The sun rose over the proud Portal City, illuminating rows of clustered shops with their neatly shingled rooftops, alleyways cobbled with stone of decades past, and above them all the white palace of the cruel King Jasper. Elline leaned against the little wooden door of her father's shop—her shop now, she reminded herself—and gazed up into the brightening sky, northward. Always northward.
Dinn meowed from inside, reminding Elline what she was supposed to be doing. "Guess it's about time to start for the day," she murmured to herself. She pushed the door in, hearing the familiar tinkle of the bell behind her, and propped it open with a piece of metal she had found in the sewers. Checking over her goods—a dagger here, a doll there, a box of jewelry off to the side—all arranged just where she wanted them, and the tables were teetering under the weight. Elline silently chastised herself for not buying some new ones the day before, but it was too late. The first customers were already trickling in.
"Mornin', Elline!" said Chaek, a kindly blue Acara who ran the shop a few doors down. "Foun' summ new treasures yestaday?" He made a beeline for the Just In table, which was quite full. Chaek was always looking for new things from the city's many adventurers. He perused the stack, oohing over a topaz, aahing over a rare book. Finally, he picked out a few things and brought them to her, counting out a handful of gold coins as he did. "Mr. Chaek, that's far too much," Elline protested upon seeing the coins.
He gave her a long look. "Ya're the best in all the city, ya know," he said. "All of us here can't thank you enough."
He was out the door before Elline could speak again, nearly toppling over little Dinn, who gave a piteous whine and sulked in a corner with her feed. Elline rolled her eyes and went to pet the Kadoatie before heading back to the counter to deal with a blustery Kougra lady who wanted a discount on the tinderbox.
* * *
Elline remembered the day he had left. The sun had shone just as brightly as ever, heralding the start of a glorious spring morning, but the city was in turmoil. The King had died suddenly, and the great portals of Neopia had disappeared. The Explorers' Guild, so influential in the King's court, so wealthy with goods from faraway lands, was reduced to scrounging in the dumps for survival. Elline's father, Renarr, had been a close friend of the King and one of the leaders of the Guild. He was now powerless under the greedy rule of Jasper. Renarr had resolved to travel north in search of the faeries, who, it was said, had the power to restore order in Portal City. Elline had begged to come along with him.
"You have to stay here," Renarr had insisted. "I haven't any money now that Jasper's taken it all for his hoard, and you need to run the shop."
"We don't have anything to sell!" she had cried. "There isn't anything coming from the outer lands anymore, and no one has any money to buy from us either."
Renarr's mouth pursed in a hard line. "Then you'll have to join the Guild."
"Then you'll be able to find things in the port or the tunnels or the topiary, and you'll have plenty of money. Please don't fret, Elle."
At the sound of his nickname for her, Elline began to sob. "Didn't you say, before, we would always find treasure together? And—and we'd split it evenly over a hot supper and a good bath?" She threw herself into Renarr's arms, not caring if anyone saw. "I can't do it without you, Papa."
He shook his head sadly. "The King was still alive then, and Jasper was just a little boy. I must leave if there is to be peace in Neopia again, but I'll be back. I promise." He squeezed her paw and stood up slowly, his traveling sack at his side.
Just minutes later, he was gone into the north, his shadow long in the morning light, his good-bye still fresh in her ears. Heads poked out of nearby doorways. "Wot? That Renarr? He's really going? The poor chap! And his girl still here to tend the shop. She's a good one, though, you know. She'll find plenty treasure. Just like her pa, see." The voices swirled around her, but Elline barely heard a word of it. Choking back tears, she turned to go inside and get her backpack. There was adventuring to be done, after all.
* * *
It had been over six months since his departure, and the ache was slowly fading. Elline had found herself a reliably good shopkeeper, and the Explorers' Guild had accepted her with open arms. It had been surprisingly easy to keep herself afloat in the chaos of Portal City.
Elline shook herself out of the cobwebs of times past and bustled around the little shop again, taking stock, giving pointed glances to the customers who appeared to be entranced with the wall fixtures. Then she heard the little bell on the door chime again. "Heeey, Elline!" came a cheerful voice. Elline turned, smiling as the familiar face came into view.
"Harry, you're late!" she chided the muscular young Gelert, who seemed to have a few extra cuts on his arms right then. "Another mishap on the Port?"
"Mmm..." Harry blew out a breath. "I 'member when it wasn't always dark there, when it was bright and sunny. Now there are pirates all over the place." He ran a paw over the small red scar under his left eye, created by a nick from a poisoned dagger, three months old and still healing. "It's a nightmare."
Elline sighed, fingering her now worn backpack. "Well, I'm heading out now. You can handle the shop while I'm away, right?" Without waiting for a response—Harry was notoriously irresponsible—she hefted it over her shoulder, shoving a still-grouchy Dinn under her arm, and set off for the Scurryway.
* * *
The underground chambers were oppressively dark, the air warm and heavy over the teetering piles of stolen goods waiting to be sold, the rows of carts carrying purloined food and weapons that Portal City was already so desperately low on. Elline stepped cautiously onto the narrow path, feeling the weight of eyes on her fur. The Scurryway was the home of thieves and fugitives, a place quite literally below the law, where only the hardiest adventurers dared go. Elline swallowed as she journeyed further from the safety of the light; it was only her third time here, and she had heard the horror stories about those who had never seen the sun again...
Suddenly the ground gave way beneath her paws. Elline found herself dangling on the edge of an enormous pit, her ankle thankfully catching a ledge but struggling to hold her weight, while Dinn looked down from above, blinking worriedly. Grunting, Elline scrabbled at the dirt as she strained to pull herself upward, but to no avail. Perhaps there was something in her backpack she could use? Keeping one paw firm on the edge of the hole, Elline dug into the scuffed bag with the other. The only thing in there was an old grappling rope. "It's not much, but it'll do," she muttered. She tossed the hooked end to the Kadoatie, who latched her exceptionally strong jaws around it and tugged with all her might. Slowly, Elline was lifted from the pit.
The rest of the maze flew by in an endless, nerve-racking whirl of careful steps and cautious seeking, and Elline could feel the heat of the glittering, shadowy eyes that seemed to lurk in the peripheries of her vision, always retreating behind a stall or building when she drew near. But she was richer now, that was for sure; her backpack was heavy with trinkets and coins. Treasure. And she was nearing the end now, just a around that bend. With Dinn following tensely behind her, Elline turned the corner, grasping the mudded side of an adobe wall, glancing around for booby traps—
A brutally sharp metal knife whizzed through the air and landed five centimeters from her left ear. Elline sharply inhaled, the air swirling from the disturbance. She swung around. There was the exit, a pinprick of light not far away, but before it stood a tall, menacing Ixi wreathed in a ragged cloak, his face slashed by a terrible scar, a cold smile on it as he fingered another knife. But Elline was ready. She pulled her deadliest weapon from its smellproof sheath at her side and held it up in the dank gloom. The tall thief quickly took a step back. It was rusty, being one of her first finds, and dull to the point of uselessness, but a Slimy Dagger's stench never faded. Something this would-be robber had just discovered.
"I could keep moving forward, you know," Elline said out loud, wondering where this confidence was coming from. "That cloak looks fantastic on you. Wouldn't want slime getting on it. I suppose laundry doesn't come cheap down here, eh?" The Ixi looked definitely unsure now. Elline advanced on him, waving the dagger. A few stray drops of shiny green attached themselves to his black overcoat, and with a yell of shame the thief fled, tripping over a stray rock as he went and opening up several nasty-looking wounds. Shaking her head cheerfully, Elline sauntered out, hoping her trembling knees didn't collapse on the way out.
* * *
When Elline wearily pushed open the little wooden door again, the sun had nearly finished its course through the sky. Harry looked up guiltily from the counter, where he was attempting to glue together pieces of a pot, thankfully worthless. "Um... it was an accident?" he said weakly.
Elline grunted. "Whatever." She rubbed some salve on her ankle, still throbbing from the accident with the pit. "Wasn't too bad today. Found plenty of stuff." She tossed her backpack onto the counter.
Harry gave a low whistle as coins came pouring out. "Not bad. You're getting like your old pa."
Elline felt the familiar pain of loss slide over her, but it faded sooner than it usually did. "Yeah, I guess so." She smiled, getting up to light the candles. "He'll come back one day. I know he will. And when he does, I'll be waiting at the door with mounds of treasure." The two friends glanced at one another playfully, saying at once:
"Finders keepers, after all."