In the morning, the skies are clear, and the temperature has warmed a bit. They put the tack on Volay and attach their backpacks like saddlebags, agreeing that Renn will guide the azurdactyl while Renci keeps watch. He offers her the Czerka, since its range is better than that of her blaster pistol, but she declines as she draws her own gun, saying she would rather have the other hand available to hold onto the tack. He assembles the rifle anyway and mounts it on Volay’s side so that it is within reach if anything particularly dangerous comes after them in the sky. Then they mount up and clip themselves into Volay’s harness. Mira flutters about Renn, tugging at him with her tail until he tells her to play nice and just fly along with them.
It is a crisp, beautiful morning, quiet and still. Renn encourages Volay to go as fast as he wants, and they soar out over the evergreens, then loop around to begin heading up the mountain. With the increase in elevation, they enter a cloud bank. They cannot always see Mira, but her song floats through the mist to them as she keeps pace with the azurdactyl. Renci is a bit surprised; that little bird is faster than she thought. Then she hears another sound, one she does not think she has ever heard before, which is Renn whooping with joy as he coaxes Volay to go still faster. He can have fun, she thinks, but I’ve got work to do.
Renci holsters her gun and pulls out her general purpose scanner to try to pierce through the clouds. Their readings show them to be benign, mainly water vapor with some traces of other compounds, but nothing that would endanger soldiers based in these mountains. But, wait, that element should not be here in such quantities. There’s a large amount of iron ahead of us… “Hard to port! Hard to port!” she yells, as a large rock pillar suddenly looms out of the mist right in front of them.
Renn yanks on the left rein, and Volay rotates rather than turns, his claws brushing the stone as they just slip by. Renn leans forward, commending him for doing such a good job and patting the azurdactyl’s neck, then flings his arms around it to stay in place as Volay continues the rotation, spiralling down out of the clouds into a narrow canyon-like valley between two of the peaks. Renci clutches her scanner to her chest with one arm and clings tightly to the harness with her other hand, clamping her legs firmly and keeping her seat. Oblivious to their near accident, Mira continues to sing peacefully, content that there are no dangers in the sky around them.
After they level out and resume their ascent again, Renci looks around for points of interest. She spots a large cave opening in the distance and tells Renn to head that way. It is beyond the sensor range of her scanner, but if she can see it from here, it can fit an X-wing.
Renn acknowledges the request and guides Volay that way. With the elevation gain, they reenter the clouds. “Don’ tell Stell’la I said this,” he says over his shoulder to Renci, “but this is even better than flyin’ on Ryloth. The sun is always so hot and bright there. And you’d never fly through refreshin’ mists like this.”
“Why don’t you just fly at night?” she asks. “It’s cooler then.”
“Stell’la would rather be sleepin’ then,” he replies. “I would rather be sleepin’ then.”
“If you’re going to live in a hot place, you should get used to sleeping during the day and being active at night when it’s cooler,” she opines, ever practical.
“But it’s so dark, you wouldna see anything interestin’.”
“What, like you would miss out on the red dirt? Or you could fly around other parts of Ryloth, like Lessu. Isn’t it temperate there?”
“It’s humid there, from the forests, but it was still hot.” He reminisces a little about the animals he met in Lessu that are now living in New Meen.
Renci tunes him out as the scanner in her hands buzzes, and she looks back down at it to check the readings. There are a bunch of pings on the lifeform detector, some sort of insects just a little smaller than Mira. She alerts Renn.
He frowns. “Insects that big, this high? That doesna sound safe fer us.”
Renn pulls back on the reins to slow Volay, but a swarm of the shimmering insects sweeps in right in front of them, and Renci screams at him, “Lift! Lift! Do they not teach aerial combat where you’re from!?”
He wrenches the reins, and Volay turns away from that cluster. “I was in the Army!”
“Quick run down: port, starboard, fore, aft, lift, drop,” she lectures, as she juggles her scanner while pulling out her blaster. She takes a shot at the closest creature. The bolt rips through its carapace, sending sparkling wings one way and a long stinger the other.
Renn drops the reins, guiding Volay with just his knees, and grabs the Czerka. He loops its strap over his shoulder and takes a shot at one of the farther insects, since Renci’s gun is ineffective at that distance. A single shot reduces it to pieces. There are too many dimensions ta pay attention ta up in the sky, he thinks, as another pair of the shimmering insects descend on them seemingly out of nowhere.
The creatures take passes at them, buzzing around and trying to plant their stingers. Renci dodges away from one coming at her face and fries the creature with her blaster, then shoves her scanner into her bag to get it out of the way. One near Renn struggles against the air currents, trying unsuccessfully to land. He ignores the ineffectual creature, trusting Renci to take care of whatever bugs get near them. Instead, he shoots down another distant one that was poised to dive at them and shouts at Mira to go after the one near her. She swoops in and whacks it with her tail. It tries to land its stinger on her, but she evades it and takes another crack at it before fluttering away. As Renn swivels sideways, tracking the insect with his rifle, Renci leans forward, her blaster right behind his head, and takes a shot at the bug coming in toward him, sizzling it. Renn’s shot tears apart the distant insect before it can retaliate on Mira.
Another sparkling bug dives in at Renn, missing him but plunging its stinger into Volay. The azurdactyl begins to spasm and thrash about, pulling his wings in close, sending himself and his riders plummeting. Renci, focused on staying seated, suffers a sting herself, but keeps a tight hold on the harness. Renn’s hands, however, are full of rifle, and as Volay dives, he tumbles over the azurdactyl’s shoulder. Renci lunges forward as he falls but cannot reach him in time. She continues her forward movement, scooting up to where he was sitting and grabbing the reins. “Not so different from an A-wing,” she reassures herself aloud.
Renn dangles just below Volay caught by the safety line clipped into the tack. “Renci,” he calls up, “rub his neck first, and he’ll respond better!” Then trusting the shoulder strap to do its job, he lets go of the Czerka and pulls himself up the safety line, hand over hand, until he can catch onto the bottom strap of Volay’s harness. He has nothing to stand on or push off from; this is all just arms and core. He tries to pull himself back up the azurdactyl’s flank, but he cannot even reach the next cross piece of harness. ‘Twould be a walk in the park fer Kash, he thinks, clinging to the harness to keep his weight off the safety line.
Up on the azurdactyl’s back, Renci follows Renn’s suggestion and then pulls up on the reins, slowing Volay a bit, even if he is still snapping around agitatedly, seemingly trying to fight something that is not there. Maybe these could be used for a local patrol that wouldn’t attract attention, she notes to herself. Easily domesticated. She takes a sip from her bite valve and glances over the side, but the wings obscure her view of Renn. She can feel the tugging on the harness from that direction, but she cannot spare a hand to help, not with Volay in his current condition. She feels another sting. Right, those bugs are still around.
Renn finds that he cannot pull himself up to a higher hold on the tack while Volay is still twitching in panic. He calls Mira to come closer. Maybe her singing can help soothe the azurdactyl. Stars knows it works on Renn well enough that he wonders if there is some Force-related aspect to it, a more benign form of the terror Zikka could instill…. This is not the time to think about that. The kiros bird swoops in, but as she nears them, she grows upset as well. Rather than singing to calm the azurdactyl, she wraps her tail around Renn’s arm, trying in vain to yank him up.
Above, another insect comes in at Renci, and she knocks it aside. It skitters its stinger across Volay’s tack, leaving a shimmering trail behind it. Renci continues talking to the azurdactyl, trying to get the flyer under control. “Easy, girl. Keep it easy, girl.”
“He’s a boy!” Renn shouts from below.
“I guess you can tell better from your vantage point,” Renci quips back. But then the time for jokes is past, as Volay folds his wings in again for a dive, and they plummet.
Once more, Renn tries to pull himself up, but Mira is actually in his way. “No, Mira, stop, I’m fine. Go help Renci. There must still be those bugs about.” The kiros bird releases his arm and spirals above. Below, he sees the ground approaching at an unacceptably fast rate. Renci is good at a lot of things, but she did not spend the time building rapport with Volay that Renn did. He is going to have to avert this crash himself, from down here. He gives up on climbing the side of the harness and instead hand-over-hands along the bottom of it, moving to where Volay’s vestigial arms are. There, Renn clasps one of the claws and tugs, coaxing Volay into banking enough that they circle around and approach the mountainside in a more controlled fashion. Of course, Renn himself is still under the large creature, which is not ideal. When they are almost to the ground he swings to the side and lets go, so as not to be squashed. It seems like a good plan until he feels the jerk of the safety line still clipping him to the harness, which then drags him along the ground several meters.
Renci, meanwhile, is still dealing with the shimmering insects, swatting at them with her sword and kicking at them with her boots. One of them manages to land on her and inject her with a full dose of its venom.
Mira swats an insect with her tail, and it responds by plunging its large stinger into her. The sharp cry of pain from the kiros bird snaps Renn to attention. He lurches to a knee, bringing the Czerka up to his shoulder. With the creature so close to Mira, he spares a moment to carefully line up the shot, then shoots it right off her. He can feel how much pain she is in. “Back, Mira, get back away from them,” he urges her. “Fly off t’a safe distance.” Then he turns his attention to his other companions.
Volay moves his head wildly about, snapping his jaws at the air, but he seems disinclined to take off again at this moment. Renn sees Renci shake her head, as if trying to clear it. One of the insects is moving in at her, but she is looking off at a cliff backed by clear skies, and Renn hears her mutter, “Star Destroyer! No!” She jets up off Volay’s back, but she is still clipped with her safety line, so she does not get very far. The rope goes taut and holds her in the breeze like some sort of crazed kite. Her sudden movement takes her away from the last insect, so Renn shoots it to pieces, ending that immediate threat.
What is wrong with her? Renn wonders. He unclips himself from his safety line and approaches Renci, trying to figure out how to coax her down. This is so much harder with people, he thinks. He is reluctant to cut her loose, since she might just fly away. “Renci! Renci! I need ya ta focus. We are no’ safe yet.”
She is muttering now in a language Renn does not understand, “Vode An…”
What will reach her? “Yer mission! We still need ta finish yer mission!”
Renci lands in front of him, seemingly reorienting. “That’s not how we fight,” she declares. “You’re just a soldier; you’re not a warrior.”
Then she launches into a spinning jump kick in a martial style Renn has never seen before. Surprised, he does not get up his block in time, but there is not much force behind the blow. A crackle of electricity runs over the boots and up her shins as Renci lands. She looks exhausted, and he can see numerous bloody spots on her sleeves and leggings from the stings she has suffered. The stains shimmer, reminding him of the wings on those insects. She’s not seein’ me as meself, Renn realizes. Time ta become what she expects.
“What was that?” he demands, precisely biting off each word as they do closer to the Core, and stepping up into her space. “Look at you. That? That is how you fight? You can’t even land a stinging blow. You hurt yourself more than you hurt me with those stupid shoes. You will never be able to fight well if you don’t learn to listen to your betters.” Gone is the melodic lilt of his far Outer Rim upbringing. The vowels are drawn out; the Rs are hard. His voice drips with scorn. This is Captain Herkin, Imperial Army.
Browbeaten and exhausted, Renci wilts under her drill instructor’s tirade. Her adrenaline runs out, and she collapses in a heap, muttering, “I’m not a soldier… but I failed as a warrior.” She flops onto her back, staring up at the sky.
Renn begins to suspect that whatever is affecting her is also what set Volay off earlier. If the azurdactyl takes off, he does not want Renci hauled away, but he also needs to make sure she cannot just fly off as soon as his back is turned. He crouches down near her. “Renci? Renci?” She does not respond to him at all. Slowly and carefully, keeping an eye on her for any reaction, he undoes the buckles on her jumpboots and pulls them off, taking a nasty shock in the process. Then he unclips her safety line.
He needs to treat this, whatever this is. Renn moves over to Volay, who seems to have worn himself out and is only weakly thrashing his tail back and forth. Renn pulls the medkit out of Renci’s backpack and conceals the jumpboots in his. He notices that sections of the harness are coated with more of the shimmering excretions of those insects. By the look of it, the tack is probably too contaminated to be reused and he should get it off Volay.
First though, he sees to Renci, administering some anti-hallucinogens and something to break down the toxin. She rouses enough to look at him, foggy but more responsive than before. “Ya can just rest now, lass,” he tells her. “The bugs’re all gone.”
He reviews the datapad from his vet kit and makes some adjustments to the doses, then treats Volay. He checks over Mira, as well. The kiros bird was not behaving oddly, but she did get stung. Finally, he considers the tack and decides to just cut it off and let it lie where it falls. While he would really like to destroy it, he does not want to burn it and chance that they will inhale the fumes and all suffer the effects of the toxin anew. He sighs. Not only are they out of tack now, they also lack climbing gear.
“Are you all right?”
Renn looks over and sees that Renci is sitting up. “I’m fine. Can ya see straight?”
“Yes.” She glances down at her watch. “We made good time, too.”
“You need ta not be thinkin’ about that sorta thing right now.”
“How’s Volay?” she asks.
“He’s okay. He’s comin’ down off it, too, but the gear’s all shot. It’s covered with the stuff. But you, ya need ta just rest.” She notices her boots are missing and asks what happened to them. He retrieves them for her, telling her he thought she might fly off but not pressing her about anything she thought she was experiencing. He picks his rifle back up and says, “I’ll scout out th’immediate area, see what we’re dealin’ with here while ya take some time ta recover.”
“Are you sure it’s safe to go out alone?”
“I’m not alone; I’ll have Mira with me. And I’ll stay within comm range.”
“Yes,” Renci agrees. “We have to work as a unit; I remember my drill sergeant saying that.”