Unlikely Allies: Part Eight
What could Gary possibly want with Ciona? Delma frowned as she ate a slice of Garden Fresh pizza. An obscure Darigan fan she’d never heard of, and whom she knew nothing about? Delma shook her head. He wouldn’t even have the means to do so.
“Hey, let’s take the rest back. I want to be there when Amelia gets back.” Tandrak nudged her.
Delma nodded in agreement, gathering the box up clumsily and joining him as he walked back.
“How are you feeling?” He glanced down at her.
She shrugged. “I really hope nothing terrible has happened. If Ciona’s hurt at all, I’m going to make someone really sorry that they messed with Team Faerieland.”
Tandrak watched her solemnly. “I too worry about her,” he said quietly. “She seems like a very good friend. You should try not to be too upset, though. Your friends worry about you.”
Delma sighed and nodded.
Inside the Darigan suite, Tormo and Kep were sitting on the couch, reading. Kep looked up when they came in. “Do you have any leads?” she asked.
“We might know who did it,” Tandrak told her. "The Defenders detectives are helping a lot."
"They have so many resources," Delma said quietly as she put the pizza box in the fridge and sat down to finish her slice. "I can't imagine trying to solve this case just by ourselves."
"We weren't doing too bad," Tandrak said with a bit of a cheeky grin. "Hopefully Amelia found more to work with..."
"Yeah." Delma nodded vaguely, watching him as he poured two cups of water and sat at the table with her. "Thanks. Did you get enough to eat?"
"I'm fine." He took a long sip of his water.
A short knock on the door was followed with Amelia's entrance. She immediately found Tandrak and Delma and took a seat at the table with them. Delma hastily cleared a spot for her. “So what we’ve found,” Amelia said briskly, "is that 'Gary Greyson' is an alias for Dorax Gillyworth, a small businessman who rose to success by expanding his business to many continents. He is prominent for his youthful success. The last time he was at his Shenkuu headquarters, the staff noted that he had complaints similar to a case of the Shaky Flakies. That could be why there was a scent of Clay and Leaf Paste. It seems possible that he still has not cured his sickness, since this record is from--" She paused, checking a second sheet of paper-- "five days ago."
Delma sat in silence for a moment, absorbing this information. Finally, she said, "What does a young businessman named Dorax Gillyworth have anything to do with Ciona?"
Amelia shook her head. "We can't make out the connection. All we can find on him relating to Yooyuball is that he's been a publicly avid Darigan fan as far back as records on the coverage extend, and also that he received an autograph from Ms. Bonnefie over two years ago."
Delma frowned. That still didn't make any sense. "Do you know where he's taken her, then?" she asked hopefully.
Amelia shook her head. "We analyzed the piece of paper you gave us and it seems that the tear was a stress fracture, so the guard did indeed manage to rip it off of Gillyworth's person. When we attempted a reconstruction, all we managed to figure out was that the paper was not a note, because the stroke did not match any letter of any known language. We haven't been able to question the guards yet because they have not been woken up yet. The doctor has returned and examined them again but it seems that there is some magic at work."
Delma sighed and rubbed her head. "So what now? We can't play in the Cup without Ciona."
Amelia began packing up her bags, and offered Delma a grim smile. "We've still got two days, Ms. Harrence. With all due respect, we'll keep you informed of our progress."
Delma sat back and watched her leave, before laying her head on the table. "I probably can't even go back to my room," she mumbled to herself. As much as she wanted confirmation that they'd finished processing it, she was exhausted and knew better than to think that the detectives would be done with her room.
Tandrak watched her for a long moment before standing. "Crash on the couch," he suggested, before vanishing.
Delma was left by herself and, feeling extremely awkward as she did so, lay on the now-vacant couch in the main room of the suite and fell immediately into sleep.
Delma was walking through a long tunnel, and acutely aware that she was dreaming. After living in the homeworld of the Faeries, she had come to be wary of dreams. She felt fairly certain as she stepped into a dimly-lit chamber that the spinach on her pizza earlier must have been funky.
The slow, steady drip-drip of water echoed unnaturally and she was aware that the damp chill of the air was wrapping about her hungrily. And then a voice, so quiet that she had to strain to hear it. "Delma..."
Delma turned around, trying to figure out where the voice came from. Her name, whispered again in the passage, echoed against the stone of the cave.
"Ciona?" Delma licked her lips, peering into the gloom for a sign of her Kyrii friend.
"Delma..." Her name, only an echoed whisper, was all that answered her. Delma hesitated, looking at the various tunnels, and then picked one at random, stumbling now and then as she tripped on the slick floor.
It felt like hours that Delma navigated a labyrinth of caves and tunnels, accompanied only by the whisper of her own name. Delma was certain that the voice was Ciona's; she'd recognize it any day. She didn't know what Ciona wanted to tell her, though.
Delma came to a halt at a large rock, out of breath. She was only getting more and more lost, and the whispers had faded to quiet rustles that were more and more infrequent. Delma looked at the chamber she was in, unsurprised to find that it was just as unremarkable as the other tunnel she'd been wandering. Looking up, though, she noticed that the rock she was standing at was actually a giant statue. As if expecting it to come to life, she stumbled back, unnerved to see a mimicry of life glittering in its huge jeweled eyes. The longer she stared, the more she felt certain that it seemed to be a tall upright statue of an Anubis. Delma glanced around; it was the only recognizable feature she'd yet seen.
Her name echoed through the halls once more, so soft she wasn't sure if she was imagining it. The air around her was growing thick with a white fog; the stone surfaces vanished, and she had the strange sensation of suddenly rising and floating. Delma struggled against this and became aware that she was waking up.
The haze of sleep lifted and Delma sat bolt upright, aware that she was drenched in sweat and then simultaneously aware that sunlight was bleeding into the room from high windows, and that there were others in the room.
Kep, Reshar, Tandrak, and Tormo were all looking at her as if she'd just chopped off her own hand. She gulped a deep breath of air and managed a, "Um, sorry, but my room was still closed for investigation, so I spent the night here..."
Kep shifted uncomfortably. Reshar was staring at her oddly. Tormo shrugged and said, "It's fine but you were screaming..."
Delma flushed a bright red at his words. She'd never talked in her sleep, or worse, walked. That she had been sleeping fitfully had been one thing; she'd had strange dreams before, and a couch wasn't exactly a comfortable bed. But it was more than embarrassing to find out that she'd been making a disturbance when they'd been considerate enough to let her sleep on their couch. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to... did I wake you? I was just... just sleeping..."
"We were getting up already," Kep said calmly before moving into the kitchen. Tormo and Reshar both left as Delma looked at them, probably going to get a breakfast, Delma thought.
Tandrak looked at Delma suspiciously. "Were you dreaming?"
Delma brought her knees up to her chest and nodded quietly.
Tandrak put his hands in his pockets, shrugging slightly. "I'm sure the couch wasn't too comfortable. Maybe they will open your room today."
"Maybe." Delma put a hand to her hair and suddenly wished she'd at least brought a brush. "May I use your bathroom?" If she had access to a sink and mirror, she would be able to make herself appear more presentable at least. With some breakfast, she'd be able to think more clearly as well.
Tandrak nodded. "I'll wait for you to go get breakfast."
Delma stared at her reflection drearily. What she really needed was a shower, she thought grimly. It was amazing to think that the Opening Ceremony would be upon them in only two days. Delma was so scatterbrained that she couldn't even focus. Without Ciona, they couldn't participate, but more than that, Delma was really beginning to worry about her friend.
She emerged from the bathroom and gave Tandrak a grim smile. "I want my room back."
"Let's ask if they're done processing it yet," the Gelert suggested. "We'll be walking right by it."
Delma found that the room was still being occupied, but the detective told her that they would be done by noon. Delma found that, as she sat next to Tandrak in the small dining room pushing moodily at a plate of pancakes and fresh fruit, she couldn't stop thinking about the dream.
"I hope Amelia has a lead for us today," Delma finally said aloud. "Or else I am going to go find Ciona myself."
Tandrak shrugged. "We do know a fair bit more than when we started. The paper wasn't a note, so that means it was probably a diagram or a map—not that it is useful to us since we don't have it, though. We know that Dorax Gillyworth is the one who took her, or arranged to have her taken, based on Amelia's evidence. We don't know his motivation, we don’t know how he did it, and we don't know where she is now. If he has any sense at all he wouldn’t have taken her to Shenkuu, because we've traced him there easily." He paused to take a long drink of orange juice.
Delma turned this over in her mind. "I think I heard Ciona in my dream," she said slowly, aware of how ridiculous it sounded. "She was calling to me... But I don't remember where I was... I remember a statue..." Her brow furrowed as she concentrated on remembering the details of her dream, but she couldn't remember anything more.
Tandrak tilted his head at her. "A statue?"
"Yes," Delma said, closing her eyes for a second. It had been tall enough that she hadn't been able to see the top... But she'd noticed its coldly glittering eyes... "I think it was an Anubis," she said haltingly. "But... I wasn't in the Lost Desert, I was in a cave, or..." She shook her head. "I don't know if it means anything."
"It's possible she was trying to communicate with you," Tandrak said, smiling lopsidedly. "You are from Faerieland, and surely the Faeries have given you a share in their magic as an incentive to play for them?" He must have seen the shock on her face because he grinned and looked down at his plate. "Just rumors..."
"People think that we have Faerie magic?" Delma was astounded. She could count the number of times she'd talked to Fyora on one hand.
Tandrak shrugged. "People say a lot of things."
Delma sat back, stunned. Was it possible to have Faerie magic and not even be aware of it? She stared at her plate of pancakes and concentrated on making them burst into flames, summoning up feelings of playful mischief like she'd seen the Fire Faeries of her homeworld do. Nothing happened and Delma shrugged, sighing. "I don't know if I have Faerie magic, but I'd guess that if my whole team did, we'd do better in the tournaments." She stabbed a strawberry and devoured it, trying to forget about her dream. "Maybe we should just let the Defenders find Ciona." Even as she said it, she knew it'd be stupid to let herself sit and worry.
"Kep and I are worried about her, too," Tandrak said evenly. "If Amelia has anything else to go on, then we'll think some more."
Delma shrugged but said nothing. That option was better than any she'd come up with.
Delma leapt at the chance to reclaim her room the minute that the detectives announced it free for her to use. She busied herself with taking a long, hot shower that felt wonderful. She allowed the steam to clear her mind, thinking only that Amelia had better meet with Tandrak soon or she'd go find the Acara herself.
As Delma stepped out of her room wearing clean clothes, she noticed Layton Vickles walking down the hallway. "Is Tandrak there?" she asked as she passed him.
The Hissi just nodded, clearly getting accustomed (however grudgingly) to her company.
When Delma arrived at the Darigan suite, Amelia was already there, talking with Tandrak in a low voice. She took a seat next to Tandrak, shooting Amelia a look. "Sorry I'm late. Do you have any leads?"
"Well," Amelia said with a smile that was not entirely friendly, "I was just telling Tandrak that the fingerprints we uncovered from your room belonged to Dorax Gillyworth himself, which now lifts any small amount of suspicion against him. I do not have his current whereabouts, and I suspect that if I did, they would be false. We suspect his motive is to try to get a large ransom in exchange for Ciona, although he's made no moves yet, and I suspect that he'll wait until the Cup has started in order to ensure that he gets more attention and prevent your team from participating." She cleared her throat and looked at Tandrak pointedly.
Delma suddenly decided not to tell her about her dream, however strange it had been. Instead she looked at Tandrak as he asked, "So can we see the location of his offices?"
Amelia shuffled papers around for a second before pulling out a very plain map of what appeared to be Neopia and a printed list of addresses.
"Neopia Central, Shenkuu, Meridell, Lost Desert, Terror Mountain..." Tandrak's eyes scanned the list quickly. "I am surprised that he's had the resources to expand so much."
Amelia sat back and observed them both. "The other bit of news I have is somewhat less than friendly," she began. "We aren't entirely certain who he was working with, but we're sure he must have had some help on the inside. So, we are going to place all members of your teams—including you—under supervised isolation until the Cup has began."
Delma was silent in shock, though she was aware of Tandrak tensing next to her.
Amelia continued, heedless of their reactions. "Not only will we ensure that nobody else is kidnapped," she said calmly, "but we'll be able to gain further clues as well, by observing."
She seemed unnerved by the long silence as she began to twirl a pen in her hands. "We're going to tell your teammates after lunch."
Finally, Tandrak spoke. "You can't do that," he said simply. "There's no way you could suspect us of anything. We're her friends; we're worried about her..."
"Delma misses being the star defender on the team now that Ciona's been hanging around for two years. You're resentful of the minor ankle injury she gave you in the games last year. You both have motives, and it's our job to make sure that we're wrong about them." Amelia surveyed them both grimly.
Delma's jaw dropped open and she struggled to find words. “But—but she’s my best friend—"
"A guise, perhaps," Amelia said, undisturbed as she began to pack up her bag. "Enjoy a lunch. I'll see you again in a few hours." And with that, she was gone.
Delma felt the blood draining from her face as the door clicked shut. Tandrak offered her a steadying hand but she just stared at him in disbelief. "Now we're suspects? Do they really think...?"
"I think I fancy a lunch at that café back in Altador Main Square," Tandrak said, seizing her wrist and beginning to drag her with him. "I hope you'll do me the pleasure of accompanying me."
Delma quickened her pace. "Sure... that sounds good... But I'm confused..."
Tandrak didn't answer until they were outside and walking briskly toward Altador Central. "You want to be locked up until the ceremony starts?"
Delma paused. "Well... I think that nobody here helped Dorax... and I don't think it's necessary."
"So we'll escape before we get locked up." Tandrak smiled at her.
"Wait. Where will we go?" Delma opened the door of the café and turned to fix Tandrak with an inquisitive stare.
Tandrak shrugged back at her. "I'll tell you." As they sat in a booth, he said quietly, "I don't know if the Detectives were watching us, but I feel that we can't talk freely anymore if we are staying in our Hall. They may have used other surveillance methods anyhow. What I noticed was that you mentioned a cave in your dream, and what I also noticed was that there were three places where Dorax doesn't have a branch office. The first is here in Altador. The second is Faerieland. And the third is Krawk Island." He paused, thinking for a moment. "The Detectives probably noticed this too, but I do not know what they will do next. But you said that Ciona was calling to you from a cave, and there aren't any caves on Faerieland, and I think Dorax would have left Altador."
Delma blinked at him in shock. "You're saying that Ciona is in Krawk Island? Based on such flimsy evidence?"
Tandrak shrugged. "I'd rather try to find her then sit under lock and key. I think I would have told Amelia about your dream, but I have stopped trusting her now that she is trying to trap us in our own rooms. So we're going to leave after lunch."
Delma was glad that she was already sitting down. "But it will take so long... Krawk Island is even farther than Faerieland, and... We can't fly... And how are we supposed to go anywhere and not be recognized? Especially after the press?"
Tandrak shrugged. "A risk we'll have to take."
Delma gasped. "Tandrak, we could miss the beginning of the tournament!"
Tandrak tilted his head at her. "Right now, your team is going to miss the tournament anyway. I would rather try to get you back in the tournament than sit here and wait. I think the Cup will be more fun this year if we can play against you."
Delma took a long breath and held it, counting to ten before she spoke again. "You really want to travel around the globe just because of a dream?"
Tandrak offered her a friendly smile. "We'd better get started. Get your lunch to go."
Delma sat huddled in a small wagon, muscles cramping and sore, and staring silently at Tandrak. He offered her a smile from underneath his heavy burlap scarf. Delma knew that her features would be concealed even more because of her veil, so instead she just stared at him. "Did you really have to pick the Great Desert?" she hissed silently. It was a stroke of pure luck that they'd found someone to transport them for a small fee, although they'd been dressed like vagabonds to conceal their identities. She'd lost track of time long ago but knew that once this long ride was over, they'd be destined for an even longer ride in what would be a rather unsatisfactory vessel.
"It was the fastest path to Krawk Island," Tandrak replied with a broad grin. "Plus, we got a free preview of the National Neopian News." He hefted a thin newspaper and Delma had to stifle a gasp and then a giggle. She'd never thought she'd enjoy adventuring, but traveling with Tandrak wasn't boring at all. She suspected that he was consciously doing his best to entertain her, but this was really too much.
"'Two More Yooyuball Players Missing,'" Tandrak whispered back to her, causing her to giggle again behind her hand. "Fancy that. Someone's worried about us."
Delma jabbed her finger between two of his ribs, which only made him laugh more. "If you hadn't made me run away with you, we wouldn't be the topic of the daily news," she said in mock-seriousness. "Imagine how your reputation will fare when we get back."
Tandrak grinned but then drew his face into a frown. "I'm sure Kakoni shall scold me," he replied, before his stern expression melted into the one of repressed hilarity he'd worn only a second before.
Delma knew she should be feeling worse for leaving her team without even a word, but knowing that they were breaking the rules made their plan seem all the more daring and adventurous.
The cart thudded to a halt and Delma sobered immediately. The Aisha driver appeared in a matter of moments. "Alrigh', I didn' see nuffin' or hear nuffin'," he said as they scrambled out of the back of his cart. Delma noticed that for an unassuming cart driver, he was displaying his latest profit nicely on his hip.
"Thank you so much for your help," Delma said, before Tandrak had grabbed her hand and the two vanished out of the Aisha's life as quickly as they had appeared.
"You have to admit that that was fun," Tandrak said gleefully as he pulled the dirty, sandy wrappings off of himself. "We'll need a new disguise now that we're out of the desert, but for now, I think we can both pass fairly." He glanced at his own casual pants and shirt before looking back up at Delma. "Hopefully next time we won't have to be so quiet."
It was never so hard to be quiet, Delma reflected, until your friends were trying to make you laugh every five minutes.
"We're off to find Dorax," Tandrak sang in an off-key tune as they began walking through the thinning sands. Delma noticed that crabgrass was becoming more common as they walked, and suspected that this was going to be a short walk before they reached the edge of the continent and the ocean. "A dastardly businessman! We're ready to reclaim Ciona, and return to Altador soon!"
Delma grimaced at his terrible singing but laughed along with him as they made their way across ground that turned to a flat grassy meadow. Just beyond the meadow's edge, she could see the sea sparkling in the distance. Delma couldn't help but smile and join in with Tandrak's spontaneous singing.
It wasn't until they got closer to the ocean that a thought occurred to Delma. "Tandrak," she said calmly. "Surely you're not thinking of rowing all the way to Krawk Island?"
Tandrak ruffled her hair with a cheeky grin. "'Course not. We'll row to a small island east of here, exchange our clothing for something a little bit more fitting, and sneak onto a vessel bound for the good ol' island."
Delma gasped even as they scrambled down the shore. "We're going to be stowaways?"
"You betcha!" He grinned at her as they came to the shore.
"There aren’t really stowaways," Delma said in disbelief. "Only in stories."
Tandrak raised his eyebrows at her. "You really don't want to know what I did before I played Yooyuball," he replied with a roguish smirk that left Delma wondering if he was just teasing. "Here we are!"
Delma stared at the rowboat he waded out to get. "You want us to... are you kidding? This thing is so tiny!"
"We can do it," Tandrak said confidently as he untied it from the underside of the dock. "We're both athletic."
Delma wasn't sure if she wanted to hit Tandrak for his stupidity or hug him for his ingenuity. "We're going to starve," she said instead as she waded out to him.
"There's a few provisions," he announced as he looked under the bench.
Delma shook her head at him but couldn't stop from grinning. "Alright." She hoisted herself into the small boat with some difficulty and grabbed hold of an oar. "Let's go!"
Delma was sore in much a different way that she'd been during their wagon trip. Her muscles weren't protesting from being frozen stiff in one position, but rather, from being used for an activity which she rarely did. She was pleased that she displayed not even the slightest bit of seasickness, which would have truly been troublesome. Rather, she was growing sore from rowing, and the moon was rising. Tandrak seemed to be a natural navigator but Delma still wondered if it was possible that they could have drifted off course somehow. They had eaten their meager food supply and exhaustion was beginning to set in. She continued rowing but had lost the fervor for it; she truly felt that she could lie back and be lulled to sleep by the waves.
"There it is," Tandrak said quietly in her ear.
Delma looked ahead, peering through the misty surface of the ocean, and was able to make out a very faint shadow that surely could only be the bulk of land. "Finally," she muttered. She was well aware that once the sun rose, they'd only have one day left to find Ciona and return to Altador.
Tandrak hopped out of the boat a few minutes later and Delma was surprised to see him standing only up to his waist in water. They'd made it to the beach on a stolen rowboat and she just wanted to find a cheap inn and rest until Tandrak had found a ship to sneak onto.
Sleepily, Delma struggled out of the boat and through the water to the shore. She plodded along next to Tandrak, who guided her towards what turned out to be a small inn that materialized out of the fog. She couldn't stifle her yawns as they both set small bags of neopoints on the desk, and the innkeeper showed them to a room. In fact, Delma sank into sleep only a few moments after she lay down on her bed, and she didn't wake until the sun had risen.
"Delma. Wake up!" Tandrak shook his companion and glanced around the room.
Delma yawned but managed to sit up, blinking blearily. "It's Friday... Tandrak... We're not going to have time... We're going to miss the Cup..."
Tandrak stretched, shaking his head. "There's a vessel leaving in a half hour. We'll be there before the day is over."
"I don't like the thought of stowing away," she grumbled as she climbed out of bed.
"Here," Tandrak said, tossing a small, rough sack at her. "I found you some less conspicuous clothing."
Delma pulled out the cloth inside the sack and grimaced. “Why’d you get me a skirt?”
“It’s more realistic,” he replied, carrying a sack of his own into their tiny bathroom.
Delma took the opportunity to change, grimacing at her reflection in the scratched and tinny mirror. With a loose, flowing top and skirt paired with a bandana and some costume jewelry, she looked very much like someone who lived in a port town.
Tandrak emerged, dressed in his own baggy trousers and linen shirt, and nodded approvingly at her. “I think we’ll make it for sure without being discovered.”
Delma frowned. “I still don’t want to become a stowaway...”
Tandrak looked at her skeptically. “How else are we supposed to get to Krawk Island?”
“What if she’s not even there?” Delma asked softly. “We’ll have wasted this entire trip and still might even miss the Cup.”
Tandrak shrugged. “I’m confident that we’ll make it back in time.”
“So we can’t... fulfill positions of cooks or... something?”
“I don’t have enough money with me to pay for the trip, and besides, that’d probably destroy our cover.”
Delma sighed. “Well... if we have to... I’m willing to... as long as it will help save Ciona.”
Tandrak handed her a small croissant and moved past her to the door. “Eat breakfast and let’s get going. We’ve got to get on the ship.”
Delma thought quietly to herself as she walked and ate that she truly didn’t like the idea of sneaking aboard a ship. As they approached a dock that was unfamiliar to her, Tandrak raised an arm. “That’s the one we’re going on.”
“The Blue Veespa,” Delma read on the ship’s prow. She suddenly burst into a fit of giggles. “What a silly name!”
Tandrak shrugged. “It’s not the biggest one in the harbor, but it is a fair size. Wait here while I go watch for a break in the guards’ rotation. Watch for my signal.”
Delma watched him leave and sighed to herself, leaning against the building for a short while until she felt a slight chill begin to settle despite her warm clothing. She instead began walking down the cobbled way, glancing back occasionally to see if Tandrak was calling for her. She didn’t see anything, but was still so focused on watching the ship that she nearly ran into an Usul and a Draik.
“Beg your pardon,” she said gruffly, glancing sideways at them.
“Oh,” the Usul tittered, glancing at her companion. “Sorry—we’re not from here—is there a hospital?”
Delma itched the back of her head, feeling that the more she talked to them, the more likely she was to be recognized. She shook her head, shrugging. “I’m just stopping by while m’vessel is resupplied,” she said cautiously, adopting a tone of regret.
The Usul tutted and sighed. “Oh... My brother and I were traveling to Krawk Island for a vacation, but he’s come down with a case of Neomonia... I told you not to eat that salad yesterday, Peter, but you didn’t listen to me...”
The Draik gave her a grumpy look but said nothing.
Delma shook her head consolingly. “’m afraid I can’t be of much help.” A sudden thought occurred to her. “If you’d like, I can... tell your shipmaster of your plight, while I am on deck?”
The Usul smiled at her. “How very kind of you!”
“M’name’s Amelia.” Delma took a strange delight in using the name.
“Oh, Amelia, you’re so kind. My ship is the Blue Veespa, and we were supposed to be aboard by now, but unfortunately...” She shrugged helplessly. “Anyway, it’s terribly kind of you. Peter and Bella, if you don’t mind. Oh, you’re such a blessing. Thank you!”
“Not at all,” Delma said kindly, attempting a grim smile. Don’t thank me too much, my friend. You’re the one who is helping me.
Delma wandered back to the dock, eyes peeled for Tandrak. She spotted him hiding out of sight of the guards, behind a large pillar. She waved him over as she approached the guards.
“What are you doing?” he hissed under his breath as he caught up to her.
“Trust me,” Delma said quietly with a bright smile.
They approached the gangplank and the guards standing in front of them, and Delma adopted a sugary-sweet smile. “Good morning, kind sirs,” she said cheerfully. “Bella and Peter, checking in for safe passage.”
The guards glanced at each other but finally one pulled a list out of his pocket and scanned the names. Finally, he responded, “Righ’, miss. We’ll be castin’ off soon. Next time y’won’t want to cut it so close.”
“A thousand pardons,” Delma replied as she averted her eyes. “Thank you.” She made herself walk slowly up the board despite feeling Tandrak’s eyes heavily on her.
Tandrak stared at her in disbelief. The minute that they were out of earshot of the guards and moving around deck, he said crossly, “Now what was that all about?”
“I ran into a few would-be passengers who were kind enough to offer their positions to two professional Yooyuball players." She gave Tandrak a devilish grin.
Tandrak crossed his arms and shook his head in disbelief. "That's amazing." He leaned against the railing. "If you're not going to tell me how I got a legitimate position on this ship, I guess there's nothing left but to enjoy the ride."
As Tandrak spoke, the ship pushed off from the dock. Delma smiled into the wind. If luck was on their side, then perhaps they would be able to find Ciona and make it back after all.
The sun had fallen from its zenith but it had not quite begun to set yet when the Blue Veespa drifted into port on Krawk Island. Delma's stomach clenched in anxiety and she turned to look at Tandrak. “Krawk Island is so large,” she said quietly, shaking her head at him.
He watched the shoreline before looking back at her. “There’re caves, and an Anubis statue,” he said in an undertone. “Is that right? Is there anything else?”
"It's just a dream, Tandrak," Delma said softly.
Tandrak didn't seem to hear her as he turned away. "Bella, we'd better get ready. They're going to set out the gangplank."
Delma was more than enthusiastic to locate food while they walked down the dock. "Do you want anything?" she asked Tandrak cheerfully.
"Yes. I'm not picky. When we find Dorax we've got to have out strength so that we can get Ciona away from him." Tandrak looked over her shoulder. "Hey, there's a taco stand. Go get some. I'm going to get a map."
Delma returned with two black cherry tacos and looked over his shoulder at the tattered map he'd picked up. "What are you looking for?"
"Caves would only be near the ocean, so I am looking around at the beach areas..." Tandrak pointed a finger. "If you saw a statue, then my guess is that the caves are near the Smuggler's Cove." He folded up the map, jammed it in his pocket, and took one of the tacos she had. "It's really not an advertised location, but I know where it is. Thanks. Let's get going, before the sun sets."
Delma knew that the dock was not close to the spot he had pointed, but even so, she hurried, thinking that every inch the sun slid closer to the horizon was a minute less to find Ciona.
Tandrak finally held up a hand and she stumbled to a stop. The crashing of waves off the shore filled her ears. "It's a little bit rocky," he said as he continued, "but it's the best path in."
Delma followed him down the slope toward the beach, looking out over the crystal blue cove. The sunlight sparkling off the water blinded her and she looked away, finally spotting the small opening in the hillside that Tandrak was walking toward.
"These caves," he said as he stepped inside, "were carved out by water. The smugglers use them to store their goods so that the authorities won't find them. Even if the Defenders found this place, they'd never be able to discover anything. There are so many caves here that it is a huge maze to anybody who is unfamiliar with them."
Delma felt her heart sink even as she stepped in after him. "So how will we find our way?"
"Just trust me," Tandrak replied calmly.
As they walked deeper into the cave, the daylight gradually dimmed, and Delma had to hold onto Tandrak's shoulder to keep from stumbling. "If it's a maze, how do you know where she is?" Delma asked cautiously.
"I know where the smugglers keep their goods. In your dream, you walked past a statue, which would be one of the items the smugglers bring. So, we will go to their supply cave, and check the caves nearby.” Delma thought that Tandrak had gotten it worked out very well in his mind but she still doubted the validity of his plans. It was an odd and unusual place for Ciona to be, and the chances of her being here on such a small hunch felt very dim.
Delma could hardly see a thing and was amazed that Tandrak was able to find his way around this labyrinth. She’d be lost and stumbling in the dark if she were alone. Even as she thought this, he reached into his pocket and fished around before pulling out a flashlight and turning it on.
Delma shuffled along after him, following the pale yellow beam of light. She had no clue how far into the caves they were, but finally Tandrak stopped, staring ahead of him. Delma moved closer. “What is it?”
“Anubis,” he said softly, and the beam of light fell on a large, polished, marble column that Delma recognized with certainty. “I can’t believe the smugglers have such a treasure. How could they get it away from the Lost Desert without anybody noticing?”
“We got through the Lost Desert without anybody noticing,” Delma reminded him with a nudge.
He flashed her a grin. “Fair enough. But I’m even more certain that Ciona’s nearby.” He cupped his hands around his mouth and called her name.
The cave erupted crazily with echoes in all directions, and as his voice reverberated in the air around them, Delma grabbed his sleeve. “Dummy! Dorax probably heard you now!”
Tandrak shrugged. “So he knows we’re coming. Maybe he’ll have time to prepare. Come on, let’s keep going.”
Delma stepped behind him again, letting him lead. She suspected that something was wrong because the slant of the ground turned steeper soon, and she had the distinct impression that they were walking uphill. There was light coming from somewhere because she could make out dim outlines now, and Tandrak turned off his flashlight.
Delma was about to say something when he rushed forward, and Delma hesitated before following uncertainly. A flood of numbing warmth filled her when she saw her teammate lying on the floor, and she hurried over to help Tandrak untie the knots binding Ciona’s hands and feet.
Tandrak gently removed the bandanna tied around Ciona’s mouth and the Kyrii took a deep gasp of air. As soon as Delma had loosened the rope at her wrists she flung her arms around her. “I knew you’d come for me, Delma, I knew you’d come...”
Delma gave her friend a gentle pat. “We’re here. Where’s Dorax?”
Ciona had a moment to wonder how Delma knew Dorax’s name, but she shook off her shock quickly. “He left for Altador. He didn’t want to miss the opening ceremony. Sweet Fyora, are we too late? We’re disqualified?”
“Not yet,” Tandrak said shortly. He loosened the rope around Ciona’s ankles. “Try to stand up.”
Ciona struggled to ease the stiffness from her legs, stumbling and holding onto Delma. Delma scowled into the darkness. “I don’t suppose he told you why he brought you here?”
“Sure,” Ciona said calmly. “He said I was taking Kep away from the fans. He’s the one that got her autograph, you know?”
Tandrak nodded and reached for her. “Ciona, if you can walk, we’ve got to get going. Surely you haven’t had anything to eat or drink, and anyhow, the sun’s probably setting and we’ve got to get going.”
Ciona nodded and looked back at Delma as they started to walk. “He’s obsessed with Kep. He had all these clipouts of pictures of us with her, you know, that the press got hold of over the past week, and said that I had been spending too much time with her, than I was taking her away from the fans.” She shook her head as if she couldn’t believe it.
“Did he hurt you?” Delma asked darkly. Defenders or not, she’d skin him alive when she found him if Ciona had any complaints.
Ciona shot her a grin. “Yeah, right. He was too busy itching himself the whole time to bother. Plus he’s really weak, and against an athlete...” She rolled her eyes. “He just used a bunch of potions to take advantage of me, but I could easily win in a strength fight. But he did it all himself, no help or anything, because he was so angry that I was spending time with Kep!” Ciona shook her head in amazement.
Tandrak held up a hand in warning before kicking out ahead of them. The darkness dissolved into an opening as what appeared to be poorly-placed rocks slid away from the cave opening.
“Trying to conceal his exits,” Tandrak said ironically as they stepped out onto the cliffside and into a blazing sunset. “Too bad he doesn’t know that there’s more than one opening into those caves.”
Delma smiled freely and exhaled. “So what now?” she asked, reaching for her friends’ hands.
“Now, it’s time to get back to Altador,” Tandrak said with a smile, before they set off for the docks.
“Who knew that Tandrak would call Layton to get us a ride back,” Ciona muttered to Delma from the deck of their shuttle.
Delma glanced out at the star-studded night sky and grinned at Ciona. “You know, we were all placed under house arrest, so technically, Tandrak and I ran away to find you.”
Ciona’s eyes widened. “You got arrested?”
“The Defenders of Neopia didn’t want to take any chances,” she said, thinking of Amelia. “You said that Dorax Gillyworth is here? We’d better tell the detectives so that they can find him...”
“Hey,” Tandrak said, coming over. “We’re landing soon. I hope you realize that we have to be sneaky so that the media doesn’t publish anything and Dorax gets an early wind before the Defenders can apprehend him.”
Delma nodded and moved over to the shuttle hatch as the craft came to a halt at the platform. She didn’t expect to be surrounded by people the instant she stepped off of the shuttle, though, and suppressed a groan as Tandrak came up behind her.
“I can’t believe you ran away!” Babolino yelled over the babble of reporters and the flashing of bulbs.
“Tandrak, they found Dorax! They found him!” Kep muscled her way through the crowd and grabbed Ciona’s hands. “Are you alright? I didn’t know it was him, I didn’t know he’d...”
“It’s not your fault,” Ciona said with a broad smile, moving with her into the fray. “Let’s go home.”
Kakoni was there, and Valtonous, and Tormo, and Reshar, and Layton, and Delma looked around at the newspeople clamoring for a word and smiled at them broadly as she hurried after her team.
A familiar Acara intercepted her path, and she was vaguely aware of Tandrak moving to stand next to her as Amelia gave them both long stares. “You both broke isolation and ran away,” she said delicately, though Delma detected a hint of steel in her voice.
“What’s the point? You found Dorax anyway. We rescued Ciona faster than you could.” Tandrak stepped forward, expression unreadable.
“Be that as it may, you still deliberately ignored orders and endangered our investigation—”
“You don’t have anything to say to us. I’m sorry that we found Ciona before you, but she’s safe now, and we’ve got to get home to get our rest before the tournament begins.” Tandrak gave her a very pointed look, grabbed Delma’s hand, and brushed past her. Delma hurried to keep up with him, hiding her triumphant smirk until they had passed Amelia.
“Good riddance,” Valtonous huffed as they caught up with her. “You guys really have to get your rest. Let’s go home.”
Delma stared at her reflection solemnly in the mirror. Next to her, Ciona glowed radiantly in her beautiful gown, She’d pinned her hair up delicately and wore her necklace from before. Delma smiled at her friend in the mirror and then, on an impulse, grabbed the hair comb she’d gotten from shopping in Altador that day. She glanced at the clock before twisting her hair in an elegant fashion and sliding the comb into place. “Well, shall we go tell the boys we’re ready?” She glanced down at her pink dress once more before smiling at Ciona.
Ciona nodded at her and reached for her hand. “I can’t wait, Delma. The tournament is going to be so good. We prepared so hard for it this year.”
Delma followed Ciona out the door, breathing in a deep breath. Whatever happened, would happen. Ciona was safe, and they’d made it with just enough time to spare, so Delma didn’t have any complaints.
Hours later, as they filed onto the pitch, Delma found herself standing next to Tandrak and her friends from Team Darigan. Delma smiled up at Tandrak as an announcer’s voice rang over a loudspeaker. “Good luck, Tandrak.”
Tandrak returned her smile and squeezed her hand. “Good luck.”