"I can't BELIEVE this!"
The exclamation could probably be heard by the entire herd. You could hear the grumpy rustling of other nests as they were rudely woken from their slumber.
"Shhh! Keep it down. The Bright Circle is barely visible! You'll wake everyone up!"
"How COULD you? After everything we have been through with Cera?!"
It was an awful situation, but it was not Topps' intention to share that misfortune with all their neighbors. What would they think of him? He certainly would not appreciate being woken up with all this ruckus.
"Just try to calm down. We need to do something," Topps said.
The last time they fought like this was a long time ago. Way before the girls were born. He could barely remember what their fight was about that time, probably something trivial. Nothing like this. But he simply had to tell her.
He could see that she was trying to compose herself. His head told him he should probably not say anything else at this point in time, but his heart was aching, begging him to say something. Every heartbeat seemed so fast, and at the same time seemed to take forever.
"No, I don't want to hear it. I'm leaving. I can't stand to look at you right now."
He watched, frozen with fear of the unknown, as she quickly got up and made her way through the herd. He heard her grumbling "Every time...". At some point she disappeared behind a longneck. He had never felt so alone and was not sure where to go from here. Suddenly he became aware of everyone staring at him.
"What are you looking at?" he growled at his curious audience as they quickly averted their gaze.
He was torn between going after her, or to start looking for his daughters. Wasn't it bad enough that Cera got separated from them in the big earth shake? How could he have been so stupid to somehow lose his other daughters as well?
He had told their mother in blind panic. How could he have known that he would get blamed for their disappearance? But the more he thought about it, the more he realized that he had been tricked. Lured into a trap like a fool. It wasn't his fault. He went over the words in his head again to make sense of the situation.
He had nudged her awake. "Sweetheart, please wake up. Hey. Wake up."
He remembered how she looked at him, all drowsy and not at all aware of the emergency. He had tried to keep his voice down, although the panic must have been audible.
"Our daughters are gone. He took them! They are gone! We need to find them!"
He recalled how her expression had shifted from drowsy to confused and alert.
"How?" she asked, her voice cracking.
"There's no time to expl-"
"How?!" she asked again, this time with a strong voice.
"Well… Abby had to go and she made such a commotion that her sisters woke up as well, so I decided to take them all. I turned around while they were doing their business. They were all giggly, so I told them to quiet down and hurry up. Then he landed not too far away from me. I can't believe he even dared to show his face again…"
There was clearly a hint of anger in her expression now.
"I confronted him. Told him he better get far away from me, or else. And, well, you know how he is. He started a rant on how he was doing what was best. Blah blah, we have heard it all before. I charged at him, he panicked and flew off. I turn around and they are no longer there."
"I can't believe it," she said with a quivering voice.
"I know... it must have been those minions of his behind my back. Rickus and Sienna or whatever their names are. They must have grabbed the girls while I wa-"
"No! I can't believe what you did!"
"You left the girls on their own? You are supposed to keep an eye on them! And of course, you just had to argue with someone again. You can never just leave these things to someone else, no… Always have to confront them horns on. You are so irresponsible. I can't BELIEVE this!"
He snapped out of it and shook his head. Women. How could she possibly blame him for this? It had been a mistake to wake her up. He should have known there would've been a temper tantrum. He decided he was going after their children.
Topps stormed off towards the tree stump where he had confronted Pterano. He looked all around and up to the skies, but it was too dark to make out a flyer shape anywhere.
"I guess he took off. Coward." he grumbled to himself.
He turned around and went to the spot where he last saw his daughters. He noticed their pawprints in the grass and saw that one of them must've stepped on a branch, as it lay there broken in two. Something snapped in him as well, and he let out a frustrated roar.
He hung his head in defeat. Where were they? Would they be afraid? No, impossible. They were his daughters after all. They were fierce and could fend for themselves. Then he noticed something in the corner of his eyes. He looked up and saw another small branch that had been trampled, just behind a boulder. Could they have gone that way?
He walked towards the boulder and looked at the branch. His mind started to race. Did they simply run off? Was that entire fight for nothing?
"Abby?" he called out.
He decided to track what could have been their path, constantly thinking he could make out their individual pawprints. He tried to stay focused as his mind went over the conversation again. Irresponsible? No. He loved his daughters.
"Girls?" he tried again.
Was it true that he always had to confront everyone? Yes. He was taught to always stand up for himself, and in extension for his family and his herd. Surely that was not a bad thing? Then again it led to this situation.
Suddenly he heard them. Their giggles echoing from a dark cave nearby. His heart started racing as he sprinted towards the cave.
Their laughter stopped as he entered the cave. He saw their eyes in the darkness of the cave, reflecting the bright circle rising behind him.
"Dad! Um... Sorry dad," Abby started "...we had heard about this spooky cave, so we-"
"Do you have any idea what you have DONE?" he suddenly shouted. His words echoed through the cave.
He noticed their expression shifting from mischievous to fearful, and he took a step back. Never before had he shouted at them. They were afraid of him. Surely he didn't want to turn into his father?
"Sorry," he said apologetically. "Never mind. I am just glad you are safe. Come along now."
He exited the cave and heard them treading behind him. They started whispering, and he swiftly turned his head to make sure they weren't running off again. They stopped dead in their tracks. An uncertain look was showing on their faces.
You are supposed to keep an eye on them. The words flashed through his head and he felt a pang of guilt.
"Go on girls, you can lead the way," he said with a forced smile.
The girls started smiling and ran past him. He followed them back to the herd.
Topps looked at them. He did not want to tell them about their fight and make them feel guilty.
"She also went looking for you. I will go get her now." he answered.
He started walking in the direction she had gone off to, then stopped, turned around and said:
"Don't wander off again. I want you right here when we get back."
"Of course, daddy" they answered together. A sweet smile on their faces. How could you blame them for anything?
The herd was slowly waking up and getting ready for their track towards the Great Valley. Topps reached the edge of the group and had not seen a sign of her yet. He approached the longneck that she had passed earlier that day.
"Hey you, longneck. Did you see a threehorn walk by this morning?"
The longneck slowly stood up and looked down at Topps. He chuckled.
"Of course, couldn't have missed that this morning now, could I? She seemed to be heading towards that small watering place we stopped at a while back."
Topps grunted by way of saying thank you and kept walking. Typical arrogant longneck, he thought to himself.
The watering place was quite a walk away, but he remembered how to get there. He mostly hoped he would be able to find her on time and hurry back to rejoin the herd and their daughters. The small pond hadn't quite provided the herd with enough water for everyone, but those who absolutely needed a drink had taken their share. All that was left now was a muddy puddle surrounded by empty trees.
While Topps was sure that they had left the place quite in a mess, it seemed much worse now than the day before. Pawprints were all over the place, including in the mud itself. He could tell there had been a struggle. Blood seemed to have been mixed with the little water that was left. Blind panic grasped him once again.
"No…" he whispered to himself.
His hurried pace turned into running as he followed a bloody trail. He was seemingly unfazed by the thick, dry foliage that was in his way. He bashed through everything in an attempt to get to her as quickly as possible. Then he came to a sudden stop.
A sharptooth had lifted its head at the sound of Topps' approach. It bared its bloody teeth, but Topps could see it had been badly wounded by multiple stabs in the left leg and some on its torso. His instinct to run turned into an instinct to fight when he saw her body, mutilated by the sharp teeth.
He roared fiercely and stormed towards the sharptooth, hitting its side with his horns. The sharptooth got knocked down by the blow and landed on its wounded leg. It cried out in pain as it tried to snap back at Topps. He easily avoided the wounded sharptooth and ran away, only to run back again at full speed for another blow. Blood was dripping down his horns and into his eyes. He quickly shook his head to get it off. The sharptooth lay on its side, roaring in pain.
With the immediate threat out of the way, Topps made his way back. He nudged her gently, but there was no response. Seemingly deaf to the painful roars of the sharptooth, he looked down and noticed her side had been torn open. The realization hit, and he let out an agonizing roar that overshadowed all other sounds.
He ran back to the puddle, rubbed his horns in the mud and rubbed his face in the short grass. The tears on his face made everything all sticky and he wanted to get it all off as quickly as possible. No one could see him like this. He was a mess.
His trip back to the herd had been ridden with guilt. How could he have let this happen? He should have gone after her. The girls would have been fine.
He was anxious when he arrived. They had started moving, but weren't too far away from where they were before. Some were dawdling behind. Topps was trying to gauge their reactions, but it seems like nobody noticed him. He guessed that any blood or tears still left on his face was negligible and kept walking.
He then heard his daughters. Their happy giggles filling a part of the empty void inside of him with hope. He rushed towards them and only slowed down when he noticed them staring at him.
"Oh, my sweet girls," he said, again on the verge of tears.
"Did you find mama?" They looked at him questioningly.
Topps toughened up. He remembered what he had told them after Cera got separated. The girls were too young to understand the consequences, so he had told them that Cera would find the Great Valley on her own and would rejoin them there. While he had some doubts, it was certainly possible for that to happen. He was unsure of how they would react to something worse and had no idea how to deal with that.
"Well, did you?" Abby asked with a smile on her face.
Without meeting their gaze, he started walking along with the herd. His head held high, while a tear rolled down his face.
"Yes," he said, his voice only cracking a little, "she will join us soon."