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Into the Deep, Dark Forest

    The dawn has ended, and early morning was consumed by a visit from the rider from the Hunt, and the discussion after that. Aykuh emerges again, after the commotion has died down, and the story is told again, to a quite surprised, and thoughtful dryad. She says, "The dryads I've talked to so far haven't noted much, but I've only had a chance to speak with a few so far."

Douglas nods quietly. "We'll likely get the same, I fear: the dryads ignoring the shuttle because it's loud and noisy."

Kerry skrees, "We can wait a little longer if you wish to try talking to a few more of your sisters, Aykuh. But more than another day I suspect is contra-indicated. Do you think it'll help?"

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

Aykuh smiles and says, "It was only here for just a moment, anyway. Things move slowly in the world of a tree." To Kerry she says, "Probably true. Another day and night, and I will have been able to talk to the sisters closest to the clearing, who are the most likely to have noticed its passing."

Douglas tilts his head to the side. "If it's only one more day and night..."

Kerry skrees, "No more than that. I do not wish to have Her come back with her friends and ask why we are delaying."

Douglas winces, "Good point, Pilot. That might be a bad thing..."

Aukuh says, "Oh, did she seem to be in a hurry? That's not an easy thing to do with dryads." She sighs, and says, "Why ever would a few weeks matter?" and then, "I should get back to it then, shouldn't I?"

The cougar tilts his head to the side. "Is it an effort, Aykuh? If it is, we don't want to pressure you..."

Annifred, who has resumed idly snuggling Douglas, says, "Forgive them, Aykuh. They not used to dryads. If everyone where they from go so fast, think how busy must be." She makes a face. Hotspur adds, "I have three more days' supplies. Don't rush."

Douglas blinks, looking to Annifred. Then he grins softly. "I guess we do tend to give the impression of being always rushed..."

Sakura grins at Annifred, "And this place has slowed us down considerably from our normal pace, Annifred-san."

Kerry chuckles at Sakura. "You'll scare her."

Aykuh stretches and enjoys the sunbeam for a moment, saying, "It sounds terrible to be in such a rush, yes," but doesn't seem bothered by it. It's not long before she says, "I shall go and see what others have to say." She lithely stands and makes her way across the clearing, vanishing into another tree.

"Thank you, Aykuh," Doug calls after the departing dryad.

Kerry grins. "Now that that's settled, what do we do today?"

Annifred gets a big overly toothy and lascivious grin, and says, "I know something..."

Douglas blinks, and glances sideways to Annifred. "Urr...?" Larrikan manages not to smirk at Annifred, and to smile pleasantly at Sakura. Hotspur just gives Annifred a funny look and lies back down in a sunbeam, relaxed. Kawaii bounces off a little ways and begins to root happily in the reeds at the creek's edge. Sakura grins at Larrikan and watches Kawaii from the corner of her eye where she's lounging on the grass.

Kerry winks at Annifred. "Be careful you don't wear him out." He chirrips to himself and returns to a tree. If we're going to spend the day here, I'm going to catch up on my sleep.

Douglas gives Annifred a sheepish grin. "Ah... what would that be?" He tries not to ask Annifred about the horn; there'll be plenty of time later, and besides, the crew can check in the library at the University if they need to. There doesn't seem to be much going on other than waiting -- more to the point, there is no immediate crisis or concern. Therefore he is reasonably comfortable -- if that can be said -- with being dragged off to who-knows-where if Annifred moves.

Annifred is more than happy to maintain her hold on Douglas. Douglas blinks, realizing that Annifred isn't about to move... away from the camp, at least. "Er... ah, perhaps, uhm, we should go off to, ah, someplace a bit, er... secluded...?" Annifred looks a bit startled, and then embarrassed -- she forgot again, didn't she? -- and cheerfully drags the uncomplaining cougar off a little ways into the trees, but mercifully out of sight, sound, and even scent of the rest of the crew.

Larrikan will settle -- at least for the morning -- for admiring Sakura and talking to her, trying to ask her about her family and her world. Sakura seems very happy to talk to Larrikan and answer his questions about her world. She's a little more hesitant on her family, though it's not because she has troubles with them so much as she misses them. Larrikan is quite curious, and offers any sympathy he can, while trying to find out about Sakura's family. He keeps asking about her father's position; is he part of court? -trying to fathom a very different social structure.

Sakura does her best to explain her father's position in the social structure of her world, though it's obviously not particularly easy to translate one social structure to another. Vash settles himself down somewhere near to Blue, and makes quiet conversation with her; leaning back on his palms and talking about nothing in particular.

The morning fades into afternoon, with Kerry napping, Vash and Blue quietly talking, Hotspur lazing in the sun, Kawaii alternating between sniffing out the creek and snoozing near the minotaur. Annifred and Doug eventually make their way back, settling into talk with Vash and Blue. Larrikan and Sakura talk too, Larrikan surprised and having a lot of trouble believing that a beautiful lady like Sakura was raised by human parents. Eventually Hotspur rouses himself again and stirs up the fire, adding more of the dry wood fallen from the trees, and some larger shrubs. Some of the shrubbery is still a little green, and smokes a great deal. Other than avoiding that particular kind, the minotaur ignores the smoke, which wafts away over the clearing.

Douglas's ears perk abruptly, and he half-glances back towards where he and Annifred had... uhm, been earlier. "Uhm... fellows... I think we have company. I heard something move..." Annifred is also looking back into the trees suspiciously. Sakura stiffens and looks in the direction that Douglas is looking...

Vash doesn't move right away, saying quietly to Blue, "Stay down." He slowly turns his torso in that direction, at the same time very smoothly reaching for his gun. Blue looks around and frowns, apparently quite content to do this, looking worriedly up at Vash.

Douglas's head makes a quick motion, as if following something moving opposite the smoke. "Hey...!"

Sakura nods a little, "Something's moving out there... I just saw it... it went that way." She motions vaguely with one hand. Kawaii trots uncertainly over to Hotspur, who is lying in the grass again, waiting for water to boil. Watched pot, you know. He mms? at the piglet. Vash squints into the tree line, adjusting his heavy shades, and rises carefully, taking one step in the direction Douglas waved, his hand still on the grip of the weapon. Damn it, wasn't one visitation enough for today...?

Douglas tries to look for the movement again, his hackles rising. "Someone should wake up Pilot, perhaps...?"

Before the party can identify them, there is a cry from across the clearing, and three humanoid wolves burst from the undergrowth, wearing some sort of kilt, and decorated with bizarre patterns dyed or painted into their fur, and feathers woven onto their sashes. Douglas blinks and leaps to his feet. "Oh, shit!" He seems unsure though, almost clenching his hands but not extending his claws.

Sakura lets out a little sound, something between a 'meep' and a screech as the wolves burst into the camp. "K'so!" Larrikan yips! -a very canine little bark, and turns to move off the other way -- then tugtugs at Sakura and points back the other way.

Vash draws his gun and raises it at the fastest-closing wolf, but doesn't fire. Several thoughts race through his head. I don't even know if this works... moving target, adjust for windage... sancte mierda, I'm being attacked by a Pictish wolf! Kerry finally rouses at the wolven yells, waking disoriented. Night already? No, still bright day. Oh, for the luvva little green bugs, what now? Douglas glances over his shoulder as something tugs at his attention. "Behind us as well!"

Vash's ears prick and he turns quickly on his heel, hearing two more coming up. "Blue, get down!" He keeps the pistol trained in one hand, the other's fingers curled up cruelly. Damn it! No time... Only when she sees the second two emerge from behind them does Annifred begin to look remotely worried, but not enough to stand up or anything. Blue stays right where she was, not wanting to be in anyone's way. Kerry finally wakes up enough to realize what's happening when he hears Doug's warning. He reaches down -- well, up -- to his belt and pulls out his camp knife. One shot. Then I'm grounded.

Sakura looks around her feet for a weapon of some sort. A stray log... or a rock... anything. She doesn't really notice Larrikan pulling at her, as she's more worried about helping the others than saving her skin, though she does smile at him as if to say that it's okay if he goes... Douglas glances at Annifred, about to shout something, then pauses. Why isn't she worried...? Does she know them...? They're not attacking...

The wolves close in a little closer, running with a fast lope over the ground, but not close enough for anyone to charge them. The two rearguard have spears, which they hold threateningly. When the party doesn't break and run, they hesitate and stop advancing, watching warily. Douglas glances between the wolves behind, and the wolves ahead. "Think they plan on attacking?" he asks the others in the group. And what is Hotspur doing?

Hotspur has rolled over on to one side, and is looking out over the tall grass at the hesitating invaders. If anything he seems amused and unhurried. He always seems unhurried though. Vash doesn't take his eyes off the wolves. "Can't say exactly... looks like they expected to flush us. Gonna wait and see, now." Kerry stays quietly in his tree. Hmm... trying to scare us off? I wonder if they've even noticed me yet? Vash calls out, a little irritation creeping in at the edges of his voice, "Hotspur? If you know something, now would be the time to let us know, caballero!"

The apparent leader of the barbaric wolves says, "Give us your supplies, and maybe we let you live." He shuffles a little bit, growling.

At this prompting, and a nudging or seventeen from Kawaii, Hotspur stands up... and up... and up... he's a very large fellow. He folds his arms and looks at the wolves... very far down at the wolves. Kawaii squeeeeeeee!s triumphantly at the wolves as Hotspur rises! -then snorts importantly, trotting around Hotspur and the others organizationally. Vash doesn't seem particularly impressed suddenly. Bandits. Simple goddamned bandits. He straightens up a bit and opens the safety on the gun; they don't know what it does, of course, but it makes a certain satisfying click. "Chingate tu madre." Sakura keeps her medical pack behind her protectively, clutching the rock that she found.

The wolves take a couple of steps backwards when the large bovine man appears, ignoring Vash and the others. Uncertainty flashes between them, until the leader takes a little step forward again. Before his friends can take this encouragement, Hotspur rumbles, "No." They fall back a couple more steps at his firm words. Sakura looks around nervously, hoping the big minotaur is enough to scare them off. Vash takes another step forward to stand abreast with Hotspur. He doesn't say anything; what's the need? Hotspur's words carry more than enough weight for two. Or three...

Annifred stands up, facing the two in the rear, tugging Douglas with her with a big, toothy, trollish grin, saying, "He say no. Why still here?" Douglas starts to calm down slightly. And I didn't have to unsheathe my claws, either. That's a definite plus. But then he shakes off the feeling of relief, and remains awake and alert... and perks his ears as Annifred takes hold of him. He grins to her, and glances back at the wolves behind them. Kerry shifts as quietly as he can to a perch on top of his branch, instead of hanging from underneath. He waits for the moment, watching to see if he's been noticed...

Between the huge minotaur, the manic troll and the large cat, the wolves break off, running away and vanishing into the forest, scattering in different directions. Annifred calls after them, "You not want supplies anymore?" and then starts laughing, obviously enjoying the joke immensely. Hotspur merely sits down, and makes the pot of tea he'd started water boiling for before the interlopers showed up. Douglas blinks to Annifred, and can't help but laugh quietly with her, the tension in him breaking. Kawaii trots over to the edge of the camp, standing firmly, and squeals shrilly after the departing wolves. Then he turns his back and rakes his tiny hind trotters once -- twice! -then snorts again firmly, trotting back into camp with his head high... that showed 'em!

Kerry sticks his camp knife back in its sheath and glides down to the fire. "Not very good bandits, were they?"

Sakura grins at Annifred and then at Hotspur, "Thank you, Hotspur-san..."

Douglas says, "Indeed, thank you... I'm glad that ended calmly. We should be aware of them if they return in the dead of night, though."

Vash stands and watches them go until they disappear past the tree line, then stands a few moments more, listening. He holsters the gun. Good deal. I still don't even know if this thing still works. Maybe I should get a crossbow or something... He says something indecipherable under his breath and sits back down. "Well, that was annoying... you alright, Blue?"

Kerry nods. "Or if they bring back enough friends to be annoying."

Larrikan is looking nervously out at the forest, and moves in closer to the fire and Hotspur, probably quietly tugging Sakura with him. Sakura is quite happy to get closer to the rest of the group with Larrikan, unsure that they'll stay away for long. Blue sits up, and says, "Yes, Vash. Thank you," and beams at him, because she knows he did as much as Hotspur, even if the wolves didn't.

Kerry skrees, "The Powers That Be want us to move along, I think."

Overhearing Kerry and Douglas, Hotspur says, "Eh. Only five of them. We'd have had wolf stew tonight for sure." Annifred grins at Hotspur.

Vash mms and runs a hand back over his head plates. "Long as you're alright..." He sits back on his elbows, looking at the fire.

Larrikan settles near the fire, offering to be warm and snuggly with Sakura. Sakura slides into Larrikan's arms, slipping hers around him and leaning up against him happily. Annifred does similarly with Douglas, probably a little more difficult to ignore. Hotspur looks up, and says, "If they're fool enough to come back, we don't wait next time." Annifred grins insanely at the big man. Hotspur doesn't say anything more about the incident, apparently having put it out of his mind as one of those inconsequential little things that happen, like others might swat a fly. He begins to ask about lunch and if anyone would like something, apparently content to focus on domestic pleasantness.

Kerry grumbles, more out of habit than anything else. "I'm up now, I might as well."

Douglas lets the tension drain from him -- it's even easier to let said tension drain snuggling with Annifred, which he does so comfortably. He's a little disturbed by the mad grin Annifred has, but he reasons, At least she's on OUR side!. Some part of him is glad he didn't have to show his claws; he doesn't want to overuse them, in case whatever the dream... no, whatever he did to them is limited, or if they should only be used in direct pursuit of the quest. He blinks and looks up to Hotspur. "Oh! Yes, please, that sounds perfect..."

Vash mms and nods absently. "Sounds like a plan..." He sits up again when asked about lunch. "Sure. Seems a good idea."

Sakura smiles at Hotspur, "Lunch sounds wonderful, thank you..."

It is during the afternoon meal that Aykuh rejoins them for a few minutes, saying, "Well, one of the trees did notice you land. She was quite impressed indeed."

Kerry skrees, "Did she notice the takeoff?"

Vash says, "Hope we didn't disturb her too much."

Aykuh shakes her head, "No. She was distracted by something else -- she has a bird's nest, it's so cute -- and missed it. She did think that if it had been as dramatic leaving as it had coming, she'd have noticed it."

Douglas blinks and looks up at Aykuh. "That must mean it, hrm... I wonder if the Hunt could have just taken it quietly up into a storm cloud? We were told they either appear in person, or travel by storms...

Aykuh shrugs and says, "I don't know, Douglas. I'll keep asking. I'm making good progress. Have I missed anything out here?"

Hotspur shrugs and says, "Nope."

Vash says, "Not very much, no."

Kerry chuckles. "Just a wolf-pack who tried to rob us. Hotspur... dissuaded them. With a bit of help from his friends."

Aykuh looks at Kerry and says, "The forest can be dangerous."

Hotspur just shrugs at this. Aykuh grins and says, "Well, I thought you'd want to know, and that I'd make sure y'all are all right. I'll see if any of the others noticed."

Sakura nods a little at Aykuh's words. Strange to us, because there is nowhere peaceful like this at home, so we automatically relax. Probably too much... Vash says, "Thank you, Aykuh. We appreciate it."

The afternoon wears on, quietly and uneventfully, into the evening. Kerry naps through the afternoon, but rouses as the sun starts to go down. "I'll take the night watch, then."

As evening wears on Vash moves quietly off to the side of the camp where Blue's taken up residence. Very quietly, almost sheepishly, he asks, "Um... would you mind if I set my bedroll down here?"

Blue smiles a little timidly to Vash, "I think that would be all right, yes." Vash smiles a bit, and unrolls his bed near to hers. He sits down atop it, folding his arms behind his head. Eventually he removes his heavy sunglasses as the sun starts to fade, and rubs his eyes, blinking a few times.

Night falls, quietly other than a wash of sound from crickets and birds at sunset. Kawaii lingers next to the embers of the fire, which Hotspur tends a little before he goes to sleep. Blue thanks Vash for being so kind in the afternoon, and admires his eyes in the twilight, while she can see them, resisting the itching urge to draw them some more. Vash just shakes his head and smiles faintly, assuring her that it wasn't anything important. He stares mostly at the sky, memorizing vaguely familiar constellations, and occasionally stealing glances at Blue from the corner of his eye.

Annifred all too enthusiastically snuggles up to Douglas, who doesn't seem terribly eager to escape. In fact, Douglas finds himself quite easily falling asleep in the troll's arms. Even with the day's excitement... he feels quite at home where he is, and who he is with. Larrikan cuddles as closely, if not as quickly, with Sakura -- a happy and content fox, or maybe a pair of them. Sakura cuddles back against Larrikan. Definitely a pair of happy foxes... Kerry watches over the sleeping group as night falls, occasionally fiddling with his datapad but mostly listening to the night and watching the stars.

Morning comes, watches producing no warnings through the night. The only interesting part is that Aykuh has returned near dawn, when only the watch was awake. Hotspur noticed early too, and has sat up. He's not talking to her, but isn't ignoring her either. Kerry waves a wing at Aykuh when she reappears, but respects her silence. Sakura sits up and stretches, then turns quietly to see what Aykuh has to say. Larrikan admires Sakura's morning stretch and is pleasantly distracted before he gives his attention to the dryad.

Vash opens his eyes upon waking and glances around before moving, as is his habit, and realizes he's been lying facing the bedroll next to his. Was I watching her all night? Hm... she'll think you're a stalker, Vashti... He sits up slowly and stretches, nodding to the dryad and waiting for her to break the silence at her own pace. As soon as everyone is awake Aykuh smiles and says, "One of the ash trees saw the whole thing. She saw the shuttle land, and even saw you all head off for town."

Kerry perks up and gives the dryad his full attention, "And?" Douglas blinks, also perking his ears as Aykuh speaks. He looks to her curiously, letting her speak on her own time. Sakura's eyes sparkle with curiosity. Finally! Someone who saw something... this could be the break we need.

"Well," says Aykuh, "-she also saw the Hunt come and take the shuttle away. They were on these strange, loud horses without legs. She'd never seen wheels before, but I think they were vehicles of some sort, like the trolls have except with only two wheels. I don't know how they stand up, but they did."

Sakura nods. Motorcycles Vash nods softly. "Motorcycles," he says absently to no one in particular. "How did they take the shuttle away?" Douglas blinks. The same ones we heard our first day here, I bet...

Kerry skrees, "Has to do with rotational momentum, Aykuh. They do stay up, as long as they're moving quickly."

"They were quite noisy, and she didn't like that at all," adds Aykuh. "Oh! They circled around it, and then used magic and their vehicles to tow it out of the water. Once they were free of the moving water they circled it some more, and all faded away."

Douglas blinks. "Faded away..." he breathes. Vash nods.

Kerry skrees, "And you notice... they had to pull it out of the stream first. Moving water weakens their powers, I'll bet."

The dryad adds, "She didn't know where to. She was glad they'd gone, and said they felt sort of... -uh, b-bad." She stammers like she hasn't words for something the other tree told her.

Vash says, "It's the machines... it's poisoning them."

Douglas nods slowly, shivering even with Annifred's warmth nearby. She wasn't kidding, he thinks, then, None of them were. The Hunt is very bad news. He blinks, looking to Vash. Slowly he nods. "Which is why they want us to break them from Drekaris' control... what got him started on this technology thing, though? They'd have to have taken the form they have now before we even came through the Gate, wouldn't they?"

Vash shakes his head. "I don't know, Doug. Maybe the Texan expedition had something to do with it."

Kerry skrees, "Hardly. If he controls them, he could have ordered them to do that later. He may not have known of us until we made the close pass. You'll note he hasn't tried to do anything to the Rose or the Indigo."

Sakura says, "So, that's settled then. They were definitely the ones who took it."

Aykuh nods and says, "Yes, they are. And shortly after you'd set down, probably that time we heard them in the Egg."

Douglas nods slowly at Kerry's statement, "He might not be able to reach that far... but then he didn't go after the Egg, then..."

Vash says, "The Egg's not strictly functional, either."

Kerry skrees, "And he may have tried and screwed up with her. Might be why they crashed instead of landing gently. Either by trying to take her down without knowing how, or by trying to steal it while it was still occupied."

Douglas blinks, "And Dr. Zildjian didn't know what had happened to make them crash. I wonder if he has something to do with her collar being broken?" Then he blinks. "Or... if the Hunt at that time knew they were in trouble... and broke the collar for Zildjian?"

Sakura swallows heavily. "Do you suppose that they still have the Texans, then?"

Kerry skrees, "He can keep them for all of me. I doubt that they survived, though."

Vash says quietly, "I doubt he's got them. They'd be of little use to him."

Kerry skrees, "The collar... I still think that it may have been the interaction between a very high-tech piece of electronics and the Hunt's magic. If it exploded on her neck, they might have just left her for dead."

Sakura nods at Kerry... Douglas says softly, "Which would explain her scar there..."

The dryad says, "If they were stupid enough to look at the Hunt, then they've been eaten, just like all the others. And yes," she adds, "Zildjian was bleeding terribly from her throat. We helped her, of course. It would be a terrible shame to see one of the Lamia die." She is, of course, referring to the local Lamia, not sure or quite understanding the differences.

Douglas shivers again. Eaten. Just like that. "Just like all the others. Oh, Hell. We're extremely lucky they seem to want us to survive and do something for them... Sakura frowns, thoughtfully. How do we combat something we can't look at... Kerry glides down to Aykuh and gives her the full Keero bow. "And I don't believe I have thanked you for that yet, Aykuhbowmadchen, or for your other help. I owe you a debt for saving my friend."

Aykuh smiles, looking pleased, and says, "Thank you, Kerry."

Hotspur has listened carefully. He says, "Then after breakfast we should head back, right?"

Douglas is just disquieted by this news. It doesn't dampen his resolve, but it does limit his enthusiasm. Vash nods, "Yes, Hotspur. We should be on our way soon."

The meal is friendly and quick, with everyone pitching into break down the little bit of camp they'd made. Hotspur is particularly thorough putting out the fire, and it is only midmorning when everyone is walking down the trail again.

Sakura finishes her meal and helps with breaking down the camp. She gets her pack settled comfortably onto her shoulder and smiles at Larrikan, extending her hand to him. Douglas stands, stretching largely as he arches his back, giving a bit of a buzzing sound as he cricks his back a little. He looks a bit sheepishly to Annifred, for perhaps the first time offering his hand to her. Annifred is pleased by this and takes Douglas's hand firmly, flicking her tail about him contentedly and striding along with seemingly endless trollish enthusiasm. Larrikan is a bit more discrete but also pleased to take Sakura's hand.

Hotspur asks, "Do you want to ride again, Kerry? It would be no trouble. There are less supplies now."

Kerry grins. "I was hoping you'd ask, Hotspur. Thank you." He manages a leap, and an intense bout of flapping lands him on the minotaur's shoulder. "That's so much easier."

The minotaur chuckles and ambles along slowly, letting the group keep up with him. Kawaii prances along next to the minotaur, occasionally darting off into the underbrush to investigate something important; emerging moments later satisfied. Vash yawns quietly, hands in his pockets, not thinking about much, just putting one foot in front of the other. In the very back of his mind he lets it all process.

In the late morning Larrikan lets Sakura's hand go, kissing it first, and says to her, "If you will let me have this back, I can make us some music?"

Sakura keeps a firm grip on his hand. "Oh... I don't know. I like your music... but I like your hands more..." She grins and lets go.

Larrikan, who likes putting his hands on Sakura, smiles lasciviously and says, "Later, pretty one," as he digs in his pouch for his recorder. Finding it, he begins to play a bright and cheerful tune. Sakura blushes right to the tips of her ears.

Larrikan's music is infectious, with even Hotspur's stride changing a little, and his tail switching with it. It makes everyone feel pleasant and cheerful. They've found out interesting things, and now are off to the next step, and everything looks good. Douglas enjoys the tune, the fox's music lightening his mood somewhat from his earlier morbidity. He smiles to Annifred, warmly squeezing her hand as he walks with her.

The music soothes everyone, making them all happy. The sound of another instrument, perhaps a flute, joins Larrikan's little recorder, picking up his melody perfectly. Kerry frowns and starts scanning around from his perch on the minotaur's shoulder. Another one of Larrikan's friends, I suppose? I wonder where it is... The music continues. Another joins it, some sort of string, the three working together perfectly, making the walk effortless and easy and bringing smiles to everybody's face.

Larrikan has stopped playing and is just walking along now with one arm around Sakura's waist, enjoying all the music also. Sakura smiles up at Larrikan, apparently unconcerned by the new players. She simply assumes that Larrikan's friends have joined him. Douglas walks as well, unconcerned about the music coming from elsewhere. Must be one of Larrikan's fellow-spirits. How nice! is sort of what goes through his mind, perfectly oblivious to any concerns as he walks with Annifred. Kerry continues 'looking' around to see if he can spot Larrikan's backup group. On one scan he stops, noticing that the fox-spirit is no longer even playing along with the music.

Vash finds that the low-level percolation in the back of his mind has gone completely, and he can't really think of anything else he'd rather be doing. In a sudden fit of uninhibitedness, he gently curls an arm around Blue's waist as he walks alongside her. Blue doesn't seem to mind, walking along in a happy daze. Larrikan is leaning closely against Sakura, mming softly at her, and Annifred is close to Douglas, although not with her usual intensity of enjoyment. Just calm, easygoing happiness.

The music leads the party off of the path, drifting slowly into the forest, deeper and deeper. Nobody but Kerry seems to mind this, perfectly happy to be walking along in the afternoon, despite the trail getting much trickier. Kerry decides that this is probably not a good idea, and inhales deeply, then does his best imitation of an air-raid siren -- the normal massive-decibel echolocation chirp translated down to a range audible to normal ears. "HOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOLLLLD!"

Sakura jumps, then looks at the bat, eyebrows creased together, perhaps a little annoyed by the shrill sound that has replaced the lovely music. Vash winces a bit and turns around, looking over Blue's head at Kerry. He glares a bit, and turns back, still moving, and leans his head against Blue's. Sakura waits about 5 seconds for Kerry to explain, then shrugs and continues walking, anxious not to be left behind. Douglas blinks, looking like he's been jarred badly. He looks awkwardly and half-concernedly up to Kerry, continuing to walk. Larrikan nuzzles Sakura softly, mumbling quietly to her as he walks with her.

Kerry digs his claws into the minotaur's shoulder, this time, continuing to yell at the party. "STOP already! Wake up. LARRIKAN!!!! HOTSPUR!!!!"

Vash mutters softly, "Kerry, you mind? Gonna wake the dead..." He turns and gently nuzzles Blue's cheek, utterly oblivious. Blue giggles and pushes Vash's face away a little, not violently, and stays with him. Vash smiles faintly and gives the girl a gentle squeeze, murmuring softly. "...no, I don't know what that was about either..."

Hotspur says, "Hey," and shakes a little, nearly dislodging Kerry. Otherwise, though, the big minotaur ignores him, tough skin easily ignoring batty claws. Sakura doesn't seem to notice Kerry's second outburst -- she's thoroughly engrossed in Larrikan. Douglas glances a little irritatedly up to Kerry. Why is Pilot trying to ruin a perfectly enjoyable walk through the forest?

Kerry grumbles to himself. "Crud. Apparently not." Drowning the music isn't enough, apparently. Now what? I thought this wasn't supposed to be able to happen on the pathway.

The music swells, continuing to lead the party, which clambers obligingly and happily uncomplaining over every obstacle, on their way to who-knows-where.

Kerry activates his datapad and taps one sentence on it, then bunches his legs for a leap forward. He aims at the softest spot he can see ahead of the party, intending to scoop up two claws full of mud... I hope they know the story... He sighs, realizing Douglas and Annifred are first in line. I hope this works... and I hope I live through it... He takes aim, leaping up with a wing-sweep into an embrace with the troll lady, intending to jam her ears with the mud.

The troll exclaims, "Hey!" and reaches out and nabs the slightly awkwardly-moving bat from the air. Then she folds him up and tucks him under her arm like a misbehaving trollish child, saying, "Stop that." Calmly she resumes her walk, grinning fangily down at the bat for a second and scritching behind one ear gently. "You cute, bat." Then she continues happily on, humming softly to herself.

Sakura puts a paw over her mouth as she giggles. He asked for that. I can't believe he was so rude! Douglas nods cheerfully at Annifred's assessment of Colonel Skydancer, USAF, happily walking along with her down the sort-of path. Vash shakes his head softly and resumes leaning with Blue, laughing quietly in his throat. Kerry squirms, trying to get loose again. By the makers. This is about as embarrassed as I ever hope I have to be.

The walk continues until the sun sets and the going becomes very difficult. People begin to stumble, and even the cheerful music can't keep them walking forward any longer. Kerry isn't bothered by the dark, but can't do much about it. Vash turns to Blue and smiles brightly. "It's rough here... I could carry you if you liked..." He doesn't mind the coming twilight much. Blue smiles and doesn't reply, still walking along.

Sakura stumbles a little in the rough terrain and the dark. She looks a little annoyed. Not at the company or the music or the situation, more by the fact that she's having more and more trouble keeping up. Douglas has, of course, a somewhat better time of the terrain than most of the others, with the exception of Hotspur and Annifred. He is a little put off by the lay of the land getting more difficult, though not by much.

At least Kerry can't get away until Annifred stumbles enough to drop him, and has to use her hands to break her fall. Douglas is drawn up short by her tail and also stumbles, and Larrikan walks right into him, with Sakura actually tripping on Annifred. Aykuh stops when she hears this commotion, and fortunately so do Vash, Blue, and most importantly, Hotspur. The music fades away, and there is a quiet rustling of things scampering away around everyone.

Vash keeps his arm around Blue's waist, carefully supporting her in case she should stumble. He blinks, once, when the music stops, and freezes. "Ay... mierda."

Douglas blinks, and opens his mouth... then closes it with a snap, looking around and blinking. "What the...?" His ears flicker at the scampering sounds, and he whirls, looking into the underbrush and frowning.

Sakura blinks, picking herself up off of the ground and brushing herself on. "What...? Where are we?"

The others realize, as they regain control, that Kerry is steadily cussing the proverbial blue streak, his translator having been exposed to enough Keero profanities to be handling the load relatively well -- he's quite imaginative! Vash straightens up carefully, one hand going beneath his jumpsuit, the other still holding onto Blue protectively, though he seems to have suppressed that knowledge for the moment. To her he says quietly, "Stay close, please." To the crew, "You hear that?"

Larrikan shakes his head a time or three and says, "It's dark." He tries to peer around with his fox's night vision, and doesn't see much. The student wizard rummages in his pack.

Sakura perks her ears, straining for whatever it is that Vash can hear... Kerry quiets down and listens as well. Douglas looks around sharply, trying to gauge the height of the sun in the sky, and... well, not seeing any sun. Damn. He hesitates, then his claws slip silently from their sheathes, his ears arcing to-and-fro as he looks around, trying to push down the feeling that his heart is trying to leap into his throat. Annifred remains in a crouch, looking around warily and thrashing her tail unhappily. Hotspur looks around and sees nothing, then says, "Everybody okay? Call out. Are we all together?" Aykuh answers, "Here."

Douglas says softly, still looking around. "Percival, here..."

Sakura says, "Doctor Murasaki, here."

Kerry skrees, "We're all here. Something joined in Larrikan's impromptu little concert and shorted out your higher mental functions all afternoon. I couldn't block it with sonic-range echolocation chirps and Annifred... umm... immobilized me when I tried stuffing her ears up more directly."

Larrikan mumbles, "Here." and continues to root in his satchel.

Annifred chuckles, then says, "I here."

Kerry skrees, "We left the trail a good eight or ten kilometers back, near as I can tell." Kerry's datapad is still blinking that one phrase, the screen brighter in the gathering gloom: Ulysses and the Sirens!!

Vash draws the gun again, letting it hang by his side for the moment. "Montoya here. And I'm not the only one... we're not alone out here."

Douglas glances back to look oddly at Kerry. He opens his mouth, then closes it, and turns to look back around in front of him. "No, you're not kidding. Blast..." I'd just gotten over accepting Larrikan as our companion too, dammit -- I really hope he had nothing to do with this. But something joined in his concert and grabbed us.

Blue says, "I'm Blue, and I'm here." and steps up close to Vash.

There's a small, tired squeal from by everyone's feet. Douglas blinks and looks down. "Kawaii? You as well?" Only a weary, disgusted grunt answers Doug.

It is now very dark in the forest, and Kerry's datapad casts an eerie blue-white light; barely any glow at all. It may make the rest of the night seem darker. Vash curls his arm more closely around Blue, hoping to reassure her if that's at all possible. He continues to peer into the darkness, ears cocked. All right, damn it... where did you go? Sakura looks around, a little confused, especially at hearing that they joined in on Larrikan's music. She chews on her bottom lip and scoops up the tired piglet, as much for her comfort as his. Kawaii sighs in relief, and relaxes in Sakura's arms... he's exhausted!

Kerry sighs and shuts down his datapad now that his hands are free again. "Willowisps? Brownies? What's the usual culprit for such things, Larrikan?"

Douglas nods slowly, looking around. "Yeah," he answers the piglet. "I know. Pilot, thank you for trying what you could all the same. Can you point us in the direction to get back to the town?"

Larrikan finally finds what he's looking for, a tiny vial. He opens it and flings the contents up into the air, mumbling something arcane at it. Rather than falling back to earth, the dust hovers about where Larrikan threw it, and begins to emit a bright blue-white glow of magelight. Douglas blinks... and sees his night vision blown to Hell. Oh, well... at least those who can't see too well in the dark are comforted. Vash closes his eyes quickly, and then reopens them slowly, trying to adjust his eyes as quickly as he can. Still he keeps his ears turned toward the deep brush. Kerry skreeks in almost-pain and fumbles for his sunglasses. "Bozhemoi! WARN a fellow when you're going to do something like that!"

The fox sits down tiredly and says, probably needlessly, "Now we can see a little." Hotspur, standing in the cloud of dust, coughs once and sits down. Larrikan looks even more abashed and quite unhappy at Kerry's skreek, saying, "Oh. I'm sorry."

Sakura blinks her eyes a few times, trying to adjust them back from the sudden glare. "What happened, Larrikan?"

Larrikan looks up at the vixen and says, "I don't know, Sakura. I was playing, and then I was just walking and it was just fine, and here we all are."

Sakura sits down next to the other fox, scratching behind Kawaii's ears. "Any idea what that could have been?" Kawaii makes a small grumbling sound, then sighs deeply, his eyes slowly sagging sleepily shut.

Kerry skrees, "Aykuh? Can you talk to any of the trees here?"

Douglas shakes his head quietly, crouching down and leaning forward a little to get a better view into the underbrush; to get his ears closer to the ground. I suppose that's the best we can hope for from him, he thinks. He's flighty and always has been, at least to us. To him and his people he's perfectly normal, so we can't blame him for being this way. Still, it's darned annoying. He glances behind him at the piglet's sigh. "If Kawaii can sleep," he quips, "we're probably all right for the time being...?"

Annifred settles to the ground and says, "We need stop, sleep." She looks around and says, "Here seems good as anywhere." She gives Larrikan an odd look -- not angry, but not really happy. Vash doesn't seem quite so convinced. He's still standing with his gun drawn, straining his eyes and ears out into the darkness. If he's angry, it doesn't seem to be at Larrikan.

Aykuh says, "Maybe in the morning, Kerry. They're asleep now, and it would be very hard."

Kerry nods. "Ah, well. Let's put a camp together. I had a mostly restful afternoon, I'll take first watch."

Douglas nods quietly to Annifred, then looks to Vash. "May I suggest that, if we do sleep, we pair up for watches?" The cougar is at this point wishing for a portable terminal with which to contact the Egg or Indigo, to get a position fix.

Larrikan shakes his head, not to say 'no,' but as if he's trying to clear it. He looks up and says, "Music. It was music, wasn't it?"

Kerry skrees, "It most certainly was, Larrikan. Flutes, they sounded like."

Vash doesn't say anything at first. After a few long moments he turns back. "Yeah. You want this or the next?" He seems a little more curt than usual. Damn it all. How am I supposed to protect my crew if I let us all be led astray by the first piper to blow his goddamned noise our way...

Douglas says, "I'll take this one with Kerry. I don't think I'm as exhausted as the others. Longer legs and all."

Vash nods. "Wake me when you are, then."

Larrikan says, "Flutes. Wasn't my people." He looks up and says unhappily, "I'm sorry. They distracted me, and I didn't do anything about it. If I'd have noticed I could have spun a protective song. Instead... they caught us." He looks around, his ears drooping, "I'm not quite sure who, either."

Vash shakes his head. "There's no point in worrying about that now, Larrikan. We all got roped in. What's important now is to deal with it and get back to the road. Your energy's better spent thinking about getting us there. All right?" Sakura frowns, looking anxious and more than a little scared... Larrikan nods to Vash, still looking glum, but now thinking about something besides how he helped whoever-it-was lead them all astray.

Annifred says, "Doug, you see at night? We go look see if anything around?"

Douglas blinks to Annifred and nods, entirely seriously. "Erm... that might be a good idea. Captain? A quick reconnoiter?"

Vash nods and zips his jumpsuit up a bit, finding himself slightly chill despite himself. "Yes. I think that's a good idea."

Hotspur settles down and rummages in his pack. He says, "Have a little to eat before you sleep," and produces some more, now rather flattened, sandwiches, probably intended for lunch tomorrow. He breaks them up into quarters and gives them to people, eating half of one himself and looking around contemplatively.

Kerry gives Annifred a rather intense look. "As long as that's all you do out there."

Vash says, "I'm going with them, Kerry. Save it for the watch."

Kerry chuckles. "Point taken. I'll keep an ear on things back here. I'm not much at patrolling anyway." Sakura fiddles with the hem of her dress. Her legs are folded in front of her, the dress covering her and the little piglet hammocked in the material. She looks around constantly, wary of the return of whatever it was that brought her out here.

Annifred leers at Kerry, but says, "Annifred too tired for much fun tonight." She nods to Vash, then says to Hotspur, "We right back, ja?" Hotspur nods. Douglas also nods, accepting the food gratefully and rubbing his legs slightly, looking into the forest and not at the magelight so his eyes will start to adjust to the shadowy darkness.

Vash nods, "Good... shout if you spot anything." He turns and gently squeezes Blue's shoulder. "Back soon." He checks the action on the gun again, simply out of habit, now utterly unconvinced of its value, and nods to Annifred. "Yeah. Right back."

Annifred goes scuttling off into the darkness, nearly on all fours, looking closely at the ground and sniffing, presuming Douglas and Vash will either keep up or go their own ways. Douglas blinks, watching Annifred scuttle off. He pauses to glance at Vash, half daring and half hoping he doesn't make some sort of comment. He follows quickly after Annifred, trying to let his instincts, the cougar instincts, guide his movements. Vash does in fact keep up despite his shorter legs, nearly bounding through the underbrush, stubbornly hanging onto the notion that if he does find something out here he's going to be able to protect the others. Eventually he stops thinking about it entirely and simply goes, waiting for a sight or scent.

Annifred has come up short near the camp, and is sniffing at something. She points and says, "See?" Nobody does. She points closer, to some tiny little marks with three toes, birdlike. She says, "Willow-the-wisp."

Douglas hisses softly, narrowing his eyes at the tracks. "Pilot mentioned them. I didn't know what he meant, but I imagine I have some idea now..."

Vash kneels down and examines the scratches. I didn't know they had feet. He bends down and sniffs at it briefly, turning to the troll. "Animal?"

In the darkness, Annifred says, "Nobody know. Nobody alive seen one. We probably okay if we get back to trail." She points and says, "We think they small, use magic to lull prey into killing themselves, then eat, but not sure."

Douglas winces slightly. 'Killing themselves.' Lord knows where we were headed to... He nods, and looks around. "Are we safe for now? Or will they come back?"

Vash nods once. "Make one more pass around camp, just to be sure. Then we'll head back and rest. Yeah?"

Annifred says, "Ja." The three scouts do so. All seems quiet and still. They return to camp with this news.

The night passes slowly, with most of the party sleeping fitfully and at least two guards awake at all times. Larrikan's magic light fades off before dawn, and the forest is very dark, filled with the sounds of night. Despite the worrying calls in the darkness, nothing comes forth and attacks.

At dawn Hotspur settles down to build a fire, saying only, "Need some breakfast." Before dawn he went out and collected water and firewood. He seems surprised by the concern the others show for his safety -- as if it never occurred to him that he could be hurt. He manages to produce some thin sort of oatmealy stuff, apologizing for not having prepared for an extra day.

Douglas and Kerry work out which way they wandered off the trail, and the crew strikes out through the woods. Larrikan walks along quietly with Sakura, looking somewhat downcast and not singing or playing. Kawaii, on the other hand, seems perfectly happy to continue following along and exploring the woods as he goes. Annifred cheerfully escorts Douglas, as she always seems to, but is a little more wary and alert today than before.

It is only after a very long day of hiking, the sun setting behind them and twilight fading into real night, that the crew makes it back to the light and safety of town and the Silver Egg. Zildjian and the others at the Egg were just beginning to wonder what had happened, and welcome the crew back with some relief. Dinner, and a place for all of the tired travelers -- probably with friends -- is easily arranged. It isn't until morning that the students make their way back to their homes and classes.

When the crew manages to reassemble in the morning, Aykuh smiles happily and tells them, "There's going to be a gathering here in a few days. These happen a couple of times in the spring and summer, and are a pleasant way to get to know people and things. People come in from out of the way to trade news and see others. The event usually lasts most of the night. Over the next few days, as people leave, they'll buy things they need from town, until the next gathering." She also asks if everyone is willing to help her get herself ready for the gathering, needing help mostly with bringing in extra stock and other relatively straightforward preparations.

Last modified: 2001-Apr-25 18:11:34

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