All around him were the voices once again. For the first and probably last time in Puck's life, two Unitions were being held in as many months. Puck was becoming surprised by his own thoughts: probably last. Kirett's near-death words had affected him deeply, perhaps more than he knew.
Letham was dead. From what Puck had gathered, he had remained by the hill after the main assault, and the monsters' Alpha leader had jumped him from behind, brutally severing his spinal cord. He was long dead before Jacinth and the others could help him.
Loran had fought well, and had shown tactics and coordination in his first fight. It was agreed that he and Jacinth were responsible for the slaying of the Alpha, cementing Loran's new-found position of a fighter. Lae, on the other hand, had fared poorly. Being the youngest of the trio, he was evidently traumatised by his older brother's gruesome fate. He simply stared vacantly out into empty space and sat with his arms loosely clasped around his legs. If he felt uncomfortable in any way, Lae didn't show it. Puck tried to imagine the sadness inside his head, but couldn't come close to comprehending it. The only real family Puck had ever had, or remembered having, was his mother, and he had hardly known her, in life or in death. In her absence, he had become very attached to his closest friends, and had substituted them for a family. The Emerack shared a unique bond in this way, becoming almost inseparable in the body and mind.
Puck cleared his head and tried to refocus on the Unition. Arone had brought up the issue of a safe nesting home again, this time with a lot more zeal. Puck wondered just how much of the conflict he had seen.
"The predators know where we are," Arone repeated fervently, "they have us alone and underpowered, and they know it. They're clumsy and heartless, but they're not stupid. If they can't outfight us easily, they'll starve us out. We have, how much, possibly a week's worth of food remaining. And precisely how many of them did we kill? Not many, that's for certain. So we know there will be more. If something drove them so close to this nesting hill, then they won't move for a long time. And you can be sure that they won't grow hungry any time soon."
"We'll find a way," Jacinth jumped in. It seemed to Puck that she never grew tired of disputing Arone. "We are fast, aren't we? A group of runners, working together in the daylight, could easily dash into the forest and find some food to bring back. The pack can make do."
Arone regarded her with exasperation. "Just hear me out," he pleaded. "Two of us died just last night!" He winced as Puck glared at him with intent. "One of us died last night," he started again, "and another was mortally wounded. How many more can we afford to lose? Five? Ten?" He looked Jacinth straight in the eye. "Another twenty?"
"Hmm," came a noise from the opposite end of the circle. Heads turned to Mortai, who had been brooding in his characteristic way for all of the Unition so far. When he spoke his voice was slow and purposeful. "I think," he said, "that, under the present circumstances, migration is our best option." The words shocked the pack, Arone most of all. Mortai raised his hands hurriedly, as if to halt the sea of anxious faces. "It makes sense," he explained. "We shouldn't depend so heavily on a single nesting location. If we leave quickly and quietly, the predators will probably just calm down and decide to stay here, looking for new prey, while we follow the river to a new location. Beautifully simple."
Jacinth would not be swayed. "That can't be our answer for everything!" she argued. "How long will it be before we can't run anymore?"
Puck twitched involuntarily. None of us can run from it anymore . . .
The discussion had already concluded, and Jacinth knew it. Mortai's approval passed for law among the pack, and it hadn't failed so far. Of course, Mortai still had to confirm it all. Just to be proper as usual.
"Then we are agreed? Beginning early tomorrow, the entire pack should begin a march southwards, sticking to the riverbank. Take all the food you can easily carry, and give the young mothers all the assistance they might need. As soon as a defensible nesting ground has been located, opinions on settling will be taken into consideration. Objections?"
Puck wasn't looking up, but he could feel the eyes on him. He made no sound.
"Then it's decided. We will begin the Unition now."
Breathing an internal sigh, he rose to join the spirits of the pack.
Feeling refreshed, Puck crawled into the darkness of Kirett's burrow with just a little reluctance. Preparing for more dream-talk, he called out. "Kirett? Kirett, I was just at the Unition. You need to know what the plans are. Kirett?"
He tilted his head up and tentatively sniffed the air. The smell of dried blood and vomit made him wrinkle his nose. Puck grimaced and kept squirming through the dank tunnel. Rounding a small bend, he came to the true "nest" of the burrow. There Kirett lay, head lolled back, with a small ring of drool around his lip. In his left hand he clutched something tightly even as he lay.
Puck slowed down. "Kirett?" he whispered again.
Suddenly Kirett doubled over and gave a massive cough. He sat gasping and wheezing for several minutes, before he calmed down slightly. Kirett opened his eyes weakly and looked up. He gave a little smile. "Still not dead, I'm afraid."
Puck realized he had been holding his breath, and let it out. "You have to get up now. Things are about to happen."
Kirett staggered clumsily to his feet, clasping the dirt wall for support. His left hand opened, and an acorn fell out and rolled into a corner. Puck went over to him and carefully lifted his arm over his shoulder. He looked back momentarily.
"Kirett, the acorn -"
"Stuff the acorn."
Taken aback, Puck reached down and picked the acorn up anyway. If Kirett cared, he didn't show it.
Together they ambled out of the tunnel in silence.
. . .
What . . . are you?
You have begun. You have already won.
Run . . . run . . .
You are eternal. You are indestructible.
This is . . . wrong . . .
You are so powerful, because you are so little. You mean everything, because you mean nothing.
It hurts . . . it hurts . . .
You are the folly, and the triumph.
You are life, most pure, most beautiful.
You will swarm over this world, and kill and kill, and you will not stop until there is nothing left to kill.
You are the unending cycle.
Find . . . the others . . .
You are Magog.
. . .
It leapt to Its feet like It had been kicked in the head. Whirling around, searching for movement that would betray whatever had invaded Its mind, flailing at imaginary enemies all around. Slowly, painfully slowly, It's sanity returned. The morning orange sun rose above the distant hills, bathing the glade in a subtle glow. It returned to a sitting position, nestled between the corpses of the two fat animals that had dug nest It had decided not to sleep in.
The others . . .
Growling irritably at nothing, It wandered off looking for something to eat.
The burning glow of the red gem began to fade again.
. . .
Ears: Explain this infringement of our agreement immediately.
Eyes: What violation are you referring to?
Ears: The unprecedented activity that Specimen #1 underwent not 20 seconds ago .
Eyes: The computers are reporting no connections made to the prototype by any external sources. Perhaps it is not a fault of our instruments, but yours.
Ears: New orders: requesting all datalogs and computer functions to be reported directly through to us. If there is a problem, we will pick it up. And if you are tampering with the specimens or the prototype, you can expect more than a reprimand.
And that's pretty much the first arc of the story done. If any feedback could be given on potential improvements, or what you might like to see in the next few chapters, I'd be more than happy to know. As usual, thank you for reading!