A small chasm in the ground spreads for thirty yards here, east to west, and five yards long at its widest point, from north to south. At the bottom of the gap in the earth, near its center, is planted a collection of sharpened stakes, many of which have now been broken off or pulled out of place. All around, the forest flourishes, replete with trees and thick undergrowth. A narrow trail approaches from the south to intersect with the chasm near its center. Partially obscured from view of the trail is a small, makeshift campsite.
A winged Hekoye stirs from beneath his blanket, disoriented by dreams, and blinking at the late morning sun. As the echoes of his nightmare fade away, the first thing he registers is that he has overslept Dalton should have awakened him for his watch hours ago.
Lochinvar pulls the blanket off him, rubs the sleep out of his eyes and looks around for his companions.
As he surveys the campsite, he notices Dalton's form, unmoving, and half-covered by one of the blankets. Ariecha's bedroll appears untouched, while the blanket Elavars used lies crumpled in a heap, and the boy, like Ari, is nowhere in sight.
The Ranger gets up and makes his way towards Dalton, putting a hand on his shoulder and shaking a little, to stir him awake.
As soon as he gets up, a nameless unease fills him, and as the coyote bends to touch his old friend, he realizes the source of it: a scent in the air, of blood, and fear. Before his hand lands on Dalton's shoulder, he knows something is terribly wrong, and as he shakes the man, the body under his fingers feels … cold. The form flops onto his back, and Dalton's eyes stare up at him, sightless. The blanket falls aside, and while from the neck up, this is Dalton, below, he has a body like that of a giant Eeee.
Lochinvar recoils back for a moment in shock, then slowly reaches towards his friend, trying to search for any sign of life left.
As he tries to pull the blanket back the rest of the way, he realizes that it is matted to Dalton's abdomen with blood, and the coyote wonders that he did not sooner notice its reek. Once he gets the blanket off, a hideous wound is visible in the Eeee-like stomach, as if giant talons had sunk into his flesh and pulled upwards, entrails visible and blood oozing over everything.
Flopped at Dalton's side, his right hand has its fingers curled, like the talons they once were, slicked in blood, though Lochinvar can see that they are blunt-tipped now, like an Eeee's digits. In their current state, they would be incapable of inflicting the damage visible, though if they had finished the transformation after the injury … Odds are such a wound, while fatal, would take a long time to kill him.
The Hekoye turns his head away, fighting the urge to retch, and manages to get the blanket back over the body. "The creature," Lochinvar mumbles, knowing of its ability to alter bodies. "But something else did this." He gets to his feet, looking around for Elavars and Ariecha, knowing that he needs to find them.
As he begins his search, from somewhere near the chasm hi keen ears hear the sound of labored breathing, and faint whimpering noises.
Lochinvar quickly hurries over to the edge, to try and see who is making the noise.
At the bottom of the chasm, he can see a crumpled white form, streaked with dirt and blood, long white bat-like wings spread and tattered as the figure claws at the sides of the ravine, struggling feebly to climb out.
Jumping into the chasm, Lochinvar outstretches his wings using them to slow his descent to reach Ariecha … at least, he believes it to be her. "Ari?" he calls out, as he makes his way towards her.
The figure's head twists to look at him as the Ranger leaps. "Lochy," she breathes out, her voice distorted. Like Dalton, she seems hideously transformed, fur replacing feathers, wings reduced to skin stretched over a frame of bones. Even her head seems to be changing, bat-like ears growing from her head, her beak half-hidden beneath a mask of skin and fur. As he lands beside her, she sags against the ground, half-leaning against the sloped side of the ravine. "It … betrayed us," she whispers out, with difficulty.
Lochinvar quickly gets to her side, glancing her over quickly, then looks into her eyes. "But why, though?" he asks. "I thought we got through to it?"
Her eyes are the same blue he has always known, now clouded by pain, and something else, less easily defined. "I … don't … " Ariecha coughs, crumpling further, and the stench of blood on her grows stronger. "It killed … Dalton … did … this … " She moves one hand weakly in a gesture towards herself.
Shaking his head, the Vartan/Hekoye says, "I don't understand. I saw Dalton, but he was … gouged. From what you told me, the creature doesn't … kill, that way." He kneels down by her, trying to see the extent of her injury, scenting the blood from her.
Ariecha bleeds from a dozen or more minor wounds, and the bones in one of her strange new wings are shattered, rendering it worse than useless. But as the coyote moves to inspect her, he sees that the worst injury is on her chest, where black and flaking skin is half-hidden by the ground she rests against, and one crossed arm. A scent of corruption and pus mixes with the blood, making his stomach churn. Ariecha reaches out with her hand to grasp his arm, and she speaks, with difficulty. "He … clawed out his stomach … rather than live … like that," she hisses. "It drove him mad. Lochinvar, I tried … to fight it," she gasps out, sagging down again.
"Ari," Lochinvar says softly, trying to see the extent of the wound on her chest, "Dalton … didn't have the talons for doing that to himself."
"Before … it was complete," she whimpers, as he gently lifts her arm aside to see that, all down her chest, it looks like something has eaten away at her flesh, leaving raw, torn muscle blackened and visible, and in places, even bits of white bone from her ribcage, though red blood slicks over everything. "Lochy … " Ariecha swallows, closing her eyes. "You must stop it."
Lochinvar again finds himself having to fight against being sick. "Where did it go?" he asks. "Where's Elavars?"
Her eyes flick open, in that moment, intensely blue, and Ariecha raises her arm and straightens it, with visible effort, to point to the south. "That way. It took … Elavars. Lochinvar … " She closes her eyes again, and her breath rattles out unevenly. "Avenge us."
Nodding softly, the coyote replies, "I will." He looks to the south, the back to Ariecha, wondering if there's anything he can do for her.
One last gasp hisses from the woman, then her arm flops lifelessly down, and her body goes limp and still. There's nothing more the Hekoye can do.
Lochinvar reaches out with a hand to close Ari's eyes for the last time, then closes his own for a moment, trying to hold back his emotions. After a minute or two, he makes his way back up the chasm to where he was sleeping, retrieves the blanket he was using, then returns down to Ari's side to lay it over her. Afterwards, he retrieves two of the sharpened stakes from the pit, selecting long and unbroken ones, then starts to head southwards.
The path Lochinvar followed when he first reached the chasm is clearly the one that the shadow has departed by, and the passage shows by the beaten down brush and foliage. Here and there, drops of blood spatter on the trail, and some kind of ichor. The beast's scent is strong in the air, and the winged Hekoye doubts that it has gone more than a mile or two, judging by the marks on the path.
The Vartan/Hekoye continues down the path, a grim expression of resolve on his face, still choosing to walk despite his injured leg than fly.
The ache in his leg seems to pale beside all else that has happened, and resolve seems to have sharpened his senses, leaving him acutely aware of every passing breeze, the rustling of branches, the occasional chirp of an insect or bird, the scent of the pines and the ichor that marks his path. In the distance, down the path, sunlight flashes on something bright and shiny, and Lochinvar immediately recognizes it.
Though Lochinvar spies the creature, his pace doesn't quicken or slow as he approaches it. He checks his grip on the wooden spikes he carries.
With a stake securely held in each hand, he draws closer to the shadow monster, whose steady pace seems slower than the last time he saw it moving. As the Hekoye approaches, he sees a shadowy tendril wrapped around the arm of a small humanoid figure with misshapen wings, that trails along behind it.
Lochinvar continues walking at his same pace, looking to get a little closer still.
The Ranger stealthily moves to with twenty-five feet of the shadow beast, then it seems to hesitate for a moment. The little figure dragged with it turns its head, and Lochinvar recognizes Elavars, his deformed condition having worsened. The boy's mouth opens, but he makes no sound of recognition or warning.
Seeing it hesitate, Lochinvar pauses also, and calls out to it, "Let him go." His voice is perhaps a little firmer and commanding than his normal soft-spokenness. He also hefts the spikes in a manner to throw or drive into the creature.
The shadow ripples, and the crystal on its top retracts beneath a covering of darkness. "Take your life and go," it answers. "I let you live in repayment for my life, but I will still have my revenge."
"I can't let you do that," replies the Ranger. "Not now. You killed my best friend, and my first love. I will not let you have Elavars, or anyone else."
Another ripple from the shadow, and Elavars stumbles as he is jerked to a position between the shadow and Lochinvar. "You cannot stop me," it rumbles in Imperial. "You will die if you try."
"Perhaps," replies the Hekoye, eyes searching around for a chance to get by Elavars and strike at the crystal.
The boy is much too small for the large shadow-creature to truly use him as a living shield, especially if Lochinvar uses an aerial approach. As the Ranger studies the spot where he last saw the small, vulnerable crystal vanish, he sees it peek up again, glittering for a moment, then vanishing. A few moments of watching suggest that the crystal is appearing and vanishing at regular intervals, like a very slowly beating heart.
Unfurling his wings behind him, Lochinvar beats down and gets himself airborne, though just above the position he was on the ground, watching for a moment to strike. "Tell me one thing, though," he says, trying to distract the creature with words. "Why Eeee?"
As the coyote takes flight, the shadow ripples backwards a pace, dragging the stumbling child with it. "Why not?" it responds, nonplussed, while the crystal flickers into view again on the summit of its body.
Lochinvar still doesn't strike yet, but starts counting to himself. "Filthy creatures," he retorts back, getting ready to dive forward and strike.
The creature makes a high-pitched, almost feminine sound of indignation. "A mistake, for all your kind deserve far worse!" it hisses, sibilant, and the Hekoye's inner count says that the crystal will appear again within seconds.
The Ranger starts his dive towards the creature, ready with one of the spikes to strike at the crystal when it appears. "No worse than you!"
The shadow recoils from the blow, and the timing of the crystal's appearance is off as it disappears almost immediately upon surfacing, but the winged Hekoye adjusts his aim accordingly, and the stake plunges exactly into the spot where the crystal vanished. The monster screams, an unearthly, hideous sound, and its tendrils lash out blindly in pain, a few brushing against Lochinvar's wings and legs. In the confusion, Elavars staggers away.
Lochinvar winces slightly as the creature touches him, but tries to wing away ready to strike at the creature again.
Its flailing limbs do little damage, and the Hekoye soon escapes its reach. He hovers over it, looking for another opening, as the creature below him writhes and twists in pain, its body seeming to melt into a spreading puddle against the ground, black lines of tendrils trickling away.
The Vartan/Hekoye looks down at the creature, wondering if another strike is even needed now.
As he watches, it dissolves further. A tiny shard of crystal floats on the oily-looking surface of its flattening body, and he hears a whimper of "help me" emitted from it.
"Why should I?!" the flying coyote demands. "I helped you once already, only to be betrayed and have you kill my friends."
No answer comes from the dissipating creature. More shards of crystal drift up from below its surface, glittering like a miniature Procession against the melting blackness.
Lochinvar lands down by its side, watching it carefully, holding the other spike ready in case.
Off to one side, Lochinvar catches from the corner of his eye a humanoid figure straightening to watch the monster melt away, but as the winged Hekoye turns to look fully upon what he takes to be Elavars, he sees that someone else entirely stands there a tall, black-winged female Eeee with glowing eyes, and hefting a double-bladed axe against her shoulder. She meets his gaze, and smiles.
"You know the meaning of Vengeance, after all," the Eeee says, and the word Vengeance seems to echo in every language Lochinvar knows, as well as in one that he does not.
Turning to look at the figure, the coyote asks, "Who are… ?" He blinks a little, thinking that the face looks … familiar. "I know you."
"You may yet come to know Me well, Lochinvar Arques." The Eeee hefts her axe with both hands, the same strange smile on her face. "Perhaps you will be of use to Me, after all. You have passed one Test, and for now you may GO."
A small, homey room with rushes on the floor and a stove against one central wall. A wooden table has two benches on either side, and a cot rests beneath one window, while on the opposite side from the cot, a door leads to the cottage's only other room, and a second door opposite the stove.
Abruptly, the coyote awakens in his parent's home. After a few disorienting moments, memory floods back to him. After the shadow-creature, who later identified itself by the name "Jishiyo," agreed to abandon its vendetta, they had helped it recover. It did not betray their trust, however, as happened in his nightmare. Rather, Ariecha left to call the villagers back to their homes, and after the shadow had recovered sufficiently, Dalton and Lochinvar escorted it to the village, as well.
The Vartan villagers met their erstwhile hunter with mixed emotions, and more than once Ariecha and Lochinvar were forced to defend it from angry Vartans. The monster, however, remained true to its word, and assisted the villagers in undoing the damage it had wrought on their homes, meeting their anger, distrust, and hatred with determined indifference. Jishiyo was not apologetic for what it had done, but nor did it take offense at the villagers' reaction, or use that as an excuse to go back on its promise. It also restored Elavars to health and reverted the young boy to his original Vartan appearance, much to the relief of both Elavars and his fretful parents though even afterwards, Lochinvar could tell that they did not seem to trust the child.
Lochinvar stayed through several holidays as well, helping to restore the village and spreading the word throughout the region that it was safe for Vartans to return to their abandoned lands. His parents lauded him as a hero and heaped praise on the winged Hekoye, somewhat to his consternation though that was preferable to the open hostility displayed by others, who felt he had betrayed them by letting the magic-wielding monster live.
Lochinvar wakes up with a start, calling out Ariecha's name; then, as it becomes apparent it was dreamt, he puts his face in his hands, a couple of tears escaping his eyes, very relieved that she is still alive and unharmed, as well as Dalton.