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"What dreams may come..."

    After some discussion amongst the Indigo's crew, they decide to wait for Vash to heal up before they go anywhere. The group also decides that it is more important for everyone to be able to talk to people on this world, than to find out instantly what happened to the shuttle -- it's not as if the tree dryads will wander away, after all. Thus, once Vash is better, the professor's quest will be undertaken before the little group starts searching for the Alshain.

    It takes almost two full weeks for Vash to heal up, but finally one night Sakura proclaims him well enough to travel. The group decides to spend this day in preparation for travel, and leave early the next day. After much planning and discussion with Zildjian, they're pretty sure they have everything they'll need to carry with them on their quest, which will probably last, in total, almost a week.

    The next day dawns bright and clear. Zildjian has been overseeing the gathering of supplies for the upcoming trek in to the woods for a pebble retrieved from the bottom of a particular lake by a swan, and trying to think of everything the offworlders might need to know to make the trip as uneventful as possible.

Douglas looks over the equipment they have arrayed before them, also trying to think of anything else they might need. "Zil," he says quietly, "-do you know of any restrictions that we have to work under in order to successfully get the pebble?"

Zildjian smiles at Douglas, "None that Ah know of, Doug... 'xcept y'all are gonna have ta do it y'selves. Quests're lakh that, y'know?"

Douglas nods, thoughtfully. "Yes. Just wondering about that..." It worries him that they might go through quite a lot to get the pebble, only to discover that they did something wrong to invalidate the magic.

Kerry skrees, "I think one of them is that she can't tell us much, except the general stuff the professor talked about. We've got our rowan wards, we've got supplies, we've got our instructions and directions... we've got one pistol and three magazines. I wish I'd brought mine with me when we left the ship."

Vash mutters. "And I wish I'd brought one of the rifles."

Kerry nods. "Oh, well. Just remember to watch for dangerous creatures."

Douglas says, "Define 'dangerous.' So far that's included most of the non-sentient native flora and fauna we've run in to, except for Kawaii over there and his folks... though I don't think they really count as 'non-sentient.'"

Kerry grins at Douglas. "The water hag was sapient, and I'm not sure the carnivorous bushes weren't either. Most things have been harmless."

Vash stands up, gingerly at first, still testing out the limits of his recently healed stitches. "Regardless, it doesn't look like we're going to be any more prepared. If there's nothing further, let's get going."

Kerry nods. "No use putting it off any longer. Shall we?"

Douglas nods quietly, standing. "The sooner the better." Sakura also nods... Zildjian seems a bit concerned, but doesn't let it show much. Instead she'll help folks shoulder their backpacks, see them to the door, wave goodbye to them, and promise a hot meal when they return. The piglet, on the other hand, seems quite pleased at the prospect of an outing, dancing around folks' feet and giving the occasional gleefully eager squeal.

Sakura shoulders her pack and grins at the piglet, "Excited, neh? Me too..." Kawaii squeaks happily at Sakura, then bounces along a few feet ahead of her, glancing back impatiently over his shoulder occasionally.

Vash checks the action of the pistol one last time, and tucks it under his arm, half-zipping his jumpsuit. "The point is... don't let your guard down."

Kerry settles his goggles into place before venturing into the bright daylight. "Would have been much easier if we'd had the chance to get our ground vehicle out of the Alshain..."

Vash pushes up his shades. "I don't think they have LoJack on this planet, Kerry..."

The walk out of town is uneventful, save a few curious glances from folks who haven't met the odd party. Outside of town, the trees thicken, but the path seems relatively clear and heads in the needed southwards. Once, outside of town, gay and cheery music can be heard, although whether it follows the group or leads them is difficult to say.

Douglas remains as alert as he can, realizing that his eyesight is probably among the best of the group. He lets Kerry handle audible warnings, and Sakura and Vash olfactory ones. "If we had the Alshain, we wouldn't be in nearly half the water we're in, I'm afraid." Sakura also keeps her eyes carefully on the area around the group, cautious.

Vash brushes a hand back over his head plates, looking around. I have to admit I could get used to the climate here. Shame about the homicidal flora... He absently hums a snatch of "Drive On" to himself, keeping his eyes on where the path disappears up ahead.

Douglas glances around a little, frowning. The sudden appearance of that music was unusual. He doesn't think they've done anything yet to warrant their own soundtrack, courtesy of whatever strange engineers run this world. He continues to look around warily, letting his eyes adjust to the vagaries of light as they move on. Kerry can't help but hear the music, but he's feeling sleepy this morning after two weeks of night shift. It takes him a while to realize what he's hearing... "That's your friend, isn't it, doctor?"

Douglas glances at his compass, and manages to catch Vash's through the corner of his eye. "Erm... Captain... which way is North?"

Sakura checks her compass and points off in another direction entirely from what Douglas and Vash's compasses show. "That way."

Vash glances at his watch, checking the outermost dial for the compass point. He frowns, rapping the face with the back of a fingertip. "Well... it WAS back that way a second ago... Doctora? What's your compass say?" He blinks as Sakura points... southwest. No, northeast. No... "Ay, cagada."

Kerry finally looks at his own compass, a bit blearily. "Hmmm."

Sakura looks at her wrist again. "No, wait..." She looks off into the woods, then smiles just a little, dreamily before shaking her head as if to pull herself back to now. "No... now it's that way." She points again. "And we have company..."

Douglas perks his ears sharply, and looks towards where Sakura is pointing. "Who...?"

Vash sighs. "Naturally. It just wouldn't be Crossroads otherwise." Cagada!

Douglas corrects himself: "What?"

Kerry skrees, "They did mention that tech was erratic. Wouldn't surprise me if it related to magnetic field fluctuations. How about if we just take station with the sun?"

Sakura says, "Larrikan and some of his friends. Can't you hear the music?"

Douglas blinks, glancing to Sakura, and nods, fretting. "Good point. So that's them, isn't it?"

Kerry skrees, "Been hearing it since we left town."

Vash blinks and removes his shades, squinting. "That... doesn't look like Larrikan to me." He points toward the bushes. "That looks more like... Tinkerbell." Sakura takes another look off into the bushes, confused... Vash blinks again, rubbing his eyes. "And now it's gone."

Douglas blinks also, looking at Vash. "Excuse me...?" He looks again at where Vash is looking, frowning.

Kerry frowns. "Nothing moving. That's a bush."

Vash wanders closer to the bushes. "I saw something in here."

Douglas says, "Captain, be careful... we know that some bushes here are rather active about dinner..."

Sakura says, "Something could be trying to distract us... we really might want to keep moving so we don't get hopelessly lost..."

Vash frowns. "Hm. It's gone now."

Douglas says, "Yes... this is a quest, isn't it? We're supposed to be distracted from whatever we're questing for by various and sundry nastiness."

Vash says, "It was hardly nasty."

Douglas says, "Neither was the lady calling for help... who turned out to be the water hag. Come on, Captain, we'd better move along."

Using the sun as their guide, the crew continues walking through the forest. Nothing bothers them, although as the afternoon passes the music fades away softly, the fiddle last of all. Continuing to walk, the path remains clear and pleasant, the day warm but not hot. Evening comes on, and brings forth no unpleasant surprises either. The walk has been more like a family hike through the woods, rather than any kind of difficult quest, so far.

Vash sighs and stretches a bit, having removed his shades as the day gives way to twilight. "Well... it's not exactly the Grail Quest so far, is it."

Douglas glances to Vash. His eyesight is becoming more capable as the night comes on and darkness falls. "I would say it was not, no, Captain. Though I for one am glad that we have no Sir Robin accompanying us."

Vash says, "Actually, I think we lost him a few hours back up the trail."

Sakura says, "I had honestly expected things to be more difficult."

Kerry skrees, "Be careful what you wish for, doctor... you might get it."

Sakura says, "You misunderstand, Kerry-san! I don't wish it to be more difficult. I had only expected it to be... I'm glad it's not."

Vash says, "Regardless... it's probably a good thing. I know I'm not pure enough to do Galahad's part."

Douglas says, "Galahad?" Sakura blushes.

Vash says, "We may as well rest here. No point in hard marching... We're not exactly in a hurry."

Kerry skrees, "Well... dinner and a good night's rest, I'd say. I'll take the last watch if someone will wake me up."

Sakura says, "I agree, Sir. We'll do better if we're rested."

Douglas nods, settling down to the ground, and letting out a bit of a breath. "I can certainly agree with that."

Vash sits, his back against a convenient tree trunk, and rubs his eyes. "So let's camp. Doug, you want to help with the fire?"

Douglas nods and digs into his pack. "Of course, Captain." He retrieves the survival match from the pack, and starts to gather tinder, kindling, and dry sticks.

Kerry skrees, "And don't hurt any live trees."

Douglas says, "I won't, Pilot, thank you for the reminder."

Vash mutters, striking the survival match, Bitch, bitch, bitch... then says, "Think we ought to set a watch. Why don't we go in order of best nocturnal vision. My twilight sight is probably the best... I can go first."

Sakura nods, "Hai, Vash-san. I'll take the second, then."

Douglas nods, "My night vision is probably the best, so I'll go third."

Vash nods. "Kerry, I think you're stuck with the last watch."

Kerry nods. "I've been up for nearly 24 hours. I'd better take the last one tonight anyway."

Vash says, "Then it's settled... the rest of you, get some sleep. I'll wake you in a few hours, Doctora."

Kerry chuckles at the cougar. "Vision? We don' need no steenkin' vision..."

Douglas snorts softly as he lies back on his bedroll. "Say that the next time you're aiming a gun, Pilot," he says good-naturedly. "I'd like to see you aim by sense of smell." Kerry finds a likely tree and jump-flutters into the lower branches. Soon he is asleep, his wings wrapped around his body. Evening wanes, and the night remains quiet and calm as night settles over the forest.

    A small, verdant clearing, surrounded by the thick and leafy trees of this dreaming, primeval forest.

Sakura wakes up suddenly, not sure why. It's still nighttime, and Sakura is still relaxed and comfortably curled up in her blankets. The campfire has burned down to a small pile of glowing embers. A look around the quiet night shows that the others are gone.

    Sakura is a small fox. She doesn't stand more than five feet tall, and is fairly slender. Her tail is full and tipped with white, and she carries it in close to her body. Her fur has a red cast to it, offset nicely by the white that runs under her muzzle and down her throat. Her hair is black, pulled into a French braid, and she wears a simple flight suit. Her mannerisms are careful, almost as though she's nervous about the way she acts towards other people.

Sakura sits up in her bedroll, gasping a little... she looks around frantically for any sign of the others... there is little sign of the others. Motion from just down the trail catches her eye. She slips out of the bedroll and creeps cautiously down the trail, trying to keep in towards the tree line, but not too close...

As Sakura peeks around a tree on the trail, a little clearing is revealed to her. Moonlight glints off of a huge spider's web, outlining it in silver. Douglas is tied in a bundle near the center, immobilized in sticky silk, and it's not possible to see if he's moving or not. The spider is industriously tugging at some silk on the lower edge of the web, affixing it to the ground nearby, and isn't aware the vixen is there. A large and heavy stick of some hardwood lies at her feet, the moonlight making it cast a sharp shadow. Sakura bends down, careful to keep her eyes on the scene before her, and grabs the stick, gripping it like a baseball bat in her hands. She creeps two steps closer, trying to figure out what condition Douglas is in.

Douglas twitches a time or two, struggling feebly against the silken cables which bind him. The spider notes this motion and begins to agilely walk up the strands of silk, heading towards him. Sakura takes a couple more steps forward, still clinging to the makeshift bat. "No!!" She's clearly trying to get the spider's attention on her.

The spider turns rapidly on its eight legs and looks at the vixen. The noise seemed to startle it, but seeing what has made the noise, the spider now seems to be considering an appetizer. It starts to walk down its web, making a beeline for Sakura, its blood-sucking fangs opening and closing in anticipation.

Sakura gets the makeshift bat up over her shoulder and adjusts her grip on it. "Come and get me, ugly. My duty to him and the crew is greater than my duty to my own life..." She half sounds like she's either trying to convince herself of this, or just reminding herself.

Douglas seems to come to his senses and calls out weakly, "No! Run away, Sakura! Save yourself!" By the time he can say that, though, the spider is upon her. Her wild swing does connect -- a good solid rap upon the spider's exoskeleton, above its many eyes. The spider backs away in startlement, but it will return in only a moment.

Sakura tries to dive under its legs, determined to get close enough to cut Douglas out... somehow... the spider leaps almost straight up into the air, landing behind the vixen, who tries to get to the web to free Douglas. Before she can move a whole step the spider has leapt again, and Sakura feels a loop of silk wrapped around her. It is as strong as steel cable, and more soon follows, pinning her arms. As brave a thing as it was to do, it seems the spider has got her, too. At least she can know she did what she thought right and important. A sharp tug from behind topples her over backwards, and the night sky is all she can see above her as she struggles.

The spider apparently tires of Sakura's struggling. It wraps a loop of the incredibly unbreakable silk around her throat, and pulls. The world fades to blackness... and she wakes up with a little screech! -sitting up in her bedroll with her heart pounding, adrenaline rush ebbing slowly... seeing the others asleep in their blankets, and the fire burning low, off to one side.

    A small, verdant clearing, surrounded by the thick and leafy trees of this dreaming, primeval forest.

Douglas wakes up suddenly, not sure what caused him to do so. It's still night, and Doug is relaxed and comfortable, wrapped up in his bedroll. The little campfire has guttered low, into no more than a small bed of warmly glowing embers. However, glancing over at the bed rolls for Sakura and Vash, and the tree Kerry was hanging in, Doug blearily makes out that they are... empty!

    Douglas Percival is a somewhat tall, stocky feline, with the muted, somber features of a cougar uplift. His sandy fur lightens to a paler shade of muted tan and off-white beneath his chin, and his black-rimmed eyes look about with irises of quiet brown. His paws are large, yet gentle seeming, his movements for the most part deliberate -- not slow, simply measured. As an afterthought, you may notice that he is tail-less.

Douglas blinks a little in the darkness, then sits up sharply, looking around. "Captain?" he calls out... well, actually, he whispers. "Doctor? Pilot...?" Oh, hell... He stands slowly, looking around warily and trying not to blink ere he miss something small and/or fast. He almost strains his ears. "Anyone...?" he says a little louder. No luck. Blast! He leans down, trembling only a little, and starts to go for the spanner he carries... and a moment later and a moment's thought changes his mind. Instead, silently, he unsheathes his claws, moving as quietly as he can around to where the other bedrolls, and Kerry's branch, are. The tracks are easy to make out, although unfortunately there's only one set. Nothing at all around Kerry's tree, or Vash's bedroll. No Kawaii either. It's as if they leapt up into the starry night sky and vanished. But by Sakura's neatly turned back bedroll -- small canid feet, pattering off for the path into the forest.

Douglas frowns, kneeling by each spot in turn. The small footprints by Sakura's bedroll give him a small start, but instinct, his genetic heritage, stifle any visible indicator of it. He looks up sharply, trying to see through the night, and the relaxing atmosphere suddenly becomes less relaxing.

The faint call of his heritage, something he'd never even considered or recognized before, sheltered as he was, begins its call again. Before, in the gentle walks through the woods, it was little more than a relaxation, an easement of the social strictures humans had imposed upon him. Later, though he would not of course remember it now, Zildjian's mesmerism brought him back to a time when his mind knew not but his body remembered, the peaceful innocence of being a cub. Now, in the suddenly again threatening shadows of Crossroads, he sees not through the eyes of a trained professional engineer, but through eyes trained by millions of years of evolution. A cougar's eyes.

His boots are off now, as he begins to silently follow the trail. What's happening to me? some part, some still human part of him, wonders. This isn't me... But on the forefront of his mind he forgets the past few days, forgets the putting behind of some petty thought, and instead follows instincts that could come alive only in Crossroads. Larrikan. The kitsune. He's here. He must have -- must have! -- taken Sakura, done something with Vash and Kerry. Confused emotions snarl and vie for attention -- I thought I'd put that behind me...? -- and are for the moment ignored. With bare cougar's feet, and dilated, obsidian cougar's eyes, and night-time-sharp cougar's claws, what could probably still be called Douglas bounds down the trail.

The path opens out suddenly into another, smaller clearing. Moonlight shimmers on a white curtain down the sides of the trees... it's a spider web, but of a size Douglas has never seen before. In the center of the web, inky black, is a gleaming blot of darkness -- the spider, huge and bloated beyond anything he's seen anywhere but in nightmares. It's weaving, spinning neatly high up in the tree-web, where several cocoons hang. However, it's the part of the web nearer the ground that most catches Doug's eye -- the part where Sakura struggles weakly, caught in the tangling, clinging web.

Douglas stops short, blinking in shock and surprise. The cougar falters, and the engineer can only stare in horror. Oh, dear God! he thinks. So it wasn't Larrikan at all. A shock of guilt is momentary; the need to... to do something suddenly overwhelming. Only a few moments to act, he thinks hurriedly. Oh my God, that's a big spider... Some part of him dryly notes that that is probably the most inane understatement he's ever thought or uttered.

He shakes himself and runs forward, trying to remember what little of materials chemistry he was taught. Spiderwebs... they're sticky... what makes them sticky... Crap! I don't know! I'll be tangling myself... As he gets closer, trying to avoid any near-invisible web-stuff, he says in a quiet, hissing, urgent whisper, "Doctor! Sakura, take my hand..." He looks around quickly for a stick or a branch he can hit the threads of web away from her before the spider notices...

As Doug runs up he notices several things. First, Sakura is wide-eyed with exhaustion -- she doesn't even seem to realize he's here, and her struggling is more automatic disgust and horror at the situation she's in, than any effective means of escape any more. Secondly, as he reaches for her hand, Doug can see his claws... gleaming in the moonlight, bright and sharp as... as steel...

Douglas blinks, almost stopping short in his dash. Again, the engineer in him demonstrates dry wit and notes that his claws never quite looked like that before. But their glint is sufficient; why does he need a stick or rock? For that matter, why does he need mere thought when he can do something, now? Barely has he thought this then he slashes, half experimentally, half in pent-up anger and determination and frustration, at the cobwebs holding Sakura, as if bringing to bear his own will might in some small way help. The engineer would disagree, of course; but right now, he's not entirely the engineer. It's both alarming, and beautiful... the web flares out like a sheered silken curtain from his slash. Sakura staggers slightly -- and, high above, the spider goes still, feeling the sudden change in the web tension.

Douglas is almost stunned into motionlessness at the... surprising... beauty of it. Was that what it was like? he thinks. Was that how it was for the first of us to be uplifted, to know what we were capable of...? But the sudden stillness from the monster far above tells him that his actions have been noticed, and there's no time to loose. Hurriedly, madly, yet carefully and quickly, he swipes his claws against the binding web-stuff, not praying, not thinking, not hoping, just doing it, as fast as possible, before...

Sakura wavers, then collapses when the web no longer supports her. Strands trail from her like silken streamers... and, unsurprisingly, she bursts into tears, sobbing uncontrollably at the unexpected and startling release. High above... the spider shifts slightly... then, with alarming speed, starts to skitter lightly down the web. Douglas kneels down, quickly, suddenly unsure as to what to do for her. The spider's movement's make up his mind for him. Hastily taking her into his arms, his heart pounding madly (from the spider's approach?) he hurriedly half-carries, half-pushes her out of the clearing. "RUN!" he shouts to her, and again, "RUN!" Deathly aware of the horror descending down upon them from on high, like an angel of death that scrambles and scampers in a blur down cobwebs of nightmare.

The small fox uplift clings tightly to him, her tears wetting his jumpsuit. Tiny and warm, compared to his size... it's hard to let go, but enormously satisfying to see her successfully getting away. Stumbling and almost falling, true... but she'll escape, he knows. He knows... he can feel it. The spider's never met anyone as dangerous as him. He turns to face it, hackles rising, claws still gleaming, a quietly confident growl bubbling in his throat...

-and he awakens with a gasp. Awake... it was a dream?!

    A small, verdant clearing, surrounded by the thick and leafy trees of this dreaming, primeval forest.

Vash wakes up suddenly, and isn't sure why. It's still night time, although the stars and moon cast enough light to see clearly, despite the campfire having burned down to just embers. A look around the quiet night shows that the others are gone.

    Standing about five feet (tall for an uplift), Vash Montoya holds himself straight and relaxed, seemingly at ease with his environment -- whatever that may happen to be at the time. An armadillo uplift, he is physically spare and compact, under a layer of thick natural armor which covers most of his visible body, beginning at the bridge of his nose and sweeping back over his head. His hands are for the most part unarmored, but come with their own defenses; powerful digging claws. Perhaps for this reason he keeps his fingers loosely curled at his sides, half-concealing them. His muzzle is a bit shorter than a normal armadillo's, a bit clipped, giving him a somewhat Cerebus-esque look. He smiles a little, his eyes gray and cool, and folds his arms. You may notice just at the back of his left hand a slight discoloration; a short, lurid white scar.

Vash sits up slowly and looks around. He feels for his gun, reassuring himself with the touch of the grip under his arm. He pulls himself up to his feet slowly, still half-crouched down. Oh, this is WONDERFUL. The others are gone. There is no sign of struggle. Down the trail the way the party was going a light shows past a bend, and the sounds of someone or something moving about can be heard.

Vash stands up, dusting off his jumpsuit. He sighs and rolls up his sleeves to the elbow, setting off as quietly as he can toward the light. This is a trap. Just like the vines, just like the pond. And yet I'm walking right into it anyway. Nanno, please, if I don't survive this trip, don't remember me as the stupid brother.

As Vash rounds the corner he sees a brazier burning steadily in the center of a clearing. A key hangs from its base, shining golden in the flickering light. Also from the base a large, gilded chain runs off across the clearing, loosely and aimlessly piled in swaths, ending on the collar of a large lion, which is curled up sleeping, facing away from the trail.

Vash pauses at the edge of the pool of light, still half inside the cover of the trees. He frowns a little. I was expecting a black knight or some brigands to fight or something. I'm no good at riddles. The lion remains asleep, or at least remains still. Vash looks around, starting to feel more than a little put out. Okay... WHAT? You woke me up for this, what's the point here? He takes a single step forward into the light.

Perhaps it was Vash's quiet step, and perhaps it is merely that he's closer, but the great cat sits up abruptly, and sniffs a time or two, looking over at Vash unerringly through the slightly flickering light. The face revealed is not feline at all, but human, and its cast as well as the lack of a mane suggests this is a female sphinx. She growls irritatedly and bounds over, large feline feet thudding against the ground a time or two, and chain clanking along behind her.

Vash holds his ground, setting his stance a little. He doesn't make any outwardly threatening movements, though he does unzip his jumpsuit a little farther. He isn't even sure his gun still works, but it's comforting to know he can get at it. "Sorry to wake you, senyora."

The sphinx grumbles and says, "Why do all of you morsels have to come along at night? Can't you come along at noontime and say, 'Eat me now!' like sensible snacks?"

Vash says, "You're a sphinx, and you expect things to be simple?"

The sphinx snorts and replies, "Things are simple. You come in to this clearing; I eat you. This is what happens when I make bets with someone who can solve my riddles. Be damned if I do that again."

Vash says, "Know your enemy, that's what I was always told."

The sphinx mutters something about, "I don't usually get to know my lunch," then starts, looking apparently at Vash's feet. She cries, "What?!" and bounds off to the other side of the clearing, chain clanking and dragging after her, following a trail of footsteps she just noticed... those of a bat, a feline, a fox, and a piglet.

Vash says, "And know your battlefield. You miss something there?"

The chain snaps tight -- the sphinx cries out, "Urrgh!" and is drawn up short. She backs off and pants for a moment, then glares at Vash, stomping back over to him as only a pissed-off feline can stomp. She says, "Someone got through here! I'm not supposed to let anyone through here! He said so!"

Vash says, "Who did?"

The quadruped hunkers down and mutters, "I promised I wouldn't tell, even a soon-to-be-snack." She adds, "That detestable manipulator ruins all my fun," and trails off into less clear mutterings.

Vash says, "I've been having that kind of week myself."

The sphinx snorts, then says, "At least you're free and moving about! He's got me chained here -- as if my word weren't enough! I'd kill him if I could because of that."

Vash says, "Moving about, yes. I don't know about free. Regardless, it looks like my party has moved on without me."

The sphinx continues to eye Vash, then comments, "I don't think I've ever eaten anyone like you... wonder if you'll taste like turtle..." At his comment she growls, gestures back to the far side of the clearing with her head, and asks, "Are you with that lot?"

Vash says, "I have more in common with mice than turtles, really. But to answer your question, yes, senyora, I think I am."

The sphinx mutters something like, "Darn polite snack, this," then adds, "Well, then there's nothing to it. I've got to eat you, or he'll be even more unhappy with me. If I don't, he'll find some other way to torture or taunt me... like he already is."

Vash says, "I don't particularly want to be eaten. Then again, I don't think you particularly want to be taunted or tortured. I know I wouldn't. Perhaps we can help each other."

The sphinx considers, then asks, "How so? What do you mean?"

Vash says, "Well, I need to go join up with my crew there. And I gather that you don't really want to be chained to that pole there anymore. Am I right?"

"I didn't want to be chained to the pole in the first place, much less any more," responds the sphinx, "Subtle distinction, yes, but we sphinxes thrive on those."

Vash says, "No, no, it's alright, I follow you. What I'm getting at is, perhaps I can help you out of your situation here, and in return I don't get eaten when I go to join up with my friends."

The sphinx considers. She says, "Well, I promised that 'No one shall pass.' You're not one, you're a small group. There was no end-point on the promise, and I've already eaten several ones... so I can call it taken care of... if it weren't for this thrice-cursed chain."

Vash says, "Alright... then let's talk about the chain. I assume the key's got something to do with it?"

The sphinx roars in frustration! Eventually, she gets words back, and explains, "He tells me that would free me, but it's well and truly stuck there! Even if I could get it down, I don't know what I'd be able to do with it!" With this she waves a large lion's paw at him, claws extended. It looks quite powerful and impressive... but clumsy.

Vash says, "Maybe I can help with that. Is there a lock?"

The sphinx says, "The lock is here on the collar, closing it and fastening the chain." She doesn't show Vash, however, as she'd have to take her eyes off the armadillo to do so -- and she isn't quite that trusting yet.

Vash says, "Now... I can probably open that. But I can see you don't quite trust me yet, by the way you keep eyeing my feet and my claws. And I suppose I should tell you that goes both ways. I don't know, for example, that when I open that lock you won't devour me." Vash folds his arms, "Do I?"

The sphinx grins a wily feline sort of grin, and says, "No, you don't. Shall we make a bargain? Sphinxes never go back on their word, you know."

Vash grins a bit. "There's never been an armadillo in my family that's broken his word. All right... let's cut a deal."

The sphinx settles to all fours, then says, "I want to be free of this collar, and you want not to be a snack. If you can unlock this collar, I'll promise not to eat you."

Vash says, "My better judgement tells me not to do this. However, it would appear that neither of us have a choice, do we?"

The sphinx's grin nearly turns in to a leer, and she says, "There are always choices, possible-snack."

Vash says, "That's true. I could, for example, just skirt this clearing entirely, now that I know where the tracks lead, and leave you here tied to a burning pole. And where I may be a possible-snack, the other side of that coin is that you are a possible-landmark."

The sphinx throws back her head and laughs a hearty sort of roaring laugh, and then says, "Yes, this is true. Have we a bargain, hmmm?"

Vash says, "I suppose we do, senyora. It's a bargain."

"Come, then," she says, and pads over to the brazier where the key is hanging.

Vash follows, hands at his sides, and examines the key. "It seems odd to me your captor would just leave the key here in front of you. It's either sadistic or foolish. Or else I've been set up. But then, if that's the case it's far too late for that, isn't it?"

The sphinx stands behind the armadillo and says, "He is a mean, small-minded man who wants to make everyone unhappy." To his second question, she says nothing, but asks, "Can you get it down?"

Vash says, "I can. But do me a favor and stand where I can see you while I do it."

She replies, "As long as you can get it down, you have nothing to fear from me," but pads around the other side of the brazier, settling to all fours in its firelight.

Vash hrmns. "I've heard that from women before." He pulls with both hands at the D-ring that holds the key off the ground.

The ring squeaks loudly and opens, and the key slides off of it easily. The sphinx's eyes glitter in the firelight, and she says, "That's very good! Now all you must do is unlock this lock." She bends her head down. At the back of her neck is a junction where collar and chain come together, with a heavy golden locking mechanism.

Vash hms. He places the key near the lock, just shy of inserting it. "Now... before we do that... I feel since we're being so honest with each other, I must tell you something. I have on my person here a weapon. A very special weapon... you might say it's magic, in its way. And if we find ourselves betraying each other, we will most certainly die. Do you follow me?"

The sphinx says, "I've already given you my word that I shan't eat you. You shall have your freedom as I will have mine. Please, try the lock!"

Vash frowns a bit. "Well. We shall find out, won't we." He turns the key.

The key slides in nicely and turns a little, but stops, hung up on something. An extra crank of the key makes a release on the lock itself twitch against the pressure. It looks like it will take two hands. The sphinx says, "Well? Hurry up." The lion's tail switches back and forth. Vash sighs and has to lean into it with both hands... this is a serious lock. Which makes sense. This is a serious creature.

The key turns a little, then the latch depresses, and the key turns the rest of the way. The lock creaks open, and the weight of the chain and collar cause it to slide gracelessly off of the sphinx's back, then land with a thunk and a rattle on the ground. When this happens the sphinx inhales sharply and whirls to look, staring for a moment at the opened collar. Vash takes a step back, tossing the key on the ground. "There."

After a heartbeat, the sphinx says to Vash, "I'm free!" and leans against him happily, rubbing against him with a deep rumbling purr. "You did it!" Then she bounds away, outlining herself momentarily against the edge of the clearing before thundering back up to Vash and planting both of her huge paws on his chest. This knocks him playfully to the ground, and she licks him energetically. Her weight is a little much for him, and he can't breathe... or the shock of hitting the ground knocks him out. The last thing he hears is her saying, "Oh, thank you!" and then, "Oops! Did I break you?" as the world fades to starry blackness... Vash finds he has a single thought before he fades out. I'm dead. And it was an accident. After all that... cagada... Nanno, I AM the stupid one...

-it's about then that he wakes up from his dream, warm and relaxed in his bedroll, fire crackling reassuringly beside him, and the heavy breathing or light snoring of his crewmates around him.

    A small, verdant clearing, surrounded by the thick and leafy trees of this dreaming, primeval forest.

Kerry wakes up suddenly, not sure what caused him to do so. It's still night, and Kerry is relaxed and comfortable, wrapped up in his wings. The little campfire has guttered low, into no more than a small bed of warmly glowing embers. However, glancing over at the bedrolls for Douglas, Sakura, and Vash, Kerry blearily makes out that they are... empty!?

    Kerry Skydancer is tall for a Keero -- nearly five feet in height, counting the oversized and elaborately ridged ears that dominate a short-muzzled face with sharp fangs and solid black eyes. His fur is very dark gray, nearly black, coarse on his body and fine and downy on his wing membranes. The wings attract most folks' attention the first time they meet one of his kind. They unfold to double the length of human arms for a being his size, leathery membranes supported by skeletal frameworks built on the bones corresponding to part of the wrist and the last two fingers of other mammals. (Unlike his tiny ancestors they do not allow true flight but only a barely controlled glide.) The membranes attach to his body from shoulder to waist, so he wears a poncho-like tunic instead of a shirt and a rather low-slung pair of shorts. The fabric is medium gray, but dull and glossy in odd patterns. Supposedly the different textures mean something to Keero sonar.

Kerry blinks and looks again, pinging with ultrasound as well as vision. Oooooh, #!ee#. Something got them all and missed me up here? The tracks are easy to make out, weirdly enough. By each neatly-turned-back bedroll the appropriate set of feet lead off, heading for the path into the forest. There's even a tiny set of trotters occasionally superimposed over Sakura's small canid tracks.

Kerry flits down to examine the tracks. Well, this is just ducky. I suppose I'd better stay in the trees as much as possible, just in case. The bat checks his camp knife -- the only real weapon he has -- and follows the trail into the forest, gliding from tree to tree and climbing up every so often to regain altitude. His passage is not precisely silent or graceful -- he's not a climbing animal, really -- but he does make progress along the trail. Then, quite suddenly, the trail leads out into another clearing, silvered in the moonlight. Kerry can make out easily where it heads back into the dark and dreaming forest.

Kerry uses ultrasound as well as vision to search the woods, the echoes creating a hundred-meter bubble of space where he can sense every object's position precisely and where... well, colors perhaps, is the analog... where every motion generates a pattern in the bubble. His vision reaches farther, but without the wealth of information, more an indication of what is beyond his immediate surroundings than a detailed sense. He's not expecting the clearing... This wasn't here earlier, was it? He's not sure... but there's the path he needs, on the far side of the clearing. Heading into the clearing are the four sets of footprints he's been following. He lands, then follows the tracks until they leave the clearing and he can go back to his makeshift flight.

As Kerry heads across the clearing, at about the halfway point, there's a sharp *fwhUMF*! noise, and a rushing blast of hot air. All about him, painfully bright in the darkness, a circle of fire has sprung up, crackling white hot. A male voice cackles with laughter, then calls out, "Pathetic little vermin... did you really think your inter-realm coalition could stop the likes of ME?!"

Kerry closes his eyes tight against the glare and fumbles his goggles out of his pouch. His ears are busy, though, the ultrasound reaching out to try to locate and identify his antagonist. The voice is occasionally clear, frequently inaudible, as it rants and lectures -- is the person circling the huge ring of fire? Mostly the invisible person seems to be bragging about their newfound power, their current invincibility, and how all will eventually bow before him -- even the arrogant fey queen. The fire crackles, making it even harder to hear the ranting... but Kerry's sure he's never heard this person before. He'll recognize him later though.

Kerry listens carefully, trying to determine whether the "inter-realm coalition" the voice is referring to means the nations of Crossroads or the entire Gate network; and noting everything he can about the boasts. As he carefully listens ("-think that a small sea is enough to keep them safe?! When they can send their own people over... to SPY on me?! Yes! Yes, I know you want my secrets too, Azteka scum!") when it suddenly hits him... the fire ring is noticeably smaller now.

Kerry is feeling slightly relieved that the unseen -- and probably unsane -- speaker is also assuming him to be an Aztec, but the fire is becoming rapidly more uncomfortable. He hisses under his breath and pulls out the camp knife. Wonder what forged steel will do to magic fire? He holds the knife out in front of him and steps closer to the ring. I hope this works... He's hoping that the fire will flicker or at least weaken as the steel gets close to it... the fire seems almost maliciously gleeful, crackling and roaring up in front of him. It's a weird, disconcerting effect, but it almost seems that the flames start reaching hungrily for him as he approaches... and the metal of the knife starts to glow...

Kerry stops as the knife glows, wondering if it's a magical interaction or just heating up. Even the non-metal handle is getting a bit hot to hold. Then, directly above, he suddenly hears the smallest of noises... perhaps just a tiny snatch of song -- there's something up there! Kerry hisses and walks back to the center. I guess I'll just have to try to jump through it if it shrinks too far... He looks up at the sound from above, pinging again to re-establish his ultrasound bubble.

The fire is slowly filling the clearing, although it carefully doesn't touch a single tree. It presses hungrily inwards towards the small bat, heat and sparks roaring and flaring about him. Still, despite the distraction of the sound and fury of the encroaching fire, Kerry can make out, above him... a huge white bird, it looks like? -floating high above him and the fire. It is winging in slow circles, long white neck gracefully turned down to watch him, and as he looks up the very soft, occasional snatch of song stops. It watches silently for a moment, ignoring the still continuing ranting from the invisible person... then turns its head, pulling a feather from itself. A second later the large white feather drifts from its beak, downward towards the imprisoned bat. A gust of heat from the madly roaring fire almost grabs the feather, almost tosses it aside -- and then at the last moment it slips within the little circle, to the shrinking island of grass Kerry stands on.

The huge white bird drifts in one last circle above, watching intently... then, flapping its powerful wings, it flies off into the night.

Kerry watches the feather float down, noting its seeming defiance of what should be an enormous updraft, and grabs it as soon as it enters his island of safety. He calls "Thank you!" after the departing bird, then tries to remember what the legends said about swan feathers... finally Kerry grimaces at the still-approaching fire and tries to jump and beat his way upward. Maybe it's a flight feather. Or maybe I'll turn into a swan myself. Gotta be better than scorching to death here.

His wings spread, beating frantically, the feather still tightly clutched in one set of fingers. The reaction is both alarming, and exhilarating -- he shoots skywards -- he's flying! He's really flying again, on his own wings! He'd almost forgotten what it felt like -- he'd been unable to do more than glide for thirty years! The updraft tosses him up, heat under his beating wings, and the feather is cool to the touch, like the night air that welcomes him, and he's flying -- again!! -pinging easily, nice clear starry sky, bright moon, this is FANTASTIC, he's flying under his own power!!

-and, with a shock and a gasp -- he's awake! It was -- was a dream?!

Vash sits bolt upright in his bedroll, blinking. "I hate this place."

Sakura lets out a little screech when she wakes up! Douglas is lying on his bedroll, hackles raised, looking up into the trees, claws digging into the ground beside him... but he's not tense or anything, at least until Sakura screeches. Then he winces and sighs, and slowly sits up, relaxing gradually and -- almost -- reluctantly. "Dream..."

Vash turns, "Doctora? Doctora! Sakura! Hey!"

Kerry lets go of his perch before he's quite awake and skreeks indignantly as he glides clumsily to the ground. High-pitched (very high-pitched) mutters fill the air for a minute, until he calms down. "What was that all about?" Sakura says something in Japanese, eyes wide... it didn't sound very polite. Kerry looks up at the stars. "Who was supposed to be on watch just now?"

Vash says, "I just finished mine..."

Douglas looks at his hand -- no, paw... no, hand -- then, frowning slightly. He flexes his hand, extending his claws, seeing how they gleam without any trace of dirt... he closes his hand into a loose fist, looking up and looking... tired, maybe a bit forlorn. "I... don't know, Pilot. What time is it?"

Kerry skrees, "I thought I was on watch... but the night isn't even that far along yet. Something strange going on again."

Sakura says, "I did my watch... and woke you up, Douglas-san... Vash-san woke me..."

Vash says, "I just woke Sakura up... but... that can't be right. The moon was far higher than that..."

Douglas frowns, closing his eyes and rubbing them. "I remember... the Doctor waking me up, and then waking you up, Pilot..."

Sakura says, "That doesn't make any sense..."

Vash says, "So it's not just our compasses that are whacked..."

Kerry shakes his head. "The moon was nearly setting when I woke up... well, when I thought I was. This is several hours earlier. Weird dreams... did we have the same one?"

Douglas sighs and stands, stretching slightly. He doesn't seem particularly tired. "No," he says flatly. "It makes no sense from our point of view. Though it could mean anything to a native of Crossroads." He hesitates a moment, looking around. "I wonder..." he says distractedly, "-if it has anything to do... with this quest we're on..."

Vash says, "Speaking of which... Sakura, what do you remember just before waking?"

Sakura says, "Dying..."

Vash blinks, "I'm sorry?"

Sakura says, "I was killed... I think... by a giant spider. I had no choice, Sir. He had Douglas-san... I had to try..."

Douglas blinks, looking slowly to Sakura. "You... you dreamed of the spider, too...?"

Sakura nods at Douglas, "Yes, Douglas-san."

Vash looks at Sakura, then at Douglas. "There's no need to apologize, Doctora... you did what you felt was best. Douglas, what do you remember?"

Douglas doesn't answer Vash right away, instead looking intently to Sakura. "I... I dreamed of it, too... It was huge, like a house, and it..." Oddly, his ear tips turn a bright red. "It had you in its web..."

Sakura says, "I saw you wrapped in its web, Douglas-san..."

Kerry mutters under his breath, "Spiders are not supposed to be that big."

Vash says, "What about you, Kerry? You have a dream?"

Kerry skrees, "Yeah, but no spiders. I dreamed that you had all wandered off, and I was trapped in a ring of fire while following your tracks. Something was ranting and raving about how it was futile for the inter-realm coalition to resist his return... thought I was an Azteka, though, so I don't think it meant the Nexus."

Vash says, "That's interesting... I think I just missed you."

Douglas nods quietly, looking down and taking a deep breath. I don't know if the details matter right now... maybe I'd better not... no, we're in this together, and what happens next may hinge on how we interpret this. He looks unhappily down the trail, but seems relieved when Kerry talks. "Inter-realm coalition?"

Kerry skrees, "Anyway, just before the fire ring closed on me, a swan gave me a feather and I was able to fly away. Then I woke up, unfortunately..." The bat actually looks a bit wistful. He nods at Douglas' comment, "I just hope our arrival didn't wake it up, whatever it is. Was. Whatever."

Douglas glances down the trail again. "I think..." ...that it may be too late for that. Oh, that'll REALLY put everyone at ease, wouldn't it, Mr. Big Time Cougar Hero? "...that... we may not have."

Vash says, "Looks like I got off easy."

Kerry looks interested. "You had fire, too, Vash?"

Vash says, "Well... sort of. I helped someone out of a bind. But I think the ugly guy from your dream is the one that put them there."

Kerry skrees, "I never even saw him, actually. He didn't show up on ultrasound or vision." Douglas remains almost nervously quiet.

Vash says, "Seems a likely match. Odd thing, though... it's the first time I took a gamble here and it didn't bite me on the ass..."

Kerry skrees, "Well, that's a step in the right direction. Weird dreams..." He sighs. "So... shall we go back to sleep? Whose watch is it really?"

Douglas says quietly, to himself, "Maybe not so weird."

Sakura says, "Sleep? You've got to be kidding..."

Douglas says quietly, "I think I'm the most awake here. You all get some sleep; I'll keep watch."

Vash says, "Looks like it's Sakura's. You okay, Doctora? I'll wait up with you if you like."

Sakura says, "No need to, Sir. I'll be wide awake and incredibly alert, I'm sure." She huddles up closer to the campfire, convinced that she's never going to sleep again for as long as she lives. Kawaii trit-trots quietly over from the nice warm bedroll where he'd been curled up and waiting for the fox uplift to return. He settles down next to Sakura, resting his chin on her knee and giving her a mournful look. Sakura scritches the top of Kawaii's head.

Vash says, "I'm not worried about your performance; I'm worried about your state of mind. You certain you're okay?"

Sakura grins at Vash almost playfully. "I thrive on stress, Sir..."

Kerry skrees, "She did go through medical school..." Sakura smiles and nods at Kerry.

Vash doesn't smile, but does lie back. "All right then. The rest of you try and get some sleep. We're moving out of here as soon as it's light enough to see."

Kerry skrees, "Fair enough." He climbs back up to his perch, though he can't resist looking around for that swan feather for a moment first... "See you all later."

Douglas's whiskers seesaw a little as he considers, then nods quietly. He's not entirely sure he'll be sleeping at all well himself. He pauses, though, only to kneel nearby Sakura, hesitate, then rest a large, gentle paw on her shoulder. "It's all right, Doctor," he says so that only she can hear. "The spider is gone; whatever we face up ahead won't be it." He hesitates. "And I have no doubt in my mind, none whatsoever, that you did all that you possibly, remotely could." He smiles quietly, encouragingly.

Sakura grins at Douglas and actually manages a real giggle. "Next time I'll hit him harder."

Kerry skreeeks! "Bozhemoi... it is here! Maybe it wasn't quite a dream after all." Kerry stares at the white swan's feather still clutched in his wing-hand, then tries launching himself from his perch.

Douglas grins to Sakura. "A heavy rock never hurts!" Or a set of claws... "Good night, Doctor." As he moves to his bedroll though he hears Kerry's exclamation, and blinks, looking up at the Keero. Somehow... that was the very last thing I think I needed to hear right now. Mental note to self: talk with Pilot about 'timing.' He glances worriedly down the path.

Vash grumbles and sits up. "Hey, kids! Will you at least TRY and humor me here? Go to SLEEP."

Sakura stiffens, "Kerry-san... what's wrong?"

Vash sighs and turns, looking across the clearing toward Kerry's perch. It's like trying to corral a bunch of school kids. "What is he doing up there?"

The bat is grinning like an idiot as he glides over the camp and back again before touching down. "It's the feather! And it works!!" He pauses. "Well, almost. It helps, though."

Vash says, "We're ecstatic, Kerry. Now get some rest, will you? Your watch starts in four hours."

Kerry skrees, "It's like being six years old again." He carefully -- very carefully -- tucks the feather away in his tunic. He climbs back up to his perch again, still grinning. "Ja. Da. Yes. Oui. Si. Hai. As you command, Your Nebulosity."

Vash says, "Shut up." He grumbles and turns over in his bedroll.

Sakura says, "What works, Kerry-san?"

Kerry whispers to Sakura after the others have curled up to sleep again. "The feather from my dream. It stayed with me when I woke up..." He pauses then, realizing what the doctor's dream was like. "I don't think it's prophetic, though... it doesn't work the same way in reality. I think someone is trying to help us."

Douglas blinks. Slowly. At the flying Keero. Feathers. Claws. What about Sakura? And Captain? He directs his thoughts generally upwards. This is going to be bad, isn't it? Aiieh, better not say that out loud. He closes his eyes, feeling… well, strangely unfrightened as the others banter. We'll get through it, he thinks, wondering if his confidence is at all justified.

Last modified: 2001-Jan-21 12:55:08

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