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Swan Lake

    The Center of the Labyrinth
    This is a large, crystalline room. The flashlights of the crew of the
    Indigo send sweeping arcs of rainbows and fragments of jeweled light dancing about the myriad diamond-like surfaces on the stalactites and stalagmites that stud the roundish cave.

The crystal sparkles and emits a faint glow when Douglas touches it. He blinks and quickly draws his hand back. "Oh, my..."

Kerry skrees, "Our friend left... that had better be a map."

Douglas blinks again, looking around the room, frowning... Sakura says, "What is it, Douglas?"

Douglas says, "I'm not sure. For a moment, when I was touching it..." He looks at the sphere again, then gingerly reaches out a paw tip to touch it again. Sakura anxiously watches Douglas' paw come down. Douglas looks around, squinting a very little bit. "As it turns out, Pilot," he says quietly, "-it does indeed seem to be a map. I hope. At least, I see the room sort of like a CAD/CAM drawing..."

Kerry chuckles. "Fair enough. Let's see if it works."

Douglas seems to be looking about and fretting slightly, twitching a little bit as he focuses on points before him. "It... seems to be a somewhat interactive map," he mutters. He wavers a little where he's kneeling, and grimaces. "And it's taking a great deal of getting-used-to..."

Sakura says, "Will you be all right, Douglas-san?"

Douglas grimaces again a bit. "For the time being, yes, thank you, Doctor. I may ask for some Dramamine if this takes a great deal longer, however..."

Kerry skrees, "I hope so... I'm not going to carry him out while he checks the map..."

Sakura says, "Just let me know if you do."

Douglas for the moment ignores Kerry, nodding his thanks to the doctor, and for the next fifteen minutes concentrates on getting the hang of the odd map. "This is... it's incredible," he finally says, looking around him at seemingly nothing. "This whole complex, the maze, the labyrinth... it's... stunning!" He shakes himself a little, then squints down at the floor. "I think I have a way out. I'd love to come back here sometime, though. I'm not a structural engineer, but the work the troll must have done to the place...!"

Sakura smiles. "Excellent news, Douglas-san... and I'm sure that this place is very impressive. It's a shame that we don't have time to explore."

Douglas looks around, hand still on the crystal as he tries to arrange the map it lets him see. "Very true, Doctor. We need the swan's pebble sooner, however, and that has a distinct time limit..."

Kerry skrees, "Maybe on the way back."

Douglas leads the way out, leaving the sparkling center of the maze. He leads through a complicated set of twists and turns, up and down stairways -- even a circular staircase which leads a long way up. There are a couple of dead ends as well, where Douglas has to go back to the map and find where he got confused -- easily done, but time consuming. The exit, according to the map, is a cave entrance on the side of a bluff above the river. The path is clear and unobstructed until close to the exit, where a cascade of earth has closed off the tunnel. Douglas says, "Oh, blast..." Sakura frowns at the earth, as if she's silently willing it to just move already.

Kerry skrees, "Indeed. Are there any other exits listed on that map?"

Vash asks, "Douglas, how far is it supposed to be from here?" When the big cougar answers that there's just a little ways to go, the 'dillo says, "Stand back; this could get messy." Once everyone's drawn back a little he'll remove his shirt, to keep it clean, and flex his strong, long-clawed fingers. Across his powerful armored back everyone can see a terrible criss-crossing of old white scars... at some point long ago Vash must've endured quite a beating! He then walks up to the slide and begins to dig, his large claws making short work of the obstruction. There were only a dozen feet of blockage and it is soon possible to crawl out into the evening light.

Douglas blinks at the amount of dirt, and how quickly, Vash moves. "Outstanding work, Captain..."

Sakura says, "My goodness... That was quick." Kerry grumbles about getting mud on his wings, but crawls through the tunnel anyway. Sakura follows suit with Kerry, climbing out the tunnel.

Outside, a small grassy field runs up the edge of the little knoll that the cave entrance is in, and a thick edging of trees on the other side of the clearing marks the beginning of the heavy forest again. A bubbling creek runs down the hill towards, perhaps, a lake. Douglas looks around as he surveys the countryside. He points to the creek. "What do you think, Pilot? Are we close enough that that might lead us to our destination?"

Kerry skrees, "Well, it should... it's leading in the right direction, at least."

Sakura says, "It looks promising..."

Douglas nods, folding an extra shirt around the crystal to protect it, and tucking it deep and securely in his pack. As he does so he cannot help but glance at his paws -- his paws with his claws... and finds himself not at all trepidatious. He stands. "Well... shall we?"

Kerry starts whistling that tune again as the party starts downstream. "And keep a watch out for swans." Sakura keeps her eyes scanning around constantly for anything out of the ordinary. Douglas nods, sweeping his gaze over the water of the brook, and keeping a watch around them as well, for anything peculiar. And for spiders, he thinks. But, oddly, he doesn't feel at all frightened of seeing the house-spider or a close relation to it. He doesn't quite consider this his 'territory,' but it's certainly his friends and crewmates, and he's not going to let a mutant arachnid on grade-B-movie-strength steroids get at them.

The walk down the stream is easy and pleasant. It is less than an hour of travel along the banks until the lapping sounds of water can be heard, and a calm lake appears through the trees, with a wide beach of small pebbles. The sun is quite low in the sky now, and golden light glints off of the lake ahead. Douglas blinks at the lake before them, and finds he's almost holding his breath. "Is that it...?" he murmurs quietly.

Kerry skrees, "I hope so... it's been two or three days -- hard to tell underground -- so this should be the place. Do you see any swans?"

Sakura smiles widely, "Oh, it's beautiful... but... are there swans here?"

Douglas looks around, frowning. "I don't see any... not right now, though..." He squints. "Wait..." He points to the far side of the lake. "There. I see some waterfowl there, but I can't tell if they're swans or not..."

Sakura looks where Douglas is pointing... "I'm sorry, Douglas-san... I can't see anything over there..."

Kerry peers in the direction Douglas is pointing. "Hmm. A bit out of my range, whatever they are."

Douglas nods slowly. "Must be my eyesight. Can we skirt around the lake; try to get to the other side...?"

The setting sun makes it hard to see across the reflective, molten-looking water, and the long, dark shadows of the surrounding forest don't help any. Sakura and Kerry can't make out the waterfowl that Doug thinks he sees... but they can feel the cool chill of the encroaching evening breeze ruffling their fur. Night falls quickly, and cool, in the spring, especially around such a large lake.

Kerry skrees, "Well... How do we get their attention, if they are swans?"

Sakura says, "Do you suppose there's enough time to get there before the sun sets? Perhaps we should make camp for the evening."

Douglas says, "When is our deadline, Pilot?"

Kerry skrees, "Tomorrow night is the full moon. We're on schedule so far, if we can just find the swans and ask for their help somehow."

As the questing companions study the lake, the sun finally slips below the edge of the forest... and the temperature noticeably drops a little bit, once the sun sets. The sky is gorgeous -- streamers of scarlet, gold, and ivory trace the sun's descent -- while the quiet, still lake darkens from its previous molten sheen, to merely a glowing reflection of the brilliant open sky. Soon the bright sparks of stars begin to glitter overhead, and the swollen moon -- one day away from full -- shines pearly and clear.

Douglas nods slowly. "Then we should camp for the night. Rrrr... it's cold..."

Sakura nods at Douglas, "I agree, Douglas-san."

Kerry skrees, "So we need a campsite. Let's see..." He turns his back on the lake and looks for a reasonable open spot. "How about there?"

Sakura says, "We should try to get some cover between ourselves at the lake..."

Douglas nods quietly, and looks to where Kerry is pointing. "That should do. Captain, Pilot, do you two want to keep watch while the Doctor and I set camp? Or is there a more optimal suggestion?

Kerry nods. "If you want. We've certainly got better night vision." The bat turns his attention to the surroundings, his mouth open slightly as he plays his sonar over the surrounding area.

Sakura helps Douglas set up the camp... she looks out at the lake wistfully. "This would be such a wonderful area to camp and hike and fish..."

Douglas sighs quietly as he helps Sakura finish setting up the camp, holding in his slight shivering. He nods quietly. "It's... very nice here," he notes quietly, looking around. "I'm sure some old college friends of mine would skip a week's worth of classes to be here."

Kerry sweeps his echoes over the lakeside, building a picture of their surroundings. The extremely thick forest to the north, the lake to the south; the shore curves a bit, but all the shore within range has the same thick forest bordering it. Right here the lake has a bit of a beach, and the camp is set up not too far away from the water, but not too close, either. There's some scree and driftage there, and some big rocks -- but there seems to be nothing at all that might be hostile. Better territory than anywhere I ever went camping back on Earth Home...

The sun is now completely set, the night darker than almost anywhere on the Earth that the Indigo's crew calls home. Stars fill the sky thickly, unfamiliar patterns easily visible. The clear night is cold, and quiet. Douglas shivers again as he looks into the darkness, letting his eyes adapt to the shadowy nightfall. Sakura seems delighted at the stars here and spends some time gazing up at them.

    In the morning after the sun is all the way up, everyone can see water birds at the water's edge. They're closer than they were yesterday, wandering along the shore off to the left. There are a lot of smaller birds nearby too -- swallows swooping across the open beach and others singing in the trees at the dawn. Fish splash in the calm lake as well. Shortly after that deer creep from the woods to drink, and a light haze rises from the cool water.

Kerry, having taken the final watch again, is cooking breakfast for the group. "Just beef and bread today... didn't find any crickets last night."

Douglas nods to the flock of birds. "They may even come close enough to hail them. Maybe." He takes in a deep breath (and tries to keep the instincts of his heritage under control; it's been a very great long time since he even tasted venison, and he's not about to remind himself of the taste now. Especially uncooked, yeeech). He tries to spot the flock of birds he saw last night, and also tries to find an easy way to get towards where they are now. Sakura sits up in her bedroll, yawns and stretches. When she's blinked the last sleep from her eyes, she glances out at the lake... Douglas nods, taking another look towards the lake before sitting down at the fire. Thank heavens for small favors, he thinks to himself. "We need to find a way to get closer to the flock... if they are even swans, that is.

Sakura says, "I really wish I had a fishing rod... "

Douglas says, "I didn't know you fished, Doctor."

Kerry sings, "If I had a hammer... I'd hammer in the morning... and I'd hammer in the evening..." He stops. "I don't think there's a verse for fishing rods, though." Douglas thinks, For which we are grateful indeed, I think.

Sakura shuffles out of her sleeping bag and grins at Douglas. "I don't... but look at it out there." She motions across to the lake, where the sun glints off gentle ripples and fish can be seen in the water, along with birds and other wildlife. "I can't imagine much that would be more pleasant than sitting here watching the lake with something to occupy the hands, and let the mind wander."

Kerry skrees, "I don't think we want to catch the swans on a hook, though. Just as well."

Douglas looks out to the lake and smiles quietly. "For a quest... right now, it does seem very pleasant." He looks to Kerry. "Any ideas as to how to hail and speak to the swans?"

Sakura wanders over towards the food and helps herself to breakfast, "Thank you, Kerry-san."

Douglas says, "Oh! Yes, thank you, Pilot, for breakfast..."

Kerry shrugs. "No problem. Let's see about these birds."

Sakura nods at Kerry, chewing her food. "Agreed." Douglas nods, finishing his breakfast and standing.

Kerry puts out the campfire and sets the frying pan aside to cool. "Down to the lake, then?"

Sakura stands up and brushes herself off. "Yes..." Douglas also nods.

Approaching the lake right here, things seem quiet. Off along the bank to the left there seem to be more wildlife, both on the shore and in the water. Douglas says, "Maybe we should start moving in that direction, carefully and quietly."

Kerry skrees, "My thoughts exactly."

Walking along the shoreline is tricky, as the woods keep coming down right to the water, so the lake seems to come and go from view. All that can be seen is the occasional flash of wings in the air, or a splash of water can be heard. However, it's always ahead and just out of sight -- gone by the time any of the crew get there. Sakura blinks and whispers, "Douglas-san, Kerry-san, Vash-san... I just saw one... it's moving away from us as we walk..."

Douglas blinks, looking to Sakura, and stops walking. "They're avoiding us...?"

Kerry stops. "This won't work... they're keeping their distance. We need to rethink this."

Sakura shakes her head, "No... they're not closer or further. They seem to be keeping an even distance from us. Maybe they're frightened of so many people?"

Douglas taps his chin and nods slightly, "That... may very well be, Doctor." He smiles wryly, "And that one of them is a rather large carnivore certainly can't be helping..."

Sakura grins at Douglas. "Maybe we should split up?"

Douglas hrms. "We should spread out and let them approach whom they feel most comfortable approaching... if we think they'll do that..."

Sakura nods at Douglas, "A wonderful idea..."

Kerry skrees, "Worth a try. If that doesn't work we'll try something else. The captain and I are the least carnivorous -- how about if we stay here while you pull back?"

Sakura nods at Kerry. "That seems the wisest move, Kerry-san. I'd be happy to drop back..."

Douglas nods, "All right..."

Kerry clambers up a waterside tree as the others pull back, trying to be inconspicuous if the birds swim back toward him. Sakura drops back to stand beside Douglas, slowing her pace and allowing Vash and Kerry to get up ahead. Douglas watches the progress of Vash and Kerry. "We have all day to do this, but I don't think it's going to be easy..."

Kerry waits for a while, but the birds stay away. He whispers to Vash, "Better split up completely."

Vash nods and says, "Right. Don't get careless, though," and moves off in another direction, following the waterline slowly, calmly, carefully.

Douglas watches as Kerry and Vash split up. "Doctor, it might be better if we do that as well," he says quietly. "The swans seem to be attempting to avoid us..."

Sakura nods, "All right, Douglas-san..." She wanders off a bit from where Douglas is, but does keep in visual range of at least one other member of the crew at all times. Douglas tries to do that as well, unconsciously not wishing to be out of sight of any of them for even a moment.

As the crew separates, they realize it's relatively easy to keep someone mostly in sight through the trees or along the shoreline. After a few minutes of being alone, the noises of birds singing in the trees picks up a little, as the forest seems to relax around the crew.

As Douglas strolls peacefully through the forest and along the lakeside, he rounds a boulder and finds a small, secluded cove. It's thick with water plants, overhanging branches, and rushes, to the extent that he can't really see the water itself at all well. Like the water hag's lair, it's similarly overgrown, but this one has a quiet calm the other didn't. Ducks paddle and dive along the shoreline, oblivious to his presence, and the water makes the occasional quiet splash as a water bird either lands or takes off. Standing quietly by the boulder, Doug notices a heap of... something by his feet. A pile of large white feathers, maybe?

Douglas glances around cautiously, though the presence of the ducks seem to indicate a water hag is not present. He takes in a breath -- like most of Crossroads, it's invigorating to him, and pleasant and calming. Then he looks down and frowns slightly. What could this be...? He kneels down, closer to the pile of feathers, studying it closely. Do swans shed? he wonders half-wryly.

The pile doesn't look frazzled, like molted feathers might. Indeed, they gleam with health -- lovely shades of ivory, cream, and bone-china white. They seem to be connected, too, somehow. Douglas blinks again, and reaches down -- then hesitates. Wait, wait, Doug... this is a Quest. Everything you do has some sort of meaning and consequence. At least, that's the impression I'm getting. I have a feeling this is going to cause trouble, but... He gingerly touches the feathers, very lightly running his fingertips over the snowy-white, multihued feathers... they're silky and soft. He's currently touching the large, graceful primaries that would be on the wings. It looks like there might be smaller, softer, downy feathers peeking out from the bottom of the pile.

Douglas tilts his head to the side, studying the feathers. Incredible, he muses, -how something as delicate as this could allow graceful flight that has been the envy of humans -- and non-avian uplifts -- for centuries. He is very careful, even with his musings, to not put his hands where he cannot see them, gently moving the feathers as he studies the pile and wondering what it's doing here. With these, he thinks, one could soar to the stars...

The feathers shift easily at Doug's careful touch, spilling in a sensuous luxury of silkiness across his large paws. It's then he can see they seem to be part of... a cloak? A feather shirt, perhaps? Douglas blinks, frowning slightly. "A feather shirt?" He tilts his head to the side, having never heard of who feathered mantles might belong to -- and of course the semi-local expert on mythology and lore is halfway around the lake. He lifts it up gingerly, but not too far off the ground -- he can only imagine what panic the swans might be in if they see a largish cougar with a bunch of swan feathers in his hands. He examines the garb, keeping one eye towards the lake for the possibility of any approaching swans, while some part of his mind suddenly wonders how he'll be able to talk to them if Sakura is clear on another part of the lake...

It's a beautiful, shining cloak of feathers, large enough to cover him comfortably. The sunlight shimmers across it, gleaming gorgeously... with this maybe he could fly to the stars -- and beyond! Douglas blinks wonderingly at it. The garment is wonderful, maybe not exactly what he would pick out himself, but gorgeous nonetheless. A fleeting thought runs through his mind, that of a gift... but he shakes himself mentally. Something like this is just not left around. Something this beautiful belongs to someone... and it really isn't his.

Regretfully, he sets the cloak back down upon the rock, glancing at it rather wistfully. The stars... he thinks. With the magic in this place, it wouldn't surprise me. But... but we're here for the pebble, he thinks resolvedly. With a sigh, but still not moving from near the cloak, he stands and looks out across the lake.

There's a splash, and a low, startled cry... and suddenly he can see a woman's head surface in the small cove. Long, wet, gleaming dark hair swirls around her shoulders, and she whispers in a low, musical voice. Impossibly, he can hear words in his head, "You have me at a disadvantage, mortal. What do you will of me?"

Douglas blinks in surprise, and almost stumbles back. "What, who, I mean...?" Then he blinks. She's speaking my language! What in the world...? "Ah... I beg your pardon, er, madam?" Then he realizes, after he answers her... no, he's not hearing her... that is, she's not speaking his language. But he's hearing her all the same. More magic?! he thinks, almost in a panic. I'm an engineer, I'm not trained for this sort of thing... "I mean... that is... pardon?" Douglas... that was so lame it couldn't stand even with you helping it... least of all with you helping it!

The woman sighs softly, the water rippling gently in front of her. She's careful not to rise any further out of the water. Her pale skin gleams dimly in the water, but the plant life preserves her modesty. Again that musical whisper, and like the lyrics to a song the words drift through his head, "What do you will of me, mortal? I am yours to command... you have my cloak."

Douglas blinks again. He looks between the... the... well, who the heck is she, anyway?! -between her and the cloak. "I... I didn't mean any disrespect, honest, ma'am, I... er..." It more or less dawns on him at this point that she has been calling him 'mortal.' Oh, Hell. You've honked off an Immortal. Now you've done it. She must be one of the fey you keep hearing about... It has not quite sunk in what she's asking of him. "What... who... who are you...?" he half-stammers, starting to get back on his mental feet.

The woman doesn't answer, just sinks slightly into the water, until it brushes gently against her lips. Her dark eyes are huge, almost luminous, as she watches him, waiting patiently. Douglas gulps. She's... she's not angry, or irritated... maybe immortals have a lot of patience. What does she want from me? What's she talking about, 'yours to command'? What? No... no, it can't be like that... that's cheating, though! Isn't it...? He glances to her again. "Ma'am... er... miss... uhm... my friends and I, we are on a... something of a quest, and... well... er... would it be... cheating... if I asked you helped us?"

A short distance away there's a startled, "Rib-*awk*!" as a large crane (formerly almost invisibly still) suddenly spears a frog in the water. The cloak shimmers in the sunlight, lush and silky. The woman still doesn't answer... just watches Doug, quiet and still, with those huge, ancient, dark eyes.

Douglas gives a start as the crane finds breakfast. He glances that way, then looks back to the woman. Why won't she answer? Oh, wait... it's a quest. She can't answer questions. When we get back, if I ever become an instructor, I'll remember to give my class 'quests' instead of 'exams.' No, on second thought, that would just get them eager to lynch me en masse. "I'll... I'll take that as a 'no,' then..." He trails off, hoping she'll correct or confirm him, but that doesn't seem to be forthcoming. "We... we need to get a pebble, retrieved by a swan from the bottom of the lake, at the time of the full moon. Could... you... help us to somehow do that, ma'am?"

The soft whisper in his mind is faintly amused, faintly bitter, "It is not as if I may refuse you, mortal. After all... you have my cloak.

Douglas ers, then says quietly, "Ma'am, I don't know what-" He blinks and glances at the cloak. Note to self: crash course in folklore mandatory before returning here. If we get out of this alive. "Er... this? This is yours...?" He briefly, very briefly, considers... she will do what he asks of her; she can help them get a swan to get a pebble from the bottom of the lake...

He sighs. No. That won't do at all. I don't know nearly as much about folklore as Kerry or Sakura do, but this doesn't seem the way to really earn the pebble. Besides... it doesn't seem right, really. He gingerly picks up the cloak and turns to the woman in the water. Without hesitation he extends it towards her, offering it. "This... this is yours, ma'am," he says quietly. "It... doesn't seem right to ask anything of you, after all. I stumbled across your cloak; I had no idea what it was. And even if I did, I'd have left it alone, since it's not mine."

The woman's eyes widen as she draws back, almost fearful. Her whisper is low, "Do not tease me, mortal... no one freely returns the cloaks. Ever."

Douglas sighs. "I'm not teasing you, ma'am. And I am freely returning it. Look, I can't command you to do anything, it's just not right. I'm sure it would violate half a dozen regulations regarding the accomplishing of quests -- if there is such a thing. This... quest seems like something we need to finish square and level, by our own work, not by... well, a loophole. Besides," he smiles slightly, "-aside from being unable to find the Alshain, I think I'm got all I need for a while. So, please. Take it back, ma'am, it is yours."

The woman seems dubious, but as Douglas continues to stand there, the cloak across his outstretched paws, she seems to come to some conclusion. Slowly, cautiously, she paces out of the lake. Water streams down her pale form and her long, dark hair. She pauses, a short distance away from the big cougar, trepidation plain on her face... then, in a quick, short, nervous rush she darts forward, snatches the feather cloak to her, and dives back into the water. There's a splash! and then the water settles, ripples softly lapping the lakeshore at Douglas' feet. A moment of silence... and then the woman's head pops up out of the water, some distance away. She sings to him, a smile on her face, "Look for swans at midnight!" then dives back under the concealing water.

This time there isn't even a ripple.

Douglas blinks, at both the suddenness of the movement and the... sudden song. Damn, but she can move quick for a hum- oh, right, she was calling me 'mortal.' Even the most arrogant SOB human never called me that, which makes her an immortal. I've got to remember that. After the cloak disappears from his hands, he folds them behind his back and looks around the lake, musing upon the song. Her words take a few more moments to sink in. When they do he blinks again, and sits heavily. 'Look for swans at midnight?' Is that...? Was it... He stands again, his heart beating. Doug... I think you just managed to do something good, for the right reasons. He looks around, trying to keep from laughing out loud, but unable to halt the spread of a smile upon his face. He begins moving, quickly but cautiously and carefully so as not to disturb any of the animals, back towards the encampment.

Walking along the shoreline, watching the water for a swan, Sakura hears some soft splashes in the water ahead. She looks up to see what the splashes were, but continues to move forward at her slow, quiet pace. As she walks, she finds a small heap of white feathers, perhaps a cloak, folded nearly on a large rock near the shoreline. The sounds of water continue close by, but in the lake away from the shore.

Sakura walks towards the feathers and looks at them curiously, trying to figure out without touching what it is. Still not daring to touch she scans the water near where she found the feathers... the watery splashes stop, as someone surfaces in the water; a beautiful woman, with long, flowing white hair which floats around her on the water. She gasps when she sees Sakura by the feathers, and freezes, her gasp drawing the vixen's attention.

Sakura looks at the woman, mouth open a little in shock before she remembers her manners. She bows formally in the Japanese style to the woman, remaining down for a few moments as she greets her in the tongue that she has learned. The woman sinks lower in the water, quite nervous, and asks Sakura, "You aren't going to hurt me, are you?"

Sakura shakes her head, "Oh, no, ma'am... I wouldn't dream of it..."

The maiden looks unsure, and pauses there, frozen, for a long moment, before she says, "Please don't take my feathers. I can't attract a mate without them." The worry and fear she conveys is very real.

Sakura smiles gently at the woman. "Your feathers are lovely, truly, but they belong with you. I promise that I won't take them." She looks at the feathers then back at the woman. "Are you... a swan?"

The woman nods nervously and says, "Yes. We come here to bathe, when we think there is no one around. People try and take our skins for their charm... they let you win your beloved, should you have one."

Sakura frowns, "It would not be honorable for me to deny you of something that is yours, and cruel the people who do it to others." She chews her bottom lip a little. "I don't suppose I could ask you a question? I'll be happy to let you... dress first." She takes a few steps to the side, away from the feathers, to try to reassure the woman. She sits down on the sand, folding her legs under her and resting her paws on her knees.

The woman says, "You are very right that it is cruel. It keeps us from being able to find a mate..." After Sakura moves away, the floating woman says, "You may ask, of course. It will be easier to answer if I do not change, though."

Sakura says, "My friends and I have been sent on a quest to find a stone from the bottom of a lake, brought to the surface at midnight by a swan. We were told to go to the Swan Lake... is that where we are?"

The woman nods and says, "This is the Lake of the Swans, yes." She looks hesitant, then adds, "May I ask a question in return?"

Sakura smiles, "Thank you... and yes, of course you may."

"What was the need for such a pebble?" asks the maiden.

Sakura says, "My friends... they don't have the way of this language, and a teacher from the local school told us that if we brought this object back to him, he could make them charms so that they could speak the local tongue..."

The swimmer nods and says, "That sounds like an honorable thing to try and do."

Sakura says, "It will certainly make things more easy for them, at least, until they are able to learn it for themselves. Now we just need to find a swan to help us." She grins, "I think finding the lake was the easy part."

"The lake is often difficult to find," mentions the swimming maiden, "Once here, if none of you do anything distressing, finding what you need seems to happen on its own."

Sakura tilts her head to one side as she listens thoughtfully. She smiles. "Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me. I appreciate it."

The woman seems somewhat surprised that the vixen is not going to demand anything while she has such a powerful lever over her. She says, "It is difficult to find those to talk to, who do not make unreasonable demands." She seems nervous, as if she'd like to go.

Sakura smiles a little shyly. "I don't like to be rude and I try not to be, but I am curious. I'd much rather talk than demand..." She stands and bows deeply again to the swimming woman. "Thank you, or in my language, arigatou gozaimasu. It was an honor to have met you. I'll leave you to your bath."

The woman smiles timidly and says, "Thank you, stranger. I will remember this thoughtfulness."

Sakura smiles at the woman one more time before she continues her slow and quiet walk, though she is trying to catch up to another member of the group, to check in.

    The shoreline is peaceful and quiet, with soft birdsong from the forest, and the sound of water lapping gently at the shoreline.

Vash wanders quietly along the water's edge, hands in his pockets. He adjusts his shades, looking out for.... what? There's nothing out here but the sun on the water, and the birds. The sunlight on the water sparkles beautifully while Vash walks along quietly, attentively looking at the water, until he glances down and notices he is coming right up to a white flowing cape, which seems to be feathered, which someone has laid gently across a stone.

Vash pauses and looks down. He looks around, wondering to whom this belongs. He isn't sure if he wants to see; he remembers a game from his youth that mentioned creatures so beautiful that to see them disrobed would kill you. What was the name of that game...? Oh well. He kneels down and, finding no one, peers underneath it at the stone. The cloak is bright white and beautiful, almost dazzlingly so, and the feathers are very soft. The stone below it is unremarkable, clean and dry. When peering under the stone, Vash hears a sharp gasp behind him, in the direction of the lake, followed by a splash. Vash stands quickly and turns around, dropping the cape. One hand instinctively slips past the open zipper of his jumpsuit for the grip of the pistol. He remains very silent, and scans across the surface of the lake.

Ripples spread out across the lake behind a dim shape visible through the water, which surfaces a moment later. Long blonde hair floats around the shoulders of a young woman, the sun sparkling around her, as she looks warily at the armadillo. Vash slowly lets his hand fall back to his side. He remains well up on the sand, having not yet forgotten his last dunking. He raises his left hand, fingers open. "Hello... I'm sorry, is that yours?" He gestures back toward the cape. He keeps his features carefully friendly, though inwardly he winces. Madre, not another woman in a lake... I don't want to go for another swim....

The girl nods timidly and says, "Please don't hurt me." Or rather... hm, how odd. Vash can hear the words in his head as she apparently sings them, even though he doesn't speak the language. She looks at the cloak of feathers and sees that he has put it down. It appears she doesn't quite know what to say... she looks at it longingly, while still watching the unusual armadillo warily.

Vash squints behind the polarized sunglasses. Wasn't what I expected.... still. Doesn't look like a water hag. Maybe a ploy? Hm. No. You're getting jumpy, Vashti... not everyone here is trying to kill you. He kneels and picks up the cape gingerly. Yet, anyway. He holds it out toward her. "Do you want this?"

The girl looks at Vash and nods once, chewing pensively on her knuckle, before she says, "Please don't take it, sir! I don't want to be alone." She suddenly looks nervous... as if she said too much.

Vash kneels down at the water's edge, still holding the cape across his arms. He decides to take the chance, since holding the cape seems to give him the leverage on the situation. "No... I'm not going to take it away from you. But I don't understand. Alone?"

The girl says, "The cape will let me find my one true love." She splashes a little farther away, and then adds, "But, you knew that. Why else would you come and take it?"

Vash grins a little bit. Ah, I wish it were that easy, ninya. He tries not to think too much about Blue. Too many confusing thoughts there, and now is most certainly not the time. "I'm not here to take it, ninya. I don't want to hurt you."

The maiden looks dubious, and says, "People always try to catch us when we bathe, to steal our cloaks, so they can have the magic. Why would you be any different?"

Vash shrugs. "Well. I haven't any magic. And I don't have any use for it... magic seems to be the cause of all my troubles so far." He smiles broadly, and proudly straightens up. "And I would never do something so base as to steal a woman's clothing from her while she was defenseless. It would be a mark on the honor of my family."

The maiden looks Vash over again, considering, and asks, "Why are you here then?"

Vash says, "Well... I was told I had to come here. My crew... the other travelers here, we don't speak the language here. Someone offered to make us an item that would let us understand them, but it requires a stone from this pond. That's why we came. No one wants to steal anything from you."

With a small splash the maiden moves closer to the shore, then says, "It is a great worry for us. We try not to come when anyone is around."

Vash shifts his feet just a bit, imperceptibly shifting his weight so that he can dive for higher ground if something goes down. He nods. "We're here to make friends... we're not bandits or thieves or..." He almost says 'soldiers', but stops, realizing that's a lie, "...or anything like that. We're on a quest. We hoped someone here could help us."

The girl asks, "Help you with what?"

Vash says, "We need a stone from this lake."

"I see," says the girl. "Will you keep my skin if you don't get this?"

Vash shakes his head. "I'll give it to you now if you want. I'm not keeping it from you. I don't work that way."

The maiden hesitates, then asks, "Turn around, please."

Vash nods and stands, taking several steps away from the water's edge. He carefully leaves the cloak over a stone, similar to the one he found it on, and turns away from it and the lake. There's the sound of water swirling as the girl comes out of the lake, and then a soft rustling as she picks up the mantle of feathers. She says, behind Vash, "Thank you, sir. We remember kindnesses," and a rustling sound follows.

Vash says softly, without turning, "It is my pleasure."

From immediately behind the armadillo comes a shuffling sound, then the flapping of wings, and then silence. Vash turns his head, looking over his shoulder. The lakeside seems quiet and unremarkable, the flock of birds having moved off. Gone... adios, ninya. He watches the flock moving on. He puts his hands back in his pockets, and continues on his way down the shore.

Kerry stays in his tree, trying to blend in with the bark. However, after a bit he realizes he's hearing the sounds of splashing and quiet singing. It comes from the water, on the other side of the tree. He shifts slightly, trying to peer around the edge of the tree without attracting attention.

On the top of a large rock rests a spray of white feathers, perfectly arrayed and nearly glowing in the sunlight. An occasional splash and a snippet of song come from behind the small boulder. Kerry nods to himself. Of course. I knew it would be this way... Swan Lake, indeed. I hope I don't have to dance. He lets go of his perch to glide down beside the rock. The flight feather will stay hidden for now, since he doesn't think he needs it for such a short glide.

The feathers seem to be a soft cloak, made perfectly and in one piece. Farther out in the water, there seems to be someone swimming. Kerry folds his wings and waits, not wanting to interrupt. He scans the water with sonar, to see what -- or who -- is out there.

The water makes the image murky at best, but it appears to be a human woman. This is clearer when she surfaces, running her hands through her hair. When she looks back at the beach, she says, "Eeek!" at the sight of the sun-goggled bat standing by the feathers. Kerry tries to look non-threatening, though his species may make that difficult. He bows to the woman (?) in the formal Keero fashion, wings swept forward and head down.

The floating woman looks quite unhappy to see Kerry there, but doesn't run away. She says something which he doesn't understand. After a moment she sings something else, and words form in his mind, "Please don't hurt me."

Kerry blinks and is very relieved that the language barrier isn't going to be a problem. "It was the farthest thing from my thoughts, milady. I am here to ask a boon."

The woman looks nervously back and forth between the bat and the feathers arrayed on the rock, shining in the sun. She says, "It is not as if I dare refuse you... while you have my cloak." She looks somewhat uncomfortable with this.

Kerry shakes his head. "I only wished to speak to you. You may have your cloak back with no obligation before I make my request. If you wish a service for what I ask, or if you wish to refuse, you may do so with my blessing." He steps away from the cloak, retreating to his tree to demonstrate his sincerity.

The swimmer swims closer, then back and forth repeatedly, looking nervous. She pauses near the rock -- then dashes forward, snatches the cloak from the rock, and returns to the relative safety of the water, swimming hastily back out of his reach with the cloak clutched to her. She then sings some more, the bat hearing, "What did you come here for?"

Kerry skrees, "To find a pebble. One brought from the lake by a swan on the night of the full moon."

The timid woman sings a few positive notes, and Kerry gets only, "Look for us then." Then she wraps her cloak about her. The feathers lift and attach, and she changes before his eyes into a swan, which turns, swimming, then flies away off over the lake. Kerry nods at the transformation. Swanmay, I think they called them. This whole world is something out of an old fairy tale. Or... all the old fairy tales were something out of this world.

Kerry is leaning against a tree, his ears pointed in the direction of a departing swan, when Sakura walks toward him, coming to a stop beside him. "Kerry-san... the most amazing thing just happened..."

Kerry skrees, "You too, eh?"

Sakura says, "Did you see one? Talk to her?"

Kerry nods. "Swanmay, I believe they were called in the old fables..." He pauses. "Well, if fables is the right word now."

Sakura smiles, "She told me that finding the lake is the hard part... and that once you're here, as long as you don't do anything distressing that finding what you need seems to happen on its own..."

Kerry skrees, "Well, I tried not to be distressing. She told me to look for her 'then'... I assume tonight, since I'd just asked her for our stone and offered a service in return."

Sakura says, "Oh... I didn't ask the swan I met..."

Douglas returns, smiling rather adolescently. "Hi! Kerry, do you know anything about women who swim in water and run about with feathery cloaks?"

Sakura looks a little chagrinned. "Oh dear."

Douglas blinks, looking between Sakura and Kerry. "What...?"

Sakura smiles at Douglas. "Did you meet one of the women as well, Douglas?"

Douglas blinks. "'As well'? Uhm... I supposed I did, at that. You mean there are more than one of them?"

Sakura says, "I met one..."

Douglas says, "I, er... almost, well, sort of... accidentally... well, she thought I had taken her cape. Cloak, that is."

Kerry skrees, "Swanmay, if I remember the stories correctly. I was polite, didn't keep her from her cloak, asked if she would help get us a pebble, and offered a corresponding service from us. She told me to look for us... she did say 'us' now that I think about it... and flew off."

Sakura blushes at Douglas. "I just talked to the lady that I met... I didn't think to ask for her help."

Douglas blinks. "I, er... just gave her back her cloak. And then she said 'look for swans at midnight.'" He looks to Sakura, and smiles quietly. "Actually... neither did I, Doctor."

Kerry snorts. "Well, I'm glad I did, then... at least they'll know what we wanted."

Douglas bristles for just a moment, but smoothes his fur down immediately. He otherwise makes no comment. Sakura's ears droop... "I mentioned why we were here... I just didn't ask for her help..."

Kerry skrees, "Oh, that's the same thing, then." He looks around. "I wonder how the captain did?"

Vash crosses the bend of the shoreline, hands in his pockets. He smiles a little, seeming uncharacteristically unfocused, just staring out at the water. Douglas blinks as the captain, as if summoned by name -- in this place, he thinks, I wouldn't be surprised if that was it, actually, -- rounds the bend. "Captain!" he calls out.

Vash glances up, seeming surprised, as if his mind was someplace else. He grins widely, and raises one hand in acknowledgement as he strides across the sand. He doesn't seem in any great hurry, though, taking his time in getting to the party. Kerry nods. "I take it you found a swanmay too?"

Vash says, "Something like that, yes."

Kerry skrees, "So now we wait until dark, and then we wait until midnight. Moonrise should be at dusk."

Vash nods, crossing to where the grass gives way to the sand, and sits down on the greenery, digging his heels into the sand. "Then we wait."

Douglas nods, quietly. "'Watch for swans at midnight'..." he muses.

Sakura nods at Kerry... "And just hope that this works out..."

Kerry amuses himself through the afternoon by catching grasshoppers -- the wings make good bug nets -- and he has quite a collection by the time dinner rolls around. Douglas simply watches Kerry with an odd expression on his face. "I take it," he says dryly, "-that this is part of crashed-pilot survival training, standard for the Aerospace Force..."

Kerry grins. "Yep. And they're tasty, too. Never could figure out why the human pilots thought it was gross." Sakura looks like she actually might agree with the human pilots, judging by the expression on her face. In deference to the outraged comments, though, Kerry cooks dinner for everyone else before roasting his grasshoppers.

Vash just sits quietly on the shoreline, eyes closed, soaking up the sunlight. He considers removing his shirt; the weather's just perfect, but decides against it, having already given his crew a horror show once today. He leans back a bit, facing the sun, eyes closed. Fluorescent lighting... hah!

Douglas deadpans, with a faint... greenish?... tinge to him (or maybe he just sounds like he's green), "I can't imagine why..." Though if Pilot starts talking about 'crunchy on the outside, chewy on the inside,' he'll very likely loose whatever dinner he eats. He looks at the repast Kerry cooks. Do I eat now, before he does, and risk loosing it? Or do I wait and risk loosing my appetite...? Well, since you don't know when you'll next eat... He shrugs slightly, and begins to nibble on his portion. Sakura eats her dinner quietly, doing her best not to pay attention to what certain other crew members may or may not be crunching on over in the corner...

The sun sets, with a bright yellow and orange sunset, to the tune of thousands of crickets and hundreds of frogs around the lake's edge. Douglas catnaps (of course he doesn't think that) if he can, before night falls -- the old instincts seem pleasantly easy to satisfy -- but awakens when dusk comes. He blinks his eyes and stretches. "Should the rest of you take naps before midnight...? To be well-rested?"

Vash says, "Kerry and I are nocturnal by nature. We'll be fine. Can't speak for the Doctor, though...?"

Sakura says, "I wouldn't mind taking a short nap, if it's alright, Sir."

Vash says, "Of course it is. Have a good rest."

Sakura curls up into her bedroll and tries to get a little sleep. "Thanks, Sir..."

Vash nods. "We'll wake you when the time comes."

The night is calm and quiet, the moon making her silent way across the sky. There are a lot of stars visible, and the quiet sounds of the forest at night and of water from the lake are unbroken by strife or discord. Midnight approaches without incident. Vash crosses to Douglas and touches his shoulder. "It's nearly time. Someone should wake Sakura."

Douglas looks up to Vash and nods, standing. He moves quietly over to Sakura's bedroll, looking out into the shadowy night, gently touching where he thinks -- as an afterthought, make that hopes -- her shoulder is. "Doctor," he says quietly. "Wake up, please. It's time."

Kerry stretches his wings and glides back to the ground from the perch he'd been resting on. "Showtime."

Sakura yawns hugely, pink tongue curling up, then blushes and covers her mouth. "Thanks, Douglas-san."

Douglas smiles quietly, and nods. "No problem at all, Doctor." He stands, looking again into the shadows, not really expecting any trouble this close to Swan Lake.

As the moon reaches its zenith, a quiet rustling sounds and there is the flutter of many powerful wings. A dozen or so swans fly into view from one side of the lake, and land in the water, swimming carefully towards the group on the shore. Douglas blinks, straightening slightly. "We're about to have guests, lady and gentlemen. Sakura gets out of her bedroll and joins the other to watch...

Vash blinks. "Well... that's a change of pace."

As the swans glide silently through the water, four of them drop back, then dive below the surface. They reappear a moment later, slightly behind the rest of the flock. The other swans flow to a stop, a stone's throw from shore, but the four who dove come right into the shallows. Then, lost in the sparkle of moonlight on the water, there are four maidens standing in the shallow water, with cloaks of feathers draped over them. Sakura bows very formally to the swanmays... Kerry sweeps his formal bow to the swanmays. "Hail and well met, miladies."

Vash smiles a bit. He nods. "Buenas noches." Douglas swallows slightly, and bows, half in awe, half in startled surprise.

Each of the four women beckons to one of the crew, and holds out her right hand, offering something small and black. Sakura walks tentatively towards the Swanmay that she met and smiles. Kerry steps forward, holding his claw-hand out to receive the pebble from his previous acquaintance. "Thank you. Are you sure there is no small service we may do for you in return?" Douglas blinks in surprise. The pebble! Oh, my...

The swanmay who Kerry met hands him his pebble, and murmurs softly, "No; just leave us in peace."

Vash walks forward, and smiles broadly to the swanmay that he'd met before. He holds out his hand, fingers held so as not to point his claws at the maiden. "We're glad to see you again."

Vash is handed a pebble, and told, "I am glad such a simple thing pleased you." She then says, "Goodbye."

Vash nods. "Adios. And thank you."

Sakura takes hers carefully and smiles again at the Swanmay, "Thank you so much... This is a gift that I cannot thank you enough for..."

The swanmay who hands Sakura her pebble is a little less timid than the others, and says, "Your gift of our freedom is more than any of us could have expected, either. Fare well."

Douglas steps forward, not trying to be quick, and accepts the pebble gingerly, still unable to keep from being awed. "Th-thank you," he stammers softly. The swanmay in front of Douglas is a bit awed by the huge feline, but gathers her pluck about her and gives him his pebble also. She doesn't say anything, backing away shyly. Douglas blinks, then smiles to the swanmay before him, careful not to show any teeth.

Kerry takes the pebble and tucks it into his tunic next to the feather. "Then thank you, and fare well." He bows over the swanmay's hand, touching it to his lips if she allows the contact.

After the briefest kiss, the swanmay reclaims her hand, somehow with grace and poise, and says simply, "Goodbye, travelers," and steps back. When she does the other three do as well. The maidens shift their cloaks with a ripple, like the quicksilver light of the moon on the water, then swim away as swans to rejoin the group. The group makes its way silently across the lake, then out of sight.

Kerry watches as the swans swim off. "Lovely creatures. Shall we get some sleep, then, and head back in the morning?" Sakura just stands with her head tilted watching them go and smiling... Douglas blinks, and then looks down at the pebble in his paw. A sudden thought strikes him. Even if we get back home... things are never going to be the same.

Sakura goes back to her bedroll, tucking the pebble carefully away... "Goodnight." Kerry clambers back up into a tree, next to the lake this time, and watches the moonlight on the water for a while before nodding off to sleep. ... gotta do something about this schedule...

Vash doesn't say anything. He just watches the water. After a long while, he sits down on the shore again. "You go ahead. I'm going to sit up, just awhile longer." He sits on the sand, staring out at the water, fingering the little black mote in his hand. More than I'd have asked for, Nano. I was wrong. I haven't wasted my time at all. He lies back on the grass and daydreams. This is what being free is like.

Last modified: 2001-Mar-02 17:01:32

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