Caution: Quills may be sharp Circulation: 105,637,792 Issue: 210 | 30th day of Gathering, Y7
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The Scratchcard


by tamia_silverwing

--------

"Terlia!" cried the Cybunny shopkeeper delightedly. "Just who I need!"

      Terlia the Wocky had scarcely pushed through the gauzy, golden curtain hanging over the stall's entrance when the Cybunny came bouncing over to greet her, heavy bangles jangling like some bizarre musical instrument.

      "Yes, you'll never believe what I managed to do -- it was hardly my fault, but in any case, the problem must be fixed," she babbled on, steering the Wocky to a back corner of the stall like a proud owner parading a dumbfounded petpet. There she proceeded to plunk herself down on one of the overfilled rose cushions lying in a heap, sighing wearily.

      "Um..." Terlia started. She wasn't sure if she should have any idea of what the scratchcard seller was going on about.

      But before she could say anything at all, the desert Cybunny cut in. "Of course, darling, you wouldn't know. Well, anyways. Know Mr. Mando?"

      Terlia shook her head blankly.

      "Old codger. Grumpy fat old Yurble codger. Came in here for his daily scratchcard, paid for it too, but then we started having problems with the filing system--" She gestured to the row of filing cabinets behind her that lined the back wall of the shop, their drawers hanging open and tilting precariously, various scratchcards spilling out over their tops and covering the floor. It wasn't hard to believe she had been having problems with the filing system. It looked like all it would take would be a small breeze to turn the cabinets into a very large and very messy game of dominoes. "-- and by the time we got that cleaned up, he was ranting and raving about how much of a colossal waste of time and neopoints it had been, and he'd stormed out without his scratchcard. Then you came in, darling, and you're such a sweetie, I knew I could trust you to help me. I'd go and give it to him myself, but I'm so busy these days... my products are so popular."

      "Wha-- wait, I--"

      "Oh, come on. You know you'd love to help; you're young and spry and full of that yellow Wocky zest. It's not too far. I'll even throw in a Suteks Riches Scratchcard."

      "I thought it was lucky dip."

      "That's what the sign says, dear; we play by my rules now." She smiled cheerfully. "So whaddya say?"

      "Hold on, I-- no. No I can't. I mean, I'm busy too, I've gotta--"

      She stopped mid-sentence, unable to keep her eyes off of the Cybunny's face-- her tawny ears, twitching emotionally, her turquoise eyes, innocent and pleading. Terlia melted. "I've got a new chore to do," she muttered, hating her helpers' spirit.

      "Excellent!" the other pet exclaimed, springing up again and knocking a pile of neopoint coins from the top of a cushion. "I knew I wouldn't be disappointed!"

      A blue Nimmo shouted something from the doorway of the stall. He hurled five coins into the cushion-filled corner, where they disappeared under a mauve pillow. The Cybunny almost absentmindedly reached into one of the higher file drawers and pulled out a scratchcard, flinging it so that it flew spinning into the Nimmo's outstretched hands. He jogged off happily.

      "Now as for you," she said, grabbing another scratchcard and thrusting it into the dazed Wocky's paws. She placed a paw on Terlia's lower back, steering her again, but this time back towards the doorway. Little clouds of dust were kicked up from the packed-sand floor as the Wocky's feet scuffed and stumbled along.

      They moved through the curtain, and the scorching Lost Desert heat met them head-on.

      "That's the card he left. You know, I enjoy these little chats. You should come by while I'm having my break at tea tomorrow."

      "Tea?"

      "Yes, dear, tea. At four."

      "Weren't three meals enough? The average Neopian is never going to be able to buy a scratchcard!"

      "It really is hectic these days. Don't worry, they can still buy scratchcards from eight in the evening to nine in the morning. Unless it's a Monday, Wednesday, Friday or Saturday. Those are game nights."

      "What? Game nights?"

      "Yes, game nights. Very relaxing. And July. No scratchcards in July. Thanks, you're a dear. Good-bye, and good luck!"

      She disappeared through the veil to serve the pets who had just walked up, leaving Terlia alone in the sun, not quite understanding what had just happened and what she was doing out here again. When she'd come to her senses, she realized she was still missing something.

      Pounding on the canvas side of the tent, she yelled for 'Miss Scratchcard'.

      "Across the river, and past Osiri's Pottery, dear," she heard a singsong voice reply. "Look for the biggest house by that grove of palm trees."

      And so Terlia was off into the desert, before she'd really gotten used to being out of it.

     *

      Plowing through the desert sand got very hard very quickly. The sand slewed around her ankles as Terlia's legs tried uselessly to wade through the dunes. The sun beat down mercilessly on the sizzling landscape, burning the back of her neck and tips of her ears. It was so bright she could only squint at the buildings and shops she passed. Once in a while she would enter an area of desert that was more frequently traveled, a small market or a group of homes, where the ground was either firmly packed or, in some cases, paved with flat stones. These provided a few seconds of cool shade and relief from the hard traveling. Then she was out into the sun and the sand again.

      It was going down one of these cobblestone streets that she glimpsed a familiar sight: the famous War Tent of Brucey B. Everyone knew that it had been a very important part of the Lost Desert's legacy in the past, but now it sat deserted on the edge of a row of shop stalls, looking lonely and forgotten.

      Therefore, it came as a bit of a shock to her when a voice from inside it said "Hello" as she passed.

      Turning slowly in her tracks to face the tent, she said nervously, "Y-yeah?" She hadn't realized that her throat was so dry, and it came out as more of a croak. The street was empty... why was it so empty...?

      A figure moved partially out of the shadows, and the sunlight illuminated the face of a very pretty pink Shoyru. She was wearing a sort of slim beige headband with a veil attached to the back, which rustled around her cheeks even though there was no breeze. She smiled mysteriously. "You look thirsty, Traveler."

      Terlia nodded. "I am."

      "I can help. Come in." She gestured smoothly to the tent's entrance. Terlia entered hesitantly.

      If she had expected the tent's inside to be somehow as surprisingly attractive as the Shoyru, she was mistaken. It wasn't pitch-black, but more of a dingy shade of grey. The only light came from rips and tears in the cloth roof, and only as pale, slanting lines of it where dust particles lazily swam, revealing a few stacked boxes and broken pieces of furniture in the old tent's corners. But the stranger moved towards one of these boxes and opened a flap. Inside sat a large basin, which she dipped a clay cup into, bringing it up dripping with cool, clear water.

      She handed it to her. "Drink," she said softly.

      Terlia didn't argue. Draining the cup in seconds, she coughed and looked up at the Shoyru. "I don't have anything to pay you with," she mumbled.

      "Do not worry," said the other pet kindly.

      Terlia stared at her, not believing what she'd just heard. Clean water was precious here, and worth a lot. "Thank you," she said gratefully. "Do you have a name?"

      "My name is Jezzaena," she said simply, taking the cup back to the basin. She closed the box, hiding it from view. "And yours?"

      "Um, Terlia."

      "I am pleased to meet you, young Terlia. And what brings you so far into the desert?"

      She didn't bother wondering how the Shoyru knew she'd come from far away. "Just an errand," she shrugged, not wanting to sound foolish for taking the Cybunny shopkeeper's mad quest.

      "Ah. How far are you traveling, young Terlia?"

      "Past Osiri's Pottery."

      "A long journey. Here," she said, placing a small gourd in her hand. The swish of water was unmistakable inside it. "You will need this."

      Terlia stared again. She couldn't believe that anyone could be so philanthropic as to give away good water to any stranger she saw. "I don't know how to thank you," she said truthfully.

      "You may thank me by delivering this to Peopatra at the Petpet Stall." She passed Terlia a small cloth bundle, which seemed to be wriggling slightly. "It is on your way, I believe. Also inform her that I will have the next of them in three days. Will you do this for me?"

      "Of course," she said, taking the package and placing it as well as the gourd gently into her belt pack.

      Jezzaena strode to the entrance, holding open the tent flap for her. "Thank you, young Terlia. We are now even."

      Terlia nodded dumbly and moved out into the comparative brightness of the street.

      "Safe journey, young Terlia. I hope we may meet again."

      She disappeared, Terlia waving uncertainly.

     *

      The second stage of her journey went more smoothly, partially because she now had a supply of drinking water, but mainly because it was a much shorter distance.

      "Ah, yes, I've been expecting these," Peopatra declared. She plucked the bundle out of Terlia's hands, who stood on her toes and peered over the Peophin's shoulder curiously as the faded cloth was flipped open. To Terlia's shock she discovered that she had been carrying around about thirty tiny, crawling Selket larvae in her belt pouch. She shuddered involuntarily.

      "Great gebs, they're withering!" Peopatra exclaimed, obviously in considerable distress. "You -- here." She shoved an earthen pitcher back towards Terlia. "Fill this at the river, and be quick about it. They NEED WATER!" she cried in panic, tugging at her pleated hair and gazing frantically at the squirming creatures.

      Terlia sighed and jogged out into the heat again. When she reached the river, taking shelter from the sun in the shadow of the sand-covered bridge that spanned the river, she crouched to let some of the rapidly flowing water fill the pitcher. She was just rising when she glimpsed someone standing beside her.

      "Day, miss." A strangely dressed Quiggle tipped his large hat towards her. "And where'd you be heading on such a toasty day?"

      "Oh, er, to Peopatra's Petpet --"

      "Peopatra!" He shook his head disbelievingly. "Don't tell me you've been duped by her too?" Before she could answer, he continued in a pitying tone. "Tsk, tsk. She never lets up these days. Well, I'll tell you what I'll do. I'll deliver that puffed-up Peophin her ill-gotten gains for you."

      "You will?" asked Terlia dubiously.

      "Certainly, young miss, certainly!" He snatched the jug from her hands jovially, slopping a bit of precious water over the side. "Oh, and if you think of it, you could help me out a bit while you're waiting."

      She regarded him skeptically, which seemed to take the wind out of his sails for a moment, but he quickly recovered. "I, er, los -- misplaced a few coins from my money pouch on the way over the bridge, you see. Not to worry, they should practically, er, leap to the eye. Well, until then, ta-ta!" And with that he bounded off in the direction of Peopatra's.

      Terlia tried to stand her ground defiantly and wait until the Quiggle came back. After all, it might teach him a thing or two if he were to come back and find that she had out-swindled the swindler. However, after only fifteen seconds or so, she found herself inexplicably drawn towards the bridge, as if some invisible force was shoving her along from behind. Once again, she berated herself fiercely. Helpers' spirit. Great.

     *

      Ten minutes later, Terlia stood panting on the bridge, sweat on her forehead, water gone, and no sign of the Quiggle or his accursed coins. She knew he would be back sooner or later -- he hadn't struck her as the type who would forget about a pocketful of neopoints and walk away.

      Then, finally, she caught a glimpse of something shiny near one edge of the bridge. Hoping to end the stupid task as soon as she possibly could, she hurried over. Sure enough, lying innocently in the sand was one gleaming neopoint coin. She stuffed it into her pouch. Then she spotted another one not too far from it. And there was another, over there. She hastily plucked them all up, just in time to see the same Quiggle bouncing over to greet her.

      "Ah, excellent, excellent! You've found them! I knew you would, clever young pet such as yourself. Many thanks, many thanks." he said, pouring the coins greedily into his own money pouch. "That's all of them, you're sure? Not trying to cheat me, are you?"

      Terlia raised an eyebrow, not amused.

      The Quiggle chuckled uncomfortably. "Well, my thanks again; have yourself a wonderful day, Miss." And he started off again.

      "Wait! I think I just found something." Terlia called, rushing over to pick up a coin that lay farther away than the others had been.

      But as soon as she picked it up, something suddenly clamped over her mouth, and she was pulled off the bridge, her cries unheard by the Quiggle.

      Spinning around quickly (at the mention of more neopoints of course), the Quiggle scrutinized the bridge, keeping his eyes on its far end, where the Wocky had been standing. He even hopped over to check it out for himself. But without success -- the Wocky, and the coin, if there had been one, had simply vanished.

      He shrugged, knowing his profits wouldn't suffer with the loss of one coin, and continued on his way.

     *

      "Make no noise," the attacker hissed, a wicked-looking blade held in front of him. He was a Shadow Gelert, from what she could make out under the hood of his cloak, and he had dragged her off under the bridge, where they had pressed against the bank as he waited for the Quiggle to leave.

      "Mm yurmyurya hurf yurma mouf," Terlia said from behind his gloved hand. He let her go, and she stood back, taking deep breaths of air and throwing him accusing glances.

      "So how is it," the Gelert started in a half-mocking, half-amused tone, "that a pretty young Wocky comes to be wandering around this part of the Desert alone, and carrying nothing but a scratchcard and an empty gourd?"

      She opened her mouth to demand how he knew what she was carrying, but stopped when she realized he was holding her belt pouch. She stared, not knowing when he could have possibly taken it.

      He chuckled darkly. "It is my trade, you know. I take pride in my abilities. Now, this bridge here, it's my territory. Either pay for passage across it, or go back to where you came from. Try to cross it without paying, and bandits rougher than myself will hunt you down."

      "But you saw what I'm carrying. I can't give you the scratchcard. I have nothing."

      "Then go home."

      Terlia turned, dismayed. She would have to go back, now, her job a failure. She started walking out from the shadows under the bridge.

      "Wait."

      She spun around.

      "Maybe there is something you could pay with," the Gelert said thoughtfully. "You could lend me your services."

      "Somehow I should have known that was coming," Terlia mumbled to herself.

      The Gelert looked her up and down, taking in every inch of her. "Good proper clothes, clean too, not a trace of mud on them." He nodded. "You will help us take a prize from Osiri's Pottery that we have been wanting a long time."

     *

      "Do you understand what you have to do?" the Gelert whispered.

      The two pets were crouched around the back of Osiri's Pottery, where they would not be seen.

      Terlia nodded. "You realize that if I get caught, I'm turning you in."

      "You won't get caught, and you won't turn me in, either. You will fulfill your half of the bargain. Now go." He gave her a gentle push from behind.

      Walking casually around to the stall's front entrance, she lifted the tent's flap and moved inside, where she was immediately greeted by the beautiful Aisha who ran the shop, her long, golden hair piled into an elaborate style.

      "Welcome, young miss!" she said in a musical voice with a slight accent. "What may I do for you today?"

      "Hmm, just looking," she said, making a show of inspecting each vase, bowl and urn. She plucked up the smallest, cheapest-looking dish she could find. She caught a glimpse of its price on the shelf beside it: 349 NP. "Actually, I rather like this one." It was the ugliest, most scratched-up little bowl she'd ever seen. "But I left my money pouch at home. Not intending to buy anything, you see."

      The Aisha nodded thoughtfully. "What do you have in mind?"

      "I wonder, would I be able to trade this scratchcard for it?"

      The Aisha fiddled with a strand of wavy hair. "Well, I don't usually accept trades, but all scratchcards are worth at least 500..." She broke off, as if she didn't want to emphasize the difference in value, for fear of changing the Wocky's mind. "All right, I accept."

      Terlia handed the scratchcard over, somehow having the feeling that she would never see it again. That Gelert had better live up to his end of the bargain. "Thank you," she said, and began moving to the entrance.

      Almost through the entrance, Terlia let go of the dish. "Oh no," she said with a convincing cry of shock as it crashed on the hard-packed ground, breaking into a hundred tiny shards.

      At the back of the shop, Osiri dropped the scratchcard on a counter near the display of rare treasures, and came running over to where Terlia stood in dismay. "Oh dear, what a mess," she said, pulling over a straw broom. "I'm so sorry. Here, let me help you clean this up." She swept up all the broken splinters as Terlia held open the tent door for her to whisk them out onto the sand.

      "Oh dear, I'm so clumsy," Terlia said apologetically after a quick glance to the back of the stall.

      "Not at all, young miss, I'm just sorry you won't get your full money's worth," she said in disappointment.

      "Oh, it's alright, it was my fault and my fault alone." Terlia decided she had kept the Aisha's attention long enough. "Well, thank you for your assistance; I'd better get going." She ducked out through the doorway.

      "Of course," Osiri said as the Wocky moved off. "Have a nice day," she added hopefully.

      Terlia waved cheerily as the flap closed, then started off around back, taking care not to step on the pottery shards near the entrance. "Did you get it?" she murmured when she met up with the Gelert at the stall's rear.

      He held up a beautiful dish that looked like a Golden Water Lily Bowl, only streaked with glimmering red and engraved with intricate symbols and letters.

      "It's wonderful," she breathed. She frowned. "But I fell really bad about ripping off Osiri. She seemed like a really nice Aisha."

      "Don't worry, she wasn't the one ripped off. If it eases your conscience any, this wasn't a true theft." He stared at the treasure in front of him, almost triumphantly. "Many years ago, my family were wanderers. One night, our caravan was robbed by violent bandits, and all our family treasures were lost and sold to various dealers. This one will ensure my band has a safe place to live and food on the table. This was merely a rightful reclamation."

      "Oh," she whispered. "She might not even notice it gone, then." It was a touching story, and could easily have been spun on the spot, but she'd decided that if nothing else, this Gelert was trustworthy. That reminded her. "Did you --"

      He smiled. "Of course. I always keep my word." He drew the scratchcard out of an inner pocket of his cloak, and Terlia took it, putting it safely into her pouch.

      Terlia rose to go, then paused. "You were really good in there," she said appraisingly. "I mean, I was watching almost the entire time, and I didn't see or hear anything."

      The Gelert smiled enigmatically. "I told you, it's my trade."

      As she left, he said after her, "Thank you, Terlia."

      Terlia's heart skipped a beat. Had she told him her name? She whirled, only to see that the Gelert had vanished.

     *

      Terlia rapped on the thick wooden door with the brass knocker.

      As she waited for an answer, she looked up again, taking in the huge flat walls of the building, creamy beige with the sandy mixture that had been used as plaster over them. Narrow towers jutted from its corners, as if the building were trying to outdo Sakhmet Palace itself. It certainly was the biggest house on the row.

      The door swung open. A rotund red Yurble stood on the threshold, a crumpled copy of the Neopian Times clutched in his paw. "Yes, what is it, what do you want?" he demanded.

      "Sir, I have--"

      "Whatever it is you're selling, I'm not buying," he snapped, and slammed the door in her face.

      Furiously, she pounded on the door. "You ALREADY bought it!" she yelled, and the door instantly opened again.

      "Already bought it?" he said, a greedy gleam in his eye. "Well, then, speak up, what is it?"

      Terlia thrust the scratchcard she had been carrying around with her all day into his face. He snatched it from her, and Terlia bitterly noted there had been no 'please' or 'thank you'.

      Squinting at it, Mr. Mando the Yurble fumbled in his coat pocket, and drew out his reading glasses. His eyes widened. "Scorched Treasure? SCORCHED TREASURE?!?" he bellowed. "How can it be SCORCHED TREASURE? You tell that floofed-up Cybunny that I am a collector. A COLLECTOR!" He moved off to the side and swept his arm out, indicating a pile of scratchcards that reached almost as far into the air as those of the Scratchcard Seller herself. One stack was composed of at least a hundred Scorched Treasure scratchcards. "I have ENOUGH Scorched Treasure, thank you very much!" He stuffed the card back into Terlia's paw, then slammed the door again. "She can KEEP the blasted Scorched Treasure," came the muffled shout from behind it.

      Fuming, Terlia turned from the door, rubbing her nose where the door had smacked it. Unable to resist herself, she wound up and kicked the door, satisfied with the echoing 'boom' it created.

      She jumped down the steps, and stuffed the scratchcard under the door of his next-door-neighbour's house.

      Stalking off in the direction of home, she told herself off. "Helpers' Spirit. Great."

The End

 
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