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. If you'd like to find out more about Zelda or other characters that will appear later in this series, visit my website at http://members.fortunecity.com/zeldathedragon and go to the information page. The rest of my stories can be found in the fanfiction section.

Rating- PG 13 for 100% of your RDA-endorsed daily requirement of angst.

The Spiritfall Saga

Part Three


Written by Zelda

                What scared her was the feeling of being alone, and she didn't know why. She tried to reason it over several times in her head, stretched out on some mossy log or dry stone in the autumn cold. But the answers hadn't come. Only three years before, she had this land, and it was enough. Then, she had the Ducks. Such a violent disconnection from her home had been unsettling when she set up residence in Anaheim, she remembered well. But her clan had been supportive, and since she had learned to live so detached. She'd gotten used to it, really. Now, she was back home and without her Ducks for only a time, and yet for some reason she didn't feel home at all. She didn't have either her kind or the Ducks... and she just didn't know why. Zelda would have grown frustrated, to the point of real anger if it weren't for her exhaustion. As the days passed, she watched Silver's wound heal, and she watched the plenty of the autumn revitalize her kind. Yet she had not followed them. Nightmares plauged her with increasing frequency. She lost a sense of connection with her surroundings. She knew that Dragaunus was at the core of this disorientation, but the problem seemed bigger and stranger than him alone. There was something deeper than the violation of her trust, that was causing her such problems. Again she found herself peering through a fog and not seeing through it clearly, but this was no tangible fog. It was a fog inside herself. Lost, Zelda wandered distractedly and became more and more isolated from her friends.

                Not that it went unnoticed. The others, especially the leaders, had cast a keen eye to Zelda's radical condition. It had created a bit of an uneasiness amongst them. Although Northstar had raised the issue with Wildwing, it was Silver who had worried about her the most.

                Now he stood on a ridge in the cold, watching her from a distance. In ten minutes, she hadn't moved save for her breathing, laying draped on a mossy fallen log over the stream. The wind whipped his feathers the wrong way and stung his skin as he ambled down to her on his injured wing. It took a while for her to hear him.

                "Lucky I wasn't going to pounce on you Zel." he chuckled. "You would have ended up one wet, cold dragon." He shuffled onto the log beside her, and her face brightened a little.

                His affect faded quickly, however, when she looked him in the eyes. She didn't say anything and swung her head back to rest on the log.

                "Zelda what's wrong?" he asked her. "You've been so... distant these past few days."

                There was a long silence.

                "It's nothing." she grumbled.

                Silver decided to take a serious approach. "Zelda, you've never been a good liar, not to us." he said frankly. "Something's wrong."

                Zelda sighed and turned away from him.

                "I'm sick of worrying about you."  he said. "I know this is about me and I want to help."

                "It's not about you." she answered, irritated.

                "I mean what happened with Dragaunus... I remember it better now." he shook his head. "I understand that you blame yourself."

                Zelda rumbled lowly.

                "Zelda, you can't ignore what he's done. You tried your hardest to keep this battle between Dragaunus and yourself, I understand that." he draped a wing over her cold flank. "But you couldn't have prevented what happened, even with Ibid."

                Zelda snorted a bit and pulled away from him.

                "Zelda please just hear me out. You can't control what he does. It was his choice to attack us instead of you. Now, he's brought the battle into the Territory."

                "I tried... so hard..." she let out a sigh.

                Her anguish put a strain on Silver. "But you never failed Zel. You knew it was only a matter of time before he punished us for refusing to help him."

                "I refused." she corrected angrily. "This never concerned the rest of you... he did this to get to me...."

                "You're letting him succeed then, aren't you?" he asked.

                Zelda hesitated.

                Silver saw that he had caught her on something, and smiled. "Zelda, you've gotta realize that he's the one who did this, not you. It's payback time! Go back to Anaheim and kick some Saurian tail! Make him regret the fact that he ever set foot here." He hoped it would fire the dragon up, but instead she sighed again.

                "I can't go back.... not now." she said. "He has succeeded... I can't deny that. I can't make him fear me anymore."

                "Is that all you have? Fear?" Silver asked a bit scornfully.

                Zelda rumbled a bit. "One could argue... that is all he has against me." With this, she curled her head under her paws and said nothing further.

                Silver knew she wasn't going to talk. The wind was very cold, and so the eagle sat down on the damp log beside her, and closed his eyes to sleep.

                Grin mopped his bill with his sleeve, the rough fabric grating against his eyelids. He gave an exhausted look up to the Jumbotron, ignoring the flashing lights and the video replay. 32 seconds left... just 32 seconds to try and pull even with the Maple Leafs. Leading by one goal... it was only 2-1. They had thrown everything they had at that goalie! He and Tanya had both been worn out by the constant pressure from the Leafs' offense. A quick glance back at Wildwing saw the goalie leaning over on his knees in fatigue. As Duke stooped over to take a faceoff nearby, Grin gripped his stick tightly and knew it was going to take a big drive to tie this game up. The ice sprang to life as the puck was dropped, and snapped back to him. Grin looked up and saw Nosedive streaking ahead to center ice, and Grin slapped the puck towards him. Tanya suddenly yelled at him, and he looked over to see her gesturing up ice. Nosedive had the puck. Grin hustled up ice as Dive got caught up in the Leafs' defensive pinch.       

Double-teamed, Dive fell to the ice, but didn't lose the puck.

                Mallory caught it up through the scrum and fired it on goal. The goalie, however, was in the way. The rebound came out to the Leafs' right wing, and he fired it back down the ice, all the way into Tanya's corner. The crowd gave audible signs of frustration as Tanya scurried back to retrieve the puck from behind her, and Grin looked up at the Jumbotron again. 15 seconds! He missed the fact that Zelda reminded them of time limits in situations like this.

                "Fifteen!" He heard Wildwing yell, banging his goalie stick on the ice for emphasis. "Let's go!"        Tanya fired the puck up to Duke, who slipped it between the legs of a defenseman and worked by him.

                Grin drove up the ice and towards the net, this was it.

                Duke pulled a clever move by faking a shot and sliding the puck across the crease to Mallory, who was open and waiting on the other side.

                She wound up and made a hard one-time shot, the crowd giving a collective gasp.

                But the Leafs' goalie shoved himself off of the opposite net post and stretched out his massive glove, snagging the puck in the webbing. He tossed the puck back over his net to his defensemen.

                "Five seconds!"

                Grin by now was already at the point, and darted in behind the net for the puck. He slammed the defenseman to the boards and tried to prod the puck away, but the puck was recollected by another Maple Leaf. As Grin tripped over the defenseman's stick and fell to the ice, the puck was flipped easily high in the air and back down, skidding to a stop just as the final horn sounded.

                "And the Leafs come up with wonderful defensive and goaltending work in order to hold the Ducks off!" the announcement rang throughout the Pond. "The Leafs take it 2-1!"

                The crowd, obviously unsettled, got up and started to leave in one big rush. Some pounded angrily on the boards.

                Totally exhausted and out of breath, Grin picked himself up and skated back to the bench, joining the team in filing into the locker room as the Leafs gathered to congratulate themselves on the win.

                "Dang!" Nosedive threw his helmet against his locker with a loud crash.

                The rest of the team, silent with breathlessness and disappointment, were surprised.

                "Hey!" Wildwing snapped right back at him, spinning around from his own locker as he unbuckled his pads. If Zelda were here, she would have had the energy to get into Dive's face and teach him some control, but Wildwing felt as if he could barely stand. So he flopped down on the bench and gave a tired glare to his teammates. "We can't be angry at ourselves..." he began. "I think we've all played ourselves to the point of collapse."

                "Got that right..." Mallory panted.

                "It was a close game... too close." Tanya agreed.

                "It's frustrating." Nosedive spoke up, still not making eye contact with his older brother.

                "You're not the one who let the winning goal in." Wildwing shot back.

                "Yeah well if we had some more dedicated defense..." Nosedive muttered under his breath.

                Tanya was on her feet. "Care to say that to my face you little--"

                "Enough!" Mallory yelled.

                The team fell silent again.

                "All of you bickering like ducklings." she sat back and put her head down, rubbing her still-sore wrist.

                "We tried our hardest, that's all we could do...." Grin seconded her. "The better team won, that's how it's supposed to work."

                Wildwing nodded soberly. "They're right... we shouldn't be fighting like this. What we need is rest and a good solid practice or two." He stacked one of his leg pads in his locker. "The reason that we're all so ticked is that we gave it our all tonight, and we still lost. Am I right?"

                None of them spoke up to argue.

                "Grin's right, the better team edged us out... barely. Let's just move on."

                The team slowly stacked their gear up and left the locker room in silence.

                It had been at least a week after they had returned to Anaheim from New York, and Grin had kept that strange feeling with him ever since. Not only did he miss Zelda, not only was he worried about her, but he knew that something was simply wrong with her. A day or so after they had arrived back, Wildwing had related his conversation with Northstar to him in confidence. Just why, Grin had never questioned. But Wildwing seemed to be worried about what the griffon had said. Now, these days later, Grin knew that he was right. He sensed a deep void in Zelda, something so radical that it was evident to him even cross-country. It had distracted him a lot lately... he even had thought about it during games sometimes, and it annoyed him. He knew the Ducks had left a com with the other leaders just in case, but he didn't want to bother Zelda. Something in him led him to trust her to resolve her problems on her own. It was a matter beyond the Ducks, and they wouldn't be of much help if anything. So the big Duck sat down to meditate, to try and regain his strength after such a hard game, and to clear his mind.

                She stood alone in a bonefield, and all around her there was nothing but endless lines of bone in the sand. They almost seemed to rise up around her, the soil eroding from the rounded vertebrae. Zelda backed away slowly, her tension growing as white, curved ribs poked from the earth, rising like fangs from the ground. She found them nearly crowding around her, curving up and sliding against her legs, her flank. Skulls, feet, wings began to emerge, and the dragon suddenly realized that all of these bones, all of these carcasses, were those of her own kind! The dragon tried to fly up, but the ribs had locked her feet to the earth, the hands and feet and jaws of these long-dead creatures crumbling loosely as they tried to hold her in place. Zelda started to panic, pulling harder, crying out. And suddenly there was a great blast of cold, so strong it would have knocked her over if she weren't locked standing. The wind forced her down, crouching dangerously close to the daggers of ribs at her feet. Then she heard another sound, even above the deafening roar of the wind. She heard the crackle and snap, the spitting of flames. Zelda looked up to see a towering wall of fire growing, approaching her from the horizon. In all this cold, the fire raced for her, feeding on the bones, splintering them and incinerating them upon the very brush of the flames. Terrified, Zelda tried to wrench herself free again, but the bones locked tighter around her legs with every struggling move. The cold wind blasted her back, and the firewall, now so huge that she could no longer see its top, came barreling for her, the bones even in its vicinity exploding violently into dust. The bones, the living, moving skeletons of thousands of her kind, fed the rage of the fire. The dragon screamed, helpless and alone, as the flames towered around her, searing her flesh, tearing into her frame,

                And all she felt was the cold.

                Flinging herself back into reality with a spasm of fear, the dragon rolled right out of her bed and thudded on the floor. The fall only scared her more, and she backed against the wall. The first thing she saw in the darkness was the fire, burning at the cave's end for heat. The dragon screamed in panic and spun around to dart away, a move which caused her to slam right into the stone wall of the cave.

                By now, the three other leaders were up and realized what had happened.

                Diamond leapt down and grabbed the dragon by the shoulders, trying to hold her down. This only served to fuel Zelda's panic.

                Silver and Northstar were by now blocking the exit to the cave.

                "Diamond! Back away!" Silver recommended.

                The dragon, barricaded in by her friends, had nowhere to go but back into the fire. It took a few seconds for reality to take hold of her again. She stood, gasping for breath, slowly trying to sort out what had happened.

                "Zelda?" Northstar asked, walking slowly towards her.

                Exhausted and bewildered, the dragon sat down on the stone floor. The others knew that she was okay.

                "Zelda, what happened?"

                "...Nightmare..." she breathed.

                The others exchanged worried glances.

                Northstar rumbled deeply and nuzzled his beak against the dragon's bruised snout. "It's okay." he said quietly, soothingly. "It's okay."

                Zelda nodded, still dumbfounded as to what happened.

                Diamond shook her head. "This is terrible Zelda." she said. "What did you see?"

                Zelda stared at the ground, trying to put her thoughts into some order. "I... I don't know... " she breathed. Still consumed with panic, it was all the others could do to calm her down.

                "It's alright Zel, get a hold of yourself." Silver urged gently.

                "I have..." she assured.

                "Come on Zel, I can't remember the last time you woke up from a nightmare like that." Diamond remarked, hoping to jar her memory.

                "Can't remember the last time you had a nightmare." Silver added.

                "Not here... at least." Zelda nodded. "I don't understand."

                Northstar walked past her and back to poke at the fire. "That's a dream for you." he shook his head. "You should get back to sleep if you can Zelda, you need your rest."

                "Agreed." Diamond nodded. "You didn't hurt yourself?"

                Zelda cracked a light grin. "Head or flank, it all feels the same." she rubbed the moss bandage still strapped around her stomach.

                Seeing her smile, Diamond and Silver hopped back into bed.

                "'Star's right, get back to sleep Zel." Silver yawned, giving her a gentle wave of his wing, and he pulled a blanket over him.

                Zelda shivered a bit. "Think I'll just catch some fresh air..." she strolled slowly out of the cave, parting through the covering fronds of the willow tree and emerging out into the frozen night. Bitingly cold, the sky was clear and the trees were bare. The moon reflected off of the shifting ripples of the river before her. Her breath freezing strait from her nostrils, Zelda sat on the cold stone and peered out from beneath the big rock overhanging the entrance to the Den. She heard a deep rumble behind her, and Northstar sat next to her.

                "Clear night." he said approvingly. "Wonderful for seeing the stars."

                Zelda's eyes faded slowly, and she muttered emptily. "If they could be seen..." she breathed. Shivering in the cold, she turned around and went back inside, leaving Northstar alone in the night, looking back at her.

                And so a downward spiral continued in the Territory. The leaves soon began to fall from the trees completely, leaving bare boughs that clashed in the wind. The noise they made only created more reasons, more excuses for Zelda's sleeplessness. Cold rain fell and frosts blanketed the forest in a sheet of crystalline ice. Yet as the stinging cold drove those of the Territory into the warmth of their dens and nests, it drew Zelda out. She could no longer be confined to the Den, or be held safely in the security of sleep. Despite her still-weakened condition, she spent more and more time out in the cold, and less time under the watchful eyes of her friends. The rift between her and her fellow leaders grew wider, regardless of their stepped-up efforts to pull her back into the warmth and safety of their supervision.

                It was that same warmth that greeted Northstar as he came sluggishly back into the Den on a crisp, dark night.

                Diamond looked up, in the middle of rebandaging Silver's wing, and Silver gave Northstar a mirroring hopeful stare.

                With tired eyes and a gruff snort, Northstar shook the frost out of the feathers along his powerful neck, and sat down by the fire with them.

                "You still haven't found her?"

                "It's hard to smell her in all this cold." he shook his head. "And your nose stops working after a time, hm?"

                Diamond nodded sympathetically.

                The griffon took a carved wooden bowl from the floor and ladled a thick vegetable stew out for himself, eating thoughtfully. "She shouldn't be out this late."

                "It's not like she hasn't done this before..." Diamond began.

                Northstar looked up at her curiously.

                The lioness eased off from her fabricated answer. "I know, I know, I'm wrong." she admitted. "She hasn't... not like this."

                The griffon ruffled his feathers and looked distant. "It is as I feared." he said lowly.

                The other two looked down at the ground.

                "What can we do?" Silver asked sadly. "I feel... as if I'm a part of this."

                "We all are... in a way." Diamond said. They looked to the griffon with a hopeful spark in their eyes, and Northstar paused in looking back. Something made him, for once, shrink away from their gaze.

                "Give me time to think." he pleaded half-heartedly. With a swish of his tail, the griffon went outside into the cold again, to sit on top of the rock above the Den, and to ponder.

                It had been a long time since he felt such uncertainty in his life. It had been a long time since he had been unable to greet the questioning eyes of his friends with some kind of an answer. In the crisp, still night, the griffon hardly noticed the cold of the rock against his fur as he slumped over the stone that shaded the entrance to the cave. He thought hard, and remembered. He remembered back to a time... at least ten years ago to be sure, that he received many of those questioning looks. It was a year of turmoil, that and the few that would follow. The old leaders began to buckle and fall, too weak with age to battle back against what remained of the Plauge. They carried it inside their ancient frames like rot within the trunk of the strongest oak, which would fester and spread until the mightiest tree would crumble to the touch. Canter had begun to show it first, her gentle, soft and lionhearted spirit slowly starting to harden and wear away. The griffon remembered it well, being only about ten years of age at the time. He remembered the day when he came into a circle of his distraught kind, and beheld the lifeless body of one of the last surviving creatures who held memory of the Caves, of the North. That day, the fighting broke out over who would replace her. Such irony, Northstar reflected these many years later, that the life of so gentle a leader would end in such blood. He was too caught up in the fighting at the time to wax poetic on the matter. But the Tournaments, with all their violence, held true to their purpose. This, some thirty years later, was what he had become, a living reflection of his former leader. He had several more years time in his position than the others, as he had watched the three other leaders die around him, and learned from their age. Diamond was the youngest, then there was Zelda, and Silver in their positions. He had been there to welcome them all, and often had be been the giver of advice. These years later, nothing had changed. Until now, he supposed. Northstar puzzled over the matter of Zelda's condition, wondering if it really was as he feared. He flashed back to what he had said to Wildwing before he left, and wondered if he overreacted. Of course the Duck couldn't tell the difference anyway, but it was a matter of personal irritation. He had never heard of a spiritfall, save for old stories the elders told. He had sought their counsel on the matter over the past few days, but their stories had served of little comfort to him. There were no symptoms for Diamond to calculate, no problems that Zelda would let Silver analyze. But what was his role in this matter? How would he wedge himself so as to leverage the dragon out of this problem, whatever it was? For once, he was the one asking the questions, and they were serious enough to start to tear him rough at the edges, just as the wind did his feathers. As he mused over all the confusion in his head, he heard a twig snap in the distance. The frosty leaves crunching beneath her feet, Zelda came plodding slowly back for the cave, ignorant to the noise she was making. Head down, came to the side of the river, stepping methodically on the stones and passing into the cave without even realizing Northstar was there. The griffon stood to follow her, still not being able to answer anything.

                Zelda came in slowly, her muscles tight with the cold.

                Silver and Diamond stood to meet her, but she neither met their gaze nor said a word. Silver and Diamond exchanged glances.

                As the dragoness turned to climb up into her bed, the eagle suddenly slid in her way, stretching his injured wing before her.

                The dragon stopped and met his gently confrontational eyes.

                Northstar came in during all of this, confused. A glance to Diamond resolved everything: they were to find out now.

                Zelda snorted lowly and tried to push Silver's wing aside gently, but the eagle would not let her pass. Finally, she spoke. "Silver..." she started.

                "Zelda, stay with us a while." he pleaded.

                The dragon sat reluctantly.

                The three joined her to form a circle by the fire.

                "No more stories Zelda." Diamond began gently, almost nervously. "Tell us what's going on."          The dragon tossed her head like an irritated horse and slid back. "I told you." she shot a glare in Silver's direction. "This concerns none of you."

                "On the contrary." Northstar broke in with a stronger voice. "You know well this concerns all of us."

                Again the dragon found noises instead of words. It got the message across better to the others.      "My fears Zelda, have both confused me and made me doubt myself." Northstar continued sternly.

                Zelda shrank a bit.

                "You know, don't you?"

                "They are stories..." she blurted. "Stories, tales."

                "And you." he continued. "You are the keeper of those stories. You know." he ruled.

                Zelda paused, but her eyes could not lie. Quivering and gray, they showed that Northstar was right.

                "Tell us." Silver pleaded. "Tell us what's wrong."

                The dragon growled, actually bordering on anger. "It doesn't concern you." she said darkly, turning her frustrated gaze to the wall.

                Diamond looked at her hopelessly, and Silver hesitated. But there was one growl in reply. Northstar was gentle but firm as he gripped the bottom of her jaw and lifted her head to face the group again.

                "You know." he snarled. "You know exactly what it is, you know it's stronger than you. It's not stronger than us, you know that much."

                "I don't know that." Zelda choked, trying to pull away from his blazing golden eyes.

                "Blast your altruism!!!" he snapped and released her.

                Shocked, the whole group stared at the ruffled griffon.

                "Don't protect us this time Zelda. It is not stronger that us, why do you fear we'll be pulled in too?"

                Zelda was still stunned, but answered him. "...It took me... so easily...."

                "Easily as you forgot how weak we are, when we are alone." he ruled angrily. His purpose of breaking her shell done, Northstar softened and saw how his gruffness had hurt her and surprised the others. He brushed the dragon gently with his wing and rumbled.

                It was Diamond's turn now. "Zelda please, we want to help. We have to help! We can't let this happen to you." she pleaded. "Tell us what's been going on."

                Broken and tired, Zelda relented. "You know the gist of it." she sighed, and lay on the stone floor of the cave. "It's been so long... I'm not sure when it started... maybe with Ibid.... maybe before."

                "What started?" Diamond asked.

                "The... feeling." she quivered. "The feeling."

                "What is it?"

                "Like... I'm not all here.... like I don't belong here."

                "But you're home." Silver broke in, trying to sort things out.

                "I know... but yet I'm not." she tried to explain, frustrated.

                "And it's grown beyond that." Diamond pressed.

                "I've... been having nightmares." Zelda confessed. "Why I can't sleep. I've been losing my sense, my sense of place, of direction... I've been lost even here. I've lost you." She shivered a bit.       Northstar took this in quietly, claw on beak, musing.

                "But why is this happening?" Silver asked. "What triggered this?"

                "I don't know." Zelda shook her head. "I can't tell... that's why I'm so lost."

                There was a heavy pause in the conversation, as if the other three leaders had fallen to the same sad pondering Zelda had been doing for nearly two weeks.

                "Do you remember them?" Silver asked suddenly.

                "What?" Zelda asked, distracted.

                "Your nightmares." he said, thinking carefully. "They might give us a clue...."

                "Yes." Diamond seconded. She broke off only to pull a log from a small stack in the corner and place it gently in the fire.

                Zelda watched the sparks rise and fade with her dull eyes, thinking. The three waited as she tried to recollect her thoughts. She closed her eyes and laid her ears back.          

                "Nothing?" Northstar asked.

                "All a jumble." she sighed. "I can't go back..."

                "You have to Zel." Diamond pleaded with her.

                Zelda shook her head again wearily, giving up. "Let me sleep." she pleaded back, not facing any of them. She again got up and slowly tried to reach her bed.

                The others exchanged worried glances, but they were all tired and decided to let her go.

                Still slow with the cold, she pulled herself up into her bed and disappeared within a heap of blankets and moss, not making another movement or another sound.

                Not having moved themselves, the three leaders were silent and continued to talk with each other through their looks. However, all they came up with were confused and empty glances.

                Only Northstar did not engage in conversation, and sat looking at the stone floor. He was decided, confirmed on his suspicions. Heaving himself up, he climbed up into his own bed.

                Left alone and now even more confused, Diamond and Silver stared alternately at the two. Finally, they themselves turned aside and up to bed.

                The only thing that stayed awake was the fire.

                As the winter set in with its frozen darkness, the animals of the Territory began to reflect Zelda's turmoil in themselves. Knowing something was desperately wrong with their leader, they all began a retrograde into the state they were in only a few weeks before. Some tried to patronize the dragon when they saw her, crunching amongst the frosty leaves with a glaze over her eyes. They, however, were sadly spurned away, at times with bitterness and at times with Zelda simply walking away. In a matter of days, they realized that it was of little use. They cast a worried eye to her, but felt uneasy in doing anything about it. And their chances quickly shrunk. Zelda would disappear from the eyes of all but the leaders for days at a time. Sometimes, she would never leave her bed. On other days, she would not return to it until the dead of night. Perhaps it was the cold, perhaps it was her condition, but her heart hardened and turned indifferent of the world around her. She could be covered with frost or dangerously close to the blazing fire, and would not lose the distance and grayness in her eyes. Music failed to stir her, and she lost recognition of the rest of the natural world. Human speech faded quickly from her. In all aspects, she was a total recluse of spirit. However, she kept moving throughout the small space of the Territory, walking like a ghost at the same slow pace, her breath fogging the air as she went. Northstar's hunch, though he was slow to reveal it and still doubted himself, was passed onto Diamond and Silver. He knew Zelda to be in a spiritfall. The very idea puzzled, and horrified, and worried the three until they were nearly beside themselves. But it seemed to be undeniable.

                It was on one cold evening when the three leaders were huddled inside the Den, against the snow, that Silver made a proposal. He hobbled up to his nest, and fumbled beneath a mess of blankets and feathers, until he pulled out something in his balled wing. He revealed it to the other two as one of the Ducks's coms!

                "Where on earth did you get that?" Diamond asked, a bit taken aback.

                Silver hid the com in his feathers again, as if it were some contraband item. "I asked them for one... before they left." he explained slowly.

                Northstar ruffled his feathers a bit at this.

                "I know I shouldn't have..." Silver muttered aloud. "I don't know why I did... to this day."

                "You'd better not let Zelda see that." Northstar noted quietly.

                Silver nodded. "I was thinking." he continued. "Surely they must be worried."

                Diamond nodded slightly. "I'm sure they are..." she started. "But is it wise to let them know?"

                "They could be a distraction again." Northstar nodded. "But I don't know of what level this time. They may actually make things worse."

                "You make a good point..." Silver said. "This isn't about them."

                "It's about her." Northstar nodded.

                "If she rejects her basest elements," Diamond also agreed. "There's nothing to say that the Ducks could solve anything."

                "Still, they might wish to know." Silver looked at the com, then closed his feathered fist again decisively. "No." he muttered. "If she wishes their worry she'll seek it out. She knows where to find it. There's no need to have them fretting over her too." He went back and buried the com deep in his blankets.

                Northstar sniffed the air and huffed. "I don't like this Silver." he said quietly. "She would have found that com, had she her senses, already."

                "I like it even less." Silver said, looking as if he expected Northstar not to believe him. "I have the worst fears of inviting danger back into our land with this..."

                "Oh, let us give this up for now!" Diamond threw up her paws with exhaustion. "Zelda's the ultimate way of inviting danger from there to here. We accepted that." There was suddenly a noise, and the three turned to see Zelda, poking her head from around the corner. She had been listening, but for how long? Her eyes conveyed she had only caught Diamond's words, and took them as an insult. Before any could call her back, the dragon turned and shuffled out  into the snow. They heard her crunch up to the stone above the cave, and settle down there to sleep.

                Diamond stepped forwards. "I've gotta apologize for that..." she muttered.

                But Northstar checked her, holding up a paw. "Maybe, but later." he requested. "That is a matter which she's already been chewing on for some time. Besides," he turned around and lowered his voice. "You are right."

                The listlessness was almost unbearable. Duke had slept so late that morning, he couldn't sleep any more. Yet, he was still tired. He sat alone in the Galley, too sleepy to eat, and too hungry to sleep. He was just plain bored. 11:30 on a Sunday and nothing was on TV! Duke muted the little one mounted in the corner in disgust. Most of all, he didn't want to watch SportsCenter, he didn't want to watch the local news. He didn't want to see any highlights, hear any jokes, about last night. They had given all they had to tie the Devils in overtime. The game was a brilliant clash, but getting only the tie was almost heartbreaking. They were winless in their last three, one loss and two ties in that order. They had done respectably against some of the top teams in the league, but the whole team seemed desperate for a win. For all their struggles, what kept them from the win column was a measly goal! The forwards were frustrated because they couldn't score, and the defense and goaltending were frustrated because they couldn't stop the scoring. The whole team just seemed disenchanted with the sport. However, today was declared an off day. No practices, no photo-shoots, no anything! Duke had slept more last night than he felt he had in a week. Still, many of the bumps and bruises he had gained during the last few games hadn't gone away. He looked across the table to find Grin meditating in absolute silence. How could he be so calm? Duke was just about to put his head on the table and drop off, when there was a noise in the hallway.

                Wildwing came in, half awake himself, and found a chair to sit in. "Sorry." he noticed Duke's grogginess.

                "No, it's okay." Duke waved back. "Couldn't sleep another wink if I wanted to. It's almost noon!"

                "Yeah, a lot of the others are still asleep too, I'd guess. I can't believe how hard we played last night." There was a melancholy tone in his voice.

                "Hey, not bad against the best team in the east." Duke shrugged. For once, he did a bad job of lying.

                Wildwing gave him a tired glance and nodded slightly. "We've gotta put this behind us." he sighed. "Three tough teams in the past five days, it's been a nightmare schedule this whole week. I think we all need the break today."

                "I'm not gonna argue with you there." Duke waved a hand.

                Wildwing yawned and frowned, rubbing his thigh. "Think I slept on this wrong." he muttered, annoyed. "Better have Tanya check it out... hope I didn't pull anything." He gave up talking and the three sat in silence for a few minutes.

                There were noises down the hallway soon afterwards, and Mallory joined them in a chair. "Morning." she said, with light sarcasm.

                "Morning yourself." Duke yawned. "Hope you're more awake than I am."

                Mallory took a few seconds to judge. "Maybe barely." she grinned slightly. "I am soooo glad we have the day off."

                "We've all got a lot of stuff to sort through." Wildwing nodded.

                "And thank goodness Draggy isn't going to make any housecalls." Mallory examined her nails carefully. "Not after the beating he took. Zelly's had him out for, how long, a few weeks now?"

                There was an awkward pause in the room.

                Mallory looked up to find her teammates staring at the table, or the floor, or something beneath. She realized what she had said. "Oops." she muttered.

                "It really has been a few weeks." Wildwing mused quietly. "Has she ever been away this long?"      Grin didn't seem to hear. He closed his eyes and lifted his beak up a bit.

                Mallory thought a bit. "Yeah... haven't heard from her at all." she said.

                "We may not for some time..." Grin broke in softly.

                The three looked at him strangely, but he didn't break his gaze.

                "What do you mean?" Wildwing asked, interested.

                "I'm not sure myself." he frowned a bit, eyes still closed. "But things aren't right with her... not yet. They're different, but not right."

                "Hmph." Wildwing nodded a bit. He knew by now, after all this time, to trust Grin's intuition. "Maybe we should go check on her. You know we do have that game in Philly this weekend..."

                "No." Grin broke in, rather abruptly for him.

                Again, the trio gave him their full attention.

                "No... I don't think that's a good idea."

                "Why not?" Mallory put her hands on her hips. "She's probably still hurt..."

                "Because I don't think it involves us." he murmured.

                "We're still her friends."

                "It's beyond us." Grin nearly glared at her.

                Mallory sat silently.

                Wildwing frowned a bit. "You and Zelda have always had the weirdest hunches about each other." he started, leaning on the table. "What's going on?"

                Grin nodded a bit, as if he knew he would need to explain. "It's her senses." he started. "Like all of her kind, she's got nearly extrasensory perception. It's not just all animal, although it's closely associated with her instincts."

                Wing and Mallory looked at him strangely.

                Grin shook his head. "Zelda's always been able to sense extreme emotions in her kin, and in us."

                "That's how she seems to know when things are wrong..." Mallory said slowly.

                "And that's how she knew that Silver was hurt." Wildwing added. "And you've got that 'sense' too?"

                "Not even close." Grin shook his head. "I wish I did. It's too closely tied to the earth for me to obtain. And her's is innate, refined by age. Mine comes through spiritual living." he bowed slightly. "They're just similar in some ways... so I can have the link to her that she has to the rest of us."

                The three still didn't understand completely.

                Duke shook his head and stood.

                "I just don't like it." Wildwing mumbled. "But you're right, this is between her and her kind. We'll leave her alone... for now."

                It was going to snow. Diamond could smell the iciness in the air, and could see the clouds on the horizon through the trees. It was going to snow a lot, the first big snow of the winter. The land around her was nearly empty of her kind. Silver and Northstar were napping after lunch in the Den, and she should have been with them. Everyone had been packing themselves up with a store of food, to last out the snow. But Zelda, as usual, was nowhere to be found. She had not come back to the Den to sleep the night before, the first time she had ever done that... now Diamond had been pulled out of the warmth of the cave by the strength of her worry. There was something that she felt... something like the way she felt on the day that Silver's fever broke. She felt like something was going to break, to come to a head. As she thought, there was suddenly a swoosh behind her. Diamond turned to see Zelda flapping through the cold air to land before the cave, on the sheet of ice that covered the river. Her scales seemed glazed over with a sheet of the ice itself, and her eyes as gray as the coming clouds. Diamond trotted back to her and nuzzled her bandaged side.

                With a strange expression, Zelda rumbled and beckoned her inside the cave.

                Diamond realized that she had something to say. She followed her in, and saw Northstar and Silver awaken as she came before them.

                "Zelda!" Northstar greeted warmly. "Nice to see you back again. What kept you out last night?"      Zelda closed her eyes and took a few moments to reply. "Thinking." she murmured. "About what's been happening to me."

                Silver gently slipped out of his bed, and sat beside the dragon on the floor. "What do you mean?"

                "I mean I've come back... because I've figured things out." her voice was low and weak with the cold.

                Northstar frilled his ears a bit. Could she finally...? He also slipped out of bed. "What did you figure out?" the griffon asked gently. He'd have to be careful with her. "What were your answers?"

                Zelda hung her head slowly, still slow in speaking. "I have no answers." she sighed. "But I now know they are not here."

                Northstar's hopes were crushed.

                "Zelda, what are you talking about?" Diamond asked, also distressed.

                "I must leave..." she said, with a kind of desperation in her voice. "This is tearing me apart-- I must leave."

                "Zelda..." Silver began, hesitating. "Where will you go?"

                The dragon turned away, a sickly look on her face. She let out a frustrated sigh. She didn't know. She couldn't tell.

                Northstar was at his wit's end to try and understand her. What had brought about such a change as this? Only a few weeks beforehand Zelda refused to leave Silver's side. Now she wished to abandon the Territory? What questions weighed so heavy on her soul as to drive her from her home?

                "I must leave." she finally repeated. "It is calling me... I will find my way."

                "But Zelda, you're in no condition to leave." Diamond began to counter her. "What with your injuries still not healing after all this time, and the winter---"

                "I must." she shook her head and turned back towards the exit. Her paces were staggered, as if she were almost pulling against some heavy weight to escape from the Den.

                Diamond suddenly realized that the last thing Zelda wanted to do was to leave. She simply had to. But why?

                The dragon reached the willow curtain and stopped, breathing slowly. She swiveled her head around and looked back with the saddest eyes, already brimming with tears.

                Those behind her were still racing to come to grips with all that was happening.

                With a sudden howl of frustration, the dragon slammed her head into the stone floor, staggering to get up. "By the stars!" she cried out. "I can't leave you, not now, not like this!"

                This outburst brought her friends to her side.

                Silver wrapped the dragon up in his wings. The show of his injury only seemed to hurt Zelda more, and she was reduced to a shivering, choking heap of scales.

                The three were amazed, but still tried to help her stand again.

                "Zelda." Silver insisted, striving for some clarity on the matter in his own mind. "If something calls you, answer it. Go!"

                Zelda did not return his gaze.

                He shook her gently and forced her to look at him. "Don't worry about us. Go."

                "You won't be at peace with yourself if you stay." Northstar agreed softly.

                Diamond took a few seconds to shake off her fearful look. "Go." she nudged the dragon. "We won't be at peace with ourselves if you stay."

                Zelda looked at them with a hopeless, confused gaze. Torn between her mysterious oppressor and her friends, the dragon hung in silence for some time. Finally, she regained her own feet and turned her back to them once again. With the same great strain, she poked her head out of the cave, and spread her wings as if they were coated with lead. Rising slowly from the forest, she wheeled about to the north.

                As she gave her powerful departing flap, the dragon let out a cry that was so tearing, it involuntarily brought tears to the eyes of those watching in the cave below.

                "Take a look at this Wildwing." Tanya started up suddenly from the console.

                Her leader turned from sitting on a chair nearby, and came over to her. "What is it?"

                "It's a com message... but it's not from any of us." Tanya frowned, tapping away. "Just came in."

                "Patch it up on the screen." he suggested.

                Static snapped across the huge screen of Drake 1, and suddenly the link was established. There was a massive gray blur for a moment, that focused in to reveal a feather. It was pulled away to reveal Silver, fiddling with the device.

                "Silver?" Wildwing asked, surprised.

                The eagle realized the com was working and set it back a ways, widening the view to reveal he, Diamond and Northstar sitting together in a cave.

                "I had hoped this would work." the eagle nodded a bit.

                Wildwing looked at the trio strangely. They all looked odd... disorganized and shifty, a little ragged.

                "What's wrong?" he asked. "Has something happened with Dragaunus?"

                "Thank the stars no." Northstar rumbled, ruffling his feathers. "But I fear it may be something worse. You haven't seen Zelda, have you?"

                Wildwing frowned deeply. "No, we thought she was with you." he answered.

                With the negative response, the three seemed to be even more at a loss.

                "What's going on?" he repeated.

                "We are not sure ourselves..." Diamond began slowly. "But Zelda left a few days ago... we hoped she was going back to Anaheim."

                "But she isn't here." Tanya said.

                "And so." Northstar sighed. "Our fears are confirmed... I was right Wildwing." he hung his head. "I was right about her."

                "The spiritfall." Wildwing remembered slowly.

                Northstar nodded sadly.

                "So she left? Where would she go?" Tanya asked.

                "That's what we don't know." Silver shook his feathered head. "She's taken neither kin nor com... the only clue we have is that she headed north..." he instantly fell silent.

                "What... does that mean?" Wildwing ventured.

                Northstar growled lowly. "Nothing to you Duck." he suddenly turned gruff. "There is nothing that you can do to get her back."

                "But we've got to try something... maybe our scanners?" Wildwing pressed.

                The griffon tossed his head and refused to speak further.

                Diamond replied nervously. "We really don't know, whether we should find her or not." she said. "We're so worried."

                "As are we." Tanya said. "Was she at least alright before she left? Healed up?"

                Diamond shook her head.

                "What about you?" Wildwing asked. "There won't be any fights or anything?"

                "No." Silver answered. "She's taken the only fight with her."

                Northstar snorted again.

                "I'm sorry to trouble you with this Wildwing. We are concerned about her, as I'm sure you are, and we just want to know she's safe. But we'll make no effort to find her now. She's got to do this on her own."

                "Do what?" the leader asked.

                Northstar shook his head again.

                "We'll let you know if anything comes up. Will you do the same?" the eagle asked.

                Wildwing nodded.

                "Thank you Ducks." Silver's comment was hollow. With another smudge of a wing, he shut the com off, and the connection was terminated.

                The Ready Room again turned silent, save for the efficient humming of Drake 1. The two Ducks stood rather stunned for a few moments.

                "Save that message Tanya." Wildwing requested. Turning, he opened his own com. "Report to the Ready Room Ducks." he ordered. "We've got some news."

                Silver hesitated, nudging his bandaged wing wound a bit with his beak. The pain it created served to distract him for only a moment. He folded it gingerly along his back and faced Northstar. For the first time in his memory, the griffon did not return his gaze. He seemed lost, trying to distract himself as Silver had. Diamond was silent, her back to them both. Silver felt a deep rift in her... and she was very afraid. She had good reason... poor thing. The eagle was softened by her. Finally, he spoke.

                "Northstar..." the griffon looked up. "You've been talking to the elders... what a change is this?"      The reddish-brown griffon pawed the stone floor, hesitating. "I don't want to believe what they have told me." he started, his deep voice now rough and unsure.

                "This is frightening for all of us." Silver replied slowly. "But Diamond and I, we've got to know what's going on. What is it?"

                Diamond looked around as well.

                Pressed underneath their combined gaze, Northstar finally gave in. "It is a spiritfall, that you know." he started. "But the stories of the elders are muttled, worn over and clouded by the passage of time."

                "How long a time?" Diamond asked, a spark of curiosity in her.

                Again Northstar hesitated. "You know how this land was found, don't you?"

                "I remember the stories." Silver nodded. "One of our kind ventured from the caves, alone, before the rest of us..." he paused as he tried to piece his memory together.

                "Yes." the griffon said. "The elders cannot remember what creature it was, what it was named, whether or not it was a leader. This was millions of years ago, in our exile, in our fear of the Plague. This creature wandered alone until it came to this land. It died here... they don't remember why. And when the others finally emerged from the cave years later, they followed the trail somehow. That's how they settled here... and here we have stayed."

                "That's the story." Diamond nodded. "Why is that important?"

                "Because the elders never told one detail." Northstar stated, his eyes sharp. "That creature was the last to experience a spiritfall. It was driven from the caves not by our kind, but by some fracture of its soul."

                "It's that strong... to make one of our kind brave the world alone? With the Plague still rampant?" Diamond breathed.

                "I didn't want to believe them." Northstar repeated weakly, sitting on the floor.

                The group was quiet for a long time.

                "I suppose it could be seen as constructive." Silver ventured, a synthetic quality to his voice. "That creature discovered our home... now our spiritual base is here."

                "Aye." the griffon agreed. "But now Zelda has gone north... and to backtrack leads her down an old and dangerous path."

                The cave fell silent again. They would wait for her.

                There were a lot of puzzled faces in the Ready Room. The message was played back a couple of times, but didn't answer anything.         

                "She's... gone?" Mallory asked.

                "This is very unusual." Grin muttered.

                "But she never told us... and never told them where she went." Dive scratched his head. "Why would she just desert them?"

                "They did say she headed north..." Wildwing mused.

                "Yeah, what's up with that?" Duke asked. "Northstar got such an attitude about that. I wonder why."

                "It's gotta mean something." Tanya thought. "But their lives have always centered around the Territory. What significance could the north have?"

                They stood pondering for a few moments.

                "Maybe it's a star or something... the north star?" Duke suggested.

                "It is the steadiest directional guide short of a compass..." Tanya nodded.

                Grin closed his eyes and thought hard for a few minutes, then shook his head. "I have an idea." he started.

                The Ducks listened in.

                "Do any of you remember how she explained the story of her kind to us?"

                "You mean about her lineage to Draggy, right?" Dive asked.

                "Partially." Grin said. "But she has told that story with a different end... it focused more on her kind."

                "Well you seem to remember it best Grin." Wildwing said. "What would you catch in there with significance to the north?"

                "According to Zelda's elders." Grin began. "The Plague swept over the planet 65 million years ago. The only ones able to escape it were a small band which hid in caves for at least a thousand years."

                "Talk about a layover." Dive joked.

                "So why is that important?" Mallory asked.

                "Because if I remember right, Zelda said those caves were in the north... the frozen north."

                "Sheesh... she must be headed back for them!" Wildwing snapped his fingers. "Good thinking Grin."

                "But those caves have gotta be pretty far away... Alaska, upper Canada, they could be anywhere!" Duke said. "How could she find them?"

                "I trust she'll know." Grin said. "The real question is, how can we find her?"

                "Wait a minute." Tanya folded her arms before him. "The real question is should we find her?"         Grin looked down, a little surprised. But he saw this was a question that had no definite answer. Even as she spoke it, the tension in the room grew. Grin frowned.

                Wildwing tried not to be pulled into the conversation. His job was supposed to be a mediator... a decision-maker. He had to hear both sides and be fair. But before him there was a visible rift growing between his teammates. As politely and reasonably as they could, they debated with each other over the question Tanya had so daringly posed. She still stood, arms folded, reasoning with Grin over going out to search for Zelda. Others were slowly being pulled in, although they remained speechless. Wildwing knew it was only a matter of time before they became audibly involved. He tried to block out his own opinions, and listen.

                "Grin, you know Zelda well." Tanya argued. "We all do. But nobody knows her like the others of her kind, the other leaders."

                Grin nodded a bit to this point.

                "Then why can't we agree with their judgment? They decided to let her work her problems out on her own."

                "But we don't know their reasons." Grin broke in. "There are things in this which we don't understand."

                "All the more reason to trust them!" Tanya replied.

                "I think I see where Grin's going here." Mallory started slowly. "They know her well, but we know her under different circumstances. She lives a different life here Tanya, but it's still her life. This has as much to do with us as it does the leaders. They don't know what goes on here."

                "But she said it wasn't about Dragaunus." Duke piped up. "She told me that before we left, after she fought him. It was principle. I don't think we should be the ones to butt in here."

                "Who's butting in? She's our friend too." Dive muttered.

                "There have been notes of strength from the leaders." Grin said. "But you saw how weak they were beneath. They are worried for her. Perhaps they trust too much in their hopes for her safety."

                "I thought you said they were the best judges of that." Tanya remarked.

                "She's right Grin." Duke nodded slowly. "They've got a history, a tradition... that sense of theirs. If anyone would know that's she's in danger, it's them."

                "A sense that you don't have." Tanya added, almost in an insulting tone.

                Grin caught it, and it took him aback a bit.

                "All I know is that one of our best friends is in dire straits." he said lowly. "Think, all of you. Clear your minds and remember what she's done for us. It's been too hard on her to simply trust blind faith. She didn't do that with us. She was never able to let us go alone. Some of us are alive today thanks to that." he bowed his head a bit.

                "Don't you remember, Wildwing?" Duke suddenly asked.

                The leader was thrown off by the direct questioning. He was trying to stay out of this. Duke was doing this on purpose. "Don't you remember when Nu stole your consciousness? We all thought Zelda was crazy when she started babbling about being able to find you. But she couldn't let you stay alone. Who knows what we would have done without her?"

                Wildwing tried to remain expressionless as he looked back.

                "Now she's alone." Grin said simply.

                "Wouldja just give her a bit of her pride?" Nosedive broke in with a snap. "Really! How do you think she's going to feel? She's gone out trying to do something for herself, by herself, and suddenly we show up to save the day. She's not stupid, she knows what she's getting into."

                "But she is proud, that's the point." Duke argued. "Too proud to come to us for help."

                "How can you assume that?" Mallory asked. "Nothing like this has ever happened before!"

                "All the better to err on the side of caution." Grin said lowly.

                She turned around and threw her hands up. "Enough, enough, before we really start fighting!" she pleaded. "This whole thing'll tear us apart." She locked her eyes on Wildwing, who suddenly felt helpless. "You're the leader Wing. You make the decisions."

                He hesitated.

                Duke folded his arms.

                "She's right, you're the boss Wing." he said. "We'll go along with whatever you decide. You know best."

                The leader sat down in a chair and almost chuckled. "How I wish that was true." he shook his head. "You all make good points, what can I say?" he rubbed his head. "You're right Mal, nothing like this has happened before. For the first time, Zelda's problems turn back more to her own kind that to us. There is a line she's always kept between us and her kind. I think she's just feared for their safety really." he thought frankly. "But we don't know where that line is. To be honest, I'm worried sick about her. I'm not ready to face the consequences if something happens to her out there. She's a member of this team. I wouldn't let one of you out there alone."

                "So what do we do?" Tanya was getting exasperated.

                In fact the whole team looked the same way.

                "We'll find her--" he started. Duke and Tanya opened their beaks, but Wildwing put up a hand. "But... we can't force her back if we do. I just want to know what's going on. This is something she has to do by herself." The two still looked uneasy. "Dive, you're going up there alone."

                Nosedive snapped to as if he had been asleep.  "Me?" he asked.

                "Him?" Duke and Tanya asked simultaneously.

                Wildwing eyed them both. "Yes, him."

                Tanya opened her beak again, but Duke put a hand on her shoulder. "He's got a point sweetheart." he said quietly.

                Tanya didn't understand, but remained silent.

                Grin stood musing over the whole idea. "I suppose seeing her alright is the key." he nodded. "I just want to know she is okay."

                "Me too. We all do." Wildwing nodded. "So we're agreed?"

                "Agreed." They all answered.

                There was another long pause. Nobody moved.

                "Sheesh." Mallory said softly. "Let's not fight like that again."

                "Hey, guess what... I think I have a cold, mebbe I shouldn't go." Dive piped up.

                "Here." His brother shoved a heavy coat in his face.

                "This thing's not stuffed with down, is it?" he asked fearfully.

                Wildwing rolled his eyes. "Quit being such a baby Dive." he muttered, turning around to load up more gear. "Tanya! Do you have those latest coordinates programmed into this computer yet?"

                "Not yet, just doing another last-minute scan!" she called from the ship's console. Tanya had been able to work a little magic to bring them all the way up here, to the Canadian border. Using their satallite, Tanya had been able to combine a geographical scan of upper North America with a geological survey. Although the results were sketchy, the most likely place for a limestone cave to be found would be just off the northeastern Canadian coast. It had brought them all the way back up to Wisconsin, which was where they were really going by coincidence. They would have to do without Dive for their game in Philly. Wildwing's attention was pulled to the driver's seat as Duke sat with a pair of headphones and a mic on, arguing.

                "Yes I understand there will be military excercises in the area...." he sighed, annoyed. "Look, can't you tell them to just not shoot down the plane that looks like a big duck?" After a pause, Duke tore the headphones off angrily. "Stupid Air Force." he snarled.

                "What is it now?" Mallory asked.

                "Looks like they're going through a training mission with the Canadian Force just north of here, they won't give us the clearance to cross the border!" he rubbed his head.

                "Great." Wildwing sighed.

                "What? What's that? Can we go home?" Nosedive poked his head out of the glider he was inspecting.

                "Nothing bro, looks like we'll be booting you out of the nest sooner than expected." he turned and loaded more fuel into the tank. This was an unexpected problem indeed. It was discomforting enough to send Dive out into the freezing cold with only a glider. Wing wished he wouldn't have to go alone... yet he knew this was the right thing to do. Dive, however, didn't seem to realize the same. He had an obvious fear of going out there. Wildwing emptied the fuel can and stowed it. The Aerowing slowed to a hover at the Canadian border. In the distance, fighter planes zoomed by.

                "This is as far as we can go." Duke shook his head.

                Slowly, Dive slipped on a heavy jacket. "You know, I really don't think we should be doing this bro." he muttered to Wildwing.

                "I'm not going to take chances." he patted Dive's shoulder. "You know where everything is in here. Be sure to radio if anything happens."

                Dive nodded and saddled himself into the glider.

                "I've downloaded the most detailed maps I can get into the computer on board." Tanya said. "You'll get some clues from there. I've also calculated how far Zel could have gotten, seeing as how she's probably moving too fast."

                "Thanks Tanya." Dive called from inside.

                The whole team turned to face him as Tanya opened the ship's lower hatch, a blast of freezing air filling the cabin.

                Dive shuffled the glider's light frame on his shoulders nervously. "Be back soon, make sure those Philly boys don't miss me." Drawing in a deep breath, he stepped forward and dropped down.

                Closing the hatch, the team turned to the windshield to see the glider rocket north. Soon, it disappeared into the clouds.

                Slowly, Duke turned the ship away, and started to the south.

                Snow fluttered down and settled gently on his head. There was the lightest whispering of the snow as it touched down, but otherwise, everything else was silent in a world of gray and white. Snow had blanketed everything in a cold yet soft covering. Trees bowed sleepily under the weight, and the river below him bubbled and flowed beneath a thick sheet of rippled ice. This was the season of his hatching, and Silver's blood tingled with the excitement of the season's first heavy snow. Yet the eagle's heart was beyond his home, and his thoughts were in the clouds. He stood alone on the freezing rock above the Den, drawing the calm from his surroundings into him, to concentrate. Yet he wasn't thinking hard enough, and he was growing frustrated. Silver gave up, opening his eyes and looking around him with a huff. How he missed her...

                There suddenly was a light crunching in the show behind him. There was a gentle rumble, and Diamond rested her head lightly on the eagle's shoulder. Her breath fogged in the cold. "It's beautiful." she nodded.

                Silver smiled a bit. "Keeping everyone warm, at least, under this." he gestured with his good wing. "I wish Zelda could see this."

                Diamond closed her eyes. "So do I...."

                "Can't find her either?" he asked, looking at her intently.

                "No... she's gone... she really is." Diamond shivered a bit.

                There was a pause as both of them just looked out over the landscape.

                "It scares me sometimes Silver." the lioness started. "Sometimes I think, what if... she's died out there."

                The eagle snapped back quickly, looking very serious. "We'd know." he said sternly. "We'd know..." His voice trailed off, leaving silence. "I don't think it's that bad."

                "I don't know sometimes." she sighed. "But I trust her. She'll come back, she's got to."

                "Yes." Silver nodded. "She does. I miss her... This land needs its leader back."

                "She needs herself back first." Diamond replied.

                Silver drew a wing around her and helped to warm her up in the cold.

                "We will wait for her."

                "There is something more to this." Silver mused. "I have seen many of the elders over the past few days, heard the stories they have told Northstar."

                "And?" Diamond asked.

                "And I've been seeing a spiritfall... more as a prophetic journey... the more I listen."

                "Really?" Diamond was interested. "Northstar is wrong?"

                "No." he said quickly. "No... I wouldn't say he was wrong. He's afraid for her, like we all are."

                "So you're saying he's twisted things?"

                Silver thought for a moment. "You know, I wouldn't say that either. You've got to look at how the elders view the spiritfall stories." he rubbed his beak. "It's rather strange, Umber and Tundra seem to think that the last spiritfall was a good thing. Although the journeyer died, it led us here." he gestured at the silence around him.

                "And they think of Zelda the same way?" Diamond asked.

                "Well, no..." he hesitated. "Now that they see it before their eyes. They're more in line with the others... they're worried about her."

                "If only I knew." Diamond sighed. "If only I could see her... I'd feel better about letting her do this."

                "I understand." Silver nodded. "I haven't felt the same since she left... like she's taken a piece of us with her. When she can come back, we will know."

                Diamond shook her head and paced from his side, back down the rock. "If she can come back." she said sadly. Without another word, the lioness leapt from the rock and bounded off into the snow, to Silver's back.

                The snow was blinding. It flashed across the windshield in spats, and for several minutes at a time he was lost in a total whiteout. Thank goodness he had a compass, otherwise he would have gone around in circles for sure. The entire land before him was flat and stark, blowing snow racing everywhere. It was terribly difficult to see, but once Dive did spot her, he couldn't lose her starkly-contrasting purple form. The wind had blasted in her tracks nearly as they had been formed. Despite the noise that the glider made, Zelda didn't seem to see Dive as he struggled to land a few hundred yards away. He ran intently for her, lungs choking on the sudden snap of cold air, with the snow tugging at his shins. He called for her, but she still didn't seem to hear him! As he came closer and she became clearer through the glittery blowing snow, Dive's relief upon finding her was quickly overtaken by a kind of fear. She looked terrible... he had never seen her like this before.

                Zelda moved at an agonizingly slow pace, dragging one frozen block of a paw at a time through snow that was up to her stomach. Rather, there wasn't much stomach there at all. The dragon looked shockingly emaciated, each rib and spoke of bone ridging up from her crusted, scaly hide. She looked as if she hadn't eaten for weeks. The deep wounds that had never fully healed had been split open again by the weather, bloodless and frozen and raw. Her eyes were hollow, head down, concentrating on nothing but ambling blindly forward.

                Dive finally reached her side, and fell to his knees in the stinging snow, breathless with the cold.

                "Zel! Girl!" he gasped cheerfully. "By DuCaine himself, I'm glad I found you!"

                In response, the dragon gauntly lifted a forelimb and dragged it along, lurching further.      Nosedive was surprised and puzzled. "Zelda? What's wrong girl, you look terrible!"

                Still, she didn't answer, or even acknowledge him, and continued pacing slowly away.

                Confused and a little scared, Dive stood up. "Zelda, why are ya doing this to yourself!?" he asked desperately.

                At this, the dragoness stopped, and slowly swiveled her head around to look back at him. Her eyes were hard and gray. "Why are you here?" she asked in a weak, dry voice.

                He barely heard her, and was taken a little aback. "We were worried about you." he started slowly. "Won't you come back with me?" he pleaded, helpless.

                But Zelda closed her eyes in the negative, and turned back to continue onwards.

                Starting to panic, Dive trampled around in front of her, spreading his arms to block whichever way she intended to head.

                To this, Zelda stopped again, and looked blankly at him.

                "Why are you doing this?" he asked again, much more sternly. "Tell me."

                Zelda did not change her gaze, but creakingly sat in the snow.

                There was a pause.

                "I cannot." she started, eyes trailing off into the horizon behind Nosedive. "And if I did, you would not understand."

                "Try me." Nosedive replied.

                Zelda ignored him. "I cannot go back now." she shook her head.

                "Then when?"

                "When I find my answers."

                "What answers?!" he nearly yelled, gesturing to the barren stretch of snow behind him. "Where are they?"

                Zelda frilled her ears a bit. "Caution friend." she warned dryly. "Know you speak on hallowed ground."

                Dive paused and looked out on the frozen wasteland around him.

                Shaking, Zelda stood and continued onward. Ignoring him completely again, she passed right by him.

                Dive was suddenly struck by a strange fear, panicked by the thought of her not coming back with him, of her never coming back. He could only look helplessly at her as she went on, torn. "Zelda!" he finally yelled out. "Come back!" Again, she ignored him. "Zelda! You'll die out here!"

                Upon this, the dragon swung her head around again.

                Dive hoped he had hit on her fear as well. Indeed, the look in her eyes was now inexplicably sad. But slowly she turned away again, and continued on as the wind picked up. Gusts blew the ice into his eyes, and Dive was forced to look away. By the time he called for her again, Zelda was gone, and he was left in the darkening cold alone.

                He could feel it, for just a moment in time, he could feel that connection between them again. Something had happened. Northstar now lay searching, not having moved an inch since that feeling had woken him. The night winds howled outside of the Den, and glowing embers from the dying fire in the corner of the cave let up periodic shadows of his sleeping friends. But he couldn't question himself... he had felt it again. He didn't know how long he had lain their pondering it, minutes or hours. For a flash in the night, he had regained that mental connection with Zelda, that he had lost over a month ago. What had happened to her? He pondered in the wintry cold. Was it even a good sign? Maybe it meant.... no. He quickly checked himself from any thoughts of her death. Maybe the Ducks? Impossible, they couldn't have found her. Maybe she was coming home, finally. But if that was true, that connection would still be present now, and it had gone as quickly as it had come. As he was unable to answer the growing number of questions in his head, the griffon grew more and more afraid. What had happened was bad... he was almost sure of it. Cornered with stress, a tear rolled down Northstar's cheek, and he slowly relented to sleep again, helpless to do anything.

                He sat down slowly, dunking his tea into his mug for some kind of distraction. The TV was on too, but Grin wasn't listening. He was just uneasy, his mind was elsewhere. He almost didn't notice Tanya as she sat across the Galley table, with a muffin.

                "Morning." she said.

                Grin was snapped visibly out of his trance.

                "Oh... sorry."

                "Not your fault." he waved a hand. "My mind's been in the clouds."

                There was a pause, they both knew what he meant.

                "So there's no news?"

                "Nothing from Dive. Apparently, it's so cold up there that it's causing too much interference for us to talk with him. That's not making Wing feel any better." she rolled her eyes. "But the AutoTracker's working. He's moving, so he must be okay."

                Grin nodded to himself, and turned back to his tea.

                They sat in silence again for a few moments, Tanya staring at him the whole time. "Grin, there's something I've been meaning to ask you for a while." she began slowly.

                Grin looked up, interested.

                "I wanna know the real reason why you wanted us to find Zelda."

                Grin shifted uncomfortably in his chair. "You know, we have a game tonight..." he started, getting up. "Maybe I should get practicing..." But Tanya held him in place with her quiet eyes. Grin knew he'd have to fess up, and he flopped back down into his seat. "Okay, okay." he started. "I just... wasn't comfortable with her being out there alone."

                Tanya shook her head. "Grin, you understand the way she thinks better than any of us. Is it that you couldn't understand this?"

                Grin felt her question as if it had physically poked him in the ribs, jabbing him. "The team overestimates how well I know her." he mumbled. "Or rather, I should specify. You see there really are two parts to Zelda's life. One she lives with us, the other she lives in the Territory. It's not easy on her, since she's always in one place and not the other. Whenever she's here, she's being pulled home, and vice-versa. It's hard to explain, but you'll see it sometimes, how she tries to keep them separate, and the conflict that results when she fails."

                Tanya nodded at this. She saw his point easily.

                "I only know her life here well, not her life there. As good as she is with us, there are some things she's never told me." He sighed and tried to sort out his thoughts. "It's that half that I don't know, that's involved now. This is really... the first time that I don't know what's going on."

                "But we're all worried about that." Tanya said. "We all know she's in danger out there. But surely you  know she's got traditions Grin, she's got a lot of pride and she knows when to say no. Don't you think she can handle it herself?"

                Grin sunk his head a little bit. "I'm not sure." he mumbled. "For the first time, I'm not sure. Mind you, I've never been sure about her. We've never gone into a battle, and I just 'know' she'll come out okay. But I've got a feeling. This time, I don't even have that."

                "But you do have trust." Tanya said. "You can't rely on that?"

                "Never have." Grin shook his head. "And I'm not willing to take the risk. I'd injure her pride to save her life." Grin stood again, this time having said his piece, and exited slowly.

                Left alone at the table, Tanya shook her head and wondered how she would feel like eating. This whole situation was souring by the day.

                Wildwing suddenly started up from Drake 1's console, where he had fallen asleep. Was there really something on the indicator? Yes, there was! He flipped open his com.

                "Guys, Dive's back! Let's meet him in the hangar ASAP." he ordered, and shut it quickly. Before he left, he turned back to the radar screen and thought a little as he watched Dive's blip moving closer to the Pond. He pressed a few buttons on the console to open up a com line. "Nice to have you back Dive." he greeted. "We couldn't reach you up there because of the cold, how are you two doing?" Wing waited in silence, and there was no answer. "Dive? Is your com working right?" He leaned down to check the glider's diagnostics, and everything was working fine. Why wasn't he answering? Worried, Wildwing turned and ran out of the Ready Room, for the hangar.

                Her heart sank as the glider descended into the hollow metal bay.

                Dive quickly pulled the light metal frame off of his shoulders, and folded it neatly, placing it on the ground. He pulled out his leftover supplies and looked askance as the team walked up quickly to him.

                "Good to have ya back kiddo." Duke patted him on the shoulder. "Where's Zel? You both doing okay?"

                There was a pause, and Dive looked up at him, shaking his head.

                "What?" Mallory asked. "You didn't find her?"

                "I did." Dive said lowly.

                "And?" Tanya asked, her voice edging higher. "Where was she? How was she doing? Why didn't she come back with you?"

                Confusion was quickly shifting into panic.

                Dive simply shook his head again.

                "I don't wanna talk about it, not now." He hung his head and quickly walked through the group, exiting the room.

                His teammates stood in confusion and surprise.

                "So she didn't come back with him..." Mallory started.

                "If she was even able to come back." Grin muttered under his breath. "We need to talk to him. Can't you get him to give us some answers?"

                Wildwing realized this question was directed at him. "I'll have to. I want some answers as well, but obviously things didn't go as planned up there."

                "Then let's go." Duke nodded, starting off for Duke's bunk.

                Wildwing turned around and held him by the shoulder. "No." he said. "Let me. This has been hard on him, I think the last thing he needs is an interrogation."

                Duke realized that he was right and nodded.

                "I know you're all worried, just be patient." He sighed and headed off after Dive.

                Tanya walked beside him.

                He looked over questioningly at her.

                "I know, you'll go alone, but I just have a question." she said.

                Wing nodded and they both exited the hangar, leaving the rest of the team standing behind.

"What is it Tanya?" he asked, his step already quick down the hall.

                She kept pace beside him. "I just wanna know something, why you picked Dive to go up there."       Wildwing closed his eyes and nodded, as if he knew that question would be coming. "Just a hunch I had, it's hard to explain. Maybe I should have sent Grin."

                "They think alike." she nodded.

                "But think about it this way." Wing reasoned, weighing the issue physically with his gloved hands. "Zelda went up there because she needed to get something off her chest. I think it's better to send someone who doesn't know about the situation. If Dive could get her to explain things, maybe she'd come around."

                "Did you tell him to do that?" Tanya asked.

                "I didn't have to." he shook his head. "He'd do it on his own. I know him." he grinned a little. "What I want to know is whether or not it backfired."

                Tanya paused a little as they neared his bunk, and Wildwing nodded and went on alone.

                He knocked gently on the metal door.

                "Go away Wing." his brother sternly replied, muffled through the door.

                Wildwing sighed and leaned over to the access panel next to it. After punching in a few numbers, the door slid open.

                Dive snapped up from where he was sitting on his bunk. "Hey! How'd you know the code?" he asked indignantly.

                "I'm the boss here." Wing grinned back.

                But Dive didn't want to joke. He sat back up onto his bed, turning his back.

                Dropping the act, his brother came in, closed the door behind him, and stood patiently leaning on the couch. "Dive, what happened out there?"

                Dive didn't turn around. "I said I didn't wanna talk about it." his voice wavered a bit.

                Wildwing began to get worried.

                "You've got no right to keep answers from us Dive. We're worried about her, and what happened to you." he pleaded. "Just talk to me. Did you at least find her?"

                Dive sighed. "Yes." he said quietly.

                "Then why are you being so secretive about this?" Wing asked. "She wasn't...?"

                "No." Dive cut in, partially turning around. He swung his head back to put it in his hands. "But she might as well have been..."

                "That bad?" Wing asked.

                Dive didn't answer him.

                There was a long pause.

                "But you talked to her, right? You told her about how we were worried?"

                "Yes." Dive muttered.

                Wildwing stood, waiting. He had never seen his brother like this before... he wasn't used to seeing him depressed. What had happened up there? There was a very tense silence between them. Wing finally opened his beak when Dive spun around with tears in his eyes.

                "You wanna pick it apart Wing?" he nearly yelled. "Fine! I'll tell you everything! I pleaded with her to come back and she said no. She told me no Wing! And she walked right past me like there was nothing wrong... and... and." he choked on his own tears. "And I didn't stop her." He buried his head in his hands and bent over a little.

                Wing frowned out of concern and walked over, placing a hand on his brother's shoulder.

                Dive shook it off.

                "Dive." Wing knelt down to try and look him in the eyes. "Dive you found her! You offered her the chance to come back. You told her we were worried. That's all we wanted you to do, and if I remember right, that's all you wanted to do. You didn't want to rescue her."

                "I was wrong, okay Wing?" Dive snapped through his hands. "I was wrong."

                "But... why?" Wildwing was at a loss to understand.

                "I'm just afraid Wing." he shook his head. "I didn't know... what I would find up there... I thought she'd be fine..." Tears started to come down. "Now... I'm afraid she won't come back, ever."           Wildwing was surprised.

                Dive let him keep a hand on his shoulder now.             

                "Dive... you gotta go easy on yourself..." he started. "This wasn't your fault... you gave her the opportunity to go back, it's not your fault that she didn't accept."

                "That won't matter." he snarled quietly. "If she's dead."

                There was no more strength in her to see clearly. There was only a blinding white strip, all around her, and the stinging, biting cold. The journey was an endless, mechanical process. And then slowly, growing out of the snow, a gaping black hole. Slowly, pace by agonizing pace, it came closer, grew larger, until it enveloped her. In one slow, sweeping surge, she left the blinding white and plunged into an equally blinding black. The cave was thin and the air was cold and dry, but there was a pungent smell. Zelda stumbled mechanically through it with unseeing eyes. As she went deeper, branches developed, but she stayed a course. She began to step carefully, wobblingly, over things she could not see. As the smell worsened, permeating a stench of decay and disease, there was soft green light. Lichen on the cave's walls gave off the slightest glow. Outlined in this eerie luminescence, shapes appeared on the cave floor. Bones. Skeletons lay stretched, heaped everywhere. The smell made the air heavy. She tottered around them, stepped over them, as the old bones looked to crumble at the touch, spotted with the blackness of age and rot. They littered the cave floor, thickening as she went deeper. And slowly, in the faint light, she discovered she was at a dead end. Zelda stood for a few moments, head down in the dust, and then tried to turn around. On the way, she stumbled again, but this time she didn't have the strength to fight the pull of gravity.

                With a ragged breath, she fell amongst the bones of her ancestors, and lay still.

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!