'm too much of a coward to avenge them…they're saying they can't find peace until their murderers are put to justice…." She gave a feeble shake of her head.

"They're just dreams, Cora, they aren't real. Their spirits should be at peace in the Wild Forest with Growl, right?"

"But what if they aren't just dreams? The dead are said to visit us sometimes in our sleep. How do I know that it's not really them? How can I tell between dreamed memories and their real spirits? I've been praying every night to Growl to let them find peace and to let me sleep, but..."

He hesitated, before reaching out to touch her shoulder with his nose. "I didn't know Solomon very well, but I don't think that he's the type to remind you of your failings, or to accuse you of being a coward. He said that he believed you would be a good leader, that you would do the right thing. I think he would be patient, that he would encourage you…not try to tear you down. If he does ever really visit you, I think he'll have nothing but good to say. That's how you'll know."

She took in another shivery breath, before glancing at him, her eyes lacking their usual sharp, cutting edge. "Thank you."

He nodded and she pulled away, rising to her paws and giving her coat a good shake. He smiled and rose too, only to freeze as she fixed him with her gaze. "If you ever breathe a word to this to anyone…."

"I won't," he said quickly, and she looked away, tilting her muzzle towards the sky.

"Do housepets believe the dead can come to them?"

"No, not really…if they could, I think I would have seen Jake. He would have visited me at least once. We were good friends before…."

"He's the one you mentioned before, right? When we were talking that first night?" she inquired. He inclined his head. "I think I interrupted you before you said much. What was he like? What killed him?"

He blinked uncertainly, almost fearing that she would suffer a sudden change of heart and bite his head off. "Do you really want to know?"

She bobbed her head, and he sat back down. "Well, um…he was an old dog that lived next door to me. He was yellow, but when I knew him his muzzle was sort of gray-white…he was really old, at least for a big dog…they don't live all that long, you know. But I never really saw him as frail or old, not until he died...When I was young, sometimes I'd talk to him in the mornings and evenings through the fence. He had all sorts of stories and advice about handling Bunny, my Girl." He paused, hoping that the mention of People wouldn't throw her off. Cora was still looking upwards, but she didn't try to stop him, and her ears were pricked.

"We were really close…he was kind and gentle and wise…but then one day, out of the blue, his special Person left. His name was Big Tim." He watched her for a moment. "You might not know it, but every housepet has a special Person, their very favorite in the whole house. And that special Person usually has a name from their dog, a special name, something that shows how much they love them. Jake called his Person Big Tim because when Big Tim unwrapped him during his yearly celebration, he was sitting on this big chair, and he was so surprised that he dropped the box…so the first thing Jake saw was his Person, Tim, towering over him in a huge chair."

"Yours was Bunny, right?" Cora angled her head towards him. "Did her name come from that rabbit you were carrying around?"

He ducked his head, staring down at his bloodstained tan paws. "Yeah."

"What was so special about it? Lots of People pamper their slaves with fluffy toys." She flinched at the harsh note in her own voice. "Sorry, that was a little sharper than I intended."

He dipped his head, accepting her apology wordlessly. "I can't remember very much about when I was a pup. Sometimes I have weird dreams that feel kind of like memories, but they're just bits and pieces…my first real memory is being found by my People and named. But when they took me in, I was terrified. I didn't know who they were or where my parents were, if I had any, or how I had gotten to their house. I didn't know what they were going to do with me at the time…I was scared.

"Bunny took me to her room despite the protests of her parents. Bunny's Mother didn't want me, but Bunny cried and cried…I didn't know what any of it meant, though, I was too little and confused. So Bunny took me to her room and tried to sleep with me but I was too scared. I squirmed and cried and yelped too, causing a ruckus all through the night, calling for my mother and father and whoever else could hear….Her Mother and Father weren't happy about that.

"They took me to a strange place the next day, a scary place. Everything was white and shiny and they put me on a strange table that made my belly ache, it was so cold. And another Person dressed all in white poked and prodded me and stuck things in me. And he yelled when I peed all over the place because I was so scared and I didn't know what else to do.

"Bunny's family took me home and again I cried all through the night. Bunny tried keeping me in her bed but I peed there too, and then Bunny's Mother came in and yelled some more and shook her fist and was terrifying. And Bunny's Father was angry too, but he didn't say as much. Bunny cried and pleaded with them – to keep me, I guess – and they relented, but I had to stay in a tiny crate in a dark room all by myself, which was even worse than being with Bunny. At least with her I was warm and had someone to hold me; in the crate my only company was the sound of dripping water.

"They kept me there all the next day, while they were gone doing whatever People usually do during the day. When Bunny came home, she let me out. The first thing I did was run for freedom; I ran straight into a glass door, and nearly knocked myself out. She held me and tried to soothe me, but nothing made me feel better.

"And then she and Bunny's Mother left again that day, leaving me in the crate. When Bunny came back, she had something odd, a little box. She let me out and I ran into the glass door again – even with the pounding in my head, I didn't remember that I couldn't go through it. She cradled me and tried to soothe me again, but when that didn't work, she gave me the rabbit. And I chewed on it a little as she held me, and just like that, the pain went away…." His eyes grew misty at the memory. "And I saw the love in her eyes when she looked down at me, and the gentleness in her hands as she held me and rubbed my poor head, and after that I wasn't afraid anymore." He sighed quietly. "I don't remember very many things. My memory is really poor…I couldn't tell you how long it took me to realize that I couldn't run through the glass door. Sometimes I still have that urge. But Bunny giving me that rabbit…it's one of the few things I can remember really perfectly. I can picture it in my mind any time. I can see her and her kind eyes and soft hands and the feel of the rabbit's fur in my mouth, and the fear just leaving my little body completely…and it's wonderful."

Cora said nothing for a long time, so long that he almost feared she had fallen asleep with her eyes open. Then, she cocked her head to one side, and simply watched him. He resisted the urge to shuffle his paws or shift his weight, and instead stared back at her firmly, as if daring her to doubt the truth in his story.

"That's…not like anything I've ever heard," she said. "Most ex-housepets, when they talk about their People…it's terrible."

"I guess the difference is that I'm not an ex-housepet," he answered, attempting a smile. To his surprise, Cora smiled back.

"Solomon liked saying that there was more than we knew about the housepets, but there were too many horror stories for me to ever believe him."

"Tanner," Pancho said, summing it all up in a single word; Cora's eyes darkened.

"Yeah. Like Tanner's story. I don't understand how…how the same creatures that did what they did to him and his mother could also be the same kind that were so kind to you."

"I wondered about that myself," he confessed. "I actually doubted Bunny a bit…maybe I still do, I don't know. I don't understand how People can all be so different, but…as long as there are People like Bunny in this city and this world, I don't think I can give up hope on them."

"I…I, um…." Cora paused, looking as though she was having trouble coughing something up. "I'm sorry. About the stuff I said. You're just a house…no, I guess I shouldn't say that either. You were raised by kind, loving People. You've never known any that aren't like that, and it was cruel of me to tell you about Tanner's mother. You weren't ready for it, and it didn't help either of us….So, yeah. I'm sorry."

She looked embarrassed, then startled as his tail thumped against the ground. She quickly glanced away from him and began staring up at the moon once more, which was a great deal higher than it had been when they had started talking.

"If you love Bunny so much, what are you doing out here? Just out of curiosity."

"I'm looking for her," he answered. She stopped staring at the moon long enough to give him a quizzical look.

"What do you mean?"

"Well…let me finish what I was saying before, about Jake. He grew up with Big Tim; they were almost the same age, although of course People grow more slowly than dogs do. Years-wise, they were only a few apart. Anyway, one day, out of the blue, Big Tim just…left. Jake waited a few days, hoping for him to come back – sometimes that happens, after all, since People are busy creatures and all – but Big Tim didn't come. Time passed and passed and still Big Tim didn't come…and Jake was convinced that he had been abandoned. And after that, he just…just lost the will to live, I guess. Like I said, he was an old dog and it was remarkable that he lived as long as he did…but when Big Tim was gone, Jake didn't have anything to live for. So we talked one last time, and he told me the 'warning signs' of when my own Person would leave. And then he died."

"Let me guess, Bunny was starting to show the signs?"

He dipped his head. "Yes. All of them. It started off really slowly, I didn't really notice it at first, but when she first started driving her own car…that's when I knew that she would leave. And I decided I had to see where she went during the day, so I'd know where she was when she left permanently."

"But how did you get out?"

"I dug," he replied, showing her one paw; there was still tried mud between his toes. "It took a long time and it was really hard, but I managed. And when she drove off one morning, I followed her…or tried. I got stuck, and then she was too fast…and before I knew what had happened, I got lost." He gave a feeble shrug.

"That's all…more impressive than anything I've heard about other housepets," Cora said. "Almost…noble. In a housepet sort of way."

He flushed under his fur. "Thanks, I guess?"

"I don't give out compliments lightly," she said with just the slightest hint of a smile. "You should be practically licking my paws right about now. Speaking of, yours aren't looking so good."

He winced. "Yeah. They kinda…really hurt."

"I bet." She stood once more. "Come with me. We'll head over to the creek and get some mud on those. It's really soothing, and sometimes you can get it to stay for awhile so your pads don't get all scraped up. It's kinda uncomfortable, but better than raw pads, and it'll give you time to heal."

His tail wagged back and forth. "Sounds good to me."

Her smile was a little wider this time, and she looked almost as if she was going to say anything, before she gave herself a little shake and trotted forward. He hurried after her, trying not to lose her lithe black-and-white shape in the grass.

Their pawsteps were silent as they hurried over the soft, crumbling soil together, but their passage was anything but; with every movement, the grass rustled around them, making Pancho self-conscious. He kept looking over his shoulder as if an enemy was about to lunge out at them, fangs bared and eyes wild. He repressed a quiver. He didn't want to show Cora any weakness now, not when she was finally opening up to him.

A breeze rustled the grass around them, ruffling up his fur; he tilted his head slightly, enjoying the sensation of the wind rubbing over him like fingers on his ears. He missed the sensation of Bunny's touch, but for now the breeze would have to do.

Cora stiffened as they neared the Haven; it took him a moment to see why, but when he did his heartbeat began thudding in his ears.

Near the entrance to the Haven, the pack had gathered; they seemed to be in a circle, bristling and growling at something that Pancho couldn't see. He was intimidated by how terrifying some of them looked; even young Ebony had her fangs bared and eyes narrowed.

Cora increased her pace, loping towards the group. "What is going on?"

Heads turned towards her, but only one broke away from the group to head towards them. Pancho shrank back as he realized the fluffy red fur and large build. Simon's eyes narrowed in dislike, but he quickly turned his attention to Cora.

"It's an outsider. We don't know who he is," he reported. "He's got a pup with him."

She frowned. "A pup? What's with all the males around here and pups?" She shook her head. "Do we know anything about him at all?"

"All we know is that he wants to speak to you and only you," Simon replied. "And…he smells of Magpies."

Cora's eyes widened and she strode forward, pushing her way through the circle of dogs effortlessly. Pancho hurried after her, only to find his path blocked by Simon, who glared at him wordlessly. Pancho attempted to skirt around him, wiggling in between Duke and Stele, the latter of which gave him the smallest of smiles before returning his gaze to the newcomer.

The first thing that struck Pancho was the newcomer's fur; it was thick and shiny white, without a single speck of dirt or bit of grime. The second was his build; he was large, but not bulky, and although he was well muscled he still had a somewhat lean appearance. His tail curled over his back; his ears were tall and as proud as a wolf's; his face was nobly built and firm. His eyes were blue, almost like Simon's, but they reminded Pancho more of ice than anything, like a frozen river that ran over anything in its path.

In the stranger's jobs was a little pup, a black-and-white furball that was silent, although its dark, liquid eyes were wide open. It seemed to be trembling just barely in the stranger's jaws, although Pancho wasn't sure whether it was scared of the white male or dogs surrounding the pair of them.

Then, he sniffed the air, and realized what Simon had meant; the outsider carried with him the smell of the scrapyard, the odd scent of rubber, metal, and other dogs. But there were other scents too, interwoven with one another; if the scents had been sounds, they would have formed an overwhelming cacophony. It was impossible to discern where this new dog was actually from, if he had a home or pack at all.

"Who are you?" Cora demanded, facing the stranger with her usual fearless expression.

The stranger lowered the pup to the ground; it huddled against his legs silently. "That depends. Are you Cora, the First of the Swiftstrike pack?"

"I am," she answered, a note of suspicion in her voice. "No one should know that, though. How did you find us? What do you want?"

"It's not important, and very little," he replied. "You should be asking what I can do for you."

Cora bared her fangs. "I'm not asking you a damn thing. You can explain yourself without any further prompting from me."

The stranger surveyed her with a strange expression, as if he was sizing her up; his cool eyes flicked over her, but Pancho couldn't tell by his expression whether or not Cora had passed his private inspection. "You may call me Ryker," he answered. "Before you ask, I am not from the Magpies. This little one, however, is." He nudged the pup with one paw.

"Why did you bring a Magpie pup here? She isn't…hers, is she?" Cora looked down at the pup with an odd mixture of uncertainty and something that almost looked like fear.

"She is Magpie-born, but not from their leader," Ryker said. "I believe she is Siren's daughter. The Magpies do not want her. They were hoping for a male, which she obviously is not."

"A male?"

"They believe they need a male to complete their group…it's some part of their ritual, I won't pretend to understand it." Ryker's voice was smooth and calm, but it was neither high-pitched nor deep; it seemed as level as his gaze, as calm as the tides. "I figured if any pack would take good care of her, it would be yours, considering your…connection to the Magpies."

Cora bristled. "I don't know what you mean by that."

Ryker smiled, then shrugged. "Have it your way. Will you take her in?"

Cora looked down at the pup again. "Siren's daughter, you said?"

He nodded, and she looked to Felicity. "Would you mind taking care of her, as you have Lily and Portia?"

Felicity tilted her head to glance at Duke, and he nodded. Felicity nodded as well, before stepping forward to take the pup. The black-and-white pup let out a frightened whimper and tried to crawl behind Ryker's legs, but he moved back to allow Felicity to take her. The dark brown female trotted into the shack, disappearing within.

"What else do you want? You didn't wait for me just to pass on a pup," Cora growled. "I'll ask you again: How did you know I'm alive? How did you know that I'm leading the Swiftstrike pack?"

"The First of the Goldgleam pack knows you are alive," Ryker said simply. "And it only makes sense that if the Heir is alive that she would become the First."

"Coyle told you? Does he know you?"

"No." Ryker's voice remained calm. "He did not tell me and I doubt that he knows me, or at least he does not know that he does. I heard it from the howls exchanged between your Scouts and the Goldgleam pack's."

"But they were in code, weren't they?" Cora looked to Selena for confirmation, and the slim Scout dipped her head.

"Who else would the Goldgleam pack be attempting to contact, but you? I told you, it's of little consequence how I found you. What is important is what I have to share with you."

Cora opened her mouth, only to turn as a loud baying assaulted their ears; Cora's eyes widened further than Pancho had ever seen and fear – real, bare, painful fear – rippled over her face.

"Inside, now!" she barked. "Everyone, go!"

The baying grew louder, and Pancho stopped breathing. He recognized the howls. How could he not? They were the same howls that had alerted Cora days before. They were the same howls that had signaled the ruin of the Swiftstrike pack.

AN: Pancho buddy, you've got the worst luck in the whole world, you know that? Just when things were starting to go good….

54,838 words~!