Keep Your Friends Close, Your Anemones Closer: Part Four
Upon regaining consciousness, I didn’t even have to peek out of my hiding place to ascertain that I was indeed in the middle of the Lost Desert. I knew this because my skin suddenly felt like it was made of parched rice paper, and like one sudden burst of energy might cause it to tear.
Desperate for some moisture, I pried the lid open a fraction to check nobody was around, before pouring myself out of the crate and melting over the guardrail into the water below. After waiting for the ship to pull clear, I emerged through the surface to take in my surroundings. As predicted, I was in the Sakhmetian River, at the point where it wound its way past the tomb of Sutek and swerved towards the outskirts of Sakhmet City.
After a few minutes of casual swimming, I found myself mounting the bank of the river right in front of the entrance gates to the city. Already the wind had managed to deposit clusters of sand in the creases of my coat, and I could feel the dry heat of the desert in the back of my throat. I really did hate this place with a passion.
Sakhmet City, being the hive of trade and commerce that it was, had naturally become a target for thieves, bandits and all other forms of miscreants over the years. To try and protect its wealth, they had erected enormous, sandstone walls that encapsulated the city and ensured that the one route in or out was heavily guarded by a small army of Elephantes. The hulking gates were only open between the working hours of 8 am and 8 pm, at which point they were sealed shut overnight. As I walked in through the colossal gate posts, I tried not to attract the eye of the grouchy looking Elephantes poised atop them with bows and sharp eyes.
My first stop was to find food. My stomach was burning with the ache of hunger and in this overbearing heat I’d need all the energy I could muster. I spied a small tent with a sign propped up outside; although I’m far from fluent in Sakhmetian hieroglyphs, I was able to make out enough to discern that it was a menu of sorts.
Upon entering the tent, I was greeted by the inviting aroma of grilled meat and the cheery smile of a young Meerca waitress as I took a seat at the counter. “What can I get you, sugar?” She flipped open a notepad to take my order, then scurried off in a flash of red fur into the back to tell the chef.
I’ve found, as a general rule of thumb, that wherever you go in Neopia you should stick to ordering the sausage. Whilst some chefs can get quite pompous and turn even the simplest of dishes into an all singing and dancing chorus line that you have to applaud before you can eat it, there is very little you can do to mess up a sausage. The most pretentious a sausage gets is if it comes in a chain still attached to its meaty brethren.
Sakhmetian sausage proved to be quite delicious, though I was wolfing it down with such haste that it could have been burnt to a cinder and I really wouldn’t have minded. Once my plate was cleared, I ordered a second lot, and then, remembering that I would likely end up spending the night within the city walls, decided to order some more to take away with me. As the hostess wrapped my order up in some fresh linen bandages, I picked through my money sack to count out the right change. The concept of paying for food was a somewhat foreign one to me. I usually just lifted some things from the edges of market stall displays. In the end I compromised and gave her a handful of change in return for the linen parcel, then scarpered before she had chance to count it and realise it was short of the full bill.
With my survival ensured for the next twenty four hours or so, I set about trying to locate Senator Ahari so I could liberate him of his newly acquired Petpet. Prowling through the bustling city streets would likely turn up a lead or too; gossiping at grocery stalls seemed to be an innate habit that most found impossible to suppress. Indeed, after just a few rounds of the city centre, I had learned the following: the majority consensus was that Osiri had lost her flair and was now just churning out wonky pottery and calling it ‘a new artistic direction’, a sudden rise in qando fruit sales had lead to an epidemic of flatulence that had resulted in the Emergency Medical Supplies tent being fumigated, oh, and Senator Ahari lived somewhere over on the eastern side of the city. This proved to be most fortunate for me, as already the fledglings of a plan were forming in my mind.
In the most northeasterly corner of Sakhmet City lay the abandoned ruins of the old marketplace; many centuries previously it had been all but destroyed by a sudden and inexplicable sandstorm that had raged relentlessly until the buildings there had been turned to rubble. The more superstitious residents believed it had been the jealous tantrum of a former king’s spirit, upset that the city had enjoyed such prosperity under the leadership of his successor. The more sceptical inhabitants attributed it to a freak sandstorm, but even they had to agree, though, that it was all rather odd how it happened. Either way, nobody dared set foot there anymore.
And so they had voted to move the marketplace, leaving behind a fractured ghost town of sandstone and faded shreds of fabric. There was, however, still a well in the district which remained a source of fresh, clean drinking water. I’d spent several nights here in my time, burrowed into the shadows cast by the unusual outcrops of stone, hiding from the Elephante Guards after ‘liberating’ an artifact or two from a private collection. The best time to strike would be in the dead of night when the guard force was at its most diminished, but that meant I would be trapped within the city walls; so it was here that I intended to spend the night once I had managed to locate and free Chloe.
My run of luck that had begun with my spotting of the right ship on Krawk Island seemed to still be in full swing, because just as I was contemplating how to figure out which of the palatial abodes in the eastern quarter belonged to my target, I was handed an enormous helping hand on a silver platter.
Whilst wandering aimlessly down a side street, I spotted a procession of guards marching by escorting an esteemed looking Desert Wocky and his child. The Wocky was wearing an enormous, jewel-encrusted turban which was far too big and kept slipping down over his eyes, meaning that he had to push it back up after every few steps he took so he could see where he was going. His daughter looked bored by the grandeur going on around her and was yanking listlessly on the leash in her hand, which trailed behind her to the collar of a rather depressed looking Snarhook.
The Snarhook didn’t really seem designed for walking, as in order to move forward it had to pivot on one foot while it swung the other around in front of its body, then repeat the action on the other side. Its arms were also far too short to be of any real use, so the poor thing had to resort to rolling the slow ebb of tears it was crying onto the end of its nose and flicking them into the sand at its teetering feet. Actually, its nose wasn’t so much a nose at all as a trunk; judging by Glug Glug Jones’ description of the Snarhook he’d sold to the Senator, there was no doubting that this pathetic looking creature was indeed Chloe.
I should probably have felt a sense of elation at having located her, but instead I felt that same odd pang I’d felt in the Petpet shop. Perhaps I’d eaten my sausages just a little bit too quickly...
Dipping in and out of stalls and doorways, I was able to follow the Senator back to his home so I could scope the place out. His mansion was part of a complex, three others were arranged along with his in a square so that they each backed onto and surrounded a secluded courtyard area at the centre. From what I could see through the open archway that formed a passage into the courtyard from the outside (which had a guard stationed at either end), the rear of the Senator’s house boasted a large, open balcony. He may as well have put out a welcome mat for me.
Happy that I was on top of the situation, I retreated back to the abandoned marketplace to wait until sunset. Or, to be more accurate, I headed back to the well and spent many happy hours killing time and dousing myself with the still water from its depths.
* * *
The arrival of twilight caused the temperature to drop a good many degrees to a much more favourable climate, but as it passed over into dusk it took with it any remaining warmth and plunged Sakhmet into gloom and a sub zero chill. Who would live in this minefield? It’s a never-ending drama of sweating and shivering and sand.
Drawing my coat in close around me, I picked my way through the remnants of the market place and back into the outskirts of town. Buildings were now just shadowy silhouettes, so I had to bite my lip more than once as I stubbed a toe on loose rocks. I breathed a semi audible sigh of relief when I finally found myself hugging the wall to the Senator’s home; the stone was still hot under my hands.
Distracting the guards, who periodically swapped ends of the passageway, was simple. Pitching an aforementioned loose rock in their general direction caused enough noise for one Elephante to leave his post to go and investigate, while the other stood several feet forward of his designated spot craning after him into the darkness curiously. I flattened myself against the wall and slipped behind him, then padded across the courtyard.
Scaling the support pillar to reach the balcony proved to be quite problematic, given that my fingers are fairly slender and the webbing between them kept snagging on the more ornate sections of decoration that I was using as handholds.
The security measures on the balcony door left a lot to be desired, namely because there weren’t any. I pretty much just opened them and let myself in.
Inside, the young girl’s bedroom was the typical shrine to a spoiled little brat. Luxurious drapes hung from the corners of a maple, four post bed, an assortment of toys and knick knacks were strewn across the drawers and cupboards that were crammed with expensive clothing for the no doubt frequent parties she attended.
At the foot of the bed was a large cage; the bars may have been gilded, but it was a cage nonetheless. Inside sat Chloe, still as melancholy as she had been when I’d seen her being dragged through the marketplace. She was hunched in the back corner, not sleeping, just hanging her head with quiet sorrow.
Upon registering my presence, she looked up at me. Had I thought she’d understand, I’d have pressed a finger to my lips or motioned towards the balcony doors to let her know my purpose. But I doubted it would do any good and would only waste time. I was prepared for her to start squealing at me, but instead she just bowed her head once more in resignation.
The hinge on the cage door creaked hideously as I opened it. I gingerly reached inside, unsure if Snarhooks had teeth underneath that huge nose, but hoping that I wouldn’t find out tonight. But she didn’t attempt to stop me, and whilst she didn’t exactly help by shuffling closer, she didn’t protest in the slightest as I scooped her out and cradled her into my chest. The odd pang that was coming to be something of a regular occurrence made its presence felt once again, as I wondered just how unhappy she would have to have been in the young Wocky’s care to have not put up a struggle when a mysterious assailant crept in during the night and tried to abduct her.
I didn’t have long to wonder, though, as the young Desert Wocky suddenly sat bolt upright in bed, staring at me. For a moment I held my breath and hoped that she was unable to make out my form in the dark, but this illusion was shattered as she threw back her head and began shrieking in piercing blasts.
I took that as my cue to leave and sprinted through the doors and out onto the balcony. In one swift motion, I dived over the ledge, my tail instinctively shooting out and grasping it behind me, stunting my momentum. This caused me to swing back up towards the underside of the balcony. I timed the release of my tail just as I was about to splat face first into the stone work, meaning that I completed my rotation and ended up directly beneath the balcony, out of view.
Footsteps clattered about above as I heard the young girl speaking to somebody, presumably an Elephante Guard judging by the force behind the footfalls. Once I heard them go back inside, I set off running in the direction of the old marketplace.
By the time I returned to my designated hide out, a wind had flared up and was relentlessly whipping sand about, as if it too was searching for me. Taking shelter in the far corner up by the outer city wall, I crouched behind a mound of rocks and took down my hood to better listen out for any sound of approaching guards. In the still of the night air I heard a commotion coming from the area I had just left, but it sounded as if it were getting further away rather than coming closer.
Allowing myself a deep breath, as much with relief as because my lungs had begun to burn from trying to run around on dry land, I finally turned my attention to the quaking ball of fluff in my arms. She was clearly terrified.
Normally I don’t care much for the feelings of Petpets, but if I was going to have to shelter her until I could return her to her owner, then her being afraid of me would only hamper things. Awkwardly and unsure of what I was doing, I ran a finger around the side of her cheek in a manner that I hoped was soothing. At first she tensed up against my touch, but I felt her relax in my arms as she realised I wasn’t trying to hurt her. I moved my hand round to stroke her nose, and she began to entwine it around my hand, sniffing me as she did to pick up my scent. Our momentary bonding experience over, she lay there on my arm, staring up at me with those huge, yellow eyes that seemed to take up the majority of her face. I had the sudden urge to smile, but had no idea why.
With my free arm I dug out a shallow ditch in the sand up against the remains of what was once the wall of a shop, wincing inside as yet more of my bare scales came into contact with the awful grainy stuff. I sat Chloe down inside it, hoping the banking of the sides would shelter her from the wind and help to keep some of her body heat in. Then, remembering how hot the stone of the mansion wall had felt under my hand, I sought out some rocks nearby that had retained some of the heat baked into them by the sun and piled them up behind me. Leaning against these rocks, I curled myself around the edge of the hole and draped the flap of my coat over the opening to enclose Chloe in a pocket of warmth, albeit slightly at the expense of my own comfort.
I slept fitfully, trying not to fall into too deep a sleep in case I missed the approaching steps of a guard. I was also terrified that Chloe would get up and wander away from me if I took my eye off her for too long, I was still fairly certain she wasn’t smart enough to fully grasp the fact that I was trying to save her. Though between bouts of staring out into the darkness, I did manage to get some sleep, and in it I dreamt of what I would do with all the lovely Neopoints I was going to earn when I got back to Maraqua.
To be continued...