That was it, he could tell. Jaleer had been chatting with this Pink Nimmo for the past week. He came up to sit beside her in the park, approached her in libraries, and eventually found himself invited to her home.
Right now he was sitting in her drawing room, shifting on a rather uncomfortable straight-backed chair that allowed him to sit stiflingly close to the Nimmo. Of course, he wasn't stifling her at all. He was leaning toward her, smiling in a slightly crooked but thoughtful manner as he hung on every word she spoke. When the time was right, he reached out and touched her.
That touch is what tipped him off. She had been rambling on, completely absorbed in her discussion about the music of the spheres, finding the perfect unit, or whatever-it-was that he'd been asking her about. He had reached out to touch her hand, murmuring something about how her thoughts made everything in the world make sense.
In response, she had drawn her hand back and covered the Gothic Nimmo Bracelet she wore with her right hand. Unduly startled by his advance, her speech stopped in mid-sentence, and the Nimmo resorted to stammering something vaguely apologetic. The Bori smiled, truly smiled, in response. “No, no,” he said, “I didn't mean to make you uncomfortable. You were talking about units for musical scales...?”
The Nimmo – her name was Estacia, though Jaleer rarely thought of her by name – calmed down quickly, a smile spreading across her wide face. “Oh yes,” she said, “What I mean is that if we find that unit, constructing musical instruments will be much easier, as will playing them! I've really no idea why it hasn't been done. If other pets would just consider...” She kept talking for some time, with Jaleer occasionally chiming in with thoughts, observations, and praise.
What truly interested Jaleer, however, was that thenceforth her right hand never moved from her left wrist.
During his entire walk home, Jaleer struggled to keep himself from giggling maniacally. Despite his best efforts, a broad smile still dominated his Blue features as he tapped and swung his cane in cheerful, irregular rhythms.
“Can't believe I missed it,” he muttered to himself, shaking his head and smiling all the while. “She never takes it off! A fashion aficionado like her, never taking something off!” He actually guffawed a bit.
It was so clear. That bracelet was The Object of his search, it was the object she cared about most in the world. At the very least, it was something she cared about a great deal. He couldn't imagine anyone taking that protective stance without a significant level of attachment to the object in question. And he certainly couldn't imagine someone as fashion-conscious as Estacia actually thinking it matched everything.
No, she cared about that little trinket. And that meant Jaleer had to have it. After a full week of chatting and watching that absent-minded Nimmo for signs of attachment to an object, he found that the object of his quest had been right in front of him from the start. Now the challenge would be finding a way to relieve her of her perpetual accessory.
All night and into the next morning, Jaleer brainstormed. Most of his acts of thievery were simple swipes from tabletops. This time he had to figure out how to detach a perpetually-worn jewel and take it home with him. Either that, or find out when she took it off. Or, he thought with a smile on his lips, compel her to take it off...
The next morning, Jaleer showed up at Estacia's door piled high with beach towels, giant umbrellas, and one very large volleyball. His bag was bursting with far too many unwieldy objects, but his ecstatic grin could not be denied.
When Estacia opened the door, he tilted his head and wriggled his eyebrows before saying a single word. “You know what I think would be fun?” he asked.
Estacia smiled slowly. “It looks like you're thinking about something involving giant umbrellas, but I could be wrong...”
“No, my sweet Nimmo.” He smiled. “You're never wrong. I booked us passage on an airship for Mystery Island. It leaves in,” here he fiddled with his pocket watch, “seventeen minutes.” Here he dropped his watch back into his pocket and extended a hand. “I think we should be going.”
“But I'd need to get my swimwear, and my sunglasses, and...” Estacia hesitated.
“No time,” Jaleer said, shaking his head, “We'll find plenty of things on sale there. I'll buy. Let's go.” Then he smiled in a tight-lipped and angular manner that Estacia, in particular, had never been able to refuse.
“Well, all right,” she finally acceded. “But if this isn't any fun, I'm blaming you.”
“Certainly, milady,” Jaleer replied, tilting his hat as he drew her from the doorway. “Now let's go catch that ship.”
They ran down the Neovian road, Estacia holding her dress above her ankles and Jaleer clutching her right arm. Though several stumbles and a few minor ankle twists hindered their progress, the wooden dock that housed the Neovian airship soon came within sight.
“We're going to make it!” Jaleer cried as the ship came into view. “I was worried,” he added, looking sideways at his companion.
She smiled a bit, wheezing and doubling over in an attempt to recover her breath. They walked the last few steps up to the ship, Jaleer handling the fine details and helping her onto the deck. “Now we just sit back and watch the view,” he said, slipping his backpack to the floor by his feet.
He took a deep breath, and began to relax. The two neopets chatted quite a bit during the ride. They admired the lands below their feet drawing farther away, and ultimately fading into tiny, toy-like specks on the ground beneath. They played in the wisps of cloud that floated across their faces, giggling like schoolchildren in the first snow of winter. When the ground drew nearer once more, they pointed to the strange new land beneath them, trying to pick out stone structures beneath the jungle treetops and tourists on the beaches. In short, their trip was already delightful, and it hadn’t yet begun.
But Jaleer had more than that to cheer him. After all, the true source of his joy was his imminent, and in his eyes inevitably successful, theft. And that was growing closer every moment.
When they reached the shores of Mystery Island, Estacia was grinning more broadly than ever. Jaleer propelled her through the bustling, palm-lined streets as she gazed about her in wonder.
“I’ve never been to Mystery Island before,” she said. “It just seemed so commercial and uninteresting.”
“Commercial, certainly,” Jaleer agreed. “But just look at the view!”
“Yes, exactly what I was thinking. This place would be absolutely beautiful without all the people.”
“That, my dear, is exactly why we’re here. I know a rather secluded locale that I thought we might explore together. But first,” he said, guiding her into a storefront, “we need to get you some swimming clothes.”
Estacia spent a great deal of her time looking out the storefront as they shopped, disapproving and finally approving of several suits and accessories that Jaleer selected for her. The swimwear in this place was nothing remarkable, but the island itself was something quite different. Back home, Estacia had never felt much need to go outside. There, desaturated colours and dapper faces dominated the landscape. Here, the smiling, exhausted faces and bright golden light of the sun reminded her of the colour and joy she ordinarily only found in mathematics or books. She wanted to explore this fascinating change.
When Jaleer returned, he found Estacia with her hands pressed to the window glass and her face not far behind. “You find this place so fascinating?” he asked while lightly brushing a finger against a bead of her bracelet.
“Yes,” she said, surprisingly unmoved by his touch, “it’s like...” Estacia struggled. “It’s like playing a scale in a different mode.”
“Beautiful and strange.”
“Yes,” she replied. “And fascinating, as well.” She shook her head and pulled away from the window. “I’m ready to go,” she said with a smile at Jaleer.
“Of course, milady.” He bowed dramatically, nearly dropping the bag he had just brought from the counter. Estacia giggled, and helped him retrieve his burden.
“We’d better get out of here. We wouldn’t want to break something.”
“No, never.” With that they made their way outside, and Jaleer began leading the way to his secret place.
The trees grew thicker and wetter the farther they walked. Now Jaleer was periodically lifting the tendrils of vine and sagging leaves from their path as he escorted Estacia to their destination. The ground was covered with strange flowers and stranger mosses, and the light from the golden sun had been reduced to slivers of light shining ethereally through the forest canopy above.
“I don’t think I can walk much longer,” Estacia gasped. Two steps later, she caught the heel of her boot on an errant rock, and would have tumbled over if it hadn’t been for Jaleer’s hand on her arm.
“I can see that,” Jaleer smiled, “but you shan’t have to. The clearing is only a few paces away.”
True to his word, after a moment or two of shuffling, clumsy movements, they were both greeted by a spectacular sight.
The clearing was dominated by a sparkling blue pool of water. Its left edge hosted a rock formation sporting rivulets of spring water trailing down from its peak. At its base, a deep black hole gaped to reveal a flooded cave entrance. The shores of the pond were surrounded by flowers, mushrooms, and various bits of jungle detritus. On the bank nearest our two travellers was a recently-patched palm frond hut, two cast iron chairs, and a small table.
“I’ve been coming here for a while,” Jaleer said in a satisfied tone. “Almost no one ever wanders this far into the jungle. It’s one of the more peaceful places I’ve ever been.”
“I can see that,” Estacia replied. “Would you mind if I...?” She gestured toward the chairs.
“Oh, of course I wouldn’t mind! Please, have a seat!”
Estacia settled into a chair with only a slight clumsiness brought of exhaustion. When she caught her breath, she nodded toward the lagoon before them. “I take it that’s what the swimwear is for?”
Jaleer nodded. “I also bought us both wetsuits to help us explore the cave. I’d rather do that first, as it’ll be easier to find our way out with sunlight at the cave mouth, but the choice is yours.”
“That sounds splendid. Just let me rest for a bit. I presume I can change in the hut?”
“That’s the idea,” Jaleer confirmed. “I’ll stand outside and make certain you’re not accosted by any wily, wandering petpets while you’re inside.”
“I should hope you’d do that while we’re out here, as well!” She laughed a bit, as did Jaleer. “I’ve just about caught my breath,” she said after some time had passed. “You can get out the wetsuits now, and I’ll change momentarily.”
“Of course,” Jaleer replied, scrambling to his feet and pulling out the bags. After a bit of item-juggling, he had located their wetsuits and accessories. After dividing them into piles on the table, he presented Estacia with her change-of-clothes. “That should be all you need immediately. We can strap on your helmet and air supply once you finish changing.”
The Nimmo smiled and nodded her head in response. “I guess this is it then,” she said as she stood. “I’ll be back in a bit.”
Her changing went smoothly, if we except one little niggle that appeared toward the end. “Jaleer...” rang a hesitant voice from behind the curtain blocking the hut’s entrance. “What of my bracelet? I don’t want to take it off, but I’m afraid that I’ll damage it or the suit if I leave it on.”
“I should think it would be best if you left it here,” he replied. “I told you this clearing is a quiet one. Nothing’s likely to happen to it.” He gritted his teeth and crossed his fingers – taking her bracelet would be much easier if she would just put it down somewhere.
The hut was silent for a moment or two.
“No,” she finally said. “I couldn’t leave it anywhere. Do you think I could wind it around the outside of the wetsuit? Because otherwise, I d—“
“That would be fine,” Jaleer quickly interjected. “Just be certain to wrap it fairly loosely. I don’t know what would happen if you tore the fabric...” Jaleer sighed. He would have to go about this business the hard way, after all.
“Okay,” she replied in evident relief. “I’m almost ready.”
In mere moments, Estacia exited the hut, her bracelet wrapped around her wrist in a loose loop and her other clothing resting in a neat pile on one of the two hammocks inside the hut. Jaleer smiled as she left, told her she looked lovely, and swiftly took her place. When he finished changing, he emerged and helped them both finish equipping for their flooded cave-diving escapade.
The exploration of the cave itself was full of strange fish and rock formations, beams of light and dark recesses that the two neopets felt very little desire to explore deeply. After some time exchanging smiles and enjoying the alien world inside the cave, they decided to return to the above-ground world. Estacia led the way back, smiling at her own memory. Everything appeared to be progressing as normal until she heard a rush of water behind her, and felt her left side scrape abruptly against a stalactite around which she had been navigating.
She pulled back and looked at Jaleer in alarm. His face held fear as he pointed frantically toward the exit, and he pushed forward to rush her out of the cave. When they surfaced, his speech was frantic.
“I think I saw something in there! I’m so glad you were in front of me. I’m sorry if I rushed or harmed you, but I think whatever that was might’ve been large enough to eat us!”
“Yes, well. We had better get out of this lagoon then.” Estacia felt quite disoriented, and a bit too shocked to really be afraid. Jaleer, however, seemed more than startled enough for the both of them. They shuffled out of the water as quickly as they could, and sat with their feet next to the bank.
“I... I think we’re safe now,” Jaleer sighed, his breathing slowing at the removal of the threat. “I’m terribly sorry about that. That room of the cave always seemed safe before.”
“It’s alright,” Estacia said, rubbing the arms of her wetsuit in a futile attempt to warm her chilled flesh. “Nothing bad hap—“ and then she noticed. Her hand slipped low on her left arm to find nothing but a smooth expanse of rubber leading to her identically rubber-coated arm. “I lost it,” she said, her voice dead and cold. “I lost it in that cave.” Tears filled her eyes, and Estacia began to shake with anger and frustration. “I kept checking my arm, I couldn’t have lost it until... until you pushed me into the cavern wall.” She looked at Jaleer, her eyes cold and analytical. “You made me lose it.”
Jaleer backed away, frightened by the sudden intensity of her expression. She had always been absent-minded and sweet. Now she looked as though she could light him on fire with her very gaze.
“You should go back and get it for me. It’s your fault, after all. Not mine.” She proceeded toward him, her hand outstretched and her gaze fierce.
“I... I...” Jaleer was stumbling and muttering now, his hands fumbling at a rubber pouch around his waist.
“Wait a moment,” she said. “I do believe I see one of my beads.” Jaleer leapt further back at these words, adrenaline morphing his face into a deeper mask of fear. “You conniving, disgusting little thief,” she shrieked in a high-pitched tone. “You think you can steal from me!”
Estacia was laughing now. It was a shrill, delighted laugh that made Jaleer turn about and start to run into the jungle. Terrifyingly, this only intensified the Nimmo’s laughter.
“You think you can run from me?” she yelled. “You can’t run away! I’ll always be able to reach you!”
But Estacia’s voice was dimming now, and Jaleer had already reached the ring of trees around the clearing. He pushed his way blindly through the leaves and tangled underbrush of the jungle, racing deeper and deeper into unknown terrain. Finally, when his lungs burned with fire and every muscle in his body screamed with bone-tearing pain, he stopped to look about. Estacia did not seem to be following him, so he sat down on a fallen tree to catch his breath. Mere minutes passed before the true nature of her pursuit became evident.
His body began to ache from more than over-exertion now. He actually seemed to be changing shape. His back was bending and growing spines, his legs were twisting, and his skin was growing harder and darker. His hands grew claws and lost their fine, fingered coordination. His teeth grew fangs and lost its ability for articulate speech. He slurred as he screamed, unaccustomed to the new shape of his lips. He bent from his upright position, digging his newly-grown, twisted claws into the jungle dirt. Jaleer had become a monstrous, Darigan-coloured nightmare that could no longer claim to charm the charms from his former friends.
But Estacia’s curse was only beginning. He soon found himself filled with a deep and abiding terror whose origin he could not place. He looked about his form for the source. It didn’t arise from the trees, nor the growing darkness. He looked at his own body, at the tangled scraps of his wetsuit and the stretched pouch around his waist, and felt his fear intensify. Suddenly, and for the first time in Jaleer’s life, he wanted to flee from the objects that surrounded him.
Scraping his claws at his belly and back, rolling around to get off the last scraps, Jaleer removed all the physical detritus from his body. When all of the petty objects of his formerly civilized self were removed, Jaleer breathed a sigh of relief. He was free, and the fear had left him. Slowly, he walked away from the fallen tree and the remnants of his former self. More slowly still, he thought about what he had become, and what was left for him.
Things would have to change, that was certain. His former occupations were lost to him, all of them at once. What more could be left of life? What would he find to occupy him, now that theft and the objects he loved were stolen from him forever?
Some hours later, long after Jaleer had left the clearing, Estacia bent over the log by the light of the moon, took hold of the fallen beads that composed her bracelet, and brushed the dirt and wet leaves from their formerly-gleaming surface. Humming, she wrapped the bracelet around her wrist.
As she walked through the forest with a leisurely gait, she was smiling to herself. This had been a pleasant outing indeed.