Island's Own: Part Five
The more I thought about it, the more the idea of magical protections on Mystery Island started to make sense. I mean, Meridell, with its huge army and the help of half of Neopia, still got decimated twice, while tiny, tribal Mystery Island has been relatively peaceful for as long as anyone can remember. I’m not saying it hasn’t had its share of problems, but they tended to be internal conflicts, while almost every other land has had its share of would-be conquerors. Mystery Island, with its abundant resources and lack of any cohesive, organized defensive force should have been a magnet for any tyrant looking to expand his borders, but as far as I can tell, no one’s even tried. Except for Lucan. But then again, I guess since he spent most of his life here, there was no reason he couldn’t have figured out the defenses himself, as well as how to overcome them.
With that said, I thought trying to fix the island’s supposed defenses was a ridiculous idea. Everyone knows that it’s easier to break things than it is to fix them, and there was always the possibility that the whatever enchantments there were would explode in our faces if we so much as tried. Still, as we trooped slowly towards the volcano, I couldn’t help but feel some sense of awe. Though it was supposedly dormant, the peaks loomed impressively, radiating a sense of tightly contained power, rumbling a bit as we drew near.
“Can we stop for a second?” I said finally, as the volcano loomed ever larger ahead of us. “I have to ask. Do either of you have a plan in some way, or are you just going to wander around and hope that it’s some kind of hiking spell?”
Flame shook his head, but Nella paused and looked thoughtful.
“Training school,” she said finally.
I rolled my eyes. “Are you okay? The training school is that way, remember? And we’re trying to get away from it.”
“Not that training school.” She sighed. “Look, I don’t know if this is true or not, but there’s apparently a secret training school somewhere around the volcano. If I were making magical defenses for an island, I would have something where a lot of fighters are, but isn’t common enough knowledge that it would be the first target by the enemy. A secret training school seems to fit that description. Or even if not, there are probably warriors there that can help fight against Lucan.”
“You’d think if they wanted to help they would have done it already. They’re not very good defenders if they wait until the island is overrun before doing anything.”
Nella growled. “If you’re in serious training, you’re sometimes isolated from the outside world for days. They might not even know anything’s going on. And anyway, if you have a better plan that doesn’t involve doing nothing, I’m waiting to hear it.”
I paused. “I guess –”
My palmplat, who had been sitting quietly on my shoulder up to this point, gave a sudden warble, and I looked up in time to see a sword slicing towards my face.
I jumped back with a yell, the tip of the blade barely missing my nose. I stumbled back, almost tripping, and then got to my feet as Nella drew her sword, instantly on the alert. A Krawk and a Lupe, armed to the teeth and wearing the burnished armor of Lucan’s troops, stepped forward out of their hiding place in a heavy copse of trees.
Flame bolted. Nella tensed. I took another step back, then hesitantly drew my sword as well.
The Krawk grinned malevolently. “Now, now, children, there’s no need to get nasty. Lucan’s been worried about you two, wandering off all by yourself. He sent us to bring you back. Don’t worry, it was all a misunderstanding, last night. You better get back before the Techo Master gets angry enough to write your owners to tell them about your misbehavior.”
“That speech would have been way more convincing if your friend there hadn’t just tried to cut me in half,” I pointed out.
The Lupe stepped forward. “Okay, then how about this? You’re coming back with us, either in peace or in pieces. Which one do you want? Think you can take us, with that little knife of yours?”
I shrugged. Slowly, I raised my sword – then threw it at his face. “Run!” I yelled to Nella, then promptly did so myself.
Oh come on. Did you really expect me to fight him? I would be lucky if I didn’t impale myself.
I hoped Nella had the sense to follow my advice and run off as well, but I had other things to worry about at the moment, as I could hear the pounding of the Lupe’s footsteps behind me.
I tried to run quickly and silently, watching the ground carefully for roots that could trip me up. The thick jungle made it hard to see very far ahead, and I often had to dodge low hanging branches and vines. Unburdened by armor and fueled by adrenaline, I was a bit faster, but given the Lupe’s training, I guessed he would probably outlast me if the chase went on too long. I had to find a place to hide.
Pausing to catch my breath, I glanced around, and spotted a large tree with heavy foliage. Making up my mind quickly, I climbed up as fast as I could, trying not to leave too many claw marks on the bark, then huddled in the branches. For once I was glad to be painted camouflage and not electric.
The Lupe ran into the area a short time later, then paused, seeming to sense my presence. I hunched down even further, trying not to even breathe. He walked under me several times as he searched the bushes, but didn’t think to look up. Lupes aren’t really into trees.
“You’re only making this harder for yourself,” the Lupe called, staring intently at a pile of rocks maybe five feet to my left. “Lucan has nothing against you or any of you, but he hates when pets go where they don’t belong. Come out now and we’ll forget this ever happened.”
Yeah, I bet. I stayed silent within the tree, and after a few more minutes, the Lupe walked away, pausing every so often to slash at a bush with his sword. I sighed with relief as he disappeared from view, but I didn’t come out of the tree, half suspecting it was a trick somehow. But as the afternoon light faded into dusk, there was no sign of him – or of anyone else for that matter. I started to wondered where my palmplat had gone. I’d had him since he was an egg, and I doubted he could survive very long by himself. I also felt intensely vulnerable without his keen senses and paranoia – no doubt he had saved me that afternoon by raising the alarm.
Caught up in these thoughts, I almost didn’t notice the light through the trees, drifting around like a forlorn firefly. It seemed too big to be a lantern.
“Flame,” I called, dropping down from the branches.
Flame whirled, fur bristling – then relaxed as he saw who I was. “Benji!” he said joyfully. “You’re okay! I thought –” he shook his head. “I’m sorry I ran,” he added in a small voice.
I patted him gingerly on the shoulder. “Hey, it’s okay, kid. You did the right thing. We ran too, eventually.” I paused. “Have you seen Nella?”
He looked at me anxiously. “I haven’t seen anyone.”
My stomach clenched uncomfortably. Maybe she hadn’t run. Maybe she’d stayed and fought. Maybe the Lupe hadn’t come back because he’d decided to go after her instead. As good as she was, I rather doubted her ability to take on two experienced fighters at once.
“All right,” I said, trying to keep the anxiety out of my voice. “Let’s go towards the volcano, since that’s where we were going in the first place. She’ll probably meet us there.” I glanced at him. “Can you turn that fire down any? You look like a beacon.”
“It’s fire,” he said patiently. “It always gives off light, and it’s always this big, even after I take a bath.”
I sighed – then narrowed my eyes thoughtfully.
Twenty minutes later, we started towards the volcano again, with Flame coated thickly with mud from the river. All in all, it was less effective than I’d hoped. Defying conventional laws of physics, the fire continued to burn under the mud, drying it into a stiff layer that cracked as he walked to show the inferno underneath. He looked like nothing so much as some kind of magma beast slinking through the forest. Ah well, at least he’d fit in at the volcano.
We reached the base of Techo Mountain, probably around midnight, though there was no way to tell for sure. Its peak loomed into the darkness with a sullen red glow at the top. I swallowed nervously. I’d never heard of it erupting, but it couldn’t have been all that dormant, not with all that lava at the top.
“So what now?” I said to Flame.
He stared at me. ”Why are you asking me?”
“You’re the one who said that there was something at the volcano,” I pointed out.
“I said there might have been something at the volcano but I wasn’t sure. I’ve never even been here.”
“What are you two going on about?” came a voice from behind us. “I could hear you from all the way over there.”
I turned. “Nella,” I said with relief. “Where have you been?”
“Well, here for the last half an hour. Spent most of the afternoon leading that Krawk around by the nose. Pretty entertaining. Might have been smarter to send someone who could fly if they wanted to catch us.”
“You know,” I said thoughtfully, “I’m not really sure they were out here because of us. The Lupe that was chasing me said something about nosing where we didn’t belong. That didn’t sound like they’d been sent specifically to get us.”
“They knew we were from the school, though,” Nella pointed out.
“They could have been keeping an eye out for us while they did whatever they were doing, rather than looking for us specifically.” I shrugged. “Or not. But still, I think it might mean that we’re on the right track.”
Nella nodded. “Let’s hope.” There was an awkward pause.
“So what now?” Flame prompted.
“We go find the secret training school, of course,” Nella said, almost cheerfully. “It should be somewhere around here. Look for hidden doors, openings, whatever.”
“That’s a lot of volcano to look through,” I grumbled, as we split up.
“You’re such a baby,” Nella snapped at me.
I ignored her. Traipsing around the base of the mountain, I couldn’t help but feel my already limited enthusiasm waning. Despite, or perhaps because of those guards from before, I couldn’t help but feel this was still too much of a long shot. Beyond that, I was completely exhausted. Last night’s nervous sleep had done me little good, and now, past midnight, I could feel my eyelids drooping, and my paws felt like lead. After a few more minutes, I stopped walking and just stared at the mountain, my eyes unfocused.
With a resounding crack, a large rectangular piece of the mountain broke off, tumbling towards my head.
I yelped and jumped back – then woke up with a start. I scowled irrationally at the volcano, my heart still pounding. One night of sleep deprivation and I was already starting to go insane. I hated this place. Then I blinked and stared hard at the mountain. Since when did mountains have rectangular blocks?
“Guys,” I yelled. “I think I found it.”
About five minutes later, we were picking our way gingerly up a staircase. It was impossibly narrow, beginning about four feet off the ground, which meant just making it on was a bit of a scramble. Furthermore, the lines of the steps blended in surprisingly well with the rest of the mountain, its edges matching the natural contours of the rocks, making it difficult to find decent footing. I could hear Nella cursing behind me, having stubbed her toes again. (Draiks have much poorer night vision than Kougras.) As it was, I nearly walked off the edge of the steps, as they simply stopped, ending with a semi-sheer drop of about sixty feet.
I backed up hurriedly, about to utter a few choice words of my own, when Nella tapped me on the shoulder. I looked. To my right, there was a small alcove, illuminated in sharp relief by Flame’s glow.
Nella gave me a mock-courtly bow. “Lead the way,” she said.
Wordlessly, I slipped into the opening. It was quite small, no trouble for any of us, though I had to wonder how brawnier pets managed to make it in.
The tunnel was pitch black at first, but as we slowly made our way through the twists and turns, I began to see torchlight in the distance.
“There must be pets here if the torches are burning,” Flame said hopefully.
I grunted. “Don’t count on it. Given that we’re not all dead of oxygen deprivation, I’m guessing that they’re run on magic, not real fire, which means they could run for months without being replaced.”
Nella snorted. “Always the optimist,” she said, but stopped as we reached the end of the tunnel. Ahead of us was a large door, carved out of the stone itself, tinted blue in the dim light. I saw no doorknobs or hinges, but five symbols were carved down the center in clear script, and a stone nimmo seemed to watch us solemnly from above the doorframe.
I nudged Flame. “Do you know if the symbols mean anything?”
He squinted at them. “It says that only the worthy should try to enter.”
I blinked. “All that from five symbols?”
“Kind of. Each symbol is a word. The first one means ‘passage,’ the second is something like “solitude” the third and fourth mean having worth, and the fifth is ‘self,’ or ‘individual.’” He shrugged. “It’s not a very practical language. No one used it even when I was in the tribes, but everyone had to learn it.”
“So how do you get worthy enough to enter?”
At this, Nella heaved a sigh. “No offense to either of you, but this is a training school, and training schools are usually after battle prowess of some kind. Given that I am the only one here who doesn’t run screaming from a fight, maybe you two should move aside and let me try?”
We obeyed, and she slowly walked up to the door, pausing at about a foot away. Bit by bit, the stone slab moved, grinding upward in a smooth motion, until the entrance lay wide open, with the training school beyond.
Nella gestured. “After you. It might close if I go in.”
I entered hesitantly. Given that no one had come to challenge or greet us when we’d opened the door, I held little hope that the school would be a bustling hub of activity, ready to sweep across Mystery Island to throw Lucan out on his tail, but I hoped for a vanguard force at least, maybe even a grizzled old warrior, ready to dispense advice on what to do. Anything so we wouldn’t have to rely solely on ourselves.
But of course, there was no such luck. The school was utterly silent as we entered, craggy walls lit minimally by sparse torches. Fierce looking weapons lay neatly in their brackets, mats for training neatly folded and placed in a corner. While it was possible that there were pets beyond the tunnels that led away from the main room, I doubted it. The place had the feel of an abandoned house, totally devoid of other life. The training school was abandoned, and our best chance of finding help was gone as well.
To be continued...