The Heart of Spring:Part Four
"Go! Everybody out!” Rachelle shouted through the chaos. I was frozen in place as Alli drew two ancient-looking scrolls, standing directly in the brown Skeith' path. In a heartbeat, she was a whirl of magic. Deep yellow magical blasts flew around the Skeith, distracting it.
“Turn!” I heard Mint yell. “She’s going to---”
My vision went completely white, stinging my eyes. I squeezed them shut, staggering backward. I crashed into something, knocking what felt like a plant over onto my head.
I blinked away massive clouds of retina burn, trying to get my bearings. Alli still had the Skeith's attention, but the dark faeries had left its ears and were no longer visible to me, although I could still smell them over the musty scent that I suspected was Alli’s magic.
Aqua, standing near one wall, tossed a bowl at the Skeith, managing to hit its leg. The bowl smashed. “Bad, bad!” the Usul squealed.
In a flash of black, Jango leaped forward, grabbing Aqua by the scruff and dragging her out through the door, her feet dragging as she squirmed.
“Storm!” shouted Luna, prodding my shoulder. “Are you alright?”
I shook out of my daze, dirt from the fallen plant scattering around me. “Yeah. Let’s go.” I bounded out of the house, cursing my slowness and looking for Sunbeam.
I found the heart of spring at the edge of the forest, Rachelle and Mint standing beside her. Each of them were in combat with a dark faerie. I started sprinting away from the home, and Sunbeam followed me.
“Where are we going?” she asked, a hint of a terrified whine in her voice.
“Away from here.” I kept up the pace through the town, narrowly avoiding crashing into citizens. One boat was just beginning to pull away from the harbour. I got a running start and leaped onto it without thinking of how Sunbeam would board. To my surprise, she managed to leap nearly as far as I did, although she whacked her back leg on the railing.
The ship, predictably enough, was a pirate ship, and only slightly scruffier than Lemarque’s ship. A good half dozen pirates who’d been on deck were now staring at us.
“Hey!” growled a pirate eyrie, glaring down at me. “What do you think you’re doing with that crazy stunt?”
“Please, we’re being pursued. We need off this island. Anywhere is fine. I can pay.” I took out my biggest bag of neopoints. The pirates’ eyes followed it.
A pirate Ogrin stepped forward, gesturing toward the bag with his chin. I set it between us. He sniffed at the neopoints, then nodded grudgingly. “Aphrodite, take our guests below-deck to the prison quarters, and keep them there until the ship lands.”
I was about to protest when a pirate skeith lumbered toward us, shoving us in the direction of a trap door. I decided that I’d plan out a way to get out of the cell as we went.
“Down another flight,” said the Skeith, her voice unexpectedly high. We climbed down to the gut of the ship, and waited beside the ladder as it creaked under the skeith’s weight. She pointed toward a closed door. “In there. And don’t try anything funny.”
“Where’s this ship going?” I asked. “We have to get to Altador as quickly as possible.”
“You’ll find out when we get there.” She pushed us into the room and slammed the door shut.
The place was empty besides some dust in the corners, and smelled like a mixture of hay and sweat. A rather comical string of abominable snowball lights gave the room a very faint white glow. After the bright flare back at the neohome, my eyes had some difficulty adjusting. I lay down on my stomach, while Sunbeam paced beside me. Over the sloshing of the sea, I heard her crying.
“Why are we going to Altador?” she whispered after a few minutes.
“We’re not. I said that so that they’ll feed the faeries the wrong information when they inevitably sell us out.”
“Is that how they found us this time? One of the pirates sold us out?”
She lay down beside me. “We should never have stayed with Rachelle and everyone. Now their neohome is destroyed, all because of me.”
“Blaming yourself is incorrect and pointless. You didn’t do any of this on purpose. We need to plan our next move, not sit around pointing fingers. We don’t even have fingers.”
She snickered a little. “If I didn’t know you better, I’d say you made a joke.”
“I’d sort of set myself up for it.”
“Alright. Where to next? I suppose the sky’s the limit.”
I shrugged. “Anywhere but Altador. And maybe Faerieland. I guess we’ll see once this ship lands.”
“Are they going to let us out of here?”
“They’ll ask for more payment if we’re unlucky.” I got my other bag of neopoints, tucking a few into my boots and some of the folds in my tunic. Just barely enough to buy some cheap fish for a few days.
“This assignment has cost you a lot out of your own pocket, huh?” she asked.
“For assignments like this, it’s expected, so I’m paid a little extra.”
“What do you mean, assignments like this?”
“When I’m guarding a rich pet, like that Blumaroo duchess, it’s assumed that any emergency funds will come from her. Abe knew that you don’t have many neopoints, so he paid me a tad extra for bribes, supplies, etcetera. I just didn’t have the conscience to refuse. I would’ve paid these emergencies out of my own pocket anyway.”
“Because you guard the seasons.”
“Well, I’m doing a pretty crumby job. I guard the seasons, and you guard me. That makes you the guardian of the guardian of the seasons.”
“We all have different skill sets,” I said. “That’s why we trade and work together.”
“That was pretty profound.”
I grinned a little. “Pretty profound coming from me?”
She leaned her chin against my paw. “Yeah.”
We listened to the sounds of the sea until the boat came to a stop. I pawed half-heartedly at the door to let them know that I was aware of the pause.
It was a few minutes before the door opened. The Ogrin stood in the doorway, with Aphrodite and the eyrie behind him.
“Hello travellers,” said the Ogrin with a little grin that made me positive that we weren’t walking off this ship for free.
“Hello,” I said. I wanted to say that this pay-to-get-in-pay-more-to-get-out scam wasn’t clever in the least, but if I wanted my Altador lie to work, I had to convince them that I was easily outsmarted.
“We hope you won’t take it personally, but we found a better deal.” A dark faerie hopped onto his shoulder, and my stomach dropped.
“How much are bottled dark faeries worth, again?” Sunbeam asked.
I saw where she was going with this. “Depends on the buyer.”
There was a moment of hesitation from the pirates that ended when Aphrodite tried to catch the dark faerie with her bandana. There was chaos as the pirates chased the faeries, and we managed to weave our way past.
We climbed the ladder and skidded down to the dock. The tall trees and squat buildings informed me that we’d docked in Meridell.
“How much are bottled dark faeries really worth?” Sunbeam asked as we ran past confused citizens in drab clothes.
“Less than a hundred neopoints. I was watching Rachelle price their shop, she set one out for 49 neopoints, although it was gone within the hour. That was pretty quick thinking.”
“Well, I can’t let you do all the work, Ninja.”
We ran past the castle, and I looked around for a place to hide. I came up with a far-fetched idea, but at the moment it was as good as any. I sprinted to the far side of Meridell, toward Lightwater Forest, hoping that Illusen had a distaste for all dark faeries, not just Jhudora.
I weaved my way through bushes laden with berries and bright, warm flowers. A Dragoyle and a faerie Symol fluttered after us, trying to get Sunbeam’s attention. I led her to a small den between a tree’s root system and a large rock. It already seemed to be inhabited by a woodland ukali, but the petpet didn’t seem to mind sharing its home with Sunbeam. The petpet whimpered a little, curling up against the heart of spring. The roots began to grow over the door to our den, leaving a hole just big enough for the ukali to squeeze in or out.
“What are you doing?” I hissed.
“Relax, this place is already charged with earth magic. It’s so magically active that you probably could’ve done that if you’d set your mind to it. That tiny bit won’t show up on their radar.”
“If you know anything about the magical aspect of this, then you should tell me.”
“The magic is really tough to explain. It’s just instinctive.”
I shifted my position so that I wasn’t squashing her. “If I fall asleep and a suspicious root twitches, wake me, alright?”
“Okay. Do you think we could neomail Rachelle and everyone? To say how we miss them and we’re sorry?”
I dozed off and on for the rest of the day, leaving me wide awake at night. Sunbeam and the ukali’s snores formed a sort of harmony. I shifted so that I was between her and the entrance. The other Gelert's breathing ruffled my cloak.
Deciding that I’d better get in contact with Abe before Rachelle told him we were gone and he started to worry, I shuffled forward so that the faint moonlight shone on my page.
Safe house was found out. Ran. Currently in hiding. Safe and awaiting further orders.
It wasn’t quite an hour before my neomail was returned, making me figure that Mr. Abraham had been worriedly waiting up for us after all.
It relieves me to hear from you; the neopet overseeing the safe house informed me of your rather hurried departure several hours ago. I assure you that she and all of her siblings were quite alright after a day at the Healing Springs. I regret to inform you that I have no further instructions at this time; I trust that you will “fly by the seat of your pants,” as they say, until I devise another plan.
I listened to the sounds of the forest until the sun began to rise. Sunbeam soon awoke, trying to stretch. Her paws knocked into me. “Sorry.”
“It’s fine,” I said. “We’re lucky this ukali chose a big enough den that it could share with a pair of Gelerts.”
She sighed. “I hate being the heart of spring. For just a little while, I had a perfect life. Now it’s all gone. I wish I could just be a normal neopet, like Luna. I wish I could spend every day going to neoschool, playing dolls with my sisters and tag with my brothers, taking care of my petpet and running a shop—”
“Quit wishing,” I muttered, banishing thoughts of the family and my warm bed from my mind. “Wishes never come true. Wishing is always a waste of time.”
“You think so?” she whispered.
A package was dropped off in front of the den, with the happy little tweet of a weewoo announcing its presence. I shuffled over to further block the curious Sunbeam, and opened the package, turning it toward the den’s exit. When no dark faeries burst out, I took a peek.
Nestled inside the box was a note and a faintly glowing rainbow scroll. I shuffled back, giving Sunbeam an opening to swipe the note.
“‘Dear Sunbeam and Storm,” the liminality read out loud, “We had a great time with you in our family. Don’t worry about us, we’re not hurt, and the neohome is insured. Jango said that you wanted another scroll, Storm, so Alli sends her old one that she never uses. Sunbeam, Aqua wanted to send you a plushie, but we weren’t sure if you’d be able to carry it. Visit us again if you can.’ Oh, look, everyone signed it, even Logs. Although he signed with a stanza of one of Souichi’s poems about gnorbu wool.”
“Yeah, you know, the famous poet.”
I stared at her blankly, making her roll her eyes. “Never mind, geez. I lived in the forest and even I knew of Souichi. When this mess is over, I’m so making you read some of his poems. He captures ordinary things in amazing ways.”
The ukali stood up, nuzzling at Sunbeam’s neck and looking at her with its mournful wooden eyes, then ambled out of the den, likely off to forage. It had the right idea. My stomach growled at the thought. I gave myself a few seconds to dream of the hero gyro that I’d had back at the Krawk Island neohome, then sent the image away. “Could you undo the doorway? We’ve got to get some food.” Hopefully we’d find some that we could stockpile.
The roots in front of the doorway unwove, and I stepped out, shaking off the dirt and stretching my cramped legs. I looked around at the expanse of leaves, flowers, and fruit. I thought back to the Pick Your Own berries that were common back at the home, but I didn’t recognise any of the plants around me.
I started to forage further, and Sunbeam followed. We eventually found ourselves at Illusen’s Glade. It was still partially covered with a tree canopy, but rays of light peeked through and splashed onto the cozy-looking wooden cabin.
I smelled the dark faerie before I saw her. She was a tiny zipping purple speck on the far side of the glade. I turned, running back the way we’d come. Sunbeam looked as if she wanted to ask what I was doing, but decided to follow me.
I heard a very high squealing sound from the glade. The dark faerie scent began to grow. I bared my teeth as I ran. I should probably find some very dense non-perishable food to keep on my person for times like this. I vowed to get a backpack and fill it with essentials the next time I had a moment away from an assignment.
The squealing intensified as the faeries rallied up their sisters. I dared a peek over my shoulder to see obsidian black stars dancing around one of them. I turned around and ran faster.
“Storm,” the liminality whispered as she panted. “I lost five of my hitpoints when I knocked my foot on the pirate ship.”
“How many do you have left?”
“Oh, spectacular,” I snarled. I’d been created with twelve hitpoints. My stealth training had left me with 49. “Just keep moving.”
There was a buzzing sound, followed by a zap. I jumped, tackling Sunbeam to shield her with myself. When I felt no pain, I turned around. A large earth faerie was circling above the tree canopy, holding what looked like a crooked branch with a single orange leaf still stuck to it. She held it out, zapping one of the dark faeries. When I’d taken this assignment, I’d never imagined that I’d be saved by a gentle earth faerie, but at the moment, I’d take what I could get.
I helped Sunbeam up and ran, vowing to do a quick quest for Illusen once I got a moment away from this.
We left the Lightwater Forest in a flash, ducking under branches and jumping over roots. We quickly found ourselves surrounded by low stone buildings with delicate windows. I located one in the distance with enormous, ornamental fruit on the roof, making a dash for it.
As was characteristic of pet-owned Neopian shops, humans milled around the edges, hoping to catch a rare fruit at a cheap price, while the overpriced fruits sat untouched on the counter. I wasn’t sure why there was such a difference between pet-owned shops and human-owned shops, but it was usually easier to find food for under a hundred neopoints in a human-run shop.
“This one looks cool,” said Sunbeam, gesturing with her nose to a red fruit made of a pair of red blobs. The upper blob had suspicious white spots. Yellow leaves sprung from the top. I examined the price tags, glad that she’d picked the cheap one rather than the one that cost over 9000 NP.
I put my paws on the counter. “I’ll give you 500 neopoints for each of these.” I nudged the fruit and the identical one behind it.
The shopkeeper, a gentle-looking green acara with a yellow dress, a white apron, and big eyes shook her head. “No less than 550 neopoints each.”
Although I tended to avoid pet-owned shops, I knew them well enough that the shopkeeper wouldn’t sway a noticeable amount from that price. “Fine. 550 each. 1100 total.” I dished out the neopoints.
I looked up over the shopkeeper’s shoulder as I was tucking the fruit into a fold in my tunic, and noticed a dark purple spot glowing through the translucent stained glass window. The back door rattled as the faeries fumbled to open the latch with their tiny hands.
Sunbeam and I hurried toward the front door. A dark faerie hovered in the doorway, keeping us trapped.
Before I could come up with a quick decision, there was a commotion. I dared a peek back to the counter to find the shopkeeper setting out what appeared to be a bouquet of misshapen grapes in an orange wrapping. Humans from both outside and inside the building dove for it. One human entering the building knocked the faerie to the side. I weaved between the stampeding humans’ legs, narrowly avoiding being kicked by one. Checking once to make sure Sunbeam was close behind, I sprinted for the large, maze-like castle.
I burst through the front doors, getting strange looks from the eyrie guards, and chose a hall at random. I made a note of the directions and landmarks we passed. We turned down a few hallways, identical except for the different pictures adorning the walls, then down a spiral staircase. We ducked into what appeared to be a library.
Sunbeam stood against the wall beside the door, panting. I closed the door, but continued to stand between it and the liminality.
“Fruit?” the heart of spring panted.
I passed her the small meal, and dug into my own. The fruit tasted somewhat earthy, with a hint of sweetness, like a cross between an apple and a mushroom. The leaves tasted like lettuce.
The door began to rattle again, and Sunbeam ducked behind a nearby bookshelf. I hid behind a table, drawing my scrolls.
Three dark faeries flew into the room. I pointed both scrolls at the nearest one, sending a pink and rainbow blast at her.
Before I could turn to the others, an ancient, musty smell filled the room, and a pair of powerful dark yellow magical blasts threw the other two faeries out the door.
“And stay out, you lousy bullies!” said a familiar voice. A skunk kacheek in an ornate purple dress kicked the door shut, then smiled at me. “Storm. How have you been, all things considered?”
“Alli?” I asked, stunned for a moment.
“The one and only. It was lucky you found us.” She shrugged. “Normally you wouldn’t find me in a library, but these are kind of extreme circumstances.”
“It’s so great to see you, Alli,” said Sunbeam, peeking around the bookshelf. “What’s up?”
Rachelle emerged from behind another bookshelf, an open book in one claw and three closed books in the other. “We think we’ve found a spell that can protect the magic of seasons from being stolen.”
To be continued…