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The Rider at Dawn

    The Silver Egg
    Stepping through the tall, wide doorway into the oak tree, you see a very organically shaped room -- elliptical, high-ceilinged, and well lit with strategically placed mirrors and wall-mounted skylights. The tables and seats are all sturdy and wooden, apparently growing from the smooth wooden ground. A fire crackles warmly in a truly huge stone hearth set directly opposite the front door, set into one wooden wall, and warming benches inside the wide, mosaic-tiled fireplace welcome chilly travelers. The walls have a deceptive shimmer to them; the angle at which they're viewed sometimes makes them look to be just wood, other times swirling with decorative, naturalistic patterns. A glossy, wood-topped bar (with a tall door behind it) extends across one narrow side of the ellipse, and a sort of trapdoor lies at the other end of the ellipse. The delicious scent of cooking food drifts lazily through the room.

The crew comes down from the upper branches of the oak tree, having shut the Egg's systems back off again, discussing where to go next. Aykuh comes around from behind the bar and asks, "Did you find your missing shuttle? Do you know who took it?"

Vash takes a deep breath. "Yes and no, Aykuh... we do know where it went... and to a certain extent what they're doing with it."

Kerry skrees, "We talked to it, and we know which way it is. We'd still like to talk to your sisters to see if they noticed who stole it."

Douglas nods quietly and softly. "It would help, greatly," he says, "-if we can talk to your sisters at the clearing we were first in."

The dryad nods, "I've been able to tell them we're coming, although they haven't said much else yet." She adds, "I'm looking forward to seeing them again."

Vash smiles tiredly. "Good, then. Glad to give you an excuse to go." Sakura smiles a little. Douglas grins quietly.

Aykuh asks, "Will we leave tomorrow, or have you other things to do before we go?"

Kerry skrees, "I assume Hotspur will come along with you?"

Sakura shakes her head a little at Aykuh, "We're at your convenience, Aykuh-sama."

The dryad says, "I haven't asked him. Do you think he'd like to?" and looks over her shoulder at where the minotaur often works. It's daytime, so he's not about at the moment.

Vash says, "Well, he's usually in your company... if he'd like to come with you, we'd be glad to take him along."

Kerry grins. "I'm sure he'd like to come along with you. Zil can watch the place while you're gone."

The dryad smiles at Sakura, and says, "I want to make sure there's staff scheduled here at the inn, and that we'll have enough supplies for you folks. I think tomorrow early would be a good time to leave." She looks at Vash and says, "I'll ask him if he'd like to. If he would, I'd be happy to have him along."

Vash nods. "We'll wait to hear from him, then." He turns to the crew, "If there's anything anyone needs to do before we get underway, I think now would be a good time to do it; we're headed out early, and we're gonna need to rest tonight."

Sakura says, "Uh... Vash-san, sir? M-may I ask Larrikan to come along?"

Vash smiles a little, "Of course. He's already stated his willingness to come along with us."

Sakura smiles and ducks her muzzle, blushing. "Thank you, Vash-san." Kerry chirrips in the background. To come along with Sakura, I'll bet...

Douglas coughs slightly. "Ah... I would like to ask Annifred as well, if I may, Captain?"

Vash says, "Certainly, Douglas." He rolls his shoulders a bit. Can't hurt. If nothing else, Annifred's got to be a terror in a fight. No need to make that opinion public, though...

Douglas grins softly, "Thank you, Captain..."

    The University
    The University campus is a sprawling place, with tree-buildings similar to the Silver Egg standing serenely around a central courtyard. Outside the ring of trees are a number of buildings with sod growing on the roofs, most of which are set somewhat down in the earth, rather looking like they're snuggled comfortably in to place around the trees. Many of them are obviously large enough to be lecture halls. A path winds around the outside of them and into the central clearing between them in crooked spokes. More trees and the low building spread out past that, in no really discernable pattern.

It is well into the afternoon by the time Vash gets back to the University campus. He has no trouble finding the classroom that Blue was in before. He looks around, scanning the various young faces milling through the green space in the middle of campus. Finally he wanders off and finds a sunny spot not already occupied by students and sits, waiting for the period to end. Not a bad way to spend the time... wish my school were this nice. I might've stayed on longer.

It's not too long before the art class ends and students come bursting from the classroom. Blue comes out near the end of the herd, having had to pack her art supplies back in to her cavernous bag. She is talking with another girl as they walk. Vash sits up, stretching, and watches Blue and her friend coming out onto the green. He waves as they pass near enough, and stands, dusting himself off. Blue smiles and waves back, saying something to her friend and walking over to Vash. Her friend pauses, apparently considering, before coming over as well. Vash grins a little and nods to Blue's friend, closing the distance toward them. Heh. I'm not that intimidating... am I? He smiles brightly. "Would you care for an escort home, senyora?"

Blue smiles and says, "Yes, that would be nice." Her friend says, "Okay, Blue. I'll see you tomorrow before class?" Blue nods to the girl, "Sure, Marie!" Her friend says, "Have fun," and heads off towards the student union.

Vash smiles a bit. "I think your friend's not totally comfortable with me."

Blue glances back at her friend, and then looks at Vash and says, "Oh. I don't know. Maybe. I just assumed she was hungry; she's always ravenous after that class." She shrugs a little.

Vash nods. "Long lecture?"

"Lecture, and often drawing with the instructor and an assistant to critique and offer suggestions right at hand," Blue says. "It can be a long class, but it's usually very rewarding."

Vash ahs and nods, matching stride with Blue. "How did it go today?"

Blue smiles, "It was okay for me. We've been studying hands." She reaches out and takes his, picking it up and looking at it, saying, "They're really amazing."

Vash smiles a little. "Don't know what I'd do without 'em." He opens his fingers for her.

Blue laughs cheerfully and says, "That's true too."

Vash grins. "You don't mind the claws?"

Blue looks up at Vash and says, "Why would I? Do you mind that I haven't got any?"

Vash blinks, and looks down at his hand a moment. "You know, I never thought of it like that. No, of course I don't mind. I never really thought about it."

Blue smiles, then says, "So of course I don't mind that you do. Who you are is much more important than if you have claws or no anyway."

Vash nods softly. "I wish more people back home thought that way. On the other hand, if they did I might not appreciate the feeling quite so much."

Blue says, "People from your world aren't as nice as you are?" She sounds a little disappointed as she adds, "That's too bad."

Vash smiles a bit. "On my world they don't treat people like me or my crew very well. But it's because we weren't born there, like here... the first of us were made. Made to fight a war for them. We're mainly free now... but not everywhere. Places like where Zildjian's from... there are some bad people down there."

Blue listens and ponders for a moment or three, perhaps considering how people might be made. She finally says, "That's too bad. I guess there are unpleasant places everywhere." She seems to be unsure how to say something... she finally just doesn't say it.

Vash tilts his head a little. "Blue? Is something wrong? I didn't mean to upset you with that."

Blue says, "Oh, no! Not at all. It's just hard to see how someone as nice as you are would be disliked." She adds rather firmly, "And anyone who would leave such a thoughtful gift is nice."

Vash ahs and grins a bit, reflexively reaching up to scratch the back of his head plates. "Oh... well. I'm glad you liked it." Did he blush just now? No, no of course not.

Blue says, "It's very nice. Thank you." She turns and stops the armadillo, leaning up to give him a little kiss on the cheek.

Vash blinks. He murmurs, "Oh," and smiles gently. "You're welcome."

Blue smiles, and resumes walking, asking, "So, what are you and your friends up to next?"

Vash ahs, and takes a breath. "That. Well... it seems we've found our ship. Or at least the direction it's gone in. We're going to go on back to the clearing we came down in... Aykuh seems to want to talk to her relatives, and is going to talk to the dryads around there. Maybe they saw something."

Nodding, Blue says, "That's a good idea. Maybe they'll know who took your ship, as well as where it went."

Vash says, "I'd like to think so. I hope so. I feel responsible for this mess... I'm the Captain, it's my ship they've ripped off. And people seem to think just its being here could hurt Crossroads. So of course it falls into the hands of someone with malicious intentions."

Blue nods, then says, "I'm sure you're doing the right thing." She asks, "When you have it back, what will you do next?"

Vash mms. "That," he sighs, "-is a good question. Our mission was to establish trade with you... with Crossroads. We represent a Company back home. A big corporation. But, after being here... I don't know. I'm not sure that people from my world wouldn't have a bad influence on Crossroads. I don't know if I could bear the idea of being responsible for bringing things like the collars to Crossroads. And beyond that, I think that some of my crew isn't planning to go home at all."

Blue nods at Vash's words, then says, "Do you think they'll really stay? Would you?"

Vash smiles broadly. "I think they will. I've spent a lot of time with these people and they've... changed since they came here. They seem happy. Like they belong. Kerry might go home... but he's a flyer by nature. The ship's his home. As for me, well..." He turns to study Blue's face. "What do you think I should do?"

Blue says, "I think you should be happy too," and doesn't try to answer the harder question.

Vash nods and smiles just a little. "I'm glad. I think that's what I'll do, too." Blue nods, and walks through the sunny afternoon with the armadillo, quiet and content. Vash lets it rest awhile, and just walks on alongside in silence, enjoying the company and the sun. He doesn't know how many more opportunities he'll get.

Eventually Blue says, "We're almost back to my house." She sounds a little wistful about this.

Vash straightens up a bit, coming out of his reverie. "Hm? Ah... yeah. So we are." He looks up, trying to gauge the time by the sun and wishing he knew how to calibrate his watch here. "Blue? It looks like Larrikan has signed on in the long term with us... I don't think there's any separating him from Sakura at this point. And Douglas has asked Annifred to come along too. You're welcome to come out with us to the clearing tomorrow, if you like."

"That would be fun," she replies. "A couple of days out in the forest is always nice. When will we leave?"

Vash says, "Early tomorrow morning. It's a fair distance, so we're going to leave early so we can get there in time to let Aykuh talk to her relatives before dark. We'll be meeting up at the Egg."

Blue nods, "That's no problem at all. I'll be happy to come with you." She smiles, "Maybe I'll be able to draw everybody some more!" and looks truly excited at the idea.

Vash grins. "Sure. I don't think they'll mind."

Blue smiles happily, and continues to walk with Vash. As they come around the bend to her home she says, "Thank you for seeing me home, Vash."

Vash grins lopsidedly. "It was my pleasure." He offers her a theatrical little bow. "By your leave, senyora."

Blue giggles, and sneaks in another little peck on Vash's cheek, then says, "I'll see you tomorrow, Vash!"

Vash nods, "I'll see you then, Blue. Take care." Blue waves, and vanishes smiling in to her home, probably to pack. Vash turns and heads back up the path, hands in his pockets. Sure as the sun will rise, he thinks, and disappears around the bend. I'll be here.

The afternoon passes quickly, with various members of the crew making it a point to talk to other locals about different things. Night settles and ends uneventfully, and it is only shortly after dawn when the crew gathers again at the Silver Egg. Douglas and Annifred are the last to make it, completing the crew, and Blue, Larrikan, Hotspur, and Aykuh of the locals.

Aykuh says, "Are we all finally here? Everybody ready?" and smiles brightly at everyone. Who would have thought a tree would be a morning person?

Sakura smiles at Aykuh, still looking a little sleepy, but not at all grumpy about it. "Good morning!" She gets her bag settled more comfortably on her shoulders. She's wearing the dress that Larrikan gave her and actually seems to be looking forward to this trip. Vash yawns softly, covering his mouth with his hand. He fidgets blearily with the zipper on his jumpsuit. Kerry tried to sleep the night before, but he's not looking forward to the first day on the trail. Morning people, ###! DAY people, forsooth!

Annifred waves with her free hand, her other holding Douglas's, her tail curled idly about his wrist, and she says, "Ja, we ready!" She seems, if anything, perkier than usual.

Douglas seems perfectly comfortable and at ease with Annifred, holding her hand as they come up to the group. He nods. "We're ready, yes, I think..."

With Aykuh leading the way, the crew walks back towards the now-empty clearing where the shuttle was last seen. The morning starts off cool and pleasant, and Larrikan walks along with Sakura. It is not long before he is unable to contain his own energy, and he brings out a little recorder and begins to play cheerful music. Vash yawns again, pushing up his shades against the morning sun. He leaves his jumpsuit unzipped to the waist, hands in his pockets, and moves along unhurriedly. He glances to the artist at his side every now and again, just to make sure she's doing all right.

Annifred smiles at the fox's music, and dances and skips along cheerfully, usually managing to keep a hand or tail on Douglas. Aykuh laughs at the troll, and smiles happily, and even Hotspur kind of relaxes into the music, although he doesn't actually dance. Sakura smiles and brightens her step a little with Larrikan's music. She certainly enjoys listening to him play... Kerry too relaxes with Larrikan's music in spite of himself. He's not really designed for long walks, but the fox is somehow infectiously cheerful. Blue watches for a few minutes, and then also begins to skip and twirl happily to the music. She takes Vash's hand and says, "Dance with me?"

Vash blinks, and actually misses a step in mid-stride. "Ah..." He realizes shortly after his mouth starts to dry that he should close his mouth, "...alright."

Douglas walks along with Annifred, relaxing with the music. Despite the severity and import of their mission, he finds himself enjoying the music, the sun, the air, the overall atmosphere... again. It's simply so very comfortable and enjoyable, trying to keep up with Annifred. He laughs at Blue's request from Vash, and the Captain's reaction. Blue smiles happily at Vash and tugs him gently around in a kind of leaderless dance. Any real dancing is difficult while walking, but good progress seems to be made, regardless. Even if it's not, nobody minds. Vash tries his best to keep up with Blue, holding her hand gingerly and turning in slow circles. "I'm really not very good at this," he murmurs apologetically, but keeps going nonetheless.

The morning passes to afternoon, and Aykuh notes a good place for a pause, and asks, "Does anyone want to stop for lunch here?"

Sakura nods, "This would be a perfect place to stop and have something to eat..."

Kerry grins. "Looks like a good place, yes. Are those grasshoppers?"

Larrikan stops playing and says, "That's probably a good idea, yes." He puts his instrument away, and moves off the trail in to the clearing that Aykuh pointed out for a stop. Setting his pack down and stretching in the sunbeam he adds, "A good place."

Hotspur says, "Yes, Kerry," and rolls his eyes at the bat. Even as he tells the bat of other food, he opens his huge pack and begins to hand out sandwiches made back at the Egg. Blue watches everyone settle, and then scampers off to the top of a big rock, sitting down to sketch everyone. Sakura sets her pack down next to Larrikan's and sits down on the grass...

Vash slips his pack off his shoulders and stretches a bit. He cricks his neck softly. "Looks good to me." He wanders toward the base of the rock and sits down in the sun, dropping his pack alongside him. Kerry grins at Hotspur, and is quite happy to sit down and eat a sandwich. After walking all morning, he's not really in the mood to chase grasshoppers. Annifred grins widely at the suggestion, and lets people sort themselves out. She takes off her pack, and collects a couple of the sandwiches from Hotspur, then settling to the ground and leaning against her pack -- and trying to collect Douglas.

Vash lies back on the grass, folding his arms behind his head. He hums to himself a snatch of an old song whose words he can't quite remember, something about fighting and Christmastime. Larrikan also is happy to offer share a sandwich with Sakura. He's as happy to sit and doze in the sunbeam with her, too. Aykuh doesn't eat anything, but she does drink a little water, and lies happily in the sun. Hotspur lingers nearby, although he doesn't bother the dryad. It's not long before everyone is finished and the minotaur says, "Perhaps we should leave? Or we won't make it today."

Kerry sighs and gets back up. "I think you're right. Gentlemen, ladies?" Sakura gets up gracefully and hefts her pack onto her back... the suggestion overcomes the lethargy of food and a sunbeam or two, and it's not long before the crew is on the trail again. Larrikan doesn't play this time, deciding to walk along holding Sakura's hand this time.

Not too long into the second part of the walk, Hotspur asks Kerry, "This walking isn't too easy on you, is it? I could carry you, if you liked."

Kerry looks up at Hotspur, pride warring with discomfort, and discomfort finally winning. "You sure it wouldn't be too much trouble?"

Blue ooohs interestedly, "May I draw the two of you together, Hotspur and Kerry?"

Kerry chuckles. "I don't mind. Hotspur?"

Hotspur says, "Shouldn't be any trouble." He stops and carefully picks the bat up, setting him on his shoulder, adding, "You hardly weight anything at all." He chuckles at Blue and agrees. Vash grins a little and shoves his hands in his pockets, watching from the other side of Blue. Douglas, after thoroughly enjoying the break in their march with Annifred, can't help but grin widely at the image before them, of Kerry being carried by the large minotaur. This is most assuredly something I wish Captain would let me include in the final report!

Kerry grins. "Hollow bones, and most of the apparent mass is just wing membranes." He sighs then. "We're designed for flight, but we're just a bit too big to pull it off when we grow up."

Blue does her best to sketch while walking backwards, looking up, then down at her sketchpad repeatedly... it's not the almost tripping several times that gets her to stop so much as the almost driving her pencil into the paper -- that is unacceptable. She sighs, putting her equipment away, then asks hopefully, "Maybe when we get to the clearing you two could pose a little? Like, um... maybe spread your wings a little? That would look very different!"

Vash laughs quietly. "Different. Yes." Blue beams happily up at Vash, uncertain as to whether he approves or not... but not worrying since he's smiling.

The rest of the walk is uneventful, if a little warmer. It is late afternoon when the party finally arrives at the fateful clearing where the Alshain was last seen. Douglas looks around and for one mad moment finds himself thinking, Yep, it's still gone... Vash grins a bit, signaling his approval... then looks out to the wide grassy expanse where the shuttle used to be. He takes a breath. "Well... there it was." Kerry grins and spreads his wings out a bit, but fortunately remembers in the nick of time not to do a bad Transylvanian accent. No, Count Vlad Tepes Drakul might be a real vampire here. Blue brightens immediately at Kerry's action, looking around frantically for a rock or stone or something, then scrambling up onto it, whipping out her pad and pencil, and sketching madly!

Aykuh makes sure she knows where the group will be camping, off at one end of the clearing by the stream, then says, "All right. I'll go see if any of my sisters saw anything." She walks off towards one of the trees, then turns and looks back, adding, "It'll be take a while."

Vash says, "Take your time, Aykuh... we're certainly not going anywhere."

Douglas nods, "Thank you Aykuh. We don't mind waiting."

The dryad smiles, winks at Hotspur, which leaves him speechless and nearly blushing, and then walks into one of the trees closest to the clearing, vanishing in to it. Blue grins delightedly at her sketchpad, hastily doing a study of the face of a blushing minotaur with batwings!

Sakura wanders around the clearing a little, looking up, looking down, and looking around for the signs. Once Blue is done with her preliminary sketchings, Kerry hops off the obliging minotaur's shoulder and goes to look at the tracks, pointing out to Vash where they were the last time he was here. Larrikan thinks the tracks are obvious, though to the outlanders the marks are fading almost past recognition. Kawaii yawns hugely, then finds a sun-warmed patch of grass, where he flops over and is soon snoring gently... he's been trotting busily all morning. Sakura giggles at Kawaii.

Vash wanders toward the streambed, but doesn't get too close. He can't track the markings, and he doesn't want to obscure them any more than they are already. Hotspur begins to set up a camp. Annifred manages to let Douglas alone long enough to help with it. The two large folks are able to unpack what needs to be unpacked fairly quickly. Once that's done, though, there's not much to do but sit and wait. Vash looks around, and sets his pack down, finding himself a bit keyed up with nothing to do. "Normally I'd suggest building a fire about now. Of course, given that we're trying to speak to the dryads... I don't know how good an idea that is."

It doesn't take Annifred long to go over to Douglas, and say, "Hey, Douglas. We go over there and have some fun, ja?" She points off to a vaguely secluded section of forest nearby. Kerry carefully does not look in Doug's direction when he hears Annifred's comment. It's all he can do to keep from laughing out loud.

Douglas nods slowly, as he lowers himself to the ground following setting up the camp. "That might be... contraindicated, Captain." He blinks up to Annifred, and his ears all but leap off his head in their quickness to perk. "Ahhh... errrr... ahhhh..." His voicebox seems to be stuck in 'neutral.'

The troll grins a huge, toothy grin, and says, "That a ja, ja?" and stands, towing Doug off by one hand.

Hotspur says, "A fire would be fine, if it's far enough in to the clearing, and if we're careful only to use brush and deadfall." He stands and adds, "We'll want one for dinner and tonight." He looks at the cougar and troll, decides he doesn't want to risk getting bitten for interrupting, and then at Sakura and Larrikan who have not yet gotten so close as to be attached to each other. He asks the foxes, "Shall we go see if we can find some wood?"

Sakura smiles at Hotspur, "I'd be pleased to help."

Larrikan glances at Annifred and Douglas, and then at Sakura wistfully, before he says, "Of course, Hotspur."

Blue smiles shyly at Vash. He smiles inquisitively back at Blue, "Hmm?"

Blue's smile gets a bit uncertain, "Ah, umm... w-would you uh..." She looks around a little nervously... then glances at Vash and hesitantly pats the rock next to her. Vash ohs and nods, climbing up onto the rock next to Blue and settling back on his palms. Blue sighs happily, smiling as she watches the others. Casually, if Vash doesn't seem to mind, she'll let herself lean a little against his shoulder. Quite the contrary, he gently curls his arm around her waist. Blue is very still for a moment as Vash puts his arm around her. She looks down, cautiously and curiously tracing his long-clawed fingers with her own... then she glances sideways up at Vash, smiling faintly as she closes her fingers carefully around his. Vash smiles softly, and very gently kisses her cheek. Beyond that, he can't think of anything worth saying. Blue blushes a bit, and seems quite intent on staring at her hand intertwined with his for a while.

Douglas is hardly resisting, but he does manage to put his voice in gear again. "Erp... isn't there... I mean, shouldn't we help set up... camp, that is...?"

Annifred gives Douglas a funny look, "You not want fun?" and pauses, letting the feline really answer this time. She adds, "Camp all set. We come back before dark, so they not worry about us."

Douglas blinks. "Nono, that's not what I meant at all...! I mean..." He blinks again, glancing back at the set camp. "Ah. Back before dark, so we aren't worried about. Impeccable logic..." After that, he makes absolutely no show or form or resistance. Annifred grins, waves cheerfully, and hauls Douglas off for some fun. Sakura goes off into the woods with Hotspur and Larrikan to hunt for wood for the cookfire... Kerry is much more rested after riding on the minotaur, and indulges himself by catching grasshoppers for a midnight snack.

The afternoon ends, and evening begins. Kerry is apparently oblivious to the rest of the party the rest of the afternoon, grass-surfing to the amusement of Blue and Vash while amassing a collection of tasty bugs. Hotspur returns with some brush and a big dead branch, which he casually breaks up into pieces and uses to build a fire. Douglas and Annifred's disappearance doesn't seem to bother him in the slightest -- if anything he's relieved he won't have to fend off an amorous troll -- and it doesn't surprise him that Sakura and Larrikan show up only as full dark nears. They are carrying wood, and there's no worry that Larrikan would do anything to upset the dryads.

By the time Hotspur returns, Blue's relaxed a bit, and if Vash doesn't seem to mind she'll be lying with her head in Vash's lap. She's giggling softly, playing with his fingers, measuring them against her own, and gently folding and unfolding them with hers... the differences and similarities of the two of them seem to fascinate and delight her. It is only at this point that Aykuh comes out of the tree, and back to the party, saying, "She remembers a big noisy thing, and she turned her back on it and ignored it. She didn't notice when it left, but she's glad it's gone."

Kerry looks simultaneously guilty and insulted. He mutters under his breath, "It was only noisy for a few minutes..."

Vash grins a little and just watches the bat gliding down over the field, gingerly stroking Blue's cheek with the backs of his fingers, claws carefully turned away. He's quiet for awhile, absorbing the dryad's report. "I thought it might be something like that," he murmurs.

Douglas adjusts his collar. "Well... I imagine that should hardly be a surprise to us..."

Kerry sighs. "Ah, well. No surprise, I suppose, but I'd hoped she'd seen how it was taken. Thank her for us, anyway."

Aykuh says, "I'll ask another, and see if she was watching." She trots off towards a farther tree, turning to call back, "Don't wait up!"

Vash looks down at the pretty young artist in his lap. I can do that. Douglas nods, "Thank you, Aykuh. And please, thank the other dryads for us...?"

Vash says, "Yes, and take your time... we know you've wanted to speak to them."

Night settles in, with Hotspur keeping the fire lit a little. People settle in to whatever comfortable groups they like, and a sky full of stars comes out overhead. Vash stays with Blue on the rock for a long time after the sun comes down, the surface still retaining heat after the stars appear. He shifts a little on the rock, letting her lean back against him, his arms curled around her midsection. He rests his cheek against hers and hums a soft tune, watching the progress of constellations he doesn't know the names for. Blue eventually moves to the ground and shares dinner with the armadillo. When the night gets a little cooler she moves off to a bedroll of her own. Before she goes to bed, though, she gives Vash a hug and a careful kiss on the cheek, and murmurs, "Goodnight, Vash." to him.

Vash smiles a little. "Sleep well." He watches her go, but doesn't make any move after. He lies back on his bedroll and stares up at the sky until he manages to sleep himself. Kerry stays up late, watching the stars from a perch in a dryad tree. He apologized for the big noisy thing first. When it's his turn to keep watch, he roasts his grasshoppers and munches on them.

The morning comes as mornings often do, dawn lighting the sky silently and inexorably, the night having left a light misting of dew across everything. The sky is just turning pink when Vash, Douglas, Sakura, and Kerry each wake up abruptly, with the faint sense of having just had the weirdest dream... something with a motorcycle in it? Douglas blinks, slowly coming to his senses, then yawns hugely and quietly, giving a bit of a buzzing purr as he does so. Vash opens one eye, carefully taking stock of his surroundings before he sits up. Old habits die hard. Sitting up slowly, he doesn't think anything looks different... Kerry frowns, and before getting down from his perch in the tree stares intently into the woods with both ultrasound and sight.

Douglas rubs his head, blinking woozily. "Urf... what a dream... I... think...?" He sits up sharply then, looking around intently, his ears visibly arching about, alert for any sound. His pupils dilate slightly, and perhaps the faintest shiver of nervousness thrills through his body.

Vash rubs his eyes, then sits up very straight, suddenly remembering something. He whips around to look behind him, one hand reflexively going for his gun... then realizes there's nothing there. He blinks a few times and sighs, sitting back down. No... damn. Getting twitchy. Then he suddenly goes deadly silent and freezes. "Everyone down," he says quietly. "We have company."

Douglas blinks to Vash, but doesn't need a second hint after thinking he's been woken up by the rumble of a motorcycle. He drops flat against the ground, pulling Annifred down as well if she's up, or trying to quietly wake her, whispering urgently to her that she do the same. Kerry mutters to himself, the Keero language being rendered as high-pitched skreeks and twitters by the overwhelmed translator. He glides to the ground and strips the anklet off before speaking. "Vash, Douglas, Sakura... don't look now, but I think we've got seriously nasty company. Something that may very well be one -- though only one -- of the Hunt. Bearing directly behind me. It images as a leather-clad biker with an old-style motorcycle."

Vash keeps his voice soft and nearly without inflection. "You're late." He's watching the figure on the far side of the clearing, unblinking. Damn. Dead already. And just when it was getting good. Douglas mutters a soft curse, but otherwise keeps quiet. Maybe we shouldn't be looking at her... that might be extremely bad...

The dawn brightens, but it remains eerily quiet, the normal song of birds absent. The natives in the party all remain asleep, apparently blissfully so and unaware. In the growing light it becomes possible to see that the watcher is a large, strong woman, wearing leather leggings, jacket, and gloves, in modern style. Parked behind her is a huge black-and-chrome motorcycle. Her expression and thoughts are hidden by the full-face helmet with smoked visor that she is wearing.

Kerry skrees, "Remember what Cat and Schnell said. One of them can't do more than watch. Shall we try to talk to it?" Vash slowly gets to his feet and stands, facing the figure. But just stands. Now what do I do. Nanno, some advice... forces of nature are not in my repertoire. He takes one step toward her, then another, and pauses again.

The woman in black shifts a little, then reaches up and slides the visor of the crash helmet open. She looks out at the party with eerily still eyes, an icy blue. Douglas murmurs, "That might be an exceedingly bad thing to do, Kerry..." Then he notices the movement beside him and looks over. He nods once. We're doomed. "Then again, that answers that question." He slowly sits up, holding himself ready just in case. He glances down worriedly to Annifred. Vash secretly thanks whomever applicable for keeping the natives asleep... panic in this situation would be an unwelcome complication. He nods once to the figure.

Kerry slips the translator back on and turns to walk out with Vash. He's not taking any chances, though. His eyes are closed, his ultrasound providing the images he is working with. "What do you want?"

The biker watches, unmoving. No breeze stirs the party, and even the creek's burbling seems subdued.

Vash takes a few more steps toward the biker and raises his voice just enough to be heard through the helmet. "Senyora. What can I do for you?" He has a brief moment of internal panic as he feels the impulse to say, 'Nice hog,' and has to suppress a smile. He keeps his face impassive however.

The woman reaches up slowly with one black-gloved hand. She unsnaps the helmet's strap, then pulls the helmet off, long blonde hair falling out of the back of it. She gives Vash a long, penetrating stare, then says softly, "We are depending on you."

Vash nods, "Yes? What is it you need from us?" Kerry was not expecting that. He opens his eyes again, taking in the Huntswoman's (?) attire. He waits for her answer, suddenly suspecting what it might be. Bozhemoi. Kiska, where are you when I really need you? Douglas half shakes his head. This is too surreal. We're facing down a force of nature in the form of Hell's Angels, and... He blinks. What...? Oh dear heavens...! Douglas's mind races. I think... that they want us to keep Drekaris from replacing magic with machinery and mechanism... because they depend upon it as well... could that be right? Then why would they be working for him... unless they had no choice...? He keeps his mouth shut tightly, watching Vash and the Huntress closely and still worriedly.

There is a long pause where the woman stands, still unmoving, before she says to the armadillo, "For your silver bird, find the horn." For the first time, she blinks and then, smoothly and with the appearance of long practice, puts the helmet back on, tucking her hair into it. Turing her back on the crew, she walks to the motorcycle, straddles it, flicks up the kick stand, and kicks its engine to life. With the unmistakable roar of an unmuffled gasoline engine, and a cloud of blue smoke, responding to the rider's twist on the accelerator, the bike moves smoothly forward and across the clearing, vanishing from sight and sound as it goes.

The tang of gasoline lingers in the air for a moment, then fades to nothingness... either from the breeze, or some other cause... and is gone. Only a heartbeat after it finally clears do the normal sounds of morning begin, birds chirping and a deep yawn from Annifred. Vash watches the rider go, turning only his head. "I understand," he says quietly to himself. After a long moment he turns back to the others. "What say we don't tell the natives about this."

Douglas stands slowly, watching after the rider's departure. "Did we survive?" he says dully. "What was that all about...?" Sakura whimpers softly from where she's still huddled nervously next to Larrikan... and the fox man stirs, rolling over and yawning, still asleep but starting to awaken. Douglas glances down to Annifred as she starts to awaken, and nods slowly to Vash. "I agree. For the time being, at least..."

Kerry skrees, "I would say... an ally in the enemy camp. They don't want to be under his power. Find the horn..."

Voices and Sakura's movement wakes Larrikan the rest of the way. He stretches and snuggles against Sakura for a moment. Then he opens his eyes and sniffs softly at her, asking, "You smell afraid... did you have a nightmare?" He looks around and sees others awake, and looks curiously at them.

Douglas murmurs, "One heck of a nightmare..."

Kerry skrees, "We had a Visitation."

Vash says, "Quietly, Kerry. I don't want to panic them just yet."

Larrikan looks around, a bit concerned, but nothing seems out of place. No one has woken the two heaviest fighters, and all seems calm. He asks, "What happened?" but isn't sure he wants to know.

Vash says, "Just... another sign, I think, Larrikan."

Kerry skrees, "Let's just say... we seem to be getting involved with all the heavy players in this little drama. Does the phrase 'Find the horn' mean anything to you?"

Douglas's ears suddenly shoot upward, and his eyes almost cross. "Errrk..." he stammers softly. "Good morning, Annifred... hands a bit on the chilly side, I see..." Kerry chirrips, almost doubling over as the tension finally breaks under the sheer mundanity of Douglas' comment. Kawaii sits up, yawning hugely, then shakes his head, his small triangular ears flopping madly about his head. Then he stands, stretching fore and aft, one leg at a time. Finally he trots with business-like briskness towards the stream, casually bouncing up and over Annifred and Doug's legs to get there. He snorts and snuffles noisily in the stream, ignoring the silly bipeds for the moment.

Larrikan repeats, "Find the horn?" and thinks about it, idly stroking Sakura's fur in an attempt to calm her down. He says finally, "Not really, no." Annifred freezes and sits up straight, despite having a warm cougar to play with, and asks, "Find horn?" of Larrikan. Her eyes narrow and she looks at Kerry, who was talking to the fox and is now laughing. She asks Douglas, "What happened? Who say find horn?"

Douglas blinks, and looks to Annifred. "Ahhh..." He glances to Vash. "It... we seemed to... share a dream again... or a nightmare..." He reasons that that is pretty much close to the truth. He was thinking that it had to be a nightmare, after all.

Vash takes a deep breath and wanders away by himself toward the streambed, kneeling to splash some water on his face. He turns a little to the piglet. "Yeah, ninyo. Exactly. We're all out of our minds," and goes back to wiping his face. Kawaii snorts damply at Vash in sympathy... poor bipeds. Vash says again, "Yeah... I know."

Kerry gets himself back under control. "We had a Visitation while you were asleep, Annifred. We were told, 'To find your silver bird, find the horn.'" he walks over to where the Huntswoman was standing and checks the ground for tracks.

The discussion rouses Hotspur who yawns, and seems more concerned with getting the fire lit than much else. Annifred repeats, "Who say find horn?" and pokes Douglas a little.

Douglas looks a bit helplessly towards Vash. "We're... not sure what her name was. In fact, we don't know what her name was, actually...?"

Vash sits down on the bank and shakes his head. "She probably hasn't got one."

Kerry skrees, "Larrikan, could you check for tracks over here?"

Larrikan looks grumpy at having to get out of a warm bedroll with a warmer companion, but figures it would have happened sometime anyway. He climbs out of the bedroll and wanders over to look, in the fur and utterly unconcerned by this. He looks at the ground, then at the bat, saying, "Near here? No tracks of note here."

Douglas lets out a breath. Maybe we should tell them. Zil would kill us, after all, if she thought that we were needlessly endangering their lives by not telling them... and better they find out now before we run into a whole pack of the Hunters... Anifred impatiently tickles Doug, "Who?! Who say?"

Vash says, "Go ahead, Doug."

Kerry shrugs. They'll need to be told sooner or later. "We think she was one of the Hunt. I think they are not happy about their current boss."

Vash says, "Their hand's being forced... it looks like they're hoping for some outside help. That'd be us."

Annifred stops tickling the poor cougar, and stares at Kerry. She says, "Huntswoman talked to you? Said you should have horn?" She looks shocked and incredulous.

Vash digs his heels into the silt on the bank. "She spoke to me. Said to find the horn."

Douglas nods quietly, and looks to Annifred, sighing. "The Wild Hunt," he says finally. "One of them came here, and Vash talked with them -- it -- her. We asked what she wanted, and she said that they were depending upon us. They didn't say why. Then she said, 'For your silver bird, find the horn.' And then she rode off." He looks to Annifred intently. "Do you know what the horn is?"

Kerry skrees, "She was about two meters tall, blonde with icy blue eyes, and dressed in leather with a motorcycle."

Larrikan takes several quick steps back from the tree and says, "There was a member of the Hunt here?"

Vash deadpans, "Right about where you're standing, Larrikan..." Larrikan instantly demonstrates vulpine speed and dexterity, nearly vanishing in his sudden leap straight up and then straight over about ten feet. Kawaii snorts in sudden astonishment, watching!

Vash rubs his eyes blearily. It's becoming harder and harder to be surprised, anymore. Wow. Almost as good as an armadillo. Kerry skrees, "Though she doesn't seem to have left any tracks..."

Annifred says, "Horn is bad! Corrupts whoever uses it, makes evil and wrong." She grips Doug by whatever appendage is closest and hauls him in close, hugging him fiercely and saying, "Not use horn. All nice. Not want see evil."

Douglas blinks in shock, feeling a couple of vertebrate shift. "Ack... erp... won't... use it... promise... does... ack... the horn... control the Hunt...?" Must... breath... GOD has she got a pair of arms!

Kerry skrees, "She didn't say we should use it. She said we should find it. We take it from its current holder, we release the Hunt from his control and get our ship back."

Vash says, "But I bet I know who is using it."

Blue, who has woken up during this, murmurs softly, "Who, Vash?"

Vash says, "Drekaris. It'd explain his sudden acquisitive streak, his grip on the Wilders, and the reason for one of them to come tell us about it." He runs his hands over his head plates. He seems more tired now than last night.

Annifred nods slowly, realizing that blue is not a good color on Douglas, and lets up her hug a bit. She answers his question, "Ja, horn control hunt. Hunt great power, but horn great evil. Trolls used to have horn -- not use, just had, kept hidden." She asks Douglas, "You know older trolls back at clan-home? How they all spiky and hard and stone? Three generations of troll like that because of horn." A moment later she looks over and says to Blue, "I sorry about your people, Blue. Even if fragile, they were nice."

Kerry blinks at Annifred's offhand comment. I wonder what happened? Blue blinks sleepily at Annifred... then slowly goes pale. Vash looks between Annifred and Blue. He lingers on the artist for a moment, then turns back to the stream, figuring now's not a good time. Douglas blinks to Annifred, looking between Blue and Annifred. "Yes, I remember them, I was wondering what had happened... because... because of the horn?" He glances to Blue, and frowns slightly, worriedly. There's obviously more going on than we thought.

Annifred nods, "Because of horn's evil, trolls change. Now it gone, slowly change back. No more of old hard trolls born. If we used horn, we be much worse off, but elders knew that too perilous, and just tried keep it safe and hidden from harm. It stolen some time ago."

Douglas blinks, then deadpans, "I guess we know who stole it, then..."

Kerry nods. "Indeed. Can it be destroyed?"

Vash watches the artist from the corner of his eye, studying her face... he wonders if she's all right. He stands and dusts himself off, moving back toward the group. "Maybe not. Could've just fallen into his hands later. Doesn't matter, really. He's got it now... Annifred, what's the power of the horn? Besides control over the Wild Hunt... it changed your people, what might it do to him?"

Annifred says, "Drekaris? If he use now, why wait so long? But he must have now, if he has your ship." The troll looks over at Kerry, and for the first time looks afraid, answering, "We not want to risk not being able to." Larrikan sits down next to Sakura and listens. This is getting pretty deep and he doesn't know if he belongs as part of it. About the time he really starts to wonder, Sakura takes his hand and he thinks, Well... maybe I do.

Kerry looks concerned. "I meant, would there be adverse consequences if it was destroyed? I'm thinking we could drop it into the sun if we get our ship back. I suppose we could leave it on the moon..."

Douglas reaches over, without needing to think about it, and gently takes Annifred's hand. I've never seen her like this. This is bad... for us! Hotspur has been listening while he gets the fire stirred back up, and he is now trying to arrange food. Breakfast is important, Hunt or no Hunt. "It make him mad," says Annifred. "Greedy, want all money, power from everywhere. Ruthless to get it. Untrustworthy and evil." She looks quite serious, which is unusual for her. Her tail lashes gently.

Douglas says softly, "Or in his case, I suppose, even more so." Great. So now he's greedy, even more powerful, and ornery to boot...

Vash nods. "Will it make his body change? Like the elder trolls?"

Annifred answers, "Don't know. Might change just him. Might change all humans. Might not, might only have been bleed-off of unused power, from have no wielder. Horn very powerful, and very bad. Dangerous to experiment with."

Vash sighs. "So he could be anything. Doesn't matter at this point, I guess... it looks like everyone is counting on us now."

Kerry skrees, "Yep. Mare Moscoviensis for sure. Or maybe on an asteroid somewhere."

Douglas says, "I'm sorry, what was that place you said, Kerry? Mare-whatsis?"

Vash says, "And leave it for someone else to find? I don't think so... dump it in a star somewhere."

Annifred says, "Don't know if moon far enough away, bat. Magic could summon horn back, if known what it is. Best to destroy it, or keep it safe. Even trolls not able keep it safe forever." The troll looks blank at the idea of dumping it in a star somewhere, and merely clings to Douglas.

Vash says, "We'll find a way to destroy it. We may have to... just stealing it may not be an option."

Kerry nods. "Drop it off on the sun then. If it's destroyable, that'll do it. If not... at least it'll be hot enough to kill anyone who tries to call it back."

Douglas gently puts an arm around Annifred, feeling odd that she might even need comfort but unthinkingly willing to provide all he can. "There's no guarantee that something merely physical will destroy it... but it's better than nothing..."

Vash says, "We'll think of something. We don't have a choice at this point."

Annifred nuzzles Douglas a little, saying, "Horn very bad." She looks up and says, determinedly, "Trolls help."

Vash smiles a little. "We know you will."

Hotspur says, "Breakfast will help too," and begins to hand out the hot cereal he's been heating up over the fire.

Vash laughs quietly. "Can't argue with that."

Douglas smiles and nods to Annifred, actually leaning down to gently nuzzle her forehead. He looks up to Hotspur, blinking. "Breakfast? I feel like we've been awake half the day...!"

Kerry snickers. "Sounds like a plan. I've got a few grasshoppers left to put in mine. Much better than raisins."

Last modified: 2001-Apr-08 03:10:10

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