Disclaimer--- Don't own 'em…. yet…

Author's note--- This story is another chapter in my long-running Dragon Chronicles. Not every story in this series will be listed on FF.net, but all of them are listed in chronological writing order on my webpage. To those of you who aren't familiar with my other original characters besides Zelda, visit my website at http://members.fortunecity.com/zeldathedragon and go to the information page for their profiles, or you WILL be lost because they aren't introduced here, sorry! The rest of my stories can be found in the fanfiction section.

Rating- PG 13 for blood, violence, and angsty goodness!

The Spiritfall Saga

Part 2

A Torn Land

Written by Zelda

                The rain was distorting the trail that he followed. As the trees blew and the leaves clattered in the night, he paced across the muddy forest floor, snuffling. The rain was soaking to the bone, uncomfortable and cold in the wet. Silver looked around, shifting his wet wings. He knew he should have woken the others upon hearing that sound, upon smelling the trail that he was now following. It had led him right from the Den to the hilly northern sector of the Territory. Now the maples of the forest below were giving way to the sticklike pines of the higher terrain. Silver's claws slipped on the wet needles as he clamored up a rocky little incline, still following that foreign scent. There was something in it that intrigued him. He'd never smelled anything like it before. And he followed it to the top of that hill, pausing on a high rock in the cold autumn rain. He looked down a short, earthen incline that sloped from the roof of pine roots at his feet. As he leaned further over, there was suddenly the snapping of a twig nearby. Silver tensed and looked around quickly. And suddenly, something pushed at his legs, shoving him off the rock. Silver squawked  in panic as he fumbled for a handhold in the air. He didn't grip anything, but there was a tearing sensation, the elbow joint of his wing suddenly shearing apart. Silver screamed in pain, cried out for help as he tumbled downward, hitting the muddy slope and rolling away. Rain slicking everything over, he slid down the short slope to the rocks below, hitting them and knowing nothing more.

                Wildwing was jolted awake by the scream, and looked over in the darkness, seeing nothing. He quickly threw an arm to his nightstand and flicked on a lamp, the small amount of light revealing Zelda wide awake in her hammock, eyes wide and panting in terror.                "Zelda? What's wrong?" he said groggily, concerned.

                The dragon seemed as if she hadn't heard him for a few seconds, breathing heavily and staring down at her claws, eyes wide. She glanced around at the wild shadows on the walls, panicking.

                "What is it?" Wildwing repeated.

                Zelda looked at him, terrified. "Something--something has happened...something terrible..." she breathed.

                "What?" Wildwing slid out of bed.

                "Back home..." she gasped. She pointed her snout to the sky and whined loudly, eyes still open. "Something...something terrible..." frenzied, she suddenly looked around the room and whined again.

                Ibid crawled out from beneath Wildwing's bunk, frightened there by her scream that had awoken them all. The hatchling now shot back into the dragon's hammock.

                "Oh Ibid, I'm sorry." she whispered, panicked. "I'm sorry little one... it's okay." She cradled him in her arms, still scared herself. "Something terrible." she repeated quickly. She looked back to Wildwing.  "I must go back... now." she determined.

                "Now?" Wildwing asked. "But Zelda, you're in no condition to--"

                "I must go." she replied breathlessly, eyes still wide. She stood up and hopped to the ground.

                "Zelda please." Wildwing tried to reason with her. "At least we can take the Aerowing--"

                "Too slow..." she gasped. Ibid scrambled up her back as she opened the door, and then paused. She looked back at Wildwing, slowly calming down. "I'm sorry." she shook her head. "I'm sorry... I have to go."

                "Then go." Wildwing shooed her reassuringly. "But I just wanna make sure you'll be safe."

                "Don't worry about me." Zelda snorted. "It's the others..." she broke off and shook her head. "Tell them I said goodbye." Ibid squealed and the dragon responded by darting off down the hallway.

                Wildwing looked after her as she disappeared, still blinking his eyes to see clearly.

                The Ducks could feel the sense of the Territory around them long before they'd reached the legal boundaries the government had set for the land. They remembered it well from the last time they had a warm and welcome visit. Unlike their attitude towards humans, who wished to enter the Territory for interviews, or perhaps even to document the behavior of the clan, those of the Territory had welcomed the Ducks without much reserve or caution.

                "We're a gregarious species." Zelda had once said. "All on earth were put here to live in harmony.... so we've got no problem with them sharing the land, it doesn't belong to us, only the humans think that they can buy and sell the land."

                But there was a distinct change in the land this time. What would usually taken for the cold golden fire of the fall foliage seemed eerie. The dead leaves fluttered down, making the whole forest shuffle and echo. There was no music, and moreover, no one about. Usually there were animals shooting though the trees, chasing each other around on the forest floor. But not a soul of the Territory was to be seen. There was an air of emptiness here, uncertainty.

                Perhaps Grin felt it the most. There were bad vibes seeping through the land. The cold air struck sharp in his throat. There was danger here, a tense silence. Of course it seemed expected, given their knowledge of what had happened just a few days before.

                To be honest, Wildwing had ever seen her that scared before. They had come to see what was wrong, if they could help. And, should they need an excuse, they were up here on a road trip to play the New York teams.

                The group stayed close together, only Duke being able to stifle the ruckus they were making by walking on the dead leaves.

                Hesitantly, Wildwing stepped forward. "Zelda?" he called gently.

                Suddenly, there was a loud, angry scream overhead, and something crashed down through the trees, landing before them. A fiery brown eagle came charging at them, wings flared violently, eyes bloodshot. "What do you think you're doing here?!" he cried shrilly. "This is no time for intruders! Get out!!!"

                The Ducks retreated before the bird.

                "Whoa! We're sorry, we didn't mean any trouble." Wildwing put his hands up defensively. "We just wanted to see Zelda."

                "She's busy!" the eagle flared again.

                "There has been much chaos here." Grin tried to ease the young eagle. "We are not your enemy. Please, tell us why the land suffers so."

                It took a few moments for Grin's words to register, and the eagle to calm himself. When he did, he became almost depressingly sobered. "There is chaos here." he ruffled his feathers. "It would do you well to leave. But... you are Zelda's friends, she speaks well of you. I will tell you what I know." he stood tall, coolly. "First of all, my name is Saguaro. A few days ago, Silver went out in the evening and didn't return to the Den. This wasn't unusual, but the next morning, one of us found him at the base of a hill, miles from here. His wing has been severely injured."

                "What happened to him?" Mallory breathed.

                "We don't know yet." Saguaro replied airily. "We have other concerns... like keeping Silver alive."

                "He's that badly hurt?" Tanya knelt to Saguaro's eye level. "Maybe we can help. Can we see him?"

                The eagle snorted and backed away angrily. "No one from the outside can see him!" he snarled. "I will tell Zelda of your coming, but you will go no farther than here. Don't try my patience, there are more guards who will attack first and ask questions later." With a disgruntled flap, the eagle soared off into the trees, and was quickly gone.

                "Whoa." Nosedive breathed.

                "You said a beakful... when did this place turn into a ghost town?" Mallory asked.

                "Whatever happened here was big." Duke rubbed his beak. "And if Silver is really dying...."

                "It's tearing them all apart." Grin shook his head, speaking suddenly. "I feel deep disorder here. They are all hiding."

                "Not all of us." A voice broke the silence. A green dragon, who seemed to have been watching them for a while, peered out with golden eyes from a fiery bush.

                Tanya recognized him as he came out into the clearing.

                "You are Helix, aren't you?" she asked.

                Nosedive scratched his head.

                "An elder." she whispered aside to him.

                The dragon nodded deeply. "Your friend is right." he pointed to Grin, rearing up wearily. "There is chaos here. Saguaro told you why."

                "Is Silver really that badly hurt?" Wildwing asked.

                "Silver's life has been fading from him for days." Helix explained in a tired voice. "That is why you see what you see now. His original injury is what called Zelda back here, but his worsening condition has paralyzed this land."

                "Should we really leave?" Wildwing asked. "I mean, if this is a bad time..."

                Helix waved him to silence with a paw. "Normally humans, outsiders, would only contribute to the problem. We actually are lucky that the humans know nothing of this tragedy... yet." Helix paused in deep thought. "But I think you Ducks may actually prove useful to us... a distraction. There is a great need for one."

                "How is Zelda?" Dive asked suddenly.

                Helix looked him squarely in the eye. "Physically she is healing. The injury dealt to her was not great. But she, like all of us, has been affected by Silver. I think it would do her well to see you." As Helix spoke, there was a crashing through the leaves.

                Saguaro planted himself firmly in front of the team, still on the jump as Zelda cantered heavily up behind him.

                Her tired eyes brightened upon seeing the Ducks. "My Ducks!" she cooed happily, but only sat before them instead of jumping amongst them. "Why are you here? Has something happened back at the Pond!?"

                "No, no Zel." Duke stooped down to ease her. "There isn't any trouble. We were worried about you... with what happened."

                Zelda looked at the ground and lowered her ears. "I trust you've heard."

                "Is there anything I can do to help?" Tanya asked. "I've got a med kit in the 'Grator..."

                Zelda gave her a rather stony glare. "No... no.. I don't think that's needed."

                The Ducks looked around to find Saguaro and Helix staring her angrily down.

                "I'm sorry to say you can't see him. Diamond's taking good care of him." she nodded in satisfaction. "But stay as long as you like. There isn't much to see here though, not now."

                "We don't want to be a burden." Duke stood up.

                "You won't." Zelda ruled, and turned around, leading Saguaro and Helix away.

                The Ducks cautiously followed her.

                The elder and the eagle eventually drifted away from the group, and Zelda slowed down to walk among the Ducks.

                "I must tell you, there is more going on here than what Saguaro and Helix have said. They trust few beyond their own kind at a time like this." she shook her head. "But I think you must know if you are to stay here. We are all... irritable. You'll see a very different side of this land now."

                "But what happened to Silver? How did he get to be in such bad shape?"

                "We don't really know." Zelda sighed heavily. "I left... when he was injured." she looked up to Wildwing reproachfully. "It... disturbed all of us here. They found him in the morning at the base of a hill in the pine forest to the north."

                "With an injured wing?"

                "Almost entirely shorn off at the elbow." Zelda closed her eyes. "We don't know what did it. There's no scent... no evidence."

                "Maybe we can help." Duke piped up.

                "Maybe..." Zelda trailed off.

                The group walked into a clearing and faced a river that cascaded from a waterfall. They were at the Den.

                A griffon who was drinking at the water's edge was startled off and ran behind a log.

                Zelda rumbled to it, and it poked its head back out cautiously. "It's alright Hawthorne." she eased.

                The griffon came out to the water's edge again soundlessly, but went no further. She nodded respectfully to the dragon.

                Zelda returned it with another rumble and a nod, and she paced towards the cavernous Den. "You... might wanna stay here." she said back to the Ducks, and disappeared underneath a curtain of willow tree fronds, from the tree that grew over the entrance to the cave.

                Wildwing took the moment to ignore the cautious griffon and look around. Everything around the Den was as he remembered it. The water ran gently down the falls, splashing against the willow tree that grew out of the stone. The triangular rock that supported the tree, the one that formed a platform over the cave's entrance, was strewn with the golden leaves of the shedding willow. The whole forest burned with the warm colors of fall. But still there was no one to be seen around. Usually the Den would be the center of life for the Territory. A rustling of leaves turned his head back to the cave as Northstar emerged from it, hopping over stepping-stones to hurdle the river and reach the Ducks on the bank. "Northstar, good to see you again." Wildwing greeted.

                "Likewise." Northstar nodded deeply. "I am sorry that this is not a more welcoming place. These are hard times."

                "We only want to help." Wing nodded back. "Zelda has already told us to stay, but we know things are strained now..."

                Northstar tossed his head. "You will be no trouble... at least I can't see it." he assured. "In fact, there is a good deal you Ducks can learn here..." he trailed off. "That discussion is for another time. I suppose you should know more about Silver's condition, and no, you cannot see him." he stared Tanya down. "He is suffering from a high fever as well as a great loss of blood. There is much mystery of how he came to be hurt so."

                "But if we can't help Silver, what can we do?" Tanya was frustrated.

                Northstar sat, his brick-brown feathers ruffled in the cold and gleaming in the sunlight. "Be observers." he replied. "As I said, there is much we can learn from each other. And there is..." he sighed. "I fear the situation here will get worse before it gets better. You Ducks may well serve to hedge against a boilover."

                Nosedive scratched his head at Northstar's almost archaic speech and accent.

                "We'll do whatever we can." Wildwing nodded diplomatically.

                As he and the griffon spoke, Diamond slid from the Den and lay down, exhausted on the opposite bank.

                Hawthorne sat beside her.

                Northstar turned and rumbled to her, causing Diamond to see the Ducks.

                She staggered up and hopped over the river slowly, coming up to greet them, obviously tired.

                Zelda watched her from the gaps in the willow. Diamond was terribly weary, and Zelda could understand. She looked into the eyes of the lioness, and saw many sleepless nights and searches in the cold, wet sunrise. Diamond was wearing herself thin, and instantly Zelda had felt guilty that she hadn't been there to help her. But seeing Silver was devastating to her... even after not leaving his side for days, she was still afraid to look at her dear friend. The dragon stood, as if frozen, just a little ways into the curving cave. It was exhaling warmth and fever into the fall air, and the cave glowed with the light of the fire lit at the end. Zelda drew in a deep breath, and walked into the cavern with her head down. Everything looked as it should, the four deep recesses in the wall tidy, except of course for the one to the back left: Silver's. Zelda finally looked at him. The bird lay on his back, feet to her. One wing, the injured  right one, was stretched high in the air and curved around the recess roof. The wound itself was bandaged almost as thick as Silver's body. Although Diamond had done her best to conceal it, Zelda saw right through the heavy layers of moss, to the ripped muscle and shattered bone, the torn feathers and the blood that had soaked them. The dragon couldn't bear it. She paced to his bedside and looked into his face. He was asleep, but it was a feverish, restless sleep. His eyes were squinted shut, his feathers wet and ruffled, his breathing shallow. Zelda could feel tears spill out of her eyes as she looked at him. She nuzzled her head against his, rumbling.

                "My friend." she shivered. "I should never have left...." She paused as Diamond came back in, rubbing against her.

                By now, their faces mirrored each other.

                "I'll say it again Zel, it is good to have you back." the lion said.

                "I intend to make up for my absence. What can I do?"

                Diamond stooped over a heavy wooden bowl, lifting it onto a tripod over the fire. "Help me make some more fever medicine for him?" she asked. "Sulfur found some of these up by the northeastern border this morning." she held some red berries in one paw.

                "Great. We... are in short supply of them, aren't we?"

                Diamond didn't answer her.

                Zelda went to a pit beside Diamond's bed and began to shovel through several dried plants, mushrooms and fruits that were stuffed in it. She came out with bundles of material, plucking the best parts, and placed them into the bowl.

                Diamond went outside to get a scoopful of water, adding it to the bowl and making the contents hiss. As Zelda kept tossing in dried plants, Diamond heaved up a heavy pestle and began to grind everything into a fine paste.

                The room smelled of spices and herbs in moments. It was stirring to both of them.

                "I've been trying." Diamond started. "To keep his fever down for a while now. So far it hasn't worked." she frowned. "He's in no condition where I can wait until the fever breaks."

                Zelda nodded quietly. The work was straining the healing flesh of the wounds across her neck, but she would tend to that much later.

                "I trust you know." Zelda sighed. "About Ibid."

                Diamond paused for a moment.

                "We can discuss this later." she ruled, and kept on.

                Zelda flattened her ears and obeyed. The lioness was right.

                Diamond broke the silence with more empty conversation.

                "Your senses are right Zelda, he hasn't woken, hasn't said a word to me ever since we found him."

                "He's in bad shape." Zelda admitted. "But you are clan shaman, our healer. If you cannot save him, no one can. I'll help you."

                Diamond sighed and changed the subject. "And your Ducks, what of them?"

                Zelda let out a growl. "For the moment, they are as much a frustration as a diversion. I cannot chaperone them around the land this time. My place is here." She pointed at the ground emphatically.                 Diamond let out a small grin, but it faded quickly. She spooned the brown, thick paste from the bowl into a flat bag of animal hide. Tying off the top, she carried it over and placed it on Silver's chest. "He can eat it once it cools. It's tough to get him to swallow though." she shook her head.

                "Blame instinct." Zelda nodded emptily, staring at Silver as he shifted a bit upon the hot pad being laid on him. She felt crushed by the weight of his misery.

                Grin knew that he shouldn't be here. His nerves were on edge even in the tranquility of the forest. Everywhere he felt the eyes of this land's hidden residents staring at him. Yet, something kept telling him that he couldn't leave. Zelda needed support... from someone. But shouldn't her own kind be the ones to provide it? Suddenly a branch snapped on the ground. Grin spun about to find a terrified lion shoot away and up a tree like a squirrel. Grin froze as the gray lion, not more than a yearling, stared back at him from behind the trunk.

                "It's okay, I'm not going to hurt you." Grin held a hand out gently.

                "I... was scared." the lion began. "Sorry."

                "I'm the one who should be sorry." Grin didn't lose his easy tone.

                The lion slowly edged out onto a branch. "I heard that you were here." he referred to the Ducks. "I've never seen you before."

                "My name's Grin."

                "I know, the leaders speak of you sometimes.... I'm Snowfoot."

                "Nice to meet you." Grin nodded. "I guess everyone is a little nervous now, aren't they?"

                The young lion nodded. "Everyone's hiding... I don't know where my friends are." Snowfoot was obviously shaken.

                Grin felt instantly sympathetic. "Well it's going to be alright, you know." he said. "Diamond's taking care of Silver, he'll be fine."

                "That's... not what I've heard." the lion was curious.

                Grin became curious as well. "What have you heard?"

                "That Silver was gonna die... that someone needed to replace him." Snowfoot informed.

                "Who did you hear this from?"

                "I... dunno." Snowfoot felt pressed. "Just, heard it."

                Grin shook his head. "Well Zelda told me that Silver will be fine." Grin lied a bit to benefit the nervous lion.

                "I hope she's right..." Snowfoot sighed. "I wouldn't wanna be around here... if she wasn't." Without another word, the lion darted into the treetops and disappeared.

                Grin circled the trunk looking for him, but to no avail. He rubbed his beak and thought deeply about what the young lion had just said. This was a bad time for them to be here...

                Zelda emerged from the cave to find Tanya and Wildwing still milling around. She became almost irritated at their presence.

                "How's Silver?" Tanya asked.

                The dragon grumbled at bit at her predictable question. "Well..." she hesitated, trying to find the right words. "Nobody lied, he's still in bad shape."

                "He'll pull through though, right?" Wildwing asked.

                Zelda looked at him squarely for a silent answer. She turned from them and raised a small trumpet made out of a cow's horn. Blowing on it, she sat and waited. Almost thirty seconds later, two dragons suddenly crashed through the trees, soaring down to meet Zelda on the forest floor. They were both snowy white, with flashing golden eyes.

                Tanya was surprised to find that the dragons looked exactly alike! She was always able to tell them apart by different color patterns in their scales, but these two must be twins, a rare occurance.

                "Tanya, Wildwing, meet Thunder and Lightning." Zelda introduced the groups.

                "Twins, right?" Tanya asked curiously.

                One of them grinned proudly. "We are the only pair of winter twins in the Territory."

                "The only way you can tell them apart is by the scales on their eyes, see?" Zelda pointed. Thunder had a gray scale as his right eyebrow, and Lightning a gray one on her left.

                "And of course our voices." Lightning nodded, fanning her wings.

                "These two are heading up the investigation into Silver's... accident." Zelda explained. "Do you have anything to report?"

                "We've been trying to preserve the marks in the hill base." Lightning sighed. "We've woven branches over the site to protect it in case it rains again."

                "Still those marks at the top that are puzzling you?"

                "Yes, we're not sure if they're Silver's or not." Thunder shook his head. "Gerudo is around here somewhere, he was working with us today too." He looked off, distracted.

                "Let him take a break, and you two as well." Zelda advised.

                The twins shook their heads simultaneously. "The longer we wait, the worse that site will get." Lightning said.

                They both turned tail and flew up above the canopy, out of sight as quickly as they had arrived.   Zelda shook her head. "Those two will work themselves to the bone..." she muttered. "Many of us haven't slept in a while... it'll grate on our nerves, I know it." she stared away and drifted into thought in mid-sentence.              

Wildwing and Tanya both glanced at each other.

                Wildwing cleared his throat. "So, twins eh? I can imagine that's pretty rare."

                It distracted the dragon. "Yes, quite. To have them hatched in winter is even more rare. If it weren't for those scales over their eyes, they'd be of identical scale color. Everyone here has that as their fingerprint."

                "The three other species too." Tanya added.

                Zelda nodded that she was right, quickly becoming lost in thought again. "I... must get back inside." Zelda broke away from them. "But don't hang around here on my account. Take a hike!" She disappeared through the willowy curtain over the cave, leaving the two Ducks standing alone in the silent forest.

                Duke squatted next to a small stream, looking at little golden leaves that floated on the surface. He shrugged, and gulped down a handful of the crystalline water.

                Nosedive wrinkled his face. "Yuk!"

                Duke turned and stood again. "What?"

                "Dude, you don't know where that water's been!" Nosedive grinned a bit.

                Duke rolled his eyes. "We're in the woods kid, not in the middle of New Jersey or something."

                "Yeah well you never know." Dive left the argument, walking up a slight embankment. "You know what I think is weird?" he asked.

                "What?" Duke answered.

                "That we haven't seen like, anyone." Dive looked around suspiciously. "I mean, they've got like two-fifty combined here right?"

                Duke nodded passively.

                "Yeah so where are they?!" Dive gestured around. "You can't just hide that many animals, I've seen like three since we got here."

                "You've got a point." Duke said, but didn't comment further. He was looking distantly around at the trees.

                Suddenly, there was a loud crashing through the leaves, and a young eagle came bounding up to them, running on its wings. It ran right past Duke and Dive, stopping up at the top of the embankment. The eagle looked back through the woods, as if she didn't notice the two Ducks at all.

                Dive was actually just opening his beak to say hello, when a far-off scream interrupted him.

                The eagle gasped and spread her wings, when in a flash another barreled into her, both of them rolling down the embankment and crashing into the stream. The eagle scrabbled up, soaking wet, trying to escape, but her pursuer slammed her back into the gravelly streambed.

"You'll pay Cirrus!" The eagle screamed as he tried to hold her down in the cold water. "You'll pay for challenging me!"

                Cirrus struggled up from the water and reared back, kicking at the other eagle with her claws like a kangaroo.

                The blow drew blood and the eagle screamed.

                By now, the forest was once again alive, but in chaos. A crowd gathered, howling, trying to either stop the fight or egg it on.

                Dive and Duke were caught on the outskirts, totally frozen as to what to do.

                Soon, more jumped in the fight, not all being eagles anymore. The clamor seemed that it would spread until there was suddenly a horrible scream above it all, and Northstar came crashing through the trees, landing right in the middle of the scrum. All of the animals suddenly froze, staring at the furious leader. Northstar reared and bellowed to silence all of the noise. "Who started this!?" he demanded. No one moved. Slowly, Northstar's anger dissolved as he looked across the crowd. He closed his eyes and sat. Still, no one moved. "Cirrus." he spoke.

                The eagle, now frazzled and bruised, cringed on hearing her name.

                "Typhoon."

                The other eagle snapped his beak.

                "Explain this."

                Neither of them spoke.

                Northstar opened his eyes, glaring blazingly at the both of them.

                Cirrus shied away from his gaze, but Typhoon's eyes blazed angrily right back. "This." the eagle hissed. "Does not concern you, Northstar."

                The griffon snorted. "What is it about then?"

                Typhoon staggered right up to Northstar, going beak-to-beak.

                "Call it a preliminary for the Tournaments!" he declared.

                Northstar whipped his wings angrily, lashing his tail. "What Tournaments?!" he ridiculed. "You fools, both of you! Your petty bickering is tearing this land apart, in a time when our unity is tested the most!"

                "Don't preach to me about unity Northstar." Typhoon interrupted. "When Silver is dead and I will take his place!"

                A cry went up amongst all the animals, so differing in tones that it twisted into the most unearthly noise.

                The Ducks backed wisely away as Northstar sized up both of the eagles.

                "How dare you?!" Northstar was amazed. "Truly, you'd turn your back on your leader when he needs your faith! You would never become a leader Typhoon, nor you Cirrus. Such behavior is the definition not of a leader, but a coward!"

                Typhoon screamed at him and lashed out with a kick, catching Northstar in the face.

                The griffon howled, blood spilling over an eye.

                Cirrus tackled him, when suddenly Zelda broke through the crowd, barreling into her and shoveling the eagle across the clearing with her snout. The eagle landed amidst the crowd.

                Zelda spread her wings between Northstar and Typhoon, and let out a roar which visibly shook the bird. "Enough!" she cried. "Enough of this!" As the crowd was once again silenced, Zelda saw an opportunity to end the fighting. "Friends, why are we letting ourselves give into this stress? I understand these are hard times, but fighting makes things no easier. Must we have blood to accompany our tears?"

                Many in the crowd rumbled approvingly.

                "Go back to wherever you've been resting." she instructed, a tiredness in her eyes. "Go, sleep, eat. Let the progress of time and the goodwill of fate heal our broken links." She stood down, slowly backing from the exhausted and bleeding Typhoon. "You." she instructed. "Go crawling back to your cave, and let your ridicule of Silver spread no farther. He'll deal with you himself." She turned tail on the eagle and walked away, back to Northstar.

                Typhoon gave an airy snort to try and preserve the last of his dignity, and flew shakily off through the trees.

                The chaos over, now the animals began to turn and notice Dive and Duke. They edged away warily, heading off in their separate directions without saying a word, staring at them. In minutes all that remained were Zelda and Northstar, alone.

                The dragon nuzzled her snout under his neck, levering his head up.

                Typhoon had opened up a gash across Northstar's eyebrow, blood smearing across his feathers. But he appeared more crestfallen than anything else.

                Duke squatted beside the pair. "Are you guys okay!?" he asked.

                Zelda nodded sadly. "We'll be fine." she sighed.

                "What just happened there?" Dive joined them.

                Northstar rubbed his head in the dirt and growled. "It's started sooner than I thought it would." he told Zelda sadly.

                "I hoped it wouldn't start at all... now we've really got problems."

                "What problems?" Duke asked.

                Zelda looked back at him and hesitated on how to explain. "The others sense how Silver is suffering." she started. "Some are just waiting... others can't deal with it."

                "They're starting to show it." Northstar continued. "Some are frustrated to the point where they know the only way to end this quickly is for Silver to die."

                "Instinct." Zelda nodded. "Some are getting a jump on the Tournaments."

                "What's that?" Dive asked.

                "The Great Tournaments." Northstar explained.

                Duke remembered Zelda speaking of them before.

                "It's the way we've always decided who our next leader is. When one dies..." he sighed a bit. "Those who want to replace him have to fight each other... a round robin in format... until only one's left."

                "They kill the others?" Dive was taken aback.

                "Not intentionally." Zelda broke in. "The others drop out when they must. It's crazy." she shook her head. "Totally crazy. We've all nearly died to get to be leaders, it's the only way." Lost in memories, she fell silent.

                Northstar rubbed his head in the dirt again to try and stop the bleeding. "Now some are thinking the Tournaments are starting again... some will fight to gain top rank, more will fight because they know Silver will live." he stopped talking. "That's what they believe."

                Zelda stretched a wing over his back.

                "Come, let's see what Diamond can do for you." she led Northstar away into the forest, for a moment forgetting the two Ducks she left behind.

                Dive and Duke stared with a twinge of disbelief as the two walked out of sight.

                "Did we miss something here?" Dive asked.

                Duke shook his head incredulously. "Maybe we shouldn't be here... maybe this is because of us."

                "Don't think so bro." Dive disagreed. "You saw all of them, they hardly noticed us until the fight was over."

                "Yeah... but I still don't think this is right..." Duke was still doubtful.

                Dive turned around to face him. "Look, you saw what just happened to Northstar." Dive pointed in the direction the two had went in. "What if they decide to jump Zel next? I mean, sure there are plenty here to jump in and fight in her defense, but are we just gonna leave her?"

                Duke pondered Dive's statement for a moment, and then asked back. "Haven't you wondered whether or not she really wants our protection?"

                On this, Dive fell silent.

                The morning was cold, damp, and foggy, moreso than the past couple of days.

                Wildwing slicked back his hair as he stepped off of the ramp of the Migrator, and out into the air. The forest before him again appeared silent, save for Saguaro the eagle, perched in a tree near the road. A sentry. Wildwing nodded to the animal and the eagle nodded back. He walked underneath a canopy of the trees and could feel a darkness sink into him. The land itself seemed to look the same as it did yesterday, and the day before. But still something was different, eerie. Wildwing's frozen breath melded into the fog that dimmed the golden maple leaves as he crunched across the forest floor. As he walked, he slowly made out something in the mist. Struggling to maintain balance amongst the delicate branches of a small tree, a lion clambered and grabbed at something. It looked as if the whole sapling would snap and crash to the ground at any minute. Wildwing walked quickly to help the lion, and scared it with the noise he made.

                "Sorry." he apologized quickly as the animal leapt warily to the ground. "It's only me."

                "Wildwing?"

                The Duck recognized the lioness's soft voice to be Diamond's. "Sorry I scared you." he repeated, walking up to her. As he saw her clearly through the fog, he was surprised to see that she looked nearly emaciated in frame.

                Skinny, wet, and obviously haggard, the lion climbed back up into the tree. "It's alright, just don't hear much normally this early in the morning."

                "Can I help with anything?"

                "I suppose so." she thought for a moment. "You see these red berries?" she pointed to one on the edge of a branch.

                Wildwing peered under the leaves and saw a few round, glossy red berries hanging in sporadic clumps of two or three. "Yup."

                "Help pick them for me? They are very strong medicine."

                "For Silver?" Wildwing asked.

                Diamond nodded sadly.

                He knelt down and started to pick, realizing that there were very few of these berries on this tree. "How is he doing?"

                "His wounds are actually healing, believe it or not." she sighed, as if she didn't believe it herself. "But his injuries, and the rainstorm, have left him weak. My main concern is getting his fever down... it's stayed with him for days."

                "But you." Wildwing changed the depressing subject. "You look very tired. Haven't you slept? Eaten?"

                Diamond gave him the same sad shake. "None of us have, for these past few days." She kept searching dutifully under the leaves.

                Wildwing stood up and watched her. "But you've gotta rest." he pressed her. "No offense, but you really look like you need it." Wildwing heard a familiar rumble, and saw Zelda approaching the two, lumbering slowly.

                "No sleep." she muttered. "Not now." She smiled a little upon seeing Wildwing. "Where are the others?"

                "Still at the hotel." he answered. "It was a hard game last night."

                "So I heard." Zelda sighed, looking down. "Perhaps I should have been with you...."

                "We won regardless." Wildwing answered her warmly, kneeling down to her level. "You belong here."

                Zelda nodded with tired eyes. She flapped up into the air to peer into the leather bag which Diamond was putting her berries in.

                "This is a good tree." Diamond said as she worked.

                Zelda nodded. "Yes, oh and Yarrow found that mushroom you were looking for, by the highway yesterday."

                Diamond smiled a bit. "Well I'll be." she leaned back. "Looks like I can make that poultice after all. Great." She went back to work.

                Wildwing tried the subject of rest again to the two. They both looked very ragged. "Seriously though you guys, you look like you need a good nap. What are you worried about if you sleep?"

                Diamond looked at Zelda nervously, who herself averted her eyes from the both of them."It's not an issue." she answered vaugely. "Come with me Wildwing, perhaps we need to talk." Zelda started off away from Diamond, who still wore a concerned look.

                Wildwing, curious, followed her off into the fog.

                She wandered her way to the top of a fallen log, laying over a stream. As she bent down to drink,                 Wildwing noticed a new wound running across her neck, to go along with the healing ones Dragaunus had given her. "You were attacked?"

                Zelda straightened up quickly. "A disagreement." she lied. Wildwing frowned at her and she sank beneath his stern gaze. She leveled her head and looked off into the fog. "This land reflects what is in our hearts." she said, as if she were quoting someone. "Yea see this mist?"

                Wildwing recognized her habit of slipping into a more archaic English when she was weak or sad. Northstar had that habit as well. He nodded. "I see it, what's it got to do with you?"

                "The fog brings the ancestors." she said, still looking into it. "Many fear this fog comes today for Silver's spirit, to take it away." Her own eyes softened as she spoke, sad and gray.

                "It's just weather Zel." Wildwing tried to reason with her. "Just because it's foggy doesn't mean Silver's gonna die."

                The dragon shook her head. "I am not old." she started. "But I have seen... many things. This is not mere weather. There is no such thing." She tilted her head a bit. "This fog holds a dual purpose. This mist holds the spirits of the long-dead. If I could only have a clear head, I might see them again." she sighed. "I might know if they come to comfort us, or take Silver away. And soon... it will happen soon..." Frustrated, she pounded the hollow log with a fist. Before Wildwing could offer her a comforting hand, the dragon turned again and walked to the other side of the stream, lying and curling at the base of the tree stump. "I can't stand to even look at him anymore... If there was only something I could do..."

                "Haven't you been helping to keep him alive?" Wildwing crawled out on the log himself.

                Zelda didn't look at him. "My actions, Diamond's, none will help to steer his fate." she sighed. "If only I could find what's in this fog, I'd know what that fate is." She closed her eyes and shoved her snout into the fallen leaves.

                Wildwing sat by her, not really knowing what to say.

                Suddenly, Zelda whipped her neck around and sunk her teeth into the stump in a fit of energy. She snarled and tore at the wood, slowly calming again. At this, she found her upper jaw firmly stuck in the rotting log.

                Wildwing edged along to help her, but she swished a tail up weakly to halt him.

                She closed her eyes and began to cry. "Leave me." she pleaded, muffled.

                Torn, Wildwing finally relented and edged back off of the log, walking slowly off into the forest, looking behind him the whole way.

                Mallory finished rewrapping the ace bandage around her wrist and taped it firmly.

                Tanya sat on the lobby couch beside her with a sigh, dropping her duffel bags at her feet. "Will it ever feel good to get back in the 'Grator and just sit for a while. How's that wrist?"

                "I'll be fine for the home game." Mallory slicked back her hair. "Darn Islanders. Remind me to put it in my planner, when they come pay us a visit."

                Tanya smiled a bit as Duke sat in a chair across from them with a cup of coffee.

                "Morning ladies." he greeted sarcastically, bags under his eyes from an early wakeup call. "Anybody seen our fearless leader?"

                Hearing his brother mentioned, Nosedive picked up his bowl of Lucky Charms and plunked down in another lobby armchair. "Love these continental breakfasts." he was muffled by his chewing. He swallowed and then said. "Wing went over to check on Zel, he actually shoulda been back by now..." Dive drifted back into his cereal.

                Tanya shook her head and turned to Grin, who was sitting opposite of Dive in another armchair with a cup of tea. "What do you make of this Grin?" she asked. "You seem to be pretty level to Zel on, well, the way ya both think."

                Grin nodded slightly. "I'm afraid I will not provide much enlightenment on the matter." he said. "True, Zelda and I may think alike, but this situation is quite beyond her. There is a lot about her leadership that she has never shown us."

                As he spoke, Wildwing walked into the lobby and sat in another armchair with his team, putting his head in his hands.

                Mallory was surprised. "What's wrong Wing?" she asked.

                Wildwing leaned back up and shook his head. "I'm worried, that's all." he started. "Zelda's really getting depressed about this, they all are. You should see how worn some of them look."

                "But what can we do to help?" Duke asked rhetorically. "I mean, every time we offer they seem to push us away."

                "They must have their reasons." Wildwing shrugged. "Whatever they are. But I think we should pack up and then hang around a bit today. Zelda kept telling me this thing with Silver is gonna come to a head soon."

                Tanya stood and hefted a bag up on her shoulder. "I think we shouldn't waste any time."

                The fog had cleared with the morning sun as the Ducks pulled up again in the Migrator. Now all that blew through the woods was a strong breeze, making leaves of every color clatter down to the ground. It really looked quite beautiful.

                But as Wildwing got out, he noticed that Saguaro was not holding his usual post.

                "I wonder where he is." he thought aloud. "Guess we'll just let ourselves in."

                So the team began to hike up into the forest, following a stream that ran through the Territory for their guidance. It would lead them right to the Den.

                "Ya know, we weren't given the warmest welcome when we came here..." Duke looked around suspiciously. "But is it just me or does this place really look deserted?"

                Grin was the only one who seemed to notice it too. "I agree... something has happened." he nodded.

                "Well, looks like we just found out what." Wildwing said.

                As the team crested over a hill, they faced the clearing in which the Den was located. And the whole area was packed with the animals, all sitting nervously facing the cave. There was much whispering and speculation. The elders all looked impatient and irritated, the younger animals all squeamish. Wildwing was just about to ask a griffon was was going on, when a hush fell over the crowd.    Pausing in surprise at the silence, Northstar stood at the cave's entrance. He jumped across the river and climbed onto the triangular rock that jutted out from above the cave: a speaking platform. As Northstar cleared his throat, Zelda emerged from the cave and joined him.

                Wildwing noticed she had another cut on her, a small one below her right eye.

                They both looked exhausted.

                "Friends." Northstar began in his usual deep voice. "Our senses have left us over these last days, but you were all right in coming here."

                Muttering went up in places.

                "We must thank you all for your patience for these days, your faith for Silver. We are happy to say that we think it's paid off."

                Now the noise grew dramatically. Hopeful voices leapt up from everywhere.

                Northstar and Zelda both tried to hush them.

                "Please." Zelda grinned. "We will explain. Thanks to the work of many volunteers who have brought medicines from their own stores, Diamond's been able to break Silver's fever."

                Happy shouts went up again, and many asked where Silver was. Again, it took a while for them to be quiet.

                "Resting." Northstar answered. "He's not totally out of the clear yet, but he'll be okay."

                Before another celebration could go up, the crowd hushed violently as they spotted Silver himself peeking out from the fronds of the cave's willow tree. He stumbled out onto the shoreline, assisted by Diamond who kept along patiently by his side. Somehow, he clamored his way up to the rock and joined the other leaders.

                Upon his doing so, cheers went up from all sides.

                Amazingly weak and pale, Silver smiled gently and nuzzled his friends. He mustered up the strength to speak, and the crowd grew respectfully silent to hear him.

                "To all of you, I must say thanks." he smiled. "Your strength has given me strength. As for those who questioned whether or not I would live..." his eyes trailed over the crowd in an obvious mock-threat. "I'll deal with you later."

                A few faces shrunk back, ashamed.

                Silver was too tired to speak further, and many of the members of the crowd below took the occasion to strike up music. Out of nowhere, instruments produced a joyous melody, and those without them pounded the earth and shook the trees for a beat.

                The four leaders beamed.

                Nosedive leaned back and shook his head. "Well I'll be DuCaine himself!" he laughed, and was suddenly tackled by a swarm of hatchlings wanting to play with him.

                "I never cease to be amazed at how fast they recover." Tanya nodded.

                "This certainly takes the stress off of them." Grin added. "I'll say they're well on their way towards getting back to normal."

                Through the crowd, Wildwing caught Zelda's eye, and she beamed back at him before she leapt into the crowd to join the celebration.

                The afternoon sun cast threads of gold through the trees, lancing against Silver's gray feathers. He dozed awkwardly on the large boulder, sitting up with his clumsy large bandage still wrapping his torn wing tightly. But at least he slept soundly and freely. Gone from his eyes was the look of suffering that Zelda couldn't bear to see. She herself was tired beyond description, but would not let herself doze off. Stretched on the rock before Silver, she was just content to bask in the sunlight and know that things really were back to normal.... well, almost. What still puzzled her was the cause of Silver's injury. The initial shock of the blow and the duration of his fever had blocked out all but minor details of what happened that rainy night. He was struck by someone or something, but who or what? A falling tree branch, even if very big, couldn't slice through flesh and bone like a blade. And there was no blade involved, not by any human hand. They would have smelled that without a doubt. They would have also identified the perpetrator if, stars forbid, it were one of their own. Zelda became frustrated again, as she pondered this, but at least now she was sure that Silver would live. At least there would be peace, with or without justice.

                And then, came the sound:

The high scream that tore through the woods with the harshness of tearing flesh. The cold air only made it ring higher as it sliced through Zelda's head.

                Silver was shocked awake by the warning, instinctively on the jump.

                There was no further sound, and yet it echoed through the woods.

                Zelda's head shot up, her listless eyes suddenly blazing, and Silver looked to her in alarm. Without waiting or speaking, she leapt to her feet and spread her wings, rocketing up through the trees.      The eagle stood frozen for a few moments, and then turned and cried into the forest behind him. Afraid, he struggled up and limped off to the south, following how Zelda had flown.

                Grin's meditation was abruptly shattered by the thundering vibration of feet on the earth. He opened his eyes to find a lion dashing past him, dodging him. As if they had come out of the woodwork, suddenly all of the animals were charging across the forest floor, heading south, almost stampeding! Grin looked around in confusion and suddenly spotted Helix up a tree, trying to calm a handful of frightened hatchlings.

                "Helix!" he called, running up to the tree while trying not to step on the animals below. "Helix! What's going on?"

                The old dragon scanned the crowd, not looking down. "A call to arms!" he yelled back. "We have visitors!"     

                "Where?" Grin asked.

                Helix pointed a wing to the south, along the backs of the running animals.

                Grin turned quickly and followed them.

                The wind was cold, and stung her eyes in the open as she landed in the clearing. Behind her retreated Saguaro, terrified but unhurt, and before her stood Dragaunus.

                Alone, poised for a fight, his red scales gleamed in the slanting light, the wind whipped his robes.

                Zelda screamed furiously at him, bristling. "What are you doing here!?!" she roared.

                Dragaunus's robes flapped in the wind as he cracked a toothy smile. "I came to drop off a fruit basket, heard one of your friends was under the weather." he sneered.

                "I told you never to come here again!" Zelda snapped.

                The Overlord merely grinned wider. "And what do your orders mean to me dragon?" he asked. "Nothing. Oh, they could have." he smiled. "They could have meant everything Zelda." He spoke almost frankly with her. "And you might have welcomed me here."

                "I'd sooner burn the earth on which you stand!" she spat back. "After what you've done."                 Dragaunus's eyes grew dark. "And what did you expect dragon?" he asked sarcastically. "Declaring yourself my enemy and then expecting my benevolence?"

                "I've received no benevolence from you Saurian." she hissed, pointing to the still-healing wounds across her thoat. "But kidnapping an innocent hatchling? Barbaric, traitorous."

                "Traitor!?" he scorned. "Look who's talking!" Dragaunus lashed his tail across the dry leaves. "You know my reasons well dragon. If you're not my ally, then you're my enemy. You, and your entire clan will be destroyed. It is only a matter of time."

                "That was not our understanding." she growled darkly.

                "Understanding?!" he nearly laughed at her. "Your 'understandings' are written on the bones of your ancestors. We have no understandings."

                Zelda cocked her ears back to the north, and grinned slowly. "Then you will learn." she sneered. "They are coming." she pointed with a wing. "They are coming to teach you, and I will not stop them."                 Dragaunus was still unphased. "You will." he grinned. "I know you too well."

                Suddenly, a griffon and three lions burst through the underbrush and into the clearing. Bristling, they stood behind Zelda and made the most unearthly noise.

                She waved them back with her tail.

                Dragaunus rocked on his heels, sneering to her as if to say "I told you so."

                Quickly, more animals arrived, taking up a place behind and around the dragon. Suddenly, Wildwing and Mallory ran up as well.

                "Dragaunus!" Mallory yelled, surprised. "I should have known." She whipped out her launcher and crouched, but Zelda suddenly leapt in her gunsight.

                "No!" she snapped, swinging her head back to glare at the Overlord. "This is between us."                 Dragaunus chuckled and swished his tail again. "You're almost too predictable dragon." he grinned.

                Zelda narrowed her eyes and pointed to a healing scar on his shoulder. "Apparently I can still surprise on occasion." she sneered.

                The crowd cackled like hyenas behind her.

                Silver slowly shoved his way through it, and came up to Zelda's side. But upon seeing Dragaunus, the wounded eagle froze.

                Dragaunus's eyes blazed with opportunity. "Ahh, now it's my turn to surprise you Zelda, and how fitting it should be before all of your friends."

                "What lies do you plan to spout to me now?" she asked sarcastically.

                The Overlord paused, enjoying the suspense. "Your clan has been tearing itself apart lately, hasn't it?" he asked. "Over who or what could have possibly hurt Silver. And Silver himself!" he pointed to the shaken bird and darkened his tone. "Why, I'm surprised he still remembers me."

                Shocked, Zelda's eyes flashed to Silver's, which were lost. "Impossible." she breathed.

                Dragaunus cackled as a cold wind lashed them. "But it's true!" he snarled in pure bloodlust. "I DID IT! And you Zelda, it is all your fault!"

                At her wit's end, the dragon howled and sprung.

                Unfortunately, Dragaunus was ready for her.

                Grin tried to push his way through the crowd, finding himself waist deep in a constantly-growing herd. He desperately wanted to help Zelda as she jumped out to face Dragaunus, alone.

                The Saurian dodged wisely, but the dragon caught the edge of his robes in the tip of her jaws, and was swung in a wide arc before she let go and skidded to a stop in the leaves.

                Grin tried to push forward again, but something held him back. Was it the other animals? He was surprised they weren't helping her either. Eyes darting frantically through the crowd, he caught Diamond's face, mirroring his with concern. Grin struggled over to be within earshot, and yelled to her, catching her attention.

                "What do we do?!" he asked.

                Diamond hesitated. "Know our role!" she answered. "This is her fight."

                At this, Zelda made another lunge, this time curling into a ball in midair and spinning for Dragaunus's head.

                He raised his hands to block her, but she unrolled and curled her tail around his neck like a python, biting hard into his crest. Howling, he doubled his body and slammed his head into the dirt, bringing his claws up to pry her off of his head.

                She didn't separate easily, instead scrambling up onto his back and latching herself onto his shoulder. Searing pain tore town her tail as Dragaunus dug in his claws and pulled her off, flinging her back into the dirt.

                The animals that surrounded the fight smelled Dragaunus's blood and nipped at his heels when he came too close to them.

                Trapped but not phased, the Saurian swept his tail in an arc across the ground, hoping to catch the dragon's knees.

                Zelda spread her wings and leapt up, drawing in a deep breath and suddenly blasting out a wild burst of flames.

                Draguanus panicked and leapt to the side, landing in the crowd. He was torn and scratched at, forcing him back to face the dragon.

                "No way out coward!" she screamed at him. "For all that you've done, this ends here!"

                "A deal that you will ultimately regret!" he trumpeted. Raising a hand, he welled up a powerful fiery blast of his own in his fist, lashing out.

                Now Zelda dodged, running inches ahead of the blast as it moved, searing the ground. But with all that she had gone through, she was too slow.

                The others could only watch as Dragaunus chose to aim ahead instead of chasing her, and the beam of flames caught her squarely and sent her flying to the edge of the clearing.

                Wildwing was too far away to help her up as she struggled. He remembered that blast had easily knocked them unconcious before, but necessity got the dragon to her feet surprisingly quick.

                She lowered her head and dashed strait for him, butting him right in the gut.

                They both were sent falling back, a cloud of leaves erupting around them.

                The wind knocked out of him, Dragaunus struggled to hold Zelda back as she went for his throat. He succeeded in getting a hand in the way of her jaws, but she clamped down on that like a vice. Crying out, he brought up both feet at once and gave her a powerful kick, launching her off.

                She landed on her feet, but was slow to move.

                Regaining his breath and his own footing, Dragaunus saw that he had kicked a gaping wound across her stomach.

                The dragon was buckling under the pain, blood dripping onto the ground.

                He grinned, his eyes burning yellow, and stalked up to her. As he raised his good hand to strike down on her, she suddenly threw her head up at him, spitting another plume of flame right into his face. Too close to avoid the heat, he stumbled away, eyes burning, screaming.

                The animals cheered with a dreadful noise.

                Zelda screamed at Dragaunus with bloodstained teeth, and leapt up into the air, swooping for him again.

                Apparently the Saurian had deceived her as well, for with perfect accuracy, he spun around and caught her with his tail, slamming her back to the earth.

                This time, she was slow in getting up. Her wound across the stomach had now really started to get to her, and she saw stars from hitting the ground so hard.

                Ducks and clan alike stood helpless as Dragaunus gave her a savage kick, sending her rolling further. He waited, sneering, as she staggered up.         

                "Want to go back on that 'no retreating' thing?" he asked mockingly.

                Zelda spat blood back on the ground and snarled. "Don't worry about me Dragaunus."

                "You think I can't kill you?!" he roared. "Is that it?" he nearly laughed at her. "That may have been your petty excuse, what you used to make yourself feel safe back in Anaheim dragon." he rubbed his heavily bleeding shoulder. "But not here..." he grinned. "If anything, you're more mortal here than anywhere."

                "No Dragaunus." she breathed heavily. "You can't... not here either." She gestured to the crowd around her. "You see this?" she asked.

                Dragaunus sneered at her. "This is your threat?" he asked. "This?!" he waved a hand to them. "You don't understand dragon, I've annihilated worlds with the flick of a talon. This is not a problem." he stalked towards her slowly as Zelda backed away. "I just can't lose Zelda." he grinned. "I'm bigger, I'm stronger, and nothing that you pathetic little animals can do, can stop me." As Zelda neared the edge of the clearing, Dragaunus noticed how the noise from the crowd grew. He looked around at the animals, snapping and snarling, several deep. And he saw more of them, and more. Out of nowhere it seemed, eyes burned at him, teeth clashed. Looking around, he saw himself totally encased in a wall of them, closing in on him. The noise they made was incredible... such an earsplitting din that it distracted him. The numbers, the sheer volume of them grew by the moment, the noise they made seemed to rattle the very ground beneath him. The whole forest screamed at him. Ripped suddenly through by some elemental fear, Dragaunus backed away, looking back to find Zelda standing again, rearing into his face.

                Blood streamed down her flank, her eyes blazed at him in fury.                "Now... now you see?" she snarled. "Now you see why you can't kill me, why you can't kill us! We are bigger, we are stronger." she hissed. "You are a stranger here..." she narrowed her eyes. "And you are fated to lose."

                Dragaunus backed away, looking for some way out of the towering wall of noise and fire that seemed to surround him.

                And out of the chaos, Zelda leapt at him again, landing on his wounded shoulder, shoving him back and down into the leaves. She weakly dug her claws into the preexisting wound and tried to bite his neck again.

                Whipping his head around in desperation, Dragaunus tried to stab her with the horns on his crest, and kick at her again. But he found her out of reach. Pinned and struggling, the Saurian fumbled and found nothing but the teleporter on his wrist, slick with blood from his crushed hand.

                Zelda roared as she felt him materialize beneath her.  "Don't run away!" she demanded breathlessly, trying to hold him down. "Coward! This ends here!"

                But he faded like air beneath her, and was gone with a flash of green light.

                She fell through his shadow and landed on the ground, alone. He had retreated!

                After a silent pause of uncertainty, a cheer went up through the crowd. The animals all celebrated, howling in laughter with their enemy's cowardice.

                Zelda stayed reared on the ground, breathless and still ready to attack if he really hadn't gone. But as it sunk in, Zelda's injuries came back to haunt her, and she bent weakly to the ground with a paw over the gaping tear in her side.

                Several broke from the crowd to huddle around her, but she snapped to and shook them off abruptly.

                "I'll be fine, I'll be fine!" she insisted, shoving away from them and limping through the dissolving crowd. She found Silver, still standing frozen almost where she had left him, and threw her wings around him. "I'm sorry..." she cried softly. "I'm sorry...."

                Silver gently tried to hug her back, to reassure her.

                "It's over Zelda." he whispered.

                But the dragon shook with defiance. "No..." she breathed, her voice twisting as her wounds affected her. "The coward is not dead.... this is far from over."

                Silver closed his eyes, and felt her slowly sink into blackness within the great fold of his injured wing.

                The sun looked to refuel the griffon as he lay stretched on the rock over the Den. It streamed through the branches and brought beaming relief to fall's pressing cold. The wind played with the tendrils of the willow tree, brushing them over him from time to time. And despite the fact that he was asleep, not even Wildwing's most careful tiptoing escaped his ears.

                "Going so soon?" he asked, not opening his eyes.

                Wildwing spun around. "Sorry." he said sheepishly.

                Northstar smiled a bit, and got up with a stretch, coming to the top of the rock to see Wing better.

                "I can understand that you're tired, I shoulda not come through here."

                Northstar grinned and shrugged it off.

                "But yeah, things are picking up back in Anaheim, we have to get back."

                "I would not keep you." Northstar nodded. "And I must thank you, all of you, for staying with us these past few days. Truth be known, the more I see of you, the more I support what Zelda's doing. She's quite the only thing stopping us from helping you further."

                "She has her reasons." Wildwing noted diplomatically.

                "And I would not argue against her." he started solemnly. "Yet there is a darkness in her altruism."

                Wildwing looked curiously at him. Parting through Northstar's vauge language was made even harder by the fact that he just didn't understand the clan's ways.

                For once, Northstar seemed to realize his confusion. "Perhaps you have seen it in her as well, how heavily things weigh on her."

                "She is very loyal." Wildwing agreed.

                Northstar closed his eyes and nodded sadly. "But she is too young to take such history, such responsibility so seriously. I can sense that the work she does with others, and with you... it is her calling. Yet to me, it seems too much." he shook his head. "I would have thought Diamond too inexperienced to make it through this ordeal, but thanks to her persistence, Silver is alive." Northstar looked out over the forest floor and sighed. "We are all... tired. It will take a long time to heal the scars made in this land. But at least things are over and justice is done. We've all begun healing... except..."

                "Except for Zelda." Wildwing finished.

                The griffon nodded. "The fall is her element, normally she would now be full of life." he agreed. "I understand that times are far from normal, but I see a distance in Zelda's eyes when I look at her now, that I've never seen before. I'm worried about her... I can sense you are as well."

                "It's because of Dragaunus.... and us." Wing shook his head.

                Northstar shifted uneasily and hesitated. "I wouldn't peg it on him directly." he danced around the issue. "And you are not the cause of the problem, but the solution if anything. Regardless, Silver's injury has exhausted our spirits. The chaos that you've seen here will take a long time to settle back into order. But Zelda's ordeal is just beginning."

                "Easier for her to get sick, or hurt worse." Wildwing nodded.

                The griffon gave a look of tired frustration and shook his head. "It's hard to explain..." he started. "But she won't let us understand what she's going through. What happened with Ibid and Silver has... hurt her, in a way that isn't physical as much as it is mental. And she's blocking us out from helping her..."

                "But why?"

                "I'm not sure." he sighed. "And that's what I'm worried about. She's going back on the instinct that she holds so dear. Our kind has been through a trial by fire, and we've made it through together. Now that she's pulling away..." he hung his head. "I fear that she is in a spiritfall. Now... she walks alone."

                He finally found her, after asking several if they had seen her. They seemed irritated to answer his question. Perhaps they felt she should be left alone. But Wildwing had to at least say goodbye. He rounded a corner and found her sitting on a rock, eyes closed but not asleep.

                She noticed Wildwing long before he saw her. "Afternoon." she opened her eyes and nodded.

                "Just wanted to check up on you." he pointed to a thick wrap of moss that was fastened around her torso.

                "I told you I'll be fine." she insisted.

                "Somehow, you're always fine." he smiled.

                Zelda didn't return his look.

                He coughed awkwardly, and there was a bit of silence.

                "What's wrong Wildwing?" she asked.

                He hesitated, wondering if he should ask what he wanted to. "I'm just wondering, there's a lot here I don't understand. What's a spiritfall?"

                The dragon, who had since closed her eyes and turned back to the sun, opened them again and looked at him with a piercing seriousness. "My..." she started. "That's a big word around here."

                Wildwing felt instantly like he had made a mistake.

                "Praytell where you learned that." she didn't break her gaze.

                "...Northstar was talking about it."

                Zelda's eyes softened, but only a bit. "Northstar..." she chewed on the thought quietly. "Call it a journey." she answered. "A journey that doesn't really take you anywhere, not on a map."

                "What kind of journey is that?" he asked rhetorically.

                "A journey inside of yourself." she answered, unjokingly.

                Again there was a cold silence, again Wildwing coughed uncomfortably.

                "Well Zel, you know the schedule." he started. "We've got the Coyotes coming in tomorrow, you know."

                "Aye, you should get some practice in." she nodded.

                "I know you want to come back with us, a part of you at least." Wildwing patted her on a paw. "Stay here."

                Zelda smiled a little, but her eyes were faded and tired.

                Although she looked right back at him, Wildwing almost felt that she was looking through him.

                "Thanks. It may take... a while... for me to come back."

                "Don't rush on our part." he nodded.

                Zelda seemed to appreciate the comment. "I know you'll do well. And hopefully you won't have any trouble off-ice." she growled. "But that is another issue."

                "We can take care of ourselves!" he laughed.

                Zelda did seem to brighten a bit. She put a paw on his shoulder and whispered to him gently.  "I will see you again soon. Fleet-foot, and safe travels, my leader." she bowed a bit as she said this, smiling gently. Her eyes never lost their emptiness.

                Wildwing turned and walked back a few feet, and then turned around. "Now you take care of yourself." he said. Turning, he walked back for the Migrator, feeling Zelda's eyes on his back the whole way.

To be Continued......

Mighty Ducks-The Animated Series, including all logos and characters (except me) are copyright and property of Disney. You may copy, print, or whatever with this document, so long as it is not altered and I (Zelda) am credited. Thanks!