Wow, it's been a while. First off, I'd like to apologise to anyone who decided to follow this story for my lenthy hiatus. Without going into detail, my life had a bit of an upheaval that didn't leave me with much time or drive to pursue things like writing. Luckily, things have settled and I can get back to this. Second, thanks for those of you that commented and followed. I promise you won't be waiting months for updates from now on.
Jak had been walking for what felt like hours now, but the sun hadn't seemed to move or wane at all. Daxter had hopped down from his shoulder to walk beside him not long after they set off so as to not burden the hero further, Jak assumed. He palmed the sweat from his brow, the rough leather of his glove smearing the moisture rather than absorbing it. He looked back at his companion who had fallen behind; the ottsel's short legs unable quicken to make up for their length, scruffy paws ploughing furrows in the sand with every dragging step.
Jak slowed to catch his breath and to let Daxter catch up. While stalling, he looked around futilely, seeing identical vaporous dunes billowing up to a bleached blue sky. Jak hadn't felt heat like this since traversing Fire Canyon back home, but at least he had had a zoomer then.
"Dax, get on my shoulder," Jak said, spotting his friend's failing endurance.
"I'm fine, Jak," Daxter managed to lie with some difficulty. "Just peachy, right as rain… Ah crap, why did I have to say rain?" The ottsel had slowed severely now and Jak walked back to him and knelt down and offered a hand. "Really, big guy, I'm alright," Daxter said and meekly pushed the hand aside. "Maybe… maybe just a nap 'n we can…we can, uh…" Jak caught him before he hit the dirt. He brought his fainted friend to his chest and cradled him there, at once relieved that he was no longer able to protest at being treated with kid gloves and fearful over their predicament. He struggled on, unwilling to succumb to political backstabbing after all he'd fought through.
At length, the sun shifted across the sky, but lost no intensity. Jak removed his red scarf and wrapped it loosely around Daxter to shield him from the sun, but if help didn't arrive soon… It didn't bear thinking about. He couldn't die now, not when so much remained undone, not while his promise remained unfulfilled. He absently squeezed Daxter a little tighter.
His mind felt like it was cooking now and distant shapes of mountains conjured up images of Sandover. He felt phantom sea breeze and it whispered dreams and memories as it rose to greet him.
His leg faltered and he fell to his knees. The impact shook him somewhat from his delirium and he cursed himself for being so weak. He removed a frayed edge of scarf to reveal Daxter's exhausted features and a rapidly rising and falling chest. Jak replaced the covering and swore against further reminiscing. His past was long dead and dwelling on it served no purpose.
Just then, he felt the vaguest of sensations; a brush of static electricity, the feeling of being watched, pins and needles. Recognizable – a reaction and response to his proximity to Dark Eco. He looked up and around with anxious eyes. Impossible, there was no Eco here. Eco was life and nothing lived for long out here.
As he was about to convince himself that it was nothing more than the trick of a dying mind, he saw it. Distant, just too consistent to be an apparition, a black spot stood against the white like a stain on a fresh canvas. He rose with renewed vigour and stumbled towards it.
As he drew closer, the smudge grew in size and definition. The sensation washed over him again, threatening and inviting like a stranger's soothing tones. He shrugged it off and continued. There was nowhere else to go; a negative view of the light at the end of the tunnel.
Then he stood before it – a cave, hollowed out in the side of a steep rise of jagged, cracked rock. Without further hesitation, he stepped inside.
Once inside, Jak didn't hesitate to slump against one of the concave walls beyond the reach of the furious sunlight. He gathered a few laboured breaths before carefully unwrapping Daxter and sliding the red cloth from around his form. The small body seemed to respond to the cool of the cave, relaxing into a more restful slumber.
He looked around and noticed the walls and roof were oddly smooth, devoid of hanging or standing pillars, as if the hollow was carved away rather than naturally formed. To his left, it stretched into darkness; a yawning void that unsettled him, but for now he was content to sit in the eerie shade.
Daxter stirred in his arms and he figured it was best to wake him. "Dax," he said and softly shook the ottsel's head with his palm. "Daxter," he repeated, more firmly this time and his friend's eyes opened and focused shortly.
"I feel hungover," Daxter said with a groan and shifted himself from Jak's arms. "Please say we got plastered last night and we're still in Haven."
"Afraid not," Jak said with a smirk as Daxter groggily stretched. He leant back with that ottsel flexibility until something audibly popped in his back. "Ah, there it is," he said once the kink had been worked out. He froze as he caught sight of the darkness contrasting the light of the entrance. "Uh, Jak, where are we?"
"A cave," Jak answered and wrapped his scarf back around his neck. "Lucky for us."
"Weird lookin' cave."
"Almost as big as Torn's mouth," Jak laughed quietly and tilted his head back. He rested his eyes. The sound of the wind outside calmed him. It was odd, that sound. Haven was a constant assault to the senses; the streets' insomnia fuelled by zoomers and screams and gunshots, the underground filled with the cadence of boots and metallic drips and creaking pipes. The quiet and the desert wind held a certain cleansing quality, eroding the hardened black formed by Haven's toxins.
A breathy, high-pitched sound woke Jak from his trance. It was followed by several softer mimics. A whistle. Jak opened his eyes and looked to the source of the sound as Daxter whistled again. Louder and sharper this time, aimed to the shadowed depths by a cupped paw at his mouth. It whistled back and Daxter wrinkled his nose in thought. Then he shouted. The outburst pulsed down the cave. He shouted again, longer and louder. So too did the Earth.
"Daxter," Jak said, wanting to quiet his friend. He still felt the curious sensation of Eco and he didn't want to wake anything that might call this place home.
"C'mon, Jak," Daxter said, turning and gesturing towards his friend, "give it a shot." The ottsel looked at him with an infectious smile that made anything seem fun. Jak rose and walked up beside Daxter. They both stood the foot of the darkness and, unsure, the hero looked to the other who held out his hand as if to say, "After you." Jak inhaled sharply and yelled and the short, deep bark travelled down the path. Daxter responded with another yell, longer than Jak's. They glanced at each other and smirked and shouted together. As they did so, the hollers increased in volume and length until their arms were pulled rigidly back and their knees bent to put as much force into their voices as possible.
After a while they stopped and laughed and the ottsel coughed hoarsely. Jak breathed heavily and somehow felt better. All of his anger and pain had suddenly found an outlet sorely unused. The ugliness that weighed so heavily in his head and heart had been lightened, diffused, if only slightly, by inarticulate screams directed at nothing – the cold, dark nothing that would scream back in his nightmares. But for now, Jak smiled in earnest and wondered if Daxter recognized the catharsis of all this or if he was just fooling around. Maybe both. Either way, Jak silently thanked him as he knelt and patted the thin, furry back of the ottsel who was still thudding his chest and roughly coughing.
When the whooping fit had settled, they looked at each other, strangely happy despite everything. Daxter opened his mouth to say something undoubtedly stupid but the cave interrupted with a shout of its very own. An incredibly deep sound reverberated all around the duo and unsettled the dust and pebbles beneath them. Jak stood and Daxter clambered up his leg to his back to his shoulder, peeking wide-eyed over the metal plate. The sound diminished to sustained guttural moan before cutting off. Bits of rock tumbled both inside and outside the cave, as if they had disturbed the very mountain and it had shifted in its sleep. Silence then, save for the wind.
Jak stepped backwards slowly but kept his eyes fixed on the entrance to the depths. Daxter shakily said his name and Jak shushed him sternly. He took another step. Another. Another. He sensed a violent presence and winced and something shot out from blackness. It wrapped itself around the hero's ankle with sinewy strength. He caught a glimpse of it before it pulled his feet from beneath him – a scaled, black appendage, seemingly made from the darkness itself. The next thing he saw was the cave roof as he landed hard on his back. Before he could try to break free it pulled fiercely and dragged him into the void.
Daxter was clinging onto the shoulder plate as his feet and tail were dragged behind him. The thing that held them was thrashing too much for Jak to reach his ankle and try to wrestle free. Adrenaline momentarily overpowered terror and the ottsel pulled himself from the dirt and scurried down Jak's torso and along his leg wrenching in the clasp of the creature that had constricted around it. Without thinking he started biting and clawing at it in order to wound it enough to release the duo.
Its skin was like thick, dry leather and it tasted wrong. Bitter and metallic, the familiar kind of wrong that reminded Daxter of drowning and fear and hatred. He didn't care and kept attacking.
Jak heard Daxter trying to claw them free and shared the notion, figuring his own black claws would do the trick. Unfortunately, Jak had had little exposure to Dark Eco since his battle with Kor and the depleted amount inside him was not enough to force the change. They had also taken his morph gun before the trial. Bastards.
As he furiously thought up another means of escape, the ground fell away beneath him and the rising, sickening feeling of sudden weightlessness hit him. For a moment there was no sound. No sound, no sight, no sensation. He floated in a void.
Daxter's scream followed, accompanied by the portentous rush of air whisking passed Jak's ears.
Jak came to sometime later. He didn't know how long he had been out, the cleaving pain in his head made thought almost impossible. He remembered the cave, the thing that grabbed him, falling… Daxter. He called out for his friend as terror struck him. No answer. He called again and rose unsteadily to his feet.
It was pitch black. He felt around blindly but his outstretched hands brushed nothing. He stopped, took a breath, and soothed his panic. Think, Jak, he thought, you're no use to Daxter stumbling around and crying in the dark. In his stillness, he heard a faint noise. It was high-pitched beep, just barely audible. The beacon!
He pulled the device from a pouch on his belt. It pulsed and flashed a soft light every few seconds. It wasn't much, but it was better than nothing. He fixed it to one of the leather strips attached to the Eco ring on his chest. He took in his surroundings haltingly, moments at a time. The light didn't reach far and he used it to progress slowly.
He felt the brink before he saw it.
Jak looked down and the blinking light illuminated nothing in front of him. The jagged outline of the edge could be seen before giving way to emptiness suffused with the presence of Dark Eco. It rose from the abyss, greeting him like a too warm breeze or the smell of rot. Whatever dragged them here was down there.
And it was big.
Daxter wasn't sure how far he had fallen. He managed to catch himself on a rocky outcropping and clamber up through a crevice in the stone. He didn't know what happened to Jak and he was terrified. He thought he heard Jak's scream stop suddenly on the way down but he couldn't be sure. It all happened so fast.
He spent a few minutes calling out for the green/blonde, but got no answer. His heart sank but he quickly convinced himself that Jak was alive, that it would take more than a freaky tentacle thing and a tumble in dark to make the hero kick the proverbial bucket.
He didn't know where he was going. He couldn't see anything – ottsels had no better night vision than humans. He cursed Dark Eco for not turning him into something nocturnal. It was silent save for the occasional unidentifiable sound that could just have easily been his imagination as it could have been a 12 foot Lurker/Metal Head hybrid about to chow down on Orange Lightning and keep a severed paw for good luck.
It didn't help that he was feeling something particularly nasty down below. Jak was more in tune with sensing this kind of stuff so he figured the hero's skin had to be crawling non-stop.
He ignored that for now. He had to find Jak and get out.
At length he found himself in a narrow tunnel, the sides of which were only a few steps apart. Daxter was quietly begging for a sign to show him which way to go. A real sound, some kind of light, anything. Shortly after, he heard hissing and something scraping the stone up ahead. Ovals of light bobbed into view and he instantly recognized them as Metal Head skull gems.
He had gotten his sign. Careful what you wish for, he thought.