Chapter 1 Ember held her head high as tears threatened at any moment to pour from her eyes. She braced herself for this years ago but when the moment arrived her fury and anger rushed out without hesitation. Curious villagers glanced away from their chores to look at her but she walked by without pause and made no eye contact. They knew not to approach her when she was in a foul mood ever since she had been a young emotional girl. Ember was an emotional woman now and that was even more frightening. She hated herself for it. A leader had to be strong, calm, and mindful of others. Right now, she was just angry. Ash, her father and alpha, presented her with an arranged marriage. Ember did not like who he had chosen for her. With the lack of food and warmth, most of the villages surrounding the jungle have vanished or died. The only remaining village was that of Wolf's and his two sons. Her father had chosen the elder, Jaguar, to marry her. She never met the man before but part of her cringed and wanted to marry anyone else but him. It was as if part her knew there would be no love in a marriage between her and Jaguar. Her father would not hear it. Peace was what was at stake if she did not marry Wolf's son and she knew it all too well herself. With food being scarce and the nights growing colder, it would be little surprise if the two villages began competing for the little they could find. Uniting the villages was the only solution to prevent war. The thought sobered her up and she felt her rage dissipate. She must do this for the village, to protect them. It was her duty as an alpha. She always dreamed of marrying someone, even if it was someone her father chose, and that they would love one another. Together they would be hunters and leaders, guiding their villages to a bright future and all would consider themselves their children. Ember's dreams were different now. She dreamed of keeping her village alive as long as she could in hopes that the warmth returned to the land and the animals would roam the darkness of the jungle once more. It was foolish she knew but she had to keep the people believing in tomorrow or despair might consume them before the cold and hunger did. The land was dying around her and she could do nothing to stop it. “Dying?” Ember muttered to herself, a sudden realization building inside of her. “I had the same thought too,” a voice called out to her. Ember glanced beside her to find Star standing at the edge of the village looking down upon the jungle. His back was turned to her and she took the opportunity to take in the sight of him. Star always brought a flush of arousal in her and today was no different. His long brown hair fell to the small of his back and did little to conceal the muscle hidden behind. He was covered in dirt, scratches, and sweat but still his presence was nothing but powerful. Ember shook her head, knowing that nothing could ever happen between them. It was not going to be the last time she did so and she knew it. “How do you know?” Ember joined him at the ledge to look down upon the jungle. “I do not know for sure,” Star admitted, “but it makes sense, does it not?” “The animals disappearing, the cold-” “Even the trees,” Star added, poiting out discoloration in the leaves of the trees far below. “Star, I don't know what to do.” “I do not either but I have an idea.” Ember's eyes brightened upon hearing that. Star always had ideas and most of them were good. “We travel to the Earth Blood.” “No.” Ember shook her head. This was a bad idea and she knew it already. “We are not allowed to travel there.” “We will be careful. The Earth Blood is only dangerous if you walk too close.” “No, we lost too many villagers to foolishness like that.” Ember knew Star would disobey the rules if she did not convince him. “It was not so long ago that poor boy died when he fell into the blood.” “He was a boy, you and I are grown. We know to not get too close.” Star eyed the direction of where the Earth Blood flowed. “It is just one day away, we can go look quickly and come back before anyone notices we left.” “We?” “Of course, do you not want to find out why the earth is dying?” “Yes, but how will this help?” “The Earth Blood is a wound in the earth, no? The land bleeding. It was always hot there. Perhaps that has grown cold too.” “And if the wound healed?” “It would mean...” Star had no answer. “I do not know but we still have to find out. We could find answers there.” “No, it is too dangerous.” Ember let out a sigh, realizing once more just how stubborn Star could be. “As your alpha, if you dare set foot outside this village, I will send all the hunters to catch you again.” “Again?” He raised an eyebrow at her. “That time, when you hunted by yourself. You returned before the hunters caught you with a wild cat on your back.” “I remember.” Star looked away; he did not want to remember. He had decided to try and show everyone he was just as good as any hunter and went out to catch a large beast, thinking he would be part of the village at last. However, when he returned, the hunters caught up to him and berated him for doing their work for them and that he should stick to helping the other omegas fend for themselves. It was not his place to hunt for the village. The women did not come to congratulate him and most did not even dare touch the meat he had begun to cook at his own small fire. The children did not come to hear the story of the hunt either. The omegas did. They thanked him and made fun of the hunters for not seeing how great Star was. It was not what Star had wanted but he had appreciated the thanks nonetheless. “That day, why did you come and eat the meat?” Star asked, having never known the answer. “I was hungry,” Ember stated dryly. She had forgotten about that. “I had to eat and the smell of food made it hard to say no.” “But I am an omega.” “And I'm an alpha. Even the omegas are under my care. I thought it would make you feel appreciated and you would stop disturbing everyone and accept your place. The only reason the other omegas don't cause trouble is because they're too weak or useless to do so.” “Do not let them hear you say that,” Star laughed. Ember had not meant insult to the omegas but none were so brazen or unruly as Star. He had been more than a handful ever since his mother gave him life. “I should be a hunter. My hair color is nothing to cause fear.” “It is not my decision, Star. The village does not understand why your hair is different from ours. Even if I declare you no longer an omega, they would not accept you.” “I know.” “Then why do you ask?” “It is good to hear that you are not scared of me.” A smile rose on his lips. “It isn't about being scared. The villagers don't believe you belong with us.” “I know.” Star shrugged. “I am sorry, my mind has been heavy.” “It is not fair for you to be an omega but you must be mindful of the others. If you keep causing trouble eventually you will be exiled and there is no where left to go in this dying earth for you.” “So let us fix it by going to the blood river,” Star argued once more. “No.” “Very well, let the children starve because the rules say you cannot do anything to help.” “Star, that's no fair.” “No, I understand.” Star began to walk away. “I will be in my tent, waiting for someone else to help us. I cannot and the alpha will not so I will wait patiently for the problems to go away.” Ember watched Star walk away, slowly, and she was an inch of going after him and smacking him for speaking to her in such a manner. She did not know where he found the courage to talk down to an alpha and she did not like it. “River will come with us,” the words left her mouth before she fully understood what she said. Ember felt the pull of a sly smile creeping on the corners of her lips. “What? No!” Star turned around, his face twisted in annoyance. “He will complain ceaselessly.” “Then we will not go to the Earth Blood.” Ember shrugged as if she did not care whether they did go or not. “There is safety in numbers and I will not risk anyone's life on this foolish idea of yours.” “He will tell others,” Star argued. “Then I will tell him to keep it a secret.” She listened to her heartbeat as Star's struggled to find an answer. “Fine. We leave in the morning.” Ember watched as Star made his way back into the village and wondered for a moment whether he had just tricked her into agreeing to his idea. She had given a him a condition that she knew Star would not accept but- Ember grunted as she realized it was true. Chapter 2 “We should turn back.” Star closed his eyes as the annoyance built up within him. River had not stopped complaining and fretting over being caught since before they even set out at light break. “We are almost there,” Star growled, “turning back is not an option.” “What if someone finds out?” River turned around as if he was expecting to see hunters suddenly pour out from the bushes. “Have you told anyone?” Star felt the urge to lash out at River rising. “No.” “I did not tell anyone, Ember did not tell anyone, and you did not tell anyone. Who would know?” “I don't know. Maybe they saw us?” “Then they will tell the alpha and we will be punished. I will be yelled at, Ember placed under guard, and you-” Star let River's imagine what punishment would come to him. “I don't want to be punished,” he cried out as if it really was about to happen. “I only came here because Ember needed me.” “Need is a very strong word.” “Both of you; quiet!” Ember's voice rose far above them. “I do not want to hear any more complaining, River.” “Yes, Alpha.” River hunched his shoulders and moved away to keep pace at a safe distance. “I wondered when you finally regret bringing him along.” Star smile quickly vanished when Ember shot him a deadly look. “I will be quiet, Alpha.” Star knew better than to push Ember when she was angry. The march continued in silence, the jungle quiet for what was once a place filled with strange noises and animal howls. Star shot a quick glance at River who was now a few feet behind them. He liked the man, River always had tried including him in games and training when they were young. However, River was never really River anymore. Lately, River only cared about following the rules, being an upstanding hunter, doing everything he could for the village. Star would have praised River if it all did not come from a place of fear of punishment or abandonment. River seemed too quick to lose his identity when it came between himself and the village. That, Star could not respect. Through a break in the canopy of foliage, Star could see the White Teeth. “We must be getting close.” The White Teeth were white capped peaks that broke the impassible circle of mountains around the jungle. From them, the Earth Blood flowed making it impossible to see what lay further. Stories taught him nothing existed beyond the White Teeth; Star did not believe that. “Star, look.” Ember pointed as she pulled back leaves that blocked his view. The earth faded from a dark brown to gray ash. Nothing grew near the blood river and everything it had once touched remained dead and charred. The Earth Blood had dried. “Where's the blood?” River asked as he came to see for himself. “The wound healed.” Cautiously, and very slowly, Star approached the river bed. “Star, don't,” Ember called out but there was no force behind it. Star continued on. He slowly reached down where the blood once had been and felt the cool hard rock it had left behind. “Cold!” he shouted., “there is no more blood.” “That can't be...” Ember hurried toward Star and felt the ground herself. “Up there.” “The blood could come back,” River called out. “It could be dangerous.” “Then stay there,” Star yelled without looking back, climbing quickly alongside Ember. “This is where the blood flowed from,” she pointed at slits that cut at the base of the White Teeth. Carefully, each of them, aside of River, peeked into them to see if any warmth or light emanated. All were dark and cold. “The wounds, they are all healed,” Star stated. “Then why is the earth dying, Star? Healing is a good thing.” “Maybe the earth needs to bleed,” Star mused, “perhaps this is why the land is so cold now. There is no blood left to warm it.” “I-” Ember began speaking but nothing more came out. She had nothing to say and Star knew that terrified her. “What do we do?” “We climb,” Star pointed toward the peak of the White Teeth. “Star, no. Stop suggesting things that will get us killed.” Star knew there was little he could do to convince her to agree. Even a trick would not work this time. “There is nothing after this land.” “How do you know?” Star questioned, knowing she had no answer. “Because it is said so.” “That is not an answer. No one ever saw what is up there and we finally have a chance to find out. Maybe that is where all the animals went, maybe up there we will find warmth and food.” “Star, the answer is no.” Ember grabbed his arm. “it is dangerous and foolish. I don't know why I even agreed to coming here in the first place.” “Alpha, it's going to be dark soon,” River pointed toward the sun. “We have to go.” “But-” Star felt Ember's grip tighten around his arm. “No, Star,” Ember yelled. “Even if it was a good idea to climb the White Teeth, River is right. In the dark, you will fall and die.” Star could not argue against that and disobeying Ember right now would be the worst thing he could do. “I will not climb the White Teeth,” he spoke out calmly and evenly. He knew deep down it was a lie, and knew Ember knew as well, but it was good enough for now as he felt her let go of his arm. “We are going home.” Without another word, they all set out back the way they had come. Star knew that the answers lie atop the White Teeth just like he had known he would find answers at the Earth Blood. It was a strange feeling that made no sense to him but he had come this far and he would not let it all end just on Ember's say so. For now, however, he would bide his time until he could make his way up the White Teeth without Ember sicking the hunters on him. How long can I wait? There was a story, he had heard as a child, of a village that liked to eat the flesh of men. They would hunt the jungle for any unwary hunters they could find and at night they would raid villages and take away men, women, and children to be cooked for their feasts. Cannibals, he recalled the name. They longer existed but the stories of them were still told to scare the children. How long could he wait to do something when the men and women slowly starved? Star did not know the answer but he feared what others might do to survive. The thought made Star shiver. Life was a cruel and vicious cycle. No matter how he thought about it, the result would be the same: something had to eat something else to survive only to be then eaten itself by something else. All the time, life was about eating something and hoping you were not the one to be eaten next. It was sickening but there had been balance, he noticed. Even if life continued to eat itself endlessly, there would always be more to eat. Something had disturbed that cycle and now there was nothing left to eat. It had to be because of the blood drying but Star knew no more than that. “Ember, will you marry Jaguar?” Star put a sudden halt to the march home. “What?” Ember eyes were shocked. “How do you know about this?” “Everyone knows.” Star shrugged. “River?” She turned toward him and he nodded. “How?” “The yelling between you and your father was far from quiet, alpha,” River admitted. Ember sighed, “Yes, I will marry Jaguar.” “But do you want to?” Star asked again. “Yes. This is the only way to help the village. Without this marriage, war would break out.” “War will break out either way,” Star noted. “Once the food is gone, which it will faster when we have another village to feed, people will turn on each other. “It will buy us time, Star.” Ember's arms folded as she made her way to him. “Time to find a solution to all of this.” “The only solution we found is the White Teeth, you marrying Jaguar will not solve anything but quicken it.” “So I should do nothing and refuse to marry Jaguar?” Ember's voice snapped higher. “if we are all going to die, we might as well die in a war over the little food we have left?” “It will not come to war for a long time still. We have time.” “No, we don't Star. Things are very bad for Wolf's village and father knows that it will be war very soon if we do not do something.” “Then marry him!” Star's own voice became uneven and loud, “see where that gets you.” The slap came so suddenly that Star had not a moment to brace himself. “You will be miserable, and you will lose whatever you have left of yourself.” That earned him another slap. “How dare you speak to me that way, omega!” Her rage was unbridled. No words or argument would get through to her now and Star had no choice but to bite his tongue on the matter. “You might be my alpha but you are my friend too,” Star said softly. “You give so much of yourself to the village that soon there will not be anything left. You will be the village.” Ember's hand rose to strike him again and halted in midair. Her eyes fumed but a sadness was making its way through them. “Why don't you understand, Star?” She let her hand slump down to her side. “I have to do this. I am an alpha and this is my village.” Star opened his mouth to speak but she silenced him with a look. “No, just be quiet. You can't understand, can you? I need to give my people hope and I need to do something real to help them. Climbing a mountain won't help anyone. There's nothing up there, Star. Even if there was, there can be nothing good. We lived here in this jungle all our lives and so did every father and mother that came before us. There is nothing up there but ash left by the Earth Blood.” A twig snapped, pulling Ember's attention from Star. River stood there, nervously and awkwardly as he fidgeted. “You did not hear a thing, River,” Ember said and he simply nodded profusely. “Same for you.” Star could begin seeing tears welling in her eyes. “Just... stay in the village. For once in your selfish life just do as your told.” Slowly, Ember began moving away from him and set back toward the village. River nor Star dared to make a sound as they followed their alpha back home. Chapter 3 Three days went by and Ember felt perturbed by what had occurred at the Earth Blood. She heard little of Star since but others assured her he never left far from his tent. That was her sole consolation out of all this. Star's words dug deep within her and doubts surfaced where none were before. Ember understands that her marriage will not solve anything and that more mouths to feed would cause problems all by itself. The authority she would gain from marrying Jaguar would help her stop any fighting that may break out between the villagers until- Until what? Ember combed wet fingers through her hair. She sat in her tent, a bowl of water in front of her as she cleaned herself. Her thoughts however plagued her and she paid little attention to any dirt she missed. ...I will be in my tent, waiting for someone else to help us... Ember knew those words ringed far too true at the moment. She looked about her, seeing how she sat in her tent and did absolutely nothing for the last three days. She had proved Star right and made him do the same. She could not allow that to be right, she had to do something; anything but sit and wait by idly as the hunger and cold gripped her people. Perhaps Star was right, climbing the White Teeth was their only hope of finding a way out of a dying land. She needed to tell him. Striding out of her tent, she halted suddenly as the blinding light fell upon her. “Sunlight?” She squint her and smiled at the light dancing on her skin. For the first time in in many days, the sun finally broke through the gray sky and its light shone warmly on the her. Ember stood there, her arms outstretched, as she let the sun dry her damp hair. It was a sign; it was going to get better. Finding more resolution within her, she went back in search of Star. Once more she paused and listened to a sound she had nearly forgotten. It was the sound of laughing children and she set out to follow it. At the base of the village, she found all the children gathered for a game of hunter and prey. Amongst them was River and Star, she smiled guessing that Star had brought everyone together for the game. Star had been assigned as the prey and was struggling to wrestle three younger boys as they did their best to bring him down and turn him into a hunter. River, on his side, was protected by the more aggressive children that kept any prey to get close enough to attack him. She laughed as Star admitted defeat under a pile of laughing children. “There's Ember!” A child waved toward her and soon all the others joined in. “Come play, Ember,” another shout added. “You keep playing,” she called back. “I want to see you win.” The children grew excited and doubled their efforts for her. She breathed out a smile, knowing this fleeting moment would fade soon as the sun would darken once more to remind the children of the cold and their own hunger. “Thank you, Star,” Ember whispered as she looked for him through the jostling crowd. Her brow furrowed when she could not spot him. Where are you? Star must have slipped away when the children had cried to her but where had he gone. Had he decided to climb the White Teeth now? Had he tried of waiting for her to give him permission? Ember felt the urge to chase after Star but she found herself standing alone in the sunlight, unable to act. * Three long days passed since Star, Ember, and River had returned from the Earth Blood and Star could feel impatience building within him. It was a losing battle, he knew, and soon he would need to act. Star had kept to his tent for those three days with the irony of his own words looming over him. He had sat and waited for someone else to help just as he had threatened to do. He watched the hunters return every night with only handfuls of berries and unripe fruit. The third night they came back with only a thin rabbit. He knew they were doing everything they could while he sat and did nothing. Everyday he saw parents giving food to their children and having none themselves. The portion was smaller every night. He noticed that the children had knew their parents were no longer eating. They knew the food was slowly vanishing and the fear was apparent in their eyes. The omegas had it worst. Being low in rank, the village spared them no food. They foraged by the edge of the jungle but found little to eat and Star took it upon himself to go deeper into the jungle to find enough to tide them over until tomorrow. Star had no choice but to wait for Ember. Alone he risked injury and death amongst the White Teeth and she was the only one he could trust to accompany him there. Until then, he could do nothing but wait. The sun managed to break through the gray skies and Star took the chance to help the village by keeping the children busy and happy. He knew he would get no thanks but that was not what mattered to him. He found River and urged him to help. River could not deny a chance to spread joy amongst the little ones and eagerly joined in. River was a good man, Star knew, naïve and ignorant but good deep down. Star felt sorry for River but cared for him at the same time. River was worried of being punished or earning the disapproval of the village that he often seemed paralyzed in his own wants. He feared Ember would one day turn into River. He did not think he could save River, the man was too set in his ways, but he could see a spark inside Ember and he would not let it die. As the game of Hunter and Prey played on, Star found himself crushed beneath a pile of children as he feigned defeat and surrendered to their might. The children cheered at their triumph but also toward Ember and Star saw her up on the hill with her arms crossed. A smile painted Ember's lips as she watched them. Not far from Star stood a shadow of a man and Star knew he was a stranger. Star could make a certain warmth in his amused smile and the sharp glint of intelligence in his eyes. The stranger was tall and sinewy but he was not imposing. Star found himself drawn to the man. Using the children cheers and excitement as a cloak, Star made his way toward the jungle and planted his back against the first tree he saw. For a few heartbeats, Star listened to hear if anyone saw and came after him but the game had resumed in earnest and no one came after him. Star turned his attention forward and saw the man more clearly now. He had approached just enough for Star to make out his strong features and that he carried no weapon but still remained hidden in the shadow of the jungle. The sun caught the man's eyes and Star saw a flash of green in them. Wonder washed over him as he realized the man was different just like he was. Star felt himself reaching toward his brown hair and the man grinned at him. It didn't matter to the man that Star had strange hair and it did not matter that the stranger had green eyes, Star knew. The man beckoned Star further into the jungle with his eyes and Star eagerly followed. * Sleep was not coming for Ember as she found herself twisting her blankets more times than she could count. Her thoughts were filled with Star falling to his death from the White Teeth and she regretted not having chased after him when he had first disappeared. For a moment she had considered sending River after Star but decided against it knowing the two would argue themselves down the mountain. Star had better chances alone. Cold and tired, Ember left her sleepless tent and into the crisp night air. The moon shone high above the jungle and the stars had come out to add their light. Ember's skin prickled as she walked and wondered when was the light time the night had been warm as to not need fur wrappings to keep warm. In the center of the village, a deep pit cradled the village fire and she made her way to warm herself by it. Tonight, the fire had grown cold itself, being reduced to little but embers. She smiled at her namesake and found some dried tinder to revive it. The flames slowly began licking their up again and a small blaze broke out as it began consuming all Ember fed it. Star would have liked to see this. Ember giving life to fire with nothing but tiny embers. Maybe that is what he saw in her. That there could be fire in her if she only allowed it to grow. Ember shook her head with a giggle; she was spending too much time with the man. “Something making you laugh?” A rough voice flew through the darkness and Ember's head snapped in its direction. No more than a few feet away sat a man in the flickering light of the fire. He was a huge man, arms as thick as her waist, a chest covered in dark hairs, and a thin braided beard that fell to his navel. The firelight glinted off the myriad of scars and dried warpaint that covered his body. The worst was his face. His lips were twisted and cruel as they smiled at her and sharp predatory eyes. She did not know this man or how he got inside the village but she felt her own hand reaching for the sharpened bone dagger at her side. “I said: what made you laugh, little woman?” His voice grew into a rumble as if he thought she did not hear him. “Nothing, just the fire.” Ember whispered as she backed away slowly, her eyes never leaving him. “My future wife laughs at fire. I do not know if that is good or bad,” he mused as he passed a hand over his beard in strokes. “Wife?” Ember paused as the sudden cold chill of realization run through her. “Jaguar.” “Yes.” When he stood he gained two heads on her. “Do you like what you see, little woman?” No, she wanted to say but dared not to. “Perhaps this will change your mind.” Jaguar grinned as he revealed his erection. Ember had rarely seen a stiffened man's member but, from the stories the old wives told her, she knew it was very big. “I have pleased many women with it.” He spat in his palm and rubbed the tip for her. “Go ahead, you can touch. Or taste.” “What are you doing here?” Ember tore her eyes away and decided to focus them on his instead. She would not show him fear or weakness. This man was an animal and had to be dealt with like one. “Hmph.” Jaguar did not seem glad that his arousal had not excited her and tucked it away. “I came to inspect what will be given to me. I am rather pleased as you well saw. You will bare me many sons.” A sneer fell over his face. “I can refuse to marry you.” Ember could hear a hint of quiver in her own voice and did her best to stifle it. “No,” he replied dryly. “No?” “If you do not marry me, my people will kill your people.” he shrugged indifferently. “I would prefer it that way but our fathers disagree.” “You'd prefer war?” “A much better way to die than to starve to death, do you not think so? You have a fighter's eyes, you understand.” He took a step forward and Ember took a step back. “Are you sure you do not want to taste me, tonight?” “No.” Her mouth went dry. If he came at her, she did not know whether she had the strength to fight him. If he did, she would have to run. “No matter.” Jaguar turned and began moving toward the exit of the village. “You will soon enough.” His laugh made her shiver. Ember felt paralyzed, her feet no longer obeying her as she slumped to the ground. Her breath had grown heavy though she could not remember when. She had thought a marriage would give her time to fix things and that it would give her people hope. Now, she knew the village was dead the moment that man became their alpha. Ember began to cry. * Star stirred from his sleep and pressed himself tightly against Lion's chest. The man's body was warm and comfortable but a certain excitement for tomorrow had taken over him. “Cannot sleep, Star?” Lion's words sounded muddled as he woke up too. “No, I am worried for Ember,” Star stated as he lifted himself to look into Lion's eyes. “Jaguar won't hurt her, will he?” “No, not yet,” Lion sighed, “my brother is cruel but he is not stupid. Killing or harming her now would result in a war against him. My father must know now that we made our way out here and any injury toward Ember would send him into a rage against Jaguar.” “And he desires a war against the two villages, not against himself,” Star added. “Exactly. Ember is safe until after the wedding.” “That is good.” Star placed his head back down upon Lion's chest. The ground was cold and hard but the proximity to Lion warmed him enough to not mind it. He could see the stars through the canopy of leaves. They winked at him as they slowly spun around him and Lion. “Your brother wants to die by killing everyone. A final big battle before the cold and hunger claims us. Him against all of us.” Star's words were slow. “That's right. A glorious death, he says.” “I do not understand how anyone could want that.” “I hope you never do, Star.” Lion placed an arm over Star's chest protectively. “Why did you not kill him?” “Killing him would not solve anything.” He sighed. “I am hoping to delay the war as long as possible.” “And hope someone fixes all of this.” Star sighed himself, expecting the same story he heard from Ember. “No, I don't expect anyone to save us. I already found him.” Lion gently caressed Star. “The White Teeth, that is the answer and you found it.” “How do you know? No one knows what is up there.” “I know there is nothing down here either. Whatever is up there, must be better than nothing.” “You sound so sure.” “No, I just believe that this is not the end.” Star said nothing for a moment. “Why did you not climb the White Teeth?” “Jaguar forbade me. He said there was nothing up there and alone it is too dangerous.” “Ember said the same to me.” Star laughed. “Ember,” Lion whispered softly. “Do you want to marry her?” A moment past before Star answered. “Yes.” “And would she marry you?” “Yes.” “I will help you, if I can.” Lion played with Star's hair. “What can I do?” “Climb the White Teeth with me. We will sneak into the village at dawn and gather my things and we will set out.” “And then what?” “Once we find what is at the top of the White Teeth, we can stop the marriage. She will no longer have to marry your brother.” “And you, despite being an omega, will be a hero,” Lion added. “Marrying her should cause little trouble afterward.” “That would help too.” Star felt the excitement rile up in him. Finally, the wait was over. “Alright,” Lion chuckled. “Get some sleep. We will need our strength tomorrow.” Star rolled on top of Lion and pressed himself firmly against him. “I have some strength I rather spend elsewhere...” Chapter 4 The journey toward the Earth Blood was more pleasant without River's complaints, Star noticed. The morning had come fast and his muscles ached from the cold ground but he pressed on and ignored it. Quick stolen glances at Lion seemed to melt the worst of it. “Are you sure your friends won't wonder where you have gone?” Lion asked. “Even if they do, they will not come after me.” Star was not certain of this but hoped Ember understood now why he had to climb the White Teeth. It was the only thing they had left to try before being out of any real hope. “My father must already be on his way toward your village. He is probably angry at Jaguar and I.” He laughed. “Then the marriage will take place soon.” Star glowered. “Ember will marry him hoping it will make things better.” “You don't think it will?” “Marrying Jaguar will not solve anything. She knows it but she will still do it.” Star's voice soured. He couldn't hide his dislike of the subject. “But it will give the villages hope,” countered Lion. “No, what you and I have is hope, Lion. Climbing the White Teeth is what will give people hope. We are doing something and we will gain something. What she is doing is empty and meaningless.” “I am sorry.” Lion shook his head. “I forget you are an omega.” “What?” Star felt red flash in his eyes. He had thought Lion above calling status. “As an omega, you fend for yourself and you become selfish. It is not a bad thing but it blinds you, Star.” Lion came up to Star and placed his hands on Star's arms. “You never learned to rely on others or have them rely on you. You never saw what it can do to be responsible for others or how much a village relies on their leader for guidance as they all work together for a good life. You just see your own individual strength but not the effects it has on others as no one had ever noticed yours before. “What Ember is giving the village is hope. It is a reason to stay warm, work, and eat and do everything they can to keep their families alive. She is giving them what they need to keep working together instead of against each other. Their still needs to be a village for you to save, Star, or everything you do won't accomplish anything. She is fighting in one way, and you must fight in another. Together, it creates a something good.” Star simply stared into Lion's dark green eyes without a word. It has been a long time since anyone argued against him and he was not sure what to reply. At loss of words, he felt shame well up within him as he noticed how closed his mind had been. “You see Ember losing herself to the village and that may be partly true but do you also see the part of her that loves her people and how she needs to save them? She is not losing herself to the identity of an alpha, as you said last night, but is becoming who she always wanted to be: a strong leader. And right now, she is making decisions and sacrifices as best she can to protect her people. She knows it is not a solution but that is why she is letting you run off to the White Teeth. She is giving you a chance to as she tries to keep the village together. If she did not help her people but run to the White Teeth, imagine how hurt she would be that she abandoned her people when they needed her to be with them.” Slowly, Star pushed himself away from Lion's arms and continued marching forward without any words. Lion was right and Star felt ashamed. He had forgotten to consider how Ember felt throughout all of this and just tried forcing his own ideals on her. However, she was her own person, and despite having the same goals as Star, she needed to do the things only she could so they could achieve that goal. He had been selfish and not in a way that made him feel proud. “I am sorry, Lion,” Star said softly. The words were unexpected but he admitted he could not keep them from Lion long either. “Don't be, I understand you.” The man came up behind him and patted his shoulder. “Look, there they are: the White Teeth.” Star had not even noticed that they had reached the dried Earth Blood. The river bed remained dry as it had been before but his sights were now set on the white peaks of the mountains. It was a long way up and he assumed the way down was much shorter. He did not like the idea of finding out. “I have never climbed a mountain,” Star said as he made his way forward. “No one has,” Lion added. The hardest part at first was deciding where to start climbing. There was no direct path up and Lion mentioned that the rock was grooved and jutted out in places. Hand and foot holds he called them. Eventually, Star picked a spot and began pulling himself upward and Lion came up behind him. The climb was strenuous but not difficult at first. The slant of the mountainside made crawling upward possible but Star soon had to press himself tightly against the rock. The way was uneven and their holds gave out at times making their hearts race as they listened to the stone cascading down the mountainside. Star knew he did not want to find out how long it would take for him to fall down. The higher they climbed, the lower the sun seemed to be. Time was slipping away and they had not yet climbed halfway up the mountain. Star felt himself racing against the sun; if night fell he and Lion would fall to their deaths. “I'm getting cold,” Lion shot out from under him. “Yes, I feel it too. The air gets colder the higher we go.” Star could feel his feet becoming numb but wrapping his feet in furs was no option at all. With the thick fur, he would not be able to feel the footholds and ledges underneath him. He'd slip and fall before he knew it. Though they had bound their legs, chest, and arms with furs as well as possible, the cold still chilled them uncomfortably and Star did not doubt it would get worse. “I think I see the top,” Lion said, Star looked far ahead and saw something that seemed like the top of the White Teeth but for all he knew it could continue yet still. The climb continued to become more difficult the higher they went. Star's nose began to leak and his hands were numb to the wrist. Luckily, his feet still had some sensation left in them though painful for the most part. As Star reached up, he felt something cold and wet crumble on his fingers. Pulling his hand back, he saw white translucent dirt turn into water. “There is water up here,” he called out below him. “What?” Lion hollered back. “It is solid but it turns to water when you touch it.” He glanced upward. “I think it covers the entire mountain.” “That must be the white of the White Teeth. We're almost there.” Hearing that gave Star another surge of energy and he pulled himself upward. The white dirt was biting cold but he ignored it as he pressed upward. The mountain began to slant and Star began to lie on his belly. With a grunt, he began pulling himself upwards, a slight reprieve from climbing. He felt the cold seep into him but he gave little mind to it. He was almost at the top. The answers he had wanted were too close at hand to let anything stop him. That last bout had lasted longer than it had felt. Star pulled himself upward and heaved himself unto the safety of flat ground. The sky had begun to turn dark, leaving little of the blue of day behind. “Star? Is it the peak?” Lion called out. Star crawled on all fours and looked over the ledge. “Yes, give me your hand.” Star outstretched his hand for Lion and only then noticed how small and far the ground was. The hand he held out nearly covered the entire jungle far below. Pulling Lion up with a grunt, the man came up and dusted himself off. “It's everywhere,” Lion exclaimed as his eyes took in the white fluff. “Do you think we can eat it?” In response, Star picked up a pinch between his fingers and dropped it on his tongue. The solid water turned liquid in a heartbeat and was colder than cold but clean and pure. “It is good.” Star laughed. “Let me try.” Lion did as Star had and whimpered at how cold it was. “So very cold.” “I think we should name it,” Star stated. “How about-” Lion paused as he looked over the white landscape. A moment past and a single world left his shivering lips. “Snow.” “Snow,” Repeated Star. “I like the sound of that.” Star unbundled the furs tied to his back and wrapped his feet in them as quickly as his numbed fingers could fiddle with the vines. “I look like a wild animal.” Star was furrier than any beast he ever encountered and he laughed at the sight. “A scary animal,” Lion joined it. For a moment, Star and Lion looked this way and that way for a sign of anything alive. The immaculate whiteness of the new land they had discovered was awing. For as far as they could see, the white snow did not seem to cease to spread. “Does that look like a jungle?” Star pointed to the far distance where small trees sprouted sporadically to eventually join into one large mass. It was small and the bright snow made it hard to be certain. “It is not bright like the jungle down there but it still is green.” “And over there,” Lion pointed far to right. “That looks like water.” “And a beast!” Star said as he noticed a large white mass moving through the snow. “I can hardly see it.” “It's big, there must be food for it to eat somewhere. That means there is food for us too.” “I was right,” Star said, his voice brimming with excitement. “We can save everyone.” “Yes,” Lion swatted the smoke that came out of his mouth, “we did it.” “Now, how do we get down?” Star wondered. “I think I can help you with that.” A brusk voice made both of them turn to face it. There, stood a giant man with a long dark beard and murder in his eyes. Star pulled out the spear strapped to his back and pointed it at the man. “Jaguar?” Lion sounded surprised. “How did you get here?” “I came up the south side of the White Teeth.” Jaguar cracked his neck with a quick jerking motion. His eyes stole a quick glance at Star's spear and he grinned as if it were a mere toy. “Did you follow us?” “I must say I was curious to see what lay beyond the mountains. I never expected more land.” Jaguar bent and picked up the snow and let it crumble between his fingers. “Not that this is much of a land.” “We were right, Jaguar.” Lion smiled. “We can make a life up here. There is water, animals, a forest, and-” “All I see is a cold land where no man had ever set foot before and for good reason,” Jaguar spat. “No village can survive in these conditions. Even the sun's warmth cannot bring life to this desolate place.” “This land is our one chance to survive,” Star spoke out, seeing Jaguar would not listen to Lion. “This land is dead, little man.” Jaguar grimaced. “You are Star. I hoped I would find you here with my little brother.” It was not a question. “Why?” It must have been River that had told Jaguar of where he was headed. Star ground his teeth, spear firmly in hand. “You hear a lot of things in that village of yours. The women talk much.” He shrugged. “Sometimes about Ember.” “Jaguar,” Lion intervened, “leave Star alone.” “So he can one day resent me for marrying the woman he loves and slit my throat in my sleep?” Jaguar smiled. “I do not think that wise, little brother.” “None of this matters anymore, brother, we can bring our villages here; we can finally start a new life.” “Perhaps, but I do not care.” Jaguar pulled out his own spear. A massive shaft twice the width of Star's or Lion's. “The boy needs to die either way. He is a threat to me as long as he lives.” “You are mad.” Star knew this was going nowhere good. Jaguar was bigger, stronger, and undoubtedly the better fighter. Together with Lion, however, he might stand a chance. “Little brother, help me put him down and I will forgive you for following him to this wasteland.” Jaguar's eyes never left Star's. Star, eyes wide, saw Lion pull out the spear he had given him and obediently walk to Jaguar's side. “I'm sorry, Star.” Lion did not look at him. “I did not mean for this to happen.” “Family is everything, Star.” Jaguar grinned. “Too bad you do not have one.” his spear dove forward in a blink and ripped through Star's forearm. The blood splattered across the once perfect white expanse as Star howled in pain. Falling back with uneven steps, Jaguar spoke but Star hardly heard him. “Perhaps it is good. No one to feel the loss of you.” Star knew he could not fight the two of them together. Jaguar alone would be a challenge for him and Lion together but alone there was no chance. The cut was deep and blood flowed freely from it but it would heal once bandaged. Star could only hope he would get the chance. “Perhaps you are no threat to me, little man.” Jaguar approached, his spear raised. “You are very weak.” He stroke out his spear but there was no force behind it and Star's spear knocked it away easily. Jaguar was toying with him. Another lazy thrust probed at Star as he sidestepped away effortlessly only to position himself in a collision with Jaguar's fist. The air flew from him and he felt his feet leave the ground beneath him. His vision turned white as he sunk back down into the snow. Gulping for air, Star attempted to scramble to his feet but a foot stamped down on his chest, knocking what little air he managed to take in to fly out. Unable to catch his breath, he flailed in an attempt to get out from under Jaguar's foot only to find the pressure increase. “This was easy, little man.” Jaguar laughed. “I had heard you were a good hunter but maybe good means bad in your village?” Star could feel his ribs threatening to snap. “No matter, I am done with you.” Jaguar lifted his spear and Star began to muster every ounce of strength he had left to get out of the way but the weight of Jaguar made it impossible. He must have looked a pitiful sight as the spear point fell on him. Star had shut his eyes as the spear fell on him but the pain never came. After a few furious heartbeats, he realized the pressure on his chest had disappeared and he dared to open his eyes. “Lion!” Jaguar roared. As he scrambled to his feet, he saw Lion's bloodied spear dripping and aimed at Jaguar. The man held a hand to his side that did little to stop the rivulet of blood down his legs. “You little bastard!” he howled. “What did you do?” “You wanted to die in battle, did you not, brother?” Lion stated dryly, his eyes sharp and furious. “Here is your chance.” “I was going to forgive you for following this little man up the mountain and this is how repay me?” The white snow reddened with each drop that streamed down. “I am family. I am your older brother. I am your Alpha!” Lion spoke no words except for a cry of his own as he came at his own brother. Despite his injury, Jaguar moved lithely and the spear went by leaving him unharmed. Star's eyes darted about in search of the spear he had dropped but saw nothing but white splattered with red. If it had sunk beneath the snow, he would never find it in time. The two brothers circled one another, feigning jabs as to entice the other to make a mistake. Or so it seemed at first. As Star observed the fight, he saw what Lion was doing. Jaguar was still too much of an opponent even when bleeding heavily. Lion kept his attention with short jabs that he quickly pulled back, keeping Jaguar's attention as the two circled. Jaguar's back was now back to the open sky past the edge of the White Teeth. Jaguar did not seem mindful of his steps and he took a long stride back as a strong thrust came at his middle. Just two more steps and he would find nothing but air to fall on. “I will miss you, brother.” Lion charged suddenly and Jaguar's arm came at just as suddenly. The backhand swipe sent Lion sprawling to the snow with barely a yelp. Jaguar had shifted his weight, not taking the last fatal step down the mountain. “Did you really think I would be so careless?” Jaguar lifted his foot only to feel the sudden quake underneath him. “Wha-” his last word stretched out long and loud as the snow beneath him gave way. It lasted a heartbeat but Star stared ahead as if he had imagined it. The edge of the mountain had broken and crumbled under Jaguar and dragged him down back toward the land below. His cries carried up the mountain but not for long. Star knew then how long it took to come down the mountain. It was shorter than he had imagined. “Lion!” Star called out as he realized the danger they were in. “Get up, you must get away from the edge.” “Hng-” Lion barely lifted himself up before falling down again. Jaguar's blow had rattled him more than it would have appeared. “Hold on.” Star crawled toward Lion and passed his uninjured arm around him. “I got you.” grunting, he pulled Lion to his feet only to feel his own feet give out from under him. The noise came after. The of sound of a hundred trees falling and rolling endlessly as they encompassed everything. There was no thinking, no feeling, nothing but the noise. He saw the peak of the mountain pull away into the sky before him. Going down the mountain was much faster than climbing, he told himself before his vision went black. Chapter 5 It was far too soon for Ember to be awoken abruptly. The sound of voices, hurried steps, and the clack of weapons alerted her senses to attention. Outside her tent, she saw a man's shadow standing still at the entrance. A guard? She slowly made her way toward it and peered out. “What is going on?” Her eyes caught the furtive movement of hunters and failed to make out the words of shouted orders. Something bad happened and she feared she knew what. “Can't say, alpha.” The guard gave her a nervous smile. He was an older man, one who shouldn't be nervous on a little commotion. That only confirmed her fears. “Your father told me to make sure you stayed safe inside.” “So I can't leave.” Ember retreated to her tent with a drawn out sigh. The commotion continued outside heedless of her and she felt very alone. She was supposed to marry Jaguar when the sun peaked today and part of her knew that was no longer possible. Another part felt happy but the rest of her was wracked with fears and worries on what would come next. “Ember?” She heard a familiar voice calling her from outside. River. “I need to speak with you.” “Let him inside, please.” River was not the one she needed to see this moment but she was glad for any news he might give her. His face was sweat streaked and she could tell that he had no slept yet. “River, tell me what is happening.” “It's Jaguar.” River caught his breath twice before adding, “He's dead.” Her worst fear had come true and she could not conceal the relief in her face. It solved problems but caused just as many more. “Who?” “Star.” River's voice dropped to a whisper. “Star killed him. He threw him off the White Teeth.” “Star threw off a man twice his size over a mountain?” She felt a sudden calm come over her. There was a lie there somewhere and she heard it clear as a bell. “Yes, I saw it,” River continued. “Jaguar was curious about Star and why he was so important to you so he began to talk to me and-” “You told him everything.” A familiar rage began to bubble within her. Her eyes narrowed and lost all sight but that of River. “I took him to the White Teeth and he told me to stay down and wait for him, so I did. He came down soon after he reached the top.” “The village, all this noise so late in the night...” She did not need to complete her thought to see where this was going. “You told them too.” “Yes. I had to.” A small smile crept back in and out on his lips, unsure whether he was pleased with himself or if he'd done a terrible thing. “This is my village and my alphas. They needed to know what Star had done. He has to be sto-” Ember's hand collided with River's face with such force that he sprawled unto his backside. The shock of it silenced him, not a sound escaped. River's eyes were wide, staring at her in confusion. “You naïve imbecile!” Her voice flared and she did not care who would hear her. The damage was done. “I always called Star selfish but now I see that all along it was you. You must think all day long of question like: what should I do for my alpha? Should I denounce my friends and neighbors to them? What will make me a more valued member of the village? How can I be an example to others?” Ember stifled the urge to hit him again. “Do any of these sound familiar to you? They should as they are all about you! Nothing but I, I, I and nothing else. That is real selfishness if I ever heard it.” “Em-” She slapped him again. “No more out of you!” She threatened him with another slap if he dared to speak again. “Star is going to be hunted and killed if he isn't already. He was our friend, River. Do you even know what that means? Now I have to marry Lion if his father can see past all of this. If he doesn't, it will be war. All because you could not keep your mouth shut!” River sat there, his eyes to the brim with tears. “Get out, and don't ever show your face to me again.” She pointed out of tent. “Out!” River scampered on all fours, not bothering to stand up before running away. It was the sight of a beaten men and it did little to appease Ember. Now that he was gone, there was nothing to yell at and her rage subsided. Anguish and uncertainty took its place. “I always knew my daughter was the strongest woman I had ever known.” Ash came into view through the flap of her tent. “Making grown men cry, that is a skill.” “Father.” Her tears have already begun to overflow and she ran to her father's embrace. Even know, at her age, she still needed her father. “Shh, I know it seems bad, daughter. I know.” Ash gave her a comforting squeeze, a hand running through her hair. “Wolf wants me to recover his son's body. He's afraid Star killed Lion as well in a fit of jealousy that he could not have you.” “What River said, father, it isn't true.” Ember pleaded between sobs against his chest. “Star wouldn't, couldn't, kill Jaguar.” “I've known Star for as long as you have, Ember. I know he is no killer,” Ash assured her. “Wolf won't hear of it, however, and if I do not do as he says I'm afraid war will break out in mere moments. The man is a breath away from declaring this whole marriage arrangement a clever ruse.” “I was going to marry Jaguar, I swear.” Ember could not stop crying however she tried. She didn't want to, she realized. It felt good to finally let go. “I know. Please stop crying. It pains me to hear you cry.” Ash pulled back and looked her in the eyes. “I'll tell you a secret.” He glanced quickly behind him for prying ears. “I was never afraid that Wolf would attack us to take what little we have left.” “What?” Ember's tears suddenly came to a crawl. “I was afraid of Jaguar doing that, not Wolf. The man is sensible enough but his son... I thought, if I married you to him, you would be strong willed enough to keep a loveless marriage hard enough on him that he would have no energy or time to scheme a way to start a fight.” “I would have done it, father.” She squeezed her father tightly. He did not need to explain himself to her. “None of this was the way it was supposed to happen.” “I know, daughter. I know.” he said as he rocked back and forth. “You can now marry Lion, once we find him, alive hopefully. As far as I heard, the boy is gentle and wise where Jaguar was cruel and vile. Wolf might be against the idea so soon after Jaguar's death but he does not want the fighting any more than I do.” “Father, Star went to the White Teeth.” Ember admitted it. Her father had to know, from her, not from River. “I know.” “He wanted to see whether there was new land beyond where we could go find food and warmth. I don't know if he did but if you do find him, please, let him speak first. If he found something, maybe we could still use it.” “That will not forgive his actions, whether real or not, Wolf will have his life.” her father sighed. “I know, but for all of us, please ask. We have to know what he found.” Ember begged. “I can do that much for my daughter.” Ash smiled. “Now, I have to go and keep Wolf calm. Despite what his son was, the man loved him desperately. Stay inside, you'll be safe in here.” “Yes, father.” She sat back down and watched him leave. “I will be back soon,” Ash promised. “Everything will be better in the morning, daughter. Try to get some rest. For a moment, Ember simply listened to the noise outside, as she let time slip by. She had done everything she could for her village and did her duty to the best of her abilities. That was her sole consolation. Now, it was out of her hands. She knew what she had to do. She had to find Star first. Chapter 6 The sun shone blindingly into Star's eyes as he awoke, cold and numb. The pain was a dull throb and snow melted freely off of him. He felt colder than he had ever been and it took more willpower than strength to lift himself from the puddle that gathered around him. The snow had broken his fall as he fell down along with the tooth. The sun had slowly melted the snow and warmed him back to life. When the tooth toppled it created a slant of rock and snow that lead upward and into the lands beyond. Returning to the lands of snow would be easier now and a chuckle escaped Star. It was too good to be true. “Star?” The voice was muffled but his heart skipped a beat when he realized he had forgotten Lion. Star looked around himself twice before he realized Lion was still under the mound of snow. “Lion, keep talking!” Star shouted. “I need to find you.” “Here!” Lion yelled through the snow and Star dove in the direction of his voice. Star shuffled the snow away from Lion and pulled him out. Lion's skin was pale and cold as the snow that had buried him. Even his lips had turned into an alarming blue. “Are you alright?” Lion shook his head, shakingly. “We gotta get you somewhere warm.” Star guided Lion to a rock that had been exposed to the sun. The sun was not bright as it had been two days ago but it would have to do. He wrapped his own body against his and hoped his own heat and all the furs that covered them would be enough to warm Lion. Long moments past, neither saying a word but for the shivering labored breath of Lion. Occasionally, Star rubbed his hands over Lion to bring in some warmth but it was a slow process. However, the color began returning little by little to his cheeks and Star took it for a good sign. “I think we need to get moving, Lion.” Star whispered. “Can you move?” “I think so.” Lion tried sitting upward but ended slouching unsteadily. “I might need you to help me but we can move. I feel better now that the warmth is returning to me.” “I am sorry, I would let you rest-” Star stopped as he heard a faint noise from far away. It was the rustle of the jungle but there was something else... Voices. “Lion, we have to go. Now.” Star picked up Lion in his arms, and despite the weight, hurriedly made his way toward the trees where they could hide from sight. A few heartbeats later, he heard footsteps as they broke out from the jungle. He peeked behind and saw armed hunters as they searched the snow, some mystified at the fallen tooth. Moments passed and soon Star heard the men recede back into the jungle. Star could feel his heart hammering slower and slower until it was back to a steady pace. Even after he heard nothing else, he didn't dare move or speak for long drawn moments. “Lion, are you alright?” Star whispered as he inspected his friend. Lion was growing pink and Star thought that was good at least. “Are you?” Lion responded as he pointed feebly to Star's arm. The gash had closed and scabbed but Star had not noticed how sore it felt until Lion pointed it out. It looked worse than it was. “We have to go.” Star ignored his arm. “I do not think those hunters came to make sure we were safe.” “Someone knew Jaguar came here. When he didn't return...” Lion's voice was soft but their was a rising strength in it. “We have to hide or they will find us soon.” “The only safe place is back in the new lands,” growled Star. “But I cannot leave Ember here all by herself.” “Then we find her and then go back. We can make our way to your village, there is enough day left for that, and take as much provisions, furs, and anything else we can. With all of that, we might be able to find shelter before dark and be prepared for the cold.” Lion spoke, his tone rising with new found strength. “Notice how our solution to our cold land is to go to an even colder land?” He laughed. “You are laughing, that it is good.” Star smiled. “We will go south of the path we used to come here before. They should have already scouted that area and moved up north. We might sneak by.” Lion nodded and passed an arm over Star's shoulders as they began to move. Star had thought it might be better to leave him somewhere safe and warm but Lion had no way to defend himself or to run all alone. If he was caught, he would be taken back to the village and Star would never see him again. Leaving him suddenly was no longer an option. As they made way, Star noted that the day had barely begun. The sun was still racing to its peak and that gave Star some comfort. If they were not caught, they would be able to return to the White Teeth before dark. As the sun peaked, the southern face of the village came into view. “Stay here, I will only be gone a moment.” Lion nodded wearily. The man might have warmed back up but his strength had been sapped by the trip to the village. Star was not sure if he would have been able to go as far as Lion had if it were him. The village was quiet, as if abandoned. Star spotted a few armed men standing by the ledge but most were younger than him. They were left to give the women and children a sense of security. With silent but quick steps, Star made his way into the village. The guards were bored and some even nervous; it was easy for Star to blind side them. The women and children were all gathered at the great fire and were talking amongst themselves as they awaited the return of the men. That made moving about the village much easier for Star, knowing where everyone was. As long as he remained at the edge, there was no chance of being found out. Finding his tent was simple enough and once inside he quickly took all the provisions, furs, skins, and spears he had. Tying it all to his back, he made his way from tent to tent as he grabbed any food he could find. With each passing tent, he made his way closer to Ember's. Strangely enough, her tent was unguarded and even Ash's tent seemed devoid of any presence. He cautiously made his way forward and spoke out, “Ember?” No reply came. He ducked his head inside and saw it was empty. For a moment, he was confused and then it dawned on him. He rushed out of the tent and made his way out of the village. The southern face of the village was slanted but there were no guards to catch him tumbling and rolling down in haste. Lion, to his relief was waiting for him, seeming a little stronger if not tired. “Where is Ember?” Lion asked as he took some of the things Star had taken and secured them on his person. “She was not in the village,” Star answered. “She is near the Earth Blood, waiting for us.” “How do you know?” Lion asked, testing the weight of his new possessions. “I know Ember,” Star replied. “She must have run off in search of me. She must know we will eventually return to the blood river so she is likely to be hiding there.” “Smart woman.” Lion nodded. “Yes, she is.” Star helped Lion once more and they quickly doubled back. They edged away from the common path to the Earth Blood but kept a strong eye on it in case Ember was nearby. They veered more south then normal in hopes she of finding her taking the long way but found nothing there either. The sun began to fall back down and the Earth Blood was near. “Are you sure she's around here, Star?” Lion asked, a desperate tone for a desperate question. “She has to be,” Star replied. “There is still time before we-” “Star!” A voice cried out behind them and Star felt his own heart leap. It was not Ember that had found them but River with his spear pointed right at them. “Don't you dare run, I'll kill your friend if you try,” he threatened. “Do not be a fool, River,” Star growled. “This is Lion. You hurt him and you will be hunted next.” “Quiet!” His tone was frustrated and Star saw the bags under his eyes. He must have been looking for them all night. If it came to a fight, Star could easily win. “Why do you hate us, Star? We have never hurt you.” “Us?” Lion looked about and sent a shrug toward Star when he saw no one else nearing them. “I do not hate you or anyone else, River,” Star spoke slowly. “I am trying to help.” “Don't you lie to me!” he yelled, his spear point raising. “You always hated the village and me. Don't deny it.” His anger twisted on his face. “You are an omega, Star, but you always thought of yourself as an alpha. You disobeyed the rules, did whatever you wanted, talked down to Ember... Now that you cannot have her, you want all of us dead.” “What?” Star blinked incredulously. “You are selfish, Star. The worst man that can ever walk the earth. All you ever care is about your own wants and needs, you never spared a thought toward others, did you?” River was shaking, but not out of anger. Star could see the sadness hiding behind the hard words. For a moment, Star just stared at his old friend. Then he burst in laughter. “What are you laughing at?” The rage subsided in River's voice as he looked about him to find the source of Star's humor. “Is this a joke to you?” “Do you even understand what you are, River?” Star asked as he caught his breath between laughter. “That day, when you became a man, not by ritual but by experience?” “I don't-” River shook his head. “What are you talking about?” He raised his spear threateningly once more. “Ember reminded me of this not too long ago,” Star recited. “You and four of your friends went to the Earth Blood one day, a little while before you became hunters for the village. Just reached manhood.” “I don't want to talk about that day.” River's voice was uneven. “You dared one another to see who could get closer to the blood to prove you were the bravest. You dared them, and they got closer, but when they dared you...” “Shut up!” “You stayed behind,” Star continued. “Eventually, one of them got right to the edge. The bravest of them all, all thanks to your little game. It was your idea, was it not?” “Star, I'm warning you...” River waved his spear at Star but the grip was limp and the spear swayed. “Can you tell me that boy's name? The one who got too close to the edge and the ash beneath his feet crumbled as he fell into the blood?” River was shaking. “Do you remember his name? Can you remember anything beside the sight of his body burning and melting right in front of your eyes as he screamed and all you and your friends did was watch him die?” “Breeze!” River shouted. “His name was Breeze.” “That was the day you stopped playing with me.” Star felt dead inside as he recounted the tale. River needed to hear the truth about himself, it was his last chance at redemption. If it worked, maybe he could take River with them to the new lands. “Back then, I thought you were just growing up and joining all the betas and the hunters but that was not it. You were afraid, were you not? You began obeying every rule you knew; you started being the very best you could be in the eyes of the village just because you were afraid.” “I am not afraid.” He tried pointing his spear at Star but the quaking in his hands made it hard. “That day your friend burned alive, you learned something. You learned what punishment truly was. You began believing that doing as you were told, following every rule, listening to every word your alpha said would protect you from one day burning alive as well. You believe that so long as you obey, only good will happen and no bad things ever will again.” “What do you know about following rules? You never followed any of them.” “Not following the rules made me climb the White Teeth and find a new land where we can hunt and live in safety.” River's eyes widened. “Now, what did you want, River? Stay in the village and keep to ourselves and wait for the alphas to bring back the animals and warm the earth themselves, did you not? “They were going to join the villages together. We were going to be strong.” His spear point dipped toward the ground. “Strong against what, River?” Star asked. “The hunger and the cold? Tell me, how do you stab that to death? With a spear? A dagger?” River gave no reply. “We might be able to still warm ourselves but how would we feed both villages when we cannot even feed ourselves? This land is dying around us and we are going to die with it, River.” “Something would have happened. If we all worked hard together and-” River began but Star cut him off. “You really believe that?” Star felt sadness wash over him. River might be beyond his reach now. “River, you came to me because you were afraid and you could not stop remembering that boy burning in the Earth Blood. You wanted to feel safe and free like I was but you could not allow yourself to be that way anymore. You began resenting me and tried even harder to be part of the village. You were afraid of being alone and rejected like I was. “I did my best, as an omega, to help the village and I was never truly alone when I had you and Ember to be my friends, despite our differences. I am my own alpha, River, and I do things not because I know they are the best or because I was told they were right. I do them because I am not afraid of getting hurt or making mistakes and that is exactly what you are River: a child that got afraid, ran away, and never came back.” The spear fell from River's hand and he stood motionless. The tears were streaming down his face freely but he made no sound. “Star!” Ember broke out of the jungle and ran toward him. However, she did not see River as he grabbed her by the arm, a bone knife in his hands. “River, let her go!” Star growled. “Was it all lies, Ember?” River whispered, barely audible through his shaking words. “How you wanted to be our alpha? How you wanted to lead us?” “No, River, of course not.” She strained under his grip, unable to pull free. “Then why, why are you chasing after Star?” “Because he is my friend, I had to warn him that he was being hunted. Can't you see that?” “You could have married Lion or Jaguar, you could have been the alpha you always wanted. Instead, you're abandoning us, Ember. Why?” His voice was soft, frail. Whatever rage he had moments ago washed away by his tears. “I am not abandoning anyone, River. We will all cross the White Teeth and toward the new lands.” She turned to Star. “There are new lands, yes?” Star nodded and Ember sighed in relief. “See, River?” Star continued for Ember. “We all want the whole village to be saved.” “I am the one who told them after I lead Jaguar to the White Teeth.” River said, his voice breaking. “They are hunting you because I did what was right. I told my alpha about you and what you did.” “River, I understand that you did what you believed was right,” Star began. “You did this for the village. For your alpha.” “Yes.” His voice cracked and his grip loosened. He did not even react when Ember got away and pressed herself into Star's arms. A moment of relief, Star thought as he embraced her. Whatever danger River had posed was gone now. “You were always good deep down, River, and that is why I stayed your friend after all this time. I believed in you.” Ember peeked out from the safety of Star's arms. “River, Wolf wants blood now, do you know that? If I go back and tell them that the White Teeth have new lands for us to live on I will no longer have to marry Lion.” She glanced over at Lion who seemed asleep against a tree now. “I would not tell them where Star was, no matter what. Wolf would not accept it as the village began to move on toward the new lands and no longer cared about the death of Jaguar, about Star, or the wedding. They would only care about finding a new home where they could feed their families.” “Wolf will fight us, no matter what.” River realized. “River, I need you to do something for me, not because I'm your alpha but because I am your friend.” River looked at her upon hearing that. “Go back to the village, say you never saw us. Wolf will continue his search but as long as his son is missing, he will not risk a war.” “Yes, Ember. I can do that. For a friend.” He nodded. “River, one more thing,” Star added, “we did find life, above the White Teeth. It is cold but there is water, shelter and food. Tell them you think we may have escaped there and the villages will follow. One of the teeth collapsed and turned into a steep hill. It will be easy to go there, I promise. Once the village realizes this, you can tell them that I must have found shelter and food up there. They will follow me, like Ember said, in search of a better life for their families. Wolf will not be able to start a war if no one else wants to.” “I can do that too, Star.” His eyes were red from exhaustion and tears but somehow, River seemed stronger than he had been moments ago. “I will.” Picking his spear up, River ran back where he had come from without another word. “I really thought he was going to cut me.” Ember massaged her neck at the raw memory. “I knew he would not. River is not a killer.” Star pressed Ember close to him. “Is Lion okay?” she asked, as she turned her attention toward the man again. “Yes, he must have lost consciousness. He nearly died from the cold and can barely move on his own. I am amazed he had stayed awake up until now.” Star answered as he walked over toward Lion. “Can you walk?” “Yes.” Lion opened his eyes briefly before closing them again. He stood up but drifted back and forth unsteadily. “We will help you.” Star said as he and Ember both passed an arm under his. “Just walk as best you can but we cannot stop until we reach the White Teeth. We are not out of danger yet.” “I can walk.” Lion's voice slurred as he made small but firm steps forward. His eyes went in and out of focus as he did his best to stay awake. Star smiled as he guided Lion forward and Ember smiled back as well. For once, despite being hunted, life seemed better than it had in a very long time. He did not know what would become of River or if he'd ever meet him again. Neither did he know how life would be in the cold land of snow but it was a future where every dawn would bring new hope. As long as they tried and searched farther than they had yesterday, Star knew that all three of them would find that happy future they had all forgotten as children growing in a dying land.