02:54 PM by "Jet" at "Holodeck 1" IC time 22 Ring 6104, a few hours
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, a collection of sharpened stakes impale a black, formless mass that writhes on occasion. 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. Hidden from view of the trail, three figures rest in a small, makeshift campsite.
A dark, formless shadow lays over him, suffocating him, while he twists beneath it, struggling to escape, as ropes burn over his abdomen… The shadow lifts from his face, and Lochinvar wakes, blinking, to white talons holding a thin blanket away from his head, his side and legs aching where the shadow had attacked him. Ariecha, her voice soft, says, "Are you all right?"
Lochinvar pauses for a moment and then nods. "I'm fine… thanks," he replies. "Just a bad dream. Did I miss anything?"
The white Vartan bobs her head, the feathers around her neck ruffling. "The shadow thing it's moving more. It seems to be … melting out of the spikes. It's still on some of them, but there's more of it that's just lying in the ravine. And it makes these noises. Dalton and I wondered if it might be talking again. Anyway, I'm worried. Dalton's watching it now, but I thought I had best wake you."
"All right, I can take a look," replies the Hekoye/Vartan, picking himself off the ground. "How about Elavars? Where's he?"
"Still sleeping." She glances towards the small form beneath a blanket on the ground a few feet away. "I didn't think there was any reason to wake him up yet."
"Let's hope there isn't," replies Lochinvar, and heads over towards the trap itself, his movements careful so as not to aggravate his injuries.
In the darkness of the forest, vines and weeds brush against his ankle, and the raw skin where the monster touched him twinges in response, but he makes it to the edge of the chasm without further incident. Dalton crouches beside it, holding a several-foot-long branch with a flaming rag tied to one end, tipped over the edge of the pit. As the Hekoye comes beside him, Dalton offers him the giant, makeshift torch. "I can hardly see it, but Ari says she could, and she heard it moving." A faint screeing noise comes from the pit, and the Vartan shifts nervously.
Lochinvar's ears flick back a little at the sound. "Dalton … could I?" he gestures to the torch.
Wordlessly, the Vartan hands it to him.
The Ranger takes the torch and points it down at the creature in the pit, hoping to get a better look at it.
As Lochinvar peers into the base of the trap, thrusting the light of Dalton's long torch before him, he finds it difficult to distinguish the shadow monster from the darkness in the rest of the pit. Then there is that brief, familiar glitter that vanishes, and Lochinvar finds the image of the semi-solid shadow resolves out from the ordinary darkness around it. As Ariecha feared, it has shifted position some of the wooden shafts that had earlier impaled it are now empty, while the dark form spills to one side of the staked area. It still doesn't look very lively, at least until it makes another keening sound.
Lochinvar frowns down into the pit. "You're right, Ari … it has moved," he says. "Still sounds like it's in pain though." He cocks his head a little, trying again to work out what that glint is.
"It's not talking, is it?" Ariecha asks, dubious. She kneels down next to him, trying to see for herself. The glint flickers and fades again. There's definitely a shiny in the pit with that creature, though it seems to be trying and failing to keep it hidden.
"I don't believe that it is," replies the coyote. He senses Ariecha beside him, and he looks at her. "You see what that thing is yet?" he asks.
"The shiny?" she says, glancing back to meet Lochinvar's eyes. "I think it's a crystal. I get this feeling like it's drawn to the light." The white Vartan shakes her head, smiling self-deprecatingly, letting out a pent-up breath. "That's probably silly we just see it when there's light because that's what makes it glitter."
"Perhaps it is," Lochinvar replies. "We don't know anything really about what this creature is. What may seem like speculation now, could actually be simply fact. Do we have any more torches?"
Dalton spreads out a bundle of four sticks with oil-soaked rags wrapped around their tops. "I made that one so it'd be long enough to see into the pit, but I've got a few more normal-sized ones here."
Lochinvar holds out the torch to light the others. "Let's light the others then, test Ari's … idea," he says, grinning at the white Vartan.
The brown Vartan parts his beak in a grin, too, touching the rags to the open flame until they spark and glow in response. Ariecha holds out her hand for one of the brands. "What do you have in mind, Loch?"
"We'll test to see if that … shiny … is drawn to the light," the Vartan/Hekoye replies. "Each take a torch, and hold them close together to create a brighter light. Maybe we can draw it out."
"All right." Ariecha and Dalton take torches in each hand, then lean out to put them together with the tip of Lochinvar's longer one. Below them, the glittery object on the shadow glints again, winking for a little longer than the last time, then recedes again. Another weird screeing, moaning sound emerges from the chasm, and the white Vartan shivers.
"There," Lochinvar says, gesturing towards the creature. "Did you see that?" he asks his companions. "It stayed longer that time."
His two companions nod. "It did!" Ariecha says, excited. Dalton's eyes glitter in the torchlight, and he leans closer to where the reflected light was last scene.
"I wonder if I could get it back?" the brown Vartan murmurs, shinylust in his voice.
Lochinvar's ears pick up Dalton's words. "We still have to be careful," he says. "Let's try the torches one more time see if we can reach closer, but be careful not to fall."
"We could always fly," Ari says, spreading her wings for balance, as she crouches next to Lochinvar and holds hertorches at arms' length, next to his. After a moment, Dalton shakes himself, ruffling his feathers, then crouches on the other side of the coyote, mimicking his position. Again, the shiny makes its appearance. As it glistens, the brown Vartan leans even closer, dropping his torches nearer still, and it grows larger, looking to be egg-shaped and the size of a Vartan's palm.
"No," the winged Hekoye says. "We get too close to that creature and who knows what it could do to us. Animals are often at their most dangerous when they are injured. Best case if it gets us, we could end up like Elavars. Worst case… ," his voice trails off to leave out the obvious.
Dalton swallows and closes his eyes, leaning away from the pit again. The egg-sized crystal vanishes once more beneath a layer of darkness.
"I wonder," Lochinvar muses to himself. "Ari, Dalton, do we have anything long enough to reach down to that shiny thing? Or could we make something? Would need to be about thirteen to fifteen feet long."
The other two look at each other. "I've got some rope," Ariecha says, sounding dubious again.
"We could cut down a sapling," Dalton suggests. "Heh, maybe if we poked it some more it'd stop wriggling around like that. Gives me the willies, damned thing."
Lochinvar says, "I'm more wondering if we could somehow knock whatever that shiny thing is loose or at least, find out what it is."
"We could tie my rope to one of the spades and swing at it," Ariecha offers.
The Hekoye/Vartan nods to Ariecha. "Okay, we'll take a try at that first. If that doesn't work, we might try a sapling."
Ariecha scurries back to the camp, and a few minutes later returns with the spade weighted at the end of a rope. She hands the rope to Lochinvar. "Here, you wedge the long torch against the ground and your foot, out over the ravine," she suggests, "Dalton and I will put our torches down to coax it out, then you can take a swing at the crystal."
"Ari, may be easier for you to take the longer torch," Lochinvar says. "I could do with both hands free, I think."
Ariecha nods. "Good idea." She lays the long torch against the ground, so that half of it is over the ravine and the other half is on solid ground, then braces it in place with her knee, kneeling beside it. She holds her torches out to the flame at the end of the long one, and Dalton joins her, while Lochinvar can move around to get a better view of the crystal when it comes out.
The two Vartans kneel in place for a minute or so. "Where is it?" Dalton grumbles, shifting his wings and peering into the blackness. "My arms are starting to ache." Then, the top facets of the crystal are suddenly visible, reflecting orange in the firelight.
Lochinvar lays flat on his stomach, and edges out to the side of the ravine with the shovel and rope. "Okay," he calls out to the others. "I think I'm in place … try and draw it out."
"We're trying! It's not being very cooperative oh, Dagh take it!" Dalton curses, as even as he speaks, the glitter winks out again.
"Try and hold those torches steady, and as close as you can without dropping them or endangering yourself," urges the Vartan/Hekoye, standing by with the shovel and rope.
"Easy for you to say," Dalton grumbles. His arms shake for a moment with the effort of holding them out, but he stills the motion. Ariecha lifts her knee a little, letting the long torch dip lower into the pit, and the two Vartans follow its flame with their own. "I think my feathers are getting singed," the brown Vartan mutters, as another minute trickles past, then the crystal drifts to the surface again, glittering like a precious jewel.
Lochinvar drops the rope a little more and attempts to swing the spade at the exposed shiny to see if he can hit it with the blade.
The spade swings past just over the crystal, missing it by inches. The shiny blinks out beneath the surface of the shadow immediately after the pass of the instrument.
The winged coyote curses a little under his breath. "Try again," he tells the others.
The white Vartan nods, flexing her wings. Dalton shakes his head and exhales. He elbows Ari, "Quick break," he says, drawing his torches back, circling his shoulders and flexing his arms before putting the torches back together at full extension again. Ariecha looks vaguely annoyed but goes through the same motions as Dalton does.
As they resume their vigil with the torches above the pit, the weird keening noise resumes, with an added hissing component to it. A few minutes later, the crystal egg shape pokes out, just barely visible over the smooth surface of shadow.
Spying the shape, Lochinvar tries once again to swing the rope and spade to knock the object, also attentive of the increased noise from the creature, it worrying him slightly.
This time, the spade clinks against the surface of the crystal, and the keening turns to an unholy wail that pierces the night, sharp and agonized. The whole of the black shape below shudders, while the two Vartans cry out themselves in pain at the sound, Dalton falling backwards, and dropping one torch onto the edge of the ravine as he brings his hands up to cover his ears, just barely avoiding dropping the one into the pit itself.
Lochinvar cries out at the sound hurting his ears also, and puts his hands against his ears, somehow still managing to retain a hold of the rope with one hand.
The resounding, painful cry continues, and even Ariecha hunches her shoulders, then pulls back her arms to plant the torches against the ground and cover her ears until it finally dies out. "Vhai," Dalton whispers into the silence after the sound finally stops, lowering his hands cautiously still holding one torch. "I think you hurt it."
Carefully, Lochinvar lowers his hands also. "I guess I did," he says. "I think that crystal is part of this creature somehow. I also heard it say something else before I touched that crystal." He looks back at the creature down in the pit. "'Help'?" he says, addressing the creature in Imperial. "Why should we help you?"
The blackness at the bottom of the pit, even darker now that the torch light isn't cast on it, neither stirs nor responds. "Maybe it really is dead now?" Dalton wonders.
Lochinvar looks back over at Dalton, obviously hearing him. "I don't think so."
Ariecha nods her agreement with Lochinvar. She takes her knees from the long torch, then slides it deeper into the pit. There's no hint of the crystal now as the flame nears it, and at first glance all the shadows only seem to stir with the flickering of the torch.
After a few moments, however, Lochinvar's keen eyes are able to discern movement from the shadow creature a little fluttering around the edges that does not quite match the flickering of normal shadows affected by the flame. It makes no sounds, however, and the shiny makes no reappearance as they wait.
Lochinvar looks down into the pit again, after getting no response from his previous question. He tries again. "I ask again … why should we help you?"
For a long time, it seems like he's not going to get an answer this time, either. Then, a faint, labored voice hisses, "Don't … want … to die… "
Dalton tilts his head, curious. "Did it make another sound?" he asks, leaning over the pit to listen more closely.
Looking over to the brown Vartan, Lochinvar nods briefly, then looks back at the creature. "Neither do we," he replies. "Personally, I would rather not have to kill you either. Give me a reason not to."
"Hey, it did say something, didn't it? What're you talking about with it?" the dark griffin asks his friend.
Lochinvar waves a hand at Dalton to say "not now".
The shadow beast takes longer to respond. "… you … do … not?" If the voice were not so pained, Lochinvar might think it was surprised - or even amused.
"We cherish life," Lochinvar says. "We would not kill needlessly, and certainly would not kill another sentient creature for the sake of it. I am sorry about your mate, but I would swear that my people did not know what you are. I still do not even know what you are, but I now know that you are not just a simple animal. You can reason. I think … that this is all a disastrous misunderstanding between you and my people."
The last echoes of Lochinvar's words against the ravine's walls have long since died before the shadow beast makes a sound again. "If … you … would help me live," it hisses, and every word seems to take more out of it, "then I swear … I shall do no harm … to you or yours. No matter … the justification." Its black substance sags against the floor of the pit.
Lochinvar pauses and considers all of this. It could all so easily be a trap, but then trust has to start somewhere. Besides, if the creature does value its life, then it may well need help. He sighs to himself. "How best can we help then?" he asks it.
It seems even slower in answering then before, then the egg-shaped crystal rises, hesitant from within its body, eventually coming to a stop hovering a few inches over the shadow's apparent surface. "Light," it hisses, "need … light."
"There it is again!" Dalton jumps to his feet, pointing at the egg. "Get it, Loch! You can nail him for sure now!"
The winged Hekoye looks back to Dalton, and shakes his head. "No … fetch the torches and hold them over the pit. Ari, you too, please."
The white Vartan looks at Lochinvar's face for a moment, then nods and lifts her torches from where they lay, burning down to the earth. She holds them out against the long torch, and the light from the three cascades down to the crystal, where the shiny glitters so brightly it seems to be consuming the torchlight. Dalton pauses for longer, then picks up his torches, holding them out with Ari's. "What're we doing here, Loch?" he asks, "What's the plan?"
"This is a sentient being, Dal," Lochinvar replies. "I'm getting through to it, I think, but I have no intention of killing another sentient creature. We're going to help it, and in return, it has said that it will stop its attack against our people."
"What the !" Dalton stands, dropping his torches into the ravine. The creature makes a feeble keening noise at the impact. "You are kidding me! That thing chased us halfway to the Procession and did Dagh only knows what to that poor kid back there and you want us to help the thrice-cursed beast?" Ariecha's reaction is far less pronounced, as she remains crouched with her torches out, but she, too, stares at the winged coyote.
Lochinvar sighs a little. "I can understand your reaction, Dalton," he says to his friend. "I know this is asking a lot, but I feel that I have to trust it. Besides, this may be the only way to get Elavars back to how he used to be. Please."
The beast in the pit keens, high-pitched, the torches burning against its surface, but the crystal continues to soak in the torchlight. Ariecha watches it, and says softly, "He's right, Dalton. When the shadow beast melted away at the hands of Tribe oak, those who lived were saved … but all those transformed were never healed. Perhaps we can change that, in the here and now. For Elavars."
Dalton kicks at the ground with one hoof, looking angry, and turns his face away. "I can't believe we are doing this," he says at last, then turns back to look at the pit. "I guess I should get my Dagh-cursed torches off of it," he grumbles.
"Do that, yes, but still be careful," Lochinvar tells the brown Vartan. He looks back over into the pit, and calls out to the creature, "One of my companions is going to remove those torches, to bring them back above you."
Meanwhile, the hippogryph spreads his wings and dives into the ravine, swooping past to retrieve the brands, one of which snuffs out with the rush of wind as he bears it away.
"Thank … you," the beast hisses, a length of time later. Its shiny glitters like a single, brilliant star against the darkness of its body, as the torchlight continues to burn above it.
As the night wears on and Lochinvar has more time to discuss the situation with the shadow monster, they move into the pit, and lay the fire beside the creature instead of above it, and cover most of the shadow's body with one of the tarps that had been used previously to conceal the trap. Apparently, while the crystal feeds on light, in its weakened condition the light hurts the rest of its body. Dalton pulls and removes the stakes from the ravine to make it more comfortable for the beast, all the while complaining and marveling at his own actions. "I can't believe I am actually doing this… " At daybreak, they are able to let the fire go out, as the sun's rays take over, and Dalton goes to crash just as Elavars awakens.
"Where is everyone?" the young boy scrawks in his oddly accented Vartan, breathing rapidly. "It's it's here!"
Lochinvar steps over quickly to the boy's side. "I know, but it's not going to harm you. I promise you that," the coyote tells him. "We are … talking with it, trying to understand it, so that this may never happen again."
The boy flaps his maimed wings, panic-stricken, and clings to Lochinvar's legs, hiding his face against the coyote's side. "nonononononononono!" he wails, though not loudly.
Lochinvar puts his hands firmly on the boy's shoulders. "Elavars … Elavars, listen to me," he says. "I promise you, it will not harm you. Have I let you down yet?"
The child shivers and blinks at Lochinvar, even his eyes mismatched now, his face mostly scaled. "O-okay," he whispers. "It's not gonna get us?"
From the bottom of the pit, the shadow's voice drifts up, stronger with the daylight on the crystal. "I am too weak yet to restore him," it says. "But I will. In two days' time I shall be able."
"I promise," the coyote tells the boy. "No harm will come to you from the creature. In fact, it has promised to return you to how you were before. I believe that it will do just that, so you must believe me."