Neopia, Year 200 Book II: Earthly Winds - Part Six
Chapter Six: Appearances
If the sky over Neopia Central had begun raining Kadoaties, Sunny Piers wouldn’t have batted an eyelid.
Neither would anyone, actually, who took the time to step inside the Smoothie Shop and become immersed in its immaculate white tiling, mirrored ceilings and spotless floor. Sunny was the last member of the Piers family, who were all red Tuskaninnies and had owned the shop, tucked away in a quiet corner of the Bazaar, for more generations than one could remember. There was another branch of the family living in Altador, but all contact with them had been closed off as a result of a dispute between the Region Council members representing Altador and Maraqua— it seemed the latter had spilt something on the former’s clothes.
When the Smoothie Shop had first opened, it had been decked out in simple shades of white, as Tyrone Piers, the shop’s proprietor in its early days, had been unsure if it would be a success at the time and was prepared to move shop at a moment’s notice. As the enterprise’s popularity grew, its owners had experimented constantly with the layout, transforming it into a pastel-hued Faerieland cloud, a soothing Mystery Island-themed oasis, and a Maraquan cove installed by Sunny’s father that had been particularly memorable (unfortunately, for all the wrong reasons).
After the Maraquan disaster, Sunny had wanted nothing more than to take over. When her father gave her control of the Smoothie Shop, the first thing she did was change the décor to a simple, functional white. The shop, with its glinting walls and ceiling, would have been particularly disarming for any customers seeking retreat from the chilly wind on that dark evening, but it had been empty since that morning, when the Blue Uni from the Grooming Parlor across the road had come in to complain about how terrible sales were.
That was about to change.
The first thing Sergeant Brexis saw as he burst through the doors of the Smoothie Shop was, well, nothing, actually. As he slowly adjusted to the unexpected flare of light in his eyes, he could make out a bright red Tuskaninny with its back turned to him, wearing a white apron and polishing the wall.
The bulky green Buzz tapped three times on the counter, watching his reflection in the mirrored glass. He’d had barely anything to eat that day, which his weary expression and slouched posture further indicated.
Sunny turned and greeted her new customer with an enthusiastic smile.
“Welcome to the Smoothie Shop!” she chirped. “What can I get you today?”
“I’ll take a Wheatgrass Juice Smoothie, please,” he said after glancing at the menu above. There was an awkward pause.
“I’m sorry, sir,” Sunny said, “but I can’t accept your order.”
“It’s not ‘what’, it’s ‘pardon’. You didn’t specify your size.”
“I’ll take a small smoothie.”
“We don’t have Small. We have Baby.”
“But I’m an adult!”
“It would appear that way, sir. Now, would you like a Baby Strawgrass Juice Smoothie?”
“No. What’s your large size?”
“I’ll take three Megas, then. To go.”
“Are you sure about that, sir? It’ll take time.”
Brexis sucked in his breath; what he was about to say was not what he wanted to say by any means.
“Miss, I am a Defender of Neopia, and you should treat me with the utmost—”
Sunny snickered. “Nice try. Everyone knows the Defenders disbanded years ago. I’ll give you points for originality, though.”
“Can I just get my order, then?”
Sunny sighed. “I’ll be right back.”
Years of expertise followed Sunny’s promise through the swinging door that led into the kitchen and back out again. She emerged clutching a tray with three smoothies upon its surface.
“There you go,” she said cheerfully, “three Mega Wheatgrass Juice Smoothies, with extra lemon.”
“What? I didn’t order—I mean, pardon— wait!” She had already disappeared through the swinging door.
“Enjoy your evening, sir,” her distant voice said. “Nice costume, by the way.”
Brexis grabbed the smoothies and stormed outside. It had been a risky move to declare himself as a Defender, but the situation had demanded it— or, upon reflection, Brexis had only thought it had. Already, words of Judge Hog were surfacing in his mind: Never use your position for your own personal gain. Brexis would have immediately confessed his misdeeds to his superior, if he was still available to talk to. But, unfortunately, Judge Hog had gone missing almost exactly one year ago, and no-one knew where he was.
He narrowly missed colliding with a group of pets making their way down the street. One of its lingering members glanced at the Buzz with curiosity.
“Maybe I shouldn’t have bothered with the smoothies after all...”
“Who was that guy?” Layla asked, staring at the stranger they had just passed. “And why was he mumbling about smoothies?”
“Never mind,” Yorick said. “Let’s just get to the house. Who knows how much time that ferry took?”
The other pets followed.
On his way through the Plaza, Brexis stopped at the Defenders of Neopia building, whose façade revealed years of neglect in the unforgiving moonlight. He sighed, shook his head, and continued on.
Brexis next paused before the Kadoatery. The front doors of the building, which had not been locked for years, were easily slipped through as he strode through the long and empty halls As he reached the end of a row of cages and was presented with a blank steel wall, he unlatched one of the nearby cages and was rewarded with the purr of a Robot Kadoatie, its ruby eyes glistening in the dark of its cage.
“The entry code, please,” it said. Brexis smiled.
“Draik Egg.” With those words, the Kadoatie crawled into a door in the back wall and vanished momentarily. Part of the wall that had seemed to be the end of the row slid open, leading to another area beyond. Brexis walked through the revealed door and into the control room of the Defenders’ new home.
It had been a wise decision to move the location of Defenders HQ to such an inauspicious location as the Kadoatery, due in part to the fact that, after the shopkeepers’ strike, the Kadoatery had became progressively emptier as more and more pets discovered they could not continue feeding the Petpets that had once so demanded their attention. What better place to have a secret base than in a building where you stood little chance of getting in without a Draik Egg? Mind you, the “secret base” was little more than a table filled with scavenged objects from other regions and the latest edition of the Times, a kitchen, sickbay, and sleeping quarters, but it was enough for the three Defenders that called it home.
Brexis stood above his two compatriots, both staring intently at that day’s paper, and called, “Who wants smoothies?” Both turned around in an instant; the first, a vivid green Lupe wearing a crimson mask and cape, grinned and grabbed one of the smoothies from the tray, staring at its contents as he did so.
“Wheatgrass? Yuck,” he said, making a face. Brexis had to chuckle. Orig the Great, despite the many heroic acts he’d performed, still preferred Chocolate Chias to any other food.
“Hey!” the Buzz said, grinning. “If you knew what I had to go through to get these, you’d be more grateful.” He turned to the other Defender. “Smoothie, Kauthena?”
A yellow Kau looked up and brushed strands of amber hair out of her face. “No thanks, Brexis,” she said. “I’m not hungry.”
Orig rolled his eyes. “You were out doing recon for two hours. How can you not be hungry?” He stared at one of the smoothies for a few moments, shrugged, picked it up, and slurped at its straw.
“See? Orig and I both like it.” Brexis glanced at Kauthena. “Why don’t you try?”
“We both know that Orig will eat anything, even Kreludite,” she snapped.
Orig looked up. “Hey!”
“Besides, I refuse to touch anything from that place, not after I was on snack duty two weeks ago and she refused to give me anything because I didn’t properly use compound-complex sentences. It’s no wonder she doesn’t have any customers left— they all ran off crying.”
“Kauthena!” Orig looked up from his smoothie. “Don’t say that about her! She’s just trying to make a living, like everyone else!”
“Not to mention,” he added, “she makes a pretty good smoothie. Even with the extra lemon.”
Brexis smiled. “You noticed. So, what’s the latest news?”
Kauthena turned to the paper in front of her. “I’ve been trying to find things about other areas of Neopia in here, but communication between regions is still pretty much blocked. There’s something about an inn in the Haunted Woods, but that’s about it.”
“Same here,” Orig said. “Neopia Central’s been pretty quiet these days. Either nothing’s going on, or the CCN haven’t been doing their job.”
“I think they’ve had their hands full with what’s been going on,” Brexis said. “Speaking of which...?”
“Nothing,” Orig and Kauthena reported simultaneously. Orig looked back at the paper again to confirm, then paused.
“Although, you know, the anniversary of Judge Hog’s disappearance is coming up. He might be planning something big.”
“You mean, against us?” Kauthena asked. Brexis shook his head.
“I don’t think so. He doesn’t even know where we are. If he’s going to be doing anything, it’ll be directed at the CCN, although he’s outsmarted them Fyora knows how many times by now.”
“You never know,” Orig said ominously. “You never know...”
The minute the front door of the house on Magical Road opened, the group almost fell through it with relief. Layla scrambled upstairs with her pack, the long nights in the Woods already taking their toll on her, while Brianne stood awkwardly in the living room.
“Umm...” she said. “Where do I sleep?”
“We’ll fix you a bed upstairs,” Kayna said, taking the Fire Faerie and both their packs with her as she went upstairs. Yorick smiled, recalling how, not so long ago, his sister had stood in almost the exact spot he did now, decrying the very species she now welcomed with opened arms.
So much has changed, he marveled, and yet we’re still the same on the outside.
His thoughts were interrupted by Cillo, who had picked up the most recent edition of the Neopian Times and was reading its front story in a casually loud voice.
“The Times continues to update you on the investigation into the Cloak’s latest theft. As you are aware, yesterday evening, at approximately seven o’clock, witnesses reported a cloaked figure entering the Antique Jewelry section of the Art Gallery in the Catacombs. The figure was not seen again, but in the morning, it was revealed that a multi-million-Neopoint necklace that once belonged to the Royal Family of Terror Mountain had vanished. The necklace consists of an ornate silver chain and a large blue stone.
“Inroads have been made, however. CCN Leader Erik Longhair has given word that a new witness has stepped forward to share her side of the story. Erik appeared in front of CCN headquarters earlier today with a--”
There was a knock on the front door.
Yorick froze. Cillo audibly gulped.
“I guess I shouldn’t have been reading so loudly, then,” he breathed. His brother glanced at the stairs, then quietly rummaged through his pack and withdrew a Codestone.
“What are you planning to do with that?” Cillo hissed.
Yorick turned, put a finger to his lips, and turned towards the door. “Who is it?”
The visitor’s voice was quiet and hesitant. “Yorick? Is that you?”
The yellow Draik blinked and opened the door. Standing on the front step was an elderly, but dignified, blue Bruce.
“Juliana!” he said. “What— what a pleasure to see you!”
“Likewise,” the Bruce said. Her eyes caught a glimpse of the Codestone in Yorick’s claw. “What’s that?”
“Oh, nothing,” the Draik said quickly. “I was just, um, organizing. Would you like to come in?”
“Certainly,” Juliana said, and Yorick stepped back to allow her in.
“I hope you don’t mind the mess,” Yorick said. “I didn’t know you were coming.”
“Well,” Juliana said, “I heard someone’s voice coming from next door, and as no-one’s occupied your house for weeks I thought, ‘Well, either it’s a burglar or they’ve finally come home.’”
“And you knocked,” Yorick said, a little bemused.
Juliana glared stiffly at him. “You can’t expect me to abandon all formalities just because your house might be occupied by a common thief. Where were you four, by the way?”
“We took a little trip,” Yorick said. “We needed to, um, get out of the house for a while.”
“Sounds like an awfully long trip,” Juliana said. “Where did you go?”
There was a pause.
“Roo Island,” Yorick said, unblinking. “We went to Roo Island.”
“Hmph,” Juliana said, sniffling. “Never could stand the place. All those Blumaroos are so cheerful. Makes me sick. Are you coming to the meeting?”
“The meeting?” Yorick repeated.
“Yes,” Juliana said. “The CCN meeting.”
Cillo sat straight up. “Remind us, again, what CCN stands for?”
“Concerned Citizens of Neopia, of course,” Juliana said. “Don’t they have the Times on Roo Island, too?”
“So,” Cillo said slowly, “there are pets from other regions there, then?”
“Of course not,” Juliana said, frowning. “Why would there be?”
“I just thought,” Cillo said, “considering—”
The sound of footsteps came from upstairs, and soon Kayna appeared at the foot of the staircase. “I thought I heard a knock, is everything—?”
She noticed Juliana. “Oh! Juliana, what a surprise! I didn’t know you were—”
“Able to know what day it is?” Juliana said coldly. “I’ve only been watching your house for the past two weeks.”
Kayna’s cheeks turned red. “I didn’t mean— I—”
“You’re welcome,” Juliana said, turning to Yorick. “I was coming over to see if you’d all like to accompany me to the meeting. The CCN does do a very good job watching the streets, but I’d feel much safer if I walked there with a group.”
“We’d love to come, Juliana,” Yorick said. “Layla won’t, unfortunately, because it’s past her bedtime, but the rest of us can come.”
“Actually,” Kayna said, “I’ll stay with Layla. She could use some company. And I think she’d sleep easier with someone in the house.”
“I could do that,” Brianne offered. Kayna shook her head.
“No, you go to the meeting. I’m sure it’ll be fun.”
“Oh, Erik does a great meeting,” Juliana said. “You wouldn’t believe how involved everyone gets. The Food Shop does the catering and everything.”
“I thought the Food Shop only carried Trifle Mix,” Yorick said, frowning.
“Used to,” Juliana said. “But ever since the CCN showed up, they’ve got all sorts of things in there. It’s a really great selection. I can’t wait for you to see it!”
“You four go,” Kayna said. “I’ll unpack and put Layla to bed. It’s been a long trip back from, um, Roo Island.”
“Yeah,” Cillo said. “We, um, bought a lot of souvenirs that we need unpacking. You go and do that, sis, and, um, we’ll see you later, alright?”
Yorick, Cillo, Juliana and Brianne left the house and began to make their way down Magical Road to the CCN meeting.
Moonlight streamed through Kayna’s bedroom window as she sat on the edge of her bed and glanced around at the lavender walls of the room she hadn’t seen in weeks, weeks that nevertheless felt like they had passed by in minutes.
Placed carefully beside her were a trio of dolls that held within them Scylla, Rheani, and Persepa, the first three members of the Valkaeum. A fourth doll would soon join them: Empesta, the Air Faerie known as the Tempest. That, of course, was if that they actually found Empesta and managed to capture her. Would it be like the other three?
The Zafara looked at each doll in turn, her mind playing out the memories that had led to the possession of each:
A Codestone, propelled through the air by a slingshot, destroying Scylla’s whirlpool creator... then, later, the words “I forgive you”, spoken by Naia to try and pacify the Vengeance...
The Orb of the Rising Sun shattered by a single blast from her Rainbow Gun... Rheani looking on in shock as her last reserve was drained... the spell “Domesta mentalia”, uttered by Brianne to quell the Fury’s raging fire...
Plates flying into the vines commanded by Persepa, halting them... a ray of violet light fired by her, Kayna, weakening the Faerie’s defenses... finally, the swoop of Vaiglor’s wing sending the statue that had been Persepa’s avatar crashing to the ground...
Kayna paused at this last memory. It had been Vaiglor, not her, that had defeated Persepa... and she hadn’t even thanked him...
The door creaked. Kayna turned around, startled, to find her younger sister sitting on her bed.
“Oh, hi Layla,” she said, breathing a sigh of relief. “Is everything okay?”
“Yep,” the Baby Aisha said. Kayna smiled and nodded, then glanced at Persepa’s doll with a strange look in her eyes.
“What’s wrong?” she asked. Kayna lay back and sighed.
“I was just thinking about the Haunted Woods... you know, the Dusty Quill...”
She looked up at Layla. “Should we have left so quickly? I mean, the five of us vanished without even compensating Agnes for the hole in her floor. And we didn’t even thank Vaiglor for what he did for us...”
Kayna paused. “I mean, should we really have even bothered going on this quest? I know we’re seeing more of Neopia and all, but it seems that, no matter how hard we try, we just end up leaving each region we visit in as uncertain a position as it was before. If we hadn’t intervened on Mystery Island, the islanders would just be living normal lives instead of having to adjust to sharing their shores with Faeries. If we hadn’t gone to Terror Mountain, sure, Rheani would still be in power, but a lot of pets wouldn’t have been hurt. If we hadn’t come to the Haunted Woods, Agnes would be...”
“Okay, okay,” Layla said quickly. “You’ve made your point. But think about all the good we did! On Mystery Island, we helped the Faeries and the islanders come to terms with one another. That’s important, right?”
“And what about on Terror Mountain? We freed who knows how many pets from being controlled by Rheani, and exposed Luther for what he was. Don’t you remember that?”
“Of course I do, but...”
“Don’t forget the Haunted Woods! We gave Agnes what were probably her first guests in a long time, and helped Vaiglor out of that cupboard. Right?”
“Yeah, but that was about all the good we did there,” Kayna said. “Persepa was already powerless when we came there, so we basically woke her up and then caused tons of damage to all sorts of things. You can’t deny that.”
Her younger sister smiled. “Are you always this difficult to argue with? I’m going downstairs for some milk. Want to come?”
Kayna shook her head. “I’m fine, thanks. I’d better get some sleep.”
“Good idea,” Layla said as she slipped out the bedroom door. “Don’t worry about me, I’ll be fine.”
Kayna was already half-asleep when a startling thought crossed her mind.
Why would Layla bother telling me that?
The meeting was held in a room of considerable size in CCN headquarters, with row after row of seats looking out onto a stage that was completely empty, apart from a podium with a CCN poster on its front halfway across the stage.
“It looks like half of Neopia Central is here!” Juliana said, craning her neck. “I thought I’d left early enough, too. Oh well. We’ll just have to sit in the back.”
“Hey,” Yorick said, glancing about him as he, Juliana, Cillo and Brianne – dressed, as usual, in her Nimmo costume – sat down in some empty seats by the door, “this used to be the Auction House.”
“Did it now,” Juliana said, uninterested, then, brightly, said “Just wait till you see Erik up there. He’s amazing. Ooh, look, there he is!”
A red Ogrin appeared on stage and confidently made his way towards the podium. Even from a distance, he radiated power – or, at the very least, Yorick thought, the airs of someone who knows exactly what he’s doing.
“Greetings, everyone!” the Ogrin said. “I trust you all are well. My name is Erik Longhair, and welcome to the meeting! For those of you for whom this is your first time at our meetings, welcome. I hope you leave tonight with an understanding and appreciation of all the hard work we do here at the CCN. We may be a small group of determined pets, but are we ever determined!”
Most of the pets in the audience chuckled. Yorick even found himself smiling a little. The mood was infectious.
“Now, as those of you who have been here before will know, I’m going to need a volunteer. Are there any takers?”
Within seconds, it seemed like the entire Auction House had turned into a sea of rainbow-hued limbs all frantically shouting, “Me! Me! Me!”
Erik leant forward on the podium, enjoying himself enormously. “Let’s see... hmm...” His amber eyes swept over the crowd, and he raised a hoof to pick one lucky pet out of the crowd. “How about... you.”
Brianne stiffened. Erik was pointing directly at her.
“Me?” she asked.
He nodded. “Yes, you there! The blue Nimmo, between the Bruce and the Techo! Come on up!”
“You go,” Brianne hissed urgently in Cillo’s ear, but he shook his head. Brianne took a deep breath and began to inch her way down the row to the center aisle, and from there to the stage.
“Come up, now,” Erik said as soon as Brianne stepped on stage. “Any slower and you’d have put a Slorg to shame!”
The audience laughed. Erik beamed. “I’m just kidding, of course. It’s a pleasure to have you here. What’s your name?”
“A-A-Alice,” Brianne said uncertainly to the crowd.
“Well, A-A-Alice, we’re glad you could come. Is this your first meeting?”
“That’s why you’re so nervous. It’s going to be okay. I just want to ask you a couple of questions. Is that alright?”
“Okay. First off, why don’t you tell us all a little about yourself.”
“M-my name is Alice. I’m from, um, Neopia Central.”
“I doubt any of us are denying that, dear,” Erik said. “I was thinking more along the lines of hobbies.”
“Oh. Um, well, I like walking. And books.”
“Books are a good thing to like,” Erik said, nodding sagely. From where he was sitting and the tone in Erik’s voice, Yorick wasn’t entirely sure if the red Ogrin was being sincere, or just putting Brianne on.
“I have just one more question before you can go back to your seat, okay?” Brianne nodded.
“Okay,” Erik said. “What do you think about Faeries?”
Brianne went pale and didn’t speak for what felt like a whole minute. Erik smiled and said “It’s alright if you’re nervous, Alice.”
“I hate them,” Brianne said in a tiny voice, trembling in a way that she hoped to Fyora was being mistaken for nerves by everyone else in the Auction House. “I hate them so much.”
Erik smiled. “Thank you, Alice. You can go sit down now.” He turned to the audience. “I’m sure I’m speaking for every pet here when I say that Alice’s sentiments are pretty common in Neopia Central, am I not?”
A lot of pets in the crowd murmured their assent.
“Does anyone remember that Faerie sighting a couple of weeks ago? Do you remember how that Faerie nearly burned the Money Tree down? Do we want to happen again?”
Many pets around Yorick and Cillo shook their heads ‘no’.
“What I’m suggesting is that we double CCN patrols so that Faerie sightings like that never happen again. And if they do happen, we will have descriptions of those Faeries so that we know what they look like for future reference. Does that sound good?”
Most of the crowd nodded, including Juliana; Yorick and Cillo glanced at each other and then began nodding emphatically as well.
“Super,” Erik said, grinning. “That wraps up the main part of the evening. There’s a reception in the adjacent room catered by the Food Shop, so if you fine folks wouldn’t mind sticking around for just a bit longer and treating yourself to some of the Food Shop’s delicious creations, I sure would appreciate it. Thanks, everyone, and stay well.”
As Erik made his way out from behind the podium and off the stage, Brianne sat down in her seat and deeply exhaled.
“You were great,” Juliana said, patting Brianne on the back. “And for being called up there on a spur-of-the-moment thing, too. Are you planning to stay around for the reception?”
“Why not?” Yorick said. “It’s not like we’ve got anything better to do. Right, Cillo?”
The blue Techo nodded. “You two go on ahead. I’ll just sit here with Bri— I mean, Alice, and catch up with you later.”
“Sounds good,” Juliana said, and began to lead Yorick down their row and into the center aisle, where many other pets were crowding. A few noticed Brianne and elbowed each other excitedly, whispering and pointing as they did so.
“He had to have known,” Brianne said, in barely a whisper. “He had to have known. He just had to.”
“We don’t know that for sure,” Cillo said, putting a reassuring arm around the blue Nimmo’s shoulders. “Maybe he just liked the way you looked.”
Brianne snorted lightly. “Yeah, and ask me a question about Faeries? Why else would he pick me? You saw how many willing pets there were. I didn’t even raise my hand.”
“Maybe he picks someone that doesn’t raise their hand on purpose,” Cillo said. “As a demonstration thing. To reassure all the other nervous first-timers, you know?”
“Whatever,” Brianne said. “Whatever he’s suggesting sounds pretty ineffective, so I wouldn’t be too worried about that. I mean, I should know. No increased patrol is going to stop us Faeries.”
“Not too loud,” Cillo cautioned. “I’d rather you didn’t mention those... things till we’re back at home. How about we just enjoy whatever this reception has to offer and then we head back home? Juliana won’t stay too long, I’m sure.”
“Yeah,” Brianne said, smiling half-heartedly. “I’m really sure she won’t.”
The minute Layla’s padded feet touched the carpet at the bottom of the stairs, she crept into the kitchen, stopped at the floor-level cupboard that housed the family’s Battledome equipment, selected a dusty Sparkshooter and a Basic Shield of Flight, slipped out the front door and began to scurry along the streets of Neopia Central, which were empty apart from a handful of pets wearing vests walking purposefully down the streets.
I guess the meeting’s already started, the Baby Aisha thought.
Eventually, she passed the Rainbow Pool – inoperable now, since so few pets had Brushes – and began to approach the giant stone Chia that marked the entrance of the Catacombs. Another Chia, much smaller, green-hued and wearing a vest, was in front of the doors at its base.
As Layla came closer to the twin doors at the statue’s base, the Chia – whose vest, she now realized, had CCN Volunteer Patroller on it in white – looked at her suspiciously.
“I’m sorry, miss, but I can’t let you anywhere near the scene of the incident. Erik’s orders.”
Great, Layla thought. Now I’ll have to improvise. Well, here goes nothing.
The Aisha looked up at him, tears forming in her eyes. “Oh, kind sir, won’t you let me pass? I’ve always wanted to see the Catacombs, but I’ve never been able to because... err... ah... I’ve been turnip farming! Yes, that’s it...”
“Turnip farming?” The Chia frowned. “Where?”
“Oh, you wouldn’t know it, sir,” Layla said, wiping a tear from her eye. “It’s all gone now. Every last turnip, every last one... I only have these two belongings left, and not a stray Neopoint to my name...”
The Chia gazed down at her with nothing but warmth in his eyes. “Oh, go on, then. I can’t keep a poor, disadvantaged turnip farmer from experiencing fine art, can I? Go right through.”
Layla smiled and padded by, sniffling every so often for added effect. Once through the doors and into the lobby, she glanced around and, after heading down several flights of steps, entered the Art Gallery, keeping a sharp lookout for the Antique Jewelry exhibit. Once inside, she made her way as quietly as possible towards the display case that had contained the stolen necklace. Next to the shattered glass cube, which had been cordoned off, the dull gleam of an informative plaque caught the Aisha’s eye.
This necklace once belonged to the Royal Family of Terror Mountain, and was retrieved from their castle after the last member of the direct bloodline, Princess Lilac, vanished. It passed through several private collections before being donated to the Gallery by an anonymous donor.
“The Royal Family of Terror Mountain,” Layla murmured. “Wasn’t Julius a member of the Royal Family?” A sudden flash of maroon in the corner of her eye made her abandon these thoughts.
She began to slowly pad in the direction of the maroon blur –which had since disappeared down the mouth of a nearby corridor – increasing her speed every time she caught a glimpse of it again.
The sound of heavy footfalls echoed throughout the corridor as both pursuer and assailant sped up. Eventually, the maroon blur stopped as the corridor came to a dead end next to a display of Brightvalian needlework, and Layla could feel her heart thumping as she grew closer and closer...
Only for her prey to vanish into thin air. Layla blinked and stepped forward cautiously, drawing her Sparkshooter as she did so.
At the end of the corridor, next to the pottery exhibit, was an unremarkable velvet curtain that fluttered in a breeze that, considering no-one else had been in the gallery for hours, had to have been created by the one dressed in maroon.
The Aisha stepped forward, pulled back the curtain, and found herself staring at the entrance of a tunnel. The darkness that lay beyond made her tremble slightly, but curiosity conquered over fear, and Layla padded bravely on, her Sparkshooter clutched in one paw and her shield on her back.
Her steps echoed as Layla headed down the tunnel, her only guide the sphere of light emitted by the Sparkshooter clutched in her left paw. Eventually, the sound of the footsteps stopped altogether, and Layla had the odd feeling that she had reached the tunnel’s end. She waved her paw through the air, trying to feel for something to confirm her suspicion, and clutched onto what felt like a cold metal rung.
It was a ladder. Now all she had to do was climb.
Layla began to ascend, and after what felt like hours in the darkness but could have easily been minutes, the Sparkshooter’s sphere of light illuminated a trapdoor.
The Aisha took a deep breath, pushed open the trapdoor with all her might, popped her head out, and found herself staring at a steel wall in the fresh night air. She climbed all the way through and lifted her Sparkshooter into the sky, shining a faint yellow light on the face of a massive, smiling feline Petpet, next to which was the dim outline of the Wishing Well.
“The Kadoatery?” she murmured, but dawn was beginning to break over the treetops and she had to hurry home. Once inside, she crawled into bed, pondering all that she had seen that night.
To be continued...