Underdogs: Part Three
Art by nut862
“Where do we go?” Moni Vyshan shrieked as she turned and fled.
“Poke” Cellers was bouncing away as fast as she could, following her teammates back down the mountain, but the rocks were tumbling down on them quicker than they could move. They’d be crushed flat if this kept up.
“Here’s a cave!” yelled Holbie Pinnock. The Kiko stood outside of a hole in the rock face, his bright blue skin contrasting with the white snow like a marker. Meela Kitah jumped inside, followed by a terrified Vyshan. Outside, Helmo Timm struggled, her tailfin sinking into the snow and her hooves slipping on the ice. A boulder flew past her face, shattering on the rocks below, and the Brown Peophin let out an involuntary whinny of fright. Ditan Colb came up behind her and gave her a shove forward with all his strength, throwing her onto the floor of the cave just as a hail of boulders rained past.
Pebbles sprayed Pinnock in the face as he stared out at the path above, watching the Brown Kiko floundering frantically through the snow, dragging her bag of equipment. “Poke!” shouted Pinnock. “Drop the bag and run!”
“I’ve got it!” Cellers yelled back, the equipment bag swinging wildly as she bounced towards the cave, rocks tumbling all around her. “Go inside!”
Pinnock stared in disbelief. Was she crazy? “Drop the bag!”
“Go in the cave!” Cellers screamed back. She sounded angry that he wasn’t listening to her, doubting her judgment. She was the team captain, after all; she gave the orders.
If that was how she wanted it, Pinnock wasn’t going to argue any longer. He darted into the cave, skirting around boulders that had landed at its mouth. A few moments later, Cellers was there, shoving her bag ahead of her. “Get away from the cave entrance before you get hit,” she snapped at her teammates.
The Kiko Lake team huddled in the cramped space, watching through the opening of the cave as rocks flew past their shelter. Boulders began to pile up around the mouth of the cave. The light in the cave grew fainter and fainter as the opening became blocked. Soon they were in darkness, broken only by a couple of cracks between the rocks.
Vyshan let out a shaky breath. “Is everyone okay?”
Cellers felt pain in her back where a rock had hit her, and her skin stung from the hundreds of pebbles that had been pelting her on the way down, but it wasn’t serious. “I’m fine.”
“Poke, you’re crazy,” Pinnock said. “You should have dropped that bag.”
“I got through all right.”
“The bag was slowing you down. The rocks could have killed you. Your life is worth more than your equipment.”
“It’s not just equipment.”
Pinnock closed his eyes. “The point is that in a situation like that, your survival is the only thing that matters. If something is getting in the way of that, you have to get rid of it, no matter what it is.”
“Look, I’m here and I’m fine and I saved my gear. Can we stop talking about this?”
“Fine,” Pinnock muttered. “Let’s talk about what we’re going to do next. Is that better?”
“Yes.” Cellers cocked her head, listening. “I think the rockslide is over.”
“However, the opening of the cave is blocked now.”
“Brilliant, Holbie. I noticed that.”
Ignoring her sarcasm, Pinnock said, “This means that we’re either going to have to break through the rocks or find another exit.”
Colb jumped up. “I’ll go see how far back this cave goes. Anyone got a light?”
No one had a light. Nevertheless, the Disco Kiko headed into the blackness at the back of the cave, feeling his way along the rock walls.
“This is terrible,” whispered Vyshan, shivering. Cold was seeping through the rocks, and the ground was nearly frozen. “Can we get out?”
“We will get out,” Pinnock said. “We’re going to see if there’s any other exits in this cave, and if there aren’t, we’ll make some. We’ll get out.”
“Can we get out in time for the Altador Cup?” Kitah asked.
“We’ll try.” Pinnock rose up. “I’m going to go with Ditan. Two of us wandering blindly in the darkness are better than one. Everybody try to stay warm till I get back.”
“I’ll come too,” Cellers said.
“All right. Poke, you went to the trouble of saving that bag, so the others should take out your gear to use as extra insulation.”
“Wait,” Cellers said. “I’ll hand them around myself.” She opened her bag and began rummaging through it, pulling out pads and leaning them against the rocks.
“I’m going now.” Pinnock headed off in the direction that Colb had gone. He groped along the rocks with his good fin, moving forward with trepidation. The cave grew darker and narrower; he bumped his head and sides against rocks jutting out from its sides. He winced as one jabbed his tender fin.
Then the darkness seemed to fade, and he saw a small opening in the rocks ahead. He heard Colb’s voice and saw the Disco Kiko standing beside the opening, half hidden in the shadows it cast. “Hey, Holbie, look what I found.”
Pinnock moved forward and looked through the opening. He could see the near-vertical slopes of Terror Mountain outside, covered in jagged rocks and treacherous sheets of ice.
“Think one of us could squeeze through?” Colb asked.
“Yes, if we tried, but the terrain out there is terrible.” Pinnock felt queasy just looking at the cliff outside, a reminder of how high up they were. Climbing through that hole would be crazy. He’d feel safer sitting through another rockslide.
“It’s not impossible to get through it,” Colb said. “There are pets who live in this terrain every day of their lives.”
“Yes, Kougras and Lupes. Pets with four solid legs who understand how to navigate this landscape. One of us? No way. There’s no traction out there. Once you started to slide, you’d just go rolling straight down the cliff.”
“Could Helmo do it?”
“Did you see how she had to struggle just to get into this cave?” Pinnock said. “If anything, she’d be worse off. Anyway, she wouldn’t fit through this hole. Her head would, but that’s it.”
“Well, this cave dead-ends here. Guess we’d better go back and look at the rockslide again.”
They headed back through the narrow tunnel and joined the others at the front of the cave. Cellers had finished distributing her equipment, leaving her bag looking deflated on the ground. She was rapping on the boulders that blocked the entrance and trying to move them, but they weren’t budging an inch from the force her short fins were exerting on them. Pinnock and Colb joined her, but their help didn’t make a difference. With no way to brace themselves against anything, they couldn’t get enough leverage to move the rocks.
“Helmo, can you kick through this?” Colb asked as he sank down against the cave wall, panting.
The Brown Peophin looked at the rocks uncertainly. Bravely she went up to the pile of stones and threw her hooves against them, struggling to keep her tail from slipping on the icy ground. Not a rock moved.
“Don’t tell me we have to wait for rescue!” Cellers threw a pebble at the ground in frustration. “Of all the times to get in a fix! We have all year to get trapped in a cave on a secluded mountain, and it just has to happen on our way to the Altador Cup. The registrations are going to close next week. We’ve got to get out of here!”
“How much food and water have we got?” Pinnock asked.
“I had some snacks in my equipment bag, but I lost it out there,” Kitah said. Other members of the team nodded, acknowledging that the same thing had happened to them.
“One good thing is that our bags are lying out there in the snow,” Pinnock said. “Someone will see them, and when they open them up and find out that they belong to the Kiko Lake Yooyuball team, someone will come looking for us.”
“The bags may be buried under rocks,” Cellers said. “Who’s going to come up this freezing mountain path in summer? Everyone else is probably on the way to Altador to watch the games.”
Silence fell for a few moments. Finally Vyshan spoke up in a small voice, “They’ll have to know something is wrong when we don’t come to register and they don’t hear from us. They’ll come looking, won’t they?”
Cellers snorted. “For the Kiko Lake team? Fans wouldn’t miss us; everybody knows we don’t have a chance at the Cup. Maybe we decided to stay local this year and not enter the big games. Why should they come looking?”
“Because no other Kikos can play Yooyuball like we can,” Pinnock said. “And everyone in Altador wants to see us holding our own on the court as a reminder that Kiko Lake is just as much a part of Neopia as any major team.”
Cellers was silent, listening as her teammates congratulated Pinnock on his positive outlook. Somehow he always managed to say what everyone wanted to hear at the moment. She knew he’d never stop talking about how Kiko Lake would show the world one day that they were as good as anyone else. He believed in their home and he was proud of their race. Nothing could prove to him that Kikos weren’t capable of doing anything they wanted to do. Cellers would love to believe the same, but she had to face reality. She captained the best team in Kiko Lake and she knew what her teammates were capable of. She pushed them as hard as she could, but they weren’t capable of everything that other pets were, and that hurt their performance in games.
In the darkness, Cellers carefully removed the bottle of morphing potion from her equipment bag. No one saw her; they were all talking with Pinnock about what should be done next. Cellers wouldn’t ask any of her teammates to stop being a Kiko; that would be asking them to give up their heritage and the dream they believed in, the dream that Kikos would prove themselves one day. But even if just one of the players on the Kiko Lake team were a stronger pet, their chances would be better. Cellers didn’t have any qualms about changing her body. The others might view it as betrayal, not to mention unnatural, but they couldn’t complain when she was the captain. It was necessary. Cellers fingered the cool glass bottle, shaking it gently to keep the potion from freezing. Why was she hesitating? She was thirsty anyway, and there was nothing else to drink.
“Poke, come here. I want to show you how far back the cave goes.”
She felt Pinnock grab her fin and drag her towards the back of the cave. She clung to the bottle of morphing potion as they passed by all her teammates, hoping no one caught sight of the glint of glass in the darkness. “Let go, Holbie! I can follow you myself!”
He let go and said nothing more until they were both standing before a hole in the back of the cave, through which snowy cliffs could be seen. “This is an exit. One of us could go through this hole,” he said. “The question is whether we’d be able to go anywhere else once we landed.”
Cellers stared through, surveying the landscape. “It looks dangerous.”
“Brilliant, Poke. I noticed that,” Pinnock said wryly. He looked at her, and suddenly found himself staring at a queer bottle she held, its glass surface reflecting light coming in from the hole. “What is that? Where did you get it?”
Cellers’ eyes widened, and for a moment she looked guilty. “This is what I wanted to talk to you about earlier. This is a Yellow Lupe Morphing Potion.”
“What! Why didn’t you tell me you had this?” Pinnock grabbed the bottle out of her fin. Before she could protest, he had uncorked it and was gulping it down to the last drop.
To be continued...