Spheres of Influence: Part One
On Mystery Island, along the beaches and in the jungles, performers practiced their routines, booths and games were being set up, fruits and berries sat in crates waiting to be sold, and everyone was in high spirits. It was morning on the eve of Gadgadsbogen, the island fruit festival, and thought it was a late harvest this year, natives and tourists alike were already wandering the byways and avenues built just for this occasion. Among them, young Neopians took advantage of the annual holiday to play, both in the jungle and on the beaches.
A red Kyrii, a blue Lupe, and a green Kougra were playing hide and seek in the jungle that day. They played all morning, and now it was the Kougra’s turn to count. The other two wasted no time finding the perfect hiding spot. The Kyrii, who was the youngest of the three, dragged along a tattered yellow Nimmo plushie wherever she went. She wasn’t that great at hide and seek. There were times she couldn’t find a good hiding spot at all. But, that was back at home. In the jungle, there were far more places to hide. After a few moments of searching, she chose to hide behind a large fern plant growing up against a rock. Here, she sat silently, squeezing her Nimmo close to her. She could still hear the Kougra counting.
She concentrated so much on him, she didn’t hear the figure in the shadows behind her.
* * *
Hoshi flew freely through the clouds around the Faerie City, the dawn sun barely peeking over the horizon. The Faerie Kougra was elated. Today, she was going to be given a quest by her mentor, a light Faerie named Illa. She had never been given a quest before. Illa always said she was too young. Hoshi always contested this, of course, but her mentor always convinced her in the end that she just wasn’t ready.
It was a long time since she left home. A long time since she traveled to Faerieland. Somehow, she was drawn there, like she was drawn to learn all she could about the Faerie’s light magic. It was something she couldn’t explain, or ignore. And now, nearly an adult, she was eager to use all she had learned to accomplish something on her own.
Gracefully, Hoshi flew through her bedroom window, high in Illa’s tower, and landed softly on the stone floor. Then, tucking her wings to her side, she bounded out of her room, through the corridor, and into the tower’s central chamber. There, she skidded to a halt, almost running into Illa. The Faerie, who had her nose in a book, was startled and jumped into the air for a moment.
“Hoshi!” she gasped. As her nerves calmed, she smiled at the Kougra. “You’re up early this morning.”
Hoshi’s eyes lit up. “I couldn’t sleep last night!” she exclaimed. “I was too excited!”
“Boundless energy,” Illa said with a laugh as she set her book on an end table. “It’s a wonder how you can stay up all night and still have the energy to fly around the city, then bound around my tower.”
“How did you know I was flying?” Hoshi asked.
“Your feathers are ruffled, for one thing,” Illa said. “And I’m a bit of an early bird myself. I saw you out there with those mid-air somersaults.”
Hoshi smiled bashfully, looking down as she pawed at the ground. Then she remembered what the day was and looked up at Illa again. “Have you decided what task I should do today?”
The light Faerie shook her head. “Not yet,” she said. “I still have to meet with a few associates of mine.” When she saw the disappointed look on Hoshi’s face, she knelt down beside her. “I know you’ve waited a long time for this, Hoshi. I promise to give you a task before the sun reaches its zenith, alright?”
A light of hope flashed in the Kougra’s eyes. “Alright,” she said, smiling meekly.
Illa smiled. “Now, why don’t you go out flying again? It’s a lovely day out, and I don’t want you to waste it.”
Nodding, Hoshi turned from her mentor and moved down the corridor to her bedroom, and her window. She had waited a long time for this. What was another hour or two?
* * *
Drake sat brooding high in a gnarly tree deep in the Haunted Woods, watching passively as the Pant Devil snatched a bottle of sand from a pair of frightened Chias. What did he care? They should know better than to wander into the forest unprepared. In fact, if he were down there, he would have done the same thing, if only to teach them a lesson.
The Darigan Kougra stretched his leathery purple wings and settled down on his branch again. The day was just beginning, and already the Pant Devil had claimed another item. Fortunately, it was something cheep and replaceable. Drake smirked at the premise that the devil had lost its touch. Or, perhaps, it was just warming up. Either way, he had left the two Chias...
Peering down from his perch again, Drake saw only one Chia, nervously moving away from where he and his companion were before. But, where was the second? Even as he watched, the second Chia disappeared from sight.
“Well, this is irregular,” Drake muttered to himself. As he stood up, Drake was wondering why he even bothered checking it out. And as he glided down to the ground, he reasoned with himself that though Neopians who wander into the Haunted Forest may find themselves not coming out again, he had never seen a case where one had disappeared altogether.
He landed softly on the ground where the first Chia had vanished, taking in the scents that lay on the ground. Then he checked where the second had disappeared. Nothing. Their scent trails just disappeared. All that remained was the lingering smell where they had last stood, and the scent of something old, or depressed. He really couldn’t describe it, but it was a musty, stale scent, that didn’t really smell like anything at all. And this scent seemed to have a path all its own.
“Very irregular,” Drake muttered again as he padded off, following the trail of musty nothingness.
* * *
Deep in the jungles of Tyrannia, Slate stalked his prey on silent, velvet paws. The Tyrannian Kougra eyed the lone Airax hungrily. But, such prey had to be handled carefully. One false step could send his meal flying, literally. He kept light on his paws, watching the long-tailed bird carefully as it pecked away at the ground, searching for bugs. He was only two bounds away. A little closer and he could...
He stopped dead in his tracks as a Bori in the distance called for the bird. Without hesitation, the Airax took flight, landing on the Bori’s outstretched arm. Slate sighed. He couldn’t have asked for better conditions to catch that bird. It only made matters worse that it belonged to someone. The last thing he wanted to do was deprive someone of their pet. It was one of the hazards of living off the land as he did. Sighing again, Slate moved off, wandering to a nearby stream. At least there he might be able to catch a fish that didn’t belong to anyone.
He padded slowly up to the bank and dipped his head to get a drink. His thoughts wandered for a moment before a fire Kougra appeared on the opposite bank. Recognizing him quickly, Slate pushed himself to his paws. It was Cole, one of his brothers.
“Hello, Slate,” Cole said flatly. “Still living off the land?”
Slate only growled softly in response.
“I thought you might be,” Cole continued. “Nature seems to have grown on you.”
Slate bristled slightly, but he didn't respond. Instead, he huffed, and turned his back on Cole, walking back into the jungle. Cole followed him.
“You still won't talk, huh?” he asked. Slate shook his head. “Don’t you have anything to talk about? Life, the jungle... girls?”
The Tyrannian Kougra stopped dead, his ears flat against his skull. He closed his eyes, concentrating deeply.
The ground began to shake. Cole looked around nervously, backing away from where he stood. Then three vines shot out of the ground underneath him, wrapping at his legs and chest, and lifting him into the air. When he was about ten feet up, they stopped, and Slate turned around, smiling satisfied at his captive brother.
“Do you think a few vines are going to stop me?” Cole asked. Steam began to rise from his body. After a moment, the vines around his chest and legs began to shrivel and char. As soon as he got one forepaw free, he aimed it straight down and shot a fireball through the vines holding him in the air. The plant didn’t even have time to burn before Cole found himself falling into a cloud of ashes. Slate held his ground as Cole stepped out of the cloud, his paws burning with fire, and his eyes burning with rage.
“Come on, then!” Cole said. “Is that the best you can do?”
Before Slate could respond, he was knocked to the ground. To his surprise, it wasn’t Cole who had done it. In fact, all he had felt was a gust of wind. When he looked to Cole, he saw his brother had also been knocked down.
“Stop it! Stop it, both of you!”
Looking up, Slate watched in wonder as a cloud Kougra floated above both of them on a pocket of air. She looked angry, but also distraught. She also looked familiar.
“I come all this way,” the Kougra muttered. “To ask my brothers for help, and I find them ready to rip each other’s fur off. Why do I even bother?”
“Robin?” Cole asked, pushing himself to his paws. “Where did you come from?”
“Sit DOWN!” Robin snapped, launching another gust at Cole, and knocking him down again. “If you must know, I came over here from Terror Mountain. There’s plenty of wind up there to study.” As she spoke, she lowered herself to the ground. There, she sat, looking down at her paws, and looking even more distraught than before. “A friend of mine, a good friend of mine, disappeared up there. There’s no sign of where he went. As I was looking for him, I found out other Neopians had disappeared as well. Something is going on up there. I was hoping you two could help.” She looked up, anger flaring in her eyes again. “But when I got here, it seemed that you two weren’t going to be much help at all! What were you fighting about, anyway?”
Cole and Slate looked at each other, and Slate shook his head. Then Cole stood up and gave his sister a cool look. “It's a private matter between me and Slate. We'll sort it out, eventually. I hope,” he added softly, with a glance to Slate.
Robin flicked her ears, staring long and hard at Cole. “You had better, or I'll make it my business to MAKE you sort it out.”
“Yes, mistress,” Cole muttered.
“What was that?” Robin asked.
“What was what?” Cole asked.
Slate smirked, looking from Robin to Cole and back.
Robin narrowed her eyes. “Alright,” she said dismissively. “Are you going to help or not?”
“Sure. I don't mind. I could use a little hunt,” Cole said, stretching. He looked to his brother. “But if he's coming along, don't expect me to be very friendly.”
Slate snarled defiantly at Cole, then looked to Robin and nodded.
“Okay,” Robin said. “We go to Terror Mountain, then.”
* * *
Naia took in the scents between a large fern and a rock. A young Kyrii had been here, but not recently. The Island Kougra backed out of the bush and padded back out of the jungle to the beach. There, the Kyrii's owner waited with his other pets, the Lupe and the Kougra, who were playing with her earlier.
“I don’t know what to tell you, Scott,” Naia said. “Her trail ends in the jungle under a fern. As far as I can tell, she hid there, and vanished from the face of Neopia.”
“Is there anything we can do?” Scott asked. “Cara isn't old enough to be out in the park by herself, let alone this jungle. What if natives took her?”
“There's no evidence of that,” Naia calmly pointed out. “But, you're not the only owner who's lost his pet recently. There has been a rash of mysterious disappearances recently, and Cara may only be a small piece of this puzzle.”
“So, what are you going to do?” Scott asked.
“I'm going to have to consult my mentor,” the Kougra said, turning to the shore. “If this thing is as big as I think it is, I won't be able to take care of it on my own.”
“But...” Scott started to say. When Naia turned to him, he seemed to think better of his previous statement. “Just... Bring Cara back home safely.”
“I will,” Naia said. “But don't waste your time worrying. Finding her may take days, even weeks.” The Kougra turned to the shore again and sat down. “I'll try to keep you informed as best as I can. In the meantime, try to keep a tighter leash on your other pets until we figure out what's going on.”
Scott nodded. “I'll do that. Thank you, Naia.” Then, he left Naia on the beach, taking his remaining pets home.
As she sat alone on the beach, gazing out on the ocean with the late morning sun almost directly above her, Naia couldn't help feeling that something about this didn't feel right.
* * *
The sun was going down when Hoshi returned to Illa's tower, carrying with her a bundle of small items the Faerie sent her to fetch. Though she was tired, the Kougra was still as excited as she was that morning. It had taken her most of the afternoon, but she had managed to collect everything Illa asked for. Now, all she had to do was deliver them.
Hoshi had landed at the tower's main aerial entrance, which was immediately adjacent to the central chamber. Hoshi expected that Illa would be in her laboratory on the top level. She was surprised to find, upon entering the central chamber, not only her mentor, but a water Faerie she remembered from some time ago, and a Island Kougra she hadn't seen in ages.
“Naia!” Hoshi exclaimed.
Naia turned to Hoshi, and smiled at her as her sister bounded across the room to her.
“Hello, Hoshi,” Naia said, rubbing cheeks with her. “How is my youngest sister?”
“I'm fine,” Hoshi stated. “What are you doing here? I thought you were living on Mystery Island.”
“I am,” Naia replied. She leaned closer to her sister. “The fact is, something strange is going on over there. Neopians are disappearing without a trace. I came here to ask my mentor for help. When I did, she brought me here and started speaking to your mentor. I'm not sure why, but this problem I discovered may be part of something bigger; something more... sinister, perhaps,” she added darkly, putting on an evil looking grin.
“Stop it,” Hoshi said, giving Naia a friendly shove. Then, more seriously, she asked, “Do you think Dr. Sloth is involved?”
“I don't think so, but I wouldn't rule him out,” Naia said.
“Hoshi, Naia, could you come here please?” Illa asked.
The two sisters looked at each other briefly before moving across the room to the two Faeries. When they got there, Illa spoke again.
“I want you two to go and round up your other siblings, and meet us at your parents' house on Mystery Island in one week.”
“Why?” Hoshi asked.
“What I need you to do requires all of you,” Illa replied. “In the meantime, I need to consult with your siblings' mentors. Perhaps by the time we meet again, we can give you the tools you need for the task ahead.”
“What task would that be?” Naia asked.
Illa shook her head. “All in good time.”
To be continued...