Underdogs: Part Four
Art by nut862
The glass bottle tumbled from Holbie Pinnock’s grip, shattering on the rocky floor of the cave they were trapped in. He had been unable to keep hold of it as his fin began morphing into a fuzzy paw. The bright blue Kiko’s skin rapidly turned yellow as fur began to grow and the shape of his body stretched and elongated.
Only when the transformation was complete and a small yellow Lupe stood panting before her did Cellers speak. “Okay, now you owe me two morphing potions.”
“You aren’t going to owe me anything but your life,” he said weakly, trying to smile although his face felt strange and his voice was so rough that it almost scared him. “You wouldn’t listen to me the first time, so this time you’re not getting in my way. I’m going to get us out of here.” He wiggled his paws experimentally, planted his feet on the ground, and tried to stand. He collapsed in a heap. “Never did understand the fuss about legs,” he muttered as he struggled to get up.
“What are you trying to do?” As Cellers watched him, she tried to imagine herself in his place, stumbling all over the cave while getting used to the new legs. She couldn’t picture herself playing Yooyuball like that. Perhaps it was good that she hadn’t drunk the potion; she wouldn’t have had anywhere near enough time to adjust to the changes.
“I’m trying to rescue our team.” Pinnock gritted his teeth and tried to stand again, managing to get his balance for all of two seconds before he fell over again. This was going to be harder than he had hoped, but he couldn’t have expected anything less. All his life, he had lived without knowing what it was like to have legs. Now he knew, but he still didn’t have any idea how to use them. He would figure it out, though. The faster he was out of this cave and on his way, the better. The rest of the team could only last so long without enough food or water, and there was no way of knowing how long it would be before someone found them trapped behind these boulders. Pinnock fixed a determined gaze on the sunlight outside the hole in the rocks and threw himself on his feet again.
He fell flat on his stomach. This couldn’t keep happening. If he was this terrible at controlling his new body here in the cave, he knew he’d never last on the icy terrain outside. How did normal Lupes do it? They’d be able to wriggle through that hole and find their way down the mountain without any problem.
Cellers watched, staring. “I should be the one doing this,” she said. “I bought that potion for myself, you know. And you’re still hurt. I should be the one going out.”
“Too late now. Besides, Team Kiko Lake can’t afford to risk its captain.” Pinnock managed to get to his feet and stand on shaky legs, his toes tensed and clinging to the rocks underfoot. “I think I’m getting the hang of this.”
“Don’t go out until you’re sure,” Cellers said. “You already stole an expensive potion from me. I don’t feel like paying for your burial.”
“I can always count on you to be sympathetic.” Pinnock took a few tentative steps back and forth in the cramped space, until he lost his balance and tumbled against a wall. He cringed as the sharp rocks jabbed him, but he stood up more determined. This was getting easier.
Pinnock pressed his eyes against the hole and banged his new snout into the rock wall. He reached up to squeeze it to relieve the pain, and immediately fell over. Then again, maybe it wasn’t getting that much easier.
Still, he had to do this, however long it took.
It was making him nervous to have Cellers standing there watching every mistake he made. “Go tell the others that I’m going to go for help.”
She headed away wordlessly, joining the rest of the team at the front of the cave. They looked up at her questioningly; she could tell they were wondering where Pinnock was.
“Holbie’s going out to get help,” she said tersely.
Ditan Colb jumped up. The Disco Kiko’s eyes were wide open for once. “Not through that hole in the back of the cave? Dude, I looked through that thing, and it’s a death trap out there. He’s crazy.”
“He’s not crazy. He can do it.” Cellers turned and left them, going back the way she’d come. She called out, “All right, I told them. How are you doing?”
She stopped in front of the hole. The broken shards of glass lay scattered on the rock, one or two pieces catching the light. There was nobody else around.
Cellers rushed to the hole and stared through it, half convinced she’d see a yellow Lupe lying prone somewhere on the cliffs outside. She saw nothing but snow and rocks. There was no sign of motion or life anywhere.
She sank down on the ground, running her fin along the broken pieces of glass. He’d gone for help.
He wasn’t crazy. He could do it.
* * * * *
The fastest way to learn how to use his new legs was to put himself in a situation where this was necessary. Why wait around when he could gain hands-on experience immediately?
In retrospect, maybe he should’ve stayed in the cave to practice some more. True, he hadn’t immediately gone rolling down the mountainside as soon as he’d squeezed through the hole, as he would have if he was a Kiko. But the terrifying feeling that he was not in control of his body was keeping him from making much progress. Pinnock lay flat on the ground, his every muscle tense, his toes clinging to the rocks to keep from falling. Standing up had been difficult enough inside the cave where the ground was level; here, it was sloped, and the slightest misstep could send him flying towards the jagged rocks below. There was no way he was even going to try standing up until the situation looked less dangerous.
He squirmed along the ground, inching forwards like a Slorg through the snow. The fur that now covered his body helped ward off the cold as he plowed through drifts. He clung to rocks and bushes poking up out of the snow for support as he passed. Gravity was keeping him firmly planted on the side of the mountain, and he began to feel almost safe. He could do this.
A rock shifted under his grip and slid forward. He let go of it just in time to see it tumble down the mountain, a shower of pebbles following it. His paw lay tense on the ground, with nothing else to hold on to. But it was just a rock. He was okay.
Just a few miles to go before he reached the bottom of the cliff.
* * * * *
The Altador Cup registrations were about to close. Many of the Yooyuball teams were milling about the stadium, their fans gathered in crowds around them. Pets wearing jerseys in their team colors lined up at the slushie stand, having energetic discussions with their friends about the most likely winners of the upcoming Cup.
This year was supposed to have more teams in the running than ever before. Once Kiko Lake got here, the Cup could begin. Officials watched the clock, frowning as it progressed past the registration deadline and the Kikos still did not appear. Ticket booths remained closed, though tickets should have gone on sale as soon as the registrations ended. A hurried announcement was put together, broadcasting across the field that ticket sales were postponed until Kiko Lake showed up. Fans muttered and looked at their watches, fingering the coins in their pockets, impatient to get into the stadium and take their seats.
The judges were no more pleased with Kiko Lake’s absence. Competitors were expected to be professional and punctual, and delaying the beginning of the Altador Cup was neither. Officials discussed what should be done. There were fans who had come all the way to Altador’s sunny shores specifically to see Kiko Lake play. Admittedly, not many, but those groups of dedicated supporters were more than likely to get frustrated and cause problems, which was the last thing the Cup Committee wanted to deal with. They decided to keep the registration desk open until the end of the day to give Kiko Lake a chance. The Kikos didn’t have an easy journey to Altador; while wealthier teams insisted on taking comfortable transportation, those scrappy Kikos insisted on making their own way through the mountains every year. Partly it was due to lack of funds, and partly it was due to the team’s captain, who was known for pushing her players hard. Yet their tough training didn’t seem to make much difference when it came to games, for the Kikos found themselves resigned to the lowest tier year after year.
A message was sent to the villagers of Kiko Lake asking whether the team had indeed left their hometown this year. The response came back just before sunset, affirming that the team had set out on their usual journey on the path through Terror Mountain, accompanied by one currently inactive player that had previously been on their team. The group should have arrived in Altador the previous evening.
Sunset came, and Team Kiko Lake was still nowhere to be seen. The Committee put together a press release stating their reasons for excluding the team from the Cup this year, and a search party was sent out to track the Kikos down. There wasn’t anything more they could do; it was Kiko Lake’s fault that they were late. The Cup had to go on.
* * * * *
It was dark when Pinnock reached the base of the cliff. He raised himself from the ground, his legs aching, and sat back on his haunches to rest. His chest was covered with snow that slowly flaked off now that he was sitting upright. He was chilled through; his teeth chattered, and he wrapped his scarf tightly around himself. He was all right, though. He had made it down the hill and now he was safe on level ground. He could deal with the rest of the journey; he just needed to find the path.
His vision was surprisingly good even in the dark, a side effect of this Lupe body. He was tired, but sleep was not a viable option, not in this freezing cold. He stood up on all fours, feeling less shaky, though his limbs were stiff from having inched down the mountain slope. He took a step forward and drew a deep breath. He could do this; he had to do this, for the sake of his team trapped behind that rockslide. If there was one thing Kikos never did, it was freeze like water balloons up in the mountains.
Pinnock picked his way along the ground, searching for tracks in the snow that would show the way to the trail. He saw nothing but scraggly bushes with bare branches and sharp rocks jutting out of the ground. It had to be around here someplace.
An odd scent attracted his attention, one that he didn’t particularly like. He moved forward a couple of steps and peered closer at the ground. He found that the scent intensified; in the snow, there was the clear imprint of a padded paw. Pinnock looked up in relief, seeing a trail of pawprints leading through the snow. He began to follow them, awkwardly trying to space his own movements so that they matched that of the pet who had left these prints. He fell down a few times and rose up with his chest dripping snow, but was spurred on by the thought that the prints would lead to the road.
He didn’t much like the scent coming from the prints, though, and as the night wore on he noted with dismay that it grew stronger the farther he followed them. Did all Lupes have to live with smelling these kinds of things? Did it just not bother them? Pinnock hoped he’d come to the road soon; he’d traced these prints across so many identical snow fields that now he wasn’t sure where he’d left Cellers and the others. He was lost in the snowy wastes, with only these tracks to guide him. But all pets who came through Terror Mountain were there to do things like visit the Snow Faerie or find bargains at the Igloo Garage Sale; sooner or later, they all had to use the main road.
Except for the wild pets, the Kougras and Lupes who roamed free through these mountains and were fierce about defending their territory.
The smell was so intense now that Pinnock almost couldn’t stand it. He looked up from the tracks and his breath nearly stopped.
Ahead, two eyes glowed in the darkness, looking at him.
To be continued...