The Song of the Skeith
For the third night in a row, the terrible howl rippled through the darkness, freezing the blood of the friends around the campfire. The flock of Babaas stirred in their sleep, and a few awoke with startled bleats and jumped up in a flurry of fuzz. Amon the Chomby leapt up to tend to them.
“What do you think it is?” asked Kasha the Kacheek. Her black eyes were wide and wondering. Like the rest there, all except Amon, she was Tyrannian, with a mop of untidy blue fur tangled with leaves and dirt.
“Nothing to worry about,” grunted Gritta, their leader. She was a huge, hulking Grarrl maiden, snout scarred from years of escorting Tyrannian travellers across the dangerous plains, and defending her flocks from stray monoceraptors, roaming Bearog packs and Babaa-rustlers. “Go to sleep.”
“I heard a story about a Werhond, born in Tyrammet and fed on Mutant Spyders until it got so big they had to drive it out into the jungle. It’s still there, seventeen feet long and thirsty for revenge!” Lakki was an Usul, and Amon wasn’t sure he liked him very much. He treated everything like a huge joke, and his eyes were small and mean.
“Rubbish,” said Kasha, shivering and cuddling up to the nearest sleeping Babaa. “You heard Gritta. Go to sleep.”
Lakki eyed Amon as the Chomby tiptoed back towards the campfire, trying hard not to wake any of the Babaas again. He took a bone from his hair and started picking his teeth with it. “What do you think, Cami?”
Amon bristled, but bit back his retort. Lakki had taken to calling him ‘Cami’ because he was coloured Camouflage, and so stuck out like a sore thumb amidst all the Tyrannians there. The Usul never failed to remind Amon that he must be ashamed of his Tyrannian heritage, or was trying to be something he wasn’t, and Amon had learned it was no good trying to argue. Lakki’s tongue was quick and sharp, and his tail was quicker—more than once, Amon had lost his temper and charged, only to find himself flat on his back in two seconds with Lakki’s tail wrapped around his ankle.
“I don’t know, and I don’t think we want to know. We’ll move on in the morning and leave it behind us.”
“Did you hear? Some of the herd went missing last night…and the night before that. Two scouts just up and vanished, poof! What could have happened to them?” Lakki’s eyes glinted malevolently in the darkness, watching Amon’s reaction.
“Go to sleep, Lakki,” grunted Amon, shuffling as far away from the Usul as he could get without leaving the comforting glow of the fire.
“That beast out there, whatever it is, got ‘em. It’s following us, always close behind. It’s sniffing out for weakness, and do you know what I think?” Lakki’s voice lowered to a creepy whisper. “Do you know who I think is the weak link?”
“GO TO SLEEP!” thundered Gritta, and both ‘pets cowered and put their heads down.
“I think…” continued Lakki, in a whisper so low that Amon could barely hear it over the crackling of the fire. “I think it’s you, Cami. The beast is after you. Night night, sleep tight.”
Amon curled up despondently with his tail tucked underneath his chin. He wished hard that he’d never agreed to accompany the herd. The truth was, he was frightened. One Chomby alone was easy prey for all sorts of dangers in the Tyrannian plains, and he needed to cross them if he ever hoped to get out of there. His father warned him against it and told him he was betraying his kind—just like Lakki said. When the others found out he was leaving the land, they seemed to treat him differently too. Even Kasha, who had been very welcoming at first, acted colder when he told her he planned to leave Tyrannia, and started laughing at Lakki’s cruel jokes.
At first, he hadn’t understood at all. Then Lakki shouted some taunt about him being ‘too good for the rest of us Babaa-herders’, and he thought he knew why the others didn’t like him around. He didn’t know what to do about it though. These pets loved being Tyrannian, and thought Tyrannia was the greatest place in all of Neopia. The fact that Amon didn’t like it, and in fact would rather be anywhere but here, was like he was insulting them.
He just couldn’t help it. He’d never felt at home here. Fighting, hunting and loud music, those were the most important things in the lives of most Tyrannians, and Amon was terrible at all of them. He’d chosen his Camouflage colouring because it let him slip unseen through the villages and valleys, moving amongst the wildlife unobserved, free to drink in the fabulous sights that the land had to offer. He recorded them all in his sketchbook, drawing and painting the rich and diverse flora and fauna he encountered. When his father had seen it, the grouchy Chomby had thrown the book in the fire.
“Sticks and stones, boy, how many times? You’re a Tyrannian, so start acting like one!”
Miserably, Amon curled himself up tighter at the memory. When he left, he’d had to sneak away in the dead of night, taking his most precious belongings—pressed flowers, a fascinating fossil, an assortment of drawing instruments and paints—and left only a brief note explaining to his father where he’d gone. Almost everything he’d taken was lost now, dropped or stolen on the long march across to where Tyrannia joined Terror Mountain, where the herd was taking its flocks of Babaas and Zebies to find better grazing and trade with the small towns at the border for rare goods to bring back to Tyrammet. Now, he had only his favourite Charcoal Pencil and a small pouch of Neopoints, which he hoped would be enough to give him a new start in Terror Mountain.
Another long howl rent the night, and Amon buried his head in his forefeet, wishing himself far away.---
A tangled dream of snow in the jungle and a cackling Usul pelting him with bones gave way to a sudden pain in Amon’s forehead. For a second, he thought Lakki really had thrown a bone at him. The Chomby blinked blearily, and looked around for what had hit him. It was a chunk of hot, blackened rock, still slightly smoking.
The campfire had burned out long ago, and the sun already hung high above the trees. The sheltered gap in the rocks they had chosen to camp was now completely deserted. Amon realised that with his Camouflage colouring, he blended exactly with his surroundings and looked for all the world like just another rock.
“Where is everyone?”
He listened hard for the voices of his companions, for Gritta barking orders or Lakki’s mocking laugh. There was only a low rumbling sound coming from beyond the ridge. With a start, Amon saw the tracks; a trail of hoof and claw prints, tracing over the dusty rocks and out into the plains. They had left without him.
“Wait for me!”
Amon scrambled hastily over the ridge and blinked in the bright midday light. The high orange sun made the plains of Tyrannia shimmer and blur, until all Amon could see was heat-haze. He could hear the herd thundering across the plateau, and followed the sound as fast as his legs would take him.
“Wait! Please wait!”
“Can’t stop, can’t stop!” shrieked a flock of Pteris swooping low at the tail end of the herd. “Hurry, hurry!”
“Don’t leave me!” Amon cried frantically, launching himself into a faster run.
Ahead of him, the sea of migrating Tyrannians churned and thrashed without a familiar face to be seen. Grarrls roared, Poogles snorted, Acaras snapped and gnashed their teeth as he tried desperately to catch them up. His friends must be here somewhere, surely they had noticed he wasn’t with them?
He quickly realised the rumbling was not only caused by the hoof and claws pounding on the earth. The ground vibrated faster and faster, and great cracks split the rocks of the plateau. He chanced a look behind him. The sky had turned black with ash and smoke, streaked with bright orange fire. Frightened Niptors squeaked and shrieked, pelting as fast as they could away from the erupting volcano.
“HELP! Wait! Stop, don’t leave me!” Amon pushed himself harder, stretching his neck, legs and tail as far as they would go, anything to go faster, get away, he had to run…
The ground seemed to vanish below him; one second, his feet were firm upon solid rock, the next, there was only thin air. His strangled yell was cut off as he plunged into the newly opened canyon, and he was swallowed by the earth.
Lying on his back, he watched streaks of fiery orange and blood red tear across the sky, streams of smoke trailing across the clouds and blotting out the sun. Any moment, and the lava would find him, and he couldn’t move at all. He was so tired, so afraid. He let his eyes close, turning his head to nestle among the rocks, and hoped it would all be over soon.
Amon barely heard the howl over the cracking, rumbling noises from above, but his eyes opened nonetheless, and he found himself staring into a deep cave just a few yards away. A light shone close by, deep and green, and he could smell water, and fresh-cut ferns…
Two huge claws floated over his vision, and Amon felt himself being lifted up from the ground, and then his brain refused to take in any more and everything faded to black.---
When Amon awoke, the ground seemed to be moving, and for a moment he was sure he was back at the volcano, about to be covered in scalding lava. Then he realised that wherever he was, it was cool, and dark, and the surface he rested on was apparently breathing.
He tried to get to his feet, but the swaying, rocking, jolting motion meant that he only managed to roll over onto his belly with all four legs splayed. To either side, he saw luminescent turquoise scales, ridged with green spines and rippling in the strange, shifting light. Just ahead, a pair of translucent wings sprouted from the scales and lay flat and shimmering. The creature was several times his size, with legs thicker than his whole body.
“Awake?” Its voice was strangely soft and musical.
“Y-yes,” stammered Amon, trying to look in the direction the voice came from.
“Good. Forgive me, we cannot stop. We’ve left the eruption far behind, but a few of the tunnels collapsed, and more may do so. We must get further in.”
“Who are you?” Amon wondered, craning his long neck.
The creature’s back rumbled and shook, and Amon had to grab on tight to a thick green spike.
“I’ve quite forgotten my name, I’m afraid,” the thing said. “I’ve been down here so long with no one to talk to but the trees and the Slogmoks. I think it’s made me a bit peculiar, to be honest. And who are you? I took you for a rock at first, back outside my cave, until I heard you whimpering.”
“I’m Amon.” The Chomby heaved himself up to sit properly, astride the creature’s spine. “And…I’m sorry, but what are you?”
The creature’s laugh rumbled through its whole body, and echoed pleasantly along the walls of the cavern.
“I am a Skeith. It’s been a long time since anyone from the Up Above World has seen me, so I’m not surprised you’ve all forgotten. There used to be tales of a great dragon living below Tyrannia, who crept out at night to eat up disobedient little ‘pets. You’ve never heard them?”
Amon had heard fairy stories of terrible beasts lurking in dark caves beneath the ground, just like all children in Tyrannia, but coming face to face with a living, breathing fairy tale beast was far more than he’d ever expected. He took a few deep breaths, and tried to take it in.
Their surroundings were shifting. So far, the caverns had been close and mossy, with the occasional underground pool. Stalactites hung so low that Amon often had to duck or risk a sudden headache. As they progressed, the caves they travelled through grew wider and lighter. Shafts of light trickled down to the cavern floor, illuminating the gently drifting dust and making it look like stars were falling. Plants grew down here: soft carpets of moss and finely bladed grass; giant fronded ferns with bright purple flowers, shifting gently as they passed; creeping vines criss-crossing the ceiling, looping down to brush Amon’s head.
In silence, they made their way further and further into the earth, the path twisting and turning and sloping down and then slowly up again until the rock walls retreated and revealed a glittering glade, open to the darkening sky above and half covered in dense, jungle-like trees.
“There. We should be safe enough here.”
Twilight was fast approaching, and over the lip of the rocky opening, Amon could see a hint of fire in the sky to the west.
“We must have come very far.”
The Skeith nodded, and extended a leg to let the Chomby clamber carefully down to the ground. “Many miles and more. It’s been a while since I’ve been back here myself—I’ve been exploring the further caves for a few months now. I’d better say hello.”
Before Amon could ask, the Skieth threw back its head and howled.
Amon gasped and shrank back. “It—it was you? You’re the beast who’s been eating scouts and terrorising the herd?”
The Skeith tilted its head, and looked confused. Now that Amon thought about it, that howl didn’t sound half as blood-chilling as he’d thought. No…it wasn’t scary at all. It was sad.
“You might have heard me, I suppose. I can’t help it; my song is my way of talking to the world, and all the things in it. It’s how I call my friends, and it’s how I find my way through the deepest caverns. But I’ve never eaten anyone, that I know of at least. I saw a few scouts from your herd a day or so ago, abandoning their duty to go swimming. Perhaps they just decided not to go back.”
Amon relaxed, and heard a high chittering sound coming from behind him. He turned, and saw a dozen fuzzy purple shapes ambling towards them over the grass. Their eyes were glowing brightly, and they seemed excited, but they were still moving incredibly slowly.
The Skeith crooned softly at the sight of them, then beckoned to Amon.
“Come on, let’s settle down at the lake. They know we’re here now, they’ll be with us in their own time.”
Amon turned away and followed his host through the grass. Its huge feet left a clear path for the Chomby to follow, so he didn’t have to fight his way through the reaching ferns and long, waving grass.
The lake was more of a pool. The glittering lagoon was only a few metres wide, and couldn’t have been more than a tailspan deep, but it reflected the violet sky and the stars which had started to peek out from behind the clouds. Looking at its surface was like looking down a bottomless pit, and Amon wondered if he fell in, whether he’d be able to get out again.
The Skeith cleared a space for them with her tail, sweeping away dried sticks, dead vegetation and stray rocks, and settled down beside the pool. Amon crept up to the very edge of the water, unable to look away from it. It frightened him, but the colours, the ripples, and the secrets he was sure it would hide were too fascinating.
“What brings you here, Amon?” the Skeith asked softly.
“My herd…we were travelling across the plains, herding Babaas…”
“No.” The creature didn’t seem angry, but its voice was firm. “That might have been the excuse, but it is not the reason you were travelling.”
“Well…” Amon hesitated. He had never really tried to put into words what he felt about Tyrannia before. “This isn’t my home. I mean, I live here, I grew up here, but it’s not for me. I’m not like the rest of them. All they do is make fun of me, laugh at everything I say, and call me names. My own father thinks I’m a waste of space.”
“What do you want to be?”
“I don’t know! That’s just it! I just know I’m not cut out to be a hunter or a fighter or a rock singer. I want to find out what the world is like, and find my space in it!” Amon realised he was shouting, and his own voice came echoing back down to him eerily.
“That is a good dream,” the Skeith said, nodding.
Amon felt a scratch at his shoulder, and twisted his had sharply to come face to face with a pair of drooping eyes. The creatures from the jungle had finally ambled over; they were Faerie Slogmoks. The Skeith welcomed several of them, allowing them to crawl over its body and shelter underneath its bulk. Amon’s Slogmok clung to his neck as if it were a tree branch.
“Where do you think you will go?”
“I don’t know. I wondered…Terror Mountain…”
“Hmmm.” The Skeith regarded him with a solemn gaze. “Perhaps we can help.”
Amon looked up quizzically. The Slogmok around his neck began to hum. Soon, all the others joined in too, and the sound echoed through the entire valley, soft at first then building to a gentle crescendo.
The Skeith took a great breath, and began to sing.
The song was haunting, gentler than any lullaby Amon had ever heard yet infinitely sadder. He couldn’t understand the words, but it spoke to him of forgotten dreams, lost opportunities, future possibilities, and long, lonely nights. Even after the Skeith stopped singing, the sounds reverberated in his brain, lulling him and making his brain fizz all at the same time. He thought of cool forests, secret towers, long lost artefacts, fountains of sparkling, multi-coloured water…
“I let others decide my fate. I allowed myself to be ridiculed. For years and years, I found I wasn’t welcome anywhere, so I made my own place. This place. I am happy enough, but I think of the years I wasted when I was younger, trying to make myself fit somewhere that I would never be truly content.
“Find your own place, Amon. It may take years—you may never find it—but try.”
Amon nodded, suddenly feeling much more awake. The sky glowed above him in rich sunset hues, and it felt as if someone had lit a fire in his eyes.
“Can you help me?”
The Skeith raised its head and smiled, then got up and came slowly over to the Chomby. It lifted a massive finger to stroke the Slogmok that had made itself at home around Amon’s head.
“She’ll go with you. Keep her safe, and remember this place. Remember the Song.”
“What should I do?” asked Amon.
The Skeith’s smile grew wider, and its eyes glittered in the soft light. The Slogmok clung even tighter to Amon’s neck, and before the Chomby could brace himself, the Skeith shoved him hard in the chest, and he was falling down, down, down into the pool.---
The cold was intense. Amon thought he might have been floating in space, among the stars. He tried to gasp for air, but only water entered his mouth. His throat burned and his eyes bulged, then suddenly, the cold, and the wet vanished, and he was panting down lungfuls of musty air. The shock lasted only seconds, and Amon found himself in a deserted stretch of a tunnel that might have been dug by a Snowbunny, judging by how tiny it was. The Slogmok smacked its lips, then pointed one claw down the tunnel ahead of the Chomby, then shifted, making itself comfortable and closing its eyes. Amon shrugged, and set off in the direction it had pointed.
It felt like years of walking and crawling through the cramped tunnel. Amon’s feet ached, his belly rumbled, and his neck twinged from holding it low to avoid the ceiling. Another step…and another…
After what might have been a hundred miles, the tunnel narrowed and sloped sharply upwards, and Amon had to get down on his belly to fit through. His Petpet clung ever tighter to his neck, swinging to and fro with his movements. At last, the earth above his head shifted, and fingers of light broke through from the surface.
Amon pushed up with his head and found himself blinking in the sunlight. His forelegs were next, and he struggled and kicked to pull himself up out of the hole. Anyone watching would have the impression that a strange, rock-coloured plant had just grown at superspeed, until his lower legs were freed and he managed to kick himself completely out of the ground.
The air was cool and fragrant, and the sound of running water was very close. He heard laughter somewhere ahead of him, and caught sight of a pair of Flouds drifting through the trees.
Only a little nervous, Amon picked up his feet and began walking towards Faerieland, where his story would really begin. As he walked, he hummed, and the Slogmok joined him, until even the flittering Faellies were singing the Song of the Skeith.