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Ocean's Embrace


by laurelinden

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She already knew she was lost.

    The net held her tight, pressing painfully against her smooth wet skin, but even then the Maraquan Uni continued to fight, lashing out with her powerful tail, shattering the air around her with shrill neighs. Her heart cried as the water’s surface fell away beneath her, vanishing with the futile hopes that she might wriggle free and return to her home.

    The sailors grunted in exhaustion as they hoisted her over the side. They’d only been able to catch her with all of their combined effort: her capture was not for lack of trying.

    As they laid her down on the deck, the Uni stayed still, weighed down by the heavy net that bound her. Her breath came in ragged pants, clouding in the salty sea air.

    One of the sailors, an orange Grundo, kneeled down to inspect her. His broad face was wind-burned, and his voice sounded gravelly as he said, “She looks in good condition.” He glanced up at his comrades, and a satisfied grin split his craggy features. “The Boss'll approve.”

    The Uni’s eyes widened in terror. She was not sure to whom the sailor referred, or what they wanted with her, but she knew from his tone and from his smile that it would be nothing good. She had heard tales of Neopets snatched from the water -- none of them returned. In the land above the oceans, the rumors whispered, a creature of evil used them for his experiements.

    Several Grundo sailors grabbed the corners of the net with meaty hands and unceremoniously dragged the captured Uni across the deck. The friction of the wood against her smooth skin burned painfully, and she gave a whinny, knowing as she did that any protests would be in vain. She was not a living creature to these pirates, but a scrap of cargo to be stowed. As long as she was alive, they would be content.

    The stall they pushed her into was cramped, damp, and smelled of must and mold. The floor was littered with a scattering of soggy hay, and strange green algae dotted the wooden walls, brought up by the incessant splash of seawater over the sides of the ship. They set her down in the middle of it, and finally lifted off the net.

    As soon as she felt the restricting weight come away, the Uni was on her hooves. Her teeth were bared in a glinting snarl of rage, and her terror-filled eyes were bright and wide. The sailors were prepared for an attempt to escape, however, and shut the door to the stall before she could burst free. They smirked knowingly at each other as the stall clicked shut. “Got some spirit, that one,” she heard one of the departing forms mutter.

    The Uni’s bloodshot eyes dashed frantically around the tiny stall, seeking a weak board or hinge that might be burst through or shattered. She reared up upon her fin, lashing at the creaking planks with powerful blows of her hoof, but the wood was thick and gave no sign of weakness. She dove forward on her hooves and slapped the floor with her fin, but her efforts only caused her tail to redden and ache. Finally, whimpering with the inevitable defeat, she slumped forward, thinking blearily of home.

    She supposed she’d never see them again -- the proud rising spires of her home, shining in the rippling light that cut through the waves. She remembered their decorations of colored bits of coral from the garden that she and her sister raised. Thinking of her sister brought a fresh pang of longing -- she could see Kaylen’s gray Peophin eyes watching her even now, asking, “How could you? How could you let yourself be captured and taken away from me?”

    She had always taken pride in her wit and her skill, which had aided her again and again to evade capture. Her powerful Uni tail could slice through the salty water with hardly a flick, changing direction on a whim, and the clumsy nets had always been too slow.

    Until now.

    Guilt and shame clouded her mind, bringing tears stinging to her eyes. They trickled down her cheeks and landed on the wood of the floor, quickly swallowed by the soft lap of the water splashing over the deck. Fighting utter despair, the Uni laid her head down upon the floor of the stall, feeling the water pool and fall back along her chin.

    As her mind wandered, tracing the comforting memories of what would now be another lifetime, the Uni remembered a night when she and Kaylen had met an old, grizzled Maraquan Jetsam, who had told them that the sea was a loyal home – that it would protect them always. She and Kaylen had laughed, then, thinking of all of the dangers that the waters held, but the memory did not warm the Uni’s heart now.

    You did not protect me from the nets, did you? she thought bitterly. You brought the sailors right to my home. You took them to where they could find me, and now I will be lost to you forever.

    Anger swelled within her, and she took comfort in it, allowing it to overpower her self-pity and despair and fill her with a burning purpose. Prove it now, Sea, my protecting home. Prove you will care for those who inhabit you. The rage lent power to her thoughts, and she swore she felt the ocean shudder in response. But the waves were calm a moment later, and the anger melted away as her hope vanished. There will be no response. I was foolish to believe the old tale-teller. I’m so sorry, Kaylen… If only I could see you again…

    She sighed, and crumpled down to the floor, trying to ignore the rolling of the waves and the rising, hissing wind. She would have slept, but the sailors seemed to be getting louder, yelling directions and calling to each other over the moans of the ship.

    Her ears pricked. They were panicked.

    Alerted, she lifted her head and sniffed the air. There was a tension to it; she could feel its moisture and hear the far-off shrills of birds. A deep, distant thunder shook the sky, and she peered up into its heights, and saw that the once-white clouds were darkening to an ominous grey.

    A storm was coming – she could sense it. The ocean had answered her plea.

    The first waves hit before the sailors had prepared. Their cries rang out across the air, drowned quickly by the crashing of the water, whose sounds echoed the vibrating roars of the sky above. Bright, brilliant lights flashed down, splitting the sky in silver rods. The Uni saw one tear onto the deck, which burst in an explosion of orange and yellow lights, dancing and flickering as they spread out across the dry patches of wood. She could feel the heat of them as they approached and watched them warily, for her instincts told her they were dangerous.

    The sailors saw the flames and rushed toward them, beating at them futilely with damp rags and splashes of sea water. The heat and light were too quick, though; they crackled across the weakening boards to the stalls of the captured Neopets.

    The Uni’s eyes widened in alarm as she saw the orange bursts approach. They licked up her stall door hungrily, burning with immense intensity, and she shrunk back along her stall, away from the blistering heat. After a moment she heard the crack of wood splitting and a Grundo sailor appeared from nowhere, dumping a bucketful of water over the once-burning door. He rushed off to attend to the others.

    Losing no time, the Uni reared up onto her fin, and slammed into the blackened door with all of the might of her hooves. It crumbled beneath her weight, giving her a view of the ruins of the deck.

    She dashed out, dodging flickering flames and wild-eyed sailors, and heard the other captured pets bursting free behind her. To the edge of the ship she pulled herself and gazed over the side for one split moment before throwing herself over into the roiling waves below.

    The water broke around the Uni’s body, wrapping her in cool caresses of salt and moisture, and muffling out the shrieks and groans of the dying ship above. Down she swam, deep into the arms of the ocean, knowing that not one day would pass when she would not be grateful that it was her home.

The End

 
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