From a Rock to a Hard Place: Part Six
As Axle punched a button on the last device, I heard a shout of, “Redd, is that you?” I turned around to face Vivily; her giant wings were already starting to shrink away, her scales were becoming muddy brown, and her arms becoming feathered in the wings’ place.
“Are there any other red Yurbles here?” I smiled.
“Well, you’re starting to shed a bit...”
“Oh...” My grin faded as I noticed a few of my scarlet hairs on the ground.
“GET A MOVE ON!” a mutant shouted. We noticed just then that we were standing in the middle of the doorway.
“Erm, yeah, heh heh heh.”
“Idiots,” somebody muttered.
Hissies were clearly never meant to be digging around for roots.
‘Well, look on the bright side, sister, now we know what we’re eating is at least partially natural.’
‘Oh, these aren’t for eating. They’re for spells.’
‘HEY, WHO IS THIS?’ No response. I grunted and continued digging around in the mud.
Eventually, the loudspeaker pipes shook, and we were summoned to the food processors.
I ladled different amounts of ingredients out of different vats all into one larger vat. It was impossible to tell what the foods were; all I knew was that they smelled putrid and we’d have to actually eat them.
The day went by very slowly. While I worked, I considered my clues from the janitor. It would have been so much easier if only Vivily or I had caught the spell. Because it caused you to instantly know what you aren’t supposed to know, we could’ve been already to the lair of Lord Xarone, instead of still pondering a bunch of riddles that couldn’t be made sense of. Victory doesn’t come easy, I reminded myself. Oh well. I was shouted at many, many times for drifting off into my mind in a crude attempt to make sense of the puzzles. The lair is very far away, but the entrance is very near? How could that be possible? A portal, that’s how. I literally jerked with realization (I was one step closer!), to promptly be elbowed and grunted at by a few other mutants. I ignored them. Now where might a portal be located...?
Finally, after more digging and processing, the time came for another session of battle training. A mutant Grarrl had saved me before; even though it was completely unexpected, I’d gotten out of it. He had ordered me to come with him, and lead me through many, many corridors, into a tiny cell. I didn’t remember much about it, because even though I was still extremely stressed from discovering this colony, I somehow drifted off to sleep right away.
I anxiously searched the crowds for Redd, knowing that he would not severely harm me (I wanted him for an opponent), but someone else got to him first. It wasn’t long before Axle discovered me hiding by the platform and beckoned me forth. I hesitated and made an attempt to reach the weapons rack.
“Real warriors don’t use weapons.”
“You are no example of a real warrior, I am,” I stuttered. No, I didn’t really believe that.
“Just bring it on! Your end starts now!”
“Not my end. My life.” I didn’t believe that, either.
Unarmed, like me, he charged. It was a simple matter of reflexes to purposely collapse on him. Then he swung his hoof into my side from beneath my tail. From there on, it was a colossal exchange of blows. Body crush after hoof jab, after tail lashing after horn charge.
‘You seem worthy...’ That eavesdropper again! Axle finally fell from fatigue and muttered something.
“Meet me... by... the bunk... with the number... one thousand... seven hundred... on it... after dinner...” Axle slipped out of consciousness.
Dinner was far more putrid than breakfast. What did we have? Stew. Only stew. It was impossible to distinguish what might be meat from what might be carrots. The broth was unimaginably strange, as if it was just water and required a dash of gravy in the cauldron.
To make the hour worse, we were assigned trash duty. Most Neopets out there would probably think of taking out a bag of bad smell. This was something else entirely, as I heaved the actual trash can over my shoulder after sorting out all the leftovers from the trays. The can seemed to be made of stiff paper rather than metal, as if it were meant to be thrown away with the garbage.
‘Bingo.’ This eavesdropper was getting annoying. I sighed and stepped through the door.
I did not believe what I saw.
Neopets were carrying trash cans over a huge pit of shredders, walking on a thin concrete deck, holding onto rusted handrails with one hand. It seemed to have never been cleaned (let alone maintained at all) since it was created, as some spots were missing handrails or had chunks of concrete missing. There was fire instead of shredders near the end that must have been for cremating scraps of food that couldn’t be eaten (this place was pretty gross, I know). Since I was carrying a can full of the soggiest leftovers, I supposed that I should’ve dump it in the fire and thrown the can in the shredders.
Great, part of the handrails had just fallen into the shredders. Better get this over with. I dashed to the fires, having to jump over a few gaps in the deck along the way, completely ignoring the handrails. I dumped my can right where the flames started and turned right around to face the shredders. I threw the can overboard. A mutant Flotsam stared at me.
“Dude, everybody knows that you’re supposed to shred the scraps and trash the can in the fire.”
“And just who do you think you are?” I glared.
“The overlord of all bad puns.” I slapped my forehead and groaned.
A siren sounded. A team of winged mutants flew down to unclog the shredders, which were so rusty they could only destroy food, not the paper cans. I decided to leave before I got in trouble.
‘What number bunk do you have, Redd?’ I asked him while hiding in my own bunk.
‘Axle told me to meet him at his bunk, and I’m afraid to go alone.’
‘But it doesn’t seem like you lost your fight with him.’
‘I’m still afraid.’
‘Okay, I’ll go with you. But where were you during the first session?’
I explained, even though I didn’t know the whole story.
‘Maybe that could be involved in where Xarone’s lair is...’
‘I kind of doubt it.’
‘Do you remember anything special about the mutant who escorted you?’
‘What do you mean by anything special?’
‘Anything you overheard him say, anything about his uniform, anything.’ Something came back to me.
‘He had a badge that said department of magical draining!’
‘Vivily, do you know what that means? You must have had magic!’
‘I’m sorry to change the subject, but I think I’d better pick you up to meet Axle now...’ I pictured Axle tapping his foot impatiently.
‘I’m at bunk five-hundred thirteen.’
I slithered down the aisle, down the aisle, down the aisle, and I finally reached Redd’s bunk. Thank goodness Axle was in the bathroom or something, because I passed by his quarters. The bunks’ “doors” were hinged, rusty steel grates on the floor. They opened up to beneath the floor, into a chamber of a differing size. The early-numbered ones were smaller, while mine (which was in the thousands) was the largest size, although it was still cramped for me. The bunks were placed with the smallest ones closer to the door, which unfortunately meant that Redd and I had to go quite some way to visit each other.
Inside, it was just a thin mattress covering the whole floor. The walls of the bunks were plain concrete, like most of the colony, except no technology. In front of each bunk a number was neatly etched in.
‘Redd, I’m here.’ Redd lifted up his bunk door from underground. He climbed onto my back and I backtracked to the seven-hundredth bunk. He said it would look suspicious if he just hung around Axle’s bunk, so I had to go get him. I hid him under my wings.
“Axle, I’m here.” There was no backing out now. Axle was just standing outside his bunk.
“Great. Look, you seem rather trustworthy, so I’ll show you something.” He glanced at a few other mutants lingering.
“Scram!” he barked. They fled. “This might be a little cramped for you, but I hope it works. Used to be, the bunks were bigger. Mine is from those old days.” Axle opened his grate. It swung inside and he jumped in after it. I kept Redd under my folded wings and carefully slid inside. I noticed that Axle was holding onto his grate, suspended in midair. After my entrance, he jerked it shut.
“My ladder fell off a long time ago. Now when I want to get out, I need to do a wall jump. It seems impossible and most mutants don’t believe it.” I only heard half of what he said, busy observing how much bigger his bunk was than mine. There was enough room for both of us and then some. “Hey! No dozing in my presence!” he said.
“Sorry.” I snapped back to reality and made sure Redd was securely hidden under my wings. “Why did you take me here, anyway?”
“Listen. It’s almost time for me to move out of the newbie bunks. I’m going to a higher rank in a week. From what you’ve seen of me, you know I’m the unofficial leader of the new mutants.”
“There wasn’t a mutant at the ready to take my place. Right now, Grub is my second in command, but I don’t see any promise in him. But you, Vivily, I see promise in you. There aren’t really ever female leaders, and my appointing you will trash my reputation, but it will be regained in my permanent absence as soon as they realize your ability. It’s all about strength, and you have more of it than anyone before you. So, what do you think? Is it a deal?”
This was the opposite of what I was expecting. You can be a better leader for them! But maybe they’d not appreciate somebody like you. Sure, he did say they would get over the girl thing, but maybe they don’t believe in downing Xarone. Then again, he wouldn’t ask me that unless he had been considering it for a while. He’s the one who knows the mutants, not me.
“I know that mutant Hissies have two heads. From what I know, the second one has a completely different personality from the first. I believe that no matter how much your other head gets in your way, you will always be powerful enough to counteract it. Always, Vivily, always...” He spoke in a hypnotizing tone.
He had the perfect balance of knowledge and strength, perfect enough to obtain pure respect, a respect strong enough to obtain unofficial yet high power among his hundreds of comrades in his sector of mutant grunts.
I couldn’t say no. I couldn’t have a grudge with someone with as high a power as him.
At the same, I couldn’t say yes. I couldn’t leave Redd behind in my wake, no matter what. Thousands of admirers under your army could never be as powerful as a single someone with an eternal friendship with you. I rallied up the strength within me.
Axle glared at me.
“It has been very difficult for me to find a successor. Flat out strength isn’t enough. Sure, there are plenty of ogres out there, caused naturally by mutation. But do you think it would be possible for an ogre to lead an entire legion of mutants through this never-ending slavery? You, my friend, are the one. I leave in one week to a better place. To live better. To be among others as powerful as I. But before I leave this world behind, I need to make sure it is in good hands.
“You are lucky. Instead of you asking if you could rule, I asked you if you would rule. And you say no.”
I was stared down for several long moments.
“Well, I guess I’ll just have to ask Grub.”
My world disappeared just then when something slammed my head. Surprisingly, Redd was never found out.
Or so I thought.
To be continued...