Perry’s stomach growled, informing him on no uncertain terms that a few crusts of bread foraged from a trash bin were not sufficient nutriment for a growing Krawk. Not even three full days out on his own, and the eight year old was already thinking longingly of home. But he couldn’t go back; he had made his decision, and there was no turning back.
He shifted slightly, his rainbow colored scales glittering in the midday sunlight. The Crown City of Meridell was a bustling hive of activity, and for the moment Perry was just one more face in the crowd. That, however, was about to change. The young Krawk was desperate to get some real, toothsome food. Desperate enough to do something very, very rash.
The Krawk waited until the moment was right, until there was the perfect opening...
He shot forward just as the purple Meerca vendor was really getting into a heated debate with one of his customers over the price of a bag of peas. He reached forwards, closing his fist on the first item his hands touched, and bolted back in the direction he had come with an entire loaf of Courgette Bread clutched to his chest. By the time the stall keeper had turned to see what had come up in his peripheral vision, Perry had once more vanished into the crowd.
Panting, flushed with success, the young Krawk ducked into a nearby alleyway and proceeded to cram the bread into his mouth as quickly as he could. It was plain and starting to get a bit stale, but as hungry as Perry was he couldn’t care less. It was real, wholesome food, it was filling, and that was enough.
So I can’t go home, he thought. That’s fine. I can manage just fine on my own!
* * * * *
Perry gasped, his armload of turnips tumbling to the ground as he tripped over a rut in the road. His instinct was to try and gather them up again, but the metallic jingling of the constables ornamented uniforms killed that notion before it was fully formed. The turnips were a lost cause; it was time to cut his losses and bail.
Two weeks had passed since that first successful theft. The Krawk was getting the hang of raiding the food stand, but the vendor had seen his face a few times now, and he was alerted to the suspicious nature of the young rainbow Krawk lingering in the vicinity of his stall. Very seldom was Perry able to pull off a clean getaway like that first one.
His gut cramped painfully, objecting to leaving the vegetables on the pavement, but Perry ignored it. He didn’t want to be thrown in jail. His lungs searing and his heart hammering, the Krawk ran as desperately as if an entire pack of Werelupes was hunting him. He ducked into allies whenever possible to confuse the trail, but the ever present jingling at his back egged him on, warning him that the constables were still in hot pursuit.
Just when he felt that he was going to collapse with exhausting, something happened that he had never expected.
“Oy!” a voice called from somewhere to the right. “Shinies! Yeah, you w’ the clubs!”
Perry chanced a glance around, and spotted the cat-caller. It was a magma Kougra, his curly blonde locks poking out of a blue bandanna wrapped around his head. He was dressed in tattered grey and blue garments, and he wore a cerulean sash around his right arm. He was clearly young; he didn’t look much older than about ten or so, but he was heckling the guards as if he though he could take them all at once.
Now, frustrated individuals shouted at the constables all the time. In general, they learned to take such insults with a grain of salt and ignore them. However, something about this boy had clearly excited the guards, because they seemed to forget about Perry entirely. Instead, after a moment of agitated milling about, the three officers took off in the direction of the Kougra; away from Perry. The heckler turned towards the young Krawk, meeting his eyes for a split second before vanishing into the crowd, the guards hot on his heels.
He must be insane, ticking off the guards like that! the Krawk thought fleetingly, before taking advantage of the guards distraction and bolting. I wonder... why did he help me?
* * * * *
The following morning, Perry was gnawing half-heartedly on a slice of stale bread he had fished out of a trash can as he watched the sun cresting the horizon. He was more exhausted than he could ever remember being in his young life; after his near-miss with the guards, hunger had kept him up all night, digging in dumpsters for anything remotely edible to fill his stomach.
The Krawk finished the bread, and decided that this ally was as good a place to rest as any. He would need to find a more secure place to sleep, but it would do for a few moments of rest.
I’ll just catch my breath, he thought. His vision blurred, and he blinked to clear it-
But once his eyes were closed, his exhausted body refused to open them again. Sleep swamped the Krawk’s mind, and he fell into the darkness without a ripple.
When his eyes opened again, it was to the sight of a pair of white feet scant inches from his face. He felt a jolt of terror, and looked up into the face of a hard-eyed white Aisha.
“So you’re the one who’s been lifting from the food stalls,” the Aisha said, his voice full of menace.
“Wh-who’re you?” Perry demanded. “What do you want with me?”
The Aisha raised an eyebrow. “I’m Noah. And I’m here to teach you a lesson, runt. We all are.”
Sitting bolt upright, the young Krawk looked around wildly. The Aisha wasn’t alone. His company consisted of a pirate Xweetok, a Christmas Ogrin, two island Gelerts, and a sixth figure hidden in the shadows at the far end of the ally. They had fanned out in a semi-circle around the sleeping Krawk, effectively cutting off every avenue of escape.
“Allow me to introduce my friends,” Noah said with poisonous cheer. “The Xwee is Linus, the twins are called Aiden and Avery, my Ogrin buddy is Dylan, and our friend in the back is Nylain. We are representatives of the Werhond Furies. And you are trespassing on our turf.”
The Krawk felt a lump form in his throat as he realized that all of the youths were wearing the same colors; grey and blue. They also all sported identical blue sashes on their right biceps. A street gang! he thought with panic. I’ve been stealing in the territory of a street gang!
The Aisha seemed to be the spokesperson, because the others weren’t addressing Perry; just glaring. Not that their hard looks were any less intimidating than Noah’s words! There was something in their eyes that had the Krawk thoroughly cowed; something hard. He knew they wouldn’t hesitate to hurt him if he crossed them.
“Please...” Perry whispered, his throat gone dry with fear. “Please leave me alone! I’m not a threat to you!”
Noah grabbed the Krawk by his collar, snarling. “You threaten us when you poach our prey, brat. Which you’ve been doing for weeks. Now unless you want to get me really angry, I suggest-”
“Tha’s enough, Noah,” a voice interrupted. “’E’s abou’ t’ wet ‘imself if ya so much as blink at ‘im wrong. ‘E’s just a kid; all this ain’t needful.”
Perry looked around, trying to identify which of the surrounding Neopets had spoken. The voice was heavy with an accent that the Krawk couldn’t identify, and something about the quality of the speaker’s voice was vaguely familiar.
All of the youths had turned towards the figure hidden in the shadows; he must have been the one to speak up. The mystery Neopet came forward, and Perry’s jaw dropped when he saw who it was.
“You!” he yelped. “You helped me yesterday!”
For the pet Noah had identified as Nylain was indeed the selfsame magma Kougra who had distracted the guards the day before. The Ogrin raised an eyebrow. “You’re too soft with the strays, Nyl. Cecil gave us our orders.”
“’E did,” Nylain agreed. “Our orders were t’ deal wit’ the intruder. Ceece never said we ‘ad t’ hurt ‘im.”
Linus sighed explosively, “Than what do you propose we do?”
“Leave ‘im wit’ me,” the Kougra replied. “I’ll deal wit’ ‘im meself.”
One of the two Gelerts (Perry wasn’t sure if it was Aiden or Avery) crossed his arms. “Didn’t Ceece tell all of us to handle this?”
“I’ll take the rap,” Nylain said firmly. “Don’ worry, I’ll make sure ‘e’s outta our hair.”
Noah glowered at the Kougra silently for several long moments, then looked away. “You’d better,” he snarled. Jerking his chin at the other youths, the Aisha lead the way out of the ally. Dylan was the last to follow, exchanging a silent look with Nylain before following his friends.
Perry looked up at the Kougra, and stammered, “Th-thank you! You save-”
“Don’ thank me kid,” Nylain said. “I dina do you any favors. If I was smart I’da let the guards catch ya. Y’d be on yer way back to yer mam by now if I ‘ad.”
The Krawk blinked, “They... they’d take me home? Then you did help me! I can’t go home!”
“Oh?” the Kougra said. “An’ why’s tha’?”
“My... my dad wants me... he has this shop, and I’m supposed to take over... but I don’t want to... look, I just can’t!” he exploded. “I’m better off out here, like you!”
“Kid,” Nylain said patiently, “D’ya know why us in the Werhond Furies are on the streets?”
Perry blinked. “I... I guess you ran away from home. Like me.”
“Wrong,” the Kougra said bluntly. “We ain’t got no family t’ go home to. Noah? ‘E lost ‘is folks in the second Darigan war. Dylan? His pap was bit by a Werelupe an’ ran off int’ the woods. The twins? Their folks was took by pirates. Linus? His mam sent him outa his hometown t’ save ‘im from a plague. We ain’t on the streets ‘cause we think it’s fun, kid; we’re out here ‘cause we got no other choice.”
Perry felt his mouth opening and closing much like that of a landed fish. “Well... well, what about you?” he challenged. The Kougra raised an eyebrow.
“I’m from the Darigan Citadel,” he replied. With a jolt, Perry finally realized that the Kougra’s accent was Darigani. “They was gonna conscrip’ me t’ fight in the war, e’en though I was only a lil’un. Me mam told me to run off to Meridell so I would’na have t’ fight. Ne’er saw ‘er again.”
“Oh...” the Krawk was at a loss for words. “I... I’m sorry...”
“This ain’t an adventure, kid,” Nylain said firmly. “It’s a hard life, an’ mos’ of us won’t las’ very long. You gotta home an’ a family tha’ loves you. Ge’ back to ‘em.”
Perry was silent for a long moment, thinking through what the Kougra had said. Finally he nodded. “Ok. Ok, I’ll go home.”
Nylain smiled, offering the Krawk a hand. Perry accepted it, letting the Koura pull him up. He walked out of the ally, turning in the direction of the district where his parents were waiting for his return. For a moment, he turned back to thank Nylain...
The Kougra was gone.
I hope he gets off the street someday, Perry thought. He’s too good a guy to be stuck in a life like this.
Then the Krawk headed for home without another backward glance.