The Few Advantages
The pale, sick sun shone weakly through a crack in the roof of the Ice Caves. The lone ray seemed to linger in the air for a moment before settling on a small figure huddled at the edge of the Snowager’s cave.
The Baby Lupe was terrified. She shouldn’t be here, and she knew it. She was too small to face the Snowager, and she would have to rely on stealth and luck alone to escape the cave unscathed, but she had to get something. It wasn’t even because her family was poor. On the contrary, they had more than enough Neopoints. In fact, she admitted to himself, it was more for herself than anyone else that she would enter the beast’s lair. She had to prove herself. To everyone, really. But most importantly, to her family.
It wasn’t that her family was cruel to her in any way. It was really the fact that she was painted baby more than anything else. The appearance of a child, and the unfortunate mind of a simple teenager. There was little worse than that, as far as she was concerned. She understood that they treated her differently than they would a regular Lupe, understood that the tone they used was normally used for a toddler and not for a Lupe of her age and knowledge.
She knew her family meant well — they would never treat her differently than anyone else on purpose — but it still bothered her whenever they helped her with some easy daily task, such as collecting an omelette from the Tyrannian Plateau, fishing in the caves beneath Maraqua, even things so simple as spinning the wheel of Excitement. No wheel would ever be remotely exciting when your family was making sure you could do it on your own. In fact, she completely avoided the abominable thing now. The wheel of mediocrity suited her much better now.
The Baby Lupe remembered that she had been very proud of her fishing skill before being painted, as had her family, but she hadn’t been aloud to fish on her own in a while. Being painted had turned out to be more of a curse than the blessing she had expected. Her mind suddenly flickered to Neovia and the woeful tale that had taken place in that faraway land.
She prepared to step into the cave, her fur on end with fear. If ever she had been afraid of anything, it was the Snowager. The thought of entering that cave sent tremors down her spine. But she thought of how her life might improve by her successful entrance and — most importantly — exit from the Snowager’s cave. Arriving back home with some of the Snowager’s beloved treasure was sure to earn her minimal respect, if not the complete respect she hoped for.
The Baby Lupe turned instinctively at the sound of her name, only to see a Baby Lupe nearly identical to her bounding in her direction, entirely careless as always. Her best friend, Kumal, probably coming to show her a new healing potion earned at the Healing Springs. He had a habit of doing that, since he collected healing potions.
“Hush, Kumal!” she snapped, just loud enough for him to hear. She knew the Snowager was lost in a deep sleep by the sound of its breathing, and Silverheart held her own breath in the hope that it might still be in its dream world.
But it was too late. She heard the Snowager’s breath quicken as it was jolted violently out of its sleep at Kumal’s carelessness. Silverheart knew the beast couldn’t see her, since she was so close to the wall, but she saw from the terrified look on her friend’s face as he stood right outside the cave entrance, in the middle of the opening of the huge cave, that the Snowager had its eyes fixed on one thing... Kumal.
Silverheart suddenly felt as small as she should feel as a Baby Lupe, utterly defenseless against the trouble her insufferable bad luck had brought upon her. She could see Kumal’s eyes, saturated in fear, as he stood in one spot seemingly unable or possibly even unwilling to move a muscle, afraid to disturb the beast further.
Indeed, Kumal seemed petrified, glued to the spot with terror, and Silverheart could see there could be no hope of him saving himself. Silverheart’s mind ran like lightning through every option available. She could run, of course, but that would certainly do no good, and would leave poor Kumal to be rendered senseless, without a chance to escape the beast.
Her second option was better, but not at all likely to succeed. She could fight the Snowager, and in that circumstance she would almost definitely fail. She remembered with a shudder how the creature had towered above her as she had slipped behind the rim of the cave, even in sleep. No, it would not be helpful at all for the Snowager to defeat both her and Kumal in turn.
That left only one alternative. She must distract the beast, giving Kumal time to run away and careful to dodge it with each attempted strike. As soon as Kumal was in the clear, she would flee as well. She hated the notion of avoiding any confrontation. It wasn’t in her nature; despite her unnatural fear of the Snowager. Still, it would be no use to fight a battle she could not hope to win, so she must only provide a means of escape for herself and her best friend.
One thing was in her favor: she was abnormally speedy, even to those who commonly underestimated her, and this would work heavily to her advantage. Also, she thought reluctant to admit it, even though the Snowager isn’t all that intelligent, he will think me easily defeated and captured. Being painted Baby might have its advantages after all, then.
When she skidded over in front of Kumal, shouting that he fly, Kumal’s widened eyes wavered as he nodded, and skittered off without any more urging. The Snowager was reared back, and its eyes narrowed in anger as its supposed offender made his retreat. It lunged forward, just missing Silverheart. Her heart nearly exploded in fear, beating three miles a minute, but she made it safely out of the way. She glanced behind her.
Kumal seemed out of the danger zone. Though still in sight, the ice was flat and stretched out a long way. The Snowager would not go so far out of his cave, she knew. Indeed, she doubted he had ever been spotted outside of it. The Snowager aimed and struck again, sending her skittering, sliding to a stop before deciding it was time to make her escape.
She slipped on the ice as she tried to race away, running in place for a few seconds before her paws really got a grip on the ice. She flew across the flat surface, gasping for air and not stopping until she had reached the other end of the Ice Caves, and skidding into the cave wall when she finally did stop. Her lungs were gulping desperately for air. She could see a concerned crowd gathering around Kumal, asking what had happened. She knew that she would soon be buried in a crowd of her own, just as worried and probably offering her some Bread and Butterfish, or whatever other type of food they had with them.
Just one more advantage to being painted Baby.