In the Mountains of Himar
The village's Dromodons shift occasionally, lowing to each other as they cluster along the herding trail between grazing lands. The season has come to shift the animals between pastures, an arduous multi-day affair. As is traditional, several of the villagers assist in this undertaking, though only two will watch the herd once they are settled in the new pasture. At night, the broad Dromodon trail, walled in by trees, is bracketed on the ends by small tents and campfires, allowing the herders to keep a close watch on the animals.
At the back of the herd, all the villagers save one watcher have tucked themselves into their bedrolls and gone to sleep. At the front, however, four adolescent Vartans Dalton, Lochinvar, Ariecha, and Holskil, the youngest of the four remain awake, huddled about their campfire, the only source of light on a cloudy night.
"Closer and closer he crept to the door," Dalton intones, his voice low in an effort to be ominous. "His heart beat -ba-dum, ba-dum -" the young Vartan cups his palms and pads the hollows together to mimic the noise, "- seemed so loud in his ears that he thought it would surely wake the sorceress. Then he laid his hand upon the knob, turned it, and threw open the door, knowing now he would be free!" Dalton rocks back on his heels, throwing his arms wide dramatically.
After a pause just long enough that Holskil starts to say something, Dalton continues, overriding him. "But then the sorceress swooped in through the open door, and with one snap of her sharp beak, bit off his head! She cackled as his still-beating heart fountained blood into the air from the stump of his neck " the story-telling Vartan tries to cackle, but it comes out sounding more like a sick cough, and throws bits of dirt and twigs into the air, fanning out his hands and fingers like a fountain. "- I warned you, fool, you would neeeeveerrrr be frreeee!" Dalton sits back again, knees bent before him, and awaits his audience's reaction.
Holskil covers his face with his wings, while Ariecha tries to mask a grin with one hand, directing her gaze towards Lochinvar as if to share in a private joke.
Lochinvar grins back a little to Ariecha, shaking his head a little and holding a finger up to his muzzle by way of a 'sssh' or 'not now' gesture.
She schools her expression and directs her attention to Dalton, applauding politely. "Very good," she says, not entirely convincingly. "I have a story to tell, too, if you want to hear it?"
Dalton, a little miffed by the lack of terror in his companion's expressions, shrugs. "Oh, I guess."
The youngest of the four shivers. "Okay," Holskil pipes up, nervously.
The Vartan-coyote gives Dalton a light nudge with his foot for his lack of enthusiasm. "Definitely, Ariecha. I'd love to hear it," he tells her.
The white Vartan smiles appreciatively at Lochinvar, then settles herself more comfortably on the ground, clearing her throat before beginning.
"This is a story my people tell," the white Vartan begins, ritualistically. "My mother's people, the tribe of Oak, who have mined the Quarry of Diamonds since the world was young. When my grandfather's grandfather was but a child, the Shadow came to the Quarry of Diamonds."
"No one knows where it came from. Some say that the miners of Oak dug too deep into the Quarry, and awakened an evil spirit that had been entombed by the gods within the mountain. Others say that the Shadow came to steal the tribe's shinies for itself, for it loathed its own dark countenance and sought bright things to mask it. And others say that its purpose there was unrelated to the tribe, and its treatment towards us was as a child towards flies pests to be swatted away, or perhaps toyed with for a moment, then forgotten." Ariecha sits on her heels as she speaks, her wings wrapped about her body. She speaks in clear, measured tones, her voice soft enough that her audience must keep quiet to hear her.
"Whatever its reason for coming, the Shadow meant no good towards us. The first Vartans to find it told no one of their discovery." She pauses to take a drink from her waterskin.
Lochinvar watches the white Vartan in silence, ears pricked up and hanging on her every words.
As the moment stretches on while she drinks, Holskil finally breaks the silence with, "Why not?"
"Because it killed them," Ariecha continues, matter-of-factly. "For days, no one knew what had become of the two miners, who had vanished while working together on an excavation deep with the shafts. At first, it was believed that a cave-in must have claimed their lives, though for days, teams of searchers found no trace of either them, or a collapse. Then, three more Vartan miners vanished.
"Two days later, one of those miners returned to the tribe. But he was … changed." Ariecha bows her head, and her voice drops lower.
"He had no feathers left anywhere on his body. Instead, he was furred from head to toe. Not just his legs, but his torso, his wings even his claws and his beak! were covered in soft fur. So deformed, he could no longer fly, and he scrambled out of the quarry on foot, weak as a new-born child. When they found him like that, the others of the tribe shied away from him in fear. They did not recognize him as one of their own, and when he made his identity plain to them, their trepidation grew.
"He told of what he had happened to him and his fellow. They had been searching through one of the tunnels, when ahead they saw that the shaft became wholly black, with a darkness that no light pierced. They did not know what to make of it. He cautioned his fellows to flee, but one advanced to touch that impenetrable darkness.
"It devoured him.
"Then the blackness advanced towards the remaining two. They tried to run, but it overtook them, and the miner remembered nothing after that, until he awakened again in the shaft, changed as they saw him now. Of his two fellows, nothing remained." She takes another sip from her waterskin, while Dalton and Holskil lean forward, Holskil with rapt attentiveness, Dalton with a nervous smile on his face.
Lochinvar tilts his head a little. "What happened then? To this … deformed person?" he asks.
An expression of pained sorrow falls over Ariecha's face at the winged coyote's question. "The others of the tribe did not know what to make of his story, or their fellow's terrible transformation. Some counseled against remaining at the quarry, fearful that this dark monster would soon claim them all. Others said the curse was exhausted upon these miners that they must have done some hideous crime and been punished by the gods for it, and no further vengeance would be taken. They said this sole, deformed survivor must be rejected by the tribe. Indeed, even his own wife would not look on his face, nor permit his children to see him, so terrified was she by his fate."
"Ultimately, they cast him out, leaving him to fend for himself as best he could. My grandfather's grandfather did not speak of his fate after that."
They Hekoye takes a deep breath, and 'whews'. "This is just a story, though? Like Dalton's with his sorceress?" he asks, giving a quick teasing wink over at his friend.
Ariecha shakes her head soberly at Lochinvar's query. "No, my friend, this is truth." She continues, taking up the thread of the story after a moment to gather her thoughts. "The tribe elected to remain at the quarry, for it was their home and none had ever known another. But three days later, two more workers vanished. Then a young child. Then a Vartan's wife. They found a body in the shaft, of a dead thing like a jumble of Vartan, pieces melded together, with three pairs of wings and two sets of arms, five legs and three heads, one that of the child's, set in the middle of a massive, barrel shaped chest." She shakes her head as she relates the tale, and Holskil shivers convulsively.
"The wife was found two days after that, recognizable only by her head. She yet lived, but her body was like a serpent's, with flat scales on the stomach and feathers down her back, neither arms nor legs on her, and great feathered wings like a giant Creen."
Lochinvar shivers also. "What … happened to her?"
"She was driven insane by the transformation. For a little while, the tribe hoped to merely drive her off, but she returned again and again, making the most piteous wailing sounds. One day she attacked a villager's child, and two men were forced to kill her to save the babe," Ariecha says softly.
The winged Hekoye closes his eyes and lowers his head, definitely sobered by the fact that this story is real. "Everyone must have left after that, right?" he asks, still looking down.
"The tribe feared to stay, and three families did, indeed, flee their homes to escape this scourge. But one brave Vartan asked them to wait while he investigated, and he went alone to where the first survivor said he had found the wall of darkness that pursued and transformed him, but the searcher found nothing there save a round indentation in the floor of the shaft.
"The tribe hoped, then, that the terrible beast was done with them and had moved on. Indeed, for months afterwards, there were no more mysterious disappearances, no more deformed bodies."
Lochinvar says, "So, you stayed there then… "
Ariecha nods. "The tribe hoped, then, that the terrible beast was done with them and had moved on. Indeed, for months afterwards, there were no more mysterious disappearances, no more deformed bodies."
"Then a Vartan miner fled alone from the quarry one day, screaming that the monster was back. It had attacked his group of workers in section nine of the fourth shaft. Two more escaped after him; one had his tail turned to a serpent's, and another's arm changed into a cat's paw. The other two perished."
"Please tell me that you moved then?" the Hekoye asks.
She shakes her head. "Now they knew this was no passing scourge, and no one counseled any longer that they stay, and wait, and hope. Now they knew they must either take flight, or find and fight this beast that terrorized their home and destroyed their fellows.
"Long was the argument made, back and forth between defending what was theirs, and, fleeing from this dark creature whose whereabouts were uncertain and powers unknown. At last, for better or for ill, the choice was made: they would fight."
Ariecha takes another quick drink, then continues. "All of the Vartans of fighting age girded for battle. They brought out what armor they had and made shift with weapons of pickaxe and used shovels as clubs where no swords could be found to arm them. Even my grandfather's grandfather, young as he was, prepared for war. Even the women, if they were fit, prepared to fight alongside their men."
Lochinvar shakes his head. "I'm sorry, and I mean no disrespect, but why try and fight something that can do that?"
Ariecha shrugged. "It was their only home, their only life. And who was to know that if they fled, they would escape? Perhaps the beast would come out from the mines and pursue them, claiming them each in turn until fewer and fewer remained to make a stand?
"So, down into the quarry they went, carrying all their lanterns and all their shinies, praying the light and the glitter would prove some protection against their hideous foe."
"Did it?" asks the winged coyote. "Provide any protection, I mean."
Holskil is barely breathing as he leans forward, attention rapt on Ariecha's face as she speaks. She holds up one finger to Lochinvar, then continues, "For hours they searched the tunnels where the dark thing had last been seen. At first, they could find no sign of the beast. Then they reasoned out, from the places they had seen it, where it might be between the tunnels. They chipped away at the walls, and broke through to a great new cavern. It was huge, and the walls glittered with bright uncut stones. And at its center was a spreading splotch of darkness that no light would pierce."
"The villagers shied back from the formless shadow. Then, Jhokhyl Vandringer, leader of the tribe, cried out to his people, 'Stand fast and fight! Together we must prevail or we all will perish!' And as one, they lunged forward to the attack."
She takes another quick drink of water, then clicks her beak together. "The monster at first made no sound as they flung their picks and swords, clubs and staffs and shovels at its body. The blackness did not seem harmed by their attacks; instead, its darkness washed over some of them, devouring them. As my grandfather's grandfather beat at it with a shovel, it consumed all but the stub of the shaft, which was bleached to a brilliant white, all color leached from it. As my ancestor watched, the color fled from his own fingertips, then his arms, until all over he was as white as new-fallen snow."
Lochinvar, not able to think of anything to say, just looks to Holskil, to Dalton, then back to Ariecha.
"All around him, the tribe of Oak was fighting and falling, their screams of rage and pain echoing loudly in the creature's cavernous lair. What good their shinies and lanterns did, he did not know, nor do I who tell the tale. It seemed as though nothing harmed it, and as my grandfather's grandfather hurled the stump of his makeshift weapon against its impervious hide, he thought, 'All is lost now; we have all come here to die.'" Ariecha relays the words sorrowfully, with great weight.
"And then, all at once, it melted away. The impenetrable block of darkness shrank in on itself, then was gone. What was left of the tribe of Oak was left alone in an empty cavern, filled with the reflection of their lanterns and very ordinary shadows that shifted and vanished when exposed to light. All that remained where the monster had been was an inert circle of crystal, perhaps a foot across, at the center of the cavern."
The winged Hekoye shakes his head a little, and rests a comforting hand lightly on Ariecha's arm.
A few moments after Ariecha's last words, Dalton says, "That's it? Just, poof, it's gone?"
The white Vartan turns to Lochinvar and smiles, a little weakly, covering his hand with her own. She nods to Dalton. "That's how it happened."
"Well, that's pretty lame," Dalton mutters, and Ariecha laughs.
"It does seem to have been defeated rather easily," Lochinvar notes. "It never reappeared?"
She shakes her head. "It was no easy victory. Over half the men of the tribe of Oak perished in that battle. But it never reappeared. The shaft was walled off again, and all future generations warned against exploring there. The crystal circle it left behind was felt to be a cursed thing, and remains in that cavern to this day, as best I know."
Lochinvar nods a little, then asks, "And your grandfather's grandfather? Was his discoloration all that he suffered?"
Ariecha nods. "The tribe was leery of him ever afterwards, and when he finally persuaded a young woman to wed him, all their children were white as well. The tribe thought his line cursed, but with their numbers thinned by the battle, they allowed him to remain among them."
"That … would explain your own coloration," says the coyote somberly. It's almost said as a question, but sounds more like a statement.
She nods again. For a moment, her fingers tense over Lochinvar's hand, holding his in place against her arm, then she lets her hand fall back to her side. A log on the fire shifts, throwing up a shower of sparks, and Dalton reaches for a stick to poke the fire back into a tidy pile.
Lochinvar attempts to lighten the mood. "White suits you though," he says, smiling.
The pale Vartan smiles in answer. "Do you think so?" she says playfully, mock-preening at her crest for him.
"Definitely," replies the Hekoye/Vartan. "Would I have said it if it were not true?"
Dalton makes a disgusted noise. "Aww, quit it, you two," he says, teasingly. He pokes Lochinvar with the charred tip of his stick for emphasis. "It's late we'd better get to sleep. Gonna be hard enough to get up in the morning after sleeping on rocks all night," he adds with a moan.
Lochinvar mock-ouches at the poke, and grins back. "I think I could find somewhere a little more comfy," he says, and winks over to the white Vartan.
Holskil, half-asleep before the fire already, awakes with a start and a yawn as Dalton pokes him, then the older male makes another disgusted noise as Ariecha replies to the winged Hekoye, "What, back home to our beds?" she offers. "I'm open to suggestions."
The Hekoye/Vartan grins back at Dalton, and leans over to whisper something in Ariecha's ear.
Dalton snorts indignantly as Ariecha goes wide-eyed at Lochinvar's whispering. "Do I have to dump cold water over both of you?" he demands.
The white Vartan looks at Dalton, then says, "Mmmm … cold water." She exchanges glances with Lochinvar, then dissolves into a paroxysm of giggles, while Dalton stands over them with an expression composed of equal parts of bewilderment, amusement, and annoyance.
Lochinvar chuckles along with Ariecha, no doubt having thought about the exact same thing as her.
Intersection Trails in the Himar
The straight-northbound path Lochinvar has been following intersects at this junction with a herding trail, similar to the ones Lochinvar followed when moving Dromodons in his youth, although this one must be used by another village. It's broader and smoother than the rough-cut path he and the boy have been following, which continues on, even more scraggly, to the north.
The deformed child stands with his hands against his knees in the intersection, breathing heavily as Lochinvar catches up to him. He looks to the adult for guidance as the man draws near, slight frame shivering despite the pleasant weather of the day.
The Ranger is panting slightly as he draws close to Elavars, having had to run so quickly after being exhausted from flying. "Why did … you run?" he asks, between breaths. "I told you … you're safe … with me."
"It's coming," Elavars says, unhappily. "Which way now?"
Lochinvar gestures northwards. "We're still trying to … catch up with the people … from the village," he replies, beginning to get his breath back now. "Can you keep up, or should I carry you?"
"Carry me?" the boy asks, holding his arms up to Lochinvar.
"Okay, on my back then," the Hekoye/Vartan tells the boy.
Lochinvar crouches down to let Elavars on.
With the coyote's assistance, Elavars scrambles into position on the adult's shoulders, making his weight easier to carry. They set off to the north, with the child often glancing back over his shoulder and whimpering the occasional, "It's coming," and urging Lochinvar to go faster.
"Don't worry," replies the Hekoye. "We're keeping ahead of it, and we will stay ahead of it."
Fortunately, his leg muscles saw little use during the long flight, though overall exhaustion makes it hard for the Hekoye to keep his head up. As he watches the path to avoid tripping over the stray foliage, an oddity about it gnaws at the back of his mind.
It seems like there's something different about the path. When he first set out on it, it was thoroughly beaten down presumably by the shadow monster. When he landed on it after flying past the monster, it was narrower and less trampled, though the plant life on it was still quite beaten down. Here, the trail seems, if anything, a little wider … but the foliage is more resilient. And there's something that seems different about the way it's been crushed.
Even though something about the trail nags at his mind, Lochinvar continues onwards, mindful of the dark shadowy creature that still follows them. However, he does his best to examine the trail while he keeps moving.
After hiking for half a mile, trying to puzzle out the queer thing about the path, it suddenly dawns on Lochinvar. The foliage hasn't been trampled by feet. Or rather, not all of it has been. While footprints are evident here and there along it, much of the "trampling" has apparently been done by an object with a wide, oval base. The prints of that instrument are apparent here and there, and it explains why the foliage is so resilient the object must not have had the weight of a full living body behind it, as a foot does.
Lochinvar starts to slow his pace a little, while he tries to figure out what this actually means. Was whatever made these oval marks travelling with the villagers, or after them also?
As he slows, considering the trail more closely, it strikes him that there's no sign that a large number of people passed along this trail at all. It could have been made by two or three Vartans with machetes and oval-bottomed sticks. Closer examination of the non-footprints suggests there were two different objects used to crush the foliage the prints from each are a little different, one having a rounder tip then the other.
The Ranger actually pauses on the trail now, and looks around. "I'm starting to wonder if the people from the village used this trail to leave. Not enough tracks," he says, then crouches a little to make a closer inspection of the strange prints.
The prints most distinct at the center, suggesting most of the weight from the object making them was placed in the middle, then distributed outwards along the rest of the object. They overlap a good deal, making them usually impossible to distinguish the same way many footprints on a trail make it impossible to pick out just one. This suggests either several people with the same kind of device using them to tamp down the ground, or just one or two, going back and forth with them to give the illusion of a trail walked by many. Even the fact that there are two different prints wouldn't necessarily mean two people could be one person working very hard, with a stick in each hand.
Lochinvar asks the boy, "Are you sure that everyone went north? Maybe some went north, hoping to divert this creature away from everyone else… "
"Don't know," Elavars says. "They left me 'hind 'fore we got this far … You need to go faster … it's coming," he whispers.
"Yes … of course," replies the Hekoye, and starts up again. Maybe we can find whoever made these tracks, and get some answers from them, he muses to himself.
Time passes, and the sun hangs low in the sky, as Lochinvar continues along the trail. Elavars grows increasingly more agitated as weariness forces the Hekoye's pace to slow. "It's getting closer," he whimpers. "It's gonna catch us."
A glance over his shoulder lets the Hekoye know that the shadow beast is still out of sight. Despite an itching sensation on his back from Elavars' fearful warnings, the ranger can detect neither sound nor sign of the beast at the moment.
Lochinvar shakes his head. "I can't hear it. We can rest a little, and should it get near, I can fly us out of the way in a moment's notice."
"Noooo!" the child protests as Lochinvar stops walking. "We have to keep moving!"
"No," says the winged coyote firmly. "You have to trust me, Elavars. I cannot keep walking and flying without a break for food or rest. No-one can. We are a good deal ahead of this creature, and can afford the time to take such a break. Right?"
The boy doesn't seem happy about it, but after a long moments, makes a grudging, "Okay." Then, "'m hungry, too."
Lochinvar nods. "I thought you might be," he says. "Now no more running off, okay? We're safer together, yes?"
After drawing a deep breath, the boy nods, trembling. "Okay."
"Good," the Vartan/Hekoye says, and lets the boy off his back, then retrieves his pack also, and starts rummaging though it for possible meals.