A scar on the land, with no growth upon it, just dirt, twigs, and leaves, cuts for thirty yards here, east to west, and five yards at its widest point, from north to south. All around the barren ground, the forest flourishes, replete with trees and thick undergrowth. A narrow trail approaches from the south to intersect with the strip of cleared earth near its center.
A brown Vartan stands, arms folded across his chest, at the center of the bare ground, trying to project confidence and ease, though something about his stance seems tenuous, as if he expected to trip, or fall, at any moment. Near him, a winged coyote hovers, and both figures stare across yards of cleared earth to where a shadowy blob crouches at the edge of the forest.
Lochinvar flies around slowly to situate himself behind Dalton, still keeping to the air rather than landing on the covering of the trap also. "Careful," he urges the other Vartan. "It's gotten a taste now."
The shadow thing shifts, moving slowly around the perimeter of the bare space, moving eastward to close some of the distance between itself and Dalton, without crossing the trap. The Vartan watches, seeming calm, but his voice betrays his nervousness as he half-whispers to Lochinvar, "Think its range is good enough to get me from there?"
"I thought that I was out of its range when it lashed out at me," replies the airborne Hekoye. "Given that, I would not rule it out. Keep moving away from it."
"Good point," Dalton replies, and leaps backwards into the air just a moment before the shadow lashes a tentacle towards him. The tendril of darkness slashes over his thigh but doesn't close over him. "Ouch!"
Lochinvar's eyes widen in alarm, and he darts towards Dalton. "Move out of there!" he urges the Vartan.
The hippogryph flaps backwards another couple of paces, nodding in agreement with Lochinvar. The tendril retracts into the shadow's body as quickly as it appeared, and the black monster squats, a lump of darkness against the background of trees.
The Hekoye, now slightly ahead of Dalton, glances back at him. "Are you okay?" he asks.
A rough and gravelly noise emerges from the blackness, distorted so that at first Lochinvar doesn't realize the sounds are words and then abruptly the sounds resolve into language: the monster is speaking Imperial. "You will tire."
Dalton flaps back another yard, startled by the noise, then nods to Lochinvar.
Lochinvar blinks in surprise, and turns his head to look at the creature, unsure those words came from it. "Tell me that wasn't you, Dalton?" he says.
The Vartan shakes his head rapidly. "Not a chance. What, does it have indigestion or something?" He makes a face at it, but the creature simply stays where it is, unmoving at the moment.
Without answering, the coyote stares at the dark shape, eyes narrowing slightly. "You speak then?" he asks it, using the Imperial tongue it spoke in.
A ripple passes over the surface of the shadow's form, then it replies, "Of course I speak, fleshling," in the same harsh, gravelly tones.
"Then, why are you doing this? Why attack our village and force our people out on the run from you?" Lochinvar asks back in a tone that sounds almost demanding, but not quite.
"Vengeance," The word emerges with all the sibilance that the Nagai tongue can hold.
Dalton looks between Lochinvar and the shadow monster. "Are you actually talking to that thing?" he asks, incredulously, speaking the only language he knows, Vartan.
Lochinvar looks back at the Vartan, and nods briefly before turning back to face the creature. "For what?" is his next question.
"I owe you nothing, flesh-thing, not even an explanation, the beast growls. It shifts again, and for a moment, something crystalline on its back catches sunlight, twinkling brightly, then submerges again beneath its inky hide.
"What's it saying?" Dalton asks, impatience and confusion in his voice.
The Vartan/Hekoye ignores Dalton for now, lands gently on the covering of the trap and folds his arms in front of him. "If you have a grievance with my people, then yes you do owe me an explanation."
The tarp trembles perilously beneath Lochinvar's landing, one foot touching where a stick crosses it for support, but the other resting on nothing but dirt and cloth. "Uh, careful where you stand on that," the Vartan asides softly to Lochinvar.
"You will tire, the shadow monster repeats, seeming to watch the Hekoye though it has no visible eyes. The strain in Lochinvar's wings from hovering for so long before he landed reinforces his foe's sentiment.
Lochinvar replies, "And you will give me an explanation."
"Your people killed my… ," a pause in the shadow's voice, then hesitancy as it speaks the next word, as if not quite certain it is correct, "… husband. I will have vengeance."
Lochinvar cocks his head to the side a little, and turns to ask Dalton. "It says that we at least, those from our village killed its 'husband'. Was there another… " He leaves the question unfinished, as he remembers Ariecha's story. He turns back to face the creature. "When was this?"
"Too long ago. I have been a long time coming." The gravelly, alien voice seems regretful. "But I am patient. And you … you will tire."
The Hekoye sighs slightly, shaking his head a little. "I've been told a story of what I think was your … 'husband'," he starts. "My people acted only in self defense against what was harming them… "
"YOU DO NOT EVEN DENY IT." The lump of shadow surges abruptly, lashing out the thickest, longest tentacle yet towards Lochinvar's torso. Dalton, a few paces behind the Hekoye, does not even have time to react.
Lochinvar quickly attempts to take to the air again and avoid the attack. "I was not there," he says. "I was only told about it!"
The thick rope of shadow-stuff doesn't move as fast as the thinner ones did, but the tag end still stings as it grazes against his calf when the winged Hekoye darts up to avoid it. The shadow monster draws the new-formed tentacle back into itself after the strike, but the mass of the pseudo-limb appears harder to work with, and the rest of the shadow's body teeters for a moment on the edge of the tarp. A section of it starts to crumple beneath the monster's mass, then it surges away from the ravine, heaving itself into the forest. It takes a moment to recover, then growls, "I care not for your feeble justifications! If you did not kill my love with your own members, still you have provided succor to the murderers, and comfort to their children."
The winged coyote winces, placing a paw on the injury, flying back a yard or too and attempts to find a stable spot on the covering to land on. "You didn't hear what I said before your mate killed my people first! I guess they acted out of self-preservation!"
"Their deaths were well-deserved, I am sure, as yours will be. The black mass begins sidling along the perimeter of the concealed ravine again, its motions at first taking it farther away from the pair of fliers as it moves to get behind them without crossing the seemingly "open ground." Dalton has found his own fairly stable spot in the tarp, and he turns his head to watch the beast's progress, occasionally giving puzzled glances to his friend.
Lochinvar sighs again, and looks back at Dalton. "Unfortunately, I don't think that it wants to reason with us it's just out for vengeance," he tells his friend.
"Big surprise there," Dalton grumbles. "I'm still surprised you could talk to it at all … what now?" The shadow blob makes it to the far east side of the ravine, then begins sidling along the north side, moving west to close the distance between itself and the two fliers.
The Hekoye watches the creature's movements. "Now," he says, "I think this trap has failed. We should probably fall back and pick up Ariecha and Elavars. How far are the rest of the villagers from here?"
"A long way off we parted from them a couple of days ago. They followed that hey … it can't understand me, can it?" Dalton asks, suddenly worried, as he continues to watch the shadow melt along the side of the ravine.
Lochinvar nods slowly about how far the rest of the people are ahead. "I don't know if it understood you," he says, launching himself off to fly back to the ravine edge. "It was speaking in the Nagai tongue, though that doesn't mean they are responsible for it."
"Oh… " Dalton takes to the air again himself. "Did you notice how, when you got it mad, it overextended itself? I thought for a second it was going to fall into the trap after all." He sighs wistfully.
"Interesting," replies the Hekoye, landing at the ravine edge and looking around for the creature and its relative position to Ariecha and Elavars. "Maybe we could use that against it?"
As Lochinvar touches down at the middle of the north side of the ravine, not far from where Ariecha and Elavars are still concealed, he looks for the shadow monster just in time to see it change from careful sidle to headlong rush along the north edge, surging with unexpected speed, like a wave of darkness about to engulf the Hekoye. "Loch! Look out!" Dalton scrawks, still airborne.
Lochinvar yelps in surprise, and tries to dive out of the way, using a downbeat of his wings to give him a little more speed in his motion.
The tide of shadow knocks the Hekoye askew as he tries to dart out of its way, its blackness tracing lines along his side and one wing that leave his fur and feathers tingling and numb. Dalton dives to pull him further away, back over the trap. "Maybe it's a good thing it's afraid of the trapped ground," the Vartan mutters as he hovers with his friend at the center of the concealed ravine. "You okay?"
The dark blob, once again deprived of its prey, hunkers at the spot Lochinvar landed on moments ago, eyelessly watching the two fliers, waiting.
"I'm okay," replies the winged coyote. "A little singed, but still intact." He pauses for a moment. "I think it's more concerned with taking us out before it moves on."
"It sure doesn't like us," Dalton agrees. "Maybe we could get it to overextend above the trap again only far enough that it will fall?"
Lochinvar nods, and says glumly, "We could, yes… but I think that we're going to have to make it really mad."
"I could throw another rock at it," Dalton offers, though he doesn't sound like he thinks that would do much good.
"I doubt that will have little effect," the Hekoye replies. "It seems to react more to the reason of its vengeance. Do you remember the story Ariecha told us?"
The Vartan frowns for a moment, then nods. "About the Clan of Oak and their monster? Yes Ari's dad said that's why this one is after us, now."
"He's right," Lochinvar says, keeping an eye on the creature. "This one was that one's mate, or something, and it wants vengeance for the death of it. I tried explaining about having to do that in self-preservation, but it seems like this thing doesn't want to listen. Certainly, though, talking about that event made it overreach itself that time."
The blackness shifts from side to side, its hide rippling, while Lochinvar and Dalton speak, but it does not seem to be moving leaving its position, yet. "So … tell it something else about its dead?" the Vartan suggests.
Dalton keeps Lochinvar steady in the air while they discuss the situation after a few moments to recover, the winged Hekoye finds he can beat his wings enough to stay airborne, although his left wing, the one struck, aches and feels wobbly as it flaps. He suspects that he would look like a drunkard, weaving through the air, were he to try flying on his own.
Lochinvar calls back out to the creature, in Imperial of course, "You do realize, don't you, that just as our people killed your mate out of self-preservation, we will do whatever it takes to protect our people from you?"
"You can do nothing but stall, weak child," the shadow answers. "I am patient, and I do not rest. You will falter, like your brethren, and be mine."
"Yours?" the Hekoye calls back. "What does that mean? If you can't kill us, which you seem to be finding it hard to do at the moment, you'll just turn us into freaks? I've seen what you've done to people."
"You will tire," the beast says, yet again, but it inches closer to the edge of the ravine. A twig snaps under its bulk. "I will play with your flesh and bones as your kind shapes clay. I will make what I want of you, be it a living thing, or a dead one. Your new form will be a pleasing one, to me, I am sure." Shadowy tendrils flick at the periphery of its mass.
Lochinvar glances at Dalton, switching to Vartan briefly. "Keep a close eye on it," he tells his friend. "Not sure how well I can fly on my own, so I will have to rely on you to pull us away quickly."
The Hekoye then looks back and addresses the creature again. "So, what does please a featureless blob these days?"
"For you, I think DEATH." The beast lashes forward with a new-formed, thick black tentacle, surging for Lochinvar's chest.
Dalton, alert for the moment, grabs Lochinvar's shoulders and hauls him backwards as the tentacle wraps halfway around the coyote's chest. His wings lend their strength to Lochinvar's own frantic but awkward beats, while the black tentacle stretches but does not let go. "Ariecha! Help!" Dalton abruptly scrawks.
Lochinvar yells out in pain at the burning feeling, andtries to use his hands in an attempt to pry away the tentacle.
The tentacle feels slimy beneath Lochinvar's fingers, and the sensation of goo against his hands makes them, too, but the grip of the shadow is loosening, even as Dalton's wing beats force it to extend further over the pit. A sudden flurry erupts from the foliage behind the monster, as the white Vartan bursts out. She takes a moment to get her bearings, then dives, hooves first, into the back of the shadow monster, shoving it towards the trapped ravine.
Taken by surprise, the shadow rolls forward from the force of the unexpected blow. For a second, the concealed tarp strains to hold the being's weight, then it begins to plummet downwards, still clinging by one dark limb to the winged coyote's body.
The Hekoye continues to wrestle against the tentacle, his fingers getting burnt as well as his chest area, and continues to beat his wings in the hope of staying aloft. "Dalton… ," he urges his friend on, through gritted teeth.
The coyote's perseverance pays off as he manages to pry the tendril loose before the creature finishes its fall. While Dalton beats his wings to keep them aloft, the trailing black tentacle falls like a cut rope into the blob of darkness, after the main body hits the spiked bottom of the trap with a satisfying splat sound.
Almost exhausted by the experience, Lochinvar says to Dalton, "The edge," meaning for his friend to take him to the edge at the top of the ravine.
The Vartan needs no encouragement, flying the few yards necessary before dropping to land on the edge of the ravine, doing the best he can to land the winged coyote easily. "Loch?" Dalton asks, keeping his arms on the other's shoulders to steady him.
"I'll be okay, Dal," the Hekoye replies. "I'm going to hurt for a while, but I'll live. Did we get it?"
Ariecha lands next to the pair after a moment, a pained expression on her face, and she wipes her hooves at the ground as she asks, "Are you okay?" almost at the same time Lochinvar answers the query. "We hurt it, at least." She looks over the edge into the trap. "It's still wriggling. You were talking to it, Lochy?"
Lochinvar nods slowly. "I've learnt a lot in my time away from home," he says. "It was speaking in the Nagai tongue."
The white Vartan just blinks at the winged Hekoye, then goes back to looking into the ravine at what's left of their opponent. She wriggles her hooves against the earth further. "Does it look dead to you?" she asks, worried.
The coyote walks over slowly to the edge, relying on Dalton for support, and looks down at the creature to see.
At the bottom of the ravine, the shadows coalesce around the body of the creature, with sharpened wood stakes poking through it everywhere. Again, Lochinvar sees a bright glint from something shiny against its skin, then the shadow shifts and the spark fades. "In the story, it melted away to nothing when it died," Ariecha says, still concerned.
Lochinvar blinks a little at the shiny thing, wondering if he imagined it? "Maybe we have just wounded it then," he notes. "Did anyone see that? I thought I saw a shiny on its surface."
"I thought I saw something, too," Ariecha admits.
Dalton shakes his head "I didn't see anything now, but earlier, before it saw us, I saw a big shiny on its back. When it stopped at the edge of the trap, the shiny vanished, like it sank into its skin."
The Vartan/Hekoye hrms a little, trying to work out what that could mean. "Ariecha? Any thought as to what it might be?" he asks.
The white Vartan rubs her beak with her talons, thinking. "In the story I was told, when the shadow-monster died, all that was left was a circle of crystal. Maybe that's it?"
"Curious," admits the coyote. "Could it actually be composed of crystal? It doesn't look like it though."
"It sure doesn't look like a shiny!" Dalton exclaims, emphatic as he blinks down at it. "Hey, there's that flash again!" he says, pointing when there's a brief bright glint.
"Maybe then," Lochinvar says, having missed seeing the glint this time, "we should try and catch a little bit of rest. Personally, I need it. Someone must keep watch though, just in case it decides to make a quick recovery."
Ariecha and Dalton exchange glances. "Okay. We've got a little camp just on the other side of the ravine," the white Vartan says. "You and Dalton did most of the work just now you two check on Elavars and rest. I'll take first watch."