Shifting Sands and the Snowager: Part One
The main problem with snow, Phizith decided, was that it was cold. And if your feathers flamed and sparked with flames at your wish, well, then, you had nothing to worry about, and you could explore icy areas that much easier.
He was standing on a ledge looking over Happy Valley, but from this distance the dome-shaped buildings shrunk to the size of matchboxes, and the individual pets to the size of ash falling from the matches.
Phizith enjoyed fiery metaphors.
Phizith loved hiking in the valley. A lot of people did, captivated by the snowy landscape and brief escape from annoying siblings. Unlike most of those people, however, Phizith climbed seriously. There was nothing he enjoyed more than the challenge of a tough climb, the danger and adrenaline.
He stood briefly for a few moments, then turned and examined the smooth ice wall in front of him with a daredevil’s eye. Most sensible people would flinch from the climb without at least decent safety gear – but Phizith had wings of fire for emergency eject system and parachute. He wouldn’t fly up, of course; the winds were too strong, and besides, it took away all the fun.
Phizith cracked his feathers – easier said than done – and began, trying to ignore the raindorf chattering in his ear and pulling on his spiky hair-like feathers.
It must have been two hours later when he finally stopped to rest in the lee of a frozen boulder. He had climbed innumerable walls and had often hung by a feather-tip above dizzying drops, but it had been worth it – his heart beat faster with adrenaline, and his green eyes sparkled like the frosty stars hanging in the sky above him.
The raindorf jumped off his shoulder and flopped on the snow, looking up at him with reproachful emerald eyes. Phizith chuckled and lightly tinged the bell hanging from a red ribbon around his neck. “Come on, Rune, don’t tell me you didn’t enjoy that.”
Rune chirred indignantly in a way that left no doubt to his owner that he hadn’t enjoyed that. Raising a leg, he pointed to the sky above them.
“You’re right, it is quite late. Maybe we should go home.” Phizith smiled mischievously. “Then again, in the dark we could easily mistake a foothold and plummet to our death.”
Rune threw an exasperated look at Phizith.
“Yes, I know I’m made of fire, silly. So?”
Rune chirred with annoyance at his owner’s stupidity and rolled his eyes.
Phizith laughed and looked around, savoring the icy bite to the air.
“I think we’re somewhere a little above the Ice Caves. Yeah, we could have gotten there much quicker if we’d taken the path, but that’s not the point!”
Rune sighed and gave up.
Phizith lay for a while, resting, then stood, holding out a wing for Rune. The raindorf didn’t accept the help, instead choosing to run beside Phizith on his pudgy legs.
In the open, the full force of the wind was more than Phizith expected. He kept low to the ground to avoid the full force of it, keeping his eyes narrowed so that when he came to the cliff edge he almost fell over it.
He squinted, but the wind was whipping up flurries of snow that got in the way of his vision. Combined with the dark, that meant that Phizith could barely see ten feet in front of him. He glanced up; the bright lights of the sky were blurred and soon obscured altogether. He wrestled with a growing sense of unease.
Phizith heard a faint yelp behind him, carried, and at the same time stifled, by the wind.
Turning quickly around, Phizith ran in the direction of the yell.
“Rune, what trouble have you got yourself into this time?” he muttered, searching for the little brown reindeer.
He saw no sign of Rune, but his leg plunged into a hole and he tumbled over, painfully landing beak-first on hard ice.
The fire Pteri stood up painfully, peering at the hole. Giving up on this, he felt around the entrance with one wing and discovered that it was just large enough to admit him if he pressed his feathers tight against the skin. Phizith wondered whether this was where Rune had disappeared to; shrugging, he squeezed in.
Phizith slid down the chute-like tunnel, thankful that it opened a little further in. Ahead the tunnel widened into a much larger cave or... Phizith wondered why the word lair came to mind.
Phizith landed in an undignified heap of feathers before he had a chance to spread his wings. He looked around for Rune and was momentarily shocked.
Phizith knew quite a lot about expensive items. His owner Rikku had given him several, most of which he had broken, but this... this was different. This was a totally different league.
Hundreds – no, thousands of items were jumbled in huge haphazard piles. Plushies, smoothies, neggs; Phizith thought he caught a glimpse of the wooden handle of a Paint Brush. Delicate potions were stacked against the wall, along with slushies and books with colorful covers that beckoned the reader to enter another world.
But the thing that caught Phizith’s eye was the snake. The almost transparent, but by no means insubstantial snake. It was huge, a behemoth of nature, a giant striped monstrosity whose very breath trembled the walls and shook the floor.
Phizith was terrified, but he put his fear aside and searched for Rune amongst the stacks of items.
He spotted a small brown head poking out of a pike of soft toys.
Phizith ran over to Rune and pulled him out from beside a faerie ixi plushie. The raindorf’s huge green eyes widened in relief and he chirred happily, but then he remembered that he was supposed to be angry and wriggled out of Phizith’s wings, diving back into the plushie stack.
Phizith laughed and then glanced around.
“We have to be careful, Rune. You know what that is? It’s the Snowager, one of Neopia’s most infamous denizens.”
Rune shrugged and yawned pointedly.
“Well... there isn’t much we can do right now, I suppose, and it’s certainly very late.”
Ten minutes later the raindorf and the fire Pteri were curled up on a pyramid of soft plushies, both sound asleep.
There are many sights that are a pleasure to be woken by – a mug of steaming borovan, a fire Paint Brush, and, say, a pile of soot that was formerly asparagus – but the huge head that was glaring at Phizith, accompanied by a gust of icy breath, was most definitely not one of them.
He stifled a yell and forced himself to stay still, to not make any hostile actions – but Rune had no such scruples and was running across the ice before Phizith could stop him.
The Snowager’s massive head swung round to watch the little raindorf as he trotted nimbly across the ice, but he made no move to attack the harmless petpet. Phizith, sensing this, crouched down low and dropped his eyes.
The Snowager turned its baleful eyes upon the Pteri and let out a low reverberating growl that trembled the floor. Then, before Phizith could make a move, it swept its huge tail towards him and he slammed into the wall.
That hurt a lot, but Phizith remained still, avoiding eye contact. The Snowager roared and let loose a blast of ice from its mouth that sent Phizith tumbling across the cavern again. Ice frosted across his feathers and he shivered. Normally he would have heated them up – he WAS fire – but this could have easily been taken as a sign of hostility by the ice snake. So he sat sprawled across the ice and felt the unaccustomed cold seeping through his light flight bones.
The Snowager lowered its head to his level and roared again. Phizith winced and closed his eyes against the gale-like gust.
When he opened them the Snowager’s head was still there, pale eyes, as big as Phizith’s head, wide open and pupil-less. Phizith shivered, but then a memory transplanted itself in his head.
The red Pteri looked at all the petpets with delighted excitement. A puppyblew cocked its head on one side and barked, a babaa blinked huge blue eyes; a chezzoom winked and flicked an ear forward to tickle the young bird’s belly. But at the back was a smallish snakelike creature, with tiny spade-like claws and big blue eyes. Phizith looked at it curiously.
“You’re just a grown snowickle, aren’t you? Just a giant petpet, like the Turmaculus... why do people hate you so much?”
The Snowager turned its head to the huge collection of treasure.
“Oh, because you have all this stuff and won’t share it. But everyone knows that snowickles love shiny things and snowickles sell for millions, so people must like them...”
The Snowager tapped its tail on the floor impatiently.
“They like you when you’re small and cute, but not when you’re older, huh? Bummer. How old are you?”
The Snowager twisted his tail around in an arc. Phizith whistled.
“Man, you’re as old as Neopia!”
The Snowager nodded.
Rune ran forwards, dragging an abominable snowball behind him.
Phizith frowned at the raindorf. “What do you mean?” Then his expression cleared.
“Snowager,” he said incautiously, “You know how people often sneak in while you’re sleeping and steal some of your stuff?”
The Snowager’s eyes narrowed.
“Yes, I know, it must be annoying – but my point is, they often take abominable snowballs.”
The Snowager cocked its head on one side.
“Where do you get them? The conditions here are hardly good, and you can’t really treat petpets like items. They’re alive.”
The Snowager coiled itself up and looked at the ceiling before bending down and nudging the abominable snowball.
Phizith’s eyes widened. “...Well, yes, I suppose you must get lonely. But it’s still mean to take them from their home and force them to live in an enclosed area, however large it is.”
The Snowager gave a small snort that was almost like a laugh, and Phizith would have sworn it rolled its eyes.
“You... make them? I always wondered where they came from.” He hadn’t, but it was still interesting. “No wonder you’re so annoyed with people. They take all your little friends away, and when you build more, they take them too. That really sucks.”
The Snowager nodded.
“Well, anyway... I better get going home now.” Phizith lifted up Rune and headed for the main entrance from the Ice Caves, figuring that it would be quicker.
The Snowager blinked.
“Yeah, I’ll visit you next time I’m around. I come here quite often.”
There is a fine line between being respected and being feared. Phizith didn’t particularly mind either, because both had their benefits.
In a small place like Happy Valley word spreads fast when something unusual happens, but rumors spread even faster, and the hottest gossip of the moment was that the fire Pteri who walked with such a jaunty air had talked with the Snowager.
Naturally this was impossible, but the village shopkeepers could hardly be blamed for being a little cautious of the stranger.
The small bronze bell tinkled as Phizith entered the Wintery Petpets shop, signaling an all-out clamor of noise from its inhabitants. The blue Bruce shopkeeper looked up from the ledger on his desk.
Rune looked around curiously.
“Yeah, you came from here, pallie.” Then, to the shopkeeper: “My raindorf here gets a little stir-crazy sometimes, and I need something to keep him busy.”
The shopkeeper tugged on the edge of his green-and-white scarf. “This is a petpet shop, not a petpet supply shop, sir. Please take your business elsewhere.”
Phizith gave him a mock-pleading look. “C’mon, you must have something.”
The shopkeeper shrugged. “I’m afraid not, sir.”
Phizith sighed dramatically and looked out the window. “Nasty weather, huh?” He cast a sly glance at the Bruce. “Not even the Snowager would want to be out in this. What was that?”
The shopkeeper had let out an involuntary squeak.
“Rune could really use something, you know.”
The shopkeeper stood awkwardly, looked out the window as if the Snowager was about to jump through it that very moment and eat him, and then bustled to the back.
Rune jumped from his owner’s shoulder to frolic with the other petpets. Phizith, watching him, chuckled, but quickly set his face to solemnity when the shopkeeper reappeared, laden with toys, brushes, a bed and plenty of other items that were guaranteed to make your petpet feel like royalty.
Phizith whistled. “Gee, I don’t know if I can even afford all that.”
A tremulous voice sounded from behind the pile. “No charge, sir. - Display items.”
“Well, isn’t that convenient!” Phizith grinned at the shopkeeper.
Phizith was enjoying this newfound fame so much that he had delayed going home for a few more weeks. Besides, the Snowager was really quite interesting company, and though it didn’t exactly speak, Phizith could understand it perfectly.
Phizith could barely hold the bags of merchandise, particularly with Rune sitting on his head. “Better than the rug you sleep on at home, eh? I better put these things away somewhere.”
He dropped by the hut he was staying in and dumped the bags on the ground.
“Okay, I’m going for a little walk. You can stay here if you want.”
Rune chirred and leaped for his owner’s head. Although he missed and landed instead on Phizith’s shoulder, the message was conveyed.
“Let’s go, then.”
Phizith left strange claw prints in the snow. Little igloo-shaped houses rimmed the street, but there wasn’t a soul in sight. Rune was looking around, growling slightly.
“Hey, what’s the matter, buddy?”
Four figures melted out of the shadows.
“...Oh, that would be it.”
The tallest of them, evidently the leader, narrowed his eyes. “You’re Phizith? Who talked with the Snowager?” He was a Zafara; his red fur, probably bright to begin with, was faded from too much time in the sun, and a small ankh hung from his ear.
“Yeah, that’s me. Sorry, I don’t do autographs.”
“We don’t want autographs,” a Mynci spat. He was darker than the Zafara, brown, though his fur was also faded. He was shivering with cold.
Phizith felt for a weapon and closed his feathery hand around something. “Ha!” he yelled, and then groaned. It was a melted snowball.
“Great...” Phizith shook the moisture off his wing.
An Aisha smirked. She was a very deep red, with long curly hair and soft fur. Her eyes were wide open, unlike most Aishas.
Phizith searched again and felt something smooth and deadly. He drew it out without much hope. The Mynci found himself staring down the barrel of Phizith’s battle duck.
Cursing TNT for their weird weaponry, Phizith returned the battle duck to his pocket. Rune crouched on his shoulder, staring at the four, particularly a Kyrii, who was tapping his paws together and muttering inanely under his breath.
“You’re probably wondering why we’re here,” the Zafara said. He was holding a smooth length of wood in his paw.
“Genius. Pure genius,” Phizith said. “You know who I am, so why not return the favor?”
The Zafara raised his eyebrows slightly. “Very well. I’m Range. The Mynci there is Dez, the best angelpuss burglar you could ask for. The lady is Kiran, a very fast thinker. That Kyrii’s Perk – easily distracted, but when he puts his mind to it he can do practically anything. Me, I’m Range. We’re – I suppose you could say we’re thieves.”
“No surprises there, but why are you here?”
Range opened his mouth, but closed it again, glancing at Dez. The brown Mynci’s face was pale and his lips were blue.
“We have an offer for you, but maybe we could discuss it out of the cold.”
Phizith considered. If his owner or brother were here... Zeekaye would almost certainly help the people on the right side, thieves or no, and Rikku would probably arrange a meeting between Range and Kanrik, or invite Range to the Neopian Times Appreciation Guild and hand around tacos. Phizith’s family made pretty weird role models.
“I know a cave.”
To be continued...