Island's Own: Part Four
I woke up to the urgent warbling of my palmplat, who had stretched out its neck to the fullest extent and was staring off into the forest intently. I blinked at it, disoriented. For a moment, I wondered what I was doing in the jungle instead of the school, and why my muscles ached like I had run five miles. Looking out through gaps in the trees, I could see faint wisps of smoke still hanging in the air, a reminder of last night’s adventures.
“Right,” I muttered. “Attack. Fight. Escape. All that stuff.” Though I hadn’t run five miles. More like three. We’d stopped when we’d gotten deep enough into the jungle that we deemed ourselves safe, and while we’d intended to stay up to watch for anyone’s approach, even fear and adrenaline had not managed to keep us up the entire night.
I looked around, feeling a moment’s panic as I noticed Nella wasn’t around, then dismissed it. If there had been trouble, I would have woken up. More likely she had simply gotten up and wandered off without bothering to wake me, which was typical of her. My palmplat chirped again. I was about to ignore it, when it bit me on the paw.
“Ow,” I snapped at it, jerking my paw back. “What was that for?”
It was silent, and returned to looking intently into the forest.
I went still as well. Not far away I could hear the rustling crunch of underbrush, moving too heavily to be a creature of flight like Nella. Someone was coming towards me.
I struggled to my feet, cursing the stiffness that came from my awkward sleeping position. If this was one of Lucan’s soldiers, I was in trouble, since there was no way I could fight one off under the best of conditions, much less now, and I was too stiff to run. My best chance was to ambush whoever it was and hope I didn’t get killed in the process.
Grabbing a fallen branch, I positioned myself behind a tree. The crunching footsteps drew closer, and as I saw a snout emerge, I gave a yell and whacked at it with my stick. The other pet gave a yelp and lurched forward, landing on its back in the clearing, then struggling to its feet.
Flaming faeries. It was a monster. It looked like a Kougra, but was maybe half again as big as any normal one, with enormous teeth and a scarred face. Its yellow fur was bathed orange by the massive fiery inferno that surrounded it, and it cowered on the ground in terror, covering its eyes – wait, why was it cowering?
“Please don’t hurt me,” it said pitifully. “I just wanted to play.”
I stared at it, panting and still holding my stick, which had caught fire, causing me to drop it hurriedly. Just then Nella burst into the clearing, a sword in her paws.
“What’s going on here?” she demanded, then spotted the flaming Kougra and took a step back, raising her sword, clearly thinking he was a soldier. “If you’re going to turn us in to Lucan, you’re going to have to fight your way back.”
“Who’s Lucan?” the Kougra asked curiously, then remembered she was holding a sword, and cowered back. “Please don’t hurt me.”
“Will everyone just be quiet for a minute?” I snarled, and to my surprise, they obeyed. I sighed. “Thank you. Firstly, who are you?” I asked the Kougra, who was looking pitiful again.
“I’m Flame,” he said, with a nervous glance towards Nella, who still hadn’t lowered the sword. “I live here.”
I tried to nod politely. “I’m Benji, this is Nella.” Then I paused. The name sounded familiar. “Flame the Tame?”
He beamed. “You’ve heard of me?”
“Er, sort of. You were mentioned in the neopedia.”
From behind me, Nella gave a snort. “You read the neopedia?”
I ignored her, looking at Flame more carefully. Maybe the fires had made him look larger, but he wasn’t nearly as large as I’d thought, maybe only a little bit bigger than I was. Looking at his face, he couldn’t have been more than ten. “But it was in an article about Ryshu when he was still in training, and that had to have been a long time ago. How are you still a kid?”
He made a face. “I wasn’t born this way. My clan was trying to make an invincible warrior to help defend us, so they made a spell to help make our best warrior bigger and stronger. It was supposed to give him built-in defense and eternal youth, but I got in the way and got it instead. I was too scared to fight, so they banished me, and I’ve been here ever since. Flame’s not even my real name, but I’m forbidden from using my old one as part of the banishment.”
Hooray. Another outcast. At this rate, we’d have enough pets for a full-blown pity party in no time at all. But on the plus side, that meant there were at least three pets on the island that were outside of Lucan’s control, at least one of which he didn’t know about.
Turning to Nella, I scowled. “Put that sword down already. If he was going to do something, he could have done it already. Where did you get it, anyway?”
“Stole it. Lucan’s soldiers have a weapons cache near the training school. I got one for you too.” She tossed me a short sword.
I belted it on without much enthusiasm. “Did you find out what they were doing?”
“Don’t take my word for this, but my guess would be that they’re trying to take over Mystery Island,” she said dryly
“Thanks,” I said, scowling.
“Wait, what did you say those were pets doing?” came the startled voice from behind us. We both turned to look at Flame, who cringed back a little.
Nella spoke first. “You didn’t, uh, notice all the yelling and fighting that that was going on last night?”
“Is that what the noise was?”
Nella thumped her forehead with a fist as I sighed. “Yeah, pretty much. A Lutari named Lucan decided he wanted to conquer Mystery Island or something, and at this point, he’s pretty much got control.”
Flame was looking astonished. “But it’s impossible to take over the island.”
The Draik snorted. “Tell that to Lucan. You can conquer anything as long as you’ve got the power and the strategy to do it. And honestly, no one really put up much of a fight. I’m actually surprised that tried to do it before.”
“But invaders shouldn’t even be able to set foot here. It has magical protections. Powerful ones. I don’t see how anyone could have gotten past them.”
“Well, clearly they did,” I said, in no mood to debate this. “The important thing is to decide what we’re going to do now. I say we head for the docks, see if they’ve left any boats unguarded, then try to go for help.”
Nella nodded reluctantly. “It’s probably the smartest thing.”
Flame, on the other hand, looked enthusiastic. “Are you leaving the island? Will you take me with you?”
Now that was unexpected. Nella and I exchanged uneasy looks.
“Why would you want to leave?” Nella asked. “Isn’t this your home and everything?”
“But I’ve lived here forever, and I don’t even like it. I want to go somewhere else where people don’t stare at me all the time and I can do something besides hide in the jungle.”
I tried to imagine a place where a giant Kougra covered in flames wouldn’t be stared at but failed. That wasn’t even the main issue, though.
“All the boats here are wooden,” I pointed out. “How are you going to stay on the boat without catching it on fire?”
“Oh that’s easy. I don’t burn things unless it’s on purpose or I get scared.”
That would probably still be a problem, actually, since I couldn’t see how we were going to escape from a horde of raiders on a small boat without him getting scared, but I just wanted to get moving.
“Fine,” I sighed. “You can come.”
“What?” said Nella incredulously.
I glared at her pointedly. “We can deal with any problems later, okay? Let’s just go see about those boats before they catch us.”
The docks, as it turned out, were swarming with pets. They dressed in island garb, clearly as a poor attempt to pass as natives, but walked the same way Lucan’s troops did, backs ramrod straight, heads at a slightly arrogant tilt. They patrolled the docks with clockwork regularity, though most of the boats nearby seemed to have been removed. Clearly they had anticipated this. Clearly there was little chance of us sneaking by.
The only boat that had anyone on it was some kind of tourist ship, sitting at the end of the dock. One of the soldiers stood in front of it, having an argument of some sort with someone on the ship. Their voices carried over to where we hid in the bushes, loud and angry.
“I’m sorry, but no one is allowed on the island. No exceptions.” The speaker was a large and officious looking Lupe, looking uncomfortable in his island gear. Despite his clothing, he had a better chance of passing off as an angelpuss than a native. Nonetheless, the Yurble on the boat seemed too agitated to notice.
“You can’t just close off the island,” he screamed, waving his arms in the air like an agitated squid. “This tour has been planned for months! I have reservations. Reservations!"
The guard looked bored and irritated. “I’m sorry to hear that, sir, but there’s been a serious outbreak of dreezles, and we can’t let anyone on the island right now, so if you’d please turn your ship around and come back later, I’m sure they’ll be able to accommodate you.”
The Yurble yelled something back, but there didn’t seem to be any real point in listening. I glanced around the rest of the harbor, hoping for something like a small unguarded boat, sitting patiently in the water, but there was no such luck. Disappointed, I gestured to the others, and we quietly sneaked away.
When we were at a safe distance away, I sighed and flopped on the ground. “Well, that was a bust.”
Nella was frowning. “What did he mean when he said there was an outbreak of dreezles? Is that a disease or what?”
“It’s a strain of neezles, only the it’s kind of more contagious, and there’s no cure.”
“Why would they tell people that? Wouldn’t it make everyone send healers or something to help out?”
“I doubt it. It’s not like it’s deadly or anything. All it does is make you uncomfortable for a couple weeks, and then it kind of just fades away. The best thing to do is to have people leave you alone for a while and just try and contain it. Which makes it a pretty useful thing to say if you want the world not to interfere.”
She snorted. “So how long do you think it’ll be before people start getting suspicious?”
“Two months? Maybe three?”
“So by the time anyone comes to investigate, our owners would be coming to pick us up anyway, and Lucan’ll definitely have had time to finish securing his power. Great. So what’s plan B?”
“There is no plan B,” I told her pointedly. “Unless we can build our own boat, or you can fly all the way to Krawk Island without resting, we’re stuck here.”
She looked thoughtful. “I guess it’s not impossible to fly to Krawk Island, but it wouldn’t be easy. I’d rather have a boat, though.”
Flame had been watching us during this exchange without saying anything, but now he interrupted. “That wouldn’t work,” he said. “It’s impossible to enter or leave the island from anywhere but the harbor.”
We both turned and stared at him at that, and to his credit, he only cringed a little bit.
“You keep saying things are impossible,” Nella said. “But Lucan obviously managed to conquer the island. How do you know that whatever spell that’s supposed to keep people from leaving the island hasn’t broken too?”
He paused. “I don’t know,” he admitted. “But I guess you could test it out if you just try and fly off from here. If you can’t, you know the spell is still working.”
Nella and I shared a glance. “Couldn’t hurt,” I said.
She shrugged and launched herself into the air easily, winging away quickly.
After about twenty minutes, she was back, looking pale and shaken. She dipped her wings and plopped down in front of us, landing without any of her usual grace.
“He was right,” she told me when she had recovered, though she was still shivering a little bit. “You can only get maybe half a mile off the island before it starts to feel like you’re getting dragged back by your insides. I don’t know what it is, but it works.”
“It also explains why only the coastal villages got hit by the raiders,” I muttered, still mulling things over. “There was no reason that they wouldn’t go raid the richer villages that were farther inland unless they actually couldn’t. But if that’s all you guys have here, that’s not a lot of protection. Nothing would stop a powerful army from just coming through the harbor, which you might have noticed, they did.”
“Were there supposed to be any other spells protecting this place?” Nella asked.
Flame looked rather agitated. “There are supposed to be other things, but I don’t know what they are. They did everything else after they banished me.”
“Do you have any guesses? If we could get them running again, maybe we won’t have to wait three months for the rest of Neopia to figure things out.”
It was amazing how quickly Nella could change directions. I stared at her. “Are you kidding me? You didn’t even think these things existed twenty minutes ago and now you want to go around fixing it?”
“Oh yes, because I totally like the idea of sitting here eating tangellas for the next three months much more. Since even I don’t think we can beat them all in a straight fight, we may as well do something else. What’s the harm in trying?”
There were so many answers I could have made to that that I actually froze for a moment, trying to decide which apocalyptic vision would be most fitting. However, Nella seemed to take my temporary silence as agreement, and turned back to Flame.
“Do you have any idea at all what the other defenses might be?”
“Well... They kept talking about the volcano a lot. I guess we could try there.”
“Great. Let’s go then.”
The two headed off towards the center of the island as I followed them, grumbling all the while.
To be continued...