A trail in the Himar
Unlike the path Lochinvar walked behind the shadowy monster, this trail is roughly broken, marked by crushed foliage, but wending around thickets and trees. Branches often block the path, along with fallen limbs and occasional bushes not quite beaten far enough aside, making progress following it slow and painstaking.
After fifteen minutes of resting for dinner which Elavars bolts down in sixty seconds before proceeding to pace, awkward and antsy, on the trail around Lochinvar the Hekoye hears a sound coming from the south.
Lochinvar turns his head in the direction of the sound, listening for a few more seconds, before turning back and starting to put stuff away in his pack. "Elavars," he says to the boy, "help me get this stuff away. We should move on … quickly."
The child looks almost faint with relief at Lochinvar's words, and he moves swiftly to comply, stuffing hisalready-cleaned dish, cup, and the cook pot, into the pack. "It's coming," he whispers, as if more to himself than the coyote.
"I know," the winged coyote calmly replies, his sensitive hearing picking out the whisper, "which is why the sooner we pack our stuff up, the sooner we will be on our way."
As soon as the last thing is packed, Elavars glances nervously up at the adult, then he sets off down the trail, his malformed legs working hard in an effort to keep the pace of a walking adult.
Lochinvar hefts the pack over his right shoulder for now, checks the site for anything they may have missed, and picks up the trail to catch up with the younger Vartan, keeping his ears attuned for any sounds behind them.
Elavars' sole advantage over his companion is being lower to the ground, and he scrambles easily beneath obstacles that the grown man must bend to one side. The roughly-broken trail is harder going than when Lochinvar followed the broad path that at first led from the village. The sound behind them a low, rumbling noise a little like the sound of bushes being crushed beneath a slowly-rolling log grows a little louder in Lochinvar's keen ears as they walk. At first, the Hekoye hopes that it's only Elavars' fear affecting him, but after half an hour of walking, he is forced to admit that the creature is gaining on them.
The Ranger keeps this fact to himself, for the moment, and looks around at the surrounding foliage, seeing if there is a route he can take by air to give them some distance.
His wings, so recently over-exerted, ache at the mere thought of flight, but ahead he can see a break in the trees probably enough clear ground for him to take flight again.
"See that clearing over here?" Lochinvar says, gesturing towards it. "Head for there, and I'll aim to put some air between us and it."
At first, distracted by the distant rumbling behind him, Lochinvar doesn't hear the noises from ahead. Then he realizes something's moving in the cleared space soft chunking noises audible from ahead, like a tool striking at dirt. As he grows nearer, he sees that the break in the tree isn't from a clearing, but from a ravine.
Lochinvar sees Elavars ahead of him. "Wait for me at the edge there!" he calls out, and hurries to join the boy.
The noises ahead stop abruptly after Lochinvar's shout, while the deformed child nods, walking to the lip, then pausing and looking back to Lochinvar. A white shadow rises from the ravine as Elavars' back is turned. With dusk upon them, it might seem like a ghost, save that one does not generally imagine ghosts being quite so filthy and dirt-streaked.
The Hekoye catches up with the young Vartan in just a coupleof paces, and takes hold of his shoulder just in case he should either run off once he sees what's behind him. As far as what that is coming up from the ravine, Lochinvar tries to see if he can work that out now that he's a little closer.
For a moment, the figure just hovers, then it speaks. "Lochy?!" the grime-encrusted Vartan asks, blinking her blue eyes in disbelief. "What- why- how did you get here?" Off to her right, the winged Hekoye hears more scrambling noises, and another familiar Vartan pops into view, gaping at the pair.
Lochinvar seems unable to say anything for a moment or two, then finally. "Ariecha?" he says to the white Vartan. "Dalton?" to the other. A hundred things come into his mind of things he wants to say, but he shakes his head to try and dismiss them. "No time for that now. Ariecha, you remember that story of the Shadows that you told us of while we were up in the mountains?" he asks, but doesn't wait for a reply. "I think it may have returned, and is close behind us."
"We know," Ariecha says, nodding. She flies to the opposite side of the ravine, then lands. "We've been preparing a trap for it. So it did follow us?"
Dalton adds, "If it's close, we'd better get the ravine covered quick, and you… two… " he hesitates, registering Elavars at last, "out of sight."
The Vartan/Hekoye nods quietly. "I came from the village," he replies to Ariecha, figuring that would be answer enough. He looks over to Dalton, "You have somewhere we can go?"
The other Vartan nods. "Yeah, you can hide with us on the other side of the ravine, once we get it covered. C'mon, I'll show you what we've got to do; you can help." He flies to the opposite side of the gap, joining Ariecha, who has stepped back into the forest beyond.
Lochinvar kneels down beside Elavars, prompting him to hold on to him. "Come on, it'll be safer with the others," he tells him.
The child eagerly climbs onto Lochinvar's back, wrapping his little arms and legs around the winged coyote's body, careful to avoid impairing his wings.
Once sure that the child has a good hold on him, Lochinvar takes to the air and heads across the ravine quickly to follow the two Vartans on the other side.
As they fly over the ravine, Lochinvar notes that the sides of the ravine have already been covered, with what looks like, from above, loose dirt, twigs, and leaves. Without any grass or other growth, it looks like an odd scar upon the land, about thirty yards from one end to the other, and five yards across. Only the center remains open, and through the gloom of its depths, the coyote glimpses sharpened sticks pointing upwards.
Lochinvar lands on the other side, and with Elavars still holding on to him, makes his way into the forest. "Ariecha? Dalton?" he calls, trying to find where they went.
It doesn't take long to figure this out, as Dalton and Ariecha soon return to view, manhandling a contraption of stripped saplings and sheets. It takes the winged Hekoye a moment to make sense of it, then he realizes that they have a rough wooden frame intended to span the pit, and a patchwork of sheets to cover the frame. "We'll lay this down. We've got some dirt and leaves and stuff already in a heap back there. You two start carrying that over to cover it, 'kay, Lochy?" Ariecha asks, while Dalton flies to the other side with his end of the frame.
The Ranger looks down at the child holding onto him. "Can you help us with this, Elavars?" he asks him.
The boy nods without a word. He glances to Lochinvar, then heads in the direction Ariecha indicated.
Lochinvar nods back to Ariecha, and quickly follows Elavars to gather the stuff to scatter onto the frame.
A huge mound of leaves, twigs, dirt, and small bushes that must be what the white Vartan referred to rests just a little ways from the ravine, and almost before the two Vartans finish laying the frame in place, Elavars is beside it, scattering handfuls of dirt and twigs onto it.
The Vartan/Hekoye drops his pack by the side, and scoops up a good handful of debris, and makes his way to the frame to spread it across it.
Soon, the four of them work in concert to cover the makeshift tarp, though the adults have to keep an eye on Elavars to keep him from piling the dirt unevenly on the edges, since he cannot fly across to scatter it along the center. The noise they make as they work does not quite cover the growing rumble of the monster approaching from the south, and after a few tense minutes, Ariecha pauses. "What's that noise?"
Lochinvar pauses to listen, tilting his head slightly. "I think it's a lot nearer now," he comments after a moment.
Her beak parts, breathing out, "Oh," then she resumes the work, moving, if anything, a little faster. A few more minutes, and with the rumble ominously near, Dalton says, "That'll have to do. Let's git." He flies to the north side of the covered trap. To Lochinvar's expert eye, the lifeless covering looks like an unnatural bare gap in the forest, and is wholly unconvincing. But perhaps on someone… or thing, with less experience, it will work.
Quickly, the winged coyote hurries over to Elavars, and taps him on the shoulder. "Come," he says, "back into the forest. Let's hope this does the trick."
The boy seemed a little more at ease while working on the trap with other adults, but as the monster grew nearer, he became increasingly nervous, and further urging to take shelter is unnecessary. Ariecha shows Lochinvar and Elavars to her hiding place on the ground, out of sight and unable to see while Dalton assumes a scouting perch high in one of the trees by their trap.
Lochinvar takes the hiding place, but fidgets there a little, not too comfortable with not being able to see what is happening. He looks to see if there's another vantage point he could use to see himself.
Ariecha lays in the dirt beside him, under the cover of another camouflaged sheet, with the child between them. She notices Lochinvar's discomfort, and whispers, "We thought it best if only one of us scouted less chance of giving us away." The winged Hekoye's scan doesn't suggest any good hiding places with a better vantage. Even Dalton's perch the best-concealed one in the area is fairly conspicuous to one looking for him, though as high off the ground as he is, it's not likely someone moving on the ground would think to look up and spot him.
The Ranger sighs and nods, and settles for looking up to keep an eye on what he can just see of Dalton, high in the trees.
Minutes trickle past with nothing but the growing rumble. Elavars grows increasingly antsy, trembling and making tiny whimpering noises, despite Ariecha's efforts to soothe him into silence.
Lochinvar's eyes wander from watching Dalton to look at Ariecha and Elavars for a moment. So many things to ask her, but now is not the time. He returns to keeping watch on Dalton.
The rumble grows, so ominous even Ariecha trembles. It seems so near it might be on top of them, then it stops. Ariecha glances to Lochinvar, a fearful look in her eyes.
Feeling eyes on him, the Hekoye looks back to Ariecha. "I'm sure Dalton would warn us if it gets too close to us."
A noise that Lochinvar recognizes as Dalton's creechi-bird call echoes through the silence. The white Vartan winces. "It didn't work," she whispers by way of explanation.
Lochinvar glances briefly at Elavars, then looks back to Ariecha. "You had a backup plan in case this happened?" he asks.
"Not really." Ariecha eases herself out of the hiding place as quietly as she can manage, while the rumbling noise resumes, heading to the right of them now, probably moving alongside the ravine. "We've got to get it into that pit."
"Maybe I can do that with Dalton," replies the Hekoye. "Someone needs to stay with Elavars."
The white Vartan looks from the child to the man, then closes her eyes and nods. The rumbling pauses for another moment, then resumes.
Lochinvar makes his way out of the hiding place, and towards the edge of the ravine, on his way looking to see if Dalton is still in the tree, and then where the Dark Thing is.
As he nears the concealed edge of the ravine, he spots the shadow mass, making its way among the trees on the far side of the ravine, apparently moving around the prepared trap. Dalton still remains in the tree, though he's scanning the ground. As Lochinvar searches for him, the Vartan makes eye contact with him.
Lochinvar quickly takes to the air, flying up close to the tree where Dalton is, "How far does the ravine run?" he asks.
While he's flying, the shadow-beast stops moving. Dalton replies, "Another five yards, the way it's going. But we only put stakes in the bottom of the pit for the six yards around the middle. And … I think it sees us."
"Maybe that's good," replies the coyote. "Ariecha said we should maybe try to draw it into the ravine. If it sees us, it makes things a little easier."
"Um … yeah." He looks nervous for a moment, then shakes his head. "What the heck, thing can't fly, right? So what now?"
"Fly ahead of it, and try to get it to move over the frame," Lochinvar says. "Just remember to keep enough distance between it and us."
Dalton nods. "Maybe we can trick it… " He flies across the ravine and lands on the path at the south edge. "Hey! You! Looking for me?" he shouts to it, speaking Vartan. The shadow monster shifts, its mass rippling weirdly. It flows towards Dalton.
Lochinvar flies down and hovers over the ravine just to the side to the trap, with the trap between himself and the creature. "No, no… you're looking for me, aren't you?" he calls out. "After all, you have been chasing me, haven't you?"
The creature hesitates as Lochinvar appears, but continues to move towards Dalton, retracing its path alongside the ravine. Dalton folds his arms across his chest and taps one hoof against the ground. "C'mon, pick it up," he cackles derisively. "I ain't got all day to wait around for you to kill me or change me into a hideous monster, y'know."
Frowning a little at his old friend's bravado, Lochinvar flies a little closer to the creature, trying to get its attention again. He gets to a point where he's just closer to the creature than Dalton. "Over here!" he shouts at it. "At least go for a challenger that's worthy of you!"
"Hey, I'm worthy!" Dalton protests. He bends to scoop a rock from the ground and hurls it to the shadow creature. It hits, vanishing without a trace into the thing's smooth pitch surface. "I… uh… " The Vartan looks momentarily taken aback by the effect on the stone. Meanwhile, the beast abruptly lashes a tendril of shadow-substance towards Lochinvar, the strike almost faster than Lochinvar can follow.
Lochinvar yowps, and dives to the side, tucking his wings slightly, attempting to avoid the strike.
The tip of the tentacle strikes like a whip against one ankle, stinging the Hekoye. It half-wraps around the limb, but the Hekoye's momentum tugs the shadow-thing closer to the pit a half-foot, then the Hekoye pulls free from it, his foot feeling numb from the contact. Dalton leaps into the air at the attack on his friend, flying to assist him.
The Hekoye attempts to concentrate on keeping aflight rather than on the feeling in his foot, but he does glance at it briefly to see if the creature did him any damage.
The fur around his ankle is torn up, and a little blood clots in it, but the damage doesn't look serious. Dalton circles about Lochinvar, as the shadow squats at the edge of the ravine, the tendril it used to strike vanished back into its matte hide.
The two fliers hover after the coyote recovers from the shock of the strike, and Dalton stares across the distance at their tormentor. "Come on," he repeats, softer, more dangerous. "You move pretty quick, and it's not so very far, is it? Come get us." He touches his hooves to the covered trap, flapping his wings once, then folding them at his back until he just stands there, on what seems at the moment to be solid ground. "Come get us."