Of Pirates, Magical Trinkets and a World's Beginning
Fields, patches of forest and tiny matchbox-like houses drifted by, occasionally obscured by the wispy shroud of clouds. It was a magnificent view and on sunny days, the captain could spend hours standing at the large windows that made up the back wall of his lavish cabin in the aft of the ship, watching the landscape trail behind.
He’d worked in the maritime fleet of Shenkuu for ten hard years, tirelessly climbing up the ranks and working towards his dream of joining the elite sky fleet that delivered cargo all over Neopia. Ten more years of even harder work and he’d become captain of his very own skyship. The sight of the landscape unfolding before him, as seen from the windows of the cargo ship as it lumbered lazily across the sky, had made every difficult minute, every shred of hesitation, every secret tear so very worth it.
But even that had been five years ago. Since then, things had gotten so very, very complicated. There was that business with the pirates. Just business, he kept telling himself, nothing but good clean business… but so difficult to keep a decent handle on. And the shaky, insecure alliance he was working so hard to forge in defense against the pressing threat of piracy. Yes, they were on the brink of extinction, yes, soon they’d be weeded out for good… yes, this was just their last brave and futile stand on the dusk of the age of piracy, soon to be replaced by a much brighter, cleaner tomorrow.
But despite his clever game, despite his good handle on the precarious situation, the sleepless nights, the ever-present stress and the lack of proper food were starting to take their toll.
The captain ran a shaky paw over his face and tried to focus on the papers before him. Last night, he’d dreamed of Mother again. Would Mother approve of what he’s doing with his life now… what he’s become?
His head was hazy and the words swam before his eyes without reaching his brain. He shook his head, took a swig of water from a glass on the table and turned to open a side window to let some fresh air in.
In doing so, his eyes fell on a tiny figure who’d been creeping along behind stacks of documents on the side table that stood next to the window and who now jumped, obviously taken unawares. Two round beady eyes turned to stare back at the captain with a certain brand of defiant guilt.
“…Mother?” he whispered uneasily.
There was a pregnant pause.
“I should probably be flattered,” the small figure said gruffly, “but I can’t help but feel that I should take offence on behalf of your mom.”
The captain blinked and forced the world back into focus. He really, really needed some proper sleep.
“Are you… a Meepit?” he asked with a scowl.
“Nah uh,” said the Meepit. “I’m a figment of your overworked and delirious imagination. Don’t mind me. I work in mysterious and otherworldly ways your mortal mind cannot possibly grasp. Go hit the bunk if you don’t want even more of us showing up in your imagination, some of us would prefer that the ship didn’t fall from the sky because its captain can’t get proper shuteye for a week due to some melodramatic guilty conscious shenanigans, thank you.”
“There is no guilty conscious,” the captain muttered with a deepening scowl, “all I’m doing is business…” He was most of the way asleep already.
“Yes, excellent, carry on as you were,” said the imaginary Meepit specter and watched as the captain’s head hit the desk with a thunk. Then he dropped onto the floor and scurried away, accompanied by the sound of quiet snores.
The ship was huge, big enough to accommodate long-haul cargo, the weaponry needed to handle these pirate-infested skies, and all the intricate carved woodwork a regal ship of this caliber needs to retain its dignity and empty the budget of enthusiastic ship commissioners with more money than taste. Nevertheless, its holds and hallways were filled with various crates, barrels, bags and all other paraphernalia, distributed evenly across the hull to keep it balanced, which made for excellent cramped spaces with a lot of hiding opportunities. Really, the ship had all but begged for a gang of Meepits to stow away in its belly and make use of the double opportunity to get someplace new and pinch some food while they were at it.
The scout who’d been sneaking through the captain’s quarters was named Bob the Destroyer, usually called Bob Squeaky for short, and he was the team’s top tactician. As such, he’d been sent ahead for the important double duty to eavesdrop on the ship’s current political climate for any information that might be good to know when you’re stowing away in a huge cargo ship in pirate-infested skies, and to see if there was some nicer officer-grade food that they could pinch. Now he returned to the rest of the gang of roughly a dozen little vagabonds who’d made themselves comfortable in a spacious gap between a box of lady clothes and a crate of shower gel, on the reasoning that nobody was very likely to want anything from either box during their voyage.
“Well?” asked Bloody Mary, the de facto leader of the gang due to the fact that nobody else was very keen on taking up that thankless task.
“Well,” Bob Squeaky said with a scowl, plopping down, “we’ve had more comfortable quarters. The captain is one of those clever-in-his-own-opinion types who’s playing several gambits with several sides all at once and if you ask me, one of those will blow up in his face all spectacular-like before he knows what hit him. And he doesn’t eat much of anything.”
Bloody Mary groaned. “I knew we should’ve gone with a pirate ship instead. They usually have a nice solid grasp on self-preservation and they like lavish food. Alright, on the plus side, that means that the ship is bound to have some mutinous underling who doesn’t like the way the captain is running things. Anyone know which way the officers’ quarters are?”
“That’ll be thataway,” said Justice, the team’s second-in-command and rememberer-of-important-factoids, pointing a paw.
“Excellent, then we’ll be going thataway.”
The Meepits formed a more or less orderly line and plunged into the maze of the ship’s bowels. They’d snuck aboard at the last docking point of the ship, following their noses and long since thoroughly honed tactical senses that moved them from place to place, or more specifically from kitchen to kitchen. On the whole, they ranked the big skyfaring cargo ship as a pretty good hideout: lots of nooks and crannies to hide in, decently lax security as far as food was concerned, overall a fast way to travel. Only problem was, they were stuck in a big lumbering box high above the ground. Seven out of ten, would maybe stow away in again depending on whether the captain does anything stupid.
“What are the gambits, then?” Justice asked, conversationally more than for any other reason as they made their way along the outer wall of the ship’s belly.
“The usual,” Bob Squeaky said dismissively. “He’s trying to forge an alliance with the budding flying fleet that the Lost Desert is building, not that his superiors know about this delicate little political move, hah, that’ll go over well, and he’s struck a deal with a pirate to force-slash-entice him to betray his crew in the hopes of gaining an upper hand in case they ever meet in battle.”
The Meepits nodded. As gambits went, this was standard fare. It seemed to be missing a beautiful maiden and a magical trinket of some sort, but the day was still young.
“See, this is what you get for being too ambitious,” said Bloody Mary, whose ambitions generally revolved around the next meal. “You’d think that captaining something like this is already a pretty sweet deal. Good solid pay, everyone always needs cargo moved, they could probably move a bit of cash on the side picking up passengers because that right there is a nice view,” he nodded at the nearby porthole where the patchwork landscape was still drifting calmly by. From Bloody Mary, who preferred his world up close and personal, that was high praise.
“They might not have a choice,” said Justice, who’d been keeping her ear to the ground. “There are a lot of sky pirates in this area, more than usual. I picked up whispers here and there in the town where we came aboard. They’re saying that there’s a war brewing… that the pirates are preparing one last stand to counteract the increasing strength of sky fleets.”
“Would they be called skyrates, then?” Santa chirped.
This elicited a pause, as Santa’s comments usually did. For the most part, she was easy enough to follow – well, possible to follow if you knew what to expect and paid attention, but her train of thought tended to run parallel to everyone else’s and frequently meandered off to take the scenic route through a pretty-looking valley in the distance.
“No, yeah, I can see that catching on,” Bloody Mary said thoughtfully.
“If they want to be all hip and edgy with their skyfaring technology, they’d probably like the term,” noted Bob Squeaky, a born traditionalist. “Sets you apart from boring ol’ seafaring pirates. That’s exactly the sort of thing a bunch of obnoxious kids would do: take a perfectly good ship, tack on some flying magic, go careening off into everyone else’s windmills and what have you, and call themselves the Skyrates.”
They contemplated that particular point as they headed up a staircase and reached a new, better maintained level in the ship: it was lighter and less cluttered here and it looked like the floors got washed every now and again. In ship terms, sea or otherwise, this meant that the officers’ quarters were near.
“Really, though, why is it a ship?” Joe the Chef asked with a scowl. “I mean, as ships go, it’s a perfectly good one. Roundish hollow thing on the bottom, pokey things on top, sheets attached to pokey things. Textbook. Except that things that’re meant to fly look entirely different.”
“Things that’re meant to fly are usually just pokey things and very little else,” Bloody Mary agreed, casting a sideways frown at intricate, delicately carved designs that seemed to be going up in quantity the closer you got to nobby quarters. “Who’s even supposed to see most of this?”
“Well, we’re seeing it,” Justice pointed out.
“It’s probably an officer thing,” Bob Squeaky said. “Notice how there’s more pretty carved bitsybobs and less clutter the closer you get to officers? I’ll bet they use it for distraction, so that the officers are too busy looking at all this junk and won’t get in the way of actual work.”
As it turned out, most of the ship’s higher officers were currently all in the first mate’s cabin, sitting around a desk piled high with papers and having a hushed conversation. The door was locked, the windows barred, the guard outside stood halfway down the hall with extremely severe orders to stay this far from the door and not a step closer and also to not let anyone near or suffer eternal dishonor of his entire family. The Meepits found that to be excellent practice of secret potentially mutinous meetings, because this meant that they could sneak in without anyone else crossing paths with them.
“…cannot be avoided any more,” one of the officers was currently saying when the Meepits eased themselves into the room via one of the numerous obvious holes that always go completely unnoticed by Neopets. “There will be war.”
Bloody Mary clicked his tongue appreciatively. “Ooh, check them out, there’s a food cart. Now that’s a secret mutinous meeting I can get behind.”
“Bit close to the desk,” Bob Squeaky observed. The work desk of the first mate was standing by the wall, papers had been pushed aside to give room for the other conspirators to sit around and huddle in relative comfort. The food cart was right by the desk and the various snacks on it looked to be mostly untouched. Just the right time to be dropping in for some quick looting.
“Eh, they’ll be poring over some important map or other in a minute,” said Bloody Mary. “They always do. All we need is a high vantage point.”
If the officers had at all been paying attention, they would’ve witnessed a particularly beautiful display of organizational prowess, as the Meepits quickly and expertly divided the duties, sent two sentinels to climb to two separate corners of the room and then carried out a quick conversation with the sentinels by way of paw signs. From their vantage points, the sentinels got good view on the table and what the officers were doing around it. There was indeed a map, as there always is. The discussion lumbered on to potential forces here and here, a few meeting points with an ally here and also here, a delicate political area to be avoided right here, and – at this point the conversation dropped to a whisper as the officers bowed closer to the map – something about a magical trinket to be activated here to give the mutiny an edge.
When they drew back from their huddle, their food cart was much less untouched than before, not that anyone had still noticed. The Meepits converged again in a farther corner, much more loaded up than before.
“Now that’s what I’m talking about,” Bob Squeaky said approvingly, taking a beignet as payment for his sentinel duty and getting powdered sugar all over his coat. “Always trust mutinous underlings to eat lavishly as a way to appease their guilty conscious.”
“I don’t especially like their mutiny plans,” Justice pointed out with a scowl, long since used to paying attention to such things because it frequently affected the small gang’s undertakings and the others wouldn’t pay attention to such things because they knew Justice would. “They’re planning on using a magical trinket on board and turning the tide of the battle this way.”
Bloody Mary’s face turned dark. “Well, that’s got a fifty-fifty chance of blowing up in their faces. I posit that we switch over to a pirate ship as soon as we can.”
A muffled explosion could be heard somewhere outside as the ship shuddered and the officers all jumped up, their chairs falling backwards.
“That’s probably them,” Joe the Chef noted, quickly clearing out the last of his beignet. “Pirates tend to have very reliable timing.”
“Problem here is, we’d need to figure out who’ll actually win this one,” Bob Squeaky said, perking an ear as voices shouting ‘Pirates!’ could be heard farther up. “I mean, all it takes is for them to have a lovable hero of some sort here, probably with a wisecracking petpet and a foretold destiny, and they’ll take out an entire fleet of pirates before the storm has a chance to set in properly.”
This was a point to consider, having happened to them at least three times now. They finished their food in thoughtful silence and then wandered over to the food cart for more looting, as the officers had now all run out of the room to attend to more pressing matters.
“Boom, you’re the artillery expert,” Bloody Mary said. “What are this ship’s chances in a battle?”
Boom was a small Meepit with a perpetually sooty face, fairly little to show in the ear department, and an enthusiastically lax attitude towards explosives. He could be trusted to scope out the firepower of a ship as soon as they set paw on it, and probably most of the attacking ships’ capacities as well. His face set into a scowl.
“It’s well stocked,” he said, “the sort of ship you’d normally send out on a path like this. Mostly carronades, good range and full coverage on all sides, the crew seem to know what they’re doing.” From Boom, that was very high praise. “The question is how much practice they’ve had. The captain being out of sorts as he is, I wouldn’t be surprised if the crew won’t get proper orders at proper times, and then we can only hope that they’ll take initiative and fire properly. Which’d depend on how good they are at actual battles.”
Bloody Mary scowled, trying to navigate this information dump. “So what you’re saying is, one handsome foretold hero can in fact turn the tide here.”
The leader-Meepit sighed. “Figures. Let’s go scope their hero placement, then.”
To be continued…