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Things didn’t begin until night had fallen.

Annie and Jonas had begun making preparations, taking out new objects that Shadow hadn’t seen before and checking them over.

There were thick, perfectly straight white sticks, about as long as a thinker’s forearm, with a spike on their bottoms. Everything but the spike and the top of the object was covered in tiny black markings. The symbols were like far more complicated versions of the symbols she drew on the ground. They were all squiggly and weird, but at the same time very intricate and finely made.

They were called array formation anchors, which she thought was an awfully long name. Apparently, they were going to make the tree-eater stay asleep. She wasn’t sure how they were supposed to do that, but she was all in favor of that if it worked.

The thinkers were being incredibly careful with them, making sure to never touch the markings after they had unwrapped them from their cloth coverings. They were checking them over, making sure none of the symbols were damaged.

She had wanted to get closer for a better look, but Annie had told her to stay back.

She was a little bit insulted. She would be careful!

But… She supposed it made sense. She didn’t want to do anything that might make the anchors not work, and she really didn’t understand anything about them so maybe just getting close could be bad for them?

She wasn’t sure, but keeping on the side of caution was probably the better choice, despite her curiosity.

They're really neat looking though...

There were other things they had taken out and checked too; metal tools that would help with the ‘samples’ and a container that had some sort of thick liquid in it.

There was one last thing that looked special; a small disk that also had symbols all over it, but this one was made of metal. The symbols looked to have been carved into it somehow. It looked just as intricate as the anchors, but they were less careful with it. She figured it must be more durable.

The tree-eater had already stopped for the day. It had rested its belly on the ground, pulling its legs and head into the giant crystal-covered shell that made up its back. Now it just sat there, only the sound of its deep breaths filling the night air.

Their checks finally done, the pair crept off to start the operation. Annie nodded back to Shadow, and she got to work.

At first, the thinkers had wanted her to sit back and wait while they performed their task, but she would have none of it.

She wasn’t going to sit around while her companions put themselves in danger. If there was anything she could do to help, she would do it. She wanted to improve their chances as much as she possibly could. Annie had eventually folded, and now Shadow was tasked with keeping an eye out for anything in the forest that might interrupt things.

I won’t fail!

Annie had wrapped her crystal in some cloth and put it in her pack, so she wouldn’t need to scout with a glowing crystal in her mouth. She’d thought Annie was trying to take it again at first, but Annie managed to get across that she would only be holding it for now and giving it back later. Shadow was ok with that. She also had Annie take off and pack away her belt and pouches for now.

She felt a little silly now, knowing that her giant companion could just carry her stuff. She could probably get them to go back to the cave and grab the items she had painstakingly left behind after this was over. As long as they were willing to help, she could reserve her limited pouch space for new discoveries!

But that was for later.

She started slinking around the perimeter, keeping an eye out for any movement in the forest. She kept a good distance from the tree-eater as she circled, not wanting to distract the thinkers from their task.

She couldn’t help but cast nervous glances back at the pair. What they were doing was both fascinating and terrifying. They were very carefully moving around the tree eater in opposite directions, pushing the anchors into the ground at regular intervals. Making sure to move as slowly and quietly as possible.

She winced every time one of their feet hit the ground. They were still painfully loud to her ears. The tree-eater slept on unperturbed though, so she supposed they were quiet enough.

Shadow kept up her own circle, peering into the forest. She saw some flashes of movement, but nothing big. Nothing that should cause a problem. She tried to move quickly despite her stealth, not wanting to leave any one side unwatched for too long. She decided her shadow fluff would help with that and pushed it out.

If she became hard to spot during the day with it on, she was almost invisible at night. She moved faster knowing she was unlikely to be seen, eyes sweeping, ready for anything.

The thinkers finished placing the anchors, and Annie sat down in front of one, placing her hands on top.

The anchor started to glow, the black symbols filling in with golden light. She had sudden déjà vu as she saw them light up. They were less mobile but they bore a striking resemblance to the squiggly runes that always accompanied Annie's healing. They definitely weren't the same but they seemed similar. The connection between them hadn't occurred to her until after she saw them glowing.

Bright golden lines shot out to either side of the anchor, tracing along the ground, linking to the anchors on either side in the circle. They lit up in turn and extended their own golden lines along the curve of the circle. The chain reaction continued until there was a solid circle of shimmering golden light, with each anchor shining like a beacon, symbols glowing with brilliant luminescence.

Shadow's eyes were wide, staring, and she felt a sense of peace wash over her. It was like the light was some sort of gentle caress, lulling her with a deep feeling of safety and tranquility.

The light built in intensity for a bit more before more lines shot off from all the anchors at once, passing under the tree-eater and linking together in ornate glowing patterns. Annie nodded at Jonas who stepped forward toward the giant beast.

Shadow shook herself out of the trance and focused back on the forest. The golden lights were amazing, but she wouldn’t neglect her task. She continued her patrol, only briefly glancing over to check on their progress.

The tree-eater was still soundly asleep. It seemed to be the focus of the formation, so she wondered if that tranquil feeling was even stronger for it. Perhaps that was what was meant to keep it asleep?

She was feeling hopeful. Jonas was over by the giant creature now, doing things to it with the tools, even climbing up on it, but it showed no signs of stirring at all. It just kept sleeping without a care in the world, oblivious to the little thinker messing with it.

Her thoughts were interrupted when she saw a glint of red in the forest behind where Annie was sitting. She quickly made her way over, trying to get a better look.

Her blood ran cold.

Red-eyes!

She could see the creature, crouched, tensing, looking at Annie’s exposed back.

No!

She exploded forward, her legs straining, throwing herself toward the creature, desperately trying to reach it before it lunged. She pushed with her energy-muscles and started to make her mouth acidic.

It was big. Far bigger than her. Standing on all fours its shoulders were about a head taller than Jonas, and it was wider then he and Annie combined.

What can I even do?

She was a single shadeling. It took the whole swarm to take one of these things down, and not easily. Its body was shaped similarly to a shadeling, but with a wider face, lacking a tail and covered in fur instead of scales. It was bulky and muscular, but fast. It also had its signature red eyes. It was so large she wasn’t sure she could hurt it enough to get it to abort its attack.

Time stretched as it settled back on its haunches, getting ready to pounce.

Her eyes locked on its rear legs. She saw the tendons at the back stretched taut with tension. Her mind calmed as she focused.

There.

It started pushing, its mass starting to move, rapidly accelerating.

She was flying through the air, mouth open as she slammed into the back of the nearest leg. She caught flesh and sheared through it, flesh sizzling a bit, but not nearly as much as she would have liked. Her acid spit had some startup time. Not that it mattered in this case. She felt something snap in her jaws. The red-eyes staggered, howling as it sprawled forward, tumbling as its lunge was interrupted.

Annie’s head snapped up, and she looked back. She stayed sitting and didn’t move her arms.

“Jonas!” she shouted in a strained voice, but he was already on his way.

He was already off the tree eater, strapping on his shield as he ran over.

The red-eyes quickly righted itself, but wasn’t putting any weight on the leg Shadow was latched on to.

Had been latched on to.

She didn’t even see what had happened, she was just suddenly flying through the air, mind reeling as her whole left side pulsed with pain. She slammed into the ground, tumbling through the foliage.

She took a moment to steady, then quickly checked herself over. She had a gash on her side, which was bleeding but not too deep. She was aching but didn’t think anything was broken. She got back to her feet and bolted through the underbrush to get eyes on the red-eyes again.

She pushed through the last bit of cover and saw it facing off with Jonas, who was slowly circling it, facing it away from Annie, who hadn’t moved. She was sweating.

The red-eyes had definitely been hobbled. It was having to hop to adjust itself as it followed Jonas, teeth bared and growling.

“Try to run it off, Jonas.” Annie panted; words strained.

“This is a crimson reaper Annie. If it runs it runs but I can’t afford to pull my punches. I would never have agreed to take you out here if I knew they were in the area.” Jonas stated, words calm, his eyes never leaving the beast.

Annie squeezed her eyes shut but stayed silent.

The red-eyes lunged, though with much less speed given only one leg was powering the motion. Jonas leaped to the right, trying to get out of the way, but the creature's reach was too wide. It swept out with its large claw, fast, and Jonas swung his shield in to place at the last moment. He grunted, the impact sending him stumbling, but he kept to his feet.

The red-eyes roared at him, and Shadow noticed it had a new cut on its foreleg. Somehow Jonas had cut it in the instant it’d hit him.

Shadow felt a rush go through her. The red-eyes was injured and Jonas was not.

He can beat it!

She needed to find a way to help. The obvious target was the tendon on its other back leg. She started moving, getting in position to ambush it again.

It kept advancing toward Jonas, batting at him with quick strikes now. It didn’t lunge again like last time, its injury making it more cautious with how far it extended. Jonas managed to dodge most of its attempts but was still getting hammered by some. The creature was making sure to only hit with the ends of its claws and was going for quicker swats with less power. Jonas wasn’t landing any more counter-strikes. Each blow the red-eyes connected with still sounded heavy despite the reduction in power.

Shadow was forced to keep pace with the moving battle as she tried to find a good position to strike from.

Finally, there was an opportunity. Jonas had anticipated a swipe and stepped into it, planting his feet firmly on the ground, weathering the hammer blow as it smashed into him. He took the opportunity to jam his sword into the creature’s foreleg and tore it back out; The blade doing as much damage on exit as it did when plunging in.

The red-eyes staggered back from the wound, screeching in rage, and that gave Shadow her chance. Rushing forward, she leaped, aiming to hamstring it again.

It spotted her coming.

The beast hopped back again, and she bounced off its shin, tumbling to the ground under it. Its movement was enough to throw her completely off-target. This time she saw the follow-up strike coming, as it swept a massive foreclaw under itself.

How did it spot me!?

She tried to jump out of the way, but didn’t have any time. She barely had her legs under her, so she just shoved off the ground as hard as possible and hoped for the best. Wherever she ended up would be better than her current location.

She still wasn’t fast enough. She felt its claws split open her shoulder as she was sent sprawling again. This time she didn’t land so well, and hit a rock hard with her side, feeling something snap inside her. Suddenly breathing hurt like fire.

Ow… ow… Something's broken…

She forced herself to get back up, despite her body's protest. Everything hurt. She couldn’t put any weight on her left foreleg, it was just hanging there limp. Her left shoulder was just a massive wound, mangled, and leaking blood. She winced just looking at it. Something was busted in her chest too. Breathing was causing agonizing pain to shoot down her side.

She looked around.

She had landed near Annie, who was still sitting, eyes squeezed shut, gasping for air. Her hands were still pressed on top of one of the anchors. Whatever she was doing to keep the golden lights on seemed to be taking a toll.

Jonas and the red-eyes were still fighting. The creature had a great rent running down its neck and across its chest. Blood was pouring down its front. It looked like her maneuver hadn’t been all for naught, having given Jonas a chance to strike. Despite its new wounds it still seemed to be fighting at full power, minus the crippled leg. 

She tried to limp toward it but realized she wouldn’t be any help in her condition. There was no way she could keep up with the battle if this was as fast as she could move.

It suddenly occurred to her that she had been able to see herself just fine when checking her injuries.

Stupid! Reckless!

She must have accidentally relaxed her shadow fluff when her brain had gotten rattled from the first time she had been sent flying! She had been so intent on the battle and looking for her next opportunity she hadn’t even noticed it was gone. No wonder it spotted her so easily!

And now her mistake had left her too injured to help.

She gritted her teeth, a frustrated hiss whistling past them. She would have to believe in Jonas.

She tried to settle down and pressed the side of her face over her shoulder wound as best she could. She hissed in pain from the contact, but steeled herself and kept pressing. It wouldn’t do to let herself bleed out because of a bit of discomfort. Well, a lot of discomfort, but still.

She wished Annie could heal her, but she was too preoccupied keeping the tree-eater asleep.

She was shifting her focus back to the battle when the golden lines on the anchors started flickering.

Oh no.

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