The Safe Haven was closed to the Bucks almost immediately. The closing of the rift with the newborn in it left the few closest to it reeling with the sensation of this reality hitting them in their core. The madness had subsided for the moment and many of the others had scattered into the deeper shadows to find refuge in other areas. Some were destined to find other rifts, as they were becoming more plentiful with the thinning of the veils coming. The great shift of the dark ones was close and some of the initiates had become less enthralled with the power of the horns since they had arrived in this reality. Their trials were always meant to be painful but to die in the throes of madness was a pain that was some were unable to face. Perhaps they were just trying to escape the fate of their great trial and time was growing shorter by the day to truly avoid what was to come. It was the final call to join their ranks or face down the agony of death in the form of the great madness that would not end. Sinking away from the trial would spare them the pain but their outsider status would forever be marked in their eyes. For those who stayed and survived, their tribal alliance would be cemented soon and they could finally be recognized and blessed by the Midnight Hart. Tribal life may hold no glory but the life of an outlier was harder still and made that much worse in new realities, as they were all now discovering. This was not the time for such worries, however. The moon was lowering and now the battles had to be put aside as their ranks became more solid in their souls. The tribes would be set before the next cycle began. And before the next cycle, it was clear that they would have to decide the fate of their newborn brethren.
The wider group had dispersed and there were only four left in the spot where the rift had expanded and taken its strange tribe along with the newborn. The smell of blood was fading as the ground cooled and the night air swept in with the coming winter winds. It did wonders to clear the mind and amongst the four, there was no trace of the madness left. The largest among them, Atlas, was recovering and it helped to calm the others as he wandered the site where the rift had gone. The true opening was within the small metal unit before them, locked and unattainable for the moment. It was soothing to have it fade off and though Atlas was listless, he was coming into his own as a natural born leader. The remaining three had not chosen names as of yet but they would soon. It was all part of the trial. They were drawing tribal lines amongst themselves, as of late preferring to run together rather than against each other even when the madness came. This night, they had worked together to push back against the enemies and the rival tribe that had presented themselves in their midst. This evening’s battles were a loss in many respects. As it was, the rival tribe had fared poorly as they had and from the scent hanging in the air, not all the blood shed this night was of those unworthy men. It was a lesson in answering to enemies who summoned a challenge. The madness allowed them to become careless in their aggression and they had paid for it, all of them. In hindsight, it was hardly a surprise, given those who had made the call. Their challenge had been in bad faith, save for the one that had braved a duel with Atlas at the height of his madness. Only he proved worthy of their answer and for this, he would be granted his own trial.
The others around Atlas had taken on a new look from their initiate form. The second largest among them, still nameless for the moment but forming his identity more each day, met Atlas’ eye and looked within him. There was no malice in his attempt and begrudgingly the leader Buck allowed this. Almost instantly, he saw that this initiate was not only strong but very capable. He was older than his years showed and this madness would not prevail for him. This man was once human, possibly from this world many years before. It wasn’t clear that he even remembered how he had come to be a part of the Midnight Hart’s court. It was only known that he had gone the way of the initiates and the many scars that crowned his head showed his prowess for battle and his ability to withstand pain. His horns had grown large and though he still carried the shaven look of his head on the night when the horn ritual was performed, it was clear that his hair was coming back already. From the look of the growth, he was quickly becoming mature enough to stand and within the next few nights he would be named. More than this, he was taking his place as an invaluable member of a tribe. He was blessed with grey, almond shaped eyes and easily the most perceptive among them. He allowed himself to be seen in this moment and without words, he relayed what he’d witnessed during the battle.
Atlas saw the rivals as they arrived to meet the call. The enemies who had initiated the call for them and the rivals tried to meet their challengers with boasts in foreign words and anger but they had all fallen. These enemies had no horns to boast with, no weapons that could inflict any real pain. Nothing but empty posturing and for their sins, they had paid. And yet, his ally now showed him that there was another who had come later to the challenge. One who had taken an interest in their rivals, the tribe that was gathering their strength for their final battle. This other had been shadowed and seemed so weak in body but it was by this mysterious creature’s hand that their rivals had suffered. One of their number fell, almost silently into the night. A loss that had been unexpected, especially given that the Buck had been ready to challenge even the edge of the rift. He may not have been successful in getting inside of it but he was a force to contend with. It was not insignificant that this creature had managed to take him down during a frenzy.
“The rivals will gather again, emboldened by such a brazen display,” his ally spoke in the old language. “I fear, Brother, that we will be seeing more blood to come.”
“I believe you,” Atlas said, his voice booming, the echo like a challenge to the night. “We must take heed, however. A predator lurks in this world. Its power is difficult to discern but it is not to be ignored.”
“This predator moves as one of the night people do,” another of the four said. His voice was softer than the others but the power in his body was evident. He rarely bothered to speak and this alone made Atlas bristle at the thought of what he said. “I did not see it well, Brother, but I heard it.”
“Did it speak in the old tongue?” Atlas said, his tone grave.
“No,” the soft spoken Buck replied, standing before him now. “It said nothing but it can move the air. I noticed its motions as I felt the madness passing. Before the scent of blood came, I heard it motion through the shadows.”
“There have been Shadows here,” the four one said, shaking his head. “Their scent clings to that metal shack.”
“So it does,” Atlas said, still not convinced. “But where there are Shadows, there still may be night people. I did not see those who have absconded with the newborn. We will have to keep ourselves ready, lest they prove to be the ones who have brought about the loss to our rivals.”
“And what of the newborn?” the fourth said. He grimaced. “Surely he is best to be given over to the court. That is to assume that he is worthy enough to survive that long. He may already be lost.”
“He is our brethren,” Atlas said, his voice booming.
The other two members of the tribe did not move at this but the fourth backed up and lowered his horns. It was a half hearted fight stance and the Buck knew it but for a moment, it looked as though he would follow through with the challenge.
“Such a fight will be your end, Brother,” Atlas said, calmly. “Your death deserves more dignity. Stand now and face me as your Brother.”
After a moment, the Buck sighed and stood. The look on his face was a mix of dwindling pride and the onset of shame. His eyes were clear of the madness and Atlas approached him without malice.
“We are Brothers, even if we are destined to be rivals,” he said, looking at all of them. “As a tribe, we have the strength to follow through with the final challenge. The darkness looms here and our trial has almost reached its conclusion. The Midnight Hart will arrive here soon and with him, we will be granted our place. I wish it to be with my Brothers who will stand with me for what I know is true. I extend this gift to you, even as you are unnamed. Will you stand?”
The soft spoken Buck met his eyes first followed by the Buck with the grey eyes. Their maturity was coming in completely now, their initiate skin now almost entirely shed. The fourth hesitated. He was the youngest among them, still headstrong and wild. There was no malice in him and when the maturity in him came, he would be a grand Buck. Still, there was a sense to him that his challenge had come too fast. That he was unwilling to meet his fate because he did not wish to yet. It was a difficult test and Atlas knew such trials could often prove fatal. Still, he trusted in the wisdom of the court. They looked within this young one and saw something to challenge to the surface. They believed and he knew it had to be for a reason.
“You need not decide, Brother,” Atlas said to the youngest one among them. “Your choice must come within and if you must depart, I will see you off in peace.”
“I do not know what I must do,” the young one sighed, still refusing his gaze.
“That discovery is yours to make and I intend to give you what time I can to make it,” Atlas nodded. “You are welcome while you search but you must understand that time grows short. When the court arrives for our final trial, you will have to stand before them and prepare for your next step. Though I am willing to stand with you, Brother, I am no match for the Midnight Hart.”
“It will not come to that, Brother,” the young one said, sheepishly. “For now, I will search and allow what time we have to guide me.”
“A wise choice,” the soft spoken Buck nodded. “Our ranks are stronger as Brothers than apart.”
“Agreed,” Atlas said. “We have much to prepare for and even more to fear in the coming days. The darkness is closing in.”
“What of the predator?” the grey eyed Buck asked. “Should it make the call, we cannot be separated in our answer.”
“We do not know yet what manner of predator it is,” Atlas sighed. “From your observation, it does move as the night people do but it was bathed in Shadow. It may be one or the other but we must prepare for the worst. As a tribe, we have greater strength but we are not alone in our needs for safety.”
“The newborn?” the youngest asked, looking at Atlas finally.
“He may grow to be a rival or he may be chosen to become an initiate,” Atlas said. “Regardless of what fate draws for him, he met his challenge and as such, he is our Brother. Right now, he is lost but he cannot remain far for long. The Midnight Hart will call him when the time comes. Until then, he is vulnerable and there are dangers that he is unaware of here. The trial is his sacred right and I will not see him robbed of it by a predator before he is given what is his.”
“The rift here is bigger and opens often,” the grey eyed Buck said. “Shall we begin tracking him?”
“He is cunning but likely exhausted,” Atlas shook his head. “Transformation is a process and one best left to private spaces. We will remain for the night but come the dawn, we will track.”