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Whispers: Part One


by betazoid_telepath

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Setting Off

Lani Ashling had rarely seen her explorer friend so furious. The red Zafara stomped down the Mystery Island Archaeology Office's long hallways, baring her teeth and muttering curses under her breath. Aidne was usually the perfect image of a down-to-earth, happy explorer, but Lani the Ixi knew from past experiences that it didn't take much to set Aidne off.

     "Hey, Aidne!" Lani called out to her friend. "How'd it go?" she asked, somewhat unnecessarily.

      Aidne's dark blue eyes flashed menacingly. "Useless!" she shouted. "I knock politely at the door, get invited in, make some small talk, drink tea, and then the old bag kicks us off the Geraptiku Tomb project! I ask him why and he tells me that he has too many pets on the project already, and reminds me that I haven't mapped it properly, and that I've only ever brought back those funky medallions. Well excuse me, Mr. Know-it-all, but at least I'm not bringing back those stupid snowglobes everyone else finds. Those things count as 'junk' even in a back alley on Krawk Island!"

      Lani was very glad Aidne's wrath was not directed at her, but she still decided to risk speaking as her friend vented her fury. She opened her mouth to say something, but the Zafara stubbornly plowed on.

      "I tell him I can't map it because the passages never stay the same for very long, but I get the entire 'If you really wanted to keep your job, you'd follow orders and not make excuses' lecture. These people are so dumb. First chance I get, and I'm off this miserable island."

      The Zafara took a deep breath and glanced at Lani, noticing for the first time that the Ixi had a rather faded and beat up envelope tucked into her notebook.

      "Who's that from?" she asked, the anger in her eyes dimming into mild curiosity.

      The blue Ixi shrugged, glad the conversation was turning to possibly safer topics. "I don't know, there's no return address. I think it's for you, though."

      "How can you be so sure?" Aidne asked.

      "Any of my contacts would at least send a decent envelope. Your letters are from shady people, not mine," Lani replied.

      Aidne nodded understandingly and ripped open the envelope Lani offered her. She dumped the contents out on a small coffee table, much to the disapproval of a surly-looking Gelert secretary at a desk not too far away.

      Lani examined some of what had fallen out of the envelope.

      "Sand," she commented.

      Aidne was far more interested in the letter. She read the first few lines and grinned. "It's from Aurora Bluepaw!"

      "Who's Aurora Bluepaw?" Lani asked. "Another of your shady, evil, backstabbing cohorts?"

      "Naw," Aidne said, "just an old friend of mine. We went to neoschool together, and now she's an archaeologist. She says she's in the Lost Desert now..." Aidne was half talking to herself now. "Lost Desert, eh? That explains the sand anyways, but what's she doing there? Last I heard she had a full-time job up at Terror Mountain." Aidne's grin broadened as she read on. "She says she's found some kind of temple thing there and she needs help studying it, so she's inviting us in on her find!"

      "So...?" Lani asked.

      "So pack your bags, we're gonna see the pyramids!" Aidne exclaimed as she stuffed the letter into a pocket in her faded blue jeans.

      Lani bit her lip. "I can't go."

      "Why not?" Aidne asked.

      "My cousin's supposed to be visiting me in Meridell tomorrow. I have responsibilities; I can't just take off," Lani explained.

      "Why don't you just go to Meridell, pick them up, and then bring them with us?" Aidne said calmly.

      "You're not suggesting I actually bring him, are you? That would be like inviting disaster."

      "Come on," the Zafara replied with a grin. "How bad could he possibly be?"

      The Ixi didn't answer. As the Zafara jabbered away about all the crazy things she and Aurora had done back in Elementary school, and how great it was to be heading back to the Lost Desert, Lani couldn't help but marvel at her friend's quick change of mood. Only seconds ago she had been shouting her head off. But, then again, that was Aidne's nature. She was as volatile as Techo Mountain.

     ***

      Sakhmet City was exactly the same as Aidne remembered it. Both simple and fancy sandstone buildings gleamed golden in the sunlight that poured onto the wide cobbled streets from a bright azure sky. The burning heat was also familiar.

      Aidne traveled alone today, weighed down with a heavy green backpack containing all her worldly goods, and was conscious of how hot and sweaty she was lugging it around. Being well-traveled, she knew that in the summer the Lost Desert weather was so incredibly warm that only the coolest clothes would do, so she had wisely chosen a faded orange souvenir T-shirt and a pair of raggedy denim cutoffs. Her somewhat sloppy fashion statement was completed by a pair of lurid green flipflops and a matching tie in her mahogany hair. She knew her strange attire was drawing glances from the locals, but she ignored them. At least she was relatively comfortable.

      The Zafara was also very much aware of all the young pets wandering among the throng of people in the streets, occasionally cutting the drawstring of a purse or bag, or slipping nimble paws into jacket pockets and drawing out loose Neopoints. Aidne's own Neopoints had been stuffed into a knitted sock and then crammed into the very bottom of her backpack for just this reason. For all its flash and grandeur, Sakhmet was a very rough place, and it always paid to be prepared.

      Aidne stopped outside the hotel where she was supposed to meet Aurora. She pulled the letter out of her pocket and read it again. She looked up and read the sign above the hotel's door. She read the letter again. She repeated this several times, until she succeeded in determining that this was indeed where Aurora was supposed to meet her. Shrugging, she shoved open the door and stepped into the blissful coolness of the hotel's lobby.

      Intricate patterns of birds and flowers in every colour imaginable adorned the walls, so they were practically more paint than sandstone, and the floors were solid marble, and polished to a shine. The breezy air smelled of flowers and cinnamon, and the sound of haunting flute music drifted out from one of the rooms. It was incredibly gorgeous and luxurious and all things wonderful.

      Aidne hated it.

      "You have a reservation, Miss?" asked a desert Kougra from behind the front desk. He wore a white tunic with gold trim that looked to be in the style of a uniform, so apparently he was in charge, or knew whoever was in charge.

      "Hello, Manager, sir. I'm Aidne Lilith," she said brightly, holding out her hand. "I'm here to-"

      "Do you have a reservation?" he repeated, making Aidne wonder if that was all he could say. It was possible he was a robot. Aidne had seen stranger things in her travels. He was glaring at her outstretched arm like Neopoints would automatically spring from it at his will.

      "Well, not exactly,"she admitted. "I'm here to see Aurora Bluepaw."

      As soon as she said this, the Kougra began furiously shuffling through his papers, as if itching to find Aidne lying and have an excuse to chuck her out of his hotel. Eventually, he found the paper he was looking for. Disappointed, he said, "Miss Bluepaw did mention she would be expecting visitors." He glared at her with a look that plainly said, You won this round; you won't win the next.

      Instead of saying this out loud, he gestured to a doorway hung with a glittering bead curtain and said brusquely, "She is in the lounge at the moment. If you would care to join her, it is the second door on the left."

      "Oh, um... thanks," Aidne replied, realizing that she had been dismissed. Snob, she mentally accused the Kougra, his glare boring into her back even as she walked away. She hastily pushed back the curtain and entered the lounge.

      The walls and floors of the lounge were probably stone, but it was impossible to tell, for they were hidden beneath layers of embroidered tapestries and rugs. The ceiling was made of a pale blue silk that would probably meet its end in the first desert storm to reach Sakhmet. It was, like the rest of the inn, fancy and impractical. There were no real chairs or tables, only mountains of cushions, carpets, and a few sofas that looked far too poofy for their own good. Most of these were taken up by rich pets on vacation, but there would need to be a huge amount of guests to take up all these places.

      The music Aidne had heard earlier was coming from a desert Aisha who blew softly on a flute, probably as entertainment for the guests of the hotel. The Aisha took that moment to look directly at Aidne. Their eyes locked, and the Aisha's eyes seemed to narrow. Aidne drew away first, shuddering. There was something incredibly creepy about the way her cold silver gaze seemed to see straight through the Zafara. Aidne was relieved when she heard a familiar voice call her name.

      "Aidne! Over here!"

      The Zafara caught a brief glimpse of a waving blue arm among the masses of pets crowded into the lounge. It didn't take her long to realize that she would have to get to the other pet the hard way. She took a deep breath, flexed her long red tail, and held it out for balance before launching herself into the air and vaulting over the heads of bewildered pets. She crash-landed on a sofa beside the pet she was trying to get to.

      Aidne sat up with a groan, rubbing her head. It looked like her junior high Tumbling classes were far behind her.

      "Well done, Aidne Lilith," a familiar voice said from beside her on the sofa, "I see you still have that same old talent for forcing your way through hazardous terrain."

      The speaker was a youngish looking blue Kacheek in a pair of loose slacks and a purple T-shirt. Aidne remembered that sun-streaked light brown hair and the slightly too-wide smile all too well.

      "Aurora," she stated, and for once she wondered what to say. Come on, she berated herself mentally. This is Aurora. She's your friend, so talk to her! Tell her it's great to see her again and make a big fuss over the good old days. It's not like she's completely different from how she was a few years ago!

      "Umm, why this hotel?" the Zafara asked lamely.

      "The hotel? Well, there's this nice little one down the block I like, but it was all full, so I found only the only two inns in town that still had rooms available. You wouldn't have liked the other choice; there were seriously Spyders living in the mattresses. This one's a bit glitzy, but it's livable for the time being," she said cheerfully, clearly not feeling bad about the lack of greetings. "Anyways, you must be starved after that long trip. The prices here are a little high, but I have some supplies in my pack..."

      "It's okay," Aidne said, reaching into her green denim bag and pulling out a small container, which she popped open expertly. "I brought lunch."

      "Eeeww, not roasted Cheops Plant again! I keep telling you that stuff is one of the leading causes of neopox!"

      Aidne smirked, feeling more comfortable. "How can it be one of the leading causes if I'm the only one who eats it?" She tossed a chunk of the fruit up into the air and caught it in her mouth, then she offered the container to Aurora. "Want some?"

      The Kacheek wrinkled her tiny nose. "I'll pass, thanks."

      "Anyways, about this tomb...?"

      Aurora's eyes brightened. "Yeah, it's really great! I actually found the very tip of it poking out of the sand when I went to the river for water the other day. I dug enough of it out myself to reach an exit of some sort, but the wind will just blow more sand over it again if we wait to long."

      "So, who else have you rounded up for this little project of yours?" Aidne inquired.

      "Well you, obviously. Lani also, if she's coming-"

      "Yup," Aidne interrupted, "she just had to stop off at Meridell to pick up her cousin. I hope that won't be a problem."

      Aurora shrugged. "The more the merrier. I did call a few more old acquaintances, but they were all too busy to come. I did, however, manage to find Khaj and get him interested. I thought an interpreter might be handy to have along."

      Aidne grinned; the brainy fire Zafara was another friend from their old school days. "And that's all?"

      The blue Kacheek nodded. "That's it."

      Aidne looked at her Cheops Plant with feigned interest. Both pets were silent now, absorbed in their own thoughts.

     ***

      Somewhere beneath the sands of the Lost Desert, a curious Selket scuttled across the cold stone floor of the tomb Aurora had recently discovered. It had fallen in by accident as it journeyed along in search of something to eat, but rather than try to clamber out, it had decided to investigate its surroundings. Who knew? Its adventure could lead it to the tasty scrap of the food it desired.

      Presently the desert petpet came to what seemed to be a dead end. No, wait... there was a small crack in the wall that was just big enough to allow a small creature to enter the room on the other side. Taking this opportunity, the Selket scuttled through the opening.

      When it reached the other side it was disappointed. The room on the other side was unremarkable: small, crude, dusty, and apparently empty. More importantly, if there had ever been food here, it was long gone now. The Selket was about to head back the way it had come when something caught its eye.

      It stiffened. It couldn't be sure, but to its limited sight it could have sworn it saw a shadow, not belonging to it, dart across the far wall. It had thought it was the only thing in here, but it appeared it had been wrong. The petpet felt a cold breeze on its armored back, and, turning on instinct, glimpsed for a split second the figure in the shadows. Terrified, the Selket scurried towards the exit as quickly as its six legs could carry it. It got through just in time. Not one second after it had vanished once more into the darkness, a thick bolt of shadowy raw power sizzling with desert heat struck the patch of ground where it had just stood. An earsplitting crack rang in the silent tomb as the energy hit the stone floor.

      Meanwhile, the Selket was scuttling urgently down the corridor. It didn't care if there was food, it was too dangerous here for any creature. If the Selket could talk, it would warn anyone and everyone what it had seen, and this place would be buried for good.

      But unfortunately, the Selket couldn't talk.

To be continued…

 
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