3. The Blood Hills

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For as long as Regina understood the world around her, the coming of the Harvest was Altus's most important celebration. It was a testament to the hardships of those who spent long days tending to crop fields. It marked the mutually beneficial pact between AltusVillage and KeetoTown through the abundance of trade that the Harvest provided each year. And alongside the Harvest was its Song, a gospel with no origin such as the Harvest, itself – it had always been, and always would be.

During the preparation of the great Harvest, the Song of the Harvest filled the infinite skies from father sunrise to mother moonset. And despite the threat of blight or infestation, or even the judgment of the wind itself, the Song of the Harvest never failed to bring strength to the crops from the tongues of those who sowed and reaped countless hours in the fields:

Row by row

These Crops we grow

They shall proclaim their worth

For by the blessed kiss of Wind
these seeds will sow rebirth

Row by row
These crops we grow
Great riches of the land

Praise to you oh blessed Wind
For Harvest marks our lives' good work

Yes, Harvest marks our lives' good work

Dwain urged Regina to sing it with him as they trekked the secret tunnel: "It will be our anthem, yeah – t' the survival and championship of our village," he told her. "And those who escaped t' KeetoTown will hear us as we near and they shall join our voices, so that those canine mongrels who now hide as cowards will know Altus's true glory!"

But to Regina, there was no longer any honour to the song. She reflected on the many silhouettes cast against orange evening horizons, choiring with such pride while they tended to the crops. She thought about the nights her mother lulled her to sleep with it under the scents of rose and orchid that brought maternal security. And as she and Dwain journeyed through the deep darkness of the physical unknown, it became apparent, despite her young age, that the hymn meant to benefit their village was but now a eulogy.

A round door made of planked wood awaited the children at the end of the tunnel. It stood above steps made of tightly-packed dirt and rested within a paw-crafted clay track that looked as though the door could be rolled away inside a deep crevice within the wall.

Dwain dragged himself up to it and took one of two iron handles fastened on either side of the door. It was heavy, stuck within the earth that sealed it. He pushed and pushed with all the strength he had left, but it was no use. The door was impossible to move on his own, not to mention with just a single able paw.

Regina realized this right away. She circled around Dwain, carefully planted her paws upon his hedgehog bottom, and shoved with all her little might to help accommodate. Dirt hissed down upon them as the door shifted against the clay track. Pure daylight lit up the tunnel in a single blinding ray. Regina clenched her eyes shut. Dwain turned his face away and threw his shoulder into rolling the door further up the track.

Cool afternoon air billowed into the damp and stagnant chamber. A strong sweetness of huckleberries filled the children's noses – as well as the husky scent of fir trees, chestnuts, and wet grass. Somewhere, sparrows and jays of every kind cheered for the children's escape.

The door came to a stop halfway, too heavy along the upward track to keep momentum. But the way was open, and that was all that mattered.

The children collapsed into the dirt. Dwain bit back tears as he nursed his wounded paw. Regina panted for fresh air that didn't yet fill her lungs as she slowly climbed to a stand. She looked back down the tunnel. For a moment, she became mesmerized by a pure emptiness, an abyss, which lay before her from the tavern cellar whence they journeyed.

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