Where there's a Weewoo, there's a way Circulation: 111,981,549 Issue: 223 | 13th day of Sleeping, Y8
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Taking the Long Way: Part One


by senya

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Sunburned and Sand-Blasted

"That's quite a tan you've got going there, Wil," Alexien observed as he lowered his glass of cheops juice back to the table with an impatient bang, feet propped rudely on the chair beside him. Outside, the wind howled in a tumultuous rage of sand and debris as the Lost Desert roared past Sakhmet Palace, shaking the doors on their hinges and the windows in their frames. The air was so thick with dust, it was impossible to make out even the marketplace from his elevated vantage point.

     "Quiggles don't "tan", sir, we sunburn, and miserably." Wiltshire exhaled dramatically, webbed hands splayed on the table, skin lightened in random patches to an odd yellow-green. "Meridell's climate suits me far more than the desert."

     "It's your own fault for following me out here," Alexien carelessly reprimanded, looking up as their host, Leto the Draik, joined them at the table. "Right now you could be wallowing in some mucky pond, but you chose to nose your way into my business. This place should have sunscreen around here somewhere. You people do still have sunscreen in this dustbowl, right?" he queried Leto, who had been silently watching the exchange.

     "We do try to keep up with civilization as much as we can," Leto replied wryly. "And you should value a friend's loyalty, not berate him for it."

     "He's less my friend and more my stalker," Alexien explained, before turning to regard Leto with an odd look. "And, you know, Leto, you're almost creepy with how you can predict these storms. There was barely a speck of sand on the wind when we were going to set off this morning. It's a good thing you told us to hang back. Wiltshire would have been sand-blasted to his most basic components."

     "But not you," Leto said in reply, faintly humored. "You grew up here, but you do astound me at times with how very little you know about the Lost Desert. If you just listen to her, she gives plenty of warning."

     Alexien raised one correcting finger, as though making a point. "Ah, but I didn't grow up in that dune wasteland like you. Sakhmet is a different affair entirely; city walls and running water make all the difference. And I don't want to listen to her. I hear enough with the frog croaking in one ear, Skarl bellowing in the other, and that girl dragging me off on another of her half-witted jaunts about Neopia."

     "The desert is a moody mistress, but she suits me best. I prefer her anger over that of a self-important king given to excessive over-indulgence," Leto said pointedly, but knew he would get no defense of Skarl from his guest.

     "Well, then, why don't you calm her out of this tantrum so I can be on my way?" Alexien acidly suggested, eyes raking down to his gold-furred hands before rising to study Leto once more. "If you're working for Princess Vyssa, I'm betting that "overindulgence" is something you have to deal with on a daily basis." His head swiveled, eyeing the room they were lounging in, which was furnished to the royal ideal. "But she houses you pretty well, huh?"

     "This isn't my real home," Leto quietly reminded Alexien.

     "Oh, I understand that completely. Thankfully, I am finally going home. I'm going to report what I saw, and then I'm going to get that humorless king to pay me. A lot. I didn't want to come back here at all, you know."

     "I know."

     "And I never would have pegged you as a politician. You're not nearly dishonest enough for it," Alexien mused, taking another sip from his glass.

     Leto shook his head. "I'm about as much a politician as you are an "emissary". You've been at court too long. Call it what it is, Alexien. I'm a figurehead and you're a spy."

     A wide, innocent smile met Leto's accusation. "I don't have the vaguest idea of what you're referring to, Mister Dignitary." The grin faded, then, and he admitted, "You're right, though. I'm sick of these people, and the ones in Meridell are worse. They're exhausting. I just want to get home. I've had enough for a while."

      "And the first thing you'll do when you return is get yourself repainted, I assume?"

     "That cursed temple! Weeks upon weeks of helping put the repository back together, studying scrolls, trying to figure out this whole mess with Qasala, and what do I get for it? Jelly traps, and spike pits, buried in sand, and finally "cursed" into a gold Kyrii!" Alexien growled, inspecting himself as though something truly foul had laid hold of him. "I cast a glare, Leto," came the petulant declaration.

     Leto gave an amused nod at the dual truth of that statement. "That you do, certainly, and more often than just about anyone else I know."

          ***

     The next morning was clear and seized of a dark, empty cold that only pre-dawn desert could inflict. Alexien waited with finger-tapping impatience for Wiltshire to repack for their journey home to Meridell. They gave their farewells to Leto, and set off to the north, clouds of sand kicked up by the plodding feet of the pair of Apis they were riding, and Wiltshire bemoaning that he liked stark cold even less than being pelted with painfully bright sunlight. Alexien finally quieted the chattery Quiggle with a look of death speared out from under a heavy, hooded brown cloak. Wiltshire caught it and went notably silent.

     As the roiling orange sun spilled upward over the horizon, stretching out warm fingers to greet their roaming shadows, Alexien slowed and then stopped, the vacant whistle of wind sweeping past his ears.

     "What's the matter, sir?" Wiltshire inquired, turning to make certain that his pack was still tied firmly to the camel creature's back. The awkward-looking beast turned its great neck, watching him with curious liquid brown eyes.

     "It's been a long time since I've done this," Alexien murmured in thought, sight cast toward the sun as if trying to regain a sense of direction.

     "Are we lost, sir?"

     At the tone of edgy, growing panic, Alexien heaved an exasperated breath. "No, we're not lost. We've been riding for about four hours, so it should be time to turn east."

     "East? But that is toward the Haunted Woods, isn't it? Do you have business there?"

     "No," Alexien answered shortly. "But unless you want to be thoroughly cooked by a three day ride through the dunes, we're going to have to take the long way home." He turned to eye his companion, sun-gold fur rippling frantically in the growing wind. "If you would rather it that way, I don't mind. Grilled Mortog is a delicacy in the Citadel, did you know? I'm sure roasted Quiggle would be quite delicious, Wil---"

     "Er…no, sir…this route is more agreeable, I think."

     Alexien smirked at that and turned back around, tugging at the reins to prod the Apis into motion once more. The wind picked up again, bringing the smell of clean desert with it. He listened to it intently for a moment, ignoring the sounds of his moving pack animal and those of the one following him. He had told Leto that he did not want to listen to the desert, but he could admit that there was a difference. There was something in the air here that existed nowhere else in Neopia. Something intangible, unexplainable, ancient. He had heard it before, when he had been young and Sakhmet and the surrounding desert had been his playground.

     He was going home, to the home of the present. The one patched with fields and bogs, scattered with castles and manors, clustered with tiny, provincial villages, and thatch-roofed huts. The air in Meridell was cold and earthy. He preferred it, but the desert was pure and uncomplicated, unchanging.

     And if he had listened to that desert voice more carefully, he would have heard the whispered warning of a trailing shadow.

          ***

     They had done just about everything except hold the Quiggle upside down by his ankles and shake him. Alexien had sat himself down on a bench just inside the old, looming gate once it had become obvious that Wiltshire was going to be detained for a while. It had been thrown wide for travelers from the desert, not that there were many. The imposing gate locks looked like skulls, mouths gaping in some silent agony. Clearly not a welcome sign for visitors.

     Behind him, two fierce-looking Werelupe guards were interrogating a terrified Wiltshire, prodding through his belongings and taking a particular interest in the various trinkets he had brought back from Sakhmet. Alexien was not interfering, even though he had the feeling that the guards were having their fun picking on Wiltshire because of the Quiggle's innate nervousness. It was Wil's own fault for having such a weakness for shiny things, and it gave Alexien time to think. It provided him with a few consecutive minutes of blessed silence, so he allowed the guards to occupy Wiltshire.

     In the distance beyond the gate, the last vestiges of the desert were still visible, having slowly given way to rockier terrain and then to scrubby plant growth. The desert itself, from this vantage point, looked like the end of the world. Everything simply stopped at its front step, as though nothing would trespass on that sacred ground.

     Alexien's head came up, the rosy hue of late evening highlighting the distant woods, so thickly grown together that they looked like they had ingested the land more than grown from it. The setting sun glinted off the tree-tops like waning fire, and the shrieking of batterflies as they swooped over the treetops, beginning their nightly hunt for food, was shrill even from this far away.

     Beyond all of that lay Meridell, and this turned his mind toward what precisely he would tell King Skarl. At the start of the recent troubles in the desert, Alexien had been sent to Sakhmet as an emissary from Meridell or, in truer language, as King Skarl's spy. Skarl's paranoia was renowned, most especially since the conflicts with Lord Darigan, and the usurper Lord Kass. Skarl liked to remain apprised of what was occurring in the lands around him, and Alexien presumed this was less prompted by any concern for Meridell's security, and more because the king was unbearably nosey, a busybody in the truest sense. Usually his favorite target was his brother, King Hagan of Brightvale, which made Alexien's jobs quick and effortless enough that he was generally able to get home in time for dinner. This time, however, the king's whim had sent him trekking back to his childhood home in time to watch it disappear, seized from the inside by a zombie army, and then set upon by the true villain, that sorcerer Razul.

     Well…the details of this particular trip would probably entertain His Highness enough…

     With a final disgruntled growl, the guards released Wiltshire and pushed him through the gate, the Quiggle stumbling in an effort to regain his balance. Alexien looked up in time to watch the Werelupe's massive paw clench around one of Wiltshire's prized souvenirs, eyebrows rising with surprised interest as something surfaced in memory.

     "I believe that's his as well," Alexien spoke up as Wiltshire worked to dust himself off. The Quiggle looked up in surprise at the sudden defense as he readjusted the pack on his back.

     The Werelupe brushed a dismissive look over the pair, clearly unimpressed with the anxious Quiggle and his blandly-attired companion. "Consider the toll paid," he suggested sternly, an obvious warning, and Alexien heaved a sigh at that, aiming another look at the darkening distance.

     "Since when is there a toll to pass this gate?" he inquired wearily, turning back to study the looming guards.

     "Since very recently."

     "Ah, I see. Then how much is it?"

     "The amount alters at my discretion," the guard answered unhelpfully.

     "That makes things even more clear, doesn't it?" Alexien said in a falsely polite voice, insincere smile sliding across his face. "Since you have been so up front, I will do the same. Name your toll and I will pay it. Return what you stole from my friend, and we will leave it at that. Alter that arrangement, and I'll leave you empty-handed."

     "Why don't you just get lost? There are things in that forest that will eat you alive if you delay too much longer. Lots of night predators in the Haunted Woods," the guard warned as though indeed hoping one of those hungry creatures would locate them as they ventured into the forest.

     "And I suppose word travels fast, doesn't it? If I were to cause trouble here, then I can assume that would precede me?" Alexien murmured thoughtfully.

     "Most certainly," the guard smoothly agreed, appearing smug.

     "Excellent," Alexien said brightly, shrugging his arms free of the dusty cloak as the Werelupes' faces descended into frowns of identical displeasure. "Then I'm about to clear my way through those woods."

          ***

     "I don't think he even saw that last one coming, sir," Wiltshire croaked with happy pride, as though it had been through his own prowess that the argument had been settled.

     Alexien only distantly listened to his companion's babbling as he eyed the object in his hand, the thing the bullying guard had taken from Wiltshire, the thing he had plucked out of the same guard's limp hand at the end of the fight. Ryshu-sensei would have liked to have seen that, Alexien thought absently, as he turned the item over in his hands. It was an amulet, cracked down the center, bearing a toad forged from gold, glittering jewel eyes shining green in the growing dark. The segmented chain had been broken, snapped by an unseen hand. It reeked of the desert, and of something hidden within his mind, something closer to home….

     "Where did you get this, Wil?" Alexien interrupted the Quiggle in mid-sentence. He dangled the chain between two fingers for Wiltshire's inspection.

     "Oh, that! I found it lying on the ground in Sakhmet. It was broken, so I assumed someone had thrown it away, but it was pretty, so I---"

     "Stole it?" Alexien suggested wryly.

     "I didn't steal it, sir! It was---"

     "Yes, yes. I'll remember this for the next time you try to lecture me about my suspect intentions," Alexien murmured, feeling for all the world that it was somehow familiar…

     "Huh?" Wiltshire asked, waddling gracelessly over a surfaced tree root as he worked to keep up with his companion's steps.

     "Nevermind," Alexien ordered resolutely, tossing the necklace back to the Quiggle. "And keep your wits about you," he added, eyes cast toward the creepy, approaching maw that was the Haunted Woods. "This place is decidedly unfriendly this time of night, and I've seen it consume braver than you."

To be continued…

*My thanks to Reissue (Kate) who let me "borrow" Leto for the beginning of the story. And thanks, of course, to Leto himself for participating. ^_-

 
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