Treasure Lost: Part Six
"Spirit! I'm so glad you're here!"
Spirit spun to face the Yellow Scorchio walking towards her from the shadows of the laboratory. There was no mistaking those spinning eyes.
"I was beginning to think that no one would come to witness the conclusion of my finest experiment."
"The Mad Scientist?" Eryk gaped, staring. He looked at Spirit. "You tricked me!" Spirit shook her head, unable to find her voice. Finally she managed to stammer a few words.
"What is this? What are you doing here?"
"I expanded my lab, of course. Don't look so shocked. You said yourself that I was running out of room. Besides, how could I get any work done with those noisy Pets always popping in to be zapped, then whining when something bad came of it. It's not like I didn't give them warning. I always said, very clearly, that that ray was unpredictable. Not like this one." He waved a proud hand at the metal tower in the center of the room. Wires were draped like cobwebs from its sides, and strange lights flashed deep within the metal shell, as though a storm was trapped inside. It stretched almost to the high, domed ceiling. Crowning the top was an array of five spires which leaned inward until their tips almost touched in the center. Against the base rested a cage of thick metal bars, through which peered a very unhappy-looking Melody.
"But what about the treasure?" Spirit asked, ignoring the Mad Scientist's invention. Melody fluttered against the cage bars, reminding Spirit of her captivity. Spirit crossed to the center of the lab and examined the lock on the cage.
"Is that yours?" asked the Mad Scientist. "I have the key somewhere, I'm not sure just where." He patted the pockets on his lab coat but Spirit didn't wait for him to find the key. She took a step back, then used one well-placed kick to burst the lock open. Melody sprang out of the open door and soared into the air, stretching her wings and soaking in the freedom. After turning several graceful loops, she settled onto Spirit's shoulder, chattering angrily at the Scorchio who had imprisoned her.
"Yes, well, you shouldn't have been trespassing around my island," the Mad Scientist grumbled in response.
"You still haven't answered where the treasure is," Eryk said, stepping menacingly towards the scientist. "If the two of you were plotting this together..." His voice trailed off as he looked from Spirit to the Mad Scientist, waiting for an answer.
"Treasure? You mean all that ancient junk that was lying around this place? I didn't have any use for it, so I moved it. Quite ridiculous, really, using a perfect location like this as a storage shed. It's remote, spacious, and I get all the lightning I want to fuel my projects."
"You moved it?" Spirit clenched her fists, her voice dangerously quiet. "I went through all that to get here, and you moved it? Why did you even give me that map then?"
"I didn't know you were looking for that stuff," the Mad Scientist replied simply, crossing his arms. "You said you wanted Scarblade's map, so I gave it to you. You never mentioned a treasure."
Eryk watched as Spirit's cheeks went from white, to pink, to crimson. Before she exploded, he intervened. "Where did you put it?"
"Somewhere or other. Can't remember exactly. It's not like I carried it there myself. But forget about that already. You are about to witness the first ever firing of my new ray! This day will be remembered forever in science, history, and the cute little Cybunny Diary that I bought last week when I went out for groceries."
"We aren't interested in your stupid ray!" Spirit shouted, losing her temper. Her fists were shaking, and it took every bit of self control that she possessed to not reach for her sword.
"How disappointing. I thought that you were here to see it. It will affect you, too, you know."
"Not if I don't get zapped by it."
"Ah, but that's the best part! It's so powerful that from this island, I can zap all of Neopia with one blast! Every Pet on the planet will feel its effects." The Mad Scientist clapped his hands with glee.
"Why?" demanded Eryk. "Plenty of Pets already use your Lab Ray. What's the point of affecting the rest of them?"
"No, no!" The Mad Scientist shook his head in agitation. "Didn't I just say that this is different from the Lab Ray? The Lab Ray was a test, imperfect. I couldn't control what happened to Pets who got zapped by it. But this invention isn't so random. I know exactly what it will do!"
"Return every Pet in Neopia to level 1! Isn't it magnificent?" The Mad Scientist beamed at the Xweetok and Kyrii who stood staring at him. Eryk's face was almost blank; he seemed not to have understood what he had just been told. Spirit, on the other hand, finally lost control. She drew her sword and rushed at the scientist, but Eryk, regaining his senses, stepped forward and grabbed her arm. Spirit turned on him, fuming, her eyes wishing him pain and misery. Eryk ignored her, addressing the Mad Scientist instead.
"You're bluffing," he challenged. "There's no way that a ray could cover the entire planet. Besides, what do you gain from something like that?"
"You don't believe me? You will soon! It's quite brilliant, really, how I've done it. You may have noticed on your way in that there are many clouds above this island. My ray will fire directly into those clouds, scattering the beam through the millions of water droplets suspended overhead. It will then bounce around in the atmosphere until it has covered all of Neopia! It won't hit Kreludor, of course, but that was never part of the bet."
"What bet?" Eryk asked, glancing suspiciously back at Spirit. She scowled at him, still holding her weapon.
"You want to hear the story! How fun! Well, then, here it is. Many years ago, when I was still just a Mad Student, I took a summer job with Dr. Sloth, who wasn't a doctor at all back then but only a confused, slightly evil... thing. Anyway, one day when we were sharing a round of smoothies, we got into a bit of a discussion."
"Smoothies?" Spirit interrupted, looking both disbelieving and disgusted. "That seems a little weak for a villain."
"You've never had smoothies like Sloth makes them! I've tried to duplicate his recipe, but I never get it quite right. Maybe he uses real fruit Chias." The Mad Scientist gazed thoughtfully at the ceiling for a few moments, considering the possibility. Then he gave his head a slight shake and continued his story as though he had never been interrupted. "It was about the possibility of calculated mutation. By that point, transmogrification was already well known; there was no question of whether the body of a Pet could be changed. We were interested in whether other characteristics could also be modified, level and intelligence and all that. Sloth insisted that even if it was possible, it would be so slow and expensive that it just wouldn't be practical to use. We argued a bit, and in the end I made him a bet that I could change all the Pets of Neopia back to level 1 before he could turn them all Mutant. And now I will finally win!"
"What do you win? A free smoothie?" Spirit mocked, her voice sharp and sarcastic enough to peel an onion.
"500 Neopoints!" the Mad Scientist bragged triumphantly. His smile faltered a little when he saw how his audience was looking at him. "It was a long time ago," he said defensively. "Neopoints were worth a lot more back then. Besides, it was never about the money. It was about the achievement, the scientific advancements, and the ultimate bragging rights! Old Slothy is going to be so mad when he sees what I've done." He rubbed his hands in anticipation. "Now then, shall we fire her up?"
"Never," Spirit spat. "As if we'd let you do something like that."
"But it was you who made this all possible," the Mad Scientist informed her, looking slightly hurt. "The Slothite that you fetched me is the power core for the machine. It would never work without the explosive reaction of Slothite."
Now it was Eryk's turn to glare at Spirit.
"I didn't know that's what I was giving him!" she shot back. She faced the scientist again. "So what's your plan for after you zap the world?"
"I'm glad you asked! I have a delightful mind control experiment planned. I'm planning to use a combination of—"
"Another experiment?" Spirit exploded. "What about the Pets you zapped?"
"That's right," Eryk agreed, frowning. "All that effort to leave Pets helpless. You aren't going to take advantage of it?"
"You mean take over the world and all that?" The Mad Scientist asked. "Of course not. I'm a scientist, not an evil genius. Don't you know the difference?" He looked genuinely offended at their ignorance. Eryk and Spirit glanced at each other. Eryk raised his eyebrows. Spirit rolled her eyes.
"You know we can't let you fire the ray," Eryk said, stepping forward at the same time that Spirit began circling around behind the Scorchio. Melody, sensing what was coming, jumped from Spirit's shoulder and hovered overhead, as though expecting the scientist to try an aerial escape.
"I wasn't giving you a choice," the Mad Scientist grinned as he snapped his fingers twice. At the signal, a metal door in the far wall slid open and a hoard of Robot Pets poured into the lab. Eryk barely had time to whip out his sword before they were surrounded.
Outside in the rain, Jojo picked his way over a rocky slope. Radish plodded through the air a few paces ahead, drifting low as though weighed down by the thick rain. Even the glowing lights on his body seemed muted. As he climbed to the top of a boulder as tall as he was, Jojo's stomach let out a low gurgling noise. He hadn't eaten since lunch, and it was now after midnight. For a young Grundo, things didn't get much worse.
From the top of the boulder, Jojo had a good view of the land behind him. He was surprised how far up the mountain he had climbed. He could see where the band of thick forest near the beach dwindled and gave way to bare ground, and on the other side of the trees he could see the ocean. A single ship floated in the bay, its sails curled tightly against the mast like caterpillars clinging to twigs, safe and cozy. At this distance, he couldn't make out any of the details. The Water Faerie carved onto the bow, the people standing on deck, the name Nereid scrawled across the side—all of these were invisible. Jojo wished that he could be down on that ship, bobbing gently in the sea. It would be warm and dry below deck, and there would surely be food and something hot to drink. But that ship had sunk the Wretch, and the Wretch was the ship that his sister had trusted. He had no choice but to keep exploring the island, trying to find Spirit. He dimly felt that if he could climb high enough, he would be able to see her, no matter where she was hiding.
Jojo turned from looking at the path he had already walked and stared up at the one that lay in front of him. The mountain only got steeper. It was odd, but from his position it looked almost like the top of the mountain ended in a perfect dome. It was too small to be easily visible from the bay, and no one had thought to aim a telescope so high. Jojo puzzled over it a bit, but then dismissed it. He had never climbed a mountain before. Maybe they all looked like that. Far more interesting was a small patch of green off to his left.
As he approached, the thick green tangle resolved itself into leaves and branches. A small clump of trees was clinging to the mountain, their crowns thick enough to ward off the rain. Jojo hadn't noticed them before because they were tucked into a small valley, hidden from view except from above. Best of all, bright colors of tropical fruits poked through the leaves.
Jojo didn't bother looking for an easy way down. He slid down the steep rock face, leaving a long, muddy stain on the front of his shirt. He might have bruised if Radish hadn't hastily wrapped his tentacles around Jojo's antennae, slowing his descent. As it was, only his clothing suffered any damage.
As he bent to gather some fallen Lesser Bearded Plantfruit, Jojo's smile returned. The first bite was the best that he had ever tasted. After his third fruit, he forgot about the rain and the long climb. After his seventh, all his worries were gone. When he had eaten as much as he could, he leaned back against a tree trunk and let sleep fill his eyes. Just as his lids were falling, he spotted something up ahead. He struggled to sit up, fighting back the drowsiness. There was an opening in the valley wall.
In Jojo's mind, it was a cave. He didn't see how even the floor was, or how smooth the sides. To Jojo, it was simply a better place to take a nap. The constant drip of rain off wet leaves wouldn't reach him in there. So he crossed the grove of trees and entered the tunnel of stone.
"I wonder how far back this goes?" he asked out loud. Radish whirred, a noise which might have been a response or might have been another question. Now that he was full and in a dry space, Jojo's curiosity outweighed his other emotions. The tunnel sloped gently upwards, twisting with the curve of the mountain. Just at the edge of sight, an electric bulb pulsed out a yellow glow. Approaching it, Jojo discovered a chain of bulbs lighting a clear path forward. He followed them, Radish gliding nervously behind.
Spirit threw herself sideways as a Robot Blumaroo shot a blast in her direction. His eyes were empty yellow spheres, like the energy pulses that his weapon fired. Immediately she was on her feet again, blocking a second blast with her sword, then darting forward before the pulse ray could recharge, bringing her blade down towards the Blumaroo's chest. He caught it on his arm with a loud metallic clash. A long, thin scratch appeared on his white armor, but the sword couldn't do any damage. Again and again Spirit lunged, fighting Robot Pets on all sides, but the best she could do was keep them from getting close enough to grab her. Her weapon simply didn't have the power to penetrate steel.
The Blumaroo raised his ray again, but Spirit sent it flying with a kick. As he withdrew to retrieve it, Spirit's eyes roved the lab through the gap in the bodies that he left behind. Eryk was nowhere to be seen. Sometime during the fight, he had slipped away, leaving Spirit alone in a sea of metal limbs.
Coward! Spirit thought fiercely. I knew I couldn't trust him. This is the last time I work with a partner.
Just then, one of the Robot Pets on the edge of the mob let out a mechanical screech that made Spirit's fur go stiff. She struggled keep her hands from going to her ears as she dodged a grey, shiny Ixi. She turned just in time to see a Robot Yurble slump to the floor, unconscious. Behind the fallen Pet stood Eryk, holding the most bizarre weapon that Spirit had ever seen. Then she recognized the hilt of a Gold Handled Katana in his hand and she broke into a grin. An Aisha leapt for her but she managed to grab one of her attacker's arms. In the same motion, Spirit turned and dropped to one knee, flipping the Aisha over her shoulder and into Eryk's reach. Instead of a sweeping cut, Eryk drove his modified sword forward with a sharp jab. As soon as it touched the metal armor of the Aisha, the wires that Eryk had pulled from one of the Mad Scientist's machines and wrapped around his blade jolted to life. The sword acted like a conducting rod, channeling an electric shock into the Aisha's circuits. The Aisha twitched, dropped, and lay still.
It wasn't long before the Mad Scientist's Robot army had been reduced to shorted-out shells littering the laboratory floor. As Spirit surveyed the scene, she couldn't help wondering what kind of potion you would have to use to heal a fried electrical circuit. Nearby, Eryk was unwinding the wires from his sword. Spirit noticed that he was handling them with a piece of leather that looked like it had been a small bottle before it had been sliced apart. The leather insulated his paw, preventing him from receiving a shock himself.
"Nice trick," Spirit admitted. Eryk shrugged.
"I like being creative. Now where'd that Scorchio get off to?"
Spirit peered into the dark corners of the lab but she couldn't see any trace of the Mad Scientist. Then she jumped at the sound of mechanical movement overhead. The Mad Scientist was standing on a platform attached to a metal arm that was slowly lowering him to the floor. On the platform behind him was an array of switches, levers, and buttons of the sort that are usually marked "do not push."
"Impressive," said the Mad Scientist, sounding more annoyed than impressed, "but you're too late to stop the progress of science. My ray will fire, and I will prove that no one wins against me!" He turned to the controls and pressed a series of three buttons, turned a knob, and finally jammed a lever forward. Immediately, a row of red lights flashed up the side of the towering ray, while static began to crackle across the spires on top. Overhead, the domed ceiling shuddered, then began to open like a poisonous flower blooming.
Arral scanned the side of the mountain with her telescope, looking for any signs of motion. Spirit, Eryk, and Jojo were somewhere on that island, and they had been there for a long time. The crew was restless, staring out to sea as though expecting to see an enemy ship approaching. After a few minutes, Arral gave up. It was still pouring, and the rain obscured the island, making it impossible to tell Neopets from rocks. Just as she was folding up her telescope, something caught her eye.
A bright light had appeared on the top of the mountain, twinkling like a fallen star. Arral snapped her telescope back open, training the lens on the peak. Arral swallowed. Something wasn't right. The top of the mountain was opening, revealing a metallic underside. Was this one of the curses surrounding the treasure?
All across the deck, sailors were beginning to notice the light. Even without telescopes they could tell that something was happening. Words like "volcano," "curse," and "doom" began to sweep across the ship in contagious whispers.
Her first mate, a weathered Draik who was never without a bandana on his head to hide his bald spot, appeared at her shoulder. "Captain?" he asked, waiting for instructions. Arral kept her eye pressed to her telescope as she replied.
"Ready the ship to sail but leave the anchor down. There's still a chance they're comin' back." As the Draik left to spread the order, Arral slowly lowered the telescope. She closed her eyes, pleading with the darkness that Eryk would bring Spirit and Jojo back soon.
Rain poured through the open ceiling as Eryk made a rush for the controls. He jumped, grabbing the bottom of the platform which the Mad Scientist was still standing on. Before he could pull himself over the railing, the Mad Scientist drew a ray gun out from beneath his lab coat. Spirit yelled a warning, but the Mad Scientist wasn't attacking Eryk. Instead, he leveled his ray at the control panel. The first blast disintegrated a bank of blue, flashing buttons. The second took out a large lever. The mad Scientist kept firing until the controls had been reduced to nothing more than flakes of metal littering the floor like shavings from a spilled pencil sharpener. By the time Eryk was standing on the platform wrestling the ray gun from his hands, the Mad Scientist had nothing left to shoot at. And there were no controls left to stop the machine powering up in the center of the lab.
Spirit could hear the sharp hiss of steam as raindrops fell through the open ceiling, vaporizing instantly as they touched the electrified spires. A pool of water was spreading around the tower's base. Spirit had hoped that it might short out the giant ray, but it seemed like the Mad Scientist had prepared for the weather. As though reading her thoughts, the Mad Scientist let out a loud cackle.
"There's nothing you can do now! My ray is unstoppable. There is no limit to what I can accomplish!"
Spirit turned wildly, searching the lab for a solution. If this ray fired, all of Neopia would be reduced to helplessness. It wasn't just that years of training would be lost. Once everyone realized what had happened, there would be chaos. The Defenders of Neopia would be no more powerful than the villains they tried to subdue. Power structures would collapse, with whoever possessed the strongest weapons seizing control. Panic would be everywhere. Pets would get hurt.
There had to be some way to shut down the machine—an emergency kill switch or a power source that could be destroyed. There was always a way. Some way. Any way.
Out of the corner of her eye, Spirit saw movement on the tower. Her head snapped around, staring at the figure climbing up its side. It was Jojo.
Hand over hand, Jojo was pulling himself up through the tangle of wires clinging to the tower. Radish hovered nearby, prepared to catch Jojo if he fell, but there was no need. The practice in the Wretch's rigging had paid off. Jojo's face was now set with an unwavering determination that Spirit had never seen before. He never hesitated as he swung from one wire to the next, steadily rising toward the machine's top.
Back on the platform, Eryk was now holding the Mad Scientist's ray gun, pointing it at the scientist's chest. The Scorchio had backed up, his hands raised in a truce but his face still full of triumph and crazed joy. Then he glanced over at Spirit and, following her focused gaze, saw Jojo over halfway up his precious machine.
"No! Get away from that!" the Mad Scientist snapped. His triumphant expression was replaced by rage as he lunged forward. He caught Eryk off guard, managing to get a firm grip on the ray gun, struggling to point it at Jojo. Spirit had heard his shout and turned to see the Mad Scientist and Eryk grappling for control of the ray. Realizing the danger that Jojo was in, she ran to help Eryk.
"Don't worry, I can handle him!" Eryk yelled when he saw Spirit running towards him. "Go help your brother!" With a powerful twisting motion, he wrenched the Mad Scientist's arm that still held the ray gun up behind his back. The Mad Scientist released the gun and Eryk threw it across the lab, far out of reach. The scientist tried to jump from the platform and chase after it, but Eryk got his free arm around the Mad Scientist's neck and held him in place. Spirit didn't wait to see what happened next. She was already running towards the tower.
Far above, she could see the bottoms of Jojo's shoes as he continued to climb. Spirit followed him upward, gaining quickly, while Melody took flight, soaring to join Radish around Jojo. Then Jojo's shoes disappeared as he reached the top, pulling himself up between the sparking metal spires.
Jojo didn't know that Spirit was on her way. He hadn't seen Eryk's struggle with the Mad Scientist. All he knew was that this was a bad machine, that his sister didn't want it to fire. The tunnel from the grove of trees had led to a sliding door similar to the one the Robot Pets had come out of earlier. He had arrived just in time to hear Spirit telling the Mad Scientist that she couldn't let him activate the machine.
Arcs of electricity danced between the charged spires, but Jojo ignored them. The top of the tower was flat, and there was a small hatch in the middle. Jojo knelt by it, prying it open. Underneath was a stack of circuit boards connected by a rainbow of wires. He pulled them out one by one, laying them out on the tower around him. He had to find the right one, the one that could stop the machine without turning it into a bomb. As he worked, speakers on the ceiling crackled on. A cold, detached voice echoed over the noise of the tower and the storm.
"Ray charging. Two minutes until full power."
On the Nereid, the crew were all on deck, watching the mountain. It shown like a lighthouse in the dark, but instead of safe harbor it promised danger. The glow was unnatural—the harsh white of electricity instead of the red flicker of fire.
"How long're we ter wait here fer our doom?" grumbled Risham, the second mate. Arral overheard his complaint.
"Is the ship ready to sail?" she asked. Risham nodded.
"As per orders, Captain."
"Then there's no sense ter yer mumblin'. If anythin' happens, then we'll take to the open waters. Until then, we wait."
"What's so important about that Xweetok, anyhow? We've came all this way an' are anchored in dangerous waters and for what? A Pet ye've barely spoken with. Some o' us crew are thinkin' this be a fool's errand."
"Then some of ye crew can get off me ship!" Arral snapped back. "Or are ye thinkin' to mutiny?" Risham ducked his head, rubbing his elbow with one hand. He muttered something about "not meanin' it that way." Arral nodded, satisfied. "Sometimes ye don't need more'n a pawful o' words to know a friend," she told him. Then the pair was silent, watching the mountain once more.
"One minute until full power," stated the detached mechanical voice. Spirit silently cursed it as she pulled herself onto the top of the tower. A deafening crack tore through the air as the electricity arcing across the metal spires intensified. Spirit ducked as she stepped onto the platform, then crouched down next to her brother. Below them, the machine began to vibrate in deep, even pulses.
Jojo didn't notice when Spirit joined him. He was too absorbed in his work. Radish was lying next to the circuit boards, his side panel removed to expose his inner mechanisms. Several wires ran from the largest board, the motherboard, into Radish's own mesh of wires. Jojo had connected Radish to the ray, and was hacking into its command sequence. If he could make it past the security filters, he would have access to the ray's programming, and from there he would be able to shut it down. He hoped.
Far below on the lab floor, Eryk had the Mad Scientist pinned to the floor. The Scorchio was still struggling, but his cheek was pressed against the metal tiles and Eryk was kneeling on his back, keeping him from getting up.
"You'll never stop it!" he sputtered. "No one can stop my genius!"
Eryk didn't reply. He was staring at the top of the tower. Since Spirit had climbed over the edge, he had been unable to see anything that was going on overhead. What's taking so long? he thought, willing his words to reach Spirit. If I go back to level 1, I'm holding you responsible. So hurry!
"Thirty seconds until full power."
"Got it!" Jojo said as line after line of tiny, white text began to scroll across a small screen which had folded out of Radish's side. Spirit watched helplessly as he worked, unable to do anything to assist. Jojo was now reading through the lines of programming, searching for the commands that he needed.
"Ten seconds until full power. Nine. Eight."
Just as the countdown hit five, Jojo found the shutdown sequence.
"Copy lines 106 to 112," he instructed Radish, "and insert them before line 84."
Overhead, the static bolts were suddenly focused, gathering in a pulsing, yellow ball of light between the five spires. Spirit could feel heat and energy radiating from it. She closed her eyes, unable to stand the brilliance. She wondered what would happen to her and Jojo when it fired.
Spirit blindly reached out a hand. It found Jojo's shoulder and she pulled him down, flattening both of them against the tower.
Suddenly, the intense light that had assaulted Spirit's closed lids vanished. It's fired, she thought. We lost. Then she realized that it wasn't just the energy from the ray that had disappeared. Even the operating lights of the lab seemed to have shut off, leaving complete darkness. The machine was no longer vibrating. Everything had gone silent.
"Ray initiation sequence terminated."
Spirit breathed. Then she laughed. Then she pulled Jojo into a tight hug.
"Brilliant!" she said. "Jojo, you're amazing!"
"It wasn't that hard," Jojo replied humbly. He was smiling, too. He wasn't sure what he had just stopped, but from the way Spirit was reacting, he had just done something very good. He wondered if he would get candy as a reward.
The celebration didn't last. Spirit hadn't even thought about climbing back down yet when red lights began to flash in the corners of the lab. Her smile vanished instantly. Lights like those had only one meaning.
"Digital security breach," announced the overhead speakers. "Commencing emergency defense procedures. Ten minutes until laboratory self destruct."
Eryk watched the red lights flashing on and off, illuminating the lab in a dim, red glow, then fading to darkness. He felt paralyzed. He had thought that with the power outage everything had ended. This couldn't be real. No one actually rigged labs to self destruct, did they?
A sharp pain bit into Eryk's side. While he had been distracted, the Mad Scientist had gotten one of his arms loose and had jabbed his elbow into the only part of Eryk that he could reach. Unfortunately, that part happened to be a sensitive spot. Surprised, Eryk grabbed his side, releasing his hold on the Mad Scientist. The Scorchio rolled, throwing Eryk off his back. Before Eryk could recover, he was gone, vanished in the shadows of the lab.
At the same time, Spirit was pulling Jojo to his feet. There was no time to climb down.
"Melody, Radish, take Jojo," she yelled to the two Petpets. Melody grabbed hold of the back of Jojo's shirt, while Radish, his side intact once more, curled his tentacles around Jojo's waist. "You have to jump," Spirit told him. "Don't worry. I'll meet you at the bottom."
Jojo stared over the edge of the tower. He hadn't realized how high he was. Before he could change his mind, he closed his eyes and took a big step forward.
Air rushed into his face but he didn't open his eyes, scared to see the floor below him. All at once he crashed to a stop, but it wasn't the splat that he had imagined. Melody and Radish together had been enough to slow him to a safe speed. Eryk had caught him at the bottom.
As Eryk set Jojo down, he looked back up at the top of the tower where Spirit was still standing. Pulling out her Thief's Dagger, Spirit severed one of the wires that looped around the tower. She wrapped it several times around her wrist, then launched herself over the edge. The wire snapped tight and Spirit swung, slamming hard into the side of the tower. She looked stunned for a moment, then she cut her paw loose and dropped several feet before catching hold of another wire. She was now a quarter of the way down. Another cut wire brought her halfway.
Reaching out for a better handhold, Spirit slipped. She tried to grab onto a wire as it flashed past, but her fingers just missed it. She plummeted towards the floor.
Eryk dove forward, and Spirit slammed into him. The pair were knocked to the floor, neither one moving. Jojo stared at the two bodies, paralyzed. Then Eryk let out a groan.
"You're heavy," he complained as he rolled out from under Spirit.
"Blame gravity," Spirit gasped as she sat up, struggling to pull air into her lungs. Her chest felt like Turmaculus had sat on it, but she was alive. There was no time to check for broken bones. Fighting the pain that filled her body, she pulled herself to her feet. Jojo stepped forward to support her. Eryk was also standing, rubbing his shoulder.
"Eight minutes until laboratory self destruct."
"There's no time," Eryk said. "We'll never make it back out."
Spirit closed her eyes, fighting off panic. Eryk was right. They were out of time. Then she thought of something and snapped her eyes back open. She turned to Jojo.
"How did you get in here?"
"There's a tunnel through there," Jojo replied, pointing.
The door to the tunnel slid open as they ran towards it. Then it slid shut behind them. None of them looked back.
The deck of the Nereid was silent. Only the rain and the wind spoke, punctuated by an occasional snap from the canvas of one of the sails. The crew barely stirred, watching the island, waiting.
Several minutes ago, the white light at the top of the mountain had suddenly extinguished. The sailors barely had time to release their held breaths before the white light had replaced by a red, pulsing one; a light that looked like an evil eye blinking or an Inferno Lizard breathing. Arral had called all hands to their stations. Now the crew tensed, waiting for something to break the menacing stillness that settled on the ship.
When it came, the break was instant and complete. There was no warning. In a flash of light and sound and flames, the top of the island disappeared. Arral felt the shockwave as it swept down the slope and over the sea, setting the ship rolling dangerously over on its side. A cloud of dust and ash followed, choking the sailors on deck. Something sharp and hot streaked across Arral's cheek. As she put one hand to the cut, stunned, debris rained down, some leaving singe marks on the wood of the deck, others searing through the sails. Only the pouring rain saved the ship from catching fire. Arral made her decision.
"Cut and run! Lose the anchor, we've no time to haul 'er in. Flank speed to the open sea before we've no sails left!"
Four Pets jumped to the anchor cable, using axes to hack through the thick rope. The line snapped, the end disappearing overboard. The ship began to gather speed, moving away from the island.
As the initial dust cloud began to clear, Arral caught a glimpse of the dying island. The center had collapsed, falling into the caverns and tunnels which had run through it. There was no mountain anymore, just a rubble-strewn curve of land that was quickly being consumed by a sea flooding into the newly formed crater.
The trees that remained were burning, sending thick fingers of smoke into the sky. The brightness of the flames seemed gaudy and inappropriate in the darkness. The ashes drifting from them burned Arral's eyes. She couldn't look any longer. She turned away.
And immediately turned back. For an instant, she had thought that she heard a shout. She listened, breathless, her heart filling with hope even though she knew it was hopeless. For long moments, the only noises were the growling of the fire and the hissing of the rain. Then it came again, a voice, barely audible, without distinct words, but unmistakable.
Arral watched, unbelieving, as five figures appeared between the flaming trees, three sprinting onto the beach, two flying low to the ground ahead of them. They didn't stop when they reached the waterline, plunging into the turbulent waves. Soon they were waist deep, then they were swimming, escaping from the wrecked island. But the ship was faster, pushed away from the island by the strong storm wind that now had no land to block it.
Melody and Radish, swept by the same wind that was filling the ship's sails, tumbled onto the deck. Melody was frantic, motioning for the crew to turn the ship around, to go back for the three that were still in the water. Arral saw the desperation in the Carmariller's eyes, but all she could do was shake her head helplessly. The wind was too strong to control the sails, and without the anchor, there was no way to slow the ship.
The crew, realizing what was happening, grabbed long coils of rope from the ship's deck, hurling them overboard. Arral knew that it was hopeless. The lines were too far away. The swimmers would never reach them. They need a miracle, Arral thought. They didn't get one, but what they did get was close.
Arral didn't see Whisper's glimmering blue body approaching in the blue waves. All of a sudden, the smallest figure in the water began to accelerate, catching up to the ship. A hand closed around one of the lines trailing in the water, and ten crewmen jumped to haul the rope in. A minute later, a soaking Jojo was sitting on the deck. Crew were cheering and patting his back, wrapping blankets around him. Someone appeared with a steaming drink, which they pressed into Jojo's hands. None of the sailors had met him before, but they treated him like a brother and a hero.
Spirit was the next to clamber over the railing. She was shaking and bruised. Unable to stand, she collapsed on the deck. After all she had been through since leaving the Wretch, she had finally reached her limit. Completely exhausted, she lay on her back on the rough wooden planks, panting and laughing, letting the rain wash the seawater from her face.
Eryk was pulled up last. His earring had lost one of his feathers and his clothes were beyond repair, but he was grinning as hands reached over the rail to heave him onboard. He pulled Arral into a grateful hug.
"And you thought I'd gone mad," he told her as he stepped back, leaving Arral's shirt soaking where he had touched it. Arral didn't respond. She was too busy smiling.
Spirit leaned back in her chair, crossing her legs as she took a long sip of her Borovan. Jojo was sitting nearby, polishing away the damage that Radish had sustained on the island. It was kind of fitting, Spirit thought, that he was doing repairs here. After all, this book shop was where he had first fixed up the Cuttlebot. Life goes in circles, she thought to herself. Well, not all of life. The last time that she had been here, she had ended up in a swordfight with a Kyrii. Now that Kyrii was sitting across from her, sharing a drink.
"Have you heard from Arral?" Spirit asked Eryk, setting her cup down with a soft clink.
"Last I knew, she was on her way back to Krawk Island. It seems your friend Mercer is wanted for a lot of things, including trying to make off with one of Krawk's sub-islands. Arral's taking him to the governor to collect the reward."
"Then everyone's getting what they deserve."
"Does that mean you'll finally give me the map? I certainly earned it after I saved you."
"We agreed we were even," Spirit reminded him. "The map wouldn't do you any good now, anyway. The island is gone, and the treasure wasn't even there."
"I'd still like it. I haven't given up, and the map may have a clue on where to look next."
Spirit nodded. "I had the same idea. Unfortunately, I was telling the truth before. It really is gone. Either Scarblade took it back or it's been destroyed by the sea."
"What!?" The sudden shout made both Spirit and Eryk jump. They hadn't realized that Earlin, the shopkeeper, was listening to them. He emerged from the dusty shadows of his bookstore, looking horrified. "You lost Scarblade's only treasure map? You destroyed it? Do you have any idea what that thing was worth, not to mention its importance to historians, cartographers, scholars, and how many other people? I should never have let you take it out of this shop!"
"Calm down," Spirit told him. "There will be other maps and documents for you to obsess over. Next time I find something good, I promise you can study it all you want. You never could have stopped me from taking that map, anyway."
"That's because you're a violent, uncultured thief," he told her, his anger subsiding. "Which reminds me, I still haven't received any payment for my translating work, and I'm holding the both of you responsible for destroying my shop. It took me forever to clean up all the loose pages." His tone of voice stated very clearly what he thought of people who destroyed books, accidentally or otherwise.
"The payment was a cut of the treasure. When I find it, you'll get your share," Spirit reminded him. She cast a glance across at Eryk. "I will find it."
Eryk shrugged, smiling. "Yeah, at the Trading Post when I go to sell it. There's no way you'll reach it first."
Spirit just shook her head as she took another sip of her hot Borovan. It was a warm spring day. Jojo was putting away his tools while Radish and Melody chased each other through the rows of books, pursued by a frustrated Earlin. Outside, Neopia carried on its business as always, unaware of the treasure and adventures that hid in their midst. It was too nice of a moment to argue. The fighting would come later. For now, Spirit was happy to relax with friends and with rivals, to drink and to smile, and to dream of bright things in dark places, waiting for her to find them.