Showdown at Brightness Reef: Part Three
Also by solsticesprite
In the remote, underwater frontier village of Brightness Reef, Sheriff Écueil watched as the morning sunlight filtered its way to the watery depths. He carefully groomed himself and donned his Squid Hat, khaki trousers, and the maractite boomerang and knife that marked him as the law in these parts. He was troubled.
Ever since the fall of Maraqua, Écueil had chosen to live far from cities and kings, unperturbed by politics and outsiders. Oh, he had to work to keep the peace, especially with Hank and his four cronies always trying to stir up trouble. But on the whole, Brightness Reef was a quiet, simple place where people minded their own business.
Until yesterday, that is. A Camouflage Flotsam, name of Tafiti, who couriered packages for the Peophinny Express, had returned to town with four cityfolk in tow. They'd hardly entered town when Écueil had had to break up a fight between them and Hank's crew. For their own safety, the sheriff had put them up at his homestead for the night. Turns out they were looking for a maractite deposit. The sheriff knew all about the maractite veins underlying his home; he'd lived there for years, and had found enough maractite to hew his boomerang and dagger by hand.
Now it seemed word had gotten out, and several folk wanted a piece of it. Tafiti was there because the Peophinny Express wanted it to ease travel. Phidianne, a nice enough Hissi girl who slung a mean grog, was there representing the Mystery Island government, and had hired Piestrzyca, a big-city Maraquan Buzz, to help find it.
The Buzz could breathe underwater naturally. Tafiti had a water-breathing potion, and the Mystery Island government had procured a rare magical kelp necklace for Phidianne. Their two Lutari companions weren't so lucky. Bizhiw, a friendly Red Lutari, and Surgingsong, a graceful Disco Lutari who taught formal dance, had to make do with scuba gear, so the sheriff had let them camp a ways away in a natural air pocket in the reef. As much as Écueil would have liked to be left alone, he had been moved by the Lutaris' purpose for seeking the maractite: to armor a ship with the water-resistant mineral so it could penetrate the Lutari Island storm and bring news and relief to that beleaguered land, which was suffering much as Maraqua had during the Curse.
He chewed thoughtfully on a piece of home-grown Coral Beef jerky, and slowly stirred his bowl of Yolk Beans with a wriggling Spoonfish. With any luck, he thought, these strangers will be on their way, and life can get back to normal.
That morning, the two Lutari were abruptly awakened by the "pea-da-doodle-DO!" of a particularly strident Peadackle. Just as they were about to head back to Écueil's ranch house, Surgingsong pulled Bizhiw back under the coral overhang and gestured for silence.
Familiar voices grew clear. The Maraquan gang from the saloon were sneaking up on the ranch house, and planning an assault. Hank ordered two of them to stand lookout at the ranch house while the other three "took care of business."
"Come on, Surge," whispered Bizhiw. Surgingsong pointed up, then to the right. With nearly perfect synchronization, the two Lutari launched straight up through a school of curious Kora and spun in an arc behind the coral wall, out of the Maraquans' sight. Although the Maraquans were in their element, none of them could match the raw swimming power of a Lutari, and certainly not two Lutari on a mission. The Lutari soon outpaced them, completely unnoticed.
Minutes later, two shady Maraquans, Cam, a Bori, and Lou, a Pteri, acting on Hank's orders, crept around to the front of the ranch house. To their delight, Phidianne was alone in the front seabed, gathering oysters. With surprising stealth, they sneaked up behind her. Cam grabbed her wings from behind, clamping his clawed hand over her mouth, while Lou yanked the kelp necklace off her neck.
Phidianne gasped for air, but soon collapsed to the ocean floor. "Serves you right," snarled Cam. Lou shushed him, and signalled a retreat.
The moment they turned their backs on Phidianne, she sprang up and clobbered Cam with a single, well-aimed Hissi Strike. Tafiti appeared as if from nowhere and dispatched the Pteri with a mighty whap of his flippers. As the would-be thieves found themselves pressed down into the muck, they looked at the Hissi and Flotsam with disbelief.
"Simple, boys," she purred. "That's not the real necklace. And there's more than one way to breathe underwater." Tafiti held up his potion with a flourish. "And now you're going to tell us what your friends are up to."
Cam spat. "No way."
"Then perhaps you'd like to chat with the sheriff?"
Écueil emerged from his house, gripping his boomerang upright, ready to snap it with full force. He held it between Cam's eyes. "I suggest you talk. Now."
Cam panicked. "Fine! They know you've got maractite somewhere here in the reef. If they can find it first, they can stake a claim with the New Maraquan government, and get you kicked out as a trespasser."
Écueil's skin darkened in anger from its usual Maraquan teal to blue. "You thieving lowlifes, I oughta..." Regaining his composure, he grabbed the Bori by the fins. "Where is Hank now?"
"Out back, by the biggest bubbling pit. Lou found a big chunk of maractite there. Hank's going to blow the coral wall open."
Écueil looked away in shock. "He can't. The coral, it's a living thing. All the petpet flocks depend on it. We've got to stop him."
Phidianne put a comforting wing around Écueil. "Don't worry. I've got an idea."
Écueil pulled away. "I'll handle this myself."
Tafiti looked up at the sheriff, keeping the struggling Pteri pinned to the ground. "Please, Sheriff. They'll destroy everything this community has built here. Maybe you could handle it alone, but you don't need to take that risk."
Sensing Écueil's resolve weakening, Phidianne added calmly, "You may not want our help, but you've got it anyway."
Cam scoffed. "Really, Sheriff? You gonna let some outsider, some girl, fight your battles for you?"
The sheriff's face relaxed as he looked down at the defeated Bori. "No. I'm going to let a good woman fight alongside me."
Hank, the Kyrii, and his two remaining henchmen stood between a large bubbling pit and a high, fluorescent wall of coral. A school of Dartail and Kora were swarming playfully around a large orange anemone high on the wall. Gordy, the Grarrl, chomped the rock near the pit and spit out a mouthful of gabbro and a greyish metamorphic rock with glowing blue stripes. "Found some more, boss," he grunted.
Hank raised his fists in triumph. "Yes! This is definitely the place."
Moe, the Acara, scooped mud around the feet of a telescope to hold it in place on the ocean floor. "You sure this Virtupets gizmo is going to work?" he grunted.
"Trust me." Hank flashed his most sincere smile, his maractite tooth glinting evilly. "That stupid sheriff won't know what hit him, and we'll be rich. All we need is the mother lode, and this," he intoned, patting the telescope, "will find it for us. Once I hit this switch, it'll blast anything that moves, starting with all these little fishies swimming around the coral. Yep, sure was nice of that pirate to donate it to us."
Gordy's brow furrowed. "I don't want to get blasted."
"Then don't move, numbskull."
"Nothing doing. I'm outta here." Gordy stormed off, turning past an outcrop of coral to get out of range of the telescope's laser eyebeam. A cloud of mud, stirred by his powerful tail, trailed in his wake.
"Don't let him just go off," protested Moe. "We might need him."
"Eh, he'll be back. I got more important stuff to worry about," drawled Hank importantly. "Now stand back, and don't move if you value your tentacles." Hank moved to trigger the switch.
"I wouldn't do that if I were you," said a voice from above.
Hank and Moe spun towards the coral wall. "Who's there?"
Piestrzyca's head popped up at the top of the coral wall, revealing his hiding place. "Give it up, boys. The sheriff'll be here any second. Walk away now, and no one gets hurt."
Hank sneered. "Nice try, lobsterface. My boys are seeing to him. You got nothin'. I suppose you're going to stop me all by yourself?" Hank held up his flipper and paused, daring the Buzz to act, then activated the laser telescope.
Even from the top of the coral wall, Zyc could hear the telescope hum as the laser powered up. He smiled enigmatically. "No, I don't suppose so. But Surge here might." Zyc retreated out of view.
Moe looked around in panic. "Hank, what are you laughing at? This could be an ambush! Where's this Serge guy?"
"Who cares? That coward was lying. Even if he wasn't, it's still two against one." As Hank spoke, the telescope emitted a final series of beeps, warning that it was about to fire.
"Hardly seems fair," Surge's voice came out of nowhere, "but I'll try to take it easy on you." The orange anemone seemed to detach from the coral wall, and a pair of pink eyes suddenly appeared on the cliff face. Without his scuba gear, Surgingsong's Disco colours, usually so flashy, had camouflaged him perfectly on the pastel canvas of the coral reef. Phidianne's kelp necklace took the place of his usual gold medallion.
Before Hank and Moe could react, the Lutari sprang from the wall, surging through the water like a torpedo. The telescope, responding to the motion, fired. Surgingsong dove and rolled, dodging the laser and drawing its fire away from the coral. Hank and Moe scrambled to avoid the spinning telescope's blasts.
Just then, an unusually large Bubblisaur appeared at the top of the wall, like a blue dragon, carrying Zyc, Tafiti, Phidianne, and Écueil. Zyc snapped his claws with amusement, seeing the look of consternation on Hank's face. "I wasn't lying, son. The cavalry has arrived."
Tafiti paused despite himself, in awe at Surgingsong's acrobatics, then took off like a bullet to draw the laser fire away from the panting Lutari. Catching his breath, Surgingsong laughed, and then returned the favor, keeping the laser firing harmlessly between the two powerful swimmers.
With the laser telescope distracted, Phidianne and Piestrzyca pinned down Moe's tentacles, subduing him. Écueil advanced on Hank. "Hank Roe, I'm placing you under arrest for trespassing, claim jumping, and anything else I might happen to think of."
Hank's face contorted in unbridled fury. Falling backwards, he grabbed the telescope and tried to aim it at the sheriff. The autogyros in the telescope twisted the tube out of his flippers, blasting its lasers instead at the struggling Acara. Phidianne, Zyc, and Moe dove for cover.
Hank fled. As he passed Moe, the Acara grasped onto him with every suction cup his failing tentacles could muster. The abandoned telescope rotated towards their motion, and fired. With a shriek, Hank yanked Moe's clinging limbs away and shoved the Acara into the arcing path of the laser.
With only seconds to act, Écueil hurled himself at the Acara, knocking him out of harm's way, as he snapped his boomerang at the telescope. The boomerang smashed the telescope's lens, and became jammed in the tube. The overloaded laser whined sharply, then discharged one final blast focused directly on the boomerang's large maractite crystal. The laser light split, refracted by the pure mineral, spraying into the bubbling mud beneath the winded sheriff. The volcanic gases from the vent, excited by the sudden infusion of energy, overheated and ignited. The water flashed blue as the vent exploded.
Our heroes were momentarily stunned and deafened by the shock wave. When the silt settled, they found Hank and Moe lying unconscious near the wreckage of the telescope, and Écueil lying in a crater two fathoms deep on an exposed slab of glowing maractite bedrock. The sheriff's scales pulsed with blue energy.
Piestrzyca scuttled down to the fallen sheriff while Tafiti and Surgingsong stood guard over Hank and Moe. Zyc's voice was grave. "He's hurt. I don't think he's going to make it."
Phidianne sank down next to him. "I don't see any wounds."
Zyc shook his head. "Don't you see? Écueil has maractite poisoning. All this time, living on top of a volcanic maractite vein, working the stone, breathing the gases. The laser blast just pushed him over the edge. His skin's tougher than ever, but the internal damage is killing him." Zyc's voice caught, unable to continue.
Phidianne swam out of the pit and beelined for Tafiti. Grabbing his satchel, she riffled through the fruit juice bottles he had packed. "Foozette... BluePepper, maybe?... Appriberry, good... very good." Her mind raced.
Finally she looked up. "Tafiti, go as fast as you can and fetch one of Mesquitte's Gravitic Urns. Écueil's life depends on it."
Tafiti snapped to attention.
"And see if she has any Strong Berries." She bent back over the satchel, dismissing him.
"Aye, Captain." Within moments, he was out of sight. Surgingsong looked impressed.
Phidianne continued perusing the satchel. "Merryberry... Nurako, good... Elppa couldn't hurt... Golden Juppie... Honeyplume, yes, I'll need sugar to bind it together." The wet honeyplume flask slipped in her hands. "Zyc, I need your help here," she ordered, without looking up. "Get Bizhiw to keep an eye on the prisoners. Where did he vanish to, anyway?"
"Present and accounted for, Phidianne," said Bizhiw, swimming out from behind the coral wall.
"Present, maybe, but not accounted for. Where have you been?"
"Befriending Gordy." Bizhiw smiled. "He remembered I bought them a round of drinks, so I got him to talking. Turns out he's as big a Yooyuball fan as I am."
"Well, that's one way to keep a big scrapping Grarrl out of a battle, I suppose," laughed Zyc, arranging the bottles that Phidianne handed him. Even in her deep concentration, Phidianne couldn't repress a smile. "Where's Gordy now?"
"We heard an explosion, so Gordy raced back. When he saw what happened, he tore off in a rage."
Phidianne emptied the last flasks from the satchel. "Orangomelon... Purplum... Skrazapod? No... Thornata, of course." She smiled contentedly, despite her worry. "We have a fighting chance if Tafiti can come through with that mixing urn."
Right on cue, Tafiti coursed into view. With the last of his strength, he sped to Phidianne and slumped, gasping, in the mud. With a croak of triumph, he rolled onto his side. In one flipper, he held up the purple urn; in the other, a single red Strong Berry.
With the efficiency of a master barista, Phidianne quickly fed juice after juice into the urn. Drawing Écueil's maractite dagger from his belt, she impaled the red berry on the blade. She then inserted the dagger into the urn's long neck, and carefully stirred.
"Even unconscious, he can still hear us," said Bizhiw. "Keep talking to him, everyone."
Phidianne poured a few drops of the nectar into the sheriff's mouth, and gripped her tiki tight in her fist. "Hold on, you tough old snake, hold on." Écueil sputtered and opened his eyes feebly.
Phidianne breathed a sigh of relief. "Thank the elders, you're going to pull through. Just sip the rest of this slowly."
Écueil lifted the urn weakly to his lips, then paused, seeing the maractite pattern glowing in his skin. "What happened?"
"You were zapped by a ray, and now you're a Maractite Hissi, tougher than ever. And speaking of maractite, you're lying on a massive slab of it." She twisted the tiki hanging around her neck in a gesture of gratitude, and noticed for the first time that a few strands of magical kelp had tangled in her tiki necklace. "But there's plenty of time to discuss that later. The coral's safe, and so are you, and that's good enough for now."
Special thanks to Ike (solsticesprite) for the use of Surgingsong and Piestrzyca, and for numerous story ideas!