An Illusion Spun: Part Two
"Aha!" Karik punched the air in victory, hollering for his companion, a Xweetok with a particularly ruby-red mane and striking eyes. "Cherry! C'mere!"
The Xweetok abandoned her fruitless attempts to build a fire and joined him near the small shelter that the Kacheek had built. Karik removed his bandana that came along with his Pirate appearance and brushed at his sweaty brow, pleased with himself.
"What do you think?" he said proudly.
She inspected it and nodded her approval. "Not bad."
Logs had been stacked in a cone-shaped form and tied together at the top with a sturdy vine. A large leaf provided shade for the shelter, covering the cracks near the "roof".
"See?" he probed. "I'm capable of some things."
Cherry laughed. Karik could be stubborn, irritating, and downright impossible at times, but Cherry couldn't help but grin at him. "I'm impressed."
Suddenly, there was a distant battle cry, followed by the pounding of footsteps across the sandy beach. Cherry and Karik exchanged glances, twisting wildly this way and that.
And then, without warning, there was a deafening slam, and before their eyes, the shelter that Karik had spent the better half of the day perfecting and beautifying crumbled to the sandy ground to reveal a Faerie Wocky just behind it, armed with a makeshift club.
Karik fell to his knees, howling his peaking frustration to the four winds. "Nooo! Adriana--what did you do!?"
The Wocky looked put out. "I've been trying to catch dinner. And this pile of sticks just got in the way, I was this close--"
Cherry looked amused. "Dinner?"
"There's a Mootix buzzing around here. I figured we could fry it." Her eyes traveled to the pile of logs that was obviously lacking in fire-building quality. "If we get a fire going, that is."
"I'm working on it," Cherry replied stiffly.
"But my shelter!" Karik was infuriated, still half in shock. "What... how could you... why would you...?"
"I thought the Mootix landed there. I've been chasing it all day."
"You've got to be the ditziest Wocky I've ever met," seethed Karik. "I'm not eating a Mootix! I'll chew off my own arm first!"
"Suit yourself. More for us." And the Wocky scampered away, the log-club held aloft.
Karik was still glaring after the frolicking Wocky, burning a hole in the back of her head as she danced about, kicking up sand. "Can you believe her?"
"I'm a bit sick of fruit myself, you know."
The Kacheek shot a dirty look at Cherry. "You'd rather eat a Mootix?"
"Better a Mootix than my own arm. Or yours."
A new voice broke up the argument. "Hey! Cherry!"
Both pets turned to see a Cloud Mynci lumbering toward them, hauling an enormous basket woven entirely out of wavy pieces of long grass and vines, fashioned by Cherry. It was brimming with assorted fruit, and Cherry groaned inwardly. But she said nothing except, "Good work, Dash."
The timid but intelligent Mynci collapsed in a heap of bananas as fruit spilled out of the overturned basket. "It's all I could find," he panted. "Fruit might be nutritious, but we need some protein, too." When neither of them rushed off immediately, Dash, the all-knowing bookworm of the bunch, and an invaluable asset to their quartet of shipwreck victims, added, "You know, fish."
"Or a Mootix," added Karik darkly.
Dash took note of the wounded air in Karik's voice. "How goes the shelter-building?"
The Kacheek gestured angrily at the heap of wood and vines. "Just great. It's a regular NeoLodge, all right. Faerie Castle, even."
"Adriana happened!" Karik spit, fuming. "Can't we boot her off the island or something? Banish her?"
"To where?" Cherry said with a raised eyebrow. "That cloud up there? In case you haven't noticed, we're the only island in sight. We're all alone in the world."
Dash sighed. "Can't we try to get along?"
"Oh, right!" Sarcasm oozed from Karik's voice. "Let's all be jolly good friends and sing around the campfire, shall we?" His outlook blackening by the second, he glared at Cherry. "Not that we have a campfire..."
"You're in quite a mood," she snapped, turning away to begin tackling the heap of sticks she was supposed to be turning into a blazing fire.
"Remember," Dash reminded her, "if we get a big enough fire going, we can send up a signal flare. Someone might see it from the shores of an island somewhere. Even a faraway island might see it if the smoke's high enough, and dark enough."
Cherry nodded, sighed, and put every effort into creating a fire, but it was a dismal attempt; the sticks simply wouldn't cooperate. Her thoughts began to wind themselves around half-formed muse and soon she was staring at the sticks but thinking about other things entirely.
She could hardly wrap her mind around the reality of their situation. Four pets had awoken on a deserted island, and not one of them could recall how they had gotten there. It was as if the sky had opened up and spit them out at random, and they had just happened to fall upon an island out in the middle of nowhere. None of them were injured to suggest a struggle or a kidnapping, and there was no wreckage of a boat to indicate a shipwreck.
It was a puzzle. No, more than a puzzle--the average jigsaw puzzle was nothing but a game created to relieve one's boredom.
This is my life. Our lives. And it's no game.
Cherry's gaze was suddenly riveted on Karik, and she blinked, shaking her head to clear her thoughts. Karik remained motionless, not bothering to rebuild his perfect shelter; he merely gazed out onto the glassy waters, lost to them.
To Cherry, the thinking moments were the worst of them all. She would dwell on what she'd left behind when she had stumbled upon this living nightmare--her owner, her brother. Her home.
"Karik," she said, as much to bring herself out of her stupor as to bring him out of his. When he did not respond, she said louder, "Karik!"
Snapping to attention, Karik glanced her way. "Aren't you going to build the shelter again?" she asked, feeling a sympathy for him she hadn't expected. She wasn't the only one suffering quite a bit from this grand injustice. She could no longer say that this was all no fair, like she might've when she was younger--life just wasn't always fair. The game came with complicated rules that were always changing.
Karik snorted. "What's the point?" And then his laughter subsided and he looked at Cherry seriously. "What if--what if this is all a dream? Some nightmare?"
She had asked herself the very same question, and had pinched herself to reassure herself that it was all quite real. The Pawkeets, squawking and cawing in the distance, were real; the juicy fruits and blistering heat of the sun was real; and the aching, longing feeling Cherry felt for her loved ones... that was real.
"It's no dream," she said sadly. "Pinch yourself."
Karik had a faraway look in his eyes. "I have. I pinch myself all day." And then his gaze hardened. "Things like this don't just happen. It's a horrible nightmare that I can't wake up from." Under his breath, in a voice that was so quiet that Cherry wasn't even sure she had heard him, he muttered, "Just like my life."
The Xweetok remained silent, then redoubled her efforts with the fire.
Precisely one hour later, Cherry had still made no progress; in the distance, she could hear faint singing, and then, quite suddenly, it came to a grinding halt.
Her head shot up. "Adriana?"
She spun around. Karik was lying in the sand, eyes closed, his arms folded behind his head, the ruins of his shelter sitting patiently five feet away. "Did you hear that?"
He opened an eye. "Hear what?"
"Adriana's stopped singing."
He sat up, sighing. "I'm going to regret this."
Together, the two of them traipsed past the basket overflowing with fruit and met up with a concerned Dash, who was barreling out of the jungle with bananas trailing at his feet as he dropped them one by one. "Where's Adriana?"
"Hopefully being eaten by some ferocious beast," put in Karik.
Cherry was straining her ears. "I think it came from just up there."
A large boulder stretched from the very edge of the shore to the green of the jungle, and the trio climbed, struggled, and sweated their way up the boulder, slipping and sliding every so often the moment they began to make progress.
"I think I'm ready to tackle Terror Mountain now," Karik panted, clinging to a bit of rock. "It'll be cake compared to this."
"We could have just gone around," Dash pointed out.
"And ruin all the fun?" Karik was irritable.
"We're nearly there," Cherry said, trying to paint the picture optimistically. "We can go around next time. It isn't as if we can go back down--not now, anyway."
"Yeah," agreed Karik. "The impact would probably make a crater."
The Xweetok had to admit that they were awfully high up--had it looked this high from the safety of the sandy landscape below?
Cherry scrambled over the peak first and spotted the figure of Adriana wading out into the shallows. "She's okay!"
"Great," Karik said, breathing heavily as he began to slide down after Cherry on his rear, catching himself on a stone that jetted out from the side. "Now I can kill her."
Dash appeared next, looking worse for the wear but optimistic all the same. "What in Neopia is she doing?"
The three observed her as she made her way farther and farther out to sea, the water now rippling around her waist. "It had to happen," Karik said, now sounding amused. "She's finally gone more insane than the Mad Scientist--mind, we don't know how insane she was when she first got here, but it's definitely a couple notches above Barallus."
"You don't think she's trying to swim for it, do you?" Dash said, worried.
"Why would she?" Cherry squinted as the water rose above Adriana's shoulders. "Oy! Adriana!"
But the Wocky didn't hear her.
Karik sounded shocked, a note of urgency in his voice. "She's mad!"
"Adriana!" Dash and Cherry chorused. "Stop!"
But no amount of shouting could deviate her from whatever task she had set upon herself to do. "We have to stop her!" Cherry exclaimed, lowering herself to the sandy bottom swiftly. She jumped the last couple of feet and her knees hit the sand, but she scrambled to her feet again and took off at a sprint. "Adriana! Adriana!"
Karik hit the ground running. "Don't do it!"
Dash took off as well. "No! Stop!"
As they drew nearer, Adriana disappeared.
One minute she was bobbing in the waves, and the next there were merely ripples in her place.
"No!" howled Cherry. It was an agonizing decision for her; she wasn't the most amazing swimmer in the world, and what if some crazy tide pulled her out to sea?
Karik, too, was conflicted, but still wild with panic as he paced the shore. "Where'd she go? Do you see her?"
Dash reached them, out of breath. "Look!"
Her head appeared once more, but farther out. "Adriana!" cried Cherry, taking a few experimental steps in the water. The icy cold shot up her paws, into her legs and throughout her body, but her eyes were focused on the Faerie Wocky.
All at once, Adriana disappeared again.
Cherry lunged forward and into the freezing water. With an odd, shuddering gasp, she swam as best she could against the crushing waves, trying to catch sight of her friend over the whitecaps.
Suddenly, Adriana was right beside her.
"Adriana!" Cherry leapt forward, struggling to rescue Adriana, who was surely drowning--why else would she be flailing about, sputtering and spitting water?
"CHERRY! Get--off--of me!"
The Xweetok managed to bring them both under as the next wave broke right over them, pulling them under with the force of the entire sea.
Cherry's paws struck the bottom.
Her head broke the surface, her paw still attached to Adriana's arm. The Wocky, spluttering and blue in the face, shoved Cherry off. "I can walk from here," the Wocky said, miffed.
Cherry stood tall and realized that the water only reached her midsection.
The two of them trudged, wet and shivering, back to the shore. Karik eyed them beadily. "What was that about?" he demanded.
"Yeah," put in Dash, looking at Adriana for answers, "why'd you swim out there?"
"I was trying to catch dinner!" Adriana said, looking upset. "But it got away!"
"Mootix can't swim," Karik reminded her.
"I know that. I saw a fish. A Goldy, I think."
"Cannibal," Karik snapped. "I'd never eat a Petpet." His smirk disappeared, suddenly. "Even in a dream."
Dash looked alarmed. "A dream?"
Karik got a hard look in his eyes, glaring at the three of them, a band of castaways trapped on an island, and Cherry could feel the atmosphere change around them. "Yeah. Why else would we be here?"
"But we aren't--"
"I'm dreaming," Karik cut in. "You dream people... you wouldn't know much about that, would you?"
Cherry was shocked into speechlessness. She knew that Karik had toyed with the idea that this was all one big dream... she had done so herself, but she had come to the undeniable conclusion that this was not a dream, not a nightmare, not a figment of her imagination. The pangs of sadness she felt for her family... the salty tears she'd shed... and the real nightmares she seemed to face whenever real drowsiness captured her...
That was all real.
"Karik, you're crazy," Adriana said at last, her eyes wide.
"Look, Karik," Dash tried to explain. "Why would this be a dream? We're all real people--we had real lives."
"Because stuff like this doesn't just happen!" the Kacheek burst out. "Living on the street--that happens. Having an owner who's too much of a gambler to pay much attention to his pet--that happens! Having everything one day, all the Neopoints you could want, and then the next day... nothing, all because a betting at the Poogle Races didn't come off quite like you wanted--that happens. But this doesn't!"
Cherry caught her breath in her throat and exhaled slowly. It was a moment before she realized that Karik's eyes were shining with unshed tears, burning with hate for someone other than the three pets cowering before him, and that this was not a random outburst.
It all came together.
"Things like this don't just happen. It's a horrible nightmare that I can't wake up from. Just like my life."
Her voice was quiet as she put a comforting paw on Karik's shoulder. "Did you ever tell him he was out of line? Your owner?"
Karik shrugged her away. "It's not like he would've listened." Then he laughed, a laugh that didn't quite meet the hurt and the ice in his eyes. "Listen to me--talking to dream pets."
"Karik," Cherry started, trying to reason with him, but the Pirate Kacheek turned away from her quite deliberately, strode up the beach, and disappeared into the jungle with a final swish of his tail.
The rules of this cruel game had changed once again.
With the combined efforts of Dash, Adriana, and Cherry, the fire was now blazing, and Dash had revealed his textbook knowledge once again by finding a type of leaf that caused the smoke to lick the air, higher and higher, black and wispy. Rescue could come at any time.
It has to.
Adriana and Cherry remained on the beach, trying (and failing) to rebuild Karik's ruined shelter while Dash trudged through the jungle in search of more smoke-producing leaves. Adriana was soon tangled in vines and Cherry was engaged in a battle with a very large log that was threatening to crush her.
That was when Karik appeared, his red bandana shading his eyes from the setting sun. Cherry had never been so relieved to see him (and not just because she was about to be slammed by a monstrous log and could use some assistance).
"A little help?"
He hesitated, and then hipchecked the log back into the pile. It landed with a thud, and Cherry bent to free Adriana, who was thrashing against the ensnaring of the vines.
"So," said Adriana conversationally as Cherry pulled her free, "do you still think this is all a dream?"
Karik laughed. "Of course."
Cherry and Adriana exchanged glances.
"Look," Karik said, in a voice that suggested he was trying to soothe an upset child, "I know it can't be great, knowing you're, like, dream pets. But hey, I'll play along. At least 'til I wake up."
Adriana rolled her eyes. "You're a dreamer, all right."
Karik was holding fast to his Pant-Devil-may-care smile. "What do you mean by that?"
"All jocks are dreamers. Dreaming of making it big, being some big sports star... I peg you a jock. A Gormball player, maybe?"
"What makes you such an expert?"
"I'm stuck with a brother who thinks he is," she said with a sigh. "A real brother." Her smile faded. "Or at least, I was."
"One should never settle in life," Karik said pleasantly.
"I might become famous. I might make it big." His smile disappears. "Make some money. Then I won't have to depend on my owner... things could be different..."
Cherry saw him in the proper lighting for the first time, a Kacheek who put on an act of false bravado to shield a frightened little boy inside, who used denial to keep him from seeing things he didn't want to see, unable to let go of a dream that might drag him out of a rut that he couldn't climb out of himself. A refusal to think that life could get worse, because he forced himself to believe he had hit rock bottom.
Glancing at the darkening velvet of the sky, she voiced a looming concern, tearing her mind away from Karik and his insecurities. "Has anyone seen Dash?" She looked pointedly at Karik, who had been tramping through the woods for the past couple of hours.
He put his arms in front of him as if in a defensive position. "Hey, don't look at me. I didn't see him."
"It's hard to see things when you're being strangled by vines," she put in feelingly.
Cherry sighed. "Maybe we should search for him."
And so the hunt began, though Karik was reluctant. "I guess I've got nothing better to do," he said at last, with a heavy sigh, dragging himself to the exotic jungle, and Cherry heard the words he hadn't said: until I wake up.
Cherry was clawed by trees and attacked by bushes that traced lines on her paws, drawing blood. She burst through dense foliage to find herself in clearings, and, more than once, she had to redirect herself, trying to reassure herself that she was, indeed, going in the right direction. There was no sunlight to creep through the canopy overhead that the jungle trees provided; she was soon tripping over thin air and running into trees.
She burst from the jungle some time later, relieved to find the pile of logs that was supposed to be their shelter was only a couple of yards away from where she had managed to come by. Karik and Adriana sat in the sand, too exhausted, it seemed, to be snapping at each other, Cherry noted with alarm.
"What happened?" Cherry demanded as she approached. "Why'd you stop looking?"
"Because he's nowhere," Karik insisted. "Adriana and I, we kept bumping into each other. We scoured the island. I went all the way to the other side and back again. Adriana took the right side, I took left. We stayed along the shores. We assumed you were tripping around in the jungle, so that was definitely covered."
Cherry blushed. "Yes, but you didn't find him?"
"I'm telling you, he's gone."
"Did you find him?"
Cherry's lower lip trembled. "Where could he go?"
Karik shrugged, looking somewhat concerned for someone who believed this was all one big dream. "Who knows?"
Adriana, too, looked worried, and the trio huddled together as darkness descended on a deserted island, a speck in the middle of a great, giant sea. By the time a pink tinge appeared on the horizon, and Cherry, Karik, and Adriana had drifted into an uneasy sleep, it was unwritten but clear.
The island that had once held four prisoners now only held three.
To be continued...