Chapter One

Order Syl

Ragen had witnessed Selm's return.

Order Syl's leader had gone to the Noct Mountains to speak with Willard Frost, the leader of Order Alucard. As the two Orders were allies, they often planned out battle strategies together. And if anything of import had been decided on, the Riders, such as Ragen himself, would soon be called upon.

Ragen continued on his way, wondering what the leaders had discussed and if he should prepare Brier for a journey to Selm's fortress. He had just been on his way to feed the Kitred, when he had spotted their leader.

The woods were huge, and Brier could be anywhere. Ragen began calling for Brier as he made his way down the path. His view was impeded on all sides by trees, shrubs, and brambles. And to a dwarf like Ragen, even the shortest obstructions could offer a challenge.

Then he felt it. A strange, yet familiar pressure in his head, followed by an inclination to turn left. Ragen knew Brier was nearby, otherwise he would not have sensed him. By now, the Kitred had probably sensed Ragen as well.

Ragen's right hand inadvertently brushed against a tree trunk. He attempted to resist the temptation to stop and touch the tree with his left hand as well. But the more he fought it, the more it bugged him, and Ragen finally gave in.

He stopped, faced the tree, brushed it with his left hand, and experienced an unexplainable sense of comfort.

When he turned back around to continue his journey, Ragen saw that Brier had just arrived. His fiery fur stirring in the slight breeze gave it the illusion of candle flames swaying in the wind. The large fox bounded toward Ragen, but stopped short of jumping on him; for Brier was far bigger than his Dwarven Rider, and could easily knock Ragen over.

Every animal of every Order had a specific ability that they were better at than the others. Brier was the strongest physically, and one of the largest Kitreds.

Ragen approached his companion and Brier licked his face

Ragen smiled and scratched Brier behind the ears. Then he pulled out a pouch and poured some food pellets onto the ground. Brier eagerly ate up the pellets as Ragen attached Brier's saddle and reins. Then he climbed onto the Kitred's back, just as the horn sounded. Selm's alarm; Order Syl's leader was calling upon the Riders.

Brier automatically began heading for the fortress. Kitreds knew the signal as well as the humans, dwarves, and den cats. Halfway to Selm's fortress, Ragen and Brier came across Jyeer. Like Selm, and Ragen himself, Jyeer was a dwarf; he was also the oldest dwarf, and Order Syl's Riding professor.

For he was seventy-two years old; twenty-four years older than Ragen. Of course, this was only by human calculations. In Dwarven years, Jyeer was one-thousand and eighty years old; Ragen was seven-hundred and twenty.

However, Jyeer's snow-white hair and beard did not make him look old, but wise. And wise he was.

Jyeer was on foot, and limping at that.

"Hello, Jyeer." Ragen greeted him. "Where's Ember?"

"Still recovering from a broken hind paw that he suffered in the last battle." Jyeer said.

This explained why Jyeer was limping; he was suffering his Kitred's injury. No matter which Order they came from, the bond between Riders and their animals was so powerful, that they could feel each other's pain and emotions. The animals could even take on any sorrowful feelings that their Riders may be bearing, and lift the grief a bit. And when a Rider died, half of the animal died with him or her, and vice versa.

"Want a lift?" Ragen asked him.

"If you and Brier don't mind." Jyeer responded.

"Not at all."

Brier knelt for Jyeer to climb aboard, and he sat behind Ragen, as the Kitred stood and resumed their journey.

"My students just learned the last techniques that Selm instructed us to learn." Jyeer said as Brier trotted along. "If she has something new every time, Riding school is going to become Tactics School."

"Perhaps Selm only needs to tell us about strategies and positions for the next battle." Ragen suggested.

"Perhaps." Jyeer agreed. "I hope you're right."

"Ragen! Professor!" A voice from behind them, made Ragen pull Brier to a halt.

He and Jyeer turned to see Nadi and Frieda Woods. Two of Order Syl's two human Riders. At nineteen, Nadi was already a Rider, and her younger sister, sixteen-year-old Frieda, was a student of Jyeer's. Nadi's Kitred, Jessamine, was the Kitred with the best hearing; Frieda's Kitred, Vine, was the best jumper.

Something that Frieda decided to demonstrate. "Professor, watch this." She pulled on Vine's reins and said, "Tree jump."

Vine ran toward the nearest tree, took a flying leap, bounced off of the trunk, and headed to the next tree. He jumped off of that tree's trunk as well and kept going. From tree to tree, Vine leapt, bouncing off of the trunks and bounding over to the next one.

Ragen thought it was rather impressive, and apparently so did Jyeer. He smiled and said, "Well done Frieda, and well done Vine! That was perfect!"

A third voice chimed in then with, "You have every right to be proud, Jyeer."

Everyone turned around to see Wilo, another Dwarven Rider approaching them on the back of his Kitred, Ivy. "Your students are beginning to show up the old-timers like ourselves."

"I may teach them," Jyeer began, "but it's the student and the Kitred that gain the greatest achievement."

The five of them carried on, discussing techniques and such, until Selm's fortress came into view. They went inside, and to the meeting hall on the right. They entered to find three other Riders already assembled.

Deran Twiggs, a human Rider who was also the Kitred Care professor, was there with Fennec. Udu, the head Rider was also present with Vulpin, the Kitred known for his agility. And Nimel, a Rider and the Kitred Keeper, was attendant with his Kitred, Fyr, also known as Fyr the Fighter. Udu and Nimel were both dwarves as well.

Ragen and the other four greeted everyone else as they climbed off of their Kitreds and sat down in the surrounding chairs. The Kitreds curled up at the feet of their respective Riders.

Deran questioned Jyeer about Ember's paw.

"It's getting better." Jyeer answered. "The pain has lessened anyhow. Ember still has to stay off of it whenever possible, but she can walk whenever it's necessary. That medicine that you gave me for Ember has really helped, and the Mage Folk have made some helpful potions as well."

A Dwarven Riding student, Cula, entered atop Eglantine, the stealthiest Kitred. She was shortly followed by the fourth human Rider, Tod Sticks and the fastest Kitred, Brambles.

Their assembly now complete, Selm called the meeting to order.

"Willard Frost and I have decided to attack Order Elgrans tomorrow at nightfall." Selm informed them. "They won't be expecting us after dark and we can catch them off guard. The Valcors have learned new techniques, and we have developed some new ones for the Kitreds as well."

To his right, Ragen heard Jyeer grumble something under his breath, before raising a hand.

Selm looked over at him. "Yes, Jyeer?"

"Excuse me, ma'am," Jyeer began, "but one day is not nearly enough time for learning new techniques. My students just achieved the tactics from our last meeting."

Selm casted a sympathetic gaze on the professor. "I understand your concerns. And I know that Ember's injury makes the training sessions all the more difficult. However, I don't expect you to learn the complete strategies by tomorrow night. I will explain them to you today so that your students may pick up on the basics.

"These new skills though are not nearly as difficult as the ones that were developed last time. Instruct your students in the simpler parts by tomorrow evening, and work on the complete maneuvers afterward."

Jyeer nodded and made no further comments. Apparently, he found these terms reasonable.

The meeting continued for another twenty-five minutes and concluded with the starting positions of each Rider. After which, dwarves and humans alike boarded their respective Kitreds and left. Jyeer and Udu remained behind to learn about the new Kitred techniques.

"I wonder what we'll learn next." Cula mused as she, Ragen, and the other six Riders left the fortress. "The things that we learned last time were fun."

"They were so complex." Frieda put in. "They were difficult to learn at first. What if these are the same way?"

"You'll do fine." Nadi told her. "You always do."

"It's like I said," Wilo put in, "you students are beginning to make the rest of us look like novices."

"They're learning more advanced moves than we ever did." Deran said. "Old Fennec here wouldn't even be able to keep up anymore."

Deran scratched his Kitred behind the ears. Fennec was the oldest Kitred and while he was still a great fighter, he was always exhausted afterward. Ragen knew that Deran worried about Fennec during battle; Deran had said so himself. His age made the Kitred a bit more fragile against the fangs and claws of Sebars, not to mention the swords and arrows of the humans, elves, and zaltaurs. He always wore the strong and thick Kitred armor, but if anything were to penetrate the armor, Fennec would be in trouble.

Little by little everyone dispersed, heading in various different directions to go home. Soon enough, only Nimel and Ragen were left as they lived in the same area.

"I'll bet Fyr can't wait to get into this battle tomorrow. He could take a bite or two out of those ferals." Nimel declared, using the offensive term that members of Orders Alucard and Syl used for members of Order Elgrans.

Accordingly, the members of Order Elgrans had their own terms for their enemies: those of Order Syl were called mongrels, and Order Alucard were traitors, ever since they broke their alliance with Order Elgrans and began fighting alongside Order Syl.

"And those large felines of theirs too!" Nimel continued.

Ragen gave an inward sigh. Nimel had always been this way. He was arrogant as it was, but even more so when it came to battles. This trait was picked up by Fyr, which oftentimes made the Kitred overconfident.

Ragen, on the other hand, wished that all of the fighting would just stop. Everyone in Order Syl—and Order Elgrans too—prayed to Druros, the spirit of the forest. And before every battle, they prayed for victory. Ragen was the exception in this rite as well; he prayed for peace instead. And as far as he knew, he was the only one.

No one else even thought about peace. It was always about winning, as long as there was victory, nothing else mattered. Even in times of loss and defeat, everyone was counting on victory the next time.

The entire war was a conquest for land, yet to Ragen, the land looked large enough for all three Orders to peacefully coexist. Orders Syl and Elgrans already had half of the forest land for their respective Orders' territories, but each Order wanted the entire forest. Although Order Syl's deal with Order Alucard was that upon final victory over Order Elgrans, Order Alucard could have their half of the forest.

At least Order Retond had the decency to remain neutral. Ragen thought to himself. The fourth Order had been offered terms for an alliance by each of the other three, but Order Retond wisely stayed out of the entire thing.

Ragen never told anyone about his prayer for peace. He knew that the others would scoff and laugh at the idea, and the indignity of their mocking attitudes toward something so innocent and beneficial to all, would only infuriate Ragen.

Nimel was still going on about how spectacularly he and Fyr were going to fight in tomorrow night's battle, when they reached his house and Nimel departed. By then, Ragen was rather glad to be rid of him.

Ragen continued and arrived at his home just as Selm's signal for the Warriors and Soldiers sounded. For she would have to meet with them next, and after them, with the Mage Folk.

Ragen let Brier go off into the woods, and then turned to go inside, yet not without first touching both sides of his doorframe three times before entering.

And later tonight, he and Brier would go into the woods together, and ask Druros for peace.

The following evening, just as the sun was slipping below the horizon, Ragen and Brier, both of them armored and battle-ready, headed to their starting point.

He passed Wilo and Nadi, who sat atop Ivy and Jessamine respectively. The Kitreds stood to the right edge of the border between Order Syl's territory and Order Elgrans'; while Jyeer and Nimel, along with Ember and Fyr, stood to the left side.

Halfway between the border, and Ragen's starting point, Deran waited with Fennec. Everyone that Ragen passed whispered wishes of luck, which Ragen returned. They also gave encouraging words of victory, which Ragen ignored.

Ragen reached his space and glanced over at the clearing to his left. Frieda was stationed there with Vine, and she waved to Ragen when he looked over. Ragen waved back and then settled in to await the signal to begin moving. Through the armor of the Riders and their Kitreds, Ragen would not have known who was who, if he did not know everyone's starting points.

He figured that Cula, Udu, and Tod were now in position as well. They and their Kitreds were beginning at the bottom of the Noct Mountains and riding in with Order Alucard's first group.

A clanking sound was heard, and soon enough the silhouettes of armored Warriors and Soldiers were seen skirting around as they made their way over to their starting places.

This was followed by the shadows of armored Den Cats prowling into place.

Den Cats were another species of Order Syl, along with the humans, dwarves, and Kitreds.

They were the size of a mountain lion and just as sinewy and muscular. They were the same golden-brown color as well, yet with small, circular black spots and bobbed tails. Their ears were long, upright, and tufted at the tips.

They could look intimidating, but were only fierce in battle or in self defense. They spoke aloud to anyone else, but when in conversation with each other, Den Cats usually communicated telepathically.

Felar, a Den Cat who was also a Mage student, was stationed near Ragen.

"Be careful out there tonight." Felar whispered to Ragen.

"You too."

"Time to bring Order Syl another victory." Felar declared.

Ragen gave no response to this statement.

Now it was nearly time.

Ragen climbed off of Brier and walked three times clockwise around the nearest trees. It was one of the many rituals that Ragen possessed and this one he always did right before a battle. If he did not do it, he felt that it would cause Brier, himself, or someone else that Ragen cared about, to either get injured, or possibly even killed.

Somewhere in his subconscious, Ragen knew that his fears were irrational, that it really did not make any sense. But he also knew that if he did not walk around the tree, three times in a clockwise manner, he would feel very uncomfortable and worrisome. He also would not fight as well.

Ragen wondered about the many things he did, rituals he performed, things that he feared. They were not a part of any religion, nor were they things that all dwarves, or all members Order Syl, did. In fact, as far as Ragen knew, there was not anyone else like him in any of the Orders. No one else had to do everything in multiples of three, constantly wash their hands, or tediously organize things until they were perfectly straight.

When others asked him about his behavior, he did not have any cohesive answer to give them.

"I just have to." He always told them. And if they asked him why, all Ragen could do, was shrug and say, "I don't know why; I just have to."

Ragen often imagined how his life would be were it not influenced by these uncontrollable urges. He would feel free; like a newly-released prisoner. And it would be a terrific sensation. But for Ragen, it was only fantasy.

He had tried, on numerous occasions, to fight these urges. But the feelings of anxiety, discomfort, and disorganization that followed his resistance always got the better of him.

No one nearby stared at Ragen, nor questioned him, as he climbed back into Brier's saddle. They were all used to this unique behavior by now.

Those in Order Syl had long since refrained from questioning Ragen's Rituals, as they liked to call it. It was a phrase that did not hold any mocking or disdain in it; it was merely something to call his peculiar actions. As long as there was not any ill intent in their naming his condition, Ragen would not challenge it. And Ragen's Rituals was a very fitting name as it was.

Order Syl's members never seemed to notice his rituals anymore. Whether they really had grown accustomed to it, or they ignored Ragen's Rituals out of courtesy and respect, Ragen did not know. But at least inquiries about it were fewer.

Orders Alucard and Retond let him be as well. It was Order Elgrans who stared, whispered, and mocked him. But the malevolent taunting and teasing that came from Order Elgrans was always excessive. And while Ragen never let it get to him, he did find it wearing.

That was when Ragen heard it. The soft, yet distinct howl of a Kitred.

That was the signal for Frieda as well as the nearby Warriors and Soldiers to get ready. It was also Ragen's signal to run ahead and tell Deran that they were about ready to move in.

Brier swiftly carried Ragen over to Deran and Fennec.

"Deran," Ragen whispered hastily, "the signal's been heard."

Deran nodded, pulled on Fennec's reins, and ran ahead to tell the four Riders who waited at the Order Syl/Order Elgrans border.

Ragen was to wait thirty seconds from warning Deran, before moving into Order Elgrans territory. While Deran was to wait twenty seconds after warning those at the border, who would begin to move in immediately.

Ragen counted to thirty and then urged Brier forward. Ahead of him, Ragen saw the outlines of Deran and Fennec. They were moving silently and slowly right now. Order Elgrans members were sleeping and there was no need to raise them. Order Elgrans would eventually learn that Order Syl was in their territory, but they did not need to know right away.

Ragen and the others were scouting the area; making sure that there were not any members of Order Elgrans who were awake and would notice their presence. All was quiet and still; they had not noticed anything.

Frieda rode in on Vine. The former leaned forward and whispered to Ragen and Deran. "Alucard's leaving in two minutes. In one minute, ride into Elgrans and set fire to their territory. Do what damage you can before they wake up."

Ragen and Deran rode ahead and told the others the same thing. And a moment later, the homes and trees of Order Elgrans were ablaze. Confused, shocked, and angry humans, elves, and Zaltaurs hurried outside just as three Valcors and their Riders flew in. As it was nighttime, the Valcors were pure black in color and blended seamlessly with the inky sky.

Running on the ground just below these Valcors, were Eglantine, Vulpin, and Brambles. Their respective Riders, Cula, Udu, and Tod, urging them on.

Order Elgrans' head Rider, an elf named Reman, began issuing orders for his Riders.

"Barkes, Esce, and Branch, get to the Sebar Keep and bring the Sebars down!" He shouted. "Fosso, you'll take the left side! Spriggs, the right side! Caran, go around to the back, and Twegen toward the trees! Get in position and start fighting, your Sebars will find you! Now move!"

There was a loud and hasty shuffling as Riders ran to their appointed stations.

More Valcors flew in and Order Syl's Warriors came charging through. The Soldiers soon followed.

The dark and quiet stillness had become illuminated by fire, while the screeching of Valcors and the howling of Kitreds filled the air. Alongside the clashing of swords, yelps of pain, and cries of triumph.

Then with a thunderous roar, nine Sebars came into the scene, going to their Riders.

Order Elgrans' Warriors and Soldiers had now entered the battle as well, but so had those from Order Alucard.

Laub, a Zaltaur who was also Order Elgrans' lead Warrior, was instructing his Warriors onto the battlefield, telling them where to disperse to.

Brier suddenly gave a yelp and Ragen felt a distant pain in his right leg. He looked down and saw that a Sebar had bitten Brier's right hind leg. The Sebar ran around Brier and stopped in front of him, blocking his path. Its Rider was an elf whose name was Esce. She scratched her Sebar behind the ears. "Good job, Redwood."

Esce was wielding a longsword over her head. In response, Ragen hefted his bardiche.

Ragen was determined not to kill anyone unless it was absolutely necessary. If he could get through this battle without causing anything more than mild injuries, that would be just fine.

"That's an awfully big toy for a little mongrel like you." Esce stated mockingly, eyeing Ragen's axe.

"Doesn't mean that I don't know how to use it." Ragen retorted.

"You probably won't be able to fight unless you touch every tree in the forest first." Esce countered with a malicious smile. "And if you think that I'll wait for you to finish before I kill you, then you had better think again."

And so it begins. Ragen thought. The taunting of my unusual rituals. Let them jest about it all they want, it won't bother me.

"I can fight you just fine right now!" Ragen said.

"Then prove it!" The elf responded, bringing down her longsword toward Ragen's head.

Ragen parried the blow with his bardiche.

Esce swung around, aiming for Ragen's throat. Before Ragen could react, Brier reared up and dodged the blade. Esce then decided to take care of Brier first. She slashed downward toward the Kitred's head.

"Oh no you don't!" Ragen shouted. And as the elf reached over to stab Brier, Ragen hit her on the head with the flat side of his axe's blade.

Redwood roared painfully as his Rider collapsed; alive, yet unconscious.

Brier leapt over her, but he and Ragen were quickly confronted by a human Soldier from Order Elgrans. Ragen recognized him as Ned Branch.

"Going somewhere, mongrel?" He inquired with a smirk.

"Not until I've dealt with you, feral." Ragen responded.

Ned raised a hand-and-a-half sword and Ragen was ready with his axe again.

"You probably have some sort of pre-slaying ritual to go through first." Ned stated. "And while you're engrossed in some odd habit, I'll have time to finish you."

Yet another jibe at his unusual behavior. Ragen could care less about that remark.

Suddenly, Ragen had an urge to bite the soldier and disable him; this was Brier's idea. Ragen gave a specific pull on the reins that told Brier to go ahead.

The Kitred leapt forward and bit Ned's left hand. He cried out in pain and dropped his sword. Ragen reached down and retrieved the weapon.

"That's not yours, you poor, under grown excuse for a person." A cold voice said from behind.

Ragen turned; it was Reman atop his Sebar. Order Elgrans' head Rider who hated dwarves. Of course, there was natural enmity between elves and dwarves, but Reman's hatred ran deeper than anyone else's.

"Give me that!" He demanded, reaching for the sword.

Ragen pulled back, out of Reman's reach. "Why? So you can kill me with it?"

"I have my own sword for dwarf-slaying." Reman said maliciously. "But that sword belongs to Ned. It's too big and heavy for vermin like you anyhow."

"Careful Reman, or I'll use Ned's sword for elf-slaying." Ragen replied.

"Probably not until after you've run around the battlefield ten times." Reman said it malevolently, but the mockery was more wearing for Ragen than anything, and did nothing to hinder him.

"Leave me be," Ragen added, "and I won't harm you."

Reman and his Sebar moved closer. Brier growled.

"The sword, or your Kitred?" Reman asked, drawing an arrow through his bow and aiming it at Brier's chest.

Ragen would not forfeit Brier's life for anything, but he knew that the second he handed the sword over, the elf would only kill him with it.

A screech rang out overhead, followed by a giant shadow. A Valcor swooped down and knocked Reman off of his Sebar. His arrow went flying and became wedged in the trunk of a tree. His Sebar attempted to bite the Valcor, but the giant bat swooped up and out of reach, only to come back down and sink its fangs into the Sebar's back.

The Sebar roared in pain, and so did Reman. Both of them retreated, and the Valcor landed.

Its Rider raised her helm and Ragen saw that it was Christine Hail. This meant that the Valcor was Twilight.

"Thank you." Ragen said gratefully. 'Brier and I were cornered."

Christine smiled. "Don't mention it. You guys alright?"

"We're fine." Ragen replied. He held Ned's sword out to Christine. "Here, you take this. its weight is too much for me."

"Thanks." Christine said, accepting the sword. "Whose is it?"

"Ned Branch's. He confronted me and—"

There came a sudden wail of excruciating pain, followed by a wail of, "Fen!"

Ragen's heart sank. Fen was Deran's nickname for Fennec. And that cry could only mean one thing.

"That was Deran!" Ragen exclaimed.

Brier hurriedly carried Ragen over to Deran, while Christine and Twilight followed low overhead. What they found, was Deran kneeling on the ground crying and sobbing. Before him, lay Fennec's lifeless body.

Ragen and Christine climbed off of their respective companions and approached Deran. Only then did Ragen spot the punctured and bleeding wound in Fennec's chest.

It was as Ragen had feared. The way Deran had cried out, it could only have been the sound of a Rider at the moment of his animal's death; when half of the Rider died as well.

Deran was inconsolable. "Fen's g—gone! He was too exhausted a—and he just couldn't m—move fast enough. I tried to help him, but I…I…" Deran broke off into renewed sobs.

He leaned over Fennec's corpse, apologizing to the late Kitred for not getting him out of harm's way before it was too late. Then, Deran unsheathed his dagger and made to stab himself in the chest. Ragen and Christine hurried forward and stopped him.

Riders were always suicidal after the deaths of their animals. The grief is said to be so horrendous that the Rider wants nothing more than for the pain to end. They also want to be with their companions once again. And countless Riders had, indeed, stabbed or hanged themselves after their animal had passed.

Ragen knew what had to be done. He glanced over at Christine, and she nodded to him.

It was Rider protocol in every Order, that Riders and animals that have just lost their companion, be immediately removed from the battlefield. Since they are so distraught, they do not notice what is happening around them. And, as they are suicidal, they are likely to allow the enemy to slay them.

Ragen and Christine helped Deran to his feet and guided him over to Twilight. Still bawling and sobbing, Deran climbed onto the Valcor, as Christine helped Ragen lift Fennec's body onto Brier's back.

Ragen explained to Christine how to get to Deran's place. She climbed into Twilight's saddle in front of Deran and took off. Ragen climbed into Brier's saddle, Fennec's lifeless form in back of him, and guided the Kitred to Deran's house.

He arrived just as Twilight landed. Christine guided Deran to his front door; he opened it, and drooped inside. Then together, she and Ragen lifted Fennec's body off of Brier, and laid him down on a soft patch of grass nearby. Then they followed Deran inside, while Twilight and Brier stayed outside with Fennec.

Deran sat down at his table with head down on his arms, weeping all the while. Ragen and Christine sat down on either side of him, but did not speak yet, giving Deran the time that he needed. Christine did, however, reach over and put a comforting arm around him.

Ragen could only imagine what Deran must be going through. The mere thought of losing Brier was unbearable and depressing. If Ragen should actually experience this tragedy, he would not be in any better shape than Deran.

"I c—couldn't help Fen!" Deran began. "I—I tried, but it just happened s—so fast!"

"But you did try to help Fennec." Christine said. "And I'm sure that Fennec knew it."

"I knew Fen was older than the other Kitreds." Deran continued, sounding a bit calmer, yet still more sorrowful. "I shouldn't have taken him into battle."

"But Fennec wanted to battle." Ragen said. "You would only have been depriving him of something that he desired to do."

Deran nodded. "I know. But Fen would still be here."

"Fennec was a Rider's animal." Christine said. "He knew it was dangerous, but he fought anyway, and he didn't mind doing it. He knew the risks."

"And Fennec was a great fighter." Ragen added. "It's horrible that he's gone, but everyone will always remember him."

Footsteps were heard coming toward Deran's front door. Ragen got up and peered outside. Jyeer, Nimel, and Frieda were approaching. Ragen stepped outside to tell them what happened before they saw Deran. Yet based on the fact that they were here, they probably knew already.

"Ragen," Jyeer said when Ragen stepped outside, "is it true? About Fennec?"

Ragen nodded solemnly. "Yes. Fennec's gone."

"Who did it?" Nimel asked, and Ragen could see the anger in his eyes. Nimel was already plotting revenge.

"I don't know." Ragen replied. "All that I do know is that a sword punctured Fennec's armor."

"Is Deran inside?" Frieda asked.

"Yes." Ragen said. "He's calmed down a bit, but still…well, you know how it is."

The other three nodded. Even a Rider who never lost their animal knew how much it would hurt. Just as Ragen had imagined the pain of losing Brier.

Ragen glanced over at Brier and Twilight, who sat across from each other, with Fennec's body between them. Brier held sadness in his eyes as well. The animals also felt the sorrow of losing one of their own.

Jyeer, Nimel, and Frieda saw it too, and somberness came across each of their faces.

"We better go inside and see Deran." Frieda suggested quietly.

The others agreed and they each climbed off of their Kitreds, who immediately, yet slowly, approached their fallen friend. Ember, Fyr, and Vine each approached Fennec, nudged him gently with their noses and then sat down around him, looking as sorrowful as Brier did.

Ragen and the other three went inside, where Christine still sat beside Deran. Both of them looked up.

Frieda ran over to Deran and hugged him. "I'm so sorry, Deran."

"We all are." Jyeer said earnestly. "Fennec will be sorely missed."

"Elgrans will answer for this murder." Nimel growled. "Who did it?"

"I don't know his name." Deran answered tearfully. "He was an elf, but he had that wild look in his eyes that all Shedders have."

"Kenet." Christine said. "It must have been. He's the only Elven Shedder in Elgrans."

"Feral elf." Nimel muttered disdainfully.

Ragen caught Nimel's tone, and it matched the anger that still burned in his eyes. They would have to keep an eye on him now. He was vengeful, and pompous enough to think that he and Fyr were invincible. Nimel was going to do something stupid and irrational.

"Is the battle over?" Christine asked the new arrivals.

"It's over for now." Frieda said. "We didn't lose anyone else, but there are some severe injuries. In Syl and in Alucard."

"Who?" Ragen asked.

"One of the Den Cats, Panu, was injured in a fight with a Sebar," Jyeer said, "and she suffered a bite to the neck. Ise swooped in on his Valcor, Freezer, and caused the Sebar to let go of Panu."

"But then the Sebar's Rider knocked Ise off of Freezer and Ise suffered a concussion." Nimel added. "He's unconscious in the Alucard treatment center. Freezer is pretty distraught too."

"Sleet and Nimbus both suffered wing injuries from Sebars." Frieda continued. "And Jessamine is recovering as well, from an arrow wound. Not to mention Byron Frost, the son of Alucard's leader, Willard. He was attacked by a Sebar and is in the same place as Ise. He'll be okay, but his leg is in pretty bad shape. He fell over when he was attacked."

"But we gave Elgrans some pretty bad injuries as well." Nimel chimed in, albeit proudly. "No deaths, but broken bones, deep wounds and other injuries that will take awhile to heal." Nimel paused, and under his breath, he uttered, "And now there's going to be one more."

Only Ragen heard this declaration. And he did not like the sound of it.

There was the sound of hurried footsteps and then four people entered. Deran's two daughters, Lana and Vila, came first, followed by Ani Marsh, Deran's older sister, and her son, Deran's nephew, Kyl.

Lana was eighteen, and a Warrior; Vila was two years younger, and a Mage student. Ani was also a Warrior, and Kyl, who was fifteen, was a student of Kitred Care.

Ragen, Christine, Nimel, and Jyeer, stood and moved down, so that Deran's family could sit closest to him.

Lana and Vila sat on either side of Deran, one arm around their father, while Ani sat down beside Lana, and Kyl beside Vila. Each expressing their sympathy, and attempting to console him.

A large shadow flew by Deran's front door and was followed by the appearance of a Wool Kin, named Glas.

Wool Kin were the only other species, aside from humans and Valcors, which inhabited Order Alucard. They were human in nearly every possible way. They walked upright and spoke for example, and they worked at their respective occupations. They also had hands and feet, fingers and toes, as the humans did.

The difference came in the outward appearance of the Wool Kin.

As a species, they were stockier than humans and their entire bodies were covered in long, thick, and curly white wool, like that of a sheep. It made them nearly immune to Order Alucard's frigid conditions, and enveloped them so substantially that one could not even see the rest of the Wool Kin under their wool. It even grew over their eyes.

"I heard that something had happened to Fennec." He said as he approached the table. "But I didn't know that he…" Glas trailed off, before adding, "I'm very sorry, Deran."

Just then, four Kitreds walked by the door in Fennec's direction.

"Here they are." Frieda announced. "The Kitreds are going to mourn for Fennec. We should join them."

Whenever an animal passed, the other animals of that same species gathered around the fallen and mourned for them.

Everyone inside stood up and joined them.

The Kitreds each nudged Fennec gently with their noses, and then gathered in a circle around him. Twilight, and Glas' Valcor, Twister, stood just behind the Kitreds.

The Kitreds' Riders, Tod, Cula, Wilo, and Udu joined Ragen and the others. Nadi was there too, but Jessamine of course, was recovering from her injury. As one, the Kitreds threw back their heads and gave one long, single, sorrowful howl. One could feel the grief that came through in their howling. It was saddening, yet at the same time, it relieved some of the sorrow that each of them felt.

Except for Deran. Nothing could relieve his grief, and nothing would for a long while. As the howling continued, Deran broke down again and almost collapsed to the ground. Glas and Tod caught Deran and supported him while the Kitreds howled away for their friend.

As the howling drew to a close, the two Valcors joined in with a soft, yet somber, screech.

Ragen and the others bowed their heads in their own tribute to Fennec, as the Kitreds and the Valcors fell silent.