Thursday, February 4, 2016

Openings, part II: The Darkness

Continued from here...

Dusk bounced off a tree and crashed into the brush, flattening bushes and rolling across moss-covered rocks. Even in her bestial form, she was collecting bruises; it would be much worse if she changed back. She got her feet under her, shook her head to make sure she was stable, and then shook her body to make sure everything was still in place. She was battered, but intact.

Two quick bounds brought her to the edge of the camp. She padded cautiously into the firelight, looking for Somber and the intruder, and finding... nothing. Then something overhead gave a brief, desperate shriek, and a winged thing crashed to the ground almost at her feet. Dusk set a paw on it, claws ready to stab, then realized it was dead. Dead... and strange.

The dead thing was not like any sort of bird or animal she had ever seen. The body was limp and flattened, like crumpled parchment; the wings were extended fans, with flesh stretched between bony ribs; and the legs were boneless tendrils, hanging down from the oddly shapeless body.

A slim, winding strand of darkness slithered down from the massive trunk of the tree on her right, and settled beside her paw. At the moment it carried no scent, but Dusk recognized it anyway: it was the nightmare that accompanied Somber, that protected him and made him so hard to have around. If it had settled beside her, it must be worried... or whatever equivalent an amorphous, barely-substantial nightmare spirit might experience.

Dusk raised her eyes from the dead thing, and looked across the camp again. This time, she saw something on the far side of the fire. It might have been a human shape, lying prone on the rocky ground, but despite its nearness to the firelight it was concealed by a blurring darkness that hid its features. Dusk hesitated, marking locations -- the three trees, the fire, the bedroll -- and decided that if Somber had fallen backwards after the shade had touched him, this was where he would have landed. The intruder, it seemed, was gone... unless it had collapsed into that strange, dark shroud that lay over Somber.

Cautiously, Dusk advanced. The air had changed; for a moment, she had the strange, disorienting sense that the entire campsite had changed. The nightmare moved as soon as she did, flickering darkly around the edges of the camp and then stopping at Somber's side. Dusk approached more slowly, still scenting the air and watching for the intruder's return.

For a moment, Somber was just as he had been: tall and lean, dressed in a plain gray robe, stretched across the dark earth and white stone as if he'd simply settled down to sleep there. Then he was gone again, covered by darkness, and a handful of small, bone-white beasts skittered out from the darkness that surrounded his body.

The nightmare fell on them, and they were gone.

Dusk shifted her throat into human speech and asked, "Somber?" After a moment, she repeated his name: "Somber?" She touched him with an outstretched claw, and felt the darkness try to reach into her. She pushed in long enough to shake him by the shoulder, then pulled back when he didn't react. The darkness clung to her, chilling her flesh even though her armored scales.

She drew back, looking around again. She and the nightmare were the only things moving; Somber was unconscious, and his resurrected beasts were shattered and destroyed. She had no way to bring him back to the monastery, but that might be for the better if he was leaking monsters again. The intruder, whatever it had been, was gone; she couldn't feel it at all.

For a moment, Dusk considered leaving. It would be safer to return to the monastery, tell what had happened, and let the brothers and sisters deal with everything out here. Safer for me, maybe safer for them, but not safer for Somber. No. Whatever had happened, whatever was happening, it was here... and while it might be safer to observe from a distance, unless she could drag Somber away with her, she wasn't going to do that. And dragging Somber wasn't feasible. If it had just been the strange beasts rising out of his nightmares, she might have tried it; but that cold darkness had tried to reach into her, tried -- she thought -- to claim her. She'd reached through it long enough to be sure that Somber was still alive, but she didn't want it touching her again.

Cursing to herself, Dusk settled in to stay.

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