Planet of Shadow
Once upon a time, on a distant planet, there was a beautiful Star Angel maiden named Exarah. Star Angels lived high on the canyon rim where the sun never set, above the Danger Zone.
Young and daring, Exarah flew to the edge of the Zone for her favorite food, a tasty, deep-purple orchid that grew only there. She was very careful to keep an eye on the Shadow. Like every Star Angel, she had been told the legend of the fallen Star Angel who tarried in the Zone too long and met a terrible fate.
The story goes that a foolish maiden followed a butterfly into the Danger Zone. The Shadow was low and she thought she had plenty of time. The butterfly landed on some magenta blossoms over a crevice filled with water. The maiden noticed her own reflection in the quiet pool.
The lovely young Star Angel had never seen herself before. With great curiosity, she spread her leathery wings and turned every which way to more fully admire her silvery skin and beautiful form. Suddenly, she felt a damp chill and realized that she had lost track of the time and that the sun was retreating up the cliff above her. She was in the Shadow and the canyon mists were swirling around her.
Now desperate, she tried to take off but her delicate wings had become soggy. No matter how hard she stroked, she slipped deeper and deeper into the Danger Zone and then the Canyon of Perpetual Darkness below it, never to be seen again. The ancients believed that the dreaded Shadow Crawlers captured her, tore her wings off and made her a slave. That is why Star Angels no longer enter the Danger Zone and always keep their wings folded modestly around their bodies, except to fly.
Now, Exarah heard a commotion above her and looked up to see Diroku and his mistresses. They were all so big and beautiful. How she yearned to be chosen by him to be in his harem. But Exarah was small and not as shapely as the other maidens were. As she watched them wheel and swoop, she swore that somehow she would make Diroku ask for her.
The Arch of Death
Warrior Star Angels worked hard to build and maintain harems. There had not been a war in millenniums, but they liked to remember the old traditions and continued to call male Star Angels, Warriors. Instead of fighting, they spent their time flying, mating, and eating butterflies and flowers. Mating was done on the wing. The Warrior would dive from above to a receptive mistress and mate from behind in the time of a few wing beats.
They were a very polite society and everything was done by agreement of all parties, Warriors, mistresses and maidens. When it came to the most desirable maidens, even then, the Warriors did not fight. Instead, they competed for her favors by challenging each other to feats of daring.
Typically, they would soar and dive along the cliffs, snatching rare air flowers hanging from the rocks. Also remember, it was only when they were flying that their bodies could be seen. Flying contests, therefore, allowed the maidens to admire them for their looks as well as their bravery.
The ultimate dare would be to fly through the Arch of Death, an opening in a fin of rock that jutted up from the Canyon of Perpetual Darkness. A few foolhardy Warriors had tried but none had made it through the opening and survived. Invariably, vicious wind currents dashed them against the rocks.
The sun shone through the Arch for a short time at low Shadow and it was then that a Star Angel would have an opportunity to swoop through it. Any later or sooner, and the Shadow would fall over the Arch, putting any Star Angel in peril of wetting its wings in the mist of the Shadow. The arch-shaped window was barely the width of a large Warrior’s wing span. One mistake or gust of wind and the flyer would crash into the rocks or sink into the Canyon. The feat required precision, timing and courage.
Growing up, Exarah had always been a bit of a Warrior, or at least a rebel. She reasoned that if a maiden flew through the Arch, she would become a hero. Then all the Warriors would want her in their harems and she could pick any Warrior she wanted. She would choose Diroku. He would want her for sure, then.
Maidens were slightly smaller than Warriors and Exarah was smaller than most maidens. Exarah calculated that she could use her diminutive size to advantage in conquering the Arch. She studied the Arch at Low Shadow many times and noticed that just as it was almost covered in darkness and the mist would start to flow through it, the winds were very calm. There was still a little sunlight in the top of the Arch, just enough room for her petite frame to slip through if she folded her wings quickly at that precise moment. A gorge nearby provided a secluded practice area. Exarah perfected her technique swooping through a notch in a rocky ridge.
When she was a juvenile, she had already developed a reputation as a daredevil, flying near the Warriors, teasing them, rolling and swooping away. She enjoyed flying. The warmth of the sun on her skin and the flow of the air over her wings made her feel alive. And, she could show her body. She had noticed that many of the Warriors looked at her a little too long. She was proud of her small figure and suspected that some of the Warriors liked it, too.
But her favorite thing to do was to dive down precariously low to the Shadow line and skim the cool mist ever so slightly. It was delicious.
Bye and bye, Diroku challenged a young Warrior for a maiden. They matched each other with each increasingly difficult feat of daring. Eventually, all the Star Angels had gathered to watch the contest.
It was Low Shadow and finally Diroku, starting to tire, dared his rival, in jest, to fly through the Arch of Death. This was usually the point at which the maiden would intervene and make her decision. Before she could, however, Exarah blurted out that she would fly through the Arch and, wings trembling, dived toward the Danger Zone.
Diroku and the other astonished Warriors followed her into the upper Danger Zone and hovered. The mistresses and maidens circled above them. All were calling her to give up the idea and come back. Diroku protested loudly for her not to try it. She looked back at him once over her shoulder and, her heart pounding, rolled and resumed her steep glide through the Danger Zone toward the Arch.
The Shadow was already covering most of the opening and the mist was beginning to flow through it. Exarah aimed for the top of the opening and tucked in her wings, but not quite quickly enough. An outcropping of rock on the side of the Arch hit one wingtip, breaking it.
Exarah, now out the other side, tried to pull up into the sunlight but almost fainted from the pain. The broken wing put her into a spiral -- down, down, down, into the Canyon of Perpetual Darkness. In a short time, the Star Angels could no longer see her.
No Warrior made a move to follow her. They knew there was nothing they could do to help her.
There was a racket from above. Nalfan looked up. A Star Angel was spinning into the Canyon. It was just below the Danger Zone and he could only see its silhouette against the sky as it landed on a ledge high up the canyon wall. The pained cries sounded like those of a female.
Shuffling down the trail as fast as he could, Nalfan scampered to the clan to get help. The other Shadow Crawlers stared at him blankly as he pleaded with them to help the Star Angel. Finally, an elder took him aside.
"Nalfan," he calmly advised. "There is nothing you can do. The Star Angel will soon perish. We tried to save a Star Angel once eons ago, and she died in spite of our best care. They must have sunlight." The elder saw that Nalfan was thinking hard and gravely added, "As you well know, a Shadow Crawler cannot venture far into the Danger Zone because sunlight is fatal for us. No Shadow Crawler has ever reached the top of the Danger Zone and returned alive. And you would be trying to carry her at the same time. It is impossible. Do not even think of it."
On a few occasions, Nalfan had approached the edge of the Danger Zone to hunt mushrooms. He knew if anything went wrong and the Shadow receded beneath him, that he risked painful burns and the distinct possibility of dying. Once, in a contest to get the best mushrooms, one of his friends had broken an ankle after venturing into the Zone. Nalfan and some others rescued him after Low Shadow, but he had been stranded on the cliff in full sunlight too long and was badly burned. He suffered for a long time before dying.
Nalfan was dismayed. If he brought her down to the clan, she would die. If he left her there, she would die. If he tried to take her to the top of the Danger Zone, he would most certainly be seriously burned. He did not want to share the fate of his friend.
In Crawler lore, the Star Angels were the most beautiful creatures in the universe. The clan often watched them flying high above the Canyon and elders repeated the legends to the young Crawlers about the denizens of the light.
There might not be anything he could do to save her, but no living Crawler had ever actually seen a Star Angel up close. He wanted to climb to the ledge to examine one, even if it was a dead one. He asked the elders to approve his plan assuring them he had climbed that high before. The elders discussed the matter and allowed him to go. Nalfan set out for the ledge. The way was difficult and by the time he got there, it was High Shadow.
Exarah’s wing throbbed with pain as she backed under some moss as far as she could. She hoped the Shadow Crawlers wouldn’t find her there. She was aching all over from the hard landing and couldn’t bear to look at her wing. It was growing very dark and she began to shiver with cold.
Sometime later, she woke up numb and freezing. It was too dark for her to see anything, but she could hear something moving around and breathing. And, it smelled terrible.
Nalfan noticed something silvery under some moss. He knelt down for a better look. Suddenly it hissed at him and bared its teeth. He jumped back and studied her for a while. She did not seem to be able to see him.
She was smaller than he thought she would be. He ignored the hissing and reached under the moss and pulled her out. She tried to bite him but her little teeth could not penetrate his thick fur. She was very cold and weak. He wrapped his big arms around her and curled up in a ball with her to warm her. She tried to resist at first, but her struggling stopped with a whimper. She relaxed her head on his shoulder and began to breathe easily.
As she slept, he pondered what to do. He was surprised she was still alive and seemed healthier than he thought she would after such a long fall. Only the tip of her wing appeared to be damaged. He fell asleep, too.
A little after low Shadow, he awoke to see her staring at him. She was still in his arms but had craned her neck around. He was looking into a pair of startling golden eyes. Crawlers had dark eyes. He had never seen anything as exquisite as those eyes. He loosened his grip on her.
She began eating some small white flowers, tentatively at first, then gobbling them up. While they were foraging and eating, he could not help but notice that she was the loveliest thing he had ever seen. While resting after he had munched on lichens and slurped up a slug, he had an idea.
Maybe the Star Angels would meet him halfway. Then instead of trying to use one High Shadow to carry her all the way to the top of the Danger Zone and one Low Shadow to return all the way to the bottom, it would be much easier. He could use a High Shadow and a mid-Shadow to carry her to the center of the Danger Zone. He would only have to cover half the distance and have half again as much time. Then he would have the remaining Low Shadow to scramble back down by himself. It was still risky, but he knew he could do it. They would have to be at the bottom of the Danger Zone and well rested at the next Low Shadow to insure success. The sooner they started the better. There was no time to tell the clan.
He gestured with his hands for her to climb on his back as he pointed up the canyon wall. She understood and dug her thumbs and toes into his fur and hung on with what little strength she had left.
The Danger Zone
Nalfan reached the lower border of the Danger Zone well before Low Shadow. He helped Exarah off and laid down for a rest. He would need it to make his plan work.
The sky was growing brighter and Exarah could see well now. Nalfan was bigger than the largest Warrior. He had thick arms and legs and was covered with dark fur over most of his body. His stomach, chest and face, though, were almost bare and very pale.
After the Shadow had begun moving up the cliff, Nalfan loaded up Exarah and started his climb. He was rested and felt good. Exarah was very light and easy to carry. He was confident that he could reach the center. The only question was, would any Star Angels descend into the Danger Zone to rescue her.
Exarah noticed that the Zone had more plants as they moved toward its center. Alternating light and dark, dry and mist allowed all sorts of things to grow in profusion. She snatched flowers as they climbed through the lush vegetation. She had never tasted flowers so sweet and began to feel better as her little tummy filled up.
She could feel Nalfan’s muscles working as he climbed. He was very strong, but at the same time, careful to move smoothly so as not to shake her off. She was amazed at how gracefully he pulled and lifted himself up the canyon wall. A grounded Star Angel could barely move at all.
It was a little after high Shadow when Nalfan reached a large ledge on which to safely leave Exarah. Close to the center of the Zone, there were plenty of flowers for her to eat. He gently placed her in a comfortable position where she could be seen from above, turned his head skyward and bellowed a few times.
Soon, Warriors began circling overhead. The bright sky made it difficult for Nalfan to see them clearly. He waved his arms and pointed at Exarah. A large stone crashed near him, then something hit his head and he blacked out.
Exarah screeched at the Warriors to stop stoning the Crawler, that the Crawler was not hurting her. That he was her friend and was trying to help her.
Suspicious of the Crawler, the Warriors had rained down stones on him until they heard Exarah order them to stop, but not before one had injured the unconscious Nalfan’s leg.
Nalfan could not open his eyes. He was in full sunlight and beginning to burn. He knew he had to get below the Shadow line soon or he would die, but his head hurt and he could not stand or move his leg.
Tears flowed from Exarah’s eyes. Nalfan was injured and could not save himself. Diroku and his fellow Warriors were afraid to enter the Danger Zone and would not rescue Exarah. Nalfan was burning up in the sunlight. Exarah knew if he died, she would freeze to death in the dark. The situation seemed impossible, but maybe, she thought, there was something she could do after all.
She stood between Nalfan and the sun, throwing her shadow over him, but it was too small. She looked around as if there might be someone else there who would see her, then realizing how silly she was, spread her wings wide. This made shade large enough to cover all of Nalfan’s body.
Exarah heard some murmuring up in the sky and knew that the Star Angels were circling and talking about her exposing herself, to a Crawler no less. She did not care. In fact, the longer she stood there with the sun on her back, the stronger she felt. She did not care what anyone saw or what they might think.
Nalfan slowly came around. He realized that he was in a cool shadow, squinted and saw Exarah. She smiled at him in all her bare, silver innocence. Nalfan could see her wings clearly silhouetted against the sun. She had thumbs, but her fingers were extremely long and stretched webs of skin between them, her long arms and her beautiful body. He let out a soft moan as he gazed on her streamlined form and dreamed himself back to sleep.
And so it went. By sunlight, Exarah spread her wings and shaded Nalfan. By Shadow, Nalfan curled up with Exarah and kept her warm. She started nestling her nose in his fur. He was beginning to smell good to her.
In the twilight between full sunlight and total darkness, they gathered flowers, butterflies, mushrooms, lichens and slugs and fed each other. Over time, Nalfan grew accustomed to eating butterflies and Exarah gradually acquired a taste for slugs.
It was beginning to cool off as the Shadow neared. Exarah stroked her wings back and forth a few times and stretched her back. Nalfan was napping and did not need shading this close to Shadow fall.
Her broken wing did not hurt anymore and felt strong. She stroked more vigorously and lifted easily off the ledge. As she hesitantly flew back and forth, she realized that she was well enough to return home, above the Danger Zone. She saw Nalfan beginning to stir and dropped in quietly near him. She had longed for the time she could fly home. Now that she could, she had a strange feeling that she did not want to leave. Anyway, she couldn’t leave Nalfan alone here to die. He was still injured and could not climb down. He still needed her to shade him. She put it out of her mind as the Shadow swept over them and she curled up with Nalfan to ward off the Shadow chill.
Later, Nalfan was awakened by a familiar sound. He thought he could hear Crawlers grunting and talking to each other. Soon, four of his friends climbed up on the ledge. He jumped up, ran over and hugged them. They were all very happy to see Nalfan and then began ooh-ing and ah-ing as they saw Exarah.
Exarah was angry and looked harshly at Nalfan. She pointed to his leg. Nalfan grinned and did a little jig. His leg had been well for a while, but he had kept it hidden. Then Nalfan raised his eyebrows, flapped his arms and pointed at Exarah. It was only then that she realized in her anger she was hovering above them.
Nalfan assured his friends that he was all right and could come down whenever he wanted to. Then told them to start back before the Shadow receded. They begged him a little longer to come with them, then left reluctantly.
Nalfan noticed that Exarah was beginning to shiver. When she curled up with him again, she felt rigid.
The Mating Dance
Exarah stared up at the darkening blue sky. She could see the Star Angels circling above them, shining in the sunlight. Warriors flitted from mistress to mistress, mating with them. She thought she could see Diroku, but wasn’t sure. Then she remembered something that the mistresses once told her.
The mistresses were talking about ancient times, the wars and The Mating Dance. They believed it was important to pass along the old legends to the maidens. One maiden giggled and asked to hear the story about The Glow.
Star Angel lore was that when a Warrior mated with a maiden that it was the most wonderful sensation possible. Her wings would begin to flutter and her blood would feel sweeter than nectar until she thought she would explode. Then she would begin to glow, a brilliant pulsing white glow.
The maidens became excited and asked the mistresses if they enjoyed The Glow. The mistresses looked uneasily at each other and adjusted their wings. Finally, one mistress confided that no mistress had experienced The Glow since the wars. Another mistress explained that they continued The Mating Dance out of a sense of tradition, the same way they called the males, Warriors.
Exarah was crestfallen at this news. She exhorted one of the mistresses. "But you are with Diroku. Certainly Diroku can give you The Glow," she begged. The mistress looked at the ground, then said, "Have you ever seen any of us glow?"
It was then Exarah realized the truth. Yet she remained convinced that given the chance her desire for Diroku would be so great that he would be able to give her The Glow.
Now, confused, lying in Nalfan’s arms looking up at the Star Angels, she began to fear that she would never fly The Mating Dance. Never feel a Warrior’s wings beating against her own. Never be chosen by Diroku. Softly, quietly, she began to sob into Nalfan’s fur.
Nalfan was watching the Star Angels, too, but was thinking about his friends and the clan. He had a female picked out and was anxious to see her again, yet did not want to leave Exarah. Shadow Crawlers had one mate for life. They mated facing each other and would sometimes stay joined from Low Shadow to Low Shadow. Nalfan could not understand the strong feelings he had for Exarah. He saw no way they could ever mate. Star Angels mated in flight from behind. He could not fly. Curled up with her back to his bare stomach, she was all elbows, wings and feet.
It was about then that Nalfan noticed that Exarah was shaking and that his arm felt wet. He was worried about her and carefully turned her face to his. There were drops of liquid running from her eyes, around her mouth and down her chin. He tasted one with his tongue and it was salty. He began licking her face clean. Exarah turned around in his arms, facing him, and her wings began to flutter.
The Star Angels were swirling and swooping through a sky now turned completely black. The Warriors were busy pairing first with one mistress then another when some maidens began yelling.
Diroku and the other Warriors and all of the mistresses and all of the maidens stopped flying around and hovered. They were peering down into the Danger Zone, which was in full Shadow. In its center was a faint white glow. It pulsed rhythmically, and with each pulsation grew brighter.
The mistresses and maidens began to weep. The Warriors swallowed hard. They knew they were looking at Exarah. They knew that Exarah was in The Glow.
The Warriors could no longer look at their mistresses. The mistresses never again flew The Mating Dance. To this day, on a clear night, Shadow Crawlers in love can still see Star Angels sparkling in the sky, wings flashing as they hover, watching for the lovers’ Glow.
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