Hoard: Part Two
The air at the top of the mountain was thinner than the rest of the world, which always sent me into a coughing fit when I got higher up. Every year without fail I struggled to breathe, at least for a little while. Alan apparently didn't know this because the second I started a coughing fit he freaked, scooped me into his arms (which just made me cough more; despite the layers he had on I could still feel his chill) and plowed his way to Taelia's igloo. He knocked furiously on the door and I waved my arms wildly, trying to stop him from making a scene.
"Alan! I'm fine! I just breathe funny in the thin air; will you stop banging on that door?!" At that moment Taelia answered and looked at us in puzzlement.
"I'm out of medicine and I can't leave my home, so unless you're here to help me, I'm afraid there isn't much for you here but a fire... Oh, hello, Alan." She stepped aside and left the door open, obviously expecting us to come in. I guess Alan frequented this place. I had never come here to do a quest, though some of my siblings were regulars. I shut the wooden door softly, admiring the carefully crafted igloo. Each block of ice was perfectly in place, the fireplace arranged so it would give warmth without melting the walls (I suspected faerie magic) and the chairs looked extra squishy and comfortable. I sank into one with a heavy sigh. Maybe coming here wasn't such a bad idea after all.
"Hi, Taelia. I thought that my new friend was sick, but... Um, I guess I was overreacting," he said, colour rising in his cheeks as he looked at the ground. "I'm sorry if we disturbed you."
Taelia smiled, so warm that I no longer needed the fire. She offered her large, fluffy blue coat to me, which I took gratefully. "No, my only patients are sleeping. Would you like something to drink?"
"Thanks, but no," he said, "we really do need to get Winnie to her parent's home. She's already running late and they're probably worried."
"So soon? But I so enjoy your company," she said, sounding disappointed. "Can I at least get you to do me one small errand?"
"You always can." I was getting a friendship vibe that contradicted what Alan had said earlier, but I kept it to myself. Taelia crossed her small kitchen and choose a small cloth bag, handing it to Alan.
"Please take this to Tarla whenever you get the chance. She'll know what it is. You can take your time." She nodded, gathered a snowbunny in her arms, and wandered to the back of her igloo, to attend to some ailing or lost Neopet, I guessed.
"So where does your family live?" Alan asked me as we left. I had abandoned the coat, though now I was kind of regretting that decision.
"In a lodge at the base of a mountain over there, I think." I pointed in the general direction I believed it was in. "We actually ran right past it while you were freaking out needlessly about my breathing," I teased.
"Oh hush," he muttered, taking larger steps and leaving me behind for a moment. "This is perfect, I can stop by Tarla's on the way there."
Tarla was another spot that I had failed to frequent. Every year I was up here, I tried not to wander far from either the house or the valley. Maybe I needed to get out a little more.
It took a good half an hour to get from Taelia's to Tarla's house, with me frequently climbing on Alan's shoulders so I could actually see something in the storm that was gathering. Oh, and my legs were freezing, but that was beside the point.
Tarla's combination house slash store was small, cozy looking, with a chimney spewing tons of smoke. I liked it already. Upon entering I saw how truly cramped it was-the walls were lined with shelves and shelves of merchandise, much of it spilling down to the floor. There was a single table, also covered in junk. Tarla was nowhere to be seen, though the backdoor was slightly ajar. Without saying a word Alan headed straight to it; I slapped myself mentally, knowing we could get into huge trouble if caught.
"Alan!" I hissed. "I'm pretty sure that's her private room, we can't go back there, come back!"
"Relax," he called out casually over his shoulder, "I know Tarla. I doubt she'll mind if we just drop it off back here. And besides, both doors were open." Hmmmm. Another friend?
I sighed and followed, not wanting to be left behind. After stepping on five different broken toys, three crumpled bags, and a petpet, I gave up and climbed to the ceiling, knocking some more bags to the floor as I did. Oops. Hopefully the contents weren't breakable. I scurried across the ceiling and into the room Alan was in. In comparison to the other room, it was a little cleaner, but that may have merely been the lack of anything but an unmade bed and a dresser. In the corner, a lot of the same blue bags were piled up, deflated. It was there I found Alan nosing around.
"Alan? What are you doing, are you trying to get us arrested?" I hissed from the ceiling. He pretended not to hear me and continued rooting among the abandoned bags.
"No, and we won't get in trouble. Just let it happen." Picking one bag for whatever reason, he pulled on the drawstring, opened it, and poked his head inside. He was promptly sucked in while the bag refastened itself, and it took me a good thirty seconds to process what had happened.
I dare you to guess what happened next. Go on.
If you guessed that Alan had popped out of the bag, grinning like a goof and holding a cheesy slushie, you were wrong. Tarla, the mysterious Ixi I had so often heard about, happened to walk in. I scurried to a hidden corner of the room, brushing off spyder webs, and watched her gather up the empty bags, all empty except for one. I could barely tell which was his; I only saw a slight lump. She gathered them all in a yet larger sack and left the house, once again leaving it unlocked.
I debated my options. Follow her in secret? She'd probably see me; it wasn't like there were a lot of trees I could use for cover. I could just plainly follow her... But that would admit breaking into her house, something I really didn't want to do at all.
This left one other option: go home. I still barely knew Alan. He would probably break out, or Tarla would open the bag and realize what happened, and everything would be okay. I wouldn't have to deal with it. The more I thought about it, though, the worse that option became. I might not have known Alan very long, but he was still my friend, and he would do the same for me. Mind made up, I popped her window open (replacing it very carefully) and climbed to the roof to see where she had gone. I was startled to see that she was about to enter the Ice Caves-how had she gotten there so fast?-and I was going to have to follow her footprints as inconspicuously as I could. A storm was picking up, so it wasn't going to be that hard. I was more worried I would lose the trail, and where was she going with those bags?!
Upon entering the Ice Caves, I was immediately lost and somehow colder. There wasn't any wind or snow-the only sound was made by the pets here, which was a bit unsettling-but since the caves were entirely made of, well, ice, there was nothing to give off any heat but myself. I regretted not bringing my thermal grippy gloves; without them, there was no way I was going to be able to sneak around on the cave walls.
And no snow meant no footprints. Luckily for me, though, the cave was empty and spacious; nothing was hidden from me. I quickly picked Tarla out from the few pets here (it wasn't like she was trying to hide, and if she were, she needed to lose the purple robe) and I followed her, trying to admire my reflection in the walls. I was worried that the stalactites, or stalagmites, I could never keep them straight, wouldn't fall on my head. I snapped myself away from that distraction and saw Tarla take a sharp right at the bottom of this slope and enter the biggest subcave in here. She left a few moments later, arms empty. When she passed me on her way back, I felt my body clench and tense up, preparing for confrontation. Tarla didn't give me a second glance. I let out a breath I didn't realize I was holding and skidded down the slope, nearly crashing into the wall. Note to self: don't slide.
I did stop dead in my tracks, though, when I saw what was in the cave. Having never been here before, besides the occasional trip to the Neggery with my siblings, I had no idea that waiting for me was a giant pile of treasure. Well, junk too, but a horde of amazing things. It took me a moment to even remember that I was looking for bags so I could save Alan. Somehow, I spotted them right away. Tarla had dumped them at the base of the pile, not bothering to do more with them.
Well, this'll be easy, I thought, practically skipping with happiness. I assumed I would just have to open the bag, let him out, and go home. Now that it was about to be over, the whole situation seemed rather humorous. I had just reached the bags and had begun to rifle through them when I heard a long, low, bone-chilling growl.
I felt paralyzed. I didn't want to turn and face the sound but I knew that just standing where I was was dangerous. Of course, my brain choose that moment to remind the legend of the Snowager. You know, the giant, grumpy ice worm that lives on a pile of treasure in the ice caves and blasts anybody that dares to intrude on him or wake him from his nap. Yeah, that giant ice worm. I was an idiot for not remembering that before! I could feel his misty breath on my shoulder and, too terrified to even scream, ran as fast as my four paws would take me.
I skidded at the top of the slope, right where I had started, breathing hard. The situation no longer seemed very funny. The enormity of the problem suddenly struck me. Alan was trapped, alone, stuffed in a magical bag, in the middle of a horde guarded by a ferocious giant ice worm. I wanted to curl up in the fetal position and cry, but if I tried I'd probably contract hypothermia, so instead I wandered. I would wander until I found a warm place to curl up in fetal position. I wandered and wandered, not paying the slightest bit of attention to where I was walking until I had bumped into a building. Looking up, I saw that my subconscious had led me to the Neggery.
Who better to save Alan than a faerie?
Kari was in some distant corner, watering some neggs. She smiled when she saw Winnie; although she only visited for a while every year, she came to visit Kari almost every day.
"Winnie! You're back! How was your year? I've missed you, you were always so helpful with the neggs." She finally looked at my face and noticed my downcast expression. "Winnie, what's wrong?"
I could feel myself tearing up, the stress of the last hour waiting to be released from me. I tried to cover my face with my paws, but Kari pulled me into a gentle hug. I explained everything that had happened. How I hadn't wanted to be here anyways but I ran into Alan, and we were becoming friends but how he had been trapped in a bag and I couldn't save him, where he was now, and how I didn't know what I was going to do. We sat there in silence for a while, me sniffling, her holding me, and the assistant standing awkwardly in the corner.
When I had gotten a hold of myself, she held me at arm's length and looked me right in the eyes. "Winnie, I really wish I could help you, but I can't. My duty is here."
I was devastated. Couldn't a faerie with an assistant leave her business for five minutes to help save my friend?
"But," she continued, "I can tell you how to help him. The Snowager is going to take a nap in about five minutes for an hour. In that time, if you're very, very careful and quiet, you should be able to snag the bag before he wakes up. And hopefully, before anybody else grabs it..." I nodded, understanding the hastily made plan, and ran for the abode of the Snowager.
Already a group of Neopets had gathered outside the cave, waiting to try and sneak something out during his nap. Not having been during his nap before, I wasn't sure what the etiquette was. Did I wait for someone to try and get something from the horde? Did we take turns, or could multiple groups go at once? It was greatly puzzling, not something I was familiar with. I spent a moment observing various groups pushing their way in, causing way too much noise and waking the Snowager up almost instantly. I felt bad for the poor thing. How did he get any sleep? It was bad enough he only slept three hours a day, and those were riddled with interruptions. One dejected hopeful looked at my un-blasted body with envy.
"He's really cranky today," the bedraggled Yellow Wocky said, "nobody's been able to get past him. I'd come back later, if I were you."
No, I was NOT going to come back later. I had a mission to do, a friend to rescue! I pushed past the Wocky with a hmph, defiantly marching for the cave with my head held high. Everyone stared at me in wonderment. I was crazy in their eyes and, truth be told, I probably was.
I lost a good bit of my nerve when I walked in. The Snowager had fallen asleep again, snoring softly. He looked almost peaceful in this state. Almost. It was disarming, that's for sure. I tiptoed past him, taking care not to step on any broken toy, make any scratch on the ice. I saw somebody try to come in and I shooed them away, making flapping motions with my arms. I didn't want anyone ruining my attempt.
Now that I was in the middle of the hoard I had to locate the bag Alan was in. I scanned the piles of trash, the loose toys and frozen snowballs, the scratchcards, weak weapons, and the bags! They were, of course, at the top of one of the taller piles. I was going to have to do some mountain climbing.
Gingerly, I placed the edge of my paw on what looked like a solid piece of plastic. It stayed and I put my full weight on it, looking for the next pawhold. I continued like this for several minutes, taking a step, pausing, and looking for the next niche. I was facing the Snowager, but was on the back of the hill, so I could hide if necessary. The blue bags were all piled at the top, and I sat on them gingerly. The Snowager grunted a little, but otherwise remained undisturbed.
Now the main problem. How was I going to get him down and out safely? I could open the bag up here and hope that the magic worked without sending us tumbling down. I couldn't see myself getting down this hill even without an added burden, and it was so carefully arranged that the Snowager was sure to hear as it went clattering down. Our only option was to move as nimbly and agile as we could around the blasts. One other problem. Which bag was his?
I was afraid to move the bags looking for him for fear we'd fall all the way down, so I sat there and stared at the Snowager. Very productive. The beast was starting to shift and yawn more often, and I feared he would soon wake up and trap us both here. Only thing I could think of was pick a bag and hope it's right.
As luck would have it (maybe a faerie had blessed me!) the very first bag I picked opened with ease and started to shoot sparks. This might not sound great but the sparks, mist, and blue smoke were a standard when you opened a mystery bag with something in it, and everything else had been empty! This had to be Alan!
Not only did it shoot out all sorts of interesting distractions and Alan, it also made a lot of noise that instantly woke the Snowager up. He was groggy (I don't think he'd ever slept interrupted for that long before) and confused by all the flying colours and sparks. I leaped rather gracefully off the pile, grabbed a still dazed and confused Alan, and ran like our lives depended on it. Mostly because they did.
I could feel ice on my back and I squeezed my eyes shut, preparing to become a Winnie-sickle. I tumbled and rolled, and rolled, and wasn't frozen? I opened my eyes, tentative, expecting the Snowager to be glaring down at me. Instead I saw Alan, eyes wide with concern. We had rolled all the way down to the base of the mountain, various icicles lodged into the ground behind us.
"Winnie? Are you okay?" he asked, scooping me up and making way for the Slushie store. "And what happened? First we were at Tarla's, then it was all dark, and suddenly I was running for my life from the Snowager!"
He sat me down in the same chair from that morning and bought extra-large slushies for both of us, then sat to listen to the story. I explained everything: how he had been sucked into a bag at Tarla's, how she deposited the empty bags at the Snowager's lair, and my valiant effort to rescue him. I might have exaggerated some. Just a little bit. I didn't really need to.
"Wow," he breathed, slurping and contemplating. "I'm sorry I put you through that, Winnie!"
"It's okay," I said, "You would've done the same for me, right?"
"Of course!" We finished our slushies, riding the lift again and going straight to my house. Hanging out with Alan definitely made the trip more enjoyable. We made it safely to mu home without any trouble, and the rest of my vacation was spent enjoying myself with no more incidents.
Although we wouldn't see each other until next year, Alan and I kept in touch, promising each other not to get trapped in a giant snow worm's hoard ever again.