Chapter 3

"Tomorrow. Future. That is what you have to look to now." Ryalto walks down the forest path, dwarfed by the tall oaks and yew trees around him "The future... What future? This war's consumed Fallow's Gale, the only home I've ever known."

Climbing over a fallen log, Ryalto peers forward through the thickly shadowed trees at the three backs. "I could leave now... Just turn around and leave them. But why? To die?" Ryalto plants his quarterstaff firmly into the ground and leans on the blunt tip. "That won't do me any good... The thought is too much to concieve. No. I will not die now. Not by my own hand, anyways." Ryalto jumps down from the log and continues along the path.

"But what then? I have no future. No Fate to follow. No plans to hold me." Ryalto turns and leans against a tall oak, crossing his arms and hanging the quarterstaff level in his hand. "Nothing to do but live... And everyone has to have a purpose in living. What's mine?" Taping the quarterstaff five times against the oak's trunk, Ryalto then walks a few paces further down the path before slumping onto a short tree stump "'Cause I'm afraid to be alone, afriad you'll leave me when you're gone.' Well, I was right. He left me."

Looking towards the sky, he sighs. "Where is my fear? It's right in here, I'm afraid that I will be alone. I am alone..." Ryalto pulls himself up from the stump with a nearby branch and jogs a few steps down the path before slowing to a fast walk. "Am I?"

L'thal walks into a clearing beside a swift running stream. Looking up to the falling dusk, he sniffs the cooling air and grunts. "We'll rest here for tonight."

"Really now? And why right next to this little brook?" Brenei walks out of the forest behind him and stretches his arms wide.

"Because we have kits with us that are not used to traveling cross country, and it is nearly night. Now let's set up camp."

Walking forth from the trees, Tara stops next to a small boulder next to the stream and sits down. "Oy, my aching paws..."

Brenei shakes his head and sets his pack on the ground. "Alright, you have a point there." Then looking into the tree line, Brenei starts to frown. "Where's Ryalto?"

"Here." Ryalto walks out into the clearing and heads straight towards the stream. Sitting down next to it, he takes a small cup from his pack and fills it from the stream and sniffs it before drinking from it.

Taking a small flint from his bag, L'thal looks around the clearing. "We need some firewood..."

"I'll get it." Ryalto stands up and replaces the cup in his pack before walking to the forest. Hesitating next to a yew, he turns back and looks at the clearing. "..." Ryalto then leans his staff against the yew and continues into the forest.

L'thal sighs and sets out some food next to a ring of stones. "He seems to be taking it well."

"He isn't." Tara stands up and sets her staff against the boulder. "Why do you think he went for the wood? Or that he was always hanging back from us? Before you came along, Ryalto was practicaly leading the way." Tara sighs and sets out her bedroll next to the boulder. "At least he isn't gonna try and kill himself."

Brenei turns from the forest to Tara, concern on his face. "Kill himself?"

Frowning, Tara sits down on the bedrol and explains, "We raccoons have a high suicide rate with orphans. Guess we really get attached to our parents..." Taking a thin book from her pack, she lays back and begins to read.

Walking towards the path, Ryalto holds several large peices of timbre along with multiple small branches. Ears folded low and looking down to the ground, he suddenly stops as he passes a thorn bush.

Looking at the base of the bush, Ryalto picks up a small strip of red cloth covering a kite shaped pendant. "What is this?" Uncovering the pendant over, he sees the red inner oval surrounded by ebony strips shaped like flames. "Oh shit." Ryalto drops the wood and runs back to the clearing, jumping clear over rotting logs and staying away from the path. Bursting into the clearing a few feet away from the camp, he swiflty turns and runs up to L'thal, thrusting the cloth at the skunk. Ryalto then leans over, panting.

"What's this?" L'thal takes the cloth and flicks the cloth off, revealing the pendant beneath. Eyes widening in surprise, he swiftly turns to Brenei cooking next to the fire and draws his sword. "Brenei, arm yourself!" He tosses the cloth and pendant next to him and pushes Ryalto back from the forest with his free hand down onto the clearing floor next to the fire.

Brenei picks up the cloth and then drops it, reaching for his sword across the fire from him. "The Cult is here? Damn..." An arrow embedds itself between the rabbit and his sword. "Damn! Tara, don't move!"

Tara looks up from her book and sees the red fletched arrow, eyes widening. She slowly sets the book down and reaches for her staff when another arrow streaks from the forest and hits it away from her. Ears flattening in surprise and terror, Tara lays down as flat as she can against the boulder.

"No more movement, knights, or your next will be your last." A short, red cloaked figure wearing a similar pendant walks out from the forest, a arrow notched on his bow and aimed straight at Brenei's chest. "The Fires shall take these hellspawned kits and return them to damnation, then you will be allowed to go. We have no quarrel with you."

L'thal lowers his sword and scowls at the red cloaked figure. "These kits are under our protection. You will not harm them."

The cloaked figure turns his head towards L'thal, anger in his voice as he responds, "They are an abomination against the God! They must be destroyed!"

Obscured from the figure's view, Ryalto reaches into the fire ring and takes a small coal in his claw tips, carefully avoiding burns to his hands. He then turns towards the figure and looks into the darkend woods. "Only one other? Not a smart move, attacking four when you consist of two!" Ryalto flings the hot coal at the figure, his aim hitting in the face and nocking him back. From the forest, another arrow is fired, which shatters harmlessly against L'thal's armor. Screaming in pain, the cloak drops revealing a short white skunk, and his arrow is released harmlessly into the air.

Brenei leaps forward at the fallen figure and cuffs him once in the chin, then grabbing the bow and quarel from the unconsious skunk. Stringing the arrow swiftly, he lets fly and strikes the second figure in the leg. "Hai! That's one down." Stringing another arrow, Brenei then stands and walks stealthly into the forest, sweeping the bow in front while searching the nearby bushes.

L'thal quickly walks over to the white skunk and starts searching him. Taking a small throwing dagger from under the cloak, he then takes a rope from his side and starts tying the skunk's hands and paws together.

Ryalto reaches back and draws Brenei's longsword and runs quickly into the woods over to the fallen figure, ripping back the hood and holding the sword's tip to it's throat. His eyes widen at seeing a masked face staring back at him in pain. "You're.. you're a raccoon!" As L'thal approaches from behind, Ryalto slides the sword to rest edgewise against the creature's throat and growls.

L'thal stops a few feet behind him. "Ryalto, hold thy hand!"

"Why should I? He's a traitor!" Ryalto presses the sword closer towards the throat.

The creature pulls the arrow from his calf and gasps. "Stay your hand, for I had no choice!"

Ryalto blinks, then steps back. Still holding the sword's point at the creature's throat, he growls back, "Had no choice? You're a coon, and you joined the Cult that would kill us all!"

Wincing, the creature gasps out. "I am only half raccoon. They would have killed me if I was pure. Instead they gave me a choice between this or death. I chose life in hope of escape."

L'thal steps forward and rests his hand against Ryalto's shoulder. "Mercy is the knight's greatest code. Do not add to another's suffering, Ryalto."

Ryalto lowers his sword and steps back, turning from the half raccoon. "I am not a knight, L'thal." He walks back to the clearing.

L'thal walks up to the half raccoon and pulls him up. "Come on then, you have some explaining to do." Sheathing his sword, L'thal walks behind him as they break into the clearing.

Pulling the arrow out of her staff, Tara scowls at the masked being as she tosses the arrow to one side. "I don't know what your friend was on about, but this staff is a family heirloom. I do not like your markmanship."

The half raccoon walks forward a step on his wounded leg and then colapses. "My markmanship saved your life. X'ander there would have hit you mortaly."

Tara blinks and then scowls again before heading over to Ryalto sitting beside the stream with the sword swaying above the water. Dangling the sword from it's hilt, Ryalto looks at the blade's tip as it swings back and forth. Seeing the frown on her cousin's face, Tara sits down next to him. "What's wrong?"

"I nearly killed that man, and I had no cause... I don't know why I did that." Ryalto looks up at Tara. "It was as if looking into his eyes, I saw something that I did not like and wanted to end. I don't know why, I don't even know what I saw."

Tara wraps her left arm around him and sighs. "You had a reason, you were defending us. You were defending me. I'm glad you didn't kill him, though. It shows how good you are. Now, come on. It's time to interogate your prisoner."

"You read too many bad stories." Ryalto gets up and sheaths the sword. The pair walk over to the camp fire and sit beside it across from the red robed raccoon and unconscious skunk.

Brenei walks out of the forest, sticking the arrow back in the quiver as he heads to the fire. "No other tracks or other signs. Just these two"

L'thal sighs. "I hope you are right, for I do not relish the thought of more of these cultist in the area."

"We were the only two." The raccoon looks across the fire at Ryalto, staring into his eyes. "We were sent on some mission that was to end the Lotcyon's rule, though they did not tell me what it was. That was X'ander's job."

Brenei walks up to the fire, sitting beside Ryalto. "Awfuly talkative for a captive. What's your name then, coon?"

"I am Y'alris, and I am only half raccoon. My father was a skunk."

"Prove it." Ryalto stares straight back at Y'alris.

Lifting the robe from behind, Y'alris raises his tail with one hand and shows three clear white strips running down the top over the banded fur. "That is the most obvious feature, though my claws are also curved." Y'alris holds up one hand to L'thal behind him.

L'thal leans forward, and then extends his hand next to Y'alris's. Standing up straight, he nods. "The claws are those of a skunk."

Tara crosses her arms. "Alright, so your a mixed breed. So what was that about saving my life?"

"X'ander is one of the more devout followers of their crazy religion. Hence he tried to attack you." Y'alris turns to Brenei and points to his leg. "You did not need to shoot me, I was about to surrender."

"Now why where you about to do that?" Brenei raises and eyebrow and also crosses his arms.

"Because I did not want to join that cult! They gave me no choice, other than death, and I have to find my sister."

L'thal raises his hand and turns to Brenei. "I have delt with the cult before, he speaks some sence." Walking to beside Y'alris, he sits down and looks at him keenly. "You convinced him to attack us, didn't you?"

Y'alris stares back for a few seconds, then lowers his head. "Yes, I planned to lure X'ander into the clearing, and shoot him when he was busy tieing the kits up."

"See? He is a traitor!" Ryalto stands up and snarls.

"Sit down! Now, Ryalto!" L'thal snaps his head back to Ryalto and glares. "He was a prisoner of the Cult. In his place, you would have done something similar, so clam yourself!"

The skunks moans and stirs beside Y'alris. Y'alris edges away from the skunk and looks to L'thal. "I beg you, help me. Take me away from the madness that he would keep me in."

Smiling, L'thal looks into Y'alris's eyes filled with despiration. "I would have anyways. But as for him," He nods to the waking skunk. "This X'ander will be brought with us."

Ryalto stares at L'thal in confusion. "Why?

"Because he is added proof to that news I bear, Ryalto." Brenei smirks as he looks to the fire. "The war was started by the Cult, and I bet this X'ander is the one who orchestrated the P'lfal end of things. I will need Y'alris's word that he was were I think he was, but my proof alone should be enough."

The skunk blinks awak at his name being said and looks about. Noting that only his hands are bound, the skunk snarls out and reaches towards Y'alris. "Y'alris! You have betrayed me!"

L'thal stands, drawing his sword in one swift motion and sticks it down into the ground mere fractions of a inch from X'ander's nose. "It would appear that is true. Now shut up or I will gag you with the most foul smelling rag I can find." Jerking the sword up, L'thal cleanly sets it back in its scabard.

Ryalto, Tara and Brenei stare at L'thal in shock. L'thal stares back and shrugs. "I have never liked the Cult's witterings much."

Tara leans over to Ryalto and whispears, "I guess even knights have a something they don't like..."
Ryalto responds back, "Of course, they're only people, after all."

X'ander looks at L'thal and spits. "You call yourselves guardians of the peace... You let pure evil reign across the lands, and wear their ill goods!"

Growling, L'thal reaches into his bag and pulls out a small, sealed box and cracks the lid open. Holding it far from his nose, he then rips a shread of the red cloth from X'ander's robe and rubs it in the box. He then replaces the lid and shoves the bundeled rag into X'anders mouth. X'ander gags for a few minutes, eyes wide in hate and horror, and then passes out.

Ryalto watches X'ander faint, then asks L'thal. "What wa-"

Brenei shakes his head at Ryalto. "You do not want to know. Trust me on that."

Placing the box back in his bag, L'thal sighs and sits down next to the white skunk. "I think we all have spoken enough this evening. In the morrow, we will continue to Heather's Peak." Taking out another rope, L'thal binds the skunk's hands and paws together before dragging him off to oneside.

Y'alris stands and moves to the other side of the fire from him. "Any help I may be to you, I will gladly give. Thank you for my freedom."

Brenei smiles, and grabs some pots lying scatered near the fire. "Good. Now, let's eat."

"Stars shine forth, from the sky. Show future's light upon thy eye." Staring into the night sky, Ryalto lies next to a boulder away from the stream. "Set the path for mine to see. Show the fate that is for me..."

"Good or evil, foul or fair. Give me that path which was not spared," Y'alris walks up to the boulder and sits on it. "I know you think me a traitor, but please set that aside for one moment."

Ryalto scowls and sits up. "Fine, but only for the moment. What do you want?"

Y'alris stares back at Ryalto's stare. "You seem troubled, and that poem proved it to me. Why?"

"You have the world taken from you, and see how troubled you feel, halfling."

Flinching, Y'alris sighs and responds, "I have had the world taken from me, twice. In each time I remembered the Poem of the Lost, and some good fortune befell me. First time I found that I had a sister, and set out to find her. The second, well, I came across you and your friends."

Cheeks burning in embarasment, Ryalto turns towards the brook. "Well, I doubt that I will find any kin other than that I know already. My mother died in giving me life, and my father was recently slain in the war. Other than my cousin Tara and her parents, I have no kin."

Noticing the red tint under his fur, Y'alris stills the urge to smile when he hears Ryalto's fortune. "Then I know your pain well. At least feel some comfort, you knew your father. I had mine taken before I was born, and my mother was killed by the same cult that would imprison me six years later."

Turning back, Ryalto looks at Y'alris questioningly. "You say you had no choice in joining them. You could have died, why not?"

Y'alris sighs, then answers, "If not for learning of my sister, I would have. I have no love for my mother's murderers, Ryalto. But I made a pledge to find my sister, if only to let her know of our mother's fate. I still hope to find her, but I will help you end this war first. After all, it is far easier to track a person in times of peace." Y'alris turns to the low burning fire where L'thal and Brenei are sleeping. "You can't see your path, can you? That's why you hate me so much."

Taken aback, Ryalto frowns and asks, "What do you mean?"

Y'alris turns back and stares at Ryalto straight as he responds, "I mean that you don't have a clue what to do with your life, and you hate me cause I seem to have a purpose."

"No, I hated you cause I thought you were a traitor."

Y'aris scoffs. "And now?"

"Now I know that you were just stupid."

Smiling, Y'alris shakes his head. "You still hate me."

"No, I don't hate you. I just don't want your friendship. Now please leave me alone, the moment has passed." Ryalto lies back on his bedroll and turns his back to Y'alris.

"Indeed, the moment has passed." Y'alris stands and turns back towards the fire. Taking only one step forward, he then turns his head back down towards Ryalto and says softly, "Ryalto, I have only one more thing to say. If you cannot find a path to follow, make your own. And you do not always need a sword to do either."

Ryalto lies silently as Y'alris slowly walks away. Just what was that to mean? Not always needing a sword to make or follow a path? All you need is paws to walk with to follow a pa- Smiling, Ryalto curls up and looks to the stars. If no path will present itself, he can always just walk into the woods. And there is always the path that his father did not take, that path that only leads from Heather's Peak. Perhaps that one will present itself to him. Perhaps...

Ideas, characters, character names, and anything else that I can say is copyright, is copyright of The Redshirt (Jason Taylor) 2002-2003. If you enjoy this story, why not tell me? Or if you though it was absolute shite, tell me as well. I need the feedback.
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